Looking back, Shen Wei isn’t sure when he first started falling. He’d worried the thought in his mind for years, when his memories were all he had left of Kunlun, turning the question over and over again with careful fingers until its edges were smooth.
In the daylight, as a mysterious savior who looked at him like a ghost?
In the torchlight, as a handsome stranger who pushed the bounds of familiarity?
In the moonlight, as the first person to ever see beneath the mask and witness him as he was?
But in the long history of his devotion, there is one moment that Shen Wei is certain of. One that he remembers with startling clarity, even as other aspects of Kunlun were lost to him. Precious moments forgotten, stolen away by time despite his best efforts to clutch them close to his heart and never let go.
Shen Wei isn’t sure when he started falling, but he first realized his love in the firelight.
“Xiao Wei!” Kunlun calls his name with the same exuberance as he always does, like no other words have ever pleased him more to say.
When Shen Wei meets Kunlun’s eye from across the camp, his whole face lights into a smile, the curve of his eyes delighted and the curve of his lips something softer. Something Shen Wei hasn’t been able to place, not yet.
(Something he will never fully allow himself to place, not when there is so little time to hope between lies and war and death.)
“Xiao Wei, so slow,” Kunlun clicks his tongue and draws a breath through his teeth in that teasing way he does, “Don’t stand there all day, c’mon!”
As Kunlun waves him over with one hand, his false airs of annoyance are too weak to withstand the force of his grin. Shen Wei smiles back, his own form of nameless softness, and begins to make his way across camp.
Kunlun is sitting on the outskirts of their haphazard encampment, set up in a hurry when a band of Dixing rebels were stationed half a day further out than their scout reports had stated. The ground around the campfire is scuffed and littered in a way that suggests Kunlun was joined by others at some point, but the place directly to Kunlun’s right side is undisturbed.
Shen Wei can’t imagine that it was intentional, that Kunlun would willingly set himself apart from others in the hopes that Shen Wei would return from his patrol early enough to sit by his side. Even so, he lets his heart warm at the thought.
Kunlun pats the ground and looks at Shen Wei expectantly, so Shen Wei sits. Despite their relatively short acquaintance, only a handful of months, Shen Wei would give him the world at only a glance. Would burn the world to ash, if that’s what he wanted.
It should scare him, the lengths he would go to keep Kunlun safe and happy, but instead Shen Wei simply accepts it as another fact of the universe. The sun rises to the east, the mountains tower to the west, and Kunlun lies at the center of Shen Wei’s life.
Kunlun leans against his side and plucks the mask from Shen Wei’s face, just as carelessly as he did that very first time. Even if he doesn’t value the mask in the same way Shen Wei does, he understands its importance and makes sure to set it aside gingerly.
“You left me waiting for so long,” Kunlun says lowly, warm breath ghosting along Shen Wei’s jaw. His voice and the downward tilt of his mouth are too serious for the mischievous glint in his eyes. “How will you make it up to me, Xiao Wei?”
Kunlun laughs and gives Shen Wei’s knee a lingering pat as he leans away, and Shen Wei finds himself disappointed to no longer have the man in his space. Kunlun does this sometimes, acts like their relationship is different, more familiar. He’ll tease in ways that fluster Shen Wei with their sincerity, but when he laughs the tension away there’s a faraway look in his eyes.
He laughs like he’s lost someone, and the thought that another has had Kunlun in the ways that belong to Shen Wei makes his fists clench and the back of his throat sting with something bitter.
Shen Wei watches Kunlun stretch his spine and settle back with an exaggerated groan, elbows on the ground behind him and legs crossed in front. He’s taken off his fox fur despite the chill in the air, Shen Wei notices, in the way he does when it’s just the two of them. He likes Kunlun better like this, loose-limbed and free from any pretense of professionalism.
The campfire is still crackling, but it’s died out enough that Shen Wei is beginning to wonder just how long Kunlun has been sitting out here. If there was some truth to his teasing and it really was Shen Wei he was waiting for.
“Are you cold?” Shen Wei asks, but doesn’t wait for a response before reviving the fire with a twist of his hand and a burst of dark energy.
Kunlun smiles again and tilts his head downward, looking up through his lashes to meet Shen Wei’s eye. “How could I be cold when you’re here?”
Shen Wei is struck by how Kunlun looks in this lighting, with his eyes darkened by shadow and the swooping planes of his face illuminated by the flickering flame. The orange light catches on the beads in his hair and the embroidery on his robes, and throws into sharp relief the thin curve of his waist and the breadth of his shoulders.
Kunlun in the daytime is light itself, bold and bright and resplendent.
But by the fireside, Kunlun is a different sort of radiance, one that Shen Wei wants to hide away from the world and reserve for his gaze alone.
Shen Wei realizes he’s supposed to respond a beat too late, when Kunlun’s brows draw together in concern. Kunlun sits up and places the back of his hand against Shen Wei’s forehead, a decidedly useless gesture but one that makes Shen Wei’s heart skip regardless.
It’s nice, Shen Wei realizes, to love and be loved in return.
Because what has he ever felt for Kunlun, if not love?
“You don’t feel warm…” Kunlun mutters, more to himself than anything. His hand falls from Shen Wei’s forehead to his cheekbone to his jaw, absentmindedly like it’s a path well-traveled. “Wait here.”
Kunlun stands and walks to his tent a few paces away, trailing a finger along one of Shen Wei’s braids as he passes. Shen Wei is helpless to do anything but watch him go, to follow the lines of his body as he leaves the light and ducks into the shadows.
Even in the darkness, Shen Wei doesn’t think Kunlun could ever fully escape his notice.
When Kunlun comes back, his arms are laden with the furs he sleeps upon, and his missing fox fur is slung over one shoulder.
“Let me take care of you, Xiao Wei,” Kunlun says, wrapping the fox fur around Shen Wei’s neck and draping furs over his shoulder so gently that Shen Wei can almost imagine his body is made of glass rather than flesh and blood.
He cups Shen Wei’s face in one hand and brushes a calloused thumb against his cheek. Shen Wei looks into his eyes, brightened by fire and softened by something Shen Wei knows, now.
Something like love.
“Kunlun, I need to tell you,” Shen Wei starts, voice urgent. “I…”
He trails off, then, when he sees the heartbreak in Kunlun’s eyes, in the forlorn twist to his smile.
“I know you do, Xiao Wei,” Kunlun says quietly, a whisper tinged with more pain than Shen Wei has ever heard in Kunlun’s voice. “Tell me later, okay? When we both know everything, and it’s all over.”
He bends down to place a kiss against Shen Wei’s forehead.
“Promise me that,” Kunlun says, then speaks his next words directly into Shen Wei’s hair, “Promise that you’ll tell me later.”
“Later,” Shen Wei replies, gripping Kunlun’s wrists so he can feel the gravity of his words. “I promise.”
Later never comes.