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Break me, I will become whole

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Zhao Yunlan is with Ma Gui when they bring Shen Wei in. The still has been set up a second time, and Zhao Yunlan is just showing Ma Gui the diagrams he's drawn, and explaining the point of discarding the foreshot when the shouts from outside resolve themselves into Shen Wei's title, and Zhao Yunlan bolts for the center of the commotion. Shen Wei is being nearly carried between two of his men, and a long rivulet of red is tracing its way down his face and neck from beneath the edge of his mask.

Zhao Yunlan would give a lot for his first aid kit, right now, but Fu You and one of Shen Wei's Dixingians descend in the next breath, and he'll trust them over even a full hospital. In the back and forth, they determine that Shen Wei got knocked in the head, that he can't use his powers and hasn't been able to heal it, and that the scouting party didn't have anyone else who knew more than how to bandage wounds.

Zhao Yunlan does his best to stay out from underfoot while also staying as close as humanly possible.

"Lord Kunlun?" Zhao Yunlan knows the face but not the name, he's one of Shen Wei's Dixingian scouting party. The man is holding out his hands, and when Zhao Yunlan turns to respond he empties a double handful of clear amber beads into Zhao Yunlan's palms.

"What-?"

"Hei Pao Shi's memories, sir. That's my ability. I can preserve thoughts in amber. I tried to catch what I could from- " The man swallows. "From his blood, Lord Kunlun."

Zhao Yunlan, taken aback, thanks the man as graciously as he can manage while cradling the pieces of Shen Wei's thoughts in his hands.

While Shen Wei sleeps, Zho Yunlan turns the beads over and over in his fingers. They're not all the same, some bigger and some smaller, and they range in colour from a deep translucent orange amber to one that looks like opaque yellow jade. He's seen mind control, and teleportation, and a man who turned into water, and one made of shadows, and he's living ten thousand years before he was ever born. He presses his lips to the jade-like memory, as Shen Wei finally stirs, and tips them carefully back into the pouch Ma Gui found for them. He sets the little bag beside the bed, and srokes Shen Wei's hair back from his face. Those beautiful black eyes blink at him, muzzy and adorable.

"Benefactor?" He blinks up at Zhao Yunlan, but after a moment the confusion begins to clear. "no -- Kunlun?"

Zhao Yunlan lets out his breath. "That's right. Kunlun. "

***

When Shen Wei wakes in the future, the little pouch of preserved memories is still untouched within his robes. His other keepsake, the little paper from Kunlun's candy, he fears at first is lost. But when he spills out the beads into his palm, instead he finds that one of them has swallowed the paper whole, and now holds the spiral suspended. In the years that follow, he has that single bead set into a necklace. The memory of Kunlun hangs at his throat. The other beads he treasures, but does not touch.

The first time he breaks one of the memory beads is after Li Yufen's spirit returns to save Li Qian. The Longevity Dial, the presence of Chief Zhao, Kunlun's doppelganger, all of it makes Shen Wei hope, with a hope that churns inside him in a mess of painful wanting and nauseous uncertainty.

Shen Wei clenches his fist in one convulsive movement, and the bead shatters into energy, bursting against and through the skin of his palm. The memory washes through him.

The night air of the past tastes impossibly clean after more than a decade between volcanic Dixing and the modern pollution of Dragon City. Kunlun is beside him. He is whistling, in dubious harmony with the rising and falling of the cicadas, who hum all the louder in apparent protest. Kunlun's whistling turns to singing, which becomes laughing, and he turns to look at Shen Wei, his eyes unthinkably gentle, inviting Shen Wei to laugh with him. Shen Wei feels himself smile.

In his empty office, that rush of joy still lingers in his chest, and he presses his whole hand against it. If it is Kunlun-

Hope is dangerous, and Shen Wei cherishes the bite of it.

In the coming weeks he buys Chief Zhao lunch, and wonders what it would be like to cook for him. He watches Zhao Yunlan stir to anger on behalf of Dixingians and not at them. He feels his own disguises grow as thin as silk, and tear like gauze.

In broken beads he dances a Yashou festival dance beside Kunlun, and meets a great panda near the Rebel territories, and learns a power over small lightnings by being struck with it. Not all the memories are of Kunlun, but they are all from the time he was there, and as Shen Wei restores each one to its place, the blur of a single night that stretched a span of months begins to fill out into a linear timeline, however patchy.

He is nearly sure Zhao Yunlan and Kunlun are the same man. He is very sure he loves them both.

And he is far too susceptible to every one of that man's mad schemes, even to the point of taking him belowground, into Dixing. It is not a success.

It should perhaps be a point of shame that returning to Haixing is always easier than leaving it.

Shen Wei does not like having left Zhao Yunlan at the station, but he desperately needs the space to think. Zhao Yunlan is with his people. They will take care of him. The pages of Dixing's archives are burned into Shen Wei's ever-learning memory, filled with line after line of characters detailing the damage the Hallows could do- may already have done- to Zhao Yunlan.

And as for Dixing itself-

In the privacy of his living room, Shen Wei manifests the Envoy's clothing once more. His robes are clean, as they are each time he calls them, but the smell of alcohol still clings in Shen Wei's nostrils, and the impact of thrown food lingers on his skin in a way far stronger blows have not. Between the patrons of the bar, the Regent, Ding Dun... The Envoy's loyalties should never be in question.

Shen Wei turns to the remaining handful of memories, hoping to find his center. Instead, in a bead of darkened amber, he watches one of his men die, replaying the memory of the man's final hours, quiet but for the pain of breath, and the times Shen Wei recited poetry to distract them both. Mu Jing, whose power had been in speaking to the winds, in the end dies seizing against Shen Wei's restraining hands with his teeth bared. Shen Wei feels the moment when his heart ceases to beat, and his memory-self continues the vigil, laying his limbs in order, smoothing the death-snarl from his lined face.

It is an important memory. It deserves to be kept. To be restored. But it leaves Shen Wei even more off balance than before.

He casts a glance towards the hallway door, and is half risen before the thought completes itself. Surely it wouldn't hurt to just check on Zhao Yunlan-

Shen Wei forces himself to sit back down.

This time, the bead is clearer gold, and his younger self is holding a Yashou child, a baby of the Flower Tribe. She reaches for his mask with clumsy fingers, easier to evade than Kunlun's, but just as persistent. She is only partially dissuaded by the offering of part of his hair, but happy enough to chew on her prize. In the memory Kunlun is behind him, laughing, and Shen Wei's younger self has turned away to hide his face at the bubbles of conflicting emotions that well up in the confluence of Kunlun and children. The baby meets his eyes, patting at his chest, and fresh flower petals fall from her palm's impact over his heart.

Surfacing alone in his modern apartment leaves Shen Wei pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes.

No matter what, he will always return to loving his people, and loving this man.

 

He breaks the last bead but one on the night after the bomb.

They share a bed, himself and Kunlun, in the warm summer night. It is hot enough for only the thinnest of sleeping robes, and many of the Yashou have taken to going without. Kunlun continues to threaten to join them, but even his younger self knows the threat is mostly for the joy of making Shen Wei blush.

Kunlun's kisses track the embarrassed heat from Shen Wei's face, all the way down his neck, pulse and skin alike inflamed by the touch of Kunlun's lips and the scrape of his beard. He feasts at Shen Wei's throat, and his hands slip sure and knowing inside Shen Wei's robes, sparks where bare skin first touches.

It is a good memory. It drives him across the hall, to make a better one.

 

In the end, Shen Wei never breaks the final bead.

He doesn't need to. He knows who they are to each other, and he knows what Kunlun, Zhao Yunlan, has always been to him.

At the last, he can't be unhappy, though he sees the pain in Yunlan's face, though he longs to fix it all, at least this way-- If Shen Wei succeeds, he will be safe. The worlds will be safe.

***

It's been a handful of days and thousands of years since Zhao Yunlan pressed a pouch full of memories into Shen Wei's hands, and it's not until the pendant falls, rolls down to rest beside him that he recognises it. He laughs, through the blood, because of course.

The pendant breaks when he touches it. It's not his memory, and it can't return to him, but it dances over his skin with the rush of Shen Wei's first, bright, innocent love, and the crunch of ancient cellophane.

The last bead dissipates into the warm volcanic air with a breath of night, a whisper of mountains under open stars, even as the echoes of Shen Wei's death are still shaking through Dixing around them.

Zhao Yunlan gets his people out, as far as he can. And then he lifts up the lantern.

And lights up the world.