Shen Wei’s boots nearly slipped on the stone when he shoved himself off of the ground, but he managed to get enough momentum to throw himself in between Yunlan and the dark energy Ye Zun was aiming. Time stood still. Shen Wei was frozen in the air, his chest filling with pain like nothing he had known before. All that he could see was his brother’s shocked and angry face, and all that he could hear was Yunlan screaming. He reached backwards, but he couldn’t find purchase on Yunlan’s hand. His lips formed the first sound of his boyfriend’s name, and everything started moving again.
“Shen Wei! Shen Wei!” Shen Wei slammed into the stones and crumpled sideways onto his back. His entire body was burning. He coughed, and blood trickled over his lips. That wasn’t good. Had he bitten his tongue? Everything hurt. “Shen Wei!”
“Oh, Gege, I thought you would put his life before your own.” Shen Wei’s brother loomed into his vision, a maniacal grin on his face. “Haven’t you ever had a care for anyone other than your precious little Kunlun? I wanted to save you for the end, but you’ve tested me for the last time.”
“Didi,” Shen Wei rasped, but Ye Zun had already raised his boot and pressed it down into Shen Wei’s throat. He choked, his fingers searching for purchase against the stone. If he could stand up, maybe he could stop Ye Zun, could get him to listen. He needed air. Ye Zun’s boot was unyielding. Yunlan let out a horrible pained noise, somewhere in the distance. Shen Wei needed to get to him. He needed his brother to listen. He tried to make his voice sound, but his words wouldn’t get past his lips.
“What was that, brother?” Ye Zun cackled, his voice cutting through the terrible background of Yunlan’s ragged sobs.
“Didi….” Finally, Shen Wei made his voice sound.
Ye Zun’s eyebrows went up, and his eyes widened in horrible mockery. “Don’t call me that! You lost that right when you abandoned me!” Abandoned? Shen Wei stared up at his brother. He had never abandoned him. Why would he?
“Didn’t...I didn’t…” It must have been that chieftain. He must have lied to a-Lei. Must have… “Didi...didn’t leave you…”
“I know you did! Why did you let that man take me away? I know you’ve never cared about me, Gege. Aren’t you the Black Robed Envoy, the one everyone loves? Why would you need a dirty little failure like me?”
“Threw me...he threw me…” Ye Zun let his boot up just enough for Shen Wei to wheeze out, “...threw me over the cliff, Didi. I didn’t want to…”
“He what?” Ye Zun looked like he was about to crush Shen Wei’s windpipe further, but he paused the motion in midair. “Don’t lie to me, Gege.”
“...when...ever lied…” Shen Wei was crying. The tears rolled down and mixed with the blood covering his face, and he coughed. His brother stumbled backwards. Shen Wei could see one of his hands, and it was trembling.
“Lied…” Ye Zun whispered. He stumbled backwards and onto his knees. Shen Wei tried to sit up, to get to him, but the energy had left him. He leaned his head back into the stones and tried to breathe. Something thudded into the floor, and a pair of familiar arms gathered Shen Wei’s body up into them.
“Shen Wei.” Yunlan’s hands shook as they held him. “Shen Wei.” The air finally found its way down into Shen Wei’s lungs, and he jerked forward, his entire body shaking with coughs. Yunlan held his shoulders tightly. For a moment, Shen Wei was certain that he would never stop coughing, but eventually his breathing steadied into a cautious, painful rasp, and he slumped into Yunlan. His boyfriend began wiping the blood from his face with trembling hands.
“Zhao Yunlan.” Shen Wei needed to get to Ye Zun. He tried to sit up, whispering, “I want...I…”
“Shh, shh, Xiao Wei. Don’t...don’t hurt…” Yunlan was crying worse than he had been. Shen Wei lifted a hand up to caress his cheek. It almost took more effort than throwing himself in between Yunlan and Ye Zun had.
“I need...Didi….” Yunlan stared at his face, then nodded, slowly. Shen Wei sat up and looked towards where his brother was kneeling. “Didi,” he called. Ye Zun looked up, his hair falling into his face and sticking to his damp cheeks.
“Is it true, Gege?” Ye Zun asked. “Did he...was I wrong? Have I been wrong this whole time?” Shen Wei felt his heart crumbling into pieces, as if it hadn’t already. He had been so convinced that his brother hated him for no reason, that he had missed some crucial element of his didi’s character. How could he have? A-Lei was his twin. They had told each other everything, before that chieftain had thrown Shen Wei over the cliff.
“I’m sorry…” Shen Wei coughed, and Yunlan caressed his shoulder. “I should have….” Ye Zun moved across the floor and reached a hand out to his brother. Yunlan tensed, but Shen Wei put a hand on his thigh and squeezed reassuringly. He slipped his other hand into his brother’s and said, “Didi…” It had been so long since he had held his brother’s hand, and he felt tears start to roll down his face.
“I thought you left me,” Ye Zun whispered. “I woke up and you were gone, and I thought you had left me.”
“Why would I leave you?” Shen Wei asked. Ye Zun stared at him, his mouth partially open. Tears rolled over his chin and down onto the floor.
“Gege…” he said. Shen Wei reached towards him and wiped some of the tears away with his thumb. “I’ll fix this. I’ll…” He took a breath, then looked up at Yunlan. “Zhao Yunlan. Do you love my brother?”
“Didi, you…” Shen Wei squeezed his hand, trying to stop Ye Zun from whatever he was about to accuse Yunlan of, but Ye Zun was not so easily dissuaded.
“Do you love him?” he repeated. Yunlan was silent for a long moment. Shen Wei was sure he was questioning why Ye Zun had taken such an abrupt turn. If they were lucky, he would have time to explain everything. If they were lucky.
“Yes,” Yunlan murmured finally, pronouncing each word with the reverence of a man making a sacred declaration. “Yes, I love him. I love him.” Shen Wei squeezed his thigh again. He hoped it was enough to convey everything he wanted to say. Ye Zun studied them both for a moment, then nodded slowly.
“Take care of him for me,” he said.
“Didi…” Shen Wei straightened up, holding on tighter to his brother’s hand. He didn’t know what he was planning, but he was afraid.
“I’m sorry, Gege,” Ye Zun said. “I’m sorry.” He shut his eyes, and dark energy began to pulse from the place where his hand met Shen Wei’s. Shen Wei mouthed his name, the name he hadn’t said in ten thousand years, but the energy grew between them before he could find the energy to speak it. He clung to his brother. He could feel the healing rushing through his body, but there was something else buzzing between them. “A-Lei,” he whispered finally. As if that was the magic word, everything exploded into bright white light. “A-Lei!” He and Yunlan were thrown backwards, and Yunlan wrapped himself around Shen Wei. Shen Wei buried his face in his boyfriend’s chest and wept.
He was not sure how long they had been cowering there when he started to hear familiar voices.
“Lin-ge! Lin-ge, where did you come from?”
“I was...where the fuck did Ye Zun go? I was in his stomach.”
Shen Wei slowly straightened himself up and found that his pain was gone. He could feel his energy in a way that he hadn’t really since the Longevity Dial. Yunlan still had his face buried in his hair, so Shen Wei reached up and touched the edge of his jaw. “Yunlan, I think you can let me up now.” Yunlan blinked and stared down at him. Shen Wei smiled tiredly up at him and pushed himself up into a sitting position.
“I’m okay, Yunlan.” Shen Wei still felt awful, and he knew he looked worse than he felt, but he could feel his powers working to reknit what Ye Zun’s had left undone. “Are you all right?” He reached over and took Yunlan’s hands into his.
“I’m fine, Shen Wei.” Yunlan smiled, and tears began to trickle down his cheeks again. “Shen Wei, I thought…” He clearly couldn’t bring himself to voice what he was thinking, but Shen Wei knew what he was thinking. He always did. He released one of Yunlan’s hands and reached over to cradle his face.
“Zhao Yunlan.” He was crying again. “My Yunlan.” Yunlan laughed and squeezed Shen Wei’s hand.
“Next time, I’m coming with you,” he said. “You won’t be able to stop me this time.” Shen Wei smiled shakily and ran his fingers through Yunlan’s hair.
“Chief Zhao!” They turned to see Guo Changcheng and, inexplicably, Lin Jing hurrying towards him. “Chief Zhao, are you all right? What happened?”
“Lin Jing?” Yunlan exclaimed, standing up and helping Shen Wei to his feet in the process. “I thought Ye Zun ate you or whatever the fuck.” Shen Wei looked towards where his brother had been kneeling, and a terrible sense of confirmation washed over him. He dropped Yunlan’s hand and walked slowly towards the object that had replaced his brother on the floor.
“The Guardian Lanturn.” If he named it, maybe it would make the pain lurking deep inside of him less. He knelt and picked it up, turning it over in his hands. “It’s lit.” He was not going to break down now. He would save that for when they were safe and home. A sob crawled into his throat, and he took a breath.
“It’s lit?” Yunlan’s boots walked up behind Shen Wei. “My father said…” He trailed off.
“To light the lantern, someone has to sacrifice themself,” Shen Wei whispered. “They die and return to life an infinite number of times.”
“Did Ye Zun…?”
Shen Wei could not hold back the flood of tears pushing to escape. “It must have accepted him because he healed me.” Yunlan knelt next to him and put an arm around his shoulders. Shen Wei buried his face in Yunlan’s chest. He let out a muffled sob, and his boyfriend rubbed his back.
“Am I going crazy, or something different?” Lin Jing asked suddenly.
“You’re right,” Yunlan said. “It seems…Is there light?” They started to hear cheers outside. Shen Wei had been so focused on how he had just lost his brother that he had barely noticed the light. He and Yunlan stood up together, leaving the Guardian Lanturn on the ground, and walked towards the entrance. There was sunlight in Dixing. Shen Wei stared up at the sky, unsure of how to process this new development. There was sunlight in Dixing. “Do you know if–” Yunlan began.
“Yes. I think so. Yes.” Shen Wei stared out across the city with a dazed smile on his face. “The Guardian Lantern would have that power.” Yunlan shook his head and laughed. He wrapped an arm around Shen Wei’s waist, and Shen Wei leaned into him. Behind them, they could hear Lin Jing and the Regent arguing, but that was irrelevant. There was light in Dixing, and they were both alive to see it.
“Shen Wei, what do you want to do next?”
“After this is resolved. Tomorrow. Next week. Next month. For the rest of our lives.” Yunlan rested his head against his boyfriend’s and said, “We have so much time now.”
“I want to spend tomorrow and next week and next month with you, Yunlan. That is all. I don’t know what else I want to do more.”
“What about next year?”
“And the year after.”
“And after that?”
“Zhao Yunlan.” Shen Wei turned in his arms and looked up directly into his face. “I want to spend the rest of my life with you. If I can have that, I don’t care what else we do.” Yunlan grinned and moved to kiss him.
“Lao Zhao!” Yunlan let out a long sigh and turned towards the street. Zhu Hong, Chu Shuzhi, and Da Qing were walking up the street, looking around at the celebrating Dixingren with suspicion and concern. They stuck out among the happy crowd.
“Zhu Hong, couldn’t you have waited another minute?”
“Changcheng!” Shuzhi broke away from the group and ran up the steps to drag Changcheng into a tight embrace.
“What happened, Lao Zhao? You look like shit.” Da Qing and Zhu Hong climbed the steps and regarded Yunlan and Shen Wei with matching concerned expressions.
“So much,” Yunlan groaned. “I’ll tell you once I’ve slept for at least ten hours. What you need to know is Ye Zun is…” He glanced over at his boyfriend.
“Ye Zun is dead,” Shen Wei finished for him. “Ye Zun is dead, and the Guardian Lantern has been lit, and there is light in Dixing.” Yunlan gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze.
“How did you kill him?” Zhu Hong asked. “I’m sure it was quite a battle. That’s why you both look so fucked up.” The inaccuracy of that statement must have shown in their faces, because her face dropped.
“It’s complicated,” Yunlan said. “I’ll tell you later. For now, let’s go home. I want to take a shower.”
“Professor Shen! I found your glasses!” Changcheng and Shuzhi emerged from the palace, followed by Lin Jing, the Regent, and An Bai. Zhu Hong let out a surprised noise when she saw Lin Jing, and she and Da Qing ran to him. Changcheng presented the dirty, blood-stained glasses to Shen Wei, who took them cautiously. “They were lying on the wall,” Changcheng explained. Shen Wei looked down at them, and then at his shirt.
“Yunlan, your shirt is cleaner,” he said, holding them out to him. “Can you?”
“Of course.” Yunlan took them and did his best to wipe the lenses clean. They were not perfect when he handed them back, but it was good enough. Shen Wei put them back on and smiled at him. “There’s my Professor Shen,” Yunlan said, beaming.
“Lord Black Robed Envoy,” the Regent said. “Will you be staying? We could use the help fixing the mess Ye Zun left behind.” He smiled hopefully. Shen Wei studied him for a moment, then reached over and took Yunlan’s hand.
“I have business to take care of elsewhere,” he said. He was certain that if he spent another moment on his feet, he would topple over.
“Regent, we can take care of everything ourselves,” An Bai said, frowning at him. “Let Lord Black Robed Envoy go home.” He bowed to Yunlan and Shen Wei. “Thank you, Master of the Guardians, Lord Black Robed Envoy. I’m sure we will see you soon.” The Regent opened his mouth to protest, but An Bai gave him a stern look.
“Thank you.” Shen Wei bowed briefly to both of them and turned to Yunlan. “Let’s go home.” Yunlan nodded and gave his hand a squeeze.
“Are you all ready to go?” he asked the clustered members of Special Investigations. “Lin Jing, I’m glad you didn’t get eaten. Maybe I’ll give you your bonus this month.”
“Are you saying that I’m rehired?” Lin Jing asked, looking startled.
“As long as you promise not to sell information to questionable scientists ever again.”
“I can promise that,” Lin Jing said. Zhu Hong, Da Qing, and Changcheng applauded. Shen Wei hid a tired smirk.
“I think that means it’s time to leave.” Yunlan turned towards the expanse of Dixing and the roofs glowing in the new day. Outlined in the light, he looked just as handsome as he always had, and Shen Wei felt a surge of love for his boyfriend. He was covered in blood and dirt, and Shen Wei had never seen him so tired, but he was still himself. Shen Wei wondered why he had ever considered leaving this man. What was the good of the whole world compared to Zhao Yunlan? Yunlan smiled back at him, and Shen Wei could see similar thoughts running through his mind.
“Zhao Yunlan, if you keep staring at your boyfriend I’m going to go back to our apartment and leave you here,” Da Qing threatened.
“Ah, fuck you, Fatty,” Yunlan said. “Well?”
“Let’s go,” Shen Wei said. They walked carefully down the steps and out into the crowded, celebrating streets, their hands firmly clasped.
The rest of the trip back was a blur. Shen Wei was surprised he made it through the portal on both feet, and he almost fainted in front of all three tribe leaders and Zhao Xinci. It was a lucky thing there were rocks everywhere in the park. Zhao Xinci drove them home, and Shen Wei went to sleep on Yunlan’s shoulder. Later, he would reflect on how much of a reversal that was from their usual dynamic, but at the time he was so exhausted that it barely even registered. He woke up as he was being placed down on the couch, and had to practically drag himself into the shower. Once he was under the hot water, he started to feel himself come back together. The heat felt good on his aching body, and it pounded the blood and dirt away without him having to do much. The act of washing his hair felt so good after everything. His didi was dead, and he would have to figure out a way to navigate that, but there was light in Dixing, and there was lavender scented shampoo in their bathroom, and Zhao Yunlan was waiting for him out in the apartment. Life would go on. He was sure of it.
Yunlan had set clean clothes out for him on their bed, and Shen Wei put them on in a vague reverie. He became distracted by disposing of his dirty clothes and completely forgot to put pants on. The shirt he had been wearing was unsalvageable, but he thought that it might be possible to get the stains out of his trench coat and pants, so those went into a tub of stain remover. He went back into the living room with intention to start making them dinner, but the couch’s call was too powerful. By the time Yunlan emerged from the shower, Shen Wei had been staring blankly at the bookshelf for at least five minutes. He was tugged back into reality by Yunlan flopping down onto the couch and beginning to attempt to wrap the welts on his wrists in gauze one-handed. Shen Wei took the roll from his boyfriend and began to take care of it himself.
“Thank you, Shen Wei,” Yunlan said, offering the other wrist. Shen Wei bandaged that one and smiled gently. Yunlan put the box aside and settled back against the couch. He reached over and took Shen Wei’s hand. His hand was warm and comforting, and Shen Wei held on to it as if he were about to fly away and it was the only thing holding him to the earth. Finally, Yunlan said, “Are you thinking about...your brother?”
Shen Wei rubbed his thumb over the edge of Yunlan’s hand, searching for words. All of them seemed unsuited to voice what he wanted to say. “Yes. I…” He sighed. What was he supposed to say? “I spent ten thousand years not knowing why my didi hated me, and now that I know he was tricked…”
“What happened?” Yunlan asked, cautiously. Shen Wei looked up at him, startled, and Yunlan said quickly, “You don’t have to tell me. Not if you don’t want to.” Shen Wei considered. He was so used to hiding this part of his life from everyone that he didn’t know what he would say. It wouldn’t change anything between them, he knew that for a fact, but how did he explain a ten thousand year long mistake? What did he say?
“When we were children,” Shen Wei began, slowly, carefully, “A-Lei was sick, and we went to find medicine in a nearby town. We encountered the chief of the Dixing rebels, and he tried to coerce me into joining him. He was a killer, and I refused.” He took a breath, and Yunlan squeezed his hand. “He didn’t like that, and when I tried to stop him from hurting a-Lei…” He sighed. “He threw me over the cliff.”
“He what?” Yunlan turned to stare at him. “How old were you?”
“Around twelve,” Shen Wei said. Yunlan cursed. “I was fine, but when I made it back up…” He trailed off again, remembering the moment he had realized his didi was gone. How many times had he lost his brother over the years? And now he would never find him again. He raised a hand to wipe an errant tear off of his cheek. Before their parents had died, his mama had made him promise to look after his brother. Shen Wei was only five minutes older than his twin, but he had always been more powerful, more responsible. Never better with people, or cleverer: those were a-Lei’s skills. Still, Shen Wei had been the one to take care of his brother, always. And now…
“It wasn’t your fault, Shen Wei,” Yunlan murmured, putting his other hand on top of their entwined hands and pulling Shen Wei out of his spiral. “What could a child do against someone in their full power?” Yunlan looked up at his boyfriend, tears spilling down his face. He was right, of course. What could a twelve-year-old do against a grown man?
“I promised I would protect him,” he whispered. “I have never broken a promise.” Yunlan reached over to stroke his cheek, smiling gently.
“What were you supposed to do? It was that man’s fault for deciding to hurt children. No one else’s.”
“I looked for him for so long. When I did...I thought….” Shen Wei shook his head. “And now I can’t make up for any of that.” He had hoped, desperately, that he would be able to convince his brother to stop, to come home, to at least try and repair their relationship. He had tried so many times over the years, but it had never worked. Nothing had ever worked. Maybe there had been something he could have done differently, but it was too late. It was far too late now. He choked back a sob, and Yunlan reached over to pull him into his arms.
“Old Brother Black, Old Brother Black,” he murmured. Shen Wei buried his face in Yunlan’s chest and let himself cry uncontrollably. Yunlan held him tightly, one hand stroking his still-damp hair and the other rubbing his back in a steady rhythm. Shen Wei curled his fingers around Yunlan’s shirt, and his boyfriend kissed him on the top of the head. “What do you need?” Shen Wei didn’t know what he needed. He needed his brother back, he needed to sleep for at least a week, he probably needed to see a doctor. He hummed vaguely and pressed himself closer to Yunlan. His boyfriend moved so that they were more comfortably fit together. One hand drifted down to Shen Wei’s lower back and traced circles there. “You know I love you, right? No matter what?” Shen Wei laughed shakily, and Yunlan kissed him on the head again. “I have an idea. What if I ordered us hot pot from that place down the street for dinner, and then we just spend the rest of the day doing absolutely nothing. How does that sound?”
“I would like that,” Shen Wei murmured into his chest. He sat up and cleaned his glasses off on the edge of his sweater. Yunlan watched him, a smile that bordered on goofy dancing over his face. “What are you thinking about?” Shen Wei asked, smiling back.
“You.” Shen Wei laughed. “I’m serious, baby. How can I not think about you when you’re right here?” Yunlan reached over and took both of Shen Wei’s hands into his own.
“Yunlan…” Shen Wei studied their entwined hands, searching for the right words. “I am not going to leave you. I thought...but now that everything is different, I promise you, I will not leave. That is a promise I will never break.”
“Xiao Wei,” Yunlan murmured. He sounded like he was about to say something else, but lost his train of thought. “Come here.” He tugged Shen Wei across the small space between them and kissed him, gently. There were more words behind it than either of them could fully understand, but Shen Wei knew what Yunlan was saying as clear as if he had spoken it out loud. They settled back onto the couch, Shen Wei’s head on Yunlan’s chest and both of their arms around each other. A ray of sunlight crept under the blinds and onto the floor, and Shen Wei watched it stretch across the rug until it touched the edge of the coffee table. He smiled.