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It’s been almost two weeks since Lan Xichen found Jin Guangyao tied to that altar in Yunmeng, and the desperate dying clarity that he felt then has broadened into a brighter, clearer focus. The body that he could not bear to consider is recovering. Sometimes he forgets his pain long enough to be startled when the ache begins again. His eyesight has returned. The flow of qi through his body is thin and weak, a stream where once it was a flood, but it moves. He moves, and he can see the little details that were not obvious to him before. For example: Jin Guangyao is afraid of him. 

It’s late afternoon, the sun slanting in through the wide windows, and Jin Guangyao is packing. He’s ordered some small snacks for the trip ahead, and he’s tidying up the medicines he brought from the Cloud Recesses, and he’s straightening the jars and sealing them shut, and in every action he takes, he’s so aware of Lan Xichen’s place in the room. He’s so careful, and he’s so scared. Since that night when they discussed their next set of actions, he’s been in total retreat, never saying a word that could be misconstrued, never testing a boundary. 

Lan Xichen concedes him the room. He heads outdoors to their private section of the hot springs and sits by the murmuring water. That first week here he did nothing but sleep, heavy with pain, his body paying in days for those few hours he spent flying away from the Cloud Recesses. But at last he’s paid that debt, and his body is not healed, but it is healing. It is no longer dying as fast as it was, and within a few weeks he thinks he can achieve core stability. 

While he was sleeping, Jin Guangyao haunted his rooms, a skittish ghost that appeared in the night to offer him food and water. Now that he is awake, he marks the changes in Jin Guangyao: the way he carefully maintains their distance, careful not to circle too close. The way he flinches when Lan Xichen touches him, and the way he hides that flinch behind a too-bright smile.

It’s not an issue that can be addressed with words; Lan Xichen will simply have to wait. Lan Xichen sat with Jin Guangyao’s death and the ruin of everything he ever made for five years, but Jin Guangyao’s only had a week. And slowly, very slowly, he’s coming around. Perhaps Lan Xichen should be worried that Jin Guangyao is obviously making plans, but he’s not. 

He’s relieved. 

They’re leaving the hot springs tomorrow morning, and flying to a cave nearby. After that… Lan Xichen doesn’t know. They haven’t discussed it. The coast is blocked to them, as is the north. The world is wide and life is long, but where to begin? Lan Xichen doesn’t know, but it’s a refreshing uncertainty. 

For so long his life has been bounded by grief, the future unpleasantly certain, every day in the Cloud Recesses the same as the last. But now the song is new. Even if it turns out badly, even if it’s a failure, he’s grateful to be living with a little uncertainty again. Maybe, with a little luck, the world could be beautiful again someday. 

He meditates, chasing the connection between his consciousness and his body, feeling the great wide cycles of the trees beside him and the air above, and when he opens his eyes again Jin Guangyao is beside him. 

“A-Yao,” Lan Xichen says.

“Zewu-jun,” Jin Guangyao says. “I’m finished packing.”

“Thank you,” Lan Xichen says. “I’ll pack the next time, and try not to rip the wrapping.” Jin Guangyao looks startled, and then he laughs. 

“Surely you’ve learned how to work with fabric by now, Zewu-jun.”

“There’s only one way to find out,” Xichen replies. 

Jin Guangyao presses his lips together in the not-smile that’s a better indication of his amusement than his actual smile is. Five years apart, and in the week that they’ve been together Lan Xichen has already recovered his knowledge of Jin Guangyao’s expressions. That nervous smile, the way those eyelashes flutter and those eyes gaze modestly at the floor: these expressions are engraved in him, traced into his memories by years and years of habit. 

They sit together in silence beside the hot spring, the water bubbling and rising and shifting with the wind, and in time Jin Guangyao sighs and glances sideways at Lan Xichen. 

“Zewu-jun,” he says. “You’ve been very kind to me, kinder than I deserve.” Interesting. Jin Guangyao is gearing up to tell Xichen something he doesn’t think Lan Xichen will want to hear. He waits, and Jin Guangyao continues: “Your character is very loyal, as noble as the plum which blooms in the winter.” This sentence is a pretty piece of decorative garbage and it has only come out because Jin Guangyao is so nervous about what he’s about to say. 

“I don’t want you to live your life unhappy,” Jin Guangyao says, and this at least seems true. If nothing else, Lan Xichen’s unhappiness would be inconvenient for Jin Guangyao, who prefers everything smooth and frictionless and peaceful. If only Jin Guangyao had been a  little more brave, a little more willing to brave displeasure in the name of honesty, if only- but now’s not the time to think of that. 

“I know that you were not happy in the Cloud Recesses. But will you be happy on the road with me? I cannot give you the companionship a man has the right to expect from a partner.” Ah, there it is. Jin Guangyao is looking for a way to tell Lan Xichen he doesn’t want to fuck him. Lan Xichen’s expression must let something slip, because Jin Guangyao starts to spit out excuses. 

“Back in Gusu, you could-”

“A-Yao,” Lan Xichen says, and Jin Guangyao goes quiet. “A week before you returned from the dead, I did not think I would live another week. I was ready to die in the Cloud Recesses, the victim of some unknown core disease.” Lan Xichen has seen Jin Guangyao react to being slapped full across the face, and his reaction now is the same. His reaction is to don a mask, to smooth his face, as if the worst thing in the world would be to let the attacker know he’s been hurt. But Lan Xichen knows.

“My expectations for my life and for myself have grown smaller and smaller. I suppose every cultivator dreams of having a partner, someone to share their ideas and their life. But I don’t expect anything more of you than the friendship we’ve already shared over the years.” Lan Xichen pauses and amends his statement. “I suppose I would appreciate a little more honesty than what I’ve received over the years.”

“I’m sorry,” Jin Guangyao says. Even now, Lan Xichen’s first instinct is to tell him not to apologize. Jin Guangyao apologized for so many things that weren’t his fault in the years before Guanyin Temple, and never once for the things that actually mattered. He ignores the apology as another piece of verbal detritus.

“I can only help you if you are honest with me. Tell where your problems are, and I will defend you. But you have to tell me.”

He lets the full weight of his gaze rest on Jin Guangyao, and as expected, Jin Guangyao flinches. But after he flinches, he looks back up.  He looks at Lan Xichen’s face like he’s searching for something, and Lan Xichen lets him look. 

“Thank you,” Jin Guangyao says at last, and there’s a tremble in his voice. What beautiful acting, or what exquisite pain! Lan Xichen doesn’t know the difference anymore; he doesn’t even know if there is a difference. 

“That’s not a promise to tell me,” Lan Xichen says, and sighs, not wanting to hear Jin Guangyao’s defense. “No, don’t bother.”

Jin Guangyao is hurt for a moment, and then the hurt smoothes away, vanished to whatever place Jin Guangyao keeps his hurts until he can take them out and examine them. 

“Zewu-jun,” he says. 

“Do you want me to go with you?” Lan Xichen asks. “Think about it. Not the answer you think I want, but the answer you want.”

Jin Guangyao hesitates. His face is flushed, unhappy. The tips of his ears are red, betraying him in a way his old body never did. 

“Do you really want to protect me?” he asks at last. “Even knowing what I’ve done?”

“How could we do worse?” 

“You’re really…” Jin Guangyao trails off. “You’re really too good.”

When Lan Xichen was very young, he overheard some people discussing his transparent face, the way it was always very apparent when he was sad, no matter how much he smiled. After that he spent years refining his face, changing his smile into something smooth and unremarkable. Here, sitting by the hot springs with the love he murdered, he lets the bitterness shine through in his expression. 

“If you really believe that, why did you come here to ask if I was going to ruin our relationship by being horny?”

Jin Guangyao looks like Lan Xichen just stepped on his foot, hard. “I didn’t- I-” He glances away. “I don’t want you to expect something I can’t give.” 

“We’ve been ‘companions’ for years,” Lan Xichen says dryly. 

“You know what I mean,” Jin Guangyao says, flushed, almost pouting. It’s a little cruel of Lan Xichen to tease Jin Guangyao like this, but doesn’t he deserve a little cruelty? He’s a grown man, he knows what fucking is. Jin Guangyao’s face is flush with unhappiness. 

“You’ve changed,” he manages. Lan Xichen is tempted to say ‘no, I knew what fucking was before you died’. He does not. 

“You’ve changed too,” he says instead, and politely looks away to give Jin Guangyao some time to compose himself. It takes a while. 

Finally, Jin Guangyao says: “I’ve really been so foolish.” 

Lan Xichen can’t argue with that. He watches the sadness move over Jin Guangyao’s face, and when he’s had enough of it he leans in. Jin Guangyao’s attention fixes on his face, his whole body turned towards Lan Xichen, attuned and waiting.

“Tits,” Lan Xichen says gravely. 

Jin Guangyao stares at him in shock, and then bursts into horrified laughter. “Zewu-jun, that’s not- I’m-”

“Horny,” Lan Xichen says, straight-faced. “Fuck.”

Jin Guangyao has a coughing fit that turns into a fit of laughter. “I- no- please. Stop.  We’ve known each other for ten years and I’ve never heard you say that word.” 

“Did you think I didn’t know it?”

“N-no, obviously not.”

Lan Xichen shakes his head, amused. It’s strange to think that he’s leaving behind his headband, his restraint, all his rules. But he’s run away. He’s free. He’s sold so much else to make Jin Guangyao happy, so what’s a little dignity? He lets the conversation meander to an end before delivering his finishing blow. 

“Dick,” Lan Xichen says solemnly, and Jin Guangyao slips on the wet stones and nearly goes into the spring. Lan Xichen catches him and hauls him up, grinning.. It’s stupid, the kind of stupid that he’s never gotten to indulge in, the kind of stupid he’s supposed to be better than. He doesn’t care, because Jin Guangyao is smiling at him, really smiling. 

 

They have a night of separated sleep, Lan Xichen sunk into the pillows, and in the morning they pay and make the final ascent out of the hot springs. They rise through fog and mist, and then they’re above the clouds, and there’s nothing but bright, merciless sky. Lan Xichen stands on Shuoyue, and Jin Guangyao sits, nervous and pretending he’s not nervous. He gives directions with one hand white-knuckled and tight around Shuoyue’s hilt, and Lan Xichen doesn’t mention it. 

Xue Yang’s lair is on the edge of Gusu, tucked into the side of a small mountain. Jin Guangyao wobbles a little when they touch down, and he hugs the wall of the cliff like he’s grateful to touch something solid. He can fly without his sword. Lan Xichen knows he can. He also knows that Jin Guangyao isn’t good at flying; he came late to cultivation and it shows. It would be easy to say something cruel, to remind Jin Guangyao of his inferior ability.  Instead, he places his hand on Jin Guangyao’s lower back and gently escorts him into the overhang. 

“We should get you a new sword,” Lan Xichen suggests. 

“I’d love that,” Jin Guangyao mutters. It’s a foggy day, and the thick layers of cloud give the impression of an infinite drop, as if you could step off the edge and never stop falling. “Did I ever tell you about how I got my sword?”

“You mentioned it once,” Lan Xichen says. The memory is hazy, obscured by time and distance and the fact that both of them were drunk at the time. Jin Guangyao looks surprised. 

“I did?”

“We were drunk,” Lan Xichen says. In truth, he doesn’t remember what was said, only that it was about the sword. Mostly, he remembers the smile that bloomed on Jin Guangyao’s face, the way he clung to Lan Xichen’s sleeves. He’d been stressed about something that night, and Lan Xichen remembers promising him that it would be fine, but he doesn’t remember why. 

Jin Guangyao’s shoulders slump, just a little, and he looks out over the sea of fog, avoiding Lan Xichen’s eyes. Strangely, the little display makes Lan Xichen more certain that Jin Guangyao is telling the truth. 

“It was before the Sunshot Campaign,” Jin Guangyao begins. “I was still working as an assistant in the camp.” He isn’t mentioning Nie Mingjue. That’s probably for the best. “I didn’t have a sword. I couldn’t afford one. And then one day, the day after we’d cleaned out a haunted graveyard, I woke up and Hensheng was lying next to my bed. At first I thought it was a prank, a plot to accuse me of trying to steal someone else’s spiritual weapon.” There’s a sad, distant look in his eyes. “So I threw it away. But it came back. And after a few times, I stopped throwing it away.”  Jin Guangyao smiles bitterly. “People treat you differently when you have a sword. At the time, this still surprised me.” 

When Lan Xichen turned fifteen, his uncle took him down to the swordsmith of Gusu, and he received his sword in the same way that generations of Lan cultivators have received their swords. He still remembers the first time he held Shuoyue and knew that it was his, that it was made for him. Even now, he can feel it like an extension of his body, like a note held on the tip of his tongue. 

“I would never have guessed that Hensheng wasn’t your spiritual weapon.”

“It was always very responsive,” Jin Guangyao says. “It never disobeyed. It wasn’t a sword like the swords that you have, of course. A soft sword isn’t a weapon you can block with. But it was good enough to pretend with.” His lips press together ever so slightly, and Lan Xichen can tell that he’s recalling something, but he can’t guess what. Draped in fog, he looks like a ghost, like something from a half-remembered nightmare. 

“Do you know what happened to my sword?” he asks. 

“It went missing after Guanyin temple,” Lan Xichen says. 

“Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me,” Jin Guangyao says. He sighs. “Perhaps it’ll come back to me. Until then…” He turns to the cliff wall. A dim light blossoms in his hand, and he scrawls talismans in golden light.

The cliff opens. Stone slides away, revealing a twisting, winding passage down into the dark. Is it a good idea for Lan Xichen to journey down into the darkness? Certainly not. He doesn’t want to think about Xue Yang and his monstrous joy and the things he and Jin Guangyao did together down in the dark. But he doesn’t want to look away either. 

“Come here,” Jin Guangyao says gently, retrieving a square of cloth from his sleeve. He slides it over Lan Xichen’s ears, and despite everything, Lan Xichen feels his ears growing hot at the closeness. Jin Guangyao’s wrists are as delicate in this body as they ever were, and there’s a part of Lan Xichen that wants to bite down on his pulse and never let go. 

“Xue Yang thought it was funny to make people inhale things they shouldn’t inhale,” Jin Guangyao says, and traces a shape on the cloth. It’s a complicated little talisman,  a combination of the incantation used to repel dust and the incantation used to purify poisons. It’s a clever combination, and Lan Xichen gets a better look at it when Jin Guangyao slides a veil over his own face. The filmy cloth makes him more of a stranger than he’s ever been, and then his eyelashes flutter and tip downwards, and in that gesture Lan Xichen knows him instantly. He calls a golden light to his hand, and down into the dark they go. 

It’s not a long walk, but it’s winding, and at every step Jin Guangyao’s breathing grows shallower and his shoulders grow more tense. Lan Xichen is tempted to ask if he’s pretending, and if so, who he’s pretending for.  He doesn’t, but he keeps his grip firm on his sword. Does he love Jin Guangyao? Yes. He loves him enough to die with him here in this sideways tomb, loves him enough not to want to let go. In the end, he’s not any better than the grasping thing that Nie Mingjue became. 

They emerge into a wide main cavern, and Jin Guangyao’s breathing calms at last. It evens out into silence, and it’s just them and the wide, empty main room. 

“Someone’s been here,” Jin Guangyao says, surveying the cavern.

 

The ceiling is oddly high, the room filled with shadows, broken pieces of wood littered here and there. Jin Guangyao hums, and the sound of his voice draws an answering energy from arrays within the walls. High above their heads, stones blaze into light, bringing the cavern into sharp relief. 

Lan Xichen can see that there were bookshelves along the walls once, and a table. The shelves are empty now, half-destroyed, the stone table left because it was too heavy to carry away and too sturdy to destroy. There are nicks on the ground where someone dragged something out. 

“Xue Yang had Wei Wuxian’s notes,” Jin Guangyao says, frowning. “He spent a lot of time decoding them, examining them. Creating his own techniques, and refining the old ones. If someone found his notes…” He trails off. One of his hands is around his wrist- reaching for something? No. Touching the bruises the shackles left on him.

“Do you think the people who brought you to life are the same as the people who raided this cave?” Lan Xichen asks. 

“It’s certainly possible. Even if they didn’t directly find this place, the notes might have been sold on the black market.” He and Lan Xichen do a circuit of the cavern, finding nothing but ashes and empty bookshelves. There’s broken glass and broken porcelain, and the lingering aftertaste of resentment. Even after all these years, there are no spiders and no insects, as if all living things have entirely forsaken this place. 

“What was here before?” 

“Trinkets and books. Trophies. I believe Xue Yang kept it mostly because it amused him to own something in your territory.” There’s something like an apology in Jin Guangyao’s expression. Lan Xichen ignores it. 

They circle back to the main cavern, where Jin Guangyao stops and surveys the empty floor, a dissatisfied look on his face. The room is harsh with strange shadows, and they make something formidable and sharo out of Jin Guangyao’s new, youthful face. Lit like this, he looks more like the monster gossip speaks of than the man that Lan Xichen knew. 

“I wonder if they found everything?” he murmurs, but he’s not really talking to Lan Xichen. Lan Xichen wonders what he did in this cavern, what he saw here.  How many times did Jin Guangyao stop by this cave on his way back from Gusu, abandoning Lan Xichen’s company for this shadowed, secret place?

“I’m going to try to activate one of the transportation arrays,” Jin Guangyao says, and waits for Lan Xichen to nod before acting. He pulls a needle from his hair with all the elegance of an assassin, and draws a pinprick of blood from one finger. Lan Xichen stands next to him as he scrawls a quick set of characters on the wall. It’s nonsense- ‘of people’?- but the effect is immediate. 

The lights go out. There’s a sound that isn’t a sound, a shriek of resentment that screams and scrapes and shudders down Lan Xichen’s spine. There’s a rumble like rock against rock, and Jin Guangyao steps closer to Lan Xichen. The roof makes an unsteady sound. 

Then it falls. 

If Lan Xichen were someone else, anyone else, anyone but a cultivator of the first rank, he’d be crushed. As it is, the weight startles and overwhelms him, making his knees buckle and his whole body tremble. The collapse seems to go on forever, weight after weight, stone after stone, trapped in the center of a sound that shudders and trembles and reverberates in his lungs. He’s blind in the cavernous dark, unable to see the things that fall and strike him, at the mercy of the terrible weight of the mountain. 

He can’t see Jin Guangyao. Even when the sounds finally fade and he finds that he can hear himself again, no sound reveals itself to him.  “A-Yao?” he calls. His voice is muffled, trapped. Even to himself, he sounds desperate. “A-Yao?”

“Er-ge,” Jin Guangyao calls, and he sounds terrified. “Er-ge, where are you?”

“Light a talisman,” Lan Xichen grunts out, his attention overwhelmingly focused on the weight pressing down on his head. A light splutters to light in the darkness. Jin Guangyao wasn’t far from him, and he’s close now. There’s blood on his face, but he’s not dead. He stares at Lan Xichen, wide-eyed, scared, frozen in place like a junior on their first-night hunt. It’s not like him at all. 

“Help me support this,” Lan Xichen grunts, and it seems to jolt Jin Guangyao out of some kind of trance. He scrambles to Lan Xichen, pushing aside smaller bits of stone and rock to make a support. Lan Xichen’s shoulders are trembling, his spine protesting the sudden weight, his body burning through qi at a terrible pace to sustain his strength. But his strength holds. 

At last Jin Guangyao manages to stack up some support for the stone slab on Lan Xichen’s back,  and Lan Xichen is finally able to lower his arms. His body is aching, his muscles cramped and aching and protesting, his breath coming faster than he’d prefer. Under ideal circumstances he can hold his breath for a very long time, but these are not ideal circumstances, not at all. 

“Are you…” Jin Guangyao says, and his nostrils flare. Has he hit his head? His facial expression is unfocused, his eyes glossy. They’ve got to get out of here. It occurs to Lan Xichen belatedly that if Jin Guangyao wanted to kill Lan Xichen, he’s just missed his chance, but Jin Guangyao doesn’t look like he wants to kill anyone, not at all. 

“Er-ge,” Jin Guangyao says, and then he’s pressing closer to Lan Xichen, clinging to him. Have they ever hugged like this before? Lan Xichen hugs back. It’s the wrong move. Jin Guangyao goes completely limp. He makes a small whimpering noise that Lan Xichen has never heard him make before. 

When Lan Xichen lets go of him, he finds that Jin Guangyao has bitten his lip so hard that blood is streaming down his chin. 

“A-Yao,” Lan Xichen says, and Jin Guangyao shudders. When he looks up, he doesn’t even seem to see Lan Xichen at all. 

“No,” he says. He backs up, hits stone, and makes a small, horrible noise. 

“A-Yao,” Lan Xichen says urgently. “Which way is the entrance? Where did we come in?” It’s hard to see anything in the dim light, the talismans around them flickering and dying. Jin Guangyao is cringing, caught up in something that Lan Xichen can’t see. Did one of Xue Yang’s illusions catch him? 

“Which way is the entrance?” Lan Xichen says. “A-Yao!” Jin Guangyao jerks like he’s been hit. His hands come up and clutch at Lan Xichen’s sleeve, and his eyes squeeze shut.

“Hum something for me,” he says. 

“What?”

“Just do it!”

Mystified, Lan Xichen begins to hum the Ballad of Lan An under his breath. It’s the first song he was ever taught and the first song he ever taught to Wangji. It’s a familiar song, one he can reach for even here in the dark, with stones settling all around them. He hums even as panic and pain set in, every breath harder to draw than the last, the air around them growing increasingly stale. 

“This way,” Jin Guangyao says at last, picking a direction in the darkness. They shift past rocks and boulders, picking through the ruins as they grow increasingly dark and airless until at last- Lan Xichen feels the faint breeze of the wind. Wordless, he and Jin Guangyao increase their pace until they emerge out into the fog of the day. 

Jin Guangyao staggers to the edge of the mountain and flops to his knees, kneeling at the edge of the void. Behind him, Lan Xichen stands with his forearm braced against the wall and just breathes. The mountain air smells of water and pine, and it’s a gift to Lan Xichen’s starved lungs. He lets himself stand and just breathe, savoring the rise and fall of his chest. Slowly, so slowly, his limbs recover. The ache in his back begins to fade. His breaths begin to even out. The hot wash of terror bleeds away, and relief floods over him.

He’s alive. He’s alive, and the relief of it sets him to laughing. Even when Jin Guangyao turns to look at him in mute confusion, the laughter persists. He laughs until the sound echoes from the mountains and Jin Guangyao’s expression has moved from terror to mild annoyance. He looks so little, the blood from his spit lip dripping down his neck into his collar, and despite everything, Lan Xichen loves him. Lan Xichen still loves him. 

He hands his sword to Jin Guangyao, half-worried that his friend might tumble into the abyss without a sword to cling to, and Jin Guangyao takes it wordlessly. He sits still and patient as Lan Xichen retrieves a square of dark cloth from a qiankun bag and wipes away the blood on his neck. 

“What was so funny?” Jin Guangyao asks timidly. 

“I was just happy to be out,” Lan Xichen replies honestly, and Jin Guangyao shudders. His fingers are white-knuckled on Shuoyue. 

“I remember some of it. My time in the coffin.” He’s not looking at Lan Xichen.  “When the cave collapsed, for a moment I thought I was back inside.”

He doesn’t say what it was like inside the coffin, but Lan Xichen can extrapolate from the cave collapse. Trapped, hemmed in on all sides, alone in the airless dark- no, not alone. Locked in with the thing that Nie Mingjue became, a monstrous hulk powered by hatred and rage. Can spirits think? Can they feel pain? Or was Jin Guangyao simply locked into the suffering of that moment, reliving the same terror over and over?

“I won’t let them put you back in that coffin,” Lan Xichen tells him. 

Jin Guangyao looks like he’s going to cry. He’s got Shuoyue in his arms, holding onto it like a child with a favored toy, and Lan Xichen isn’t going to be the one to tell him to stop. “I really did want you to come,” he bursts out. “Everything is terrible. You’re the only one I have left.”

“I wanted to come,” Lan Xichen tells him. 

“Why?” 

There are a lot of things Lan Xichen could say, but only a few of them are useful. “I’ve always wanted to be a wandering cultivator,” he says instead. “I used to daydream about it as a child when I got sick of all the rules.” The memory of his childish daydreams makes him smile wistfully. “I would never have run away, but I wanted to. I wanted it so badly. No more punishments, no more politics, no more lessons. Just freedom, real freedom. The ability to go wherever I wanted and do whatever I wanted. My brother and I, doing nothing but good.”

He doesn’t say that in his favorite daydreams, his mother was still alive and travelling with him. Even back then, he knew that it was impossible, but it didn’t change the text of the dreams. His mother never saw him receive his sword, never saw him earn any of his accolades, but at every milestone he thought of her. 

“I never wanted to be a wandering cultivator,” Jin Guangyao says. “I loved being a Sect Leader.” There’s something raw in his voice, as if it cost him immeasurably to admit it. 

“Let’s make our own sect,” Lan Xichen says. He says it on a whim, but the moment the words leave his mouth, they feel real. They could, couldn’t they? They could start their own sect. Lan Xichen’s mind provides him with a disorganized jumble of images, with disciples in blue and gold robes, with the image of some small temple somewhere, of Jin Guangyao as he was in Lanling, dressed in his robes, speaking kindly to the disciples. 

“Our own sect,” Jin Guangyao repeats. He shifts closer to Lan Xichen, and their fingers overlap, just a little. It’s the faintest touch, but it’s there. It’s real.  

“I’d like that,” he says. “First, though, I think you’ll get your wish of being a wandering cultivator.”

“Lucky me,” Lan Xichen says, and finds that he means his smile. Jin Guangyao shakes his head ever so slightly. 

“Lan Xichen, you make me glad to be alive.”

The sun overhead has burned away some of the fog, and beneath the clouds the tips of the trees can be seen in all their shades of green. The birds are drifting on the wind, and Lan Xichen’s mind is full of half-formed ideas of his own sect. Of their sect. It’s a small hope, so small, smaller than a seed, but he clings to it. Here on the edge of the cliff, looking out at the vast beauty of the world, he can believe that despite himself and despite his love, it might still be possible to do some good in the world.