Shen Wei should be dead after Ye Zun’s attack. He should be dead already, but isn’t.
Body ravaged by the Haixing energies tearing at his Dixing ones, heartsick at letting Zhao Yunlan step unaccompanied into the past, Shen Wei doesn’t understand why Ye Zun allows him to wake again. All he knows when he opens his eyes is that his attempts to fight free have been entirely futile. No longer at the entranceway to Dixing, he is somewhere in the palace. That much he can tell from the dark stone all around him—from the cold of it seeping into his bones through his clothes. His efforts to stop his brother have drained the last of his reserves, and now he is breathing in thready gasps, each more shallow than the last. Not that it matters. Not after he’s failed—failed Kunlun, and failed to keep Ye Zun from his people, and failed to keep Haixing safe.
“No, no, no.” Ye Zun’s voice, carried to Shen Wei’s ear on a murmured breath, makes him flinch in surprise. Nothing more than flinch—his body is too weak to recoil, and it’s been a long time since he had enough power for instant retaliation. “We can’t have you like this, not at all...”
Turning his head with huge effort, Shen Wei can see Ye Zun crouched a few handspans away. There are flickering torches set in sconces on the walls, and the shadows they cast make his form waver in Shen Wei’s vision. But their light is bright enough that he can see robes as pristine as if they were never covered in Ye Zun’s blood, and the golden mask hiding his face.
His dìdi’s face. Despite everything that has happened, Shen Wei wishes he could see it, as he hasn’t for all these long ages.
Still staring at him, Ye Zun makes a gesture of power—Shen Wei assumes it is to send him back into unconsciousness, and tenses up.
It’s an unpleasant shock to instead have energy shoved into his worn cells—grudgingly given, there is no finesse about the healing, nothing that could mend or make better. Only an influx of raw power that makes him gasp as it rips through his damaged body, leaving an odd jittery feeling and borrowed strength behind.
And it might not be much, but the moment he gets it, Shen Wei uses that strength to surge to his feet—or that is his intent. He has barely shifted before a coil of dark energy wraps itself around him and pins him back down, cheek pressed against the chilly stone floor. “Leaving so soon? I think not.”
“What do you want?” Shen Wei rasps.
Ye Zun rises, laughing. “I want you to watch,” he says, eyes gleaming behind his mask in the torchlight. “I want you to live, as I had to live. And I want you to know which one of us has ended up the master, and which one the slave.”
The guilt Shen Wei feels cuts as sharply into his heart now as it did ten thousand years ago. What Ye Zun says is a testament to Shen Wei’s own failures, and there is nothing in him able to defend against that. True, Shen Wei never made his brother a slave, but he left him to suffer that fate, alone and unprotected. If it hadn’t been for that… Well. Then there would be no need for the mask, for the incandescent rage, for the insatiable lust for power.
Ye Zun nods and smiles, pleased with whatever he sees in Shen Wei’s face. “Yes,” he says. “That’s good. Just like that.”
Shen Wei has no ready answer, but it doesn’t matter. Ye Zun is done, for now. He waves, and a pair of guards detach themselves from the shadows and close in on Shen Wei. Ye Zun himself strolls blithely toward the heavy doors of what Shen Wei only now realizes is an antechamber to the Dixing palace’s royal hall.
It’s a relief to be left with the stone-faced guards, even when they haul him none too gently to his feet, and force him to stumble along after his brother. They make it down two long hallways, past more guards and more torches. In front of them, Ye Zun approaches a set of heavy, ornate doors standing open, and Shen Wei belatedly discerns their destination.
Realizing what Ye Zun means to do changes everything. Shen Wei finds there are still things that matter enough to fight for. He throws himself against the grip of the two guards, who have grown complacent enough with his tractability to be taken by surprise. They go down in a clattering sprawl. The next instant he manages to snap his blade into existence, though it takes far more effort than it should.
Already a good ten steps away, Ye Zun whirls angrily on him. Shen Wei raises a hand to block the attack. Ye Zun’s blast of energy hits him like a moving wall. It whirls his defenses away like withered leaves, and a follow-up slams him hard against the dark stone floor. Shen Wei refuses to let the sword go, even with the skin of his knuckles splitting from the impact.
“Get him,” Ye Zun snarls at a troop of guards summoned through the open doorway by the chaos. Black-coated and armed with rifles, they rush Shen Wei without hesitation.
Shen Wei rolls into a fighting crouch, eyeing those rifles. He is probably not strong enough to fight his way out of the palace, but—well, he knows what his brother wants, and there is one sure way Shen Wei can deny him that. Not for his own sake—Ye Zun is right to hate him—but for Dixing. Shen Wei has already seen how his people have been tricked and lied to and cornered into violence by Ye Zun’s manipulations. Yet through it all, many more have resisted him. They have done so in the Black-Cloaked Envoy’s name, and at his word. If Ye Zun takes that away from an already fearful, fragile nation—Shen Wei grips his sword more tightly.
It should be a simple thing to provoke the guards to defend themselves with lethal force. Mind clear and heart at peace with his decision, it is easy for Shen Wei to ignore pain and weakness. It should be quick—there are eight loaded rifles ready to fire. Even if he incapacitates one or two, that should be more than enough damage, given the current state of his body.
Except the guards do not fire. Shen Wei’s carefully timed attack is met with nothing but terrified attempts to stop him bare-handed. A few of them have gifts of strength or hardening, but nothing that can beat even the slow strikes that is the best he can muster. Young men carrying the hopes of their families on their shoulders, throwing themselves at the Black-Cloaked Envoy on Ye Zun’s orders—which, Shen Wei realizes, already go deeper than what he expected. Not just Ye Zun’s hold on them—Shen Wei is used to fighting mind-controlled forces—but in the specific instructions he has given these men.
Shen Wei hesitates. He doesn’t want to kill any of them—merely provoke them into firing their rifles at the right time. But none of them do. They simply take advantage of how Shen Wei is holding back to pile on him like brawlers.
Shen Wei tries to resist, but there are too many of them. Panting and jostling each other, clumsy with fear, they pull him to his knees and wrench his arms behind his back. Then most of them melt away, making space for Ye Zun to approach. Breathing hard, Shen Wei faces his brother.
“Oh, gēge. Did you really think it would be that easy?” Ye Zun asks lightly as he steps around one of the groaning men on the floor, smile as bright as a naked blade.
“You let them—let them risk their lives to prove a point?” Shen Wei says, his anger cutting both inward and out.
“I did nothing,” Ye Zun hisses. “I told you what was expected of you, and you chose to disobey.”
Shen Wei has to crane his neck to look up at Ye Zun through sweaty bangs. “And this is why,” he says. “Look at what you’re doing, to our people—”
“Mine,” Ye Zun snaps. “My people. Not yours. You—you left us all down here in the dark.”
Shen Wei can’t protest the accusation. They all wished for peace, but before considering what it might cost his people, Shen Wei left those negotiations behind for his brother. To guard him, to protect others from him—to tie his own life to his twin’s once again. Shen Wei can neither regret staying with Ye Zun, nor escape the guilt he feels—but all those decisions were made ten thousand years ago and cannot be unmade, no matter how much Ye Zun rages. There are more pressing matters. “How can you claim Dixing’s people for your own, yet be ready to waste their lives?”
“Like you wanted to waste yours?” Ye Zun retorts, smiling as he rests a hand on Shen Wei’s head. “Or was that supposed to be some noble sacrifice?”
Shen Wei doesn’t deny it, and Ye Zun pats his head in a twisted reflection of the fond gesture that used to bring a young boy comfort. “Come now,” he says. “No more of that. Don’t you want to see Dixing rise to glory?”
“You’re going to drown Dixing in the blood of its people!” Shen Wei surges up in protest, but Ye Zun’s fingers twist in Shen Wei’s hair and tug him back down so hard his knees bruise on the stone floor.
“Of course you do,” Ye Zun tells him, ignoring him. “And don’t you want to catch up with your dear Haixing lover?”
So focused has he been on Dixing, that question catches Shen Wei completely off guard. Two names collide in his heart and stir an ache so sharp he misses a breath, even with Ye Zun’s avid gaze on him.
“That’s right,” Ye Zun says encouragingly, while Shen Wei’s thoughts race. Two lovers, and one dead at the other’s hands. Again. Again and always, because for one single moment of weakness, Zhao Yunlan’s assurance came to him with Kunlun’s voice, and Shen Wei allowed what he felt to override everything he knew. And so he let Zhao Yunlan slip from his grip and back into the past, where what was done can never be undone.
“Was Zhao Yunlan yours all along, then?” Shen Wei can’t help asking, and Ye Zun laughs, surprisingly softly.
“I really wonder,” he says, and leans forward so he’s whispering in Shen Wei’s ear, “which answer you would prefer?”
The insidious words burrow straight into Shen Wei’s heart. He tries to cover his reaction, but from his brother’s smile he can tell that he has failed.
Ye Zun rises elegantly and gestures at the apprehensive guards to wrench Shen Wei upright. “Now, let’s get you ready,” Ye Zun says, and draws a hand from Shen Wei’s shoulder to the cuff of his suit jacket. It’s all it takes for his powers to convince the fabric to darken and lengthen and stretch all over, and Shen Wei’s attempts to stop it happening do nothing except cause the guards to grip him more tightly. To his horror, it is only moments before he is fully dressed in the dark robes and cloak of his Envoy office. There is no mask to go with them.
“Yes, that will do rather well, I think,” Ye Zun says, eyeing his work critically. He adjusts the fall of the cloak, and Shen Wei swallows back a protest. Not at the touch, but at all it signifies for what is to come. Letting Ye Zun know how very precisely this hurts Shen Wei would only serve to encourage him.
“Come along, then,” Ye Zun says. He turns his back with a confidence that speaks volumes, and beckons the guards along. This time, Shen Wei allows them to march him through the doors and outside, past the massive stone deities guarding the palace proper and out into the open.
It feels as if though Shen Wei only just woke from the dream where he saw this place last. He remembers it all with ferocious clarity—the bone-white moon overhead, the faceless crowd, and Zhao Yunlan at the top of the palace steps. On his knees, yet refusing to be cowed by Ye Zun’s powers. A display that moved Shen Wei’s heart.
Now the memory of it brings a surge of something warm and hopeful that is startlingly at odds with what has happened since. Shen Wei tucks that sensation away to consider later. Inexplicably, the thought feels like it should be accompanied by the physical sensation of tucking away a pendant he knows that he has never worn.
Stepping between the massive pillars, Shen Wei sees it now from Zhao Yunlan’s perspective: a seething crowd below—not faceless, this time—and Ye Zun’s personal throne gleaming dully with gold in the gloom. It is almost identical to the one in the dream. What isn’t, aside from the moonless sky and the Dixing audience, is a tall stone post hung with solid chains placed at the top of the stairs.
The reaction from the crowd when Shen Wei appears is immediate and deafening. Black-Cloaked Envoy! The urge to shrink back until he has his mask, or at least his glasses, is quickly conquered. Instead, he schools his face to blankness, and takes comfort in how easy it is to express nothing.
Ye Zun doesn’t need shackles, or guards. But he wants them—he understands the importance of symbols and the trappings of power, as well as power itself. It sends a message the assembled citizens can’t mistake. That doesn’t mean Ye Zun is keeping things impersonal—the cold iron manacles pulling Shen Wei’s arms over his head are limned in the dark light of his brother’s power, making them feel disturbingly alive. And when Ye Zun summons a whip, it is not to put it in any guard’s hand.
But Shen Wei has been watching his brother carefully, and sees the fractional flinch when that whip appears. What Ye Zun first holds in his hand is something old and worn and stained in ways that do not bear thinking about. It is gone so quickly none in the crowd would have caught sight of it before it is replaced by an outrageously ostentatious instrument of pain: white leather and an elaborate gold handle. Ye Zun grips it hard—almost defiantly, as if he needs to make sure it won’t be taken from him, and Shen Wei can’t help but ache for the boy he failed to save. Who grew to a man in Zei Qiu’s shadow, and never left it.
Ye Zun addresses the crowd with confidence and power. The kind of power that sways weaker minds, causing them to follow without asking why, and tempts the strong with the promise that they too can stand on top of the world one day. Or at least on top of the palace stairs, with a gaudy throne and your worst enemy chained up on display.
Shen Wei listens with detached interest. It’s much the same as what Zei Qiu said in his day—the superiority of Dixing, the unfair oppression by Haixing, the light and the power waiting to be grabbed—only fiercer. Zei Qiu was a fanatic, but one with a limited imagination. What Ye Zun has suffered, and the time he has waited—it lends his rhetoric a frenzied edge that is entirely unlike Zei Qiu’s self-assured swagger. And when he turns to look at Shen Wei, those edges grow razor-sharp in his smile.
“And yet! There are those shameless enough to wish for Dixing to remain under Haixing’s heel. To hold on to those false ideals of peace without prosperity, of freedom without choice…” The crowd is getting worked up into a frenzy—many still restless and anxious to know what is happening, but others stirred into clamoring in agreement.
Even those most eager hush when Ye Zun trails off and walks all the way up to Shen Wei, drawing the crowd’s attention back to the Black-Cloaked Envoy in chains.
Ye Zun surveys his rapt audience, and Shen Wei knows what is coming next. He is not afraid, precisely. But having the sea of faces staring up at him makes him far too aware of how little strength is left in this body Ye Zun insisted on dressing up just so. If it had been just the two of them—if he didn’t have the weight of that cloak draped over his shoulders, what is to come might have been easier to bear.
“Not just the Black-Cloaked Envoy. But many of you, too!” An accusing finger. “Well—you should choose wisely. You can either have a chance to partake in all that Dixing always deserved—or you can suffer the same traitor’s fate as this grovelling servant of Haixing!” A collective gasp meets Ye Zun’s decision to punctuate that statement with a flick of the whip to Shen Wei’s bound body.
Neither the words nor the blow sting much at all. What does hurt is the memory of those companions and allies Shen Wei lost to Zei Qiu in much the same way as this, and for the same reason. Captured alive, anyone too strong for the rebel master’s powers to easily sway would instead be put to gruesome death as a warning to others. Especially those others who felt they wanted nothing to do with either side of the war—Zei Qiu had regarded such civilians as traitors, and made very free with both his manipulation and his threats around them.
The next time Ye Zun’s arm comes down, he puts power into the blow. The lash rips the black fabric over Shen Wei’s chest as easily as as if it were silk paper, and the ripple of energy along it tears the skin below open. It’s a shallow cut, but there is a collective intake of breath and clamor from the crowd. Shen Wei wishes he could say something to calm his people, but despair clouds his mind. Even if he could find the right words, with their positions like this, Ye Zun has the power of turning Shen Wei’s truth into hollow lies.
A third blow follows, as loaded with damage as the previous. Knowing as he does that he is not only exposed to Ye Zun’s eyes, but to those of all spectators below—willing and unwilling, those he would have counted as allies as well as enemies—Shen Wei continues to keep his face carefully blank.
Ye Zun smirks, as if he knows what Shen Wei is thinking, and snaps the whip so it neatly lays the skin over his cheek open. There is no hiding the blood spilling from that cut, marring the calmest of expressions. “A pity, to damage such a pretty face,” Ye Zun murmurs, low enough that it gets no reaction from the crowd. Shen Wei stares at Ye Zun in his mask, and wonders what kind of scars it hides.
Then Ye Zun raises his voice again, back on something about justice for the next few blows. Shen Wei is too absorbed in controlling his breathing to make much sense of what Ye Zun is saying. It seems that he is currently using the crack of the whip as a form of punctuation, which makes it more useful to listen to the cadence of the words than their meaning, as Ye Zun goes on and on.
Tremors begin to run through Shen Wei’s shoulders—he tries to still them, but they persist. The noise of the crowd, the raw burning of his flesh, and Ye Zun’s energy coiling nauseatingly around his bleeding wrists are blending into a single assault on Shen Wei’s senses. He doesn't realize he's stopped tracking Ye Zun's movements until a hand fists in Shen Wei’s hair, forcing his head back up.
The golden mask seems to fill his entire vision, blocking out any detail of the face behind it. “Tired?” Ye Zun purrs. “You must be. And these—” he runs a finger down Shen Wei’s chest, raising stinging shivers. “They hurt, don’t they?”
Shen Wei wrenches against Ye Zun’s grasp, but it doesn’t dislodge the eye-watering grip on his hair. “Shh,” Ye Zun says. “It doesn’t have to be like this, you know. It could all be over in an instant—wouldn’t that be good? No more pain.” He leans in. “No more crowd. Just you and me.”
“If—?” Shen Wei prompts, to get the clumsy fishing for grovelling over with.
“Set a good example,” Ye Zun says. “Show everyone who they should be loyal to.”
Shen Wei scoffs, and gives Ye Zun a look that expresses exactly what he thinks of that idea without having to waste his breath on words.
The flash of anger in Ye Zun’s eyes is the only warning Shen Wei gets before the whip handle takes him across his cut cheek in a backhanded blow, the taste of blood blooming in his mouth. “Don’t look at me like that!”
Under all the dark despair weighing him down, Shen Wei discovers a spark in his heart. And he’d rather go out with that blazing than wait around for Ye Zun to find ways of putting it out for good. “You are a dangerous fool,” Shen Wei snarls, and Ye Zun snatches his hand back, as if he’s forgotten all about the chains holding Shen Wei back.
Shen Wei finds the strength to straighten, to look his brother in the eye. “You are leading Dixing to ruin, following the worst example any of our people ever set, and I will never—” He doesn’t get to finish. Ye Zun lashes out furiously, the sodden whip crackling with dark energy that cuts so deep into Shen Wei’s flesh it tears a cry from him.
Maybe it’s the comparison to Zei Qiu. Maybe it’s just the way Shen Wei has found strength in fury and refuses to break eye contact, but the impacts ripping at Shen Wei’s body now feel less like carefully inflicted torment and more like an implosion of unmanageable emotions. There is nothing he can do to suffer the onslaught with dignity—but then, if it keeps up at least it won’t be for very long.
Ye Zun might have wanted Shen Wei to live, before. Now, it is entirely possible that he has forgotten, or miscalculated. Or changed his mind. Shen Wei clings to that, at least—that in his current state, any fatal damage won't be contained to his own body. The clashing energies that have been breaking down his system ever since he used the Dial to heal Zhao Yunlan's eyes are in a state more volatile than he has ever seen in anyone alive. His death, at least, might give everyone a chance to fight back against Ye Zun.
That is the last rational thought Shen Wei has, for a while. He drifts, barely conscious of still being conscious. There is pain, so much it is nearly intolerable. But he’s getting used to it. You can get used to a lot, Shen Wei knows.
Like loneliness. If you can accept it, live your life with it as a constant—then it hardly hurts at all. Not until something disrupts it where it has been slumbering, safely ignored for so long. Not until someone comes along to show you what your life could be like—it’s not until you lose them that you start feeling the pain of loneliness again.
And of loss.
And of love.
Cold now, Shen Wei remembers heat and firelight, the golden glow of naked skin and the warmest smile he’s ever seen. Just like Zhao Yunlan’s smile. Not the one from Shen Wei’s most recent memories, not the strained and brittle one.
No. What Shen Wei sees when Ye Zun sends him further and further away from himself is the soft curve of tempting lips smiling as they shape his name. Wei—Wei, levelling out the syllable for him, widening his horizons and filling that empty space Shen Wei never knew he had in his heart, always and forever. Even now, that presence is still there—even after a hundred centuries. And though it hurt to lose him, that pain will never not be worth it—not when he promised. Not when he returned.
Zhao Yunlan. Somewhere far away, Shen Wei is aware that he knows Zhao Yunlan being Kunlun is wrong and impossible and all a lie. But what he feels is—Zhao Yunlan.
Shen Wei is feeling Zhao Yunlan.
Shen Wei struggles to open his eyes. He needs to see, needs to find out what that feeling means. Through sweat and blood he forces the tattered hem of black robes into focus, and sees blood spilled like wax from a low-burnt candle. Head hanging, that’s all he can see—but he needs to look around.
The pain returns, and the crashing waves of noise from the crowd, but Shen Wei manages to raise his head. The effort costs him—having enough control over his body to move means being fully back in it, and the experience is excruciating. This body of his—it is cold and weak and almost entirely empty of any energy that isn’t wholly destructive. But now he can both see and hear the rippling gasp of the crowd, and he watches as Ye Zun spins away from him and exclaims in surprised delight, “You!”
“Miss me?” That is Zhao Yunlan’s most nonchalant drawl. Shen Wei can pick out the sound of footsteps up the palace stairs—a familiar cadence, but taking the steps so quickly he’s almost coming at a run, entirely at odds with the relaxed tone of voice he used.
Zhao Yunlan’s voice. Zhao Yunlan’s footsteps. Here, now. In Dixing.
“No,” Shen Wei whispers, still—again—trying to deny Zhao Yunlan’s connection to Ye Zun. But why else would the SID’s Zhao Yunlan be coming alone to Ye Zun like this, if not to—to take his place by Ye Zun’s side? As before. As in the dream.
Zhao Yunlan crests the stairs. Shen Wei’s vision is swimming, but he can’t help a desperate urge to—to see him again. One last time.
Shen Wei blinks, and Zhao Yunlan comes into focus. And he isn’t smirking, like Shen Wei thought he would be—at least not anymore. He is stalking closer, and Shen Wei has never seen such hatred in his eyes before. He has seen Zhao Yunlan angry, and determined, and in the middle of a battle, but Shen Wei has never seen Zhao Yunlan’s brash and breezy demeanor pared down to his core, to lay bare a soul shining with righteous fury. And it is all aimed at Ye Zun, as Zhao Yunlan walks fearlessly up to him and demands, “Let him go.”