Lanling was in chaos, people running around in a hurry, yelling orders and trying to speed up the preparations. Everything had to be perfect, for it was a grand occasion – the Jin Sect was anointing its new leader today.
The last time had been decades ago, and the circumstances back then hadn’t been favorable for any joyous celebration. A shame for the people of Lanling and its cultivators, who so loved to party.
This time, there was no scandal, no bloodshed and betrayal and tragedy to rush the process and tarnish its significance. As such, Jin Ling had decided it would need to be the most lavish, extravagant party Lanling had ever seen.
It would be, after all, his very last act at the Jin Sect Leader. He had waited for so long. Why not go out on the highest note?
Besides, Jin Xuan more than deserved it.
She was pacing her room nervously. Her siblings had called Jin Ling for support, since they were unable to calm their eldest sister’s frayed nerves. It fell on Jin Ling to offer her comfort.
It warmed his heart that at thirty-two years old, his daughter could still be soothed by his presence and words.
“Just one last time, please. Walk me through it one last time.”
“A-Xuan, sweetheart, calm down. You know the protocol perfectly. All will be fine.”
“What if I make a mistake? I’m going to make a fool of myself. I’ll be the most ridiculous sect leader the Jin Sect has ever seen.”
It was always funny to have his daughter show this insecure side of her, when she had inherited her father and grandfather’s pride – or arrogance, to say it less kindly. Jin Ling got up from the low table, deeming the tea cooling down in their teacups a lost cause. He caught her by a shoulder to stop her pacing and have her face him. Her eyes were shining as she worried at her lips unconsciously. Such a crybaby – another thing she got from him.
He cupped her neck in his hands. He was barely taller than her, a fact that always tugged as his heart, as he remembered the little girl clinging to his robes and begging to be perched on his shoulders.
“I assure you, you won’t ever do worse than me.”
Her eyes widened as she stilled at last, dumbstruck.
“Hm-hm. I stumbled on the hem of my robe on the way to the altar and knocked down an incense burner. If not for one of my friend's quick reflexes I would have set fire to the Fragrant Palace.”
He chuckled at his daughter’s shocked expression. He had never told this story to any of his children – out of embarrassment, but mostly because he liked the image they had of him. The younger generations didn’t know him as Jin Ling, the orphan brat burdened with the bloody inheritance of the Lanling Jin Sect, who had no friend and no support and would never amount to anything. To them he was the esteemed leader that had lifted the Jin Sect from the bottoms up, a powerful, reliable man, respected by his peers and subjects.
That’s why despite Lan Jingyi’s best effort, they could never quite picture him as he had been as a teen.
"Believe me. You can ask your great-uncle. I think he still has nightmares over it."
His uncle Cheng had been on the verge of walking out of the hall and throwing himself off the nearest bridge. Jin Ling hadn’t fared much better. Most of the ceremony had been a blur, because he was holding back tears, humiliated and ashamed but forced to carry on, determined to see it through.
Both his uncles had stuck around until the end, and glared down anyone trying to give him a hard time, something he found both comforting and shameful, for couldn’t he handle himself? He knew now that he couldn’t indeed, and that there was actually no shame in that.
Ah, growing older and hopefully wiser had its perks.
“I was fifteen years younger than you are now. You can imagine how nervous I was.”
“Now I feel bad for being so worried… You made it all on your own, and so young. I can’t even…”
He squeezed lightly to still her words, unwilling to hear her be so hard on herself.
“I wouldn’t wish it to anyone, A-Xuan. Being the youngest Sect Leader… for a long time it wasn’t a source of pride at all you know. It wasn’t a good thing.”
When they retold it now, they could boast about his accomplishments, praise his maturity and fortitude. But at the time, no one had any faith in him. Or well, not exactly no one, but still, he had felt so alone, overwhelmed and desperate, facing the weight of the work to come, of his duties and responsibilities.
Some days he didn’t understand how he had even made it through.
“It’s normal to be nervous. It will pass. You’re ready, A-Xuan. I wouldn’t leave the mantle to you if you weren’t. You’ll make an amazing Sect Leader, and you’ll make me proud, as you always have.”
She smiled, eyes watery, as she tipped her head to nuzzle against his hand.
“At least I will still have my predecessor to guide me,” she said.
Jin Ling’s breath froze in his lungs.
“That reminds me, the Head Instructor asked me if you would attend the next meeting over the disciples training program. I know it won’t be yours to deal with anymore but I didn’t know if…”
She looked back at him, puzzled by his serious tone. His hands slid down as he reached inside his sleeve to rub his fingers at the piece of ribbon tied around his wrist, a habit he had never been able to get rid of in all those years. Not that he really wanted to.
“I won’t be here anymore.”
“It’s okay, it's okay! I figured you'd want a break for all these boring things now, but…"
“That’s not what I mean.”
She frowned. He sighed heavily, realizing now was probably the worst time to have this conversation. He should have told her sooner, or he should have waited for after the ceremony, when all was said and done.
Though it wasn’t a time or a place that would make it easier for her to hear.
“I won’t be here anymore, A-Xuan. As soon as the handover is completed, I'm leaving Lanling.”
It took a while for the words to make their way into her mind, for her to make sense of them. He knew exactly when she did – her expression turned disbelieving, then stormy.
“What? What do you mean you’re leaving? Why? Where?”
“My work here will be done. I’ve been waiting for the day I could safely entrust the future of our Sect to you, and that day has come. Nothing’s holding me back anymore.”
He winced at the hurt in her voice. He shouldn’t have said it like this.
“What about us? What about A-Xie and A-Tong? They’re not even full-blown cultivators yet! And what about A-Yue? He’s only two! Don’t you want to see him grow up?”
Jin Ling looked sideways, unable to sustain his daughter’s gaze. Her first son was a joy to all around him, himself included, and he would miss him dearly. But his decision was made, and he wouldn’t stray from it.
“What about me?” she whispered, voice wavering. “I can’t… I need you here. I can’t do this without you.”
“Oh, A-Xuan. You can. You’ve been doing it for years. And you won’t be alone. Your brothers will be here for you, even Jin Jinghuan, when he won’t be traveling around. The entire sect is beside you. You'll be fine."
She bit her lips and shook her head, stubborn.
“You can’t do that. You can’t abandon us like this!” she accused.
It was his turn to take to anger.
“Is that what you think? Do you think I haven’t done enough? That I don’t deserve my rest? That I ought to dedicate all I have to the Sect, down to my last breathe?”
She recoiled at his harsh tone and he forced himself to drain out part of his anger. It wasn’t directed at her, not really. She couldn’t know.
“I don’t understand,” she said weakly.
He knew she didn’t. He had figured he would stay vague and non-descriptive if she didn’t press, but he should have known better. As if she was going to let it go so easily.
“A-Xuan. You love your husband, don’t you?”
The answer was obvious – just mentioning the man softened the lines of her face, drained some of her tension. She nodded firmly.
“You’re lucky to have found him, and to have been able to marry him. Not everyone is so fortunate. You know your mother and I were married for convenience. That isn’t to say our marriage was loveless – I cared about her deeply. She was my dearest friend.”
Despite how their marriage had been practical more than anything, he was grateful for the years Xie Tong had spent by his side, and his heart still wept at the thought of her and her untimely death. She had been of a low cultivation level, never destined to live as long as him, but she shouldn’t have been taken from them so early either.
Jin Xuan nodded, solemn. She still missed her mother too.
“The both of us, we made our choices, for the sake of our family and sect. We were both well aware of it. She was my wife, but she never was and could never have been my cultivation partner.”
“Because you weren’t in love.”
“Yes. But mostly because I already had one.”
She startled and took a step back to look at him properly, as if she would catch deceit better if she could take him all in. He endured the scrutiny – he knew he wasn’t making much sense to her right now.
“It doesn’t matter who. As for the when… It was before I became Sect Leader.”
Her eyes widened as she took the measure of his words.
“But that… that was…”
Her marriage had been a minor scandal. Her husband was from a minor Sect without much of a reputation, but she had recognized him as the other half of her heart, and wouldn’t budge on the matter, for any reason. Jin Ling siding with her was the only reason why she hadn’t been pushed out of the race for succeeding him – the elders were displeased, but in the end, they had bent to their will.
She had argued the matter saying that forcing apart people destined to be cultivation partners was a cruelty no decent cultivator would wish to inflict on anyone.
Jin Ling had been alone on his side of this bond for three decades.
“Things were different then. We had our duties to honor, a lot to shoulder on our own. Cultivators live very long lives, one would say we live several of them. So we made our choices, and we lived by it. But now…”
Now that the wait was finally over, the longing had turned painful, unbearable. Jin Ling had often wondered how things could have turned out differently, what other paths they could have walked, but he had never regretted their decision, even if he had hated them for it at times. What regret could he have, looking into the shining eyes of his beloved daughter, to whom he was leaving a thriving, prosperous sect, with the confidence she would bring it to new heights in her lifetime?
His work here was done, and done well. And now…
Now they could finally get their reward.
“I’m sorry, A-Xuan. I know this is sudden. I should have told you earlier but…”
“No, it’s… It’s fine.”
She was thoughtful for a moment, before she repeated, more convinced, “it’s fine, Father. I understand.”
And maybe she did. Unlike her three brothers and sister, she had found her cultivation partner. She understood that kind of love.
“You won’t be gone forever though, right? You know you’ll always have a home here in Lanling. You and… whoever else you wish to bring.”
He smiled softly, touched.
“We will be traveling for some time I believe, but of course I'll come to visit, A-Xuan. Soon I will no longer be the leader of the Lanling Jin sect, but I will always be your father.”
She nodded, serious and firm like she was when she wanted to please him. Maybe he should have retreated even more in the last few months, let her handle her duties without his shadow in the background, to better prepare her for his absence, but it was so hard to step back and watch the kids stumble, when he could be here to catch them.
He knew she would be fine though. After all…
As if on cue, there was a soft knock on the door, and Jin Jinghuan stepped into the room.
Jin Xuan rushed to meet him and jumped into his arms – he received her with a laugh. It had been more than a year since he had been seen in Carp Tower.
Jin Jinghuan was Jin Ling’s firstborn, but he had never had any interest in Sect politics and inheritance. He still bore the Jin name and wore their color, but he traveled the world and banished evil on his own, without the affiliation and orders of a Sect.
All his children were very close though, and of course Jin Jinghuan wouldn’t have missed his sister’s day for the world. Three sons, to daughters, and as many blessings – how could Jin Ling ever regret this life?
“How are you feeling, A-Xuan?”
“Fine. It’s gonna be a blast, you’ll see! What about you? Where have you been? Tell me everything!”
Gone were her hesitations – or, well, she wouldn’t show them in front of her eldest brother, whom she admired deeply and always wanted to impress. He chuckled lightly at her impatience but took the time to bow to his father before indulging in her questioning.
“A-Huan. I’m glad to see you. You seem well.”
Out of the five of them, Jin Jinghuan was the one resembling his mother the most, both in looks and in temperament. He wasn’t boisterous and prideful as his siblings, but more reserved, air-headed at times, caught in his own head.
“A-Xuan, you should get ready. I’ll send your siblings to your aid. I’ll see you all at the ceremony.”
He was quickly forgotten, as they started a recollection of all they had missed about each other in the months they had been apart. Jin Ling left them to it, smiling.
He had no worry to have. They would all be fine.
She was the most beautiful sight, all clad in white and gold, her hair intricately braided at the top of her hair, her four siblings guarding her as she rose toward the altar to receive her predecessor’s blessing. Jin Ling was a little teary-eyed, but he held it in if only because if he started to cry, she was sure to follow.
He drew the gold peony brooch pinned to his chest, the symbol of their Sect leadership, to place it on hers, before taking her sword that she was offering and handing his in return. They crossed blades, still sheathed, maintaining firm eye contact as they pushed against each other, careful not to bend, not to cease ground in any way. Some Sects passed down their swords from one generation to the next, but the Jin cultivators usually held on to their own, so they exchanged again and brought their respective blade back at their side. Jin Xuan straightened and gave him one last deep bow before turning around to face the gathered crowd.
“Here is Jin Zhanying,” Jin Ling said, “Leader of the Lanling Jin Sect.”
“Here I am,” she echoed, “leader of the Lanling Jin Sect.”
“We welcome you,” the audience answered, bowing respectfully. She bowed in turn.
Jin Ling couldn’t hold back a long, drawn-out, relieved sigh.
His turn was finally over.
“Jin Ling, Jin Ling!”
“Sect Leader Lan. Good evening.”
Lan Jingyi rolled his eyes, as he always did when Jin Ling called him by his formal title. He bowed hastily before taking Jin Ling’s arm and starting walking them around the huge reception room.
“Come on, I can finally call you Jin Ling without you chewing me out for etiquette, you’re not going to keep at it!”
“Shouldn’t I keep at it all the more? You now outrank me.”
Lan Jingyi let out a hearty laugh. He was certainly the most expressive and open Sect leader the Lan Sect had ever seen – the most expressive disciple period, really. It wasn’t to everyone’s liking, but everything was bound to change, even the rigid Gusu Lan Sect. It wasn’t to say they were any less uptight and austere these days, or that they had fewer rules etched on their wall. But at least they had stopped adding to it, and, more importantly, they had shifted to a less tyrannical necessity of upholding them all. Lan Jingyi wasn’t against rules – but they had to make sense to him. As such, the silence disciples were supposed to observe in the Cloud Recesses was no more an absolute injunction, as much as a common accord to maintain peace and serenity in their home. And if one’s voice rose in surprise or delight, they would no longer be forced to spend a day on a handstand or waste ten liters of ink on a punishment. In that sense, Lan Jingyi had managed to make the Gusu Lan Sect much more enjoyable for everyone involved.
“Does that mean I can order you around?”
“Don’t push it. I’m very well acquainted with the current Jin Sect Leader.”
“Your daughter is a sight to behold, Jin Ling. You must be very proud.”
There was no trace of the envy or jealousy Jin Ling was ashamed to know would have been in his voice, had their position been reversed. Lan Jingiy’s twins were, to put it politely, little rascals. They made a living getting rid of evil spirits for a price and challenging any swordsman and cultivator they could find, betting on their skills and the outcome of their fights. Lan Jingyi took it all in strides though – they weren’t to take over the Lan Sect after him, for their Sect didn’t put much weight on filiation, and they didn’t do any harm above being nuisances. He often said they took too much after him, although out of the two of them, his wife was an even worse enabler.
She was currently drunk out of her mind and beating men after men at arm wrestling. Lan Jingyi only smiled fondly at the sight, and yeah, there was no jealousy to be had here.
They were both content with what they had gotten out of life.
“My friend, I wanted to ask you…”
They had wandered to a quieter part of the room, next to one of the side entrances. Here the night air managed to cool down the atmosphere a bit, compared to the furnace inside of the Glamour Hall. A few more steps and they were walking the outer patio – noises faded away, won over by the silence of the night.
“A favor already? Careful, I no longer have to indulge you for the sake of diplomacy. Only friendship.”
He chuckled at his own joke. Jin Ling was too nervous to follow.
“I wanted to know if you’d let me accompany you back to Gusu.”
Lan Jingyi froze, smile dropping as his eyes widened, disbelieving. It annoyed Jin Ling greatly – why the hell did he look so surprised?
“Did you doubt I would?” he asked, failing to hide the hurt in his voice. Lan Jingyi looked sheepish, but he didn’t deny it.
“Sort of, I admit. Though he never did.”
That calmed Jin Ling down a little, and he gave up on his outrage. What others thought didn’t matter after all.
“But of course you can come with me! We need to leave as soon as possible. Is tomorrow morning too early? I was thinking I would stay and enjoy Carp Tower a little more, but this is way more pressing. You know what, I’ll leave Lan Liyang behind. She’s awfully taken with your second daughter you know, that’s why she’s always asking for those diplomatic liaison missions. She'll be glad to have an excuse to stay.”
Jin Ling couldn’t keep in a fond smile as he listened to his friend’s enthusiastic rambling. He was grateful that Lan Jingyi had managed to retain his bright, eager personality, despite the trials and hardships of their life and the weight of his responsibilities. They had been pushed closer together by the similar disdain people both outside and inside their sect had for them when they were younger, and how little support they had had as Sect Leader at the beginning.
Everyone thought Lan Sizhui would take over after Lan Xichen, but alas…
“One of us chained to a Sect Leader chair is enough, don’t you think?”
Oh, Jin Ling couldn’t wait anymore.
Their departure took longer than Jin Ling would have thought. Despite himself, he found he was reluctant to part from his children and home, and they weren’t helping the matter, snotty faces and teary eyes begging him to reconsider. But as much as it pained him to leave Lanling, it was nothing compared to the anguish seizing him at the mere idea of staying away when he could finally rejoin with his heart without guilt or fear of ominous consequences.
Lan Jingyi waited patiently, refraining from teasing for once. He had to sense the significance of this moment, Jin Ling’s restless mood.
They flew all day toward Gusu. Sometimes they indulged in the trip by boat, when they had the time and the weather was nice, but Jin Ling wouldn’t be able to bear it in his state.
Of course he had visited Gusu over the years, as well as the other sects. They had even seen each other at times, had spent time together with Jan Lingyi. Their friend didn’t really understand, just like his daughter hadn’t – how they could be content with this, how they could bear to be so close and yet not be allowed to touch, to hold, to claim. He couldn’t explain it, how it had been enough to just know. There was no doubt between them, in their feelings and intentions, in how long they would wait for one another. They hadn’t needed to express it in any way – it was just there, almost tangible in the space between them, wide or small.
Cultivators lived long, long lives. One could say they lived several. And it so happened that the first – or the second, if they counted the wild years of their youth – they would live apart.
That life was coming to an end though, and the next one was eager to get started.
It was as if all the emotions he had pushed down all these years, all the longing and yearning he had kept at bay were coming back with a vengeance. He had waited thirty years, but now a mere second more felt like torture.
Besides, it had been four years of not even getting a glimpse of him – four years since his cultivation partner had gone into seclusion again.
“I’ll leave you to it. You know the way,” Lan Jingyi said kindly when came into view the misty heights of the Cloud Recesses. Jin Ling didn’t bother answering before speeding up toward the Quiet Pavilion.
He landed on the stone steps and strode toward the door, only to be interrupted by a young disciple guarding the gate.
“Excuse me, you can’t go in there.”
“I’m here to see Lan Sizhui, and believe me, I will.”
“Senior Lan is in seclusion! You can’t just…”
Jin Ling clicked his tongue, unnerved. He really wasn’t in the mood to quarrel with a child who really should know his place. He was about to say as much, but another voice interrupted them.
Jin Ling promptly forgot about the rude disciple. The doors of the Quiet Pavilion were open. Lan Yuan was standing in the threshold.
“A-Ling,” he said again, a confirmation this time, a soft smile curled around the name. Jin Ling shivered. He sidestepped the young Lan who was spluttering in confusion to close the distance, now unbearable, between Lan Yuan and him.
“A-Yuan, did you know I was coming?”
“I felt your golden core. I would recognize you anywhere.”
Jin Ling kept walking, kept climbing the steps two at a time, and when he was faced with Lan Yuan he kept moving still and crashed into his body. He wrapped his arms around the other’s waist, pressed against him as if he hoped to dissolve into his embrace. Lan Yuan laughed lightly as he held on in turn.
“Please leave us, Lan Yujin”, Lan Yuan said, not unkindly. Jin Ling groaned. Was that stupid disciple still here? Couldn’t he take a hint?
“A-Yuan. A-Yuan, A-Yuan…”
There were things he was supposed to be saying. Like how Jin Xuan was now Sect leader and Jin Ling wasn’t, and how he had come as soon as he could and it was still too long, and how Lan Yuan was so beautiful and how he finally felt whole in his arms but all he could do was just say his name, over and over again, absolutely overwhelmed.
“You’ve grown older, A-Ling,” Lan Yuan whispered into his hair. Jin Ling was hiding into his neck, spilling tears on his shoulders.
“Do I look that bad?”
Lan Yuan chuckled and nuzzled at his temple, affectionate.
“You’ll always be the most beautiful sight to me.”
Now that was too much embarrassment for poor Jin Ling to endure, and that was too much tears when they should have been overjoyed. So he tightened his hold around Lan Yuan’s body, and hoisted him up in his arms.
Lan Yuan clung at his shoulders with a surprised yelp before dissolving into laughter.
“A-Ling! A-Ling, put me down!”
“No way, never. I’m never letting go of you ever again. We’ll just have to live like this for now on,” Jin Ling retorted, childish, as he spun them around. He was one of the best cultivators of his generation - he was fairly confident in how long he could keep that up. He felt light-headed and light period, like he was going to fly away any moment now. Was that what ascending to Heaven felt like?
“A-Ling!” Lan Yuan tried again, although he was unable to inject an ounce of reprimand in his delighted tone. “Such improper behavior is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses.”
“I’m sure Lan Jingyi will give me a pass.”
“Favoritism? How shameful.”
Despite his words, Lan Yuan showed no sign of actually wanting to be put down, wrapped around Jin Ling as he was. Jin Ling squeezed tighter, too tight to be comfortable, but right then no force in this world could have made him let go.
Finally, was all he could think of. Finally finally finally finally finally…
They kept holding on, even when Jin Ling set the other back on the ground, and he wondered distantly if they would step apart, or if they would just stay like this for the rest of their life.
It wouldn’t be such a bad fate.
“You’ve waited so long my love,” Jin Ling whispered, a little awed, and he hoped it couldn’t be heard in his voice how maybe he had been doubting, how he had been so scared Lan Yuan wouldn’t, that Jin Ling would arrive at the Cloud Recessed only to find him gone or involved with someone else. The man chuckled lightly, a little mocking, as if the mere hints of doubts in Jin Ling’s voice were so ridiculous.
“I would’ve waited longer.”
Jin Ling whined and hid deeper into the other’s embrace.
“No more waiting,” he said petulantly. Lan Yuan drew back, just enough that they could look at each other. He had to look up – Lan Yuan had successfully mastered all on the Lan’s traits despite being adopted into the clan, but their tall height wasn’t something that could be learned. Jin Ling liked it that way.
“No more waiting,” Lan Yuan agreed, and he leaned up for a kiss.
It was the very first.
They had never acted on their feelings, even when they weren’t yet tied down by their respective duties. Jin Ling had regretted it at times, that they hadn’t taken advantage of their carefree youth to explore each other in depth, but maybe it would have made it all the harder. Besides, it hadn’t been out of reluctance, insecurities or misunderstandings. All this time, the mere knowledge of it had been enough. He lived with the certitude, planted firmly in his very core, that Lan Yuan loved him, as much as he loved Lan Yuan. They had no use for more then. It was in every look, in every word exchanged, even if they stood five feet apart, even from the other side of a room, even miles away when there were only letters to feed their bond.
He hadn’t missed it. And yet he realized now that he was starved for it.
They were free to indulge. They weren’t tied down to other imperatives anymore. Even if his wife had still been alive, she knew all about him, and she had known it would end this way. He so wished she was still alive, still going strong by their children’s side. The wound of her death was heavy on their mind, and on his too. He was glad they had been so close, that she had approved of this. He didn’t have to feel guilty about betraying her and her memory – wherever she was, she had to be cheering him on.
They kissed and kissed, unhurried and deep, heat building up slowly, slowly. Jin Ling was dizzy with all the time they had on their hands. They had worked tirelessly, and now, they were free.
Lan Yuan’s fingers slid down his arms to take a hold of his hands, but he stopped on his left wrist.
“You kept it,” he said against his lips with a smile, toying with the white ribbon tied around his wrist. Jin Ling scoffed. He grabbed the loose end of Lan Yuan's forehead ribbon with his other hand.
“Of course I did.”
His ribbon was shorter than most, because he had cut enough length that Jin Ling could wear it like this. A highly scandalous thing, apparently, but Lan Sizhui, behind his perfect Lan façade, was as wild and untamed as his adoptive parents.
He looked unorderly pleased as he gripped Jin Ling’s wrist tightly, pushing their forehead together and rubbing his ribbon against Jin Ling’s mark.
“Mine,” he said around a smile. The red paint had smeared on the white fabric – it was the most striking sight.
Jin Ling’s smiled, helpless to restrain himself and his joy in any way.
Life was starting anew.