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For every scar, a story

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Ye Zun is drowning.

Drowning in his own screams. Black bleeding into red. Shadows of unconsciousness consuming rage. Fire. Pain like molten stone coursing through his veins, oozing from gaping wounds. Each lash of the whip a bolt of lightning. The blood he coughs into the earth scours his raw throat like hot embers. Nothing. It’s all nothing compared to the screams heard only in his own mind. Scars seared into flesh, into memory, into soul.

“Ye Zun.”

Drowning in the hate. Words like knives stabbed into his gut. Useless. Abandoned. Worthless. Monster. Promises turned to poison. Brother turned betrayer.

“Didi.”

Drowning in the memories. Hands like bands of iron. Fists like hurled thunder. Searing chains and abrading rope. Dirt and stone ground into flesh. Falling, body afire, desperation rending rationality. Floating, surrounded by nothingness. Left to the tortures of his own mind. Alone. Abandoned.

“Shen Ye!”

His eyes snap open.

Shen Ye is dead.

There’s warmth to his right. A body.

He doesn’t scream. Screaming draws the predators.

“Didi?”

The body shifts. Away.

He doesn’t move. Moving invites worse attention.

“Can you hear me?”

Hot air against his ice-cold cheek. A breath.

He doesn’t tense. Tensing multiplies the pain.

“Do you remember where we are?”

Another breath. A whisper.

The language is wrong. Different. It lacks the earthy music of their birth tongue. Instead tumbles quick and flowing like summer rain.

“One. Two. Three.”

Breath by breath, the rabbit-quick racing of his heart begins to slow.

“Four. Five. Six.”

Inch by inch, he dares turn his head to the side. Dares meet the dark eyes that gleam in the firelight.

No. Lamplight. Gege’s human had left a small lamp on. He’s with gege and gege’s human. In their bed, in their home. In Haixing. He dares shift, turns towards gege. His body aches like it’s spent hours being used as the new recruits’ practice target. Carefully, keeping his movements as subtle as possible, he tries to loosen cramping muscles and stiff joints.

“You’re awake.” Gege’s voice is quiet, softer than a breath. Ye Zun nods. Gege doesn’t waste words asking if he’s okay, saves Ye Zun the trouble of making his lie convincing. “Do you want to go back to sleep?” Not a demand. Hesitation in his eyes. A question. He weighs the risks of refusing, thinks of the fire waiting in his dreams. Ye Zun shakes his head. Quick and short, eyes dropping to gege’s chest, to the hand tangled in his brother’s shirt. Small movements. A soft sigh. Muscles tensing. Ye Zun waits, breath held.

“Would you like to get up?” The words are calm, neutral. Again, Ye Zun pauses, searching for the silent indications of what the safest response will be. Nothing. Gege’s expression is a blank slate, his body’s subtle cues hidden beneath the blanket and his lover’s clinging arms. The seconds tick by, and his brother just keeps watching him, eyes patient and unreadable. Finally, Ye Zun gives another short nod. “Okay.”

He hesitates, waits for the reaction, good or bad. When none comes, Ye Zun quickly pushes himself upright, starting to slide out of bed in the same motion. However, the blanket snares his leg, and the dip of the mattress beneath the shifting weight throws him off balance. The minuscule distance between him and the edge disappears, and he flails, grabbing for the first solid anchor to keep from hitting the floor. His hand finds something unyielding and laches on. Immediately, his fall is arrested. He pulls himself back to a steady position, then looks down.

His hand is wrapped around gege’s half-raised arm, fingers digging into firm muscle beneath soft cloth. His eyes flick to gege’s, his own discomfiture mixing with another’s memories of hands like shackles and iron chains. But there is only soft amusement in his brother’s eyes, an undeserved fondness Ye Zun yearns to believe.

He makes himself release his grip, hurriedly frees himself from the blanket. The lamp is a wan but steady beacon that he lets draw him in. The couch looks like a good place to pass the rest of the night. Soft enough to sink into, with a direct line of sight to both the windows and the door as well as the bed.

Movement behind him makes him glance back. Gege is carefully untangling himself from his lover, each deliberate move made with patience and the ease of long practice. The human barely stirs as his octopus grip is transferred to a pillow. Ye Zun wonders if all humans are so oblivious when asleep, or if such carelessness is merely a product of the exhaustion still tracing dark bruises beneath his eyes.

He affects an air of nonchalance as his brother follows him to the couch, curling up in the corner next to the lamp. Gege hesitates before sitting in the other corner, glancing at Ye Zun as though he expects a protest. Ye Zun watches him, unblinking, and shrugs. It’s gege’s couch. Or at least gege’s lover’s couch. What does it matter to Ye Zun whether or not he sits?

Silence returns to the apartment, broken only by the soft whirl of electricity and the faintest of snores. Gege seems content to merely sit together. No demands, no interrogations, no penetrating stares like Ye Zun’s a specimen to be dissected. Just, being together. It’s almost…relaxing. Ye Zun finds himself sinking back into the couch, letting the cushions do their best to absorb him.

It’s the part of the night where the passing of time is fluid. Liquid slipping through, around, between fingers. The borderlands where everything feels at once real and unreal, dream and reality. Where only truth exists because there are no walls left to hide one’s lies.

He’s unable to tear his eyes from gege, watching, observing. Incongruous with his short hair and modern sleep clothes, yet somehow belonging here, in this cramped Haixing apartment, in this dirty Haixing city. The image drives a spike of jealousy through him. His brother sitting there, back straight, hands resting on knees, eyes settled and calm, belonging.

“Did you sleep?” The question tumbles out before he realizes his mind had formed it. Gege doesn’t do anything so obvious as startle, but he blinks twice, reaches up to adjust the glasses he isn’t wearing. His hand drops back to his lap.

“I am sufficiently rested.” Ye Zun doesn’t know if that is a yes, he had slept, or if he had spent the past three hours staring into the darkness, trapped between his brother and his lover, between memories and nightmares. He should know. He should be able to read the truth in the cadence of gege’s words, the lie in the tension of his hands around his knees, in the way his eyes flick down before fixing on Ye Zun’s. They’re twins. Ye Zun should fucking know.

His answer apparently given, gege’s gaze returns to his own knees. Ye Zun fidgets with the ends of his sleeves, worries at a loose thread. The silence, once a comfort, has turned oppressive. Gege has never been verbose, but now, of all times, Ye Zun thinks he should have something to say. Should have questions. Should have answers. Should at least be looking at Ye Zun. So he blurts out the first question that comes to mind, hoping to prod gege into paying attention to him again.

“Why do you wear the glasses?” It has been bothering him, ever since he’d regained enough consciousness to cast his awareness out of the Pillar and start stalking his brother. “You don’t need them. Your eyesight is better than any Haixingren’s could ever be.” Gege blinks again. This time, the way he casts his eyes down before looking back at Ye Zun – not meeting his eyes, but at least looking at him – is more contemplative, searching for verity rather than a believable falsehood.

“I suppose because it’s familiar.” There’s a truth in that simple statement that Ye Zun feels in his bones. He tangles his fingers in his sleeves, keeps them from touching his own face, from calling upon the mask that has been his armor for nearly as long as he’s been alive. His armor and his prison. For the first time, he wonders which the mask is to Hei Pao Shi.

“I’m sorry.” He doesn’t know what he’s going to say until the words are already falling between them. Exhaustion clouds his mind, amplifies emotion and muddles thoughts, for all the spike of nightmare-spawned adrenaline still humming in his blood. It makes him want to be reckless, to react rather than plan.

“You’ve already apologized, didi.” There should be more…something, in gege’s voice. More anger, more frustration, more emotion. Not this deliberate patience. “And I’ve already forgiven you.” How? “It wasn’t your fault.”

It was. If Ye Zun hadn’t been so weak and left them vulnerable to the Rebel leader. If Ye Zun had listened to his brother, had actually looked and seen him when fate had crossed their paths. If Ye Zun hadn’t left him alone and defenseless at the Pillar.  

“In Dixing— at the Pillar— if I hadn’t—” The right words scatter, escape his grasping mind. A fleeting touch on the back of his clenched fist makes him flinch. Gege’s stare is burning into him, willing Ye Zun to look up, to look at him, and Ye Zun can’t. Can’t bring himself to meet gege’s eyes and see the…what? Anger? Hatred? Accusation?

“What happened in Dixing was not your fault. The four of them made their own decisions. Their actions at the Pillar are their own. Not yours.” The acceptance, the bland impartiality, as though gege is talking about events concerning total strangers, makes Ye Zun want to scream. To shout at him that this is his life. This isn’t some stupid case that he worked with the fucking SID.

“But you were—” Ye Zun can’t say hurt. That’s what Ye Zun had wanted, at the time. The torture had been started by his own hand. He can’t say the other word, for all the stark truth of it. Not with the guilt clawing at his gut more savagely than even the hunger. He swallows the bile, tries again, “It was my fault.”

“It was not,” gege says firmly, hints of the Envoy’s steel bleeding into his voice. “I survived, and I’ve healed.” Flayed skin and bloodied metal. Gege’s soul pressed tight to his own. A last breath frozen in time. “You saved me, didi. We both survived, and we’re together now. They are dead. Don’t let them haunt you.” Ye Zun’s own words, words he hadn’t even known gege could hear when he said them, let alone that he’d remember them.

“But aren’t you angry?” Ye Zun would have been. He had been. Every lash of the whip had been a pump of the bellows on the flames of his rage. He still is, he realizes. The familiar embers are simmering in his core, just waiting for his recognition to burst afire.

Gege stares at his hands, clenched around his knees, white-knuckled. Ye Zun waits, breath held, muscles tensed against the coming blow. The minutes stretch long enough that he begins to think that silence will be the only answer he’ll be given.

“Yes,” his brother says finally, quietly, the simple word falling heavy and final as the executioner’s blade. “Yes, I am angry.” His voice is even, his face a blank mask, his body holding none of the tension that heralds an attack. And yet Ye Zun has to fight the urge to flee, to submit. To raise his dark energy into both shield and weapon. As if sensing his unease, gege draws back, reinstating a careful distance between them. He closes his eyes and takes a slow, deliberate breath, walls slamming up to contain a storm Ye Zun hadn’t realized was straining to be unleashed. “Not with you. I’m not angry with you, didi.” He opens his mouth as if to continue, but appears to reconsider. He huffs out something that might be a sigh, might be self-mocking laughter. Shakes his head, dismissive, “It doesn’t matter.” He takes another breath, and Ye Zun can practically see the armor of iron control wrapping around him.

It…hurts. Being shut out so completely. Ye Zun feels his own anger surging, feels the need to push and push and push until gege snaps. Would his human receive the same treatment? Have the same walls slammed up in his face? No. Ye Zun’s not letting gege hide from him this time.

“Why not?” The challenge snaps out like a thrown punch. Gege’s eyes widen slightly at the sudden acerbity, then narrow, gaze sharpening. Ye Zun uncurls and twists to face him head on. “Why aren’t you angry with me? I’m to blame.”

“For what?” It’s the Envoy sitting across from him now. Back straight and shoulders braced against the weight of two worlds, face unreadable and eyes dark mirrors. “For another’s idea of misplaced vengeance? For a war started by a natural calamity? For an evil man’s perversions?”

“For all of it,” Ye Zun snaps back, the icy calm of the Envoy only making his temper rage higher. He just manages to contain a flinch to tightening fists as the Envoy’s hand shoots out to the side, sparking with dark energy. But all the energy does is form a barrier between them and the alcove containing the bed. Of course. Wouldn’t want to wake gege’s human. “I tortured you. I twisted the minds of my minions until all they thought of was vengeance against you. I was the leader of the Rebels. I stole the fucking Hallows! I’m to blame for all of it! Aren’t I?”

Suddenly he doesn’t even know when they’re fighting about. The past. The present. It’s all mixed together in a churning mass of guilt and regrets, of what-if’s and could-have’s. That doesn’t stop him.

“You said it yourself. Ten thousand years and I still haven’t repented. I’ve even more blood on my hands now. And still you say you forgive me? That it wasn’t my fault?”

“You are my younger brother. If you need someone to blame, then blame me.” There’s a warning in that low voice that Ye Zun ignores.

“Oh, of course.” He’s on his feet, unable to stay seated. Arms crossed, fingers leaving bruises in his own flesh. “The great Hei Pao Shi. So nobly playing the martyr and taking responsibility for his monster of a brother.” The familiar words spill too easily from his mouth, outracing thought. “Is that why you brought me here? So you can offer yourself to whoever comes looking for my head first?”

“Ye Zun!”

“You’re always so eager to throw your life away for the human.”

“Leave him out of this.” Black lightning in black eyes. Hands clenched so tightly he expects to hear the splintering of bones.

“What? Am I wrong? You were ready to kill yourself just to kill me. For him. Because of what I’ve done.” The look in his brother’s eyes has Ye Zun’s mouth snapping shut. That’s…regret. And pain. Anger, too, but it’s quickly being subsumed by the other two. Pain Ye Zun had caused. Then the mask is firmly back in place.

“I failed you. I couldn’t protect you from him. I couldn’t find you. I almost,” he swallows, gaze falling away. “I failed you as your brother. I am sorry, didi.”

No. It’s all spiraling out of Ye Zun’s control. Gege was supposed to reveal the truth of his anger. Was supposed to tell him what happens next. Was supposed to punish Ye Zun for his crimes. For all his mistakes and failures that led to his brother chained to the Pillar and nearly killed. That led to his brother planning to kill himself just to put a stop to Ye Zun. Gege wasn’t supposed to take the blame upon himself. It makes no sense. And yet, Ye Zun can’t find any lie in gege’s tired eyes. Not in the racing of his heart, nor the rasping of his breath.

Ye Zun forces himself to take a deep breath, forces numb hands to release their grip. Tries to go back to the beginning of it all.

“No, gege. I saw him. You—” Saw. Heard. Felt. “You couldn’t have stopped him. Laoban—Zei Qiu,” he swallows. Repeats, for the both of them, “You couldn’t have stopped him. He took what he wanted. I know.”

Gege’s eyes snap back to his, and Ye Zun forgets how to breathe. The room is drowning in shadows, the air filled with frost. There is that star-cold rage. The hell-spawned fury that could and had sent an army to its knees.

“Did he…” The low almost-growl sends a not unpleasant shiver down Ye Zun’s spine. Gege’s eyes have lightning in them. He’s on his feet, the center of a storm of dark energy, ready to tear a hole in time and space, to leap back across ten thousand years and eviscerate anyone who’d ever laid a hand on Ye Zun. This time, the restrained violence wraps around Ye Zun like a warm embrace.

“No, he…” Fire, scorching heat radiating from the wounds on his back. Each flick of the lash like tongues of flame. Suffocating on his own choked-back tears. “He didn’t rape me.” The words tumble from his mouth unbidden, and Ye Zun nearly misses the aborted flinch, the subtle paling and fingers twitching as though in want of a weapon. The shadows surge, alive, the pressure dropping. He almost falters, almost stops there, then mentally shakes his head. They’ve both survived so much worse; what can words do to them here? Other than ruin them, a voice whispers. “Not all the Rebels agreed with their leader’s predilections. There was just next to nothing they could do about it. One of the men – I don’t know why – somehow got me put to use in the war tent instead of as Laoban’s…more carnal entertainment.”

Gege’s eyes are wide, still simmering with restrained anger, but now tempered by surprise. “He protected you?” The disbelieving hope hurts.

Ye Zun shrugs, picking at the end of his sleeve. He sits, taking the time to school his expression. A heartbeat behind, gege sits as well. The distance he leaves between them hasn’t changed. Ye Zun wonders if it means anything. With deliberate nonchalance, ignoring the slowly dissipating shadows, he answers, “So much as he could. They weren’t all monsters. The ones who simply wanted a better life were just killed more quickly.” The man had lived long enough to secure Ye Zun’s place as an assistant (slave and easy scapegoat) to the Rebels’ mediocre strategist but had died before Ye Zun could even learn his name. Laoban had had little use for those he deemed too soft. There were times Ye Zun had hated the nameless man for it, had wished he’d never tried to save Ye Zun. At least then his death would have come within days rather than been stretched out over years.

“Why don’t you hate me?”

Gege’s eyes widen, “Didi—”

“You should,” Ye Zun cuts him off, voice turning harsh again. “I’m the one who came up with the tactics that killed so many of your men, you know. That nearly killed you. I tried to kill you.” So many times. He hadn’t known at the time that Hei Pao Shi was his brother, but he had hated him, nonetheless. Every beating, every punishment for the Rebels’ failed attacks, for the Alliance’s victories, he had laid on Hei Pao Shi’s shoulders. Every wound to join the web of scars decorating his back, he’d ascribed to Hei Pao Shi’s hand. “You should hate me. Why don’t you hate me?” The question comes out too much like pleading. Too lost, too uncertain, but he needs to know. How much is too much? How far before gege decides that Ye Zun is unforgiveable? Has he passed that line already and gege is simply hesitating to issue punishment out of misplaced guilt? Nails dig into his palms, threaten to draw blood. Gege reaches out but stops at Ye Zun’s flinch.

“Didi, no. I could never hate you.” Gege pauses, and from the corner of his eye Ye Zun can see him carefully choosing his words. Yet there is no deception, no calculated falsehood. Only pure, impossible truth. “I don’t blame you, didi. For any of it. It was war. It was war, and you were a child. You survived.”

“I hated you. I was ready to burn the world just to see you suffer. All because of a lie.” He still doesn’t really give a fuck about the rest of the world, but gege does.

“But when you learned the truth, you didn’t let your hate keep you from changing your mind.” Gege raises his arm, and Ye Zun doesn’t hesitate to accept the invitation. He curls into gege’s chest, feels strong arms wrap around him, hears the rhythmic pulse of gege’s heart. Still rainfall-quick from emotion, but already starting to calm. Softly, words muffled by Ye Zun’s hair but no less clear, gege says, “War makes monsters of us all. You protected yourself when I could not. How could I hate you for that?”

This time Ye Zun lets his brother’s sincerity sooth away the gnawing guilt, lets his touch staunch the bleeding of some of those old wounds. At least for the moment.

Silence, once again a welcomed friend, returns to the apartment. Gege’s fingers are tracing meaningless patterns across his arm, smoothing back the wayward hairs that have escaped Ye Zun’s braid.

Ye Zun can’t help but tense as gege’s hand shifts to start stroking over his back. Immediately the touch stops, then the arms around him loosen.

“No!” The word echoes too loudly in the pre-dawn peace, startles them both into stillness. Gege caught with his arms half-raised, starting to move away. Ye Zun with his hand fisted in gege’s shirt, as if to stop him leaving. “No,” he says more quietly, daring to tug at gege’s shirt, pulling them back together. Gege is tense against him, unsure. He leans his head on gege’s shoulder, clarifies, “Don’t stop.” After a moment, the touch returns, hesitant.

It’s…nice. Comforting. There’s no way his brother doesn’t feel the knots of scar tissue, but he keeps his reaction well hidden. Ye Zun lets his body relax against gege’s, leaning into the touch which grows more confident at his implied acceptance. Gege keeps the strokes just firm enough for the sensation to be felt through damaged nerves, but not so heavy as to seem threatening.

He’s near dozing, letting gege support his boneless weight, when a soft question prods him back towards waking.

“What?” He blinks open heavy eyelids, tilts his head up to peer blearily at gege’s expression, tries to focus on his voice.

“How are you doing? Truthfully.”

“I’m fine,” he says immediately. Inexplicably, a touch of heat rises in his cheeks at gege’s pointed Look. He manages to last a few seconds before admitting, “I’m…adjusting.” Gege just watches him, expectant. The calm patience, as though gege will accept whatever Ye Zun decides to tell him, however much or however little, draws the words out more than any interrogation would, “It’s…different. Having a body again.” He sees the questions in gege’s eyes, the…concern, and hurries to add, “This city’s so noisy. And smelly! I don’t know how you stand it, gege.” He wrinkles his nose and rubs at his ear. Breathes a mental sigh of relief when something like wry amusement twists the corner of gege’s mouth. He’s passed his threshold for emotional honesty tonight. Today. Whatever. The Pillar and any-fucking-thing else can bloody wait until he doesn’t feel like he’s spent a week being flayed alive and then stitched back together with sharp wire.

“With time, one grows accustomed to the chaos. Although, it can be very,” gege pauses, looks like he swallows whatever he’d been about to say. Settles on simply, “loud.” The flat tone coupled with furrowed brows draw an actual laugh from his throat.

“I’d think you’d be well used to ‘loud’, what with the company you’ve been keeping,” he tries for teasing. He still can’t understand just what his brother sees in the human.

“Didi.” Exasperated, but fond. Amused.

“A human, gege. Really?”

“They’re not so different from us, didi.” Chiding now.

Ye Zun bites back his first response, almost chokes on the bitter words. Maybe you’ve spent so much time frolicking around Haixing, you’ve forgotten your own people. He gives a noncommittal hum instead and burrows closer. They can have that fight later. When he’s not the most comfortable he’s been in millennia. He tucks his head back under gege’s chin. He’s not moving unless gege makes him or the world decides to end. And maybe not even for the latter.

***

The sky, the sliver Ye Zun can see through the small window, is turning grey-pink and orange when next the comfortable silence is broken. This time by the disgruntled rumble of a demanding stomach. Once again, Ye Zun finds himself flushing as under his cheek, gege’s chest vibrates with a silent laugh.

“Will you allow me up to cook breakfast?” There’s a gentle smile on his lips when Ye Zun musters enough energy to look up at him.

He pretends to contemplate the question, “Hmm, I’ll consider it. If you’re making something really good, I might let you move.” To his surprise, there’s a flash of something like pain in gege’s eyes, quickly concealed.

“What would you like me to make for you?” The question is not quite hesitant.

Ye Zun opens his mouth to answer, then stops. He…doesn’t really know. The foods in modern Haixing are so different from what they’d had in their childhood. Not that they’d ever had much, just what they’d been able to forage. And the Rebels had never been enthusiastic about feeding their slaves. He’s seen Haixing food, smelled echoes of a thousand different scents when he’d been projecting his consciousness out of the Pillar, but until last night, he’d never tasted any of it.

He had enjoyed the dishes they’d had for dinner. Neither gege nor the human had commented on the amount Ye Zun had consumed. Gege had merely kept putting pieces of meat and vegetables in Ye Zun’s and the human’s bowls. There’d been a small smile on his lips that Ye Zun wanted to always see.

Gege, seeming to sense his predicament, suggests, “How about you come with me to the market, and you can help me pick out some ingredients? I can make noodles. And congee? It’s similar to what our parents used to make.” Ye Zun’s memories of the time before the meteor are wisps of fog at best. If he strains, he thinks he can remember the taste of fresh noodles, the prick of spices on his tongue.

“Okay.”

***

Haixing markets are…an experience. It’s one thing to float through the city’s packed streets as an incorporeal observer. (As an enemy agent searching out weaknesses). It’s a completely different one to be just another body crammed amongst dozens of others.

Gege portals them to a small market across the city. It’s not one he usually frequents, he explains, those being within walking distance of home. But as the situation with the Haixing government is still unknown, he feels it best to go somewhere unlikely to be watched. It makes sense. Ye Zun had sensed the subtle power gege had cloaked them in the previous night, turning away outside eyes until they’d reached the apartment. At least this time the expense of portaling doesn’t leave gege smelling of blood and desperation.

Now, Ye Zun mostly hides behind his brother as gege picks out the ingredients he wants. Gege keeps touching him almost the entire time. A hand on his arm, their shoulders pressed together. His own body used as a shield between Ye Zun and the over-intrusive world. (He never turns his back to the strangers, though. Ye Zun tries to keep a careful distance between them when gege trusts him with his exposed back. Feels the quiver of wire-taunt muscles those few times some ass knocks him into gege’s back. He hopes gege appreciates his restraint in not ripping their throats out.) Gege checks with him about the food, checks on him every time the sheer amount of everything starts to get to him. Ye Zun can’t be annoyed. It feels like he doesn’t breathe until gege has portaled them back to the apartment.

Gege goes straight to the kitchen, getting out the pans he needs with surprisingly little noise. Ye Zun weighs his choices – bed, still occupied; couch, tempting but lacking gege as a pillow; and kitchen – and follows his brother to the kitchen. He perches on one of the high stools and watches the blur of gege’s knife. There’s a peace in gege’s body that Ye Zun can’t recall seeing before. A quiet contentment. Is that all it takes for gege to be happy? Cooking? He dismisses the thought. It’s impossible that it could be so simple.

“What about your human?” Barely an hour has passed since they’d left, but still, Ye Zun had expected gege’s human to be awake by now. Okay, yes, the sun has just barely risen, but seriously. How much sleep does a human really need?

“Zhao Yunlan should be awake around the time breakfast is ready.” The quiet certainty in his voice makes Ye Zun pause.

“Ge,” he starts, unable to stop the grin from spreading across his face. He doesn’t think his brother would, but why should he let pass an opportunity for innocent teasing? Either way, it’s something he can poke at the human with later. “Were you using dark energy to keep your lover asleep until you got home?” Gege’s eyes widen, and there’s a stutter in his knife’s rhythm.

“Of course not!” It’s adorable the way gege’s ears turn pink. It makes Ye Zun want to keep poking at him.

“Really?” He drapes himself over the end of the counter, props his head up on one hand. “You seem very certain of just when he’s going to wake up.”

“He has had a stressful week,” gege says, rather stiffly. The knife resumes its rhythm at a slightly faster pace. “Even when he’s exhausted, he rarely will sleep longer than eight hours.”

“I wonder what you and your human could get up to that would wear him out the same as my people running him ragged for a week.” Interesting. The flush is now visible in his cheeks as well. Ye Zun wonders if he can get it to spread further. In lieu of answering, Gege turns away to wash the lettuce. When he turns back, he’s regained most of his composure.

“You can call him by his name, didi. He is not my human.”

Ye Zun snorts. Oh, he definitely is. “And what name would that be? Zhao Yunlan? Or Kunlun?” Gege stiffens, all the easy contentment gone in a heartbeat. Ye Zun’s grin fades and he sits back up. Here’s a wound he hadn’t expected to hit. “He is Kunlun, isn’t he?” The only time Ye Zun had actually encountered ‘Kunlun’ in the past was that final battle. That had been months after Laoban had returned boasting that he’d killed the famed mountain general, but stories had been circulating about the Envoy and the General being inseparable. Inseparable and such a force to be reckoned with to the point of Ye Zun including Kunlun alongside Hei Pao Shi and his brother in his litany of curses. Ye Zun can’t imagine gege being so close to another other than his human – Zhao Yunlan.

Gege is silent for long minutes. His hands never stop moving, but the look in his eyes makes Ye Zun doubt he’s actually seeing the food in front of him.

“Yes.”

“How’d he end up here?” There’s another long stretch of silence. Ye Zun can see the racing of gege’s thoughts, see him discarding one answer after another. He lets his mind go back to that day, to the images seared into his memory. The sky ripped asunder by a storm of dark energy. The Hallows, radiant, at its center. His brother, unconscious. Kunlun, fighting the sky’s pull, disappearing into a vortex of smoke and energy. The last words to pass his lips gege’s name. Gege’s scream of anguish. His own hatred, gnawing away at the bones of his sanity. The need to kill then surpassed by the need to live. The inexorable force pulling him into the darkness. He drags himself from the memories, manages to keep his voice steady as he asks, “The wormhole?”

“Yes.” Gege seems relieved at not having to try and explain the working of the Hallows (or at not having to create a feasible lie). “This is his time. The Hallows send him back ten thousand years to the War.” His hand drifts up to his neck, to the black cord Ye Zun has only caught a couple glimpses of.

“He gave you whatever that is around your neck, didn’t he?” He hasn’t missed the quick touches and aborted movements. His brother isn’t one to attach sentimental value to meaningless objects, and Ye Zun can think of no one else to inspire such feelings other than Kunlun.

“No.” Ye Zun watches with growing delight as color returns to gege’s cheeks. He raises an eyebrow, and gege adds, reluctantly, “Not on purpose.”

“Gege! You didn’t steal a token from your Kunlun, did you?” Ye Zun will taken any opportunity to ease the shadows he can feel stalking gege. (And if it gives him more ammunition, all the better.)

“Of course not!” The color deepens, actual affront in his voice. Then gege seems to recognize the teasing in Ye Zun’s grin. He smiles, gently, “It’s something he left behind.” Of course. Because while Kunlun was sucked into the wormhole and Ye Zun was imprisoned in the Pillar – cold. emptiness. nothing but anger and hunger and seething hatred. – gege had been left to wander the world. Alone. For ten thousand years. Fuck. Ye Zun’s highly considering punching Zhao Yunlan for abandoning his brother for so long. No, no punching. Gege would probably not appreciate Ye Zun damaging his human. An extended campaign to make the human’s life as irritating as possible (without pushing so far as to upset gege). He wonders if the cat will have any helpful insight. Not that Ye Zun needs assistance in finding out what makes the human tick, but there are always the little things that only someone who’s watched one grow up would know. Then the word gege had used strikes him. Send.

“It hasn’t happened yet.” Of course not. Even trapped in the Pillar, Ye Zun would have felt the reverberations of the sheer amount of power required to rip a whole in the time stream. “Why should I believe you?” The human’s ill-hidden shock when Ye Zun had removed his mask. Realization. “He doesn’t know, does he?” Gege’s silence as he stirs the congee and refuses to look at Ye Zun is answer enough. “You haven’t told him.”

“And neither will you.” There’s the Envoy’s steel command, the iron will that makes even Ye Zun instinctively want to obey. “We’re caught in a time loop; trying to influence things could risk the time stream itself.”

Ye Zun scoffs, “Gege, do you think I care about the time stream?” The lost look in gege’s eyes, though. The way his hand goes instinctively to his trinket when under duress. The way his eyes follow his human as though expecting him to disappear at any moment. As though he’s already lost him. That Ye Zun cares about.

“Ye Zun.” Just his name, but containing a world of stern reprimand and warning. And the smallest bit of pleading. He sighs, already revising his plans.

“Alright.”

“Didi.”

“I won’t tell him! I promise.” The gratitude in his brother’s eyes makes something in him melt. Gege smiles, small and bright and quickly hidden, then turns back to the pots simmering on the stove. Ye Zun rests his chin on his hand, watching his brother cook and scheming.

No, he won’t tell the human about Kunlun, but neither is he going to let him continue his clueless fumbling about. Not after the past week. Not after last night. Ye Zun will (grudgingly) admit that the human had done a halfway decent job at taking care of gege yesterday, but he refuses to send a completely brainless idiot back to a brother whose wounds are still raw and bleeding.

“He doesn’t know, does he.”

“I already told you that he doesn’t.” There’s something false about the confused innocence in his brother’s widened eyes.

“You know that’s not what I’m talking about.” Gege looks away, expression shuttering, tension creeping back into his shoulders. “He doesn’t know about the cliff or,” Ye Zun swallows, throat suddenly lacking all moisture, “or the Pillar.” Silence, gege standing frozen before the stove, is his answer. “You should tell him.”

Gege doesn’t respond. Just turns off the burners and starts transferring steaming food into dishes.

“He’s perceptive.” Ye Zun will give the human that much. He’s still surprised at how well the human had read gege’s closed book. “He’s going to figure it out eventually, but until he does, he’s going to keep making stupid missteps like he did last night.” His brother’s expression still haunts him.

“It wasn’t his fault.” Ye Zun fights the urge to shake him, to snap at him that his human – that Kunlun – isn’t infallible. That not every tiny, little thing is laid on gege’s shoulders. “I should have better control over my reactions.” Pain. Stark terror amplified a thousand times by time’s distorted lens.

“Ge…”

“He doesn’t need to know,” his brother snaps. Immediately the flash of anger is snuffed out, and Ye Zun knows the next words out of his mouth will be an apology.

“Just, think about it,” he hurries to say, before gege can take yet more blame on himself. He lets genuine concern, quiet entreaty, leak into his voice, “Please? I don’t like you being in pain. Even if it’s not physical.” The defensive set to gege’s shoulders eases, and he sets the bowls on the counter before walking over to Ye Zun. Ye Zun reaches for him and gege draws him in.

“I’ll think about it, didi.” Lips brush his temple. “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.”

Of course he will be. He’s Hei Pao Shi. He’s the Envoy. He’s Ye Zun’s gege. Of course he will be fine.

He closes his eyes and tightens his grip, breathing in his brother’s scent and gege holds him closer.

That doesn’t mean Ye Zun can’t help things along a little.