He’s used to the scrapes and cuts and bruises. They stung hard at first, but pain is easy to get used to when it’s inevitable. His older twin hustles him quietly into the closet when the other finds out, leaving a crack of light shining in. The plastic first aid kit pops open, and the smell of alcohol disinfectant makes him sneeze. His brother shushes him on reflex, reaching for the edge of his shirt.
“I don’t wanna,” he says, but his brother simply scoots closer and pulls the edge of his shirt high up. “It hurts more.”
“I don’t care if you don’t wanna,” the other says, eyebrows knitted together seriously. “Di-di, stay still.”
He does as he’s told, not flinching when a cool cotton pad swabbed with disinfectant glides gently over a long red mark left by their father’s cane. He whimpers, tears swelling up the edges of his eyes when the cotton pad dabs over the next mark just below it.
“Where did you get this one?” his brother pauses, thumb resting above a bruise on the side of his hip.
“Recess,” he says, mouth twisting into a scowl. “They pushed me into the sandpit on purpose. So I punched them.”
“When,” his brother demands. “I was with you the whole time.”
“When you went to the toilet,” he says. “They snuck up behind me and—ow, ow, owwww—”
The continuous whine results from his bruises being rubbed with some kind of medicated balm the other had picked from the first aid box. He doesn’t know what it is, but they’ve seen their mother use them on herself for bruises too.
“Shhhhh,” his brother shushes him urgently again. “Don’t want dad to wake up.”
He bites down on his bottom lip and nods.
“Next time, tell me immediately,” his brother’s lips curves into a slight sneer. “I’ll fight them for you.”
“I can fight—” he protests.
“Dad will hit you again,” his brother interrupts. “Let me do the fighting.”
“I don’t want dad to hit you too.”
“…Ye Zun,” the other says softly, thumb stroking above his skin.
His brother’s eyes are calm and bright, even in the dim light.
“Don’t worry. I can take it.”
He isn’t sure if it’s good fortune that his bruises and marks never leave a scar, because no one looks at their picture-perfect family and thinks that their parents sleep in separate rooms. No one thinks his high achieving twin brother actually spends more time applying ointment on him to the cane strokes their father leaves weekly. No one thinks his occasional rebellious fighting in school is because it hurts so deep on the inside that he has to lash out when he gets provoked.
When their parents get divorced when they’re nine, everyone says it’s ‘such a shock’.
To them, it was only a matter of time. When the divorce is finalised, they cry not because their parents are moving to live apart—but they will be separated. They hadn’t known beforehand, but their mother will take Shen Wei, and their father will take him, Ye Zun. He doesn’t know how long he trembled violently in the toilet when he heard the decision. Without his older twin—without Shen Wei—he doesn’t know if he can last.
“Di-di,” Shen Wei kneels before him on the dirty wet floor, grasping his hands. “It’s going to be okay.”
He finds himself crying hot angry tears. It’s not his father that he’s scared about. It’s the fact that Shen Wei won’t be there to take care of him anymore.
“Don’t worry,” Shen Wei says, pulling him into a tight hug. “I’ll go with dad.”
“Ge-ge,” he sobs, “Don’t leave me.”
“One of us has to go with dad,” Shen Wei says, stroking the back of his head, but his eyes are dripping wet too. “It’ll be me. You go with mom. Just, just stay quiet. Don’t fight. She won’t notice it’s you and not me.”
“Ge-ge,” he sobs again, but Shen Wei is defiant on this.
“From now on, you’re ‘Shen Wei’,” his brother says, cupping his face. “I’ll be ‘Ye Zun’. Ge-ge,” he tries, rolling the endearment on his tongue. “Ge-ge,” the other repeats, eyes going as red and watery as Ye Zun’s—Shen Wei’s. “I will never leave you. I’ll come to you. Always. I love you.”
He’s so overwhelmed with crying so much that he doesn’t say a word when he gets forced to sit in the back of a taxi, their mother slipping into the front seat and their bags loaded up in the boot. His older brother stares at them through the window impassively on the curb outside, face twisting into a dark scowl that he usually sports when he sulks. Their mother glances at him, apparently satisfied with the meek, quiet way his tears drip all over his cheeks, palm pressed to the window, and nods at the driver.
“Di-di,” he whispers when the car pulls away, leaving his brother behind in a tiny speck.
It’s the first time they settle into roles not of themselves, and it would be for forever.
Once upon a time, Shen Wei was the hot-tempered, reckless little brother.
Now he’s expected to be the serious and talented model student. Shen Wei was never stupid, but he isn’t brilliant, like the real Shen Wei actually is. But he can’t blow their cover, so he pours over his textbooks and memorises everything by heart even if he doesn’t understand a lot of it. The first exam grades since his transfer out of his old school are satisfactory enough that his mother doesn’t suspect a thing, and studying becomes easier with time when there’s nothing else he can do but to read.
The real Shen Wei didn’t like interacting with other peers—it was famously known that Shen Wei would only ever sit by his younger brother, while he was the one who stuck his nose into other people’s business and hence got into fights. He can’t do that anymore, not when he took on the name and persona of Shen Wei; whenever his classmates asks him to hang out, he simply refuses, not wanting to have his temper accidentally slip up at any opportunity.
Instead, he secludes himself and reads the kind of books he thinks his older brother might like, those foreign classics with big fancy words and awards. His mother buys them for him, pleased that she’s the one who ends up with the high achieving twin and not the troublemaker. For that, Shen Wei hates her, because he knows that his mother does not truly love him, because she left the real him to the mercy of their rotten father.
She treats him well, sometimes even goes out of her way to take care of him when he falls sick, but all he remembers of her is the echo her yell, ‘—and you can take that useless son of yours with you’ when his parents signed the papers.
The only one who truly loves him is Ye Zun, the only family he has.
Shen Wei is not allowed to have a handphone, because his mother doesn’t want him to keep in touch with…the other side of the family. Although all his peers come to have one as they grow up, Shen Wei has never held one in his hands, nor does he find that he needs to, ever, since he doesn’t have any friends. Once, Ye Zun calls him via the landline, and they stay up talking under the covers in secret until there’s a panicked shout on the other end and the line goes dead.
Ye Zun never calls again, and Shen Wei knows why.
Middle school is when Shen Wei gets to see Ye Zun again, properly, for the first time in many years. It’s not that they end up in the same middle school, no, they moved apart too far for that. It’s that Ye Zun waits for him at the entrance of his school on the first day in a completely different uniform.
At first, Shen Wei thinks he’s dreaming, but when Ye Zun meets his eyes they are rimmed red and raw from emotion. Without a second thought they leave the school premises and find a park for them to sit and talk.
Ye Zun tells him that he knew Shen Wei would end up in this school because it was the highest ranking one in the area, and it would alright for them to skip school just this once when everyone was breaking into a new environment. No one would specifically notice that they were missing.
Ye Zun is different from the older brother that Shen Wei knew.
Now Ye Zun is…as Ye Zun should be—he calls Shen Wei ‘ge-ge’ and smirks and pouts at the things Shen Wei tells him in return. When Ye Zun toes off his shoes and lifts his feet to prop them on Shen Wei’s lap, Shen Wei chides him to sit properly because they’re in a public area. It strikes him—or maybe them both—how they’ve remarkably settled into the roles they decided to play…but it doesn’t feel like they had to try at playing it anymore.
“Di-di,” Shen Wei starts in one quiet lull, when the thought comes to him. “Take off your shirt.”
Ye Zun freezes just a little, but an easy teasing smile comes to his lips. “Ge,” he snorts. “You can see everything if you look in the mirror.”
“Ye Zun,” Shen Wei says, the first time he uses that name for his brother, a little sternly. “Show me.”
Ye Zun turns away. “I don’t wanna.”
“I don’t care if you don’t wanna,” Shen Wei states, hands coming to grip the other by the collar. “Stay still.”
His hands shake when he pulls off the sloppily knotted tie and starts to unbutton the white shirt. Ye Zun tries to push his fingers away, but Shen Wei’s hands are deft and quick. Perhaps they shouldn’t do this right out in a public park, but there’s no one around anyway.
Shen Wei sucks in his breath when he sees it. There are parts of Ye Zun’s ribs are that mottled black and blue, stripes that are muted red, others that are brighter, angrier. Shen Wei’s finger tips graze over them lightly, and even that makes Ye Zun hiss.
Shen Wei can’t help it, but it shakes him to the core. He’s always known that their father’s abuse would not stop. It’s just, these years away, he’s forgotten how they felt like on his own skin. Seeing it again makes the memory of each hit burn in his brain.
“Ge-ge,” Ye Zun starts, voice trembling. “You’re not allowed to cry. I should be the one…”
Shen Wei shakes his head, ignoring his wet cheeks and touching the center of a particularly nasty bruise.
“Ge-ge,” Ye Zun starts again, and this time it takes on a pained whimper. “It hurts.”
Shen Wei draws back his hand immediately, tugging Ye Zun’s shirt close. “Let’s go to the pharmacy. I’ll bandage you.”
It takes a good bunch of the afternoon for Shen Wei to dress the bruises and wounds, taking extra care to soothe Ye Zun when the sting of pain makes tears swell up in the other’s eyes. At the end of it Ye Zun lies on his shoulder and sinks into the half-armed hug Shen Wei wraps around the other to keep him upright.
“…Let’s swap,” Shen Wei swallows, looking down at him.
“No,” Ye Zun replies, looking back up.
It’s barely there but it’s there, the beginnings of it, a slight crazed look in his eyes when he mouths these familiar words.
“Ge-ge, don’t worry. I can take it.”
They send letters to each other, because Shen Wei still doesn’t own a handphone and calling the land line is too risky. They address it to a random name each time, so that the letter gets dumped in the trash under the assumption of a wrong address for them to sneak it later for themselves. They don’t physically meet unless Ye Zun plays truant, but there’s always a consequence for that, so Shen Wei begs him not to.
(That one time Ye Zun meets Zhao Yunlan, a junior who had been following Shen Wei around for months, is certainly…something.)
It’s only when they graduate from high school that things take a turn for the better.
Shen Wei does not have any remorse in saying that it gets better after their mother passes away. It was a road accident—his mother was just driving home from work three weeks before his examinations and unfortunately got tangled up in a crash along the causeway. The coroner says she died immediately on impact, neck snapped due to the force.
At eighteen, Shen Wei handles the funeral arrangements, attends the wake to please his mother’s acquaintances, ignores the pitying whispers and well-wishes, refuses to take the extension offered for his examinations and graduates the top of his year. He sells out the apartment they were living in and moves into a rented large one bedroom near the university he’d gotten a scholarship for.
The morning that the doorbells rings, just two days before university classes starts, Shen Wei nearly trips himself in hurrying to get the door. Ye Zun attacks him into a hug before he can even greet the other, falling back onto the couch, the other breathlessly grinning wide.
Shen Wei finds that he’s also smiling himself, hand gently brushing away the strands of hair hanging over Ye Zun’s forehead.
“You dyed your hair,” he comments, gazing at the mop of silver.
“Doesn’t it look good?” Ye Zun asks, lips curving.
“It looks good,” Shen Wei agrees. “Where are your things?”
Ye Zun drags him down to the void deck of the apartment where he has more boxes than Shen Wei himself when he moved in. At Shen Wei’s raised eyebrow, Ye Zun smirks.
“I took everything I could from dad’s shitty apartment,” Ye Zun’s eyes are narrowed into mean slits. “We’ll keep whatever we want; the rest we can sell it. Or burn it,” he says. “Ooh, I really want to burn it all.”
“No burning, there’s a smoke detector,” Shen Wei says. “Come on, let’s get them up the lift.”
Once upon a time, Ye Zun was the quiet, mature older brother.
Now Ye Zun whines when he doesn’t get fed, or when he hates someone in his class, which is a lot of someones. Ye Zun had just barely squeezed himself into enrol into the same university, plans that they’ve agreed upon through their letters, taking art history. Shen Wei has an inkling that Ye Zun doesn’t give a fuck about what he’s studying, as long as they can stay together—but Ye Zun is very much bordering the line on getting himself expelled with the way he gets into arguments with the professors, getting drunk with bad company, playing truant and completely disregarding his assignment deadlines.
Shen Wei hadn’t…expected this behaviour and within a month he finds that he’s picking up after Ye Zun at nearly every turn—picking up clothes lying around, picking up dirty dishes, or picking Ye Zun’s drunk ass home. He finds that he barely recognises his brother when he compares to the memories of them together, which is, not a lot, thanks to their parents.
Maybe, he thinks, Ye Zun barely recognises him too, when Ye Zun compares him to the memories of them.
That’s how different they’ve become, separated over the years.
He still remembers the way Ye Zun used to rock him to sleep when he was crying from the pain and now he’s the one hugging Ye Zun to sleep after the other vomited from taking drugs for the first time. Ye Zun moans pitifully and sniffles against his neck, frame still shivering badly from the effects.
“Please don’t be mad at me, ge-ge,” Ye Zun mumbles. “I know you’re mad.”
“I’m not mad,” Shen Wei says into his hair. “I’m scared. You said you would never leave me,” he swallows. “If you die you leave me. I thought—…” his throat chokes up when he thinks about two hours ago when he found Ye Zun lying in their bathtub, unconscious with the water level above his face.
“I’m sorry,” Ye Zun whispers. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’ll never leave you, I love you,” he sniffles. “I love you. I’ll do anything for you.”
“Don’t do drugs again,” Shen Wei says.
“Okay,” Ye Zun nods.
“And attend your classes.”
“And you have to come home to have dinner with me, every night.”
Ye Zun grips the back of his sleeping tee tightly.
“Okay,” he snuffles.
Ye Zun keeps his word, and that’s how Shen Wei knows that whatever his brother has become, he would never give up on him. Because that’s how much Ye Zun loves him—and how much he loves the other in return.
The stripping thing is inevitable.
Shen Wei had known Ye Zun got himself into the activity—they don’t lie to each other and Ye Zun seems to find zero shame in waving the wads of cash he earns into Shen Wei’s face from his…hobby. Ye Zun buys Shen Wei an entirely new wardrobe from his earnings, though the clothes are pretty much more of Ye Zun’s style than Shen Wei’s. Shen Wei refrains from commenting that the other should probably store it in the bank or use it to pay his tuition fees or the rent, both of which Shen Wei pays off for him from the inheritance he received from their mother.
It’s the thought, Shen Wei guesses, that counts, because Ye Zun doesn’t spend on anything except himself and on Shen Wei. Ye Zun would never buy a girl or guy a drink—he somehow usually seduces other people to buy it for him instead.
As much as Ye Zun keeps to his promise to go to class and come home for dinner, he still goes out partying from time to time, and given Ye Zun’s complete lack of interest to organise his life unless Shen Wei tells him to, its unsurprising that Ye Zun is on the couch one day groaning about how he has a big stripping job in two hours but he has a terrible headache and all he wants to do is to puke.
Shen Wei initially isn’t so keen to cover for Ye Zun—he’s pretended to be Ye Zun to save his brother’s ass a couple of times (mostly when meeting professors, because he’s afraid Ye Zun would run his mouth)—but stripping?
That requires a lack of shame and some hip gyrating abilities.
Shen Wei has neither.
“You’re hot, they won’t care,” Ye Zun says, slurring a bit. “Ge-ge, please? I need this to add to my rep.”
“Reputation,” Ye Zun elaborates, though he gives Shen Wei a squint like ‘how old are you exactly’. “With a better rep I can charge more and earn more and I…I want to buy you a car.”
“Di-di,” Shen Wei sighs, taking up the wet towel he’d placed on the other’s forehead to refold it before putting it back. “I can’t even drive.”
“You’ll learn so that you can drive the car I’m buying for you.”
“I don’t need a car—”
“I want to give you a car,” Ye Zun pouts. “Ge-ge. Please?”
When Ye Zun puts it like that, Shen Wei can’t say no. Shen Wei puts on the silver wig he uses when he’s pretending to be his brother, but he insists that he will not wear that tight white translucent pants that makes his underwear visible. He will also absolutely not wear a jockstrap. Instead, he opts for one of his formal suits and normal black fitted boxers, forming his own idea in mind.
Ye Zun accompanies him to the venue with a hat, sunglasses and sipping an isotonic drink continuously despite it already being in the evening, and whispers random stripping tips when it comes to his mind. Shen Wei knows that Ye Zun is actually sort of worried for him—but he’s the older brother here, and he will take care of Ye Zun when the other needs it.
After all, he’s the original Ye Zun.
When Shen Wei strides off the stage with his boxers stuffed with money, he takes a moment to relish the rush and heat of the moment. He hasn’t felt like that in years, not since he was a young little boy gnashing teeth and yelling insults at the bullies who mocked him as a cheap, poor imitation of his older brother.
It’s also how Ye Zun smiles at him after, eyes wide and sparkling and grin pulled proud, that the next time Ye Zun pleads for him to join him for a stripping event, he says yes with less cajoling.
When news that their father has cancer reaches them, they’ve graduated; Shen Wei is mid-way writing his third published book and doing several teaching stints and lectures, while Ye Zun decides to do a master’s in philosophy despite graduating from his bachelors a year late.
Both of them think good riddance, but several letters from their father keeps getting sent to their apartment. It always goes into the bin, but about three months later someone, some nosy caretaker from the hospital, pays them a visit and begs them to see the old man.
Shen Wei is glad that Ye Zun is out when he reluctantly decides to hear the woman out. It certainly sounds very heart breaking from the other point of view—an old man dying from throat cancer (his fault, Shen Wei snorts, since he smoked very single day) with his children refusing to visit him on his death bed. If Shen Wei doesn’t help out with the hospitalisation fees, they’d have to move his father into a hospice with no medicated help to ease the pain and suffering.
When he thinks of the abuse his father had put him and Ye Zun through, Shen Wei wants him to suffer. Wants him to feel the hurt he’d caused for them, the unforgivable way the trauma he caused had twisted Ye Zun to how he is today. But he purses his lips and tells the lady to give him the hospital contact, because she seems like an irritatingly persistent person.
He’d pay the fees, but she is never to contact them again. And he will never see that miserable asshole, even if he cried for them on his death bed.
It’s a good alternative to letting Ye Zun find out which hospital their father is in, because he’s sure Ye Zun would have no qualms ending that life himself.
It only frightens Shen Wei a little that he would absolutely forgive his brother for it too.
When Shen Wei starts a relationship with Zhao Yunlan, Shen Wei has moved back into his old neighbourhood by himself. He hasn’t lived together with Ye Zun for three years now, not by choice but because the other had decided to go into med school and is always posted somewhere else. Shen Wei does not deny his brother any education he wants—it’s, after all, better than having Ye Zun spend his days sleeping around and swindling people of money, a habit that the other is unfortunately too apt at.
Shen Wei does not ever lie to his brother, but he does leave things out when they chat over the landline (his landline; Ye Zun, like a normal human, has a handphone and is unfortunately addicted to it). He wants to tell his brother personally about these updates, but perhaps he should’ve considered Ye Zun’s penchant for dropping by unannounced.
In the second week in December, Ye Zun shows up at his doorstep with a luggage and wide grin declaring that they are going to spend his entire holiday aka the next three weeks together.
Shen Wei has no idea how to tell him that he’d booked a romantic trip with Yunlan to see snow-capped mountains at the country side on the weekend.