The first year is the most difficult.
Kun Lun has Shen Wei’s body cremated. He kneels for forty days and forty nights, and when the little ghost king’s body is nothing but a pile of crumbled ash he cups it in his palm, careful not to let the smallest stir of breath blow a single grain away. Tips it all into a small amber bottle and ties the bottle around his neck.
Shennong witnesses everything, stays silent. Kun Lun has nothing to say to him. He holds the bottle loosely between his fingertips, thinking of what Shen Wei must be doing now in the underworld. Stumbling around him, the soul the gods saw fit to grant him with shining bright and cold as a beacon. For your sacrifice, Nuwa had murmured, passing a hand over Shen Wei’s still face. Kun Lun had not budged an inch from his side from the moment he’d breathed his last. His restored soulfire burns colder than the rest of him, like it still remembered being carried close to Shen Wei’s heart.
(Before the fire leapt up to consume what was left of him, Kun Lun had kissed Shen Wei one last time. His lips were as soft as he remembered, just as cold as ever, but when Kun Lun pulled away, his eyes remain shut.)
Kun Lun keeps catching himself, after. Expecting the pitter-patter of small feet following him, or the measured steps of someone older keeping pace. When Kun Lun can’t help himself, he turns around.
There’s nothing behind him, or beside him. There are no dark eyes turned towards his in wonder, or hair the texture of silk threads under his hands at night. There are no shy, uncertain smiles, soft and close-lipped as he tries to hide his pointed teeth. There is no hand reaching for his and holding tight. There never is. Not anymore.
Kun Lun reaches up to touch his pendant, and endures.
Let each lifetime run its course. That had been one of Nuwa’s requisites. Do not heal him. Do not attempt to extend his life, especially do not try to grant him immortality. This is the price of Shen Wei’s sacrifice, and yours.
Losing Shen Wei over and over had been a price Kun Lun was willing to pay to keep him in this world.
What he hadn’t thought of, with the oversight only gods could be capable of, was how he would lose him in each lifetime.
The corpse is a fresh one, still bleeding from its torn-out throat and lying crumpled in the middle of the forest path. Kun Lun remembers his first meeting with Shen Wei, and he has to laugh that bubbles up in his throat, terrible and fraught with pain.
“It’s nearby.” The village headman accompanying Kun Lun has a face drawn tight by exhaustion and grief. Shen Wei had torn through a half-dozen villagers when he escaped the cage he’d been trapped in, just one day before Kun Lun had arrived in the guise of a feudal lord. “My lord, we had better be careful. The beast is an insatiable monster.”
“Not insatiable.” Kun Lun finds himself saying, still staring at the corpse. “He’s frightened.” He remembers the little ghost king, his teeth sinking into a hell beast’s throat.
Whatever the headman was about to say is cut off by a shrill scream. “Over there! That way, I saw it-“ Kun Lun rushes to the front of the party. His pendant bounces on his chest, and he can barely hear the villagers behind him as he rushes deeper into the forest, mindless of the twigs scratching his face.
A howl. Heartbreakingly familiar, and coming from everywhere. Kun Lun stumbles into the bank of a creek, and stops short when he finds his quarry kneeling by the creek’s edge, his shoulders hunched and his face buried in his bloodstained hands.
Shen Wei doesn’t look up, not even when Kun Lun drops to his knees beside him and softly calls out his name. His hair is shorn, and he’s dressed in rags, filthy and covered in crusted blood. But his face is the same as the little ghost king Kun Lun had met all those years ago.
“Xiao Wei,” he says, very gently. Shen Wei twitches. The creek is still and sluggish, stained with clouds of red where Shen Wei had tried to wash his hands and mouth. Kun Lun tries to be gentle as he places his hand on Shen Wei’s shoulder, maybe help him up and get him out of here before the villagers arrive -but the young man flinches away. Drawing back and baring his teeth, his eyes full of nothing but hunger and fear, no recognition in them at all.
Kun Lun should have seen this coming. This is Shen Wei’s first lifetime. A demon granted a soul, trapped in a human body. It’s not surprising he went mad.
“Xiao Wei,” Kun Lun says again, then hears crashes, shouts. The villagers are coming, and Kun Lun curses. But before he can summon the spiritual energy to maybe knock Shen Wei out and carry him away without anyone seeing them both, Shen Wei whines, throwing himself to the ground. Crawling forward on his belly and bowing his head like a dog that knew it did wrong.
As Kun Lun watches, his tongue darts out and he licks his lips, visibly recoiling when he tastes the specks of blood that remain. He makes to hide his face between his arms, but Kun Lun catches him by the elbow, one hand tilting his chin up.
His skin is fever-warm, and covered in sweat. Shen Wei whines again, moving as if to shy away from Lun Lun’s touch, then nuzzling into it like a frightened animal seeking safety. His eyelids are screwed shut, swollen red from crying.
“I don’t-” Shen Wei’s voice is soft and hoarse. The first Kun Lun’s heard his voice in over a hundred years.“ I don’t want to be like this.” Shen Wei takes a shuddering breath, and looks up. His gaze is lucid, and his skin when Kun Lun strokes his face with his thumb is warm, so warm. As warm as the tears slipping down Kun Lun’s cheeks as he gathers Shen Wei against him.
“Xiao Wei, I’m so sorry.” Kun Lun whispers. His voice breaks. Another shout, and Shen Wei shudders. He closes his eyes, buries his face against Kun Lun’s chest.
“Please,” he rasps, and Kun Lun nods. Presses his lips against Shen Wei’s forehead for the briefest of moments before his hands slide down to his neck.
The villagers find him by the creek a few moments later. Kun Lun keeps his hand steady on Shen Wei’s broken neck, keeping his head from lolling gracelessly as he carries him in his arms.
“I will be the one to bury him.” Kun Lun says. His glance flickers from Shen Wei’s still face to the headman’s for the briefest of moments. “I will pay for his victims’ burials as well.”
The headman bows in gratitude. Years later, when his grandchildren ask him to regale them with spine-tingling tales, what he’ll remember most about the village monster is how tenderly the young lord in green had cradled him against his chest.
It’s not the first lifetime Kun Lun has to put Shen Wei down. The second lifetime has Shen Wei feral almost from birth. The third got him hanged before Kun Lun ever got to him. The fourth one had him the leader of a gang of roving bandits, bloodthirsty and without regard for life, including his own. The fifth and sixth had him dead of a plague that had swept through the kingdom. Kun Lun snapping Shen Wei’s neck blurs into the memory of wielding the executioner’s blade, or suffocating him to put him out of the misery of illness.
(Shen Wei forgives him for it, each and every time. Kun Lun sees it in his eyes before they close, or just as the life in them is snuffed out. Kun Lun had never understood what it was to hate one’s own self before, until the day he buried Shen Wei, the memory of his neck snapping under his palms burning as he covered Shen Wei’s face with earth.)
He gets lucky during Shen Wei’s seventh lifetime. Kun Lun manages to find him as a child, the quiet third son of a farming family in a mildly prosperous town. He stays close by, the reclusive scholar living in their sleepy town, watching little boy closely as he watches the people around him.
Shen Wei is six when he turns his attention to Kun Lun, when Kun Lun had caught him about to push his brother into the family well. Firm hands force him to let the crying little boy go, but Shen Wei’s expression doesn’t change at all, not even as Kun Lun holds onto his shoulders, keeping his touch gentle and his expression calm through the rictus of emotion in his chest.
When Shen Wei’s little brother comes running with their father, a bamboo whipping rod clenched in his meaty hand, Kun Lun steps forward in front of him, blocking the farmer’s arm as he attempts to bring down the rod over the child. He keeps a protective arm around the child’s shoulders, and the farmer’s anger fades to hostility to outright bewilderment when Kun Lun offers to educate his son.
Shen Wei had been quiet as Kun Lun led him away from their small hut to his manor, his family watching him leave. His mother’s shoulders had slumped in relief when Shen Wei turned away. Kun Lun had given his hand a squeeze, and had spent the rest of the evening unsuccessfully trying to get him to smile.
(He succeeds a month later, when he’d yelled himself hoarse at Shen Wei after the boy had almost gotten himself broken under the wheels of a carriage after he tried running away. The boy’s eyes had been wide, and Kun Lun had stopped mid-shout and damn-near crushed the boy against him, anger draining away in the face of his overwhelming relief. He only noticed the strange, soft curve on the boy’s face after he let him go, long moments later.)
Kun Lun sets to curbing every bloody instinct of Shen Wei’s as best as he can, distracting him with chores, scholarly pursuits, games –everything he can think of - and outright refusing to let him go hunting, or anything that would take him close to weapons or blood. It’s hard. Ironically enough, Shen Wei doesn’t have the same restraint he did as a demon, and his cruelty is a chilling thing to witness. Again Kun Lun’s reminded of how he once thought of Shen Wei – a wolf baring his throat and belly, his teeth always visible and ready to take your hand off by the wrist if you weren’t careful.
But for all Shen Wei’s capacity for bloodlust, there’s that quiet desire to be better that was still present. Kun Lun does everything he can think of to cultivate it and let it flourish, lavishing him with all his attention and focus. He’s rewarded by getting to watch this Shen Wei grow up to be an intelligent, thoughtful young man, his hidden edges tucked away until needed. But Kun Lun can feel his pique, and his curiosity, still unsated thirteen years after they’d first met, that hunger gnawing at him as he pours Kun Lun his afternoon cup of tea.
“You always said you kept me from going out because you didn’t want me to waste my time playing with the other children.” Shen Wei says as he pours him his tea. Kun Lun snorts, swirling the hot tea in its porcelain cup before taking a sip.
“I didn’t want to chase you down another street and have you almost run over by a horse. Once was bad enough.” Shen Wei smiles. The firelight flickers on Shen Wei’s skin, making him look like he’s glowing. Beautiful and completely mortal in his fragility, and Kun Lun’s grateful for the tea because it keeps his mouth from going dry.
His chest aches.
“The other children were afraid of me.” Shen Wei says. “I’ve always been aware of that. I know you kept me away from them because you were afraid I would hurt them.” Kun Lun looks at him quietly.
“I was afraid of them hurting you.” He says softly. “Not the other way around.” Shen Wei’s hand falls still on the teapot. His eyes drop down in a gesture so achingly familiar that Kun Lun has to stop himself from kissing it away, reaching for his pendant instead of for Shen Wei. And then Shen Wei’s hand closes over his, so fast that Kun Lun can’t react.
He freezes in surprise. Shen Wei’s eyes are so clear that Kun Lun feels like he’s peering down the bottom of a frighteningly deep lake. Wondering what was at the bottom but not struggling as he sinks.
“The townsfolk are still scared of me.” Shen Wei says. “I know you tried to change what they think but I am what I am.” His voice is quiet. “My mother would look at me and she would get this look in her eyes…. My siblings, too.” His eyes flicker down, then up. “You’re the only person who’s never been afraid of me. Not even when you saw me at my worst.”
Kun Lun reaches up, tangles their fingers together.
“Would you have killed your brother if I hadn’t been there?” Kun Lun asks quietly. Shen Wei takes a deep breath.
“I would have done so many terrible things if you hadn’t been there to stop me.” He whispers. He draws back. “I’m sorry, I know there’s something wrong with me–“ But Kun Lun shakes his head, gives his hand a squeeze.
“You are what you are.” Kun Lun says gently. “And what you are is what you chose to become.” Shen Wei looks as young as he did when he had offered Kun Lun his heart. If Kun Lun could turn back time, he would gather him up, protect him from what’s to come.
That time is long past, but Kun Lun still folds Shen Wei into his arms. Shen Wei’s breath stutters for a moment, but he melts. Buries his face against Kun Lun’s throat, and Kun Lun’s eyes sting because the weight and feel of Shen Wei’s body against his, his scent, the hitch in his breathing , even the smell of incense in his hair–
It’s been so long since he’d gotten to hold Shen Wei like this, but so much still remained the same.
“I took you in so you would grow up safe.” Kun Lun says. One hand traces the curve of Shen Wei’s neck, and he closes his eyes at the memory this brings. “I wanted to protect you. And I will never stop doing so.”
“Why?” Shen Wei’s voice is very soft, and very small. He lifts his head. He’s frowning, his eyes reddened at the corners that tells Kun Lun he’s just barely stopping himself from crying. Kun Lun smiles at him.
“Because, you silly child. You have this.” He presses Shen Wei’s hand against his heart. The all-too human beat of it. The only thing I have is my heart. You want it? Take it. “And my Xiao Wei, you will always have it, no matter what you do, no matter what you choose, no matter who you are.”
Shen Wei looks at him for a long moment. Kun Lun holds his gaze, holds him. When Shen Wei kisses him for the first time in over seven hundred years, he tastes like salt and smoke.
They spend the night in each other’s arms. Kun Lun re-learning every inch of Shen Wei’s skin, Shen Wei kissing Kun Lun like he’s trying to give all of himself up as an offering. He gasps the same way he did when Kun Lun first entered him, his lips parted and red like sweet, ripe fruit, his breaths little more than soft, thready sighs against Kun Lun’s lips, begging him to move faster, hold him closer as he begins to thrust. Shen Wei’s beautiful face is flushed dark, and when he comes - Kun Lun buried all the way inside him, kissing him, holding him tight - for one moment there’s an astounding clarity in his gaze.
Shen Wei falls asleep with his head pillowed on Kun Lun’s chest and their limbs entangled. Smiling, and Kun Lun traces the edge of it with his thumb. Swears a silent promise.
Shen Wei lives to ninety years old in this lifetime. Kun Lun never leaves his side, up to his last breath. Tracing the edges of his smile before he finally goes.
His next incarnation is that of a Buddhist monk, severe and serious except for the times Kun Lun, in the guise of a vagabond cultivator, manages to startle a laugh out of him. He’s devoted to his practice - determined to curb the violence in his blood - and sees Kun Lun as nothing more than a dear friend, but Kun Lun never asks for more than what he’s willing to give.
“Don’t you have anywhere else to be?” Shen Wei asks him once when they’re seated beside a campfire. Shen Wei stirs the rice gruel cooking over the fire, ladles a generous amount into Kun Lun’s bowl. “Surely it must be monotonous, traveling with only me for company. I’m not the best cook, either.” Kun Lun grins as he takes the bowl. The soft serenity on Shen Wei’s face is more filling than any feast in heaven.
“I made a promise I would always protect you.” Kun Lun grins. “I’ve no plans on breaking it.”
Da Qing trails after Kun Lun every now and then. This time he finds Kun Lun in a small shack he’d thrown up against the mountainside. He complains when Kun Lun picks him up, squirming on his lap and turning to glare at him with his candle-flame eyes.
There’s a ribbon around his neck with an embroidered pink orchid on it. Kun Lun touches at it lightly with his fingertips.
“Hello, fatso.” Kun Lun says. He takes out a piece of dried fish and Da Qing swipes at his wrist before irritably scarfing it down. The mountain breeze stirs his silk robes, bringing with it a whiff of woodfire from the city spread below. Another year, another fruitless search. It’s been twenty years since Shen Wei’s last lifetime. Kun Lun hadn’t had any luck finding him, until now.
“’Hello, fatso?’ Is that the only thing you can say to me after all these years? And is that the only thing you’ve got in your pockets?” Kun Lun just smiles at him, takes another piece of dried fish out and holds it just teasingly out of the reach of Da Qing’s paws. The cat sits back on his haunches and hisses.
“I should just leave you for my new owner.” He grumbles. “Someone who appreciates me and isn’t so stingy with the fish!” Kun Lun sighs. He gives Da Qing the fish.
“Well, the sooner you tell me where he is, the faster you can get back to being spoiled by him.” Kun Lun points out. Da Qing hisses again, his ears flattening to the top of his head.
“He doesn’t remember you.” The cat says abruptly. “Again.” Kun Lun hands him another piece of fish and stands up, depositing an indignant Da Qing on the floor and brushing the salt off of his fingers.
“That’s a given, considering Nuwa’s terms.” His tone is light but his eyes darken just a little. “Has this life been unkind to him? You’re not normally this solicitous.” If Da Qing had lips he would probably purse them. Instead he just raises his haunches a little
“You’re not going to like where he is.” He says. He leaps away with a speed belying his rotund form.
Da Qing takes Kun Lun to the capital. He gets a few stares before the fatso hisses at him that his clothes are at least a few decades out of date, but refuses to answer when Kun Lun asks where he’s taking him. And then they arrive at the outskirts of the city’s red light district.
It’s still early. The red lanterns are just beginning to be lit, but there are already people around. Da Qing stops before a small but elegant-looking pleasure house – a carving of a wooden orchid on its red-painted front door.
There’s a bell hanging by the frontdoor, a silk cord attached to its end. “Go on.” Da Qing mutters, “Don’t ring the bell, they’ll just turn you away. He’s too high-class for that.” The sound of a guzheng’s strings fill the air as Kun Lun steps inside, unnoticed by guards and servants alike, makes his way down the corridor to one of the private entertainment halls.
Da Qing leads him to a slender figure in black silk, his dark hair loose around his shoulders, hiding his expression from view. His fingers glide over the strings of a guzheng, and the music they wake is so plaintive Kun Lun has to suck in a breath. Listening, watching so intently that he barely notices when the notes fade into the air, and Shen Wei stands up. Gives a start when he notices he’s not alone.
“Forgive me,” Kun Lun says immediately. Shen Wei’s expression is wary, but he offers Kun Lun a deep bow.
“This humble servant welcomes you, my lord.” He says. He looks up, and the wary distrust is gone, in its place a practiced coyness. “Did the Madame invite you for a private audience?” His voice is deliberately pitched low and intimate, the sound of it making Kun Lun’s skin thrum with twenty years of pent-up want. But whatever it is he’s about to say is interrupted by Da Qing’s indignant meow.
Shen Wei’s eyes widen almost comically and his mouth drops open in surprise. “Pang Pang!” He cries out, opening his arms, and Da Qing darts forwards, leaps into them. Shen Wei buries his face into his fur. His shoulders shake a little as Da Qing purrs and purrs and purrs, and Kun Lun has to stop himself from reaching out and touching him.
After a while, Shen Wei looks up. He colors a little when he sees Kun Lun still in front of him, offers a hasty but deep bow, his arms still full of cat. “Da Ye, please forgive me for my manners.” He says. The words are polite and courteous but his smile is warm, truly warm as he glances at the damn cat and strokes its head. “My cat was lost for weeks. I thought I would never see him again.” It’s all Kun Lun can do not to glare at the fat brat and offer what might pass as a careless shrug.
“It was no trouble. I noticed him wandering around the street behind my home and recognized the orchid on his ribbon. So I came here to return him.” Shen Wei stares at him, a slight frown creasing his forehead. Kun Lun hopes he doesn’t think to ask him about the other establishments in the area. Or the city itself, considering this is the first time he’s been here in his existence.
“I just came to return the cat.” Kun Lun says. “Forgive me for my intrusion, but there were no guards by the door and I assumed it would be fine for me to go in.” As a matter of fact, there were, but Shen Wei mercifully doesn’t ask him any more questions. His fingers buried in Da Qing’s fur, he glances down, then up again. Considering.
“It would reflect badly on my hospitality if you were to return something precious of mine and leave with no reward.” Shen Wei says slowly. Kun Lun tilts his head.
“It would reflect poorly on me as a person if I did a good deed just to expect a reward.” He says. At that, Shen Wei looks startled, and Kun Lun feels a wave of grief and resentment at how life must have treated Shen Wei this time. But the smile that breaks out over his lovely face is warm and real.
“I apologize, my lord. I did not mean to cast any insinuations upon your intentions.” He glances at the guzheng behind him. “However, I do wish to thank you. Perhaps a song will be sufficient to express my gratitude? And a jar of wine. Pang Pang is a heavy, stubborn cat, and it must not have been easy to carry him here.” Da Qing bats at Shen Wei’s hand in protest, squirming out of his arms, and Kun Lun bites back his laugh. He can see Shen Wei doing the same as Da Qing sulkily slinks away.
“I would appreciate that.” He says. The wine is sweet but nowhere near as sweet as the press of Shen Wei’s lashes against his cheeks, the way he glances up at Kun Lun every now and then as his fingers pluck the most delicate tunes from his guzheng. As if he’s a puzzle Shen Wei is trying to figure out, and Kun Lun aches at that. And as before, he’s so engrossed in watching Shen Wei that he barely notices him stop playing. Resting his hands on the strings before making a decision.
He stands up, movements graceful as he sinks to his knees in front of Kun Lun. Shen Wei’s fingers are just the slightest bit swollen as he touches Kun Lun’s wrist. Kun Lun glances at it, then at Shen Wei. Kneeling in front of him, but holding his gaze in a way not even the Ghost King had done.
“You don’t have to do this for me.” Kun Lun says quietly. Shen Wei is not quite smiling, but his gaze is soft as he presses his fingers against Kun Lun’s rapidly-beating pulse.
“Perhaps not. But would you accept it if it was freely given?” He asks. Kun Lun doesn’t answer, can’t answer. Because Shen Wei is undoing the ties of his robes, slipping the black overrobe off his shoulders, then the silver one beneath that. Revealing milky porcelain skin and his already-erect cock, flushed at the tip. Shen Wei’s eyes are black as he bares himself for Kun Lun’s gaze, his grip on Kun Lun’s wrist steady, almost guiding him forwards to rest his palm over his chest. Over his beating heart.
Shen Wei is smiling as Kun Lun pulls him in for a kiss. He smiles the same way the day Kun Lun lifts the red veil to reveal his face, the marriage wine sweet on their lips and mingled breaths. Da Qing yowls in disgust, but there’s never been quite another lifetime where he’s fatter, basking under the sun on Shen Wei’s lap while Shen Wei rests his head on his husband’s shoulder.
There are lifetimes when Shen Wei dies very young. A happy, hearty child playing in the mornings, overtaken by a raging fever at night. A lively teenager felled by a freak accident. A young soldier with his life snuffed out by an opponent’s bayonet.
Kun Lun learns how true helplessness feels when Shen Wei breathes in his last, rattling breath in his arms. At fourteen years old, his body weighs hardly anything, wasted away by illness. Only the doctor’s hand on his shoulder startles him back into awareness.
The old doctor’s eyes are black and grimly sad. Kun Lun’s eyes flicker back down to Shen Wei’s body, his expression quiet and calm and completely at peace.
Each lifetime, you must let run its course. Kun Lun reminds himself of Nuwa’s words. He buries Shen Wei under his favourite cherry blossom tree, sits for a long time under its branches. The smell of incense drifting up towards the buds that have not yet even bloomed.
The next time Shen Wei lies dying of disease, Kun Lun kneels in front of Shennong and begs for his help.
“Why are you doing this to yourself?” The medicine god snaps. “It’s his time, and you know you will see him again.” When Kun Lun doesn’t budge, Shennong huffs in frustration and throws him a packet of herbs. Kun Lun brews the tea and pours it down Shen Wei’s throat, holding his head steady as he gags and thrashes against the bitter burn of it. In a span of two hours his fever breaks, and he opens his eyes to Kun Lun, dozing by the side of his bed.
“I don’t know how to thank you for this.” Shen Wei says hoarsely, when he finally has enough strength to speak. His eyes are too large and too dark in his wasted face. Kun Lun guides him back down when he tries to sit up.
“Don’t.” Kun Lun says. “It’s nothing I don’t owe you for. Just be sure to eat right and get your strength back, it’ll be dreadfully boring if I have no one to play weiqi with.” He grins at SHen Wei’s attempt to smile, and Shen Wei’s hand clasps weakly around his. His skin is clammy but warm, and when Kun Lun doesn’t pull away, he licks his chapped lips. He looks like he’s about to say something, but a light step at the doorway has them turning their heads.
Shen Wei’s expression softens, and Kun Lun smiles in greeting at the woman who enters with a bowl of rice porridge, stands up and excuses himself. The woman bows as he leaves, and he bows back. He lingers just a little, watching as Shen Wei speaks softly to his wife and touches her elbow, guiding her to sit beside him on the bed. His hand goes to the swollen curve of her belly before looking up at Kun Lun. Kun Lun walks away before Shen Wei can look up, his eyes full of gratitude and regret.
Countless centuries later finds Shen Wei sits by the windowsill during the dead of winter. He smiles when Kun Lun drapes a coat over his shoulders and presses a cup of tea into his hands.
“You know I don’t get cold easily.” Shen Wei says, all soft exasperation and warmth. Kun Lun just wraps his arms around him and places his chin on his shoulder.
“Better safe than sorry.” He says lightly. “Humor me? It’s for my peace of mind. Can’t have my wife catching pneumonia under my roof.” Shen Wei rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling as he sips his tea, and his lips are soft and warm under Yunlan’s as he steals a kiss.
One lifetime, Kun Lun decides not to show himself to Shen Wei.
It was after a particularly bad death, the aftermath of a particularly horrific rebellion. Shen Wei had been their leader, and Kun Lun had stupidly allowed Shen Wei to convince him to lead their forces in the other battlefront.
“Your leadership is needed elsewhere.” Shen Wei had said firmly, and Kun Lun, exasperated, had debated whether or not he can show Shen Wei his true form, damn all Nuwa’s warnings. But he’d swallowed his frustration and obeyed.
(His men grow to dread his terrible temper, and their enemies his brutally efficient strategies.)
But it’s not enough. Shen Wei’s men remain scattered and few despite the secret favors Kun Lun bestows on them, and the enemy is overwhelming. Betrayal makes quick work of their ragtag group. Kun Lun survives an ambush that his men do not, and he has just enough sense to stumble away before their opponents try to hack him to pieces.
By the time he gets to their old base, their headquarters have been routed, and Shen Wei has fallen to the lingchi.
Kun Lun torches the palace during summer when there are no rains, drowns military officers when they venture out to the rivers, crushes their outposts with avalanches and landslides. When a new rebellion foments, he paves their way with his favor, making sure their numbers swell to the point no military could overwhelm them, until their leader manages to take the palace, its old emperor hanging lifeless from its rafters. And when it’s all said and done and Kun Lun has no excuses left, that’s when he leaves to go in search of Shen Wei.
He finds him. He always finds him. But Kun Lun’s heart is tired, so tired of finding a home only to have it be taken away from him again. So this time, he doesn’t show himself to the young scholar sitting under the branches of a plum tree and playing a qin. Just listens. Watches, and after several minutes the scholar’s young wife comes out with their infant daughter.
Shen Wei grows old. His life is peaceful. He is the town schoolmaster, and he loves his wife and two children deeply, but Kun Lun always catches him looking around him. Like he’s searching, waiting for something and he can’t understand why.
(Kun Lun expects Da Qing to swear at him, but the cat does nothing of the sort. He becomes the family’s beloved little stray, helping himself to the leftovers the little girl feeds him before slinking off to return to Kun Lun.
“He’s happy.” Da Qing tells Kun Lun. “He misses you.” Kun Lun never replies, just buries his fingers in Da Qing’s fur and continues watching.)
Shen Wei falls ill during his eighty-fifth year. A particularly harsh winter robs him of strength, and by spring he’s bedridden. His wife has long passed by then, but as children and grandchildren care for him it becomes clear that he will not live to see summer.
Kun Lun shows himself during what he knows will be the last hour of Shen Wei’s life. His family is weeping around him, but they do not sense Kun Lun’s presence, or notice when the old man opens his eyes.
The old man is a wasted husk fighting for every breath in his clogged, aching lungs. But somehow his breathing eases when Kun Lun reaches over, takes his hand. His eyes, bleary with cataracts, open, staring at Kun Lun’s face and frowning.
“You look familiar.” Shen Wei manages to whisper. “What is your name?” Kun Lun squeezes his hand, as tightly as he could without hurting him.
“Shen-laoshi, forgive me for introducing myself so late.” Kun Lun says. “I was one of your students, once.” But Shen Wei shakes his head.
“No.” He murmurs. “No.” He winces, and Kunlun places a gentle hand on his chest. He can’t heal him but he can ease his way along.
“Not a student.” Shen Wei whispers. “Someone else. Who?” Kunlun smiles, strokes his cheek, and Shen Wei’s eyes drift shut. Kun Lun knows they’ll never open again in this lifetime.
“Just a student who loves you very much.” He whispers against Shen Wei’s forehead, kissing him gently. “And who will never leave you alone again.” Shen Wei sighs, presses his face against Kun Lun’s touch. He doesn’t wake up again.
The next lifetime, Kun Lun plucks Shen Wei out of the orphanage he finds him in after his parents die from the plague. Their live their lives as uncle and nephew on a quiet, prosperous farm. One time, during a festival, Kun Lun empties his pockets buying Shen Wei toys and sweets, and grins at his neighbor’s reproach.
“You are spoiling him.” She says, heavy with disapproval. Shen Wei doesn’t budge from his perch in Kun Lun’s arms, munching on a stick of tanghulu. Kun Lun grins at her, wipes at the sticky sugar smeared on the corners of Shen Wei’s mouth.
“I have a lot to make up for.” He answers simply. Shen Wei doesn’t speak, but he burrows into Kun Lun’s arms.
Kun Lun’s favourite lifetimes are the uneventful ones. The ones spent in some, forgotten hamlet tucked away in a sleepy mountainside, or a fishing village where the wind always smelled of salt. Others spent in the hustle and bustle of a city, just two lives being lived in sweet anonymity amidst all the seething life around them.
Shen Wei’s soul shines bright and pure in some lives, soft and muted in others, almost frighteningly dark in a few. Sometimes he loves Kun Lun with the all-consuming passion he had the way he did back at the birth of the world, sometimes it’s just the quiet affection of a friend. Others it’s the steady devotion of a child to his parent, or the bright hard-edged lust of secret lovers. Kun Lun learns to love Shen Wei in different ways, just as he learns who Shen Wei is all over again, with each new century, each new life.
“What I fear the most is not losing my life.” Shen Wei says. Kun Lun is stroking his hair, dishevelled from his hands, the dragon robes carelessly cast aside on the floor. Shen Wei’s eyes are large and dark in his young face. He is an emperor, newly-crowned, and Kun Lun is his devoted general.
Shen Wei falls silent. Kun Lun gently brushes his fingers against his cheek.
“That’s not a fear that will ever come to pass with me here.” Kun Lun says gently. Shen Wei lifts his gaze to his, clutches his hand.
“I’m afraid of losing you.” Shen Wei blurts out. The words come out in a messy rush, and Kun Lun knows his fears have festered in him for a very long time. “Of disappointing you, or driving you away. Become my father all over again.” He inhales, and it trembles. His shoulders slump, and he looks nothing like the regal emperor, crowned with the promise and hope of his new reign. He looks like the boy he still is, and when Kun Lun wraps him in his arms he hides his face against his chest. Ashamed to look his lover in the eye.
“What if I don’t measure up to your expectations of me?” He whispers. And this is what has Kun Lun cup his face in his palm, tilt it up so he can look him in the eye.
“You’re young and afraid.” Kun Lun says. Shen Wei’s shoulders slump in misery. “I would think far less of you if you weren’t.” The words are harsh but his tone is soft, as is his touch when he brushes Shen Wei’s hair away from his face.
“I didn’t win you your throne.” Kun Lun continues. “You did, with your devotion for this empire. And that devotion, that love will keep you from turning into something you don’t want to be.”
“What if I turn out to be a monster?” Shen Wei says, and oh. Had it really been millennia ago when Shen Wei had asked him almost that same question? Kun Lun smiles, gathers Shen Wei into his arms.
“I have seen every part of you there is to see.” He murmurs against the top of Shen Wei’s head. “I know your soul deeper than any sea I’ve ever sailed. So what if you turn out to be a monster? You’re the one I love the most in this world. I will stay by your side forever.” Shen Wei is silent. When he does speak, it’s not with words, as he lifts his head up, seals his and Kun Lun’s mouths together in a kiss.
He remembers that conversation later, when he’s in a library poring through some history books. He idly thumbs through one, stops when he sees a portrait of a serene face, a reproduction of an ancient silk scroll found in a mausoleum.
He smiles when he sees it. Then he hears his name being called, finds himself being the recipient of a swift kiss on the cheek.
“I’m sorry I just arrived, the department meeting ran a bit late. What’s that you’ve got there? The Black Emperor?” Shen Wei peers at his book, and Kun Lun grins, holds the portrait up beside his face.
“He looks terribly like you, doesn’t he?” He says. “It says here his reign was so peaceful and uneventful that later emperors tried to scrub his name out of history so no one would have a point of comparison.” Shen Wei rolls his eyes.
“Return that to the shelf before Madame Li has your hide.” He says drily. “If you try to say it’s a sign I ought to run for university president–“ Kun Lun smirks.
“I can certainly convince Lin Jing to make a few memes go viral –“
“No.” But Shen Wei’s smiling, and when Kun Lun reaches for his hand he holds fast.
There is one lifetime when Shen Wei finds out about the truth.
Kun Lun has never told any incarnation of Shen Wei’s about the truth. At first because Shen Wei had been too unstable, though Kun Lun still wonders if he had made the right decision. He had been worried learning of the truth would destroy Shen Wei’s fragile grasp of his own humanity. Perhaps it would have comforted him instead, helped him understand what he was.
But years pass, and he never tells Shen Wei about the past. There was never any need to. Shen Wei is Shen Wei, and Kun Lun would find him in every lifetime, just to spend a precious handful more years by his side.
The other gods know not to interfere with their lives. The few times he’s run into Shennong after kneeling to save Shen Wei’s life, the medicine god had shaken his head but given him potent healing herbs. Nuwa always looks a little sad when he sees him. Of worshippers, he has next to none by now, but the few that remain are devoted.
He’s traveling with Shen Wei on a class field trip when they come across the temple. Or rather, Shen Wei does. Kun Lun had tried to steer him away from it, but Shen Wei had somehow managed to give him the slip. when he was distracted by a couple of robed attackers. It’s only when they’re groaning in a beaten heap by his feet that he notices Shen Wei’s missing.
The attacker groans when Kun Lun presses a none-too merciful boot to his cracked ribs. “Who sent you?” Kun Lun says, his heart pounding. The attacker glares at him, spits, and Kun Lun jams his heel in harder until the robed manstarts squealing.
“Those broken bones will cost you more than what you were promised. Now,” Kun Lun grits his teeth. “Who sent you and where did they take my husband?” The other robed man rasps out a hacking laugh.
“You think we fear you?” He sneers. “We fear the Ghost King and the Lord Kun Lun, not you.” And Kun Lun feels all the blood draining out of his face. He leaves the men a groaning mess behind him and sprints off in the direction of the temple.
When he finally arrives, it’s to the sight of Shen Wei, his fists clenched by his sides, standing in front of the lone effigy that remained of Kun Lun, after all these years. Time has obliterated its face and the color of its robes, but it still stands straight-backed and regal, its hands open as if to embrace all the world’s rivers and mountains.
There’s another statue beside it, newer and slightly less weather-worn. That of a young man, kneeling, offering his heart to Kun Lun, and Kun Lun has questions – how did Shen Wei figure it out, how did he learn the truth, who told him – but they all fade when Shen Wei turns towards his direction, trembling all over. The calm on the statue’s face is a counterpoint to the pure anguish on his, compounded with how identical their features are.
Kun Lun steps close to him. Careful, gentle. Like he’s trying not to spook a wild horse. Shen Wei makes an aborted movement, like he just manages to stop himself from flinching away. Kun Lun aches to hold him, so he does. Wrapping his arms around Shen Wei from behind, as Shen Wei shakes and tries to force enough air into his lungs.
“I never liked that effigy.” Kun Lun says, pressing his cheek against Shen Wei’s. The truth slips out of him as easy as blood, and with it a weight he hadn't realized he'd been carrying for five thousand years falls off his shoulders. "It doesn’t really look like me, does it? Yours, though. Yours looks good.” He tries to keep his voice light, but SHen Wei shoves him away, whirls on him. Looking well and truly pissed.
“Were you ever planning to tell me about this?” Shen Wei snarls. That was one thing the sculptors never got right, Kun Lun notes. The pure fury warping the ghost king’s face, the force of it almost enough to make Kun Lun take a step back.
“No.” Kun Lun says simply. Honestly. “What good would it have done?”
Shen Wei is silent. Kun Lun takes a step closer. When Shen Wei doesn’t flinch away, he cups his face with gentle hands.
“How long?” Shen Wei asks. His voice shakes. Kun Lun presses their foreheads together.
“How long has it been since my first death?” Shen Wei bites out. His eyes are reddened, and Kun Lun is jarred by an old memory of Shen Wei’s incarnations. A young boy who looked the exact same way when he was about to cry.
“A little over five thousand years.” Kun Lun replies. Shen Wei is very still for a moment, like he’s trying to grasp the idea of it. Eternity flowing through Kun Lun’s fingertips but it had never been enough.
He pulls Shen Wei close against his chest, and Shen Wei does not resist. His breath is warm against Kun Lun’s neck, his voice cut-up when he next speaks.
“How many lives have you been with me?” Kun Lun cards a hand through his hair, remembering how he would wake up that first terrible year, aching to touch Shen Wei but realizing he’s gone.
It’s short now instead of cascading down his back. Shen Wei wears glasses in this lifetime because he has astigmatism, he teaches genetics at Dragon City University because he’s fascinated with the idea of charting where humans came from. He watches over Kun Lun like a mother hen, making sure he remembers to eat and that he doesn’t overtax himself because Kun Lun has a tendency to have no sense of self-preservation. He is calm and gentle. Different, so different from the little Ghost King that followed Kun Lun everywhere he went, so different from the feral madness of the first lifetime, and the many others that came after.
But he is still Shen Wei. And he is still Kun Lun’s. In every way that matters, in all these millennia. He belongs to Kun Lun, and he always will.
“All of them,” Kun Lun says. Shen Wei looks up. His eyes are luminous and rimmed with tears, and Kun Lun strokes his cheeks, kisses his forehead when the tears don’t stop.
“I cannot possibly be worth this pain.“ Shen Wei whispers, and at that Kun Lun feels a surge of true anger that he hasn’t felt in years.
“You are.” Kun Lun says fiercely, and Shen Wei falls silent. “You’re worth everything.” He’s holding Shen Wei’s face between his hands, and if he needs to repeat himself ten thousand times so Shen Wei can believe him, he will.
“Why?” SHen Wei’s voice is very very soft, like he’s talking to himself rather than to Kun Lun. Kun Lun laughs, rests his hand over his nape. Because he can give him any reason, but everything always boiled down to one inexorable truth.
“I gave you my heart.” He says. “It will always be yours, for as long as you still want it. Nothing else matters.”
There are things that he keeps, besides the amber pendant around his throat. Precious little mementos from each lifetime. Little toys belonging to a small child, crumbled with age and the paint flecked off. A crown of flowers that firm, gentle hands had wound into Kun Lun’s hair. A painting of a mountain range done with a steady, sure hand. A battered wooden begging bowl. A black mask, its leather warped and worn. Thirty-six hell beasts’ teeth, strung on a strand of midnight-dark hair. His restored soulfire, burning on his left shoulder.
Kun Lun tucks them away safe, storing them all in a carved wooden box warded more powerfully than any other treasure in the Jade Emperor’s halls. He always keeps the box tucked away, and it’s rare he takes its contents out. One hand drifting to the mask, the bowl, the teeth, the other holding fast to his pendant.
Sometimes Shen Wei finds him like this, lost in thought.
“What are those?” The boy is seven years old, curious and brave. He peers at the contents of the wooden chest and Kun Lun lets him take out its contents.
“My treasures.” Kun Lun says. Shen Wei squints as he turns them over in his hands.
“Who gave them to you?” He asks. He is twenty years old, in love for the first time and unable to keep the slight jealousy out of his voice. Kun Lun smiles at him, tucks his hair behind his ear.
“A friend,” he answers. Shen Wei is careful as he handles the string of teeth. Time and age has made them yellowed and fragile.
“Did you love him?” Shen Wei asks. His eyes are lowered as he sets the teeth carefully back into the box. “The friend who gave these to you.” Kun Lun’s smile is a painful thing.
“I didn’t treasure him like I should have.” He says. His voice breaks a little, and Shen Wei looks at him then. In his eyes is that uncertainty, and Kun Lun takes him in his arms.
“I didn’t value him until I lost him.” Kun Lun murmurs against his hair. “So I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t put the one I love through that same pain.” Shen Wei’s fingers clench lightly at his shoulders. Kun Lun can feel the curve of his smile at his throat.
“You’ve never broken that promise.” Shen Wei says. He kisses Kun Lun’s throat, burying his face at the curve of his shoulder. “Not once did I ever doubt your love for me.” He says. He is thirty years old and Kun Lun aches because they only have a handful more decades left. He wraps his arms around Shen Wei’s waist like he can guard against time taking him away, just for a little longer. A handful more moments.
“I never will.” Kun Lun promises. “My heart is yours.” Shen Wei smiles at him, but his eyes are wet. He pulls away and Kun Lun lets him. Shen Wei takes his hand and sinks to his knees, mouth pressed against Kun Lun’s fingers.
“Everything I am now is thanks to you, Kun Lun-jun.” Shen Wei whispers, and Kun Lun’s heart leaps. Shen Wei looks up, and he’s the little Ghost King that followed Kun Lun and never left. The lover that gave Kun Lun his life and saved the world.
He is Shen Wei, and Kun Lun loves him.
“I deserve nothing, and you have given me so much already.” As Shen Wei speaks, he takes something out of his pocket. A small box. He opens it to reveal a ring, the diamond in its center glittering as bright as Kun Lun’s soulfire.
“Maybe it’s meaningless to ask this of you, but time is all I have.” Shen Wei says. His voice cracks. “Will you have it?” Kun Lun’s eyes burn as he cups Shen Wei’s face with both hands.
“You have me.” Kun Lun promises, leaning down to kiss him, and Shen Wei’s touch trembles as he slips the ring over Kun Lun’s finger. He kisses Shen Wei again, pulling him back to his feet and into his arms. “For the rest of eternity, you have me.” Shen Wei sighs against him, their foreheads touching.
“I love you.” He says it fiercely, almost angry. Kun Lun kisses him again, does not let go.
No other words need to be said.