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With a Twist of the Kaleidoscope

Chapter Text

Shen Wei is sinking.

There is darkness all around, and though he is struggling against it with every ounce of his fading powers, it is closing in. He knows he can’t let it swallow him—isn’t sure of anything else, but even with his mind in tatters, the imperative to resist remains. He must hold on to this: the small, flickering flame that is the only thing pushing back against that devouring absence of light. It has become his entire existence—or has always been his entire existence; the one thing that must be protected above all else.

For one moment Shen Wei sees a figure in that golden light. It’s only a fleeting glimpse, but stirs in him sensations that are the sweet opposite of pain: the joy of an aching heart, the elation of lungs caught short of breath.

Before he can name the emotion, a shadow writhes its way past his defenses and steals his attention away. He tries to push against it, but it flows over and around him, engulfing him in soft whispers with razor edges. Words that wound and destroy, and Shen Wei’s defenses can only hold until they can’t.

Time has long since ceased to matter, but everything he is feels the shock of it as something that is turns into something that was—and then it’s gone. A laughing voice echoes in the empty place where something should be—something glowing warm and rich—and then there is nothing left but a cold, drowning dark.

Zhao Yunlan spins on his heel, convinced he heard someone calling his name. He stands still in the dim hospital corridor and listens, head cocked, but hears nothing but the hum of ventilation. And he’d tell himself it’s just the recycled breeze, but the icy shiver down his spine isn’t the kind of cold a warmer jacket could have kept out. “Shen Wei,” he breathes, because that voice—it couldn’t have been Shen Wei, who went off to Dixing alone and left Zhao Yunlan behind almost three days ago. It couldn’t have been. And yet, even though nothing has changed, the low-level background radiation of Zhao Yunlan’s worry for Shen Wei has spiked into a full meltdown.

Entering Wang Xiangyang’s room, Zhao Yunlan can barely remember what he came for. Keeping the erstwhile Master of the Merit Brush alive is certainly important—that is why Xiao Guo is sitting at his bedside, and why Lao Chu is lurking behind his young colleague. But Wang knows little of Ye Zun and nothing at all about the machinations taking place in Dixing. It was Shen Wei who realized what price Ye Zun was about to exact for use of the brush, and hurried to Dixing before the final seals could be broken. And it was Xiao Guo who went to get Lao Chu when Wang Xiangyang’s landlord was making noises about the rent being late, and so was allowed (well, “allowed”) inside where he found the photo album and the recording. Zhao Yunlan helped talk the poor bereaved bastard down, that is all. And now he is here to—right.

“Mr. Wang,” he says, keeping his tone formal. The man’s hurt goes too deep for words of sympathy. “Did Ye Zun ever direct you to use the brush around our headquarters?”

Wang blinks slowly, and Zhao Yunlan wonders what exactly is flowing through his IV. “It’s important,” he adds. “More people could get hurt if Ye Zun has some kind of way in.”

“No,” Wang Xiangyang says, his voice entirely flat. “He didn’t.”

“Thank you,” Zhao Yunlan says, and means it. Lin Jing will be pleased to hear there is no immediate risk of a dark energy discharge aimed at their shield.

“Xiao Guo,” Zhao Yunlan nods at the young man. “Do you need anything?”

“Oh, um. No! No, I don’t—I mean. Chu-ge, do you want anything?”

Chu Shuzhi shoots Zhao Yunlan a mildly irritated look for flustering Xiao Guo, and then shakes his head. “No.”

“Right,” Zhao Yunlan says, before Xiao Guo can report Lao Chu’s answer back to him. “Well, call if anything comes up. You might be here for a while.”

When he passes through that same hospital hallway on the way back, it seems to echo with a particular emptiness that raises the hairs on the back of his neck. No matter what the scans show, Zhao Yunlan thinks he’s given Shen Wei enough space to do his Black Cloak thing. It’s time to get him back here, one way or the other.

Opening the door to Bright Street #4, Zhao Yunlan almost walks through Wang Zheng, who is hovering anxiously in the entrance. “Chief, please—come quick!”

Zhao Yunlan’s heart plummets. “What is it?” he says, swallowing back the syllables of Shen Wei’s name, because the chief of the SID is supposed to have other priorities than Dixing’s Envoy.

Wang Zheng wrings her hands as she ushers Zhao Yunlan towards Lin Jing’s lab. “We don’t know,” she says, sounding breathless though she doesn’t need to breathe. “But I can feel it, and Sang Zan too—and Lin Jing’s instruments, they are all much agitated.”

“Feel it?” Zhao Yunlan stops, because he did feel something back in the hospital.

Wang Zheng nods, firmly. “The shield helps. When it started, Lin Jing said he would turn it up. But it’s—bad.”

Zhao Yunlan takes a moment to close his eyes, and tries to separate the most recent pangs of worry from that creeping sense of wrongness that struck him so suddenly. And there it is—it hasn’t left. His internal Geiger counter is clicking a restless warning against unseen danger. Might this be what the energy spirits have picked up on? And if so, why is he sensing it so keenly himself? Too many questions, and he doesn’t have his usual source of answers nearby. So he continues on to the second best place for information.

The lab is crowded, with Lin Jing frantically scanning one screen after the next, Da Qing and Zhu Hong trying to follow along over his shoulder, and Sang Zan watching them all in alarm, hugging his arms to his chest. “Okay, right, so that’s not good but—Sang Zan! Does this make it better or worse?” Lin Jing hollers.

Sang Zan shakes his head, lips pinched. “B-bad!” he manages. Wang Zheng glides over to touch his shoulder, and they exchange wan smiles as he wraps an arm around her.

“Stop that, Lin Jing!” Zhu Hong scolds the scientist as he mashes a key on his keyboard. “Go back to the other setting.”

Wang Zheng winces. “Please.”

“But the readings are clearer when—”

“You heard the ladies,” Zhao Yunlan says, and Lin Jing startles.

“Chief!” He hastily taps another key, and Sang Zan and Wang Zheng both relax a bit.

“What’s going on?” Zhao Yunlan asks.

Zhu Hong and Da Qing step aside to let Zhao Yunlan get a clear view of the screens. Lin Jing gestures helplessly at the readouts. “Energy spike. Really, really big energy spike. Like—”

Zhao Yunlan clenches his fists. “The seals on the pillar broke,” he breathes. The seals Shen Wei went to Dixing to restore, or protect, or—whatever he went to do, it was to stop those seals from breaking. And keeping Merit-Brush Wang alive was supposed to help, but Shen Wei never did specify it would guarantee anything.

For a moment, nobody speaks into the chilling silence left by his words. Then Lin Jing clears his throat. “Well. We don’t know that. It’s a likely hypothesis, but Dixing has been unstable recently, and I haven’t been able to pinpoint—”

Zhao Yunlan uncurls one fist enough to put a palm out in a shushing motion, rather than make Lin Jing think he’s going to get a beating. “What else could it be?” he asks.

Lin Jing swallows, and looks to Da Qing and Zhu Hong for support. “Well,” he says. “It could be something to do with the fourth Hallow—the Guardian Lantern? We don’t know anything about its capabilities, and if someone beat us to it, it might—boost Dixing powers. Somehow.”

“None of the others had anything like this effect.”

“They’re all unique, Lao Zhao,” Da Qing ventures.

“Right. Okay.” It doesn’t feel right, or okay, but Zhao Yunlan has to consider all options right now. “Anything else?”

“A natural phenomenon?” Lin Jing offers a very pained smile.

“Ever recorded anything like this before?” Zhao Yunlan asks, knowing damn well that this is absolutely unnatural.

“No,” Lin Jing admits.

“Call Dragon City University. Geology department should have—” Zhao Yunlan grabs for the right word, fails to find it, and flicks his hand impatiently. “Those things they use. Science stuff. See if they’ve picked anything up, and make them ask any other department that might have any geological or atmospheric readings running.”

Lin Jing’s eyes widen. “Good idea, boss.”

Zhao Yunlan shrugs. The university is part of Shen Wei’s life, so of course that’s where his mind would go right now. “But don’t waste any time on it. We need more information—more details. I want all you have on this, laid out so even a damn cat can understand—”

“Hey!” Da Qing protests.

“And I want it within the hour.”

“An hour?!”

“Would thirty minutes work better for you?”

Lin Jing swallows, and turns back to hunch over his keyboard. “I’ll have it for you in an hour, boss.”

“Da Qing. Zhu Hong.” The two snap to attention. “It’s too dangerous to split up, but I need to know what the Yashou make of all this. Go to Fourth Uncle, and make sure to get reports on if there’s been any activity near the known passages to Dixing.”

Da Qing and Zhu Hong both nod. “Yes, Chief.” Then they’re on the move, without any further encouragement. Zhao Yunlan exhales slowly, before turning around and calling after them, “And be careful!”

That bastard Ye Zun is up to something. Something big. Something bad. Zhao Yunlan can feel it, and he can admit that right now, he is afraid.

Fifty-nine minutes later, a wild-haired Lin Jing sticks a tablet under Chief Zhao’s nose, interrupting his busy time staring into space while trying not to chew his lollipop to splinters.

“It came from Ye Zun’s pillar. Almost certainly. So the seals broke. Probably,” Lin Jing summarizes.

“Fuck,” Zhao Yunlan says, softly but with great feeling. Shen Wei. He breathes in, exhales. Ye Zun free. Dixing must be in chaos—more chaos than usual. And Haixing, his city… “How bad is it?”

Lin Jing winces, and brings up clusters of data on the tablet. “So far? Not bad—not here, at least. There was that spike, but modelling the available data shows that the energy is already dissipating—no way yet of knowing if it will go back to normal levels, but at least the trends indicate—”

“Lin Jing,” Zhao Yunlan interrupts.

“Oh. Right. Um.” Lin Jing flips through his information and pulls up a map of the city. “There is some minor damage here and here—you’ll notice a correlation with the location of the known portals to Dixing—and it’s being reported as an earthquake. I have Wang Zheng keeping an eye on the monitors downstairs, just in case. We were thinking—Sang Zan said if this was the precursor to anything, there would probably be scouts, first. So the systems are on high alert around the portals, and I’ve got the scanners running to see there’s any unusual pattern in emergency service responses.”

“Good work,” Zhao Yunlan says, and Lin Jing stands a little straighter. “Get Cong Bo to scan social media, too. He knows what to look for, and he’s got his own sources we can use.”

Lin Jing doesn’t even make a face at Cong Bo’s name. “Right away,” he says, and beats a hasty retreat to his lab, leaving Zhao Yunlan to make a couple of calls to coordinate their efforts, advise the Haixing Ministry, and be generally useless.

Shen Wei. None of what Zhao Yunlan is doing is getting him any closer to unravelling the tight knot of tension in his chest. But there’s nothing any of them can do about it from up here. Lin Jing’s instruments can’t track specific dark energy in Dixing any more than it can track a particular puff of carbon dioxide exhaled in Haixing. No, someone will have to go down there and gather intelligence. Find out what the state of the pillar is.

And if, in the meantime, someone should take the opportunity to look for their missing consultant—well, that would only be right and proper, seeing as he’s a valuable member of their team. It’s a good plan. An important plan. Now all Zhao Yunlan needs is to get Lao Chu to open the familiar passage to Dixing.

“It’s not that easy,” Lao Chu says brusquely.

“What are you talking about?” Zhao Yunlan tries to keep his voice down, as they are clustered in a hospital hallway. “If it weren’t easy, would Haixing be so full of renegade Dixing?”

Lao Chu, a presumptive renegade Dixing, scowls. “It’s not a revolving door, Chief.”

Zhao Yunlan presses his lips together against an unfair imprecation and glances off to the side until he can control the urge to shake Chu into changing his mind.

“I know it’s important,” Lao Chu adds, quietly. “But I alone do not possess the ability to work the portals.”

Zhao Yunlan narrows his eyes. ”Alone? Could we help?”

A strange, savagely bereft look crosses Lao Chu’s face. “You?” he says tonelessly. “No.”

Zhao Yunlan has spent their entire time as colleagues respecting Chu Shuzhi’s choice to be taciturn and mysterious, but there are limits. The threat from Dixing now is too great—as is his fear for Shen Wei. “Explain,” he orders.

Chu’s body goes rigid with barely contained violence, his posture and expression those of a man under attack. Zhao Yunlan quirks his lips in a humorless smile, because he can’t tense up in response, but he also can’t let Lao Chu forget who is calling the shots. “Well?”

Xiao Guo slips into Lao Chu’s personal space, satchel hugged to his chest as he looks from Chu to Zhao Yunlan with the wide-eyed air of a toddler witnessing its parents fighting. "Chu-ge."

Hearing the sound of his name, Lao Chu darts an almost panicked look at Xiao Guo, who responds by putting a hesitant hand on Chu's arm. Zhao Yunlan gathers his patience, lets the two of them communicate without words until Lao Chu softens a fraction. Still looking like Zhao Yunlan kicked him in the nuts, he bites out, "I had someone. Calm, clever…” Lao Chu chokes, and Xiao Guo's face scrunches up in pain.


Zhao Yunlan swallows at the dreadful finality of that sentence. To have had someone, to no longer have them...

“Without my little brother,” Lao Chu grates out, “There’s things I can’t—things that require more than a puppet.”

A person is more than a puppet. Not Zhao Yunlan, of course—he is no brother to Lao Chu. But Lao Chu and Xiao Guo have become quite close, haven’t they? Zhao Yunlan watches Guo Changcheng radiating concern while rubbing Chu Shuzhi’s back in a way neither of them seem to register as forward. More than a puppet. It could work. It would be worth a try. Zhao Yunlan could order them—Lao Chu still owes him for reporting on him to the Black-Cloaked Envoy behind his back, and Xiao Guo would eat his notebook at a word from his chief.

The temptation is so strong that Zhao Yunlan opens his mouth around the first syllable of a command. It is so strong that when he fails to vocalize it, his lungs can’t seem to fill with oxygen, his entire body rebelling against the wasted chance. But he can’t. Ye Zun alone is too dangerous, and Ye Zun free in Dixing is a danger he cannot order any of his people to face. Not when they could be protecting Dragon City, rather than plunging into the darkness below simply to ease the ache in Zhao Yunlan’s heart.

Zhao Yunlan blinks and finds the two staring at him with nervous worry and grim consternation. “Chief Zhao?” Xiao Guo ventures timidly. “You look like… Um. I mean. Did you have something you wanted to say?”

“No,” Zhao Yunlan says. “Just a thought. Probably nothing.” He smiles, and Xiao Guo nearly ducks behind his Chu-ge for some reason.

“Spit it out,” Lao Chu says, understandably unsympathetic.

Zhao Yunlan chuckles. “Ah, no,” he says. “I just had the thought that Xiao Guo here might be better than a puppet. But that’s a stupid idea.”

“Oh.” Xiao Guo blinks, as if he’s not sure whether to be pleased Zhao Yunlan thought he might be useful, or upset that thought has been deemed stupid.

Lao Chu is staring hard at Zhao Yunlan, weighing something in his mind. “It’s not the same,” he says finally, and Zhao Yunlan nods.

“No, I know. It was just—”

“But. It might be possible.”

Zhao Yunlan’s spine stiffens. “It’s too dangerous. Even if it worked—taking Xiao Guo to Dixing—”

“I want to help,” Guo Changcheng pipes up. He ducks his head when Lao Chu turns that stare on him, but forges on, hiding behind his satchel. “I do! For Professor Shen, if there’s anything we can do—and for Dragon City. For Haixing. That’s our job, right? To protect Haixing.”

Lao Chu has wound a threatening fist in Xiao Guo’s shirt front, but doesn’t seem to know what to do with his face. Zhao Yunlan, on the other hand, is laughing in astonishment. Their Xiao Guo is growing up so fast! The laughter shakes something loose in his chest, and he takes his first deep breath in hours. “Yeah,” he tells Guo Changcheng, and taps Chu Shuzhi on the shoulder. “He is right, you know.”

Lao Chu blinks, and carefully smooths out the wrinkles in Xiao Guo’s shirt.

“I don’t know if I can be useful at all. But I—but we. We can at least try?” Xiao Guo smiles encouragingly.

Zhao Yunlan slings an arm around his shoulder. “We can.”

By the time everything is arranged for their expedition—Zhao Yunlan is refusing to think of it as an attempt, because those can fail, and this can’t be allowed to—night has fallen again. He hasn’t seen Shen Wei in three days and four hours, and he is beginning to run out of lollipops.

Lao Chu has been alternating glaring at Zhao Yunlan with doting on Xiao Guo, who has been in good cheer either from the attention, or from the prospect of doing something useful. The two are currently standing as still as statues in front of the portal. Or what should be the portal. Without Shen Wei there to lend Zhao Yunlan the ability to peer into his world, it looks like they are just staring really hard at a patch of bushes.

Zhao Yunlan has no insight into whatever passes between the two men. Xiao Guo’s face is caught in a wince from the grip Lao Chu has on his shoulder, but the expression is frozen, unchanging. Zhao Yunlan would give them anything in his power to allow them to succeed, but Lao Chu has very pointedly excluded him from the preparations. So all he can do is continue to wait, while the gulf of minutes and hours deepens between him and Shen Wei, and that pitiless worry gnaws at his belly. Please, he thinks, because he has no other words. Please open. (Please be alright.)

And then, as easily as if the words were a spell, the portal appears where Zhao Yunlan can see it too. Xiao Guo staggers, and Lao Chu catches him and doesn’t let go even when the young man regains his footing.

“Shall we?” says Zhao Yunlan, only barely managing to keep from flinging himself bodily through the open gateway in a heady mixture of relief and terror that it might vanish at any second.

Lao Chu nods, and hauls a pale Xiao Guo forward—and then Zhao Yunlan is inside and through it.

He comes out the Dixing side feeling like a cat that’s been rubbed the wrong way—bristly and jumpy and with his hair in disarray. He can’t say if it’s the difference between the Chu-Guo portal and Shen Wei’s, or the current state of Dixing, but the result is thoroughly unpleasant.

That, or it could be that they’ve been dropped off in plain sight right by the steps up to the palace. Fuck.

Zhao Yunlan gives a casual grin and wave at a passing couple of Dixing denizens as he straightens from his crouch. They react with vague suspicion, but might have let it go if Lao Chu and Xiao Guo hadn’t picked that very moment to come tumbling out of midair. Zhao Yunlan’s grin grows pained. The locals’ eyes grow wide. But while they’re not entirely sure what the protocol for finding random intruders on the palace steps are, Zhao Yunlan is quick to act. He grabs the nearest sleeve, trusting Xiao Guo and Lao Chu to stick together. “Run.”

They do. Not very fast—Xiao Guo is still wobbly, and Lao Chu has to prop him up—but well enough to put a few twists and turns of narrow alleys between themselves and the palace plaza. Curious onlookers turn to stare at them as they jostle through the first few streets, but after that they grow more sparsely populated, and Zhao Yunlan shoves the other two into an abandoned-looking courtyard where they can collapse against a wall out of sight of the gate.

“Can you find your way to the pillar from here?” Zhao Yunlan asks, eyeing the rows of dead windows all around them. He remembers that eerie, glowing monolith from his previous visit, but the path he took to get there is strangely nebulous in his mind.

Lao Chu shrugs, gazing at Xiao Guo who is slumped against his shoulder panting for breath. “I can find it. But the most direct route might not be safe.”

Sitting around here might not be safe, either. Zhao Yunlan, still cat-jumpy, has seen glimpses of movements behind those empty window squares. “Xiao Guo. How are you holding up?”

“Fine, chief,” Xiao Guo says without opening his eyes.

“Liar,” Lao Chu scolds him.

“I-I can walk,” he protests weakly. “Um. Maybe not run, though.”

Zhao Yunlan nods, trying to keep guilt at bay—guilt that he’s dragged Xiao Guo down here, and guilt that he’s ready to ask yet more of him. “If we have to run, I’ll carry you,” he says. Can’t hide him away—it wouldn’t be safe, and it might trap all of them down here if they split up. Not that Zhao Yunlan has any plans of returning without Shen Wei, but if Shen Wei isn’t—if Shen Wei can’t—well. They need a backup plan for the portal.

Lao Chu shoots him a dark glare, obviously ready to claim the right to carry Guo Changcheng anywhere he needs to go. “Eh? You’d rather let me fight, then?” Zhao Yunlan says to that silent challenge, and Lao Chu concedes the point with ill grace.

Zhao Yunlan helps Xiao Guo up, and Lao Chu leads them through Dixing, following either memory or some other sense. Zhao Yunlan can’t tell—all he’s getting is that bone-deep unease that’s coming from everywhere at once, and a pressure like the air is heavier than it should be. Though—Zhao Yunlan squints. “Are we getting close?”

Lao Chu gives a noncommittal twitch of his shoulders as he peers around a corner. “We should be.”

The feeling is definitely getting more intense. Zhao Yunlan sympathises with Xiao Guo, whose resolute limping is getting slower and slower, as if he is wilting under the pressure of the Dixing gloom. The buildings they’re passing are getting more dilapidated, and they turn a corner to find them scattering into a field of ruins. Zhao Yunlan exhales a long breath. He knows this place—they’re almost there. The pillar, where Shen Wei was going—and he might have remained nearby, if something went wrong, so maybe… “Alright,” Zhao Yunlan says, patting Lao Chu on the shoulder. “Well done. We should be right about—”

“Halt!” An order barked from behind, half a dozen of the palace guards coming up behind Zhao Yunlan and Xiao Guo.

“Why don’t you halt?” Zhao Yunlan calls back, keeping his hands off his gun. “We’re friends of your Lord Black Cloak.”

“The traitor,” the leader says, and actually spits. Zhao Yunlan doesn’t like the man’s tone at all, not when talking about Shen Wei. But he’s not being mocked for seeking a dead man, and despite everything else he can’t help relief from tugging his lips into a smile.

“Lao Chu?” Zhao Yunlan murmurs, and while the guards still think they have the long-range advantage, Chu Shuzhi’s threads strike.

Zhao Yunlan’s revolver takes two of them out, and then a deep groan of pain from Xiao Guo throws his aim off. Zhao Yunlan whirls around in time to see the young man sinking to the ground with his hand clutched over his shoulder, the red of his blood the brightest thing in Dixing. Zhao Yunlan only barely catches him. They have no bandages, but Zhao Yunlan manages to wind Guo’s torn sweater around the wound.

Lao Chu makes short, efficient work of the remaining few guards, and throws himself down at Xiao Guo’s side. “He’s still breathing,” Zhao Yunlan says, because he’s not sure Lao Chu is in any state to process that sort of information. His hands are busy fixing the young man’s belt around the bundle of fabric stopping the bleeding. The result isn’t pretty, but makes a decent makeshift tourniquet. “Help me get him up—we’re so close.”

Together they get Xiao Guo up on Zhao Yunlan’s back, and set out to the plain of ruins. It doesn’t take long for the pillar to show up against the flickering background of the storm—a luminous, accusing finger raised to stab Dragon City above. Walking out here feels terribly exposed, but at least that means there aren’t too many places to miss Shen Wei. If he’s still out there.

They’re within shouting distance of the pillar when Zhao Yunlan realizes that he doesn’t have to scan every rock and crevice anymore—that he’s found what he’s been looking for. A trick of Dixing geography seems to bring the pillar closer between one step and the next, and the general outline dissolves into crystal-clear details: chains strung to the pillar, dark energy dancing eerily over their links. And a figure slumped against them, his silhouette unmistakable even though Zhao Yunlan can’t see his face. Not in his formal Envoy robes, but in that blue suit Zhao Yunlan likes so much on him. “Shen Wei!”

Carrying the unconscious Xiao Guo, Zhao Yunlan can’t run. It takes effort not to simply throw off the weight holding him back—Xiao Guo wouldn’t mind, Zhao Yunlan thinks in a brief second, wild with fear. He’d want to help Shen Wei, right?

Instead Zhao Yunlan carefully carries the young man all the way to the steps leading up to the pillar, trying not to trip over his own feet as he stares at the motionless figure caught in the chains above.

The moment he stops, Lao Chu is there to slide Xiao Guo’s body to the ground, making sure not to add any concussion to his list of injuries. After that, a platoon of soldiers could be bearing down on them and Zhao Yunlan wouldn’t know, as everything in him is completely focused on Shen Wei, and nothing but Shen Wei.

Rushing up the stairs, Zhao Yunlan tries to quell the terror of the little treacherous whisper in his mind. What if it’s already too late? It took so long to find Shen Wei, and now he looks—he looks unconscious. That’s it. Just because his head is lolling forward and his entire body is resting against the chains pulled tight around him doesn’t mean anything, except that being trapped in Dixing for however long it’s been down here has exhausted him.

Heart beating louder in his ears than the thunder chasing across the desolate plains around them, Zhao Yunlan reaches Shen Wei; reaches for Shen Wei.

The chains make it impossible to take Shen Wei in his arms. All Zhao Yunlan can do is brush his fingertips against the exposed skin of Shen Wei’s throat, words deserting him as he hopes. He hopes, and when hope is confirmed he has to fight a wave of relief so powerful it almost topples him. Shen Wei’s skin is cool, but no cooler than usual, and Zhao Yunlan can feel the rapid fluttering of his pulse. “Shen Wei,” he whispers. “Hey. Shen Wei.”

Zhao Yunlan takes Shen Wei’s head in his hands, tilting it up. The glasses are askew, and Zhao Yunlan swallows and tries to nudge them back into place. It doesn’t help much at all. Shen Wei’s face is drawn and pallid, dried blood matted in his hair and crusted in the corners of his mouth. His lips are so pale they’re almost blue, and his eyes are closed. But he doesn’t seem to be fully unconscious—his breathing is coming in shallow gasps, and his brows are drawn tight in distress.

“Shen Wei,” Zhao Yunlan says again, louder this time. “Shen Wei, wake up!” He can’t grab him, can’t help Shen Wei’s body down from the chains. He moves in closer to take some of Shen Wei’s weight, and the chains—Zhao Yunlan recoils. They feel wrong. Even through his clothes they’re… cold. No. It’s not that they’re cold, it’s that they are leeching heat from him, stealing his energy and leaving a freezing numbness wherever they’ve touched him. The sensation is so repellent it’s forced Zhao Yunlan half a step back from Shen Wei before he can get his body back under control. And Shen Wei has been here—how long?

Zhao Yunlan closes the distance between them again, fighting the urge to flinch from the chains, and props Shen Wei’s body against his own to give him some relief from the terrible bonds he’s been trapped in. For a moment, Zhao Yunlan thinks he feels Shen Wei tense, but there’s no other reaction. Not from the body in his arms. Zhao Yunlan’s own heart is tumbling in freefall, and so he leans even closer.

“Shen Wei, come on. I’m here. Shen Wei, please…” Zhao Yunlan murmurs the words into Shen Wei’s temple, tasting blood mixed with bitter Dixing dust in the matted hair. It doesn’t help, and Zhao Yunlan can barely think through the numbness left by the chains and the panic. He slides a hand down to cup Shen Wei’s cheek, brushes a kiss against the cracked lips. “Xiao Wei.”

Under his, Shen Wei’s mouth opens with a gasp. Zhao Yunlan startles, but he’s already grinning. He keeps a warm human hand on Shen Wei’s shoulder, supporting him. “I didn’t know that kisses worked on Black-Cloaked Envoys as well as princesses,” he drawls, waiting for Shen Wei’s breathing to even and his eyes to focus so they can get him down from the creepy pillar and out of Dixing. Zhao Yunlan should maybe call for Lao Chu, but he can’t spare the breath right now.

Shen Wei slowly lifts his head, finally manages to meet Zhao Yunlan’s gaze—and shies away, like he’s trying to bolt. Zhao Yunlan forgets how to smile. “Shen Wei?”

Shen Wei’s eyes hold a mix of anger and fear, and Zhao Yunlan doesn’t understand. This is not how Shen Wei looks at him; this is never how Shen Wei looks at him. “Shen Wei, what’s—” Zhao Yunlan moves closer, to reassure both of them, and this time there can be no mistaking it. Shen Wei jerks his head back, almost bashing it against the pillar behind him with the force of the motion.

“Shen… Wei?”

“Don’t,” Shen Wei breathes, and when Zhao Yunlan feels him tremble under his hand it’s like all of Dixing has come crashing down. Though at least that would make some kind of sense; at least the world crumbling he could understand. What Shen Wei is saying—that, Zhao Yunlan can’t.

He slowly lets his hand drop from Shen Wei’s shoulder, and licks his lips. “It’s alright,” he says, and his voice doesn’t crack. “Look. It’s me. We’re here to get you out.”

Shen Wei stares at him, slowly shaking his head. “No.”

Zhao Yunlan chokes out a laugh. “Don’t tell me you don’t recognize your own boyfriend?”

“You?” Shen Wei is so tense his body is shivering, and Zhao Yunlan aches to do something to make it stop. To make Shen Wei stop hurting. But he doesn’t know what’s wrong, only knows that right now, his touch isn’t welcome. So he smiles, and doesn’t move, and waits for Shen Wei to continue. “I recognize you, Zhao Yunlan.”

The way he says it hits Zhao Yunlan like a physical blow, and he has to turn away for a second, just to catch his breath and try to put some other expression than panicked desperation on his face. “Okay, is this amnesia?” Zhao Yunlan looks around, as if some cosmic script writer might appear and help him out. “Is that it? Because if so—uh, we have a lot to cover, so maybe help me out and let me know what you do remember?”

“Everything,” Shen Wei spits out, without hesitation.

“Really?” Zhao Yunlan says, as if having Shen Wei look at him like that isn’t making him want to crawl out of his own body to get away from the wrongness of it all. “Because I’m starting to think maybe you don’t.”

“I remember what I believed. Only now I finally remember what you did.”

Zhao Yunlan presses his lips together, and nods to himself. “Yeah, that doesn’t sound like amnesia.”

“No,” Shen Wei agrees.

“Someone’s been fucking with your mind,” Zhao Yunlan says—and he’s pretty sure he knows who. He swallows against the rage stirring in him, because that wouldn’t be helpful right now.

“Someone—what?” Shen Wei’s brows knit in confusion, the expression so dear and familiar Zhao Yunlan feels a bit better, just having seen it. Even if everything else is wrong, at least Shen Wei is here. Alive. And Zhao Yunlan will get him out and fix him.

“Trust me,” Zhao Yunlan says.

Shen Wei actually huffs at him, as if he is being so patently ridiculous that fear-tinged fury would be too dignified an answer. “How can I trust you?”

Chapter Text

“How can I trust you?”

Zhao Yunlan spreads his hands in a shrug. That is an excellent question, given that he doesn’t know what Shen Wei believes Zhao Yunlan has done, or what might happen if Shen Wei trusted him. It’s an excellent question and it shouldn’t hurt as much as it does to hear those words. Shen Wei doesn’t know what he’s saying right now, that’s all—and that means it’s up to Zhao Yunlan to be the one to come up with the next bit of their plan. Or any bit of any plan. “Okay, fine. You don’t have to. So—the trust issue, is that just with me in particular? Have any bad memories of anyone else?”

Either the flippant tone or the words confuse Shen Wei. “Anyone… else?” There is such a look of longing in Shen Wei’s face for a moment that Zhao Yunlan starts hoping that maybe he’s already beginning to unscramble himself, despite the constant pain of the chains.

“You know. The SID?”

“No. Why? What have you done to them?” Shen Wei looks legitimately upset, as if he’s expecting to hear that Zhao Yunlan’s fired his entire squad. Or put them in front of a firing squad.

There’s not much Zhao Yunlan can say to that, so he turns around. “Lao Chu! Get up here!”

Chu Shuzhi startles and looks up from Xiao Guo’s still body, by the stubborn set of his shoulders ready to protest the interruption. Whatever he sees in Zhao Yunlan’s face makes him change his mind in an instant, and come bounding up the stairs. “Lord Black Cloak,” he says, his tone more familiar than his form of address. “Chief. How can I help?”

Shen Wei exhales sharply. “Chu Shuzhi.” There is a bit of warmth in his voice—though maybe Zhao Yunlan only hears it because he has been listening so hard for it.

“Yes. He'll help get you down.” Zhao Yunlan says.

“Beware,” Shen Wei says quickly. “Ye Zun’s wards are strong.”

Zhao Yunlan nods to Lao Chu, who wastes no time setting his threads to the task of tearing down the chains. The attack costs him dearly—his eyes bulge, and within moments he has dropped to one knee. Zhao Yunlan watches in alarm—as does Shen Wei, who cries out another warning, but Lao Chu persists. The chains are writhing under the assault, like living things in pain. Living, dark-energy things.

In less time than it takes him to complete that thought, Zhao Yunlan has pulled his revolver out and fired. He aims at a link high above Shen Wei’s head. Ordinary physics don’t quite apply to his shots, but that doesn’t mean he wants to risk hitting Shen Wei with some kind of energy ricochet. The chain rattles and draws taut, wringing a terrible moan of pain from Shen Wei, but Lao Chu gives a shout of encouragement. “Again!”

It’s going to hurt Shen Wei. But like chest compressions for a dying man, the permanent alternative is worse than the temporary damage. Zhao Yunlan takes a deep breath, and fires again and again, eyes focused on his target and not on Shen Wei thrashing in his peripheral vision. Lao Chu hones in on the weakened links, and with a heroic effort his threads finally manage to tear one of them apart.

The chains release a final, terrible burst of un-light that knocks Zhao Yunlan on his ass and Lao Chu to both knees. Like a negative thunderbolt, the darkness discharges with a loud crack. The pillar still stands, but the chains are all shattered.

Without their support, Shen Wei staggers forward, and Zhao Yunlan moves to catch him. It’s nothing more than instinct, and his brain informs him that he’s fucked up a mere fraction of a second before Shen Wei hits him with a bolt of dark energy.

It’s so weak it registers as the equivalent of a slap rather than the full-blown bullet to the chest Zhao Yunlan knows it can be, so the shock of it is worse than the pain. He freezes for a moment, completely unable to process. Did Shen Wei just—that blast was self-defense, right? It wasn’t meant to actually harm him… was it? Smiling shakily, Zhao Yunlan lets himself sink back onto the cold ground, hands raised. “Okay, okay. Sorry, I wasn’t going to...” He wasn’t going to what? Help Shen Wei stay on his feet? Keep Shen Wei from bashing his beautiful face on the stone pillar? What has Ye Zun done?

Shen Wei is bracing himself against the pillar with one hand, but has the other spread wide in a gesture Zhao Yunlan knows only too well—and it’s still aimed at him. Lao Chu looks between them, naked astonishment on his face. “What was that about?” he says, expressing Zhao Yunlan’s thoughts perfectly.

“He—he isn’t who you think,” Shen Wei says weakly. Zhao Yunlan—hands still placatingly tilted palms up—signals to Lao Chu to go over there and help Shen Wei keep on his feet. Chu Shuzhi raises his eyebrows, but hurries over to offer Shen Wei a steadying arm under the elbow, which Shen Wei accepts without comment—and without triggering any dark energy blast, Zhao Yunlan can’t help but notice.

“Yeah,” Zhao Yunlan drawls. “Either that, or that bastard did something to Shen Wei in the three days he was stuck down here, and now he’s… confused. You pick.”

Shen Wei stiffens at the words, but Lao Chu nods, even as his stance goes bristly and battle-ready. “Ye Zun,” he growls. Zhao Yunlan wishes he hadn’t said that name, because it doesn’t feel like it’s safe—not here, not now, not in front of Shen Wei as he is. So he rises, drawing Shen Wei’s attention away from Chu Shuzhi.

“Don’t,” Shen Wei says again, and Zhao Yunlan doesn’t know if he wishes he knew what it is Shen Wei fears, or if he simply wishes he could make it stop. There are dark sparks dancing across Shen Wei’s palm, and his pale face is contorted with emotions.

Zhao Yunlan licks his lips. “I’m not—I won’t do anything. I promise.”

“Promise? What would I care for your promise now, after you already…” Shen Wei’s voice cracks, and Lao Chu has to sling an arm around that slim waist to steady him. “After you…”

“Yeah, okay,” Zhao Yunlan interrupts, seeing how hard Shen Wei is having to struggle for consciousness. “You’ll have to tell me about it—” if Shen Wei were to give him something to work with, maybe Zhao Yunlan could start untangling this terrible knot of Ye Zun’s— “But we can’t stay here. Xiao Guo is hurt, and Lao Chu alone can’t get us back.”

At that, Shen Wei looks at Lao Chu, alarmed. “Xiao Guo is here?”

“Changcheng got shot,” Chu reports gruffly. “He’s unconscious. We… he helped me get us here. We need to take him back, get him to a hospital—”

Shen Wei nods. “Yes. Yes of course.” His fingers curl, the energy he had gathered dissipating harmlessly. “I’m sorry—can you bring him here?”

“I’ll get him,” Zhao Yunlan says. “Lao Chu, stay.” He darts down the stairs, the back of his neck starting to prickle the moment he takes his eyes off Shen Wei. He scoops Xiao Guo up into his arms, slings the limp body in the world’s most awkward bridal carry. The manner in which he staggers up the stairs isn’t dignified, but at least he gets them both up in one piece.

Lao Chu’s eyes are fixed on Xiao Guo’s face, and Shen Wei seems nearly as concerned when taking in the state of the young man. “Please move as fast as you can,” he says. “I’m not sure how long this will hold.” Then he closes his eyes and raises his hand, and there’s a way out.

Zhao Yunlan goes first, because Xiao Guo is in the most immediate need of attention. There is a moment of terrible disorientation, time stretching like a rubber band, half-glimpsed scenes piling up in the corner of his mind—and then Zhao Yunlan is standing in the middle of the SID office. He can’t fall over, not with his injured colleague in his arms, so instead he sinks gracelessly to the floor. Cradling Xiao Guo he stares up at the point in the air where Shen Wei should be appearing, blind to the commotion his arrival has stirred up as he waits and waits and—there.

Like Zhao Yunlan’s did, Shen Wei’s legs fold under him the moment he and Lao Chu are both through. Chu Shuzhi keeps him from falling over on Zhao Yunlan, eases him more gently to the floor. Zhao Yunlan tightens his arms around Xiao Guo, to keep them reaching for Shen Wei. Shen Wei, who is so close Zhao Yunlan could kiss him.

And had Zhao Yunlan somehow forgotten why attempting that would be a bad idea, the terrible look in Shen Wei’s face would have told him everything he needed to know. “You,” Shen Wei breathes, his voice unlike anything Zhao Yunlan has heard before. “You can twist the others with your words, but I will never forgive you.” Behind all that emotion, Shen Wei’s eyes are going glassy, but he is stubbornly clinging to consciousness just to let Zhao Yunlan get more of a taste of Ye Zun’s handiwork. “I won’t forget, this time. I remember…” The fierce whisper trails off, and Shen Wei’s chin sinks toward his chest.

Zhao Yunlan is just about ready to breathe again when Shen Wei twitches his head back up enough to glare at Zhao Yunlan and say, very clearly, “Murderer.” Then he’s out like a light, and Chu Shuzhi eases him onto his back.

There are agitated voices all around them, gentle hands propping Zhao Yunlan up and strong arms taking Xiao Guo from his grasp. For a moment, it is all one confused jumble, random impressions that hold no particular meaning. He can’t process any new information, because he’s still trying to make sense of Shen Wei’s words—of that look in Shen Wei’s eyes—but there is no sense to be made. It’s all just wrong, so wrong…

Then Zhao Yunlan gets a grip. If there’s something wrong with Shen Wei, it’s his job to make it right. Haixing needs its Dixing Envoy, the SID needs their consultant, and Zhao Yunlan needs Shen Wei. (Oh, how he needs Shen Wei.) Sitting around moping on the floor isn’t going to fix anything, and so he gets up.

Tries getting up, at least.

His first attempt isn’t very successful, but Da Qing is there—might have been there for a while—and by slinging an arm around his deputy’s shoulders Zhao Yunlan finally manages to to rise. Da Qing is bombarding him with questions, asking about Xiao Guo and Shen Wei and himself, and Zhao Yunlan frowns and shushes him so he can focus on what’s going on.

Shen Wei and Guo Changcheng are both laid out on the floor, their worried SID teammates arranging makeshift pillows and checking out the injuries and generally fussing attentively. Lao Chu is stroking Xiao Guo’s hair. Zhao Yunlan can see the spirits, and Da Qing, and Lao Li. Zhu Hong and Lin Jing are missing—but that’s because he arranged for them to meet up at the hospital before. The headcount complete, Zhao Yunlan relaxes somewhat. “Has anyone called an ambulance?” he asks.

“Yes.” Wang Zheng nods. “They will be here soon.”

“Good work. Xiao Guo needs a hospital.”

“I’m going with him,” Lao Chu says before Zhao Yunlan can suggest it.

“Yes. Tell Zhu Hong and Lin Jing to get back here immediately.” With everything else going on, Wang Xiangyang is unlikely to be in immediate danger.

“And Professor Shen?” Wang Zheng asks cautiously.

“Staying here. In the lab. Sang Zan, can you take him?”

“C-carry?” Sang Zan looks a bit overwhelmed at being entrusted with this responsibility, but it’s not like Zhao Yunlan himself could do anything but drop Shen Wei on his head at this point, which would probably not earn him any trust back.

“Now, please.” Before the EMTs show up and get in their heads that the pale, unconscious man on the floor should also be seen by qualified medical professionals.

“Lao Zhao. What happened?” Da Qing has reached the end of his patience.

Zhao Yunlan sighs, wishing he could offer everyone something more cheerful than bad news and worse news. “Ye Zun,” he summarizes. “He’s free of the pillar. Taking power—the guards we met were all on his side.” Zhao Yunlan looks down, wishes that was the end of it. If all they had to deal with was a megalomaniac dark lord, that would be no less than they expected, and possibly even no more than they could handle. But it’s not, so he sets his jaw and continues.

“He captured Shen Wei.” Tortured him, bound him and hurt him while Zhao Yunlan was wasting his time waiting for Shen Wei to come back. The words are growing thick in his throat, and he blinks, angry. “I think he used Shen Wei’s energy to break the seal.” Not the former Master of the Merit Brush at all then, but Shen Wei himself, going to keep all of Dixing safe and walking straight into Ye Zun’s trap. “And he—”

Da Qing’s arm tightens around his chief’s shoulder, and Zhao Yunlan forces out a hollow laugh. “You heard him, didn’t you? Ye Zun got to him, got into his mind somehow. So Shen Wei is—” Shen Wei is flinching from Zhao Yunlan’s touch, when he’s not attacking him outright. “He’s a bit confused right now.”

“Oh,” Da Qing says, and the others all mirror his horrified expression.

“It’s okay. He still trusts you. It’s just—it’s just me.”

Da Qing stares at him, but before Zhao Yunlan can tell him it’s all going to be okay, Wang Zheng interrupts. “Chief Zhao. The ambulance is outside.”

They scramble to clear out for the EMTs. Zhao Yunlan forces Da Qing to help him into the lab rather than remain and get roped into a checkup or something. There he steals Lin Jing’s chair and wheels it to the examination table, where Sang Zan has carefully arranged Shen Wei on his back with his arms by his sides before heading back to the others. At least here Shen Wei’s expression is the blank of true unconsciousness, rather than whatever was happening to him back at the pillar.

“What’s the situation up here?” Zhao Yunlan asks the hovering Da Qing, still staring at Shen Wei.

“There isn’t one,” is the reassuring answer. “Not yet anyway. Are you sure you’re okay?”

The quick change of subject doesn’t in any way trick Zhao Yunlan into answering. “I need Lin Jing in here as soon as he gets back. And—” Zhao Yunlan frowns, looks around. “What time is it? Has everyone slept?”

Da Qing shrugs. “Late morning sometime. And I was asleep. Don’t know about anyone else.”

“Damn cat,” Zhao Yunlan says mildly. “What kind of deputy are you?”

“One who knows the importance of proper sleep,” Da Qing shoots back. “Lao Zhao. You look awful.”

Zhao Yunlan scoffs. “This is your idea of sucking up to your boss?”

Da Qing puts a hand on Zhao Yunlan’s shoulder. “You can’t help him if you work yourself so hard you collapse,” he says softly.

Zhao Yunlan wants to bat the hand away, but it feels like too much effort. Da Qing isn’t wrong—Zhao Yunlan is exhausted, far more than from any previous visit to Dixing. Far more than he should be, given that he managed to go the entire trip without being stabbed or beaten. But sleep is out of the question. The others don’t know Shen Wei like he does—might not pick up on any other signs of tampering, might not see any openings in Ye Zun’s brainwashing.

Patting his pockets, Zhao Yunlan finds nothing but crinkly candy wrappers. “I need a lollipop,” he says to Da Qing, who looks skeptical. “Come on. Fetch.”

Da Qing hisses at him, but at Zhao Yunlan’s swat he scampers off in the direction of the chief’s office. In the silence left behind Zhao Yunlan can hear the hum of Lin Jing’s gizmos and gadgets, and feel the slight pull of the three Hallows in their observation spheres. Shen Wei would kill him for going straight to the Longevity Sundial without trying anything else first—but then it’s not entirely unlikely that Shen Wei is already trying to kill him, as hard as that is for Zhao Yunlan to conceive of. So maybe it wouldn’t hurt. Just a quick experiment, to see what might happen—surely that would be fully scientific.

Zhao Yunlan is staring at the quiescent artefact, trying to work out the best way of lifting it out without having to stand up when Da Qing shoves a lollipop in his face. “It’s still wrapped!” he protests when Da Qing aims it at his mouth, snatching it away.

“It’ll last longer that way,” Da Qing sniffs. “You’re running out.”

“Then go buy me more,” Zhao Yunlan scowls, peeling the wrapper off and stuffing the sweet in his mouth.

“Why were you staring at the Hallows?” Da Qing asks, instead of volunteering for the important task of restocking his chief’s supplies. “You can’t be thinking of trying to use them.”

Zhao Yunlan makes a face at him, sucking in a frustrated breath around the lollipop.

“Well—don’t!” Da Qing snaps. “How many times has your professor warned you?”

Clearly not enough. Zhao Yunlan can’t help a quick fantasy from playing out—maybe if he goes to do the thing Shen Wei hates him to do, then Shen Wei will snap out of it just to scold him. It would be worth it. And he could make up for it later. Thoroughly. “Don’t worry,” he tells Da Qing. “I was just—”

“Was he touching the Hallows?” Lin Jing asks, showing up in the doorway out of breath.

“I was not! Why does everyone think I’m going to do that?”

“Because you keep doing it,” Zhu Hong says pointedly, looking perfectly composed even though she must have rushed to keep up with Lin Jing’s long strides. “And then Professor Shen gives us all disappointed looks for not babysitting you well enough.”

Lin Jing gestures at Zhu Hong. “Yeah. That.”

“You can’t babysit me. I’m your boss.”

Zhu Hong raises an eyebrow, as if to say that she knows that, but who is Zhao Yunlan’s boss? Lin Jing smirks. And Zhao Yunlan almost smiles, but right now there is only one thing that really matters. “Lao Chu filled you in?” he asks.

Lin Jing nods, and makes his way over to the examination table. “I need to run some tests,” he says. “If you could—it would be easier if Professor Shen weren’t wearing so many clothes?”

Zhao Yunlan’s mouth quirks in a humorless smile. “I promise you, I won’t get jealous if you undress him. Just keep it professional, alright?”

Lin Jing runs a hand through his hair. “Ah. Well. I was hoping you would—”

“No.” Zhao Yunlan twists his hands together. “No, you do it.” If Shen Wei doesn’t want Zhao Yunlan touching him right now, Zhao Yunlan is not going to touch him. No matter how badly he wants to. It’s not Shen Wei’s fault he is like this—Zhao Yunlan, however, hasn’t had his brain scrambled by a magic pillar, and so has to be responsible for all of his own actions.

So he watches attentively as Lin Jing awkwardly lifts Shen Wei’s glasses off, and even more awkwardly starts working on the suit jacket. He’s still fighting with a sleeve when Zhu Hong takes pity on him, and together the two get Shen Wei’s shirt unbuttoned, leaving him in the black undershirt Zhao Yunlan is usually the only one to see. It reveals dark bruises around both wrists, scabbed with dried blood, and a similar dark pattern of damaged skin starts at each shoulder—marks left by the chains crossed over his torso. Zhu Hong hisses in sympathy, and goes off to get a first aid kit. Lin Jing does his best to wipe dried blood off of Shen Wei’s face before attaching his instruments to the limp body. And Zhao Yunlan is left staring, taking an inventory of everything wrong with this picture.

Shen Wei doesn’t bruise—shouldn’t bruise. What would leave marks on another human definitely doesn’t on Shen Wei, Zhao Yunlan is very aware. But looking at him now, you wouldn’t know it. And this isn’t the first time an injury that should have disappeared instantly has been left on Shen Wei.

If only Shen Wei had trusted him with the truth of that development, they might have more to go on, but no. Zhao Yunlan is left to stew in his own ignorance and guilt. Beside the bruises, there’s the dark circles under Shen Wei’s eyes, the stark pallor of his skin, and—something else. Not just seeing him stripped like this, but there’s something off with what’s in front of Zhao Yunlan, whose head is so fuzzy he can’t quite make out what it is. So he leans in, and stares harder.

It comes to him almost like a cartoon lightbulb. The yellow jade pendant. It should be around Shen Wei’s neck—is always around Shen Wei’s neck. But it’s missing. Zhao Yunlan gets Lin Jing to check for him, but there’s no sign of it under Shen Wei’s low collar, or in his pockets.

While Zhu Hong starts rubbing ointment on Shen Wei’s bruises and wrapping his wrists in bandages, Zhao Yunlan considers the missing necklace. He doesn’t remember seeing it dropped anywhere around the pillar. And when he first got there, he touched Shen Wei’s neck. Shen Wei’s bare neck. He didn’t think of it then, but there was no sign of the pendant. Which means—what? Either that Shen Wei lost it in a struggle, or… Or Ye Zun took it. For some reason. It seems like a petty sort of theft for the magnitude of villain Ye Zun aspires to be, but it’s the most likely explanation.

Does it mean anything? Zhao Yunlan stares down at his hands, trying not to think about how good it would be to talk this over with Shen Wei, get his input and insights and get somewhere with this whole thing.

He might spend quite a while not thinking about that, because suddenly Lin Jing is waving a hand in front of his face. “Boss?”

Zhao Yunlan snaps his head up, and spits out the lollipop stick he’s been chewing on. “Yeah?”

“I think—I think he’s waking up.” Lin Jing nods to Shen Wei.

Zhao Yunlan pushes out of the chair, and stands frozen. He shouldn’t rush closer, but he doesn’t want to retreat any further away, either. So he simply stays, fists by his sides, and watches as Shen Wei’s brows twitch. The tendons in the exposed neck tense, and Shen Wei swallows. Then his lips move, forming a word—he mumbles it so quietly Zhao Yunlan can’t quite make it out at first, but in that moment between sleep and waking Shen Wei repeats it once, twice. And one final time, which Zhao Yunlan hears quite clearly.


That name again, from the ancient text Shen Wei hadn’t wanted Zhao Yunlan to hear. And spoken with such aching tenderness that Zhao Yunlan feels a stab of jealousy he is completely defenseless against. That’s how Shen Wei should be speaking his name. But when Shen Wei’s eyes open, the first thing he does is push himself upright and tear Lin Jing’s sensors off, watching Zhao Yunlan warily.

“Professor Shen,” Lin Jing says with a nervous smile. “It’s so good to see you up. How are you feeling?”

“Lin Jing,” Shen Wei acknowledges him, but not the question. “Zhu Hong.”

Zhu Hong inclines her head. “How are the bandages?” she asks.

Shen Wei looks down at his wrists, surprised. “Oh. They’re fine,” he says, and puts on a polite smile. “Thank you.”

“Do you need anything else?” Zhu Hong asks, after a brief pause. She shoots Zhao Yunlan a glare, like she’s doing some kind of taxing task for him instead of just making small talk. Zhao Yunlan doesn’t respond. He’s standing there, silent, waiting.

“If you have my clothes…?”

Lin Jing and Zhu Hong both take off, jostling each other in their haste to get out of Zhao Yunlan’s line of sight.

Shen Wei’s eyes grow cold as they fix on him, and Zhao Yunlan nods to himself. It really was too much to hope for a reboot to undo whatever Ye Zun has done to Shen Wei. Since it can hardly make the situation worse, he decides to open with a random burning question on his mind. “So,” he says. “Who’s Kunlun?”

It is as if the words are a spell, to summon everything the Black-Cloaked Envoy is in Shen Wei’s stead. Though Shen Wei barely moves, his entire demeanor shifts into something unearthly in its threatening fury. His expression goes blank, as if hidden behind his mask, but for the first time ever Zhao Yunlan understands why even Dixing’s most battle-hardened cower under that gaze. It is a terrible thing to look upon someone you love and be afraid.

By sheer stubborn reflex, Zhao Yunlan smiles. “Okay. I get it.” He spreads his hands, palms out. “That’s fine, you don’t have to tell me.”

“You just thought to taunt me, then?” Shen Wei speaks at last, tonelessly.

“I—no?” Zhao Yunlan frowns.

“Then what? Ye Zun gave you a name, and now you’re satisfying your own curiosity?”

What the fuck? Zhao Yunlan gives a disbelieving shake of his head. “What? No—you did. You said it, just a moment ago. ‘Kunlun’.”

For just an instant, Shen Wei’s expression twists into something so ravaged with grief that Zhao Yunlan’s breath stops—and then all the emotion is gone, like a stone swallowed by a still pond. “You will not speak that name again.” It is not a request. Zhao Yunlan’s palms are clammy, and his heart feels like it’s being wrapped in barbed wire.

“I won’t,” Zhao Yunlan promises. Anything Shen Wei wants, he’ll give. Even now, even when doing so doesn’t make Shen Wei’s eyes light up—barely gets him a reluctant fraction of a nod in acknowledgement.

“And I know you probably won’t believe this, but the only thing Ye Zun has ever given me is a bad case of vision loss.” It feels important to at least try to remind Shen Wei of the way things really are, of everything they’ve been through together, rather than whatever damned things Ye Zun has filled his mind with.

Shen Wei’s lips curl, as if he’s bitten into something rancid. “And that paid off handsomely for you, didn’t it?”

Zhao Yunlan tries very hard to keep from throwing his head back in frustration, even as a few more of those barbs pierce his heart. It’s true—that all ended up hurting Shen Wei more than Zhao Yunlan, in the end. And of course those are the memories that Ye Zun would have left Shen Wei with. He should have realized, shouldn’t have said anything. He exhales, manages to meet Shen Wei’s accusing gaze without letting the spark of remembered anger show. “No. I told you. It cost me more than it was worth.”

Behind Zhao Yunlan, Zhu Hong and Lin Jing are trying to become one with the walls. Zhao Yunlan sympathises, but he can’t stand to hear what new accusations Shen Wei might make against him, and motions for them. “You two. How long are you going to keep Shen Wei from dressing, huh?”

Zhu Hong hastily shoves the glasses she has been fiddling with on top of the poorly folded clothes Lin Jing is holding, allowing her to stay far back from the scene. Lin Jing shoots her a subdued glare, and puts on a smile for Zhao Yunlan. “Sorry, Chief. Here you go.”

“They’re not mine, Lin Jing,” Zhao Yunlan says pointedly as Lin Jing tries to offer him the bundle. Lin Jing glances over at Shen Wei, who slumps a little on the table, that dreadful energy beginning to drain from him.

“Thank you, Lin Jing,” Shen Wei says after the scientist carefully sets the clothes down next to him and takes a few steps back. The glasses soften his expression, and with the shirt back on Zhao Yunlan can stop noticing the missing pendant. “How is Xiao Guo?”

“Stable,” Lin Jing says, and Zhao Yunlan very gratefully lets go of that particular concern weighing on him. “They’ve got him in surgery, but apparently they’re not too worried.”

“The doctors are not too worried,” Zhu Hong interjects. “Lao Chu, on the other hand…”

Shen Wei smiles, a pale but friendly smile, and looks up from buttoning his cuffs over the bandages. “Yes, I can imagine,” he says, with the camaraderie he’s been tentatively developing with the other members of the SID.

At that smile Lin Jing looks like a drowning man that’s been handed an entire life raft fully stocked with fresh water and supplies. “Yes! But honestly, the worst thing is going to be the paperwork. All those forms, and not a single one of them even has a Dixing option…” he babbles on, and Shen Wei nods and continues dressing.

Zhao Yunlan is watching them, wondering what will happen when Shen Wei gets that last button done. Will he leave? Zhao Yunlan knows he can’t stop Shen Wei—literally, there is no way for him to keep Shen Wei from going anywhere, but also if Zhao Yunlan did that would just confirm his new role as a villain in Shen Wei’s life. Maybe if he begs—maybe if he has everyone else beg—then Shen Wei will stay. At least for a while. Because they need that, need Shen Wei at their side as they figure out how to stop Ye Zun, how to keep their city safe.

“Zhu Hong, Lin Jing—get everyone together,” Zhao Yunlan snaps before Shen Wei has finished adjusting his suit jacket. Several heads are better than one, after all. “And get some lunch ordered for us.” Because no matter how badly things are going, they still need to eat, and it’s not like Shen Wei is going to cook for Zhao Yunlan any time soon.

Chapter Text

Lin Jing and Zhu Hong are a good distraction, but the moment they flee Shen Wei finds himself alone with Zhao Yunlan for the first time since—since he’s remembered the truth. There is no danger, of course—the man is a Haixing human who knows a few tricks but holds no true power of his own. And yet Shen Wei has to control an urge to reach for every scrap of force he can spare to get Zhao Yunlan out of his sight. One way or another.

The ache of sorrow and longing that long years had begun to dull is throbbing like a fresh wound. Ye Zun talked about unlocking memories, but this feels less like the work of a key turning in his mind and more like his chest has been carved open and his heart ripped out. Shen Wei has always grieved his parting from Kunlun, always. But through all the years between then and now he has held on to the promise made to meet again. Such was the strength of the bond they forged, that he never wavered in that faith, only revisited the memories when he needed strength.

Those lying memories—he knows now that Kunlun is truly, irrevocably lost to him. And none of his usual defenses seem to be holding against that raw pain.

Shen Wei knows why. It’s because the reason of it is standing right there, a spear-thrust away. A constant reminder of what he thought he had—what he was made to think he had.

Zhao Yunlan is quiet now, but surely getting ready with another barb. He may be keeping up pretenses around the others, but Shen Wei knows better. Knows what Zhao Yunlan did and will do again, unless Shen Wei stops him. And Ye Zun—oh, his brother’s touch is all over this. It may have been Ye Zun’s gift, this truth, but hard as the lesson has been, Shen Wei knows now to see beyond his brother’s words and to his actions. The only reason Ye Zun knew to pull the veil from Shen Wei’s eyes must be that he was the one who placed it there to begin with.

“Shen Wei.”

The voice interrupts his thought, and Shen Wei feels his fury flaring bright—how dare he? How dare Zhao Yunlan speak so casually, after what he’s done to Shen Wei?

“I don’t think Lin Jing got a lot of readings, and we didn’t want you in the hospital, but—is there anything else? I mean. Anything else we could do something about now?” Zhao Yunlan is saying.

“No,” Shen Wei answers. “There is nothing you can do for me.”

Zhao Yunlan nods, and rocks back on his heels, gaze flitting between Shen Wei and the floor. “Okay. But tell me—tell someone if there’s anything you need.”

The temptation is there, to say that Shen Wei needs him to pay for what he’s done—what he will do. But Zhao Yunlan is the only thread Shen Wei has to unravel the past, and he is afraid of cutting it short. His brother might have other tools ready to be used, ones Shen Wei doesn’t know about, and couldn’t follow.

So he has to tolerate this—tolerate Zhao Yunlan’s presence, when it is excruciating to remember not just the distant past, but all their time together. Those times he thought—was made to think—were the happiest he had lived. And instead, every touch was a betrayal of that beloved memory, and every kiss poison to his soul.

Shen Wei is glad when Zhao Yunlan remains silent until Wang Zheng gently announces that food has arrived.

The meal is a subdued affair, but at least Shen Wei joins them. He pointedly waits until Zhao Yunlan sits down, and chooses a seat as far away as possible. Not the most mature Zhao Yunlan has ever seen him, but he’s glad for the space. Having Shen Wei glare at him is like having a pointy rock in his shoe. Even when Zhao Yunlan isn’t focused on it, it still gnaws at him, leaving a sore and tender spot.

There are a few halting conversations happening along the table, but Zhao Yunlan is locked in his own mind. Ye Zun. Shen Wei. The state of Dixing, the fate of Haixing. It’s a lot.

When Zhao Yunlan shoves his bowl away there are still a few noodles swimming in the broth, but nobody looks like they want to linger over the take-out. “Alright,” Zhao Yunlan says. “We haven’t had any indication that Ye Zun is sending forces up here, is that right?”

Lin Jing nods. “Still nothing, chief.”

“And nothing from the Yashou?”

Zhu Hong shakes her head. “The Crows are up to something, but haven’t made a move yet. Fourth Uncle will get in touch the moment anything happens.” She smiles. “I’ve made one of the cousins get him a phone.”

“Good. So then, what we do know is that Ye Zun is free of his prison, and rapidly gaining followers in Dixing.” Zhao Yunlan ticks the points off on his fingers, and forces himself to keep his tone casual. “Shen Wei. Do you have anything else on that situation?”

An awkward silence looms as heads around the table turn back and forth between their chief and Shen Wei, like spectators at a table tennis match.

“What are you after?” Shen Wei says finally, leaning forward slightly in his seat.

Zhao Yunlan cocks his head. “Eh? Information. Why?”

“Why keep up this charade?”

“Because,” Zhao Yunlan says patiently, “it’s not a charade. It’s my job—all our jobs. We’re the SID, and you’re our consultant, so please—your report? People’s lives are at stake.”

Shen Wei is staring at him again, with maybe a hint more confusion than previously.

“Look,” Zhao Yunlan continues. “Whatever you think I did, or am, or whatever—do you think the SID wants Dragon City to fall to Ye Zun?”

There’s murmurs of support up and down the table, and he can feel the energy rising—his team are practically vibrating in their seats, they’re so tense. Zhao Yunlan feels like he’s walking a minefield, and a single step might take everyone else out along with himself. So he does what he can to focus on their mission, their goals, and not on his own pathetic heart. Shen Wei is studying him with knit brows, so he gestures to the rest of the team. “If they thought I was going to do anything to hurt this city, they would stop me. Wouldn’t you?”

Da Qing stands with a clang of a chair falling over. “Of course! But chief, you would never—”

“You’d stop me. Good.” Zhao Yunlan cuts him off. “Anyone else?”

Lin Jing nods. “If I caught you trying to hurt anyone here, I would crash every device you own. And then I’d get serious.”

Zhao Yunlan raises his eyebrows. “Good threat. I like it.” Before the team can get involved in some kind of weird one-upmanship about hypothetically taking out their chief, Zhao Yunlan looks back at Shen Wei. “There you have it. And here’s something else: you know Ye Zun can influence people. So could you at least consider the fact that I might not be working with him willingly? Or even knowingly. And that right now, I’m just trying to do my damn job.”

Shen Wei opens his mouth in another protest, but Zhao Yunlan keeps going. “You don’t have to trust me. But trust them.” He gestures at the others, who are doing a good job looking resolute and trustworthy and only a little bit like they want to be anywhere except caught between Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei.

“And remember—you went to Dixing to stop Ye Zun, and you failed.” The way Shen Wei flinches at that makes Zhao Yunlan swallow against a sick feeling. But if he can’t get through with gentle reassurances, he has to use whatever means necessary. “So now we need to know what happened, and how we can stop it from getting worse.”

“Yes, Chief Zhao,” Shen Wei says coldly.

“Good,” Zhao Yunlan says, though it doesn’t feel good, not at all.

Shen Wei’s report is clear, concise, and completely lacking in any emotional affect. It could be a presentation for his students—all it’s missing is Li Qian’s carefully prepared slides. Zhao Yunlan twists his hands together under the table and listens to Shen Wei recount one horror after the next. The guards, already turned by Ye Zun, using Dixing civilians as hostages. Shen Wei willingly making his way to the pillar, to be bound by those damned chains. And by more than that—Shen Wei doesn’t specify, but he does note that Ye Zun was still confined to the pillar when he arrived. Which means that the chains would have been a link between the two of them—physically as well as through the dark energy coursing through them.

Three days like that. Three days. Fuck.

Shen Wei doesn’t dwell on what happened next, simply notes that the infusion of power—his stolen power—enabled Ye Zun to break the final seal already weakened by the Merit Brush. He says nothing about what might have passed between the two of them between the time he arrived and Ye Zun broke free. He simply gives his best estimate of how much of the palace’s armed forces have been turned (most of them), and how long any last holdouts might resist Ye Zun’s corrupting powers (not long). As for the Regent—well, he can be trusted to look out for himself, and very little more. An assessment Zhao Yunlan would cheerfully agree with, if being cheerful around Shen Wei right now wouldn’t get him flayed with a look.

For someone who has spent so much time with Ye Zun recently, Shen Wei has very little to say about the man. But his expression darkens when he says Ye Zun’s name in a way it doesn’t during any other part of his recitation. He concludes that their foe probably still has designs on the Hallows, and on Haixing in general. Anything that might boost his powers—and, as Shen Wei grimly reminds them, that’s pretty much anything with life energy. People very much included.

Zhao Yunlan groans. “I’m going to have to report all this to the Ministry, don’t I?” Nobody disagrees. Yeah, this sounds like something their nominal superiors should probably be made aware of. Dragon City might not be swarmed by Dixing combat forces right at this moment, but it sounds like it’s only a matter of time. And what a terribly fun piece of news that will be to break, especially when those annoying suits start questioning why his SID hasn’t kept things from escalating this far.

“Well,” he imagines telling them. “We were doing really great until I sent our consultant—you know, the pretty one I’m in love with—down there and accidentally jumpstarted a takeover of the Dixing government by a local dark lord.” If he really wanted to rile them up he could mention that said consultant came back showing obvious signs of brainwashing. Maybe explain that, no, they don’t have any proof he can still be trusted but they’re keeping him around because it would hurt Chief Zhao's heart too much to send him away.

“Wang Zheng?”

“I’ve called for a car, Chief.”

“Very efficient.” Too efficient, but that’s what happens when he sits around staring at the ceiling. He’s going to have to tell the Ministry everything they need to know—and try to keep to himself a few facts they don’t necessarily need to be made aware of at right this juncture. Some time to prepare might have been nice.

Shen Wei is staring at him again, with that subtle expression like he’s bitten into a rotten plum but is too polite to spit it out. So actually—maybe getting out of the office for a little while will be nice. A change of scenery. Some fresh air. No Shen Wei.

“Chief Zhao,” Shen Wei says, and Zhao Yunlan smiles to show that he is absolutely Chief Zhao and not at all bothered that Shen Wei has dropped back into the formality of their early acquaintance, before they ever—anything.


“I’d like to come.”

“To the Ministry?” Zhao Yunlan notices that he’s not the only one looking confused at this.


“Do you have anything else to report? Because you can pass it on to me and I’ll—”

“No. I want to come with you.”

Zhao Yunlan blinks. So—change of scenery, fresh air, and Shen Wei. Who wants to be with him now? For some reason? The look in Shen Wei’s face is stonily polite, so it can’t be that he’s had a sudden rush of the affection for Zhao Yunlan he has currently misplaced.

“Sure.” Zhao Yunlan can’t recall if he’s ever successfully said no to any of the rare reasonable requests Shen Wei has made of him, and he really isn’t about to start now. “We’ll make it an outing. Anyone else want to come?”

Strangely enough, there are no other volunteers.

Shen Wei watches the bustling city go by from the back of the government car. The sun is bright and warm on his face, even through the tinted windows. It isn’t quite restorative—he doesn’t have the knack of turning sunlight to energy—but it eases a little of the aching cold that has saturated his body since the pillar.

He is attempting to ignore Zhao Yunlan, though the man keeps drawing his attention in the most frustrating ways. Even his silence is loaded, and when Shen Wei glances at him—a quick look as they slow down for a red light and a bus eclipses the sun—he can tell that the half-lidded relaxation is a mask. Zhao Yunlan’s hands are folded around each other, one thumb stroking an absentminded pattern across his skin. A clear sign of—Shen Wei would have said distress, before, but why would that be true now? So a sign that the sharp mind behind those tired eyes is working hard.

Just like it worked hard to convince the rest of the SID of their chief’s honesty and integrity, while preying on Shen Wei’s concern for this city and its people. His home. Because Shen Wei admits it: Dixing is where he has his power, but this daylight world with its thoughtful scholars and bright students and halls of knowledge is where he has his life. One that was spent waiting, until he met the man he thought he remembered as Kunlun. And that man was everything he wanted, then.

Shen Wei lets his eyes drift shut against the glare of the sun. He should have known it was too good to be true. Should have realized it was suspicious, this man who could not possibly recall their time together talking about having a sense that they’d met before. Should have been more wary of that instant familiarity—so perfectly like what he remembered that it put him at ease, and made him believe Zhao Yunlan’s confession of instant attraction back when they first—when he—when things had felt good and right, but been so wrong.

But Ye Zun would have known all of the right things for Zhao Yunlan to say. His brother might not have known Kunlun personally, but many others did—many who fell, and many who lived, and certainly some who could have been bought or suborned.

If only Shen Wei had been more careful, with his trust and his heart, he might have been able to figure out the true answers for himself. But how could he, when he thought—

“So,” Zhao Yunlan says, breaking the cycle of self-recrimination and bringing back the anger. “I don’t suppose you’d like to tell me what you think I’ve done?”

Shen Wei considers the question. It would be satisfying, to lay out the litany of accusations—and even more so to act in his usual capacity and sit in judgment of Zhao Yunlan. But he has already understood that the one chance he will have to set things right lies in being there when the worst happens—and stop it.

But he can’t bridge time himself, and the only one he knows for sure will do it is Zhao Yunlan. And so Shen Wei must make sure to remain close by at all times—can’t risk missing the moment when Zhao Yunlan leaves this time, and appears in Shen Wei’s youth. With his grin and his gun and Kunlun falling—Shen Wei’s breath catches on the memory, like a thorn snagging a silken hem.

“Hey,” Zhao Yunlan’s voice comes to him again. “It’s okay, it’s okay—you don’t have to.”

“I prefer not to,” Shen Wei says, staring straight ahead. Because if he tells Zhao Yunlan any more of what has happened, doesn’t that make it more likely that it will, again?

“Okay.” The word is followed by a quiet exhalation. “I just… I don’t understand why you wanted to come, if not to talk? I promise I won’t tell the others, if there’s anything—anything personal. About what you think happened.”

Shen Wei frowns. He doesn’t understand what Zhao Yunlan is trying to say. He has imprecise recollections of accusing Zhao Yunlan of murder, before he had fully gathered his wits after coming to in Dixing with all of his memories returned. But murder can be terribly impersonal, as they both know. “You’re very good at this,” Shen Wei remarks.

“At what?” Zhao Yunlan's brows rise. “Conversations that go nowhere? Questions that don’t get answers?”

“Staying in character,” Shen Wei says shortly.

Zhao Yunlan’s shoulders slump, and he lets his head fall back against the seat. “Right,” he says. “Character.”

Neither of them speak again until the car drives through the checkpoint in front of the Ministry.

It’s about as pleasant as Zhao Yunlan expected. Twice he catches himself waiting for Shen Wei to back him up on a point that would impress Minister Gao, and a third time he almost brings Shen Wei up himself. But it’s better that Shen Wei stay in the background—the last thing he needs is for the entire Haixing department to assume there’s some kind of lover’s spat going on between them. Or that Shen Wei has had his brain scrambled by Ye Zun, of course, but that doesn’t seem like the first conclusion anyone would jump to.

The bureaucracy is not happy events are happening that might wreck the Haixing security budget. Zhao Yunlan isn’t happy events are happening that might end the world. So they’re not really on the same page, but at least they’re working towards the same goal. Hopefully. Because if the city gets wiped out, there won’t be any citizens left to appreciate that their taxes were well spent. And nobody’s going to thank Minister Gao for keeping panic from spreading if that’s because everyone got killed before they knew they were even in danger.

The worst part with the meetings is the plural. Because after he’s seen Minister Gao there’s Xiao Guo’s uncle, and then he has to repeat what he said only slightly less formally and to a slightly more sympathetic ear. And then Guo Ying calls some aids in and then they need a briefing and while they keep plying him with tea, by the end of it Zhao Yunlan is hungry again. Hungry and cranky and desperately missing Shen Wei’s easy company. He still has Shen Wei—and he doesn’t have to remind himself to be grateful for that—but there is nothing easy about the raptor stare he keeps getting.

“I can’t believe they kept us there for so long,” Zhao Yunlan grumbles as he exits the long hallway and squints at the orange sky already beginning to deepen to purple overhead. “We could have lost the entire city while they were stuck on discussing the sandbag budget!” And he knows Shen Wei isn’t about to commiserate, but if Zhao Yunlan can’t at least go through the motions of normality every so often he is going to absolutely lose it. As opposed to lose most of it and then cling on to what remains with every ounce of stubbornness he can muster. The lack of lollipops isn’t helping—he only found one stashed away in his pockets, and that one ran out in the first hour of the first meeting. When he hops in the car he asks the driver to stop by a convenience store on the way back.

It isn’t far to one, so he is still on the same topic when he carries his small plastic bag with sweet goodness toward the car, Shen Wei expressionless at his side. “And of course it’s not like they’re returning the favor—there’s something going on in Professor Ouyang’s lab, and nobody will—”

Zhao Yunlan freezes with his hand reaching for the car door, and jerks back. A black feather screeches against the metal of the car’s roof, the vicious tip leaving a line of scratched paint in its wake as it careens off.

“Get down!” he shouts, in case there’s anyone around with more human reflexes than Shen Wei, who has already summoned a spectral blade. Zhao Yunlan himself is more concerned with making himself a smaller target, and preferably a target with a car between himself and his attacker.

A volley of feathers is interrupted by Shen Wei’s blast of force, scattering them harmlessly. Four black-coated figures approach from the long shadows in the alley behind the convenience store. None of them are Ya Qing, but he hears cawing, and looks up to see a big crow perched on the convenience store’s low roof.

“Tell your boys to fuck off, Ya Qing!” Zhao Yunlan shouts up at her. (Well. Probably her. He can’t actually tell if the bird is Yashou or not.) “I am not in the mood today!” Not in the mood to be letting people off with a warning, anyway. The revolver feels unusually good as he tosses it in his hand, trying to decide between firing it and using it as a club. The shots are meant for those of a Dixing extraction, but Yashou definitely suffer consequences when they get hit. Though possibly not enough—he hasn’t exactly found any eager volunteers to test it on. So club it is, for perfectly logical reasons and not at all because he feels like beating the shit out of someone.

The crow cackles at him then, so yeah—that’s probably her. She does not tell her boys—well, three boys and a girl—to fuck off. Instead they all attack, silently and with a vicious style that makes Zhao Yunlan feel like he is batting away giant claws and beaks and not just normal hands.

Shen Wei is by his side before Zhao Yunlan remembers to worry that Shen Wei might choose to sit this one out, and that makes it a lot easier not to get cut to ribbons. He briefly wonders what the point of this whole attack is, as the crows are nowhere near ready to take on the Black-Cloaked Envoy. Even when said Envoy is in a very handsome blue suit rather than a cloak.

And then Zhao Yunlan very nearly dies of stupidity, because—it’s the middle of a fight, and the middle of Shen Wei hating him, and still he gets distracted by the way Shen Wei’s body moves. Especially when he’s moving somewhere away from Zhao Yunlan, who then has a perfect view of Shen Wei’s perfect ass and yeah, Zhao Yunlan is never telling anyone that’s why he ended up with a bloody gash across his neck. It just misses his carotid artery, but gushes an enthusiastic amount of blood through the fingers he clamps over it, and it stings so bad his eyes are fucking tearing up.

That must be why he’s seeing things weird—because Shen Wei is there, bringing the last assailant down with Zhao Yunlan’s blood on her hooked fingers, and Shen Wei’s eyes are wide and shocked and concerned behind his glasses.

Of course, from Zhao Yunlan’s perspective he’s also incredibly blurry, but Zhao Yunlan hurries to blink and wipe the tears away, heart constricting as he focuses on Shen Wei again and sees—nothing. No emotion except for a slight furrow between the brows as Shen Wei surveys the fallen. Not even a look in Zhao Yunlan’s direction. So he imagined it, then. Great. He’s injured and he’s hallucinating, and his bag of lollipops has gotten trampled in the fight.

“Why would they do that?” Shen Wei asks, still frowning.

“I don’t know!” Zhao Yunlan shouts, maybe a little more angrily than he should. But he’s bleeding here, and Shen Wei hasn’t offered him as much as a tissue. “I don’t know what all the fucking bad guys in the world are planning! I don’t know what any of them are planning!” He heaves a few harsh, frustrated breaths, thinking about how much easier his job would be if renegade Yashou and presumptive dark lords were to confide in him. Then he winces, because—ow. Claw. Shen Wei is staring at him, but that’s starting to feel familiar. “You can go ask Ya Qing if you want. But I’m going home.”

And with home he means the office, because the moment he’s back in the car he gets on the phone to call Wang Zheng and get her to coordinate everyone staying at Bright Street #4. If the Crow Tribe are attacking him, the chief of the SID with the Black-Cloaked Envoy at his side, that means it’s not safe for any of the others to be out and about. Even just one of those feather projectiles could make short work of most of the team. Zhao Yunlan makes sure he emphasizes that point to Wang Zheng. And then he tells her to promise everyone double paid overtime, because they might as well spend that tax money to keep everyone alive.

Shen Wei doesn’t go after Ya Qing. He follows Zhao Yunlan into the car, and sits there without saying a word, even after Zhao Yunlan hangs up. Instead of being companionable, the silence is cutting. And instead of leaning against Shen Wei’s shoulder, Zhao Yunlan rests his temple against the cool glass of the car window. He is exhausted, but knowing there will be no gentle hand to steady him if he dozes off keeps him awake all the way back to the SID headquarters.

Chapter Text

Zhao Yunlan is gratified at the fuss that greets his return. He gets to flop in the office couch while the first aid kit is brought out, Zhu Hong screams at her uncle down the phone, and a serious Sang Zan congratulates him on his skills for avoiding the death blow. (Zhao Yunlan nods equally seriously in acknowledgement, because he will absolutely have his team believe he dodged out of harm’s way and not the other way around.)

Da Qing uses alcohol wipes on the cut below his ear with feline fastidiousness, and the stinging does nothing for Zhao Yunlan’s mood. It's been a while since he's had to deal with the wipes and bandages style of tending injuries—Shen Wei has been throwing healing energy at Zhao Yunlan for far less than than this since the moment he guessed the Black-Cloaked Envoy’s identity.

As soon as Zhao Yunlan has stopped threatening to bleed over everything, he’s assaulted by a bunch of questions. He waves them off with a groan in favor of dry-swallowing painkillers and slinging an arm over his face. That way he can pretend Shen Wei is watching over him, instead of just standing there, staring. Which Da Qing takes as his cue to go bother Shen Wei instead—and of course Shen Wei gives the damn cat the whole story. No holding back there. It’s just Zhao Yunlan himself who can’t get the time of day out of Shen Wei.

Though in this case Da Qing gets very little that Zhao Yunlan didn’t already sum up with, “Those bastard Crows, I’m going to kill Ya Qing”, because neither sitting silently in the car nor standing silently in the office has brought Shen Wei any new insights into their assailants’ motives. There have been no other attacks in the city, and no other obviously Dixing disturbances. The team are busy going over the human-readable data Lin Jing has provided them with, and adding in reports from Zhu Hong’s people.

Zhao Yunlan heaves himself out of the couch to do some chiefing, looking over shoulders and asking very pertinent big-picture questions. At least until Da Qing shoves half his stack of printouts at Zhao Yunlan, who takes the hint and start going over the completely mundane reports from the police, fire and ambulance services, trying to spot anything out of the ordinary.

Wang Zheng faithfully orders dinner for everyone, and the evening turns a whole lot livelier when the doors open on Lao Chu supporting a grinning Xiao Guo. His right arm is in a sling, and he’s dressed in—Zhao Yunlan blinks. The black, flowy top is definitely what Lao Chu always wears. He has more of those things? The result is incredibly disconcerting—like someone Photoshopped Xiao Guo’s head on Lao Chu’s body. But at least he’s not covered in dried blood stains. Probably. Knowing Chu Shuzhi, that dark fabric could be hiding anything.

“Welcome back!” Zhao Yunlan calls, and stands along with everyone else rushing to swarm the pair.

“Should you be out of the hospital?” Zhu Hong asks sternly, and Xiao Guo doesn’t shrink back from her tone.

“Uh-huh!” he smiles. “I got the medicines. They’re really good medicines. Really, Hong-jie.”

Lao Chu looks resigned, as if the good medicines is something he’s already heard quite a lot about. “The attack,” he clarifies. “It’s safer here, with the shield.”

“And so much nicer,” Xiao Guo nods dreamily. “Look. There’s a lizard!” He pulls Lao Chu’s hand and goes to stare at the reptile habitat. “Hello. My name is Guo Changcheng. What’s your name?”

Lao Chu uses his free hand to rub at the spot between his brows. “Idiot,” he growls, but he lets Xiao Guo make friends with the lizard before tugging him over to the couch Zhao Yunlan previously occupied, feeding him choice bits of dinner from the selection on the table.

Right. So that is happening. And of course Xiao Guo’s injury is a lot worse than Zhao Yunlan’s own, and he is not jealous. Of course he’s not jealous. It’s not Lao Chu’s attention he wants—he snorts out loud at the thought—but watching the young man receive treats and fussing, the gnawing pain that has become a constant in his chest bites down hard.

With that ache comes exhaustion. He has been awake for… he squints at his phone. However long ago yesterday morning was. And of course that was the morning of the third night without Shen Wei, so he didn’t as much sleep through it as lie in bed alone entertaining a lovely combination of insomnia and nightmares.

“Lao Zhao,” Da Qing is by his shoulder, looking up at him with an angry frown. “Go lie down.”

Zhao Yunlan grimaces. “Leave me alone. It’s not even Xiao Guo’s bedtime yet.”

“Well, it’s bedtime for old people. Come on.” Da Qing tugs at Zhao Yunlan’s sleeve, and it feels so good to have someone worrying about him that he goes along with only a few more token protests. Da Qing takes him upstairs, to the lounge, and shoves him onto the couch.

He curses the cat out for good measure, but it’s kind of nice. The background noise drifting upstairs is soothing—all familiar sounds, people Zhao Yunlan knows and trusts and doesn’t have to pay attention to moving about and chatting softly. All of them safe inside the shield. The painkillers from earlier are making the cut throb a little less, and his battered body wastes no time relaxing into the soft cushions.

It does nothing for the pain in his heart, or the turmoil in his mind. But when he closes his eyes, it does make both his heart and mind seem slightly more distant—they’re going fuzzy under the heavy weight of his exhaustion pressing down on him. So Zhao Yunlan breathes deep, and dives for the escape of sleep.

Shen Wei notices Zhao Yunlan’s absence with a stab of suspicion. Nobody else seems to have noticed it, but he can’t allow the man to slip away and set Ye Zun’s plans—whatever they might be—in motion. He looks for the chief in his office, and in the lab, and on any kind of furniture big enough to lounge on, but doesn’t spot him anywhere. He’s looking through more and more unlikely places when he recalls that the upstairs isn’t just the library—a place he doesn’t associate with Zhao Yunlan, so had left off his list—but also a lounge.

When he steps into that room he is greeted by a hiss. “Leave him alone.”

Shen Wei blinks and looks around, because all he can see is the chief’s sleeping back on the sofa. Then a black feline head pops up from the pile of tightly folded limbs, ears flat.

“I won’t touch your master,” Shen Wei politely informs Da Qing. Then he frowns, unsettled. Whatever twisted his own recollections of Kunlun to match Zhao Yunlan must have affected the cat as well. Curious, that. “Because that is who you think this man is, correct?”

Da Qing’s ears twitch. “Chief,” he says, a growl in his voice. “Not master. Cats are their own masters—or have you forgotten that too?”

Shen Wei sighs. Da Qing never did recover his full memory after that last, terrible day with Kunlun. He can’t know what Shen Wei has only now remembered. But he gives Da Qing an apologetic nod to smooth things over. “Naturally,” he says. “Cats are at the top of the food chain.”

“That’s right,” Da Qing smirks.

There’s a chair right next to the sofa. Shen Wei grabs it, and puts it down a more comfortable distance away.

“You can’t wake him,” Da Qing warns.

Shen Wei agrees. He has no interest in waking Zhao Yunlan. He simply wants to keep an eye on him. So he sits, and he watches.

Da Qing is silent for so long Shen Wei naturally assumes he has done the feline thing and gone back to sleep. But then he speaks, and there’s nothing sleepy in his voice. “Did you forget the promise, too?”

At first Shen Wei doesn’t understand. Of course he hasn’t forgotten Kunlun’s promise. It has been a constant in his life, and is in his thoughts now more than almost ever before.

“You swore.” The syllables blend into another growl, and Da Qing’s eyes are hunter-dark when Shen Wei looks at him quizzically. “You swore you wouldn’t do anything to harm him.”

The memory of Dixing, when everything there was still mostly under control. Da Qing sticking his pinky finger out, demanding Shen Wei’s oath to keep Zhao Yunlan safe.

“I—” Shen Wei finds that unblinking cat stare disconcerting. He could try explaining, but Da Qing has very clearly shown where his loyalties lie. “I haven’t hurt Chief Zhao,” Shen Wei points out. And then honesty compels him to add, “Not much.” Because there was that first, desperate attack before he managed to control that urge.

The cat snorts. “Ye Zun really did scramble your brain good, didn’t he?”

“You’re wrong,” Shen Wei says.

“No, you are wrong. Everything about this is wrong. If you think you’re not hurting him…” Da Qing hisses, with all the eloquence of a furious feline. “Just leave him be until we can fix you,” he says.

“I won’t touch him,” Shen Wei repeats.

The sound the cat makes this time is less angry and more plaintive, but also completely wordless. Then the round head butts up against Zhao Yunlan’s arm until it shifts to accommodate the cat’s significant girth. Thus nicely wrapped in human warmth, Da Qing leans his chin on Zhao Yunlan’s shoulder, and matches Shen Wei’s stare with his own.

As the rest of the SID staff start dimming the lights and finding their own places to bed down for the night, Da Qing slitted gaze doesn’t waver, and Zhao Yunlan doesn’t wake up.

Shen Wei watches them both. Zhao Yunlan is facing the back of the sofa, but Shen Wei doesn’t need to see his face to know what he looks like relaxed in sleep. It is uncomfortable to dwell on, so instead he tries again to figure out the Crow Tribe’s attack. Ya Qing would not have let four of her people get injured or worse for nothing. It has to mean something. But what? What did she have to gain from it? What did Ye Zun? And what—the thought comes unbidden to Shen Wei—happened to himself, the moment he turned around and saw Zhao Yunlan clutching at his bleeding throat?

It’s not the first time since then he has revisited the memory, turned it over in his mind. And Shen Wei thinks that it must have been the shock of seeing Kunlun’s killer almost fall without first being brought to justice. That—that would be wrong. To let Zhao Yunlan die in a convenience store parking lot, taking Shen Wei’s chance of going back to put everything right with him.

That, and Shen Wei has spent so much time and energy trying to keep Zhao Yunlan alive since they first met that it has become a reflex to protect the man from danger. Surely his actions were wholly logical. And surely he should soon be able to forget the unwarranted horror when he thought that the Crow girl had dealt Zhao Yunlan a deathblow.

Zhao Yunlan never particularly enjoys waking up, and is usually excellent at avoiding it for as long as he can get away with. But a combination of painkillers wearing off and a fat cat jamming a haunch into his bladder yanks him all the way out of sleep. It's still dark, and the office is quiet. Zhao Yunlan feels drained, but the worst of the leaden grittiness has cleared from his head and his eyes. "Damn cat," he groans, though Da Qing's solid weight feels soft and warm in his arms. "Move over."

Da Qing swishes his tail in annoyance. "Go back to sleep," he mutters.

"I can't," Zhao Yunlan complains. "I'm in pain and I need to pee. Get off!"

Da Qing mews sharply in protest, but Zhao Yunlan is already rolling around to get up. He is aching in places that didn't use to get sore from sleeping in couches, and Da Qing's weight ends up awkwardly—or deliberately—planted directly on his kidney as they squirm around each other.

So it's from a breathless wince that he looks up and he can feel himself light up with joy before his brain crashes that particular party. But Shen Wei is right there, alive and awake and stunningly beautiful in the soft light. Zhao Yunlan spends half a second wondering if he should be staring, but—not being able to touch is bad enough. So fuck it. Zhao Yunlan deserves to let his gaze linger on the man he loves in peace and quiet for a few moments.

Shen Wei’s expression is distant, but Zhao Yunlan can read a wary tension in his body. It’s enough for the knot below behind Zhao Yunlan’s sternum to tighten up—gazing can only do so much when this is what gazes back at him. He groans as he stands up and stretches. “We should get bigger couches,” he remarks absently.

“A big cat tree first,” Da Qing says, curling into a ball on the warm cushions.

“Fine, fine. Bigger couches and a big cat tree.” Zhao Yunlan gives Da Qing’s furry head a quick pat, as the cat looks too comfy to retaliate with more than a grumpy flattening of his ears. Then he heads for the upstairs bathrooms without having another stare at Shen Wei.

Relieved and topped-up on painkillers, Zhao Yunlan tries to decide if he should return to the couch Da Qing is occupying, or if having Shen Wei so near will make it impossible to go back to sleep. He steps out from the bathroom and nearly jumps out of his skin.

“Don’t sneak up on people like that!” he barks at Shen Wei, who is now even nearer than he was back in the lounge. Zhao Yunlan’s heart is beating a little fast, and he knows it’s not all from startling. Shen Wei, this close, after they haven’t touched for days

“What did you do to Da Qing?” Shen Wei asks him, without a hint of an apology for the lurking.

Zhao Yunlan sticks his hands in his pockets to keep from clenching them to fists. “What do you mean?”

“He’s very loyal to you.” It sounds like an accusation.

Zhao Yunlan groans softly, looking to the ceiling for strength before he finds the right words. “He’s my friend,” he says.

“He thinks you’re him, that you’re—” Shen Wei cuts himself off, and there’s an unusual hint of frustration in his expression.

Kunlun. With a bitter twist of his stomach Zhao Yunlan thinks the name Shen Wei almost uttered. That same name Zhao Yunlan himself thought was from some old story—and he doesn’t know what it means that Da Qing might know it too, but files it away for future reference. But he says nothing to Shen Wei about that, only repeats, “His friend. He thinks I’m his friend, because I am.” And has been, for a long time.

“So you haven’t—”

“The answer is no,” Zhao Yunlan snaps. “Whatever evil scheme you’ve got me pegged for, the answer is still no.” He should be patient, he knows, but he can’t have this conversation right now. Not with the man who has been more loyal to him than he thought anyone could ever be; and not about someone else he cares too deeply for to ever willingly hurt. Shen Wei doesn’t know what he’s saying, but it still wounds to hear the accusations. Zhao Yunlan is too tired to stand here and let Ye Zun’s curse bleed him dry.

“Go back and keep an eye on him to be sure,” Zhao Yunlan says—or snarls—and starts walking to his office. He should have some lollipops around there still.

He only gets a few steps before he hears Shen Wei follow him rather than head back to the lounge.

Zhao Yunlan stops, and sets his jaw. He doesn’t turn towards Shen Wei, just stands there. Wishing he could feel Shen Wei’s arms come around his waist, Shen Wei’s lips against his neck. He shivers. “Please don’t,” he says, in a voice so low it barely carries. “I know… I know what you think of me right now. But please—” He stiffens his spine. “Leave me alone.”

Saying those words to Shen Wei, even now, even when he is like this, is like chewing glass. But Zhao Yunlan can’t—it’s all been adding up and he desperately needs a break. Some space. Some time to get his rational mind to wrest back control of his actions from his turbulent feelings. Without waiting for an answer, he takes one step forward, and then another. And then he’s heading down the stairs, listening for an echo of a familiar tread behind him, not knowing quite what he’s hoping to hear.

He hears only silence.

Zhao Yunlan keeps his head down so he won’t have to meet anyone’s eyes, even though those of the SID who need sleep should have better things to do than stare at their chief. He gets into his office and closes the door behind him, and it’s like a child afraid of the dark reaching the light switch. It doesn’t actually make anything better, but having that door between himself and Shen Wei—it’s something.

Zhao Yunlan opens one drawer after the next looking for the lollipops he should still have stashed away. Having gone through them all and come up empty he opens them again and rifles through the contents. Finally he locates a forgotten leather jacket in a filing cabinet that’s been defunct since Wang Zheng digitalized the paperwork it had previously housed. The zipper broke, and he always meant to take it to a tailor, but he never got around to it. Certainly one of those pockets has—oh.

All this fishing around has yielded a larger catch than he expected. In his hand Zhao Yunlan has not a sweet, but an entire packet of cigarettes.

The foil around it is still unbroken. He stares at it. Swallows. Runs a thumb over the smooth, crinkling surface. His thumbnail catches the edge of the lid, and he is steamrolled by an intense nicotine craving. The need for a lollipop is suddenly nothing compared to the need for a smoke. His body is telling him that everything would be so much better if he just had a damn cigarette already, and the pack sits there in his hand warning, smoking is harmful to your health like it knows anything about his health.

What’s harmful for his health is having to deal with the whole Shen Wei situation without anything to calm him down.

Decision made, he slips the jacket with the broken zipper on over his sweater, puts the cigarettes back in the pocket he found them in, and grabs the matches he uses for the incense off his desk. Then he heads to the roof.

The sky above Dragon City isn’t twinkling with stars—it’s covered with low clouds reflecting the millions of street lights and windows below in a sullen brown. Maybe poets could make something else of it—maybe dark gold? But that just makes Zhao Yunlan think of the saying ‘A smile worth a thousand gold pieces’ and how he’d gladly spend all his savings if it could make Shen Wei smile at him again.

Yeah. Fuck. Definitely time for that cigarette.

To his sweet-saturated palate it tastes like licking an ashtray. But it feels good and right and so, so satisfying. Having that first drag makes it seem like the match flame has brightened everything up just a tiny little bit. Letting the smoke slip out between his lips for the wind to carry toward the clouds above, Zhao Yunlan can almost feel new ideas starting to flit into his mind. There is a little rush of confidence: one of them has to be the right one. There’s got to be some way for him to fix this—him and his team and Shen Wei. Shen Wei most of all. Because Zhao Yunlan believes in him. Believes in every promise Shen Wei has ever made, and knows that Shen Wei wants nothing more than to come back to him.

The cigarette is burning down towards his fingertips, its small spark a single star in the dark. Alone, Zhao Yunlan thinks—but then he isn’t anymore. While he was lost in thought someone must have opened the door and slipped out on the roof with him. He can hear footsteps, but can’t quite place them. To say it’s a surprise when he looks up and sees Shen Wei is putting it mildly. But that’s nothing compared to the complicated crush of emotions he feels when he sees Shen Wei smile.

Chapter Text

Ridiculously, Zhao Yunlan's first instinct is to drop the cigarette, like he’s a delinquent student caught breaking the rules by a professor. Shen Wei hasn’t even told him not to smoke, so it’s not like he’s doing anything wrong, and yet. Zhao Yunlan lets the cigarette go, casually puts a boot on top of the smoldering butt.

“You found a coat,” Zhao Yunlan says inanely, looking at the light trenchcoat Shen Wei is wearing. It’s as inoffensive a remark as it can be, and even then his voice sounds strange to his own ears. And he grins, grins so hard, but he doesn’t move closer to Shen Wei because what if—what if that makes the smile go away?

Shen Wei’s eyes sparkle with amusement in the washed-out glow of the city sky. “And I found you,” he says.

Zhao Yunlan is bracing—for some accusation, for some follow-up remark that will take all the pleasure out of hearing those words. Instead Shen Wei steps closer, murmuring, “My Yunlan.”

Forget the cigarette—this is what Zhao Yunlan has been craving. He is afraid to ask what has changed. Afraid to break the spell—or afraid to trigger it again. So he stands very still and quiet until the moment Shen Wei’s fingers reach out to stroke his cheek. Then he closes his eyes and leans into the touch, shivering, joy beginning to unravel the knots in his heart. “Shen Wei,” he says, the merest whisper of breath over Shen Wei’s skin.

Zhao Yunlan hears a low sound—scoff or growl—and then Shen Wei’s hand cups his cheek and Shen Wei’s lips press against his and Zhao Yunlan doesn’t hesitate. He opens his mouth, answering the curious probing with a kiss.

And almost yanks his face away.

It must be that damn cigarette—Shen Wei tastes wrong. Zhao Yunlan curses himself for an idiot and hopes it won’t put Shen Wei off as much as it does him. Which is enough to make him want to fling the entire pack off the roof in repulsion. But he brought this on himself, so he leans in and wraps a hand around the back of Shen Wei’s neck, deepening the kiss.

It’s—not perfect. Zhao Yunlan tells himself that it’s the day they’ve had—of course Shen Wei is still tense, and of course they can’t fit together as naturally as they normally do until they’ve… talked. Or kissed more. But right now—Zhao Yunlan can’t believe what he’s thinking—that might not be the best idea. At least not until he’s brushed his teeth or had a lollipop. Or both.

Shen Wei chuckles, breaking the kiss to stare hungrily at Zhao Yunlan. His fingers trail along the side of Zhao Yunlan’s face, down to his bandaged throat.

“I’ve missed you,” Zhao Yunlan says, trying to shift closer again. The injury is throbbing, and now isn’t the time for Shen Wei to start examining it.

Shen Wei’s eyes snap up from the bandage, widening with something that almost looks like glee in the poor light. “Oh? Already? That is so darling.”

Zhao Yunlan laughs shakily. If it’s a joke, it’s a poor one. Three days missing, and another day here but wrong. Already? It’s been an eternity.

Behind the glasses, Shen Wei’s eyes glint, with a terrible, cold amusement. “My poor, sweet Xiao Yunlan.”

A striking viper could not have made Zhao Yunlan stumble back so fast, or with such visceral horror. His stomach is turning, his lips sting. “You’re not Shen Wei.” He knows it with absolute certainty; knows that Shen Wei is not capable of such teasing cruelty, no matter how coldly furious he might be.

The thing that looks like Shen Wei smiles, and this time Zhao Yunlan can see that it is nothing like any of Shen Wei’s smiles. “I could be. I could be better.”

Zhao Yunlan’s hand goes for his revolver, but of course someone took the holster off of him when they were cleaning him up from his injury. After that he wasn’t about to put it back on to go to sleep in the safety of the SID’s shield.

The shield which is part of the building.

And now he’s outside of the building. Outside of the shield. “Ye Zun,” Zhao Yunlan says thickly, through the taste of the man lingering like the flavor of a stale cigarette.

Ye Zun bows with an elaborate flourish, a smirk playing on his lips. “If you prefer,” he says. ”But with Shen Wei treating you so coldly, I thought I could comfort you for a bit.”

Zhao Yunlan is numb with dread and guilt. How did he not realize sooner, how did he not see? Other than the superficial, there is nothing of Shen Wei in the creature in front of him, and yet—Zhao Yunlan rubs the back of his hand over his mouth, breathing hard.

Ye Zun’s smile widens. “So very sweet,” he murmurs, and licks his lips.

Painfully long nights of socially mandated drinking pay off as Zhao Yunlan holds back nausea strong enough that he should really be hurling on Ye Zun’s shoes. It allows him a moment of looking like he’s out of commission while he takes in the situation. Ye Zun is two steps away. The door to the stairwell is another two steps beyond him. Zhao Yunlan is unarmed, and nobody knows he’s even out here.

He eyes the rooftop’s low wall. It’s—it’s a very final sort of option. So he breathes, and straightens, and stares at Ye Zun with every bit of the hate he feels.

“What did you do to Shen Wei?” he says.

Another smirk.

“You bastard. What did you do?”

“Who says I did anything to him?” Ye Zun asks, like Zhao Yunlan invited him to start a game of twenty mind games. Ye Zun lowers his voice to a whisper. “What if Shen Wei is right?”

Zhao Yunlan laughs. “Sorry, try another one.”

Eyes darkening in petulant fury, Ye Zun takes a step forward. Zhao Yunlan stands his ground as Ye Zun hisses, “Do you think your little fling was hard to lift from his mind? Do you think that the mayfly hours you spent with him left any impression at all on his heart, compared to the eons that we have had together?”

Zhao Yunlan’s mouth tastes like bile, and his heart is jackhammering in his chest. “Yeah,” he says. “I do.” And then he moves. One step—arm swinging, taking Ye Zun across the neck. Two more steps, and the door is right there.

And so is Ye Zun. Zhao Yunlan would be more surprised if he hadn’t seen Shen Wei pull the same move. But he doesn’t stop his momentum, just channels it into a tackle.

As attack strategies go, it is not very efficient. But he does end up with Ye Zun pinned against the door, holding him by the lapels of that trenchcoat he’s never seen on Shen Wei.

“Fix him,” Zhao Yunlan growls, and Ye Zun lets out a gasp that doesn’t sound entirely pained as Zhao Yunlan slams his body against the door. “Give him back.”

A hint of a smirk is the only warning Zhao Yunlan gets, and then Ye Zun reverses their positions with the same casual strength Zhao Yunlan usually delights in letting Shen Wei show him. Zhao Yunlan’s back is against the cold cement wall, palms pressed flat against it for leverage. One of Ye Zun’s hands is locked around his bandaged throat. The other is winding its way through his hair, and Zhao Yunlan would rather have maggots crawling on him than this man’s fingers touching him like this. “Mm? Is that what you want?”

Choking, Zhao Yunlan can barely grind out a response. “Yes.”

Ye Zun strokes Zhao Yunlan’s hair with intrusive tenderness. “But you have him. Came and took him from me, after our long overdue reunion.”

Zhao Yunlan is beginning to get lightheaded from the lack of oxygen, but he focuses all that he feels into a glare.

“So fierce! My brother’s dear human…” Ye Zun laughs, and brings their faces even more uncomfortably close together.

Vision swimming, Zhao Yunlan can’t quite make out the details of his expression, but even through the painful haze he startles at the word brother. What—

Ye Zun pulls his head back by a fistful of hair, wringing a hiss of pain from Zhao Yunlan. Then the pressure on his throat eases. Zhao Yunlan gasps and coughs, blinking away the moisture clinging to his lashes.

“It seems it is in my power to give you something that you want. Something that you want very much indeed,” Ye Zun purrs, turning Zhao Yunlan’s head to stare at his face this way and that. “Interesting…”

“So what?” Zhao Yunlan rasps, trying to wrench his head away. Ye Zun’s grip on his damaged throat tightens warningly, and he stops struggling before he’s strangled unconscious.

“Well. As it turns out, I want something too. Something you could give me.”

Heart sinking, Zhao Yunlan licks his lips. “You can’t have the Hallows.” That would doom everyone—and Shen Wei would never forgive him, with or without a full set of memories.

Ye Zun hisses, “I can!” He gives Zhao Yunlan a shake that makes him feel like a kitten being terrorized by a poorly raised toddler. Then the smile is back on Ye Zun’s face, all teeth and malice. “But no. My dear noble brother would never allow it. What I have to ask is… a couple of small favors. Really, nothing you will mind. Nothing… permanent.”

Zhao Yunlan wants to recoil, wants to tell Ye Zun where to shove it—Zhao Yunlan is the chief of the SID, Lord Guardian of Haixing, and he will not bargain with a monster. Instead he slices through all the guilt and fear and pain with a smile. Oh, Shen Wei. I’m sorry. “I’m listening.”

Shen Wei stalks the quiet rooms of Bright Street #4, looking for Zhao Yunlan. For a while, he thought he might be content following Zhao Yunlan’s request, getting some space himself. But sitting alone in the dark without having any idea of where Zhao Yunlan was or what he was doing got quite taxing. His mind summoned a host of suspicions, each more dire than the next, and now Shen Wei has an urgent need to lay eyes on Zhao Yunlan. To make sure there is nothing happening. To make sure everyone else is as safe as they should be.

In the library, Sang Zan and Wang Zheng are sitting side by side with their heads bent over a tome. Study material or research, Shen Wei doesn’t know, but the two radiate a companionable calm that tugs at something in his own heart. He starts to turn away before he disturbs them, but Wang Zheng calls out to him. “Professor Shen?”

“Apologies,” he says. And then, since he’s bothered them already, “Have you seen Chief Zhao?”

The two energy spirits exchange worried looks that carry undertones he can feel but not interpret. “Wasn’t he asleep in there?” Wang Zheng asks.

“He left,” Shen Wei says shortly.

Another glance between the two. “We haven’t seen him,” Wang Zheng says for both of them. “Should we assist you in your search?”

“Oh. No. Thank you.” Shen Wei nods, and leaves them to it. A growing sense of urgency drives him to the chief’s office. A light is on, but the room is empty.

Shen Wei pauses. There’s something different in the air—and something is happening. He can’t deny the connection he still has to Zhao Yunlan, that exchange of energies that serves as a tie between them, and which he is unable to sever even now. It is normally too subtle to sense much from even when he tries, but a moment ago it flooded him with a sharp sense of danger.

Shen Wei sniffs. The smell in the office—it’s the same as he’s gotten whiffs of when airing out the very depths of Zhao Yunlan’s wardrobe. Old, ingrown cigarette smoke. And then he knows exactly where Zhao Yunlan has gone, and what he has been doing, and disappointment flickers inexplicably through his mind.

The stairs to the rooftop don’t see much use, but Shen Wei is not entirely unfamiliar with the passage. Zhao Yunlan brought him up here one night, after the others had been dismissed, and then they—Shen Wei pushes the memory aside. It is an unnecessary distraction. Maybe he should have avoided the stairwell entirely, but with Lin Jing nervously adjusting the shield all evening even Shen Wei isn’t sure he wants to try transporting through it.

Shen Wei’s footsteps echo in the cramped space, so he stops to listen by the door that opens on the roof. He hears nothing, but there is a pressure against his senses, and a terrible resonance coming through what he can feel of Zhao Yunlan’s energies. It is like the awful noise the university’s speaker equipment will make for absolutely no reason at all, only not sound. It spurs him on—no time to hesitate, not when there is some kind of threat right outside.

Blade in hand, Shen Wei opens the door and steps through the shield, and with the first breath of night air he knows. Ye Zun. There is nothing in his immediate line of sight, so he spins around, and the door creaking closed reveals a scene that sets Shen Wei to attack instantly, without thought:

Ye Zun and Zhao Yunlan, locked in a kiss.

The biggest threat is Ye Zun—always Ye Zun, ever since his brother made his choice and put his own greed ahead of Dixing itself. Grief makes Shen Wei’s blade heavy to wield, but no longer slows it down. Not when going after Ye Zun, whose eyes widen in dark delight when he spins around to meet Shen Wei.

Saturated with stolen power, Ye Zun flicks Shen Wei’s first strike aside. But Ye Zun doesn’t have much room to maneuver, caught as he is between Shen Wei and the wall, and Shen Wei will press that advantage. He gathers energy in his off hand and attacks again, going for a piercing thrust he can keep on a lethal trajectory even if he can’t ward off all interference.

None comes. Instead, Ye Zun uses his strength and speed to yank Zhao Yunlan forward and slide behind the chief’s stumbling body. It fouls Shen Wei’s aim. It more than fouls it—Shen Wei is too close to pull back from a lethal blow, so instead he releases his gathered energy in a blast that knocks Zhao Yunlan to one side, even as Shen Wei dives into a roll to the other.

Shen Wei is on his feet almost instantly, ready to attack or defend as needed—but by then Ye Zun has disappeared, an echo of his twisted laughter lingering in the wavering afterimage of a portal. Somehow Shen Wei used every ounce of power he had intended to unleash on his brother to preserve Zhao Yunlan’s life. Shen Wei didn’t even consider whether it might be worth losing his link to his past and to Kunlun to preserve the future of both realms—he simply acted. The realization brings disgusted fury—he let Ye Zun escape, and for what? A man who just proved that he is most definitely in Ye Zun’s thrall.

The image of the two of them—mouths and bodies crushed together, Ye Zun’s hand in Zhao Yunlan’s hair—surfaces in Shen Wei’s mind in painful detail. He only saw them for a fraction of a moment, and yet he remembers it perfectly. More than perfectly, because he knows the hungry moans Zhao Yunlan would have made pressed up against that wall, knows the yielding sweetness of his mouth and the pliant strength of his body. And all this time—all this time it was Ye Zun, not Shen Wei, that Zhao Yunlan wanted.

It shouldn’t matter—nothing about Zhao Yunlan should matter, except the function he can serve in letting Shen Wei back to rewrite the past. Yet somehow watching Zhao Yunlan’s dedication to defending his city and his people, and noticing the painstaking way in which Zhao Yunlan has respected Shen Wei’s every request, he had begun to—if not believe the man, then at least want others to be able to do so. Hope that maybe the events which transpired in the past were brought on not by personal malice but by being hopelessly entangled in the schemes of some greater evil.

But now… Shen Wei waits until the rage in him has frozen to a cold, sharp thing in his chest before he turns to look at Zhao Yunlan.

It has been more than enough time that the SID chief should be back on his feet. Possibly with a smile on his face, to mock or mislead. Instead, Shen Wei finds him slouched cross-legged on the roof, absently patting the pockets of a leather jacket Shen Wei doesn’t recognize.

At Shen Wei’s gaze, he looks up with a guilty start, and offers a sickly smile. The weak glow of the city night has washed all color from his face, but Shen Wei’s eyes are sharp enough to see the bruised shade of his lips and the smear of blood on the back of his hand. There is still grit in his hair—maybe from the fall, maybe from being up against that wall. For one senseless moment, Shen Wei still wants to get his handkerchief out and comb his fingers through Zhao Yunlan’s hair. Then his outrage extinguishes his strange urge for neatness. “I’m surprised you didn’t invite him in to help himself to the Hallows,” Shen Wei says.

Zhao Yunlan’s eyes darken dangerously, and the approximation of a smile evaporates. Shen Wei ignores that, and goes on, “Or was that next, after he’d had you?”

The words seem to hit Zhao Yunlan like something physical—Shen Wei sees him sway, hears him gasp as if he’s had the air knocked out of him. Then a muscle bunches in his jaw, and he glares back at Shen Wei. “Maybe if you’d told us Ye Zun was your fucking twin, that would have gone a really long fucking way in keeping this place secure,” he says, his voice hard and hoarse.

Shen Wei is taken aback by the accusation. It is true that he never found the right moment to broach the painful subject—he was going to, when it became necessary. Was trying to find a way that—and it makes him feel terribly foolish to remember it—that wouldn’t make Zhao Yunlan think too poorly of him.

“So. He really is?” Despite that previous flash of anger, Zhao Yunlan’s question sounds sincere.

“My younger twin,” Shen Wei confirms, politely, as if it’s important to maintain their roles as SID chief and consultant, even when everything else has been a lie.

Zhao Yunlan nods, but his jaw is still clenched—his entire body is wound so tight Shen Wei can see the tension running tremors through him.

“The shield won’t confuse the two of you,” Zhao Yunlan says hoarsely, without quite making it a question. “But I should let everyone know…” He shakes his head at some other thought, then swallows hard. “He can look just like you.”

Shen Wei stiffens in turn. Surely Zhao Yunlan already knew as much, and is just trying to confuse him by turning accusations against him as a distraction. It has not escaped his notice that Zhao Yunlan hasn’t tried to deny what Shen Wei saw, hasn’t tried to claim innocence or ignorance. He almost expects it, but when Zhao Yunlan next opens his mouth it is to ask, “Any more family I should know about? Is Ya Qing going to show up for New Year’s dinner?”

The testy tone of voice needles Shen Wei into raising his voice. “Ya Qing? Why would I have a Yashou in my family?” The idea is ridiculous.

Zhao Yunlan doesn’t raise his own voice in response, but keeps on speaking in a near-whisper. “So, before I get the others up to date: there’s nothing else you’ve been keeping to yourself that might come back and hurt me—us—hurt the SID?”

Shen Wei frowns. Zhao Yunlan has no right to speak of secrets, but—and it is a reluctant admittance, even only in his own heart—Ye Zun could have come close enough to harm almost any of the SID team, now that they trust Shen Wei like they do. So he calms the urge to tell Zhao Yunlan off for prying, and takes a moment to think about the vast web that is Dixing politics, and his own influence in the many spheres of the two realms. “Nothing that should harm any of you,” he says slowly. “But I have many enemies in Dixing.”

Zhao Yunlan laughs, a rough sound that turns into a hacking cough. “Yeah,” he wheezes. “You don’t say.”

“You asked,” Shen Wei points out, reasonably, and Zhao Yunlan has the temerity to shake his head disapprovingly.

“Aiya. It’ll be a short update. Don’t trust the guy who looks like Shen Wei but isn’t, and also Dixing is full of hostiles.” Zhao Yunlan winces as he shifts, and wobbles slightly before finding his feet. And though Shen Wei can rarely tell with these things, the night must be getting cold, because Zhao Yunlan shivers when he walks through the door to the stairwell.

Chapter Text

Zhao Yunlan does not sleep any more that night. He showers, and awkwardly changes the bandages around his neck, which now hurts both inside and out. Then he goes out to the closest 24-hour store for some damn lollipops—there’s no reason for Ye Zun to be back so soon, not after what the bastard has already accomplished—ripping the bag open right there at the register to stick one in his mouth.

When all of that and returning inside hasn’t drawn Da Qing’s attention, Zhao Yunlan goes to check on what could be keeping the cat. Turns out he’s not poking his nose into Zhao Yunlan’s business because he’s still asleep with his tail over said nose in the couch where Zhao Yunlan left him. Lazy cat. And after all that time he spent napping with Zhao Yunlan.

Still, Zhao Yunlan doesn’t wake Da Qing. He doesn’t wake any of them on his quiet circuit of the offices before the sun rises. He lets Lin Jing continue to snore in his chair, head pillowed on arms folded on his desk, and nods to Lao Chu, who sits with Xiao Guo nearly curled into his lap on the big couch. Zhu Hong has done what she always does, and found a napping spot so unlikely to a human mind that he can’t actually find her, but he sees her phone and purse left at her desk and knows she’ll emerge when she’s good and ready. Lao Li has taken the red sofa in the corridor, and conscientiously left his shoes neatly arranged under it. Wang Zheng and Sang Zan don’t sleep, so he doesn’t enter the library.

While he’s not waking anyone Zhao Yunlan is also very carefully not thinking about anything except the next thing he needs to do. There are certain things he is not thinking about in particular, much in the same way you don’t touch the edge of a fresh razor blade—only in this case he never knows where he’ll find the thoughts lying around.

Considering what to order for breakfast should be safe, but instead nudges him to remember Shen Wei’s amused disapproval the last time Zhao Yunlan suggested that they could get something delivered to eat in bed instead of Shen Wei getting up to cook. That breakfast had been good, of course—everything Shen Wei makes him is always delicious—but what had been even better was managing to lure Shen Wei back to bed after they had eaten.

Zhao Yunlan stumbles blindly, and using the sense of space he hasn’t lost since regaining his vision manages to end up in one of the chairs in the big office. Which has a phone in front of it, and the list of the local restaurants they always order from, so no harm done. He can pick up where he left off. He can stick to the next task.

He can definitely stop thinking about how afraid he is that Shen Wei will never touch him again. Fuck—

A hand on his shoulder makes him jump. “Sorry, Boss!” Lin Jing startles back, apparently as surprised as Zhao Yunlan himself. “I thought maybe you were, um. Asleep? You didn’t answer, so—”

“It’s fine,” Zhao Yunlan says, waving the apologies aside. This is as good a task to move on to as any other. Someone else can take care of food. Someone with more of an appetite. “What have you got?”

Lin Jing looks furtively around the office. “In the lab,” he says, and Zhao Yunlan nods and follows, unwrapping another lollipop on the way.

They are alone in the lab, but even sitting at his usual station with Zhao Yunlan perching on his desk Lin Jing keeps his voice down. “Chief Zhao. Remember how we talked about… you know. The Haixing Ministry’s lab? And…”

Zhao Yunlan does remember. It would be frustrating to have to part with Lin Jing’s expertise, but depending on just how bad things seemed to be going in Professor Ouyang’s lab they had agreed it might be best to stage a dramatic scene to get Lin Jing in there in person. They haven’t had to do it yet, but lately Lin Jing's visits to hand over “reports” have been cut short, Professor Ouyang getting more impatient and secretive.

Now would be a particularly bad time to act on their plan—Zhao Yunlan doesn’t want the SID to have to do without their scientist and shield-expert. He asks around the fresh lollipop, “What about it?”

“I got a message from Li Qian just now.”

“Now, at this hour? I know she’s diligent, but—”

Lin Jing runs a hand through his hair. “No, Boss. She’s been there all night. She and the others—she’s saying Professor Ouyang won’t let them leave. And she’s—I think she’s scared.”

Zhao Yunlan sits up straighter, a frisson of unease going down his spine. That is deeply concerning. After what he has seen her go through, Zhao Yunlan knows that Li Qian is a resilient young woman, who has adjusted to a world most people only vaguely acknowledge exists with aplomb and purpose. She has never been an official part of any of their operations, but she has always been very forthcoming with the SID—even when Ouyang might have wished she weren’t. “What did she say?”

“Not much more. She said he wasn’t letting them leave, or talk to anyone—I think she must have rigged something up with the lab’s printer to send the message in the first place, it wasn’t actually from her email but—”

“Lin Jing,” Zhao Yunlan says, halting the flow of information. “Anything else?”

“She says—” Lin Jing glances at his screen, and then back up at Zhao Yunlan. “‘I’m afraid he’s gone too far.’ Whatever that means… it sounds bad.”

“It can’t be good,” Zhao Yunlan agrees, and hops off the desk.

“What shall we do? Can you call the minister, maybe—”

“Minister Gao has been exceedingly clear that the Haixing lab is outside the SID’s purview,” Zhao Yunlan says, and Lin Jing winces at the minister’s words.

“Yeah… so. Do you—do you want me to—?” Lin Jing is clearly trying to volunteer to be thrown out of the SID and go back to Ouyang. Which is sweet, but completely useless.

“Sounds to me like Professor Ouyang is under the influence of some kind of Dixing power,” Zhao Yunlan says.

“What? No, we’ve checked—I always scan the lab, and—”

“Definitely a Dixing power, and a clear and present danger to himself and others besides,” Zhao Yunlan goes on.

“Oh,” Lin Jing says, and his face lights up with a grin. “Oh, I see.”

“Yeah,” Zhao Yunlan says, answering with a smile of his own. “I think this requires the immediate attention of the highest level of the SID.”

“What does?” Shen Wei’s cold voice is the first thing that makes Zhao Yunlan aware of his presence in the doorway.

Zhao Yunlan winces, then tries to cover the reaction when Lin Jing stares at him. “There’s a situation with Professor Ouyang,” Zhao Yunlan tells Shen Wei, and then, because Shen Wei should know, “Li Qian may be in danger.”

“I’ll come,” Shen Wei says, and Zhao Yunlan nods. It makes sense. He shouldn’t be wishing Shen Wei had stayed away for another few minutes, letting him and Lin Jing deal with this by themselves.

“I’ll get the car. Lin Jing, you tell Wang Zheng what is happening so she can update the others. Meet outside in a minute.”

The guards at the checkpoint only grudgingly allow the SID vehicle inside the perimeter. Zhao Yunlan has no meetings scheduled, and apparently word has gotten around about getting a Ministry car scuffed in a battle with hostile Yashou. To be fair to the guards, they are right to be suspicious—the Ministry must surely attract less attention from Dixing when Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei aren’t both in the building. But his warrant card and connections get them inside.

Zhao Yunlan interrogates the security guard in the building entrance while grudgingly relinquishing his phone and gun. The guard has heard nothing suspicious, and has only just arrived at his post. The extent of the information they get about who might still be in the lab is a shrug, indicating a lowly guard can’t be expected to keep track of the comings and goings of white-coated scholars.

Once through the metal detectors, Lin Jing’s secret passcard gets them through the first set of doors to the lab housed in the building—but no further. The second set of doors remains stubbornly shut.

“How do we get in?” Zhao Yunlan asks as Lin Jing stops and stares, waving his card and pushing random buttons on a panel in the wall. None of it does anything.

“I don’t—the card should work here? It always has before!”

“You believe what is happening inside constitutes an emergency?” Shen Wei asks, and on Lin Jing’s nod he has summoned his blade and is already swinging it at the door.

“Shit, no—” Lin Jing blurts, but he’s too late.

The blow recoils with a loud shock that sends Shen Wei stumbling back. Zhao Yunlan doesn’t move to catch him, but Lin Jing does, babbling apologies. “No, sorry, you can’t—I let them have the source code for the dark energy shield and they said they were going to expand the catchment field and—”

Shen Wei’s brows crease. “You’re saying it’s warded?”

Lin Jing nods.

“Against me?” It’s the Black-Cloaked Envoy, speaking with all the dignity of an insulted diplomatic relation.

Lin Jing grimaces. “Not… you in particular? But. The effect is. Um. As you can see…”

“How do we get in?” Zhao Yunlan repeats, a whole lot less patiently than the first time he posed the question.

“I don’t know!” Lin Jing exclaims in frustrated distress, spinning around the room as if a big ‘open door here’ button might suddenly appear.

Zhao Yunlan studies the panel Lin Jing was abusing, and realizes that’s exactly what Lin Jing is missing. “Okay,” he says. “You two, go stand—” he looks up, and around, considering. “Outside. Go stand in the hallway.”

“I won’t wait while you—” Shen Wei begins.

Zhao Yunlan has to interrupt him. They don’t have time for this. “He won't let all three of us in if he's got the place locked down. Just wait for me to get through, and I'll let you in, okay?”

Lin Jing nods, enthusiastically if still a little confused. Shen Wei looks suspicious. But at least they go, both of them.

Zhao Yunlan unwraps another lollipop, puts it in his mouth, and arranges his face in a pleasant and trustworthy smile around it. Then he presses the call button on the video intercom Lin Jing didn’t even think of trying.

At first nothing happens, but then a fuzzy click resolves into a black and white image of a young man Zhao Yunlan vaguely recognizes. Shaggy hair, glasses, and a very nervous disposition. “He-hello?”

The lab tech—researcher?—is shoving his glasses up his face and peering into the screen. Zhao Yunlan gives him a friendly wave. “Hi there! I’m here to see Professor Ouyang.”

“Um. He—he’s busy.” The young man casts an incredibly obvious glance off to one side.

“Yeah, well, it’s not a social call.” Zhao Yunlan keeps smiling.

“Could you come back? Later?”

Zhao Yunlan cocks his head to the side and slides his badge into view. “Later isn’t good enough,” he says. “Put the professor on.”

The young man makes a move towards the intercom, and Zhao Yunlan hastens to add. “I will keep pressing the call button until I get to talk to the professor. And if you somehow manage to break it—you won’t like the alternative.”

A white-coated figure shoulders his way into the viewscreen, practically bouncing the poor nervous kid away. “What?” Professor Ouyang snaps. “We are doing terribly important research here, and time is—”

“I won’t waste any of your time,” Zhao Yunlan promises, albeit by way of a rude interruption. “Just open the doors and I’ll be in and out in a minute.”

“Absolutely impossible.”

“Are the doors broken?” Zhao Yunlan asks with great concern. “Let me go call for help!”

Even on the tiny screen he can see Ouyang’s already scowling face darken in rage. “You will do no such thing,” he says.

Ouyang doesn’t know how right he is. The last thing Zhao Yunlan wants is more attention directed at the labs, and his being here, before he has had a chance to assess the situation. But what Professor Ouyang doesn’t know Zhao Yunlan can absolutely use against him. “Then just open the doors, and I’ll do my official duty and then we can both get on with more important things.”

The professor seems to be considering it, so Zhao Yunlan sweetens the deal. “Professor Shen is a consultant with my SID. But if I can confirm your discovery is as important as it sounds, we could discuss reassigning—”

With no warning the red light above the door flips to green. Instead of waiting for Zhao Yunlan to step inside, Professor Ouyang pops out and grabs him. Zhao Yunlan goes for the button to the outer door—the one Lin Jing and Shen Wei are waiting behind—but Ouyang wrestles him away. Little old professor Ouyang handles Zhao Yunlan like he weighs nothing at all. What the fuck? Head spinning, Zhao Yunlan is shoved inside the lab. Behind him, the inner door slides shut.

Well. That—was not part of the plan. Zhao Yunlan can't get to the door console without going through Ouyang. But by leaning back slightly he can slide a hand behind his back to switch the intercom on. Or at least try to. Before he can make sure he’s got it right, Ouyang rushes over to grab his sleeve. It feels like that time Zhao Yunlan accidentally got his shoelaces caught in an escalator. He is stuck, and being pulled along whether he wants to be or not. Zhao Yunlan is pretty sure the venerable, silver-haired professor never showed any interest in weightlifting or anything; this is a new development.

“Call Professor Shen here,” Ouyang is saying, tugging Zhao Yunlan along to a workbench scattered with beakers and test tubes, in a fashion even Zhao Yunlan considers rather unsafe. On the way, Zhao Yunlan scans what he can see of the lab. There’s the guy with the glasses, another slightly older man, a woman about the same age, and—he feels a rush of relief when Li Qian briefly turns from her workstation with a blank expression and anxious eyes.

“He must see this,” Ouyang is saying. “I’ve had a breakthrough! But the method—with Professor Shen’s help we could get it purer much faster, don’t you think?”

Zhao Yunlan tries to gain his sleeve back, but can’t shake the enthusiastic professor. So he grins politely, removing his lollipop to say, “Yeah, you know, I’m not entirely sure what you’re talking about?”

The professor laughs uproariously, and Li Qian catches Zhao Yunlan’s eyes. She flicks a look to a hidden corner of the room, and from the dread in her eyes Zhao Yunlan gets a really bad feeling about what he’ll find there. That, and the slight odour he’s been catching whiffs of since he entered.

“The serum!” Ouyang says. “I did it!”

“That’s fantastic,” Zhao Yunlan agrees, sounding as sincere as he can while craning his neck trying to see what’s in that corner. “But I think—hadn’t you better just let me have a look around, and then I can go tell Shen Wei all about it?”

Ouyang eyes him for a moment, a shrewd look in his face. “No,” he says, setting Zhao Yunlan scrambling for ways to wheedle the professor into letting him go. “No, I must arrange a demonstration—I’ll show you, and then Professor Shen, and he will come work with me. Yes?”

Zhao Yunlan nods vigorously. That’s never going to happen, but neither is disagreeing with someone who has very clearly snapped all the way. “Sure,” he says, and then he catches Li Qian’s horrified expression, and the other three going panic-still. “Or not! You don’t need to—there’s plenty here. I mean—you’re living proof, right? That strength—that’s a Dixing power, isn’t it? Fantastic. Very, uh. Super.”

But Professor Ouyang isn’t listening to Zhao Yunlan anymore. He finally lets go of Zhao Yunlan’s sleeve, making a beeline for the workbench where he mutters over the various beakers, picking them up and inspecting them one by one. Zhao Yunlan takes his chance to sidle over until he can see the body in the corner.

Of course it’s a body. It couldn’t have been anything else, not with that smell in the air, and still it takes him aback. He wasn’t expecting anything quite so—gruesome. It’s impossible to tell if the figure fallen into a twisted heap in the corner is male or female, but they are most definitely dead. Not quite stiff yet, but also not freshly deceased. In life they were part of the lab, wearing the same white coat as the others. Death has crusted this one with generous splatters of dry blood. The face sticking out from the soiled coat is a ruin, and the worst part is that Zhao Yunlan doesn’t even have to get up close to tell that it was self-inflicted. Not when he can see the bloody, crooked fingers, and the pattern in the damage of what remains of the person’s skin. And the eyes—yeah. Zhao Yunlan doesn’t really need to look too closely.

No wonder Li Qian was so desperate. And no wonder none of the other lab members want Ouyang to do any more experiments. Having even odds to receive either superpowers or a truly horrifying death—yeah, that’s not great. Zhao Yunlan makes his way back to Ouyang. “Listen,” he says, trying to break the man’s mad-science trance.

“It must be perfect.” Ouyang shoulders him out of the way. “Where’s that boy,” he mutters. “Xiao Liu!”

The guy with the glasses looks around as if he wants to bolt. Zhao Yunlan gets that feeling. Now would be a really good time for Lin Jing and Shen Wei to figure out how to get through those doors. But until they do, Zhao Yunlan can’t let Ouyang go after more of his helpless staff.

Ouyang may have super strength now, but he’s not that fast. Zhao Yunlan casually inserts himself between the stalking professor and his prey. “You want it to be perfect?” Zhao Yunlan asks. “Let me try it.”

Ouyang lights up with enthusiasm. “Really? You personally, Chief Zhao?”

Zhao Yunlan pushes a minor fit of screaming panic aside, and slings an arm around Ouyang’s shoulders. They don’t feel particularly strong, but there is no indication that the man even registers the weight Zhao Yunlan is leaning on him. Which answers his thought of maybe overpowering the professor by surprise. “Of course. There’s nobody better qualified to judge how well your serum’s powers match those of actual Dixing.”

Ouyang nods vigorously. “I would be honored—the SID does have such a close working relationship with Dixing!”

“Yeah,” Zhao Yunlan agrees. “Very close.” Intimate, even.

“Chief Zhao!” Li Qian calls in warning, and Zhao Yunlan gives her a sharp wave to shut up. He doesn’t need her to worry about him. He’s plenty worried himself. But if the alternative is watching that poor bastard Liu claw his own face off—he couldn’t do that. So if Shen Wei and Lin Jing could hurry up, that would be excellent. Zhao Yunlan throws the door a quick look, but it’s just standing there. Door-like and very closed, the red light shining steadily on.

“Thank you,” Ouyang beams, then pitches his voice conspiratorially low. “The staff here—well. I haven’t had great luck with them.”

Across the room, Li Qian stiffens, pale and angry. The other three have huddled together for safety, the two older researchers linking their arms around the waist of a sick-looking Xiao Liu.

“That’s too bad,” Zhao Yunlan says, grimacing at the ghoulish remark. He can’t quite manage to turn it into a smile, but maybe it will serve as an expression of sympathy between superiors. It disturbs him to no end—Ouyang is most certainly a murderer now, but he doesn’t even seem to care.

Ouyang cheerfully grabs his sleeve again, and unceremoniously tugs him along to the cluttered workbench. “Right. Where did I put it?” He starts puttering about, for all in the world like someone’s grandpa trying to find the TV remote. “Why don’t you take a few layers off?”

Because Zhao Yunlan would rather keep all of his clothes on around this dangerous fool, but he can’t say anything like that until the door opens. “It’s a bit chilly,” he says apologetically.

“The injection is effective everywhere, but my protocol is for one shot in the upper arm, so—please.”

Zhao Yunlan very, very reluctantly takes his lollipop out, and re-wraps what’s left of it before sticking it in a pocket. Then he peels off his leather jacket, and shrugs out of the casual sweater with an old stain down the front that was all he found to change into after his shower. He’s wearing a white t-shirt below, but the thin cotton does nothing to keep the cold he feels at bay.

“Oh yes, here we go.” Ouyang turns around, syringe in hand.

Zhao Yunlan looks at the door, and stays there, eyes fixed on the door as Ouyang walks over and jabs the needle in him. He twitches as the point of it breaks through his skin, and hisses at the deeper intrusion of the injection, but it’s no worse than a flu shot. Not at first.

Li Qian stomps over to him, her head held high even when she passes the man who’s been terrorizing her and her colleagues. “Chief Zhao,” she says with angry concern—a combination Zhao Yunlan is very familiar with. “Come. You should lie down.” She grabs him by the wrist and leads him over to something that looks like a more advanced version of the medical table Lin Jing has in their lab.

Ouyang allows this, all smiles now that he’s got a fresh victim to observe. And Zhao Yunlan allows it because he’s not feeling very well. He doesn’t know if it’s because sheer terror has made him so stupid that he has a moment’s panic at feeling the air moving in and out of him (the panic subsides when he remembers this is a normal human thing), or because the injection is already starting to affect him.

“Why did you do that?” Li Qian asks quietly as she flips a couple of switches on the top part of the scanner.

Because I hoped Shen Wei would come stop him, Zhao Yunlan doesn’t say. “It’s my job,” he reminds her with a reassuring grin.

It doesn’t make her relax—in fact, it makes her determined expression waver, and he can tell she’s on the verge of tears. “I’m sorry,” Li Qian whisper. “I shouldn’t have called you here.”

“No!” Zhao Yunlan says, and the loudness of his own voice makes his heart race for a moment—is he developing super hearing? Super hearing would definitely be a lot better than—than what happened to the person in the corner. “No,” he repeats, a bit less manically. “Don’t apologize. You did something very brave, getting word out. And we’re here to help now.”

Li Qian gives him a tiny frown that speaks volumes about what she thinks of his help. He takes her hand and tries not to cling to it. Tries to keep the grip encouraging instead of desperate. “It’s not just me,” he says, keeping his voice very low. “Shen Wei and Lin Jing are here. But the door—” He glimpses motion out of the corner of his eye, and releases Li Qian.

“What are the readings, Li Qian?”

Li Qian’s voice is admirably steady when she answers the professor, giving him numbers and engaging him in a discussion on their meaning. It’s nothing Zhao Yunlan can really follow, not through the strange pounding he can feel resonate in his bones. It’s been building for a bit, and he thought maybe it was just his heartbeat. And maybe it is? But if so, Zhao Yunlan may be in quite a lot of trouble, because a normal heartbeat shouldn’t hurt.

“I should go do some calculations.” Li Qian’s voice sounds like it’s coming from another room. But it can’t be, because she squeezes his hand. “I’ll help with the door,” she whispers. Then she’s gone, and Zhao Yunlan is alone.

The pounding is getting stronger and stronger—or maybe it’s a pulsing. Something coming from inside, something—wrong. Dark sparks dance in his vision, like Zhao Yunlan can see the thing Ouyang put into him with that syringe. It’s not just a serum, not just a chemical reaction—it’s part Dixing, and his Haixing body is trying to reject it.

It does so by locking his jaw and winding his limbs tight, until he’s curled into a ball on the glowing table, trying to keep whatever it is from taking over. But it’s already in him. It’s in his blood. It’s flaring up with every beat of his own heart, pain shooting from every artery and capillary and vein until it’s everywhere. Everywhere. His bones, his teeth—his eyes. That scares him, because he knows what it’s like to be without sight, but only with Shen Wei there to keep the world bright for him. Even in the throes of excruciating physical pain it’s worse still to think of a life where he be could trapped in darkness, all alone.

It’s possible this leads to him saying Shen Wei’s name out loud—he honestly doesn’t know. He can hear a constant whining sound that may be coming from his own throat, or from one of the instruments on the scanner above him. He’d look, but his eyes aren’t opening anymore, and besides, he can only hold on to fragments of any thought or impression that isn’t about Shen Wei.

Shen Wei, I’m sorry.

The tension in his body has become so unbearable it’s making him convulse—he’s aware of it like a passenger half-asleep on a late-night flight is aware of turbulence. He’s shaking, but it’s nothing to do with him. He’s too busy hurting. Shen Wei, I want to see you again.

There’s something inside of him, and it shouldn’t be, and his body needs it to be gone more than it needs to—to do anything. Including breathe. Including keeping his brain on. Shen Wei, I love you.

Zhao Yunlan doesn’t fade out gently. He goes struggling, fighting to get back to himself; to get himself back. When oblivion comes to him, offering to soothe the pain away, he has to be dragged down, his last desperate gasp carrying a whisper of Shen Wei’s name.

Chapter Text

“Okay, try now?” Lin Jing says, his voice betraying sharp anxiety where he sits hunched over the purloined laptop he has plugged into the wall.

As with each time Lin Jing has asked, Shen Wei focuses a tendril of dark energy at the shield inside the physical door between them and the lab. So far it hasn’t shown any signs of wavering, not from careful probing, and not from more force. This time, however—it’s not much, but it is the difference between a wholly dark night sky, and one where the distant horizon is beginning to acquire a first hint of color. “More of that, Lin Jing,” Shen Wei says. Then he glances at the small screen next to the door, and adds, “Hurry.” As if Lin Jing doesn’t know.

Lin Jing, too, used to respect Professor Ouyang—was mentored by him in ways Shen Wei never could be, being neither truly young nor truly human. But seeing the man now, twisted into a parody of everything a good scholar should be—it has been agonizing, watching without being able to interfere. Without being able to do anything for his own young student, in there because of her connection to Shen Wei. He feels a keen sense of responsibility, and guilt, and fear that he will stand here like this and watch ineffectually while Li Qian is hurt—or worse. The small screen isn’t giving the full story of what has transpired in the lab, but Shen Wei doesn’t need technology to tell him there has been at least one death already.

“How’s the chief?” Lin Jing asks, a tremor in his voice as his fingers fly over the keys.

“Getting worse,” Shen Wei says tersely. He knows, because he can feel it.

Lin Jing gulps, and hunches a little closer to his screen.

Shen Wei frowns as he stares at the corner of the screen showing a glowing bed with Zhao Yunlan’s form curled up in pain. At first he thought the SID chief knew something—had made the excursion up as an excuse to get to Professor Ouyang in private, maybe. They can’t hear what is happening inside, and that let Shen Wei believe he was right for a moment. Zhao Yunlan immediately attached himself to the professor, and seemed to be wheedling him for something.

But not even Zhao Yunlan would be stupid enough to think there was anything to gain by accepting that dangerous and irresponsible concoction into his own body. It drove Lin Jing into a proper fit, watching his chief stand there and let Professor Ouyang inject him. Shen Wei obligingly tried the blade against the door again, but to no avail.

What could possibly have motivated Zhao Yunlan to put himself in this situation? Maybe if they had been able to hear—but they can’t. The video screen has remained mute no matter which buttons Lin Jing pressed. Shen Wei will have to get Zhao Yunlan out. Ask the man himself. Because it seems like maybe he did it because Professor Ouyang had his unethical sights set on another target, and Zhao Yunlan chose to interfere.

But why? It is infuriating, this sudden uncertainty—none of Zhao Yunlan’s actions add up. Not even the ones Shen Wei’s witnessed since returning to Haixing. Maybe there is another Zhao Yunlan—a twin?

“Hey—what? Oh—now!” Lin Jing shouts, snapping Shen Wei out of his increasingly absurd contemplations.

Shen Wei doesn’t bother with a probing tendril, not with Lin Jing’s voice raised like that. Not with the sudden absence of any impressions, no matter how vague, from Zhao Yunlan.

The door doesn’t give at once, but Shen Wei channels power he doesn’t yet have to spare into the force of his second blow, and it shatters into smoking debris. Shen Wei strides through first, with Lin Jing—unarmed but too worried to hang back—on his heels.

Professor Ouyang looks up, his startlement transforming into a smile when he sees Shen Wei. So he really has gone all the way over the edge, because Shen Wei is not wearing an expression that should invite smiling. He is also holding a sword. “Professor Shen!”

Shen Wei scans the room. “Get out,” he tells the white-coated assistants.

Three of them need no other encouragement to bolt. Li Qian doesn’t follow. “Professor Shen?” Her eyes are wide, but not afraid. Not anymore.

Shen Wei gives her a nod. “Well done, Li Qian,” he says. “You can go with the others.” She doesn’t, and Shen Wei feels a rush of protective affection her for it.

“My experiments,” Professor Ouyang is saying. “Please come, I will show you—”

“How could you?” Shen Wei demands. “Everything you know, everything you’ve taught, and you turn it into this?” He gestures to Lin Jing bent over Zhao Yunlan, calling for his chief, lightly tapping the slack face.

“I turned it into this!” Professor Ouyang roars, provoked into a smashing rage. It is no threat to Shen Wei, but he has yet to decide how he should best contain the furious man.

“Professor Shen?” Lin Jing calls, his voice high. “Please, I think—I can’t see him breathing anymore!”

Or Shen Wei could just knock him out. There’s nothing left in that brain worth protecting anyway.

A moment later, Professor Ouyang is out cold on the floor, and Shen Wei is standing over Zhao Yunlan’s body. Obviously, Zhao Yunlan can’t die now. He still hasn’t left this time, he still hasn’t done what Shen Wei hates him for. But maybe—just maybe—if he does die now, that means the past will fix itself, and Shen Wei won’t have to bear the grief of Kunlun’s loss anymore.

“Professor Shen!” Lin Jing is staring up at him. “Can’t you do something? Don’t just leave him like this!”

Li Qian crouches beside Lin Jing, and grabs Zhao Yunlan’s wrist, resting her fingers against it to feel for a pulse.

Shen Wei doesn’t really see either of them, only looks at Zhao Yunlan’s pale face, wiped blank. How strange. Even sleep doesn’t extinguish his expressions like this, only softens his energy. It makes Shen Wei’s heart ache, because he wants Kunlun to live, but he doesn’t want Zhao Yunlan to die—not like this. And that feels like some kind of betrayal.

It doesn’t take much. Shen Wei doesn’t even get Lin Jing and Li Qian to move out of the way. He simply reaches out a hand and pours enough energy into the oxygen-starved lungs to remind them of their function. That should get the heart what it needs, too. And then—he snaps his hand back as if burned, though he has yet to touch Zhao Yunlan’s skin. Is that what Professor Ouyang did?

“You fool,” he snarls—at the professor, for forcing this on other people, and at Zhao Yunlan for making terrible choices. (Uninformed choices, a small part of Shen Wei opinies. If the chief had known, maybe he would have thought twice before getting himself in this situation.) Then Shen Wei reaches in, feels for where the change in Zhao Yunlan is happening, and makes it stop.

“Oh!” Li Qian exclaims. “His pulse—it’s getting stronger.”

Lin Jing pretty much flings himself across Zhao Yunlan to check on his breathing, and smiles at Li Qian before shooting Shen Wei a look that’s half gratitude, half suspicion. “Is that it, or…?”

Shen Wei shakes his head. “Only for right now—and it won’t be enough to wake him,” he says, and Lin Jing’s face falls. “I can explain later,” Shen Wei says. “We should report to the Ministry—let them know to take Professor Ouyang into custody. Let them know that he…” Shen Wei trails off, looking at Li Qian.

Li Qian swallows, her eyes shining with unshed tears, as she points to a corner of the lab. “Zhang Yuhua,” she says.

Shen Wei remembers Zhang Yuhua—a young woman the year or so above Li Qian. She was energetic and outgoing, and organized study circles and mentoring programs. Something of a big sister for her entire class, and certainly for the younger girls. Smart enough for Li Qian to idolize her—and for Professor Ouyang to recruit her for his project. Shen Wei takes two strides across the room. Sees what has become of her, and wishes that maybe he hadn’t been quite so gentle with Professor Ouyang.

Lin Jing comes more hesitantly, clearly afraid—Shen Wei doesn’t blame him. Not even when he rushes to the side, narrowly making it to one of the lab’s sinks before being violently ill.

Li Qian exhales a shivering sigh, and then looks up from her hand wrapped around Zhao Yunlan’s wrist to Shen Wei’s face. “Sorry,” she says, and wipes at her eyes with her sleeve. “I forgot—I shouldn’t keep you.”

“From what?” Shen Wei asks, and Li Qian gives him a tremulous smile.

“It’s okay,” she says. “Please—I understand. You don’t have to pretend around me, especially not now.”

Is she—is she talking about the relationship Shen Wei had with Zhao Yunlan? But why would she—how would she—?

“Come on,” she says, moving out of the way. “Chief Zhao will be glad you’re here. He was calling for you.”

“Calling?” Shen Wei repeats dumbly, without moving closer. He doesn’t want to move closer. Li Qian’s brow is starting to furrow.

“When—when he was hurting.” Li Qian shudders at the memory, then exhales again, centering herself. She has gotten much more adept at controlling her emotions, Shen Wei notices distractedly. “I’m sorry. I don’t think he wanted us to hear it, but… He kept saying your name.”

Shen Wei stares at Zhao Yunlan. Why would he do that? Especially after what Shen Wei saw on the rooftop—surely it should have been another name on his lips. So which was it? Zhao Yunlan, very much unconscious, doesn’t answer the unspoken question. It is unexpectedly frustrating, not having Zhao Yunlan’s instant attention when he wants it.

“I’ll go get word to the Ministry,” Lin Jing comes up behind them, a damp paper towel crumpled in his hand. Shen Wei wants to reach out and stop him, but it makes sense—of the two of them, Lin Jing’s status is the more official. Both as part of the SID, and Professor Ouyang’s lab.

“We need to get Chief Zhao back inside the SID’s shield,” Shen Wei warns. It won’t do anything directly, but with all the threats out here it will be a far better place to give Shen Wei time to do more.

Lin Jing nods. “I’ll explain—Li Qian, can you come with me? You might have to stay and brief them. I’m sorry, that’s probably—”

“No,” Li Qian says. “I will do it.”

“Meet us at the car,” Lin Jing says. “Bring the chief.” It sounds almost like an order, despite his usual nervous manner around Shen Wei.

They leave together, and Shen Wei is alone with two unconscious men.

He only cares about one of them.

Gingerly, Shen Wei crouches so he can look at Zhao Yunlan. The lack of expression hasn’t changed. There are no answers there, so Shen Wei delves deeper. Closes his eyes and reaches out a hand—he remembers how frustrating it was to get used to Zhao Yunlan being hurt and needing his help. How terrifying. It is—less, now. Zhao Yunlan who is not Kunlun; Zhao Yunlan who killed Kunlun (but why?).

But there is nothing to read of Zhao Yunlan’s motivations in his energies. No imprint of any orders, any tampering outside of the terrible wrong Professor Ouyang just did to him. Which is most of what Shen Wei can feel. He opens his eyes and nothing has changed. If he lowered his outreached hand a fraction, Shen Wei could stroke Zhao Yunlan’s hair.

He doesn’t. But maybe some part of him wants to, because it takes him two tries to move his hand back to his side. Shen Wei scowls. If it isn’t some kind of compulsion, something left by Ye Zun to trick him, draw him in—what is it?

A few guards are trickling through the shattered doors—sent by Lin Jing, since they don’t immediately threaten Shen Wei, only nod respectfully. Shen Wei doesn’t know how much time has passed, but Professor Ouyang is still unconscious. Shen Wei helpfully points the guards to the unconscious murderer, and makes sure that they tie him up carefully enough to hold his bloated strength. Then he goes to Zhao Yunlan, who needs to be moved to the car.

The choice is between carrying him, and taking guards away from the vital task of watching Professor Ouyang. Shen Wei knows he shouldn’t hesitate. He approaches Zhao Yunlan warily, but there is no flicker of consciousness in the SID chief. Carefully, Shen Wei gathers the limp body in his arms. There is no reaction, no greedy hands sliding under fabric or warm face pressed into his neck.

Shen Wei carries Zhao Yunlan carefully, and folds him into the recovery position in the back seat of the car. Then he goes and stands outside the passenger door until Lin Jing arrives with the chief's gun and phone and carefully drives them back.

Yunlan doesn’t know when the darkness gave way to this strange, flickering scenery, but he can’t stop to think about it. Not when Shen Wei is ahead of him—sometimes just barely ahead, sometimes a small figure in the distance. Yunlan has called out for him, but Shen Wei doesn’t hear—he knows Shen Wei doesn’t hear him, because otherwise Shen Wei would turn around. Would come back to Yunlan, where he should be. Would let Yunlan be with Shen Wei, where he should be.

So Yunlan—runs? He’s chasing, at least. Chasing after Shen Wei, through a landscape that changes form and size: horizon expanding over mountain ranges and broad valleys, then shrinking into the confines of a Dixing palace hall and something smaller yet. There is a windowless room hewn out of rough stone kept warm by a fireplace which expands into the Dragon City University campus, and turns into a desolate wasteland Yunlan doesn’t recognize at all.

There is darkness, but different than the one Yunlan drifted out of to find himself here. There is light, and it is moonlight and starlight and all hues of sunlight. Sunlight filtered through trees, sunlight struggling through a dull and hazy sky, the first blush of sunlight on a winter’s morning. Sometimes there’s a streetlight, or a neon sign, or—Yunlan almost stops to stare at it—the motorcycle light from his own flat. None of it is steady. It’s like an old channel with bad reception, or a picture on a spinning top wobbling about. There then gone, there then gone.

Other than Yunlan, there seems to be only two other constants in this world. One is Shen Wei. As long as Yunlan doesn’t lose him—but he hasn’t, so far. Has managed to follow behind Shen Wei’s solid back, always clad in the black of his Envoy cloak. Always marching on towards something Yunlan can’t see.

The other constant is the bone-deep, soul-wearying pain. At first Yunlan thought it was him—something to do with why he’s here instead of properly asleep or awake, with the gnawing suspicion that there is something very wrong with him. But it’s not. This pain is everywhere. It doesn’t come and go, doesn’t sit in any particular part of his body. It’s just there, through the light and dark, through the open plains and dappled forests and ornate halls. Everywhere Shen Wei has stepped, this pain drifts in his wake.

If it were an odor, it would become so easy to ignore Yunlan might forget it was there. But it’s pain, and the thing with pain is that unless there is relief, it gets worse the longer you bear it. It’s also becoming sharper, clearer—resolving into harsh grief and wrenching loss and cold fury. And something else. A bitter undercurrent that saturates everything, that makes everything hurt more. It makes Yunlan think of poisons, of things that should give sustenance but have been altered to do terrible harm.

Yunlan doesn’t understand any of it. Emotions don’t usually have flavors; pain doesn’t usually flow in from outside. But he doesn’t have to understand to know: Shen Wei is hurting. And that means Yunlan needs to to stop it. Slowing down because of the toll that same pain is taking on him is no option. He must follow, and then he must catch up, and then he must make it better. Because he won’t allow this world or any other to hurt the man he loves.

If only Shen Wei weren’t moving so fast, toward—what’s this? Something new. Another—not constant, because it wasn’t there before, but it’s there now. And it’s not changing.

It’s a light, Yunlan thinks. A beacon; a lighthouse. Rising up and flooding outwards, it’s brighter than any of the noonday suns he’s seen here, and with more heat than any summer afternoons. The light is mellow gold, soft and warm, and washes everything around them in those same shades.

No. No, wait. Yunlan hurries, somehow forces more of the distance closed because he must see, must make sure—and there it is. Shen Wei is still walking towards it, and Yunlan is still bathing in its glow, but the light doesn’t touch Shen Wei.

It can’t. Not through the long shadow cast from something between Shen Wei and this light he is so desperately seeking. Wherever Shen Wei steps, there is only darkness. A sundial’s narrow shadow; a sliver of night made just for him.

Yunlan looks up, and sees the pillar. He’s not even particularly surprised at how familiar it is. Angry, because Shen Wei is hurting so bad, and it’s so clear that the one thing he needs, his brother’s looming presence is keeping from him. Even here, even—wherever they are.

But Shen Wei is getting closer and closer, and the light is getting brighter and brighter, and surely that will soon be enough to eliminate that narrow band of darkness and show Shen Wei what lies beyond? Yunlan wants to rush up to Shen Wei, to take his hand and tug him to the side and show him that whatever he needs, it’s right there. But even without Yunlan, Shen Wei is so close, so close

And then the world shifts and folds.

It’s not a world of solid things, so it doesn’t move or crumble the way anything real would. It hinges itself around the pillar, and just as Shen Wei has one step left to go, the hem of his dark robes bathed in a golden glow, everything twists. The light becomes a negative of itself, an inkblot on a white page, spreading its impenetrable darkness over both light and shadow in the flickering world. And there’s the pain—everything Yunlan felt before a mere echo of this one moment, this shockwave of grief and rage that tears through every part of the strange scenery. It’s too much for him. He tries to reach for Shen Wei but he can’t; he’s not close enough. And the moment he loses sight of Shen Wei, that same darkness from before closes in over his head and pulls him under.

It’s the second time in less than twenty-four hours that Shen Wei returns from the Haixing Ministry with Zhao Yunlan injured. It’s beginning to feel less like random chance and more like some kind of carelessness from his side—certainly, Wang Zheng and Zhu Hong both give him particularly considering looks as everyone crowds together around the chief’s limp form in the office sofa.

Or maybe those are because Shen Wei had Lin Jing lift Zhao Yunlan inside, and is now choosing to sit in a nearby chair rather than on the sofa itself. But he can’t afford the distraction of Zhao Yunlan’s physical presence right now—and even if he could ignore it, he doesn’t currently have enough strength left to waste any more on carrying people around. Too much has been happening in too little time since Ye Zun had him captive, and Shen Wei has not had time to replenish any of the power his brother stole. What he has is barely enough to keep a trickle running into Zhao Yunlan now, encouraging his human body to ignore the foreign intrusion of Professor Ouyang’s serum rather than spend all its energies repulsing it.

Da Qing has brought the first aid kit, with a put-upon expression that doesn’t hide any of his concern for his master—his chief. “How often do we have to do this now, hm?” he asks, sitting down by Zhao Yunlan’s side. “You should have told us you were going, not left us all asleep.”

Lin Jing flinches guiltily. “Sorry,” he says. “We shouldn’t have let the chief go in alone, but he told us…”

Da Qing makes a frustrated grimace. “We all know how stupid Lao Zhao gets, Lin Jing.”

Zhu Hong nods. “It’s not your fault.” But she looks at Shen Wei again, and it makes him feel uncomfortable.

“You are sure an ambulance won’t be necessary?” Wang Zheng was originally hesitant to accept Shen Wei’s insistence that the best place for Zhao Yunlan right now is in Bright Street #4, and can’t help asking again. She who has never set foot in a hospital has an almost fanatical belief in the ability of the modern healers and their machines to cure anything.

“There is nothing physically wrong with Chief Zhao,” Shen Wei explains again. “But he needs rest.” And more, but not until Shen Wei has had some rest himself.

“I smell blood,” Zhu Hong disagrees.

Da Qing nods, and then glares at Lin Jing. “Don’t look like that! It’s from before, with the Crows.” He starts unwrapping the gauze around Zhao Yunlan’s neck, as he adds, “I hope…” Then he hisses, and those around him gasp.

“I thought you said that bastard didn’t touch him?” Da Qing snaps at Lin Jing, effectively undoing all of his earlier reassurances.

“I thought he didn’t! But I was busy with the door...” Lin Jing clearly doesn’t want to, but he turns the statement into a question with a look at Shen Wei.

“What?” Shen Wei asks. “Professor Ouyang had no reason to do Chief Zhao any harm—he didn’t struggle at all.” Inexplicably didn’t. Only stood there, watching the door with Shen Wei on the other side.

“Then how do you explain this?” Da Qing snarls, and leans aside so that Shen Wei can see.

The bruises stand out even more than they usually would against the current pallor of Zhao Yunlan’s skin. There is a darker impression of a thumb on one side of his throat, and swollen finger smudges on the other. A constellation of angry red dots is strung out between them, and the cut on his neck below his ear has been torn open again, and is ringed with layers of dry blood that have peeled off with the bandages.

Shen Wei immediately knows who has marked Zhao Yunlan thus—and also understands what kind of force it would take to leave those imprints behind. “Ye Zun.” The name spills from him in a rush of fury, which is quickly followed by new uncertainty and a confused jealousy.

In Shen Wei’s sudden state of heightened emotions, the trickle of energy he’s been feeding Zhao Yunlan spikes into a flood before he can stop it. He struggles against an overwhelming wave of weakness, mostly oblivious to the clamor rising around him. Trying to keep from sagging in his chair he uses his physical form and energies both to grasp for support, knowing he is well beyond his limits.

It comes to Shen Wei in a warm rush. Unthinking, he grasps at it, like he would an outstretched hand or strong shoulder—support freely given, catching Shen Wei before he can fall. It is life, and it is strength, and for a moment he feels such a boundless tenderness that Kunlun’s name comes unbidden to his lips.

But that is impossible. Shen Wei drops the connection to whatever source of power he’s been offered with a guilty start. Raising his head, he finally notices what everyone else already has: Zhao Yunlan’s eyes are open, and he’s staring right at Shen Wei.

Chapter Text

Waking up is more confusing than usual. Consciousness comes to Zhao Yunlan all at once, catching his body off-guard, then half-fades again. Nothing feels right, and a lot of things feel downright wrong. The soreness in him isn’t pleasant at all—not the kind that makes him smug and relaxed, but a dull ache that would usually have him calling in sick and letting Shen Wei spoil him with warm food and medicine. His throat hurts, and his muscles ache, and that is the part of the wrongness that feels nearly fun to focus on, compared to the rest.

There is something foul stirring under the pain, and at first Zhao Yunlan can’t tell if his eyes won't work or if he just isn’t managing to open them. But worse yet are the sensations that linger from the—the dream? A dream that has left a massive emotional hangover. Because even though the confused images of light and dark and Shen Wei are quickly fading, grief is still an iron band around his chest, his heart below cold and heavy with loss and anger such as he hasn’t felt in nearly twenty years.

Cracking his eyes open to try getting away from that pain, there is light—and relief, with the discovery that he’s merely not in full control of his body, and not blind again. That vague input together with the familiar scent and comfort of a beat-up leather couch means Zhao Yunlan knows exactly where he is. From the formless blobs of heads and shoulders between him and the ceiling, he can tell that he’s surrounded by the entirety of his team. He also knows with startling certainty that Shen Wei is right nearby—and about to fall over.

There is no time to process the information, to ask how he could possibly know that or what he could be expected to do about it. There is only the instant urge to help. Zhao Yunlan can’t even move a hand yet, can’t rise up and catch Shen Wei—but he can turn his head and look at a blurry Shen Wei and go here.

It isn’t anything like reaching, or touching, or anything Zhao Yunlan has ever done before in his life. Still, it comes to him as easy as breathing. He simply—gives.

And Shen Wei takes.

It doesn’t hurt—drains Zhao Yunlan a little, but in a good way. Like—he can’t believe he’s thinking about sex right now. But this feels like a connection just as intimate, this exchange simply another way of becoming tangled in each other. It makes the pain recede—Zhao Yunlan’s own and the one he carries with him.

It also makes him lightheaded enough that the world is a little fuzzy. Like maybe he’s fading out again, lacking the energy to sustain this—whatever this is. But it’s the closest Zhao Yunlan has felt to Shen Wei since their last shared kiss and he is desperate for more. Passing out seems like a small price to pay for another few seconds of having any kind of connection with Shen Wei, and he refuses to give it up until he runs dry.

Or the connection turns off—he didn’t know it could do that, but then again Zhao Yunlan doesn’t actually know what he has been doing. Only that he goes from doing it to not doing it, then feels less like passing out and more like getting his eyes to focus properly so he can look at Shen Wei. Da Qing blocks a little of his view, but as his vision grows sharper Zhao Yunlan can see Shen Wei lift his head and meet his gaze.

The lack of open hostility in Shen Wei’s expression feels like joy to Zhao Yunlan, who smiles and keeps smiling when their stare is interrupted by Da Qing’s human-sized headbutt. Then he has to fend off a chorus of worried, welcome voices as he takes in everything that just happened. Yeah, sure, Shen Wei looked pretty awful, in a way Zhao Yunlan recognizes only too well as overtaxed exhaustion. But he didn’t look like he wanted to either bolt from Zhao Yunlan or murder him, and right now that is everything. It means he’s not lost to Zhao Yunlan forever—it means there is hope.

Zhao Yunlan gives his team a minute to fuss over him, cleaning and putting an adhesive bandage over the cut on his neck and scolding him for leaving without more backup. But through the relieved exasperation he’s being subjected to, he can pick up an unusual number of suspicious glances aimed at Shen Wei. Zhao Yunlan narrows his eyes. He can’t tell what, but something definitely went down while he was out cold. He takes note of it for immediate action as soon as he’s gotten something even more pressing over with.

“So,” Zhao Yunlan says, hauling himself up so he’s sitting cross-legged with his arms resting on the back of the couch. “Did you get everyone out? Li Qian's okay?” Nobody is acting like they have bad news to deliver, but Zhao Yunlan wants to make absolutely sure.

Lin Jing rushes to answer, “She's fine.” He smiles. “They all are. A little shaken, maybe, but safe. And he—the professor—the Ministry has him.”

“Good, good.” A bit of tension goes out of Zhao Yunlan, who settles more comfortably into the couch before he goes on, “And what’s my new superpower?”

He makes the question flippant, as if he sought out the injection of his own free will and can’t still feel something crawling around under his skin. Less of something now, but still there.

Everyone looks at Shen Wei. Zhao Yunlan cocks his head expectantly as Shen Wei looks down for a moment. Zhao Yunlan is still carrying more borrowed pain than he knows how to contain, and adding his own fears to it makes it difficult to do anything but smile in defiance of those feelings. “Is it something really useless?” he asks, trying to coax Shen Wei into answering without resorting to using his Chief voice. “Can I, like. Talk to earthworms or something?”

There is the faintest trace of amusement in Shen Wei’s voice as he says, “That would certainly be a unique power,” and Zhao Yunlan feels like he’s won the Sports Lottery, because Shen Wei is talking to him. Then Shen Wei’s face goes carefully blank, and Zhao Yunlan realizes that answering the stupid question was a stalling technique. There’s something Shen Wei doesn’t want to tell him, but that Shen Wei is going to tell him anyway because he feels honor-bound to.

Zhao Yunlan gives Shen Wei a fraction of a nod. Whatever it is, Zhao Yunlan can take it. And it’s as if Shen Wei was waiting for that acknowledgement, as if they’re back in sync again, because Shen Wei lifts his chin and says, “You don’t have one.”

“It’s what now?” Zhao Yunlan says intelligently. “But he jabbed me! And I’m not dead?” Not that he minds, but surely Shen Wei wouldn’t have been stalling just to deliver good news.

“Professor Ouyang used his serum very unwisely. I had to halt its progress in you.”

So Shen Wei saved him? Chose to save him. To Zhao Yunlan, that’s worth almost dying to know.

“It contains high doses of—” Shen Wei’s brow furrows in a most becoming, professor-like way as he considers the layperson term. “Well. Part of it is a synthetic version of the neurotransmitters that react to dark energy and spark the development of an individual Dixing’s latent gifts. But it wouldn’t be efficient if it didn’t also simultaneously inject a small dose of the energy itself.”

Zhao Yunlan tries to listen to the explanation, nodding along like a dutiful student, but mostly he’s treasuring the revelation that even now, Shen Wei is stepping in to protect him.

“It’s supposed to be a small dose. Very small. And it’s supposed to be the first time a Haixing body is exposed to it.”

Zhao Yunlan narrows his eyes. “I’ve been exposed before,” he says. By the Hallows and by Dixing itself.

“Correct,” Shen Wei says, and looks a bit hesitant. “And—and you still had part of that energy inside you.”

He did? Zhao Yunlan eyes Shen Wei, and it clicks. Zhao Yunlan puts the shiftiness and exhaustion together and very nearly sits up with a curse, but forces himself to just throw his head back for a second. The fucking Longevity Sundial. And not his fault, this time—it was Shen Wei who used it to give Zhao Yunlan his sight back. By exchanging their energies in some fashion and—oh, Shen Wei. Giving more than he could afford to lose—putting it into Zhao Yunlan, without ever letting him know.

And now Zhao Yunlan has cause to suspect that Shen Wei might have taken Haixing energy into himself, which they all know very well is bad. No wonder Shen Wei acted so shifty, if he was planning on just keeping this from Zhao Yunlan forever. There is definitely a lot to untangle there later. Possibly literally. Definitely later.

Another deep breath, and Zhao Yunlan can put that aside to get the rest of Shen Wei’s explanation. “You think that’s what went wrong?”

“I believe it acted like—like a vaccine. Previous exposure primed your body to reject more of what had already damaged it. Only your defenses overreacted, going into overdrive—although that would make it more parallel to an allergy…”

“Dark energy anaphylactic shock?” Zhao Yunlan asks, because he had a university friend with a citrus allergy, and knows the effects well. “That tracks.” It would explain the general shitty feeling, and what definitely felt like nearly dying at the time. It does not, however, explain what Shen Wei hasn’t yet mentioned.

Shen Wei nods. “That was the immediate reaction. A few moments longer, and you might have found yourself with a fully manifested power. But your body would not have been able to last long under those conditions. You might have been able to use such a power for a while, but then—with the state of your energies—”

Zhao Yunlan raises an eyebrow. The state of his energies—and Shen Wei’s own—is something Shen Wei might have wanted to mention before he found out in this particular fashion. “You’re saying the injection set off some kind of self-destruct sequence?”

“Yes. Something like it, at least.”

Zhao Yunlan feels that queasy sensation somewhere below his ribs again. “But it’s not going to now, right?”

“I did not allow it to progress that far. What is still active should dissipate fairly soon.”

“So you’re saying nothing actually changed, and he just needs to sleep off the bad reaction?” Lin Jing asks, not sounding entirely convinced. “And there’s not going to be any sudden powers showing up?”

“That doesn’t seem likely,” Shen Wei assures them.

“Uh,” Zhao Yunlan says, because he’s been waiting for a chance to bring it up. “Then what’s this?” And he reaches for that same connection from before, like groping blindly for a tap until he can get it twisted just so, and—there’s guilt and loneliness and confusion, and Zhao Yunlan winces and carefully lets a gentle reassurance run in the other direction before closing the connection again.

Shen Wei jerks in his seat and his eyes go wide behind his glasses. “You…!”

Zhao Yunlan gives Shen Wei a crooked smile and flicks his hand in a wave. “Me,” he says.

“How…?” Shen Wei blinks.

Zhao Yunlan shrugs. “Not really my area of expertise,” he drawls. Before Shen Wei’s befuddled expression can darken into something more disapproving, he hurries to add, “But I won’t—I won’t do anything with it unless you want me to. I promise.”

Shen Wei keeps staring at him.

“This isn’t—it doesn’t mean you were too late, does it? With stopping things?” It seems important to check that part before Zhao Yunlan dissolves or goes into respiratory failure or something equally unpleasant.

Shen Wei shakes his head. “No. No, nothing should have had the time to activate so… How?”

“Could someone please tell us what’s going on?” Da Qing asks testily, and Zhao Yunlan realizes that everyone’s been staring at them for the past minute or so while he and Shen Wei have been engrossed in their own private communication. Zhao Yunlan is almost tempted to immediately break his promise to open up his heart to Shen Wei and show him how glad that makes him—that a minute of Shen Wei’s time has done Zhao Yunlan more good than any painkillers in the world could. But he doesn't, because Shen Wei neither accepted nor rejected his promise, so he's the one who's going to have to stand by it. For as long as it takes until Shen Wei decides to welcome Zhao Yunlan's presence.

“I totally have a superpower,” Zhao Yunlan says, and he can’t help sounding smug about it. What should he call it? Telepathy? But it doesn't seem to transfer any thoughts. ESP, then? Whatever it is, it seems limited to a single recipient—and of course Zhao Yunlan minds not at all when that recipient is Shen Wei.

“It’s not a superpower,” Shen Wei snaps at him, but it sounds like a normal degree of irritation over the disagreement in nomenclature rather than cold fury.

“It’s new,” Zhao Yunlan says, not entirely disagreeing with Shen Wei, but also not retracting his statement.

“And it only works on Shen Wei?” Da Qing wonders sarcastically.

“Actually,” Zhao Yunlan says, and Shen Wei sighs and finishes, “Yes. That does seem to be the case.”

“Then what about the energy, the adverse reactions…?” Lin Jing wants to know, and Shen Wei repeats the same assurances he’s already given Zhao Yunlan.

“Yeah,” Zhao Yunlan says, to see if maybe he can get everyone to look a little less worried. “I feel much better already. And come on—if that injection had taken, don’t you think I would have gotten super strength or something? That’s what would really have suited me!” He flexes an arm, and gets an eye-roll from Da Qing.

“No, Chief Zhao,” Xiao Guo disagrees, disentangling himself from Lao Chu who’s been trying to keep him from interfering. The strong painkillers he’s on make him sound vague and dreamy, but he is very intent on what he has to say. “This suits you perfectly! Staring at Professor Shen is pretty much what you do all the time anyway, and now you can do it… more…?”

Zhu Hong snorts. Lao Chu tugs Xiao Guo away, mouthing an apology but also smirking. Wang Zheng and Sang Zan exchange a knowing smile. Lin Jing is muttering something about needing more data on the Hallows' energies, and Shen Wei is starting to look like he wants everyone to be quiet and leave him alone.

“Right, so: not dying and I don’t have any kind of powers that work on everyone,” Zhao Yunlan sums it up, diverting everyone’s attention back to the matter at hand. “But I have some information to share, and then I want to know what I’ve been missing. Have a seat, everyone.”

There’s a scramble to get to the chairs, and Zhao Yunlan turns to Shen Wei, quietly reminding him, “I have to warn them about Ye Zun.”

Shen Wei looks grim. “I understand.”

“Unless you'd rather?” No matter how badly Zhao Yunlan would like to keep doing nothing but things that will make Shen Wei like him again, he can’t keep Ye Zun’s identity from the others. He can’t. But he could let Shen Wei share this particular piece of information in his own words.

“I—” For a moment, Shen Wei wavers, then he pulls himself together stiffly. “No. Please, Chief Zhao. Go ahead and brief them.”

Zhao Yunlan nods, and unwraps a lollipop. “So there’s good news,” he says, and the only one who looks happy is Xiao Guo, who beams. The rest of them look totally suspicious for some reason. “Ye Zun can’t get through our shield.”

Obviously his people can’t just sit down and enjoy that piece of good news by keeping their mouths shut and letting him talk. Zhao Yunlan holds his lollipop up like a gavel about to fall. When he has gotten most of them quiet, he puts the sweet in his mouth and continues. “He tried last night, but—well. I should remind everyone that the rooftop is technically not inside the shield.”

There’s knowing stares now. Zhu Hong in particular looks like she is deeply disappointed in him for falling back into the unfortunate cigarette habit she helped badger him into giving up.

Zhao Yunlan scratches at the back of his head. “I… may have forgotten about that for a bit, and Ye Zun was quick to take advantage of it.” And take advantage of Zhao Yunlan, too. He rolls the lollipop around his mouth, filling his senses with sticky fake-fruit sweetness completely unlike the flavor of stale cigarettes. There’s no way he wants to dwell on any of this, and no way he can come out of it looking particularly good, so he delivers the most compressed version of events he can.

“Shen Wei had to save my ass, but I would like to state for the record that Ye Zun is really fucking strong.” He’s seen the stares at his neck—which he had rebandaged for a reason last night—and acknowledges the connection between Ye Zun and the injury with an entirely real wince as he probes the bruise with his fingers.

“Also,” he says, and draws a deep breath, trying not to look at Shen Wei, or reach for him either with a hand or this new filament of a connection anchored in his heart. “Turns out he’s Shen Wei’s identical twin brother.”

At that, Lao Chu stands straight up out of his chair, and everyone else exclaims some version of what the fuck. Zhao Yunlan nods along, letting them shout for a bit. “And when I say identical, I mean he can choose to look exactly like Shen Wei here.” That doesn’t actually answer anyone’s questions, but it’s worth repeating. Because it’s like they say: It is easy to dodge a spear from the front, but hard to avoid an arrow from behind. And he’d really not anybody else fall for that particular arrow.

“So Shen Wei will have to make sure he doesn’t lose his keys or anything, because we have a big no-no on letting in anyone who looks like him. Clear?”

Shen Wei doesn’t need keys. Their shield knows to let him through. That’s not the point. But Zhao Yunlan thinks they understand—if nothing else several of his team are giving him looks like they now know full well how their chief ended up within strangle-reach of Ye Zun. And they’re all just going to have to pretend that they don’t, because Zhao Yunlan is not going to think about that again after he’s done with this report—much less actually talk about it.

Xiao Guo isn’t looking at him at all, but at Shen Wei. “Oh no,” he says. “Your own brother is trying to kill everyone in the world? That must be so hard for you…”

Zhao Yunlan can’t quite smother an inappropriate grin. “Well, who among us doesn’t have a few issues with our families?” he says with a shrug, and most of them agree. Wang Zheng and Sang Zan in particularly nod gravely. They should know how complicated love and hate and family can be. Seeing that exchange, any further questions from the team remain unspoken—possibly to be discussed vigorously behind their backs, but Zhao Yunlan will give them that.

Then it’s time for the others to report. Lin Jing has an update on Wang Xiangyang from the hospital. He is still deteriorating, though the doctors can’t say why. “Dark energy?” Lin Jing hazards, and Shen Wei agrees. There’s not much they can do about that, sad as the man’s fate might be.

“Fourth Uncle has tried to contact the Crows, but Ya Qing just reminded him the Yashou leadership contest is coming and wouldn’t answer any questions,” Zhu Hong says.

Despite the cut on his neck, Zhao Yunlan had nearly forgotten about the Crows. At Zhu Hong’s reminder, he realizes what context they were missing. “The attack last night was for Ye Zun,” he says, not loving this particular topic, but feeling it’s probably best to let everyone—particularly Shen Wei—know what he’s guessed. “He must have been hanging around, waiting to see whether or not whatever he did to Shen Wei still seemed to be working.”

In other words: could he get Zhao Yunlan alone, without Shen Wei? Because on the rooftop he definitely knew he could; knew for a fact that Zhao Yunlan wouldn’t have Shen Wei with him, and would be desperately glad to see him. Bastard.

“That Ya Qing!” Zhu Hong hisses. “She thinks she’s so much better than us, but all she’s doing is letting someone else boss her around!”

Indeed. But that gets Zhao Yunlan thinking—forcing Ya Qing to send four of her own into that fight... That hints at Ye Zun not being entirely sure of his mind-scramble working—or holding. Which is definitely information Zhao Yunlan is going to file away to muse over later, when he’s trying not to think about the deal Ye Zun offered him. But for now there is a discussion on what they can do to keep Ya Qing from using the age-old ceremony to commandeer the nominal obedience of all Yashou.

After the meeting is done, even a threatening apocalypse can’t keep them from ordering lunch and sharing another meal together. It’s not quite the same as usual, despite the laughter echoing to the high ceiling at the amazing drugged-up stuff coming out of Xiao Guo’s mouth. But it is all of them, safe around the same table, and that is all Zhao Yunlan can ask for right now.

Shen Wei is very tired. It is not a state he has had much experience with, not in a very long time, but he is beginning to understand why humans choose to spend a third of their lives unconscious rather than miss out on restoring their energies. It is slowing his reflexes and his thinking, and it is making his own emotions feel foreign and unpredictable.

So after they change into the fresh clothes Da Qing thoughtfully brought them, and Zhao Yunlan mentions going for an afternoon nap, Shen Wei follows. Even he can’t say if he’s doing it out of suspicion or because he is drawn in by the idea of having a quiet rest somewhere away from the rest of the SID. Zhao Yunlan is the only one he hasn’t noticed sneaking glances at him now, piercing him with curiosity and pity and alarm. He admits it is neither unexpected nor unwarranted of them to be concerned. He also wishes to remove himself from that particular situation.

Zhao Yunlan shoulders his office door closed behind them, and gestures at the plump leather armchairs. “No beds in here, but those are great for napping,” he says. Shen Wei is not entirely sure that others would agree with that classification, because Zhao Yunlan has an amazing capacity to nap just about anywhere—one of many traits he shares with the Kunlun of Shen Wei’s memory. Shen Wei’s heart prickles, and he sits in the closest chair without comment.

Meanwhile Zhao Yunlan has sat in the other chair and kicked his feet up on the low table between them. He acts relaxed, but there’s a tension about him—Shen Wei gathers enough energy to send a thread of power to check whether the effects of Professor Ouyang’s serum are continuing to dissipate as expected.

And immediately, Zhao Yunlan’s head comes up, eyes wide. “Shen Wei. Did you just… do something?” he says, and now that Shen Wei knows to listen for it there is still a faint rasp in his voice. It was more pronounced last night on the rooftop, but Shen Wei thought—or didn’t think. Didn’t think at all, only acted.

Shen Wei hesitates, then nods. “Your energies,” he says.

“You’re—you’re checking up on me?” A smile brightens Zhao Yunlan’s face and voice, eyes alight, and Shen Wei snaps the connection shut.

“There’s no danger now,” he says, instead of answering the ridiculously obvious question.

“Hey,” Zhao Yunlan says. “I never said thank you. For fixing that serum thing for me. So—thank you.”

Shen Wei hasn’t done anything for Zhao Yunlan’s thanks; has only done what he believes he has to. But he nods anyway, and there’s that smile again, and it’s so warm.

“So,” Zhao Yunlan says, letting his head drop back against the brown leather of the chair, “Will sleeping actually help you get better?”

Zhao Yunlan’s head tilted back like that exposes his throat. The bruises on his skin are an ugly purple, and Shen Wei can see how perfectly their placement matches his own handspan. Instead of answering the question—which Shen Wei doesn’t want to do, because he doesn’t know, because all of this is new to him, too—he says, “I could heal your throat.” He doesn’t want to have to look anymore at the reminder of Ye Zun’s long reach, of his influence on every part of Shen Wei’s life.

As he turns his head to look at Shen Wei, Zhao Yunlan’s eyes are very dark and very serious. His tongue touches his lower lip, and he seems about to say something. Then he scoffs, and throws his head back again, closing his eyes. “I said ‘nap’, not ‘pass out’. Go to sleep and save your energy.”

“I—” Shen Wei wasn’t expecting a refusal. Why wouldn’t Zhao Yunlan take advantage of Shen Wei’s abilities for this? Now it has become a matter of pride—and of getting those marks off of Zhao Yunlan’s skin. “It will take very little of my power,” he counters.

“Well, it's taking none of mine,” Zhao Yunlan says, not even bothering to open his eyes.

Shen Wei stares at him. Has he misread the situation? Is this something Zhao Yunlan wants, does he—“You want to keep his touch on you?” he says out loud, accusingly, because that is how tired he is.

Something tugs at his heart, but there is no unasked-for influx of energies or feelings. Just Zhao Yunlan looking at him again. Hard. “The only person I want marking my body is you, Shen Wei. You know that, you—” Zhao Yunlan grimaces, and flicks a hand in the air as if he can bat the entire sentence away. “Go to sleep.”

With a rush of heat, Shen Wei remembers the joy of gripping Zhao Yunlan’s hips with bruising strength, of Zhao Yunlan later tracing those fingerprints in his flesh with such a mix of smugness and reverent delight that Shen Wei wished he could claim Zhao Yunlan’s every inch of skin the same way. It is—strange, to think of that and also remember that Zhao Yunlan is going to ruin everything Shen Wei loves. He swallows, and even knowing he can’t trust any answer he gets, brings himself to ask, “So with Ye Zun—that wasn’t—”

Zhao Yunlan shudders, eyes screwed shut. If it is merely a show of revulsion, it is a very good one. “I wasn’t exactly in a position to refuse,” he says thickly, crossing his arms over his chest. “Not once I knew—”

Shen Wei doesn’t want to hear anymore. “Then let me,” he says again, and Zhao Yunlan goes very still and quiet. Then he nods. He doesn’t open his eyes, only rests his head against the plump back of the armchair, and waits.

This time, Shen Wei stands up and actually touches Zhao Yunlan’s skin, covering the marks his brother left behind with his own fingers. Zhao Yunlan’s pulse flutters against them as he gently coaxes the cells and immune system in the contusion to hurry their work.

Shen Wei was right about how little effort it takes him—and possibly wrong about how much of his total reserves it would drain. But of course he doesn’t pass out. Of course. “There,” he says, and through the warmth of the newly healed skin he can feel that Zhao Yunlan’s heartbeat has sped up. “Better."

“Yeah,” Zhao Yunlan agrees, but he still doesn’t open his eyes. He almost seems like he’s on the verge of laughing, of saying something; but then he sighs and slows his breathing. “Go to sleep, Shen Wei,” he murmurs.

Shen Wei moves back to his chair, and does his best to find a comfortable position in which to do exactly that.

Chapter Text

Yunlan opens his eyes and is home. There must be a full moon, because the light is soft and blue, shadows swallowing all details and leaving nothing but the broad strokes of walls and floor and furniture. He looks around—he’s standing by the door, even though it feels like he just woke up. But he must have—arrived home late. Of course. And that means he’s made Shen Wei wait for him.

The thought of causing Shen Wei trouble adds a little pebble of guilt to Yunlan’s heart, but it doesn’t matter—a boulder couldn’t keep it from soaring, not when he has Shen Wei to come home to. He never knew it could be like this—thought it was pretty good, with other people, before. Like a kid thinks a bike is pretty good and then he grows up and gets a motorcycle and he’s like, oh, because they have two wheels and nothing else at all in common. Shen Wei is nothing like anyone else; nothing like anyone else could ever be, not to Yunlan.

“Shen Wei,” he calls, because he likes how the sounds of that name feel in his mouth and how he can just say it and expect an answer—expect Shen Wei to be there.

And he is. The dim light makes Shen Wei seem just a silhouette, slim and ephemeral at the kitchen end of the apartment. Then he turns at the sound of Yunlan’s voice, and of course that almost stops Yunlan’s heart for a moment with how he’s so beautiful he seems to glow in the moonlight.

“Sorry I’m late,” Yunlan says, because he must be—Shen Wei has taken off his jacket already, is wearing one of his lecturing outfits, with a white fitted shirt and those sleeve garters that show off the strength of his arms in such a tantalizing fashion. But the buttons are still made up all the way to his neck, so maybe Shen Wei hasn’t had a chance to really relax yet tonight.

“You’re right on time,” Shen Wei murmurs, stepping closer, though Yunlan doesn’t smell any food yet. Maybe Shen Wei was in a hurry, and decided to forego cooking for takeout? Yunlan has been trying to break him of his habit of ensuring that everything they eat together at home is something he’s cooked himself. It hasn’t been going too well, since Shen Wei insists it’s on account of Zhao Yunlan’s health, but Yunlan has been trying very hard to make a case for the occasional exception when time could be better spent on other things. Is that what Shen Wei has in mind? Because if so, Yunlan will need absolutely no convincing, not given his urge to wrap himself around Shen Wei right now.

Yunlan is absolutely ready to do just that as soon as Shen Wei comes over, a purr in his throat as he prepares to voice a rejoinder—which dies on his tongue when he sees Shen Wei’s smile. His arms fall to his side. The moonlit air might have turned to water, and Zhao Yunlan could not have felt more crushed by the weight of it, more bereft of oxygen than he does now.

“Take it off,” he says, his voice as leaden as his limbs.

Deft fingers undo the top few buttons of the shirt—does Shen Wei even own any shirt in that particularly cold shade of white? “Like this, darling?”

“His face,” Zhao Yunlan bites out. “Shen Wei’s face. Take it off.” His brain is scrambling to make sense of what his heart already knows. A dream, he thinks as he remembers all the agonizing reasons he can’t be at home with Shen Wei. But it feels far too real to be just a dream.

Ye Zun laughs. Zhao Yunlan refuses to be backed up against his own front door—against anything—and stands stiffly in the middle of the room, trying to figure out how to escape this nightmare. “Didn’t my dear brother tell you? We’re twins. There’s only our face,” Ye Zun says.

“Wow, okay. That’s disturbing, even for you,” Zhao Yunlan remarks, disappointed to find that his dream-self is as unarmed as he was for their last meeting.

Ye Zun is taking slow, deliberate steps towards Zhao Yunlan, still smiling terribly with Shen Wei’s features. “But it made you so glad to see me,” he exclaims, and Zhao Yunlan has to set his teeth in a grin.

“Yeah, no. And about that—how did you make it through the shield?” Zhao Yunlan isn’t overjoyed with anything happening right now, but there is a real fear that something might have left everyone else vulnerable to attack while he’s stuck here.

Ye Zun smirks. “I didn’t.”

Zhao Yunlan does not in any way let himself show any relief at that. Instead he returns the the smirk with interest, like he doesn’t have a real bad feeling about what’s about to go down. “Then you’re not really here,” he says, “and I’m leaving.” Zhao Yunlan can’t let Ye Zun’s thoughts linger on how his first concern was for the shield. So he turns his back on Ye Zun, striding to his front door with all the confidence he doesn’t feel. And though it isn't a surprise, he still startles when a hand locks on his shoulder and hauls him around.

Ye Zun is looking fantastically pleased with himself. “Oh, but we’re not done yet,” he says, his fingers digging into Zhao Yunlan’s dream-flesh. This close, his presence brings a bitter taste to Zhao Yunlan’s mouth—the ashy flavor of stale cigarettes. Far too vivid for a dream, he thinks with resignation.

“What?” Zhao Yunlan stares hard at Ye Zun, waiting for the inevitable gloating, trying to hold on to the thought that this is far better than to let Ye Zun start threatening his team.

“I didn’t have to go through the shield,” Ye Zun says, “Because you came to me.”

At that, Zhao Yunlan bristles. “I really didn’t!" Not this time. "I fell asleep, that’s all. But still inside the shield and everything”

Ye Zun quirks an eyebrow at him, and leans in to whisper, “You made a promise.” And yeah, unfortunately that confirms what Zhao Yunlan has been suspecting. The rooftop—he’d let Ye Zun set out terms, had agreed to the first demands because it seemed… if not harmless, then at least like any harm would just be to himself. And for even the slightest chance of getting Ye Zun to reverse what he’d done to Shen Wei—well, Zhao Yunlan might be smart, but he’s really stupid when it comes to Shen Wei.

“I don’t remember promising to dream about you,” Zhao Yunlan says.

“Even after our kiss?” Ye Zun teases, and—dream or not, there is bile rising in Zhao Yunlan’s throat as he remembers surrendering to Ye Zun’s touch, forcing himself to endure the kiss Ye Zun claimed as part of his price. Remembers the terrible look on Shen Wei’s face, as he burst onto the rooftop with the worst possible timing.

“So this is your idea of a call, then,” Zhao Yunlan says, because there’s no point in denying that he may have accidentally set himself up for this.

“You promised to answer a call,” Ye Zun agrees. “So I called. And here you are.”

Zhao Yunlan laughs at that. “Already? It hasn’t even been twenty-four hours! Do they teach you nothing in Dixing about how these things work—you can’t be so clingy, it makes you seem desperate.” Ye Zun’s grip on his shoulder tightens, and he winces, but still manages to shake his head mockingly.

“And you seem like an obedient dog, to let yourself be summoned so easily,” Ye Zun snarls.

“Well then,” Zhao Yunlan says, letting the insult roll off of him. “That means I’ve done what you asked. Time for you to show me you’re serious about this deal.” Or for Ye Zun to pretend, at least—Zhao Yunlan is resigned to the fact that this is all some kind of game to Ye Zun, and an entirely rigged one at that. But the stakes are too high for him not to play—if there’s any chance at all of helping Shen Wei, Zhao Yunlan will take it.

“Are you that eager for me to claim my price?” Ye Zun says, and there is something terrible and hungry in his eyes as he looks at Zhao Yunlan. Then his eyes widen behind Shen Wei’s glasses, and he reaches for Zhao Yunlan’s throat.

Zhao Yunlan slaps the hand away, and Ye Zun snatches it back, offended for an instant before he’s all malicious amusement again. “Shen Wei didn’t like me playing with his toy,” he murmurs, and brushes his fingertips over his own neck, chuckling quietly. “Even now… But you didn’t mind, did you?”

The words pass unremarked, because of what Zhao Yunlan has just seen. The undone buttons, the stroking fingertips—they reveal the yellow jade pendant Shen Wei should be wearing, but hasn’t been, not since Zhao Yunlan got him back from Dixing. Got him back with those pieces of himself where Zhao Yunlan should fit missing. And here’s that same necklace, tucked into Ye Zun’s shirt.

“Give it back,” Zhao Yunlan says tonelessly.

Ye Zun looks at him with unrestrained glee, eyes sparkling. “Oh,” he says. “This?” And he pulls it out of the shirt so that Zhao Yunlan can see.

Maybe it’s a construct—Ye Zun is wearing Shen Wei’s face, so why not his pendant? But it looks—solid. Even in the blue underwater light it gleams with a warm golden color, just like it always does against Shen Wei’s skin. It feels right just looking at it. It feels real.

“Give it back,” Zhao Yunlan repeats, and Ye Zun nods encouragingly.

“Yes. It’s important to him, isn’t it?”

It is. Zhao Yunlan doesn’t know why—Shen Wei hadn’t said, and Zhao Yunlan hadn’t asked. Though he had guessed it must be a keepsake, something from someone—someone important.

Someone like Kunlun, he thinks now, peevishly. And it’s ridiculous to be jealous, especially when Zhao Yunlan has his own share of past lovers, but the way Shen Wei was so protective of it—Zhao Yunlan never had anyone that important in his life. Not until Shen Wei. And he always tried not to let it bother him, that Shen Wei had someone before who he still treasured even when he was with Yunlan.

So—yes. It is important to Shen Wei. More than important, maybe. Zhao Yunlan has rarely seen him take the necklace off, and never for long. And now Ye Zun has it, and Shen Wei isn’t whole anymore.

Zhao Yunlan swallows. “Will it fix him?” he asks.

Ye Zun tilts his head quizzically. “Fix him?”

“Shen Wei’s memories. The ones he’s missing; the ones you fucked with. Are they in there?”

Ye Zun glances at the pendant in his hand. “Such a small thing, and yet he fought so hard for it… But you he just let go of.”

Zhao Yunlan’s jaw tightens. Ye Zun shouldn’t be able to hurt him with words, because Ye Zun lies. “So?”

“Ah,” Ye Zun says, looking back to Zhao Yunlan. “So if you return this to my dearest brother, he will take you in his arms again, and all will be well.”

Ye Zun lies, and that answer is practically a taunt. Then again, at this point Ye Zun could give Zhao Yunlan a banana-leaf fan and he’d try to put out a volcano with it.

And at least it’s something—a thing, not just an empty promise. If Zhao Yunlan got the pendant, he could return it to Shen Wei—give Shen Wei back one important thing his brother has stolen from him. It might not fix whatever is wrong with him, might not do much for Zhao Yunlan in Shen Wei’s eyes. But it would be a start.

“Alright,” he says. Before Ye Zun can start full-on cackling, Zhao Yunlan adds, “One thing first, then I’ll listen to your proposal.”

“You’re not in a position to make demands,” Ye Zun says, pulling Zhao Yunlan a little closer by that shoulder he still hasn’t let go of.

Zhao Yunlan rolls his head back in annoyance. “I am, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” He’s not quite as sure of that as he wants Ye Zun to believe.

Ye Zun shows too many teeth to be smiling, which Zhao Yunlan takes for agreement. “Yeah,” Zhao Yunlan says. “That.” He points a finger at Ye Zun’s face. “I told you. Take it off. I want to see who I’m bargaining with.”

A long, thoughtful stare, and then Ye Zun tosses his head and a cascade of silver hair settles over a pure white robe. Shen Wei’s glasses are gone. The pendant remains, a tiny warm sun against Ye Zun’s frosty moonlight. He’s not wearing a mask. “Like what you see?” Ye Zun asks.

Zhao Yunlan doesn’t dignify that with an answer, but studies Ye Zun carefully, as Ye Zun practically preens at his attention. There can be no mistaking that Ye Zun is Shen Wei’s twin. At first glance, their features are identical. To Zhao Yunlan, who has everything Shen Wei is engraved in his memory, Ye Zun seems—thinner. More delicate. Less solid, somehow. The planes of his face cast weaker shadows; the jaw has such a familiar angle and yet it seems softer. But the most shocking difference isn’t that, or the silver hair.

Seeing Ye Zun unmasked for the first time, it’s startlingly obvious to Zhao Yunlan that the wrongness he’s been picking up on isn’t simply the distortion of beloved features. “You’re mad,” he says, softly, almost without meaning to. Intimately close already, he moves closer. “Shen Wei isn’t, but you are.” For just a moment, he wants to touch the man in front of him—wants to forge a connection that isn’t pure animosity. “What happened to you?”

And for just a moment, Ye Zun freezes, his eyes wide and expression so vulnerable Zhao Yunlan can read oceans of hurt in it. Even knowing the wrongs Ye Zun has wrought, the pain and destruction he has been spreading—the lives he has already cost—Zhao Yunlan can’t help but look at him right now and see the kind of suffering he recognizes from victims, from rejects and outcasts and those who have been given up on so many times they’ve finally given up on themselves.

Then fury twists Ye Zun’s features, and he slams a blast of force into Zhao Yunlan, breaking their connection by throwing him against the front door. “There is nothing wrong with me!” Ye Zun growls.

Zhao Yunlan groans and stands up, shaking his head to clear it. Dream or not, that hurt. Well, what did he expect? He wishes he had someone around to tell him he’s an idiot; then he’s relieved there’s nobody else around, because Ye Zun looks pissed. “Nothing!” Ye Zun says, sharp and shrill, and follows up with another blast of dark energy that forces Zhao Yunlan’s body back against the door.

Captive audience that he is, Zhao Yunlan can only watch Ye Zun stalk closer, power radiating from his outstretched hand. “It’s everything else.” His voice has dropped to a snarled whisper, but he’s close enough that Zhao Yunlan can hear him just fine. “It’s this whole world, where you can’t trust anyone, where nobody lets you have anything—” The gleam in his eyes is even madder now, his nostrils flaring as he cuts off the flow of dark energy and simply locks Zhao Yunlan’s body in place with a forearm across his torso.

“But I will change that,” Ye Zun breathes, and Zhao Yunlan feels the exhalation against the lips he’s keeping pressed shut. “I will change it all…” His gaze goes distant, and he stands there, leaning against Zhao Yunlan, chest heaving. Almost drifting off somewhere, and then he snaps his attention back to Zhao Yunlan, pats a cheek with his free hand. “I’ll get what’s mine,” he says, in a low, covetous voice.

Zhao Yunlan wonders what it would take to wake up, because it feels like he might be better off not trapped against another vertical surface by this megalomaniac creep. He really, really doesn’t like the glint in Ye Zun’s eye as he says mine, that’s for sure. And yet he stands still, because it’s right there—the pendant that Ye Zun might have forgotten about, but Zhao Yunlan hasn’t. It’s right there, and he has a whole arm free. So he reaches for it.

It feels cool, just like those times he’s brushed against it where it’s been resting on Shen Wei’s skin. Cool and solid, with a presence between his fingertips that feels almost intrusive here in this sketch of a shadow world.

The gesture does not go unnoticed. Ye Zun eyes him with interest before plucking the jewel from his hand and taking a step back, clutching it in his fist. “No touching; not until it’s yours,” Ye Zun says, tuning out of his ranting to pick up where he left off.

“What do you want?” Zhao Yunlan asks, going for casual and managing a fractional slouch, because his entire fucking body is on high alert from essentially inviting Ye Zun to do his worst.

Now Ye Zun is having fun again. The smile is back, and it fits this face much better than Shen Wei’s. “Maybe I should ask what you have to offer?” he says, his voice soft now.

A shudder twists Zhao Yunlan’s spine, but he says, “Same as last time. Not the Hallows. Not—not anything that will risk anyone else.” He juts his chin out. “And I get that thing now. Immediately.”

“Ah, Xiao Yunlan. Are you always so impatient to get what you want?”

“A fair trade. I get the pendant—not later; now.”

“Have you forgotten?” Ye Zun motions to indicate the entire moonlit apartment. “We’re not exactly anywhere.”

“Yeah, well, I have faith in your abilities.” After all, this bastard was able to drag Zhao Yunlan—Zhao Yunlan’s soul?—all the way here. “Or send it by Crow post. I don’t care, but I’m not coming back for it.”

A flash of white teeth. “My abilities will do fine,” Ye Zun says, and leans in. “After you’ve paid.”

“Fine,” Zhao Yunlan says. “What is it this time?” The only thing he had of value he’s already given to Shen Wei. The rest is trivial, compared to getting Shen Wei to remember—one way or the other—that he holds Zhao Yunlan’s heart.

Ye Zun’s eyes glitter with anticipation. “You will come with me, and you will follow four commands.”

Four. An unlucky number. “Three,” Zhao Yunlan counters, because his mother did not raise her child to fold without haggling. “And only—here,” he gestures at the unrealness around them.

“Four,” Ye Zun insists, then leans forward. “Here. But if you forfeit, you get nothing, and I may… call on you again.”

Superstition aside, it doesn’t sound as bad as it could be. Not for what Zhao Yunlan stands to gain. “I get Shen Wei’s pendant, and you let me go back—wake up or whatever—before sundown in Dragon City.”

“Agreed,” Ye Zun says, after only a moment’s consideration.

“And if any of this is an attempt to get the Hallows, or get me to hurt anyone, you can fuck right off. No more creepy dream stalking; no more deals.”

Ye Zun nods sagely, as if this is something he anticipated. “Agreed.” Then he turns to Zhao Yunlan and reaches out a hand eagerly—almost excitedly, like a child who wants to show off a new game. “Shall we?”

Zhao Yunlan lets out a short laugh, because the alternative is recoiling. “Now? You move fast.”

“Now,” Ye Zun repeats, a hint of impatience creeping into his voice.

No last-minute stalling, no time for regrets. Fighting down every scrap of self-preservation currently making itself known, Zhao Yunlan nods, and takes Ye Zun’s hand.

Much in the manner of dreams, they were one place and now they are another. Zhao Yunlan has no sense of movement, no visual impressions at all of the change in environment. It simply happens. And here he is, back in the main Dixing plaza, close to the massive stairs up to the imposing palace under an impossibly moonlit sky. Zhao Yunlan is standing alone—no. Not alone. Standing without Ye Zun, but surrounded by a shadowy crowd of—other dreamers? Ye Zun’s very own CGI extras? Whoever they are and wherever they came from, Zhao Yunlan can only see a mass of silent ghostly faces, all turned to stare at him.

Well, crap. Ye Zun brought an audience. Or wants Zhao Yunlan to think there’s an audience—either way, it’s far too reminiscent of nightmares about suddenly being on stage without any idea of what lines to deliver. Zhao Yunlan can hear his own nervous pulse, the silence around him is so dense. He twitches his head, trying to shrug the feeling off as he cranes his neck and looks for Ye Zun.

As if on cue, the crowd around him parts like a startled school of fish. Looking at the space they’ve left, Zhao Yunlan sees a clear path to the stairs—and up them, to where Ye Zun is reclining insolently in a chair so ornate with gold and ivory that it may as well be a throne.

And right then Zhao Yunlan upgrades the situation from well, crap to oh fuck. This isn’t some petty, private bullying. This is a show. And given what Ye Zun is like in private, Zhao Yunlan is not at all looking forward to what Ye Zun will be like when he really wants to make an impression.

“Zhao Yunlan,” Ye Zun’s calls. His voice rings through the great space, clear as a bell. “Come.”

It’s not a compulsion—not anything like what Zhao Yunlan saw in those affected by poor little Zheng Yi. He gets no impulse to obey—quite the opposite, in fact. But Ye Zun has issued a command, and Zhao Yunlan made a deal. Pretending there are no spooky onlookers, he picks a leisurely pace and saunters to the stairs. It’s harder to saunter up them, as they are wide enough to require either one uncomfortably large step each, or two mincing ones. Deciding it’s better to get things over with rather than look like a supplicant courtier, Zhao Yunlan takes the stairs in wide strides.

It’s a long climb, but Ye Zun waits with the patience of a cat watching the approach of a mouse. Zhao Yunlan’s nerves are winding tight at the anticipation in Ye Zun’s gaze on him. One command down, three to go—if Ye Zun has any intention of sticking to the deal. And, well—if he doesn’t, Zhao Yunlan will at least be close enough to get one really good punch in. Or maybe a well-placed kick. Ye Zun has summoned a spectral audience; he would probably not like that audience to witness any kind of slapstick comedy involving his own exalted self.

Zhao Yunlan hits the top of the stairs breathing hard—which seems unfair, in a dream. His body is probably still comfortably tucked into the chair in his office, and so his unfortunate lungs aren’t even doing anything strenuous.

He takes a moment to completely ignore Ye Zun and have an appreciative look around—he doesn’t usually get a chance to linger at the palace entrance, after all. The architecture is all Dixing, heavy and gloomy, with black stone polished to a dull shine, angular inscriptions the only decoration on the massive stone pillars holding up the gateway entrance to the palace proper. Grim-faced statues of guardian deities glare threats at all who dare pass them. And casting a bone-white glow over it all is that impossible moon, proving that this is not quite the real Dixing.

“Chief Zhao,” Ye Zun says sharply, and Zhao Yunlan looks around as if he’s only now become aware that there is someone else up here. Not that the monstrosity of a throne Ye Zun has conjured himself would have been easy to miss—Zhao Yunlan is pretty sure that even when blind, its sheer ostentatious aura would have had a repelling effect on him.

“Hey.” Zhao Yunlan gives him a wave and rocks back on his heels. “Nice… chair.”

Ye Zun has one leg swung over a carved arm rest, and a hand propped under his chin. He does not look amused by the commentary. “Silence,” he says, and again the word rings with all the weight of the power he has over Zhao Yunlan.

Two down, then. And Zhao Yunlan regrets not talking more while he had the chance—no matter what crosses his mind now, he’ll have to keep it to himself or break the deal outright.

“And didn’t I tell you to come? What are you wandering off for?” Ye Zun waves at him to come over, looking quite pleased with himself. Because of course now all Zhao Yunlan can do is exactly what Ye Zun says, without ruining his show by saying anything insolent. He hooks his thumbs in his pockets and walks up to the tacky chair, letting his posture speak for him, stopping just out of arm’s reach. Ye Zun quirks his lips and crooks a finger at him. Reluctantly, Zhao Yunlan closes the distance, standing right by the armrest Ye Zun is leaning his weight against.

“Lord Guardian,” Ye Zun declares, and Zhao Yunlan winces at the use of the title. He’s not exactly here in a professional capacity—quite the opposite. In his professional capacity he should currently be kicking his own ass for being so monumentally stupid as to get involved with Ye Zun in any way other than taking him out for good. “You have been a very troublesome man for a very long time.”

That makes Zhao Yunlan grin. It does sound like him.

“Haixing has long upheld its superiority over Dixing, hasn’t it?” Ye Zun is still lounging, but there is an intent and an energy to his casual pose. “The King, the Regent—the Black-Cloaked Envoy.” Ye Zun sneers. “They all bend their necks to Haixing rule, agree to let you Haixing people have what we cannot.”

There is a movement like waves drawing in on the sand as the crowd below stirs. Still they make no sound, but until that motion caught his attention Zhao Yunlan had mostly managed to not think about them at all. “But I told you. I am different. I am changing all that. Beginning with who pays obeisance to whom.”

Zhao Yunlan grimaces. It’s not hard to see where this is going. And right on cue, Ye Zun lays a possessive hand on Zhao Yunlan’s shoulder. The shitty throne is raised enough that Ye Zun doesn’t have to strain to get his face uncomfortably close—Zhao Yunlan jerks away, from raw nerves more than any conscious choice. Ye Zun’s grip stops the motion from becoming more than a twitch, and then he smiles and sinks back down in his seat. He uses his strength to pull Zhao Yunlan along by the back of the neck, forcing him to practically lean over the armrest. “Do not move again without my permission,” Ye Zun says through teeth gritted in a smile.

The order leaves Zhao Yunlan unable to nod his acquiescence—and he can’t speak either. His only way of showing he is willing to go along with the third command is by obeying. Exhaling slowly, he gathers his wits and tries to calm down enough to stop actively fighting the cold fingers gathered at his nape. They’re stroking the skin there, softly and gently, and he is so very close to tearing himself away and calling it all off. But where he’s hunching he can see the yellow jade nestled in the folds of Ye Zun’s robe, and he’s done three out of four already and he can’t give up now. For Shen Wei, he can do this.

“Well done,” Ye Zun purrs at him, and pulls him closer yet. “Now you’ll be a good boy, won’t you?”

Zhao Yunlan would much, much rather be a troublesome nuisance, but Ye Zun gives him a little push to stand upright again, and he does. And freezes, his heart plummeting. The crowd has done their strange impression of a silvery school of fish again, parting around a solitary figure standing in the middle of the plaza looking up at them. A figure dressed all in black, masked and hooded and—fuck.

Shen Wei.

Chapter Text

Executing his plan is laughably easy. Ye Zun’s dear brother has been battering his feeble powers against the barriers around this nightmare realm ever since Zhao Yunlan’s elevated heart rate and spiking adrenaline failed to wake his sleeping body. Somehow—Ye Zun dislikes not knowing why—that was enough for Shen Wei to come sniffing around, honing in on this particular construct. So all Ye Zun has to do is wait, and let him in when the time is right.

And as for Zhao Yunlan… Well. Lord Guardian or not, Haixing and Dixing and Yashou are all the same—everyone has something they want. Something they desire above all else. Something they are willing to beg or bargain or sacrifice for. Once you know what it is, all that remains is seeing what price you can extract for it. That is the part Ye Zun has enjoyed with Yunlan. Figuring out what he desired was too easy. Too infuriating. But making Yunlan pay and pay and pay for wanting what is rightfully Ye Zun’s—yes, that he can do.

Can wait until this impertinent interloper is beginning to bend to his will. Until Zhao Yunlan has played far enough into Ye Zun’s hands. And then Ye Zun has but to say a word and it will all go his way. Oh, it really is too easy! But not any less delightful to execute—not when Ye Zun still has so very much left to look forward to.

Yunlan is close enough that Ye Zun can taste the anger and fear rolling off of him as the Black-Cloaked Envoy appears. And of course Ye Zun knows his gēge well enough to see the shock behind the mask. It is a moment to savor—he licks his lips. Making sure to catch his dear brother’s eye, Ye Zun tugs Yunlan’s face down to his own. He runs a hand over the fascinating textures of the features his brother somehow finds so appealing—soft and scratchy and warm, so warm—and locks his fingers in the thick hair. Yunlan’s body goes as tense as a bowstring ready to snap.

It would be terribly amusing if he did.

It would be better if he didn’t.

Ye Zun brings his lips, not to Yunlan’s sweet, hot mouth, but to the soft shell of his ear. A breath, and Yunlan shivers. Another, whispering a single word. “Kneel.”

Even this close, Ye Zun can’t tell if his Xiao Yunlan is really being a good boy, quick to obey, or if his legs simply give way. No matter—it is delicious to finally have him on his knees. So powerful, Zhao Yunlan possesses all that Ye Zun does not. Yet now Ye Zun is the one comfortable on a throne, Haixing’s Lord Guardian bent to his will on the cold ground.

And the most thrilling satisfaction: Dixing’s cursed Envoy, Ye Zun’s beloved brother, is watching it all. The distance lets him see but not interfere—not here in the realm Ye Zun has created with the powers taken from the self-proclaimed Lord of Nightmares. Trying and failing to draw closer through the crowd, his gēge hasn’t heard anything passing between them. He only knows that this Zhao Yunlan—the man Shen Wei should have stopped loving now, as he stopped loving Ye Zun—is once again yielding to Ye Zun’s touch.

Ye Zun reaches out and pets the unbowed head, his smile growing ever wider as Yunlan holds still and silent. Beautifully, that simple gesture stops Shen Wei’s attempts to get to the stairs, leaving him rooted in shock.

Once Ye Zun has basked in his triumph for—well, not as long as he wants to, because he could soak this moment up for ages, but long enough—he leans over and places a fond kiss on top of Xiao Yunlan’s head. He really has been very good, and deserves his reward. Ye Zun has to stifle a giggle.

It would be best if Shen Wei had no reminders of having his keepsake taken and his memories remade. Ye Zun lets one of his sleeves grow long and trailing to serve as a curtain. Let gēge imagine what is happening behind it.

Ye Zun lifts the disgusting pendant off himself, and slides it over Zhao Yunlan’s bent head. Seeing the leather string against that lovely, unmarked skin, Ye Zun thinks of how easy it would be to leave more bruises. Instead he strokes a finger along a corded tendon in Yunlan’s neck. “Hold it close,” Ye Zun murmurs. “Cover it in your hand, and it will be there when you return.” It should, at least. Ye Zun will do all he can to ensure it.

And then, because this part of the game has come to an end, Ye Zun lets both dreamers wake.

Yunlan isn’t in Dixing anymore. Isn’t back at home with Shen Wei—an anxious tug accompanies that thought, but he doesn’t have enough form here for those emotions to settle. Memories, too, scatter with the lightness of butterflies taking wing.

Shen Wei stays. Not—not the one he was just with. But Yunlan has seen this Shen Wei before. This is the Shen Wei with pain blossoming in his footsteps, with the dark robes swept around himself as he tries to find the hidden light.

Yunlan had forgotten all about that. But here in the flickering world, what he once knew is getting poured back inside of him. This is what he was doing: following Shen Wei.

Fighting the instinct to do so blindly and desperately, Yunlan pauses. He knows now that he can’t lose Shen Wei. Shen Wei will never get further away than the shadow blocking his light. The light that is at the center of everything. This light doesn’t hang in the sky—doesn’t exist independently of everything around them. Instead it is like the button of a chrysanthemum flower that holds all the other petals together.

Yunlan knows where he should go. Moving in this place isn’t easy, but he will move. He is determination and intent, and he is need. Need to be there, with Shen Wei.

The light-dark flickers around Yunlan. Days and years and distance are covered by a thought, leaving him standing on a precarious path just at the edge of the slash of night across the landscape. Here all is harsh and barren, cliffs and crevices covered in frost wherever the shadow falls.

Shen Wei is approaching. Relief at having made it rushes through Yunlan and leaves him empty, pushed aside by the grim sorrow radiating from Shen Wei.

For the first time, Shen Wei stops. Looks around, looks—not at Yunlan, but close enough. Shen Wei throws his head up, straining to sense something just out of reach. A moment later he staggers, clutching a hand to his head.

Letting himself be nothing but the need to protect and support, Yunlan props Shen Wei up. Shen Wei’s frustrated confusion weighs on Yunlan, more than an arm slung around his shoulders ever could. Rebuffs him, though Yunlan clings on.

Shen Wei is mumbling something, but not speaking to Yunlan at all. “Where is he? Who is he?” Shen Wei’s words make the shadows around them grow denser.

The emotions rolling off of Shen Wei are crushing Yunlan. He knows now that this is what happened last time, and that fighting it simply tore him away from Shen Wei. Aching, Yunlan flows aside and lets Shen Wei sink to the ground. His robes pooling around him, Shen Wei sits with his mask in hand and his hood shadowing the strained lines of his face. Yunlan doesn’t try to take any of the impossible weight of Shen Wei’s grief, but fights to stay near him.

“I—I don’t know who he is anymore. I don’t know who he should be, I don’t know...” Shen Wei whispers with harsh desperation, and around them the shadows have coalesced into night.

Yunlan wants to touch Shen Wei. He reaches out. Behind his mask, Shen Wei closes his eyes. With his unreal form, Yunlan brushes Shen Wei’s face. Shen Wei sighs. “I miss you.”

Yunlan misses Shen Wei too. Misses him so much it hurts even here, even now. “Can I help?” he tries to ask, because that’s all he wants to do. The air is so still and cold it’s possible the words have frozen between them.

Shen Wei doesn’t answer. Shen Wei only breathes. Breathes as if it is a conscious act, as if he is doing it in defiance of the pain and darkness. Such darkness—Yunlan can’t see Shen Wei anymore.

With rising panic, Yunlan turns around and around but there is nothing to see—not a sliver of light in this crushing night. Then Shen Wei’s voice comes to Yunlan, strained and weak and hopeless. “Can’t be mended. Can’t be helped.” An answer to Yunlan’s question?

No. Yunlan refuses. That is not an answer he will ever agree to. “Then what?” he throws back at the darkness. There must be something. Something—

Undone. The word is the answer to everything, and all Yunlan can contain. Undone, and as he comes undone himself he hears—

“Yunlan. Zhao Yunlan!”

—Shen Wei’s voice.

Shen Wei wakes. There is no Ye Zun here—can’t be, with the shield holding fast around them. Shen Wei is no longer in a warded world of moonlight and dreamers, but an office bathed in late afternoon light. It would be meaningless to surge to his feet and summon a blade. Possibly doing so would bring some comfort, but he would achieve nothing except startle the SID. The enemy is gone, and Zhao Yunlan—Zhao Yunlan is still asleep. Head tilted back, feet up on the small table. One hand dangling over the armrest, the other fisted near his throat.

Now is not the time to rest. Shen Wei’s frustration grows, watching Zhao Yunlan’s chest rise and fall. After what Shen Wei witnessed they have a great many things to discuss. So why isn’t Zhao Yunlan coming awake? After all that happened in the nightmare realm, has Zhao Yunlan really drifted back into normal human sleep?

“Zhao Yunlan,” Shen Wei calls, but Zhao Yunlan doesn’t stir.

Shen Wei moves to stand over Zhao Yunlan. His sleeping features are marked by tension—brows drawn together, teeth making a divot in that plump lower lip. “Zhao Yunlan,” Shen Wei says again, needing Zhao Yunlan awake now. Now, before he can spend much more time dwelling on what he saw in Ye Zun’s nightmare. Before Shen Wei can decide what it all means without Zhao Yunlan around to speak for himself.

“Zhao Yunlan!” Shen Wei shakes him by the shoulder, not letting go until he sees the flutter of Zhao Yunlan’s eyelashes.

“Shen Wei?” Zhao Yunlan asks, voice tight. “Shen Wei!” The repetition comes when his eyes fly wide, and he almost upends a small table in his haste to get his feet back under him.

“Zhao Yunlan,” Shen Wei starts, “What were you—”

“Undone!” Zhao Yunlan says, looking wildly at Shen Wei.

This is a very strange way of interrupting the much-needed line of questioning.“What is?” Shen Wei demands.

“The answer. That’s the answer—I have to—” Zhao Yunlan exclaims, and hurls himself at the door.

Shen Wei blocks his way. “Wait!” If this is some compulsion of Ye Zun’s, following through on it could be disastrous.

“Shen Wei.” Zhao Yunlan throws a look at the door over Shen Wei’s shoulder, and gestures with the hand he doesn’t have clutched over his breastbone. “There’s something I want to try, with the Hallows.”

Shen Wei feels dread closing in, because that is exactly the sort of behavior he would expect of someone doing Ye Zun’s bidding. “Zhao Yunlan, we need to talk. You are not making any sense.”

“I know,” Zhao Yunlan says, breathing deep. “But I think—there was something before… between? Something between that fucking nightmare and this, where I—no. You?” He slits his eyes in thought, head cocked as if he’s trying to hear a distant sound—or recall some command.

“Zhao Yunlan, sit down.”

“No, no—I can’t! It’s all disappearing already but I—”

Shen Wei grabs Zhao Yunlan by the shoulder, intending to steer him back to his chair. But the second Shen Wei touches him, Zhao Yunlan tears away and falls into a defensive stance.

They stare at each other, Shen Wei still reaching for Zhao Yunlan, Zhao Yunlan’s hands up ready to block him. This is certainly new. Shen Wei doesn’t like what that implies, not so soon after what he saw in Ye Zun’s own Dixing.

“Sorry,” Zhao Yunlan says, his hands falling to his sides. “That was—I wasn’t—”

It wasn’t something he’s ever done around Shen Wei before, and that is concerning. But not as concerning as the strange piece of jewelry hung around Zhao Yunlan’s neck. Surely he didn’t have that pendant earlier? Not when he slouched in his chair—Shen Wei would have noticed when healing him. And not before that, as far as Shen Wei can recall. So this too is new, and that is more alarming than he can say.

“Where did you get that?” Shen Wei reaches out to inspect the yellow jade, and Zhao Yunlan tenses again.

“Oh. Oh. It made it!” Now there’s smiling, and Shen Wei wonders if he ought to call anyone else in. He is probably capable of dealing with Zhao Yunlan by himself, but the others should have a chance to witness this erratic behavior and make up their own minds about whether or not their chief is currently to be trusted.

“Where did it come from?” Shen Wei repeats, terribly sure he already knows the answer.

Zhao Yunlan nods slowly as he looks down at the pendant, then up at Shen Wei. “You don’t recognize it,” he sighs. Not quite a question, but Shen Wei shakes his head. It’s—something about it is achingly familiar, but he doesn’t quite—

—no, he doesn’t remember it at all.

“It’s yours,” Zhao Yunlan tells him.

The words confirm Shen Wei’s fears. “Was that what Ye Zun said?”

“No,” Zhao Yunlan says shortly. “No, it is, you’ve just—” He runs out of words and makes frustrated gesture, drawing the necklace over his head and holding it out to Shen Wei. “Here.”

It’s Shen Wei’s turn to recoil, reining back an urge to shove Zhao Yunlan further away. “Put it down!” he warns.

When Zhao Yunlan just looks confused, Shen Wei continues impatiently, “If it’s from Ye Zun—you shouldn’t accept gifts from him. The cost and the danger both are too great.”

For a moment, Zhao Yunlan says nothing, only looks at Shen Wei, eyes flinty. Then he crumples into helpless laughter. Maybe Shen Wei really should get someone—Da Qing might be able to help him with this.

“Ah, Shen Wei,” Zhao Yunlan says finally, when he’s calmed a bit. The mirth in his voice sounds very brittle now. “I know.” He places the pendant on his desk, gently nestling it against his name plate.

“Then why…” Shen Wei begins, but doesn’t know which question to ask first, and ends up watching Zhao Yunlan scoot up on the desk. He sits there with his legs dangling, one hand gripping the edge. There’s still a manic energy about him, but he is holding himself in place now.

“Alright. Alright, if you want to do this now—” Zhao Yunlan rubs the back of his neck in exasperation, and maybe something more. “That was really you, not some illusion. You saw—you were there…”

Shen Wei nods, acknowledging his presence in the nightmare realm without letting any feelings he might have on the subject color his response.

“Okay,” Zhao Yunlan says, licking his lips. “Then you know Ye Zun is doing this to fuck with us—both of us.”

Shen Wei swallows. He would very much like to believe that he has Zhao Yunlan’s loyalties. Shen Wei wants what he has seen of Zhao Yunlan to really be the man’s true self, and not the actions of a master manipulator. But Ye Zun—his corrupting influence is strong, so strong Dixing itself is falling to it without the protections Shen Wei helped put in place. One Haixing human could hardly resist it. Except— “Yes,” he says, to his own surprise. “And you returned the favor, didn’t you?”

At that Shen Wei gets a smile of such dazzling intensity he feels it searing him with unasked for joy—then Zhao Yunlan winks.

The same wink he’d given Shen Wei from the top of the palace stairs, Ye Zun smirking while petting his head. Shen Wei could have missed it then—there and gone, a flash of pure cocky mischief— if he hadn’t been so desperately searching that blank face for any sign the Zhao Yunlan he’d come to know wasn’t fully subsumed under Ye Zun’s control.

Then as now the memory comes vividly to Shen Wei: the moment Zhao Yunlan used Zhu Jiu’s overconfidence to set a trap, communicating everything Shen Wei needed to turn the tables on Ye Zun’s minion in a single instant.

Remembering that, Shen Wei can’t—doesn’t want to—believe that Zhao Yunlan is acting out of anything but good intentions. Ones that Shen Wei fears now more than ever that Ye Zun might be able to twist to his own ends.

Zhao Yunlan’s smile has dimmed some, but not gone away entirely. “Yeah. Bastard was on a bit of a power trip, so—well. It wasn’t exactly my idea to go along for the ride.”

“Not exactly?” Shen Wei asks, because there is a lot Zhao Yunlan’s wink does not explain.

A quick wince. “I thought… Well. Because Ye Zun did all of this, I thought if there was something else he wanted, enough to undo it…”

“You can’t bargain with Ye Zun!” Shen Wei says, pent-up fear and anger infusing the words.

“It was more of a gamble than a bargain,” Zhao Yunlan says quietly. “And I didn’t stake anything of value, so—it’s fine. Don’t worry.”

“Don’t worry?” Shen Wei moves toward the desk. “How can I not worry when you claim to be acting out of your own free will, and yet you keep turning up in his presence?”

Zhao Yunlan brings a hand to his mouth, as if to stop the first words on his tongue from escaping. Then he shakes his head. “Fine. Fine, you can worry. But it’s the other way around—he turns up in my presence. Because I have what he wants.”

From what Shen Wei has seen, Zhao Yunlan has quite a lot that Ye Zun wants. The Hallows, of course, but also—his chest tightens as he recalls Ye Zun’s mouth on Zhao Yunlan’s and Ye Zun’s hand stroking Zhao Yunlan’s face. It makes Shen Wei ache with an unfathomable need to erase those touches the way he erased the bruises Ye Zun left. It would be so easy to close the distance and claim Zhao Yunlan’s mouth with his own. So easy to run his fingers through Zhao Yunlan’s hair and not let go until he’d marked Zhao Yunlan inside and out, and made him forget about everything but Shen Wei.

The intensity of those feelings—of his desire—is almost as much of a shock to Shen Wei as finding himself crowding into Zhao Yunlan’s space, pressed against the desk between Zhao Yunlan’s dangling legs. The surprise of it freezes him in place, because this shouldn’t be—this isn’t what he wants from anyone but Kunlun, and Kunlun is dead. And yet there is no denying that even knowing that, it is Zhao Yunlan who has brought this heat to Shen Wei’s cheeks, and to his very core.

Maybe that only means Zhao Yunlan has ways of stirring Shen Wei’s body without having his heart. But right now at this moment, Shen Wei couldn’t say for certain.

“Shen Wei?” The slight wobble in Zhao Yunlan’s voice is what brings their surroundings back in focus. With a small gasp, quickly stifled, Shen Wei rocks back a step.

“Wait, no—”

“I’m sorry,” Shen Wei says, and adjusts his glasses before he can look at Zhao Yunlan properly again.

Zhao Yunlan’s expression is dumbfounded, eyes wide and throat working as he swallows. “Shen Wei.”

Just his name, and yet hearing the emotion in Zhao Yunlan’s voice, Shen Wei isn’t sure where they were in the conversation and doesn’t know what he should say next.

“Stay away from Ye Zun,” the words have left Shen Wei’s mouth before he has fully considered them, but he manages to stop himself before he adds anything more possessive.

“Yeah,” Zhao Yunlan agrees distractedly, leaning forward on the desk. “But Shen Wei—that, just now, was that—”

“Promise me,” Shen Wei interrupts, both because he needs to hear Zhao Yunlan say it, and because he doesn’t want to answer the unspoken question.

Zhao Yunlan makes a frustrated noise. “Look, I’ll stay away from Ye Zun if he stays away from me. And you. And everyone else. I promise, but—”

“I’m going to check on the shield,” Shen Wei says, though that isn’t a task anyone has assigned him. But it’s not like he can claim he has papers to grade, or a student that needs his urgent attention—not like he used to, when he was still trying to keep Zhao Yunlan from finding out all of his secrets.

Shen Wei turns to leave, and there’s a thump of boots hitting the floor. Then Zhao Yunlan is there, the fingers of one hand just brushing Shen Wei’s shoulder as if he wanted to grab on but lost his momentum. He lets his hand fall when Shen Wei looks at it, but doesn’t move out of Shen Wei’s space. “Shen Wei. Please.” A muscle in his jaw twitches, and Shen Wei stays.

“You said it yourself,” Zhao Yunlan says, low and insistent. “Ye Zun lies—he lied to me, I admit it. And I still went along because I wanted to believe him, I wanted it so badly. So why do you think that whatever he has told you is the truth? When he wants to hurt you more than anyone.”

“I—” Shen Wei shakes his head. He can’t explain to Zhao Yunlan how his own past and Zhao Yunlan’s future fit together, not without jeopardizing everything.

“Shen Wei. I don’t know what he told you, or did to you, but I know how much it hurts you, and I’m sorry. I can’t stop it. I can feel it, but I know I’m not…” Zhao Yunlan takes a deep breath as a grimace flits across his face. “I’m not him. Not—not the one you’re missing.” Zhao Yunlan swallows, and Shen Wei feels it. All that pain Zhao Yunlan is talking about, the longing for Kunlun—that part he cannot deny.

But Zhao Yunlan does not stop there. “Don’t you think whatever Ye Zun did, that’s what he wanted? For you to be in so much pain that you’re not thinking straight? Meanwhile you don’t trust me, even though I’m the chief of the SID, and I am making fucking terrible calls because it kills me that I can’t—can’t even talk to you, much less—”

Shen Wei has no words with which to halt the agonized—and agonizing—outpouring, so he puts a hand out. He doesn’t mean for it to caress Zhao Yunlan’s cheek, much like he believes Zhao Yunlan doesn’t mean to flinch so violently from his touch.

“No,” Zhao Yunlan whispers as Shen Wei draws his hand back. He sounds horrified and pleading, but turns around and kicks the chair by the desk in an uncharacteristic display of furious temper. It goes clattering sideways across the floor as Zhao Yunlan turns, shoulders heaving under his dark jacket.

“No,” Zhao Yunlan says again, through clenched teeth. “That’s it! This is not—we can’t do this. This is ridiculous. If it can’t be fixed it can be undone—that has to be it.”

And he strides out his office door, Shen Wei gaping in his wake for just long enough to allow him to move away down the hallway to the lab.

Chapter Text

The idea that Zhao Yunlan got the second Shen Wei shook him awake has been having a brainstorming session with other ideas in the back of his head while he’s been dealing with things like, oh, having a series of increasingly frustrating breakdowns and promising Shen Wei not to hang out with his completely insane stalker brother, like that’s somehow on Zhao Yunlan. While also not jumping Shen Wei’s bones at that absolutely incredible rush of pure lust. And yeah, they’d better continue to have this channel or whatever between them open after this is all taken care of, because he cannot wait to know what that kind of feedback will do in bed.

At least now thanks to that one idea, Zhao Yunlan thinks he knows how to have an after—knows how to take care of everything.

It’s the Hallows.

Of course it’s the Hallows. With their ability to make Zhao Yunlan see things that haven’t happened or never came to pass. If they can do that by accident, then what can’t they do with his full intent driving them? Or rather—what can’t they undo. Shen Wei once said they could alter the flow of time—that’s perfect. All Zhao Yunlan needs is for them to turn things back to a point before Ye Zun fucked everything up. Or before he fucked Shen Wei up, at least— Zhao Yunlan isn’t picky, though he would like it if maybe Wang Xiangyang didn’t have to be driven mad by grief and misuse of the Merit Brush.

If it’s possible, Zhao Yunlan thinks as he stalks down the hallway to the lab, then they’ll have a real chance at sorting everything out before it can escalate. And he’ll have Shen Wei back, and maybe—he throws an angry glare at the ceiling in passing—he can also fix himself while he’s at it.

“Hey Boss,” Lin Jing says, looking up from his desk. “There was a weird spike in the shields a couple of minutes—uh, wait, what are you doing?”

Zhao Yunlan ignores Lin Jing, and strides over to the Longevity Sundial. With Lin Jing’s protests fading to background noise he removes the protective dome, and reaches for the power of the Hallow inside.

As always it is a rush that floods him and drains him all at the same time. His skin tingles with so much power that makes his muscles twitch and strain. Zhao Yunlan’s mind fills with a strange white noise and random impressions: a flickering fireplace, cold rain in his face, kissing someone who tastes lollipop-sweet. He tries to make space for his own thoughts, his own intentions, but it’s a struggle to do that and keep on his feet and—

“Zhao Yunlan!” Shen Wei’s voice isn’t as easy to ignore as Lin Jing’s.

Zhao Yunlan hesitates for a moment, then pries his hand free from the Dial and places it back in its holder with a physical shudder of relief, though he misses its touch on his mind already. He doesn’t move away from it, not even with Shen Wei right beside him now.

“It’s okay,” Zhao Yunlan says, “I figured it out. I know how to use the Hallows to fix this.”

“Uh, Boss? That’s maybe something we should discuss before you—”

“Zhao Yunlan, you can’t possible think to—”

Zhao Yunlan cuts them both off with a sharp gesture. “They can manipulate time. You said so.”

Shen Wei’s face has gone pale with shock. “Time? No. No, Zhao Yunlan, you can’t!”

Zhao Yunlan disagrees. “I think I can. See, if we go back to before Ye Zun breaks free, we could—”

“You could what?” a new voice asks, quite cheerfully, and Zhao Yunlan very nearly knocks the entire Hallows array over as he spins around to find Ye fucking Zun in the lab’s doorway.

Transferring matter from a constructed realm to Haixing is no small feat. Ye Zun has power to spare, of course, but it is vexing that there is nobody around to admire the level of control and finesse he exerts. In particular going through that blasted shield requires a frustrating amount of effort, despite being so tightly enveloped in the Lord Guardian’s presence.

It’s draining enough that he wants to wait, just for a bit. Ye Zun is very, very good at waiting—except when he hates it so much he can’t stand to bother with it anymore. But here, so close to his dear gēge’s presence—it’s a good little game of hide and seek. (Here, get behind this. Make yourself smaller. No, smaller than that! Don’t let anybody see you. It’s not safe. ) Ye Zun is going to win, and Shen Wei is going to lose, and that’s why it’s good.

But Shen Wei doesn’t even look. Ye Zun gets slightly put out—there is no point to remaining hidden if no one is seeking. But there is entertainment to distract him. Such passionate pleading! And such frequent mentions of his name—it’s touching, really, to know he is so on the mind of his gēge and Xiao Yunlan both. Ye Zun is so busy savoring that particular insight that the empty room comes as a surprise. Everyone left? Already?

Well, it is getting cramped in here. And the worst of the shield’s effects have abated—though that hardly matters, given what pathetic resistance he can expect.

Stretching, Ye Zun rises.

Rises and rises, until he’s no longer inside the spherical matrix of the jade—sodium, silicone, oxygen and aluminum in a pleasingly orderly pattern— but outside of it. Looking down at the tiny trinket he’d lifted from his brother.

—The wild look in Shen Wei’s eyes was what had made Ye Zun do it. He hadn’t even noticed it until then, but oh. Helpless and chained, his brother wanted the pendant, badly enough to beg, so Ye Zun took it.

And then he found more and more of it to take, looking through his brother’s mind. Who knew that would turn out to be such useful knowledge?

But the trinket has garbage in it, so Ye Zun brushes down his robes before following the honeyed hum of power denied him for so long.

The Hallows.


At this point, Zhao Yunlan isn’t going to waste any time when faced with Ye Zun. Not like Lin Jing, who is gaping and stuttering, “But—but he can’t...!”

Zhao Yunlan draws his gun—yeah, he wore the holster going for a nap in his office, that’s the kind of mess his life has become—and fires. He misses, at the same time as Shen Wei misses with a burst of dark energy. Or—no. They don’t miss. Rather, they both hit the spot where Ye Zun was, but isn’t anymore.

Ye Zun laughs, like it’s all fantastic fun, and approaches the Hallows from the other side of the lab just because he can.

Zhao Yunlan shoots him again. The bastard doesn’t stand still this time either.

Shen Wei gets his blade out, as if that will do much more—and okay, now Shen Wei is wiping blood from his lips and that’s it. He might not have asked for it, but Zhao Yunlan takes some of his own energy and shoves it in Shen Wei’s general direction. Not much—just enough keep him from falling over and embarrassing them both.

Ye Zun has made it to the dome surrounding the Awl, their attacks doing nothing to deter him. He reaches for it—and it’s like he’s stuck his finger in a power socket. Either the container is doing its job, or the Hallow just doesn’t like Ye Zun. It repels him, and his face goes from rapt to raging. A perfect opportunity to get closer and shoot—but no, Ye Zun still senses the approach and flicks himself aside, and then repeats the move when Shen Wei slashes at him.

With gunfire and evil laughter coming from the lab, it’s only a matter of seconds before more of Zhao Yunlan’s team show up to investigate. Depending on who makes it first they might actually have a shot at taking the crazy bastard down—or they’ll be fighting with a handicap. Zhao Yunlan is already moving to cover Lin Jing when the scientist finally switches from useless panic mode to the more useful panicked smashing of keys.

In a stroke of absolutely terrible luck, whatever Lin Jing does at his workstation only serves to make Ye Zun even more infuriated. Undaunted by the attempts to stop him, Ye Zun heads straight for Lin Jing. Zhao Yunlan shouts at the scientist to get away, but it’s too late. Ye Zun has woven Lin Jing into black tendrils, strangling him.

Shen Wei comes as quickly as he can, throwing himself between them to sever the dark energy with a quick slash. Lin Jing slumps back with a faint wheeze that sounds like it should be followed by coughing and gasping, but isn’t. Zhao Yunlan stands in front of his scientist, revolver raised. Not bothering with any more shots, but hoping to at least be able to ward off a direct attack while Lin Jing recovers (he'd better recover). But that leaves the Longevity Dial out in the open, and it’s not like Ye Zun won’t notice.

This is bad, it’s bad and it is getting worse: Wang Zheng and Sang Zan sweep through the door side by side. Zhao Yunlan doesn’t know what Ye Zun’s powers can do to entities of pure energy, but he really doesn’t want to find out. “Stay away!” he commands them.

They have joined hands, faces grimly determined as they survey the chaos Ye Zun has wrought. Instead of heeding Zhao Yunlan’s order they rush toward him. “Chief Zhao—the Dial!” Wang Zheng shouts at him. “Hurry!”

“We guardian him!” Sang Zan assures him—fiercely if not grammatically. He shoves Zhao Yunlan out of the way as Wang Zheng ducks down to check on Lin Jing.

Like a perfect nightmare, Ye Zun turns up where he’s least wanted, right by the unprotected Dial. Shen Wei attacks, intending to draw him away from the Hallows array, but Ye Zun simply deploys his coils of dark energy to restrain Shen Wei’s sword arm. So Zhao Yunlan fires again. Even if Ye Zun easily avoids the shot without losing his grasp of Shen Wei, he has to move, leaving the Hallows open for Zhao Yunlan to grab a hold of the Dial and—oh.

Now he’s the one sticking his hand in an electrical socket—or time has compressed and Zhao Yunlan is bearing the full brunt of every single time he’s touched the Hallows at once. It wrings him inside out, and now he is the one embarrassing them by falling over. He collapses on his side as his hand cramps around the Dial. There he struggles to stay conscious, watching helplessly as Ye Zun’s white robes approach at a deliberate pace.

No. Fuck no. This isn’t how it’s going to go down—Ye Zun does not get to pluck the Longevity Dial from Zhao Yunlan’s hand. He squeezes his eyes shut and holds onto its embossed handle as tightly as he can. Seeing dancing spots now, as well as feeling everything he usually does from a Hallow and more, he puts every fiber of his being into telling the Hallows—the Dial that he is holding and the Awl and Brush that he can feel even though he isn’t touching them—fix this fix this fix this take us back fix this

A shot rings out, and Zhao Yunlan’s eyes fly open. He wasn’t holding his revolver, he didn’t—so who—

Zhao Yunlan is almost blinded by the white light pulsing from the Hallow in his hand, but when he squints through it he sees the stunned surprise he feels mirrored in Ye Zun’s face. Ye Zun sways, eyes growing glassy. Even watching the red stain spread on Ye Zun’s white robes, Zhao Yunlan still doesn’t understand what’s happening.

Ye Zun crumples soundlessly to the floor and lies perfectly still.

Nobody else moves either. A stunned silence grips the room. There is a ringing in Zhao Yunlan’s ears though—not from the shot, but a strange harmonious dissonance, four notes played in an insistent hum. And maybe it is still all a nightmare, or a dream, because the first voice that speaks is absolutely impossibly familiar as it shouts, “Zhao Yunlan! Come on, hurry up! Time to go.”

Chapter Text

Zhao Yunlan scrambles to his feet, disoriented from more than the familiar chorus of Hallows making his skull ring like a bell. Ye Zun is down, and behind him there is a—a portal. Limned with the same white light radiating from the Longevity Dial he’s holding, there’s no mistaking the man just on the other side of it, motioning at Zhao Yunlan to stop dawdling. “What the...”

“Zhao Yunlan?” Shen Wei’s sheer incredulity goes deeper than even Zhao Yunlan’s. Not an easy feat, because Zhao Yunlan is looking at himself.

“Hi, yes—on a bit of a schedule here!”

Zhao Yunlan makes his way over to the portal on unsteady legs. He passes Ye Zun sprawled prone in blood-stained robes. Passes Wang Zheng and Sang Zan watching him with a mix of awe and confusion while Lin Jing wheezes behind them, recovering. Lao Chu and Xiao Guo have paused in the doorway, their shocked expressions as similar as the black wraps they are both wearing. Behind them, Zhu Hong and Da Qing are trying to shove their way into the lab.

Finally, Zhao Yunlan passes Shen Wei. Eyes wide and lips slightly parted around a question he doesn’t seem to have the voice to ask, Shen Wei has taken a single step to the portal and frozen in place.

Zhao Yunlan feels like he should say something. Anything. But he is being given an impatient stare by himself, and honestly it is very difficult to come up with any sort of words.

“Hey. I don’t think you should bring that,” the other Zhao Yunlan says, nodding at the Dial that Zhao Yunlan is absent-mindedly clutching. “Things will be interesting enough as it is without a duplicate.”

Zhao Yunlan nods, and manages to loosen his grasp of it slightly. Bracing for the moment of letting go, he reaches out to drop the Dial in Shen Wei’s hand—but Shen Wei grabs his wrist instead. Hard.

“You can’t go,” Shen Wei says, his voice so strained it comes out a whisper.

“What?” There is too much happening right now for Zhao Yunlan to process what it is Shen Wei wants, and why, and—really, anything. So he just stares at Shen Wei, whose eyes hold a terrible desperation Zhao Yunlan aches to soothe away.

“Don’t. Please.” Shen Wei’s hand is grinding the bones of his wrist together. Zhao Yunlan winces and tries to pull free, but Shen Wei doesn’t even seem to notice, and certainly doesn’t budge.

“Xiao Wei, you let go of him right this instant!” Shen Wei and Zhao Yunlan simultaneously break their stare to orient towards the voice, and the little color he had left drains from Shen Wei’s face.

“It’s okay.” The other Zhao Yunlan’s voice has softened from that commanding tone. “You can trust him—you can trust me. You’ve waited for so long already—just be patient for a little while longer. Alright?”

Shen Wei’s grip on Zhao Yunlan’s wrist loosens, but he’s still holding on enough that Zhao Yunlan can feel him trembling.

“Good. You’re going to have to stay here, but remember—Kunlun keeps his promises.”

At that, something in Shen Wei shatters. The emotions Zhao Yunlan has been picking up through their bond break apart like a song played on a crackling speaker, the melody of Shen Wei’s heart drowning in white noise. Shen Wei’s hand falls from Zhao Yunlan’s wrist, and he stands statue-still, his expression betraying a desperate fear and overwhelming yearning all at once. Zhao Yunlan carefully presses the Dial into a barely-responsive hand. He wants to do more, but before he can his own voice calls, “Get over here!”

So he goes.

Zhao Yunlan looks over his shoulder as he steps into the portal’s glowing light, wishing he had more time. Shen Wei looks broken. The team are all clamoring in worry and disbelief, Da Qing now in cat form darting through the legs blocking the way, calling Zhao Yunlan’s name. And Ye Zun is still right there—but a hand closes around Zhao Yunlan’s arm and tugs hard. And then the lab, and #4 Bright Street, and Haixing itself all are gone.

Zhao Yunlan is gone—going somewhere, but not yet there. Not anywhere at all.

In this between there are riptides of things remembered and forgotten, sweeping currents of lost days and hours, and deep trenches of moments yet unlived. The impressions come too quickly to process, all but for a couple of fragments he clings to with all the strength in his heart: His mother’s arms holding him—all of him, his entire tiny body warm and drowsy and perfectly safe and happy—fondly saying his name. And in an almost-echo, different but just as dear and precious—Shen Wei’s soft sigh, full of love. Ah Lan.

Then Zhao Yunlan somehow coalesces, blinking away feelings to look around. He’s definitely somewhere. Not a place, exactly. But not a time or a dream, either. Somewhere like an empty stage—if there ever was a stage where each dust mote was a star, and the curtains shimmering auroras.

Here he has his full solid form, along with the jeans and black jacket he was wearing when he went in, and his holster and revolver too.

And here Zhao Yunlan is not alone. Opposite him is—his own double. His future self. Who doesn’t seem entirely unaffected by the emotional turbulence on the way here, either—there’s nowhere to sit down in this space full of… space. But if there were, they’d probably both be collapsing. Yunlan takes a moment to breathe, trying not to question how this place can have air.

His other self hunches over for a moment, rubbing his sternum. “I—wow. I’m glad that worked,” the other Zhao Yunlan—Future Yunlan—says, straightening.

“The portal?”

“Shen Wei,” Future Yunlan says. “It’s been a while, and—ah. You’ll see.”

Yunlan considers the implications. “Didn’t the exact same thing happen to you?”

“No. No, actually I thought I was going to show up in time to save Lin Jing! Not—myself. So you know, good job on that.”

Yunlan can’t be offended by his own good-humored mocking. “And before you—?”

“I think Future-Future Yunlan said Wang Zheng and Sang Zan, actually… “

“Well. Nice shot,” Yunlan says, and watches with interest just how smug his own grin can look.


There’s a moment of silence after that when they study each other, both equally curious. Yunlan spends the normal amount of time looking in the mirror—shaving, doing his hair, checking to see if any bite marks show—but this isn’t anything like that. For one, he and his double move independently of each other. And also Future Yunlan doesn’t look exactly like Yunlan remembers his reflection. Apparently he is going to be spending quite some time outdoors soon, because he’s gotten—will be getting—kind of weatherbeaten. It looks rather dashing, especially with the slightly wild goatee and the extra couple of white hairs he can see.

“Right,” Yunlan says, bemused. “So are you here to offer me words of wisdom or something?”

“Hah,” Future Yunlan says. “No.”

“So… no hints?”

That gets him a chuckle. “It would be nice, right? But no. If you fuck up your timeline, I’d rather that not be because of something I said.”


“Look, all I know is that I had a Future Yunlan get me back in time, so you get one too.” Future Yunlan gives an expressive ‘I just work here’ shrug. “Speaking of which—I really want to get a move on, so if you could just…” Future Yunlan fans his hands at Yunlan.

“Go? Where? How?”

Future Yunlan points. “There.”

And there’s another of those portals, hazy white light against the shimmering curtain of stars. There’s nobody waiting there, but through it Yunlan can see a touch of hazy blue, and a patch of green and gray. It seems very far away, somehow.

“Alright.” Yunlan considers a flippant greeting, but it’s not like he can’t see through himself. “Take care of him.”

Future Yunlan just nods, and says, “Good luck.”

Zhao Yunlan steps away from himself and onto solid ground

Also into the middle of a fucking pitched battle—or so it seems to him, from the deafening noise and the choking dust and the sheer aura of death and danger permeating the air. But before he can curse his future self out for the sloppy timing, Zhao Yunlan realizes he’s just almost in the middle of a battle. Close enough to see flashing swords and thrusting lances and flying blood; not close enough to begin his career as a time traveler by being ignominiously trampled. By people—he doesn’t see any horses. When were horses domesticated, again? When is he? Quite a bit further back than ‘before Ye Zun fucked things up’... unless the Hallows interpreted that differently than Zhao Yunlan’s human mind intended it.

Which—of course they did; he should have seen that coming. As for when he is—well. There was that big war some ten thousand years ago. One where their research has indicated that lots of significant things involving the Hallows went down.

So he won’t get a chance to recharge his phone any time soon, then.

Zhao Yunlan hunches down in the rustling grass, which smells like a dank park. His vantage point is near the steep drop of a cliff’s edge plummeting into a ravine below. It leaves him slightly above the battle. His hill is not high enough that he has any illusions about his safety if any of the archers spot him. He draws his revolver. It might not do much against an army, but he’d like a fighting chance against anyone confusing him for an enemy.

Whoever the enemy here would be—Zhao Yunlan knows that this war was important to Dixing and Haixing relations, but judging from the occasional bursts of dark energy, fire and superhuman feats, there are Dixing on both sides. They’re not exactly wearing uniforms—though one side does seem to favor… dark cloaks?

Zhao Yunlan tilts his head to the side. He could be imagining things.

To be fair, he might be imagining all of this while out cold back on the SID’s lab floor or something. But he particularly might be imagining how very familiar one particular black-cloaked figure seems from the back. Just because Zhao Yunlan has been pining himself stupid wishing he could have Shen Wei properly back doesn’t mean he’s travelled ten thousand years to where Shen Wei is currently fighting. Really, it would be completely ridiculous to expect that—

The figure Zhao Yunlan has been studying whirls around, barely dodging a powerful axe-blow from an unpleasant-looking fellow. The mask is a dead giveaway—but Zhao Yunlan could still have told himself it must be a freakish coincidence of similarity if said mask hadn’t fallen off right then. And as it drops, Zhao Yunlan very nearly tumbles off his hill in shock.

That is absolutely Shen Wei.

The hair is very different—good different. Zhao Yunlan is definitely going to have to contemplate that revelation when he gets a moment, because. Wow. But other than that, it’s Shen Wei.

So Zhao Yunlan has a side now—Shen Wei’s side, always and forever, even if he has no idea what this battle is about.

His newfound side is not doing great. Zhao Yunlan is no tactician, but now that he can sort of tell them apart he notices the numbers aren’t in the black cloaks’ favor. Plus many of them have ended up with their backs against the sheer drop off the cliff—an advantage that their riotously dressed enemies are pressing hard. The air is thick with dust, so Zhao Yunlan has to squint to keep tracking Shen Wei. But even with limited visibility, picking him out in the churning mass below is not hard—nobody else moves like that, not even the other men and women in those dark cloaks.

It’s terrifying, watching Shen Wei in the thick of that battle, weaving and blocking attacks from all sides. The screaming and jarring sound of metal ringing off metal or sinking into flesh and bone is viscerally nasty—nothing like the epic soundtrack in a game or movie, with entertainment’s sanitized screams performed by actors safe in their studios. Here Zhao Yunlan can hear people die, and just because he’s seen a few deaths before doesn’t make these any less heartwrenching or horrifying.

Shen Wei’s unmasked face is grim as he tries to carve a path for his people away from that deadly precipice. Zhao Yunlan can see him go to the most imperiled, leading them to safer ground. Which is where Zhao Yunlan is.

Zhao Yunlan is so focused on Shen Wei’s determined expression and fluid motions that he almost misses the big nasty from earlier riding the tide of battle toward Shen Wei’s little knot of black-cloaked warriors. From what Zhao Yunlan can tell, the guy’s Shen Wei’s opposite number—his own side gives him wide berth, and none of the black cloaks that get in the way of his giant axe slow him down for long.

Hand tightening around the grip of his revolver, Zhao Yunlan watches in horror as the barbarian chieftain unleashes a furious attack at Shen Wei’s knot of warriors. To Zhao Yunlan’s relief, Shen Wei holds against the attack, his defenses impressive enough that Zhao Yunlan begins to breathe a little easier.

Then one of the men at Shen Wei’s side stumbles. Without hesitation, Shen Wei covers his companion, though it brings him dangerously off balance. Zhao Yunlan stifles a protest at the risk Shen Wei is taking—can’t not take. A surge of warmth cuts through Zhao Yunlan’s panic. No matter when in time, Shen Wei is someone who protects those around him. This is still—already—the man Zhao Yunlan loves.

Below, Shen Wei manages to hold out for long enough that his companion gets out of harm's way. But in doing so, Shen Wei is too late to parry a vicious swing of the axe that catches him in the shoulder. Drawing the gory axe back with a bloodthirsty grin, the chieftain prepares for another swing against Shen Wei's injured side.

Shen Wei might have ways of winning such an uneven clash. But given that there is a ten-thousand-year experience gap between Professor Shen, Black-Cloaked Envoy, and this young warrior, Zhao Yunlan is not taking any fucking chances. He aims—not easy, with the battle still surging around his target and Shen Wei both—and fires at the chieftain.

It’s not a perfect hit, but surprise and pain make the big man cry out, looking wildly around for his invisible assailant. Shen Wei does the same, eyes growing wide as he spots Zhao Yunlan up on the hill. He calls out, the words lost in the din.

Then the other side rush forward to protect their chieftain, and Shen Wei has his hands full keeping them from retaliating against his injured comrades or himself. Zhao Yunlan is still staring at the scene, trying to see what’s happening in the knot of people. Trying to see how badly hurt Shen Wei seems. The chieftain at least is injured enough to want to get away from the battle, his people crowding in around him in a controlled retreat. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the battle is over, and—

—and Zhao Yunlan very nearly fires his gun wildly in shock when someone touches his shoulder. He definitely yells, scooting so far back he almost falls off the hill again.

“Jumpy!” Da Qing observes, leaning over Zhao Yunlan’s sprawled form.

“Da… Qing?” Blinking, Zhao Yunlan reaches out to touch the long hair framing Da Qing’s face, and gets a flat stare.

“Excuse me. I am here on important business, so could you not?”

“How are you here? Now? What?”

As Zhao Yunlan sits up, Da Qing crouches down and squints at him, consulting a scroll of some sort. “Huh. Looks right. But they didn’t say you were some kind of simpleton.”

There is a pitched battle going on behind them, and Zhao Yunlan’s oldest friend—a cat—just showed up ten thousand years ago to insult his intelligence. So of course Zhao Yunlan does the only sensible thing, and says, “Your grandpa was a simpleton.” Because some habits die hard, and Da Qing always found the fact that humans insulted each other by mentioning a biological progenitor hilarious.

‘Always’ in this case being a couple of decades—apparently a significant number of millenia ago he didn’t, though, because right now he is staring at Zhao Yunlan, appalled. “Why do they send me to fetch some lackwit with funny clothes? Me? A cat! A cat has better things to do than to run errands.”


Da Qing nods at him. “For Lord Ma and the High Chief,” he says, as if these are people Zhao Yunlan should know. “Come.”

“But the battle—”

“What? Are you going to fight?” Da Qing asks, feline disdain clearly showing what he thinks Zhao Yunlan could bring to a battle.

Well, Zhao Yunlan did just shoot the leader of the enemy army, so it’s not like he needs to defend his prowess to his own future deputy. “Aren’t you going to get… reinforcements or something?”

“Well,” Da Qing considers the question. “If we go back now we could tell them to send more troops up here?” Like it’s no great hurry or anything, and these kind of battles happen all the time.

Which they probably do. Because of the whole war thing. But Zhao Yunlan isn’t used to that, and certainly isn’t going to just leave Shen Wei behind to sort this out without any backup. He stands up so fast Da Qing has to scramble back. “What are you waiting for, then? Go!”

It’s a while to go. Zhao Yunlan’s lungs tire before his legs, which tire before Da Qing, even though Zhao Yunlan read a lot of books on cats when he was a kid, and knows that they’re not really meant to cover long distances.

It’s a strange sort of landscape—it feels like it’s either spring or autumn, given the coolness of the breeze, but the grass is as sparse as in winter. And the trees—except for a few sickly saplings here and there, the trees have all been felled like bowling pins and lie rotting on top of each other. It makes the horizon oddly naked, the silhouette of the hills utterly without texture, while their slopes look covered in spilled toothpicks. The sky is still that hazy shade he saw from inside the portal—the same shade it gets on days in Dragon City when the wind is coming from the distant desert, dust choking the air and dimming the sun.

Because—of course. The meteor strike. The cataclysm that rendered both realms inhospitable—Dixing almost intolerably so. This must be what it was like in the years after it hit. Shattered trees and darkened skies and unthinkable damage to everything underground from the shock of the impact.

Having trudged for what feels like hours, they finally encounter a group of allies, who take the news of the battle with a great deal more urgency than Da Qing did. Zhao Yunlan hopes that means Shen Wei will get support and medical attention and that he’s still okay and—and he shouldn’t have left, no matter how much this cat pestered him.

What if something happens to Shen Wei here in the past? Will Zhao Yunlan never have met him? Will he forget all about ever knowing him—because that would be worse, that would be worse than at least having the memories. And having nothing but memories would be so terrible that Zhao Yunlan doesn’t really want to think about it, and can’t stop thinking about it. About leaving Shen Wei behind far more recently, in the SID lab, looking pale and broken and everything so wrong between them. Why hadn’t Shen Wei wanted him to go? What did he know—what had he known all along that he hadn’t told Zhao Yunlan? And why?

With Da Qing here, it’s so hard for Zhao Yunlan not to spill all of his thoughts like he used to when Da Qing was the only one he had, the only one who would listen to all the pent-up thoughts his father never had time for and his mother wasn’t around to hear. But it’s not his Da Qing, not yet, so Zhao Yunlan bottles it all up and is only half frazzled to death when they make it to some kind of vast underground chambers. Vast enough that they might link to Dixing, somehow, for all that he’s more used to a literal garden path to a portal.

There are people everywhere. Looking busy, walking places, talking quietly—a fascinating mix of Haixing, Dixing and Yashou. Back in Dragon City it’s hard to tell at a glance, because the Yashou disguise their particular traits, and Dixing never use their powers unless they want the SID or the terrifying Envoy on their asses—but here there are such displays of the extraordinary that Zhao Yunlan finds himself staring curiously, despite everything on his mind.

There is a clear pipe full of water running above his head, and he wonders how they got plastic here until he realizes that it’s just water. No need for pipes when you have people who can suspend the flow of water in thin air. Air that doesn't turn dank no matter how deep into the tunnels they go, which he is grateful for. There’s light too—everyday objects glowing with a cold radiance in an application of dark energy he’s never seen before.

By the time they reach a tall archway guarded by six serious-looking men and women—two each of Yashou, Haixing and Dixing—Zhao Yunlan finds himself curious to meet the Lord and High Chief of this alliance. After all, they’ve pulled together something like his own SID, only on a truly massive scale.

That, and they might have news from the battle Shen Wei was in. Not that Zhao Yunlan is panicking or anything, but it would be really nice to know he didn’t just abandon his lover to die on an ancient battlefield.

Da Qing strides confidently into a large cave. Maybe it's the high ceiling and the big table along with assorted random clutter, but it makes Zhao Yunlan think of their office back home. This cave with its shelves full of scrolls and bamboo slips is the heart of this alliance's headquarters. And that makes the two people here bent over a document its leaders.

They look up, brightening when they see Da Qing and Zhao Yunlan. The woman is unfamiliar, but her smile is warm and welcoming. She has ribbons in her braids, and wears more color than he’s seen outside of the Flower Tribe—the Yashou High Chief, perhaps? And the man radiates kindness and confidence, his mere presence enough to mark him as a leader for all that he wears no particular marks of office or ornaments.

Da Qing bows in greeting, more formal than Zhao Yunlan has ever seen him. “Lord Ma Gui. High Chief Fu You. I’ve brought him.”

“Wait,” Zhao Yunlan says. “Ma Gui?” Da Qing had said Lord Ma, but he hadn’t realized it was the Lord Ma. Not the original Lord Guardian of Haixing—history and myth have both forgotten the person behind that name, leaving nothing but the title. But he was certainly a very early one, and a very important one. His name is still remembered when hundreds of generation’s worth of men and women who have held the title of Lord Guardian in the intervening years have had all traces of their existence wiped from history by the harsh wear of time.

“Of course!” Da Qing snaps. “Who else would he be?”

There is very nearly an undiplomatic your grandfather in response, but Zhao Yunlan manages to control himself. Only just.

“You’re finally here,” Fu You says.

“I am so glad to meet again,” Ma Gui says.

Zhao Yunlan has to laugh, because—wow, he’s been doing this time travel thing for a few hours tops, and he’s already thoroughly confused. Is he supposed to remember them as they remember him? Is this something they should even be telling him?

“Good to see you?” Zhao Yunlan says, and they beam at that splendid introduction.

“Thank you, Da Qing,” Fu You says, remembering the cat’s presence. “You may leave us to talk to Kunlun-jun.”

Something in Zhao Yunlan short-circuits. Thoroughly. To the point where Da Qing has to catch him mid-stagger, giving an annoyed sniff. “I knew he was deficient!”

“What?” Zhao Yunlan croaks. “What did you say?” Surely he misheard, they can’t possibly have just said—

“That we should talk?” Fu You repeats, a furrow between her brows.

“No,” Zhao Yunlan says, “no, not that.”

“Kunlun-jun?” Fu You says, and she’s asking him a question, not repeating her earlier sentence.

“Sorry. You’ve got the wrong guy,” Zhao Yunlan says, and turns to leave, taking Da Qing with him by sheer reflex. He’s not sure where he’s going, but he has Shen Wei’s angry voice ringing in his ears and he can’t get involved in something that might end up—whatever it ended up doing.

Or not doing.

Ma Gui hurries to intercept him. “Oh, no—you misunderstand. We do know. It is only that—” He glances at Da Qing, who is looking thoroughly unimpressed with Zhao Yunlan’s arm around his shoulders. And Zhao Yunlan can tell a ‘not in front of the subordinates’ look when he sees it. He wants to protest that his deputy can stay, but then he realizes he’s ten thousand years too early for that. And as Da Qing slips out from his grasp with a little glare, Zhao Yunlan dissolves into giggles, because he’s either going to make that particular joke a lot, or go insane.

If he isn’t already.

What the fuck is going on.

Chapter Text

Zhao Yunlan holds that thought until Da Qing has left the cave and the two alliance leaders have tugged him along to their big table. He balks at sitting down, though, holding onto the back of a chair so he can lean some weight on it. “I’m really not… not him.” Zhao Yunlan can’t bring himself to say Kunlun after his promise to Shen Wei, but he needs to nip this in the bud. Getting caught up in a case of mistaken identity ten thousand years ago might do—might have done?—terrible damage to the present.

Ma Gui nods, and pats his shoulder. “We know who you are, Lord Guardian, Zhao Yunlan.”

It has rarely been so wonderful to be called by name. “Then you’ve got the advantage of me, I fear,” Zhao Yunlan says lightly.

“It’s not important,” Fu You says with a smile.

“It is important,” Ma Gui disagrees gently. “But it isn’t time yet to talk about how we have our knowledge of you.”

Maybe not, but at least this Zhao Yunlan gets. “I’m going to contact you somehow. Before now. After I get back.” If he gets back—after all, according to his own future self, events he experiences aren’t at all set in stone, and some might be unique to him this particular time around.

Ma Gui and Fu You exchange a meaningful look. “You are very important to us. An inspiration. But it is not for us to say how,” Fu You hedges, and Zhao Yunlan nods. He has had plenty of experience with this polite sort of evasion, and now he’s beginning to understand why.

“Alright. But I have a lot of questions.”

Ma Gui and Fu You both smile, and gesture at the chair Zhao Yunlan’s been holding onto. “Please, sit. We have much to discuss.”

Plopping himself down, Zhao Yunlan doesn’t even think about where to begin, just asks, “There was a battle, where Da Qing came to meet me—have you had any news?”

If it wasn’t the question they were expecting, Ma Gui and Fu You don’t let their confusion show. “It is over,” Fu You says, and Zhao Yunlan bites down a shudder at the finality of that.

“There was someone there. A man in a mask?” Zhao Yunlan doesn’t know which title or name to use, and the mask is probably a better descriptor than the most beautiful man you've ever seen, and he's got really amazing hair.

“Lord Black Cloak, yes,” Ma Gui nods. He doesn’t sound like a man talking about a casualty. Or at least Zhao Yunlan hopes so.

“He was injured. Is he...”

“I believe he is returning to give us a more detailed report,” Fu You says, as casually if it’s not the best news she could possibly have delivered. Relief makes Zhao Yunlan sag in his chair. “We can make sure you are here to hear it?” Fu You adds, watching him carefully.

“Yeah,” Zhao Yunlan says. “Yeah, that would be good.”

“Of course,” Ma Gui says. “We would expect nothing less of Kunlun-jun.”

And there’s all that tension back, with interest. Zhao Yunlan sits uncomfortably upright, and puts a smile on for the nice people who know his future. “Alright,” he says. “Why do you keep calling me that?”

“Because that’s who you need to become,” Fu You says, like it’s a simple fact.

Zhao Yunlan’s smile freezes. “What?” he croaks, as he tries analyzing the facts, and instead ends up analyzing the memory of the cold fury in Shen Wei’s face the last time Zhao Yunlan said that particular name.

“You’re not from here—not even from now. It’s perfect,” Fu You goes on.

Perhaps catching a bit of Zhao Yunlan’s wild panic, Ma Gui takes pity on him. “Kunlun was a renowned general—”

Zhao Yunlan throws up a hand. “W-was?”

“We were meant to meet and discuss an alliance. His reputation preceded him—our forces were already planning the celebration. But Zei Qiu heard, and laid an ambush.”

Zhao Yunlan does not know who Zei Qiu is, but he has a horrible feeling it did not end well for Kunlun. “He’s dead,” he mumbles.

“That’s right.” Ma Gui and Fu You exchange a concerned glance. Perhaps they did not expect their friend from the future to be so attached to a renowned general who would have been ten thousand years dead no matter what.

“He’s dead,” Zhao Yunlan repeats again, numbly, hands gripping the edge of the table. Was this—did he cause this, somehow? By showing up when he did, where he did? Is this—has Shen Wei actually been right all along; did Ye Zun remind him of something that happened long ago—happened now—has he actually—

“So,” Fu You says carefully, smiling an encouraging smile that is beginning to unravel around the edges. “We need someone unknown to everyone here to take on the mantle. It will be better for morale if we kept news of Kunlun’s demise from our forces. We are also hoping that Zei Qiu might come to believe he fell for a decoy—”

“I can’t!” Zhao Yunlan says, all panic now. What if—what if this is why Shen Wei didn’t want him in the past?

Ma Gui shakes his head. “You must. His people will understand—you are not in any danger.”

Except from the love of his life, who was about to put Zhao Yunlan through a wall for speaking Kunlun’s name. Assuming his identity would be slightly more of a faux-pas.

“No, you don’t understand—I can’t. The Lord Envoy, he would…” Shen Wei would murder Zhao Yunlan and then revive him so he could be murdered again. That was the magnitude of what Zhao Yunlan had felt, caught in that dark, furious glare back in the SID’s lab.

“The Black-Cloaked Envoy? What does he have to do with this?” Ma Gui asks.

Zhao Yunlan blinks. Lets go of the table’s edge in favor of making a confused gesture as he stares at Ma Gui. “Isn’t he—he and Kunlun, they’re not…” Allies? Lovers? Shen Wei so devoted to Kunlun that even ten thousand years later, he is still wearing Kunlun’s token? “Good friends?” Zhao Yunlan finishes with a limp smile.

“Friends? No—I don’t believe they had ever met?” Ma Gui turns to Fu You.

“No, he wasn’t part of the delegation that went to meet Kunlun-jun,” Fu You confirms. “So,” she says, “You see…” She trails off when Zhao Yunlan clutches his head, every scrap of information he’s ever had from anywhere about Kunlun all colliding in a painful firework with time travel and Ye Zun—and now Shen Wei doesn’t yet know Kunlun, and—

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Zhao Yunlan says, and throws his hands up, thinking ten thousand unkind thoughts about Ye Zun and about half of one about Shen Wei. “I am Kunlun.”

“Yes!” Fu You exclaims, her smile firming up.

“I am Kunlun.” Zhao Yunlan looks at the dark shadows dancing in the dome of the cave above. “I—” Motherfucker. That’s—that explains everything.

Unless it doesn’t.

But it really truly (probably) does.

“Okay,” Zhao Yunlan says, possibly laughing but mostly trying not to hyperventilate. “Okay. I’ll do it.” And really, that should be what he has always been intended to do.

Unless it isn’t.

Zhao Yunlan is starting to really hate time travel.

Ma Gui and Fu You are so pleased with his acceptance—and also with whatever he’s going to possibly do for them in his future—that they decline to comment on the fact that their new Kunlun-jun apparently has a habit of shouting at the ceiling. Instead they set right to getting him in character by bringing him all over their cave, making him touch artefacts and swallow strange concoctions and sit still while Ma Gui and Fu You painstakingly do something elaborate to his hair. Whatever they are doing would be fascinating to observe—the hair-growth alone would most certainly make for a good side business back in his own time—if not for the fact that Zhao Yunlan is Kunlun.

It’s a bit much to process.

It is nothing at all like when Zhao Yunlan put together all the clues and figured out Shen Wei’s secret. Then he had spent countless hours obsessing about every word, every strange occurrence, every little detail that didn’t fit in the story that innocent professor Shen Wei told. The satisfaction when that finally fell into place was well-earned.

This is more like an information hit-and-run, leaving him mangled under a truckload full of odd bits and pieces that make sense in hindsight even as they continue feeling too impossible to be true. It is not satisfying as much as intensely frustrating, and every other new realization makes him want to go back in time just to smack himself upside the head. (And he could, maybe. But that would certainly complicate the timeline.)

As Ma Gui and Fu You argue about hair ornaments, Zhao Yunlan picks through the puzzle he can finally see the full pattern for. Some of these pieces he’s had for so long, and finally they make sense. Shen Wei’s vague remarks about the familiarity between them, about how long they’d known each other? Time travel. Shen Wei’s original obsession with keeping Zhao Yunlan from even hearing about Kunlun? Obviously because Shen Wei was as worried about messing up the timeline by letting something slip then as Zhao Yunlan is about doing something wrong now.

And then Shen Wei’s new obsession after Ye Zun happened to him: missing his Kunlun and hating Zhao Yunlan. That makes perfect sense, too—a terrible, twisted sense. Figuring out the general idea of what Ye Zun made Shen Wei believe, Zhao Yunlan swallows against a sick feeling. What must it have been like for Shen Wei, having his entire reality ripped apart and put back together wrong on purpose? Having his mind and heart savaged by Ye Zun’s touch, his memories of Zhao Yunlan here and now rended from him and returned so warped he couldn’t bear his own time’s Yunlan’s touch anymore…

“Do you guys know a Ye Zun?” Zhao Yunlan wonders casually, and there’s a brief consultation while the other two try to figure out if it’s a name or a title before they have to admit they’ve never heard of him.

Too bad. Zhao Yunlan has some business to conclude with the worst brother-in-law in history. Getting to him now, long before he can get to Shen Wei? That would have been worth risking the timeline for.

“So,” Zhao Yunlan says, trying to distract himself from the fact that he can do absolutely nothing for his own Shen Wei right now, “I hope it’s not a problem that your Kunlun-jun is going to be fighting with one of these.” He plucks the revolver from where he’s now keeping it in his new sash.

Then of course he has to explain about guns—and about this particular one. Unfortunately he doesn’t know enough about it himself that Ma Gui’s people could replicate it. hen Zhao Yunlan inherited it along with the position, he was told that it was old. Later, when he let Lin Jing check it out under pain of eternal unpaid overtime should anything happen to it, all the scientist could get out of it was that it seemed to convert ambient dark energy to ammunition that worked nothing like real bullets.

“It is a splendid weapon,” Ma Gui beams his approval. “Certainly one that befits Kunlun-jun’s fearsome reputation.”

Zhao Yunlan makes sure he gets a few more detail about said fearsome reputation, but it’s not exactly like these groups of would-be allies were liking each other’s selfies on social media. Most of what Ma Gui and Fu You know comes by way of secondhand reports and hearsay, so there’s plenty of room to improvise. That, Zhao Yunlan can do.

He’s in the middle of checking out his new outfit (which is somehow his original outfit, only Ma Gui and Fu You convinced it to be otherwise) and touching his hair (which is likewise his own, only… long) when the guards at the entrance announce the Black-Cloaked Envoy.

Zhao Yunlan’s first instinct is to rush to Shen Wei. His second, once the damned timeline complications hit his brain, is to duck behind one of the tall shelves full of ancient paperwork and not come out for another ten thousand years. The two disparate impulses collide like cartoon characters, leaving him standing there with his heart racing as Shen Wei gives a brief update to Fu You and Ma Gui.

Then Shen Wei—the Black-Cloaked Envoy now, all mask and robes—glances at Zhao Yunlan, and like the fool he is Zhao Yunlan starts smiling. He can’t help it, and he can’t help not wanting to stop, even when the only reaction from Shen Wei is a particularly blank look.

And rather than panic that he’s accidentally going to undo everything between them, Zhao Yunlan decides to follow his heart. Trust that what they have—which is strong enough to hold them over chasms of secrets and through danger and pain—is going to happen no matter what. His mind is still reeling at the impossible length of time, but—ten thousand years from this moment, give or take, Shen Wei is going to shake Zhao Yunlan’s hand for the first time, and he’s going to forget to let go. Zhao Yunlan really wants to find out why.

“Hey, you made it!” Zhao Yunlan says, watching the low-level alarmed confusion in Shen Wei’s expression with interest. Even with the mask, he’s surprisingly easy to read.

“Excuse me?”

Zhao Yunlan is sure Shen Wei got a good look at his face before, so he shoves a bit of that long hair out of the way and grins.

“Oh!” Shen Wei’s face lights up, and it makes Zhao Yunlan angry with the mask for hiding that sight—he hasn’t seen Shen Wei smile like that in what feels like forever. “You’re my benefactor! From the hill—I wanted to thank you, but you were gone once I had the opportunity to seek you out.”

“Consider me thanked!” Zhao Yunlan grins.

“But—why are you here? And you look—different?”

Zhao Yunlan glances at Ma Gui, hoping his new buddy will have some sort of cover story ready, but—no, apparently it’s improvisation time.

“I—Uh. I… It’s a long story,” Zhao Yunlan says, shrugging eloquently. Which—wow. Way to embrace his new identity. But no matter how certain he is of his conclusions, there is something about looking Shen Wei right in the eye and declaring himself Kunlun that makes Zhao Yunlan choke.

Fortunately Shen Wei has more important things on his mind. “I don’t know how to repay you for saving my life.” He’s so damn earnest, even when faced with the complete stranger Zhao Yunlan is to him now. “Please—there must be something I could do for you?”

“I’d like to see your face,” Zhao Yunlan says, impulsively. He’d like to do a lot more than see that face, given the chance. But the mask—as used as he is to the Black-Cloaked Envoy, Zhao Yunlan has had enough of masks to last him a lifetime.

Shen Wei stands in baffled silence. Zhao Yunlan winks at him.

“I—” Shen Wei says, and Zhao Yunlan’s heart skips a beat at the way he blinks. In his Shen Wei, Zhao Yunlan would say he was feigning innocence, at least a little. Making himself seem all the harmless professor. But this much younger man really doesn’t seem capable of dissembling. “I would gladly acquiesce to my benefactor’s demands when the proper time comes,” he declares stiffly.

Zhao Yunlan wants to lean over and sling an arm over his shoulders. Wants to say something about not mistaking desires for demands, but this young Shen Wei seems skittish enough that Zhao Yunlan settles for a smile. “I’ll be looking forward to it.”

“I—Oh. Yes.” More blinking, and those eyelashes are tugging at Zhao Yunlan’s heart, which has never been anything but weak for that expression. And with Shen Wei standing so stiffly—it’s a reminder of other early days, in his own time. But that was Professor Shen in his suits. In the black robes, Shen Wei usually shows more of his natural powerful grace.

Unless he’s hurt.

“How’s your injury?” Zhao Yunlan says, berating himself for taking so long to ask.

Shen Wei stares, like he doesn’t quite understand the question, touching his shoulder self-consciously. “Not worth mentioning.”

Zhao Yunlan scowls, and feels for that internal connection, that flow of energy—but of course it isn’t there. Not yet. Not with this Shen Wei. “What are you talking about? Have you even had anyone see to it?”

“I—I heal quickly.”

Wrong answer. “That doesn’t matter! Just because you’re used to pain—just because you think it’s fine doesn’t mean you should take it on yourself to suffer in silence.” It comes out forcefully enough to make Shen Wei startle. The memory of his own Shen Wei pretending to be fine and then cutting himself open in their kitchen has not lost any of its horror to Zhao Yunlan.

And this Shen Wei too answers Zhao Yunlan’s tirade with a protest. “But my people—there were far worse injuries—”

“Hey, do we have any first aid stuff here?” Zhao Yunlan turns to Fu You, but it’s Ma Gui who answers.

“Of course. And I have been working on a new ointment—if Lord Black Cloak wouldn’t mind?”

Shen Wei swallows, looking beleaguered as Ma Gui approaches with a beautiful little wooden box, carved and inlaid with slivers of deep green jade. “This is quite unnecessary,” he says.

Zhao Yunlan fixes him with a very stern look. “You were hit by an axe.”

That revelation finally gets a reaction from Ma Gui, who crowds Shen Wei and presses the box on him. “Please. This should help.”

“Then I will take it to the wounded,” Shen Wei says quickly, and snatches it from Ma Gui with a nod before glancing toward the exit.

“You are the wounded!” Zhao Yunlan can’t believe he’s having to have this conversation again. Or for the first time—either way, it clearly didn’t take. “Why don’t you stay here and take your clothes off? We can—”

“I must see to my people,” Shen Wei says, and—is he blushing? It’s not like Zhao Yunlan can check, because there he goes, stalking out the archway like there are angry bees in his robe.

Well, hopefully he will use a little of that whatever it was on himself, and not just give it all away. And hopefully Zhao Yunlan didn’t just scare him off for good. He doesn’t regret his words, though, and despite fretting about ruining the timeline there’s a funny bubbly feeling in his chest. Seeing Shen Wei like this, so young and unguarded, and being in the same room with him without treading that minefield of wounded hurt left behind by Ye Zun… Well. Maybe there are some things about time travel he doesn’t hate quite as much as he originally thought.

But even time travel doesn’t keep them from running out of time—there is so much to discuss, and Fu You and Ma Gui also have a complicated military alliance to manage. And now a welcome banquet to plan, too. So they make sure Zhao Yunlan is fed, and then stash him away in a cave until it’s time for Kunlun to arrive.

Zhao Yunlan minds not at all. Getting to close a door—well, drop a curtain—on everything that’s been happening is a blessed relief. He’s got a nasty headache brewing, either from information overload or the weight of all that hair tugging at his scalp. He feels like he hasn’t slept for a year, and yet he’s so wound up that he ends up investigating his new quarters instead of doing the sensible thing and just passing out.

They’re lavishly appointed, for a cave—there’s rugs and cushions and even wall hangings to give the place a warm and civilized feel despite the rough, dark rock of the walls and ceiling. For light and heat there’s a hearth, with a clever flue system keeping the smoke from billowing into the room. He pokes a bit at the fire with a stick, watching the sparks shoot up, letting his thoughts settle like the logs in the flames.

There’s no bed, but a mattress stuffed with something vaguely crinkly and fragrant finally tempts him to struggle out of a couple of layers of unfamiliar clothes and curl up under the thick, scratchy blanket. Sleep usually comes easy to him, but maybe time travel gives you jet lag.

Or maybe it’s just being separated from his entire life, from everyone he knows—from Shen Wei. Yunlan sighs, long and slow, and tries to picture something more relaxing than that last glimpse he had of everyone. Da Qing, ears flat and paws scrabbling at the floor, looking like he might try to fling himself after the two Zhao Yunlans. And Shen Wei, with his memories all wrong, trying to hold Yunlan back but unable to refuse the other Zhao Yunlan… Is time passing there? Can Yunlan make sure to come back in time to ease some of the pain from Shen Wei’s face?

Yunlan rolls over, groaning at his stupid brain and his stupid life. He can’t sleep and he hates his restless thoughts and he’s not used to being lonely anymore. If things were as they should be, he would have Shen Wei next to him in bed, and then he would be guaranteed to get some help falling asleep. That’s how it should be. Always.

Instead he let Shen Wei go to Dixing, alone, and everything went horribly, terribly wrong. Asking the Hallows to fix that for him… has not gone as expected. Shen Wei in his own time still doesn’t trust him, and Shen Wei in this time doesn’t know him. Yunlan burrows under the blanket, torturing himself with thoughts of what he might have done differently, which does not in any way speed up the sleeping process.

Gritty-eyed with exhaustion and increasingly absurd remorse—wishing he’d been more diligent at doing chores, as if that might have kept Shen Wei from going off to confront Ye Zun—he finally cracks. Sure, he hasn’t even been gone a full day, but he needs this. Yunlan pokes around the discarded pile of clothes next to his pallet until he manages to pull his phone out. Turns it back on, frowning at the battery meter hovering under the one-third mark. No time to waste—who knows how long he can keep a little power in this thing. Then, like a lovesick teenager, he pulls up his photo album, skipping through crime scenes and Da Qing’s sleeping face—cat and human—until he gets to his precious hoard of Shen Wei pictures.

Yunlan’s gaze is drawn to one of the more recent ones: Shen Wei in the kitchen with his shirtsleeves rolled up and flour dusting his fingers, caught in a carefree, eye-crinkling smile, the moment before he turned to spot Yunlan with the phone.

Carefully shutting down the phone and tucking it away, Yunlan holds that image in his mind. No matter how long it takes, or what it costs, he’ll make sure Shen Wei can smile like that again. I promise, baby.

And once Yunlan has Shen Wei back, he’ll make sure they don’t have to be apart again. Not ever.

That decided, Yunlan relaxes enough to give in to exhaustion. He drifts off while trying to decide what kind of ring Shen Wei might want.

Chapter Text

Kunlun comes easy when it is time for his official arrival. Zhao Yunlan is used to playing a part. Used to spending precious energy being as loud and boisterous as everyone expects him to, used to draining himself chumming it up with all the right people to make his job go as smoothly as possible. And really, there isn’t that much difference between being the chief of the SID, or a mysterious general from distant parts. As an added bonus, he is now in a time long before any of the famed military geniuses Zhao Yunlan was forced to memorize in school were born. This makes it an absolute breeze to sound wise and tactical.

The one person who has yet to be formally introduced to Kunlun is Shen Wei. To Zhao Yunlan’s crushing disappointment, the Black-Cloaked Envoy is already gone by the time the welcome banquet rolls around. Fu You and Ma Gui both are very vague on when he might be back, but apparently this is just a normal thing Shen Wei does. It is all Zhao Yunlan can do to keep his requests for information about the Black-Cloaked Envoy to their strategy meetings, where he is sometimes lucky enough to get confirmation that Shen Wei is still alive and well—or was, at least, the last time anyone saw him. Zhao Yunlan waits for Shen Wei’s return, hope mingling with trepidation.

In the meantime, there’s the Hallows. Zhao Yunlan asked them to take him back, and they have—to the Hallows’ own beginning. Fu You and Ma Gui and a small group of highly skilled artisans with and without Dixing powers have been slowly crafting them from what was once a solid block of space metal—the very core of the meteorite that struck and caused such damage to Dixing. Perhaps because it went deep into that realm, or perhaps because it comes from far outside of Haixing’s atmosphere, the thing is loaded with dark energy. Enough that even Zhao Yunlan can feel it when he enters the deep, protected chamber where the Hallows are kept.

According to Ma Gui, the original Hallow was too dangerous to leave in one solid piece. Zhao Yunlan gets a long lecture on the subject, with many footnotes and fascinating asides that all boil down to it emitting a nasty kind of radiation. Not that Ma Gui uses those words, but Zhao Yunlan gathers that leaving it unsplit and unguarded would have been the dark energy equivalent of a nuclear meltdown. They could maybe have tried to get rid of or destroy it—maybe, though that could easily have made matters worse. But with so much of Dixing rendered uninhabitable, Ma Gui and Fu You and the others started working on ways of harnessing its overflowing energy into tools to rebuild.

When Zhao Yunlan first visits the workshop, the Hallows are all distinct and separate, each being given a different form and shape while retaining the essence of a fallen star.

“Though it is strange—no matter what we set out to do, these four shapes are the ones that keep reappearing in our minds when we work on them.” Fu You shakes her head. “There are powers at work through these objects that we do not fully understand—that is why they are hallowed to us.”

That is fascinating, from a metaphysical perspective. However, Zhao Yunlan has more pressing, practical concerns. There are four Hallows. His SID only has three of them, and he knows next to nothing about the fourth. If he learns all he can now, they might have a chance to find it when he returns. At his request, Ma Gui takes the Guardian Lantern out of the small chest of carved and warded green jade where it is kept dormant.

Zhao Yunlan very nearly has another screaming fit.

He knows the damn thing. It stood in his father’s office collecting dust when he was a child. When Zhao Yunlan took over as chief of the SID, he put it in a box together with all the other reminders of Zhao Xinci, and did what he usually does when it comes to things related to his father: promptly forgot about it.

It does sting Zhao Yunlan’s pride a bit, that it was so close and yet they all failed to find it—but on the bright side that is one thing ticked off his to-do list? Knowing he’ll be able to pick it up as soon as he goes back home, Zhao Yunlan makes sure to pump Ma Gui for information about it. He learns that it’s the linchpin in the plan to restore Dixing. Its shape is not all symbolic. Once finished, it will be able to emit enough light and heat to give the wounded realm some ease.

Guiding Zhao Yunlan back to the council chamber, Ma Gui frowns. “The problem with that power is how easy it would be to turn it into a weapon instead. We are so close to completion, but—today we would not dare install it in Dixing proper.”

“Zei Qiu,” Zhao Yunlan guesses, feeling as if he owes Kunlun’s name to hold a personal grudge along with his professional antipathy to the cruel leader of the Dixing rebels.

Ma Gui nods. “With his powers of persuasion, he could easily turn one or two of our artisans, and have them revise the intent of the Lantern.”

Zhao Yunlan considers this. “So—your craftspeople, they can still change the Hallows now?”

“Yes, of course. That is how we have been shaping them, all this time, and taming the destructive effects of this star-heart.”

“And you trust all of them?”

Ma Gui gives a pale version of his usual beatific smile. “I would like to. They have all worked so hard. But the minds of men and women can sometimes be very easily swayed, and Zei Qiu’s gift—it takes a strong constitution to resist him, I know.”

Zhao Yunlan nods. He’s heard enough about Zei Qiu’s methods of mind control and torture to understand. “Right. So what’s your plan, if you can’t just screw in your new lightbulb down there?”

As always, his deliberate choice of words that should be incomprehensible to Ma Gui does not faze the man. Something about being attuned to the meaning of words, not their sounds—Zhao Yunlan admits it does make life in the past a lot easier. “We must put precautions in place,” Ma Gui says. “Only install it when the time is right, of course—and make it so that it won’t work in the wrong hands.”

“Sounds good. And how are you going to do that?”

Ma Gui makes sure to usher Zhao Yunlan into the council chamber, and not until he has satisfied himself that they are alone does he sigh. “By exacting a price so heavy only the righteous would pay it.”

And now it’s starting to sound less good. Zhao Yunlan swings himself up onto the council table, crosses his legs and sits, leaning forward. “How, exactly?”

Ma Gui’s dismayed hesitation is another bad sign. The man has a huge, tender heart—he is no general, to lead armies into battle, but a Guardian, trying to keep his people safe as the world itself has turned into a battlefield. “A life,” he says softly. “Would it that it could be me—if I am still around when the right time comes, I was hoping… but we can’t know.”

“A life?”

“It’s the only way. Zei Qiu and those like him—they would never give themselves for any cause. They are all selfishness and greed, and—”

“Hang on.” Zhao Yunlan puts a hand up. “You’re making this Lantern to benefit all of Dixing?”

Ma Gui nods.

“But instead of a light switch to turn it on, you’re going to use human sacrifice?”

The words make Ma Gui flinch. “It wouldn’t be… it wouldn’t be forced upon anyone unwilling. Couldn’t be—only one with pure intentions could—”

“No,” Zhao Yunlan says, and fishes out one of the precious few lollipops he has left. He toys with it, but doesn’t unwrap it.

Ma Gui looks both ashamed and defiant. “We have had endless discussions. All other alternatives—nothing else would work. It would be far too easy for someone to steal it, or worse.”

“You can’t let one of these things kill people. Not on purpose!” Not that the other Hallows won’t, in their own ways, but Zhao Yunlan doesn’t feel it’s necessary for Ma Gui to know that.

“We must,” he retorts grimly.

“You absolutely must not,” Zhao Yunlan says, feeling every inch the Guardian himself. Ma Gui might be making plans for now, but in ten thousand years the only people who know about the Hallows are Zhao Yunlan’s team. And he is absolutely not letting any of them lay down their lives to light a fucking lantern.

It’s not easy to make Ma Gui angry, but there’s a thundercloud look about the man now. “Then what do you suggest, Zhao Yunlan?”

Ouch. They have been faithfully calling Zhao Yunlan Kunlun-jun even in private, ever since that first meeting, and Ma Gui speaks his full name like a slap. Zhao Yunlan doesn’t mind, though—if someone dropped in from the year 12,000 CE and told him he was running the SID wrong, he’d probably be a little pissy about that, too.

Zhao Yunlan taps the wrapped lollipop against his lips thoughtfully. “It needs a safety catch,” he says, thinking out loud. He still doesn’t understand the full intricacies of how the Hallows work, but from what Ma Gui has told him a lot of it seems to be the wielder’s intent. Which matches with his own experience of using them in their final form. “It has to be for the good of Dixing…” And then he nearly swallows his lollipop, wrapper and all. “That’s it!”


It isn’t Ma Gui’s fault he never thought of it—he doesn’t have Zhao Yunlan’s advantage of actually having been to Dixing, of having seen the effects of both the lasting peace and the poor conditions. But Zhao Yunlan has. What’s more, the chief of the SID is intimately familiar with how the most desperate and adventurous of Dixing spurn the dull grind of a shadowed existence, for any kind of foothold in the daylight world. And he understands, as Ma Gui cannot, that those people don't want a weapon.

They want a sun.

“If it’s for Dixing, then make it for Dixing,” Zhao Yunlan says, waving his lollipop to emphasise his point.

“But—we are!” Ma Gui’s confusion makes Zhao Yunlan shake his head in impatience.

“Not one life,” Zhao Yunlan scoots closer to the edge, the words welling up in an excited jumble. “All lives. Or as many as you think you can get.”

“I don’t—”

“Don’t make the Lantern take a life. You don’t want that—nobody wants that. Make it take belief. You can do that, right?”

Ma Gui blinks. “Belief? We—yes, but—”

“The population of Dixing. They’re who you need behind this. Not one person—not someone like yourself or Fu You or even Zei Qiu, deciding what the power should do. But the people who need it.”

Ma Gui’s eyes widen—widen and brighten, before a shadow falls across them. “But Zei Qiu,” he says. “Or anyone like him, with the power to rule over minds. That could be disastrous, if they can turn the belief of an entire people.”

Zhao Yunlan remembers Ye Zun. Swallows. Lets his thoughts spin for a second, until they land on Ye Zun’s opposite. Shen Wei. Always Shen Wei. Of course. He smiles, feeling warm and grateful, and decides he needs to thank Shen Wei for this as soon as he can. “No, that’s not your safety catch,” he says. “The people are your light switch. The safety—that is in the nature of the belief.”

Ma Gui is frowning, but not disapproving—more like he’s trying to race ahead to Zhao Yunlan’s conclusion. “You mean—make a condition?”

“What is the one thing that you all have here?” Zhao Yunlan gestures with his lollipop at the entire complex of caves, the Dixing and Haixing and Yashou all living and working side by side. “The thing that is anathema to Zei Qiu and Ye Zun and those kind of guys?”

Clearly Ma Gui has been living in the strange harmony of his alliance for too long, because he doesn’t seem to get it—doesn’t understand how rare and precious it is to have all three people living side by side, rather than trying to push each other out or keep each other down. Making the others pay obeisance to the given superiority of your own kind, Zhao Yunlan thinks drily.

“You’re all people. Not Haixing or Dixing—here, you work together because we are all the same.”

The smile on Ma Gui’s face when he gets it—really gets it—could probably power Dixing for ten thousand years. Zhao Yunlan answers it with his own, and finally unwraps the lollipop. It’s even sweeter than he remembers, and he makes it last a long, long time, as Fu You and Ma Gui and he talk about the future of the Guardian Lantern deep into the night.

The night Zhao Yunlan gets his wish and Shen Wei finally returns is when everything goes to hell.

And not only because it’s the day Zhao Yunlan finally wears his precious phone battery flat, staring at his own shadowed reflection as the angry red LED in the corner flickers and dies and doesn’t come back on no matter how long he presses the power button.

It’s been—time. It’s hard to make sense of it when the days above ground all look much the same: not very warm and not very bright. And of course, any time he’s too busy to head outside he can’t even tell if it’s day or night.

But it’s best that Kunlun keeps busy, or Zhao Yunlan might start losing his mind. He’s tried befriending Da Qing, who narrows his eyes disdainfully and finds other places to be. At least here Da Qing isn’t the gossipy type yet, holding himself apart from other Yashou. It’s unsettling to see him that way, but also probably for the best—if he were as familiar with everyone here as he is with the SID team, Kunlun’s reputation might suffer a fatal blow.

There’s plenty of other people to talk to, of course. Many of them with fascinating lives and stories, and if Zhao Yunlan can get them sharing it’s a great way to kill time—almost everyone he gets to open up is a fantastic storyteller. There’s not much other entertainment to be had, so these people know how to spin a tale. But many of them are intimidated by Kunlun-jun’s lofty status and unfamiliar customs, forcing Zhao Yunlan to work hard at putting them at ease enough for a conversation.

Hence sitting in his cave with his dead phone, feeling exhausted and on edge, wishing he could just go home. He might, soon—work with the Hallows was progressing well last time he checked up on it. Which Kunlun-jun has been kindly asked to not do quite so frequently, as it is making the artisans skittish and the guards who open and close the series of doors leading down there… well, Fu You had politely said ‘slightly distracted’, which Zhao Yunlan interpreted as ‘sick of your face’.

All in all, it’s a shitty day, until he gets news that the Black-Cloaked Envoy and his party have returned. Then it becomes a pretty excellent day. Zhao Yunlan has never been happier to sit in the council chamber and listen to a report than when Shen Wei shows up in person to talk about places he and his forces have been, and the people they’ve helped and the skirmishes they’ve fought. Zhao Yunlan has enough background now to sort out what was done for tactical reasons, and what Shen Wei did simply because someone needed his help.

Zhao Yunlan catches Shen Wei’s eye a couple of times, and each time there’s a shock of warmth through him at how happy Shen Wei seems at the attention. So clearly he didn’t actually scare Shen Wei off for good last time—and maybe Zhao Yunlan’s admonishments worked, because the Black-Cloaked Envoy solemnly reports all injuries, and then adds that he himself has sustained none. When Shen Wei mirrors the smile Zhao Yunlan gives him at that, it becomes possibly the best day of the entire past.

And that’s when the screaming starts.

Weapons drawn, the two of them get the council guards to close up around Ma Gui and Fu You, and follow the commotion of people shouting and pointing until they can hear heartrending screams echoing through a deep tunnel Zhao Yunlan knows only too well. The first set of doors in to the Hallows stands open, and the guards he saw only this morning are dead on the ground, faces mottled and contorted in agony. Next to them, the friend who stopped by for a chat and found them is on his knees, keening. His grief is painfully raw, but Zhao Yunlan forces himself to tune it out. “Dixing power?” he asks Shen Wei, who shakes his head.

“It doesn’t feel like it at all.”

“Poison, then.” Zhao Yunlan points to a pair of shattered wine cups, which certainly weren’t there earlier.

Together, they head further into the passage, where the bright ambient lights are eerily dim, and everything is far too silent. At the next set of doors they find another tragedy.

Strange, that all four guards should drink the poisoned wine and not suspect a thing. Strange, unless it was served with a smile by a familiar face. Zhao Yunlan doesn’t like that thought at all, but when they get to the final door, it is worse. It too is open, and in the workroom beyond—a feast interrupted by death.

Food and drink are arranged on the workbenches, but the men and women Zhao Yunlan has seen patiently crafting the Hallows lie collapsed. Some are moaning—and that is the only relief they get. That some of their people are still alive. Many are not.

The Hallows, of course, are gone.

Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei make it back through the tunnel intent on taking their grim report to the council, only to find a battle raging above. Their thief might have worked with smiles and poison, but the getaway is clearly being handled by the brawns side of this operation: a good-sized showing of the rag-tag barbarians Zhao Yunlan has learned to identify as Zei Qiu’s Dixing rebels have stormed them, some making it as far as the main tunnel.

Side by side, Kunlun and the Black-Cloaked Envoy can keep them from getting any further. There are other fighters, of course, and life-and-death struggles everywhere. But without saying a word, they both gravitate to the point most important to hold. And then they hold it.

Brutally, desperately, they hold it.

The rebels are almost all Dixing, almost all susceptible to the revolver’s lethal force. And those that somehow move too fast, or come too many at a time—those Shen Wei deals with. They fight side by side in near-perfect sync. The only thing that mars the flow of that is when Shen Wei insists on stepping in front of Zhao Yunlan, using his blade and his body both to cover Zhao Yunlan instead of defending himself. And that of course spoils Zhao Yunlan’s aim, so that he has to stride out in front of Shen Wei to get his next shot off. It might have gone on like that forever, a succession of moves until they were at the tunnel entrance—except finally the hallway lies empty of anything but corpses.

They wait for a few heaving breaths, as the first spike of adrenaline drains from Zhao Yunlan’s system, leaving him sweaty and jittery. The tunnel carries echoes of shouts and clashing metal from the surface. Running footsteps close in from the other direction. For a second they move back to back, ready to defend from both directions—and then their own forces come into sight. “Hold this position!” Shen Wei orders, and looks at Zhao Yunlan, who nods. No further words are needed for them to set off towards the surface together. Following the fighting—following the stolen Hallows.

It’s night, above. The darkened skies cast hardly any light at all—behind that veil of dust, the moon seems a ghost of what Zhao Yunlan still thinks of as normal. The chaos outside is lit only by watchfires and torches. The rebels are outnumbered, and seem to be fighting to flee. The allies are reluctant to let them go, so close to their innermost defenses.

It is entirely unclear if anyone outside knows that the Hallows have been taken, or if the thief has been spotted.

Shen Wei immediately offers his support to a group of younger recruits whose numbers are not making up for their underdeveloped skills. Letting Shen Wei get swallowed by the fray, Zhao Yunlan goes to the most senior officer he can spot. She doesn’t need his help, so he makes sure not to get in her way as he calls a couple of questions. Then he goes to drag Shen Wei back out of the battle.

“Hey!” Shoulder to shoulder with Shen Wei, he shouts to make himself heard over the clamor. “Zei Qiu’s people have all been retreating in that direction,” he points with his revolver, “and one of the sentries reported seeing someone leaving with a yowling sack before these guys attacked.”

“A yowling—?”

“Like a cat,” Zhao Yunlan says. Now, his witness didn’t actually state the exact nature of the yowling, but he’s got a feeling his damn cat’s gone and gotten himself in trouble.

They set off with the battle still raging behind them, letting the rebels that try to avoid them get away, and dealing swiftly with those who attack. “The Hallows’ jade boxes were still in the workroom,” Zhao Yunlan says, squinting at the path in the dark. “So the thief must have tossed them into something light and easy to carry—like a sack.”

“Which you think Da Qing is in?” Shen Wei asks—not doubtfully, just going over the facts. He’s striding forward without any hesitation at all. Because of course Shen Wei can see in the dark.

“I do. Either he got thrown in during a fight, or he figured it would be the best way to find out where the thief was going. And I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to get a cat out of a sack when it doesn’t want to go, but—” Zhao Yunlan stumbles, just catching himself before going down over another fallen tree. “But trust me, it would be quicker to just carry the whole damn thing along, cat and all.”

“And quicker with a dead cat than a live one,” Shen Wei says grimly. He may be younger than Zhao Yunlan could ever have conceived, but this sort of thing he understands.

“Yeah,” Zhao Yunlan agrees, a spike of fear stabbing through his ribcage.

“Here,” Shen Wei sticks his hand out. Zhao Yunlan looks at it, uncomprehending. “I’m faster in the dark,” Shen Wei says, glancing down, like he’s worried maybe Zhao Yunlan will disapprove of this fact.

Zhao Yunlan does not. In fact, he grins as he catches the outstretched hand, without a moment’s hesitation. He trusts Shen Wei to lead him in the most blinding dark—with a little light to see by, he feels safe enough to run. “Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

Whether Shen Wei is somehow tracking the energy of the Hallows or following a trail, Zhao Yunlan doesn’t know and doesn’t have the breath to ask. They are running, and though there are others on this path tonight they meet nothing more than a rustle diving out of the way and hear nothing but footsteps somewhere far ahead. There are animals around, too—some kind of night birds calling, and every now and again a larger predator yaps and howls. And yowls?

No. Zhao Yunlan is a city boy, and his ears can’t tell an owl from a bat, but they can recognize the cries of one particular outraged feline. The yowl climbs to a frantic tone, before it’s suddenly cut off. “Da Qing!”

At Zhao Yunlan's cry, Shen Wei draws his blade. “I’ll go,” he says, and Zhao Yunlan lets go of his hand and does his best to follow as Shen Wei is swallowed by the darkness. Now that his eyes are more accustomed to the lack of light it's easier to navigate. To get to Da Qing in time, Zhao Yunlan won’t let a couple of slips and falls keep him from running.

It isn’t far. Coming up on a bend in the path, Zhao Yunlan can hear the ringing sound of metal striking metal. He doesn’t slow, only brings his off hand up to steady his aim. Moments later, he has a clear line of sight, and shoots the person who isn’t Shen Wei. That stops the sound of fighting, so Zhao Yunlan stops paying attention. He has to find Da Qing. Zhao Yunlan scans the ground—goes down on his hands and knees to run his fingers over the strewn boulders, anything that’s the right size—

Except it’s smaller than he expected. The sleek body, when he touches its warm flank, is nothing like the solid mass of overfed cat he deals with at home. Zhao Yunlan crouches over Da Qing, wishing he had a torch or a lighter or something, to see this black cat better in the dark. He runs his hand over the small body, and curses in dismay when it comes away covered in wet blood. Da Qing doesn’t stir.

“Can you do anything?” Zhao Yunlan says, keeping his voice steady as he stares down at the limp cat, the blood looking as black as his fur, but standing out with a dull sheen.

Shen Wei joins Zhao Yunlan, face behind the mask set in determination. “I will try,” he says, and somehow that’s more encouraging than any false promise might have been. Shen Wei holds the center of his palm over Da Qing’s head and closes his eyes. Zhao Yunlan can see nothing, feel nothing—but the still body twitches. Then the ears flick back, and Da Qing opens his mouth around a kitten’s mew.

“Da Qing!” Zhao Yunlan is still afraid to touch him, afraid of hurting him more. “Da Qing, come on.”

Beside him, Shen Wei sinks down on his heels. “He’s—he’s better.” Shen Wei sounds exhausted. “But still hurt.”

As if to emphasize that point, Da Qing makes another pitiful meow, scrabbling weakly with his paws. “We should get him back,” Zhao Yunlan says. But the Hallows… “That guy you were fighting, was he the thief?”

Shen Wei shakes his head. “A rear guard, I believe. Left behind to deal with their troublesome cargo.” A smile. “He was quite bloodied even before I got to him.”

Zhao Yunlan’s worry mingles with fondness as he looks at Da Qing. That sounds like his mean-tempered cat alright. Though this scrawny thing has nothing of his Da Qing’s fearsome physique—the only roundness on him now is whatever is still left in his whiskered face from kittenhood. It becomes even more apparent when Zhao Yunlan scoops Da Qing up, to tiny scared noises. The cat is vibrating with purrs—which would have been comforting, except Zhao Yunlan remembers learning the hard way, how cats purr when in pain.

“You don’t weigh anything!” Zhao Yunlan scolds the faintly struggling body as he cradles Da Qing in the crook of an arm, folding his robe over it to keep him warm. Gently stroking the cat's soft forehead with a fingertip, he chuckles softly. “Well, you'll be eating a lot more in the future.” He can’t believe his own fatty used to be this small.

And he can’t believe they lost the Hallows. The Hallows that are now in Zei Qiu’s hands. The Hallows that were going to bring Zhao Yunlan back home.

Zhao Yunlan is torn between getting Da Qing back to their healers as soon as possible, and following the trail before it goes completely cold. He peers down the path disappearing into the dark.

Shen Wei notices. “I’m afraid there many places they could go from here, and more they could hide.”

“Where they can gather their forces and try and figure out how to use the Hallows against us,” Zhao Yunlan adds sourly. Da Qing’s purrs stall for a moment, and Zhao Yunlan’s heart almost does too. When they restart, he sighs. Now isn’t the time to rush blindly into danger. There are scouts that can be sent out, Crows that can scan vast areas at first light—lots of work waiting for Kunlun.

“Alright,” Zhao Yunlan says. “Let’s head back for a bit of a rest. Then we’ll go kick their asses in the morning.”

With Da Qing tucked into his robe, Zhao Yunlan walks with more care than usual. Shen Wei comes up beside him, and it feels so natural that at first he doesn’t really reflect on it at all. The steadying hand at the small of his back when the footing gives, the shoulder brushing his—these are all things he associates with being near Shen Wei. It’s not until they have walked in companionable silence for a while that Zhao Yunlan remembers Shen Wei here and now wouldn’t associate any of those things with him. That Shen Wei is choosing to do everything he does for the first time. With that comes the realization that there really is no need for them to be this close, abreast, when the path lends itself better to walking single file.

There is a difference walking happily, casually, next to the man you are very much planning on springing an engagement on once the world stops trying to end, and walking next to someone you’ve just met but really hit it off with. Switching from the former to the latter mid-step is both mind-bending and electrifying. Was the air between them always this charged? Zhao Yunlan glances at Shen Wei, but his view is obstructed by his own long hair, and by Shen Wei’s mask. In the dark, it’s hard to tell what expression he wears, but he looks—distracted. Unhappily so.

“Thinking about the Hallows?” Zhao Yunlan asks.

“It might be best to try what Zei Qiu did,” Shen Wei says. “A small force, using stealth and striking ckly.”

“Like ninjas,” Zhao Yunlan says, and then remembers there probably aren’t ninjas yet.

Shen Wei has other things on his mind. “But the danger…” From his tone, Zhao Yunlan imagines him scowling fiercely. “I couldn’t ask anyone to risk their lives on such a dangerous gamble.”

“Everyone will want the Hallows back,” Zhao Yunlan points out.

“If I went alone—”

“We,” Zhao Yunlan says quickly.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You wouldn’t go alone, not as long as I’m here.” Zhao Yunlan feels Shen Wei stop, and comes to a halt himself. He grins at Shen Wei’s stare. “If you don’t want to risk anyone else, that’s fine, but you don’t have to shoulder all the responsibility for everything by yourself.” Wouldn’t that be nice? Shen Wei actually sharing some responsibility—letting Zhao Yunlan choose to be part of things. Not going off by himself to Dixing to try and hold those seals on Ye Zun’s pillar all by himself...

“But you—”

“No arguments. If you think that’s the best plan, I’m coming with you.” Zhao Yunlan starts walking again. His participation is not up for discussion.

A few moments later, rapid footsteps are followed by that solid shoulder against his again, as Shen Wei draws level with him. “I don’t even know your name!”

It’s a good thing it’s dark, because Zhao Yunlan can feel the blood draining from his face. This time he’s the one who stops first, Shen Wei halting to look at him. Knowing what the answer will mean to Shen Wei—knowing even though Shen Wei doesn’t—his mouth goes dry and his heart flutters. It feels more intimate than a marriage vow and more daring than a proposal. By saying it, he will knot their red thread of fate together forever.

Zhao Yunlan meets Shen Wei’s gaze, open and curious behind the mask, and smiles. “Kunlun.”

“Oh, so—Kunlun?! The Kunlun?”

Zhao Yunlan has never hoped for anything to be true quite as much as he does when he grins and says, “Yeah. That’s me!” And to distract himself and Shen Wei from any follow-up questions, he starts walking. Careful not to jostle Da Qing, he nudges Shen Wei with his shoulder. “You know, it's customary to offer your own name in return.”

“My name?” Shen Wei seems entirely taken aback by the concept of having a name. Which is funny, because now that Zhao Yunlan thinks about it—didn’t they talk about his name when they first met? Not here, in this now, but last time. When Zhao Yunlan first met Shen Wei.

“Surely your parents didn’t doom you to a wardrobe of black cloaks at birth,” Zhao Yunlan says, still racking his brain for that first exchange.

“It’s Shen. And people call me Wéi,” Shen Wei says, but says it wrong. The tone rises where it should stay flat, like he’s hollering into a receiver.

Wéi?” No, that doesn’t sound good at all.

“For the mountains I came from,” Shen Wéi—wrong Wei—explains. And that’s when Yunlan remembers—when they met, Shen Wei hadn’t had to give the character for his name. It was obvious, just from the way he said it—beautiful and lofty, the sound carried the weight of those twenty strokes. Not one to lose an opportunity to flirt with a gorgeous man randomly met, Zhao Yunlan had complimented him on it. And then later, as they walked side by side through a park on a night completely unlike this one, Shen Wei had said—

Zhao Yunlan thinks the loudest “Oh,” he can without accidentally facepalming. Because Shen Wei had said someone important gave it to him. Which Zhao Yunlan knows now can only mean one person. And if Zhao Yunlan had any doubts about what he’s about to do—well, when it’s too late to stop, the only option is to keep going.

“It doesn’t suit you,” Zhao Yunlan says, quite firmly. “Not that Wéi—” but he can’t just shove a new name on a man because the tone of the current version displeases him. So he digs deep into his memory—Shen Wei deserves poetry, and beautiful metaphors, and a name that won’t leave him like a ghost trapped in the shadow of its birthplace.

As Zhao Yunlan lets the words he’s dredged up tumble out—all about lofty peaks and vast views and noble journeys— he watches Shen Wei walk alongside him. The reaction is rapt silence, so Zhao Yunlan is definitely hitting the right notes. He pauses, pretending to consider. “Yes. A few more strokes”—eight, to be precise—”to change the meaning, and it will be a far better match for you.”

“It will?” Shen Wei asks, the mask doing nothing to hide how wide his eyes are.

“Listen,” Zhao Yunlan says, and stops there on the path. It’s just them and poor Da Qing huddled into the crook of his arm. The night is silent, as silent as it ever gets. “Shen Wei.” And this time he says it the way it’s supposed to be. “What do you think?”

Very carefully, Shen Wei tries the new syllable out. “Shen… Wei?” Zhao Yunlan beams his approval, and Shen Wei lights up in response.

“Well?” Zhao Yunlan asks.

“I like it,” Shen Wei says, and doesn’t break eye contact as he adds, “since you gave it to me.”

“Good, good.” Zhao Yunlan should be embarrassed at the rush of heat he feels—of course Shen Wei likes it; the name has been his for as long as Zhao Yunlan has known him—but he feels nothing but pleasure. Both at Shen Wei’s approval, and his long look. Zhao Yunlan may be ten thousand years too early for a lot of things, but there is no universe where he would fail to pick up on the signals Shen Wei is giving him.

And keeps giving him, all the way back. Zhao Yunlan can read him, mask and all, and there’s a nervous joy in Shen Wei’s smile that is completely at odds with the stupidly depressing stuff they talk about. Though Shen Wei, having grown up here in this dim, broken world, might regard war and strategy and plans for taking back stolen artefacts as a bit of light conversation.

Any other night, with Shen Wei beside him like this, Zhao Yunlan would have left his feet drift off the path. Found somewhere to sit and—talk, maybe. Of things other than death. But there is a tiny heart beating too fast against his chest, tucked under his robe, and the weight of that little feline body keeps Zhao Yunlan from straying.

Concern for his friend guides his feet all the way to the fully packed council chamber.

“Kunlun-jun!” Ma Gui exclaims, catching sight of him through the crowd. “What news do you bring?”

“The Hallows are gone,” Zhao Yunlan says, ignoring everyone else as he gently extracts his limp cat from his robes. “And Da Qing is hurt.” Ma Gui gasps and holds out his hands. Zhao Yunlan transfers Da Qing to him very carefully, giving the little black head a final stroke before meeting Ma Gui’s eyes. “Can you help him?”

“Oh, Da Qing,” Fu You exclaims, a furrow in her brow as she comes over to look at the unconscious cat. Not quite disapproval, but not quite the heroic welcome Da Qing deserves.

“He tried to stop the thief,” Zhao Yunlan says.

“So I see,” Fu You says, while Ma Gui sends for people to get his medicines and help him tend to Da Qing. “He tried to stay with the Hallows?”

Zhao Yunlan stares at the black cat cradled in Ma Gui’s arms. “Yeah. How did you know?”

Fu You’s brow crinkles. “They have left a—an imprint. Ma Gui?”

Immediately, Ma Gui looks at her with a smile. “Yes?”

“When you tend to Da Qing, can you see if there are any lingering effects?”

“Like what?” Zhao Yunlan asks, worried. And then he realizes—lingering effects like sticking around for ten thousand years to turn the life of a lonely kid upside down.

“We don’t know,” Fu You says shortly.

Well, Zhao Yunlan knows. But he’s not going to say, just in case word gets back to Da Qing. Wouldn’t want the damn cat to start thinking he has ten thousand years’ worth of extra lives to spend.

“But thank you for bringing him back to us, Kunlun-jun. We will make sure to send word if there are any developments,” Ma Gui says in his most reassuring manner.

Zhao Yunlan nods his thanks. “Okay,” he says then, turning to the rest of the assembled council. “Here’s what we know…”

Shen Wei helps him fill in details, and by the end of it there are dismayed exclamations and restless murmurs at the facts: the Hallows stolen, by treachery and poison, and taken to Zei Qiu. A fierce discussion about blame and plans ensues, and Zhao Yunlan tunes it out. He's exhausted. Running about the mountain has left his body bruised and sore, and he's still worried about his cat. Absently toying with his precious last lollipop, he waits until they have vented their rage and frustration and accepted that they can’t do anything right now. They will have to wait for scouts to return, which won’t be until long past daybreak.

Finally, things settle down and the council is adjourned. Zhao Yunlan sighs and stretches—and realizes that Shen Wei is still there. With Zhao Yunlan, instead of filing away with the others. The realization banishes the feeling of gritty exhaustion from Zhao Yunlan in the blink of an eye. He straightens. Notices the way Shen Wei is watching him, with a sort of hopeful, guarded confusion. Confusion focused on—

“Kunlun? What are you holding?”

Zhao Yunlan laughs. “Come here, I’ll show you.”

Shen Wei obediently steps closer, and Zhao Yunlan peels the wrapper off the sweet peach lollipop, not caring that he won’t have another until he can get back home. Shen Wei’s never had one—not even once. And he deserves a little sweetness in his life more than anyone. Certainly more than Zhao Yunlan. “Look,” Zhao Yunlan says, holding it up so Shen Wei can see it. And when Shen Wei opens his mouth to ask what he’s supposed to be looking for, Zhao Yunlan stuffs it in his mouth.

The reaction is priceless. A startled cat could hardly have jumped so. “What is it?!” Shen Wei grabs the lollipop by the stick, staring at it.

“It’s a sweet,” Zhao Yunlan says, and nudges Shen Wei to put it back in his mouth. “It tastes good, right?”

And it should look ridiculous, with the mask and everything, but—it’s Shen Wei. And he’s nodding, but he’s also trying to bite the lollipop. So Zhao Yunlan helps him figure out how to get more of that sweet taste by licking and sucking and—oh, fuck. Okay, this was either the best idea he’s ever had or the worst. At least he’s wearing a robe and loose pants, or things would be getting really uncomfortable. But he can’t let Shen Wei stand around the council chamber, eyes half closed in concentration as he slurps Zhao Yunlan’s candy.

“Come on,” Zhao Yunlan says. Shen Wei follows without asking where they are going or why, completely engrossed in the new experience. Or maybe not completely, because he gives Zhao Yunlan another of those long looks when they get to the curtain by Zhao Yunlan’s room. Cave. Cave-room.

“May I request the pleasure of your presence?” Zhao Yunlan asks with his most polished manners as he holds the curtain up, and he can feel his heart beat hard against his ribs, once, twice, three times, before Shen Wei gives a short nod and brushes past him into the cozy quarters. Zhao Yunlan lets the curtain drop, and turns around.

Shen Wei has stopped in the middle of the room, near the fireplace. He glances at the wall hangings, and the clutter—honestly, Zhao Yunlan has no idea how the few worldly possessions he’s amassed can give off such a messy impression.

There’s a small incense holder on the rough stone mantelpiece, and Shen Wei thoughtfully takes the lollipop out. With great concentration, he places it where a joss stick should go, childishly amused for a moment before looking straight back at Zhao Yunlan. The mask hides the color of his cheeks and mars the expression of his face, but looking into those dark eyes Zhao Yunlan sees a shy, bewildered eagerness, so unguarded it makes his heart ache.

“Is this the proper time?” Zhao Yunlan asks softly, stepping over a cushion to stand face to face with Shen Wei.

“Proper time—?” The question has made Shen Wei breathless.

“To let me see your face.”

“My… oh! You were serious? But I owe you so much more—you saved my life, I couldn’t just—”

“Please?” Zhao Yunlan says, and Shen Wei freezes. Zhao Yunlan holds himself still, too. He knows Shen Wei without the mask, but he’s not sure this Shen Wei does himself.

Very slowly, Shen Wei nods. He lifts unsteady hands to his bowed head, and plucks the black mask off his face. He peers up hesitantly through his lashes, causing Zhao Yunlan’s heart to do a complicated somersault. “You’re far too beautiful to hide behind that thing,” Zhao Yunlan murmurs.

Shen Wei’s head comes up all the way. “I’m not—that’s not—” he stammers.

“Or is that why you wear it?” Zhao Yunlan asks with a teasing smile. “So you won’t go around distracting everyone?”

Shen Wei shakes his head. “No,” he says, taking the flirting for a serious question. How is he so earnest? “In battle—I wear the mask, and my enemies fear me. Because they can’t see how frightened I am.” And he smiles, a self-deprecating little smile that takes Zhao Yunlan’s breath away with how much it hurts. Shen Wei is so damn young, but already he’s keeping everyone around him at arm’s length, acting like he should be a weapon instead of a person. Zhao Yunlan has to squash an urge to scold him, an urge to take Shen Wei in his arms and protect him from this world and any other that would hurt him so.

“Are you frightened now?” Zhao Yunlan asks instead.


“You’re trembling.” Zhao Yunlan nods at Shen Wei’s hands, still clenching the mask.

Shen Wei’s eyes widen, his lips parting soundlessly. Maybe he hadn’t even noticed how tightly he was gripping the mask. Maybe he hadn’t noticed the faint tremors of his body, either. But he doesn’t deny it, not any of it, and Zhao Yunlan can’t take it anymore. Very gently, he reaches up and brushes Shen Wei’s bare face with his hand.

Yunlan is expecting—he doesn’t know what he’s expecting. Not here, not now. But what he gets is a soft gasp, and Shen Wei’s eyes locking on his, so he does it again. This time he lets his hand linger, lightly cupping the cool softness of Shen Wei’s skin. And Shen Wei leans into the touch—hesitantly, as if he’s expecting it to be snatched away at any time, as if it might not be allowed.

“It’s okay,” Yunlan says softly, stroking Shen Wei’s cheekbone with his thumb. He says it for his own sake as much as Shen Wei’s. His emotions are running riot. He feels so much love that he’s half-choked with it, along with a desperate relief at finally getting to touch Shen Wei again. Except it’s not again: this is the first time. Dizzying elation and a tickling sense of wonder makes him grin so hard he can feel it in his ears. Shen Wei’s first time. Ever? He must find out—and then he must absolutely ignore all the implications for the future, and just be here and now in this moment, or the weight of it might be too much.

Since Shen Wei has neither moved away nor relaxed, Yunlan keeps his hand where it is and shifts closer. So close he can hear Shen Wei’s shivering breaths, and wonders if Shen Wei can hear his racing heart.

Then there is no distance left at all. Yunlan brushes his lips against Shen Wei’s, and it’s like closing an electric circuit. Everything lights up, the very core of him a burning filament, and Shen Wei jerks with shock—then surges forward, answering all of Yunlan’s questions with a clumsy, lollipop-sweet kiss. Bodies crushed against each other, Yunlan tastes Shen Wei’s gasp when he wraps his arms around Shen Wei’s shoulders and buries his hands in that glorious hair.

Shen Wei’s hands are resting hesitantly on Yunlan’s hips, but his mouth is opening eagerly under Yunlan’s, mirroring him in every way as Yunlan deepens the kiss. It is so sweet and so hot that Yunlan has to shrug out of his furs, trying to maintain as much contact as he can. As soon as he’s rid of his outer robe, he winds himself tightly around Shen Wei’s body again. And as they kiss, Yunlan can feel Shen Wei’s tremors from earlier reverberating in his own frame—or is he is going weak in the knees? It doesn’t matter—together, they sink to the rugs and cushions.

What starts as an awkward sprawl of misplaced limbs without any care for his bruises turns absolutely delightful when Yunlan gets an armful of enthusiastic Shen Wei. Still shy and hesitant with his hands, Shen Wei is picking up quickly on kissing. Yunlan runs his fingers through Shen Wei’s long hair, loving the feeling of it sliding between his fingers, loving how Shen Wei shivers when he carefully tugs at it to bring them closer together.

Shen Wei says nothing—makes no sound, even after his eyes flutter closed in pleasure. Yunlan tries to coax him to let go of his restraint, but when Shen Wei finally breaks his silence, it’s not because of a kiss or a caress. What wrenches a sound of stupefied satisfaction out of Shen Wei is when he finally dares wrap his own arms around Yunlan’s shoulders.

Now fully entangled, there is no mistaking how wholly enthusiastic Shen Wei is about what is happening—as if the firelit flush of his cheeks and ears and joyful smile hadn’t already told Yunlan everything he needed to know. They’re moving together in more ways than just kissing, and Yunlan moans at the friction, startling a confused noise out of Shen Wei, who jerks a whole handspan away. Pulling him back in, Yunlan calms him, “It’s okay, Xiao Wei. Don’t worry, you’re not—everything is good. It means it’s good, what you’re doing—” And Shen Wei melts in his arms again, pressing an experimental kiss to Yunlan’s neck that makes further words impossible.

After they’ve both peeled off more clothes Yunlan thinks—vaguely, with what thoughts remain beyond desire and satisfaction—that he’ll show Shen Wei another few things. He knows he can make it even better—but he hasn’t counted on how clingy his Xiao Wei gets. If Yunlan tries to pull away, Shen Wei’s arms tighten around him, and even when he promises it’s to make Shen Wei feel good he gets a headshake and a frantic kiss. It’s like Shen Wei doesn’t trust him not to go away completely—like he doesn’t want to let go in case Yunlan won’t ever come back to him.

Yunlan doesn’t let go. He keeps one arm around Shen Wei, and lets Shen Wei hold on tight to him as they tangle together. Hot and sweaty and aching with need, Yunlan manages to get a hand between them and around Shen Wei. It’s not ideal, but it makes Shen Wei shudder and bury his face in Yunlan’s neck and pant a wordless, frantic demand for more. Winding tighter and tighter around Yunlan, Shen Wei finds release with a sound he muffles against Yunlan’s shoulder. Then, before Shen Wei has even relaxed fully, he links his fingers with Yunlan’s between them, and with how desperate he has been for Shen Wei’s touch, that is all Yunlan needs.

Even after, Shen Wei doesn’t want to let go, rolling back to nestle his head on Yunlan’s shoulder as soon as they are somewhat clean. Sated and glowing and utterly exhausted, Yunlan barely has the energy left to drag a blanket over them both before he falls asleep, Shen Wei’s body as warm as it almost never gets right next to him. And right then, everything in space and time is as it should be.

Chapter Text

Lovely Hallows.

They sing of power.

Power to be taken, power to be shared, power to be used. For one completely without any power at all, it is a bewitching promise. And all of it could be his, if only his master’s leash weren’t tugging him back quite so harshly.

Invisible and intangible, the imperative to return drives Ye Zun harder than the demands of his own body. He doesn’t wait for his palms to stop bleeding after falling in the dark, only keeps walking. It’s a small mercy that he hasn’t hurt anything worse—he knows a broken limb wouldn’t slow him until it gave out completely. And then he would start crawling.

Ye Zun can’t decide what he hates more—knowing when he’s doing his master’s bidding, or doing it unawares. Zei Qiu likes to keep everyone around him guessing. It is impossible to trust anyone—to confide in anyone. A fellow may be muttering insubordinate complaints, for all the world completely honest and sincere—and then moments later you’ll find him whispering in Zei Qiu’s ear. Or worse yet: you’ll encourage him to speak, only to pass every word back to Zei Qiu yourself.

Zei Qiu does not suffer traitors to the cause, nor those too resistant to his particular way with words. Ye Zun was both, and is neither. With the Hallows, Ye Zun could be powerful enough to choose, again—but he can’t stop walking long enough to even look at them. And he has a suspicion that if he tried to touch them now, he would fail. Zei Qiu wants them very much for himself.

But Ye Zun is the one who knows about them. Ye Zun is the one who spent seasons there underneath the mountain, invisible among the lowest servants. Even there, where Dixing and Haixing and Yashou played at harmony, there were still the powerful and the powerless, those who had and those who had to get by with whatever scraps they could lay their hungry hands on.

And even secret chambers must be swept, and even exalted artisans must be fed. So when one offered to go the long way through the deep tunnel, putting up with the leering guards and the haughty craftsmen and the strange vibrations in your head—well, who would think to question that generosity? Who would notice it going from casual offer to long-standing routine? Until finally a ghost would have attracted more attention coming and going than one plainly dressed, humble servant.

A humble servant who heard the rising hum; who saw the dust and filings where the four shapes were taking the place of one—who gathered all the shed pieces and tried to coax some spark of power out of them, only to fail, and fail, and fail again. Just as Ye Zun had always failed to find his own internal spark.

But Ye Zun succeeded in getting the Hallows. He alone. Not even Zei Qiu will be able to deny that. The other rebels who showed up when Ye Zun left the mountain with the stolen Hallows hardly register. He doesn’t know if they are here because they want to be. He doesn’t care. They helped with the damned cat, which made his escape far more difficult than it should have been. And sometimes they kill, to clear the way—not for Ye Zun, but for Zei Qiu’s precious prize.

As if Zei Qiu could know what he has. As if he—he who uses his own powers to the fullest every day—had any room left for the Hallows to fill. Not like Ye Zun, who knows—who has his knowledge, carefully hoarded just for himself. Knowledge he will never share with his master, if he can help it.

Not until it’s too late for Zei Qiu.

Zhao Yunlan finds himself caught in a whirlwind of activity after the Hallows are stolen. Knowing that his time with Xiao Wei is limited, he tries to make the most of it. The burden of duty and command they both carry doesn’t make it easy.

And then there’s the burden of Kunlun—of his identity in the here and now. Though Zhao Yunlan knows it’s for the best, looking Xiao Wei in those wide eyes and explaining that his home is really far away but that he will definitely take Shen Wei to see it one day… It’s not a lie. But it doesn’t feel like the truth Shen Wei deserves.

In other words, the winds and the waters move to and fro, and so does being the one in their relationship omitting a ten-thousand-year gap for reasons of preserving the stability of the timeline. Shen Wei never told Zhao Yunlan, so Zhao Yunlan isn’t telling Shen Wei, and—it does give him a headache, trying to sort it out, but if Shen Wei isn’t supposed to know (Ma Gui has been very clear on the fact that the Black-Cloaked Envoy isn’t supposed to know) and he finds out, it could change everything.

Maybe for the better. But maybe for the worse, and Zhao Yunlan doesn’t dare to risk their future for the sake of the truth.

Time travel sucks.

Probably being fixed in time and getting to spend ten thousand years waiting sucks even more, but he can’t think about that or he’d never let Xiao Wei out of his sight.

It doesn’t help that Shen Wei keeps promising to repay the life debt he owes Kunlun, and only becomes more obstinate about it when Zhao Yunlan tells him they are perfectly even and there is nothing to repay. Knowing that Shen Wei is going to choose to hurt himself for Zhao Yunlan’s sake is bad enough. Being unable to talk him out of it even as a hypothetical is even more frustrating, but Zhao Yunlan can’t get mad about it. Not with Xiao Wei, who has done nothing to deserve it. Yet.

Fortunately there are other things to come that Zhao Yunlan can do something about. Shen Wei’s problem is just one of them. With the Yashou all gathered here under High Chief Fu You, there is ample opportunity to consider the threat of Ya Qing taking over. She wants to be High Chief? Not while Zhao Yunlan can meddle with the timestream. He has a far better candidate in mind.

And if he worried their first meeting ruined what Zhao Yunlan has always taken for granted with Da Qing, saving the cat’s life has put those concerns to rest. Zhao Yunlan can no longer cross the tunnels to the privy without picking up a little black shadow. Something about the close contact with both death and the Hallows has Da Qing stuck in cat form for the time being, which suits Zhao Yunlan just fine. Especially once Da Qing decides he’s moving in with Zhao Yunlan and claims a favorite cushion for his own. It’s far less awkward to toss a cat outside than ask your roommate to leave because you’re about to do some truly indecent things to the Black-Cloaked Envoy.

Meanwhile, the alliance’s priority remains the retrieval of the Hallows. It would go better if they knew for sure where they were, but either Zei Qiu hasn’t managed to activate them, or he is waiting for the right moment to deploy them. They try to hold on to the hope that he doesn’t have the full power of the fallen star in his hands—the death and destruction he wreaks is terrible enough as it is. What Zhao Yunlan hears from the scouts, and reads in the reports—it’s enough to make his stomach turn. Going out in the field, talking to survivors—what few there are—and helping collect their damaged dead… Zhao Yunlan has seen horrors before, but none on this scale.

When winter comes, freezing their own army and Zei Qiu’s both in place, that is a mercy. The elements kill as well, but never with such calculated cruelty.

With one storm after the next tearing across the ravaged landscape outside, the world shrinks to their carefully heated caves. Small groups still venture out on missions—Shen Wei and some of the other Dixing fighters can move unhindered by the harsh weather—but Kunlun is advised to remain with the rest of the council, safe inside the mountain.

It doesn’t leave him idle. Compiling the reports coming in and analyzing them for clues is a full-time job. One that would have been a lot easier if Zhao Yunlan had thought to bring his computer.

Zhao Yunlan misses computers. And phones. And electricity and warm running water. But most of all he misses his team.

Despite their occasional family squabbles and his threats to dock their pay, the SID under pressure pull together and come through, knowing what their chief expects from them without wasting time on ridiculous deference. Being treated as a foreign dignitary has its perks—nobody remarks when Kunlun displays a staggering lack of local knowledge or asks questions any child could answer. But it does turn it into a chore to get through the layers of formality and rank and straight to the heart of each new problem.

When winter begins to melt away, leaving gnawing hunger and chilblains behind, the Hallows still haven’t been found, but it is—finally and far too soon—the right time for their forces to move again.

Shen Wei, Zhao Yunlan and Da Qing move with them. Shen Wei because a significant part of the Dixing forces are loyal to him personally, Zhao Yunlan because he promised Shen Wei, and Da Qing because he (loudly, sharply and adamantly) refuses to be left behind. He also refuses to turn human, so that makes for a lot of Zhao Yunlan walking with a cat perched on his shoulders. But that’s fine. At least the cat isn’t fat yet.

Ye Zun stubbornly lives through another winter.

Zei Qiu is not well pleased with the inert Hallows, and what he sees as Ye Zun’s lack of progress with them. Ye Zun’s argument that at least the abominable alliance no longer holds them only deflects a fraction of Zei Qiu’s ire. The rebel master wished for weapons, and was handed pretty, useless trinkets. Ones their enemies want back, and their own men don’t want to be near, making them worse than useless.

It falls to Ye Zun to keep moving them further and further away from Zei Qiu’s main forces. That is no hardship. Holing up in a cave stinking of dead bear, with several men who smell much the same, is far preferable to staying within range of Zei Qiu’s fists. But being so close to the Hallows—that is hard. Ye Zun can hear them calling softly from where they lie, nestled in the chest he found for them. He hears them calling, but is unable to reach that which they offer. Starving for their power is worse than running out of rations in a snowstorm.

Yet he will take it. He can take it. He must take it—it’s the only way.

Ye Zun didn’t spend all that time waiting for the Hallows to be born without listening and learning. So that is what he does now, in the aching cold and dark. Listens. Learns. And answers, whenever that power reaches for a wielder. Patiently answers and answers and answers again, until the words in his mind resonate with the unsound of the Hallows.

Do they hear him? He doesn’t know. Can he force his way through to them? Not without Dixing power. This should make Ye Zun and his lack of gift as useless as he’s always been told he is. But he knows that’s wrong. For this single thing, he doesn’t need power of his own. Just power. Any power.

The artisans working on extracting the Hallows didn’t all have Dixing gifts, yet managed to join their talents together like—well. Ye Zun doesn’t really know. He was never able to tell, just by looking. He has a lot of time to think about it, though. Maybe links in a chain? Or leaves on a twig. Or bigger yet: branches on a trunk, rivulets coming together in a stream. Small and powerless parts, flowing into a bigger, powerful whole.

A whole that he should surely be able to tap into. Yes. He should.

He will.

Ye Zun doesn’t hope. He plans.

He planned for a winter’s worth of time away from Zei Qiu and with the Hallows, and he got it. For the next step of his plan, Ye Zun needs Zei Qiu to grow impatient—which he does, as soon as the snow melts enough to allow messengers through the hill paths and mountain passes. Finally, he needs Zei Qiu to push enough power at the Hallows that Ye Zun can grab some. That is all he needs, and then he will make himself a small part of a great whole and let them flow in and fill him up.

And then Ye Zun will only need to do one thing: survive.

Winter has left the impact-ravaged landscape even more harsh and barren. Patches of dirty snow and dirty ice—the air here is worse than the smoggiest day in Dragon City—still cling to shady patches, and there is no sign of green on any of the scrawny saplings or bushes pushing out of the thawing soil.

The jumble of old tree corpses everywhere make the hills impossible to cross with their main force, but a promising scouting report—a small group of rebels emerging from a cave with a chest—has sent Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei scrambling across a proper mountain ridge. Da Qing, needless to say, is happily riding along—on Shen Wei’s shoulders, this time, because he is a rude feline who can’t stop harping on about those three times in the past hour Zhao Yunlan has slipped on an icy patch or soggy trunk or stupid piece of rock and would have fallen over if not for Shen Wei’s quick reflexes.

“Is this really the fastest way?” Zhao Yunlan wonders dubiously. It’s going to be dark soon—it’s never light for very long these days.

“I did warn you it was going to be a strenuous journey,” Shen Wei says, mildly enough that it could be either apology or recrimination.

Zhao Yunlan is proud of him for not falling all over himself asking forgiveness for a decision that was entirely Zhao Yunlan’s to make, and circumstances not even the Black-Cloaked Envoy could help. He’s also annoyed. “But is it the right journey? Crows aren’t always great at telling distance for those of us who can’t just fly places.”

Shen Wei nods. “I have been across this ridge before. There is a path around it, but this is much faster.”

“Fast enough to intercept that group the Crows reported?”

Shen Wei is silent for a moment where he doesn’t say anything about Kunlun and Kunlun’s cat slowing him down. Then he offers, “If not, we might still be able to find out what was in the chest they were carrying. The Crows couldn’t say—this might be another dead end.”

And it might be the Hallows. In which case Zhao Yunlan doesn’t quite know what to expect. Will they still react to him, as they did last time he saw them in the SID lab? He only touched one of the four, and that was enough to activate all of them. If they get close enough now, is that going to open a wormhole he’ll have to enter or be stuck in the wrong time for the rest of his life? “If it’s not—if it’s the Hallows…” Zhao Yunlan trails off, picking his way through a thorny tangle of a bush.

“That would be excellent. We could do as we planned—a quick strike, carrying them off before Zei Qiu can retaliate.”

“Yeah,” Zhao Yunlan says, thinking that Shen Wei might have to do that carrying by himself, and wouldn’t even know why. Because once again, Zhao Yunlan can’t tell him the full truth. That doesn’t mean he can’t say anything at all though, does it?

“Listen,” Zhao Yunlan says, stopping to put a hand on Shen Wei’s arm. Shen Wei smiles at that—smiles with such happy satisfaction behind his mask that Zhao Yunlan’s airways close up for a moment. It’s not fair to Shen Wei that it’s this easy for Kunlun to make him happy.


“Nothing,” Zhao Yunlan says. Everything, he can’t say. “I just wanted you to know—if something should happen? If I disappear, for some reason—it’s not because I want to leave you.”


“I’m just saying. If that happens—please don’t hold it against me. And know that we will meet again.”

Shen Wei is about to exclaim another question, so Zhao Yunlan gently touches a finger to his lips and smiles. “I promise.”

“You can’t leave!” Da Qing, who doesn’t have anyone shushing him, cries.

“I didn’t say I was going to leave! I said if—do you not understand if, you fur-for-brains?” Though the cat is right to be protesting, of course. Zhao Yunlan swallows. “Look, we can’t stand here all day—we have to get a move on. Can you tell me again what our details on the rebels’ main encampment are?”

Shen Wei can, of course, and does. But not without giving Zhao Yunlan a look of such concern that it makes him glad that darkness is falling, and he can no longer tell what expression Xiao Wei is wearing behind his mask.

An icy downpour extinguishes the hope for a fire Zhao Yunlan has been holding on to. It does force them to stop, at least, because even Shen Wei can’t walk confidently in the pitch black through gusting sheets of rain. They huddle in the dubious shelter of a rocky outcropping, listening to the wind howling between the peaks, and new rivulets carving their way down the muddy slopes around them. Shen Wei wraps his sturdier cloak around the two of them, and Da Qing ducks under it as well. Zhao Yunlan sighs and leans against Shen Wei’s shoulder, shivering.

“You’re cold,” Shen Wei says, helplessly.

It’s winter, and they’re outside, and the wind is driving the rain pretty much horizontally. Zhao Yunlan is fucking freezing. He’s forgotten what it’s like to be properly warm, but it’s not like complaining about it will change anything. “I’ll warm back up when we get moving again,” he says, because of all the things he’s worried about right now, catching a cold isn’t very high up on the list.

It would be nice if it were, though. If he could come home complaining about a sniffle and let Shen Wei make him hot congee and tuck him into a warm bed and maybe stroke his hair for a bit. He squeezes his eyes shut against a prickling sensation, and burrows closer to Xiao Wei. Xiao Wei, who will be left behind if Zhao Yunlan is going to manage to get back home. And once he gets there, if Shen Wei still can’t remember—still won’t believe him? Zhao Yunlan might already have used up all the time he had to spend in Shen Wei’s company, never knowing how few grains of sand were allotted to their hourglass.

If this is the last night he gets to share with Shen Wei, ever, at any time, it’s a terrible one. The cold of it goes straight to his core, and even with Shen Wei carefully tucking the edge of the cloak all the way around him, his shivers are growing harder to control. “Kunlun?” Shen Wei squeezes his shoulder, and Zhao Yunlan intensifies his efforts to relax.

“I’m fine.” It’s the only thing he can say, and possibly the most bald-faced lie he’s told Xiao Wei so far. Zhao Yunlan can’t think of anything that is fine, in this time or his own, other than maybe the fact that at least everyone he cares for is still alive. Unless Ye Zun did something after he left—but no, he’ll get back in time to stop anything like that. Probably.

Just as he draws another shaky breath, trying to keep his teeth from chattering, a startling warmth envelops him from the side not pressed up against Shen Wei’s chilly body.

“Kunlun,” a small voice says, and Zhao Yunlan grins in astonishment as Da Qing bumps a tousled head against his shoulder.

“Da Qing!” It has been so long since Zhao Yunlan has seen his cat’s human form he’d almost forgotten about the long hair and the intricately woven headband. But even dressed in summer robes, Da Qing is as warm as cats always are, and his body winding around Zhao Yunlan’s feels like an electric blanket, soothing the shivers.

“I don’t want you to go,” Da Qing says. Shen Wei reacts to the words by stiffening almost imperceptibly.

Zhao Yunlan extracts an arm from the tangle of overclothes and gives Da Qing’s damp head a pat. “I know,” he murmurs. “But there are things happening in this world that are more important than what any of us want.”

Da Qing’s shoulders quiver, and Zhao Yunlan wraps a hand around the back of his neck and pulls him close. “It’ll be okay. Even if I go, we’ll meet again. Come on, don’t be such a kitten about this.” They’re just words, though. They can’t actually make anything okay.

“I haven’t even—I wanted to—” Da Qing sniffles, and Zhao Yunlan lets him go to peer at him.


From within the folds of his robes, Da Qing pulls a very familiar necklace—the one with the elaborate kitty bells he’s always wearing. Zhao Yunlan feels an amused chuckle get so swamped by emotion it comes out sounding a bit wobbly. “What’s this?” Zhao Yunlan asks, as he wonders if there’s anyone from this time who isn’t going to end up with Kunlun memorabilia around their necks. (Speaking of which—was he supposed to do a side quest to some equipment store to get Shen Wei that pendant? Has he been terribly remiss in his duties as time-travelling husband-to-be? Maybe that means the Hallows aren’t going to work when they find them now, maybe there’s still time—)

“It’s for you,” Da Qing says with some impatience, since Zhao Yunlan has been staring at his outstretched hand without speaking for a while.

“For—me?” That’s not how Zhao Yunlan remembers it.

Da Qing inclines his head, in an exceedingly regal nod. “To give me.”

“Why? You already have it.”

Da Qing fixes him with a flat feline stare, and Shen Wei elbows him in the ribs like he’s supposed to know better than ask such obvious questions. “It’s to show I’ve found my master—the person I want to follow and protect,” Da Qing says, sniffing haughtily, as if his eyes aren’t red-rimmed, and his face wet with more than rain.

“Oh,” Zhao Yunlan says.


“Of course,” Zhao Yunlan says, and wants to add that Da Qing is going to do great at both—look at Zhao Yunlan still alive and kicking. “I could find no better cat.” And Zhao Yunlan very solemnly threads the thin chain around Da Qing’s neck, then rubs the spot between his shoulder blades until Da Qing stops shaking against him. In turn, Shen Wei is holding Zhao Yunlan close. For a little while at least, the night doesn’t seem quite so cold.

Zei Qiu’s patience barely stretches to waiting for the morning. Shivering, Ye Zun and the others who have been guarding the Hallows spend half the night lined up outside waiting for their master’s arrival. With the overcast skies and pouring rain turned persistent drizzle, it is difficult to say when the day breaks, but when Zei Qiu emerges from his cave opening, the darkness is still lit by guttering torches. Despite Zei Qiu’s previous failures with the Hallows, he is eager to run his hands over them now, cocking his head as if he can hear them calling.

“The damn army of traitors is pulling closer,” he says to nobody in particular. “It would be very handy to have a special kind of greeting waiting for them.” He pats the Awl, which is the only thing with an even vaguely warlike shape or name. Zei Qiu is a fool to think of them only in terms of weapons—but then he is a fool through and through.

“Ye Zun!” A habitual flinch, and Ye Zun goes to Zei Qiu’s side.

“Yes, Master?”

“None of the things you suggested before worked,” Zei Qiu says, his tone dangerously soft.

That is because Ye Zun has been suggesting what would work for awakened, responsive Hallows. Since Zei Qiu has only asked for instructions on how to use the Hallows, not connect with them, Ye Zun has been able to answer his demands for information with a selection of completely useless advice. “Your servant humbly apologizes,” Ye Zun says with great contrition, and doesn’t move out of the way of the backhanded blow coming his way. It sends him reeling, and knocks his mask from his face. It lands in the mud with a dull thud, and for a wild moment, he almost goes after it.

“Your apologies are as useless as the rest of you,” Zei Qiu says scornfully. “In all the time I have given you to think about it, you have better brought me a solution. If not—” He lets the threat hang, fist on the handle of his axe as Ye Zun straightens with a wince, leaving his mask where it fell.

“Of course, Master. Your servant has brought you a—a solution.” He dares much, presenting it as something so final, but Zei Qiu has been pushed far enough that he would not appreciate another humble suggestion.

“Well, don’t just stand there! Get me the Hallows, and tell me what this ‘solution’ of yours might be.” There's a sneer on his cruel features.

Ye Zun hurries to obey, glad to touch the Hallows as he sets them reverently on the carved lid of the chest. Their promise of power offers a little comfort, when nothing else does. If this fails—he has seen what Zei Qiu does with those who cease to be of use to him. Then, sensing Zei Qiu would not appreciate the delay, he kneels where he is and starts explaining. “Power calls to power,” he begins, and continues to explain how Zei Qiu can awaken the Hallows from their dormant state.

Zei Qiu likes this approach. It flatters him as a powerful Dixing, able to wield not just his gift, but raw dark energy as well. And he is keen to have all four of the Hallows active long before the alliance can catch up with them. Never one for Ye Zun’s kind of slow, patient approach, he rolls his shoulders once, and sets to cracking the Hallows open.

Forgotten by his side, Ye Zun stares avidly, licking his lips as he begins to hear that discordant harmony intensify. Zei Qiu hears nothing, of course, only frowns and pours more of his power at them.

And they react, in a way Ye Zun has never seen before. Dark energy swirling around them, they move like living things. Zei Qiu grins and strains on. As he slowly empties himself, Ye Zun calls.

The Hallows answer.

For as long as he can remember, Ye Zun has been told that he has no gift, no power of his own. The only one who never doubted his potential abandoned him, and Zei Qiu soon gave up on trying to cultivate it. Since then, Ye Zun has been alone, without anyone to nurture whatever spark of talent he might have had, curled up like a seed waiting for spring. But thanks to his care and planning and the way he has imagined this moment, over and over and over again—when the sound of the Hallows fill his mind, it’s like a hundred springs at once. It is a dark sun blinding his sight while he finally opens his eyes.

Power. It is everywhere. It is everything. It is all Ye Zun can feel, in himself, around himself. Not until that monumental pressure eases a fraction does he understand that he is screaming, screaming, screaming—but so is Zei Qiu.

Zei Qiu, whose torrent of power fades to a trickle, tearing a cry of rage out of him. He stalks over to Ye Zun, still kneeling, and kicks him with furious force—Ye Zun is aware of his body falling over, though he can’t do anything all about it. The next thing Ye Zun knows, Zei Qiu’s axe is out, and Zei Qiu’s mouth is forming hateful words that Ye Zun cannot hear. He still knows them well enough to shudder—your parents died, your brother abandoned you, I wanted to train you but you are useless—and tries to cringe away. But Zei Qiu has a foot on him now, and the axe is still out, and every terrified instinct in Ye Zun cries danger

The hand Ye Zun recklessly flings out in self-defense leaves swirling blackness in its wake. Coming from—coming from him, from the dark sun risen in his mind. From his power. His gift. His.

Once he realizes, using it is as easy as opening his mouth. And then it scorches him, the power, so that his throat works around it to the sound of his own terrified, pained noises as it enters him and changes him, changes something in him he can never get back to the way it was, no more than he can put Zei Qiu back the way he was.

Zei Qiu’s body falls to the ground, heavy and empty.

A rich golden glow lights the scene. Absolute silence reigns, as those who witnessed the scene freeze in instinctive terror, and all who didn’t stagger under the reverberations of spent power and triumphantly shining Hallows.

Chapter Text

The howling winds have calmed, and the rain has mostly stopped. In its stead is a persistent drizzle falling from everywhere at once as thick gray clouds hug the mountainside they’re on. Impenetrable darkness has given way to a washed-out gloom. Damp and tired, Zhao Yunlan’s scouting party is on the move again. Da Qing walks alongside them now, graceful and silent where Zhao Yunlan slips and stumbles. They are getting close to the rebels’ main camp near the foot of the mountain ridge, and make their precarious way downward.

The hillside is strewn with rotting logs and boulders, and they have to pick their way over the scars left by recent avalanches and mudslides. By Zhao Yunlan’s estimation the camp they’re here to observe should be coming into view soon—which means enemy scouts littering the area. He is just about to check if Shen Wei can pinpoint their locations when a shockwave smashes through the drizzle. Zhao Yunlan is the only one who goes down on his ass, though both Shen Wei and Da Qing stagger.

The wall of force doesn’t make a sound when it hits, but there is an odd echo in its wake. A word? A voice? Having no idea what hit them in the first place, they’re looking around wildly, and Zhao Yunlan shakes his head to rid it of the buzzing sound.

They’re all speaking at once, equally confused, when a bright flash of lightning distracts them all. It cuts through the clouds clinging to the mountain—and hangs there, frozen like lightning never is. “The Hallows!” Zhao Yunlan knows them by that light, and by the whispering touch on his mind.

There is no more time for plans, or precautions. They pick up speed in a careless scramble down the mountainside, the Hallows’ light guiding them like a beacon. Visibility is still too poor to make out anything at the foot of the mountain, but over the sound of their own footsteps they are beginning to hear—a battle? People screaming and shouting, at least, and weapons clashing. If it’s an early morning exercise it is exceedingly strangely timed. “Why are they fighting?” Zhao Yunlan gasps, worn ragged by trying to keep up with his sure-footed companions.

“I don’t know. We’ve had no reports of any internal strife.” Shen Wei doesn’t need to remind Zhao Yunlan that Zei Qiu would be unlikely to suffer much opposition, thanks to his Dixing gift of mind control.

“They’re… angry. Scared. They… they want to follow someone. Or kill him?” Da Qing offers. His ears are as round as Zhao Yunlan’s, but they somehow give the impression of being pricked in the direction of the noise.

Zhao Yunlan exchanges a confused glance with Shen Wei. That’s definitely not an expected effect of the Hallows’ powers—turning your army against yourself.

Scrambling closer, the bright light from the Hallows shreds the thick clouds into thin ribbons of mist, and within a few steps they have their first clear view of the surroundings. They are standing above a wide mountain ledge that their reports indicate starts at the mouth of a deep cavern—a winter headquarter to mirror their own—and wends its way down to the foot of the mountain. Looking at it now, Zhao Yunlan does not believe it is a natural feature—it forms a perfectly flat platform right by the dark mouth of the cave, and he could drive his Jeep down the switchback path it carves into the solid rock, and leave enough room for a city bus to pass.

The shouting is all coming from far below, where they can glimpse a camp turned battlefield. The rebels are moving back and forth in agitated knots. Fighting, shouting, running around avoiding other groups—from Zhao Yunlan’s vantage point, it looks like utter anarchy.

What they are seeking, however, is nearer still. The source of that pillar of light is coming from the wide platform by the rebel’s cave. There is no screaming there, no movement. But there are people—eerily silent silhouettes bathed in the glow of the Hallows. “There!” Zhao Yunlan says, keeping his voice low.

“They are parted from the bulk of their army,” Shen Wei says softly. “We won’t get a better chance.”

They continue their descent, moving as stealthily as possible. The harsh light affords them no cover. None of the people below seem to be keeping watch up the mountain, but sooner or later an accidentally kicked rock or a bad stumble will catch their enemies’ attention. Once that happens, it will be the three of them—two men and a cat—against a dozen warriors backed up by an army. One currently tearing itself apart, true, but Zhao Yunlan does not want to find out how quickly their hatred for the Black-Cloaked Envoy can overcome their current disagreements.

Not that those disagreements seem to have reached the group on the mountain ledge. There are several people standing around the Hallows’ light, but though they have hands raised or poised on weapons, they are creepily motionless. One large fellow is sprawled on the muddy ground, and Zhao Yunlan is of the professional impression that he’s already thoroughly dead. The light makes it hard to see any details—one of the figures in particular is almost completely washed out by it.

Either that, or his hair is silver, and his clothing completely white.

Zhao Yunlan’s breath catches in his throat. After so long, it’s a shock—but not a surprise—to find Ye Zun here. Kneeling on the ground, reaching for the Hallows like a freezing man stretches his hands towards a campfire. Swallowing back his own distress, Zhao Yunlan looks over at Shen Wei.

In one of their many long conversations, Xiao Wei had confided that he’d had a brother. Had. The sadness in his eyes was such that Zhao Yunlan couldn’t force him to keep talking, and so lost his opportunity to ask how and when in favor of offering what comfort he could. Afterwards, Zhao Yunlan had come to hope that maybe if Shen Wei had lost his younger twin, this timeline had already fixed itself somehow.

Apparently, Zhao Yunlan is not that lucky. But maybe he can do better than luck. Steeling himself for Xiao Wei’s reaction as much as for the shot, he draws his revolver and pauses in the desperately dangerous descent. He balances his stance, aims at Ye Zun, and— and shakes his head, his grip on the gun white-knuckled and desperate.

Why am I not firing?

The answer comes with the full-body memory of that shockwave right before the Hallows lit up. The way it brushed against his mind, a whisper he can now hear as a desperate shout. Don’t hurt me!

It’s a fucking compulsion. Zhao Yunlan knows what he should do—needs to do, for Shen Wei’s sake. But no matter how much he wills his finger to fold around the trigger, nothing happens.

Ye Zun’s words aren’t elegant or insiduous or taunting—nothing like the manipulation Zhao Yunlan remembers from his own time. All they are is a frightened plea. And fuelled by the Hallows, it’s a plea now holding Zhao Yunlan and Zei Qiu’s entire army at bay.

The compulsion is why nobody is rushing Ye Zun, despite his back presenting a perfect, unguarded target where he kneels, entranced by the Hallows. They can’t—not even the ones so enraged they have turned on their former comrades.

While Zhao Yunlan has been busy not shooting Ye Zun, Shen Wei and Da Qing have made progress down the slope, and are now down on the ledge leading to the cave, halfway between Zhao Yunlan and the Hallows.

And Ye Zun.

Zhao Yunlan can see the exact moment Shen Wei recognizes him. If Zhao Yunlan hadn’t been holding the sole gun of this whole era, he would have feared Shen Wei just took a bullet. As it is, he fears worse.

Shen Wei stops, stumbles though the path is free of obstacles. All Zhao Yunlan can see is his back, but it’s too easy to picture the emotions in Shen Wei’s face. They’re in the middle of a battle, and now the Black-Cloaked Envoy is making a hapless target of himself—the others might not have guns, but they do have eyes, and one of them has a fucking bow.

Zhao Yunlan shouts a warning, and then dispatches the bowman. This draws attention, of course. The people already gathered around Ye Zun aren’t standing still anymore. They are moving as one, most intent on Shen Wei, drawing nearer, but after his firearms display they are all carefully eyeing Zhao Yunlan above. Nobody eyes Da Qing, who has wisely chosen to go as invisible as only he—a black cat—can.

Zhao Yunlan sets off down the hill, heedless now of anything except getting to Xiao Wei before it’s too late. Ye Zun hasn’t looked up from the Hallows yet—hasn’t seen them. I’s just the others, and Shen Wei can take those. Zhao Yunlan can take those—as he just proved, there are no words of power keeping him from shooting anyone but Ye Zun.

Shen Wei whirls, and in one fluid motion three of the surviving eight attackers go down. Hilariously, a fourth gets shot by someone further down the mountain. Either the archer has terrible aim, or the guy is really pissed off at anyone taking Ye Zun’s side.

Four against Shen Wei is no match at all, so Zhao Yunlan starts thinking maybe if he can avoid this particular boulder and the too-sheer drop he almost pitched over, he can get to Shen Wei in time to—distract him? Really, there’s no plan past getting to Shen Wei.

Another two of the attackers are down. This should give the last two pause, but doesn’t. More mind control? Or just fanaticism? Whichever it is doesn’t last long, as Shen Wei dispatches them while Zhao Yunlan has another couple of mostly-vertical meters left to go. He pauses to pick off a couple of enterprising fellows heading up the path to their cliff ledge, and when Zhao Yunlan turns back to Shen Wei he’s—oh, fuck.

Shen Wei and Ye Zun are staring at each other. Separated by maybe twenty steps, they have both frozen.

Zhao Yunlan still can’t see Shen Wei’s face, and he can barely make out Ye Zun’s pale features in the glow of the Hallows, but both of them are radiating such emotion that it almost hurts to be near. And Shen Wei—Shen Wei is holding his mask in his hand.

“Dìdi?” Shen Wei takes a step towards his little brother, and drops his guard and his mask—would have dropped his weapon if he couldn’t fold it away out of reality.

“Don’t!” Zhao Yunlan barks. “Ye Zun is the one doing all this!”

But Shen Wei isn’t listening. Shen Wei’s attention is all on Ye Zun, who reaches a hand towards him. “Gē,” he says. Calling Shen Wei big brother might not be a compulsion as such, but it tugs Shen Wei closer, like a fish on a hook. “I’m not—I’m not doing anything—Zei Qiu, he made me—”

“You’re… alive.”

“Xiao Wei, be careful!” Zhao Yunlan jumps the last bit down to the ledge, lands awkwardly but is back on his feet when another clump of very angry-looking rebels come swarming up the path. “Oh, fuck you guys.” Zhao Yunlan shoots them all, very quickly, but not quite quickly enough.

There’s a choked sob—Zhao Yunlan can’t tell whose—and Shen Wei is reaching down to pull Ye Zun up in a hug. Ye Zun, whose face is contorted in such tremulous joy that for a moment, even knowing what is to come, Zhao Yunlan thinks he might be about to witness nothing more than an embrace between long-lost brothers.

It’s a feint, of course. Ye Zun waits until Shen Wei is right there, bending over him, and then opens both hands. Twin pulses of dark energy catch Shen Wei in the chest, and he goes crashing into the mountainside with a force that sends a shower of debris cascading down around him. Then Ye Zun opens his mouth, and Zhao Yunlan has no idea what that’s about other than bad.

But even then, even with Shen Wei in a dazed heap on the ground and Ye Zun striding toward him, Zhao Yunlan can’t fire at the bastard, no matter how hard tries. “Shen Wei!” His frantic shout rouses Shen Wei, who throws his arms up in a defense that deflects the next blast of energy, and makes Ye Zun choke and cough and stop the creepy gaping.

It’s only a moment’s respite, but Shen Wei gets back on his feet. “Dìdi?” He’s wearing an expression of disbelieving horror, even now.

“Ye Zun!” comes the answer—denying brotherhood, claiming instead the name Zhao Yunlan has always known him by. Shen Wei stares in hurt confusion, even when Ye Zun screams senselessly and intensifies his attacks.

Meanwhile, Zhao Yunlan hasn’t managed to get any closer to helping Shen Wei. If he can’t get his finger to pull the trigger, he’s probably not going to be able to kick or punch or even throw a rock at Ye Zun. Zhao Yunlan grows increasingly frantic as Shen Wei staggers under the fury of Ye Zun’s onslaught, barely keeping up—and not doing a single thing to strike back. Maybe he doesn’t want to hurt his little brother—or maybe he can’t, either. And then what are they going to do—

It’s the same solution Zhao Yunlan has been coming up with for most of his problems recently. The Hallows. They are lapping at his mind, taking up space he can no longer fill with his own thoughts. Meanwhile Ye Zun has left them behind in his pure and unhinged rage at Shen Wei. They aren’t far from him—only a few steps—but he’s not watching them.

Unfortunately, half a dozen or so of the rebel army choose that moment to crest the path up to the wide platform. Zhao Yunlan curses—and then grins as Da Qing pops up in their midst, dealing out quick, brutal swipes and darting out of sword range. Zhao Yunlan takes out the three furthest away from the cat’s attacks, and—satisfied that these don’t seem to have any particularly terrifying Dixing powers—leaves the rest for Da Qing to deal with as he rushes to the Hallows.

He falls on his knees next to them, their light so bright he can’t see any individual shapes. Their hum this close is like a summer tree full of bees, but Zhao Yunlan sticks his hand into the light.

And maybe getting covered in bees would be more pleasant, but Zhao Yunlan tells himself he’s used to this by now, he knows the damn things. His fingers close around something elaborately carved and his arm goes numb, but he pushes against the painful tingling and the dizziness and pulls it away from the others, forcing himself back to his feet.

In his hand he’s holding the Mountain-River Awl.

Zhao Yunlan blinks at it—it’s made him pass out in a flash before, but maybe he’s built up some tolerance because now he only sways a little. Focusing his mind on the Hallow, shutting out the sound of screaming and fighting, Zhao Yunlan feels—power. Pure and raw and terrifyingly strong where he is standing in that torrent of light.

But what brushes against his mind isn’t random impressions, or the white-noise whispers of sense-memories he can never place. Instead there is a giving blankness, like a fresh lump of clay waiting to be molded. And maybe a tiny spark of something like—curiosity? If he hadn’t been so very busy not letting Shen Wei die, Zhao Yunlan would have found it fascinating. As it is, he just says, “Oh, hi. A little help here?”

And he slams it point-first into the ground.

The Awl can split spirit from flesh. With the other three Hallows right there, chorusing wordlessly in every cell of Zhao Yunlan’s body, it can do more than that. The mountain they are standing on shivers.

A small shrug, as far as mountains go, but it wrenches everyone off their feet. The skirmishing soldiers behind him make a racket as they land, Ye Zun and Shen Wei go tumbling away from each other, and Zhao Yunlan—who has permanent stains on his outer robe from falling down so many times—remains exactly where he was, resting the tip of the Awl against the ground. It feels like the world whirls around him, then realigns itself as he stands up.

Zhao Yunlan wants to rush to Shen Wei’s side, but something has him snared. The ringing in his skull, the tingling all over his body—it’s deafening and numbing, and it’s not letting him leave. It’s as if the Hallows’ light have a gravity of their own, and they have caught Zhao Yunlan in their orbit. “No!” he protests, because he has to go—he needs to help, needs to fight. Ye Zun is already stirring, and further away Shen Wei lies curled up on his side, blood trickling from his mouth.

The Hallows do not let him go.

“Shen Wei! Shen Wei, get up,” Zhao Yunlan shouts, the words coming out dull to his own ears despite the terrified urgency he feels. Hearing Zhao Yunlan’s voice, Shen Wei scrabbles at the mud, pushing himself up to a kneeling position. “That’s it—hurry!”

Shen Wei has made it back to his feet, but he is on the defensive again. His blade is nowhere in sight, so he isn’t even trying to fight. Focusing on the other brother, Zhao Yunlan notices that Ye Zun keeps turning back towards the Hallows light. Toward Zhao Yunlan—trying to see through the Hallows’ glare, torn between rushing to the intruder who prompted the Awl to rock the mountain, and finishing what he started with his brother.

“Kunlun!” Da Qing’s voice directs Zhao Yunlan’s attention back to his own battle, and—okay, maybe that was more staring at Shen Wei than was wise, because there are very angry people getting very close to Zhao Yunlan now. Da Qing is doing his best to stop the attackers, but there’s at least half a dozen of them, and Zhao Yunlan needs to focus to pick them off without accidentally hitting his nimble cat.

Da Qing gets a small guy, Zhao Yunlan gets a big guy, and that leaves him aiming at the last of quartet of swordsmen when his revolver is snatched from his hands. One moment he’s holding it in a steady two-handed grip, the next it’s flying through the air and he’s grasping for it.

He would have gotten it, too, but the Hallows snatch him back right before his hand can close on the grip. Zhao Yunlan is so stunned that his first reaction isn’t to panic that he’s now completely unarmed against men with swords, but to wonder what has gotten into his gun.

Zhao Yunlan gets his answer when he looks up and finds a rebel soldier snatching the dark energy revolver out of the air with a very showmanlike flick of his wrist. Dixing power. With all the swords and arrows, Zhao Yunlan had almost forgotten that their enemies can have a far more dangerous arsenal. Like this guy. First of a new wave of fighters spilling onto the platform, he doesn’t look like much—kind of scrawny, with a face that would never make him more than an extra. “Give that back!” Zhao Yunlan calls to him, and the guy smirks.

There’s a second when Zhao Yunlan thinks of movies where people seeing guns for the first time look down the barrel and pull the trigger. But this revolver thief refuses to play comic relief. Instead he’s shifting his stance, lifting the gun in a perfect imitation of Zhao Yunlan.

There isn’t even time for Zhao Yunlan to be afraid, much less to dodge. He goes straight from surprised to sprawling on his back in the mud, blinking at the blinding light of the Hallows as he gasps for breath in shocked disbelief. Did he—was he just shot with his own gun by some random Dixing soldier who shouldn’t even understand gunpowder, much less revolvers?

“Kunlun!” Zhao Yunlan hears Shen Wei’s cry, and tries to say that he’s okay—the gun doesn’t fire bullets, he should be okay. Probably. It’s not like he’s ever tried using it on anyone Haixing, so he doesn’t actually know what it does.

Zhao Yunlan is still not panicking, though maybe he should. That random extra is walking closer, and he looks like he has gone his entire life without figuring out bathing, but he’s figured out aiming just fine. Fuck. Zhao Yunlan braces for more pain—

What he hasn’t braced for is the panic of watching Da Qing’s human body block his line of sight. “Da Qing! Get away from here! Don’t—”

The familiar crack of his revolver cuts Zhao Yunlan’s breath off. Da Qing staggers. Lying in the mud, Zhao Yunlan can’t force his body to move. He flings a hand out, uselessly. Da Qing’s legs are folding now, and Zhao Yunlan can’t let this happen, he can’t—the man holding the gun is still there—but so are the Hallows, and Zhao Yunlan can—

A swirl of wet robes interrupts that thought, as a black-clad figure catches Da Qing before he can collapse in the mud. “Shen Wei,” Zhao Yunlan gasps.

The shooter is already dealt with, of course. Shen Wei gives Zhao Yunlan a look of terrified concern, and shoves Da Qing at him before parrying a clashing trio of swords.

Zhao Yunlan manages to turn Da Qing over so he can touch his neck and face and make sure, absolutely sure, that Da Qing is still breathing. “You have another ten thousand years to go, you damn cat. Don’t scare me like that,” Zhao Yunlan mutters. He’s aching all over, and he can’t tell if it’s from being shot or being too close to the Hallows or if it’s seeing Da Qing like this, sprawled inelegantly half in Zhao Yunlan’s arms, half in the mud, limp and inexpressive.

Shen Wei is fighting more of Ye Zun’s followers, and it takes a good couple of seconds before that computes in Zhao Yunlan’s mind. When it does he swears and shoves himself into a wobbly crouch, leaving Da Qing on the cold, wet ground. If Shen Wei is fighting the other soldiers, then he can’t be fighting Ye Zun. And that can only mean one thing.

Ye Zun is back with the Hallows.

Zhao Yunlan doesn’t even need visual confirmation. He can feel it now—the surge of attention going not just inwards, but outwards too. He looks anyway, and sees Ye Zun right there behind him, reach into that light—and then Zhao Yunlan nearly blacks out at the wild surge of power. It knocks Ye Zun back into the mud, face twisting in rage.

But the broken connection doesn’t stop the flow of power. On the contrary—it’s intensifying. The already bright light is growing more and more intense, the voices of all four Hallows deafeningly loud in Zhao Yunlan’s mind.

Zhao Yunlan is dimly aware of the fact that the fighting seems to be abating, as the survivors turn from each other to gape at the manifestation of unimaginable forces coming unchecked. The rain clouds hanging over the mountain billow and weave, towering higher and higher, flickering with lightning. And punching through them all is the beacon-light of the Hallows, which disappears into a chaotic maelstrom of a sky turned entirely to storm.

A beacon that is calling to Zhao Yunlan. Calling—and pulling. He fights it, because he can’t go anywhere—Da Qing is injured, Shen Wei is fighting alone, and Ye Zun is right there with the Hallows. How could he leave?

“Shen Wei!” Zhao Yunlan cries, and though the wind whips the name from his lips, Shen Wei turns frightened eyes from the sky to look at him.


Zhao Yunlan can’t go now. Not with Xiao Wei staring at him with such desperation.

The same kind of desperation Zhao Yunlan felt in Shen Wei’s grip on his wrist, right before he followed himself through that portal in the lab.

Fuck time travel.

If Zhao Yunlan stays here, he’ll undo everything they’ve ever had. Even if there’s a chance their lives might still play out as he remembers it—first meeting and first kiss and first time Zhao Yunlan realized how long he’d been in love with Shen Wei already—Shen Wei doesn’t remember any of that. Doesn’t remember it right, and never will, because Shen Wei won’t go seeking for something he doesn’t know is missing.

Zhao Yunlan can’t allow that to happen. And he hasn’t—Future Yunlan showed up to let him know as much, without saying anything about it.

Zhao Yunlan always goes back.

He wonders if it always hurts this much. He hopes it does. He wouldn’t much like any version of himself that could simply leave Xiao Wei. Even when he must—as he does now. It’s now or never. The Hallows are making that very clear.

The force they’re exerting makes Zhao Yunlan stagger, and when he tries to find his balance he can’t—but he isn’t falling, either. He’s trapped in the gravity of that light, and he’s getting pulled further in.

Zhao Yunlan stares out at Da Qing on the ground, at Shen Wei running, reaching for him. “Kunlun!”

“Shen Wei,” Zhao Yunlan shouts, and Shen Wei hears him. “Remember my promise!”

Zhao Yunlan sees his name on Shen Wei’s lips—”Kunlun!”—and then that too is ripped away, as the world around him turns to stars and auroras.

Chapter Text

When Kunlun disappears, everything crumbles.

Not just Shen Wei’s heart, but everything. The cliff they’re standing on starts giving way, piece by giant piece cracking and thundering down the mountainside. The Hallows fall, still blazing, to a desperate cry that summons Shen Wei even in his state of dazed distress.

White robes flap dangerously near the new edge, the figure there kneeling, reaching for the lost Hallows. “Dìdi!”

At Shen Wei’s warning, his little brother whirls around. “You!” A beloved face, twisted in rage, flinging another senseless attack at Shen Wei.

He deflects, and shouts another warning. “It’s not safe—the ground is not safe—!”

This time it’s not Shen Wei who falls.

This time, Shen Wei won’t let go. He tells himself that, as he stares into the terrified eyes of the boy who was once his only friend. His brother—his charge to protect, after their parents died. Their hands are clasped together. Shen Wei is tired, but strong enough for the too-light burden of his twin’s fragile frame. He can hold on for as long as he has to. Could heave them both to safety, if only his dìdi would let him.

Instead, that startlingly silver head turns away. Looks down below, into the chaos where shafts of Hallows-light are illuminating broken mountain and broken men. Ye Zun stretches his free hand downwards and keens, low and desperate, as if he’s completely forgotten everything happening around him. “No. No, come back. Come back, come back, you’re mine...!”

“Dìdi,” Shen Wei says, trying to wrench his brother’s attention away from the Hallows. It’s foolish to try anything with them—they were out of even Kunlun’s control, and the pulsing energy coming from them now is raw and savage and entirely unpredictable. “Dìdi, please.”

Ye Zun snarls at that, wrenches his body angrily in Shen Wei’s grasp, as if he’s trying to fling them both over the edge together. “Let go! Let go, I have to get to them, they’re mine!”

“Dìdi, it’s too dangerous! Please, I will help you—”

But Ye Zun is listening to some other voice now. His expression goes less frantic, more distant. And then his eyes widen and the fingers of his free hand splay wide and he opens his mouth. Energy flows into him, dark energy glittering with the Hallows’ light. It comes faster than Ye Zun can devour it. A shimmering web of golden light and black energy surrounds his hand. It climbs over his arm, wraps around his shoulder, and as Ye Zun lights up in ecstasy it swallows his face and pulls him away from Shen Wei entirely.

It’s not a fall, not at all. It’s a slow, writhing joining—Ye Zun now fully encased in the Hallows’ energies, toppling into the bright light at the foot of the broken mountain. Shen Wei shouts after his little brother. It’s all he can do. None of the powers Shen Wei have learned are useful now.

Shen Wei can’t stop his twin disappearing below, just as Kunlun disappeared a few steps away. But when Ye Zun vanishes, there’s a painful flash of brightness, and the entire mountain trembles again. What little is left of the now-narrow ledge shatters further, and it is only at the very last moment that a realization cuts through Shen Wei’s resigned despair.

“Da Qing!” Kunlun’s cat—Shen Wei’s friend—is still sprawled over among the bodies of the dead.

Shen Wei doesn’t know how he moves, or stays on his feet while everything is cracking and breaking and tumbling. But he does, and finds Da Qing in time to carry him away from the thunderous chaos. Shen Wei only means to get him to safety, but once he starts moving he can’t stop, and he walks with Da Qing’s human body slung over his shoulders until the tremors of the falling mountain grown faint under his feet and the first scout of his own forces carefully approaches him out of the shadow.

Only when the scout rushes off in search of aid does Shen Wei stop. He sits with Da Qing’s limp body next to his, and closes his eyes, and feels the tears that he can’t let anyone see him cry trickle down the dirt and blood of his maskless face.

For a while Yunlan floats wherever he is, mostly senseless in that glittering, spinning void. There are no directions, nothing that feels like gravity. He has his body, and it aches. He has his clothes like they were before Ma Gui and Fu You altered them. He sees his revolver bob around him, as if circling lazily on an invisible current—pulled in with him somehow, since he didn’t have the time to grab it.

And he has his heart, which isn’t strong enough for this. Not yet. Another few timeless moments and he can wipe his face dry and figure out how to go make sure Ye Zun doesn’t hurt anyone else. But first he has to stop shaking with the tight, silent sobs he learned to cry as a boy.

Okay, Zhao Yunlan thinks, eventually, though nothing has stopped hurting. Okay, I can do this. He has to.

Standing up is as easy as looking at his feet and thinking down. He wobbles a bit when directions first reassert themselves, and snatches his revolver out of mid-air before it can hit him in the face. The two of them have places to go and people to shoot. Looking down at himself in his jeans and jacket and feeling the short hair on his head—the oddest sensation, after growing used to the weight of Kunlun’s elaborate tresses—he decides he’s as ready as he’s ever going to get.

This space is something the Hallows have created—or somewhere they have brought him. That means they can bring him out of it. Zhao Yunlan isn’t quite sure how, but he did see his future self control it—and now it’s his turn to play Future Yunlan and come to the rescue of whoever needs it this time around. He hopes it’s himself. It would be terribly embarrassing to be the worst at fighting Ye Zun in the entire timestream.

Zhao Yunlan closes his eyes, and breathes in deeply. Exhales. Repeats the process until he has cleared enough space in his own mind to let other things in. Things like the vague tingling hum coming from everywhere around him. Definitely a Hallows feeling, that. So if he can grab that, and hold it long enough—he should be able to imprint it with intent, the same way he does when he uses the physical Hallows. And now he knows to be measured and specific with his requests, rather than blurting them out in desperation.

Zhao Yunlan straightens his arm, opening his hand palm out. He doesn’t really know why, but it’s the way he’s seen Shen Wei manipulate power so many times that the gesture comes naturally. And once he does, it almost feels like he’s turning a doorknob. So he continues, as he thinks very hard about that one moment in the SID when a gunshot will keep the Hallows from falling into Ye Zun’s hands.

The portal opens, limned in that familiar white light, and Zhao Yunlan grins a ferocious grin when the first thing he sees is Ye Zun’s unguarded back. Made it.

This time, his finger doesn’t freeze on the trigger. The shot rings loudly, Ye Zun topples slowly, and Zhao Yunlan steps to the very edge of the portal and tries to get a handle on things outside.

The SID lab—its familiar scent of chrome and copper and dust roasting in the guts electronic equipment making him homesick—is a mess. But of course, Zhao Yunlan expected that. What he must know is how Shen Wei is doing. He scans the room, noting that half the team is there, and that everyone he can see is alive. The one person most desperately in need of assistance is—yes!—Zhao Yunlan himself. Sprawled on the floor, the Awl in one hand—bold choice, that—and a furiously protective black cat perched on his chest.

And Shen Wei—Shen Wei is alive. He’s alive. He’s also near a wall in a state that speaks of having very recently been thrown bodily against it. That kind of puts a damper on Zhao Yunlan’s initial relief.

Having ascertained what he can at a glance, Zhao Yunlan has urgent business. “Zhao Yunlan,” he calls out, hoping that this version of his past self is still able to move. He’s not quite sure what might happen if he tries stepping out of the portal. “Get up, you need to go!”

Zhao Yunlan sees his past self stirring, and glances back at Shen Wei. He’s crouched on his hands and knees, panting hard, blood dripping from his lips to the floor.

“Zhao Yunlan?” Shen Wei’s pale face expresses confused disbelief.

“Me,” Zhao Yunlan acknowledges. “Well, one of me. Speaking of which—hey, could you hurry up?” He aims this at himself. “I’m not sure how long this thing will stay open, and you do not want to miss this.”

The other Zhao Yunlan heaves himself upright using the edge of the Hallows array, looking as dazed and overwhelmed as Zhao Yunlan thinks he must have felt, so long ago now.

“Don’t,” Shen Wei tries to warn his Zhao Yunlan, but he’s too far away to interfere. Which means Zhao Yunlan has some time to spare while his past self staggers over. He might as well make the best of this opportunity.

“And you!” he points an accusing finger at Shen Wei. “Look at yourself, Xiao Wei! Have you even told anyone how poorly you’re doing? Or are you going to try and hide all the injuries and pretend like nothing’s happened again?” This time Zhao Yunlan catches that slight widening of the eyes in Shen Wei’s shocked expression, so perfectly like a startled Xiao Wei that it makes him smile through a painful tightening of his chest.

Heads are turning to Shen Wei now, so no matter what happens, at least he won’t manage to conceal his state from the others. Hopefully his Zhao Yunlan can be back soon, too, to shove some energy in him and make him all better.

“You might want to leave that behind,” Zhao Yunlan adds, catching onto the fact that Past Yunlan is still holding the Awl. “Things will be interesting enough as it is without a duplicate.”

Da Qing, now in human form but with eyes as round and wide as any cat’s, comes up to Zhao Yunlan’s side and quietly takes the Awl away. Then he looks at his chief, as if he wants to tell him not to go.

“It’s okay. You’ll meet again. I promise,” Zhao Yunlan says, and the look in Da Qing’s face at his tone is such confused joy that Zhao Yunlan grins. “Now come on!” He directs that at himself, and Past Yunlan hurries up and gets in the portal with a last look over his shoulder, and Zhao Yunlan can finally drop the thread of tension he’s been clutching in his fist and in his mind.

Getting pulled back into the not-a-space, there is that elongated moment of time happening all around him. At first it doesn’t feel quite as bad as when he stepped through the portal for the very first time. Then he hears Shen Wei’s voice, strained but cold, demanding, How can I trust you?, and feels again the wretched despair of telling Shen Wei to leave him alone—his chest constricts, aching where he was so recently shot, everything wrong in the world coming back to him at once.

He and his double arrive again at the place of shimmering starlight and power, and Zhao Yunlan feels as shitty as Past Yunlan looks. He rubs the sore spot over his sternum—it helps a bit, but most of the pain goes deeper than that. Then he draws a deep breath. “I’m glad you weren’t out cold,” Zhao Yunlan says to himself. “That would have made this whole thing really awkward.”

“You didn’t know I’d be conscious?” Past Yunlan says, and Zhao Yunlan can see himself work through the implications.

Zhao Yunlan shakes his head. “I didn’t even know who I was going to rescue. My Future Yunlan saved my ass—so you know, passing that forward—but he said he’d gone to save Lin Jing, and that Wang Zheng and Sang Zan had been in trouble before then.”

“Huh,” Past Yunlan says. “Well, nice shot.”

This part of the conversation Zhao Yunlan remembers. He grins, and elects to observe himself instead of dwelling on what happened when he tried to shoot Ye Zun in the past. It’s as fascinating as it was the first time around. Zhao Yunlan hasn’t seen a mirror for so long he’s no longer quite sure which details he thinks might be different and which just aren’t Kunlun. He kind of wishes he could give his younger self some advice, but that might upset whatever timeline his past self is in.

“Right,” Past Yunlan says, right on cue. “So are you here to offer me words of wisdom or something?”

“Hah,” Zhao Yunlan says. “No.”

“So… no hints?”

Zhao Yunlan chuckles, and commiserates with his younger self before he feels a vibration of—something. Power fading, or calling, or just growing unstable. This is definitely not the time to stand around and chat—not when he has Shen Wei to get back and explain things to.

All he has to do is tug that thread of tension that has gotten portals to manifest previously, and—there it is. The familiar dull sky, seen through a shimmer of bright white. “Listen,” Zhao Yunlan says. “You’ll figure it out. I know I did. And I really want to get a move on, so if you could just…” He motions at Past Yunlan to scoot through the portal.

“Go? Where? How?”

Zhao Yunlan points. “There.”

“Alright,” Past Yunlan says. His face shifts from curiosity to concern—remembering Shen Wei, Zhao Yunlan knows. It’s confirmed by his double’s parting greeting. “Take care of him.”

Zhao Yunlan is very much planning on exactly that. “Good luck,” he says, knowing the other Yunlan will need it. And then his other self is gone, into that fateful past.

It is time. Zhao Yunlan’s heart rate picks up, and he has to take another few deep breaths to find the connection with the space he’s in. Thoughts of Shen Wei and his team as he left them—of Ye Zun sprawled bloody in their midst—keep interfering. The temptation is there to see if all of that could be avoided. If he really could go back to right before Shen Wei headed to Dixing alone and Ye Zun tore into his power and memories. One for gain, and the other for—why? The sheer pleasure of hurting Shen Wei? If Zhao Yunlan could stop that…

But he can’t. Zhao Yunlan knows he can’t, because then he might never go back ten thousand years instead to become Kunlun. And then where would he be? Possibly not with Shen Wei at all. That is not a risk Zhao Yunlan is willing to run.

Zhao Yunlan closes his eyes, opens his hand, and reaches a hand for that doorknob to the portal. He can feel it tickling his mind, and taking shape as something smooth and metallic against his skin. He puts all the memories he has of the moment he left the SID lab into the motion, and twists.

Nothing happens.

Or—something happens, but he doesn’t get the portal. He knows, somehow, that there has been an attempt, and that the attempt has failed. Zhao Yunlan reaches out with the senses he has here, and feels—hemmed in. Like trying to park in a spot that’s already taken, except of course nothing like that at all.

That’s worrying. The tension he’s already feeling winds tighter around his heart. He has to be able to make it back, of course. But it seems like maybe he can’t get back to exactly the same moment. Maybe there’s only room for one portal at a time, in a time. And of course he can’t show up early, because that didn’t happen, so—he’ll be arriving late.

That’s not good. That’s not good at all.

But it can’t be helped. He forces himself to keep calm. Maybe it won’t be so bad. After all, everyone was fine last he saw them—except for Shen Wei, who had overexerted himself to the point of coughing up blood. But Ye Zun went down, didn’t he? A few minutes one way or the other shouldn’t matter. Zhao Yunlan will just aim a little later, that’s all.

It’s a lot later. That’s his first thought, as he opens his eyes and steps through the portal he’s made into the lab.

It’s empty.

Adrenaline coursing through his system Zhao Yunlan draws his revolver, and carefully adjusts his breathing so he can fire with accuracy even through the white-hot dread burning in his chest. He wants to call out, for Shen Wei, for Da Qing, for any of the others he’s responsible for and left behind. But he can’t risk it. He needs to listen. Keeping the noise of his own footsteps as muted as he can, he moves to the hallway, where he freezes at the sound of voices.

“It’s important to keep your energy up,” Wang Zheng sounds unusually resolute, and at least half the worst case scenarios evaporate from Zhao Yunlan’s mind.

“If it’s not fish, I don’t want it!”

Zhao Yunlan grins. The cat sounds spirited, at least.

“We have the supplies we have, and you know that.” That’s Zhu Hong—reasonable, but not enthused.

It’s not quite enough to make Zhao Yunlan put his gun away, but he lowers it and casually strolls into the office. “I’m back!”

Zhao Yunlan’s return is greeted by a good three seconds of thunderous silence, before Da Qing flings himself out of his chair and practically pounces him. “Lao Zhao!”

The others echo his cry. All around the table set with instant noodles and not much else, Zhao Yunlan’s team are standing up or shouting questions or rushing over or doing all those things at once.

Zhao Yunlan holsters the revolver and lets them mob him, but he’s already done a headcount and come up one short. And maybe Shen Wei is just—in the bathroom. But considering the way Da Qing wraps himself so tightly around Zhao Yunlan, and the ‘you tell him—no you do’ glances Zhu Hong, Lin Jing and Lao Chu are exchanging, while Xiao Guo and Sang Zan both look like they might burst into tears at any moment, it seems unlikely that they'd be so lucky.

Guilt and fear coalesce into a lump in his chest so large it feels like it might crack his ribcage open. “Where’s Shen Wei?”

Chapter Text

“Where’s Shen Wei?”

The team gathered in a semi-circle around Zhao Yunlan exchange another lightning round of glances that end up pinning Da Qing. He’s still got his arms wound around Zhao Yunlan’s torso, but can’t fail to notice the pressure of those pleading looks. Giving Zhao Yunlan one more squeeze, the cat takes half a step back, fingers of his right hand still locked in the fabric of Zhao Yunlan’s jacket sleeve. “I’m sorry,” Da Qing says, looking at least half as miserable as the words make Zhao Yunlan feel. “Ye Zun—Ye Zun took him.”

No. That can’t be. This is a nightmare—Zhao Yunlan travelled through time, and he’s still too late. How can he be too late? “When?” It comes out a croak, but Zhao Yunlan doesn’t care.

“Right after… right after you left,” Da Qing says.

Zhao Yunlan nods, because of course everything went to hell the moment he turned his back. He shouldn’t have left—but he couldn’t have stayed. And now Shen Wei is paying the price for that. “Took him?” Zhao Yunlan manages to ask.

“Alive,” Lao Chu says, in brusque reassurance. “We weren’t fast enough to stop him.” Not an apology, not an excuse, just a fact. Somehow, that helps. “One moment that bastard Ye Zun was out cold, the next he had some kind of portal going, and he grabbed Professor Shen.”

“And—and he still had the Dial,” Xiao Guo says, voice trembling as he steps in to make sure Lao Chu doesn’t have to be the only bearer of bad news.

“Okay,” Zhao Yunlan says, and tries to remember how to do this—how to stand and breathe and think—over the white noise of panic closing in over his senses. He licks his lips. Looking at the distraught faces in front of him, he sees guilt and anger and worry—all of his team waiting for Zhao Yunlan’s orders, prepared to do whatever he asks. If he falls apart now, they won’t know what to do—they can’t.

A mental to-do list is taking shape amidst his internal chaos, and the first item on it turns out to be charge phone. That makes his lips twitch in amusement that is too close to hysteria for him to want to stretch it to a smile. Slowly, Zhao Yunlan straightens up rather than force Da Qing to catch him. “How long was I gone?”

“A day?” Da Qing says, and looks at Lin Jing for confirmation.

Lin Jing doesn’t even need to check the time. “Twenty-four hours, almost exactly.”

Ye Zun’s had Shen Wei for twenty-four hours. Haixing hours. Time in Dixing can be—tricky. Whether that makes it better or worse, Zhao Yunlan doesn’t know. The irony of it makes him laugh, low and harsh—all he set out to do was try to make it so Ye Zun never took Shen Wei in the first place, and instead Zhao Yunlan has ended up handing Shen Wei to his unhinged twin. Again. And this time, Ye Zun might not be satisfied simply playing games—this time he might want a more final sort of revenge. Now that Zhao Yunlan has seen the full extent of the terrible, wrong-headed hate Ye Zun has for his brother, it’s only too easy to imagine Shen Wei dead at his hands. Zhao Yunlan tries not to, he really does, but can’t control a shudder of horror at the memory of what the Dixing rebels did with their prisoners.

“Chief Zhao?” Xiao Guo’s hand timidly brushes the arm Da Qing isn’t clutching. Zhao Yunlan opens his eyes with a start, and focuses on the kid. He looks pale and drawn, but he’s wearing one of his own sweaters now, and he seems to be in too much pain from his arm in its sling to be on the good meds anymore.


“How—how is Professor Shen?”

Zhao Yunlan blinks. “What?”

Xiao Guo’s head bobs nervously, but he squeezes Zhao Yunlan’s arm a bit harder. “Your superpower. You said it only worked on Professor Shen, so I was hoping—I was hoping when you came back you could tell us how he’s doing?”

Zhao Yunlan stares at Xiao Guo, then gently detaches his arm from Da Qing so he can ruffle the kid’s hair. “Good thinking,” he says, and closes his eyes. He had forgotten, completely. Zhao Yunlan only had the ability for a few… was it just hours? So long ago now it’s hard to remember exactly. Back in time he tried and failed to get the connection open with Xiao Wei, and then he stopped thinking about it. But now that he’s back in his own time, maybe…

The Hallows are there first. Three of the four—their voices now distinct enough that he wouldn’t have needed to be told the Dial was missing if he had taken a moment to listen for them. But he pushes his sense beyond that, to something that isn’t mind as much as heart—reaches for that warm glow under all the pain and panic, and holds on to everything he feels when he says Shen Wei’s name to himself.

It takes more than just a breath or two, but nobody around him interrupts, or asks any questions. Zhao Yunlan sinks deeper into the sensations of self until he finds something other—and there it is. The awareness he has of Shen Wei. Weak and thready, it’s as bad as any technological connection between the realms would be. But it’s there, and it’s open, and when he focuses on it with all he is, he senses something like a heartbeat that isn’t his own. It’s edging into ragged, fillng him with a deep distress—but that might just be his own feelings getting in the way.

Zhao Yunlan opens his eyes with a gasp, and Da Qing slides an arm around his waist. “Lao Zhao?”

“He’s alive,” Zhao Yunlan says, and takes a measure of comfort from the certainty in his own words. “He’s still alive.”

There’s a ripple of smiles and sighs of relief and hands reaching out to clap Zhao Yunlan on his back—and doing more than that, too. He lets his team steer him to the couch, where he sits down and inhales the nostalgic umami smell of cheap instant noodle seasoning. “What about Ye Zun?” Zhao Yunlan asks, because the one shot was all it took to keep everyone safe right then—but clearly he should have put another few into that bastard for good measure.

“I kind of thought he was dead?” Lin Jing offers. “I mean. Until he wasn’t.” Sang Zan nods to Lin Jing’s point.

“It took Lao Li an hour to get all the blood off the floor,” Da Qing says, nodding at the old man.

“But he got up and—and took Shen Wei?”

“Ye Zun did not get up. He moved,” Wang Zheng explains, and waves her arm around. “Like so. And Professor Shen—it was like they both fell into a hole, that was there and then gone.”

So maybe not playing dead as much as using the last of his strength to get away—and take his brother with him, because that’s the kind of thing Ye Zun does. Zhao Yunlan curses the lost opportunity. If he could have gotten another clear shot—He cuts the guilt-trip short to get back to what he’s missed. “Alright. Want to tell me what’s wrong with takeout, that we’re digging into my emergency lunch stash?”

Another round of wincing and glancing ensues. “Haixing—the Ministry—has declared a state of emergency,” Lin Jing says finally. “Thanks to Xiao Guo’s uncle.”

“Minister Gao didn’t want to,” Xiao Guo explains.

“Everything went kind of crazy right at nightfall yesterday,” Lin Jing continues. “All the measuring instruments, and the social media we were monitoring—everything. It was a little bit after Ye Zun... Um. After he left.”

Left. With Shen Wei. Zhao Yunlan takes a moment to let the panic at that run its course before he speaks. “Are you saying we’re under attack from Dixing?” But if so, why is the SID sitting around eating noodles? Even without their chief, they should know better.

“S-scouts,” Sang Zan says, as quickly as he can. “No attack.”

The former clan chief knows a thing or two about war, and Zhao Yunlan nods slowly. “So you got on the line to the Ministry, told them everything I’d warned them about was about to go down—and Minister Gao had his head so far up his own ass you had to get Guo Ying to sort him out?”

Xiao Guo looks amused, and then scandalized at his own amusement. “Well—”

“Yes,” Lao Chu says. “Then we lost touch with Changcheng’s uncle. But by then there were enough things happening all over the city that the Ministry couldn’t ignore it anymore.”

“Things?” Zhao Yunlan doesn’t like the sound of that.

“Power cables turning to vines, bridges crumbling to dust, ambulances following phantom calls out into the wilderness,” Lin Jing says. “And lots of random ‘muggings’ and ‘gang attacks’ that just happen to be clustered around known Dixing portals.”

“And they’re passing it off as what?” Zhao Yunlan asks irritably. It sounds like too much of a mess to fly under the radar—which is why he kept telling Minister Gao they needed to prepare the city’s population. “Terrorism?”

The awkward glances are getting really old. “Uh,” Lin Jing says, clearly feeling he has done his duty already.

“That Minister Gao,” Da Qing says with an angry toss of his head. “Once the Haixing forces mobilized, he went ahead and told everyone it was Dixing.”

“Gao did?” Zhao Yunlan asks, incredulous. Gao, who spent that entire terrible meeting back when Shen Wei had come along to the Ministry flat-out denying Zhao Yunlan’s requests to inform the citizenry of the impending danger. “So—that’s good? People are getting a chance to prepare—to evacuate?” Another astoundingly loud silence greets that optimistic statement. “Okay, what?” Zhao Yunlan sighs.

“Minister Gao was really unhappy about Uncle getting the military mobilized,” Xiao Guo explains. “He—he didn’t want his department to take the blame, for, um. Wasting money? So… um…”

“That spineless garbage made a public announcement explaining the entire situation was the result of the SID’s ‘negligence’,” Lao Chu says with a scowl.

“But fucking Gao didn’t want the public to know we even exist!” Zhao Yunlan says, trying to come to grips with the general calamities going on right on top of the very personal calamity of knowing Shen Wei is back in Ye Zun’s hands.

“That was true when you left,” Wang Zheng says curtly. “It no longer is.”

“So you were holed up in here not just because of the curfew,” Zhao Yunlan says, “but because…”

“There’s an angry mob outside,” Zhu Hong snarls, taking it as personally as Zhao Yunlan himself is. Of course she would—there’s a reason Yashou tend to keep to themselves, and angry mobs are certainly part of that, historically.

“And some soldiers,” Xiao Guo says in attempt to cheer everyone up. “Making sure they don’t get close enough to throw more rocks!”

They’re throwing rocks? At his team, who have done nothing but their best to protect everyone all this time? “Do we even have any orders?”

Da Qing snorts in disgust. “To ‘stay out of trouble’.”

Yeah, Gao wouldn’t want the scapegoats out and about righting wrongs and showing everyone where the real negligence lies. “Well. If we can call off the invasion there won’t be any trouble to get into,” Zhao Yunlan drawls. Having seen firsthand what happens to a mind-controlled army that loses its master, it’s not difficult to choose the best cause of action. “Do we have any information on the Dixing portals?” he asks.

From the way everyone looks at him, they clearly understand why he wants that information. They’re not wrong—he’s absolutely going after Shen Wei as soon as he possibly can. It just so happens that when he does, he will also take out Ye Zun, which will solve all of their Dixing problems in one fell swoop.

“Sorry, boss,” Lin Jing says. “We don’t know for sure, but the readings indicate they’ve gone one-way: Ye Zun can definitely open them, but we probably can’t.”

So add ‘get portals working’ to Zhao Yunlan’s growing to-do list. Unless he can get the Hallows to take him to Dixing somehow? That could work—Zhao Yunlan isn’t entirely sure how, but he knows someone he can ask. “Oh, I think we can,” he says, and the way Lin Jing actually looks hopeful instead of skeptical is a nice boost to Zhao Yunlan’s confidence.

After all, he’s fairly sure he owes Ma Gui and Fu You a surprise call from right about now to sometime before he showed up to be their Kunlun. They can sort the details out together, and he can give them a speech that inspires confidence and bolster their spirits so they’re inclined to overlook how very strange he is when he meets them for the first time.

It’s a good plan. It’s also the last known point Zhao Yunlan has in the future, so once that call is done, anything could happen. “Right.” Zhao Yunlan exhales slowly, and rubs the back of his neck. “So. Did I miss anything else while I was gone?”

Zhu Hong squares her shoulders and tilts her chin up slightly. “Ya Qing initiated the contest for role of High Chief. It’s going to take place tomorrow, at dawn.”

Considering everything else going on, that’s practically good news. “Oh,” Zhao Yunlan says, “in that case I need to brief you.”

“Brief me?” Zhu Hong’s voice rises in confusion.

“Yeah—I’ve got that taken care of.” Zhu Hong stares suspiciously at him, and Zhao Yunlan waves it away. “Aiya. Don’t worry about it. I had plenty of time to sort it out.”

“In the twenty-four hours you were gone?” Zhu Hong says flatly.

“Well,” Zhao Yunlan says. “About that…” And as the others eat the cup noodles Zhao Yunlan has no appetite for, he gives them the shortest possible version of the events ten thousand years past, keeping well away from anything Shen Wei wouldn’t appreciate him spreading around. He may mention the hair, though. A few times. Anything to distract himself from the overpowering urge to go get Shen Wei back from Ye Zun right this moment, plans and consequences be damned. Anything to distract from the fear that this time, he really might be too late.

Shen Wei is no longer in the SID lab.

He should be. He remembers the Hallows shining and time folding in on itself. He remembers his determination to stop Zhao Yunlan crumbling helplessly when, for a moment, Shen Wei was vividly certain Kunlun was standing right in front of him. And with Kunlun’s words still unmaking everything Shen Wei knew, the world itself disappeared.

And it is still—not there. Dark energy, thick with familiar malice, covers his eyes and nose and mouth and binds his limbs. The senses he still has tell Shen Wei that he is in the nowhere that is between places. It isn’t anywhere anyone ought to be—Shen Wei can feel the wrongness of it, and Ye Zun is having to struggle to hold them both in this space. Taking advantage of Ye Zun’s distraction, Shen Wei strikes out instinctively. Ye Zun counters, but his powers are waning, and there is more desperation than finesse in his attack. It is not one that Shen Wei should fail to stop—but Ye Zun combines it with a burst of movement, transporting them.

Shen Wei tries to refuse. To his shock, what repels him is not Ye Zun’s own powers, but those of the Longevity Sundial. Shen Wei remembers holding on to the Hallow, but now it’s gone. Gone, and obeying Ye Zun’s commands. Despite Shen Wei’s attempts to resist, he finds himself wrenched to Dixing.

Ye Zun loses control of his portal a moment after doing so would have been fatal. He loses control of his portal, but refuses to relinquish the hold his dark energy has on Shen Wei, who can’t see and can’t gasp when his body slams into the hard ground. Curled on his side, Shen Wei tries again to break free, but though he can feel his brother growing weaker and weaker, Ye Zun is stubbornly refusing to release him. Shen Wei hears wheezing breaths—not his own, as no oxygen is making it to his burning lungs—and running footsteps, and then everything goes very vague and jumbled.

The next thing he knows there are legs blocking his view. So he can see again, even if the world is tilted on its side. And he can breathe. Maybe he should be doing more, but it seems like a lot already. He can barely follow the frantic activity happening. People are crowding around a figure in bloodstained white slumped on the ground. Shen Wei knows who it is though he can barely see him, and he would go to his brother, but his body is refusing to move.

The men are talking, beseeching the prone figure they surround. “Please, boss, tell us what to do—”

“Is that the Longevity Dial? Lord Ye Zun has talked about it, maybe we could—”

“Doesn’t anyone have a healing power?”

“We have to do something!”

“Lord Ye Zun—tell us what to do—boss!”

Dixing is so dark. It’s getting harder to follow what all the legs are doing—Shen Wei blinks, and blinks again. The panicked voices and his brother motionless on the ground are all feeling familiar. Does this mean he’s stirring again? Does Shen Wei need to go? Has Ye Zun managed to steal more lives, more powers?

Moments long unremembered swim to the surface of Shen Wei’s awareness, brighter than anything he can see in front of him.

He had been so bright, Ye Zun. And the panic—that had been Shen Wei’s own, back then, ten thousand years ago. “I just found him again—he didn’t… he didn’t want to, he didn’t mean—” But the Hallows’ touch were all over Ye Zun, who lay curled up where they had dug him and the Hallows out of the fallen mountain.

Still and silent and distant, Ye Zun had been somewhere between sleeping and waking, still listening for the Hallows’ song. Taking them away for safekeeping had not changed that.

And to the others of the alliance it had not mattered what Ye Zun had meant—only what he had done.

“I could take him,” Shen Wei had offered. “Far away—somewhere safe, somewhere he wouldn’t—” He had already known there would be nowhere safe. Not for someone so radiant with power. Someone whose mere presence could imbue mundane objects with enough of the Hallows to do great harm—or steal any living being’s power for himself. Shen Wei had known what the answer would be, and yet the combination of stern refusal and sad headshake had felt like the end of a dream.

—talking about healing, still. Young, scared men. But why? No healing was needed for Ye Zun, not when he was overflowing with life. Shen Wei doesn’t understand—wants to tell them, No, no don’t bring a Hallow, if you do he’ll be too strong

The only place safe enough to hold Ye Zun was right in their midst; the only thing powerful enough to contain him was something that had yet to be built. And when it was finished—how long until it would be safe to release him? How long would Shen Wei have to wait? None of them could tell him. He didn’t know himself. All he knew was that Ye Zun glowed with the destructive force of that star-heart they had broken apart and tamed. All Shen Wei knew was that every time his brother woke, he screamed for more.

—screaming now. There is light, and screaming, and because it’s a Hallow, Shen Wei thinks danger, and tries to move. To protect those standing and watching, before they too are absorbed—

Watching them entomb his little brother, watching them draw up the seals and the instructions to pass down to future generations—Shen Wei thought that he had already grieved his dìdi’s loss, but not like this. This was worse than loss. It was one perfect moment of joy and hope on a muddy mountainside twisted into endless despair. So many desperate dreams, so much carefully nurtured hope that he might see his beloved brother again—and then Shen Wei was faced with Ye Zun. A shattered man who refused to talk or listen, who refused to do anything but reach for power now denied him.

Before finally containing him, the alliance had kept him carefully locked away in the chambers that once had been the Hallows’ birthplace. But even behind solid doors Ye Zun’s waking moments spread terror among those around him. Every time, the same panic—”Lord Black Cloak! Envoy, please come, it’s the Hallows Thief, he’s—” and Shen Wei going to quell it, pitting his own gifts against those his brother had managed to steal along with the Hallows’ powers.

—the figure in white is stirring now, while another lies still and empty next to him. The legs crowd in, joined by hands as they reach down and smile and bow and scrape. Lord Ye Zun. Boss. He is awake—

With Ye Zun being Zei Qiu’s heir in power and ambition, it was too dangerous to let any in Dixing come near him, even contained and entombed. If he gathered people to his cause—well, they had all seen what death and devastation would follow such a man.

And so, when the time came to complete the work, Shen Wei knew what he must do. As the older brother, this had always been his responsibility. With his own hand, he laid down the final seal on Ye Zun’s living tomb, and then added one more for himself.

Those who had known what Shen Wei intended could not persuade him to change his mind, just as he had been unable to change theirs. His people could do without his blade, in this coming age of peace. And he would have been a poor leader if he couldn’t trust them with the treaty—trust them to act in Dixing’s best interest in his absence. Shen Wei would stay, to make sure Ye Zun didn’t break the fragile peace. Didn’t claim any more Dixing lives. That would be enough. Time passing would help, eventually. The terrible energy trapped inside Ye Zun would fade infinitesimally with each turning of the seasons.

And yet when Shen Wei did as he must, there was no peace in the thought of that long sleep. Not when he did not know how long he was leaving the world for—not when he could not say if he would emerge before Kunlun returned. Shen Wei would never have refused this self-imposed duty—this one and only thing he could do for his brother. But his last thought before time fell away was of Kunlun believing Shen Wei had broken his promise, and as Shen Wei closed his eyes, his heart was heavy with grief.

Shen Wei slept for ages—slept, and dreamed, and kept sleeping. When Ye Zun stirred, Shen Wei woke, and pulled them both back under. Generations came and went. His brother’s crime was slowly forgotten. The Black-Cloaked Envoy’s legend remained. And one day, Dixing’s need became so great that they broke the irreplaceable seal that held him. Dixing’s powerful and desperate came for him, and asked for his help, and Shen Wei went.

—Is that what is happening? Is it time to wake, to go find what has happened to the world, and what Ye Zun says now to words of peace and reconciliation? Shen Wei can’t remember, but he feels the imprint of a Hallow’s power in the air.

Instinctively, he goes to quell it—Sleep, dìdi, sleep—and maybe just as instinctively Ye Zun strikes at Shen Wei with everything he has. Which is his full power, newly restored, along with the shining Dial in his hand. A killing blow, and Shen Wei can do nothing to avoid it.

Chapter Text

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.”

Chapter Text

Zhao Yunlan thought his anger couldn’t burn any hotter, back when they first arrived in Dixing and Ye Zun’s ghostly broadcast from the top of the palace stairs made Xiao Guo faint in his Chu-gē’s arms. A reasonable reaction. Feeling the connection between himself and Shen Wei flare into a burst of agony, seeing the state of Shen Wei and Ye Zun with the whip, Zhao Yunlan nearly blacked out himself. But doing so would have taken valuable time—time leaving Shen Wei to hurt, thinking himself alone and abandoned. So he didn’t.

Now that he’s here though—seeing the scene for himself rather than flickering against dark walls and hanging translucently in midair—Zhao Yunlan can feel his fury building to incandescence. No matter who Ye Zun had hurt and humiliated in this way, Zhao Yunlan would do anything to stop it. But because it is the man he loves, because it is Shen Wei, who has given so much for Dixing—who is still denying Ye Zun with his last conscious breath—Zhao Yunlan is completely incapable of focusing on anything except the need to make it stop. And because they have a plan in place, he can.

Ye Zun doesn’t call for the guards or move to defend himself. He waits, smiling, until Zhao Yunlan is standing face to masked face with him.

“Let him go.” It’s the only thing Zhao Yunlan can say—the words have been echoing in his skull with every step he took to get here.

“Why?” Ye Zun asks, his voice as bright with glee as his eyes.

Because Zhao Yunlan needs Shen Wei to stop hurting more than he needs oxygen in his lungs or a beating heart. Because Zhao Yunlan is terrified of what it means that the link between them is guttering like a candle flame in high wind. But because neither is a reason Zhao Yunlan would ever want to share with Ye Zun, he shrugs.

“Why not? Look at him,” Zhao Yunlan says, and doesn’t look himself, because the plan does not include him attempting to strangle Ye Zun on the spot. But Ye Zun looks, and Zhao Yunlan knows what he sees. Shen Wei, hanging limp and bleeding, too far gone to react when Ye Zun hurts him now, and yet by his very nature entirely incapable of pleading for mercy. “Let him go, and I can offer you something far better.”

“Oh?” Ye Zun says, and Zhao Yunlan wonders if the crowd is getting this broadcast to them as well, or if this is just between the two of them. Either way, Zhao Yunlan throws his arms wide and points to himself.

“The Lord Guardian of Haixing,” Zhao Yunlan proclaims. “Leader of the SID.” He lowers his arms, and adds quietly, “And you know what I am to Shen Wei.”

“I know what you were,” Ye Zun says, happily twisting the knife in Zhao Yunlan’s heart.

“You like deals,” Zhao Yunlan says, before his feelings can overrule the plan and make him punch Ye Zun in the face. “You’re not going to get a better one.”

From the hungry set of Ye Zun’s mouth, he knows it’s true. It is very tasty bait they’re dangling in front of him. Zhao Yunlan is pleased that their previous encounter left enough of an impression that Ye Zun casts a wary glance over his shoulder first, and even more pleased when Ye Zun answers, “You, for him?”

Zhao Yunlan thinks he keeps the relief from showing in his face. “Seems more than fair,” he says. “I mean, if I’d only killed you properly when I had the chance, this wouldn’t be happening. But you had to be a fucking cockroach about it, and—”

A coil of dark energy wraps itself around Zhao Yunlan’s neck, and it’s almost a relief to have something holding him back. “I accept,” Ye Zun says, in a tone that implies he really didn’t like being called a cockroach. “And know this, Zhao Yunlan—you will tell me where the Hallows are, and they too shall be mine.”

Zhao Yunlan gives the best chuckle he can while forced to balance on the balls of his feet to avoid strangling. “They’re safe inside the shield you haven’t actually broken through yet,” he says.

Ye Zun grins. “We’ll see about that. But please. Go ahead.” Then he lowers his hand, and the energy flickers off. Caught off-balance, Zhao Yunlan falls to his hands and knees, which also pleases Ye Zun. But Zhao Yunlan’s pride has taken harder knocks than this one. Brushing himself off, he avoids meeting Ye Zun’s eyes as he strides over to the pillar.

It has been so long, and so terrible, and yet this reunion is worse than he could ever have imagined. At Zhao Yunlan’s approach, Shen Wei raises his head with an effort that clearly costs him, but his eyes are glassy and unfocused. Zhao Yunlan wants to scream, or throw up, or turn around and murder Ye Zun.

Instead he steps very close and murmurs, “Shen Wei. I’m sorry I’m late.” With as much subtlety as he can, he siphons off a small portion of his own energy to give to Shen Wei, who inhales sharply and finally looks at him.

Shen Wei’s pale lips work soundlessly, and Zhao Yunlan smiles what he hopes is a reassuring smile. “It’s okay now,” he says, ignoring the fact that Ye Zun is standing right behind them, and that what seems like half the population of Dixing is staring at them from below.

“Why…” The syllable comes out in a raw whisper.

Zhao Yunlan hushes him. “Don’t talk.”

Shen Wei gives a fraction of a headshake. “Run.”

The absurdity of it makes Zhao Yunlan breathe out a short laugh. “No. I’m not leaving you again. I am never leaving you again.” Despite the horrific damage to his body, Shen Wei’s face is relatively unhurt. The instinct to touch it, to place a gentle kiss on unbroken skin, is so strong Zhao Yunlan has to remind himself that Shen Wei still doesn’t know who he is—not truly. It might be completely unwanted, and it would be terribly unfair to add to his confusion. But that means Zhao Yunlan is just standing there trying to figure out what to do with his hands when Ye Zun uses his powers to open the manacles.

Shen Wei begins to crumple where he stands, and Zhao Yunlan steps forward, catching him as carefully as possible—which is not carefully enough to avoid Shen Wei’s low cry of pain. For a moment, they breathe together, as Zhao Yunlan tries not to touch any open wounds and Shen Wei tries to keep to his feet—but he doesn’t struggle or pull away. Not this time.

“Well?” Ye Zun’s impatient voice prods Zhao Yunlan into action.

It would be better to maybe lean Shen Wei against something, or at least move him well out of the way, but Zhao Yunlan knows he isn’t strong enough to do that without aggravating the injuries. So instead he lowers Shen Wei to the dark flagstones just a few unsteady steps away.

“I have done my part,” Ye Zun says solemnly, but there is a wheedling edge in his voice, like he’s player one all ready to start a new game and player two is taking forever with all the options.

“Alright, alright. I’m coming,” Zhao Yunlan says, and shrugs off his black coat, feeling the chilly Dixing air against his bare arms and through his t-shirt. He folds the jacket into a loose bundle, and crouches down to place it under Shen Wei’s head. As he does, he releases another burst of energy, and quietly tells Shen Wei, “Heal, okay?” And he winks, hoping Shen Wei will catch it as he heads back to fulfil his part of this bargain.

If Zhao Yunlan let himself become distracted from his fury by the urge to take care of Shen Wei, the gruesome state of the whipping post brings it all back. He stands with his back to the gory stone, and meets Ye Zun’s greedy stare unflinchingly. Unprompted, Zhao Yunlan reaches his hands above his head, and he doesn’t react when energy coils around his wrists, locking them in the manacles still warm and sticky with his lover’s blood. Other than wishing he could rip Dixing’s vaulted ceiling-sky down over Ye Zun’s head to crush him for good, there is no room in his heart for regret. Yeah, it’s a fucking terrible plan, but it’s working—Shen Wei is alive, and for the moment Ye Zun has better things to do than to hurt him.

Like gloat. Zhao Yunlan rolls his eyes at the predictable turn of events—after all, he’s pretty much been here before, only then the audience was all creepy and silent. Maybe that was Ye Zun’s version of a dress rehearsal? Either way, instead of paying attention to Ye Zun’s strutting around and pontificating at the assembled crowd, Zhao Yunlan tunes in to that anchor point in his heart. Shen Wei feels—stronger. Shocked and confused and still in terrible pain, yes, but the energies are all steadier. Not flickering like the ominous moment right before all the lights go out during a thunderstorm. Zhao Yunlan smiles, and when Ye Zun frowns at him, mid-rant, he flicks his fingers at the bastard in a cheery wave. Then he lets a bit more of his energy drain to Shen Wei for good measure, as Ye Zun takes the wave as a sign he should cut his ranting short.

“Now that I’ve done as you asked,” Ye Zun gestures to Shen Wei, “I think it is time for you to prove the value of this trade. So I ask you again: where are the Hallows?”

“I told you,” Zhao Yunlan lies, “They’re safe in the SID.”

Ye Zun shows his teeth in a smile. “If they were, you could not be here, Lord Guardian. Dixing is closed to all—unless you used the power of the Hallows to get here.”

“Are you sure?” Zhao Yunlan asks.

A broken protest from Shen Wei pierces his heart, distracting him from Ye Zun. Zhao Yunlan turns to see what Shen Wei is doing. Instead of lying down and getting his strength back, it looks like he might be trying and failing to move from where Zhao Yunlan left him. Oh, Shen Wei. No. Please stop, please rest, Zhao Yunlan thinks, though he knows his thoughts can’t carry outside his own head, not even along the link they have.

Ye Zun is doing the creepy unwanted intimate thing again, getting right up in Zhao Yunlan’s face with his mask. “Tell me.”

If Zhao Yunlan weren’t terrified this nuclear dose of mind control might find some way through his proven natural defenses, he would be fascinated to note how he can actually feel the command resonating in his mind. It kind of rings—not entirely unlike a Hallow, only smaller and more aggressive. A whining mosquito to their butterfly touches. “They’re in our lab,” Zhao Yunlan repeats.

Zhao Yunlan can’t see if Ye Zun is frowning or not, but he looks slightly confused as he tries again. “Tell me the truth!”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Zhao Yunlan makes innocent eyes at Ye Zun, who practically flings himself away in annoyance.

“That—how are you doing that?” Ye Zun demands.

“What?” Zhao Yunlan may be showing a hint of a grin, because no power in Dixing or Haixing is going to stop him enjoying every bit of Ye Zun’s inconvenience he can. Not even the threat of imminent violence, as Ye Zun’s eyes darken and he gestures with the bloody whip.

“There are more ways to get answers from you, Zhao Yunlan,” he says.

“You really should try asking nicely,” Zhao Yunlan says, and is entirely unsurprised when that gets Ye Zun to lash out with the whip. He doesn’t hold back, and neither does Zhao Yunlan, who jerks at the manacles and curses when he feels a hot line of pain bloom across his chest. Stoic suffering is more Shen Wei’s thing—Zhao Yunlan is angry, and hurting, and as long as he is expressing all of that very directly, he remains the sole target of Ye Zun’s full attention.

Ye Zun looks expectantly at him. “Do you understand, now?”

Zhao Yunlan nods. “Yeah. You were poorly raised, and have a terrible concept of ‘nicely’.”

Ye Zun is really, really bad at dealing with people talking back to him. Zhao Yunlan already knew that, of course, but Ye Zun is driving the point home quite emphatically. Which is—not really fine, and Zhao Yunlan is not dealing with it well, but it could be worse.

It really could be worse.

They could have been too late.

Shen Wei doesn’t understand what Zhao Yunlan is doing. It makes no sense. None of what he knows can explain it. Can’t explain Zhao Yunlan’s choices, or his actions, or the way it makes Shen Wei’s heart hurt more fiercely than anything Ye Zun did, watching him go willingly to those shackles. Despite all proof to the opposite, despite knowing he will only get hurt if he trusts Zhao Yunlan again, Shen Wei is beginning to let go of the need to understand.

“Zhao Yunlan.” The sound of his name can’t reach the man himself—Shen Wei’s voice is too raw, still, and the crack of the whip is so terribly loud. But he says it, and it anchors him more firmly to that warm touch against his own heart. The one that has to be Zhao Yunlan’s, through the bond they have shared since the Sundial linked them. The bond that Zhao Yunlan could not even feel until he somehow learned to control it. To open it, unstintingly sharing his own energy and his own emotions.

Shen Wei feels along it, and receives another infusion of Zhao Yunlan’s life force—enough that the world comes sharply into focus. Shen Wei sees Zhao Yunlan slumping in the chains, smiling a bloody smile. Shen Wei would take it for pure defiance, but what he can pick up through their bond belies that. What Zhao Yunlan is feeling isn’t anger, but determination. That and a dizzy relief. Like somehow the world isn’t ending, and not everything is lost, despite all of Shen Wei’s failures—despite Zhao Yunlan himself being so totally and utterly helpless.

It’s enough to rekindle a spark of hope. It sits strangely next to the despair of knowing that he can do nothing to stop Ye Zun. Now that he can see again—think again—he wants nothing more. Wants to summon a blade and stop the hated whip from touching Zhao Yunlan ever again—but it would be immediately futile, and a terrible waste of Zhao Yunlan’s precious gift of life.

There is only one thing left for Shen Wei to do. Heal, Zhao Yunlan had said. Clutching at the jacket under his head, forcing his body to remain as still possible to avoid drawing Ye Zun’s attention, Shen Wei does.

It’s a nice side effect of being able to foist off his own energy to save the man he loves, Zhao Yunlan decides. This thing where sharing a little more of it makes it easy to go from being in so much pain he can’t stand it to surpassing that threshold and just. Letting go for a bit. It mutes the harsh sounds too close for comfort, and dims the noisy crowd, and makes him feel almost like it’s just him and Shen Wei. Like they’re back in his cave—or his apartment. He’s Zhao Yunlan now, not Kunlun—he has an apartment. With actual indoor plumbing, and heating that works all the way through the winter, and Shen Wei making the space feel like home.

Yeah. It’s like that, only there’s also Ye Zun, because until Zhao Yunlan checks out fully he’s pretty sure Ye Zun is going to keep making his annoying existence known. He’s so angry. As angry as Zhao Yunlan was at Ye Zun, before that faded along with the pain. And so loud—there’s all of Dixing shouting out there? But Ye Zun’s voice is the only one Zhao Yunlan can hear. With the orders and the yelling and he really wants the Hallows.

“I’m. Not. Saying,” Zhao Yunlan enunciates very carefully, just in case maybe this time the answer will stick, and Ye Zun will leave him alone to—what was he doing?

Thinking about home. And Shen Wei. Who is right there, tucked against his heart. Not quite strong, not like he should be, but—steady. That is good. A steady hand means Shen Wei isn’t cutting himself in the kitchen, and also isn’t dying anymore. Steady hands—Shen Wei’s hands. Zhao Yunlan sinks into a memory of sword-calloused fingers trailing across his skin, of their steadiness giving way to the most adorable tremors as Shen Wei finally reaches out and—

Fingers brush against his cheek.

“Zhao Yunlan. Zhao Yunlan!” The voice is both far away and not, and Zhao Yunlan feels Shen Wei, and distress, and a tender caress. It gets to him like the pain and the threats haven’t. He gasps for air, tasting blood, and fights out of the pleasant memory to answer.

“Shen Wei?” Blinking his eyes open, he sees—Shen Wei. Leaning in, petting his face. Zhao Yunlan gives him a smile—he would give more energy, but he doesn’t think he can without also disappointing Shen Wei by passing out again. Because—oh yeah, his body. Zhao Yunlan still has enough left in him to feel at least some of the bad stuff that’s been happening to it.

“Where are they? Zhao Yunlan, please—let me get them,” Shen Wei says. The distress grows stronger, and Shen Wei’s hand strokes his face. Zhao Yunlan groans very tiredly. “Ye Zun.” Really? This again?

The golden mask blurs into place over his features—or maybe it was never gone. “Why?” Ye Zun whispers. It’s a change from the yelling about Hallows, at least. “Shen Wei—he hates you. He should be nothing to you now. Why do you insist on—on wanting him?”

Zhao Yunlan is way, way too hurt and too tired for this, and it is all Ye Zun’s fault. “How sad,” he says, careful not to slur the words, “that you even have to ask.” Because Ye Zun can damage people, and control them, but he doesn’t understand that love can’t be washed away like an unwanted bloodstain. It’s there, in your heart, and when you find the right person to love, that is not something that will ever change. It couldn’t for Zhao Yunlan, and hasn’t for Shen Wei. For him, it has only been hidden for a while.

A surge of fear—not Zhao Yunlan’s own—and Ye Zun growls and raises his hand, which makes Zhao Yunlan flinch back. There’s no blow. Ye Zun only chuckles, and though he probably hasn’t been broadcasting his little identity crisis, the way he hams it up now indicates he’s back in full terrorize-the-locals mode. “That’s the best the chief of the SID can do?”

Zhao Yunlan vaguely wonders what Ye Zun expects anyone dangling half dead from a pair of manacles to do. But just then, there’s a prickling energy at the back of his mind—bright and eager and perfectly timed. Zhao Yunlan licks his lips, and grins through the taste of his own blood. “Maybe,” he says. “But the SID can do a lot more.” And before Ye Zun can ask him any other stupid questions Zhao Yunlan shoves all he can gather of his own life at Shen Wei, who isn’t tied up and can have a blade in his hand in the blink of an eye.

It’s too bad he won’t get to see the next bit, Zhao Yunlan thinks, as a wave of darkness comes crashing down around him. He knows his team will be magnificent.

Guo Changcheng wakes up in Chu-gē’s arms, and it’s kind of nice for a moment until he remembers they’re on a mission. Last time they were in Dixing was pretty bad and scary, but this time he isn’t feeling as drained. Well, not from coming here. What he saw—. Changcheng shakes his head hard, before the memories of Professor Shen like that can make him throw up.

A hand ruffles his hair, and Changcheng smiles, feeling a little better. “Come on, Changcheng. Let’s go.”

“Yeah,” Changcheng agrees. Chu-gē helps him up—it’s still hard to move around, with one arm in a sling—and he looks around. The others have left already, and Chu-gē has tucked them away around a corner. They cautiously leave their hiding place, and start putting the plan in motion.

Chief Zhao was very clear about a lot of the plan—including the one part everyone had really hated. (Changcheng thought Da Qing might—might bite the chief, or something. But then he didn’t even say anything, only hid in the back of the room when the chief left, and didn’t yell at Changcheng for bringing him tissues.) Everyone except Chu-gē, who just nodded. Changcheng thinks he understands why, and it makes him sad to know there’s no plan that can fix what is hurting Chu-gē. But at least Professor Shen is still alive, and Chief Zhao won’t die so easily—that’s what he told them—and the SID can save them both.

But then other parts of Chief Zhao’s plan… he did a lot of telling them, You’ll figure it out and I trust you and that trust is sitting like a lump in Changcheng’s throat right now. He takes a deep breath. “Chu-gē. There’s some people over there. Should we—should we go talk to them?”

The locals are clustered around one of the screens—Changcheng very carefully avoids looking at it, because he doesn’t want to pass out again. Chu-gē is quiet for a moment, then says, “What do you think?”

Changcheng studies the little crowd. Two dozen or so, mostly older folks, but also a couple of mothers with small children tucked close. Those who wouldn’t have wanted to go all the way to the plaza themselves. And—Changcheng tilts his head, studies them all really carefully, because he can’t tell Chu-gē I don’t know now, not when he accepted this mission. He wishes he had enough time to write his thoughts down—that always helps him sort them out. Right now they’re all a jumble, but he can’t tell Chu-gē that either. He fiddles nervously with his earpiece, and says, “I—I think we should. Look—it’s not just the moms, but some of those aunties are also making sure the little ones don’t see the—the screen. And that that uncle looks—very sad? So I think—I think they’d listen, if we—”

That’s as far as Changcheng gets before Chu-gē shoves him bodily at the crowd, who part in a startled flurry. “Um, hi,” Changchen says, as his heart gallops and his palms sweat at all these people just staring at him. He forces his shoulders back, standing the way his aunt always tells him to. Changcheng’s legs feel like the instant noodles threatening to come back up, but he doesn’t run away. Instead, he makes eye contact with those he feels are most likely to listen—those who can get others to listen. “Do you—do you want to help save Dixing?”

Zhu Hong adjusts her grip on the ridiculous High Chief Stick—couldn’t Lao Zhao have arranged for something a bit more dignified while he was setting everything else up in the past?—and meets the hypnotized gazes of the guards on either side of the double doors into the Dixing Palace’s throne room. “Open it,” she says, and they do, as easily as that. She could definitely get used to the effects of the Yashou High Chief's power-boosting concoction. The taste, though—she suppresses a shudder, and strides through the doors.

As expected, the palace servants and minor officials scuttle away so fast it makes her feel like she’s slithering into a roomful of rats. They take one look at her glowing eyes and then they’re bowing and shuffling and clearing a direct path to the Regent. He looks up from a scroll he has been inspecting, and his first reaction to Zhu Hong’s intrusion is terribly rude. “You—you’re the Lord Guardian’s snake girl? How dare you enter!”

Next, he’s going to shout for guards, and so Zhu Hong rolls her eyes and swings the blooming twig in an arc overhead the way Lao Zhao showed her. Now she gets a completely different reaction: the man’s eyes widen, his hands clasp together, and he bows in utmost servility. “High—High Chief. I wasn’t—I hadn’t received any news of. Uh. This—this felicitous occasion, and your own elevation. My congratulations, High Chief… uh…?”

Amazing. Maybe this stick isn’t so bad after all. Zhu Hong lets him squirm a bit before she points her twig like a scepter, feeling confidence flowing into her stance. “High Chief Zhu Hong,” she says. In her mind’s eye, she sees again the proud look in Lao Zhao’s face as he was the first to declare her such, kneeling before her without a hint of hesitation or ridicule. It makes it easier to get the next words out without faltering. “Here on a formal visit to your King.”

Lin Jing is very glad he has the excuse of needing a guide. What they’ve seen already—he’s still feeling a bit sick and shaky, and he knows it would be far worse if he’d been alone. Moving through the crowd, he feels remarkably conspicuous. He hunches, wishing he were shorter—or at least able to navigate the press of bodies with the same ease Da Qing is. “Hey,” he calls under his breath. “Wait up!”

Da Qing turns, and gives him an annoyed glare. Other people turn too, craning their necks to look up at Lin Jing, who shrinks into his hoodie and tries to hide the black duffle bags he’s carrying and look unassuming and innocent and also like he belongs.

“Please ignore my cousin, he has a—a condition,” Da Qing says through a pained smile, and tugs Lin Jing far enough away from the edge of the crowd to scold him. “You can’t just stop like that!”

“I didn’t stop, I just—” Lin Jing’s attention catches on the projection nearest to them, and he feels another wave of nausea build. It was bad enough to see what had happened to Professor Shen, but now that it’s the SID's own Chief Zhao… Lin Jing clenches his fists around the woven nylon bags he’s carrying. They should have tried harder to stop their boss. If only Lin Jing could have come up with a better diversion—if only there had been any other solution, and he had managed to find it, then this wouldn’t be happening.

“Don’t look,” Da Qing hisses. “You’ll just throw up again.”

Lin Jing nods, and averts his gaze. But it's not like he can stop hearing. The loud cracks, the—the cries… He swallows, a fully-body shudder running through him at the next impact. Da Qing places a hand on his arm, and Lin Jing waits for another scolding. It doesn’t come. Instead Da Qing leans his head against Lin Jing’s arm, just for a moment, his grip growing painfully tight.

Lin Jing pats Da Qing’s shoulder—carefully, in case he gets swiped at. But Da Qing just inhales audibly, and says, “He’ll be okay. They’ll be okay.”

“Yeah,” Lin Jing agrees, forcing some cheerfulness into his voice. “That’s the plan.”

Da Qing snorts. “Plan,” he repeats, the word dripping with condescension. “Sure. He’s just leaving all the hard work up to us.”

“We’d better get that overtime he promised,” Lin Jing agrees, because that’s a normal thing to say, and he desperately needs something to be normal right now. Then he glances up at the building they’ve ended up next to. It’s—tall. Tall and narrow, with funny little ledges under the windows. He gives it an assessing look, and glances over the heads of the crowd to the palace stairs. Yeah, the angle isn’t bad. “Hey, Da Qing.” Lin Jing points, and Da Qing’s brows rise.

“Very climbable. I like it.”

“Then let’s earn our overtime,” Lin Jing says, and plonks the duffle bags down. “All the stuff you need is here—”

“I was there when we packed,” Da Qing interrupts. “I know. And you showed me how to use it.”

“You think you’ll be okay?”

Da Qing snorts. “Of course. I’m a cat.”

“Right.” Lin Jing thinks that’s probably as much a drawback as an advantage, but he’s not going to challenge the deputy on the excellence of felines.

“And you?” Da Qing asks.

Lin Jing nods stiffly. “Of—of course,” he says. “I’m a scientist.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Da Qing murmurs, but Lin Jing is already ignoring him, lost in going over the plan Chief Zhao entrusted him with. Entrusted him with after first checking if Lin Jing was willing to accept the danger. But what other answer could he have given, with all that is at stake?

Chapter Text

If it had been anyone else, Shen Wei would not, could not, have let his brother continue the torture. But because it is Zhao Yunlan—Shen Wei is trembling now, with the effort to do nothing. Don’t talk. Heal. Shen Wei didn’t know that Zhao Yunlan could be so cruel as to demand the impossible of him. Didn’t know himself that whatever Zhao Yunlan asks—even the impossible—he will try to give. Shouldn’t it be easier to bear, not harder, that it is Zhao Yunlan and nobody else?

Zhao Yunlan, who came for Shen Wei, and gave himself to Ye Zun, and who would rather die than yield the Hallows. Who killed—Shen Wei breathes through confusion tearing at him like Ye Zun’s whip. Zhao Yunlan, who isn’t, who couldn’t be, but who feels as cherished in Shen Wei’s heart as Kunlun.

Yet now Shen Wei is letting Ye Zun torture him, letting Ye Zun touch him, which is an altogether different kind of distressing.

No. No more—Zhao Yunlan is drifting. Shen Wei can hear it in his voice when Ye Zun presses Zhao Yunlan to speak, and can feel it through their bond. There is a lightness to Zhao Yunlan’s presence there now, as if there is hardly any of him left. This is cause for terrible concern.

Shen Wei has reached his limit. This has to be enough, of both silence and healing—Shen Wei is more than well enough to do what he must. Moving slowly to avoid drawing attention, Shen Wei plants his palms on the chilly Dixing stone, then hears a noise that makes him freeze. Footsteps. More guards?

Reluctantly, Shen Wei turns away from Zhao Yunlan to look in the direction of the sound. The shock of what he sees makes him consider wild alternatives—maybe Zhao Yunlan has gotten deft enough with the flow of energy between them to project some kind of dream? But then his other senses confirm it. The air carries a hint of dry scales, and the High Chief’s sceptre in Zhu Hong’s hand stirs a breeze that feels like the first sunlit spring in memory.

Zhu Hong does not arrive alone. At her side is Dixing’s King. His young face looks as astonished as Shen Wei feels. And they bring yet more people. Shen Wei shoves himself up enough to see behind them. There, at the proper distance protocol dictates, is the Regent. He is flanked by—and now Shen Wei has to blink, to make completely sure this isn’t an illusion. The Regent appears to be flanked by the SID’s youngest and most terrified member, Guo Changcheng, and the once-condemned Chu Shuzhi.

Behind them, the part of Shen Wei still focused on Zhao Yunlan hears a grin creep into that hoarse voice. This means something—but no matter how important Zhao Yunlan is, Shen Wei misses the words he is saying, because Shen Wei is busy panicking. The Regent isn’t holding some insignificant ceremonial item aloft, like he’d first assumed. The Regent is holding the Guardian Lantern—the real one, glowing to Shen Wei’s sight alone.

No. That can’t be—if another Hallow falls to Ye Zun, that would be—

A wave of light crashes down over Shen Wei. It is energy—Zhao Yunlan’s energy, full of confidence, full of joy, so bright and contagious that it could almost take all Shen Wei’s fears away. It would, except in the very next moment Shen Wei realizes that he can’t feel Zhao Yunlan anymore.

Shen Wei will wait no longer. In one fluid motion, boosted by that last influx of energy, he rolls to his feet.

So absorbed is Ye Zun in Zhao Yunlan that the flutter of torn black robes is the first warning he gets—and by then it’s almost too late for him. Shen Wei releases a furious fistful of power, and Ye Zun rocks back, arms crossed protectively in front of his face.

Ye Zun tries to fling an attack back at him, but Shen Wei has already moved, coming in from behind. He draws his blade, and this close it makes Ye Zun shrink back—which leaves him just off-balance enough to hit with another blast of energy to the chest, and then Shen Wei can sweep Ye Zun’s legs from under him with a kick.

Twisting like a cat in the air, Ye Zun gains enough leverage to flow into a crouch, landing with an angry growl. Shen Wei swings his blade down, and Ye Zun ducks it with a spinning twirl before shooting back to his feet, spitting mad. There is energy cupped in the palm of his hand, and Ye Zun releases it haphazardly—easy enough to avoid, but obscenely strong. Flinging that kind of force at random is not something any trained Dixing fighter should ever do.

Shen Wei tries to close the distance between them, which makes Ye Zun’s eyes widen in glee that gives him away. Ye Zun goes for what he believes to be an easy target, and Shen Wei goes for a flashy feint, meeting Ye Zun’s blast of energy with his own—but ducks and weaves and pulls his sword up in a simple thrust that hits home. The shock of it up his arm is dreadfully solid, after manipulating pure energy. The point of the blade slices through flesh and grinds against the bone of Ye Zun’s left shoulder.

Blood and fury spill from Ye Zun, who can’t abide any kind of loss. He opens both hands wide, and Shen Wei sees what he means to do just a fraction of a second before the attack comes. Not just at Shen Wei, who could shield himself—but at Zhao Yunlan, who is utterly defenseless.

Shen Wei doesn’t think. He simply moves. His arm sweeps at the lethal blast—diminishes it, throws some of it into dissolving dark sparks—and then the rest of it hits him. Shen Wei’s legs give way, but with tremendous effort he keeps from crumpling entirely, catching himself painfully on the flagstones with a hand and a knee. Swaying, he barely manages to dispel Ye Zun’s next blast.

Shen Wei registers that Ye Zun is down to one-handed attacks, even as he accepts that with the sword now extended away from his body, he has left himself open for Ye Zun’s follow-through.

It doesn’t come. Ears ringing, darkness prickling at the edges of his vision, Shen Wei spends a long moment wondering why—then he sees the threads glowing around Ye Zun’s upraised hand. Chu Shuzhi cannot hold him for long—Shen Wei pulls his sword back, and leans pathetically against it, sacrificing the dignity of the blade for his own balance.

Ye Zun breaks free—but High Chief Zhu Hong is there, with an impressive kick to his face. The force of her charge sends Ye Zun spinning away from Shen Wei. Ye Zun’s next attack thus downgraded to imminent rather than inevitable, Shen Wei casts an anguished look over his shoulder at Zhao Yunlan.

Instead of whatever he expected or feared, there is Xiao Guo, blocking his view—and Ye Zun’s line of sight. And if Xiao Guo is guarding his chief, then Zhao Yunlan must still be alive.

Focusing on the fight in front of him, Shen Wei is glad that the two SID fighters have continued to exchange blows without letting any of Ye Zun’s attacks injure them. Maybe it is the bleeding shoulder? Or maybe Ye Zun already has already taken more damage than Shen Wei thought. Whatever the reason, it seems to him that Ye Zun might be beginning to slow down.

Shen Wei’s chest feels like paper dissolving under a blotch of spilled ink. The corrosive dose of Ye Zun’s power hitting torn flesh hastily knitted together is still spreading ruin inside and out, but that is fine. Shen Wei has enough left in him to see this through. All he needs is for Lao Chu and Zhu Hong to give him the right opening, and—there.

Ye Zun can’t guard his back at the same time as he parries a joint attack by the two. Shen Wei disappears his sword and releases as much dark energy he can muster in one forceful blast. Hitting Ye Zun, it sends him straight into the SID duo, who waste no time combining brute force and fine manipulation of dark energy to bring Ye Zun to his knees.

Shaking with effort, Shen Wei summons his glaive and manages to make it to his feet. Leaning heavily against the shaft, he can see well enough to help weight Ye Zun down in energy so thick it hides any hint of white through those dark sparks. Shen Wei makes sure Ye Zun’s mouth is covered—against commands, and against those dreadful, life-draining attacks.

Ye Zun is straining hard, left sleeve soaked in blood looking like a dark battle banner in the gloom. Shen Wei knows it is only a matter of moments before they lose enough control that Ye Zun can choose which one of them to take out first.

Therefore it is enormously confusing when someone new enters the fray, and tackles Ye Zun to the ground. It is especially confusing because the last person Shen Wei would have expected to throw himself bodily into a fight with Ye Zun is Lin Jing. And yet—it is undoubtedly the SID’s scientist, eyes as wild as his hair when he—when he puts handcuffs on Ye Zun?

Handcuffs. Like they are arresting him, like they can—Shen Wei catches his thoughts fragmenting dangerously, though he hasn’t let up the pressure he’s been keeping on Ye Zun. The others—they must not understand the danger. Shen Wei begins to shout a warning to them, but it comes out a bloody cough. Before he can try again, he notices Zhu Hong and Lao Chu holding Ye Zun still while Lin Jing threads something that looks very much like an ordinary breathing mask over Ye Zun’s enraged face. Shen Wei has seen countless similar ones on days when the air over Dragon City gets particularly bad—sturdier than those meant for a single use, but certainly not enough to contain a raging Ye Zun.

Except, impossibly, it does. The three members of the SID—Xiao Guo remains with Zhao Yunlan—look bruised and shaken, but they are still standing, and Ye Zun is down. He is twisting angrily in an absolute silence that cannot be natural. Twisting angrily, but not tearing free from the glowing web of threads spun around him, or the cuffs binding his hands behind his back.

Ye Zun has been captured.

It is almost too much to believe. Shen Wei would fear a dream-realm, a mind trap—but only reality can hurt as much as he is hurting, or flood his mouth with the rich tang of copper as he coughs. There isn’t strength enough left in him to keep standing, even holding on to the shaft of his glaive. He lets it go—it clatters to the stone floor, abandoned rather than sent away—and sinks down on his knees, facing Ye Zun’s whipping pole. Over Xiao Guo’s head, Shen Wei can see the thick iron band of manacles around Zhao Yunlan’s wrists. It takes a dizzying effort, but he manipulates them open, and watches as Xiao Guo shrieks and catches Zhao Yunlan.


Shen Wei thinks he might have to close his eyes—maybe that will help him feel Zhao Yunlan’s elusive presence. The reasons why he might not feel it at all are—unthinkable. Only Ye Zun is still awake, still struggling, and it is his duty to remain vigilant—Shen Wei blinks. People have moved. Are still moving. There is nobody at his side, but Zhao Yunlan has also been left lying alone, and that is deeply disquieting. Priorities shifting, Shen Wei decides he needs to move. Somehow.

Get to Zhao Yunlan. Somehow.

A bright light floods Shen Wei’s vision, distracting him. Behind them, the vast pillars to the palace entrance and the empty space between them all take on the appearance of a white surface. It is so incongruous in Dixing that it takes Shen Wei far too long to connect this projection with the technology he is on familiar, if suspicious, terms with back in his university.

A screen. There is a projected screen on top of the palace stairs, where all gathered in the plaza and beyond can see it, and it isn’t white anymore. There’s movement, colors—Shen Wei blinks, and the impressions resolve into an image of the Regent, bowing.

Shen Wei looks over to the man himself. The Regent. Bowing to Zhu Hong. Handing her—the Lantern. Shen Wei stares at it. The last time he saw it was ten thousand years ago, when Ye Zun was kept dormant but not yet fully contained. And now Zhu Hong is holding it aloft for all of Dixing to see.

The King steps up next to Zhu Hong. Then he turns outward, to the people he has not seen since becoming their sacrificial monarch. “Dixing,” he cries, and his voice wobbles very slightly—but it also carries far and wide, on the tinny echo of cheap speakers. “You have been misled! We all have.” A pause, as he shoots a rather pointed and personal glare at the Regent. “We were told, just now, that the only way for us to find the light was to first revere the night. To wage war, and to die for Dixing’s dream.”

There is a storm of murmurs and whispers and thunderclaps of cries, but the image on the giant flickering screen moves from the King’s face to the Guardian Lantern. The storm calms, and for the first time, Shen Wei realizes the Lantern is not glowing only in his own vision, but for all who look upon it. The King nods, though only those close enough can see him. “Yes. There is another way. One that was always meant to be Dixing’s, before it was stolen away by the very man who would have driven you to war.”

Zhu Hong lowers the Lantern, and she is joined by Lao Chu and Xiao Guo. Shen Wei doesn’t even have the strength left to be surprised. The three of them place their hands on the Lantern, holding it steady between them, despite one of those three hands trembling visibly. It glows more brightly, and Shen Wei catches an awed expression on the King’s face before he takes a deep breath. “If you want light,” the King says, “we already have it. Right here. No blood needs to be spilled, no war needs to be waged.”

The three members of Zhao Yunlan’s SID—Dixing, Haixing and Yashou—bow their heads over the lantern, and close their eyes. Shen Wei can feel them concentrating—can feel the Guardian Lantern resonate joyfully at their touch. Its shine is growing stronger. “Dixing,” the King says. “Let’s banish our night together, and bring the light that we have all waited so many generations to see.” And he bends his head too—not touching the Lantern, and yet at his gesture it emits a bright flare.

The first of many. Dazzling in their brightness, glowing sparks and trails of light explode into being in the center of the SID trio. The Lantern they are holding is already too bright to see. There are gasps of shock and awe and anger, and Shen Wei tries to follow what is happening, but another cough wrenches what is left of his chest inside out, and blood follows more blood, bright red in the warm glow coming from overhead.

The Lantern. It can’t be held in anyone’s hands anymore—it must be fulfilling its original purpose, affixing itself to Dixing’s sky. It is a momentous occasion, and Shen Wei would smile, only he still hasn’t reached Zhao Yunlan. There is a tumult all around them, and Shen Wei agonizes that someone might harm Zhao Yunlan where he lies.

Since he cannot walk, he crawls.

The ground is hard, and slick under his hands, and already feeling less cold than it was. There is screaming, and not all of it sounds good. Zhu Hong shouting orders is much better—and the King, too, commanding a handful of confused and unusually docile palace guards. Shen Wei realizes they are talking about a barrier—a shield—for protection. And he can see—though he cannot fully understand—Xiao Guo holding the Merit Brush aloft, carving uncharacteristically bold strokes in the air.

Most importantly, he can see Ye Zun still held in place by Chu Shuzhi’s power and Lin Jing’s not-insignificant bulk. Other than Ye Zun, there is no threat to Zhao Yunlan that Shen Wei has been able to detect.

A rush of movement startles him, and for a petrifying moment, he believes he may have missed an attacker—but it is Da Qing, throwing himself down at Zhao Yunlan’s side, calling his master’s name.

“Da Qing.” It comes out a wet whisper, but a cat’s hearing is sharp. Da Qing gasps as he turns and spots Shen Wei, and comes unbidden to his side.

“Zhao Yunlan?” Shen Wei doesn’t have to explain what he is asking.

“Alive! Alive, but—”

“Da Qing.”

Shen Wei’s old friend helps him close the final distance to Zhao Yunlan, and Shen Wei can finally see for himself. See that Zhao Yunlan, covered in bleeding welts and scraps of once-white cotton, is breathing—but those breaths are coming shallow and rapid. Fingers on Zhao Yunlan’s throat, Shen Wei fumbles with an unexpected obstacle—a yellow jade pendant, askew on its leather strap. There is no time to puzzle over it—all Shen Wei wants is to feel Zhao Yunlan’s pulse. It is weak and thready, and even slick with both their blood, what skin Shen Wei can feel is too cold.

Shock. Lethal for a human—Shen Wei’s heart twists, and he brushes damp bangs from Zhao Yunlan’s face. He lays his palm against Zhao Yunlan’s forehead, and gathers what energy he has left.

Zhao Yunlan comes to in a body that has been pushed beyond its limits. He feels delirious with pain so intense it has stopped being pain, and become nothing but the giddy numbness of a system protecting itself as it shuts down for the last time. The sun (no—not sun) is bright on his face, and he thinks he might be smiling, because it means they’ve succeeded. His team has done all he asked of them and more.

He moves into shade, and the light disappears.

Moves? Zhao Yunlan is certainly not in any shape to move. But he is resting against something warm, legs slung under someone’s arms, his head resting on a shoulder. He first wonders Ma?, but of course he’s not a child anymore. “Shen… Wei?”

Too warm. He already knows it’s not Shen Wei when Lin Jing’s voice cries, “He’s awake! The chief is awake, we have to—we’re far enough now, we can stop.”

There’s a clatter of feet and murmured conversation and louder-than-murmured conversation which still makes no sense. Zhao Yunlan tries again. “Shen Wei!” It comes out a pathetic croak, and he knows he should open his eyes. That would make it easier to spot Shen Wei.

“Here, sit,” Lin Jing’s says, and Zhao Yunlan is placed on what feels like the rugs and cushions back at home in his cave.

It all feels like a cave. Even with his eyes closed he can tell it’s a fairly small chamber without natural light, and with walls that radiate chill like they have been soaking it up for millenia. And there are other people around him—voices, footsteps. “Shen Wei?”

“He’s—he’s here,” Zhu Hong says, and Zhao Yunlan finally opens his eyes. The room is crowded—his SID, all of them are here. He’s relieved, and so proud he could burst, for all that they look a bit shocky and disheveled. Then Zhao Yunlan turns his head—already knowing which direction to look in, from the faint tug on his heart.

Shen Wei is slumped against the wall next to him. Shen Wei looks—beautiful. Terrible. Beaten and bloody and robe in tatters. Face pale—far too pale. And all Zhao Yunlan wants to do is to touch him again. Finally. He can’t stand the thought of not getting at least that, since—since it feels there isn’t much time left for anything at all. He doesn’t know if Shen Wei remembers, or wants, or anything, but this time he doesn’t hold back. He reaches out, and takes Shen Wei’s hand where it lies on the deep blue rug between them.

A starburst of emotion and Shen Wei’s hand moves. Zhao Yunlan’s heart—what is left of it—plummets, because all he wanted was that one bit of contact and now—

Shen Wei’s hand tugs at Zhao Yunlan’s arm. Weakly, but Zhao Yunlan lets himself topple sideways, which is the closest he can get to moving. Then Da Qing is there, and Lao Chu too, and they wordlessly help shift him over. Shen Wei’s arm comes around his shoulders, weak but insistent. Zhao Yunlan protests, once—he’s seen the dark energy damage, he knows it will hurt Shen Wei if he gives in—but Shen Wei tugs all of him close. Zhao Yunlan goes very still, his back against that ruined chest. Shen Wei’s shudders once, and then relaxes, arms gentle around Zhao Yunlan’s waist, legs bracketing his own.

Everything hurts, hurts, hurts. But what hurts the most is how good it feels, and how quickly it will all be gone. Zhao Yunlan knows that the light in the room they are in cannot possibly be dimming, and yet—. And Shen Wei is cold, even with blood still wet on him, and his breathing is sharp and shallow. Despite of all that—because of all that—Zhao Yunlan finally leans back fully into Shen Wei’s arms. “So you have your memories back?” he murmurs.

There is a twitch that is probably a shake of Shen Wei’s head. “I’m sorry,” Shen Wei whispers. “No.” Zhao Yunlan breathes through pain, but then Shen Wei’s arms close more tightly around him. “I don’t need them,” he says. “I don’t need anything but my heart to know that I love you, Zhao Yunlan.”

Zhao Yunlan laughs weakly, a joyful sob. “Yeah? Good.” He twists, and raises a hand so that he can slide it behind Shen Wei’s neck. “‘Cause I love you. I’ve always loved you.” Here and now and ten thousand years ago. Always. Desperate, Zhao Yunlan tugs Shen Wei’s face closer to his own upturned one, and Shen Wei strains to meet him.

The kiss is painful and awkward and bloody and perfect. The last perfect thing in Zhao Yunlan’s life. And—well. He always did dream of dying in the arms of a great beauty.

Chapter Text

It’s getting darker. Zhao Yunlan sighs, and relaxes in Shen Wei’s arms. They tighten around him again, just a little. Zhao Yunlan folds his blood-slicked hands over Shen Wei’s at his waist, and rests his temple against Shen Wei’s cheek. He is so tired, and he could ask for no better place to rest than this.

So why won’t the others just let him close his eyes in peace? They’re crowding around, all of them, and their silence is the loudest Zhao Yunlan has ever heard. He’s almost annoyed enough to tell them off when they start making noise. Which is distracting in a completely different way.

“Lao Zhao!” Da Qing sounds breathless—slightly choked up, but excited. Zhao Yunlan vaguely hopes nothing bad is happening, because—they’ll have to deal without him. He and Shen Wei have done all they can already.

Warm hands lift his—more than hands. Zhao Yunlan knows that tingling against his skin and that hum in his mind. He swallows painfully. Eyes closed, he tilts his head away from Shen Wei’s and then back again in a feeble headshake. “I can’t.” What life could he have, knowing he’d taken half from his oldest friend?

Da Qing only shoves the Dial more aggressively at him. He may be growling slightly.

So much for that peace and quiet, because it gets the others going, too.

“Chief Zhao! Um—you—we—”

“You should listen to your deputy.”

“Please, Lao Zhao!”

“Boss, you can’t. You can’t leave us.”

Zhao Yunlan opens his eyes. Dimly, blurrily he sees them all, leaning over him. Da Qing is on his knees, looking ready to pounce. Zhu Hong is sitting next to him, like she’s forgotten how to use her legs. Xiao Guo is crouching down to ask her if she’s okay, with Lin Jing and Lao Chu both leaning over Da Qing to stare at Zhao Yunlan.

Da Qing is brandishing the Longevity Sundial at Zhao Yunlan.

“I can’t,” Zhao Yunlan says again, hoarsely.

His words make Shen Wei stir in protest, and there’s a puff of breath against his cheek. “Yunlan.”

The heartbreak in Shen Wei’s voice—Zhao Yunlan would do anything to fix that. To take it away. But—the Dial? He’s already regretted using it once before.

Around him, his team press in. Sitting, scooting—shifting over until Da Qing is not the only one holding the Hallow. They’ve piled their hands on top of Da Qing’s—on top of the Longevity Dial. All of them except for Lao Chu. Knowing what he does about mixing Dixing and Haixing energies, Chu Shuzhi stands behind them, a hand on Xiao Guo’s shoulder. But not to hold him back.

“Please. If it’s all of us—it will only be a little. It will be worth it.” Da Qing smiles, so hopeful it hurts.

“You can’t,” Zhao Yunlan tries. They don’t know that this will work. They don’t know—he doesn’t know—if it might cost them all more than they are willing to give.

“Please, “ Shen Wei begs him, and then, so weakly Zhao Yunlan isn’t sure any of the others hear the words meant for them, “Thank you.”

Now the tears that have been blurring Zhao Yunlan’s vision spill over, running down his cheeks, because—he doesn’t want his time with everyone to be over, but how could he let the others do this for him?

“Chief Zhao. If you don’t accept this, I will never forgive you!” Xiao Guo declares fiercely, his determination so firm he keeps standing there without wilting, without apologizing.

Zhao Yunlan gives a choked laugh. “All of you...”

“You know. For the SID. We already know we don’t like the other guy they send to boss us around, so…” Lin Jing says.

“You haven’t taken responsibility for giving me this stupid High Chief job yet! You said you had plenty to teach me, so—so you can’t just abandon your duties.” Zhu Hong sounds as fierce as Xiao Guo did.

“Don’t make Changcheng cry,” Lao Chu scowls, though from the sniffling Zhao Yunlan can hear that might already be too late.

The last voice is quieter than all the others, but cuts Zhao Yunlan more deeply. “I don’t want you to go.” Da Qing, who said those same words before Kunlun left him.

Da Qing, who waited ten thousand years—long enough to forget and forget and forget, but never forgetting to look for his master.

Zhao Yunlan feels himself convulse around a silent sob, and Shen Wei’s arms hold him steady. “Yunlan,” Shen Wei breathes.

Shen Wei.

Ten thousand years, forgetting nothing. Not until Ye Zun’s cruelty made him believe his red thread of fate had been cut for good. Should Zhao Yunlan let him go, like this? Now that they are finally in the same time, at the same time—but only for these short moments.

Only Shen Wei doesn’t know they finally share all the same memories of each other. Shen Wei is still mourning a death that never happened. Unless Zhao Yunlan does something.

Unless Zhao Yunlan saves them both.

“Okay,” Zhao Yunlan says, and he would say more, but words are getting too difficult to manage. “Okay.”

As one, his team surge forward, a few hands steadying him as he accepts what they want to give him. Zhao Yunlan closes his hand around the Hallow they are offering him, and there are sparks in his mind. A gasp of air that might have been his name brushes his ear, and Zhao Yunlan’s grip tightens. He feels the others’ hands close over his, around the Hallow.

They have never used it before. He has. He can, even now. Zhao Yunlan’s eyes squeeze shut as he breathes in and dives deep into the Hallow’s buzzing glow.

The Sundial lights up more loudly when he touches it. Through it, he can vaguely feel the other four present with him: determination and generosity and memories like raindrops on an umbrella, pelting him with brief touches of experiences and emotions not his own. There is no time to dwell on any of them, because the glow is reaching a crescendo, bright enough to paint red sparks on the inside of his eyelids as he inhales—

—lungs filling fully, flesh knitting, heart pumping blood that wasn’t there before, coursing through his body without spilling—

Zhao Yunlan gasps, but doesn’t cough. Even the taste of blood is gone from his mouth, and he opens his eyes to see everything sharply drawn and fully lit. He lets go of the Dial and they all tumble apart. Zhao Yunlan is quick to scan the room, trying to discern if anything has gone wrong—if any of them seem different—but they are all laughing joyfully, eyes wide but shining as brightly as the Hallows as they look at each other and at Zhao Yunlan, and share hugs and pats and stare at Zhao Yunlan some more.

Hugely relieved not to be dealing with any Hallows-related emergency, Zhao Yunlan turns around carefully. Shen Wei’s arms are still loosely linked around him, and he doesn’t want to dislodge them. But he wants to look at Shen Wei’s face as he carefully takes as much as he can spare of that sparkling energy that is filling him with breath and blood, and lets it flow into Shen Wei instead.

Zhao Yunlan knows it has worked, because he feels a little dizzy—though the pain is still wonderfully absent—and Shen Wei gives a weak cough. There seems to be a little more color in his cheeks. A very little.

For Zhao Yunlan it took all of a breath to feel all of the damage drain away—so why isn’t Shen Wei reacting better to this? Zhao Yunlan feels his forehead, and his neck. Shen Wei is still so cold, and his heartbeat—

Zhao Yunlan swallows. “Why isn’t this helping?” he says, voice wavering.

Shen Wei opens his eyes, but he can’t focus on Zhao Yunlan, though he tries. Nevertheless, he seems delighted at Zhao Yunlan’s recovery. Also slightly shamefaced, which is ridiculous at a time like this. “I’m sorry,” Shen Wei says, and Zhao Yunlan hates both the apology and the resignation in Shen Wei’s voice. “It’s too late. Please don’t waste any more of your own life, Zhao Yunlan—”

Zhao Yunlan barks out a laugh. “You know that it isn’t worth anything without you,” he says. “Now come on. What can I do?”

“Nothing,” Shen Wei sighs. “I truly am sorry. But the Sundial—our energies—”

“That? That’s what’s getting to you now?”

Shen Wei nods, the tiniest gesture of his tousled head. His eyes are swimming with pain.

“I understand,” Zhao Yunlan says, instead of You idiot or I fucking told you it wasn’t worth it. Because of course it’s the energies—Zhao Yunlan’s own, inside Shen Wei. Killing Shen Wei. Couldn’t this particular crisis have waited another five damn minutes? But that’s okay. This one, Zhao Yunlan knows how to deal with.

“Xiao Wei. Listen to me. It’s not too late. Just hang on, okay?” Turns out being snowed inside a mountain with the man who helped create the Hallows was a good time to learn more about ways in which they might be useful in this particular scenario, and Zhao Yunlan hadn’t been about to waste that opportunity. At least not when his beautiful young boyfriend left him all alone to go fighting evil and righting wrongs.

Shen Wei frowns, and Zhao Yunlan strokes his cheek. “Lao Chu,” he says without looking away from Shen Wei. Almost instantaneously, Chu Shuzhi materializes next to them, Mountain-River Awl in hand. Zhao Yunlan grabs it, and fear surges through him when Shen Wei’s arms around him grow slack—but then they tighten again. Shen Wei still isn’t letting him go.

Zhao Yunlan has no intention of letting Shen Wei go, either. “Listen,” he says, and Shen Wei looks straight at him—eyes glassy, but still aware. “You’re going to have to trust me on this one, baby. Can you do that for me?”

Shen Wei nods, and smiles a helpless, bloody smile.

“Ah, Shen Wei.” Zhao Yunlan’s heart squeezes tight. This has to work. It has to.

Zhao Yunlan adjusts his hold on the Awl, which is buzzing like a wasp’s nest. Excitement not his own adds a kick of adrenaline to his system, and he gets flashes of rock splitting and a mountain falling and an anguished cry. No, he thinks at it. Nothing that flashy this time. And with infinite gentleness, he places it point-first against Shen Wei’s forehead.

Closing his eyes, shutting out the gasps he hears, Zhao Yunlan wields it with the control only someone who held it as a newborn shape could muster. He holds the Awl, and pushes.

The Awl does as it should, and splits.

Splits light energy from dark, though they were so tangled that all of Shen Wei’s own skills weren’t enough to separate the two from each other. But the Hallow pares them as easily as a housewife slices a fish fillet from the bones.

Zhao Yunlan opens his eyes, feeling it done. A luminous shimmer hangs in the air, an inverted shadow of a man. It flickers, and when Zhao Yunlan nudges it with the tip of the Awl it pops like a soap bubble and is gone.

It takes something with it when it goes—there’s a little quaver in Zhao Yunlan’s heart, right where the link between them should be, but he ignores it to stare at Shen Wei. Sees the quality of Shen Wei’s breathing even out, and the glazed eyes clear. Then just staring isn’t good enough anymore and Zhao Yunlan cups Shen Wei’s cheek, and this time he gets the sweetest smile as the arms around him tighten.

Zhao Yunlan wraps himself around Shen Wei in return, holding back only as much as he must to protect Shen Wei’s slowly healing body. They’re both drawing the other closer, holding on tighter. Zhao Yunlan’s hands fist in the tattered fabric of Shen Wei’s robes. He smells blood, and ozone, and under all that Dixing has left on both of them, the crisp scent of a clear night promising frost—Shen Wei. Zhao Yunlan breathes it in, as he hasn’t been able to do for so long in this time, and runs his fingers carefully through Shen Wei’s short, matted hair.

Shen Wei presses his face into Zhao Yunlan’s neck, so that the exhale of steady breathing tickles his skin. There is so much left to do, but Zhao Yunlan needs this—needs to feel that this is really happening, and not a dream or a nightmare or some other time where Shen Wei might be ripped from him. “I’m never leaving you again,” Zhao Yunlan swears, all love and anguish.

Shen Wei shifts and sighs. “Good. I want to keep you,” he murmurs back, and it makes Zhao Yunlan feel ecstatic—until he remembers Shen Wei’s desperate grip on his wrist when he headed into the portal. There’s so much he has to explain to Shen Wei, so much he has been bursting to share—but now is not the time.

“I brought you something,” Zhao Yunlan says instead, and lifts the jade pendant over his own head. He couldn’t leave it in his office, not knowing how important it is to Shen Wei, for reasons Zhao Yunlan is not clear on. It’s slightly worse for wear, but it’s not like a few more bloodstains are going to make a difference to Shen Wei.

A quizzical furrow appears in Shen Wei’s brow, but he bends his neck to let Zhao Yunlan thread it on. Still no other reaction. Well—time enough for that later. Zhao Yunlan kisses Shen Wei on the crown of the head, and regretfully relinquishes him now to better be able to help him later.

“Right, people,” Zhao Yunlan says as he stands back up. This is greeted by disproportionately huge smiles.

“Thanks,” he grins. There aren’t words enough to encompass his gratitude, so he just gives them the one. “Where are we at?”

Shen Wei remains seated as Zhao Yunlan goes to his people. Now that he no longer has to try and balance both dark energy and light, his body’s healing process is beginning in earnest. It would be easy to stand, but it is wiser to sit. And with Zhao Yunlan in charge of the situation, Shen Wei can almost begin to relax.

Zhao Yunlan can be trusted. Absolutely and completely, though Shen Wei still has the painful memories he does, of Zhao Yunlan coming through to Shen Wei’s youth, using that revolver to kill Kunlun in front of him.

His mind continues to bend away from what it could mean, but he knows—he knows what? That Kunlun fell in the mud, as Da Qing tried to protect his master? That it was Zhao Yunlan who held that gun—the same gun he has now, in this time, and that alone should be all the proof Shen Wei needs of his culpability. Should be, but isn’t, because what he feels for Zhao Yunlan is what he felt for Kunlun, and that—what does that mean?

It is a terrible thing for Shen Wei to be unable to trust his own memories—and worse yet when he forgets that he cannot rely on what he knows, because some of that (though what?) has been left in him by Ye Zun. For now, it is all Shen Wei can do to hold on to the precious, precarious love he feels for Zhao Yunlan, protecting it from those shadows in his heart. Shen Wei knows he has done things—Ye Zun has made him do things—but remembering them, they all feel justified. Which can’t be right, and yet—

Shen Wei sighs, and considers the problem of his brother. For so long, Shen Wei slept alongside him. And for another span of time, Shen Wei would visit—would make sure Ye Zun was keeping calm in his prison of stone and dark energy, and would try to reach him. Ye Zun never answered with anything but hate and fury. Not until their positions were reversed, with Shen Wei the one bound to the pillar, and Ye Zun finally able to go free.

But now—Ye Zun is still a danger to all around him. The Hallows’ touch has faded, but not vanished completely. And Ye Zun’s own desire for power—any power—is as insatiable as it always was. But without the matchless duo of Ma Gui and Fu You to lay the groundwork, Shen Wei is unable to recreate any of the original seals at their full power. So what are they to do with Ye Zun?

What is Shen Wei to do with his dìdi?

Other than stop hiding here while the others discuss strategies for the besieged palace and keep a very watchful eye on their bound captive. Shen Wei stands, and uses some of the energy he has already gathered to brush his torn robes back into a clean gray suit.

It isn’t vanity. Ye Zun is not the only one who understands the power of symbols, and Shen Wei coming before his brother looking untouched and human will send a very clear message. With a practiced gesture, Shen Wei fishes a pair of glasses out of the inner pocket of the suit jacket, and settles them on a calm expression.

Someone has handed Zhao Yunlan the coat he arrived at the palace in, and Shen Wei notices that after Zhao Yunlan buttons it over the ruins of his t-shirt they both look as unscathed as they truly aren’t. Zhao Yunlan catches Shen Wei’s approach, and he looks Shen Wei up and down. As Zhao Yunlan’s expression goes from critical to appreciative, Shen Wei feels an ember of heat flare in his heart. He looks down quickly, then back up at Zhao Yunlan, who is smiling that warm smile Shen Wei remembers so well.

It fades as they turn as one to look over at Ye Zun, sitting on the floor behind a screen of palace guards and the King himself. They part without complaint when Shen Wei and Zhao Yunlan arrive.

Ye Zun’s injured arm has been provisionally tended to, sporting a very Haixing cotton bandage tied over his robes. Nobody has been foolish enough to remove the handcuffs, or done anything about the fact that Ye Zun’s face is now completely hidden behind both his own mask and the black one Lin Jing fastened on him. Shen Wei is glad for the silence the mask provides. Whether it truly affords any protection from Ye Zun’s most dangerous power yet remains to be seen.

When the guards move aside for them, Ye Zun looks up, and his eyes are furious. But Shen Wei, who can see deeper into Ye Zun than anyone else, notices the way he has drawn his legs up in front of his chest, and the way Ye Zun’s chin is held slightly too high for the gesture to look natural.

Ye Zun is afraid.

Before Shen Wei can say anything, Zhao Yunlan crouches down in front of Ye Zun, so that they are eye to eye. Curiously, he reaches out and plucks the golden mask from Ye Zun’s face, putting it aside. It gives Shen Wei the opportunity to study his brother’s expression.

Zhao Yunlan’s gesture has surprised Ye Zun, though Shen Wei cannot tell in which way. Maybe it is simply that Zhao Yunlan has not yet hit him, or shouted, or done anything else Ye Zun might reasonably expect after treating Zhao Yunlan the way he has.

Zhao Yunlan sighs. “What a family I’ve picked,” he says, almost too quietly for Shen Wei to hear. Zhao Yunlan’s hand goes to the back of his neck in an unconscious gesture of frustration, and Shen Wei wonders if he should say something—after all, Ye Zun is not Zhao Yunlan’s responsibility, but his own. And what Ye Zun has done to Zhao Yunlan—it is not something Shen Wei can dwell on without being overcome by the urge to summon his blade. But surely he can find fairness somewhere in the balance between those twin urges to protect Ye Zun and punish Ye Zun?

With a sigh of his own, Shen Wei goes to crouch next to Zhao Yunlan—and Ye Zun strikes.

Ye Zun’s arms come out from behind his back as distorted cuffs hit the floor, and his open hand goes straight for Shen Wei’s throat. Caught off-balance, Shen Wei can only throw up a desperate defense—but Zhao Yunlan is quicker, grabbing onto Ye Zun’s arm before Ye Zun has a chance to blast the dark energy swirling in the palm of his hand at Shen Wei. Eerily silent, Ye Zun thrashes, but Zhao Yunlan holds on.

Shen Wei feels Ye Zun gather power—a very familiar type of power. “Get away from him!” Shen Wei warns Zhao Yunlan, who doesn’t understand or refuses to let go, even as Ye Zun throws himself backwards into a portal beginning to blink into existence.

If not for Zhao Yunlan, Shen Wei might have been tempted to just—let Ye Zun go. Somewhere far away, somewhere he won’t hurt anyone—but that is as impossible now as it was ten thousand years ago. And Shen Wei cannot break the promise he only just made Zhao Yunlan, who is caught in the maelstrom and about to leave Shen Wei behind again.

With a burst of speed and his own power, Shen Wei grabs on to Zhao Yunlan, and feels the Dixing palace disappear around them.

Chapter Text

Dixing falls away in the blink of an eye, leaving them in the space in between. It has no color and no form, but mortal minds are not made to process pure, boundless energy. Shen Wei sees this not-a-place in black, glowing with the same indigo that manifests when using Dixing powers. The two colors swirl together slowly, the motion as inexorable as that of planets orbiting a dying star.

Because his senses demand it, there is a horizon to the infinite, dividing everything into above and below, but the illusion offers little comfort. This is somewhere to pass through, a place that should exist in only in the moment it takes to move between entry and exit. But Ye Zun has stepped sideways, and brought them here where they should not be.

Shen Wei entered the portal at practically the same time as Zhao Yunlan and Ye Zun, but now he is several steps away on the not-quite surface. Ye Zun has already removed the SID’s black mask from his face, and grabbed Zhao Yunlan by the throat with his right hand. His left is aimed at Shen Wei, but the bandaged arm is already trembling visibly with the effort of it. “Stay away,” Ye Zun says, and Shen Wei stops.

“Let him go.” Shen Wei is angry enough that the words rate as a threat. Why would Ye Zun do this, after Zhao Yunlan and his team went through such lengths to show mercy rather than exact their well-earned vengeance and call it justice? Zhao Yunlan’s hands are wrapped around Ye Zun’s arm, but he seems unhurt—and unafraid, though that could well be an expression he is wearing for Ye Zun’s benefit.

“Leave, and I will,” Ye Zun snaps back at Shen Wei.

“No.” Ye Zun must know Shen Wei would never accept those terms. “But if you let him go I will give you my word not to harm you.”

Ye Zun laughs harshly. “Your word!” He sounds as if Shen Wei has offered him something foul.

“Then what do you want for letting him go?” Shen Wei needs his brother to stop touching Zhao Yunlan, and needs to know Zhao Yunlan will be safe.

“Why? Are you proposing a trade?” Ye Zun sneers.

“Yes,” Shen Wei says, as Zhao Yunlan croaks, “No!”

Ye Zun stares at Shen Wei, and then at Zhao Yunlan. “What is wrong with you two?” he asks irritably. “He only just did that for you! And now you would do the same for him?”

“Of course,” Shen Wei says. It is the simple truth, after all.

“For this—human?” Ye Zun gives Zhao Yunlan’s body a shake to make his point, and a wince flits across Zhao Yunlan’s face before being replaced by an expression of deep annoyance.

“Yes,” Shen Wei says. “And stop that.” He can’t help it coming out as an admonishment for bad manners. Don’t pick people up and shake them, it is not polite.

“I don’t understand!” Ye Zun is shouting now, and Shen Wei fears for Zhao Yunlan’s safety. Something about the way Ye Zun turns to look at Zhao Yunlan—Shen Wei takes a step forward, and Ye Zun immediately lifts Zhao Yunlan off his feet, strangling him. “I said stay away.”

Zhao Yunlan attempts to kick at Ye Zun, but he has no leverage. Shen Wei backs up. Ye Zun places Zhao Yunlan back on what they have collectively agreed is the ground, and lowers his injured left arm. Zhao Yunlan draws a wheezing breath, and shoots Ye Zun an impressive glare.

“What do you want me to do?” Shen Wei says, trying to calm him.

“What you were supposed to!” Ye Zun’s voice is still shrill with emotion. “Leave him. Just—you shouldn’t be doing this, not for him, not now...”

Shen Wei shakes his head. “I won’t.”

“Why?” Ye Zun says, his voice softening from rage to the frustration of a child near tears. “Why would you do that—why would you stay for him?”

It is not Ye Zun’s words that makes Shen Wei’s throat close up. It’s what he is isn't saying. Why would you stay for him, when you abandoned me? Shen Wei exhales slowly, until he can breathe steadily. “I would never leave anyone behind,” he says.

Ye Zun’s bitter laugh is all the confirmation Shen Wei needs. “Is that so, Lord Envoy?”

“I did not leave you behind,” Shen Wei says, and Ye Zun starts, though the words are softly spoken.


“I didn’t abandon you.”

Ye Zun stares at Shen Wei, eyes narrowed, hand still wrapped around Zhao Yunlan’s throat.

“If you want to talk, you can just let Zhao Yunlan return. I will stay,” Shen Wei says.

Ye Zun hisses at him. Zhao Yunlan rolls his eyes, as if to say that even if Ye Zun releases him, Zhao Yunlan is not going to let Shen Wei stay behind in an empty energy pocket with his murderously angry twin.

It is a very eloquent eye roll.

Shen Wei sighs, shoulders slumping. Zhao Yunlan is a difficult man to protect. “I didn’t abandon you, dìdi,” he says again.

“You left me to Zei Qiu,” Ye Zun says, his anger not hiding his hurt.

“That is not what happened.” Shen Wei considers. “You don’t remember me telling you this?”


“Ten thousand years ago,” Shen Wei says. “And ever since.” During Ye Zun’s long imprisonment, over and over again in their sleep, and every time Shen Wei visited after his own release. Shen Wei hoped to find some understanding, if not forgiveness. Maybe even bring some comfort. “For as long as I’ve been awake.”

“No.” Ye Zun does not sound like he believes a word Shen Wei is saying. Even though this is something he should know about, should remember. Which—which feels familiar, now.

Now that Shen Wei has been on the other side of the Dixing power that Ye Zun took from Zei Qiu. “You can’t remember,” Shen Wei says, forcing the words out. “It’s—it’s not what you know, so you can’t change how you feel about it?”

Ye Zun tilts his head quizzically, and Zhao Yunlan’s eyes widen in realization. Shen Wei sees his mouth form a quiet, Oh, of course. With an effort of will, Shen Wei plunges through his own mind to grasp at a question he already knows the answer to. Knows it so well that he almost balks at asking it—after all, he has a perfect memory of the event—but he clenches a fist and forces the words out. “Did Zhao Yunlan kill Kunlun?”

It is Ye Zun that Shen Wei should be watching, but his gaze locks on Zhao Yunlan, whose eyes widen in shock before going soft and sad.

Ye Zun scoffs. “You really think I would tell you?”

Shen Wei catches Ye Zun’s gaze and holds it. “Would I believe you if you said no?”

The question makes Ye Zun smirk for a moment, but then his expression shifts into confusion. “What are you saying?”

“That you can’t believe me,” Shen Wei says, and his throat is closing up again. Ye Zun can’t, because Zei Qiu broke that part of his mind a long, long time ago. “I’m sorry—I always thought that what that man did would have faded, but…”

“Who?” There is a faint tremor in Ye Zun’s voice now.

“Zei Qiu,” Shen Wei spits the name out. “He told you. He made you believe I had—I had left you, as if I would ever have—”

And then Shen Wei thought Ye Zun was dead, for all those years. Believed it, to the point of telling the only person who ever bothered asking that he had lost his brother—but when? When did he go from knowing Ye Zun was Zei Qiu’s captive to knowing that Ye Zun was dead? Without seeing a body, without any memory of anything that could have changed that? Only—all those clashes with Zei Qiu’s forces, and Shen Wei has no memory of demanding answers about Ye Zun.

Or at least no memory of whatever answer Zei Qiu might have given him.


They are both staring at each other in silence, each trying to comprehend the magnitude of what Zei Qiu did to them. What they never even knew he had done. “I didn’t leave you,” Shen Wei repeats, his voice a whisper. “And you weren’t dead.”

Ye Zun shakes his head in a desperate denial. “It was you! You chose to do it—you left me with him, you thought I was useless—”

“No,” Shen Wei interrupts, his heart unable to hold his brother’s hurt along with his own. “You were my only family—my brother. I would never—”

“You didn’t leave?” Ye Zun sounds stunned. Not unbelieving, now—he is struggling with the idea. Shen Wei understands, all too well.

“Zei Qiu threw me off the cliff,” Shen Wei says, realizing he has left that detail out this time around. So many other times he has related this to Ye Zun, and so many other times he has had nothing but silence or anger in return. But this time—maybe this time will be different.

Ye Zun’s body twitches, and he lowers his head. Shen Wei can’t see his brother’s expression anymore, and so watches the hand around Zhao Yunlan’s throat. It is as unyielding and steady as a mechanical part, and that stirs Shen Wei's fear and anger. But Ye Zun doesn't seem to notice. His voice comes out muffled, drained of all emotion. “He—he would.”

“He did,” Shen Wei confirms. “And then he had you, and—”

“—he told me you abandoned me.” Ye Zun’s face is still hidden.

“Made you believe it,” Shen Wei says. “More than you believed anything else. More than you believed in me.”

“You never told me!” Ye Zun’s head snaps back up, and his eyes are darkly furious.

“I did,” Shen Wei repeats. “But—”

“You had me sealed in a tomb!” Ye Zun shouts, his anger blazing back up. “You wanted me to sleep, to stay—to be buried alive as a sacrifice to your precious Dixing! You left me there, as you abandoned me before—”

“Dìdi,” Shen Wei says sharply, “I did not. Don’t you remember?” It’s the damned mind control. Even now, Ye Zun’s thoughts are still being bent back in the shapes Zei Qiu broke them into.

Ye Zun stares at him, panting, and then understanding flickers in his eyes. A memory of remembering, because he says. “I—I forgot.” Then his shoulders stiffen defiantly. “But you still did that to me—you sealed me in there and left me. Abandoned me.

It is as if finding his way back to that anger, that hate, is giving Ye Zun new energy. And Ye Zun is not using that energy to fight to get his thoughts back, preferring to turn on Shen Wei instead. On Shen Wei and Zhao Yunlan, who is observing them both with keen interest, and without any hint of choking. “Dìdi,” Shen Wei says quietly. “That isn’t what it was. I never abandoned you. I never could, no more than I could leave Zhao Yunlan behind.”

Ye Zun’s expression darkens at the reminder. “Maybe him. But never me. I was never that important to you.”

Neither blade nor whip could hurt Shen Wei more than hearing his own brother say those words. “Of course you were. I loved you more than anything in the world.” Shen Wei sighs, half-wishing his next words were less true, because it would make his life so much easier. “And I love you still.”

An all-out attack would certainly have surprised Ye Zun less. He freezes, the heat gone out of his glare.

“So please. Could you release Zhao Yunlan? On my word that I will not harm you.”

Ye Zun shakes his head. “How could I trust you?”

“Because Shen Wei hasn’t killed you yet,” Zhao Yunlan says, his voice only slightly strained.

Ye Zun starts. “What?”

Zhao Yunlan raises his eyebrows. “If Shen Wei wanted you dead,” he says, “you would be dead. How is that difficult to understand?”

“That—what? Of course he wants to kill me!”

Zhao Yunlan’s entire expression is one of a man pitying someone too stupid to understand the magnitude of their own stupidity. “He never did.” Zhao Yunlan says it lightly.

“No,” Shen Wei says, feeling it is important to be honest. “I did. When he was hurting you—”

Zhao Yunlan’s lips tighten. “Yeah,” he says, and it’s as if Ye Zun doesn’t have him in a grip where his throat could be crushed in an instant. “I should make that entirely clear. If you hurt Shen Wei again, I will end you. You can absolutely trust me on that.”

“Zhao Yunlan,” Shen Wei says, as sharply as he can when feeling this kind of warmth in his heart. He hopes that Zhao Yunlan will hear Please at least wait until he has released you before threatening him.

Ye Zun is looking back and forth between them, his confusion and anger now tinged with exasperation. “I don’t understand.”

“Shen Wei wants to fix you, not kill you,” Zhao Yunlan says it like he is exchanging confidences.

“I—” Shen Wei would not have put it in those terms, exactly. “I want you to know the truth, at least.”

“The truth?”

“That I did not abandon you. That it was all—”

“—Zei Qiu’s power,” Ye Zun agrees, irritably. “Not all of it faded when he died.”

It is almost incomprehensible, the feeling of agreeing with Ye Zun, after so very many centuries of being unable to reach him. It feels wrong to be talking to him at all when he still hasn’t let Zhao Yunlan go, but it is almost like the glow of the wheeling blackness all around has wrapped them all in a trance. Nothing is more important than Zhao Yunlan remaining unhurt, but he seems calm, and Ye Zun is talking—Shen Wei wants Ye Zun to keep talking.

Before he can utter a word, however, Zhao Yunlan speaks. “And you don’t want to kill him, either. Do you?”

It has been so long that Shen Wei had forgotten what it is like, seeing his own reaction mirrored in another face. But as he starts, so does Ye Zun, the two of them turning on Zhao Yunlan with different kinds of puzzlement. “What?” Even the exclamation comes so closely together it becomes its own echo.

There is a lot of evidence to the contrary of what Zhao Yunlan has just said. Even Shen Wei, who cannot stop wanting to save his brother, sees that clearly.

“I’m not saying you wouldn’t have done it if you hadn’t been interrupted. But you don’t really want Shen Wei dead. Do you?” Zhao Yunlan sounds—curious. And kind. Shen Wei’s heart clenches at how kind—at this unasked-for show of patience with someone Zhao Yunlan should wish dead.

“Of course I do!” Ye Zun snaps, with enough rage to turn his words into a weapon.

Zhao Yunlan winces, and adjusts his hands on Ye Zun’s arm. “Then why did you save him?”

Shen Wei blinks. Ye Zun stares, mouth half-open. Zhao Yunlan waits, head cocked as he studies Ye Zun.

“I didn’t,” Ye Zun says. But he is not screaming, or laughing. “I—” Ye Zun shakes his head so the silver hair ripples in the gloom-light. “No.”

“We didn’t know where the Dial was,” Zhao Yunlan says, as if laying clues out on the SID whiteboard. “I didn’t think it would be worth sending anyone to look—we didn’t exactly have a lot of manpower for the operation. But I thought—” Zhao Yunlan studies Ye Zun, who is showing a lot of teeth at the reminder of how Zhao Yunlan and his SID came to Dixing and destroyed everything Ye Zun had worked for. “I thought you probably wouldn’t want it out of your hands, now that you finally had a Hallow of your own.”

“So?” Ye Zun says, impatient.

“The Sundial was a necklace pendant once. It can change size. Even if my team had the time to search you, none of them have your kind of powers. It should have been easy to hide it from them. So why didn’t you?”

Zhao Yunlan’s words get Shen Wei wondering the same thing. He cannot quite bring himself to believe that Ye Zun chose to save Zhao Yunlan and himself both rather than watch them die—but only because he has taught himself not to trust anything his brother says or does.

“It—it fell out, by accident,” Ye Zun tries.

Zhao Yunlan raises his brows over wide eyes. “Clumsy of you.”

“No! No, I—it—”

“Ah,” Zhao Yunlan says, as if that hesitation has answered all his questions.

Shen Wei considers the odds of Ye Zun—Ye Zun who has been mad for the Hallows since before Shen Wei found him again—accidentally dropping one, and not noticing until after one of his enemies picked it up. It seems—unlikely. Which means Zhao Yunlan has a point. Which means—“Why?” Shen Wei breathes.

“I—” Ye Zun looks as confused as Shen Wei feels. “I don’t know,” he whispers. Zhao Yunlan’s observations have hit him so hard he doesn’t even try and pick a lie, and now he looks a little like he might be sick.

“Please,” Shen Wei says. “Let me help you.”

Ye Zun squares his shoulders. “What? Are you going to find another rock to lock me up in for a hundred centuries? Or do you want to make it a thousand, this time around? I have had enough of your help, gē!”

It is true that Ye Zun needed to be confined, before. And the Hallows-energy imprinted on him—Shen Wei would have to study it closer, to see exactly how it has faded, but the very fact that they are standing in this impossible place means that it cannot be entirely gone. That Ye Zun has enough of the Hallows in him to bend reality. Had it just been Shen Wei himself, Ye Zun would be right. Shen Wei would have to confine him again—somehow, confine him or kill him, for the good of the world.

But this time is different. This time, Shen Wei has Zhao Yunlan, and the man’s impossible skills with the Hallows. “No,” Shen Wei tells Ye Zun. “No, that should not be necessary.”

Ye Zun stares at him. “Were all of the excuses you told to keep me trapped lies, then?”

Shen Wei frowns. “Of course not. Circumstances have changed.”

“Really?” Ye Zun sneers. “And you want to—to help me?”

“I would have given anything to help you before,” Shen Wei says simply. “And I am sorry that I was too late—that I failed to find you and save you.”

“You left me behind!” Ye Zun barks, and Shen Wei’s breath catches.

“I—no. Dìdi. Don’t you remember?” Is it really happening this fast, what Zei Qiu did? Shen Wei thought that that part of the discussion, at least, was over, but he watches in horror as Ye Zun struggles to comprehend his words.

“I—you—” Ye Zun gasps with pain and clutches at his head with his free hand. His other hand—Shen Wei stands very still, so he won’t startle his distracted brother, whose other hand has gone from Zhao Yunlan’s throat to his shoulder, clutching at it for support.

“Zei Qiu,” Zhao Yunlan says, and Shen Wei sees the flinching fear in Ye Zun’s eyes at the name. Sees Zhao Yunlan stand there, steady, letting Ye Zun hold on to his shoulder.

“He’s dead,” Ye Zun breathes, and relaxes a fraction.

Quietly, Zhao Yunlan nods, now that he can. “Yeah. But he’s still in your head. And that’s what Shen Wei wants to help with. Right?”

Shen Wei doesn’t hesitate. “If I can. I would do anything—”

Ye Zun’s eyes light up at that—a reaction he can’t help, or that he doesn’t want to hide, but he definitely sees an opportunity. Shen Wei frowns at him. “Almost anything,” he adds, before Ye Zun asks for something Shen Wei cannot possibly give him just to force him to break his word. Like Zhao Yunlan, or the Dixing throne.

“But—dìdi. I want to help, and there is a way, now,” Shen Wei says, and Zhao Yunlan nods. Though how Zhao Yunlan knows enough about what the Hallows have done to Ye Zun to guess what Shen Wei intends with the Awl—that, Shen Wei doesn’t know. Just as he doesn’t know how Zhao Yunlan has gone from passing out at their touch to wielding them with incredible finesse. He frowns, then dismisses the thought for now.

“And what will you do when I forget?” Ye Zun says, sharp and angry and afraid.

Shen Wei’s own heart twists in fear. He can help Ye Zun stop being a danger to others, but—Ye Zun’s hatred has its roots so deeply buried in his mind that words make no impression on them. Shen Wei has no powers of healing that go deep enough—all he has is truth, where Ye Zun has lies.

Truth, and—yes. That will be enough. It will have to be. “You won’t,” Shen Wei promises. “I won’t let you forget.”

There is a glimpse of longing in Ye Zun’s expression—vulnerable, desperate. Then he hides it behind another attack. “Oh really? You can’t even make yourself remember!”

Zhao Yunlan reacts to that as he has not to anything else, sliding out from under Ye Zun’s lax grip and staring hard at him. Shen Wei’s heart is in his throat, because even now, Ye Zun is dangerous. It takes him no time at all to move in front of Zhao Yunlan—only for Zhao Yunlan to step up beside Shen Wei and sling an arm around his shoulders. This leaves them both facing Ye Zun, who recoils into the glowing black and raises his good hand to ward them off.

Shen Wei spends a moment calculating how hard it would be to open a portal and get Zhao Yunlan out of it without Ye Zun interfering, and Zhao Yunlan takes that moment to speak. “What do you want?” He sounds exasperated.

Ye Zun looks at Zhao Yunlan, eyes widened in suspicion. “What do you mean?”

“You can spend an eternity needling Shen Wei, or you could actually do something useful,” Zhao Yunlan says. “Eh. Or—something more than this useless bullshit, at least. What’s the point of trying to rub it in? We all know what you did, and look where that got you. You lost Dixing, you lost the Hallows, and now you’re stuck with us in this—whatever this is.” He gestures vaguely at the dark vortex with both arms, releasing Shen Wei’s shoulders. “Unless this really is what you always wanted, deep in your heart?”

“What?” It comes out flat and angry, but that doesn’t seem to bother Zhao Yunlan, who laughs.

“Hah! You should know.” Zhao Yunlan sounds amused. “You used to quiz anyone stupid enough to talk to a pillar, remember? All that stuff about what’s truly in your heart, and—what was it? Knowing if you’re doing the right thing or something. That.”

Ye Zun looks remarkably irritated to be reminded of his existence after waking but before breaking through the seals. “It gained me followers.”

“Well, you’ve lost them again. So tell me, dì—what do you want?”

Shen Wei’s attention snags at the familiar form of address—Zhao Yunlan is always informal to a fault, but something about hearing him name Ye Zun little brother makes Shen Wei wish it could be more than a taunt. But looking at Ye Zun’s face, that’s certainly not how it’s been taken.

“Dixing!” Ye Zun snarls, though it sounds petulant rather than threatening.

“Look, Dixing doesn’t need you—or particularly want you. Maybe once everyone gets a democracy running down here you could go into politics? If you could do it without cheating.” Zhao Yunlan shrugs. “But that’s not really what you want, is it?”

Shen Wei looks at his brother—shoulders hunched defensively, a hand still out for protection—and wonders if Ye Zun himself understands what his lust for power really is.

The need to be free. The need to be safe.

The things Ye Zun had to grow up without. Too many people in those days had enough choices taken away from them that the only ones left were either bad or impossible. Ye Zun… took more poorly to that than most, and is still choosing to make nothing but mistakes ten thousand years later. But maybe— “Don’t let him win,” Shen Wei says, softly. It all goes back to Zei Qiu.

Ye Zun stiffens, and Zhao Yunlan glances at Shen Wei, clearly approving.

“If I could make it so that we had never met him—” Shen Wei looks down, into the past, remembering loss and powerlessness. “But I can’t. That moment is ten thousand years gone. All that’s left now is to choose—do you want to keep following Zei Qiu’s path? Or find your own?”

Next to him, Zhao Yunlan rocks back on his heels and watches Ye Zun carefully.

“I—” Ye Zun shakes his head. “I don’t—”

“Remember what Shen Wei said, dì? You weren’t abandoned. That bastard stole you.” Zhao Yunlan says it like it’s personal to him—like he too knows Zei Qiu, and understands how many the rebel leader killed and ruined.

Ye Zun’s shoulders are drooping, and his stance has lost the last hint of anything martial. “I forgot,” he whispers. “Now, I remember, but—I forgot again.”

“Yeah,” Zhao Yunlan says, and he sounds sad and tired. “Do you really want to keep living like that?”

A pause. Shen Wei holds his breath.

Ye Zun shakes his head, wordlessly.

“Then trust Shen Wei,” Zhao Yunlan says, and takes the step back he didn’t when Ye Zun was still a threat.

Shen Wei walks closer—though not all the way. “Dìdi. I promise. I will do everything I can to help you.”

“And your price?” Ye Zun asks, voice hollow, eyes no longer meeting Shen Wei’s.

Shen Wei swallows as a tide of sorrow sweeps in. “No price,” he says.

“Stop being such a dick,” Zhao Yunlan says over him.

Shen Wei turns and tries to find some way to express frustration at the interruption while simultaneously not disagreeing with the general statement. Zhao Yunlan grins and spreads his hands in the most disarming way possible, and Shen Wei contents himself with a slight frown.

“I require nothing in return,” Shen Wei says, turning to Ye Zun again. But he is still frowning. Ye Zun’s actions will have consequences, and Shen Wei shouldn’t protect him from all of them. Whether it would be wise to raise that now, he doesn’t know, but Ye Zun might take it as another betrayal later.

“Nothing,” Ye Zun says, and laughs, bitter and brittle. Like he can’t remember anything in his life coming without a cost.

“Nothing,” Shen Wei confirms. “Because I am your brother, and—and I should have done this a long time ago.”

Zhao Yunlan’s hand grips Shen Wei’s shoulder, squeezing gently. Shen Wei exhales, and waits.

Ye Zun gives the slightest nod—a defeated gesture, his body tense, as if he is expecting Shen Wei to immediately go back on his word.

“Then please,” Shen Wei says, and reaches for his brother’s hand. “Bring us home.”

It is far safer for Ye Zun to open the portal back than it would be for Shen Wei to try, but the request still seems to take Ye Zun by surprise. He looks at the hand, then slowly up at Shen Wei’s face. Frowning, he raises his own hand, until his fingertips brush Shen Wei’s palm.

Shen Wei doesn’t move, though his heart is beating fast. Zhao Yunlan is gripping his shoulder hard now. The only reason he trusts Ye Zun is—Well. Shen Wei doesn’t trust Ye Zun. But he wants to. Shen Wei wants to so badly he doesn’t hesitate at all when Ye Zun’s hand slips into his—only grips it hard and lets Ye Zun pull them all through the portal that appears behind him.

Chapter Text

Zhao Yunlan holds on to Shen Wei for dear life, truly terrified at the thought of Ye Zun leaving him behind in this bone-aching, brain-breaking place, so unlike where the Hallows bring him. He squeezes his eyes shut, clinging to Shen Wei—and then they are through the portal and tumbling out the other side.

The impact of leaving that strange space and arriving back in Dixing is so jarring that he loses his grip on Shen Wei and stumbles, and when he opens his eyes the room around him is whirling—like he is still seeing that damned swirly pattern over the dark stone walls. Zhao Yunlan is further disoriented when Shen Wei doesn’t reach out to steady him. But just this once, he supposes he’s fine with Shen Wei not being there to catch him.

Shen Wei has caught Ye Zun instead. He is holding his little brother in a not-quite-embrace, as Ye Zun slowly sinks to the floor and Shen Wei kneels with him. They are in the far corner of the room, and in a world of their own. Hopefully that means Ye Zun has lost at least a bit of his taste for taking over this one. But both of them so absorbed in each other means that Zhao Yunlan is the only one scanning the room for danger, and noticing the unsettling details—and Da Qing, whose tousled human head pops up from a nest of silk cushions in blue and green hues. Just Da Qing—none of the others, who were all right here when Ye Zun portaled them away.

Spotting Zhao Yunlan, Da Qing gives a happy shout, and Zhao Yunlan raises an arm to defend against the follow-up tackle. “You’re alive!”

“Yeah. All three of us,” Zhao Yunlan says with cheer he hopes doesn't sound too forced. He’s trying to be subtle about alerting his deputy to the presence of the cause of all their troubles, but that goes out the window when Da Qing frowns, turns in Shen Wei’s direction, and jumps back with a hiss.

“Ye Zun!”

In the corner Shen Wei looks up and squeezes his twin’s shoulder. “Please don’t worry. I vouchsafe his good behavior.”

Zhao Yunlan makes a face. “Really? Are you sure you want to do that?” Because, yeah, Zhao Yunlan wants Shen Wei to be able to help his brother, but—good behaviour? Ye Zun?

There’s a loud bang as the heavy wooden door to the chamber opens, and Zhao Yunlan jumps. “It’s okay,” Da Qing murmurs, crowding close to his side as guards stream into the room. There’s plenty of them, and they are armed. Da Qing doesn’t act like they’re a threat, but Zhao Yunlan is missing too much information to feel comfortable with the situation. Casually, he maneuvers himself between the lead guard and the corner of the room where Shen Wei and Ye Zun are sitting.

“Right. Hi! Everything here is under control, so if you don’t mind heading back…?” Zhao Yunlan makes a shooing motion at the guards, who react with offensive suspicion. Weapons are being raised in his general direction—well. In the direction of Ye Zun behind him. Zhao Yunlan agrees with that in theory, but doesn’t like it much in practice.

“A messenger has been dispatched,” the burly leader says, looking past Zhao Yunlan. “His Majesty will decide what is to be done.”

“Sure, that sounds great. So until he’s here, why don’t you go stand on the other side of that door?” Zhao Yunlan keeps his tone friendly and his eyes hard.

“We were told to guard—”

“You can do that just fine from outside,” Zhao Yunlan repeats, and takes a step towards the guards, spreading his hands wide. “After all, the Lord Guardian of Haixing is right here in this room, so what’s the worst that could happen?”

Apparently the palace guards have heard a thing or two about the Lord Guardian of Haixing, because they exchange uneasy glances.

Zhao Yunlan huffs in annoyance and raises his voice. “Go! Come on, out!” Da Qing backs him up as he closes in on the guards until they scramble backward. Zhao Yunlan has already picked up on the fact that they are unwilling to use force on him, so when he presses closer their rifles become nothing but awkward obstacles as they try to get out of his way. “Look, what’s the worst that can happen? We all disappear again? That would be all your problems taken care of right there. Now, out you go!”

With a few final shoves, Zhao Yunlan pushes the heavy wooden door shut—it has neither lock nor key—and looks over at Da Qing. “So. How long were we gone this time?” He will never get used to leaving a room full of people and coming back to find them all gone. And this room doesn’t even look exactly like he remembers—though Zhao Yunlan hopes that’s just because someone cleaned out everything with blood on it, not because they’ve been gone long enough for Dixing interior design trends to evolve.

Da Qing takes a moment to answer. “Hm. Well, the Lantern has gone out twice,” he says, and at first Zhao Yunlan thinks it might be time to panic again.

“The Lantern went out?”

“Yeah!” Da Qing grins. “Apparently it does that? It’s like night! Only nobody knew it was going to come back on, so the first time around it was pretty bad.”

Zhao Yunlan can easily imagine the kind of reaction that would have triggered. “But it’s back on now?”

Da Qing nods. “Yeah, it was on all day yesterday, then went out again, and now it’s been on for a while already.”

Two days, then, give or take, assuming the Lantern is keeping Dixing on a standard Haixing schedule. Having missed out on that much time, Zhao Yunlan pumps Da Qing for more information. He is relieved to hear that the rest of the team are all good, despite being stuck in Dixing. Either they’re dealing better with the environment than Zhao Yunlan did his first trip down here, or the Lantern is somehow mitigating the corrosive effect of dark energy on Haixing bodies. The reason nobody has gone home yet is that the portals are still down, which means that nobody knows what’s happening in Haixing, either.

In Dixing, panic and violence have come and gone—first with Ye Zun’s defeat, and then at the darkness of Dixing’s first-ever day turning to night. Since then, Da Qing reports nothing but isolated incidents of restlessness and fighting. “And they have really weird fish here,” he concludes, as Zhao Yunlan is processing all that information. “I don’t think they have eyes?”

Zhao Yunlan grunts at that revelation, watching Shen Wei and Ye Zun huddle together in pretty much the same spot where Zhao Yunlan nearly died. “And the Hallows?”

“You’ll see,” Da Qing says. Zhao Yunlan is about to request a clarification when he hears what the cat’s sharp ears have already picked up. More footsteps coming closer, and the guards outside clattering to attention.

“We’re getting company,” Zhao Yunlan tells Shen Wei, whose head is nearly touching Ye Zun’s where they sit together. Neither of them move at the warning. “Shen Wei!” Zhao Yunlan says, more sharply, and Shen Wei startles and gets to his feet. Ye Zun remains seated, and Zhao Yunlan does not miss the way Shen Wei places himself squarely between the door and his brother, nor the way Ye Zun's eyes widen at the gesture.

The King opens the door himself, and Zhao Yunlan gives him a cheerful wave as others file in behind him, from the hallway outside brimming with guards. Even in his fancy dress, surrounded by people bowing and scraping, it's difficult not to see the cocky, terrified kid An Bai was before being forced onto Dixing’s throne. “Good job with the Lantern,” Zhao Yunlan says by way of greeting, and Dixing's young King ducks his head to hide a pleased smile. This makes the slight girl on his right conceal a fond grin behind an ornate sleeve, and Zhao Yunlan realizes she's not a random courtier—she is Dan Dan, the girl An Bai was willing to give his life for. And on his left—that beanpole in blue robes is An Song, who Zhao Yunlan last saw shouting angrily as the palace guards hauled An Bai away.

Well. These kids have come a long way from the Dixing slums. Good for them. Zhao Yunlan has to bite his tongue to keep from speaking the thought out loud as the King inclines his head in a passable regal greeting.

“I am glad to find you alive, Lord Guardian,” An Bai says with all the formality of someone who never tried to punch Zhao Yunlan in the face. Up close Zhao Yunlan is glad to see that An Bai doesn’t seem to have aged much, and has snapped right back to being as animated as he was before the throne’s trance claimed him.

“And I’m glad Your Majesty is doing good.” Zhao Yunlan smiles.

“However, I—We,” An Bai quickly corrects his slip into informality, “had reports that you had returned with the traitor Ye Zun?”

Zhao Yunlan licks his lips—wonders if it’s worth sticking to the dance of formalities and pleasantries. Dismisses the thought in the next moment, because the Regent has probably instilled them all with a healthy suspicion of fancy courtly talk. “Yeah,” he says. “But look—the Black-Cloaked Envoy has him under control.”

That gives An Bai pause. He owes Shen Wei his life, after all, and it’s easy for the King to confirm the statement. Zhao Yunlan nods to where Shen Wei is still standing and Ye Zun sitting, looking beaten. He presses the advantage of Ye Zun's current docility. “If it’s justice you want, shouldn’t you trust the Lord Envoy with that?” Because An Bai knows a thing or two about Dixing justice, and he’s either going to want pay his own mistreatment forward, or want to do better. Even if Ye Zun hardly deserves it.

“The danger to Dixing—” the King begins.

“—Can be neutralized,” Zhao Yunlan says, and hopes it’s true. Though he’s glad that An Bai is taking this seriously. “The sooner the better, though—and for that we would need the Hallows.”

“They are Dixing’s,” the King says.

Zhao Yunlan nods. “They are,” he agrees. “They were always supposed to be—that hasn’t changed. We’re not asking to take them, only borrow them.” All of them, because Zhao Yunlan isn’t entirely sure what this will take. It took all four of them to supercharge Ye Zun—since the Lantern's kind of busy, hopefully the other three will be enough to undo it.

The King’s expression stays guarded, and he exchanges looks with his friends. Probably a lot of people have been making very clear how important it is for Dixing that the Hallows stay where they are. “We wouldn’t take them anywhere,” Zhao Yunlan hastens to add. “Just—use them here.” At his side, Zhao Yunlan can feel Da Qing stiffen—possibly remembering the last time Hallows were used in this little chamber.

“Please, Your Majesty,” Shen Wei says, though he doesn’t move. Zhao Yunlan casts him an annoyed glance. As the majesty’s benefactor, Shen Wei shouldn’t be pleading with An Bai. It will make it a lot harder to use the reminder of the life debt against the King if he is unwilling to help them. But Shen Wei ignores Zhao Yunlan’s silent admonishment and explains, “It would only be the three of them, for a short while. Once done, I can guarantee that they will be returned promptly, in the same condition as they are now.”

“And what about the Guardian Lantern? Scholar Lin has explained about how those Hallows, um. They feed the—they’re important for balance?” Zhao Yunlan smothers an inappropriate grin at Lin Jing’s new courtesy title. Wouldn’t do to make An Bai think Zhao Yunlan was making fun of him—of course he can’t help being confused by Lin Jing’s explanations. Zhao Yunlan often is, and he grew up somewhere with schools and universities.

But when it comes to the Hallows, Zhao Yunlan is the true expert. “The Lantern’s going to be fine as long as the other Hallows are in Dixing.”

“You sound very sure,” An Bai says, with all the scepticism of a kid who grew up around conmen and liars.

Before Zhao Yunlan can explain that he is sure because he was there when the plan for the Guardian Lantern’s use was drawn up, Shen Wei speaks.

“I guarantee it,” he says. “Your Majesty must know I will allow no harm to come to Dixing, or our people, but—” Shen Wei draws a breath, and inclines his head far enough that it looks like a bow of supplication. “Please. He is my brother.”

Not an easy admission for Shen Wei to make, Zhao Yunlan knows. And not one Shen Wei has made before in Dixing’s memory, if the gasps around them are any indication. But An Bai’s reaction is a faint quirk of the lips as he looks over at An Song, and then back at Shen Wei. Something passes between them that Zhao Yunlan can only guess at. Behind Shen Wei, Ye Zun looks dumbstruck.

“Alright,” An Bai says quietly. Dan Dan elbows him in the side and whispers something fierce. Shen Wei’s painfully blank expression softens very slightly as he watches the two young people. “On your word that the traitor will never harm any of Our people again?” the King says as he straightens.

“On my word as Envoy,” Shen Wei says gravely, and that must mean something around here, because a whisper runs between the courtiers.

“Bring the Hallows for the Black-Cloaked Envoy and the Lord Guardian,” the King announces formally, and Zhao Yunlan can feel himself relax.

Next to him, Da Qing pokes him in the arm. “You’re really going to use the Hallows again?” Da Qing sounds disapproving.

“Damn cat. I leveled up,” Zhao Yunlan says. “You don’t have to worry I’ll fall over on you.”

Da Qing sniffs skeptically, and rests his chin on Zhao Yunlan’s shoulder to shoot Ye Zun a narrow-eyed look. “And on him?”

“Yeah, it’s for—it’s because—” Zhao Yunlan shoves Da Qing’s head off. “Look, it makes sense.” Mostly. As long as Zhao Yunlan doesn’t think too hard about everything Ye Zun has done to hurt Shen Wei.

Shen Wei, who has gone back to sit with Ye Zun, talking calmly over his brother's occasional shrill exclamations. This leaves Zhao Yunlan to organize the practical details of seeing An Bai and the others off as they head somewhere safe while the Hallows are being used, and once again arguing with the leader of the guards that they are better off keeping an eye on the door than this room. He’s considering the shoving approach when loud voices echoing down the stone hallway outside alert him to the arrival of the rest of the SID.

“Hey!” he shouts in greeting, and while they’re still exclaiming over him he ropes Lao Chu—the silent exception to those exclamations—into getting the guards to move out.

Zhu Hong, Lin Jing, and Xiao Guo are all trying to catch him up on what they have been doing—sounds like politics, research, and… possibly accidentally starting Dixing’s first school? Zhao Yunlan listens and grins with relief at finding them in such good spirits despite the time and violence that has passed down here. He’s also keeping them from getting too close to Shen Wei and Ye Zun, who probably isn’t more popular with the rest of them than he is with Da Qing.

Not that it matters what they think. A small delegation arrives, reverently carrying three very familiar boxes of carved green jade—the Hallows’ original containers, though how they have survived this long is anyone’s guess.

It’s time to begin.

Zhao Yunlan looks around the room. Having had time to observe it, he thinks it a private salon of some sort, intended for polite plotting and drinking of tea while seated on fancy, sea-colored cushions at low tables. Thanks to Chu Shuzhi’s formidable glare the room is mostly empty. The hallway outside is full of guards, but that’s okay. They won’t be necessary. If all goes well, Ye Zun should have other things on his mind than beating up guards, and if it fails—well, Ye Zun does seem to favor portals over doorways.

Left inside are Shen Wei and Ye Zun—and all five members of his SID. Zhao Yunlan puts his hands on his hips and gives them a stern look. “Staying in here is going to be dangerous.”

“So what? We’re just going to leave you to deal with this alone?” Da Qing asks, clearly irritated at his chief’s irresponsible ways.

“Yeah, because that worked so well last time,” Lin Jing mumbles, just quietly enough that Zhao Yunlan can pretend he didn’t hear that commentary on his very successful plan to stop Ye Zun.

“Look, you damn cat,” Zhao Yunlan says. “We’re going to be firing off enough Hallows energy here to fry what’s left of your memory, so—”

“So then I can shield him. And the rest of us,” Zhu Hong says. “Unless you meant for me to come into the powers of High Chief without actually using them?” Her raised eyebrow and pointed glare are both incredibly effective. Zhao Yunlan winces—of course he didn’t mean for Zhu Hong to become a High Chief figurehead. But even he hadn’t expected her to grow so comfortable with the abilities left to her by Fu You so rapidly.

“We can help,” Xiao Guo says, very earnestly. “We already did—when you and Professor Shen were—” He goes a bit pale, then recovers enough to go on, “We all did what you planned. Even me.” His tone is self-deprecating, but there’s real pride shining in his eyes—and in Lao Chu’s, when he squeezes Xiao Guo’s shoulder.

“You used the Brush?” Zhao Yunlan grins. He really wishes he could have seen that.

Xiao Guo nods, looking terribly flustered. “Just like Xiangyang-gē showed me.”

The dying Master of the Merit Brush had been a long shot, but apparently Xiao Guo didn’t spend all that time in his hospital room for nothing. He came back from his last visit to Wang Xingyang with tears at the man’s passing, and a basic grasp of how to get the Brush to do his bidding. Enough that Zhao Yunlan felt it was worth letting Xiao Guo try setting up a shield around them after they took Ye Zun down—after all, Zhao Yunlan had seen what happens when a mind-controlled army falls apart.

“The kid did good,” Chu Shuzhi says with an expression that dares Zhao Yunlan to disagree.

“Alright, fine,” Zhao Yunlan gives up with a laugh. “You can help. Just wait here for now. But let me tell you—if you end up losing your memories like the cat here, I’m cutting you all loose.”

His team have the temerity to look collectively amused and—and fond. “No, seriously!” Zhao Yunlan huffs. “See if I help you set up retirement pay when you can’t remember how to fill in the forms.”

“Wang Zheng would still do it, though, wouldn’t she?” Lin Jing asks the others as Zhao Yunlan turns away.

Hearing them laugh as they stay to support him and each other helps him bear the weight of his responsibility for them as he walks over to Shen Wei and Ye Zun. And there, the way Shen Wei stands to looks at him—Zhao Yunlan would do anything to fulfill the hope he sees in those wide eyes, and anything to take away the fear. Anything but let more people get hurt. His chest feels tight with anxiety, and the faint burn of remembered agony.

“Zhao Yunlan…” Shen Wei says, trailing off. Zhao Yunlan can see Shen Wei’s throat work, and he knows the man he loves, knows him well enough to see the next words coming—something ridiculously noble and stupid like telling Zhao Yunlan this isn’t his or the SID’s responsibility; like offering to take this all on himself. Zhao Yunlan will have none of that. He touches his fingertips to Shen Wei’s lips, and that’s enough. Shen Wei’s eyes go wider still, and he freezes, whatever he was about to say evaporating under the heat of Zhao Yunlan’s own stare.

Zhao Yunlan drops his hand back to his side. “We’re doing this together,” he says, and swallows when he realizes Shen Wei’s mind won’t put his words together with Kunlun’s promise to follow Shen Wei on his mission all those millennia ago. “All of us.”

Shen Wei nods, though the crease of worry doesn’t fade from between his brows. Well—fair enough. There’s still a lot that can go wrong. “I have an idea,” Zhao Yunlan says instead of dwelling on that, because with his team backing him up, this might work better than just doing the Hallows equivalent of a controlled detonation. “But first I need a word here.”

After the slightest hesitation, Shen Wei shifts to the side. Zhao Yunlan crouches in front of Ye Zun, who looks back at him with dull suspicion—a look Zhao Yunlan has seen before, in people who have spent so long being afraid that they are too exhausted to react with terror. Shen Wei seems to have taken the time to heal his shoulder, at least a bit—the bandage and blood are both gone, and Ye Zun isn’t holding the arm tucked close to his body anymore.

Zhao Yunlan sighs, and pitches his voice so low it won’t carry to the SID on the other side of the room, though he can do nothing about Shen Wei’s sharp hearing. “Listen, Xiao Zun. For Shen Wei’s sake, I promise that I won’t do anything to harm you, not as long as you behave. But if you make a single move to hurt any of my people—”

Almost as if on reflex, Ye Zun’s flat stare glints, and the corner of his mouth turns up in a smirk. Zhao Yunlan has revealed a weakness, and Ye Zun has noted it. Zhao Yunlan tries to feel angry at the unspoken threat, but the fact that Ye Zun hadn’t even understood before that someone bearing the title of leader could care for his people—that leaves no room in Zhao Yunlan’s heart for anything but pity.

Which won’t stop him protecting his team. “If you do anything I even feel is a threat,” Zhao Yunlan goes on, “I will use the Hallows to stop you for good.”

At that, Ye Zun’s face darkens. “Yeah,” Zhao Yunlan says, as Shen Wei draws protectively closer to his little brother. “You know which one of us they will obey.”

Ye Zun makes a face like a cat about to hiss. Shen Wei doesn’t even look exasperated when he rests a hand on Ye Zun’s white-clad shoulder, forestalling any comment.

“Right,” Zhao Yunlan stands, and rolls his shoulders. “The Awl first.”

“Yes,” Shen Wei agrees, understanding better than anyone the danger Ye Zun poses just by simply existing.

“We’ll need the others for this,” Zhao Yunlan says. He still doesn't like it, but they did all agree. He is speaking for all of them now.

Shen Wei doesn’t seem convinced. “It could be done otherwise.”

“Oh yeah?” Zhao Yunlan crouches down to unlatch the Awl’s jade box, and it practically jumps into his hand. Goosebumps run up his arm, continue down his spine. “And how would you deal with all of that power, once it splits off?” Zhao Yunlan’s own light energy, separated from Shen Wei’s dark, was a flicker like static electricity in the air. The energy of four Hallows buried inside Ye Zun for a hundred centuries—that’s bound to be as charged as an entire lighting storm. Nothing that can safely be contained—and Zhao Yunlan is very set on keeping Shen Wei from doing any more unsafe containing.

“I—” Shen Wei begins, wanting to have a different answer than he clearly does. “I could take it into a portal?”

Like Shen Wei was going to take a fucking bomb into a portal, and let it kill him. “I don’t think so,” Zhao Yunlan says sharply. His hand is growing numb around the Awl’s handle. He flicks his wrist with a grimace, and immediately Ye Zun throws a hand up in a way Zhao Yunlan doesn’t like.

“Get it away from me,” Ye Zun says, somewhere between a cringe and a snarl. “It’s sharp.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not going to stab you with it,” Zhao Yunlan says.

“Because you won’t touch me with it,” Ye Zun mutters, hunching his shoulders. “Sundial first.”

Zhao Yunlan snorts. “Like I’m going to give you a chance to steal Shen Wei’s life before we’ve dealt with your Hallows problem.”

Ye Zun shows his teeth, possibly thinking about how much fun he could have sucking the energy out of his brother.

“Zhao Yunlan is right, dìdi,” Shen Wei says, which pleases Zhao Yunlan. The next words out of Shen Wei’s mouth don’t. “But once we’re done, you can have whatever you need through the Sundial.”

“Shen Wei,” Zhao Yunlan warns. “He could—”

“Deal,” Ye Zun says, eagerly.

“Shen Wei! You don’t know what he’ll do—if you give him leave, he might—”

“I know,” Shen Wei says, his voice soft but determined. “I’m sorry, Zhao Yunlan.”

“You can’t be serious.” Anger is a hot coal in Zhao Yunlan’s stomach, sparking in his cheeks and burning in his throat. They’ve come this far, and still Shen Wei is ready to just—give himself up?

“I owe him,” Shen Wei says, and the sadness in him dampens Zhao Yunlan’s next outburst. His hand tightens around the Awl, which flares up bright enough for all of them in the room to cast sharp shadows on the dark walls.

“And you promised,” Ye Zun says to Zhao Yunlan. “You promised not to harm me.”

Zhao Yunlan presses his lips tightly together and walks a few paces away, needing a second when he’s not pinned by the apology in Shen Wei’s eyes, and the spite in Ye Zun’s. Unasked, his team flock to him, Da Qing’s hand on his shoulder a solid point to focus on. They need to do this. They have to. Not helping Ye Zun now won’t change anything, other than prove the poor bastard’s suspicions right. And the Awl calls to Zhao Yunlan, tingles in his palm and winds threads of power through his veins, speaking of how easy it would be—how easy to rend and split and smash—hush, Zhao Yunlan thinks at it.

“Alright,” Zhao Yunlan says, lifting his head to meet everyone’s eyes in turn. “Here’s what we’re going to do.”

When everyone has agreed, and Lin Jing is off fetching what he’ll need to do his part, Zhao Yunlan turns to Ye Zun. “Do you have any questions?”

Ye Zun shakes his head. “Okay,” Zhao Yunlan says. “I don’t know what it will feel like, for you,” he says. “I can’t promise it won’t hurt.”

Ye Zun shrugs, as if pain is inconsequential, reminding Zhao Yunlan sharply of Shen Wei smiling at him through the reassurance, "Fortunately, I'm used to getting injured." And look where that had gotten Shen Wei. These two brothers… Zhao Yunlan sighs.

Hopefully this time he can keep them from any permanent damage. Them, and everyone else in the room. Letting his entire team throw themselves into this situation, Zhao Yunlan is all too aware of how unpredictable the force trapped in Ye Zun’s body is.

“I have communicated your warnings to the King,” Shen Wei says, and Zhao Yunlan twitches back with a powerful urge to grab him by his lapels and shake some sense into him. How about my warnings to you? Why won’t Shen Wei listen to sense, and abandon his pointless promise to his brother?

“Boss? I’m all set up.” Lin Jing's voice comes as a welcome distraction. Zhao Yunlan turns from Shen Wei without a word to survey his team’s preparations.

Looking a little like portable speakers topped with old TV antennas connected with strands of copper wire, Lin Jing’s dark energy neutralizers have been placed on the floor about a third of the way into the room—the third with the door. That should give the team plenty of space to retreat to if the containment plan should begin to fail, and keep the guards in the hallway safe as well.

Xiao Guo is holding the Merit Brush with a sad, serious air—probably still grieving Wang Xiangyang’s unjust fate. Zhao Yunlan is glad someone is, though he is too full of other hurts to manage more than a grateful thought to the man's spirit for his help. Lao Chu looks suspiciously at the Hallow, clearly as ready to protect Xiao Guo from the Brush itself as he is to do the task assigned him. But that’s fine—Zhao Yunlan would never forgive himself if Xiao Guo fell victim to the Brush the same way Wang Xiangyang did. It’s unlikely, without Ye Zun’s malicious guidance, but the Hallows are fickle and dangerous.

Zhu Hong holds the mark of her new office with much the same seriousness as Xiao Guo grips the Brush, practicing the motion of a perfect arc. And though the spring twig doesn’t glow, the Yashou High Chief makes the room feel a bit airier and brighter with every line she draws in the air.

And Da Qing—Da Qing stands by Zhao Yunlan’s side, giving off the impression of wanting to put his ears back and swish his tail from side to side. “Lao Zhao,” he says, nearly growling. “I know my memory’s not good, but I remember enough to know Ye Zun and Hallows are a bad combination.”

“That’s why we have to do this,” Zhao Yunlan says quietly, which doesn’t really soothe Da Qing at all. “Look—what Ma Gui and Fu You tried already failed. Ten thousand years, and it didn’t fix him.”

“But you can?” Da Qing protests.

We can,” Zhao Yunlan corrects him.

“Instead of…” Da Qing looks over at Shen Wei’s dark head bent next to Ye Zun’s light one. “You know.”

Getting rid of Ye Zun for good. “Yeah,” Zhao Yunlan says. That option might not have been safe either, given how supercharged Ye Zun is with Hallows energy, but it won’t come up. Zhao Yunlan won’t let it.

Da Qing stares at the two brothers for a good thirty seconds, invisible hackles raised. Zhao Yunlan says nothing. “Fine,” the cat says, finally, allowing Zhao Yunlan to pull him in for a one-armed hug. “I can see how that would make things awkward with your dear professor.”

“That’s not it at all!” Zhao Yunlan says, shoving Da Qing. It stings that a cat should be able to see straight through all Zhao Yunlan’s more noble aspirations.

“Well,” Zhao Yunlan calls to the room at large. “Is everyone ready?”

His team all answer in the affirmative, and Shen Wei inclines his head. The only one who doesn’t react is Ye Zun.

“Good. Then let’s do this!”

The others scatter, taking their places, waiting for Zhao Yunlan to begin. He walks over to Ye Zun and kneels down. Ye Zun greets him with silence, and a flat stare. “Right,” Zhao Yunlan says. “Try to hold still?”

Ye Zun jerks his head in a nod. Zhao Yunlan puts his left hand on Ye Zun’s good shoulder, and feels nothing but understandable tension. With the right, he lifts the Awl, and places the tip against Ye Zun’s forehead. It makes Ye Zun shrink back before he goes perfectly still. Zhao Yunlan closes his eyes and connects with the Hallow in his hand.

There is a warm hum, and a sense of familiar safety. There is also power, to be shaped and wielded—power entangled in Zhao Yunlan’s heartbeat, flaring from the Awl so brightly there are red spots dancing behind his closed eyelids. It is more than enough power to best Ye Zun. To make sure Ye Zun never gets a chance to hold Shen Wei to his promise.

Zhao Yunlan’s hand trembles slightly, and he exhales a shaking breath. “No,” he murmurs, as if holding back a fierce guard dog. “No. We’re doing this.” Zhao Yunlan leans in, and finds the echo of that hum of power in Ye Zun. Buried deep, it bursts free with a blinding brilliance when the Awl calls it forth.

Zhao Yunlan concentrates on the vortex of power locked into Ye Zun, connected to the man’s own life in ways far more complex than how his own light energy had been tangled with Shen Wei’s dark. It seems an impossible snarl, even with the Awl—Zhao Yunlan pulls, lightly, and it makes Ye Zun scream.

There is nothing kind about salvation.

Chapter Text

Trying to untangle the snarl between man and Hallow is nothing like separating light energy from dark. No matter how gentle Zhao Yunlan makes his touch, the intent behind it pierces something vital. For an overwhelming part of his existence, this power has been infused in Ye Zun, its essence as much a part of him as his own thoughts or senses—as his very soul. Zhao Yunlan has to force himself to keep going, to endure the guttural cries and tremors his actions are wrenching from Ye Zun.

The energies—Ye Zun’s and the Hallows’ both—are whipped into a frenzy by the Awl’s insistent pressure. And as Zhao Yunlan knew they would, the excess of those energies begin to tear loose, growing solid enough to be seen. As they flicker into glowing strands, Zhao Yunlan uses the Awl to pull them in. They flow through the Hallow in his hands, into the tip and out of the handle, writhing like snakes looking to strike—and they would, but for the others waiting to catch them.

Zhao Yunlan blinks to clear his vision of the dancing afterimages, and casts a glance over his shoulder to see his team hard at work: Xiao Guo’s brushwork opening a glimmering hole mid-air, connecting their room to the Dixing sky now holding the Guardian Lantern, Lao Chu’s threads keeping it from closing, Zhu Hong shielding them from the energy crackling through the room. Da Qing and Lin Jing are crouched over the technological defenses, holding them steady against the physical shockwaves emitted by the activated Hallows. And right behind Zhao Yunlan is Shen Wei, hands working to move the brilliant tendrils of energy toward the Lantern, like an orchestra conductor directing a symphony.

“Good,” Zhao Yunlan pants, hoping they can hear him. “Good, keep going.” Then the Awl jumps in his hand, forcing him to focus every single bit of his attention on the flow of energies—violent and delicate—that he is beginning to despair of ever unraveling without also destroying everything Ye Zun is. And that’s something he can’t let himself do, not when Ye Zun chose to trust him with this.

Zhao Yunlan closes his eyes and plunges deeper into the layers of power. He shuts out the light and noise in the room, the presence of those he wants to protect. One deep breath at the time he immerses himself into the intangible until the only senses he has left are those with which he wields the Awl. Its hum fills his thoughts, rendering him a little groggy—he was looking for something, but what?

What—what is this?

A silence in the hum. Something that doesn't fight, doesn't struggle. A—a consciousness? It reaches for him, and Zhao Yunlan rears back, terror of getting dragged under into the Hallows muddling his senses.

An ache he has no name for gives him pause. Zhao Yunlan puts his fears aside, and does not get pulled under. Cautiously, he gets closer.

There is nothing frightening about what he finds: a lonely figure trapped in the maelstrom of power the Hallows left behind here ten thousand years ago. Trapped and weary, nearly shattered with the need to find rest and be free.

Tentatively, Zhao Yunlan reaches out. Immediately he feels a connection snap into place. In his mind it resonates with the memory of the first time he touched Shen Wei's hand. And just like when Shen Wei forgot to let go, the presence here holds on. It leads him—guides him to the very core of this complex tangle. To Zhao Yunlan it pulses with power as it pulls everything—everything—tight around itself, all of those innumerable and delicate strands of man and Hallow tangled in a tight snarl.

Here. It is all sensation, all beyond anything solid, and yet it feels as if the presence linked to him takes Zhao Yunlan's hands, and the Awl in them. Rests the tip of the Hallow against that beating heart, which trembles—or maybe it's Zhao Yunlan, or the one wrapped around him. Everything goes as still as warriors waiting the moment before the call to battle.

Poised like this, Zhao Yunlan knows it won't be easy. He won't be able to keep his touch gentle—not at all.

A nudge—encouragement, support. Supplication. Please.

Knowing it will hurt, Zhao Yunlan thrusts the Awl into that heart of power with all his force. Instantly, there is sharp pain everywhere, ripping and tearing and severing. Eyes flying open, fearing what he has done, Zhao Yunlan barely registers that the Awl is leaving nothing but a faint red mark on Ye Zun's skin. And yet, with everything he is, Zhao Yunlan can feel power being dug out of bone marrow and stripped from sinew and crushed out of every cell.

Zhao Yunlan's breathing is torn ragged by the agony that floods him through the Awl, but he keeps his hand steady and his mind focused on his task. What energy he sloughs away, Shen Wei immediately relieves him of, even when the amount grows from a tendril to a torrent, whipping and whirling until it has wrapped itself into a shining sphere.

The Hallows are the heart of a star, and now for a moment their cast-off reflections remember that shape, and burn. Enough that Zhao Yunlan fears for the others—can they channel all of this unchecked power? He can’t stop what he is doing, can’t pause as he pulls and pares and tries to get every last scrap of it. Ye Zun trembles and gasps where he is kneeling, but makes no move to stop any of what is happening to him.

Just when Zhao Yunlan feels as if they may be getting deep enough—may be reaching some kind of end—he hits a snag.

This one is—different, somehow. It winds about the Hallow, not looking to join the rest of the energy at all. As Zhao Yunlan pulls, it wraps itself more tightly around the glow of the Awl. Zhao Yunlan flicks the Hallow in his hand away from Ye Zun's face and feels a—a weight of some sort, as if something is clinging to it.

He does it again, and the sharp gesture tugs the last reserve of destructive force free of Ye Zun like a cut metal coil. There is a shockwave, exploding out from Zhao Yunlan and Ye Zun still anchored to the Awl—and then it’s gone, sent to join the rest in the Lantern, where this newly freed sliver of a burning star will be right at home.

Still seeing the imprint of that blazing force behind his eyelids, Zhao Yunlan clutches at Ye Zun’s shoulder for balance, and hears a low cry—Ye Zun's cry. It makes Zhao Yunlan think of newborns, of the severing of umbilical cords, and he hopes that the Awl has helped deliver life, and not—

Strong hands close on his shoulders before Zhao Yunlan even knows that he is collapsing. Dazed and confused, Zhao Yunlan isn’t entirely sure which way he should be leaning to stay upright, and which will make him pitch over on his face. Then there is an arm behind his back, propping him up, and a cool hand brushing his face, the touch both gentle and urgent. “Zhao Yunlan?”

Blinking at the red afterimages still clinging to his retinas, Zhao Yunlan sees Shen Wei’s face, and smiles.

“Zhao Yunlan.”

“I’m okay,” Zhao Yunlan says, and the relief he sees in Shen Wei feels like the first sunlight after months of rain. “How’s everyone else?”

“Better than you, Lao Zhao,” Da Qing says from nearby, and Zhao Yunlan grins weakly.

“Well, I'm still better than your grandpa,” Zhao Yunlan says, and gets the relief he needs when the tired barb is met with a hissing protest and laughter. Zhao Yunlan listens to them until he can be sure that they really are okay, all of them. “And—Ye Zun?” Alive, Zhao Yunlan hopes.

“As well as he can be.” Shen Wei nods, and Zhao Yunlan flops his head over to look. Right next to them, with Shen Wei’s other hand resting on the crown of his head, Ye Zun has drawn his limbs tight and curled into the cushions, breathing hard, damp clinging to his lashes. His dark eyes are unfocused, but his brows have a tilt to them Zhao Yunlan recognizes as anger, and his lips are pressed stubbornly closed, as if to deny he ever made any sound at all. So—fine, then. Probably. Though something about him feels more off than usual.

Behind them, Zhao Yunlan picks up the sound of a heated exchange in low voices, and the command, “Outside,” in that voice of Zhu Hong’s that brooks no argument. And oh, if he gets to keep her around now that she’s High Chief he’s getting her the biggest raise for this.

"I’ll let you know what I hear through the door," Da Qing whispers to the others as they file out quietly—so much for actual privacy, Zhao Yunlan thinks, but his gratitude at not having to worry about an audience distracts him from making any kind of proper reprimand.

The door closes behind his team, leaving just the three of them. Zhao Yunlan, Ye Zun, and Shen Wei.

And the Hallows. Zhao Yunlan looks at his hand curled around the Awl. The necessary work done, it feels wrong to hold on to it—but also like there’s something tangled in it still. Shuddering, Zhao Yunlan carefully opens his fist, one finger at a time, and the Awl slips free. At the same time, the clamor Zhao Yunlan hadn’t even noticed in his own mind stills. He exhales, long and slow, and Shen Wei’s arm tightens around him.

“Thank you,” Shen Wei says, and his voice is so raw with emotion it scares Zhao Yunlan, who has not forgotten what Shen Wei promised his brother.

“Are you—are you serious about letting him—?”

Shen Wei ducks his head, won’t meet Zhao Yunlan’s gaze. “I owe him,” Shen Wei says, repeating his earlier words.

Zhao Yunlan swallows hard, but it’s not enough to hold the words back. “And me?” he says, hating how it makes him sound. But Shen Wei—he promised. Promised Zhao Yunlan his life, waited ten thousand years to fulfil that promise, and now—

“Zhao Yunlan,” Shen Wei says, sounding sad again, and—distant. “I am sorry.”

Distant because he doesn’t know—to Shen Wei, that promise was made to someone else. A ghost that still takes up most of the heart that he thinks he's only just now accepted Zhao Yunlan into. A ghost that never was, other than in the fragments of Shen Wei's broken memories.

And Zhao Yunlan understands. He has seen how the words used to bend thoughts and break minds work. He knows now the terrible lie that Shen Wei believes about Zhao Yunlan and Kunlun's fate. But it is one thing to understand, and another to accept that he can't do anything to fix it. That Shen Wei might give everything up, and not even realize what losing him would do to Zhao Yunlan.

Zhao Yunlan twists away from the support Shen Wei is offering, and turns around so that they are face to face. Shen Wei looks surprised, like he doesn’t know what to do with the arm he had out. Zhao Yunlan presses into Shen Wei’s space—makes sure he doesn’t dislodge Shen Wei’s hand from Ye Zun, but gets close enough that he is nearly straddling Shen Wei’s folded knees.

“Listen,” Zhao Yunlan says, and wishes that they didn’t have Ye Zun right there. “Shen Wei—” Zhao Yunlan moves close, close enough to kiss—and Shen Wei leans in for that. Zhao Yunlan captures his face instead, burying his fingers in Shen Wei’s hair and pressing their foreheads together. Shen Wei’s body stiffens in response.

“It’s okay.” Zhao Yunlan runs a hand down to Shen Wei’s nape, holding on. Holding them together.

And with his heart, Zhao Yunlan feels for that connection. The one that was there all through the ordeal Ye Zun put them through, and was there when Zhao Yunlan raised the Awl to save Shen Wei. And then—then it wasn’t. But Zhao Yunlan still hopes. He strains what isn’t quite a sense and could never be a muscle, and finally he finds it. Buried deep in the core of his own being is a dark spark that resonates with Shen Wei’s energy.

It is nothing as powerful as the easy bond they shared so briefly, which let feelings and energy run unobstructed both ways. If that was a firehose, this is a miser’s straw, doling out nothing but drops of the ocean of love in Zhao Yunlan’s heart. But it is something, at least—another way to get through to Shen Wei, even when words can’t.

Not that Zhao Yunlan isn’t going to try. “Listen,” he says again. “I know—I know you’re not going to be able to hold on to this, but please. Please, I need to tell you—”

Shen Wei nods against Zhao Yunlan’s head, and he feels Shen Wei’s arms wrap tightly around his waist. “Tell me.” Shen Wei bites the words off, as if there are others following he doesn’t want to allow to cross his lips.

“You know, don’t you? You don’t remember, but you know—” Zhao Yunlan kisses Shen Wei’s brow, then pulls back to look him in the eyes as he says, simply, “Shen Wéi.” The name Shen Wei had shared and shed with Kunlun one night under a pitch-black sky. “My Xiao Wei.”

Shen Wei gasps, and still cupping the back of his neck, Zhao Yunlan feels him shake. Wants to flood him with love and reassurance but can manage nothing but a tug from his heart to Shen Wei’s own.

“Kunlun.” It’s not a question, when Shen Wei finally speaks. In just this now, Shen Wei knows. Doesn’t have to be convinced, doesn’t need to ask any questions at all to understand. The shadow has fallen from his heart, and in this moment, Shen Wei can reach the light he has been searching for all this time.

“I’m here,” Zhao Yunlan murmurs before he lets Shen Wei claim his mouth in something more wrenchingly desperate than a kiss should ever be. There is no blood, this time, but there is a bitter undercurrent of salt to the heat.

“I’m sorry,” Shen Wei says when they part, and he sounds so fucking broken that nothing in Zhao Yunlan wants to show Ye Zun any mercy at that moment. Shen Wei can’t even bring himself to meet his eyes. Zhao Yunlan does straddle Shen Wei’s knees then. Wraps Shen Wei in a tight hug, pressing his face into Shen Wei's temple and breathing in his clean, wintery scent.

“I know, baby,” Zhao Yunlan chokes out. “I know.”

“I promised you—I said I would—”

“Zei Qiu had already stolen him then,” Zhao Yunlan says, instead of shouting at Shen Wei until he gives up on the idea of allowing Ye Zun to—to do whatever Ye Zun will end up wanting to do. “Your promise to—to him comes first.” Fuck. He almost makes it through that sentence sounding like he means it, but Zhao Yunlan can’t bring himself to say Ye Zun’s name, and it spoils everything.

Shen Wei draws a shivering breath, sits up and finally looks him in the eyes. “Zhao Yunlan.”


“I swear—”

All the broken bits of Zhao Yunlan’s heart come clinking out in a laugh that hurts everything. “No more promises, okay? Just—just get through this, and come back to me, and—”

Shen Wei pulls Zhao Yunlan tight again. “You came back to me.” His breath is warm on Zhao Yunlan’s wet cheek. “Zhao Yunlan,” Shen Wei says, and makes it sound like a binding oath, which Zhao Yunlan decides to let slide. “No matter what, I will come back to you.”

“You’d better,” Zhao Yunlan says, and has to rub at his eyes with the back of his hand to clear his vision as he sits up. Then he reaches out to adjust Shen Wei’s glasses, which have been knocked askance.

Shen Wei catches Zhao Yunlan’s wrist, and presses a completely unexpected kiss to his palm. “Don’t let me forget,” he whispers—a puff of air against the slight imprint of lips Zhao Yunlan can still feel on his skin—and then he flows to his feet.

“Dìdi. Are you ready?”

Zhao Yunlan doesn’t want to look at them. He bends to grab the Awl, and slips it in his jacket pocket.

“I should ask you that question, gēge. You’re the one who’s been—distracted.” Ye Zun’s voice is hoarse from screaming.

Zhao Yunlan turns from lifting the Longevity Sundial out of its jade case, and finds Ye Zun has climbed to his feet, looking—looking far too angry for Zhao Yunlan’s rapidly beating heart to take. Maybe he should ask the others back in—they could help him get Ye Zun to—

No. This isn’t something for the SID. It isn’t even something for Zhao Yunlan, as much as it hurts his heart.

This is between two brothers, and a bastard ten thousand years dead.

Shen Wei offers his brother the Longevity Sundial, not knowing what Ye Zun will choose to do with it once he takes it.

From Ye Zun’s expression—enraged, wounded, and bereft—it’s possible that he doesn’t know either. Shen Wei has almost given up on hoping for anything when it comes to his brother, but he chooses to take that as a hopeful sign. At least he's not already poised to attack.

Because attack, he could. The Hallows are never straightforward to use—except for Zhao Yunlan. For Kunlun, who was there when they were born, and was there when they went mad, and was there to bring them together after they had been scattered away from Dixing. Shen Wei understands that now. He understands, and it’s possible that he allows a smile to show in his eyes, because Ye Zun’s expression darkens.

Ye Zun’s hand closes on the Sundial.

It is nothing like it was with Zhao Yunlan.

Nothing like Zhao Yunlan.

Shen Wei thinks it—but the thought is echoed back at him, distorted. For Shen Wei, the name brings a sense of breathless joy. The echo comes dark and cold and hurt.

Ye Zun.

Very carefully, Shen Wei puts everything that isn’t his brother aside in his mind. He promised he would help Ye Zun, and he will. He must.

“Help me?”

Such staggering, heartbreaking contempt in the echo—in Ye Zun’s voice. Shen Wei hones in on it, and lets everything else melt away. It’s just the two of them now.

Just the two of them.

Too soon, it had been just the two of them.

“It’s okay. I’ll always take care of you.”

They both remember the tears.

It wasn’t an older brother comforting a younger. It was two lost and lonely boys—one needing someone to be strong for, the other needing someone to be strong for them.

”You promise?”


But children don’t understand always. They both know that now.

"Can’t we leave? Everyone else is.”

”But this is home. This has always been—”


They both remember going from their native gloom to the light, only to find the entire world swallowed by the true night of burned-out fires and choked skies.

Back home, the lack of light had been familiar, but in this new world—

”It’s just night.”

”You’re not scared?”

”Not of the night.”

It’s just the two of them, and that is enough.

The memory shifts and wavers. “Enough? I was never enough for you, gē.”

—”useless, no wonder your brother left you to me—”

Shen Wei shudders, feeling what it is like to believe that. To believe it. But it’s a lie—worse than a lie. He wrenches the intruding splinter of a memory away, and shows his brother:

”Gē. It’s okay. I’m here.”

Small hands clasping together. A white-clad arm wrapped around quivering shoulders.

”It’ll be light soon, gē. But it has to be night first. Remember what we learned?”

The comfort of not being alone. Shen Wei remembers that, and he senses Ye Zun’s reaction of—confusion? In response to that confusion, Shen Wei lets a flood of memories serve as explanation:

A shared smile at a bird’s nest full of eggs—”Good job finding it, dìdi!”. Being too tired to tend the fire he sparked, only to wake to it still burning cheerfully, dispelling a little of the fear still lurking about the endless dark sky overhead. Curling together against the winter cold. Helping each other balance on the slippery rocks of a summer river. Always having someone to rely on. Never having to be alone.

Shen Wei pauses. Listens.

Ye Zun speaks into the silence. “This—I don’t remember—”

What Ye Zun has aren’t memories, as such. They are words.


Shen Wei—remembers? Relives. Picking it up from Ye Zun in fits and starts: Trying to keep up. Trying to keep going. Can’t start a fire. Can’t fight. Can’t do anything as well as gē.

Slowing us down.

Gē would be better off alone.

”He’s better off without you.”

Even after so very, very long, Shen Wei recognizes Zei Qiu’s voice.

“No,” Shen Wei says. “That was never me. I never wanted that. I never wanted to lose you.” It is good that he doesn’t need to speak for Ye Zun to hear him through the Sundial. His voice would not have held through those words.

But thanks to the Sundial, and because they are here together, Shen Wei has more than words. What he shares with Ye Zun next is what he has carried in his heart all this time: loss and grief, almost too much for one alone to struggle through. Pain and terror at having his only fixed point—his only family, the only one who loved him—ripped from his life. And the excruciating guilt and loneliness that lasted and lasted and lasted, with no one there to wrap an arm around his shoulders and tell him it was going to be okay.

Trying and failing to find his dìdi. Trying and trying and never, ever getting any closer. Having nobody but himself, and the struggling hope of finding his brother again.

Being just one, where they ought to have been two.

Being alone.


Ye Zun’s rage comes unexpected. Shen Wei is barely keeping himself afloat on the memories threatening to drag him under. Nothing in him is prepared to defend against Ye Zun, whose anger envelops him completely, all at once. And then it explodes into him: The mirror image of Shen Wei’s own memories—identical but for the slow, dripping poison of Zei Qiu’s words.

Different, because where Shen Wei had nothing but despair and determination, Ye Zun had one more thing.

At least he’s better off without me.

“You—” Ye Zun doesn’t need his voice to speak either, but the vehement fury steals his words. Shen Wei wants to welcome whatever his brother has to say—it is no more than he deserves to hear. He wants to, but he can’t keep the dread at bay. And so Shen Wei is bracing, when Ye Zun speaks.

It doesn’t help—he reels back, nearly breaking the connection between them, for all that he promised his dìdi anything.

“You were supposed to be happy.”

The last word is a sob. Is the cry of a boy curled in on himself, trying to survive. Just trying to survive, telling himself that at least he has done this one thing. At least he has saved his brother. At least it’s just him alone here, hurting, not both of them.

Ye Zun has set his gē free to live a better life, without anyone to slow him down or hold him back.

And Shen Wei understands, without being shown: later, Zei Qiu would turn that relief to resentment. Later, that one small kernel of happiness would crack from the pressure. Would chafe at other stinging hurts, until Ye Zun’s heart grew inflamed with it. Forgot how it all started and was left with nothing but a broken mind and a broken heart. Alone.

Because Shen Wei left him.

Because Shen Wei forgot.

Shen Wei doesn’t know which one of them lets go of the Sundial first—maybe in this, as in so much else, they mirror each other. They’re holding on to it together, and then they can’t anymore. For both of them, it is far too much.

They fall.

There is Zhao Yunlan’s voice, and dark walls that feel something like home, and the Sundial spinning away from them toward the floor.

With every bit of speed and strength he can muster, Shen Wei catches Ye Zun. The Dial makes a high, ringing sound as it bounces off a stone tile. Shen Wei’s arms close around Ye Zun, and then his legs fold under him.

Ye Zun sprawls across him, shielded from the impact as Shen Wei gracelessly hits the floor.

After gravity and momentum release them to make their own way, neither Shen Wei nor Ye Zun move. Shen Wei hardly dares breathe. Or maybe it’s that he hardly can—his lungs hurt, his heart hurts, and his throat and nose are blocked and he can’t see

Ye Zun crouches—lunges. Shen Wei does nothing to defend himself. Not even when Ye Zun’s arms wrap around his neck.

“Gē. I didn’t know. I didn’t remember—I didn’t know—”

Shen Wei finally recovers enough sense to sit up and return the embrace, still half-expecting it to be another attack, another trick.

The tears are real, though. Hot against his neck, leaving damp spots in Ye Zun’s silver hair.

“I’m sorry, dìdi.” It’s all Shen Wei can say. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Ye Zun has no words at all, only shakes silently in Shen Wei’s arms. Shen Wei holds him tighter, and then tighter still. Rocks gently from side to side, soothing them both with the repetitive motion before he realizes he has fallen into a long-forgotten habit.

Fear keeps Shen Wei’s heart numb. This—he feels it, but it can’t be true.

It can’t be happening.

Shen Wei wants it too much for this to be true.

So when Ye Zun looks up at him, eyes wild and hurt and rimmed in red, Shen Wei tenses.

Is this when Ye Zun will make his move, then?

Ye Zun pulls an arm away from their embrace, and Shen Wei takes it as a warning, but doesn’t act. He can’t break free of that desperate, despairing gaze.


Ye Zun’s fingertips brush against Shen Wei’s forehead.

Faster than thought—faster than he can feel anything more than the briefest touch—the world goes away without a sound.

Chapter Text

Zhao Yunlan can do nothing but wait, and it’s the worst. Well—he glances at the recently tidied spot against the wall where his team talked him out of dying. It’s bad, at least.

Being this helpless, when Shen Wei’s life is at stake—even doing his best to push through the fear, his palms are clammy, and there is a sharp pain in his stomach. Zhao Yunlan came so close to losing Shen Wei already—to watching him die, to feeling him die. Standing by and letting the same person Zhao Yunlan already saved Shen Wei from have another shot at killing him—Zhao Yunlan's jaw bunches, and he tries to breathe. Watching Shen Wei and Ye Zun standing there, holding onto a Hallow that would allow Ye Zun to drain his brother’s life, is anything but easy.

Maybe if he had any idea of what was happening—any indication of how Shen Wei's attempts to return his brother's memories are going—that would help. But no matter how hard Zhao Yunlan tries to pick up on what the Dial is doing, he is overwhelmed with the resonance left behind by all four Hallows being used in concert. It’s a sensory after-image, an echo of their mingled hum still ringing loudly in his skull, making it impossible to discern anything of what is happening with the single Hallow now. Zhao Yunlan shakes his head to dispel the distraction and opens his eyes so he can at least see the Dial working. The grip the twins have on the Dial absorbs all but a few slivers of its shining energy. Zhao Yunlan wonders if it was the same when he and Shen Wei used it, or if this is a sign things are going wrong.

Going Ye Zun's way. If Shen Wei's brother never meant to submit to Shen Wei's attempt to heal his broken mind, if this is another trick—

Zhao Yunlan hesitates, then steps close enough to touch. He doesn't. It would be too dangerous to interfere with the Hallow. And even with his insides twisting into knots, he can’t go against Shen Wei’s wishes. Not like this. Instead he studies Ye Zun’s face. The expression there hasn’t changed at all since he first accepted the Dial: eyes closed in pinched concentration, an angry slant to the silver eyebrows. And he’s exhausted—that Zhao Yunlan can’t see, exactly, but he remembers the tangle of energies, and how much it cost both of them to tear Ye Zun free of the Hallows' grasp. By now—Zhao Yunlan admits that it’s surprising to see Ye Zun standing. But staring at Ye Zun reveals nothing, and isn't what Zhao Yunlan wants to do anyway.

Shen Wei’s beautifully sculpted features are even more expressionless. There’s a light furrow between his brows, and his lips are pressed into an unhappy line, but otherwise his face betrays no emotion. His long lashes stand out more than usual against the current pallor of his skin—a sign that Shen Wei isn't fully recovered yet. At least his face is healed, free of cuts and bruises—it helps Zhao Yunlan to look and see that he isn’t bleeding, even if he's not back to his full strength. Not that Zhao Yunlan has a problem with blood in general, but with Shen Wei even a single drop has always been too much for him.

A fretful sigh and Zhao Yunlan falls back to lean against the wall, near enough to step in if something should happen, but far enough that he can't easily give in to the temptation to touch. At least not with his hands.

Shifting his focus inward, Zhao Yunlan can pick up a shadow of Shen Wei’s presence—nothing like before, when the impressions from him could get nearly as vivid as his own emotions. But whatever is happening now, at least they haven’t lost the last of that tenuous connection.

The connection that is the only reason Zhao Yunlan gets any warning that something has changed—neither twin’s expression shifts, but there is a surge of emotions, stronger by far than Zhao Yunlan's own strung-out anxiety. He tenses, ready for action—and the Dial goes flying.

At the same time Shen Wei and Ye Zun both collapse so hard the words Double K.O! flash in Zhao Yunlan’s stupid brain faster than he can shut the video game metaphor down.

“Shen Wei!” Zhao Yunlan snatches up the Dial mid-bounce, but is too late to reach Shen Wei. Mostly because Shen Wei somehow goes from falling to catching Ye Zun. At first Zhao Yunlan thinks what happens next is more struggling—a fight, and he’s ready to step in immediately and deal with Shen Wei’s disapproval later. Then Shen Wei responds to his brother’s embrace and Zhao Yunlan finally realizes what’s going on.

It’s—unsettling. Zhao Yunlan would very much like to believe that Shen Wei has gotten through to his brother, but he knows only too well that Ye Zun often attacks by offering you what you want the most. So he hovers there, wanting to keep Shen Wei safe but unwilling to interrupt. The Dial in his hand hums contentedly, little prickles of power tickling Zhao Yunlan’s palm, and he rubs his thumb in calming circles over its embossed surface. If Ye Zun uses his powers, if he attacks—Zhao Yunlan knows he can shield Shen Wei now that he has the Hallow.

But Ye Zun doesn’t use his powers—at least not to attack. He simply reaches up and touches Shen Wei’s face with his hand. As Shen Wei’s body sags away from Ye Zun, Zhao Yunlan startles into action, kneeling down to catch him. “Shen Wei? Hey, Shen Wei!”

Head resting against Zhao Yunlan’s chest, Shen Wei doesn’t stir, but breathes deep and even, face completely slack. “What did you do?” Zhao Yunlan holds Shen Wei in his arms, ready to defend or attack as needed.

Ye Zun flinches back at his tone, shoulders rounded with tension, head bowed. He makes no other move—doesn't reach for Shen Wei, or try to run, or anything.

That—wasn't what Zhao Yunlan expected. For all that he knows Ye Zun is dangerous and unpredictable it is difficult to feel anything but pity for him like this: tousled hair, face sticky with tears and snot, eyes wet and rimmed with red. He looks so damn young. And—aware. Ye Zun is hardly meeting Zhao Yunlan’s eyes, but when he finally does it feels like looking at a real person, rather than a scheming mask over a seething mass of impulse and need.

“It’s alright,” Zhao Yunlan tells him, palm pressed flat against Shen Wei's ribcage to feel the heartbeat through his shirt. That steady rhythm helps Zhao Yunlan believe his own words. “I promised not to hurt you, remember?” he says, even as he himself remembers how he had followed that by tearing into Ye Zun with all the power of the Awl.

But Ye Zun gives him a fraction of a nod, staying hunched over in tense silence just out of reach.

Zhao Yunlan crosses his legs and pulls Shen Wei awkwardly all the way into his lap, glad for the support of the tassled cushions when he tries to balance his unconscious lover’s solid weight. Ye Zun watches, but makes no move. Shen Wei’s chest rises and falls under Zhao Yunlan’s crossed arms, breathing slow and even. “Come on. Shen Wei?” Zhao Yunlan needs Shen Wei to wake up and continue whatever he was doing to calm Ye Zun—clearly, it was working. He can’t just leave Zhao Yunlan alone to deal with his little brother, without any clue of how to go about things without making them worse.

Not that Ye Zun looks like much of a threat right now. And of the two of them, only Zhao Yunlan has anxious reinforcements with keen Yashou ears waiting on the other side of the door. But it’s not danger Zhao Yunlan is afraid of. It’s—wrecking this. This thing with Ye Zun. Whatever it is Shen Wei has accomplished to make his brother so… human.

There is only one thing Zhao Yunlan fears more, right now. Enough to risk stuffing the Dial into his coat pocket before speaking. “Xiao Zun. What did you do to Shen Wei? Why isn’t he waking up?” Zhao Yunlan needs to know, he needs to hear it. And if it's bad—

Ye Zun wants to follow his gē into unconsciousness. Wants to escape from the pervasive pain and weakness that is all he can feel. But he is too afraid to let go. With Zhao Yunlan staring at him like that, snapping angrily one moment and then coaxing the next—Ye Zun can’t risk it. It might make everything worse. It can always get worse, he knows, even when it is already too much to bear, and he knows Zhao Yunlan still has the Dial, even if he can't see it.

The questions Zhao Yunlan is asking make him shudder—what happened to Shen Wei? Ye Zun can't answer. It wasn’t supposed to do anything but help, what Ye Zun did. Not this time, not—not now. And he doesn't know, so he can't say—but Zhao Yunlan won't stop asking. "Please. What did you do?"

Ye Zun quickly wipes at his face with his sleeve, and lets the words scrape out of his sore throat. “Mended it.” He wants to keep looking at his brother, searching the slack face for signs of waking. But what he wants isn't as important as tracking Zhao Yunlan, and the danger he presents.

Oh. But one can’t be caught staring. The old, painful lessons are all coming back to him now, and he forces his gaze down to the floor.

“You fixed him?” Zhao Yunlan asks, and Ye Zun doesn’t know if it’s a trick question—repeating his own words back at him only slightly differently. So he waits, hoping that Zhao Yunlan will reveal what kind of answer is expected.

It works, because Zhao Yunlan soon speaks again. “If you fixed him, then why is he like this? Why isn’t he waking up?”

Ye Zun notes the bunching of Zhao Yunlan’s jaw, and swallows around a lump of unshed tears. Crying again would make everything worse—it always does. Gē isn’t supposed to be asleep. He’s supposed to be awake, and fixed, and—and probably furious, but still safer than Zhao Yunlan.

Ye Zun shakes his head. “Don’t know.” He doesn’t need to look up to gauge Zhao Yunlan’s reaction, because he hears a sharp inhalation—a man running out of patience trying to remain in control. Ye Zun twists his hands together in his lap.

“Look. You must have some power that could—heal him?” Zhao Yunlan words it like a suggestion, but Ye Zun knows an order when he hears one. He really, really wants to escape now—into sleep, into the place inbetween—but it’s either too dangerous or no longer possible. He can’t tell if Zhao Yunlan is demanding the impossible to be cruel, or out of ignorance. No matter which, the result will be the same.

“Your servant humbly apologizes,” Ye Zun rasps, watching his knuckles whiten as he tightens his intertwined hands. “But that power was taken with the others.”

A silence follows, where Ye Zun strains to hear anything at all over the hollow sound of his own meaningless heartbeat.

“Xiao Zun,” Zhao Yunlan says, so softly that Ye Zun doesn't startle—nearly softly enough that he forgets he can't bristle at the insulting diminutive. “What do you mean?”

Ye Zun looks up at him, to see—confusion. No accusation, not yet. So it was ignorance, then. And more importantly, Zhao Yunlan still has Shen Wei draped in his arms in a way that makes it impossible for him to lash out without warning. Ye Zun’s gaze lingers on his brother’s face, wishing those eyes would open—wishing his gē could intercede on his behalf, before it’s too late.

“The Awl,” Ye Zun explains. “It—” It cleaved everything of the Hallows from his core. Every single shred of borrowed energy—and then it snagged on Ye Zun’s own plethora of powers, and pulled. And hoping—Well. Ye Zun still doesn’t know what he was hoping, other than for something better than fear and hunger. But hoping, Ye Zun let it.

And like a garment unravelling after pulling on a loose thread, all his abilities began to unspool. Not all at once—at first he’d thought he’d only lose a few, as Zhao Yunlan stopped tugging at him and put the Awl away. But by then it was too late. Unconfined by jade chest or masterful touch, the Awl acted a spindle, pulling strands of power from Ye Zun to wind about itself. Bit by bit at first, leaving Ye Zun almost curious to see what it would uncover—but once he was caught up in the Sundial’s trance there was nothing Ye Zun could do to stop it when the Awl sped up, greedy for everything in him.

When Ye Zun returned to himself in his gē’s arms, aching with the pain of his brother's memories grafted to the place where his stolen ones should have been—at first he thought the weakness was his heart crushed by emotions he didn't know he could still feel. But then he tried to reach for power to calm himself, and found—nothing.

There had been nothing at all left but a few paltry scraps of barely functional gifts, and Zei Qiu’s terrible power. Too long a part of him, too much a part of him—Ye Zun gathered it all, and used it to undo the meticulously inflicted damage to Shen Wei. He did it because his brother hadn’t asked, hadn’t demanded, hadn’t wanted anything at all. Because Shen Wei had shared everything he had, without holding back, and had given Ye Zun his own memories to replace those long stolen. And it became too much to take, that debt of guilt. Looking to free himself, Ye Zun made his move and pushed everything he’d once taken back into place in Shen Wei—and the hungry Awl caught more than Ye Zun intended. It caught his oldest, strongest, power—the one that made him—and tore it out of him as it had taken everything else.

And now Ye Zun is empty, and Zhao Yunlan is staring at him, waiting for him to finish explaining why he is of no use to anyone anymore.

Ye Zun wanted everything, and what does he have to show for it now? Nothing. His lips quirk in an involuntary smile at the irony. “The Awl took them,” he says finally, as succinctly as possible, because words grate at his throat and having to give Zhao Yunlan answers grates at his pride.

“I didn’t—that wasn't—the Awl did what?” Zhao Yunlan moves one hand from Shen Wei’s chest to his own jacket pocket, patting it with a thoughtful expression. Does he think Ye Zun is lying? Should Ye Zun have lied? If Zhao Yunlan feared him—but Zhao Yunlan never did. Not truly. And certainly he won't now.

“Huh,” Zhao Yunlan says with a bemused kind of grin that Ye Zun doesn’t feel is aimed at him at all. “So—all your powers?”

Ye Zun nods tightly, wondering what Zhao Yunlan is planning now that he knows.

“But you didn’t use any of them to hurt Shen Wei?”

Ye Zun goes still, shrinking in on himself at the impossibility of the question. If he agrees, Zhao Yunlan will remind him of everything that came before that moment Ye Zun chose to do the opposite of hurt. But if he denies it, that will be the same as admitting to causing harm where none was intended.

Zhao Yunlan chuckles drily, a sound without mirth. “Okay, let me rephrase that. The Awl did something to you, and you did something to Shen Wei, and now he’s—asleep. But that was a side-effect of you trying to fix him? You didn’t deliberately knock him out or anything?”

“No,” and Ye Zun doesn’t intend to say more, but the words come spilling out, sounding as raw as he feels, “No, it was meant to—to make it better. What the power has done, it can undo, if you know how. It was supposed to work! But that power is gone now, so if it didn’t—”

“Okay,” Zhao Yunlan says, and Ye Zun snaps his mouth shut. “Okay, I get it. I believe you. It’s just—you were the only one with Shen Wei’s level of power, and if you don’t have them anymore, and Shen Wei is stuck like this—”

The mounting agitation in Zhao Yunlan’s voice makes Ye Zun blurt a well-worn apology. “Your servant humbly apologizes.”

Zhao Yunlan falls silent. Ye Zun braces himself before risking a glance to gauge the Lord Guardian’s mood. And yet he’s taken completely by surprise by the concern in Zhao Yunlan’s eyes, and doesn’t know what to do when Zhao Yunlan says, “Dì. What’s going on with you?”

A quick headshake to try and dislodge Zhao Yunlan’s attention is the best Ye Zun can do. It doesn’t work, though, because Zhao Yunlan sighs. “Come here,” he says, and Ye Zun stiffens, torn between suspicion and the urge to keep from upsetting the man holding Ye Zun’s life in his hands.

"It's okay. Just get over here for now." Zhao Yunlan pats the spot next to him against the wall. Looking at Shen Wei in his arms, Ye Zun cautiously edges closer. He knows there is nowhere else to go, but he doesn’t intend to let that make him careless.

But when Ye Zun gets within reach of Zhao Yunlan, he finds himself close enough to impulsively take one of Shen Wei’s limp hand in both of his. He can only do it by putting all thoughts of consequences aside. Zhao Yunlan goes dangerously still, but he watches without speaking as Ye Zun concentrates, wishing he could sense any of what he used to through his abilities. All he has to go on now is touch. Which tells him nothing except that Shen Wei’s skin feels neither hot nor cold—only perfectly ordinary.

Still, he holds on to his gē’s hand as he kneels carefully in the spot next to Zhao Yunlan, facing the torchlit room. As he settles, their shoulders brush together, and Ye Zun feels Zhao Yunlan tense, but he doesn’t move away. "See," he says with that drawl of his, as if Ye Zun can't tell he's forcing the nonchalance. "I'm not going to hurt you."

Ye Zun looks down at his brother’s hand, thumb tracing the pulse beating steadily in the wrist disappearing into a gray jacket sleeve. He says nothing.

“You don’t believe me, do you?” Zhao Yunlan asks quietly. Ye Zun glances up at him, and finds his expression both sad and bemused. “The only one you trust is Shen Wei, is that right?”

Ye Zun’s head jerks in a nod, and he blinks against the prickling in his eyes. He didn’t, for so long. For so long, he trusted nobody at all, thinking his own brother had betrayed him to Zei Qiu. But now—Ye Zun gives the slack hand he is holding a squeeze. Now that he knows, now that he remembers, what Zhao Yunlan is saying is doubly true. Ye Zun does trust Shen Wei. He does not trust anyone else.

“So I can promise not to hurt you all I want, but I might as well be playing zither for a cow.” Zhao Yunlan laughs, a low and tired sound.

Ye Zun frowns—he is fairly certain that proverb would make him the cow—but Zhao Yunlan goes on. “Do you know how fucked up that is? To have gone your entire life with exactly one person you trust not to hurt you—and even then it took a Hallow?”

It doesn’t sound like the kind of question that needs an answer, but something about Zhao Yunlan’s words wrings a sigh from Ye Zun.

“Yeah,” Zhao Yunlan agrees. “I don’t even know what to do with that, Xiao Zun. I’d assumed Shen Wei would deal with you, but—” Zhao Yunlan pauses, and when Ye Zun glances at him from under a curtain of hair, he has his lips pressed to Shen Wei’s hair. “Anyway,” Zhao Yunlan says. “I won’t hurt you. And you can stop the—the subservient thing. It’s creeping me the fuck out. I know you’re fully capable of using actual pronouns like anyone else. Right?”

Zhao Yunlan’s gaze lands on Ye Zun, who finds himself frozen. Nobody has ever told him to not humble himself for them—nobody has ever asked him to come sit by them and not wanted anything more at all.

“You really only have two settings?” Zhao Yunlan asks, and Ye Zun can detect an edge of frustration in the words.

Ye Zun swallows. “I—I don’t understand,” he says.

“That’s okay,” Zhao Yunlan says, and Ye Zun frowns. Maybe not frustration, then. Maybe—exhaustion? “That’s fine. Shen Wei doesn’t get technology references either. Just—sit here and relax, and let me think about this for a second.” Zhao Yunlan clears his throat, and repeats the words quite loudly, “Let me think, okay? Everything’s fine, we’re just—thinking.” Instructions for his team, then? But he gives no orders, and there is no acknowledgement or reply from the other side of the door.

Zhao Yunlan leans his head back against the wall and closes his eyes, even though Ye Zun is right next to him.

Ye Zun sits very quietly and waits, not knowing what else he could do. He doesn’t understand Zhao Yunlan’s words or his actions. He doesn’t understand why Shen Wei won’t wake up. He is dead tired, and he hurts—deeper than cuts or bruises hurt, more than it hurts to cough until there’s blood in every breath—and he doesn’t know why he is still alive. The weight of it all is crushing. His shoulders slump, his chin dips to his chest, and when he manages to blink his stinging eyes open, the room is a blur of torchlight shadows and silk in hues of green and blue, all glowing softly with reflected, refracted light.

The only sounds Ye Zun can hear are Shen Wei’s deep, slow breaths and Zhao Yunlan’s soft exhalations. The calm that brings is such that Ye Zun unwillingly finds himself matching his brother, breath for breath, until not even danger and despair can help him fight the heavy darkness coming for him. But because there is nothing worse than being adrift alone in the unknown, Ye Zun still clings to his brother’s unresponsive hand for as long as he remembers to. And as he tumbles into darkness, there is an unexpected touch of warmth—something solid keeping him from falling—and with the last spark of consciousness he thinks, .

Chapter Text

Zhao Yunlan stares at Ye Zun’s head—now resting on his own shoulder—with exhausted exasperation. There’s no way they can leave Ye Zun in Dixing in his current state. Not that the little fool deserves being protected from the enemies he could just as well not have been making at every turn. But there would be no justice in handing him over to them like this—completely powerless, entirely terrified, and far too young for his years. If Zhao Yunlan, who has tried really fucking hard to kill Ye Zun, can deal with the fact that he’s missed his shot (hah)—well, Dixing can come around. Or not. It’s really not Zhao Yunlan’s job to make people feel better about being conned into attempted world domination.

As for the rest of it—Zhao Yunlan’s arms tighten reflexively around Shen Wei. Solid and alive and right here, and once he wakes up, everything will be fine. Or something more like it, at least. And then Shen Wei can take this problem child off Zhao Yunlan’s hands.

Zhao Yunlan chuckles. Sounds like a plan. Then all he has to do is talk An Bai into letting them take Ye Zun to Haixing, along with Dixing’s Envoy. And if the King has been counseled to keep either of them here—Zhao Yunlan's arms tighten around Shen Wei. Then he will be royally disappointed.

But first—the portals. Ye Zun destabilized them breaking out of his seals, and now Dixing has the Guardian Lantern working at full power—no wonder they’re not responding to normal attempts to open them. It was a close thing, getting everyone down here using the three Hallows they had in their possession, even with the help of Ma Gui and Fu You dialing in from the past. But if Zhao Yunlan uses all four—with their help he has opened rifts in time and space. Reestablishing an existing connection for long enough to get everyone through should be a piece of cake.

“Okay,” Zhao Yunlan calls out, keeping his voice muted enough that he doesn’t accidentally startle Ye Zun awake. He really does not have the energy to talk his freaked-out brother-in-law down again. “I’m done thinking. You can come back inside now.”

Da Qing opens the door, and the team all piles in, surrounding him in that anxious way Zhao Yunlan is so very familiar with. Then they make Zhao Yunlan both proud and annoyed by insisting on interrogating him at length to make sure he’s not being mind controlled or something. He gets the impression that they would have preferred if his new orders had come about through some nefarious plot. If nothing else, it would have allowed them to dump Ye Zun back in his pillar and let him be Dixing’s problem rather than theirs.

But Zhu Hong keeps the guards from interfering—she has gotten quite adept at wielding the blunt force of her new status—and eventually his team accept Zhao Yunlan’s insistence that they leave Ye Zun be. Even if that means they’re now all sitting around on the floor with the very man they came to Dixing to stop napping on their chief’s shoulder. Everyone does a fine job of ignoring the way Zhao Yunlan gets distracted stroking Shen Wei’s hair, and how he sometimes pauses the conversation to murmur asides in Shen Wei’s ear. Zhao Yunlan’s legs have long since gone numb, but he doesn’t want to shift Shen Wei’s solid weight anywhere else. Shen Wei should wake up in his arms—should know that Zhao Yunlan will always keep him close, no matter what Ye Zun has done.

“Lao Zhao. How can you be sure this bastard’s telling the truth about his powers?” Da Qing asks after giving Ye Zun another cautious sniff.

“I told you. I can feel it.” Zhao Yunlan pats the pocket with the Awl. “They’re all—here, somehow. There’s nothing left in him.”

Apparently this is not the most reassuring explanation.

“Um, Boss? You should probably put those back,” Lin Jing says.

Chu Shuzhi pointedly snags the Awl’s jade box in his threads, and places it in front of Zhao Yunlan. “His Majesty is expecting them back,” Lao Chu says gruffly.

“Are you testing me?” Zhao Yunlan says suspiciously.

Lao Chu says nothing, only watches him with narrowed eyes.

“No respect,” Zhao Yunlan sighs, and fishes the Awl out of his pocket. And true, it does—resist, a bit. And maybe he does too. But he can totally put it away. He even gets the Sundial out of his other pocket without being asked. Though he can’t help hesitating there—maybe if he used it on Shen Wei…

“Chief Zhao,” Lao Chu says, and Zhao Yunlan grimances. It’s not like he was going to give them to Ye Zun or anything.

“Aiya. Fine. Take them! But unless you’re all set for underground life we’re going to have to ask for them back so we can go home.”

Turns out he doesn’t even need to ask—Zhu Hong eschewed most of the eavesdropping the others were doing in order to negotiate their return to Haixing. Which is good, because Zhao Yunlan’s thoughts are beginning to slow down into a sluggish spiral of Shen Wei, Shen Wei, please, and after turning Shen Wei over to Lin Jing with great reluctance, he needs Da Qing to help him stand.

Fortunately An Bai doesn’t even balk at letting them bring Ye Zun along—clearly Zhao Yunlan isn’t the only one who would like to make Ye Zun someone else’s problem, and as quickly as possible, too. Ye Zun himself remains unconscious through Lao Chu carrying him around over his shoulder, with Xiao Guo keeping careful, terrified guard. Zhao Yunlan wishes he could take Shen Wei's equally unresponsive body in his arms, but he admits they would not make it far that way, and props Shen Wei up on Lin Jing's back instead.

Their departure is both hasty and shrouded in secrecy, which Zhao Yunlan understands is entirely out of a desire to avoid more people than necessary finding out where Ye Zun has disappeared to. They don’t even get an official speech or anything—though An Bai, An Song and Dan Dan all come to witness their departure. The last thing Zhao Yunlan sees over his shoulder as he drops his connection to the Hallows and steps through the white glow of the portal is An Bai’s cheerful grin as he waves them off.

The very next moment, everything is—not the SID’s offices. That’s not really important to Yunlan, though. No—what’s important is that he has been here before. He knows he has, though it’s but the vaguest sense of recognition rather than any real memory. Scenes whirl by, like spokes of some great wheel, showing him starlight over mountains and new saplings pushing up between rotten logs and a dawn view of Dragon City from a window he does not recognize.

And if the scenery is a wheel, then it has a warm, bright light emanating from the nave at its center. It suffuses everything, even the darkness of what he now recognizes as Shen Wei’s childhood sky. Searching, Yunlan is drawn toward that light.

Shen Wei stands out like a dark blot against its warm, golden glow. Yunlan feels the same joy he always does when he catches sight of Shen Wei after any time apart. It is a small and fragile thing, here—blinding bright as this place is, Yunlan’s is the only happiness. Everything else is—the opposite. Feelings so dark and heavy that they exert their own gravity, threatening to draw all the joy out of Yunlan, leaving nothing but bleak despair, and—oh, Shen Wei.

Yunlan moves to go to him. Somehow. Leaves the dappled shadow of a willow tree by a river in spring and ends up on a harsh cliff at the end of a short, cold summer. This place, Yunlan remembers—there is still dust and the acrid smell of blood in the air, though the clashing armies have faded to the ghost of a whisper in the rotting grass.

Shen Wei sits with his black cloak over his dark robes, his cowl throwing deep shadows across his face. The mask at his side is the elaborately carved one he first took off for Yunlan. His back is toward the light, and his arms are wrapped around his knees.

His pain steals Yunlan’s entire sense of self. He feels that hurt as if it were his own, and knows all the bitter nuances of it: self-loathing and remorse and a crushing sense of loss so heavy it is impossible to get away from the black hole of grief pulling him in. But then Yunlan sees the wet tracks of tears down Shen Wei’s face.

Yunlan has never seen Shen Wei cry. In the face of that, he can’t not move. His need is such that he forces this place to make it so that he is here, really here—then he uses legs he shouldn't have to close the distance between them, and makes arms to reach for Shen Wei as he kneels, and hands to cup that tear-stained face. And when Shen Wei draws back Yunlan wills himself to have lungs pulling in air he can turn into sound to say, “Shen Wei. Ah, my Xiao Wei.”

Shen Wei freezes, staring at Yunlan with such terrible disbelief—like he doesn’t believe Yunlan is here, like he doesn’t believe Yunlan could ever be anywhere near him.

“It’s okay,” Yunlan tries to smile, but everything hurts so much. Like lungs were a bad idea because now his breath can stop with the pain he feels, and that is making everything harder. He tries to ignore it, and pushes Shen Wei’s hood back so they can see each other properly. Shen Wei’s hair is long and delicately braided, and his skin is so pale that it makes Yunlan afraid. “I’m so glad I found you,” Yunlan manages to say, as Shen Wei stares at him, broken-hearted.

“Zhao Yunlan?”

“Yeah.” Yunlan strokes Shen Wei’s face, thumbs brushing away the tears pooled at the reddened corners of his eyes. The wet, bitter taste of them is suddenly in his mouth, in his nose—drowning him, Yunlan realizes, because for all that he wants this to be real, it’s not. It’s—something else. Somewhere else. But he does what he can, gasping for breath as the body he has forced himself into begins to run like smudged ink.

“Please come back, okay? I can’t—” the world flickers, but Yunlan clings on. “I can’t stay, so you have to come to me. Please, Xiao Wei. I want to see you.” Yunlan thinks he manages a smile, but he doesn’t see if Shen Wei returns it.

He’s distracted by a glimpse of movement—a figure that has been hiding behind Shen Wei’s back. Small fists locked around the folds of Shen Wei’s cloak, and a child’s scared face—large and luminous eyes framed by long lashes, set in features so familiar they could be a much younger Shen Wei’s, but are not. Dark of hair and frail of body, Yunlan knows who this is—preserved here in Shen Wei’s memory like he isn’t anywhere else. Possibly not even in his own mind.

“You have to let him go,” Yunlan says, though he doesn’t really have anything left to speak with. “You can’t hold him here.”

The slender hands tighten defiantly on Shen Wei’s cloak. “Don’t you understand?” The words come tumbling out as everything sways and flows away. “You’re hurting him!”

Zhao Yunlan sits up with a startled gasp and very nearly ends up cracking Da Qing’s jaw with his skull. Only feline reflexes and a willingness to let Zhao Yunlan go tumbling back to the floor saves them from a painful collision. Zhao Yunlan does manage to catch himself, and crosses his legs so he’s sitting more steadily while he gets his breath back after that—nightmare? Something—bad. Zhao Yunlan rubs his head, trying to make sense of it. Something terrible was happening, just now, just before he ended up—on the floor of the SID offices?

But after they left Dixing. Which was just now, so—”What happened?” he asks of the legs gathered around him. He looks around, but he’s surrounded by his team, and all he can see is floor and desks. “Where’s Shen Wei?”

Da Qing snorts, and looks up at the others. “Okay, fine. Second question,” he says, wrapping up whatever discussion was going on before Zhao Yunlan came to. Then he turns to Zhao Yunlan. “Professor Shen is right here. Still out cold. And that Ye Zun, too. Just like you were when you fell out of the portal, like—uh. Some minutes ago?”

“Five,” Lin Jing supplies. “Maybe closer to six, now.”

Zhao Yunlan shakes his head. It feels heavy and cobwebby, like he’s been out for ages. His mouth tastes of—seawater? Putting a hand out, Da Qing offers his shoulder, and with his deputy’s assistance Zhao Yunlan struggles to his feet. Da Qing stays within reach as Zhao Yunlan wobbles over to lean on the back of the couch. His team have taken Shen Wei and Ye Zun both and laid them out on their sturdy table. It’s—disturbing. Calling to mind morgue tables and biers. Zhao Yunlan hobbles closer, grabbing Shen Wei’s hand in his before sprawling back on the cushions.

Shen Wei's pulse is slow but steady. His breathing is even. Whatever is wrong with him, at least Shen Wei isn't getting worse. And maybe—maybe all he needs is a little time and he'll wake up. Zhao Yunlan squeezes Shen Wei's hand. "Come on." He really doesn't want to send Shen Wei off to be hooked up to Lin Jing's scanner in the lab when his team need him here. Better to keep watch himself, just for a while longer. Keep watch on both twins. Ye Zun's breathing is far slower than Shen Wei's, and he doesn't seem like he's waking up any time soon. Eventually Zhao Yunlan will have to figure out where to put him, but for now it feels safer to have him where everyone can keep an eye on him.

“Welcome back, Chief Zhao!”

Zhao Yunlan snaps out of his thoughts to find Wang Zheng beaming at him, and he smiles at her. Immediately, it brings a stab of pain to his chest, and he has to suppress a wince. “What did we miss?” Zhao Yunlan asks, hoping to keep everyone on track as he gingerly probes his ribcage for bruises, finding nothing.

“M-many things!” Sang Zan answers cheerfully where he strides up next to Wang Zheng. “Beginning to be good, I think?”

Wang Zheng nods. “Yes. I have been keeping a briefing file up to date with the latest developments, but there are only...” she frowns, considering. “Only another five or so outstanding emergencies. I will check in with Minister Guo to confirm after this.”

“Minister Guo? Not Gao?”

Wang Zheng smirks. “Not anymore.”

That gets a chuckle. “Well done to your uncle,” Zhao Yunlan says over his shoulder to Xiao Guo, who looks pleasantly astounded.

Apparently Minister Gao sent someone to shut down the SID. They found the only staff remaining on the premises literally impossible to arrest, with everyone else—down to the old custodian visiting family out of town—completely vanished. And things went downhill for the minister from there.

Wang Zheng finishes the condensed briefing with a congratulatory message from Guo Ying, and then they set to work. Wang Zheng earns Zhao Yunlan's eternal gratitude by bringing him painkillers and a bag of lollipops without even being asked. The others are busy at their workstations, catching up with Wang Zheng’s extended briefing and all supplementary materials attached. Communications have been restored, so Zhao Yunlan makes a few calls to allies like Cong Bo and Li Qian—checking in to see how they’re doing, getting more first-hand information on all he’s missed. Light is streaming in from the windows, traffic is a honking, rumbling mess outside, and there is only a hint of smoke in the air from the last fires being put out in Dragon City. It almost feels like an ordinary—if extraordinarily busy—day in the office.

Almost. Except for Shen Wei’s hand in Zhao Yunlan’s—warm now, from being held for so long. Except for Shen Wei’s twin lying next to him, pale and quiet, both of them still—still asleep. Zhao Yunlan had been hoping Shen Wei would join them, but—

“Lin Jing,” Zhao Yunlan calls, and his scientist is quick to appear by the couch.


“You and Sang Zan take Shen Wei to the lab. I want your instruments monitoring him. See if you can figure out what's up, why he won't wake up.”

Lin Jing grimaces, but he nods. “Sure thing, Boss”

“And then, Ye Zun…” Zhao Yunlan sighs at the way Lin Jing flinches at the name. “Take some of the mats from the gym, and put him in the interrogation room.” It's the safest place Zhao Yunlan has been able to think of.

“Um. I still have some of those cuffs, should I…”

Zhao Yunlan waves the suggestion aside. He’s pretty sure the last thing Ye Zun needs is to wake up in chains. “Just lock the door,” he says. “Someone can watch him, and let me know as soon as he wakes up. But then go check up on Shen Wei, okay?”

Lin Jing nods, and dashes off to fulfil his orders. In the end, though, Lin Jing can’t stay to monitor Shen Wei’s vitals. He is needed elsewhere.

They all are.

Even security forces briefed by Xiao Guo’s uncle can only do so much against violent, terrified Dixing scouts and saboteurs finding themselves cut off from their home and all-knowing commander in a strange city under a bright sun. One by one, Zhao Yunlan dispatches his team to deal with the ongoing emergencies, until he’s the only one awake and alive in Bright Street #4. Wang Zheng is taking care of communications and coordinating the incoming information, but trails along when Zhao Yunlan sets Sang Zan up to watch Ye Zun. He looks at Zhao Yunlan as if expecting orders to do more than watch, but Zhao Yunlan just gives him a pat on a semi-solid shoulder. “Don’t let him leave. But if he wakes—try not to scare him?”

Sang Zan gives Zhao Yunlan a highly dubious look. “H-he is evil. H-he is not scared.” Wang Zheng nods fiercely.

Zhao Yunlan looks through the one-way mirror glass at Ye Zun laid out on their interrogation room floor . “He was a slave, once,” he says quietly, and Sang Zan’s ghostly face goes an impossible shade paler. His mouth opens, but he has no vocabulary for whatever he wants to say.

Wang Zheng looks stricken, and she takes Sang Zan’s hand. Without turning her full, worried attention from her love, she asks, “But not Professor Shen?”

“Ye Zun was taken as a kid,” Zhao Yunlan explains, and Wang Zheng exclaims sharply in her native Hanga—she finds it uncouth to swear so that others can understand.

Sang Zan still hasn’t found words, not in any language. Instead he nods, violently, and goes to press one hand against the glass, staring in.

It’s good that some of them understand, Zhao Yunlan thinks as he heads back to the lab. Ye Zun’s past—well, he might not want to share it, but considering what else Zhao Yunlan’s team know of him, this is probably the better option. And then when he wakes up…

When they both wake up. Zhao Yunlan slumps in Lin Jing’s chair, hijacked for its superior comfort, and grabs Shen Wei’s hand again. Fidgets with it, stroking Shen Wei’s soft palm—a professor’s, now, not a sword-calloused warrior’s—and tracing the beautiful fingers with his own. Lingers a bit on the fourth finger of the left hand, lets it slide between his fingertips as he spends all of two seconds debating whether now is really a good time. Of course it’s a good time—it’s not like he’s going to catch Shen Wei napping any other way.

It takes a bit of poking around Lin Jing’s drawers, but Zhao Yunlan finds a piece of ordinary packing twine. After a quick search on his phone to make sure he has the measurement technique down—he does—he’s winding bits of string around Shen Wei’s finger. He does it three times, to get it just right. It’s something he was missing last time he was idly window-shopping for a suitable pair of rings. Which Shen Wei might hate and never wear—they’re not very traditional—but Zhao Yunlan wants one, once they’ve—if Shen Wei still wants—after.

Having those strings in his pocket brings a funny, warm fizzing to his heart. It's so good it numbs the pain he feels when he takes Shen Wei's limp hand in his and tries to smile.

Then his newly charged phone pings with another message, and reading it wipes that smile from his face. Director Zhao Xinci, pointedly requesting a report in person on the "situation", as he's calling it, from the chief of the SID. It’s completely unnecessary, of course—Wang Zheng’s reports are faultless, and he trusts his team to take care of matters without him. And more importantly, Zhao Yunlan is not leaving Shen Wei to wake up alone.

He’s not. And if that’s a problem with the Haixing Ministry of Supervision, they can find a new SID chief to report to them.

“Hear that?” Zhao Yunlan tells Shen Wei as he flicks the message off his screen, unanswered. “I’m totally getting fired for you.” Or not. Given the enormous mess the SID is caught in the middle of, it would be foolish of anyone to step in and take over when they can just keep Zhao Yunlan around and save themselves the trouble. Either way, Shen Wei doesn’t react anymore than he has to any of the other things Zhao Yunlan has said or done, all the time he has been sitting here.

Shen Wei has been out for hours by now—it was Dixing-day when they left (Zhao Yunlan was glad to get a quick look at the Lantern, at the entire city below it bathed in its radiance), and day when they returned, but now the frosted skylights above are showing nothing but dark blue. The lab’s overhead lights are still off, leaving the lights over the medical table Shen Wei is on the brightest thing in the room. It makes his yellow jade pendant glow, but washes him out, turning him as white as the undershirt and electrodes he is wearing. Lin Jing has gone over the graphs they produce, but Zhao Yunlan is keeping two fingers resting on the slow, steady pulse in Shen Wei’s wrist. It feels more real than what he can see on the screen next to him.

And those readings don’t explain why Shen Wei isn’t waking up. Zhao Yunlan doesn’t think that’s simply because Lin Jing isn’t, as he reminded his chief, an actual doctor. But what’s keeping Shen Wei from waking—from being with Zhao Yunlan…

“I’ve told you—it’s okay,” Zhao Yunlan says, and attempts another smile. It hurts again, as it has been ever since they came back from Dixing. And every time the pain brings something almost like a memory of a dream, for all that it’s been so very long since he got any proper sleep. (It was in his cozy room in the Alliance’s caves. Xiao Wei had been there, so sleep had come easy, both of them pleasantly exhausted and as perfectly safe as they would ever get.) So maybe not a dream, but still—pain. And not all his own, either. That much Zhao Yunlan can feel through the weakened bond between him and Shen Wei, though Lin Jing’s instruments have no opinion on the matter. Shen Wei isn’t awake, but he is hurting.

“If you’re staying away because you think I’m—” What? Angry? Hurt? It has been so long for Zhao Yunlan, that terrible, terrifying experience of having Shen Wei there, but wrong, that he can’t quite remember what he must have made Shen Wei think. Even knowing it was Ye Zun behind every cold look and pointed silence—if Shen Wei is taking refuge away from his body, Zhao Yunlan must have…done something, back then.

A memory unfolds, crisp edges sharp enough to cut. Late night, here in Bright Street #4. Telling Shen Wei to go away—to leave him alone. Another follows: Zhao Yunlan blocking Shen Wei's attempt to reach out and touch his shoulder.

Zhao Yunlan swallows hard, bringing Shen Wei’s hand to his lips, and kisses the back of it. It’s been so long for him that he’s managed to forget—Xiao Wei has helped him forget—but all of that is still completely fresh in Shen Wei’s own memory. “If it’s anything I said—I take it back. You know I do, you know I’d never want to be without you, so please…” His throat is closing up, and his last words come out choked. “I love you.”

Zhao Yunlan leans his forehead against Shen Wei’s hand in both of his, and just breathes. Feels for that connection, where the pain is coming from. Empties his mind—and then gets distracted by how very strange it is that he can. Shouldn’t he, at some point, spend some time dealing with the fact that he very, very nearly died? And in a manner so unpleasant it makes him wince at the memory—which comes without any particular impressions attached. It certainly happened—he hasn’t forgotten—but something about the whole experience feels so far removed it’s like he’s had a lifetime to put it behind him. Huh. Well, the Dial must have done a good job healing him up, and he’s happy to leave it at that.

What he can’t leave and can’t ignore is Shen Wei like this. And Zhao Yunlan has tried everything—threatened and cajoled and teased and… everything that would usually get a reaction out of Shen Wei. Except he’s not waking up, and Ye Zun is not waking up, and Ye Zun did something to Shen Wei and what if it’s permanent and what if—

In constant motion, travelling through time and between the realms and putting his life on the line more times than he can really count, Zhao Yunlan always had something he could do. Other than those achingly lonely nights without Xiao Wei, there has hardly been any time at all for what-ifs. Zhao Yunlan has been all plans and decisions, putting things right one action at a time—and now there’s nothing left for him to do and he doesn’t know how to handle it. How to keep pushing through this perfectly excruciating fear—this what if that threatens everything—without being able to do anything at all about it. That is forcing him to just sit here and face the possibility of losing Shen Wei forever.

Mind definitely the opposite of empty now, Zhao Yunlan draws a shaky breath. Tries to go back to being focused and intent on finding answers—maybe using that thread of a connection he can feel; there’s got to be some way of doing that—but he’s too much of a fucking mess to even try now, because—what if.

Zhao Yunlan’s knuckles itch with the warm dampness on them, but he doesn’t want to let go of Shen Wei even long enough to wipe the tears away. He’s getting Shen Wei's hand wet too, and it makes him feel ridiculously wretched that he can’t even not cry on his boyfriend, and he almost laughs at how badly he’s crumbling except everything hurts too much. Chest tight and aching, heart a stupid mess of despair, Zhao Yunlan stops trying to do anything but hold on.

The grip tightening against Zhao Yunlan’s hand hardly registers—he’s been clutching Shen Wei’s for so long his fingers have gone numb. And his eyes are screwed shut so hard he doesn’t notice the shadow fall across the harsh light of the medical table. Really, as far as he’s concerned everything is dark and wretched and absolutely terrible—and then his world explodes into light when he hears Shen Wei whisper, “Zhao Yunlan,” and opens his eyes to see Shen Wei sitting up and looking at him.

Chapter Text

Shen Wei. Sitting up. Awake, and free of the electrodes. Zhao Yunlan’s heart stops, then starts doing a hundred beats a second to make up for it. Shen Wei doesn’t move, and the broken devastation in his eyes is all Zhao Yunlan bothers taking in before he lets go of Shen Wei’s hand to wrap himself around Shen Wei’s body. He throws himself out of the chair, getting his arms around Shen Wei’s bare shoulders and his face into Shen Wei’s hair, murmuring his name over and over again because there’s nothing else he can even think to do.

There are careful hands bracketing his waist—too careful. It feels like they’re only there to steady him rather than let Shen Wei return the embrace, and that—Zhao Yunlan pulls back, rubs at his face with the back of his hand and absently wipes his sleeve through Shen Wei’s hair, leaving it slightly drier and in complete disarray. “Shen Wei. What’s wrong?” Zhao Yunlan reluctantly lets Shen Wei go. Takes a step back.

Shen Wei gets up, landing lightly on his feet. Standing eye to eye, Shen Wei is—not. Isn’t meeting Zhao Yunlan’s eyes, and his hands have fallen from Zhao Yunlan’s sides. He is radiating an aching sorrow and terrible fear—enough that Zhao Yunlan looks around just to make sure they’re still where he thinks they are. Safe in the SID, no enemies in sight—not even Sang Zan come to warn them that Ye Zun is waking.

Zhao Yunlan swallows. “Shen Wei? Are you okay? Did Ye Zun do something, are your memories…?”

Shen Wei looks up, startled. His pale lips part around a silent burst of air—laugh? Or sob? Zhao Yunlan can’t tell and it’s wretched, because something is wrong—something is still wrong, even after all this, and he doesn’t know how to fix it. Doesn't know what to do other than to stand there and wait for an answer with his heart beating too fast and too loud in his ears. What if Shen Wei really has forgotten all about—everything. Has forgotten everything but Zhao Yunlan’s name, and that’s why he’s not—anything.

All the words Zhao Yunlan can think of saying are clogging up his throat, choking him with doubt. Before he can dislodge a single one, Shen Wei moves.

Steps past Zhao Yunlan into the center of the lab, and it hurts, to see him leave. Hurts for a whole couple of seconds until Shen Wei stops, and turns around, and Zhao Yunlan is entirely confused because Shen Wei is still not looking him in the eye but he’s also not leaving so—what?

With crisp, careful movements, Shen Wei kneels on the floor—Zhao Yunlan’s jaw heading in the same direction—and then executes the deepest, most flawless prostration Zhao Yunlan has ever seen outside of a historical drama.

It’s so fucking weird, seeing it in real life—seeing Shen Wei do it in his undershirt and his fine gray pants—that Zhao Yunlan just stares, frozen, too shocked to do anything at all. It takes the dull thump of Shen Wei’s forehead hitting the floor—actually hitting it, hard enough to make a sound—for Zhao Yunlan to react.

“What the fuck,” he yells, and throws himself on Shen Wei in a tackle, interrupting any more contact between Shen Wei’s head and the floor.

It apparently comes as a surprise—as if Shen Wei somehow seriously believed Zhao Yunlan was just going to stand there and let him—because Shen Wei falls over onto his side. Zhao Yunlan goes after him and there’s a moment where everything is knees and elbows and cold, hard floor. He gasps, grabbing what he can of Shen Wei to haul themselves upright and then they’re both more or less back to sitting.

Zhao Yunlan has one hand bunched in the front of Shen Wei’s undershirt, the other between Shen Wei’s shoulder blades. Shen Wei has a hand locked around Zhao Yunlan’s arm. There’s hardly any distance at all between their faces—Shen Wei isn’t wearing his glasses, and his hair is in wild disarray, and Zhao Yunlan really, really can’t be expected to keep from kissing him.

It’s nothing but a brush of his lips against Shen Wei’s dry ones—but then Shen Wei’s mouth opens and it’s warm and inviting and Zhao Yunlan shuts his eyes and leans in and it’s so, so good. He slides his hand from Shen Wei’s back to his nape, pressing even closer as Shen Wei lets out a devastated, shuddering sigh—Zhao Yunlan breathes it in, chest constricting around it as he deepens the kiss.

Oxygen is not happening as much as it should be, and still Zhao Yunlan can’t bring himself to let Shen Wei stop the first couple of times he tries. They are both panting when they fall apart, and Zhao Yunlan stares hard at Shen Wei, because—clearly Shen Wei’s memories are in good working order. Good enough to know exactly how Zhao Yunlan likes to be kissed. So back to the pertinent question he still hasn't received an answer to. ”Shen Wei. What the fuck?”

Shen Wei’s eyes are very wide. They shine as if with fever—or unshed tears. Some of the despair has gone out of them, and been replaced by hazy confusion and a terrible, sharp longing that Zhao Yunlan wants all to himself. “I—” Shen Wei says and swallows.

Zhao Yunlan straight up climbs into Shen Wei’s lap, giving him the advantage of height as he stares down at his most beautiful, most confusing love. “Yes?”

“I didn’t realize, before—when I had the wrong memories, I couldn’t—”

Shen Wei is stuttering, and Zhao Yunlan takes a deep breath, resolving to be calm and patient and not swear at Shen Wei anymore, right now, this very moment. “It’s okay,” he says.

This gets him a miserable quiver of Shen Wei’s lips. “No. No it’s not. Before, I didn’t realize—I knew what I had done, and yet it was as if those actions did not matter. But now—” Shen Wei visibly steels himself. “I remember now. Everything. And I needed—I know I could never apologize for what all that I’ve done to you, but I wanted to show—”

Zhao Yunlan interrupts Shen Wei with a helpless, joyful laugh, as he wraps a fist in Shen Wei’s undershirt and gives him the gentlest of shakes, because Shen Wei might just have made his heart explode a little. “Xiao Wei. Baby. Apologize?

Shen Wei nods, looking too wretched for words. “I—” His voice actually breaks, and he goes on in a horrified whisper, “I tried to kill you.” As soon as the words are out of his mouth, Shen Wei tries to pull away.

And Shen Wei might have all the strength of the Black-Cloaked Envoy, but Zhao Yunlan has the accumulated pain of every time he was forced to let Shen Wei go piercing his heart anew. This time, he holds on. Shen Wei remembers. Shen Wei loves him. And Zhao Yunlan is never letting go again—certainly not to let Shen Wei go destroy himself in guilt.

“It’s okay,” Zhao Yunlan murmurs, deciding against pointing out the attempted killing hadn’t been a particularly good one. Trying to help Shen Wei after the pillar’s chains broke, Zhao Yunlan had been entirely distracted by the fear-tinged fury in Shen Wei’s eyes, and had barely noticed that attack. “It’s okay. It was Ye Zun—I know.”

“Zhao Yunlan,” Shen Wei says, looking at him with profound dismay. “I am the one who attacked you—not my brother. I did that! And then, in Professor Ouyang’s lab—you were dying, and I did nothing. Did nothing for so long it might have—it—”

“Baby. You saved my life,” Zhao Yunlan says, and he’s smiling, and it doesn’t hurt when he remembers how good it felt, having Shen Wei caring for him, even with a scrambled brain and fucked-up memories.

“I hesitated,” Shen Wei says, the word pure anguish.

And that does hurt. It hurts to know how Shen Wei hates himself in this moment, but Zhao Yunlan certainly loves Shen Wei enough for two. No matter how long it takes, he will shove every single scrap of that self-loathing out of Shen Wei’s heart and replace it with the tender wonder he feels right now. “You saved me,” Zhao Yunlan repeats, and runs a hand through Shen Wei’s hair. He’s not just saying that—the memory of it is making him lighter, and even if he wanted to he couldn’t contain the adoration he feels for the man in his arms. “Everything Ye Zun had done to you, and you still protected me. Everything you thought I’d done, and you still reached for me.” His voice cracks, and he laughs. It’s all—so much. The relief, the joy—Shen Wei’s unearned, unasked-for guilt.

“But—” Shen Wei says, and Zhao Yunlan kisses him again, sweet and thorough, leaving Shen Wei’s pale skin rosy from the roughness of his beard. It’s so good to have him awake and responsive and close—Zhao Yunlan could simply revel in it, if only Shen Wei weren’t still so distraught.

“Look,” Zhao Yunlan says. “If you’d really, truly wanted to, you could have killed me any time.”

Shen Wei flinches violently at the words, and Zhao Yunlan tries calming him with a gentle hand on his cheek. “It’s okay, it’s okay. You didn’t, no matter how much Ye Zun wanted you to.” Zhao Yunlan scrunches his face up as he considers the complicated mess that is Ye Zun’s motivations. “Well, I think he wanted you to? Really, you’re going to have to go ask him. What’s important is that you didn’t.”

“But—” Shen Wei says, then he catches up with all that Zhao Yunlan has just said. “Go ask him? Ye Zun is here?” The shock written in Shen Wei’s features tells Zhao Yunlan that he was expecting something different—and the relief flooding those dark eyes makes him suspect what kind of different.

“He’s napping in the interrogation room,” Zhao Yunlan grins. “And don’t worry—he’s not hurt, and he’s not going anywhere.”

Shen Wei blinks at both statements.

“Look. Just trust me. I promise I’ll tell you all about what’s going on with our little brother once you’ve stopped trying to beat your head against the floor,” Zhao Yunlan says brightly. The fact that Ye Zun very clearly did fix Shen Wei—if not all of Shen Wei’s issues—is making his cheerfulness when discussing their Xiao Zun come easy.

“Our?” It’s a startled breath of a question.

Zhao Yunlan shrugs. “He’s family now. But have you? My knees really don’t want me to have to tackle you again.”

Shen Wei looks up, and the hint of an amused quirk of his lips is the most beautiful damn thing Zhao Yunlan has ever seen in his life. “Zhao Yunlan. I will gladly do whatever it takes to gain your forgiveness. But if this way hurts your knees, then of course I will refrain.”

Baby,” Zhao Yunlan says, fond and exasperated and not entirely sure whether Shen Wei is possibly teasing him. “There is nothing to forgive. Nothing, okay? I mean—if anyone should be grovelling it’s me, after I—I wasn’t even brainwashed and I—” He drags an unsteady breath into his still-aching chest, and Shen Wei frowns and runs a soothing hand down Zhao Yunlan’s spine.


He could protest that it’s nothing—a bad memory, a stupid throwaway remark—but that would hardly be honest. "I told you to leave me alone,” Zhao Yunlan whispers. “I wouldn’t let you touch me. And then I didn’t know if you were ever waking up, and I thought—”

This time Shen Wei is the one who pulls him down for a kiss. Soft and gentle, and the tender way his face is cradled threatens to make Zhao Yunlan come apart again. So he breathes, and leans into Shen Wei, into a kiss that tastes of nothing but them, of coming together in a way that is so good and so right that it soothes away the worst knots of hurt from everything Zhao Yunlan can remember to regret.

“Xiao Zun is such a dick,” Zhao Yunlan says when he has it together enough to sit back up.

Shen Wei smiles remorsefully. “I should have warned you about him,” he says.

Zhao Yunlan snorts. “Yeah, well, I don’t have the Hallows anymore, so there’s no point in dwelling on what we should or shouldn’t have done.” Shen Wei’s eyes widen at the mention of the Hallows, and Zhao Yunlan wonders if they’re both thinking that they have a lot to talk about when a flare of pins and needles in his leg distracts him.

He winces. “And I wasn’t kidding about my knees.” Even straddling Shen Wei, the floor below is hard.

“You said Ye Zun was—confined?”

“Yeah,” Zhao Yunlan confirms. “We can go see him, if you’d like?”

“Yes.” The relief in Shen Wei’s answer is followed by a quick, hard swallow. “That is, if it’s all right?”

“Sure,” Zhao Yunlan says, and heaves himself upright, a hand on Shen Wei’s shoulder for balance. There are a lot of things he’d rather do with Shen Wei right now than visit Ye Zun, but he understands. Shen Wei hasn’t seen his brother since falling unconscious on Zhao Yunlan, and before that—well. Zhao Yunlan gets it.

Shen Wei doesn’t even pause to put a shirt on before heading to the interrogation room, which Zhao Yunlan appreciates very much. On the way, Zhao Yunlan quickly fills him in on the most important parts of what he missed. Sang Zan is still standing quietly by the two-way mirror, but smiles widely as he turns and spots them. “Professor Shen!”

“He’s still sleeping?” Zhao Yunlan asks, though Sang Zen’s stance wouldn’t be nearly so relaxed if Ye Zun’s condition had changed.

Sang Zan nods, and opens the door for them, waiting respectfully outside as they enter.

Ye Zun has been laid in the rescue position, on his side with a hand under his head. His white robes are wrinkled, but someone has taken the time to make sure they are tidily arranged. Shen Wei kneels by his brother’s head, and Zhao Yunlan crouches next to them. Ye Zun’s eyes are closed, his face slack. Shen Wei doesn’t seem alarmed at that, or the long silence between each breath.

Sad, yes. And—tender, the quality of the emotion subtly different from any Zhao Yunlan has seen on Shen Wei’s face before. Shen Wei places a gentle hand on Ye Zun’s head. There’s dark energy lapping at the sides of his palm.

“How's he doing?” Zhao Yunlan asks, keeping his voice low.

Shen Wei takes a few moments, eyes closed in concentration. Then he sits back, eyes wide and shining. “They’re all gone,” he says.

Zhao Yunlan doesn’t need to ask what’s gone. The powers—Ye Zun’s stolen powers, given over to the very Hallows Ye Zun once sought to possess. “I told you,” Zhao Yunlan says. “They’re in the Awl, most of them. I think.”


“No idea,” Zhao Yunlan shrugs. “You know how the Hallows are.” He looks at Shen Wei carefully studying his brother. “But his own power—the one he used to take those others. Does he still have that one, you think?” Because that Zhao Yunlan hasn’t been able to tell. Ye Zun didn’t use it on him—but Ye Zun was terrified of him, and he had two of the Hallows at the time.

Shen Wei reaches out again, eyes closed, dark energy dancing between his fingers. He sits like that for long moments, then stops. He sighs, pulling back and shaking his head. “I cannot say, Zhao Yunlan.” He says it calmly—as calmly as a sheet of ice on a stormy lake makes the weather seem calm if you’re only looking at the water. But Zhao Yunlan can read Shen Wei, can feel Shen Wei.

“Shen Wei. I was just wondering—we’re still keeping him here.” Zhao Yunlan sees the surprise in Shen Wei’s eyes, and gives a wry smile. “I mean, it would be good to know if you think there’s a chance he’s about to try something again right now?”

“Oh. No.” Shen Wei is apparently still processing that he hasn’t doomed Ye Zun to getting kicked back to Dixing or whatever he feared would happen after he failed to prove his brother de-powered and harmless, because he blinks twice before picking up on Zhao Yunlan’s nod to go on.

“No, his energies are far too weak, and in a state of—of disarray.”

Zhao Yunlan nods. That’s no surprise. He can’t feel those energies himself, not anymore, but what he did with the Awl—’disarray’ sounds downright mild and clinical. “And that’s why you don’t know?” Because Ye Zun has been too badly mangled by the Hallows for even Shen Wei to make sense of what’s left.


“Okay,” Zhao Yunlan says. “So we don’t know for sure if he’s still got his own power, but either way he’s not about to use it on us.”

“Yes. When he wakes, it might be easier to tell.”

“Alright. And when do you think that’ll be?”

Shen Wei hesitates, frowning. “I don’t know. His sleep—it’s very deep.”

“Is that bad?” Zhao Yunlan is half-expecting an affirmative answer—another emergency coming between him and Shen Wei.

“No. As far as I can tell, there is nothing wrong with his body.”

Just his mind, then. But Shen Wei woke, and so—surely Ye Zun will as well. Zhao Yunlan relaxes with a sigh, tired enough right then to envy Ye Zun his deep sleep.

Shen Wei brushes a few stray strands of silver hair from Ye Zun’s face, as hesitantly as if he’s afraid his touch will hurt his brother. Zhao Yunlan gives Shen Wei’s shoulder a squeeze. “He’ll be okay,” he says, and finds himself hoping that it is true.

Shen Wei nods.

“Do you want to stay here for a while?” Zhao Yunlan asks. “I could—” And that’s as far as he gets before Shen Wei stands, sweeping him into a tight embrace, and also a portal limned with dark energy. This time, there are no side trips, no in-betweens, no flashes of past or future. There is only the SID’s lab one moment, and then the next: home.

Chapter Text

Zhao Yunlan knows it by scent before he blinks the slight dizziness of the portal from his eyes. He perceives the smell of the place like you only do after a long absence—but it has been but a few days here, so of course nothing at all has changed. There are the lingering traces of the incense he lights to contact Dixing, and of the inviting cooking odors that are the hallmark of this apartment being their shared home, now. There is a faint staleness from unwashed sheets—a reminder that Zhao Yunlan had to go multiple nights without Shen Wei—and leather and cat fur and more things than he can identify but that make this his place. His and Shen Wei’s.

If Zhao Yunlan could still use portals himself, he couldn’t have resisted dropping Shen Wei in their bed. Shen Wei has deposited them just inside the door, and has a hand on Zhao Yunlan’s lower back to steady him as he finds his balance. “Would you like some tea?” Shen Wei says then—ridiculously, like he’s just come home from a day at the university, and Zhao Yunlan’s face splits into a grin because they’re home, and Shen Wei is back, and his phone isn’t ringing to alert him of any emergencies.

“Like I’d let you out of my reach for tea,” Zhao Yunlan says, and Shen Wei rewards him by looking adorably taken aback, like the idea that tea would take an astronomical second place to his presence never even crossed his mind. No food or drink could be as satisfying as it is to grab Shen Wei by the wrist and drag him over to—to the couch, because the bed will have to wait until Zhao Yunlan can be absolutely sure Shen Wei will still be there when he wakes up, and not—off in some dark hole somewhere doing penitence or something.

Zhao Yunlan releases Shen Wei to sprawl in his favorite corner with a deep and satisfied sigh. “It’s good to be home,” he says, and then the fucking phone rings and he almost jumps out of his skin.

It’s Wang Zheng, so he gives Shen Wei a very apologetic grimace and then accepts the call with a brusque, “What?”

“Chief Zhao! Where are you? I’m in the lab—Professor Shen is missing!”

“Ah,” Zhao Yunlan grins sheepishly at the phone, which Wang Zheng can’t see. Sang Zan must still be standing faithful guard, as his negligent chief never asked him to tell Wang Zheng what had happened. “Sorry about that. Uh. Everything is under control—Shen Wei’s awake, and we. We ended up at home?” He feels himself wincing. Maybe he should fire himself and save everyone the trouble.

But Wang Zheng doesn’t scold him, only exclaims a joyful, “Oh!” Then she asks, “And you are both in your apartment?” Now it sounds like she is grinning.

“Yeah, look—”

“I will call back if there are any emergencies, or any news on Professor Shen’s brother,” Wang Zheng says, cutting his attempted explanation short. “We shouldn’t bother you while you’re on sick leave.”

“I’m not on—”

“Please take care of yourself, Chief Zhao,” Wang Zheng chirps. “And of Professor Shen.” She is definitely grinning as she hangs up.

Zhao Yunlan stares at the screen, and then chuckles helplessly—they’re better than he deserves, sometimes, his SID family. He puts the phone down to stare at something much better.

Shen Wei is sitting stiffly in the couch, hands on his knees, arms still bare in a deliciously distracting way. Zhao Yunlan isn’t going to mention that, though, because if he does Shen Wei might take it as an incentive to leave the couch and put more clothes on, which would be tragic.

Shen Wei has at least angled his body towards Zhao Yunlan, and smiles ruefully. “I’m sorry. I should have let you notify the others of your departure.”

“I liked my departure just fine,” Zhao Yunlan waves that apology—Shen Wei is so terribly full of them—away. “They can handle things without me. But you—” Zhao Yunlan gathers his legs under him and scoots close enough to stroke Shen Wei’s cheek. “I finally have you back. My Xiao Wei.”

Shen Wei doesn’t pull away from Zhao Yunlan’s touch, and his eyes soften at the endearment. But he can read traces of anguish there, and in the way he holds himself, and knows that left to his own devices, Shen Wei will choose to apologize and keep apologizing. He’s opening his mouth around another one right now—Zhao Yunlan can tell, he can see it as clearly as if using a Hallow’s prescience—and he won’t have it. Won’t have Shen Wei wondering if Zhao Yunlan really wants him, if Zhao Yunlan really thinks he’s good enough or whatever fool thing is going through his ridiculous head. Before Shen Wei can get the apology out, Zhao Yunlan places both hands on Shen Wei’s over his knees, holding him neatly in place as the words come in a rush.

“Marry me?”

Shen Wei stares at Zhao Yunlan. Cannot believe the words he just heard, though Zhao Yunlan is somehow beaming while exuding a shy apprehension that would go well with the question.

“What?” Shen Wei feels he should say more, but that is really all he can do right now. Zhao Yunlan’s hands on his are very warm, enough that they are making his own palms damp.

Zhao Yunlan smiles, blindingly beautiful and bright, and cocks his head to the side. “Didn’t you hear?”

“I—” Shen Wei’s mind is terrifyingly blank all of a sudden. He did hear, of course he did. But he doesn’t know how to respond to something that he could never—something he has never conceived of and that isn’t supposed to be for him, not for anyone like him. And how could Zhao Yunlan ask now, after all Shen Wei has done—after all the harm he has caused and everything he has allowed to happen to Zhao Yunlan—

Zhao Yunlan laughs, quiet and self-deprecating. “I was going to make it a real proposal,” he says. “With a ring and everything. Maybe have Cong Bo film it.” He makes a sound like a sigh, but it is full of amusement as he keeps looking at Shen Wei, earnest and hopeful and not at all afraid.

“Why?” Shen Wei realizes his mouth has gone dry when the word comes out more croak than question.

“Why I wanted a real proposal?” Zhao Yunlan looks mildly affronted. “Because it’s you. And you deserve the best of everything, so the least I can do is give you the best I can do, and—”

“No.” Shen Wei shakes his head, Zhao Yunlan’s weight still pinning his hands to his knees. “Why—why would you want—why—”

There’s a shadow of hurt in Zhao Yunlan’s eyes, and Shen Wei stops before it can grow to darken his smile. “Xiao Wei, baby. My love. Please tell me you’re going to ask why a hopeless bachelor like myself wants to get married? Because if you ask me why I would want to be with you forever—” It makes Shen Wei despair a bit, the way Zhao Yunlan’s smile tightens into something he’s holding in place over more fragile feelings. Of course that was going to be his question—especially now, after everything he has forced Zhao Yunlan to endure.

Zhao Yunlan takes a deep breath. “Okay, fine. Before you answer—is there anyone else you’re planning on being with instead?”

“No!” Shen Wei doesn’t mean for his response to come out so forcefully—Zhao Yunlan’s face twitches away from his—but. No. No, of course not, how could Zhao Yunlan ever suspect that Shen Wei’s heart could be given elsewhere?

“And me? Are you saving the Lord Guardian for some arranged marriage, or—”

“Zhao Yunlan!” The mere thought of such a transaction—with Zhao Yunlan, with Shen Wei’s Yunlan—is outrageous.

“That’s a no, then.” Zhao Yunlan grins with a look of amused satisfaction, and finally lets go of Shen Wei’s hands to lean back very slightly. “So with that out of the way—please. Shen Wei. Won’t you be my husband?”

“Husband.” Shen Wei stares at Zhao Yunlan, who says the word like—like he covets it.

“Professor Shen—surely you understand how marriage works?”

“Yes, but—”

“Marriage is when you find a person you want to be with forever, and you put them in your family registry, and you keep them in your life and you don’t ever let them go.” Zhao Yunlan’s voice grows more intense as he shifts from teasing to a kind of breathless desperation. Shen Wei leans into it, feeling Zhao Yunlan’s words prickling his skin and flowing through his blood and soaking into his bones.

“Shen Wei,” Zhao Yunlan says, sitting very still, eyes alight though his mouth has lost all but a trace of his smile. “I don’t want to let you go, ever again. I don’t.”

“Even if—”

“Your brother tried to take over the world and all that. Yes. Yes—none of that changes you. Who you are to me, who I want you to be to me.”

Shen Wei has been through battles that have left him less shaken than Zhao Yunlan’s unhesitating words. He has seen horrors and marvels the world has long forgotten, but he has seen nothing as stupefying as the look in Zhao Yunlan’s eyes as he adds, “Always.”

It is more than Shen Wei should accept—far more than he deserves. It is nothing he ever expected, for all that Zhao Yunlan has long warmed his heart with passing remarks and gentle teasing about wanting Shen Wei to stay forever. And yet it is something he wants, now, fiercely and unreservedly—too much to hold back any longer. Too much to ever have considered any other answer to Zhao Yunlan’s question.


Yunlan’s heart is floating in a sky full of fireworks as the only answer he would ever have accepted finally comes tumbling from Shen Wei’s lips. And then those lips are on Yunlan’s, neither one of them able to tolerate any distance between them. The tenderness Yunlan feels is so vast he could lose himself in it with Shen Wei forever, but then he wants to look and see and touch what gives him all this joy. Wants to make sure Shen Wei isn’t giving himself over to desperation again.

Breaking the kiss, Yunlan strokes Shen Wei’s face, grinning so hard it hurts. Shen Wei gazes up at him with adoration and an apprehension that Yunlan is aching to dispel. “Shen Wei,” he says, kissing Shen Wei’s brow, fingers winding into Shen Wei’s hair. “You waited for me, for so long. And I didn’t know—I’m so glad I know now.”

Shen Wei’s arms tighten around Yunlan’s waist, and he breathes in harshly—at the reminder of what Ye Zun made him think, or at the reminder of all the time he spent alone, Yunlan doesn’t know. “It’s okay now. You’ll be my husband and I’ll be yours, all because you waited, Xiao Wei. I’m so glad—”

There is no waiting for the next kiss, however—Shen Wei’s hands cup Yunlan’s face, tugging him close, and they’re arching into each other, the closeness sweet enough to make Yunlan moan softly as Shen Wei lets him go to nod wordlessly. His eyes are so bright—Yunlan wipes at the wetness pooling in their corners, and the gesture feels intimately familiar, though he can’t remember ever seeing Shen Wei cry before.

“You promised,” Shen Wei whispers. “I never—I never forgot that promise. Not even when Ye Zun—” His tears are flowing freely now, and Yunlan doesn’t try to stop them, only dabs at Shen Wei’s cheeks with the sleeve of his gray sweater.

“You know,” Yunlan says, “I was really jealous of Kunlun.”

That makes Shen Wei hiccup—a sob turned into a chuckle, and it’s possibly the most adorable sound Yunlan has ever heard. “Yunlan…” Shen Wei says—disbelieving and amused and still so close to breaking under all the guilt Yunlan hasn’t yet managed to lift from his shoulders.

“When you think about it though, it’s actually really flattering? How worked up you got thinking I’d died ten thousand years ago.” Yunlan has to hold Shen Wei through the spasm of guilt that brings, but he won’t let Ye Zun’s mind games hang between them. “It’s okay—you’re okay. You didn’t do anything wrong—though you should have seen my face when I finally got it.”

There are still tiny drops of moisture caught in Shen Wei’s perfect lashes, so Yunlan leans down and kisses both eyelids, and Shen Wei sighs. “I never wanted to keep those secrets from you, but—”

“You couldn’t risk it. Just like I didn’t want to lie to you, but the timeline…Who knows what that might have fucked up.” Yunlan says it with all the frustration of an experienced time traveler.

“But it’s fine—I figured it all out, of course.” Yunlan reaches out to touch the yellow jade pendant over the white cotton of his undershirt. Shen Wei stills, but doesn’t flinch. “Except for this.”

Yunlan’s fingertips stroke the smooth stone, radiating a bit of his own warmth back at him much the way Shen Wei’s skin does. He looks up at Shen Wei under his bangs, lips quirked into a questioning grin. “I never saw it on you back then. So. Did I miss something?”

Shen Wei’s hand closes around the pendant, and Yunlan takes the opportunity to kiss the top of Shen Wei’s ears, one after the other, as he waits for Shen Wei to answer.

But instead of words, Shen Wei slowly opens his fist to reveal the once-solid sphere of the pendant split open. And between what looks like two solid halves—Yunlan stares at the small and crinkled and fantastically familiar piece of plastic.

“You kept the lollipop wrapper in there?!”

Yunlan laughs so hard that Shen Wei has to keep him from falling over—he doubles over with his forehead on Shen Wei’s shoulder and laughs until his stomach hurts, and when he finally looks up and blinks the tears of mirth away, Shen Wei is looking somehow both terribly offended and infinitely fond. “That’s an idea,” Yunlan murmurs. “Maybe we can get rings made out of wrappers? Or—hey, lollipop sticks—”

Shen Wei surges up to stop Yunlan’s mouth with a kiss. And in that split second, for the first time since Yunlan tackled him, Yunlan sees almost all of his own joy reflected in Shen Wei’s eyes. They hold each other, and move together, and everything between them is heat and boundless hunger—and enough microseconds of hesitation that Yunlan knows Shen Wei is still afraid. Afraid of taking all that Yunlan wants him to have, now and forever: Yunlan’s heart and soul and life and body. Shen Wei’s—only Shen Wei’s. Just as Shen Wei has been Yunlan’s all this time—time they both know about now, longer than Yunlan could have dreamed when he first fell in love.

Time spent with Shen Wei now, and time spent with Xiao Wei back then—time enough that Yunlan knows how to start taking Shen Wei apart to get to that fear and guilt. Yunlan can’t let Shen Wei give in to that doubt—can’t let him believe that he is taking anything from Yunlan that Yunlan isn’t offering freely, with his whole heart. So it is Yunlan who takes Shen Wei to bed and gives Shen Wei what he needs, letting him hold on as Yunlan blots out the last of his tears. Murmurs endearments and forgiveness and love as he brings them together, wrecking Shen Wei as sweetly and thoroughly as the very first time Kunlun held Xiao Wei in his arms.

Just like that first time, Shen Wei refuses to let go, after. Yunlan is too exhausted to do anything at all but fall asleep right there in Shen Wei’s arms. He starts drifting off while they’re still tangled in each other, before his heart has even stopped beating wildly against Shen Wei’s chest—but not before he smiles drowsily and kisses Shen Wei’s jaw and whispers, “Love you.”

There is a moment of beautiful, warm silence when Yunlan feels Shen Wei’s smile in his own heart. Shen Wei’s hand comes up to rest on Yunlan’s head, and he sighs happily, knowing his Xiao Wei will still be there when he wakes up. The last thing Yunlan hears as he lets himself plummet into rest is Shen Wei’s voice breaking with love.

“Ah Lan.”

Zhao Yunlan sleeps. Shen Wei—waits. Watches the pulse in Zhao Yunlan’s neck flickering with life. Watches the way his hair falls as it slowly dries, the dampness of sweat giving way to an unruly softness. And as he watches, Shen Wei feels Zhao Yunlan in his heart. That bond is not gone, not even after what he did with the Awl to save Shen Wei. A little fainter now than when Zhao Yunlan is awake, but—steady.

Strong enough that Shen Wei feels the first stirrings of unease before he sees Zhao Yunlan’s eyelids flutter as a nightmare tries to take him. Shen Wei gently strokes his hair, murmuring comforting words in his ear, and slowly Zhao Yunlan settles back into a calm and gentle sleep. Shen Wei caresses a last wrinkle of tension from his brow, and Zhao Yunlan’s next breath comes with a mumbled “Xiao Wei.” It floods Shen Wei’s heart with more love than he knows what to do with, hearing his name from Zhao Yunlan’s sleeping lips.

Shen Wei means to wait and watch, not sleep. But when the night is at its coldest, Zhao Yunlan stirs again. He curls up against Shen Wei’s side, seeking either heat or comfort. Shen Wei reaches over to pull the blankets more tightly snug over him—and Zhao Yunlan wraps himself around Shen Wei with a sigh of pure satisfaction before stilling into deeper sleep. Afraid to disturb him, Shen Wei lets himself sink into the soft mattress. Feels the weight of Zhao Yunlan’s limbs slung over his body, and the damp puff of every measured exhalation against his shoulder.

There is so much joy in his heart that Shen Wei aches with it, and when Zhao Yunlan nuzzles closer yet the moment is so overpowering his lungs nearly stop. Zhao Yunlan is safe. Zhao Yunlan is here, in this now, in his arms, and Zhao Yunlan loves him. Shen Wei lowers his face into Zhao Yunlan’s hair and breathes in his beloved’s presence, again and again. Slowly, gently, the restful sweetness of this night they share allows Shen Wei to relax.

Truly relax. Half asleep and half too giddy with love to quite let go of Zhao Yunlan, Shen Wei lets the darkness envelop him. Then he is floating. Floating up into a rich and golden light—a dream of love, and home, and promises kept. It is warm and bright and perfect—but not half as much as Zhao Yunlan’s smile waiting for him when he wakes.