“Kunlun?” a voice says from behind him, and Zhao Yunlan jumps. He fumbles the glass case that covers the Longevity Dial, nearly drops it, but he manages to hold on. He places it back where it belongs before slowly turning to face —
His voice didn’t sound right, though — it was more timid than Shen Wei had ever sounded, even when he was pretending to be a shy professor. His clothes were off too. Instead of the suits he usually favoured or even the black robes he wore as Hei Pao Shi, Shen Wei was sporting a soft-looking jumper and loose, linen pants that were gathered tightly at his ankles. While still stylish and put-together, it was far from what Shen Wei usually wore.
And — why was his hair long and white?
“Kunlun, it is you! Where’s gege?” his voice was surer now that he thought he recognised Zhao Yunlan as this ‘Kunlun’ person, but it still wasn’t right. The inflection, maybe? It sounded very similar to Shen Wei’s voice, but it definitely wasn’t him.
“You’re not Shen Wei,” Zhao Yunlan said. He shifted his stance, feet moving shoulder-width apart, shoulders straightening, right hand moving to rest in front of his left hip so he could reach his pistol faster.
“Of course not,” the stranger wearing Shen Wei’s face answered, “that’s obviously why I’m asking you where gege is. Kunlun, what’s wrong? Why didn’t gege come find me?”
Did – did he just say Shen Wei was his gege? No, that couldn’t be right. Shen Wei would’ve told him if he had a brother. Shen Wei wouldn’t have kept that a secret from Zhao Yunlan.
The stranger jerked backwards. His hands clenched into tight fists and his shoulders started shaking. His face went white, and his eyes looked red and glossy, as if he was about to cry.
“You are. Kunlun, don’t you remember me?”
Dark energy started pouring out of him.
“Why don’t you remember me? Where’s gege? Why didn’t he come find me? Kunlun?”
The more he panicked, the more dark energy flowed out of him. It whipped the air into a mini tornado, sent papers flying, and made Zhao Yunlan’s jacket flap open. Even Lin Jing’s computer and the glass cases holding the hallows shook with the force of the wind.
Zhao Yunlan didn’t know what to do. He knew he needed to get the Dixingren in front of him to calm down now, but he didn’t know how. He opened his mouth to speak, to say something, anything, to try and appease the stranger—
A crash sounded behind him, and he whirled around.
The glass cases containing the hallows. They had exploded.
And the hallows were…glowing? Yes, they were pulsing with a bright golden light. They hadn’t done that before.
Suddenly, they darted upwards and started spinning, faster and faster. A black hole, similar Shen Wei’s portals, started forming in the certain of the vortex. As the rip in reality grew larger, Zhao Yunlan could feel it pulling at his hair, a counter point to the Dixingren’s tornado. The pull grew stronger and Zhao Yunlan watched as shards of glass rose from the work bench and flew into the black spot.
Zhao Yunlan’s eyes widened, and he whirled around to face the stranger. He tried to yell at him to run, but no sound left his mouth. He took a step forward, hoping to push the stranger and force him out of the lab but before he could reach him, Zhao Yunlan felt something wrap around his middle and tug him upwards and backwards.
Two voices cried out for him simultaneously but Zhao Yunlan barely heard them. He was too busy screaming soundlessly as the black hole devoured him.
For a second, he thought he could see two Shen Weis in the lab, and he smiled.
Then everything went black —
— and suddenly everything was brown and blue and Zhao Yunlan was hurtling towards the earth.
Take his place.
That was what Da Qing had told him after finding him on the ridge.
Take his place.
Is what Ma Gui and Fu You reiterated to him once he arrived at the Alliance’s base.
Take his place.
And Zhao Yunlan had. He had become General Kunlun, a renowned and well-respected military strategist and leader. He had become Kunlunjun, the jovial soldier uniting Haixingren, Dixingren, and Yashou. He had become Kunlun, Da Qing’s master and Shen Wei’s first friend.
But sometimes, he really missed being Zhao Yunlan.
When his loneliness got too overwhelming, when Kunlun this and Kunlunjun that got to be too much, he would leave on solo ‘patrols.’
‘Secret missions’ only he could accomplish, and that had to be done alone.
But really, they were just walks alone outside of camp where he could be Zhao Yunlan for a while. Where he could pretend he was still living in the 21st century, and that Shen Wei and the Damn Cat would be waiting for him at home.
He knew it was silly to miss them when they were here with him, but. It’s not the same. They’re not his Shen Wei, or his Da Qing. This Shen Wei doesn’t call him on his shit the way Shen jiaoshou does. This Da Qing doesn’t snark back at him the way his Damn Cat does. They’re here, but they’re not, really, and it hurts.
Was this how Shen Wei felt? Seeing Zhao Yunlan and Da Qing everyday, but neither knowing who he really is. Neither remembering their shared past.
Zhao Yunlan huffed as he kicked a rock on the path in front of him.
If he grumbled under his breath about stupid hallows and out-of-order timelines, well. No one was around to hear it. And Zhao Yunlan figured he deserved to grumble after everything the hallows had put him through.
As he walks, Zhao Yunlan doesn’t pay much attention to his surroundings. He’s still close to where the Alliance had set up camp, and he’s walked here so many times, he could probably do it blindfolded. So he lets his mind wander and drift, and doesn’t bother watching where he steps.
Until he hears a hiss, not unlike those Da Qing makes when Zhao Yunlan steps on his tail in the middle of the night.
Zhao Yunlan jumps backwards a half step, eyes scanning the ground for signs of a cat.
Instead, his eyes come to rest on a small, grey — snake? No, there were ridges done its spine, and a tuft of dirty grey fur at the end of its tail. The head, half tucked under one clawed foot, is framed by a fluffy mane and two branching antlers.
It’s — a dragon?!?!
But it’s so small! From head to tail, it couldn’t be longer than Zhao Yunlan’s forearm, and its body was the width of two fingers.
The tiny dragon hissed again, and curled more tightly around itself, as if it was afraid?
Zhao Yunlan looked around, searching for the source of the little dragon’s fear. The sandy ground all around the dragon is scuffed, disturbed, like there had been a battle, but there isn’t even any blood or fragments of torn cloth.
Unless, it hadn’t been a battle but an ambush, and the tiny dragon was the target.
Zhao Yunlan bends down, and slowly reaches a hand out to the dragon. It curls even more tightly in on itself, its hissing intensifying.
“Hey, shh, it’s okay,” he says softly, “I won’t hurt you.”
The hissing stops, but the dragon doesn’t uncoil.
Reaching out again, Zhao Yunlan runs one featherlight finger over the dragon’s side. It flinches under his touch, and he pauses again. Maybe, like a dog or a cat, the dragon would prefer to smell him first? He moves his hand so it’s closer to the tiny head.
The dragon does raise his head towards Zhao Yunlan’s hand, and as more of its face becomes visible, Zhao Yunlan gasps. Drying blood is flaking off the scales around its mouth and nose, and scarlet streaks are matted into his beard.
At his sudden gasp, the dragon flinches again, and that seems to be too much for it. Its eyes roll back in its head, and its tiny head falls back to the ground with a barely audible thump.
“You’re hurt,” Zhao Yunlan sighs, his eyes closing. No wonder the dragon was so tense, it likely thought Zhao Yunlan would hurt it, too. Anger built in his chest. He wanted to scream and find the scum who would dare harm such a tiny, beautiful creature. He wanted to show them how it felt to be afraid and helpless. He wanted to follow the footprints in the sand and punish them.
But the dragon needed his help first. Pinching the bridge of his nose, Zhao Yunlan let out a long sigh and worked to calm himself.
Carefully, he scoops the tiny body into his hands, lifting them to cradle against his chest.
“Don’t worry, Xiao Long, I know someone that can help. You’re safe now.”
At least, he hopes Fu You will be able to help. She was a healer and a snake Yashou after all, if anyone could heal the dragon it would be her. Shen Wei didn’t know how to heal yet, and even if he did – would his power even work on a dragon? For now, Fu You was their best hope.
Zhao Yunlan makes his way back to camp as quickly as he can while keeping his stride steady over the uneven terrain. If the dragon had any broken bones, it wouldn’t do to jostle it more than absolutely necessary. It takes longer than he would like, but eventually, the allied camp comes into view.
He tucks the dragon more securely against his body to hide it from view and makes his way steadily to the central cave where they hold their council meetings. If Fu You isn’t at the infirmary helping to treat the wounded, that’s where she’ll be. And if she’s not there, he won’t have to wait too long for her to arrive.
When he enters the main cavern, he’s surprised to see Shen Wei and Da Qing inside, studying a map. Had their scouts seen something?
Forgetting the dragon still cradled in his hands, Zhao Yunlan hurries over to them.
“What are you —”
“Didi?!” Shen Wei exclaims, and Zhao Yunlan freezes. He knows now that Shen Wei had had a younger brother, but that he had been lost. Zhao Yunlan had assumed, from the pain in Shen Wei’s voice when he admitted he’d been searching over ten years and not been able to find him, that his didi was dead. But if his didi was here, that was great news! Maybe Shen Wei wouldn’t endure the 10,000 year-long wait alone after all.
Whirling around, Zhao Yunlan prepares his most charming smile, hoping to endear himself to this long-lost younger brother. Except, there’s no one there. Confused, he turns back to Shen Wei.
Shen Wei, who looks like he’s seen a ghost. His eyes are turning red around the edges, but they still look hopeful. His mouth keeps twitching, like he doesn’t know whether he should smile or frown. His brow is furrowed, and his hand is half raised, like he’s stopping himself from reaching out to touch someone.
And he’s looking right at Zhao Yunlan.
Or, well. He’s looking at the tiny grey dragon still cradled in Zhao Yunlan’s arms.
“Didi,” he says again, voice cracking halfway through the word. He takes a hesitant half step towards Zhao Yunlan, gave still fixed on the dragon he’s holding. He inhales sharply when his eyes take in the blood on the dragon’s face, and when he exhales—
A black blur darts through the air, hurtling towards Zhao Yunlan’s chest.
Da Qing yowls, leaping across the table, transforming into his lanky kitten form in mid-air, intent on protecting his master.
He’s too slow.
Zhao Yunlan is also too slow.
Before he can so much as flinch, the black blur has landed in his hands and wound itself around the tiny grey dragon.
Zhao Yunlan looks down in shock. Da Qing stumbles to a halt at the edge of the table next to him and lets out a small “mrrow?”
In his hands, Zhao Yunlan knows holds two tiny dragons, one grey and one black. The black dragon is identical in all but colour to the grey one, and has wrapped itself around the other dragon protectively. It’s sniffing the grey dragon and nuzzling it, as if checking for illness or injury.
“Shen Wei?” Zhao Yunlan asks, half sure he’s dreaming. Surely Shen Wei didn’t just turn into a tiny dragon?!? Surely Shen Wei’s didi isn’t also a dragon?!?
But the black dragon looks up at him and bobs its head in an approximation of a nod before flitting off in the direction of the sleeping caves. It flies back when Zhao Yunlan and Da Qing do nothing but stare at it. Huffing, the dragon grabs a small piece of Zhao Yunlan’s hair and tugs on it insistently.
“Aiya, Xiao Wei, stop that! I’m coming, I’m coming!”
The dragon drops his hair and, apparently satisfied that Zhao Yunlan will follow it this time, flies off. He can just barely see it dart into the last tunnel on the right, the one that leads to Shen Wei’s cave.
“Is that really Hei Pao Shi?” Da Qing says, following behind Zhao Yunlan. Zhao Yunlan just hums in answer because he’s honestly not too sure himself.
He feels more confident that the black dragon really is Shen Wei when the entre his cave to see it floating above the bed while the furs and blankets rearrange themselves into small nest on the bed.
“Should I put your didi in there?” Zhao Yunlan asks, and Shen Wei nods again. Carefully, he lays the still-motionless grey dragon in the centre of the nest. The white dragon shifts a little as he removes his hands, but doesn’t wake.
“Is there anything we can do to help?” he looks at Shen Wei hopefully, but the black dragon only shakes his head no, and Zhao Yunlan sighs. He expects Shen Wei to settle back around the other dragon again, but he doesn’t. He’s still looking at Zhao Yunlan expectantly, and he seems impatient somehow, but Zhao Yunlan doesn’t understand what he needs. Unless…
Oh. “Do you want to be alone with him for a bit?” he asks quietly and Shen Wei nods, but it looks hesitant, as if he feels guilty for wanting to spend some time alone with the brother he’d thought he’d lost. Zhao Yunlan smiles sadly. Always sacrificing his own happiness to please others.
“Okay, Xiao Wei. Come find us if you need anything.”
He watches Shen Wei twine around the grey dragon, his didi, once more, and leaves the cave with Da Qing. Hopefully, once the grey dragon wakes, their reunion will go smoothly.
It does not go smoothly.
Shen Wei stays with his didi the entire day and a half that he spends unconscious. When the grey dragon does finally wake, it’s in the middle of the night, and he causes a commotion so big, it blows a whole through the rock wall into Zhao Yunlan’s cave. Wide-eyed and dust covered, he makes his way to the unexpected window and peers through it.
He doesn’t know what he was expecting to see it, but it wasn’t two Shen Weis, one black-haired like normal and one with hair that’s white as snow. They’re both standing as if braced for a fight, facing off against each other from either side of the small cave.
“What the hell?” Zhao Yunlan exclaims, and both Shen Weis startle.
“Who are you?” the white-haired Shen Wei sneers, but Zhao Yunlan can hear the fear beneath his projected disdain.
“Kunlun,” the black-haired Shen Wei answers, and that one, that one’s the real Shen Wei.
“Kunlun?” the not-Shen Wei says, “Huh. I thought you’d be bigger. Anyways, this isn’t any of your concern. Just let me deal with my gege and I’ll be on my way.”
Shen Wei flinches at the venom in not-Shen Wei’s voice when he says ‘gege.’ He takes a half step forwards, hand outstretched towards the not-Shen Wei and says, “Didi —”
And the puzzle pieces slot into place in Zhao Yunlan’s mind. The stranger who wore Shen Wei’s face the day he got tossed into the distant past, the near-identical dragons, the two Shen Weis standing before him now.
Shen Wei and his didi are “Twins?!”
“Born less than five hours apart,” not-Shen Wei confirms. “Not that you’d know it from how gege abandoned me.”
Shen Wei stumbles backwards, clutching a hand to his chest as if he’d been stabbed.
“Abandoned you?” Zhao Yunlan interjects, still standing in front of the new hole in the wall. “That doesn’t sound like Shen Wei.”
“You don’t know my gege! Not like I do!” not-Shen Wei snarls. Angry wisps of dark energy lash out behind him. “He sold me to the rebel chieftain when I was a child, did you know that? He thought I was useless, a burden, so he sold me off to be someone else’s problem. He’ll leave you too, when he’s done with you.”
“Didi!” Shen Wei cries, “that’s not true! I—”
“Shut up!” Shen Wei’s brother screams, and dark energy surges out of him. A wave hits Shen Wei, and he stumbles forwards. The haze of energy grows thicker between the brothers, and it looks like – is Shen Wei’s dark energy being pulled into his didi? Shen Wei stumbles another step forward, but Zhao Yunlan can tell he’s straining to step back, away from his brother.
Panicking, Zhao Yunlan grabs a small chunk of rock and throws it at Shen Wei’s brother’s face. It makes contact with a sharp smack, and immediately the dark energy dissipates. Both brothers fall to the ground, panting.
Zhao Yunlan climbs through the hole in the wall, scrapping the palms of his hands and one of his knees on his way, but that doesn’t matter.
“Xiao Wei!” he shouts, crashing to the ground beside him. “Xiao Wei, are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” he says, and Zhao Yunlan opens his mouth to tell him off for lying, but crying from the other side of the room makes him pause.
Glancing over, he sees Shen Wei’s didi holding his head between his knees. He’s rocking back and forth and making a low keening sound. Faintly, Zhao Yunlan can hear him saying, “I didn’t mean to, I didn’t mean to. I hate gege, but I don’t want to devour him. Not like that. Not like I ate the chieftain.”
Shen Wei makes a quiet sound in the back of his throat, and crawls to his brother’s side.
“Didi,” he says, and lays a hand on his shaking shoulder. His brother flinches, hard.
“Don’t touch me!” he shouts, pulling himself back from Shen Wei, but there’s nowhere for him to go. His eyes are wild, like a feral animal whose been cornered. Shen Wei lifts his hand away, but he doesn’t move away.
“Didi,” he says again, “you didn’t hurt me.”
Shen Wei keeps murmuring reassurances, and gradually, his didi calms down again. He uncurls his body, back straightening to lean against the wall behind him, and his muscles relax marginally. He’s still tense, still distrustful of the brother he believes abandoned him.
“Didi, your hair – the blood – your powers? What happened?” Shen Wei asks, hands clenching tightly into fists where they rest on his thighs. He’s obviously restraining himself from reaching out again, from touching and confirming that his brother is here and alive, but he needs to know he’s also okay.
“Why did you leave me?” his didi says instead, like the answer to his question is the most important thing. As if it’s the key to undoing the abandonment of the past.
And something else clicks into place for Zhao Yunlan.
“Why don’t you remember me? Where’s gege? Why didn’t he come find me?” a panicked stranger will ask him. The desperation in his voice will plead to know: Why did he leave me again? Why did you?
Shen Wei’s brother huffs, and rolls his eyes, as if that confirms his suspicions. As if that’s proof that Shen Wei did abandon him.
And Zhao Yunlan sighs. Of course, Shen Wei would feel like he left his brother alone, even though it wasn’t his fault. That’s why Shen Wei can’t answer the question, of course. Can’t say, I never left you! When all he can think is, I failed you, I’m sorry, I left you vulnerable and alone, I couldn’t protect you, I’m sorry, I abandoned you, I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry!
It’s like his didi doesn’t know Shen Wei at all, like he doesn’t know Shen Wei sees his past failure to protect his brother as having abandoned him.
Except – they were children when they were separated. Maybe he doesn’t know.
“Shen Wei,” Zhao Yunlan says, moving to crouch beside the twins. He squeezes his shoulder and waits for Shen Wei to meet his eyes. “Maybe you should tell your didi what happened that day.”
Shen Wei ducks his head. His hand comes up to grab onto Zhao Yunlan where he’s still holding Shen Wei’s shoulder. He squeezes twice, hard, and lets out a loud exhale. He nods once, and looks back at his brother.
Ye Zun, as Shen Wei’s didi has taken to calling himself, doesn’t believe Shen Wei’s story at first. He insists that even Shen Wei, the great Hei Pao Shi, could not have survived a fall from that height. He insists the story is a lie, a story he fabricated to get his brother to trust him.
“You just want to know where the rebels are,” he says, and turns to face the wall.
Shen Wei sighs, and his shoulders droop. Zhao Yunlan squeezes his shoulder again, and gestures to the hole in the wall. Maybe it’s best to leave Ye Zun alone for now. Shen Wei nods, but his mouth is downturned.
“I’ll be in Kunlun’s cave if you need me, didi,” he says before they climb through the hole. “I’m not leaving you.”
Over the days that follow, Shen Wei tries everything he can think of to reconnect with his brother. He brings him softer blankets, and some of Fu You’s pea powder and mung bean bath wash, scented with flowers from the Flower Tribe. But Ye Zun still ignores him.
Shen Wei tries talking to him about the star stories their uncle used to tell them, before the meteor strike, but Ye Zun only rolls his eyes. He spends a quiet day foraging and hunting in what remains of the woods nearby, and makes a stew he says their mother used to cook. It grows cold in the corner what is now Ye Zun’s cave.
With every failed attempt, Shen Wei grows both more despondent and more determined. It hurts Zhao Yunlan to see how desperately he’s trying to connect to a brother who doesn’t trust him.
Eventually, Zhao Yunlan has enough of it.
“Why don’t you trust Shen Wei?” he asks, arms crossed, staring right into Ye Zun’s eyes through the hole that still links their caves.
“Why should I trust him?” Ye Zun retorts. “Why should I trust you?”
Zhao Yunlan groans, and Ye Zun lifts one eyebrow.
He’s taunting me, Zhao Yunlan thinks, and he groans again. Ye Zun smirks.
No one says anything for a time. Zhao Yunlan doesn’t know how to convince Ye Zun to trust him, to trust Shen Wei, and he has a feeling saying, because you should! wouldn't go over well.
“Look,” he says eventually. “I don’t know how to convince you to trust us, how to make you believe in Shen Wei, but I do need you to know something.”
Ye Zun waves his hand for Zhao Yunlan to continue.
“Shen Wei blames himself for you being taken. You need to know that. He was a starving child fighting an adult three times his size, of course he was always going to lose that fight! But he still blames himself for it. He found a dao at the bottom of that cliff, and trained with it everyday, so that when he found you, he would be able to protect you. He still uses the same blade today, still trains more than any other soldier here. Still feels guilty about failing you so many years ago.”
Zhao Yunlan pauses to gauge Ye Zun’s reaction, but his face is unreadable. Even knowing Shen Wei as well as he does, he can’t make out the tiny nuances in his twin’s expressions.
“He searched for you afterwards, do you know that? He travelled from village to village, refugee encampment to refugee encampment, looking for you. He thought you were dead, but he still looked for you, just in case you were alive. Did you know that?”
This time, Ye Zun makes a small sound, but his face doesn’t change and he doesn’t say anything.
“Do you know why he joined the Alliance?” and this time, Ye Zun shakes his head. “For you.”
Ye Zun opens his mouth, undoubtedly to protest, but Zhao Yunlan lifts a hand and glares at him to be quiet.
“For you,” he insists. “Shen Wei joined the Alliance hoping to learn more abilities from the Dixingren here. He was hoping some of the powers that were useful to the scouting parties would also make searching for you more efficient. There are Dixingren here who can find people, no matter where they are, just by holding someone’s belongings. There’s another that can pinpoint the approximate location of an object as long as she has seen it before. Shen Wei was hoping one of those skills would be useful in finding you, if only he could master them and adapt them to his needs. He hasn’t figured it out yet, but he was so close. Just a few days before I found you, he thought he might’ve seen something. A flash of white cloth, a black and silver mask.”
Ye Zun gasps, and his hand lifts up to touch his face. It’s the same gesture Shen Wei makes, the one he uses to push up his glasses or his mask whenever he’s nervous or overwhelmed.
“That was you,” Zhao Yunlan says, and it isn’t a question. Ye Zun’s jaw clenches, and Zhao Yunlan leans forward to rest his elbows on the rim of the hole in the wall.
“We were planning to go looking for that person Shen Wei thought he saw, you know. As soon as we had retrieved the hallows, we were going to leave to look for you.”
Ye Zun’s hands clench into tight fists and he looks away from Zhao Yunlan. It seems their talk is coming to an end.
“Just give him a chance, all right? I didn’t trust him either at first, but. Shen Wei is really a good person. The best one I have,” he finishes quietly. He sighs as he walks away from the hole.
After that, Ye Zun does start opening up to Shen Wei more. He’s still weary, and won’t let his brother come too close to him, but he’s not ignoring him anymore either. He accepts Shen Wei’s food, and actually listens when Shen Wei talks to him through their cave window.
Gradually, he seems to be sitting nearer and nearer to the hole, too, but that might also be Zhao Yunlan’s imagination.
The little progress the twins have made though, has done wonders for Shen Wei’s mood and confidence. He’s less hesitant about making suggestions when they talk strategy with Fu You and Ma Gui, and Zhao Yunlan is sure he saw him smile when the newest recruit managed to sneak in a blow during training.
Zhao Yunlan’s less sure about Ye Zun. He seems more relaxed now, at least. He flits between human form and dragon form, and sometimes even leaves his cave. Twice, Zhao Yunlan has caught him playing with kitten Da Qing.
One day, Shen Wei asks to speak to Ye Zun alone, and they leave the caverns together. Zhao Yunlan watches them settle on the cliff where he pulled off Shen Wei’s mask. They’re still not sitting close to each other, but at least they’re talking without Zhao Yunlan or Da Qing needing to be present.
The next day, they’re more distant again, and Zhao Yunlan worries, but Shen Wei tells him not to, that Ye Zun just needs some time.
He’s right, of course, and soon those cliffside talks become a weekly thing. Overtime, Zhao Yunlan notices that they’re not sitting so far apart from each other anymore, and he smiles.
Then one night, neither Shen Wei nor Ye Zun return after their talk. Zhao Yunlan wakes up alone in his bed for the first time since Ye Zun woke up, with no sign of Shen Wei having returned in the night. Ye Zun’s cave is also empty, and Zhao Yunlan panics. He runs up to their cliffside lookout, sure he’s going to find that a tragedy happened in the night.
What he sees instead is so cute, he wishes his phone still had batteries so he could take a picture of it.
Shen Wei and Ye Zun are twined together; a little knot of sleeping dragons. Yin and Yang, together in harmony at last. Zhao Yunlan smiles, even as his heart pangs.
Because, clean and under the light of the dawning sky, it’s clear Ye Zun’s dragon form is as white as his hair, not grey like Zhao Yunlan had first thought. How had he come to be so lifeless and dirty when Zhao Yunlan had first found him?
Anger for the abuse Ye Zun suffered swells in Zhao Yunlan’s chest again, and he makes a vow to ask Ye Zun about it as soon as he can.
Shen Wei is the one who tells him, though, not Ye Zun. Ye Zun sits beside his gege, quiet except for the occasional distressed sound. He’s leaning into Shen Wei slightly, and has one of Shen Wei’s hands clutched between both of his own. Listening to Shen Wei, he understands why he found them twined so tightly together the morning after Ye Zun revealed his past.
Zhao Yunlan expects to feel furious, when Shen Wei tells him how the Rebel Leader had controlled and manipulated and beaten Ye Zun, but instead he feels strangely cold. He’s angry, of course he’s angry, but the thought of all that Ye Zun had suffered, that he thought he deserved to suffer, just makes him sad. Sad for the lost boy who thought he’d been abandoned. Sad for the young man in front of him who had to fight so hard to trust himself and the one person who’d always loved him.
Once Shen Wei stops speaking, Zhao Yunlan approaches Ye Zun. He puts a hand on his knee, looks him deep in the eyes and says, “You didn’t deserve any of that.”
Ye Zun’s breath hitches, he closes his eyes, and his grip on Shen Wei’s hand tightens.
“You’re safe now,” he says, “You’re safe, and I’m going to punch that scum in the throat.”
“Not if I get to him first,” Shen Wei says quietly, a dark tinge to his voice.
Ye Zun laughs wetly at that, and Shen Wei bumps their shoulders together.
Seeing the brothers together becomes more common after that.
Ye Zun joins them at strategy meetings, and shares what he knows from his time working with the rebels. He watches Shen Wei train soldiers to fight, both with swords and dark energy. Often, he’ll turn into a tiny white dragon and hide in Shen Wei’s hood to accompany them on patrols and scouting missions.
Zhao Yunlan has also found the brothers sleeping curled together as dragons at least six times since that first time, up on the cliff.
All in all, while Ye Zun is still weary and distrustful, and pokes at everyone’s nerves, he’s settling in well.
It isn’t entirely a surprise, then, that he has finally decided to talk about what happened the day that Zhao Yunlan finds him. It’s only surprising that he’s telling Zhao Yunlan before telling Shen Wei.
“I don’t want gege to think of me as a monster,” is what he says when Zhao Yunlan asks him why. He doesn’t press the issue, knowing Ye Zun’s story will likely explain it.
“I had just given the hallows to the Rebel Leader,” he starts. “He was disappointed it had taken me so long to retrieve them. He, he kicked me after he took the box out of my hands. He didn’t know how to use the hallows, and I-I tried to trick him. I thought, if he used his own power to activate the hallows, that they might absorb his power from him and that I’d finally be free.”
Ye Zun pauses, his hands balling into fists.
“It didn’t work. He blamed me for it. He hit me and said I was useless. No wonder my parents had abandoned me so easily, no wonder my brother had left too. Who would want useless trash like me?” He laughed, but there was no humour in it. Zhao Yunlan hummed, hoping Ye Zun would take it as the reassurance he meant it as.
“He said, once he figured out how to activate the hallows, he would use them to find gege. Then he would force me to,” he swallows, and squeezes his eyes shut, “to kill. Gege. And — cut him, into pieces. Then, he would kill me.”
He stops, and Zhao Yunlan reaches out to lay a hand on his shoulder. A small comfort, a reminder Ye Zun wasn’t alone anymore. Eyes still closed, Ye Zun continues.
“I was so angry. So angry he would be the one to take my revenge, that he would use me like a mindless puppet, again, to do his bidding. I was the only one who could touch gege, no one else. Only I had the right to touch him. I snapped. I broke out of his mind control, and told him to shut up. I tried to choke him, but I was strong enough. He broke my hold easily, grabbed my throat, and squeezed even as he lifted me into the air. I couldn’t breathe and I was sure I was going to die but then.”
Ye Zun exhales, inhales, exhales.
“Suddenly, there was a fire inside of me, and it needed out. I screamed, and dark energy exploded out of me. It threw the Rebel Leader to the ground, and then, instead of rushing out of me, the dark energy started rushing in. It streamed into my mouth, in and in and in, and then when it stopped, the Rebel Leader was gone.”
He opened his eyes and looked at Zhao Yunlan. It was a challenge, like he was daring Zhao Yunlan to call him a monster for what his dark energy had done without his control. Zhao Yunlan just looked at Ye Zun calmly and steadily, waiting for him to finish his story.
“It was too much. The explosion of dark energy, devouring the Rebel Leader, the fear and anger — it was all too much. I slipped into my dragon form, and fell to the ground, unconscious. When I woke, the rebels and the hallows were gone, my dragon fur was white instead of black, and I couldn’t change back.”
“And then I found you, right?”
Ye Zun nodded. “And then you found me. You know the rest from there. Well, except for when I finally woke up and saw gege standing there. I wanted to hurt him so badly, like he’d hurt me, but I didn’t — Kunlun, you have to believe me, I didn’t mean to almost devour him that night!”
Zhao Yunlan did believe him. He remembered how horrified Ye Zun looked afterwards, curled up against the wall, saying “not like that, not like that” over and over again. How only Shen Wei’s presence and solidity had comforted him enough to snap out of his shock.
How scared he was of Shen Wei getting too close in those early weeks.
It wasn’t just lack of trust in Shen Wei — it was also lack of trust in himself.
“I believe you,” he said, squeezing Ye Zun’s shoulder for good measure. Ye Zun smiled at him tentatively.
They come to an understanding after that.
Zhao Yunlan tells Shen Wei about how Ye Zun came to be a tiny dragon, alone in the middle of what seemed to be a battle ground. He left out some details, of course. Shen Wei didn’t need to know how his didi had been hurt, or how his anger at Shen Wei was what awoke in him his powers.
He makes it clear though that the rebels definitely have the hallows, and are without their former leader. Several months have passed since Zhao Yunlan brought Ye Zun home, but he’s hopeful that the rebels are still disorganised and vulnerable after their sudden change in leadership.
Ye Zun added that, of the remaining rebels, none was clearly more powerful than the others, so there was no clear choice for a new leader. Likely, they would have dealt with months of infighting as different rebels tried to establish themselves as the new boss.
Ma Gui seemed to agree with Ye Zun’s assessment, as there hadn’t been so much as a skirmish with the rebels since Ye Zun had arrived.
It was decided then, that they would take this opportunity to confront the rebels, once and for all. A final battle to end the war, before they had a chance to regroup.
Ye Zun pointed out the areas on their map where the rebels were most likely to sent up camp, and Fu You coordinated with the Crow Tribe to scout them out.
Once the rebels have been found, they’ll stage an all-out surprise attack. They’ll reclaim the hallows, and establish peace across the three realms.
The weeks that follow are grueling. With the certainty of an impending battle, everyone is training harder than ever. Even Ye Zun and Zhao Yunlan have joined the group training with their daos. Shen Wei had convinced them to at least learn the basics, in case they needed to fight at close range.
He’s right, of course, but Zhao Yunlan doesn’t feel like telling him that when his shoulders and arms burn worse than the one time he went to the gym with Lao Chu. It’s salt in the wound when Ye Zun takes to the dao faster than he does.
It’s even more embarrassing when he sees Da Qing expertly sparring a Haixingren twice his size.
He’s enjoying a rare evening off, lazing around the fire up on the cliffside, his head in Shen Wei’s lap, Da Qing curled up on his stomach, Ye Zun smirking as he settles on top of Zhao Yunlan’s feet. Shen Wei and Da Qing are taking turns telling stories about the starts, and even though his heart still aches for his Shen Wei and his Damn Cat, Zhao Yunlan feels content.
So of course that’s when Xiao Qiu, a young Crow Yashou, flies up to tell them they’ve found it — they’ve found the rebel base.
Everything happens so fast, after that.
Zhao Yunlan can barely make sense of the battle waging around him, arrows and dark energy fly overhead. He lost his dao about ten minutes in, and Da Qing had to step in to save him.
“Try to stay away from their blades, yeah?” he says with a small smirk before moving to face his next opponent. He doesn’t know where Da Qing went, after that, but he reminds himself that Da Qing is alive back in modern Haixing, so he must survive this battle. He will be okay.
After that near miss, Zhao Yunlan dodges and weaves his way to the edge of the battle, where his pistol could be of more use. He incapacitates as many of the rebel Dixingren as he can, but is careful to injure and not kill them.
Shen Wei and Ye Zun are right in the middle of the chaos, of course. Even from a distance, Zhao Yunlan can see them fighting back-to-back, wielding dark energy and blades both. They’re holding their own fairly well, but Zhao Yunlan still takes down what rebels he can.
There’s still no sign of the hallows, but Zhao Yunlan figures they’re likely kept in one of the tens or caves at the edge of the clearing they’re fighting in. They can search for them later, once the battle has been won.
It’ll be over soon, he figures, as the number of rebel fighters dwindles steadily. He focuses again on protecting Shen Wei and Ye Zun, while also searching for Da Qing.
A blur of movement in the corner of his eye catches his attention. There’s someone sneaking out of one of the caves, a large wooden box cradled in their arms.
That’s suspicious¸ Zhao Yunlan thinks, and starts moving towards the figure, pistol held at the ready.
He lowers his weapon as soon as he sees who the person is.
“Da Qing?!” he says, and the Yashou smiles like Lao Li has just given him a plate full of dried fish.
“I found the hallows!”
“What? How? When?”
“I snuck off right after saving you. Turned into a cat, no one even noticed me leave,” he says, very clearly please with himself. Zhao Yunlan snorts and ruffles his hair. Cats.
He takes the box out of Da Qing’s arms, sets it on the ground and opens it. Sure enough, all four hallows are nestled inside. He picks up the Longevity Dial, and closes his eyes like he did when he used it that first time—
“GE!” Ye Zun screams, and Zhao Yunlan whirls back to face the battle he’d half forgotten about. He watches in horror as Shen Wei collapses, right hand clutching his left shoulder. Ye Zun drops down beside him, hands hovering over him like he’s afraid to touch.
Zhao Yunlan grabs the hallows, shoves them into his sleeves, and runs. He and Da Qing crash to the ground next to the twins, the last of the rebels forgotten as they focus on making sure Shen Wei is okay.
“Xiao Wei,” Zhao Yunlan whispers, eyes searching his shoulder for signs of a wound. Before he can ask what happened, before he can make sure Shen Wei is okay, a flash of silver catches his attention.
One of the half dozen or so remaining rebels moves as if to strike at Ye Zun while he’s not paying attention, and Zhao Yunlan yells, “YE ZUN! BEHIND YOU!”
Ye Zun turns towards his would-be attacker, hands shaking, black flames lashing the air around him. The rebel he’s facing takes a step back. Ye Zun inhales, and dark energy flows out of the rebel, into his mouth. It takes less than a minute for her to be consumed.
“No one touches my gege,” he snarls, head turning to look at the rebels one by one, as if daring them to come approach.
Foolishly, one does. A large man, with arms thicker than Zhao Yunlan’s waist, lifts his guandao and steps forward. Ye Zun snaps. Dark energy explodes out of him, and the remaining rebels are sent flying. They land with sickening crunches. None of them stand up again.
Ye Zun falls to his knees, hacking, and his hand comes away bloody when he wipes at his mouth. There’s still a cloud of dark energy surrounding him.
“Didi!” Shen Wei says, struggling to crawl to his brother’s side.
“Gege,” Ye Zun says weakly, “I can’t make it stop.”
Zhao Yunlan helps Shen Wei move closer to Ye Zun.
“I’ll help you control it, didi,” Shen Wei says, and he closes his eyes. Dark energy flows out of his hand to intertwine with the tendrils surrounding Ye Zun.
Heat blooms in Zhao Yunlan’s sleeves as soon as their energies make contact, and he gasps. What-?
He pulls the holy tools out of his sleeves, and they fly out of his hands. Just like that day in Lin Jing’s lad, they rise up into the sky, spinning around each other, faster and faster. A rip in time and space opens between and Zhao Yunlan screams.
“Not now!” he shouts, but the hallows don’t listen. The hole grows wider and wider, and starts tugging at Zhao Yunlan’s hair.
Shen Wei and Ye Zun startle apart at Zhao Yunlan’s yell, dark energy still pulsing unstably around them. Shen Wei’s eyes widen, and he reaches out for Zhao Yunlan as the hallows start pulling him into the blackness above.
“Xiao Wei,” he struggles out, determined to speak before the hallows steal him away. “Don’t worry about me. We will meet again. Take care of Da Qing and Ye Zun until then?”
“Of course, but wait! Kunlun, please—”
But it’s too late. Zhao Yunlan doesn’t hear Shen Wei’s don’t leave me or see Da Qing’s broken expression or feel Ye Zun’s mounting panic. The hallows drag him away, and between one blink and the next, he’s standing in a swirling nebula of stars and colours.
Below him, 10,000 years ago, he watches as Shen Wei and Ye Zun desperately funnel dark energy into the hallows, trying to bring Zhao Yunlan back. There’s a golden flash, and Da Qing gets thrown several metres. The ground under Shen Wei and Ye Zun starts crumbling, as the hallows spin faster and faster. Ye Zun falls, and Zhao Yunlan watches with a lump in his throat as Shen Wei fails to catch him. Then Shen Wei falls, too.
The scene changes abruptly, and Zhao Yunlan wipes his eyes on his sleeve, and startles at the now-strange feeling of modern fabric (when did his clothes change back?). He watches as Da Qing wakes and collects the hallows. He watches Fu You, Ma Gui, and a Dixingren he can’t remember the name of sign the treaty. He watches and waits for a sign of Shen Wei or Ye Zun, but they don’t come back.
“Yunlan,” a quiet voice says behind him, and he turns.
His Shen Wei, Shen jiaoshou, is standing there, a fragile smile on his face.
“After 10,000 years, I finally found you.”
And Zhao Yunlan can’t stop the teary-eyed laugh that bubbles out of him as he pulls Shen Wei into a tight hug.
He’ll ask about what happened to Shen Wei and Ye Zun, about the dragon-shifting, and all the rest later. For now, he’s content to be holding the love of his life securely in his arms again.
“Let’s go home?” he says, and Shen Wei smiles.
They leave the wormhole together, hand in hand, finally on knowing each other completely.
(“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about the dragon thing!” Zhao Yunlan will cry a few days later, once he’s settled back into modern life, once the Guardian Lantern has been found, once light has been returned to Dixing.
“Or your brother for that matter,” Zhao Yunlan will add, and crosses his arms.
“You didn’t tell him about me gege?” Ye Zun will exclaim, outraged, and Shen Wei will duck his head sheepishly.
“I forgot,” he’ll say, and Zhao Yunlan will groan and complain. How do you forget to mention you have a twin brother, and both of you can turn into dragons?
“Eat your soup,” Shen Wei will order, and Zhao Yunlan will sigh.
He’ll wag his finger and promise, “One day, Xiao Wei, one day you’ll tell me everything.” And Shen Wei will smile.
“Is that a promise?” he’ll ask, and Zhao Yunlan won’t need to answer.
It’s a promise made and kept and made again.
No matter where or when, they will always find each other and learn to know each other.
No matter what happens, they will always meet again.)