if you never laid eyes on me,
would you feel something missing?
He knew this day would come, waited for it, feared it, yearned for it, and even sometimes hoped it would never come- but fate didn’t listen to a nobody like him.
And so there comes a day when Zhao Yunlan hears Shen Wei’s voice again.
“Hello? My- my students insisted I come to pay respects to their- what do they call you- a good luck charm? I know you’re much more than that. I don’t know much, not yet, since I’m Haixingren and all, but I’m sorry if this is disrespectful of me.”
Zhao Yunlan curses his incorporeal body, he’s just started the oh so wonderful process of dying so he can’t answer. The fact that he can still hear Shen Wei, even without connecting to his energy, is something he’ll remember and puzzle over later, but for now he just clings to the only comfort he has in his personal hellscape.
“They told me you don’t talk to just anyone. I am curious though, so if you don’t mind, I may come back and see if you’ll talk to me then. Maybe you’re doing whatever it is you do to protect them. Thank you for that. Thank you for keeping them safe, for giving them light. Nobody deserves to live in darkness.”
Zhao Yunlan, with the last bit of energy he can muster up, yanks on the line of spider silk that ties him to the outside world, that connects him to Shen Wei.
“What- was, was that you, Lord Guardian?”
The relief that is talking to Shen Wei, even in this limited fashion, allows Zhao Yunlan to stave off the burning a little longer, letting a bit of his mind run free from the pain as he tugs again.
“Hello, I’m sorry if I’m bothering you.”
Zhao Yunlan wracks his brain for a few seconds and tugs twice in quick succession.
“Once for yes, twice for no?”
He tugs again, feeling as much as hearing tears evaporate on his cheeks.
“So I’m not bothering you.”
Two tugs. Xiao Wei, you were always too kind.
“I’m sorry, I do need to leave soon, or my brother will have my head. He worries cause he hasn’t gotten a pass to come down here yet, since he’s not a professor or anything. I’m down here to teach, if you heard what I said earlier.”
One tug. He’s hearing Shen Wei’s voice again, and it’s real, not in his memories. It’s even more beautiful than anything he remembers. He wants to ask him- are you happy? He wants to ask him so much.
“It’s strange, nobody’s said anything about you communicating in any other way than talking. Is something wrong?”
I mean, other than me being burned alive and resurrected over and over? No, that’s what’s supposed to happen.
“I guess that’s a little too complicated a question to try to get an yes or no answer to.”
Then, amongst all the scorching agony that’s threatening to consume him at any moment, he feels something- no, he hears something. He hasn’t heard anything in so long that he’s forgotten what it’s like. It sounds like- a phone ringing?
“Didi, I’m fine. I just stopped to talk to the Guardian Lantern. You know, the artefact in the memorial to the fallen of the War? No, I am not seeing anyone down here.” Zhao Yunlan can almost imagine the blush on Shen Wei’s face that accompanies that tone of voice. He’d almost forgotten how Shen Wei’s ears go red when he’s embarrassed.
“I am talking to a magical artefact. Believe me or don’t, that’s not my issue.” If Zhao Yunlan could laugh, he would have, because the tone of Shen Wei’s voice is so light- there’s a dash of sarcasm in there, mixed in with a mock haughty disdain. He can count on one hand the amount of times he’s heard Shen Wei’s voice sound so light. The first time was when he implied to Zhao Yunlan that he might be able to erase his memories. It had shocked him so much he hadn’t thought to laugh until much later. If Ye Zun was the reason Shen Wei was laughing, actually laughing right now, then Zhao Yunlan might be able to forgive him. Might.
“I’m leaving, okay? I am walking out right now. I’ll make you your favorite soup tonight if you go buy the bok choi and steak. I have everything else we’ll need at home, how about that?”
Zhao Yunlan’s mind is a haze of agony and starting to pull him under. The last coherent thought he has is that this is the best way to go, with Shen Wei’s voice, teasing and happy, to keep him company as he dies.
Zhang Shi quickly finds out that he absolutely does not enjoy darkness. The kid has several kinds of lights- a magical torch he’s created that he seems particularly proud of, and a lamp which he gives to Zhao Shi. They’re outfitted like they’re going camping, with enough food to last them two weeks. It’s something they’ll both have to get used to.
Zhang Shi has also brought along markers, so they can find their way back out. He sticks them to the walls at every fork in their path, and a few in between. He doesn’t know how far they’ll go and he doesn’t have an infinite amount, though he did bring good old fashioned heavy duty permanent marker in an eye watering shade of highlighter green. Lin Jing has custody of it for now, trade between Dixing and Haixing is still being established, so luxuries like colored permanent marker haven’t made their way down yet. Lin Jing does have his own markers, a jar of paint that almost rivals the shade of the permanent marker, though it is also luminescent.
Zhang Shi can’t help but feel a bit upstaged. Oh well, he hasn’t been down in Dixing for such a long time he’s completely lost track of the developments of dark energy manipulation. Lin Jing has also brought a rock that contains a smokeless fire in it. Zhang Shi thinks that’s the most valuable thing they have. He hadn’t been looking forward to at least two weeks of cold meals. But with a tap and a key word a merry fire springs from the flat stone, and Zhang Shi tries it out that very first night with a pot of tea after they cook their dinner.
Lin Jing makes a face at the earthy smell and the bits of popped rice, but it’s Zhang Shi’s favorite tea. Da Qing had gotten him a whole jar of it loose leaf for his last birthday. He feels bad for leaving the cat alone up there- but he knows Da Qing will soon follow. If he follows them into the caves that is yet to be seen. But as soon as Da Qing hands over leadership he knows he will come down here. An Bai has ended up leader, again, though this time without the barbaric stipulations of a short life full of only paperwork, and for that Zhang Shi is glad.
They pass the time by playing word games, asking each other questions (Lin Jing has no limit on his questions about Haixing, and Zhang Shi tries to answer as best he can), and telling stories. Well, that last one falls mostly to Zhang Shi. Those twenty years of working in a bookstore gave him access to a lot more books than he’d ever really had access to before. Not that he was really in control of what he could do back then.
And we’re back to Zhao Yunlan. Because of him, because his kind hearted, self sacrificing boy had told him to live well for him. Had been selfless to the point of self destruction, until the very end, always always thinking about others. Shen Wei and Zhao Yunlan both, in that lifetime, had grown up being taught to live for others. In different ways, sure, but still. He can’t help but feel guilty, feel like he should have pushed harder at Zhao Xinci, if there was no other way maybe he could have annoyed him into being kinder to his- their son.
There are always the what ifs. So many of them. Him, Da Qing, and Zhao Yunlan, the ones who remember. The ones who keep vigil, the guardian angels. Zhao Yunlan had said Dragon City still needed a guardian angel. He hadn’t done that very well, but what could be more important now than getting Zhao Yunlan free? But, that wasn’t completely true. They’d saved the twins on that horrible night in the mountains.
Despite the little bits of good they’d done, the progress they may have made, Zhang Shi is sure they all have their regrets. That’s why Da Qing tries to never stop moving, why Zhang Shi never stopped searching, and no doubt why Zhao Yunlan hasn’t gone mad yet. Because they know they have work to do. Because they want to fix what happened, and since they can’t go into the past to do it they’ll make do with what they have.
There was a strange twinge in his stomach that he’s never felt before- or he has? He knows somehow it’s because he’s had too much alcohol. But he doesn’t drink, does he?
Shen Wei does not understand what he’s seeing. He sees- himself? grabbing a bowl of some kind of alcoholic beverage from- himself? No, he’s- he’s seeing through someone else’s eyes. I did it because it would give him a stomachache.
Zhao Yunlan. The name pops into his head, and even though he’s sure he’s never heard it before, he knows it fits. He watches himself drink the alcohol, smile at Zhao Yunlan, who he can somehow tell is surprised and worried, and then he passes out, head falling to the table. Do I really look like that? How embarrassing.
Zhao Yunlan laughs to cover his anxiety, joking about how he can’t drink and that he should take him back to put him to bed. Shen Wei can sense that Zhao Yunlan doesn’t know what to feel- is so entirely unused to people doing things for him without asking- I’m sorry. You deserve all this and more.
And then he’s picked him up, one arm at his back and one under his knees. He would’ve been embarrassed if not for the tenderness in every movement, and the gentle smile on Zhao Yunlan’s face. You really cared that much for me, even then?
Just as Zhao Yunlan can’t make sense of his emotions, neither can Shen Wei. There’s fondness, exasperation, amusement at the fact that one drink knocks him out so completely, and embarrassment that this was done for him. But that’s just what Shen Wei thinks he can sense, everything’s so mixed together and both their thoughts are all over the place so it’s hard to keep track.
But then Zhao Yunlan ducks through a door, shouldering it open after a few moments maneuvering with an elbow against the doorknob, and Shen Wei watches him set his other self down on a narrow cot of a bed.
Zhao Hunlan sits back in a chair facing the sleeping Shen Wei, just- looking. What are you doing?
But the only thing he senses from Zhao Yunlan’s mind is a quiet contentment. Which makes no sense. Then Zhao Yunlan spots his own jacket, that he’d given Shen Wei earlier during that trip, and goes to cover Shen Wei with it. You didn’t have to do that. I don’t get cold. You didn’t have to do any of this.
Zhao Yunlan has the jacket in front of his face when he freezes, leaning slowly down to sniff at the collar- and encountering the acrid stench of monster blood. Specifically, Youchu blood. That Shen Wei should have never been near, unless he was Heipaoshi. Shen Wei feels a surge of panic that didn’t come from Zhao Yunlan, but Zhao Yunlan’s thoughts and emotions quickly pulled him back under.
There’s a satisfaction, a feeling of validation- Zhao Yunlan had suspected, but there had been no proof. Not until now. And then came Shen Wei would’ve never expected: amusement.
“Ah Hei-lao-ge. You’ve been playing us all, haven’t you.” Zhao Yunlan says under his breath and Shen Wei wants to deny it, but then he notices that’s not actually what Zhao Yunlan feels. Yes, there’s annoyance and a frustration at the secrets Shen Wei keeps-
But despite the cocktail of complicated and confusing mostly negative emotions Zhao Yunlan is feeling right now, he still lays the jacket over Shen Wei with gentle hands, lingering to tuck it in just so he doesn’t have to let go of Shen Wei yet. What? Is he worried I’ll leave now that he knows who I am? I mean, I might have wanted to-
Zhao Yunlan brushes a lock of hair off Shen Wei’s forehead with an adorable sense of focus and then Shen Wei wakes up.
Zhao Yunlan ‘awakes’ or is resurrected, or whatever, to a warm presence. Da Qing. It makes his reanimation just a little bit easier, knowing he’s not alone. Even if Da Qing isn’t talking to him. He’s not much of a talker anyway. When, a small eternity later, Zhao Yunlan is able to pull himself hand over hand out to the in between, he hears Da Qing purring. He almost feels it. He sits down, well as much as a ball of light can sit, and basks in Da Qing’s presence. Neither of them speak, neither of them feel the need to. Maybe next time.
He can almost imagine he’s back home. The purring brings such an intense sense of comfort to him, the familiarity of it, the feeling of Da Qing’s presence even if he can’t run his fingers along his fur. He is immeasurably thankful for it. His family is coming back to him, in bits and pieces, old and new, remembering and not remembering, and before, he would’ve said that was more than he could have asked for, more than he deserved- but- Shen Wei. Shen Wei is here. And the selfish side of Zhao Yunlan rears its head, demanding his voice, his presence, demanding his time- he knows he’s just a stupid fucking lamp stuck on a pedestal somewhere and he can’t even see anything outside himself. He’s no friend, not even a conversation partner.
It almost seems like it’s those dark thoughts that tug him back into his burning body when his time is up. He wants to see Shen Wei’s face again. He needs to see him to hold him, to make sure he’s real. But he can’t.
Shen Wei wakes up the morning after his first class in Dixing with tears in his eyes. He doesn’t remember what his dream was about, he only remembers how it felt- bittersweet. He doesn’t tell Ye Zun because he knows he’ll get bombarded with questions he doesn’t know the answers to. It’s his way of showing he cares, but this was just a dream.
Either way Shen Wei leaves for his classes before Ye Zun has to go into work. His photo shoot isn’t until this afternoon and Ye Zun always took the excuse of beauty sleep when he could. Which was all the time these days. Being a designer as well as a model gave him more flexibility along with the bigger paycheck. Shen Wei was proud of his brother, happy that he’d found what he excelled at and enjoyed.
Ye Zun was just as happy when Shen Wei became a professor. But ever since that first lecture in Dixing- a feeling he’d been trying to ignore had resurfaced. He didn’t know quite how to describe it. How does one describe missing something one hasn’t found yet? How does one describe the feeling of a gap that he’s sure hadn't been there before? An itch on a phantom limb he hadn’t lost in the first place. A sense of missing a step in the dark, foot falling through empty space- of deja vu even though whatever he’s remembering has never happened before?
He shakes his head. Time to focus on his job. He doesn’t have another lecture in Dixing for another three days. And if, throughout the day, his mind keeps returning to an old lantern in an intricate brass frame then that’s nobody’s business but his own.
“Gege, what’s gotten into you today?”
Shen Wei looks down to see blood welling from a shallow cut in his finger. He’d been cutting- vegetables? He was making dinner. He was back at the apartment.
“Ge!” Ye Zun’s voice comes from right behind him this time, sharp with worry.
“Sorry.” Shen Wei says faintly, holding his finger over the sink so he doesn’t get blood on the food. “Do you mind grabbing me a bandage?”
Ye Zun has already returned with the first aid kit Shen Wei made him buy after the last midnight hair cutting incident.
“Are you okay? Do you want me to finish for you?” Ye Zun must really be worried for his voice to have entirely lost its edge like that. Shen Wei smiles at the warm feeling in his chest, but Ye Zun wouldn’t want attention drawn to it, so when he turns around to face his didi he just looks at him with an eyebrow raised.
“What? I’m not that bad a cook!”
“Tell that to the cast iron pan.”
“Gege, you wound me.” Ye Zun puts a hand to his chest with an impeccably offended expression, like a museum curator who Shen Wei had just questioned on the authenticity of his collection. “And anyway I was only offering to finish cutting the vegetables. Now give me your hand.”
Shen Wei complies, the side of his mouth quirking up in a half smile despite his best efforts. Well, maybe not best. His brother can deal.
“Nice to know you care, didi.” Shen Wei gives up and his smile turns into a grin.
“Shut up or I’ll give you a matching cut on the other hand.” Ye Zun snarks back, but it lacks heat. He does swab the cut a little harder than necessary, but if that’s the price Shen Wei has to pay for the small, true smile that graces his little brother’s face he’ll pay it a hundred times over.
Over dinner Shen Wei realizes it was too much to hope for that Ye Zun would let it go.
“So, what’s got you all on edge, dearest gege? It can’t all be anxiety about your class in Dixing.”
“I- had a bad dream.” Shen Wei admits, ducking his head to dab at his mouth with a napkin.
“What about?” Ye Zun’s time is light, like he’s asking about the weather. Tue unfocused attention lifts a weight off Shen Wei’s chest that he didn’t realize was there. You know me too well didi.
“I actually can't remember.” Shen Wei looks up to one immaculate raised eyebrow. “I’m being completely honest. It- it felt like- I don’t know. Something I’ve forgotten. Not entirely sad but bittersweet. But for the life of me, as soon as I woke up I couldn’t remember anything about it.”
“Do you think this has anything to do with the Guardian Lantern?” This question completely blindsides Shen Wei. Could it be? It is an old magical artifact, and he is Haixingren, not Dixingren. Has a Haixingren ever come into contact with it before? Why didn’t he think of that before? He looks up at Ye Zun, who smirks at the expression he finds there. “Gege, just because I'm not a professor doesn’t mean I’m blind.”
“Sometimes I’m glad you didn’t decide to become a politician didi.” The chaos Ye Zun would wreak with that brilliant mind of his, politics being the perfect backdrop for his grey morality- Shen Wei suppresses a shudder.
“Oh, don’t worry, I can always dabble in politics when I want to take a break from fashion, but I don’t think I’d do it as a job. They’d be begging me for mercy after a year.” The grin that stretches over Ye Zun’s face can only be described as wolfish.
“Wouldn't be planning to break the government now, would you?”
“Only a little. Those old lugs need some shaking up.”
At that Shen Wei lets out a quiet laugh. “You aren’t wrong.” And Ye Zun’s smirk softens into something more private, which only makes Shen Wei smile wider.
“What?” Ye Zun’s eyebrows furrow as he narrows his eyes in suspicion just in time for Shen Wei to lean over and ruffle his perfectly coiffed hair.
“You have the cutest smile didi.” Shen Wei’s smile turns sharp as Ye Zun flounders, looking absolutely scandalized.
“I’m not cute!” He squawks, batting at Shen Wei’s hands as he tries to ruffle his hair again. “And you’re ruining my hair!”
“You’re my adorable little brother and you always will be!” Shen Wei laughs as his brother’s face starts turning red, though from embarrassment or from annoyance, he can’t tell. Probably a healthy mixture of both.
“I can be gorgeous, handsome, or pants-droppingly attractive, but I am not cute.” Ye Zun says haughtily, though he makes the mistake of letting his guard down enough for Shen Wei to be able to pinch his cheek.
“You’ll always be cute to me.” Shen Wei sits back, letting Ye Zun seethe for an appropriate amount of time before turning back to the table and starting to put away the dishes. Ye Zun gets up after a few moments to help, and if he jostles Shen Wei on his way to the sink he makes sure to do it when Shen Wei isn't holding anything breakable.
On their fifth day in the caves they hit metaphorical gold. They’ve come across an underground stream. They did have a bottle that somehow condensed water out of the air around them- but it was small and took time to fill up. Zhang Shi takes out the few folded bottles he brought just in case. They’ll replace the weight of the food they’d already eaten. Or at least that’s what he tells Lin Jing when he starts to complain. Also he hasn’t had tea since that first evening and he misses it.
Right as he finishes filling the first bottle a young woman comes around the nearest tunnel corner. She looks about Lin Jing’s age, with long hair and a solemn face, her white dress making her pale skin look even more ghostlike.
“Oh.” She says, looking both surprised and a little worried.
“Hello. I’m sorry if we frightened you- we’re here in search of knowledge.” Zhang Shi takes heart from the fact that Lin Jing doesn’t look alarmed, and tries to make a good first impression.
“You were extremely lucky to get this far.” She says faintly. “We find a few unfortunate souls every once in awhile, usually lost within the labyrinth.”
“That would be me.” Lin Jing says, puffing out his chest. “I can sense danger.”
Zhang Shi doesn’t even bother not rolling his eyes. Of course a pretty girl would make him posture like a peacock.
“I am Zhang Shi, and this is Lin Jing.” He gestures to himself and the kid who’s still staring. The girl turns and the waves of dark hair cascading down her back seem to ripple in the light of the lamp like water.
“My name is Wang Zheng.”
Zhao Yunlan waits for Shen Wei. He’s always been waiting for Shen Wei. Wait no- it used to be the other way around. He’s almost forgotten what it’s like to have a body, to be hungry, or cold, or how it felt to be held. Not that that happened very often. Da Qing wasn’t that touchy unless he was in cat form, and his dad wasn’t exactly the hugging type. More like the guilt-tripping condescending emotionally manipulative type.
He’d almost hugged Shen Wei once. Well, it was more like Shen Wei was holding him up. He tries to remember how it felt- how Shen Wei smelled, he knows that Shen Wei had a smell that he loved, but the harder he tries the more it slips away. He just remembers the fear. As much as he hated and feared his father, he didn’t want him to die. That would leave him an orphan. Can you be an orphan when you’re already thirty something?
Zhao Yunlan’s mind bounces from place to place, not in an entirely pleasant way. More like anticipation, like anxiety, like maybe thinking about anything other than Shen Wei will disabuse him of the notion that he’s sure, somewhere deep inside himself, that it’ll end badly. That Shen Wei will never come back. That he’ll come back but, of course, one day Zhao Yunlan will lose him anyway. That he’ll come back and never remember him. That he’ll come back and remember. He doesn’t know which option is worse.
Of course he knows. The worst would be if Shen Wei never came back. He knew, from the very beginning, when he first realized he was falling, that anything would be worth this feeling. That he would gladly pay any price for every moment he had with Shen Wei, even the horrible ones.
Zhao Yunlan doesn’t remember when he started thinking like that about love. That whatever the outcome, it was worth the risk. It was worth that rush of feeling- maybe when he realized that he was in love for the first time- maybe when he was afraid he’d never fall in love, that maybe he couldn’t love at all- but everything always came back to Shen Wei. Shen Wei. His Shen Wei.
Shen Wei with his proud bearing, his stupidly hot sleeve garters, his self destructive loyalty, that look he got in his eyes sometimes, that Zhao Yunlan had started calling his doe eyes. When he was startled enough to drop his professor mask, when Zhao Yunlan unknowingly referenced something from Shen Wei’s past but his own future- sometimes only for a second, he reverted to his younger self. To the oh so open Shen Wei with the expressive eyebrows, lacking the tension and confidence and pain of his older self. Lacking the secrets, lacking the iron control of his emotions- and that was the best part of it all.
When Zhao Yunlan cracked Shen Wei’s mask it was worth everything he did to get there- because at those moments he saw into Shen Wei’s heart, and he was already gone. How could one man be so perfect? How could someone be so kind, so considerate, so fierce in protecting and so kind in taking care of Zhao Yunlan? It’s like he could never do anything wrong.
Well, could never do anything to Zhao Yunlan. But what he did to himself was another thing entirely. He used to think that Shen Wei just didn’t understand how much he meant to Zhao Yunlan, and how much when Shen Wei hurt himself, it hurt Zhao Yunlan. But nowadays a new idea fermented in his mind- what if Shen Wei knew, but just couldn’t do anything about it? What if by telling Shen Wei how much it had hurt him to see Ye Zun stab him- what if by telling Shen Wei all the times he’d worried about him- what if by doing that he just made the guilt worse?
How could Zhao Yunlan make Shen Wei understand how much he meant to him? How valued he was, how cherished and loved, how unique and utterly irreplaceable he was? What could Zhao Yunlan do to make sure nothing like this ever happened again? Was there any way to make him believe he was worth it?
Had Zhao Yunlan ever believed it when Shen Wei had said he was worth it? Of course not. But that was different. That was because he saw how much it hurt Shen Wei, because he saw how happy Shen Wei was to be in pain for Zhao Yunlan, to be crippling himself just to give him back his eyesight. Being blind didn’t hurt. Sure, it wasn’t great, and he wouldn’t have been able to lead the SID long before management replaced him- but it didn’t eat at him from the inside and keep his body from healing itself!
He doesn’t know what he would do if he could go back.
No, that’s a lie. He knows. He’d confront Shen Wei, he’d get him to spill the truth, and together, together, they would work something out. Like it was always meant to be.
And it always came down to trust. Shen Wei just couldn’t, for whatever reason, trust Zhao Yunlan with the truth. He didn’t know if this was a legitimate reason, a ‘I must protect Zhao Yunlan from every small thing at any (usually disproportionately steep) cost’ reason, or a ‘I’m afraid of what Zhao Yunlan will think of me’ reason. Probably all three.
No matter how he looked at it, how many times he tried to put the puzzle pieces together differently, it all came out the same way. Shen Wei died. And then Zhao Yunlan died. Shen Wei died to be reborn, Zhao Yunlan died just to be resurrected in a cradle of sadistic flames. Maybe it was because he had nobody else to talk to this about, maybe his mind was going in circles because his existence was as well- the only thing that brought him out of it was the thought of talking to Shen Wei again. He prayed to all the gods that they’d actually be able to talk next time, that he wouldn’t be caught in dying, or being painstakingly stitched back together, that one day he’d be able to make Shen Wei laugh again.