When Shen Wei disappeared through the swirling mass of colour obscuring the SID’s ceiling, Ye Zun didn’t hesitate. He jumped through after him.
He knew gege had learnt a teleportation power but he had never seen it in use. Other Dixingren said gege could open a portal to almost anywhere. It was how Hei Pao Shi brought them back to Dixing. He assumed gege must have used that power and opened a portal to take himself and Zhao Yunlan away from Ye Zun. So Ye Zun followed. Gege and his pet Haixingren wouldn’t get away this time.
The swirling mass of colour didn’t bring him anywhere. Everywhere he looked, there was just more of the same. Colours blending into one another, shifting and colliding, in an endless corridor.
Was this a trap? Had gege trapped him in his portal?
But what was that? There! In the distance!
Ye Zun moved towards it, trying not to think about the lack of solid pressure under his feet.
The spot of light grew larger as he got closer to it. It grew clearer, too, and soon Ye Zun could make out indistinct slopes and ridges, like a fog covered mountain. Was the opening at the other end of the portal? Where had gege gone?
And then he froze.
He knew that dry, sandy cliff. He remembered the scraggly bushes, barely clinging to life in the wake of the meteor’s devastation. He also knew this cliff no longer existed. Like so much of his past, it had been erased and forgotten with the passing of ten thousand years.
Was this a trick? How could gege’s portal have brought him here?
He tried to turn his head away from the scene in front of him, away from the last place gege was a word tinged with love and not hate, but he couldn’t. His eyes stayed fixed on the scene in front of him.
His breath caught when two small figures stumbled onto the cliff. Children, one clothed in black, the other in white. The black-clothed child, clearly the stronger of the two, had his arm around the white-clothed boy, supporting him as he struggled to keep walking. Ye Zun strained to hear what was happening, hissing as he heard the voice of the sturdied child.
“Didi, are you okay?” It sounded like it was coming from underwater, but the voice was unmistakably gege’s.
“Ge,” his younger self answered, coughing even as he tried to speak, “I’m. so tired.”
“Don’t worry. I will never leave you alone.” And Ye Zun growled. His eyes stung, and there was a lump in throat.
What was this? Revenge for the nightmares Ye Zun had made Shen Wei suffer when he was tied to the pillar?
How dare that version of his brother swear to never leave him alone when he would abandon Ye Zun on that very same cliff moments from now?
Ye Zun tried to turn away from the scene again, to find the source of the knife twisting into his chest. He would devour whoever it was flaunting his most painful memory in his face.
Ye Zun froze.
He knew that voice. Had cried and trembled in fear of that voice. Had been so terrified of it raised in anger that it had triggered his power for the first time.
The rebel chieftain. He was standing before the young boys, a smirk lifting the left corner of his mouth. He laughed lowly as he eyed the children.
“You look gifted,” he said to gege and Ye Zun snarled, sure this is where his brother would sell him off. Sell him to a stranger to be abused and treated as little better than a dog for years on end. “You have potential. How about following me?”
Gege eyed the rebel chieftain back, eyes pausing over his hand. Ye Zun took a closer look to try and find what had made his brother pause. Was that — blood?
“You just killed someone,” Shen Wei snapped, defiant even as a child.
“Haixing was just hit by a meteorite, the world is a mess. Killing someone isn’t a big deal.”
Ye Zun watched his brother tense and knew he wouldn’t respond well to that. He had always hated violence. He had always been too soft. Before gege could respond, the child-sized Ye Zun collapsed.
“Di!” Shen Wei cried, slowing his fall as best as he could, cradling his head on his lap. “Are you okay?”
“He can pass out just from coughing?!” the chieftain scoffed, and Ye Zun wished he could devour him a second time. How often had this man mocked or beaten him for his coughing? As if it was something Ye Zun could control. As if Ye Zun had chosen to fall ill so often.
“What a crap!” the chieftain added, walking closer to where Shen Wei was crouched over his brother’s still form. “Let me see,” he said, reaching out a hand and Ye Zun flinched, too familiar with the harm those hands could cause.
Gege slapped the hand away, practically growling as he said, “Don’t touch him!” Ye Zun couldn’t see the child’s face but he was familiar enough with that tone of voice to know the scathing glare that came with it.
As an adult, that glare could make entire armies tremble.
As a child — it only made the chieftain mad.
“How dare you hit me!”
And Ye Zun cried out as the chieftain’s hand clenched around his brother’s throat. His eyes burned and his breathing stuttered as he watched the man lift the child effortlessly. His stomach clenched as gege’s feet scrambled to find purchase on the dusty ground. His hands trembled as Shen Wei was pushed closer and closer to the edge of the cliff.
And when he fell, so did Ye Zun.
“NO!” he shouted, but there was no one to hear him. The scene in front of him looped back to the start, but Ye Zun wasn’t watching. Dark energy curled around his form, twining through his hair and fingers like his own personal tornado. His cheeks were wet, and his throat was raw, but he didn’t realize he was crying.
Ye Zun hated gege. He wanted Shen Wei to die. But not like that! Not as a child. Not when he still seemed to care for Ye Zun. It hurt to see that version of his brother perish. That was the Shen Wei Ye Zun imagined would rescue him from the rebels as a child. That was the gege Ye Zun had always secretly wished to find again.
He knew the scene he had just witnessed wasn’t real, couldn’t be real, because gege was still alive. Gege had sold him to the chieftain rather than continue lugging his uncooperative body around from village to village, desperate for food. But knowing it wasn’t real didn’t make it hurt less.
It’s not real, it’s not real, it’s not real, he thought to himself over and over again. He wasn’t even aware he’d been mumbling under his breath until someone responded.
“It is real, didi,” gege’s voice, upset but without the tinge of confusion and anger that usually coloured his tone when he spoke to Ye Zun. A warm hand squeezed his shoulder, and Ye Zun found himself turning towards the other person.
Gege stood before him, short-haired, wearing the glasses and suit he favoured in modern Haixing. He was alive and looking at Ye Zun with hope in his eyes. Ye Zun didn’t even notice that Zhao Yunlan was holding Shen Wei’s other hand.
“It’s real, didi, but I’m okay,” he said softly, looking at his brother in wonder.
“Ge,” he said. “You didn’t abandon me.”
“Never,” gege swore, shifting to crouch in front of Ye Zun. He took his hand off Ye Zun’s shoulder, holding it in front of him like he wanted Ye Zun to take it. He did. He clutched the hand gege offered him so tightly it must’ve hurt, but Shen Wei only smiled in response.
“Didi. Let’s go home.”