You are Lan Xichen, Lan Huan, and you have stopped counting your years by the calendars of mortals a little after one hundred.
You still live in your mother’s lonely house, but it has become less lonely over the years. It is no longer a punishment, but reflection. Grief has not left this room, grief has simply become part of you, the air you breathe. You are old friends.
Your family visits. Some of the disciples visit, when time and duties allow and when you permit it. Small wild animals visit, telling you the turn of the seasons.
You have gone out only a few times, when great need called you to do what was right. (Right by the people, and by your heart.)
But in the end you always go back to the Gentian House because of an indecipherable hope, an undefined sense of predetermination.
You wait. You cultivate. You paint flowers and landscapes only.
News of the outside world reaches you at a leisurely pace, offered up by your sporadic visitors over tea.
Wangji and Wei Wuxian continue in their rather unsubtle mission to adopt as many orphans as they come across, and Shufu has his hands full teaching. He’s gotten softer in his very venerable age - there is no bite to his occasional griping about having to cultivate to immortality in order to properly raise other people’s children.
Lan Sizhui has learned much over the years, the kaleidoscope of many people’s legacies beautifully wrapped up in one upstanding young man eager to travel the world and do good. You are as proud as only family could be.
Lan Jingyi, too, has learned much as Shufu painstakingly trained him to take up sect leadership. At first Jingyi had protested, but he seems to have now grown to enjoy the admiration that comes with the title, and takes to authority with a light heart that you can only envy. It doesn’t prevent him from losing his jade token every few months, but he always has disciples of his own picking up after him. He is well loved for his flaws, and his earnest joy is exactly what Gusu Lan needs.
Sect Leader Jin - Jin Rulan - visits on anniversaries. It is quiet, and mostly unspoken, but you take comfort in each other’s understanding as you take tea. Sometimes, you even talk about the past.
It’s the spring equinox and the last light of sunset lingers late, like a friend who doesn’t want to head home yet. Lan Xichen steps away from his desk, planning to wash up and wind down for sleep.
He takes down his topknot, changes into night clothes. He goes through the motions with the serenity of long years, eyes closed and his senses subdued, dormant like the mountain itself when wilderness quiets at dusk.
Suddenly, a spark flitters like a firefly in the back of his awareness.
Lan Xichen has spent so long becoming one with this house, this mountainside, this green. He knows immediately that someone new has set foot among the gentians.
The man standing among blue flowers is young, svelte and elegant in his movements as he steps towards the Gentian House with purpose. He walks with such grace the flowers barely bend beneath his feet.
He wears his hair in a simple half ponytail and there are no sect emblems on his black clothes.
There is no resentment clinging to him, but something in his qi is unusual; it flutters like a curious bird within the space of Lan Xichen’s senses.
When Lan Xichen steps out of the door and their eyes meet, the young man’s cherry lips part and he rushes two, three steps forward before halting suddenly. His outstretched hands quickly fold into a hurried bow.
Lan Xichen fights a very old instinct, and the memory of it awakens something in his heart. He realizes, after a dizzying moment, it’s the fear and anticipation of something long awaited.
“Zewu-jun, please forgive the intrusion,” the young man hurries to say, his eyes lowered to the flowers beneath him. “I did not mean to bother you.”
“How did you get in?” Lan Xichen asks, more bewilderment than reproach in his voice. “The barrier…”
At that, the young man’s clever gaze darts up again, his brows doing a little endearing thing before he grins. Deep dimples bloom on his cheeks like spring blossoms, and Lan Xichen stops breathing.
“I happened to find something on the way up the mountain,” he whispers, walking a couple of careful steps closer and showing Lan Xichen something held in his cupped hands, like a child cradling a captured bug. It’s a jade token, no doubt Lan Jingyi’s latest missing one.
Lan Xichen’s words escape him like an unconscious plea, a gasp in the night. “What is your name?”
“This humble one goes by Li Yao, son of Li Sanren. I hail from Yunping.” The young man stands to bow again, and this time Lan Xichen’s hands move against his conscious thought and slip under the other’s wrists, halting his bow.
“You… are a rogue cultivator?” He asks, his voice but a whisper. “How old are you?”
He smiles proudly. “This humble one is twenty years old. My mother stopped night hunting and settled down, so I am free to pursue my own goals.”
“And you came here,” Lan Xichen murmurs, his voice faint.
“I had to,” the boy by the name of Li Yao says, a stubborn light in his dark eyes.
A determined look flickers across the young man’s features before he settles for humility. “This humble one needed to see the First Jade of Lan with his own eyes.”
A beat, then his lashes lower apologetically. “I should have come sooner, but I could not leave my mother alone.”
Lan Xichen could say that he has misunderstood his question - but he thinks, with the certainty of well-honed intuition, that the boy avoided his question on purpose, and so he refrains from asking.
“I should tell the disciples someone has trespassed,” he says, because it is true, and his mind is currently devoid of all thought.
“You could,” the young man says, then he smiles, his dark eyes gleaming with a hint of confidence. “But this humble one thinks you won’t.”
“How do you know that?”
“A hunch.” He walks around Lan Xichen, giving him a wide berth, and sits himself on the wooden steps in front of the little cottage door, his back perfectly straight. “I am very good at knowing things.”
Lan Xichen’s lips tighten in a straight line, and he summons the restraint and composure of over a century of meditation.
“Come in,” he says, surprising both of them. “Let us have tea.”
Lan Xichen has not forgotten how to be a good host, despite his hermitage.
He makes tea, converses about the weather and the season despite the lump in his throat, the dread of tender hope and utter terror in his heart.
“What news does Li-gongzi bring from his travels?”
“An infestation of water ghouls in the third lake of Yunmeng on the first day of spring, and a few stray cattle demons in the plains between there and Gusu. Nothing worthy of Zewu-jun’s concern.”
The young man replies to his inquiries with poise, but he does not go into much detail. It’s as if he’s measuring his words to be appropriately deferential, but his dark eyes are intensely focused on Lan Xichen whenever he catches him looking, the glimmer of sunset inflaming them like hooded lanterns.
He cannot take his eyes away from his guest; he would think him an apparition, if he hadn’t already contended with the delirious images of grief and regret over a hundred years ago. He’s familiar enough with dreams and follies to know the boy sitting across from him is flesh and bone - yet he feels like a messenger, the bearer of Lan Xichen’s fate come to put an end to his seclusion, for better or worse.
Anticipation makes Lan Xichen’s fingertips itch, and he rubs them against each other before lifting his cup to his lips.
“I am grateful for the company,” Lan Xichen eventually hazards when the tea is all but drained. “But I would think it is about time Li-gongzi told me the reason for his visit. Xichen will accommodate him however he is able.”
At that, the boy’s wide eyes dart up in a flicker of surprise before his expression smooths into blankness. He folds his hands in his lap, his neck perfectly straight even as he turns his gaze away, half-lidded eyes looking around the Gentian House for a moment. The gesture is so familiar Lan Xichen’s lungs seize on his next breath.
“I just meant to catch a glimpse.”
“A glimpse?” Lan Xichen echoes, feeling brittle.
“In truth, I did not mean to talk to you today. I would not presume to intrude on Zewu-jun’s seclusion,” the young man murmurs. “Nor would I expect my presence to be welcome besides.”
“A righteous cultivator who helps the common man,” Lan Xichen replies automatically, “is always welcome at the Cloud Recesses.”
The boy smiles, but there’s no humor in it as he shakes his head slightly. “This humble one should leave Sect Leader Lan to his rest.”
They both rise with as much hurry as politeness allows, and once again Lan Xichen finds himself stopping a too-deep bow.
“I… I haven’t served as Sect Leader for over fifty years,” he can only think to correct, his thoughts catching on dark lashes.
“My apologies, Zewu-jun. This humble one misspoke,” Li Yao whispers, biting his lower lip and lifting his gaze slowly, holding Lan Xichen’s for a moment longer. It’s as if he’s expecting a response that Lan Xichen currently cannot seem to grasp.
Though his voice is familiar, his visage is familiar, his gait is familiar, Lan Xichen has no proof, and it is not his right to ask.
“The jade token you used,” he near-stammers instead, his mouth slack for a moment as he finds his words. “By tomorrow, they will have it deactivated.”
The young man pouts slightly, then speaks quietly, as if to himself. “Perhaps I will steal another.”
“...why?” Lan Xichen blurts out, then blinks, shocked by his own lack of composure.
“Why not?” The boy murmurs with a nervous laugh, clutching the edge of his tunic with restless fingers. “Does Zewu-jun not want to see me again?”
“Stealing is forbidden,” Lan Xichen stiffly says, and sees the boy’s lips flatten in a tight line.
If he lets him go now, it may be for good - Lan Xichen’s heart freezes with the fear of this being all there is, all his wait has amounted to.
“Wait.” He says, the words coming unbidden.
He steps to the far wall, eyeing a sparse shelf untouched for years but for summary dusting. His fingertips hesitate for a moment before lifting the token off it; he clutches it in his hand and infuses it with a plume of his qi .
Li Yao’s eyes grow huge, and he blinks frantically for a moment as he is handed the new, ancient jade token. “Zewu-jun,” he gasps, his voice high-pitched and cracking. “This humble one couldn’t-”
“It will not be trespassing,” Lan Xichen simply says, “if Li-gongzi has a pass of his own.”
Perhaps inviting him to come back was nothing but a death wish, a form of self torture, a blatantly selfish act - but Lan Xichen has waited too long to let him go with the spring breeze.
The young man returns every few days, when the weather is fair.
Even though he has a token, he does not announce himself to the guards and climbs through his window on every subsequent visit. Perhaps it is to exonerate Lan Xichen, or perhaps he enjoys catching him by surprise. He is completely silent as he does - Lan Xichen would be taken aback every time if his senses weren’t so keenly fused with the Gentian House and barrier both.
Every time, he lifts his head from his meditation and takes in the agile flip of a small body, the muted sound as he drops to the floor with the ease of an alley cat. Lan Xichen smiles, and he fears, and finds himself as eager as a reckless child, even with doom encroaching on his heart.
Every time, the young man shows up at dusk, likely to avoid detection, and only stays until the moon rises.
They converse of everything but what Lan Xichen truly desires to ask.
They take tea.
Lan Xichen starts counting the days to his next visit, like he hadn’t done in over a hundred years.
They are more comfortable than strangers, but their words are cautious, their gestures measured.
They never touch, except for the two times Li Yao bows - upon arriving, and upon leaving, and Lan Xichen lifts him out of it.
When Li Yao once stumbles, Lan Xichen goes to offer him a hand unthinkingly, and the boy wrenches his arm away as if burned. Lan Xichen’s chest hurts with the knowledge of his own strength, and he sits a generous distance away, contrite.
He remembers the hurt he is capable of, and washes his hands in a clear basin of water for a long time after his guest has slipped away into the night.
“Zewu-jun,” the boy asks one day, head bent forward, “does my presence inconvenience you?”
“Have I been remiss?” Lan Xichen murmurs, genuinely surprised. “Forgive me, I have not entertained guests other than family for a very long time.”
“It is nothing,” Li Yao replies, and bites his lip in a gesture that is both charming and telling of his young age. “I merely worry that I am taking advantage of Zewu-jun’s courtesy.”
“You could never,” Lan Xichen exhales, and it is as sincere as the unchangeable truths of nature.
The boy hesitates, then suddenly reaches for the teapot and pours Lan Xichen’s tea for him, his movements deft and elegant, his gaze lingering intently on his host all the while. He does not even look at the cup.
When he hands it to him, Lan Xichen takes it with both hands, their fingers brushing. It’s a sizzle that jolts Lan Xichen’s core out of a century of dormancy, and reminds him that, immortal or not, he is a living creature moved by hope and fear like any other.
He lifts the teacup to his lips and drinks from it slowly, holding the boy’s gaze.
He is rewarded with a smile that pierces him like an arrow; dimples on his cheeks, a gleam of shy elation in his lovely dark eyes - Lan Xichen blanches, and the boy’s smile morphs into sudden, flighty concern.
“Forgive me, Li-gongzi,” he hurries to explain, “but every time you smile I fear I am seeing things.”
“Fear?” The young man seems struck for a moment. “Am I to understand you do not wish to see what you are seeing?”
“I do,” Lan Xichen says, his mouth still acrid with the dust and blood from a century ago. “But it is because of the strength of that desire that I doubt my own judgement.”
Li Yao purses his lips, then nods once.
They do not touch again, but he keeps coming back.
Only after a few such visits, Lan Xichen thinks to ask a rather belated question.
“Where does Li-gongzi live, to be able to return so frequently to the Cloud Recesses?”
The boy’s gaze turns avoidant, searching the Gentian House aimlessly in that way of his. “Here and there. I am a rogue cultivator, after all.”
“It appears to me Li-gongzi could not be going very far to night-hunt, if he returns here every handful of days. Xichen hopes you are not exhausting yourself by sword flight.” It isn’t quite a jest, but he has not seen a sword on the young man and has been wondering.
Li Yao blinks, his hand going to the edge of his thick belt before shifting lower, crumpling the hem of his tunic between his fingers.
“Zewu-jun is right,” he sighs, a hint of color on his cheeks. “I have been staying in Gusu for the time being.”
Lan Xichen tilts his head, seeing an opening he is too human not to seize. “Would you not prefer to stay in the Cloud Recesses? You would be an honored guest.”
Even as he asks, he knows it is a foolish offer, though he isn’t sure which of the myriad reasons has the other frowning.
“Your invitation is generous, Zewu-jun, but I did not come here to take advantage of your hospitality,” Li Yao bows his head briefly. He seems to want to say more for a moment, lips pressing together, but eventually just shakes his head. “It is past sunset, I should leave you to your rest.”
Lan Xichen’s heart tantrums like an unreasonable child, and he finds himself opening his mouth unthinkingly. “Forgive me for being so forward, but I would ask Li-gongzi to be candid with me,” he says, spurred on by his urge to keep him here a little longer. “What is it that Li-gongzi came for? If it were mere curiosity it would have been sated by now.”
The boy inhales, holds his breath for a moment, exhales. “I have confirmed that Zewu-jun is just as the stories say - kind, generous, righteous.” He pauses, eyeing his now empty teacup. “However, there is one thing nobody knows for certain. One thing I need to find out.”
Lan Xichen’s elation upon hearing that he has something that the other wants, something that will prolong this meeting even just a moment, makes him speak a little faster than manners would allow.
“I will tell Li-gongzi anything he asks,” he promises, anticipation wound around his throat like a string.
That earns a quiet chuckle, muffled by a dainty hand. “Is that allowed?”
“Consider it a way to express my gratitude for your company.”
“Very well.” After a pensive moment, the smile slips from Li Yao’s lips as quick as a falling curtain. The dimples are gone too.
“I heard Zewu-jun went into seclusion after the events that transpired in Guanyin Temple,” he says, his voice low and toneless, as if speaking only to himself. “I wish to know why.”
Lan Xichen does not have the presence of mind to regret his promise, but his own smile dies on cue.
The boy continues: “Word around the cultivation world is that Zewu-jun secludes because of the betrayal he suffered a century ago. Word among commoners is that Zewu-jun secludes in punishment, for having let himself be tricked by an evil man. Word around Gusu, however, is that Zewu-jun secludes out of grief.”
“There may be truth to all of them, but none is the answer,” Lan Xichen replies, his voice only steady thanks to long practice.
“Would Zewu-jun grace me with the real answer?”
It would be dishonorable to renege on his offer, but Lan Xichen’s heart needs him to buy a few more moments. “Does Li-gongzi have a theory of his own?”
The boy blinks, his fists firmly placed on his lap. “This humble one has no idea.”
“I think Li-gongzi is the only one who could guess,” Lan Xichen’s traitorous lips say.
Li Yao’s gaze darts up to meet his, and there’s a swirl of panic in his eyes - or is it thrill? Lan Xichen has not seen nor felt such emotions for many long years, and for a moment he fears his perception has grown fallible.
“Me?” the boy asks, sounding just a little breathless. Long lashes lift, dark eyes darken further, and he says a forbidden word that strikes Lan Xichen’s heart like a temple bell: “A-Yao does not dare. Please enlighten me, Zewu-jun.”
And if he asks just so, who could ever deny him? Lan Xichen steels his expression, forces himself to hold his gaze as he confesses: “It is guilt.”
A complicated expression passes over Li Yao’s face, one that at Xichen’s best guess seems both grim and vindicated.
“Over being deceived?” He asks quietly.
The boy lowers his head with a smile far too close to a grimace. “By an evil man, as people say.”
Lan Xichen shakes his head. “By a man bent on vengeance for his brother.”
The boy looks confused for a fraction of a second before understanding dawns on him. He blinks and his lips part for a moment in a little red gasp before he composes himself.
“Was Zewu-jun not tricked by Jin Guangyao?” He asks at last, his voice perfectly neutral.
“It was not he who made me kill the one I loved,” Lan Xichen murmurs, the words too heavy for his tongue, clattering against his teeth. The raw truth, spoken aloud for the first time in a hundred years.
The silence that follows hurts like a blade slicing under his skin - he’s flayed himself open for this boy, this stranger, this familiar face, for him to gaze into his wretched insides.
Finally, Li Yao lifts his head, and that same murky current swirls in his eyes. “That is why you secluded yourself for a hundred years?”
Lan Xichen folds his hands, refuses to tremble. He has imagined this conversation a hundred times - it’s like picking up an old thread, but it still snags on the corners of his mind, pulls at the edges of his worn heart.
“My mother secluded in punishment for murder. My father secluded out of guilt. My brother secluded out of grief. It seemed only appropriate I do the same, when I bore all three faults at once.”
“Nobody in the cultivation world would fault Zewu-jun for taking the life of a wicked man,” Li Yao whispers, leaning ever so slightly forward.
“The cultivation world has no right to judge me,” Lan Xichen replies, old confidence shining through briefly before quieting in a mournful whisper: “I have been waiting for the only one who does.”
Li Yao stands up abruptly, stalks past Lan Xichen and to the door. Lan Xichen stands too, awash with immediate regret - before he can cry for him to stop, the boy pauses in the doorway, silhouetted in moonlight.
His shoulders are heaving slightly, his ponytail swinging into the abrupt stop to his momentum. He turns halfway, part of his face in shadow, part moon-kissed.
“If he were here, what would you do?”
No more pretenses, then. It is past the time for denial - Lan Xichen has known it was him since the first moment he laid eyes on him.
Lan Xichen takes a deep, deep breath, savoring the evening air like it’s the last lungful he’ll ever take, then drops to his knees in the middle of the Gentian House.
He tilts his chin up and brushes the heavy dark curtain of his hair behind his shoulders, his chest expanding in a sigh of acceptance. No, elation.
“A-Yao, do you wish to use your sword, or would you have me use mine?” he asks in a rapturous whisper.
He reaches up to tug the collar of his robes open, methodically pushing the layers aside to bare his neck.
“What are you talking about?” A-Yao sounds angry, as is his right.
“If A-Yao came here for revenge, Xichen would not stop him.”
“Revenge?” A-Yao’s voice turns softer, quieter. Lan Xichen knows with the clarity of hindsight that it’s the voice he used when he either feared for his life or was about to take one. He shivers in the night, but holds his head high.
Perhaps A-Yao wants him to say it out loud, to prostrate himself to satisfy him, to admit to his deed before he may atone. It is only right.
He closes his eyes, smiles faintly. “Why would A-Yao come, if not to take the life he spared me in the temple?” He tilts his head back just slightly, hands placed palm-down on his knees. “It belongs to him.”
The next thing he hears is a harsh, sudden exhalation of breath, and light footsteps stalking up to him in a rush.
He opens his eyes and finds himself looking up to A-Yao. He’s beautiful, and furious - Lan Xichen thinks he sees his lip tremble, but his eyes are as opaque as the darkest waters, lakes traversed under the cover of night.
Lan Xichen lets the vibration of A-Yao’s anger soak through his skin, permeate his qi . There’s a definite satisfaction in setting things right at last. A sense of peace.
Small hands find his bared neck, cold fingertips press into his pulse. The young man tilts Lan Xichen’s head back a little further and Lan Xichen lets him, gazing up in supplication. “I would have A-Yao kill me,” he breathes, “if that is what he wants.”
“ Er-ge,” A-Yao murmurs - wide-eyed, unsmiling. “Is that what you think of me?”
His fingers squeeze Lan Xichen’s neck once, fitfully, then slide up in a single smooth gesture and-- A-Yao is taking his face between his delicate hands and kissing him, kissing him, wrenching his breath from his lungs.
Your name is Li Yao and you’ve survived twenty winters.
Your mother has taught you well. She taught you the sword and the talisman, she taught you the difference between a demon and a ghost and how to face both.
For most of your childhood it was just you and her on the road, but she never let you want for anything. You grew up with a sword in your hand and the sturdy shield of her love for you carrying you through every hard day of hunting. Your father was never in the picture - she said she did not need a man in order to hunt demons, and proved it every day with stalwart pride.
Li Sanren was a rogue cultivator, and so are you. A woman and a little boy alone, you always relied on dexterity and honeyed words over brute force, but you were very good at what you did. You always left villages better than they were when you first arrived.
Her career as a rogue cultivator was short, but brilliant. An injury during a night hunt put an end to her traveling while she was still young and beautiful; the apothecary who tended to her for long weeks ended up asking for her hand. Your step-father is no cultivator, but he worships her like a goddess, as he should. They are happy, and that means your heart is free to yearn for your own place in the world.
You embrace your mother and you both shed tears, but she doesn’t try to stop you. On your way out, you threaten your step-father - he laughs, thinking it a joke. He’s a good man.
You were barely a man when you remembered yourself, and that is why you have to go.
You were but fifteen when you remembered. You’d dealt with enough of the supernatural to know that it was not foul magic at work when your soul shook itself apart, cracked and melded whole again, and you remembered.
Your memory has always been exceptional, and your mother always said you knew more than you should have. It makes sense you would remember the time before you were born, too.
You remember your old name - you remember all of your names, but you think you still like A-Yao the best.
You know you could keep the knowledge of your past like a cautionary tale, a folks song at the back of your heart, and find something new to do with yourself.
Riches are nothing but ash and dust to you, and men’s words cannot touch you when your existence is a secret to the world. You are as free as a man can be.
But you remember loving a man - you remember loving him your whole life, loving him to death, and you simply must know what has become of him.
You leave for Gusu at dawn.
“Er-ge,” A-Yao whispers, shell-shocked. “Is that what you think of me?”
His horror cracks in half and leaks desperation, urgent and overwhelming.
He finds himself kissing Lan Xichen with the yearning of two lifetimes, biting his lips bloody and licking into his mouth like he is utterly starved.
When he pulls back, there’s a tremulous light in Lan Xichen’s eyes, his kiss-bruised lips parted in confusion.
All of A-Yao’s nerves are alight with the fear of stepping into himself, of confessing what he cannot take back, but he must set the record straight. “I remember, Er-ge. Yunping, Jinlintai, Guanyin Temple. I remember."
“Everything?” Lan Xichen’s voice trembles for the first time, though he keeps his posture steady, the lines of his neck straining beautifully.
“Everything.” A pause. “But Er-ge, on the other hand, seems to have forgotten my last words,” he hisses, tangling his fingers in Lan Xichen’s hair and gently pulling.
He angles Lan Xichen’s head back to bare his throat and whisper into his mouth, as if his words were a wine he’s feeding him drop by drop.
“Er-ge, I have never wanted to hurt you. Why do you think in this life it would be any different?”
Lan Xichen’s composure shatters, his sweet eyes gleaming with unspent tears, his face ashen. “A-Yao, I killed you.”
A-Yao sighs. “Er-ge, I am deeply familiar with the guilt of hurting those you once wished to protect.”
He lowers himself to his knees to match Lan Xichen and feels the other man’s hands slowly, hesitantly skirt his sides, gliding along his back to encircle him completely. The touch resonates through his skin, through the marrow of his bones, through the memory of his old soul.
“Why didn’t you tell me, the first day?” Lan Xichen asks, his voice fraught with sorrow and wonder.
“Er-ge, you may think it absurd, but I was not certain you would not take my life when I revealed myself to you.”
“I would never,” Lan Xichen gasps, his embrace tightening fitfully.
“Nor would I ever take yours,” A-Yao snaps back.
His eyes and throat burn like he’s in the middle of a fire, but he shoves the tears aside to direct a stern glare at the wonderful, maddening man in his arms.
“Being apart has made fools of us both,” he huffs.
Lan Xichen makes a sound halfway between a chuckle and a sob, then dips his head forward to hide it into A-Yao’s shoulder. There’s wetness against A-Yao’s neck and a sturdy chest pressed against his, strong arms cradling him with still a hint of restraint, a fraction of hesitation that tells of Lan Xichen’s fear that this won’t be allowed.
“Er-ge,” A-Yao says, trying to be stern and entirely failing.
Lan Xichen’s breaths are little broken things against A-Yao’s chest, and any resentment he might have felt immediately fades into sympathetic anguish.
“Er-ge, beloved,” he whispers, with all the tenderness he has jealously concealed deep inside himself, “If you died now, what would be the point of me coming back to you?”
“A-Yao,” Lan Xichen replies, his voice rough. “How I’ve missed you, every hour of every day.”
“Er-ge,” he replies, delicately indulgent. “I wish I could have come sooner.”
It feels as if they hold each other for hours, for many moon cycles and wild seasons in the space of a gasp, melded together head to hip. Eventually, the warmth of relief blooms into elation with the sudden, striking awareness that they are both alive.
A-Yao pulls back from the embrace just enough to nudge Lan Xichen’s chin up and kiss him again, this time with a smile.
He kisses along his jaw and down his neck, Lan Xichen’s robes already generously opened to grant him access, feeling at once daring and clumsy. These lips had never kissed before, he supposes, so there’s some adjustment to be expected.
“Er-ge, how long has it been?” he asks, trying to keep his voice as light as the small kisses he is tracing along Lan Xichen’s collar bone.
The other man releases a ragged sigh. “Since Jinlintai. You.”
A-Yao chuckles primly, and he doesn’t try to hide his smugness.
“For me as well. Jinlintai, a lifetime ago.”
Lan Xichen looks up and blinks, his pupils blown wide. “Does that mean you are-?”
“Mh. I would appreciate Zewu-jun’s assistance,” A-Yao says, in his most polite voice, “in getting used to these new… circumstances.”
Lan Xichen sucks in a breath and finally, finally surges to his feet, picking A-Yao’s smaller frame up in a single swoop. A-Yao pins both of his knees to Lan Xichen’s sides, squeezing possessively even as his hands busy themselves untying white robes.
The line between dream and memory has never been a distinction that mattered to Li Yao. Reality, it turns out, beats both.
Lan Xichen’s hands and lips on him, the adoring way he murmurs his name, the maddening tickle of his hair cascading on A-Yao’s chest like a silky waterfall - it’s almost too much.
He feels good, he feels whole, he feels like he can allow the fear to abate as long as their embrace lasts.
A little irreverent part of his brain gloats that finally Lan Xichen has stopped calling him Li-gongzi with such extreme propriety, which had amused and exasperated him both.
He is A-Yao, and every time Lan Xichen whispers his name his soul is aglow with the joy of belonging.
Afterwards they hold onto each other tightly, as if putting any space between their flushed skin is a mistake they won’t repeat for as long as they can help it.
“A-Yao,” Lan Xichen murmurs into his sweat-slick hair, “what are we going to do now?”
We. A-Yao lets the word filter through his closed eyelids, slide down his throat like honey.
After a beat of silence, Lan Xichen reaches for his hand, almost shyly pulling it to his mouth to brush his lips to his knuckles. “Would you consider staying at the Cloud Recesses?”
A-Yao blinks and takes his hand back. “I didn’t come here to stay, Er-ge.”
He cannot take the hurt, desperate look on Lan Xichen’s face for more than a second and leans in close to soothe him with a lingering kiss, their eyelashes brushing.
He grins, and affects a confidence he doesn’t feel. “I came to take you away.”
When Lan Xichen slowly, cautiously smiles back, he releases the breath he’s been holding for what feels like forever.
It’s a beautiful day after the rain, fresh and green-smelling. The forest adorns itself with garlands of soft buds and families of chattering birds, a quiet promise of new tidings.
On the table of the Gentian House, they leave five letters addressed in Lan Xichen’s neat calligraphy, two empty teacups and a jade token.
They leave Gusu at dawn.