It’s temporary. Almost a vacation of sorts, one could argue. Only until the situation at the Department of Supervision cools down and the worst of the mess is dealt with. Then Zhao Yunlan will return to the SID, Shen Wei to Dragon City University, and Ye Zun... they haven’t figured that part out yet.
At the beginning, Da Qing used to needle Zhao Yunlan in every one of their phone calls and text convos asking him when he was coming back, critical of Zhao Yunlan’s choices—as if Zhao Yunlan had any other options—and not shy about making that known. Then he switched to asking if he himself could take some time off work to come over. Getting only evasive answers at best, his daily persistence spaced out to once a week, then every other week. These days he doesn’t bother bringing up the issue anymore. Zhao Yunlan misses him terribly, but letting him come here would be a terrible idea, and Zhao Yunlan can’t go back home yet. Not yet.
The one-bedroom house is cramped for three people, but it sits alone at the top of a hill, removed from the touch of civilization, secluded enough to curb the worst of Ye Zun’s hunger. Or so Zhao Yunlan hopes.
He can see it in Ye Zun’s eyes sometimes, the way his craving flares to life when Shen Wei manipulates dark energy in front of him, which Shen Wei rarely allows himself to do these days. At first, those looks ended up in smashed glassware, screaming matches and Shen Wei pretty much begging Zhao Yunlan to leave him alone with his brother for a while. Zhao Yunlan would reluctantly walk away from the house and slump under a tree until his hands stopped shaking, his lungs stopped burning and his eyes stopped prickling. It took a while. Then he would make his way back with his heart in his throat only to find Shen Wei cooking, Ye Zun sitting on the veranda under a patch of sunset light, and the house back to its usual spotless state.
Things started to shift after a while. Now it’s Ye Zun who walks away, silent and more or less collected, leaving no mess for Shen Wei to clean up after him. Those walks took some getting used to, mostly for Zhao Yunlan. Shen Wei had to physically prevent him from running after Ye Zun, and they would argue, yelling almost as much as they used to with Ye Zun. But Ye Zun always came back, having harmed no one as far as Zhao Yunlan could tell—including himself—so Zhao Yunlan slowly stopped expecting a catastrophic outcome each time Ye Zun walked away alone and in a mood. Zhao Yunlan began to... well, he supposes ‘trust’ is the word for it. He trusts Ye Zun.
Their domestic life is mostly peaceful now. Shen Wei spends long hours in the kitchen or at his desk in the living room, the cuffs of his pressed shirts rolled up to his elbows. At home—their new home, this tiny house so far away from their old life, with one occupant too many and simultaneously one occupant short—he forgoes the sleeve garters and swaps his usual vests for fuzzier, looser sweaters in favor of a more casual look, which is still nowhere near casual enough for loungewear. Sometimes he even leaves the top button of his shirt undone, lollipop wrapper pendant peeking through.
Ye Zun can usually be found soaking up sunrays on the veranda or on the balcony upstairs, bundled up in an excessive number of layers for the mild mid-autumn chill. He reads some of Shen Wei’s books sometimes, and stares into the distance a lot, and has developed a taste for lollipops.
And Zhao Yunlan... Zhao Yunlan sleeps, mostly. He thought he was tired before, working long hours at the SID and pushing his body to the limit, but clearly he didn’t know how good he had it back then. Now he naps as much as his still-mutating body wants to—serum naps, he jokingly calls them, which doesn’t seem to amuse anyone but him—yet he can barely keep his eyes open for more than three or four hours at a time. In those scant waking hours, he has rediscovered his love for designing inventions. None of the junk he makes works, but practice makes perfect. Some of it makes Shen Wei smile, which is the biggest reason why Zhao Yunlan keeps at it. He has also caught Ye Zun examining some of his more complex creations late into the night on the veranda, when he thinks Zhao Yunlan is asleep. Some of them Zhao Yunlan had already discarded in the trash, and by morning they are always back there, under vegetable stems and empty plastic packets from Shen Wei’s breakfast cooking.
All this cozy domesticity has changed them, all three of them, in ways both abrupt and gradual. During the first few weeks, Zhao Yunlan hardly recognized himself, making nice with the monster that ended so many lives, including those of Zhao Yunlan’s friends and—almost, almost—the love of his life. But the alternative was watching Shen Wei’s heart break over and over again each time Zhao Yunlan and Ye Zun hurled increasingly scathing recriminations at each other or tried, and eventually always failed, to ignore each other as pointedly as possible.
Shen Wei and Ye Zun, meanwhile, wasted no time to reconnect and apparently repair their relationship. Zhao Yunlan watches them sit together on the balcony before bed, their conversation soundless from the other side of the glass. Watches them share the en-suite bathroom while one showers and the other shaves, the way Shen Wei and Zhao Yunlan share too. Watches Ye Zun be welcome to help in the kitchen, where Zhao Yunlan is too useless to even fill a pot of water from the tap. Watches Shen Wei move from the desk to the couch to have a clearer view of his brother doing his best impression of a pillar on the veranda as he stares into the darkness with his back rigid as stone, the wind beating his long hair into a tangled mess. Watched, once, Shen Wei run a brush with revering care through Ye Zun’s hair afterwards; watched him startle into a full-body jolt when the bathroom door opened and Zhao Yunlan stepped out in a cloud of steam; watched him shift his eyes away, put the brush down, turn his back to Zhao Yunlan. After that, Zhao Yunlan never caught Shen Wei brushing his brother’s hair again.
Zhao Yunlan’s relationship with Shen Wei did not suffer the rekindling of Shen Wei and Ye Zun’s bond, though. They still enjoy plenty of time in each other’s company, both with and without Ye Zun hovering around. Mostly without, as Ye Zun spends the majority of his time outside, alone. They still kiss, as sporadically as they used to before Ye Zun invaded their life. And they make use of Ye Zun’s walks to enjoy sexual intimacy on pretty much every vaguely flat surface of the house.
It’s good. Considering their current circumstances, it’s really good. Great, even.
There’s certainly no reason for Zhao Yunlan to feel jealous.
That change was a gradual one. There’s no specific moment that Zhao Yunlan can identify as the trigger – not the hair brushing, not the covert staring, not the cooking together, not the bathroom sharing. Hell, half of those things Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei do together already, and the rest Zhao Yunlan is sure he can get away with if he begs Shen Wei prettily enough.
The development of those ugly feelings corresponded, weirdly, with Ye Zun progressively learning to control his temper tantrums, which in turn happened as he learned to control his gaping hunger for energy, for power, for everything and anything he can devour. Even stranger is what settles the covetous monster that now dwells in Zhao Yunlan’s chest – napping on the couch while Ye Zun lounges on the veranda with a book and Shen Wei inks away at his desk, or slipping a hand through the gap between the shower curtain and the tiled wall to pass Ye Zun a dry towel, or watching the barely concealed wonder on Ye Zun’s face when he tries out a new lollipop flavor, or feeling the mattress dip and Shen Wei nuzzle closer into the crook of Zhao Yunlan’s neck as Ye Zun gets in the bed on the other side of Shen Wei.
Yes, they do all sleep on the same bed. Ye Zun slept on the couch the first few nights, but then Shen Wei hesitantly approached Zhao Yunlan to practically beg him to share the king-sized bed with Ye Zun, because sleeping on the couch was making his brother’s body ache. Apparently. Zhao Yunlan has slept countless naps on the couch since then, and learned that it is exceptionally comfortable.
Still, the bed is big enough for three adults, and Zhao Yunlan has gotten used to it by now, enough that he even finds it pleasant. He sleeps better than he did when it was just him and Shen Wei in it, worrying about what Ye Zun might be doing downstairs, alone. He hardly ever wakes when the brothers get up in the morning, but all the same it soothes his mind and his heart to know that they are nearby at their most vulnerable moment.
It’s... nice. Now that none of them are at each other’s throats anymore.
“You ate all the lollipops?!” Zhao Yunlan yells from the kitchen. The volume appears to make the windowpanes vibrate, but no, that’s just thunder from the ongoing storm.
“So did you,” Ye Zun’s voice comes from the couch, insouciant as ever.
Zhao Yunlan balls the empty packet in his fist and closes his eyes, counts down from ten.
By six, Shen Wei walks into the kitchen with an empty cup to wash it under the tap. “I’ll go to the store for more in a minute.”
He usually portals into town on Saturday morning, and today is... Zhao Yunlan has no idea, but he’s certain it hasn’t been a week since the last grocery run. Sure, it’s only a minor inconvenience for Shen Wei, it’s not like he needs to make the two-hour drive there and back like Zhao Yunlan would, but Zhao Yunlan hates that he has to, on principle.
“Ah, Shen Wei, no need for that. We can go without until Saturday.”
The last three words are drowned under Ye Zun’s voice floating in from the living room again. “Get the strawberry ones, Gege.”
“What flavor would you like?” Shen Wei asks Zhao Yunlan.
“You’re gonna let him treat you like this?” Zhao Yunlan demands, voice dropping to a whisper mostly for Shen Wei’s benefit; Zhao Yunlan doesn’t care if Ye Zun hears him.
The look Shen Wei gives him is sharper than he expected. “It’s only a small favor. I’m doing it for you, too. This is what family is about, taking care of each other.” He leaves the kitchen and goes upstairs, presumably to change out of his too stiff loungewear into an even stiffer grocery run outfit, complete with sleeve garters and all.
Zhao Yunlan takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. When he hears the distinctive creak of the top step of the stairs, he stomps into the living room and plops down in the armchair. “You gonna make him go out in this rain for lollipops?”
He can see Ye Zun’s shoulders go up and down behind the book he’s holding in front of his face. “He’s got an umbrella.”
Zhao Yunlan juts his jaw forward and runs his tongue between his upper lip and the front of his teeth, measuring his next words. He has been making an effort lately, because the more effort he makes, the more Ye Zun does the same, and the happier Shen Wei is.
The air pressure drops for a second, signaling that Shen Wei has opened a portal and left. As soon as it gets back to normal, Ye Zun lowers his book and lets his feet drop from the couch to the floor, sitting up. “He likes it,” he says, looking at Zhao Yunlan. “Doing things for you, for me, that’s how he shows he cares.”
‘Cares’ is a rather mild word for it, but Ye Zun has a point. It’s not like Zhao Yunlan doesn’t know that Shen Wei expresses his love through acts of service and at times nearly overwhelming control, but he didn’t think Ye Zun was aware of it and, moreover, was purposefully enabling that behavior.
Zhao Yunlan takes a moment to observe Ye Zun through narrowed eyes. His spoiled and entitled behavior cannot be entirely for Shen Wei’s benefit, but he clearly knows his brother welcomes it. Realizing Ye Zun is deliberately inducing his brother into such domestic intimacy should stoke the jealous fire lapping away at Zhao Yunlan’s heart. Instead, it tames it, cools it. Shen Wei catering to his brother’s childish demands, sharing private moments with him, inviting him into his and Zhao Yunlan’s bed... they are things shared by the three of them now that Ye Zun has decided to let Zhao Yunlan in on the secret.
Except the hair brushing. Because Shen Wei hadn’t wanted Zhao Yunlan to see, and that hurt. Zhao Yunlan really thought they were over hiding things from each other by now.
He lets his eyes roam over Ye Zun’s long silver hair. His earlier empty staring on the veranda, when the wind was picking up speed before the rain started to pour, has left it a tangled, frizzy mess.
Ye Zun is looking back at him, Zhao Yunlan realizes. His gaze is intense, defiant, as if he knows exactly what hair-related occurrence Zhao Yunlan is thinking about and is daring him to actually mention it out loud. Or intimidating him into not saying anything.
So Zhao Yunlan decides to surprise him instead. “Want me to fix it for you?” He nods in Ye Zun’s general direction, confident that they both know what he’s talking about.
His offer does surprise Ye Zun, shocking him into silence for several seconds. Of course he won’t accept—he is perfectly capable of brushing his own hair, and surely wants Zhao Yunlan’s hands nowhere near him—but it’s nice to get one over on him anyway.
“All right,” Ye Zun says, shocking Zhao Yunlan in turn.
Is this some kind of game of chicken? Well, if it is, Zhao Yunlan is not going to be the one to lose. He gets up and climbs the stairs, hoping his back projects all the nonchalance he doesn’t feel. He picks up Ye Zun’s hairbrush from the bathroom—it’s not really Ye Zun’s, but he’s the only one who uses it—and comes back out into the bedroom to find Ye Zun standing by the balcony doors, watching the raindrops trickle down the glass.
Zhao Yunlan, brazen as he is and set on winning this stupid game, sits cross-legged on the bed with his back against the headboard, ass on Shen Wei’s pillow. The shuffling noise attracts Ye Zun’s attention, and when he turns around to look, Zhao Yunlan pats the comforter in front of him.
The look he gets from Ye Zun is full of something that Zhao Yunlan can’t quite interpret. Defiance? Trepidation? Resolve? Whatever it is, it’s clear he doesn’t want to do this any more than Zhao Yunlan does. But if Ye Zun is not backing down, then Zhao Yunlan isn’t, either. Besides, it’s only hair brushing, nothing unpleasant or inappropriate. Just some normal, ordinary... grooming. Yeah.
In the back of Zhao Yunlan’s head, the memory of Shen Wei doing this for Ye Zun and guiltily startling when Zhao Yunlan caught him beats an insistent rhythm against the inside of his skull. He smothers it into silence before he develops a headache.