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Their garden went through several cycles of growth and replantings before Shen San realized something was off.

“Yao-xiong,” he said over breakfast, playing with the polished wooden spoon he’d carved… how many years ago, now? “Has living with you done something strange to me?”

Wei froze.

Back when they first met, when Shen San woke to what he thought might have been an afterlife; when Wei was an ethereal mystery of a man, a plum blossom spirit, a snowflake; when they were still new to each other, strangers but not strangers… Shen San might have thought Wei was merely politely confused. But now he could decipher the utter stillness of Wei’s expression, the slant of his brows and crow-feather lashes. Wei was petrified with fear.

“Hey, hey now,” Shen San soothed. He dropped his spoon back into his unfinished rice porridge with a gloop and reached his hands out. Wei’s fingers were cold as they always were. “It’s just an idle question, what’s wrong?”

Outside a gust of wind set the branches of the plum tree into rustling motion, a shadow pattern of leaves dancing over the sunlit walls. A bird chirped, chi-chi-chi iiie, once and then twice again before Wei opened his mouth.

“Do you feel sick?” said Wei. His voice trembled with distress that Shen San immediately wished to alleviate.

“What? No.” Shen San grinned his best grin, quirking his lips to dimple his cheek and crinkle the skin at the corners of his eyes. “The opposite, actually. How long have we been living together? I think I actually look younger than I did when you first met me, Yao-xiong.”

Alone on the mountain as they were, Shen San didn’t pay much attention to his appearance. Their hut didn’t contain anything as needlessly luxurious as a polished mirror, so the most he saw of his reflection was in the rippled water of the nearby lake. He and Wei lived their lives, occasionally traveling down the mountain for supplies, while the days and seasons slipped past like grains of rice through spread fingers.

“It’s been, what? Five years? Six?” Shen San continued when Wei didn’t speak. That was pretty normal. Wei was a quiet man, and while Shen San wasn’t the most gregarious he still liked to have a conversation. Wei’s silence didn’t mean he didn’t participate. A hum, a head tilt – as Shen San got to know his companion better, they could chat comfortably without Wei actually opening his mouth at all.

This time though, Wei answered as he shook his head. “Eleven.”

“Eleven years?” Shen San paused, taken aback. “You’re serious?”

A nod.

Then Shen San should be… over forty years old. He eyed his hands, callused and veined but with skin still supple and unwrinkled. His face, he knew, was youthful even with the short beard he kept cropped close to his jaw. He looked midway through his second decade at best.

“Did your immortality… rub off on me, somehow?”

Usually a ridiculous statement like that would earn Shen San an indulgent smile, or if he was very lucky a soft laugh. Now Wei merely stared at him, solemn, lips pressed together in a thin line. A dart of leaf shadow flicked over his ear and jaw.

Their breakfast grew cold and congealed as Wei slowly explained: the young ghost king, the mountain god, the tree. Shennong’s warning, and how it turned out to be a lie.

As Wei spoke he hid his face with his chin tipped down toward his chest. Shen San took slow breaths through his nose. A vast swell of tenderness expanded behind his ribcage: not an unfamiliar emotion, but revelatory each time it came, something that felt too big to be contained within one person’s body. Perhaps it was. A god’s love, too deified to fit within mortal confines.

“It’s been hard on you,” he said when Wei finished. By now Wei’s hands were blood-warm with Shen San’s heat shared between them. Wei made a noise low in his throat. “I’m here,” he reminded. “I won’t leave you again.”

“With your divine powers released… you won’t be able to enter the wheel of reincarnation. If you – if –”

“I won’t die, I promise,” said Shen San. “Shen Wei.”

Wei’s fingers curled around his and gripped tight.