"and you play along, because you want to die for love, you always have."
One thing Zhao Yunlan always liked in theory was time travel. Time travel meant you could fix your mistakes and cheat your way through the lottery. In theory, it was a good time, one that he could use to find out what it was like to bang himself. Or become god, even. But he didn’t account for the possibility that time travel was very real and very much a pain in the ass.
Time travel wasn’t supposed to dick him over and send him ten thousand years into the past where “running water” meant “the closest river” and “Shen Wei” meant “a child.”
The fact that he had been thrown on his ass into a different time period took ages to settle in his brain—you could even say that it never registered at all. But it was even harder to grasp that he was no longer Zhao Yunlan, Chief of the SID, but a mighty warlord named Kunlun.
A Kunlun impersonator, sure, but he could never quite get used to being called by that name.
It was even more jarring to hear Shen Wei, the all-powerful Black Cloak Envoy, call him “Kunlun'' like he was someone to be worshipped. Any time Zhao Yunlan entered a room, Shen Wei would immediately walk up to him and bow, that name tumbling from his lips with reverence, his wide, innocent eyes staring at him with adoration. It made Zhao Yunlan’s stomach flip confusingly.
Maybe calling him “a child” was a bit of an exaggeration—Shen Wei was easily one of the most experienced and battle-hardened people on Earth, both then and ten thousand years later—but Zhao Yunlan had a hard time ignoring how bright-eyed Xiao Wei was. This version of him was less jaded than the one he was familiar with. The Shen Wei he knew had lived ten thousand years alone and had learned to shut down and lie as a way to protect himself. Xiao Wei, on the other hand, was an honest, open book. Despite the mask he chose to wear at all times, Zhao Yunlan could read his thoughts as easily as if Xiao Wei had plastered them on a billboard for him.
And as much as Zhao Yunlan loved Shen Wei and could only fall hopelessly in love with this younger version of him that he had accidentally discovered, he couldn’t imagine doing anything about it. It wasn’t just because Xiao Wei was young, or that he only knew him as “Kunlun,” a walking corpse and a lie. It was because he knew Shen Wei in the future, knew what he was like and what he had been through since the old war. He knew that if he made a move on Xiao Wei now, he would inevitably leave him. And he couldn’t knowingly do that to him. He couldn’t leave Shen Wei alone for ten thousand years. The very thought was a knife through his heart.
He tried to occupy his time and save himself from all the pining, gay thoughts as best as he could. If he rationed out his lollipops and bided his time, he would eventually go back home and spare Xiao Wei any more pain and suffering. But the flaw there was that he didn’t know when he would go back. His knowledge of the future went as far as the moment he was hurled back through time. For all he knew, it would be fifty years before he could see Shen Wei and the SID again.
He was down to his last lollipop two weeks in and was desperately wishing for a smoke. Going that long without knowing anything was enough to make him wish he could inhale ten at once. He would even settle for it secondhand. Screw rationing, screw rational thought. He just wanted to go home.
“Kunlun?” said Shen Wei’s voice, and Zhao Yunlan opened his eyes.
Zhao Yunlan was laying on his back in the grass, hands pillowing his head as he chewed around the stick of his candy. He had been lost in thought, trying to whittle down his nerves in his down time. Their battalion was camped out on a hillside that night and were planning on ambushing a rebel group in the valley once the sun came up. After a day of marching, camping was a welcome reprieve, but it also meant more time for Zhao Yunlan to lose himself in thoughts of “some day.”
He glanced over to see Shen Wei—Xiao Wei—standing in the grass beside him, looking down at him curiously. He was wearing that mask again, but even at night, Zhao Yunlan could see his wide eyes in the moonlight, his irises the same warm brown that he knew before.
Just the sight of him sent warmth through his chest, and Zhao Yunlan flashed his teeth in a smile. “Lord Black Cloak! To what do I owe the honor?”
Xiao Wei was somehow still the same, but not. He was still very attentive, taking care of others before himself. When he laughed, he did that thing where he looked away shyly before saying anything. But now his smile was a bit more open than Zhao Yunlan was used to, his words more honest. Instead of short, neatly combed hair, long strands of black silk fell down his back and shoulders. His dark mask was decorated with gold rather than silver.
Now, as he stood over him, Xiao Wei offered a small smile. “You weren’t at camp so I went to check on you. I brought you dinner.”
He had a steaming bowl in one hand and a small cup in the other, each made of unpainted, dark clay. Zhao Yunlan immediately sat up, hands on his knees. “You know the way to my heart.”
“It’s only a meal,” said Xiao Wei, though he smiled a little wider as he crouched down and handed over the bowl. “I didn’t even make it. It’s just a food ration.”
Zhao Yunlan spat the chewed stem of his lollipop into the grass, trying not to think about how much he regretted eating it so quickly. “Yes, but you have hand-delivered it to me personally, Your Honor.” He grinned as he took the bowl with both hands. “By all means, the value of the gesture is ten times what it would be if it came from Da Qing.”
Xiao Wei dipped his head in a small bow. “I am honored that you think so highly of me.”
He watched as Xiao Wei’s long hair fell loose from his shoulder at the motion, how the strands glowed faintly silver in the moonlight. Suddenly, any sly comment about how Xiao Wei had done more than enough to impress him had died on Zhao Yunlan’s tongue. He swallowed tightly, trying to ignore the sudden urge to run his fingers through that hair, to smooth it back and cradle Xiao Wei’s cheek in his hand. Instead, he turned away and forced scalding congee down his throat.
He wasn’t allowed to have what he wanted this time. Xiao Wei deserved more than he could give him.
They sat quietly for a while, the silence filled with a few dozen crickets chirping in the brush behind them. Overhead, the moon became shrouded in rolling clouds, which threw their quaint hill into darkness. Down below, a few fires from their campsite glowed dimly, and a few shadows of patrolling soldiers danced along the ground between the tents. The faint outline of a black cat flitted along the outskirts, but was quickly swallowed by the cover of night.
As Zhao Yunlan finished his meal, he occasionally glanced over to the man cloaked in black sitting next to him. He often liked these moments with Xiao Wei, where they sat together and talked until the late hours and early morning. They made Zhao Yunlan feel less detached, like he had a place somewhere in this distant past that had nothing to do with him.
Swallowing the last bit of porridge, Zhao Yunlan handed the empty bowl back and Xiao Wei traded for the cup of water.
“What’s been on your mind?” asked Xiao Wei. “You seem quiet lately.”
Zhao Yunlan brought the cup to his mouth and took a sip. He didn’t bat an eye as he said “How old are you, Xiao Wei?”
There was a pause. Xiao Wei blinked at him.
So maybe a small reason why Zhao Yunlan wouldn’t make a move was because of Xiao Wei’s age. He didn’t want to do anything creepy. He didn’t want to ruin him. But he was also just genuinely curious.
He saw the way Xiao Wei’s lips twitched up at the ends as he looked into the grass. He always made that face whenever Zhao Yunlan called him “Xiao Wei.” Zhao Yunlan knew he should stop, for both their sakes, but he couldn’t help himself. He loved the shy, pleased smile that followed and he was a sucker for that pretty face.
Xiao Wei looked out at the camp, over the tents and at the swaying trees beyond the clearing. The moon reappeared above them and bathed Xiao Wei in a silver glow. His eyes narrowed slightly, and for a moment, he said nothing.
“Two hundred and eighty four,” he finally answered, turning back to Zhao Yunlan. “Why? Is that really what you were thinking about?”
“Am I not allowed to have questions about the esteemed leader of Dixing?” Zhao Yunlan hid the deflection and weak attempt at teasing behind another sip. “I just thought you seemed young. It’s hard to tell just by looking at you.”
“Dixingians live for a lot longer than Haixingians,” he said. Xiao Wei stuck his hand into the dirt and pulled up a few blades of grass. He held them out in the palm of his hand and watched as the wind gently blew them away. “Our life spans differ greatly from yours, so I suppose I am rather old comparatively, but young in terms of my people’s standards. I apologize if that makes things awkward.”
A small part of Zhao Yunlan felt relieved, though the more rational side of him wished he had never asked. His dreams seemed a bit more tangible now, which made the stray hairs on Xiao Wei’s shoulder bother him even more.
Zhao Yunlan shook his head, leaning back with his palm pressed into the dirt behind him. The hand with his drink rested on his thigh. “No, why would it? I was just wondering. It would be impressive if you actually managed to do anything that would make me uncomfortable.”
A soft weight came to rest on his knee and Zhao Yunlan sat up, heart hammering. Xiao Wei was touching him, those wide eyes of his somehow piercing. “You can tell me if there’s anything else. I won’t tell anyone.”
Zhao Yunlan swallowed hard, trying for his best, charming smile. If Xiao Wei’s hand hadn’t been so hot, it would’ve been easier. “There’s nothing else, I promise. Why? Do I look troubled? I must be tired.”
“I… suppose that’s it. We have traveled a long way and it’s late.“ There was a moment where Xiao Wei studied him, his eyes searching his face closely. Then he retracted his touch, his hand hovering briefly in the air, fingers curling against his palm, until he let his arm fall. He folded his hands in his lap. “You should get to sleep, then. I will stand guard.”
Zhao Yunlan quickly stood up, leaving his empty cup in the grass. “I feel safer already. Please keep watch over me, Lord Black Cloak.”
He left quickly, making sure not to turn back as he made his way to camp and the dark tent that served as his quarters for the night. Da Qing was curled up in the corner by some food scraps, wrapped in his tail and the bliss of sleep. He was very much the same cat as he was ten thousand years in the future. It was rather comforting. Even if he didn’t have the same flair for banter.
Zhao Yunlan went into a fitful sleep that night. His bedroll was hard and cold.
He woke up well before the sun rose that morning, not that he got much sleep to begin with. Sleep was a rare commodity for him those days, one that came either too late in the night or too briefly to do any good. He was just grateful he had been able to close his eyes at all.
Staring up at the ceiling, watching as the sloped, dark fabric of his tent curved inward with the wind, he pretended that he was somewhere else. For a few minutes, he was someone else, someone not named Kunlun.
Zhao Yunlan finally pushed himself up when he could see the very faint beginnings of sunrise outside. He stumbled out of his tent, pushing the cloth flaps aside with his arm as he blinked, trying to clear the tired fog from his eyes. He wasn’t very successful, but it didn’t make much of a difference. Most of his life now felt surreal, like he was acting out a script he hadn’t auditioned for and he wasn’t even an actor. He had to pretend he was someone else for the sake of someone else’s war.
But if Shen Wei could do it for ten thousand years, then he could do it for at least one more day.
The ambush began as expected. Kunlun and the Black Cloak Envoy led the charge into the valley and wiped out the rebel force in a matter of minutes. Zhao Yunlan had run out of dark energy bullets a few days ago, and now mostly relied on his own ability to fight, some martial arts Xiao Wei taught him, and a sword Da Qing had given him from their reserve weapons supply. He held his own rather well, but it went without saying that Xiao Wei racked up the highest body count.
As contradictory as it sounded, during battle was one of the few times Zhao Yunlan felt most at peace. In a fight, there wasn’t much room for him to think about anything other than who was trying to kill him and how he could stop that from happening. It was almost like going for a jog, he could turn his brain off and leave his body to instinct.
And in the brief moments where he saw Xiao Wei fight, his glaive a flash of lethal silver in the air, he could see a glimpse of the Shen Wei he knew from before, and it was almost like he had never left.
In that instant when the last body fell and he thought the battle was over, Zhao Yunlan turned to the Black Cloak Envoy standing in the middle of the carnage, his glaive planted firmly in the dirt, and gave a small smile. He could have just been on another case if he ignored the number of bodies piled at his feet.
Xiao Wei met his gaze evenly, turned to fully face him and glanced him over for injuries. Seeing that the blood on his clothes wasn’t his, he smiled too, his shoulders smoothing down in a sigh of relief. The look he gave him was warm and filled with affection, so much like the Shen Wei he knew that it made Zhao Yunlan’s heart ache.
A gleam of silver in the trees instantly extinguished the feeling, and Zhao Yunlan’s body reacted. He dashed forward, his heels digging harshly into loose dirt. He reached Xiao Wei in seconds, the sudden sprint catching him off guard, his brown eyes widening in surprise behind the black mask. The abrupt movement was enough to leave him unprepared for the heavy shove that came next. Zhao Yunlan ran into him, grabbing him by the shoulder and flinging him as far away as he could.
He almost didn’t feel the impact of the arrow as it embedded itself in his chest. One second, he was fine. The next, the feather fletchings of an arrow were sticking out of his chest.
For a brief moment, he stared at it. He knew what he was looking at, knew that he had just done something irreversibly stupid, but a part of him focused on the bamboo shaft and the feathers and thought about how delicate they looked.
“Kunlun!” screamed a voice to his right, and he turned toward it. He only belatedly noticed that the earth was tilting around him.
All at once, he realized that something was wrong. He could hear yelling, footsteps pounding as people ran toward the woods. The arrow in his chest began to hurt. It hurt a lot, actually, like someone had cracked open his ribs and dumped broken glass inside. He could taste metal as something bubbled up from his throat and dribbled past his lips. He had fallen over at some point.
Someone had caught him. He knew because he hadn’t felt the hard impact of the ground at his back. He saw long black hair and a mask, and it wasn’t hard to guess who.
“Kunlun!” said Xiao Wei. He looked at him with those eyes, wide not with respect and innocence, but with fear. He held a shaking hand over Zhao Yunlan’s chest, and for once Zhao Yunlan saw him hesitate.
“Pull it out,” Zhao Yunlan managed through gritted teeth. Xiao Wei’s eyes shifted from the bleeding wound to his face. “You can start healing me once it’s out, but you’ll have to be fast.”
XIao Wei didn’t say anything for a moment, just looked ready to throw up. Zhao Yunlan thought he might not do it, too frozen by the shock and the blood. Not that he could blame him. But then Xiao Wei’s hand grabbed the arrow, his knuckles paper white.
Pulling the arrow out was worse than being shot with it in the first place. As soon as Xiao Wei moved, it tore open his flesh wider, the pain a searing heat that made Zhao Yunlan’s vision turn white. A strangled gasp ripped from his throat as his body lurched forward.
“I’m sorry,” said Xiao Wei, his face drained of color, and pressed his hand to his chest. Zhao Yunlan instantly felt dark energy pour into his body and smiled, in spite of himself, at the familiarity of it.
“Well, that hurt a lot more than I thought it would,” he said, chuckling weakly, only to cough and spit out a glob of blood.
“Don’t talk,” was the whispered reply, and a childish part of Zhao Yunlan wanted to say “You can’t tell me what to do,” but he knew that would only make Xiao Wei madder than he already was. “You have to save your strength.”
Zhao Yunlan felt his chest itch and turn cold. He knew what it felt like to have his wounds magically stitched together, Shen Wei had done it many times before, but this was something entirely different. He could feel his organs shift inside of him, the tissue rearranging around the hole between his ribs. It wasn’t comfortable at all. At this point, he couldn’t tell whether he was cold from the treatment or the trauma.
“Don’t be mad,” he muttered, and the edges of his vision began to darken. “This was the better outcome.”
Shen Wei wouldn’t look at him, his eyes focused resolutely on the hand on his chest. “Don’t say that. I would… I would give anything to be in your place.”
“Shen Wei, you may be ten thousand years old, but you’re not immortal.”
“I’m not even three hundred yet. Don’t exaggerate.”
Zhao Yunlan grimaced. “Yeah, three hundred, ten thousand, whatever. You know, you like telling me ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’ a lot. Say more.”
“Don’t save my life then,” Shen Wei hissed, and his brown eyes turned sharp as he looked at him. His voice sounded far away, like Zhao Yunlan was hearing it from the other end of a tunnel. “You didn’t have to do that. Why did you do that?”
“I wanted to.” Zhao Yunlan tried to give him his best smile one last time, but he felt himself slipping. He could barely see anymore. “Because you’re worth it.”
He could just make out Shen Wei’s mouth moving, calling for him, but he lost himself to the darkness.
Zhao Yunlan wouldn’t recommend getting impaled with an arrow. The gaping wound left in his chest was the most painful thing that had ever happened to him. It woke him rather rudely, leaving his mind hazy and overly aware of how stiff he felt. He stared at the ceiling of the tent above him and watched pinpricks of sunlight stream in through gaps in the woven fabric.
“How are you feeling?”
Zhao Yunlan turned his head. Xiao Wei was standing at the tent’s entrance, a water basin and cloth between his hands. For once, he was mask free, leaving the concerned crease between his brows in plain view.
Zhao Yunlan blinked. “It hurts.”
The corner of Xiao Wei’s mouth twitched, but he gave no reaction beyond that as he moved and set the basin on the ground at his bedside. “Other than that.”
“Not dead,” he answered, watching as Xiao Wei drew closer, his black robes skimming the ground as he sat, his legs folding under him. “I’m not dead, right?”
“No, you’re alive.” Xiao Wei dipped his cloth in the basin and wrung it out. “The archer was aiming at my heart through my back. When you took my place, you were shot on the side opposite your heart. Your ribs took most of the force, meaning the arrow didn’t penetrate too deep. Granted, there is only so much I can do for such a severe injury, but I managed to get to you before you lost too much blood. You were lucky.”
“And when was that, exactly?” Zhao Yunlan squinted at him. “Yesterday?”
“Three days ago.” Xiao Wei turned to him, though didn’t meet his eyes, and placed a hand on his forehead. Zhao Yunlan froze, watched as Xiao Wei paused, then pressed the back of his hand to his cheek. Feeling the cool press of his skin, Zhao Yunlan closed his eyes. His head tilted into the touch.
Xiao Wei didn’t move right away, but stared at him a while, brows furrowed. Then he removed his hand and used the cloth to wipe at Zhao Yunlan’s neck. “You had a fever yesterday, but it seems to have broken now. I’ve been checking for infection, but so far, you haven’t contracted anything.”
“The Black Cloak Envoy himself is nursing me back to health.” Zhao Yunlan gave him a wide smile. “So domestic. I feel honored.”
“You’re like this because of me,” Xiao Wei muttered, taking his cloth and dipping it back in the bowl, “This is what I can offer of myself in return.”
“You don’t have to repay me. I chose this.”
The cloth paused, hovering in the air above the basin, ready to be rung out. Instead, Xiao Wei put it back, turning his body fully toward Zhao Yunlan, his hands gripped tightly on his knees. He was quiet for a moment, not looking at him.
“What do you mean by that?” he asked, his voice barely above a whisper. He seemed afraid to make eye contact, but Zhao Yunlan stared at his face, hoping he would anyway. “You said that before. Why did you choose this? I thought you were going to die, why was that something worth doing for me?” His words came at a rush at the end, and he swallowed. “Kunlun, if anything, your life is worth more than mine. Your words don’t make sense. Surely, you were delusional.”
“Well, I’m not delusional now,” said Zhao Yunlan, and he knew for a fact that he wasn’t. Now that his head was clear, he had to agree that what he did was pretty stupid. Shen Wei was more than capable of protecting himself. He could even heal his own wounds with barely a twitch of his finger. If anything, it probably would’ve been safer to let Xiao Wei take the shot. If this time travel nonsense meant anything, it was that Shen Wei didn’t die here. He made it to the future, and nothing Zhao Yunlan did would change that.
That, or Zhao Yunlan could very well be capable of fucking up the timeline, but he had long decided that he hated this sci-fi bullshit and wasn’t going to think about it too hard.
But if he had realized anything, it was that he didn’t know anything about his own fate here. Shen Wei from the future had said nothing about meeting him before, probably for good reason. It was chilling to think that Zhao Yunlan could die here, ten thousand years in the past. It would mean that his time with Shen Wei was predetermined, that the time he spent here would be all that Xiao Wei had.
“Xiao Wei,” he began, “I may not have been here for too long, but I can tell you that you mean a lot to me.”
Xiao Wei finally looked at him, his eyes wide, eyebrows furrowed in confusion. Zhao Yunlan smiled.
“I care about you. I’ve always cared, and I always will. I want you to remember that.”
“Kunlun…” Xiao Wei’s voice trailed off briefly, like the words in his brain had jumbled and he was trying to properly rearrange them. “Care… in what way? Exactly?”
Zhao Yunlan’s smile widened, baring his teeth. He lifted his arm gingerly and moved his covers back a bit. “Your Honor must be exhausted from taking care of me for so long. You work tirelessly, nonstop. Please, do rest. There is enough room here for the both of us.”
Xiao Wei stared at him. “I don’t sleep.”
Zhao Yunlan patted the ground beside him insistently. He ignored the way the impact sent small jolts of pain through his chest. “You look so tired, Sir Envoy. Not to worry, I will watch over you as you sleep. As thanks for your care, of course.”
“But I was already repaying a debt. I… should leave you to rest, you’re still recov—”
“I’m cold,” Zhao Yunlan interrupted, giving very pointed eye contact. “Lay down.”
There was a moment where they stared at each other. The subtle flush rising to Xiao Wei’s cheeks was a welcome sight, one that almost made Zhao Yunlan forget about the excruciating pain of being shot. He patted the ground gently, fingers tapping lightly on the mat underneath him.
That gesture alone was apparently convincing, because Xiao Wei sighed in defeat and moved the basin of water further away to make room. He paused afterward, watching Zhao Yunlan as if he was expecting him to bite, then scooted onto the straw and laid down.
He lay rigidly on his back, but Zhao Yunlan was delighted. He suddenly wondered what younger Shen Wei was like in a new relationship, and the prospect of finding out was exciting.
Xiao Wei looked at him, his eyes wide with scandal, but he did as he was told. He moved enough so that their arms touched, his muscles coiled so tight that it felt like Zhao Yunlan was sharing a bed with a rock. Smiling, he huddled as close as his battered body would allow, and leaned his head into his shoulder. Xiao Wei’s long hair was cool against his cheek.
Having Shen Wei next to him again lured Zhao Yunlan back to sleep. He felt calmer, and as he drifted off, caught in the hazy plane between rest and wakefulness, he finally felt like he was at home.