Zhao Yunlan doesn’t know whether to praise or scold Lin Jing for this latest triumph. It’s good that they’ve seized the boxes of smuggled goods especially since a good forty percent of it has unclean energies. But Zhao Yunlan has been stuck inside sorting dusty antiques for six days straight. He misses his wife.
“Teacher Shen is literally upstairs. Shut up,” Da Qing says as he watches Chu Shuzhi open yet another box. He wiggles and jumps in, disappearing inside as he enjoys yet another box; Zhao Yunlan got bored of teasing him after day three. Zhu Hong's video of him had gotten a few likes, people laughing about how much fun the cat was having and another good portion telling him that the cat needs a diet.
“My wife should not be suffering my work,” Zhao Yunlan says. Shen Wei had offered to help but Zhao Yunlan knows the truth; Shen Wei wants him home where he can ply him with food, wine, and a good romp in bed. The sooner this work gets done, the sooner Zhao Yunlan can go home and enjoy that which should be his (mainly Shen Wei being naked).
Then there’s a scream and everyone runs upstairs.
“What happened?” Zhao Yunlan demands, whip out and ready. He doesn’t see Shen Wei. Did he step out?
It’s hard to tell if the scream came from Guo Changcheng or Zhu Hong. They’re both pale and in any other situation it would be hilarious to see Guo Changcheng under Zhu Hong, blushing bright red as he realizes how close his face is to her chest. Zhu Hong gets up and slowly steps towards the guilty item.
“We were fine. And then Xiao-Guo opened this box. Teacher Shen pushed us out of the way and…”
Zhao Yunlan watches with dread mounting as he sees a pile of familiar clothes lying by the box. Then it starts moving and he shouts for everyone to watch out. A small head pops out and stares at him with familiar, intense eyes.
“Oh fuck,” Zhao Yunlan and Zhu Hong say in unision.
“What is it?” Chu Shuzhi asks before he sees the miniature Shen Wei.
“Is that child...Teacher Shen?” Guo Changcheng asks. He clambors over on his hands and knees at Shen Wei’s level.
The tiny Shen Wei looks at him and then leaps at him. Guo Changcheng screeches as Shen Wei bites his arm and pandemonium erupts. Zhao Yunlan grabs the naked Shen Wei and hauls him away, wincing as Shen Wei flails and kicks. Chu Shuzhi goes to Guo Changcheng and presses his hand to the wound.
“That is not Teacher Shen,” Zhu Hong says.
“Give me a towel or something,” Zhao Yunlan says.
“You can’t tie a kid up-!”
“His tiny dong is hanging out all over the place; just get me some damn clothes!” Zhao Yunlan roars and Zhu Hong shrieks something about how nasty he is. But she’s hurrying to get Shen Wei’s shirt and she tosses it at his face. Zhao Yunlan shoves it onto the wriggling Shen Wei and relaxes now that he’s clothed.
Shen Wei looks down at his new wardrobe and then at him.
“I know you,” he says and pats his face. “Pretty, pretty. I don’t remember your name. Why don’t I remember?”
“You are so fucking cute,” Zhao Yunlan says and hugs him before he can think better of it. Shen Wei squirms at the sudden tight embrace and Zhao Yunlan lets go to avoid getting mauled. He sets Shen Wei on top of an empty box. “Ah, actually, I was going to ask you about that.”
Shen Wei puts a finger to his lips as he thinks. The intense focus on that round little face is too adorable. Everyone waits and even Guo Cangcheng quiets his whimpering. Then he shrugs.
“Do you remember anything?”
Shen Wei shrugs again.
“No name,” Shen Wei chirps. He looks up at the window. “Don’t need it.”
“Oh, ok, cool, whatever. Your name is ‘Shen Wei’ here,” Zhao Yunlan says.
“‘Shen Wei’,” he repeats. “Are you a ‘Shen’?”
“No, I’m a ‘Zhao’. Zhao Yunlan,” Zhao Yunlan says. Shen Wei’s face falls a little. He pauses, his heart aching at the first hint of distress from Shen Wei. Ooh, he’s in so much trouble. “I was a ‘Shen’ a long time ago. That’s why it’s your name.”
“Okay,” Shen Wei says. He swings his legs back and forth, uncaring that his shirt keeps slipping, and Zhao Yunlan sighs as he raises it back up.
“First order of business is clothes that fit you. Zhu Hong?”
“Normally I would protest,” she says. Then she runs away, and Zhao Yunlan files away the panic in her eyes to laugh over later. Right now it’s a little too real. He’s pretty sure Shen Wei won’t hurt him; that assurance doesn’t hold for the rest. None of them had been expecting a feral child.
“Zhao Yunlan,” Shen Wei pipes up and he tugs on his arm. “Zhao Yunlan, where is this place?”
“My work. You’re safe here, okay?”
“Okay,” he says again. He looks at the others and licks his lips. “Can we eat soon?”
“Oh hell no,” Da Qing says and speeds out of the room.
“Come on,” Zhao Yunlan says. “The others will figure out what happened here. I’ll get you something to eat. What do you want? Candy? Cake?”
“Meat!” Shen Wei bounces into his arms and looks up at him with wide eyes. “I can kill it for you! We can share!”
Zhao Yunlan laughs and pats his head.
With Shen Wei tucked under his arm, and quite happy to be held by his ‘pretty man’, Zhao Yunlan divides the SID up. He’s on babysitting duty and for once no one complains that Zhao Yunlan is sticking to Shen Wei. They’d all rather avoid the little ghost king.
Zhao Yunlan watches as Shen Wei ignores everything but him, and he’s not above admitting that he enjoys the undivided attention. Adult Shen Wei is much the same but he’s meticulous about his work and responsibilities. This little Shen Wei has no such leanings and he trots after Zhao Yunlan, content to sit in his lap and watch him exist.
It’s easier to drag up Kunlun’s memories like this with a piece of the past jumping in front of him, and Zhao Yunlan can’t help pulling on Shen Wei’s long hair. He doesn’t understand why his past self hadn’t scooped this adorable creature up the moment he spotted him.
Zhu Hong returns an hour later and blanches when she sees Shen Wei eating a bloody chunk of pork. Zhao Yunlan takes the bag of clothes from her and shoves the receipt into his back pocket.
“Is that raw?”
“You eat raw meat all the time,” Zhao Yunlan points out as he tears the tags off the new clothes.
“Is that mine?!”
“No, it’s not.” Zhao Yunlan rubs at his forehead. “Made the bald monk go get it. Lao Chu took Xiao-Guo to the hospital. The bite was pretty deep and he had to get stitches.”
“Make sure he gets a tetanus shot; and maybe rabies too,” Zhu Hong says as she watches Zhao Yunlan dress Shen Wei.
He looks adorable in the white dinosaur shirt and red shorts. Zhu Hong had forgotten shoes but being barefoot suits this tiny ghost king more. Shen Wei pulls his eyebrows together as he tries to decide if he likes this or not, then shrugs, and returns to eating. He’s voracious, sloppy, and Zhao Yunlan coos over him the entire time (even if he’s put off from his own meal).
“Aiyah, Shen Wei, you’re making such a mess,” he says. “Eat nicer! It won’t go anywhere. It’s already dead.”
Shen Wei sucks his fingers for the last bits of meat stuck under his nails.
“Pretty man, I’m still hungry, can we eat more?”
“Sure, sure, anything you want,” Zhao Yunlan says. He’s a sucker for adult Shen Wei; he has no hope of resisting this tiny one.
Shen Wei looks at Zhu Hong
“Can we eat snake?”
“Hahaha, absolutely not,” he says as Zhu Hong chokes. “We don’t eat friends. Snake lady is our friend. Got it?”
Shen Wei blinks. He submits to Zhao Yunlan washing his face with a pout and Zhao Yunlan softly pinches his cheeks. Without a word, Shen Wei jumps down from the chair, and takes Zhao Yunlan’s hand as they go to see the progress of the ghosts. They hadn’t been around during the initial search but with Guo Changcheng and Chu Shuzhi at the hospital, they needed the extra help.
“You need a leash for him, boss,” Lin Jing says as they walk into the front room. He’s pouring over the box Shen Wei had opened but there are a dozen items in there. It could have been any one of them that regressed Shen Wei’s age.
“I didn’t find any at the store,” Zhu Hong says.
“I’m not leashing him,” Zhao Yunlan says. He jiggles his hand and Shen Wei’s grip tightens. “Besides, this is good enough.”
They both look at him for tempting fate. Then Da Qing walks back in, going right up to Zhao Yunlan’s feet like normal, and he’s about to say something when there’s a flash of red and white.
Shen Wei grabs Da Qing by the tail and holds him upside down. He has that distinct look of hunger and Zhao Yunlan panics. Da Qing is shrieking and trying to swipe at Shen Wei, but Shen Wei is keeping those sharp claws as far from himself as possible. Zhao Yunlan would be impressed if he wasn’t terrified of Shen Wei eating his cat.
“Ah, ah, Shen Wei, we don’t eat cats,” he says as he snatches Da Qing away. Da Qing retracts his claws and clings to Zhao Yunlan. “Especially not this one. This one is my friend.”
“Oh,” Shen Wei says.
“He’s crazy,” Da Qing says, breathing harshly. “I saw my life flash before my eyes. Lao Zhao, bring His Honor back, I can’t handle this thing.”
“We’ll be in my office,” Zhao Yunlan capitulates. He sets Da Qing down on the sofa and drags Shen Wei off, locking the door behind him.
Zhao Yunlan flops in his chair, hand pressed to his forehead as he sighs. Shen Wei looks down and bites his lip.
“Am I doing something bad?” Shen Wei asks. Zhao Yunlan’s head snaps up. Shen Wei glances at him before looking away again. “They are scared of me. All the ghosts were scared of me too. Because I would eat them.”
“Come here,” Zhao Yunlan says and Shen Wei doesn’t move for a moment. Then he slowly makes his way over and Zhao Yunlan’s heart aches seeing Shen Wei so uncertain and lost. He scoops him up and some of the tension in Shen Wei leaves once he’s in Zhao Yunlan’s lap. “Tell me about the Profane Land.”
“It’s boring,” Shen Wei says into Zhao Yunlan’s chest. “The ghosts fight. The ghosts die. Sometimes I see my brother. But he likes when the ghosts fight. I don’t like it.”
Zhao Yunlan smooths the top of his head.
“You were different,” Shen Wei says. “Green, pretty, alive. But dying? I don’t...can’t...my memory is…”
“Yeah, it’s all scrambled right now,” Zhao Yunlan explains. He’s not sure about the particulars but he’s selfishly glad that Shen Wei remembers him. “Hey, hey, Shen Wei? I don’t think you’ll stay little like this for long. Those workers of mine can be pretty capable sometimes and they all miss the adult you. But let me tell you this now while you’re small; I’m very happy I get to be with you in this life. I remember you as this ghost king but I didn’t understand it, not really, and now I get it a little better.”
Shen Wei uncurls a little, but he takes Zhao Yunlan’s hand and holds it with both of his. He presses it to his face and nuzzles into it.
“So shameless like this,” he says, delighted. “Ah, it’s really a pity you hide this all behind your favorite mask. Professor Shen is so cold.”
Shen Wei doesn’t let go of his hand. He looks up at Zhao Yunlan.
“Teach me how to be less scary,” he demands. Zhao Yunlan chuckles until he realizes that Shen Wei is serious. He bats at his nose
“Well, to start with, you can’t keep looking at everyone like they’re a meal on two feet. Besides, not everyone tastes good. People eat nasty stuff all the time. You want to be a virtuous gentleman. That means helping the weak, protecting those who cannot do it themselves.”
“The weak get eaten,” Shen Wei says.
“And instead of letting it happen, you stop it; that’s what you’re going to learn to do, to be. Those who would stretch a hand out to you for aid, you’ll take it, and help them a thousand times over. It isn’t about strong or weak. You’ll learn how to care for others, to nurse a sick man, to feed him good food so he stays healthy and strong. There’s a strength in kindness, in gentle words and calm touches; these little claws of yours will vanish but your hands and heart will be so much stronger for it.”
“That’s a lot to remember,” Shen Wei says with a frown.
“You will,” Zhao Yunlan says. He smiles at Shen Wei and kisses the top of his head. It really is amazing how Shen Wei went from this little bloodthirsty ghost king to the upstanding citizen he is today. But if anyone could do it, it would be Shen Wei, with that indomitable spirit of his. “It’ll become second nature. One day, you won’t even think about it. It’ll become your instinct.”
Shen Wei mulls that over for a while as Zhao Yunlan happily plays with his hair. It’s so long.
“Won’t that make me weak?” Shen Wei asks.
“No, not even a little.” Zhao Yunlan shakes his head. “It’s the opposite. It’ll make you stronger.”
“Strong enough to protect you?”
“Yeah,” Zhao Yunlan murmurs. “More than strong enough for that. You keep me very safe, Shen Wei.”
“Okay then,” Shen Wei says after biting his lip in thought. “That’s good.”
“Such a charmer,” Zhao Yunlan coos.
Shen Wei frowns at him, not quite understanding, but then he yawns. Zhao Yunlan glances at the time. They’d been working for most of the day before this incident had happened and somewhere along the way it turned into evening. He picks Shen Wei up and steps out into the other room where most everyone is. Wang Zheng and Sang Zan have come out now that it’s dusk and they look at Shen Wei with interest though they don’t move any closer.
“Hey, if you guys aren’t going to find an answer tonight, I’m going to take this little one back home,” Zhao Yunlan says. Shen Wei is too pleased at being carried to notice that everyone is still looking at him in fear.
“Please do,” Lin Jing says. “He shouldn’t be able to hurt Wang Zheng and Sang Zan like this. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he could eat them.”
“Can you hurt spirits?” Zhao Yunlan asks.
“They don’t taste good,” Shen Wei says and that cements the decision.
Da Qing insists he’s staying at the SID where it’s safe, even though today was supposed to be a salmon meal for him, but it’s not like Shen Wei is capable of cooking. Watching Shen Wei eat a slab of raw meat earlier had upset Zhao Yunlan’s stomach but he’s getting hungry, and he stops to pick up some food, hailing a taxi since there’s no way he can go around with Shen Wei on his motorcycle.
Shen Wei marvels at the world, soaking it in, and the taxi driver compliments him on having a cute kid. When they park, Shen Wei tumbles out, and stares.
“This is our house. You and I live here,” Zhao Yunlan says as he lets them in, balancing the keys and their dinner.
“Wow! I love it!” Shen Wei says. He runs out to the garden. He’s about to yank one of the plants out when Zhao Yunlan’s garbled cry stops him. “I can’t?”
“You’ll kill it if you do that,” Zhao Yunlan says.
“Oh. And that’s bad?”
“Yes. Yes, it is.”
Shen Wei lets go and pats the leaves. Zhao Yunlan hauls him back in before he can break something, praying that Shen Wei’s destructive tendencies don’t apply to furniture. Shen Wei isn’t impressed by the takeaway but he devours it all the same. Then follows the most exhausting hour of Zhao Yunlan’s life: Shen Wei starts a fire in the living with a lighter he found under the sofa, shatters a mirror when he decides to punch his reflection, and nearly floods the bathroom by yanking the handle off the toilet.
Zhu Hong texts him that Chu Shuzhi and Guo Changcheng have returned though it was unanimous that Guo Changcheng go home to rest. It doesn’t seem like they’ve found a way to turn Shen Wei back to normal. Zhao Yunlan sighs but he’s not surprised; these things rarely get fixed right away.
“Come on, time for bed. If you decide to wake up and stare at me, that’s fine, I prefer that. I don’t want you running through the house and setting things on fire.”
“You put it out though,” Shen Wei points out. Zhao Yunlan glares at his sass.
“I’m giving you a bath. And you are not to touch the toilet again. I don’t know how you cracked it when I was right there watching you but I’m not letting you break it.”
Shen Wei submits to getting cleaned without issue and he’s wobbling on his feet after, tuckered out after a long day of terrorizing the SID and an evening of trying to destroy their house. He smiles when Zhao Yunlan tucks him in and explains that this is their bed. But he passes out before he can do anything more than that.
Zhao Yunlan watches him for a moment to make sure he’s asleep before going to get ready for bed himself. Shen Wei is still sleeping when he returns and Zhao Yunlan climbs into bed, amused at how perfectly Shen Wei fits in his arms like this.
“Shen Wei, Xiao-Wei, you really worked so hard for me, didn’t you?” he whispers against the top of his head. He didn’t think he could love Shen Wei more but seeing how far he’s come since those early days, he can’t help but fall deeper in love with Shen Wei. He’s become such a good person.
Zhao Yunlan holds him tighter, taking advantage of how small Shen Wei is to embrace him like this; but he’s eager for his adult husband to get back, so he can show him exactly how much he admires him.
It takes them three days to turn Shen Wei back. He’s mortified upon his return. Zhao Yunlan gleefully recounts the tales of his smaller self until Shen Wei begs for mercy.
Shen Wei bows his head to the SID and when he straightens back up, he gestures to the dishes on the table. Da Qing is trying to inch his way to the tupperware with his name on it.
“I wanted to apologize and Zhao Yunlan suggested I treat you all to lunch.”
“Forgiven,” they all say in unison. Zhao Yunlan is so proud of them. He didn’t even have to glare. Then they’re attacking the feast like they’ve never eaten a day in their lives.
“Is this really enough?” Shen Wei asks.
“Babe, trust me, this is more than enough,” Zhao Yunlan says. He watches Da Qing gag on a fish bone and Lin Jing smacks him on the back while continuing to shove still steaming rolls down his throat. “Aiyah, Shen Wei, where’s my apology? I was the one who took care of your bloodthirsty self. I put my precious body on the line.”
“Your gift is at home,” Shen Wei says, and there’s a tiny flush staining his cheeks. Zhao Yunlan smirks.
“Then home is where we’re going. Bye-bye, enjoy your food and clean up after yourselves,” Zhao Yunlan calls out. For once no one bothers to complain about how nasty he is. Zhao Yunlan taps his chin as he thinks. “You gotta ply them with food more, honey. They’re so obedient like this. I like it.”
“I terrified them,” Shen Wei says. There’s a note of hurt in his voice. Zhao Yunlan takes his hand, interlocking their fingers.
“The old you scared them. The Teacher Shen they know and love would never,” he says.
“And you?” Shen Wei asks. His tone is flat. “Were you scared of the ghost king? Did I threaten to devour and kill you like the others?”
“I was more worried about your safety and wellbeing,” Zhao Yunlan answers. Then he grins. “And cooing over how cute you were. Such chubby little cheeks! Where did those go, ah, what a loss.”
“Yunlan.” Shen Wei flushes. Zhao Yunlan kisses his hand.
“I never felt in danger from you. But I never really understood what being a ghost meant. And now I see why you tried to stay away and warn me.” He pauses. “And seeing what you’ve become now, how hard you worked, I admire you all the more for it.”
Shen Wei smiles, pleased even as he’s still flushed from embarrassment. Zhao Yunlan presses a kiss to his cheek. He’s married such a good man.