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An impossible space, a black void streaked with stars and washes of colour-

Shen Wei's eyes are red rimmed, glimmering with tears. Even so-

Let's make a bet.

What kind of bet?

Zhao Yunlan had sent Lin Jing home hours ago; at this time of night the SID is quiet, still, the perfect place to think.

And he has a lot to think about: the situation with Student Li and her Nainai, the mysterious Professor Shen, the Longevity Dial – and Heipaoshi's enigmatic words, concern etched in every syllable: I fear it may bring endless trouble.

Heipaoshi had been – surprisingly forthcoming, for all the reports Zhao Yunlan had read of his forbidding nature and ruthless demeanour; had displayed concern for Li Qian, told Zhao Yunlan to please look after himself-

And, Zhao Yunlan has to admit, it had been refreshing to hear Dixing's representative on Haixing admit to not knowing something, rather than making excuses – or, worse, just making something up.

He tilts further back in his chair until he's nearly horizontal, lifting the Longevity Dial above his head. Before, it had fit neatly around the curve of one of his fingers; now, he can curl all four of his fingers comfortably within its span. Still, even at this size, it's such a small thing – and yet it holds such power that even Heipaoshi himself had urged caution.

And yet-

Zhao Yunlan had half expected Heipaoshi to lay a claim to the Hallow – he's read his history, of course, knows the Holy Tools had been given to Dixing under the Treaty at the end of the Allied War. But Heipaoshi hadn't – even when Zhao Yunlan had outright asked him how the Hallow should be dealt with, didn't even put up a token objection when Zhao Yunlan had said we'll guard it closely.

And what that means, Zhao Yunlan can't yet say; Heipaoshi doesn't strike him as the type to try some kind of ploy – and certainly all of his previous dealings with the SID have been strictly within the bounds defined by the Treaty. Trouble in Dixing then, perhaps – but really, what does Zhao Yunlan actually know about Dixing? Lao Chu hasn't been particularly forthcoming – maybe if Zhao Yunlan has a quiet word, just the two of them, see if he can shed some light on the things Heipaoshi hadn't quite said-

The Longevity Dial flares gold, activating for a moment, and Zhao Yunlan lifts his boots from the desk, chair springing upright as he puts both feet on the floor – what could make it activate next? Heipaoshi had said, we have no way of knowing, but something is definitely happening – and then it fades, and Zhao Yunlan breathes, once, twice, waiting-

A choked gasp echoes through the SID, puncturing the tranquil silence, and Zhao Yunlan rises silently to his feet, soft stepping out of the door to his office and down the corridor; he hadn't been raised by a cat Yashou for nothing.

The main room is dim, just the night lights active, and for a moment Zhao Yunlan can't see anything out of the ordinary – and then there's another gasp, or maybe a moan, pained and breathless, and-

"Zhao Yunlan, hold on," a voice says, urgent – and familiar, Zhao Yunlan recognises that voice-

A tiny laugh, barely more than a breath. "Shen Wei ah," a second voice gasps, and Zhao Yunlan claps a hand over his mouth; he's definitely not speaking, and yet- "I'm trying, but it's – burning-" Zhao Yunlan gasps, and Zhao Yunlan cuts to the side, clearing the table from his eye line, and-

They're on the ground; Shen Wei's back is to the couch, and in his arms – he's cradling-

Zhao Yunlan is the Chief of the SID; he knew going in that he would see unexplainable things, but he'd never expected this: to see himself – and he's pretty sure his double is wearing the same jeans and boots that Zhao Yunlan himself is, even if his hair is different, parted each side of his forehead – sprawled limp in the arms of the mysterious and intriguing Professor Shen.

"Did it work?" Zhao Yunlan gasps; there's blood on his mouth, smeared a little on his face, and Shen Wei doesn't seem to care that it's getting all over his fancy grey waistcoat.

"It worked," Shen Wei says, and clutches Zhao Yunlan tighter as he coughs wetly, more blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. "Yunlan-"

"Xiao Wei ah," Zhao Yunlan gasps, corner of his mouth quirking. "We knew – this would happen-"

"I know," Shen Wei says, face anguished; it's the most emotion Zhao Yunlan has ever seen him display. The Professor Shen he knows is incredibly tightly controlled; always thinking about what he's saying, almost impenetrable beneath his polite smiles and burning glances. "We need – where are you?"

The Zhao Yunlan in Shen Wei's arms shudders in a breath, and Zhao Yunlan tucks the Longevity Dial into his pocket, takes his own, steadying, breath-

"I'm here," he says, and watches Shen Wei's body twitch as his head snaps up; watches the way his right hand flinches as though to grab a weapon, before settling gently back on Zhao Yunlan's hip.

"I – thought so-" his double gasps. He hasn't moved, still limp in Shen Wei's arms, and is it that he's seriously injured and trying not to jostle internal wounds, or is it that he's incapable?

Zhao Yunlan comes closer, letting his steps make noise; crouches next to them, Shen Wei's eyes following him the entire way. "Ambulance?" he says, locking eyes with himself, and his double snorts, tilts his head in a minute shake.

"I'm – dying," he gasps, mouth quirking again; and it's the tiniest of motions, but Zhao Yunlan doesn't miss the way Shen Wei's whole face flinches. "I'm – Xiao Wei, am I – are we – even real?"

"We're real enough," Shen Wei says, voice ruthlessly composed. "More than an energy being, but something less than fully alive."

"Real enough," his double echoes, and cuts his eyes back to Zhao Yunlan. "Do you – have it?"

"How far ahead are you from?" Zhao Yunlan counters, shoving his hand in his pocket, fingertips brushing cold metal. He can already guess what his double is talking about – after all, didn't Li Qian bring her Nainai back from the brink of death by sharing her life force?

It's hard to smirk while gasping for breath; his double, of course, manages it. "Far – enough-" he gasps. "I-" he breaks off into another wet cough, more blood trickling onto his chin. "Shen Wei-"

"I will explain," Shen Wei says, and meets Zhao Yunlan's eyes. "Chief Zhao, do you remember our conversation in your office, when we first discussed the Hallows? We were both concerned that the emergence of the Longevity Dial was only the first in a possibly increasing series of troubles," and Zhao Yunlan-

Zhao Yunlan remembers that conversation, of course – for him, only hours ago – but that conversation had been with-

"I fear it may bring endless trouble," Zhao Yunlan quotes, narrows his eyes when Shen Wei nods. "Hei-laoge?"

Shen Wei blinks at him for a moment, eyes going big and round behind his glasses. "Ah-" he says, and Zhao Yunlan's double starts laughing, hoarse and wet.

"Xiao Wei ah," he gasps, laugh turning into a cough. "I can't – believe you – forgot-"

"I am no longer used to guarding my tongue around you," Shen Wei says primly, and this is just – Shen Wei is Dixingren, Shen Wei is Heipaoshi, and Zhao Yunlan had known there was something off about Professor Shen but he hadn't expected this-

It's hard to reconcile the reports of Heipaoshi's ruthlessness with Shen Wei's gentle treatment of his students; hard to reconcile Dixing's implacable enforcer with the way his double is-

Zhao Yunlan hadn't expected to ever feel for another person, either, but there's no mistaking the look in his own eyes as his double gazes up at Shen Wei. He really – well, it's not like Shen Wei is unattractive, and Zhao Yunlan has always been drawn to a mystery, but that look, the way his double calls him Xiao Wei – Zhao Yunlan hadn't thought himself capable of-

Shen Wei clears his throat. "Things got worse," he continues. "Rebels overthrew the Dixing government and broke the treaty, invaded Haixing-"

One of his double's arms slides from his stomach, catching on Shen Wei's arm; without missing a beat, Shen Wei tangles their fingers together. "I sacrificed myself to destroy their leader, but Dixing's power source had been exhausted, and Dixing itself was about to collapse, threatening all of Dragon City in the process; you sacrificed yourself to light the Guardian Lantern, bringing light and stability back to Dixing."

"The losses – were great-" his double gasps.

"Did you come back to warn me?" Zhao Yunlan asks. He can record on his phone, if he needs to; for a temporal effect like this, he assumes accuracy will be paramount in ensuring things are changed enough to make a difference.

"No – time-" his double gasps, and Shen Wei's mouth thins into a line.

"We barely managed to get here," Shen Wei says. "Zhao Yunlan carried the brunt of the burden, but I won't be far behind." He glances up at Zhao Yunlan, eyes burning, and yes, Zhao Yunlan can see it now: the intensity and power of Heipaoshi, churning under his skin.

"Chief Zhao, please – fetch the Longevity Dial."

Holding himself is – weird.

His double is far too warm; he doesn't feel feverish, though, skin dry rather than clammy – but he's far hotter than any human has any right to be.

"It's – the Lantern-" his double gasps, and Zhao Yunlan isn't yet familiar with what must be one of the other Holy Tools – but it makes sense, that lanterns would burn.

"Zhao Yunlan," Shen Wei murmurs, and takes hold of his double's trembling hand, helping him lift it to where Zhao Yunlan has the Longevity Dial. "I-"

"Shen Wei ah," his double gasps, and Zhao Yunlan didn't know his expression could even do that, sincerity and love shining out from his double's face. "I know."

Shen Wei curls his double's fingers around Zhao Yunlan's on the dial; his eyes are red, breathing unsteady. "Remember your promise," he says, and lets go; he shuffles a short distance back, getting clear.

Dixingren and Haixingren energies cannot be safely combined, he'd said when Zhao Yunlan asked him why he wasn't going to use the Longevity Dial on his Zhao Yunlan; added it can only be you, and, well, if it uses life force, and neither Zhao Yunlan's double or Shen Wei himself are technically still alive-

"I will," Zhao Yunlan's double gasps; his arm is trembling, but his fingers are firm around Zhao Yunlan's.

"What next?" Zhao Yunlan asks; his double coughs wetly, body shuddering against Zhao Yunlan's, and Shen Wei's hands tighten on his knees.

"Close your eyes," Shen Wei says, and Zhao Yunlan does; the world falls into darkness, nothing but the burning press of his double's body against his, the clench of his fingers around intricately carved metal. "Focus on the Longevity Dial – open your mind-"

Zhao Yunlan breathes, brings an image of the Longevity Dial into his mind; he's not sure what he's supposed to be thinking about, not sure what's even possible. Hopefully the other Zhao Yunlan knows what he's doing; Zhao Yunlan imagines himself reaching out, hand open to the Longevity Dial, imagines it activating-

A golden glow washes through his eyelids, and Zhao Yunlan can feel – something, there's-

He gasps in a breath; in his arms, Zhao Yunlan's body flares into an inferno-

Pressure, in his brain, sharp and pointed, and something in his mind cracks wide-

It hurts-

Visions come thick and fast – walking with Shen Wei, interrogating Shen Wei, letting him go. Does the Wei in your name also have a deeper meaning? Zhao Yunlan asks, and there's something dark and shuttered in Shen Wei's eyes as he says someone very important gave me that name.

Despite the secrets and lies, Zhao Yunlan is still drawn to Shen Wei – continuing to seek his help on cases, half formed suspicions in his mind that nothing about Shen Wei is as ordinary as he claims. And as the cases increase, so does Heipaoshi's presence in their investigations, in the SID. Shortening your life to save a Dixingren, is it worth it? Heipaoshi asks, standing over the dying form of Wu Tian'en; and the elderly Dixingren had only wanted to save his son, a child Haixingren adults had taken into the wilderness and left to die. Haixingren or Dixingren, a person is a person, Zhao Yunlan says. No child, no parent, deserves that; not for anything, but especially not for being different. Please Hei-laoge, save him, and Heipaoshi, supposedly so ruthless and implacable, shows mercy.

Case by case, Zhao Yunlan's opinion of Dixing and Dixingren changes. Not every Dixingren is causing trouble because they're criminals; some are desperate, some are starving, and some simply can't control their power. Whether Haixingren or Dixingren, identity is only skin-deep, Heipaoshi says, taking charge of the mirror Dixingren with Zhou Weiwei's face. One's heart cannot be judged by identity alone. It's certainly something to think on; and Zhao Yunlan finds himself doing a lot of thinking, as time passes. I expected even less that one day you would empathise with the plight of the Dixingren, Shen Wei tells him late one night in his office, and Zhao Yunlan can't even be upset about it because he'd never thought he would, either, not after everything.

It hurts, Zhao Yunlan is burning – and then the burning crawls up his throat, and no, it's just gastritis – but Shen Wei is there, somehow, taking him home, tucking him into bed. And he's still there the next morning, and really, what is Zhao Yunlan supposed to think? So he smiles, sprawls, flirts – Shen Wei, Shen Wei… you're so good to have around, how could I be willing to let you go? And Shen Wei smiles, tells him if you want porridge, you can come over anytime, and the standing invitation combined with the look in his eyes – the way the corner of his mouth quirks when he turns Zhao Yunlun down about joining the SID – Shen Wei is flirting back, and Zhao Yunlan didn't think himself capable of emotions like this, but he feels-

Shen Wei has too many secrets, though, for anything to happen yet between them – but Zhao Yunlan is tenacious, and Shen Wei – for all his prevarication and stuttering denials, for all the times he turns his eyes and face down and refuses to answer, Zhao Yunlan thinks Shen Wei wants to be known. The way he looks at Zhao Yunlan when he thinks no-one is watching him, something burning in the depths of his eyes – there's something there, something Zhao Yunlan doesn't yet understand, and Shen Wei is only fooling himself if he thinks he can prevent Zhao Yunlan from discovering it.

Together they travel to the Northwest Mountains; and again, Heipaoshi shows mercy, using the Mountain-River Awl to free Sang Zan. They hold each other's heart in life and death, Heipaoshi says, something almost longing in his voice. Hei-laoge, you have someone you care about too? Zhao Yunlan asks, but he's too late; when he turns back around, Heipaoshi has vanished. And later that evening, Zhao Yunlan gets a clue as to why; lifting the jacket he'd gifted Shen Wei to cover his slumbering form, and smelling youchu blood – and suddenly everything makes sense, all of Shen Wei's evasions falling neatly into place, a puzzle revealed.

Still, Shen Wei denies it. I just want to hear you tell the truth, Zhao Yunlan tells him, and Shen Wei continues to deflect; if you were the trouble, I'd like that by the dozen, to trouble me for the rest of my life Zhao Yunlan says later, in a side room at a ruined wedding, and still, Shen Wei keeps silent. But the push and pull between them is magnetic, inescapable – and finally, finally, Shen Wei summons Heipaoshi's robes knowingly in Zhao Yunlan's line of sight.

I know you're not heartless, Zhao Yunlan tells him, much later. You pretend to be cold-hearted and indifferent, but in reality, you're soft-hearted and caring. He's seen Heipaoshi show mercy too many times to discount it; seen Shen Wei interact with his students, kind and gentle and encouraging. Heipaoshi can be cold-hearted, yes – Zhao Yunlan has seen that, with the Dixingren who have killed under Haixing's sun. But that's not all he is; and underneath the mask and robes lies the gentle heart of a man that Zhao Yunlan wants at his side – in every way he can.

I believe that as long as we fight side by side, we can overcome any difficulties that lie ahead, Zhao Yunlan says, and it's thrilling to have Heipaoshi – to have Shen Weifinally agree. And there's growing evidence that Shen Wei, too, wants to keep Zhao Yunlan close, safe – like the way he keeps scolding Zhao Yunlan about touching the Hallows. Zhao Yunlan, don't you know how precious your life is? Shen Wei says, far too much emotion packed into the words for Zhao Yunlan to even begin to decipher them. And then-

Capturing Zhu Jiu; meeting the spectre of Ye Zun in the park – defending himself with the Longevity Dial, Zhu Hong protected at his back. And he can feel it, the Longevity Dial drawing on his soul; it hurts, it hurts, but Zhao Yunlan has to hold on – and then Shen Wei is there, Shen Wei is holding his hand, and Zhao Yunlan smiles hazily. I knew you'd come, he says, because he'd known, even as Ye Zun's energy splashed sharp and cutting against the protective shield thrown up by the Dial; had faith, a bone-deep certainty that Shen Wei would come. And then he opens his eyes-

Being blind is hard. He doesn't – he isn't – if Shen Wei wasn't there, at almost every moment – helping him, leading him, taking care of him – Zhao Yunlan doesn't know how he would have coped. And eventually, Shen Wei heals his eyes, like Zhao Yunlan had known he would – and then Zhao Yunlan finds him in the kitchen, knife clattering to the floor as dark energy bleeds from his wrist, and nothing is okay. Don't even think of lying to me, Zhao Yunlan says, holding Shen Wei's limp arm in his hands; Shen Wei is pale, leaning against the counter like it's the only thing holding him up. What did you do to cure my eyes? Over the last weeks of working together, Shen Wei has taken residence in Zhao Yunlan's heart in a way that Zhao Yunlan hadn't even thought possible, and to see him in pain, to see him like this – it's almost unbearable. You're worth it, Shen Wei says, immediate, unhesitating, but that can't possibly be true; nothing could be worth this, Shen Wei pale and fragile. And yet – this life is one I am returning to you, Shen Wei says, and leaves, and something deep in Zhao Yunlan's chest hurts-

The visions start coming faster and faster; Zhao Yunlan kneeling in front of Shen Wei, hands steady on a bomb held between them: we're part of each other's lives now. If you die, do you think I could be okay? Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei facing each other, outside on a road: To be honest, I doubted you many times. But I chose to believe in you every single time. Shen Wei steadying Zhao Yunlan in the SID, the firm press of his hands the only thing keeping him upright: Zhao Yunlan, you are now the Chief of the SID, the Lord Guardian. If you lose it now, the whole city will be in chaos. Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei-

It hurts, when Shen Wei pulls him aside before he departs to Dixing: Zhao Yunlan, promise me – no matter what happens, you must hold tight. Maintain the status quo. And Zhao Yunlan has to breathe through the pain in his chest: Hei-laoge, we can only maintain the peace if we're all alive. It feels like he's never going to see Shen Wei again; oh, Shen Wei puts on a good front, but he's still paler than he should be, not healing as fast as he used to – and if Shen Wei doesn't come back from Dixing, Zhao Yunlan will-

He waits – and it hurts, when information about the SID is leaked online, the first salvo in a war he should have been better prepared for; it hurts, when his superiors refuse to let him take action, let him warn the civilians about what's coming for them; it hurts, when his own father doubts and dismisses him. But that, at least, Zhao Yunlan is used to; his father has never believed in him, and Zhao Yunlan has long ago decided to forge his own path. Zhao Yunlan waits, and waits, and waits, everything crumbling around them; it hurts, but Shen Wei asked, and Shen Wei so rarely asks for anything. And it hurts-

Finally, he gets a signal from Shen Wei; he goes into Dixing and rescues Xiao Guo and Shen Wei both, brings them back into Haixing's light. Will you sit there with me for a while? Shen Wei says, tipping his head towards a bench lit with late afternoon sun. I missed the sunlight here. And Zhao Yunlan is exhausted, has been run off his feet trying to put out fires for days, but finally, finally, Shen Wei is back; with him in Haixing, by his side where he belongs. Zhao Yunlan tips his head back against the stone wall, Shen Wei's presence at his elbow solid and comforting, and breathes-

Ye Zun's attack hurts, dragging on his soul – but unlike the Longevity Dial, Ye Zun's power is a burning cold, edges like knives trying to slice pieces off him, shred him into component energy. Zhao Yunlan's feet skid on the floor; step by unwilling step, Ye Zun is drawing him in, drawing him closer – and then something yanks Zhao Yunlan backwards, and he's-

He hadn't expected time travel. But it explains everything – the way Shen Wei had known him; we have always been friends, said without a moment of hesitation; the way Shen Wei of the present had claimed to owe him a life. And Ma Gui's ointment had healed his superficial cuts and bruises, but they can't heal the pain in his heart – the knowledge that Zhao Yunlan will befriend this young, lonely Shen Wei, and then leave him to suffer alone for ten thousand years.

But he can't not – Zhao Yunlan is drawn to this Shen Wei much like his own Shen Wei was drawn to him. Because Zhao Yunlan loves Shen Wei, then and now; no matter that this version of Shen Wei isn't yet entirely the same, at his core he's still the man Zhao Yunlan loves. And so when Shen Wei says the life that I owe you, I will definitely return, Zhao Yunlan says you've already returned it, many times over; talks with Shen Wei, gives him a new Wei – but in the end, they have so little time together. The Hallows are found, and the rebel leader Ye Zun turns out to be Shen Wei's twin brother – and then the wormhole forms, and Zhao Yunlan is-

I looked for you for ten thousand years, Shen Wei says. Finally, I found you. He's pale and clearly exhausted – but he's here, waiting for Zhao Yunlan; holding open the way so that he can return home. And Zhao Yunlan hurts, still, from Ye Zun throwing him to the ground, from the Hallows' power clutching at his very essence; but Shen Wei is here, Shen Wei survived, and now that Zhao Yunlan is back, they can go home.

Of course, it's not that simple.

Zhao Yunlan stands in the SID with his team, Shen Wei at his side and the Hallows on the table before them; says, when we meet here again, we can't be a single person short, and means it. He'll sacrifice himself if he needs to, but he's the boss; he'd always known that once he accepted the position of SID Chief that he wouldn't have a good end. But the others – Shen Wei – Zhao Yunlan can't lose a single one.

Who hurt you? he asks as Shen Wei scrabbles in the gravel to try and lever himself upright, Dixing's eternal night stretched clouded and murky above them. I'll kill him. Shen Wei isn't healing; Shen Wei isn't healing, ragged whip-strikes across his chest still seeping blood. He must be in agony; Zhao Yunlan can barely manage to breathe just looking at it, pain flaring jagged through his chest on every inhale. Not even Ye Zun's dark energy blasts can compare; even as they throw Zhao Yunlan against the ropes, rough fibres burning his neck, the pain in his chest only increases – and then Shen Wei-

Shen Wei-

Everything fades out; there's only the pain in his chest, the memory of Shen Wei's body, sliding against his as he crumples to the floor – the look in Shen Wei's eyes as Ye Zun had-

Somehow, Zhao Yunlan is still breathing.

What is your desire? Ye Zun asks. I can give you anything, and Zhao Yunlan-

I want you to die, he says through the glass in his throat, and he's never wanted anything more.

Zhao Yunlan takes the serum, because there's no reason not to; Shen Wei is dead, and Zhao Yunlan's heart along with him. So what if he'll die? He'd told Shen Wei as much, all those months ago in the hospital: if you die, do you think I could be okay? Stopping the war, achieving peace between Haixing and Dixing – it's worth dying for, and Zhao Yunlan no longer has any motivation for staying alive.

So he strikes at Ye Zun with the awl; has a moment, when Lin Jing, An Bai and the Regent appear, to hopewhere's Shen Wei? he yells, and Lin Jing looks at him with anguish in his eyes, and all at once, Zhao Yunlan knows-

If a time comes when I have to use my injuries in exchange for everyone's lives… I believe at that time you will have my answer, Shen Wei had said, collapsed in a Dixing back alley. He'd been planning this all along; deliberately using the damage he'd suffered healing Zhao Yunlan's eyes as a trump card – a final strike to take out Ye Zun.

You will die if you do this, Ma Gui says from ten thousand years in the past, but of course, Zhao Yunlan knows; he can barely breathe already, pain radiating from his chest in burning spikes with every shallow gasp. He balances the lantern on his hand; Dixing is about to shake apart and all of Dragon City with it – and with Shen Wei gone, there's no reason for him to delay. He breathes in, lets the pain draw him under-

No matter how long it takes, no matter where we go, there will be a day when we meet again.

Deal.

He's gasping, shallow ragged breaths; his throat feels raw – has he been screaming? He's – on his side, on the floor, and that's – he'd been propped up before, cradled in the arms of his double, the Zhao Yunlan of this time, but now he's – there's nothing but the floor, his fingers still clenched tight around the Longevity Dial.

"Zhao Yunlan?" Shen Wei says, and fuck, Shen Wei – he'd had to just sit and watch while Zhao Yunlan – while he-

Zhao Yunlan swallows, gasping as pain spikes in his throat. He's definitely been screaming; is intimately familiar, and recently, with how the aftermath of that feels.

"Yunlan-" Shen Wei says. "Can you hear me?" and Zhao Yunlan-

His hands are shaking, but he manages to uncurl his fingers one by one; lets the Longevity Dial clatter out of his grasp. Shen Wei's hands are on him only a moment later, carefully levering him upright; Shen Wei is going slow, gentle, but it still makes his head spin.

"Zhao Yunlan?" Shen Wei says again, one of his hands slides down onto Zhao Yunlan's chest, over his heart; the other slides up to curl around his cheek, gently cradling his face.

Zhao Yunlan gasps in an unsteady breath; his mouth feels dry. "Shen-" he starts; his voice is a cracked whisper, and it hurts, but he can speak. "Wei."

"Zhao Yunlan," Shen Wei says, voice wavering, and Zhao Yunlan gasps in another breath and manages to get his eyes open, and-

Oh, Shen Wei is – crying, eyes red rimmed and tears spilling down his cheeks, and Zhao Yunlan-

"Don't – cry," Zhao Yunlan whispers. "Xiao – Wei-" and Shen Wei's breath catches.

"It's you?" he says. "Zhao Yunlan, you remember?"

"It's me," Zhao Yunlan whispers. His throat still burns, but the pain is getting easier to bear. "I remember," and Shen Wei-

Shen Wei gasps in a breath, and the hand on Zhao Yunlan's face slides up to his forehead, into his hair – gently parting it open across his forehead in two easy sweeps.

"Zhao Yunlan," Shen Wei murmurs, and leans in; presses their foreheads together, and for a moment Zhao Yunlan just breathes – they did it, they did it, and now he's free of the lantern, safe, alive – and then Shen Wei shudders against him, and Zhao Yunlan pries open eyes that had fallen closed.

He might be safe, but Shen Wei is still-

"How long?" Zhao Yunlan whispers. He can't – they've come so far, fought so hard – he can't lose Shen Wei now. He won't.

"The burden is heavier now that it's mine alone," Shen Wei admits, and Zhao Yunlan gently pushes at his shoulder until Shen Wei sits back; he's pale, pain pinching the corners of his eyes. It's not much of an estimate, but for Shen Wei to show pain at all, to admit how much it hurts – that alone means it's bad-

Means Zhao Yunlan needs to hurry.

"Sit back," he whispers, and watches Shen Wei slump sideways against the back of the couch with none of his usual grace.

He scoops the Longevity Dial from the floor, tucking it back in his pocket; starts the long and painful process of climbing to his feet, bracing against the couch. He's stiff and aching, but the movement helps – and when he's finally upright, he gets his balance with only a moment of dizziness.

"Be right back," Zhao Yunlan whispers, and heads for his office.

He rounds his desk, intending to fetch the incense from the drawer; spots his half full mug of abandoned tea tucked in the space between the monitor and the landline, and changes the direction of his reaching hand. The tea is cold, over-steeped and bitter – but it's liquid, soothing to his dry mouth and painful throat, and Zhao Yunlan sculls it in several long swallows and a single breath.

When he lowers the mug, Wang Zheng is standing across from him.

Zhao Yunlan flinches back, fumbling the mug; manages to catch it before it slides completely out of his grasp. Shen Wei would be alarmed if he heard something shatter, might waste energy he doesn't have to spare on coming to investigate.

"Wang Zheng," he gasps, putting the mug safely on the desk. He'd – forgotten about Wang Zheng, and shamefully so; it hasn't been that long, in chronological terms, since she and Sang Zan sacrificed their lives in an attempt to save Zhao Yunlan – but he spent so long in the past, and then with everything that's happened since-

He hadn't seen her before he and the other Zhao Yunlan had activated the Longevity Dial together – but if he'd been screaming-

"Chief Zhao," Wang Zheng says, and cuts to the heart of the matter: "There were two of you, and now there's only one."

"Ah, Wang Zheng," Zhao Yunlan says, and shrugs helplessly. He doesn't have a story prepared; he's exhausted, and anyway, he doesn't like to lie to his team unless he absolutely has to. Wang Zheng deserves the truth. "I'm still me. I'm just – from the future."

Wang Zheng watches him, unblinking. "What happened to Chief Zhao?" she asks.

"We-" Zhao Yunlan starts, and pauses. He isn't – he wasn't corporeal, quite, before – certainly he didn't have a body, so this is definitely his counterpart's physical form. And yet he can't – find any trace of another consciousness in his mind; and with all the fending off he'd been doing of Ye Zun's insidious mental attacks, he'd like to think if there was a second consciousness here, he'd know.

"I think we merged," he says in the end. "I – I'm not from some kind of alternate timeline – I was him, all those months ago. We're – the same person. I am Chief Zhao – just, from further along."

He doesn't know if that makes any sense, but Wang Zheng gives him a considering look, and then nods.

"Are you going to summon Heipaoshi?" she asks.

"I have to," Zhao Yunlan says, opening the drawer and taking out the wooden box with the burner and incense.

"I need him to save Shen Wei."

The last time he'd used Heipaoshi's incense, Zhao Yunlan had burned cone after cone, unanswered, while Shen Wei languished in chains. Even then, his hands had been steady; here and now, Shen Wei's breathing hitched and shallow, it takes him two tries to strike the match.

He replaces the cover, thin smoke issuing through the holes, waits for a breath, two – and then the smoke flares, rising up in thick trails to the ceiling; the night lights flicker, Zhao Yunlan's next breath pluming in the air-

Measured footsteps echo through the fog, and Heipaoshi strides into the room, the fog clearing at his back.

"Hei-laoge," Zhao Yunlan says; despite his effort, he doesn't quite manage his usual levity – and if he can hear it, probably so can Heipaoshi.

"Zhao-xiong," Heipaoshi says, stopping at the head of the table. Zhao Yunlan can see the exact moment he notices Zhao Yunlan's changed hair; he hesitates for a fraction of a second before he continues. "I wasn't expecting another call so soon – has something happened?"

Zhao Yunlan has to swallow down the laugh, half hysterical, that wants to bubble out of his throat. "Ah, you could say that," he says, and watches Heipaoshi's mouth tighten. "I think it's easiest if I just – show you," he says, and beckons; watches Heipaoshi's face as he rounds the corner of the table-

Watches his eyes go wide, mouth falling open, as he catches sight of Shen Wei on the floor, sprawled against the back of the couch.

Well – best to rip off the whole sticking plaster at once.

"We're from the future," Zhao Yunlan says, and Heipaoshi's eyes snap back to him, intense; he doesn't change his expression, but something about him suddenly feels dangerous in the way Shen Wei has always done best.

It's a shame that for Zhao Yunlan, at least, that particular feeling goes to very different places.

"You are from the future?" Heipaoshi clarifies.

"Yes," Zhao Yunlan says. "It went – badly."

"You used the Hallows," Heipaoshi says; it's not a question, it's a statement, and Zhao Yunlan wonders how much of what they've done is visible, to Shen Wei's Dixingren eyes.

"By the end, I was the Hallows," Zhao Yunlan says, and takes a breath: "I sacrificed myself to light the Guardian Lantern."

There's a knock against his ankle; Zhao Yunlan knows without having to look that it's Shen Wei, needing contact with Zhao Yunlan as a physical reminder that he's fine, now – that he's alive and safe. Zhao Yunlan can empathise – as soon as Heipaoshi saves Shen Wei, he's going to hug him for at least a week. Maybe two.

Heipaoshi sucks in an audible breath; he's gone statue-still. "How-" he starts, and his gaze cuts down to Shen Wei on the floor. "How could you let him," he says, raw, and Zhao Yunlan glances down just in time to watch the same anguish flash across Shen Wei's face, unmasked.

"I was already dead," Shen Wei says, voice just as ragged, and Heipaoshi flinches back like he's been struck.

"Like I said – it went badly," Zhao Yunlan says, before they can get lost in the details – Shen Wei doesn't have that kind of time. "Shen Wei was just energy, and I was the wick of the Lantern – we used everything we had to power the Hallows for one last jump."

Heipaoshi's eyes flick up and down Zhao Yunlan's body; normally he'd preen under the attention, but Heipaoshi isn't having a good day, and Zhao Yunlan – well, Zhao Yunlan isn't having a good month, and anyway, he knows what Heipaoshi is looking for.

"We used the Longevity Dial," Zhao Yunlan says. "I was about to die – permanently, that is – and Chief Zhao and I – we merged."

"You were from a later point in the timeline, so you became the dominant consciousness," Heipaoshi says, and Zhao Yunlan nods.

"I can't feel him," he says, tapping the side of his head. And then – because everything aside, this is Shen Wei, and the one thing Zhao Yunlan knows about Shen Wei is that he loves Zhao Yunlan, fiercely and completely – he gives Heipaoshi a sad smile. "Shen Wei, I'm sorry," he says. Future or not, that was Heipaoshi's Zhao Yunlan, and Zhao Yunlan has completely subsumed him.

Heipaoshi lowers his head; his hand comes up to press against his chest, and Zhao Yunlan's throat aches at the reminder – Shen Wei's pendant, his ten thousand year wait on nothing but faith – and then Shen Wei's next breath comes with a pained noise, and Zhao Yunlan-

They're running out of time.

"Hei-laoge," he says, "Shen Wei is dying," and despite his best efforts, his voice cracks. "Will you help?"

Heipaoshi's hand drops to his side; he looks towards Shen Wei for a moment, and then meets Zhao Yunlan's eyes. "I don't think I can stabilise him," he says. "His energy is-" he trails off, but Zhao Yunlan knows; he'd been energy himself, when they'd drawn on the Hallows – felt firsthand the way the Holy Tools had shredded their energies in the process.

"Two of us would disrupt the timeline too much," Shen Wei says, voice tight with pain he must no longer be able to disguise. "If you are amenable-" he stops, swallows for a moment – and they'd discussed it beforehand, in the void outside of time and space, but Zhao Yunlan aches for what this means – for what this will cost Shen Wei- "I will teach you a power."

"Why not use the Longevity Dial?" Heipaoshi asks.

"Its effects on Dixingren are – unpredictable at best," Shen Wei says. "If something goes wrong-" he shakes his head. "No, the power is better – it will allow you to absorb me entire without the influence of the Holy Tools."

Heipaoshi stills. "Absorb-" he says, and Shen Wei's mouth curls down; even the hum of the night lights seems abruptly muted, like the entire SID is holding its breath-

"I learned it from Ye Zun," Shen Wei says quietly, into the silence; Zhao Yunlan doesn't think Heipaoshi is even breathing. "It was the last power I learned, before I died."

The silence stretches; Shen Wei's breath rasps out, in: "The power is capable of destruction, but it does not have to lead to death," he says, still quiet. "It is similar to our own, when used cautiously – and someone should know it – someone should remember-"

Zhao Yunlan watches Heipaoshi's eyes close, behind the mask; watches them open, lashes sodden and damp.

"I will learn didi's power," Heipaoshi says, solemn and only very slightly unsteady-

"-and we will remember."

Shen Wei doesn't ask if he's ready.

Zhao Yunlan is kneeling in front of him, breathing slow and steady; he'd close his eyes, but that would be worse – at least this way he can see it's Shen Wei in front of him. And he can't say that he's looking forward to feeling the burning cold of Ye Zun's power slicing at his soul – but they'd discussed it, in the void outside of time and space, talked through their options: and no matter how much Zhao Yunlan doesn't want to do this, he likes even less the idea of subjecting someone else to the same experience.

Shen Wei raises his arm; his hand is faintly trembling, face pale as dark energy blooms in his palm, and Zhao Yunlan – breathes, in and out, threads his fingers together in his lap and clenches them until his knuckles turn white, breathes-

Dark energy streams out from Shen Wei's hand; Zhao Yunlan's breath comes in sharp as he feels it touch him, feels it pull, and Zhao Yunlan-

Shen Wei, this is Shen Wei, and Zhao Yunlan braces for the pain, heart thumping unsteadily in his chest – but it doesn't hurt, and it doesn't hurt, and Zhao Yunlan-

"How-" he croaks, word torn out of a throat full of glass, because he can feel the dark energy pulling at him, feel it washing over his energy – but there's no cold, no knives. It's familiar, warm, a gentle wearing away at his soul – like a mountain stream might cut a deep canyon over millions of years. He can imagine how, if it went on long enough, or if Shen Wei increased the intensity, it might siphon Zhao Yunlan entire; but it's entirely unlike Zhao Yunlan's previous experience with the power – and completely and utterly painless.

"Dixingren powers used for ill are not inherently bad," Shen Wei says. He's still quiet, voice wavering on the last; and Zhao Yunlan knows what Shen Wei must be thinking: Ye Zun, and abandonment; trauma, and guilt.

And it's – hard, to conceptualise the kind of reconciliation that Shen Wei described, when Zhao Yunlan had been there on the outside; had been unable to do anything but watch, straining against the ropes, as Ye Zun-

This time, they'll do better.

"I have it," Heipaoshi says, and the dark energy stutters; Shen Wei lowers his hand, and the gentle pull fades.

Zhao Yunlan peels his fingers apart, rolls his shoulders, settling himself back into his skin. If Heipaoshi has it, then there's nothing left to do except-

He looks up – meets Shen Wei's gaze. He's slumped back against the couch, fresh blood bright on his pale lips, but his eyes are intense, burning.

"Zhao Yunlan," Shen Wei murmurs; it's barely a whisper, and Zhao Yunlan-

Shen Wei is running out of time, but the hourglass has not yet reached the end; there are still a few moments left for this – left for them.

Zhao Yunlan shuffles closer to Shen Wei, reaches out and slides a hand onto his cheek. Shen Wei turns his face into his hand, presses a kiss to his palm, and Zhao Yunlan's next breath punches out of him, unsteady.

"Shen Wei," he says, because they'd lived and died and never once kissed; love so clear to each of them in every word, every action, every look, that it had gone entirely unspoken.

"Zhao Yunlan," Shen Wei murmurs again, warm, and Zhao Yunlan can only smile at the affection in his voice; he loves Shen Wei, utterly and completely, and Zhao Yunlan-

It's his turn, now, to wait; his turn to hold the line, and have faith.

"Remember your promise," he says, and Shen Wei smiles back at him through bloodied lips.

"I will," he says, and Zhao Yunlan smooths his thumb gently across Shen Wei's cheekbone; leans in, and carefully presses their lips together.

It's not what he might have wanted for a first kiss – but Shen Wei is – Shen Wei might – Zhao Yunlan doesn't know what's going to happen, and they already died once, and-

Zhao Yunlan doesn't want to have regrets.

Shen Wei is trembling beneath him, his mouth soft, slick; Zhao Yunlan kisses him again, draws back and rests their foreheads together, breathing as one.

"Shen Wei ah," he murmurs, tasting metal and salt on his lips. "Xiao Wei, I love you."

Shen Wei makes a noise; Zhao Yunlan pulls back far enough to see his face, and he's-

Shen Wei is looking at him, face unguarded and eyes wet, and the sheer devotion in his gaze makes Zhao Yunlan breathless.

"Yunlan," Shen Wei murmurs, and Zhao Yunlan catches a tear with his thumb, smears it across his cheekbone; Shen Wei's skin is too-warm beneath his hand.

"I know," Zhao Yunlan says, and the glass is back in his throat; his voice is rough, and he has to – he needs to-

"Go," Shen Wei murmurs, and Zhao Yunlan breathes in, pushes himself back onto his heels and up to his feet; turns-

Heipaoshi has half turned himself away; his head is bowed, hand pressed to his chest, to his pendant, and Zhao Yunlan-

He lets his boots make noise as he closes the distance between them; even so, Heipaoshi startles when Zhao Yunlan steps into his space.

"Zhao-xiong-" he starts, and Zhao Yunlan reaches up and snatches the mask from his face.

Shen Wei reels back, face open and shocked, hood sliding down; underneath, his hair is long, the same partly braided style he'd worn ten thousand years ago.

"Take off your mask," Zhao Yunlan says, tossing it carelessly somewhere onto the couch, "and smile," and Zhao Yunlan didn't realise it was possible for Shen Wei's eyes to get any wider, but the proof is right in front of him – the spitting image of the young warlord Zhao Yunlan had met during the Allied War.

"You-" Shen Wei says, voice unsteady. "You remember?"

"I remember," Zhao Yunlan says – and then, just in case Shen Wei hasn't worked it out yet: "It's a time loop," and Shen Wei steps closer, the hand not on his pendant drifting up to catch hold of Zhao Yunlan's sleeve, like Shen Wei wants to anchor him in case he suddenly disappears.

"And you came back?" Shen Wei says, and all at once Zhao Yunlan realises what it must have been like for Shen Wei – knowing Zhao Yunlan was going to travel in time, knowing that back in the past, Kunlun was pulled away, but without a single certainty he would be returned – having to live with the knowledge that he might have finally found Kunlun only to lose him again, and Zhao Yunlan-

Zhao Yunlan smiles, and it's real; he's no stranger to loving Shen Wei no matter when in the timeline he is – and in any case, this Shen Wei is the one he met first – the one he fell in love with.

"Xiao Wei ah," Zhao Yunlan says, and steps in until they're right against each other, Shen Wei's hand trapped between their chests. "I came back."

"Kunlun-" Shen Wei breathes, tightening his hold on Zhao Yunlan's arm, and Zhao Yunlan-

Zhao Yunlan leans in, murmurs "I'm here," nearly against Shen Wei's lips – and then they're kissing, Shen Wei's mouth hot and urgent against his.

For a moment, Zhao Yunlan just lets himself have this – buries a hand in Shen Wei's hair and holds on, kisses Shen Wei like he's wanted to for months; but a moment is all he can spare. He gentles the kiss, curls his hand around the back of Shen Wei's neck and draws them apart.

Shen Wei is breathless, cheeks pink and eyes glimmering; Zhao Yunlan has to breathe, hard, through the surge of want that floods through him. He wants to kiss Shen Wei until he's moaning, push him back against the table and ravish him, then have Shen Wei portal them both home and do it all over again in Zhao Yunlan's bed – but Shen Wei is haemorrhaging life on the floor, and Zhao Yunlan needs-

They're so close; they've endured too much to get to this point for him to lose Shen Wei now.

"Xiao Wei," he says, hoarse, and swallows, clears his throat. "Thank you." He starts there, because Shen Wei is going to help them; whatever happens next, at the very least Shen Wei's essence will live on, free of the Hallows. "And – I love you. I have always loved you – don't ever doubt that," and Shen Wei-

Shen Wei's eyes are wide again; and then he smiles, even as tears spill over his cheeks – and it's his open, heartbreaking smile, the one that's absolutely sincere and absolutely devastating.

"Kunlun, just like you said, I don't have regrets," Shen Wei says, and twists his trapped hand around so he can press it against Zhao Yunlan's heart instead. "You kept your promise," and Zhao Yunlan has to lean in and kiss him again – one last kiss, a gentle brush of trembling lips and salt tears.

When he draws back, Shen Wei's eyes are closed, lashes fanned across his damp cheeks; he blinks them open a moment later, drawing in an unsteady breath, glances over Zhao Yunlan's shoulder-

"Now," he says, sharp, and just moves Zhao Yunlan aside, pivoting towards where Shen Wei is sprawled against the couch, head tipped forward and eyes closed; Zhao Yunlan hastily slides his hand out of Shen Wei's hair before he can get tangled, staying where he was put, out of the way, as Shen Wei lifts a hand-

Dark energy streams through the air, catching at Shen Wei; Zhao Yunlan can see it pulling at him, hair ruffling as though in a breeze – and then Shen Wei's eyes narrow. He twists his wrist and the stream – thickens; Zhao Yunlan presses himself against the back of the couch as the dark energy shimmers over Shen Wei – can only watch as once again, Shen Wei breaks apart into sparkling energy, body fading into nothingness.

And this is what they wanted, but Zhao Yunlan watches Shen Wei bring his hand toward his face and breathe in, the last of the energy disappearing, and for a moment all he can feel is the way his throat had torn around his desperate screams, rope fibres rubbing his neck raw and bloody; all he can hear is a high pitched ringing, world going fuzzy at the edges-

"Zhao Yunlan-" Shen Wei says, muffled, and then his hands are on Zhao Yunlan's shoulders, his face worried and brow furrowed. "Zhao Yunlan-"

"Shen Wei ah," Zhao Yunlan gasps; he squeezes his eyes shut, but that's worse, Shen Wei's bloody, smiling face dissolving over and over in his memory, opens them to stare blankly at the folded collar of Shen Wei's robes, the strong column of his throat, pulse beating in his neck – alive, Shen Wei is alive, breathing-

"I was there," he gasps, because Shen Wei won't know. "I had to watch when he – when Ye Zun-"

"I'm here," Shen Wei says, and starts to draw Zhao Yunlan in – and then frowns. "I – I can feel him," he says, and frees a hand to press low on his sternum. "He's still – he's here," and Zhao Yunlan breathes, because Shen Wei hadn't been sure, back in the void outside of time and space, whether he would retain any semblance of form and cognition given his status as pure energy – but if Shen Wei can feel him-

Zhao Yunlan takes a breath, presses a hand over Shen Wei's; he can feel the distant thud of Shen Wei's heart, beating steady and strong. "You should talk to him," he says, "before he-" he swallows, lets the sentence hang; doesn't want to speak into existence what he knows happens once a person has been devoured. "There are things you should know about what's to come, things he should share-"

"Only if you promise to rest," Shen Wei says, frowning, and Zhao Yunlan lifts his free hand, rubs at the back of his neck.

"I will, after," Zhao Yunlan says, and it's even not a lie; he will rest, although he'll ask Shen Wei to portal him home rather than driving – his body might have slept last night, but Zhao Yunlan has been awake since well before he died, and he's exhausted. He just needs to – he has to-

He needs to stand witness, until it's over.

"Very well," Shen Wei says, and takes a step back; folds gracefully down onto the floor to sit cross legged, hands on his knees.

Zhao Yunlan slides down the back of the couch, hugs his knees to his chest; watches Shen Wei's eyes close, watches his breathing steady and deepen.

He knows Shen Wei had wanted to share his memories, give Shen Wei the information he needs about what they lived through, the hard-learned lessons of experience – and perhaps most importantly, the truth about Ye Zun, and their forced separation – but Zhao Yunlan has no idea how long, in practical, real-time terms, that will take.

All he can do is watch – watch, and wait, and Shen Wei had waited ten thousand years for Zhao Yunlan; compared to that, this is nothing.

Zhao Yunlan stretches out his legs, wriggling into a more comfortable sprawl; keeps his eyes on Shen Wei, the gentle rise and fall of his chest-

Settles in to wait.

There's a noise, and Zhao Yunlan is instantly alert.

He'd fallen into the same brain space he gets into on stakeouts, when he knows he has to sit for hours doing nothing but watching; where even his brain quiets down, and Zhao Yunlan is still, poised, watching the world through half-lidded eyes. Da Qing had once commented that Zhao Yunlan hunts like a proper cat; and it's useful now, when Shen Wei sucks in a gasping breath and Zhao Yunlan is up on his knees and reaching out before his eyes are even all the way open.

"Shen Wei?" he asks, hands hovering above Shen Wei's shoulders; he's trembling, the fine folds of his robes shivering as they drape around him.

And Zhao Yunlan doesn't want to wake him prematurely – but Shen Wei hadn't indicated that this sharing of memories would cause either of them pain, and Zhao Yunlan doesn't know what's happening.

Shen Wei gasps in another breath, and his hands twist on his knees, curling palm up as dark energy ignites in his palms; Zhao Yunlan carefully retracts his hands, just in case, but Shen Wei doesn't seem to be doing anything with the dark energy – just holding it there while he sits, trembling and breathless-

Zhao Yunlan breathes, one breath to every two of Shen Wei's; fingers flexing on his own knees, jittery in his skin. He needs Shen Wei to tell him what's happening, so he doesn't have to worry; he needs Shen Wei to be okay – needs Shen Wei to wake up-

He needs Shen Wei, end of sentence.

Zhao Yunlan had once thought himself incapable of love, didn't think he particularly needed anyone; his team, of course, his SID family that he built from the ground up – he would charge into danger without a second thought for any one of them. But his personal life – well, he was the SID Chief, with all the attendant risk that position held. He had Da Qing; and if he wanted companionship of a different kind, he was familiar with the local bars and clubs – had spent his fair share of time there when he wanted intimacy from a hand not his own.

And then-

And then, he'd met Shen Wei, and his entire world had changed.

He'd fallen for Shen Wei before he'd even realised what was happening – and now he's under his skin, entwined so deeply Zhao Yunlan couldn't get him out if he tried. Zhao Yunlan needs Shen Wei like he needs to breathe: constantly, all the time, and if this has hurt Shen Wei – if Shen Wei isn't okay-

Zhao Yunlan's hands curl around his knees, fingers ten points of pressure on his legs, breathes – and Shen Wei shakes, dark energy flaring up in his palms into columns that burn for a moment, two – and then the dark energy winks out, and Shen Wei collapses.

Zhao Yunlan lunges to catch him, closing his arms around Shen Wei's torso; his weight drives them sideways into the back of the couch. His head is heavy in the crook of Zhao Yunlan's neck, body slumped limp in his arms; Zhao Yunlan can feel his breath, shallow and fast, against his throat.

"Shen Wei?" Zhao Yunlan says; he struggles upright, fumbles his grip on Shen Wei as he angles him to get his face into view-

Shen Wei's lashes flutter against his cheeks, and Zhao Yunlan watches, heart in his throat, as his eyes slowly blink open.

"Shen Wei?" Zhao Yunlan says again, and Shen Wei blinks again; Zhao Yunlan can see his pupils contract, as he focuses on Zhao Yunlan – watches his mouth curve up into a smile.

"Zhao Yunlan," Shen Wei murmurs, and Zhao Yunlan breathes out, relief rushing wobbly through him.

"I'm here," he says, and Shen Wei leans into him, blinking slowly.

"You are," he says, tone almost wondering; he doesn't quite sound all the way lucid.

"Shen Wei, what happened?" he says. "For a while at the end there I thought – you sounded like you were in pain, and your dark energy-"

"It was harder than we expected," Shen Wei says, and lifts a hand, almost jerkily, above his head; he turns his wrist, dark energy blooming in his palm. "I'd forgotten what it felt like."

Shen Wei is definitely not all there; whatever this sharing of memories involved, he's clearly not yet recovered. At this rate, Zhao Yunlan might have to take a taxi to get them both home – although how he'll explain Heipaoshi's robes will require some thought, if Shen Wei can't change into something more appropriate for Professor Shen.

"Forgotten what what felt like?" Zhao Yunlan queries, and he can't help smiling; the look of delight on Shen Wei's face as he turns his hand this way and that, admiring the dark energy as it spins in his palm, is joyful.

"Dark energy," Shen Wei says. "For so long, I've been-" he pauses, and Zhao Yunlan is gripped with a sudden sense of hope; and this is how Shen Wei must have felt, when Zhao Yunlan was rousing from the Longevity Dial, not knowing, but hoping-

They'd talked about it, in the void outside of time and space; each of them had known that even if things went perfectly there was still a chance that they wouldn't survive – that both of them could be subsumed – or, worse, only one of them. And they'd both agreed that it was still worth it to try – they'd lost so much, too many people – not just in the final few days, but along the way, too. But they'd known that they might yet lose each other – there would still be a Zhao Yunlan and a Shen Wei, of course, but potentially not the one who had gone through the same experiences firsthand.

And even knowing that, having accepted the possible outcomes, Zhao Yunlan still finds himself breathless, heart pounding in his ears – and Shen Wei struggles upright, moving stiffly, like he's not sure of the location or function of all of his limbs.

"Zhao Yunlan," he says, "Yunlan, I remember," and Zhao Yunlan-

"Xiao Wei," he breathes, reaches out, and hauls Shen Wei into his arms. And he's – shuddering, light-headed; he's alive, Shen Wei's alive – they both made it, he's here, Shen Wei's here – the Shen Wei who died with him in Dixing, the Shen Wei he came through time with, and Zhao Yunlan buries his face in Shen Wei's neck, tears soaking into the collar of his robes, and just lets himself feel-

"Zhao Yunlan," Shen Wei murmurs, a clumsy hand patting its way onto the back of his neck, soothing, and Zhao Yunlan has been worrying about Shen Wei for months, ever since that night in his apartment where Shen Wei had revealed the cost of the Longevity Dial's cure for his blindness – revealed the cost, and disguised the consequences. But now they're here; they're alive, together, and no-one is dying of light energy poisoning.

There are no warrants out for their arrest; his SID family is whole – well, Sang Zan is still trapped in a pillar in the Northwest Mountains, but they'll rectify that soon enough – and Zhao Yunlan can breathe for the first time in months.

"Shen Wei ah, I'm-" he swallows back okay, because he's not; he's not anything close to okay, and if they're starting over, Zhao Yunlan wants to encourage a little more honesty in their communication; doesn't want to relive the days of Shen Wei saying I'm fine when it was very clear he wasn't. But Zhao Yunlan's alive, and Shen Wei's alive; they have time, now, to make new habits – time, now, to heal. "-Overwhelmed," he settles on instead; he feels so much that he's like a pot boiling over, too many emotions for him to process anything – just a storm of feelings battering him this way and that while it makes a huge mess.

"I'm – not okay," Shen Wei says slowly in return, like the words are foreign on his tongue. "You're – and this body is – it was hard, to access the dark energy of a body not my own, and now everything feels – strange."

Zhao Yunlan had felt normal, when he came out from under the Longevity Dial's power, but maybe the Hallow had smoothed the way – or maybe Shen Wei just isn't accustomed anymore to a body that's not poisoned with light. But the important part is-

"But you're – stable?" he asks, because it's all for nothing if Shen Wei – if he – and, well, Zhao Yunlan still doesn't know what actually happened while Shen Wei was in there. "Is the other Shen Wei-"

"He's gone," Shen Wei says quietly, "this body is mine alone. He – we shared the memories, and then he – he offered-"

Shen Wei is shaking, and Zhao Yunlan clutches him tighter. "Aiyo, Xiao Wei, it's – don't think about it now," although Zhao Yunlan is, of course, thinking about it – about Shen Wei, who'd kissed him so desperately when he'd realised Zhao Yunlan was Kunlun in truth; Shen Wei, who'd shared Shen Wei's memories and immediately offered himself to be subsumed. And Zhao Yunlan can empathise, if nothing else: he'd once been in a similar position, heartsick and broken, and offered himself up to return Dixing into the light.

In any case, all he can feel now through the emotional exhaustion is desperately grateful; whatever his reasons, however he'd come to make his decision, Shen Wei had ensured that Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei wouldn't be parted.

In his arms, Shen Wei struggles up; Zhao Yunlan hurries to steady him when he lists to one side.

"Zhao Yunlan," Shen Wei says, "I want to go home."

"Yes," Zhao Yunlan says, and then, remembering, "you haven't rented your apartment yet."

"No," Shen Wei says, frowning at Zhao Yunlan like he's the one confused. "Not my apartment – home," and Zhao Yunlan-

Shen Wei wants to go home, and he doesn't mean his apartment – he means Zhao Yunlan's apartment, and Zhao Yunlan has thought of it as their apartment for longer than he cares to admit, but he hadn't realised – he hadn't known-

"Shen Wei ah," Zhao Yunlan says, warm all over, "of course we can go home."

Of course, it's not that simple.

First, Zhao Yunlan has to tidy up – remove the evidence of what's happened here tonight. And it's not that he's not going to tell his team, because he is; Wang Zheng, at least, already knows. But he needs to sit down with Shen Wei first, when he's more lucid and they've both rested – discuss how and when Shen Wei wants to reveal his identity. So he puts the incense burner back in its box, cone long burned to ash; collects Heipaoshi's mask from the couch cushions – as amusing as it might be to think about the reactions of his team, Lao Chu especially, finding it in the morning, it's not the kind of excitement Zhao Yunlan really wants right now.

He drops the mask in Shen Wei's lap, returns the Longevity Dial to the lab, and goes to his office to put away the incense burner – and to fetch his gun, because Zhao Yunlan has been at war for – well, chronologically only weeks, but he was in the past for months, and all of that time seeing regular combat; he no longer feels comfortable without it by his side.

When he goes back into the main room, shoulder holster dangling from one hand, Shen Wei is on his feet in glasses and sleeve garters, steadying himself against the back of the couch.

Zhao Yunlan gives himself one moment to mourn the loss of his beautiful long hair – and he hadn't realised Shen Wei as Heipaoshi still kept his hair long under the embroidered hood; maybe, if he asks nicely, Shen Wei will replicate it for him out of the robes – or even in them, and Zhao Yunlan sucks in a breath, files away the thought of going to his knees for Heipaoshi for later.

Shen Wei hears him coming, mouth curving into a beaming smile. "Zhao Yunlan," he says, and Zhao Yunlan can't help but smile in response.

"Do you have enough energy to portal us?" he asks, holds up a finger before Shen Wei can reply. "I can always call a taxi."

"Home is easy," Shen Wei says, reaching out, and Zhao Yunlan slings his holster casually over one shoulder so he can take Shen Wei's hand in both of his, rubbing his thumbs across Shen Wei's knuckles.

"Wang Zheng," he says, only slightly louder than normal; Wang Zheng pops into existence two feet to his right a moment later.

"Yes, Chief Zhao?" she says, smiling when she sees the way they're holding hands.

"Start the paperwork for Professor Shen to liaise with the SID as an official consultant," he says. "We'll be in late tomorrow; emergency calls only until then."

"Yes, Chief Zhao," Wang Zheng says, and Zhao Yunlan lifts Shen Wei's hand, ducking under his arm to steady him on his feet.

"All right, Xiao Wei," he says, and steers them toward the door-

"Let's go home."

Shen Wei portals them once they're out of sight; they land, stumbling a little, in the kitchen. Zhao Yunlan braces himself against the kitchen table, Shen Wei a heavy weight at his side – and then there's a squawk and a thump, and Zhao Yunlan looks up just in time to see Da Qing picking himself up from the floor in front of the couch.

"Lao Zhao?" Da Qing says, staring. "Professor Shen?"

"It's a long story, and we really need a shower," Zhao Yunlan says. "Can you order some food? We haven't eaten in days."

"You bought jianbing this morning," Da Qing says suspiciously, and Zhao Yunlan laughs.

"Damn cat, if you're not hungry-"

"I never said that!" Da Qing says quickly, and makes grabby hands until Zhao Yunlan tosses him his phone.

Safely ensconced in the bathroom, Zhao Yunlan hangs his holster off the end of the towel rail and lowers Shen Wei to the safety of the closed toilet lid. The bathroom is-

If he's honest, Zhao Yunlan had – forgotten what his housekeeping was like, before Shen Wei. His dirty clothes are – everywhere. Most of the towels are on the floor, his bathmat is – does he even have a bathmat? And the less said about the state of the sink, the better.

"Zhao Yunlan ah Zhao Yunlan," he mutters to himself, digging through the cupboard in an attempt to locate anything clean. "How did you live like this?"

Before Shen Wei, he was – well, he'd thought he was – if not happy, at least content with his life. The state of his apartment hadn't bothered him; and he'd been quite willing to neglect not just his housekeeping but his physical health, too.

Shen Wei had – spoiled him, probably; cleaning his home, doing his laundry, cooking his meals – making his bed and folding his clothes. But doing those things made Shen Wei happy, and who was Zhao Yunlan to deny Shen Wei things that he actually wanted?

Shen Wei wanted to take care of him, and Zhao Yunlan – Zhao Yunlan wanted to let him.

He emerges from the cupboard triumphant with a handful of clean towels, hanging two on the towel rail and – in a fit of inspiration – folding one in half to act as a bathmat. He's no Shen Wei, but it'll do for now.

Speaking of Shen Wei-

Zhao Yunlan starts the shower, turns – just in time to see Shen Wei wrestling his way out of his sweater vest. His movements are still slow, clumsy; his head pops out of the vest, hair everywhere and glasses askew.

"Xiao Wei ah," Zhao Yunlan says, feeling a surge of fondness warm in his chest, and plucks the glasses from Shen Wei's face. "Would you like some help?"

Shen Wei blinks at him, eyes wide, and breaks into a beaming smile; and Zhao Yunlan can't help but smile back, that warmth in his chest sinking in deep. Shen Wei always makes him feel so – Zhao Yunlan doesn't really have words for everything he feels; it all seems inadequate, like words aren't enough to encompass the soaring emotions that leave him breathless. But he knows this – he loves Shen Wei, absolutely and completely; knows with bone-deep certainty that Shen Wei loves him in return.

Together, they divest Shen Wei of his remaining clothing; his watch goes onto the counter next to his glasses, but the pendant stays around his neck. Zhao Yunlan strips himself quickly afterwards; steam is starting to billow from the shower.

It's not the way he thought he would first be naked with Shen Wei; but it's weird how not-weird it is. He's thought about undressing Shen Wei in so many ways, in so many places – their apartment, the SID, Shen Wei's office; thought about finally peeling those tailored suits from his body, about getting his hands, his mouth, onto Shen Wei's skin – about all the ways he would touch, wring moans and gasps from Shen Wei's beautiful throat, leave them both breathless and sated. And yet-

And yet, after all the anguish, the torture, the dying – it's the most intimate Zhao Yunlan has ever been with any person, but even as he runs his soapy hands over Shen Wei's skin – alive, alive, they're alive there's nothing sexual about it.

"This is your shoulder," he murmurs, squeezing the round of Shen Wei's shoulder; slides his hands down, "your bicep, your forearm-"

He has no idea whether this is helping, but Shen Wei had said everything felt strange; if Zhao Yunlan can help him re-acclimatise to his own – new? – body, all the better.

"This is your hand," Zhao Yunlan murmurs, working the soap into Shen Wei's palm. "Your thumb, your forefinger-"

Shen Wei's fingers curl around his once he's named them all, and Zhao Yunlan glances up, sees Shen Wei gazing up at him, eyes wide and full of-

Once, Zhao Yunlan would have denied it, would have run; but he can say it, now – now that both of them have lived and died for each other, tangled in each other so tightly they can never again be parted: Shen Wei's eyes are full of love.

"Is this helping?" Zhao Yunlan asks quietly, lifting Shen Wei's hand to gently kiss his knuckles, and Shen Wei ducks his chin and smiles.

"It is," he says; takes a breath, adds, "you always do," and Zhao Yunlan has to close his eyes for a moment as his heart twinges in his chest.

"Xiao Wei ah," he says, voice rough. He's been to the past, lived through meeting Shen Wei as a young man, and still he doesn't know that he deserves this – deserves Shen Wei's unending love and devotion. But having received it nonetheless, he's not nearly so selfless as to let it go – and besides, Shen Wei waited ten thousand years for Zhao Yunlan; to reject him after all that time would be callous, and also Zhao Yunlan doesn't want to.

He wants to keep Shen Wei almost as much as Shen Wei wants to keep him; this way, they both get what they want.

When they emerge from the bathroom, Da Qing is curled into a corner of the couch, tucking directly into a container of fish; it's already half-empty.

"Food's here," he says, gesturing with his chopsticks at the containers piled amidst the detritus on the coffee table; the new containers are only distinguishable from the old by the fact that they're full, and still in the plastic bags they were delivered in.

Shen Wei might be dressed down in a pair of Zhao Yunlan's sweatpants and an old T-shirt straining at the seams, but it doesn't soften the look of reproach he gives Zhao Yunlan in the slightest.

"Aiyo, Shen Wei," Zhao Yunlan says, holster bumping against his ribs as he lifts a hand to rub at the back of his neck. It's not like Shen Wei didn't know what Zhao Yunlan used to be like – he had, after all, been the one to clean up this apartment the first time. "You can clean later, okay?"

Of course, by later he means tomorrow; Shen Wei is moving a lot better after the shower, looks much more settled into his skin – but they're both exhausted. If Shen Wei won't take care of himself, Zhao Yunlan will just have to do it for him.

Shen Wei acquiesces with a huff of breath, folding down to sit on the other end of the couch. Zhao Yunlan pulls over a nearby stool next to the table; there's enough room for him to squeeze in between Da Qing and Shen Wei if he wants, but this way he can reach the food more easily to pass things to Shen Wei.

The food is good – Da Qing had taken his chance with full access to Zhao Yunlan's phone and ordered from the expensive place, the one that Shen Wei sometimes agrees to order from when Zhao Yunlan can convince him to take a night off. It's not quite as good as Shen Wei's cooking, of course, although not many things are – but given Zhao Yunlan can't remember the last time he ate, that's probably for the best.

When Shen Wei cooks, Zhao Yunlan likes to savour what Shen Wei makes; give it the proper attention and appreciation it deserves.

Da Qing, at least, waits to talk until they've started slowing down; he can recognise starving when he sees it.

"Are you gonna finish this?" he says, pointing at a mostly empty box of duck in sweet bean sauce; Zhao Yunlan glances at Shen Wei, shakes his head, and Da Qing snags it. "So that was one of Heipao-daren's portals you came in on," he says casually, and shoves a piece of duck in his mouth.

Zhao Yunlan's mouth is full of noodles; he raises an eyebrow at Da Qing, who swallows hurriedly.

"And!" he says, waving his chopsticks for emphasis. "Isn't Professor Shen a suspect? No offence Professor, can you pass the pork?"

Zhao Yunlan slurps up the tail end of his noodles as Shen Wei nudges the pork down the table, close enough that Da Qing can pounce on it.

"Damn cat, Shen Wei isn't a suspect," he says, and then, because the first time around Shen Wei had been extremely suspicious and Zhao Yunlan had suspected him, "not anymore."

"What is he now, then?" Da Qing asks, chopsticks hovering between the pork and the duck like he can't choose what bite to eat next, and Zhao Yunlan glances at Shen Wei, catches his eye-

"Mine," he says, winking, and watches Shen Wei blush.

"That's fast even for you," Da Qing says, "you only just met him!" and Zhao Yunlan-

He can't help it; he laughs, because the one thing they haven't been is fast – they spent weeks dancing around each other, months just existing in each other's space, and before today, they'd never even so much as kissed.

Shen Wei's lips are quirked up; too polite to laugh at Da Qing like Zhao Yunlan is doing, but finding it amusing nonetheless. Zhao Yunlan raises an eyebrow at him, and Shen Wei nods; they're going to tell everyone anyway, and this is Da Qing. He's Zhao Yunlan's too, and he was there ten thousand years ago, even if he doesn't yet remember.

"I didn't just meet him," Zhao Yunlan says. "At least, not in this timeline," and Da Qing sits up straight, and listens.

By the time he's finished, the rest of the food is gone – and he has a lap full of cat, all knees and elbows, Da Qing's face jammed into his neck.

"You're not allowed to die," Da Qing says, voice muffled.

"Damn Cat," Zhao Yunlan says, and hugs him tight. "I know, I know." Parts of the final battle against Ye Zun have blurred together, but he remembers Da Qing peeling him off the floor, voice frantic as he'd called Zhao Yunlan's name; remembers the panicked way he'd looked at Zhao Yunlan's injuries, before he'd pulled out the dose of Ministry serum and Zhao Yunlan had-

Well, he won't be doing that again – not now that he has Shen Wei back, a second chance to make things better.

"And you-" Da Qing says, turning his head to look at Shen Wei. "No dying either. You dying makes Lao Zhao stupid, so you aren't allowed," and Zhao Yunlan watches Shen Wei's eyes widen and then he ducks his head and smiles.

"Thank you, Da Qing," Shen Wei says solemnly, and then Da Qing shifts his weight, one bony elbow jabbing Zhao Yunlan in the kidney; he flinches, overbalancing – only Shen Wei's quick reflexes saving them from tumbling to the floor.

"Careful," Shen Wei admonishes, helping them straighten; Da Qing butts his head into Zhao Yunlan's jaw before he uncurls, pulling away.

"I'll keep watch tonight," he says, going around the couch. Dark energy whirls around him for a moment, and then he jumps up onto the wide window ledge on four paws, ducking behind the privacy curtain and out the window.

"We should-" Shen Wei says, easing forward on the couch; he's reaching for the empty containers, and Zhao Yunlan reaches out himself, intercepts his hand.

"-go to bed," Zhao Yunlan says, leaning forward to press a kiss to Shen Wei's knuckles; he clasps the hand to his cheek, looking up at Shen Wei through his lashes, wheedling. "Clean later, remember?"

Shen Wei ducks his head, but not before Zhao Yunlan catches the flush in his cheeks, the smile spreading across his face; score one for Zhao Yunlan. "At least let me put them in the sink," Shen Wei says, and Zhao Yunlan heaves a dramatic sigh.

"Abandoned by the love of my life!" he declaims, releasing Shen Wei's hand and throwing his arms in the air, and Shen Wei snorts.

"Don't be ridiculous," he says, but his smile is fond, indulgent, and Zhao Yunlan laughs.

"Shen Wei ah," he says – Shen Wei loves him ridiculous, and they both know it – and reaches for the containers closest to him. "Come on then."

With both of them on task, the containers are swiftly stacked haphazardly in the sink. Zhao Yunlan pretends not to notice Shen Wei sneaking in some of the older containers into his pile; he knows what battles are worth fighting.

They take turns in the bathroom; Zhao Yunlan has no idea whether he even owns an extra toothbrush, but tells Shen Wei he can, of course, borrow his – and then, finally, it's time: Zhao Yunlan sets his gun on the bedside table, shrugs off the holster and drops it on the floor, and collapses onto the bed.

He hums happily as his spine sinks into the mattress – it's been so long since he's slept in his own bed, what with the warrants and the war and the dying, and he can already feel his body starting to relax.

"Zhao Yunlan?" Shen Wei says, and Zhao Yunlan pries his eyes open; Shen Wei is hovering by the side of the bed, looking decidedly uncertain, and that's – after everything that just happened, how does Shen Wei not know?

Zhao Yunlan stretches out on the bed, T-shirt riding up; watches Shen Wei's eyes flicker down, watches him swallow, and smiles.

"Xiao Wei ah," he says, and his voice is low, almost rough, "you're making me wait," and Shen Wei-

Shen Wei sucks in a breath, eyes wide – and then he's crawling onto the bed, crawling on top of Zhao Yunlan, hovering over him on hands and knees.

"Zhao Yunlan-" Shen Wei says, something like wonder in his tone, and Zhao Yunlan can feel his smile gentle.

"Xiao Wei, you are always welcome," Zhao Yunlan says. He lifts a hand, gently touches Shen Wei's cheek; Shen Wei turns his face into the motion. "This is our home, our bed – you're mine, and I'm yours-"

Shen Wei lets out a hitching gasp, and Zhao Yunlan reaches up with his other hand, and pulls Shen Wei down – or rather, Shen Wei lets himself be pulled, until his weight is pressing Zhao Yunlan into the bed, heavy and warm everywhere they're touching.

"Yunlan-" Shen Wei gasps, and Zhao Yunlan slides a hand into Shen Wei's hair and draws their faces together.

And it's-

Their first kiss was I love you and goodbye all in one; neither of them had known whether Shen Wei would survive what was yet to come, and after everything they'd been through, Zhao Yunlan wasn't about to let him slip away without a kiss to carry with him. But Shen Wei had – and now they're here, alive in Zhao Yunlan's bed, in their bed, and Zhao Yunlan-

He'd intended to start off gentle, much the same as their first kiss only with a little less goodbye and a little more we survived; Shen Wei, trembling in his arms, has other ideas. And maybe he'd watched Zhao Yunlan kiss the other Shen Wei; almost certainly he's been thinking about this himself, in the years and years he waited – either way, Shen Wei falls against Zhao Yunlan like he's parched, and Zhao Yunlan a river in which to slake his thirst.

Shen Wei licks into Zhao Yunlan's mouth like he owns it; Zhao Yunlan welcomes him in, tightening his hand in Shen Wei's hair and sucking on his tongue. He wants – everything, but mostly he wants Shen Wei – above him, against him, in him; warm and breathing and alive.

He spreads his legs, wriggling to settle Shen Wei's weight where he wants it – Shen Wei settling into the cradle of Zhao Yunlan's hips. And yes, there, Zhao Yunlan can feel it, twitching against his belly – Shen Wei's cock, solid and hard already, hard for Zhao Yunlan, and Zhao Yunlan-

He wants; he hasn't been waiting as long as Shen Wei, of course, but he has been waiting – for the right time, for Shen Wei to be ready, for there to be no more shadows and secrets between them. And now they're here: through death and out the other side, back where they began – and Zhao Yunlan pulls back from the kiss, breathless, hand tightening in Shen Wei's hair as he tries to follow.

"Xiao Wei-" he gasps, and he's feeling a little shaky himself; Shen Wei's face is flushed, eyes dark – lips slick and red, and Zhao Yunlan wants-

He wants so much; he's thought about this, spent so long imagining what it might be like when he finally got Shen Wei into bed that now that it's happening he's almost paralysed for choice-

But only almost; this isn't the night for taking it slow, not when both of them died once and nearly died again on the other side – not with Shen Wei trembling with need above him, stoking the fire in Zhao Yunlan's blood.

There will be other nights for Zhao Yunlan to spread Shen Wei beneath him and take his time learning every place that makes him shiver; other nights to take Shen Wei's cock in his mouth and see how long he can string him along on the edge of release until Shen Wei snaps and makes him take it – other nights for slow and tender. And Zhao Yunlan-

His voice, when he speaks, is ragged. "I want you inside me," Zhao Yunlan murmurs, and Shen Wei's breath catches. "I want to feel you, I want-" and somehow Shen Wei's eyes go even darker.

"Yunlan-" Shen Wei breathes, diving down to take Zhao Yunlan's mouth again; he pulls back after a moment, gasping. "I don't – I haven't-" and Zhao Yunlan soothes his hand down Shen Wei's back. It was obvious, after the Hallows threw him ten thousand years in the past, that he was Shen Wei's first in every way; of course Shen Wei hasn't done this before.

"Xiao Wei ah, it's okay," Zhao Yunlan says, because it's not like he hasn't thought about it: Shen Wei's long fingers touching him, breaching him, making a space inside him for Shen Wei to fill. And Zhao Yunlan wants, but they're alive, now – and Zhao Yunlan will spend another night talking Shen Wei through how to touch until Zhao Yunlan is ready to beg. They've neither of them the patience for that tonight, though – and Zhao Yunlan has plenty of practice at readying himself.

"This time," Zhao Yunlan says, mouth curving and eyes heavy lidded, "you can watch," and even his hand in Shen Wei's hair isn't enough to keep Shen Wei from crashing back into him, kissing him hot and slick until he's gasping for air, hips shifting restlessly against Shen Wei's weight.

"I-" Zhao Yunlan gasps, "I need-" because he needs Shen Wei inside him, and for that to happen he needs- "clothes." Their clothes are in the way – and Zhao Yunlan will need to move, anyway, in order to reach the lube; he might as well do both things at once.

He slides his hands to Shen Wei's shoulders, pushes up; he has no chance of making Shen Wei move, of course, but he yields easily to Zhao Yunlan's touch, settling back onto his heels.

"Clothes," Zhao Yunlan says again, and pulls his shirt off, tossing it over the side of the bed. "Take your-"

"Yes," Shen Wei says, and pulls off his own shirt; he holds it in his hands for a moment like he's going to fold it, and Zhao Yunlan is clearly not capturing nearly enough of his attention.

"Xiao Wei," Zhao Yunlan says, and tucks his thumbs under his waistband. "Watch."

He lifts his hips as he skims the shorts down, arching his back; draws his legs in to slip out of them entirely. The shorts go over the side of the bed, following his shirt; Shen Wei is staring, shirt forgotten in his hands, and that flush on his cheeks goes all the way down his chest, beneath his pendant.

"Now you," Zhao Yunlan says, and it's gratifying to watch Shen Wei startle, eyes jerking up from Zhao Yunlan's cock to his face.

"I – yes," Shen Wei says, and drops the shirt on the bed. He pushes the sweatpants down, shuffling a bit to get out of them, and oh, Zhao Yunlan mouth is watering; Shen Wei's cock is thick, flushed red, and he wants it in his mouth-

He reaches blindly above his head to the ledge, fumbling in the basket for lube. He needs – Shen Wei's cock inside him as soon as possible, and he-

The lube is cool on his fingers but he doesn't care, can't wait-

"Watch," he says again, sprawling back on the bed, and lets one knee fall to the side; reaches down and presses two fingers inside.

It's – good, but Zhao Yunlan had managed to forget he isn't in his normal body; the stretch burns a little. He usually starts with two fingers right away, nowadays – but he jerks off now a lot more than he used to, ever since he decided Shen Wei was intriguing enough to pursue to the exclusion of everyone else.

"Yunlan," Shen Wei says, and Zhao Yunlan blinks open his eyes; Shen Wei is still sitting on his heels, precome leaving a sticky trail down the side of his cock – hands white knuckled on his knees.

All of a sudden, he's too far away; Zhao Yunlan twists his fingers, gasping, and watches Shen Wei swallow.

"Come here," Zhao Yunlan pants, "kiss me," and Shen Wei is back over him so quickly there's even odds he teleported, one elbow planted next to Zhao Yunlan's head and pendant bumping against his chest, licking into Zhao Yunlan's mouth, frantic with it. And that's better, Shen Wei over him, kissing him, and Zhao Yunlan slides his fingers out, gets more lube; goes in with three, moaning into Shen Wei's mouth at the additional stretch. He's so close to what he wants, he just needs-

Needs-

Shen Wei kisses him and kisses him, and surely that's enough; Zhao Yunlan is certainly slick enough, lube smeared messy across his skin.

"Now," he gasps, pulling his fingers out; reaches up to close them around Shen Wei's cock, slicking him with quick, even strokes, and it's Shen Wei's turn to moan. "I'm ready," Zhao Yunlan says, Shen Wei's eyes fluttering open, hot and dazed. "I need-"

He pushes at Shen Wei's shoulder until he shifts down and Zhao Yunlan can line them up. "Now," Zhao Yunlan demands, "do it now-" and Shen Wei-

Shen Wei pushes in, and Zhao Yunlan-

Feels-

Shen Wei is big, cock thick and solid as he thrusts in; it's on the edge of painful, Zhao Yunlan had definitely skimped on the stretch, but he wants to feel it – wants to feel Shen Wei carving space inside Zhao Yunlan where he belongs. He wants Shen Wei so deep he can never get him out; wants to claim and be claimed until he and Shen Wei can never again be parted.

Shen Wei bottoms out, and Zhao Yunlan takes a moment to breathe; it feels good, better than good, and now that Shen Wei is inside him Zhao Yunlan just needs him to-

"Move," Zhao Yunlan says, "you can move, I want you to-" and Shen Wei's hands drop carefully onto Zhao Yunlan's hips, curling around his hip bones; he pulls most of the way out, and Zhao Yunlan takes a breath-

And then Shen Wei's fingers tighten on Zhao Yunlan's hips and he thrusts in hard, and Zhao Yunlan-

It's exactly what he wants, and he can't get enough; Zhao Yunlan can hear himself making noise but he just can't stop. The pain is subsiding, and in its place pleasure is starting to tingle along his nerves, tension coiling in his core – he's never felt so alive.

He curls one leg around Shen Wei's back, hitching himself up; Shen Wei's hands immediately tighten, supporting him in place, and the next thrust in nails Zhao Yunlan right over his prostate. It's like lightning sparking across his nerves; Zhao Yunlan yells, half strangled, and he doesn't even need to say anything – Shen Wei reads it off his face, does it again, again, until Zhao Yunlan can't think of anything but Shen Wei, Shen Wei, Shen Wei-

Shen Wei's alive, and he's alive; and there's nothing but them, no lantern, no pain, no burning – no void outside of time and space – just Shen Wei and Zhao Yunlan, as close as two people can be, Shen Wei fucking deep on every stroke, remaking Zhao Yunlan with every thrust-

Everything is spiralling faster and faster; Zhao Yunlan gets a hand on his cock, still lube-slick and slippery, and tightens his fist – lets the force of Shen Wei's thrusts push his cock into the circle of his fingers. It's good, it's perfect, and he can't think, doesn't need to think with this perfect pleasure rising in his veins, tension pulling tighter and tighter and Zhao Yunlan-

Zhao Yunlan-

It breaks over him like a flood, all-consuming; nothing but pleasure shattering through him as his release spurts hot over his hand – he can barely breathe, voice cracking as he moans. And Shen Wei is still fucking him, hips pistoning faster even as Zhao Yunlan's entire body clenches down around him; Zhao Yunlan shakes and shakes, aftershocks shuddering through him, another spurt of come joining the mess on his belly.

"Come on," Zhao Yunlan pants once he can speak again; he's hoarse, breathless, but he wants Shen Wei to come; wants to feel him, wants- "Xiao Wei-"

"Yunlan," Shen Wei gasps; he's been so quiet so far, but after Zhao Yunlan's urging it's like a dam breaks, words spilling from his mouth like he can't keep silent any longer. "You feel – Yunlan, I – you-"

"Do I feel good?" Zhao Yunlan says; his breath is being punched out of him on every one of Shen Wei's punishing thrusts, but it's fine, it's good, and he can still smirk, let Shen Wei know- "Because you feel good-" Shen Wei's next thrust comes in harder, and Zhao Yunlan groans; he's only just come – it's way too soon for him to even think about getting hard again. But Shen Wei fucking him even like this, taking his pleasure from Zhao Yunlan's willing body – it's shockingly hot. "So good-"

"You're here," Shen Wei gasps, and his eyes are damp, thrusts getting shorter and harder, and Zhao Yunlan reaches up, lays his hand against Shen Wei's cheek-

"I'm here," he agrees, and smiles. "Come in me, Xiao Wei, I want to feel you-" and Shen Wei's hips stutter, entire body shuddering – and Zhao Yunlan can feel him, the swell of his cock and the hot rush of his come, releasing deep inside with short grinds of his hips.

Even wrecked and gasping above him, hair disarrayed and eyes squeezed closed, wearing nothing but Zhao Yunlan's claim around his neck – Shen Wei is beautiful.

"Xiao Wei," Zhao Yunlan murmurs, stroking across Shen Wei's cheek, damp with sweat and tears; Shen Wei's eyes slowly blink open, a little hazy. "There you are," Zhao Yunlan says, and Shen Wei-

Shen Wei smiles, open and sweet, and Zhao Yunlan is ten thousand years in the past all over again; this is Shen Wei with his walls down, Shen Wei letting himself feel and be seen – and Zhao Yunlan's breath catches at the vulnerability, the trust Shen Wei is allowing him.

"Yunlan," Shen Wei murmurs, voice full, "my Kunlun – you kept your promise, you came back to me," and Zhao Yunlan's breath hitches.

"Of course I came back," he murmurs, rough; his emotions are a solid ball of feeling under his sternum. "Xiao Wei ah, come here-"

Shen Wei lowers his hips to the bed, slipping out, and leans forward; enough that Zhao Yunlan can pull him close, draw him into a kiss.

"We both came back," he murmurs between kisses; they're soft, gentle, Shen Wei still trembling in his arms. "We both won the bet, we both kept our promises-"

Only a few hours ago, they were dead; the fact that Zhao Yunlan is alive – that they're both alive, that he can hold Shen Wei in his arms – it feels like an unbelievable privilege, one that he doesn't intend to take for granted.

They have time, now – and he's not going to waste even a second. There's so much to do, so much to plan – but first, they need rest. Zhao Yunlan isn't blind to his own circumstances; after being tied to a pillar and tortured, after watching Shen Wei stabbed and devoured right in front of him – he definitely has some emotional trauma. And rest isn't going to fix anything, not on its own; but every moment he can have Shen Wei pressed against him, feel his heart beating – gloriously, breathtakingly alive-

"Yunlan," Shen Wei murmurs, fingers brushing wet across his face, and oh, Zhao Yunlan is – crying, tears seeping from the corners of his eyes.

"I'm a mess," he croaks, emotions jammed tight in his throat; Shen Wei just smiles, curving a hand under Zhao Yunlan to roll them to the side, draw him in, and Zhao Yunlan is held, secure, safe – he's safe here, in Shen Wei's arms with Da Qing standing watch outside. Nothing here can harm them; and if anything gets past Da Qing, his gun is on the bedside table – and Shen Wei, of course, is at full strength – well, as much as he can be in Haixing, constrained by the Treaty. And that's – they talked about changing things, back in the void outside of time and space, but they didn't-

"Shen Wei ah," Zhao Yunlan says into Shen Wei's collarbone; he draws back reluctantly, because he wants to stay in Shen Wei's embrace but he needs to see his face. "Shen Wei, I – when you died, I-"

His voice shakes; he swallows, blinks his eyes clear. "I need you to – can you promise me you won't – there has to be a better way. If you can't intercede with your brother-"

He can't ask Shen Wei to promise he won't die; second chance or not, Shen Wei is Heipaoshi, dangers inherent to the very position he holds. Zhao Yunlan is in a similar position as SID Chief – so he understands, he does, that there are promises that Shen Wei can't necessarily keep. But this – what happened last time, that was pre-planned; Shen Wei had gone in knowing he was dying, and instead of looking for a cure, went ahead and-

"I can't do that again," Zhao Yunlan says, and he's shaking, Shen Wei reeling him in tight; Zhao Yunlan buries his face in Shen Wei's warm skin and breathes. He can feel Shen Wei's heart beating, feel the solid jade of Shen Wei's pendant pressed between them; feel the warmth of Shen Wei's skin, touching him everywhere.

He's pressed so close he can hear it when Shen Wei swallows.

"I-" Shen Wei says, voice faltering for a moment. "Zhao Yunlan – I won't, I-" He takes a breath, and Zhao Yunlan feels the press of his lips, a soft kiss against his forehead.

"I promise," Shen Wei says, and sheer relief floods through Zhao Yunlan so strongly that for a moment his entire body just goes limp.

"There has to be a better way," Zhao Yunlan mumbles into Shen Wei's skin; his racing heart is starting to slow, breathing evening out. "Last time was – but we can do better, now."

"We will," Shen Wei murmurs, and then his hands are on Zhao Yunlan, urging him up, to lift his head – and then Shen Wei is there, kissing him. He's being gentle, careful – but the kisses are also firm, deep, and it's exactly the kind of grounding Zhao Yunlan needs.

He lets Shen Wei roll them sideways, press him into the mattress; Shen Wei has promised, and Zhao Yunlan can leave all the thinking until tomorrow. Tomorrow Shen Wei will call in sick to the University – tomorrow they'll go to the SID and start making plans. But tonight there's nothing more he needs to do – they're alive, and Shen Wei has promised; Zhao Yunlan can just be, in the here and now – he just needs to stop thinking-

"What do you need?" Shen Wei murmurs, and Zhao Yunlan shifts under him; feels Shen Wei reflexively press him down, and that's – yes, that's what he needs – Shen Wei to press him into the mattress and-

"You," Zhao Yunlan says, and arches his hips up; watches Shen Wei's eyes darken. "I need you-"

"You have me," Shen Wei says, low; kisses him with ten thousand years of longing, and Zhao Yunlan-

They're alive; they're alive, and he's safe, and Zhao Yunlan throws himself into the kiss – lets Shen Wei's touch cover him, surround him-

Lets himself be swept away.

Zhao Yunlan comes awake suddenly, Shen Wei's hands on his shoulders, shaking, Shen Wei's voice urgent in his ears. His throat hurts – has he been screaming out loud? He'd definitely been screaming in – in his dream, it was just a dream – they came back in time, they changed it, he won't ever again be straining against ropes, bound and helpless to do anything but watch while Shen Wei-

"I'm here," Shen Wei is saying, drawing Zhao Yunlan against him; Zhao Yunlan lets himself be moved, hands coming up to clutch at Shen Wei's back – feels the steady beat of his heart, the rise and fall of his breath, with his whole body.

"You're here," Zhao Yunlan croaks, when he thinks he can speak. "We changed it-"

"We changed it," Shen Wei affirms, winds himself tighter around Zhao Yunlan's shaking body. "We're alive, you're safe-" and Zhao Yunlan breathes-

The next time Zhao Yunlan wakes, it's quiet.

Haixing sunlight shines bright in dappled lines across the bed; he's warm, and comfortable, and nothing hurts.

Da Qing is curled in a perfect black circle at his hip, softly purring; and Shen Wei is half on top of him, head on Zhao Yunlan's shoulder and an arm and leg slung over him – steady puffs of breath against his throat. And Zhao Yunlan-

Zhao Yunlan closes his eyes, lets himself relax back into the mattress – they're alive, he's safe, and he can just lie here and feel-

Later, they'll have to get up; right now, there's nowhere they need to be.

Zhao Yunlan tilts his head into Shen Wei, lets himself drift-

And outside the apartment, over a Dragon City that will never know the touch of war, the sun rises on a new day.