He's been staring at the ceiling for two hours, now.
He's exhausted from days on the pillar, from trying to talk sense into the man who used to be his brother, from being pinned in position, from pulling fruitlessly against his chains. He told Ye Zun he didn't need to dream, but it didn't matter - whenever he closed his eyes, Ye Zun sent him dreams, anyway.
He's long since come to terms with his relationship to Zhao Yunlan, even believed he didn't mind anymore. He has so much of what he wants that to ask for anything more is just greed. It doesn't make it any easier to deal with the feelings that the dream brought back to the light.
"I'm not going to sleep with someone who's in love with me if I'm not in love with them," Zhao Yunlan had said, matter-of-factly. "It's just going to cause a lot of hurt." The conversation was ostensibly about Zhu Hong, but there was a clear second layer of implication in his words, and a plea in his gaze that made his feelings about Shen Wei perfectly clear: there was love there, but not romance. Shen Wei bottled up his disappointment and locked it away in his core.
Ye Zun found that weakness, and used it with the precision of a surgical blade.
Eventually Zhao Yunlan came for him, anyway, and the world righted itself. He's sore and they'll have to deal with everything that's happened in Haixing in his absence tomorrow, but he doesn't dare heal himself, not when he might need his energy for more important things. Sleeping would help the process, if he could just get there.
He hears the faintest knock on his door, and slides carefully out of bed. There's really only one person it can be, this time of night.
Zhao Yunlan looks as haggard as Shen Wei feels, but he's awake enough to raise his eyebrows when he sees Shen Wei.
"Pajamas? I didn't think you actually slept."
Shen Wei opens the door wider to gesture him in. "I do. Not as much as you do. Tonight... not at all, so far."
"Me either." He flops down on Shen Wei's couch and looks him over. "Are those silk?"
Shen Wei smiles in response. "I like the texture. Would you like some tea?"
It doesn't take long to put the kettle on and make a pot. There's something charmingly domestic about serving tea for Zhao Yunlan while they're both in their pajamas - Zhao Yunlan in a soft, ash-colored thermal knit shirt and sweats, and Shen Wei in his blue silk separates. It's bittersweet, almost a mockery of what he can't have, but it's hard to feel bad about it when Zhao Yunlan has been so attentive since the rescue.
He sets the tea tray down on the coffee table and moves to sit in his usual place, but Zhao Yunlan pats the seat next to him on the sofa. "Come sit by me."
He takes the proffered seat, pours them each a cup and leans back, savoring the warmth of the cup and the company. They sit in pleasant silence for a moment.
"I was worried about you the whole time you were gone," Zhao Yunlan says, taking a sip of his tea. "I used up half the incense trying to call you."
"I'm sorry. I was..." the joke comes to him, suddenly, and he can't stop himself, "I was a little tied up."
Zhao Yunlan laughs, a horrible, brittle sound that's unfamiliar to him. "That's funny. I'm glad that one of us can find the situation worth joking about, but I didn't expect it to be you." He shakes his head, and continues. "I was worried about you, and everything was falling apart." He starts ticking off items on his fingers. "I had to fire Lin Jing. Someone leaked confidential info about the SID onto the internet, so the Department of Supervision was trying to close the SID. Then they were pressuring me to turn over Lao Chu. My father has had an ancient entity living in his head since I was a kid and I didn't know about it. In the middle of all that, Zhu Hong decides to abandon reality because I'm not in love with her! And the whole time there's this drumbeat in the back of my head, find Shen Wei, find Shen Wei, and I can't listen to it because you're the one who told me I had to keep it together up here!"
"I'm sorry. I would have come back if I'd been able." In the back of his mind, he thinks about Zhu Hong. What was Zhao Yunlan like in her dream? Was he was close enough to the real thing to have made it worthwhile? The one in his had been close, but always indefinably off. He could never have stayed there, knowing that. He would rather have most of the real Zhao Yunlan than all of a fake one. "You had to fire Lin Jing?" he says abruptly, when the rest of his words sink in.
"That's what you want to know about?" Zhao Yunlan responds, giving him an exasperated look. "Yes, officially. Unofficially, he's spying on Professor Ouyang for me. There's another thing we'll have to deal with soon. But that isn't the point."
He pauses, turning toward Shen Wei. "I have never been as relieved as I was when I found you. Even though you were chained up and looked like hell, and I wasn't sure how we were going to get you out of there, I knew that since the two of us were together, it would be okay, we'd figure it out. And the reason I couldn't sleep tonight is because I was thinking about that."
A familiar buzzing starts to ring in Shen Wei's head, and his gut twists.
"I've never understood love," Zhao Yunlan continues, staring at his tea. "I don't know how people can tell if they're in love with someone, because I sure as hell can't. But when you're the most important person in my life, when the thing I want most in the world is to grow old with you beside me, when I see things that remind me of you and they make me smile - I don't know what the difference is, between love and friendship, when I feel like that about you. I don't think it matters."
Shen Wei's breath stops in his chest. There it is.
He was so sure he'd escaped. This world is so different from the dreams, he was sure it had to be real. He remembers his exhausted elation, when he'd seen Zhao Yunlan, the relief that the shadow hadn't come on his own to kill him after all. He remembers worrying that Zhao Yunlan was hurting himself, trying to break his chains. He remembers him bringing Guo Changcheng on his back, carried from the palace. Ye Zun hadn't paid any attention to Xiao Guo once he was knocked out, he hadn't been there when Shen Wei teleported him away, how could he have included that detail in a dream?
Because it's in your mind, he reminds himself, and despairs.
"Shen Wei?" Zhao Yunlan says, somewhere far away. "You look like you're going to pass out."
What can he do now, then? It was easy enough to wake from his dreams the last few times: he just needed to know he was dreaming, and the way opened for him. Unless... unless the previous dreams were deliberately cruder versions, intended to make him think it was easy to break out so long as he wanted to. If that's true, then this is the real shape of the Master of Nightmares' power. Indistinguishable from reality, with no obvious way to wake up.
He admires the strategy even as he recoils at the implications. Thinking he has escaped, he's dropped his guard. He thinks over everything he's said or done since the rescue, searching for things he might have given away that might endanger the real Zhao Yunlan. He could have said anything, might have opened any door for them, unknowing, but of course Ye Zun had to try to twist the knife that last little bit, and in doing so, gave himself away.
Fingers snap in front of his face, breaking him out of his circling thoughts. "You're scaring me. Are you okay?"
Shen Wei nods, more out of instinct than anything, because he is not anything close to okay.
"I'm sorry, if I'd known you were gonna react like that I wouldn't have said anything. I thought you'd be happy."
"If this were real, I would be happy," he says.
Confusion, and then understanding, dawn on Zhao Yunlan's face. "He trapped you in dreams. Like Zhu Hong, like Lao Chu. And now you think you're still there."
He looks a little more sharply at Zhao Yunlan. The dreams never quite captured his impossible leaps of logic, almost a power in their own right. That this one has made the connection so quickly almost makes him doubt his conclusion, but he wants this to be his reality too much to trust it. He wants Zhao Yunlan to have rescued him from the pillar, he wants Guo Changcheng to be alive. He wants Zhao Yunlan to be in love with him. Isn't this exactly what the Master of Nightmares did? And at this point he and Ye Zun have had plenty of time picking through his mind to figure out what he wants most, what he will and won't believe.
At the same time, Zhao Yunlan's confession is the only thing about this reality that seems off. And Shen Wei has never doubted that Zhao Yunlan loves him, it's just that Zhao Yunlan doesn't believe it's the kind of love Shen Wei wants. If he were to change his mind, it would likely have been in exactly the way he just described.
He lets out a frustrated laugh. "He's found the best possible way to incapacitate me. If this is real, and I think it is a dream, then I'll stay away from the investigation for fear of inadvertently giving them information. If this is a dream, and I think it's real, then I'm trapped in my own mind forever. Either way, I'm not fighting him."
Zhao Yunlan frowns at him. "Zhu Hong knew it was a dream, but didn't want to wake up. Lao Chu didn't know it was a dream, at first, but once he did, he awoke instantly. If you know this is a dream, why can't you wake up?"
"Mr. Yan may have been hiding the depth of his abilities. Or Ye Zun may now be boosting his power."
"Or maybe this isn't a dream."
"The consequences of being wrong are too great to assume that is the case."
Zhao Yunlan nods slowly. "So... what can I do to help? Lao Chu said pinching himself didn't do anything, but eventually Ye Zun gave himself away through Xiao Guo. I could tell you things that only the real Zhao Yunlan would know?"
"The previous dreams used images and information from my own mind. I can't trust anything I already know."
"I could tell you things you don't know about me....but if you don't know, then there's no way to know for sure that they're real."
Zhao Yunlan lets out a deep sigh. "What a mess." He leans back on the couch and stares at the ceiling, hands behind his head. "If he'd really just wanted information, it would have been a better plan for me to stay quiet. I mean, you weren't suspicious of anything until then, right? He could have gotten whatever information he wanted."
"Part of what he wants is to watch me suffer, and in that he's doing admirably well." He pours himself another cup of tea to have something to do with his hands.
"What does he have against you? Why does he want to torture you, specifically?"
Shen Wei hesitates, taking a sip. If this is a dream, then Ye Zun already knows the answer to that. If it's real... he may as well tell him. There's no reasoning with Ye Zun, no saving him like he had hoped. It won't hurt anyone to finally say it, except maybe himself.
"He's my brother," he says, the familiar shame coursing through him when he thinks of Ye Zun, alone, thinking himself abandoned. "My twin."
"You have a twin?"
"We were... separated when we were young. I thought he was dead. He was raised by a rebel faction of Dixingren who turned him against us."
"And now he's leading a rebellion of his own. What's his power, mind control?"
"Among other things. His power is like mine, but he consumes the power rather than simply learning it by watching. The person he takes it from doesn't survive the process."
"So who knows what all he can do, now. Great." Zhao Yunlan drums a rhythm on the back of the sofa, lost in thought. A moment later, he sits up abruptly, snaps his fingers and points at Shen Wei. "Your power - did you see the dream guy do his thing? Could you do it now?"
"I - yes, I think so." He frowns. "You think that by creating a dream world myself - "
"I think if you create a dream world within his dream world, the whole thing will fall apart, right? If it's your power against his - of course my black-cloaked brother will emerge victorious!"
Victory is not anywhere near as certain as Zhao Yunlan seems to think; Shen Wei is substantially weakened, and Mr. Yan has had years to hone his ability. But they don't have time for him to heal, right now, and he has to do something. If he's right, every moment here is a step closer to being trapped here forever.
"You'll have to be asleep for me to try," he says finally. "And I haven't done it before, so don't expect anything as detailed as all this." He gestures to the room around him.
Zhao Yunlan's eyes tighten, but he nods. "Even the Envoy needs practice, got it. Where do you want me?"
"Wherever you can fall asleep."
"I can sleep anywhere, you know that. But come on, let's go back to my place. You've watched me sleep enough there, it'll be like any other day."
Shen Wei is still in his pajamas, and it feels odd to leave the apartment in them, but it's three in the morning, and he's just crossing the hall. Now that he's begun to doubt his surroundings, everything seems suspect. Was the plant down the hall always there? Is this hallway the right shade of blue, or was it a little lighter? Zhao Yunlan's apartment looks just how he left it, with the exception of the bed, mussed as though someone has been sleeping in it. If he'd been here at all while Shen Wei was imprisoned, wouldn't it be more of a mess?
Zhao Yunlan pulls out two small glasses and a bottle of baijiu. He fills one of the glasses halfway and hands it to Shen Wei before filling and downing the other one twice.
"I don't drink," Shen Wei says, doubt crowding his mind. Zhao Yunlan knows this better than anyone.
"You're coming in after me, right?" Zhao Yunlan asks, and Shen Wei nods. "Well, we both have insomnia tonight. This will help, if you need it. Just... don't pass out before you do the thing, okay?"
Ah. That's not unreasonable logic. "Just a sip, maybe." He'll hold off on drinking it until Zhao Yunlan is asleep.
Zhao Yunlan pulls over a chair to the side of the bed. "Your usual sleepwatching throne," he says with a flourish. He pours and drinks one more shot, and climbs into bed. "You know, when I went over there tonight, I was trying to avoid using alcohol as a sleep aid. I figured strong communication was a better way to deal with my feelings than drowning them in baijiu." He laughs, but his words still sting.
"I'm sorry," Shen Wei says. "I wish - "
"Don't apologize. Your own brother screwed with your head so badly that you can't tell what's real and what isn't. That's not your fault, okay? We're going to fix this."
Shen Wei nods, and settles into his seat.
It doesn't take long for Zhao Yunlan to fall asleep, now. Whether it's the baijiu, or the stress of the night has finally worn him down, his breathing evens out in less than ten minutes, and it's time for Shen Wei to get to work.
His own power has both a passive and active component. As soon as he sees a power, he grasps the fundamentals. In order to gain skill, though, he needs to use it - just a few times, enough to get the feel for it. He understands the basics of dream manipulation, but this first attempt, coupled with his current weakness, is more of a challenge than he had anticipated.
He sets a hand on Zhao Yunlan's arm, to make sure there is a connection. Zhao Yunlan's mind is a blank slate, now - he's not yet in REM sleep, and Shen Wei can't do anything until he is. He thinks he could force him into it, but it's invasive and a waste of energy when Zhao Yunlan will get there soon enough on his own. He waits, his eyes closed, focused on the sound of Zhao Yunlan's breath, the scents in his apartment. There's a slight staleness, like it hasn't been aired out in a few days; the alcohol in his hand; the garbage, probably a few days past taking out. Mostly Zhao Yunlan's own smell covers everything, and it's more comforting than it should be since he's not certain it's real. He tries to focus his energy, because if this doesn't work he needs to know that it's not because he is too weak to manage it.
Finally he can sense a vague spark in Zhao Yunlan's mind, and he latches onto it. He starts to see faint images, like a lens out of focus. The SID office, maybe, based on the colors. The workings of this new ability start to knit together in his mind, but knowledge of its limitations is still just out of reach. He has a sense that he could pull images from Zhao Yunlan's mind and insert them here, if he wanted; that gives a huge weight to the thought that this all is real, after all. But pulling from Zhao Yunlan's mind is too much of an invasion of his privacy. He throws out his own image, instead - a cliffside, long crumbled now. He can still picture it in crisp detail, and that's the image he tries to put into Zhao Yunlan's dream. He feels the spark flare, the lens focus, and suddenly it's right there, clear as the world around him, and Zhao Yunlan himself in the middle of it, his head turning here and there like he's searching for someone.
Shen Wei looks at the half-filled glass he has in his hand a little distastefully, but takes a sip and sets it down.
He doesn't pass out immediately, but even the one sip, combined with his own metabolism, makes his eyelids heavy, and he focuses on keeping his hand on Zhao Yunlan's arm as he drifts off.
The cliff is just as he remembers it: the grove of pine trees that hides what he still thinks of as "their spot" from the rest of the camp, the small logs they used as chairs, the dirt road that leads to the caves. The only things out of place are himself and Zhao Yunlan, both in their modern daywear. Even the smell is achingly familiar, and a wave of nostalgia hits him when he picks it up.
Most importantly, however, his understanding of the dream working power is complete. He can feel exactly how far he can extend it, should he want to bring someone else into the dream. He senses that he could make Zhao Yunlan sleepwalk, given the right set up. Most relevant to the situation at hand, while he could create another dream within this one, no one else could. This dream world is his own.
That implies that if the outer world had been a dream, he would not have been able to create this one within it. The outer world is the real one. He really isn't chained to the pillar anymore. Zhao Yunlan really is in love with him, or at least is willing to concede that what he feels is close enough. Yes, there are still problems on the horizon, but tonight? Both his mind and body are free, and that's worth celebrating.
Zhao Yunlan jogs over to him. "Nice view," he says, grinning, as he gestures to the countryside visible from the cliff. "And look at all this detail! I thought you said you were going to need practice."
"It worked," Shen Wei says, unable to hold back a smile. "You were right. It's real."
"Eh? Just like that? You don't need to, I don't know, wander around and bang on things?"
He shakes his head. "No. I've learned enough about this power to be certain." He's a little lightheaded with relief. "I would like to wander around, a little, though, if you don't mind?"
"Why would I mind walking through a landscape you made with your own mind?" He laughs. "Come on, give me the grand tour."
Shen Wei has dreamed about this place often enough, but there's a reality to it with this power that he could grow to enjoy, like he's actually walking around it. It's strange to see so clearly what he remembers and what he doesn't; some things refuse to come into focus at all, like they're barely there, and other things are in such detail they look as real as the outside world. He walks with Zhao Yunlan, thinking about what's safe to tell him about the area, which is... almost nothing. Not anything that explains why this place is so important to him, anyway.
"This was where we made camp, between expeditions," he says, finally. "It was one of the only places that was peaceful, during the war. The Yashou leaders were based in the caves up there." He points up the hill. "There was an infirmary in the caves, with some beds for the wounded. Otherwise we slept in tents, down here."
There are many tents set up, but in the dream world his eyes skitter around most of them, only allowing him to focus on one. It's a few feet larger than the others, and set off a few feet away from the rest of the camp.
Heat floods to his ears as Zhao Yunlan points it out. "That one was yours, wasn't it?"
Zhao Yunlan looks back at him, takes in his expression, and Shen Wei knows what's coming.
"You're embarrassed? What did you do in this tent?" He leans in conspiratorially. "Did the Black-Cloaked Envoy of the past have a love affair during the war?"
"No," Shen Wei protests, and it's the truth, technically. He and Kunlun might never have touched each other as lovers, but he'd never felt more loved then when they talked in hushed whispers in that tent, late into the night.
"Just a lot of solo action, then?" Zhao Yunlan waggles his eyebrows. Let him think what he wants; soon enough he'll know exactly what happened or didn't happen. Whatever Zhao Yunlan does as Kunlun is going to be his own doing; Shen Wei won't influence him any more than he can help. He's probably already done too much.
"We should be getting back," he says, changing the subject.
"I can at least go in the tent, right?"
"Not a chance."
"Just one peek?"
"You know I don't care if you did have a lover back then, right?"
"I'll tell you all about it someday," Shen Wei says, and he hopes more than anything he'll have the chance to do so, "but not tonight." Then, to make sure there's no way Zhao Yunlan can even try to peek, he dissolves the dream around them.
Shen Wei wakes a moment later with his head drooping onto his chest and his hand still on Zhao Yunlan's arm. When he goes to straighten up, Zhao Yunlan captures his hand. He pulls himself up to sit across from him, their knees pressed together.
"Are you satisfied that this isn't a dream, now?" he says, meeting Shen Wei's gaze with his own.
"So if I tell you I love you, you're not going to start doubting reality again?"
Shen Wei's insides twists again, his body expecting the rush of heartache even though his mind knows that this time, it's real. He shoves the reaction aside and smiles, instead.
"You might have to tell me again, so I don't forget." As if he would ever forget those words coming from Zhao Yunlan's mouth.
Zhao Yunlan tilts his head back and laughs, then picks up Shen Wei's other hand. "Shen Wei," he begins, rubbing circles with his thumbs. "Everyone says when you're in love, you know it. I guess that's not how I work. What I do know is that I think about you all the time when we're not together. When I thought you might be hurt, I could barely think straight. I know that I don't want to spend a single day without you again if I can help it. What's love, anyway, if it's not that?"
Without the threat of his world coming down around him, Shen Wei is better able to appreciate Zhao Yunlan's words. He's been in love with this man for so long that the idea of not being in love is completely foreign to him, and for him it had never been a question. He knew almost as soon as it happened. He trusts Zhao Yunlan when he says he doesn't understand love, but hearing it laid out like that, it sounds a lot like what Shen Wei feels. It's more than he ever expected. It's overwhelming.
As usual, his feelings burn behind his eyes, blurring his vision before he can blink them away.
"And I want to have sex with you, too," Zhao Yunlan says lightly, looking away, "but I don't think that's ever been in question."
Shen Wei laughs, and the heaviness of the mood dissipates. "I'd picked up on that, yes."
"I've been restraining my baser instincts for the sake of our relationship!"
"I wish you'd stop," Shen Wei says, leaning forward, making sure Zhao Yunlan is looking at him. "I'm very interested in seeing them."
Zhao Yunlan's eyes go dark, and with one movement, he rolls back onto the bed, pulling Shen Wei on top of him. They kiss lazily for a few minutes, the gentle, exploratory kisses of a new relationship. Shen Wei basks in the sensation of Zhao Yunlan's mouth on his after so many months of wanting it, relishes in the scrape of Zhao Yunlan's facial hair on his skin, knowing that with his slower healing rate, the marks will still be there in the morning. He brings a hand up to Zhao Yunlan's cheek, running his thumb along his cheekbone as he deepens the kisses, the sounds Zhao Yunlan makes encouraging him.
Zhao Yunlan gets his hands between them and starts undoing the buttons on his shirt; Shen Wei slides it off his shoulders and tosses it aside when he's done. Zhao Yunlan pushes up onto his elbows, letting Shen Wei manhandle his shirt up and over his arms and his head, before it joins Shen Wei's.
Zhao Yunlan sets a hand on his shoulder and wraps a leg around the back of his knee like he's thinking about reversing their positions, and that won't do - not tonight, anyway, when Shen Wei finally has him right where he's wanted him. He pulls back just a little, letting his breath hang between them, and slides his hand down to his neck, keeping just enough pressure to encourage Zhao Yunlan to lay back on the bed and stay put.
"Oh fuck," Zhao Yunlan says with a whimper, letting his hand fall back down to the bed. Shen Wei laces their fingers together and brings them up to give the back of his hand a kiss. He continues to brush his thumb along Zhao Yunlan's neck with his other hand, and he takes Zhao Yunlan's mouth again, the wet noises their lips make going straight to his groin. His cock strains at the opening of his pants; Zhao Yunlan reaches between them and get a hand on it through the silk.
"Hang on, hang on," Zhao Yunlan says, and he slides Shen Wei's pants down off his hips. Shen Wei follows suit, getting his fingers under the waistband of Zhao Yunlan's sweats and pulling them down. They're tangled in legs and pants for a moment as they kick them off the bed, and then they're skin to skin.
Shen Wei loses control of his voice for a moment, making sounds he can't think clearly enough to parse. Beneath him, Zhao Yunlan looks delighted, and uses the sounds as encouragement to experiment. He tries a little of everything - firm strokes with his palm and the pads of his fingers, light brushes with his fingernails, moving his hand where it gets the best reactions, and, a little embarrassed at the sounds he's making, Shen Wei presses his mouth into Zhao Yunlan's so he can stifle them.
Then Zhao Yunlan gets both of them aligned and in hand, and Shen Wei's hand joins his, and when they move, it's hands and cock and skin, and their mouths tied up in one another. Zhao Yunlan uses his other hand to card through Shen Wei's hair, making a fist that pulls his head back for better access to his neck; he sucks, nibbles licks his way around Shen Wei's jawline, avoiding the pendant that hangs between them. As his hips move beneath their hands, he pulls Shen Wei's mouth down to his.
Shen Wei is an expert at holding himself back, by now, but in the face of Zhao Yunlan's mouth and hands and skin, he has no defenses. He comes apart above him as they move, holding himself up with one arm to keep from collapsing down onto Zhao Yunlan's chest as his body shakes. He keeps moving until Zhao Yunlan arches beneath him, gasping, and meets his lips again as he comes.
They lie there, panting, for a moment; Shen Wei is too tired to get up and do any sort of cleanup just yet, although he knows he'll regret it in the morning if he doesn't. He rolls to one side of Zhao Yunlan anyway, leaving their legs tangled, and an arm around his chest, and burying his face in his neck.
In a few moments, Zhao Yunlan speaks. "I'm hoping you don't want to go anywhere, because I'm tired and comfortable, and I could really go for a few more hours of sleep."
"We should get cleaned up, at least," Shen Wei says, although he's not any more interested in getting up than Zhao Yunlan is, and he's also drowsy enough that he thinks he might be able to get some sleep tonight, after all, if he doesn't move.
"We can always take a shower in the morning."
"Mm," Shen Wei says noncommittally, certain he'll find the willpower to get up and clean them off, right until he falls asleep in Zhao Yunlan's arms.