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of thousands, just the one

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There are a thousand times he could’ve gone back to, a thousand ways their story might have ended in less tragedy.

In Zhao Yunlan’s defence, one’s soul burning over and over again isn’t what one might call conducive to strategic thought and the Hallows don’t exactly come with a usage manual, so in the end it’s perhaps no surprise that they took his yearning for less heartbreak, for a new beginning, for Shen Wei, Shen Wei, Shen Wei, and deposited him beneath a gnarled old plum tree in the mountains that guards a living grave.

When the first hand shoots out of the churning dirt, Zhao Yunlan is there, gripping too tightly as he pulls, his heart rising from the ground in tandem with Shen Wei’s dark robes, his hair, his face. His beautiful, beloved face.

No dirt clings to him, though by rights it should, and there is no barrier between the naked hope on Shen Wei’s expressive face and Zhao Yunlan’s burning core.

“Kunlun?” Shen Wei asks, lilting voice exactly like Zhao Yunlan remembers and also utterly alien to ears which haven’t heard a physical sound that wasn’t his own screaming in longer than he cares to recall (even the screams weren’t technically real). “You’re here?”

The hope, the desperate relief, the unwarranted awe – they all hurt, because Zhao Yunlan doesn’t deserve any of them.

“I’m here,” he says, voice rough, and later he couldn’t say who leaned forward first, only that Shen Wei’s arms close around his torso as beautifully solid and steady as they’ve always been.

Shen Wei’s long hair soaks up tears better than the shorter version he’d later favoured. Will favour.

Zhao Yunlan’s fingers dig into Shen Wei’s shoulders, hard enough to hurt even him, but Shen Wei doesn’t complain, only makes soothing noises that have warm, alive breath brushing against the curve of Zhao Yunlan’s ear. As if he isn’t the one who has just literally fought his way out from being buried alive for millennia. There is no way Shen Wei can know why Zhao Yunlan is clinging to him, yet he offers kindness unhesitatingly and it makes Zhao Yunlan want to scream because one day that kindness will kill Shen Wei and there was nothing Zhao Yunlan had been able to do to stop it.

“You’re here,” Shen Wei whispers again, one of his armguards digging in right under Zhao Yunlan’s shoulder blade.

He doesn’t quite sound like he believes it, which makes two of them.

Zhao Yunlan clenches his eyes shut. “I promised, didn’t I?”

Shen Wei nods against his shoulder. “I never doubted you, Kunlun.”

Which, of course, makes it worse. It had taken decades for Shen Wei to meet Zhao Yunlan, only for Zhao Yunlan to repay his patient devotion with a lack of recognition that must’ve cut deeper than any of the physical wounds Shen Wei kept shaking off like they meant nothing.

Worse than that – it’ll happen again. Already, Zhao Yunlan can feel the pull of the lantern, the flames licking at his skin, just waiting to take back this final boon granted for a service given.

Except this time, Shen Wei would know what to expect. This time, he’ll be prepared.

The knowledge doesn’t make it any easier to witness the confusion and pain creeping into Shen Wei’s open face when Zhao Yunlan says, “I’m sorry, Xiao Wei, I won’t be able to stay.”

Shen Wei’s eyes skip over Zhao Yunlan’s face, searching, that laser gaze going beyond the physical now – or perhaps there are already flames in his eyes again – and he raises a hand that feels blessedly cool to Zhao Yunlan’s burning forehead.

“You’re not really here.” Shen Wei’s voice breaks, the same grief that Zhao Yunlan had glimpsed before the Hallows tore him away ten thousand years ago entering his eyes.

As Shen Wei’s palm slides down the side of Zhao Yunlan’s face to cup his jaw, a spark jumps off his skin, heat now palpable.

Zhao Yunlan nods. Shen Wei makes a sound, somewhere between a sob and a plea, before he bites down hard on his lip, silencing himself. There is no comfort Zhao Yunlan can give him, except to reach out and lace their fingers together, hands sliding along one another like they’ve always belonged.

Bit by bit, Zhao Yunlan watches Shen Wei pull himself together, grief buried and eyes no longer shining, distress only evident in the way his fingers tremble against Zhao Yunlan’s skin until even that ceases.

“Tell me,” he says, and sounds every inch the general.

Zhao Yunlan smiles through his own heartbreak, and does – because among all the flames hope still burns, too.