Jin Ling is too much like his father when it comes to emotions. A yelled confession during a night hunt, just like his father. Public and across a clearing, just like his father. Fleeing, just like his father.
He’s followed by Wei Wuxian’s belated laughter, clear even through the thicket of trees he runs beyond, retreating into the surrounding forest.
All the crass words sect leader Jiang has inadvertently taught him over the years are coming in handy now, both to help describe his current situation and his current feelings towards Wei Wuxian, who he can still hear laughing.
He’s lost face in front of Hanguang Jun, who’s well respected, and whose expression had—somehow—gotten more expressionless at Jin Ling’s words. And Wei Wuxian, who he can no longer hear laughing but that does not change the fact that he is the worst uncle ever—not that Jin Ling would ever call him such, even with the qualifier. And the other disciples, with whom he has been going on more night hunts, and tentatively, maybe, has started to consider friends.
He possibly—probably—has just ruined any sort of relationship he had with Lan Sizhui, tentative or otherwise.
Lan Sizhui, who is kind, and smart, and upright, and who is most likely embarrassed right now, because that was far too forward for any Lan disciple. Save maybe Jingyi, but especially for Lan Sizhui. Lan Sizhui, who is proper and befitting of his Lan name, who is gentle, and beautiful, and puts up with Jin Ling even at his most cutting with a smile that never fails to make his heart skip a beat. Lan Sizhui, who Jin Ling is sure hates him now.
Lan Sizhui, who is walking up to Jin Ling, carefully stepping over the roots of the only tree separating them, looking as elegant and poised as ever.
Jin Ling’s blood surges through his veins, his muscles tightening in preparation, in the need to run. It is only the smile on Lan Sizhui’s face that keeps Jin Ling rooted in place, a smile that makes his heart want to both race and stop, even with the awkward tilt marring its usual serenity.
Jin Ling’s uncertainty has caustic words gathering at the tip of his tongue—the bitter taste already filling his mouth—but he does not know a better way to protect himself when he cannot run. When Lan Sizhui is standing in front of him, smiling gently, reassuring yet wondering, a hint of hope hidden in his eyes.
Jin Ling almost snaps, what are you doing here, but bites his tongue at the last second. It’s a stupid question. It’s clear what he’s doing, that he’s checking on Jin Ling after his emotional outburst, though Jin Ling doesn’t know why. He wants to ask, what do you want, because the bright light skillfully—though not masterfully—hidden behind the other boy’s eyes makes Jin Ling twitchy, like he’s unsure, all the way down to his marrow, of the correct next move. Jin Ling hopes beyond hope that, why, does not slip out past his lips, because it is already taking everything for him to stay standing in one spot, to not flee or collapse or be sick, so he has nothing left if Lan Sizhui answers. Anything he might say has the power to devastate Jin Ling.
Jin Ling finally spits out, “What?”
Lan Sizhui does not even flinch.
The word is insufficient, unable to capture all that Jin Ling wants to ask, but Lan Sizhui takes it in stride.
“I asked Senior Wei to stop laughing,” he says simply, and Jin Ling finally notices where Lan Sizhui has stopped.
Maybe a bit far for the conversation they are having, or at least are talking around, though not far enough to signify any personal distance between them. Just enough that Jin Ling does not feel trapped. He is momentarily bowled over by Lan Sizhui’s consideration.
He hopes his lapse goes unnoticed, raising his chin in a show of haughty pride, “Who cares if that lunatic is laughing! He’s always laughing about some ridiculous matter or another.”
Lan Sizhui’s smile grows indulgent.
“Senior Wei is no more a lunatic than you or I,” Lan Sizhui says, and though there is an edge to his words, his smile never wavers.
I feel like a lunatic, Jin Ling finds himself thinking, his nerves having not calmed down even a little since he fled into the forest. But, he says nothing, instead scoffing and crossing his arms.
“Jin Ling,” Lan Sizhui starts and, despite the way he keeps his tone even and calm, and steadfastly keeps the distance between them a comfortable close, Jin Ling finds himself tensing. Lan Sizhui continues in the same tone, “Did you mean what you said?”
Something about the way he asks, sounding as if he does not care about the answer one way or another, as if he’s simply curious, irks Jin Ling. He snaps his gaze to the side, away from anything to do with Lan Sizhui, his fists clenching tight.
“Do you care?” he bites out.
This draws a reaction, but Jin Ling refuses to turn, knowing only from the faintest sound of cloth brushing cloth.
“About the answer? Yes.”
Jin Ling hears a twig snap underfoot, and resists the urge to look, to check if Lan Sizhui has taken a step forward or back.
“About you? Of course.”
Jin Ling scoffs again, this time weaker.
He takes a steadying breath, slow and deep, trying to hide it. He slowly unclenches and re-clenches his fists, attempting to release the tension in his body, but unable to completely shake off his nerves.
“What about for me?” he challenges. His words come out steady and strong, but he does not look up, barely able to stop the way he trembles.
Jin Ling waits a moment for Lan Sizhui to continue, but he does not.
The lack of an answer is answer enough for Jin Ling.
“I see,” he says, raising his head, still refusing to look at Lan Sizhui. He turns to him, offering a stiff bow, determined to save face, if nothing else, “I apologize for embarrassing you, please forget what I said.”
Jin Ling straightens and moves to leave, eyes not meeting the other boy’s.
“Jin Ling, wait—”
Lan Sizhui’s words are enough to make Jin Ling stop, even before his wrist is caught in a grasp of freezing fingers and a clammy palm.
“I do care for you,” Lan Sizhui says firmly, and Jin Ling’s gaze snaps up to look at him. There’s a flash of hesitation—or nervousness, Jin Ling is unsure—that crosses Lan Sizhui’s face, and Jin Ling feels the grip on his wrist tighten, ever so slightly.
Jin Ling is frozen to the spot by those words, that touch. He inhales, and blinks, and inhales again. Slowly his brain tick, tick, ticks over until it finally clicks. Lan Sizhui’s words. Lan Sizhui’s touch.
Sweaty palm hot like a brand, but still wrapped around his wrist, even as Jin Ling turns to face the other more fully.
“Do you mean—” Jin Ling barely lets himself hope, but can’t help but choke out, “does that mean…”
Lan Sizhui’s hand clenches around Jin Ling’s wrist, tight enough to hurt, but Jin Ling catches the way Lan Sizhui’s cheeks are dusted a light pink and his eyes are pinned steadfastly on the ground between them, and—
Jin Ling allows himself to hope. Just a little.
“I…” Lan Sizhui starts for a second time, but this time Jin Ling waits for him to gather his thoughts.
Lan Sizhui’s hand loosens, then tightens, then loosens once more. A pulse of a squeeze. Then, his hand slides down to Jin Ling’s, holding it ever so gently, as if Jin Ling is something precious and to be handled with care.
Jin Ling trembles a little. He feels too full, like a glass bottle on the brink of cracking.
Lan Sizhui meets his gaze, a determined look in his eyes.
“I like you, too, Jin Ling.”
Jin Ling stops breathing.
He thinks maybe even his heart has stopped, at this point—or maybe it hasn’t and that’s the pounding he hears, drowning out any other sound.
A nervous, shaky smile finds its way onto Lan Sizhui’s face, and for a wild second Jin Ling is afraid he is going to take it all back. In his panic, he tightens his grip on Lan Sizhui’s hand, using it to pull the other boy in, tug him off balance.
Then, they’re kissing.
It’s not the best kiss, probably. Jin Ling has never kissed anyone before, so he wouldn’t know from experience, but he thinks maybe kisses aren’t supposed to hurt, or involve so much bashing of teeth and noses.
It’s still perfect, though, because it’s Lan Sizhui and him, and they’re kissing.
Jin Ling breaks away first, because his thoughts catch up to him, and he realizes he’s kissed Lan Sizhui without making sure it’s what Lan Sizhui wanted, and you can’t just go around stealing kisses and—and oh god, what if it was Lan Sizhui’s first kiss and he stole it? And he’s panicking again.
He begins to calm down when he feels hands cupping his face, warm and still a little sweaty, and Jin Ling is trying to find it gross but he can only describe it as grounding. Comforting.
He meets Lan Sizhui’s eyes, and catches the smile playing on his lips. There’s a hint of a smirk, and Jin Ling almost bristles at it, if not for the way Lan Sizhui says his name, low and warm.
Warmth that spreads through Jin Ling—from his cheeks, his chest, all throughout.
Lan Sizhui brushes his cheek with the pad of his thumb, so tenderly, and Jin Ling shakes from it. He leans in, slowly, slowly, giving Jin Ling enough time to react, to pull away, to push in and meet him in the middle.
This time their kiss is softer, less teeth, and Jin Ling isn’t sure what to do with his hands, or his tongue, but Lan Sizhui is smiling into the kiss and Jin Ling thinks this second kiss is indescribably better than the first.
Lan Sizhui pulls away, kissing Jin Ling once on the forehead before taking a step back, his hands dropping to Jin Ling’s.
“Wow,” Jin Ling breaths, a little dazed.
Lan Sizhui laughs, startled but quiet, and Jin Ling can’t help but smile at the sound.
“Let’s go on a date,” Jin Ling blurts. His words catch up to him, and his cheeks begin to burn.
“Now?” Lan Sizhui asks, and there’s the barest hint of teasing in his tone. He squeezes Jin Ling’s hands, still clasped in his, to soothe the sting.
Jin Ling huffs, and looks away.
Lan Sizhui laughs again, a giggle this time, and uses his hold on Jin Ling to tug him in close, to press a kiss to his cheek. He pulls back and grins.
Jin Ling’s cheeks burn, and he bites back the slew of curses that rush forth with his embarrassment.
“We can go on a date,” Lan Sizhui promises, and the words flow over Jin Ling like a calm wave of water, cooling but not dousing the fire charring him from within. “But, for now, let’s head back together.”
Jin Ling nods dumbly. “Together,” he echoes.
Lan Sizhui smiles that skip-a-beat smile and nods, giving Jin Ling’s hand a reassuring squeeze.
Jin Ling’s smile spreads, slow but bright, as he stumbles after Lan Sizhui, never letting go of his hand.