When Shen is eight years old, he makes a friend.
Well, his mother does it for him, technically. He doesn’t have much choice in the matter. It’s like the rules Aunt Soo has about bringing saltpeter into his bedroom and staying at the table until he’s finished his food, all of it inexorable and unbending and just there, so he knows right away that it’s pointless to argue when his mother lays down the cards for him.
He’s made to wear his best clothes and shepherded into the throne room, where he waits behind his mother until she bids him to step forward. The wolf cub at the bottom of the stairs looks up at Shen, eyes wide and steely with conviction, and calls him lord.
Shen’s never had a friend before. He blinks, and edges to an uncertain smile.
His name is Ren.
He starts attending the same school as Shen almost immediately, no questions asked. He’s put in every one of his classes and is always seated next to him. The teachers behave as though he’s been there all the while, and the students make nothing of the sudden addition. Nobody asks him to introduce himself like Shen was on his first day at school, and he doesn’t have to do homework or take any of their written tests. He isn’t the largest kid in class, but Ren is fitter than most of the bullies and knows how to throw a mean punch, and he takes to following Shen wherever he goes. Around the playgrounds and even to the latrine, and he makes a huge fuss apologising whenever he loses sight of Shen for more than a minute. It’s all very mysterious, really.
Shen does ask what Ren’s deal is, one day on the way back home. The wolf cub keeps pace with him as always, maintaining an exact half step back from Shen at all times. He bows his head slightly as he says, “I’m to protect you, my lord. It is my duty.”
That’s…strangely sweet, Shen thinks. He thanks Ren for it and giggles to himself when the wolf cub’s ears turn a pleasing shade of pink.
It takes a couple of weeks with Ren before Shen can talk, actually talk with him. Breaking the ice is the easiest part; it’s setting the parameters of their friendship that takes a little bit of tinkering before they find something that works for the both of them. Shen is new at this, and apparently Ren is too. It still doesn’t invalidate the fact that that they have nothing to lose by giving it a go.
Ren isn’t comfortable with first names, but Shen insists and gets his way in a manner that doesn’t seem entirely fair, so he concedes reverting back to honorifics when they’re not alone. Whatever makes Ren comfortable. For the most part, it’s nice to have someone who’s not either one of his parents and can refer to him so informally, making his shoulders feel lighter, somehow.
By the time they have spent a few months together, everything has fallen into place, more or less. Being in proximity to each other at nearly every waking hour of day, it only seems right that they become best friends. Things become much simpler after they realise this, since it would seem that best friends have no qualms racing each other down to the shops during recess or competing to see who can skip a stone further down at the palace ponds. They climb trees and play pranks and get into more trouble than two children should, and everyone remarks that they’re a lot like brothers.
It’s not precisely the label Shen is satisfied with, but he’ll take it.
They’re lounging in the rooftop balconies together, high up in the Tower of Sacred Flame, and talking about the future when the subject assumes an air of a slightly more interpersonal nature.
Ren, the teenage wolf explains, can mean a multitude of things, but is primarily used to refer to an act of resilience. A withstanding, tough individual. One who is tolerant. He explains that his mother named him that for strength, to weather the trials that he’d meet as a future member of the royal guard. Of all traits the one that she named him for was that which would prepare him for a life of unending servitude.
Shen listens, absorbing this slowly. He’d never thought to ask about that even after so many years with him, and now that Ren has brought it up he can’t stop seeing it. He puts their names together in his mind, side by side. Shen. Ren. Shen. Ren. They rhyme, almost like a coupling, a beginning and an end built into each other. The more he thinks about what Ren’s name means, the more their relationship makes sense. Ren has always been the stronger one, Shen knows that. It’s what he admires most about his oldest and most trusted friend.
“My Nana was the one who named me Shen,” Shen says in reply, after a long moment. “She told me that I was named for the gods.”
On Shen’s sixteenth birthday, he is given a laboratory of his very own. He brings Ren in and shows him around the place and realises something just as they are about to leave for the party downstairs.
“When’s your birthday?” he asks Ren.
The wolf startles, obviously thrown. He shakes his head and looks away. “Doesn’t matter.”
“It does matter,” Shen insists. “Come on, then. Nine years and we’ve never celebrated your birthday once? What kind of friend do you think that makes me?”
Ren rolls his eyes, sighing exasperatedly, and tells Shen.
Later that evening, after much negotiation and coercing, they have a second round of birthday songs at the celebration, and Ren smiles back at Shen when it’s his turn to stand up.
Another year passes before talks of betrothal emerge among the servants in a buzz. Princesses from nearby kingdoms start to visit Gongmen for social luncheons, and he’s forced to attend all of them. It’s bothersome more than it is frustrating, but at least he has his laboratory to escape to afterwards and Ren is there at the end of each and every one to hear him out.
“They’re all so…so…” Shen flaps a wing vaguely, the word lingering on the tip of his tongue.
“Vacant?” Ren offers.
Making a face, Shen sits next to him and leans on the wall that Ren is also reclining against. “Not exactly. Prudish, more like.”
“I’m not sure if you’ll ever find a princess who’s otherwise.”
Several ongoing experiments fizzle on the table above them, crackling and sizzling and spitting out wisps of grey smoke. Shen sighs and lets his head fall back into the wall with a thud. “Why my parents even want me to get married now is beyond me. I’m not even of age yet!”
Next to him, Ren shrugs. “Doesn’t hurt to start scouting early, does it?”
That’s fair enough, but Ren isn’t the one who has had to endure two hours down in the palace garden entertaining the second daughter of some kingdom Shen only knows vaguely by name. “Maybe it’s just that I don’t want to marry a princess,” he muses, sweeping at the dusty floor with a wing.
Ren makes an incredulous noise. “You’re joking,” he says. “Who in the world would you marry then?”
“Dunno.” He looks to Ren, cocking an eyebrow. “Maybe I’d marry you.”
To his surprise, Ren doesn’t repeat his previous reaction, only stares and says nothing with his mouth open just a little bit. Something stirs in the look on his face, something quiet and sad and hopeful all at once, and then it slips and disappears entirely. Ren laughs nervously, rubs a hand at the side of his neck. “Like that’s ever going to happen,” he says.
When their fingers touch on the floor, brushing ever so slightly, neither of them do anything to acknowledge it.
Ren is his best friend. This is a fact.
He loves Ren. This is also a fact.
He loves Ren, but as his best friend. As much as Shen tries, he’s unable to convince himself that this is a fact as well. It sits heavy on his mind, and for all of the decade that they’ve spent together Shen can’t help but turn the words over and over again, as if he repeats it ad nauseam it will miraculously become true.
In the end, Ren’s the one who makes the first move.
It’s the Lunar New Year and they’re both up on the rooftops as always, slightly tipsy from rice wine. Shen initially pinpoints that as the main reason why he doesn’t shy away when Ren edges closer to him as they watch the fireworks, eyes fluttering shut as he kisses Shen, but that turns out to be an excuse when Shen hesitates, then finds himself kissing back with a slow, heady passion. They stay like this for a moment, mouths pressed together, before Ren gives a strangled cry and lurches to the side, dropping to one knee and bowing his head.
“Forgive me,” he gasps. “I — I don’t know what came over me. My lord, I’m so sorry…please —”
Shen stoops down to quieten him with a feathered palm against his cheek. The wolf’s eyes hold confused guilt when he looks at Shen, but Ren too stays stock-still as his face is tilted and he is softly, soundly kissed. It’s entirely different from how Shen’s parents twine their necks together in a show of affection, and Shen is grateful for that; he's moved by the straightforwardness of this, the simple connection they have, the bare intimacy of the moment.
“I know,” Shen whispers, breath hot against Ren’s snout. “I know.”
As it turns out, loving someone doesn’t change how you view them, even if that person’s your best friend. Nothing drastic happens, none of Shen’s previous perspectives or worldviews are crossed out and replaced. On the contrary, they widen, growing to proportions that continue to awe and astound him. He discovers that he doesn’t feel like sex just yet, not even at his age, but he likes the hand-holding, the kissing most of all, and Ren — patient, lovely Ren — gives him what he wants without hesitation, as and whenever they manage to steal away to have a moment of privacy to themselves.
They’re careful about it, of course, the law of the land being what it is. His parents force even more luncheons and social visits onto him like a reminder of that to the point where he just aches to tell them. But he can’t see that leading to anything apart from Ren being sent away from him, and that’s the absolute last thing he wants to happen. So he holds his tongue and forces his pleasantries, and afterwards when Ren asks him what’s wrong, Shen brushes it off with a shake of his head and starkly refuses to admit to anything.
Sometimes it’s the thought that this is just for now which makes Shen so angry with culminating fear, makes it hard to think straight. These episodes strike most often when he’s curled up against the wall of Ren’s chest, leaving him shaking and tearing and clutching at Ren like he’s drowning, because it burns something deep down to know that this thing between them will go on for only so long, that no amount of love he feels for Ren will allow them to spend the rest of their lives together the way that they both sorely desire.
“It’s okay,” Ren murmurs, stroking the back of Shen’s head with a soothing hand. “I don’t mind, even if this is all there is.”
“But I do,” Shen says, so fierce that he surprises himself with the raw intensity of his want. “When I am emperor I’ll change it for us, you’ll see.”
Silence, then Ren lets out a sad, kindly laugh that makes Shen’s insides hurt like there’s a knife twisting there. “There’s really only so much you can do as emperor, you know,” he says.
“You don’t believe me?”
“I do, I do believe you, it’s just.” He sighs, licks his lips even though they’re already wet and shining with saliva. “You’ve got to think about your obligations, yeah?”
Given without premise, the point gets across all the same. “I don’t care about the throne,” Shen says. “I stopped caring years ago, remember?”
“Think of your family,” Ren returns, almost pleading. “It ends with you, you know that. I swore an oath to the crown.”
“I love you.”
“And that’s good enough for me. It will always be enough, don’t you see?”
“Don’t say that,” Shen whispers. He is absurdly close to tears. “You musn’t say that.”
He can feel Ren preparing to argue, he really can, but the wolf just holds him tighter and buries his snout in Shen’s long neck. This is how they will be for a good portion of the new year: Ren tells him that they can’t be together, and Shen will not listen to a word of it, he won’t, he won’t, he won’t.
On their nineteenth birthdays, three days before Shen is to be betrothed to a peahen princess from some faraway land, he takes Ren out on a boat over Gongmen Lake at sundown. The surface of the water is alight with the deep yellow of dusk, and the profile of the city from where they are is breathtaking. It’s almost as good as the view they get from the rooftops, just a wholly different dimension of it, and Ren notices this, of course he does. He kisses Shen and says that it’s perfect, and Shen has no reason to doubt his words. It’s certainly what he was going for in the first place, to have at least one perfect day with Ren before it all ends in marriage and the duty of the crown.
It had felt so heavy, the day he tried it on.
“I could stay here forever,” Ren murmurs, his gaze fixed on the glimmering horizon. Only a fraction of the sun remains visible there, making the lake dance with orange light.
Laying next to him, Shen lifts his head and rests it on the wolf’s shoulder. “We could run away,” he says softly. “Leave all this and go.”
“Don’t be a dolt. Where would we go?”
“I don’t know. Anywhere but here.”
Ren shifts fractionally, humming as if he’s giving it serious thought. “Maybe,” he finally says, which is the answer that Shen needs, but the tone of his voice gives him away.
“I’m sorry,” Shen says, and means it more than anything he's ever said.
“It’s alright,” Ren says back. His eyes wander the evening city, finding Shen after a fleeting moment, and they are tapered with a reserved, ancient longing. “I’ve never felt this way about anyone else, too.”
They stay adrift on the lake even long after the moon has come up over the city, and the night is cool and scattered with stars.
Shen discovers at twenty years of age that it’s the easiest thing in the world to take back what’s rightfully his. Like shooting fish in a barrel, or however the expression goes. Slaughtering pandas is just as efficient at encapsulating the idea, and rather literal besides.
They do leave Gongmen after all, but as part of a horde that trickles out through the city gates and into the neighbouring mountains, wolf by disgraced wolf. It is late winter, and a snowstorm hits as they are trekking up. Some of them are not going to make it, not when the frost of night descends. Shen is aware of this, but he pushes the pack on, because there’s nothing else left to do.
Ren trudges next to him, calf-deep in snow. He avoids looking at Shen and only turns to bark instructions at the pack straggling behind the two of them. When he twists back to the front, he meets Ren's eyes — eye, now; Shen really has to get used to saying that — and they stay fixed on each other. The blizzard howls around them, an effacing storm of white.
“I did it for us,” Shen says. He’s not even sure if Ren hears, because the wolf stares at him like he doesn’t recognise Shen and says nothing in reply. “I did it for you,” he tries again, softer this time.
It’s like time has stood still between them. They don’t move to each other like they always do and there’s so much space that neither of them can close. It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this, not one bit. Nobody was supposed to be banished and both of them were supposed to emerge loved. Ren lowers his head and faces the mountain path again and sets off at a crawl, body hunched against the blisteringly cold wind.
“Ren, please,” Shen starts, and then startles when the wolf raises a prohibitory hand, staying him where he is. The irony of this misrule is entirely lost on Shen.
“My name,” Ren says, his voice grinding harshly around the corners of his words, “is Boss Wolf.”