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It's not just something you take; it's given

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Shen Wei had always loved his brother. They were simply a part of each other, there together from the very beginning. Yin and yang, mirror images, two halves of one soul… almost. It was them against the world at least as often as it was Ye Zun against him, especially after the loss of their parents, whom he gave most humble thanks for bringing them into the world even if that was the extent of their contributions to the twins’ well-being.

It had fallen to him to keep them safe, fed, and above all, together. When the courts wanted to send them to different homes, they fled. When Ye Zun started listening to the gang boys that offered them money to keep watch and run products, Shen Wei pulled him out and taught them both to fight. He needed to keep his brother safe. (He needed to keep his brother.) Through blood and pain and argument and injury, they had stuck together even when separation might have been simpler (though not easier), while refusing to acknowledge the truth they both knew - that they could never be together. No matter how much they wanted to be. (Shen Wei knew his own mind on the subject, though never presumed to know his brother’s.)

Growing up, Shen Wei pursued a number of degrees that afforded them prestige and comfort, while Ye Zun developed an interest in fashion and games of chance, luck almost unerringly on his side. He won a contract with a fashion house, trading bold designs for tidy sums. He went out one night Shen Wei was doggedly filling out scholarship applications and came home with a small mark on his neck that might have been bruise or burn or love bite, bloodied knuckles - and a wad of notes that more than covered the next semester. Plus expenses. They didn’t talk about it, but Ye Zun sat in the audience at graduation and whistled when Shen Wei collected his diploma. And in the future, whether he came home bloodied, flush with cash, neither or both, he never came back with a mark like that again.

(They still don’t talk about it. Or the fact that Shen Wei has never once had a mark like that.)

Though the impressive apartment they shared was nice, they started talking about a house, somewhere quiet outside the city limits but still close enough to come when and if the mood struck. Ye Zun had sneered and disappeared for two days, then returned in the same clothes he’d been wearing, pausing in their casual shedding as he stalked to the bedroom to bump Shen Wei’s shoulder with his own and toss a crumple of papers on the desk before leaving without a word. Shen Wei bit his tongue, wanting to say something , go after his brother, lay a hand on his shoulder and… the thought ended there, the pieces exhaled on a sigh. So he collected the papers, smoothed them out - and froze when he recognized custom blueprints. For a house. A sprawling single story with a neat divide, some small expanse left undesigned in the center, fabric scraps and ripped magazine photos pinned to the printout of a real estate listing for a plot of land some 20 minutes outside of town. They had more than enough to do it, so they did.

And said less and less to each other as they watched the construction of their home, as they crafted their designated halves, as they slowly stopped drifting across that center divide and keeping to themselves more and more, only spending the odd bit of time together outside the walls. Until the portion of unshared meals he left in Ye Zun’s kitchen began to go uneaten. Until they said nothing at all. Ye Zun still went out on occasion but always came home alone, and Shen Wei politely ignored the mooncalf eyes of the special graduate class he taught once a semester and the flirtations of the local police when they came to investigate a death on campus, assuming he noticed such things in the first place. (The mooning and attempted flirtations, that is; the body had been unfortunately hard to miss.)

Then came the day Ye Zun had driven him to the university in frigid silence, sauntering all over the campus with him, smirking at all who dared look at the beautiful matched set they presented - until they met Zhao Yunlan as the webcomic artist was jogging past the Biology wing. He’d tripped and fallen neatly into their arms; as they set him back on his feet, the brothers had not immediately let go. They had all looked at one another and something had just… clicked inside.

It was as though the universe had pulled some cosmic prank: taking not just a pair of brothers but another man as well (all strangely well-suited to one another despite being so different in so many ways), carving out a piece of each one’s heart and hiding it within the others, so that when they met they’d be stuck without knowing why. 

(He shudders sometimes to think what would have happened if their paths hadn’t crossed, if his meeting had lasted 5 minutes longer, if Zhao Yunlan hadn’t taken a random new route that day.)

They’d gone out to lunch, which had turned into a walk through the park by Zhao’s apartment after he changed, which segued into dinner, and after some 12 hours had passed in one another’s company in a seeming blink with no fatigue on anyone’s part, they’d asked to do this again. And again. And again. Sometimes with both brothers, more often one then the other, and two weeks later, the section that had sat empty and blank was now almost done being transformed into a beautiful monochromatic space. A week later, the brothers had sat side by side (though carefully not touching) across from Zhao Yunlan and stunned him into rare silence as they slid a key across the tabletop.

He’d said yes, naturally, and moved in before the week was out.

Then came days and nights spent with the brothers (always one then the other, certain hours delineated by unspoken agreement as Ye Zun’s or Shen Wei’s, though never both) until a year had passed. A year of fights and bites and quiet nights, of wild orgasms howled down the halls and walks in the garden and naps and dancing and smiles over a kitchen table. 

Ye Zun never fed Zhao Yunlan at home, and Shen Wei never took him to bed despite the times he put him there, and Zhao Yunlan never complained. Kisses, cuddles, and aftercare with no pressure for more balanced tenuously against nights on the town and marathon rounds of savage sex. It… worked. Well enough.

It didn’t feel like using, was not technically exploitative, and to his soul Shen Wei felt that them all being together was right. But something was still missing, just slightly off, and it irked him that he could not quite put a name to it. (Or would not, hissed a voice that sounded painfully like his brother when he stroked a hand through dark locks at his knee or traded soft kisses in the dark.)

Today, knowing Zhao Yunlan was out, Shen Wei had still let unusually restless feet wander to the center of the house. It may have been a desire for even secondhand comfort, since the man himself was unavailable. Perhaps it was just the nebulous half-form of his dress, midway between professor at rest and Shen Wei at rest. He wasn’t even wearing sleeve garters.

Then like a vision, his brother was there, waiting, resplendent in white and taking a moment to blink at him. He hadn’t been able to hold himself back from the urge to be closer to his brother in so many ways. One step onto the tile, then another, hand coming up to reach out. It was taken, seized by the wrist but taken nonetheless, and he let himself be borne along in the current of his didi’s force of nature personality. His slippers were lost as he regained his balance on the carpet of his brother’s… bedroom, he realized with a soft gulp. For just a moment, an infinitesimal sliver of time, their eyes met and he glimpsed a flash of something buried there: naked, exposed, gone too quickly to identify.

The first taste of his brother, their first real kiss, the firm pressure of those lips against his own nearly stopped his heart. At the very least, it skipped a beat or two. His traitorous hand, no longer governed by his brain, came up to cup Ye Zun’s cheek, brushing over the sharp rise of the zygomatic with the same care as one might use on the wing of a butterfly, wishing the moment could be suspended in time.

He’d been summarily pushed away, shirt ripped off, body shoved to the bed. He’d lain still and pliant, looking at his brother looking at him, merely waiting for whatever was coming next.

What came next was his brother’s body against his own, mouth devouring him, harsh breaths in his ear - and it was glorious … if a little overwhelming. Still, he made no move to wrest control away, content to touch and be touched, to explore and learn, to press kisses to whatever bare skin came in proximity and catch flashes of salt sweat heat lightning on his tongue. Ye Zun - his didi, his darling - was shivering despite the burn of his skin, vibrating like a violin string under the bow. He wanted to gather him close and wrap him in a shielding cloak of his love, but knew it would be spurned, as his questions were left unanswered beyond a sneer or snarl, as his cooking was left to spoil untouched until he replaced it with more (or more recently, until it was consumed by Yunlan.)

Here and no further, just this and nothing more; still, he would happily take it, hoard it deep within like a dragon’s treasure, to bring out on special occasions.

Then Ye Zun’s teeth applied themselves to his neck, clamping hard, the exquisite pressure ratcheting by degrees with each drawn-out moment. Between the unmoving grip of Ye Zun’s teeth around his flesh and the rutting slide of Ye Zun’s body against his own, Shen Wei felt his body hurtle into shuddering surrender, a single soft gasp passing his lips in the shape of his brother’s name.

And he felt the instant his skin gave and the teeth met with a click and time goes unbearably wonky. He blinks and an hour had passed, each repetition of reassuring ‘green’ a tick of the clock; somewhere, a millennium has slid away unremarked while he breathed. But Ye Zun is still touching him.

The ambulance bearing Shen Wei to the hospital had just pulled into the emergency bay by the time his poor twin starts to drift like a flake in a blizzard, an endless world of white and numb and blank cold nothing. He knows none of this, but lets himself drift too.

He wakes in the hospital, arm itching around the IV (though not the one calmly dripping fluids into his veins.) It takes a moment for his eyes to focus in the sterile gloom, but there is his little brother in the bed across the room, unconscious but alive. There is Zhao Yunlan asleep in an uncomfortable-looking sprawl on a cot between them. The steady sound of breathing and the electronic confirmation of his brother’s heart allows his own lungs to draw a full breath, exhaled in a ragged shiver which surprises him almost as much as Yunlan’s presence here does not. Surely there are rules for visitors, about… family, who was allowed and who wasn’t. Even knowing the silken smooth talker that their lover was, Shen Wei burns with curiosity as to how it’s been managed even while he’s grateful it was.

He absorbs this reality a moment, watching the loves of his life sleep, and feels one corner of his mouth twitch up in a soft half-smile.

Zhao wakes first, eyes landing on Shen Wei’s and his own lips curving as they close again - only to snap open once more, so wide white is visible clean around the pitch-black center, almost glowing in the dim light like an animal as he realizes Shen Wei is awake and looking back at him. Any of the dozen things he’s probably thinking can’t seem to make it out at the moment, but Shen Wei is most content to simply linger in this shared look.

Then Ye Zun wakes and sits bolt upright, monitors whining in mechanical distress. He casts around a frantic gaze, landing on his brother and the eyes staring back. This does nothing to soothe his rabbiting heart rate, and the nurse makes it through the door just in time to stop him from yanking out the wires tethering him to the bed as he tries to do five things at once.

Zhao and Shen Wei coax him to be patient, that Shen Wei isn’t going anywhere while he's carefully disconnected and the fluids bag is moved to a mobile stand and he makes a jerky beeline around the cot to his brother’s bed. He stands, shifting from one bare foot to the other, teeth pinning his bottom lip so hard the lush skin goes white around them. He looks… vulnerable, uncertain, painfully young. It’s only ever been 8 minutes, but Shen Wei has always taken his role as elder brother seriously, and his heart twists any time his brother reveals this side of his nature.

Shen Wei can think of no words adequate to the moment, no perfect phrase or sage wisdom that will convey that there is nothing to forgive. Acta non verba, so he simply holds out a hand… and waits. Ye Zun’s eyes are huge, his face a match for his hair, and he looks like he fully expects the floor to swallow him if he so much as blinks. Only when Zhao Yunlan carefully threads his fingers into Shen Wei’s still waiting hand does Ye Zun startle, blink, and move around the end of the bed, one finger trailing over the crests and hollows of the blankets in a silent question.

Shen Wei’s answer is to lift his other arm, holding the IV tubing out of the way while his brother carefully arranges himself beside him on the bed, his body held a rigid centimeter away. The arm comes down, and the collective breath they all seem to be holding is released in a quiet rush when Ye Zun lets himself be tucked that final fraction of an inch and (really, there is no other word for the motion) snuggles into his big brother’s side, albeit very carefully. Zhao’s presence there or not, it is not lost on Shen Wei that Ye Zun has chosen the side where he does not have to be immediately confronted with the consequential evidence of his actions.

His little brother’s fingers are tracing a nervous circuit around the buttons of his pajama top, occasionally diverting to press over his heart before skittering away again. Bringing Yunlan’s fingers along for the ride, Shen Wei moves his own to capture his brother’s, and they tangle comfortably despite the extra set.

For a moment, all is still. All is calm and right in the world. Then Zhao Yunlan draws one of those deep ‘I have reached a decision’ breaths, and slowly slides his hand free. He takes a step back, and oh no. That wonky tilt to the world is coming back.

“Xiao Yunlan?” The nickname is breathed out, barely a whisper, but the man freezes all the same. He seems to be… bracing for some kind of impact, and Shen Wei makes a mental note that the next thing on his to-do list is driving all possible doubts about his place with them from Yunlan’s mind forever. For now, this will have to suffice. “You will stay. Won’t you?” I want you to stay.

Dark eyes flick from brother to brother, reading something there neither would likely see if they were to look, but it does not appear to be working until Ye Zun’s voice creeps into the void. It’s little, a hint of shyness in the clear tone, and nothing like Shen Wei has heard from him in years - but it also brooks zero argument. “You’re staying.”

His jaw (that lovely sculpted line that Shen Wei does so love to dot with kisses) drops just a bit before he recovers, face doing a bit of gymnastics in tandem with his brain before he manages a nod and replies, “Looks like I’m staying.”

“Good,” Ye Zun sighs as he reaches for Yunlan’s hand and presses that much closer to his brother, no longer able to be convincing that the entire situation is a matter of supreme indifference.

(It’ll take time to coax him the rest of the way out of his shielding exoskeleton, and there are likely to still be days when he shuts himself up inside again, but already it is like stepping into the brightness of springtime sun after being shut indoors all winter.)

“We are glad,” Shen Wei elaborates, for once presuming to speak for them both.

“But there are going to be some changes around here.”

Two pairs of eyebrows do complicated maneuvers on mirroring foreheads.

“We’re going to spend time together. All of us, and you two, and whichever us two you want, and sometimes alone time because we need that, but I want standing date nights with you both.” The twins nod in unplanned unison. “We are going to cook for each other, and with each other, and then eat together at least a few times a week.” Again, mutual agreement. “And… this one is non-negotiable. Okay? I am putting my foot down.”

Ye Zun blinks first, then Shen Wei, but neither looks away.

“We’re going to therapy. All of us.” Shen Wei feels more than sees Ye Zun’s mouth compress, as though it wants to frown or sneer or open wide and spew protest and can’t decide which to do first - but Yunlan just raises a hand and levels a finger at him. “Yes, you too. But that’s why I said all of us, you gorgeous stubborn idiot. And we’re getting a pet - maybe something fluffy like a rabbit or a shelter cat - and we’re going to have a movie night pajama party at least once a week. With snacks.” He’s settled back onto the cot, spine practically a question mark with his exchanged hand behind his head and feet crossed at the ankles where they’re propped on the bed by Shen Wei’s. Their lover seems to be warming to his theme, Shen Wei thinks as he looks down at their tangled fingers and senses things are probably going to be alright.

Their therapist is a lovely young woman named Zhu Hong, who takes precisely zero BS and moves fluidly between their various levels and doesn’t let Ye Zun wriggle out of anything even when she’s giving him the space he needs to work through things. They mostly see her one-on-one (the best option for focusing on their individual issues and letting her apply different suitable techniques) but they have a group session every two weeks. Those nights, there’s usually a lot of after-dinner cuddling while they ignore cute animal videos or long-play channels of sea life or fantastical renderings of the cosmos.

It takes 6 months, but they get to a good place, and they get there together.

In the end, nobody asks anyone, and they get matching necklaces instead of rings. One night, following a particularly grueling therapy session, Zhao takes them to a slightly greasy diner for Xu Tan and then back a few days later to the craft store one shop over that has a jewelry making class once a week. That night happens to be leatherwork, and they each work diligently, braiding supple leather strands in various levels of complexity, and deciding how they want to adorn them. Shen Wei elects to set his beads in small silver mounts that dangle fetchingly from the dark cords, while Ye Zun and Zhao Yunlan opt to weave theirs into the braids, but they each independently choose the same color scheme.

Three men, three necklaces, three beads each. The same colors, but each in a different order - a perfectly matching set of identically different pieces. Like them.

A pale orb of milk-white opal, glowing like a winter moon. A round of pure black, somehow warm despite its inky depths. A soft golden ball with a pearlescent sheen, like imprisoned candlelight. They put them on each other once they were done, a pair working to adorn the third, some quiet exchange that felt deeply ceremonial.

That night, warm and safely cocooned in bed (Yunlan snuffling softly in the center, Ye Zun asleep on his right holding Shen Wei’s hand on the tiny island of their mutual lover’s waist) Shen Wei rolls a little, feeling the beads at his throat shift slightly against his skin. He recalls with perfect clarity the tickling brush of fingertips at his nape as Ye Zun and Zhao Yunlan fastened it around his neck, the intensity in their eyes, the way the universe seemed to be holding its breath until they were done. He already knows that whatever eternity they stay there will be nowhere near long enough, but he is grateful for it, for this - for them - all the same.

With a softly whispered ‘I love you’ Shen Wei settles once more and allows himself to drift into a dream that will still be here when they wake up.