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The Hourglass Runs Both Ways

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Zhao Yunlan was entirely out of his depth and he knew it.

Traveling back in time may have made for some amusing movies and TV shows, but the reality was far from glamorous or fun.

The clothes, for instance, were comfortable enough, though they had taken some getting used to.  He had never worn Hanfu, but once he was shown how to correctly assemble the layers, he rather liked the effect, not to mention the way Shen Wei’s eyes had lingered on him after their official introduction, his mask doing little to conceal his appreciation and curiosity.   

Still.

After the third day, he had resigned himself to the fact that he had one set of underclothes, no deodorant, and soap was a luxury.  Bathing in frigid rivers with sand to scrub with was a necessary evil, and he had no idea what to do with his hair. If not for Da Qing taking pity on him and combing it out and re-braiding it, he would have looked like a crazy mountain hermit in no time. 

Zhao Yunlan swore when he got back home (he had to believe he was getting back home) he was going to take the longest shower ever and then possibly shave his head. 

As for the accommodations…

He knew that, due to Kunlun’s reputation and his status, he had it much easier than many others.  But even though his tent was amazingly comfortable considering the time period and availability of supplies, the nights were freezing and the days humid and hot. 

He was used to a certain amount of discomfort when he went camping, but modern day roughing it had nothing on the reality of the past.     

But despite all the hardships that came with war and living in a time with extremely reduced resources, there were benefits as well.

Shen Wei, when not looking like a deer caught in headlights at something Zhao Yunlan said, was a commanding presence, even more so than in Zhao Yunlan’s time.   He tended to take Zhao Yunlan’s quirks as just one of those things, as though all those from the mountains were a bit odd and were to be given leeway.

For the most part, Zhao Yunlan tried to keep his mouth shut when he wasn’t talking tactics or pretending to be a general.  He was walking a tightrope of being engaging and mysterious enough to keep up Kunlun’s reputation, while at the same time trying not to be the weirdo that people humored in public and talked about in private.

It was an exhausting, hard existence, and after nearly two months of living in the past, Zhao Yunlan thought he understood his Shen Wei a bit better.   He just wasn’t sure how much longer he could continue on this way.

&&&

Zhao Yunlan was exhausted.  His arms felt like boulders attached to his shoulders, and every step back towards the camp was an effort.  He was thankful their patrol had been uneventful, otherwise he might have been a liability to those who were looking at him to lead. 

The only thing he wanted to do was head back to his tent and sleep, but when Shen Wei took the path leading to the river, he resigned himself to his fate.

Maybe a cold bath would wake him a bit and help with the strange rash he had developed overnight.  He should probably talk to one of the healers about it, but what if it was something completely common that just happened to people in the past and they would look at him weird?

Or worse, what if he had done something to cause it, something that every person in this time would know not to touch or eat or get into? 

Zhao Yunlan sighed as the river came into view, a slow moving, crystal clear little run-off that everyone in camp used to clean their clothes and bodies.  The water tended to be waist deep near the middle, and was clean enough they gathered it upriver for cooking and drinking. 

He tried very hard not to think about parasites and bacteria, and just hoped that anything he acquired in the past would be able to be taken care of when he got home.  (He had to get back home.)

“Kunlun?” Shen Wei’s voice broke through his daze, and he realized he had been staring into the water without actually doing anything as those around him undressed and tried to clean the dust of the patrol away.

“Sorry!” he said, and even he could hear how fatigue dragged at his words.  He tried to ignore Shen Wei’s confused gaze as he started to disrobe.  “I’m a bit tired today.”

He had barely removed his top robe when strong fingers closed around his wrist, and his sleeve was pushed up, revealing the red splotches of the rash.

Shen Wei sucked in a sharp breath, his eyes widening behind his mask. 

“Kunlun, why didn’t say something?” Shen Wei demanded, and from the urgency in his voice, Zhao Yunlan started to get the feeling this may be a bigger deal than he had anticipated.

“Is that-“ one of the Haixing soldiers near to them asked, staring at the rash with a pale face.  “But surely you had it as a child!”

Zhao Yunlan struggled to get his mouth to form words, but suddenly the exhaustion of before seemed to double, and he found himself swaying in Shen Wei’s grasp.

“Get the healer!” Shen Wei ordered the man who was still looking at Zhao Yunlan’s arm in horror.  “Tell them there’s a case of Sleeping Sickness in camp.  I’m going to take Kunlun to his tent, send them there.”

“Yes, Heipaoshi!”

The man took off, leaving his discarded outer robe on the rocks by the water, and Zhao Yunlan watched him run towards the camp with a distant kind of wonder.

Apparently, the rash was a very bad thing.  Good to know!

Strong arms lifted him, and he would have been ashamed of the sound he made if his brain were functioning.  At any other time, Shen Wei’s show of strength would have had Zhao Yunlan instantly hard with desire, but he was struggling to keep his eyes open as it was, and all he could do was marvel at how easily Shen Wei carried him.

The scenery passed in a blur, and it seemed between one blink and another, they had reached Zhao Yunlan’s tent.  Someone was shouting, which was never a good sign, and everyone seemed to be moving either at extremely high speeds or as if they were stuck in molasses. 

“Why is everything blurry?” Zhao Yunlan asked, trying to blink his eyes back into focus.  When did he start to need glasses?  Maybe he could borrow Shen Wei’s?

He reached up to touch Shen Wei’s face, but there were no glasses there, just a dark mask.  Oh, yes, he was back in time. Glasses hadn’t been invented yet. 

“You’re burning up,” Shen Wei fussed as he laid Zhao Yunlan gently on his bed and started to remove his robes. 

Immediately, Zhao Yunlan closed his eyes, trying to just enjoy the sensation of Shen Wei stripping his clothes off. 

Then the flap of his tent was pushed aside, and he found himself blinking at the young woman who entered.  How rude to come into his tent uninvited, especially when Shen Wei was trying to undress him!

“How bad?” the woman asked, and Shen Wei moved aside to allow her access to Zhao Yunlan, which seemed an odd thing for him to do.  Wasn’t he trying to get him naked a moment ago?

“It’s covered his arms and abdomen,” Shen Wei said, and pulled the waist of Zhao Yunlan’s trousers down just enough to expose the red, itchy rash that had spread to his lower waist.  “He was fine yesterday, so it must have come upon him suddenly.”

“It’s not unheard of,” the woman said, and reached out a delicate hand to touch Zhao Yunlan’s forehead.

He tried to shrink back, even if she was rather pretty.  She wasn’t Shen Wei, and only his Shen Wei got to touch his forehead tenderly!  But she was undaunted and pressed her hand to his head, the feeling of dark energy coursing through him.

Ah, she was Dixingren! 

That… actually didn’t explain anything.

“Kunlun, did you have Sleeping Sickness as a child?” the woman asked, her hands moving to the rash on his arms even as she looked at him expectantly.

Shit!  How was he supposed to answer that?  Maybe the Sleeping Sickness was like chicken pox?

“I had a light case when I was a child,” he lied, the words coming out thick and slurred, and she nodded, a frown pulling her thick brows together. 

He would have found himself attracted to her at one time, with her full lips and beautifully braided hair, but now his eyes only sought out Shen Wei, who stood off to the side, looking on with worry, his mask doing nothing to hide his frown.

“I’ve heard of this before,” the woman said to Shen Wei, her voice solemn.  “If a person had a very mild case, then the sickness can return later in life.  He probably isn’t the only one who has caught it.”

Shen Wei nodded, and if anything looked even more pensive. 

“I’ll send out the word.  Since it doesn’t affect Dixingren the same, we should be able to help those who have been exposed without too much danger to ourselves.” Shen Wei paused, looking down at Zhao Yunlan for a long moment before quickly turning away and exiting the tent. 

“You’re going to be all right,” the healer assured, which wasn’t actually reassuring at all. 

No one said you were going to be all right unless you were very much not all right!

Zhao Yunlan let his eyes close, since there was no point in keeping them open with only the woman to look at.  He quickly lost the battle to stay awake.

&&&

Zhao Yunlan woke with a moan, refusing to open his eyes when he felt so wretched.  His limbs felt heavy and uncoordinated, his head throbbed, and his stomach grumbled at him.  He must have gone drinking last night and forgotten to eat again.

“Da Qing?” he mumbled, hoping the damn cat was home for once and could get him a cup of water. 

“Da Qing is out scouting right now,” Shen Wei’s soft voice murmured, and a hand, calloused and wonderfully cool, pressed to his forehead.  “What do you need, Kunlun?”

Zhao Yunlan’s eyes snapped open at the name, everything rushing back in a dizzying whirl of anxiety at the sight of long braided hair and elaborate robes.  Heipaoshi’s mask was nowhere to be seen, only Shen Wei’s wide eyes in a too young face.

“Easy,” Shen Wei soothed, and held him down effortlessly with one hand to Zhao Yunlan’s chest, stopping him from sitting up.  “You’ve been sick with Sleeping Sickness for three days now, it will take a bit to regain your strength.”

Three days?” Zhao Yunlan croaked, and wow, how was that his voice?

“Three days,” Shen Wei repeated. He frowned, that curious mixture of exasperated fondness and irritation that seemed to be reserved for Zhao Yunlan alone. 

Hah, he still had it!

“Why did you not tell me you were sick, Kunlun?” Shen Wei demanded, and his tone was pure Heipaoshi, firm and brittle cold.   He did not wait for Zhao Yunlan to respond, but instead pressed a cup of water to his lips, forcing him to either drink or choke. 

Zhao Yunlan was forcibly reminded of bloody noses and handkerchiefs as he obediently drank.

Only after he had finished did Shen Wei sit back, raising an expectant eyebrow. 

“I thought it was just a rash!” Zhao Yunlan defended himself, his voice much more recognizable now.  He cleared his throat nonetheless and scowled back at Shen Wei. “I had already been sick as a child; I didn’t realize I could get it again!”

Shen Wei’s dark expression softened slightly, and Zhao Yunlan had to fight the urge to fist-pump. 

Bullshit game, eleven out of ten!

“Still,” Shen Wei sighed, and his dark eyes bored into Zhao Yunlan’s like he had offended him greatly.  “You should have informed me you were not at your best.  Lives may have been at stake if we were attacked.”

Zhao Yunlan would have argued just for argument’s sake, but Shen Wei was right.  If there had been a fight, he wouldn’t have been much good to anyone, not when he had been struggling so hard to just stand.

“I’m sorry,” he apologized, and put every ounce of sincerity into his voice and expression that he could.  “I underestimated how affected I was, and it was negligent of me.”

Shen Wei nodded his agreement, much to Zhao Yunlan’s annoyance. 

“Next time, let me know,” Shen Wei ordered.   “We were lucky we caught the sickness so soon, and only a handful were infected. One of the cook’s children was taken ill by it, but they had never been exposed themselves, and didn’t know the signs.  We managed to isolate everyone, but it could have been much worse.”

Zhao Yunlan shuddered as the possibilities ran through his head, history lessons on wars lost and civilizations brought down by plague filling his mind.  In a camp their size, hundreds if not thousands could have taken ill.  Going by Shen Wei and the Healer’s reactions when they had discovered his rash, this Sleeping Sickness was nothing to mess around with!

“I promise,” he said, and raised three fingers solemnly.  “Next time I get sick, I’ll let you know!”

And oh, the irony, he realized, struggling to keep a straight face.  He actually had let Shen Wei know, when he had barged into his office and sneezed all over his fish!

“Good,” Shen Wei sighed, and patted Zhao Yunlan’s hand.  “I’ll let you rest, now.  Please, recover quickly.”

Then he was dawning his mask once more, becoming the untouchable Heipaoshi before he exited the tent, leaving only a faint chill on Zhao Yunlan’s skin to mark his departure. 

&&&

Zhao Yunlan had hoped that after a few days of rest he would be back on his feet, ready to start looking for the Hallows again and hopefully find his way home.  (He had to make it back home.)

But, much to his annoyance, even after two days of resting and eating whatever passed for wholesome meals during a war, he still found himself weak and dizzy if he stood too fast, and worn out after only a few hours of sitting in on the council meetings. 

“You are taking your recovery too lightly,” Shen Wei chastised as he helped Zhao Yunlan to his tent from one such meeting, keeping a supportive hand under his arm as he guided him through the camp. 

Zhao Yunlan couldn’t help but think of Shen Wei, doing the same thing after he lost his sight.  Had he remembered, in the future, this moment?    

“I’m all right,” Zhao Yunlan protested, trying not to droop too noticeably as both Haixing and Dixingren soldiers waved and bowed to them in greeting.  “I’m just tired, that’s all.”

Shen Wei’s mouth tightened, as did the grip on his arm. 

“Sleeping Sickness should not be taken so lightly,” Shen Wei warned. 

“Shen Wei,” Zhao Yunlan said, softly, for his ears alone.  They paused at one of the little intersections that naturally formed in a camp as large as theirs.  “I’m Kunlun.  Just as you wear your mask, I wear mine.”

Shen Wei’s dark eyes widened behind said mask, his lips trembling slightly before he firmed them up, and he nodded, once, in understanding. 

The rest of the walk back to Zhao Yunlan’s tent was silent, and he sank onto his bed in blessed relief as soon as he entered, not even bothering to remove his shoes or outer robes. 

Shen Wei let out a tiny huff at this, either in laughter or indignation, Zhao Yunlan couldn’t tell, and set about removing the offending items himself. 

“Get some rest, Kunlun,” Shen Wei said softly as soon as Zhao Yunlan was tucked snugly into his furs. 

It was an order he was only too happy to obey.

&&&

The days crawled on after that, and then, as was so common in war, jumped and skipped forward as the Rebels attacked.

Zhao Yunlan came face to face with Ye Zun, his snarling face at once so familiar and yet so foreign.  He watched as Shen Wei and his brother fought, yelled at each other, fought some more, and then finally reconciled as they held each other in a standoff, tears reddening both sets of eyes. 

And then the Hallows decided to get involved, and Zhao Yunlan had only a few brief seconds to call out to Shen Wei, before once more being sucked up into that golden light, his body being torn apart and then remade in a place composed of stars and darkness.

When he finally blinked his eyes open, it was to see his Shen Wei, looking at him with wide, tear filled eyes, short hair suddenly seeming out of place, his button up shirt and trousers foreign looking.

“I’ve waited ten thousand years for you!” Shen Wei gasped out brokenly, and there was no way Zhao Yunlan could not stumble forward to embrace him, wrapping him as tightly as he could in his arms, cursing his long hair once more as it tangled and obscured Shen Wei’s beautiful face from him.

“Shen Wei!” he managed to say, and then they were kissing, their lips clashing together with bruising force, a joining that was thousands of years overdue. 

Then Zhao Yunlan became abruptly aware that he hadn’t properly brushed his teeth for several months, and he pulled back, albeit reluctantly, to stare at Shen Wei’s beauty, trying to take in everything at once, but only able to look into those red rimmed eyes.

A motion at his feet caught his attention, and he looked down to see a little window carved out of the stars around them, showing Shen Wei and Ye Zun also being engulfed by the Hallows’ light, thrust into the earth and buried, together. 

That – that explained a lot about Shen Wei and his brother’s relationship, and Ye Zun’s animosity towards him since their first meeting, when he had crashed Zhao Yunlan’s interview with Shen Wei when he was still a suspect. 

Whatever had pulled the twins apart had not followed them into the current time, and wasn’t that a story Zhao Yunlan wanted to hear about?

“Were you hurt?” he asked, looking back to see Shen Wei staring down at the little window as well, watching as he and his brother awoke, clawing and gasping their way from the earth into Dixing’s artificial light. 

“No,” Shen Wei assured, and finally looked up to meet Zhao Yunlan’s gaze once more.   He frowned suddenly, so familiar that Zhao Yunlan had to fight back tears of his own.  (He was almost home!) “We should leave soon, this place is not good for you. You were still recovering from the Sleeping Sickness when you were taken away.”

“Ahhh,” Zhao Yunlan said, because once Shen Wei realized that Zhao Yunlan was still not one hundred percent, he had a feeling he wouldn’t be leaving his bed anytime soon.  And not for sexy fun-time reasons, either!  “I’m fine!” he protested, raising his arms to ward off Shen Wei’s protective tendencies.  “Really, it’s been over a week!”

Oh, shit.  He was too used to young Shen Wei, living in a world where everyone struggled with limited resources and just did their best not to keel over if they were sick or injured.  He had forgotten that his Shen Wei was the one who forced him to take a day off work when his stomach acted up, would ply him with tea and healthy food, and worried if he wasn’t sleeping enough. 

Perhaps he had been in the past a bit too long.

Without another word, Shen Wei gripped Zhao Yunlan tight, and the world lurched sickeningly around them before spitting them back out.  Hard ground rushed up to meet him, and only Shen Wei’s hands on him kept him from falling, keeping him steady as the world settled once more. 

They were in Dixing, in the palace vault, where the Hallows and other treasures were kept protected by layer upon layer of dark energy, a grey, roiling mist of a shell that coated the walls around them. 

Zhao Yunlan had only seen the Hallows briefly, when Shen Wei and the King himself had escorted him into the room to assure him that the replicas his team had been finding all over Dragon City the past month were nothing but harmless fakes. 

He still doesn’t know how or why, but once he had entered the room, the Hallows had started to spin, their faint glow immediately growing brighter, reacting to his presence like a living creature, pulsing with power and sending little shock waves throughout all of Dixing. 

Then he had been sucked up into the portal, Shen Wei’s startled cries following him ten thousand years into the past. 

“You’re back!” a joyous voice called out, and Zhao Yunlan was barely able to brace himself before a large mass of fur and claws launched itself at him.

“Da Qing!” he cried, wonder and exasperation filling his voice as he held the fat cat in his arms, Da Qing’s purr rumbling through his chest. 

“You’ve been gone three days!” the cat protested with a horrible yowl.  “I had to deal with Heipaoshi’s horrible brother by myself!”

“Ye Zun?” Shen Wei asked, his tone sounding confused and wary. 

“Yes?”

Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei turned towards the ornate doors, where Ye Zun lounged indolently against the frame, his long silver hair meticulously fashioned in a half bun, his white sweater and grey pants a stark contrast to the dark woods and metals of the vault. 

“What did you do?” Zhao Yunlan asked, scowling as the other man straightened and entered the room.

“He’s been the one spreading those fake Hallows!” Da Qing hissed, turning baleful eyes towards him and growling.  Ye Zun, demonstrating his self-preservation, stopped moving forward.  “He’s the reason you were sent back to the past!”

“Ye Zun!” Shen Wei snapped, glaring at his brother, who seemed undaunted by the growing hostility aimed his way.

“Oh, please!” Ye Zun sighed and held his hands up placatingly even as he rolled his eyes.  “We both knew that he was going to be sent back somehow!  At least this way, he got it over with sooner than later, and now you two don’t have to keep any secrets.  You’re welcome,” he added pointedly.

“You -!” Zhao Yunlan scowled, unable to articulate his rage.  He was exhausted and dirty, and he wanted nothing more than to go home and shower and sleep for a week.  “You know what?” he said and felt Shen Wei’s sharp gaze turn to him at the fatigue filling his voice.  “I’m too tired to deal with you right now. Da Qing, please take care of this for me.”

He set the grumbling cat back down at his feet, smiling at the way the furball rubbed against his legs, weaving in and out of his robes before stalking toward Ye Zun, ears pressed flat against his head.  Ye Zun, wisely, backed up.

With that taken care of, he deliberately turned his back on that mess, looking to Shen Wei with the biggest puppy eyes he could manage, probably looking a bit crazy. 

“Shen Wei, please take me home,” he pleaded.

Without another word, Shen Wei wrapped a steadying arm around his waist and did just that.

&&&

Once the world stopped spinning again, the first thing Zhao Yulan saw was the familiar layout of his apartment.  The sight of his bed, neatly made and waiting for him, almost brought him to tears, and it took everything in his power to resist its call. 

Shen Wei kept a steadying hand under his elbow as Zhao Yunlan slowly stripped off the layers of robes, uncertain what to do with them once he was down to just his undershirt and pants. 

“Let me take care of them,” Shen Wei said, seeing his dilemma.  He had taken each robe as it was given, laying it neatly over the arm of the couch. 

Zhao Yunlan was only too happy to put the robes in Shen Wei’s care.  After all, if anyone would know how to care for them, it would be Heipaoshi! 

“I am going to take the longest shower known to man,” Zhao Yunlan announced.  “And then I’m going to sleep for a week!”

“Both excellent plans,” Shen Wei agreed, the corners of his mouth turned up into a tiny smile.  “Are you steady enough to stand in the shower by yourself?”

Zhao Yunlan turned his most suggestive leer on Shen Wei, earning a small huff of laughter. 

“Go,” he ordered, and gave a gentle push towards the bathroom.  “Just call out if you need me.”

“Shen Wei,” Zhao Yunlan protested, putting a hand dramatically to his heart.  “I always need you!”

Shen Wei’s smile turned just a bit brighter, and he nudged Zhao Yunlan again.  It didn’t take much convincing, and within a few minutes, he was standing under a warm spray of water, the familiar scent of his shampoo and soap enough to bring tears to his eye.  (He was home!)

He stayed under the spray long after he had washed his hair and body, just enjoying the unfamiliar sensation of being completely clean.  The tile was warm under his feet, so different from the sandy river bottom, with its smooth stones that were always a hazard waiting to happen. 

Only after the water had started to turn cool did he reluctantly turn it off, stepping out onto the plush carpet and wriggling his wrinkled toes.  He hadn’t realized his towels were so luxurious, but as he dried off with one and wrapped another around his waist, he couldn’t remember the last time he had felt something so soft. 

He didn’t own a hair dryer, so he draped the damp towel over his shoulders to collect the drips and made his way into the living area, where a mouth-watering smell immediately had his stomach growling. 

“Get dressed and then eat,” Shen Wei ordered, not even turning from the stove where he was stirring a pot. 

There were a pair of black boxers and a plain, white undershirt waiting for him on the bed, and he didn’t hesitate to put them on.  For one maddening moment, he felt supremely under-dressed, and had the oddest urge to grab for his under robe. 

He quickly shook the thought off and settled himself at the table, braiding his still damp hair into a single tail, then wrapping it quickly into a bun and securing it with the bit of leather.  After nearly three months in the past and Da Qing’s endless teasing, he had at least learned how to do that much.

Shen Wei paused when he turned around, bowl in each hand, and just stared at Zhao Yunlan, his eyes heavy and filled with something close to longing.

What do you say to your best friend and lover, when you suddenly discover that they’ve known you for ten thousand years? 

“Hi,” Zhao Yunlan settled on, feeling the smile bloom across his face and doing nothing to stop it.

That seemed to shake Shen Wei from his daze, and he returned the smile, his cheeks flushing as he handed one of the bowls to Zhao Yunlan and settled with the other.  Neither spoke for a few minutes, enjoying the food and the company as Zhao Yunlan slowly settled back into the here and now.

Shen Wei insisted on doing the dishes, and shooed Zhao Yunlan to bed.

“You’re still recovering,” Shen Wei said sternly when Zhao Yunlan protested.  “Sleeping Sickness was responsible for far more deaths than the war, and it becomes more dangerous the older you get.” Shen Wei huffed in remembered indignation.  “You told us you had had it before, so we weren’t as worried as we should have been!”

“Shen Wei, ahhh, Shen Wei!” Zhao Yunlan protested, even as he allowed himself to be tucked into the wonderfully soft bed.  “How was I supposed to explain that there was no way I could have had it?”

Shen Wei did not reply, which was answer enough, and Zhao Yunlan cackled at his annoyance.  All too soon, though, his full stomach and the warmth of the bed had him dozing, and he barely stirred when Shen Wei slid under the covers next to him, gathering him into his arms. 

“I’m so thankful you’re home,” Shen Wei whispered into his hair, pressing soft kisses to his temple. 

Even though there were still so many things to do, confronting Ye Zun on his antics not the least of them, Zhao Yunlan allowed himself to be lulled into slumber by Shen Wei’s soft breaths, and the strong arms holding him tight. 

He was finally home!