At essence, he was always Kunlun: fast-flowing as a river, diverting around all obstacles, yet steadfast as a mountain. Sometimes the waters were deep, and the man seemed insincere, hiding the goodness that dwelled within at all costs. Sometimes there was a drought, and the unmovable, stubborn man Shen Wei loved was too steadfast for those around him.
That lifetime was one of those times.
When the boy was young, his family tended to call him 'xiao shusheng' and little else. Both he and Shen Wei knew it for the insult it was; he was the opposite of scholarly, and definitely the opposite of a good son.
Shen Wei didn't know exactly how old he was when the relationship between him and the rest of his family broke down. Maybe it didn't really exist in the first place, with the way he grated against everything they threw at him. No amount of discipline taught him to take a different path, and no societal rules could hold him back.
'Xiao shusheng' did what he thought was right. If his family told him not to help the bird that fell from its nest, he'd do it anyway. He handed out purses full of coins to whichever beggar he saw first, and wouldn't hesitate to name a man as disgusting in front of a crowd if he looked at him wrong.
He saw ghosts where others could not, and he knew it for the strength it was. He refused to hide the fact, refused to keep from digging if he saw a mystery he wished to solve. Shen Wei would have ached with misplaced pride in his steadfastness if he wasn't full to the brim with worry instead. Disobedient children who angered the wrong people weren't immune to unfortunate accidents in the middle of the night.
Of course, there was no need to underestimate the soul of Kunlun. He was principled, not stupid. He knew all the enemies he was making and didn't hesitate to leave them all behind.
By the time he'd experienced twelve summers, he gathered all he could from the place that had never been a home and set out on his own. His family and old name abandoned, Gu Tao became the man they'd always denied he could be.
And from then, he was alone. When a boy with enemies ran away, no one followed - there was no one willing to lend a hand just as there was no longer a knife at his back. Privately, Shen Wei hoped he'd find someone, at least; there was only so long a boy could survive when facing down ghosts at every opportunity.
Maybe it was the way he'd been brought up, or maybe it was the way this incarnation was more mountain than man, uncaring of making any connections, but such a friend didn't materialise. Gu Tao sent ghosts back to where they belonged before he even possessed the Zhenhun Ling, but he did little else. No town could entice him, no promise of a warm bed in exchange for favours.
Da Qing showed up with the token not long afterwards, the object tied around his neck just as Shen Wei last left it. With any luck, his arrival boded well for Gu Tao.
In the end, it was anything but. "Go away, I don't have any food for you," Gu Tao said immediately. Before Da Qing could open his mouth, even, but it didn't get much better once he managed it.
At the end of Da Qing's lengthy explanation of the Guardian token, the kinds of things Gu Tao could get at his disposal, and the kind of people who could help him (Shen Wei always tried to be there for that conversation, just to see what kind of reaction, if any, Kunlun's latest incarnation would have to a mention of him), Gu Tao opened his mouth once more. "Can you do anything, though?"
He hadn’t reacted much to the mention of the mysterious Zhanhun-shi. Less than usual, perhaps, but Gu Tao wasn't the kind to be shaken by much; not even a mysterious spirit with unknown centuries behind his existence who—for some reason—wanted to help him.
"Wellllll," Da Qing started, drawing out his answer. "I have a lot of knowledge, so I'm good to have around in a pinch!"
"You're also a cat."
Da Qing turned his nose upwards. It didn't have much of an effect, considering Gu Tao already towered over him. "What's wrong with being a cat?"
Gu Tao waved his Zhenhun Ling in the air, then gestured to the sword at his side. It had already slain a dozen ghosts; Gu Tao had a point. "If you can't help, then scram. If I need your information, I can call for you, can't I?"
For a long moment, Da Qing was silent. When he spoke again, his voice was as cold as when Shen Wei first approached him, years upon years ago now. "You can, I suppose. But it would be better if-" Gu Tao opened his mouth to speak again, and Da Qing shook his head. "Never mind. I'll leave you be."
Shen Wei didn't see them in the same place particularly often after that. He was sure Da Qing would rather soak up the sun and wait for a time when Kunlun's current incarnation wouldn't bombard him with harsh words.
In a way, he couldn't blame him. Who wouldn't want to avoid the harshest parts of their duty if they could? Why would Da Qing disobey the words of his master when asked to take the easy route?
If Gu Tao wouldn't let Da Qing help him, it was up to Shen Wei. And no matter what any incarnation of Kunlun said about or to him, they wouldn't be able to stop him from fulfilling his original promise.
Shen Wei braced himself for a difficult task; harsh words, a jab at Shen Wei's coldness, or a refusal to engage with someone so close to the dead. Instead...
"What did you say your name was?" Gu Tao's smile was bright. He practically jumped after Shen Wei.
"You may call me Zhanhun-shi," he replied.
Gu Tao- Gu Tao pouted. Shen Wei understood, from past experiences observing Kunlun's incarnations, that this was something children often did. It was not something Gu Tao did. "What kind of name is that?"
"It is not my name," he clarified. "It is my title. It is what I am here to do, and what I shall assist you in."
"And everyone calls you that?" Ah, there was the rude, snappish tone Shen Wei knew so well.
Gu Tao stopped in his tracks. "Huh. Okay, then." He paused, looking down at the token in his hands. "You say you're here to help?"
Shen Wei nodded, and Gu Tao smiled. For just a moment, panic seized his heart. He couldn't let this happen. Never again could he allow this man to hold him too close. "I cannot stay for long," he said. Gu Tao's face fell. "I will be here when I am needed."
With that, Shen Wei left Gu Tao behind. He didn't want to admit he was running away.
The problem didn't vanish with time, either. Gu Tao was like that every time he saw him; eager to hear his next words, forever chasing after him when he left, and always badgering him with personal questions. Like he wanted to know Shen Wei. They got on well, words flowing smoothly between them in a way they never did between all Gu Tao's other attempts.
The terrible part of Shen Wei, the part he always tried to keep far away from his feelings surrounding Kunlun, felt a flare of satisfaction each time he watched the way conversation died between Gu Tao and anyone but him. He was used to getting on with Kunlun's incarnations - he wasn't used to being the only one.
The other part of him ached with sympathy at the end of each conversation. Gu Tao was clearly happy to converse with him for hours on end; it was Shen Wei who wouldn't allow it.
He couldn't give Gu Tao the companionship he wanted or needed. He chased after Shen Wei's attention every time they encountered each other, but Shen Wei could never give him enough. Couldn't risk giving him enough.
But it seemed that, no matter what happened and no matter how frustrated Gu Tao became at Shen Wei's constant cold attitude (not by choice, never by choice, but if Gu Tao knew that he'd only chase all the harder), there was no one else he could find companionship with. No one else at all.
It wasn't that he didn't try. He wasn't good at it, and Shen Wei was no expert on forming personal connections, but he knew what an attempt was when he saw it.
He watched Gu Tao hang around in the corners of an inn's restaurant, staring into the bottom of a jug of wine. Sometimes he shot looks across the room towards a young man, but the glances were rarely returned. If they were, even if the rare individual crossed the room to find out about the nameless stranger, the pair never hit it off.
As he aged from his late teen years into full adulthood, it only got worse. Evenings spent brooding in the corner of a tavern became constant yearning looks from each street corner. Street corners became flurries of time when Gu Tao avoided going near people at all. Avoidance became conflict. Conflict turned to isolation. Isolation begot sickness, then recklessness, and then Shen Wei had to step in.
He knew what Gu Tao was doing, of course. Shen Wei told him time and time again: he'd step in when Gu Tao needed him. So whenever Gu Tao wanted him, he'd make the need part happen. Even if it brought him close to death.
Gu Tao gained a certain expertise in fighting ghosts against seemingly impossible odds, but that was about all Shen Wei could say in favour of the issue. It didn’t help the loneliness - Shen Wei couldn't stay for long, even when Gu Tao was worn out and bleeding; he simply deposited him in a bed in the nearest inn and let the cycle repeat.
Shen Wei didn't know how long it could continue. One day, he'd probably act too slowly and it would all be over. Until then, all he could do was his best, hoping against all hope that Gu Tao would at least find someone who would cast him a second glance.
He didn't. Instead, it all stopped. Gu Tao ceased drifting in street corners or watching people with a heart wrenching gaze. He kept to himself. He still didn't smile in the right places or say nice words when people expected him to, but his face no longer held that disappointed frown when someone walked away in a huff. He stopped asking Shen Wei to stay a little longer once their work as a pair was done.
Shen Wei liked that better, at least. He didn't have to feel the pain of parting quite so keenly now.
The part he didn't like better was the listlessness. Where before Gu Tao chased everything in his grasp with near endless energy, now he spent days in the room of an inn, waiting for the hints to come to him. He ate less, fought less. Sometimes, the only person he spoke to for several days was a handful of words with Shen Wei.
Shen Wei didn't dare try to remind Gu Tao of his purpose, his duty. He had no right to; he gave Gu Tao nothing but expectations. Every so often, he offered protection.
But he knew protection wasn't what Gu Tao wanted. It was—and had always been—his companionship. The one thing Shen Wei could never offer him.
As time wore on, it seemed ever more likely that Gu Tao would never stop drifting. That he'd always be alone. As time wore on, Shen Wei tried to tell himself that Gu Tao would pull through, that he’d find a companion who could always be at his side. Even as it looked unlikely, Shen Wei hoped that one day things would change.
It never did.
"Zhanhun-shi," Gu Tao said, one hand curled tightly around the grip of his whip. Shen Wei turned from the final horde of dispersing ghosts; it would be a pain for whoever had to clear up this mess, but it didn't matter. He had to clear them out before Gu Tao got hurt. Before Shen Wei stayed too long. "Do you have a name?"
Shen Wei pushed back the upward flicker of his lips. Gu Tao didn't need to see him smile. "Not one important enough to eclipse the one you already use," he answered.
Gu Tao chuckled, and Shen Wei's hands froze. There was pain in his voice, and a wet sound when he inhaled. When was he injured? "If you tell me, I promise I'll only use it once."
No. No, no. Not now, not yet. Not before he found someone whose mind fit with his. Not before he could smile when he looked into the eyes of a peer. Not now, when there was no one else.
"You're injured," he said. "Gu Tao, when did you-"
A smile broke onto Gu Tao's face, like the sun that might never grace it again. "When you weren't looking," he said. He chuckled again, and this time blood seeped from his lips. No, no. Not again. "It's funny, isn't it Zhanhun-shi? You spent so long watching me from a distance, but when it counted you couldn't see."
"How did you-"
Gu Tao scoffed, then winced. "You always seemed to arrive at just the right time. You couldn't have done that so many times unless you were watching."
"Maybe I-" There was no point continuing; Gu Tao would hear the way his voice quaked. Really, it should have been Gu Tao who was scared of death.
Then again, he didn't have to deal with what came after. He didn't know what death felt like. He hadn't loved anyone in his life enough to feel the pain of losing them, but Shen Wei lost everything, over and over and over again.
"Please, Zhanhun-shi." Gu Tao's voice sounded pained. Shen Wei wondered if it hurt as much for Gu Tao as it did for him. "Your name? If only to have one to hold close to my heart when I-"
How did he always know what to say? How could he strike Shen Wei right in the heart he didn't have? "Shen Wei."
"Shen Wei." He always loved and hated in equal measure the way his name left Kunlun's lips. This time, Shen Wei thought he hated it more. It was barely a phrase, more a sigh. The last gasp of a man who lived too little, who died too soon. "I knew you had a name. Which meaning for Wei?"
Kunlun had asked him as much more than once now. One day, Shen Wei may even lose count of how many different incarnations of him might share that same curiosity, that desire to know him.
He never could let them. But answering this question could not hurt a dying man any more. "Wei as in to stand tall and solid," he answered.
Gu Tao laughed again. Shen Wei wished he could have heard that more often, but it was too late now. Even if he'd known how short Gu Tao's life would be, he wouldn't have been able to do anything to make it much better. "Do you stand tall alone?"
He stumbled, then, and what could Shen Wei do but catch him? What was wrong with seeing Kunlun's blood on his hands once more? "I do."
When Shen Wei lowered Gu Tao to the ground, trying to sit alongside him, Gu Tao let out what was probably meant to be another laugh. It sounded more like a whine. “Why didn’t we stand together?"
Shen Wei squeezed his eyes shut. This never got easier to watch; he could hear the rattle of Gu Tao's difficult breaths in his chest, the gurgle of the last of his life's blood rising in his throat.
He jolted at a tug on his sleeve. When he opened his eyes, Gu Tao's hazy ones stared up at him, his expression desperate. He tugged again; stronger, this time, but still weak. "Shen Wei."
"You said you'd only use it once," Shen Wei said, gathering the man into his arms. There was nothing else the aching chasm in his chest would let him do.
"How could I keep my word with a beautiful name like that?"
"Don't talk too much," Shen Wei said immediately. Please, his heart told him. Please speak, so I can commit this tenor of your voice to memory until you scatter once more into nothing. "You'll waste your energy."
"What would I save it for? Living a little longer?" Gu Tao's lips curled upwards, but he didn't laugh again. It probably hurt too much. "Shen Wei, it already hurts so much. Don't make me keep going on alone."
Shen Wei's breath caught painfully in his throat. "I'm sorry."
Gu Tao's brow furrowed. Sweat beaded on his forehead and his limbs trembled. He didn't have long left. "You can't just say things like that," he said. "Why would you apologise to me?"
Because he couldn't keep him safe. Because his presence, even like this, probably ended Gu Tao’s life sooner. Because he'd left him alone when he could have kept him company, because he hadn't persuaded Da Qing to spend just a little more time with him. Because it was Shen Wei's fault that Kunlun was tossed around the world like this, life after life.
Because he loved Gu Tao, just as he'd loved every version that came before and every version that would come after, but he'd left him alone when he needed him most.
"I could have protected you from that blade," he said instead. There was no reason to lie, but would the truth comfort a dying man?
"Don't be sorry." Gu Tao smiled. Why was his smile always so beautiful? Why did Shen Wei never get the chance to savour it? "You did your job. And you're keeping me company now. That's all I need." His hand rose; perhaps to Shen Wei's shoulder, or maybe his face. Shen Wei would never know - his hand couldn't make it before his eyes closed one final time.
All over again, Shen Wei broke into pieces. It always happened. It would happen again, and again, until there was nothing left of him.
He was surprised there was still anything left to give. He didn't know how much longer he could bear it.
Taking the body to be prepared for its final resting place was a cold, hollow task. Shen Wei did his best to clean the bloodstains, but he knew what it looked like; anyone with any sense would think Shen Wei killed him. A select few with knowledge of the past would know it wasn't the only time.
Still, it left the remnants of a threat hanging over his head as Shen Wei waited for everything to be ready; the bare minimum rites for the dead were conducted with the kind of haste that could only come from a fear for life. Shen Wei didn't mind; the sooner this accursed business was over, the better.
Eventually, the man he'd left in charge of the rites approached him. He looked a little afraid as he approached, his fingertips clutching the edges of his sleeves. "Sir," he started, "you said this was the body of a man?"
Shen Wei nodded. "And his name was Gu Tao, like I told you."
"When we were preparing the body, we-"
Shen Wei stood sharply from his chair. "Is there any problem with the instructions I gave?"
"No, no, of course not." The reward for Shen Wei's efforts was a helpless smile, born of a desire only for the money that came from this thankless task.
There was no one else to do this for him; it fell to Shen Wei alone. It fell to Shen Wei to watch the birth, life, and death of this desolate soul, and then to lead him onwards to begin it all anew.
That lifetime, only one person ever loved Kunlun. It was the same person as always, hidden away, never able to hold him in the way he deserved.
Loving him alone was far worse than sharing him. The pain of watching Kunlun's reincarnations marry paled in comparison to a lonely grave, with no descendants to worship a lonely man.
Shen Wei was tired of loneliness.