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What's love got to do with it

Chapter Text

“But what will I do about breakfast tomorrow?” Zhao Yunlan asked, giving Shen Wei the saddest look he could muster. 

The cause for this over-the-top puppy dog expression was Shen Wei’s plans to make his own way to the university tomorrow since he had an early morning meeting. Naturally, Zhao Yunlan was kicking up a fuss about that. 

“You should go out and buy something to eat before work,” Shen Wei told him, picking up his coat jacket from where it was neatly draped on the couch. 

“That’s too troublesome,” Zhao Yunlan sighed, shifting the lollipop around in his mouth. “I guess I’ll just skip breakfast tomorrow.”

Shen Wei frowned, straightening and glaring at Zhao Yunlan. “You can’t skip meals when you have gastritis. Breakfast is very important for someone with your condition.”

Zhao Yunlan shrugged from where he was lounging on the couch. “I never had breakfast before you started coming over. And since you won’t be here tomorrow morning, then I won’t bother either.”

“Zhao Yunlan, if I come by tomorrow to make you breakfast, you will have to let me in at five in the morning. That would disrupt your sleep unnecessarily,” Shen Wei pointed out, already knowing where Zhao Yunlan was going with this. 

“Ugh… Good point. It’s too late for tomorrow, but I’ll make you a spare key so you can just come in any time,” Zhao Yunlan said with feigned nonchalance, trying to keep his voice casual. “It’s annoying that you don’t already have one. I should have thought about this sooner.”

Warmth bloomed in Shen Wei’s chest at these words. Zhao Yunlan was willing to give him free access to his home, to let him enter and leave at any time. It left Shen Wei speechless with the kind of happiness he only ever felt when Zhao Yunlan was involved. 

“Of course, it would be easier if you just lived with me. No need for this back and forth, and you spend so much time here already anyway,” Zhao Yunlan continued, giving Shen Wei a sly look from the corner of his eye. 

Shen Wei startled at that, surprised by this sudden development. He could feel his cheeks heating up and he said without thinking, in a calm tone that did not betray his tripping heart, “Don’t be ridiculous, how would this small apartment fit three people?”

Pulling out the lollipop from his mouth with an obscene ‘pop’, Zhao Yunlan pointed the slick candy at Shen Wei and said brightly, “You’re absolutely right. This apartment is much too small. Since space is your only objection, I think we can solve that by buying a house together that could comfortably fit three people.”

Shen Wei felt like his head was spinning, unable to keep up with where this conversation was going. Conversations with Zhao Yunlan were frequently like that. His mind was like a slippery eel, and he left one groping to keep up once he got going. But thinking about moving in with Zhao Yunlan, buying a house and living together… It filled Shen Wei with helpless want and happiness. He desperately wanted to bring to life this vision that he had never dared to imagine until Zhao Yunlan described it, of them living together, eating breakfast together every day, smiling at each other across the dining table…

And maybe even more than that. 

Maybe now, that spark between them, the warmth and deep emotions, could grow into something more.

Shen Wei couldn’t remember what he said, only mumbling something about how they should discuss it further before he left Zhao Yunlan’s apartment quickly, needing a moment to get ahold of his emotions again. That had simply been too much in too short a span of time. Shen Wei needed a moment to regroup, to calm his racing pulse. He would talk about this in detail with Zhao Yunlan later. 

Behind Shen Wei, after the apartment door closed, Zhao Yunlan kicked his feet up onto the coffee table and put his arms behind his head. He grinned happily to himself. Maybe it was a little unusual for friends to live together, but there was just something about Professor Shen that made Zhao Yunlan want to hold on tight to him. A shared house seemed like a good start. 

He imagined seeing Shen Wei every morning after he stumbled out of his bedroom, eating dinner with Shen Wei every night after work, being gently nagged by Shen Wei, getting to gently tease Shen Wei...

It seemed like a perfect life, probably better than most spouses ever had with each other. 

~ * ~

The two of them would likely have continued on in this manner for a very long time, where they somehow managed to be in sync in terms of goals and actions but not so much in their thoughts and reasoning. Possibly they would have ended up living together before they discovered this discrepancy. 

Except the very next day, in a rare moment of open self-reflection, Zhao Yunlan carelessly divulged some rather odd opinions he had about his own personality, not realizing that he was bursting Shen Wei’s tentative bubble of happiness.

This event, which was momentous for Shen Wei and nothing out of the ordinary for Zhao Yunlan, occurred while they were sitting in the car heading to the Ministry after being summoned, leaving behind a captured Zhu Jiu and the two Hallows in S.I.D.. In the silence, Shen Wei felt compelled to bring up the topic of Zhu Hong’s feelings for Zhao Yunlan. 

“You are in Zhu Hong’s heart,” he said quietly. 

“I know, but she’s not in mine,” Zhao Yunlan said, not meeting Shen Wei’s eyes. “That’s why it’ll be better if she ends the crush now rather than later.”

“Zhu Hong is a grown woman, but she’s still immature at heart,” Shen Wei said, a subtle caution for Zhao Yunlan to be gentle with her.

“Because she’s immature, I’ve to be sure I don’t mislead her,” Zhao Yunlan said with steadfast conviction. 

Shen Wei was relieved to hear it, but he also felt sorry for Zhu Hong. He knew how it was like to love another. To think it was unreciprocated…

At this point, Zhao Yunlan dropped his bombshell. He said with a self-mocking smile, “She doesn’t understand it, but I’m completely devoid of any capacity to love. That’s my fate that I’ve accepted a long time ago, and I’m not going to try to change it.”

Shen Wei froze as the words hit home like a blow to his chest. 

After the happiness that he experienced yesterday, when he thought Zhao Yunlan was hinting at an interest in taking their relationship to greater depths, to hear this was like being physically struck. No, worse than that even. Shen Wei would take a thousand hits to his body over this crushing pain. 

Zhao Yunlan thought that he couldn’t love? Then what was Shen Wei to him?

Was there really nothing between them but Shen Wei’s one-sided interest?

Suddenly, Shen Wei felt like this was karmic retribution for his previous sympathy for Zhu Hong. He thought Zhu Hong’s state was a sad one, felt sympathetic about her unreciprocated love in a way that only someone who was confident in their own relationship could. But Shen Wei was in the exact same situation as Zhu Hong, only he was even more blind to the lack of returned interest.  

With his speeding, runaway thoughts, Shen Wei wondered if perhaps Zhao Yunlan’s commentary on how Zhu Hong should end her crush now was a hint directed at Shen Wei himself. He replayed their conversation, every one of Zhao Yunlan’s words now an additional knife piercing Shen Wei’s heart. 

It was too much to bear. He couldn’t remain here, in this stifling car, pretending nothing had changed, everything was alright. 

“Stop the car,” Shen Wei commanded the driver, leaning forward. 

Zhao Yunlan looked over at Shen Wei in surprise. “What’s wrong?”

“I can feel something urgent happening in Dixing, I have to go,” Shen Wei lied, not even caring that he was lying badly as always. 

“What do you mean? How can I—”

But the car was already slowing down and Shen Wei opened the door before it even came to a complete stop. He said without looking back over to Zhao Yunlan, “You go ahead to the meeting and send my apologies please. I’ll be back soon.”

Then he was out of the vehicle and disappearing into the night. If he had looked back, he would have seen Zhao Yunlan’s expression of deep worry and hurt staring after him. 

~ * ~

No one would have expected it, least of all Shen Wei himself, but unexpectedly, he opened his eyes and realized he had fled to the Pillar of Heaven. Here was the prison that held Ye Zun, as his twin preferred to be called these days. 

When he had first awoken from his ten thousand years of sleep, he often came to speak to Ye Zun, to try to reason with him. While Shen Wei was re-learning Dixing, figuring out how to blend into Haixing, he often talked to Ye Zun about the world at large and tried to engage with him in turn, to coax out the didi he remembered. 

But all he received in turn was venting and screaming, Ye Zun refusing to answer to his birth name, swearing endlessly to kill Shen Wei. No matter how often Shen Wei heard it, the words still hurt him. He learned to build a mask even when he wasn’t wearing Heipaoshi’s disguise, to smooth his expressions out to cold indifference so that Ye Zun would stop probing him where it hurt the most. 

Over the years, Shen Wei’s visits to Ye Zun happened further and further apart. The pain of hearing Ye Zun’s raving, his inability to get through to Ye Zun… All the visits did was serve as a reminder of his failure. Whatever had happened with Ye Zun during his time with the rebels, it had irrevocably destroyed the bond they had as children.

So Shen Wei had no idea why he was back in front of the Pillar. Maybe it was just instinct to seek out his didi again. Maybe it was just loneliness, the feeling that no one else could understand him. Out of everyone in the world right now, only Ye Zun was born of the same era, experienced the same wars, even if they had been on different sides of it. 

Modern day Haixing was a glowing alien landscape to Shen Wei on some days, especially on days like this, where he felt like he couldn’t come close to comprehending the people around him. 

“Shen Wei, you look pale today.” Ye Zun’s mocking voice and the faint glow around the Pillar of Heaven were the only signs of his presence. “Are you unwell? Has someone hurt you?” There was gleeful anticipation in these last words.

Shen Wei stared unseeingly up at the Pillar. Unthinkingly, he said, “Yes.”

That gave Ye Zun pause. In the past years, Shen Wei no longer revealed the slightest vulnerability to Ye Zun, always careful to present a closed front. This frank confession took Ye Zun aback, but he tried to rally anyway, saying, “Oh, how delicious. So who hurt you?” 

“Someone who I thought loved me,” Shen Wei said, his voice flat, without inflection. “But I was wrong.”

“Of course you were. Why would you think you could be loved?” Ye Zun bit out, furious. He was angry that Shen Wei had come to him just to talk about someone else, to show how clearly he cared about someone else when he hadn’t cared at all about Ye Zun. And he was furious that Shen Wei thought he could be loved by someone else after everything he had done. 

Shen Wei had no idea why he kept talking, but maybe it didn’t matter in any case. Who else could he tell? Who else would Ye Zun tell anyway? He took the question at face value and answered, “Because he holds my hand sometimes. He wants to be around me all the time. He tells me he doesn’t know what he would do without me. He asked me to move in with him.”

This honest answer threw Ye Zun. He was ready to mock Shen Wei, to use this moment to dig into his sore points. But instead, Ye Zun was suddenly stumped by this frank explanation. And he was a little bit confused because all of that did sound very much like a person who was interested in Shen Wei as more than just friends.

“Is he Haixingren?” Ye Zun asked, inexplicably curious. He told himself he only asked to find out Shen Wei’s weak points to be exploited in the future. When Shen Wei nodded, Ye Zun felt like he had unravelled this mystery. He was so much smarter than his stupid gege. “What do you know about Haixingren? Perhaps all Haixingren behave that way with their friends. You are truly an idiot to think it was love.”

That was cause for Shen Wei to pause and think about it. Shen Wei had never spent much time pondering on Haixingren and their social mores. He had been too busy trying to keep the peace between Haixing and Dixing, while establishing a fake but foolproof identity. He had so many years of progress to catch up to that he never spent much time considering romantic or platonic social conventions between Haixingren. 

“He did call me brother,” Shen Wei murmured aloud without thinking.

For Ye Zun who had a brother complex a mile wide, this was a statement custom-made to infuriate him. Going from curious but contemptuous to murderously furious in less than a second, he roared, “Brother? What would you know about being a brother? You who abandoned your didi! Who left me in this pillar to rot! Who sold me to the rebels to save your own skin!”

At this point, Ye Zun came pouring out of the Pillar of Heaven. 

When Shen Wei had come to the Pillar, he hadn’t known that at this point, Zhu Jiu had sacrificed himself to Ye Zun and while the seal on the Pillar of Heaven hadn’t broken entirely, it had cracked enough for Ye Zun to project an essence of himself outside the pillar. 

The sudden glowing vision of Ye Zun exploding out of the Pillar in a flurry of dark smoke was enough to break Shen Wei out of his confused despair over Zhao Yunlan and launch himself backwards and down the steps, widening the distance from Ye Zun. 

In a cry of outrage, Ye Zun flung dark energy at Shen Wei, screaming, “You abandoned me! You abandoned me to a fate worse than death with the rebels! My own gege left me to be tortured by that monster.”

Shen Wei’s glaive materialized in his hand, dark energy coalescing in an instant as he swung the weapon around to deflect the power thrown at him. 

For all that Ye Zun had the upper hand with his surprise attack, it was only momentary. Unlike him, Shen Wei was not locked within a Pillar, and in Dixing, his access to dark energy was greater. Ye Zun’s attacks were wild, uncontrolled. He flung dark energy at Shen Wei, shouting in fury when Shen Wei side-stepped it and swept his glaive up to deflect the next burst of dark energy back at Ye Zun. Before Ye Zun could recover, Shen Wei swung his glaive so that he could slam the blunt end of the staff against the ground, sending a wave of freezing power out to hold Ye Zun in place. Even though Ye Zun was nothing more than a projection like this, the freezing dark power was enough to interfere with Ye Zun’s energy, pinning him so that he was immobile. 

Shen Wei climbed the steps back up to Ye Zun. Even after that explosion of adrenaline and action, his mind was only focused on one thing. “I never abandoned you, didi.”

While he couldn’t move or attack, Ye Zun could still talk. He snarled, “You sold me to the rebels, because I was just a burden to you, too sick to help. So you sold your own flesh and blood to them. You don’t know what I went through to survive…”

And finally, after all this time, Shen Wei understood the cause behind Ye Zun’s hatred. 

Shaking his head, Shen Wei summoned a power he rarely used but had learned a long time ago. He placed his hand to his forehead, frowned as he dragged a sliver of dark energy out from his head before letting the little dark cloud roll off his palm onto the floor between Ye Zun and himself. 

“These are my memories,” Shen Wei whispered. 

“Why should I believe you?” Ye Zun spat out. “They could be completely made up.”

“Just watch it,” Shen Wei said, unwilling to be drawn into another argument, not when his memories would speak for themselves. 

The cloud of dark energy grew and spread out until it was about five feet high. Then wavering figures appeared in this cloud, like a mirage. 

They were memories of that day from so long ago when Shen Wei tried to protect Ye Zun, only to be flung off the cliff by the rebel leader. The memory only showed what happened from Shen Wei’s perspective, showed the sickly Ye Zun unconscious on the ground as Shen Wei tried to defend him. The scene was quick, over in minutes and contained nothing of the wretched failure Shen Wei had felt as he had climbed back up despite his injuries to find Ye Zun gone. 

Ye Zun whispered, eyes fixed on the mirage, “You’re lying. You’re making this up.”

Shen Wei only waited as the images in the dark cloud shifted from Shen Wei desperately searching the area for Ye Zun to a memory from years after that moment. In this memory, Shen Wei wasn’t a helpless child. He was Heipaoshi and he swept through one of the rebels’ camps, destroying all opposition and killing mercilessly. Every once in awhile, he stopped, searching in tents, as if looking for something or someone. 

In the end, there was only one person left in the camp. He was a strong man, but he was beaten ruthlessly by Shen Wei, severely injured as he begged for his life. 

“I’m looking for someone the rebels captured. He would be a teenager now, pale skin with dark hair and dark eyes, and he might often be sick. His name is Shen Ye,” Heipaoshi commanded. 

The rebel tried to avoid answering, “I don’t know—”

With sharp impatience, Shen Wei pressed the edge of the glaive against the man’s throat, blood immediately seeping from where the blade bit lightly into skin. “If you tell me where to find him, I will let you live. If you don’t, I will kill you. If you lie to me, I will hunt you down like a dog.”

Shaking, the man pleaded, “Please... please don’t kill me.”

“Then tell me,” Shen Wei commanded, having sensed that the man knew who he was talking about.  

Visibly swallowing even though that only pressed the glaive deeper to his throat, the rebel whispered, “There’s no one…no one named Shen Ye. But the boy you describe… He is dead. Killed by our leader.”

The images were as seen from Shen Wei’s perspective, so all that could be seen of Shen Wei was the glaive he had pointed at the man. The blade against the man’s throat trembled, almost slicing him open. Then Shen Wei staggered back, pulling the glaive away. 

“Go,” Shen Wei whispered, barely audible, but enough of a cue that the rebel scrambled back before pushing himself up and running away. 

The dark cloud dispersed, leaving nothing but wisps of smoke behind. 

Ye Zun couldn’t pretend anymore. He couldn’t tell himself this was a lie. Because he remembered this man, Lao Xuan, knew him as one of the rebels. And he understood why Lao Xuan had told Shen Wei that Ye Zun was dead. Because by the time Shen Wei had gained enough power to attack the rebels, years had already passed. Shen Ye was a name long forgotten. To the rebels, Ye Zun wasn’t an innocent whom the rebels had captured. Ye Zun was one of them, a weakling deserving of contempt, but one of the rebels who the rebel leader kept around to taunt and to discuss cunning ploys against the Alliance. 

The rebels often kidnapped teenagers and children to grow their ranks. He remembered the day that Lao Xuan had come stumbling into their main camp, talking about how Heipaoshi who had been destroying various camps was looking for the sickly boy they had killed just the week before during brutal training. Based on the description of a captive teenager, Lao Xuan had mistook who Shen Wei was referring to and thought he was looking for their latest kidnapping victim.

It was enough to make a madman weep. All those years of anger and hate caused by lies and misunderstandings. 

“Do you believe me now?” Shen Wei asked, quiet. He could see from the pale projection, from Ye Zun’s wide eyes, that he did. But Shen Wei wanted to hear it, needed to hear it to believe it. 

“You didn’t hand me to the rebels,” Ye Zun whispered. 

Frustrated, hurt tears welled in Shen Wei’s eyes. “ Never. I would have never done that. I looked for you for years. I’m sorry I failed you, didi, but I would have never handed you over to the rebels like that. I would have died first.”

And he nearly had, as Ye Zun saw. 

“I believe you,” Ye Zun said, the truth spilling out with a surge of anger and despair. “All this time… It was for nothing. It was all lies from that man.”

“But now you know the truth,” Shen Wei said, hopeful for the first time in years that he could have his brother back. He waved his hand, dispelled the freezing energy that held Ye Zun’s projection in place. He half-expected to be attacked again out of habit, but Ye Zun only stood there, shoulders hunched. 

“What is the point? All these wasted years. And now I’m trapped in this Pillar,” Ye Zun said hoarsely. 

Shen Wei said quickly, “I can release you from it.”

And it was tempting, very tempting to Ye Zun. Shen Wei was always overly trusting when it came to Ye Zun, and it would have been so easy for Ye Zun to gain freedom with just a few words. 

But then Ye Zun shook his head, slowly, as he stared at Shen Wei at the foot of his prison. “Don’t.”

Shen Wei stared in blank incomprehension. “But why?”

“Because I don’t know what I will do,” Ye Zun said, honest for the first time in millennia. “I look at your face and I still feel so much rage. I don’t want to hurt you, but I don’t know if I won’t hurt you. I need...time.”

Shen Wei’s hopes crumbled away to hear that Ye Zun still felt this way. But he shored up his defences, smoothed his mask back into place and said, “Then I’ll wait. As long as you need.” He paused, unsure if he would incite Ye Zun’s rage again but needing to try. “Will you stop attacking Haixing?”

Ye Zun stared at him and demanded, for no reason other than he could, “Say ‘please’.”

Blinking slowly, Shen Wei said without reserve, “Please.”

“Fine,” Ye Zun said with an airy wave of his hand, his projection dissipating as his dark energy seeped back into the Pillar. “Haixing isn’t that interesting anyway. Go away, gege. I need to think, and your sad face is distracting me.”

When Shen Wei left the Pillar of Heaven, he was smiling for the very first time after a visit to Ye Zun. 

Ye Zun had called him ‘gege’ again. 

~ * ~

Shen Wei went to the S.I.D. the next day. He didn’t mention his discussion with Ye Zun. Since even Ye Zun wasn’t sure what he would do next, it was best to stay on alert for the time being. For all that he wanted desperately to trust his brother, there was no harm in preparing for the worst. The war had taught him that much at least. 

Zhao Yunlan sprawled out next to him on the couch, sucking on a lollipop and flipping lazily through some paperwork. Shen Wei was pretending to pay attention to his students’ assignments rather than the warm points of contact between them, where their shoulders brushed, where their knees were pressed together. It was a rather large couch, was it really necessary for Zhao Yunlan to sit so close to him? 

But there was also nothing notable about sitting next to each other on the couch. In the end, wasn’t this just Shen Wei’s overactive imagination at work? 

Every part of Shen Wei told him that what he had with Zhao Yunlan wasn’t typical, wasn’t a normal friendship. There was something more between them, if they only had the chance to let it grow. 

But maybe Ye Zun was right. They were Dixingren while Zhao Yunlan was Haixingren. What did Shen Wei know about Haixingren customs? Perhaps it was normal for Haixingren to invite their good friends to live with them? Perhaps mouthing lollipops while staring at someone else was completely innocent? 

As Shen Wei pondered this, Chu Shuzhi and Guo Changcheng came back from their mission.

“It was a false alarm,” Chu Shuzhi growled as he stormed past, Guo Changcheng literally in tow. Chu Shuzhi’s hand was clasped around Guo Changcheng’s wrist, dragging him along. 

Zhao Yunlan sounded alarmed even though he didn’t budge an inch on the couch. “Then where are you taking Xiao Guo?”

“He fell into a drain trying to rescue a puppy. I’m going to clean his cuts,” Chu Shuzhi snapped as they headed to the laboratory that also served as their infirmary when need be. 

“I’m— I’m okay, Chu-ge,” Guo Changcheng protested. “It’s just a slight scratch.”

“You’re okay when I say you’re okay,” Chu Shuzhi stated flatly before they disappeared into the lab. 

Laughing, Zhao Yunlan said, “Everyday, Lao Chu is getting more protective of our little mouse.”

Shen Wei thought about the way Chu Shuzhi held Guo Changcheng’s wrist, firmly but with care, about how Chu Shuzhi was always protecting Guo Changcheng while Guo Changcheng was always seeking out Chu Shuzhi. The two of them seemed to orbit around each other these days. 

This here was a chance for Shen Wei to gain more insight into Haixingren behaviors. He asked as casually as he could, “I suppose what Chu Shuzhi and Guo Changcheng have between them is strong brotherhood.”

Zhao Yunlan nodded absently as he went back to his paperwork. 

Lin Jing had just shot out of the lab at great speed and had overheard Shen Wei’s question. He said while making a face, “Yeah, sure, brotherhood.”

Frowning, Shen Wei tried to examine Lin Jing’s expression but Lin Jing had already turned away as he headed towards the popcorn machine. Zhu Hong’s expression was incredibly bland and impossible to read, while Wang Zheng quickly busied herself with some files. No one else was in close enough vicinity for Shen Wei to observe a response from. 

With a sinking heart, Shen Wei could only take Lin Jing’s response at face value and assume this was normal behavior for close friends. 

So whatever he had with Zhao Yunlan, it was more akin to brotherhood. His longing and love of more than ten thousand years was completely one-sided. 

That night, Shen Wei visited Ye Zun again, trying to bond over their childhood memories. He didn’t know how much that helped since Ye Zun mostly sounded listless when he deigned to respond to Shen Wei. 

The next morning, Shen Wei made breakfast for Zhao Yunlan who was vocally appreciative. After the somewhat discouraging night, Shen Wei was thankful that he at least still had this. As he watched Zhao Yunlan eat with that gleam of appreciation in his eyes, Shen Wei thought to himself that he would hold on to this much. Even if he had to give up his hopes for a deeper connection with Zhao Yunlan, it would still be enough to have this close bond with him. He could be good friends, be brothers, as long as he could be by Zhao Yunlan’s side. 

Expecting more was just greedy, especially in light of his recent reconciliation with Ye Zun. He shouldn’t expect so much in life.

Being able to protect Zhao Yunlan, spend time with him, that would have to be enough. 

Oblivious to all these thoughts going through Shen Wei’s mind, Zhao Yunlan was just pleased that Shen Wei was having breakfast with him again and that he had Shen Wei’s full attention. He knew Shen Wei had no morning classes so naturally, he invited Shen Wei to S.I.D. with him this morning, to which Shen Wei agreed. That put Zhao Yunlan in an even better mood.

There was no real reason for Shen Wei to be at S.I.D. today, except for how Zhao Yunlan liked having Shen Wei around. Things were just better when Shen Wei was there. 

Zhao Yunlan a decade ago would have taken the warm feelings he felt when Shen Wei was around as a sign of something deeper. A younger Zhao Yunlan would have put up a hot pursuit for Shen Wei. Okay, he might have done a little of that as well this time round, but he had tamped down on a lot of his initial urges. Zhao Yunlan had years of experience now in failed relationships, where all the failure had been due to something lacking from his side, based on what all his past boyfriends and girlfriends had ranted, yelled, cried at him. 

So Zhao Yunlan thought he knew better now. He thought he wouldn’t ruin this amazing connection he felt with Shen Wei by introducing base lust and his substandard form of love. 

What he had with Shen Wei would be more than enough, as long as he could keep Shen Wei by his side.

Thus, both Shen Wei and Zhao Yunlan had managed to once again reach the same conclusion through very different sets of logic. 

On the drive over to S.I.D., Zhao Yunlan cheerfully handed over a spare key to his apartment to Shen Wei as he said, “This is just until we can find a suitable house.”

Shen Wei took the spare key, feeling the back of his ears heat up for some reason, and tried to focus on adding the key to his keyring. He hadn’t been sure if Zhao Yunlan had been serious about sharing a house. He still wasn’t sure right now if Zhao Yunlan was serious or engaging in prolonged teasing. But sharing a house with Zhao Yunlan, even as dear friends, sounded like a dream come true so Shen Wei didn’t want to say anything that might jeopardize any possibility of this becoming reality. 

Meanwhile, Zhao Yunlan was thinking about good neighborhoods between the university and S.I.D.. 

By the time they reached S.I.D., they were both in a fairly good mood. 

The morning passed peaceably enough until an unexpected visitor arrived. 

Wang Zheng drifted into the office where Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei were talking instead of doing their work and said, “Li Ruiwen is here.”

Dropping his feet down from where they had been propped on his desk, Zhao Yunlan exclaimed, “Wen-ge? I didn’t know he was in the city.” He looked to Shen Wei and explained, “We used to be in the same academy together, but he moved to Phoenix City and now he’s the police chief over there.”

Shen Wei nodded and asked Wang Zheng, “Do you know if he’s here on official business?”

Shaking her head, Wang Zheng said, “He said it was just a social call.”

Zhao Yunlan got to his feet and gestured at Shen Wei. “Well, let’s go meet the man. I can introduce you to this old friend of mine.”

So they all trooped out to meet Li Ruiwen. 

A tall handsome man stood by the long table, chatting comfortably with Da Qing who was sitting on the couch. His hair was slicked back, kept out of his fine boned, angular face. He had warm, deep-set eyes and a generous mouth that spread into a welcoming smile once he laid eyes on Zhao Yunlan. 

“Zhao Yunlan, it’s been too long,” Li Ruiwen greeted, holding a hand out. 

Grasping his hand for a firm handshake, Zhao Yunlan grinned. “I didn’t think you would want to see me again after the last time you visited.”

They released the handshake and Li Ruiwen grimaced, saying, “Please don’t bring that up again. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten so drunk in my entire life before. I was sick as a dog for a week after.”

Zhao Yunlan noticed Shen Wei’s frown and quickly explained, “It was just a once-off, to celebrate the rare occasion Wen-ge was in town. I don’t drink that much all the time.”

But Shen Wei remembered how he had found Zhao Yunlan sick by the side of the road, remembered the numerous empty bottles of alcohol that had littered Zhao Yunlan’s apartment before Shen Wei had started spending more time there. He knew Zhao Yunlan was most definitely trying to play down the truth and gave him an unimpressed look. Zhao Yunlan tried on his most innocent expression to no avail. 

Li Ruiwen raised his eyebrows at this exchange and asked, “So who is this? I thought I’d met all your staff before.”

“This is my good friend, Shen Wei, a professor at Dragon City University. He’s also a consultant for S.I.D.,” Zhao Yunlan introduced, before turning to Shen Wei. “Shen Wei, this is Li Ruiwen, an old classmate of mine.”

“Only good friends?” Li Ruiwen asked, clearly curious after hearing Zhao Yunlan trying to explain his drinking habits to Shen Wei. He gave Shen Wei a slow once over, appreciative of the form-fitting suit this Professor had on. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that academia hid such gems such as this one. 

Zhao Yunlan coughed and said, “Yes, good friends.”

If Shen Wei needed anymore proof as to Zhao Yunlan’s real feelings towards him, it couldn’t be any clearer than this. Burying the inexplicable sense of loss he felt, Shen Wei smiled and shook Li Ruiwen’s hand politely. 

So this was another one of Zhao Yunlan’s brothers, just like how Shen Wei was one of his brothers. 

“It’s nice to meet you, Li Ruiwen,” Shen Wei said politely. 

“Likewise,” Li Ruiwen said with a smile. “I didn’t know professors were so well put together nowadays. If I had a professor like you back in university, I would have certainly paid more attention in class.”

Shen Wei was suddenly reminded of Zhao Yunlan’s inappropriate comments towards him and he realized that this must just be part of normal brotherly interaction between Haixingren. He had just read too much into all of it. 

“Paying attention to your professor’s outfits won’t help with your classes unless you were taking fashion design,” Shen Wei said with a faint smile in return. 

At that moment, Zhao Yunlan was struck with a strong sense of unease as he stood there, watching Li Ruiwen and Shen Wei talk to each other, smile at each other. Before he could interject, Zhu Hong called out, “There’s a call for you, Lao Zhao. It’s from the Ministry.”

Swearing under his breath, Zhao Yunlan excused himself and made for the telephone, vowing to make this the quickest phone call in all of S.I.D.’s history. 

Shen Wei was feeling a little abandoned but gamely continued. “How long will you be in Dragon City?”

“I’ll be here for about two weeks. Most of my family are here so I come back to visit them when I can,” Li Ruiwen explained. 

“I’m sure it must be comforting to be back with family,” Shen Wei said softly. 

“Comforting and extremely trying at the same time,” Li Ruiwen proclaimed, which earned him a small chuckle from Shen Wei. Then Li Ruiwen suddenly said, “Would you happen to be free for dinner tonight?”

Shen Wei was surprised by this sudden turn in the conversation. But he had no set plans tonight and perhaps it would be a good idea if he widened his circle of friendship so that he had a better understanding of Haixingren’s social boundaries. 

Nodding, Shen Wei accepted Li Ruiwen’s dinner invitation and the offer to be picked up from the university after work.

Hearing this entire exchange, Da Qing fell off the back of the couch when Shen Wei gave his acceptance. “Uhhh… I didn’t see this coming,” he mumbled, staring between Shen Wei and Li Ruiwen with wide eyes. 

When Zhao Yunlan came back from his call, completely clueless to the exchange that had occured while he was gone, he chatted with Li Ruiwen a little more. Shen Wei said he had to go back to the university for his classes and left the two old friends to catch up. 

“So, what did you and Shen Wei talk about earlier,” Zhao Yunlan asked without a trace of shame at his nosiness. 

Li Ruiwen smiled. “Oh, nothing much. We didn’t get to talk much, but maybe I’ll get to know him better on our date tonight.”

Zhao Yunlan choked on air at that. “What?”

“I asked him out and he said yes,” Li Ruiwen said with a beaming smile. “Such a gorgeous man, I’m surprised he’s still single.”

“Yeah, Lao Zhao, I wonder why he’s still single,” Da Qing said, rolling his eyes before he stalked off. He muttered under his breath, “Stupid humans.”

Zhao Yunlan’s mind was spinning from the knowledge that Shen Wei was going on a date with Li Ruiwen. 

Shen Wei. 

On a date.

What was happening here?

Chapter Text

This one date between two people was causing an unusual amount of stress. It could be said that the only person who was genuinely looking forward to the date was Li Ruiwen. 

Shen Wei thought it was a casual dinner between newly made friends and was slightly anxious at the prospect of having to socialize with someone he had just met. Being in academia and having to attend a myriad of conferences, Shen Wei wasn’t a stranger to polite conversation and idle chit chat. He could put on a front if necessary. But he never voluntarily put himself in a situation like that just for the sake of socializing. The only time he ever did it was to spend time with Zhao Yunlan and that was different because it was Zhao Yunlan. It wasn’t a chore when Zhao Yunlan was there. 

While not actually part of the date, Zhao Yunlan was also anxious about it and decided to wait outside the university to tail Shen Wei and Li Ruiwen to their date. It was a terrible life choice, and he knew it. But Zhao Yunlan owned his terrible life choices and dived in head first. He told himself that he just wanted to keep an eye on the date, because he was very certain this was Shen Wei’s first date. He wanted to be sure that Shen Wei would be alright. Never mind that this was Heipaoshi he was talking about, a Dixingren more powerful than any other being alive. You didn’t have to physically harm Shen Wei to hurt him deeply, Zhao Yunlan knew that much. 

Li Ruiwen took Shen Wei to the Golden Lotus for dinner. It was an extremely upscale restaurant, usually patronized only by the rich and powerful. He didn’t plan on wasting time and was keen to impress Shen Wei. In a beautiful deep blue suit that fit him like he was sewn into it, Shen Wei looked right at home among the rich diners at the Golden Lotus. Li Ruiwen, who had gone for a very quick shopping trip, was dressed in a well-tailored black suit that emphasized his broad shoulders and trim waist. He might not have been able to get a bespoke suit made in an afternoon, but having an expensive store-bought suit altered to fit him wasn’t too hard. 

“Have you ever been here before?” Li Ruiwen asked after they had placed their orders. 

Shen Wei shook his head. “No, it’s my first time here.” He looked around at the elegant decor and low lighting. “It looks like a very nice place,” he said politely, if without much enthusiasm. 

While Shen Wei had never been to the restaurant before, he had been invited for dinners here in the past by colleagues or non-university staff he met through his work. He had turned them all down, assuming they were all inappropriate invitations to go on a date. But now, Shen Wei had to reevaluate all his past interactions with his Haixingren acquaintances or friends. What he had assumed was an attempt to begin a romantic engagement could very well have just been an extended hand for close friendship or brotherhood. He had misread a lot of his interactions with Zhao Yunlan after all. 

“Their degustation is top rated in the whole city, and they have a waitlist of six months,” Li Ruiwen confided. 

The concept of degustation was not foreign to Shen Wei, but as someone who cooked a majority of his own meals, he did think it was a terrible waste of effort just to impress the overly rich. When it came to food, Shen Wei was somewhat of a snob but not because he preferred expensive food or complicated dishes only. Rather, he preferred homemade food due to all his years during the Allied War when he had no home and cooking his own meals in his own kitchen could only ever be a fantasy.

“Did you have this table booked six months ago?” Shen Wei asked, a little surprised. Perhaps Li Ruiwen was going to have dinner with another friend but that person couldn’t make it. 

Li Ruiwen smiled, lowering his voice as he replied, “No, I just know the chef so he helped me pull some strings. And we were in luck, someone had a last minute cancellation. Without that cancellation, we wouldn’t have been able to get a table even if we knew the owner of the place.”

Shen Wei nodded. “I see. We’re very fortunate then.” He decided not to mention that he did in fact know the owner of the Golden Lotus, who was a parent of one of his students at Dragon City University and had actually asked him out for dinner here before. 

“Tell me a little about yourself, Shen Wei. What do you teach at university?” Li Ruiwen asked. 

“I teach biological engineering,” Shen Wei said, smiling with self-deprecation. “It’s not a terribly interesting dinner topic.”

“Well, we won’t know until we try it. What does biological engineering entail?” Li Ruiwen asked with an attentive expression, as if he was keen to hear every word Shen Wei had to say on the subject. 

It really was a dry topic for anyone who wasn’t in the same field, but since Li Ruiwen asked, Shen Wei wasn’t going to be shy about expounding on his favorite topic. 

Li Ruiwen seemed a little dazed by the time their first course arrived; miniature duck confit on pickled salad. Shen Wei felt a little guilty for pulling one over him like that and solicitously changed the topic to their meal instead. 

“This is delicious,” Shen Wei said, although duck wasn’t his favorite type of meat. He asked, “Do you often go for degustation?”

Li Ruiwen was relieved at the change in subject and answered easily, “Once in awhile, as a treat. What’s the point of working hard if we don’t let ourselves indulge occasionally?” He gave Shen Wei a long look from beneath his thick lashes when he said that. 

Shen Wei nodded slowly in response, but his mind was actually on how Zhao Yunlan’s idea of treating himself was to sprinkle crumbled, uncooked noodles on top of his cooked instant noodles, to give it a crunch according to him, or to suck on two lollipops of different flavors at once. If he was treating the entire team, then he might take them all out for hotpot or order in meat skewers. Shen Wei hid his smile at the thought that despite how terrible Zhao Yunlan was at looking after himself, he was rather good at treating his team well. 

At this moment, Zhao Yunlan was demonstrating this lack of self-care by skipping dinner and lurking outside the Golden Lotus instead. He couldn’t even see anything since the Golden Lotus had no windows open to the interior, only a small closed door through which only guests with reservations were allowed to pass. But he waited anyway, wanting to see how the date would end. 

“What do you do to treat yourself then, Shen Wei?” Li Ruiwen asked, curious about this buttoned-up young professor, with his masculine beauty that looked untouchable until he smiled in that way which creased the corners of his eyes delightfully. Li Ruiwen had felt captivated from the moment Shen Wei had walked into view with Zhao Yunlan, that small smile on his face when he looked from Zhao Yunlan to Li Ruiwen. 

The question was a simple one, standard as an icebreaker. However, in Shen Wei’s case, it was a little complicated. He couldn’t say that as a treat, he sometimes went down to Dixing to buy a type of yam-like root vegetable that only grew in Dixing and special mineral salts from Dixing’s salt caves. Then he would roast them in his oven back in Haixing, indulging in the familiar salty-sweet taste, surrounded by the comforts of home. 

After he met Zhao Yunlan, he also occasionally treated himself by coming up with a flimsy excuse to visit Zhao Yunlan at a time in the night which would end with him watching Zhao Yunlan sleep. Despite Shen Wei’s clear lack of understanding when it came to Haixing’s social mores, he knew at least that this was definitely not acceptable behavior and had to be saved for rare occasions. 

Before Shen Wei’s hesitation could drag out for too long, he settled for something close enough. “I like to make and eat yam puffs. It’s something of a specialty where I come from and reminds me of home.” It wasn’t a complete lie.  At least, Shen Wei did know how to make yam puffs. Everything else after that was a lie. Before Li Ruiwen could follow up with a question on where Shen Wei’s hometown was, Shen Wei cleverly asked, “You must be very busy as police chief in Phoenix City. What do you do when you have free time?”

Pleased that Shen Wei was showing an interest in him, Li Ruiwen replied, “Oh, I like to read biographies. And I dabble in some painting. I also like dirtbike riding.”

Shen Wei blinked and asked, “What does dirtbike riding involve?”

The next course — delicately steamed fresh scallops on a tiny bed of crispy beancurd skin — was eaten while Shen Wei learned about this fascinating, and frankly, messy-sounding hobby. It was interesting what Haixingren got up to when they were chasing an adrenaline high. 

Shen Wei should have been expecting the question, but was still caught off guard when Li Ruiwen naturally asked, “What are your hobbies, Professor Shen? Please don’t tell me it’s doing research.” There was a teasing smile on Li Ruiwen’s handsome face. 

What were Shen Wei’s hobbies? He didn’t really have any free time for hobbies, between his job at the university, being Heipaoshi, liaising with S.I.D., liaising with the Regent. It wouldn’t be completely inaccurate to say that doing research in relation to his academic profession was probably his hobby. It was the only time he got to relax and not think about all the ways things could be going wrong in Dixing and Haixing, which he would have to prevent or fix. 

“I like to exercise,” Shen Wei blurted out. Ah, there it was again. His penchant for flimsy lies. Shen Wei didn’t know why he kept falling back to this one. He didn’t have any particular love or hate for exercise, he just did so to keep in shape for his job as Heipaoshi. 

While Zhao Yunlan would have given Shen Wei one of his mocking looks and pushed for more answers, Li Ruiwen just took his response at face value. He asked with interest, “Oh? What do you like to do?”

Practise a variety of martial arts that he had learned, with and without his glaive. But Shen Wei knew that this too wasn’t a good answer to be given by a mild-mannered professor. He remembered that Zhao Yunlan liked to go jogging so he lied, “I jog. And I like to swim.” The last wasn’t a complete lie either. He liked swimming on hot days, who didn’t?

“Very healthy,” Li Ruiwen said, chuckling. “No wonder you fill out your three piece suit so well.” The way his lips curved up was inviting, his eyes dark as he met Shen Wei’s gaze. 

Having been on the receiving end of such comments from Zhao Yunlan, and knowing now that this was regular behavior from friends among Haixingren, Shen Wei only shrugged self-deprecatingly and smiled helplessly in return. He knew now that it didn’t mean anything, but he also didn’t know what was the best way to respond. Fortunately, Li Ruiwen didn’t push the matter, sensing that Shen Wei felt a little awkward. 

The rest of the dinner went well. Li Ruiwen found Shen Wei charming and rather adorable, if a little distant and absent-minded. But it was only the first date, and he figured that Shen Wei would warm up to him over time. From Shen Wei’s end, he thought he did a good job establishing a new friendship with Zhao Yunlan’s old classmate. He would gain better perspective into Haixingren friendships and perhaps even be less fixated on Zhao Yunlan over time. 

Maybe over a lot of time. 

Li Ruiwen paid for dinner, which Shen Wei understood now was how regular friends shared their meals. After all, Zhao Yunlan often bought food for Shen Wei, while Shen Wei often cooked for Zhao Yunlan. This was perfectly normal. 

Li Ruiwen drove Shen Wei back to his apartment in his sleek black Mercedes Benz, while Zhao Yunlan took a different route back on his bike, not wanting to be caught tailing Li Ruiwen. 

When Li Ruiwen stopped the car, he leaned over a little and placed his hand on Shen Wei’s thigh, right above the knee. It was too soon for a kiss, based on Shen Wei’s body language, but this would be enough to convey his continued interest. 

“I had a good time tonight,” Li Ruiwen said with a warm smile. 

Shen Wei was slightly uncomfortable with Li Ruiwen’s hand on his leg, although he couldn’t really understand why since Zhao Yunlan regularly squeezed his leg, his arm, his hand. This was just normal behavior between friends, Shen Wei told himself. He smiled back at Li Ruiwen, as friendly as he could make it, and said, “I had a wonderful time.”

Li Ruiwen felt a little dazzled by Shen Wei’s sweet smile, by the way his eyes crinkled at the corners. He wondered if it really was too soon for a kiss. But Shen Wei took the decision out of his hands by opening the door and stepping out. 

Hurriedly, Li Ruiwen opened his door and stepped out too. He came around the car and said, “You mentioned that you liked swimming earlier. Since the weekend starts tomorrow and the weather is so beautiful, shall we go for a picnic and a swim at Dragon’s Talon Lake tomorrow afternoon?”

Shen Wei hadn’t expected another invitation to spend time together so soon after this one, but he reminded himself that he often saw Zhao Yunlan on a daily basis as well. So this wasn’t unusual. It would be good to cultivate a solid friendship with Zhao Yunlan’s close friends. 

Nodding, Shen Wei agreed. “That sounds like it would be nice. I can meet you there.”

“I’ll pick you up,” Li Ruiwen insisted. 

Shen Wei wasn’t sure why Haixingren seemed to like to pick him up in their cars, like they thought he wasn’t capable of making it to his destination on his own. What was the point of taxis or buses then? But he agreed to it without fuss. 

Smiling, Li Ruiwen reached out and picked up Shen Wei’s hand, squeezing it softly, before letting him go and returning to his car. Shen Wei blinked down at his hand but only waved once as Li Ruiwen pulled away. 

Tonight had been… enlightening. Yes. Shen Wei now had a clearer idea of what remained within the boundaries of friendship. 

Or so he thought anyway. 

He headed upstairs to his apartment and was surprised when he heard Zhao Yunlan’s voice calling out to him right before he opened his apartment door. 

Shen Wei turned, frowning. “Zhao Yunlan, you’re out very late. Did you have a case? You should have called me.”

Zhao Yunlan who had been working himself into knots waiting outside the Golden Lotus all night, seeing Li Ruiwen lean close to Shen Wei in the car, watching as Li Ruiwen squeezed Shen Wei’s hand right there in public, that shameless bastard… Zhao Yunlan relaxed a little as he heard the worry in Shen Wei’s voice and the query as to why Zhao Yunlan hadn’t called Shen Wei. If it had been a successful and wonderful date, surely Shen Wei wouldn’t have wanted to be interrupted with calls about S.I.D. cases? 

Due to Zhao Yunlan’s powerful capacity for self-denial, he didn’t question why he was so relieved to think that Shen Wei’s date with Li Ruiwen had been a total flop.

“No, no, just finishing up some paperwork,” Zhao Yunlan said with a wave of his hand. 

“Really?” Shen Wei said with raised eyebrows, since he was well-acquainted with Zhao Yunlan’s habit of palming his paperwork off to Wang Zheng. When Zhao Yunlan gave him a nonchalant shrug, Shen Wei let it go, asking instead, “What did you have for dinner?”

Zhao Yunlan gave him a wide-eyed deer-in-headlights look.

“Zhao Yunlan,” Shen Wei said. It was all Shen Wei said, his disapproving tone speaking for itself. 

Holding his hands up in surrender, Zhao Yunlan tried to explain, “I got caught up, that’s all. I’ll go in now and make a quick bowl of instant noodles.”

Shen Wei glared at him and took out his own set of keys before stepping towards Zhao Yunlan’s door instead. He opened it with his spare key and said to Zhao Yunlan over his shoulder, “I’ll cook you something. You cannot keep eating instant noodles. Zhao Yunlan, you need to look after yourself, especially with your gastritis.”

“But why look after myself when I have you to look after me, Heilao-ge?” Zhao Yunlan asked, stepping forward and draping an arm around Shen Wei in a half hug. He looked at Shen Wei out of the corner of his eye, spotting the small smile gracing Shen Wei’s soft lips. 

Yeah, it would be okay. Soon, they would buy a house together and he would get to see Shen Wei every day, have every meal together. 

Whatever aberration resulted in this random date with Li Ruiwen was just a once off, especially since it seemed to have gone badly. There weren’t going to be any more dates after this and life would go back to normal.

Chapter Text

There was another date between Shen Wei and Li Ruiwen. 

Zhao Yunlan gaped when he found that out from Da Qing. 

After a good night’s sleep where Zhao Yunlan was convinced that all his worries the night before was for nothing, he had woken up to a lazy Saturday morning with Shen Wei making him breakfast. Shen Wei had wanted to go back to his apartment to prepare examination questions after breakfast, but Zhao Yunlan managed to distract him sufficiently that they ended up watching documentaries on his laptop instead, with Da Qing draped across both their laps in cat form.

That eventually turned into lunch together as well, after which Shen Wei was adamant he had to go back to finish his work. It was at this peaceful point, with Zhao Yunlan full and content with life, that Da Qing had turned to him and ruined his day. 

Having changed back to his human form for lunch, Da Qing was sitting with his knees up on the couch, glaring at Zhao Yunlan. He hissed, “Li Ruiwen is taking Shen Wei on a picnic date later.”

Staring, Zhao Yunlan said, “No, impossible. Why would Shen Wei— Why—”

“What do you mean why?” Da Qing looked at Zhao Yunlan like he was crazy. “Li Ruiwen is taller than you, more handsome than you, smarter than you, has more money than you. Why wouldn’t Shen Wei go on another date with him?”

“But I spoke to Shen Wei yesterday. He said— He asked why we didn’t interrupt his date for our case,” Zhao Yunlan said weakly, realizing all of a sudden that he might have been making a huge unsubstantiated assumption based on what Shen Wei said. After all, Shen Wei was Shen Wei. Duty above all. He might have been having the best time of his life, and he would cut it short himself if duty called. What the hell had Zhao Yunlan been thinking?

Well, he knew what he had been thinking. He had been desperate to believe Shen Wei hated the date. 

Which didn’t make sense. And wasn’t fair. Zhao Yunlan didn’t own Shen Wei. He had already decided that he was better off not messing around and ruining what he had with Shen Wei by trying to introduce his stunted form of love into it. He shouldn’t be hoping that Shen Wei wouldn’t end up dating another man, let alone someone of Li Ruiwen’s calibre. 

“Wait, what case?” Da Qing asked in confusion. 

“Never mind that,” Zhao Yunlan said, not about to admit to his lie. “How did you hear about the picnic date?”

Da Qing said, “Li Ruiwen ran into Lin Jing when he was out buying picnic supplies this morning and told Lin Jing about it who messaged me to tell me about it.”

Zhao Yunlan grumbled, “Why didn’t Lin Jing message me instead?”

“Cause he didn’t want you to cut his bonus for delivering bad news,” Da Qing said with a shrug. “So what are you going to do about it?”

“What am I going to do about it? Nothing, you damn cat. I’m— I don’t get a say in how Shen Wei lives his life,” Zhao Yunlan said, ignoring how sharp his voice was.

“Are you serious?” Da Qing cried out. When Zhao Yunlan didn’t say anything else, Da Qing changed into his cat form and flung himself onto the couch, curling into a tight, unhappy ball. 

Zhao Yunlan ignored him, gritting his teeth. He had to get a hold of himself. Following Shen Wei and Li Ruiwen to their date last night was bad enough. Now his own staff expected him to throw some kind of tantrum and try to interfere with Shen Wei and Li Ruiwen’s next date. It was getting out of hand. 

This turmoil he felt right now? It would pass. He already knew that he wasn’t suited to love or relationships. He couldn’t affect the friendship he had with Shen Wei. Every relationship he had in the past had ended very badly. He couldn’t lose Shen Wei the same way, Shen Wei who had become so important so quickly that Zhao Yunlan found it difficult to imagine a life without him. It would be a gaping, irrecoverable loss.  

Zhao Yunlan was a selfish person at heart, he knew that. He was greedy and he grasped at what he wanted, held on tight. 

But this was Shen Wei. Shen Wei who put duty above all, who was self-sacrificing and good to the core. Shen Wei deserved the best of all things. 

And Zhao Yunlan...wasn’t the best of all things. He couldn’t give Shen Wei the best, not when it came to love. 

Li Ruiwen, on the other hand, could. 

Zhao Yunlan wondered if his molars would snap right off with how hard he was grinding them together. 

“Are you really willing to let him go like that?” Da Qing asked quietly, one golden eye opened to look at Zhao Yunlan. “If he gets together with Li Ruiwen, he might move to Phoenix City. Who’s going to make us breakfast after that? Where am I going to get my morning fish congee?”

If Shen Wei got together with Li Ruiwen...he might move to Phoenix City? 

Shen Wei wouldn’t do that, right? 

The portal to Dixing was in Dragon City. Surely Shen Wei wouldn’t move away from Dragon City? 

But Shen Wei could also open portals and travel anywhere he wanted in a blink of an eye. Would moving to Phoenix City be that much of a barrier for him?

Sensing Zhao Yunlan’s wavering conviction, Da Qing pounced. “Maybe we won’t even get to see Shen Wei anymore. Maybe he won’t even consult for S.I.D. once he’s too busy in Phoenix City.”

So even if Zhao Yunlan tried to maintain the status quo, didn’t risk their friendship for something more intimate but shorter-lived, he might still lose Shen Wei anyway? 

And what about the S.I.D.? After all he had done to uncover Shen Wei’s true identity and have Shen Wei consulting at S.I.D., it would all be for nothing? 

“Ask Lin Jing where they’re going for the picnic,” Zhao Yunlan ordered, his mind working fast. “We’re not going to do anything, just some light reconnaissance. For the sake of the S.I.D., we should better understand our consultants’ relationships.”

“Yeah, sure, you tell yourself that,” Da Qing said with a snort, but he changed back into his human form and started texting Lin Jing. 

It was a flimsy excuse, but Zhao Yunlan needed something to combat his years of conviction that he didn’t know how to love or be committed to anyone. Rather than face his personal turmoil, he clung to the idea that he was doing this for the good of S.I.D..

Just across the corridor, in an apartment that was very similar to Zhao Yunlan’s in terms of layout, but very different in every other way, Shen Wei had been surprised to walk in after lunch with Zhao Yunlan and Da Qing to find Ye Zun on his couch. From the pale blue glow Ye Zun was emitting, this was still just a projection of his essence and his true form was still sealed within the Pillar of Heaven. 

Ye Zun’s projected essence was enough to give him some solidity. He clearly could operate the television’s remote control at least, since he had the television on. Shen Wei blinked in surprise. He had bought the television because it was apparently strange for people not to have televisions, but he had never turned it on before. It seemed to be showing something he had heard people refer to as reality TV. 

“Do you like this show, didi?” Shen Wei asked curiously. 

“It’s stupid but also funny,” Ye Zun answered with a shrug. 

Shen Wei put down his keys on the table by the door and moved to sit on the couch next to Ye Zun. He didn’t leave much space between them, longing to be near his twin brother, but also wanting to see how Ye Zun would react. Ye Zun didn’t move away, eyes fixed on the television. 

“How are you?” Shen Wei asked, genuinely wanting to know. 

Ye Zun said with a laconic calm that contradicted his actual words, “Still pretty pissed off. It comes and goes. I went to see Ya Qing earlier.”

The disconnected offering of information was confusing, but Shen Wei had dealt with more disconcerting matters when it came to Ye Zun. He just took in the information and parsed them individually before picking up the most important thread for the moment. 

Shen Wei asked, “What did you see Ya Qing about?”

“I told her that my original plan involved getting all the Hallows and then betraying her and all of the Yashou. Then I told her that I was bored and I didn’t want to finish the plan anymore,” Ye Zun said, sounding indifferent. 

“You shouldn’t have told her in that way,” Shen Wei said, a little upset. “Now she will come after you instead.”

“She was doing all that because she was ambitious, and she isn’t going to stop just because I say to stop. Maybe now she’ll hate me enough to give up,” Ye Zun said without ever taking his eyes off the television. 

“Or she might hate you enough to continue with your plans just to take revenge on you. You shouldn’t underestimate Ya Qing,” Shen Wei said with a sigh. 

Ye Zun rolled his eyes. “As if we couldn’t take down the likes of Ya Qing anytime we wanted. I could take her on my own, even when mostly sealed in the Pillar.”

While Shen Wei didn’t approve of Ye Zun casually dismissing Ya Qing in this way, he did feel warmed at the way Ye Zun had said ‘we’, instinctively considering the two of them as a single unit working together again. 

Considering the two of them as a team, them against the world, wasn’t something that came naturally to Ye Zun anymore. But he was making an effort, trying this out for size. Ye Zun still felt angry at Shen Wei sometimes, but he also felt angry at himself. All those wasted years… If he had been strong enough, maybe he wouldn’t have been taken, maybe he could have helped Shen Wei fight off the rebel leader. If he had been strong enough, maybe he wouldn’t have believed the lies fed to him about Shen Wei. If he was strong enough now, maybe he could remove those many years of brainwashing and have his gege back for real, instead of having this self-enforced distance between them caused by Ye Zun’s own messed up psyche. 

“Maybe I should cancel today’s picnic with Li Ruiwen so we can go and talk to Ya Qing instead,” Shen Wei suggested, brows furrowed in thought. 

Ye Zun frowned. “What picnic?”

Shen Wei explained, “After dinner with Li Ruiwen, he suggested we meet for a picnic and swim in the evening since I mentioned that I liked swimming and the weather is nice now.”

He had told Ye Zun about the planned dinner yesterday, so that part wasn’t a surprise to him. 

“You like swimming?” Ye Zun asked skeptically. “Since when?”

“It’s one of the better forms of exercise. I couldn’t exactly tell him that I liked to practise martial arts in my free time,” Shen Wei pointed out in a wry tone. 

Ye Zun huffed and leaned into Shen Wei slightly. “Haixingren are so troublesome.”

Even though this was only Ye Zun’s projection, Shen Wei could still feel a little weight and warmth from him. He let himself lean back as well, closing his eyes to better enjoy the feel of his didi by his side again, for the first time in more than ten thousand years. He wanted to put his arm around Ye Zun, but he knew that would be pushing his luck. 

“How was dinner with Li Ruiwen?” Ye Zun asked. 

Shen Wei opened his eyes to stare unseeingly at the television. “It was fine. It’s good to have more Haixingren friends so I can better understand how they develop and maintain their friendships.”

Ye Zun commented, “You sound like you’re trying to convince yourself.”

“I just...wasn’t used to it,” Shen Wei said with an uncomfortable shrug. 

“Really? I thought you said you did all these kinds of things with Zhao Yunlan as well,” Ye Zun pointed out. 

“Yes, but that was when I thought our relationship was going somewhere different,” Shen Wei said, trying his best to sound level and keep the blush off his face. 

Ye Zun admitted, “Haixingren friendship seems to be much more involved than Dixingren’s.” Then he gestured at the television. “I think Haixingren romance involves some kind of interview and point system, with a third party to mediate.”

Shen Wei frowned. “I don’t know if reality television is an accurate representation of real life in Haixing.”

“But it’s called reality television,” Ye Zun said, which was true enough. Shen Wei had a mild awareness that they weren’t true to life, based on vague comments he had overheard before, but he couldn’t say for sure why that was. 

“I’ve never noticed my students or my colleagues from university perform such activities before while romantically involved,” Shen Wei ventured tentatively. 

“Did you pay much attention to their romance?” 

It was a good question. Shen Wei had tried to stay out of his students’ and colleagues’ romantic entanglements, so he had never really paid attention. He thought he had absorbed some knowledge on the matter purely through exposure, but he obviously was mistaken based on the conversations he had recently. 

And he had turned down many people whom he had thought were trying to pursue him romantically or sexually. But now he realized he had probably been shamefully presumptuous and had ended up turning down overtures of friendship instead. 

It was rather unfortunate, but then again, Shen Wei hadn’t been interested in maintaining friendships in Haixing, not with all the other responsibilities he had. Things had only changed lately, and he could lay it all at the feet of Zhao Yunlan. 

“It’s getting to the good part,” Ye Zun said, nudging Shen Wei in the side. 

Shen Wei dutifully focused on the screen and paid attention to Haixingren courting rituals. Maybe he could learn something from them. Maybe he could do something to convince Zhao Yunlan that they could be more than friends. 

~ * ~ 

There were other people at the picnic grounds beside Dragon’s Talon Lake, mostly couples enjoying the good weather. Unbeknownst to Shen Wei and Li Ruiwen, other than the innocent picnickers, there were also a couple of weirdos hiding behind some thick foliage, keeping an eye on them. 

Shen Wei politely praised the cake and cookies that Li Ruiwen had baked and brought as a light snack. As he nibbled on a peanut cookie, Shen Wei realized that it was common for Haixing friends to cook for each other. He had thought it was something special he could do for Zhao Yunlan and felt a little down at this realization. 

Their conversations stayed light, mostly inconsequential. Shen Wei found his thoughts straying to ways he could broach the subject of Ye Zun to Zhao Yunlan and the rest of S.I.D.. Even in his most idealistic imagination, it all ended badly. Then he started wondering what time he could excuse himself since he wanted to go back and cook dinner for Zhao Yunlan and Da Qing. 

“Shall we go for a swim now?” Li Ruiwen suggested, sensing Shen Wei’s distraction. “We can have more of the cake and cookies later. It wouldn’t do to eat too much before a swim.”

Shen Wei, who only had a sweet tooth when lollipops were involved, had only very lightly sampled the cake and cookies for politeness’ sake. It was almost a relief to go swimming instead. 

There were already several people in the waters, splashing about and laughing. As there weren’t any changing rooms around the lake, Shen Wei had worn his swimwear under his pants, even though it was a disconcerting experience for him. Boxer-briefs were his preferred form of underwear and his swimming trunks just didn’t feel right under normal clothing. 

Without hesitation, Li Ruiwen pulled off his deep green T-shirt, revealing a stunning tanned body. He was muscular, but not overly so, with impressive biceps and firm abs. 

Behind the shrubbery with a pair of binoculars pressed to his face, Da Qing said, “You’re so screwed, Lao Zhao. He has a six pack.”

“Shut up, Shen Wei isn’t shallow like that,” Zhao Yunlan said, completely ignoring the fact that he still wasn’t meant to be competing for Shen Wei in this way. Then all of Zhao Yunlan’s functioning brain cells promptly died, because Shen Wei started removing his clothing as well. 

First, Shen Wei took off his glasses and placed them in the picnic basket where they wouldn’t get lost. Zhao Yunlan wanted to protest that Shen Wei without his glasses was a sight for him alone. Then, his thoughts were entirely derailed when Shen Wei reached up for the buttons on his long-sleeved, medium blue polo top with striking dark blue and red bands around the sleeves. He undid the two buttons at the collar with nimble fingers and reached back to tug off the polo top. 

Shen Wei wasn’t body shy, not after joining the Alliance as a soldier at such a young age during the Allied War. There was no time for modesty among soldiers who ate and bathed together, tended all manner of wounds for each other. As such, he didn’t think much of removing his clothes there on the picnic blanket, following Li Ruiwen’s lead. He noticed Li Ruiwen looking at him and wondered if Li Ruiwen was taken aback by Shen Wei’s ghostly paleness compared to Li Ruiwen’s healthier-looking tan. 

Shen Wei didn’t realize it at that moment, but the two of them were attracting quite a lot of stares, not just from the creepy stalkers hiding in the shrubbery. They were two handsome men in fine form, it was natural for people to look at them as they started stripping down to their swimwear. 

Li Ruiwen was tall, half a head taller than Shen Wei, and he obviously worked out in a gym. His shoulders were very broad, tapering to a slimmer waist, and he had the muscular thighs and calves to prove that he didn’t neglect leg day. His swimming trunks were tight and went down to his upper thighs, emphasizing his muscled buttocks when he moved. 

On the other hand, Shen Wei was pale and of a much slimmer build. Shen Wei didn’t have time for the gym, all his lean muscles were from the martial arts he practised, from the time he spent swinging his glaive and sword and staff and the multitude of weapons he summoned and practised with to keep in good shape. His fine collarbone and wrists were offset by his strong forearms and biceps, by his trim but sturdy waist. 

When Shen Wei unbuttoned his black jeans and pushed them down to reveal a rather small pair of swimming briefs that didn’t really do much to hide anything, Zhao Yunlan felt distinctly faint. 

“I’m kind of rooting for Shen Wei and Li Ruiwen now,” Da Qing mumbled. “They look good together.”

When Shen Wei bent down to put his neatly folded clothes on a corner of the picnic blanket, Li Ruiwen openly admired his backside. Halfway up the side of the lake and peering through his binoculars, Zhao Yunlan wasn’t sure if he was having a stroke with the way his blood was thundering in his ears and how his vision seemed to be blurring. Shen Wei was wearing a skimpy pair of swimming briefs and bending over, a shocking amount of pale skin visible. Maybe this wasn’t real life? Maybe Zhao Yunlan was dreaming?

Except his dream wouldn’t feature Li Ruiwen standing a few feet away from Shen Wei, blatantly ogling him. 

Zhao Yunlan didn’t know if he was about to have a stroke over Shen Wei’s near-naked svelte body or over Li Ruiwen being right there, right next to Shen Wei’s near-naked svelte body. His mind spun through all kinds of scenarios where they could interrupt this moment, put an end to this torture. He could call Shen Wei pretending there was a case? After all, Shen Wei had said that they should have called him the last time. Maybe he could send Da Qing over in cat form to claw Li Ruiwen in the legs? Li Ruiwen didn’t know about the Yashou after all. 

Before he could come up with any more plans, Li Ruiwen and Shen Wei headed into the lake, joining the rest of the couples swimming in there. 

“Are you planning to actually do anything or are you just going to ogle Shen Wei all evening?” Da Qing asked, disgruntled. 

“It’s reconnaissance. Recon only, I said,” Zhao Yunlan forced out through a dry throat. 

“Reconning Professor Shen’s butt,” Da Qing muttered. 

Zhao Yunlan gave him a scandalized look. “Don’t talk about his butt.”

Glaring through the binoculars, Da Qing said pointedly, “Why not? Everyone else is anyway.”

Zhao Yunlan wondered if maybe he was having a heart attack instead of a stroke. 

Unaware of the threat to Zhao Yunlan’s cardiovascular health, Shen Wei was enjoying the cool water under the sweltering sun. The lakewater wasn’t very deep, not unless one swam out further to the wide end of it. Dragon’s Talon Lake was shaped like said talon, with a much wider end that narrowed eventually to a curved point. Most of everyone kept to the curved point of the lake where it was deep enough to stay submerged but still shallow enough to stand in. 

“Shall we swim further out?” Li Ruiwen proposed, remembering that Shen Wei liked swimming. 

Nodding agreeably, Shen Wei started swimming freestyle away from the other people, slicing cleanly and swiftly through the water. Li Ruiwen admired his graceful form for a moment before swimming after him, powerful strokes ensuring that he caught up quickly. 

After that, it became a little bit of a competition between the two of them. While Li Ruiwen was more muscular, Shen Wei’s sleek form seemed to cut through the water without any resistance. And he had more stamina. Of course, it was never a fair competition from the start. After all, Shen Wei was a Dixingren and Heipaoshi at that. If Shen Wei wanted to, he could probably swim a day and a night without stopping. 

But Shen Wei kept his swimming to reasonable human standards, ensuring that he was never too fast and even letting Li Ruiwen overtake him. After all, Shen Wei was a professor while Li Ruiwen was a police chief. There was no way Shen Wei should be outperforming Li Ruiwen when it came to any form of exercise. 

This was the sort of mental exercise Shen Wei was used to carrying out at all times when he was around Haixingren. It was only lately that he hadn’t had to think like that since he was spending most of his time with Zhao Yunlan who knew the truth and liked when Shen Wei showed him his Dixingren side. 

After swimming almost all the way to the other end of the lake, Shen Wei pretended that he needed a break and started treading water instead. When Li Ruiwen swam back to him, Shen Wei breathed deeper, feigning shortness of breath from the exertion. 

“You’re in very good shape, Li Ruiwen,” Shen Wei said with a smile. 

Li Ruiwen smiled, not at all short of breath despite the distance and speed they swam. “I have to be as the police chief, otherwise I would be laughed out of the station.”

“I’m sure that wouldn’t be the case. You seem very capable,” Shen Wei disagreed. 

“I try my best,” Li Ruiwen said, half shrugging even as he continued to tread water. He moved a little closer to Shen Wei, tilting his head as he examined Shen Wei’s face. 

“Is there something wrong?” Shen Wei asked, feeling a little confused at the open scrutiny. 

Li Ruiwen smiled ruefully, looking a little embarrassed that he had been so openly gazing at Shen Wei. “Oh, nothing wrong at all. You just look very different without your glasses.”

Instinctively, Shen Wei touched his bare face, feeling suddenly very naked, even more so than when he had been standing by the lake in nothing but swimming briefs. He put his hand down to continue treading water and said with a self-deprecating smile, “I must look a little strange.”

“You look beautiful,” Li Ruiwen blurted out, then looked surprised at himself at those frank words. 

Shen Wei felt his cheeks warm at that and blinked slowly. “I— Um, thank you.” He felt compelled to repay the compliment in kind. “And you look...very handsome.”

Li Ruiwen laughed, a little bashful as he waved a hand. “You don’t have to praise me in return. I wasn’t fishing for compliments. I was just being honest, and I’m sure others have told you the same before as well.”

Others had told him that before, when he was in university as a student, even now as a professor. But they were faded, unimportant memories. What he remembered was the time Kunlun reached out and stole his mask, smiling as he told Shen Wei that he had a fine, chiselled face that shouldn’t be hidden behind an ugly mask.

Shen Wei blinked again, tried to shake himself out of his memory. “That was mostly empty flattery or said in jest.”

Li Ruiwen gave him a long look. “Do you own a mirror, Shen Wei?” Then he shook his head. “Never mind, it’s their loss. So how well can you see without your glasses?”

Shen Wei actually had perfect eyesight, but the glasses were a good camouflage. 

“Not very well,” Shen Wei said vaguely. 

Li Ruiwen swam closer still, until their faces were only a foot apart. He bobbed in the water as he moved his face nearer. “How clearly can you see me like this?” 

Shen Wei swallowed, suddenly feeling uncertain. Was this some Haixingren friendship ritual he had missed? “I can see you clearly at this distance.”

“Are you sure? How about...this?” Li Ruiwen asked, floating a little closer, until he was right in Shen Wei’s personal space. 

But Shen Wei’s uncertainty had been wiped clean as he sensed something familiar, a sharp spike of…

No. Not something. 

Someone. 

Zhao Yunlan.

What was Zhao Yunlan doing here? And what was that spike of light energy, enough that Shen Wei could feel it? 

Something must be wrong. It was too much of a coincidence that he was here and Zhao Yunlan was here as well, feeling like that. 

Shen Wei moved back in the water, saying calmly, “I’m feeling a little tired, shall we head back?”

Surprised, Li Ruiwen could only agree. He had thought that things had been proceeding very well, remembering the wide-eyed way Shen Wei had stared at him, the way his lips had parted. Li Ruiwen had intended to go at a much slower pace with this gentle, mild-mannered professor, but seeing Shen Wei’s slim and fit body, slick with lakewater, was a little more than he could resist. Unfortunately, it looked like he might have scared Shen Wei off with the sudden approach. 

He swam after Shen Wei, was surprised to see that Shen Wei didn’t return to the pointed end of Dragon’s Talon. Instead, halfway back to where their things were, he swerved off to the side and waded his way out of the side of the lake. Li Ruiwen could only assume that Shen Wei felt too tired to go on and might have been afraid to continue in the water. It was unusual for a man who had said he liked swimming as a hobby. He wondered if Shen Wei might not be as much of a swimmer as he previously stated. Concerned, Li Ruiwen followed after Shen Wei, was surprised to find that he was quickly falling behind at the speed Shen Wei was going. 

By the time Li Ruiwen was out of the water, Shen Wei was well into the grassy area by the lake and was moving towards the low trees and shrubbery that lined this side of the lake. 

“Oh shit,” Da Qing swore. “We’ve been made. Lao Zhao, let’s get— Lao Zhao! What happened?”

“What? What happened what?” Zhao Yunlan asked. He felt overheated, his face warm, neck flushed. 

Li Ruiwen had almost kissed Shen Wei. He had seen it, the way Li Ruiwen had moved closer. And Shen Wei had kept still, was going to allow himself to be kissed. While Zhao Yunlan’s mind had been spinning in sick unhappiness at that realization, Shen Wei had suddenly started swimming in their direction and now he was stalking towards them. 

Shen Wei, still dripping wet, wearing a very small pair of swimming briefs, was stalking towards them. Zhao Yunlan’s poor regular human body couldn’t keep up with the whiplash of emotions. He had gone from dark, depressed jealousy to sharp, desperate lust so quickly that his brain chemistry was reeling from the quick changes.

Now, Shen Wei was close enough for Zhao Yunlan to see the rivulets of water running down from his narrow shoulders to drip past those rosy tight nipples, and sliding down to draw everyone’s gaze to sharp hipbones, right towards… 

That...that was quite a package Shen Wei was packing. Wet briefs outlined quite a lot for Zhao Yunlan to see, even in this cool air. 

“Oh my god, are you dying?” Da Qing hissed. Then because he was the only person with working brain cells in the near vicinity — Zhao Yunlan was too stunned by the frontal view of Shen Wei, Shen Wei was too stunned with worry over Zhao Yunlan’s sudden presence, Li Ruiwen was too stunned by the posterior view of Shen Wei — Da Qing decided he better take action to salvage the situation. He ordered, “It’s too late to run, just follow my lead.”

Zhao Yunlan was so weak with confused horror and horniness that he didn’t protest one bit when Da Qing grabbed him by the hand and looped his arm over Da Qing’s shoulders. Then he towed Zhao Yunlan out from behind the shrubbery, cleverly abandoning their binoculars behind on the ground, hidden in the shrubs. 

“Professor Shen! What are you doing here?” Da Qing said, feigning surprise. 

“Da Qing, I— Zhao Yunlan.” Shen Wei said his name with enough dismay that it was a whole essay in itself; what happened, are you okay, how could this happen, why don’t you look after yourself? But Shen Wei followed with actual words, “You’re bleeding.”

“I’m...not…” Zhao Yunlan mumbled, and then tasted salty liquid on his lips. He touched his upper lip and looked at his bloodstained fingers. “What?”

“It’s a nosebleed from whatever attacked him,” Da Qing lied blithely, not even trying to make sense. He knew he didn’t need to make sense when Zhao Yunlan was bleeding and Shen Wei was in close proximity. 

Zhao Yunlan was still staring in confusion at his fingers before he realized he had a nosebleed from looking at Shen Wei’s near naked body. A nosebleed. Over Shen Wei’s bare skin. Which reminded him about Shen Wei’s bare skin and tiny swimming briefs and now Shen Wei was actually in touching distance and oh no, he was bleeding more now. 

Shen Wei pushed close and shouldered his way under Zhao Yunlan’s other arm, as if a nosebleed would impair Zhao Yunlan’s ability to walk. “He seems to be in shock,” Shen Wei said in a no nonsense tone. “We should get him to a hospital.”

“He should be fine, he’s just a little dazed,” Da Qing said, not wanting to know what a hospital would make of Zhao Yunlan’s nosebleed. “But I think he needs to rest. Can you take him home? I need to get back to S.I.D. to do something.” Lying to stupid humans really was easy.

Li Ruiwen finally caught up to Shen Wei, more than a little confused at the sight of Da Qing and Zhao Yunlan with a nosebleed. “What’s happening? What are you doing here?”

By now, Da Qing’s quick mind had firmed up the missing pieces of his earlier story and he lied with ease, “We were chasing a suspect through here when the suspect punched Lao Zhao in the face and got away. I think he’s a little stunned. I need to get back to S.I.D. to get back-up to go after the suspect.”

Clicking his tongue, Li Ruiwen said, “You’re losing your edge, Ah Lan. You would have never let someone get a drop on you like that back in the academy.”

Shen Wei gave Li Ruiwen a surprised look at the nickname before looking away quickly. He said, “I’ll take Zhao Yunlan back home and see to his injury.”

Li Ruiwen was surprised by this sudden turn of events but only nodded slowly. “Alright, he does look rather dazed.”

Zhao Yunlan was rather dazed because now he had a mostly naked Shen Wei pressed right up against his side, propping him up, the moisture on his cool body getting Zhao Yunlan’s clothes damp in a way that was making Zhao Yunlan think about sweat on moving bodies pressed together…

Oh, the nosebleed was dripping rather freely now. Shen Wei made a small noise of concern. 

“What about your clothes?” Li Ruiwen asked Shen Wei, and then offered like a perfect gentleman, “I’ll go and get them for you.”

“Oh no need, Lao Zhao has a change of clothing in the car that Shen Wei can borrow. Why don’t you drop me off at S.I.D., I’ll take Shen Wei’s clothes with me and pass it back to him later when I go see the chief. Time is of the essence here!” Da Qing said breezily, ushering Li Ruiwen back with a hand to his shoulder. 

Under the force of Da Qing’s casual tyranny, Li Ruiwen barely got a quick goodbye out before he was shuffled towards his picnic blanket halfway round the lake. Shen Wei urged a stumbling Zhao Yunlan back to where his car was parked. 

Opening the passenger side door, Shen Wei pushed Zhao Yunlan into the seat and then bent in to dig around in the glove compartment. Now Zhao Yunlan had a faceful of smooth skin, smelling faintly of Shen Wei’s usual soft, earthy scent, mixed in with the clean lake water, and Zhao Yunlan wondered if it was possible to die of blood loss from a nosebleed. 

Finally, Shen Wei unearthed a packet of tissues and quickly pressed two pieces to Zhao Yunlan’s nose. 

“Danks,” Zhao Yunlan said, taking over with fumbling fingers to staunch his bleeding nose. 

Shen Wei looked him over in worry from much too close up and then looked around. Seeing no one nearby, Shen Wei touched his fingers to Zhao Yunlan’s chin to tip his face up. Zhao Yunlan blinked up into Shen Wei’s dark worried eyes, was momentarily distracted by those long lashes, and then felt the familiar cool touch of dark power seep over his nose when Shen Wei waved a hand over his face. 

They stared at each other like this for a minute, neither blinking. Then, gently, Shen Wei moved Zhao Yunlan’s hand away from his nose, taking a fresh tissue to wipe at the remaining blood. His movements were gentle as he cleaned Zhao Yunlan’s face, his lowered eyes fringed by thick, dark lashes that Zhao Yunlan could count from this distance. 

“It’s stopped,” Shen Wei said, with marked relief in his voice.

“Thank you,” Zhao Yunlan repeated, feeling rather foolish at his body’s reaction. At least Shen Wei didn’t know the true reason for the nosebleed. 

“Your blood pressure was strange,” Shen Wei said with a frown. “That seemed to be the cause of the nosebleed, rather than any physical injury.”

Ah, fuck.

Zhao Yunlan said quickly, “Oh, really? I think the guy just grazed my face, I don’t think he really hit me. Maybe I didn’t get enough sleep and my body just had a bit of a meltdown, haha.”

Shen Wei glared at him. “Zhao Yunlan, your health is no joking matter. When will you learn to take care of yourself?”

“Well… you’ll be here to take care of me, right?” Zhao Yunlan asked, his voice uncharacteristically quiet. 

At that tone, at that unusually subdued voice, Shen Wei’s frustration melted away. He frowned and wondered if Zhao Yunlan really was alright. He touched Zhao Yunlan’s forehead, feeling for any sign of fever, but he didn’t feel abnormal. 

Zhao Yunlan reached out and curled a hand around Shen Wei’s wrist, repeatingly softly, “Right?”

Helplessly, Shen Wei nodded and smiled. “Of course, Zhao Yunlan.”

They held each other’s gaze for a heartbeat. And another. 

Then Shen Wei drew in a sharp breath at a sudden gust of cool wind against his mostly bare body, realizing his proximity to Zhao Yunlan and how he was swaying forward. 

No, that wasn’t what Zhao Yunlan wanted, not from him. 

Shen Wei pulled back, straightening so that his upper body was no longer in the car, and Zhao Yunlan reluctantly let him go. 

“I’ll go put on some clothes and drive you back,” Shen Wei said. 

“They’re in the trunk in the black bag,” Zhao Yunlan told him, feeling regret at Shen Wei stepping away. Then he frowned. “Wait, can you drive? I’ve never seen you drive.”

Shen Wei shrugged, his bare shoulders moving in a very distracting way. “I’m sure it’s not that hard.”

Zhao Yunlan sighed and started climbing over the gearbox. “I’ll drive.” 

“I have learning powers,” Shen Wei protested as he went to the back of the jeep. 

“Which don’t seem to apply to anything that isn’t related to Dixingren powers.”

“You should be resting.”

“Yeah, I don’t want to rest in a ditch you’ll drive us into. Stop arguing, let’s go.”

After a couple minutes, Shen Wei returned to the passenger side, his hair wet and skin still looking a little damp. He was also wearing Zhao Yunlan’s clothes, an army green long-sleeved T-shirt with a band logo on the front, and pale ripped jeans. Shen Wei looked like an adorable punk kid. 

Zhao Yunlan took a deep breath and hoped he wasn’t about to get another nosebleed.

Chapter Text

It was night by the time Da Qing came home. He flung himself onto the bed where Zhao Yunlan had been taking a nap, waking him up when the mattress jolted. 

“I brought home dinner,” Da Qing said grumpily. “Spicy minced pork noodles on the table. You should appreciate me.”

Zhao Yunlan rolled over and stroked Da Qing’s hair back. Da Qing accepted the patting as his due and pushed his head into Zhao Yunlan’s palm. 

“Why did you buy dinner?” Zhao Yunlan asked through a yawn, a little confused. Da Qing rarely ever bought food, because it was the humans who should feed him, not the other way round. 

“Professor Shen asked that I buy you something since you weren’t feeling well. He didn’t want to wake you,” Da Qing grumbled. “Doesn’t he know that feeding you is his job, not mine?”

Zhao Yunlan frowned, the movement of his hand slowing. “What? When did he do that? Why isn’t he here?” Because Da Qing wasn’t wrong. Shen Wei was the one who fed Zhao Yunlan. After an afternoon like this when he thought Zhao Yunlan wasn’t well, Shen Wei would most definitely be all over Zhao Yunlan’s apartment, pouring food down his throat. 

Da Qing pushed out from under Zhao Yunlan’s lacklustre patting and sat up cross-legged on the bed instead. He glared at Zhao Yunlan, the root cause of all of Da Qing’s problems. “Li Ruiwen insisted on giving Shen Wei’s clothes and glasses back to him personally so he dropped me off. Then I had to watch as he asked Shen Wei over for dinner. Apparently, he had planned all along to take Shen Wei for dinner after the picnic.”

“And Shen Wei just went?” Zhao Yunlan asked, voice a little faint. 

“Oh, he tried to turn Li Ruiwen down, but you know how persuasive Li Ruiwen can be,” Da Qing said as he waved a hand. “He was saying stuff about how we should all let you rest up as much as you can and how he felt bad that Shen Wei’s relaxing afternoon had been cut short, what a shame it was, I wasn’t paying much attention after that.”

“Where are they going?” Zhao Yunlan asked with a sinking heart. 

“To Li Ruiwen’s house. Li Ruiwen is going to cook for Shen Wei.” Da Qing delivered this news like it was the end of the world. 

And maybe it was, because they both knew that Li Ruiwen was very good at cooking. 

Zhao Yunlan told himself it didn’t matter in the end. Earlier, he had told himself that following Shen Wei around like a creepy stalker was all for the good of S.I.D., that he couldn’t let go of the consultant he had won over after so many trials and tribulations. 

But he knew it was a load of bullshit. 

Plain and simple, Zhao Yunlan was jealous. 

For all that Zhao Yunlan was convinced that he couldn’t love, not truly or properly, couldn’t really give anyone what they wanted, he also couldn’t help but greedily want to hold onto Shen Wei. After all, Zhao Yunlan wasn’t a complete idiot. He knew a good thing when he saw one. 

But it was pure selfishness to think like that. Shen Wei deserved better than Zhao Yunlan’s half-assed non-commitment. 

Zhao Yunlan said quietly, “Well… Good for them then.”

Da Qing straightened sharply, staring at Zhao Yunlan. “What? That’s it? That’s all you’ve got to say?”

“Yes, that’s all I’ve got to say,” Zhao Yunlan said through gritted teeth. “We shouldn’t interfere anymore. Shen Wei should get to be with whoever he likes.”

“Yeah, but he likes you,” Da Qing pointed out. 

And Zhao Yunlan wasn’t blind or stupid. He investigated people for a living, so he had more than enough observational skills to notice the way Shen Wei looked at him, the intensity and longing in that dark watchful gaze. Da Qing wasn’t wrong.

But that didn’t mean Shen Wei was going to wait forever for him. 

“And clearly, he likes Li Ruiwen as well,” Zhao Yunlan snapped, pushing himself up into a sitting position and drawing his legs up. 

“Eh,” Da Qing made a dismissive sound, wobbling his hand between them. “He’s so-so about Li Ruiwen. He likes you. I don’t even know why he’s going out with Li Ruiwen at all when he’s not that— Wait. Don’t tell me…” Da Qing’s eyes squinted as he glared at Zhao Yunlan. “Did you give him your ‘I’m a human born without the capacity to love’ dumbass speech?”

Zhao Yunlan looked away, pretending to scratch his nose. Hissing, Da Qing swiped him on the shoulder. Zhao Yunlan flinched and swore, “Damn cat, what did you do that for?”

“Because you’re a moron!” Da Qing yowled. “That is the stupidest nonsense that you keep on spouting and I can’t believe you’re still saying it after meeting Shen Wei!”

Zhao Yunlan shook his head. “Shen Wei and I have a close friendship. What I can give...it isn’t love.”

Da Qing dug his fingers into the mattress, glaring at Zhao Yunlan as he said through clenched teeth, “You feed me and look after me and use the laser pointer for me when I’m bored. You look after everyone at the S.I.D. and you indulge our lazy asses and you flip out when we get injured and you would sacrifice your life for us. That’s love. You know how to love. You think you don’t, because your family is crazy, even for human standards.”

“I— I’m the chief. It’s my responsibility to do all that,” Zhao Yunlan said, his voice hoarse. 

“No, it’s really not,” Da Qing scoffed. “And you’re all over Professor Shen. You smell like you want to mate him all the time.” When Zhao Yunlan made an outraged sound, Da Qing just talked louder. “And you smell soft when he’s around. You look at him like he’s the most precious, only remaining dried fish in Haixing. You already know how to love, because you already love him. Whether or not you mate, you already love him.”

Zhao Yunlan felt like he had been sucker punched, like the air had been driven out of his lungs. 

He couldn’t even deny it when it was put like that.

Da Qing leaned closer and hissed, “You never give up, why are you giving up now? It’s Professor Shen. Isn’t he worth fighting for?”

Zhao Yunlan suddenly imagined a life without Shen Wei in it, a life where Shen Wei moved to Phoenix City and wasn’t right across the corridor, wasn’t coming in at any moment to see if Zhao Yunlan was eating well, wasn’t sitting on the mattress watching as Zhao Yunlan blinked awake after some ill-advised night out. 

Zhao Yunlan thought of a life devoid of Shen Wei’s small smile as he ducked his head, empty of Shen Wei’s sharp annoyance when he thought Zhao Yunlan was doing something risky. A life without Shen Wei’s concerned gaze or the sweet crinkles at the corner of his eyes when he smiled wide, just for Zhao Yunlan. 

And suddenly, he couldn’t bear it. 

He couldn’t bear any of it.

Was this love? 

He had no idea. What the hell did he know about love? 

But whatever it was he was feeling, maybe it would be enough for Shen Wei. Maybe it would be enough to keep him here. 

Zhao Yunlan leapt out of bed and shoved his feet into his boots to the sound of Da Qing cheering. Zhao Yunlan dashed to the door and swept it open…

...only to almost run right into the person in question at his door, hand raised as if to knock on the door.

Zhao Yunlan took a step back, eyes wide. “Shen Wei?”

~ * ~

Shen Wei looked around Li Ruiwen’s tidy home, curious and a little surprised. 

“You expected a pigsty, because I used to be roommates with Zhao Yunlan,” Li Ruiwen guessed wryly as he took Shen Wei’s coat from him to hang it up. 

Shen Wei smiled. “Maybe I was picturing that subconsciously.”

Shaking his head, Li Ruiwen said, “Some things really haven’t changed. Back when we were in the academy together, I insisted he kept his mess to his half of the room. It looked pretty ridiculous.”

Trying to picture a room which looked incredibly neat on one side and with Zhao Yunlan’s signature chaos on the other, Shen Wei chuckled. “That must have been an experience, living with someone so different to you.”

“It was always exciting, I’ll say that much,” Li Ruiwen said fondly. “Anyway, I’ll just get started on the food. It shouldn’t take me too long since I did some prep this morning. Feel free to look around.”

As Li Ruiwen went into the kitchen, Shen Wei stood there awkwardly for a moment. 

So this was what good Haixing friends did. They cooked for each other and gave the other person free run of their house. Not too different to what he did with Zhao Yunlan after all, Shen Wei thought with a suddenly aching heart. 

Li Ruiwen’s house was a small one, without much of a front yard. There weren’t any plants or greenery in the garden outside, which made sense since Li Ruiwen didn’t live in Dragon City. Inside, all the furniture and decor was pristine, like something out of a very classy catalogue. Shen Wei stopped to admire the simple scroll painting of elegant bamboo on the wall. It was tasteful and went well with the pale wood flooring and matching window frames. There was a simple blue and white vase on the side table as well as a beautiful, lacquered box that held various sets of keys. 

Everything fit well together and there wasn’t a single thing out of place.

Shen Wei found himself picturing Zhao Yunlan’s eccentric decor in this refined space. A little robot sitting by the vase maybe, or a collection of alcohol bottles highlighted by spotlights set within the television bench. He couldn’t help but smile a little at the ridiculous image he had spun together. 

Having run out of things to do, Shen Wei ventured into the kitchen where he found Li Ruiwen chopping chilli on a wooden board. 

Recalling an earlier thought, Shen Wei asked, “Do you leave this place empty when you’re in Phoenix City?”

Li Ruiwen nodded and said, “You’re wondering why I bother maintaining a house when I’m away from Dragon City most of the year?” He never looked up from where he was diligently slicing. 

Shen Wei admitted, “Yes, I was curious about that.”

“I like living in my own space rather than living in hotel rooms, even for a short period of time. And my parents have long since passed, with their assets split between us children, so I don’t have a family home to go back to.”

“I see,” Shen Wei murmured. “And do you often come back to Dragon City?”

“Frequently. But I haven’t seen Zhao Yunlan in awhile since we’ve both been busy, otherwise I might have met you sooner,” Li Ruiwen said with a smile, finally looking up from his chopping board. 

Shen Wei nodded and said idly, “That would have been nice.” The reality was he probably would have turned down Li Ruiwen’s overtures of friendship if they had met earlier, mistaking it for romantic or sexual pursuit. 

Unknowingly, his innocent remark left Li Ruiwen quite pleased. 

Li Ruiwen wasn’t an idiot. He had begun to suspect that Shen Wei might not be as interested in him as he was in Shen Wei. There were many signs indicating so, and in addition, the way Shen Wei had reacted to Zhao Yunlan’s simple nosebleed had surprised Li Ruiwen. 

Something about Shen Wei was just...strange. He agreed to the dates, made all the right comments, but his eyes often seemed impenetrable and distant. Sometimes, it didn’t seem like he was present at all. Li Ruiwen couldn’t tell if Shen Wei wasn’t at all interested in the dates or if maybe Shen Wei was a little...scatter-brained. Either way, Li Ruiwen wasn’t interested in someone like that for a partner. He wondered if he was reading Shen Wei completely wrong, since he seemed so different the first time they met.   

The reason why he had invited Shen Wei for dinner was that he wanted to attempt to resolve once and for all if he should continue pursuing Shen Wei. 

Shen Wei’s passing remark left Li Ruiwen with the impression that perhaps Shen Wei was interested in him after all and was maybe just someone who was slow to warm up. 

There was a lull in their conversation and during this quiet moment, the two of them were thinking rather different things. Li Ruiwen was contemplating Shen Wei’s potential interest while Shen Wei was contemplating Li Ruiwen’s incredibly tidy kitchen. 

The kitchen could rival Shen Wei’s own in terms of cleanliness and neatness. Everything was put away carefully or arranged in an orderly fashion. Unlike Zhao Yunlan’s own apartment that looked like it had been hit by a tornado when left merely a day in Zhao Yunlan’s tender care, there wasn’t anything in this kitchen for Shen Wei to tidy. 

The only thing Shen Wei would maybe change was the location of the spice rack. It was placed a little inconveniently in relation to the stove and the kitchen bench, requiring one to break the food preparation workflow to reach for it. Really, Li Ruiwen should know better. 

But unlike Zhao Yunlan’s kitchen, Shen Wei didn’t feel comfortable moving things around in Li Ruiwen’s space. Perhaps Zhao Yunlan was simply Shen Wei’s closest friend while Li Ruiwen was his new friend, and that made a difference in Shen Wei’s comfort level around their homes. 

Forcing down the urge to fidget, Shen Wei offered, “Do you need any help with anything?”

“No, no, I’ve got it in hand here,” Li Ruiwen said, turning to give him a sunny smile. “Why don’t you watch some TV while I prepare the food?”

“Alright,” Shen Wei said, a little reluctant. 

So why did Li Ruiwen invite him here so early? There was nothing to tidy, no food preparation for him to help with. Shen Wei sighed under his breath as he stepped into the living room. He felt really superfluous in a house like this. 

At least turning on the television was not beyond his capability, even though changing the channel might be. He would just watch whatever channel the TV was already set on. Maybe it would have that dating show he was watching with Ye Zun and he could learn more about romance among Haixingren. 

~ * ~

“Shen Wei?” Zhao Yunlan said in surprise. “I thought you went to Li Ruiwen’s house.”

Shen Wei smiled, eyes curving into crescents as he stepped past Zhao Yunlan. “I did but he wasn’t ready yet so I decided to come back first. I’ll go again later.”

Zhao Yunlan turned and looked Shen Wei over. He was wearing a deep blue striped shirt with its buttons open past his collarbone and a loose light gray jacket over it. “Huh. Did you come back to change? Your outfit looks good.” 

“Does it? I got it done today and I don’t know if it suits me, so I wore it over for you to have a look,” Shen Wei said with a pleased smile. 

“Oh, yes, it looks great,” Zhao Yunlan complimented enthusiastically, before suggesting, “Why don’t you take a seat?” 

Shen Wei made a beeline for the couch and flopped down with a sigh, looking up to find a gun pointed at his forehead. 

“You are not Shen Wei,” Zhao Yunlan said from behind the gun, voice low and steady. 

Da Qing cried out from the bed, “Lao Zhao, what are you doing?”

But Zhao Yunlan’s aim did not waver. He looked at the man on the couch with Shen Wei’s face and asked, “Who the hell are you?”

This imposter didn’t look the least bit perturbed at having been caught out. Sketching a half-bow from where he was sitting, the man with Shen Wei’s face said, “You can call me Ye Zun. I’ve been the thorn in your side all this while. I’m surprised you figured me out so quickly, what gave me away?”

“First, that terrible outfit. I’ve never seen Shen Wei with more than two buttons undone and he would never wear a suit jacket that hung off him like that,” Zhao Yunlan said, sounding affronted. “Second, you didn’t ask about how I was feeling. You started yammering on about your new clothes. And third, you didn’t immediately scold me for leaving the food to get cold on the table instead of eating it already.”

Ye Zun rolled his eyes. “Ugh, my brother spoils you so.”

“Your brother?” Zhao Yunlan exclaimed, gaping at Ye Zun. 

“My twin brother,” Ye Zun said with a slow smile. “I guess Shen Wei never explained that the mastermind behind all the trouble was his brother. How awkward.”

Zhao Yunlan was still reeling from the sudden revelation. 

Slipping off the bed, Da Qing said, “I’m so confused. So Professor Shen’s twin brother is the big villain?”

Suddenly, Zhao Yunlan remembered that no one but him knew that Shen Wei was Heipaoshi. He changed the subject. “So you’ve broken out of your phallic prison?”

Making a face, Ye Zun commented, “You’re a pervert, aren’t you?”

Zhao Yunlan raised his eyebrows and gestured with his gun. “The pervert with the gun, thank you very much.” 

Clicking his tongue, Ye Zun leaned back on the couch, spreading his arms on the back of it in a relaxed posture. He said, “Calm down, Zhao Yunlan. I’m not actually here. I’m still in the Pillar of Heaven. This is just a projection of my essence.”

“Your essence? So I can still shoot your essence?”

The figure on the couch blurred, and suddenly there were three separate Ye Zuns on the couch. One waved with a grin before they all vanished, only for Ye Zun to appear again, leaning back and crossing his legs. “You could try, but you wouldn’t be able to hit me.”

Zhao Yunlan growled, “So are you here to annoy me to death?”

Raising his hands as if to indicate his innocence, Ye Zun said, “I have two reasons to be here. First, as a goodwill gesture, I’m telling you that the Merit Brush is with Wang Xiangyang. The idiot has been using it to write all kinds of nonsense on his shop’s board without really understanding it and the power is going to backfire on him in a stroke of really bad luck. Someone should take the brush off his hands.” 

With great skepticism in his voice, Zhao Yunlan asked, “Why are you telling us this?”

Ye Zun tilted his head to the side and gave Zhao Yunlan a look from the corner of his eye. “Didn’t you hear? It’s a goodwill gesture.”

“But why the sudden change of heart?” Zhao Yunlan persisted. 

“For Shen Wei’s sake,” Ye Zun said with a shrug. “He didn’t know how to tell you this but we reconciled.”

“What? Just like that?” Da Qing demanded incredulously as he slinked by the wall so that he could stand by Zhao Yunlan’s side. 

“We had a brotherly heart-to-heart. It was very touching. Turns out, it was all a case of misunderstanding, brainwashing since I was a child, and long-repressed trauma, the whole works,” Ye Zun said with a negligent wave of his hand. “Someone had better get the Merit Brush soon or it could be very bad for Wang Xiangyang. You wouldn’t want that now, would you?”

Zhao Yunlan and Da Qing had known Wang Xiangyang for a few years now. Da Qing looked at Zhao Yunlan with worry in his eyes and Zhao Yunlan nodded, saying, “Call Xiao Guo. He’ll be able to convince Wang Xiangyang to hand over the brush.”

Nodding, Da Qing opened the front door and stepped out into the corridor, his phone already out of his pocket. He closed the door to keep his conversation from being overheard by Ye Zun.

“What’s your second reason for coming here?” Zhao Yunlan asked. 

Ye Zun smiled. “I’m here for an interview.”

“What, you want a job at S.I.D.?” Zhao Yunlan exclaimed, taken aback by Ye Zun’s audacity. 

“Please, as if,” Ye Zun said, making a moue of disgust. “I’m here to interview you.”

Zhao Yunlan stared at him. “Why would I agree to that?”

“Isn’t your hand getting tired yet?” Ye Zun asked, suddenly changing the subject as he gestured   at the gun pointing his way. “Relax a little, no one here bites...unless you ask them to.”

Tired of all these games, Zhao Yunlan abruptly let his arm relax and holstered his gun. He stepped forward and sat on the edge of the coffee table, facing Ye Zun. “Now what?” he asked.

Ye Zun stretched, slow and deliberate. His lips curved up. “Now, we start the interview.”

“Why should I agree to it?” 

“Consider it repayment for my giving you the Merit Brush.”

“Nope. You should have negotiated before telling us its location. And that was meant to be your goodwill gesture, so you don’t get to ask for repayment after. Try again.”

Ye Zun’s smile widened and he tipped his head to the side. “A hard bargainer. I’ll make note of it. How about...you’ve nothing to lose and might even learn something from me if you just hang about, answering a few questions.”

That was a better reason. Other than its inherent weirdness, there was no great disadvantage in answering a few of Ye Zun’s questions. And Zhao Yunlan preferred Ye Zun right there, in front of him, instead of disappearing to do unknown mischief. 

“Alright, what are your questions?” Zhao Yunlan asked, feeling a little grumpy, because it felt like he had been played, but damn if the other options were any better.

Not long after, Da Qing walked back into the apartment after making the call to Lao Chu, asking him to bring Xiao Guo and Zhu Hong over to get the Merit Brush and be ready for any traps, only to find Zhao Yunlan sitting on the coffee table, looking completely baffled as Ye Zun asked him a series of the world’s oddest questions. 

“What’s your annual income?”

“What? Are you sure you aren’t looking for a job in S.I.D.?” Zhao Yunlan demanded. 

Ye Zun wrinkled his nose in mild disgust. “Absolutely not. I just want to gauge how well off you are.”

“I get paid well enough to have plenty of money left over even after I feed the fat cat behind me,” Zhao Yunlan snapped. 

“And he has enough savings to buy a house with Shen Wei,” Da Qing ventured as he walked further into the room, transforming into his cat form before he leapt up onto the kitchen table to watch these strange proceedings. 

Ye Zun looked particularly interested in Da Qing’s comment. “Does he need to buy the house with Shen Wei because he doesn’t have enough funds to buy it on his own?”

“Fuck off, I can buy a house on my own,” Zhao Yunlan snapped. “I just thought… Well, I thought it would be convenient if we were all living together.”

Da Qing snorted. “Sure, convenient.”

“Shut up, damn cat.”

Ye Zun looked like he was taking mental notes. He asked, “How well can you cook?”

Zhao Yunlan shot back, “I don’t cook, but I can buy take out.”

Hearing that, Ye Zun frowned and asked, “How well do you do housework?”

“He doesn’t know the meaning of housework,” Da Qing chimed in from where he had crouched down on the edge of the dining table to watch this bizarre situation unfold. 

“Thanks, Da Qing,” Zhao Yunlan said with an eyeroll, but he couldn’t deny the fact. 

“Minus ten points,” Ye Zun said under his breath, before asking next, “And do you like children?”

Zhao Yunlan frowned. “Yes, I do.” He didn’t quite know what to make of the question. He had nothing against children and he supposed they could be cute sometimes. 

Ye Zun himself didn’t really know what to make of this question. It just seemed like something all the people on the reality TV show asked eventually. He had no idea if Shen Wei liked children, but he nodded like the answer was very important and carried on, “What is more important; family or ambition?”

“Family,” Zhao Yunlan responded immediately.

“Would you like your in-laws to stay with you?”

Zhao Yunlan had a funny feeling about these questions. “Depends on the in-laws.”

Ye Zun frowned and asked, “Depends on what?”

“Depends on whether they’re a homicidal murdering maniac who asks strange questions,” Zhao Yunlan retorted, even as he wondered...how did in-laws come into the picture. And why was he talking like Ye Zun would be his in-law?

“What if they’re former homicidal murdering maniacs?” Ye Zun asked, a little fascinated. He had no intention of living with Zhao Yunlan and his cat. Way too noisy a bunch. But it had been one of those questions that seemed like every parent had asked prospective dating partners. 

“I guess if they’re former homicidal murdering maniacs then I can consider it,” Zhao Yunlan said with an eyeroll, clearly not taking that question seriously.  

“Would you ever get a dog?” As children, Shen Wei had always wanted a dog. Or maybe it was Ye Zun who always wanted a dog, and Shen Wei had always agreed to getting one when they grew up? It was all a little hazy. 

“Depends on the dog.”

“Hey!” protested Da Qing.

“But only if the dog can live outside in the garden,” Zhao Yunlan added, to which Da Qing looked a little more mollified.  

Ye Zun continued, “Can I pat your cat?”

No,” Zhao Yunlan and Da Qing both responded immediately. 

Shame. The cat looked soft. Shrugging, Ye Zun continued, “How much money would you spend on a wedding?”

“These questions are so weird,” Da Qing said. 

“I...don’t know,” Zhao Yunlan replied honestly, looking stumped. For the first time, he seemed more confused than suspicious.

Well, it wasn’t an important question, because Ye Zun wasn’t sure what was a good or bad amount to spend on a wedding. “We can park the question for a later date,” he said magnanimously. 

“We’re doing this again?” Zhao Yunlan asked, baffled. 

Ye Zun ignored him and asked, “How many times a week do you need sex?”

At that, Zhao Yunlan spluttered, his composure completely cracking as he reddened. “What the hell kind of question is that?”

“A lot of times,” Da Qing chimed in. “Probably once a day at least. He’s a horny bastard.”

Da Qing,” Zhao Yunlan snapped. 

But Ye Zun nodded, satisfied. After all, he wanted Shen Wei to be sexually fulfilled. “Alright, you pass.”

“I pass what?” Zhao Yunlan demanded, finally seeing an opportunity to get some answers. 

Ye Zun smiled and spread his hands like he was presenting some great, imaginary prize. “You win my gege’s hand in marriage. Congratulations.”

Both Zhao Yunlan and Da Qing stared at him like he had lost his mind. 

Unperturbed, Ye Zun continued in an evaluating tone, “You aren’t the best option, since you can’t cook and clean. You lack ambition and your salary is probably not that high since you aren’t willing to disclose it and because your apartment looks kind of pathetic. Your taste in decor leaves something to be desired and there’s cat hair everywhere.” Ye Zun paused, frowning. “Why did I say yes again… Oh, right. You like children and I want nieces and nephews. You’re willing to consider a dog even though your cat is whiny about it. You’re willing to buy a house with gege which shows you’re committed, and you’re sexually active so at least gege won’t be sexually frustrated. All in all, you make a slightly below average partner but I guess you’ll do.”

Really, the only reason why Ye Zun thought Zhao Yunlan would do at all was because Shen Wei liked Zhao Yunlan. Shen Wei’s taste in men really was terrible, but if gege liked this kind of person… Oh, well. Maybe other Haixingren were even worse

“Thanks for the glowing recommendation,” Zhao Yunlan said drily. “But what the hell is even going on here?”

“I’m granting you permission to marry Shen Wei,” Ye Zun said formally. 

“Shen Wei and I aren’t even dating. I didn’t ask if I could marry Shen Wei,” Zhao Yunlan pointed out, even though a part of him was telling himself to shut up, because yay, Ye Zun had said he could marry Shen Wei!

Ye Zun frowned. “I know. But I’m telling you that you can.”

Da Qing murmured, “This is like watching an episode of Dating With Parents.”

At that, Ye Zun looked a little shifty and Da Qing sat up straight. “Oh my god, this really is Dating With Parents!”

“Gege and I are orphans, so I’m standing in for our parents,” Ye Zun said stiffly. 

After watching an unfortunate amount of reality TV, Ye Zun had come to the conclusion that Haixingren romance must include some kind of interview portion, preferably done by the parents. Since his gege was handsome — yes, he was aware this was self-praise, but it was only the truth anyway — and a good catch based on what Ye Zun had gleaned from reality TV, his only conclusion was that they were missing an important step in the Haixingren courting process. 

Based on what he had seen, Ye Zun thought that Zhao Yunlan needed to undergo an interview process and be given permission to marry Shen Wei for Zhao Yunlan to begin a romantic relationship with Shen Wei. Without parents to facilitate the whole process, this was probably why Shen Wei’s relationship was at a standstill and why he was so confused by the nature of it. 

“But— What— Why?” Zhao Yunlan spluttered incoherently. 

“Your ineloquence is likely less than attractive to gege,” Ye Zun said, helpfully giving feedback. 

“Don’t lie, Professor Shen likes him even when he’s stupid,” Da Qing snorted. 

That was unfortunately true, but Ye Zun was hoping to improve Zhao Yunlan before handing his gege over. 

“Doesn’t mean he can’t use the criticism for self-improvement,” Ye Zun sniffed. 

“I don’t know what the hell is going on here,” Zhao Yunlan said. 

Da Qing licked his paw and washed his ear with it, saying, “Look, Ye Zun, let’s talk Yashou to Dixingren, cat to didi. It’s not about money or children or whatever. The real problem is that Lao Zhao is emotionally stunted when it comes to romantic relationships. He thinks he can’t love.”

Ye Zun frowned. That sounded like a big defect and none of the reality TV shows ever covered this. “Why can’t he love?”

“I’m sitting right here,” Zhao Yunlan complained. “Stop talking about me like I’m not here.”

Da Qing continued talking about him like he wasn’t there, “He thinks he can’t because he had a shitty parent who made him feel unloved and defective, and because he has a bad history with romance due to his commitment issues as a result of that shitty parent.” 

Turning to Zhao Yunlan, Ye Zun cocked his head as he examined him. Zhao Yunlan felt a little unsettled by the assessing gaze and his earlier urge to go fight for Shen Wei was muddled enough now that he admitted, “It’s none of your business, but trying to force romance out of someone like me just ends badly for both sides involved.”

“Yes, but that was before my gege came into the picture,” Ye Zun pointed out. 

Zhao Yunlan drew in a sharp breath. Because Ye Zun wasn’t wrong. Shen Wei was different in all ways. For a moment, Zhao Yunlan forgot that he was meant to be wary of this strange person before him, that he didn’t want to reveal his feelings about Shen Wei to anyone, let alone his recently reformed brother. Quietly, Zhao Yunlan said, “You’re not wrong, but… I don’t want to hurt him. And I don’t know if I’m cut out for love.”

“That hardly matters,” Ye Zun said, waving his hand. “I was kidnapped by a power hungry asshole who tortured and brainwashed me into believing that my gege sold me to him. Some nights, I wake up dreaming that I’ve burned the world to the ground with gege in it. And I still love him. Gege is very easy to love. You might be in denial because of whatever stupid childhood trauma you have, but you already love him anyway.” 

The way Ye Zun said it was matter-of-fact, like he was just stating what was common knowledge to the rest of the world but had to be spelled out slowly to one idiotic Zhao Yunlan. 

Zhao Yunlan stared at him. “You don’t even know me.”

Ye Zun rolled his eyes. “You should have seen your face when you realized I wasn’t actually Shen Wei. So much outrage.”

Da Qing added, “Well, he’s not wrong, Lao Zhao. I’ve never seen you fall for someone so quickly and Professor Shen does make some amazing fish dishes.”

“I’ll have to ask him to make me some when I get out of the Pillar,” Ye Zun remarked.

Zhao Yunlan stiffened at that, remembering what Ye Zun really was involved in. “Who said you’re getting out of the Pillar?”

“Well, that’s between Shen Wei and I, isn’t it?” Ye Zun said with a languid shrug. “But you should face reality. The situation between Dixing and Haixing right now is not sustainable. Shen Wei has been alone for many years in trying to make things different in Dixing. He needs all the help he can get.”

“And you think you can be that help? After everything you’ve done?” Zhao Yunlan asked, incredulous. 

Ye Zun smiled. “Yes. More than you can be when it comes to Dixing anyway.”

“I think I’m missing something,” Da Qing muttered. The poor cat still didn’t know about Shen Wei’s real identity as Heipaoshi. 

But Ye Zun didn’t bother to explain. He unfolded from the couch gracefully and nodded at both Zhao Yunlan and Da Qing, like he was an esteemed guest that was ready to leave now. “I’ll take my leave then.”

Zhao Yunlan got up as well. “I think you should stay until Shen Wei comes back.”

Raising his eyebrows, Ye Zun said, “But you’ll have so much to talk about with Shen Wei about your new romantic relationship. It’s probably best if your cat and I aren’t around for that.”

“Speak for yourself,” Da Qing retorted. “I’m a cat, I’ll be wherever I want to be.”

“They’re obviously going to be having sex tonight, do you really want to be here for that?” Ye Zun asked. 

“I’m a cat, why should I care?”

Zhao Yunlan looked up at the ceiling. “Why is this happening to me? What have I done to deserve this?”

“You’re getting gege, so you must have done something very good indeed,” Ye Zun proclaimed in a tone that implied he didn’t think whatever Zhao Yunlan had done was actually good enough to earn him Shen Wei. Then without another word, he dissolved into dark mist and disappeared. 

“That was fucking insane,” Zhao Yunlan said flatly. 

Da Qing stretched and only responded with, “I don’t actually want to watch you have sex with Professor Shen, so give me a heads up before you do so I can head out.”

Zhao Yunlan narrowed his eyes at Da Qing. “You were of no help during that conversation.”

“Better than someone who just gaped and spluttered every time Professor Shen came up in the conversation. Where’s the usual smooth talking suave Zhao Yunlan?” Da Qing asked with slitted gold eyes. 

“Ugh… You know what? Just go and find out what’s happening with the Merit Brush,” Zhao Yunlan said, flinging himself onto the couch and yanking out a lollipop. He was officially done for the night. 

“Slavedriver,” Da Qing muttered, but he leapt off the table and stalked out, leaving Zhao Yunlan alone with his turbulent thoughts.  

~ * ~

The beef was so tender that it seemed to melt in his mouth and the hand-pulled noodles were just the right amount of springiness with a wonderfully smooth texture. Shen Wei ate them with the fragrant beef broth mixed in with fresh chilli oil, every mouthful a delight to the tastebuds. 

Li Ruiwen had taken half an hour to prepare the hand-pulled beef noodle soup, not allowing Shen Wei to lift a single finger to help. So all Shen Wei had done was watch more reality TV in the living room. He was starting to suspect that his original thoughts on reality TV not being a reflection of reality was true. After all, he knew many of his spirited students and even ex-coursemates when he was in university. None of them would have abided by their parents quizzing future partners for them like that. Shen Wei would have to tell Ye Zun when he got home later, before Ye Zun did something disastrous while imitating the outrageous behavior on reality TV. 

Overall, Shen Wei felt rather useless sitting there with nothing to do, waiting for food to be served to him. He felt like a deadweight in the scales of Haixingren friendship. And that feeling wasn’t alleviated when Li Ruiwen brought out the steaming bowls of perfectly made beef noodle soup. 

Sure, much of the dish was prepared in the morning apparently. Li Ruiwen had prepared the dough for the noodles in the morning and had set the beef and seasonings to boil in a pressure cooker for the stock. Then, while Shen Wei did nothing but watch television, Li Ruiwen had pulled the noodles by hand before cooking them for their dinner. 

For all that Shen Wei liked cooking and regularly made too many dishes for Zhao Yunlan and Da Qing, he had never actually made his own noodles from scratch. It seemed a little bit too much for a simple, home-cooked meal. Did Li Ruiwen make his pasta from scratch as well for any casual meal, Shen Wei thought a little pettily. 

Shen Wei gloomily wondered if Li Ruiwen had made noodles from scratch for Zhao Yunlan in the past. He remembered that Zhao Yunlan did love beef noodles. 

“Do you like the food?” Li Ruiwen asked curiously. 

“It’s wonderful,” Shen Wei said honestly, not letting any of his depressed thoughts show on his face. “You’re a very talented cook.”

Li Ruiwen smiled, feeling happy that Shen Wei did seem to be enjoying his meal. “It’s a very soothing pastime.”

“I feel exactly the same,” Shen Wei agreed with an answering smile. 

“Oh, so you like cooking as well?” Li Ruiwen asked. 

Shen Wei nodded. “Very much so. It’s satisfying when someone enjoys my meals.”

Swallowing the noodles he was chewing, Li Ruiwen said while giving Shen Wei a long look from beneath his lashes, “Perhaps one day I’ll get to sample your cooking.”

At first, Shen Wei was slightly taken aback as the only people he had cooked for in the past were Zhao Yunlan and Da Qing. Then he remembered that this was part of friendly bonding between Haixingren. “Of course. Some time soon then.”

Li Ruiwen was terrifically pleased with this response and it showed. Looking at his expression, Shen Wei thought that it was pretty easy to please Haixingren when it came to friendship. 

“What would you cook for me?” Li Ruiwen asked as he smiled, blinking slowly. 

Shen Wei noticed that Li Ruiwen had rather thick lashes and that he was a very handsome man. He wondered why he was noticing that all of a sudden. While he was distracted, he asked, “What would you like me to cook?”

“Oh, you’re taking orders? I feel too privileged,” Li Ruiwen said with a laugh. 

“It’s only fair after this meal that you’ve made from scratch,” Shen Wei said, shaking his head. “Although I won’t be able to match it. I’ve never made my own noodles before.”

Li Ruiwen waved off the compliment with his chopsticks. “It’s not that hard. My grandmother taught me how to hand-pull noodles when I was young and I’ve been making them ever since. Maybe I can teach you how to make them?”

At that, Shen Wei’s earlier somewhat bitter thoughts dissipated and he smiled at Li Ruiwen with earnest interest. “That would be lovely. I know Zhao Yunlan and Da Qing like beef noodles, so I can make it for them next time.”

Li Ruiwen felt a little unsettled at those words. He had been sincere when he offered to teach Shen Wei how to hand-pull noodles, but he had also been flirting. It would be a lovely afternoon spent showing Shen Wei how to stretch out the dough, maybe moving Shen Wei’s fingers in between his own as he demonstrated. For Shen Wei to turn around and talk about making the same dish for Zhao Yunlan and Da Qing...it felt rather strange. 

Trying to shake off the odd feeling, Li Ruiwen said, “Oh yes, they do love beef noodles.”

“So you’ve made this dish for Zhao Yunlan before? When you were roommates?” Shen Wei asked. 

“No, no, I’ve never made it for him, it was just a general comment from watching him eat it in restaurants,” Li Ruiwen said with some embarrassment. He didn’t make hand-pulled noodles unless he was craving them or he was really looking to impress someone. But he hurried to explain, “Our dorms at the academy didn’t allow students access to the kitchen area. We had our food supplied to us by the kitchen staff.”

Shen Wei frowned slightly. “That must have been difficult for you, as someone who enjoys cooking.”

Li Ruiwen grinned. “I did smuggle in an electric hot pot. I used it just fine for a year before Ah Lan decided to cook with it one time when I was out.”

“Oh, what did he do?” Shen Wei asked with wide-eyed curiosity. 

A little dazzled by Shen Wei’s intense interest and his...well, everything, Li Ruiwen indulged him with a story. “For some reason, he wanted to make instant noodles in that pot, which was overkill since it was rather large. Then he decided to take a quick shower while waiting for the noodles to be done. When he came out from the shower, someone invited him to their room to watch a game and he forgot about his instant noodles. The water dried up and the noodles and the pot burnt, which set off the fire alarm. My poor electric hot pot was destroyed and we got fined for having one in our room. ”

Shen Wei laughed at this story, eyes curving shut with genuine amusement. Ducking his head, Shen Wei drank a spoonful of the delicious broth even as he shook his head over the absurdity of Zhao Yunlan. 

Li Ruiwen took this moment to add, “Best part was, Ah Lan was just wearing a towel the whole time and he ended up outside in a towel when the firemen evacuated the building. Then he slipped and the towel dropped so he flashed everyone.”

Images of a completely naked Zhao Yunlan standing outside in the open filled Shen Wei’s mind and the broth with chilli oil went down the wrong pipe. Shen Wei immediately started choking as he tried to swallow down the sudden burning sensation. But the chilli oil coated the back of his throat, immediately stinging his nasal passage and eyes, causing him to cough convulsively. 

Leaping up, Li Ruiwen came around the table, patting Shen Wei on the back and passing him the glass of water on the table. “Drink this, it’ll help.”

Shen Wei drank down gulps of water to try to soothe his throat. After a few deep breaths, he had control over his body again, willing down the burn from the chilli being breathed in instead of swallowed down. 

He looked up at Li Ruiwen who was hovering close by his side. Blinking away the tears in his eyes, Shen Wei said, “I’m alright now, thank you.”

But Li Ruiwen was too caught up by the sight in front of him to properly take in what Shen Wei was saying. Shen Wei’s face was tilted up towards Li Ruiwen, his cheeks flushed from the sudden choking, lips reddened and slick from the chilli oil. He blinked his long lashes that were damp from the tears. When Shen Wei looked up at him, he was the perfect picture of vulnerable beauty. Regardless of the doubts in Li Ruiwen’s heart, it was impossible for him to resist a sight such as this. 

Impulsive in a way that he rarely was with his personal life, Li Ruiwen leaned down and pressed his lips to Shen Wei’s parted ones. They were soft and slick, pliable under Li Ruiwen’s gentle kiss. When Li Ruiwen touched Shen Wei’s smooth cheek with a hand and tilted his head, Shen Wei’s entire body startled, jerking hard enough that his elbow knocked into his bowl of beef noodles, causing it to tip straight into his own lap. 

Li Ruiwen jerked in surprise, and was doubly surprised to feel that his wrist had been caught in a hard grip that was already forcing him a step back. Li Ruiwen moved back quickly, opening his eyes to see his wrist caught in Shen Wei’s firm hold, that previously wide dark gaze narrowed in cool assessment. 

Calmly, as if his waist and lap wasn’t covered in beef stock and noodles, Shen Wei said, “I think there’s been a misunderstanding.”

No matter how much knowledge Shen Wei lacked when it came to Haixingren friendships, he couldn’t mistake Li Ruiwen’s kiss as anything other than a sign of romantic or sexual interest. 

For the first time since Shen Wei heard Zhao Yunlan expressing an inability to love, Shen Wei felt clear-headed and like he understood his place in the world again. 

Once Li Ruiwen took a step back, Shen Wei released his hold. 

Running a hand through his dark hair, Li Ruiwen looked discomfited and a little embarrassed. “I’m very sorry, I shouldn’t have done that. At least, not without a heads up.”

“It’s alright. I think we might have both been operating under incorrect assumptions,” Shen Wei said, a little carefully.

“I’ve been wondering the same all afternoon, but I guess this confirms it,” Li Ruiwen said with a self-deprecating shake of his head. Then he looked over the mess they had made with the food. “More importantly, are you okay? Did the broth burn you?”

Shen Wei finally looked down at his ruined clothing, taking in how his neat pale blue shirt and dark gray pants were now soaked in beef broth, decorated with wasted noodles. Shaking his head, Shen Wei said, “No, it was no longer that hot, I’m fine.”

“Your clothing isn’t fine,” Li Ruiwen pointed out. “Let me get a cloth to help clean a little before we decide what to do next.”

The next few minutes was spent picking up the spilt noodles from Shen Wei’s attire, something Shen Wei did himself, and soaking up the broth with a dry cloth. Then Li Ruiwen led Shen Wei to the bathroom, leaving him to clean up before knocking on the door and leaving a change of clothing outside. 

By the time Shen Wei stepped out of the bathroom again, Li Ruiwen had cleaned up the mess on the table, chair and floor, and a new bowl of noodles was sitting in front of the chair Shen Wei had occupied earlier. Wearing a loose navy blue T-shirt and dark track pants that had to be cinched at the waist and folded up at the legs several times, Shen Wei hesitated on his way back to the dining table. 

Li Ruiwen was seated again and he turned in his chair, raising his hands harmlessly. “Look, I know the situation right now. I thought it was a date previously, but it’s clear that you thought otherwise. So let’s just consider this a meal between friends. I can’t send you home hungry at this point, it’s so late.”

Shen Wei had been planning to head straight home but with Li Ruiwen’s smooth but direct reassurance regarding their previous misunderstanding, he relaxed a little and sat down on his chair once more. 

There was a short moment of awkward silence between them, before Li Ruiwen smiled and said, “So you thought I was only making overtures of friendship? I think that’s the first time my dates have been mistaken as friendly meet-ups.”

Perhaps Shen Wei shouldn’t have taken dating advice about Haixingren from a Dixingren who had been trapped in a pillar for ten thousand years. He admitted, “I’m inexperienced in courtship.”

“Courtship,” Li Ruiwen repeated with a chuckle. “That’s very formal. So you haven’t gone on many dates before?” It was a surprise to hear considering what a looker Shen Wei was, but perhaps Shen Wei wasn’t aware that those had been dates. It was unusual for someone so handsome to be so oblivious to his effect on other people. 

Li Ruiwen wasn’t aware that Shen Wei had also spent much of his youth fighting for his life, then fighting in a war, then sleeping underground for ten thousand years. His years after that had been spent trying to get up to speed with Haixing and Dixing political developments and establishing a new Haixing identity, not figuring out the ins and outs of relationships. 

“I haven’t been on any dates,” Shen Wei clarified, no thought in his mind that he should conceal this fact. It was only the truth after all. 

Stirring his noodles, Li Ruiwen considered Shen Wei’s calm, smooth expression and asked, “You haven’t been on any dates or you haven’t realized they were dates?”

At these words, Shen Wei thought back to how he had gone out for many dinners with Zhao Yunlan, followed by quiet walks through the park, sometimes driving out of the city limits to gaze upon the starry sky together. He had cherished those moments together, but he hadn’t been sure if they would be considered dates, especially after Zhao Yunlan’s confession about his inability to love. From Zhao Yunlan’s perspective, they must not have been dates. 

“I haven’t been on any that I can be sure of were dates,” Shen Wei said, returning to eating his noodles to hide his flash of deep sadness that his feelings for Zhao Yunlan had been so very one-sided. He might have mistaken Li Ruiwen’s overtures as purely made out of friendship, but it didn’t change that what he felt for Zhao Yunlan was still unrequited. 

Li Ruiwen ate some sliced beef as he contemplated this answer before he swallowed and said, “You had to really think about that. Let me guess…the person you’ve gone on these uncertain dates with is Zhao Yunlan.”

The spoon that was being lifted up to Shen Wei’s mouth hesitated for the barest second but was noted by Li Ruiwen anyway. He knew his guess had been spot-on. 

“Is this Phoenix City police’s interrogation method I’m seeing on display?” Shen Wei asked in between bites, maintaining a placid front. His dark eyes gave nothing away as he met Li Ruiwen’s watchful gaze. “Treat the suspect to good food and then ask them leading questions?”

Rubbing the back of his neck, Li Ruiwen flushed a little and shook his head. “I’m sorry, I was being very presumptuous. But I can’t help but be curious after the time I’ve spent with you. I thought we were dating, but I admit, I did harbor...doubts about your interest in me, especially each time Ah Lan was involved or even mentioned in our conversations. I feel a little embarrassed that I didn’t pick up on it sooner. I suppose my time as Police Chief instead of detective has eroded my observational skills.”

For a quiet moment, the two of them only ate their food. 

Then Shen Wei sighed and said quietly, “Was I that obvious? About...Zhao Yunlan?”

If even a stranger who barely knew Shen Wei had suspicions about Shen Wei’s feelings for Zhao Yunlan, then surely this was no secret to Zhao Yunlan himself. Shen Wei wondered if Zhao Yunlan had picked up on his feelings as easily as everyone had picked up on Zhu Hong’s interest in Zhao Yunlan. Was that conversation in the car merely Zhao Yunlan’s way of letting Shen Wei down easily as well? Was he stating an inability to love as a hint to Shen Wei to let his feelings die because Zhao Yunlan could not return those feelings? 

It seemed likely to be the case, because with some distance from the pain and confusion that resulted from that conversation, Shen Wei could consider those words from a more objective point of view. He knew Zhao Yunlan well and there was no part of Zhao Yunlan that was incapable of love. Zhao Yunlan was brimming with love, was full of care for the people around him. He empathized completely with strangers, was invested in the safety and well-being of mere acquaintances. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for his friends and even undeserved family. 

The idea that Zhao Yunlan was incapable of loving altogether was absurd. 

But perhaps, Zhao Yunlan was incapable of loving Shen Wei specifically, not in the way Shen Wei longed for. 

Li Ruiwen had been thinking over Shen Wei’s question. He finally shrugged. “You clearly have intense emotions when it comes to Ah Lan. And it’s reflected back in Ah Lan’s reaction to you, which makes it more obvious.”

Shen Wei’s head snapped up as he looked at Li Ruiwen with wide eyes. “What do you mean?”

Raising his eyebrows, Li Ruiwen said, “Both of you clearly have intense feelings for each other. Don’t tell me you think it’s one-sided?”

“It’s...friendship,” Shen Wei said a little weakly. 

Li Ruiwen recalled the way Zhao Yunlan had stared at Shen Wei’s body when he had only been wearing a tiny pair of swimming briefs. Unfortunately, Li Ruiwen had enough experience with Zhao Yunlan’s horny facial expressions from the time they spent as roommates. But Zhao Yunlan’s stare that day had gone even beyond that. In light of tonight’s revelation, Li Ruiwen adjusted his perspective of this afternoon’s events and the best words he could come up with to describe Zhao Yunlan’s dazed expression were, ‘lusty and lovestruck’.  He had some suspicions about the real source of that nosebleed now too. 

“I don’t think anyone would classify how you look at each other as friendship,” Li Ruiwen said wryly. Then he frowned, a new suspicion forming in his mind. “Do you think it’s friendship because of something Ah Lan said?”

Shen Wei looked down at his noodles again, using his chopsticks to pick some up. He nodded, not feeling like discussing it in further detail. 

Li Ruiwen put down his own spoon and rubbed his forehead. Zhao Yunlan, that idiot… He really should leave Zhao Yunlan to reap the seeds of discord that he himself had sowed but in the end, Li Ruiwen was a good person who was fond of his silly junior. He had spent several years of his youth ensuring Zhao Yunlan didn’t end up dead in a ditch or offending the wrong people. It looked like his instinctive urge to help Zhao Yunlan hadn’t faded, not even in the face of an embarrassing rejection where he had been unwittingly competing with Zhao Yunlan. 

“What did he say exactly?” Li Ruiwen asked with a groan. 

“That he’s completely devoid of the capacity to love,” Shen Wei murmured very softly, almost under his breath. He felt a little guilty repeating Zhao Yunlan’s words, wondering if they were meant to be kept between the two of them. But he was also so desperate for someone to soothe his own roiling feelings over those words. Perhaps Li Ruiwen could shed further light on them. 

“Heavens above, he’s gotten even more dramatic now,” Li Ruiwen exclaimed. “He used to say that he hadn’t learned how to love properly or didn’t know how to be in a relationship. Now it’s gotten to this extent.”

Shen Wei frowned. So this wasn’t something Zhao Yunlan said just to let him down gently? It was something he said to other people before? But it seemed completely wrong. “Why does he think that? It’s not true.”

“Aha, so you’re aware of that much at least,” Li Ruiwen pointed out. 

“He’s well capable of love. Anyone who sees the way he interacts with his friends is aware of that,” Shen Wei said with conviction. 

Li Ruiwen sighed. “Very true. But Zhao Yunlan doesn’t see that himself. You’ve met his father I presume?” When Shen Wei nodded, Li Ruiwen continued with a frown, “That kind of parenting...it leaves a mark. Zhao Yunlan had a lot of commitment issues and he took every failed relationship as a sign.”

“You...sound like you know a lot about this,” Shen Wei said, having a sudden inkling about this voice of experience he was hearing. 

Looking a little flustered for the first time, Li Ruiwen admitted, “So you’ve figured it out. We dated very briefly. For less than a month, which was the usual duration of his relationships back then. We were terrible for each other, completely incompatible. But Zhao Yunlan was smart, funny, much more vulnerable and open then compared to how he is now. But we would have never worked out no matter what. No matter what I told him, he thought he was the problem instead.”

Shen Wei stared at Li Ruiwen, trying to take in this new piece of information, trying to see Li Ruiwen with a more assessing gaze. With his carefully styled black hair and chiselled features, Li Ruiwen was undeniably a handsome man. Previously, Shen Wei had only looked at Li Ruiwen like any other person that spent time with the S.I.D. team, but now that he really looked, he noticed how tall Li Ruiwen was, with a strong, broad body. 

Was this the kind of look Zhao Yunlan liked? Compared to Shen Wei, they were as different as night and day. Perhaps this was where the problem was. 

Li Ruiwen smiled, guessing at Shen Wei’s train of thoughts. “Ah Lan dated all kinds of people back in the academy. He was hopelessly reaching for anything that might work, which is probably why none of it worked out instead.”

“I see,” Shen Wei said, not seeing at all. Why would anyone who had Zhao Yunlan give him up? Why would none of it work?

Li Ruiwen continued, “He always had trouble committing, probably because he was afraid to find out that there really was something wrong with him if he tried his hardest and it still didn’t work out. He would claim affection and then, he would be distant. He spent more time with his cat than he did with some of his lovers.” Pausing, Li Ruiwen looked at Shen Wei shrewdly. “But that’s not a problem he has with you, does he?”

Shen Wei blinked and asked, “What do you mean?”

Sitting back, Li Ruiwen said, “I just have my suspicions that when it comes to you, he doesn’t have that same issue. He turned up conveniently when we were supposed to be on a date at the lake—”

“It wasn’t a date,” Shen Wei interjected. 

Ah, such a quick, blunt rejection. If Li Ruiwen hadn’t already harbored doubts earlier, he would have been very hurt. 

“No, but Ah Lan doesn’t know that, does he?” Li Ruiwen pointed out. “Anyway, just from what little I’ve seen, he seems very different with you than he is around his friends and even his past girlfriends and boyfriends.”

Shen Wei didn’t know what to say about that. He felt completely muddled again, unsure of who and what to believe. 

Looking over at Shen Wei’s lost expression, seeing him drowning metaphorically and almost literally as well — since he was wearing Li Ruiwen’s clothes which were several sizes too large for him — Li Ruiwen smiled a little slyly and said, “Shen Wei, I think you should have a good long talk with Zhao Yunlan tonight. This isn’t a conversation you should delay any further.”

Shen Wei nodded slowly. It seemed like he had talked to various people about this, with various advice given. Perhaps it was time to talk to Zhao Yunlan once more.

Chapter Text

Ye Zun wasn’t an idiot. He had stewed on the reactions he had gotten from Zhao Yunlan and Da Qing, and rightfully concluded that reality TV probably bore little relation to reality. 

However, he also found it very amusing to recall Zhao Yunlan’s splutters of outrage and Da Qing’s bafflement mixed with amusement. And you know, he might have a few millennia worth of issues to work through in regards to his feelings towards Shen Wei so some light pranking might get him further along. 

That was why when Shen Wei walked up the stairs towards his apartment, Ye Zun was already waiting right outside his door for him. 

Shen Wei blinked and smiled at the sight of Ye Zun. “Didi,” he said in greeting. 

Ugh, why did his gege have to be so soft towards him? Didn’t Shen Wei remember that just a few days ago, Ye Zun was plotting to steal all the Hallows to take over the world with the intention to ultimately kill him? Ye Zun really had to get over his issues quickly and get out of the Pillar, because clearly someone had to stick around to protect his gege since his gege had no sense of self preservation at all.

“Gege, you’re home early from dinner with your new friend,” Ye Zun said, testing the waters. 

Shen Wei’s cheeks flushed a little. “Yes, well, it turned out that Li Ruiwen thought it was a little more than just dinner.”

Ah, so Shen Wei had clued up after all. Never mind, Ye Zun intended to continue with his feigned ignorance. “Oh? What did he think it was?“

“He thought it was a date,” Shen Wei admitted as he came to a stop in front of Ye Zun, looking a little discomfited. 

Oho, so something must have happened for Shen Wei to finally realize. Ye Zun wanted to quiz him some more, but he didn’t have enough time for this. 

“I see. And you turned him down, I suppose,” Ye Zun concluded, continuing without waiting for a confirmation, “Which is good because I’ve already accepted Zhao Yunlan as your future husband. Or would that be wife? Whichever.”

Shen Wei stared at him, blinking rapidly. He swallowed and asked in clear confusion, “You accepted Zhao Yunlan...as my future husband?”

Nodding solemnly, Ye Zun explained, “From the documentary I watched, Haixingren’s courting rituals involve family members interviewing prospective partners and asking them important questions like how much money they make and whether they’re willing to live with their in-laws.”

“Didi, you spoke to Zhao Yunlan? But he doesn’t know—”

“Oh, it’s alright. He was a little shocked at first and pointed a gun at me, but I explained everything. You might want to talk to him about the marriage situation though. I expect his father to provide a suitable amount of dowry of course,” Ye Zun said with a straight face, inwardly cackling at the idea and making a note to speak to Zhao Xinci personally to ask for dowry. 

Shen Wei stared at him, mouth open. He finally managed to say in a faint voice, “Those reality shows aren’t a real representation of reality, didi. You spoke to Zhao Yunlan about how much money he’s making? And what dowry?”

It was a shame that Shen Wei had figured that out, but Ye Zun wasn’t willing to give up the game. He gave Shen Wei a disapproving stare. “Of course there’s dowry. How else can we accept him into our family? Okay, now go over and discuss the finer details with Zhao Yunlan.”

“No, the shows really aren’t how Haixingren date—”

“That can’t be right. If they’re not accurate, why didn’t he protest when I said he can marry you and that you’re having sex tonight?”

“What?” Shen Wei asked, wide-eyed, looking a little unsteady on his feet too. 

“Best talk that out with him,” Ye Zun said, putting a hand on Shen Wei’s shoulder and ushering him towards Zhao Yunlan’s door. 

Shen Wei panicked. “Wait, I need to change first and I need to know everything you said to Zhao Yunlan.”

Taking in the oversized clothing on Shen Wei, Ye Zun decided that Shen Wei should absolutely not change first, because it would be so much more hilarious if he didn’t. “No time to waste, gege,” he said firmly and inserted the key he had stolen out of Shen Wei’s pocket into the lock on Zhao Yunlan’s door.

Ignoring Shen Wei’s protests, he opened the door and shoved his gege through. He caught Zhao Yunlan’s shocked expression from where he was still sitting on the couch and grinned. “Delivery!” he called out helpfully.

Then he slammed the door shut behind Shen Wei and grinned to himself even as he dissipated into dark mist, returning to the Pillar of Heaven with smug satisfaction. 

~ * ~

Zhao Yunlan stared as Shen Wei stumbled through the door, catching a glimpse of Shen Wei’s devil twin smirking before the door was slammed shut. 

Catching his balance, Shen Wei straightened and pushed his glasses up, blinking in shock. “I apologize. Ye Zun can be...impetuous.”

But Zhao Yunlan was hardly listening. He was taking in the state Shen Wei was in. His hair was still neat but his cheeks were a little pink, lips flushed. And that outfit… It wasn’t any one of Shen Wei’s beautifully tailored, well-fitted suits or even his more casual but still form-fitting outfits. This was a baggy, faded navy blue T-shirt with a Nike logo on the front and a dark pair of sweatpants with the legs folded several times over. Zhao Yunlan was certain he knew who this clothing belonged to. 

So Shen Wei had gone on a date with Li Ruiwen and came back dressed in his clothes, with lips and cheeks flushed.

Whatever hope Zhao Yunlan had been nursing since he spoke to Ye Zun sank into the pits of hell. 

He was too late. 

“I guess you had a good time,” Zhao Yunlan said, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice. 

Shen Wei walked further into the apartment, a little hesitant. He stopped by the couch. “It was fine. I wanted to talk to you about— Did you clean?”

It was Shen Wei’s turn to be distracted by appearances as he surveyed the apartment, blinking and looking outright concerned. 

Momentarily derailed, Zhao Yunlan felt a flare of annoyance. Was this really the important thing to focus on? Yes, he had cleaned after Ye Zun had left, mostly in a fit of panic at the idea of Shen Wei visiting Li Ruiwen’s undoubtedly pristine home, being served delicious home cooked food by Li Ruiwen. His momentary surge of conviction after talking to Da Qing had been shaken after the strange grilling he had gotten from Ye Zun. Usually, Zhao Yunlan made no apologies for the type of person he was, but in the face of being compared to Li Ruiwen and in the aftermath of Ye Zun’s judgemental gaze, Zhao Yunlan had been seized by the notion of proving that he could definitely clean up and show Shen Wei that he could also be a responsible adult, like Li Ruiwen. 

So he had haphazardly cleaned the apartment. It had been in an alright shape, since Shen Wei tended to tidy up whenever he came over. But with how busy the past two days were, Zhao Yunlan and Da Qing’s innate messiness had spread across the apartment again.

Shen Wei had been by earlier to see Zhao Yunlan home after the nosebleed incident, so he noticed the difference. The bed was made rather than being just a rumpled mess of blankets and sheets, although they didn’t have the pristine hospital corners when Shen Wei made the bed. The pillows on the couch were arranged neatly, the coffee table that had been knocked askew earlier was now straightened. The kitchen was clean from earlier in the day when Shen Wei had cooked, but now, a few items had been shuffled around the kitchen counter like someone had made a poor attempt to improve the tidiness there, only to show how unused they were to actually using the kitchen for food preparation as the kitchenware were now laid out in an illogical way. 

“Why did you clean and tidy up?” Shen Wei asked faintly, confusion written all over his wide-eyed expression. 

“Why not? I clean, sometimes,” Zhao Yunlan blatantly lied. “I can look after myself, you know. I’m not completely hopeless.”

The words were like a knife through Shen Wei’s heart. That was right. Zhao Yunlan could look after himself. He didn’t need someone fluttering about like a motherhen around him. 

For a moment, Shen Wei felt like he was back at Li Ruiwen’s house, looking around a neat and tidy home where he had nothing to do except sit quietly on the couch, waiting for food to be made by someone else. He hadn’t expected to ever feel that same level of uselessness at Zhao Yunlan’s house, the helpless feeling that his presence here was pointless. 

What could he offer as a friend, if he couldn’t even do something so minor for Zhao Yunlan anymore? 

Shen Wei breathed in slowly, pushing aside his growing inner turmoil. He forced his gaze away from the kitchen and met Zhao Yunlan’s eyes instead. “I know you’re not hopeless, Zhao Yunlan. In any case, I came here to talk about Ye Zun.”

There were so many things to air between them that Zhao Yunlan felt like he was on a rollercoaster ride. The realization that Shen Wei had been with Li Ruiwen still sat like a bitter lump in the back of Zhao Yunlan’s throat, even if he had been momentarily distracted by Shen Wei suddenly bringing up the level of tidiness in the apartment. It was taking all of Zhao Yunlan’s willpower not to let his heartbreak show, not to let the stinging in his eyes grow into anything more as he steadily returned Shen Wei’s gaze, except now Shen Wei was bringing up Ye Zun, another complication in their lives.

“Yes, Ye Zun. Another secret you would have kept from me if he hadn’t walked right through the door,” Zhao Yunlan said, his chest aching. It was clear that Shen Wei never trusted him, not fully. “When were you going to tell me that the mastermind behind all of this was your twin brother? Were you going to wait until he turned up wearing your face?”

At these accusatory words, Shen Wei’s gaze dropped, unable to meet Zhao Yunlan’s eye. Quietly, Shen Wei said, “I didn’t want to face the truth. After all these years.... I still didn’t want to face that my own twin hated me so much that he was willing to destroy the world so he could destroy me.”

The bleak confession softened Zhao Yunlan’s bitter annoyance at always being kept in the dark. As with all things related to Shen Wei, Zhao Yunlan seemed unable to hold onto his anger when faced with Shen Wei’s sad eyes and dejected face. Just like that, his fury withered, confused frustration untangling because...this was Shen Wei. No matter how much he lied, Zhao Yunlan knew that the truth of the matter was that Shen Wei was good down to the core. It was never done out of malicious intent or due to a lack of trust between them, just Shen Wei’s misguided attempts to protect everyone or Shen Wei being so used to doing everything on his own.

“Sit down, Shen Wei, you’re giving me a crick in my neck,” Zhao Yunlan directed, gesturing at the rest of the couch. 

Gingerly, Shen Wei sat down, facing Zhao Yunlan like he was going to his own execution. “You have questions about Ye Zun. Please ask them and I’ll answer to the best of my ability,” Shen Wei offered. 

“Can we trust him? What made you change your mind about him?” Zhao Yunlan asked, getting right down to it. 

“I believe we can trust him,” Shen Wei stated with a confidence that surprised even himself, not realizing how true this was until he said it aloud. Shen Wei continued, “Before this week, all Ye Zun would ever do was rail and scream at me. But three days ago, I went to talk to him and for the first time, found out that he thought I had abandoned him when we were children. When I extracted my memories for him to see, he realized the truth. It has changed everything.”

“How do you know for sure? Perhaps he’s just pretending until you lower your defences,” Zhao Yunlan suggested. 

“I already offered to let him out of the Pillar of Heaven. He asked me not to, because he’s afraid of what he himself might do, after so many years with his mind brainwashed against me. If he was waiting for me to lower my defences, that would have been his best opportunity to escape and kill me,” Shen Wei explained. 

Zhao Yunlan grumbled, “Right, so he’s not released from the Pillar yet, but he can astral project into my apartment and ask me questions about my suitability to be your husband.”

Stifferning, Shen Wei sat ramrod straight and said, “Ye Zun hasn’t been exposed to much television. I hope you can forgive him for the strange notions he might have picked up and for any unusual things he might have said.”

Zhao Yunlan shook his head, looking away from Shen Wei. “Whatever Ye Zun said...it doesn’t matter now, does it?”

Shen Wei was more than a little confused. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”

But Zhao Yunlan had sunk into a depressed gloom again. He muttered, “And the house we were going to get together… I suppose that’s not going to happen now.”

Hearing that, Shen Wei’s eyes widened, sharp hurt squeezing his chest. If he couldn’t have Zhao Yunlan the way he desired, he had thought he would at least have this much, get to be friends who lived together. Was that beyond his reach as well now? 

Hands tightening into fists, Shen Wei asked, a little hoarse, “Why? Why won’t it happen?”

“Because—” Zhao Yunlan started and then broke off, unable to finish his sentence, to say aloud what Shen Wei was with Li Ruiwen now. He gestured roughly at Shen Wei like it was self-explanatory.

At a loss, Shen Wei could only ask, more than a little plaintive, “Don’t you want to share a house anymore?”

“Do you? Soon enough you will be sharing a house with Li Ruiwen instead,” Zhao Yunlan said with a sour taste in his mouth. 

“Li Ruiwen?” Shen Wei was completely bewildered. “I’m friends with Li Ruiwen, but I don’t want to share a home with him.”

A spike of hope surged through Zhao Yunlan, but he couldn’t help demanding, “Just friends? You went out on a date with him and you’re wearing his clothes. What friendly activities did you get up to that required a change of clothing?”

Shen Wei got to his feet and Zhao Yunlan mirrored his action without thought, almost reaching out to grab hold of Shen Wei in case he decided to leave. But no, Shen Wei was standing because he couldn’t remain calm and seated, not because he was about to flee. He was filled with frustration and anger, needed to be upright as his emotions overwhelmed him. 

“So that was a date? Just because I went to his house and he cooked for me?” Shen Wei demanded, even though he was well-aware now that Li Ruiwen had seen it as a date.

“He cooked for you,” Zhao Yunlan repeated, like it was the worst news he had received all year. 

“How is that any different to all the times I’ve come over and cooked for you?” Shen Wei asked, dark eyes snapping with sudden anger. 

Taken aback by this line of questioning, Zhao Yunlan stuttered, “What does that have to do with Li Ruiwen?”

Shen Wei didn’t entertain the question, only pushed on. “And I spilled food on myself, so I have a good reason to be wearing his clothes home. What was your reason for putting your jacket on me up in the mountains, even though you were the one with the cold?”

“I— I— Because—”

Suddenly, Shen Wei surged forward and grabbed the sleeve of Zhao Yunlan’s worn T-shirt, pulling him nearer. “I thought what Li Ruiwen and I were doing weren’t dates, because you and I have done all of those things and more so. We spend all our time together and there’s so much between us...but you said you can’t love and that we’re good friends.” Shen Wei’s voice broke at that, his gaze dropping. “So that was all we had between us. Friendship. What Li Ruiwen and I have is only a small fraction of that friendship. So why...why are you angry? Why are you saying we can’t stay together in the same house, just because I’m friends with Li Ruiwen?”

Zhao Yunlan was stunned by this sudden outpouring of anguish and confusion from Shen Wei. He could only let Shen Wei pull harder on his sleeve, gaze coming up again, beseeching and searching for answers. 

Shen Wei whispered, “I’m tired, Zhao Yunlan. I don’t know what we’re doing.”

And Zhao Yunlan was the worst human being on this planet. 

The absolute worst.

Because Shen Wei was right in every way. Zhao Yunlan used every excuse to be by Shen Wei’s side, visited his office unnecessarily, pulled Shen Wei along to S.I.D. just to sit around and chat, invited Shen Wei to all manner of meetings just to spend more time with him. Zhao Yunlan drove Shen Wei to work, even when it wasn’t convenient. They had so many meals together, at home and outside of it. Zhao Yunlan rolled around in enjoyment under Shen Wei’s care, never protesting one bit. He walked into Shen Wei’s apartment like he owned it, gave Shen Wei the keys to his so Shen Wei could do the same. And he had even presumptuously suggested they own a house together. 

But then at the same time, Zhao Yunlan had pretended like all this was just normal friendship. He had told Shen Wei that he couldn’t love, implicitly keeping Shen Wei at arm’s length even as he shoved into every corner of Shen Wei’s life. 

And he had broken Shen Wei’s heart. He could see that now. He had left Shen Wei confused and uncertain, questioning his own relationships with other people. 

Zhao Yunlan was the worst person alive and he didn’t deserve Shen Wei. If he was any good, he would let Shen Wei go now, before he did any more damage and hurt him further. 

But Zhao Yunlan was selfish. He had tried not to be before, and see where that got them?  Nowhere good, because Zhao Yunlan didn’t know how not to be selfish, not when Shen Wei was involved. 

It was time to whole-heartedly grab hold of what he wanted. 

Zhao Yunlan broke Shen Wei’s grip on his sleeve, which resulted in a small broken sound from Shen Wei, enough to devastate Zhao Yunlan. But not enough to stop Zhao Yunlan’s momentum. He pulled Shen Wei closer by his arms, drew him in and finally did what he had wanted to do all these weeks, from the moment he had laid eyes on Shen Wei. 

He kissed those soft, reddened lips. Shen Wei’s lips were pliant in his surprise and Zhao Yunlan felt a surge of pleasure at just this touch of their mouths together. 

He couldn’t get enough of it. Reaching up, he cupped Shen Wei’s cheek, curled his other arm around Shen Wei’s back to draw him closer and deepened the kiss. Zhao Yunlan felt a hard grip around his wrist and he was about to pull back when he felt Shen Wei press him closer, holding on as if to make sure that Zhao Yunlan wasn’t going to step away. 

It sent a thrill through Zhao Yunlan to feel Shen Wei’s firm body against his, to open his mouth and taste Shen Wei’s parted lips beneath his own. Having Shen Wei in his arms, having Shen Wei’s mouth on his, it felt like the first gasp of fresh air after an eternity under water, like the first kiss Zhao Yunlan had ever had in his life. 

Whatever he had with Shen Wei, it would be different. It could never be the same as all his previous relationships. 

Shen Wei curled his hand into the back of Zhao Yunlan’s T-shirt, pulling Zhao Yunlan nearer, even though there was no way they could get any closer. 

This was what Shen Wei had been waiting for all this time. 

The kiss he had with Li Ruiwen could hardly be classified as one in comparison to this moment when he mouthed at Zhao Yunlan’s tempting, lush lower lip, his nerves singing with the knowledge that this was Zhao Yunlan he was kissing. 

They broke apart for a span of seconds, to breathe, for Shen Wei to whisper, “Zhao Yunlan,” with the burning intensity of a thousand suns. Zhao Yunlan let out a wounded sound at the breath of his name against his mouth and they both came together again, unwilling to be apart now that they had experienced the shape and feel of a kiss between them. 

Zhao Yunlan kissed the divots at the corner of Shen Wei’s lips, kissed up that pale cheek to that gorgeous cheekbone. Shen Wei gasped, breathed, and kissed in turn the surprisingly soft facial hair, kissed up Zhao Yunlan’s jawline until he could kiss and mouth and lick at a soft earlobe. 

They kissed until they lost track of time, until both their lips were red and raw, and then they kissed some more, bodies twined together. 

By the time they pulled back enough to rest their foreheads together, they were both breathing heavily, like they had been fucking long and hard rather than just kissing desperately the whole time. 

“Shen Wei,” Zhao Yunlan said, savoring the name on his lips. “Xiao Wei… How am I going to let you go?”

Shen Wei shivered at the deep affection in those words and murmured, “Don’t. Don’t let me go.”

As if in answer, Zhao Yunlan tightened his hold around Shen Wei’s waist. Shen Wei, who had not let go of Zhao Yunlan’s wrist, turned his face to press a kiss to each of Zhao Yunlan’s fingers. That earned him a stuttering gasp, and Shen Wei smiled, eyes curving with happiness. 

“Xiao Wei… I’ve been such an idiot,” Zhao Yunlan whispered. 

Finally releasing his hold on Zhao Yunlan’s wrist, Shen Wei instead reached up and combed his fingers through Zhao Yunlan’s hair, looking at him fondly. He smiled and said, “Yes, you have been.”

“Thanks,” Zhao Yunlan responded wryly. 

“We both have been,” Shen Wei said, leaning in to steal another kiss. 

Zhao Yunlan stroked Shen Wei’s jaw with his thumb as they soaked in the feel of their lips pressed together. After a moment, he drew back a little and met Shen Wei’s dark gaze, wanting him to see how serious he was about this. “I always thought I wasn’t capable of love,” Zhao Yunlan said quietly. 

Shen Wei shook his head. “You’re brimming full of love.”

“Only because you see the best in me,” Zhao Yunlan said softly. “And the love I have given in the past, it wasn’t the romantic kind. I didn’t think I was capable of it, that kind of dedication and attachment.”

Shen Wei held his gaze, waiting to hear what else Zhao Yunlan had to say. 

“But now…” Zhao Yunlan murmured. “I think it’s because I hadn’t met you yet.”

Shen Wei’s lips curved into a brilliant smile, his eyes crinkling with pure happiness. It was the most beautiful sight Zhao Yunlan had ever seen in his life. Shen Wei’s eyes were bright with joy when he said, “Then I thank you for waiting for me.”

What could Zhao Yunlan do in response to that except for lean in for another kiss, to taste the delight on that beautiful smile. 

~ * ~

EPILOGUE

“Shen Wei and I are dating,” Zhao Yunlan announced to the entire S.I.D. office. 

Everyone turned and stared at where he had his arm around Shen Wei’s shoulders, leaning shamelessly into Shen Wei’s steady frame. Zhao Yunlan was grinning around a lollipop in an extremely self-satisfied manner, the collar of his shirt under his vest open low enough to reveal a very obvious lovebite just above his collarbone. In comparison, Shen Wei was wearing a dark gray suit, but without a tie and the first button of his shirt was undone. He looked mostly composed, although his hair looked a little rumpled at the back, like someone had pushed their hands into it in the car during a quick kiss. Shen Wei’s cheeks were faintly pink, but otherwise, he didn’t protest Zhao Yunlan’s proximity. 

“Yes, we know that?” Wang Zheng said tentatively. 

Zhao Yunlan stared at her, lollipop almost falling out of his open mouth. 

“Is this state the obvious day?” Lin Jing asked from where he was leaning back precariously in his chair. “Lao Chu, you should announce that you’re dating Xiao Guo next.”

“Wait, Lao Chu is dating Xiao Guo?” Zhao Yunlan said with surprise. 

Shen Wei murmured thoughtfully, “So it wasn’t brotherhood.” That cemented it. He was never taking relationship cues from Zhao Yunlan again. 

Guo Changcheng flushed and nodded anxiously. “Yes? Yes, we are?”

Looking put out, Chu Shuzhi got out of his chair and stalked towards him. “Why do you look so nervous about it? Are you asking them or telling them?” He hooked an arm around Guo Changcheng’s neck and dragged him to the back, ignoring Guo Changcheng’s spluttering. 

Zhao Yunlan stared after them and looked at Shen Wei. “I think Haixingren relationships are beyond my understanding too.”

Shen Wei smiled and patted him on the arm, saying, “I think you’re right.”

“Well, I can’t be entirely terrible at it,” Zhao Yunlan said thoughtfully. “After all, I bagged you.” Then he leaned in and kissed Shen Wei on the cheek softly. 

Shen Wei beamed at him with pure pleasure. 

“As if we didn’t do most of the hard work,” Da Qing grumbled as he brushed past them in his cat form, but the two idiots in love were too busy gazing into each other’s eyes to hear him. 

Ah well, at least everything was settled now. 

THE END

~ * ~

Coda

Ye Zun prowled into the bar, his eye-catching silver hair now black instead and tied up into a ponytail. He didn’t know what Zhao Yunlan was so annoyed by. Just because Ye Zun had impersonated Shen Wei to test their security and accidentally set off the Hallows, causing Zhao Yunlan to travel back in time, that didn’t mean Zhao Yunlan had to ban Ye Zun from S.I.D. for a whole week. The time travel had to happen anyway for Shen Wei to meet Zhao Yunlan in the past, so Ye Zun was practically doing them a favor!

And Zhao Yunlan got to see his gege with long hair and when his gege was still naive and impressionable. It seemed like Zhao Yunlan got a pretty good deal there.

Shen Wei had only frowned at Ye Zun when it was all done and said disapprovingly, “Didi,” so Ye Zun knew Shen Wei wasn’t really mad at him. 

But now Ye Zun was so bored because he couldn’t go hang around at S.I.D., scaring Guo Changcheng, teasing Chu Shuzhi into a fury, painting his nails with Zhu Hong… What was he meant to do with all this free time?

Walking up to the bar, he signalled to the bartender for his usual and sighed a little despondently. 

He looked to his side and to his surprise, saw a familiar broad-shouldered figure. 

Back when Ye Zun was still stuck in the pillar several months ago, he had checked out Li Ruiwen because he wanted to be sure he was worthy of being Shen Wei’s new friend, before he had realized that Li Ruiwen was interested in more than just friendship. Ye Zun had noticed Li Ruiwen was very attractive back then and that much hadn’t changed. Li Ruiwen’s profile was a work of art, with his high straight nose and generous lips. 

Smiling to himself, Ye Zun figured he could have a bit of fun. Seeing that no one was looking directly at him, he twitched his fingers and his hairstyle changed, a pair of glasses appearing on his face. 

Ye Zun tapped Li Ruiwen on the arm and smiled with his gege’s mild-mannered charm. “Hello, Li Ruiwen, I didn’t know you were back in Dragon City.”

Li Ruiwen turned to look at him and then did a double take. Frowning, Li Ruiwen stared at him. 

Blinking innocently, Ye Zun asked, “Is everything alright?”

“You’re not Shen Wei,” Li Ruiwen said with complete certainty. 

Ye Zun’s eyebrows shot up. Not even Wang Zheng and Sang Zan had noticed immediately when he impersonated Shen Wei in his impromptu security test. How did this person who was mostly a stranger to Shen Wei know?

Having been made, he didn’t bother keeping up his pretence. Grinning, he slipped off the glasses and tossed them aside carelessly, “How about I buy you a beer while you tell me how you figured that out so quickly?”

Li Ruiwen eyed him for a long moment. His experience with Shen Wei hadn’t left him particularly sad or upset. Shen Wei had been a very attractive man and funny in a way, but he had also been distracted and impossible to read at times. The initial interest Li Ruiwen had felt for Shen Wei had never sparked into anything more, so he had parted ways with Shen Wei and Zhao Yunlan amiably when he headed back to Phoenix City. 

Now this person right in front of him, who looked exactly like Shen Wei but wore his emotions on his face… Li Ruiwen liked the mischief he could read in those eyes, the inviting curve of that pretty smile. Li Ruiwen smiled back. “I suspect a guy has to maintain some air of mystery to keep someone like you interested.”

“Oh, you’re a clever one,” Ye Zun said with delight.  

Holding each other’s gaze, the two of them sized each other up and shared the thought that things were going to get a lot more interesting...