Zhao Yunlan jerks back to the waking world gasping and screaming and drowning in the anguish that comes with being lit on eternal consuming fire. The unmistakable rich copper taste of blood fills his mouth and he opens tear-filled bloodshot eyes that he was sure melted a long time ago with the rest of his physical body. He sees faces crowding around him in varying degrees of worry, but the pain blinds him from putting names to the faces. His throat feels raw, as if he'd been screaming for centuries and realizes on the next breath that he's been screaming a name. Shen Wei's name.
I don't regret anything.
Where is Shen Wei?!
The immeasurable feelings of loss hits him anew and hot tears come unbidden rolling like a stream down Zhao Yunlan's face. With startling clarity, he is reminded once again how being burned alive for eternity is a much easier pain to endure than losing and living without him. Another scream threatens to erupt out of his throat and Yunlan doesn't think once he starts he'll ever be able to stop screaming again.
But then there's a hand on his chest, strong and sure and grounding him in place. The welcome cold press of skin gingerly pressed against his temple registers in his misery-addled - ShenWeiShenWeiShenWei - brain. A soft puff of breath caresses his damp neck. And then he hears him, that unmistakable deep bravato of his voice, saying his name with such purpose and intensity as if he's willfully and stubbornly dragging Yunlan back from whatever nightmare it is he’s been trapped within; not resignedly telling him that he doesn't regret anything before being swallowed up by Ye Zun. But that he's here. Solid and real and assuring him over and over that it is just a bad dream. Ssh. Calm down, my darling. I’m here. Come back to me. Breathe, Yunlan. Deep breaths. Listen to me please.
His rebelling, mourning fevered mind refuses to be comforted, certain that this here is the dream. That whatever respite this is, some miniscule break from his eternal burning, is going to be so cruelly taken away the moment he sees Shen Wei's face. But the baser, selfish part of him wants to desperately see him again, even if it is only something his cooking brain is making up. He does not give a damn if none of this is real, only that he gets to see and touch his Xiao Wei again. Tell him how much he is loved like he never had the chance to before everything went to hell.
Slowly, agonizingly, Yunlan feels the hysteria subside by increments. The longer he stays trying to breathe through the panic and fear and pain ricocheting all over his insides, with his beloved's voice crooning soothing words in his ears, finally, what seems like an impossibility happens. His rabbiting heart slows down to an acceptable rate, no longer constantly threatening to jump out of his ribcage, muscles no longer twitching and jerking painfully as much with every breath.
He wants to hear him say his name this way. Alive. Always. Forever. “Shen Wei.”
“Are you with me?”
“I am.” Yunlan tells him, violently pushing down the devastating thought that this illusion is going to end as soon as he opened his mouth.
But Shen Wei is still there, a press of soft lips against his hairline that he needs to kiss as soon as possible, fingers splayed near his throat, stroking the heated skin there. He feels Shen Wei's strong chest against his back, his powerful thighs on either side of his hips, belatedly realizing that he's sprawled on top of Shen Wei, cocooned in his embrace, locked in.
The solidness of Shen Wei, the physical closeness strikes Yunlan as entirely real. Hastily, he takes the fingers Shen Wei has across his throat within his grasp. He intertwines them, kissing each beautiful digit and mouthing at the knuckles, the soft skin of his palm like a man finally finding and drinking life saving water in the middle of a barren desert. He struggles in Shen Wei's hold, badly wants to turn around and capture those sorely missed lips, but his body deems it best to be useless, still in too much pain to cooperate.
So, not a dream then? Because isn't pain supposed to wake a person up? But then what is this?
“What happened?” Yunlan asks, swallowing thickly as he tries to make sense of what he's feeling and seeing without the never-ending sensation of fire licking him from inside and out.
“Lao Zhao?” one of the faces speaks and the name quickly pops up in his head like a long forgotten memory. “Are you alright now?”
“Da Qing?” Yunlan says hoarsely and jerks helpless in Shen Wei's hold when Old Man Li suddenly comes in his line of sight and is next handing him a glass of something. “Lao Li. You're alive.”
The trusted old man smiles and nods his head. The last time Yunlan saw him was when he'd been littered with wounds from Ya Qing’s crows and died because of it. “It's all thanks to the Black Cloaked Envoy. I was being attacked by crows when his portal suddenly opened with you in his arms and he obliterated the crows instantly. He didn't like the disturbance.” he explains then quietly, worriedly. “Here. Drink some of this. You look a fright Chief Zhao.”
That can't be right. It didn't happen that way. They all went to the SID building to reconvene and it was already too late for Lao Li when they arrived.
“Can someone please tell me what happened?” Yunlan croaks out after he's sipped a little of the water and winces, reminded once again that his throat feels like he swallowed a box of nails and gargled some cleaning agent afterwards.
“We just won the fight with the Master of Nightmare and we were going back, all of us to the SID headquarters when you started seizing and bleeding profusely through the nose.” Da Qing helpfully fills in. And then Shen Wei is speaking. “I had to bring you back here instantly to assess you further and hopefully heal what is wrong. But you were unresponsive. No matter what I did. You would not wake up. You just kept screaming.” Shen Wei whispers by his ear, sounding so lost, so much self-hatred in the face of possibly losing Yunlan and not being able to do a damn thing to prevent it.
Like I did. When you were right in front of me. Bleeding. Broken. And all I could do was scream as Ye Zun absorbed you. When Lin Jing was rescued and you chose to be a god damned hero and got left behind for a chance to finally defeat Ye Zun.
But none of that happened yet, Zhao Yunlan suddenly realizes with stone-cold sobriety.
Then staggering, breathtaking, wondrous relief.
Yunlan's thoughts turn to the visions he's been having, the premonitions he's had before that only seem to further intensify with his ongoing connection to the Hallows. But they were never as detailed or felt as horrifyingly real as the one he just had now. Because suddenly, he's certain that it was a vision. A harrowing, excruciating nightmare. What else could it have been?
Shen Wei said it was never wise to change the course of what is to happen. That time and fate will always try to right itself regardless of intervention. Well, time and fate can both screw themselves. He's here now and if he was able to save Zhu Hong, Xiao Guo and Lao Chu, or his dad in the past, then there is no force in heaven or hell that will be able to stop him from saving Shen Wei now that he'd seen what the future entails. He's not losing him for what would feel like a second time.
“Lao Zhao what happened to you?” Zhu Hong asks and he recalls her in the forest, surrounded by Yashou and chosen to be the New Tribe Chief, feels the echo of pride and joy at seeing her finally growing up and proving to be a woman entirely in control of her own life. But she is not that woman yet. And Yunlan would like to be there again to give her the encouragement and the push she needs. But he is never letting Shen Wei out of his sight, never again.
“I…” Yunlan starts, but the words die in his throat. He tilts his head up so he can look at Shen Wei properly. To greedily drink in his profile and trace the curve of his jaw, his lush pink lips, his pale cheeks, the strong slope of his nose, the fan of his inky-dark and curving eyelashes. Zhao Yunlan aches something deep and primordial just by watching him. It might have just been a little less than an hour probably for everyone, but it's been practically eternity for Yunlan, and he needs Shen Wei all to himself right now, and possibly yell at him for pulling the self-sacrificing stunt he did or will do, and ban him from acting like an idiot again.
“I'm fine.” He says and sends off what he hopes is a reassuring smile to the rest of them. “Can you guys leave the office for a little while? I need to speak to Shen Wei privately.”
When everyone sends him mutinous looks, Yunlan realizes that no one appreciates being kept out of the loop as it's a crucial time for everyone to be in the know. It's to be expected that everyone is on edge with the ongoing war. And after losing Lin Jing. Shit. Lin Jing. And did they find the lantern yet?
“But Lao Zhao! Are you sure you're okay? You looked really bad just now and we were all worried.” Xiao Guo stutters out. “And the lantern...”
It can wait, dammit. Right now, he just needs Shen Wei where he can see him, hold him, kiss him and possibly reacquaint with all of him in what little amount of time they have before charging forward to war. To form some kind of plan after he's done making sure Shen Wei is really there, that he's really here and he hasn't lost anyone, and this is not just his mind playing tricks on him. He definitely needs to talk some sense into that psychotic brother of Shen Wei's too; if he can just arrange or force the two of them to actually talk about their damned issues.
Shen Wei had said in that space time void, before he was swept away into his new role as the eternal torchlight, that whatever the bad blood was between them had been forgiven. It all stemmed down to a misunderstanding when they've been but little children. Because of course it's clearly the running theme of the joke that is Yunlan's life. Everyone around him doesn't seem to know the importance of effective communication.
“Yunlan, I think it would be best to have them around for-" Shen Wei reasons, coming to the rescue to their glaring children like the dutiful mother that he is, but Yunlan stops any further words from coming out by reaching up and shakily placing a hand over his mouth.
As much as he appreciates the sentiment, he doesn't have time for this needless hovering.
“The kids don't have any business watching me with my tongue down your throat or any other places in your body, so if they know what's good for them, they're leaving right the fuck now!”
Three pairs of eyes widen comically while Lao Chu’s scowl just turns even more murderous as he clamps his hands over Changcheng’s blushing ears. While Old Li is already trying to steer Da Qing for the door.
“Zhao Yunlan!” Shen Wei scolds him, clearly sounding as scandalized as he looks.
“I have no patience right now for stupid questions. I just need ten goddamn minutes with my Xiao Wei. Everybody out. Out!” Zhao Yunlan hollers and all four SID employees make haste for the Chief’s office door and into the hallway, with Lao Chu glaring one last time and pulling the door close pointedly with his murder eyes set on Yunlan as soon as Da Qing and Old Man Li passes through.
There's silence for a total of five seconds before Shen Wei opens his mouth and Yunlan twists around in his hold, gritting his teeth through the pain, and silences Shen Wei's chastisement with his lips in a wholly rude and uncoordinated fashion. There's hardly room for finesse as he licks into his mouth, demanding access, desperate and a little crazed, single-mindedly commiting to memory what every centimeter of Shen Wei's mouth tastes and feels like.
His own mouth still tastes like blood, from the nosebleed that most likely dribbled down earlier; not from the premonition when blood that had rushed up his throat amidst Ye Zun’s fun time in torturing him while Shen Wei watched. But the reminder just makes him all the more desperate because he can still see Shen Wei clearly, bleeding and broken, blood-shot eyes speaking to Yunlan and silently asking for damn forgiveness, of what, Yunlan didn't have a clue, until Lin Jing and the two Dixingian were spewed back out and Shen Wei wasn't.
“Yun-mhrm.” If Shen Wei wanted, he could push Yunlan off from the rough sloppy kisses. Yunlan is as weak as a baby deer, probably weaker than Xiao Guo, but he doesn't. And soon he stops trying to pull Yunlan off altogether, does not ask unnecessary questions like Yunlan's health. When he's the one that died. He's not dead. He's not. He's here. He's alive. And he's staying that way. Please. Please God, anyone. I don't want to lose him. Don't make me lose him.
Yunlan doesn't remember much beyond the desperate kissing, drowning in the effort to erase all the horrifying images in his head. But the next time he's finally a bit clear headed, Shen Wei is stroking his back and his wet face is peppered with little soothing kisses. He realizes too late again that he's been crying a river and Shen Wei as always does not judge, does not force information out of him, but comforts him through the humiliating, emasculating experience.
“Sorry.” Yunlan says wetly, blinking back tears and rubbing the back of a hand across his eyes as Shen Wei watches him with that dark, understanding gaze. “I don't know what came over me.”
“I think you know.” Shen Wei says and now that he's looking, eyes fixed on him and not in a blurry tear-filled haze, Yunlan realizes Shen Wei's eyes are also wet. He has the same expression when Yunlan thought he had lost his father and he became emotionally unstable to the point he'd been projecting his fears to Shen Wei and he'd seen and felt Yunlan’s memories and heartbreak of losing his mother in his childhood. A side effect of hitching half of Shen Wei's Dixing life force to Yunlan.
“You… saw?” Yunlan asks, suddenly desperate for Shen Wei to say yes, to have someone to share the horror with, but at the same time, angry at himself for dumping the burden of knowing to Shen Wei.
Shen Wei nods, fixing red-rimmed heartbroken eyes on him. He cups Yunlan's face in both hands and kisses both his eyelids, then down to a cheek, a stubbled jaw and finally his bitten red lips. “I'm sorry Yunlan, for putting you through all of that.” he apologizes gravely and Yunlan feels him shudder against him before he's suddenly encased in an iron embrace. “If I had known, I would have tried to find another-”
“It didn't happen yet, Xiao Wei.” Yunlan tries to comfort, lips nuzzling against Shen Wei's ear, wraps his own arms around him just as tightly.
“But it did happen. To you. It felt real enough you could not stop screaming until you finally opened your eyes. You kept jerking around, clawing at your skin, crying, screaming my name. You were starting to hurt yourself that I had to hold you down.” Shen Wei pauses and lets out a shuddery exhale, sounding as choked up as Yunlan feels as another violent tremor cascades all over his body. He hugs Yunlan impossibly tighter like he's melding them into one being. To press Yunlan inside Shen Wei, hide him, guarded, protected, so he can never be hurt again. “I thought you would never stop screaming Yunlan. And all I could do was watch as you suffered alone.”
“Xiao Wei.” Yunlan chokes out, doesn't trust himself to answer without breaking down again.
“I promise.” Shen Wei suddenly tells him, voice resolute. Like he's made up his mind to come out of this war alive, and Zhao Yunlan weeps. Shen Wei takes a deep breath and pulls back only to draw Yunlan's face against him, rests their foreheads together. “I'll find another way. We'll find another way. I'll talk to Ye Zun first. I'll do everything I can to fix this. That future can't happen. I won't let it.”
“We won't let it.” Zhao Yunlan corrects him, feeling like for the first time in forever he can breathe a little easier again. “We do this like we always do. From ten thousand years ago to now, my Xiao Wei.”
“Together.” Shen Wei tells him, tenderly stroking his tear-stained cheeks. “My Ah Lan.”
“Yeah.” Yunlan nods, kisses him one more time before burrowing his face again on the crook of Shen Wei's neck. Closes his eyes. Breathes. “Together.”