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Devour

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"I really don't know what 'I love you' means. I think it means 'Don't leave me here alone.'"


 Neil Gaiman

 

The house is old, dilapidated. It’s always been that way, since the first time Yunlan saw it, but twenty years without any repairs done to speak of has left the once-stately but weathered façade just this shy  of crumbling, the walls cracked and the house itself smelling of rot even from outside. It’s smaller than Yunlan remembers. Or maybe that’s because he was a kid, and everything was bigger. He doesn’t exactly have any photos to compare.

Yunlan allows himself one last moment of hesitation before he grabs the keys he’s thrown into the passenger seat. He kills the engine of the rover, hops out. The summer air is warm and muggy, and Yunlan takes a cigarette out, lights it up. Takes a deep drag that doesn’t ease the knot in his chest. Wipes off the sweat already beading his face with the end of his white shirt. When his cigarette is done he crushes the stub beneath his heel, enters the gate.

The rusted iron gate swings open with a shriek, the knocker on the front door falls off as he shoves it open, the wood swollen with rot. Rats and spiders skitter across the floor and the whole space reeks of must, and age, and forgetting. Yunlan breathes shallowly, half-grateful for the flavour of the smoke coating his tongue, stepping carefully across half-collapsing wooden floorboards. Making his way deeper in the house. Almost on autopilot, his feet remembering the way even as his memory falters, and before long he’s standing in his mother’s old kitchen, bottles of old spices still lining the shelves and utensils covered in cobwebs, standing in front of the door.

The door is big and black and carved, and in the whole house it seems the only thing untouched by time and rot. Yunlan’s hand doesn’t shake as he lifts the ring of keys, takes out the biggest, blackest, coldest key, the metal reeking of rust. Again he allows himself a moment of hesitation, willing himself to step back. To let the key fall back with the rest, staining his fingers red as he walks away. Maybe the stain will come off. Maybe it’ll mark him for life. Maybe the best thing to do is to really just forget. But Yunlan’s never been good at listening to himself.

The key turns in the lock without resistance. Yunlan twists it, and pulls. The door opens to a corridor, dusty and drowned in dark. He takes care to close the door behind him – the sound hollow and echoing in that black expanse – and walks in

- to find himself back in the kitchen, smelling of dust. Yunlan looks around him, his heart pounding, breath caught in his throat. Everything the same, everywhere, except for one thing.

A hand closes over his shoulder. Long-fingered, sharp-nailed, and the color of bone. He does not turn. Half-afraid, half-longing to see what he’ll find.

 “I knew you would be back.” Shen Wei says, and Yunlan lets out a breath, slow. 

 

--

 

“Don’t go through the door.”

Yunlan had been staring at the hem of his shirt when he met the girl. The shirt was new, white, stained with dirt from the summer-stirred dust, and Yunlan had cringed a moment when he thought about Ma, scolding him for getting it all dirty while playing. And then he remembered, and he had to blink the burn away. Swallow the lump in his throat.

He was still blinking when the girl tapped on his knee to get his attention.

“Hey! I was talking to you!” Yunlan had stared at her for a moment, then remembered to scowl. She’d been  wearing a frilly red dress and dirty sneakers, hair in those stupid-looking pigtails girls always wore – be nice, Ah Lan, he remembers Mom telling him – Her eyes were round, her mouth curved in a frown. Yunlan heard a meow and looked down. The fattest cat he’d ever seen was sitting on its haunches beside her, staring at him with big yellow eyes glowing in its dark fur.

The girl looked around her for another moment before stepping close, poking Yunlan in the ribs. Painfully.

“Ow! What’re you-“ The little girl hissed like an angry snake.

Don’t let my uncle hear I told you.” She snarled. “Don’t go through the door.” And then she’d fled, and Yunlan had been left blinking after her, confused, as a stout man in a grey shirt and is that a purple turban blundered after her, yelling. The cat didn’t follow her, and when Yunlan – curious in spite of himself – had slowly gotten to his knees and offered his hand to be inspected, the cat meowed again and bumped its head against his fist.

That had been the first time he’d met Zhu Hong. Truthfully, Yunlan had wondered with no small amount of ruefulness, maybe it was her warning that got him so curious, that first time. Of course, he’s not about to tell her that.

“Your father didn’t leave any debts,” she remarks, setting down the folder of assets that Wang Zheng had so thoughtfully organized for him. “Lucky you.” Yunlan had taken a swig of beer. They’re holed up in Yunlan’s flat after the funeral. Zhu Hong had wrinkled her nose at the reek of stale alcohol and cigarettes but Yunlan’s just glad he’s somewhere that doesn’t stink of rotten flowers anymore.

He takes another swig, offers it to her. She rolls her eyes and takes the bottle, downs a quarter of it in one go. Yunlan would complain but he’s too busy floating, too busy trying not to remember another funeral.

I’m an orphan now, he thinks dully. Officially. Granted, most of his dad had ended up in a grave with his mom, years ago.

“No hospital expenses to cover. No creditors to pay.” Yunlan slurs. “He really prepared for everything, didn’t he?” Zhu Hong rolls her eyes.

“Be grateful. When Uncle Four died I had to scare off the people he owed money to, closed estate proceedings be damned.” But her voice softens. Her hand is beside his head, but she knows better than to reach down and run her fingers through his hair.

(Yunlan tries not to think of the other person who used to do that. Tries not to think of anything at all.)

Yunlan closes his eyes. Reaches for the cooler he’d dragged out in the middle of his shithole of a living room, cracks open another bottle. He’s already gone through two packs of cigarettes today, his ashtray is overflowing. Still he takes out another, lights up the tip and takes a deep drag.

“What properties did he leave behind again?” He asks. Zhu Hong raises her eyebrows.

“You’ve got some decent funds in a couple of bank accounts. Also, the condominium unit he was staying in.” Then she falls silent. Yunlan cracks open an eye.

“And?” He asks. Zhu Hong hands him the folder. Ice slips down his spine when he reads the property deed tucked inside it, yellowed and worn.

“I thought he already sold Ma’s old house.” Yunlan says quietly. There’s a smaller, newer piece of paper attached to it. Zhu Hong peers at it.

“It says here that the contract was rescinded.” She says. “He never told you?” Yunlan snorts.

“He never told me much of anything after Ma died.” He says. He leans back against his couch, but he doesn’t lift the bottle to his lips anymore. He tries to ignore Zhu Hong watching him.

(Sometimes, when the light hits her eyes just right, hits the shiny black roundness of them, Yunlan remembers too much. Too much, and not enough, and his chest goes tight. He has to look away.)

“Yunlan,” Zhu Hong says. She sounds, he thinks dully, not unlike how she did when they first met. “You know you can’t go back.” Yunlan sets the bottle down, sets the cigarette on the ashtray. Lifts the folder up.

“M’not a kid anymore, Hong’er.” He says. “I’m probably not on the menu anymore.” His thumb traces the address at the same time he reaches inside his pocket. Zhu Hong is biting her lip, expression inscrutable. Worried. Involuntarily, his fingers tighten into fists. He forces himself to loosen them.

“I’m all grown up now.” He says. “I can handle myself.” He says it with a grin, lopsided and with an assurance he doesn’t feel.  Zhu Hong scowls again.

“You had better be.” She says. “Don’t make me go back and save your ass again, you still owe me for last time.” Yunlan smiles at her. Loving her.

“If you need to be my princess in shining armor again, I’ll be your steed for life.” He promises her. “All you have to do is ring me up and I’ll drive you where you need to go.” Zhu Hong rolls her eyes, but her shoulders ease a bit as she tosses a pillow at him, tells him his flat is disgusting and that he’s disgusting and that he should clean up if he wants his significant others to stick around.

When she’s gone, Yunlan flips open the folder. Stares at the property deed. After a long moment, he makes up his mind, lifts the last bottle of beer to his lips and drains it dry.

 

---

 

“I knew you would be back.” Shen Wei says. His hand is cold through Yunlan’s shirt. Yunlan takes a deep breath, tenses – for fight or flight, he’s not sure. But when Shen Wei slides his hand off his shoulder, he blinks in surprise.

“Go sit.” Shen Wei says. “I’ve prepared a snack for you. You must be hungry.” Deep-ingrained instinct has Yunlan obeying, his heart pounding, feeling all of twelve years old again as he seats himself at the kitchen table that looks exactly like the real kitchen table back in his mother’s house, except it’s not. Sitting on a chair whose varnish is chipped and cracked in the exact same places as the one where he used to sit and eat breakfast by himself, his father off heaven knew where.

Shen Wei sets down a mug in front of Yunlan. The same mug that Yunlan used to use when he was a kid. He liked it so much, he remembers, because the porcelain was blue, and when he was little he liked pretending he was an adult when he drank out of it. Like he was drinking real coffee instead of milk while he ate snacks with his mother. His mother, with her eyes shining and calling him her little man. Telling him to drink more milk so he would grow tall and strong.  

It’s full of milk now. Or at least something that looks like it, and Yunlan knows would taste indistinguishable from the real thing. He isn’t about to touch a fucking drop of it.  

He pushes it away. Watches Shen Wei rummaging around the cupboards and shelves, his hand stretched out on the countertop, guiding himself around the kitchen using his palm. The wood is dusty and dark. Too dark in places, in shadows. The planes they swallowed up dissolved into nothing once he couldn’t see them, not unlike Shen Wei’s skin in the gloom. Shadows cover his face, and SHen Wei’s skin is starlight pale against his ink-dark hair, his too-long limbs encased in the tattered material of his robe.

“You were waiting for me this whole time?” Yunlan asks, his voice rough. Shen Wei finds what he’s looking for – a package with a yellow label on it, and a picture of a grinning elf holding a basket of sweets. There’s the sound of plastic tearing as Shen Wei opens it, shakes out its contents on a plate.

“Yes.” Shen Wei says.  “I knew you would come back home to me.” Yunlan scoffs.  

“That’s some nerve you’ve got.” Shen Wei places the plate in front of Yunlan. Cookies. Yunlan thinks, glancing at it. His favourite, from a brand that had gone out of business when he was a teenager. If he bites into one, it’ll taste exactly the same, the chocolate melting on his tongue.

“Maybe. But yet, here you are.” Yunlan looks up. At Shen Wei’s face. The angular, hollow cheeks. The full mouth and elegant, refined nose, unmarred by scars. His long fingers, sharp nails. The flat expanse of emptiness where his eyes should be.

The last time Yunlan had seen him, Zhu Hong had been screaming at him to hurry up as Shen Wei scrabbled around, blinded and furious, the cat swiping at his face with his claws one last time before bolting down the corridor after Yunlan with a speed incongruous with his size. Yunlan remembers it had taken their combined strength to shut the door, and even then barely just in time.

He forces himself to remember that. His and Zhu Hong’s terror, as Shen Wei reaches out with his hand, brushing his palm against Yunlan’s cheek. Yunlan wants to move but he can’t. He just breathes, as Shen Wei’s cold hand moves over his face. Tracing down his nose, his cheeks, his lips. Yunlan’s breath catches in his throat when Shen Wei brushes his fingers against his eyelids, but Shen Wei just smiles. The smile that Yunlan remembers when he would hug him, not the feral snarl of fury warping his features as Yunlan slammed the door shut behind him, locking it with trembling hands.

“It’s been so long.” Shen Wei says, his voice hushed and slightly sad. “You’ve grown up so much, but you still smell of pain. Who did you lose, this time?” Yunlan swallows the lump in his throat. Shoving away the urge to press his face against Shen Wei’s touch. The dishes clatter when he pushes away from the table, stumbles to his feet. Escaping, and he expects claws to sink into his back and shoulder, dragging him back. But nothing does, and in a few moments he’s blinking in the sunlight of the real world, slamming the door shut so loudly he’s afraid, for a moment, that he damn near shattered the rusty hinges.

He breathes. Heart pounding on his chest. Every limb trembling, and then he hears a meow. Looks down.

A fat black cat is staring up at him. Yunlan stares back. Stupidly thinking, no, can’t be right. Must be a different cat, he must be what, twenty years old now? The cat meows again, more shrilly, and Yunlan gives it a wobbly smile, sinks to his knees.

“Hey.” He mumbles. “I’m back.” The cat bats at his outstretched fist, then rubs up against it, still meowing. Like it’s giving him a scolding in a language he can’t understand. Yunlan lets out a breath, lets it crawl onto his lap. His back pressed against the door.

He thinks he hears the scratch-scratch of long nails against the wood, but he’s not sure.

---

 

The first time Yunlan opened the door, it had opened to a wall of crumbling red bricks. He was disappointed, but had shrugged and gone off to explore someplace else, while his father sits in the kitchen, tiredly going through grown-up documents his mother left behind when she died.

The second time Yunlan opened the door, it had opened to a dark corridor. Yunlan blinked at it. Remembered his father telling him that before the door had been bricked up and the house renovated, it had opened into a shed. Then he remembered the girl’s warning. Don’t go through the door. She had said. 

The sensible thing to do would have been to close the door and to keep it locked. To not go down into the corridor and heed the girl’s warning. Yunlan’s read enough fairy tales to know bad news when he sees one. But as he glanced behind him, it was to an empty kitchen and Dad working overtime, again. It was to dinner by himself with a black-and-white TV that didn’t have any cable, since Dad didn’t want them to go home to their old flat yet, full of memories of Yunlan’s mother. If he closed the door, he wasgoing to eat dinner, wash the dishes along with the beer bottles that have collected in the sink, and head off to bed where he would stare at the ceiling until he heard the hum of the car pulling up into the garage.

It was no contest, really. Yunlan took a deep breath. Spotting the knife block by the sink and hurriedly taking out the biggest knife he can find. Then he stuffed an apple down his pocket, just in case, and took a step inside.

-And found himself back in the kitchen again. He blinked, holding out his knife, heart pounding. And it was the same kitchen, but instead of musty and dust-ridden it was clean and sparkling. Instead of leftover takeout, there was a pot of steaming egg drop soup on the table, along with his favourite dish, chicken in black bean sauce, with the table set for two. Yunlan blinked, confused, half-convinced he was dreaming. And then he hears it. He hears her.

“Yunlan?” Yunlan dropped the knife, his heart pounding, and spun around. Barely catching sight of a familiar floral print dress and curly hair before he was running forwards, throwing himself into her arms.

Mom,” Yunlan breathed. Gripping her tight, but something was wrong. Her limbs were too cold, too pale, and her perfume was different. Cloyingly sweet, like crushed ants. When Yunlan pulled away, confused, his breath caught when he saw her eyes. Big black buttons, sewn onto her face with black thread. 

He froze. His eyes wide as the thing that wasn’t his mother held him in its arms. Smiling.

“You’re not my Mom.” Yunlan said, proud of himself for how his voice doesn’t tremble at all. The thing brushed its hand through his hair, just like his real mother used to.

“I’m your other mother.” It said. Its black button eyes gleam in the light. “I’m so happy you’ve come home.”

--

“Why did you come back here?” The cat’s tail flicks in agitation, and it’s pacing back and forth in front of Yunlan. From time to time it looks up, scanning their surroundings. On the lookout for Shen Wei, and Yunlan can’t blame him. He doesn’t think Shen Wei would take too kindly to recognizing the creature that raked off his eyes.

Yunlan sighs, plunks down on the ground in front of the cat. The world around him is formless, in contrast to the kitchen he entered through. Beyond the lintel of the kitchen his surroundings were flat, smudged like ink strokes too runny with water.

 “Quarter-life crisis.” He says truthfully, and is rewarded for his candor by an irritated swipe with a claw. “My father just croaked, and I found out he wasn’t able to sell this house like he said he would.” He avoids Da Qing’s claws, offers him a scratch on the forehead. The cat grumbles, but for the moment is mollified.

“Any idea how that came about?” Yunlan asks. The cat makes a movement with his tail that Yunlan figures would be a shrug if he were human.

“How would I know? I’m not your family’s babysitter, I have stuff to do away from this house.” The cat says, then pauses, ears pressed back flat against his skull. “Once that thing sinks its claws into a child, he doesn’t let go.”

Yunlan is quiet. He continues petting the cat’s head. The cat hisses, pulls away.

Leave.” The cat says, and he sounds afraid this time. “You already got away once, you might not be lucky the second time. He’s too weak to keep you here against your will now, but when he gets stronger-“

“Ah Lan,” The cat backs off, fur bristling. Yunlan stands up, brushing off his pants. Shen Wei is facing them, head tilted to the side. Not for the first time, Yunlan wonders where his eyes are.

“You brought your friend with you.” Shen Wei says. His voice is soft and gentle but the way he says it makes Yunlan tense up. He grabs hold of Shen Wei’s arm. His breath catches tight when his fingers wrap around the whole of his upper arm with room to spare.

Yunlan warns the cat to go with his glance. The cat doesn’t need telling twice. Yunlan only lets go of Shen Wei when he knows the cat has gone.

“I won’t let you hurt him.” He says. Shen Wei’s expression doesn’t change. Then again, Yunlan thinks, there’s a lot you can hide when you have no eyes.

“I know you won’t. I wish you would spare me the same consideration.” Yunlan blinks, and the mist is gone. They’re in the garden. Unlike the overgrown mass of weeds in the real world, there are flowers here, bright and verdant. Fruit trees surround the perimeter of the garden wall, branches heavy and hanging loaded. The place smells sweet, fresh, but beneath it is that underlying cloying quality. 

“I remember how much you like it here.” Shen Wei says. He’s holding a picnic basket, Yunlan realizes for the first time. He takes a step towards the clearing in the center of the garden. Yunlan holds onto his arm, keeping him from tripping on a loose stone. It only occurs to him that Shen Wei wouldn’t need to be guided when he helps him sit down on a blanket spread beneath an apple tree. He built this world, after all.

 “Thank you, Ah Lan.” Shen Wei says. Yunlan thinks for a moment. Wondering if he should ask him to stop calling him that. That only his mother – his real mother had ever been allowed to call him that. But the words die down in his throat.

Shen Wei had always called him Ah Lan from the very start.

 In the basket are snacks. Sandwiches and little cupcakes Yunlan remembers his mother liked to bake and keep in a Tupperware for snacking. His mouth waters, but he ignores it. Ignores Shen Wei when he holds a sandwich out to him. It’s a roast beef sandwich with all the trimmings. Yunlan’s stomach rumbles.

“I didn’t come here for lunch.” Yunlan says. Although to be honest, he’s not entirely certain what time it had been since he came here. It had been his day off, and he had been driving aimlessly through the city after he’d paid the last of his father’s estate taxes. And then he’d found himself just outside the gate of his mother’s old house, and he realizes it hadn’t been aimless after all.

“It’s not good to skip meals.” Shen Wei scolds. Yunlan rolls his eyes. But before he can say something stupidly sarcastic like that’ll make you pretty unhealthy yourself, am I right? Shen Wei speaks again. “The food I made has never hurt you once.” Yunlan smiles. Cold.

“No, it didn’t. You did.” Yunlan drawls. Shen Wei stiffens. Yunlan, for  a split second, wonders if he’ll make it to the door if he runs. Shen Wei sets the sandwich back down in the basket, closes the lid.

“She was taking you away. You were going to leave me alone, forever.” Shen Wei says softly. “What could I do? I needed you.” Yunlan snorts, shaking his head. Biting down on his tongue, because he knows if he speaks and the hurt will bleed through no matter how he tries to hide it. No matter how he’s tried to bury it, all these years.

A touch. Shen Wei’s palm against Yunlan’s cheek, cold and gentle. Yunlan sucks in a breath, but he is still. He doesn’t pull away as Shen Wei gently cups his cheek, his blind face turned to his.

“You smell of smoke.” Shen Wei says. He’s frowning, forehead knitted together as he leans into Yunlan’s space. “Where did you pick up that habit? Don’t you know smoking is harmful to your health?” Yunlan takes a deep breath, pulls away.

“I need to go.” He says abruptly, standing up and brushing the dirt off his pants. Shen Wei does not stop him, moves to stand. Yunlan’s hand on his arm gives him pause. Shen Wei looks up in the wrong direction, his estimate of where Yunlan might be, and Yunlan’s jaw is so tight that it aches, but his touch on Shen Wei’s arm is light and careful as he helps him up. 

“I’m not having you walk into a tree.” He says. He tries not to think at how prominent Shen Wei’s bones are, under his robes. Shen Wei holds his hand as he gropes for the basket, hefts it up. His grip his tight, and his fingers are thin, and the basket is heavy. Yunlan exhales through his nose, takes the basket from Shen Wei, too.

“I’ll handle it.” He steers Shen Wei out of the garden, noticing how when he steps back onto the porch, the flowers are wilting, and the fruits have browned. Shen Wei’s breathing is heavy as Yunlan  guides him inside the house. He does not let go of him until they reach the kitchen, helping him sit, and Shen Wei does with a sigh. Completely exhausted.

“Xiao Wei, are you okay?” The nickname slips out of his lips without meaning to, and Yunlan freezes at the same time Shen Wei looks up. Licks his lips and reaches forward, hand brushing against Yunlan’s face.

“That’ll be up to you.” He says. Yunlan looks at him for a long moment, his hand on his shoulder. Shen Wei reaches up, gives it a squeeze.

“Go bring the food home. You can’t drive back to your apartment on an empty stomach, and there’s enough there for dinner and breakfast tomorrow.” Shen Wei says. Yunlan lifts his hand, takes a step back. He doesn’t bother asking Shen Wei how he knows how he lives. After a moment of hesitation his hand closes over the basket handle.

The basket remains a basket all throughout the corridor, back to his mother’s house. It stays a basket as Yunlan sticks it on the passenger seat, staring at it from time to time. The sandwiches in it remain sandwiches, and the cupcakes remain cupcakes. Yunlan’s mouth waters, but he can’t bring himself to taste them. Once he gets home, he throws them out.

Zhu Hong drops by later with takeout. She raises her eyebrows when she sees the basket. Yunlan hadn’t been able to dispose of it before he heard her knock.

“Did your one-night stand bring that?” She asks. “Considerate of her.” Yunlan snorts, shovelling steamed chicken and mushroom in his mouth. He resolutely ignores how his tastebuds are craving for something more, something home-cooked according exactly to his tastes.

“How’s running your family business going?” He asks. Zhu Hong shrugs, tells him, and his time with Shen Wei fades amidst the rhythm of the everyday.

--

 

“What are you?” It had been one of the first questions Yunlan had asked Shen Wei. He’d never gotten a proper answer.

“I already told you. I’m your other mother.” Shen Wei had said. Yunlan watches as the thing wearing his mother’s face cooked him a pot of hot and sour soup. The smell of the black vinegar tickled his nose, and his belly rumbled. He frowned when a bowl was placed on the table in front of him, along with a cup of rice.

 “You’re not my mother.” Yunlan had said. He continued staring at the soup. It had been made just the way his real mother did, before she got too weak to cook. He was so hungry, but every one of his parents’ – his real parents’ - warnings about touching food from strangers kept him from tucking in.

“I only have one mother. And she’s gone.” Yunlan said. He’d expected the whatever-whoever it is to be angry. Instead it just sat beside him, taking his hands the way his real mother used to.

“Who do you want me to be, then?” Yunlan hadn’t wanted to look at those black button eyes sewn on his mother’s face, but he forced himself to do so. And then, her face changed. A ripple going through it, and Yunlan’s dad was smiling at him, his face free from the lines that had sunk into them after Mom had gotten sick. Another shift, and it’s the main character from his favourite TV show. The thing’s eyes however, remained big black buttons all throughout.

Yunlan shook his head when the thing begins her? His? Its? Third transformation. “No.” he said. “I don’t want you looking like you’re someone else.”

“Oh?” The thing replied. Yunlan had nodded.  The thing looked at him. Yunlan thought he looked curious, but it’s hard to tell.

“What do you want me to be, then?” The thing asks. Yunlan paused for a moment, wondered if he wasgoing to regret this, then decided nothing could possibly get creepier than seeing something imitating his dead mother, with buttons for eyes.

“I want you to look like you.” Yunlan said. “If you want me to come back here and be your friend-“ if Mom were still around, she would probably be yelling at him for saying that. Yunlan forced himself to ignore her voice in his head. “-you have to look like you. No one else.” The thing looked at him. Yunlan glared back, challenging. Then it had smiled, soft. As Yunlan watched, the thing’s face grew slightly narrower and its – his, Yunlan thinks, probably his - his shoulders became thinner, his skin paler than pale, the color of paper. His hair became long, very long and very black. His fingers clasped before him but looking just the slightest bit too long for Yunlan to be comfortable with seeing.

“Is this enough, now?” The thing had asked. “Can we be friends?” He held out a hand to Yunlan. Yunlan had stared at it, thinking. Remembering his parents warning him about strangers, but Yunlan had always been curious. And more than anything else, he wanted to know, to learn more.

“I guess.” He said. A chill prickles down Yunlan’s spine, but he’d ignored that, too. The thing stretched out his hand, and Yunlan stared at it a moment before taking it. It was cold, very cold in Yunlan’s.

“What’s your name?” Yunlan had asked. The thing smiled. Yunlan remembers thinking its teeth looked pointed, but he hadn’t been sure.

“My name is Shen Wei.” The thing – his other mother – whatever the heck he was supposed to be – had said. The coldness of his hand had lingered in Yunlan’s memory even after he’d finished his soup and rice and returned to the other side.

 

--

 

Yunlan returns. He keeps returning. Every other day he finds himself in the old house, work schedule permitting. Every other day he finds Shen Wei waiting for him, usually with something delicious simmering on the stove, or already prepared on the table, waiting for Yunlan. Yunlan doesn’t eat any of them. He doesn’t stay for long, either. Shen Wei always lets him go, and more often than not Yunlan catches himself. Waiting. For what, he’s not sure.

Yunlan learns quickly on not to bring cigarettes with him to this place. Shen Wei would inevitably find a way to make them disappear. To compromise, Yunlan settles for bringing lollipops with him for whenever the nicotine craving hits. He tries not to think about how that makes him feel.

Once, Yunlan arrives to find Shen Wei sitting in the kitchen, nothing on the stove. Shen Wei looks up when Yunlan places a hand on his shoulder, apologizes softly for not having prepared anything. “I’m too tired.” He tells Yunlan, and Yunlan’s chest aches with guilt along with something else. Angry resentment, that he can’t tell if aimed at Shen Wei or himself.

Yunlan stays for longer that time. He and Shen Wei sit across the kitchen table, Shen Wei with his hand slightly extended. Yunlan swallows, tries to ignore it. He tries to ignore Shen Wei’s questions too, about his day, his life. But in spite of himself he finds himself answering. Yes, I became a police officer like my Dad. Just like I wanted. Yes, I’m now the head of my division. Yes, my Father just bit the dust. It’s why I’m here. Yunlan blinks, silently kicking himself for saying that out loud. But Shen Wei silently tilts his head. He reaches out with his hand, palm up. A silent invitation for Yunlan to take it.

Yunlan used to love holding Shen Wei’s hand like he had his mother’s. It made him feel less alone. He tries to ignore it again, but when Shen Wei’s fingers brush against his, he doesn’t pull away.

“What about you?” Yunlan finally asks. “What’ve you been doing?” Shen Wei is still for a moment, then withdraws his hand.

“I’ve just been here.” Shen Wei says. “Waiting for you.” Yunlan blinks, leans forward on his elbows.

“You mean you didn’t try to leave?” He asks, surprised. You didn’t try to target another child? He does not say. Shen Wei slowly shakes his head.

“No.” He says. He pushes himself out of the chair. His steps are slow, dragging as he makes his way to the dish rack. Yunlan stops him before he can reach for a plate.

“Stop exerting so much effort.” Yunlan says. “You know I’m not going to eat, anyway.” His fingers are wrapped around Shen Wei’s wrist. Shen Wei slowly covers them with his free hand. Yunlan does not take it away.

“I do, but you need it for a different reason.” Shen Wei says. His tone is gentle, almost placating. Yunlan snorts and then Shen Wei’s fingers tighten suddenly around his.

“It feels good, doesn’t it? To have someone worrying and looking after you.” Shen Wei says. Yunlan is very still under his hand. He doesn’t try to pull away.

“Come on.” He says after a long moment. “Let’s go to the porch.” Yunlan keeps his hand wrapped around Shen Wei’s wrist, practically tugging him along out of the kitchen. Shen Wei follows without complaint. Yunlan helps him sit beside him on the porch swing. The one in the real world is rusted beyond use, but this one is still intact. Yunlan guides Shen Wei to sit, then sits beside him. Remembering when they used to do this, Yunlan counting the stars while Shen Wei smiled indulgently and stroked his hair.

Beyond the porch, the world is swallowed in mist. Yunlan shakes his head when he sees Shen Wei raising his hand, stops him. “You’re too weak as it is. I don’t need the view.” He says. Shen Wei does not reply, but his breathing eases. He leans subtly into Yunlan’s space, and Yunlan lets him, Shen Wei’s soft dark hair tickling his cheek as he guides his head to rest against his shoulder.

He thinks he sees the cat’s glowing eyes in the dark, but when he glances at it it’s gone. They stay like that for a very long time. Yunlan doesn’t notice when his eyes close, and he drops off asleep. He only realizes what’s happened when he feels the warm sunshine against his eyelids, gentle fingers carding through his hair.

He feels something cold and soft press against his forehead, then opens his eyes. Blinking once, twice, then sitting up. Shen Wei’s facing his direction, and Yunlan realizes his head had been pillowed on Shen Wei’s lap.

Shen Wei leans to the side, reaches for a thermos from the small table beside the porch swing. He pours its contents into a bowl. Congee. Yunlan thinks. There are dishes of sliced century egg and dried pork beside the bowl, and Shen Wei places their contents atop the rice porridge before handing the bowl to Yunlan with a ceramic spoon. It’s steaming hot, and Yunlan’s mouth waters at the sight and smell. His mother used to cook this for him, everyday for breakfast. His belly rumbles, and he remembers he doesn’t really remember when his last solid meal was.

“Go and eat, Yunlan.” Shen Wei says.  Yunlan should refuse. Should set the bowl aside and not let any of the stuff touch his lips. He should return home, lock the door behind him and stop coming here. But he’s hungry and it’s been so long since someone cooked for him, so long since he had felt so cared for and cherished.   Shen Wei holds the bowl out to Yunlan. Waiting. Always waiting. Yunlan lets out a breath, laughs a little, wry and exhausted. He takes the bowl.

“I’ll want seconds after this.” He says before inhaling the first spoonful, the flavors blooming on his tongue, tears stinging in his eyes. Shen Wei watches him eat, eyeless but Yunlan knows he’s watching every move, every bite and swallow as Yunlan cleans out his bowl.

“Eat as much as you want.” Shen Wei says. He reaches forward, and Yunlan doesn’t pull away when his fingers brush against his lips.  

 ---

“What do you want from me?”

Yunlan and Shen Wei had been sitting out on the porch swing when he asked that.  His math textbook had been spread open on his lap, and he was chewing on the edge of his pencil, concentrating as he answered his homework. Shen Wei was beside him, reading a book whose characters seemed to squiggle and move whenever Yunlan squinted and tried to look too hard at him. When a question stumped him, he looked up, and Shen Wei would help him figure it out. Not telling him the answer outright, but guiding him towards it.

This had become the usual way Yunlan spent his afternoons after school. It was warm here; the sky was a glorious pink and gold sunset, bright enough that Yunlan could still read. Beside him was an empty plate of pot-stickers. They had tasted really good, and Yunlan felt a little sleepy.

Outside this place, the day was drizzly and grey with rain. Dad was away at work, again. Yunlan had just stuffed the money he’d left for take-out into his pocket and went to Shen Wei’s.

Now, Shen Wei was looking up at him. For Yunlan, it was getting easier to tell what he was feeling even when his eyes didn’t help him any. He looked back, trying to quash the sudden nervousness.

“Why do you ask that?” Shen Wei asked. Yunlan had shrugged.

“You keep giving me these nice things.” Not just food. Yunlan had been to the room Shen Wei had prepared for him, and it had been full of toys that Yunlan had only dreamed of, robots that fought each other and toy cars that zipped past, their wheels sparking, and books with pictures that moved. Yunlan has slept there once, when Dad called him to say he would be working overnight on a case. Shen Wei had stroked his hair until he fell asleep, singing a lullaby. Yunlan was too old for lullabies, but it sounded so nice that he didn’t ask Shen Wei to stop.

“What’s the catch?” Yunlan asked. Mom would probably smack him upside the head and yell at him for being rude, but Shen Wei never seemed to mind Yunlan’s questions.

“There is no catch.” Shen Wei said. He was smiling. “I just want you to be happy.”

“Why?” Yunlan asked, and Shen Wei closed his book.

“I like seeing you happy.” Shen Wei said simply. Yunlan raised his eyebrows, and Shen Wei’s voice went soft. “You deserve to smile more.”  Yunlan nibbled at the end of his pencil.

“You didn’t answer my question though.” Yunlan said. Shen Wei picked up his book again, opened it. In it, the illustrations wiggled.

“I already did.” Shen Wei said. “I care about you very much, Ah Lan. I hope you come to feel the same way about me.” Yunlan just stared at him, frowning. His eyes flickered down to his homework. Shen Wei had helped him answer half of it. He’d been feeding him and taking care of him, too.

Yunlan was quiet and thoughtful all throughout dinner. Dad was coming home that night, so Yunlan had to sleep in his own room in the real house. He spent most of that night thinking.

The next day, Yunlan brought a bunch of flowers with him when he returned to Shen Wei.

“For you.” He mumbled, pushing them into Shen Wei’s hands. They weren’t much, just the ones he got to pick from the garden. He wasn’t even sure Shen Wei would like them, because aren’t girls the only ones who like flowers? But Shen Wei lifted them and brought them to his face to smell them. He smiled, and Yunlan felt the knot in his chest ease.

“What’s this for?” Shen Wei had looked surprised. Well, as surprised as Yunlan could guess with his eyes. Yunlan shrugged awkwardly, rubbing the back of his neck with his palm.

“Nothing. Just flowers. I wanted to do something nice for you.” He said. His stomach gave a little flip when Shen Wei smiled.

“Thank you, Ah Lan.” Shen Wei had said. He held out his hand, and after some hesitation, Yunlan took it, resolutely ignoring the light blush that’s spreading across his cheeks at how much Shen Wei liked his present. He brushed off the slight sleepy tiredness he feels as probably because he didn’t sleep well last night.

“I’m calling you Xiao Wei,” Yunlan blurted out, all of a sudden. “If you don’t mind. We’re friends, anyway.” Shen Wei gave his hand a squeeze.

“I would like that very much, Ah Lan.” He said. “Come on. Let’s go have dinner.”

 

--

 

“Did you go out last night?” Zhu Hong asks him while they’re at work. “I saw your Rover coming in from the east this morning.” Yunlan stiffens, forces himself to remain casual, giving her a lascivious wink that earns him an unimpressed look.

“The lady called, so I had to come conquer. Sorry you had to hold up the fort without me.” Zhu Hong gives him a look of disgust, and he grins, leaning back against his chair and hoping it’ll be the end of it. He’d been exhausted last night, his team had been investigating a crime scene and the day had ended with them chasing down their perp. Yunlan had been ready to drop into bed, but try as he might when he returned to his flat he couldn’t sleep. So in the middle of the night he’d tossed extra clothes into a duffel and driven back to the outskirts of Dragon City.

Shen Wei had been sitting up for him in the kitchen, just like always. Yunlan’s never sure if Shen Wei can sense he’s about to arrive or if that’s all he does when Yunlan isn’t there. Yunlan had been so exhausted that he hadn’t managed to speak much to him, just reached over to squeeze his hand. Shen Wei had led him down the corridor, mist resolving itself into solid floors, and walls with every step. When Yunlan had reached the door of the room he used to stay in, he hadn’t even protested. Just dragged the sheets back, crawled into bed and closed his eyes. He’d drifted off to the sensation of Shen Wei’s fingers in his hair.

He’d woken up groggy from lack of sleep and disoriented from the change in location. Looking around him and he’d caught sight of his own reflection in the mirror, did a double-take when he saw he wasn’t twelve anymore. And then he smelled bacon cooking.

Shen Wei had been concentrating on frying meat in a pan he couldn’t see, when Yunlan had sidled up beside him and taken it from him, finishing the cooking himself, lightly scolding him for not waking him up so he could help cook something that would scorch the skin off Shen Wei’s hands if he’d knocked the pan over.

They’d cooked breakfast together in a strangely companiable silence. The bacon tasted like bacon, cured and glazed with maple, and the pancakes made were the lightest, fluffiest pancakes Yunlan had ever tasted. And though Yunlan had work today and was well aware he had to go early to beat the traffic, he had lingered. Helping Shen Wei clear the table. Making him sit and stay put with a mug of tea while he washed the dishes. Talking, absent-minded chatter about yesterday’s events while Shen Wei listened and answered his random questions.

When he was done Shen Wei had seen him off. Yunlan had waved goodbye, and as he locked the door behind him he’d felt an unwilling pang. He had arrived to work a half-hour late, Wang Zheng’s expression gently reproving as he’d hastily signed in.

Zhu Hong is silent. Scrutinizing him, then her expression softens. “You’ve been distracted a lot, but you’ve been looking a lot happier recently. I’m glad you found someone good for you.” Yunlan fights not to wince.

“It’s… nothing serious. Really, it isn’t.” He says when Zhu Hong’s eyes narrow. “She just likes to cook and I like to freeload off of her.” Zhu Hong gives him a flat look. Yunlan is spared from her hitting him on the head with the folder she’s carrying by Lin Jing’s excited yelling at how they’ve caught a perp on-camera.

Zhu Hong lets the matter rest – she’d always steered clear of the topic of Yunlan’s relationships. But a workplace being a workplace, the topic of his dating of course comes up again. Of all people, Xiao Guo brings it up during Movie Night.

He hadn’t even realized the date – his department’s monthly tradition – or that he’d actually already skipped two since his father’s funeral. Only Xiao Guo’s timid but earnest invitation had made him stop on the way out the door, already headed for home.

“S-sorry for encroaching on your personal time, Chief.” The kid was at least coherent now, which was a vast improvement from when he’d first applied to their department. “But the team wants you to choose the film. It’s been a while.” And Yunlan almost refuses, but at the look on Zhu Hong’s face he acquiesces.

He spends the whole movie watching his team rather than watching the film. Noticing little bits of interaction and development he hadn’t realized he’d missed out on. Lin Jing every now and then glances at his phone surreptitiously, grinning and shooting a message before turning his attention back to the others. Zhu Hong’s standing a little ways apart, grumpily lecturing a cousin who had called her about some business problem or something. Xiao Guo and Lao Chu are sitting beside each other, brushing shoulders – Yunlan vaguely wonders when that happened, Lao Chu could barely stand the kid when Yunlan had dumped the job of training onto his capable shoulders. Wang Zheng and San Zan are the same goopily in love couple they’ve always been, feeding each other popcorn, whispering to each other and smiling.

All of a sudden, even in the midst of all these people, Yunlan feels utterly alone. That sensation persists after the credits roll, and people start cleaning up. Yunlan acts almost on autopilot, and then he notices Xiao Guo talking to him.

“- We’re glad you have someone looking after you, Sir. We were so worried about you.” Xiao Guo stammers. Yunlan stares at him blankly for a solid moment. Then his brain backtracks and he remembers what Xiao Guo’s been babbling about. Something about the team giving him space, and is he all right?

“Oh. Well. I’m fine, Xiao Guo.” Yunlan says, distracted. “Thanks. You’re a good boy.” Xiao Guo turns pink but his expression remains concerned as Yunlan pats him on the head and proclaims he’s leaving, and that will people be nice enough to clean up after him? He skips out before Zhu Hong can throw tissues at his head.

He gets to the Rover, but as he sticks the key into the ignition he realizes he’s not headed for his flat. The roads leading to his mother’s house are dimly lit, but with the Rover’s headlights it’s easy enough to make his way back.

He hops out of the Rover, his head slightly fuzzy from exhaustion. Fishing for his keys. The house is dark when he gets in. There is no electricity, and it smells of rot. But as he unlocks the door to his home, he can smell Shen Wei’s scent, cloyingly sweet but sharp, all at once.

Shen Wei is sitting by the table. Yunlan smiles when he sees him, and Shen Wei tilts his face up towards his. Yunlan moves to stand in front of him before crouching to his knees so they’re at eye level.

“Hello.” Yunlan whispers. Shen Wei reaches up with his hand, brushes it against Yunlan’s face.

“Hello. I didn’t expect you to be back this soon. What’s wrong?” Yunlan is silent. Then slowly, he leans forward, tucking Shen Wei’s hair behind his ear. The skin of Shen Wei’s cheek is very cool beneath Yunlan’s lips, and Shen Wei holds himself very still beneath him. Mouth parted in surprise, and Yunlan pulls back, glancing away from Shen Wei’s half-open lips. How pink they are. Soft.

 “Nothing’s wrong,” He murmurs. “I just missed you.” Shen Wei reaches up, touching the hand that Yunlan hadn’t even noticed he’d placed on Shen Wei’s shoulder.

“Tell me about your day.” Shen Wei says. “I missed you too.” Yunlan squeezes his shoulder in response, begins. 

 

---

 

Yunlan bolted down from the bus as fast as he could once he reached the waiting shed, running all the way back home. He dumped his school things on the kitchen table, took the key out of his pocket and stuffed it into the lock. Practically sprinting through the corridor and when he finally got to Shen Wei’s kitchen he all but slammed into him. Wrapping shaking arms around him and burying his face in his chest.

“Ah Lan?” Shen Wei sounded alarmed. Worried. Yunlan’s eyes stung and his arms tightened around him. “Ah Lan, you’re home early. What’s wrong?” Yunlan sniffled, and Shen Wei tilted his face up. Gently wiped away the tears spilling down his cheeks.

“Ah Lan, who hurt you?” Shen Wei asked. His voice was so soft and worried, like Mom’s. Yunlan felt a fresh wave of tears all over again, but he forced himself not to cry. I’m thirteen now. He reminded himself. I’m not a baby anymore.

He took a deep breath. Shen Wei just looked at him silently, then took him by the hand. Led him out of the kitchen to the porch. There he sat Yunlan on the porch swing and wrapped his arms around him.

It was sunny, here. It had been overcast in the real world. The air was warm and smelled of summer and fruit. Yunlan took a deep, shaky breath, burrowed against Shen Wei’s side and inhaled that sweet perfume he always seemed to be wearing. It feels good, he thinks. To be held like he was still a baby. He missed Mom so much that it hurt. It had been almost a year since she died.

“Ah Lan?” Shen Wei’s gentle voice roused him from his thoughts. Yunlan was embarrassed, wanted to look away, but Shen Wei tilted his face up so that Yunlan had to look at his plastic button eyes. Yunlan took a deep breath.

“It’s my birthday today.” Yunlan scuffed his shoe on the floor, rocking the porch swing. Shen Wei brushed his bangs out of his face.

“I know.” He said. “I have your gift ready. I hope you’ll like it.” Yunlan felt his eyes sting again. He bit his lip.

“Dad didn’t remember it.” Yunlan said. “We were in the car and I kept waiting for him to greet me.” He took a deep breath and wiped his face. Angry at himself, all of a sudden. Stop crying, you’re not a baby anymore. “He remembered when he called. Then he said he’s going home late because of a stupid case, and-“ Shen Wei tugged Yunlan closer, tucking him against his chest, and Yunlan squeezed his eyes shut.

“You can cry if you want.” Shen Wei said gently, and Yunlan let out a wet, messy breath. Clinging to Shen Wei.

“Don’t leave me, okay?” He whispered against Shen Wei’s shoulder. “Don’t leave me like Mom did.”  Shen Wei had pressed a gentle kiss against the top of his head in response.

“You will always be part of me, Yunlan. I promise.” Shen Wei’s arms had been tight and sure around him, and Yunlan had buried his face against his other mother’s chest, and started to cry.

Chapter Text

 

 

Shen Wei’s hair was very soft. Like those really thin silk threads Yunlan once saw in a silk factory during a school field trip. Yunlan was a little afraid to run the wooden comb through it, but the thin strands didn’t snap under their own weight, so he relaxed and continued. After a few more minutes, Yunlan slid the comb down one last time before saying “Done.”

Shen Wei had smiled when he ran his hand down his hair. Yunlan had felt his stomach flip a little. Shen Wei was so, so pretty under the light of the setting sun.

“Thank you, Ah Lan.” Shen Wei said. The softness in his voice made Yunlan grin, trying to push away how exhausted he feels, all the time now. Shen Wei squeezed his wrist, and though Yunlan knew he was getting too old for it, he leaned closer against Shen Wei, anyway.

“I used to comb Mom’s hair before she got sick.” He said.  Shen Wei traced a line from his forehead down the tip of his nose.

“I know.” He said softly. “You loved her very much.” Yunlan’s eyes stung. He leaned his head against Shen Wei’s shoulder.

“I love you, too.” He said drowsily. He thought he felt Shen Wei give his hand another squeeze as he fell asleep.

---

Summer is almost over. Truthfully, Yunlan had barely noticed it passing, what with everything that had been going on in his life. It has been almost three months since his father died. Two and a half since he returned to Shen Wei.

Yunlan’s standing outside in the garden – the real garden, overgrown with weed, the trees gnarled and half-suffocated with strangler shoots. It’s already late afternoon, but the light is almost too bright. Yunlan winces at it, going over to the crumbling porch and sitting heavily on the step, the rusted swing collapsed behind him, its cushions rotted. He rests his aching head against the railing.

Peonies. To his surprise a whole bush of them is still flowering near the porch. Yunlan reaches over, fingers a half-wilted petal lightly. It comes off, and he drops it to the ground, looking around him.

The garden has become even more overgrown mess since the last time he was here. Yunlan doesn’t dare go through the areas where the grass and weeds are thickest – who knows what’s hiding in those – but he skates the perimeter of it. Taking care not to let the thorny stems of weeds scrape against his skin.

Before he knows it, he’s leaning forwards. Squinting and spotting flowers that are still fresh and not half-rotted on their stems. By the end of half an hour he has a sad bunch of them in his hands. But they smell sweet, and Yunlan ties them off with a scrap of ribbon he finds in the hallway as an afterthought. Hesitating just for a moment before he goes through the door.

The cat is waiting for him in the corridor. His fur stands on end and he’s hunched over, not relaxing even when Yunlan leans down to stroke his head. Only its lamplike eyes glow in the dark.

“Why do you keep coming back?” He moans, pressing himself up against Yunlan’s leg as his gaze darts around them. “You know what he’s after. What he’ll do to you.” Yunlan scratches the top of his head. The cat’s eyes are big and pleading.

“Zhao Yunlan, please go home.” That cat says. Yunlan swallows, biting back the question of where is home, exactly. And then the cat suddenly goes still, shivering, then darts away, as fast as he can down the corridor. Yunlan watches him run. Turns away.

Shen Wei is seated in the kitchen when Yunlan arrives, peeling lotus roots and simmering pork on the stove. He lifts his head when he senses Yunlan’s presence. Yunlan takes a step forward, leaning forward to brush his lips against Shen Wei’s cheek. The gentle caress making something warm bloom inside him when Shen Wei tilts his face up. Yunlan kisses him again before sinking to his knees in front of him, burying his face in his lap. Shen Wei gently cards his fingers through his hair, sharp nails scratching lightly at his scalp.

“Hello.” Shen Wei says. “How was your day?” Yunlan doesn’t answer. His head hurts, heavy and wrong, his thoughts sluggish, but Shen Wei just keeps stroking his hair. Finally, Yunlan speaks.

“I have something for you.” He says. Shen Wei tilts his head, holds out his hand. Yunlan places the bouquet in it. Shen Wei’s touch is careful as he strokes the petals with the same gentleness with which he touches Yunlan, and Yunlan feels a vague jealous longing as he watches him. Shen Wei brings the bouquet to his face and inhales deep. 

“This smells lovely, Yunlan.” He says. “Are these like the ones you used to bring to me?” Yunlan lifts his head, curious.

“You can’t see them?” Well. Duh. He kicks himself at how stupid that question was, but Shen Wei just smiles.

“I don’t need to see anything I made because I know how it should appear, but I can’t sense the form of anything you bring from the outside.” He holds the bouquet between his hands. A flower comes off, petals fluttering, and Yunlan catches it. Tucks it playfully into Shen Wei’s hair.

His hair is very soft, and the little white flower looks like a small star caught in the silky black strands. Yunlan remembers what it felt like to comb it, and even without eyes, Shen Wei is so beautiful that Yunlan feels his mouth go dry.

“Do you want me to describe them to you?” Yunlan asks after a while. His thumb brushes against the tip of Shen Wei’s fingers. He doesn’t look at Shen Wei’s face, half-afraid of what he’ll find in his expression.

“I’d like that very much.” Shen Wei says softly. Yunlan sighs. His fingers tighten around Shen Wei’s, guiding them over every petal, every flower. When he’s done he lifts their joined hands to Shen Wei’s face. Tracing the hollows where his eyes should be.

“How come you were never able to fix this?” Yunlan asks, his voice unsteady. Shen Wei squeezes his fingers, tight.

“My eyes are like yours. I can only have one set, and I couldn’t find them again after they were taken from me.” Yunlan closes his eyes, remembering screaming. It’s been a while, he realizes, since he saw the cat. He wonders where it is, now. He holds Shen Wei’s hand in his, loosely.

“I’m sorry.” He says quietly. Either way he tries to assess the situation, Shen Wei’s blindness is his fault. He closes his eyes, leans his weight against Shen Wei. Shen Wei wraps him in his arms, and it feels good. His headache fades into a fuzzy dullness as Shen Wei rhythmically strokes his back.

“Everything can be forgiven, Ah Lan.” He says softly. Yunlan swallows.

“How?” He asks. What price? Shen Wei doesn’t answer, but when he leans forwards, he takes the rest of Yunlan’s weight in his arms.

 

--

 

Yunlan felt tired all the time. His eyes would open in the morning and it took a while to notice he wasawake. In school, his grades were taking a dip, but he was too tired to care. Dad never noticed, anyway.

Shen Wei noticed. He was the one who woke Yunlan up in the mornings, making sure he was fed and ready for the day. He held Yunlan when Yunlan was too weak to do much but sit up on the porch swing with him, his thoughts muzzy and clouded. When his grades came back in the red, a lump rises in his throat when he showed his card to SHen Wei. Shen Wei looked at it and took Yunlan’s hands in his.

“You know there’s a way you can stay here forever.” Shen Wei said. “You won’t have to worry about your grades, ever again. You can just stay with me.” It wasn’t the first time he made that offer, and Yunlan made a face.

“I don’t want you to stitch buttons onto my eyes.” Yunlan said. But it was a protest that kept getting weaker and weaker the more time went on, until Yunlan couldn’t really remember why he didn’t want Shen Wei to do it. Shen Wei took Yunlan into his arms, and Yunlan closed his eyes, breathing in the scent of home.

--

“Chief, are you okay?”

The question’s coming from Lin Jing. Yunlan blinks, lifts his head up from his arms. He’d dozed off at his desk, in the middle of the workday. Figures.

Lin Jing’s staring at him, cradling his laptop in his arms. Yunlan lifts his hand – it takes way more effort than it should – gestures at him to take a seat.

“Yeah. Sorry about that, I haven’t been sleeping much.” He actually has been sleeping enough. More than enough. It’s just that he never feels well-rested anymore. When he sleeps, it feels like he’s wandering. Groping endlessly in the dark surrounding him, calling out names of people who won’t ever hear him anymore.

He wakes up with his eyes wet, and Shen Wei stroking his hair. And though Yunlan knows what a bad idea it is, how utterly fucked he is, he can never stop himself from tucking his face against Shen Wei’s shoulder and letting the tears come.

“What do you need me to check?” Lin Jing hesitates a moment, then launches into describing the new algorithm he’s been designing to match CCTV footage around the metro to mug shots in their database. Yunlan listens, tries his best to contribute and be useful. Trying not to think about the ticking of the clock, and when he can go home.

When Lin Jing’s done, he closes his laptop. Yunlan tries to smile at him, but whatever it is that Lin Jing sees has concern flashing through his face. He hesitates for a solid moment before plowing forward.

“Chief, are you really okay?” He asks. “You’ve been kind of out of it lately. Everyone’s getting worried. Hong-jie’s been-“

“I’m fine, Lin Jing.” Yunlan says, voice edged with steel. “Tell them it’s none of their damn business.” Lin Jing winces, but to his credit he’s always had a pretty solid backbone despite Yunlan’s endless threats to cut his bonuses. Yunlan sighs, leans heavily back against his lazy boy.

“There is something you can do to help.” Yunlan mumbles. He watches the glass reflections moving on top of his desk for a moment, then pushes himself off.

“Chief?” Lin Jing asks after a while. Yunlan sighs.

“Get me a brochure about locks.” Yunlan says. “For doors. Industrial-level stuff, the kind bank vaults and security firms use. Price isn’t an object. Make sure you give it to me when Zhu Hong isn’t around. Do it, and I’ll give you a raise along with your bonus.” Lin Jing looks baffled more than anything else.

“ … All right, sir.” He acquiesces all the same. Yunlan waits for him to leave when he glances at the clock. His heart leaps when he sees it’s 6PM.

He forces himself to wait, to finish up some paperwork he’d been lagging behind in so as not to draw attention to how very desperate he is to go home. He makes sure Zhu Hong’s scolding Xiao Guo and Old Chu for something before he finally manages to dart out, letting out a sigh of relief as he makes his way to where his motorcycle is parked. He doesn’t notice Zhu Hong falling silent and looking after his retreating back as he leaves, excusing herself while Old Chu gives her a knowing look and Xiao Guo clings worried to his sleeve.

--

Yunlan had been on his way home from school when he ran into Zhu Hong. He  wasn’t happy to see her – his head hurt, and he’d just been yelled at by his teacher for falling asleep in class for the third time this week. He almost stepped around her, eager to get home and rest, but she blocked him, chin raised. The cat in her arms meowed.

“You’re coming with me.” Zhu Hong announced without ceremony. Then she’s grabbed Yunlan by the collar. Yunlan was too stunned and tired to do anything else but let her.

Zhu Hong dragged him down the street to a crowded condominium complex. She glowers at the other kids who try to whistle and tease her for bringing a boy, and shoved Yunlan into the rickety elevator. Only then does she release him.

“This is where we stay in the city. My Baba’s family used to own the house beside yours, but they sold it after their youngest brother died.” Zhu Hong explained as she punched the button for the eighth floor. The elevator rumbled up, and when it opened it led directly to a corridor smelling of spices and rank wine.

“Uncle Four! Zhu Hong yelled as she and Yunlan got out of the elevator. “Are you drinking again?” There was the clatter of bottles, and a stout, middle-aged man peered out at them from a doorway. Yunan recognized him as the man with the turban who had chased after Zhu Hong the first time he met her.

“Hong’er, don’t be so loud!” Her uncle scolded her. His watery eyes turn to Yunlan, then brighten up. “Who’s this? Did you bring your boyfriend home? Are you going to ask me for help introducing him to your Baba?” Zhu Hong scowled at him, steering Yunlan inside her uncle’s unit. Yunlan almost tripped over the bottles littering the foyer, staring at the mess of statuettes and illustrations cluttering up the tiny room and covering the walls with a kind of horrified awe. The uncle scratched his belly awkwardly.

“Sorry kid, I know it’s a mess. Some of those artworks are for sale though, you won’t to buy something nice for your house?“ And then he stopped, because Yunlan’s spine has gone ramrod-rigid. Walking towards the largest painting in the room.

It was an oil painting done in black and white. A pale, towering figure dwarfed four small shapes. Children, Yunlan realized. The figure had his arms around two of the children.

The figure had two large, black buttons for eyes.

Yunlan took a step back, shaking. Zhu Hong’s uncle was looking at him closely, frowning.

“You look familiar-“ Zhu Hong interrupted him.

”He’s the boy who just moved into the house beside your and Baba’s old one.” Zhu Hong said. “The one you and Baba warned me to never ever go into. I think he’s the son of the girl you told me used to live there.”

Hong’er.”  Zhu Hong’s uncle practically exploded in dismay. But before he could say anything else Yunlan spoke, not taking his eyes off of the painting.

“How do you know Shen Wei?” He asked. Turning his gaze onto Uncle Four. His head was feeling clearer than it’s been in months, his knees trembling. More than anything else, Uncle Four looked tired.

“You’re Shen Xi’s son, aren’t you?” Uncle Four said. Yunlan didn’t answer, and he sighed.

“It gave you a name? My brothers and I only knew it as our other grandmother. Your mother said that with her and your aunt it was pretending to be their father.” Yunlan glanced back at the painting. Shen Wei was smiling in it. The fingers of his hands looked very long on the shoulders of the children. A boy, and a girl. They had black button eyes too.

“My mom never told me I have an aunt.” Uncle Four snorted. He cleared out a chair, then some space at a table. Pushed it in front of Yunlan. Yunlan took it, gingerly seating himself by the edge. Zhu Hong hopped onto a brightly painted stool beside Uncle Four, plunking the cat down onto the table. He wound his way around the bottles and painting materials with surprising grace before making his way down to Yunlan and his lap.

“She died when she was young.” Uncle Four said, staring at the bottle in his hands. Like Dad, Yunlan thinks.  “Along with my baby brother. Least, I hope they did. We older kids tried to save them, but it was too late by the time we got there.” He waved a hand at the painting. The cat jumped onto Yunlan’s lap, purring. Yunlan buried his hand in his fur.

“I just hope whatever that thing did to them didn’t hurt. Much.” Yunlan stared at the painting again. His heart pounding, and part of him wanted to run. Wanted to get out, yell at Zhu Hong to leave him alone. To go home, where Shen Wei was waiting for him. But Shen Wei’s hands in the painting were very white and very long, his shadow surrounding him very large. And this was the clearest Yunlan’s head had been for weeks.

He whirled on Uncle Four, startling him so badly that his turban slides down almost over his eyes. The cat chirrupped a little, but settled down. Zhu Hong was watching them, and she looked angry but relieved. Yunlan opened his mouth.  

“Tell me. Tell me everything.” Yunlan said. Uncle Four levelled a helpless glare at Zhu Hong. She answered with a pointed glower of her own, and he slumped forward, began.

--

 

Shen Wei has prepared dumplings today. He has about two dozen of them laid out on a tray by the time Yunlan arrives. Yunlan tucks his hair behind his ear, kisses him gently on the cheek in greeting.

“Hello.” Shen Wei says. Yunlan nudges his nose against his cheek again, letting out the smallest of sighs as the tension floods out of him. He leaves their shoulders brushing, one arm pressed against Shen Wei’s as Shen Wei rolls out dough, fills it with meat and folds the edges together.

“What’s the occasion?” Yunlan asks. Shen Wei’s mouth curves softly up in that gentle smile Yunlan loves so much.

“Nothing. I remembered how much you like them.” Shen Wei says. “I’m almost done here. Go and make yourself useful, wash your hands and bring me that pot. Do you want your dumplings boiled or potstickers?” Yunlan does as he says, filling the pot with water and lighting up the stove. The last time he did this, it had been the New Year before his mother’s last round of chemotherapy. She had been too tired to finish wrapping the dumplings herself, so he and his father had helped her. The dumplings they made had been misshapen and slightly overcooked, but his mother had said they were delicious anyway. They’d eaten the dumplings while sitting on the balcony of their flat, watching fireworks go off around the city. Mama hadn’t managed to eat all of her portion, so Yunlan had finished hers.

“Did something happen at work today?” Shen Wei asks. Yunlan starts a little, but relaxes.

“How did you figure that out?” he asks. Shen Wei slows down a little, tucking plastic wrap over the folded dumplings before rolling out another circle of dough. On the stove, the water is coming to a boil.

“Something was troubling you when you came in. I could hear it in your breathing.” Shen Wei looks up. “Ah Lan. What happened? You can tell me.” Yunlan is silent.

Zhu Hong, watching him. Thoughts bubble up, but refuse to form words in his throat. Chief, are you all right? No, no he isn’t. Hasn’t been for a long, long time. Waking up to a kiss on his forehead, a hand in his hair. Exhaustion dogging him and he knows what’s happening but he can’t stop, can’t let go -

“Just some work problems.” He says. “We’ve been handling a really big case.” Shen Wei seals the last dumpling, sets it on the tray, moves to the sink to wash his hands. Yunlan follows him, pressed close against his side. As Shen Wei turns the faucet off, Yunlan slowly brings his hand up, uses his thumb to brush against Shen Wei’s cheek.

“You got a bit of flour there.” He lies, mouth dry. Without eyes, it’s hard to gauge his expression, but Shen Wei would know he’s lying. With a sudden thrill Yunlan realizes he doesn’t care. Shen Wei knows already, anyway. Every part of him that matters.

The water is boiling. Shen Wei makes a move to pick up the tray, but Yunlan’s hand closes over his wrist.

“You know,” He says. “I always wondered why you keep on cooking for me. All you have to do is snap your fingers and you can shape the world however you want.” Shen Wei glances down. His wrist is very thin and fragile in Yunlan’s grip, the skin damp from the water.

“You need it.” Shen Wei says. There is a pulse, beating in his wrist. Yunlan wonders if it’s real or just another part that Shen Wei manufactured to make it easier for Yunlan to trust him. To love him.

“I need a lot of things, don’t I?” Yunlan says. Shen Wei takes a step closer to him. In Yunlan’s grip, his pulse beats faster.

“You’re a child, still.” Shen Wei says. “Children always need to be shown they’re loved.” Yunlan lets out a shaky breath. Shen Wei is close enough he can feel his breath. His body is very close to Yunlan’s, lacking warmth, slender but firm as Yunlan leans into him.

“Maybe. But children’s tastes change.” Yunlan says, voice raw. He doesn’t give SHen Wei an opportunity to answer as he closes the distance between them with a kiss.

Shen Wei’s mouth is soft underneath Yunlan’s, as cool as the rest of him. This close, his hair and skin give off that faint but cloying sweetness that Yunlan had once thought was perfume. As Yunlan kisses him, he responds. Slow and tender and hesitant, not unlike a young girl receiving her first kiss. Yunlan pulls back gently, eyes lidded.

Shen Wei’s mouth is pink. So are his cheeks. His mouth falls open, tongue darting out to lick at the swell of his bottom lip. His teeth are pointed and empty and eyeless his face might be, Yunlan knows ravening hunger when he sees it. Knows the precise moment when Shen Wei’s self-control snaps, and he’s on him.

The kiss is sloppy, uncoordinated. A starving dog given something he’s never tasted before, and Yunlan growls back against Shen Wei’s mouth, biting down hard on Shen Wei’s bottom lip. The sound of Shen Wei’s gasp going all the way down his groin and Yunlan hisses a curse, yanks him closer. Their bodies molding together like it had always been meant to be like this. Shen Wei’s waist slender beneath Yunlan’s roving hands, and it’s with a rush of dizzying lust that he realizes Shen Wei isn’t wearing anything beneath that robe.

“Ah Lan-“ Shen Wei somehow manages to break the kiss to gasp out Yunlan’s name. Yunlan kisses him again, hand tight around the back of his neck. Shen Wei is so slender and light that it’s no trouble at all for Yunlan to lift him up onto the counter, knocking the pot of boiling water over with his elbow, not even registering the pain. The pot bounces on the floor, empty, the stove switched off and smelling of gas.

“Fuck,” Yunlan breathes. Hands fumbling with the tie of Shen Wei’s robes, spreading his legs open so he can stand between them and he hears Shen Wei biting back a delicious whimper as he’s exposed. His skin is white, white all over as Yunlan shoves his robe off his shoulders and tug it down his arms. Pale as paper, with the same silky texture. He’s completely hairless, but human enough where it matters, Yunlan notes with mischievous glee, and as he presses against Shen Wei’s already-hard length with his own clothed erection he’s gratified to hear him gasp.

Ah Lan,” It’s a cry, a sigh, a whisper rolled into one. Just as sensitive as a human, then. Perhaps more. Yunlan’s smirk feels feral as he tears his own clothes off until he’s as naked as Shen Wei is. Pressing back against him, his hand closing over their lengths, palm moving up and down,  thumb rubbing over the tips while his other hand strokes Shen Wei’s side, pinching and rolling one nipple, then the other between his fingers before sliding down his flank to fondle his ass, squeezing and kneading the curve of it. Not letting up the pace as he jerks them both off, and Shen Wei throws his head back, mouth open as Yunlan closes his lips over the skin of his neck. Unable to do much but try to keep his balance by gripping Yunlan’s shoulders, as Yunlan rocks against him.

“Did you do this to all the children you took?”  He murmurs, sucking kisses up and down Shen Wei’s throat. “Love them, watch them grow, eat them whole?” Shen Wei shakes his head. His shoulders are trembling and he jerks up with another cry as Yunlan reaches down to fondle his balls.

“You’re the only one who’s touched me like this.” He breathes, and Yunlan’s breath stutters.

“Good.” He says hoarsely.  It means no one has ever had Shen Wei before. It means he belongs to Yunlan alone. He wills his hands not to shake as he spreads Shen Wei’s legs wider, a greedy child given a treat he would never ever share with anyone else, pushing him down the counter and angling his hips up so he’s exposed to Yunlan. Shen Wei shivers as Yunlan braces his hands against his thighs. Not quite human, Yunlan realizes. There’s a slit there, the skin flushed darker there than anywhere else, before his perineum and just behind his balls, folds of flesh smooth and dripping with clear moisture, a sheen already covering his inner thighs. Yunlan presses the tips of his fingers inside, and he’s startled by how hot Shen Wei is, inside. Silky and wet and Shen Wei sucks in a breath, then lets out a whimper of loss as Yunlan sinks in deeper, almost down to the second knuckle of his third finger, then withdraws. The wetness there is the same scent that always comes off of Shen Wei’s skin and hair, the sweetness of crushed insects. Cloying, in his nose and in his mouth as he leans down, takes a lick.

Shen Wei jerks up. Yunlan grins at him from between the cradle of his thighs, continues his work. Mouthing at Shen Wei’s cockhead and balls before going down to that secret place. It’s the same thing as eating out a girl, but headier. Yunlan getting drunk on the taste of Shen Wei, suckling and licking and teasing, tongue flicking at his obviously sensitive folds as Shen Wei grasps at his hair with his long-fingered hands and whimpers.

“Fuck, you’re incredible.” Yunlan whisper-breathes against Shen Wei’s skin. Laving one last gentle lick before pressing a kiss against him. Shen Wei’s nerveless hands slipping out of his hair as Yunlan straightens up. Leans over him, covering him with his body.

“Tell me you want this.” He presses a kiss against Shen Wei’s half-open lips, his tongue dipping down into Shen Wei’s mouth, letting him taste himself, feeling his gasps and his shivering beginning in earnest as Yunlan takes himself in hand, lines himself up against Shen Wei’s slit. Shen Wei’s thighs quiver as he feels Yunlan bump against him. It’s all he can do not to thrust in, all at once. Knowing Shen Wei will let him. Knowing Shen Wei needs this as much as he does.

“Ah Lan…” Shen Wei’s voice trails off in a whisper.  Yunlan feels such a powerful wave of love wash over him that it hurts. 

“You were my mother.” Yunlan murmurs, kissing Shen Wei again. He barely hears himself speaking, barely understands what he’s saying, only this want, burning him alive, eating him whole. “Now I want you to be my lover. Say yes.” Shen Wei can no longer speak with words. He nods. Yunlan doesn’t need telling twice. With one swift movement, he pushes in, and Shen Wei cries out.

Inside, he’s burning. Much tighter than a girl but with the same silken-wet softness that envelopes Yunlan as he slides in. Shen Wei jerks as Yunlan sinks into him, bit by bit, his breaths soft and punched out of him, falling as silent as suddenly as he’d screamed, and Yunlan presses kisses all over Shen Wei’s face, his forehead, his temples, the empty space where his eyes should be. Brushing his hair back and allowing Shen Wei’s scrabbling hands to pull him closer.

“Tell me if I’m hurting you.” Yunlan whispers as Shen Wei buries his face against his shoulder. He’s sunk into Shen Wei completely, balls pressed against the folds of his slit. Hot silk and velvet surrounding Yunlan, and he’s practically panting against Shen Wei’s ear with the effort not to take. “I don’t want to hurt you.” Shen Wei shakes his head, dazed. Yunlan kisses the hollows of his eyes.

“I feel you. Everywhere.” Shen Wei breathes. He clenches around Yunlan’s dick, and now it’s Yunlan’s turn to gasp as he curves over him, fingers on Shen Wei’s hips, digging hard enough he knows he’ll leave bruises. Shen Wei shudders. He relaxes when Yunlan nuzzles his neck, and Yunlan allows him a few moments to catch his breath before he pulls back, gives one shallow, experimental thrust. Shen Wei keens. His trembling legs wrapping tight around Yunlan’s waist.

“Don’t leave.” He says, suddenly, fiercely angry. His teeth are gritted. Had he eyes, Yunlan knows they would be blazing. “You’re not allowed to leave.” Yunlan grins at him, hungry and full of teeth, and thrusts into Shen Wei, and Shen Wei chokes on his cry as his legs and arms tighten around Yunlan, quivering as he clings to him.

Yunlan’s done holding back. He fucks Shen Wei, rhythm slow and tender but brutally deep. Pumping in and out, barely letting Shen Wei rest between his cries. Yunlan’s dick gliding in and out of Shen Wei’s beautifully vulnerable body, pulling out almost all the way before thrusting in as far as he can go and Shen Wei keens, his nails sinking into Yunlan’s back and raking down.

“Ah Lan- Ah Lan!” His voice breaks into a sob. Yunlan is as close as he can sense Shen Wei is, and he thrusts in one last time at the same time Shen Wei clamps down tight around his cock. The world whites out around them as they come.

--

Yunlan stormed out of Uncle Four’s apartment. Zhu Hong tried to chase after him, yelling, to be stopped by her uncle, who was shaking his head. Yunlan was shaking as he unlocked the door to the other house. Staring down into the dark corridor where he knew Shen Wei was waiting, and then he closed it again. Knees shaking, his eyes burning as he tried not to cry.

He felt very, very tired, wanting to go home more than anything else, where Shen Wei was waiting for him with dinner and a hug. But Uncle Four’s story – how tired he had started to become  - his own awful need to know. Yunlan’s hand was shaking when he shut the door closed again. He stayed in his bed in his real room for the rest of the evening, waiting up till late at night when he heard Dad enter the house.

That night, he dreamed. He dreamed of his Mom before she got sick, hugging him, then turning into Shen Wei, waiting for him by his bedside. Stroking his hair, smiling, his teeth growing hungry and sharp when Yunlan tells him to go away. Shen Wei lunged at him, and Yunlan woke up, breath caught and terrified in his lungs. Trying to hold back his tears, then he heard a meow, felt a warm furry body press against his, and the tears came, overflowing.

He decided not to go Shen Wei for a few days. This decision stretched to a week, to two. By then he’d started to sleep properly again. He rarely went to the kitchen anymore. The few times he did, he thought he could feel the door staring at him, which was stupid but also true at the same time.

He missed Shen Wei so much that he wanted to cry. But whenever his hand closed over the doorknob he couldn’t stop thinking of Uncle Four’s painting. Of Zhu Hongs uncle and the aunt he had never even known existed.

Zhu Hong kept trying to corner him when they were at school. He always brushed her aside. Resentful, angry. And then one morning, she didn’t show up. Yunlan didn’t pay any particular attention to it, until the next day, when Uncle Four, his eyes red and his breath stinking of wine, waylaid Yunlan on his way back to his house, grabbing his arm.

“Zhu Hong is missing.” He said. His voice trembled. “Did you leave the door unlocked?”  Yunlan just stared at him, stock-still and wide-eyed, Uncle Four squeezing his arm hard enough to hurt.

“Please.” The man begged, tears shining in his eyes. “You have to help me save her.” Yunlan’s voice shook. He can’t remember his answer but he does remember Uncle Four falling to his knees, crying noisily like he’s six instead of forty-six. Just a little kid all over again, crying and lost.

Chapter Text

He doesn’t remember much of what comes after. He remembers Shen Wei sagging limply against him and trembling, completely overwhelmed, Yunlan’s lips pressed against his forehead as he waited for Shen Wei to catch his breath, their stomachs a sticky mess from Shen Wei’s come. He remembers easing out of Shen Wei, Shen Wei letting out a soft sob as Yunlan pulled free, his shaking intensifying. Yunlan’s come leaking out of his other mother’s slit, down his spread thighs as he tries to stand on unsteady legs, is the most obscene, erotic thing Yunlan’s ever seen. He has to take a deep breath and look away before he gets hard again, before he takes Shen Wei again, knowing how overwhelmed he is, how he needs to catch his breath and be comforted.

 Yunlan had felt cold at the loss of Shen Wei’s heat surrounding him, so he’d caught him up in his arms, the both of them sinking to the floor together, limbs a sticky, tangled mess. Shen Wei huddled against his chest as Yunlan covers his face in kisses, the kitchen flickers in and out of being around them.

At one point Shen Wei must have gathered enough of himself enough that when Yunlan opens his eyes, the kitchen looks its usual self. Shen Wei helps him up, his limbs gone boneless from exhaustion, and Yunlan doesn’t protest as he’s taken down the corridor to his room.

He falls asleep in his bed, wrapped up in Shen Wei’s arms. He wakes up to ointment on his elbow and the scratches down his back, to Shen Wei dropping kisses along his face and neck, nipping softly at his lips, his desire a hard, heavy weight pressed against Yunlan’s thigh.

Yunlan’s too tired to move for a moment, letting Shen Wei do as he would. Watching him through a half-hooded gaze, and he smiles when Shen Wei notices he’s awake.  Shen Wei swallows, licking his lips, and Yunlan feels himself growing hard as Shen Wei leans over to him, presses the most chaste of kisses against his mouth.

“Please.” He whispers against Yunlan’s lips, hands cupping Yunlan’s face. “I’m so hungry.” Yunlan exhales, heart squeezing painfully in his chest as he guides Shen Wei to straddle his lap, knees on either side of him.

He smirks faintly when he sees the sheen of moisture covering Shen Wei’s inner thighs, his scent fragrant and dense, and Shen Wei bites on his lower lip as Yunlan reaches up and squeezes the curve of his ass. He tilts his head down, shoulders slightly hunched forwards as if he’s embarrassed and trying to hide from Yunlan. Yunlan sits up, kisses him softly until he looks up again, rubbing the head of his already leaking cock over Shen Wei’s dripping slit as Shen Wei shivers above him. Helpless and overwhelmed.

“Ah Lan…” Shen Wei’s throat works. His voice sounds small. Yunlan shushes him by pushing in almost halfway through and then stopping. Holding himself back as Shen Wei’s mouth falls open and he moans, the sound almost nothing close to human. Yunlan keeps his hand steady on his ass, barely holding himself back as he reaches up to brush a kiss against the corner of Shen Wei’s mouth.

“Move,” Yunlan whispers. And it’s strange that the monster from his childhood can be so innocent, as Shen Wei, trembling and trusting, does what he’s told.

Afterwards Yunlan cleans the mess he’s made of Shen Wei off with his tongue. Shen Wei lies on the bed, Yunlan’s face between his spread legs. Showering butterfly kisses against his inner thighs and inhaling his scent, the taste of his come mingled with Shen Wei’s sweetness as he laves one final lick against Shen Wei’s slit, pressing a kiss against his twitching cockhead. Shen Wei’s fingers are tangled in his hair, his breath heavy and slow. Watching him, Yunlan is reminded of an animal, lounging quiet in the sunlight after having eaten its fill of meat and blood.

It had been, Yunlan decides, a good meal for the both of them.  Yunlan straightens up, dislodging Shen Wei’s hands from his hair. He lays a gentle kiss against Shen Wei’s mouth, curls up around him. His head feels so light it’s floating, and exhaustion has his limbs heavy and pliant as he lies tangled with Shen Wei. The burst of energy he’s gotten while making love to Shen Wei has been completely spent.

Shen Wei sighs, pushes his hand into his hair. Yunlan allows himself to enjoy the sensation, this peace for a few moments before he has to break it. He licks his lips, leans down to brush a kiss against Shen Wei’s forehead and lips.

“I have to go.” He whispers, and Shen Wei falls very, very still. He has no eyes, but Yunlan has to suppress a shiver at the expression he can gauge is on Shen Wei’s face right now.

“Oh?” SHen Wei says. He lifts his head. Yunlan can feel him barely restraining himself from tightening his grip on his hair.

“My team’s going to wonder why I skipped work.” Yunlan says weakly. “I can’t leave them.” Shen Wei growls.

“Your team could care less about what you truly need.” Shen Wei snarls.  “Don’t you remember why you returned to me? Even when you’re with them, you still feel lonely. That’s why you need me.” He grabs for Yunlan’s arms. Yunlan winces when his nails sink into flesh.

“Shen Wei, you’re hurting me.” Shen Wei immediately withdraws, but the line of his mouth is set tight and Yunlan can feel the fury rolling off of him. And the fear. Yunlan remembers being twelve, facing down this same monster. Remembers that wounded, frightened creatures are the most dangerous as he reaches for him, gathers him in his arms.

“Why are you so angry?” Yunlan asks quietly. Shen Wei breathes against his shoulder. When he speaks, his voice is tight.

“I already gave you everything. Every part of me there is to give. My food. My love. My body.” Yunlan can feel the scrape of his teeth against his flesh, wonders how badly Shen Wei would injure him to keep him here. “And still you refuse to stay, even though there’s nothing for you back in your world.” Yunlan keeps his touch light as he strokes a trail down Shen Wei’s back.

“I’m sorry.” Is all Yunlan can say. It’s what he said too, last time. The way Shen Wei tightens his grip around him like a vice tells him he remembers.

 “I should have kept you inside me forever, never let you leave.” Shen Wei growls against his throat. Yunlan smiles grimly against his hair.


“I’m afraid that’s not anatomically feasible for us humans, at least.” Much as I want to. Shen Wei breathes, heavy and harsh against his nape. Yunlan knows he’ll leave bruises with how hard he’s gripping him. Yunlan lets him. Drops kisses against his hair. Holding him in his arms and rocking slightly even though he doesn’t feel Shen Wei calming down.

“Shen Wei.” Yunlan breathes against his cheek. “If you let me go now, I’ll come back to you.” I always come back to you, in the end. Shen Wei shudders. Then suddenly, he lets go. Yunlan’s left blinking, his arms empty. Staring dazedly after Shen Wei. Shen Wei returns dressed in his black robe, bringing Yunlan’s clothes.

He dresses Yunlan in silence, as if Yunlan is six years old instead of twenty-six. Yunlan lets him. His clothes are new, things Shen Wei made for him but fit his style exactly. Yunlan watches his expression closely the whole time. When he’s done, the only thing that he’s wearing that belongs to him is his leather coat. Shen Wei drapes it over his shoulders before turning away and making his way down to the kitchen. Yunlan follows him. The dumplings are still on the kitchen table, uncooked, the shells gone dry and the meat filling doubtless already rancid. Shen Wei waves a hand, and they disappear.

Yunlan waits, on edge, determined to avoid glancing at the open door. Shen Wei is very, very still. Eventually, Yunlan sighs. Reaches forwards, takes Shen Wei’s stiff figure into his arms.  

“I’ll be back.” He whispers. “I promise.” I love you, and you’ll never understand how much because for you, what I am is something meant to be eaten, consumed.

He pulls back, Shen Wei’s nails scraping against the smooth leather of his jacket. Yunlan presses one last kiss against his forehead before making his way down the corridor.

Zhu Hong is waiting for Yunlan when he reaches the other side. Her face white, her red lipstick bitten off. Yunlan is too tired to feel surprised to see her. Zhu Hong is the smartest person he’s ever met, and it had only been a matter of time. 

 He glances  behind him to avoid staring into her eyes. There is nothing in the doorway but a wall of rough red bricks, and Yunlan hates himself just a little for the relief that courses through him at the sight. He closes the door with a bit more force than necessary, shoulders hunching at the click of Zhu Hong’s boots behind him, reaching into his pocket to fish out the key.

The key is gone. Yunlan stares blankly at his empty pocket, fingers curled up in the empty space like he’s waiting for the key to materialize. Like maybe he hadn’t forgotten in his rush to get here, that he’d accidentally stowed it away in his pocket instead of leaving it on the other side of the door, where Shen Wei couldn’t get at it.

“Zhao Yunlan,” Zhu Hong says, her voice taut with betrayal and anger, and beneath that, hurt. Yunlan takes his hand out of his pocket, allows himself the comfort of her hand grabbing for his shoulder. The desperate worry in her eyes eclipsing the rage. Dread rising up in Yunlan’s throat like bile, because if ever he had a choice to return to Shen Wei, then Shen Wei just took it from him.

 

---

 

Shen Wei acted the same as normal when Yunlan returned. He enveloped Yunlan in a hug, and Yunlan let him, burying his face against his shoulder. Now that his mind was clearer he could sense the tiredness growing stronger the longer he was with Shen Wei. His breath caught when he realized he didn’t have much time.

“Ah Lan?” Shen Wei asked. His black plastic button eyes glimmered in the light. “What’s wrong?” It’s a question he’d asked hundreds of times, always ready to bring Yunlan comfort when he answered. Yunlan closed his hands over Shen Wei’s robe, worrying at his bottom lip.

“What did you do with Zhu Hong?” He asked. Shen Wei brushed his hair back, held his face between his hands. Yunlan had never been more aware of how long his nails were, how sharp, than when he was touching his face now.

“She’s safe.” Shen Wei at least didn’t try to deny matters. Yunlan felt breath hitch. “I wanted to be able to talk to you about the stories she was telling, so I brought her here so you would come.” Yunlan swallowed.

“I’m here already.” He said. “So you have to let her go.”  Shen Wei tilted his head.

“Not if I feel that I need her to make you stay.” He said. Yunlan stared at him. All of Uncle Four’s warnings sounding off in his head like klaxon bells, but there was only one thing left he could do.  

“Don’t you want to win me, fair and square?” He asked. Shen Wei went very, very still. Yunlan thought of black plastic buttons, tried not to picture the needle.

“What do you wish to propose, Ah Lan?” Shen Wei asked him. Yunlan took a deep breath and wagered the only thing he had left.

 

----

 

“You’re not going back there.” Zhu Hong says. He’s curled up in her apartment for the night, head pillowed on her shoulder. He can still taste Shen Wei at the back of his teeth, and longing lances through his chest at the same time as the dread convulses his belly.

He thinks of Shen Wei’s fingers, running through his hair. Zhu Hong had physically dragged him out of the house and bundled him into her car, where the cat had been waiting on top of the hood. Yunlan had let her, staring at the door, and all he could think of was how hollow he’d felt. How much Shen Wei had left him empty as the pocket where he kept the key.  He hadn’t moved, even as the cat curled up on top of his lap, tucking his head under his arm and beginning to purr.

“You know I have to.” Yunlan says dully. It’s an effort to speak, but if he closes his eyes he knows he’ll see Shen Wei’s face. His smile, the almost shy curve of it as he ducks his head down. “We can’t leave the door open. There are kids living in the neighbourhood again.” Something darker than anger curls deep inside him at the thought.

The Yunlan of four months ago would have shoved it aside, refused to look at it too closely and chalked it up to sheer anger at what Shen Wei had almost done to him, what he’d done to countless children before. But now he knows it for what it truly is.

Zhu Hong lets out a grunt of frustration, dislodges Yunlan’s head from her shoulder, effectively distracting him from going down that rabbit hole of thought. “So what’re you planning to do, Yunlan?” She snaps. “Offer yourself up again as bait?” Yunlan buries his face in his hand, and the cat reaches up with its paw, batting lightly at his chin.

“It worked last time, didn’t it?” He says wearily, voice muffled. Let’s play a game. “It’s me he wants. He’s just finishing what he started.”  Zhu Hong’s mouth is pursed.

“Yunlan, you go through that door, and he will never let you go.” Yunlan closes his eyes.

“Maybe he shouldn’t.” Yunlan says. He thinks of Shen Wei’s fingers through his hair. His touch, his smell, his taste. His heat, as Yunlan entered him. How overwhelmed he’d been, how afraid. “Maybe this is how we need to end things.” The cat meows, kneads his lap with its paws. Zhu Hong scowls, eyes blazing.

“There has to be another way.” She snaps. Then she flounces off in the direction of her apartment’s storage closet, Yunlan staring after her. When she comes back, she’s holding a small carved box in one hand. The cat sits up on his lap and hisses.

“Uncle Four was holding this when he died.” She says. She opens the box, and his mouth goes dry when he finds what’s inside.

A pair of big, black plastic buttons. Yunlan reaches for them, but Zhu Hong immediately retracts her hand, glaring at him. The cat bristles, fur standing up on end until Zhu Hong covers the box again. Yunlan curls his hand into the cat’s fur. Stopping himself from reaching out and taking what’s his-

“How,” Yunlan says through gritted teeth. “Did Uncle Four even get those?” The cat’s tail swishes. Zhu Hong shrugs.

“Ask him.” She points at the cat, and the cat preens. She gives Yunlan a hard stare. “I tried everything to destroy the damn things. Tried to melt them using fire, to smash them to bits with a hammer. Fucking tried to run them over with the wheels of my car at one point. Nothing worked.” Yunlan cannot stop staring at the box. It’s carved all over with curling designs, not unlike tree roots, which he recognizes from the paintings Uncle Four had gifted Zhu Hong. The inside was lined with white silk. Great care had been taken with the craftsmanship of the box. Yunlan imagines Uncle Four working on it, half-drunk, making something beautiful to contain the eyes of the monster that had killed and eaten his siblings.

“What do you suppose we do with this, Hong’er?” He asks. “He’s not going to give up the key in exchange for his eyes.” Zhu Hong stares at him, grim.

“Maybe not the key. But he might give you up.” Yunlan stares at her, then looks back at the box. 

“He won’t.” He says softly. “He can’t.” He loves me too much, and he knows I love him.

Zhu Hong lets out a sound of frustration, sets the box on the coffee table in front of Yunlan.

“There has to be a bargain he’ll accept.” She says. “Something that isn’t you.” Yunlan reaches out before she can stop him, curving his hand around the box. He opens it again, traces his finger around the rim of one button. The cat lets out a soft ‘mrrp’ of distress, butts his head against Yunlan’s hand in an attempt to get him to drop the box. He does not.

“It doesn’t matter.” He says. I don’t matter. “What’s important is we get the key back, and we lock him up. I’m not going to let him take another kid.” His hand closes protectively over the box, ignoring the way Zhu Hong’s face goes heartbroken and haggard as she watches him.

It was simple. A treasure hunt. If Yunlan found Zhu Hong, he would let her go, and Yunlan could come in and out of this world as much as he pleased. If Yunlan lost, then Shen Wei got to keep the both of them, got to stitch black button eyes onto Yunlan’s.

“Bad bargain.” The cat hissed. His fur was standing on end. “He’s not going to play fair.” Yunlan scratched his forehead.

“What else can I do, cat?” He asked. Oddly enough, he felt calm. Remembering Dad, of all people. How he used to tell Yunlan that if the difficult thing to do was the brave one, then the more he had to do it if no one else could.

The cat purred. It’s a small, frightened sound that quickly faded in the mists of the bits of world Shen Wei hadn’t formed into being yet. “I’ll protect you.” he whispered. Yunlan lifted the cat into his arms, pressed it against his chest.

“Ah Lan.” The cat stiffens, and Yunlan swallowed. He turned towards Shen Wei, watching them both.

“I just came to wish you good luck.” He said. His eyes gleamed. “You know I love you.”

I love you too. Yunlan’s throat ached with the force of not saying it. He held the cat tighter, glancing away. When he looked up again, SHen Wei was gone, and they were alone.

 

-- 

 

They come up with precisely zero solutions. Zhu Hong, fed up, suggests they go to bed first before their brains imploded. Yunlan’s ready enough to follow her suggestion. His brain feels like it’s floating and it wasn’t until Zhu Hong shoves a reheated bao in his face that he remembers he hasn’t eaten in almost two days.

Yunlan and Zhu Hong sleep together in her guestroom that night. Yunlan doesn’t miss how Zhu Hong gave him the side of the bed closer to the wall, makes sure her body is between his and the door. When she plunks the cat down on his side of the bed, he dares voice no protest. When she reaches over and grasps his hand tight, he gives hers a squeeze, tries to smile. He closes his eyes first, but it’s a while before he slips into fitful sleep.

He dreams. He dreams of Shen Wei’s hands combing through his hair, of big black button eyes watching him unblinking. In his dreams, Yunlan reaches forwards, cups Shen Wei’s face in his hands. Tells him how much he loves him. In his dreams, Shen Wei smiles, and Yunlan wraps him in his arms. Shen Wei strokes patterns on his back and tells him to come home. When Yunlan doesn’t answer, Shen Wei’s grip turns harsh in his hair, as does his kiss.

The next morning, he wakes up with a crick in his neck and a twenty-five pound cat on his chest. It takes him a while to remember where he is, and he spends ten minutes squinting at the early morning sunlight. Then he remembers the events of yesterday and sits bolt-upright. The indignant cat hisses at him before settling down at the foot of his bed, washing his fur. Zhu Hong remains asleep. As Yunlan watches her face, he sees black shadows smudged beneath her round eyes. He hadn’t noticed them before, and he feels a dull ache at the sight.

Yunlan fights the wave of dizziness off. His stomach rumbled, the bao well –digested by now, but has absolutely zero desire to eat. Still, he forces himself to sit up, to head for the kitchen. Rubbing his face with his hand in an effort to clear the sleep from his brain. He freezes when he sees his hand. Specifically the hairs caught between his fingers. Too long and soft to be Zhu Hong’s.

Only the sound of his friend’s even, regular breathing keeps Yunlan from panicking. Yunlan takes a deep breath, then quietly as he can he makes his way to the living room. When he gets there, the wooden box is still on the table.

The buttons are not.

 As Yunlan stares at the empty box, he realizes there’s only one thing left to do. Only one way out of this. For everyone else, if not for him.

When Zhu Hong wakes up, it’s to a plaintively meowing cat and a hastily-scribbled note on her coffee maker apologizing for taking her car. She curses up a storm, not even bothering to change out of her pajamas as she grabs her handbag and her service firearm, taking off running as the black cat follows her.

 

 ---

 

He found Zhu Hong. Or rather, they found each other. Yunlan had combed through each room of the house and explored the grounds. Sifting through knick-knacks and the like, getting more frustrated as his search turned up fruitless. In his second search of his room, Yunlan had ended up overturning the contents of his toybox, shaking everything out for good measure. About to give up and move onto another room, and then he found the unfamiliar snow globe, the girl inside it alone and dressed in red.

Yunlan had set it down, and then Zhu Hong had grabbed his arm. Her face pale, five glass marbles in her hand as the cat pressed up against her, shivering. The shards of the cracked-open snow globe glittered brightly on the carpeted floor. She hugged him, and he hugged her back, his relief a hard lump in his throat.

 Yunlan had no time to ask her what the marbles were for when he feels the world flatten and go dark around the edges. The cat meowed beside them, and Zhu Hong placed her fingers over her lips, pinning what looked like a paper talisman on Yunlan’s clothes. She had one pinned to the lapel of her coat as well, and Yunlan wonderered where she’d gotten it. If maybe Uncle Four had actually been preparing her for the possibility of this becoming her fight despite doing every means possible to protect her ad keep her out of it.

He won’t keep his promise. Yunlan fought to keep quiet as Zhu Hong led him as silently as possible to the kitchen. When they got there, the door was open and unguarded. Zhu Hong let out a breath of relief, but before she could charge forward through it Yunlan grabbed her wrist, shaking his head. Staring at the kitchen table where Shen Wei was  seated, and on a plate before him lying a spool of black thread and a pair of black plastic buttons.

“Ah Lan.” Shen Wei said, and Yunlan trembled and trembled as Shen Wei stood up, reaching towards him. He shoved Zhu Hong away, yelling at her to run.

---

When Yunlan returns home, it’s to the sight of the door opened wide. Cold wind flows in through the dark corridor, and Yunlan lets out a breath, braces himself.

It’s a longer, colder trek than it’s ever been down the corridor, but eventually he reaches Shen Wei’s kitchen. It’s empty. The windows outside show nothing but mist. Yunlan looks around him with his heart in his throat.

“Xiao Wei!” He calls out, his blood pounding in his ears. “I’m back. Just like what you wanted.” He flings open the door that leads to the dining room, but the rest of the world is a white emptiness. Frustrated, he slams it shut.

“Xiao Wei!” He shouts. And then he turns when he hears the clink of porcelain on wood.

“I’m here, Ah Lan.” Shen Wei says softly. On a plate in front of him is a spool of black thread, and a needle. In his hand are buttons. A pair of them, gleaming an oily black in the hollow light.

Yunlan swallows. The edge of the needle is pointed wicked sharp. Shen Wei takes it out of the spool, holds it out to Yunlan.

“Please help me string this, Ah Lan.” He says, his voice soft. Yunlan slowly walks forward and takes it from him. Shen Wei waits, silent, and Yunlan strings the thread through the needle. The thread is as black and soft as Shen Wei’s hair – it is Shen Wei’s hair, he realizes. Spun into the smoothest silk.

Shen Wei takes the needle, and places the buttons on the plate. Takes one, sets it on the hollow where it used to be. He pushes the needle into the button hole, through the flesh, and blood oozes out. So deep a red that it’s almost black, dribbling through the wounds down Shen Wei’s face like tears as Shen Wei stitches his eye on. When he gets started on the second pair of buttonholes, Yunlan stops him, feeling sick.

“Let me.” He says hoarsely. He takes the needle from Shen Wei, wiping at the blood with the edge of his sleeve before stitching the button on through the third and fourth buttonholes. He ties off the thread the way he remembers from watching his mother sewing loose buttons back onto his school uniforms, starts on the second.

When he’s done, he wipes the rest of the blood off of Shen Wei’s face, sets the needle down on the plate, buries his face in Shen Wei’s shoulder. Shen Wei lifts his hand to his face, turns to Yunlan. Yunlan kisses him, and Shen Wei cradles his face between his hands.

“You really have grown up.” Shen Wei says. Yunlan presses their foreheads together.

“I came home, too.” He says hoarsely. Bracing himself, and Shen Wei’s grip turns hard and cold on his chin.

“You want the key.” He says. Yunlan breathes out. Shen Wei’s mouth is a hard cruel line. His fingers on Yunlan’s chin dig into the skin hard enough to bruise. Yunlan loves him so much he feels like his chest is being carved open. It’s not, he realizes, an inaccurate description of what’s happening.

“You’ll let me starve here,” Shen Wei says softly. “Trapped and alone.” It’s not a question. Yunlan breathes out, hating himself for how his voice breaks.

“I’m giving myself to you. I promise to stay forever. Feed on me for as long as you want. Just. Return the key.” Yunlan falls silent when Shen Wei digs his nails into his face, damn near puncturing the skin. And then he lets go, and Yunlan almost keens with the loss.

“You castigate me for loving you the way I do, yet you expect me to die because that’s what you wish.” Shen Wei’s voice is cold with fury. “You selfish, selfish child. Do you think you’re the only one who wants to live?”

“I know you need me way more than I need you.” Yunlan says. His voice shakes. Shen Wei watches him, his button eyes unblinking. No expression on his face at all as he reaches forwards and takes Yunlan in his arms.

“You’re lying.” Shen wei says softly, chin on Yunlan’s shoulder, arms wrapped tight around him. “Why do you keep lying to me about how much you love me?” before Yunlan can move, a gunshot rings out.

He reacts without thinking, diving forward and covering Shen Wei with his body. He can feel a bullet whizz past him, hitting the opposite wall in front of him, and Shen Wei roars.

“Zhu Hong, stop!” Yunlan pants as he tries to keep Shen Wei pinned, his head covered and away from Zhu Hong’s aim. Shen Wei roars. His fingers twitch and suddenly Yunlan’s the one flat on his back, completely winded. Zhu Hong’s standing in the doorway to the corridor, holding her gun aloft. She takes aim at Shen Wei, and Shen Wei disappears.

“Hong’er-!” The door closes behind Zhu Hong with enough force to send her sprawling, sending the gun skidding. She lands heavily on her front, and Shen Wei wraps his hands around her throat, squeezing as she struggles and snarls. The gleam of his sharp nails, and the horror is a cold weight in Yunlan’s gut.

Xiao Wei!” He screams. Zhu Hong catches the hand that’s about to open her throat with its claws, but her face is turning purple. Yunlan does the only thing he can think of.

The gun is a heavy weight in his hand, the nozzle cold against his own temple. Shen Wei freezes when he sees Yunlan. Going very, very still, a spider lying in wait as Yunlan clicks the safety off.

“Let her go.” Yunlan says. His voice does not shake. “Let her go or I’m blowing my brains out.”

Ah Lan,” Shen Wei whispers. His appearance ripples, and Yunlan sees his mother, her face wasted with illness and her hands like claws, tangled in Zhu Hong’ hair. Zhu Hong’s gasping for breath, and her eyes are fulll of tears as she tries to shake her head.

“If I die,” Yunlan forces himself to talk. “You’ll die too. I’m the only one who loves you for you.” He wraps his finger around the trigger.

“Ah Lan-“ Shen We’s voice is strangled. “Don’t-“ He lets Zhu Hong go. She falls on the floor, gasping, rolling away as far from Shen Wei as he can. She Wei does not drop his gaze on Yunlan the whole time, and Yunlan sucks in a breath. he doesn’t lower the gun.

“Hong’er.” He says roughly. “Get out.” Zhu Hong doesn’t reply, her hand on her throat. She’s watching Shen Wei. Watching Yunlan, jerking forwards when Shen Wei wraps his fingers around Yunlan’s wrist, trying to tug it down, but Yunlan can feel him trembling with exertion and knows he’s too weak to do much but hold him.

“I’ll never be enough, will I?” Shen Wei’s voice is quiet and very soft. “There’s always something, someone you’ll choose over me.” And Yunlan wants to shake his head, wants to tell him that’s not true, that Shen Wei is his whole fucking world, but he can’t bring himself to lower the gun either, not with Zhu Hong still in the same room.

Yunlan takes a step towards Shen Wei. He’s not sure what he should do, brush their lips together or grab Shen Wei, keep him in the circle of his arms and never let him go. And then he spots a streak of night dart out of the empty mist into the corridor. Shen Wei sees the cat flash by, the key in its mouth, and he lets out an inhuman roar. Yunlan doesn’t know how it happens, but the gun clatters to the ground he’s being shoved backwards, too. Shen Wei on top of him and his hands squeezing his throat with a strength Yunlan had no idea he still had.

“YUNLAN!” But Yunlan can barely hear Zhu Hong, trying his damnedest to yank off Shen Wei’s iron grip. Shen Wei’s teeth are bared and Yunlan can smell his hate, his anger, his heartbreak, and his eyes burn with tears.

Ungrateful child,” Shen Wei snarls, and his voice comes from everywhere around them. Yunlan squeezes his wrists, his vision going dark around the edges, and all he can think of is how much he doesn’t want to die.

His legs cease their thrashing. He stops fighting, his head spinning. Shen Wei is watching him, and Yunlan would give anything, anything to know what the look in his eyes should be. And then Shen Wei’s grip loosens, and the breath floods back into Yunlan. 

It’s more than enough. Yunlan summons all the strength he has left and throw him off. Shen Wei hits the opposite wall with a soft thud, the breath knocked out of him. Yunlan scrabbles to his feet and runs for the door.

“ZHAO YUNLAN!” Shen Wei screams. Zhu Hong and the cat are already through. Yunlan hesitates just before he swings the door shut, enough for Shen Wei’s grasping hand to jam itself into the space between the door and the lintel. Claws outstretched, leaving deep gouges on Yunlan’s cheek when he swipes at him. Yunlan curses, and then he feels Zhu Hong beside him, the both of them throwing their whole weight against the door.

He thinks he catches a glimpse of Shen Wei’s face through the crack, and then the door slams closed. Shen Wei’s hand drops to the floor, not a dead limb but scuttling like a bone-white spider past them and trailing black blood. Zhu Hong curses, shoves the key into the lock and twists. Yunlan hears a howl coming from the inside, full  of rage and grief and betrayal. Just as abruptly it falls silent. Panting, Yunlan slumps onto the floor while Zhu Hong goes after the hand, his ears ringing. He can taste blood in his mouth, and his throat aches as much as his cut-up face, but not as much as his heart.

 

--

 

“YUNLAN, HURRY!” Zhu Hong had gotten to the corridor before him. The cat was with her, and she was screaming. But Yunlan couldn’t move, because Shen Wei had him. Cradling his face between his hands.

“I gave you everything, and this is how you repay me?” Shen Wei asked. He sounded so disappointed that Yunlan wanted to cry. Wanted to wrap his arms around Shen Wei and tell him sorry. Shen Wei pulled him close, and Yunlan closed his eyes at the sensation of Shen Wei’s hands running through his hair, nuzzling against his shoulder.

“I’m sorry.” For a moment, everything felt perfect. Everything felt like it’s going to be all right. Shen Wei pressed a kiss against the top of Yunlan’s head before tilting his face up. And then there was the gleam of a silver needle piercing through his bottom eyelid, and Yunlan screamed.

“YUNLAN!” A yowl. The needle fell to the floor, and Shen Wei let out a roar as a bundle of fur and claws and spitting rage flew at his face. Raking up, then down, plastic pinging where the cat succeeded in ripping off Shen Wei’s eyes, and Shen Wei roared again. A rivulet of blood streaming down his cheek, and tears lining his eye, Yunlan almost stumbled as he runs through the doorway.

“Leave him! Come on!” He heard Zhu Hong shout. The cat did not need telling twice, but Yunlan found himself frozen. Staring at Shen Wei, at the thing that pretended to be his mother, who loved him and fed him and held him when he was sad, stumbling around, blinded and screaming his name.

“YUNLAN!” The door slams shut. Yunlan stuffed the key into the lock, gave it a twist. Then he ripped the key out of the lock, throwing it into the farthest corner of the room.

After that, silence. Zhu Hong slid down to the floor, plopping cross-legged and breathing hard. She  was clutching the marbles tight enough that her knuckles had gone white. Yunlan wouldn’t look at her, but after a while he felt her hand close around his. She swallowed, tugging him down beside her, and his limbs felt too numb to do otherwise than follor.

The grown-ups found them like that. Their backs to the door, clutching tightly at each other’s hands. As Zhu Hong shrieked and ran into her family’s arms, Yunlan watched them silently. The loss of Shen Wei an empty, gaping hole in his chest. 

Chapter Text

It’s been a year since the last time he saw Shen Wei. Yunlan wakes up and he feels himself again. His head is clear and his pulse beats normally. He stands up and he doesn’t almost black out from lightheadedness. The doctor Zhu Hong had dragged him to for a check-up pronounces everything is normal besides the obviously finger-shaped bruises on his throat. He also prescribed him some ointment for his cuts and bruises, to prevent scarring. Yunlan buys it under Zhu Hong’s watchful gaze, drains it into the sink when he gets to his flat.

Of the hand, there is no sign. Zhu Hong hadn’t been able to get at it when it fled gods-knew-where, and hours of combing through the house had yielded nothing but rat droppings. Yunlan can only feel hollow relief at that fact. If sometimes he stays awake and tries to listen for the sound of nails scratching on his wooden door, if  sometimes he forgets to lock the door of his flat and leaves it open just a crack – well, what Zhu Hong doesn’t know won’t be a source of worry for her.

The key goes to Zhu Hong. One look at Yunlan and she had yanked the key out of the doorknob, daring Yunlan to protest. Yunlan had been to numb to do anything but make a grab for it, but at the look on Zhu Hong’s face and the memory of Shen Wei’s, his hand slides off her arm. Zhu Hong stuffs the key into her pocket, then peels Yunlan off of the floor. Steers him to her car and her apartment, where he spends the next day and a half staring blankly at nothing, the cat on his lap and purring, thinking of Shen Wei on the other side. The betrayal on his face and in his voice as Yunlan had left him.

Work is normal, if slightly strained. The rest of SID tiptoe around him. Zhu Hong spares him the trouble of explaining and says Yunlan’s going through a bad break-up, tells the others not to bother him. They don’t, but Yunlan finds a box of chocolates on his desk, with a note in Wang Zheng’s writing telling him to keep his chin up, he’ll meet the perfect person someday.

He snorts, shares the chocolate with the others. Jokes and teases, brushing off any questions about the scars raking down his cheek, resolutely refusing to act like nothing has gone terribly wrong.

 (Through it all he doesn’t speak to Zhu Hong. Zhu Hong just watches him, expression frustrated and almost sad, if she were the type to show him such a thing.)

Little by little, he feels himself going back to normal. But the cavernous emptiness inside him remains. On nights, Yunlan would lie awake with his hand on his chest. Doors and windows open, remembering Shen Wei’s kisses. His smiles. His soft laughter, his touch. Wanting, more than anything else, to go home. Wanting to live just as much, and he wonders why he has to choose between one or the other. He doesn't throw away the clothes Shen Wei gave him, or the basket. He can't bring himself to do it. The clothes remain in his closet and the basket in his kitchen, as if they're waiting for him to return them to their maker. 

And then one day, when the loss of Shen Wei feels like a scabbed-over wound that would bleed at the slightest wrong movement, he goes into his kitchen to find Shen Wei’s basket has disappeared. He stares at it blankly for a full moment before realizing what’s happened. And then he’s grabbing his keys and bolting out his apartment, down the stairs, not even bothering to call up work to tell them he’ll be absent. Not even bothering to jam his helmet on as he kicks the engine to life and drives as fast as he can home.

 

--

 

Yunlan and his father moved out of his mother’s house and back to their flat. Yunlan was quiet as his Dad said something about the house being likely to fetch a good price at the market. From time to time Dad would look at him, as if he were waiting for Yunlan to tell him something. How he found Zhu Hong, probably. Yunlan kept his silence, watching the house disappear in the rearview mirror.

He and Zhu Hong remain friends, surprisingly enough. The girl ends up being the bossiest, most annoying shadow possible, dogging his heels and insisting on being his friend. After a while he learned to stop resenting it. They talk about everything but Shen Wei, and by the end of one year their friendship has been solidified to one Yunlan knows would last for the rest of their lives. When Zhu Hong's father and uncle die when they're in their twenties, within a span of a year of each other, it's Yunlan who held her through her tight-lipped, white-faced grief. He though silently to himself that at least his grief was good for something. 

He does not think of Shen Wei. He does not think of what he must be doing, blinded and alone. At night he closes his eyes and tries not to think about Shen Wei, his touch on his hair and his hugs. Shen Wei’s image is usually the last thing  persisting in his thoughts anyway, try as he might to sleep. Try as he might to move on.

 

--

 

Shen Wei’s hand is lying at the foot of the door, curled around the black key. Zhu Hong hadn’t told him anything about the key going missing, and Yunlan reaches for it, heart in his throat, cradling it in his hands. Shen Wei’s fingers twitch feebly, and then stop moving. Yunlan curses. Taking the key, jamming it into the lock and opening the door without a second thought. Terrified that he’ll open it and find nothing but a brick wall, and he’s never been more grateful to see that dark corridor again, running down it without a second thought and into a world full of swirling white mist.

“Xiao Wei!” Yunlan shouts out, heart pounding. There is no answer. Heart in his throat, Yunlan tries again.

“Xiao-“ His foot bumps into something, and Yunlan immediately kneels down to find Shen Wei on his side, curled up naked on the floor. Limp and unresponsive, and Yunlan shakes as he sets the hand down, reaches for him.

“Xiao Wei. Xiao Wei.” His voice cracks. Shen Wei’s breathing is shallow and intermittent. He struggles a little in Yunlan’s grip, but even that appears to be too much for him. He slumps back onto the ground, breathing heavily, while Yunlan holds onto his good wrist. The other ends in a stump, bound by a black rag. The regret twists in Yunlan’s heart like a knife.

Shen Wei swallows, licks his cracked lips. He whispers something, so soft that Yunlan has to lean close and strain his ears to hear it.

“Please,” he whispers. It’s the only word that slips out of him, and he slumps back, already exhausted. Dying, Yunlan realizes, horrified. Shen Wei is dying of hunger, and it’s all Yunlan’s doing.

Good. Yunlan thinks in Zhu Hong’s voice. And Yunlan knows the right thing to do would be to leave Shen Wei here. Set him down on the ground, lock the door behind him and let this godforsaken world collapse in on itself once its maker is gone. Let the starvation finish him off for good. Once Shen Wei is gone, he will never be able to lure another child again. Once Shen Wei is gone, there’ll be one less evil thing in the world to worry about. Once Shen Wei is gone, Yunlan will be free of the hold he has on him.

But Yunlan also knows one, irrevocable truth. That despite everything Shen Wei’s done, despite everything he is, despite the fact that he’s a monster incapable of changing, incapable of understanding what love is besides devouring- Yunlan cannot let him die.

Shen Wei groans. Yunlan cradles his face, strokes his thumb over the emaciated plane of his cheek. Under his black button eye.

“Xiao Wei. Hey.” His voice shakes. “Don’t go. Please.” He takes a deep breath. Holds Shen Wei tighter.

“Tell me what to do.” Shen Wei is silent. Yunlan shakes him harder.

“Come on.” Yunlan’s voice breaks. You’re not allowed to leave me. “Tell me what to do.” Shen Wei turns his blind face towards Yunlan.  His remaining hand, white and frail, reaches up to grope Yunlan’s face. He’s so cold. Colder than the mist surrounding them. His lips move but make no sound. 

You know what he needs. The quiet voice inside Yunlan says. And Yunlan lets out a breath. Leans down.

The kiss is not gentle. It’s hard and bruising and contains all the emotion Yunlan has ever felt for Shen Wei, suddenly scorching through him. Shen Wei gasps beneath his mouth, startled. His arms thrash suddenly but fall still beneath Yunlan’s grip. Yunlan deepens the kiss, and Shen Wei’s mouth goes slack beneath his. Opening sweetly, and before Yunlan can think better of it he plunges his tongue in. Tasting him as thoroughly as possible before pulling away to breathe. Shen Wei moans with panicked loss, but Yunlan leans down again. Kisses him again.

“It’s okay,” Yunlan whispers against Shen Wei’s lips. Showering light, feathery kisses over Shen Wei’s cheeks. His mouth. His nose. His eyes. Crawling between his legs and leaning over him so that his body is on top of his. Shen Wei, naked beneath him, and Yunlan tries to ignore the heat building between his legs. How Shen Wei squirms beneath him.

“I’ll give you what you need.” Yunlan murmurs again against his mouth. “I won’t let you die.”

“Ah Lan,” Shen Wei’s voice is no longer even a whisper. Just a bare breath, almost a sob. “Please.” He trembles beneath Yunlan, and Yunlan kisses him again. When he breaks it, he feels light-headed, not just because of the lack of air. And then Shen Wei suddenly reaches up, grabs Yunlan.  His legs wrapping around Yunlan’s waist and Yunlan’s mouth goes dry as he feels the hardness between Shen Wei’s legs.

Ah Lan,” Shen Wei shifts beneath him. “Let me eat. Please let me eat.” Chasing his mouth with his, whimpering. Rubbing up against him, and Yunlan closes his eyes for only a moment. Sick with shame, and while this wasn’t how he expected he would go, he can’t lie to himself that this isn’t exactly how he wants Shen Wei. Completely at his mercy, eating out of his hands.

 “Ssshh.” Yunlan strokes a hand through the tangled mess of Shen Wei’s hair, peppering kisses against the dark soft cloud of it. Kissing him deeply when Shen Wei lifts his face up, begging. He licks at Shen Wei’s lips before drawing back.

“Relax. I’ve got you. Just relax.” With his free hand he reaches down, unbuttons his jeans. Shen Wei tenses when he feels Yunlan lining himself up against his slit, and his teeth catch on Yunlan’s shoulder.

“I’ll give you what you need.” Yunlan says. He nudges Shen Wei’s thighs apart, and Shen Wei cries out in relief and gratitude as he pushes in.

 ---

Yunlan grew up. He grew out of toys and help with homework, out of the desperate need for hugs and a mother’s love. He grew apart from his father, who never completely moves on with his grief. In time Yunlan might be able to forgive him just yet, but not anytime soon.

At night, he would catch himself thinking about bits of his day he would have told Shen Wei about. Whenever he does, he goes out to take a smoke, inhaling deep drags of the cancer sticks and letting the nicotine flow through him and carry him away from his thoughts. He resolutely does not think about how disappointed Shen Wei would be in him if he learned he’d started smoking.

He got in and graduated high school, does the same for college. During his Creative Writing instructor took him aside and told him the letter Yunlan wrote to his mother was the most painful thing she’d ever read. Yunlan accepted her comments with a purposefully charmingly sad smile and response. Later on he burned that letter in his metal garbage bin, drinking a bottle of cheap vodka while doing so. Zhu Hong dropped by his dorm room later with some beer of her own. They ended up drinking together all night, for the most part in silence, as Yunlan watched the flames dance.

College ended, and Yunlan started work, rose through the ranks. If in every stage of his life, every milestone he crosses feels like too much and not enough at the same time. Always looking around him for the person watching over him, but that person is no longer there. And Yunlan has to move on alone.

 

--

 

Shen Wei’s cheeks are flushed when Yunlan leaves him. They had spent the rest of Yunlan’s visit with Shen Wei cradled in Yunlan’s arms, wrapped in his black leather jacket. Yunlan has a spool of black thread and a needle, and it had taken a very, very long time before he’d managed to stitch Shen Wei’s hand back onto the stump of his wrist. Joining the ragged edges of flesh together and kissing Shen Wei whenever he catches him flinch. Every now and then, Shen Wei would lift his face up, silently asking to be fed. Yunlan always obeys, showering his forehead, his cheeks, his nose with kisses. Shen Wei would lean back in his arms, sated, and Yunlan would return to his work, sewing the slightly-crooked circle of stitches closed.

When he’s done, he dabs antiseptic on the join where the severed limb was sewn on – the good it would probably do – and wraps it tenderly in a bandage. Shen Wei’s fingers twitch. Yunlan lifts his hand to his lips, lays a very gentle kiss on Shen Wei’s palm.

I saw their starved lips in the gloam/With horrid warning gapèd wide/And I awoke and found me here/On the cold hill’s side. He finds himself tapping the measure of a half-remembered poem from his Creative Writing class against Shen Wei’s skin, only noticing when Shen Wei lifts his head up. Yunlan cups his face in his hands, something very warm and tender and full of pain blooming in his chest.

“You can’t tell the difference, can you? Between a child’s love, and a man’s.” His voice is quiet. “It’s all food to you.” Shen Wei tilts his head. Nuzzles against Yunlan’s touch.

“I know I was right.” Shen Wei replies. “You love me. You’ll always love me.” Yunlan tucks his hair behind his ear, kisses him. Gentle, on the mouth.

Yeah. I do. He thinks. Defeated. Always had, always will. His throat aches as he wraps his jacket tighter around Shen Wei,  pressing one last kiss against Shen Wei’s cheek before he stands up, tucking himself back in and straightening up his clothes. Shen Wei makes a frightened sound, tries to clutch at him, but he’s still too weak to grab hold on Yunlan. He leans back on the balls of his feet, bereft, and Yunlan feels a lump rising in his throat as he turns to him, his hand already on the doorknob.

“Please don’t leave me alone.” Shen Wei says. He sounds as exhausted and as beaten as Yunlan feels. Like he knows Yunlan won’t listen but he has to try, and he looks small. So small and fragile and afraid as he clutches at the throat of Yunlan’s jacket. Yunlan hesitates just for just a moment before shutting the door.

Zhu Hong is waiting for him when he stumbles out, light-headed and weak, barely remembering to lock the door behind him. She takes one look at him – at his dishevelled clothes, the exhaustion on his face – and Yunlan knows he doesn’t need to explain anything. She knows.

She stands up, walks towards him. Yunlan flinches when she gets too close, ashamed of the reek of sex on him. Unable to meet what he knows will be disappointment in her gaze. But Zhu Hong says nothing, just wraps him up in her arms.

Yunlan stands limply, lets her hold him close. His eyes sting, and as he closes his eyes, he remembers how good it feels to just cry. 

 

 --

 

Sometimes, he would dream.

He dreamed that he was back home, his other mother with him, stroking his hair and telling him everything would be all right. He would wake up with his pillow wet and eyes scratchy, and the loss is a hole in his chest. During the early days he would cry and cry and cry, quiet and muffled so his Dad wouln’t hear. He could never tell if he was crying for his real mother or Shen Wei.

Other times he would dream of Shen Wei chasing him. Claws outstretched and teeth bared in a hungry snarl. Yunlan would scream and struggle but he could never tear himself free, and Shen Wei would sew his eyes, his ears, and finally his lips closed, so that all he could do was scream silently inside his own mind. A black hole where nothing existed except his own fear.

Yunlan never knew which dream was worse. But he knew without admitting to himself that even if given a choice, he would never be able to give either up.

 

--

 

Zhu Hong stays with him in his flat that night, like they were still kids, curled up on the couch together on the lookout for the monster. They watch bad movies together on Yunlan’s laptop, Yunlan’s head pillowed on her lap. He does not let her stroke his hair.

Zhu Hong switches off the laptop when the sky is pink with dawn. There’s a meow from behind them, and the cat suddenly appears, squeezing beneath Zhu Hong’s arm to knead at Yunlan’s chest.

“There you are,” Yunlan mumbles. “The hell’ve you been?” The cat purrs, then flops down on Yunlan’s chest, making him wheeze with his not-inconsiderable weight pressing down on his diaphragm. Zhu Hong rolls her eyes, gently dislodging Yunlan’s head from her lap. Yunlan sits up. The key is heavy and cold, on a leather strap around his neck. He hadn’t let Zhu Hong take it from him.

“You need to go home, Hong’er.” Yunlan forces himself to say. “There’s an entrapment operation we need to brief the guys on tomorrow. I’ll drive you back to your apartment.” He avoids looking her in the eye, trying not to think of Shen Wei waiting for him, alone.

“I’ll go if I can make sure you won’t be going back there.” Zhu Hong says shortly, and Yunlan winces at the bite of disappointment she can’t quite keep out of her voice. He forces his fingers to relax on his knees.

“I won’t.” He says dully. “I’m not letting him get strong enough to try something like what he did, again.” Zhu Hong is silent.

“But that means you really will go back, won’t you?” She asks quietly. Yunlan does not answer.

 

--

 

He dreams.

He dreams he’s still a child, watching Shen Wei play with a glowing ball of light. He holds it aloft on a piece of string, like a ball or yoyo, the bright white light bouncing off the shiny black plastic of his eyes. Yunlan watches him, his head leaning against his shoulder. He’s so tired, but he doesn’t want to sleep. He wants to be with Shen Wei, always.

“What’s that?” he whispers. Shen Wei puts an arm around him. Holds the ball in one hand. White fire, floating on his palm.

“It’s your heart.” Shen Wei says. He’s smiling, softly. Yunlan watches the light glow brightly for a moment. He feels sad, all of a sudden.

“Can I have it back?” He asks. Shen Wei’s smile becomes sad as he kisses the top of Yunlan’s head.

“You already gave it away.” He says. Yunlan looks at his hand again. The ball of fire is gone.

“Oh.” He says. “Will you take care of it, or will you eat it?” He asks. Shen Wei doesn’t answer, just wraps Yunlan up in his arms, and Yunlan buries his face in his chest. Clutching him tightly, afraid to let him go.

 He dreams of nothing else that night.

 

---

 

Of course he returns. He can’t help himself. Shen Wei will always draw him back, over and over. A spider trapping a fly in its web.

The world is more solid now. The mist less oppressive, the outlines of things clearer. Yunlan curses as he bumps into something, realizes it’s the outline of the dining chair, and a shiver of trepidation runs up his spine.

And then he hears Shen Wei, calling for him. His voice quiet but everywhere all at once. Yunlan swallows, pushes past the mist –

- And into his bedroom. Yunlan looks around him. The room is in a state of disrepair as it had been when he left it at twelve, the ceiling stained and the floors cracked, the toybox still upturned and its contents scattered – something he had been too out of it to notice, his first time back. Yunlan takes a step back and almost trods onto the mangled remains of a Transformers action figure. Rusted toy cars scattered around him. Half-melted plastic guns. Outside, the world is nothing but white mist.

On his old bed, with his back turned to him, is Shen Wei. There’s a comb beside him, wooden and gleaming with oil. His hair is loose, a tangled, curling mass reaching down his back like a black silk cloak.

“Comb my hair for me?” Shen Wei asks, his voice soft. “Please? Just like you used to.” And Yunlan knows it’s a bad idea. What he should do is walk away. Return to where he came from and lock the door, before he accidentally gave too much of himself to Shen Wei again. Instead he walks towards Shen Wei, takes the comb.

 “I’m sorry.” Yunlan says. Just to fill the empty air. “It’s been a long time since I did this.” He lifts a piece of Shen Wei’s hair up, and his breath catches in his throat when he touches bare skin. How thin Shen Wei is, almost hollow. How he smells so good that Yunlan wants to eat him up.

 “Everything’s forgiven.” Shen Wei whispers. Yunlan doesn’t deign him with a response. Just – gently – sweeps Shen Wei’s hair off his nape. Starts with the ends, working his way up.

 It’s slow going. Yunlan runs the tines of the comb down Shen Wei’s hair. Shen Wei’s breath hitches when Yunlan hits snags, but soon enough, Shen Wei’s hair gleams, falling on his shoulders in waves. Soft like spidersilk, musty-sweet like the scent of crushed insects. Yunlan drops the comb when he’s done, and it bounces off of the mattress, clattering on the floor. His skin burning like ants were crawling up and down on it, and he’s so hard that it hurts.

Shen Wei is quiet. He doesn’t thank Yunlan, and Yunlan knows he’s waiting. For him to leave, to lock him up here. Return to the world, to his life. Or to give him what he wants. And Yunlan. Yunlan has always craved the things he should never have tasted.

He lets out a breath. Reaches for Shen Wei, and buries his face against the curve of Shen Wei’s neck. Shen Wei’s body is fragile and unresisting under his hands as he manhandles him so that he’s on his elbows and knees on the bed, face buried in a pillow and his hands clutching tight at the sheets. His skin like fine paper, and the ring of stitches on his wrist is starkly black against his white skin. He remembers how Shen Wei had trembled as Yunlan had taken him, that first time on the kitchen counter, much the same way he is now.  

Yunlan strips off his clothes, wanting to feel all of Shen Wei’s skin pressed against his. Taking out his already leaking cock and nudging Shen Wei’s thighs apart, and Shen Wei lets out a small sound that shoots down Yunlan’s groin as he enters him slowly.

Yunlan holds his breath as he feels the slick heat of Shen Wei, all around him. Listening to each muffled gasp as he thrusts into him from behind. His hands clenching and unclenching on either side of him, tearing the sheets and Yunlan tangles their fingers together to get him to stop.

He thrusts in deep and excruciatingly slow. Shen Wei lets out a strangled cry. Almost a sob as Yunlan kisses his nape.

“Hush.” Yunlan whispers. He skims a kiss over the curve of Shen Wei’s ear, then his jaw. Shen Wei whimpers, lifting his hips in time with Yunlan’s thrusts. Yunlan drops a final kiss against the corner of Shen Wei’s mouth as he buries himself in deep, and comes.

Shen Wei’s wrecked and shivering beneath him when he returns to his senses, blinking. When Yunlan makes a move to pull out, he lets out a broken sound of loss that shatters what’s left of Yunlan’s heart. So he slumps against him, on top of him and still inside him, covered in sweat and his breathing labored, wrapping his arms around Shen Wei’s waist. Stroking the concave hollow of Shen Wei’s belly, rubbing gently at the jutting curve of his hips, his fingers dancing up and down his ribcage as Shen Wei compulsively clutches at his arms. Desperate to keep him.

“You know I love you,”  It’s a bare whisper but Yunlan hears it all around him. “Please. Don’t leave me alone.” Yunlan wraps his arms tighter around his waist.

I won’t. He does not say. Neither does he say I love you, too.

 

--

 

He does not return for a month.

Shen Wei is asleep when Yunlan leaves him – or at least, Yunlan guesses he’s asleep. It’s hard to tell, but his limbs are curved in a loose sprawl on Yunlan’s childhood bed, and he does not stir when Yunlan moves away, buttoning his pants up and straightening out his clothes. Then he goes to the walk-in closet where he remembers the spare linens are. When he opens it, he experiences a moment of utter dislocation. All his old clothes, the blankets and the towels  still in their proper places.

He takes one blanket and drapes it over Shen Wei, covering him and keeping him warm. The rise and fall of his chest is deep and even, and as Yunlan watches him he thinks there’s more color in his bloodless cheeks than before.

Shen Wei’s hair is spilled out on the pillow, soft and silken and dark as ink. Yunlan resists the urge to run his fingers through it – knows if he did, gods knew how long it would take before he came back to himself. How long Shen Wei would keep him there once he woke up. So he – very gently – presses one lingering kiss on Shen Wei’s soft mouth, and another on his forehead. Whispers “I will be back.” In Shen Wei’s ear, and Shen Wei sighs. Yunlan kisses him one last time before standing up.

 And then he leaves, and locks the door behind him.

The month passes by like it normally does. He wakes up in his flat, feeds himself, bathes. He goes to work. Zhu Hong watches him like a hawk. He tries not to let it bother him. He does not tell her he’s wrangled with the  utility companies to have power and water restored to the house.

When he finally returns home, everything he thinks he might possibly need stuffed in an oversized duffel bag, the damned cat is  there. Waiting by his doorstep, purring and winding itself around his legs. He picks him up in one arm – no mean feat, the fat bastard has to weight at least twenty-five pounds – and takes him inside. To the kitchen, and the cat always makes it a point to park himself in between Yunlan and the door. Staring at it with his ears flattened back against his skull, while Yunlan feeds them both a quick dinner.  

The key is cold against Yunlan’s breastbone, hanging from a leather cord. He never takes it off anymore, and his first night there in his childhood bedroom – the only place besides the kitchen he’s bothered to clean out, though both rooms were still horrifically dusty -  stares at the ceiling, sleepless and trying not to sneeze, petting the cat beside him and fiddling with the key. He wonders if Shen Wei is also awake. Waiting by the other side of the door.

The third night, he hears a noise. The sound of something heavy beating against wood, coming from the kitchen. The cat hisses when Yunlan gets out of bed, but he gently nudges him aside with his foot. Makes his way downstairs.

The door is rattling in its hinges by the time Yunlan gets down, switches on the lights. He hears the sound of scraping, and sees the door damn near curve outwards with the force of the blow.

“Xiao Wei! Play nice!” Yunlan snaps. Abruptly, the hammering stops. Silence fills the air. The cat meows, and Yunlan swallows. Takes a cautious steps forwards.

He hears the scraping sound again, and then the sound of something sliding down, then hitting the floor. And then, the sound of muffled weeping.

The hammering starts again, but much fainter. Yunlan swallows the lump that rises in his throat, fights off the urge to yank the key out and stuff it into the lock, return to Shen Wei and damn the consequences. But he also knows if he goes to Shen Wei now, Shen Wei will probably never let him go.

“Xiao Wei,” Yunlan murmurs. He presses his hand, his ear, half his whole body to the door, sliding down to the floor. The scraping sound starts up again. The knob rattles.

“Please,” he thinks he hears inside his head. “Let me eat. I’m dying.”  Yunlan swallows, but he does not budge. The scraping sound fades. The weeping does not. Yunlan closes his eyes. The cat meows, and Yunlan ignores it.

The knob is cold beneath his palm, as cold as the key when he slides it in. Colder still is Shen Wei’s skin when he falls on Yunlan, his teeth bared and snarling.

When Shen Wei is done with him, Yunlan lies on his childhood bed, naked, every limb aching, covered in bite marks with some of them still bleeding. He slings a leg over Shen Wei, keeping him pinned close. Shen Wei clings to him, his paper-pale skin mottled with bruises,  charcoal-black, his lips about as bitten-sore as Yunlan’s. Yunlan had given as good as he’d got, fucking him until he was a boneless, gasping mess, every thrust hard and unrelenting until Shen Wei had broken beneath him, gone quiet and soft and pliant as Yunlan fucked into his incredible heat. Yunlan completely surrounded by Shen Wei’s scent, his taste, his heat as he came inside him, and Shen Wei had followed with a soundless gasp.   

Now, as he traces lazy circles on the curve of Shen Wei’s hips, Shen Wei shivers and presses himself closer. Tucking his face against the curve of Yunlan’s neck, lapping at the bloodied skin while Yunlan traces gentle patterns against his back and plays with the ends of his hair.

“I ache,” Shen Wei breathes. “Everywhere. Inside me.” His voice is very small against Yunlan’s chest. Yunlan tucks him closer, and Shen Wei grabs his hand, guides it down. To his cock, his slit, Yunlan watching Shen Wei’s face closely as his fingers sink in, rubbing at his folds and Shen Wei gasps wetly against his neck. Shivering. He’d been shivering, too, when Yunlan had pulled out of him, his legs trembling and unable to support him anymore as he crumpled on the bed, and Shen Wei had let out a soft whimper as Yunlan’s cockhead had eased out of his abused slit. Yunlan had calmed him with a kiss, himself feeling raw from overstimulation, but still he wants more.

“You’ve ruined me.” Shen Wei’s voice breaks as Yunlan continues playing with him. Feeling him get hard for probably the third? the fourth? – that’s what whatever-Shen-Wei-is’ biology for you, Yunlan supposes - time in a row. His fingers dripping wet as he pushes Shen Wei’s folds apart, strokes up and down. Gentle and exploratory, feeling Shen Wei quiver and tense around him with every touch, as Yunlan fucks him with his fingers. Yunlan drops gentle kisses against Shen Wei's hair, soothing him as he gasps and arches against his touch.

He cannot bring himself to feel regret. Not for this. 

“Will it always be like this?” Shen Wei pants against his collarbone, squirming and holding back a whimper that's almost a sob as Yunlan presses against a particularly sensitive spot. “Will you always leave after you've had your fill of me?” Yunlan blinks. His eyes burn.

“I’m sorry.” He whispers. I love you. I don’t want to leave you. “I don’t want to die.” I’m not letting you drain me until I’m a hollow husk. Shen Wei reaches up, pushes him away, then down. Rolling him over so that he’s lying flat on his back. Vulnerable. Prone.

“I need to eat.” Shen Wei says. Yunlan gently reaches up, tucks the soft curtain of his hair out of his face. Tracing his eyes, the delicate slope of his cheek, his mouth, bitten pink. Feeling himself get hard, as Shen Wei crawls down and licks and nuzzles at his cock with an inexpert but gentle tongue. 

“Then eat.” Yunlan says hoarsely. “While I’m still here.” Shen Wei pulls away, and Yunlan has to bite back the sharp cry of loss. He crawls up, and mouth tastes like raw meat when he kisses Yunlan, like he’d chewed his tongue and the walls of his cheeks to shreds in his desperation. His touch feels so good that Yunlan wants to die in his arms as much as he wants to fight him off and live. But Shen Wei breaks the kiss before Yunlan loses all the breath in his lungs. 

“I’m so hungry.” Shen Wei whispers. He’s shaking, and Yunlan’s heart snaps when he reaches for him, and he curls into a ball in his arms. “I’m so hungry.” Shen Wei whimpers, nails scrabbling up and down Yunlan’s arms, drawing blood. Yunlan closes his eyes as he strokes his hair. Soothing him. Kissing the line of stitches encircling his wrist.

“I’m sorry.” Yunlan whispers, kissing his hair. “I’m so sorry. We can’t help what we are.” We can’t help being monsters both. Shen Wei’s chest heaves. He tilts his face up, and Yunlan kisses him. Guides him to sit astride him, sinking into him, feeling Shen Wei go boneless with relief as he rocks into him, lets him feed.

He leaves after three days. Shen Wei is curled up on the bed, sated and sore. Yunlan can sense his attention on him as he moves around the room, getting dressed. But Shen Wei makes no move to stop him, not even when Yunlan leans close to him. Presses their foreheads together.

I love you. Yunlan thinks but does not say out loud, again. Shen Wei reaches up, tangles the fingers of his hands behind Yunlan’s neck. Kissing him gently, sweetly.

“Come back to me.” He whispers. “Don’t let me die.” Yunlan kisses his forehead, between his eyes, his chest aching.

“I won’t.” he whispers. You have my heart. “I’ll come back. I promise.” Shen Wei kisses him again. Yunlan lets him take as much as he wants, lets him pull away first.

He locks the door behind him after he walks through it, slides to his knees. The cat rubs up against him, meowing. Yunlan is trembling with exhaustion, his brain a groggy mess. But he still has enough energy to lock the door.

“I’ll be back.” He promises. He passes out on the kitchen floor, the cat purring beside him.

 

---

 

He wakes up in the hospital, to Zhu Hong’s pinched face by his bedside.

“The cat brought me.” She says without preamble. “It was wailing up a storm. When I found you, you were out cold on your kitchen floor.” Yunlan winces, feels around his neck. Zhu Hong’s nostrils flare.

“Looking for this?” She snaps, holding the key up. Yunlan’s mouth thins as she holds it just out of his reach.

“Give it to me, Zhu Hong.” Yunlan says quietly. Zhu Hong glares at him. She doesn’t return the key.

“The doctor said you were severely dehydrated.” She says. “And malnourished. What the hell did you get up to, this time? If I hadn’t found you when I did your kidneys would have started shutting down.” Yunlan’s hands twitch.

“He was starving.” Yunlan avoids looking her in the eye, gaze still trained on the key she’s holding. “What else could I do?”

“I don’t know, maybe lock the door behind you and throw out the damn key?” Zhu Hong stands. Her fists are clenched, and the key’s hanging from one by its leather cord. Yunlan doesn’t dare take his eyes off of it. “Maybe move on with your life, Yunlan, and let that thing starve like it deserves?” Zhu Hong’s voice gentles, and now she sounds like she’s about to cry.

“Yunlan, I won’t always be here to scrape you off the floor when he’s drained you dry.” She says. Yunlan closes his eyes.

“He’s the only family I’ve got left-“ Yunlan says, the word slipping out of him without meaning to. This time Zhu Hong snaps.

The slap that cracks across Yunlan’s face doesn’t really hurt, meant more to stun than anything else. Yunlan stares at Zhu Hong, mouth agape. At the tears brimming in her eyes, the frustration on her face as her hands close over the collar of hospital dressing gown.

I’m still here!” She snaps, shaking Yunlan hard enough that he thinks he can feel his teeth rattle. “So is that damned cat! So are Lin Jing, Wang Zheng, and Xiao Guo!” She punctuates each syllable with a shake. “Your whole team! Do you know the entire team’s been calling me like crazy when I said you were in the hospital? Xiao Guo’s been offering to take turns to sit up here with me! Wang Zheng’s cooking you food for when you get home! San Zan cleaned out that fucking dump for you and repaired what he could! Lin Jing scrambled Minister Guo’s laptop so you can make the deadline for your next report!”

“Hong’er!” Yunlan shouts. Zhu Hong drops him. Her face is flushed with anger. Yunlan slumps against the headboard, his head spinning. Just as quickly the anger drains out of Zhu Hong. She looks exhausted all of a sudden. Heartbroken. 

“I’m sorry.” Yunlan’s voice cracks. He closes his eyes, buries his face in his palms. “I’m sorry.” He thinks of Shen Wei, starving in the dark as he waits for him. Yunlan unable to even grant him the best mercy he can provide, because he’s too selfish. Because he’s lost too many people already.

“I can’t let him go.” Yunlan says. “I can’t let him die.” He does not look Zhu Hong in the face. He doesn’t want to know what he’ll find there.

Zhu Hong is silent, then Yunlan hears a clatter. When he looks up, she’s walked out of the hospital suite, the key on the floor where she was standing.

 

---

 

He gets discharged the following day. Lin Jing drives him home. Mercifully his underling seems to sense Yunlan is a less than talkative mood, and doesn’t try to fill the silence with small talk.

Yunlan only speaks when they get to his house.

“Thanks, Lin Jing.” He says. Lin Jing smiles at him.

“Any time, Chief.” He says. “I think Wang Zheng left you some food in the fridge. Zhu Hong let her in. And oh.” He opens the glove compartment, takes out a catalogue. “I got you a list of locks - those thumbprint recognition scanners seem to be the best of the lot. There are a bunch of options, maybe you’d like to check them out before I buy one.”

“Thanks.” Yunlan says again. He’s been saying it over and over these past few days, and he feels tired. Lin Jing hesitates for a moment when Yunlan’s about to get out of his car.

“Chief, you know we’re always here for you, right?” Lin Jing says. Yunlan tries to smile.

“Just not when you need to do paperwork, I know. Go home, Lin Jing. I’ll see you all tomorrow.” He slaps the roof of Lin Jing’s car, watches him drive away.

When Lin Jing is gone, he goes inside his house. The damn cat greets him the moment he’s inside, purring like an engine. He feels like he’s lost weight, too. Yunlan buries his face on top of his head, blocks the world out for just a few moments.

And then he hears the rattling. The cat meows, bats at Yunlan’s face. Moving like he’s trying to shake his head, but Yunlan gives him another squeeze.

“It’s all right.” He whispers. “I know what I’m getting myself into, this time.” He puts the cat down. The cat does his level best to trip him up, but after a while follows him at a resigned trot.

Yunlan switches on the kitchen lights. The door rattles again. But not frantic this time. Just a slight shaking of the knob, like Shen Wei’s trying to catch Yunlan’s attention.

Yunlan swallows. He reaches for the knob, feeling it shaking beneath his palm. Puts his ear to the door, near the crack. He thinks he hears the sound of breathing. Sees a glimpse of white, in all that darkness.

“Hey,” he whispers. He puts his hand out, palm flat on the door, over the crack between it and the lintel. A flash of white. Maybe Shen Wei’s teeth. Maybe his own hand, reaching for Yunlan the same way Yunlan is reaching for him.

“I’m sorry.” Yunlan whispers. “I love you. So much.” It’s the first time he’s said it aloud since he was a child. The words take the breath out of him, and he sinks to the floor. Still holding his hand out. From the other side of the door, he hears Shen Wei do the same.

Yunlan closes his eyes. Presses his forehead to the door while the cat climbs onto his lap.  He falls asleep like that, and in his dream he’s in a bright, green meadow, flowers blooming all around him. His parents are with him, and his mother has him clasped in his arms, safe and sound. When he looks up, their eyes are big, shiny black buttons, but he’s not scared. Neither is he scared of Shen Wei, when he blinks and finds he’s the one holding him. In contrast to his parents, Shen Wei still does not have his eyes.

He reaches up to touch Yunlan’s face, and Yunlan lets him. He hasn’t felt this happy or this calm in a long, long time, but still he feels a little sad. 

“I love you, too.” Shen Wei tells him. Yunlan wraps his arms around him and holds him tight.

 

---

 

Time passes.

Yunlan visits Shen Wei again the following week, only for a night. The world is solid, to Yunlan’s relief. Shen Wei is cooking in his kitchen when Yunlan opens the door. Like he’s been expecting Yunlan. When Yunlan makes a move to kiss him, Shen Wei surprises him by covering his mouth with one hand.

“Not yet.” Shen Wei says softly. “Not this soon.” He holds Yunlan like that, for a moment longer before telling him to get the plates.

“I was worried about you.” Shen Wei says as he ladles soup into Yunlan’s bowl, rice on his plate. His own are empty. They always had been, Yunlan realizes. Of course, Shen Wei had been feeding on something else.

“Worried about your food supply going missing?” Yunlan asks wryly. It’s meant to be teasing but this earns him something that he knows would be approaching a glare.

“I don’t like you getting hurt where I can’t see.” Shen Wei says. “I don’t want the risk of your dying. When you die, I want it to be in my arms.”

Yunlan doesn’t even pause chewing. Just grins with his mouth full, reaches out to tuck a lock of Shen Wei’s hair behind his ear, letting his touch trail down Shen Wei’s cheek. Shen Wei catches his hand in his, nuzzles against it. Like he can’t get enough of Yunlan’s warmth. Of Yunlan.

“You know I’m not going to let you take anyone after me?” Yunlan asks calmly after swallowing. He’s not afraid. Shen Wei has already done his worst to him. Now Yunlan has him almost literally eating out of the palm of his hand, and they both know it.

“I know you will not let me taste anyone else once you are dead.”  Shen Wei says softly. “You’re too selfish for that.” He lets go of Yunlan’s hand. His fingertips and palm come away smelling like crushed insects. Shen Wei stands, moves closer to Yunlan. Wrapping his arms loosely around him from behind, and the scent rising from the black curtain of his hair is so sweet that Yunlan almost feels dizzy as he presses his face against that softness.

“If this is to be my last meal, I intend to savor it.” Shen Wei says against the top of his head. Yunlan covers his hands with his. Closes his eyes. Basks in the sensation of being held, and cared for.

“Go eat, Ah Lan.” Shen Wei says quietly. “I know you’re hungry.” Yunlan lifts his right hand, kisses the back of it, then the ring of stitches.

“Not for food.” He says, voice just as soft. “Not really.” He knows Shen Wei won’t understand the difference. But Shen Wei leans down, presses his cheek against Yunlan’s. They hold each other for a long time.

When Yunlan’s done eating, Shen Wei lets him go. Yunlan kisses him once, deep but gentle, nuzzling the circle of stitches on his wrist before moving away, his footsteps echoing down the corridor. When he turns back one last time, Shen Wei is watching him from the open door. A white shape draped in night.  He lifts his hand to his lips, blows him a kiss. Then he closes the door behind him, turns the key in the lock.

 

---

 

He dreams of Shen Wei. (He always dreams of Shen Wei, now.)

Shen Wei is beneath him, naked and spread out. Yunlan knows better than to think him vulnerable, even like this, but just for this he allows himself to pretend. He kisses a trail down Shen Wei’s pale chest, and Shen Wei shivers. Clutches at his hair as Yunlan sucks a nipple into his mouth, playing with the other.

In his dream, his eyes are human. Large and ringed with thick lashes. Dark, with a light glittering deep inside like distant stars. They’re beautiful, and Shen Wei laughs as Yunlan kisses his eyelids, over and over. His cheeks are flushed and full, his limbs the same. Yunlan kisses him everywhere he can reach, marvelling at it.

“I’m sorry.” He tells Shen Wei. Shen Wei’s human eyes are soft with forgiveness. His hands are gentle as he touches Yunlan’s face. His hands are the same, the fingers too long, the nails sharp, the stitches stark against his skin. Yunlan presses his lips against the pad of each finger, of each stitch, his heart full and light and free.

Shen Wei’s chest heaves beneath his. Yunlan smiles, places a hand over his breastbone. His flesh yields like butter as he sinks the edge of his thumbnail in. His ribs opening like white flower petals, and Yunlan’s mouth goes dry as he finds the treasure they were guarding. Glistening like a jewel, like ripe fruit.

Shen Wei’s heart is hot as Yunlan plucks it. The flesh yielding beneath his lips. Better than anything Yunlan has ever tasted, and Yunlan moans as he bites into it. The flavour suffusing his tongue, and he knows everything he tastes after this will be ash in his mouth. He does not stop until every scrap of it is gone. Until he’s licking his fingers, cleaning them. Shen Wei watches him with half-lidded eyes, so much love in them that Yunlan doesn’t know what to do with, and Yunlan crawls forward. Claims Shen Wei’s lips with his. Chasing that same flavour, that same sweetness down on his tongue.

“Ah Lan…” Shen Wei whispers. Yunlan pushes himself up. Slides his thumbnail in, and down his own chest. Opens up his ribs, and takes out the bright glowing ball of light that was his heart. Was. Yunlan thinks. Not his. Because he hasn’t owned it since he was twelve.

Shen Wei doesn’t reach for it. He doesn’t take it from Yunlan. He waits. Yunlan leans down again. Brushes their lips together one last time before he places his heart in Shen Wei’s chest. Seals his ribs over it. Watching the light pulse for a moment longer before kissing the wound shut. He places his hand on Shen Wei’s chest. Feels it beating, and SHen Wei closes his hand over his. Sits up to do the same for him.

The rest of the dream is nothing but warmth, and the gentleness of loving and being loved.

 

---

 

When Yunlan wakes up, he feels cold.

He blinks. Sits up. The cat meows beside him, and he runs his fingers through his fur. He carries him all the way to the kitchen, and Yunlan eats breakfast while the cat cleans out an entire can of cat food, glaring at the door the whole time. Though Yunlan drinks a mug of coffee, he still feels the cold, all the way through to his bones.

It’s Sunday. His day off. Yunlan stretches, then he hears the doorbell ring. He answers it, and finds Zhu Hong on his doorstep, carrying a package and scowling.

“I got this from Lin Jing.” She says without preamble. “I figured it’s better I be the one to help you install this than him.” Yunlan doesn’t answer, but he agrees. When he opens the door, there’s nothing but a brick wall beyond it. He tries not to notice Zhu Hong’s relief.

They install the thumbprint recognition lock in silence. It’s surprisingly easy to install. Yunlan hopes that doesn’t mean it’s just as easy to dislodge. And who knows, maybe this won’t even work. Maybe Shen Wei will be able to tear through this unlike the way he can’t with the knob and the key. But Yunlan has to try.

“Will this even work?” Zhu Hong says, breaking the silence first. She gets up, wiping her hands on her skirt, like the tomboy she was at eleven. Yunlan shrugs.

“Who knows. Maybe it won’t work like the key does. Maybe he’ll just open the door, rip it off and leave it for me to find.” Yunlan presses his thumb against the scanner, inputs his passcode for good measure. Zhu Hong watches him. All that emotion on her face, all that affection and tenderness. Yunlan turns to her, and he wishes more than anything else he could take her hand. That he could walk away from all of this, allow her to lead the way.

But he can’t. So instead he finishes setting up the lock. Whether this works or not, one thing Yunan’s sure of is this. He will be the last child Shen Wei will ever take.

Zhu Hong hugs him goodbye.

“I love you.” She says roughly. Yunlan holds her close. Like he can keep her and her bravery, her gumption, her stubborn proud determination and keep it with him. But he loves her, so he lets her go. Waving goodbye. He can see her hesitate for a moment before she drives off.

He wonders when she’ll notice the key, and how he’d slipped it into her pocket. He wonders if she’ll ever forgive him.

He goes inside. The door is open wide when he returns to the kitchen, the corridor dark beyond the lintel, and Yunlan’s heart leaps when he sees the light, shining in the distance. The cat meows, plaintively, and he ruffles its fur one last time before he walks through the door. The new lock whirring shut behind him, trapping him – the both of them – inside.

Shen Wei is waiting for him in the kitchen when he arrives. He’s frying something in a pan, and it smells delicious. When Yunlan wraps his arms around him from behind, he turns. Looks up at Yunlan.

His eyes are wide, and dark, and human.

Yunlan sucks in a breath. Slowly brings his hands up, cradles Shen Wei’s face in his palms. Shen Wei’s eyes are shining bright. He’s smiling, and so is Yunlan. His throat aching as Shen Wei’s eyes flutter shut. A wet trail escaping the corner, cutting through his cheek. And Yunlan wants to tell him everything. Wants to tell him how much he loves him. But words are useless now, and he and Shen Wei both know it.

He tries, anyway. “I love you.” He tells Shen Wei, lips gentle against his. He kisses Shen Wei’s eyes the same way in his dream, tasting his tears. Spreads out his palm flat over his chest. Feeling his heart beat behind Shen Wei’s ribs. Shen Wei wraps his arms around him. Holding him tight, tight, tight. Yunlan knows he’ll never let him go.

He no longer feels cold. That just makes him hold Shen Wei closer, and Shen Wei smiles wider. He’s still smiling as Yunlan kisses him. As they devour each other whole.