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a tender coldness, this sincere heart

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Nowadays, the only place he can find solace is amid the waves of Sparks Amid Snow. Here he can lean back and allow his burdens and responsibilities, their pointed words and poisonous gazes, to dissipate, washed into air as he is bathed by the pure petals. Sometimes Fairy joins him, either leaping through blossoms to chase the wind or settling down placidly at his side.

He is found like this, a hand curled into Fairy’s fur and the other thrown carelessly over his face to shade his eyes.

“Sect Leader Jin.” The smile in Lan Sizhui’s voice is audible. “I apologise for disturbing you but-”

“What have I told you,” retorts Jin Ling, “about calling me by my title?” It grates incessantly at his ears, reminding him of the elders and the precarious peace he has maintained within the Sect. He has no desire to be reminded of this with Lan Sizhui.

“My apologies, Jin Rulan,” comes the calm reply, and Jin Ling pulls himself upright to glare at the serene smile. Lan Sizhui laughs and offers a hand. “We're guests in Koi Tower, I don’t wish to seem too presumptuous.”

“Tch, you're more righteous than several of my relatives put together without even opening your mouth.” He regards the proffered hand for a brief moment, before he accepts it with a huff. Avoiding the smug satisfaction in Lan Sizhui’s eyes, he brushes himself down and makes his way back to the main building.

“We are leaving soon?” They had been investigating a string of reported disappearances, from within Lanling to as far as Gusu, and as such their group had grown to accommodate several other sects. The culprits had been identified a little way from Lanling, and so with their strategy sorted Jin Ling had allowed the others to rest and restock their supplies at Koi Tower before night fell.

“Mn, we just need some more herbs and elixirs.”

“I’ll get you some.”

“But those are for the Jin Sect…”

“And are there not disciples of Lanling Jin accompanying us?” He faces Lan Sizhui with a smirk and hands folded behind his back. “They've even been personally selected by me and the elders for their potential; I will not allow my Sect to lose such talent because of a lack of medical supplies.”

Lan Sizhui pauses for a beat then his face splits into a smile, a ringing laugh hidden behind his sleeve. “Of course not. Why would I stop you?” He rests a hand on Jin Ling’s shoulder, briefly and yet the warmth of his palm lingers. Lan Sizhui’s presence teases him as they make their way out, the brush of fingertips, the crisp scent of pines and gardenia, and Jin Ling instinctively turns away. He has no need for passing desires.

 


 

There is an ever-increasing pile of documents relegated to the smallest drawer he can find, all pertaining to his inevitable marriage. At the first list of names, he had given a cursory glance at the family trees, how close their individual sects were to his branch, and had flung the papers into the elders’ faces. The dim memory of Aunt Su’s grief and his Uncle Jin’s lukewarm smile still leave a bitter taste on his tongue.

The heavily revised list is acceptable - he has met them all, some he occasionally sees night hunting. They are a blooming bouquet of grace, decent cultivation and good name, and yet he cannot bring himself to care. He has no use for love, let alone tying himself to another; he handles relationships clumsily, silk threads he tugs too harshly or allows to fray, and he is hardly deserving of anything more.

“This is much too unfair,” Lan Jingyi had complained at the last competition held during the Discussion Conference, and he glowered at the petals still resting on Jin Ling’s hair. “I’m sure you have hundreds of beauties just throwing themselves at your feet, Young Mistress.”

Jin Ling had thrown Lan Jingyi a black glare and snorted. “Don't ask me, Ouyang Zizhen has already met with a matchmaker, or so I'm told.”

Lan Jingyi was gone before he could say more, his mount kicking a cloud of dust as he searched for the soft-spoken boy to perhaps harass him or ask for advice, he could not quite tell. Rolling his eyes, Jin Ling gripped the reins of his horse and prepared to turn him around, when Lan Sizhui trotted up beside him.

“Are you really not interested?” Lan Sizhui had said lightly, amusement dancing across his face. The flowers he had received had been carefully gathered into a vibrant bouquet, tucked gently by his lapel.

“I have no use for marriage right now, I need to focus my energies elsewhere,” Jin Ling had declared. How heavy and tiring must it be, he had thought, to cater to another’s whims and needs, how vulnerable and revealing must it be to hand over your weeping bloodied heart to another’s claws.

“Hm.” Lan Sizhui’s eyes had softened, their hue shifting to a deep violet, as he picked an errant petal from Jin Ling’s hair. “You’re right. I will support you either way, we are friends, are we not?”

His clear laughter had almost overpowered Jin Ling’s muttered, “Who would be friends with you?”, hanging in the air in their wake, a translucent ribbon of delight and affection.

 


 

The valley shadowed under an unforgiving mountain precipice and the sharpness of night is where they find the missing people, mostly well, though weak and cowed. Despite several efforts to prevent the uncontrolled spread of the news, the return of the Yiling Patriarch had managed to give rise to several so-called cultivators burning their own souls for the faintest spark of power. In this case, the combination of human traffickers and a certain desire for healthy human souls for a reason Jin Ling does not want to think about at all had affected several sects, and hence the small army of cultivators he is directing.

“Where are we to transport them too?” asks one of his disciples as he secures the binding on the perpetrators. Their hideout had been cleared easily, for their spiritual energy was still largely at a low-level and the rescued are being treated at their camp in a sheltered copse nearby. Only a few stragglers are being dealt with a small distance away.

Jin Ling presses his lips together. The tools and scraps of writing he finds he allows the Lan disciples to take possession of, seeing as the Yiling Patriarch himself is now officially (though that thought makes him gag) part of the Lan Sect. The prisoners however - the Jiang Sect had dealt with demonic cultivators the most, but he is hesitant to send anyone to his uncle, even a few years after those fateful months. If anything, the nearest major sect is the Nie Sect, with plenty of its disciples present and a few of the rescued coming from around Qinghe.

“The Unclean Realm,” he decides. “I’ll send a message to Sect Leader Nie as soon as the situation has fully settled.” The disciple’s face pinches in a mirrored resignation, though he bows anyway. “I trust you to handle yourselves here, I'm checking on the rest.”

The chorus of yes Sect Leader Jin disappears swiftly into the breeze as he mounts Suihua and hurries to the north, lit by sword glares and talismans. He can see no gold from his vantage point, yet it tempers his worry only for a passing moment. The strongest are there, his allies, his friends, are fighting, and he cannot see Lan Sizhui.

His panic rises into his throat, surges under his skin in agonising throbs. Not him, anyone but him- there, half-concealed by shadow but still alive. A man lies prone a few zhang from his crouched form, and coming closer Jin Ling can see Lan Sizhui holding a hand out to a fallen girl, his smile as kind as ever.

He wants to bite back a grin, the word idiot bubbling on his tongue, when the shadows shift and a knife glints in the darkness, a fatal sliver of metal aimed at -no. No no no.

Anyone but him.

Jin Ling registers the pain first, a shriek of agony against his torn sleeve as the knife clatters to the ground. Not him, he thinks. As long as it's not him . A laugh rips out of his mouth, Suihua shuddering with the flood of spiritual energy that curls against his fingertips, settles into his lungs and fills his arrows.

Never him.

The silhouette falls, pierced by three arrows to the heart.

“Jin Ling.”

A warm palm on his shoulder, a flow of spiritual energy like a rippling brook. Jin Ling’s legs almost fail and he collapses into Lan Sizhui’s embrace. Gardenia, running water, sun-kissed cotton.

“Jin Ling, it’s okay, I’m fine, Yu Rong is fine - Jingyi, I know .”

His vision clears and he focuses on Lan Sizhui’s smooth jawline, the tightness between his eyebrows as he exchanges a glance with a hovering Lan Jingyi. Jin Ling shifts, struggling to his feet, away from him - Lan Sizhui notices and looks down. There is the most beautiful expression of relief painted on his features and Jin Ling cannot breathe.

“Jin Ling,” he sighs, like a prayer. “You’re an idiot, you know that right?”

“I-It’s not like anyone else was available,” Jin Ling stumbles, “I did what was needed.” I need you.

The tightness returns and Lan Sizhui brushes the strands of hair from his face. “But to use your own spiritual energy as a shield…”

“It was a spur of the moment decision!”

“Alright,” Lan Sizhui chuckles, and Jin Ling is finally free. His qi cries within his meridians, a discordant song that is tamed, just slightly, by Lan Sizhui’s distinctive serenity. “Your qi flow was disrupted for a moment. I think it’s settled, but I can help you if you-”

“No need.” Jin Ling turns his back on Lan Sizhui and tries to remember how to breathe. In, out, in, out. His lungs refuse to cooperate.

He feels Lan Sizhui hesitate, then rise and approach Jin Ling as if to a feral dog, snarling and snapping. “At least let me treat your arm.”

There is air once more filling his chest, settling his mind, and he does not make a noise as Lan Sizhui applies the ointment, dresses the wound, wraps it safely under a layer of bandages. “At least the knife was not poisoned,” he offers, his fingers feather-light. “It’s just a little deep.” Jin Ling hums in response.

When he is done, Lan Sizhui moves to catch Jin Ling’s gaze, the hand on his shoulder an anchor. “Are you sure you're okay? I can't let you walk away without knowing.”

Only you. “There's no need. Really,” Jin Ling asserts. He brushes the hand off and slips a cool mask on with one concerted movement. “You shouldn't worry about me.”

“I-” Lan Sizhui wavers, fumbles a little, and there are ideas, half-formed stuck in Jin Ling’s mouth- I appreciate your worry, I really do, I'll let you help, always - Lan Sizhui smiles, the curve of his lips characteristically warm. “Alright. I trust you, Jin Ling.” And he leaves, back taught and straight, to Yu Rong.

She blinks then laughs at Lan Sizhui’s questions, waving a hand while Duan Yingyue presses pills into the other. Brimming with optimism, good-natured to the core. Jin Ling knows she is on the list somewhere: an ideal wife she would make to many.

Jin Ling cannot breathe so he turns and storms away, despite Lan Sizhui’s effulgent visage imprinted on the back of his eyelids, despite the sluggish flow of qi that settles deep within his chest. He cannot afford to be distracted tonight.

 


 

The realisation comes gradually, as a trickle from a stream carves into the landscape as it winds with unending certainty to its mouth, to a maelstrom of waves and the unknown.

Peony petals, tiny and flimsy, decorate his pillow when he wakes up in the guest room of the Unclean Realm. He pays them no heed, as he needs to meet with the others and Sect Leader Nie to assess the situation and plan the trials (punishments, really) of the men locked in the spiritual prisons.

“You've done well,” Nie Huaisang comments behind his fan. “I shall enjoy working with you in the future.” His eyes glint and Jin Ling bites on his inner thoughts of the Headshaker turned almost presentable Sect Leader. They depart, thankfully, a few days later.

Lan Sizhui lingers behind on the way to the crossroads, in a hushed discussion with Yu Rong. They dance at the edge of Jin Ling’s vision, synchronised in their movements, their expressions. They bend towards each other, as peony heads drop heavy after a morning shower, and Jin Ling cannot bear it any longer.

A cough racks his body, violent in its force. He falters slightly, glares at the questioning glances of his disciples. It is Sect Leader Jin after all, relentless and proud. So only Jin Ling sees the snow-white petals, curled up innocuously on his palm.

They are razed to ashes by a burst of spiritual energy and scattered to the wind, yet Jin Ling cannot forget how his stomach plummeted, how for a heartbeat, he saw blood. He recalls childhood stories, tall tales he had dismissed as fantasy.

No no it can't be I don't-

“You better not stay holed up in your office like last month! We’re dragging you out next time we go night-hunting.”

Jin Ling rolls his eyes at Lan Jingyi. “You try having responsibilities for once,” he jibes, and is very tempted to throw a punch when Lan Jingyi gives a “You try taking the stick out of your ass”, accompanied by a what he knows to be a very mature facial expression.

“You-!”

“Jingyi, Rulan,” Lan Sizhui says warningly, moving to stand between them. They are at the crossroads in the path, where the disciples of the Jin and associated sects will travel to Lanling and the surrounding area. Lan Jingyi grins and is whisked away, leaving Jin Ling to say farewell to Lan Sizhui alone. His eyes are soft, a deep violet he can sink into, gentle and protected.

Oh.

“Despite everything, I'm glad we got to spend more time together,” says Lan Sizhui. His smile is blinding.

“Y-yeah, I guess.”

Not him.

“Don't forget to write to me, okay? If I don't get a reply within two weeks, I am flying straight to Koi Tower to rescue you from the flood of papers.”

“Tch, try me.”

“I will.”

Of course.

Lan Sizhui leaves once he has extricated from Jin Ling a muttered promise to not overwork himself, thinly-veiled behind huffs and half-hearted snark, and is granted a clear laugh in return. He gives them willingly, easily. The ends of his forehead ribbon snap in the wind of his flight, waving a goodbye.

“Sect Leader Jin?”

Jin Ling tears his gaze away and focuses on Duan Yingyue, who stands with a hand on her hip. She isn't on the list, he believes, her family's rank a little too low but a determined and talented cultivator nonetheless.

“Right. Everyone, let's move!” He orders his disciples hastily, and Duan Yingyue relaxes. She does not give Jin Ling another searching look from the crossroads to the gates of her sect, only a poorly-concealed smirk on her pointed face as she drags her younger brothers inside.

Perhaps, in another life, he could have tried. The earth yields its bountiful harvest for a reason, a flower, scent, shade for every taste. He could have wandered the gardens, searching with a goal in mind, until he found the most satisfactory one. But now, he desires peonies. Peonies and gardenias, with clear streams and the sun’s beams. He thinks that for a long time, his garden has been of pure white and gold and blue.

Only him.

Lan Sizhui, the petals he finds on his pillow seem to whisper, morning after morning, after too-short nights filled with dreams too faded to remember.

He cannot ignore this any longer.

After the morning dealing with the Sect affairs, Jin Ling goes to the library. Lanling Jin is hardly the scholarly haven of Gusu Lan, but hundreds of years of accumulated wealth in both gold and artefacts has not stagnated. The library, while not rich in scriptures, boasts practical information equivalent to an imperial study. He picks up books and scrolls here and there, avoiding the stray disciple and keeping to the quieter corners. With a qiankun bag laden with books, he rushes back to his room and tips the contents onto his desk.

The first thing he finds is an anthology of poems by, of all people, a Lan Sect member hundreds of years ago. They're hopeless he thinks, skimming line after line of how this guy showered magnolia petals whenever he saw his childhood sweetheart, lamented how the flowers you have cultivated are beautiful and I choke on your love. The last of the collection is set after his love’s wedding to another man, along with the charming observation that even after secluded meditation for several months, branches have pierced his lungs and smothered his golden core.

Still, it yields something. He reaches for a list of known reasons of qi deviations and heavenly tribulations that occurred in the past four hundred years within Lanling Jin.

There is one, a heart demon in a female cultivator after a neighbouring cultivating family is killed in a night-hunt. She wasted away in seclusion for only a year. Her husband conferred the highest honours after her death, including planting a whole garden of chrysanthemums.

“Heart demon, qi deviation,” he mutters as he reaches for the next one on the pile. This is getting better and better.

More stories are painted, of all variety and colour, many simply scraps he pieces together with clumsy stitches: a well-known thief and seducer of women woos the young mistress of a major sect with roses, then reappears apparently having repented and sworn off love. A healer pondering over a patient who coughs blood-stained plum blossoms and a failed operation. A sect leader, a few months after the ascension of an immortal, is found dead in a bed of spider lilies.

Finally, when Jin Ling feels like a row of lead weights are hanging off his eyelids, he sees it, a short entry in what he believes is probably the thickest book he has ever read, including the volumes holding the Lan Sect Rules.

“Huatu Disease,” he reads. “An infliction of an imbalance of qi and yin and yang. Borne from unrequited feelings of romantic love, it takes the form of a flowering plant growing in the victim’s lungs that is nourished by the victim’s spiritual energy. The victim coughs up flower petals and experiences an almost eighty percent increase of risk of qi deviation. Victims typically die within a few years, usually through qi deviation or asphyxiation. The only known cure,” he carries on hurriedly, then stills.

The only known cure is through surgical removal. While almost always successful, all feelings of romantic love toward the initial object of affection will disappear. Commonly, all notion of love becomes foreign to the victim. A decrease in spiritual energy has occasionally been reported.

The words blur and mix in front of his eyes, the ink dripping and congealing in his trembling hands.

He needs to get rid of it. For the sake of his sect, he needs to be alive, to nurture it as it struggles back to its former splendour. A healer, he needs a healer whom he can trust or bribe sufficiently to keep quiet, to remove the peonies and his feelings.

The thought freezes his racing heart, a frigid blast of winter air. He needs (wants?) to destroy this burgeoning warmth, the rush of affection and something a little more whenever he sees the young man who hands out smiles like they are the stars, a man who deserves love beyond what the world could offer.

He deserves more than my love.

Jin Ling tries to imagine what it would be like, to be as pure as snow and just as cold without passion or desires to light a spark. He would be bereft of something important, vital, which he will only be able to gain a glimpse of through secondhand stories. It sounds too familiar, so with a roar he raises his arm and sweeps the stacks of books onto the floor.

When he straightens, he cannot breath again and he bends over, coughing into his hand. A bud sits in his palm this time, the white petals curled softly around the golden stamen. Despite everything, the flower is beautiful.

“Just some more time,” he murmurs to the bud. “I need more time, please.”