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light comes in like a stranger

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1.

He didn't go into death with a plan.

He made plans for his death, which is a different thing.

 

 

2.

He usually wakes up before Zhao Yunlan, and gets dressed and makes breakfast and packs a lunch before Zhao Yunlan even stirs.

Sometimes, rarely, Zhao Yunlan is awake before him and insists on watching him put on his clothes, piece by piece. Then he'll smile and incline his head, beckoning Shen Wei to the bed so he can slide the garters over his arms, or fasten his watch for him. Shen Wei will press a brief kiss against his lips, still a little dry from sleep, and tell him that breakfast will be ready soon, or that he'll be back after class, or that he's got an appointment for a fitting in the afternoon, and would Yunlan like to come.

He'll never tell Yunlan this, but the first time he set foot in a Haixing tailor's shop, his gaze was immediately caught by a blue suit, almost the same shade of blue as Kunlun's robe, a light gray pocket square folded neatly over the breast.

That one, he thought. It'll be that one.

The tailor managed to talk him out of the pocket square, but he showed him other accessories and taught him about undershirts and dress shirts and waistcoats and ties. Layers and layers of it, like armor.

He wrapped himself up in reminders of what he'd lost, until one day he stood in front of the real thing, stunned and unprepared, and found a measure of comfort in the stiff formality of his attire.

It got Zhao Yunlan's attention too, he noticed with some private satisfaction. There were a great many things he wanted from the man--or from the man Zhao Yunlan would be ten thousand years ago--but he learned to make do with just the attention, and then he was slowly given more, and more, and more.

Zhao Yunlan doesn't need to know any of this.

In the evening, he will undress Shen Wei, and there'll be a possessive glint in his eyes when he draws Shen Wei's wrist to his lips to kiss the skin underneath the shirt cuffs.

One way or another, he understands.

 

 

3.

"It's all yours. It's yours. Please just take it."

 

 

4.

Maybe it was selfish.

No, it was decidedly selfish, after everything Ye Zun had done. But they were both dead, weren't they. Whatever Shen Wei did now wouldn't matter to the living, because the living wouldn't know.

The dead were a different matter.

He just wanted to talk to his brother. The brother he lost ten thousand years ago, the brother who was taken from him. He wanted to look into his eyes so badly it felt like he would choke, even though he wasn't even breathing anymore.

Not Ye Zun's eyes.

His brother's eyes.

Making the distinction was a selfish act, but it made everything else more bearable.

Until he was among the living again.

 

 

5.

He found the ritual of cooking dinner quite calming, during the first few weeks. He was still getting his bearings again at the university, and he hadn't even met all of the SID's new employees yet, because very few cases so far had required his involvement.

Everything felt strangely new and unfamiliar. Not quite the same as before. Like maybe he'd come back a little wrong.

But cooking for Zhao Yunlan, that still felt familiar.

He heard him come home just as he was adding the scrambled eggs back into the pan with the tomatoes. Everything else was already done and ready to be put into bowls.

"Perfectly on time," he smiled, and Zhao Yunlan grinned back at him.

"Please, like I'd miss dinner."

He kissed Shen Wei and then started setting the table, and it all felt so much like home, it was almost dizzying.

"A little birdy told me you had to cancel your office hours today," Zhao Yunlan said conversationally, which cut into the peace.

Shen Wei cleared his throat. "There was an emergency that Hei Pao Shi had to handle. I moved all appointments to tomorrow." He turned around to smile at Zhao Yunlan. "It's fine."

Zhao Yunlan wasn't smiling, although he didn't look disappointed either. Curious, maybe. "Is it?"

"It was just the once."

"It'll happen again."

"I'll handle it."

"How?"

"Like I've handled it before."

That shut Zhao Yunlan up, his jaw working.

"Please," Shen Wei said. "Let's just eat."

"What if you only had the one job?"

Shen Wei's heart sank. "You think I should give up--"

"Yes," Zhao Yunlan said. "They can find a new Envoy."

It was such an unexpected, impossible proposition, Shen Wei was startled into a huff of laughter, looking at Zhao Yunlan in disbelief. "How would they find a new Envoy?"

"I don't care," Zhao Yunlan said. "Not my problem anymore."

He was clearly lying about how much he still cared, but he was lying on Shen Wei's behalf, so Shen Wei couldn't contradict him. "You don't even know if I want to give it up," he said instead.

"You asked about the new Envoy instead of telling me I was wrong," Zhao Yunlan said, and Shen Wei heaved a deep sigh.

"I thought you weren't a detective anymore."

"I didn't suddenly turn stupid just because I stopped working for the government."

"But--"

"No," Zhao Yunlan said. "You're done."

And so he was.

 

 

6.

It was slow work, finding the remnants of his brother amid the jagged shards of Ye Zun and pulling them back to the surface.

Sometimes the man that was Ye Zun would just scream at him, at the nothingness around them, at the Hallows that had imprisoned him.

He had been alone for so long.

He had been a monster for most of that time.

He would scream himself hoarse, like a wounded animal, and Shen Wei would let him, and then hold him close, and stroke his brother's back, and remember the dead.

He had a plan now:

He needed to restore his own energy.

He needed to look his brother in the eye and tell him, "Your name is Shen Feng. Do you remember?" and he needed him to say yes, and mean it.

He needed to find Zhao Yunlan.

 

 

7.

"You finally made the pain stop."

 

 

8.

As always, Zhao Yunlan didn't let him make any plans.

"If I have time to think about it--" he told Shen Wei, leaving the thought unfinished, but easy to follow.

He made two phone calls, which Shen Wei assumed would trigger a cascade of further phone calls, and then he took Shen Wei's hand in his and pulled it to his mouth for a kiss.

"Just tell them what you told me." He paused. "Maybe not everything you told me."

And then they were faced with the SID and Dixing delegations, hastily convened and expecting big news, and Shen Wei couldn't find a single word to say. Just like the second time he stood before Zhao Yunlan, he felt like a wide-eyed, hopeful boy again, stunned and unprepared.

"We have a proposal for you," Zhao Yunlan said for him.

 

 

9.

"Another gift?" Shen Wei asks, smiling up at Zhao Yunlan.

"It's beautiful, isn't it," Zhao Yunlan says, carefully placing the wooden frame on the couch and then straddling Shen Wei, somewhat less carefully. "Hello."

"Hello," Shen Wei parrots, smiling as Zhao Yunlan takes his glasses off. Then he hands him the paper he was reading, watching as Yunlan places both on the couch table. "We don't have a picture for this."

"Mr. Han insisted," Yunlan says, and then he kisses Shen Wei. It takes a while until he speaks again. "You're invited for tea, by the way."

"Oh," Shen Wei says. "I'll come."

"Are you blushing?"

He buries his face in Zhao Yunlan's shoulder, quietly laughing at himself. "I feel like I'll have to impress him."

"Oh shush," Yunlan laughs. "He adores you. He wants to ask you a million questions." He nudges Shen Wei with his nose, pressing kisses against his hair. "Maybe I'll ask him to take up portrait painting. You can sit for him," he says, laughing when Shen Wei lifts his head to make a face at him. "Fine, fine, no portrait." He strokes his fingertips over Shen Wei's cheek. "The real thing is better, anyway."

"I'll paint you something," Shen Wei says quietly. "I'll learn." He takes Yunlan's hand in his to kiss the palm. "What would you like?"

Zhao Yunlan wriggles his eyebrows at him.

"Nothing we have to hide from guests," Shen Wei tells him seriously.

"You're no fun," he says, subtly shifting his hand for another kiss. Shen Wei complies. "Dixing. Your home."

Shen Wei looks up.

"Like you remember it."

"All right," he says, his chest tight. Sometimes he wonders how it can contain all this love. "I'll learn."

 

 

10.

It was Chu Shuzhi who spoke first, which was unexpected. He was still getting used to addressing him as a teacher, too.

"If-- Professor Shen thinks his brother deserves a second chance," he said, rather unhappily, "I'm willing to hear him out."

Shen Wei looked at him, feeling a sadness inside him he hadn't felt in a while. Of all the people who understood what it was like, losing a part of yourself.

"He started a war," Zhu Hong said with some force. "He killed dozens of people. We buried them."

"I've killed hundreds," Shen Wei said.

There was silence for a moment, and then Zhao Yunlan shot him an angry look. "I think we can all agree that starting a war and fighting in one are two very different things."

"So those men weren't someone's son, or brother, or husband?"

He should have made a plan. He could have kept this all inside, if he had been better prepared.

Finally, Guo Changcheng spoke up, not quite meeting anyone's eye. "We don't have to like him. If Professor Shen says we can trust him to do the job--"

He let the sentence peter out, Chu Shuzhi's hand coming to rest on his arm.

"Where is he, actually," someone piped up, a member of the new Dixing government Shen Wei had only briefly met. "I might have missed that part."

Shen Wei swallowed.

He could have said, "Somewhere where he can do no harm."

He could have said, "In a place outside of time."

He could have said, "Between life and death, held by the Hallows."

Any of those things might have been enough. Not as an explanation, but as a start. Here's what I can tell you; here's why you can let me go.

And yet he couldn't bring himself to open his mouth and say the words.

He couldn't say, "I wanted him to see what could have been, and the Hallows were merciful."

He couldn't say, "In one of the infinite worlds that exist beyond ours, we are fighting side by side, and he is loved."

He couldn't say, "I'm going to take him away from there."

So he swallowed, and swallowed, until Zhao Yunlan stepped closer and put his hand on his back and said, "He's in a safe place."

 

 

11.

"I always knew you'd come."

 

 

12.

There's a game Yunlan likes to play which he calls "Can you?"

Shen Wei calls it "You're being a nuisance."

There's no way to win the game, as far as Shen Wei can tell, only to amass points. Yunlan gets one every time he comes up with a highly specific ability Shen Wei might have picked up in the course of his life and Shen Wei has to concede that yes, he can do that.

Zhao Yunlan has collected three points so far, and graciously awarded seventeen to Shen Wei for when he guessed wrong.

"Doesn't that mean I'm winning?" Shen Wei asked him after the last round.

"Baby, no," Zhao Yunlan said, with an exaggerated leer that still makes Shen Wei blush when he thinks about it. "I'm definitely the winner here."

"I don't think that's true," Shen Wei smiled, watching the leer soften into something fonder.

"Let's call it a draw," Zhao Yunlan said.

"I have fourteen more points than you," Shen Wei reminded him, and Yunlan laughed, and wrapped his arms around him, and stayed there for a while.

 

 

13.

The Dixing delegation insisted on a guarantee that Ye Zun wasn't dangerous anymore.

Shen Wei didn't correct them on the name, because he had promised Zhao Yunlan that he wouldn't bring it up until his brother had proven himself a reliable liaison. It made sense, he knew. Nobody else had known Xiao Feng. All they knew was what he had become.

"He can't guarantee that," Chu Shuzhi said darkly. "Nobody can, about anyone. Otherwise you wouldn't need the SID anymore."

The rest of his group seemed inclined to agree, but probably didn't want to admit it quite so openly.

"Did you wipe his mind," Zhao Yunlan said, trying for levity in the heavy silence.

"No," Shen Wei said. "He didn't deserve that kindness."

Zhao Yunlan was staring at him, eyes wide. Everyone else was just a blur in his periphery.

"He remembers everything."

 

 

14.

"Can you stay a while?" was the first thing Zhao Yunlan asked him, once Shen Wei had found him in the lantern. He looked so exhausted.

"A-Lan," Shen Wei whispered, the endearment slipping out, every part of him wanting to wrap around Yunlan and keep him safe. "I won't leave without you."

Zhao Yunlan's smile was so sad, but it was a smile, and he was looking at Shen Wei, and he was still the most beautiful thing Shen Wei had ever seen. "I can't leave."

"Then I'll stay with you."

"You can't stay."

Shen Wei stepped closer, the light of the lantern enveloping them both. "Then I believe we're at an impasse," he said, and he could feel the weak gust of Zhao Yunlan's laugh against his cheek.

"I chose this."

"No," he said, wrapping his arms around Zhao Yunlan, holding him close as the tight coil of twin energies inside him breathed and grew and came to life. "You can rest now."

 

 

15.

"You've done enough."