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We Are Only Human

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It was all over now, Jin Ling thought. Jin Guangyao was dead, Wei Wuxian was a hero, the LanLing Jin Sect was down. It was all over. He should be relieved, he should be glad that everyone was safe, but looking at them celebrating, he couldn’t.

It was so unfair. It was all so unfair that no matter how it ended, he would always, always, always suffer. Because no matter the outcome, it was always the people he loved that would die.

Had Jin Guangyao won, his uncle, Wei Wuxian, even Wen Ning would have died. And he couldn’t even hate them now, because he knew, deep down, that even though they were responsible for his parent’s death, they didn’t want this, and they had suffered from it as much as he had.

Wei Wuxian had gone crazy over his mother’s death. He’d killed everyone and then let them kill him too. He knew it now. And Wen Ning, no matter how much the man disgusted him, Jin Ling knew he had killed his father because Wei Wuxian had lost control. He had had no control over his own body.

And now that Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji, and the majority of the supposedly good part of the cultivation world had won, he was still motherless. He had lost one of his uncles, one he trusted, the one who gave him Fairy. Once again, he was still the one suffering.

And he hated that. He hated feeling so miserable. Because who was to blame now for his parent’s death? Who was to blame for his situation? Who was to blame for the loss of everything he’d ever believed in? Why, why, why was it that the only one he loathed was himself?

He couldn’t forgive what had happened to his parents. But he’d learned to love one of their murderers, and understand the other. He was supposed to despise Jin Guangyao, but how could he ever do so when he was his family, someone he’d respected and loved all his life? And who was left now? Who was left to hate but himself for wanting to forgive them and move on? How could he even want to, think of moving on? How could he drop his father’s sword and give up on his hatred?

He was shaking. The world around his was blurry, swaying under his feet. He couldn’t hear anything, as if underwater, only muffled, echoing sounds with no meaning, no purpose.

'Isn’t that young master Jin Ling? What is he going to do now that his sect has lost its reputation?'

'Poor kid, no mother to raise him, now one of his uncles has died and the other is wounded.'

'He is going to become even more insufferable now.'

He clenched his fists, drawing away all the blood from his knuckles, his nails sinking in the flesh of his palms. He kept walking despite the dizziness, the cold hatred flowing through his body and the unmistakable weight in his stomach. Steps heavy, breathing uneven, he kept walking, ignoring the itching of two knowing eyes piercing him from the back and then turning away to follow Wei Wuxian.

He kept walking, farther and farther away from Guanyin Temple.

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Three months had passed since the Guanyin Temple’s accident. The LanLing Jin Sect was still in shambles with Jin GuangYao having been found guilty for half of the deaths in the cultivation world. Jin Ling was only fifteen so his uncle had been the one taking care of all the diplomatic, administrative issues, resulting in the poor mood he was in at the moment. Jin Ling still had some matters to attend to as the next heir, and his uncle had been training him especially hard, sending him on night hunts, perfecting his archery and cultivation. He wasn’t complaining, though, being busy helped him ignore all the things on his mind.

These last few months had been tough for him. He wasn’t going to admit it out loud, especially not to his uncle, but he had nightmares almost every night, flashes of his parent’s death – he hadn’t seen it, he was too young at that time, but he’d heard so many stories about it that it wasn’t hard to imagine – of him stabbing Wei Wuxian, of the blood on his hands, of blood everywhere. And he suspected that his uncle knew, and maybe, had them too.

Everything had been so strange since the second siege at the Burial Mounds. Their enemy had become their ally. Their allies were, on the contrary, their enemies. They had lost all their grounding, and had to build a new life upon the ruins of their mistaking. So they had busied themselves working, hunting, traveling, trying to move on.

Today, Jin Ling had been sent by his uncle to the Cloud Recesses, for training , but he suspected it was more to push him away while he dealt with some sensitive matters. Indeed, after everything that had happened, the LanLing Jin Sect, and more specifically, Jin Ling, the next heir, had been the target of a lot of criticism and antagonism.

He was supposed to stay there for a few months, train with the other juniors, and then go back to Lotus Pier to continue his training and preparation with his uncle.

He had been warned about the strict policy of the Gusu Lan Sect, about their four thousand rules and he wasn't keen on spending the last months before his birthday there. But he also hadn't seen Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi in a very long time, and he had agreed to go so he could see them again, not that he would ever admit it.

Fighting fierce corpses, zombies and rogue cultivators did that to you. None of them would pretend to be delusional enough to deny that.

And so, there he was, awkwardly standing in front of the protective barrier of the Cloud Recesses, him on one side, and Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi on the other.

Lan Sizhui was waiting for him in front of the entrance, gentle eyes and a kind, warm smile gracing his face. He was wearing the traditional robes of the Gusu Lan Sect, his forehead ribbon perfectly tied around his head, swaying and undulating with the wind. His posture was formal but welcoming, and Jin Ling found himself relax significantly and take a step forward.

Lan Jingyi was beside him, dressed similarly but the difference between them was almost comical. While Lan Sizhui's aura was that of a calm and collected young man, Lan Jingyi's was mutinous and witty. He kept moving his weight from one leg to another and jumped slightly when he caught sight of him, a large grin lighting up his face as he pointed at him and started waving his hands repeatedly.

Jin Ling had always felt that despite their childish rivalry and quarrels, he and Lan Jingyi were very similar as they both didn't fit as well as others in their respective sects. Jin Ling was a loner, his brash and haughty behavior had drawn him away from the other juniors his age. He had never managed to feel that sense of belonging to his sect.

Lan Jingyi was similar, in the way that he didn't seem to fit in the standards of his sects for cultivation and good manners. He was more spontaneous, direct, had some sort of nervous yet composed agitation to him that didn't quite fit with the image of the Gusu Lan Sect. He also seemed to be aware of it, Jin Ling had noticed, but didn't seem to care that much, rather imposing his own way of being, and Jin Ling admired him for taking pride in being himself.

And in a way, he had seen the same feeling sometimes in Sizhui's eyes. More subtle, more guarded somehow, only glimpses of it, but still there. And he didn't understand why. Lan Sizhui was, by definition, the perfect disciple of his sect. He had been raised by Hanguang-Jun, had good looks, perfect etiquette, a good level of cultivation and was most likely one of their best students. What could be making him feel that way?

Jin Ling knew that there was more to people than meets the eye. He knew because he wished people had known that for him too.

After a moment, he started walking toward them, greeting them with a shy smile as they meet him halfway. It had been more than three months since the Guanyin’s Temple events, and they had all been so busy that they hadn’t been able to see each other and catch up.

As they stopped in front of each other, Jin Ling extended his hand but was cut short by Lan Jingyi grabbing his shoulders with both hands and starting to talk animatedly to him. The previous awkwardness Jin Ling had felt upon first seeing them dissipated instantly.

‘Young Master Ling, it has been son long since we have last seen each other! How have you been? I heard you’re going to be appointed as the next LanLing Jin sect leader soon? Did you know that there are rumors of Sizhui being considered for the next sect leader ass well? Zewu-Jun is in seclusion and Hanguang-Jun refused the offer since he is with Wei Wuxian now!' the younger disciple exclaimed.

Jin Ling was about to reply that he wouldn’t become sec leader until he turned eighteen years old, but the sight of Sizhui putting his hand on Jingyi’s shoulder, as if to tell him to give their guest some space, made him stop in his tracks.

Lan Sizhui was still smiling, but now that he was closer, Jin Ling saw the dark circles under his eyes, and the way his smile didn’t truly reach his eyes. His posture was straight but there was a tenseness in his shoulders and upper arms that couldn’t be concealed. He looked tired. Or rather, he looked exhausted.

Seemed like they were all dealing with their own demons at the end of the day.

He saw Jingyi’s face turn to look at him as if to say ‘I know. Don’t say anything, I’ll tell you later’. In spite of it being strange enough to pique his curiosity, he dropped the subject.

‘It’s good to see you again Young Master Ling. Welcome to the Cloud Recesses.’ Lan Sizhui said while putting his hand on Jin Ling’s back and leading him toward the entrance.

The Cloud Recesses really lived up to its reputation of one of the most beautiful places in the world. It truly was otherworldly with its hazy waterfalls, its pristine gardens and the heavy silence enveloping the place. It had a sacred aura, like a place untouched, unspoiled by men. The buildings were sparse, almost part of the landscape.

There were a few cultivators outside, but again, it was as if they weren’t, walking slowly, silently, only whispering softly when needed. It was truly something else, far from the blinding golden of his sect’ Carp Tower. It was another kind of stunning, less ostentatious perhaps.

The walk to his newly assigned room was short, but lively. Lan Sizhui was on his left, silent, apart from a few practical comments about the locations of the facilities, of the training grounds, of the dining hall. Lan Jingyi was on his left, standing much closer, a grin on his face as he saw Jin Ling’s surprised appreciation of the Cloud Recesses.

They finally arrived at the junior’s quarters, it was a small dormitory with individual simplistic designed room, nothing special, just what was needed to sleep and store their belongings. He started to unpack with Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui still looking at him from the door, talking as he was putting his things in the minimalist furniture.

‘So, how have you been Young Master Jin?’ Lan Sizhui asked. Jin Ling turned to look at him as he almost hadn’t opened his mouth since his arrival.

‘I have been doing fine, obviously. Training, night hunting, the usual’ he answered and hesitated.

And you? Have you been doing fine? Why do you look so drained?

‘Hmm, that’s good. Well I have some important matters to attend to so I have to go, but we will see each other for dinner’ he nodded ‘Jingyi, I’ll let you take care of Young Master Ling, make sure he doesn’t need anything’ and he left.

They waited in silence for a moment, both trying to put their respective thoughts into words. Finally, after looking left and right, Lan Jingyi sighed and came into the room, closing the door behind him, and making his way to Jin Ling’s bed before sitting down.

Jin Ling threw him a look that said ‘Who allowed you to sit there’ but looking at Jingyi’s dejected face made him lose any trace of animosity, and he sat next to him.

‘What’s wrong with Young Master Lan? Why does he look like all his energy was sucked out of him?’ Jin Ling questioned.

Jingyi took some time to answer, as if pondering whether or not he should talk about it without Lan Sizhui’s consent.

‘He has been acting strange ever since we came back from Guanyin Temple. I’m not sure why, but it might have something to do with Wei Wuxian and the Ghost General. I saw them talking together on that day and since then he has been like that’ He finally explained.

‘Is that all?’ Jin Ling raised his eyebrows. ‘Then why didn’t you just ask him?’

The Gusu Lan disciple shook his head.

‘I tried but every time I did he changed the subject, or found an excuse to leave. He has been under a lot of pressure since Zewu-Jun has been in seclusion’

‘Why’s that?’Jin Ling asked again.

‘Lan Wangji and Lan Qiren would like him to become the next sect leader, so he has been training really hard with them, and has taken a lot more responsibilities than before, you should know how it is since you have known you were Jin Guangyao’s heir since you were born’

That was true, Jin Ling thought. Being sect leader was a significant responsibility and a heavy burden for the body and the mind. You had to be strong, both physically and mentally, have a great cultivation level, and be able to put your sect’s interest ahead of your own. He had know and been preparing for it since he was born, but Lan Sizhui hadn't and that must have but a lot of pressure for him.

Jin Ling understood. But seeing the gloomy look on Lan Jingyi’s face, it clearly wasn’t everything.

‘What do you think he’s hiding?’ he asked, a moment later.

The Gusu Lan disciple didn’t say anything, just shook his head instead.

Well, that was strange, indeed.

But why should he care? It wasn’t like they were the best friends ever. They weren’t even in the same sect. He liked them, of course, but if Lan Sizhui didn’t want to talk about it, who was he to put his nose into his business? Lan Jingyi should just let it go and wait for him to talk about it if he wanted to.

Seeing that Jin Ling wasn’t going to say anything else; Lan Jingyi stood up, and made his way to the door.

‘I will see you for dinner, just come and see me if you need anything in the meantime” and he left, making sure to close the door behind him.

That sure was a strange and anti-climatic arrival, and he hoped it wouldn’t stay like that for the three months of his stay at the Cloud Recesses.

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

The afternoon went by quickly, with him having to store his clothes, books, bow and arrows into the limited drawers and making his room feel a little more like himself, like home, and a little less like a prison cell.

After that, it was already five in the afternoon, and there were still two hours left before dinner. He decided to go for a walk in the gardens and explore the Cloud Recesses a bit more. He left his bow and arrows in his room, but decided to bring his father’s sword with him, as he never put it down, for both practical, and emotional reasons.

His walk lasted longer than he thought, and after some time, he found himself in front of a stream, looking at Lan Sizhui’s back, as he was sitting on a rock, his bare feet lazily hanging above the water. He looked calm, but the stiffness in his back and shoulder blades was still here. He was deep in thoughts, and didn’t notice Jin Ling observing him from behind one of the willow trees.

Jin Ling wondered if he should make his presence known to the other – very vulnerable looking – teenager, but upon seeing him relaxing and lowering his guard, he decided not to. But he was already so close, and even a small movement would catch the other’s attention.

He looked at the sun, reddening and already starting to set, it would soon be hidden behind the mountains of Gusu. It was around six, and there was still an hour left before he would have to return to his room and prepare for his first dinner at the Cloud Recesses. He quickly made up his mind and sat against the tree he was hiding behind. He would just have to wait for Lan Sizhui to go first, and he would follow after him.

He tried to find a comfortable position against the tree, and let his head rest on his shoulders. He could smell the green smell of the leaves hanging above him, and hear the clear chops of the water. The air was getting colder as the sun was going down and he let his eyes wander on Lan Sizhui’s back.

He was still dressed in the Gusu Lan formal robes, but had taken off his shoes, that had been put neatly next to him along with his sword. His hands were on his lap and his eyes were close, his face totally relaxed and open. What was surprising, though, was that he had let his hair down, the black strands no longer in a ponytail, but falling against his back, spread on his shoulders… It made him look younger than he was, but also older, in the way his hais cupped his face, making his features look sharper, had more contrast, more structure.

And what a sight to see!

Jin Ling wasn’t a cut-sleeve like Wei Wuxian but he wasn’t blind either, and only blind men would remain indifferent to the sight of this man facing the sunset with his hair blowing in the wind.

It may not seem like that when you first meet him, but Lan Sizhui truly was the heir of the two Jades of Lan. Behind his kind, serious looks was a very handsome young man, but people were often so attracted by his amiable personality that they didn’t notice how beautiful he looked. They didn’t notice the color of his eyes, that of a stormy sky, behind his seriousness. They didn’t notice his straight nose and sharp jaw behind his gentle smile. And it was nice, in fact, that they cared more about who he was than what he looked like. But Jin Ling couldn’t help but noticing it as well.

But what striked him the most was the fact that when Lan Sizhui opened his eyes again, he was crying. The clouded sky had cleared for a second and a shaft of sunlight had fallen on his face in an iridescent mix of honey and silver, with gracious golden drops rolling down his cheeks.

Jin Ling was so stunned that he didn’t even feel embarrassed for having seen his friend in such a defenseless state. He watched as Lan Sizhui pulled his legs against his chest and let his chin rest on it. He watched as he used his spotless sleeves to wipe the wetness on his face, and kept crying silently, his back only shaking slightly.

It was an eternity until he finally put his shoes on again and stood up, before straightening his back and walking toward the dinning hall, leaving a confused Jin Ling behind him.

He stayed there, breathless, for a minute or so, Lan Sizhui’s crying shape replaying in his mind. He had never struck him as the kind to break down like that, and he had naively entertained the thought that his friend was just like Lan Wangji, always keeping his composure, his stoic face, never showing any kind of weakness to others. As expected from the next heir of the Gusu Lan Sect. But maybe not as expected from Lan Sizhui as a human being.

They were all human after all.

However, he didn’t know what to do about that. No matter what, Lan Sizhui wasn’t the kind to cry for any reason, and there must have been something serious enough to make him feel so distressed. But what should he do? Should he try to talk to him about it? Should he tell Lan Jingyi – the other boy knew him better than Jin Ling did, maybe he could help? Or should he keep it to himself and let Lan Sizhui decide to talk to them or not? He had no idea, plus it wasn’t really like him to go and help people with their problems, he had enough of his own.

He ended up walking back to the center of the Cloud Recesses, and making his way towards the dinning hall, where he knew he would find both of his friends.

The hall was silent, only the clicking sound of the dishes echoing in the room. He tried to enter as quietly as possible, only earning a side glance from Lan Qiren, and spotted Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui in the corner of the room with other disciples from many different sects. As they saw him, they gestured him to come and sit with them, and when he was finally sitting in from of them, they continued eating in silence.

It really was a strange experience to live in so much calm and quietness all the time. Jin Ling supposed it was why most of the Gusu Lan disciples he had met were so calm and collected, only speaking when necessary, which gave their words more clout and importance. It wasn’t that he wasn’t used to quietness, he was, he spent most of his time alone after all. But this was another kind of silence. It was relaxing, but also very restricting as he had to make sure not to make any sound, controlling even his breathing as he conscientiously ate the bland flavored food.

At some point, he noticed that a pair of eyes had started to look at him from up front. He tried to ignore them at first, focusing on his food, but the intensity of the gaze grew stronger and he couldn’t help but look up and let his eyes meet with Lan Sizhui’s.

The other boy seemed surprised to have been found staring.

'As if he hasn’t been boring holes through my face for the past ten minutes', Jin Ling thought, sarcastically.

A guilty wince made Sizhui's face twist as he quickly proceeded to start an in-depth analysis of the empty bowl in front of him. Jin Ling raised an eyebrow at the other boy’s strange behavior, but lowered his face as well to hide the red that had started to spread on his cheeks and neck for being stared at so intensely.

It was weird, he thought, the guilty look on his face before he looked away. It was as if he was torn between wanting to apologize, crying, or fighting Jin Ling right here and now in the middle of the hall.

What do you want from me?

It was dark by the time they all finished eating and walked together through the gardens, in the direction of the dorms. Lan Sizhui was walking in the middle, with Jingyi and Jin Ling on both sides of him. He seemed to have calmed down and looked more like his normal self. However the three of them knew something was off, but none of them knew how to address the elephant in the room.

At some point, they reached Jin Ling’s room so he waved them good night and left. It was only eight thirty and he wasn’t tired, but he was in the Cloud Recesses, so he had to at least try to respect the curfew, especially on his first day night here. After locking his door, he stripped of his robes to wear something more comfortable, and went to bed, trying to empty his mind, to meditate.

Hoping he wouldn’t have nightmares that night.

Chapter Text

When he regained consciousness again, the whole room was plunged into pitch darkness. His eyes were open, but it was as if he was blindfolded, as if there was nothing around him but the deafening sound of his own respiration. He sucked in a ragged breath and grasped for something to hold on. His hand touched something wet, viscous, and he suddenly realized how the air smelled of rotten and decay. As he was about to shout, to call for help, he realized he couldn’t speak either.

 

What is happening? Where am I?

 

All of a sudden, he saw light from the corner of his eyes, and in an instant, the whole room lit up in flames and he finally saw where he was.

 

He was in the middle of a reception hall. And around him were hundreds, thousands of piled up, dismembered corpses. He was bathing in their blood, breathing in the smell of death, of putrefaction. The room had been set on fire, and he was trapped between a wall of fire and the twisted faces of the dead.

 

He wanted to scream

 

He wanted to run.

 

But as he staggered his way through the corpses, his eyes fell on two familiar bodies. One of them was a woman, she was wearing a purple dress, that would have been of the best quality if a hole hadn’t been stabbed in the middle of her chest and tainted it with crimson. The other corpse was in the yellow robes of the LanLing Jin Sect, but what caught Jin Ling’s attention was the sword half unsheathed on his hip.

 

Suiha. His sword. His father’s sword.

 

His hands flew to his mouths as he chocked on a sob and fell on his knees torn between running away and getting closer to see. His whole body was shaking, his eyes so clouded by tears and ugly sobs and cries that he couldn’t make a move. He was stuck in front of them, doomed to watch their faces, their intertwined hands and lifeless bodies as the fire behind him was reducing everything to ashes, destroying even the last, most morbid memories he had of them.

 

He needed to get up, he needed to do something, anything, but he couldn’t stay there. He tried to muster the last sparkles of energy he had left in him when he saw a human shape stand up next to him, followed by another one on his left. And another, and another, from all parts of the inferno. Soon half of the corpses in the room had stood up and started to walk toward him, their heads hanging low, their arms down, but their eyes a clear blue, almost white, pupil-less abyss.

 

Jin Ling had a bad feeling. This scene, the corpses, it all felt too familiar. It was the demonic path, the Yiling Patriarch’s demonic cultivation. But Wei Wuxian wasn’t like that anymore, had never really been. The bloodbath of Nightless City, it had been an accident… He was… He was…

 

I’m dreaming.

 

Just as he came to this realization, a familiar laugh echoed in the room, and, from behind the flames, a dark silhouette brought a flute to its mouth and started playing a high-pitched, strident melody, and the last thing he saw before blacking out was his father’s crying face stabbing him in the chest.

 

 


 

 

And he opened his eyes for the second time, taking in a deep, shaky breath. His face was wet when he let his fingers crawl up to his cheeks. He clumsily tripe to wipe them off but the more he did, the more uncontrollably they seemed to flow from his half-shut eyes.

 

The fact that he couldn’t seem to be able to catch his breath – gasping uselessly for air that didn’t seem to appease him, but rather, made him crave for more and more and more – didn’t help either. He found himself running out of bed to the small bathroom next to his room, and emptying his stomach in the toilets, spitting bile and the vegetable soup he had eater earlier.

 

When he couldn’t get anything out anymore, but still didn’t feel better, he rushed out of the room, completely ignoring the curfew, and ran aimlessly through the gardens, leaning on walls, trees, to avoid tripping.

 

How weak. How pathetic.

 

He imagined his father walking here, twenty years ago, and wondered how he felt when he was still studying at the Cloud Recesses. He wondered how he looked, if they looked similar, what he would think of him being so pitiful. Would he have felt proud of him, had he still been alive? Probably not, he thought, why would he?

 

He kept walking and walking to nowhere, only stopping when he reached the training grounds and the shooting range. It was an outdoor field, but the sky was clear and he easily found a basic training bow and a handful of arrows.

 

His crying had calmed a little, but he still felt light-headed and out of breath. He didn’t know what to feel anymore. He kept having these nightmares, almost every night, and they messed with his sanity. He had tried everything, meditation, keeping himself busy, sleeping medicine even, but nothing had worked, and he was tired. He was so drained, frustrated, overwhelmed.

 

There were so many things he needed to deal with, starting from his own Sect, which had lost everything in the span of one single night. But he also needed to get better, to live up to the expectations people had for him, being Jin Zuxuan’s son, raised by two other powerful sect leaders. He needed to prove his worth. He needed to make his parents, his uncle, even Wei Wuxian, proud. He couldn’t afford to be like this!

 

But if he couldn’t sleep, if he couldn’t even deal with his own fucked up feelings, how could he ever hope to make them acknowledge him? The thought was like a punch to his stomach.

 

He held back a whine and without thinking much, he bent his bow, aimed at the target, and released.

 

He missed.

 

He bent it again, released, and missed again. Bend, release, miss. Bend, release, miss. This went on for more than an hour before he had finally calmed down, his mind cleared, and he took in the scene before him.

 

The shooting range looked like a battlefield. It was covered with broken arrows, most of the target still intact. He looked down at his right hand and sighed. His skin was raw and his fingers and wrists numb and bloody from shooting so many arrows with a low-quality bow. He watched the blood roll down the curve of his hand and fall on the bare ground at his feet in a little crimson puddle. With another sigh he put down his quiver and the bow, and turned to go back to his room. He was tired and had already broken too many rules in a single day.

 

But as he turned back from the shooting range, his eyes caught sight of a way too familiar figure, staring at him from the other side of the field with sad, all too understanding eyes.

 

Jin Ling froze. He didn’t know what to do. How much had Lan Sizhui seen or heard? His entire body shuddered, was he going to be punished? Was he going to have to explain and justify his transgression of the rules? It was too late now, he couldn’t run away or pretend nothing happened, so he just waited, waiting for Lan Sizhui to make the first move.

 

They both stayed still under the starry sky for what felt like an eternity, and when Lan Sizhui finally took a step toward him, the moon had shifted and Jin Ling’s face was no longer hidden behind the shadow of the trees.

 

Lan Sizhui walked up to him in just a few steps, and now that he was closer, Jin Ling could see the worry in his eyes, but they were also gleaming with determination, and the younger man couldn’t help but stare helplessly at him, at this side of his friend that was both incredibly familiar and foreign at the same time.

 

It all felt unreal, them, standing so close under in the silver realm of the night. Lan Sizhui was still dressed formally, always so proper, always so achingly perfect, but that night his face was a frozen enigma. He looked so impassive yes so incredibly sad it hurt Jin Ling to let their eyes meet.

 

Jin Ling let out a sigh he didn’t know he was holding, and by relaxing a little, allowed the other boy to get closer, to do whatever it was that he wanted to do.

 

Seeing his giving up, the Gusu Lan disciple took a few steps closer, and ever so delicately, reached to grab his hand with his, making sure not to touch the inflamed skin, and turning it so his palm was facing the sky and the stream of his blood changed its course and started dripping on the clear white fabric of his uniform.

 

Seeing how he was putting blood everywhere on his friend, Jin Ling tried to take his hand back, but the grip on his wrist tightened, still not touching his wound, but preventing him from leaving.

 

‘Stop moving’ he heard Lan Sizhui say quietly, as he reached behind his head to untie his forehead ribbon.

 

Seeing what he was doing, Jin Ling withdrew his arm, holding it against his chest.

 

‘Stop! You don’t have to do this!’ He stuttered, feeling his blood rush to his cheeks, once again. ‘I know the meaning behind your sect’s forehead ribbon! You don’t need to do this, I will be fine! I can just walk back to the dorms and I’ll find some bandages there’.

 

He threw a confused look at Lan Sizhui. What was wrong with him today? Sending him weird looks all day, spying on him in the middle of the night and now this… He was about to thank him for his concern and fly back to the dorms, but the voice of the other cut through the silence before he even had the chance.

 

‘It’s not… I’m not feeling forced to do this. I want to do this for you young master Ling!’ the other youth exclaimed hurriedly.

 

Jin Ling chewed on his lips, not too sure what this was supposed to mean.

 

‘Our forehead ribbon, it is important to us and we can only take it off under certain circumstances, or for certain people… People we consider the closest to us. And to me you are one of these ‘certain people’ Jin Ling. Please allow me to use it on you.’

 

The use of his full name, and the overly honest plea convinced him not to run away right away. He wasn’t stupid, a bit naive sometimes, but not stupid, and he clearly knew of the importance of the forehead ribbon. The Lan disciples had told him themselves about it. They had also told Wei Wuxian about it before. He knew they couldn’t take it off for a situation like this one, unless they really cared about the person they took it off for.

 

Does he? Does he really care about me so much that he would waste the opportunity to give it to his cultivation partner and use it for me instead?

 

His heart missed a beat, and his throat tightened as he felt tears swell up in his eyes again. He cursed himself for being so sensitive and emotional. He had never been shown such genuine proof of love and care growing up an orphan. He knew his uncle loved him, in his own harsh kind of way. And he knew Wei Wuxian cared about him too. But it wasn’t the tenderness and care of a parent either. Was he ready to accept this kind of affection, a life binding friendship?

 

Was he worthy of it?

 

Carefully, he offered his hand to the other, who took it without a word, with extreme caution and manipulated it with overflowing gentleness. He let the other boy brush the sensible skin on the inside of his wrist with the tip of his thumb, before taking the white ribbon on his other hand, and wrapping it around his bleeding arm, his scratched fingers. Jin Ling let his flows and sorrow slowly smear the clear fabric.

 

He contemplated their linked hands for a moment. He let his eyes roam over his bandaged arm, over Sizhui's fingers, still brushing distractedly against his skin, as if he didn’t even know what he was doing. He silently raised his head to look at Lan Sizhui, whose eyes were still down.

 

And what now?

 

What did this really mean for Lan Sizhui? Would that change anything in their relationship? Did that mean they could be considered sworn brothers? Could they really call each other friends now?

 

‘I don’t understand young master Lan’ he finally said. ‘What is this supposed to mean? Why would you want to do that and waste your forehead ribbon for that? For me?’

 

‘I think it’s nothing but obvious, on the contrary young master Ling.’ Lan Sizhui sighed, looking at him with a sad smile.

 

Jin Ling didn’t know, couldn’t tell why, but something felt wrong. He couldn’t put his finger on what, but there was something with that smile, with that gaze. There was a softness, a form of longing in it, but that wasn’t all. There was something incredibly sad, heartbreaking about the way he was looking at him.

 

But Jin Ling, in all his poor understanding of the situation, didn’t notice the tremor in his smile. He didn’t notice the way Lan Sizhui’s hands were clenched in a tight fist around his wrist and the flash of apprehension that crossed his eyes.

 

Lan Sizhui grip on his wrist loosened as he let his hand slide down Jin Ling’s arm and intertwined their fingers, pressing their hands together with different degrees of pressure. Jin Ling was in a trance, unable to look away from their linked hands.

 

This. This felt so good. He had no idea how such a simple form of intimacy could make him feel that way. How could a simple touch of the hands bring him so much comfort and reassurance and certainty? It was exhilarating, and he was enthralled. His train of thought was cut short by Sizhui’s voice.

 

‘Young master Ling… Jin Ling. There is one last thing I would like to ask from you, if I may?’

 

Jin Lin nodded, feeling too everything at the same time to be able form a normal sentence.

 

‘I would like you to keep it for me’ he said while caressing the ribbon tied around Jin Ling’s arm. ‘I want you to keep it. I am letting you decide, you can say no. But if you accept, I want you to take care of it, as a reminder of what you are to me, until I ask you for it again’

 

‘Lan Sizhui, I don’t understand, is something wrong? Why would I need a reminder of you when we will be spending the next months studying here together?’ he questioned, frustration from not understanding what was going on building in his chest.

 

‘Nothing is wrong, don’t worry about it. Now please, tell me, will you keep it or not?”

 

Jin Ling didn’t hesitate a second and nodded.

 

‘I will keep it if that’s what you want’ he answered despite not knowing what the other disciple meant by that.

 

Lan Sizhui finally seemed to relax as he let go of Jin Ling.

 

‘Thank you’ he paused ‘You should go back to sleep now. I will see you later’

 

Jin Ling nodded again, ignoring the sudden loneliness he felt at not being held anymore, lightly bowed to his friend, and walked back to the dorm. He resisted the urge to look back and repressed the strange tickling feeling in his stomach. He could always talk to him the day after, now, he needed to sleep.

 

 

What happens next will be up to you.’

 

 


 

 

It was still dark when he returned to the dorms. The door of his room had been left open, which was probably how Lan Sizhui had known he was out. Which also meant that he had been looking for him in the middle of the night, because why else would he have come here when there was nothing else but his room?

 

What had happened earlier was strange, and so unexpected, he thought while trying to clean up the mess he had made in his room while storming out. It was strange because no matter how serious and passionate he knew Lan Sizhui could be, he had never seen him like that.

 

When he was done cleaning up he lied down on the bed and sighed. He had a strange presentiment. He couldn’t put any words on it but it had almost felt like a… It had felt like a… He was too tired and too confused to think clearly.

 

His eyes closed and his eyelids grew heavier and heavier. He felt himself falling into unconsciousness, his breathing evening out...

 

Like a goodbye… It had felt like a goodbye!

 

Jin Ling’s eyes shot opened and he jumped out of bed faster than he had ever had. It couldn’t be! Lan Sizhui couldn’t have left the Gusu Lan Sect, why would he have?

 

Jin Ling took his sword, bow and quiver and for the second time that night, rushed out of his room, running as quickly as he could toward the training field. It barely took him a few minutes to reach it, but when he did, no one was there. The field, however, had been cleaned, the broken arrows and targets had been put to the side.

 

No. Lan Sizhui must have simply decided to clean Jin Ling’s mess before going to bed. He turned away and started rushing toward Lan Jingyi’s room, the place of which he knew because the other boy had showed him during his visit that morning.

 

He ran and ran and ran, and finally arrived in front of the door. He didn’t bother knocking and kicked the door open, storming inside and scaring the sleeping disciple awake.

 

Lan Jingyi had stood up almost instantly, already reaching for his sword before realizing that he wasn’t being attacked.

 

‘What the fuck young master Ling! Weren’t you taught how to knock at Lotus Pier?’

 

Jin Ling ignored him and grabbed his arm with much more strength than necessary, making the other wince and push him back.

 

‘Lan Jingyi! Take me to Lan Sizhui's room right now! I might be wrong but I think he’s gone!’

 

Seeing the distressed look on Jin Ling’s face, Lan Jingyi immediately went from angry to worried and confused. However, he wasted no time and ran out of his room.

 

‘Follow me!’ He said to Jin Ling, and the both of them started running toward another building.

 

‘What makes you think he’s gone?’ He asked, still running.

 

‘I’m not sure. I couldn’t sleep and went to the training field to clear my mind. He found me and he was acting weird, and making me promise things… I thought it was strange but now that I think about it, it clearly wasn’t him being normal’

 

Lan Jingyi shook his head in disbelief and made them take another turn to the right before stopping in front of a door, the both of them were out of breath from running too much.

 

He knocked.

 

‘Sizhui? Are you here?’

 

There was no answer.

 

He knocked a second time, harder.

 

‘Sizhui! If you don’t answer we are going to come in!’ He asked again.

 

There was still no answer.

 

He looked at Jin Ling, who nodded, and opened the door.

 

The room was clean, tidy. The bed had been made, the desk was full of books piled neatly. But as soon as they entered, they knew. The robes of the Gusu Lan Sect had been folded and placed on the bed, and Jingyi instantly knew that some of the books were missing from the pile on his desk and some of the drawers had been emptied. Lan Sizhui was gone.

 

He looked at the bed, then at Jin Ling, at loss for words.

 

‘How long has it been since you last saw him’ the Gusu Lan disciple asked quietly, too quietly.

 

‘An hour or so’ Jin Ling knew what this meant. It meant that if Lan Sizhui had wanted to leave the Sect, he was already far by now and there was no use in trying to find him. It was too late now.

 

‘Fuck!’ Lan Sizhui shouted. ‘Fuck! Why did he leave? Why didn’t he tell me? He didn’t even leave a letter...’ He kneeled down and put his face in his hands. ‘I don’t understand.’

 

He threw Jin Ling a desperate glance.

 

‘It’s my fault if he left. I knew something was wrong but I didn’t do anything. I didn’t do enough!’

 

He and Lan Sizhui were like brothers, they had been raised together, had been taught cultivation together, had been on counteless night hunts together. They were family. And now one of them was gone and the other had been left behind. Jin Ling knew that feeling too well, had spent his whole life feeling like that, so he understood.

 

He was also shaken, completely and utterly devastated, but he felt somewhat out of place. He felt as though he didn’t have the right to feel the way he did, because he hadn’t known Sizhui for as long as Jingyi had. He didn’t have the right to cry right now.

 

He needed to be strong, he was a future sect leader for fuck’s sake, so why was he so useless, why did he always have to be so weak?

 

He thought of his father, what would he have done at his place.

 

He thought of his uncle, how did he react every time Wei Wuxian disappeared? How did he feel when he lost his brother?

 

He couldn’t stay still. He took a step forward and put his hand on Jingyi’s shoulder.

 

‘Stand up. We need to tell the others. We also need Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian to come back so we can’t stay here’ he said, as softly as he could, trying to hide the tremor in his voice.

 

However, as the other looked up to him, his reaction wasn’t the one he expected. The other’s eyes shifted to his arm and widened. La Jingyi looked taken aback, almost suspicious.

 

‘Why do you have Sizhui’s forehead ribbon?’ he asked, probably more aggressively than he intended.

 

Jin Ling hesitated.

 

‘He gave it to me, to use as a bandage because I got hurt earlier’ he finally answered.

 

Lan Jingyi frowned.

 

‘But you know the meaning behind our forehead ribbons, he can’t have-’ he stopped and his eyes started scanning Jin Ling's face. After a moment, he seemed to find what he had been looking for, and his gaze softened, eyes suddenly growing sad.

 

‘Oh, Lan Yuan… What have you done?’