Zhao Yunlan returns to Dragon City with a hole at his side. Shen Wei is listed on leave from the University, Zhao Yunlan settles back into loneliness, but with a promise for the future.
Sometimes he goes across the hall and sleeps in the sheets that are starting to smell too much like him and not enough like Shen Wei. Sometimes it works.
Sometimes he dreams.
In the broken palace, Ye Zun is bending over his brother to breathe energy over Shen Wei's lips, pouring it into his body. He's crying down onto Shen Wei's face - and the blood from his pierced forehead dripping down to join the blood already on Shen Wei's skin. Zhao Yunlan is crawling, but he can't reach them, can't touch. When Ye Zun breaks away he's coughing, beating his fist on the ground, but Shen Wei never stirs, never wakes, Zhao Yunlan can never reach him--
Zhao Yunlan wakes up with tears and snot on his face, again, and lies there in the dark reminding himself that Shen Wei is alive. That he's safe, in Dixing. That he's coming back. Eventually.
He reaches for his phone. The SID network is open by default, but most of the team shows as inactive. Lao Chu and Da Qing were the last ones online, and Zhu Hong is out of the city. Guo Changcheng is logged off entirely- but when Zhao Yunlan scrolls down, Xiao Guo is also just logging in, displaying two different signins. Zhao Yunlan wonders how he broke the login for a bleary second then bolts upright. Xiao Guo lost his phone in Dixing.
>Who are you
The cursor shows Guo Changcheng's phone typing, then nothing, then typing, then another pause. Finally displays only two characters.
Fear spikes all the way from Zhao Yunlan's spine through his gut.
>What did you do to Shen Wei
>>Nothing. He's sleeping.
Zhao Yunlan is trying to decide whether to believe him or call in the whole team when the app signals a picture- Shen Wei, asleep, flat on his back with only a tiny incline of his neck, lips barely parted and the faintest frown line between his eyebrows. His lips are pink, and healthy, and he looks just like he used to the very rare times Zhao Yunlan managed to wake up first in the morning.
Zhao Yunlan feels his eyes get hot again. For a second, he can smell Shen Wei's hair, and the space beside him feels all the emptier.
It's a weird conversation. It's weirder still that it doesn't stop.
Zhao Yunlan prides himself on his people skills but he's never tried them on anybody like Ye Zun. The cell phone barrier makes it hard, the lack of facial expressions, body language, make everything harder. But it also stops him from punching Ye Zun, several times, probably to both of their detriments. So.
Relatedly, the answer to 'why do you know how to use technology when you were locked in a pillar' should not be 'because I ate your scientist'. (And if Ye Zun knows hacking now, Lin Jing will be bonusless for life.)
Despite Ye Zun's refusal to admit possession of the phone to Shen Wei, or to put Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei in direct contact, he seems to enjoy doling out little pieces, like the photo of his sleeping brother. A few sentences about Shen Wei's project for a school. A picture of the Black Cloaked Envoy arguing with the Regent, Ye Zun having caught the dramatic outswing of Shen Wei’s arm, the palace fires burning behind them. The blood is cleaned up but Zhao Yunlan hates that place- almost taps delete- but he can’t, this is all the Shen Wei he has right now.
Without Wang Zheng, the SID are nearly late paying their phone bills, and Zhao Yunlan ends up doing it himself- and finding the extra data overcharges for a phone they don't even have anymore.
When he texts an annoyed interrogative at the ground as to why he should pay Ye Zun's internet, Guo Changcheng’s former work phone responds with a picture that is definitely Ye Zun impersonating Shen Wei’s haircut and glasses, making a kiss face at the camera. With a filter over it covered in little hearts.
Zhao Yunlan texts back a line of middle-finger emojis.
Ye Zun responds with a single poop, and Zhao Yunlan laughs before he can stop himself.
It's nothing like his first suspicious days knowing Shen Wei. Even then, even when Shen Wei moved in across the hall from him, Zhao Yunlan's instincts said he was capable of being dangerous but didn't intend to hurt anyone. He can't say the same of Ye Zun, even now. His "reformed" state is conditional, and conditional on what remains unclear.
It's a balancing act. Ye Zun is technically more powerful than any other being on the planet except Shen Wei, and locking him up is what got them all to this point in the first place. Zhao Yunlan still doesn't know what turned the tide of their fight in the palace, all he knows is that Ye Zun froze up, after spitting out the kid-King and Lin Jing. That his own final strike with the awl never connected because Ye Zun dropped to his knees, choking until Shen Wei spilled out of him, the ice dagger in his chest dissolving into dark energy.
He and Ye Zun had grabbed for Shen Wei at the same time, and with Shen Wei's blood spilling out past his fingers no matter how hard he pressed, Zhao Yunlan hadn't managed to keep Ye Zun away, hadn't realised what he was doing until the blood stopped.
And then the part that's burned into him deep enough to dream it, over and over, Ye Zun breathing stolen lives into Shen Wei's bloodied mouth.
And so he pays the phone bill. And he keeps talking. He baits and chats and plays, and tries to figure Ye Zun out, because a hell of a lot depends on it.
He knows Shen Wei has found the phone when he gets a call halfway through microwaving a questionable combination of ramen and leftover takeaway. Shen Wei's voice is breathless, and he manages to hang up once and then call back, but the scuffle in the background sounds surprisingly brotherly. "Swipe, don't tap!"
When Shen Wei emerges triumphant, Zhao Yunlan shuts his eyes and just basks in his voice.
Finally Shen Wei is coming home. Zhao Yunlan spends an embarrassing afternoon cleaning his apartment (and the parts of Shen Wei's he's left his mark all over) while Da Qing laughs at him and takes pity by doing their laundry.
The whole team comes with him to wait, at the corner of the park. Ten at night, by the tree. The portal flares and all Zhao Yunlan can see is Shen Wei. He's standing and smiling, and not bleeding and healthy and there, and Zhao Yunlan could stare at him forever- Shen Wei smiles even wider and his eyes shine so bright Zhao Yunlan has to look away or grab him right here in front of everybody. He tears his eyes away from Shen Wei's, and there's Ye Zun.
Zhao Yunlan has never seen Ye Zun not trying to be the center of attention before. He's not now- more like trying to fade angrily into the background, but he's bad at it, and twitchy in a way that raises hairs on the back of Zhao Yunlan's neck. His hair's shorter than it was, but longer than Shen Wei's, and it's brown. He's also not wearing a mask, but rather than make him look more like Shen Wei, it makes their differences even clearer.
Zhao Yunlan wants to take Shen Wei home for the next year.
The portal flares one last time, and Wang Zheng steps through it, her hand in Sang Zan's, only a step behind her. The team explodes. Da Qing and Zhu Hong are the first ones forward, and Zhao Yunlan thinks he can see Zhu Hong actually tear up. Even Lao Chu is grinning- though that might be aided by Xiao Guo jumping up and down and hugging him out of happiness. Zhao Yunlan takes the opportunity to do some hugging himself, and Shen Wei's return embrace, tight enough to hurt, is the best thing he's felt in ages.
"Ye Zun, and the Hallows. The Awl had bound their energy together. It kept them from dissipating, even inside him."
Instead of a leisurely domestic reunion exclusive to himself and Shen Wei, they all of them troop back to the SID and attempt to catch up on all the work and networking that's between the worlds. Wang Zheng and Sang Zan buy Ye Zun's entry into the building, but the tension is still constant. Old Li is still gone. Chu keeps himself conspicuously between little Guo and Ye Zun, and Zhu Hong looks down her nose with the newfound poise of a leader.
Even going home at night isn't how Zhao Yunlan imagined it. He'd been dreaming of Shen Wei, and hadn't factored in where evil-little-brother was going to sleep. Or live. Or eat.
Or cook. Because it's both of them in Zhao Yunlan's tiny kitchen now, in a complicated dance where Ye Zun's role seems to be part sous chef and part seasoning saboteur. The results still taste good, and compliments get him a pleased look in distorted stereo.
But he misses his and Shen Wei's evenings alone.
At the office, Da Qing is the one who snaps, probably because Lin Jing still feels himself on thin ice. But it's not until Da Qing complains about having to listen to Ye Zun breathe that Zhao Yunlan realizes he can hear Ye Zun's breathing. There's a whistle to it, and it sounds unhealthy.
Zhao Yunlan watches it, in the days that follow. Watches Shen Wei watching his brother, watches Ye Zun keep his face blank (or angry), watches him hide resentful coughing until Shen Wei drags him to see Dr Cheng at the hospital.
Dixingian or not, twins or not, Ye Zun doesn't actually look like Shen Wei on the inside. Zhao Yunlan hasn't studied anatomy since school, but the image of Ye Zun's chest shows some kind of extra organ, and connections to both lungs and oesophagus he's pretty sure shouldn't be there. Beside him he can hear Shen Wei's breathing shift and get deliberately steadier.
Cheng Xingan and Shen Wei compare notes in technical terms, and Zhao Yunlan hands Ye Zun back his clothes. He doesn't blush the same as Shen Wei either, only a few patchy blotches, and his chest has a handful of scars, old and pale. Shen Wei told him, once, that his little brother used to be sickly. He didn't tell him- didn't know- that his brother needed other people's energy to be healthy. The whispered conversation between the two brothers is defensive on both sides, but doesn't give him any answers.
Shen Wei has a university thing that night, a dinner with some of the other professors and higher-ups, important for making sure he's allowed to go back to work. Zhao Yunlan has brothersitting duty. He decides to take a leaf out of Ye Zun's playbook, and pours them both a drink.
"How do you even discover that kind of power?"
Ye Zun swirls the wine in his glass. "By being choked to death."
Zhao Yunlan swallows what's in his mouth. "Ah."
"He was the one who- " Ye Zun gestures expansively. "-separated us. I had grown, and was getting harder to control. I angered him. He choked me. He died."
Zhao Yunlan doesn't know what his face is doing, but he tries to make it encouraging.
"I almost threw up, the first time. I didn't know what was happening, and he tasted disgusting."
He drains his wine and Zhao Yunlan refills the cup. The thing is, he's not terrible to talk to. Parts of it are posturing, parts are self-pity, and a lot of it's still resentment of (or admiration for) the brother he's clearly still obsessed with even if no longer murderous, but Ye Zun also just genuinely likes to talk. About himself, about other people, about why the terrible monster movie on TV should definitely be shown to the Regent of Dixing, about whether it would be more fun to fly or shoot laser beams instead of eat people.
"But you get to like it eventually."
Then again... "Now *I'm* gonna throw up."
Ye Zun makes one of his weird two-expressions-at-once faces, but he does shut up about eating people.
And then Zhao Yunlan has an idea.
"Can you pull off just a little bit? Could you take energy without-" He waves his hand. "Bodies? Or life?"
Ye Zun cocks his head to one side.
There's no reason for them to touch for this, but Ye Zun is gripping Zhao Yunlan's arms so Zhao Yunlan grabs back, holding Ye Zun's elbows for balance. It's awkward, but he'll take awkward over murderous. When Ye Zun opens his mouth, Zhao Yunlan tenses, and for a second Ye Zun freezes, watching Zhao Yunlan's face for the go-ahead. Zhao Yunlan grins wider, and gives it.
It doesn't feel like - whatever Ye Zun did before. It's not a force to fight off, longevity dial or no, and it doesn't feel as bad as-- seeing-- Zhao Yunlan shuts his eyes, but it doesn't get rid of the image of Shen Wei dissolving, and he shudders under the gentlest pull of Ye Zun's breath.
The pull cuts off with a whimper, and Zhao Yunlan opens his eyes to the back of Shen Wei's blade. The edge is at Ye Zun's throat, tipping his head backwards, Zhao Yunlan's grip the only thing keeping him in place. Shen Wei has already broken the skin.
The argument that follows winds up having less to do with Ye Zun than with the complete hypocrisy of Shen Wei's stance on acceptable risk, and Shen Wei banishes his brother across the hall halfway through, and Zhao Yunlan tries to breathe enough not to yell.
Shen Wei's fists are shaking, and they're both at the end of their tether. Zhao Yunlan reaches for him, and after another minute Shen Wei steps into the touch, still frowning. Zhao Yunlan stares at the ceiling and talks into Shen Wei's hair. Shen Wei's hands hold fast to the back of his shirt.
When the suspicious shine has finally receded from Shen Wei's eyes, Zhao Yunlan goes to check on his brother-in-law.
There's blood drying all down the front of Ye Zun's shirt. He hasn't healed it. Whether he can't, or whether he's being a dramatic bastard, Zhao Yunlan doesn't know.
"Let me see."
Ye Zun lets him, after making sure Shen Wei isn't coming. He tilts his head back when Zhao Yunlan angles his jaw upward to check his throat, but his body coils tighter and tighter the longer the touch lasts. Zhao Yunlan pulls his hand back slowly, and the tension recedes. So do the thin streaks of wiry iron grey at Ye Zun's temples.
"It's already closing up. We scared him." He nudges, as unthreateningly as possible, until Ye Zun shifts enough to make space to sit beside him. "He scared you too."
Ye Zun's mouth twists into a snarl.
"That's on me, I should have warned him we wanted to try something-"
"Shen Wei would never risk you. Especially not for me."
That's.... might be true, and Zhao Yunlan feels both proud of it and a little guilty. He loves being the most important thing in Shen Wei's world, but it's a complicated feeling.
"But, you're not coughing! And I feel fine. So it worked." Ye Zun offers him a dead-eyed look nearly as judging as one of Shen Wei's. "Maybe we can find other things for you to vampire." He pats Ye Zun's arm, and then leaves his hand there. The muscles of Ye Zun's forearm shift, and then relax again.
When Shen Wei comes to the doorway, Ye Zun twitches but doesn't pull away. Zhao Yunlan reaches out to Shen Wei once more and pulls them all onto the couch together, Shen Wei half in his lap.
Shen Wei starts to say something, then checks himself, looking between their faces. Zhao Yunlan attempts to make his as innocent as possible, just to get the corner of a smile. Finally, tensely, Shen Wei relents.
"There are other ways to try."
Zhao Yunlan takes that, cheerfully. Whatever else he's gained from this experiment, he's no longer afraid of Ye Zun reversing course. And that means the watch can be relaxed.
That night, Zhao Yunlan does what he's wanted to do since Shen Wei returned, and takes him to bed. Just the two of them. He re-maps every inch of Shen Wei's skin, and sets about making up for lost time, and months of fantasies, and missing Shen Wei more than he ever missed being able to see. Shen Wei's touch is equally ravenous, equally possessive; desperate with the adrenaline of the evening, and with all their time apart.
...At three in the morning, Ye Zun texts Zhao Yunlan a video of tortoises mating. With sound. And Zhao Yunlan laughs himself silly into Shen Wei's mortified, blushing chest.