I hope this letter finds you well.
It came to my attention that you hold some power in the organization of nighthunts among your sect’s junior disciples. It also came to my attention that the Nie Sect hasn’t hosted any hunts within this past year or the previous with the Lan Sect. The beasts and the nature of the spirits that reside in Qinghe are rather different than that within Jiangnan. It would be beneficial, in my humble opinion, to collaborate on a hunt sometime in the near future.
If this possibility appears promising to you, please let me know. I would willingly oblige you assistance in the coordination of this endeavor.
Jin Ling hands the letter back to Jingyi with an acknowledging look on his face, as if the decision has already been made when it isn’t even Jin Ling’s decision to make. Jingyi says as much, sarcastically, only to receive a thoroughly disdainful look in return. The Sect Leader taps his finger down on where the letter lies in between them in Jin Ling’s study. Jingyi has brought the letter here, while he’s come on business to Carp Tower, sent by Sizhui as the correspondence to discuss on the Jin Sect side what to do with the Su Sect in light of recent events.
“Did you know,” Jin Ling begins, and from the expression on his face, Jingyi almost interrupts to say that he’s fairly sure he doesn’t want to, “that Wei Wuxian was a virgin when he died?”
Jingyi gives his friend a disgusted look. “No, I didn’t, and I really could have lived the rest of my life without ever thinking about that.”
“The rest of your possibly short, cultivator life, surrounded by danger that could end it at any moment,” Jin Ling continues on as if he hasn’t even heard Jingyi. “Do you want to die a virgin?”
Jingyi arches his eyebrows. “How is Mistress Sect Leader so certain I’m a virgin?”
The way Jin Ling drags his gaze with further disdain up and down Jingyi’s body, or as much of Jingyi’s body as can be seen from across a table is utterly hypocritical in Jingyi’s opinion considering Jingyi knows for a fact, unlike Jin Ling, that the other young man is just as experienced as Jingyi is—which is, to say, not at all. “Please,” Jin Ling says in the tone he’s used since he was sixteen whenever he wanted to sound like he knew something he didn't.
“You’re acting like the letter called me right into his bed,” Jingyi says, brandishing the letter before letting it fall back onto the table. “In any case, the best I can do is ask him to let me scout one of the sites. Sizhui is the one who actually sets everyone up on their case assignments. I just gather the offers.”
Jin Ling rolls his eyes so viscerally, the motion looks like it would give anyone a headache just to enact it. “Stop being Wei Wuxian and treating this like a real nighthunt offer,” he says impatiently. “He just wants you to go out and see him in Qinghe, so tell Sizhui you’re going, and go.”
Jingyi drums his fingers on the table for a moment, and then smiles at his friend, an idea taking root in his mind. “Would Sect Leader Jin be amenable to a wager?”
Jin Ling visibly chews on the inside of his cheek for a moment, before the curiosity seems to overtake him as well, and he leans forward. “Fine.”
“Leaving out time frames,” Jingyi says, an airy wave of his hand. “Should we see who can,” he raises his eyebrows, smile shifting into a grin, “first?”
“That’s not fair!” Jin Ling immediately flushes. “You know you’re going to win—we’ve all heard from Wei Wuxian that man has literally bedded enough people to fill a banquet hall, and he’s older, and you know he already wants you, and he’s not a—a—”
“—Head Disciple of the Lan Sect?” Jingyi finishes as Jin Ling turns from pink to scarlet.
Jin Ling is practically vibrating in his seat, scowling and folding his arms tightly over his chest. He’s so red that Jingyi thinks the Sect Leader might sweat straight through his robes.
“We won’t actually have anything for whoever wins or loses,” Jingyi shrugs. “Just a friendly wager—since Mistress Sect Leader was the one who made such a big deal about it in the first place. We can steal one of Senior Wei’s Truth-Binding talismans to check whenever either of us claims we’ve won.”
Jin Ling is deathly silent for a moment, head bowed, brow wrinkled in deep thought. Then, a look of determination passes over his face and he asks, one more time, “No time limitations?”
Jingyi shakes his head.
The Sect Leader extends his hand, and Jingyi grasps it. “All right,” Jin Ling says, like he’s signing his own execution warrant. “Deal.”
I do hold some weight in the decision-making process regarding our sect’s nighthunts. However, ultimately, the final decision remains that of my Head Disciple’s, whom you are familiar with from Senior Wei’s cleansing regimen for your sect’s Blade Spirits.
Currently, we have hunts scheduled for our junior disciples for the remainder of the season. I will be unable to let you know whether a hunt with your sect will be possible until it is time to arrange for the following season’s hunts. Our junior disciples follow a rather strict schedule for the first few years of their training. Nighthunt cases are allotted to those junior disciples directly under the Head Disciple’s leadership in their last year of training.
If it is amenable, I will be available in the week after next to scout any areas that you recommend for a potential nighthunt for these junior disciples perhaps at the end of this month or at the beginning of the next.
Disciple Lan Jingyi.
Sizhui dispatched Jingyi to lead a group of four additional Lan disciples with him to Moling after Hanguang-jun returned with Wei Wuxian. After taking Yi Renshu to Moling nearly immediately upon the captain’s arrival, Hanguang-jun had returned alone with Wei Wuxian wrapped in Hanguang-jun’s outer robe, carried in his arms and silent, eyes blank. Jin Ling and Sect Leader Jiang hadn’t been with him either. Hanguang-jun wouldn’t say what had happened, meaning Sizhui also hadn’t known what happened.
The only piece of information that Jingyi and the four disciples he led to Moling had received was that the Su Sect Leader was dead, and so was one other man, whose identity had yet to be determined. Yi Renshu was currently holding down the site of the incident, guarding it and making sure that no members of the sect, especially the youngest of the junior disciples, happened across a bloody house of dead bodies.
It was already nearly past hai shi when Jingyi and his fellow disciples arrived in Moling, at the Su Sect’s keep, one of those rare occasions when they were not on a hunt but still had to remain past their sect’s curfew. The other disciples that had been chosen were ones with level experience with Jingyi, bodies already trained out of feeling so lethargic upon the dawning of a sleeping time that had been ingrained in them for as long as they could remember.
“Make sure there aren’t any of their disciples wandering around,” Jingyi quietly ordered his colleagues, as they crossed the gates. They nodded at him, two of them setting out towards the apparent dormitories, and the other two moving to stand guard around the manor that was easily recognizable as that of the Sect Leader’s abode.
Jingyi hadn’t felt it the first time he’d ever met Yi Renshu, even when they’d actually gone out to assist Hanguang-jun in the cleansing of the outer disciples’ Blade Spirits. He had felt it when he’d been in the tombs of the Nie ancestors, but he’d been too distracted with his own task at hand attempting to continue his sole purification alongside Senior Wei to truly bask in it. Now, as he stepped over the threshold of the Sect Leader’s home, quietly parting the doors, he was able to feel it in its entirety—the overwhelming, suffocating thrum of a warrior’s qi.
Jingyi hadn’t been old enough to ever have been on the battlefield or, even from afar, stand in the presence of the Red Blade Master when he had still lived, but he couldn’t imagine how it would feel if this is what it felt like to simply stand in the midst of the power of an outer disciple of that sect. He’d sparred before with Nie disciples when they’d come for the guest lectures, but none of their sabers emanated this sort of spiritual force. Then again, the man currently sitting on the low, receiving table, surrounded by gore and traces of chaos, was no ordinary Nie disciple.
“Disciple Lan,” Yi Renshu’s chin was balanced atop his folded fingers, which in turn, rested on the hilt of his sword where it stood between his spread legs, tip stabbed into the floor. Only a single candle was lit in the room, one of the ones sitting on a blood-spattered shelf against the far wall. The captain’s pale, gray eyes seemed to glow even brighter than the candle’s flame.
Jingyi’s lungs tightened with every step he took, his gaze sharply first taking in the desecrated body near the entryway to the main room, then the dim talisman lying innocently on top of something dark and burnt near one of Yi Renshu’s boots. There were also two corpses that were not fresh ones—the taint of vengeful energy lingering over them. Jingyi stepped closer to the only newly dead body, arms torn off gruesomely and a sword wound straight through the stomach. The face was left intact, even though the eyes were still open, mouth gaping in the man’s last, soundless scream.
Shock reverberated throughout his body as recognition struck him. He whirled around to stare at Yi Renshu. The captain nodded with something that might have been distant resignation and acknowledgment. “Sect Leader Huan?” Jingyi then asked, frowning, and scanning the room. Yi Renshu nodded a second time, down at the pile of strange ashes at his feet. Jingyi swallowed. “What did they—to Senior Wei—”
Yi Renshu held Jingyi’s gaze for an immeasurable silence. “If they’d attacked the him as the Yiling Patriarch,” the captain finally spoke, his tone carefully even, “he might have shown them mercy.”
Jingyi thought to the way Hanguang-jun had been holding his husband—the way Wei Wuxian had refused to meet anyone’s gaze, clutching the edges of Hanguang-jun’s robes shut tightly around himself as if it was shield between himself and the rest of the world. He thought about how he’d seen Wei Wuxian slice himself out from the belly of a gargantuan, cursed lizard before, covered in viscera and still laughing and cheerful even as the rest of them had all felt as if decades had been shaved off their lives at the sight. He thought about what could perhaps be one of the only things that shook even Wei Wuxian’s seemingly impenetrable emotional defenses.
“Good,” ended up being the only thing Jingyi could think of to say. “They didn’t deserve any.”
Jingyi has his minor breakdown once he is three-quarters of the way to Qinghe, the landscape below him already having given way from green forests and rivers to the dry, arid, rocks so characteristic of the regions surrounding the Unclean Realm. It’s very, very minor because following soon after is the internal reassurance he gives himself that it really is just a light, friendly wager, unserious at all, and that there really is no way for Jin Ling to win. There’s not even any pressure or rush for Jingyi—he could still probably win even if he cuts off contact completely from Yi Renshu and begins pursuing someone else completely anew.
He ignores any nervousness bubbling in his chest at the fact that it is rather common knowledge by this point, once they all knew who to talk to, exactly how free Captain Yi Renshu of Qinghe Nie is with his bed partners. In retrospect, Jingyi knows that it was foolish of him to have worried that Yi Renshu was pursuing Wei Wuxian with an ardent fervor or that Yi Renshu felt slighted or heartbroken over Hanguang-jun’s rejection of him a decade ago.
With Zizhen helming the gossip-mongering from his end of the country, they all quickly discovered that, among high-ranked cultivators of the generation before them, Yi Renshu is selective about his partners, but free with his physicality once he’s ascertained someone who has captured his attentions. He spares no love lost, since no matter how hard they (Zizhen and Jin Ling) all searched, they couldn’t find any tell-tale of Yi Renshu having had a courtship for more than some months, if those rumors were even true to begin with.
Jingyi has no doubts that he’s going to be asked into the captain’s bed tonight, after the scouting has been completed, and he tells himself that it’s nothing at all—he’s well over the age of majority at this point, and, like Jin Ling stated so frankly, it really wouldn’t do to risk dying a virgin.
He could feel the captain’s eyes on him as he set up talismans around the house once two of the Lan disciples he came with had dragged the bodies out and cleaned most of the ichor from the floor and walls. Yi Renshu obediently stood back behind Jingyi for the purification process. Most of the dark energy that Jingyi could sense, that he needed to drag into the light formation formed by the strategically placed talismans, was from the corpses that Wei Wuxian had undoubtedly summoned to aid him in killing his assailants. From what Jingyi felt around in the atmosphere, the souls of the two men had been vanquished in a way that only the Yiling Patriarch could manage on such short, sudden notice. They certainly did not linger closely enough that Jingyi could sense anything of them.
Jingyi’s heart was almost unbearably heavy after the cleansing had concluded. He looked around for a moment, silently, at the walls and the destroyed furniture and glassware. He wondered if he would have been able to fight off both men—most likely he could’ve kept Huan Jun at bay. He wasn’t entirely certain about Wang Shilin. He wondered if he would’ve been able to end their lives as mercilessly as Wei Wuxian had. He wondered if he would’ve been able to hold himself from breaking apart long enough to fight.
A hand on his shoulder startled him from his thoughts, sudden enough that he jumped slightly at the touch. Yi Renshu’s gaze was both assessing and inquiring. Belatedly, Jingyi considered exactly how strong the man’s cultivation must be for him to look the same age as Hanguang-jun. He knew that both men shared their true age, along with Wei Wuxian if his missing years were disregarded. Strong cultivation was needed, though, in order to remain looking so close visibly to Jingyi’s own age now.
“This disciple will see to the patrols at the sect’s entrance,” Jingyi said, stepping back out of the older man’s reach. He bobbed his head in a short bow. “Captain Yi should remain here.”
He could feel the warmth of the other man’s gaze follow him as he walked through the door.
Yi Renshu isn’t wearing any armor when he greets Jingyi at the gates of the Unclean Realm. He’s garbed similarly to when he approached Jingyi the day after the Blade Tomb fiasco, having just finished morning training in simpler shorter robes, shift trousers tucked into the boots of a soldier rather than the lighter ones of a cultivator. He isn’t wearing the thick band over his forehead and hair with his rank and sect’s insignia either today, hair slightly looser over one eye even as the rest remains in the usual high tail.
Jingyi sees the horses from the sky, and he looks appraisingly at the other man at the sight of them in the plural. Two. He raises his eyebrows wordlessly, and Yi Renshu merely reflects Jingyi’s expression back to him. The older man tilts his head to the side, and says, “This captain gathered from Disciple Lan’s previous visit to Qinghe that he prefers to ride alone.”
The darker of the two horses, a fetching white stripe down between its ears to its nose seems to look directly into Jingyi’s eyes. He places a hand in front of its snout, letting it nudge closer. “Sometimes,” Jingyi allows, glancing up to meet Yi Renshu’s eyes. The captain’s expression is still unwaveringly impassive, and Jingyi’s stomach flips around a few times, letting him know very clearly the lack of confidence they had in this endeavor. What if Yi Renshu was only interested in him for that single night at the Unclean Realm, months ago, and since Jingyi hadn’t allowed himself to be bedded then, the opportunity had passed?
What if his friends are terrible, useless, enablers and Jingyi is here about to make a sheer fool of himself to a man who genuinely thinks Jingyi is here to solely scout for night hunting prospects for his sect?
Yi Renshu is already on his horse by the time Jingyi’s second minor breakdown of the day has finished, one eyebrow raised as he clearly waits for Jingyi to regain his wits and clamber onto his own mount. “It’ll be a little farther than the Stone Castles,” the captain says, as he leads his horse into a trot and nods at Jingyi to begin following him. Yi Renshu keeps his head turned to face Jingyi as he speaks. “The terrain will become quite difficult once we pass the forest, but I’ve chosen horses that are familiar with the course.”
“Perfect,” Jingyi says, smoothing his tone out with ease. “Lead the way, Captain.”
A week before the Jiang Head Disciple and the Su Sect Leader revealed themselves as inhuman garbage, Jingyi met with his cousin for tea, only to end up spluttering it out all over the table when he truly looked at Lan Yingjie. It wasn’t something that was so known to outsiders, perhaps not even so much to outer members of their sect, but every branch within the inner clan had a specific pattern embroidered into their forehead ribbons. The differences were subtle, all the patterns were still some sort of cloud motif, but the shades of blue thread varied as did the particular way the clouds were interwoven over the white silk.
“That,” Jingyi said, forgoing every piece of etiquette he had ever learned to directly point across the table at his cousin’s forehead, “is not yours.”
Lan Yingjie blushed in a very different way than Jingyi. The Healer was perhaps the only one in their direct family whose neck would redden so noticeably even while his face remained perfectly fair. It was just Lan Yingjie’s luck that a Healer’s robes were one of the most modest set of robes within the sect uniforms, even by Lan standards, hiding all the way to his chin. “No,” he said simply, pouring Jingyi another cup of tea. “It isn’t.”
Jingyi folded his arms, leaning back slightly to watch the sliver of exposed skin on his cousin’s neck turn literally as red as Wei Wuxian’s representative ribbons. “So much for dual cultivating for Yingjie-ge’s cultivation and only for Yingjie-ge’s cultivation,” Jingyi said, as Lan Yingjie coughed loudly into his own tea. “Is it really Lan Guiren? Yingjie-ge couldn’t find anyone more interesting?”
The stare that his cousin bore down on him was nothing short of withering. “Interesting is not an objective qualification,” the Head Healer sniffed. “Jingyi’s high standards of interesting lie in launching himself recklessly at over-sized amphibians in the wilds of Gusu, and then seeking out my expertise in treating his resulting inflammation—”
“This was two years ago, how long is Yingjie-ge going to hold it against me?” Jingyi asked, staring at the ceiling. “Forgive me, honestly, for wanting a cultivation partner who does something more exciting than filing sect reports all day.”
The Healer regarded him dryly over the rim of his cup. “With the way Jingyi behaves, he’ll be lucky to find a cultivation partner within our sect at all.”
Jingyi is beginning to think that the reason Wei Wuxian gets along so well with Yi Renshu is because the man oddly shares some of Hanguang-jun’s stranger qualities—one of which turns out to be the tendency to use a colorless, blasé tone to underplay things he really should not underplay. The terrain is not quite difficult—it is impossible to remain upright on the horse without clutching the poor animal’s back with all four limbs. The horse itself doesn’t seem to particularly care that Jingyi is about to careen off the saddle to his tumbling death if he doesn’t manage to unsheathe his sword quickly enough to fly on it.
“Captain,” Jingyi yells through the wind, through gritted teeth. “Wouldn’t it have been better to leave the horses at the foot of the mountain and use our swords to come up—”
“No, the horses are fine,” Yi Renshu calls back through the howling air.
Jingyi only barely manages to rein in the shrill indignation that yes, the horses are just peachy, but Jingyi is about to die a virgin when he specifically came here so that he wouldn’t die a virgin.
Thankfully, by the grace of some higher deity, they soon finally reach the site that Yi Renshu promised would be the ideal last assignment for the most prestigious of the Lan Sect’s junior disciples to overcome before leaving their tenure as juniors. The land levels out, even though it remains rocky and uneven—claylike and dense, yet somehow still dry, beneath the soles of Jingyi’s boots. He thinks perhaps he now understands why Yi Renshu has opted out of the lighter footwear customary to cultivators today. Jingyi can feel every pebble beneath his feet.
Jingyi dismounts with a hop, and immediately is drawn to the edge of the cliff. The drop isn’t sharp, several smaller cliffs beneath it, a rather gradual incline, even if far steeper than the path they took to the summit. Yi Renshu comes to stand behind him and motions down at the levels beneath the one they currently stand on.
“There’re caves down on those,” the older man explains. “They’re home to Silver-Eared Black Bears, and a lot of traveling poachers from outside of Qinghe fall prey to them. They aren’t vicious beasts, but when their cubs are endangered—their pelts are only any good if they’re skinned young—the mothers will kill. There’re usually plenty of ghosts in those caves, as well, as a result.”
The flare of adrenaline rushes through Jingyi before he absently tamps it down, nearly a reflex at this point. After all, even if he’s to be present during this hunt, it would be as a supervising higher disciple rather than a junior who could fully take part in it. He’s already had his time, after all, following Wei Wuxian all over the Jiangnan wilds, and even beyond the borders, hunting all sorts of spiritual and physical beings. Wei Wuxian himself leads the current batch of junior disciples only. Occasionally, Jingyi will accompany him with his own gaggle of younger boys, but for the most part, Jingyi has already had two years of acting as the responsible shixiong.
Something wistful rounds through him as he looks down towards the caves again. “This will be incredible,” Jingyi remarks, shaking his head, almost in admiration. “This disciple assumes the site will be even more promising at night?”
There’s a curious light in Yi Renshu’s eyes when Jingyi tips his head to meet the older man’s gaze. There’s an even more intriguing sort of twist to the captain’s lips as he replies, “Disciple Lan has an interesting interpretation of promising.”
Suddenly, Jingyi feels the heat of the captain’s gaze all over his body, raking from his face to his feet in an effortless sweep of gray eyes.
All right—at least one of his previous concerns has been sufficiently addressed.
Jingyi ignores the quickening of his heartbeat to say, dismissively, “If a hunt isn’t challenging, how can it be a hunt? Buying a fish from the market isn’t fishing.” Once he finishes speaking and gesturing out at the rest of the mountain to make his point, his voice dries up in his throat upon the realization that Yi Renshu’s face is suddenly very close to his own.
Have the captain’s eyes always been this clear? The grayness of them is so faded that at this proximity, they almost appear translucent while somehow still retaining the color. As if steel could be made sheer and elegant. His eyelashes appear even darker and thicker because of it.
“Disciple Lan doesn’t need to insist his point,” Yi Renshu rumbles, tone deep and resonant. Surely, it can’t be physically possible to feel the vibrations of someone else’s voice in the pit of his own stomach. “This captain already agrees with him.”
Before Jingyi could, as per Jin Ling’s oversimplified understanding of the limitations of those of them who were not young Sect Leaders, tell Sizhui and go, he first had to inform Hanguang-jun of his request to travel to Qinghe. Normally, Jingyi could also just as well ask the Grand Sect Elder whether his request could be mandated, but it was clear general knowledge among all of the younger disciples that unless strictly sect-related, Hanguang-jun was the one far more likely to allow permission of pretty much anything at all.
He caught Hanguang-jun in the halls between the afternoon meditation and the afternoon meal. Wei Wuxian was in Yunmeng for the week, which meant that Hanguang-jun was fully throwing himself into conducting extra lectures for any disciples who either wanted to get ahead with their theory courses or improve on anything they lacked in. Their Second Young Master’s unreadable gaze roved over the words of the request, hands holding the small scroll open.
“You may go,” he intoned after hardly even ten seconds, if even that—the silence only stretched as long as it took Hanguang-jun to read first the captain’s letter, and then the request form that Jingyi filled out himself.
Jingyi was so surprised that he nearly forgot to bow, restraining himself from gaping at Hanguang-jun in confusion at the quickness of the response. “Thank you,” he said deferentially, as he straightened. He was rather disconcerted to see the other man still standing there, searching for something in Jingyi’s face. Naturally, Jingyi could not simply turn away from the Second Young Master of their sect. Hanguang-jun had to leave first, meaning that Jingyi was fairly certain he stood there, allowing himself to be stared at, for what felt like a generous eternity.
Hanguang-jun finally nodded to himself about something Jingyi was absolutely certain he was missing. “You’ve been restless,” he then elaborated on his over-extended silence, which was probably as verbose as Hanguang-jun would get without Wei Wuxian in the vicinity to provoke him into expanding further.
Jingyi was stumped into complete silence for a short moment, before he realized that restless was Hanguang-jun’s expectedly distinguished way of saying bored.
He hurriedly pitched forward into another bow. “Hanguang-jun,” he said hastily, “this disciple—”
“—will enjoy his journey,” Hanguang-jun finished, nodding again. This time, he swept off without a glance at Jingyi at all, not even leaving him time to fit in a parting bow.
Jingyi stared after the other man, thoroughly baffled, and wishing that Wei Wuxian’s return date was earlier so that Jingyi could have at least asked for a translation before setting off to Qinghe.
Jingyi is eternally grateful that Yi Renshu has them eat dinner with the Nie disciples of the sect’s military branch rather than with Sect Leader Nie. Excluding Jin Ling and Jingyi’s own Sect Leader, Jingyi far prefers Sect Leader Nie to any of the other Sect Leaders, but eating with any Sect Leader—other than Jin Ling, who barely registers in Jingyi’s mind as even a Sect Leader—means that Jingyi has to maintain the decorum expected from that of a Lan disciple. He would much rather be able to chat and tease and roll his eyes freely with his peers, especially from that of another sect. It means he can talk at all as he eats.
The military cultivators are slightly more serious than the open, daring ones that Jingyi is used to from the disciples the Nie sect sends to attend the guest lectures, but they are still welcoming and easy to converse with. Yi Renshu is still as quiet as he always is, speaking in low tones that still efficiently manage to match barb for barb with his men.
Jingyi doesn’t miss the charged looks that Yi Renshu sends him throughout the meal, across the table, whenever he thinks Jingyi isn’t looking. He also doesn’t miss the way several of the surrounding disciples glance at Yi Renshu when they think he isn’t looking—gazes of adoration and desire mixed in a variety of ratios that differ in each pair of eyes.
The captain himself, however, seems either genuinely unaware or wholly dismissive of all the attentions focused on him.
At one point, after most everyone has finished eating, and only some liquor being passed around the table that Jingyi declines—unlike Sizhui, he will drink when he isn’t in Cloud Recesses, but unlike Jin Ling and Zizhen, he tries to at least maintain some face for his sect by only drinking when there are few others present—Jingyi notices Yi Renshu looking at him once more. This time, however, when Jingyi directs his eyes towards the other man, Yi Renshu does not look away.
The captain has one elbow propped up on the table, cheek resting lightly against the edge of his palm as he takes slow, even, sips of his drink, all the while, his gaze never leaving Jingyi’s face.
It’s something that Jingyi has rolled his eyes at, countless times, when he catches Hanguang-jun and Wei Wuxian doing it—he often will elbow Jin Ling in the ribs, and they’ll together ask Wei Wuxian, once Hanguang-jun is out of earshot, that kisses and hugs are one obviously understandable thing, but they fail to see the point of the extended staring contests. Twirling Chenqing, Wei Wuxian will always smile at them, winking, and move on without answering to instead ask them if either of them have figured out how to lure forest ghouls without disturbing any of the nearby beasts.
Jingyi wants to know how just meeting someone else’s gaze can have his entire body flushing with heat from his chest outwards. His heart doesn’t speed up, but every beat feels like the deep, thud of a drum. There isn’t even any particularly compelling expression on Yi Renshu’s face—merely that same, infinitesimal curve of the corners of his lips, something fascinating reflected in the light of his eyes.
Slightly dazed, Jingyi stands then, announcing quietly to the table at large that he needed to retire to his rooms, now, with the time drawing late for a Lan disciple.
Yi Renshu slowly rises to his feet as well, his eyes still holding Jingyi’s. “This captain will show Disciple Lan to the guest quarters,” he says, and Jingyi wills himself not to redden at the fact that at least a dozen more pairs of eyes are suddenly attached onto the both of them as they leave the hall.
Jingyi wasn’t a stranger to desire.
The popular misconception about cultivators from the Lan Sect was that they were all nearly ascetics, feeling nothing and only going about the carnal once they were married, to further their bloodline and nothing more. Members of their clan like Jingyi’s cousin would obviously never speak a word of what they did behind closed doors until they were married. Even if Lan Yingjie and Lan Guiren went along to become cultivation partners in name, Jingyi could hardly imagine a day when either of them would publicly discuss with anyone who wasn’t a thoroughly close friend or relative or sect member what they engaged in before their marital rites.
Without Jin Ling and Zizhen’s presences, after all, Jingyi and Sizhui, the closest of friends since childhood—nearly brothers—would never breathe a word of any sort of desires they held for anyone, at any point. It just wasn’t something to be discussed. It was something they knew they all felt, because they were all still humans—how could they not?
Discussing it—having it known, unless it was for the sake of scheduling to sate those urges with another sect member discretely, in the dead of night, marks covered up by their high collars and long hair—no, that would truly be out of the question.
The days when Jingyi had first begun to notice the handsome breadth of a shixiong’s shoulders, the way the Healer robes fell prettily around the body of a shijie, those had been the days during which Jingyi threw himself into meditation in the coldest parts of the springs—as they were all expected to do when that time came for every Lan disciple. When meditation was no longer enough, he would choose evenings when he knew Sizhui would be otherwise preoccupied with Head Disciple duties. He would muffle his voice against his arm, against the blankets of his bed, taking himself in hand and wringing out a release that left him less satisfied than when he began.
There was nothing for it, though. Jingyi’s cousin was right, after all. He would never be satisfied taking even a temporary partner from their sect to curb his needs until he could marry. For one, he wasn’t going to marry any time soon. There was still too much he wanted to achieve—too far for his cultivation to still grow before he would be satisfied. For another, he didn’t think he would be able to bear it, even taking a partner only physically, to only ever be able to greet them in the proper, distant way Lan Yingjie and Lan Guiren always greeted each other when they passed one another in the open.
Even those spouses, in their sect, would only walk side by side, maintaining proper distance between each other, not even brushing shoulders.
Sometimes, Jingyi blamed Hanguang-jun.
He didn’t think it would be fair to blame Wei Wuxian—he obeyed the rules of their sect to the best of his abilities now, but he was never from their sect truly, not of their clan, and the fact that he wasn’t raised the way they all were wouldn’t change. He wouldn’t understand.
To see their Second Young Master, the man Jingyi perhaps had looked up to all of his life—the member of their clan that perhaps every younger disciple looked up to and admired, the most Lan of all the Lan cultivators—to see him treat Wei Wuxian not just as a partner, as a spouse, as a husband—out in the open, Hanguang-jun still treated Wei Wuxian as his lover.
Certainly, there were times when Jingyi would cringe and bristle, and both he and Jin Ling would make choking noises of indignation while Sizhui and Zizhen hid their eyes away and pretended as if they were circus horses donning their blinders. Other times, however, when Jingyi stepped in on something he perhaps truly shouldn’t—nothing scandalous and shocking, but a quiet moment when Hanguang-jun would press his mouth over Wei Wuxian’s, out in a courtyard where anyone could walk by, at any moment, the way Hanguang-jun didn’t hide the way he looked at Wei Wuxian—
Jingyi had come to think, perhaps, it wouldn’t be so bad to remain alone than to have anything less than that.
The walk to the guest quarters feels like it takes an eternity—it feels as if they are walking a distance that will take Jingyi all the way back to Gusu. He’s too aware now of Yi Renshu at his side, wondering if the captain really does run warmer than most others or if that’s just Jingyi imagining the heat emanating off of the other man’s body. Yi Renshu doesn’t appear even remotely perturbed, as if he truly is doing nothing but showing his guest to his rooms for the night.
Once they reach the doors of the same set of rooms that Jingyi had slept in on his last, eventful visit, Yi Renshu stops and simply nods his head. There isn’t anything unordinary at all in his gaze, in the way that his eyes roam over Jingyi’s body. It strikes him as infuriating and unfair and baffling all at once. His heartbeats still sound like the earthshaking booms of thunderclaps in his ears, pounding fiercely against his ribcage. Enough pent-up frustration and confusion whirls in him that, before Yi Renshu can proceed to bid him a polite goodnight, Jingyi blurts out, “That’s it?”
Yi Renshu blinks. He looks mildly surprised, for once. “Does Disciple Lan find these rooms unsatisfactory? Or was it his dinner?”
“You’re not going to—” Jingyi jerks his head towards the doors, knowing full well that his ears must be visibly bright red by now, noticeable even only with the light of the lanterns. “—me?”
Yi Renshu blinks again, the surprise fading into brief confusion before it’s overtaken by, of all accursed things, a smile.
Jingyi has yet to see the man smile, in the short time they’ve known each other. It’s small, this one that the captain wears now, tinged with amusement and something that looks like satisfaction. The expression thoroughly steals the breath right out of Jingyi’s lungs, his heart thudding so loudly that he’s nearly too lightheaded to realize that Yi Renshu is pleased.
With a single step, Yi Renshu is crowding Jingyi back up against the closed doors, not touching him at all, and yet somehow, Jingyi can feel him everywhere. Jingyi thinks he can feel the other man beneath his skin, seeping in until his warmth is hovering around Jingyi’s racing heart. Their faces are too close. He can smell the traces of the Qinghe liquor on the other man’s breath, he can smell blade oil and fresh earth just as he had that morning after the Stone Castles. Jingyi tips his head all the way back so that he is looking at the other man’s eyes and not his throat.
In retrospect, this is perhaps the worst idea Jingyi has had so far. Yi Renshu’s throat would be a far safer location to direct his eyes at than Yi Renshu’s face. The captain’s eyes are even clearer, even more luminescent, the most spellbinding shade of clear gray, and Jingyi thinks to himself that this isn’t possible—it’s physically, humanly impossible for this shade of this color to exist. Gray is the color of rocks and stone and metal and storm clouds and sunless days. Gray isn’t the sort of color that implores Jingyi to look, and look, and look, and still never want to look at anything else ever again.
“Would Disciple Lan like me to?” Yi Renshu murmurs, and Jingyi’s mind takes a humiliatingly long time to realize what the captain is referring to. He doesn’t even remember what was last spoken between them—it feels like this silent tension has already stretched for a veritable decade.
For the first time in his life, Jingyi can’t find his voice.
When he finally manages to part his lips, still wondering how he’s planning to speak with a throat that has been wrung of all moisture, Yi Renshu draws back, placing a small distance between them that should not leave Jingyi feeling as abruptly cold as he does. The sudden pang that aches in his chest is only abated by the way Yi Renshu’s smile has shifted into something light and fond, no longer so intense.
Jingyi can see it in Yi Renshu’s eyes a split second before the other man’s own mouth opens. The captain is about to tell Jingyi to go inside and sleep well—Jingyi senses it, he isn’t sure how, but it’s as if he can watch the words form in the man’s own mind before they are to be spoken aloud. His hand reaches out, so quickly that he isn’t aware of the movement of his own body until he feels cloth clutched in his fingers.
He stares down at the disobedient, insolent, limb.
Yi Renshu’s eyebrows arch slightly as he, too, looks down at Jingyi’s impertinent hand, gripping the corner of the older man’s sleeve. In the next moment, he’s looking back at Jingyi, and the smile he wears this time is mesmerizing. Jingyi can’t look away, and he doesn’t want to, so he keeps his eyes open even as Yi Renshu leans in and whispers, “It appears Disciple Lan refuses to return to Cloud Recesses empty-handed.”
Jingyi doesn’t even realize that he’s already offered his own mouth up, face tilted slightly, until warm lips press against his cheek instead, a firm and easy point of contact that leaves him simultaneously stupefied and tingling.
Yi Renshu’s eyes are positively dancing, when he finally steps away, another rush of cool night air filtering up against Jingyi’s front where there was previously enthralling heat. “Sleep well, Disciple Lan,” he says, bowing his head, and walking away, before Jingyi can even begin reassembling the melted bits and pieces of his mind.
Sizhui was oddly solemn as he signed his approval for Jingyi’s scouting request. The Head Disciple’s mouth was turned down in a slight frown, faint wrinkles creasing his brow as he finished off his signature with a neat flourish, and expertly re-tied the scroll for Jingyi to pocket in his robes. The look that he set Jingyi was even odder, here in the quarters that the two of them had shared for nearly three years now.
“Are you certain?” his friend asked, suddenly, as Jingyi sat at his writing desk to begin looking through some of the maps Yi Renshu had sent over with his initial letter.
Jingyi frowned. “Certain of what?” he countered, puzzled.
Sizhui sat on the other side of Jingyi’s desk, looking down at the maps Jingyi had laid out. It was some time before hai shi, both of them already in their thicker, white sleeping robes, hair brushed and plaited for sleep. “Senior Wei wouldn’t befriend a dishonorable man so closely,” Sizhui began slowly, brow furrowed in concentration as if trying to figure out the best way to speak about whatever was on his mind. “I think Captain Yi is a good man, as well, but—”
“—but Mistress Sect Leader and Zizhen found too many rumors about him and his harem for not at least one of them to be true?” Jingyi finished, amused, as Sizhui’s cheeks turned red in the way they always did when the Head Disciple knew he wasn’t behaving in a way that particularly befit a Lan Head Disciple.
“He’s a good man,” Sizhui reiterated, cheeks still flaming. “It doesn’t matter how many people he’s—that isn’t—”
Jingyi took pity on his friend and interrupted reassuringly with, “I’m going there to scout. I’m not launching myself into his arms, proclaiming my undying love for him, and begging him to marry me within the week.”
Perhaps if Sizhui had been Zizhen or Jin Ling in this moment, the conversation would’ve ended there. Unfortunately, they’d known each other for too long for Jingyi to continue with these sorts of translucent pretenses. “If he asks you into his bed,” Sizhui said, eyes boring into Jingyi’s, “will you go?”
Jingyi looked back down to one of the maps he’d spread out beneath his hands, the fingers of his right hand resting over the mountain range that surrounded Cloud Recesses. “What does it matter if I do?” he eventually deflected. “You said he’s a good man—that means he’ll be discrete. It won’t be anything serious. It won’t even be happening on sect grounds.”
The look that Sizhui directed at him made it painfully clear that his friend was not believing a single word of Jingyi’s weak attempts at lies that couldn’t be fully classified as lies, weaving around one of their sect’s most core principles.
“I barely know him,” Jingyi tried, this time.
“Neither did Hanguang-jun know Senior Wei on the rooftop,” Sizhui said, the savagery of his words smoothed over by his ever-pleasant, quiet, even tone.
“You’ve heard shifu,” Jingyi tried a final time, changing tactics. He settled Sizhui with the most immovable look he could manage. “It’s a wonder my parents are both clan members. There’s nothing in the way that I think or behave that resembles a Lan.”
Sizhui was quiet for nearly too long before he said, with a sigh, in a tone that rendered Jingyi speechless, “Shifu said nothing about your heart, though, did he?”
Jingyi doesn’t know how long he tosses and turns in bed, but it feels as if he’s just barely closed his eyes before his body wakes him up again—to accustomed by now to let him sleep in any later than sunrise. His mind remains persistently foggy as he mechanically moves through the motions of preparing himself for the day, and for the journey back to Cloud Recesses. There aren’t many Nie disciples in the hall yet when he ventures out for a quick breakfast, and then onwards to the emptiest courtyard he can find to meditate until it came time to depart.
He’s far more awake, head marginally clearer and senses sharper, when a hand touches him lightly between his shoulder blades. He’s soothed enough, after having led his thoughts through all of the simple processes of the Lan Sect’s most basic reflection sets, that he isn’t at all startled. He finds himself easily able to slowly open his eyes, lids only slightly heavy from having closed again so soon after he awoke.
When he turns and directs his gaze upward, the expression on Yi Renshu’s face is another one that Jingyi has yet to see on the man in their short acquaintanceship. The captain’s pupils were faintly dilated, eyes widened and posture stiff as he stared down at Jingyi.
“Good morning,” Jingyi blinks a few times, waiting for the other man to unfreeze himself. Yi Renshu seems to shake himself out of an unfathomable trance. Even if disciples from other sects aren’t as stringent about the number of times they meditated in a day, surely the captain has seen it before, and meditated himself, as well. It’s standard procedure for any core formation, in the early years for a cultivator.
“Is Disciple Lan prepared for departure?” Yi Renshu says, sounding strangely hoarse for some reason.
Jingyi stands, picking up his sword from the wooden bench it rested upon. The captain is once again wearing the same sort of casual robes he wore the previous day, no armor still, but his boots have been traded back in for the same thin cultivator boots Jingyi also wears. The scent of alcohol is no longer on him, and there’s no scent of blade oil as well. This morning, there’s only the faint scent of a forest lingering on him, fresh like the way the trees in Gusu smell after a rainfall. Jingyi’s mouth goes dry, but he swallows through it, and nods.
The air between them feels strange—too different than how things were before last night, but it isn’t unpleasant. The only way Jingyi knows how to describe it is charged. It feels as if every single glance they exchange is loaded, and Jingyi keeps a careful distance between them as Yi Renshu accompanies him to the gates.
He doesn’t understand why his chest stings with a sharper ache at every step he takes closer towards the Unclean Realm’s entrance. It’ll be another few weeks, at least, for the nighthunt to be approved, once Jingyi has recounted everything he’s observed to Sizhui. There’s a small chance that in a week Jingyi can return under the pretense of scouting the area a second time, along with meeting with Sect Leader Nie for the possibility of the Nie disciples joining in and making the hunt into something of a training competition.
Still—it will be, at the very shortest, a week.
A week is short, though—extremely short—and it feels embarrassing to think of it as too long.
Everything about this right now is both confounding and embarrassing.
They are outside the gates too soon.
Yi Renshu’s eyes are indecipherable as they look down at him. Jingyi curls and uncurls his fingers at his sides, palms suddenly sweating profusely and refusing to dry no matter how many times he attempts to discretely wipe them against his robes. “This disciple will let Captain Yi know as soon as there is further development on the approval status of the hunt,” Jingyi says quietly, wondering why his throat is doing the opposite of his hands and refuses to gain moisture no matter how many times he swallows.
The man hums noncommittally. He doesn’t smile, but his eyes are warm.
Jingyi steels himself, then, only because he knows without a shred of doubt that he will regret the moment he flies off on his sword if he doesn’t do this.
“It appears,” Jingyi says, with a challenging look up at the other man, “that Captain Yi will let this disciple return to Cloud Recesses empty-handed, after all.”
Yi Renshu’s expression doesn’t change. There is only a flicker of confusion in his eyes, that is soon swiftly followed by a flash of something hungry and heated and captivated, all at once. One of his hands slowly rises to Jingyi’s face, and there are calluses on his fingertips and right above where his fingers meet his palm. Saber hilts are thicker and more roughly bound than that of normal spiritual swords. It’s logical, some distant still sensible part of Jingyi’s brain thinks, that the man has calluses that refuse to fade.
His hand is also large, hot against the already flushed skin of Jingyi’s cheek. Yi Renshu’s thumb can easily brush beneath Jingyi’s eye, while his fingers are still able to comfortably cradle beneath Jingyi’s jaw.
When a moment passes and Jingyi still hasn’t made any moves to regain distance between them, Yi Renshu’s other arm winds loosely around Jingyi’s waist and that finishes off the final remains of Jingyi’s sanity. He thinks he’s lost the ability to breathe properly as well.
Yi Renshu pulls him in gently, their bodies lightly pressed together, but it’s enough for Jingyi to be able to feel the other man’s body heat all up against the front of his own body. Jingyi has just enough presence of mind to faintly think that it’s a sensation that he could so easily, so dangerously, become addicted to.
“Begging Disciple Lan’s forgiveness,” Yi Renshu whispers, his lips a hairsbreadth away from Jingyi’s mouth. “Allow this captain to correct his mistake.”
Jingyi can tell the kiss is supposed to be brief, chaste, with the way Yi Renshu keeps his lips closed, with the way Yi Renshu’s arm is careful and unrestricting around Jingyi’s waist.
Jingyi decides that none of this will do at all, and just as Yi Renshu is about to pull away, Jingyi curls his hands into the front of Yi Renshu’s robes and yanks him right back in. He feels more than hears something of a huffed, muted, laugh against his own mouth, and then Yi Renshu is kissing Jingyi, truly kissing him—parting Jingyi’s lips with his tongue and leading Jingyi through something that leaves no room for air in his lungs, no faster for his heart to beat, no bones in his body to keep him upright.
When they finally, finally, break apart, Yi Renshu’s voice is unfairly more composed than Jingyi thinks he will ever again feel, as he asks, in a mischievous tone that Jingyi has never before heard the man use, “Is Disciple Lan satisfied?”
For the first time, Jingyi lets himself grin in front of the other man. Yi Renshu inhales sharply in reaction. “Momentarily,” Jingyi replies in a playful tone of his own.
My Sect Leader has business to attend to next week at Lotus Pier, and I will be accompanying him. I have been informed as well that Master Wei will be in attendance, and as he often does not travel unaccompanied himself, if you are not bound by any obligations in the coming week, I would be partial to finding myself in your company in Yunmeng.
To Jingyi’s surprise, Wei Wuxian doesn’t laugh.
The Yiling Patriarch merely exchanges a glance with his husband across the desk in the classroom where Hanguang-jun’s morning lecture has just ended. Once Hanguang-jun has lowered his own gaze back to the books the Second Young Master is skillfully organizing, Wei Wuxian looks back to Jingyi. “Of course,” Wei Wuxian smiles lazily, the expression in his eyes strangely indecipherable today. “I was going to take one of the juniors, but they all have examinations to study for.”
Jingyi gives his best attempt at maintaining an unsmiling face as he thanks Wei Wuxian, and bows to Hanguang-jun, but he knows that both men undoubtedly catch sight of the upturned corners of Jingyi’s mouth as he dashes through the classroom doors.
Will you let me leave Yunmeng empty-handed as well?