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.
Forgive me, I have never written non-OC fic, as you can probably see from the rest of my works. If you have a sec do let me know if I’ve forgotten to tag anything or am doing something else wrong that I’m just not noticing... or what you think (or feel) in general.
thosch3i is the guardian angel of this fic and I don’t know where it would be without her!
check end notes for semi-spoilery trigger warnings
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
he belongs to fairytales,
that I can never be
Someone’s talking to him. Everything hurts. Did he pass out on the couch? That sure sounds like Xiao Guo- what happened? Why does it feel like he’s burning- oh. Just your usual agonizing resurrection. Just another Wednesday in this lantern hell void.
But Zhao Yunlan swears he can still hear a voice. There’s that familiar tug on his ribcage, but from experience he knows it’ll be a bit before he can do anything. The voice swims in and out of his awareness as his incorporeal flesh seems to knit itself back together.
“- it’s a very nice light, Lord Guardian. We’re all really thankful, though-”
Time drags by and he starts moving before he’s ready- he’ll pay for it later but he needs to know who that is, if he’s finally cracked and is imagining this voice, or if someone’s actually talking to him.
“-you’re like a good luck charm. Students come here before big exams, lovers before they pop the question, it’s almost like you’re watching over us-”
He really hopes it’s real. It’s a nice thought. Though why they would put the lantern in a place where anyone could wander in is beyond him. Seems like a stupid decision, but he hopes anyway. The spider silk burns his hands this time, but it’s stronger than ever, the vibration buzzing through his hands and into his skull. It’s painful but it’s real. It has to be.
“-I don't know why but they just look at me weird, who cares what I’m doing-”
Curse this stupid fucking black hole dimension, the fuck kind of person even made this place, some kind of bastard child of an angry god-
“Are you talking to me?”
Zhao Yunlan freezes. How can he hear me already?
“What do you mean already?”
He looks around and almost loses his grip on the thread. This isn’t how it happened last time.
“Last time?” He tries to pull himself towards the voice but it doesn’t work. This is confusing- he needs to figure out how he did it last time, he can’t just broadcast every thought to this poor boy.
“Sir- Lord Guardian sir it’s okay-”
Ah yes. He imagines himself a ball of golden light again and pops right out of his body, down the string of spider silk, and crashes into a cluster of- pure white energy?
Silence. Very stunned and confused silence.
“How do you know my name?” God it really is him. Zhao Yunlan could cry. He wishes he could cry. He wishes he could hug him, look at his face, scold him like old times.
“I- I’m a very magical artefact. I know a lot!” He bluffs, knowing he’s waited too long to answer, but Xiao Guo, ever trusting, takes it at face value.
“Oh of course Lord Guardian, I’m sorry if I’ve offended you-”
“Aiyo, stop calling me that. Just- just call me- Lan-ge.” He stops himself from giving his full name, even his full first name. It’s better this way.
“If you’re sure- Lan-ge.”
“I’m sure. I’m the Guardian of the Lantern, so what I say goes, right?” He’s- he’s so happy to hear a familiar voice. Even Xiao Guo’s energy feels familiar.
“So uh- Lan-ge?”
“Do you often come out and talk to people?” There’s a hesitation in the tone.
“Only once before. Don’t worry, you’re not going crazy. You’re touching the Lantern right? No don’t let go it's ok, I’m just asking.” He lets out a breath when the waning contact strengthens again. He’d much rather have a warning this time for when he gets shoved back into his burning body.
“You said it yourself, most people just kinda touch me for luck, right?”
“Yes. Oh- and I’m holding on.”
“Good boy, you catch on quickly. So tell me, how is it out there?”
“You’re in this- they call it a memorial? For Hei Pao Shi and all the others that died in the war. You, I suppose. Though you’re not really dead, are you?”
He should’ve known better than to ask. He’s a being of pure thought and emotion for these moments, and the grief pulls him under, a current too fast to escape, even if he’d wanted to. He failed them. He failed him . If only he’d listened to Xiao Guo and run, if only he’d had a plan, if only he’d known what Shen Wei had been planning-
“Lan-ge? Lord Guardian? Are you still there?”
“Yes, Xiao Guo. I’m here. And no, I’m not really dead. I’m not entirely alive though either.”
“That doesn’t sound like much fun. I mean, I’m sorry Lan-ge, that’s insensitive-”
“Ah don’t worry about it. It is what it is. I’m doing my job and keeping you all safe and giving you light and that’s good.”
“Oh no, Lan-ge, I have to go. I’m really sorry. Da-ge says I’ve been here too long.”
“You have a brother?” He tries to wrack his brain, “brothers?”
“Well, they’re not biologically my brothers, but they kind of adopted me. They’re really nice. Chu Shuzhi looks like he hates everyone but underneath he’s a real softie. Chu Nianzhi, his younger twin, is the exact opposite. Oh, sorry, I really must go, Lan-ge. Da-ge looks grumpy, he’s always like that when er-ge is late. I’ll come back, I promise.”
“I’m glad you have them.” His heart feels full. They’re happy, they’re together and happy. It’s the best he could have hoped for. “Thank you for talking to me.”
“Goodbye, Lord Guardian, thank you for- well, everything.”
Xiao Guo lets go of the lantern. Zhao Yunlan thinks he is ready, but he is not. He faintly thinks that the third time might be the charm but there’s no way to really be ready for feeling all the pain that’s been building in his damaged body in the time he spent away from it crash over him all at once. It still doesn’t stop him from wondering about another set of twins, wherever they are.
It is worse, imagining him happy? Imagining him with Ye Zun somewhere, in a library or a coffeeshop or the mountains? It’s what he sacrificed himself for, after all. He hopes Shen Wei is happy, but the selfish side of him whispers, could he really be happy without you?
By the time the twins return to the old bookstore Zhang Shi and Da Qing are both long gone. Shen Wei will always wonder if he imagined the old fashioned looking man with the familiar face, and Ye Zun will tell him not to think so hard or he’ll give himself premature wrinkles.
They’ve gone to live in the mountains; in the last few ‘lifetimes’ of Zhang Shi’s finally saved up enough money to retire and make Da Qing as much dried fish as he likes. It’s never as good as Lao Li’s, as Da Qing will vocally remind Zhang Shi at every turn, but apparently ‘it’ll do’.
They still read a lot, Da Qing on a tablet reader he made Zhang Shi buy for him, so he didn’t have to lug books around and could switch between them as he pleased. Zhang Shi stuck to paper copies. The smell reminded him of the bookshop and the years when they’d been adjusting to each other’s presences, adjusting to having another person in their lives, to resolutely ignoring the nameless shadow between them, the ghost of the man they both cared for.
They had become family in those years, and the bookshop would always remind him of that. The lazy afternoons with Da Qing basking in the sun, demanding Zhang Shi read aloud to him, slowly getting closer and closer until one day he finally let Zhang Shi run a hand through his fur for the first time. Those years weren’t easy, and they would never be as close as Da Qing and Zhao Yunlan had been, but at some point they had stopped trying to be what they weren’t, and things had fallen into place. A quiet companionship.
The solitary refuge could never last. It did last longer this time, but at least Zhang Shi had finally admitted to himself it could not last forever.
Xiao Guo comes again. Waiting for him was born what got Zhao Yunlan through the next few resurrections and what made them all the more agonizing. He was worried he’d miss him, that he’d be a creature of only pain and no thoughts, or it might be one of those periods where he died and was brought painfully, slowly, back together when Xiao Guo next visited.
“Xiao Guo. I missed you, you little rascal. How are your brothers?”
“They’re good. I haven’t told them about you, yet. I think they’d worry. Er-ge doesn’t admit it, but he’s gets just as protective as Da-ge, sometimes even more so. He’s really a mother hen, they both are. I’m not entirely helpless, I’m almost an adult. I can take care of myself.”
“That’s just how they show they care. You’re lucky to have them looking out for you. No offense, but you’re a bit naive.” God he’s missed everyone so much. Xiao Guo and his boundless clumsy optimism especially. Though he would never admit it to his face, he misses Da Qing as well. If in this life Xiao Guo has been adopted by the Chu twins as their didi, Zhao Yunlan imagines himself doing a similar thing for Da Qing. Though he can never really imagine him as anything but a cat. He’ll always be a cat.
“What do you mean?” Xiao Guo sounds a bit… not offended, but put out.
“It’s not a bad thing. But who would sit with a lamp and talk to it in hopes there was someone or something inside who would listen? And no, not just anyone would do that. I’ve only ever talked to one person other than you Xiao Guo.”
“Oh, I’m really sorry Lan-ge. It must get lonely in there. I wish I could help.”
“You are helping you silly boy. Didn’t you just hear me say you were the only person I’ve really talked to? The first kid had about enough time to ask me who I was and then he left.”
“Is that why you’re so familiar with me?” He can almost see Xiao Guo kicking himself over how impulsive and honest that question is, so he cuts him off before he can start to apologize.
“You remind me of someone I cared a lot about. Someone who used to be part of my strange little makeshift family.”
“Oh right, you were Haixingren way back when, weren’t you? There isn’t a lot of information about the War except- well, except this memorial. Da-ge says it’s for the best, we don’t even know how many Hallows there are and what they are, so nobody can try to control them or take their power again.”
Oh that’s interesting, so it’s not common knowledge that the Guardian Lantern is one of the Hallows at all. Zhao Yunlan wonders what everyone thinks it is.
“What do they say I am then?”
“Oh, just the Guardian of the Hallows. They say the Lantern was created by a secret smith during the war, hoping it might bring balance; since it is purely defensive, there is no way to misuse the lantern. Wow I really sound like Er-ge when I say it like that. He’s learned everything he can about the war, he feels like it’s his duty to know what happened so we can never make the same mistakes again.”
“They sound amazing.” Zhao Yunlan sighs, feeling a little better. He wasn’t worrying about the Hallows, per se. He was too busy wallowing in guilt and self-loathing. Not that he could really do anything about anything, so what’s the point of worry about the Hallows when they’re no longer his responsibility? That’s what he tells himself anyway. But once Master of the Guardians, always Master of the Guardians. He can’t do much to influence the outside world anymore but he knows keeping the Lantern lit does more than just give light and structural stability to Dixing. But it’s good to know someone seems to know what they’re doing.
“I don’t know why they like me so much, but I’m really glad to have them.”
“You’re a literal puppy, who wouldn’t love you Xiao Guo?” He can’t help the amused fondness in his tone, and when he doesn’t get an answer right away he worries he’s scared him away.
“You’re too nice to me, Lan-ge.”
And that’s how he learns there’s a time limit on his conversations. Or at least that’s what he assumes when he’s aware enough to think about it, later, since it didn’t feel like Xiao Guo pulling away and slingshotting Zhao Yunlan back into his molten prison. No, it was just a kind of- slipping? Maybe he wasn’t paying enough attention and let go of the thread. Maybe he got too comfortable, too happy. Maybe he wasn’t allowed happiness in here. It’s not like he deserves it.
There is a fire in the town down in the valley. They can see it from the top of the mountain peak their cabin sits on. It is much too large to be a bonfire, and despite Da Qing begging Zhang Shi not to go, they both end up in the valley, facing the product of fear and ignorance.
They find two young cats in the midst of the flames, curled around each other. Whatever Zhang Shi has done to get the idiot Haixingren to leave, Da Qing doesn’t know nor care. His worst fears and his most ardent hopes are confirmed when both the cats, within seconds of each other, start breathing again. One black, one white.
He can’t leave them again, he can’t leave now that they’ve come back as lost members of a tribe he thought he’d never see again.
Da Qing parts ways with Zhang Shi, both of them knowing it’s for the best, and afraid they might not find each other when this part of their lives is over. Afraid of what they might find of each other after all this.
Shen Wei and Ye Zun need guidance from the only other Cat Tribe member alive, and Da Qing can’t bear them having to be alone anymore.
Da Qing turns and stares back at Zhang Shi before they leave. He blinks, twice, very slow. Zhang Shi doesn’t understand until years later. Zhao Yunlan would’ve known right away, and responded in kind no doubt. He didn't- doesn’t deserve either of them.
Shen Wei wakes up knowing only one thing: he failed to protect his little brother. His brother is right there, thank all the stars, breathing, asleep. He has enough strength to realize they’re both still in the cat forms he didn’t even know they could take before he succumbs to unconsciousness once more.
The man on fire waits for the return of the young star. The twin suns keep him away, worried a spark from the man might catch the star aflame, a fire that would consume him instead of just giving light. The man can’t blame them. The star, at least, is able to sneak back one more time to say goodbye. For the star it was ten years, for the man it was another small eternity of deaths and rebirths. He tells the star to live, to shine, to never regret. The man is glad for what he has been given, a crumb to a mouse that is a king’s feast. The star doesn’t believe him, but can’t stay to argue. He hopes one day someone will tell the burning man that the fire is not what he deserves.
Zhang Shi learns what it’s like to be drunk. Zhao Xinci indulged sometimes, but never past tipsy, he was too proud. He didn’t want to give up control.
Zhang Shi doesn’t care right now. He’ll take whatever oblivion life can give him. He’d walled himself up, him and Da Qing, in their little ivory tower, locked them away from life and anyone else. He had been selfish, hiding away with his grief.
He hadn’t killed the twins, but he felt like he had. He felt his hand in the bonfire, in the mindless mob panic of the townspeople. He’d been aware of the bigotry, marginally, it was harder for anyone to tell he was a Dixingren unless they’d seen him years apart and somehow remembered that he had looked the same back then as he did now. People were stupid when they were scared, and they were scared by anything they didn’t understand.
He could have done something. He doesn’t know what- but if he had been a bit more active, if he had gone to the town, might not he have noticed something? Might not have Da Qing noticed the boys before their first full transformation, before it was undeniable that they were not human?
Zhang Shi drinks until he can’t tell which pains are from what, until everything swirls together in a whirlpool of guilt and regrets, and then he sleeps. He sleeps much longer than he means to, or maybe he means to after all. Maybe his subconscious is more honest drunk, and it decides he needs a few decades of unconsciousness.
In the cabin in the mountains, he sleeps away the years, always tossing and turning, never sleeping restfully. But still he sleeps. And he misses the warm weight of Da Qing purring on his stomach.
He lied about the time awareness. Yes, everything feels like it takes forever or no time at all, but he still feels the difference. He knows Xiao Guo was recent, maybe twenty years ago, fifty at most, he knows it was decades and not centuries. His life in the lamp has been a few centuries at least, it had to be.
He’s glad he knows that at least for this lifetime, Lao Chu and Xiao Guo are with family, are happy, are together. But talking to him, hearing about his grumpy old friend, imagining everyone else living their lives- it makes the loneliness so much harsher. He can’t pretend they’re just gone anymore. Yes, the ones he knew are gone, but their souls are free to continue onto another life, to be renewed and wiped clean.
He supposes it’s part of his duty to remember, for all of them. To remember and burn, to die and remember again. To lose sight of their faces, their voices, but remember what they did, how they made him feel, how it was to be around them, to be surrounded by his family.
Is this what Shen Wei had to go through? Watching everyone he knew die around him as he kept going? What did he do those ten thousand years? How did he keep going? The duties of Heipaoshi no doubt only kept him busy part of the time. Kunlun had- he had broken his heart, had left without explanation, had given him hope and support just to tear it away. He had asked him to trust that they would meet again, knowing Shen Wei wouldn’t meet the same Zhao Yunlan but hoping he would forgive him anyway.
But Zhao Yunlan had nothing to do, had no disputes to settle, no strategies to plan, no battles to fight, nobody to help, nobody to save. Just himself and the flames, himself and the burning, himself immolated in his thoughts.
He had failed them all. He had given up after Shen Wei sacrificed himself- after Shen Wei died, nothing seemed to matter anymore. He wasn’t going to survive long anyway, not with the concentrated serum in his bloodstream. What other choice did he have? Waiting for Xiao Guo and his pure white energy in hopes somehow the Lantern would take it and not consume him? While Dixing fell apart around him? Just to die later in his team’s arms?
He needs to stop thinking about it. Stop thinking about how he could have been free of this hell and had a new start just like everyone else. He did this because it was what needed to be done. Because he needed his death to mean something. What kind of Guardian would he be if he died peacefully in his own bed? If he hedged on maybes when peoples’ lives were in the balance and he had the power to do something?
Shen Wei did it, so can he.
He can wait.
It’s not like he has any other choice. (He hadn’t given Shen Wei any other choice either.)
Shen Wei regains consciousness in the forest of the flower Yashou. Or at least that’s what he finds out after being not so gently awoken by his brother. They are both still cat shaped.
“You’ve been lying around all day, come explore with me!” But Shen Wei can hear the edge of worry behind his brother’s words.
“Are you okay?” Comes out before he can help it, when though he knows what the answer will be.
“As alright as I can be after being chucked in a fire by the only people we’ve known our whole lives.” There’s a very different kind of edge to Ye Zun’s tone now, a dangerous one.
“But we’re fine now. We’re safe for now.” Shen Wei hopes he won’t be forced to eat his words.
“Yeah, you’ve got big brother Da Qing to look out for you! Or Qing-ge. Whichever you prefer.” A boy comes around the nearest tree and leans against it, folding his arms against his chest.
“Or how about fat lazy bastard?” Ye Zun smirks up at him, as much as a cat face can smirk. Or maybe it’s just Shen Wei recognizing it from his voice. Then the words process in his still waking mind.
“Didi!” He turns, horrified. If this is really their savior, it would be very unwise to alienate him.
The boy seems frozen for a moment with an unreadable expression on his face, Then he bursts into laughter so quickly Shen Wei wonders if he imagined it.
“Only Lao Zh- lan-ge is allowed to call me that.” Then in between one blink of the eye and the next, he becomes a black cat with folded ears that give him a bit of a silly look. He’s not the absolute black that Shen Wei is, he’s got patches of lighter colored fur as well.
“Where’s he then?”
And Shen Wei realizes this time his brother’s words have actually struck somewhere very close to home. He’s about to make him apologize, or apologize for him when Da Qing speaks up again.
“He’s lost. But I’ll find him one day and bring him back home.” It strikes a chord in Shen Wei. He’s lost someone too- has he? It feels like he has. But no, it’s not that. Maybe he’s lost his own and his brothers’ younger, more innocent selves.
“We’ll help you then.” Shen Wei looks over at his brother in shock, to find a stubborn determined expression on his face, like he’s daring Da Qing to question him.
“I’ll hold you to that.” Da Qing’s gaze is piercing, freezing even Ye Zun in place for a few moments. Then he blinks and the intensity is gone.
“So, what now?” Ye Zun yawns, looking totally unconcerned for all the world, except Shen Wei, who knows better. “You gonna shifu us the fuck back into human form or what?”
Shen Wei sighs and lies back down, giving up on trying to censor his brother. Da Qing clearly isn’t offended.
“Something like that. I mean, I’ve only ever met one other member of the Cat Tribe so I’m just relying on instinct and luck right now.”
“Wait what? So we could be stuck like this?” Ye Zun’s fur bristles but Da Qing only rolls his eyes.
“I may be immortal but I’m not all knowing.” He licks a paw and washes behind his ear.
“Immortal?” Shen Wei is surprised enough to ask.
“Are we immortal too?” Ye Zun talks right over him.
“No! Don’t even start thinking like that. I’m an anomaly, I go exposed to some very powerful raw magic and luckily it didn’t fry my brains but now I'm doomed to live forever. It’s not all it’s made out to be.” He glares at Ye Zun, who doesn’t seem to be past the ‘immortal’ bit.
“You’ve got nine lives. Well, eight now. As Yashou, you’ll naturally live longer than most humans, an average Yashou lifespan is about a century and a half. Unless you run out of lives before that. Which you better not.” The glare this time, at both of them, has a desperate edge to it. Shen Wei assumes the other Cat Yashou he mentioned died before their natural time.
“Is there no other information about Cat Yashou?” He asks, thinking that Da Qing probably has thought of that, but maybe he didn’t need to know more until he found them.
“Not that I know of. We can as the current Yashou chief- I think they’re a Crow this time around… It won’t hurt. If we had access to Dixing I’m sure they’d have more information there, but that’s not an option right now.” He scratches his head in a distinctly human gesture.
“Underground. But the passages were all sealed off a few centuries ago after the war.”
“Oh, that’s what it’s actually called. You’re going to have to tell us about that too sooner or later. I’m sure the accounts we heard weren’t quite accurate. What with all the rampant xenophobia and bigotry.” Ye Zun sprawls in a way that looks extremely uncomfortable.
“Not much to tell. There was a war. We won, but there were sacrifices that were made. Now the passages between Haixing and Dixing are sealed off. Though honestly I think in a few hundred years or so we’ll have them open again.” Da Qing yawns. “Now if you’ll excuse me, but you two aren’t feathers, even in cat form. I carried you a long way and I’m going to go take another nap. Then later we can try to figure out how to get you unstuck. There’s food up that tree, don’t leave the wood, blah blah blah. Or well, wake me when you want to leave, I’ll have to show you around Dragon City one day or another.”
“Up the tree?” Shen Wei tilts his head and sees a package in the fork of a branch. A very high branch. But Da Qing has curled up with his head under a paw and seems to be fast asleep.
“Well, that was interesting.” Ye Zun drawls, getting up briefly to move closer to his brother. “Why do I feel like there’s something he isn’t telling us?”
“Because you’re paranoid didi.” Shen Wei shakes his head in a cat version of an eye roll.
“Hey, just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Tell me you don’t feel it too.”
That’s the thing. Shen Wei does. There’s something nameless that hangs between them and the immortal cat. There’s something about the cat himself too. His bells, the old fashioned overalls he wears in his human form. Shen Wei tries to catch at the feeling but it’s like trying to capture the reflection of the moon in water. Every time he feels like he’s got something it turns into mist. He thinks he’s getting a headache.
“Ge-ge, don’t give yourself a migraine. Let’s go climb the tree and see what food he’s left us.”
Shen Wei shortly finds out that he really really doesn’t like heights.
tw: hate crime, non-canon non-permanent character death, drinking
by the way I made a lyric gifset with the song that I used for the fic and chapter titles
semi spoilery trigger warnings in the end notes
knowing that my heart will break,
at least the pain will last
These moments don’t come often, but they come nonetheless. Call it a side effect of being trapped in burning agony for all eternity without company the majority of the time. Without anything outside the flames, anything to distract him but his own thoughts.
He wishes he could die. Permanently. In these moments, in the worst of the burning, he can’t even think of anything else except hoping for it all to be over, no matter how. Feeling like there’s nothing for him, like even if he died and never reincarnated, it would be better than this. Almost nobody remembers him at this point, and even the ones that do, they’re all better off without him anyway.
He brought them all into danger with him. He trained them to use themselves as shields to protect other people, to not fear the storm because they believed they could always weather it. Even though that was a lie. There would always be a bigger storm, a hurricane like Ye Zun was.
He had been rude to them, inconsiderate, harsh, and above all, selfish. Had he ever taken the time to talk to Zhu Hong about the feelings he knew she had for him? No, he’d decided it was easier to just try to ignore them. Had he been easy on Xiao Guo when he first started, instead of throwing him directly into the fray and scolding him when he got scared? No, he just thought it would toughen him up faster, and Lao Chu was looking out for him anyway. Had he listened to Da Qing all the times when he’d told him to be honest about his feelings instead of sulking and taking it out on him? No, he felt like it was never the right time, and then all of a sudden it was too late.
Most importantly, had he trusted Shen Wei instead of pushing and shoving at his walls and yelling at him, suspecting him, when all he was trying to do was help? No. No, he hadn’t. He’d kept hurting him, over and over. Not listening, not seeing or allowing himself to comprehend the emotions Shen Wei allowed himself to show around Zhao Yunlan. He hadn’t stopped to think, or more accurately, hadn't stopped and trusted his gut instinct. He’d let it make him paranoid instead.
Instead of accepting the feelings of safety and warmth he got around Shen Wei he’d shoved them in a box and sat on the lid like a child, deciding it was his own wishful thinking and abandonment issues coming through. Decided it was easier to believe that Shen Wei was hiding something dangerous from him than that he actually had good intentions.
Who could love the real Zhao Yunlan, after all? Brusque, sarcastic, stubborn, impulsive, burdensome Zhao Yunlan. He didn’t deserve Shen Wei, and even millennia in this hell void wouldn’t be enough retribution.
Shen Wei thinks, many times in the next few months- if his life had been a movie, this could have been a montage. A neat progression, set to something upbeat and inspiring- but no. It’s just life.
Ye Zun starts to manage the shift faster, he was always more flexible.
Shen Wei is stuck in human form but with cat ears and a tail for a whole day, and he knows there are at least twenty photos on Da Qing’s phone. He gives up at thinking about deleting them before he even tries, he's never learned to use a smart phone and refuses to start now.
Eventually they both have enough control to stay in human form but be able to sharpen their night vision, to grow claws when needed, and even, in Ye Zun’s case, shift in mid leap. Shen Wei lets out a laugh at his brother’s proud expression, and Ye Zun immediately bounds over to plop himself in his brother's lap, purring louder than he ever has before.
“I missed your laugh, ge.”
Zhang Shi wakes from a century of sleep feeling worse than ever. Of course it didn’t help, it was stupid to think it would help. He can’t afford to give in to self pity any longer. He needs to act. He needs to do something. The only reason he has this body in the first place- is because Zhao Yunlan gave it to him. Because his stupid, brave, kind son knew he probably wouldn’t survive and thought of him, Zhang Shi, someone he’d known barely a few months.
He can’t keep hiding, can’t keep living like this. He has to go back to Dragon City. And if they don’t have the information he needs, the Yashou might. If he has to drill down to Dixing himself, he will.
It doesn’t really matter how it happens, but what matters is the result. Ye Zun dies and comes back remembering everything. That’s a lie, of course it matters. He died protecting his brother. Their life is peaceful, but there is still conflict in the world, and Shen Wei cannot sit by when he knows he can do something. And Ye Zun will always follow Shen Wei. The wood can’t always guard itself, and it’s big enough that Haixingren know where it is.
The twins don’t even let them have the chance to start the fire the humans were planning. Da Qing will never forgive himself for going into the city and leaving them alone. Even though they’re both adults now (but all adults are children in his eyes) he shouldn’t have gone. And the reason he went? To get some sweet bao buns. Yes, it was for them , but he should’ve been there. He should’ve sent someone else, should’ve brought them with him- And what, let the plant Yashou suffer? He almost says yes, yes it would’ve been worth it. The twins matter to him, more than he would ever admit.
What was the point of saving them, teaching them, if he couldn’t even keep them safe?
Ye Zun wakes up crying. Shen Wei is there, Shen Wei is always there when he wakes up from nightmares. But this nightmare doesn’t dissipate in the morning light.
“Ge-ge, I’m sorry,” he sobs, and it breaks Shen Wei’s heart, “I’m so fucking sorry.” He apologizes for something Shen Wei doesn’t even remember. “I didn’t mean it, I didn’t want you to die.”
“No!” The word is torn from Shen Wei’s throat before he can call it back. “Whatever it was, it’s over now, we’re different people now. It’s going to be okay. It’s all in the past.” Ye Zun clutches at his middle, sobbing into his stomach, the shirt already soaked through.
“No it’s not, it’s not over, it’ll never be over. He told me you abandoned me and I believed him! I believed him enough to hate you, to want you to suffer like I did. I believed an evil manipulative monster over my own brother-” he’s sobbing so hard Shen Wei can hardly make out his words, “I killed people ge-ge. Ate them and took their power. I tortured the man you loved, I made you watch me hurt him, I made him watch me kill you .”
Shen Wei feels a blinding headache behind his eyes. He rubs at them and sees stars. And keeps seeing stars. His eyes are open, aren’t they? Why does he still see darkness and stabs blinding lights?
He comes to with his head in someone’s lap. Didi. Ye Zun is running a hand through his hair. What happened this time? Did he overwork himself? He tries to sit up-
“Oh no, are you kidding me? You faint on me and you think you can just get up and walk it off? Stay down you idiot Da Qing is getting you something for your head.”
“Didi.” His voice is hoarse. He doesn’t remember why. “What happened?” He opens his eyes just barely, enough to see his brother’s worried face above him, his brother’s familiar face, he’s safe.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” His eyes fall shut as he focuses.
“I- you were- you died Didi! You died protecting me! That’s my job!”
“I still have quite a few lives left.”
“But that doesn’t mean you should throw them away left and right!”
“I didn’t throw it away. I saved you.” Ye Zun’s tone is sharp and Shen Wei relents.
“Sorry. I just- I was so scared. You aren’t allowed to leave me. It’s the two of us against the world, remember?” He opens his eyes again and this time the sunlight doesn’t hurt.
“Oh, I remember. Every life, you were always looking out for me, taking care of me after I did stupid shit- I don’t deserve you ge-ge. I’ve done horrible things.”
This time when Shen Wei sits up Ye Zun doesn’t try to stop him. He just stares at his hands. Shen Wei throws his arms around his brother and pulls him into his side. If only he could have spared him this as well.
“I don’t care. Whatever happened, we’re together now and we’ll figure it out together. I need you too, remember? I’d be lost without you.”
Ye Zun doesn’t answer, but his hands tighten on Shen Wei’s shirt front. Shen Wei waits. This is his only family. This is his little brother and he doesn’t know what to do.
“Don’t- don't try to remember. I won’t talk about details. I don’t want you to have to remember. I don’t want you to hate me.” The words spill out of Ye Zun and Shen Wei just nods his head, anything he can to help.
“Okay. But talk to Da Qing at least. Or try, eventually. I will do what I can to remind you of the person you are now, but he remembers, maybe he can help.”
“Yeah, he was there. I- met him a few times.”
“He clearly doesn’t hate you. He wouldn’t be so nice to us if he did.”
“Even if we were the last members of a tribe he never thought he’d see again?”
“No, he’s too bad a liar.”
“Harsh. But true. I like this new savage ge-ge.” Ye Zun laughs, letting Shen Wei wipe the last of the tears off his cheeks with the back of his hand.
“I didn’t mean it like that and you know it.”
“Yeah you did. It’s okay. You don’t have to be nice all the time.”
“Well, you don’t have to be ‘savage’ all the time.” Shen Wei raises his eyebrows and his little brother laughs again. Everything may not be right with the world, but it’ll be right with them.
“Once a promise is made, even mountains can’t get in our way. I promise you, that for the sake of the people, for the sake of Haixing’s peace, even if I have to forever shoulder burdens while going the opposite way, I will bravely advance forwards.”
The funny thing about memories in this place is that the good ones seem to fade entirely, letting the bad stand out in perfect clarity. He doesn’t remember where he heard this, or when, but he remembers it in Shen Wei’s voice. Quite a thing to be resurrected to.
He’s long past the time when his resurrections seemed almost like waking up with a hangover. Or at least that’s what he likes to tell himself. With Shen Wei’s voice whispering in his ear, his traitor mind imagined something to explain the pain away. He was injured, but if Shen Wei was there he was safe, he was looked after. He knew Shen Wei would do anything to keep him safe- who did do the ultimate thing.
And that brings him back. This is no injury. This is payback. For all the times Zhao Yunlan didn’t deserve help but got it anyway. For all the times he took his team for granted- took Shen Wei for granted. At first he didn’t understand why he’d go to such lengths to help him, to heal him, to return his eyesight.
He later even found out from Da Qing that Shen Wei had knelt in the courtyard of the ‘miracle doctor’ for hours, in the pouring rain, just so he would agree to treat Zhao Yunlan. That was definitely on his mind when he saw the price the Longevity Dial had made Shen Wei pay to return his eyesight the second time. Yet another price Shen Wei paid without hesitation, all for Zhao Yunlan.
He still doesn’t understand. Oh, on one hand, he does. He showed up in Shen Wei’s life at a chaotic moment and gave him not only a sense of his own identity but also of his own importance and strength. He’d come and turned young Shen Wei’s life upside down and given him no choice but to use Zhao Yunlan as his anchor. And then he had left. With no warning, and almost no explanation.
And Shen Wei, young Shen Wei who had already lost so much of himself and his childhood- he clung to the last thing he remembered. The last kind, but selfish, voice.
He kept apart from people as much as he could, Professor Shen had. The job had given him the best excuse. A professor’s relationship with a student has a built-in distance borne of respect. A professor’s relationship with his colleagues was similar. So he’d kept apart. To keep his secret, and to keep from getting attached.
Zhao Yunlan at least didn’t have to witness people growing old and dying around him from within lantern hell. He missed Xiao Guo, sure, even more than he missed him before he met his reincarnation- but it’s different.
He doesn’t imagine how often Shen Wei had to move, people would eventually notice he didn’t age, after twenty or thirty years at the very least. He doesn’t imagine how he got so good at fading into the background, kind enough to be liked, but not enough to start a friendship. And he definitely doesn’t imagine Shen Wei alone in his house or apartment, eating dinner by himself day in and day out. Waking up alone, making breakfast alone, coming back from work without anyone to meet him at home.
Zhao Yunlan had bought them a house. He’d been waiting for the right moment to tell Shen Wei, but their life and especially what he thought of as their budding relationship had quickly become nothing but bad moments strung together by worse moments. It wasn’t a big house, but it had been about halfway between HQ and the university. He’d had a hell of a time finding it, and when he couldn’t keep it a secret from Da Qing any longer, oh how he’d been teased about it. He’d expected that, of course, even welcomed it. He knew it came from a place of care, and under all that bluster Da Qing was glad too. And not just because he’d be able to sample Shen Wei’s exquisite cooking whenever he’d liked, as he has declared upon finding out.
He curled his imaginary body up in this void space where he floated, though it did nothing for the pain it brought some meager amount of comfort. He only realized he was crying when he felt (and heard) the hiss of steam. He cried himself into a stupor, realizing on some level that, of course it wouldn’t make him feel better like crying in a real body did. But it drained him enough that after awakening again he thought this death had been easier. There was no real numbness in this hell but if he could trick his mind into creating him a body, maybe he could trick the body into being less- responsive.
He imagines the house instead. The room he thought could be Shen Wei’s study, with the morning light hitting the windows just enough to light up the room but not enough to be blinding. The kitchen with a giant island Shen Wei would never admit he wants and a fancy stove with a hood and walk in pantry. A garage for his motorcycle and car and- did Shen Wei even own a car?
He’d hoped, planned, schemed, to try to get Shen Wei on the back of his motorcycle, somehow, so he’d have to hold onto Zhao Yunlan. Maybe his car was in the shop and Shen Wei was late to a meeting or class? All of the different little excuses Zhao Yunlan had made to himself and to others, just to be close to Shen Wei.
Of course, in the end it didn’t matter. His Shen Wei was dead and gone. Thinking about the life they could’ve had just made the loss even worse, but what else could he do? If he could dwell for even a little while on what had been, on what, in a kinder world, they might have had, he would take all the pain of the knowledge that it would never be, when he ran out of denial.
Thinking about Shen Wei both kept him alive in Zhao Yunlan’s mind and emphasized that he was gone at the same time. But it was all he had. In a world where he wasn’t selfish, where he was more careful and more observant, then maybe they could’ve been happy. Or at least both made it out alive.
Maybe there’s another world entirely where none of this happened at all. It’s just him, Shen Wei, and Da Qing, in a house by a lake. The others within shouting distance. All of them alive, safe. Zhao Yunlan never had to leave, Shen Wei didn’t have to spend ten thousand years alone. Maybe they meet somewhere stupid, in a park, or Zhao Yunlan almost knocks Shen Wei over, or sees him and gives him his number. They’d be normal. They’d be happy.
Shen Wei tries to bring up the past, several time, carefully, many years later. Every time Ye Zun reacts the same way. Flinching, shame and guilt flooding his features, and Shen Wei regrets it every single time. But something in him can’t let it go. Something- something tells him he’s missed a detail or a moment or- there’s just something he’s missed and he doesn’t know if he’ll ever get it back.
But in the meanwhile he does everything for his brother that he can. It takes a year or so but he finds him a snake Yashou who was trained as a therapist, spending half her like among humans and returning to her clan for the rest of the time. She was halfway across the world but that was nothing to modern day technology.
Ye Zun complains the whole time, and that’s how Shen Wei knows it’s working. If he can't share the burden of the memories themselves at least he has this. He doesn’t know what he’d do if he couldn’t help his brother.
Da Qing has a hell of a time keeping Zhang Shi from meeting the twins. But they’re already much older by then, and more settled down. Shen Wei is and always will be a scholarly soul, so he eventually is allowed access to the Yashou library slash museum slash inner sanctum. But he doesn’t have as direct a line of questioning as Zhang Shi’s research does, he just peruses, getting lost in various obscure books of medicine research or Yashou lore, so they don’t cross paths. Ye Zun makes sure he’s by a window so he can curl up, cat formed, on the windowsill in the sun while his brother reads.
Shen Wei goes out into the human world to explore, to teach, to learn. He never strays far from Dragon City. Ye Zun goes outside the forest only when Shen Wei or Da Qing make him. He seems content to lounge, to nap, to bother the other Yashou and tell weird, sometimes scary, stories.
But Shen Wei can’t stay in one field for long. Cannot stop going from subject to subject, looking for something he doesn’t even realize he’s looking for. It tears at Da Qing’s heart. He’s content, but he’s not happy. Is it because Ye Zun remembers? Is it because of exposure to Da Qing? Is something triggering old memories enough to cause this search, but not enough to bring back past lives?
Who are they to decide they’re protecting Shen Wei by not helping him regain his memories. But who are they to decide to shatter this peaceful, if unsettled existence just to let Shen Wei remember trauma and mistakes he’ll never be able to fix?
There’s no way to get to Dixing. Not- yet anyway. Zhang Shi, among fruitless searches for more information on the Hallows, specifically the Guardian Lantern, has started looking into the passages that were closed off after the war. Da Qing doesn’t have to invent reasons to leave Zhang Shi to his research. The Yashou are keeping him busy, the new chief picking his brain about the Haixingren and what he could do to keep them away, to keep their attention away, to change how they feel about and perceive the Yashou tribes.
And the twins. He’s been keeping them company more and more, lounging cat shaped on either of them as much as he can; knowing they’re reaching the end of this life, knowing they’ll be back, but not wanting them to leave in the first place. Who knows how long it might take for them to come back. They might even be Dixingren next time, and despite all of Zhang Shi’s frantic research he doubts any passages will be opened for awhile. They have to figure out communications first. And get the Haixingren to stop being assholes. They can’t have them starting another goddamn war. The SID has gotten lazy in this time of peace. And he has enough to worry about already.
Over the next few decades, or minutes, Zhao Yunlan tries to imagine himself wings. Or a tail. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t work. Alright, maybe horns. He’s basically in hell, right? Or maybe laser eyes? All he gives himself is a headache. And before long his thoughts fall into the same bloody groove, the same painful tracks his guilt has worn into the recesses of his heart. With every beat of his heart, he can hear it. Shen Wei, Shen Wei, Shen Wei…
He keeps thinking back to when they first met- no, when he had first met Shen Wei. When he was young and stupid and reckless, trying to prove something to himself, to the world, to his father- when he was trying so hard to run away from what was in his head that he almost killed his heart entirely.
Back to when Shen Wei had to pretend to be Haixingren, pretend so hard, to lie at almost every turn to him. He’d had practice lying to everyone else, sure, but he’s sure nobody pried into Shen Wei’s life with quite as much disregard for propriety as Zhao Yunlan. If what he’d felt when he first met the quiet professor was just plain attraction and interest, or something more, Zhao Yunlan will never really know. He said he’d felt like he’d met him before- maybe it was something in his soul recognizing Shen Wei for who he would become to him, or drawn to the pure love and devotion Shen Wei had for him even from the very beginning, when Zhao Yunlan hadn’t even decided if he could trust him or not.
That trust- he’d questioned it so much, so often. He’s lying to himself if he doesn’t admit he did trust Shen Wei right from the start, so much so that it scared him. How could he trust someone he’d just met? Someone who showed up so conveniently with the right answers? And, after all, Zhao Yunlan had had years of practice locking away his heart, what was another emotion added to the mix? He could bottle up that trust and throw it away in the depths of his psyche like he did with so many other pesky feelings, couldn’t he?
Turns out it didn’t work like that. What it did do, was make everything worse. For him, for Shen Wei, for the people in his protection-
He’d shot himself in the foot, and Shen Wei in the heart, by repressing his feelings for so long.
But no, he kept being suspicious of Shen Wei. Bite him, Zhao Yunlan just wasn’t used to nice things being given without a price. And the price turned out to be his life.
He remembers those times with the memory of a person who somehow knew these moments were significant, but didn't know why. When Shen Wei had spent an hour showing him drawings of bears (had he drawn them himself?) instead of giving him information that could have incriminated him, when he’d almost yelled at Shen Wei after that wedding, when he’d smelled the foul blood on his jacket- all those times that he’d seen Shen Wei was hiding something and assumed it had been a dangerous secret.
What choice did Shen Wei even have? He’d trusted Zhao Yunlan with himself, that’s true. After the first few times he was suspected, he knew Zhao Yunlan was really only going through the motions, somehow he’d recognized the underlying trust reflected in his own heart. But as Heipaoshi? As the one responsible for thousands of lives- how far could he trust Zhao Yunlan with innocent Dixingren in the balance? He’d had the front seat to Zhao Xinci’s prejudice, and had known Zhao Yunlan had witnessed his own mother’s death- of course he’d expected the worst.
And it’s not like Zhao Yunlan had done much to disabuse him of that notion- at first, at least. He had straight up told Shen Wei that he’d seen many more malicious Dixingren than kind ones, not even stopping to think that of course he wouldn’t have met the kind ones, of course they would have gone right under his radar when they didn’t cause chaos and hurt people. He now recognizes the times Shen Wei had tried to test him, asked him if he had room in his heart to forgive the Dixingren, to see them as people as much as the Haixingren and the Yashou- with Chu Shuzhi by his side, how could he have said no? But even then Shen Wei had seen the hesitation, had seen it and understood it as another sign that Zhao Yunlan just didn’t trust him completely, or couldn’t admit it, which could be more dangerous for his people and his responsibility.
Maybe if he’d accepted it earlier, if he’d asked the right questions, Shen Wei would have opened up to him sooner, maybe he could’ve helped. Maybe he could’ve convinced Shen Wei to share his plans, to stop being so goddamn self sacrificing. Maybe they could have found another way.
How was it that Shen Wei thought his brother had died, and then he’d come back, hating him? What had happened? Zhao Yunlan could guess. With the amount of hatred in Ye Zun’s every gesture and word, there was betrayal. Someone, maybe the previous leader of the rebellion all those years ago, had told Shen Wei that he’d killed Ye Zun, and Ye Zun that Shen Wei had abandoned him.
How would he have reacted, how did he react when his father, in the wake of his mother’s death, had turned cold and distant and judgemental? At least Zhao Yunlan had seen the reason, had been old enough to start blaming himself like his father had subconsciously done. So all that hatred was turned inwards, while Ye Zun turned it outwards. He’d been the one betrayed, not the betrayer, after all. He guessed in that way he and Shen Wei were similar, carrying around the guilt of that loss through all their formative years, but learning to deal with it in very different ways.
Shen Wei had never stopped feeling it, the absences, the gaping holes in his heart where his family once was, where Kunlun once was. He hardened himself on the outside, made himself a new mask, but on the inside those emotions were just as strong as ever, tearing him apart. Zhao Yunlan, on the other hand, had locked away his guilt and all those other feelings, pretending to himself that they didn’t exist. That was the best way to lie about them, if he lied to himself there would be no cracks, no slip ups, no opportunity for anyone to see through to the feelings inside, right? Nobody but Shen Wei- stubborn, caring and selfless Shen Wei.
How, through all his caring and his love and his devotion, how could Shen Wei not see that by hurting himself he hurt Zhao Yunlan so much worse? When, that awful night, he’d said he was used to pain- with that horrible wide smile on his face- it had felt like someone had stabbed Zhao Yunlan in the gut and knocked all his breath out of his body. And the smile was mostly genuine, which was the worst fucking part, twisting the knife before yanking it out, letting his feelings bleed out. Zhao Yunlan could tell that Shen Wei genuinely thought him being in pain was the better option- that he was happy that he could take a bullet for Zhao Yunlan, even though it wouldn’t have hurt Zhao Yunlan as much as it hurt Shen Wei, and though he didn’t know it consciously, part of him recognized that self-destructive altruism would only result in pain, and expressed it as fear.
When, in those ten thousand years alone, had Shen Wei started hating himself? What had Zhao Yunlan done that had led him to think so little of himself? Oh right, just that one time he’d told young impressionable Shen Wei his only purpose in life was to fight for what was right.
Had his words really turned Shen Wei into this? Had Zhao Yunlan’s words, and then the loss of Kunlun, strengthened in Shen Wei the conviction that he didn’t matter if he couldn’t protect people? That he only had worth as long as he was standing in between danger and innocents?
What had he done? He’d just been trying to show Shen Wei that he understood him, that his quest was worthy, and that he saw how hard he was fighting with very little recognition. He’d wanted Shen Wei to know how much he respected him, how proud he was of who Shen Wei was, and who he would become, telling him that his future would be sad, would be hard, but it would be beautiful and kind as well. But Shen Wei had only heard the loss, only registered that yet another person, a person he trusted, was telling him his life was going to be hard, and that he had to persevere, not for himself, but for others. That he had to live for others.
Which, of course, had been easier for Shen Wei to accept than the fact that, if Zhao Yunlan, if Kunlun had known the whole story about his brother, if he’d been comfortable sharing it, would have told him that it wasn’t his fault, that it was out of his hands. He would have told him that he knew Shen Wei had done his best. But even if he had- if he hadn’t been so thrown by the fact that he’d had a brother at all, that he’d lost someone so important so early in his life and not wanted to overstep- even if he’d told Shen Wei, he’s certain now that Shen Wei wouldn’t have believed him.
He would have thanked him, maybe even ducked his head with a beautific smile and blushed, but in his mind he would be telling himself that Kunlun, for all his wisdom, just didn’t understand, he couldn’t know, he wasn’t there. It wouldn’t have been disrespect for his idol, just a traumatized young mind at work. It was easier to accept the blame than forgive yourself for something so horrible.
It hadn’t helped at all that the years had twisted Ye Zun into something so full of hatred and blind fury. Because that blame was multiplied tenfold now, now that Shen Wei knew Ye Zun had been alive the whole time, now that he knew he could’ve been searching for him, could’ve maybe found him instead of leaving him for dead and living his own life in guilt.
No wonder he’d taken it as his personal mission to make sure Ye Zun couldn’t hurt anyone else. No wonder he’d said to Zhao Yunlan, that horrible night in Dixing, how he’d have taken all the injuries on himself if it could save the others. He saw sacrificing himself as the only retribution for his actions, the only price he could pay to try to make up for what he saw as his life’s mistake.
In that moment Zhao Yunlan knew it was the last time they’d talk like this. He could feel something ending, a bridge between them collapsing, a string being cut. There was something in Shen Wei’s eyes that night, a wild kind of light, a helpless desperation. And he could do nothing about it. He had to fall into Ye Zun’s trap and be unable to do anything but scream as the love of his life bled out in front of him, for him.
Almost every regret of his ended in this thought: if only they’d had more time.
tw: suicidal ideation, character death and resurrection
AN: the house thing was something I picked up from talking to ppl about the novel, though I haven't read it yet
the future haunts with memories
that I could never have
Zhang Shi feels like banging his head against the nearest solid surface. He’s getting nowhere. There was a portal, here in the forest of the Yashou, but as far as he can tell it was rarely used and only ever activated by the presence of the Hallows.
And he sure as hell doesn’t have those in Haixing. There is nothing with that kind of energy in Haixing. They don’t have enough of the plants or minerals from Dixing, nothing to create a resonance strong enough for even just communication.
The root plant thing that symbolizes the power of the chief of the Yashou doesn’t count. It’s spent too much time above ground, and in the hands of Yashou. Whatever resonance it may have held from whatever place it had come from- it was long gone.
The portal in Dragon City is a bust as well. He’s pretty sure that one was placed by Heipaoshi, maybe not sustained, but it was used primarily by him, so even if some remnants of it remained they might only react to Shen Wei. And Shen Wei isn’t Dixingren in this life. A dark energy portal would not obey a cat Yashou.
As for a literal doorway, his original dramatic declaration that he’d tunnel to Dixing himself if there was no other way- well that was just a pipe dream. Yashou didn’t have that kind of equipment or powers, and it’s not like he could just ask any Haixing company to do it for him. He’s not even sure what Haixing machines might do if they came into contact with Dixing.
Theoretically, though nobody who remembers can tell him, he wonders if dark energy and technology might be fundamentally incompatible. It would make sense. He doesn’t know if anyone tried to bring Haixing technology down to Dixing… regular Haixing technology anyway. He remembers something about the SID mad genius scientist having a crush on a Dixingren, and making her something. He only knows this because Zhao Yunlan had to cover for him, BS away the extra money that went into the lab department that month.
Maybe that kind of technology would work- but he didn’t know anyone in SID, didn’t even know how to start to approach them. He knew nobody working there now could have known Zhao Yunlan, but there were photographs. And his presence after the war ended was never really explained. He never did ask what they said Zhao Yunlan did when Zhang Shi ran away in his body. Lao Zhao had, no doubt, thought of something. He always did. But there was no way he could get their trust and cooperation in this body.
And there was no way he was leaving this body. He shudders suddenly, imagining it crumbling, hundreds of years of time gone by suddenly coming upon it all at once, turning it into dust. No, this body was still needed. He would get Zhao Yunlan out of that lamp and back into his body if it was the last thing he did.
Zhao Yunlan starts to think the universe is taunting him. Perhaps the Hallows themselves are playing with him. Or maybe, in some misguided way, they're trying to make him feel better, by sending him his family, piecemeal, one by one.
“Hello?” It’s much faster this time to respond to the call, and Zhao Yunlan gleefully shoots out of his body and into what he thinks of as the in-between. In the conversations with Xiao Guo he managed to find a sort of balance between being in his mind and being at the periphery, enough to talk but not to be overwhelmed by his thoughts and worries and desires.
“Zhu Hong!” Zhao Yunlan beams, and waves of easy affection roll off the little golden ball of light that is his consciousness.
“How do you- well I suppose you’d just say it’s your magic that allows you this knowledge.”
“Correct. And to what do I owe the pleasure of this conversation?” He tries not to bounce up and down in excitement. God he missed her dry wit and sarcastic comments.
“My great uncle made a promise to his great grandfather, but never fulfilled it, so he made me promise, so his spirit could rest.”
“Your great uncle’s great grandfather was Xiao Guo?” It is so weirdly amusingly convoluted, Zhao Yunlan can’t help but laugh.
“I doubt anyone in our family would’ve had the guts to call him that, except his brothers. I looked into the family history for this. You should be thanking me.”
“Praise be to Hong-jie for taking pity on this poor lonely lantern and deciding to listen to two old men and touch an ancient enchanted artifact on faith alone.”
“Hong-jie? That’s Zhu Hong to you, Zhu-guniang if I’m feeling generous.”
“Aiyo, Hong-jie, so formal.”
“I don’t know you. I just met you! You’re a weird talking lantern who’s telepathically communicating to me and knows my name and I don’t even know your name!”
“You can call me Lan-ge.” He doesn’t even have to see her expression to imagine it. The vague emotion sense he gets from her proves him right. She is entirely unimpressed. “Or, if you prefer, Lord Guardian.”
“Lao-Ge it is.”
“Why you gotta be so contrary Hong-jie?”
“Why did Lao Guo send me to talk to a crazy sentient artifact?” The thought doesn’t seem to be aimed at him specifically, but Zhao Yunlan is sure she expected him to hear it. He just laughs. It’s so good to hear her voice again.
“He kept me company for awhile. It’s lonely here! Take pity on me Hong-jie I’ve only talked to three people in what, five, six hundred years? And the first doesn’t really count, I didn’t even have time to ask his name before he vanished.”
Zhu Hong is silent, and Zhao Yunlan wishes he’d kept his stupid mouth shut.
“Six hundred years?”
“Aiyo, Hong-jie, it’s not that bad. I’m not conscious the entire time.” Which isn’t a lie. “And it’s not like I’m human, I was made to be a lone guardian, I just get bored.” One parts lie, two parts truth.
“Oh Hong-jie. I forget how good you are calling me out when I’m lying- but couldn’t you, this once, let it slide?”
“I’ll talk to you. I’ll make anyone who will stand still long enough to listen promise to talk to you. I swear. I won’t let you be alone for that long again.” There’s a fierce determination in her voice, and he can just imagine the expression that matches it, eyebrows drawn, mouth tight in a stubborn frown.
“Thank you, Hong-jie.” He admits, letting his fondness shine through in his tone.
“Men are idiots. If he’d just said-”
“Zhu Hong, it’s fine. You’re here now, that’s all that matters.”
“You’re an idiot as well.” He laughs with her this time.
“Whatever you say, Chief.” There's a few moments of surprised silence, and then she laughs.
“Are you just going to give me increasingly weird nicknames? Is that just something you do, Lao-Ge?” There's a grudging amusement in her tone and if he could he would be doing a victory dance.
“What? Don’t think you’d make a good chief?”
“As much as I love ordering people around I don’t think anyone would voluntarily give me that kind of power.” There’s a kind of amusement in her tone, like she’s in on a joke he missed.
“Oh, you don’t know about that. Give it some time.”
“Are you a bored annoying condescending and crazy lantern or is it just the centuries of solitude?”
“Bit of both I think. Oh, fuck, I think my times running out. Can’t talk for longer than like ten or fifteen minutes at a time and neglect my lantern my duties. If you do come back and I don’t respond within ten minutes it’s probably cause I’m off doing important shit and not because I don’t want to talk to you.”
“Alright, weirdo. Next time maybe I’ll ask you some more interesting questions.” He can almost see her leaning her head on her hand with a small smile she wouldn’t admit to if anyone had pointed it out. Or maybe it’s just wishful thinking.
“Only if I can ask some about you!”
“Maybe. Well, gotta go back to school. I can't skip all my history classes cause I’m talking to a crazy lantern.”
“Studying is important! Even if I do know a fair bit about history before the separation, I don’t know much about the time I’ve been in the lantern.”
“Oh so you haven’t always been a lantern?”
Fuck. Didn’t mean to say that.
And then it’s too late to think of an excuse anyway, too late to try to prepare, and as Zhao Yunlan re-enters his burning body he realizes that it’s already died without him. At least that means this death is quicker than the others. Barely enough time to realize what’s going on and then he falls into a darkness he’s never quite sure he’ll make it out of next time around.
Zhang Shi hates this idea, maybe not as much as Da Qing, but they’ve talked it over and neither can think of anything else. The passage didn’t open when they opened the door with the ancient wood as key, not this time, not last time. Last time it took the Hallows and after the connection broke on their little FaceTime call to the past, the portal was just there.
Zhang Shi is wearing a cloak. Yes, a cloak. With a hood. Because that was their best idea on keeping his face hidden. Having a snake Yashou with them just to create an illusion, especially since they don’t know how long it’ll take- it’s not worth it. At least it’s not a black cloak. That would’ve been a bit stupid if the whole point of this was not to trigger any memories.
Ye Zun shows up in cat form, jumping up on the flattest of the pedestals and immediately curling up, asleep in moments. Even in cat form Zhang Shi can tell he’s older. Much older. I mean, he did basically take a hundred year nap and the twins were only teenagers. They are getting up there, for Yashou, they’re already past middle age. He tries not to think about the implications of that.
Shen Wei- Zhang Shi doesn’t even let himself look at Shen Wei. He turns away as soon as he sees him and Da Qing in his peripheral vision. He doesn’t have to do anything but keep still and silent. They’ve talked this over with Da Qing. He knows what to say in case they can actually contact someone in Dixing.
“So… what’s with Mr. Mysterious?” Apparently Ye Zun wasn’t really asleep. Zhang Shi is not surprised.
“He’s one of the archivists, he’s taken a vow of silence. But all of us, in one life or another, have come into contact with the Hallows. So this is the closest we’re going to get to fulfilling the original requirements of this resonance chamber.”
“What do we need to do?” Shen Wei’s voice pulls on Zhang Shi's heartstrings in a way that doesn’t feel entirely like his own emotions. It’s like the body is responding to something the current consciousness doesn’t recognize.
He twitches, but holds his tongue. He reaches out to place a hand on the nearest pedestal to him. They take the hint. Da Qing goes to the one on the end of the cavern, where he said the portal had been. He sees Shen Wei’s hand placed on the last pedestal, and Zhang Shi closes his eyes. It’s easier this way.
“So is something supposed to happen-”
“Shh!” Both Da Qing and Shen Wei shush him at the same time, and Zhang Shi has to put a hand to his mouth to muffle a laugh. Especially when he can see the white cat bristling indignantly from the corner of his eye.
“Try to focus on the energy of the Hallows, any memory you have of them. Sorry Shen Wei, you just try to tune into your brother's energy, your existing connection should be enough to trigger whatever it is we’re trying to find.”
Ye Zun huffs through his nose, sounding entirely unimpressed. Either that or he’s uncomfortable. Probably both. “You really didn’t plan this out very well did you?”
“Well, be my guest. If there’s something you remember about how the Hallows work that might help, please tell us.” Da Qing snarks, frustrated but without a true bite to his tone.
Silence reigns for a few long minutes as Zhang Shi tries to remember being in the presence of the Hallows, tries to tap into whatever muscle memory or strange recollections this body has; there must be something he can do.
“We should probably hold hands.” There's a sigh and the almost soundless noise of a cat jumping to the floor, then Ye Zun resumes his human form, grabbing his brother's hand.
“Oh, didn’t know you were the type.” Da Qing crows gleefully, Zhang Shi can imagine the expression on his face without even turning to look at him. Ye Zun merely hisses at him through his teeth. Da Qing takes Zhang Shi’s hand and, from the feel of it, shrugs.
Then another hand reaches for his, and he nearly jumps out of his skin. His hand tightens around Shen Wei’s without him telling it to, and it grounds him somehow. It’s warm, it’s never usually this warm. And then something clicks.
There’s a golden fire behind Zhang Shi’s eyelids, and for a few incandescent moments he sees all four of them, him, the Guardian Lantern, Da Qing, the Merit Brush, Ye Zun, the Mountain River Awl, and lastly Shen Wei, the Dial of Longevity.
There’s a crackle of energy and the portal bursts into life in the corner closest to Da Qing. It flickers, unstable, but it’s there. It’s undeniably there.
“Aha!” Da Qing almost lets go of Zhang Shi’s hand but Zhang Shi tightens his grip, trying to silently remind him what they’re here for.
“-hello? Is anyone there?”
“Yes, are you in Dixing? We’re in the cave of the Yashou. I’m Da Qing, Cat Yashou and current Tribe Chief.” When did that happen? Zhang Shi shakes his head. It isn’t the time for those questions. He has other priorities.
“Yes, I’m in the Palace. You did it! We’ve been trying on our end for ages but even having the three Hallows all together didn’t do anything.”
“Three?” It’s Shen Wei who asks the question, and Zhang Shi’s hand reflexively tightens on his, which he curses profusely and in many different languages in his head as he forces it to slacken.
“The Awl, the Dial, and the Brush, yes.” The voice sounds a bit confused.
“What about the Lantern?” To his credit, Da Qing’s voice doesn’t break. Nobody but Zhang Shi notices it was about to.
“Oh, that old thing? It’s at the memorial in the university.”
“Old thing? The Lantern is the only reason you’re not buried under tons of rock, and have daylight to see by!” Zhang Shi tries to squeeze Da Qing’s hand, in solidarity and in warning, as only after a few moments does he get a squeeze back.
“We know, but we thought it safest to downplay the power of the lantern, to discourage anyone trying to do any mischief. It’s kind of become a good luck charm.” Zhang Shi breathes a sigh of relief, recognizing that someone, a very smart someone, must’ve rewritten history a bit to exclude the Lantern from the rest of the Hallows. It’s smart. It’s power is so different, so defensive compared to the offensive uses of the other Hallowe, that it must've been easy to say it was just a magical artifact. “Oh, I never introduced myself. I’m An Bai, the secretary to the current Chief.”
“What, no King anymore?” Da Qing asks, leaning towards the portal, his curiosity taking the wheel.
“We decided you Yashou had the better idea.” Zhang Shi smiles to himself as he imagines Da Qing’s chest puffing out in pride. “After the Separation, we figured out a work around for the stupid ‘King aging prematurely because he cant stop doing paperwork’ thing.”
“Thank god. That was kind of barbaric, honestly.” Zhang Shi is suddenly hit by an idea, and he squeezes Da Qing’s hand, yanking him closer.
“Ask him how long it would take to get all the Hallows, including the Lantern, into the Palace.” He whispers straight into the cat’s ear, looking up to see a look of surprise morph into a grin as Da Qing nods.
“Hey, An Bai, I have a question. Actually, it’s a bit of a request. Can you get all the Hallows, and the Lantern, wherever you are right now? If having the four of us here is enough to open a channel but not a full portal, maybe having the Hallows would complete the resonance enough to open the passage, if only temporarily.”
“Oh, wow. I’d have to ask the Chief, obviously, but I think she’d be open to the idea. It’s past time we figured out how to open the passageways again.” He sounds excited, and Zhang Shi smiles. It’s all coming together.
“Alright, so, how about we regroup in a week? If you can, bring the Hallows, if not, bring the Chief. She might want to talk to us before she agrees to something like this. How does that sound?”
“Perfect. It is going to be the most interesting week on this job, thanks to you.” He sounds so young, all of sudden Zhang Shi feels the weight of the centuries, and a millennia and a half before that, on his shoulders.
“Alright kitling, don’t get too excited and forget no doubt it’ll be a long while before this becomes a stable, usable, portal.” Da Qing squeezes his hand, and for a moment Zhang Shi thinks it’s because he wants to tell him something, but when he looks into his face he realizes the cat, his friend , has picked up on his melancholy. He’s not the only one with millennia of memories weighing him down. He should treasure that solidarity while he can.
“Until next time.”
It feels like a much smaller infinity of dying and burning before Zhu Hong is back again. He’s glad, he’s so happy, he crashes straight into her consciousness in the only semblance of a hug he can manage before pulling back, laughing at her confusion.
“What did you just do?”
“I gave you a hug!”
“I- We’re not even going to try to unpack that. Just- can you read my thoughts?” Anxiety and curiosity war in her tone.
“Not really. The only way I used to be able to talk was to kind of- get inside someone’s energy? It’s weird to describe, like- to me you’re a pulsing ball of dark energy. And in order to be able to talk to you, I have to leave the lantern behind to an extent, or at least partly detach my consciousness from it. But being inside someone else’s energy is confusing, and makes it very hard to talk to them, so eventually after much trial and error with Xiao Guo I figured out how to stay at the periphery, enough to hear you and talk to you and feel a bit of your emotions, but not enough to be in your mind, buffeted about by all your thoughts and feelings. So I’m kind of orbiting you right now. Like a moon. Or a planet.” Though it would be more fitting for him to be the sun, not her. He is, after all, the one on fire.
“Leave the lantern behind, huh? That’s interesting. So can you see anything outside the lantern? Can you go anywhere?” Zhao Yunlan senses a probing behind these comments, and chuckles to himself. Did she really think he, the master of getting people to tell him what he needed to know without even realizing, would not notice?
“Well, I can’t see like you can see. I can feel things, but on a much larger scale. It’s all very boring. Tell me something interesting! Tell me something about the small things, the people, your life maybe? You said you were going to school? Took them long enough!” He can almost see her roll her eyes as she sighs. Zhao Yunlan one, Zhu Hong zero.
“Yes, I’m almost done though.”
“What are you learning? Do you have a specialization?”
“My turn to ask you a question.” There’s something very… focused in her tone. The shift in her energy confuses him.
“What’s your real name?” Her voice is soft, and very nice. He should answer the nice lady’s question. He speaks without thinking.
“Zhao Y-” he cuts himself off with great effort, then tries to cover up his panic. “Aiyo Hong-jie! Has anyone told you that it’s very rude to try to hypnotize a fr- an elder?” He needs to stop slipping up. He can’t afford that.
“Damn it! It must not have worked completely because I can't look you in the eyes.” It seems like she’s speaking to herself. She certainly doesn’t pause for an answer from him. “Though it does prove that you’re a person, or were a person at some point. My powers don’t work on animals or anything, only people.”
“That doesn’t prove anything.” He’s gotten his feet under him again, so to speak. “Have you ever tried to hypnotize a sentient magical artifact before?”
“I haven’t. But I do think you’re protesting too much. You wouldn’t be acting like this if you weren’t trying to hide something.”
“Oh I’m hiding something for sure.” His tone turns biting. “It’s the price of Dixing and your continued existence. I’ve lost something quite dear to me along the way and would appreciate it if you stopped prying.” He snaps at her, and immediately regrets it. But she doesn’t bristle, or immediately apologize, and he realizes that this isn’t his Hong-jie at all. She’s confident, assertive, no doubt unhampered by a one-sided crush that blinds her to her own faults as much as the person she loved-
“Alright. For now, I will let it go.” She doesn’t explain, she doesn’t apologize, she just sits there and waits. Honestly, it’s a bit disarming. Especially since he can tell there’s a ‘however’ hidden in there somewhere that she’s keeping to herself.
“I know you’re trying to help, but the only thing you can do to help is talking to me. I’ve made peace with my lot, it’s worth it for the safety of your people. It’s a worthy cause.”
“Don’t sit there and try to tell me you wouldn’t like to be out here with me.”
“Zhu Hong, I've made my choice. There’s no going back. This is as much atonement for my mistakes as it is anything else. I was made for this, being a Guardian.” None of it is a lie, and it seems that’s what Zhu Hong decides as well, because he can feel her back down.
“Isn’t your time almost up, Lao-ge?” Her voice is almost gentle. If he had felt pity in her tone he wouldn’t have been able to handle it. It’s still very disorienting though. Because he’d swear it was- what on anyone else he would’ve called- her ‘customer service’ voice. Which made absolutely no sense. And anyway he could feel himself slipping. At least she’d given him something to think about.
“Until next time, Hong-jie. My lanternly duties await me.” He thinks it sounds appropriately light. She laughs, so it must have been.
“Talk to you later.”
As he did many times after talking to Xiao Guo, he resolutely didn’t think about Shen Wei, living his life, happy, and not his Shen Wei at all. Was he a professor again? A protector of some sort? Was Ye Zun with him? God that bastard- he supposes he should try to come to terms with the fact that he’s probably not evil in every lifetime. Nobody who was Shen Wei’s twin could be. Something must have happened.
But he still can’t see anything but Ye Zun, stabbing Shen Wei, Ye Zun, stepping on his back with a smirk and shoving him onto the ground, Ye Zun, asking what Zhao Yunlan wanted, like he hadn’t told him as soon as he had consumed Shen Wei like a fucking magical snack. He’d wanted two things. To die. And to kill Ye Zun. He’d gotten both, in a way. Not that it mattered anymore.
There’s a certain comfort to the pain of these memories, he’s so used to it. It doesn’t hurt any less with the passage of time, like everyone says death should. They say it gets easier to deal with, a lighter weight on your shoulders, that you will one day be able to remember them with fondness, without the wave of guilt and anguish dragging you under.
It’s what they’d said when he lost his mother. After years and years, it had gotten a bit easier. It never hurt any less, but the gap between remembering a good moment and the wave of pain and grief has widened. The waves had shrunk until they no longer knocked him off his feet. But the water was still just as freezing cold.
With Shen Wei- it only seems to hurt worse as time goes on. As he remembers all the things he’d done wrong, as he misses him with every beat of his heart.
But those horrible moments were also his last memories of Shen Wei, and he cradles them to his chest, no matter how much the sharp edges tear at his skin.
It was the last time they were together, the last time Zhao Yunlan had touched him, tried to hold him together, and failed.
Shen Wei tries not to think about it. He really does. But it’s not like he has much of anything else to occupy him. Yes, he teaches classes at the university, but he has time off. And even his brother’s antics can’t distract him completely.
Something had happened that day in the cave of the Yashou. Whoever that person in the brown cloak was- he shakes his head. It makes absolutely no sense. There should be no reason for him to feel like he’s let something slip through his fingers. There should be no reason why holding a stranger’s hand should make him feel- what? He doesn’t even know what to call it. There was some electric buzz under his skin, it made him want to move, to do something, but he didn’t know what. It wasn’t entirely uncomfortable, but it wasn’t pleasant either. It was like he’d become a channel for some energy that was passing though him, trying to reach- somewhere.
Or is he just overthinking it? That was probably it. That’s what Ye Zun would’ve said if Shen Wei had told him. Which is precisely why he hasn’t. If he’d seen the man’s face, or even heard his voice, he might have been able to chalk it up to pure physical attraction- not that he’s ever really felt that before. But that’s how other people have described it. He supposes that could have been it anyway. His mind and his heart have never really agreed on things so it would have come as no surprise if he managed to get a crush on someone whose face he hasn’t even seen.
Which is yet another check in the column of ‘don’t tell your nosy but well-meaning Didi.’ Knowing him, he’d try to- set them up or something. Pester the poor man about his vow; he loves his brother but sometimes he doesn’t understand boundaries at all. Not that Shen Wei is very good at setting boundaries. Some of Ye Zun’s therapy keeps rubbing off on him- which he supposes makes sense, since he must be a common topic in the sessions. Him and whatever he remembers from his past lives, whatever it was he was forced to do that he still has screaming nightmares about.
He shakes his head. It’s his day off. He should be relaxing, he’s even in his favorite nook of the Yashou library, trying to read. Keyword there: trying. He can’t focus. He has a sudden urge to go find the man- and do what, exactly? Ask him if he felt anything weird when they were holding hands? He didn’t even know the Yashou had archivists. He supposes, since this is a library, it follows that there would be people to take care of it. They are pretty secretive. There isn’t really a reason why he would’ve met one of them before, especially if the archivists work with the rarest books and the kind of fragile scrolls that cannot be exposed to daylight or touched without gloves.
But he’s never really been interested in people- books make much more sense. People are complicated and unpredictable and loud and he doesn’t know how to interact with them, he’s nothing like his brother. For Ye Zun it’s so easy. He can make friends with anyone, talk to anyone. He can get whatever he wants from someone and convince them that it was their idea along the way. The only person that doesn’t work on, of course, is himself. Well, not in the same way. There isn’t much Shen Wei can deny his didi when he really wants it.
What would his life be like, if he didn’t periodically let his little brother drag him out into socializing? If his enthusiasm didn’t smooth over the most awkward situations and make Shen Wei feel welcome almost anywhere? A lot more boring, probably. He knows that it’s a limitation that he should probably work on, get out of his comfort zone and everything, but what’s the point? He’s never really needed anyone except Da Qing and his brother.
They are both social animals, he respects that, but he’s an introvert, through and through. So what if sometimes he’s a little lonely when Ye Zun is out? When Da Qing comes home late because he has chief matters to attend to? Everyone has their own separate lives. He has his university job. Then- why does it feel like something’s missing? Why does he look out his window sometimes and expect to see something other than the forest of the Yashou?
Wht tonight, of all nights, is this bothering him so much? Oh right, it’s because they’re all going to come together again tomorrow to contact Dixing. He’s going to have to ignore whatever strange feelings and sensations he no doubt is going to have to hold that man’s hand again – or no, they don’t necessarily have to be in the same order as last time, do they? Can he not stand on the end and Ye Zun be in his place?
He shakes his head. This is stupid. He’s letting his own feelings get in the way. Isn’t that always his problem? For all that everyone seems to think that his brother is the emotional one, just because he lets them show on his face- It’s always Shen Wei that finds his emotions getting in the way of things. He can’t face these feelings, he doesn’t know what to do with them. He doesn’t understand where they came from or what they’re trying to tell him. He only knows that, once again, they’re tripping him up. And this time, it’s much more than just his career or his own safety that’s on the line.
He needs to pull himself together, shove those stupid feelings in a box somewhere and throw it away. They aren’t of use to anyone. They’re not based on anything he can explain or figure out, so he should just stop trying. He’s wasting his own time.
He’s wasting his time trying to figure them out, wallowing in confusion and not letting himself move forward. They’re clutter, keeping him from using the full potential of his mind, exactly what the situation needs right now. They need to figure out how to permanently open communications, without having to have four people holding hands and all four Hallows in the same place. He needs the headspace- so he can try to help. He’s not just going to stand by and watch other people working on a problem without contributing. And he can’t do that if he’s stuck worrying in the mire of his own emotions.
But a treacherous little voice says, there is no harm in standing in a different place this time, is there? If it doesn’t work, he can just move back to where he was. No harm, no foul. Right? If he’s less distracted, then he’ll be able to help better. He shouldn’t ask his brother after all. He should just do it. But Ye Zun will know as soon as he sees his face. But he won’t bring it up right then and there, will he? Even he has to have some sense of what they’re doing, after all.
It really comes down to this: does he want to end up wrestling with his own feelings again or does he want to deal with his brother asking him all sorts of questions about said feelings. Neither is ideal.
AN: thanks for all the sweet comments!! they really help motivate me to keep going
psst, also, if you’re one of those ppl who’s like ‘i wish i could give u more than one kudos’ feel free to just comment ‘kudos!’ and i’ll understand. no need to try to think of something to say if you can’t at the moment ✨
my heart, my life, will never be the same
The next time Zhu Hong is back, the lantern doesn’t answer. She remembers him saying something about ‘lanternly duties,’ but she doesn’t know how far to believe him. She knows he’s lying, and she can’t tell if it’s just for the reasons that he told her. She can find no information about the guardian lantern, anywhere. At least now that she’s Chief, she knows that lantern is one of the Hallows. But that doesn’t get her very much further than where she was before. It just means it’s a more pwoerful artefct than she realized.
She feels guilty for taking so long to visit, but she’s been busy. She’s sent other people to talk to him, and that has gotten her more information, though of what sort- she doesn’t know. Some people don’t seem to get through to him at all, and she doesn’t know why. There’s no common factors between the people that can’t talk to him, or people who can.
She’s had her hand on the lantern for about half an hour, when something changes. She’s taking this time to take a breather, to talk her thoughts into song semblance of order, without really needing anyone to reply.
This time she almost senses it, a bit like an ember suddenly bursting into flame. first he’s not there, and then he is.
“You've caught me napping, Hong-jie.” His voice does sound appropriately hoarse, though not with sleep, she thinks.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been back in a little while. I’ve tried to send people to you, but not everyone seems to be able to talk to you. Have any ideas why?”
“No idea.” He says, through what is very clearly a yawn. A bit too clearly in fact.
“I managed to track down the name of the very first person who talked to you. And only because he was in the old palace staff records, back when you were apparently in the palace, along with the rest of the Hallows. His name was Lin Yusen. So me, Lao Guo, and this boy. What makes us special?” She doesn’t really expect him to answer, but nonetheless she’s surprised when he doesn’t respond. In fact, now that she thinks about it, she’s more surprised that he didn’t interrupt her in the middle of her little speech.
“Lao-ge? Are you okay?”
“Huh? Oh, sorry, I kinda drifted off there. Forgive an old lantern, won’t you?” His voice takes on a playful tone, or at least what he seems to think it’s a playful tone. To her it just sounds forced. She suddenly feels bad about interrogating him like this. He clearly has his reasons for keeping quiet. She’s not giving up, but she does need to learn when to stop pushing.
“There’s a girl in one of my classes-” What possessed her to say that?
“Oh?” He sounds much livelier. “Do tell.”
“I-” She hesitates, torn.
“Hong-jie,” he somehow manages to turn her name into three syllables, “What’s the harm of telling someone like me? Who am I going to tell?” Fuck it. She’s going to let herself be a normal person, just for a little while. Just a normal twenty something with a crush.
“Her name is Li Qian.”
“Oh?” He seems a bit startled, but she doesn’t really notice. “What’s she like?”
“She’s- very hardworking. And very sweet. She was raised by her grandmother, who is an honest to god saint.”
“So, met the parental figure already?”
“It’s not like that! Well, I don’t know if it’s like that. She’s very reserved. I don’t even know if she likes girls, much less girls who happen to be the rulers of the realm she lives in.”
“Oh, so that’s how you know about me being a Hallow.” He says it almost to himself, continuing immediately onto the previous topic, “And maybe you can bring it up if you don’t want to straight up ask? I don't know, if it comes up naturally. I don’t really give the best advice, being a lantern doesn’t give you a very clear sense of boundaries.”
“Why do I get the feeling that even before you were a lantern, you didn’t know the definition of the word ‘boundaries?’ ”
“Aiyo Hong-jie, so mean .” But he doesn’t sound hurt or put out in the slightest.
“By the way, I’m taking you on a field trip in a few days.”
“What?!” She has the feeling that if he had been lounging, he would’ve sat bolt upright, from the surprise in his voice.
“That’s right. You’re coming with me to the palace. Gotta join the other Hallows, we’ve finally managed to open a very temporary channel of communication with Haixing, and we think having all the Hallows there will help stabilize it.”
“Haixing? Really? How are they doing? Is everyone okay?” She makes a mental note that he might have been Haixingren before he was a lantern. She’d thought earlier that maybe he was a Dixingren with some sort of power that had sealed him into the lantern with no escape hatch, since he no longer had a body, but she’ll have to rethink that.
“They seem fine. The Chief of the Yashou up there figured something out, I can't wait to ask in more detail exactly what it was. Whoever it is also already knows about you being a Hallow, which was helpful.” She doesn’t tell him that she’s fully planning on asking the Yashou Chief if he knows anything about the Lantern. He doesn’t answer that either, and Zhu Hong thinks that maybe his time has run out. She doesn’t want to leave him alone, but he sounded so- worn out? out of it?
“Lao-ge? Should I go?” It’s a few long moments before he answers.
“I’m- I’m sorry Hong-jie,” He sounds hoarse, almost like- “you’ve caught me at a bad time. I’ll be a better conversational partner next time.”
“No, you’ve been great. I always look forward to talking to you, if only for all the absolutely befuddling subject changes and the fact that I don’t always have to answer. After days full of people expecting me to have all the answers, it’s- refreshing.”
“Don’t tell me I’m your only friend Hong-jie!” She hears the heartbreak behind the teasing tone, and feels like someone’s punched her in the face. There’s something so familiar- “I’m sorry. That was a bit mean.”
“I’ve been too busy. With classes, then training, and now it’s just weird. Everyone tries to act normal around me but it’s just not the same. People will stop talking when I pass, like they’re worried I’m going to get them arrested for being loud or something. I couldn’t care less if you got high last weekend as long as you didn’t hurt anyone. And anyway, that’s the Heipaoshi department’s problem.”
There’s what sounds like a muffled gasp from the man in the lantern, and a few things suddenly click in Zhu Hong’s mind. Heipaoshi sacrificed himself to end the war, among a few notable others, and Lao-ge had told her he’d lost something dear- he must’ve known him. Fuck. She hadn’t meant to bring back painful memories…
He’s whispering something- she almost asks him to speak up when she realizes he’s probably not talking to her. It sounds like a name, repeated over and over.
She hears what is unmistakably a sob, and she jerks her hand away. She feels like she’s intruded on something incredibly private, which she has. Not intentionally, but that doesn’t change the result- she feels the urge to apologize, but stops her hand an inch away from the intricate bronze metalwork of the lantern. Does she want to apologize right now because she feels guilty, or because she genuinely thinks it’s the right time for an apology?
She bows her head and folds her hands in her lap. I’m sorry, Lord Guardian. I’ll give you space and apologize next time.
Shen Wei, oh Xiao Wei, why couldn’t you have trusted me? Why didn’t you trust me? I trusted you with everything, my life, my family, my heart- but it was never the right thing. Where did I overstep? What did I do wrong?
The next morning dawns with Shen Wei having gotten pretty much no sleep. His brother at least, doesn’t comment on the dark circles under his eyes. Da Qing spent the night somewhere else, so he’s not there to punch him in the arm and chastise him for staying up late reading again.
There seems to be a pall cast over the day already, or maybe it’s just what Ye Zun’s therapist would call a bad day. Either way Shen Wei goes through the motions with a feeling of foreboding in his heart. Breakfast, class, lunch with Ye Zun and Da Qing, who makes them listen to him describing a book neither twin has read or would be interested in reading- but somehow, coming in Da Qing’s dry tones and with his many asides, it’s both amusing and entertaining.
Both too soon and with the feeling of forever, the day turns into evening, and they all make their way back to the pedestals, to the places they’d been last week. Except Shen Wei takes his brother’s place at the end. Ye Zun blinks once and adjusts, but Da Qing is too excited and worried at turns to notice.
“Alright it’s time.” Da Qing says, almost bouncing on the balls of his feet as he reaches out a hand to the hooded man. They all take hands and- nothing happens. The man in the cloak seems to shake his head, like he’s trying to knock something loose, then he pulls on Da Qing’s arm enough that he’s facing the twins.
Shen Wei blinks at him as if he’s tired. Which he is. It isn’t much of a stretch.
“Oh. I wasn’t on the end last time, was I. My apologies.” She berates himself internally for giving in to the urge to run from his problems, and switches places with his brother, who raises an eyebrow but doesn’t say anything.
Shen Wei looks pointedly over to the other two people in the room, and Ye Zun rolls his eyes. They’ll have that conversation later, in private.
“Let’s try this again then!”
Shen Wei’s hand doesn’t shake as he reaches it out for the hooded man to take. He also seems to hesitate, before their hands touch, and Shen Wei immediately forgets his confusion at the previous observation. The buzzing starts up under his skin again, the crawling feeling of something he needs to do, something he needs to say-
But then, with a flash of golden fire, the portal is open.
“Hello? This is Zhu Hong, current Head Chief of Dixing.”
“Hong-jie!” Da Qing cries out, before the hooded man slaps a hand over his mouth. It breaks the chain of linked hands but the connection doesn’t falter, so they all take that as a cue.
“Let’s try that again.” She says, voice warm with suppressed amusement. They all know about the taboo of talking about reincarnations, past or future. It’s bad luck. But Da Qing is, for all intents and purposes, immortal, so Shen Wei imagines it’s hard on him to meet new strangers who wear the faces and personalities of old friends.
“Yes, I’m sorry. I’m Da Qing, Chief of the Yashou. I’m here with Zhang Shi, Shen Wei, and Ye Zun.” So the mystery man is named Zhang Shi?
“Nice to meet you, Da Qing. And I’m glad we figured this out. Six centuries is about enough time apart, don’t you think?”
“Do we need to be here?” Ye Zun yawns, already in cat form and having jumped into Shen Wei’s startled arms. “I want to take a nap and my dear ge-ge is the only one who doesn’t fidget while he reads.”
“Yes, you may depart, you gremlin.” Da Qing says in tones of mock annoyance. Ye Zun hisses at him halfheartedly and Shen Wei turns to leave.
“Since we’re being casual, can I ask you a question? There’s no records down here about the Guardian Lantern and how it works. How is it lit?”
“You don’t know? It’s-”
“No!” A hoarse voice shouts, and Shen Wei freezes. It feels like time stops for a few moments as the word echoes in his brain, the voice achingly familiar... but he can’t place it. It feels like it’s from a long time ago, but not his childhood- and then time goes into fast forward to make up for the frozen seconds. Ye Zun lands on the floor with a displeased yowl, but Shen Wei doesn’t notice having dropped him.
“What’s going on over there? Is everyone okay?” The female voice filters in, and it fits into whatever picture is forming in Shen Wei’s mind.
“It’s fine, just a little- mishap.” And so does Da Qing’s. If he just closed his eyes, he’s sure he could bring it all into focus- He doesn’t notice he’s falling until a strong arm catches him, the skin on skin contact a more familiar touch than any he’s felt in this life. He looks up and suddenly he’s safe, he’s home.
“Yunlan?” He finds tears streaming down his face and a name he doesn’t recognize on his lips. But now he’s sitting against a wall and the arm lets go and dark spots blur his vision- whoerever Yunlan was, he walks away from Shen Wei.
And then everything goes dark.
Zhao Yunlan wishes to any gods that might be listening, cursing at the Hallows themselves, that he can’t see outside the Lantern. Zhu Hong decides to bring him personally, though, as she complains to him, followed by three, three whole guards. It’s like they don’t think she can handle herself.
She describes her surroundings to him as she walks, as well as she can. It’s a little literal, and Zhao Yunlan finds himself thinking that Shen Wei would’ve said it better. It doesn’t help that the first half of their journey is through the university. Not that he isn’t grateful. He is, even if the monotony is only broken by a described journey he cannot see or feel. Any time away from the flames is worth it.
But the timing, as always, is rotten. This is why we can’t have nice things, he finds himself saying, as he doesn’t even have time to let her know before he tumbles back into his body and finds himself in the slow agonizing process of dying. He supposes he’s been lucky to be able to talk to her what- three, four times like this? He’s not sure if the contact is built into the Lantern so it’s wick doesn’t go mad, or if it’s some weird loophole for him because he’s been exposed to the Hallows so much.
Soon enough he doesn’t have the mindspace to even think about that. It’s just him, and the oh so familiar flames licking at his not even real body, burning his extremities first, then as a wildfire spreading down his limbs and into his organs, into his heart, filling his throat and lungs with ash and choking him as his heart gives out.
Da Qing is alone. Again. He supposes he should’ve expected it. Sooner or later, it’s always just him. At least Zhang Shi took the time to let him know what he was planning before he did it- and once in awhile he’ll come to talk at the portal, but it’s just not the same.
Da Qing can’t join him, not just yet. He’s got responsibilities here, and the extra boost needed to send Zhang Shi through almost fries the portal entirely. It takes a week of Da Qing staying in the room, with his Yashou coming in to bring him food before it’s stable enough to be able to transmit speech again.
His hopeful candidate for next chief is Guo Changcheng, reborn as a snake. Chu Shuzhi and Chu Nianzhi show up a few years before he does, both crows. It’s too soon for Da Qing, too soon to replace one pair of Yashou twins with another- but at least they’re not cats. Thank all the stars. He doesn’t know if he’d have been able to handle that.
Hong-jie is doing well. It’s not his Hong-jie, but he makes do. He can’t tease her like he used to, but her cutting wit and shrewd intelligence is comforting, both as qualities for a leader and a conversation partner.
She convinces him to reconnect with the SID. He knew a time would come when he had to let them know the portal was up and working again. If they wanted to do this right, to have a new start, they had to have Dixingren, Haixingren, and Yashou all on the same page. Thankfully, nobody was reborn into the SID, not anyone he knows anyway, but it means he needs to go into the city. It’s not like the Yashou haven’t had any contact with the SID, but he’s stayed out of it, it’s been very unofficial until now.
He’s used to seeing familiar faces when he goes anywhere with people, or at least that’s what he tells himself. It’s worse in Dragon City, he supposes, because there’s more people and it’s a more unfamiliar environment. Some streets and landmarks he knew are still there, but so many more have been changed, updated, all shifted slightly, just enough to let him know he’s a stranger. Not the city he learned backwards and forwards with Zhao Yunlan, running after Dixingren-
That’s why he hates going there. The faces he sees, one time a glimpse of Sha Ya, next Wang Yike and Zhang Rounan- he spares a thought that he’s happy they can be together this life without tragedy, at least without the star-crossed kind, before he’s blindsided by another memory; he turns the nearest corner into an alley and shifts, going the rest of the way to the new station as a cat. It’s easier this way, it’s easier when he doesn’t have to look people in the eyes. And it’s easier that the new station is in a completely different part of the city, one he doesn’t know as well.
How did he do this before? How was it easier before? Oh right, it was before SID. Before he got used to having a family. Before he got spoiled. At least he knows he’ll find them all again. At least, even though he’s in Dixing, he’s got Zhang Shi to share his experiences, who’s lived at least ten times longer than anyone he’s loved.
They better have something good for him, or he’s retreating back into the Yashou library and borrowing a page out of Zhang Shi’s book and taking a year-long nap.
Zhang Shi visits Zhao Yunlan- tries and fails not to break down crying as he apologizes.
It’s- hard on both of them. Zhao Yunlan is glad to talk to someone he doesn’t have to lie to- well, not about anything except how bad the pain is. He doesn’t ask about the others, because no doubt he’s talked to them through the centuries. It’s also the taboo. Not that he could really have worse luck than he already has- but he doesn’t wish that on any of them. They deserve long, happy, lives.
He asks about Da Qing, before he can stop himself. They’ve become friends at some point, being the only two immortal beings among a world full of the reborn. He’s glad for that, at least. He’s also Chief of the Yashou? Which- throws Zhao Yunlan for a loop, if he’s being honest. It’s not that dead cat doesn’t have leadership skills, it’s that he doesn’t care to use them unless he absolutely has to.
“How did you even get back down here?” Finally Zhao Yunlan can’t hold his curiosity back any longer.
“Well, remember when Zhu Hong took you to the Palace?”
“That was to strengthen the portal we managed to open in the Yashou inner sanctum. And when a channel of communication was finally open, it didn’t take too long for them to graduate from sound waves to matter transmigration.”
“You make it sound so easy.” Zhao Yunlan chuckles. No doubt he’d have to ask Zhu Hong if he wanted the particulars.
“I’m not a scientist, as much as I’ve tried to learn about Dixing powers and the making of the Hallows. Not that the Yashou have much literature on the technical stuff, it’s more history, like the history of the alliance. Which, is much more down my alley.” There’s something between the lines that Zhang Shi isn’t telling him, something probably to do with how they opened the portal in the first place, after all these centuries, but Zhao Yunlan doesn’t even want to guess what it is. He can feel the tension between them and lets Zhang Shi keep talking.
“Since Zhu Hong has given me access to the Palace archives and most of the vaults, I’ve learned a bit more about the founders of the first alliance, but there’s little to no information about the Hallows. It’s infuriating. It’s like only hearsay got passed down and all the physical information was destroyed. Which, I suppose, was a smart decision. But it doesn’t make my job any easier.” Zhao Yunlan wants to say something- wants to ask him what he’s so bent on and why, but he predicts that he knows the answer. Guilt. Guilt and yearning for purpose and meaning in a seemingly endless existence. He knows because that’s what he feels.
“Zhu Hong won’t stop asking me what I know about the lantern.” Well, Zhao Yunlan expected that. He’s been trying to think of what he can do about it, but short of telling her it’s to do with past lives so she lets it go, he doesn’t know what he can do.
“What have you told her?”
“I- nothing, yet. I don’t know how long I can keep deflecting her, but I told her I’m down here to work on getting you out.” He sounds apologetic. Zhao Yunlan panics.
“You did what? ”
“It got her off my back.”
“So why are you really here then?”
“To get you out.”
Zhao Yunlan throws up his mental hands and rolls his eyes, carefully projecting the iceberg tip of his emotions at Zhang Shi, who mirrors it right back at him, exasperation tinged with fondness.
“What? Are we just supposed to accept that you’re going to be in excruciating pain, dying and being resurrected, over and over forever?”
“Yes!” Zhao Yunlan bites out. “Because otherwise Dixing will die. All of it. Will crumble. This was my choice, and I’ve made peace with it. You should too.”
“Do you- do you think you deserve this?” Zhang Shi’s voice is soft, caring, and Zhao Yulan can’t do this. He can’t do this right now.
“Sorry, gotta go. Hong-jie can tell you the rules.” But no matter how quickly he tries to disengage from the conversation, Zhang Shi gets in the last word.
“I love you like you’re my own son, Yunlan. I won’t give up.”
The flames are his constant companion, his comfort, his torment. Just like the memories. But he can feel the peak of the burning coming on, and he knows that at least soon he won’t be coherent enough to form sentences or full memories. The downside, of course, is the screaming agony.
Zhang Shi is the one to tell Zhao Yunlan when Zhu Hong dies. It’s- he doesn’t know if it was easier to let the years pass not knowing and assume Xiao Guo had been reborn, or being told like this. It makes it so much more real.
Then a year, a week, a decade later Zhang Shi tells him he’ll be gone for awhile. Not that time has the same meaning for the two of them.
“I’m going to the caves on the outskirts of Dixing.” Zhao Yunlan wracks his brain for what he’s heard about this, it’s ringing a bell somewhere deep in his mind.
“The ones that most people don’t come back from?” One time he may have scolded himself for letting his worry show so much in his tone, but now, who cares. This is someone he trusts, someone he knows, someone he can be open with and who shares his infernal lifespan.
“Don’t worry, I’m taking a Dixingren guide. Poor kid has a sense of danger for fifty feet around him. And danger has a very loose definition- I’d say more like he can sense people's intentions about him. So, needless to say, he’s been trying to keep away from large crowds. He knows I mean him no harm, and he’s agreed to come with me.”
“So now you’re dragging a kid into this with you? I know you won’t give up, otherwise what’s the point of our eternal lifespans, but don’t you think this is going a bit far?”
“I think Lin Jing can handle himself. He’s a bit too much in his own head but I think this will be good for him. I call him a kid because most people seem like children to me. Even Da Qing. Who’s actually come to visit me now that the portal is becoming more stable. He sends his regards, by the way.”
“Regards? More like curses on me being idiotic and self sacrificing.”
“I decided to put it a little more diplomatically than that, but yes.”
“Tell him I said hi. And I understand him not having the time to come see me yet. We’ve got forever. And whatever thing he doesn’t want to let slip to me- what you avoided talking about the first few times, I assume, are one and the same. I can't say it’s not a little annoying, but I trust you both and your judgements.”
“He’ll be glad to hear that. He’s coming to see me and Lin Jing off next week. And no doubt tell us he wishes whatever creatures that may or may not live in those caves leave a few pieces of us for him. I don’t think he can ever show affection without it being either very loud or aggressive, and often both.”
“Well, that’s character development for him. He never used to say much to me out loud. Not that I needed him to. Miss that fat bastard.” Zhao Yunlan tries not to sigh, tries not to sound so dejected, but it’s hard.
“I’ll find some impressionable young people to come talk to you. It seems like it’s only people you already know who can hear you.”
“Don’t jinx it old man, you’re getting close to taboo territory there.”
“Who are you calling old man! I currently look no older than thirty.”
“Oh yeah, take good care of my body, okay? How do you even look now? If you visualize yourself I can see some of it.” They’d figured that out with Zhu Hong, when she’d insisted on trying to show him the outside world without having to describe it. Apparently it only vaguely worked for the appearance of the person he was talking to.
“That’s interesting. Give me a few moments.” Zhang Shi sounds intrigued, like at any moment he’s going to ask Zhao Yunlan about a hundred more questions, just out of academic curiosity.
“Oh god I look horrible clean shaven. And what have you done with my hair ??”
“Da Qing said he thought it looked quite fetching.” Zhang Shi chuckles at the reaction without any surprise.
“Da Qing is a filthy liar. Maybe maybe I could pull off the ponytail if I had my facial hair back.” There’s a bit of a pout in his voice, and it’s the most playful Zhang Shi has heard him in awhile. He’s smiling so hard his cheeks hurt.
“And the gold eyes- they’re a bit creepy honestly.” But he can’t blame Zhang Shi for trying to do everything he could not to look like Zhao Yunlan did when he had that body.
“Well? Are you done insulting my appearance now?”
“The vintage professor look suits you though.” Zhao Yunlan mumbles, but since Zhang Shi doesn’t have to rely on sound to ‘hear’ him, it’s still entirely discernible.
“Thank you. I think that was a genuine compliment.”
“Yeah, it suits you because you’re also old and out of date.”
“There’s the Yunlan I know and love.” Zhao Yunlan still still doesn’t know what to do with these easy declarations of affection- this absolutely transparent show of love. For him. Not for accomplishing anything, just for being himself. So it takes a few moments for him to gather enough of himself to answer.
“Can’t have anyone going around saying I actually say nice things to people without an ulterior motive.”
“Of course not. We can’t have people thinking you’ve gone soft.” The austerely grave tone Zhang Shi puts on sends them both back into laughter.
“Well, it’s time for you to go. The time limits running out on our little conversation. Good luck, come back in one piece, and if you find a new species of Dixingren out there somewhere- I get to name them.”
“I don’t think a sentient species would take too kindly on someone naming them when I’m sure they already have names for themselves.”
“Why you gotta be such a killjoy.”
“It’s my job as a parent.”
“You can say that again.”
“With all the love in my heart,” Zhao Yunlan fake retches, “I wish you well. I’ll be back before you even notice.” The explanation of ‘because you’re in so much agony and die so many times you have no sense of time’ lies unspoken between them, an ever deepening chasm, doubling the distance with each passing moment.
“Yeah yeah, don’t get all weepy and sentimental on me. I’m not going anywhere.” He knows this time Zhang Shi will let that kind of comment slide, possibly the only time. “Come back safe.”
As Zhao Yunlan tumbles back into the blinding inferno, he can’t help thinking- they always intend to return. But life doesn’t always keep us safe, in fact, usually it does the opposite, throwing obstacle after obstacle in our paths until we’re so lost we don’t know which way is up and which is down, where we came from and where we’re going- we could be going in circles for all we know. Well, he knows he’s going in circles. Circles that take him inward by leaps and bounds, starts and stops. Taking him further away from where he started, from everything and everyone he knew.
Shen Wei had not intended to return. He, alone, had decided the price was worth paying. And he’d left Zhao Yunlan by himself. He had walked away. Even if he hadn’t wanted to, that’s what he’d done. That’s what he knew he’d have to do. The rest of them had to find out the hard way. Zhao Yunlan had decided this knowledge was too much to bear, but in the end he was just stuck here, reliving all the worst moments of his life, unable to forget any tragedy, any painful memory. The only thought that he had to console him was that he was serving a bigger purpose. That even in his undeath, in this cursed half life, he is still fulfilling his calling- protecting people.
it’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for! (and i have too)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.
did I just use a lyric from a completely different song? why yes I did
also- I left a hint about what Wang Zheng was reborn as in that last scene... in case you're curious, and remember what I said about the caves in the previous chapter
EDIT: here’s little extra from tumblr of the first (ish) scene from ye zun’s pov: https://elvencantation.tumblr.com/post/625399551387369472/