Jin Guangyao keeps mistaking his reflection for a stranger. It’s an easy mistake to make- he’ll be lying in the hot springs, or making his way through the hall, and he’ll spot unfamiliar features in a reflection and reflexively smile at nothing. His face is a shield, but against who? There’s no one here. It’s just him and his stolen body and his grief.
He sits with his feet in the water and the moon overhead and listens to the incomprehensible whispers of the wind. Lan Xichen has taken them to an exquisite little hot springs resort half a day’s flight from Gusu, an expensive, fussy, delicate place, the last place anyone would look for fugitives. The servants here are like shadows, passing unseen and paid enough to see nothing, and so no one bothers them. Lan Xichen sleeps day and night, recovering from illness and love, and so Jin Guangyao is alone.
He hasn’t been so alone in nearly a decade; he chooses not to count out the exact number of days. Is this power, or the lack of power? As Lord of Koi Tower he was constantly swarmed with attention, because the whole city rose and fell with the rhythm of his breath. But he was no less busy as Meng Yao, Nie Mingjue’s trusted lieutenant, or as Meng Yao, torturer and spy, or as Meng Yao, Meng Shi’s beloved son. His whole life has been an exercise in forward motion, and here he is. Still at last.
All that climbing, just to fall again.
It’s been five days since he emerged gasping on the altar into this new body. Five days to practice his new face, five days to mourn for the position and the power that he cultivated for decades and lost in a week. Lost to Nie Huaisang, of all people! There’s a fine rage trembling beneath his skin, but it’s a candle floating on the sea of his grief. Jin Guangyao is dead. Meng Yao is dead, and in his place is a nothing cultivator, an outlaw on the run.
All those years, all those decades, all the times he didn’t flinch and all the times he did, all annihilated for the grudge of a man who’s been coddled and adored since the moment he was born. But it was never about Jin Guangyao, was it? Nie Huaisang did this for his dear, beloved Da-ge, that awful lumbering thing who crushed Jin Guangyao’s spine in one hand.
Jin Guangyao gave Nie Huaisang nothing but kindness and opportunity and was repaid in blood. But what did he expect? Not a single Nie or Jin or Jiang has ever understood Jin Guangyao’s value, no matter how many times he explained. Cultivators don’t know how to love anyone but themselves.
He steps into the hot spring, the heat like a dull pain. He’s still trying out this body, testing what works and what doesn’t. His limbs are longer. The round, sweet face he inherited from his mother is no more, replaced with something younger and more sharp. The high set of his cheekbones and the sly slant of his face won’t do him any favors with Lan Xichen, but it’s a good face. It could grow into something beautiful.
Who was this man, this child? What was his name? Why did he end his life tied to an altar, struggling against his bonds? Someone put Jin Guangyao here. Someone went through a lot of trouble to pry him free from Nie Mingjue’s body, but why? He has no doubt that he’ll find out. His mind in this body is someone’s investment, and they’ll want it back.
They can come and get it.
He rises out of the spring, water streaming over his bare thighs, and goes to pour himself a drink. It’s a lovely hot spring. During the day the bright flowers reflect on the glossy rocks, and at night the moon reflects in the still pools like a glorious ornament. It’s a quiet place, a still place, the perfect place for two injured cultivators to sit and recover their energy.
Jin Guangyao could slit Lan Xichen’s throat with only the barest of effort and flee into the wilds, never to be found again. It would be fair, if anything is fair. It would be the honest repayment of the sword that traversed the space between his ribs and sent him to his first death. It would be the death of the man Jin Guangyao was, the final acknowledgement that in the end Nie Mingjue was correct.
He’s thought about it. Every night when he’s entered their shared room to murmur polite lies to his roommate, he’s found himself weighing the costs and benefits of freedom. He could put down his name; he could become someone else, someone who’s never been a whore’s son.
But then what? Revenge? Jin Guangyao could be in Nie territory by the end of the week, and he could have Nie Huaisang’s head in his hand within the month. But his enemies only begin with the Nie Clan, and the list is very long. If he killed them all, he’d be ruler of a pile of bodies. It’s a lovely thought, a thought that he holds like an ember in his heart, a foolish, implausible dream. There are simply more people deserving of death than Jin Guangyao could ever hope to kill.
But if not revenge, then what? Lan Xichen’s beautiful corpse dumped in a ditch to cover for another decade of hiding? More smiling and striving just to try and reach the position he’s already had? The thought makes him half-sick with rage.
He stares into the glossy surface of the water, and hates the distorted outline of his stolen face so much he can barely stand it. Without Lan Xichen he’d come apart completely. It aches to enter that room and see his Er-ge lying flat on the bed, and know that Jin Guangyao did this to him, but everything hurts. There is no option that does not include present and future pain. Without Lan Xichen he’d be unmoored, adrift in the rise and fall of his thoughts. Lan Xichen is the only thing he’s carried over from all the fury and effort of his previous years (was it really so long ago?)
No, he won’t kill Lan Xichen.
The thought brings him as close to peace as he’s been since he stumbled back into life. Dear, beautiful, stupid Zewu-jun, unmatched among cultivators, so different from the man who sleeps in their shared bedroom, five years of silence heavy on his face. The man who brought Jin Guangyao to these hot springs and paid for their rooms still has all the shimmering glory of a pearl, but he’s been carved down. There are edges in his face that weren’t there before, cracks and fissures in a formerly perfect facade. A cracked tool, but Jin Guangyao’s tool, his to repair and his to use. Throwing him away would only be stupid.
Besides, a little voice whispers to Jin Guangyao, he loves you. Jin Guangyao has always loved being loved. As he sits in the spring, the bright moon above and the waters below, the sound of music filters to him from the house. It’s a slow sequence, the notes low enough to be lost on the wind and water. It’s a conversation, a slow back and forth between the living and the dead. Curious, Jin Guangyao rises from the water, dresses, and returns to their lodgings.
When he enters, Lan Xichen is seated on the floor, his guqin in front of him, his flute pressed to his mouth. He is playing inquiry. On every other occasion when Jin Guangyao has entered this room, Lan Xichen has been flat on his back, asleep or attempting to sleep, weighed down by illness. But tonight he’s awake, and every note he plays is perfectly steady, a performance delivered by a master. Jin Guangyao folds his legs beneath him and listens. When the song has ended, Lan Xichen turns that calm gaze on Jin Guangyao and smiles.
Ah, what a smile.
How could anyone allow this to happen to Lan Xichen? How could anyone, even a clan as rich as the Lans, be so blind as to let such a treasure fall to ruin and neglect? Look at this beauty. Look at the way his night-dark hair falls against the pale sweep of his neck. Look at the triangle of bare skin where his robes meet. Look at this man, destroyed by love.
“My brother and his husband are on the coast,” Lan Xichen announces. “They think we are trying to reach Dongying.” A thought occurs to Jin Guangyao, and Lan Xichen plucks it from his face. “Don’t worry. Wei Wuxian naturally attracts the attention of the dead, but they have no such attraction to us. I will always be able to find him, but the reverse is not true.”
“Zewu-jun’s technique is impressive as always,” Jin Guangyao murmurs, angling his head down. He doesn’t know what Lan Xichen’s reaction to being called Er-ge would be, and he doesn’t want to find out.
“Zewu-jun has done nothing but sleep for three days.”
“You’ve been sick,” Jin Guangyao protests. Even now, caught as he is in his fury and his exhaustion, he’s pleased to note that his old habits are still with him. He can still lie- not with his words, which are true, but his face and his body and his nervous smile.
“I have been sick,” Lan Xichen says mildly. “But many people recover from being sick, while few recover from being dead. It must be quite difficult.”
Is that a joke? The old Lan Xichen would never have said something so plainly, not in a situation like this. He might have said it late at night, after having had a very small, very illicit amount of alcohol, alone with Jin Guangyao in his rooms… Jin Guangyao has hesitated slightly too long.
“I’m teasing you,” Lan Xichen says gently. He waves his guqin away, leaving only empty space between them. “How are you, A-Yao?”
In Jin Guangyao’s last memory of Lan Xichen, he’s furious and heartbroken, a man visibly shattering under an immense strain. This Lan Xichen is different. While Jin Guangyao was dead, Lan Xichen was changing, diminished and polished by a grief that’s covered him like snow. How strange, to look at Lan Xichen’s polite smile, and not know what it means. After all these years, they are strangers again.
“My injuries are healing,” Jin Guangyao says, and draws back the hem of his robe with two fingers to reveal the fading green-yellow bruises that bracket his wrists. When Jin Guangyao woke to his new life, the ropes were already around his wrists and he knew without needing to be told that this body was not given voluntarily. Whoever he was before, he fought until the end.
“I hate to see you injured,” Lan Xichen says quietly.
“I’m healing quickly,” Jin Guangyao assures him. “Truly, I couldn’t imagine a better place to convalesce.” This, at least, is true. Between the hot springs, the healthy food, and the attentive servants, Jin Guangyao has had nothing but the best of care.
“It’s lovely here,” Lan Xichen says, smiling. “No names, no bystanders, no witnesses. No one to bother us.” It’s an unsettling sentence, and an unsettling smile. What does Lan Xichen want?
“It is lovely,” Jin Guangyao agrees, not knowing quite what to say. The conversation is dragging, weighed down by platitudes, and yet- Jin Guangyao doesn’t know what’s safe to say. “How are you feeling?” he asks.
“Better,” Lan Xichen says. “My core will take a few years to return to its original state, I’m afraid, but it’s no longer unbalanced.” His smile dips into something more sincere. “In fact, may I trouble A-Yao for a favor?”
“Of course,” Jin Guangyao says.
“Allow me to share some spiritual energy with you,” Lan Xichen says. “It will help speed your healing, and help me to increase the capacity of my golden core.”
Jin Guangyao has no choice but to duck his head, though he hates it. He’s been outmaneuvered. “If that’s what Zewu-jun thinks is best.”
It’s not even a bad idea. It will be good for this body, which is depleted from the ritual, and good for Lan Xichen, who needs to practice generating energy from his core. There’s no real reason not to. No reason other than the tender, reverent devotion with which Lan Xichen places his broad palm beneath Jin Guangyao’s fingers and lifts.
“Zewu-jun,” Jin Guangyao says, and he doesn’t need to fake the quaver in his voice. Lan Xichen’s other hand folds gently over Jin Guangyao’s wrist. He could snap Jin Guangyao’s wrist with three fingers, but he doesn’t even press. There’s just the faintest sensation of pressure, and the hot rush of Lan Xichen’s qi.
“Don’t be so tense,” Lan Xichen chides him gently. “Focus on your breath. Feel the weight of your body, the passage of energy through your meridians.”
It’s hard to focus. Jin Guangyao’s had a lot of experience hiding his unease, but everything’s been harder since he entered this body. Every sensation is too strong, every sound too loud, every feeling too much. He doesn’t want to be touched. He doesn’t want Lan Xichen to ask for something that Jin Guangyao doesn’t want to give, and a present is the beginning of negotiations. The touch of a hand is the prelude to other touches, and Jin Guangyao can’t deal with that, not now.
The minutes tick on, brief and interminable, and then Lan Xichen withdraws his hand. He draws back, and then rises, saying that he’ll get them some tea. Leaving Jin Guangyao some space to collect his thoughts. He’s so considerate, so kind, and Jin Guangyao wishes he could crack his skull open and sort through the mysterious substance of his thoughts.
By the time Lan Xichen has returned, Jin Guangyao is armed with some questions.
“Zewu-jun, you’ve paid for these rooms up through the end of the week. How long do you think we should stay?”
“It depends on your health,” Lan Xichen replies. He sets the tea down and begins to pour, lips pressed together. “I don’t think it’s wise to remain in one place for too long, particularly not one so close to Gusu. However, I don’t want to undo the purpose of coming here by leaving too soon.”
Jin Guangyao nods. “But where should we go when we do leave?”
“I’m not sure,” Lan Xichen says. “West. South. Not through any of the major cities. We should be careful of our money, but we can hunt.”
“West,” Jin Guangyao repeats. Away from Lanling, away from Koi Tower, away from the Nightless City. Back into the muddy villages. But where else can he go? Lan Xichen is watching him.
“A-Yao,” he says, and it’s very gentle. “Wherever you go, I will go with you.” Does he mean it? He acts like he means it. Jin Guangyao is wounded, exhausted, furious, grief-stricken, and he finds that he wants to know. He wants to test the edges of Lan Xichen’s armor. What’s he got left to lose?
“Anywhere?” Jin Guangyao asks.
“I would die in Lanling.”
“We would die,” Lan Xichen corrects. “Still, I would go with you.”
There’s no mistaking the sincerity of that tone of voice, and it makes Jin Guangyao feel lower than dirt. Lan Xichen’s face reminds him of the sad serenity of his mother’s face in her final days, and the memory makes him want to vomit. What an idiot he’s been. What a stupid conversation, what a stupid game, what a stupid prize to win. Lan Xichen’s sincere about his love; how awful. Jin Guangyao has to take in a few trembling breaths before he can speak again.
“I don’t want to go to Lanling,” he says, and hates the foreign sound of his voice.
“Good,” Lan Xichen says, and laughs gently at Jin Guangyao’s surprise. “I’ll follow you, but I do have opinions.”
“Naturally,” Jin Guangyao says. He doesn’t want to talk any longer. Lan Xichen sips his tea and Jin Guangyao is happy to do the same. Where should they go? What do they need? Supplies, money? Distance, time?
“I have an idea,” Jin Guangyao says, and pauses to let Lan Xichen know that he’s not entirely sure whether this idea is a good one. They're not far from Gusu, not far from one of the hideouts Xue Yang used to populate with bodies and blood as he wandered through the world. Perhaps there will be something useful there, and perhaps there won't, but it'll be a good way of taking Lan Xichen's temperature, of seeing what he will and won't tolerate. Besides... even if Lan Xichen does love him, it's always important to have an escape strategy, and Xue Yang wasn't the only one who hid things in those caves.
“I know a place close to here. You remember Xue Yang…”
Lan Xichen listens as Jin Guangyao talks. He doesn’t object to Jin Guangyao’s plan to take them to an abandoned, deserted lair, nor does he ask why Xue Yang had a base near Gusu, nor why Jin Guangyao didn’t tell him about this base. He just smiles, and keeps his distance, and when Jin Guangyao is done talking he offers him a snack. When it gets dark he bullies Jin Guangyao into bed and folds the covers over him. They’ve got desperate beds, but not separate bedrooms.
Late that night, when it’s dark and very quiet, Jin Guangyao sits with his hands over his mouth and tries not to sob. When he’s away from Lan Xichen, removed from the radiance of that glowing kindness, alone with his thoughts, then and only then, can he pretend to himself that he could hurt his Er-ge. But here, tucked under the blankets that Lan Xichen put over him, sitting in the inn that Lan Xichen paid for, kept safe by the shield of Lan Xichen’s kindness and Lan Xichen’s virtue, here, in the same room where Lan Xichen sleeps-
He knows that he could never kill Lan Xichen.
It’s not because Lan Xichen loves him, though the knowledge of that aches and stings and terrifies him every time he encounters it in conversation. It’s not a matter of practicality, although Jin Guangyao is very practical. It’s deeper than that. It’s further than their history, further than Guanyin Temple or Koi Tower. Down in Jin Guangyao’s core, in the part of him that he tries not to know, the part that’s always running, always, always, always afraid, he knows-
Lan Xichen is the only one who ever made him feel safe.