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The Unexpected Legacy: An Ever-fixed mark

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Shen Wei returns before dawn to check on him, pink-cheeked and dishevelled and reeking of sex. Ye Zun is still awake in his stolen single bed when his brother appears, although Chu Shuzhi has long since fallen asleep in the leather backed chair and is snoring gently; his dreams are full of his dead brother, as they so often are. Ye Zun does not know the truth of what happened to the boy, because Chu Shuzhi has dreamed a dozen variations on the story, but he knows that the brother is dead, and that Chu Shuzhi blames himself as much as he blames the Courts.

“So,” says Ye Zun, feeling obscurely furious, and all the more so when Shen Wei beams at him like he thinks the whole world is made of sunlight and honey. There are bite marks on his throat, and his mouth is red and swollen.

“How are you?” asks Shen Wei, and the concern gentling his voice makes Ye Zun want to set more things on fire.

“What do you care?” he snaps, enjoying the hurt that mars Shen Wei’s smile: it’s good that he can still make the idiot feel something. “You’ve been waiting for that for centuries, haven’t you? Was it everything you dreamed of?”

Shen Wei’s face goes soft and stupid, and Ye Zun wants to scream.

“You can’t trust him,” he mutters, glowering, and Shen Wei sits down on the bed and brushes the long strands of Ye Zun’s hair out of his face, looking into his eyes as though trying to figure out the right words. Ye Zun glares back. “It was his fault, as much as anyone’s,” he says. “He could have stopped them back then, but he messed it all up for both of us.”

“I don’t think anyone could have stopped the Courts,” Shen Wei says, slowly. “Kunlun tried his best. And anyway, it’s not the same man,” he adds, although he sounds like he’s trying to convince himself. Ye Zun gives him a disbelieving look.

“Of course it is,” he says, but then he forgets what he was going to say next because Shen Wei has conjured up a hairbrush from somewhere and has started to brush through the disordered curtain of Ye Zun’s hair, and Ye Zun softens and leans reflexively into it, and feels like purring.

The thing is that Ye Zun knows Zhao Yunlan truly doesn’t want to hurt either of them. He knows the man from the inside out, from his dreams, and now he knows the man from his waking too, both face to face and afterwards; it was not entirely an accident that he was still linked up to the mortal’s mind while Shen Wei went back to clear up Ye Zun’s mess. He is not much inclined to trust anyone, ever, for very good reason, and it will take a lot more for him to start trusting Zhao Yunlan, but - but he does know, without a doubt, that Zhao Yunlan took no pleasure at all in hearing about their suffering, and that the feelings he has for Shen Wei are not like anything Ye Zun recalls from his time in Fairie.

He knows that Zhao Yunlan would kill for Shen Wei, in fact, and - which is far more startling - quite possibly die for him too, and he knows that although Yunlan’s feelings certainly include desire, they are not selfish. He would rather not touch Shen Wei at all than hurt him. He found Ye Zun attractive - as of course he must, for were they not mirror images? - but still he did not want to use him, and once he knew Ye Zun’s history the rage and pity he felt was overwhelming; this was unexpected. Ye Zun does not care to be pitied, not in the slightest, but he appreciates the rage.

It was a strange doubling, riding along in Zhao Yunlan’s mind while the man kissed Shen Wei; it makes him look at his brother through different eyes, now. It is like looking at himself - and also not. Was Ye Zun ever so stupidly trusting, so painfully innocent and hopeful about physical desire? Did Ye Zun ever believe in love, or simple affection? He feels like he must have been like that once, but it was worlds away, and he has grown up since then. He knows that there is always, always a catch. He cannot see the catch here, and it frightens him. He cannot afford to let this happen to Shen Wei. (But what if, a voice whispers in the back of his mind, what if there truly is no catch?)

As the brush slides through his hair and Ye Zun’s hunched shoulders slowly unknot, he feels an increasing urge to weep; there is a silent ball of pressure welling up in his throat, one that makes him want to shout and scream and demand explanations as to why exactly his twin should get to live free and powerful and unmolested for so long, and then finally find himself lying with someone whose tongue dripped endearments as they took pains to bring him nothing but pleasure. Someone who seems to cherish him. Ye Zun cannot bring himself to trust that Zhao Yunlan is sincere, and at the same time he knows that he is, and he wants to rage and scream and demand explanations, because why didn’t he get that? Why?

“You think you’re in love with him,” he says, and Shen Wei flinches. “You think that he’s in love with you.” The hairbrush stills.

“I - I scarcely know him,” says Shen Wei, after a moment. His body is rigid beside Ye Zun. “I don’t think things like that can - I don’t know how to - I scarcely know him.”

“Just because he was careful with you,” Ye Zun says, larding his voice with contempt. “Just because he thinks you’re pretty and he made you come. Just because he pretended to think you were something precious.”

After a pause Shen Wei carries on brushing his hair, and the strokes are still gentle, but Ye Zun can feel the hurt radiating off him, and something like shame.

“I know it doesn’t mean anything special,” he says in a low voice. “You think me very stupid in these matters, I know, because I have never…” his voice fades away, embarrassed. “I have not had friendships, Ye Zun. Or - intimates. Only duty. I have been very much alone.” His voice cracks very slightly, but when he speaks again he is making an effort to sound confident and unconcerned; Ye Zun is not convinced in the slightest. “But I know that this is something that humans take lightly. I cannot help it if it does not feel so light to me; I have never been very good at taking anything lightly.” He draws a deep breath. “But I do not have any expectations of Zhao Yunlan, no matter what - what he might have said, in the heat of the moment. I think he is a good man, and I think he will try to help us, but I do not pretend to myself that this is some great romance.” The hairbrush stills, and Shen Wei seems to need a moment to master his emotions. When he speaks again, his voice is small, and almost pleading. “I can still be glad, though, Ye Zun. It was very pleasant, and he was - very kind.”

Ye Zun glances sideways through the curtain of his hair. Shen Wei is looking at his lap and fiddling with the hairbrush, and all the sunshine has vanished from his face. It feels a lot like looking in a mirror, and Ye Zun cannot decide whether to be viciously glad, or angry with himself. Shen Wei looks up and catches his eye, and plasters on a smile that is as fake as anything Ye Zun has ever seen. It’s pathetic.

“I know that sort of - sentimental nonsense is not for us,” he says, with false nonchalance, and then his smile shifts, becomes something smaller and more true. “But we don’t need that anyway. We have each other.” He hooks an arm around Ye Zun and pulls him into an embrace. “Oh, Ah Zun, I have missed you so. Whatever happens, I am glad we are together, and I am so sorry - so very sorry that I did not come sooner.”

“You’re a gullible idiot,” snaps Ye Zun into the crook of his brother’s neck, because otherwise he is going to start crying.

“I know,” says Shen Wei, humbly. “I should have suspected the truth when you didn’t leave the court. I thought you were happier without me.”

“That’s because you’re stupid,” Ye Zun says, squeezing him so tight he will probably leave bruises. “And you are precious,” he adds, fiercely. “And he should cherish you.”

“It doesn’t matter,” says Shen Wei. “Not so long as I have you.”

He really means it. It’s ringing through his voice and glowing from his soul: that all he needs to be whole is his brother at his side. He is quite besotted with the man downstairs, brimming with lust and affection and a tamped-down glow of leftover joy, but nevertheless he accepts that this affair with the mortal is something ephemeral and meaningless; perhaps he doesn’t think that either of them deserve to be loved the way that people are loved in stories, even though Kunlun had made such a dramatic romantic gesture in attempting to save him all those years ago.

If he was asked to choose, he would not hesitate to choose Ye Zun.

Ye Zun did not realise that he had been wondering about that until he knew the answer to it. He has enough self awareness to acknowledge to himself that jealousy of Zhao Yunlan is part of what he has been feeling, along with jealousy of Shen Wei’s good fortune in finding someone who treats him like he’s made of glass. Ye Zun has never been very good at sharing, and being asked to give up the only thing he has, after so very long of having nothing at all, seems like a terribly big demand.

But perhaps, he thinks, leaning into Shen Wei’s embrace, perhaps now he needs to start learning how to share.