Not everyone can say that they've come back to life. Even fewer, he thinks, can say they've crawled out of the earth they were buried in. A part of him still wants to flip off Bellatrix Kiddo for making it seem easy, but he doesn't exactly remember much more than clawing his way out of the muddied earth and screaming once he finally had air in his lungs.
It's been three months since he 'came back to life.' He feels like he might as well still be stuck six feet under considering how far he's come.
There are fresh flowers on his grave today, just like there have been every Saturday. There is only one person that could have left them. Ye Zun hasn't seen him do it, but he doesn't need to. His brother is the only one that could possibly care that he's dead and gone. Well, supposedly.
The funny thing is, Ye Zun doesn't know how he's alive. By all accounts, he should be dead. Being shot in the head kind of did that to you. The only remnant of that injury is now a vivid red scar in the middle of his forehead.
There are stories, of course, of people coming back from the dead. There have been for as long as humans have been telling stories. 'Saved by the bell' is as much of an expression these days as it is a practice. And yet...Ye Zun doesn't remember his bell ringing, and the grave attendant – if there had been one – didn't stick around to see Ye Zun heave himself out of his grave.
The bell is still there, hanging in the customary bell-alcove in the middle of the tombstone. The cord is clearly visible and still connected to the bell. The soil was patted into place sometime in-between Ye Zun disturbing it and his first trip back to make sure it wasn't all one big hallucination. It's been long enough that grass is starting to grow on top of the soil. It looks like nothing is amiss.
Ye Zun doesn't get it. Something is wrong. He woke up alone when he should have scared the life out of some poor graveyard attendant. The hole and empty coffin should have been reported. There should have been posters and notices out, so people knew to guide him to the 'proper authorities' in case he was 'confused' and 'needed help.' Instead, there has been nothing.
It's almost like someone is trying to cover for something. The fact that Ye Zun's last moments are full of holes might have something to do with it. To be fair, that could also be the literal hole in his head, but somehow, he doesn't think so. He won't know unless he announces that he's back – or starts digging, but for some reason, he's reluctant to do either. He was a burden when he was alive, there's no point in being one now that he's alive again. And he can go digging whenever, he's just being lazy.
At least, that's what Ye Zun tells himself. It's better than the truth.
"You'll have to move on eventually."
Ye Zun refuses to admit that he jolts. He looks around wildly for the owner of the voice, but there's no one else in the graveyard with him. No one except a black cat sitting on top of a nearby tombstone. Its tail is swinging lazily back and forth like it doesn't have a care in the world.
There are superstitions around black cats, probably some even for seeing them in graveyards, but Ye Zun only feels calm. Even if the cat is here to do him harm, he doubts it could. It's so fat that Ye Zun can't help but wonder how it managed to jump onto the tombstone at all. As long as he doesn't get within reach of the cat's claws, he's sure he'll be just fine.
Apart from the cat, however, there is no one else around. But that's crazy, right? Cats don't talk.
Then again, people don't generally come back to life either. Just those unlucky enough that even death didn't want them.
Not knowing what else to do, he points to himself.
"Yeah, you," the cat says – because this is apparently Ye Zun's life now. He clawed his way back to life and now he's talking to cats. "Do you see anyone else around here?"
Ye Zun lowers his hand. "I'm not a ghost," he feels the need to point out.
Other people could see him and touch him, he could retain food – and shit it out after – and he hasn't felt any physical limitations on where he can walk. That means he can't be a ghost...right? The fact that he keeps coming back to the graveyard week after week is just a coincidence.
"I meant physically," the cat says. "You can't just keep sitting on your grave. There's a life out there to be lived. Go live it already."
So not only are there talking cats in his life now, but there are also talking cats that like to criticize him. Ye Zun almost wishes he had someone he could tell, just so that they could appreciate how fucked up his life currently is.
"Who are you to criticize what I do with my second life?"
"Obviously a superior being," the cat sniffs.
Ye Zun arches an eyebrow. "You're a fat black cat."
"You take that back!" the cat yowls.
"Sorry," he drawls. "I meant you're the fattest black cat I've ever seen."
"That's right," the cat says smugly. "Wait."
Ye Zun laughs. It feels...weird. He can't remember the last time he laughed. It was probably before he died, knowing his luck, and about something stupid. Laughing about tricking a cat into agreeing with him feels a little stupid – or hysterical, and not in a funny way. But it also feels good, like stretching a muscle he didn't realise was starting to cramp.
The cat scoffs. "Ungrateful little -"
"Who are you calling little, kitty cat?"
The cat hisses at him.
"What?" Ye Zun gestures between them. "I'm just saying. I think I have a good couple of feet on you, oh Great Mao of the Graveyard."
"Think highly of yourself, do you?" The cat sniffs.
"I think you're a cat of all of, what," Ye Zun eyes the cat, "seven or eight inches? I have at least five feet on you."
The cat's reply to that is to start grooming itself, tail flicking ever so slightly.
Ye Zun decides that he might as well watch. He's read his own tombstone so many times that he can recite it from memory. (Ye Zun, 1989 – 2021. Beloved brother, taken too soon. "The most important thing is to live a fabulous life. As long as it's fabulous I don't care how long it is.")
It is nice of Shen Wei to acknowledge his name change even when Ye Zun wasn't meant to be around to see it anymore. The quote Shen Wei chose for him doesn't exactly go with the farewell message, but that is just like his brother. Even though Ye Zun isn't there for him to quietly disagree with anymore, he could still do some facsimile of it with Ye Zun's tombstone. Ye Zun has been tempted to reach out just so he could rib Shen Wei for that. But that would mean getting in touch with his brother again and he doesn't know if he's ready.
"You're not special, you know," the cat says then, apparently done ignoring Ye Zun for his slight.
Ye Zun arches an eyebrow at the cat.
"I've come back from the dead more times than I can count." The cat almost sounds haughty. "It's not like it's hard."
"Ever crawled your way out of your own grave?"
The cat pauses. Its tail thumps back against the tombstone. "Haven't done that, no."
"Zero out of ten, cannot recommend." Ye Zun still has nightmares about it – feeling the mud and dirt between his fingers, the sharp metallic taste in his mouth, the cold rain washing down on him when he finally reached the top, the way his scream seemed to echo. He can never sleep after one of those nightmares.
The cat is silent.
It's a windless day, or Ye Zun imagines he would have been able to hear the wind rustling through the trees. Not even the birds are chirping. It's just him, the sound of his own breathing, his stomach sometimes letting him know how little he's had to eat recently, and a fat black cat.
That cat jumps off the tombstone then, landing more gracefully than Ye Zun thinks anyone would have expected. The cat waddles over to sit down next to Ye Zun – close, but not so close that the cat is technically sitting on Ye Zun's grave. That's...polite of it, Ye Zun supposes. It's almost hypnotising to watch the way the cat curls its tail around its feet as it peers at Ye Zun with its sharp, green eyes.
Ye Zun has never done well with silences. Too many sounds rise to fill the void whenever people stop talking. Ye Zun prefers the sound of other people, most days. It's definitely better than the storm that's always brewing in the back of his mind, and the ambient sounds that only seems to amplify it.
"So, what's the deal with you? Are you a regular cat? Do you have nine lives? Is your superpower being cute and cuddly?"
"Why should I tell you?"
Ye Zun grins. "That means you don't know the answers to all of my questions~"
The cat hisses at him.
Ye Zun doesn't know why, but he's somehow getting great joy out of antagonising a cat. Sure, it's a talking cat, and one that started smack-talking him first, but he's aware of how alarming his statement would be out of context. He doesn't particularly care because he learned a long time ago to stop caring what others think of him, but he is aware of it. It probably says something about him that he, quite frankly, doesn't care to look deeper into.
"As fascinating as I am," the cat says, "I'm not actually here to talk about me."
"They call it 'traumatic awakening,'" the cat says like Ye Zun didn't speak. "What happened to you, I mean."
Ye Zun can remember hearing that terminology at some point or another. Probably in junior high, considering how much of a blur high school is in his mind. There are two standardised 'awakenings' – regular awakening and traumatic awakening. Regular awakening can happen at any point, but usually happened around puberty because of all the other changes the body is going through. Traumatic awakening is usually triggered by a traumatic event (hence the name, or so Ye Zun assumes) that you are either witnessing or experiencing. The most common event is, for some reason, death or dying.
"Does anyone in your family have powers?
Ah, yes. Powers. It's funny. The awakening is supposed to, well, awaken powers in you. And yet, beyond getting rejected from the afterlife, Ye Zun hasn't seen any other signs of him being anything other than plain old ordinary. Unless his power is being able to change his hair colour at will. He hasn't tried to change it back. Maybe he should.
"Not that I know of," he answers all the same. "We lost our parents when we were young, and then we bounced between homes until we turned eighteen. And now here I am." He twirls his fingers through the grass growing out of his empty grave. It's funny, sitting there and knowing the dirt underneath his feet is empty. He should have been down there, decomposing, but he's not.
"Those are a lot of years you're leaving unaccounted."
"How do you know, kitty cat?"
"This is your grave, isn't it?" The cat jumps up on the tombstone, only wobbling a little on the landing. "Says here you were thirty-two when you died."
Some days, he'd felt younger. Most days, though, he'd felt far, far older.
Ye Zun shrugs carelessly. "I fell in with the wrong crowd."
The cat narrows its eyes at him. "That's it?"
Ye Zun shrugs. "Pretty much."
The cat doesn't look very impressed with his vague answer. Tough luck. Ye Zun isn't in the mood to talk about the people that got him killed.
"I don't know what to do with my life now," Ye Zun says before the cat can start asking more prying questions.
"Go back to your loved ones, obviously. They'll cry and hug you and help you get your life back in order." The cat flicks its tail. "I mean it, you're not special. This has happened before. There are laws in place exactly for people in your situation."
Ye Zun knows. But it doesn't change anything, and he's not about to get into the hows and whys with a strange cat.
"It's been three months," Ye Zun finds himself saying instead.
The cat hisses. "What are you waiting for, an invitation?!"
Ye Zun imagines an invitation being sent to the shelter he's crashing at, 'cordially inviting him' to return to his previous life. He almost starts laughing from the sheer lunacy of it all.
"I didn't have the best life, before."
As far as understatements go, it's a pretty big one. His life got him killed. It's a wonder they were able to find his body to bury it at all. Somebody must have gotten sloppy with the disposal. Ye Zun is tempted to find out who pulled the trigger just so he can rib them about the terrible job they did.
"Then do better this time," the cat says unsympathetically. "It's not that hard."
Ye Zun snorts. "You are not nearly as wise as you pretend to be, kitty cat."
The cat sniffs at him, clearly unimpressed. "Who are the flowers from?" it asks, clearly to move the conversation along. For what reason, Ye Zun doesn't know.
Ye Zun finds that his eyes have sought the bouquet out without his permission. "My brother, probably."
They're pretty. Delicate white petals and golden yellow centres wrapped in practical brown paper. There's probably some meaning there, but Ye Zun doesn't know shit about the language of flowers. At least they're nice to look at.
"I don't know why he still cares. We weren't exactly on speaking terms when I died."
"Maybe he regrets that."
Ye Zun snorts. That would be just like his brother. Knowing Shen Wei, he probably still has a saviour's and guilt complex a mile wide.
"You should talk to him," the cat says.
"What makes you think he'll talk to me?"
"He comes here every week to leave flowers."
Ye Zun stills. He didn't mention how often he's been getting flowers. That can only mean one thing. "Have you been stalking me, kitty cat?"
"Da Qing," the cat says. "My name is Da Qing."
"That's not an answer, Da Qing." Ye Zun leans in closer. "Have you been stalking me?"
Da Qing thumps its tail against Ye Zun's tombstone. Ye Zun has been around homeless cats enough to know that Da Qing's body language is radiating unease. "It's what I do. It's what all of us animal shifters do," the cat says.
"You stalk the recently reanimated?"
"We camp out in graveyards to help people find their way back to society."
"Uh-huh," Ye Zun says, making sure to sound unimpressed. "So why has it taken you this long to talk to me?"
Ye Zun doesn't know how, but Da Qing manages to look shifty-eyed. "There was a death in the family. Boss's boyfriend took it hard, so I..."
Well, Ye Zun supposes he can sympathise with that. Death in the family is never easy. He knows that first-hand. His brother buried himself in studies while Ye Zun buried himself in alcohol and too many parties. All things considered, it's a wonder he lived as long as he did.
"Been neglecting your duties, have you?" Ye Zun tsks, all the same. Understanding Da Qing's standpoint doesn't mean Ye Zun can't tease, just a little. "Bad kitty."
"It's not like people awaken that often or anything," Da Qing says defensively. "And I'm back at it now, so it's fine."
Ye Zun is almost tempted to offer Da Qing a scratch behind the ears, but only almost. One heart-to-heart in progress did not friends make. Ye Zun preferred to remain free of claw- and bite-marks, in case Da Qing took things the wrong way.
"Anyway," Da Qing says, "you should talk to him."
Ye Zun can think of few things he'd like to do less than that, including reporting himself to the Services for the Incorrectly-labelled Deceased – or whatever 'SID' actually stands for.
"Why only animal shifters?" he asks instead. "And why talk to me in cat-form?"
"Maybe it's easier for people to talk to animals than humans about all of this, what do I know?" The cat does something that Ye Zun is going to call a shrug. "But you're stalling."
"Of course I'm stalling," Ye Zun says, only just managing to stop himself from snapping. "I haven't talked to my brother in ten years."
"Then get to it!"
Ye Zun twirls his fingers more forcefully around the blades of grass beneath him, pulling up a few of them in the process. He lets them drop to the ground, where they immediately become indistinguishable from the grass Ye Zun has yet to murder. Ye Zun slips his hands into his lap instead and shrugs. "I don't know where he lives," he says because Da Qing is clearly waiting for some kind of response.
"Excuses," Da Qing says mercilessly. "You know he comes by here every week. Just, I don't know, camp out on the day he's most likely to visit."
Ye Zun rolls his eyes. "You say it like it's easy," he starts, though his mouth clicks shut a second later at the sound of footsteps.
Da Qing's tail twitches as the cat turns its head to look at the new arrival. Ye Zun doesn't mean to follow in Da Qing's footsteps, but his body apparently has other ideas.
And there he is, Ye Zun's brother, turning his head this and that way like he's looking for something. He looks good – like he's sleeping and eating well, and possibly even doing some light exercise on the side. He's wearing a full suit to the graveyard because of course he is. Shen Wei has been dressing smartly for as long as he's been Ye Zun's brother. Shen Wei has always been a shining beacon, especially whenever the two of them stood side by side. It's always hurt to look at him, just a little, but no more so than now.
Shen Wei stops a couple of graves away and crouches down to pick something up from the ground. It's a watch, Ye Zun realises when Shen Wei starts looking it over – probably to see if it got damaged when he dropped it.
Shen Wei looks up sharply, eyes landing on Ye Zun immediately. Shen Wei's mouth goes slack with shock as the watch drops from his hand.
Ye Zun knows that he looks like a mess. He got his clothes from a homeless shelter – just the thought of walking around in the clothes he was buried in makes his skin crawl – and his hair is white now. He doesn't know when that happened, but it must have been after he died. The hair on the rest of his body is stubbornly dark, including the facial hair he hasn't shaved in three months. He looks nothing like his former self.
And yet, Shen Wei doesn't hesitate. "Didi?"
Ye Zun pushes himself up slowly. He has to hold himself back from fiddling with his hair. No amount of smoothing is going to magically make it look less like an unwashed mess, just like the rest of him. "Hi, gege."
Shen Wei moves almost faster than Ye Zun's eyes can comprehend. Between one blink and the next, he's right in front of Ye Zun and pulling him into a tight hug.
For a moment, Ye Zun can't move. His arms are dangling by his sides like he's forgotten how to use them. He refuses to think about why his eyes are prickling.
"I thought I had lost you," Shen Wei says into Ye Zun's hair. He doesn't seem to care that Ye Zun hasn't gotten a proper shower in...well, years, truthfully, considering his living conditions before he got himself killed.
It hurts to swallow, and it hurts even more to speak. He forces himself anyway. "You can't get rid of me that easily, gege."
Shen Wei laughs wetly.
Ye Zun makes the executive decision to bury his head in Shen Wei's shoulder.
Shen Wei clings to him tighter.
It's a struggle not to start crying on the spot. Grabbing onto Shen Wei's jacket seems like the less embarrassing option, so Ye Zun does that instead.
He has no idea how long they stand there. Quite frankly, he doesn't care. It's not like he has a busy schedule that he needs to get back to. They separate eventually, though. Not far – just enough that they aren't clinging to each other. Shen Wei seems reluctant to let go. Ye Zun hides the same reluctance by picking at his nails, which, truthfully, have seen better days.
Shen Wei opens and closes his mouth several times, as though he doesn't know what to say. Ye Zun has never seen Shen Wei lost for words before. It unnerves him a little. And just when it seems like he's finally figured out what to say, Shen Wei's eyes are caught on something over Ye Zun's shoulder. He pauses. "Da Qing?"
"Uh," Da Qing says, sounding thoroughly unintelligent. The cat looks just as dumb as it sounds when Ye Zun turns to look. "I was never here," the cat says, almost in a hurry, before jumping off the tombstone and scampering off.
Wait. "Gege," Ye Zun turns towards him, "do you have a boyfriend?"
Shen Wei looks puzzled. "How did you know?"
It's a small world, Ye Zun thinks to himself. "Your boyfriend's cat is bad at their job," is what he says.
Shen Wei looks even more confused.
"Never mind. Just bring me around someday, all right?" Ye Zun shoves his hands in his pockets. The pockets aren't much cleaner than the rest of his outfit, but at least no one can see him fiddling with his hands this way. "There's somebody I'd like to thank."
"You could join us for dinner tonight. Da Qing will be there." Shen Wei doesn't even raise his voice to add, "Is that not so, Da Qing?"
There's a pause before Da Qing's voice pipes up, sounding almost meek. "Yes, Professor Shen."
Shen Wei smiles.
If Ye Zun pretends hard enough, then maybe he can convince himself that he didn't say something mushy in front of an audience. Shen Wei has never counted that way, not really, but Da Qing... "I don't exactly have anything to wear," he says instead, gesturing at himself.
"Nonsense." Shen Wei smiles. "You can borrow something of mine."
Ye Zun imagines himself meeting Shen Wei's boyfriend for the first time wearing one of Shen Wei's suits and balks. "Or we can postpone."
Shen Wei opens his mouth, probably to insist, but he never gets that far.
"Xiao Wei?" a new voice calls out. "What's taking so -"
The voice cuts off before Ye Zun turns to face its owner. He sees Shen Wei do the same out of the corner of his eye.
The new guy is roughly around their age and looks like he's moments away from asking them for directions to the nearest biker bar. His jeans have more holes than fabric in them, his leather jacket looks like it went to hell and back, and there's no way he made any kind of effort into taming his hair this morning. In short, Ye Zun somehow only just manages to be the most dishevelled person there even though he's actively homeless.
And is Ye Zun's hearing finally leaving him, or did this guy call Shen Wei 'Xiao Wei?' Was this the 'boyfriend?' Oh, Ye Zun hopes not.
"Zhao Yunlan," Shen Wei says, somehow managing to smile wider and crushing Ye Zun's hopes, "I would like you to meet my brother."
Zhao Yunlan looks between the two of them. Ye Zun knows he isn't imagining the way Zhao Yunlan's eyes linger on his clothes or the vivid red mark on his forehead. Ye Zun makes sure to look unimpressed in case Zhao Yunlan has enough balls to meet his eyes. To his credit, Zhao Yunlan gets there eventually, even if it takes him all of a split-second to look over at Shen Wei.
"This had to happen on my day off," is what Zhao Yunlan says when he finally speaks, "didn't it?"
Ye Zun folds his arms over his chest. "The world doesn't revolve around you, gege's boyfriend."
Zhao Yunlan's eyebrows shoot up. "I have a name, you know."
"I know," is all Ye Zun says.
Zhao Yunlan's eyebrows somehow manage to get even higher. It's a thoroughly unattractive look on him.
"I am sure you will get along superbly," Shen Wei says then, either misreading the tension or deliberately ignoring it. Knowing Shen Wei, it's likely the latter.
Somehow, Ye Zun doubts that he and Zhao Yunlan are moments away from becoming bosom buddies. Judging by Zhao Yunlan's expression, Ye Zun is not alone in thinking that. But Ye Zun has clawed his way back to life. He can handle his brother deciding to step into the dating world, surely.