hope is just a stranger,
wondering how it got so bad
He burns. He is burning.
As time (hours? months? years?) passes, his consciousness tries to find a pattern, tries to find anything outside the pain. But the only thing outside the pain is the grief. When he has a shaky hold on a ledge above the flames, when his head clears of the worst of the smoke and it feels like maybe he’ll be able to breathe again one day, then he remembers. He remembers Shen Wei. A bloody smile, screaming (is it him?) and later, a smile twisted on a face he should know well but is entirely foreign, much later, a smile on a face much older than its trappings suggest. The smiles are ice picks through his chest. Or maybe icicles. So, so much worse. The flames are nothing to his guilt and despair. Fingers weaken, he plummets back down into the fire and-
He burns. He is burning.
He wonders sometimes, when enough pieces of him are together in the same place for long enough, if there was any way he could have made him stay- if there was any other way Ye Zun could’ve been defeated, if he could have taken back his own energy that had been poisoning the only person he really cared about-
But Shen Wei was dead. He died, alone. Just like you died alone, a little voice whispers. They both died alone, saving the world. But was the use of saving the world, if there was no Shen Wei in it anymore? He had to believe it was worth it, if only because there was no way he could have lived in a world where Shen Wei died and he didn’t. This wasn’t really living, was it?
Sparks fill his lungs and every breath is excruciating heat. Maybe if he tries hard enough he can set fire to his memories as well.
Time (years? decades?) later, he starts noticing something different at the edge of his awareness. It isn’t pain, it isn’t more sparks threatening to choke him or embers slowly, inexorably burning through a body he knows he no longer has- itslike a- a shiver. A small movement, a vibration?
Like a strand of spider silk is wound round his middle and someone, far away, has just plucked it.
But in the next moments (seconds, months, years) it's gone. It had never been. There is only the burning. There is only him, the conflagration, and a name that still lives on incorporeal lips. Shen Wei- Xiao Wei, I’m so sorry.
Zhang Shi only sticks around long enough for the one year anniversary event, and even so he avoids the SID as much as he can. Passes on leadership to Guo Changcheng and then, well, bolts. He doesn’t know when he’ll get used to seeing his son’s his new face in the mirror. He didn’t say goodbye to Lao Zhao, the one look on his face when he switched bodies was enough. He sees that look many times in the near future. Every time it kills him as much as it does them.
He hates himself a little for taking this body, but selfishly, he enjoys so much not having to take the backseat to anyone. He will miss them all, not as much as the real Zhao Yunlan would have, but he’d always taken more interest in the team than Lao Zhao. Which is why he spares them as much as he can. None of them were there for the ceremony.
Maybe one day he’ll come back. When nobody remembers this face in person. Or when it looks too old to be recognized. He doesn’t know how this works, he's never been given a body voluntarily before. He shaves the his beard and grows out the his hair and now at least he doesn’t flinch when he passes windows and gets a glimpse of himself. Maybe one day he’ll understand why he was given this chance.
This time he’s pretty sure it’s been at least a century. Wait, who is he kidding. Time doesn’t exist in the lantern, just the burning. But even the pain starts to get boring. Or at least that’s what he imagines himself saying, if someone were listening. The flames aren’t good company, but he imagined himself talking to them anyway. Yelling, sometimes, when the pain gets bad, cursing like it’ll make him feel better. It just gives him a sore throat in his incorporeal body instead. He’s started imagining himself as floating in lava. It doesn’t make it easier, but it can’t hurt, can it? The problem with that is now he can’t stop. Where before there was just a general burning and sometimes sparks in his lungs, now he can feel each and every toe and finger crisping in the indescribable heat.
Wow, smart going, Zhao Yunlan, you idiot.
The only upside is, the next time the phantom spider silk tugs on his rib cage, he feels it immediately, despite the pain. Hand over hand, he drags himself towards whatever is on the other side. It takes both years and only seconds, like everything else here does, but the vibration that signifies- something is happening, doesn’t stop.
Suddenly his hand hits something. Something, crackling. But not like fire, like- electricity? It doesn’t shock, but he isn’t grounded so he thinks he’s safe. He squints to try to make it out as he draws his hand back anyway (he can almost hear a familiar voice scolding him for being careless, worried more than upset) but the fire is still blinding and all he sees is a tiny black ball.
Well, since touching it doesn’t hurt, he decides to try again.
This time he feels the buzzing energy, and something like- a swell? wafts over him. No, not a smell. A feeling. A warmth, a hesitation. A question? God it’s hard to tell when he doesn’t know which sense he’s using. Is this one of those moment where he wishes once again he hadn’t imagined himself a body? Probably.
He can feel the licking of the flames at his heels and doubles his resolve. This is something other than burning. He must figure it out. He closes his eyes, clamps the spider silk under one arm so he doesn’t float off, and plugs his fingers into his ears. He can still smell and touch, but- he has an idea. He reaches out for the ball of energy with his thoughts instead, trying to feel it without moving his ‘body’ and he must’ve done something right, because he’s immersed in a completely different environment.
It’s- someone else’s mind? That realization almost jolts him back into his body, but he holds still for a few moments and tries to shut most of the chatter out. The language is- wait language doesn’t matter if he’s in someone’s brain.
Who are you? comes the tentative question.
Someone who’s really fucking glad to see you, that’s who. Zhao Yunlan breathes a sigh of relief, still not imagining his body, carefully trying to imagine himself as- what? Not a body, that’s not safe. How about- a ball of golden light within this dark electric buzz. Yes that’s works.
Are you the Guardian Lantern?
That’s Guardian of the Lantern to you, junior. He’s actually talking to someone. Someone is there, hearing him. The gold light that is Zhao Yunlan pulses in joy.
You’re inside the Lantern?
My turn to ask questions- who are you?
But before the boy? kid? can answer, he startles and withdraws. In the vacuum, Zhao Yunlan is jerked back into his molten body. Worse; this is so much worse.
He screams and hopes the kid can’t hear.
The first time Zhang Shi sees Shen Wei he turns and runs walks fast in the opposite direction. One look was more than enough. This Shen Wei is young, so young. But still, for a second there as they locked gazes, some ancient longing crossed the young face, a spasm of confusion and loss- he could only hope Shen Wei would forget this moment.
He wishes he could go back to Dixing, badly, because at least there he wouldn’t have to hide the fact that he didn’t age. Because apparently, he doesn’t age now. The selfish side of him suggests he try to find Da Qing. But he’s lost Zhao Yunlan twice now already. He can’t be dragging the poor cat into the life of an impostor just because he’s feeling lonely.
Having his own body is great. He can go where he wants, say what he wants, not worry about trying to pretend he’s somebody else- but- it’s lonely. No irate father snarking at him about him being too soft with his son. No son who looks at him first with suspicion, then, eventually, a confused kind of gratefulness.
He supposes he hasn’t really let himself mourn. Does he still know how? Is he hurting himself just as much as the others, wearing the face of someone who’s sacrificed themselves and is suffering gods know where? He- he misses Zhao Yunlan.
He misses his son.
Scratch anything he said earlier. He’s bored. He is so bored . There’s nothing in this void of ash and heat but him and he’s used to solving problems- constantly moving, always talking to people. It’s the worst. He can’t even imagine himself a lollipop. At least, he concedes to himself, the moments where he’s lucid enough to have these kinds of thoughts are, as much as he can estimate, about a fourth of the time he’s spending burning his soul to light an underground world.
But when he’s bored- that’s when the memories have enough room to come back. No amount of fire can really erase the grief, just push it to the background. He misses them, misses them all so much.
And Shen Wei- he can’t ever really stop himself thinking about him, all the good things and all the bad things. All the times he’s gotten mad at him for stupid things, all the times he wanted to kiss him but didn’t, all the times Shen Wei pushed him away to keep Zhao Yunlan safe in the only way he knew how.
And then he remembers the bloody smile, again. Remembers again screaming at Ye Zun to just kill him, his voice going hoarse, so he wouldn’t have to look into the wrong face and still to see Shen Wei in those twisted features. But now he can’t see them anymore. And it feels like he’s losing Shen Wei all over again when he can only remember his smile, or the wrinkles around his eyes when he laughed, but not the color of his eyes, or the shape of his glasses.
Seeing An Bai and the Regent, even Lin Jing, being spat back out, but no Shen Wei- he knew it had been stupid to hope, but he had hoped nonetheless. In those few moments between the end of the fight and the lighting of the lantern, Lin Jing had said that the first thing Shen Wei said to him when he got devoured, the first thing he had thought of upon seeing Lin Jing, even though he’d just been stabbed and eaten by his own fucking brother- it had been that he, Zhao Yunlan, would be happy to know Lin Jing was still alive.
Even knowing he was about to die- maybe because of that fact, Shen Wei had thought to comfort Lin Jing, he’d thought of him, he’d been thinking of Zhao Yunlan .
Zhao Yunlan selfishly hopes Shen Wei’s last thoughts had been of him.
The grief is worse than the flames. But he welcomes it nonetheless, knowing it's the last thing he has of the man he had loved.
Eventually he figures it out. Or maybe his mind is grasping at straws so hard it molds his experience to its will. He did kind of give himself a body just by believing he had one. Anyway, he notices that after each crescendo, after each sort of peak of burning, of pain so bad he can think of nothing else except trying to curl up, to get away, he dies. Because there’s a period of total blackness, of nothing. It’s very small, but since he assumes he ceases existing for a few moments, it could be longer than it feels. He doesn’t know how long it takes the weird magic of the Hallows to knit enough of him back together that he can be burned anew.
So that’s neither here nor there. He tries to count the black outs at first, but since he basically dies and is resurrected, over and over again, his mind doesn’t seem to want to grasp onto trivial things like numbers, or the idea of time at all. He can’t mark time in this black hole he’s living in, and for all he knows, time doesn’t exist here, like in an actual black hole. It could be only minutes since he’s been here, though he sincerely hopes not, and it could be centuries. He doesn’t know which one is better. Still being mourned, or already having been forgotten.
He mourns. His whole existence is now taken over by regret and pain and guilt and anger. He remembers all the stupid things he did so much more vividly than the happy moments in between. He remembers yelling at Shen Wei, telling him he doesn’t trust him, and the look on his face- he doesn’t think he can ever forget it.
That time in the kitchen- after confronting Shen Wei about what he gave up to restore Zhao Yunlan’s vision- when he yelled at him, asking what he wanted in return. His Shen Wei, his Xiao Wei had looked back at him through those eyes, with naked anguish- how could he have known? How could he have not known? It was all done for him. Shen Wei never never asked, or even expected anything in return.
Was it his fault? Was it his fault, for finding the young impressionable Shen Wei, looking at him through the eyes of a man already in love- did he do this? Cause young Shen Wei to imprint on him like some sort of interdimensional duckling, then left him to live a life without the one good thing he’d ever known? The one kind and caring face?
No wonder he took all the bullets for him. No wonder he said he was used to pain. He grew up believing he was a weapon for justice, every battle and every encounter only strengthening his convictions. Zhao Yunlan had even, as Kunlun, shut Shen Wei down when he’d wanted to tell him the kind of life he wished he could lead. He had reinforced the fact that fighting for other people was the only thing Shen Wei could ever do. He had said that.
Yes, Shen Wei had said it first, but really he’d wanted a way out. He’d wanted a peaceful life at the end of all this. And Zhao Yunlan had pretty much told him it was impossible. He hadn’t meant to do that. Did Shen Wei, waiting for him, teaching his students and burying himself in research, had that Shen Wei had the time and determination to bury that self destructive altruism, to be able to hide it under his kindly professor mask? Hadn’t he always been looking out for Li Qian, hadn’t he always always put everyone else first?
Hei Pao Shi didn’t get injured. Hei Pao Shi couldn’t get sick. Hei Pao Shi didn’t need anyone to take care of him, he was practically a god in most Dixingren’s eyes.
How could Zhao Yunlan have not seen?
How could he have been so stupid?
How could he have been so selfish?
He’d let the man he loved slip through his fingers, because he was too busy trying to figure him out, trying to find out what made him tick, trying to dig out his secrets, that he didn’t notice what he did learn was all just another distraction so he wouldn’t find out he had resigned himself to dying from the very moment he knew his brother was really back.
Had he done that?
Da Qing ends up finding him anyway, a few decades later. Something about not having a phone and not checking in and everyone else is retired and none of the new kids understand.
Zhang Shi can tell Da Qing tries very hard not to flinch or look away from his gaze.
“I’m sorry,” he says, wishing there was something he could do that would help more than it would hurt.
“Not your fault.” Says the boy, he can’t think of him as anything but a boy, even if Zhang Shi is several millennia younger than him.
“Why’d you leave?”
Zhang Shi doesn’t answer. He just looks over at Da Qing and raises an eyebrow, letting his face relax from its usual mask of bored indifference. Da Qing doesn’t flinch, just narrows his eyes and sighs, draping himself over the nearest surface, which happens to be a chaise longue.
“So that’s how you do it.”
Zhang Shi lets the mask slide back on. It’s easier when he doesn’t smile, when he doesn’t let his emotions show on his face. When he acts so unlike Zhao Yunlan he can sometimes convince himself he’s gotten used to it.
“I’ve had enough time to become numb to it.” It’s a lie, but if Da Qing can tell he doesn’t call him on it. Zhang Shi doesn’t know why he does it, but he’s grateful. There’s no way to become numb to walking around in a dead man’s body, in his dead son’s body.
“Staying clean shaven and growing out th- my hair also helps.” That is only mostly a lie, not entirely.
“Yeah, Lao Zhao would never do that to his hair.” Da Qing wrinkles his nose as he yanks on the small ponytail Zhang Shi has tied back with a ribbon. Sue him, he’s nostalgic for past Haixingren fashions. Which also betrays itself in his clothing. He doesn’t know if it’s left over from Zhao Xinci subconscious or just another coping mechanism, something never to be found in Zhao Yunlan’s wardrobe.
When he first left, he couldn’t bear to throw away the beloved leather jacket, so he left it at the apartment along with everything else when he’d left. He still found a lollipop in the pocket of the only pair dress pants a week later and couldn’t bear to throw it away. So it lives in his waistcoat, or the inside pocket of his suit jacket if he isn’t wearing a vest.
Da Qing seems to like to follow him around as a cat more than a human. Which works, since Zhang Shi’s current job is at an old used bookstore. The elderly owner has a very excitable dog, so Da Qing either demands to be carried or, with an air of great disdain, jumps onto the lower shelves.
The shop seems to have been forgotten by the general public, which is how both Zhang Shi and Da Qing like it. Zhang Shi ends up an avid fan of science fiction, while Da Qing demands to be read historical fiction, specifically historical romance, criticizing it at every turn.
They fall into a pattern. A shift at the bookstore, hiking on their days off- Da Qing complains the whole way but Zhang Shi suspects it’s mostly to fill the silence- and quiet evenings in, keeping the TV on for the background noise.
Both of them are unused to being alone, and it shows, in the way Da Qing breaks off in the middle of sentences meant for someone else’s ears, in the way Zhang Shi forgets he’s the only one piloting the body and runs into doorways or zones out in the middle of cooking something and almost sets the kitchen on fire. It was easier to gloss over or ignore when each of them were alone- not that they mention it, but in a way each of them becomes the record of the other’s traumas. It’s both lonelier than before and stifling at the same time. There’s nowhere to run from reminders of the past but they now have the company of only person who understands. It’s a trade off both are willing to make.
Really, both of them should have known better than to stay in one place for so long. Zhang Shi should’ve thought twice before choosing this job.
Neither of them are prepared when a pair of twins walk into the store, having an entire conversation through raised eyebrows and scowls and elbows in sides- they should have known better, but seeing young Shen Wei and Ye Zun blindsides them all the same.
He starts to feel like he’s living in the center of a giant spiderweb. That’s on fire, of course. Because everything burns here. Either way, whatever weird string is tied to his ribs keeps getting tugged at, but by the time he’s able to try to pull himself along it to see if it’s a person again, they’re gone.
The severed string always smacks him in the face as the contact is cut off. It’s a different kind of pain than the burning, so at least there’s some variety? No, it’s fucking annoying is what it is. Can’t they just leave him alone? Either stay long enough to talk or go the fuck away.
It’s one of those times he wishes he could see outside the lantern, or sense in any way what’s going on. He spends hours, decades, weeks, trying to extend his senses, trying to imagine his little ball of golden light leaving his body and finding a crack in the lantern, a chink in the star metal, any little sliver of outside light. Nothing. Zilch. Nada. Whatever circumstances had allowed his mind outside the furnace for a little while have yet to be replicated.
In the meanwhile he has all this pain to keep him company, all the irony of asking to die is not lost on Zhao Yunlan. He’s gotten his wish. It was his own choice, which is infinitely better than dying by Ye Zun’s hand, especially since, as he keeps having to remind himself, he’s stabilized Dixing and brought light to a world used to darkness. His sacrifice wasn’t in vain. He’s helping people. His pain isn’t for nothing. This personal hell isn’t for nothing.
Not that he could have just kept on living as normal, even if Xiao Guo had gotten there in time and they’d figured out how to use his power to light the lantern without consuming him.
What? Go back to the SID? Without Wang Zheng and Sang Zan being sappy and adorable at every turn? Without Da Qing bothering Lao Li and burning his fingers trying to grab fish out of the pan?
Without Shen Wei?
SID just wasn’t his SID without all its members, and Zhao Yunlan wasn’t Zhao Yunlan without Shen Wei. Just another burned out ember.
The twins are surprisingly quiet. Maybe it’s the fact that the dog’s away with its owner, and there’s nobody else in the shop, maybe it’s the books themselves- or that Zhang Shi has refused to look up from the book he snatched up to shield his face. He said hello, and they replied, but after he turned a page, pretending to read, they took that as invitation to explore. He wonders if Da Qing is more recognizable as a cat or as a person. He hopes that he’s curled up somewhere and won’t wake to see the boys, won’t look at them with his gold eyes, won’t judge Zhang Shi for not warning him, or for taking a job like this in the first place-
He watches them, he can’t not. Ye Zun has bleached his hair, and at first Zhang Shi would say that’s the only way he can tell them apart, but Shen Wei, even as a child, has a kind of solemnity about him, those big eyes surveying the world around him with equal parts curiosity and quiet certainty. He finds himself hoping they’ll both have long happy lives as Haixingren.
A cut off noise of discontentment from Da Qing followed by a quiet reproachful, “Didi!” lets Zhang Shi know he’s met their visitors. Da Qing is too proud to run to Zhang Shi but he can tell he wants to. With his tail swishing back and forth in clear displeasure he climbs none too gently into Zhang Shi’s arms.
“I’m sorry.” Is all Zhang Shi gets to whisper before the boys are back. He knows better than to try to pet Da Qing when he’s like this, even if he knows no other way to try to comfort him.
Shen Wei is dragging a recalcitrant Ye Zun by the hand, and Zhang Shi doesn’t have enough time to grab a book this time so he looks straight at them for the first time. They’re so young, so normal.
“Ge-ge insists I apologize to your cat for startling it.” Somehow he manages to sound both incredibly annoyed and fond, like he’s proud of how kind his brother is even if he doesn’t appreciate being the one having to express that sentiment.
“It’s alright. We just don’t often get visitors, especially younger ones.” Zhang Shi fights the warmth in his voice. He doesn’t want the boys to think he’s mad, but Shen Wei is already staring at him- fuck. He can’t just run away this time, what should he do?
“What’s his name?” Comes Shen Wei’s voice, and something deep in Zhang Shi is plucked like the string of an ancient instrument. He shakes it off.
“He doesn’t really have a name. He’s a stray who wouldn't stop following me. We call him A-Ling.”
“Oh, for the bells he wears.” Shen Wei points out, smiling softly as he approaches, offering a hand for Da Qing to sniff. Ye Zun has quickly lost interest and disappears back into the shelves.
Zhang Shi is about to warn him away but Da Qing deigns to uncurl himself and jump down to the table, where he’s face level with Shen Wei. He headbutts him and the boy laughs; something tightens almost painfully in Zhang Shi’s chest and he turns away, adjusting his horn rimmed glasses. They’ll have to leave now. He’d hoped to stay longer, but it can’t be helped. He- they can’t interfere. They have no right.
“Sir?” He turns back around to see Shen Wei and Da Qing both staring up at him.
“I’m sorry- I was thinking.”
“I asked you what your name was. I’m Shen Wei, and I really love this place. It’s so calm and lovely and old books almost seem to whisper if you’re quiet enough, like they want their stories to be heard.”
“Ge, are you talking the poor man’s ear off? His mind is clearly somewhere else.” Ye Zun has reappeared, tugging on Shen Wei’s sleeve.
“I’m- Zhang Shi. Nice to meet you.” To that Shen Wei tilts his head, looking at him like he’s a particularly difficult puzzle.
“That name doesn’t fit you.”
“ Ge ,” he stretches the word out until it’s at least three sillables long, “what are you going on about?”
“I don’t know. It just doesn’t fit.” Shen Wei is still staring at Zhang Shi, so intensely it scares him. He has to leave. He wants to be anywhere but here, with this itching under his skin- he can’t tell if it’s anxiety or guilt or something else entirely.
“He just gets like that sometimes.” Ye Zun shrugs. “Didn’t you come here to find a book, not to stare at old guys with ponytails?” This seems to jolt Shen Wei out of his reverie.
“Didi, that’s rude.”
“He doesn’t care. Look, he just seems bored and like he wants to read his book. Don’t you Sir?” Shen Wei’s little horrified intake of breath is cut off when Zhang Shi laughs. He claps a hand over his mouth, but the damage is done. All three pairs of eyes are fixed on him.
“It’s- fine. I’m not offended. Though your brother is right, I am very absorbed in the book I’m currently reading.”
“Well, we’ll leave you to it then.” Ye Zun declares, finally dragging his twin away, but not before Zhang Shi sees a deep aching sadness unbefitting those very young eyes, conflict in every angle of his small body.
“We have to go.” Zhang Shi chokes out to Da Qing as soon as they close the front door behind them. The cat doesn’t look up.