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Lan Sizhui possessed the brilliance of a promising cultivator. Jin Ling knew that Hanguang-jun himself had called his skill with the guqin  fine , that Lan Sizhui had managed to blend the swordsmanship of three sects and now honed the craft with every night hunt. With each new encounter, Jin Ling found him to be even more lethal than the last, outshining other disciples while keeping his humble personality. Lan Sizhui had the gentlest eyes, a soft voice that he knew when to toughen, and lips that curved upwards in a smile so bright the sun would turn green with envy.

The gentlest eyes looked at him and Jin Ling was—  shaken . Earlier that night, Lan Jingyi had thrown salt on his wound — on  one  of them,  gods , Jin Ling didn’t have the mind to figure all others, but this one hurt even if now he couldn’t remember it and he felt his body tremble with anger.  Pain . But Lan Sizhui had the gentlest eyes that came with the gentlest heart so of course he had followed Jin Ling out of the inn and cornered him and now Jin Ling had another reason to shake like bamboo.

His back hit a tree —  where were they even  — because there was no way Jin Ling would be able to stand still under the attention of that worried frown. A few seconds ago his eyes had been burning with tears but those had dried up along with his mouth when Lan Sizhui supported him by the elbow. Oh, how weak he must look. Jin Ling took a deep, shaky breath, averting the other’s  (gentlest)  eyes as if they were the ones making him dizzy and fragile.

They were , his heart told him, aching unnecessarily for something that had nothing to do with traumas of the past.

“Young Master Jin?”

And now that voice, so soft, so soft…

Jin Ling refused to accept this—  this , whatever it was, that made it so hard to think good thoughts. His mind was filled with unwanted urges; if he closed his eyes he would see all those dangerous visions that felt so good they hurt him. Lan Sizhui was  not  a  cut-sleeve  and neither was Jin Ling, he knew that for a fact, so curse  Wei Wuxian , his perverted uncle who had fed him these unnatural emotions. If only Jin Ling hadn’t cared about him, if only he hadn’t seen those two men’s deranged affection, if only he hadn’t wondered about the paradise they shared. If only he didn’t want to snatch a piece of paradise for himself.

He felt the grip on his elbow tighten for a second, perhaps a result of nausea showing in his grimace, and heard Lan Sizhui try one more time, “Jin Ling?”

This time, his tone was less featherlike and more urgent. Even for the sake of all that is holy, Jin Ling couldn’t survive this. Lan Sizhui was too kind for his own damned good and not for the first time Jin Ling prayed that he suddenly turned into a cruel being — at least, Jin Ling would be left alone. With no helping hand to support him, he would fall. But this was Lan Sizhui, the gentlest being who would never leave him to fall.

Jin Ling wanted to push him away, but really, he didn’t have the strength. He swallowed dry.

“I’m alright,” he hissed, “Leave me alone.”

“Jin Ling is clearly in no condition to—”

Too kind for his own damned—

“I already said I’m  fine .” This time, his voice was firmer, steadier, and he tugged his arm away from that grip, more afraid of burning than falling at this point. He raised his chin, glaring at the twin patches of skin right under Lan Sizhui’s brows, pretending that he could look him in the eyes. “You should go check on that idiot, Lan Jingyi, he’s certainly lost all sense of propriety tonight. Maybe he is drunk, even.”

At his dismissive words, the crease between those refined eyebrows grew. Lan Sizhui didn’t move away, his hand still outstretched towards Jin Ling as if afraid that he would indeed fall face-first on the grass. But the tree to his back offered Jin Ling safety, much more safety than the scorching touch of—  of—

Jin Ling didn’t dare to finish the thought. He winced.

“I can deal with him later,” said Lan Sizhui, “Jin Ling, you seem ill… is it really just Lan Jingyi’s behavior that bothers you?”

A dry laugh escaped him —  Immortals,  Jin Ling couldn’t even remember what Lan Jingyi had  said .

He made the mistake of looking. A mistake, an utterly ridiculous mistake, born of a sudden desire to watch the depth of Lan Sizhui’s worry, to breathe in that fleeting affection, who would have thought that the heir of Lanling Jin would yearn to receive the same kind of attention that a  cut-sleeve

His eyes found Lan Sizhui’s and the truth dripped from him, “No!”

Lan Sizhui once again reached for him, this time his fingers curling around Jin Ling’s wrist. His skin might be protected by a layer of cloth, but Jin Ling felt the warmth all the way down to his bone marrow.

“Then tell me.”

Jin Ling really wanted to push him away. In the back of his mind, he could still hear Lan Jingyi’s insufferable  Young Mistress Jin  and he pulled himself together. “No.”

It was rare to see Lan Sizhui frowning so much and for so long, Jin Ling almost wanted to bang his head against the tree trunk. Look at this mess, this mess he made  himself , all on his own, how  the fuck  did anyone expect any good things from him when all he could do was sink into terrible situations, one after another? He felt dizzy, struggling between anger and self-hate, and Lan Sizhui took his hand in his as if he  cared .

“Jin Ling, I want to help you…”

“I don’t need your help.”

“But don’t you want it?”

He felt his cheeks burn.

“You can’t help me.”

For a second, Jin Ling thought Lan Sizhui was shaking. But then he noticed how firm Lan Sizhui’s hold was and figured it was all himself in the end.

“You’ll have to give me at least one chance yo try before assuming that.”

“You can’t help me,” Jin Ling repeated. “The only way to get rid of this is to die and be born again.”

Lan Sizhui’s eyes widened. “Don’t say such things!”

Jin Ling groaned, too weak to tug his hand away. Instead, he let go of his pride, bottom lip quivering and tears welled up in his eyes. “I’m simply being honest, this isn’t a matter you can—”

He cut himself off.

That gentle gaze never left him and they stood there, face to face, as Jin Ling speeded to sort through his feelings.

“In fact,” he said, “I think there is a way for you to help me.”

Lan Sizhui perked up. “Yes?”

“For that, I’ll need you to promise me something.”

His head tilted slightly to the side. “What is it?”

“That you won’t hate me.”

“Jin Ling,” Lan Sizhui said, his  (gentlest)  eyes warm and welcoming, “I could never hate you.”

Guilt pooled in Jin Ling’s stomach. 

“Believe me, you could.” He shook his head. “So do you promise?”

“Of course.” Just like that, Lan Sizhui smiled, raising three fingers to his forehead. “If it will help Jin Ling, then I promise.”

A knot was untangling itself inside of his chest, smoothening and then being pulled painfully taut. Jin Ling knew how to proceed, or at least knew enough to not get stuck on the first step so without further ado— without giving himself and the thing inside him time to recoil and ran away with the tail between the legs— Jin Ling took a deep breath and closed the distance separating their lips.

The second thing he did was brace himself — for a shove, a punch, a kick,  something  that was completely different from the reaction Lan Sizhui gave him.

He placed his hand on the back of Jin Ling’s neck and pressed him against the three.

Jin Ling was the first to kiss and unexpectedly the first to lose control of it. Maybe because everything in his life had led him to believe that it would inevitably turn sour, that whoever was the recipient of his affections they would never  ever  even consider touching him like this, like—  good . Lan Sizhui kissed him like it was  good , moving his lips slowly and tilting Jin Ling’s head to the side and making it better. And Jin Ling couldn’t afford to not do his very best right now, so he followed every action and imitated his movements, fingers gripping the white robes tightly as if the action would bring Lan Sizhui closer to him.

At this point, Jin Ling was feeling a little overeager; he opened his mouth, promptly letting another tongue curl around his. His legs were shaking, his heart was about to burst from his chest but he couldn’t stop yet, he couldn’t, not when Lan Sizhui’s arm curled around his waist, when he could feel every inch of their bodies touching. Lan Sizhui moved  just so  and Jin Ling sighed, heat pooling low in his belly. He clung to Lan Sizhui some more, for some time longer, until his lips felt tired and his cheeks were burning so much he felt feverish — but even then, he wouldn’t let go. If it weren’t for Lan Sizhui pulling away, panting and as flushed as he was, he wouldn’t let go.

Lan Sizhui looked at him with heavy-lidded eyes, his lips parted and swollen, and Jin Ling held back the urge to bite him. He felt a cold touch to the side of his face and it took him longer than it should to realize that Lan Sizhui had moved his hand, now gently rubbing the heated cheeks with his thumb.

“Jin Ling—”

But before he could finish, Jin Ling changed his mind.

The heart was still — and probably would forever be — pretty much unconvinced by the brain. However, one has to choose how to act in the name of love, and as that choice is most commonly of reason and not emotion, Jin Ling decided, in that fraction of second, that Lan Sizhui could not continue that sentence. He used the grip he had on the white robes to push Lan Sizhui away, even if the distance put a terrible ache between his ribcage. But as much as his chest hurt, the fear also grew inside him — sinking its claws in his stomach and making him  regret  even if Jin Ling hated that feeling more than everything in the world.

Lan Sizhui jumped away from him, throwing his hands up in,  what , surrender? Jin Ling saw that expression, those eyes wide and brows raised in shock, and he wanted to scream. He saw fear in Lan Sizhui, a perfect mirror of his own worries shining on the gentlest eyes.

“I— Jin Ling, I’m…!” he stuttered, “I should—”

No ,” Jin Ling cut him off, stepping further away despite not being sure that was what he truly wanted. “You should stay the fuck away.”

Lan Sizhui was usually quite efficient with dealing with his moods, but this time he flinched, letting his arms fall limply to his sides —  he gave up , Jin Ling could see that, making him regret his actions a thousand times more. At this moment, if he ran away Lan Sizhui wouldn’t follow.

And after a while, when he looked back, Jin Ling found that he really didn’t.