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Further Than I Ever Have

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Jin Guangyao died by Lan Xichen’s blade and Nie Mingjue’s hands, and the world rejoiced the downfall of a man who had been lauded a hero for years. And every part of it is an overwhelming tragedy, one in which Lan Xichen can’t reconcile the conflicting feelings in his heart. Because he’s hurt, deeply and desperately, by how much Jin Guangyao lied to him, betrayed his trust and willingness to believe in his decisions, and wrapped him around his finger while deciding that murder was the right answer to so many of his problems. But as always, he can’t help but feel sympathetic for the rotten luck in Jin Guangyao’s life, and Lan Xichen would never have chosen to kill him. More death isn’t the answer.

And it’s years before he can think about Jin Guangyao without a complicated mess of emotions warring in his heart, uncomfortably raw and begging for a closure he’s sure, at this point, he’ll never get.

But—

But Wangji never gives up on him. He insists on visiting him in seclusion - weekly at the very least, but usually more often - to tell him about the goings-on of the Cloud Recesses and their family, even the simplest ones, and to bring him news of the cultivation world. Try as he might, Lan Xichen cannot fully lie to his brother, and he knows his bland smiles don’t fool Wangji. But despite Lan Xichen’s disinterest, he comes back, for months into years.

Until one day, a bit of information catches Lan Xichen’s interest. Wangji tells him of an upcoming discussion conference - extending an invitation for Lan Xichen’s attendance out of formality, as he hasn’t left the Cloud Recesses in years - where the main topic is the lookout towers. A few sects have brought up concerns about them, and there’s a plan for decommissioning them on the table. Small batches at first, but with the eventual goal of wiping a mark of Jin Guangyao’s influence from the cultivation world.

From further pressing, Lan Xichen learns that it’s being backed by QingheNie Sect, though Sect Leader Nie is far from the only one with the idea. The discussion conference is to be hosted in Koi Tower at the end of the month, and with that, he steels himself for a potential return to a world he’d long since given up on.

Lan Xichen thanks his brother for the information, sends him on his way, and settles in to meditate on what he wants to do. Despite his methods, so many of Jin Guangyao’s intentions were good. The lookout towers help people - the common people that large cultivation sects find it so easy to forget - and Lan Xichen knows that without them, people will die. It’s an attempt to slander good done by someone the world has marked as evil, with no concern for the consequences that those who are “lesser” will face.

He breathes in deeply, breathes out, and makes up his mind.

・x・x・x・x・x・

Lan Xichen hasn’t been to Lanling in years. Everything in his life stretches in indeterminate lengths of time around him, the changing seasons in the Cloud Recesses the only thing keeping years from blending together completely. But this is definitive, a sharp difference from the days Jin Guangyao resided here and Lan Xichen was a regular and welcome guest.

Gone are the murals extolling the great accomplishments of the LanlingJin Sect, replaced with a vast expanse of flowers along the pass. It’s a positive change in many ways, something that likely does much to get away from their arrogant attitude and other past mistakes, but it only further reminds Lan Xichen how out of touch from the cultivation world he is.

He hears the whispers when he arrives; there’s no hiding the stares and hushed words of judgment, no matter how quiet and discreet so many seem to think they are. He almost feels foolish for not expecting this much, because of course he can’t walk back into this world like everything is normal. No one outside of the Cloud Recesses has seen him since that night in Guanyin Temple, so of course there’s bound to be gossip.

Is this how Jin Guangyao always felt? No matter how high he rose, there was always someone ready to put him down for his birth, and Lan Xichen feels a deep empathy for that than ever before. Being back in Koi Tower’s main hall brings back memories of better times, of past banquets, and—

Sect Leader Ouyang’s meal is wrong.

The thought crosses his mind before he corrects himself. It’s not entirely wrong; it’s just the cut of the meat- he prefers something with slightly more fat on it. Jin Guangyao would have gotten it right; he always did, spending countless nights fretting over seating arrangements and personalized meals until Lan Xichen would usher him into bed, and-

He can’t do this.

Lan Xichen takes a deep breath, trying to soothe his nerves. He couldn’t even perform the bare minimum of a basic banquet in the safety of the Cloud Recesses without stumbling over his words, and that was predictable, practiced tradition. But Jin Guangyao stood up for his beliefs despite what others said about him - or in some ways, because of others’ attitude - and so must he. He has decades of experience, the luck of an esteemed birth, and a reputation so clean that most are willing to ignore its single blemish.

“The lookout towers have done good for years without causing any problems, so what is the sudden need to dismantle them? If it’s a matter of finances or finding cultivators to station in them, GusuLan Sect is always willing to provide additional support,” Lan Xichen says, carefully calm and measured in the midst of spirited discussion.

There’s silence in the room and then it breaks; he supposes it’s possible that no one expected him to be here just to disagree.

“Sect Leader Lan, there may have been good from them in the past, but at what underlying cost? We’ve yet to fully understand the depths of the hidden risks! It’s much more dangerous to keep unchecked towers in operation,” Sect Leader Yao says, gesticulating emphatically with his arm.

“The plans are public property,” Lan Xichen tells him simply, keeping his unkind thoughts about how easy Sect Leader Yao’s opinion is to sway to himself. “The towers are structures stationed by local cultivators and volunteers. There’s no harm in that.”

“Everyone knows why there could be a risk,” Sect Leader Yao says smugly, and so many of the men around him nod in agreement.

No one has said his name, as though ‘Jin Guangyao’ would be a curse upon the room, but they are more than willing to slander his hard work. Jin Rulan looks conflicted about his anger - his uncle threatened his life, wrapped a guqin string around his throat, and yet still spoke to him with nothing but fondness - while Sect Leader Nie has a carefully schooled expression of disinterest on his face as he lazily fans himself.

“Lianfang-Zun did more than his crimes,” Lan Xichen says, and there’s a heavy silence in the room now, something judgmental and taught with distrust, and he pushes forward before it can swallow him up. “Stop trying to find fault in something that saves countless lives because you’re ashamed that you cannot find a way to steal its renown for yourself. Civilian lives matter more than petty politics.”

Sect Leader Nie’s hand falters and his fan stills. “Oh, Sect Leader Lan, I’m just not sure. I mean, how can you even be sure you know what’s true?”

“I think they should stay,” Jin Rulan cuts in loudly, before anyone else can disagree. “And LanlingJin Sect gave the initial funding, so I want to see a better replacement plan for them before we start dismantling anything.”

Sect leaders and Jin elders alike turn to Jin Rulan as though they had forgotten he had a say in anything in his own sect. Being a young sect leader is no easy task, and he stands alone in Koi Tower, with every decision questioned by elders and strangers alike. Every voice is waiting for a chance to take advantage of his youth and his sect’s tattered reputation. Lan Xichen is endlessly grateful for the solid backing and support he has always had from his uncle and brother, and he can only begin to imagine how much harder it would be without it.

“Stop squabbling and look over the plans again, then,” Jiang Wanyin barks, effectively silencing the room, and the leaders of sects under YunmengJiang’s jurisdiction have the decency to look chastised. Sect Leader Nie has his face mostly hidden behind his fan now, and if Lan Xichen had to guess, he would say it’s because his fan is hiding a rather displeased expression that he hasn’t managed to conceal yet.

Jin Guangyao was a better actor, at least in meetings like this. No matter the argument or disagreement, his smile never faltered, maintaining the perfect image of a gracious and understanding host. But Lan Xichen knows better, knows that in the privacy of Jin Guangyao’s rooms, they’d drink and laugh under the guise of discussing sect matters, and Jin Guangyao would critique everyone of importance without an ounce of restraint. Sweet wine flowed until Lan Xichen was beside himself, giggling at Jin Guangyao’s drunken impersonations of fellow sect leaders, well into the night. It was wholly inappropriate and ridiculous, but—

Wei Wuxian’s bright voice cuts through his reminiscence. “All of you stole my designs and used them long after I was gone, even the imperfect ones. If it’s helpful, you shouldn’t care too much about its origin.” He twirls Chenqing as he talks, the casual attitude of his youth shining through even as he turns his attention on his old friend with a sharpened edge.

“Oh, Wei-xiong, I don’t know why you always ask me these kinds of things,” he titters, shamelessly the Don’t Know It All again, despite the importance and respect he’s gained in recent years.

Wei Wuxian shrugs and taps the side of his nose with a finger. “I just heard that QingheNie Sect had offered to back any sect willing to vote for decommissioning the towers, so I figured you’d be able to give me some insight on why,” he explains, smiling the whole time.

“Perhaps,” Nie Huaisang begins, ignorance dripping from the single word. “Perhaps I just wanted to support rethinking old ideas, but I’m not sure. I’d hoped to have Zewu-Jun’s guidance, you know, but it’s been so long since he’s paid me a visit that I’ve had to deal with policies on my own. I, oh, I don’t know…” he trails off, sighing, and the room’s attention lands on Lan Xichen again.

It’s an attack - subtle to outsiders, but meant to cut deeply for those who understand it. Nie Huaisang knows precisely why Lan Xichen won’t speak to him and won’t leave the Cloud Recesses, why GusuLan has been on icy terms with QingheNie, and he feigns bewilderment so well that no one notices. Lan Xichen’s peaceful smile hasn’t slipped, but only because he feels as if he tries any other expression, he won’t be able to get it back.

“Sect Leader Nie, I’m sure you have respect for another sect’s cultivation practices,” he begins, throat tight as his mind runs through the endless hours he has spent feeling like a fool. He was easily manipulated by everyone around him, even against those he cared for most, but he continues with a growing confidence. “As I said, I see no reason to decommission something that does so much good.”

He knows Jin Guangyao did terrible things, committed atrocious acts, but Lan Xichen cannot let him be known only for that, or for countless innocent people to be put at risk because of the politics of world they aren’t even part of. “So I will not step aside and let you all tear apart the good that Jin Guangyao was responsible for because you want to continue to find new ways to darken his reputation. Let his mistakes alone do that, and learn to move on.”

・x・x・x・x・x・

‘I thought Sect Leader Lan was practicing secluded cultivation?’

‘Oh, didn’t you hear? He’s been at the past few discussion conferences. I heard he stood up for…well, you know.’

‘That son of a whore? Who’d want to side with him now!!’

‘Oh, I know! But I guess Sect Leader Lan still believes in his sworn brother.’

‘Even in death? How foolish.’

・x・x・x・x・x・

A hundred years is long time - more than a lifetime for many - and Lan Xichen had long ago planned on forgoing any cares for tracking the passage of time. But leaving seclusion and returning to the cultivation world shattered those plans and replaced them with new purpose. He fights policies with firm politeness, wields the sacrosanct reputation of his sect against those who try to snatch power from LanlingJin Sect, and uses his vaulted position to recover as much goodwill for Jin Guangyao’s accomplishments as he can.

And—

It’s amazing how quickly time goes when it’s filled with motivation instead of gloom. Lan Xichen’s goals keep him busy; he spends his days traveling to meet with common people, wandering cultivators, and faraway sects, trying to find better ways to improve their quality of life. Jin Guangyao appealed to those outside the golden heights of the cultivation world because he was born one of them, never forgot them, and made even the most lofty goal seem reachable.

There’s no reason to let innocents starve on the streets when powerful sects waste so much, no reason for civilians to die from spiritual beasts when all cultivators should care for the safety of others, and no reason to allow false information about cultivation techniques to spread when most sects can afford to take in more young disciples.

Wangji never feared for his reputation when he stood up for Wei Wuxian, and Lan Xichen finds that he and his brother are similar in yet another way. His family remains the unwavering support behind his actions, working to keep the sect running and ironing out the fine details of policies, until—

Until his uncle’s official retirement, until he can see the wisps of gray clinging to his brother’s temples and the deep laughter lines on Wei Wuxian’s face, all the while Lan Xichen stays as youthful as ever. He knows his cultivation has always been stronger than most, but to see the solid marks of time appear on his loved ones is something else entirely.

Immortality is achieved by reaching the peak of cultivation, and in every tale, it’s always found away from and above the rest of the world. It’s a truth that cultivators learn from a young age, when the idea of living forever seems as much a far-off dream as living to 50.

A hundred and seventeen years after the slaughter at Yunping’s Guanyin Temple, Lan Xichen steps down as sect leader, leaving the GusuLan Sect in the capable hands of Lan Sizhui. It’s time for him to cultivate elsewhere, he explains to the sect elders - who are significantly younger than Lan Xichen is, at this point - and he receives a quiet, subdued sendoff. His uncle is long gone, his brother is no longer his mirror image in looks, and he knows, from years of practice, that the best way to handle loss is to build something better in the world.

・x・x・x・x・x・

One day, when the skies are blue and the sun is shining brightly, things will feel small and less inconceivably impossible. When fields are green, when they’ve shed the skins and scars of the past, perhaps it will be better.

Life is a never-ending flow, a place for second or third or sixth chances, until one of them is right.

The sun shines overhead, time marches onward, and the many threads of fate weave together to bring two broken and repaired souls towards each other once again.

・x・x・x・x・x・

In another time, cultivation sects ruled above all else, their strength and importance unquestioned. But times change, society adopts new opinions, and there has become a price to pay to be a cultivator. The powers they wield scare the people without them, and centuries of studies have made way for a world where all but a few cultivators are bound to a master.

Lan Xichen only realized where the world was going once it was too late to stop the tide of public opinion, and he remains a rare sight to behold: a wandering cultivator with nothing but rumors of ties to the nigh-mythical Cloud Recesses. He still goes where people need help, all the while slowly, quietly, diligently working on a way to change the current fate of cultivators.

In a city sprawling past the mountains that were part of Qishan in his youth, Lan Xichen receives an invite to visit the ruling family. It promises no ill intent, just an interest in the prestigious cultivator who has honored their city with his presence. It could be a trap, but Lan Xichen still believes that rational discussion is the best way to start change, and promises to pay them a visit.

He is greeted at the main gate by a small group of servants and a man with a face so familiar, Lan Xichen is struck speechless.

“Welcome, Zewu-Jun. I hope your journey was easy,” he says, moving to bow, and—

And Lan Xichen catches Jin Guangyao’s arms with his, smiling. “There’s no need for such formality. Thank you for taking the time to greet me.”

There’s familiarity in Jin Guangyao’s eyes - nothing like the distant friendliness he had for all but his closest companions - as their hands brush. Lan Xichen knew from the moment the coffin was sealed that there was no guarantee that he’d ever see Jin Guangyao again, and even less of one that he’d remember him, but Lan Xichen is always foolish with his heart around this man.

“Of course,” he says, the same bright smile that charmed Lan Xichen the first time they met just as fond now. “Walk with me, then.”

Lan Xichen nods and the servants scatter at Jin Guangyao’s gestures, and they being a leisurely walk across the palace grounds. He wants to say something, anything, but how does he condense centuries into light conversation? When words fail him, Lan Xichen instead watches Jin Guangyao in the comfortable silence they share under the afternoon sun.

Jin Guangyao leads them past the vastness of the main courtyards and the bustling servants’ quarters until he pauses on a garden path, lush with foliage, to fix Lan Xichen with an unreadable look. “I’ve heard that you are a highly skilled cultivator, with origins so fantastical that rumors can’t decide if you’re the very same Zewu-Jun, hero of the Sunshot Campaign and esteemed disciple of the GusuLan Sect, or a different mythical hero,” he says calmly, each word a piece of a puzzle that Jin Guangyao has already put together, and is only stating to be sure he’s right.

“Sometimes my reputation precedes me, I see. Yes, I’m still myself,” he admits softly - it’s a truth he doesn’t deny, but rarely confirms, and only the intimacy of the trees around them makes it feel safe enough to share. It makes him impossibly old in most people’s eyes, because everyone assumes that great cultivators don’t walk amongst mere mortals for centuries. But if Jin Guangyao is asking him so plainly, he already knows the answer.

And yet despite that, Jin Guangyao’s hands grasp his robes tightly, briefly, and Lan Xichen wouldn’t have caught it if he didn’t know him so well already. His face can’t seem to decide if he should be relieved or worried or excited, and Jin Guangyao laughs in a way that Lan Xichen doesn’t feel comfortable describing as kind.

“I always thought you had to ascend into the tranquility to cultivate immortality, and yet I heard that the mysterious wandering cultivator was staying in the cramped guest room of a cheap winehouse,” he says, and Lan Xichen realizes now why the handwriting on the invitation felt so welcoming, like a familiar bit of his past in each brush stroke, and he is so very lucky that above all else, Jin Guangyao is a driven and clever man.

He shakes his head. “There’s no one path to mastering cultivation,” Lan Xichen says. “Traveling the world to help people has done far more for me than hiding on a distant mountain in solitude, and I don’t see the point in hoarding skills that can do good.”

“Of course,” Jin Guangyao says, shaking his head. “So noble.”

It’s hardly a reunion that poems and plays are written about, because Jin Guangyao is a guarded man, slow to trust, and the last time they faced each other, Lan Xichen drove a sword through him. They’re once again divided by rank and experience in a way that doesn’t matter to Lan Xichen but bothers Jin Guangyao deeply, but Lan Xichen is more than willing to spend another lifetime rebuilding what they had.

“I learned from an old friend that there’s a balance to politics and wandering, random acts of kindness, though I don’t think I’ve perfected it the way he had,” Lan Xichen answers, and this draws a much nicer laugh out of Jin Guangyao.

“I cannot believe that you are trying to flatter me, after all this time…” he says as the air around them settles into something comfortable again.

“You invited me here, A-Yao,” Lan Xichen points out, reaching for Jin Guangyao’s hand.

Fingers entwine and he squeezes, a wordless promise, before Jin Guangyao pulls back and shakes his head. “The master of the house wishes to meet with you, and I am bound to fulfill his wishes,” he explains, an icy veil over the neutral statement that sets Lan Xichen’s nerves on edge. “Allow me to show you to your rooms, Er-ge.”

・x・x・x・x・x・

Lan Xichen tries to purchase Jin Guangyao’s freedom; as terrible as it sounds, he knows it is the easiest way to get him out of the situation. But, as always, Jin Guangyao is too useful, too necessary, too indispensable to everyone around him, to spare. Lan Xichen knows that his worth cannot be measured in coins or gold, knows that he is more priceless than the stars in the sky, and no one would entrust him to another cultivator, anyway.

On his first evening as an honored guest, a passing servant informs him that all cultivators must stay in their own area after curfew. There’s a hint of a threat, so polite he’d guess that the man must have learned the subtleties of double meanings from Jin Guangyao, and Lan Xichen accepts the order with grace. He keeps his explorations to the daytime, usually under the watchful gaze of the palace guard, or servants, or rarely, Jin Guangyao himself- when he can spare a moment of peace.

Loving someone requires understanding their faults and choosing to love them despite - or perhaps, in certain cases, because - of them. The first time around, he had thought he’d known Jin Guangyao better than anyone else, but he’d been proven wrong by his own willful ignorance. This time, he can see the faults laid out in front of him, and he can recognize Jin Guangyao’s specific brand of quiet spite.

“How many murders do you have planned, A-Yao?” he asks over tea, with the afternoon sun filtering through the trees.

Shadows play across Jin Guangyao’s steady hands as the gentle breeze shifts the branches and the leaves sway, and he smiles into his cup. “You ask as though I’ve already committed some sort of crime, Er-ge,” Jin Guangyao says, vague enough to claim ignorance. But there’s a sly light in his eyes, as though he’s waiting to see if Lan Xichen is clever enough to figure him out again, and he’s long since made peace with the amount of moral ambiguity that comes with loving Jin Guangyao.

“I haven’t stayed a fool forever,” Lan Xichen says, taking a drink. It’s good - unsurprising, as Jin Guangyao has always had impeccable taste - and familiar, as though it’s a close relative of the flowery blends of Lanling. He doesn’t ask again, letting the peaceful quiet carry the conversation until he decides on how he wishes to answer.

Jin Guangyao sets his empty cup down and looks out, across the courtyard and further, where distance has become time, as he considers his words. “I only do what is necessary.”

“You cannot use that as an excuse every time,” he chides, and Lan Xichen knows the fondness in his voice has betrayed how soft he still is on Jin Guangyao when he chuckles.

“It’s not an excuse; sometimes it really is necessary. There are countless assassins, enemies of the state, escaped prisoners…really, if it’s self-defense or under the orders of man you can’t disobey, who is going to judge?” he muses, still not meeting Lan Xichen’s gaze. These thoughts aren’t just for him; they’re the crux of Jin Guangyao’s morality. “And a threat to someone’s accomplishments or reputation can destroy their life as wholly as a sword.”

Jin Guangyao was born with terrible luck and clawed his way up from his unfortunate birth, only for it to haunt him every step of the way, while Lan Xichen had the luxury of status from birth and now the privilege of time and experience above all others. But he’s always believed that Jin Guangyao has done everything with purpose, twisted as it can become at times, and he’s long past judging him.

“A-Yao—”

“Come now, Zewu-Jun, what has reputation saved you from?” he asks, finally turning to face Lan Xichen again. The weight of the question burns in Jin Guangyao’s eyes- he wants to know what Lan Xichen has done over these years, what judgments he’s escaped and how many times he’s used his station to cover for those who don’t have the same standing.

“I’m not so naive to believe that reputation is meaningless,” Lan Xichen begins, an admittance that Nie Mingjue never grasped, to the point that he had to watch it drive a wedge between his two closest friends. And centuries of experience have driven it home, as he’s watched so many suffer because of something so arbitrary as their birthrights. He knows how people talk around him, always willing to believe that Lan Xichen is too upstanding to let silly gossip color his actions while doing nothing to mask their opinions of anyone deemed lesser. “But sometimes, A-Yao, I wish you’d allow me to help you more.”

Jin Guangyao pours Lan Xichen more tea, the last wisps of steam curling out from the pot and around his fingers as he sets it down. “Er-ge knows I’m happiest when I’m helping others.”

Lan Xichen left seclusion because he wanted to defend all that the world had left of Jin Guangyao- because he’d missed him desperately, but also because he knew it was the right thing to do. And in time, he realized that doing nothing until he wasted away would have been the gravest disappointment to Jin Guangyao’s memory, and he couldn’t let himself be useless.

“You don’t have to prove your usefulness to me, of all people,” Lan Xichen tries.

“I suppose it’s just in my nature,” is all Jin Guangyao says, but there’s a smile tugging at the corner of his lips that promises to be something real and honest, if Lan Xichen is willing to take a chance on him again.

・x・x・x・x・x・

The sun shines bright and seasons change, the leaves shifting to fiery red and brilliant yellow as Lan Xichen remains an honored guest. There are secrets in the walls, in the cultivators go missing, and the new cultivators that arrive uncomfortably regularly, and between every kiss stolen from Jin Guangyao in brief moments of privacy, pieces come together. He’s done well for himself, despite being an only somewhat willing indentured servant, because Jin Guangyao always rises to the highest station no matter the situation- or cost. But he also knows that Jin Guangyao could never be content remaining subservient for his entire life, and the best way to change your life is to rise above all else.

There’s a certain delight to having an almost legendary cultivator staying, and Lan Xichen smiles without commitment whenever he’s asked about how long he’ll stay with them. No one can stop him from coming and going as he pleases, but he can feel the eyes on him, waiting for his return, and it makes the sprawling grounds and larger city claustrophobic. So Lan Xichen works with purpose, in meetings with the ruler to try to bring about a change in attitude regarding cultivators, and in the rare moments he is without a distant but careful watch.

He brings Jin Guangyao gifts from the city - locally spun fabrics and imported baubles alike - but his favorites are the sticky sweet desserts from a tiny bakery Lan Xichen found tucked between a busy thoroughfare and cramped housing. He takes advantage of his freedom of movement to treat him to something different as often as possible, and the delighted looks he gets in return are more precious than any tasteless bribe Lan Xichen has received.

At the fleeting end of autumn, a banquet celebrates another birth in the family and Lan Xichen slips away through the distraction of festivities to wander the halls unhindered. He moves casually but with purpose, and between a nondescript storage room and a small guard’s station, he finds the hidden entrance to a room he’s been searching for. A drop of stolen blood reveals it, and without a backwards glance, Lan Xichen enters.

There is heavy magic in the room; the sickly desperation clings to the rows of neatly organized scrolls. Lan Xichen gets to work, before it can drag him down, and he makes quick work of understanding the organization system in place. It’s not Jin Guangyao’s work, but that doesn’t surprise him; it’s far too risky to allow any cultivator in.

He feels sick to his stomach, from the magic in the room and the rows and rows of scrolls trapping cultivators into lifelong servitude, and Lan Xichen isn’t sure he can make peace with only freeing Jin Guangyao. But he shoves that thought down; Jin Guangyao first, worry about everyone else afterward. He picks through carefully, setting aside each one with respect, until he lands on what he came for.

The scroll in his hands look as unassuming as the others but feels like- like power, like Jin Guangyao, like a delicate, solid barrier between him and any other aspirations, freedom, and—


Meng Yao
Male
14 years old
金光瑶


And it’s so easy to destroy; he’d expected something so powerful to put up more of a fight. But spiritual fire burns it the same as any other paper, eating it into ash until the last bit is the shimmering blood of Jin Guangyao’s signature. With a final flickering flame it, too, falls away.

He pauses for a moment, indecision clouding his mind. Lan Xichen had a single, direct plan: free Jin Guangyao from his contract. But no one is meant to be kept enslaved because of their abilities, and it would be effortless to set the whole room aflame. He can’t imagine a reaction that doesn’t end in bloodshed - not after all they’ve been through - and Lan Xichen has no want to lead another war.

But—

He makes a silent promise to work on more peaceful solutions later, and uses the cover of smoke and flames to slip back in with the crowds of the interrupted party without being noticed.

Jin Guangyao’s hand finds his before long, dragging him away from the brightly lit banquet hall and panicked throngs of people to an empty corridor. The muffled sounds of confusion surround them as Jin Guangyao leans up, pulls Lan Xichen closer, and hisses under his breath: “You’ve gotten cleverer over the years, Er-ge.”

“I learned a few things from a friend with quite the knack for it,” Lan Xichen says softly, calmly, fondly, and Jin Guangyao kisses him sharply, desperately, like a man drowning and fighting all at once, and there’s deep gratitude behind it all.

When he pulls back, he’s flushed - though if it’s joy or stress, Lan Xichen can’t quite tell. “You can’t expect me to leave in the middle of something I planned so well, especially not with how it’s falling apart.”

Lan Xichen almost laughs. “I never said you had to leave—”

“I am sick of playing nice with someone who thinks of me as a useful tool and nothing more,” he snaps, and there’s simmering hate in Jin Guangyao’s eyes- a hate that Lan Xichen has never had the misfortune of being on the receiving end of, but has intimate knowledge of what happens to those who have been.

“A-Yao—”

He pulls Lan Xichen into another kiss before he can explain anything, before Jin Guangyao can allow himself to hear any doubts or disagreements, and it’s only the gasp of a passing junior disciple that stops them.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!!” he sputters, hesitating a second. “Something- something changed, Shixiong,” he says hesitantly, eyes downward. They must be a sight, especially with how distant and reserved Jin Guangyao is with most people.

Jin Guangyao sighs, carefully rearranges his robes and the strands of have that have fallen in his face. “Forgive my lapse in discretion,” he says, a neutral smile fixed on his face that doesn’t match the honest pleasure in his eyes. “What happened?”

The disciple takes a deep breath. “I feel…different,” he says shakily. “So do the others I’ve talked to- it’s like feeling lighter, almost. And there’s a fire in the north wing,” he finishes with, bowing.

“Thank you for the information,” Jin Guangyao says. “Find as many of your fellow disciples as you can and get as far away from the fire as you can. If you wish to leave, take what you want and go.”

There’s confusion in the young disciple’s eyes, but he doesn’t argue. Even after he leaves, Jin Guangyao doesn’t say anything, instead breathing in, out, in, out, and listening to the quickly growing chaos outside.

Lan Xichen resists the urge to shake him, because despite his usual calm demeanor, he is more than capable of getting frustrated with Jin Guangyao’s pride. “Please do not make me beg for the honor of helping you out of another mess,” he says evenly, and even though none of the frustration is evident in his voice, the meaning carries through. “I am not watching another lifetime go by because you decided not to trust me, A-Yao.”

His smiles slips and the hate in his eyes fades until he is nothing but Jin Guangyao, a man who struggles with emotional vulnerability, trying to let his guard down despite how much it scares him. “What exactly did you do, Er-ge?”

“I couldn’t allow others to suffer as well,” he says simply, and Jin Guangyao chuckles.

“I suppose you do have to ‘help the underprivileged,’” he quotes, shaking his head.

There’s a crash somewhere outside, but not near enough yet to interrupt them. There’s a tenseness in the air that won’t leave; there’s something between gratefulness and frustration lurking around them, and—

“Someday, I’d like to live a life where I don’t have to be rescued by someone,” Jin Guangyao says, softly but tinged with resentment. “Or where my actions don’t disgust you—”

“I never said I was disgusted with you—”

“Maybe not this time, but—”

“You have the capability to do terrible things for the sake of so much, but I know that you truly want what’s best for people,” Lan Xichen says, before Jin Guangyao can interrupt him again, before they can misunderstand each other any more than they already do, and it’s all he can do not to snap. They should have had this conversation months ago, in the limited privacy of Lan Xichen’s room and with calmer tempers, but he is finding that the only real way to get Jin Guangyao to be fully honest is when he’s in a situation that’s spiraling out of his control. So here they are, barely concealed and emotions high, while fire and chaos creeps ever closer. “Please stop assuming I’m going to change my mind about you, A-Yao.”

He doesn’t answer, not at first, and the shadows of a low-burning candle stretch across his face while he thinks. Jin Guangyao weighs all his choices before making them, if he can, and Lan Xichen trusts that he is carefully measuring just how much he’s tearing at the emotions in his heart. “And what if even with good intentions, there’s bloodshed?”

“Then I would like to keep believing that you have a reason for it,” Lan Xichen tells him, the same honest answer that it’s always been with him, because after seemingly endless years, Lan Xichen still chooses to trust and love him, for all his faults and skills alike.

Jin Guangyao looks like a terrifyingly skilled danger and he laughs warmly, fondly, and pulls Lan Xichen down for the briefest of kisses. “Sometimes I wonder if Zewu-Jun plays favorites,” he teases gently.

“Only on occasion,” he says back, just as fondly, and Jin Guangyao drags him into the night.