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The price of second chances

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One look had always been all it would take for the two young Lan disciples to understand each other.
It wasn’t only something that allowed them to act like one during fights, jumping in action with the perfect knowledge that the other knew exactly what to do, even to the point of knowing beforehand what the other was going to do before he actually did it; no, it was something more personal, intimate.
They knew each other’s soul like their own, sometimes even better.
Lan Jingyi was Lan Sizhui’s best friend, and vice versa, and even if the former was quite loud and talkative, it was actually in silence that they had their deepest conversations.
The fact was endearing but also surprising to most, who couldn’t really understand their relationship, having never experienced such bond with someone, but the one who was most affected by it, was undoubtedly Jin Ling.
The young future head of the LanlingJin sect had been curious about it at first, observing in silence as the two friends went through their days and night hunts conversing in silence, smiling, nodding and looking at each other with no need for words. The more he observed, and the closer he got to the Lan discibles, the more unnerving such silence was for him.
It was always Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi , with him following them.
It was always them talking through their eyes, and him needing them to use their mouths.
It went on like that for months, until eventually, Jin Ling somehow got used to such wordless code. He eventually got admitted into the secret world of the two Lans, and it was easily one of the happiest days in his life.
Maybe second only to the one when, after a particularly rough night hunt that left them tired and sore in an abandoned wooden hut, Lan Sizhui had cupped his cheek and leaned in to press his soft, pale pink lips to Jin Ling’s, smiling against them, and as soon as he pulled back, Jingyi had leaned over Sizhui’s shoulder to kiss him as well.
It had been five years since then, and the three were as close as can be, basically inseparable, and by now, Jin Ling had been included into their silent way of speaking. The three of them could act as one, understand each other in the blink of an eye, talk to each other through their eyes even as they sat far from each other during sect meetings.
All of this, their shared, deep knowledge of each other, and the fact that they could read each other’s face, which had always brought them such intimate joy, such thrill at the thought of being alone in their own world even among other people, was also what right then was breaking Lan Sizhui’s heart.
One look at Jingyi’s face was enough for his world to stop spinning and drop right at his feet, dragging his knees along.
«Hey», the usually loud and cheerful boy weakly greeted him, stifling a cough behind his sleeve.
«What’s wrong?», Sizhui asked him, smiling gently as always and laying a hand on his back, trying to ignore the wave of panic that had started to seize his stomach.
It was already late at night, and both of them would have already been long since asleep, if they hadn’t been chosen for patrolling that night.
They didn’t mind keeping each other company during the night guard, it gave them a chance of being alone, protected by the quiet of the night, and could spend hours side by side, bathing in moonlight while they kept their eyes and ears open for any possible threat.
That night, however, was far from tranquil for Sizhui.
He had been worrying ever since that morning, keeping an eye on his lover and feeling his breath hitch in his throat every time the other seemed to stumble, or whenever his eyes closed for a few seconds longer than normal.
He knew the rest of the sect had thought nothing of it, he too would have, but a part of him couldn’t stop wondering… what if …?

 

Earlier, that day.

Running and screaming was forbidden in Cloud Recesses.
Lan Jingyi knew it fully well, painfully well, from all the times he had had to copy the sect rules.
But it didn’t matter now.
As he rushed through the streets, just narrowly avoiding bumping into people as he ran, he could only think about what he saw: one of the elders slipping something from a vial into the water prepared on the tray one of the younger disciples was ordered to bring to the Jingshi, where Senior Wei was still recovering from an injury he got while night hunting with Hanguang-jun.
He needed to be faster, the disciple was probably already knocking on the door right then!
He was fairly sure he knew what was in that vial, and he needed to stop Wei Wuxian from drinking it at all costs.
The elders hadn’t taken well the wedding between their precious Second Jade and the former Yiling Patriarch, of course. But of course they had to pretend they did, what with Hanguang-jun being set on marrying him, Zewu-jun locking himself up in seclusion, and Lan Qiren himself refusing to say anything about his nephew’s decision… Yes, they could pretend they accepted it, but Jingyi knew better.
All that time, they had only been waiting for the right moment to strike.
And that moment had come, apparently.
Of course, his running and screaming had gained a lot of attention, and now someone was running beside him. He didn’t need to turn to look at who it was, he knew, his body was already so used to run and fight with the other by his side.
Lan Sizhui didn’t ask anything, just ran with him, while a few other disciples ran after them, mostly driven by curiosity rather than panic and emergency.
They got to the Jingshi just in time to see Lan Wangji take the tray of food from the disciple and thank him, and as he was about to close the door behind his shoulders, Jingyi threw himself in with a loud scream that startled everyone around.
But not Wangji.
He merely turned to look at him, puzzlement briefly flashing through his eyes before being replaced by his usual polite apathy.
«Lan Jingyi?».
«Don’t drink from that cup!»¸ was all the boy could frantically wheeze as he desperately tried to catch some breath, and Lan Sizhui worriedly reached the door as well, bowing politely to his adoptive father before turning to look at his friend, and secret lover, with an expression of pure confusion and fear.
«What do you mean?».
At least, Hanguang-jun didn’t seem too upset, and almost willing to listen to him. This gave him courage, and a bit of strength back:
«Nor you nor Senior Wei must drink that water, I saw one of the--», suddenly, Jingyi realized that accusing one of the elders of such act could do more harm than good, and what if he was wrong? He had already broken enough rules as it was, and even if he didn’t regret it in the slightest, he realized he could be more subtle now, after all, Lan Wangji was listening to him, hands still firm on the tray of food, and eyes focused on the cup of water as if trying to force it to reveal its secrets to him. «I saw someone pouring something from a vial into it», he concluded in a whisper, still panting heavily.
Lan Sizhui’s breath made some weird noise at that, as if he was gasping but then stopped himself, Wangji met Jingyi’s eyes with surprise and… was that fear he saw there for a moment?
«A vial?».
«Yes, Hanguang-jun, I saw it myself and ran as fast as I could to warn you, I---».
Sadly for Jingyi, the elder he had seen, had also seen him; understanding his intentions, he had followed him, eventually catching up to him as he was talking, ad was now standing in the entrance with a polite smile and innocent air.
«I’m afraid our Lan Jingyi has misunderstood, Hanguang-jun», came a soft and gentle voice from the entrance.
That voice had Jingyi’s body tense up immediately as fear rushed through his body together with his blood.
Wangji and Sizhui greeted the elder and looked at him expectantly, waiting for him to elaborate.
«It is true that I poured something in that cup, but that was nothing but a tonic that should allow Wei Wuxian a faster recovery, nothing less and nothing more. Lan Jingyi has always been such a vivacious, imaginative young boy, I’m sure he thought I had poured some poison in there, or something like that».
The laughing, pitying tone the man was using in talking about him, had Jingyi see red from fury.
Wangji’s face was still unreadable, but Sizhui was blushing at Jingyi’s side, as if he was both angered and flustered by those words.
Did he believe the elder?
Did he want to believe him?
That would have been the easier way, the less scary one.
Jingyi walked up to the tray and snatched the cup from it, eyes narrowing at the elder as he did so.
«I see. If it was merely a tonic, then surely there’d be no problem if I drank it, then, am I right?», he asked, voice cold from the boiling rage he felt inside, so strong that it numbed any fear he might have at the thought of ingesting poison.
The elder didn’t answer at first, his eyes moving from Jingyi to Sizhui, to Wangji, and eventually to the hidden corner of the room that lead to the bed where Wei Wuxian was probably still resting. When he brought back his eyes on Jingyi, his smile hadn’t changed, only the boy could see a hint of malice in his eyes as he replied:
«Of course, go ahead if you wish, although I see no reason why you should need to drink a tonic. Are you perhaps feeling unwell, Lan Jingyi?».
At that, Jingyi brought the cup to his lips and swiftly drank it, his mind only barely registering Wangji’s body going still from the surprise and Sizhui’s hand reaching towards him as if to stop him, or take the cup away from him.
He gulped the liquid down, and then waited for pain, or drowsiness, or anything to happen to him, and so did the others around him, but nothing happened.
The elder gave a short laugh, taking his leave wishing Wei Wuxian a fast recovery, “although the tonic could have made it faster”, and bidding goodbye to the three Lans before excusing himself.
Sizhui immediately grabbed Jingyi’s hands and stared into his eyes, as his own grew wide in fear and worry as his fingers went to check on his pulse.
Ah. So Sizhui did believe him about the poison.
«How are you feeling?», he asked in a shushed voice, his hands cold and strong against the other’s skin.
«Just like before… perhaps I indeed was wrong and it was just a tonic». Jingyi gave a bitter laugh at that. «Ahw, what a shame, I’ll be whipped to death by old Qiren for running and screaming like a madman, and I even accused an elder of trying to poison Hanguang-jun’s husband, and all for nothing!».

But that had been a lie.
Jingyi had already suspected it the moment the elder hadn’t stopped him from drinking that water and grew more and more certain of it during the day.
It wasn’t that the thing was not poison, it was just a slow one.
Maybe they had suspected someone would see them, or maybe they were just that cruel.
Jingyi’s insides had taken twisting and burning somewhere in the afternoon, and the feeling had worsened as the evening approached, pain giving way to a feeling of tiredness and fatigue that made his every limb feel like heavy lead.
That was when he had let himself fall sitting on the rooftop where Sizhui had found him, and he no longer was able to hide the pain he was bearing.
He hadn’t been scared back then, dead set on saving Wei Wuxian’s life, because he was Hanguang-jun’s husband, because he was Sizhui’s father, because he… he had been one of the few adults to actually care for Jingyi himself, who had been kind and fun and hadn’t considered him a “flawed Lan”, or anything among those lines.
He didn’t regret saving Wei Wuxian’s life, because the former Yiling Patriarch and their Second Master deserved to finally be happy together.
But he did feel scared now, and he did regret something… That something was leaving behind two certain people, and one of them was right there with him in that moment.
Of course.
“Together until the end” was what they had promised each other as children… he hadn’t expected those words to become so painfully real.
The worst part being Sizhui still not knowing this was the end of him.
«I think I’m a bit tired, that’s all», Jingyi answered his partner’s question from before while feeling his words slurring a bit, drowsiness seizing even his mouth, and he felt the need to cough again as something seemed to stick to the back of his throat. His head felt heavy and his sight spinned for a moment. «Hey, Sizhui, do you mind if I just…», he couldn’t hold himself sitting any longer, so he laid against his friend’s shoulder, then slipping from it and all but falling onto the other’s lap, ignoring Sizhui’s surprised exclamation. «… lay here like this for a moment?», he finished, his eyes fluttering close and breath growing labored.
«A-Yi , what’s wrong?», Sizhui asked again, grabbing his shoulder and shaking him gently, as if afraid of hurting him, but still set on keeping him awake. «Talk to me, A-Yi, please ».
Jingyi opened his eyes once again, and although they now were almost unfocused, he could still find Sizhui’s face, and the two locked eyes like they had already done so many times before.
And as usual, that exchange told more than words could.
Sizhui let out a strangled cry, readjusting Jingyi in his arms so that the boy was leaning across of him, his head cradled among his partner’s arms and laying on his shoulder.
«Jingyi, please, don’t… can you keep talking to me? For a bit?».
Jingyi wasn’t used to Sizhui panicking. Sizhui was all calm, still waters, sunny landscapes, all refreshing laughter and gentle touches, his eyes were no place for unshed tears, his lips were meant to smile and kiss, not to tremble in pain.
«Mn, I can», he managed. And that got a weak, wet laughter from Sizhui, who brought a hand to gently stroke his cheek.
«Trying to sound like Hanguang-jun, now?».
«Mn», Jingyi replied, giving a little smile himself, before a burst of violent coughing caught both of them off guard, seizing Jingyi’s body and having him shake so violently that if it wasn’t for Sizhui’s hold on him, he’d probably have fallen of the rooftop they were on.
«Jingyi! No, please, don’t…».
Sizhui’s voice was small, and lost and scared once again, but this time Jingyi could do nothing to reassure him.
He was too busy staring at the black blood dripping down his chin to his chest, on his and Sizhui’s hands, their sleeves stained black by it.
He felt the other gently lift him up to help him breathe, but it didn’t do much good.
«This is… worse than I expected», Jingyi eventually managed to mumble, spilling more blood as he spoke.
«I must go ask for help».
Sizhui had almost laid Jingyi down and gotten up to run off and cry for help when Jingyi found the strength to grasp his hand.
«Stay»¸ he whispered, his eyes closing once again and a pained frown on his face.
Sizhui didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t do anything to help Jingyi, but at the same time, he couldn’t leave him alone as he ran off to search for help… if Jingyi…
If Jingyi died while he was away, and he died alone, and scared, and in pain on top of a rooftop, with only the moonlight for company, Sizhui would have never forgiven himself.
“But he may not die if you find help soon enough”, his mind supplied helpfully.
Still, he couldn’t bring himself to leave. Something, in Jingyi’s voice and the way he was clutching to his sleeve, had him paralyzed on the spot.
So he just readjusted once again his grip on the hurting boy and waited for him to speak while pressing a light kiss on his brow, waiting for him to relax, for the creases under his lips to disappear.
And they did. Jingyi opened his eyes once again, and although dulled, his expression seemed more peaceful than before, he even wore the smallest of smiles.
«I’m sorry I’m doing this now, but…», he whispered, as he did his best to sit up straighter, Sizhui’s arms and chest supporting him, and he slowly brought his hands to his forehead. Sizhui thought he was going to say something about it hurting, and was about to place his own cold hand over the other’s forehead ribbon in an attempt to soothe away at least some pain, when he realized that Jingyi’s hands hadn’t stopped there, but had followed the ribbon’s length until his fingers reached the knot keeping it in place, and were now pulling at it.
«A-Yi», was all he could say, too dumbstruck to come up with any response at all. In a daze, he saw Jingyi wince and pull at the forehead ribbon, clutching one end in his hand as his arms fell back to his sides, his whole body slacking against Sizhui once again, panting heavily.
«Ugh. Like I said, sorry for doing it now…», he repeated slowly, raising his arms again and bringing them to rest over Sizhui’s, forehead ribbon still clutched tightly in one hand, the black blood he had coughed up earlier leaving dark stains over the once pristine cloth. He weakly forced Sizhui’s hands open and pressed the ribbon into them, his own hands now shaking violently and not only because of the poison and the effort.
«A-Yi, I--», Sizhui’s voice broke and tears finally filled his eyes, seconds away from dripping down.
«A-Yuan . I’m being selfish here, I know», Jingyi cut him off, squeezing lightly his hands around Sizhui’s. «You deserved better than me from the start… and I shouldn’t have you be tied to a dying man, b-but… would you…», another fit of cough had Jingyi struggle for air, and more blood ended up splashing on his body, and on his and Sizhui’s hands, and he no longer could tell if it was him shaking so much, or Sizhui, or maybe both. He took a tentative breath and kept talking, ignoring the burning in his lungs and throat. «Would you please take care of this for me?», he asked, moving his head so that his eyes could meet the other’s. «O-only half of it, actually», he added, frantically searching for words as he felt time no longer being by his side. «The other half is for… our Young Mistress Jin », he managed another smile at Jin Ling’s nickname, but Sizhui could only whimper at that, face pressed into his shoulder and arms holding him tighter, too tight actually, he already couldn’t breathe, after all! «G-Give him that and tell him I’m sorry? I… Didn’t wanna leave you alone, I… We…», he really didn’t have any time left to say all that he had wanted to say, to express all of his feelings for the other boys. He could only hope he had somehow shown them enough when he had had the chance, when he was… alive. With those thoughts in mind, fear fully struck Jingyi, as realization dawned on him and crushed him down.
He was dying .
His body was filled with his own blood flooding places it wasn’t supposed to.
His blood was being colored black from some unknown toxine…
And he was dying . In his Sizhui’s, his beautiful A-Yuan’s, arms, far from Jin Ling, who would’ve kicked his ass if he knew what he had done… But who probably would have also cried. Who will surely cry , mourning once again the loss of someone he loved.
He didn’t want to leave them, he had hoped he could tell them how he felt more often, he should’ve given them his forehead ribbon earlier, he should have…
«A-Yuan, I don’t wanna die!».
He didn’t register his words leaving his lips until he felt Sizhui cry out in pain and agony similar to his, but it was so desperate it hurt more than any poison or inner hemorrhage could.
And then everything was in a blur.
Jingyi could no longer fell Sizhui close to him, holding him, he didn’t feel his hands in his, even his forehead ribbon was gone from his grip…
Everything was foggy and spinning and oh so painful .
And Jingyi was terrified, he didn’t want to be alone.
«Sizhui? A-Yuan? A-Yuan, where are you? Don’t leave, stay here… I… A-Yuan? A-Ling? A-Ling, help! Please, someone, someone…. Hanguang-jun! Senior Wei!!».
He heard himself calling out for anyone , even Lan Qiren and his own parents at a certain point, but he no longer knew if he was really screaming or if it was just in his head.
He could hear noise all around him, but he wasn’t sure if it was real, everything was just so painful, and scary and confused… and he didn’t wanna cry in front of Sizhui, but he really didn’t even know if Sizhui was there with him anymore!
Just as he was about to lose his consciousness, he felt someone holding his hands once again, small pieces of cloth held between them, and Sizhui’s sandalwood smell - somehow sweeter than that of his father had always been - filled his nostrils, and his voice caressed his ears.
«I’m here, A-Yi, I’ll always be here, and so will you. You’ll be with me and with A-Ling and I’ll take care of him for you until you can do it again. And we’ll keep your forehead ribbon, and you can have mine, here, it’s in your hands… please, A-Yi, don’t be afraid. It will all be over soon… I love you, and so does Jin Ling, and we’ll always, always, find a way to be together, I promise. I’ll find you again, I will, even if I have to play Inquiry for the next thirteen centuries! We’ll meet again, and we’ll all be together then. I swear, A-Yi. You can sleep now… you’ll be okay. We’ll be okay».

Chapter Text

«I told you to be careful with those!».
«I was being careful! I couldn’t expect it to slip from my hands just like that!».
«Well, what do you think “be careful” actually means? I’m quite sure “make sure it doesn’t slip from your hands and smashes into our heads” is included!».

Jingyi woke up to the sound of hushed yet agitated voices and a splitting headache, together with the feeling of his eyes burning so much he was almost sure he was tearing up even with his eyes closed.
He managed a sound as he scrunched up his nose and squeezed his eyes before opening them, moaning against the offending lights of the neon above him.
«Shut up, all of you! Jingyi, can you hear me?».
All of the pain, confusion and discomfort he was feeling was washed away by the voice coming from his right.
Jingyi’s eyes focused on the person sitting there and took in the sight of a gentle and concerned face, delicate features and ebony hair tied into a high ponytail, big, pale blue eyes staring into his.
Something was missing, though…
«Your forehead ribbon?», he croaked out, wincing in pain as his throat felt sore.
Lan Sizhui seemed to frown in confusion at that, as he reached for a cup full of water from the bedside and helped him to drink from it.
«My what?», he asked, kindly but still somewhat cautious, as if he was worried of saying something wrong.
«The… forehead ribbon, you shouldn’t be not wearing it!»¸ Jingyi repeated again, gesturing at his forehead.
Sizhui seemed as if he wanted to ask him to elaborate, but was interrupted by another very familiar voice that had Jingyi perk up immediately.
«Woah, A-Qing! This is why you need to be careful when setting stage lights. He was a mess before, now he’s rambling nonsense!», Jin Ling exclaimed, nudging a young girl standing by his side, who only scoffed at him.
«It’s not like the lights actually hit him. It was Xuanyu who pushed him to the ground and had him hit his head».
«Because if I hadn’t, the light would have probably smashed his head and killed him! What did you expect me to do? Stand there and watch?! Did you wanna see a river of blood explode from his skull and flood the auditor--».
« And that’s more than enough, Xuanyu, thank you», Sizhui cut in again, his voice still soft and gentle but firm, his gaze matching his tone as he stared at the three people standing at the feet of Jingyi’s bed.
«We’re sorry for having you involved in this, school head Wei Yuan, we didn’t mean to trouble you!», Jin Ling suddenly said, and the other two nodded frantically, while Jingyi frowned at that.
Wei Yuan?
Were they talking about Sizhui? And why was Jin Ling being so polite and formal with Sizhui?
It was in that moment that Jingyi finally registered that something was terribly, horribly wrong.
First of all, the lights. That was no natural light that he had seen once he opened his eyes… it wasn’t made by fire nor a talisman, it was fixed on the ceiling and radiated its light from there, without wavering, without any warmth… He had never seen such a thing, and yet his mind had immediately somewhat recognized it as “neon light”.
Second, the people around him were wearing weird clothes. No longer their sect’s robes, or even robes at all.
The boys had trousers, and the sleeves of their upper clothing looked far too tight for comfort, or to put stuff in there; the girl was wearing the same on the top, but underneath… Even Jingyi found himself gasping softly at how short her clothes were, leaving most of her legs clearly visible from right above the knee to the shoes, even if there was some kind of socks covering them.
Uniforms . Somehow, his mind knew those they were wearing were “uniforms”.
Lowering his gaze, Jingyi suddenly realized he was wearing one of them too.
The colours they wore were black and red, and he didn’t really recognize them from any sect he had ever seen, except from Wei Wuxian’s clothing…
Wei Wuxian.
Wei Yuan.
He brought his attention back to Sizhui, who was now staring in silence at him together with Jin Ling and the others.
«He looks quite out of it, doesn’t he?», the girl whispered to the one who had been called Xuanyu before, not low enough not to be heard from him, while her pale eyes - a light blue so clear they could almost seem white - never left Jingyi’s face.
«He hit his head on the floor after I tackled him down with all my strength, I bet even you would look a bit out of it!», was the other’s answer, and suddenly Jingyi remembered him.
Mo Xuanyu! That was actually Wei Wuxian himself when they first met him… Why would he go back to that name, though?
«Uhm, hey, could you please tell me your name?».
Sizhui’s question had Jingyi reeling from the shock.
«Eh?».
«Your name, I need to see if your memory has been affected».
That had the whole crew of young people go still, as if they hadn’t actually thought of such a possibility when wondering about the current situation.
Trust Sizhui - or Wei Yuan, or whatever - to see the bigger picture.
«Lan Jingyi?», he answered, although it came out as a question more than an answer.
That seemed to satisfy the others, though, and Sizhui nodded encouragingly.
«And how old are you, Jingyi?», he asked then, a small smile playing on his lips.
«Uh… Somewhere around eighteen, I guess? I’m not really counting»¸he replied, laughing lightly, but the others seemed way too serious about this.
Not that they were completely wrong to, as the whole situation had Jingyi himself really confused and his memory was indeed failing him, apparently?
«Do you remember where you were before collapsing?».
Jingyi stayed silent, looking around for any hint that may trigger his memory into helping him like it had with the “neon” and the “uniform”. Sadly, this time his mind stayed silent, so he just shook his head… a terrible decision, really, which had him hiss in pain and Sizhui and Jin Ling reach out for him before he stopped and reassured them.
«You were in school, Jingyi. You… Do you remember what you’re studying there?», Sizhui supplied, eyes never leaving his.
«Cultivation?», it slipped from his lips before he could really stop himself, and he could see the A-Qing girl throwing a worried glance at Jin Ling, who was staring at him with a bewildered expression, and at Mo Xuanyu, who was now frowning so hard it may leave him permanent wrinkles.
«What?!»¸ Jin Ling exploded, his eyes going wide in surprise. «You’re kidding, right?».
And then, Jingyi’s memory seemed to finally find a piece of this weird puzzle and pushed it forward into his mind, so the boy proceeded to laugh as if he had everything under control.
«Of course I was kidding, Young Mistress! I’m there to study to become an actor, and the best one too!».
Both anger and relief flashed in Jin Ling’s eyes at his words, and even Sizhui seemed to relax a bit by his side.
«Who are you calling Young Mistress, asshole!».
«Why? Would you rather “Your Majesty”, Princess?», at least, mocking Jin Ling seemed to be something he was still good at and used to.
Good.
«“Your highness” would be more appropriated, then… Majesty is used for kings and queens, after all».
And that had everyone turn their heads towards Sizhui, who was now sporting a perfect poker-face, as if he had merely pointed an innocent fact out, and not just taken part to the mockery.
That wasn’t completely unusual, actually, but Jingyi had totally not seen that coming, and even the others seemed surprised.
«Forgive me», Sizhui eventually said, his voice still perfectly even, a smile hidden gracefully at the corners of his lips. «However, let’s get back to what we were doing… Do you remember what happened to you before you lost consciousness, Jingyi?».
And then, again, Jingyi’s memory seemed to flee him, betray and forsake him when he needed it most.
The only thing he could remember, was laying in Sizhui’s arms under the moonlight, on a roof in Gusu, as he was slipping away, losing a battle with poison.
«Uhm… I… was in pain»¸ that seemed a safe answer, and it gained him a troubled expression from Jin Ling and a wince of sympathy from Sizhui and Xuanyu.
A-Qing, all of a sudden, burst out in tears and literally jumped on his bed, crawling up to him and wrapping her thin arms around his torso.
Seeing her this close, suddenly brought a whole new pack of memories to Jingyi.
Yi City.
Watching through wooden axes from a window.
A sightless and tongueless ghost.
He screamed, trying to push her off him.
«Woah! Jingyi, I know she’s the ugliest thing in the world, but you don’t really need to scream as if you’re seeing Death itself when looking her up-close!», Jin Ling exclaimed, reaching out to steady A-Qing before she fell off the bed, and Jingyi widened his eyes.
“What is going on? Why is Jin Ling that familiar with this ghost… who is clearly no longer mute nor blind. Oh. And not dead, too.”
«I-I’m sorry… I was startled», he managed, as his mind raced to find answers once again, even as he felt his forehead and temples start throbbing.
«No, I ’m sorry, A-Yi», the girl whimpered, drying her eyes with her sleeves and sniffling miserably. «I was supposed to set up the stage lights, but I didn’t pay enough attention and one of them slipped from my hands… if it hadn’t been for Xuanyu here, you’d be… you’d be…», that brought another fit of crying, and Jingyi found himself reaching out to pat the girl on the head, twice, before giving her the brightest smile he could muster.
«Hey! It’s okay. I’m here now, aren’t I? I’m alive and well, so please stop crying… You’re uglier when you cry».
He was fairly sure he saw and heard Jin Ling snort.
«Oh, fuck you . Next time I’ll take better aim!».
«Please, Song Qing, do not », Sizhui’s voice piped up again, and the boy stood up… Was it because Jingyi was laying on a bed, or was he taller than before? «I’ll go tell the doctors and your family that you’re awake and experiencing trouble with your memory, they’ll know what to do».
With that, before any of them could say a word, he walked to the door and left the room, leaving Jingyi with his confused mind and three “not really strangers” staring at him.
«Did you really lose your memory?», Jin Ling asked, narrowing his eyes at him.
Suddenly, A-Qing and Xuanyu seemed awfully suspicious as well, and Jingyi shivered involuntarily.
«W-why would I lie about it?!».
«Oh, I don’t know. Maybe to pull the amnesia card on our sweet school head, Wei Yuan?», A-Qing suggested, raising one eyebrow.
«Eh?», Jingyi was really at a loss of words, and he had to fight the urge to pull his covers up above his head and whimper in pain, begging them to leave him alone.
«Yeah, acting all scared and vulnerable so you can get a chance with him», Xuanyu added, crossing his arms above his chest. «Because that’d be so lame not even I would try it. And I’m pining over my half brother, may I remind you».
«Guys»¸ Jingyi sighed heavily, bringing his hands up to rub his temples, squeezing his eyes shut. «I really don’t know what you’re talking about and I think my head is going to explode, so can you please either shut up or explain what the hell is going on here? Because really , I can’t remember anything ».
That seemed to settle the question, as the three guys looked at each other for a bit before gazing back at Jingyi.
«Alright»¸ Jin Ling sighs and shakes his head, taking the seat that had been occupied by Sizhui until not long before. «Sit yourself comfortably and get ready to hear the story of your - really lame , if you ask me, but who am I to judge? - life».

Chapter Text

The moment Jingyi stopped breathing in his arms, Sizhui let out a long, pained scream that pierced through the peaceful night of Gusu.
It was a terrifying scream, a loud wail, that woke up anyone in the Cloud Recesses; some thought of a feral corpse breaking in, some thought it to be an animal, many sat up in their beds, waiting to see if it happened again.
Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian both bolted out of their bed and their home, running in the direction it came from, and soon they found Lan Qiren following them, running with them.
They all knew that voice.
The person that right now was screaming as if he wanted to make his lungs explode out from his throat wouldn’t be doing so unless something truly horrible had happened.
The moment the three of them reached the rooftop Sizhui was sitting on, another silhouette had appeared, and was now kneeling in front of the boy. Sizhui’s scream had now died down to a series of heartbreaking sobs and hiccups, his breathing so ragged he was probably feeling dizzy by now.
The person kneeling there and holding him was none else but Lan Xichen, who had apparently just gotten out of his seclusion to run there.
«A-Yuan», Wei Wuxian whispered, approaching them first, and his eyes widened at the sight in front of him. «Jingyi!».
Cradled in Sizhui’s arms, squeezed between him and Lan Xichen, was the still form of Lan Jingyi, his complexion too pale to be healthy, and his chest too still to be alive.
His lips were already turning a sickening shade of pale blue, tinted with spots of black colored blood.
Sizhui kept crying, completely unable to get a hold of himself, his usual air of composedness and calm completely shattered as his hands were still clutching at his friend’s shoulders, still weakly shaking him from time to time, as if still hoping he would wake up. He didn’t even seem aware of Xichen resting his hands on his shoulders and gently pushing him away so he could look at his face, he didn’t seem to notice the presence of the other three adults.
He could only look at Jingyi’s face, calling his name, sobbing into his chest… Wei Wuxian felt his heart break at the sight, and so did Lan Wangji once he approached them as well.
«Bring him back», was what eventually left Sizhui’s lips when he could finally catch his breath, his desperate eyes staring into Wei Wuxian’s, tears still streaming down his face. «Please, bring him back, mother».
For him to call Wuxian that way, it was clear that his mind was obfuscated, he clearly wasn’t thinking straight, but really, none could blame him.
Not even Lan Qiren, who was standing very still with his eyes fixed on the dead boy laying in front of them.
Oh, how many times he had hoped to see Lan Jingyi stay still for more than a few seconds, to see him be quiet, not causing any trouble around! And yet now, he’d give anything to see him sit up and start laughing at their faces, satisfied with himself for fooling them this much.
«What happened?», Qiren had been wanting to ask that, but it was Xichen’s voice that phrased the words, his voice lower than ever, full of sorrow.
He had entered seclusion to mourn for his sworn brothers, and was forced out of it to witness this … Qiren’s heart suddenly ached for the elder of his nephews, guilt for how he had treated him back then finally taking over his heart.
« Bring him back, I know you can! You did it with uncle Ning, didn’t you?! You can do it, why aren’t you doing it for him now? He believed you, he trusted you… he died for you!!».
Sizhui had suddenly jumped to his feet and grabbed Wei Ying’s lapel, pulling at it in a desperate manner, his eyes wide and scared, unfocused, completely lost, and he was shaking him as he spoke.
«A-Yuan… I can’t», the man whispered, pulling him in an embrace and letting him sob into his chest, ignoring the punches the boy was suddenly throwing him as he cried.
He was breaking many rules of their sect, in that moment, but none of them could bring himself to care.
«It was poison, it really was poison».
Eventually, Sizhui managed to whisper such words before his eyes rolled back into his head and his knees gave out, he didn’t fall down just because of how tight Wuxian was holding him.
Meanwhile, Wangji had kneeled down next to Jingyi, examining the body with a pained expression.
«He has been poisoned, indeed», he confirmed, and both Lan Xichen and Wei Wuxian could read the anger in his eyes and voice. «They really wanted to…».
“He died for you”, Sizhui had said.
And all of a sudden, Wei Wuxian felt like screaming just like his son had before.

They left the Two Jades and Qiren to take care of the elders and the sect, while Wei Wuxian and Lan Sizhui left for Koi Tower.
Sizhui hadn’t spoken much since that night, actually he had barely said a few words, and those words were “I must tell Jin Ling”, which was why the two were now leaving in the middle of the night after a short letter from Xichen had been sent to announce their arrival.
Sizhui’s anger had by now moved from his father to the elders who had planned for all of this to happen, and that was one of the reasons they had allowed him to leave… He probably wouldn’t have done anything rushed, but it still wasn’t safe to have him around as Xichen, Wangji and their uncle faced the culprits.
Besides, Jin Ling would need him after he heard the news, and Sizhui himself needed Jin Ling more than ever now.
When they eventually reached Koi Tower, Jin Ling was waiting for them together with a very worried Jiang Cheng, who clearly had been called over as soon as Xichen’s message was delivered.
Somehow, his presence felt surprisingly comforting.
Jin Ling’s confused smile when he saw Sizhui, though, was like a stab to the heart for the teenager.
Of course Jin Ling would be happy to see him, how could he imagine what he was going to tell him?
Xichen’s letter had merely told him Sizhui and Wei Wuxian would be coming to him with some news, and they’d stay for a few days, if he agreed, after all.
Yunmeng’s and Langlin’s sect leaders greeted them politely in front of the others, but then Jin Ling hastily invited them to a room where they could talk in private, his eyes finally taking sight of Sizhui’s bloodshot ones and his terrible general appearance.
«Here, none will disturb us here. What’s wrong with the two of you? What happened?», the boy pressured, taking Sizhui’s hands and holding them tight, not caring about the presence of his uncles. His heart skipped a beat in his chest when he saw new tears form in his lover’s eyes.
«A-Ling…», Sizhui’s voice broke calling his name, and he really couldn’t bring himself to say it out loud. How could he?
He was still trying to deny it, still trying to convince himself this was all just a nightmare, that he would wake up and find Jingyi waiting for him to go train, or play with the rabbits…
For some reason, it was the sudden memory of Jingyi’s enthusiasm for his father’s rabbits and the picture of him chasing them around that made him sob once again, startling Jin Ling, who then cursed under his breath, fingers rushing to catch those teardrops, as fear swept over him.
Meanwhile, Wei Wuxian had whispered in Jiang Cheng’s ear and explained the situation, making the man pale significantly and stare at his nephew.
Why did it always end up like that?
How was that, that no matter how hard he tried to shield Jin Ling from any pain, pain would always find a way to him?!
«A-Ling, Jingyi… A-yi… he--», the moment that name left Sizhui’s lips, Jin Ling felt the room spin around him and he felt Sizhui grab his wrists with more force than usual, as if to steady him and to anchor himself at the same time.
Jin Ling’s breath caught in his throat. He was already sensing where this was going, and a soft “no” escaped his mouth in a whisper the same moment when Sizhui finished his sentence. «He’s gone».
Jin Ling closed his eyes, his hands going still on Sizhui’s face, as the other’s teardrops ran between his fingers.
Gone.
Why did everyone he loved leave him, in the end?
«A-Ling…».
He thought he could start crying at any moment, he knew he should feel pain, or anger, or even fear… but he could feel nothing at all.
He was just so cold, all of a sudden, feeling like his insides had suddenly turned into ice.
«How?», was all he could say, opening his eyes again, and Sizhui seemed to hesitate at that. «How, Lan Yuan?».
«P-Poisoning. From the elders of our sect, they’re being punished at this exact moment… I think».
Jin Ling scoffed at that, bringing his hands to his face and taking a deep breath.
It made no sense at all, and it was clear that Sizhui was hiding something from him, but he really couldn’t find the strength to inquire further.
It didn’t really matter, after all. Their Jingyi was gone.
The boy who had always seemed so lively, so invincible to Jin Ling, whose only presence could make him believe that everything would be alright, that made him feel so safe… was gone , and nothing would change that.
Or maybe…?
«But you can bring him back, can’t you?!», he asked, suddenly raising his voice with a somewhat pained hopeful tone as he turned towards Wei Wuxian, but that hope was suddenly crushed as the man lowered his eyes and shook his head, a helpless and empty smile ghosting over his lips. Even he had gone silent, and for some reason that hurt and scared his nephew in ways that Jin Ling himself couldn’t understand, so the youngster just gritted his teeth and somehow managed to hold back a scornful reply.
Suddenly, Sizhui grabbed his hands again, and when he lowered his gaze, he saw a white cloth in his own hands.
The half of a cloud patterned forehead ribbon, the other half was tightly knotted around Sizhui’s left wrist, so tight that Jin Ling suspected it was cutting the boy’s circulation, but the other didn’t even seem to notice.
«He asked me to give it to you. And to say sorry for leaving you, and for tying you to a dead man at the same time… Y-You can refuse it, of course, you can--», before Sizhui could finish what he was trying to say, Jin Ling had thrown himself into his arms, finally breaking down with an anguished cry.
«He’s really gone, isn’t he?».
Sizhui nodded, his quiet sobs joining those of his lover, his hands moving on their own as one went on Jin Ling’s back, and the other gently stroke his hair, like they had already done so often over the years.
«You… Were you with him?», Jin Ling’s voice was muffled by Sizhui’s clothes, but it still reached the other teen’s ears, and the young Lan disciple nodded, not even trying to hold back the tears or the shivers that were running through his whole body as he finally let himself crumble together with Jin Ling while he remembered that night he had been trying to suppress far into his memory in the last few days, without ever really succeeding.
«Till the very end», he admitted in a whisper, and pain suddenly shot through his very being, leaving him empty and sore, sobbing against Jin Ling like he still hadn’t allowed himself to do with anyone.
He didn’t want to force Jin Ling to be the strong one, he hadn’t planned on shuttering like that in front of him, but there he was, with the other’s warmth surrounding him, both their holds on each other as strong as ever, and they were both in pain, their hearts aching and mourning as one… There was no one else who could understand how he was feeling as well as Jin Ling, and there was no one else he’d even want close to him at the time.
And from the way Jin Ling was clinging to him, still shocked, still bewildered as he trembled and swallowed down painful sobs, he knew the other boy felt just like him.
«A-Yi», Jin Ling eventually mumbled painfully, pressing his eyes into Sizhui’s shoulder, his hands curling into fists around the fabric of the boy’s pristine outer robes.
Their white color suddenly seemed fitting for the occasion.
He had already faced loss way too many times for someone his age, and as he had finally recovered from Jin Guangyao’s betrayal and death, fate seemed to sneer and laugh at him, taking one of his most treasured people away from him, once again.
“Am I a curse to whoever I love?”, he found himself thinking, and suddenly he felt panic rise in him, as he tried to push Sizhui away, terrified that even just by touching, he’d get cursed as well.
He wasn’t sure if Sizhui had somehow sensed what he was thinking, but the other just grabbed him and held him closer, using his full - “and ridiculous” - strength to stop him from trying to break away from their hug, whispering in his ears soothing words that, although spoken through tears and pain, managed to have him calm down enough to lay his head back on his shoulder. And if Sizhui noticed or minded his robes slowly getting damp there where Jin Ling’s eyes were pressed, he didn’t mention it.
They stood like that for a long time, clinging to each other like to a lifeline, crying and mourning together… They knew Jingyi wouldn’t want to see them cry, they knew he’d be complaining and making weird faces to make them laugh and chase the clouds away from their hearts, but the thought of his efforts to cheer them up had the exact opposite effect of weighting down upon them and break their spirits even more. Because Lan Jingyi could no longer come and make faces at them, playfully pull at Sizhui’s ponytail and call Jin Ling “Delicate Young Mistress”, could no longer kiss their tears away and hold their hands, could no longer hug them like he used to do.
Sizhui and Jin Ling held onto each other with all of their strength, but they could still feel a hole between them, the absence of their third lover as painful as a wound in their chests, cold spreading underneath their skin right there where Jingyi’s warmth should have been.
They still had each other, but they were never made to be complete with only the two of them, neither of them was enough to keep the other whole and warm, they both missed and needed their favourite troublemaker, their hyperactive sunshine.
The golden core of their trio.

Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian felt their hearts tighten at that sight, and they walked out of the room to grant them some privacy and time to mourn.
Once outside, Jiang Cheng turned towards his former brother, his expression grave and serious.
«You really couldn’t bring him back?».
He himself couldn’t believe he was asking this, but then again, there was no length he wouldn’t walk for Jin Ling and preventing his happiness from being taken from him.
«I wanted to, at first, but his soul was already gone. I had never seen something like that, I don’t know what poison it was, they’re still studying it there in Gusu, but it was a poison meant for me , I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a poison that could melt or destroy one’s soul and resentful energy, so that they could never return or be brought back».
Jiang Cheng’s face seemed to flash with fury at that, although Wei Wuxian wasn’t sure about the reason for that fury, if it was towards him for causing Jin Ling more sorrow, or towards the elders for trying to kill him in the first place.
A part of him couldn’t help but hope it was the latter.
The two of them were far from close as they had used to, but they also no longer were on such bad terms, they still cared deeply for each other, and it was indeed towards the elders that Jiang Cheng was angry right then.
Not only they had tried to kill the man he used to call brother, they had also taken someone very dear to Jin Ling.
«Will they be killed?», he suddenly asked, his face darkening.
«The elders? I doubt it. Killing is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses», Wei Wuxian recited almost from memory, the taste of such rule bitter on his tongue. «Ironic, isn’t it?».
«They killed first, so it would only be fair».
«I don’t think Lan Xichen will ever sentence them to death, but I agree that it would feel… right», he admitted with a sigh. «They took Jingyi’s life, and taking theirs won’t bring him back, but I somehow hope they’ll be sent to beg for his forgiveness in the afterlife, and then being forbidden from reincarnating».
«Wasn’t the boy one of their relatives?!», Jiang Cheng suddenly asked, his face twisting in horror.
«They didn’t plan for things to go that way, but yes, he is-- he was one of the Lans».
It made everything even more disgusting.
Those elders had known Jingyi had ingested poison, and they also knew what kind of poison it was, they could have given him an antidote, or done anything , and yet they chose to let him die just like that.
They decided to condemn him for his loyalty towards Wei Wuxian.
It seemed as if his old sins could never be forgiven, but why did Jingyi have to pay for him?
«He could have been saved», was all that Wei Wuxian could say. «If only I’d known--» and his eyes suddenly burned and his vision blurred for a moment. What he didn’t expect, was for Jiang Cheng to put a hand on his shoulder and give it a comforting squeeze. He probably knew his former brother was, at least partly, blaming himself for what had happened, and the look in his eyes was as firm as his hold.
“Don’t”.
«Should we go back to them?», he asked after a few seconds of staring and silent conversation.
«In a moment. There actually is something else I’d like to discuss with you. Maybe A-Yuan and A-Ling do have a chance of being reunited with A-Yi, but… the price is really high».
«Explain yourself. Whatever the price, if it can make A-Ling happy, I’m willing to pay».

Chapter Text

Lan Jingyi’s “lame-according-to-Jin-Ling” life eventually unfolded in front of Jingyi himself.
Apparently, in this life - whatever “this life” was - he was an orphan who had been taken in by Lan Qiren himself, who would usually pose as his grandfather in front of others, but who didn’t spend much time with him, unsurprisingly.
Even if the thought of Lan Qiren being the one who singlehandedly brought him up was quite daunting, seeing how things were right now, Jingyi was starting to get an idea as to why Sizhui’s surname had suddenly changed like that.
Also, always in this life, his dream was to be an actor, the place he was in was the most prestigious acting academy in China, and… the headmaster of the school was none else but Wei Ying, also known as Sizhui’s father - as he had suspected - but also as “Wei Wuxian”, one of the most famous actors of the time.
Jingyi couldn’t help but feel happy for his lover, or past lover: at least this time he got to have a happy childhood together with a man who clearly had loved him as a parent ever since.
Oh! And, of course, the year they were in was currently 2019, which meant that if Jingyi’s memory didn’t wake up soon and stepped in to help him, he’d be completely screwed.
He had already panicked when Jin Ling had pulled out a phone - his ever helpful mind could at least remember things’ names, apparently - from his pocket and had showed him pictures of whatever could help him remember.
Really, this whole thing was giving him one of his worst headaches ever.
However, Jingyi felt a huge smile spread on his lips when one of the pictures Jin Ling was scrolling through showed Jin Ling himself between a man and a woman who looked a lot like him; the man was sporting a proud look on his face even as he looked at the phone Jin Ling was holding above their heads with a small smile, and the woman was smiling brightly and gently next to him… It took no genius, nor any memory, to realize those were Jin Ling’s parents, and that the boy was granted a new chance of being happily reunited with them in this life!
«Ok. So, this was taken during your last birthday, do you remember anything?», Jin Ling asked when he finally found a picture of Jingy, Jin Ling himself, A-Qing and Xuanyu grinning at the camera, all of them squished in a hug that seemed too tight for comfort, but at the same time, just looking at the picture made Jingyi feel a sort of warmth he struggled to recall even from his previous life. He had felt it around Jin Ling and Sizhui, of course, but…
Oh. Speaking of Sizhui, wasn’t it weird that he wasn’t in the picure? Jingyi had expected them to be just as close as they were before, just like with Jin Ling.
«Uhm… I hardly recall that night, sorry. Other pictures, please?».
«Now you sound like a little princess, just saying», Jin Ling seemed more than happy to be the one who could say such a thing for once, and Jingyi wondered in silence if he had been waiting since his previous life for such a moment. «Let me see… Oh! Here’s A-Qing kissing Zizhen, do you remember that?».
Xuanyu’s laughter interrupted them before Jingyi had a chance to answer, and A-Qing tried to grab the phone with an indignant cry.
Oh, this was interesting… Not only did he still know Zizhen, but the boy had also ended up with the same former ghost he had somehow complimented back then in Yi City.
He definitely couldn’t say fate didn’t have a sense of humor.
He still hadn’t gotten any answer on his question about Sizhui, though, so that left him with only one thing to do…
«What about Si-… Wei Yuan? Is he our friend or…?».
Again, the three of them looked at him as if he’d grown a second head, and something felt like dropping from his chest into his stomach.
«Do you really think we’re cool enough to be Wei Yuan’s friends?», A-Qing snorted, hitting his leg with a bit too much force. «Just because he rushed to your bedside after you almost died, it doesn’t mean a thing! He’s too perfect and popular for us, you know? He’s the headmaster’s son, for fuck’s sake!».
Jingyi could only nod at that, but his face must have shown how much those words had hurt him, for Xuanyu seemed to take pity in him and added:
«He does seem to have some kind of soft spot for you, though».
That had Jingyi’s head snap up to look at him, his eyes widening, much to A-Qing and Jin Ling’s amusement. Xuanyu merely gave him a smile and nodded as he kept talking:
«He’s always super polite and kind to anyone, of course, but he went as far as remembering yours and Jin Ling’s names right after you were introduced, and he really didn’t have to sit here waiting for you to wake up, or make sure your head wasn’t that messed up once you did…».
Jingyi frowned, pondering on those words, his chest still tightened in pain at the thought of Sizhui being a stranger, of him and Sizhui not having been raised together, of them not being able to understand each other with merely a glance… Of Sizhui not loving him and Jin Ling as he once had.
«The hell are you crying for, now?!», Jin Ling snapped, and Jingyi hadn’t even realized his eyes were tearing up until he felt someone wipe his eyes, maybe roughly, but still with a hint of kindness in it… It was a familiar touch, too familiar, and it only had him cry some more, much to Jin Ling’s distress, who stopped using the tips of his fingers and opted for pressing a tissue to his face. «Come on, now, I’m the princess here, you’re not allowed to cry!»; he said, and he was clearly panicking, because otherwise he’d never admit such a thing out loud.
«Shut up, Jin Ling. I hit my head and may have a concussion, I’m allowed to cry as much as I want!», he huffed, taking the tissue from his friend’s hands and wiping at his eyes before the other ended up clawing them out by accident. He’d mock him for not being graceful at all, for a princess, but he found himself to be unable to do such a thing.
Jin Ling was still himself, no matter what century or world they lived in, he was always a bit sharp around the edges, but with the softest heart Jingyi had ever met, maybe even softer than Sizhui’s, and that was everything he needed to know for now.
At least he still had his A-Ling on his side… And maybe he could have Sizhui fall for him once again, if he tried.
A gentle, fake cough had them all turn their heads towards the door, and Jingyi had to stop himself from standing up and bowing while muttering a “Zewu-jun!”, although his body was already almost moving on his own.
«I’m glad to see you are finally awake, Lan Jingyi», Lan Xichen said with what Jingyi could call “his usual smile”, except that now said smile was on the face of a man whose hair wasn’t as long as it had been, the ponytail it had been tied into merely reaching his neck, and who wasn’t wearing the Lan sect robes anymore, but a white scrub instead… and, of course, no forehead ribbon was in sight, which left Jingyi extremely confused and almost embarrassed, as if he was seeing something he wasn’t supposed to.
«I-I am», he stuttered, lowering his eyes to his hands fidgeting in his lap so that he didn’t have to look at his former Sect Leader. And suddenly, a thought came to his mind: if Lan Qiren had adopted him, did that mean that Zewu-jun, Hanguang-jun and Jingyi himself were related?!
After being ushered out kindly but firmly, Jin Ling and the others waved at Jingyi from the doorway and then disappeared behind it, leaving Jingyi alone with the older man.
«So, I have been told you were experiencing issues with your memory?», Lan Xichen inquired, pulling out something from his pocket and lighting it up by pressing something on its end, and Jingyi stared at it with interest, trying to remember anything, even just the name of such a weird object.
He was so focused that he jerked backwards when that light was aimed at his eyes, his instincts kicking in and making him suspicious.
«Hey, it’s alright! Relax, this is just a small test to see if your pupils are adapting too slowly to the light, which may be a symptom of a concussion».
Lan Xichen’s voice was still the same, gentle, quiet and reassuring, as well as his smile, and slowly, Jingyi let him approach again and waited patiently for the examination to be over, answering the same questions Sizhui had asked him earlier, and then frowning and biting his lower lip as the questions increased while his answers became fewer and fewer.
A few minutes later, Lan Xichen had exited the room to go and consult some other doctor about Jingyi’s situation, leaving the boy in company of none else but his “grandfather”, Lan Qiren himself.
The man had entered the room halfway through the examination, and had listened quietly to Jingyi’s answers, an unreadable look on his face.
When they were finally alone, he approached the boy’s bed, frowning so deeply that Jingyi feared, for a moment, he had just gained a whole new set of handstands and rules-copying sessions. But what came out of his former teacher’s mouth, was even more surprising:
«You remember everything, don’t you?».
Jingyi was about to shake his head and swear that he really didn’t remember anything at all, but then his voice caught in his throat and his eyes widened.
The look on Lan Qiren’s face was one full of suspicion, and he looked around as if to check none was around to listen as he leaned closer to Jingyi, his hand reaching into a inside pocket of his jacket.
What he pulled out, left the teen stiffen in surprise.
A forehead ribbon, a white, cloud-patterned forehead ribbon! And Lan Qiren was holding it in his hand right then and there!
«You remember too!», Jingyi exclaimed, relief washing over him in such a rush he almost threw his arms around Lan Qiren’s neck and hugged him, his heart beating so fast it was thundering in his ears. «Teacher Lan, do you know what this place is? And why are we here? And do the others remember too? Does Sect Leader Lan remem--», he was suddenly silenced by a stern glance and Qiren shaking his head, putting his index to his lips and miming him to stay quiet, so Jingyi obeyed, unconsciously fixing his posture as best as he could and looking up at the man with hopeful, expectant eyes.
If he’d told his old self that one day he’d be so overwhelmingly happy to see his teacher, that he’d almost hug him, he definitely would have laughed in his own face, thinking that’d be the most stupid thing ever.
And yet, here they were.
«I do remember», the man nodded, keeping his voice low and his eyes on the door, as if worried someone may come in any moment. «But you will have to wait until we are home for your answers. And no, Lan Xichen has not awakened, yet, his memories of his past life are still repressed, like those of anyone else I’ve met until now...».
«Repressed? So… this is not another life?», Jingyi was confused, and tilted his head as well as lowering his voice. «I remember how I died, teacher Lan! How can I be alive, if I hadn’t reincarnated in another life?».
The elder shook his head, his hands stroking pensively at his beard just like he had always used to do… Jingyi almost shivered at the thought he found even that reassuring.
«I still do not know, many things are still left unanswered, I am doing some researches, though. For now, you must not let others of your awakening, you will only be taken as a fool if you start speaking nonsense about sects and rules and the past».
That, Jingyi thought, seemed a lot like a suggestion coming from direct experience, but of course he wasn’t going to say such a thing out loud.
There was something reassuring in having Lan Qiren as himself, with all his memories of his past life - or previous part of his life, if that was the case - and at the same time with all his knowledge of this new world, and for once, Jingyi almost felt grateful that he had his teacher around… not that he’d ever admit it to a living soul.
Or to a dead one, for that matter.
«First of all, we need to get you out of here without having them investigate your memory further. We must pretend it came back, that it was only a brief consequence of you hitting your head».
Wait, what?
Was Lan Qiren really suggesting that they lied to Lan Xichen? And to the whole hospital staff, too.
Oh, that truly was something.
Maybe this new life had more to offer than Jingyi had actually expected at first…

 

Getting Lan Xichen to believe Lan Jingyi and Lan Qiren’s words, and to prove the hospital staff that the boy was fine and could finally go home, turned out to be the easy part.
As soon as Jingyi found himself out in the open, his heart almost stopped in his chest a second time.
«W-What the…?! What is this place?!», he exclaimed, loud enough for some people passing by to turn and look at him in confusion, and earned him another stern look from the older Lan accompanying him.
But really, could someone blame him?
This place was nothing like he had been used too. It was loud, first of all, so loud his ears almost hurt, and his senses couldn’t help but stay alert; people walked fast and talked among each other, or on their phones, almost making Jingyi’s head spin; the air felt way too thick and smelled bad, almost choking him, just like the sky seemed too gray and dirty to be the one he had always been used to.
Unconsciously, Jingyi took a step closer to Lan Qiren, who was standing right beside him, the urge to cry came back with a worryingly overwhelming strength, but he fought it back.
«I know, you are not used to it, for now», the older man sighed, and Jingyi could almost swear he just felt some sympathy in his voice, «it is very different from the world you knew, but try to focus. You have been living in this world for eighteen years, your body knows what to do, trust it, let it take over your mind, for now».
Jingyi furrowed his brows and looked at him before nodding and closing his eyes, taking a deep breath and trying to do just that.
He had already seen his memory seemed to work in a weird way, letting him remember things’ names or functions, but keeping him from remembering if he had ever used them before, so he tried to rely on that… Surely, his mind would prevent him from getting himself killed by walking straight into one of those weird, wheeled things — cars, those were cars — running in the streets, or maybe it would even help him find his way home, wherever “home” was right now?
He opened his eyes again, a small whimper leaving his lips… He felt like he could do this, he could trust his mind, but still, his chest felt tight when he thought about not remembering eighteen years of his life, feeling left out from his own story, missing some of the most important pieces.
Lan Qiren seemed to notice his unsteadiness, and he grabbed his arm, bringing him dangerously close to the street where the cars were racing, his strength seemed to be still intact, considering how Jingyi couldn’t get his arm free from his grasp, no matter how he tried.
«W-What are you doing te-- grandpa?!», he exclaimed, startling himself when his tongue corrected him against his own will.
Lan Qiren didn’t even seem to notice, stopping at the edge of what Jingyi now recognized as a sidewalk and waving at one of those cars until it stopped in front of them. Instead, he kept holding Jingyi’s arm and ushered him inside the taxi, almost literally pushing him in after noticing the boy’s reticence.
«At least you remember to call me that when we are in public», he sighed, shaking his head. «Just wait until we get home, I will explain everything to you then».
With that, he refused to look at or talk to Jingyi again, which left the boy to look out of the window with wide eyes, his fists clenched so tight in his lap that his knuckles turned white.

 

«Alright, sit down», Lan Qiren said with a tired sigh, and Jingyi didn’t waste any time in doing as he was told, letting himself fall sitting on the white sofa in the middle of the living room, accepting the warm mug of tea the older man had offered him.
Entering the house had been a second kind of shock, as the inside was nothing like he had expected — really, he should stop expecting things from this world — but, at the same time, some details seemed to remind him of the Gusu he remembered, like the wooden floor, the scarce but functional furniture, and the fact that the walls had been painted a pale blue, against which the white furniture seemed almost blinding. The curtains on the window, also, were white with a blue cloud pattern, and Jingyi made it a point to focus especially on those whenever his mind would feel overwhelmed by all those unknown objects in the room.
Like the huge, black rectangle standing on the short, white drawers, that his mind had finally recognized as a “televisor”.
«I think your memory of this world will be back in a few days, that’s how long it took me after I woke up, but until then, it would be better if I teach you something about this whole situation».
Jingyi could only nod at that, his hands clutching the mug a bit tighter.
«Let’s start with our family, it will be easier for you to understand, seeing you already are familiar with most of us. As you already seem to know, in this world I have adopted you, and for some unknown reason, everybody regards us as grandfather and grandson, and we both stopped correcting them after a while. But let’s make this clear», the light that crossed Lan Qiren’s eyes at that point was one Jingyi knew very well, it was the look that said “this is a rule you cannot break”, the same look he’d give him and others juniors whenever he threatened to make them copy the whole sect rules for ten times if the misbehaved. Jingyi was suddenly alert, slightly leaning in from his sitting place. «You only can call me “grandfather” or “grandpa” when we are outside and other people can hear you, but I will be “teacher Lan” whenever we are alone. You understand?».
«I do, grandpa», Jingyi couldn’t help but say with a smirk, a mischievous light in his eyes as he did so.
Somehow, Lan Qiren didn’t seem surprised by that at all.
«I can still have you do handstands and write down the GusuLan Sect rules by memory, Lan Jingyi. I know you still remember them».
If Lan Jingyi didn’t know better, he’d almost think that the old man was almost playing along… But of course that couldn’t be, so he let the matter drop, instead choosing to ask a question himself.
«What about Zewu-jun and Hanguang-jun? Are we related now?».
Qiren hummed and stroke his beard again as he thought about the answer.
«I still haven’t gotten much information on that matter, but no… In this life, I am not their uncle. Or at least, they don’t know I am. They were raised by their parents, and it seems like me and my brother were not given a chance of being reunited in this world, not yet, at least».
If such thought bothered him, the former Lan teacher didn’t show it, instead he kept explaining.
«Wangji is still married to that Wei Wuxian, but this really is no surprise, is it? They adopted Lan Sizhui together, from what I’ve heard. While Xichen… well, I really haven’t gathered much about him, but I am still trying to get in touch with him».
Jingyi couldn’t help but admire his former teacher.
When they had been in the Cloud Recesses, he had been more of a teacher, and a guide, than an uncle to the Two Jades of Lan, barely showing any sign of affection towards them, but now here he was, keeping an eye on them even from the sidelines, even when they clearly didn’t need them.
It almost seemed like he wanted to somehow atone for his previous actions…
«I met Sizhui today», Jingyi confirmed, suddenly eager to change the topic before things got embarrassing and he started wondering if maybe there was a reason he had ended up in Qiren’s care in this life. «he doesn’t remember me, apparently, we aren’t even close in this life».
Lan Qiren nodded, unsurprised.
«Some bonds were broken when this new world was created, while some new ones were made. You are quite close to that Jin Xuanyu and Song Qing, for example, don’t make that face, we live together, and you invited them over quite often, of course I’d get to meet them. But you’re also close to Jin Ling, as you used to be, that bond still stands. I still haven’t figured out what made some bonds last and some others not, but like I said, I am still doing some researches. For now, we must make sure you are ready to face this world even when I am not around, you cannot cling to me like a scared child».
At that, Jingyi felt his cheeks burn, remembering how he had inched closer to the man when he had first stepped out of the hospital.
«T-This one would like to ask something of you first, teacher Lan», he mumbled, bringing the mug to his lips and taking a few long sips before speaking again. «Could you please tell me everything that happened after… after I… After my d-death?», he asked, frowning and stumbling on the last part of the sentence, as it still seemed absurd to him that he had died but came back.
Part of him wished this would all be just a dream, but the memory of the poison slowly melting his insides was way too vivid, the desperate voice of Sizhui rang too strongly in his ears for it to be just the memory of a dream.
It had been real, just like this was real, and he needed to figure out as soon as possible how to move between those two worlds.
Lan Qiren’s face darkened as he recalled those memories, than, eventually, he sighed and started speaking again.
«A dark time began for most of us. Xichen, Wangji and me started investigating on the elders, a trial was prepared, meanwhile, Wei Wuxian and Sizhui left for Koi Tower--».
«A-Ling», the word left Jingyi’s lips before he could stop himself, his heart clenching in his chest at the thought of how the boy could have reacted at the news of his death. An unpleasant feeling settled in his stomach, and no amount of warm tea could melt it away.
«Yes, they went there to tell him. And to keep Sizhui away from Gusu while we decided what to do with the murderers… I must admit I was worried he would do something rush, I thought staying away from the Cloud Recesses would have helped him. I didn’t expect Wangji to be the one I should have been worried about. But maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised… that poison was meant for Wei Wuxian, after all».
As the light of day outside the windows faded into the first shadows of the night, Lan Qiren kept telling Lan Jingyi of everything that had happened after his demise.
He told him of how Lan Wangji had asked for the elders’ head, of how Lan Xichen had tried to reason with him, physically holding him back when he tried to attack them with his Bichen.
He told him of Jin Ling bursting in the ancestral hall where the trial was being held, claiming that LanglinJin sect required the right to dispose of the culprits if GusuLan was planning on a too bland punishment for their crime.
He told him of Wei Wuxian holding Sizhui as the latter screamed that there would be no justice as long as those “poisonous snakes” could keep breathing when Jingyi couldn’t.
He told him many things, the consequences of his death, the fact that, eventually, Lan Xichen had been forced to sentence the elders to death, in order to prevent consequences from both Langlin and Yunmeng, not to mention the fact that his own brother would never forgive him if he went for a blander punishment.
The execution had taken place in a secluded place in Caiyi Town, few witnesses from both Langlin and Yunmeng, The Two Jades of Lan and Lan Qiren himself being the only one present.
Not all elders had taken part to the conspiracy, those who had known nothing of that had been spared, but they didn’t approve of such decision, their respect for their sect leader decreasing even more.
Lan Qiren even told Jingyi of his funerals, but barely mentioned how everyone reacted to hit, didn’t report anything that had been said in such an occasion, and Jingyi found himself thankful for that. He was already sick at his stomach from what he had heard, he didn’t need to hear of Jin Ling’s, Sizhui’s or even Zizhen’s reactions to the rituals for his death.
From what else Lan Qiren told him, he finally grasped what the man was implying with his words whenever he mentioned Sizhui’s behavior from then on.
Qi deviation.
Jingyi shuddered at the thought of his sweet, gentle and steady A-Yuan almost losing himself like that. Lan Wangji had managed to bring him back thanks to Gusu’s “Song of clarity”, Wei Wuxian had held him the whole time, anchoring him, reminding him of who he was. They had managed to keep him sane, but he had been so close to being lost forever…
Because of him.
To make it worse, Jin Ling had almost fallen into demonic cultivation just to try and bring him back, if it wasn’t for Jiang Cheng who had kept a close eye on him ever since he’d heard the news of Jingyi’s passing, and had immediately stepped in.
Jingyi had to ask Qiren to stop talking at that point, unable to listen any further.
«I-I’m sorry», he whispered painfully, laying his mug down on the low table in front of the sofa and bringing both his arms around his middle, hunching his back. «I never meant for so many people to suffer because of me, I never wanted any of them to---».
«If you hadn’t stepped in, Wei Wuxian would have been the one to die. Suffering would have happened anyway. You couldn’t have stopped it, what happened wasn’t your fault, you… you did what you thought was right at the moment and it took a lot of courage to do so. Don’t blame yourself, Lan Jingyi. None of us ever did».
Lan Qiren’s words were unexpected, and had Jingyi raise his eyes on him, scanning his face to understand his expression… It was unreadable, but a part of him thought, or maybe hoped, he spotted some slight trace of pride in there as well.
Lan Qiren? Proud of him? He should stop imagining things.
He decided that just bowing and thanking him would be enough, and they both let the topic fall.
«What about this world? Have you understood what brought us here?».
The elder Lan nodded.
«When I was younger, I heard of a forbidden spell that would create a different world from the one the caster lived in, one where all those who died would be brought back and nobody would remember the past, unless the circumstances forced their awakening. I never thought someone would dare casting such a spell, I still have no idea who did it, but I can see this was made with good intentions».
«As in… bringing a loved one back?».
«More than just one loved one. Many people who were lost in the previous world have been brought back by this spell, which is why I am not sure of who casted it, I had thought it had been Wei Wuxian, but him being married to my nephew proved his innocence…».
«Wait. How are those two things related?», Jingyi asked, frowning as he got lost among all those words. Not even during Qiren’s most difficult classes had he ever felt so tired and confused.
«The price for casting this spell», Lan Qiren explained gravely, «is for the person to be erased from the memories of all their loved ones. No chance of being reunited in the new world, and the person will keep all their memories from their past life, as a punishment to try and change fate. If Wei Wuxian had been the one to cast it, he wouldn’t have met and married Wangji in this world».
Jingyi froze in his seat.
Deleted from the memories of their loved ones.
No chance of being reunited.
If what Jin Ling and the others had told him was true, Sizhui wasn’t his or Jin Ling’s friend, they weren’t even close enough to be more than acquaintances.
And from what he had learnt till then, Wei Wuxian had found Lan Wangji even in his life. So had Jin Ling’s parents, and even that A-Qing and Zizhen.
Soulmates were meant to meet each other again and again, no matter when, no matter where, no matter what life they were in.
So why was that he and Jin Ling had found each other, but not Sizhui?!
“Sizhui, you’d better not…!”.

Chapter Text

The GusuLan sect forbade being overly sad, it forbade noise, imposed a time to sleep and a time to wake up.

Lan Sizhui had always been considered as one of the “perfect Lan disciples”, a potential future Sect Leader, he made his family and teachers proud, he rarely broke any rule — at least, before his “heritage” from Wei Wuxian had stained him, in Lan Qiren’s words — but now… Now everything was different.

And everything was wrong.

Lan Sizhui couldn’t find the strength in himself to get over his sadness and grief, he could not bring himself to be as stoic and cold and moderate as his sect wanted him to be. He just couldn’t do what those inhuman rules asked of him.

And if the feeling of really failing his sect for the first time hurt, he wouldn’t know for sure, his whole being was hurting enough already to notice nor care.

He still woke up at five in the morning, but more often than not he would not leave his bed until someone came and forced him to.

He used to be the one who got up in time and then had to deal with a stubborn, sleepy Jingyi who would refuse to get up and risk getting punished, but now those carefree, cheerful mornings were gone.

Most of the times, however, the only reason Sizhui was already awake at that time, now, was because he hadn’t fallen asleep at all.

He kept having nightmares of Jingyi dying in his arms, as he watched him curl up on himself, throwing up black blood, going cold against him and crying for him and Jin Ling as fear engulfed him during his final moments.

Sizhui kept breaking the “no loud noises” rule every time, as he woke up screaming his heart out for his lost best friend and love.

Not only was he plagued by broken memories of that night repeating over and over in his head whenever he closed his eyes, but those memories seemed to have awakened something else in him… Other memories of what seemed like another lifetime, times from his childhood, everything that he had forgotten as a child, it all came back to him.

He remembered the fear, the hunger, the loneliness, the pain. Wei Wuxian’s presence had been bright and reassuring, but Sizhui - or Wen Yuan, as he had been called back then - had already experienced loss by the time he met him, although he was barely more than an infant, and then Wei Wuxian himself had been taken away from him, and now he often had dreams of when he was a child, he dreamed of someone leaving him inside a hollow tree, promising to come back, but then never did… Sometimes he even dreamed of Jingyi being the one who hid him and then went on his way to face death.

“Why would you leave me behind like that, A-Yi?!

The first night after Jingyi’s death, Sizhui sat on his bed, unable to move. His eyes were wide open in the dark, fixed on Jingyi’s own bed, so uncharacteristically neat, without Jingyi’s body sprawled all over it, tangled in the blankets, because of course the typical Lan sleeping position wouldn’t work for him.

Lan Sizhui wasn’t sure he had even blinked once during that night, he didn’t know what he had felt, or thought, all he knew was that when morning finally came, and a junior disciple had been sent to call for him, he had scared the poor boy to the point he ran to Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji to ask them to check on him.

After that episode, his parents had him sleep with them in the Jingshi, and if a part of him was reminded of his first nights at the Cloud Recesses, when fever and nightmares would keep him stirring in his bed, sometimes whimpering and crying so loud that he’d disturb his father’s sleep, he was sure that for Lan Wangji that same reminder must have been even more painful. He was witnessing history repeating itself, this time on his son’s skin, after all.

«Lan Sizhui apologies for troubling you», was all Sizhui managed to mumble as he bowed in front of the couple, hiding his face and closing his eyes. In the blink of an eye, two pairs of gentle, but strong, arms had enveloped him in a hug, the familiar scents of sandalwood and spice calming him and bringing new tears to his eyes at the same time.

«You’re our child, you could never trouble us, A-Yuan. Let us take care of you».

Sizhui nodded, letting Wei Wuxian’s words soothe him and calm his heart, desperately trying to believe him, to stop the feeling of guilt that was settling in his stomach.

People died, it was something cultivators knew very well, he shouldn’t be making such a scene, he shouldn’t be allowed to mourn like that, he almost wished for Lan Qiren to reprimand him and remind him not to be “overly sad”, but then again, Zewu-jun himself had ordered to let him mourn, to leave him alone as he dealt with his pain.

Sizhui had a feeling that if there was someone who could understand his suffering, besides Jin Ling, that was his Sect Leader himself, but at the same time, he was the one who couldn’t understand his choice. Lan Xichen had locked himself in seclusion as he dealt with the deaths of those closest to his heart, dealing with his bleeding soul alone, while Lan Sizhui… Here he was, unable to even close his eyes and fall asleep if not for his parents’ reassuring presence and hold. How had Zewu-jun lived through it all alone?

«Come here».

Sizhui silently obeyed and followed Lan Wangji to the bed they had prepared for him, and he almost smiled as he recognized it… he had slept in there many times as a child, when the thought of being separated from the one who had become his new father figure was too unbearable for him.

He almost wished he could go back to that time, when that bed had seemed too big for him and could host both him and Lan Wangji together.

He was still in pain, he had still lost someone he loved… but at that time, he had still held hope for a brighter future in his heart. Now he felt like someone had grabbed his heart and forcefully pulled it from his chest.

As he sat on the bad, a sharp sting of pain went through his chest, spreading to his back and stealing his breath for a few seconds, as his sight went unfocused. He brought one hand up and clasped it over his heart, clenching his teeth and closing his eyes.

“Calm down, focus, Sizhui…”

He knew how to do this, he slowly got a hold of himself, taking slow breaths, making sure the air went to his stomach and not to his chest. He felt Wei Wuxian rubbing his back gently: the man was now sitting beside him, and the warmth he irradiated was so comforting that Sizhui couldn’t help but press against his side, relishing in it.

Lan Wangji went and kneeled in front of him, taking his hands in his. Everyone would always consider him as cold and distant, saying that the air became frosty around him, but Sizhui knew better.

His father’s hands were as warm and gentle as his dad’s, his presence just as reassuring.

Another wave of pain hit him to the abdomen, this time, and his chest tightened painfully as he remembered the first time he had dragged a squirming and stuttering six-years-old Jingyi in front of his father when they first made friends… Jingyi had been terrified to be in front of Hanguang-jun and, as he saluted him as politely as he could, he had bowed so much that he almost would have fallen over, with his face on the ground, if Lan Wangji hadn’t been fast enough to reach out and steady him, a spark of amusement twinkling briefly in his eyes.

«A-Yuan, no, breathe… Slowly, follow me», Sizhui could hear Wei Wuxian’s voice being tinged with concern, but it felt like it came from afar, not from right beside him, and he felt Lan Wangji’s hands give his a squeeze, comforting and grounding, but breathing still didn’t come easy to him.

He gasped a few times, clenching and unclenching his hands, as his whole body started trembling and his sight went double for a second.

He coughed, and he felt spiritual energy being passed to him at the same time as gentle fingers combed his hair, untying his now messy half ponytail, removing his jade hairpin, letting his hair fall down on his shoulders and caressing it.

He had never experienced such pain, it had scared him, and as he slowly focused on breathing once again, this time guided by Wei Wuxian’s example - inhale and exhale, slowly, fill your belly, hold it in for a few seconds, let go, repeat - he caught the glance that the two other men had shared, and even if he wasn’t completely sure, he thought that for a moment he had seen fear flash through their eyes.

«I-I’m sorry», he stuttered again, massaging his chest as his head finally felt clearer.

«A-Yuan», for once, Wei Wuxian’s voice was as stern as Lan Wangji’s, and it immediately got Sizhui’s attention. «There’s no need for “thank you” and “I’m sorry” with us, young man, how many times do you need us to tell you?».

«But…».

«Listen to him».

Sizhui sighed in defeat, really, there was no point in trying to argue with his parents on that. He had learnt soon enough that, while both Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji already were extremely stubborn on their own, when they agreed on something, there was no way to win the argument.

«Now, let’s get you some night robes, do you need help changing?».

He recognized a gentle mockery in his father’s voice, and he was grateful for that.

When he had been alone, all he could think of was Jingyi, Jingyi dying and him not being able to do anything but look at him, passing him spiritual energy that his body couldn’t hold in… He had forgotten all about laughter, and smiling, and anything good that was out there in the world. He had felt like it had all gone away with Jingyi, but yet, here was his father, clearly worried about him, and mourning himself, but also trying to remind him that yes, the world was definitely darker and scarier now, but there was still room for some light, here and there.

His Xian-gege was there to brighten his path once again, apparently.

And so, Sizhui didn’t hold back a scoff as he grabbed the night clothes Lan Wangji was handing him, and glared at the dark-robed man.

«No, thank you, mama».

 

He had really thought he’d finally fall asleep now that he was safe with his parents: he could hear them breathing softly on the other side of the room, just a panel dividing them, he sometimes felt Wei Wuxian moving around, the blankets shifting with him.

It was peaceful, he was safe…

But then he closed his eyes, and he remembered the last time he had been in the Jingshi, the day he had followed Jingyi in his mad run to there.

If it was merely a tonic, then surely there’d be no problem if I drank it, am I right?

How could he have been so stupid to let Jingyi drink that?! How could he have doubted, for even just a second, his best friend, his almost cultivation partner - because, really, he had no doubt the three of them, Jin Ling included, already thought of themselves as such - to trust that elder instead?! He had been taught since childhood not to question the elders, to trust them and believe in what they said and did, to believe that every one of their actions was righteous and just… But then again, his sect didn’t allow lying, so why would Jingyi lie? He was also a terrible liar, and he was the one who knew it best, the one who always saw through the younger boy’s poor excuses of a lie!

But the thing is, in that moment, Sizhui had really hoped that the other was wrong, he really wanted to believe that the elders would never do something so cruel to Hanguang-jun, to their Senior Wei…

He was startled awake as he realized that back then, right in that exact moment, when he had seen Jingyi drink the cup that was meant for Wei Wuxian, he had witnessed all of his childhood beliefs, all of his faith in his Sect, crumble to the floor.

His Sect elders weren’t righteous, weren’t just, they lied and betrayed and hated and killed.

All of a sudden he was gagging, dry heaves cursing through his whole body as he trembled, feeling the metallic taste of blood in the back of his throat.

Just like when he had been a child, Lan Wangji reached him in the blink of an eye, grabbing his shoulders and steadying him, but unlike it had been back then, this time another pair of hands came to gather his hair to the side and hold is forehead… He felt his whole body grow sore, and then suddenly go numb, his head seemed to be lit up in flames, burning and hurting and pounding. He kept dry heaving for a while, but nothing would come out, and eventually his breathing went back to somewhat normal, although still a bit fast. He leaned against Lan Wangji’s chest, and soon he heard a quiet humming from his side. His father had often sang for him, when he was a child, and he was by now familiar with that tune.

The GusuLan Sect had lots of songs to clam the mind and pacify the spirit, but he had learned years ago that that song was not one of them, he hadn’t found it in any of the music books they were allowed to study, and no one else but Hanguang-jun and himself seemed to have ever heard it.

That is, until Wei Wuxian came back.

For some reason, he seemed to know that song as well.

And in that moment, when the quiet sound of a dizi joined the warm voice of Lan Wangji, lulling Sizhui back in a, finally, dreamless sleep, a new memory surfaced in the disciple’s mind.

He remembered being a small child, curled up on someone’s lap, his face pressed against that person’s chest, clutching at his black robes as a black bamboo flute, with a red tassel dangling from it, played that exact same song.

 

He felt much better that morning, and all the mornings after he had fallen asleep to his parents’ company and song, but he knew this couldn’t keep going for much longer.

He wasn’t a child anymore, he was supposed to react, to get back on his feet.

He wondered how Jin Ling had managed. After staying at the Cloud Recesses for a few days after the funerals, together with his uncle, he was ready to go back to his Sect Leader duties at Koi Tower.

He seemed to be standing proud and strong when he told Sizhui he’d be leaving the morning after, when he apologized for not being able to stay as long as he would have liked… But Sizhui had seen right through it.

He had already witnessed this reaction after Jin Guangyao’s death, after all: Jin Ling had dived into fighting for his rights as the Jin’s heir, and then proceeded on redeeming his sect’s reputation and improving it, bringing back those values and morals he knew - or hoped, at least - his father would approve of.

He grew up faster than anyone ever should, much like his uncles had at his age, and in the process, he forgot to take his time to stop. To mourn, to cry, to accept what had happened.

He had grown cold, distant, almost inhuman, and that was when Sizhui and Jingyi had almost literally forced him to go on a night hunt with them. The result of that night hunt had been a crying Jin Ling, a split lip for Jingyi, and several bruises on Sizhui’s chest, but it had all been worth it.

If that meant Jin Ling could finally realize what had happened, and finally deal with it, that was all they could ask for.

And as he finally remembered that night, Lan Sizhui grabbed Jin Ling’s hand - both of their wrists now sporting a matching, stained forehead ribbon - and dragged him to the training grounds.

«W-What are you doing?!», the young Jin Sect Leader asked, his eyes growing wide as the two walked as fast as the rules allowed, and his eyebrows shot up when he recognized where they were headed. «Do you… wanna train?», his voice went softer at that, and Sizhui almost felt like screaming.

Why was Jin Ling the one acting strong now?! How had he fallen so low that everybody now felt like they should protect him? Shield him? Pamper him?

He suddenly grew irritated and hastily let go of Jin Ling’s hand to unsheathe his sword and aim it at his lover.

«A-Yuan…».

«Let’s fight, A-Ling, no more talking».

Jin Ling stood still for a few seconds, scanning his expression, but he must have found what he was looking for in his eyes, for he eventually nodded and grabbed Suihua, grinning fiercely at him.

«Come at me with all you’ve got, then».

 

They sparred for what felt like an eternity, and their little duel gained quite a lot of attention of both junior and senior disciples, teachers, and of course, the Two Jades of Lan, Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng as well.

The fight had started as a standard training duel, both of them were mostly trying each other, testing how far they could push, but then, both of them had just let their hearts speak, and the hits had grown stronger, faster, their voices grew louder, until they were both screaming in pain and rage, not at each other, but against the world.

Jin Ling couldn’t help but notice how Sizhui’s strikes had grown more aggressive and less graceful halfway through their training, though, and although he understood what the other was trying to achieve, he couldn’t help but frown. The speed kept increasing, even when the Lan boy should have began to feel tired, they got even faster and angrier, and stronger. Sizhui’s swordsmanship had always been slightly superior to his, or to Jingyi’s, but Jin Ling had never found himself unable to keep his ground against him, he had never found himself breathless after a training session.

Now he was struggling to hold his sword, struggling for breathe, and almost begging for it to stop.

«A-Yuan, that’s enough!», he screamed, when his lover’s blade almost hit his hand, but Sizhui didn’t even seem to hear him. «A-Yuan! I said enough!», he tried again, striking almost blindly and then cringing at the clashing sound their swords made, spiritual energy exploding in the air like a fire signal.

Sizhui wouldn’t meet his eyes.

«You’re still holding back», he said, coming at him once again.

«I’m not…».

«You are!», and with that, Sizhui threw his sword on the ground, attacking Jin Ling with his bare hands between various exclamations of surprise from their audience.

They unceremoniously rolled on the ground, blindly throwing punches and grabbing at each other’s lapels while avoiding anyone’s attempt at stopping them, until they both were short of breath and Jin Ling had finally managed to stop Sizhui, pushing the boy on the ground with one hand as he sat on him and looked at his face.

He was crying.

«Y-You… How are you so calm?», Sizhui stuttered, not even trying to dry his tears, grabbing Jin Ling’s wrists and staring at him with wide, lost eyes.

Jin Ling suddenly felt like crying as well.

Was that why Sizhui was so distressed? Was it because of… him?!

«I’m not»¸ he replied, standing up and helping him as well before anyone could step in and try to divide them, as they had already been trying to, apparently. «Can we… find somewhere to be alone?».

Sizhui nodded, and after apologizing to everyone for his behavior and accepting future punishment, he guided Jin Ling towards the rabbits meadow, where the two of them sat down on the grass, rabbits coming around them, but suddenly stopping.

This was weird: the little things would usually jump all over Sizhui the moment he let himself fall to the ground, now they were eyeing him almost suspiciously, their little noses vibrating around him, and then they’d hop off, away from them.

Jin Ling grabbed Sizhui’s hand, too busy trying to find the right words to say to notice the animals’ weird behavior, but then he suddenly frowned and reached for his forehead as well, ignoring the startled whimper of the other young man.

«You’re scorching hot, Lan Yuan!», he exclaimed, pulling the other’s head closer to him and laying his lips right beneath his forehead ribbon for a better investigation. «Let’s bring you back to--».

«No», Sizhui whispered, grabbing him from the front of his robes and refusing to let go. «A-Ling, please, stay here. Let’s stay here, I… We haven’t talked about him even once since then».

Jin Ling stilled, and closed his eyes, before he nodded and shifted so that he was sitting next to Sizhui, putting an arm around his shoulders and pulling him closer, smiling when Sizhui immediately reacted by relaxing under his touch and leaning against him, his eyes closed and his cheeks slightly flushed by both embarrassment - “Really? After all this time you still blush around me?!” - and his feverish state… Jin Ling tried his best to ignore just how hot his whole body felt against his.

«We haven’t», he agreed with a defeated sigh. «We actually haven’t talked to begin with, actually. You disappeared in the Jingshi and I… I didn’t really leave my room either, I must say. I’m sorry», he brushed one of Sizhui’s cheeks with the tip of his fingers, gently and carefully as if he was touching a delicate flower.

«Have you… Have you had any nightmare?», Sizhui’s voice was once again small and vulnerable, and Jin Ling felt anger explode in his chest.

Why had they fallen like that? Why did this happen to them?!

«Not really, I… I sometimes dreamed the… the funeral, but nothing more. I do dream of him, though».

That seemed to catch Sizhui’s interest, as he shifted so that he could take a better look at Jin Ling’s face. His request for more details was clear in his eyes.

«Most are memories of before. Our first night hunts, our first kiss, our first--», talking about that didn’t actually feel right, sittin in one of the purest places in the Cloud Recesses, not to mention it was probably Sizhui’s father’s favourite place, so Jin Ling just cleared his voice and let it fall. «Also, the first time I met him, and you… I don’t know why I’m not having nightmares, those memories are actually quite… soothing. It still hurts, when I wake up and realize it’s all gone». His voice trembled at the end, but he finally sighed in relief after he said that, as if he had been denying his pain even to himself until then. Sizhui was fast to hug him, taking one of his hands and intertwining their fingers together, in silence. He was waiting for Jin Ling to go on, clearly.

It took the Jin boy a lot of time to finally get off his chest what he had been thinking:

«I’m worried something might have broken within me», he finally admitted, whispering and not looking at his partner, he just squeezed his hand a bit tighter. «I can’t cry, I keep thinking of him and every time it’s like being stabbed in the chest, but I… I still can’t cry for him, I feel bad. I see those memories and I still don’t fully understand, I still expect him to pop out of nowhere and tell us it’s a joke, I… I don’t know. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve gotten used to losing the people I love. After a while, one by one, they all leave, and it terrifies me, but at the same time, I’m almost used to it, as if I’m always expecting it. I thought… I had dared thinking that maybe, the three of us would stay together, that maybe this relationship would be the only thing I’d be granted to keep. “Life has taken so much from you”, is what they always tell me, “it’s about time it also gives you something back”. It gave me you, and I was glad, and thankful, and… I just… I had really hoped that maybe, this time, it was truly my… my reward, that for once I had truly found a place where I belonged, someone who would stay. But now…».

Jin Ling closed his eyes and swallowed, his hands now trembling slightly and his teeth sinking in his lower lip, biting so hard it almost bled.

He felt Sizhui move and then warm hands were caressing his face, gently, carefully, and when he opened his eyes to meet Sizhui’s, he knew that the sorrow he could see in them was the same one he was feeling.

«There’s nothing broken within you»¸ the older boy said in a firm tone, earnestly looking at him, stroking his thumbs against his cheekbones. «You have cried for him, back then, at Koi Tower, and I know that you are still crying inside of you, it doesn’t matter if your tears don’t find their way to your eyes, nobody will ever think any less of you for not being able to cry. I surely don’t. I know what you are feeling, we are the only ones who can actually understand this pain…», he paused, finally realizing the meaning of his own words.

He and Jin Ling hadn’t taken their time to share their pain with each other. They had both tried to stay strong one for another, at first, but when they both felt they were going to break, they hid away, one seeking comfort in his parents, the other in the closest figure to a father he had.

They had acted as strangers, not even standing close to each other during the funeral… They had both acted as Lan Jingyi’s lovers, but not like each other’s lovers.

Sizhui finally understood why a part of him had held anger towards Jin Ling when he thought of how he seemed to be doing better than him: with Jingyi gone, it had felt like the thread which was keeping Sizhui and Jin Ling together had snapped, everything they had had, suddenly seemed to have disappeared.

They had cried together only once, holding on to each other, then each other had gone his own way to live his own pain.

But the three of them had never been like that.

It had never been Jin Ling, Sizhui and Jingyi in the middle. The three of them had understood soon enough that each one of them had harbored feelings just as strong for the other two, there was no “us” if it wasn’t all of them.

It wasn’t Jingyi holding the two of them close, it had never been so. Jin Ling and Sizhui had been just as close to each other as they had been to him.

Lan Jingyi would have been so disappointed in them if he had seen how they had acted!

«A-Yuan?», this time it was Jin Ling who caressed Sizhui’s face, frowning in concern as he saw him lose focus, but then, suddenly, he felt lips crushing against his own, and Sizhui’s body was pushing him on the ground once again, this time pressing his whole being against him, as if trying to become one with him.

And Jin Ling let him, hugging his waist and keeping him close as he kissed him back.

Finally, finally, his own eyes grew wet, and tears ran down his face faster and faster while he deepened the kiss, and his heart once again beat at the same rhythm of Lan Sizhui’s.    

«I cannot promise you life won’t ever take anything from you», he heard his lover whisper against his lips, and he opened his eyes again to look at him, tears still gathering at the corners. «I thought we had forever on our side as well, I had faith in the future, and yet this happened… So I can’t make any promise to you. But I can swear I’ll stay by your side as long as I’m granted».

If Jin Ling had thought he was no longer able to cry and let the pain in his heart out, he was proved wrong right there and then.

 

When Jin Ling had offered him to go back with him to Koi Tower, Sizhui accepted.

The Cloud Recesses was no longer a peaceful place for him; his mind and heart were still in turmoil, and he could see how witnessing his pain was taking its toll on his parents as well.

Maybe staying away from constant reminders of Jingyi for a while would have helped him heal. Besides, Jin Ling needed him, and seeing how Jiang Cheng needed to go back to his duties in Lotus Pier - as much as he despised the idea, he still had his responsibilities - he would have been alone to face his loss, and he clearly still wasn’t ready for that.

It had taken a while to talk Wei Wuxian into letting him go, assuring him that he would be fine, that Jin Ling would be able to help him as much as he would be able to help Jin Ling - at which, his dad had replied with “that’s exactly why I am worried about the both of you” - and that he would be back soon, but in the end, the older man had consented him to leave, as long as he promised to contact him as soon as any issue ensued.

The look in his eyes, however, told Sizhui that it wouldn’t be long until he and his husband would just happen to night hunt around Koi Tower, but he pretended not to notice it.

However, as he entered the room he and Jingyi had shared in the dormitories to get ready to leave, he found himself unable to move, the pain in his chest, back and head came back at full strength the moment he stepped foot in there.

He hadn’t entered their room since that first night, carefully avoiding even going close to it… It was the room which held the more memories of him, of them. This was where they had spent most of their happiest and saddest moments, when they had quietly laughed and cried, played together and experimented with their bodies…

He had expected it to be bad, when he finally decided to open the door, but he hadn’t been prepared to the flood of memories that hit him together with the familiar smell of their room.

To make it all worse, between the pain and the ache, came the echo of a well known laughter, one he thought he’d never hear again.

«A-Yuan, you took so long to come back here! I was getting bored!».

 

Jin Ling, who had been waiting by the entrance of the Cloud Recesses for Sizhui to gather his stuff, grew restless as more time passed and the other didn’t show up. Wei Wuxian, who was standing not too far from him, talking to Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji, seemed to be on the same page.

Eventually unable to stay still any longer, Jin Ling went to search for him, and soon after he felt the presence of both Sizhui’s parents following him.

Hanguang-jun’s presence made it easy for them to access the disciples’ quarters, as nobody dared to step in to stop them, and they reached Sizhui’s and Jingyi’s bedroom soon enough, worry settling in their chests as soon as they saw that the door was open, and whimpering could be heard from the inside.

They found the once perfect Lan disciple curled up on Jingyi’s bed, his breath ragged as he clutched his hands to his chest, Jingyi’s forehead ribbon held tight between his fingers.

«A-Yuan!».

Lan Wangji was the first one to react as soon as Wei Wuxian’s voice broke the three of them out of their daze in front of that sight. He reached his son and knelt next to him, grabbing his shoulder and having him lay on his back.

Neither of them expected Sizhui to fight back, his yell almost turning into a growl as he curled up once again, this time with his back on his father, crying and mumbling to himself.

Jin Ling felt his stomach turn to ice as he witnessed that scene, Wei Wuxian inhaled sharply as something like recognition and fear flashed through his face and was then mirrored on that of his husband the moment their eyes met.

Both of them were suddenly reminded of Sizhui’s weird behaviors in the last days, from his shifts of temper to those sudden attacks of pain that had never truly stopped, to the nights his whole body had seemed to be burning up… They both knew what kind of symptoms those were, but they prayed with anything they had to be wrong.

«What’s wrong with him?» Jin Ling’s voice trembled slightly in worry as he turned to look at his uncle, his brows furrowing and the red spot on his forehead almost disappearing in the wrinkles that the movement had formed.

It wasn’t an unusual question for him, he suddenly realized: ever since Wei Wuxian had entered their lives, he, Sizhui, Jingyi and the other - at the time - junior disciples had always looked up to him, asking him questions and trusting his explanations… There was something soothing in asking him, for every time he’d answer in a bright tone that would make even the worst ghoul or monster seem an easy target, a perfectly reasonable creature that they could defeat if they thought hard enough.

But not this time.

This time, his uncle didn’t even answer him, he just joined his husband and son on the floor, trying to reach for Sizhui as well, only for him to have his hand slapped away with an almost inhuman scream.

«Don’t touch it!».

Jin Ling’s head was spinning in fear and adrenaline, and at the same time he felt completely helpless. There was nothing he could do, he could just stare at Sizhui on the floor, claiming nonsense, acting like…

… Acting as if…

«A-Yuan, it’s us, don’t you recognize us?», Wei Wuxian’s voice was soft, kind and comforting even as he himself was trembling in fear, while he approached Sizhui like one would a feral animal.

«We won’t take it away from you», Lan Wangji joined in, his usually stern voice softer than Jin Ling had ever heard.

Sizhui didn’t seem to even hear them, just hugging his knees closer and burying his face between them, as if to shield the forehead ribbon he held in his hands encircling with his whole body.

«It’s already broken and thorn and I can’t find the other half and you wanna take it away from me!», he screamed, his voice muffled from his own robes.

The two adults went still at that, exchanging a worried look. Before either of them could do anything, Sizhui gave another feral scream, and suddenly jumped up, throwing himself at Wei Wuxian, making him fall laying on the floor, and his both of his hands went to the man’s throat, squeezing at it, still not letting go of the forehead ribbon.

«Sizhui, what are you doing?!»¸ Jin Ling screamed in fear, finally feeling his body as he moved to stop him.

Sizhui’s eyes were unfocused, his face contorted in a mask of pain and madness, his knuckles were going white from how tight he was holding his dad’s throat, his nails digging into his skin. As for Wei Wuxian, he was struggling to push his son away from him, one hand helplessly pulling and scratching at the fingers that were cutting his breath, the other weakly pushing against Sizhui’s chest as his face went paler and his lips were already turning an alarming shade of pale blue.

There was an essential difference in strength between the two of them: Sizhui was rampaging blindly, aiming to kill, while Wei Wuxian was holding back, afraid to hurt him.

«It’s all your fault! He died for you! You couldn’t save him and you can’t even bring him back, what are you even here for?!».

Sizhui’s words were probably killing the man more than any attack ever would. Before Jin Ling could reach them, Lan Wangji had grabbed the almost insane boy and forcefully pulled him away from his husband, one hand around his chest and the other on the hands Sizhui was still closing around Wei Wuxian’s throat, digging his fingers in his nerves until the pain and numbness it caused forced his fingers to open.

His touch was rougher than it had ever been with Sizhui, for once not really caring about not hurting him as his hold on his wrists made the younger one’s bones almost crack under the pressure, but as he finally managed to push him away and stand between him and his Wei Ying, for the first time he found himself facing an enemy that he wanted to protect just as much as Wei Ying.

With his help, Wei Wuxian managed to get free of his son’s grasp, crawling backwards and pulling himself in a sitting position as he painfully coughed and gasped for air through the pain and the sobs that were breaking through his lips, tears streaming down his face.

«L-Lan Zhan»¸ he gasped, and Jin Ling couldn’t quite understand what was held in those words.

Was it a “I’m alright”? Was he reassuring the other man so that he wouldn’t attack Sizhui? Would Lan Wangji even think of attacking him?

Everyone was well aware of how protective the infamous Second Jade of Gusu was of his husband, but in this situation… The moment Jin Ling finally looked into Hanguang-jun’s eyes, his heart broke for him. He finally understood what Wei Wuxian meant when he once said “Lan Zhan actually wears his every emotion quite clearly, it’s all of you who are too blind to notice!”.

The pain and worry he could read in that golden sea was enough to drown him.

«Why are you protecting him?».

It was the first sentence that Sizhui hadn’t screamed, this was slightly more than a whisper, but it brought Jin Ling back to reality, as he slowly approached the younger Lan, who now kept his head low in defeat, his fingers curling and uncurling around the half of the forehead ribbon.

«Sizhui, you can resist this».

Once again, Lan Wangji’s voice was warmer and softer than ever, although choked by fear, and Sizhui’s shoulders tensed, as if a part of him recognized that tone, and another tried to ignore it.

He shook his head, gritting his teeth and clutching the forehead ribbon tighter, growling again.

«A-Yuan, please», came Wei Wuxian’s voice from the floor, still broken and strangled, wet with tears, but at the same time with its own kind of power held in those few words.

That power was faith; when saying that, Wei Wuxian spoke as if he had no doubt that his child would listen to his plea… And Sizhui did indeed partially react to that: he abandoned his fierce stance, looking more helpless and sad than ready to strike again.

It gave his father a chance to keep talking to him, although his sentences were still cut short by the pain in his throat:

«Are you angry with me?».

“Of all the questions he could ask?!” Jin Ling forced himself not to roll his eyes at that, wondering why on earth was his uncle so keen on risking his life, and he stopped trying to approach Sizhui when he saw him take one step closer to his father, much to Lan Wangji’s discomfort, as he seemed thorn between letting him or stepping more to the side to cover Wei Wuxian from his sight.

«No», the boy finally said, sighing deeply and closing his eyes. «Just… sad, and tired, and mad at those who killed him, and…», he uncharacteristically fidgeted with the ribbon in his hands, and that seemed to catch his attention again, reminding him of something. «Why is it cut in half?».

The other three couldn’t help but look at each other at that. The two adults had been there when Sizhui had carefully, reverently also, cut Jingyi’s forehead ribbon in half, tying one of the two pieces around his wrist, and pocketing the other to take it to Jin Ling, and - in Wei Wuxian’s case - he had been there when he had given it to him. For him to not remember, it was almost more worrying than what had already just happened.

«You don’t remember?».

If his parents’ voices had somehow drawn Sizhui out of his confusion, Jin Ling’s startled him and had the young Lan glare at him, stopping him in his tracks. He seemed to be eyeing him wearily, cautious of his every move, like a suspicious animal who is used to being attacked at any moment.

Jin Ling stood still, slowly raising his hands to show he had no weapon nor any intention to hurt him, then he opened his mouth, not caring about Lan Wangji’s warning glance, or Wei Wuxian’s call for him to be careful.

This was Sizhui, his Lan Yuan, his and Jingyi’s warm light, safe harbor…

Suddenly, Sizhui’s head jerked up, wild and lost eyes staring at him. Swallowing back the urge to back down, Jin Ling held his gaze, offering him the small smile they had shared so many times before.

«A-Yuan, it’s me, you know who I am. You won’t hurt me».

He didn’t know where those words were coming from, nor that confidence… After all, Sizhui had just tried to kill his own father, the man that had held him as a child, played with him and kept him as happy and safe as possible, even as he himself became the most hated and feared man in the cultivation world. Why would he be more important than Wei Wuxian, in Sizhui’s eyes?

He wasn’t. He could see it in the way his lover’s shoulders wouldn’t relax, in how his eyes were reduced to two sharp slits, he knew it from the way Sizhui didn’t seem to regain an ounce of humanity after that.

For the first time since he had met Lan Sizhui, Jin Ling felt scared of the way he was looking at him.

Like a predator searching for its prey’s weak spot.

And he found it.

Tied around Jin Ling’s wrist, the other half of Jingyi’s forehead ribbon was barely hidden by his sleeve now that he had his hands half raised so that he could show his empty, harmless hands to Sizhui.

«A-Ling!».

When Wei Wuxian’s voice reached his ears, it was already too late: Sizhui had tackled him to the ground, his fingers clawing at him, trying to grab his wrist but striking so blindly that he was hitting Jin Ling anywhere but there. His nails suddenly seemed sharper and longer than before, scratching at the skin of his face, his arms, his neck.

«You took it! You took it from me! And he can’t be back without it!».

Jin Ling finally understood how Wei Wuxian must have felt a few moments before: his own body was refusing to hit Sizhui, to attack him now that he wasn’t himself. He couldn’t see his partner as an enemy, and the thought of fighting back didn’t send enough adrenaline through his body for him to actually do that, all he could do was raise his arms and try to shield his most vulnerable parts like his eyes or neck.

And just like before, Lan Wangji intervened again, grabbing Sizhui from under his armpits, almost like one would to stop a children’s brawl, except that this time Sizhui was fighting back fiercely, trying to jump back at Jin Ling’s throat.

And then, he heard humming.

As he still held Sizhui in his arms, Lan Wangji was humming lightly a tune that the Jin Sect Leader didn’t recognize, but that felt soothing, calm, somewhat nostalgic… Before he could realize what was going on, Sizhui’s eyes went wide, and he could see the fog of madness vanish from them, leaving space to confusion, and terror.

He immediately knew that Sizhui had somewhat been conscious through all that, trapped inside his own body.

With a pained whimper, he went slack in his father’s arms, coughing and hugging himself as tears threatened to spill from his eyes.

«I’m sorry», he whispered lifelessly, repeating it as a broken mantra as Wei Wuxian reached them, cupping his son’s face in his hands and having him look up at him while his voice joined his husband’s in humming the last few notes of that song.

Jin Ling, standing to the side, close enough to hear and see what was happening, but not yet enough to touch Sizhui, noticed that Wei Wuxian he had moved his hair and had pulled his lapel so that the red marks on his neck were mostly hidden.

He suddenly felt very out of place, more worn out than he thought he could ever be and once again on the brink of tears he thought he’d never spill again.

«You have nothing to be sorry about, A-Yuan… it wasn’t your fault».

It really wasn’t, even in Jin Ling’s eyes, even in Lan Wangji’s opinion. No one of them blamed Sizhui, except Sizhui himself.

Jin Ling finally dared to name what he had just witnessed, but only in his mind, afraid that, if he said it out loud, it would suddenly be real once again, it would happen again…

Qi deviation.

He had just witnessed the beginning of a Qi deviation.

On Lan Sizhui, of all people.

He had seen Lan Sizhui almost lose to his internal demons, lose to his own negative emotions… And that was because Lan Jingyi had died and left them all behind.

And he had been useless, he hadn’t been able to do anything for him.

He felt the world shatter around him, he almost expected the whole room to burst out in flames and crumble down in ashes, but instead all stayed the same, the light of the sun kept entering the room, the distant noise of water kept entering from the windows, and they were all still there.

It really wasn’t fair, how the world kept going with no care about what happened to its inhabitants.

 

Koi Tower could wait, he decided as he saw Sizhui close his eyes and go limp against Lan Wangji, his breath slow and even, just like he was sleeping peacefully, but his pale skin and the dark circles under his eyes told an entirely different story.

The Second Jade of Gusu effortlessly picked up his unconscious son, sending a worried glance to Wei Wuxian, scanning his body and his eyes lingering for a while on the smaller man’s neck until said man cleared his throat and pulled more at his lapels, as if to try and cover himself even more.

«I’m alright, Lan Zhan. We need to take A-Yuan to a medician».

Lan Wangji nodded, holding Sizhui closer to his chest, and the three of them walked out of the bedroom, with Jin Ling going last, stopping on the threshold to send one last glance at the room, biting his lips.

Would they ever be given a break? Was he truly destined to witness the ones he loved suffering?

With a sigh, he closed the door behind his back and reached the other two men, walking silently next to his uncle and keeping his head bowed.

«He’ll be alright, won’t he?», he whispered, sounding like a lost child.

The only answer Wei Wuxian could give him, was an arm around his shoulders and a comforting squeeze, as the two of them walked side by side, worrying over the same person.

 

«What he experienced seems to be the beginning of Qi deviation, a powerful attack due to him ignoring the previous symptoms. You said he’s been experiencing sudden pain to his chest, or head? And his temper has gotten worse?».

Wei Wuxian nodded, gritting his teeth and holding back the anger he was feeling towards himself.

Of course those were clear symptoms. Of course when Sizhui had first shown them, he should have been more careful, trusted his instinct that kept trying to tell him that was not just a normal reaction to the sudden loss, to the sudden pain his son had been thrown into.

But of course, he had failed his son once again.

«Is there a way to reverse it?», Lan Zhan’s voice was calm, to an outsider, but he could hear the trembling in it, the ghost of fear shadowing over him as well.

When the healer nodded, all of them breathed in relief, listening carefully to his words.

«He must refrain from cultivating his core, or meditating, until his condition is stable enough. Resting and distracting his mind. I have some medicine you can give him if he shows any symptom. And I’d recommend using Song of Clarity on him as often as possible. I would recommend having him go for walks somewhere he feels calm and safe, far from anything that could trigger a new attack, and having someone with him most of the time, at least in these first times. Sect Leader Jin», the healer turned to face Jin Ling, who was sitting on the edge of the bed where Sizhui was still sleeping, holding his hand and listening with a frown on his face. «I heard that you had planned taking him to Koi Tower. That might be a good idea in a few days, a change in environment could help his spirit recovering, especially seeing how most of his turmoil was caused here in the Cloud Recesses».

Jin Ling nodded at that, squeezing lightly Sizhui’s hand and caressing it with gentle, reverent moves of his fingers.

«I’ll take him there as soon as he’s able to leave. But… at Koi Tower there’s nobody able to perform Song of Clarity», he frowned, focusing back on Sizhui’s sleeping face.

«We’ll go with you, if that’s alright with you. Lan Zhan can play it for him, right?».

«Mn».

Jin Ling suddenly felt his own body going warmer and lighter than it had felt in the last weeks.

It was a new feeling, one he had never felt before, only in part those few times when his uncle had comforted him after Jin Guangyao’s death, or earlier, when he was a child, when he’d hold him at night as he cried for his parents… It was the feeling of having someone to lean on, someone willing to help him, to share the pain with.

He wasn’t alone in this, nor was Sizhui.

Their family had their back.

Suddenly, Sizhui weakly stirred awake, moaning lightly before he opened his eyes, blinking a few times as he took in the sight of Jin Ling’s face over him. Immediately, Jin Ling leaned closer to him, smiling brightly and hopefully, still holding his hand.

«Hey, there», he whispered sweetly, leaning down to press a kiss right over his forehead ribbon, uncaring of Wei Wuxian’s and Lan Wangji’s presence. He was too relieved to finally see Sizhui’s eyes calm and clear, if only still a bit tired, far from the madness that had taken over them earlier.

«A-Ling?».

As Sizhui smiled at him and his sweet voice sounded through the room, Jin Ling could hear the sighs of relief of both Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji behind him.

«It’s me!», he replied cheerfully, waving his fingers and grinning at him, trying to lighten the mood, then he went back to serious. «It’s alright, you’re alright, mh?», he added in a soothing tome as he gently pulled Sizhui closer, carefully helping him sitting up so that the medician could check on him, his hand refusing to let go that of his lover.

Sizhui almost didn’t seem to notice anyone else in the room, his eyes were focused on Jin Ling, and from the way he was biting the inside of his cheeks and from how his brows were slightly furrowed, the young Sect Leader knew he was trying to recall what had happened earlier.

«A-Yuan, don’t think too much of that», Wei Wuxian piped in, leaning over Jin Ling’s shoulder and pressing his index finger against his forehead, successfully distracting him.

It was easier said than done, but somehow, in that moment, Jin Ling let himself believe in Wei Wuxian’s carefree and hopeful tone, and so did Sizhui, judging from how he visibly relaxed, his usual gentle smile back on his lips.

Everything was far from being alright, but maybe, just maybe, for now they could just pretend.