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music, theory

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Night sits uneasily on Lanling. The thousand lamps of Koi Tower have all been lit, and they shiver and sway with the cold autumn wind. Winter is coming. The peonies of late summer have come and gone, driven away by the frost, and only the sturdy plum dares to show a single flower. The trade conference is over, and the many steps have seen every half-important Wang or Li make their fawning goodbyes and take to the western wind. After so many days and so many nights of negotiations and speeches and triumphs and defeats, the halls are quiet at last. Tonight the guest rooms sit empty, and the only sound that interrupts the wind is the occasional strum of a single string as the young master of Koi Tower sits and picks at his instrument.

 Jin Ling’s never been a particularly distinguished musician, nor is he an impressive swordsman, a notable statesman, or a renowned scholar. He’s just Jin Ling, and tonight he is keenly aware of every wretched inch of himself.

The trade conference is over, and Jin Ling has failed, as he fails every single year. He has failed to negotiate, failed to properly represent his family, failed to draw an ounce of respect from Lan or from Nie or from Jiang. Nie Huaisang did whatever he wanted, as he does every year, and Lan Wangji looked at him like something to step over when he tried to hold his ground. His uncle was his uncle. Every year, Jiang Cheng promises in his awkward way that this will be the year when Jin Ling is strong enough to hold his own, and every year it is a lie.    

Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi were at the conference. They came with the Lan delegation, that shining crowd, and greeted Jin Ling with all the appropriate honors. During the banquet, they sat at a distant table, not important enough to merit the higher seats, and laughed and smiled and said things to each other that Jin Ling was too far away to hear. From the distance of the high table Jin Ling saw Lan Jingyi yelp and burn his finger, and he saw Lan Sizhui lift that finger to his mouth and tenderly blow over the reddened skin. In that moment, seeing Lan Jingyi wince and laugh with his pale hand clasped delicately between Lan Sizhui’s fingers, Jin Ling had experienced a desire so ravenous it left him nauseous. 

He was still nauseous when the toasts began, and had to choke down the bile half-risen in his throat with his wine as the hall drank to his health. It wouldn’t do for Clan Leader Jin, displayed up on the dais like a captured beast, to vomit during his own birthday celebration.

  He turned twenty that day, and it confirmed to him that no amount of waiting would ever make him the man he wants to be. At twenty Jiang Cheng had already seen Lotus Pier come spiraling down in flames; at twenty Wei Wuxian had already survived the Wen onslaught and founded a new branch of cultivation. At twenty Jiang Yanli had already lived most of her short life, and so had Jin Zixuan. 

At twenty, Jin Ling has survived five assassination attempts, three of them this year, two in the years before. He isn’t sure why the assassins bothered. He went into this trade conference determined to reestablish Lanling’s reputation, to end the constant bickering between the smaller clans that have risen to claim power, and his efforts came to nothing. No one listened. No one cared.

Jin Ling could make them care, if he had the courage to threaten violence and then follow through, if he had the support of any of the minor clans, if he knew that his own guards would not turn against him, if, if, if. If only he knew the landscape of the court better, if he’d listened more closely when his uncle tried to explain why it mattered so much that one person sat here and the other person sat there. But Jin Ling never listened, and now his uncle is dead and there are so many things that Jin Ling doesn’t know. 

He has men, but would those men follow him to war? Would they side with him over his vassals? Does anything tie them to him other than money? And if they didn’t follow him, if he gave an order that was refused, what then? It’s nice to pretend that he would hang himself with a silk string and end his humiliation, but he knows damn well that he would do no such thing. 

Like his uncle before him, all Jin Ling knows how to do is live. 

A knock at the door startles him from his sulking, and he lays down his instrument and calls for his visitors to come in.  Wei Wuxian and Hanguang-jun are here. No one else would come so late. No one else would blow off the discussion conference just for a little night-hunting, and no one else would dare to stride in like this, blood still on the hems of their robes, and flop to the ground next to Jin Ling. Well- Wei Wuxian flops. Hanguang-jun just watches. 

“A-Ling,” Wei Wuxian says brightly. “Whatcha doing still plucking away at that thing?”

“I like it,” Jin Ling says shortly. A very long time ago, before Jin Ling had ever seen one uncle die and another come back to life, Jin Guangyao sat by his side in this very room and patiently taught him to pluck at these strings. Jiang Cheng is and was a bad teacher, bad-tempered and rough, but Jin Guangyao was patient. His attention was infrequent, but when it came it was always a prize, a gift like sunshine in the dead of the winter.  He made Jin Ling feel like his music was something worth playing, something beautiful. 

“I didn’t know that,” Wei Wuxian says, peering into Jin Ling’s face. 

“I don’t play for other people,” Jin Ling says. When Jin Ling grew older, he began to compare himself to other musicians and it took all the joy out of playing. It’s only been in the last couple of years that he’s taken up the guqin again. 

“Aw, not for anyone? How will anyone appreciate you if you don’t show yourself off, A-Ling?”

“I have nothing to show off,” Jin Ling says shortly. 

“Ouch! The trade conference was that bad, huh?”

This is an invitation for Jin Ling to pour out his complaints. It’s an invitation for Wei Wuxian to console him and advise him and ply him with enough wine to make him forget anything. But Jin Ling doesn’t want to be consoled. He doesn’t want Wei Wuxian to clap his hand on Jin Ling’s shoulder and tell him not to worry so much about politics, and to enjoy his life while he’s young, and a million other shitty platitudes that are made worse for being said as Hanguang-jun watches. 

Wei Wuxian always means every word he says, and that just makes it worse. Wei Wuxian doesn’t have to care about things like reputation and prestige, because Wei Wuxian is a war hero and a monster and the most powerful cultivator for a thousand miles. He lives in his prestige like a fish lives in the sea, and if he wants to enjoy his life, who’s going to stop him? But Jin Ling isn’t Wei Wuxian, and he doesn’t have a beautiful Lan that’s married to him, he doesn’t even have the courage to say a word to Lan Jingyi, and. Well. He doesn’t want to hear the platitudes he knows are coming. 

“It wasn’t that bad,” he lies. 

“Really? All those people, all those documents, all that blah blah blah-” Wei Wuxian makes a gesture like a talking puppet with his hands - and it wasn’t that bad?”

“Not any worse than listening to you,” Jin Ling replies, and throws in a little smirk just to make it believable. “I guess I’m just more patient than you.”

A massive smile blooms on Wei Wuxian’s face. “Lan Zhan, did you hear that? Our little Jin Ling is all grown up and going to conferences.”

“I’ve been going to conferences for years,” Jin Ling snaps. It’s true, but it feels like a lie. As a child, he attended conferences, but he did so from behind the shield of Jin Guangyao’s robes and his smile, protected by his uncle’s political power. 

“Yeah, yeah, sure. Look at you.” Wei Wuxian lunges for Jin Ling’s face like he’s planning to pinch his cheek, and Jin Ling, who’s been expecting it, dives out of range. 

“Stop pinching me! Hanguang-jun, control your husband before I kick you both out of Koi Tower.”

“Mm,” Lan Zhan says, which means ‘No.’ Not that anyone can control Wei Wuxian, but if Lan Zhan could, he still wouldn’t.  Jin Ling exhales his annoyance and then waves away his instrument. It floats into the corner of the room to sit on its stand, as delicate and elegant as it was on the day his uncle gave it to him. Perhaps someday he’ll play a song for a Lan, but not today. 

“Aw, you can’t kick us out,” Wei Wuxian says, and it stings because it’s true. All the guards in Lanling couldn’t stop Wei Wuxian; he’s already an army by himself, and he’s not alone. He has Hanguang-jun. 

“Thanks for the reminder,” Jin Ling says wearily. “What do you want?”

“Aw, now you sound like your uncle,” Wei Wuxian says. When he says “your uncle”, he always means Jiang Cheng. “Don’t be so grumpy. I want to tell you about our night-hunt. I’m making my official report about the incident of the snake in the night.”

“The snake in the-,” Jin Ling repeats, and then cuts himself off, frowning. “I don’t want to hear about you and Hanguang-jun.”

“Not that kind of snake! Listen. We were walking down the long road to Jiangnan when…”  For all of his other faults, Wei Wuxian is an excellent story-teller. He knows how to set the scene for a mystery, how to keep the listener guessing, how to include certain details and leave others out. Jin Ling lets him talk. 

“And then, of course, we buried it,” Wei Wuxian finishes. 

“Of course,” Jin Ling repeats dryly. Wei Wuxian’s stories have to be about the mystery, because there’s no suspense in his fights. He just wins. He talks about his life as if it’s nothing but mysteries and games, and all his stories make Jin Ling so jealous his teeth ache with it. He hasn’t been on a night-hunt, a real night-hunt, in months. It’s dangerous. There are a lot of people who would love the opportunity to misplace an arrow into his back, and a lot more papers to sign than there are hours in the day. 

“What’s with the face, A-Ling?” Wei Wuxian asks. 

“I wish I could go night-hunting,” Jin Ling says bitterly. 

“Oh, you should have said so. We would have brought you along.”

As if it were that easy. Jin Ling is on the verge of spitting out one of the many scathing remarks percolating in his chest when a huge yawn splits Wei Wuxian’s face. 

“Sorry,” he says, and yawns again. “I really have been up for two days.”

“Go away,” Jin Ling tells him, suddenly exhausted. “Get some food from the kitchens, pick a guest room, and then go sleep. I’m going to sleep too.”

“Okay, okay,” Wei Wuxian says. He and Hanguang-jun file out, and then it’s just Jin Ling and his room. He changes into his night robes, and he seals his room and puts up the necessary protective arrays- there’s no need to make things easier for any more assassins- but he doesn’t go to sleep. 

He draws his robes around him and goes down into the mirror, down through the golden frame and into the secret room that he inherited from Jin Guangyao and Jin Guangyao inherited from Jin Guangshan. It’s not a room he’s spent very much time in. After Guanyin Temple, after Jin Guangyao sank in the floundering mire of his past, every fucking onlooker and gossip was begging to pick through this room. Everyone wanted to go for a tour, to pick out something that would allow them to say- “Aha! I was a victim of Jin Guangyao too!”

Jin Ling spent years defending this room from tourists, and now that he’s here, he’s not even sure what he was defending. The ceiling is high, the air cold, and on the left scrolls are heaped together in disorganized piles, Jin Guangyao’s careful and oblique filing system long since gone to ruin. Jin Ling must have done this, though he doesn’t remember coming down to rummage through these files. He must have. The days and nights after he became Clan Leader Jin have smeared together in his memory, every moment tinted with a rage that obscured everything. He hadn’t had the least idea what he was doing then. He’d only known that he was lost. 

He walks through the cool dark, a candle in his left hand, his gaze skimming blindly over shackles and knives and closed chests and closed doors, and in the end he circles back to the beginning, and finds himself in front of the scrolls. He doesn’t know the man who sharpened those knives, but these scrolls, this calligraphy- that, he knows. Jin Ling’s clear, perfect handwriting is one of his few virtues, the product of many, many days and nights of practice, and he modeled it on his uncle’s clear hand. 

The first scroll is a list of purchases. Many of them are. Jin Ling wonders what these purchases were, what they meant, who they bought, and as he wonders he knows that he’ll never know. Jin Guangyao could surely have chosen to store the purchases in the flawless storehouse of his mind, but instead he chose to write them down, because they meant something to him. Jin Ling doesn’t know what. 

As he goes through the scrolls, he sorts them into piles- a pile for receipts, and a pile for letters, and a pile for secrets, for things he doesn’t understand at first glance. There are a lot of things he doesn’t understand. One stack of Jin Guangyao’s papers is nothing but calligraphy practice, and as Jin Ling scans the scrolls he can see the writing move from illiterate trembling to real words. But who wrote this? Jin Guangyao was never illiterate, so why save these papers? And who chose these words?

The last sheaf of paper is an passage describing the torture of criminals, and Jin Ling shudders and sets it aside. He turns to the music. As his eyes skim over the notes, he finds himself shoulder deep in memory, as young as he can ever remember being, his little knees folded under him, sitting in the room above this room, listening to his uncle play. No one remembers it unless they need to score a political point, but Jin Guangyao was family to Jin Ling too. 

Earlier today, Wei Wuxian spoke with a dead woman, and from her charred mouth she spoke the words to reveal the identity of her murderer. Jin Ling is no necromancer, but he can feel the presence of his uncle in this room, oblique as a smile, hidden in the things no one’s paid attention to. He can hear him in the piles of scrolls and the rows of glinting knives, in the precise layout of this long-used desk. Jin Ling was deaf to all these voices as a child, deaf to anything but the scream of his own heart, but he’s grown tired of his own rage, or it’s grown tired of him. He wants to stop screaming and listen. He wants to know what Jin Guangyao knew, what understanding he had that made the world dip their heads to a whore’s son. 

There’s a scroll among all the other scrolls that glows when he touches it, a scroll with a dedication to him written on the inside. Jin Ling, it says, and the sight of his name in that perfect handwriting makes Jin Ling’s head hot, his thoughts racing and stirring at the old familiar cadence of his uncle’s soft voice. 

“For A-Ling, in the hopes it may prove useful to him,” the scroll reads. Greedily, Jin Ling plunges in. He reads until rosy-fingered dawn is creeping into the sky, blind to the rhythms of his body calling him to sleep. The secret rooms of Koi Tower are silent, the high walls tight as a tomb, and in this dark and airless space Jin Ling hears the soft, clear voice of his uncle for the first time. 

Jin Ling is listening.

Chapter Text

Wei Wuxian wakes to the soft slant of hot afternoon light across his face, rolls over, yawns, and stumbles into consciousness. He’s awake. The jingshi is quiet, the warm, heavy weight of the blankets threatening to press him back into unconsciousness. The silence here is like the surface of a lake; no matter how many times Wei Wuxian disturbs it, it always returns to its original shape. It’s a silence thick enough to float on, a silence composed of a hundred sighs and unspoken exchanges, a silence like the space between two notes. He closes his eyes, images of the night before flashing into his head, and then rolls to an upright position with a groan. 

He was up late in that cave, so late the night became morning and morning became day, and he would still be picking through the ashes of the dead if Lan Zhan hadn’t returned and bullied him into flying home. The murdered dead deserve a voice, and Wei Wuxian is the only one that can give it to them. There was so much in that cave. Rotted blood. Altars. Rituals and the remains of rituals, and a trembling, terrified young man who had once been someone else and was now Jin Guangyao. 

There’s a knock at the door. It’s not Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan doesn’t need to knock before entering into their space. Most people would announce themselves. But this is just a knock, soft and steady. 

“I’ll be there in just a bit,” Wei Wuxian says. Is it trouble? Wei Wuxian enjoys a certain amount of trouble, but not in the Cloud Recesses. He makes sure to grab his sword before opening the door, and even after all these years, there’s still a tiny kick of joy at holding Suiban in his hand. He opens the door, and is confronted with Lan Xichen’s gentle, weary smile. 

It’s trouble, alright, but not the kind of trouble Wei Wuxian can stick a sword in. 

“Can I come in?” Lan Xichen asks, glancing around. “Uncle thinks I’m in my quarters meditating on my sins,” he says, and it’s a little bit rueful. Huh. Wei Wuxian can feel his eyebrows traveling upwards; since when is the honorable Zewu-jun a rule-breaker? But there’s a lot of strange things going on with Lan Xichen lately, and if he wants to dodge a couple of the Cloud Recesses’ more stringent rules, it’s not like Wei Wuxian can object. The man’s been dying by inches for months, he deserves a little rule-breaking.  

“Come on in,” Wei Wuxian says. “You’re looking better.” It’s only moderately true. When Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji left for Gusu Lan Xichen was on the brink of death, and the only place you could see it was in his eyes. Like his brother, maybe even more than his brother, Lan Xichen is a glacier of a man. Unlike his brother, he usually hides it. His face is alert now, returned to the usual amount of tired and sad, though there’s something in his face that wasn’t there before. Hope, maybe. 

“Yes, about that,” Lan Xichen says, taking a chair. Given that he hasn’t been invited, it’s kind of a rude gesture, but it’s not as if Wei Wuxian hasn’t done the exact same thing approximately a hundred times. “What exactly did you do in Yunmeng.”

“This and that,” Wei Wuxian says, hedging, and Lan Xichen gives him a Look. Wei Wuxian learned a long time ago to be immune to Looks, but it’s been a long time since he’s gotten one from Lan Xichen. He really must be feeling better. 

They look at each other for a bit, and then Lan Xichen sighs. His shoulders slump, and just when Wei Wuxian is starting to feel kind of bad for him, he speaks.

“I suppose you’re the only other person alive who knows how it feels to lose a golden core,” he says, and the sentence hits like an uppercut. “It’s not a sensation that can be mistaken for anything else. And as my second core was bleeding out of me,  as I was lying on the floor of the library biting through my lower lip, the sound of your flute was in my ears. What did you play, Wei Wuxian?”

Okay, wow. Wei Wuxian feels pretty bad about that, but also, what kind of turnaround is that? At the door Lan Xichen was all rueful smiles, but now that he’s in he’s gone right back to being pissed. Rude. 

“It’s not my fault?” Wei Wuxian tries. 

Lan Xichen doesn’t raise his head, but he looks up at Wei Wuxian through the curtain of his eyelashes, and the look says ‘I am 2000% too pretty and too tired for your bullshit.’ Lans are so pointy. Wei Wuxian is hit with an unfortunate wave of affection, and he takes a moment to regret that somehow, somewhere along the line, he came to find Lan bitchiness hopelessly charming. 

“What did you play?” Lan Xichen asks in a level, quiet voice, and there’s still some anger in it, but mostly it sounds sad. Is this also a maneuver? Maybe, but it’s probably also true. Part of Wei Wuxian wants to protest, to tell Lan Xichen that he could stand to be a little more grateful, and part of him knows that he won’t be. Jiang Cheng wasn’t, and Wei Wuxian doesn’t want to think about that, not now. 

“When did it happen?” Wei Wuxian asks. “Exactly when? A lot of things happened when we were in Yunping.”

“In the morning, about halfway between sunrise and the middle of the day.”

Wei Wuxian considers. He flops into a seat, and then stabs a finger in the direction of Lan Xichen. Normally he’d never let himself get bullied like this, but Lan Xichen has been having a hard time lately, so just this once…

“Okay, first of all, stop looking at me like you’re Lan Qiren. I didn’t fuck up your core, take it up with Jin Guangyao.” Lan Xichen doesn’t even react to the name, but something about the way he’s gone utterly still makes Wei Wuxian feel like this is not a productive avenue to follow. “Lan Zhan’s been really worried about you, you know, so of course I’ve been trying to help. As you know- and I’ve really got to have a talk with Sizhui about learning to lie better- we set out for Yunping.

After some daring sword fights and brilliant investigations, you know, the usual, we made it up to the temple. The guards were acting super weird and dodgy. Suspicious.”

“There are guards?” Lan Xichen says, and there's the smallest quaver in his voice. 

“There’s a joint commission of guards from Qinghe and from Lanling, yes.”

Lan Xichen exhales, visibly gathering himself up. “To prevent people from doing exactly what they did.” It’s a joint commission because neither side trusts the other, but Wei Wuxian doesn’t need to tell Lan Xichen, experienced politician, that. If it weren’t a political matter, the guards would just be from Yunmeng. 

“As far as I can tell, an outside faction infiltrated both sets of guards,” Wei Wuxian says. 

“An outside faction from where?” Lan Xichen asks. It’s sharp, but this time the edge isn’t pointed at Wei Wuxian. He’ll take it. 

“... from Lanling, I think. Not from Jin Ling.”

“Hm. You should warn him.”

“I will, I will,” Wei Wuxian says. Ever since Jin Guangyao died, there are a lot of factions in Lanling. His will was the will that held all the competing merchants and nobles together, and now that he’s gone, poor Jin Ling is stuck trying to drive a chariot tethered to way too many horses. 

“Poor Jin Ling,” Lan Xichen says quietly. “So, you were in Yunping, at the temple.”

“Right. We made it there the day before your… core transfer.”

Lan Xichen is too refined to snort at the phrasing, but one of his eyebrows does a slight arch thing. It’s fascinating how many mannerisms he shares with his brother when he’s being pissy. It’s cute, even.

“We had a thrilling battle the night before, did some light necromancy, which for the record people are way too uptight about, and it turns out… Jin Guangyao’s body is missing.” Wei Wuxian does a little ta-da gesture with his hands, which Lan Xichen ignores.

“And Da-ge’s body,” Lan Xichen says, and it’s very quiet and very sad.

“About that, actually…”

“You said he was missing.”

“I said I didn’t know.”

“And now you know?”

“He’s still in his coffin,” Wei Wuxian says.

“How is that possible?” Nie Mingjue was the most powerful resentful corpse Wei Wuxian ever fought, and yet. Something wrested Jin Guangyao’s remains from his grasp. 

“I don’t have the faintest fucking clue,” Wei Wuxian admits. “When Jin Guangyao’s spirit appeared, it was clear that someone had removed his body from under all the seals. But Chifeng-zun… Chifeng-zun is where he was. Whoever got Jin Guangyao out wasn’t interested in him.”

They sit in silence for a moment. Lan Xichen’s face hasn’t really changed, but there’s something about the set of his jaw, something about the look in his eyes. It’s a little like Lan Zhan right before he… uh. Anyway. Lan Xichen has the vibe of a man ready to snap. Wei Wuxian didn’t realize he had it in him. 

“What next?” he asks. 

“Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but I decided that the easiest way to find out what was going on with Jin Guangyao’s spirit was to ask it.”

Jin Guangyao’s spirit had been furious, steeped in a lifetime of spite. It had smiled at Wei Wuxian with blood in its teeth, its head lolling grotesquely on a broken neck, and answered every question Wei Wuxian asked with half-truths and riddles. Only at the end, when Wei Wuxian mentioned Lan Xichen’s illness, had the spirit been coaxed to say anything useful. 

“You were summoning him. That was the flute I heard,” Lan Xichen says, and it’s very quiet and very, very mad. At Wei Wuxian? At Jin Guangyao? Wei Wuxian can’t tell. 

“I did, yeah.” Wei Wuxian says. “Long enough to get the location of his body, though not much else. He did ask after you. Have the two of you, uh, talked?”

Lan Xichen shakes his head. Wei Wuxian kind of expected this conversation to go differently, though he’s not sure how. Maybe with less glaring. 

“You were alone in the cave together, though,” Wei Wuxian says. 

“I reached the cave perhaps an incense or two earlier than you, but not more,” Lan Xichen says. “At first, I didn’t know it was him.” His lips twitch upwards, but it’s not a happy expression, not at all. “At first he thought I’d been the one to call him back and nail him to the altar.” Ouch. “But we spoke, and after a while he believed me. Then you appeared, and we flew back to Cloud Recesses, where I’ve done nothing but sleep and get lectured.”

“What are you, uh, gonna do?” Wei Wuxian says, and it’s like snuffing a light out between his fingers. Lan Xichen looks so, so tired.

“Turn him in,” he says. “What else can I do?”

The silence this time is even fucking longer and more intolerable. It’s like all the times he’s ever had to sit in class but worse because this is his brother-in-law, this is a fully grown man and he looks like he’s about to start crying. If he starts crying Wei Wuxian will really throw himself out the window. 

After a long, long, LONG pause, Lan Xichen says: “You called up his spirit. This fixed my core problem. Why?”

“Because of how Jin Guangyao’s song is written, it requires a living body to serve as a destination for the stored energy.  You might have heard my flute, but I think that was just because of your link to Jin Guangyao’s spirit. What fixed your core problem was his transfer into a living body.”

Lan Xichen’s hand curls into a fist, and he lifts it to his mouth. He’s silent a long time, and then: “They were planning to kill him again. The human body was a fallback, a way to prevent you from calling up his spirit. What did it say to you when you called it up?”

When Wei Wuxian first summoned it, Jin Guangyao’s spirit was silent. From its broken, crooked neck, its eyes had travelled to Lan Wangji, assessing him and Wei Wuxian in a single glance, and then it had turned to Wei Wuxian and smiled. “You’re welcome,” it had said. 

“I asked it some questions. The usual stuff. Who are you, what killed you, where is your body. Questions to make sure it wasn’t a different spirit, pretending. I didn’t get through much. Whoever put him in that body was in a rush- they must have started as soon as they got the news from Yunping.” 

“They transferred his spirit into a living body,” Lan Xichen says, and it sounds like he can barely make himself speak. But, he knows this? Doesn’t he? He found Jin Guangyao in the cave, after all, and boy does Wei Wuxian have questions about that. 

“Right,” Wei Wuxian says. “Only, we didn’t know that at the time. All we had was an empty grave and a bunch of angry people who were way too eager to pass the blame off to me, but that’s a different issue. So, we left behind the lovely people of Yunping and headed to the place where Jin Guangyao told us his body was, and that’s where we found you.”

Lan Xichen’s eyes are unfocused, his hands folded in his lap, his shoulders hunched. He looks like he’s thinking. He looks like another blow might finish him off, and Wei Wuxian has an itching need for this conversation to be over. He liked it better when Lan Xichen was angry. 

“They’ll finally be able to take Nie Mingjue back to Qinghe and bury him,” Lan Xichen says at last. 

“Right,” Wei Wuxian says uncomfortably. “I have to ask though… how did you find the cave?”

“Inquiry,” Lan Xichen says. 

“Inquiry?”

Lan Xichen peers at him as if Wei Wuxian is a stranger, and then he sighs. “I don’t know if you’re aware, but you can’t help but be extremely suspicious all the time.”

“Wh- what is that supposed to mean?”

“You showed up in my room to make cryptic proclamations before fleeing out the window,” Lan Xichen says. “What response could I have other than to investigate?”

“That was,” Wei Wuxian says, and trails off. When he discovered what was wrong with Lan Xichen, he’d immediately rushed off to tell him, only to discover some second thoughts along the way. Lan Xichen had guessed too much, too quickly, and Wei Wuxian hadn’t wanted to deliver a death sentence. More than that, he hadn’t wanted to interfere in the delicate truce between Lan Xichen and the rest of the Cloud Recesses, and at the time…

“I didn’t know all of this would happen,” he says finally. “I was trying to make you feel better.”

“It seems to be a common affliction,” Lan Xichen says mildly. Is that a joke?

“You do seem, more, uh, vigorous.”

“It comes and goes. I don’t think I’ve done any damage I can’t recover, but it’ll be a while.” He sighs and extends a hand, and Wei Wuxian presses his fingers to Lan Xichen’s pulse and feels the unsteady sizzle of qi beneath his fingers.  It’s a strange injury. His pathways are set to contain more qi than his fractured core can generate. 

“There must be some way to help,” Wei Wuxian says.

“Hm,” Lan Xichen says. “I suppose I know a song for transferring qi, but it hasn’t been very helpful.” Is that a joke? Lan Xichen is gearing up to leave, but Wei Wuxian still has a few questions. 

“How did you find out about the cave with just Inquiry? And why fly out on your own?”

“I was tired of things happening behind my back,” Lan Xichen says. Again, fair, but it takes some balls to have a qi deviation in the morning and head out to a cave full of demonic cultivators the next day. 

“But what were you planning to do?”

“Find Jin Guangyao, I suppose,” Lan Xichen says. “I have a lot of questions for him.” From the look on his face, those questions weren’t about his core. 

“Well, you found him. Now what?”

Lan Xichen sighs. “I’ve been scheduled to go back into seclusion,” he says, which is the Lan way of saying that Lan Qiren has bullied him back into hiding. Technically, he could fight it, but Lan Xichen’s anger seems to have mostly guttered. He looks tired again. 

“But before I go, I’ll try to have a talk with Jin Guangyao.” His expression hardens. “This whole affair needs to be handled carefully. The last thing we need is another inter-sect incident. There’s multiple parties who have a claim on Jin Guangyao, starting with the Jin Sect and the Nie sect. Someone should speak to Jin Ling before any kind of public action can even be planned.”

Oh, ugh. Diplomacy. This is going to be one of those things, isn’t it, with a lot of bowing and scraping and pointed small talk and meetings. Wei Wuxian hates meetings.

“I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian offers. “You know, you don’t have to tell everyone.”

That gets a wan smile out of Lan Xichen. 

“I’ve thought about that,” he confesses. “Now that he’s back in the Cloud Recesses… I really have to thank you for that, Wei Wuxian. No matter what happens, at least I’ll be able to speak with him.”

What kind of man thanks someone for sparing Jin Guangyao, but not for saving his own life?

“You and Jin Guangyao,” Wei Wuxian begins, and then trails off. He’s not really an expert on these kinds of things, but he sort of gets the impression that Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao were kind of maybe in love? It’s hard to tell. The grubby, trembling man on the altar was about as different from the Lord of Koi Tower as it’s possible to be, but Lan Xichen’s face lit up like a beacon when Wei Wuxian said he wouldn’t snitch. 

“No,” Lan Xichen says gently, and there’s a perfect refusal behind the word. 

“Then why, in the cave…” Wei Wuxian says. 

 Lan Xichen’s hand was on his sword when they went into that little room, and he was thinking about what he was willing to do for his sworn brother. Wei Wuxian was happy to take that choice away from him. Lan Xichen couldn’t have hurt him, not in a place like that, but it would have destroyed something in both of them if he attacked. In this world teeming with horrors, there’s nothing Wei Wuxian hates more than fighting friends.

“He will always be the person who saved me, my best and dearest friend,” Lan Xichen says quietly. “But he’ll always be the person who killed Da-ge as well, and he has to answer for that, among many other things.” 

“I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian says to him. There’s not really much else to say. 

“Thank you,” Lan Xichen says. His lips twitch like he wants to smile but can’t fully commit to the gesture. “Do you mind waiting to tell Wangji? I’d like to tell him myself. I was angry in the cave; I still am. But he deserves to hear it from me.”

“No problem. You know, Lan Zhan’s been really worried about you. He’ll be so relieved now that you’re healthy.”

“Mm,” Lan Xichen says. “He’ll look at me and say, ‘You look well.’”

Lan Xichen’s impression of Lan Zhan’s voice and mannerisms is perfect, and it knocks Wei Wuxian into a bout of relieved giggles. Lan Zhan hates fighting with his brother, and Wei Wuxian hates seeing Lan Zhan brood about it. Siblings should get along. 

“I can’t believe you’re funny,” Wei Wuxian complains. 

“Don’t tell anyone,” Lan Xichen says. “They won’t believe you anyway.” Ominous, but probably true. “Perhaps your manners are simply contagious,” Lan Xichen suggests. 

“I think that’s pretty unlikely! Lan Qiren’s known me for so long, but his manners haven’t improved at all.” 

“Mmm,” Lan Xichen says. This time he does smile, and it’s a sad, heavy, radiant expression, as beautiful as the statue in Guanyin Temple. For about five seconds, Wei Wuxian can understand why Lan Zhan loves his brother so dearly, and then the expression is gone. Lan Xichen inclines his head and makes his tired way to the door. “I’ll see you later, Wei Wuxian.”

 

It’s three days before anyone realizes that he’s gone. 

Chapter Text

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. 

“Anywhere.”

“Lanling?”

“Yes.”

“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.

Chapter Text

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.