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Free Falling

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It is the summer of his twelfth year of life when the Jiang family visits them again. The weather is humid, despite Lanling not reaching temperatures as hot as Yunmeng, and the sun blares down heavily from the sky without rest.

Jin Zixuan only met the Jiang family once, around three or so years ago, a meeting he did not care for. He only met them then, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know of them intimately. After all, their daughter is the one he is bound to marriage not to mention being one of the big five sects of the cultivation world. In an attempt to create more opportunities for the bride and groom to bond, the families’ madams reached an agreement to visit each other as often as the busy schedule of sect leaders allowed.

So this is the first time he meets the Jiang family in three years. They are just like he remembers and like he was taught in his lessons. It's early in the afternoon and Sect Leader Jiang and Madam Yu step forward to greet his mother (his father is nowhere to be seen, for some reason) and Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli are standing behind them, heads respectfully bowed.

His and Jiang Cheng's tastes did not agree much then, except for their shared love of dogs. He makes a mental note to ask after his puppies, if there is a chance. Jiang Yanli… There’s not a lot to say about her. He has no impression of her whatsoever, completely indifferent. No matter how sweet she is, how many times his mother try to convince him of her positive prospects, he just doesn’t want to think or care about marriage.

They did not have many opportunities to get to know each other before, habits, likes, mannerisms. The few occasions they were encouraged to be alone together was covered in tense silence and awkwardness, an ice so thick neither were willing to break.

He tries to keep himself indifferent. The problem is, his vision of her is inevitably tainted by his bitterness. In the end of the day, the choice of whether to like her or not, whether to enjoy her company or not was taken from him. From them.

He does his best to be indifferent.

Focusing back on the scene, he notices the entourage does not end with the Jiang siblings this time around. Standing even farther is a boy Jin Zixuan has never seen before. The boy also has his head bowed, high ponytail swinging lightly, but he rocks back in the heels of his feet and taps his fingers softly to an unknown rhythm, disrupting the appropriate posture quite a bit.

Probably a servant of the Jiang family? He does not stand like a servant, nor is he wearing servant clothing, but who knows how things are done in Yunmeng.

When there’s a small pause in the formalities, he clears his throat loudly.

“You.” He gestures towards the boy, who tilts his head at him, “Bring me some water.”

There’s a small moment of stunned silence, before the boy looks him up and down, unimpressed, and says, “Take your butt off the chair and go get it yourself.”

Jin Zixuan’s jaw falls open.

“Wei Ying!” Madam Yu snaps, staring the boy down with anger and grabbing his wrist. This Wei Ying flinches slightly at the loud volume of her voice, but other than that doesn’t seem to be very apologetic.

“Pardon, little Zixuan, Madam Jin.” Sect Leader Jiang says, raising his arms placatingly. It does nothing to calm his wife, from what Jin Zixuan can see, “It is my fault for not explaining earlier.”

He pulls the boy to the front, placing his warm hands on his shoulder, in a somewhat proud manner.

“This is Wei Ying. We adopted him into the family a few years ago. He is now a disciple of Yunmeng Jiang.”

Madam Yu is still silently fuming. His mother turns her nose, not interested enough, and Jin Zixuan imitates his mother.

“Well.” He huffs, “How am I supposed to know you’re taking strays in?”

“Jin Zixuan!” His mother shouts. He winces and shrinks on himself a little. “That’s enough! You’ll treat your future in-laws with respect!”

“I don’t want to have them as my in-laws!” He whines, “I don’t want to marry her at all!”

Wei Ying leaves the safety of Sect Leader Jiang and comes closer, looking as if Jin Zixuan grew another head.

“Why not?” He asks, “Shijie is the most beautiful and kind woman out there!”

Jin Zixuan sneers with disgust, “I don’t have to explain myself to you.”

Before any more words can be said, his mother gestures at him to stop speaking. She directs him a particularly glacy glare and Jin Zixuan shivers.

“Zixuan, stop.” She states more than orders, “We’ve talked about this before. Now behave, or I’ll take your gold foils away.”

“But--”

“No buts!”

He slumps back into his seat and pouts, crossing his arms.

“I’m sorry, my dear.” Madam Jin says sweetly towards Jiang Yanli, who stands there in the same respectful position as before, “Please forgive this son of mine. He still has much to grow.”

Gods, he’s already twelve! His mother just loves to embarrass him! That Wei Ying boy makes no effort to hide his chuckles behind a fist and Jin Zixuan’s face warms up.

The guests are shown to their quarters to settle in before dinner and Zixuan practically runs from the pavillion with how fast he escapes his mother's scolding. He settles down in another room, taking the precious gold foils from his sleeve and starting to build a castle, no desire at all to entertain the visitors.

His luck is not in the right place, however, because half an hour later, two figures rush into the room and the gust of wind blows his foils away. He turns to the intruders with a frown.

Wei Ying is dragging Jiang Cheng by the wrist, though the other boy is not making much effort to get free. When their eyes meet, Wei Ying’s face brightens up and Jin Zixuan looks back to his hands, pointedly ignoring him.

“Hey!” He exclaims and steps closer, “What can we do for fun around here?”

“Why do you want to know?” Zixuan hesitantly asks.

“Because I’m bored! Duh!” He kneels down by him, Jiang Cheng following behind and leans next to Jin Zixuan excitedly, “Say, you probably have a room filled with toys, don’t you? Let’s go play together!”

“I do, in fact, have a toy room,” He says, “But I’m not sharing with the likes of you.”

After all, this is the same boy that humiliated him just a few minutes ago. Granted, Jin Zixuan mistook his status first, but still…

“Ugh, fine. Whatever.” Wei Ying throws his hands up, rolling his eyes, “Can you at least tell us where there’s a garden with trees, somewhere we can play… Or maybe a lake where we can swim… A fun place!”

That question leaves Jin Zixuan a little baffled. He knows Koi Tower like the back of his hand, but he can’t say he ever climbed trees or swam in lakes. He has no idea what kind of playground the two boys from Yunmeng are looking for.

“I-I’m not telling you!” He stammers, after realizing he doesn’t know what to say, “You-- You’re going to track dirt all around our floors!”

“Oh my Gods.” Wei Ying enunciates, mouth forming an O, “What are you, a pampered princess that can’t even handle a little bit of dirt?”

Jiang Cheng snorts and his attempt to muffle it would have worked better if it wasn’t so loud. Jin Zixuan’s cheeks heat up.

“I’m not a princess!”

“You’re right.” The other sneers, “That would be an insult to all the princesses out there who know how to have fun. You’re just a stuffy peacock with ruffled feathers!”

“You!” Jin Zixuan stands and Wei Ying follows suit. He goes to steps face-to-face with the boy, their chests almost touching, but Wei Ying has a tiny bit of height over him and that fact makes him extremely annoyed. Not only that, but he does not step down, does not draw back before Jin Zixuan like the other kids of Koi Tower do when he rises to full height. It’s infuriating!

Before anything can escalate, Jiang Cheng is pulling Wei Ying’s arm, deep frown in his features.

“Let’s just go play hide and seek again.”

The other boy whines, being forcibly dragged by his shidi, a mirror of the way they came in. There’s no trace of anger or irritation on his face, pouting and then smiling like nothing happened, like Jin Zixuan is that forgettable.

He falls down on the floor near his gold foils and pouts, crossing his arms. What an aggravating boy.

Jin Zixuan spends the entire time until dinner silently sulking, too mad to play and he walks back to the pavillion with stomping feet. His father is present for the welcoming feast, spinning one excuse or another for his absence. Jin Zixuan just tries to ignore the guests’ existence as much as possible before his mother forces him to socialize again.

It’s actually a hard task, made difficult by the fact that Wei Ying keeps nudging Jiang Cheng playfully, making funny faces and whining to his shijie about wanting to eat her food. Madam Yu and Sect Leader Jiang are sitting in the front without turning back, but it’s quite obvious that the madam’s patience is hanging by a thread.

Finally dinner ends and everyone leaves to their respective rooms.

Jin Zixuan dresses for bed, almost nodding off during the process from how tiring the day was. But before he can lay down to sleep, he decides to go to the kitchen and get something for his dry throat (he can get his own water, thank you very much!).

He is about to round a corner of the corridor when a harsh voice reaches his ear and makes him stop. Leaning his back against the wall, he spies the two figures up ahead with curiosity.

Madam Yu is holding a quiet Wei Ying by the wrist, eyebrows twisted with displeasure. She frowns at him and shakes his arm when there’s no response.

“What did you say before we left, hm?” Her voice is not loud, but it still leaves no room for dispute, and no dispute she finds. Jin Zixuan stares at the quiet boy puzzled. It’s not like he has not shown his inclination to challenging authority before, so why isn't he doing the same now?

“You said,” she continues, “You would behave, and yet what are you doing?”

He doesn’t respond.

With one final shake, she releases him and looks at his frame, from head to toe, “Stop causing trouble to everyone around you for once and start behaving like you should! What an ungrateful child, don’t forget where you came from.”

She turns and leaves, Wei Ying silently staring down at his arm.

Jin Zixuan feels a spark of irritation light up in his chest. It’s just a scolding! Who doesn’t have those during life? It’s over now, so the boy can start humming with his obnoxious voice and bouncing in his steps like he was doing that very morning. Just don’t stand there looking all pathetic and pitiful!

However, it’s not like Wei Ying can hear his thoughts. So he simply stands there for a second longer before duly walking back to his room.

Jin Zixuan huffs and slumps against the wall. This Wei Ying kid doesn’t do anything Zixuan expects him to and so it has been since they got here. If anything, not acting like a complete fool should be something to celebrate, from his experiences so far.

Yet, for some reason, that muted submission so uncharacteristic only served to make Jin Zixuan feel a little sad.

-:-

The next day, Wei Ying is back to his rowdy, unruly self and Jin Zixuan thinks a little silly to have worried. Regardless, he made a decision last night to at least try to be more amenable to the boy. After all, he did disrespect him first. So he picks up the toys he selected earlier and goes to find him.

Wei Ying is running all around one of the pavillions with two paper dolls in hand. Jiang Cheng is nowhere to be seen, which is a surprise, since he seems to be pulled along by him everywhere.

The boy takes no notice of Jin Zixuan standing there in the entrance, so he clears his throat, straightening his posture.

It goes ignored.

Jin Zixuan inhales deeply and clears his throat again, louder.

“Ugh.” Wei Ying slows to a stop, “What do you want?”

“I…” He avoids his eyes, finding immense interest in the floor instead. Suddenly it's a little embarrassing to be here like this, but he swallows his pride. “I found some old toys that I wouldn’t mind lending to you.”

“So?”

He feels his cheeks warm up, no doubt gaining a shameful shade of red, “So, come play in the garden with me already! I am extending you the pleasure of my company."

Wei Ying just continues to look at him suspiciously and Jin Zixuan is about to rescind his offer and storm off when the boy finally sighs.

“Fine, I guess.”

He takes him to one of the wide courtyards of Koi Tower, adorned with a variety of beautiful flowers and well-trimmed bushes. This garden overlooks the sunset and is one of the best views in all of the buildings.

Wei Ying looks around with a little bit of awe and whistles. Jin Zixuan turns his nose up, triumphantly.

“Everything looks so… organized.” He says.

“Of course! It is my family's private garden!”

The other nods a couple of times then turns to him with a raised eyebrow.

“This is all nice and good, but,” he starts, “what are you going to do when you begin night hunting and need to sleep in the mud, near cockroaches and other stuff? Don't tell me you're going to take your servants with you?”

Just hearing something like that makes his skin crawl and Jin Zixuan seriously contemplates Wei Ying’s suggestion. It would not be a completely terrible idea. He thinks about it some more before Wei Ying shakes his head with disbelief.

“Nevermind.”

Wei Ying takes a few of the toys Jin Zixuan brought, settling down a couple of meters away from him. It doesn’t bother Jin Zixuan at all. He wanted to make peace with the boy, not become best friends with him. He takes his brightly colored marbles with gold plating, making them hop in-between his knees.

They play like that for awhile, but soon Zixuan finds himself inadvertently listening in on Wei Ying’s game. It’s impossible not to, with the boy running around full of energy. He tries to focus back on his marbles, but an excited yell makes him look at the other fully.

“The Owl Emperor has descended! It is going to take us to its palace!”

He watches as Wei Ying jumps left and right holding the base of an owl kite (there was not enough wind to actually fly it, much to his disappointment). He makes wide arcs over the stone statues, painting the garden in the colors reflected from the sun’s light. Wei Ying kneels to pass between two poles and picks up one of Zixuan’s animal figurines with the same hand holding the kite.

“Oh no! The Head Priest was captured!”

Jin Zixuan watches all of it with extreme fascination. He never played like this before. Wei Ying’s laughter rebounds from the silent walls, loud and carefree and he can’t help but lean closer to see where the Owl Emperor will take its hostage. Was it a story that Wei Ying heard somewhere? Or did he make it up himself?

The young master of Koi Tower is about to swallow his pride and ask to play along when a barking sound interrupts Wei Ying’s glee.

“Snow!”

The white puppy barks louder at its owner’s prompting, running towards him excitedly. At the same time, there’s a terror filled yell from behind him and Jin Zixuan turns, alarmed, to see Wei Ying climbing the only tree in the garden with such fierce desperation it makes him automatically prepare for an attack.

But there’s nothing dangerous around them, no ambush or anything like that. Just his sweet spiritual dog puffing and licking his hand.

He runs towards the tree, Snow following behind.

“What are you doing?” He asks, “What are you making all this noise for?”

“A demon!” Wei Ying screams, hugging the trunk of the tree like a lifeline, “A demon!”

That makes a vein pop in Zixuan’s forehead, “What demon?! This is my spiritual dog, Snow! Show some respect!”

“Take it away!”

The boy is trembling and looking fixedly at Snow with wide, terrified eyes. Jin Zixuan looks at his pet then back at him and raises an eyebrow. This must be an elaborate joke Wei Ying is trying on him, right? Why else would he act so theatrically?

“What is this? Are you scared of dogs?”

“It’s only natural to be scared of those creatures!” Wei Ying says annoyedly, pulling his feet closer to himself.

“You’re crazy.” Jin Zixuan kneels and pets Snow around the collar, smiling at the enthusiastic licks on his cheeks, “Dogs are wonderful, loyal friends. How can you be scared of them?”

The other boy pouts, nowhere near close to coming down to talk, perfectly content to stay perched like a bird, “You would also be scared if you knew how it feels to be bitten all over!”

“You’re exaggerating.” Jin Zixuan rolls his eyes. There is no way a dog could ever bite someone all over. They are good boys and girls. He picks his puppy in his arms and pushes her closer to the branch Wei Ying is sitting, “Look! She’s so cute!”

“Stop!” He screams, tightening his hold, "Seriously! I'm warning you!”

Jin Zixuan finds the situation slightly comical, but still lowers the dog anyway.

“Aw,” He teases, smirking, “Is little A-ying going to pee his pants?”

Wei Ying stares daggers at him, trying to kick his face from his position. He’s still too far to count, so he gives up and simply brandishes a fist threateningly, “You ugly peacock! I’m going to get you while you sleep!”

Jin Zixuan snickers, “Not if I sleep with Snow by my side.”

“Why, just why would you willingly let that thing inside your room?”

“What thing?” He tilts his head, innocently, “This thing?”

He points to the dog. Wei Ying draws back immediately.

“You better not try anything! Shijie! Shijie!”

“Okay, okay!” Jin Zixuan calls, “Don’t call them here. Honestly, you talk big but you’re just a little baby!”

Then he kneels and pets Snow a couple more times, before looking at her seriously, “Snow, go back to your room for now. Don’t come here, alright?”

Snow barks in agreement and runs back where it came from, wagging its tail all the way through. Jin Zixuan sighs and looks up towards the boy who is, for all intents and purposes, physically attached to the tree trunk.

“She’s gone.” He tells him, “You can come down now.”

It’s not a very tall tree. The branch he is sitting on is only a bit higher than an adult, three meters or so. Wei Ying leans his head forward a little, checking the way Snow ran to and then nodding, slowly moving his legs. His knees inch forward very carefully and then he slumps.

“What’s the problem?” Jin Zixuan asks. It’s just jumping down. Not that difficult.

“... I can’t.” Wei Ying replies very reluctantly.

“What?”

He huffs, “I can’t climb down!”

Jin Zixuan blinks once. Twice.

“Huh? Why not?”

There’s a long stretch of silence during which Wei Ying’s face becomes bright red. His face is very flushed and there is a wet sheen clinging to his eyelashes, making the gray of his eyes stand out. Jin Zixuan looks at him and can’t help thinking he looks a little cute.

Zixuan frowns and presses a hand on top of his chest, absently. How weird.

After a long period of quiet, Wei Ying finally murmurs, embarrassed, “My legs are frozen.”

“What do you mean frozen? How can they be frozen? It’s summer!”

“Not frozen like that!” He snaps, “Frozen by fear!”

Jin Zixuan recoils back. Frozen by fear? As in because of his dog? But wasn’t that just a silly joke?

“You’re really scared of dogs?”

The other does not dignify him with an answer, he simply glares and Jin Zixuan is immediately hit with a pang of guilt. He doesn’t understand how someone could be afraid of dogs, but he remembers last year when the dark corner of his room still gave him chills (not anymore, though, because he’s already twelve; he’s no child). He also remembers how it felt when his father laughed at him and told him to stop being a wimp. It was not a good feeling.

“Alright.” He says, meeting the other’s eyes firmly, “I’m sorry. I thought you were overreacting to play a prank on me.”

It might be just a trick of the light, but he swears Wei Ying’s eyes widen and then soften a good pinch. In any case, he is still stuck to the tree with no way of getting off by himself.

“What do you want to do?” Jin Zixuan asks because… he’s not a jerk, okay?! He’ll help him out for now.

“Just call Shijie here.” Wei Ying says, waving a hand in the direction their families might be having tea and conversing, “I’ll jump into her arms.”

Jin Zixuan raises an eyebrow, “Isn’t that a little embarrassing?”

“Shijie would never make fun of me!” He humphs, “She’s the greatest person in the world, even if certain others can’t realize that.”

At Wei Ying’s declaration, Zixuan just rolls his eyes. Of course, he could go call one of the adults to help out, but he wants to try and make it up for Wei Ying after his teasing. Not only that, he also doesn’t want to risk getting in trouble. So he takes a step forward and opens his arms wide.

“Just jump to me. I’ll catch you.”

“How are you gonna catch me?” Wei Ying examines his stature with obvious skepticism, “You’re a shorty!”

“Oh, really?” Jin Zixuan turns, “Then just stay there for the rest of the night.”

“Wait!”

He tilts his head back, pretending to not be convinced.

“... Okay. But be sure to catch me!”

With that, he turns again and prepares himself, widening his stance, knees shoulder-width apart and raising his arms. The stranded boy starts to slide down from the branch, legs shaking, until he suddenly stops.

“Snow is really gone, right?”

“Yes.” Zixuan says a little gently, “She obeys any command of mine.”

Wei Ying nods and starts to slide down once more. Then he stops again.

“You’re not gonna purposely drop me, right?”

“Just jump already!”

At those words, Wei Ying jumps. He falls straight into Jin Zixuan’s ready arms, but just as he had said before, Jin Zixuan is still shorter than Wei Ying and the momentum of the fall throws them both back. They tumble to the ground hard, no grace at all. With a sharp ‘oof’, he feels the impact of a healthy twelve year old boy’s weight on his stomach.

There are a few seconds of disorientation as his head spins and then he opens his eyes.

Wei Ying is laying on top of him, head right under his nose. Jin Zixuan takes a sharp breath and the other boy’s scent hits him even stronger than the fall; the scent of earth after it rains and lotus flowers. For some reason, it makes his heart beat fast, blood rushing to his cheeks. Wei Ying is warm in his arms and he automatically tightens the hands on his back.

It’s still tolerable enough. This sudden desire to be hold tighter that hit him out of nowhere is tolerable enough until Wei Ying decides to raise his head. They’re so close together that Jin Zixuan can count his lashes, can see every speck of color in his gray eyes. He feels Wei Ying’s breath on his chin and his heart becomes even more frenzied.

Then he smiles, charming and beautiful, and sits up, straddling Zixuan’s waist.

“I told you, you couldn’t catch me!”

There’s something unfurling in his chest he simply can’t describe. Wei Ying is looking down at him, grinning as if he was told a great joke, sun setting behind his head, dark brown hair bathed in the orange light. Everything seems so stunning his breath catches and he can’t make himself inhale again.

It’s too much. Whatever this is, these fireworks lighting inside him, it’s overwhelming.

“Guh,” He says pathetically, “G-get-- Get off me!”

Wei Ying’s smile turns mischievous and Jin Zixuan gulps.

Then he picks up a pile of dirt with his hands and drops it on top of him.

Jin Zixuan shrieks in a way that is not very manly and throws the boy off to the side. Wei Ying laughs so hard he rolls around the grass, clothes becoming as dirty as his.

After sparring for a good while, they make their way back and are promptly scolded for making such a mess. Jin Zixuan acts like he is disgusted by the experience, but just to himself, he will admit that spending the day with Wei Ying was… very fun.

-:-

Things become a little awkward after that for Jin Zixuan.

In the days that follow, he develops some sort of… strange condition, one that flares high whenever he finds himself around the other boy. A condition that disrupts his thoughts in the most inopportune moments.

It starts with a fluttery feeling in his stomach whenever he sees Wei Ying enter the room or stand closer than usual. His hands become clammy and he feels a tug in his chest, almost like a physical pull to the other's direction.

It is uncomfortable but bearable, enough that Jin Zixuan can ignore with some effort. However, it only gets worse. He discovers that if Wei Ying tries to touch him or smiles at him, his heart begins racing, asking to jump out of his throat and his face flushes like a fever.

The incident where he ends up stammering at least three times in one conversation due to this ridiculous affliction convinces him to put a stop to this. It is preferable to avoid contact with the boy altogether than make a fool of himself.

So that's what he's doing now, hanging around Jin Zixun and some other Lanling Jin disciples, having excused himself after lunch.

They're sitting on the cushions of one of the rooms used for musical appreciation, lazily eating roasted peanuts. He doesn't know for sure if the two disciples that accompany them can be considered Zixun's friends. He has accidentally witnessed him threatening them into compliance with his status one too many times, but whatever.

As one of the hosts, he is relieved of archery training and sword practice duties until the Jiang family leaves, so there's not a lot to occupy his day. Jin Zixuan lets his cousin's mindless chatter push away thoughts of a certain gray eyed boy from his head.

"So annoying Aunt is keeping me from the main dining hall these two weeks." He tsks.

Jin Zixuan shrugs, “I think she didn’t want me to have an excuse to run from the Jiangs.”

“Speaking of which,” Jin Zixun leans forward conspiratorially, voice getting an edge of gossip, “I managed to sneak a glance at your fiancée yesterday.”

“So what?”

“So what?!” Zixun slaps a hand on his thigh, scandalized, “So what it’s ridiculous they’re setting you up with a girl like that! Isn’t she a couple of years older than us? So how can she look so plain?! When I heard she doesn’t cultivate, I thought that was great, she won’t be one of those rough and assertive types! But now I see there’s always a catch.”

Jin Zixuan frowns. His cousin’s words are extremely discourteous to their guest. Jiang Yanli is not an ornamental vase to be appreciated or scrutinized, no matter his opinion on the engagement. His stomach rolls with discomfort.

One of the disciples, quite obviously trying to win favor with Jin Zixuan, continues, “Young Master Jin deserves better! How can the daughter of the Yunmeng Jiang sect look like that?”

“You said well.” Zixun snickers, shoving a bunch of peanuts in his mouth, “It’s Yunmeng Jiang. You think they have standards?”

“Stop that.”

The sneer drops from Zixun’s face.

“What?”

“It doesn’t matter what she looks like.” Jin Zixuan states, levelling his cousin with a stare, “Knock it off.”

The thing is, Jiang Yanli could have been the most beautiful, most wealthy, most powerful Goddess in existence. Jin Zixuan would still be discontent with the engagement, because appearance has nothing to do with it. He never really expected Jin Zixun to understand, but that doesn't mean he will stand by blatant disrespect.

Zixun frowns and his face reddens, humiliated at having his claims contradicted by his cousin in front of others. Dropping the package of peanuts, he stands, towering over Zixuan.

“Cousin, don’t tell me you actually like her.”

What.

“What?” Zixuan stands as well, shocked at this turn of events, “No."

“Well, it sure seems like that to me.” He raises an eyebrow, “You’re even defending her like an enamored fool or something.”

“I just don’t think it bodes well to say that kind of thing!”

“Zixuan, you can admit it.” Zixun’s smile curves full of pity, annoying Jin Zixuan to no end, “We won’t make fun of you for falling for an ugly girl.”

“But I haven’t!” He says, half-crazed.

“Calm down, if you wanted to marry her after all, you just had to say so!”

That’s it. That phrase unleashes a burning rage inside him. He wants people to stop putting words in his mouth. He wants people to stop deciding what he thinks. Most of all, he wants people to stop forcing emotions he doesn’t have down his throat!

His frustration boils hot in his blood and before he can think better of it, he finds himself yelling, “I don’t like her! There’s nothing special about her at all! How can I fall for a girl like that?!”

A girl he didn't chose, someone he's not free to reject, someone he doesn't even know!

Jin Zixun immediately pales, staring at a point behind Zixuan's shoulder. The two other disciples shrink on themselves, trying to merge with the background.

Seeing that reaction, Jin Zixuan feels his heart drop to the floor. With a hard gulp, he turns, becoming face to face with one and only Jiang family.

For a couple of seconds, time stands still. He's able to assess everyone's reactions clearly. Sect Leader Jiang and Madam Yu are frowning deeply, disappointment marring their features. Jiang Yanli is looking down, smaller than she's ever been. Her brother is red, fuming with anger.

And Wei Ying…

Wei Ying is running straight towards him!

Before Jin Zixuan can understand what's happening, a strong punch meets his cheekbone in a shocking impact, making him fall to the floor. Multiple gasps erupt in the room. Disoriented, he lays for a small moment while his mind tries to catch up. Pain spreads to the side of his face and he cradles his cheek, meekly looking up at his assaulter.

The pain from the punch is nothing to the hurt in his heart when he sees the fury brimming in Wei Ying's eyes. His fist is still raised when he looks down at Jin Zixuan.

"How dare you?!" He growls, "You may have riches, you may have looks, yet my Shijie is a thousand times a better person than you'll ever be!"

Tears well up in his eyes, from pain, from humiliation, from admiration and a bunch of other emotions he can't name. Staring at him from above, Wei Ying almost looks like the heroes from the legends, standing up for the maiden's honor. No one else would ever try to confront Jin Zixuan like this, no one else would dare.

Under the tangled ball of difficult feelings in his chest, under his flushed face and stinging eyes, Jin Zixuan can't help thinking, Ah.

He's someone truly amazing.

Their staring contest that might have lasted hours, might have lasted nothing is broken by Madam Yu's shriek.

"Wei Ying!"

Suddenly, there's a lot of movement around him, stun spell broken. His cousin is screaming, Jiang Cheng is screaming, Madam Yu is pulling Wei Ying away as Sect Leader Jiang tries to calm her, the disciples are in his face, asking questions and helping him up. Through it all, he can't say a single word, too shocked to perform basic functions.

The next day, Sect Leader Jiang properly apologizes in Wei Ying's stead despite his wife's sour looks. Although his mother is not happy at having her son attacked, she directs her discontent at him when she learns he was going against the engagement again.

Wei Ying is sent back to Lotus Pier by himself. For the rest of the Jiang's stay and many more months to come, Jin Zixuan subconsciously misses his bright laughter at the corners of Koi Tower.

-:-

In the next few years, Jin Zixuan sees Wei Wuxian again in night hunting competitions and other similar events.

He has matured enough to recognize how childish he was back during their first meeting after disrespecting the other boy and feels embarrassed beyond relief by his harsh words towards Jiang Yanli; anger clouded his judgement and made him say things that could easily be misinterpreted and a chance to apologize without lingering awkwardness never came.

He has also matured enough to realize just how intense is the attention he pays on Wei Wuxian.

The other boy never visited Koi Tower again, whether of his own decision or Madam Yu’s is unknown. In all competitions, Wei Wuxian relentlessly tries to surpass him and in many, he succeeds.

They've both grown since that fateful summer and Wei Wuxian has become a handsome young man, ranking 4th in the list of best looking cultivators, under Jin Zixuan himself. Jin Zixuan is both pleased and annoyed with that listing.

In the depths of his mind, where no one else can hear, he allows himself to admit Wei Wuxian should definitely take the number one spot. Maybe the maidens who judge this sort of thing haven't seen the glint in his eye when he slashes a corpse with his sword or his lopsided smile when he's about to pull some mischief or the sweat clinging to his neck after the hunt is over.

Maybe Jin Zixuan has gone mad. He definitely has, because that's the only explanation for why he keeps finding Wei Wuxian incredibly hot when he crushes Zixuan at some event, turning to throw a smug smile in his direction, eyebrow raised above those tempting eyes. Madness is the only reasonable explanation.

That or… Desire.

Jin Zixuan cringes as his cheeks warm.

It's a realization that doesn't surprise him as much as it should have, this attraction. However, that doesn't mean he knows how to deal with it.

It build up over the course of their teens, the brief moments they would be at the same place in the same time. The want to be close to him, to talk to him without the venom that plague their conversations, to tuck a lock of errant hair behind his ear and watch it fall back to the same place again.

It's something that he has to either accept or be driven crazy by it. The choice is obvious and quite easy.

His infatuation for Wei Wuxian, as much as it puts him in a hard spot every now and again (usually when his still going engagement is brought up), also brings him many wonderful things.

Whenever his and Wei Wuxian's eyes meet, there's an unspoken agreement to be better. Jin Zixuan pushes himself in training like he never did before, thrill running through his veins at the idea of hunting against Wei Wuxian the next intersectional event comes around.

Wei Wuxian motivates him to give his all.

And, for all his skipped heartbeats, for all his silly daydreams, he refuses to give Wei Wuxian an easy time.

The night hunt competition hosted by Lanling Jin arrives when they’re 16. All cultivators prepare accordingly, even more eager to leave a lasting impression when under the watchful gaze of the richest and most ostentatious sect.

While other disciples set their sights on pleasing their sect leaders and making a name for themselves, Jin Zixuan sweats with pure nervousness at seeing Wei Wuxian so near his home again. Not only that, but this is the year he has finally decided.

He can’t bring himself to continue keeping his distance. This is his chance to stop being a coward who covers under silent fantasies and impossible scenarios. Instead, he will put into practice the little he knows about romance.

By the time the disciples from Yunmeng arrive, Jin Zixuan is sweating buckets.

The group dressed in purples is rowdy and loud, as expected. The younger boys crowd around the person he’s been waiting for, each trying to please their da-shixiong with funny anecdotes and praises. And Wei Wuxian laughs, carefree and warm, petting the kids’ heads with pride.

“Jiang Cheng and I will do Yunmeng Jiang proud.” He hears him say, “Watch closely for when your time comes to do the same.”

The shidis cheer, growing even louder. How much those boys must trust their head disciple. Watching such a scene, Jin Zixuan can’t help but let out a smile.

The sect leader and his wife pay their proper respects to his parents, all the typical speeches about the upcoming preparation and challenges buzzing in his ears. As soon as the formalities are done and the participants separate to go to the training area, Jin Zixuan jumps from his seat and follows.

Wei Wuxian is standing a couple of feet behind his shidis, watching the scenery with a glint in his eyes. Zixuan has no doubt he must already be thinking of how to best use the landscape to his advantage... That, or maybe he’s just lazing around. It’s impossible to know with him.

He quickens his steps, falling into the same pace as the other boy. Wei Wuxian looks at him suspiciously, before ignoring his presence. Nothing Jin Zixuan didn’t expect, but it still lights a flare of annoyance and disappointment in his chest.

Not the time to feel sorry for himself. He’s a man on a mission.

“Enjoying the view?” He starts, excitement and anxiety mixing in his gut.

“Sure.”

“Past night hunts in Yunmeng have not been set up in mountains as big as this.” Jin Zixuan comments, trying to impress Wei Wuxian a little. Maybe this way he can put his sect in a better light while also showing his prospects.

Wei Wuxian glances at him annoyedly.

“We have plenty of big mountains to show off, we just don’t see the point. With the hunt spread out in such a large space, it drags on for too long and becomes boring. Our sect doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone.”

He turns back to the path, huffing with anger and Jin Zixuan curses inwardly. Did he say something wrong again?!

“A-ah.” He stammers, before clearing his throat, “Lanling Jin made sure to prepare a wide arrange of resentful yaos for this hunt. I’ve personally made sure all of them are in the best condition.” He says, turning his nose up a bit. It’s impressive, right? Surely Wei Wuxian will realize how applied his expertise is and be amazed?

Only, Wei Wuxian stops, glaring at him again.

“How magnanimous of the Young Master Jin to inform us of the advantages he has over us. Don’t worry, Young Master, we don’t need any of that to win.”

With that said, he speeds up and joins his friends in the front, leaving Jin Zixuan in the dust. Jiang Wanyin spares him a questioning glance, perhaps wondering why the hell would he approach Wei Wuxian first.

Jin Zixuan can only bury his red face in his hands. Okay, so this was terrible.

But he’s not about to give up after one failure. He may have his share of flaws, but he can proudly say giving up easily was never one of them.

With a decisive nod, he moves on.

Jin Zixuan sees the subject of his heart’s attention again after they reach the training grounds. Wei Wuxian stands alone in front of a few trees, weighing a bow in his hand and adjusting the quiver’s strap on his shoulder. After that, he draws the arrow in a fluid swoop, form perfect, and aims it at the tree.

The motions are inexplicably alluring and Zixuan tries to force his lungs to work properly. The way the tight sleeves follow his arms, the dip of his neck, the determined look in his eyes. Jin Zixuan would love nothing more than to stalk towards Wei Wuxian, throw the weapons on the ground and kiss him senseless, even if he has no idea how to do it.

He feels the pull, the ache in all the bones in his body, sinking even deeper, firm in his making.

A row of contestants pass by him laughing loudly and it snaps him from his delirium. Discreetly wiping the drool from the corner of his mouth, he takes a step closer. This next idea is something he has read in quite a few of his mother’s favorite romance novels and although incredibly embarrassing, he can’t deny he sees the appeal. Archery was always his favorite activity. If he can share that with Wei Wuxian, it'd be more than great.

With a small pump of his fist for encouragement, he makes his way to the other boy.

“Y-you're doing it all wrong!” He berates himself from stammering and then lowers his voice in a way he hopes is seductive, “Like this…”

Jin Zixuan steps around him, breath picking up. Wei Wuxian raises an eyebrow and he braves through, placing a hand on top of Wei Wuxian’s in the bow, the other laying softly on his raised elbow. He feels ridiculous and his hands are sweaty and he sees the way Wei Wuxian grimaces when he feels the dampness on his skin.

Mortification threatens to kill him right then and there. Bad Idea. This was a horrible idea!

It’s too late to back out, though. He swallows down his embarrassment and adjusts Wei Wuxian's posture, chest pressing on his back.

Wei Wuxian looks at him funny.

“I’m aiming to hit a bird…” He says like he’s talking to a particularly slow child, “Not the tree trunk.”

Jin Zixuan wants to be engulfed by the ground and never come out again.

Wei Wuxian’s bemused expression becomes annoyed.

“Peacock, are you trying to mess up my hunt?”

With his face as red as a tomato, Jin Zixuan excuses himself with a small ‘nevermind’ and walks away as fast as he can without it looking like he’s running away. Hiding behind a cart full of equipment, trying to get his breathing under control and feeling his heart race from the proximity, he reaches a conclusion:

Romance novels are unrealistic and not to be trusted!

He doesn’t have the courage to face Wei Wuxian directly after that, but right before the hunt starts, as the last rays of sun fall down on them, Jin Zixuan spies him storing a couple of talismans in his qiankun bag. Jiang Wanyin calls for him and Wei Wuxian leaves the bag unattended in favor of pouncing on the other’s shoulder.

Which leaves the perfect opportunity for what Jin Zixuan plans next.

Silently, he walks to the bag and calls forth the talismans. As he thought, they are the common ones, typical in all sects, made from poorer quality material. These ones even have weird splotches of ink that make no sense in the design, probably from the ink bleeding into the paper.

Jin Zixuan shakes his head and throws them out, putting inside a couple of the Lanling Jin ones, designed with the best quality in mind. He hopes Wei Wuxian will enjoy this little treat and recognize who gave it to him as well. Fondly patting the bag, he hurries away before he can be caught. It’s more charming if it’s a secret, right?

The hunt begins. Cultivators enter the mountain path with heads held high, ready to face the resentful creatures prepared, Jin Zixuan among them.

The targets are not going to be difficult, but rather easy prey under his bow and sword. The hardest part is assuring quantity. The first winners are already expected to be the heirs from the prominent sects and all eyes are trained on them.

Jin Zixuan knows he can't best the first jade of Lan, but he's not aiming for that. As long as he can be one step above Wei Wuxian, it's enough. That's what makes their rivalry fun, after all.

He makes his way through the thick foliage of the mountain track, a couple of corpses meeting their ends through his attacks. It's not even enough to break a sweat in his nape. His endurance can stand much more than this.

About to settle down for a pause to check on his itens, a rustle of leaves from behind makes him stand alert. He did not sense anything approaching before, could it be one of the stronger beings?

He turns sharply, but before there's time to do anything at all, something rushes out of the shadows and corners him in the tree. Jin Zixuan's protest dies when he sees… it's Wei Wuxian.

His shoulders relax and he starts to ask what the man is doing there but the look in Wei Wuxian's eyes steal his breath.

Wei Wuxian looks intense, eyes burning like a raging fire. With measured steps, the Yunmeng boy continues in his stride towards Jin Zixuan and he can't help but step back. He slowly backs away until he hits a tree trunk.

Even then Wei Wuxian doesn't stop.

Practically slamming both hands on the sides of Jin Zixuan's head, Wei Wuxian moves even closer, body almost pressed against his but not quite. He has a tiny bit of height over Zixuan and it's never as noticeable as it is now, as he looks down from above.

Jin Zixuan gulps, body heating up. His stomach is fluttering like crazy and every part of him where there's a hint of contact between them tingles. That elusive scent of rain and lotus flowers invade his senses, the same way it did so many years ago. And he really, really missed it.

Did… did his plan work?? Is Wei Wuxian going to… kiss him?? He can barely breathe.

But… looking closer, the other's eyes are not exactly screaming 'passion' or anything near affectionate, for that matter. In fact, the fire in his eyes looks extremely angry. Oh no…

"What is this?!" He growls, shoving a stack of papers in Zixuan's chest.

It's the talismans he left for him.

"They… I…" He stammers, not knowing what's wrong.

"Where are my talismans!"

"I exchanged those for these! So what!" Jin Zixuan replies, flare of temper rising up to match.

"Really, now?!" Wei Wuxian says, right hand tightening where it's holding Zixuan's upper arm, "You really stooped low enough to cheat this time around?!"

Jin Zixuan can't stop the shocked and hurt expression from taking over his face. He tries to push the other off, but there's no budge.

"What the fuck?! I don't need that to win!" Is that really what he thinks? Doesn't Wei Wuxian know him better than that?

"Oh, man. Haha, this is priceless." He lets out a dry, sarcastic laugh, "If you don't need it, then why did you steal the talismans I modified to be less uncontrolled and more accurate?!"

With every word Wei Wuxian gets angrier and Jin Zixuan gets colder. His stomach which was then fluttering now drops to the ground. Modified talismans? That's what those blotch stains were? And more than that, Zixuan remember those beings thunder and fire evocation talismans. If Wei Wuxian found a way to narrow down the target range of those, that would be amazing.

Taking his silence for a statement, Wei Wuxian snorts. Jin Zixuan's heart aches even more. He has to explain himself, he has to.

Wei Wuxian makes a motion to leave and Zixuan immediately pulls his arm, stopping him.

"Wait!" He exclaims, hoping to convey all the sincerity he can, "I really didn't do this to cheat. I'm serious. I vow this to you in the name of my family and all my ancestors."

Slowly the tension on Wei Wuxian clears and his eyes soften. The relief that fills Jin Zixuan's chest is immeasurable.

"You may be a stuck-up asshole," He starts and Jin Zixuan internally rolls his eyes, "But you never showed bad sportsmanship before. What's up with you today?"

His cheeks redden with embarrassment, "I have my reasons."

It's probably not enough excuse for the other to believe him, but what can he say? I'm hopelessly infatuated with you and doing everything I can so you'll see me as, at least, a friend instead of the immature twelve year olds we used to be, which keeps backfiring horribly no matter what I do? Yeah, right.

Wei Wuxian purses his lips and Zixuan hurries to continue, "But it was not to cheat! I honestly didn't know those talismans were special."

"I guess I'm gonna believe you, then." Wei Wuxian sighs, "Only this once! Because I really don’t think you’re the type to cheat. That’s below you." Then he flicks his forehead lightly, just above the vermillion mark. His blush deepens.

With such a disastrous confrontation over, he expects Wei Wuxian to finally leave so he can attempt to rearrange his thoughts, but instead, the other boy looks him up and down, contemplating.

Keeping the close distance, Wei Wuxian starts patting down his sash and up his sleeves.

"W-what are you doing?!" Zixuan asks, almost flinching at the brush of fingers on his wrist.

"I said I believe you, but I still want the talismans back!"

"They're not with me!" He yelps, shoving the other away at last, "I threw them out!"

Wei Wuxian looks at him bewildered, "Peacock, only you to do something so stupid! I can't believe I thought you were going to use those for your own gain, I should have known better."

"Yeah, yeah, just go already! Or you're going to lose your fourth place." He grumbles, making sure to put enough emphasis on the word fourth.

Wei Wuxian smirks that smirk he adores, the one that promises a good fight. Twirling back where he came from, he throws a last remark over his shoulder.

"Keep dreaming, Young Master Jin."

Long minutes after the last thread of red disappears in between the bushes, Jin Zixuan lets himself fall against the tree, breathing heavily. He curses all swear words he knows, dragging a tired hand down his face.

He has a feeling this memory will probably start to incorporate certain dreams of his with frequency.

The hunt resumes and ends with no other major occurrences. Jin Zixuan wins fifth place, under both Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin.

It's fine. He won't deny completely losing his concentration after that encounter. Not only because of his struggling heart, but also for the heavy gloom that settled on his shoulders. All of his attempts at courting missed the mark by miles. Everything he tried only aided in embarrassing himself or securing Wei Wuxian's contempt.

From such a blow to his pride, he wonders if maybe isn't it best to only pine for the other from afar, after all. Maybe they're just not meant to be.

He watches Wei Wuxian leave with a happy celebratory smile, ruffling Jiang Wanyin's hair and boasting loudly about the first round being on him. Jin Zixuan watches and shoves his feelings deep inside his chest where only he will know is there.

-:-

A year later finds them back together in Gusu.

It’s still too early for Jin Zixuan’s lovesickness to have healed and so he does not pretend his gaze doesn’t stray towards Wei Wuxian in the crowd of invited disciples. There he is, in all his glory, talking animatedly with Jiang Wanyin and Nie Huaisang, as beautiful and brilliant as Jin Zixuan remembers.

He lets out a forlorn sigh, focusing back on his own entourage. Remember, Jin Zixuan, it’s for the best like this.

Still, that doesn’t mean he can’t appreciate this new perspective of Wei Wuxian in a learning setting, as stifling as a learning setting the Cloud Recesses can be. With one glance at the wall of rules, he already knows this school year will be full of chaos and mayhem.

And right he is, he thinks, as Wei Wuxian gets kicked out of class on his first day. The theories he spouted… are very much his typical brand of crazy, something others may even call it lunacy. Jin Zixuan can’t comment, for he was too busy paying attention to the passionate clever mischief in his eyes.

That’s how their days in communal studying passes, with Jin Zixuan secretly stealing peeks at the other and greedily soaking on how it could be to see Wei Wuxian every day. He can admit to himself it’s a little pitiful, but not enough to make him stop. He admires Wei Wuxian from afar and that’s good enough.

But obviously, because things are being so peaceful, something is bound to happen. Jin Zixuan seems to attract extremely bad luck whenever the subject of his affections is involved.

One day that is as uneventful as any other, he is following the wall that depicts the ancestors of the Gusu Lan clan, taking in each window with some interest. The story of Lan An who established his sect with his loved one, embarrassingly, grabbed his attention more than others.

Of course, idle minds aid idle talks, most of those ones Jin Zixuan is unwillingly dragged into. The annoying disciples of his sect can’t spend a day without yapping about women and today is no different.

As they reach the final hollowed window of Gusu Lan’s founding, it starts.

“Zixuan-xiong,” One of them calls, “Who do you think is the best girl?”

Ah shit. He does not like where this is going.

Another disciple slaps the first one in the arm, “Don’t ask Zixuan-xiong about this. He has a fiancée, so of course his answer would definitely be her!”

At the word ‘fiancée’, his face inevitably falls, his expression no doubt one of discontent. How can he bring himself to enjoy this engagement when he is completely smitten with her brother? It’s shameless and absurd, a scandal for the ages if word got around, but what can he do? One does not control the heart.

“Really? Which sect is she from? She must be very talented!”

He notices Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin at a distance, studying his reaction like tigers wondering if a prey is worth before the pounce and a queasy feeling rising in his stomach tells him he should shut down this line of conversation before it’s too late. He waves a discouraging hand.

“Forget it.”

Unfortunately, his words seem to be the wrong choice. Wei WuXian speaks up, “What do you mean by ‘forget it’?"

Fuck. How can he change this situation around as to not escalate? He has no idea. He is terrible at talking, at manipulating things to his preferred outcome, despite those being very important skills for a sect leader. He can only hope to escape swiftly from Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin's sharp eyes.

“Is the phrase ‘forget it’ too difficult to understand?”

Wei Wuxian smiles, all bite and no joy, “The phrase is not what’s hard to understand. What’s hard to understand is how can you be unsatisfied with my Shijie.”

“Why don’t you ask me how can I be satisfied with her?” She’s not you, he thinks with a sinking heart. He truly will never be the focus of Wei Wuxian's attention. He truly will never be seen for what he is by the other man. It's something he already knew, but still stings nonetheless.

Jin Zixuan will forever regret his attitude those days when he and Wei Wuxian first met, his childish arrogance. He wishes he could have acted in a more honest manner, he wishes he could have captured Wei Wuxian's heart the way he did his.

“Where did you get the courage to be so demanding, huh?” Wei Wuxian continues.

“If she’s unhappy, then tell her parents to get rid of the engagement! I don’t care for your Shijie!” He responds angrily. His patience is running thin, spread out from his hurt pride. And because Jin Zixuan is frankly very terrible at talking, he opens his big mouth again and says something incredibly stupid:

“Aren’t you worrying too much about it? Are you jealous, maybe?”

Both of them have grown. The punch is much more painful than when they were kids.

He’s vaguely aware of the rest of the room going into an uproar, but he can’t bring himself to care as Wei Wuxian tackles him to the floor. Jin Zixuan could laugh at the irony of it all. He just wanted to delude himself that maybe, just maybe, Wei Wuxian was looking at him too. But that’s all that is. A delusion.

Throwing another punch he actually manages to dodge, Wei Wuxian grabs his robes and shakes him back and forth.

“You’re fucking sick if you think my concern for Shijie is of that nature!”

A charge of anger sparks up his body. How can Wei Wuxian be so smart yet so oblivious?! How can Zixuan’s words always fly away from him to become something of their own? He just wants to be understood, damn it!

All of his blood rises up to his head and he punches back just as hard. He exchanges grapples and blows with Wei Wuxian, not caring about the disciples running to get Lan Qiren. Only Jiang Wanyin stays there, trying to make them stop.

Adrenaline rushes through his veins and with a burst of power he is able to throw Wei Wuxian off and straddle him to the ground.

They’re both panting and sweaty and Wei Wuxian looks up at him with rage, wrestling his hold. He is so infuriating. And so, so beautiful as well.

“What’s your problem?! Why are you so against marrying my Shijie?!”

Zixuan snaps.

“Because I love you, idiot!”

The struggling stops.

Oh.

Oh, no.

He hears Jiang Wanyin’s quiet ‘what the fuck’, but chooses to ignore it so he can panic over the reaction on Wei Wuxian’s face.

Immediately, the grip on his arms slacken and Wei Wuxian blinks twice before his eyes widen like two dinner bowls. His mouth opens and closes like a fish and Jin Zixuan is drawn to the bruise forming in the corner of his cheek.

He raises a hand, brushing a thumb lightly over the swelling, as delicate as possible, and Wei Wuxian's eyes widen even further. In one instance, Jin Zixuan feels his weight so heavy on top of the other boy he might suffocate from it.

That small moment, imperceptible to anyone but them, is broken by Lan Qiren's angry voice.

“What is going on here?!”

Jin Zixuan jumps off Wei Wuxian like he was burnt.

It’s done. He fucked up big time and all he can do now is damage control by avoiding the other as much as possible.

Teacher Lan directs both of them to the Ancestral Hall so they’re not as exposed to the other disciples’ gossip and orders them to kneel. They’re side by side, but Jin Zixuan refuses to move his head where it’s bowed downwards.

“I have never, in all my years, seen such misconduct from young masters such as yourselves-”

The scolding goes on for a good minute. Jin Zixuan keeps his gaze directed at the floor.

“--This is Gusu and so you must behave appropriately to the rules-- Wei Wuxian!” Lan Qiren suddenly shouts. It’s almost ironic, the timing of it. “I'm already aware you are the one who threw the first punch and you don’t even have the face to pretend to listen?!”

At that, Jin Zixuan risks looking at what Wei Wuxian is doing, only to meet his eyes head-on. Wei Wuxian is staring at him like Zixuan is a particularly hard puzzle that must be solved. He gulps and looks back down once again, stomach churning.

“Both of you will kneel until sundown so you can properly reflect on your actions. I will make contact with your respective sect leaders, and they will be comprehensively told of what transpired today. And in many other days in your case as well, Wei Wuxian! You can go to the northern gardens, Jin Zixuan to the southern. Dismissed.”

Wei Wuxian stands, bows and leaves. Jin Zixuan waits until he is long gone before leaving as well.

Jin Zixuan kneels properly. Despite not being used to such prolonged punishment, he keeps his back straight and head high the entire time.

He kneels and contemplates his stupidity for hours. There’s nothing else he can do besides repeat that one reaction over and over again. Put it bluntly, his mouth has always betrayed him. Always ran ahead without looking where it’s going. And now it landed him on the worst situation yet. Worse than when he was a kid, worse than when he tried to flirt, much much worse.

Jin Zixuan will never be taken seriously again. Well, it would definitely come to that some day, but he didn’t expect it to be so soon. With a heavy heart, he mourns the fact that what little relationship he had with Wei Wuxian will now be over forever.

When the sun finishes setting, he stands up on unsteady feet and makes his way to one of the clear ponds in the gardens of the Cloud Recesses. His father is probably still talking with teacher Lan, and he sits on a stone’s edge.

It doesn’t take long before he notices a figure standing over him.

Wei Wuxian sits down by his side, looking at the water as well. He looks no worse for wear and Jin Zixuan almost smiles. He probably didn’t spend even half of the determined hours actually kneeling. He thinks he perhaps should feel more embarrassed and maybe even anxious, but all that is swirling inside him is a resigned sadness.

He throws a pebble at the pond.

“So.” Wei Wuxian starts, “That did not go how I expected to.”

Zixuan snorts, “Tell me about it.”

A full minute of silence passes, before Wei Wuxian starts again.

“Wait a second!” He groans and then buries his face on his hands, “So all those times you were pissing me off these past few years were your attempts at flirting?!”

“Don’t bring that up.” Jin Zixuan blushes.

Wei Wuxian notices his face reddening, staring intently at it. Jin Zixuan never felt the need to hide as strongly as now.

“Just so we’re clear,” He says slowly, “You don’t actually think less of my Shijie?”

Zixuan sighs.

“I think she must be an angel to put up with you.”

Although it’s a barb, it doesn’t faze Wei Wuxian one bit. Instead, he smiles mischievously.

“So... you like me, Young Master Jin?”

“Wei Wuxian.” He warns.

Wei Wuxian bumps their shoulders together, practically singing the words, “You’re in love with me?”

“Gods, you’re insufferable!”

He just laughs, leaning his head on Jin Zixuan’s shoulder. With one hand he starts making his index and middle finger ‘walk’ up his sleeve.

“Insufferably lovely?”

“You--” Jin Zixuan tries to say something, but he is forced to stop as his throat dries up from the view of Wei Wuxian resting on his shoulder, smiling at him knowingly from below.

He hurriedly turns away.

“If you’re going to make fun of me…”

Those wandering fingers finally reach his face and they twirl a lock of his hair. Wei Wuxian grins.

“Why, Young Master Jin, so hasty! I was just going to ask if you’d like me to teach you something.”

His mind is sending alarm bells on his head, always suspicious of that self satisfied smile that hides so many tricks, but his heart is beating faster than his brain can think, “What is it?”

Wei Wuxian tugs his hair a little and presses a cheek to his, mouth close to his ear. Every breath tickles Zixuan’s jaw.

His heart is going to jump out his chest. Wei Wuxian leans in and whispers:

“How to properly woo me, of course.”

A coughing fit immediately gets a hold of his lungs. (Regretfully, Zixuan can’t even appreciate he is at the perfect position to lean forward and brush his lips on Wei Wuxian’s neck. What a shame).

Wei Wuxian pats his back with amusement. After that, he stands and starts walking away.

“Feel free to come with me, if you’re not too chicken.”

With much difficulty, he manages to gather his breath and his wits while he stands, almost stumbling forwards.

“I’m not a chicken!” He wheezes.

“Oh right.”

Wei Wuxian turns to look at him from over his shoulder.

“You’re my peacock.”

Jin Zixuan trips on his own feet while Wei Wuxian laughs even harder.

He fumbles for a second, as one does when faced with Wei Wuxian. But then he is finally able to follow.