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“Tuck away those antlers,” Kunlun said, glancing at Shen Wei before looking back at the village settled in the valley below them. “And let’s go ask some questions.”

“Is it safe?” Shen Wei asked.

“I doubt that there are dragon hunters down there,” Kunlun said.

Shen Wei blinked at him. “No,” he said. “For you.”

Kunlun laughed. Shen Wei liked the sound, even if it was at his expense. “The humans yet have to find a way to hurt gods, so yes, it’s safe for me. You can get those antlers out of sight, right?”

Shen Wei nodded and concentrated. As he pulled his antlers into his condensed body, Kunlun’s ever-present aura seemed to dim. He didn’t know if hiding his antlers caused his sensitivity to lower, or if it was because Kunlun himself had decided to minimise his presence. 

In the end, Shen Wei figured it mattered little so he didn’t ask. He followed Kunlun further down the mountain, like he’d been following Kunlun for weeks already. They were well beyond Kunlun’s own mountain range. Shen Wei had seen how it discomforted him those first few days but Kunlun hadn’t said anything, so Shen Wei hadn’t brought it up either. 

At the time, Shen Wei had wished there was something he could do to comfort Kunlun, but there didn’t seem to be anything Kunlun really needed. He’d resorted to sleeping really close to Kunlun, practically wrapped around him, if he were honest, because he’d noticed Kunlun always smiled when he curled up next to him. More than once, Shen Wei woke with a hand in his hair. The hand always left as soon as Kunlun noticed he’d woken up though.

Technically, now that he was fully healed, Shen Wei didn’t need to sleep every night, just like how he didn’t need to eat all too often. They travelled through the night quite regularly, making progress towards the east. Still, Kunlun insisted that Shen Wei would sleep to keep up his strength and so, Shen Wei obliged. He was willing to do just about anything if it made Kunlun happy.

“Let me do the talking, alright?” Kunlun said, smiling teasingly. “Little dragon that knows how to look like a human but doesn’t know how to act like one.”

Shen Wei hung his head. “I’ll learn,” he remorsefully said despite the clear tease. 

It seemed there was so much he needed to learn in order to be useful to Kunlun. He was determined to learn it all but it also made him sad to think how inadequate he was.

“I’m sure you will,” Kunlun said.

He patted Shen Wei’s head, immediately brightening him up. After a huff of amusement, Kunlun turned and walked into the village. Suddenly, there was a sack tied to his back and Kunlun wordlessly handed Shen Wei another one. The villagers seemed wary of them at first, but when Kunlun announced he had herbs and roots from deep in the mountains, they curiously approached.

“Come on, lay it out on the ground,” Kunlun said, gesturing to the sack in Shen Wei’s hand.

Shen Wei looked at it, confused, but decided to open it. To his surprise, he found dried ginseng, a few mushrooms, and other herbs inside. Gingerly, he unfurled the sack — which turned out to be a square piece of cloth — to show the villagers what was inside.

“Forgive his slowness,” Kunlun said. “Xiao Wei is still new to this all. He’s an apprentice of sorts.”

Shen Wei glanced up at him, wide-eyed, at the nickname. Kunlun didn’t seem to notice. He was busy chatting up the villagers, asking about where he should travel next according to them, if there were any strange happenings around that he had to avoid, and so on, all the while selling the contents of the bag and telling Shen Wei what to hand out and what not. 

Shen Wei gazed at him in astonishment. He made it look so easy. Those few times Shen Wei had tried to interact with the humans, they’d called him strange and, on one particular occasion, had even chased him off. Yet all of them seemed to like Kunlun. Shen Wei couldn’t blame them, he liked Kunlun too, but, for some reason, he didn’t like what was happening. 

He didn’t like how all those humans seemed to want some of Kunlun’s attention, and how Kunlun so openly talked to them. Kunlun barely ever talked to him. Was he not interesting enough? Shen Wei hung his head again. He didn’t know how to be interesting. His didi had liked him well enough, but maybe that was purely because they were brothers? Shen Wei didn’t know how to be interesting to anybody else.

“No, no,” Kunlun said, drawing Shen Wei’s attention again. “That’s very kind of you, but I would like to travel on. We’re quite used to sleeping in the forest. Don’t worry about us. Pack up, Xiao Wei, we’re moving on.”

Shen Wei glanced at the woman that was insisting that they stay for the night and frowned, before turning the cloth back into a bag. He’d studied the knots when he’d unpacked it so he managed to at least make it look somewhat the same as before.

Kunlun was still refusing the woman when Shen Wei stood. “Ah,” he said. “All packed. I’m afraid we will be leaving. Good day to you.”

He walked away, leaving a disappointed woman behind, and Shen Wei followed. Once they were back in the forest and well out of sight of the village, the sack in Shen Wei’s hands disappeared, as well as the one slung around Kunlun, and Kunlun’s aura returned. At least that answered one of Shen Wei’s questions. 

They walked until night started to fall and Kunlun stopped at what he deemed a comfortable resting place.

“What’s wrong?” Kunlun asked, turning to regard him. “You’ve been brooding. And why are you still hiding your antlers?”

“Do you like the humans?” Shen Wei asked, fidgeting a little.

Kunlun looked away, back towards the village. “I guess they’re not uninteresting,” he said, confirming Shen Wei’s worries. “Why?”

“I’ll learn how to be interesting too,” Shen Wei said in answer. He didn’t know how he would do it, but for Kunlun, he would.

“What?” Kunlun asked.

“I promise I’ll learn how to be interesting too,” Shen Wei repeated.

“Who said you aren’t interesting now?” Kunlun said after a while.

Shen Wei shook his head. He felt embarrassed. Ever since Kulun had decided that they would find Ye Zun together, Shen Wei had thought that maybe Kunlun did like having him around. He was probably wrong. Kunlun wouldn’t even be uncomfortably far outside of his mountain range if it wasn’t for him.

“Xiao Wei,” Kunlun said with a sigh. “What’s gotten into you?”

“I’m sorry,” Shen Wei said.

A silence fell over them as Kunlun regarded him. Eventually, he went to sit against a tree and patted the ground next to him.

“Come on,” he said. “It’s getting late.”

Shen Wei hesitated but eventually gave in to temptation. He liked sleeping next to Kunlun. He made himself small as he curled up, still feeling sad, and carefully reached out to take a handful of Kunlun’s robes. It had become a habit he couldn’t break. At some point, that handful of fabric had become soothing to him. Moments later, he was fast asleep.

When he woke up to the early morning light, Kunlun’s hand was petting his hair. Shen Wei sighed with contentment. Much to his surprise, the hand didn’t leave.

“Why are you holding your antlers back?” Kunlun asked.

“I look more human without them,” Shen Wei answered, lulled into a pleasant, somewhat dreamy state by the hand still petting him.

“But you’re not human,” Kunlun said.

“I know,” Shen Wei said, curling in on himself. 

It inadvertently pulled his head away from Kunlun’s hand and he immediately regretted it. But maybe it was for the best. Kunlun hadn’t petted any of those humans so maybe it wasn’t a good thing, no matter how wonderful it felt.

“Why do you want to look more human?” Kunlun asked in a tone that suggested he was trying to figure out something complicated.

“You like the humans,” Shen Wei admitted, sitting up and looking away.

“But I like you more,” Kunlun said.

Shen Wei threw him a confused look, not believing his own ears. “But you hardly ever talk to me,” he said.

“I’m talking to you now.”

“I’m making a nuisance of myself.”

“Xiao Wei, how could you possibly be a nuisance?”

“But-”

Shen Wei yelped as Kunlun reached out and abruptly pulled him closer. He didn’t quite know what to do when his entire side ended up pressed against Kunlun and he had to throw a leg over one of Kunlun’s in order to keep balance. His bewilderment only grew when Kunlun started petting him again.

“I should redo these braids soon,” Kunlun murmured to himself. “They’re starting to go everywhere.”

Silence fell over them as Kunlun continued petting him. Shen Wei couldn’t help but relax after a while. He didn’t notice when he actually started purring.

“You make the same sound in your sleep when I pet your hair,” Kunlun said with something akin to fondness in his voice. “I like it.”

The admittance initially shocked Shen Wei out of his purring but, hearing Kunlun say he liked it, he tentatively started again.

“Ah, Xiao Wei,” Kunlun eventually said. “All this because I talked to those humans?”

Shen Wei ducked his head a little. “You looked happy.”

“And you think I’m not happy now?”

“You’re away from your mountains because of me.”

Kunlun paused his petting for just a moment before picking it up again. “I’m away from my mountains because I want to help you save your brother,” he answered. “I could have just as easily decided to stay there and force you to figure it out on your own. I could have driven you away, if I really wanted to.”

“But-”

“Once your brother is free,” Kunlun interrupted, “I’ll go back to my mountains and you’ll be free to do whatever you like.”

“I’ll follow you back,” Shen Wei immediately said.

“We’ll see, little dragon,” Kunlun answered. “You’ll have your brother to think of then.” He shifted against the tree and changed the subject. “There’s no telling how old the news is in places like this,” he said, “but that mountain of yours still seems like the most likely location to find your brother. We’ll have to ask around a few more times on our way there. It’s right in the middle of hunter territory though.”

“I know,” Shen Wei answered.

“And still you went there?”

“I flew,” Shen Wei said. “It’s my didi.”

Kunlun hummed. “Let’s get going,” he said, prompting Shen Wei to stand. Kunlun turned to face him and pouted a little. “Still no antlers?”

Unable to stand that particular look, Shen Wei released his antlers from his grip. He shook his head at the feeling. It was somewhat a relief to have them back out in the open. As he looked up again, Kunlun had his hand outstretched. It wasn’t the first time he’d unconsciously reached out to Shen Wei’s antlers. He seemed somewhat fascinated with them.

Making a decision, Shen Wei tilted his head a little, causing Kunlun’s fingers to touch his antlers. Shen Wei shivered at the contact, and shivered a little harder when Kunlun dragged his fingers upwards.

“I thought I wasn’t supposed to do this,” Kunlun said.

“It’s … intimate,” Shen Wei admitted, his eyes closed and working hard to keep himself in check.

Kunlun touching his antlers was a lot different from his didi touching them and it was having some unexpected effects on him. He licked his dry lips, standing stock-still.

“I see,” Kunlun said, pulling his hand away. He smiled when Shen Wei blinked his eyes open again. “Thank you, Xiao Wei.”

xXxXxXx

Knowing how ancient the dragons were, it kept surprising Kunlun how young Shen Wei seemed to be. It almost seemed like he had lived a life so far away from the actual world that he’d never grown out of his innocence. It was baffling. And it also explained why the dragons had failed to guard against the humans.

The incident after their visit to the village had confused him. He was so used to being alone that he wasn’t entirely sure about how to include someone else in his life. He didn’t mind Shen Wei following him. On the contrary, he liked having the dragon around, but he was starting to think that that might not be the same as being with Shen Wei. 

The conversations he’d had with the humans had been entirely meaningless. Some banter, some teasing, some flirting even, in order to make them like him and share their information. It meant absolutely nothing. But for Shen Wei to come to the conclusion that it meant that he was uninteresting and that Kunlun liked the humans more, it was a train of thought that Kunlun still couldn’t unravel. And because he couldn’t unravel it, he didn’t know how to fix it.

He wasn’t used to being ignorant and it was frustrating. He knew every blade of grass, every bug that slithered under every rock and every leaf that fell from the trees back in his mountains. Even in the unfamiliar territory they found themselves in now, Kunlun was keenly aware of all the living and dying things around him. 

A shaft of sunlight fell onto the path in front of him as the clouds parted. Kunlun looked up and was struck with a thought. He knew everything there was to know about the mountains, but if he were high up in the air, he wouldn’t have a clue what to do.

He stopped in his tracks and looked up through the trees to the moving clouds. “Do you miss flying?” he asked.

“What?”

Kunlun looked over his shoulder at Shen Wei. “Do you miss flying?”

Shen Wei looked up to the sky, a wistful smile around his lips. It troubled Kunlun.

“I do,” Shen Wei answered.

“Then why are you down here?”

Shen Wei frowned at him. “We’re walking.”

“You could be flying while I’m walking.”

“But I wouldn’t be able to see you,” Shen Wei said, still frowning. “And others would see me.”

Kunlun had to agree on that second point. Shen Wei shouldn’t be seen for his own safety.

“Does it take a lot of magic to transform?” he asked.

“Quite a bit,” Shen Wei agreed. “That’s why-” He shifted, looking embarrassed. “That’s why I looked so monstrous at the beginning.”

“Monstrous?” Kunlun echoed in shock. 

Shen Wei nodded. “I didn’t have enough magic to properly shift. I’m sorry you had to look at those eyes and claws for so long. They weren’t very, uhm-”

“Human like?” Kunlun supplied.

“I changed it as soon as I could, I promise.”

“Xiao Wei,” Kunlun said with feeling. “You thought it bothered me?”

Shen Wei looked at him and tilted his head in that curious way of his, as if he couldn’t quite grasp what Kunlun was saying. 

For a moment, Kunlun didn’t know what to do next. He’d always assumed that Shen Wei had continued to change his appearance because of his own preference. And maybe it was still his own preference, but he had never even so much as considered that Shen Wei would think he would be bothered by the dragon-like qualities that had remained at first.

“Wait,” he then said, “does that mean you can change your appearance at will?”

“I can, uhm, shift to different stages between human and dragon?” Shen Wei answered, making it sound more like a question than an actual answer.

“So, if I said I would want to see those scales again?”

“Scales?”

“You had scales down your back when you went to clean up in the lake,” Kunlun said.

“Oh.” There was a touch of magic in the air and then Shen Wei shrugged his robes from his shoulders, turning around and exposing his back. “These?”

“Huh,” Kunlun said, mesmerised with how the scales shifted and glimmered in the sunlight as Shen Wei moved to pull his hair away. “Are they hard? Like your usual scales?”

Shen Wei blinked and then tried to look down his own back. “I think?”

Shaking his head with amusement at Shen Wei’s lack of knowledge, Kunlun reached out to tap a finger against the scales, then flatten his hand. Shen Wei trembled under his touch and Kunlun suddenly realised he was practically touching Shen Wei’s naked skin. He quickly pulled his hand back.

“They seem hard enough to me,” he said. “It’s good to know. It could protect you if we go into hunter territory.”

“What do I do?” Shen Wei asked, pulling his robes back up.

“What do you mean?” Kunlun asked.

“Do I keep them? The scales?”

“It’s your body, Xiao Wei.”

“But do you like them?”

“Why does that matter?”

To his surprise, Shen Wei started blushing and turned away from him, retying his robes. Kunlun shook his head again and started walking.

“Let’s go up,” he merely said.

“Up?” Shen Wei asked.

Kunlun didn’t answer but steadily started moving up the mountain. It was nearing evening when they finally reached the treeline and walked out onto an open plain. It seemed suitable enough.

“There,” Kunlun said. “You can fly now.”

Shen Wei looked at him, eyes going wide. “You’re sending me away?”

“What? No, silly dragon. Why do you keep thinking that?” Kunlun asked. He made a wide motion with his arm. “You said you missed flying. There’s plenty of room to transform here. This place is deserted and night is falling so nobody will see. I’ll stay above the treeline during the night.”

Shen Wei shifted, clearly excited at the prospect but still holding back. “But,” he said. “What if something happens and I’m above the clouds and don’t see?”

“I’ll whistle,” Kunlun answered, amused. “And really, Xiao Wei, I can take care of myself. I’ve been doing so of millenia.” 

“You’re- You’re not going to disappear?”

“No, Xiao Wei,” Kunlun said, stepping forward and petting him between his antlers. “I’m not going to disappear. Now up in the sky you go.”

A childish kind of joy seemed to envelop Shen Wei. He turned and ran across the open space.

“Where are you going?” Kunlun called out.

Shen Wei stopped and turned around. “I’m big?” he answered, as if confused why Kunlun even had to ask.

After Shen Wei had taken a good look around, his form seemed to shimmer and expand. Kunlun tried not to jump in surprise as Shen Wei’s now enormous head appeared right in front of him.

“Kunlun!” a voice very similar to Shen Wei’s but deeper joyfully called out in his head.

Reaching out, Kunlun patted Shen Wei’s nose. He had to admit, he’d forgotten exactly how big this dragon version of Shen Wei was.

“Go on now,” he said. “I’ll be down here.”

Shen Wei gently nudged him before unfurling and looking up at the sky. His wings opened and Kunlun remembered just in time to brace himself as Shen Wei jumped up into the sky and those wings boomed to propel him further up. Kunlun watched him for a while, smiling at how clearly Shen Wei enjoyed being in the air again. The dragon was twisting and turning, elegant in its movements, before looking down one more time and then disappearing above the clouds.

Feeling happy himself, Kunlun started walking again. He was aware of how often Shen Wei dipped under the clouds to check on him. It happened so often that it saddened Kunlun somewhat. It became disturbingly clear to him how afraid Shen Wei was of being abandoned and he wondered if that had always been the case or if it was a result of his brother disappearing.

By the time morning came, Shen Wei landed, buffeting Kunlun with blasts of wind that had a badly-earthed bush fly into the air. 

“Did you have fun?” Kunlun asked once the winds died down. 

Shen Wei had placed his head near him again and Kunlun automatically reached out. Remembering the days he’d sat next to a wounded Shen Wei, he walked up along his head and started scratching the fur behind his ears. Shen Wei rumbled, then started purring, the sound enough to send a slight vibration through the ground.

“The currents trickled,” Shen Wei said.

“The currents trickled?” Kunlun echoed, uncomprehending.

Shen Wei hummed in answer, the sound barely distinguishable above the purring.

“I don’t know what that means, Xiao Wei,” Kunlun admitted.

That caused Shen Wei to open his eyes again. He started turning his head but then decided against it when Kunlun stopped scratching and pushed it right back into Kunlun’s hand. With a huff of amusement, Kunlun obliged and scratched for a while longer before speaking up again.

“Why don’t you turn back and explain it to me, hmm?” he suggested, taking a step back.

Shen Wei huffed and, with a surge of magic, shimmered back into his human shape.

“You don’t know?” Shen Wei asked, tilting his head and sounding uncertain.

“No,” Kunlun easily agreed. “I’m a god of the mountains, not one of the sky.”

“Oh.”

“Tell me while we walk.”

Shen Wei scurried to catch up and then made an uncertain little sound.

“I don’t know how to explain,” he started. “The air moves, like… Like water? Somehow? Like when you have a stream that flows over rocks and through bends, but in more directions?”

“And that changes how you can fly?” Kunlun asked.

“Well, yes.”

With some prompting, Shen Wei tried to explain more. As they continued towards the east, Kunlun got Shen Wei to talk more about the sky while, in turn, he told Shen Wei about the forests they walked through. Shen Wei gobbled up the information like it was one of those fish he’d eaten that day in the lake and soon started pointing at plants and repeating what he’d been taught in a questioning manner, beaming every time Kunlun told him he got it right.

xXxXxXx

“There’s a large, living creature in there,” Kunlun said, his head tilted to the side as if listening to something. “I don’t know anything that big other than you.”

“Didi,” Shen Wei whispered from where he stood next to Kunlun, gazing towards a mountain that was clearly, explicitly, kept barren. 

A road wound its way up alongside it. They could vaguely see a few entrances with guards halfway up the mountain, and one, much larger opening near the top. The latter seemed to be closed off with a grate. 

Shen Wei turned to regard Kunlun. “Stay here,” he said. “I’ll go.”

“Stay?” Kunlun echoed with a laugh. “Bold, Xiao Wei. Why would I do that?”

“So you’ll be safe,” Shen Wei answered with a frown. “I cannot ask you to come with me.”

“You’re not asking, I’m offering.”

“No,” Shen Wei said, shaking his head. “I should protect you, keep you safe. You’ll be safe if you stay here and out of sight.”

“Xiao Wei,” Kunlun said with a sigh. “How are you even planning to get in there?”

“I’ll be careful,” Shen Wei answered. “And stealthy.”

“You think stealth can get you past that level of protection?”

“It’s my didi. It’ll have to.”

Kunlun shook his head. “You’ll get captured,” he said.

“You have to stay,” Shen Wei insisted.

“I’ll get you inside,” Kunlun countered.

“But you’ll be in danger!”

“I’m a god, Xiao Wei,” Kunlun answered, looking back at the mountain. “And those are humans. Remember what happened at that town where you accidentally mentioned my name?”

Shen Wei hung his head. “I’m still sorry about that.”

“And I’ve said that there’s no need,” Kunlun answered with a fond pat on Shen Wei’s head. “But humans worship gods. Even dragon hunters do. Me showing up there and demanding to see the dragon should be enough to addle their minds, for them to not or barely take note of you, and then get us inside.” He thought for a moment. “We unchain your brother and open that gate, then slip out while your brother makes a run for it.”

Shen Wei hesitated. He really wanted to save Ye Zun and he knew that going in on his own would be extremely difficult, but he didn’t want to endanger Kunlun, no matter how small the danger would be.

“I’m not entirely powerless or defenceless away from my mountains, Xiao Wei,” Kunlun said, voice soft. “You’ll be in a lot more danger going in there than me.”

“If something goes wrong,” Shen Wei eventually said. “You have to promise me to run. Leave me and didi behind.”

“Xiao Wei…”

“Promise me.”

Kunlun eventually nodded. “Pull up your hood and walk behind me. If they do notice you, I’ll be very dismissive. You know that’s not how I really think about you, right?”

Shen Wei smiled at him. “I know,” he said, thinking about the last few weeks of travel. About how he could now freely crawl under Kunlun’s arm when he went to sleep and how Kunlun had taught him about the world they walked through every day.

“Good,” Kunlun said. “Turn your skin into scales, just to be certain.”

At Shen Wei’s nod, Kunlun pulled in his aura, turned, and started walking towards the barren mountain. Shen Wei tucked away his antlers and pulled up his hood, bending his head and shoulders to look like he was respectfully and maybe a little fearfully following his god. 

As they walked through the small settlement at the bottom of the mountain, they turned a few heads but nobody seemed to care about their presence. Shen Wei felt nerves skitter down his spine and settle in his stomach. He trusted Kunlun, but he felt exposed, boldly walking through a dragon hunter town like that.

Kunlun walked towards the road up the mountain as if he had every right to be there, not even bothering to acknowledge the guard posts at the beginning of it. There was an arrogant swagger to his steps that Shen Wei had never seen before. He was surprised that the guards didn’t protest as they walked past them, despite the keen way in which they were being observed.

The walk up the mountain was long. Or maybe it only seemed long to Shen Wei, he didn’t know. When they finally reached the main entrance, they were stopped.

“What is your business here?” a man demanded.

“I’ve heard you have a dragon here,” Kunlun haughtily answered. “I wish to see it.”

The man scoffed. “You wish to see it?” he sneered, looking Kunlun up and down. “Are you certain you can pay the price?”

Shen Wei froze, horror rushing through him as the realisation dawned that his brother had been considered an oddity to be viewed at the right price. That he’d been used as entertainment.

His horror was somewhat buffered as Kunlun forcefully released his aura.

“Pay for it?” he raged. “Pay? Have you any idea who’s standing before you? I am a god and you will bow to my will.”

The man was trembling, eyes wide in shock, but still managed to hold his position.

“Any- Anybody- It’s, uhm… Anybody can claim… Claim to be a god,” he managed to stutter.

Kunlun took a threatening step forward, the mountain rumbling as he did so. “You dare?”

It seemed like someone had cut the final strings that were keeping the man up as he crumbled to his knees. Shen Wei glanced at Kunlun in awe and a touch of fright. This was an entirely different god than he’d seen the weeks before, and he knew it was all an act, but the look on Kunlun’s face was such that Shen Wei felt a shiver go down his back as well.

“I wouldn’t dare. I wouldn’t dare,” the man pleaded, kowtowing. “I’ll bring you to the dragon. Please allow me to live.”

Kunlun scoffed. “Show me.”

Standing, the man raised a trembling hand to point at Shen Wei. “What- What about him?”

“My servant, of sorts,” Kunlun answered with a dismissive glance. “You don’t have to mind him. He’s not worth mentioning.”

“Of course. I- I understand. It’s this way.”

As they followed the man, Kunlun allowed his aura to lessen again, enough to still be felt but no longer overwhelming. They came across a patrol on their way up, but seeing that they were being escorted, they didn’t pay them any attention. Shen Wei felt tense, wound tight as a coil. He clamped his mouth shut, suppressing a pained wail, as they finally rounded a corner and stepped into a large cavern, where Ye Zun growled low at their arrival.

“Magnificent,” Kunlun said, gazing at Ye Zun.

Shen Wei balled his hands into fists and fought his every instinct to protect, to attack the people who’d hurt his brother.

“Give me the keys to his chains,” Kunlun said next. “And leave. I wish to play with it.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that, sir,” another man said.

Kunlun slowly turned to regard him, aura flaring again.

“Do it! Do it!” the first man urgently said to the second. “He’s a god!”

“A god,” the second laughed. “Has your brain been addled? No gods walk amongst-”

His words died as Kunlun raised an eyebrow at him, aura full-out and his hair and robes swirling in a non-existent wind. The first man fell to the ground again, repeating apologies over and over, while the second’s knees hit the ground with a hard thump as he tried to pry the keys from his belt with shaking hands. He then bowed deep as well and presented them.

“Wonderful,” Kunlun said, plucking the keys from the man’s hands. “Now leave. I don’t want to hear you or any of your fellow humans’ presence down in the hallway, let alone see you. And both my hearing and sight are sharper than you could ever imagine.”

“Yes, my Lord,” both men said, scrambling to their feet and rushing out of the cavern. 

Kunlun gazed after them for a long while, then turned to Shen Wei, grinning. “Told you it would work,” he said.

Shen Wei glanced at him, trying to throw him a quick smile but his emotions too much of a jumble due to the situation they were in. He threw his hood back and finally looked up at Ye Zun. He bit back a wail of despair at seeing his didi’s state. There was a metal collar around his neck, connected by chains to two, smaller collars around his antlers, no doubt made out of magic-suppressing metal. Chained cuffs were around each of his legs as well, effectively limiting his range of motion. He was covered in wounds, both cuts and burns, none of them properly healing and some weeping either blood or other fluids. Here and there, Shen Wei could see that scales had been ripped out. Ye Zun held his wings tight to his body but even so it was obvious that they had suffered abuse as well.

“Didi,” Shen Wei whispered, eyes wide and heart weeping.

He stumbled a step forward. Much to his further despair, Ye Zun growled at him and flinched back.

“Didi,” Shen Wei said again, louder, his voice breaking. He released his grip on his antlers, making them visible. “Didi, it’s me. We’ve come to save you.”

Ye Zun stared at him for a moment. “Gege?” he eventually asked, voice small.

“Yes!” Shen Wei answered, taking another step forward and, when Ye Zun didn’t flinch at it, all but running forward to lean against Ye Zun’s snout. “I’ve found you,” he said. “I’ve found you. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry it took me so long.”

“We don’t have time for this, Xiao Wei,” Kunlun softly said. “The faster we move, the better.”

At Kunlun’s voice, Ye Zun shoved Shen Wei aside and growled again, clearly protective.

“It’s okay, didi,” Shen Wei quickly said. “He’s here to help. Everything before was an act. It’s okay.” Shen Wei stepped around Ye Zun. “Keys?” he asked Kunlun.

“He’s not going to eat me?” Kunlun asked in return, watching Ye Zun warily.

“Gege?” Ye Zun said, still staring at Kunlun.

“I promise you; he’s here to help.”

Ye Zun huffed, releasing some of the tension in his body. Kunlun carefully stepped forward and gave the keys to Shen Wei, who promptly crawled up Ye Zun’s body to undo the shackles around his antlers. Ye Zun howled as they came loose, tossing his head.

“Didi?” Shen Wei asked, worried. “Didi, are you okay?”

“It’s- It’s okay,” Ye Zun answered, trembling slightly.

Having no other option but to believe him, Shen Wei jumped down and undid the collar around Ye Zun’s neck next.

“Is he okay?” Kunlun asked.

Shen Wei looked at him in surprise. “You can’t hear him?”

Kunlun shook his head.

“He’s in pain,” Shen Wei answered, deciding to not push the matter of Ye Zun clearly refusing to include Kunlun in their conversation. He didn’t know him, after all.

“I’ll get the shackles on his legs. You talk to him,” Kunlun said, taking the keys from Shen Wei and moving to Ye Zun’s front leg.

“Didi,” Shen Wei said, brushing his fingers through Ye Zun’s mane and despairing about the marks that were left behind by the collar. “Can you fly?”

Ye Zun spread his wings as far as he could in the confined space of the cave. He gave them an experimental flap, nearly knocking Kunlun over as he did so.

“I don’t know,” Ye Zun answered, sad. “I’m not sure I could climb, but maybe glide?” He turned his head a little to regard Shen Wei. “I didn’t think you’d come,” he admitted, a sense of hopelessness coming through his words.

“Of course I would come,” Shen Wei countered, heart breaking yet again. “Didi, how could I not? I’m sorry it took me so long. I’m sorry, didi.”

“Why do you look human?” Ye Zun asked.

“I learned how to shift,” Shen Wei answered. “I’ll teach you. Once we get out of here and you’re healed, I’ll teach you.”

“All freed,” Kunlun said, appearing next to Shen Wei. “Did you explain the plan to him?”

That reminded Shen Wei of the situation at hand and he shook his head. “It won’t work,” he said before turning to Ye Zun again. “Do you remember when we played, when I would nudge you?”

Ye Zun huffed a short growl. “It would expose you,” he protested.

“I’m getting you out of here,” Shen Wei said, leaving no room for objection. “I’ll leave first and I’ll be there when you take off.”

“Gege,” Ye Zun started.

“There’s no other way, didi.”

“Uhm, Xiao Wei?” Kunlun asked, looking between them.

“He can’t fly on his own,” Shen Wei said, earning himself another low growl from Ye Zun as if he didn’t want it admitted to a third party. “So I’ll fly first once the grate is open and then help him.” He looked at the grate. “Can we open it?”

Kunlun nodded. “There’s a simple mechanism,” he answered. “I’ll open it and then slip out when you fly off.”

“No,” Shen Wei protested. “No. I’m not leaving you behind.”

“Xiao Wei…”

“You’ll fly with us.”

“I can’t fly, Xiao Wei.”

“You can ride me.”

Kunlun stared at him, shocked, as Ye Zun’s shocked ‘Ge!’ rang through his head.

“I’m not leaving you behind,” Shen Wei repeated. “I’ll shift while you open the grate and then you can climb up to sit right behind my head. You should be safe there. I’m not leaving otherwise.”

He was surprised at his own tone. Never before would he have thought about addressing Kunlun as such but there was no time and he wasn’t compromising. He refused to leave Kunlun behind, even though he was a god. The hunters might turn against him as they figured out Kunlun had helped set their dragon free and Shen Wei simply wasn’t going to risk it.

“Okay,” Kunlun said after a heartbeat of studying Shen Wei’s expression. “Okay.” 

He walked up to the mechanism. Once he was far away enough, Shen Wei shifted. The cave was extremely crowded with both Ye Zun and him in their dragon shapes and he could feel one of his wings scraping the rock as he moved. Still, he turned his head to look at Ye Zun.

“I’ll be right there when you jump. I promise,” he said.

Ye Zun didn’t respond but there wasn’t any time left as the grate groaned while opening and Kunlun came running back. Shen Wei flattened himself to the ground to allow Kunlun to jump up. It felt odd to have him sitting there, hands clutched in his mane and thighs pressed against his scales.

“Hold on tight,” Shen Wei said before leaping forward and out of the cave.

He roared as he unfolded his wings and sailed down. With a powerful sweep of his tail, he razed part of the town and the armoury they’d seen on their way through earlier. He then turned and looked up at the cave. Ye Zun emerged at the edge. Shen Wei could see him wince as he unfurled his wings entirely.

“Lie down,” Shen Wei told Kunlun, just in case he hadn’t yet.

Ye Zun jumped and tried to beat his wings, trembling as he did so. Shen Wei came up underneath him, placed the tip of his nose and the flat of his antlers against Ye Zun’s underside, between his wings, and pushed. He beat his wings, up, up, pushing Ye Zun, who was still frantically trying to fly as well, up with him.

Ye Zun’s claws raked his back at one point but the damage was minor and Shen Wei didn’t mind. It was nothing compared to getting his brother back to safety. The hunters had recovered from their shock quickly as well and were shooting arrows and spears at them. A volley of arrows struck him but Shen Wei ignored the pain. The only thing that mattered was getting Ye Zun high enough that he was out of range and could glide.

Shen Wei sighed with relief when the latest volley of arrows fell short. “Rest your wings, didi,” he said. “I’ll push us up.”

Ye Zun did as he was told, merely keeping his wings open while Shen Wei continued to beat his own so they would gain more height. They were heading northwest, the fastest way out of hunter territory.

“... Wei.”

“Kunlun?” Shen Wei asked.

“... -ei.”

“Think your thoughts,” Shen Wei said.

“Too… High…”

Shen Wei abruptly let himself drop.

“Gege!” Ye Zun cried out, panicked.

“Keep gliding,” Shen Wei answered, unable to keep the fear out of his own voice. “I’m still here. We were too high for Kunlun.” He turned his mind to his god. “Kunlun? Kunlun, are you okay?” The thought that he’d been hurting him made Shen Wei frantic.

“It’s better now, Xiao Wei,” Kunlun thought to him. “This is better.”

“I’m sorry,” Shen Wei said.

“You couldn’t have known,” Kunlun answered. “ I didn’t know. I’m okay now, Xiao Wei. Don’t worry about me.”

“Gege,” Ye Zun said not much later, his voice pained. “I can’t hold.”

Shen Wei looked ahead of them, down at the mountains. “Not far anymore, didi. Come below the clouds. There’s a plateau a bit further ahead. We’ll land there.”

“I don’t know … if I can slow down,” Ye Zun said, folding his wings a little to lower himself.

“Then we do the same as before,” Shen Wei said, hoping it would work and refusing to believe differently. “You fold your wings and I’ll keep you up while slowing down.”

“I’ll crush you.” 

“I’ll disengage at the last moment. We can do it, didi. I’ll not let you crash.”

Ye Zun warily agreed, clearly too exhausted to argue. His head was drooping, as were his wings. Shen Wei went to fly underneath him, ready to assist if needed even before they reached the plateau. Once it came into range, Shen Wei pressed himself against Ye Zun’s underside again.

“Fold your wings, didi,” he said.

Ye Zun practically sagged. Shen Wei strained under the sudden weight. He pushed his nose further up, turning his wings to catch the air and slow down, forcing Ye Zun to slow down with him. He dropped himself lower at the last possible moment, the tops of the trees grazing his underside as he did so, and turning out from underneath Ye Zun while still keeping an eye on his didi.

The way Ye Zun hit the ground wasn’t a crash, but it wasn’t exactly a soft landing either. Turning in a tight circle, Shen Wei landed next to him.

xXxXxXx

Flying, Kunlun discovered, was not for him. It felt decidedly uncomfortable to not have any connection with the earth. And the higher they went, the more he started feeling like he couldn’t breathe. 

He clung to Shen Wei as the latter made a tight turn and landed next to his brother. Kunlun had only been able to hear Shen Wei during the entire escape and flight, having to deduce Ye Zun’s reactions by a one-sided conversation. 

When Shen Wei came to a halt, Kunlun immediately slid from his position and took a few steps away, immensely grateful to be back on the ground. 

“Didi?” Shen Wei worriedly said.

Kunlun turned around to see Shen Wei nuzzling against Ye Zun’s head, his movements becoming more frantic.

“Didi,” Shen Wei called out. “Didi, wake up!”

Shen Wei nudged Ye Zun, then urgently started licking his antlers, all the while calling out to his brother.

“Didi. Wake up! Didi, please!” Then, much firmer and with a resolve that surprised Kunlun. “No. I won’t let you die.”

Shen Wei turned his head and looked at Kunlun. He pushed his nose against Kunlun’s stomach and gently started nudging him further away before momentarily laying down his head.

“Xiao Wei? What’s going on?”

“I’m sorry, Kunlun,” Shen Wei merely said after a moment.

“Xiao Wei?” Kunlun repeated with some alarm.

Shen Wei ignored him though and shifted himself along Ye Zun’s body until his head was resting next to his brother’s. After a deep breath, Shen Wei closed his eyes and tilted his head until his antlers were touching Ye Zun’s. 

Magic so raw that Kunlun had to pull up a barrier around him lest it sear the skin off his bones barreled across the plateau. An unbearable bright light emanated from where the antlers touched, throwing colours around of which Kunlun didn’t even know they existed. He threw an arm out to shield his eyes, trying to see what was going on but unable to look even anywhere near the vicinity of the light.

“Gege?” Kunlun suddenly heard, hearing Ye Zun’s voice for the first time. It sounded somewhat disoriented. Then, “Gege! Gege, no! No!”

Ye Zun started thrashing about, cries of panic ringing through Kunlun’s mind. Eventually, abruptly, the bright light vanished. Kunlun blinked against the after-images it left behind, then looked up at the dragons. Ye Zun was nudging Shen Wei, a whining sound emanating from him. Shen Wei looked more like a limp noodle than a dragon.

“Xiao Wei!” Kunlun cried out, rushing forward.

He yelped, then let out a surprised ‘oomph’ when all the air was knocked out of him by Ye Zun pinning him down to the ground with his claws. Kunlun stilled and stared up at Ye Zun who was hovering above him.

“I owe you a life debt,” Ye Zun said, tone far from comforting. “I can’t kill you, but that doesn’t mean I can’t hurt you.”

The pressure on Kunlun’s chest turned constricting and painful. He nodded once, not daring to make another move. Even as a god he wouldn’t survive being crushed under a dragon’s weight.

“What’s your connection to gege?” Ye Zun asked. The ‘I don’t trust you’ was heavily implied.

“He crashed in my mountains after being attacked by the hunters while looking for you. I helped him and he wouldn’t leave my side because he claims to owe me a life debt. He was torn because he wanted to find you so I decided that we would come find you together.” 

Despite his earlier resolve not to move, Kunlun tried to look past Ye Zun towards Shen Wei. “Ye Zun, what’s going on? Why is he like this? What did he do ?” he questioned, worried by Shen Wei’s unresponsive form.

His voice must have betrayed his sincerity because Ye Zun pulled away. Grief was written in every line of his body as he draped himself back over Shen Wei.

“He gave me his life force,” Ye Zun said. “I- I managed to break away before he gave it all but… I’m not sure if he has enough left to recover.”

“What?” Kunlun exclaimed.

He jumped to his feet and ran to Shen Wei, burying his hands in Shen Wei’s fur. He wanted to ask why. Why had Shen Wei done it? But he already knew the answer.

“I can’t give it back,” Ye Zun said, mournful. “I would if I could, but I can’t.”

Kunlun looked at him, properly looked at him, and noticed how his minor wounds had been healed and the major ones had practically entirely closed. Despite the magic, there were scars littering his body.

“What can we do?” Kunlun asked, grief terrorising his heart.

“Wait. Hope,” Ye Zun answered.

Kunlun was certain that, if dragons could cry, Ye Zun would be crying. He fisted his hands in Shen Wei’s fur, hating the sense of helplessness that overcame him. He laid his head against Shen Wei and spotted something from the corner of his eyes.

“Arrows,” he muttered.

Ye Zun immediately reared up, turning his head and glaring at the arrows that were stuck in Shen Wei’s side.

“Let me,” Kunlun called out as Ye Zun seemed to want to dive down and exact some sort of revenge on the arrows. “I can pull them out,” he added, holding up his hands. “I’ve done so before.”

After a tense moment, Ye Zun relented with a huff.

“Can you pull him on his side?” Kunlun asked. “To make sure we get those on his underside as well? And then the other side.”

“I’m not your servant,” Ye Zun snapped.

Kunlun threw him a look. “Do you think I can move him myself?” he dryly asked.

Ye Zun huffed again. They worked together to get all the arrows out, Kunlun using his magic to stop the bleeding, both from the arrow wounds as from the scratches on Shen Wei’s back. Ye Zun mournfully licked the latter, clearly feeling sorry for having caused them.

Eventually, they settled. Ye Zun curled himself protectively around Shen Wei while Kunlun sat down just behind Shen Wei’s head, like he had when they’d just met. They settled, and waited.

Kunlun watched the days go by but didn’t count them. At one point, he remembered how hungry Shen Wei had been during his recovery, so he used his powers to lure in some mountain goats. Ye Zun ate them with gusto, before returning to his protective curl around Shen Wei.

They didn’t speak, didn’t share stories. They sat in silence, day after day, tensing when Shen Wei took too long between breaths, shaking themselves when they were pelted by rain. They barely moved. 

Time blurred and gained a strange quality for Kunlun. He’d never cared much for keeping track of time in his life, but it somehow felt more real and surreal at the same time while he sat next to Shen Wei. Sometimes he blinked and several days had passed. Sometimes a day seemed to stretch on for years. 

He felt unmoored, and he didn’t like it. He wished there was something he could do, like fully heal the wounds that still littered Shen Wei’s side. Wounds that, despite their age, seemed to refuse to close.

Two seasons had passed when a tremor went through Shen Wei that had both Kunlun and Ye Zun sit up. Kunlun started dragging his hand through Shen Wei’s mane while Ye Zun stared intently at his brother.

“Gege?” Ye Zun softly, hopefully, said.

Shen Wei huffed a breath, then seemed to tense for a moment before he blinked open an eye.

“Didi?”

“Gege!” Ye Zun exclaimed, nuzzling against Shen Wei and pressing his nose against Shen Wei’s antlers. “You’re awake. Gege, you survived.”

“Didi,” Shen Wei answered, sounding tired. “You’re okay?”

“Of course I’m okay. Gege, why did you do that? You shouldn’t have done that.”

“I couldn’t let you die.”

Hearing the conversation flow over him, Kunlun stood and all but buried himself in Shen Wei’s mane, beyond relief that he’d woken up. All his long, long life, he’d never gotten attached to anyone or anything, but he understood now exactly how much he cared for Shen Wei. The realisation shook him.

“Xiao Wei,” he eventually muttered.

Shen Wei moved his head a little. Then, sounding surprised, “Kunlun?”

“Xiao Wei,” Kunlun repeated, pressing even closer.

“You stayed?”

At those words, Kunlun stepped back so Shen Wei could see him. “Of course I stayed,” he answered. “Where else would I have gone?”

“To your mountains,” Shen Wei answered.

“And leave you behind?” Kunlun exclaimed. “Xiao Wei, I could never.”

Shen Wei merely hummed in answer and closed his eyes again.

“Gege?” Ye Zun asked, his tone as worried as Kunlun felt.

“I’m still tired, didi,” Shen Wei drowsily answered.

“Sleep,” Kunlun said, stepping forward and drawing his hand across Shen Wei’s cheek. “We’ll be here when you wake up again.”

After another sleepy huff, Shen Wei dozed off. Ye Zun continued to softly nose against him. Kunlun leaned against Shen Wei for a time before settling back into the same spot as before. They both continued to watch Shen Wei and were happy to notice that he really just seemed asleep this time. His breathing was even, he twitched with his dreams every now and then, and the wounds along his underside finally started to heal.

It still took almost another month before Shen Wei woke again. This time, after accepting Ye Zun’s affections and relieved exclamations, Shen Wei stood and shook himself.

“I’m happy your back,” Kunlun said, rubbing his hand on Shen Wei’s nose.

Shen Wei huffed a breath before tilting his head and offering his antlers. Kunlun reverently reached up and brushed his hand along the velvet texture. Shen Wei hummed, relaxing. With the way Ye Zun shook his head and then glared at Kunlun, he figured that Ye Zun was not amused by the gesture. Shen Wei pulled back and pressed his nose against Ye Zun’s antlers in return. Kunlun wasn’t sure if they were talking or not, but clearly a message was transferred between the two as Ye Zun almost grumpily let out a low, unsatisfied growl.

“Will you go back to your mountains?” Shen Wei eventually asked.

“Yes,” Kunlun said.

“Then I will transform and follow.”

Kunlun shook his head. “Fly, Xiao Wei. There’s no need for you to hide anymore. The hunters didn’t find you here while you slept, and they won’t find you while you fly either.”

Ye Zun made a whining little sound that Kunlun interpreted as a plea from his side to join him in the air.

“I’ll stay above the tree line,” Kunlun added. “As usual. I won’t disappear.”

Shen Wei looked at him for a moment, while Ye Zun impatiently moved about. Shen Wei then nudged Ye Zun, pushing his nose under the other’s wings and inspecting them. Ye Zun huffed and bristled, but still kept his wings still enough that Shen Wei could see. Kunlun hid a smile at the sight.

“Are you sure?” Shen Wei finally asked. 

Ye Zun was already looking up at the sky, clearly ready to take off.

“I’m sure, Xiao Wei. Go fly with your brother.”

Shen Wei gave him an affectionate nudge as Ye Zun took a few running leaps before jumping up into the air, wings blasting air as he rose up. Kunlun wisely retreated to a distance before watching Shen Wei do the same. 

He followed Shen Wei’s figure as he rose into the sky and met his brother, and smiled as the two started twirling around one another before Ye Zun let out a roar and made a faint. Soon, the two were playing, tumbling in the air and fake snapping at one another. 

Kunlun smiled widely at seeing the clear joy with which the brothers truly reunited. After some time, he lowered his head and sent out his senses. Finding the easiest path in the direction of his own mountains, Kunlun set off, knowing that the two dragons would follow in his wake and would, at least for now, be his companions.