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Give Me A Reason

Chapter Text

When everything is overturning
There's no thing that I won't go through
Even if I have to die for you

The cool mountain air rushes past Lan Sizhui, and the verdant green of the mountains around Gusu spill like an emerald carpet under his feet.  He looks to his left where Lan Jingyi flies on his sword.  With his hair flung back by the wind, his strong jaw and high cheekbones are exposed to Sizhui’s admiration.  As the sun sinks lower in the sky, the colors of the sunset paint a vibrant backdrop for his elegant, white-clothed form, and his lashes cast long shadows over jade perfect skin.

“Sizhui?” Jingyi’s voice breaks his reverie, and he fights a blush down from his cheeks at being caught staring.

“Yes?” He calls over the sound of the wind.

“How much longer do we have to fly?”  His voice is just shy of whining, and Sizhui smiles a bit at it.  

“Not too long now.”

Jingyi grumbles something under his breath, but the whistling wind steals the sound away.  

“Come now,” Sizhui says, “don’t be so temperamental.  We’ve barely been flying for two hours.  You’re getting as bad as Jin Ling.”

“I,” Jingyi flounders for a moment, “I am not! How dare you compare me to the Young Mistress.”

Sizhui laughs at the disgruntled look on Jingyi’s face, but he quickly sobers himself.  A night hunt is not the appropriate time for laughing and joking.

“The valley is just there,” he points ahead of them to a valley not too far in the distance.  

Sizhui looks over his shoulder at the other cultivators behind them.  The eight of them fly in a group a little bit back from Sizhui and Jingyi.  If they are annoyed by Sizhui and Jingyi joking around on a night hunt, they hide it well.  

The rest of the trip is made in silence.  It’s dark by the time they land, even though from the air they can see that the sun hasn’t completely set yet.  Night always falls early in the mountains.  

“Several caravans have gone missing here,” Sizhui says to the group.  Jingyi has moved so that he’s standing more-or-less with the group and facing Sizhui, who is supposed to be in charge.  “Whatever is hunting here seems quite dangerous.  We need to be cautious.”

He notices that Jingyi is frowning down at his compass of evil and not paying attention.  Instead of rebuking him, which is really pointless, he asks:  “What is it?”

“The compass isn’t settling in any one direction.”

Lan Mingyi frowns, “With something strong enough to take out merchant caravans around, it shouldn’t have trouble locating it.”

“Back on Dafan mountain, it didn’t work either,” Chen Shenzhi points out.

“That’s because that was a god,” Jingyi says growing a bit pale.  “I really hope that’s not what we’re dealing with now.  Senior Wen isn’t here to help.”  

Several of the disciples look disgruntled at the reminder that Wen Ning had saved them all at Dafan Mountain.

“It’s more likely that it is from the resentful energy of the victims. There may well be walking corpses to deal with.”  Sizhui says, and Jingyi visibly relaxes; walking corpses are something he knows how to deal with.  Sizhui continues,  “We’ll need to split up to search for it, but no one should engage it alone.  We’ll go in pairs.  If you see it, signal for back up and wait until we all get to you.  Understood?”

“Yes.” Everyone except for Jingyi speaks together. Jingyi just nods at him.  Sizhui gives him a pointed look but doesn’t take the time to reprimand him right then.

“Does everyone have a signal flare in case of emergencies?”  Sizhui waits for them all to check.  They’ve been much more careful about stocking signal flares in the years following the Mo Manor, Dafan Mountain, and Yi City incidents.  

“As I said, we’ll break into five groups. One group will follow the road and the other four will go into the forest on each side.”

Jingyi moves to his side in an instant, and Sizhui waits a few more moments for the others to break up into pairs.  Then he directs them in different directions.  The two youngest, who are really only two years behind Sizhui and Jingyi, he sends along the road which he deems to be the easiest and least dangerous path.

The four other groups melt almost soundlessly into the woods.  Gusu Lan Sect discipline and training serving them well.  Jingyi and Sizhui move into the woods to the right and move in the direction back towards Gusu.  There’s no need for them to communicate their moves; they move and react to each other with the ease of years as night hunting partners.  Sizhui loves these moments despite the danger.  He enjoys how in-sync he feels with Jingyi as if they are two parts of one whole instead of two different people.  

The soft fall of their footsteps and the quiet sounds of their breathing meld with the normal sounds of the forest: leaves rustling, owls hooting, insects buzzing, and a myriad of other gentle sounds.  Sizhui listens with a practiced ear for anything unusual.  

It’s not long before they hear the sound of a low moan.  They draw their swords almost in unison and adjust their path to go towards the sound.  Soon the sound of heavy footsteps, crunching underbrush, and snapping branches reaches them.  The steps have the slow and awkward cadence of a corpse.  They can tell now that there is only one corpse, and they rush towards it together.  With a swing, Sizhui takes off its head, and Jingyi cleaves it in two just below the waist.  The body falls to the ground, and it’s resentful energy isn’t nearly strong enough to pull it back together, which is good because they don’t have time to properly bury it.  Instead, they separate the pieces and place four talismans around each to bind the relentless energy and ensure that the corpse doesn't get up again.  

“It looks like the spine was snapped,” Jingyi says quietly kneeling beside the severed torso. 

“I didn’t see any signs of blade wounds, so I think it’s safe to say it wasn’t bandits that did this.”

“Definitely.”  

Jingyi pulls out his compass of evil while Sizhui double-checks the talismans around the corpse.  The needle on the compass is still swinging, but it’s swinging between east and west in the northern direction, so they adjust their path slightly before setting off.  The woods get darker as they move until true night has fallen.  And even though Jingyi is only a few feet away from Sizhui, he is painted in shadows.  It’s hard to gauge how much time has passed with the trees blocking the view of the sky, but Sizhui’s starting to think they should begin to backtrack when Jingyi halts and motions for his attention.

He doesn’t have to make it all the way to Jingyi’s side to see what his friend is showing him.  There’s a large, deep groove in the underbrush that reminds him of a snake track, except much, much bigger.  Kneeling, Sizhui measures it with his arm.  He exchanges an anxious look with Jingyi.  If this was left by a snake, the body is probably at least as wide as Sizhui is tall.  While Sizhui studies the track, Jingyi examines the foliage.  When Sizhui gets to his feet they both point in the same direction: back towards the road.  

There’s a moment of silent give and take as they decide what to do.  Should they both stay on the same side of the track or should they each take a side?  After deciding to stick together, they begin to follow the trail.  Jingyi moves several feet ahead of him to scout in the darkness, while Sizhui watches the back.  The creature may have gone this way earlier, but there’s no rule saying that it couldn’t have circled around.  

They’d been following the trail of the beast for close to an hour, as best Sizhui can tell, when he feels a reaction from one of the talismans in his sleeve.  Pulling it out, he watches as it ignites.  With two fingers, he throws it in front of him and the burning talisman points ahead of them in the same direction as the track.

They exchange a single glance, and then they move faster, but they still don’t run.  Sizhui stops keeping time as they rush forward as quietly as they can.  Their breathing joins the louder sounds of twigs snapping and leaves crunching underneath, and he focuses on the sounds ahead of them.  At some point, they cross the road and enter the woods on the other side.  The moon is only a crescent in the sky and the dappled starlight makes it difficult to see the treacherous ground under their feet.  As they go, Jingyi stays by his side, even though he could easily outpace Sizhui.  

They hear the scream before they see any sign of beast or man.  The sound is like ice going down his spine; it’s a scream of pain and not of fear.  With a single glance at each other, both he and Jingyi break into a run and their swords slide partway out of their sheaths, ready to be wielded.  The forest is unnaturally silent in the wake of the scream, and Sizhui can hear his heart is hammering much harder than the brief sprint warrants.  Branches catch on their clothes and scratch their skin as they rush through the woods, but Sizhui hardly notices the sting.  

The trees around them are rapidly growing thinner and in unison, they skid to a stop.  There must be a clearing ahead; a creature as large as the one making the trail they found would need room to fight.  Jingyi slides his sword free and moves on silent feet closer to the clearing.  Instead of drawing his sword, Sizhui retrieves his guqin as he approaches.  

Despite themselves, they freeze when they see into the clearing.  A snake almost twice as wide as a man is tall and white as bone is coiled up before them.  Under his tail is the broken looking body of a Lan disciple.  His partner is lying against a tree with his limbs splayed unnaturally rather like a doll tossed aside by an angry child.  Sizhui can’t tell if he’s still breathing, but he doubts it.  There’s no point in rushing in anymore, so he signals for Jingyi to hold.  Fear flashes across Jingyi’s face, but he grits his jaw in determination.  Sizhui rests a comforting hand on his shoulder.

Sizhui looks around, where are the others?  Based on their search pattern, Jingyi and he should have been last or second to last to arrive.  He searches the shadows around the clearing until he locates another pair of cultivators by the glint of moonlight on steel.  It’s too dark for them to coordinate by signals, but the other cultivators are well-trained to think on their feet.  He’ll have to trust their instincts.  

With a motion from Sizhui, Jingyi enters the clearing with a flash of white silk and steel.  Four other disciples enter the clearing at different points.  Three hold swords in their hands and one with his xiao held up.  Stepping all the way into the clearing, Sizhui signals to him before setting his hands to his guqin strings.  

Jingyi darts to the left, away from the other cultivators as the snake finally notices them.  It sways its massive head from side to side and its tongue flicks out to taste the air.  As it turns its massive head in Sizhui’s direction, Sizhui catches sight of its horrible pink-red eyes.  

“It’s blind!” He calls out.  When the snake doesn’t turn towards him, he glances over at Lan Mingyi who has his xiao to his lips.  Together they play Rest hoping to lull the storm of resentful energy inside the beast . The soothing melody drifts through the clearing as the guqin and the flute play in perfect harmony.  The sweet music, gentle as a lullaby, is entirely at odds with the flashing swords of four cultivators descending on the beast.  A horrible grating sound like steel on stone cuts across the drifting melody as one disciple slices across the scales of the beast.  An instant later that’s followed by two sharp clangs when Jingyi and Chen Shenzhi strike against the unnaturally hard scales.  

The attacks seem to enliven the snake, who strikes out at Chen Shenzhi.  He narrowly avoids the open maw and flashing fangs.  A shiver goes through Sizhui; this beast, whatever it is, is fast, faster than Sizhui’s eye can follow.  A second flash of white is all the warning there is and less than a second later, the snake has Chen Shenzhi twisted in its coils.

There’s a sharp break in the flute music as the xiao player lets out a gasp.  But the guqin’s mellow voice continues regardless of Sizhui’s shock.  The gentle melody floats in the air around them, an almost ironic counterpoint to the fight.

Bright red blooms across Chen Shenzhi’s robes, but Sizhui can see that he’s still moving, still fighting, and trying to get a good angle with his sword so that he can strike the beast.  Jingyi rushes towards the snake, aiming for the exposed belly scoots in a hope they will be more yielding than the back scales, and as fear tries to seize him, Sizhui forces his gaze down to his guqin and his shaking hands.  

Rest is having no effect on the snake or the resentful energy that surrounds and suffuses it.  He doesn’t know why, but that doesn’t matter.  He can worry it out later; if they survive.  They need something else and the only thing he can think of is the Sound of Vanquishing.  

There are the crack and crunch of bones breaking followed by a horrible quiet where there should have been a scream, and Sizhui knows that Chen Shenzhi is dead.

He turns to Lan Mingyi, who’s recovered enough to return to his song, as he stills his hands on the strings.  The flute music stops only a note or two after the guqin.  Sizhui shakes his head: it’s not working.  His companion gives a single nod before stowing his xiao and drawing his sword.  With a frown creasing his brow, Sizhui turns back to his guqin; it would be better if they played Sound of Vanquishing together, but Lan Mingyi hasn’t mastered it yet. 

Taking a steadying breath, Sizhui closes his eyes.  He focuses on gathering his spiritual energy, but it's hard to block out the sounds around him; he can hear his fellow disciples fighting, and it tempts him to look.  But, he needs to focus.  Years of Gusu Lan sect discipline and training come to his aid, and after a few breaths, his surroundings fade to the back of his mind.  

Opening his eyes, Sizhui places his hands carefully above the strings, continuing to gather up as much of his spiritual power as he can.  There’s another pained cry, and it takes every ounce of Sizhui’s hard-earned discipline not to look.  

Unlike Rest, which is a song that allows you to pour energy in as you go, Sound of Vanquishing requires you to release all the energy at once with the chord.  This makes it much harder to master.  If he was facing a fierce corpse or even a handful of them, Sizhui could attack after a moment or two of focus.  But he’s never faced anything quite like this monster, and he doubts it’ll go down easily.  

His hands are starting to glow blue where he holds them above the guqin strings, and he’ll have to play soon or the energy will dissipate.  Turning his eyes up, at last, he focuses on the snake.  Not just on the bleached-bone white of its scales, but on its distinct spiritual energy, which is dark and twisted with resentment.  With a single, well-practiced motion of his hands, he directs his energy into the attack on the giant white beast.  A sound reminiscent of the cold winter wind across the mountain peak echoes unnaturally loudly in the clearing accompanied by a flash of blue light.  

The four disciples still fighting blink as the flash of spiritual energy flooding out of Sizhui temporarily blinds them.  The chord hangs in the air around them, and for an instant, everything is frozen.

The sudden expenditure of energy leaves Sizhui dizzy, but his eyes automatically move to Jingyi, who is blessedly still standing.  Sizhui’s head is spinning, but he can see that Jingyi’s expression is about to break into a smile in response to the attack, which was perfectly played and more powerful than any that Sizhui had done before.  

The moment is broken, not by the sound of a brain exploding or a body thudding to the ground, but by a sibilant hiss.  

No.

The last two disciples rush into the clearing, but as they clear the line of trees, they freeze.  Their wide eyes move from the broken bodies of their friends scattered around the clearing to the snake that's larger than it has any right to be.

“The flare!” Jingyi yells to the newcomers.  Years of discipline take effect, and they automatically obey.  One of them scrambles in his robes until he manages to get it out and light it with a talisman.  

The snake strikes even as sparks shoot into the air above them, and its victim doesn’t have time to get his sword properly up.  But the sword still sinks into the snake's mouth as the jaws snap shut around his legs.  The white light of the signal flare illuminates the scene as, instead of wrapping the disciple up, the snake jerks in pain and flings its captive across the clearing.  There’s a thud as the disciple slams into a tree and falls twenty feet to the ground.  He doesn’t get up again.

Panic is threatening to take over Sizhui.  The snake’s scales are making attacks with their swords ineffective even though the swords are quality spiritual weapons.  Even when they pour their own spiritual energy into the attacks, the swords do no damage to the beast. 

Sound of Vanquishing was their best hope, and Sizhui failed.  He has to try again.  Even though his head is still swimming a bit, he determinedly lowers his hands to guqin strings and starts to draw on his spiritual energy again.  

Doubt fills him no matter how hard he tries to push it away.  He’s not sure how much more energy he can put into his attack; he thought he’d given the previous attack his best.  It seems very likely that he’s not strong enough to kill this thing.  And what will they do then?  

Perhaps they should retreat.  Would they even be able to?  The creature is incredibly fast; there’s no guarantee they’d be safe even if they ran for it.  Certainly, the caravans it devoured hadn’t been able to run.

Focus, Sizhui.   Fear is useless.  Anger is useless.  What he needs is calm.  So he forces his breaths to even out as he pulls and pulls on his spiritual energy.  There are a thwack and a cry, and Sizhui’s heart jerks in fear.  Jingyi.

But Sizhui can’t think about that now.  He’s no use to any of them if he lets fear distract him.  

“You two,” Jingyi’s talking now.  He’s okay.  Relief, rapidly followed by guilt, sweeps through Sizhui.  “I’m going to fly up if it follows me, see if there’s a weakness on its belly.”

Jingyi is going to use himself as bait, and the thought has fear clawing its way up Sizhui’s throat.  He almost loses his grasp on his spiritual energy.

Focus, Sizhui.   Calm, he needs to be calm, like snow falling around the Jingshi.  Breathing in and breathing out.  He pictures the cold springs in his mind.  The world rushes around him, but he will remain unchanged.  His spiritual energy flows like a river through his meridians.  With each breath, the river rushes harder and faster.  He’s nothing but a vessel for the energy.  

His hands tremble above the guqin strings, but he doesn’t move.  There’s more energy circling through him than he’s ever tried to direct at one time.  But he keeps pulling.  The sounds of swords on scales and people crying out and bones cracking are distant now.  Turning his eyes up to the snake, he sees that it’s wrapped around another disciple.  His own feelings of shock and fear are buried under the rush of energy beneath his skin.

Sizhui knows this is his last chance.  If this doesn’t kill the snake; he can’t do it.  There’s no way he has enough spiritual energy to do this again.  Sizhui says a prayer to the gods and the immortals and his ancestors, and then he strikes the chord.  Energy pours out of Sizhui like a waterfall and collides with the beast.

Sizhui doesn’t see this though because his vision goes black and his body sways.  The sound Jingyi shouting his name is the first thing he notices as he claws his way back to the present.  Blinking the darkness away, the clearing comes into focus.  The snake is still moving.  Dread and something like hopelessness seize him.  They’re going to die here.

With a growl, Sizhui pushes the thoughts away and takes a steadying breath; he’s lightheaded from the rapid draining of spiritual energy.  There are only three disciples still standing in front of him.  The snake’s head is swaying, and its tongue is flickering.  Sizhui realizes that there’s a sword embedded in one of its eyes.  Jingyi is in the air above it, shouting, but it doesn’t seem to notice.

It’s deaf.  The realization hits Sizhui as the snake hits two disciples on the ground with its tail.  One of them slams into a tree with a sickening crunch.  The other is flung along the ground and skids until he smacks into a different tree; his neck is at the wrong angle.  

Sizhui is desperately trying to come up with a solution that gets them out of here.  But he’s dizzy, and the resentful energy of the beast and the freshly dead corpses is pressing on him.  An idea hits him.  A horrible, desperate idea.

Jingyi lands on top of the snake’s head, and Sizhui’s heart nearly stops in fright.  Jingyi buries his sword to the hilt in the snake’s eye.  The snake thrashes and thrashes until Jingyi is flung away.

Still standing at the edge of the clearing, Sizhui is digging through his memories of Dafan mountain, Yi-City, and the Second Siege of the Burial Mounds.  He remembers Wen Ning fighting the goddess statue when a whole team of cultivators had failed.  He remembers the corpses, the corpses of his family, that had defended them on the Burial Mounds.  His hands shake; if he does this, there is no going back.

Jingyi gets up and his sword flies back into his hand.  He has the snake’s attention now.  In that moment, Sizhui knows that if he doesn’t do something, Jingyi is going to die.  His entire being cries out against that.  It’s not a choice anymore, not really.

Sizhui clearly remembers the sound of Wei Wuxian’s flute on Dafan Mountain.  His hands are oddly steady on his guqin as he reaches out for the resentful energy filling the clearing.  He pulls on it, the way he had previously pulled on his own spiritual energy.  But the resentful energy doesn’t flow, it thrashes.  Luckily, Sizhui’s almost out of spiritual energy and there’s plenty of room for the energy to rage.

Sizhui’s fingers pluck the guqin strings.  His jaw is set so hard his teeth are creaking.  

Revenge.  

Don’t you want revenge, Sizhui-xiong?  

Why? Why did I have to die? 

Revenge.  

Why?   

He can hear the voices of his fellow disciples rising like a cacophony around him.  Sizhui has never felt so much anger, so much pain.  

“Sizhui what on earth are you doing?” Jingyi screams, but Sizhui doesn’t stop.

The snake seems to realize that something is happening.  It must be able to sense resentful energy because it turns away from Jingyi.  Sizhui would feel relieved if he wasn’t trying to grasp the kicking, trashing resentful energy.  

He realizes that he needs to redirect the energy, not fight it.  There’s so much hate that he can’t hold it.  But he can give it a place to go.

I’ll give you revenge.   Sizhui tells the voices.  His hands move across the strings playing something harsh and frantic.  It’s right there.  The beast that did this to you.

The corpses begin to rise from the ground.  Having so recently died, they would look like live cultivators if it weren’t for the jerky nature of their movements and the wounds.  One of them gets up and his head is halfway turned around.  

“Sizhui!” Jingyi screams, and he sounds afraid.  Sizhui doesn’t blame him.  He’s seen corpses many, many times but this is worse, so much worse.  Chen Shenzhi is dragging himself by his arms because the snake’s bite shattered his hip bone and his spine.

Sizhui stores his guqin as the corpses approach the snake.  As he draws his sword, the whole blade trembles.

“Sizhui what did you do?”  Sizhui doesn’t recognize the emotion in Jingyi’s voice. Confusion? Fear? Desperation? All of those and yet not exactly.  Whatever it is, it’s a matter for later.

“I,” he can’t look Jingyi in the eyes so he keeps his gaze on the snake.  He doesn’t want to see fear there or worse hate.  At least Jingyi is alive to hate him.  “We still have to kill it.”

Jingyi looks from Sizhui to the corpses to the snake.  He clearly wants to grab Sizhui and demand to know what the hell is going on, but he knows that Sizhui’s right.  

“How?” Jingyi demands.  

The corpses are grasping at the snake.  A few seem to be trying to pull the scales off one by one.  Two are wrestling with the head of the beast.  The snake is thrashing and it hits one of the corpses and sends it flying.  Bones crack as the corpse lands, but it gets back up again.  Sizhui looks away, the sight of his fellow disciples so horribly mangled makes him ill.  His mental voice is screaming: you did this, you did this, you did this.

He won’t blame Jingyi if Jingyi hates him after this.  He’ll probably hate himself.  There’ll be nightmares about Lan Mingyi walking around with his face smashed in and parts of his brain coming out.

“The mouth,” Sizhui says.

“What?”  Jingyi frowns at him, and it’s obvious that he thinks Sizhui has lost his mind.  Maybe he has.

“The only soft places on the snake are its eyes and its mouth.” Sizhui clarifies.  He looks at Jingyi because the sight of his former classmates as corpses is turning his stomach.  “You put your sword in the eye up to the hilt, and it didn’t kill it.  So I don’t think that will work.  That leaves the mouth.”

“Like what Senior Wei did with Xuánwǔ the Slaughter?”

“Yes.”  Sizhui takes a deep breath.  “One of us will need to hold the mouth open and one of us will have to go in and kill it from the inside.”

“I’ll go inside,” Jingyi says immediately.  

Sizhui shakes his head.  “You’re stronger than I am, you have a better chance of keeping the mouth open.” 

Jingyi is shaking his head before Sizhui has even finished talking.  “It’s too-”

“Don’t tell me it’s too dangerous and then insist on doing it yourself,”  Sizhui says more sharply than he means to, and Jingyi pulls back.

“I, Sizhui, I didn’t mean.”

“I know.” Sizhui’s breath is shaky as he tries to steady himself with a deep breath.  His gaze moves to the fight between the corpses and the snake.  “If anyone should die because of this, it should be me.”

“Sizhui!”

“Let’s go, Jingyi.  The corpses won’t last forever.”

“Sizhui!”

Sizhui keeps walking towards the snake.  Two of the corpses have wrestled the snake’s head to the ground and Sizhui wonders if he somehow directed them to do this.  Eventually, Jingyi jogs to catch up to him.  His face is set in a frown.  

Sizhui’s heart pounds faster and faster as they get close to the snake’s face.  If the snake breaks free of the corpses, both of them will be dead in less than a second.  The snake hisses at them, and they both burst into action.  They wedge themselves in the gap between the snake's upper and lower jaw.  It flicks its tongue against Sizhui, and he shudders but doesn’t move away.  The snake's first row of teeth is only inches away from his shoulder, and he tries not to think about it as they force the snake's mouth open.

It reeks.  The smell is almost enough to make Sizhui’s eyes water, and he’s sure it’s not going to get any better once he gets further into the snake’s mouth.  Sizhui stares at the rows of teeth exposed by their action.  He’s gone past fear and back to calm.  

Beside him, Jingyi is wiggling around to get into a better position.  “Okay,” he says, “I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”

Sizhui nods and draws his sword.  He ducks down so that the snake’s bite is no longer pressing down on him and takes a few steps.  He hears Jingyi grunt as the weight that Sizhui had been holding is transferred to him, but the jaws don’t snap shut around them.

Glancing behind him, Sizhui pauses.  There are a million things that he wants to say right now, but none of them seem right.  

“A-Yuan,” Jingyi says and his voice is slightly strained.  “If you die, I’m going to have Senior Wei bring you back so that I can kill you myself.”

A surprised laugh escapes Sizhui despite the situation.  Despite what Sizhui has done, Jingyi still calls him A-Yuan.  His heart softens and hopes blooms in his chest; somehow, Jingyi always makes things better.    “I’ll be back as fast as I can, A-Yi.  I promise.”

The snake is huge, but Sizhui still his to duck down to move down its throat.  He can feel the way the snake is trashing and if he reaches out, he can feel the muscles tensing.  A shiver runs down his spine and he moves faster.  He’s not entirely sure how far down a snake’s heart actually is, but he doesn’t want to start slicing too soon.  It’s sure to start thrashing when he does, and that will make Jingyi’s job, and his, much more difficult.  

The smell, as he predicted, gets worse as he goes.  After several yards, he stops to pull his robes over his nose.  Several steps later, Sizhui senses the snake moving and freezes.  An instant later, he’s being pressed on all sides by the wet, slimy walls of the snake’s throat.  He gags.  Sizhui’s lungs start to burn as the snake presses hard enough to restrict his breathing.  He can’t move his arms, so he propels his sword forward his spiritual energy.  Luckily, he has enough left for that.  

The sword slices easily into the flesh and the snake instantly stops trying to swallow him, but blood sprays all over Sizhui.  Using the opportunity, Sizhui rushes forward and directs his sword before him.  Soon he notices that to his left the snake’s flesh heaves rhythmically, so he stops.  He must be near either the lungs or the heart.  With a single steadying breath, Sizhui grips his sword in his hands and attacks.  The blade slices, the snake jerks, and blood sprays.  He keeps up his attack.  There’s no way one slice is going to do it, so he keeps attacking the same place.  

The snake is jerking and writhing, trying to stop him.  He stumbles and loses his footing, but gets back up and redoubles his efforts.  Blood is flowing around his feet and covering his hands and arms.  The cut becomes large enough that he can step into it.  He keeps swinging.

Sizhui knows the moment that his blade slices into the heart because there is suddenly so much more blood.  It bubbles up and flows like a fountain around him.  The snake is thrashing even harder now and Sizhui falls into the river of blood.  He buries his sword in the snake’s flash and holds on for dear life.  Everything is red.  The snake has to be dying; it has to be.

He’s not sure how long it takes before the thrashing stops, but it does stop eventually.  His arms shake as he pulls his sword free.  He’s tired; he’s so tired.  But he still has to get out of here.  So he pushes himself step by step back out of the snake.  His whole body sags with relief when he sees the open mouth and Jingyi standing there.  He looks much less strained now that the snake isn’t actively trying to crush him.

“Jingyi,” Sizhui says and Jingyi’s head snaps around so fast that his neck must hurt.

“Sizhui, you’re oka- gods above you look horrible.”

“Not my blood,” Sizhui stumbles out of the snake’s mouth onto the grass.  Jingyi steps out and the snake’s mouth falls closed behind them.  “Gods, I’m so tired.”

Jingyi reaches out and rubs Sizhui’s shoulders, Sizhui shrugs him off.  “I’m disgusting, don’t touch me.”

“I don’t mind,” Jingyi says.  He’s lying and they both know it, but he still puts his arm around Sizhui’s shoulders anyway.

The moan of a corpse reaches his ears, and Sizhui groans.  

“Can you play Rest ?” Jingyi asks.  Sizhui nods even though he’s not actually sure he’ll manage.  

Sizhui forces himself into an upright position as he gets out his guqin.  His fingers fumble as he plays and the strings are quickly bloody from contact with his hands. It takes several tries before he manages to play the opening chords of rest properly, but from there his muscle memory takes over.  He’s grateful for Hanguang-jun’s strict training and the thousands of times he’s played this before because if he had to put even an ounce of thought into playing, he wouldn’t be able to do it.  Exhaustion is making his body tremble, and he’s sitting upright only because Jingyi is bearing most of his weight.  

The chords echo through the clearing and the corpses slowly collapse back to the ground.  Thank you , Sizhui thinks as he plays because, without them, Jingyi would be dead and Sizhui too.  I’m sorry , he thinks next because he disturbed their rest for his own desires.  He keeps playing even after the corpses have all settled to the ground hoping, in some small way, to pay back the spirits he had used by sending them to rest.

Eventually, Jingyi covers Sizhui’s hands with his own.  Only then does Sizhui cease his playing.  

“Enough,” Jingyi says, “you’re exhausted.”

Sizhui can’t find it in him to deny it; instead, he sags into Jingyi’s arms.  

“Let’s rest,” Jingyi says.  He holds Sizhui against him.  “We’re in no shape to fly back to the Cloud Recesses right now.”

“The others will come,” Sizhui reminds him, “Someone set off a flare.”

Jingyi frowns and looks around the clearing.  The bodies of the disciples are clustered around the dead beast.  It’s a grisly sight.  The bodies are mangled beyond what a living human could have withstood.  Even without the strange energy in the clearing, any cultivator would be able to tell that they had been resurrected as fierce corpses.  If Lan disciples find them here, there will be no way to explain it.

“Sizhui,” Jingyi says and his voice is filled with worry.  “Maybe we should move.”

Sizhui shakes his head.

“They’re going to know what happened.”

“I know,” Sizhui’s voice breaks despite himself.  He’s not sure if it's guilt or fear or exhaustion at this point.  

“Sizhui,” Jingyi tries again.

“It’s alright,” Sizhui tries his best to be comforting.  Whatever the punishment is, he’ll take it. 

Chapter Text

I feel your guilt in you're breathing
It wasn't you that could save him

Jingyi is sitting in the lotus position and trying to meditate when the door to the small room he’s in opens.  

When they’d returned to the Cloud Recesses last night, they had put Jingyi in one of the meditation chambers and told him to wait for someone to come and get him.  Exhausted, he’d slept on the matt provided.  When he’d awoken at 5 am and no one had come to find him, he’d tried to go back to sleep since he’d been awake most of the night before.  Normally when given a chance, he’d sleep forever, but anxiety had kept him awake until he gave up.  He’d spent the hours since then trying to meditate, with a break when they’d brought him lunch.  However, meditation had never been his strong suit, and it had done very little to ease the feeling of dread that has been twisting his insides into knots since he awoke.

His eyes immediately fly open when the door opens.  The look on the faces of the two cultivators who are standing at the door ruins any calm he’d gathered.  Both of the Lan cultivators before him are easily in their thirties, and their calm masks can’t hide the darkness in their gaze.  

“Come,” Lan Jiahao says.  Jingyi immediately stands up to follow them.  A million questions bubble up inside of him as he’s led through the Cloud Recesses and towards a small courtyard.  He wants to ask about Sizhui and about where they are taking them and exactly how mad Lan Qiren is.  But Jingyi is impulsive, not stupid, so he bites his tongue.  

His memories of the previous night don’t seem entirely real.  Part of Jingyi thinks that he must have hit his head last night and this whole thing is a coma dream.  But he doesn’t think that even his brain could ever have, in a hundred lifetimes, imagined Sizhui turning to demonic cultivation.  He can remember the exact moment when the sound of Sizhui’s guqin had become sinister and unfamiliar.  In his mind's eye, he can see the bodies of their fallen companions rising up and turning against the beast.  Even though the sun is high in the sky and warm against his skin, he shivers.  No, he doesn’t think he could have imagined that.

The courtyard that he is led to is one that he is, unfortunately, rather familiar with as it is often used for punishments.  He can’t count the number of times that he has been set to kneel here for hours in silence.  A few times, he has even knelt here to be hit with a bamboo cane.  On second thought, that is probably why he’s being taken here.  Jingyi is fairly certain that he hadn’t actually done anything wrong during the night hunt, but he has a feeling that he’s to be punished right along Sizhui as an accomplice.  That’s alright.  Not only has Sizhui taken his fair share of punishments because of Jingyi, but his friend had turned to demonic cultivation to save him.  Jingyi can't fight the niggling thought that if he had just been better, this wouldn’t have happened.

“Master Lan.”  The sound derails Jingyi’s train of thought, and he realizes that they’ve already reached the courtyard.  “We brought Lan Jingyi as requested.”

Jingyi wants to point out that he walked here of his own accord but doesn’t.  Instead, he looks around the courtyard.  His eyes first go to Lan Qiren, who is standing at the far end of the courtyard, and he almost instantly recoils from the anger in his face.   As if afraid that his attention alone will be enough to send Lan Qiren into qi deviation, he quickly looks away.  His gaze moves to Sizhui, who is kneeling in the center of the courtyard with a stack of bamboo canes balanced on his outstretched arms.  His whole body is trembling, and Jingyi has the nasty suspicion that Sizhui has been kneeling in this courtyard since their return to Gusu.  Though, he’s wearing a fresh set of robes so they at least allowed him to wash himself.

Out of instinct, Jingyi takes a step towards Sizhui, but Lan Jiahao grabs him.  Jingyi doesn’t fight him, but his gaze doesn’t leave his friend’s trembling form.  A complicated swarm of emotions builds up inside of Jingyi as he looks at his friend, but before he has time to begin to process them, Lan Qiren starts speaking.

“Lan Jingyi, I am going to ask you questions about yesterday, and I suggest that you do not lie.”

“Lying is forbidden, Master Lan.”  The words are out of Jingyi’s mouth before he can stop them.  Lan Qiren’s lips tighten so hard that they go pale, and Jingyi’s anxious heart beats double time.

“It is.” He speaks with a tone of long-suffering patience that Jingyi is very familiar with.  ”Yesterday you went on a night hunt with Lan Sizhui and eight other Lan disciples to a mountain road north of Gusu.  Correct?”

“Yes, Master Lan.”

“In order to search the area more efficiently, you broke into pairs.  You were paired with Lan Sizhui.”

“Yes, Master Lan.”

“You heard a cry from another group and raced to help them.  You found an albino snake that had grown to a monstrous size.  It had already killed both disciples that originally found it.”

He glances at Jingyi who nods.  As Lan Qiren speaks, memories of the event flash before Jingyi’s eyes.  He can see the beast’s horrible red eyes and the red blood on its fangs.  But Lan Qiren does not continue talking, so Jingyi responds at last.  

“Yes, Master Lan.”  Jingyi’s voice is unusually subdued.

“When the snake manages to kill four more disciples in quick succession, one of you set off a signal flare.”

“Yes, Master Lan.”

“You all fought, but were unable to stop the beast.”

“Yes,” Jingyi’s voice is choked with guilt.  He can see the bodies of his fellow disciples splayed across the ground.  

“After the death of your companions,” Lan Qiren’s voice cracks a bit on the word ‘death’ as his cultivated calm breaks.  “Lan Sizhui used demonic cultivation to raise.”  He stops for a moment and his voice is rough when he continues speaking.  “To raise your fellow cultivators as fierce corpses to fight the beast.”

“Yes, Master Lan.”  Jingyi’s gaze is on Sizhui, but he can’t see any part of his face.

“Lan Jingyi, did you assist Lan Sizhui in his attempt at demonic cultivation.”

Jingyi stares at Sizhui.  He desperately wants to see his face and to know what he’s thinking, but Sizhui doesn’t turn; he doesn’t so much as wiggle.  Jingyi drops his gaze to the white gravel of the courtyard.  “No, Master Lan Qiren.”

Even though he hadn’t attempted demonic cultivation, he still somehow feels that he’s abandoning his friend. 

“All accounts agree then,” Lan Qiren says.  A frown flashes across Jingyi’s face at ‘all accounts’. Sizhui and he were the only ones who survived.  Had they really used Inquiry ?  

“I conclude that Lan Sizhui acted alone in this matter.  That being the case, Lan Jingyi, you will not receive a punishment.  However, to prevent the spread of such dangerous ideas, you will remain for Lan Sizhui’s punishment.”

Despite his words, Lan Qiren does not look at Jingyi as if he is innocent.  His gaze is burning, questioning.  Jingyi, even though he is used to Lan Qiren’s glares, withers under it.  

“Yes, Master Lan.”  What else can he say?  He turns his gaze back to Sizhui.  

“Lan Sizhui,” Lan Qiren speaks again.

“Master Lan.”  His normally gentle voice is rough with exhaustion and strain.

“What is the most important Lan sect rule?”

“Do not associate with evil.”

“You have broken that rule.”

“Yes.”  There is no repentance in his voice, and the tone of it makes Lan Qiren’s eye twitch.  He turns away from Sizhui as if he is physically unable to bear looking at him.  

“This is what we get for letting Wei Wuxian stay here,” Lan Jiahao says beside Jingyi.  “Zewu-jun lets him remain for the sake of Hanguang-jun, and just look at what happened.  He’s corrupted Hanguang-jun’s own son.”

“Gossiping is forbidden,” Jingyi says at the same time that Sizhui says, “No.”

“What?” Lan Qiren spins around to face Sizhui, and his face is red.

“Senior Wei did not teach me demonic cultivation,” Sizhui says carefully. Lan Qiren’s jaw clenches even harder, but he doesn’t respond; Jingyi’s half surprised that he can’t hear the sound of Old Master Lan’s teeth grating from across the courtyard.  

Overhead, a cloud drifts in front of the sun and the courtyard is cast in shadow.  There is a long moment of silence in the courtyard where the only sound comes from the breeze and the crunch of gravel under shifting feet.  

“Lan Sizhui,” Lan Qiren says and his voice is shaking ever so slightly.  “Your punishment is eight lashes with the discipline whip for the eight bodies you desecrated with your action.”

Jingyi can’t hold back his gasp.  It was stupid of him, perhaps, but he hadn’t even considered the discipline whip.

“Eight more for the souls you manipulated for your own gain.”

Sizhui’s head and shoulders bow slightly as if under a great weight, but he doesn’t speak.

“And twenty-five more for each rule that you broke.”

“No!” Jingyi’s yell cuts through the air like a knife.  

“Silence!” Lan Qiren’s voice is just under a roar.

In between them, Sizhui is completely silent.

“That’s insane!  You're going to kill him.” Jingyi argues and his voice fills the courtyard.  The idea of whipping Sizhui, his Sizhui , who is good and kind and generous, turns his stomach.

Lan Qiren glares at him, and Jingyi feels the familiar pressure of the Lan silencing spell over his lips.  He grunts in frustration.  Another set of hands grab his arm so that he’s being held on each side by the two Lan seniors before he can try and move forward.  

Lan Zhihao steps out of the shadows near the walls of the courtyard carrying the discipline whip, and Jingyi feels all of the blood draining from his face.  Icy numbness is spreading through him with every heartbeat, and even though the sun breaks through the clouds overhead, Jingyi can’t feel it’s warmth.  His blood is rushing in his ears, and he can’t hear what Lan Zhihao says to Sizhui.  But he watches in confusion as Sizhui finally stands and then carefully removes his layers of robes and folds them until his chest and back are exposed to the air.  

He can’t tear his eyes away from the jade perfect planes of Sizhui’s back as he kneels again.  It seems so incredibly wrong to spoil something so beautiful, like throwing a prized statue on the floor, only worse because a statue cannot feel pain.

As he kneels this time, he has only a single layer of fabric from his pants, and the gravel must dig and bite into his knees, but he doesn’t complain.  When Lan Zhihao drives a wooden stake into the ground and binds Sizhui’s hands to it, Jingyi starts to sway.  The edges of his vision are going dark, and he considers for a moment that he might actually faint.  

He’s watching Sizhui, and not Lan Zhihao, so he’s taken by surprise when the whip cracks across Sizhui’s back.  The crack of the whip breaks through the rushing sound of blood in his ears.  A single line of garish crimson appears on pristine skin, and Jingyi jerks against his captors, who pull his arms behind him to make it harder for him to escape.  

The whip cracks again, and Sizhui doesn’t cry out, but Jingyi does, or he tries to.  The silencing spell binds him.  He struggles harder against the hands holding him back as the whip cracks again.  He doesn’t have a plan, he just needs to do something, to do anything, to get to Sizhui and get him away.  Even with the lighting flash of adrenaline in his veins, Jingyi cannot get his arms free, and they are twisted painfully behind his back.  Through his scuffle, Jingyi hears the crack of the whip.  His captors have forced Jingyi to his knees and he’s leaning forward so far that his face is only a foot or so from the gravel when the sound of the whip stops.

Confused, Jingyi stops struggling, and his captors haul him up so that he’s kneeling properly and he can see what is before him.  Sizhui is still kneeling with his hands bound in front of him and there are eight lines of bright scarlet across his creamy skin.

Lan Qiren speaks into the silence.

“Lan Sizhui your actions last night broke twenty-five of the Lan Sect’s most important rules and brought shame to you and by extension your family and your sect.  Do you regret what you have done?”

Lan Qiren’s gaze is intent on Sizhui’s face, and there is hope behind the anger and disgust: hope that Lan Sizhui will return to being the well-behaved, model disciple that he has always been.  

Sizhui takes a deep breath.  Jingyi can see it in the rise and fall of his shoulders.

“I regret many things, Master Lan.  I regret that my actions bring shame to those who took me in and raised me.  I regret that I have disappointed you.  I regret that I was not a strong enough cultivator to save those who perished last night.  But, I do not regret acting to save Jingyi’s life.”  

It does not escape Jingyi’s attention that Sizhui used only his given name.  There’s no change to his voice or posture, but Jingyi knows that Sizhui is addressing him at that moment.  

Sizhui’s words grab Jingyi’s heart and squeeze.  His gaze is stuck on the wounds slowly spilling blood down Sizhui’s beautiful skin, and his heartaches.  The marks of shame will never vanish from Sizhui’s body, and they are there because of him.  

Lan Qiren’s face twists and his eyes move from Sizhui to Jingyi and back, and his gaze is venomous.  It’s obvious in his gaze that he regrets the choice Sizhui made.  His gaze, and the gaze of the other Lan Sect cultivators, tell him very clearly: it would have been better if you had died.  Both of you should have died.  Jingyi has never felt so cold in his entire life.

When Lan Zhihao raises the whip again, Jingyi doesn’t fight, he just stares in numb horror.  The crack of the whip sets a macabre rhythm that moves out of time with Jingyi’s thundering heart.  With each strike, Sizhui’s body jerks.  Jingyi wants to close his eyes, to look away, as blood streams down Sizhui’s back.  The white gravel under his legs is painted red with blood.  

After one strike, Sizhui coughs and blood flies from his mouth to splatter in front of him.  The whip strikes him again, and Sizhui cries out.  Blood pours from his mouth where he bit through his lip in an effort to keep silent.  It reminds Jingyi of A-Qing back in Yi-City.  He sees for a moment her bleeding, tongueless mouth on Sizhui’s face, and he gags.  

The sound of the whip brings him back to the present, and it’s not much better.  Sizhui’s back and arms are slick and red with blood.  The whip has split the skin wide open so many times that Jingyi can’t count the lashes anymore.  He has no idea how many more strikes they have to go.  The sound of Sizhui’s labored breathing and his cries of pain are the only companions to the crack of the whip.  Jingyi doesn’t think he’ll ever forget the sounds. 

Guilt digs its claws into him as he watches.  For him, Sizhui did this for him , and he’ll never be able to repay him.  Nothing he does could ever repay him for this.  My fault , he thinks as the whip cracks and Sizhui cries out.  My fault, my fault, my fault , the mantra echoes in his head in time with the crack of the whip. 

Jingyi is almost surprised when the whip finally stops.  He’d begun to think that time was going to stretch this hell into infinity.  Sizhui is slumped against the wooden stake in front of him.  His back and his chin are a mess with blood and the rest of his face is terrifyingly pale.  He’s barely recognizable.  Lan Zhihao cuts his hands free, and he slumps onto the gravel in front of him.  Jingyi tries to go to him; he tries to shove off the people holding him back, and he almost succeeds.  His arms are twisted behind his back so hard that he’s seeing stars, but he kicks out anyway.  He needs to get to Sizhui, to check on him.  It’s only when two disciples come to lift up Sizhui and carry him away that Jingyi gives up his fight and falls slack.  His shoulders are aching, but he hardly notices.

“He can go back to his room now,” Lan Qiren’s says.  Jingyi looks up at him.  He stands on the walkway that goes around the courtyard, several feet away from the bloody stain where the punishment had been given out.  The sight of his pristine white robes infuriates Jingyi, and his lips twist into a snarl.  The look of practiced calm on Lan Qiren’s face only makes him angrier.  He looks at the blood pooled and splattered on the courtyard, and he sees Sizhui’s soft brown eyes and his sweet smile.  The fact that everyone else can just stand there calm and unruffled makes him angrier than he has ever been in his life.

Jingyi lets Lan Jiahao and his friend lead him out of the courtyard because he can’t stand the sight of Lan Qiren or the blood anymore.  The pair take Jingyi back to the room that he normally shares with Sizhui and deposit him there before leaving.  Of course, Sizhui isn’t there.  For a long moment, Jingyi just stares at Sizhui’s empty bed before he sits down rather abruptly and starts to cry.

Chapter Text

Break free from everything
Break free before it breaks me
There's got to be another way

Jingyi doesn’t get up from the ground for a long time.  He doesn’t move as the sun sinks lower and the shadows in the room grow long.  The sun paints the sky bloody red as it sets, and Jingyi doesn’t move.  The sky is black and the Cloud Recesses are silent when he is finally able to force his limbs to move.  His legs are completely numb, and he wobbles dangerously when he stands.    They haven’t brought Sizhui back, and that must mean they intend on keeping him somewhere else.  

Slowly, Jingyi walks across the room to Sizhui’s side.  The smell of cinnamon and cloves with a hint of sandalwood reaches his nose and he closes his eyes.  For a moment, with the comforting smell around him, he can imagine that he’s going to open his eyes and Sizhui will be sitting at his desk smiling.  But when he opens his eyes, he’s alone in the dark room.  Reaching down, he grabs one of Sizhui’s pillows and brings it to his nose to breathe in the familiar scent.  He wants nothing more than to curl up on the bed with the smell of Sizhui all around him and fall asleep, but he can’t.

He’d been thinking while he sat on the floor these last few hours after he cried until there were no tears left, and he’d reached a decision.  It was easy and hard at once.  He is leaving the Cloud Recesses and the Lan Sect for good.  

As a child, Jingyi had often imagined running away to somewhere with fewer rules, somewhere where he would feel like he belonged.  But, until now, he had always stayed.  It wasn’t even that in the courtyard, his fellow Lan Sect members had looked at him like they wished he was dead.  He probably still would have stayed, if it was just that.  It was the sight of Sizhui, who had always perfectly embodied the Lan Sect ideals, collapsed against the white gravel and painted red with blood because he made one mistake, saving Jingyi’s life.  

Sizhui.  That was where the decision got difficult.  He’d always imagined that he’d spend the rest of his life by Sizhui’s side even if he never planned on telling Sizhui how he really felt.  His future was supposed to be full of adventures and night hunts with his best friend by his side.  Leaving Sizhui here is leaving a piece of himself behind and that makes him waver.

But then he remembers Sizhui on the ground of the courtyard painted in stark colors of black hair and red blood against white and his resolve strengthens.  If Jingyi hadn’t failed during the night hunt, Sizhui never would have tried demonic cultivation.  And Sizhui, selfless and generous to a fault, doesn’t even blame Jingyi.  He’d taken the flogging and refused to even regret it.  Jingyi’s heart aches.

Lan Qiren had told Sizhui a hundred times not to associate with Jingyi and told Jingyi even more times that he was going to ruin the other boy one day.  But the pair of them had always ignored him, and Sizhui would smile sweetly at Jingyi even as they headed to the library for another set of handstands.  Jingyi had never imagined that it would lead to this.

He’s still standing by Sizhui’s bed with his face pressed to the pillow, and there are tears in his eyes again.  He slowly drops the pillow onto the bed.  If he doesn’t start moving, his will is going to break down; so he crosses back to his side of the room and sets a qiankun bag on his bed.  

It takes almost no time to pack as he has very few belongings.  There are several Lan Sect rules about not hoarding wealth or indulging in luxury.  He packs his mother’s old hair combs and the rolled-up the drawing he’d done of Sizhui lying in a pile of bunnies.  He takes down the painting that hangs over his bed that Sizhui had made for him, admiring the carefully painted mountains and clouds as he does so.  When he turns to pack his clothes, he realizes that all of his clothes are Gusu Lan Sect uniforms.  He packs his inner robes and underclothes leaving the rest behind; he’ll have to buy new robes in Caiyi Town before he goes… wherever he’s going.  

After he’s packed everything, he once again steps over to Sizhui’s side of the room.  Part of him says that he should just leave, but he can’t.  So he sits at his friend’s desk and pulls out a paper, ink, and a brush.  The moon outside is shining through the open window and onto the desk; it illuminates his shaking hand poised over the paper as he stares blankly down at it.  How can he express the raging storm of emotions inside of him?  How will he ever explain walking away from sixteen years of friendship without a goodbye?

He can’t.

If Sizhui were here, the words would tumble their way out of his mouth in a chaotic stream.  But alone, he has time to think so he decides to say less rather than more.

 

A-Yuan,

 

I’m so sorry.

Thank you for everything.

Goodbye,

 

A-Yi

 

He scatters sand across the ink to help it dry before carefully folding the letter.  For several moments he just sits there staring at the letter on the table.  It seems horribly inadequate.  But he doesn’t have any other ideas so he closes his eyes and forces himself to stand up.  Letting out a long sigh, he moves towards the door.  

He takes a deep breath to settle himself.  If he’s really leaving Lan Sect for good, there is one more thing he has to do.  His hands are steady as he reaches up and unties his forehead ribbon.  The soft silk almost glows in the moonlight as he stares down at it.  The cloud patterns seem to drift in his vision.  Slowly, he folds the ribbon as neatly as he can.  Before he has time to stop himself, he tucks the forehead ribbon under Sizhui’s pillow and walks out of the room.

The halls of the senior disciple dorms are completely silent as Jingyi heads for the exit.  When he reaches the door, he pauses to check for guards.  Normally, Lan Sect relies on the wards to keep people out and doesn’t bother policing its own disciples who are generally too well behaved to require guards, but things aren’t normal right now.  After searching the roofs and the shadows of the courtyards with his gaze, he decides that its safe and moves out into the night.  His next stop is the kitchen, where he grabs a few apples for the road.  

As he walks past the Hanshi, he wonders if Zewu-jun knows what happened today.  But, Zewu-jun hasn’t left seclusion in the three years since Jin Guangyao’s death.  He can’t imagine Zewu-jun with his gentle smile agreeing to Sizhui’s punishment.  Then again, as much as he disagrees with Lan Qiren, he never would have imagined that he would oversee such a punishment either.  Still, Jingyi can’t help but think that if Zewu-jun or Hanguang-jun were here that things would have been different.  

Jingyi pauses, then, wondering why there is no word of Hanguang-jun returning to the Cloud Recesses.  He’s at the discussion conference in Qinghe, but surely this is important enough for him to return.  Jingyi frowns, Sizhui should have his father by his side when he wakes up; he shouldn't be alone.  The thought of Sizhui waking up injured and alone causes guilt to twist his stomach into knots, but he resumes his walk out of the Cloud Recesses.  They probably wouldn’t let him near Sizhui, anyway.  When he reaches the Library Pavillion, he ducks in and writes a letter for Hanguang-jun.  After tucking it into his robes, he continues on his way. 

Now that he’s made the decision, it’s surprisingly easy for him to walk away from the only home he’s ever known.  Above him, the moon is a sliver in the sky that barely sheds any light.  Jingyi has never seen the Cloud Recesses at night; it’s even more beautiful painted in silver starlight than it is in the light of day.  The peace that always cloaks the place like a mantle has deepened into a silence so complete that Jingyi’s footsteps are loud in his ears.  

He doesn’t pause as he moves past the buildings that make up the central area of the Cloud Recesses and onto the path that leads down the mountain and to the rest of the world.  It’s dark enough that walking is slightly tricky on the path, but he doesn’t dare use a talisman to light his way.  He does pause after he passes through the gates and stands beside the Wall of Discipline.  There’s not enough light for him to read by, but he doesn’t need to.  He’s had the rules memorized and has since he was ten or twelve years old.  These four thousand rules that have governed every moment of his life since the day he was born.  The fact that they no longer bind him, should feel like a weight from his shoulders, but it rather feels like the floor has been ripped out from under him.

Squaring his shoulders, Jingyi turns and continues down the mountain path.  It’s treacherous in the dark, and he has to go slowly.  It takes him far longer than it normally would have to make his way down to Caiyi town.  The sky is starting to lighten with the first hits of dawn by the time he reaches the main road.  Around him, birds are starting to chirp and sing to the morning sky, and it seems so wrong.  Jingyi’s entire life has been upended and turned inside out and around him, life just goes on.  The earliest farmers are making their ways out of their houses and they give Jingyi curious, albeit tired, looks.  He doubts many people are on this road at this time of day.

By the time he reaches Caiyi town, exhaustion is catching up with him.  He’d hardly gotten any sleep since the night hunt, but he can’t stop just yet.  

Stopping to buy some loquats for breakfast, he asks where he might be able to buy a new set of robes.  The ladies answer him but watch him with barely concealed curiosity as he moves away.  He supposes that he must look strange dressed in Gusu Lan Sect robes but not wearing a forehead ribbon and obviously a little rough for wear.  When he reaches the shop that the women had indicated, it isn’t open yet so he sits down with his back against the wall to wait.

As soon as he stops moving, sleep tries to claim him.  His eyes are so heavy that he can hardly keep them open.  Despite his best efforts, he must have dozed, because he’s awakened by a sudden voice.

“Oi! What are you doing here?  Find somewhere else to sleep.”

Jingyi shakes his sleep clouded brain and gets to his feet, though standing takes an almost monumental amount of effort.  He offers the lady a slightly wobbly bow.  

“Forgive me,” he says.  “I was looking for a place to purchase new clothes and you weren’t open yet.”

The woman, who is almost a head shorter than Jingyi, looks him up and down with a small frown.  Then she motions him towards the door.

“Well then go on, get in.  I don’t have all day.”  Jingyi is used to such tones and obeys out of instinct.  Inside the shop is lined with different sets of robes hung one in front of another.  It’s so colorful that it hurts Jingyi’s exhausted eyes.  

“Well,” the woman says when he just stands there looking around him.  “What do you need?”

Jingyi shakes himself, trying to kick his exhausted brain back into action.  “Plain robes,” Jingyi says and then looks down at himself, “not white.”

“Do you have a color preference?” 

Jingyi thinks for a moment, “No purple or gold, not green either.”  The last thing he wants is to be somehow mistaken for a disciple from one of the other sects.  As soon as he answers she turns around and starts moving through the small shop.

“How many?”  She asks with her back to him.

“Two sets,” he decides at that moment.  “Two layers.”

Then he stands and watches as the woman efficiently searches through her wares.  When she turns around she has a whole pile of robes in her arms, definitely more than the four he requested.  Setting most of them down on a small table that's mostly covered in sewing supplies, she holds one up to him and shakes her head.

“Too short,” she mutters, “not sure what they feed you up on that mountain.  You men are taller than trees.”

Jingyi for once has nothing to say.  So he just stands there until she shoves four robes into his arms and points to a folding screen in the back.

“Give these a try.  Let me see them on you.  I can’t have you going around in ill-fitting robes.”

Jingyi starts to protest that he would know whether the robes fit him or not, but she shushes him and shoos him in the direction of the screen. He peels off his belt and then his three outer robes, letting them fall unceremoniously to the ground.  Sizhui would have berated him for it.  His heart squeezes painfully.  

He pulls on a pair of midnight blue robes on.  The first thing that he notices is the sleeves.  They are narrow and close to his arms, and it feels strange to move about without the sleeves following him.  The second thing he notices is that he didn’t ask about a belt.  He looks at the white, cloud patterned belt on the ground in front of him and can’t bring himself to pick it up.

“Excuse me, madam,” he says, feeling incredibly awkward.

“A belt,” she says and a wide black belt appears over the top of the screen.  He ties it on and then steps out.

Jingyi shifts uncomfortably under her gaze.  She has him hold his arms out to check the length of the sleeves and stoops to check the hem before deciding that it will have to be let out a bit.  He tries to protest.  The matter of a centimeter or so doesn’t bother him, but the woman won’t be moved.

The woman goes behind the screen to gather the two robes that Jingyi hadn’t tried on.  If she has any thoughts about the expensive embroidered robes that he threw on the ground, she says nothing.  Instead, she lends him an oversized black robe and tells him to get changed and sit somewhere out of her way.  After he deposits the robes he’d tried on back into her care, he sits back against the wall by the screen and is almost instantly asleep.

“Boy,” her stern voice wakes him for a second time.  He blinks himself awake.  For a moment his confused by the explosion of color around him, but reality quickly settles back down on him.  With a groan, he gets to his feet.  

“Here you are,” she shoves the four robes into his arms and Jingyi goes behind the screen to change and retrieve his wallet.  When he turns around the corner and sees the pile of white silk, he freezes for a moment.  He sees white silk covered in grass and mud and blood, so much blood.  He takes an involuntary step back before gathering himself.  He quickly changes into his new robes while trying not to look at the cloud covered robes on the ground by his feet.  Once he’s changed he packs the new robes into his qainkun bag, grabs his things, puts on his sword sheath, and steps out.  He leaves the robes in a pile on the ground; he wants nothing to do with them.  

He pays the woman for the robes and moves towards the door.  He doesn’t see her glance from him to the screen and the clothes he’s left behind.  “Do you have all of your things?” she asks as if people routinely leave their clothes behind in her store.

“Yes.”

When he steps out of the building, the sun has already passed noon.  He must have slept for several hours.  He stretches and tries to goad his tired brain into action.  The smell of roasting meat reaches him, and he decides that lunch will be the first order of business.  After eating a few pork buns, he feels decidedly better even if he’s still dead tired.  

Jingyi pulls out the letter for Hanguang-jun and turns it over in his hands.  This is the most important thing right now, he decides: getting this letter to Qinghe.  The thought of traveling all the way to Qinghe is almost unbearable with how tired he is, but he knows he has to do it.  For Sizhui.

So Jingyi drags himself out of Caiyi Town and to the main road before mounting his sword.  He manages to fly until dark before he has to stop or be in danger of falling off of his sword.  Having decided to fly the direct route to Qinghe, there’s not a town or even a road anywhere near.  He lands on the branches of a massive tree and tucks himself into the bend where two massive branches meet.  

Jingyi, no matter what anyone says, is a Lan through and through.  He sleeps through the night without shifting an inch, and wakes at five am with the sound of the birds.  Groaning, he rubs the sleep from his eyes.  His back hurts from his sleeping position and the bark is digging into him in several places.  He wants nothing more than a bed where he can sleep till noon.  

Instead, he forces himself into a sitting position and then a standing one.  His stomach growls, so he eats some of the fruit that he pilfered from the kitchen.  Then he gets back on his sword.  The day is incredibly long.  Jingyi has a high level of cultivation, but he’s running on fumes.  When he passes over a small village just before noon, he goes down to purchase more food and drink water.  He wants to take a nap, but there’s a good chance that he’d stay asleep for several hours, and he wants to reach Qinghe as soon as possible.

He stops one more time during the day to drink from a river and eat another apple from his bag.  The scenery has changed now that he’s left the mountains far behind.  It’s his only sign that he’s made any progress at all.  

When night falls, Jingyi decides to stay on his sword.  Flying at night isn’t the safest and there’s a chance that he could go off course, but he thinks that it’s worth it.  He’s never been as good at astronomy as Sizhui, but it’s not too difficult for him to find north and use it as a guide.

Still, Jingyi cannot fly through the whole night.  He’s still exhausted and his spiritual energy is flagging.  So he stops.  This time, he is flying over fields and not forest.  He curls up on a pile of hay with only his robes for warmth, but he’s so tired that he rapidly falls asleep.

At what he assumes is five am, he awakes again.  He feels even more worn and groggy than he had the morning before.  But he can’t be that far from The Unclean Realms now.  He’ll reach there by the afternoon at the latest, so he forces himself to get back on his sword.

It only takes a few hours before the fortress-like walls of The Unclean Realms appear before him.  Jingyi quickly lands on the ground and approaches on foot.  There’s no way an unrecognized cultivator would be allowed to just fly in.  As he walks, he suddenly realizes that he doesn’t have a plan.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise to him as he almost never has a plan.  But now that he’s faced with possibly standing before Hanguang-jun, he desperately wishes he had a plan.  

The guards have obviously seen him and are watching him curiously.  The conference has already been going for a few days, anyone who was supposed to arrive should have already arrived.  Jingyi pulls out the letter for Hanguang-jun before he reached the guards.

Jingyi bows as he approaches, enough to show respect but not enough to be subservient.  He is still a cultivator after all.  

“What brings you to Qinghe?

“I come bearing a letter for Hanguang-jun,” Jingyi says and then corrects himself, “the chief cultivator.”

The guards look at each other and then at him.  Here, he realizes, is a downside of having discarded his Lan Sect robes and forehead ribbon.  If he had them, they would be much more likely to listen.  As it is, he’s just a random cultivator trying to claim the attention of the Chief Cultivator during an important conference.  

“It’s of utmost urgency,” he says, trying to figure out how to convince him without giving too much away. One of the guardsmen is frowning at him as if to place him.  Jingyi has been to Qinghe a handful of times, but he doubts its enough for the man to realize who he is without the Lan Sect uniform.  Perhaps it’s just that Jingyi has the same high cheekbones and strong jawline of most Lan men.

“It’s not that we don’t believe you,” one guard says in a voice that indicates that he very much does not believe Jingyi.  “But we can’t just go about interrupting the conference.” 

Jingyi frowns thinking quickly.  Then he remembers that there is still one thing that he has on him.  Slowly he reaches down to the jade token that is hanging from his belt.  The guard’s eyes go to it, and he can see that they recognize it.  Jingyi quickly unties the chord and slides the jade token free.

“Please,” he says and offers the man the token.  The man turns it over in his hands, obviously recognizing the cloud pattern carved into the jade.  “Please take this to Hanguang-jun immediately.  It’s very important.”

Jingyi can hear the desperation in his own voice.  The man finally takes the letter from Jingyi’s hand.  Jingyi bows to him, and when he straightens up the man looks a bit embarrassed.

“Would you like to come in, deliver the message yourself?” The other guard, the one that was trying to place him earlier, asks.

Jingyi shakes his head almost violently.  He can’t face Hanguang-jun.  He can’t. 

“I have to go, keep going,” he says, and it sounds weak in his own ears.  He doesn't have a lot of practice lying because lying is forbidden.  He backs away from the guards and watches as one of them takes the letter and the token and enters the Unclean Realm.  As soon as the man is out of sight, Jingyi turns and almost races onto the city. 

Chapter Text

Believe me, I won't stop at nothing to see you
So I've started running

Breakfast is being served in the Unclean Realm’s main hall, and Lan Wangji is grateful for the excuse not to talk.  He’s already been awake for a few hours, but most of the sect leaders seem to be groggy and tired.  Nie Huaisang, at the front of the room, is certainly drowsing behind his fan.  Jiang Cheng, seated across from him, seems to be quietly yelling at Jin Ling, who looks like he wants to be anywhere else but in this room.  Lan Wangji sympathizes with the sentiment.  

The rest of the room is a dull roar in the background of his mind as he tries to focus on his tea and not on the voices of the various sect leaders, some of whom already seem to be bickering.  Still, he notices the sudden hush in the conversation.  He looks up and sees a man dressed in the uniform of Nie Sect at the door.  

The man approaches the front of the room, and Nie Huaisang rapidly pushes himself into a more proper sitting position.  

“Sect Leader Nie,” the man bows to Nie Huaisang and then turns to Lan Wangji.  “Chief Cultivator, Hanguang-jun.  I am deeply sorry for the interruption, but a cultivator brought an urgent messenger for you.”

Nie Huaisang’s face clearly says “thank the ancestors, it’s not my problem”.  But Lan Wangji, now that he knows to look, can see the faintest spark of curiosity in those dark eyes.

However, that observation is set aside to make way for his confusion.  If something had happened in the Cloud Recesses that needed his urgent attention, his uncle would have sent a disciple with the message.  Wei Wuxian is here in Qinghe with him.  The only other person who would send him an urgent letter is Sizhui .   Cold, irrational fear grips his heart in that moment, though no one in the room notices any change in his expression as he looks at the messenger.

The man bows again.  “The young man did not appear to be Lan Sect, Hanguang-jun.  At first, I did not wish to interrupt your meeting with the message, but he gave me this,” the messenger held up a small jade token engraved with a familiar cloud motif.  “He said that I should bring it to you at once.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji nods in acknowledgment and reaches out for the two items.  He can feel the eyes of everyone in the room on him.  The instant that his fingers touch the jade token, he can tell that this is authentic; he can feel the energy it bears which allows its wearer to be recognized by the Cloud Recesses protections.  A more expressive man would have frowned, but Lan Wangji only tucks the token in his sleeve before turning his attention to the letter.  Without the token, the cultivator who brought the message cannot return to the Cloud Recesses.  He cannot think of a good reason why one would part with it.  It would have been less concerning were it a forgery of some variety.   

As soon as he opens the letter, he knows that it is not from Sizhui; the calligraphy is too messy.  There’s the tiniest furrow in his brows, but no one in the room knows him well enough to see it.  It’s not his son’s handwriting, but he does recognize it.  Though he doesn’t immediately recognize who it belongs to.



 

Esteemed Hanguang-jun,

Forgive this disciple for interrupting such an important event.  But Sizhui needs you back in the Cloud Recesses.  It is best if you see the situation for yourself.  

Please,

 

Lan Wangji pauses his reading here because the character for please is messier than the rest.  One of the downstrokes is wobbly as if the person writing this had been trembling.  The cold fear that had originally struck him, settles into an icy knot in his stomach.

 

 

Please go to him.

Forgive this disciple,

Jingyi

 

Lan Wangji’s mind is whirling and his stomach is tying itself in knots.  He reads the letter a second time, but he doesn’t manage to drag anymore meaning out of it than he had the first time.  As soon as he sees Jingyi’s name, he recognizes the messy calligraphy from night reports and copies of Lan Sect rules.  Lan Wangji knows Lan Jingyi, who has been Sizhui’s friend almost since the first day Wangji had brought him back to Gusu.  He knows that the boy is loud and brash and often fails to embody the Lan Sect way, but he has never forgotten that Lan Jingyi was the only child willing to befriend Sizhui at the beginning.  

Lan Wangji’s eyes return to the shaky ‘please’ on the paper.  He folds up the letter and stands.  For now, he shoves aside the fact that Lan Jingyi signed only his courtesy name and that he left his jade token with Wangji.

Lan Wangji makes a bow to Nie Huaisang.  “Sect Leader, thank you for your hospitality.  I must leave immediately.”

Nie Huaisang gets to his feet and returns the bow before hiding his face behind his fan.  “Not at all.  Not at all.  Hanguang-jun, it’s my pleasure.  I hope everything is alright.”

Lan Wangji gives him a nod and turns to leave the room.  The sect leaders around the room all turn to watch him as he leaves, but none of them try and stop him.  When he reaches the door, Lan Wangji turns to offer one last bow to the room before making his exit.

His thoughts are racing as he walks through The Unclean Realms towards the room that he has been staying in.  There are too many unknowns and not nearly enough information.  Almost everything he can come up with is speculation, and that is forbidden.  

Wei Wuxian is still sleeping when he enters the room, and his heart softens at the sight of him curled up on the bed.  He kneels down by the bed and shakes Wei Wuxian gently.

“Wei Ying.”

“Lan Zhan,” he says rolling away.  “Not now, I’m trying to sleep.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji speaks more firmly this time.  “Get Up.”

The tone of his voice must have penetrated Wei Wuxian’s sleep fogged brain because he rolls back over with a furrow between his brows.  He takes in the sight of Lan Wangji, who is fully dressed and completely serious, and pushes himself up on one arm.  He’s completely naked and the blanket slides down as he sits up and Lan Wangji is momentarily distracted by his exposed chest.  But it hardly lasts a heartbeat.

In lieu of speaking, Lan Wangji presses the letter into Wei Wuxian’s hand before standing up.  He gathers Wei Wuxian’s clothes and sets them neatly on the bed as Wei Wuxian frowns at the letter in his hand.

“We are leaving for Gusu now?” Wei Wuxian asks as he watches Lan Wangji move around the room.

“Mn.”

“You are certain that this is from Lan Jingyi?”

“Mn.”

“Did he bring it himself?”

“Don’t know.” Lan Wangji turns and hands Wei Wuxian the jade token that came with the letter.

“This came with the letter?”

“Mn.”

Wei Wuxian is already getting into his clothes, and there is a frown on his normally jovial face.

“Why would he leave his jade token?” Wei Wuxian asks as he dresses.  “Why not just bring the message himself?  Why did he only sign the letter with his courtesy name?”

Lan Wangji just shakes his head.  He doesn’t have answers to any of these quotations.  It doesn’t take long for the two of them to pack their things to leave.  Wei Wuxian keeps talking as they do so.  “And what could have happened to Sizhui?  If he’s in the Cloud Recesses why didn’t your uncle send a message?  You don’t think that it could be a fake? A trap somehow?”

“Let us go,” Lan Wangji says in place of an answer, but Wei Wuxian understands.  If there’s a possibility that his son needs him, Lan Wangji will go no matter the danger.

It’s unfortunate that this year the conference is held in Qinghe which is the furthest of the three other large sects from Gusu.  They will have to fly for two days, and with Jin Ling here in Qinghe they probably won't even be able to stop at Lanling.  

“Wait,” Wei Wuxian says suddenly and Lan Wangji turns back to him.  “I think I have an idea.”

“Mn?”  Lan Wangji waits for Wei Wuxian to explain himself.  Whatever he’s about to propose is probably both smart and dangerous.

“What about a teleportation talisman?”  That’s at least less dangerous than what Lan Wangji had been anticipating.  Lan Wangji doesn’t say anything, but Wei Wuxian is used to his nonverbal responses and so continues.  “It will get us to the Cloud Recesses faster than any other method.  If someone is waiting to attack you between here and the Cloud Recesses, they won't have the chance.  If there’s an attack waiting there, they won’t be expecting you for two more days.  It’ll take a big chunk of your spiritual energy, though.  Which isn’t the best if you need to fight.  Then again,” he says with a wink, “even with that, they’re almost certainly no match for my Lan Zhan.”

Lan Wangji shakes his head a bit at Wei Wuxian’s flirting. 

“Ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, draping himself on Lan Wangji’s side, “you are so strong.”

Lan Wangji wraps an arm around Wei Wuxian and says, “the talisman?”

“Right,” Wei Wuxian immediately straightens up and begins to fish around his robes for blank talismans.  Lan Wangji pulls one out of his own sleeve and hands it to him.  Beside him, Wei Wuxian slices his finger open on Bichen before quickly writing out the talisman.  When he hands the talisman to Lan Wangji, Lan Wangji catches his wrist and uses some of his own spiritual energy to heal the wound.

Wei Wuxian laughs and shakes his hand free.  “No need for that, Lan Zhan.  It’s just a cut, save your energy for what matters.”

“You matter,” Lan Wangji says steadily as he holds up the talisman.  Wei Wuxian sputters and blushes and tugs on his arm.  

“Lan Zhan, you can’t just say such things!”

“Focus, Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says gently.  After dealing with Su She and his talismans, Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji had decided that it would be prudent for Lan Wangji to learn to use one.  Wei Wuxian, despite having spent the last several years cultivating, still has a very long way to go before he can use such a talisman thanks to the minimal spiritual energy of the body of Mo Xuanyu.  

Lan Wangji wraps one arm around Wei Wuxian’s waist and casts down the talisman.  For several moments their whole world is blue and bright like the hottest part of a flame.  Then they are standing on the mountain path leading to the Cloud Recesses.  Wei Wuxian steadies Lan Wangji.  There are very few cultivators who could teleport two people.  Doing so, even for the illustrious Hanguang-jun, is exhausting.  But it takes hardly a moment before he composes himself.  

He starts walking towards the gates.

“Just like that, we’re back.” Wei Wuxian says strolling along beside his husband.  “Incredible magic really.  I can’t believe you, Lan Zhan.  You just teleported two people, and you walk up to the gates like it’s nothing.”

To most people, Wei Wuxian’s chatter would seem as carefree as always, but Lan Wangji can sense the tension under his words.

As they pass the Wall of Discipline, Wei Wuxian gives it a dirty look as he always does.  Lan Wangji long ago gave up reproaching him for it.

“Hanguang-jun,” the disciple standing at the gate bows deeply to him.  “We did not expect you back so soon.”

“Mn.”

“Where has your friend gotten to?” Wei Wuxian asks.  They can hear the sound of steps on the gravel path leading away from them.

“He’s gone to tell Old Master Lan Qiren that you have returned.”  Wei Wuxian studies the boy while spinning chenqing in his hands.  

Lan Wangji walks past the boy and up the trail, so Wei Wuxian follows him. 

“You should have questioned him.  Something is off.”

“Gossiping is forbidden.”

“It’s not gossiping,” Wei Wuxian protests.  “It’s getting information.”  He continues on in this vein as they make their way to the Cloud Recesses proper.  They have just passed the first buildings when someone greets him.  It’s obvious he’s rushing to meet them, though he is carefully not running.  Lan Wangji is surprised to be greeted by Lan Jiahao, who is a distant cousin about his own age, rather than by a younger disciple.

“Hanguang-jun.”  He says with a bow appropriate for the chief cultivator and the brother of the sect leader.  “Master Wei,” he says with a much more perfunctory bow.

The brusque treatment of Wei Wuxian irritates Lan Wangji, but Lan Jiahao has not done anything strictly wrong, so Lan Wangji remains silent.  Beside him, Wei Wuxian puts a comforting hand on his shoulder.  His face clearly says that he doesn’t care about it.  

“Master Lan Qiren would like to speak with you.  Please come with me.”

“Where is Sizhui,” Lan Wangji says, not moving.  Lan Jiahao tenses and, though he quickly relaxes, both Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian see it.  There is a long pause before he speaks.

“Lan Sizhui is resting.” It is hours past the time when the Lan Sect rises, and there are few reasons for someone as young as Sizhui to be resting at this time of day.  

“Mn.” Lan Wangji knows that Lan Jiahao is not lying because he would not dare to do such a thing when he is representing Lan Qiren.  That doesn’t mean that he is being entirely truthful either.  

“Please,” Lan Jiahao tries again, “come to speak with Master Lan.  Lan Sizhui is asleep.  He will still be so when you are done speaking with your uncle.”

At that moment, Lan Wangji is torn.  He wants to demand to be taken to his son.  But something is very clearly wrong, and he knows that he will get the most information from his uncle.  He glances at Wei Wuxian, who on no account should come to the meeting with Lan Qiren.

“Let’s go to your uncle,” Wei Wuxian says.  “Well,” he hastily corrects, “let’s walk over there, and you talk to your uncle.”

Lan Jiahao leads them to his uncle’s residence even though it’s not necessary.  He precedes into the room and announces that they have arrived.

Wei Wuxian takes a seat on the steps leading to Lan Qiren’s home.  Lan Wangji and he both know that everything will be easier if he stays out of Lan Qiren’s line of sight.  

“I’ll be right here,” Wei Wuxian says.  Lan Wangji nods and enters his uncle's home.

Lan Jiahao is still there and Lan Wangji motions for him to leave.  Whatever conversation he is about to have with his uncle, he doubts that it will be pleasant, and he doesn’t want an audience.  

Lan Qiren is seated at his table with a pot of tea before him.  He looks old.  Of course, Lan Qiren is no longer young, but there is a weariness about him that was not there with Lan Wangji left.  It hangs over him and makes him seem older than his years.

“Shufu,” Lan Wangji bows.

“Wangji,” his uncle says.  “Sit.”

Lan Wangji takes the seat at the table opposite his uncle.  It makes him feel young, almost as if he is sixteen again.  Here, he is not the chief cultivator or Hanguang-jun, he is just Wangji.  Flicking his wrists to get his sleeves out of the way, Lan Wangji pours tea for first his uncle and then himself.  

“You are back early,” Lan Qiren says as he lifts his cup to his lips.  Lan Wangji doesn’t drink; even though he knows that it’s rude.

“I received an urgent message.”

“Was this message, by chance, from Lan Jingyi.”  His uncle sounds tired.  There’s no bite in his voice when he says Lan Jingyi’s name, and Lan Wangji isn’t sure the last time he heard Lan Qiren speak of Lan Jingyi without at least a hint of exasperation.  

“Mn.”

His uncle sighs.  “What message did Jingyi give you?”

“That Sizhui needed me.  That is all.”

“I guess he is more prudent than I give him credit for,” Lan Qiren says.  “Still, it would have been best if we simply waited for you to return.  The other sects will be curious now.  But what is done is done.  Wangji, there is no good way to tell you this.  So I suppose I will start from the beginning.”

Cold fear fills Lan Wangji at these words.  There’s a lot of information packed into those sentences, and Wangji doesn’t have time to disentangle it.  

“Three nights ago, I sent Lan Sizhui and nine other young senior disciples to a northern pass.  Merchant caravans have been going missing there, and the local villages formally requested our aid.”  

Lan Wangji nodded; he’d heard whispers about a pass in the mountains that was haunted by vengeful spirits.  Oftentimes these stories are exaggerations, so he hadn’t put much stock in it.  It seems that was a mistake on his part.

“They found a monstrous beast: a snake that is almost twice as wide as a man is tall.  Even ten of them was not enough.”  Lan Qiren pauses and grief passes like a dark cloud over his face.  

Lan Wangji wants to ask what happened, and how it came that Jingyi and Sizhui walked away from such a creature.  But it is disrespectful to interrupt, and he trusts that his uncle will tell him all that is needed.

“The beast killed eight of the ten disciples.  According to Sizhui, the beast was deaf, and thus his attempts to use both Rest and Sound of Vanquishing failed.  The beast had scales that resisted the attacks of their swords regardless of their power as spiritual weapons.”

Lan Qiren pauses again and takes a drink of his tea.  Lan Wangji, who knows his uncle well, can tell that he is gathering himself.  

“When all but Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui were dead, Lan Sizhui turned to demonic cultivation.”

Lan Wangji blinks.  Another man would have gasped or covered his face at the shock, but not Lan Wangji.  However, he is gripped by shock: Sizhui and demonic cultivation.  It’s something that he never would have imagined.  His blood is roaring in his ears.  All he can do is stare at his uncle.  If Lan Qiren were any other man, Lan Wangji might be tempted to accuse him of deception or misinformation.

Lan Qiren waits in silence for Lan Wangji to gather himself.  There is a long silence until Lan Wangji finally takes a drink of his tea.  The action helps him feel grounded, steadied.

“Still, I must acknowledge that Sizhui and Lan Jingyi successfully killed the beast.”  Lan Wangji does not have to ask how because his uncle anticipates his question.  “With the corpses to distract and restrain the beast, Lan Jingyi held the mouth open so that SIzhui could kill the beast from the inside.  When they were found, Sizhui was covered almost head to toe in blood.”

The story forcefully reminds Lan Wangji of the tortoise of the slaughter.  He remembers Wei Wuxian climbing under its shell and the subsequent sixteen hours that he’d held the assassination chord until the beast was dead.  Still, they had had days to play out their attack.  Sizhui and Lan Jingyi had figured out, likely in moments, what they would have to do. Still, demonic cultivation…

“You did not banish Sizhui,” Lan Wangji says.  It’s a statement that carries many questions with it, and Lan Qiren knows his nephew well enough to understand them.

“Sizhui has always shown much promise.  His behavior has, up to now, been exemplary.  Following the death of the beast, Sizhui used the last of his spiritual energy to put the spirits of his fellow cultivators to rest.  I do not believe this is something he planned to do or intends to do again.  It is better to try and guide him back to the correct path than to abandon him.”

His uncle sighs.  “Wangji, I have tried my best to raise you and to teach the disciples of the Cloud Recesses.  But, I have failed sorely.”  

Lan Wangji knows his uncle's opinion on his behavior with respect to Wei Wuxian.  He remembers punishment with the discipline whip.  The weight of his uncle’s disappointment has followed him since.  

 

“Wangji, what is the most important rule of Gusu Lan Sect?”  His uncle had asked him.

“Do not associate with evil.”  Lan Wangji had obediently replied.  But then he continued, “I dare ask you uncle what is right or wrong?  What is black and white?”

His uncle had turned away from him then.  

 

Lan Wangji does not think that his uncle has looked at him the same since that moment.  Perhaps that is fair, because though Lan Wangji has followed the Gusu Lan Sect’s four thousand rules to the best of his ability since then, in his heart he has questioned them.  And when Wei Wuxian had returned, Lan Wangji knew that he would throw them all aside if he needed to.    

“I blame myself,” Lan Qiren says quietly.  “What sort of teacher am I that so many of my students fall horribly astray?”

This surprises Lan Wangji.  His uncle is, after all, famous as a teacher.  Cultivators from all sects, large and small, send their children to be educated by him.  There is no one in their society who is considered a better teacher than him.  Even Lan Wangji himself has never once blamed his uncle for his own faults.  After all, his uncle had raised him firmly and in perfect accordance with Lan Sect principles. 

“Wangji,” his uncle says and there is heavy emotion in his voice, but Lan Wangji cannot pick out what it is.  “You have raised Sizhui well, for all that you were so young when you brought him here.  But, I am afraid that he is entirely too like you.”

“Mn?”

“I had Sizhui punished with the discipline whip.” Lan Wangji inclines his head, no matter how unhappy it makes him, he expects nothing less.  “He took his punishment without complaint.  But when I asked if he regretted what he had done, do you know what he said?”

He does not.  Before today, he would have expected that Sizhui would have expressed complete regret at such an action.  Then again, before today he never would have thought Sizhui would do such a thing in the first place.  He shakes his head once in response to his uncle’s question.

“He said, ‘I regret many things, Master Lan.  But, I do not regret acting to save Jingyi’s life’.”

Oh.   Lan Wangji knew that Sizhui and Jingyi were close, of course.  How could he not when he had raised Sizhui himself?  But he had always thought of them as cousins or as brothers, but now, now he sees.  In his mind's eye, he sees the character ‘please’ written with a trembling hand on the letter that Jingyi had brought to him.  

Lan Wangji’s heart aches in a way that it hadn’t before.  His confusion and disappointment in his son's actions are suddenly tempered by a deep understanding.  But it is not a happy understanding; it is based on the quiet pain of years of playing Inquiry with no response.  It is based on the desperate denial that had set him searching Burial Mounds that had led him to find A-Yuan in the first place.  It is a deep understanding of love and the suffering that accompanies it. 

“I see.” There is a long and heavy silence in the room.  “Lan Jingyi?”  Lan Wangji asks at last, though he is almost certain of the answer.  

“He witnessed Sizhui’s punishment.  I wished to ensure that he would not make his friend’s mistake.  I am afraid that I miscalculated.  Lan Jingyi has always been a passionate and impulsive student.”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji had noticed this himself.  Anyone who spent more than ten minutes with Lan Jingyi was likely to notice it.  

“He was distraught.”  

This does not surprise Lan Wangji.  If Jingyi cares for Sizhui as Lan Wangji now suspects that he does, he understands.  He cannot imagine being forced to stand by and watch one's soulmate be punished in such a way.  Even if Jingyi does not return Sizhui’s feelings completely, they are close as brothers.  Lan Wangji would rather take a second round of lashes with the discipline whip than watch his loved ones suffer through such a thing, and he imagines that Jingyi felt the same.

“The disciples left him in his room, and he fled in the middle of the night.  I wish I could say that he was only rushing to notify you, but he took his things when he left. I am almost certain that he does not intend to return.”

Though Lan Wangji had expected this, it is still difficult to hear.  It is no small thing to abandon one’s family.  Lan Wangji is afraid that Jingyi’s pain may have pushed him to act rashly.  But beyond that, he does not know how he will face his son and tell him that Lan Jingyi is gone. 

“Sizhui?”  He asks.

“He does not know yet.  The healers have kept him asleep most of the time.”  Lan Wangji nods and hopes that hearing the news from his father will be better than hearing it from a random disciple.  

“You must want to go to him,” Lan Qiren says.  “But there is one more thing.”

“Mn?”

Lan Qiren’s gaze goes to the door of the room and the person sitting outside. 

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji starts, ready to defend Wei Wuxian.  He is certain that Wei Wuxian did not teach Sizhui demonic cultivation.  In fact, he has hardly been using it himself.  

Lan Qiren raises a pacifying hand, silencing Lan Wangji immediately.  

“Sizhui said the same thing.  But, even if he did not teach it himself.  You cannot doubt where Sizhui got the idea.”

Lan Wangji bows his head in acknowledgment.  There is, unfortunately, truth to that statement.   

“That is all.”

Getting to his feet, Lan Wangji bows to his uncle.  He moves slowly towards the door using the time to gather his thoughts and emotions.  While most people would have no idea about the storm brewing under the placid surface of Lan Wangji’s face, both Wei Wuxian and Sizhui, if he is awake, will be able to tell.

Lan Wangji is not entirely sure of his own feelings.  There is too much for him to process right then, so he focuses on calming himself.  Later, after he has seen Sizhui, he can work out his own feelings.  

Wei Wuxian must have been listening through the wall because he springs to his feet as soon as Lan Wangji steps out the door.

“It’s wasn’t me!” He says, “I would never!”

“Wei Ying.”

“You were right, back then, that it damages your body and your mind.  I wouldn’t do that to Sizhui.  I didn’t have a choice, he does!”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji’s voice is more forceful this time.

“I promise.”

“Wei Ying!” Finally, Wei Wuxian stops talking.  “I do not blame you.”

Wei Wuxian doesn’t say anything more, but his face says enough.  Guilt is written across his face.  Lan Wangji has no more words to soothe him, so he reaches out and brushes his fingers along Wei Wuxian’s jaw.  He cradles his face for a moment before lowering his hand and taking Wei Wuxian’s hand in his own.  Luckily, Wei Wuxian has several years of experience with Lan Wangji’s silent communication.  I am here.   It says.  I am not blaming you.  I am not rejecting you.

“Where is Sizhui?” Wei Wuxian asks.  He rubs his nose in an unconscious gesture.  There is still guilt in his eyes, but now is not the time to address it.

“Doctors.”

Lan Wangji turns and walks in the direction of the rooms where the doctors at the Cloud Recesses work.  There are a few rooms there for the previously or freshly injured.  He has no doubt that Sizhui is there for now.  

The walk across the Cloud Recesses is quiet.  And the silence between them speaks depths to the emotions running through Wei Wuxian.  Disciples scatter out of the way as they move down the path and Lan Wangji is not sure if it is because they know what happened to Sizhui or if they are frightened by the dark faces of Wei Wuxian and himself.  

When they reach the doctor’s quarters, Lan Wangji steps inside but Wei Wuxian hesitates.  Turning to face him, Lan Wangji watches a myriad of emotions cross his face.  

“You should go alone first,” Wei Wuxian says, fidgeting anxiously.  

“No,” Lan Wangji says and motions for Wei Wuxian to follow him.  He may have raised Sizhui on his own for thirteen years, but Wei Wuxian is as much Sizhui’s father as he is.  When Wei Wuxian does not respond, he adds, “Come.”

When they are inside the building, one of the doctors intercepts them.  He is an ancient man, who’s so far bent over that he always appears to be bowing.   Lan Wangji recognizes him from his own punishment.  Every one of the man’s steps is echoed by the tap of his cane, and Lan Wangji’s brain associates the sound with the burning pain of removing bandages and fresh herb salves.  

“Young master Lan is sleeping,” he says, and though his voice quavers with age, it is not weak.  “You should not disturb him.”

“We don’t intend to wake him,” Wei Wuxian promises, and Lan Wangji nods his agreement.

The doctor glowers at them, but eventually, he shuffles off across the room to a closed door.  He opens the door and stands aside.

Lan Wangji freezes in the door.  On the small bed by the window, Sizhui is resting on his stomach.  It is like a portrait done in black and white and red.  His black hair spills, unbound, like ink over across the white linen sheets.  He is wrapped from waist to neck and down his arms in stark white bandages.  But, despite the healers’ work, blood has seeped through the bandages in a few places staining them red.  The discipline whip is designed to leave scars, after all.  

Beside Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian has covered his mouth with his hand, and his eyes are shining.  He glances from Lan Wangji to Sizhui, and Lan Wangji knows that he is remembering the scars on Lan Wangji’s back and how he got them.

But, Lan Wangji is not thinking of his own wounds.  He has eyes only for his son.  Anger and grief, so strong he almost trembles, wash over him.  He knows, he knows , that his uncle did the correct thing.  Sizhui’s punishment is in accordance with Lan Sect rules; the fact that Sizhui had not been banished entirely is mercy in itself.  He knows that other sects would have killed his son.  But none of that helps.

Furthermore, Lan Wangji cannot insist that Sizhui be punished less because Sizhui is his son.  It would be unjust, and it would cause the sect to lose faith in Lan Qiren, Lan Wangji, and Lan Xichen, which is something they cannot afford that.  He knows this, but he cannot stop the anger and resentment rising up in him. 

Crossing the room, he kneels beside the bed where Sizhui lays.  It reminds him of when he first brought young A-Yuan here sixteen years ago.  Lan Wangji had sat beside his bed while he shook with fever and prayed to the ancestors that he would be okay.  And when his own wounds had opened from overexerting himself, the healers had laid him out exactly how Sizhui was now, but they had put the sleeping A-Yuan on the bed beside him so that Lan Wangji could watch him.

He smoothes a hand over Sizhui’s hair exactly as he had all those years ago.

Behind him, Wei Wuxian has sunk down against the wall with his hands over his face.  His eyes burn with tears of guilt as Sizhui’s suffering brings back memories of the other people he's failed.  His eyes reflect memories of Lotus Pier burning and the bodies of Jiang Fengman and Madam Yu put on display and of Jiang Yanli bleeding in her brother's arms and of the scars that cover his husband’s back.  He shakes in silent grief and guilt, but he does not reach out for comfort.  

Instead, he watches as Lan Wangji gently strokes Sizhui’s hair.  In that moment, he can easily envision Lan Wangji caring for young A-Yuan and is reminded of all the years that he lost.   

Neither Wei Wuxian nor Lan Wangji speaks.  Some things are too heavy for words. 

Chapter Text

I've buried my love to give the world to you

After delivering the message for Hanguang-jun, Jingyi vanishes into the city of Qinghe as fast as he can.  It’s easy for him to do so.  The city is full of people and the morning marketplaces are starting to fill up.  The sound of voices surrounds him, ranging from the sleepy chatting to yelling.  People here are louder than Jingyi is used to from Caiyi town.  Normally he would enjoy the bustling energy and even the noise of the city, but he’s so tired he’s practically swaying on his feet.  After a bit of trial and error, Jingyi is able to make his way out of the city center and into quieter areas. 

With the cultivation conference being held in the Unclean Realms, he suspects that many of the inns will be filled.  Only sect leaders are housed inside the Unclean Realm.  Most sects, all of them except Gusu Lan really, bring at least a small group of sect disciples.  Currently, he’s grateful for that policy, because even though he’s technically ranked in the top five young masters, he doubts most cultivators even know what he actually looks like.  Still, he promises himself that he’ll only spend one night in Qinghe.  It would be awkward at best and disastrous at worst if someone recognized him; rumors could easily spread about him defecting Gusu Lan Sect and that would put scrutiny on the sect and possibly on Sizhui.  

The first two inns that he tries are already full, so he continues down streets away from the city center.  Eventually, he finds another place that has a room.  It’s easy enough to purchase a room for the night, but there’s an awkward moment when the man asks for his name, and Jingyi fumbles for an answer.  He mumbles something half coherent and hopes for the best.  The man raises an eyebrow but doesn’t ask any more questions.  He simply takes Jingyi’s money and directs him up the stairs to a vacant room.

Jingyi hardly looks at the room when he walks in.  He could probably sleep in the Cold Springs at this point.  As he walks towards the bed, he pulls off his outer robes, half folding them out of habit, and depositing them half-folded and half in a pile onto the floor. Almost as soon as his head hits the pillow, Jingyi is asleep.

Afternoon sunlight falling into his eyes awakens him.  Out of habit, he rolls over to look at where Sizhui’s side of the room should be.  Early morning Sizhui is one of Jingyi’s favorite things in the world.  And for years, he’s started every day by looking across the room.  But there is no sleep rumpled Sizhui, with his slightly messy hair falling down around him like black silk and his warm cinnamon eyes blinking the sleep away. There’s just a wall decorated with a single hanging.

Jingyi groans and pushes his face into the pillow.  He desperately wants to be back in his room at the Cloud Recesses waking up at 5 am with Sizhui.  The exciting fact that he actually got to take a nap does little to lessen the longing in his heart.  The cold realization that he’s never going to wake up to Sizhui’s face ever again is hitting him.  

Jingyi shoves himself up off the bed.  There’s no chance of him getting back to sleep now that he’s acutely aware of the presence that’s missing from the room.  

His back cracks and his joints pop as he stretches.  The angle of the sun in the sky tells him that he managed several hours of sleep, and while he’s a bit groggy, he does feel better.  He retrieves his robes from their pile on the floor and ignores the voice in his head that sounds an awful lot like Sizhui gently scolding him.  

Once he is dressed again, he looks around the room at a loss.  When he’d left the Cloud Recesses, his only thoughts had been to get away and to get Hanguang-jun.  He’d done both of those things.  Now what?

Jingyi reaches for his sword, focusing on sword forms helps him clear his mind.  Sizhui had taught him that.

He doesn’t remember how old they were at the time, but he remembers sitting with Sizhui in one of the many rooms at the Cloud Recesses for meditating.  

 

Across from him, Sizhui is perfectly still except for the gentle rise and fall of his chest.  Jingyi keeps opening his eyes just enough to glance at his friend before closing them again.  Sizhui looks so serene that Jingyi wants to stare as if he could absorb some of it just by watching.  He wonders what it’s like to feel as peaceful as his friend looks.  His hands are constantly fidgeting his robes or drumming patterns on his legs, no matter how hard he tries to empty his mind or count his breaths or any of the other techniques he’s been taught.  The best he can do is fidget and admire the boy sitting across from him until he’s allowed to leave.

“Jingyi,” Sizhui’s voice is soft enough that it doesn't break the silence around them.  Jingyi opens his eyes and finds himself looking directly into Sizhui’s warm gaze.  “You’re fidgeting.”

“I’m sorry,” Jingyi says, guilt rising up. “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

“I don’t mind,” he says and Jingyi knows that he actually means it. Lying is forbidden after all. 

For an instant, there’s a gentle smile on his lips.  But then his brows draw together in something that’s not quite a frown.  

“Meditation is important for cultivation.”  From anyone else Jingyi knows, this would sound like a rebuke or a lesson, but from Sizhui it’s a gentle reminder.

“I know,” Jingyi says, and he does know.  He’s been told plenty of times.  “It’s not that I’m not trying,” he explains.  His teachers always say that he’s lazy and not trying.  Jingyi long ago gave up trying to convince them otherwise, but he wants Sizhui to understand.  “I just, it’s really difficult.  No matter what I try, I can’t keep still.”

Sizhui bites his lip as he thinks.  He doesn’t try and argue with Jingyi or tell him that he’s not trying hard enough, and Jingyi feels a rush of warmth that he’s starting to learn to associate with his best friend.  They sit in silence until their time is up.

One week later, Sizhui shows up to the meditation chamber with a face full of hope and triumph.  Jingyi gives him a confused look but follows him into the room.

“I did some research,” he says with a bright smile.  “And I found something.”

“Something?  Something other than meditating?” He can’t help the hopefulness in his voice. 

There’s laughter in Sizhui’s eyes when he responds, “Still meditating.  It’s important.  But there are other types of meditating that we can try.”

“Other types of meditating?” Jingyi’s voice is somewhere between confusion and disbelief.  He’s spent his entire life in the Lan Sect and no one has ever said anything about other types of meditating.  

“Mn.  Meditating is about controlling your thoughts.  Some sects use sword forms to focus the body and mind.  If your problem is sitting still, we can try that!”

His round face is full of hope and triumph, and Jingyi couldn’t refuse even if he wanted to.  He doesn’t.

 

Jingyi smiles at the memory as he draws the sword.  But even as he draws the blade, he realizes that the room really is too small for him to properly execute the sword forms.  Between the bed and the changing screen, there’s only a space several paces across.  Never one to be deterred, Jingyi moves on to his next option: handstands.

This was something else Sizhui had told him; Hanguang-jun and Zewu-jun both use handstands as part of their cultivation.  At first, Jingyi had been entirely unconvinced given the amount of time he had spent doing handstands while copying the rules.  But, of course, if Sizhui suggested it and Hanguang-jun did it, Jingyi would try it.  And in the end, Sizhui had been right.

The transition from standing to handstand is effortless for Jingyi.  There’s not a single wobble as his feet come together.  In a single motion, he shifts all his weight to the right side and lifts his left hand off the ground.  His focus is on his breathing and keeping the tension in his muscles.  Pushing thoughts of Sizhui out of his mind, he focuses on keeping his balance on one hand.

His entire life, Jingyi had assumed that he would grow up to be a cultivator in Lan Sect.  There has never been another option for him, and so he has never considered anything else.  Not really.  He’s joked with Zizhen about becoming writers, but there was never any real desire behind it.  

Until a few days ago, if someone had asked who he was, he would have answered Lan Jingyi, Gusu Lan Disciple.  Gusu Lan has been not just part of his life, but part of his identity, and he’s not at all sure how to be himself without it.  Even as ‘the most un-Lan to ever Lan’ he was still a Lan.

Two thoughts came to Jingyi as he ponders these things.  

The first is Yi City and Song Zichen.  He can perfectly picture the last time he saw Song Zichen.  The overgrown path leading away from Yi City framed his figure as he walked away.  The wind tugged at his hair and robes painting him in sweeping curves of black.  In stark contrast to this was the crisp white line of Shuanghua.  

Rogue cultivator.  Jingyi supposes that’s what he is now.  He’s a cultivator, and that’s all he knows how to be.  He remembers that the former chief cultivator had built the lookout towers because there are large parts of the country that no cultivation sect claims or protects.  There are many places that he can go, he realizes, and not just go to but be useful in.  Hanguang-jun is known for always being where the trouble is, maybe Jingyi can do that as well.  

Jingyi switches hands.  The change is a smooth shift in tension through his muscles through his body as he drops his left and to the ground and lifts the right.

The second thing he thinks about is Lan An.  Lan Jingyi has always loved the story of Lan An and his fated person.  But right now, Jingyi isn’t thinking about Lan An and his partner night hunting, cultivating, and founding a sect together because then he will think about Sizhui and all the dreams that Jingyi had for them.  Instead, he’s thinking about how Lan An left Gusu Lan Sect.  He must have cared deeply about Gusu Lan Sect; he had founded it after all, but he’d walked away from it when he’d lost his cultivation partner.  ‘An’ means peace, and Jingyi wonders if Lan An had found peace again after he left Gusu.

Jingyi slowly stands up from the handstand.  He’d learned years ago that if you got up too quickly from a prologued handstand, you were likely to end up dizzy from the blood rush.  He had collapsed against both Sizhui and the wall a few times before he figured it out.

As Jingyi stretches out his shoulders, his stomach growls loudly.  He makes a face as he realizes how hungry he is.  It’s been most of a day since breakfast.  While he can practice inedia if he has to, he would rather just have dinner.  After grabbing his sword, he makes his way down the stairs.  

He hears voices coming from the main room of the inn as he nears the bottom of the stairs and pauses for an instant to listen, but he can’t make out their conversation or, more importantly, recognize any voices.  So he continues down the stairs.  As soon as he enters the room, he sees that there are two tables with cultivators in grey and black robes that look vaguely familiar.  There’s still an empty table at the back of the room, and so Jingyi makes his way there.

Several of the men at the table glance at him, but none of them say anything.  Jingyi settles at the table and waits quietly.  He doesn’t have to wait long before a young woman comes out of the kitchen and sees him.  She offers him a smile and comes over to him after putting another jar of wine out for the other cultivators.

“Young master,” she says with a small bow, “how can I help you?”

Jingyi smiles at her, hardly noticing the way her cheeks grow slightly pink under his attention.  He orders four bowls of food for dinner just because he can.  However, when the girl asks him if he wants wine, he declines.  

It had taken only one misguided night of drinking during a visit to Koi Tower before he swore the stuff off.  Just the vague memories of himself clinging to and falling all over Sizhui are enough to make his whole face burn more than a year later.  Jingyi can’t help but think that this was one Lan Sect rule that had really been put in place for everyone’s own good.

Across the room, the cultivators are discussing the archery competition that is supposed to be tomorrow.  Jingyi listens to their predictions because he doesn’t really have anything else to do.  It is only when they discuss the fact that Ouyang Zizhen is likely to win the competition now that Jin Rulan, being a sect leader, won’t participate that it occurs to Jingyi that Zizhen and Jin Ling are both in Qinghe.

Jingyi sighs and props his head on his hand.  His elbow is on the table in what can definitely not be considered a proper sitting position, but no one is going to correct him anymore.  A wave of loneliness so strong that he can almost taste the bitterness rushes over him.  Memories flash through his mind: teasing Jin Ling, discussing poetry with Zizhen, night hunting together.  He has to forcefully repress the memories.  He’s not ready to face them.  

He can’t get into The Unclean Realms even if he wants to.  And besides, there would be too many questions from them; questions that he doesn’t know how to answer.  And if anyone else recognizes him, it would turn the attention of the whole cultivation community to Gusu Lan and Sizhui.  

In the whirlwind of the past three days, Jingyi hasn’t thought about Jin Ling or Zizhen.  If he really wants a clean break from Gusu Lan and Sizhui, he will have to cut them out too.  He covers his face with his hands.  

“Young master?” There’s obvious concern in the girl’s voice.

Embarrassed, Jingyi instantly puts his hands down and sits properly

“Are you alright?” 

“Yes, forgive me.  I’m just tired.”

The girl offers him a smile as she sets the steaming bowls of food before him.  It smells amazing.  The savory smell of chicken and beef makes his stomach rumble again.  

“Thank you,” he says and begins to reach for his chopsticks when he realizes that she’s still standing there.  

“Are you,” the girl’s face blushes a pretty shade of pink, “are you here by yourself?  Aren’t you here for the conference?  Where’s your sect?”  She gestures at his sword as she speaks. Jingyi glances at the men at the other table, but they are too busy chatting to listen to his conversation.

“It’s just me,” he says with as much levity as he can manage.  “I’m not actually here for the conference.  I’m traveling north and decided to stop in Qinghe.”

“Oh,” she says and there’s curiosity in her voice, “are you a rogue cultivator then?”

There’s a moment’s pause and then, “Yes.”

“Meili,” a sharp voice from the back pierces the dining room chatter, “hurry up!”

The girl squeaks in surprise and offers Jingyi a hasty bow.  

“Coming Aunty!”  She rushes back towards the kitchen.

Jingyi turns his attention back to his food, enjoying the fact that it’s both flavorful and not vegetarian.  At the other tables, the conversation is slowly getting louder and louder as the men share jar after jar of wine.  He doesn’t mind that there’s no one at his table to speak with.  Even when at holidays in the Cloud Recesses when everyone eats in the same room, it’s completely silent for the meal.  It’s too familiar to be uncomfortable, no matter the reason.

He’s on his fourth bowl when the conversation across the room catches his attention.  He hears ‘Hanguang-jun’ and his attention immediately leaves his food.

“Hanguang-jun wasn’t at the meetings today,” one of them says.

Jingyi looks down at his bowl and picks up another piece of chicken, but his focus is still on the conversation.

“Is he sick?” 

“Don’t be stupid,” one of them says and Jingyi can hear the sneer in his voice.  “A cultivator as strong as him? Never.”

“Didn’t you hear,” one of them says in what is obviously an attempt at a whisper.

“Hear what?” two people say on top of each other.

“He left.”

Jingyi looks up.

“The chief cultivator left the conference early?  Why would he do such a thing.”  

Jingyi stills.  It seems that Hanguang-jun had gotten his letter.  Relief floods through him; Sizhui won’t be alone now.  Guilt grips him, and he tries not to think about Sizhui waking up yesterday without anyone by his side.  There’s a sudden snapping sound as the bamboo chopsticks break in his hand.

“Someone brought him a letter, and he took off.  He didn’t even finish his breakfast.”

“How odd!  And he didn’t say anything about it.”

Someone scoffs, “The Chief Cultivator?  He’s such a stoic man.  You think he’d blab something like this?”

“It’s rude if you ask me,” says a man whose whole face is flushed bright red from alcohol.

Jingyi glares at the men, not that they notice.  Hanguang-jun is a perfect gentleman.  What do these low-level cultivators know about such things?

“Nonsense,” the youngest one at the table says, “he’s the chief cultivator.  If he doesn’t want to stay, he doesn’t have to.  Besides, he’s a very respectable man; the best cultivator in his generation.  I don’t know why Lianfang-zun was ever chief cultivator in the first place.”

An older man snorts.  “He hasn’t always been perfectly respectable.  You’re just too young to remember.”

Jingyi grits his teeth so hard his jaw hurts.  He wants to jump up and defend Hanguang-jun, but that would draw attention to him and cause uncomfortable questions.

“If you’re talking about him and the Yiling Patriarch-” the man who had been praising Hanguang-jun says.

The old man waves his hand, “It’s none of my business if he’s a cut-sleeve.”

Jingyi wants to point out that none of this is his business.  

“Then what?” asks the red-faced man, obviously curious.  “What is more scandalous than marrying the Yiling Patriarch.”

The old man picks up his bowl of wine, obviously relishing in the attention of his fellow sect members.  None of them have noticed that Jingyi is watching them.  

“It was about fifteen years ago,” the old man finally says.  A frown crosses Jingyi’s face.  

The fact that Hanguang-jun had fought his own sect and been whipped for it is, more or less, a Lan Sect secret.  It isn’t that there was a rule saying no one could talk about it; even Lan Qiren can’t make such a rule, though it is probably covered by ‘do not gossip’.  At first, Lan Sect had wanted to hide something this embarrassing.  One of the Twin Jades of Lan turning against his own family? It would have caused a scandal across the entire community.  Later, it was because everyone respected Hanguang-jun too much to speak of such things.  

“Isn’t that when the Yiling Patriarch died at the burial mounds?” The youth asks.

“About then, but this isn’t about the Yiling Patriarch.” The old man takes another drink of his wine.  “As you all know, Hanguang-jun wasn’t married back then.  But it turns out he had a son!”

Sizhui.  Jingyi’s hands tighten into fists.

The red-faced man waves his hand dismissively and narrowly avoids smacking his comrade in the face with it.  It might have been funny if Jingyi was in a better mood.

“We all know about the boy.  What’s his name again?”

“Lan Sizhui,” the young man provides helpfully.  “He was at the second Siege of the Burial Mounds.  He was one of the ones who led the fight after the seniors all lost their spiritual energy.”

The older man frowns, clearly irritated that his story isn’t going the way he wanted.  Jingyi smiles a bit, he can hear the younger one’s admiration or Sizhui.

“Aren’t you two listening,” the old man says grouchily.  “An unmarried man with a young son and no woman in sight?”

Growing up in Lan Sect, Jingyi had heard rumors like this plenty of times.  Many Lan Sect elders were of the opinion that Sizhui was Hanguang-jun’s bastard son no matter how many times Lan Qiren, Zewu-jun, and Hanguang-jun said otherwise.  It is the main reason that Jingyi has copied out the rule ‘no unsanctioned fighting’ more times than he can count.  

“I heard he’s adopted,” the young man insists.

The old man snorts and Jingyi narrowly avoids slamming his hands on the table. The idea of a random drunk cultivator having the nerve to call Sizhui a bastard infuriates him.

“Of course they say he’s adopted.  I bet Jin Guangshan would have claimed he adopted Jin Guangyao too if he could.  If you ask me,” he said.  “That’s why we haven’t seen the boy at cultivation conferences.  After seeing what Jin Guangshan got for taking in his bastard son, if I had one I’d --”

His sentence is interrupted by a loud crash as Jingyi slams his hand down on the table knocking bowls over and sending the table skidding. In a single move, he rises to his feet with his hand on his sword.  He stalks around the table towards the other men.

“Who do you think you are saying such things,” he demands.  

The older man and the red face man scramble to their feet, but the young man backs away and raises his hands in surrender.  Both men are several inches shorter than Jingyi and this seems to irritate them even more.

“Who am I?” The man asks, “who are you? Talking to your elders like that?”

“I’ll say whatever I want to men who gossip about their betters behind their back.”

The red face man sputters indignantly, his hand going to his sword.  “You dare insult the Yao Sect in such a way?”

Jingyi only has half a second of thought to spare for the fact that they are Yao Sect disciples because of course they fucking are.  “I do.  Lan Sizhui is the first ranked young master of my generation and Hanguang-jun is the chief cultivator.   No one in your entire sect even compares.  All you can do is gossip.  You should be ashamed.”

The old man is gaping at Jingyi and the red-faced man has gone purple with rage.  Face twisted in rage, he draws his sword and swings at Jingyi.  Not even bothering to draw his sword, Jingyi easily blocks the drunken swing.  The man tries to hit Jingyi again, and Jingyi repels his sword hard enough that the man stumbles backward.

The young man rushes forward and grabs the drunk man’s arm, pulling on him.

“Come on,” he says, “stop this.  Fighting in an inn? During the cultivation conference? Are you trying to embarrass our entire sect.”

“Get off of me,” the man grunts and tries to shove the younger man away.

“This little whelp needs to learn a lesson,” the old man adds.  He’s reaching for his sword as well.  He looks at his companions for support, but none of them stand up.

Jingyi laughs, “try and teach me one then.  What is it? How to talk trash behind someone’s back?”

“Come on,” the young man says, pulling on his fellow cultivator’s arms.  “You’re drunk.  Let’s put the swords away.”

“What is going on here!” A woman’s shrill voice joins the fray.  Jingyi glances over to see the wife of the proprietor standing by the door to the kitchen staring at them.  She glances from Jingyi, who still has his sword in its sheath, to the drunk man.  “Fighting in my inn!  Look at you,” she glares at the two Yao Sect cultivators facing Jingyi.  “Two old men like you attacking this young man.  He doesn’t even have his sword out.  I thought cultivators are supposed to be well-bred men? And here you are fighting like sailors in my inn!  Shame on you.”

The two men wither under her tirade like children caught by their mother.  Jingyi, seeing that they no longer intend to attack him, drops his sword by his side.  He’s still furious, but he won’t attack unarmed men.  Instead, no longer to stand looking at them, he spins around and heads for the stairs.  His footsteps echo on the wooden stairs in a way that would get him in trouble back home for ‘excessive noise’.  

Unsanctioned fighting is prohibited.  Excessive noise is prohibited.  Do not succumb to rage.  Do not disrespect the elder.  Do not be haughty.  Do not insult people.  Harmony is the priority.  Do not act impulsively. Be careful with your words.  Be respectful and humble.

Jingyi grits his teeth as his brain reels automatically reels off the rules he’s broken.  He stalks into his room and doesn’t quite slam the door behind him.  Even though he knows that his own guilt and frustration are fuelling his anger at the Yao Sect cultivators, he can’t calm himself.  

For a moment he sits on the bed, but he remembers the man comparing Sizhui to Jin Guangyao, and he shoves himself back to his feet.  There’s no way he can rest right now.  Jingyi moves to his window and looks out.  There’s a small courtyard there tucked behind the inn’s front room and the shop next door.  On an impulse, he ducks through the window and down to the ground below.  Despite the distance, he lands gently.

Jingyi moves to the center of the courtyard and looks up.  The sun has dropped below the horizon, but the sky hasn’t reached the full black of night.  There’s no moon in the sky, but he’s been night hunting for half his life, and the darkness doesn’t bother him.

He draws his sword and holds it in front of him.  With his gaze locked on the silvery blade, he counts his breaths in and out until they are even.  Then he moves.  Every motion he makes is liquid and graceful, and his steps are as exact.  Starlight and candlelight from the windows glitter and shine on the blade as it dances around him.  He executes sequence after sequence in a perfect balance of controlled ferocity, power, and elegance.  

The world narrows down to him and the sword.  Anger and guilt and sorrow bleed out of him.  There’s no room for it in his mind.  He only stops when his mind is calm and still.  There’s sweat on his face when he’s done. As he lowers his blade, he’s filled with a weariness that's much deeper than his mild exertion from the sword forms.

His gaze returns to the window of his room, and he realizes that returning to it will be much more difficult than getting out.  With a sigh, he sheathes his sword and looks around for a door into the inn.  

His eyes eventually locate a door and he jumps in surprise as he finds the serving girl standing in the door watching him.  Her eyes are wide and dark in the dim light and fixed on him.

“I-” he pauses suddenly awkward.  Perhaps he should have asked permission to use the space; Sizhui would have.  Still, he takes a few steps towards her.  “Can I go in?”

“Oh, yes, sorry,” she scrambles out of his way.  Jingyi frowns slightly, had he scared her?  In the darkness, he can’t see the blush that covers her cheek as he passes her.

“I’m sorry for disturbing you,” he says with a small bow.  

She nods, apparently unable to come up with words.  His frown deepens, but he turns away and moves into the building.

“Here,” she says, and he turns.  She opens a door to the side.  “The backstair is here.  I guess you don’t want to see those men in the main room again?”

“Right,” he says, “thank you very much.”  He offers her another bow and heads up the stairs.

“I, uhm.”  Hearing her again, he pauses and looks back.  This time he can see the blush on her cheeks.  “Should I send up a bath for you?”

“That would be very nice, thank you.”  He turns back to the stair and this time she doesn’t stop him.

When he gets up to his room, he sits on the floor and waits for the bath.  He’s close to dozing off where he sits when someone knocks on the door.  He gets up to open it and is grateful to find that it’s the proprietor carrying up the bath.  The man sets it behind the screen before leaving with a small bow.

He quickly disrobes, leaving his clothes in a pile on the floor.  When he steps into the bath, it isn’t hot which is probably good, because he’d almost certainly fall asleep if it was.  It’s not cold enough to be unpleasant though.  Regardless of his fatigue, he takes the time to let his hair down, brush it, and wash it.  With that done, he gets out of the bath and heads to the bed.  

His eyelids feel heavy as he crosses the room.  Tiredly, he realizes that it must be at or past 9 pm.  Almost as soon as his head hits the pillow, he’s asleep.

His sleep is deep and dreamless.  

The next morning he wakes to the pale light of early morning and the sound of birds.  His gaze automatically turns to the other side of the room.  But there’s still only a wall with a single hanging.

Jingyi’s sorely tempted to go back to bed.  There’s no reason that he has to get up this early anymore, but then he remembers the Yao Sect cultivators.  It’ll be best if he leaves before they wake up.  With a groan, he drags himself out of bed and to his clothes.  His hair is a tangled mess because he forgot to brush it before he went to sleep, and he has to fight the knots before he can pull his hair up into a ponytail, which he prefers to the half down style popular at Gusu Lan Sect.  Once his hair is up, he automatically looks around for his forehead ribbon.  He snorts at his reaction because, of course, there isn't one to be found.  Remembering Song Xichen, Jingyi straps his sword to his back where it will be out of the way.

He leaves the room as quietly as he can and makes his way down the stairs.  There are no signs of stirring from the rooms he passes, and he’s grateful.  When he reaches the main room, he finds a bowl of fruit that has been left out for early risers.  As he’s selecting several pears, he hears sounds coming from the kitchen and decides to see if he can get something more substantial to eat.  

Glancing into the kitchen, he finds the proprietor’s wife.  He gently knocks on the door to avoid startling her.  She turns to face him, and she’s obviously surprised to find him up so early.  

“Can I help you?” She asks with a smile.  “I wasn’t expecting anyone up so early.”

“Forgive me for disturbing you,” he says automatically.  “I’ve always had to wake up this early.  I was wondering if I might be able to get an early breakfast before I leave.”

“Of course, I’m already here.  Just give me a few minutes.”

“Please take your time,” Jingyi says with a bow and retreats out of the kitchen.  He settles himself and the table closest to the kitchen and keeps an ear out for any signs of the Yao Sect cultivators stirring even though he doesn’t expect a sect like theirs to have the discipline to wake up so early.  Actually, he’s fairly certain no other sect has such discipline.  

He tries to ignore the faint feeling of sect pride that wells up in him.  Luckily, his thoughts are interrupted by the woman bringing him a bowl of fried rice.  He thanks her and proceeds to empty the bowl.  He’s already awake, and ready to get on his way.  He’s never been very good at sitting around after all.

Politely, Jingyi brings his empty bowl to the kitchen so the woman doesn’t have to retrieve it.  After offering her another bow, he heads out.  He’s glad that he paid for everything upfront and doesn’t have to deal with settling a payment just then.  

When he steps outside, the air is cool and crisp the way it only is early in the morning.  The streets of Qinghe are almost entirely empty as he makes his way towards the center of the city.  It’s nice to have the road to himself and not have to weave and swerve around a crowd of people.  Slowly more and more people join him on the streets as he makes his way out of the city heading in the direction away from Gusu.  

He doesn’t have a specific direction in mind, so he simply heads away.  His feet carry him down the road.  Small carts and large ones pass him on their way into Qinghe for the day, and he continues on his way.  It’s past noon when he reaches a fork in the road.  For a long moment, he pauses.  There’s a sign at the junction, but Jingyi doesn’t recognize any of the places listed on it.  Eventually, Jingyi reaches into his pouch and pulls out his compass of evil.  The needle turns lazily until it’s facing roughly in the direction of the right fork.  

It’s as good a reason as any, so he starts off down the road following the compass’ direction.

Chapter Text

I wasn't dreaming when they told me you were gone
I was wide awake and feeling that they had to be wrong
How could you leave me when you swore that you would stay?

The world is black and burning.  Everything is heavy and muddled as if Sizhui’s coming out of deep sleep.  Except he’s not waking up; he’s not falling back into nothingness either.  He’s frozen here because his back is on fire.  There’s nothing else in the world, not even his other limbs.  Only blackness and pain.

He tries to cry out, to scream.  It burns, he wants to say, it burns.  But he can’t wake up, and he can’t move his arms or his legs or open his mouth.  No matter how he struggles, nothing seems to change.  

Eventually, slowly, he starts to hear something.  It’s so far away that he might as well be at the bottom of a lake, but it’s something.  So he tries harder to move, to yell, to do anything.  It’s not a conscious thought; it's just a desperate desire to make the pain stop.  

The sounds are voices he thinks, but he can’t understand them.  His mouth still won't open, but he thinks that he’s making a sound.  Maybe? It’s hard to tell.  He realizes that someone is touching him and in doing so realizes that he can feel his whole body now.  It doesn’t matter very much though, because the pain in his back is the only thing he can think about.

Heaviness sweeps through him from the hand on his arm, and the world recedes again.  He tries to thrash, to cry out, to get their attention before they're gone.  But the darkness is rising up again or maybe he’s sinking.  Down, down, down, until there isn't even pain anymore.

Sizhui drifts.  Sometimes he falls into a sleep so deep that he escapes the pain.  Other times he floats in the place where there is nothing more than pain and vague half-formed thoughts.  Occasionally, he floats to the surface where he can feel his limbs and hear people around him and remembers why he’s in so much pain.  But someone comes and makes sure that he always drifts under again without truly waking up.  

There are voices again when he’s awake enough to hear them.  His hazy mind tells him that he knows these voices, though he can’t place them at first.  Then one moment it clicks: Hanguang-jun.  Something close to comfort settles over him at the familiar cadence.

Something niggles at the back of his mind: a memory of sorts.  It’s half-formed and foggy in the way that his earliest childhood memories usually are, but he’s pretty sure that he was lying on a bed just like this listening to Hanguang-jun talk.  His voice is fuzzy and indistinct in the memory too. 

Other things are coming back to him too: the courtyard, the whip, the taste of blood in his mouth.  His head spins a bit as it all tries to come rushing back.  He shoves it away and focuses on the sound of Hanguang-jun’s voice.  At some point, the sound of Hanguang-jun’s voice becomes distinct words.

“Why?” Hanguang-jun asks.

“You remember she was an amazing doctor.  She, well, you know what she did.  No, don’t look at me like that.  I asked her to do it; you can’t blame her for that.  She treated Jiang Cheng after the Wen’s used the discipline whip on him.”  

It takes Sizhui most of the first few sentences to realize that Senior Wei is the one speaking.  He feels as if he should know who they’re talking about but his brain is too foggy.

“Sandu Shengshou has scars.”  It's not a question.

“Of course, of course.  The discipline whip is designed to leave scars.  But she healed him quickly.  There were fewer wounds, but still. I can’t help but wish she was here.  She would probably hit me a few times and kick us both out of the room, but it would be worth it for him to be better soon.  Zewu-jun told me you were injured for quite some time.  Hey, hey, don’t be annoyed, Lan Zhan.  You never tell me these things.  How else am I supposed to know?”

“Healing was part of the punishment,” Hanguang-jun says simply.    

Sizhui’s brain is swimming from the talk of whips and scars and discipline. He can’t quite follow what they’re saying, so he gives up and lets the words wash over him without entirely understanding.

“It’s nasty, Lan Zhan.  I don’t like it.  To leave scars… to leave scars like that.”

“I am not ashamed of my scars.”

“I know you’re not.  But, still.  It doesn’t seem right to me.  To mark a man forever in such a way.”

“You once said that a man should have a few scars.”

“Did I?  Why would I say such a thing? I mean, I suppose it’s true.  I mean, how many did I have before?”

“You never remember.”

“I’m sorry, Lan Zhan.  You know I have such a bad memory.  Besides, that was a lifetime ago.  No, don’t give me that look, just tell me what happened.”

“In the cave.”

“The cave with the tortoise of the slaughter?  After that rat Wen Chao left us all down there?”

“Mn.”

“Ah, It was about the brand?”

“Mn.”

“I still don’t remember what I said.  You’ll have to tell me.  You know, I say quite a lot of things.  I can’t possibly be expected to remember them all.”

“I believe a man should have scars.  Besides, it represents that I once protected someone who won’t forget me through their entire life,” he spoke without any hesitation as if he was reading it from a paper and not remembering something from almost two decades ago.

“Oh,” was all that senior Wei replied.  It seemed that this was one of the rare occasions when Senior Wei was temporarily stunned.  

“I do not regret my choice, Wei Ying.”

“Lan Zhan, I told you that you must warn me before you say such things.  My heart can’t bear it.  First, you make such a sacrifice for me and when you should hate me, you never do.”

“Never,” Hanguang-jun agrees.

“I never saw,” Senior Wei pauses.  “Only the scars.  Lan Zhan, I imagine that you were here just like this.  it’s wrong.  You could never deserve such a thing.  And A-Yuan, little A-Yuan,” Senior Wei’s voice is rough and when he trails off, he doesn’t start again.  In the silence, Sizhui hears a soft sniffling sound. 

In the silence that follows, Sizhui begins to drift again.  The darkness claims him, and he lets himself fall into the numbing nothingness.  

When Sizhui drifts back to the surface again the room around him is silent.  Things come back to him in reverse order.  He remembers fragments of the conversation that Hanguang-jun and Senior Wei were having.  This time, his brain is clear enough to start to put the conversation together.  But it flees his mind as he remembers the courtyard.  

It’s weirdly fragmented.  The memory jumps and breaks.  He remembers the taste of blood in his mouth and the way the rope that bound his wrists to the pole rubbed.  The color of the sky and the look of anger on Lan Qiren’s face are broken by the crack of the whip.  He can exactly recall the way that the gravel dug into his skin and the sound of Jingyi screaming.

Jingyi.  Jingyi .

Despite his sudden urgency, Sizhui’s eyes open frustratingly slowly because his eyelids feel heavy.  He can see two figures in the sunlit room, one dressed in white and one in black.  It takes a moment for his eyes to focus properly, but he already knows that it must be Hanguang-jun and Senior Wei.  They both have their eyes closed.  Hanguang-jun seems to be meditating, but Senior Wei is definitely asleep.

For the first time in his life, Sizhui is disappointed to see his fathers and lets his eyes fall closed again; he’s not ready to face them right now.  

The person that Sizhui really wants to see, Jingyi, is not here.  Even though he knows that it’s pointless, he digs through the shadowy, pain drenched memories of the time since the whipping, looking for signs of Jingyi.  But there are none.  

When Sizhui’d knelt all morning in the courtyard where they would punish him, he’d prepared himself for however his friend might respond.  If Jingyi was disgusted or if he hated Sizhui, then at least he was alive to do so.  Sizhui could live with that.  But then, Jingyi had yelled at Lan Qiren in Sizhui’s defense, and Sizhui had felt hope bright as the summer sun.

No, Jingyi must have come to see him; he must have.  Sizhui was just too sedated to remember.  But no matter how much he pokes at the foggy memories, the only voices he remembers belong to Senior Wei and Hanguang-jun.  

Even though they are sitting only a few feet from him, he doesn’t want to think about them right now.

Lan Qiren was right, Sizhui’s actions have brought shame on Hanguang-jun.  Guilt rises up inside of him.  He knows how much he owes Hanguang-jun, who took him in and raised him as his son, and has spent his whole life trying to be worthy of that sacrifice.  He doesn't want to see disappointment or shame on the face of the man who raised him.  

He had forgotten that Hanguang-jun was once whipped too. Not only had it happened before Sizhui was old enough to remember, but it is something never spoken of in the Cloud Recesses.  Of course, he’s seen his father’s scars a few times when they cultivated at the Cold Springs, but it was never something at the forefront of his brain.  Now, he doesn’t know what to make of it.  Will Hanguang-jun be even more disappointed in him because, in making the same decision, he had failed to learn from his elders.  Or will he be understanding of Sizhui’s choice?

Sizhui squeezes his eyes tight shut.  The ache in his lip decides to make itself known and every time he breathes it moves his back and the pain gets harder and harder to ignore.  He’s tired and his brain is foggy from the medication they gave him, and it’s much easier to fall back into sleep than it is to deal with the rising tides of emotion threatening him.

He sleeps, but only for a short while.  When he wakes again, the late afternoon sun is on his face.  His eyes open and quickly shut again as the sun nearly blinds him.  As his face scrunches up in discomfort, he realizes that it’s much easier to move now.  Squinting against the light, he looks around the room.  Hanguang-jun hasn’t moved, but Senior Wei appears to be awake now.  Before Sizhui can decide if he should pretend to be asleep again, Senior Wei notices that he’s awake.

“A-Yuan,” he says softly, and Hanguang-jun’s eyes instantly open.  

Not ready to face whatever is going to be in his father’s eyes, Sizhui closes his eyes.  He’d turn away if he could, but doing so would only push his face into the bed.  

‘Forgive me’ , Sizhui tries to say, but his mouth is cottony, and it tastes like a vile combination of blood and something medicinal.  His jaw works, but no words come out.

The soft sound of footsteps on the wooden floor gets closer to him.  

“A-Yuan,” it’s Hanguang-jun speaking, and Sizhui can tell that he must be right next to the bed.

“Forgive me.”  This time, Sizhui manages to get the words out even though his voice is raspy from disuse and his tongue feels hopelessly clumsy.

Beside him, his father lets out a slow breath that Sizhui knows to be his version of a sigh.

“How is the pain?” Hanguang-jun asks.

Sizhui starts to say ‘it’s fine’, but that would be a lie, and Sizhui has broken enough sect rules to last a lifetime.  “It’s manageable,” he says instead.

“Your lip?”

“Bit through it,” he admits.  He’d tried to take the punishment without complaint, to accept justice with grace, as the rules bid.  

A moment later, Sizhui is surprised when a gentle hand rests on his head.  It’s familiar, something Hanguang-jun had done during his childhood when he was sick or had nightmares.  Some of the anxiety in his chest loosens.  

“Lan Zhan,” Senior Wei’s voice comes from several steps away.  “You have to use your words sometimes.  Poor A-Yuan here is so nervous that he won’t even look at us.”

There’s a pause and then Senior Wei continues as if Hanguang-jun had given him a response. “Yes, I know that I could tell him.  And I will tell him.  But as much as I love him, you’re the one who raised him, and he should hear it from you.”

“A-Yuan,” Hanguang-jun’s deep voice is steady and calm.  “I cannot condone what you did.  Do you understand?”

Sizhui is used to his father's paucity of words, and so he does understand. 

I am the chief cultivator, and I am in charge of discipline.  You broke the rules, and I cannot condone that.  But I am not upset.  I understand.

“Yes,” Sizhui’s voice is quiet and small.

“Lan Sizhui, I raised you as my own son, and I love you.  I always will.  You do not need to be afraid to face me, not ever.  I will always be here for you no matter what.  Perhaps I have not expressed that clearly enough to you.  Besides, you have already been punished.  It would be unjust to punish you further.”

Quiet fills the room after his words.  Hot tears prick at Sizhui’s eyes, and he raises a hand to cover his face.  The wounds on his back pull as he does and his arm feels heavy, but he manages.  His hand hides the tears and the blush on his cheek but can’t cover his trembling lip.  He can’t remember the last time his father said so many words to him at once let alone ones so tender. 

He hears Senior Wei’s quick footsteps on the floor moving towards him.

“It’s horrible when he says stuff like that isn’t it.”  He says conversationally to Sizhui, and the bed dips down as he sits on it.  “He’s so impossibly sincere that your heart just can’t handle it.  I think it’s really for the better that he’s normally so quiet.  Can you imagine if he just said these things all the time? 

“We both care about you immensely.  No matter what choices you make that won’t change.  Besides, I can’t exactly hate you for using demonic cultivation.  What sort of hypocrite would I be? And him too?  You know, when I turned to demonic cultivation.  Lan Zhan here was the only one who opposed me at first.  He would tell me that these tricks would damage my body and my mind.  He tried to stop me.  I always thought that it was because of the Lan sect rules that he treasured so highly.  But, I came to realize a few things much later.  Firstly, that he was right; there is no way to escape the effects of resentful energy no matter how strong or talented you are.  Secondly, and more importantly, he wasn’t angry with me, well probably a bit of that too, but mainly he was worried.”

“Mn.”

“You’re not angry?” Sizhui asks, still not quite able to believe it.  The immense anger on Lan Qiren’s face when he’d been told what had happened is burned into the inside of Sizhui’s skull.  The weight of his great uncle’s wrath and disappointment is something he will have to bear for a long time.  

“No.”  It’s Hanguang-jun that answers.

“I,” Sizhui’s voice trembles, “I brought shame to you.  You took me in and cared for me, and-”

“Shame?” Wei Wuxian interrupts him.  “You don’t think that Hanguang-jun here cares so much about his reputation?  What does it matter to a man as great as him what other people think?  Besides,” and he laughs, “you will never be worse for his reputation than I am.  I’m the Yiling Patriarch!  If he doesn’t toss me out, then you are fine.  Besides, no one outside the Cloud Recesses knows what happened.  And I think anyone gossiping about it outside the sect will face Lan Qiren’s wrath.”

“Mn,” Hanguang-jun says in agreement.  “Gossiping is forbidden.” 

A gentle hand settles on Sizhui’s wrist, and Senior Wei slowly pulls his hand away from his face.  Tenderly, he pushes stray strands of hair away from Sizhui’s face.  Despite everything, Senior Wei is smiling at him and the anxiety that had been slowly ebbing away during their conversation finally leaves him.  

“Rest,” Hanguang-jun says.  

“This is the longest you’ve been away in days.  They said it took a lot to manage your pain, and you're probably still feeling the effects.  I guess your golden core was burning off the sedatives faster than they expected.”  

There was something like pride dancing in his eyes.  

Sizhui obediently closes his eyes.  He can definitely still feel the effects of whatever they had given him; his body is heavy, and his mind is clouded.  But there is one more thing.  He opens his eyes again.

“I,” he pauses, but they already knew about why he’d done what he’d done.  “Has Jingyi been here?”

A dark expression flashes across Senior Wei’s face, and icy dread seizes Sizhui.  Senior Wei turns to Hanguang-jun, and there’s a long pause.  Sizhui closes his eyes again.  

“Sizhui,” it’s Hanguang-jun who speaks.  “After your punishment, Jingyi left the Cloud Recesses.  He flew straight to Qinghe and asked me to come to you.  We haven’t seen or heard from him since.”

The words ring in Sizhui’s ears, and suddenly it’s hard to breathe. Of all the things he’d considered, Jingyi just leaving wasn’t one.  He’d prepared for anger, disgust, or even hate but not abandonment.  It was more than that though.  Jingyi had left the Cloud Recesses, his own home, his own family.  Guilt seizes Sizhui all over again.  This is his fault.

“No,” the word is little more than an exhale because there’s no air in his lungs.

“Breathe,” Senior Wei says with clear worry in his voice.  Sizhui hardly hears him.  

Gone, Jingyi is gone, and it’s all his fault.  His eyes start to burn again.  Jingyi has been a constant in his life for as long as he can remember.  To try and go forward now without him, it’s unthinkable.  There is no future without him.  Panic, spiraling and black grabs him, and he can’t seem to get enough air. 

“A-Yuan,” Hanguang-jun’s voice is as perfectly steady as ever.  “A-Yuan, listen to my voice.”

Through the panic and the fog, Sizhui obeys.  It’s not so much a conscious decision to do so as an instinctive response.  A gentle hand strokes his hair, carefully avoiding his back.  Sizhui looks up into his father’s face and there’s absolute understanding in those tawny eyes.  

“Focus on your breathing.”

Sizhui does, counting as he breathes in and out until, eventually, he can breathe properly again.  Hanguang-jun sits down on the side of his bed, just as he used to when Sizhui was a small child.  It’s been years since he had an episode like this, but when he was a child, Hanguang-jun had often had to help him through them.   

As the anxiety ebbs, it leaves exhaustion in its wake.  Hanguang-jun starts to hum a gentle melody.  It’s something sweet and soft that he remembers from his childhood but can’t place.  His eyelids are too heavy again, and he lets them fall closed.  He no longer has enough energy for panic, and Jingyi’s absence becomes another ache like a counterpoint to the pain on his back.  Sleep is calling for him, and he reaches out for it gratefully.  In sleep, there is no pain.

Sizhui sleeps but not very deeply and not for very long.  When he awakes again, the room is dark and empty.  It’s obviously past nine, so his parents must have retreated to the Jingshi.  He’s not sure if he’s glad to be alone or not.  

Without them here to distract him, he’s stuck with his thoughts and his pain.  And his thoughts keep circling back to Jingyi.  He’d thought when he heard Jingyi crying out in his defense that things might be okay between him and his best friend.  But it turns out Jingyi had fled the Cloud Recesses entirely.  

Try as he might, Sizhui can’t understand.  How had he managed to drive his friend out of the only home he’d ever known?  If he was disgusted by Sizhui or even if he hated him, why would he leave the Cloud Recesses entirely?  He could simply get another room and request a new night hunt partner.  And even if he’d decided to go, why didn’t he leave a message?  It was entirely unlike Jingyi to do anything without saying something, let alone something this major.

Something isn’t right.  If someone other than Hanguang-jun had told him, he would have accused them of lying.  He has so many questions, and no one to ask for answers.  He bites his lip in frustration and then winces in pain.

Slowly, carefully, Sizhui puts his arms under him and pushes himself up off the bed.  His limbs are significantly less heavy than they were before, but his back still burns with every breath he takes.  He manages to get himself into a sitting position, and he has to pause.

There is one place where he might find answers.  There must be a letter or a note if he can just make it to his room.  Loud, bright, expressive Jingyi would never have vanished into the night without leaving something for Sizhui, even if it was a note that said ‘fuck you’.  

Unfortunately, his room is several minutes’ walk from the infirmary, and he’s not even sure he can stand.  There’s also the fact that he’s currently dressed only in pants and bandages; he can’t walk around like this even in the dead of night.  

Still, he has to try.  He needs to know.  Maybe Jingyi had simply decided to fetch Hanguang-jun himself and hasn’t made it back yet.  Even if he doesn’t really believe it’s a possibility, the thought comforts him.

Gritting his teeth, Sizhui stands.  He sways for a moment as his vision swims with black dots and pins and needles run up and down his legs.  Once his vision clears, he takes a careful step forward.  The wounds on his lower back tug, but it’s manageable.  He turns to face the door and sees that there is a night robe neatly folded on a low table by the door.  Carefully Sizhui makes his way to it.  

Retrieving the robe and putting it on prove to be much more difficult tasks than walking had been.  His vision goes white with pain when he tries to lean over, and he’s forced to kneel to get it.  There’s no good way for him to get the robe on without help.  In the end, he gets it on, but not without his back screaming at every movement of his arms.

His body is trembling, and he has to lean against the wall to recover.  Once he no longer feels in danger of falling over, he takes careful steps towards the door.  He tries not to think about the fact that he’s barely dressed and his hair is almost certainly a mess or the embarrassment might drown him.  His brain also reminds him that going out in such a state violates at least two rules on propriety.  

There is no one in the main room of the healer’s complex when he peeps out of his door.  This isn’t surprising considering that it’s past nine.  Still, there’s almost certainly at least one healer or disciple in one of the side chambers in case of emergency, so Sizhui moves as quietly as he can manage.  

Once he makes it to the main door, Sizhui leans against the frame.  The next part of his journey will be the hardest as he needs to cross the open lawn towards the disciples’ quarters, and there won’t be anything to lean on.  The short path leading away from the healer’s complex looks dauntingly long.

Sizhui moves away from the building with careful steps.  He takes small steps to move his back as little as possible, but it still hurts.  Even the rise and fall of his chest as he breathes exacerbates the pain. The pain, which had been manageable when he awakened, rapidly worsens as he moves.  When he reaches the covered walkway of the main complex, his face is sweating, and he sags against the wall.  Step by step, he slowly makes his way down the path.  His room has never seemed so far away.  A wet warmth spreads across his back, and he realizes that he must be bleeding again.

By the time he makes it to the building where the unmarried senior disciples live, his whole body is shaking.  He presses his face to the cold wood of the wall and lets the breeze cool the flames on his back.  As he staggers into the building, he sees the stairs and is desperately grateful that his room is on the ground floor.  

He passes the first and second doors before he finally makes it to his own.  After carefully sliding the door open, he steps in.  It’s stupid, but part of him still expects to find Jingyi asleep in his bed on the far side of the room.  For several long moments he stares at the empty bed as if, if he hopes hard enough, Jingyi will appear.  But the bed stays empty.  

As he makes his way to Jingyi’s side of the room, he instantly notices that the painting that has always hung over Jingyi’s bed is gone and knows that Jingyi never intends to return.  He feels a part of him breaking, and all the air leaves his lungs. 

He sways, and for a moment he thinks that he’s going to collapse, but the moment passes.  One step at a time, he moves back to his side of the room, if Jingyi left him a message it would be here.  His eyes move across his desk and instantly spot a folded piece of paper that wasn’t there when he left.  

In a motion that is more falling than kneeling, Sizhui settles beside the table.  The hand he raises to pick up the letter is trembling so badly that he fumbles his first attempt.  He can see that blood has soaked through the fabric on his shoulder.

For several long moments, he just holds the paper in his hands, staring down at it.  He’s not completely sure that he’s ready to see whatever is inside the letter.  But his need to know outweighs his fear, and he carefully opens the folded note. 

 

 

A-Yuan,

 

I’m so sorry.

Thank you for everything.

Goodbye,

 

A-Yi

 

There are only three lines.  Sizhui stares at the black characters as if trying to burn them into his brain.  He barely resists the urge to flip the paper over and hunt for more.  The letter leaves him with more questions than answers.

‘A-Yuan,’ Jingyi had written. And Sizhui can practically hear Jingyi’s voice in his ear from a hundred different memories.  He can see the small smile Jingyi saves just for him, and it only makes the word ‘goodbye’ hurt even more.  

“Why, A-Yi?” He whispers into the silence.  He can’t understand.  If Jingyi is angry or upset, he would understand.  But why is he apologizing? Why is he thanking Sizhui?  Sizhui is the one who had failed on the night hunt.  He is the one who has somehow driven Jingyi away.  

Tears fall from his eyes onto the letter in his hand, and he shoves it away to stop the water from smudging the ink.  He covers his face with trembling hands and cries for the pain, for the fear, for the confusion, for the loss, for all of it.  His whole body shakes as the emotions finally overwhelm him, and it only makes him hurt more.

“Comeback A-Yi.”  His voice is broken with hiccoughing sobs.  His breath keeps coming faster and faster and his chest is tight.  The edges of his vision are going black, but he can’t do anything about it and his whole body sways.  Every sob pulls on his back and the hot wetness of blood is spreading over his shoulders as the bandages on his back saturate.  The sound of his heart slamming desperately in his chest fills his ears.  In the end, he’s not sure if it's the lack of oxygen or the pain that pulls him under but the blackness rises to pull him under.

Chapter Text

I'm tired and growing weary
Of these clouds that follow me
Swallowed by the shadows
When it's sunshine that I need

Jingyi’s long legs carry him to one of the small farming towns that support Qinghe.  He asks around, but there are no signs of ghosts or devils.  The town's too small to have an inn, but one of the farmers gives him a bamboo mat and a place by his fire to sleep.  Jingyi is just happy not to have to sleep outside.  

Before now, he’s only ever traveled with Gusu Lan disciples.  Sometimes they have had to camp on night hunts, but usually, they would find an inn somewhere close by the location of the hunt.  He hadn’t considered details like where he would sleep when he’d fled Gusu; forethought had never been Jingyi’s strong suit.  

Before he falls asleep, Jingyi amuses himself by imagining Young Mistress Jin’s face if someone dared to ask him to sleep on a bamboo mat on the floor.  His heart aches under the humor, but he still chuckles to himself.

When he awakes the next morning, he instinctively looks around for Sizhui.  His eyes are greeted by the house’s plain brick wall beside him.  He stares at it, not really seeing it, as if he could wish it away.  After a moment, he closes his eyes, intending to go back to sleep, but he can hear the owner of the house getting out of bed; so, instead of going back to sleep, he gets up and neatly rolls up the bamboo mat.  

The man is surprised to find Jingyi awake and refuses his offers of help.  So Jingyi bids him farewell and starts off down the road.  As he walks, he pulls out his compass of evil.  It’s still pointing more or less in the direction of the road, so he continues along.  There are fewer people on the road today, but he’s still close enough to Qinghe that he passes travelers as he goes.  When the road branches again, he uses his compass to point him and continues on.

It’s well past noon and into the hottest part of the day when he hears yelling ahead of him on the road on the other side of a hill in the road that’s blocking his view.  Instinctively, he reaches for his sword and rushes forward.  When he reaches the top of the hill and looks down there’s a cart tipped on its side with a few women beside it and a pair of men chasing after an ox.

He races down the small hill, his feet hardly seeming to touch the road as he goes.  He’s faster than the two men and darts past them to the ox.  Noting its large horns and the broken looking harness around its neck, he changes his path to approach the side of the animal and not the front.  As he comes abreast with the ox, he reaches to grip the horns and is momentarily grateful that he doesn’t have the full sleeves of the Lan Sect uniform because they would definitely be in the way.  Grabbing the horns, he pulls the ox back until it stalls.  The muscles of his arms, chest and back tense and flex, and the ox strains and pulls, it’s hooves digging into the road and kicking as its sides heave with effort.  But the ox is not a match for his years of cultivated strength. 

Once he has it stalled, Jingyi hums soothingly, unconsciously using the Song of Tranquility.  The tiniest amount of spiritual energy flows from him into the ox and soon it stops fighting.  Once he’s certain it won't lunge or buck, he releases it and steps away.  As he looks up, he realizes that the two men are looking at him in shock.  

Suddenly self-conscious, he takes several steps away and raises his hands to offer them a small bow.  He’d rushed in without thinking again.

“I’m sorry if I am intruding.  I simply thought I might be able to help.”  

“I-” one of the men starts.

“No, no,” the other one says.  

There’s a slightly exasperated sigh from the side and the three of them turn.  An older woman is standing there looking at the two young men with a disapproving expression.  But when she turns her attention to Jingyi there’s a smile on her face, and she offers him a bow in return.

“Daozhang, thank you for your help.  I’m afraid that a snake on the road scared our ox.  Please, don’t mind my sons here.  It seems they’ve forgotten all the manners I’ve taught them.

The two young men appear to be around Jingyi’s age, but they blush under their mother’s admonishment, and one of them scuffs his feet in the dirt.  Jingyi offers a sympathetic smile; he’s been on the wrong end of such comments enough times to understand the feeling.

“It’s nothing,” Jingyi says to the woman, feeling slightly uncomfortable.  No one has ever called him Daozhang before, and he has to resist the urge to look around for a more senior cultivator.  Not knowing how to respond, he glances over at the cart, which is still on its side, and he starts to move towards it.  “The cart is still turned over.  Let me get that for you.”

He doesn’t look at the other people as he goes to the cart.  He looks over the jars and sacks in the cart, impressed by the fact that they’ve remained secured despite the accident.  It’s tricky at first, for him to get a grip on the edge of the cart, and he almost has to kneel to do so, but once he manages, he tips the cart back up in a single heave.

He can feel their eyes on him, and so, instead of looking up, he shakes out the dust from his robes and straightens them.  In his mind, he can hear the slightly exasperated, but still affectionate, sigh that Sizhui would have given at the state of his robes.  Sizhui has long since mastered the Lan Sect trick of keeping his white robes pristine, but Jingyi still struggles.

“Daozhang,” the woman says again when Jingyi looks up.  She bows, and Jingyi shifts uncomfortably, but it would be rude to interrupt her so he keeps silent.  “Thank you for your help.  We don’t have much to offer as thanks.”

Jingyi opens his mouth to insist that they don’t need to give him anything, but the woman keeps talking.  

“But we are only an hour or two from our home.  I can offer you dinner and a place to sleep.”

“That would be much appreciated,” he says with a bow of his own.  Only then does he glance at the two girls standing to the side.  They are younger than the boys, maybe fourteen and sixteen, and are standing huddled together.  While he can hear the soft sound of their whispers, he can’t make out the words.  But their eyes keep darting to look at him, so he can guess what they’re talking about.  

The older woman, who introduces herself as Madam Liu, snaps at the girls and sends them scurrying over to check the inventory of the cart while the boys hitch the ox back to the cart. 

One of the boys stays on the cart to drive the ox and Madam Liu sits beside him.  The other three children walk together, but Jingyi, not wanting to intrude, walks to the side of the cart away from the siblings.  

There are several long minutes of awkward silence, but Jingyi, being himself, breaks it.  He speaks mostly to Madam Liu, the only one who has introduced herself, and asks her numerous questions.  Jingyi’s easy smile and friendly demeanor quickly break through the awkwardness, and Madam Liu is soon happily chattering away about her family. He learns that they are coming from Qinghe where they sell rice and rice wine, that her husband, daughter-in-law, and a grandson are at home, that they were buying wedding clothes for her oldest daughter, and that they were hoping to sell enough to complete the dowry for the youngest girl.  

Jingyi knows nothing about weddings or dowries, but he can see how happy Madam Liu is to talk about her daughters so he listens.  He doesn’t mind letting someone else carry the conversation for once.

“What about you?” a female voice comes from behind him when Madam Liu pauses in her description of her daughter’s future marriage.  He looks over his shoulder. Up until now, he hadn’t looked at either of the girls except for a few glances.  They are pretty enough, he supposes.  With round faces and big eyes,  Zizhen would say they are ‘sweet looking’.

“What about me?”

“Are you married?” It is the younger girl who asks, she has warm brown eyes that remind him a bit of Sizhui.  His heart clenches.

“No,” he turns away from them.  The only person he’s ever imagined marrying is Sizhui, and only when he was alone with his wildest dreams.  He doesn’t want to think about how good Sizhui will look in wedding red.

“Is your sect abstinent then?”  The girl asks boldly.

Jingyi coughs in surprise as he almost chokes on his own spit.  

“Meimei,” the other girl says, sounding almost as shocked as Jingyi feels, “don't be so rude.”

His brain races through possible answers before he finally says, “I don’t have a sect.”

“He’s a rogue cultivator,” the young girl says in an excited voice to her sister.  It’s meant to be a whisper, but Jingyi can hear it.

“Meimei, be quiet,” her brother says irritably.  “You’ve been listening to too many stories.  Daozhang has helped us don’t go and offend him.”

Jingyi, who spends half of his free time reading romantic stories and discussing them with Zizhen via letter, suddenly recognizes the brand of excitement in the girl's voice.  His whole face goes red.  He lengthens his strides until he is walking along with Madam Liu again.

Jingyi casts around his mind, desperate for something other than romance to talk about, and remembers his compass of evil.

“Madam Liu,” he says automatically shifting to a more serious voice.  Noting the change in his voice, Madam Liu gives a suspicious glance over her shoulder at her children.  Jingyi’s not sure if she heard their conversation or not; he hopes not.  Before she can say anything, he continues, “are there any problems in this area? I mean ghosts or evil spirits?  They might have started recently or they might have been around for a long time.”

“Actually,” Madam Liu says and seems to relax a bit at his question, tapping her hand on her leg in thought.  “I’ve heard that the inn in the nearby town has become haunted.”

“Please, could you tell me more?”

It’s possible that the inn made up rumors to try and attract business, but it’s worth investigating. He has no way of knowing how far away the evil indicated by the compass is.  Logic says that it can’t be too far away or something closer would draw the needle of the compass.  But he also knows that this close to Qinghe, Nie Sect would have taken care of anything major.  

“I’m afraid that I don’t know the details,” Madam Liu tells him.  “But, a while back the old innkeeper died and left the care of his inn and his three children to his brother.  Since then, people staying in the inn have been scared away.  I’m afraid that’s all I know as we don’t live in the town.”

“Thank you for the information,” Jingyi says, unfailingly polite.  

“Are you going to investigate?” The man sitting beside Madam Liu asks.

“I will.”

“Have you killed ghosts before?” The man’s dark eyes light up with excitement.

“You can’t kill ghosts,” Jingyi says automatically as if he’s speaking to a young disciple.  He opens his mouth to explain the procedure of liberating, suppressing, and then eliminating but stops himself.  “But, I do have experience eliminating them.”

Before her son can ask any more questions, Madam Liu shushes him and points his attention back to the road.  “Don’t bother the Daozhang.  He’s not here to tell you stories.”

Really, Jingyi wouldn’t have minded telling a few stories.  He has plenty to share.  But since Madam Liu told her son to be silent, it isn’t his place to disagree.  Silence has never been Jingyi’s favorite thing, and a few times he almost opens his mouth to start another conversation but wary of bringing up uncomfortable topics (like romance) or accidentally offending someone, he keeps his mouth shut.  

When the sight of a well-kept farmhouse appears ahead of them, he’s very grateful.  All the walking that he’s done these past few days isn’t tiring for someone with his level of cultivation, but it is boring, and Jingyi hates being bored even more than he hates copying Lan Sect rules.  

A young woman is in front of the house with a small child, and the man driving the cart calls out to her.  Both the woman and the child lookup and smile.  The smile the woman offers her husband is radiant, and the child lets out a delighted squeal that they can hear from the cart and starts running towards the road.  Anxiety rushes up in Jingyi as he imagines the child coming near the ox, but the mother quickly catches up to the laughing boy and sweeps him up into her arms.  

The ox-cart is drawn to a stop, and Jingyi stops beside it unsure of what to do.  Madam Liu gets down from the cart and takes the squealing child from its mother with a bright smile.

“A-Jia, go and tell my husband that we have an esteemed guest.” The woman nods and turns back towards the house, and Madam Liu turns back to her children and points at each of them in turn.  “You, go prepare some tea.  You, start dinner. You, take care of the ox and make sure that the stall is closed properly this time.  You, unload the cart.”

When Madam Liu turns to face Jingyi, he half expects to be given a task to do as well.  He wouldn’t mind if she did.  Unlike Jin Sect, all Lan Sect disciples are expected to help with sect chores.  But instead, she invites him inside, and Jingyi obediently follows her towards the house.

Her husband greets them at the door.  He’s a tall man, almost as tall as Jingyi, and his face is weathered from years as a farmer, but the lines on his face speak of smiles and laughter.

“Welcome, welcome,” he says with a smile that crinkles his whole face.

“Senior Liu,” Jingyi brings his hands together in front of him to offer him a bow. “I am An Jingyi; thank you for welcoming me to your home.”

“Senior? I wouldn’t dare.  Just call me Uncle Liu.” The man says with a shake of his head.  He greets his wife with a quick embrace. “Niang-zi, where did you find such a well mannered young man!”

“He found us,” Madam Liu says as she and her husband moved into the house.  “That old ox of ours was frightened by a snake and took off.  He’s more trouble than he’s worth most days!  The cart was knocked over and everything.  Daozhang caught the ox and put our cart to rights.  We’d have been severely delayed without him.  I figured the least we can do is have him over for dinner and give him a place to sleep.”

“Is that so?”  He turns back to Jingyi and moves to lead Jingyi to the table.  “We appreciate your help, young man.  You are welcome here.  Come and sit; my daughter will bring some tea.  Dinner won’t be for a while yet.” 

Jingyi removes his sword from his back when he sits.  Mr. Liu sits leisurely across from him and chats amiably.  As they talk, Jingyi relaxes, but still maintains his proper sitting posture.  When the youngest daughter comes to serve tea, Jingyi is careful to be exactly as polite as he needs to but no more.  He can see the looks that she’s giving him through her lashes, but he keeps his focus on her father; the last thing he wants is for his hosts to think he has intentions towards their daughters.

Later, when the boys return, the daughters serve dinner and everyone sits down to eat.  Out of habit, Jingyi eats in silence, but it doesn’t bother him.  He’s never eaten a meal with a family like this and he’s happy, for once, to be a silent observer.  The siblings laugh and joke as they eat, and the boys even push each other a few times.  Madam Liu chides them, but it’s in a worn and familiar kind of way that’s very different from the reprimands Jingyi is used to.  The small boy clings to his father and babbles on in the almost incomprehensible language of small children.  The room is full of the smell of good food, happy voices, and laughter.  

Jingyi’s heart aches in a strange way.  Even though his parents were Lans and there certainly wouldn’t have been so much chatter at dinner, he can’t help but imagine the family dinners that he might have had before his parents died in the Sunshot campaign.  Jingyi doesn’t have any clear memories of his parents but watching the boy clinging to his father, Jingyi has an almost memory of tugging at the cloud embroidered white robes of a man with a warm smile and someone laughing as they disentangle his hands from the robes.

When dinner ends, Jingyi looks out of the window.  The sun is low in the sky, but there are still n hour or two of daylight at his guess. The last thing he wants is to sit around doing nothing.

“Uncle Liu,” he says, “Could you tell me how far it is to the next town?  I heard that the inn has a problem with a ghost.  I would like to go investigate.”

“It’s only an hour or so down the road,” the old man says. “But there’s no need for you to rush over.”

Jingyi raises an eyebrow at that, “you aren’t worried about the ghost.”

The old man waves his hand dismissively.  “No one outside of the inn has seen the ghost.”

“You don’t think it’s real then?” Jingyi asks, leaning forward.

“It might be or it might not be.  But, I know the man who runs the inn now, and he’s a nasty fellow.  If something’s haunting him, he probably deserves it.”

A frown creases Jingyi’s brow.  When he first heard of the ghost, he didn’t immediately assume that it was related to the innkeeper.  Ghosts form from resentful energy and that energy, despite what common people think, doesn’t have to come from murder.  Especially for low-level ghosts, and this one certainly is low-level as it hasn’t physically harmed a single person as far, can come from anything from a fight to a blood feud.  It could also be a criminal, full of ill intent, who died in the area.  But with Senior Liu’s words, he can’t help but remember what Madam Liu had said about the inn’s original owner dying recently.

“Still,” Jingyi said, “I think I’ll go.  At the very least, I’ll be able to tell if there is a ghost or not.  If it takes an hour to get there, I should only be gone for three or four hours.”

“As you wish, Daozhang.  Would you like someone to go with you, my so-”

“I can show you the way,” a female voice comes from the edge of the room.  Jingyi almost groans as the youngest daughter appears in the room.  It would be wildly improper for Jingyi to accept her proposal even if he wanted to, and he doesn’t.  

“No thank you,” Jingyi says immediately and stands up.  “I do not wish to disturb your family more than I already have.  I can follow the road.”

He says his goodbyes and retreats as quickly as is polite.  As he goes, he returns his sword to its place on his back.  The sun is getting lower in the sky, but there’s still enough light to see by.  He checks his compass of evil to ensure that it’s still pointing towards the village ahead, and it is.  Then he checks for talismans.  Luckily, he still has some, but he will have to get paper and cinnabar for more because he doesn’t have many.  His hands catch on a Gusu Lan signal flare, and he stares at it for several long moments before tucking it away again.  Then he turns the situation over and over in his head, but he really doesn’t have enough information about the ghost to draw a conclusion.

Unconsciously, he walks with his hands neatly behind his back.  Unfortunately, the sun is barely above the horizon when he reaches the town even though he estimates that it’s only been forty minutes or so.  Uncle Liu had told him it would take longer, but Jingyi is young and unburdened by a cart or pack.  

The town is small, only a village really, and it’s easy for him to pick out the inn.  There’s no one out in the streets as he moves through them, and it gives the place an eerie sensation.  As he approaches the inn, he begins to sense resentful energy; it’s faint, but it’s definitely there.  He unstraps his sword from his back for easier access. 

Out of habit, he turns to his right to ask Sizhui if he’s noticed it as well.  But there’s only the empty road beside him.  When he looks back at the inn his expression is dark.  The air on his back suddenly feels chill as if the absence of Sizhui behind him is a physical presence of its own.

Reaching into his qiankun pouch, he retrieves his compass of evil, which is pointing directly at the inn.  He debates for a moment before deciding to go directly into the inn.  His steps slow slightly as he walks towards the door.  He wishes that Sizhui was here.  With his unfailing politeness and sweet demeanor, he has a way of getting everyone to work with him that Jingyi has never had the patience to master.  He’s never had to.  He’s regretting that a bit now.

Jingyi shakes himself once, hard, to clear away his thoughts before opening the door to the inn.  No one immediately greets him, but he steps inside.  The room is small but clean and well maintained.  His eyes quickly move through the room categorizing everything in it and noting the two exits: one must go to the kitchens and one must go to the rooms.  There are no physical signs of the ghost that he can see.  The faint sense of resentful energy making his skin prickle isn’t much worse than it was outside; he’d half expected it to weigh down the room.  As he’s reaching into his sleeve for a talisman a male voice finally calls from the back.

“Hello! Is someone there!”

“Yes, I’m looking for the innkeeper,” Jingyi responds and turns his attention towards the door on the right where he heard the voice coming from.

“Alright, I’ll be right out.”  The voice is not particularly warm but seems polite enough.

“Please take your time.”  Behind his back, Jingyi drums his fingers tips against his other arm.  

The man who appears from the back is short and his face and hands are worn in a way more reminiscent of farming than innkeeping.  There’s a slight frown on his face as he appears in the door, but he quickly smooths out his expression into a welcoming one.

“Daozhang, how can I help you?”  When he speaks, Jingyi can smell wine on his breath.

“Actually,” Jingyi says with a bright smile, “I came to see if I could help you. I was traveling by and heard that you have had problems with a ghost.”

“I guess rumors have a way of getting around,” his voice is gruff.

“There is resentful energy here,” Jingyi tells him, watching him for a response.  He doesn’t get one; the man must know there is a ghost here then.  “But I am merely offering you my help.  I’ll leave if you would like.”

Jingyi would leave, but that doesn’t mean that he’d stop investigating.  Maybe the opposite, actually.

“What would I owe you?” The man crosses his arms as he looks at Jingyi.

Jingyi frowns slightly, “I’m not asking for any payment.”

The man narrows his eyes at Jingyi as if this makes him even more suspicious.  There’s a long silence as the two men look at each other.  Finally, the innkeeper relents.

“Alright, then. It’s not like I have customers here anyway.”  Even though he’s agreeing, the man’s voice is uninviting and almost aggressive.  “Do what you need to.”

Jingyi’s stuck for a moment not sure how to respond.  The disrespect in the man’s voice sets his teeth on edge, but he’s not sixteen anymore, so after a deep breath, he lets it go.  “It may be best if I return tomorrow.  It’s already late, and it will take some time because I will first try and liberate the spirit, and for that, I will need to speak to the family of the deceased.  Given that the previous owner of this establishment died recently, I would like to start with his family.”  

Jingyi closely watches the man’s face as he speaks.  As he suspected, the man’s jaw tightens at his words.  The man had likely been expecting him to repel or destroy the spirit outright; most of the people he’d helped over the years had the same idea.  “I’m his brother.  You can ask me any questions you want.”

“Did he have children? A wife?”  

“His wife died years ago.  As for the children, they just lost their father; I don’t think you should bother them.”

“Of course,” Jingyi says easily.  

“If that’s all?”

“That’s all,” Jingyi agrees.

Jingyi turns and heads towards the door.  As soon as Jingyi turns away, a small furrow appears between his brow.  Without breaking stride, he opens the door and walks out into the night.

Chapter Text

Now that it's over
I just wanna hold her
I've gotta live with the choices I made
And I can't live with myself today

When Jingyi steps out of the inn, the street is completely dark.  The conversation he just had plays in his mind.  As he thinks, the fingers of his left hand drum against his thigh in place of the sword which is now on his back.  There is definitely something suspicious about the innkeeper, but the resentful energy in the inn is incredibly weak and lacks killing intent.  Experience tells him that the spirit isn’t a murder victim.  But if it's not, why is it hanging around?  And why is the innkeeper acting suspiciously?

A sound coming from his right side breaks through his thoughts.  He cocks his head to listen, and his sword unsheathes itself a few inches.  The initial soft thud that he heard is followed by the sound of feet against the ground.  It’s coming from the side of the inn with the kitchen and the innkeeper’s rooms.  

He doesn’t draw his sword, he hardly needs it to deal with common people, as he takes a few decisive steps so that he can see into the gap between the inn and the next building.  

Unfortunately, there’s hardly any moon in the sky and his eyes haven’t adjusted from his time in the inn.  In the deep shadows of the alley, he can make out one figure on the ground and another at the window.  There’s some whispering and scrambling before the second figure hops down to land beside the first one.  

As quietly as he can, Jingyi jumps up onto the roof of the inn.  He raises two fingers and his sword slowly resheathes itself.  The figures below begin to move through the alley in the opposite direction from the way Jingyi came. With steps as quiet as the padding of a cat, Jingyi follows behind them.

The pair weaves between houses and down side streets.  As they move, Jingyi studies them.  They move cautiously, and the man keeps looking over his shoulder.  Between the dark and the angle, it’s hard for Jingyi to get details about their appearances, but he determines that there is one man and one woman, who moves with her arm close to her body as if it is injured.  Though he can only catch occasional flashes of their faces, he’s certain that neither of them is much older than he is.  It’s not hard for him to deduce who they are.

Jingyi follows them to the edge of town and watches for a moment as they continue on.  Then he hops down from the roof of the last building to land lightly on the ground behind them.  The boy glances over his shoulder again, and finally sees Jingyi.  The boy spins to face him and pushes the girl away from them and towards the trees the lie outside the village.  The girl glances at Jingyi for only an instant and then runs.

Jingyi’s suspicions are confirmed; even in the dark of the night, he can tell that they are siblings.  Upon closer inspection, the boy facing him seems to be two or three years younger than Jingyi, probably the same age as Jin Ling.  

“Did my uncle send you?” the boy demands.  His voice is low and his eyes search the area behind Jingyi.

Jingyi is barely able to hold back the ‘as if’ at the tip of his tongue.  Still, it's there in the tone of his voice when he speaks, “The innkeeper? No.”  He crosses his arms.  “Besides, I’m a cultivator.  I don’t hunt people.”

He falls into silence as the boy regards him and has to resist the urge to tap his foot with impatience as the silence stretches on.

“So why did you follow us?” The boy asks; his voice is still defensive.

“Curiosity,” Jingyi says easily.  “I came to help with the resentful spirit.  Then I see people running away from; naturally, I was curious.”

“Are you going to destroy the ghost?” a soft voice came from the trees.  

“A-Li,” the boy says, turning away from Jingyi, “you should have stayed in the woods.  What if he’s dangerous?”

“Gege,” she says gently, “he’s obviously a cultivator.  Besides, you heard what he said to Uncle.”

She says the word ‘uncle’ like a curse, and it sounds odd in her soft voice.  As she steps clear of the forest, Jingyi can get a good look at her face for the first time; there’s a large bruise on her chin as if she’d fallen.  Jingyi’s eye flicks to her right arm, which is tucked against her body.

“So,” she says, in an unexpectedly sad voice.  “Are you here to destroy the ghost?”

“Not exactly,” Jingyi says, trying to sound gentle, the way Sizhui would.  “Before you eliminate a spirit, you should first try and liberate it so that it can be at peace.  If that cannot be done, then you try and subdue the spirit so that it can’t hurt others.  Only if that fails, do you eliminate the spirit entirely.”

“Can you really liberate his-, I mean the spirit?” her voice is soft and unsure; she takes another step towards him.

“Never mind that,” the boy looks over Jingyi’s shoulder towards the town.  “We can’t stand around; he might realize we are gone.”

“Let’s go into the trees then, we can talk there,” Jingyi says decisively and starts moving towards the trees.  Ahead of him, the boy rushes to his sister and escorts her towards the trees.  Watching the pair ahead of him, Jingyi wonders if they’ll try and make a run for it; he won’t chase them if they do.  But they don’t.  Once they enter the trees, they grow rapidly denser.  The branches overhead block out the faint light from overhead until it's so dark that even Jingyi can hardly make out the shapes of trees around him.

They walk for several minutes through the woods.  Ahead of him, Jingyi can hear the two siblings stumbling in the dark.  He’s struggling slightly in the dark, but compared to their fumblings, his own steps are nearly silent. 

“We should be fine here,” Jingyi says at last.  “I’m going to light a talisman; you might want to close your eyes.”

With a flick of his wrist, the talisman ignites, and a faint golden light fills the area around him.  It’s hardly more than a candle, but it’s enough.  

“You’re injured,” he says to the girl.  “I might be able to help.”

“Why are you helping us?” The boy asks standing halfway in front of his sister as if to block Jingyi.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Jingyi says simply.  “If someone is injured and I can help them, then I should.”

“It’s alright, gege.  Daozhang is trying to help us.” Her voice is soothing in a way that reminds him a bit of Sizhui.  

“Can you help her?” The boy demands, still standing between them.  

“Maybe,” Jingyi says.  He doesn’t have any medicine on him, but he can try healing energy.  Though, he’s never tried it on someone without a golden core.  “Let me see your wrist.”

The girl steps out from behind her brother and obediently offers her left, uninjured, arm.  Gently, Jingyi takes her wrist into his hand.  Her bones seem almost bird-like in their slenderness as he puts his two fingers to the acupoint in her wrist.  She’s so slight that he can’t help the irrational worry that he might break her on accident.  He’s done this a hundred times, but always with fellow disciples.  Even Jin Ling, who really seems to have the slim wrists and hands of a young mistress, is significantly more substantial than this girl is.

Jingyi closes his eyes.  He can feel the soft movement of qi through the girl’s meridians, though it lacks the strength he’s used to in fellow cultivators.  Its a trickle instead of a roaring river, but it’s enough.  He quickly realizes that there are more injuries on her body than what he can see.  He’s familiar with many of them (bruised knees, ribs, and hands); they’re the injuries of being thrown or tossed to the ground.  Most of the injuries are just bruises, and he tries to use some of his own energy to soothe the pain. But her arm is definitely broken.

Jingyi opens his eyes to find that both siblings are staring at him.  He doesn’t let go of the girl’s wrist, instead, he allows a steady stream of healing energy to flow from his hand and into her.

“Your arm is broken,” Jingyi says.  “You need to see a doctor.  The bone isn’t set properly.”

“Can’t you fix it?” the boy demands, and Jingyi shakes his head.

“Sorry, but I’m not a doctor.  I just know enough for emergencies.”

There are several moments of silence as they sit there. When he’s done what he can, he releases the girl’s wrist.

“Thank you, Daozhang,” she says with a smile.  “It doesn’t hurt so much anymore.”

Jingyi waves his hand dismissively; he really hasn’t done much of anything.  Simple bruises are easily healed by someone with a focused golden core.  “No need to call me that.  I’m An Jingyi, call me Jingyi.”

“Jingyi,” the girl says softly.  “I am Zhou Liling and this is my brother Peizhi.”  Jingyi can’t help but chuckle a bit, ‘respectful’ indeed.  The girl, Liling, sends her brother a smile, and he rolls his eyes.  It seems it’s not the first time they’ve heard the joke. 

“Before,” Peizhi says and his voice has lost most of its hostility, “you mentioned freeing the spirit.  Can you really do it?”

“I can,” Jingyi says.  “But, I need to know his dying wish.  If that wish is granted, then the ghost is liberated.  I’m guessing that the ghost is your father.  That’s why I wanted to speak to you and your uncle.”

“You won’t get any good answers from him,” Peizhi’s voice is bitter.

“What if we don’t know his final wish,” the Liling asks quietly.  “Can you ask the spirit?”

“I can’t,” Jingyi says, and the smile from earlier evaporates.  He doesn’t have a guqin (or xiao or any other instrument) and can’t play inquiry very well even if he did; that was always Sizhui’s job.  If Sizhui was here, but no-. He stops himself.  Those thoughts are only going to hurt.  “But, even if you don’t know it exactly, it’s possible to make guesses especially if you know him well.”

“Do you know for sure that the ghost is our father?” Peizhi asks next.  Jingyi shakes his head.

“All I know is that the spirit there has resentful energy.  The old innkeeper recently died and there is a new innkeeper and a new spirit.  It’s logical to guess that the ghost is the old innkeeper.  The only question that remains is why.  I have some guesses, and I’m sure you have yours.”

Liling raises her hand to the bruise on her chin, but it's Peizhi who speaks.  “Uncle was never supposed to inherit the inn.  My older brother, Zhou Guozhi, is nearly twenty-five; it should have gone to him.  But even if we were still kids, dad wouldn’t have given the inn to his brother.  They didn’t get along.”  He gestures angrily at the bruise on Liling’s face.  

“He claimed it somehow, then,” Jingyi says and lets out a long sigh.  There’s not much he can do about a property dispute.  It’d be so much easier if he’d just found a fierce corpse or even a ghoul.  “Can’t you file a complaint or something?”

“That’s why we are going to the next city,” Liling says.  

“My brother tried to argue with him,” Peizhi said.  “But he would hurt A-Li, so he had to stop.”  

Even though Jingyi had guessed the source of Liling’s injuries, the confirmation sends white-hot anger through his body so hard that his hands clench into fists even though the man isn’t here for him to hit.  At her brother’s words, Liling looked down at her shoes, obviously ashamed, and Jingyi’s temper only rises.  It takes him a minute to reign it in.

“Well,” Jingyi says when he can speak calmly again.  “I’m fairly certain that, once you have your inn back and you are safe from your uncle, your father will be able to rest in peace.  There’s no need for me to do anything.  For now, you two should get going; you’ll want to be as far away as possible when dawn comes.”

The light talisman above them is starting to burn out, so Jingyi lights another and turns.  “I’ll lead you back to the road.”

For the first couple of minutes, they walk in silence. Part of Jingyi burns at the injustice these kids are experiencing, but there’s nothing for him to do.  They will to the city and things will get worked out.  The ghost is more a nuisance than a danger, and he’s fairly certain it will be liberated soon without his intervention anyway. Jingyi’s face is set in a frown; he feels useless again.  

Useless.

He’s in the courtyard with Sizhui, his arms are being pulled behind him as he struggles to get free.  The silencing spell is on his lips and he can’t even scream.  

“Daozhang, um Jingyi,” Liling’s voice broke the silence. 

Useless.

“Uh,” it takes a moment for him to collect himself, “Yeah?”

“Could you escort us to the next city?” 

Jingyi pauses and looks back.  Peizhi’s face is closed off, but he doesn’t silence his sister.

“Is it dangerous?” he asks, confused.

“I’m scared my uncle will chase after us,” Liling says in a small voice.  Anger bubbles up at the sound of her fear.

Jingyi’s first instinct is to say yes, and he opens his mouth to say so when something occurs to him. It will look suspicious if he fails to return tomorrow as he promised when Liling and Peizhi also go missing at the same time.

“I have to go back to the inn in the morning.  Otherwise, he can accuse me of kidnapping you and send people after us.’”

“Oh,” Liling says.

“Sounds exactly like the sort of underhanded trick he would pull,” Peizhi says with a dark face.

“However,” Jingyi says, “after that, I will catch up to you and make sure you get where you are going safely.”

“How will you catch up?” Peizhi asks, sounding skeptical.  Jingyi grins and lifts his sword in his hand.

“I can fly.”  

They both stare at him with disbelief on their faces, and he only smiles brighter.  He drops his hand and starts walking.  

“We’re almost to the edge of the woods now,” he tells them after a bit.  “I’ll put the talisman out.  You should go straight to the road and follow it.”

After he puts the talisman out, they pause for a moment.  The light had hardly been more than a candle, but without it, the forest is nearly black as ink.  Carefully they pick their way to the edge of the forest.  

Jingyi watches as the siblings scurry out of the forest and towards the road.  He watches until they vanish from view and then he waits a while longer.  Only once he’s certain they have enough of a head start to be fairly safe does he turn his attention back towards the farm where he’ll be spending the night.  He walks about halfway to the road before he changes his mind and draws his sword.  

Flying at night is not, strictly speaking, the safest thing to do.  But Jingyi is careful to fly up above the level of houses and people, but low enough to follow the curve of the road.  Since his spiritual energy has recovered over the last few days, the short trip is easy, and he enjoys the rush of wind against his face.  

Jingyi lands in the road, because flying into someone’s yard is just about as polite as walking into their house without knocking, and sheathes his sword.  There’s still light in the windows as he turns onto the small path that leads back to the house.  To his surprise, a figure holding a small lantern detaches itself and comes to greet him.  Not to his surprise, it’s the youngest Liu girl.  He still doesn’t know her name.

“Daozhang,” she says when she reaches him.  “Welcome back.”

“Miss Liu,” Jingyi offers her a bow.  “You didn’t need to trouble yourself.”

“It’s no trouble,” she tells him with a smile.  The way she’s standing is blocking his path towards the door, and he shifts slightly.

“We should,” he says and gestures towards the door.

“Oh,” she says, “right.”  She turns away from him and back towards the house.  Was that disappointment in her face?  

Jingyi doesn’t say anything as they start to walk back towards the house.  It’s occurring to him that he’s never actually been alone with a girl before.  Gusu Lan disciples are separated by gender, and unlike many of the boys, Jingyi has never tried to seek out a girl’s company before.  The only girl that he’s been around in any sort of casual setting is Zizhen’s twin sister.  

“How did your investigation go,” the girl says after a few steps.

“Alright,” Jingyi says.  Disappointing would be more accurate, but he doesn’t want to discuss it. 

“Is there really a ghost?”

“Yes,” he says and pauses, not sure how to continue.  It’s not like he’s delivering a night hunt report, and it’s not like she’s a fellow disciple.  Finally, he settles on, “But there’s nothing to be worried about.”

“Are ghosts dangerous?”  She asks, and her face, in the light of the lantern, is excited rather than scared.  

“Not all of them, but they can be.  This one certainly isn’t.”

“Oh,” she says and her tone is slightly disappointed.  He can recognize the look on her face; it’s the same one Zizhen gets when he reads a new story.  Jingyi wants to laugh at the absurdity of it; he’s never considered a world where ghosts and ghouls and demons are nothing more than stories.

“But you’ve fought dangerous ones before?”  Her gaze is intense on his face, and Jingyi keeps his eyes firmly ahead of him.  

“I have,” most of the levity has left his voice now.  

“Do you use your sword to hunt ghosts?”

“No,” Jingyi says and resists the urge to roll his eyes.  “Ghosts don’t have bodies.  The sword is for corpses, demons, devils, and beasts.”

There’s something between awe and interest on her face as she watches him.  But Jingyi’s eyes stay on the door, which is so close now.  

Before she can respond someone sticks their head out of the door, “Meimei, are you out here waiting still?  Niang is looking for you; she already told you to come in.  You’d best-”

It’s the older of the two sisters, and she breaks off when she sees Jingyi.  “Doazhang! I’m sorry, I didn’t see you.”

“Please, Miss Liu, there’s no need to apologize.  I have just returned.  I didn’t mean for anyone to wait up for me.”

“A-Jie,” the younger sister says but is cut off.

“Meimei,” the older girl turns her attention back to her sister, “you had better get inside right now, or you’ll be in trouble.”

The younger Miss Liu throws Jingyi a glance, which he ignores, before rushing into the house.  Jingyi can’t help but relax slightly once she’s out of sight.  But, as he turns back to the elder Miss Liu, he feels anxiety rising again as he realizes how things might look.

“Miss Liu, I apologize.  I did not know that she was waiting here for me.  I didn’t intend anything!”

The girl smiles and waves her hand in a dismissive gesture that helps Jingyi relax again.  “Don’t worry; you haven’t done anything wrong.  It was my sister who ambushed you.  I hope she isn’t bothering you too much.”

“It’s alright.  I don’t mind,” he says with a smile.  Lying, his brain reminds him, is forbidden.  

“Why don’t you come in,” she says and steps back into the house.  “We made up the extra bed in my brother’s room.  My older brother has his own area with his family now.”

“Thank you very much,” Jingyi says and follows her.  

“He might be asleep,” she says in a quiet voice once they reach a small hallway.  She points to one of the rooms.  

“I’ll be sure not to disturb him,” Jingyi says in an undertone.  Contrary to Lan Qiren’s beliefs, Jingyi does know how to be quiet.  It’s easy for him to move with near-silent steps as he enters the room.  He doesn’t mind the silence as he moves to the empty bed and prepares for sleep.  Fatigue is starting to tug at him as his natural clock tells him that it’s past nine.

He crawls into bed and lays on his stomach, pillowing his head on his arms.  He’d given up proper sleeping posture years ago.  The cadence of breathing across the room is different than the one he’s used to, but it’s still comforting.  He quickly drops into sleep.  

He dreams that he’s back in the Cloud Recesses, in the Jingshi specifically.  He’s maybe five years old, and Hanguang-jun is sitting across from him.  Beside him, A-Yuan is leaning over the table, with a calligraphy brush held slightly awkwardly in his chubby child’s hand.  His small face is screwed up in concentration.  Jingyi, A-Yi, has his hands tucked under his legs as he resists the urge to bounce up and down.  It’s the first time that he’s allowed into the Jingshi, and he is only allowed because A-Yuan had asked Hanguang-jun to give him special permission.  For now, he’s waiting for A-Yuan to finish his calligraphy lesson.

“A-Yi,” Sizhui says at last, and his face relaxes into an excited smile. “Look! It’s our names!”

Jingyi looks, but now he’s looking down at a music score. His gaze flickers from the score to the boy beside him.  They must only be thirteen or fourteen because Sizhui’s face still has it’s childhood softness.  For some reason, Jingyi is having trouble focusing on the score in front of him.  Every time Sizhui shifts and their shoulders or knees brush together his entire train of thought is derailed.  His gaze is pointedly on the scroll on the table and not on the way the afternoon light dances in Sizhui’s eyes.  

“Jingyi,” his voice is sweet and melodic, and weakly Jingyi wonders why his name sounds different when Sizhui says it.  

Jingyi turns to look at him because he can’t not when Sizhui is calling his name.  But now they’re seventeen or eighteen because now he’s looking up to Sizhui, who is taller than him.  His shoulders have started to fill out and his face is slimmer, and Jingyi can’t look away from the sunlight illuminates his cinnamon eyes.  The warmth that blooms in his chest as Sizhui smiles is familiar to him now.  

He opens his mouth to say Sizhui’s name, but before he can speak he’s waking up.  As awareness starts to grab at him, he desperately reaches out towards Sizhui who is sunny and smiling at him.  

Jingyi awakes with Sizhui’s name on his tongue and the ghost of his face on his eyelids.  He swallows back his name, not making a sound.  The lightness in the room tells him its morning.  He can hear the soft breathing of someone sleeping across the room from him, but he doesn’t open his eyes to look.  It’s not Sizhui.  Instead, he presses his face into the pillow and wills himself back to sleep. 

After a while, he does drift back into sleep.  But it’s a light doze empty of dreams.  The sounds of someone across the room from him moving about rouses him, and he sits up and rubs his face.

“I’m sorry if I woke you up,” his companion says.  Jingyi waves his hand.

“It’s time to get up,” he says and his voice is rough with sleep. Getting out of bed, he fixes his hair and pulls on his outer robes automatically.  There’s a frown on his face as he tries to remember his dream, but all he can get is a vague memory of Sizhui’s face.  

The young mister Liu heads out of the room, but Jingyi sits back down on the bed and pulls out his sword.  He hasn’t sharpened or oiled it since he left Gusu.  He whispers an apology to the sword and to his mother, who had owned it before him, as he draws the blade.  He sits in the early morning hush, lingering over the process longer than necessary.  

In the end, he sheathes it and heads out of the room.  When he reaches the main room he is met by Madam Liu.

“Good morning,” she says with a smile.  “Why don’t you have some breakfast.”

“Thank you,” Jingyi says and takes the seat offers him.  He eats in silence while Madam Liu cleans the room.  When he finishes he rises again.

“Madam Liu, I will take my leave.  This one offers thanks to both you and your family for hosting me.”  He offers her a bow.  

“None of that, none of that,” she says and waves at him to straighten.  “We’re just returning a favor.  I wish you safety and luck on your travels.”

“Thank you.”

Madam Liu sees him to the door, and then Jingyi is off on his way again.  It’s still early, maybe six or seven am, and the morning air is cool on his skin; he’s grateful for it.  His pace, as he approaches the village, is leisurely.  He highly doubts that the innkeeper, with his inn empty and his breath the night before smelling of wine, was up at five with the sun.  There’s a pebble on the road, and he makes a game for himself kicking it as he goes.  

When he reaches the village, he abandons his game and sobers himself.  It’s time for him to deal with the innkeeper.  There are a few people in the village this time, and they offer him curious gazes and quiet hellos, the latter of which he returns.  When he’s almost to the inn he’s surprised by the sound of raised voices coming from inside.  His hand tightens on his sword, and he speeds up to cover the last few steps to the inn.  Both voices are male, and he’s almost certain that he recognizes the voice of the innkeeper from last night.

When he opens the door, he is met with an empty room.  The shouting emanates from the kitchen, and Jingyi follows it.  

“You think I believe you?” the innkeeper growls.

“I don’t care if you believe me!”  The voice belongs to a young man, almost certainly Liling and Peizhi’s brother, Guozhi.  

“You should!”

“Why, are you going to threaten me some more?”

Jingyi has some experience with brawls breaking out between junior disciples, and as soon as he hears that phrase, he breaks into a run.  Both the innkeeper and a young man come into view as he approaches the door.

Jingyi has just enough time to get between them as the innkeeper brings his fist down. His hand catches the man’s wrist mid-swing.  The innkeeper freezes in confusion as his hand abruptly comes to halt.  His gaze flicks to his hand and then to Jingyi.

Jingyi has to physically resist the urge to tell the innkeeper that unsanctioned fighting is forbidden.  

“Let’s take a step back, why don’t we.”  Jingyi’s voice is calm, and there’s a smile on his face.

“This is none of your business,” the man growls at him.  He tries to continue his swing and then to yank his arm back, but Jingyi’s grip is iron.  

“Daozhang,” the younger man says, and his face is slightly flushed with embarrassment.  “Thank you for coming.  I’m sorry about this.”

“I don’t think you need to apologize,” Jingyi says easily.

He turns his attention to the innkeeper who seems to be only getting redder in the face.  “I’m going to let go now.  I recommend that you keep your hands to yourself.”

Jingyi releases his grip on the man’s hand and lets his arm fall casually to his side, but his unwavering attention is on the man in front of him.  He hasn’t forgotten the bruises on Liling’s face, and while, strictly speaking, it’s not his place to avenge her in any way, if the man insists on being violent, Jingyi wouldn’t mind returning the favor.  

“What right do you have to come in here and attack me!” the man spits at him.  

“I didn’t attack you! I stopped you from attacking someone else!” The words are out of his mouth before he can stop them.  So much for handling this calmly.  

“Get out!” the man moves to shove Jingyi away, but his hands never make their mark.  

In a single smooth motion, Jingyi blocks the man’s arm and slides out of the way of his shove.  He kicks out, hitting his opponent’s knee and sending him stumbling back.  Jingyi glances at the Guozhi who is looking at him with wide eyes.  

“I met your brother and sister yesterday.  They had a story for me.  I came here to deal with the ghost; legal matters are none of my business.  But I’m starting to rethink my neutrality.”

A series of emotions pass through Zhou Guozhi’s face, but Jingyi doesn’t have time to interpret it because the innkeeper lunges at him again.  He easily catches his arm, yanking him off balance before slamming an elbow into his back to send him to the ground.  His motions are controlled, using just enough force to send the man to the ground without breaking anything.  The man probably won’t even have any serious bruising, not like Liling.

“It’s not very fun being thrown to the ground, is it?” he asks, and while his voice and breathing are calm, there’s obvious anger in his face. Jingyi takes several breaths to clear his mind and soothe his temper before he looks at the young man beside him.

“I am sorry if I have overstepped,” he says.  “I didn’t intend to come and get in the middle of family business.”

“I,” the man says as he slowly recovers from the shock.  “No need.  He attacked you.  You were only trying to help.”

“The good news,” Jingyi says, still keeping one eye on the innkeeper who has started to push himself up off the floor.  “I’m fairly certain the ghost will be liberated once the inn is in the hands of the proper person and his children are safe.”

“Since when are you the authority?” the innkeeper demands as he gets to his feet.  When he doesn’t come after either of them, Jingyi thinks that he might have learned his lesson after the last few failed attempts.

“I’m not,” Jingyi says easily.  “I only stepped in to stop you from hitting someone.  It’s up to the Magistrate to deal with the property dispute.  If the inn belongs to you, then it stays with you.  Though, since I doubt I can appeal to your morality, I will tell you that if you don’t want to be haunted for the rest of your life, you should avoid hitting your nieces and nephews anymore.”

The man is almost purple now, but he doesn’t take another swing at Jingyi.  “Unless there’s anything else, I’ll be on my way.  I’ve got corpses to hunt and demons to slay.”

Both of them stare at him for a long moment, but neither says anything, so he turns and starts to walk away.  He’s not entirely certain that the innkeeper and his nephew won’t break down into a fight as soon as he’s out the door.  But that’s not his business; he’d reacted out of instinct earlier.  With his younger siblings safe, the nephew should be able to hold his own.  

“Daozhang!”  

Jingyi turns to see the Guozhi standing in the doorway of the kitchen.  “My siblings?”

“They’re fine.”

“Thank you!”

“I’m glad to help.”

Jingyi heads out into the village.  There are a few more people around now, and they all eye him curiously as he walks past.  It doesn’t bother him; he’s experienced it before when they worked in smaller villages.  

He’s almost out of the village when he decides to double back and grab something to have for lunch later.  A cheerful old woman smiles at him as she packs up a few steamed buns for him to take away.  

The road leading away from Qinghe looks exactly the same as the one leading to it.  Outside the town, rice farms and small groves of trees spread out around him.  He walks for fifteen minutes or so, enough to get completely clear of the village before he gets out his sword to fly.  

Jingyi likes flying; he always has.  When they were first learning, some kids, including Sizhui, were afraid of heights, but he never had been.  The dark had been much more frightening.  He doesn’t fly very high here, he doesn’t need to when he’s following the road.  But he enjoys the way the world spreads out like a quilt underneath you when you soar high above the ground.  He smiles at the familiar feeling of the wind on his skin as it whips his bangs out of his face.

He loses track of time as he flies, his gaze lazily scanning up the road and then admiring the scenery.  His mind drifts.  Twice he sees people on the road, but one is a farmer with his ox and another is a man carrying a basket.  So he continues until there are two small forms on the road below him.  He drops down low enough to ensure that it’s Peizhi and Liling before dropping all the way down to road level and hopping off the sword.  Then he plucks the sword out of the air and puts it back in the sheath strapped to his back.

When he’s done, both Liling and Peizhi are looking at him in surprise.  Jingyi gives them a radiant smile, “I told you that I could fly.”

“I, wow,” Peizhi says.  There’s genuine awe in his voice, and Jingyi’s smile brightens.  “You really can fly!  I thought that was only true in stories.”

“Nope,” Jingyi says and starts walking.  Peizhi and Liling quickly copy him.  “How far to the city?”

“It's a two-day walk from our village,” Peizhi informs him.  Jingyi nods in acknowledgment.  They’ll have to find somewhere to stay the night then.

“How long would it take you to fly there?” Liling asks.  

“I could probably get there by tonight,” he guesses.  Honestly, he’s not great at converting between walking times and flight times because he’s hardly had to walk much further than Caiyi Town.  They usually used their swords to get to distant destinations.  

“Could,” Liling says and her voice is very soft.  Jingyi turns his head towards her to listen.  “Could you fly us there?”

Jingyi considers for a second before shaking his head.  “I could take one of you, though it would probably slow me down.  I couldn’t carry two people that far.  I think only Hanguang-jun would be able to do that.”

“Who’s that?” Peizhi asks.  

Jingyi flounders for a moment.  Who is Hanguang-jun? At last, he says, “he’s the chief cultivator.  You know, the leader of the cultivation world! I’ve never seen anyone try and carry two people on the sword, but I’m sure he could do it.”

“He must be very strong then,” Liling says.

“Absolutely!” Jingyi agrees.  And he can’t resist, so he starts to tell them about how Hanguang-jun had killed the tortoise of the slaughter when he was only sixteen and he had held the assassination cord for six hours.

Liling and Peizhi listened with interest, caught up in Jingyi’s storytelling.  They travel and talk, and Jingyi tells them all sorts of stories about Hanguang-jun during the sunshot campaign and on dangerous night hunts.  And then eventually about Yi City and how Hanguang-jun had defeated Xue Yang without even being able to see him!  Then how he figured out that the chief cultivator at the time was actually corrupt and had killed his own family for power.  

The stories stretched out for hours as they walked.  When the sun rose high over their heads, they stopped by the side of the road for lunch.  Liling and Peizhi offer him some of the food that they had brought, but Jingyi refuses and pulls out the buns he’d bought.  

As they walk for the rest of the afternoon, they continue to chat.  Mostly, Jingyi tells stories.  He finishes telling the story of Lianfang-zun being unmasked and how Hanguang-jun had become the chief cultivator.  But after that Peizhi and Liling start to ask him about his own experiences, with the corpse poison in Yi City and the kidnapping at the burial grounds.  

Three years ago, these had been easily the scariest weeks of his life, but time has changed most of the fear into excitement, and he’s happy to tell them.  If he catches a bit on Sizhui’s name or mentions a few too many times how polite or kind or elegant Sizhui is, they don’t mention it.  

It’s nice talking to them, Jingyi realizes after a while.  Through the last few days, he hadn’t even realized that he was lonely outside of the ache of missing Sizhui.  But he’s always been a very social person and chatting with his traveling companions eases something in his chest.  

They pass several small farmhouses as they walk, and when it’s close to dark, Jingyi decides to stop and ask if someone will give them a place to sleep.  The old farmer who answers the door takes in Jingyi’s cultivator robes and sword and his easy smile and points them all to the barn.  The three of them lay down in the hay, with Jingyi a bit away from the other two.  

Again, Jingyi can’t help but imagine the Young Mistress’s face in this situation, and the happy thought carries him to sleep. 

Chapter Text

How could you just walk away and leave me here?

Early morning sunlight filters through the window of Sizhui and Jingyi’s room, falling across the form slumped over the table. Sizhui stirs, automatically waking as the 5 am bell is struck.  His knees ache and his face is pressed to the wooden table but neither of those feelings compares to the ache in his back.  He tries to stir, to shift, to alleviate the pain from somewhere, but something on his back tugs, and his vision almost goes white with pain.  

Instantly, he freezes.  After a few breaths, he tries to move his arm.  When he moves it slowly, he can feel one of the wounds on his shoulder tugging.  Confused because he’d certainly been able to move his arm yesterday, he turns his head towards his shoulder.  His gaze falls on the rusty-brown stained fabric on his shoulder.  With a groan, he allows his face to fall back against the wooden desk.  The blood from last night had dried causing the bandages to stick to the wounds.

His bed is only two chi away, but he’s not at all sure he can get there.  But he’s willing to bet that his father will come looking for him soon, and he doesn’t want to be found in quite this state.  If he could at least sit up. Carefully, he tests the range of his arms and then shifts his legs.  When he tries to push his shoulders back, he gasps in pain.  Gritting his teeth, he slowly slides his hands close to him and starts to press himself up into a sitting position.  His back screams, and he’s sure that at least one of his wounds has started bleeding again.  Black dances at the edge of his vision and his breaths come in pants, but he manages to straighten his back.  The knuckles of his hands are white where he grips the table and his body sways dangerously, but he manages to stay up.  

He can hear the faint sounds of feet on the floor above his head as the other disciples get ready for the day.  After a few minutes, the sound of muffled voices joins the sounds of feet.  Sizhui closes his eyes.  The sounds of day to day life surround him, and he feels suddenly isolated.  Sizhui’s whole world has been flipped over and pulled apart, but all around the cloud recesses, life is going on exactly as normal.  Suddenly his small dorm room feels like a universe all on its own.  

He can’t bear to listen to the sounds anymore.  They only serve as a horrible reminder of just how wrong things are.  Instead, Sizhui focuses on his breaths and does his best to meditate even though the pain on his back makes it difficult.  It insists on making itself known no matter what techniques Sizhui tries to clear his mind.  He’s so focused that he almost doesn’t hear his own name.

“Sizhui.”  It’s Hanguang-jun speaking.

Sizhui’s eyes open, and he looks to the door.  Sizhui doesn’t speak; he only bows his head.  His father is standing near the closed door with his usual inscrutable expression, but he can hear the displeasure in Hanguang-jun’s voice.

“You brought yourself here?”

“Yes.”

Hanguang-jun moves towards Sizhui.  Sizhui doesn’t try to follow him with his gaze since he can only turn his neck so far.  There’s a long moment of silence as Hanguang-jun stands behind him.  He can feel his father’s gaze, and he keeps his spine straight and doesn’t squirm.

“Can you move?” 

“No,” Sizhui admits.  He can hear the whisper of fabric behind him as Hanguang-jun moves. He feels a touch, gentle as a butterfly, on his shoulder and then his waist.  Then footsteps are moving away from him, and Hanguang-jun moves to the door.  He pauses, looking at Sizhui.  

Sizhui can sense emotions brewing behind his father’s calm exterior and see it in the faint line between his eyebrows and the slight change in the set of his lips.  Hanguang-jun actually hesitates, and he senses that his father is fighting the instinct to tell him to wait, knowing that he can’t do anything else.  

“I’ll be back,” he says and exits the room.

Sizhui turns his gaze back to the desk before him.  Carefully, he picks up Jingyi’s note and reads it once again before folding it neatly and putting it under his paperweight. Then he crosses his hands and waits.  What else can he do?

When Hanguang-jun returns he is alone and he has a bucket of water in one hand.  Sizhui is surprised; he’d expected Hanguang-jun to drag a healer back with him.  Hanguang-jun doesn’t say anything as he moves to sit behind Sizhui.  

“This will take time,” he says.

“I understand.”  

Hanguang-jun’s hands are incredibly gentle as he begins to work.  It’s the same care that Sizhui has seen him use with newborn bunnies.  Removing the bandages is a slow process, and Sizhui sits through it in silence.  He knows that his own rashness the night before caused the wounds to reopen and bleed.  As gentle as Hanguang-jun is, it is not a pleasant process.  By the end, Sizhui’s whole body is trembling and the water his father brought his red with blood.

Still, Sizhui lets out a sigh as the last piece of fabric comes free of his skin.  Behind him, his father is perfectly still, and Sizhui waits for his cue to move.

“Most of the wounds have reopened,” Hanguang-jun’s voice doesn’t quite manage to be clinical.  “At least two days of healing undone.  ”

Sizhui bows his head slightly.  Hanguang-jun doesn’t actively reproach him, but Sizhui knows his father well enough to catch the different thoughts behind the words.  This is what you have done.  Was it worth it? You will be stuck in bed longer now. Remember that.

“These need to be cleaned and rebandaged.”

“Yes, Hanguang-jun.”

His father gets up and exits the room again.  Sizhui uses the opportunity to switch from his kneeling to lotus position and relieve the ache in his knees.  His eye catches on the pile of bloody fabric behind him and he freezes.  Red blood floods the drifting clouds on previously white silk as the snake catches Chen Shenzhi. 

He’s never been squeamish around blood before, a cultivator can’t afford to be, but suddenly he feels ill.  Resolutely, he turns away and faces the desk again.  Guilt rises up inside of him; he’s been so caught up in his own suffering that he hasn’t thought about the night hunt or the other disciples lost.  His eyes burn, and he closes them as if to stem the tide.  But he can’t.  Each one of the eight people who died has been his fellow disciples for years.  He can see them in his mind.  Sitting at their desks while Great Uncle Lan Qiren lectures, sparring in the training grounds, laughing as they walk through the streets of Caiyi town, and more so much more.  His shoulders shake sending waves of pain through his back.

“A-Yuan.”

Hanguang-jun is kneeling beside him.  For an instant, it seems like he is going to embrace his son, but how could he without causing him further pain?  

“The others,” Sizhui says and his hands clench into fists on his thighs.  He doesn't have to explain who he means.  “I wasn’t strong enough to save them.”

For a brief moment, Hanguang-jun closes his eyes.  Maybe he’s remembering the Sunshot campaign and his fellow disciples who died there or maybe it’s the burning of the Cloud Recesses prior to that.

“No one can save everyone,” he says after that brief pause and there’s a heaviness in his voice.  

“You could have done it,” Sizhui says.  “You would have been able to save them.”

“Maybe.”  He can’t say for sure; he wasn’t there.  “But I have much more experience than you.”

“You defeated the tortoise of the slaughter when you were my age.”

“That was a different situation.  They shouldn’t be compared.”

Out of respect, Sizhui doesn’t argue, but it’s plain on his face that he’s not convinced.  Hanguang-jun lets out a long breath, which is as close as he usually gets to a sigh.

“A-Yuan,” Hanguang-jun’s voice is as steady as ever.  “You are young and you want to save everyone.  That is not possible.  There are some things that cannot be beaten.  You and Jingyi are the best Lan Sect disciples of your generation.”

Sizhui’s whole face blushed scarlet at the praise. Hanguang-jun does not lie or exaggerate, and he does not pick favorites.  If he says something like that, then he means it.  Sizhui opens his mouth, but Hanguang-jun shakes his head.

“Do not interrupt.”  

Chastened, Sizhui closes his mouth and looks down as Hanguang-jun continues, “If the two of you, with eight companions, could not defeat it.  That is not a personal failing.”

Sizhui can only nod.  The words do not purge the guilt in his heart, but they do ease it.  After a few steadying breaths, he says, “Thank you for your words, Hanguang-hun.”

“Mn.”

Hanguang-jun watches his face for another moment before he turns his attention to Sizhui’s back.  He retrieves a fresh bucket of water from behind him, which Sizhui hadn’t even noticed before, and moves so that he is once again sitting behind his son.  

While Hanguang-jun’s motions are patient and careful, there is only so much he can do to ease the process.  But the pain is manageable, and Sizhui sits in silence as his wounds are cleaned, salved, and rebandaged.  The pain grounds him in the moment and stops him from thinking about the night hunt or Jingyi’s disappearance.  He is almost grateful for it.

Hanguang-jun’s hands still for only a few moments before they move to his hair.  His hands calmly work through the large knots.  Sizhui feels his face growing hot for what feels like the hundredth time today.  His hair had been loose and tangled before from days of lying in bed, but now it must also be partially matted with blood.

“I apologize for the state of my appearance,” he says.  He wants to say that he will take care of it himself, but how can he?  There’s no way that he can get his arms behind his head to deal with it.  

“Mn.” It is neither an admonishment nor an absolution.  It is simply acceptance.  

As his father combs and braids his hair, Sizhui can’t help but relax.  When he was small; he would sit every evening in front of his father, just as they were now, and Hanguang-jun would brush out his hair and braid it for the night to prevent it from becoming a disaster as the small boy tossed and turned in his sleep.

When Hanguang-jun stands, Sizhui, who’d started to doze, blinks in surprise.  

“I cannot carry you without hurting you,” he says and there’s a definite note of unhappiness behind his voice.

Sizhui nods.  “I will manage.”  

When he turns to get up, he finds that Hanguang-jun is offering his arm.  Sizhui grips it to steady himself as he tries to stand without bending or moving his back.  His motion is awkward and fumbling, but he manages, and Hanguang-jun steadies him with a hand on his chest.  He leans on his father as Hanguang-jun helps him walk back towards the bed.  Part of him is embarrassed, but he is tired, and it is not the time for pride.  The rules bid him to be humble anyway.

Without Hanguang-jun, Sizhui probably would have fallen face-first onto the bed.  But his father’s steady arm under his chest supports his weight.  Only when he is settled, does Hanguang-jun step away.

“It is best,” he says, “if you stay in bed for a while.”

“I understand,” Sizhui says.  Guilt fills him again at the fact that his father is here cleaning his back and braiding his hair when he certainly has other business to attend to.  “I will stay.”

He expects Hanguang-jun to go then, now that he is settled.  But instead, his father takes a seat at his desk and summons his guqin, Wangji.

“Hanguang-jun,” Sizhui says when he sees this.

“Mn?”

“Thank you, but you do not need to.  I know you have your duties.”

Hanguang-jun does not look up from his guqin and replies with his usual, “Mn.” 

Sizhui watches the graceful way that his father’s fingers move over the guqin: calm, confident, and sure.  There is no hesitation in him.  Sizhui closes his eyes and lets the music wash over him.  He recognizes it, but cannot put a name to it just then.  He can feel the spiritual energy behind the music as it washes over him in soothing waves.  Slowly, Sizhui drifts into sleep.



 

The Song of Tranquility flows from the guqin under Lan Wangji’s fingers.  His fingers pluck out the notes without his conscious thought.  How long had he spent on this song all those years ago, when Wei Wuxian first turned to demonic cultivation? Even he doesn’t know.  

The song he plays is not only for Sizhui but for himself.  It has been years since Lan Wangji has felt so much emotional turmoil.  The song soothes Sizhui and hopefully washes away any lingering effects of his brush with demonic cultivation, but it also helps to steady Lan Wangji.

When Lan Wangji finishes playing the Song of Tranquility and the last chords fade away, Sizhui is deeply asleep.  Lan Wangji stows away his guqin and rises.  It is only a few paces to Sizhui’s bedside.  He presses one hand to the boy’s forehead to check for any signs of fever, but there are none.  For several moments he sits in silence, watching his sleeping son, and his heart aches.  

For years, he sat by A-Yuan’s bedside with an aching heart, but this is entirely different.  Sizhui has always been a bright spot, an anchor, to hold him when he thought the tides of grief would sweep him away.  He knew that one day Sizhui might be severely injured or even killed and has done everything in his power to help Sizhui be the most powerful cultivator he can be, but it is as he said earlier, no one can save everyone. He had never imagined the ache that it would leave in his heart to see the sweet, sunny boy he raised battered down and bloody.  And of course, this is not a normal injury, not from a mistake on a night hunt.  It is a punishment.  Lan Wangji closes his eyes and tries to clear his mind of the turmoil bubbling up. 

His anger, his guilt, his sorrow, they serve no purpose here, and he strives to let them go, but it is not easy.  As he sits by his son’s side, he remembers the one who sat with him all those years ago. And he knows what he should do, but he will wait until Wei Wuxian is here.  They should not leave Sizhui alone.  He has done more talking today than he is used to, but there is another conversation he needs to have.

Lan Wangji only rises from his vigil by his son's side when he hears Wei Wuxian’s steps on the floor outside.  When the door opens, Wei Wuxian is already halfway to starting to speak, but Lan Wangji motions for him to be quiet.  He is not sure how long or how deeply Sizhui will sleep.

“Is he sleeping?” Wei Wuxian says in a hushed voice and Lan Wangji nods.  “Is he, is he okay?”

Wei Wuxian makes a face at his own question, and Lan Wangji understands.  Is Sizhui alright? Can he be?

He is as well as Lan Wangji can make him.

“Mn.”

“You want to say something,” Wei Wuxian asks, and his sharp gaze is on Lan Wangji’s face.  It is both odd and comforting to have Wei Wuxian read him like a book.  For years it had only been Xichen, and then A-Yuan, and now Wei Wuxian.  

“I need to speak with Xichen.”  Wei Wuxian’s eyes go soft, and he nods.

“I will stay here.  Don’t worry.  Well, you are going to worry.  Don’t worry too much,” he says and waves his hand in partial dismissal.

“I will return.”

“I know,” he says, and he is smiling.  Lan Wangji cannot resist and leans in for a goodbye kiss before he steps around him to the door.  But he can feel tension and hesitation in Wei Wuxian’s response, and so he waits.  His face is serious when he speaks again, “Lan Zhan, how long do you think we have before he takes off after Jingyi?”

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees motion on the bed. Lan Wangji keeps his gaze on his son as he considers the question.  Sizhui has not said anything, but Lan Wangji does not doubt that he will go after Jingyi.  He cannot even fault him, not really, not when he still wishes that he had gone after Wei Wuxian and followed him to the Burial Mounds.  But Sizhui, Lan Wangji knows, is more temperate than he is.  Still, in the end, he will go.  So Lan Wangji thinks back to his own healing before he answers.

“Three weeks,” he says at last.  

“But there’s no way he’ll be completely healed by then.” There is a frown on Wei Wuxian’s normally sunny face.

“No,” Lan Wangji agrees.  But he will be able to walk and fly and cultivate again.  Sizhui is more temperate than Lan Wangji and more patient than Wei Wuxian, and Lan Wangji trusts him to wait until his body can make the journey, so long as nothing pushes him.  Lan Wangji prays to the ancestors that Jingyi will stay safe until then for all of their sakes.

Senior Wei sighs, “He got this from you, you know, always pushing yourself until you can’t.”

Lan Wangji stares at Wei Wuxian for a moment.  He wants to point out the hundred times that Wei Wuxian has pushed himself too hard.  To remind him of the stab wounds and burns he tried to laugh off and the times he kept going until he was coughing up blood, but all he responds with is, “Oh?”

“Okay, alright, maybe it’s from both of us,” We Wuxian says with a soft laugh because he knows exactly what Lan Wangji means.  “Well, go on, go on.”    

Lan Wangji heads out of the door.  As he closes it behind him, he hears Wei Wuxian’s voice:

“Little A-Yuan, I think you almost gave Lan Zhan a heart attack this morning.”

As Lan Wangji crosses the Cloud Recesses towards the Hanshi he works to calm himself.  In moments like these, he is especially grateful for the Gusu Lan discipline.  He knows that he is unreadable to most people, but Lan Xichen is not most people.  Lan Wangji must calm his heart before he speaks with his brother.  

Perhaps, in the past, Lan Wangji would have gone to Xichen with the turmoil of his heart.  But not now.  It has been three years since Xichen entered seclusion.  At first, Lan Wangji was afraid that his brother would seclude himself for the remainder of their lives, leaving him alone just as their father did.  But Lan Xichen, Lan Wangji thinks, is stronger than him.  He bends where Lan Wangji breaks, where their father broke.  Xichen is healing from his grief, and Lan Wangji will not burden him further.

Before he goes to the Hanshi, Lan Wangji goes to the kitchen for tea.  He takes care to get one of Lan Xichen’s favorite types of tea.  One of the disciples offers to bring it for him, but Lan Wangji waves him away.  

He knocks gently on the door when he comes to the Hanshi.  “Xiongzhang, I would like to speak with you.”

“Wangji, come in,” there is a ghost of a smile in his brother’s voice.  Lan Wangji takes a deep breath to clear his mind before he steps inside.  

“I was not expecting you,” Lan Xichen says and there is a small smile on his lips.  It is only a shadow of the smile he had before, but it is there.  Sometimes, Lan Wangji wishes Nie Mingjue had killed Jin Guangyao back when the Wen’s attacked the Unclean Realm.

“I apologize,” he says, “I came suddenly.”

Lan Wangji takes a seat across from his brother.  There is a table between them, and Lan Wangji places the tea tray down and prepares it for them.

“What is bothering you,” Lan Xichen says once the tea is poured.  “Has something happened.”

No matter how he tries, Lan Wangji can never seem to hide his feelings from his brother. 

Lan Wangji will not lie so he says instead, “Everything is taken care of.  Do not worry.”  

Lan Xichen’s eyes do not leave his brother’s face as he raises his tea to drink, but he says no more.  Patient as ever, he gives his brother the space to think.

“Sixteen years ago,” Lan Wangji starts and confusion temporarily flashes across Lan Xichen’s face.  “I caused you much suffering, and I apologize.”

He knew, before, that it must have been hard for Lan Xichen to see him in such a state, but he had not understood the way he does now.  There is no avoiding the aching, bubbling mess of sorrow, guilt, and anger that rises inside of him like the tide when he is faced with Sizhui’s suffering. 

“Xiongzhang, thank you,” Lan Wangji offers a bow of gratitude.

Lan Xichen waits for a moment to see if Lan Wangji will say more, but he does not.

“I accept your apology, but, Wangji, this is very sudden.”

“Mn.”

There is worry in Lan Xichen’s face, but Lan Wangji is not sure what he can do it ease it.  It is forbidden to lie and say that he is alright and everything is fine, and Lan Xichen would see through it even if he tried.  

“Is there something you wish to talk about, Wangji?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head.  Though his heart is full of turmoil, he has no wish to dump that burden on his brother.  His brother has already born that burden once for him, and he had done so despite the anger between them.

Someone will have to tell Lan Xichen what has happened; he is still the Sect Leader after all, but Lan Wangji does not trust himself to do so calmly.  There is a long moment of silence between them, and it seems to stretch out far longer than the several breaths that it lasts.

Then Lan Xichen sets his cup of tea down, and the moment is broken.  Lan Wangji relaxes.  When Lan Wangji has finished his tea, he rises to leave.  Sometimes his brother asks him to stay, and he plays the guqin or they read together, but Lan Xichen has not asked and so he will go.  

“Thank you for seeing me, Xiongzhang,” Lan Wangji says before he offers a bow.

“Wangji,” Lan Xichen’s voice stops him before he can leave, “I am always here for you, you know that?”

“Mn.” 

A small smile crosses Lan Xichen’s lips at his brother’s reply.  As Lan Wangji retreats from the Hanshi, he can feel his brother’s eyes on his back.

 


 

Senior Wei stays with Sizhui while Hanguang-jun is gone. He lounges at Sizhui’s desk with one elbow on the table in a way that is definitely not a proper sitting posture and talks.  His voice and tone are light, and he tells Sizhui about the silly things he did with Nie Huaisang and Jiang Wanyin while they were at Gusu.  

Sizhui is happy to listen.  It keeps his thoughts and his gaze away from the empty half of the room.  He focuses on the stories so that he won’t think about how many times he has lain in this bed listening to Jingyi chatter at him from across the room.  

Hanguang-jun returns with lunch in time to rescue a very red-faced Sizhui from both Senior Wei’s tales about Nie Huaisang’s book collection and his teasing questions.  Hanguang-jun only raises an eyebrow when Senior Wei informs him in a disappointed voice that Sizhui has no interesting information about the guest disciples.  

Hanguang-jun helps Sizhui sit up so that he can eat, and Senior Wei complains about the food while Sizhui and Hanguang-jun eat in silence.  He even gives Sizhui a fourth bowl, citing medical exception, and refuses to budge until Sizhui has finished it.  

Sizhui has a vague memory of eating all his meals in the Jingshi during his earliest days at the Cloud Recesses and how Hanguang-jun always gave him extra food with dinner.  At the time he hadn’t understood that he had needed it to recover from his fever and years of poor nutrition and had been vaguely guilty about breaking the rules of his new home.  What he remembers very clearly is Jingyi, Sizhui’s very new and very first friend, being incredibly jealous and scoffing, as much as a five-year-old can scoff, at his guilt.

When Hanguang-jun helps him lie down again, he puts his arms on his pillow instead of by his side so that he has something to support his head if Senior Wei wants to have another round of conversation.  

As Hanguang-jun gathers the dishes neatly together on the tray, Sizhui starts to tuck his arms under his pillow.  But when his hand slides under the pillow his fingers encounter something.  Sizhui freezes in his motions, but luckily Hanguang-jun has his back to Sizhui, and Senior Wei has his eyes on Hanguang-jun.  Carefully, Sizhui folds his arms under his pillow and presses his face into it.  

His mind is spinning.  The only person who would have put something under his pillow is Jingyi.  His desire to pull out whatever piece of fabric Jingyi has stuffed under his pillow is almost desperate, but Senior Wei and Hanguang-jun are both here.  This, he thinks, is somehow private between him and Jingyi.  And he wants time to process this, whatever it is, without his fathers watching him.

“Are you tired?” Senior Wei’s voice breaks into Sizhui’s train of thoughts.

“Yes,” Sizhui responds without thinking.  It’s not a lie; he is tired.  Even though he’s already taken a nap today, his spiritual energy feels drained, and the pain in his back wears at him.  But it’s more than that; for the first time in his life, Sizhui feels tired to his soul.  His emotions have been chaos ever since the night hunt, bouncing from anxiety to fear to pain to hope to crushing grief, and he feels like a storm has seized him and spit him out.  

“Rest,” Hanguang-jun says, and there is no debate in his voice  Sizhui doesn’t want to anyway.  Hanguang-jun pauses, and Sizhui wonders if he will stay and play guqin again, but Senior Wei grabs his arm and pulls him out of the room.  

Sizhui listens to their retreating steps until he can hear them no longer.  For several moments he is frozen, unsure if he is ready to face whatever it is that Jingyi has tucked under his pillow.  He can’t help but think about the night before and the chaos of emotion that had swamped him.  His eyes flicker to his desk where the letter is still tucked safely under his paperweight.  

He moves his hand back under his pillow, ignoring the pain as the wounds on his back pull; it is nothing compared to this morning. His fingers tangle in something that feels like embroidered silk.  It’s something that feels uncomfortably familiar, and he unconsciously holds breath as he pulls his hand out from underneath the pillow.

Sizhui’s whole world stops.  All he can see is the long white silk ribbon in his hand.  His eyes trace the drifting cloud patterns embroidered on the ribbon as his brain scrambles desperately.  Jingyi’s forehead ribbon, he is holding Jingyi’s forehead ribbon.  Half of his brain is screaming to drop it, that he’s intruding, that he doesn’t have the right.  But the other half of him wants to hold onto it and never let go.  

A memory hits Sizhui like a lightning bolt as he recalls that this isn’t actually the first time that he has touched Jingyi’s forehead ribbon.  

 

He’s young, maybe seven or eight, and he’s in the bunny meadow with Jingyi.  The sun is warm overhead, there’s a bunny in his arms, and Jingyi is laughing under a pile of bunnies; he can hardly imagine anything better.  He strokes the soft fur of the black bunny cradled in his arms a few more times before he sets it down.

“A-Yi.”  He speaks quietly to avoid startling the bunnies.  “We should go back.”

“Okay,” Jingyi says and sits up, sending rabbits scattering.  But there are some, having grown accustomed to this slightly louder visitor, who stay resolutely by his side.  Neither Jingyi nor Sizhui notices that one of the bunnies is chewing on Jingyi’s forehead ribbon.  And when he stands up, the knot keeping it on is pulled loose.  

With a quick motion, Jingyi manages to catch the ribbon before he falls to the ground.  He spends several seconds convincing the bunny to relinquish the ribbon before it’s free.  Not sure what to say or do, Sizhui waits quietly.  Though he does check his own forehead ribbon to make sure that it’s still in place and straight.  He doesn’t completely understand the importance of the ribbon even though Hanguang-jun has explained it and Master Lan Qiren has talked about it.  He doesn’t understand why, but he accepts the rule and makes sure that his ribbon is always straight.

Across from him, Jingyi is frowning as he tries to tie the ribbon behind his head.  It’s a skill that Sizhui also hasn’t mastered.  Hanguang-jun ties his for him in the morning.  Sizhui shifts from foot to foot as Jingyi gets more and more frustrated with trying to tie his forehead ribbon.  He hates seeing Jingyi frustrated, but he understands.  Jingyi will get in trouble if he’s seen not wearing it.  In the end, even though he knows he’s not supposed to, Sizhui quietly offers:

“I can tie it for you if you don’t mind.”

“Would you?” Jingyi looks up at him with hope.  Jingyi has already gotten in trouble today with Master Lan Qiren.  Ever since their lessons with Master Lan have started, Jingyi can’t seem to keep out of trouble.  But this time, Sizhui can help.

“Sure,” he says with a smile and walks over to his friend.  Jingyi centers the ribbon on his forehead and smooths the sides so it’s lying properly and Sizhui takes up the ends.  It’s so much easier to tie a knot when you can look at it.  He’s just finished and is about to step away and tell Jingyi that they are ready to go when a voice breaks the quiet of the clearing.

“What is going on here!” Lan Qiren’s voice freezes both of them in place.  

 

Slowly, one at a time, Sizhui’s fingers curled around the ribbon in his hand.  His gaze doesn’t leave the ribbon even as emotions rage like a hurricane inside of him.  

That was the first time that they had to copy out the Lan Sect Rules in a handstand, he remembers.  At the time, he hadn’t understood why Lan Qiren was so upset when he didn't get this upset about other rules.  Now Sizhui understands.

There are only two occasions when a Lan forehead ribbon changes hands: marriage and death.  

Sizhui has never seen cultivation partners exchange forehead ribbons.  It is not a part of the public ceremony; it is an intimate moment shared between the couple.  But he has been to a Gusu Lan funeral. Senior Wei says that Gusu Lan Sect is always dressed in funeral attire, but that is not true. 

 

Sizhui can see old Lan Huizhong dressed in his plain white funeral robes.  Normally, he walks with a stick, but it is on the ground now.  Both of his gnarled hands are wrapped around the small round box in his hand.  His hands shake as he holds on to his wife’s forehead ribbon.  Her body is gone to the ground now and the only thing left of her is the ribbon in his hands.  A ribbon that he must now place on the altar to the ancestors.  Lan’s do not mourn loudly; they do not cry or wail.  But there is no escaping the devastating grief expressed by the single tear running down Lan Huizhong’s withered cheeks.

 

Sizhui feels his own eyes burning, and he shakes his head.  Jingyi is not dead.  He is not.  It is clear that he intended to depart Gusu Lan and never return, to declare himself dead to the sect in a way.  But he also left an unmistakable declaration of his love.

Sizhui’s heart aches.

He thinks of Hanguang-jun and the echoes of Inquiry, unanswered, filling the Jingshi.

He thinks of Song Lan, with Shuanghua a slash of white against his dark clothes, and the pouch with the remnants of Xiao Xingchen’s soul desperately clutched in his hands. 

His grip on the forehead ribbon tightens until his knuckles are white.  

One thing, Sizhui decides right then and there.  Lan Jingyi does not get to declare his love for Sizhui only to vanish forever.  He. Does. Not.

Chapter Text

I tried to walk together
But the night was growing dark
Thought you were beside me
But I reached and you were gone

Jingyi wakes, as usual, at five the next morning.  His gaze flicks, if only for a moment, to the place where Sizhi’s bed would be before he’s awake enough to realize what he’s doing.  The ache in his heart at the empty space is starting to feel familiar.  He looks over and sees that Peizhi and Liling are both fast asleep, so he rolls over and happily goes back to bed.  

He’s not sure exactly what time it is when he awakes again to the sound of an ox braying.  Sitting up, he rubs the sleep out of his eyes and glances at his two companions.  They look blearily back at him.  After a few minutes of yawning and stretching and getting hay out of their hair, the three of them thank the farmer, who bruskly waves them off, and get back on the road.

Liling passes Jingyi a pear for breakfast as they walk.  It’s quiet at first, as the vestiges of sleep cling to them.  But the sun rises higher in the sky, and they wake up.  They begin to chat and Peizhi tells Jingyi about his friends in the village.  Jingyi enjoys listening to his stories and sometimes replies with one of his own.  Peizhi tells him about how one of his friends lost his shoe in the rice paddy while they were drunk and Jingyi tells him how Zizhen fell off the pier in Baling after a few too many drinks and Sizhui, who was the soberest, had to fish him out again.  For most of their conversation, Liling is quiet, smiling and laughing along with her brother.  But once or twice she adds a story of her own.

Their conversation carries them through the morning.  The sun is high in the sky, and Jingyi is about to ask if they want to stop for lunch when they crest a small hill and the town comes into view.  It's nowhere near as big as Qinghe, but it’s a significant step up from the village Liling and Peizhi came from.  Relief is plain on the siblings’ faces, and Jingyi smiles along with them, but part of him is crestfallen.  

It was nice traveling with these two.  He can’t help but be unhappy about the fact that he’ll soon be alone again.  It’s something he’d never considered before.  His whole life, he’d been in the Cloud Recesses with his fellow disciples.  Even if he wasn’t close with all of them, they usually got along. 

They enter the town along the main road and soon come to a small but bustling market.  Jingyi looks around, searching for the magistrate’s office.  But both Peizhi and Liling have looks of distracted excitement on their faces.  

“Look at all these food stalls!” Peizhi says

“That stall has so many lovely fans, GeGe,” Liling says

“Haven’t you guys been here before?” Jingyi asks, looking from one to the other.

“Only a few times,” Peizhi tells him.  “It’s not like we’re farmers, who need to take their goods somewhere to sell.  Father needed to stay home.”

Jingyi wants to kick himself for not thinking about something that simple.  

“Well, why don’t you go to the magistrate’s office first.  It’s only noon now, so the market will be open for quite a while.”

“Will you come with us?” Liling asks.

“Until the magistrate,” Jingyi says.  He ignores the unhappy feeling in his chest.  “We should ask someone for directions.”

Liling visibly blanches at the idea, and Peizhi looks around with clear anxiety, so Jingyi walks over to the closest stall.

“Excuse me, Miss,” he says and offers a smile to the woman working the stall.  She turns away from the box of fruit that she’d been preparing to unpack.

“How can I help you?”

“I’m looking for the magistrate’s office.  I was wondering if you could point me in the right direction?”

“Oh,” she looks him over, “Daozhang! Are you here to help with the corpses?”

Jingyi raises an eyebrow at that, “Corpses?”

“Some people came running into the city the last few nights saying there was a crowd of walking corpses outside the city!”

A frown flashes across Jingyi’s face.  A whole crowd of walking corpses was never good.  The last time he had seen a crowd of walking corpses was in Yi City.  Still, rumors can be exaggerated.

“Is that so?” He offers her a smile, “I’ll definitely investigate then.  Could you just point me in the right direction?” 

Leaning over the edge of her stall, she points out a building a few blocks away.  Jingyi thanks her and begins to head back to Liling and Peizhi, but he’s only a few steps away when the shopkeeper calls after him:

“Daozhang!“

Jingyi turns around to see her smiling and waving something at him.

“Catch!”  He easily plucks the object out of the air before opening his hand to reveal a pear.  “For your help.”

He offers her a small bow.  He feels a bit bad accepting thanks for something he hasn’t even done yet, but it’d be ruder to return it.  Plus, he likes pears. 

When he turns around, he can see Peizhi and Liling quietly discussing something.  Not wanting to interrupt, he stops a few feet away and calls their names.  They look up at him in unison, and he nods his head in the direction of the magistrate.  He takes a bite out of the pear as he starts down the street.  

It only takes a few steps for them to catch up to him.  While Jingyi only glances at the stalls as they go, Liling and Peizhi stare.  Every few steps one of them will grab the other and point at something.  It reminds him of when he was a child, and Hanguang-jun would sometimes take both Sizhui and Jingyi into Caiyi Town; the two of them had gasped and tugged on each other and whispered and stared.  

Jingyi doesn’t interrupt them until they reach the magistrate’s office.  Now that he’s close, the building is obviously separate from the others and the sign over the door proudly declares itself the house of the law.  Peizhi and Liling don’t even notice that Jingyi has stopped, and he has to call them back.  

“Is this it?” Liling asks.

“Yeah,” Jingyi says and points to the sign over the door with the mostly-eaten pear.  The two of them glance at it, and Peizhi frowns while Liling looks at her shoes.  But Jingyi isn’t looking at them, he’s already on his way towards the door.  

“Normally,” he says as they scurry to keep up with him, “I would leave you here.  But, I was told that they needed help with some fierce corpses, so I guess I have business here too.”

He finishes off the pear before opening the door to the building.

“Daozhang,” a man with the slightly harried look of an overworked assistant says almost as soon as Jingyi is through the door.  He’s sitting at a desk piled so high with scrolls that the man is only half visible.“Are you here to help with the corpses?  Did the letter already reach Qinghe? I swear I only sent that a day or two ago.”

“Actually,” Jingyi says with his best attempt at a calming smile, “I was traveling through and heard about your problem.”

The man manages to make his way out from behind the mess and stands before Jingyi.  He offers Jingyi a deep bow.  Bringing his hands and sword together, Jingyi bows.

“I am An Jingyi.  I have no affiliation with the Qinghe Nie, but I am happy to help.”

“You are welcome, most welcome,” the man says and wipes his forehead with a kerchief.  “I’ll just go and tell my supervisors.”

“A moment please,” Jingyi says hastily before the man can vanish into the depths of the building.  “I see that you are busy, but my companions here are in need of the services of this office.”

The man glances behind Jingyi for about half a second, “Of course, of course.  Daozhang, it’ll be taken care of.”  

The man takes three steps away from Jingyi before he turns around again and motions for Jingyi to follow him.  “Actually, it’s best if you just come now.  I’ll announce you.”

Jingyi offers Liling and Peizhi a confused shrug, the way he would if it was Zizhen or Jin Ling standing there.  But they are not Jin Ling or Zizhen, and he should offer them more respect, so he stops and turns around to offer them a bow.

“Zhou Liling, Zhou Peizhi, farewell, and safe journeys.” 

He only half waits for their response, before he turns and hurries down the hallway after the assistant, who leads him to a small room and motions for him to sit at the small table there before rushing back out again.  

As he waits, Jingyi drums his fingers against the hilt of his sword.  He has been on many job requests and has seen a wide range of reactions from the clients.  Based on his experience, the assistant seems excessively nervous, but he can’t be sure that it’s because of the corpses.  Mentally, he compiles a list of questions that he should ask about the case.  He’s surprised to find that he’s slightly nervous, himself.  He’s never talked to someone about a job alone; Sizhui, at the very least, has always been with him.  It was normally someone more senior.

The assistant returns in a rush, but this time he is followed by a well dressed older man behind him. Jingyi gets to his feet.

“An Jingyi,” the man, presumably the magistrate, says in a deep almost rumbling voice.  “I am Magistrate Zhang.”

They bow to each other, before taking seats at opposite sides of the small table.  The assistant places a pot of tea on the table before rushing out again.  The man’s constant rushing is making Jingyi anxious; he’s never seen someone racing to and fro so much; it certainly wouldn’t be permitted in the Cloud Recesses.

Turning his attention back to the magistrate, Jingyi politely waits for him to speak first.  He studies the man’s clothes as the man pours the tea; his clothes are not flashy or gaudy, but he can tell, thanks to Jin Ling’s influence, that they are expensive.  

“What do you know of the situation?” Senior Zhang asks in his rumbling voice.

“Almost nothing,” Jingyi says seriously.  “A vendor in the market told me that walking corpses had been seen outside of the city, and then pointed me in this direction.”

The magistrate nods and reaches up to stroke his beard.  The motion is so similar to Lan Qiren’s, that Jingyi instinctively straightens his spine.  “That is correct.  A man ran into town claiming that his family had been attacked by walking corpses.  It was late though and he had had a bit to drink, we assumed that it must have been bandits.  These things happen sometimes.  But the next day a similar report came in.  When another report came in on the third day, I sent some men to investigate.  They returned and reported that they had indeed been attacked by a group of corpses.  They brought back a head as proof.”

As the magistrate speaks, Jingyi’s face changes from serious to dark.  

“His family was attacked, did they return?”

The magistrate shakes his head.  

“The second report, was anyone killed or taken?”

“Yes.”

Jingyi’s blood is going cold.  Multiple murders multiple days in a row is very worrisome.  Furthermore, walking corpses fierce or not are, with exactly two exceptions, not capable of thinking.  A group of them attacking and retreating and attacking doesn’t make sense unless someone is controlling them.

“How many people have died?”

“Five people are either missing or dead.  There is a report with all the details: the location, the identities of the victims, eye witness accounts, and so on.”

Jingyi takes a deep breath and tries to steady his thoughts.  Whatever is going on here is very strange and very dangerous.  The assistant had sent a letter to Qinghe, but it would take at least two more days to reach there.

“Daozhang,” the man says after several moments of silence.  “Will you help us?”

“Yes,” Jingyi says decisively.  There’s no way he’s going to let a pack of fierce corpses attack night after night while he sits here.  

The magistrate visibly relaxes at Jingyi’s words.  

“We will, of course, provide anything you need, and payment will be arranged.”

Jingyi just nods.  His brain is already grappling the problem of the corpses and whatever or whoever is controlling them.  

“The payment is standardized of course,” the Magistrate continues.  Jingyi nods; he doesn’t care about payment.  He’ll take it because he needs money to live, but he’s not about to argue over it.  “As for the rest, my assistant will help you.”

The magistrate stands, and Jingyi copies him.  

“Daozhang,” the magistrate says with a bow, “we are deeply grateful for your assistance.”

“I am pleased to be of service,” Jingyi says with a bow of his own.  

“I’ll take my leave then, An Jingyi,” the Magistrate says before leaving the room.  

Jingyi mentally lists the things he needs as he heads out of the room and back towards the entryway starting with cinnabar and paper for more talismans.  When he reaches the main room, Peizhi and Liling are nowhere in sight.  Even though he feels a pang of disappointment, he knows it’s for the best.  The path ahead of him appears to be a dangerous and possibly extended night hunt.  No one other than a cultivator could go with him.  

After speaking with the assistant for a while, he leaves with the report and a sum of money to purchase the materials that he needs for the night hunt.  With the report tucked until his qiankun pouch, he sets off into the city.  Quickly, he comes to realize that he never appreciated the stores of materials at the Cloud Recesses.  He’s never had to hunt down appropriate paper and cinnabar or silk and paint before.  It takes him longer than he would care to admit to track down everything he needs and by then his stomach is grumbling loudly. 

He finds a place where he can sit and eat instead of buying something from a stand as he usually would.  Once he’s settled at a small table near the back of a restaurant, he pulls out the report to go over it.  When the waitress brings him tea, he carefully slides the teapot across the table before picking up his cup and the report.  Once, he’d knocked an entire teapot over while working on a night hunt report and managed to ruin the report, break the pot, and burn himself at the same time.  

Once the food has arrived, he sets aside the report to eat.  But after finishing the first bowl, he picks up the report again.  No one here is going to stop him from reading the report and eating at the same time.

While the report has useful information about the location of the attacks (northwest of the city) and approximate numbers of fierce corpses (five to ten), it’s obvious that it was compiled by people who know nothing about walking corpses or night hunting.  There’s no way of knowing, by looking at this, how directed or sentient the corpses are, how much resentful energy they have, or anything else of the sort.  He hadn’t really expected there to be.  This report is, atleast, more information than he’s often had when going to a job.  Many times it is only a list roughly how many people were affected and roughly how often things happened.  

Jingyi had finished eating and reading, but he needed a space to write out talismans and paint the spirit attraction flags.  Who’d have guessed he’d miss the library pavilion.  When the waitress returns, Jingyi orders more tea, gives her a tip, and asks if he can stay and use the table.  The waitress says that he can stay as long as he wishes since the room is mostly empty anyway.  

He sets out the empty talismans on one side and sets the cinnabar and brush on the other.  Even though he could draw a talisman for repressing resentful energy in his sleep, he pulls one out for reference.  It’s something that he’d been taught to do and old habits die hard.  Back in his desk in the Cloud Recesses, he has a set of talismans written out by Zewu-jun.  But the one that he pulls out is written by Sizhui.  His stomach twists at the sight of the familiar handwriting, and Jingyi trails one finger along one of the familiar brush strokes before he remembers himself and pulls his hand away.  

He writes the talismans out one at a time, occasionally glancing at the reference talisman out of habit.  The small stack of talismans that he produces are not nearly as neat as Sizhui’s but they will be effective, and he thinks they are neater than the ones that Senior Wei slaps together.  He takes a break to finish drinking his tea before he pulls out the squares of fabric that he’d purchased.  

Jingyi has only made spirit attraction flags once or twice before.  Since they aren’t destroyed with every use, they can be used over and over again. But he’s studied the theory behind them thoroughly and copied out the characters dozens and dozens of times as part of his education.  He’s more careful this time as he writes out the symbols.  A mistake on one of these is much more dangerous than a mistake on a simple talisman.  He probably won’t need these, but he’d rather not have to paint one on himself in his own blood if it turns out that he does need one.  

Once he finishes, he waves a hand over them, trying to get them to dry.  He clears away the materials from the table until only the pot of tea remains.  He puts down another tip on the table, to compensate for the time he spent using the restaurant table like he was in a library, and gets up to go.  

He makes his way through the streets and towards the road that leads out of the town to the northwest.  Once he’s out of the city, he checks his compass of evil.  The walking corpses shouldn’t be on the road right now, it doesn’t follow the pattern of the previous days, but he wants to make sure.  If he’s going to walk into a crowd of fierce corpses, he’d rather have a bit of a warning.  

Along the road, he finds a few spots where the road is unnaturally disturbed.  But in none of the spots are there any corpse pieces.  Be diligent, he reminds himself and continues for another hour, but when he finds no more evidence at all, he calls it quits.  There should have been pieces of corpses somewhere along the road, but he can’t find any.  Jingyi doubts that a farmer or traveler cleaned them up.  No sane person would touch random chunks of a dead body.  So either the corpses had taken them with it when they left or someone had come back for them.  Neither option was appealing.  

The sun is hanging low in the sky as Jingyi walks back towards the city.  For a while, he debates with himself as to whether he should wait on the road for the corpses or attack or hunt them down. In the end, he pulls out both his compass and gets on his sword.  

Jingyi shoots up into the air, probably higher than is strictly necessary, but he wants to avoid detection.  It’s not the corpses he’s worried about, most walking corpses don't have the range of movement needed to spot someone flying overhead.  The compass points north northwest, and Jingyi slowly makes his way in the direction.  As he goes, he surveys the land beneath him.  Fields of rice are planted in tiers around the northern end of the city.  There are three paths that lead from the house at the edge of the fields to the main road if he counted correctly while he walked down the road.  Unfortunately, the locations of the fierce corpse attacks were scattered and didn’t give him many hints as to which one might be correct.  If he can identify the right path before dark falls, then he can ambush the fierce corpses.  

For the first time in years of night hunting, he feels genuinely anxious.  Even though he’s certain he can take down five fierce corpses, the fact that this is his first solo night hunt keeps creeping up on him.  What if he's been relying on Sizhui too much, and he can’t do this? What if he stumbles? There won’t be anyone to back him up.

He flies above the high above the field, tracing the small trails that lead through the patties, studying them.  While he tries to focus, it’s a simple task and not enough to keep his mind off of the anxiety that's twisting his stomach in knots.  He feels off-balance without others here beside him.  His gaze keeps going to his right where Sizhui should be.  But all he gets when he looks at the empty sky around him is another reminder that he’s here alone.

It’s not hard, in the end, for him to figure out which path the fierce corpses have been using.  The three paths all lead to different areas of the paddies.  Only one leads almost true north.  This path also meanders, going almost all the way around the paddies, making the descent slower.  Something that’s very important for corpses half-frozen by rigor mortis. 

It’s almost sunset when Jingyi picks a spot on the small path about halfway between the forest and the road leading to the city.  The path here is narrow, and the ground under his feet shows signs of being heavily used.  The trail is only wide enough for two or three people.  It should provide a bottleneck while leaving just enough room for him to maneuver properly.  

He gets back on his sword and flies up above the road.  He has a better view from up here and will be able to see the fierce corpses coming and count their numbers before he has to deal with them. 

There’s nothing left to do but wait, his least favorite thing.  His fingers drum nervously on the hilt of his sword as he watches the sun begin to sink below the horizon.  The sky to the east is already dark, and there’s an edge of his old fear of the dark in his heart.  The fear is familiar now and worn down past being dangerous.  But he glances to his right instinctively seeking reassurance from something that isn’t there.  There’s no familiar white-clothed form or gentle smile to comfort him.  His stomach twists again.  

There’s nothing but him and the weight of Sizhui’s absence by his side.  It takes an effort for him to keep still.  Waiting has always been his least favorite part of a night hunt, but this time it’s even worse.  There’s no one by his side now, and for the first time in his life, there will be no one to watch his back when he fights.  The breeze on his back sends a shiver down his spine.

Night hunting alone is, strictly speaking, not forbidden by the Gusu Lan Sect rules.  But the rules urge one to set aside pride for humility and to act with prudence.  For this reason, almost all Lan Sect cultivators hunt in pairs or small groups.  

As Jingyi stares along the darkened trail towards the line of trees, he can’t shake the horrible knowledge that he is alone.  His skin is prickling with anxiety, and he desperately wants the fierce corpses to hurry up so that he can have something to do.  When he finally spots movement along the path towards the trees, he almost sighs in relief.  He can’t yet count how many creatures are approaching him.   

His eyes strain against the darkness as he tries to count the corpses.  There are more than five, he’s almost certain. He resists the urge to drop lower and get a better look. Instead, he waits, not very patiently, as they lumber closer to him.  His eyes track the stiff movement of arms and legs as he tries to gauge the level of mobility of this specific group of corpses.  As they get closer, he can get a better feel for the resentful energy surrounding the group.  It’s strong, stronger than is natural for a group of corpses this size.  

There are nine corpses in total, he is finally able to count.  None are missing arms or legs, so the ones attacked by the city guards were either repaired or replaced.  Something between dread and certainty settles in Jingyi’s stomach as he notes this.  These corpses are being controlled and cared for.

They walk so slowly, and Jingyi is tempted to just dive down to meet them where they are instead of waiting where he is.  But he holds himself back and moves his attention away from the corpses themselves.  Someone, he is certain, is controlling these corpses and they have to be somewhere.  He’s not familiar with the details of demonic cultivation, but there should be a limit on how far away the cultivator can be from his puppets.  Senior Wei had been able to control the fierce corpses all around the Burial Mounds, but he invented demonic cultivation.  Anyone else should have much less range.  Xue Yang had only been able to control Song Zichen’s corpse, as far as Jingyi could tell, while they were both in the same village.  But, no matter where he looks, there’s no sign of another cultivator.

Finally, the corpses are almost directly below Jingyi.  He draws out two talismans as he streaks towards the ground behind the corpses.  With a flick of his wrists he sends the pair of talismans onto the back of the corpses.  Jingyi steps off his sword and as he drops down to the ground, he catches the hilt of the sword in his hand.  

As he expected, the corpses are slow in responding to his sudden appearance.  His blade sheers through the body of the first corpse, sending the top half of its body toppling onto the ground.  With a flick of his left hand, he catches it with a talisman and the corpse falls to the ground with a thud far too great for the size of the creature.  Jingyi decapitates the next one and kicks it into the rice paddy on the left.  He tosses out two more blue glowing talismans, temporarily freezing the two corpses furthest away from him.

The corpses begin to crowd towards him, but they are impeded by the narrowness of the road.  It’s easy for Jingyi to fall into the rhythm of battle; there’s no need for him to think.  He attacks and dodges, steps and twists.  The flash of star and moonlight on his sword spells destruction for the creatures in front of him.  His motions are smooth and graceful, but his swings are strong enough to hew the bodies in half.  His kicks send the corpses flying back into each other, generating chaos that he can use to his advantage.  

Unconsciously, he stays to the left of the path.  The corpses can only crowd against him, trying to push him back.  Despite their violence, his motions have all the elegance of a dance.  But if someone watched the placement of his feet and the way that he turns closely, they might see that it’s only one half of a dance.  He moves around the open space to his right as if there’s a spectral partner fighting by his side.  

It does not take all that long for Jingyi to dispatch the small crowd of corpses.  Only when they are all in pieces on the ground around him does he pause, standing a step left of center on the road.  His breathing is coming slightly fast and his heartbeat drums in his ear.  

In the echoing silence, he looks over the pile of corpses.  For an instant, the bodies in front of him are superimposed with the broken bodies of his fellow disciples.  Jingyi staggers back a step.  All he can think about are corpses painted in crimson and white.  Bile rises in his throat.

This is not Gusu.  These corpses are not his fellow disciples.  He tries to focus on the task at hand, but he’s failing.  Grief rises up fit to choke him.  His hands tremble as he reaches for talismans.  

With a flash of blue energy, he places them one after another on the corpse pieces to suppress the resentful energy.  The action is familiar, repetitive.  It grounds him in the moment.  They’ll need to be gathered and buried or burned, but that's not a task for just now.  

Jingyi is kneeling beside the second to last corpse when he feels the second wave of resentful energy approaching him.  In an instant, he is back on his feet with his sword out; even though the corpses are still some distance away.  Step by step, he retreats until the corpse pieces are between him and whatever is coming.  He’s dismembered them to the point that they shouldn’t be able to reanimate no matter how much resentful energy is poured into them, but he still doesn’t want them at his back. 

The new rush of resentful energy doesn’t surprise Jingyi.  After all, someone or something had collected the pieces of the corpses that had been left behind on the road.  But, he hadn’t expected them to show up so soon.  Jingyi sets his feet and shakes out the wrist of his sword hand before fixing his grip on his sword and grasping a talisman in his free hand.

It’s odd standing alone, waiting for the corpses to come to him.  It feels wrong.  He tries to focus on the night hunt but he can’t ignore the emptiness in him that mirrors the empty space where his partner should be.

A shadow on the road quickly resolves into more fierce corpses.  They are moving much faster than the first wave of corpses had, but they still move with the familiar staggering, lumbering motion of low-level fierce corpses.  Still, his gaze hops from corpse to corpse, counting the numbers and hunting for a sign of something more dangerous.  There are almost twenty fierce corpses approaching him now.

He shivers as the night wind chills the sweat on the back of his neck.  His jaw clenches hard; this is not going to be easy.  His hand tightens on his sword as he intentionally does not look at the space to his side where Sizhui could be.  Sizhui’s Sound of Vanquishing would be incredibly welcome right now.  Jingyi doesn't have time to curse himself for not focusing more on musical cultivation, he has to deal with this now.  His cultivation strength has always been his sword work; he’ll have to rely on it now.  

With a sweeping motion of his arm, his sword races forward in a flash of silver and blue into the crowd of corpses, piercing one through the chest.  But the corpses are too far away for him to use his sword effectively, so he summons it back to him.  He’s stuck waiting again.  Taking several deep breaths, he focuses on the qi rushing through him and keeping it steady, calm, smooth.

When the corpses are close enough, Jingyi sends his sword out again.  He stands perfectly still with two fingers on one hand raised.  His blade flashes out in front of him. This close, his aim and power are devastating. The sword slashes and turns with motions as clean and exact as if Jingyi held it in his hand.  But he doesn’t move.  His eyes are dark in the shadow cast by the blue energy flowing from his hand.  The sword cleaves corpses limb from limb and top from bottom, but every strike drains his spiritual energy.  It’s a balance; kill too many corpses from a distance, and his fighting will be affected, not kill enough and he’ll be overwhelmed.  

He counts the corpses as they fall, waiting until the right moment.  Only then does he move; he rushes towards the corpses.  As he closes in, his hand grips the hilt of the sword mid-swing, and the blade slices down as if he’d been holding it the whole time.  The blade is like an extension of his own body, the way he moves.  A step and a swing and he decapitates a pair of corpses standing too close together.  He catches their lumbering forms with the elbow of his other arm and sends them into the rice paddy.  A heavy kick causes one of them to fly back and knocks two others to the ground while Jingyi dismembers the next one.  Step, swing, step, turn, kick, swing step, his body moves through the patterns of the fight easily.  

By the time he gets to the last corpse, he’s breathing hard.  Still, his last move cuts through the leg, muscle, bone and all, as if it was bamboo.  He walks several steps away from the pile of dismembered corpses and leans on his sword to catch his breath.  His breathing is loud in the sudden quiet left in the wake of the battle.  It feels wrong, standing here alone at the end of the battle.  The air is too silent without the faint echo of guqin music on the air and the soft sound of footsteps and hushed sound of the other disciples trying to catch their breath.  Jingyi closes his eyes for a moment to stop himself from looking around.  

He should feel excited or triumphant or something; he’d just defeated a whole crowd of corpses.  But all he feels is hollow.  And despair bubbles up inside of him.  Night hunting is the only thing he knows how to do, it’s what he does, it’s his life, and now it just makes him ache.

He opens his eyes; it was stupid to close them at all in the middle of a night hunt.  Be diligent. There are still things he needs to do.  Be strict with yourself.   This is not the time to break down.  When he reaches for more talismans, his motions are slow as if there’s something weighing him down.  

His breathing still hasn’t completely smoothed out when something shifts.  The wrongness in the air goes from an absence to a presence.  And there, just at the edge of his awareness is more resentful energy.  

His eyes stare into the dark at something he knows is there but can’t see, and his eyes are tired, almost defeated.  Fighting alone like this, it doesn’t feel right, and he doesn’t think it ever will.  Grief hits him like a flood and for just a moment, he considers letting the corpses kill him.  Just to escape the hollow feeling in his chest. 

But the moment passes, and he strengthens his grip on his sword.  There are more corpses to fight and he is not this easily defeated.

Chapter Text

I'll wait, for you
Even when the light begins to fade
I'll wait, for you
I'm so desperate calling out your name

There’s hardly any moonlight coming through the room to Sizhui’s room, but it's enough that the white ribbon tangled in Sizhui’s fingers seems to glow.  It’s been several hours now since he found it, but the feelings in his chest have done anything but settle.  In the chaotic mix of grief and joy, of excitement and fear, only one thing seems to hold steady and that’s a sense of unwavering determination.

His mind is no less chaotic than his heart.  It’s past nine, but for the first time in years, he can’t seem to fall asleep, and that fact is only made more frustrating by the fact that he can’t toss or turn or do anything to get more comfortable.  

He tries to focus on productive things, like what he can do to find Jingyi.  But instead, he sifts through his memories, searching for the signs that he had missed.  It’s useless now, but he can’t stop.  

All these years he’s spent in Jingyi’s orbit, treasuring every smile, every touch, every moment; how could he have been so blind?  There are a million moments, in retrospect, but he keeps coming back to Jingyi’s brilliant smile: the one he saves just for Sizhui, the one that makes Sizhui’s breath catch, the one that made him realize that he was head over heels in love with Jingyi in the first place.  

When he finally drifts off to sleep, his dreams are full of memories.

 

A-Yuan happily takes a seat by A-Yi’s side at the table in the Jingshi.  A-Yuan had clung to Hanguang-jun’s leg and begged to have his friend over until Hanguang-jun had given in; it hadn’t taken long.  Now, Hanguang-jun is sitting across the table from the pair of them.

“A-Yi,” Hanguang-jun says in his calm, steady voice, “A-Yuan said that you already know how to write your name.”

“Yes!” There’s pride in A-Yi’s voice.  A-Yuan smiles at him; it doesn’t bother him that A-Yi can do something that he cannot. 

“Show me,” Hanguang-jun says.  

“Okay,” A-Yi says with enthusiasm.  He leans over the table with the brush in his hand, and A-Yuan watches closely. The lines on the page when he finishes are wobbly and clumsy, but they definitely form a character.

“Good,” Hanguang-jun says, and A-Yi’s smile is radiant.  Hanguang-jun takes up a brush and writes two large characters on the page.  A-Yuan recognizes his name and points at it.

“”A-Yuan,” he says.  

“A-Yi,” A-Yi echoes him, pointing at the other character.  

“Mn,” is Hanguang-jun’s reply.  He sets the paper in front of them.  “Copy it.”

Both boys take up a brush and lean over the table.  It’s not a proper sitting position, but Hanguang-jun doesn’t correct them, so they stay the way they are.  A-Yuan focuses as hard as he knows how on copying out his name; he wants to show A-Yi and Hanguang-jun that he can do it.

The paper in front of Sizhui changes and he finds himself looking down at the score of Inquiry without a brush in his hand. Jingyi is sitting beside him, close enough that their knees and elbows bump.

Sizhui stomach is full of butterflies.  It’s a familiar feeling now.  At first, when his heart started leaping every time Jingyi smiled, he'd tried to ignore it, but instead of going away it only got worse. Sizhui had gone to his uncle for advice because he was fairly sure he was going to lose his mind.  After Sizhui had managed to fumble out the fact that he had a crush on someone, Zewu-jun had smiled at him and correctly guessed that Sizhui had no intention of telling the object of his affection about the situation.  Zewu-jun told him that repressing the feelings would only cause them to bubble up or explode at a bad time and that he needed to learn to sit with the emotions, to acknowledge that they were there and be comfortable with not acting on them.

Sizhui is trying.  Sometimes it seems as if he’s got it under control, and then Jingyi will smile or laugh or keep touching him, and all of Sizhui’s calm goes out the window.  He’s trying to let the feelings be, but right now, Jingyi keeps brushing their hands together and pressing their shoulders together, and every touch threatens to send Sizhui’s heart off rhythm.  He opens his mouth to ask Jingyi to please, please, pay attention because if he doesn’t, Sizhui might do something very stupid.

But when he opens his mouth to speak, he finds that he’s no longer in the library pavilion.  

All of the air goes out of Sizhui’s lungs, and Jingyi’s name gets caught in his throat.  He’s standing on the path to the cold springs, and Jingyi is standing almost naked in the water below.  

Desperately, Sizhui flounders for control of himself.  If he doesn’t announce himself soon it’s going to be obvious that he was gawking.  Jingyi’s frame is still slender with youth, but gods, gods, gods, he looks beautiful, and Sizhui can’t seem to get enough air in his lungs.  With Jingyi’s hair up in its usual ponytail, his chest and back are entirely exposed to Sizhui’s attention.  His skin is wet and the water on his jade-like skin glistens in the summer sun and highlights the shape of his muscles.  Sizhui does not let his eyes follow the trails of the water down, over his chest and abs and down to where the crystal clear water does little to hide the fact that Jingyi is only wearing a pair of thin white pants, because if he does, he really won’t be able to talk.

“Jingyi,” he manages at last and his voice is almost steady.  He scolds himself for losing his head. It’s not like he’s never seen Jingyi like this before; it’s just that normally he has time to mentally prepare himself and to make sure not to look.

Jingyi jumps in surprise but turns to look at him.  A blush, pale pink like cherry blossoms, spreads across his face, but he smiles, that stupid, radiant smile that outshines the sun and for the second time in as many minutes, all the air leaves Sizhui’s lungs.  Jingyi, part of his brain says weakly, is going to be the death of him one day.

 

Sizhui wakes at 5 am like clockwork.  He blinks sleepily, and his gaze moves to the white silk ribbon that is still clutched in his hand.  He rubs his fingers over the drifting cloud embroidery as if to assure himself that it’s real, that the whole thing wasn’t a dream.  Looking away from the ribbon, Sizhui turns his attention to Jingyi’s abandoned side of the room.  

The room feels wrong somehow without Jingyi in it. It’s too quiet and too still.  He’s become so accustomed to the quiet sounds of Jingyi’s presence that the absence is almost audible.  He misses the soft sound of Jingyi’s breathing, the near-constant rustle of fabric as he shifts, and even the gentle drumming of his fingers on whatever was closest: his sword, his leg, the table.  But it’s more than that; it's something he can’t explain.  He’d know without sight and without sound that Jingyi wasn’t here.

He can’t look away from the empty bed.  In the hush of the morning, he imagines Jingyi there lying on his stomach in defiance of proper sleeping position.  He remembers the change in the sound of Jingyi’s breathing as he wakes and the way he would look at Sizhui with soft grey eyes and a sleepy smile on his face.  

The sounds of footsteps and voices from the other rooms bring Sizhui back to himself.  Carefully, he folds the ribbon and tucks it under his pillow again.  He hasn’t decided yet if he’s going to tell his fathers about it.  Even if he wanted to, he’s not ready to discuss it yet; there’s too much chaos in his heart.  Besides, this, the forehead ribbon, is something private and intimate.  It’s something between him and Jingyi, and a greedy part of him wants to keep it all to himself. 

Focusing on his breathing, on the flow of air in and out of his lungs, Sizhui manages to mostly settle his mind by the time Hanguang-jun arrives.  Hanguang-jun offers him a silent greeting and places a tray with breakfast on the table.  

“Back?” Hanguang-jun asks, coming to sit on the side of Sizhui’s bed.

“Manageable,” Sizhui tells him.  He receives a nod in response.  Gently, Hanguang-jun checks Sizhui’s bandages and the wounds underneath.  He seems satisfied with what he sees because he sits back.

“Eat first.”

“Yes, Hanguang-jun.”

Sizhui lets Hanguang-jun help him into a sitting position; it’s not like he has much of a choice.  He’d probably make things worse if he tried to do it himself.  They share breakfast in comfortable silence.  When they are done, Hanguang-jun neatly stacks the bowls and sets the tray aside.  

While Hanguang-jun pulls fresh bandages and a jar of salve out of his sleeve, Sizhui shuffles to the edge of the bed.  Gritting his teeth against the pain, Sizhui slowly lifts his arms so that Hanguang-jun can remove the bandages more easily.  Even though Hanguang-jun raised him, it feels wrong somehow to have someone as important as Hanguang-jun kneeling behind him and caring for his wounds.  Sizhui doesn’t want to seem ungrateful (the rules say to have affection and gratefulness), so he says nothing.

No matter how gentle his father is, there is no way to make the process painless.  It takes most of Sizhui’s self-control not to jerk away every time Hanguang-jun touches his back.  By the time that Hanguang-jun is done applying salve to his back and starts to rebandage the wounds, Sizhui is sweating and his teeth are clenched so hard he’s surprised his jaw isn’t creaking.  He manages to thank Hanguang-jun when they are done, but his voice is shaky.  Hanguang-jun gives him a cup of vile tasting tea that’s meant to help with the pain, and Sizhui manages to force it down.  By the time Hanguang-jun helps him to lie down again, his whole body is trembling slightly.  

Mercifully, Hanguang-jun does not point out that Sizhui did this to himself when he dragged himself across the Cloud Recesses and reopened all of the wounds, but Sizhui is acutely aware of it.  It keeps any crazy thoughts of running after Jingyi right then to a minimum. He probably wouldn’t even make it to the gates.

Sizhui closes his eyes and again tries to focus on his breathing.  He has years of practice meditating in various states of discomfort, but the pain in his back outstrips any of that and keeps distracting him.  His eyes are closed, so he doesn’t notice that Hanguang-jun has taken out his guqin until he starts playing.  As the sound washes over him, he feels himself relax and finds it easier to focus on his meditation.  

By the time the song is done, Sizhui’s mind is clear and the pain has retreated to a manageable level again.  Hanguang-jun comes to his bedside and takes his wrist.  His hand glows faintly blue as spiritual energy flows from father to son.  Sizhui can feel the energy, soothing and gentle as a whisper running through him.  

“Rest,” Hanguang-jun says when he takes his hand back.  “You’re expending your spiritual energy on healing.”

Sizhui nods; he hadn’t thought about it, but it explains part of why he feels so drained.  He wonders vaguely if he can try focusing the energy to help himself heal faster.  But for right now he’ll rest, as Hanguang-jun bids.  He dozes for a bit, even though he’s only been awake for a few hours at the most.  

The silence of the room is broken by Senior Wei, who arrives as he usually does in a whirlwind of motion and energy that reminds Sizhui a bit of Jingyi.  

“Sizhui!” he says, “Lan Zhan! Good morning.”

Sizhui and Hanguang-jun exchange a slightly amused glance as it's almost ten now.  Sizhui doubts that Senior Wei will ever adjust to the Gusu Lan Sect sleeping schedule.

“Wei Ying,” Hanguang-jun says in greeting.

“Hello Senior Wei,” Sizhui says.  

Hanguang-jun gets up from the table.  Senior Wei catches him about the waist and presses a kiss to his cheek before gently shoving him towards the door.

“I’m sure you have important things to be doing,” he says with a laugh.  “It's not right to use A-Yuan as an excuse to shirk your duties.  Isn’t there a rule about that.  Probably.”

“Wei Ying,” Hanguang-jun says, and Sizhui can hear the slight exasperation hidden in his words.  

“I’m only teasing,” Senior Wei says, not the least bit deterred.  “Still, off you go.  You’ll be cranky later if you don’t get your paperwork done.  Shoo.”

Sizhui watches with amusement as Hanguang-jun is effectively shooed out of the room.  Until three years ago, he didn't think there was anyone in the world who could manage such a feat.  Quietly, Sizhui waits for Senior Wei to take a seat before he starts talking.

“Senior Wei, can I ask you a question?” 

Senior Wei looks surprised, but shrugs.  “Sure.  Though, I should point out that you already did.” Sizhui groans slightly and Senior Wei laughs.  “Sorry, sorry,” he says waving one of his hands, “I had to.  What do you want to ask this senior?”

Sizhui bites his lip and then winces in pain.  “You said that Jingyi brought the letter to Qinghe, did you see him?”

Senior Wei shakes his head, “I’m sorry. No.  He brought the letter to the guards at the gate of The Unclean Realm and asked them to pass it on.”

“How do you know it was him that brought it?”

“Well, there are a few things.  First, the person who brought the message was a cultivator.  Second, the letter was written by him.  Third, the person who brought the letter turned over their jade token with it.  No one here is missing their token, so it had to be his.”

Somehow, the thought of Jingyi leaving behind his jade token makes Sizhui’s heart ache all over again.  Even though he knew that Jingyi never intended to return when he’d taken his possessions and left his ribbon behind, it still feels like another nail in the coffin lid.  But Sizhui forces himself to consider Senior Wei’s statement.  It is possible that Jingyi sent a messenger with his token and the letter to Qinghe and went somewhere else, but Sizhui doubts it; the jade token is too important.

“Did you speak to the guards?” Sizhui asks, “The ones who brought the letter?”

Senior Wei shakes his head, “I was actually asleep when they arrived.  But Hanguang-jun didn’t question them either.  Once he read the letter and saw the token he made the decision to return to Gusu.”

Sizhui nods.  There’s a long silence as he gathers himself for the next question. He knows that this is a sensitive topic he prays his father won’t be offended.

“Senior Wei,” he says at last.  Then, as delicately as possible, “You are friends with Sect Leader Nie aren’t you?”

Several emotions flash across Senior Wei’s face.  “Yes,” he says at last.  

“Do you think you could ask him to speak to the guards?” Sizhui says quietly.  “Or to let me do it.  I don’t want to impose, and I’m sorry if I am.  But, they’re the last people who saw him.  And I-”

Sizhui realizes that he’s rambling and stops.  Speak meagerly, for too many words only bring harm.   There’s compassion in Senior Wei’s face as he looks at Sizhui.

“I can send him a letter,” Senior Wei says.  “He probably asked them about it already anyway.”

“Thank you Senior Wei,” Sizhui says with as much gratitude as he can muster.  He would have bowed if he was standing.

Senior Wei waves away his thanks with the slightly uncomfortable face he makes any time someone tries to thank him.  “No need for all that.  I’m just sending an old friend a letter.”

They sit in silence for a long moment.  

“There’s something else you want to ask this senior, isn’t there,” he says with a smile.  

“Mn,” Sizhui says and Senior Wei laughs.

“You need a better poker face than that to fool me.  I’m married to your Hanguang-jun.”

“I want to write letters to Jin Ling and Ouyang Zizhen, but I can’t sit up on my own,” Sizhui admits.  Senior Wei only laughs and gets up to help him.

 


Koi Tower, Lanling

 

The sun coming through the window to Jin Ling’s office is shining directly into his eyes and it’s really starting to get on his nerves.  At least Fairy, who’s stretched out on the floor in front of his desk in a pool of sunlight seems to be enjoying it.  He’s not sure if the stack of paperwork on his desk or the sun in his eyes is more annoying; probably the first.  He’d been gone at the discussion conference for hardly a week, and now he had this to deal with.  

“Useless,” he mutters, “all of them.”  

They all insist that they don’t need him, pointing out that they have more experience than he does and occasionally more years of experience than he has years of life, but as soon as he steps away suddenly everything needs his signature and every person needs his attention.  

With a sigh, he signs and stamps the next piece of paper: some purchase forms for practice equipment for the disciples.  It was annoying to deal with all of these things himself when he knows that Jin Guangyao had not, but Jiujiu had correctly pointed out that there would be people in his sect who tried to use Jin Ling’s inexperience to advance themselves.  He’d caught several administrators attempting to line their own pockets in the year after he’d become sect leader.  The instances of such behavior dropped sharply after it became clear that Jin Ling noticed and was not afraid to punish those who broke the rules.  But he didn’t doubt that corruption would quickly return if he let it.  So he sits and goes through a stupid amount of paperwork.

There’s a knock on his office door, and he’s not sure whether he’s relieved or annoyed that someone is interrupting him.  

“Come in then,” he says, and his voice is definitely irritated.

“Sect Leader,” a young disciple says with a deep bow; he’s really only a few years younger than Jin Ling himself.  “I have a private letter for you from Gusu.”

“About time,” he mutters.  He’s leaning towards being happy for the interruption.

“Bring it here then.” he motions for the boy to approach him.  

The boy offers Jin Ling the scroll with a bow before rapidly retreating from the room.  As soon as the door shuts behind the boy, Jin Ling turns his attention to the letter.  He’s been not so patiently waiting for word from Gusu ever since Hanguang-jun took off in the middle of breakfast.  It was quite unlike Hanguang-jun to abandon something he saw as a duty.  

Jin Ling didn’t like the idea that something could have happened to Sizhui, they were cousins after all, or even Jingyi, and he wouldn’t know about it.  It wasn’t that he was worried he told himself, they could take care of themselves; it was that he hated being kept out of the loop.  To top it all off his uncle had been even grumpier than normal while he was definitely not worrying about Senior Wei vanishing from The Unclean Realm for some urgent reason.  

Jin Ling wasn’t sure who would write to him first. Senior Wei and Sizhui send him letters most often, but Jingyi likes to tell Jin Ling and Zizhen anything interesting happening at Gusu (Sizhui says gossiping is forbidden, but Jingyi insists it’s not gossiping).  But one look at the neatly rolled and addressed scroll tells him that it’s from Sizhui.  

He unrolls the scroll and starts to read,

 

Jin Ling,

I hope that this letter finds you well and that the cultivation conference wasn’t too boring.  

Jin Ling rolls his eyes at the implication that the cultivation conference could be anything but boring; it’s so much like Sizhui to start an important letter with something so annoyingly polite that Jin Ling almost groans.  

 

Jingyi’s missing, and it’s been almost a week since I last saw him.  Have you heard from him? I’m really worried.  Please let me know if you see him.

Forgive me for bothering you,

Best,

Lan Sizhui.

“What the fuck,” Jin Ling exclaims and tosses the letter on the table.  Surprised bu the sudden noise, Fairy jerks awake.  “What the fuck sort of letter is that, Sizhui? And what do you mean, Jingyi is missing!” He asks the air as if Sizhui could possibly answer him. 

Jin Ling pushes away from his desk and starts to pace.  Fairy watches him with her head on her paws.  Sizhui’s message leaves him with more questions than answers.  What the fuck happened?  Something has obviously happened because Jingyi wouldn’t just leave Gusu, and he definitely wouldn't just leave Sizhui.  Jin Ling has never seen the two of them apart.  And why is Sizhui asking him about Jingyi’s whereabouts?  Why hasn’t he just gone after the idiot?   To top it all off, if Sizhui is willing to admit to Jin Ling that he’s worried, he must nearly be out of his mind with it.

He pinches the bridge of his nose and reaches out for a talisman for a Jin Butterfly message.  Whatever happened is serious, and he does not appreciate being left out of the loop.  It occurs to him that it might not be something that Sizhui feels comfortable putting in a letter and that only makes Jin Ling’s mood worse.  

With the ease of practice, Jin Ling writes out the characters for the butterfly messenger and watches as the letters glowing gold and twist themselves into a delicate looking butterfly.  It’s a beautiful process that helps him calm down the tiniest bit.  Now that Jin Ling is standing still, Fairy comes and presses herself against his legs; he scratches her head with one hand.

“Sizhui,” Jin Ling speaks to the butterfly and tries to be calm.  “I haven’t heard anything from Jingyi. You should ask Zizhen, he talks to Jingyi more than I do.  Don’t worry so much, Jingyi is an idiot, but he can take care of himself.  We’ll hunt him down and drag him back if we have to.”

Jin Ling does not ask Sizhui what the fuck is going on or demand explanations, and he thinks he deserves credit for that because Sizhui is being infuriatingly vague.

But after some thought he does add, “Also, Jiujiu is worried about Senior Wei, but don't tell him that, so if you could give me an idea of what's going on so I can calm him down a bit, that would be greatly appreciated.”

With a flick of his wrist, he sends the butterfly off.  He watches it flit out of his window before he picks up another butterfly talisman and writes out Zizhen’s name.

 


Kingfisher Hall, Baling

 

The air over Baling is oppressively hot and damp, and the fan in Zizhen’s hand is only barely helping.  The dinner table has been moved outside to try and catch a breeze, but the air isn’t moving.  The whole Ouyang family, both of Zizhen’s parents, his grandmother, all four of his siblings, and his sister-in-law are crowded around the table, and Zizhen really thinks it's too hot to be sitting this close together.  And it’s definitely too hot to listen to his father complaining about the cultivation conference.

“The chief cultivator just walked out of the conference.  What sort of example does that set!”

“It must have been something important,” Zizhen says.  “Hanguang-jun has always taken his position very seriously.”

“Zizhen,” his father sounds annoyed, “You are always talking like you know everything.”

Zizhen kicks his twin sister, Ziwan, under the table.

“Father,” she says without looking at Zizhen, “you said yourself that Hanguang-jun is good at his job.  You said only a few weeks ago that Hanguang-jun is an even better Chief Cultivator than Lianfang-zun because he doesn’t interfere with other sects' decisions.”

Sect Leader Ouyang makes a ‘humph’ sound.  

“Dad,” Zizhen says before he can start talking again.  “You must be tired.  It’s a long trip from Qinghe.  You were complaining about your back this morning.  It can’t have gotten any better.  You should go and rest.”

The look on Sect Leader Ouyang’s face says that he knows Zizhen is trying to end the family dinner, but he’s not sure how to argue with him.

“Dad,” Zizhen’s older brother jumps in, and Zizhen breathes a sigh of relief from behind his fan.  Zihao is the prime example of filial piety, and their father will listen to him.  “You’ve been working too hard again. Why don’t you rest for a bit; there’ll be lots of work to catch up on in the next few days even if Zizhen and I help.”

“Dad!” says Zizhen’s youngest sister, “Niang and I went to the market to get you more medicine while you were in Qinghe.  That should help your back; I’ll fetch it for you.”

Both of Zizhen’s younger sisters get up from the table and take off running towards the main building.  

“Do you need any help,” Zihao asks as his parents get up from the table.

“Nonsense,” Sect Leader Ouyang says, “I’m not that old.  Help Nainai instead.”

Zihao nods and goes to offer his grandmother his arm.  Quickly, Zizhen snaps his fan shut and jumps up, taking off towards his room.  However, he only gets about halfway there before his sister catches up and grabs his arm.

Though Ziwan is tall for a woman, she’s still a few centimeters shorter than her brother.  Maybe it’s Zizhen’s tendency to slouch and maybe it’s the fact that Ziwan has a presence and ferocity that her twin lacks, but somehow it seems as if she is the one looking down at him.

“Zizhen,” she says, “where do you think you’re going?”

“A-Jie, I wanted to relax for a bit.  It’s a long journey from Qinghe you know.”  

Ziwan narrows her eyes at him.  “It’s time for archery practice.”

“A-Jie, can’t we take today off?”

“No,” Ziwan crosses her arms.

“I won the archery competition, don’t you think I deserve a break?”

“If I let you take a break every time you asked, you wouldn’t have won the competition.”  

Okay, she has a point. Before Zizhen can come up with a rebuttal, their conversation is interrupted.

“Gege!” Zizhen turns to see his sister rushing towards him with a bright smile and waving a letter in her hand.  “A letter came for you from Gusu!”

“Thank you Meimei,” Zizhen says, taking the letter from her.  He wasn’t expecting a letter from Jingyi so soon, but maybe it was about whatever had called Hanguang-jun away.  However, when Zizhen flips the scroll around he sees, not Jingyi’s calligraphy, but Sizhui’s.  One of his eyebrows shoots up.

“Something interesting,” Ziwan asks.

“Maybe,” Zizhen hedges and tucks the scroll into his robes.  He turns back to his twin sister, now he really wants to get out of archery practice.  There’s a long moment while they stare at each other.  Their little sister watches, eyes bouncing from Ziwan’s stern expression to Zizhen’s pleading one.  It’s far from the first time she's seen such an exchange.  Ziwan, with her hair in a perfectly neat bun and her jaw set firmly, looks much fiercer than Zizhen, but Zizhen’s quiet stubbornness can’t be denied.  In the end, Ziwan yields the tiniest bit.

“Fine, twenty minutes,” Ziwan says briskly, and then points with her sword at both Zizhen and their younger sister.  “Don’t be late.”

Then she turns on her heel and strides away.  Zizhen goes in the opposite direction, towards his room so he can read Sizhui’s letter in private.  

It’s short and tells him absolutely nothing except that Jingyi has gone missing and has been for a week.  Zizhen stares at the letter in disbelief for several minutes, but his shock rapidly turns to worry.  

There are only two options that Zizhen can come up with: something truly awful happened at the Cloud Recesses or someone has kidnapped Jingyi.  Jingyi, while loud and brash, is loyal to a fault and has always been dependable, especially when it comes to Sizhui.

Jingyi has been in love with Sizhui for at least as long as Zizhen has known them. Zizhen’s always found it tragically romantic: Jingyi’s silent pining and absolute dedication to protecting and caring for Sizhui for the rest of his life, even though Sizhui doesn’t need it.  For the last three years, Zizhen has been hoping for a grand love confession, for the moment when they fall together and the tragic romance becomes a happy one.   He’d never anticipated anything like this.

If someone had kidnapped Jingyi, Sizhui would be out looking for him and the letter for Zizhen wouldn’t have been a question about his whereabouts but a request for aid. Sizhui must think that Jingyi left of his own volition.  So something serious, and Zizhen can’t even begin to imagine what, must have happened for Jingyi to leave Sizhui behind like this and for Sizhui to not immediately go chasing after him.

Zizhen pulls out paper to write a response to Sizhui, but he stares at the paper without writing anything and after a few minutes sets the brush down again.  He’s worried and confused, but he knows that however bad he is feeling, Sizhui must be worse.  Sizhui needs assurance, however much Zizhen can offer; he does not need Zizhen to add to his worries by panicking.  Zizhen will write the letter later, he decides, when he’s had time to collect his thoughts.

He does manage to get to archery practice on time, but he has to run to do it.  The letter from Sizhui had thrown it entirely out of his head, but he hasn’t even been home for a whole day, and he really doesn’t need his sister’s wrath raining down on him.  

But Zizhen can’t focus on the archery.  His brain is too busy imagining what sort of horrible scenario had sent his friend fleeing from the Cloud Recesses.  Normally Ziwan and he tie in their archery matches, but Ziwan beats him nine times out of ten.  He can feel her gaze on him, but she doesn’t bark at him to focus or fix his posture the way she usually does.

Only when archery practice is officially over does she approach him.

“What's going on Didi?” Her voice is gruff and her arms are crossed.  

“Just having an off day, Jiejie.”  There is no way that he’s going to say anything about Sizhui’s letter in the middle of the archery range.  “No need to worry.”

“The only thing I’m worried about is you embarrassing yourself,” she snaps.

“I’m not embarrassed to lose to you,” Zizhen says, “only if I start losing to Xiongzhang.”

Ziwan snorts.  “I’m going to do a few more rounds with the bow; I assume that you aren’t going to join me?”

“Jiejie,” Zizhen says, “you aren’t really going to keep training? It’s getting dark; you’ll strain your eyes.”

“Nonsense,” Ziwan says.  She pauses, and Zizhen can tell that she wants to lecture him again, but instead she turns on her heel and stalks back towards the archery targets.

Zizhen retires to his room and takes a bath.  The hot bath does little to ease his worry, but at least he’s clean.  He decides to try reading for a bit, but looking at the jiandu stacked neatly on his bookshelf only makes him think of Jingyi.  Still, he resolutely selects his favorite and sits down at the desk with it.  He’s only been reading for ten or so minutes when something flutters through his open window.

Glowing faintly gold, the Jin butterfly makes its way to Zizhen.  Jin Ling.  Zizhen smiles and puts out his hand to catch it.  Even though he’s seen such butterflies many times, he still admires the delicate swirling lines of energy that make up the gently beating wings.  

He hadn’t expected to hear from Jin Ling so soon after the cultivation conference, and even though he suspects it's about Sizhui’s letter, he can’t help the warm feeling in his chest at the sight of the butterfly.

“Zizhen,” Jin Ling’s voice comes from the butterfly and a soft smile spreads across Zizhen’s lips.

“I know we only left the cultivation conference two days ago, but I had to send you a message.  Did you get a letter from Sizhui? I’m sure you did.  First of all, what sort of useless letter was that?  He didn’t tell us anything!  Senior Wei hasn’t said anything either and Jiujiu is in a horrible mood, but that’s beside the point.  Jingyi! What does Sizhui mean he’s missing? How could you lose that idiot! He’s normally stuck to Sizhui like glue.”

Zizhen can practically see Jin Ling pacing and waving his hands in frustration, and despite the seriousness of the situation, he huffs out a laugh.

“Now he’s gotten himself into trouble or something, and Sizhui is sad.  So we’re going to have to do something about it.  Have you seen Sizhui when he’s sad?  It's like someone kicked a puppy.  Please tell me that Jingyi sent you a letter or something? I know you two write letters all the time.  I bet he didn’t; that would make things too easy.  

“And we still don’t know what happened to make Hanguang-jun take off like that.  Why isn’t Sizhui chasing after Jingyi himself?  Something happened, and he’s not telling us about it.  Oh no, are we going to have to go to Gusu? I hate Gusu; there are so many rules.  But we’re going to have to find that idiot.”

“Zizhen, why are we friends with these idiots?  I mean, I guess Sizhui is technically my family or something, but really.  Please send me a letter back, I can’t handle these two by myself.  Also! Don’t you dare go running off after him all alone like some storybook hero or something.  I’ll break your legs if you pull a stunt like that; I can only handle one idiot friend at a time.

“You should come to Lanling.  If we’re going to go chasing after the idiot, we should probably do it soon before he gets himself into trouble.  I guess we’ll have to wait to hear from Sizhui though.  Oh damn, I have to go.  I, um, I look forward to your letter then, I guess.  Bye Zizhen!”

The butterfly in Zizhen’s hand flutters its wings a few more times before dissipating in a shower of golden sparks.  The knot of worry that has been in his chest since he first opened Sizhui’s letter eases a little at Jin Ling’s message.  Zizhen shakes his head in amusement.  Even though Jin Ling would never say it, he can tell that he’s worried about Jingyi too.  

“A message from your boyfriend already?” Ziwan’s voice from the door startles Zizhen so much he drops his book with a clatter of bamboo against wood.

“Jiejie!” he cries and then puts his hand over his thundering heart.  “Don’t sneak up on people like that!”

Ziwan just raises an eyebrow and steps into his room, closing the door behind her.  

“Listening at doors isn’t very noble, Ziwan.”

“Don't worry, I have no interest in your love letters.”

“It’s not a love letter!” Zizhen protests.  “And he’s not my boyfriend!”

“Does Sect Leader Jin send everyone late-night messages then?”

“Jin Ling sends all four of us messages,” Zizhen says a bit sulkily.

“Mn, and does he kiss all four of you when he’s dr-”   Her words are cut off as Zizhen lunges across the room and slaps his hand over her mouth.

“Jiejie! I told you that in confidence!”

Ziwan calmly reaches up and removes Zizhen’s hand from her face.  “And I haven’t told anyone.”

Zizhen retreats back to his desk and motions for Ziwan to follow him.  They settle across from each other.  Here, with only Zizhen for company, Ziwan’s expression is slightly softer.  They’ve both let their hair down for the night and in the candle light, they actually look like twins. 

“What did you want to talk about?”  He asks.  He picks up his fan and aimlessly toys with it.  Ziwan keeps her hands neatly in her lap.

“Something upset you earlier.”

“Aww, you noticed.  You do care!”

“Your archery was abysmal.”

“And you ruined it,” Zizhen says with a sigh.  

“Didi,” Ziwan says, and while her voice is bordering on irritated, Zizhen can tell she’s worried.  “What happened?”

Zizhen flicks his fan open and flutters it, hiding part of his face as he thinks.  His sister’s gaze is unwavering.  The problem is that Zizhen can’t lie to his sister; well he can, but she will know that he’s lying.  And his sister hates being lied to. If he tries, she will make his life exceedingly difficult.  He needs her on his side.

“Is it about what happened at the cultivation conference?” she asks, eyes on Zizhen’s face, searching for any reaction.

Zizhen snaps his fan shut and sets it on the table.  “You can’t tell anyone.”

Ziwan crosses her arms.  “I am not in the habit of gossiping.”

That is not a promise, and Zizhen frowns at her.  But he knows that she has a point; Ziwan is never careless with her words, and has never given away any of his secrets.  

“Lan Jingyi is missing.”  There’s a long pause as Ziwan waits for him to elaborate. Zizhen sighs, “that’s it.  That’s all I know.”

Ziwan pinches the bridge of her nose.  “Let me guess, you and your friends are going to go after him?”

“Someone has to!”

“What are you planning to tell father?”

“Probably that I’m going on a night hunt,” he says with a shrug.  He hadn’t gotten that far yet.  Ziwan watches him, arms still crossed, obviously thinking.  The silence stretches until Zizhen shifts uncomfortably.  “Jiejie?”

“Take me with you.”

“I-, what?” He had not been expecting that.

“Take. Me. With. You.” She says each word with emphasis and there’s no doubt or question in her voice.

“You want to come and hunt with me, Sizhui, and Jin Ling ?”  To say that Ziwan and Zizhen have different opinions on Jin Ling would be an understatement.

“I’m a strong cultivator; I can help you,” she says; not answering his question.

“I’m not denying that!”

“Zizhen,” there’s something almost vulnerable in Ziwan’s voice that instantly gets Zizhen’s attention.  “Do you have any idea how frustrating it is to always have to stay in Baling while you go to competition and hunts? How I feel when I can’t go on the best night hunts because father thinks they are too dangerous for a girl.

Zizhen is quiet.  He knows that his sister hates being left behind, but he’s never really thought about how much it must bother her.  Something close to guilt stirs in him.  His sister has never said anything to him, but he should have noticed.  

“It’s not fair,” she suddenly explodes, surprising him.  “I’m better than Zihao, and he’s thirty!  The only person in Baling who is better than me is you, and he still won’t take me seriously.  He just wants to marry me off to make himself look better!”

Ziwan’s eyes are shining with unshed tears, and Zizhen scrambles around the desk to wrap his arms around her.  He hasn’t seen her cry since they were eight or nine, and she broke her nose.

“Jiejie,” Zizhen says softly, half surprised that Ziwan doesn’t shove him off of her.  “I’m sorry.  I’m sorry I didn’t help you more.  You can come, of course you can.”

Slowly, Ziwan hugs him back.  

“You aren’t allowed to kill Jin Ling though, no matter what he says”

Ziwan chuckles slightly into his shoulder, and Zizhen squeezes her tighter.

Chapter Text

I'm here again
A thousand miles away from you
A broken mess, just scattered pieces of who I am

The resentment tinging the air around Jingyi makes his skin crawl.  A groan escapes him as he stares into the night in the direction of the next invasion.  He shoves back the grief that had threatened to overtake him and tells himself that he’s letting the resentful energy get to him.

His brain is spinning. There’s no time to properly suppress the corpses here, so Jingyi does what he can.  North, east, south, west: he slaps down a talisman at the cardinal points around the pile of corpses.  Spiritual energy flows from him, and for a moment there’s a glowing blue line around the corpses.  When it vanishes, the binding remains.  

Having finished, Jingyi gets back on his sword.  There’s no way he’s waiting on the ground to be ambushed again.  As he flies higher, he takes stock of his own body.  There are bruises across his body where corpses hit him, but nothing critical.  The biggest problem that he faces is his own fatigue.  He’s far from exhausted, and he still has spiritual energy, but he’s a bit tired.  And tired is enough to make you sloppy if you aren't careful.  He might be able to fight for hours, but he can’t keep up the same level of energy that he started with, and with fresh enemies approaching that could become dangerous.  He’ll need to be focused.

He turns his attention to the fields below him and strains his eyes.  Motion catches his eye and allows him to focus on the enemy.  His mouth goes dry.  There are even more corpses this time. Something isn’t right. 

How did nobody notice that this many people were missing? And why are they all coming out now?  

Desperately, Jingyi searches the rice paddies again for signs of the cultivator controlling the corpses.  They have to be close by.  If he can find the cultivator, then he can take them out and the corpses will drop.  But there’s no sign of another person.  Jingyi grits his teeth and desperately tries to come up with a plan.

He could retreat, but he’s worried that the corpses will follow him.  Whoever is controlling them is decidedly more interested in destroying Jingyi than they had been with terrorizing farmers.  Is it because he poses a threat?  But they must know that Qinghe Nie cultivators will come eventually. So why would they consider one cultivator a threat?

His eyes follow the slow but inexorable motion of the small crowd of fierce corpses.  There’s no guarantee that if he takes on this many corpses he will walk out again, and he really doesn’t want to die here alone in a rice field.  He definitely doesn’t want to become a fierce corpse.  

Oh. Oh.

Jingyi freezes.  In a flash, he remembers Yi City and the corpse of Song Zichen wielding Fuxue.  The fight between Senior Wen and Song Zichen was unlike anything he’s ever seen.  The corpses he’s been fighting are just farmers and merchants.  The body of a cultivator would make a much better puppet for a demonic cultivator.   

His gaze strays towards the road and the city beyond.  On his sword, he could easily outpace the corpses.  But that doesn’t mean that they won't follow.  Out on the road, with enough room for them to surround him, the corpses would be even harder to fight.  And if they follow him into the city... No.

He’ll have to fight.  His determination can only do so much against the fear that seized him at the size of the crowd of corpses approaching, but he is not a stranger to fear, and he has never let it stop him.  It would be so much easier to be brave if Sizhui was here with him.  Jingyi pictures his smile, the one that says ‘of course you can do this’.  Sizhui has always believed in him; for now, he has to believe in himself.  

With the fear pushed back, he can think more clearly.  There is another weapon that he has, besides the talismans and his sword.   Jingyi pulls his bow and a quiver of arrows out of the qiankun bag. 

There’s a precarious moment as he braces the heavy recurve bow against his foot to string it.  The dark wood of the body blends with the shadows around him, but the white leather grip stands out.  The bow is Gusu Lan style, larger than the bows that the Jins and Jiangs use, and designed for the upper body strength of Lan Sect cultivators. 

He nocks two arrows.  He has seen Jin Ling fire four or five at a time on a hunt, but he is not as good an archer.  His advantage lies in the distance his bow can cover.  He draws the arrows back and holds them for just long enough to aim.  There’s less than a moment to lament his lack of bracers before he releases; at least he doesn’t have long sleeves to contend with.  The arrows fly, and the string snaps hard against Jingyi’s arms.  He winces but grabs another arrow.  Again, he takes aim at the leg of one of the corpses and releases.  Then again and again.  

The bow was built to take advantage of his strength, and the draw weight starts to wear on him as he releases fifteen then twenty arrows.  Each arrow hits home, digging into muscle and slicing through tendons.  When they are closer, Jingyi manages to shoot through one corpse and into another, pinning the two together.  But the bow is not the best weapon against fierce corpses; piercing the brain or heart of a fierce corpse does nothing, you have to maim them to the point that they can no longer move.  Plus, he is running out of arrows.  

Jingyi unstrings the bow and stows it away unceremoniously.  His arm is aching from the snap of the bowstring, but he doesn’t have time to think about it.  The rain of arrows has incapacitated some of the corpses, but at least twenty are still advancing on him.  The air is full of the sounds of the corpses’ moaning.

Directing his sword over the group of corpses, he drops down behind them, taking advantage of their poor mobility to buy himself a few seconds.  He leaps off the sword and grabs it on the way down, using his downward momentum to drive the sword through one of the corpses.  He takes another one down from the back before they manage to turn around.  They mob him, pushing close together in an attempt to overwhelm him.  But Jingyi moves faster than they can respond.  He aims low, trying to take out their legs and reduce their mobility further. 

Despite his fatigue, his footwork is excellent and his execution exact.  He moves with the grace of a dancer, but with enough strength to take the corpses apart limb from limb.  The sound of his breathing is buried beneath the inhuman cries and moans of the corpses.  Their only advantage is in numbers, and they do their best to mob him, but he uses the narrowness of the road as a funnel.  However, unconsciously, Jingyi stays to the right of the road, moving around a night hunt partner who’s not there.  And eventually, he steps right to decapitate a corpse and send it down off the path, and one of the corpses manages to step into the space by his side.  

The corpse grabs his upper arm with all the unnatural strength of the dead, and there’s a sickening pop as his shoulder dislocates.  Jingyi gasps in pain, but he doesn’t freeze, and he doesn’t stop fighting.  He kicks out hard, sending the corpse flying far enough that it crashes down into the rice paddy.  Jingyi passes his sword to his left hand and keeps fighting.  His movements are a hair slower now and not as precise. Sweat trickles down his face, and his jaw is set against the pain in his arm.  

He’s fighting defensively now, keeping his injured arm against his side.   He backs away one step at a time, and the corpses trample over their own fallen companions as they follow.  Their fists and feet catch him; there’s no finesse but more than enough force to bruise.  A heavy fist catches his ribs, and he coughs as the air is forced out of his lungs.  They crowd together, trying to mob him, but he won’t make the same mistake twice, and the corpses don't get inside his guard again.  His ribs ache with every breath.  They press and they press him, but in the end, they are mowed down.

Jingyi takes several almost stumbling steps away from the trail of corpses in front of him.  His breathing is harsh in his own ears without the sounds of the fight to drown it out  His mouth tastes like iron.  He buries his sword point first into the ground to free his left hand.  Once again he’s left in the unnatural post-battle silence, and the absence of his fellow disciples weighs on him.

“I know you’re there,” Jingyi calls into the seemingly empty night.  The demonic cultivator has to be nearby, and if they can summon another group of corpses this size, he’s in deadly trouble.  

Gently, he probes the injury in his shoulder; it's definitely dislocated. He wishes Sizhui was here, with his gentle touch and soothing energy.  How many times has Sizhui patched him up after a hunt?  

He forces the injured arm up until it's parallel to the ground.  He doesn’t give himself time to think about it, time to tense, before he grabs his forearm and jerks his shoulder back into the socket.  His vision flashes white for a second.

“I must say,” Jingyi says, between heaving breaths.  “You’re much better than I thought you would be.”

He wipes the sweat on his forehead with his sleeve and waits for a response that doesn’t come.  

“Most demonic cultivators are pretty useless,” he continues after a long pause.  It’s true, most of the so-called demonic cultivators, when they aren’t complete frauds, rely on copies of the talismans left behind by Senior Wei and can hardly control more than two or three fierce corpses, if they can control any at all.  But two or three is enough to terrorize your average village.

There’s another long pause with no response.  But he also hasn’t sensed another wave of resentful energy.  Maybe they are listening to him and maybe they are out of puppets.  

“It’s such a powerful technique.  But most people lack the will to use it.”  That was the trick to demonic cultivation, Senior Wei had mentioned.  You don’t need a golden core or focused spiritual energy, but you do need the mental fortitude to control the resentful energy and not let it destroy you. 

“What do you know about demonic cultivation?” a voice comes from behind him, and Jingyi spins, gripping his sword as he does.  

A woman dressed in red and grey is now standing amid the pile of corpses.  She walks through the bodies as if they are nothing more than dirt under her feet.  Her face is round, but any softness in her features is canceled out by her icy expression.  

“More than you would guess, probably,” Jingyi keeps his grip on his sword even though the woman appears to be unarmed.  He’s seen senior Senior Wei fight with nothing but a flute before.  

“Have you been dabbling in forbidden methods?” She asks with a mocking tone, “Is that why you are here all alone?”

Jingyi doesn’t flinch exactly, but he stiffens a bit as her words hit a little too close to home.  His gaze is on the embroidery on her sleeves, the red on grey.  He’s seen it somewhere.  

“Me? No.” 

“Too bad,” the woman says.  She clears the pile of bodies and stops a few steps away from him on the road.  “I wouldn’t have minded having you on my side.  You’re talented and not bad to look at either.”

Jingyi snorts.  “Trying to kill someone isn't a great way to get them on your side.”  Why can’t he place the design on her robes?

“A miscalculation,” the woman says with a shrug.  “I underestimated you.”

“People tend to do that.”

The woman glances down at the corpses by her feet.  “A single cultivator stumbles into my trap? It seemed like my lucky day; your body would have been very useful.  I didn’t think you’d be able to defeat all my puppets.”

Quite frankly he didn’t think he’d be able to defeat all her puppets either.  But he doesn’t say so.  “Who’s your trap for, if not a cultivator?”

“I didn’t say it wasn’t for cultivators,” the woman crosses her arms, and her sleeves fall back revealing a pai xiao in her hand.  The movement also makes it easier for him to see the design on her sleeves.  The swirling flames reach up to a sun pattern.  The same sun pattern that Hanguang-jun has branded on his chest.  He’s seen it in his textbooks.

“Qishan Wen,” he says without thinking as it clicks.  

“Oh? Recognize it do you?”

Jingyi’s brain scrambles.  This woman is not much older than he is, she could only have been three or four when the Sunshot Campaign ended.  They had always thought that Sizhui was the only survivor of Qishan Wen, since Senior Wen isn’t technically alive anymore.  

“Of course I do,” Jingyi says softly.  How could he ever forget?  No one in any of the major sects could forget the Sunshot Campaign and who they had warred against, not with so many dead and so many orphans left behind.  The Gusu Lan Sect, like the Yunmeng Jiang, has even more reasons than most to remember.

“Does your sect still teach its children about the Wen Sect?” she asks and her voice is hard and cold.  “Tell you how terrible they all were?  How they all had to die?  Even the children?”

“I don’t have a sect,” he says quietly.  He doesn’t know what else to say.  

Sizhui is his best friend; so of course, he knows about the massacre of the Wen Clan.  He comforted Sizhui when his memory returned and he started having fragmented nightmares of the time before his adoption to Gusu Lan.  But never once has he heard anything from Sizhui close to the rage and bitterness with which this woman speaks come, and it shocks him.

The woman narrows her eyes at him and studies him, looking for a sign of sect affiliation that isn’t there.  The iciness in her eyes dims somewhat.

“You were setting a trap for Qinghe Nie,” Jingyi guesses.

“Let me give you a piece of advice, pretty little rogue cultivator.  Don’t meddle with things that don’t involve you.”

Jingyi manages to hold back his indignance at being called little by someone who’s puppets he’s demolished and who is quite a bit shorter than him.  

“A bunch of innocent people were killed,” he says instead, “of course I got involved.”

Her eyes flash. “The cultivation world didn’t care so much about innocent people eighteen years ago.”

“Not everyone in the cultivation world is the same,” Jingyi says.  He can’t deny that the major sects turned a blind eye to Jin Sect’s treatment of the Wen remnants.  But hadn’t Senior Wei stood up and saved Senior Wen’s family?

“What do you know!” She says, angry again.  “My parents died in the war.”

“So did mine,” Jingyi says quietly.  

“And after the war?” she sneers.  “What about then.  Were you thrown into a labor camp before you learned how to talk?  Were your grandparents and siblings worked to death?”

Jingyi does not reply.  Of course, he had been safe in the recently rebuilt Cloud Recesses with the elders and the others too young to fight.  But it’s not himself that he’s thinking about just then, it’s Sizhui.  The small boy he had first seen clutching to Hanguang-jun’s robes.  Sizhui’s parents had been killed before he was old enough to remember them, and then the rest of his family had been massacred at the Burial Mounds.  But Sizhui has always been sweet and generous and imagining him hateful and bitter as this woman makes Jingyi’s blood run cold.  

“No,” he says at last.  

She rolls her eyes as if to say ‘obviously not’.  

“But someone saved you,” Jingyi says and his voice is unusually subdued.  “Someone risked themselves to save you, just like the Yiling Patriarch turned away from the cultivation world to save The Ghost General and his family.”

It feels weird to use these old titles for Senior Wei and Senior Wen, but he doesn’t want to reveal his personal connection to them.  

“Don’t talk about things you don’t understand,” she snaps.  Jingyi holds his tongue; be careful with your words.  

She reminds him of Sect Leader Jiang in the way she wears her anger.  And he knows that nothing he says will change her mind; she has held her grief and fury too close for too long.  But he wants to change her mind.  He cannot allow her to continue to murder innocent people.  But he’d prefer to convince her than fight her.  He thinks of Senior Wen and of Sizhui.  He wonderers if they could convince her to change her mind.  

Do not grieve in excess.  Do not hold grudges.  Be grateful.  Do not succumb to rage.  Perhaps those rules have more merit than he thought.

Jingyi bows his head and looks down at the sword in his hand.  

“I’d prefer not to fight you.” 

“Then don’t.” 

“I can’t let you keep killing people.  These people have nothing to do with the cultivation world or the Sunshot Campaign.  There is no justice in their deaths.”

She sneers at him.  “Sacrifices have to be made.”

“Why do other people have to pay the price for your revenge?” he demands.

“They’re nothing,” she says.  “How can they compare to the things I’ve lost?”

A chill goes down Jingyi’s spine.  He's heard words exactly like these before from Xue Yang and Jin Guangyao.  

I'm sorry Sizhui’ he thinks as he raises his sword.  

“I can’t let you do that,” Jingyi says, and attacks.  The woman manages to step away, turning out of the path of his attack. 

“Attacking an unarmed woman,” she laughs, and it’s a cold humorless sound.  “How honorable of you.”

Jingyi feints and tests, studying the way that she moves as she turns and steps.  She moves like someone who’s been trained to fight, but not with the confidence of someone who’s trained their whole life.  Her style is based on deflection and avoidance rather than attack.  It’s a style that he’s seen from female disciples of some sects.  If she was a regular cultivator, he’d be confident in his ability to best her, but he doesn’t trust her to play fair.

“You are hardly helpless,” Jingyi says with a snort.  He feints, and as she dodges, he catches her with his attack slicing into the arm holding the pai xiao.  As she recoils in surprise, Jingyi steps in and hits her with a blow to the diaphragm.  She gasps and coughs as she takes several steps back.  Blood flecks her lips.  It catches Jingyi by surprise; he hadn’t anticipated her lacking a golden core entirely.  Her hand is going towards her sleeve, and Jingyi steps in with another attack, but she dodges just barely.  His eye is on the hand reaching into her sleeve.  His next blow catches her side, hard, but it doesn’t stop her from pulling something out of her sleeve.  He has half a second to realize she’s holding something, a pouch or a packet.  The next he’s turning away, throwing his hand up over his face as some sort of powder explodes behind him.  

Poison powder, just like Yi City.  

“Stay out of my way.  It’d be a waste to kill you,” her voice echoes from behind him.  Jingyi steps away from the cloud of poison powder drifting in the air behind him, keeping his hand over his nose and mouth and his eyes closed.  He doesn’t know what type of poison she’s using, but he knows that Xue Yang had used poison powder to blind Song Zichen.  

He steps carefully, blindly away from the poison until he’s fairly confident he’s gotten far enough away.  He opens his eyes and glances behind him.  Several li away he can see a faint cloud where the poison hangs in the air. 

She is gone, and Jingyi sags slightly.  The adrenaline in his veins is wearing off and leaving exhaustion in its wake.  But he’s far from done for the night.  Be strict with yourself.   Jingyi forces his shoulders back and stands up properly.  First, he pulls out a cloth and cleans the blade of his sword so he can resheath it.  After that, he lights a talisman to survey the area.  

It’s not pretty.  Corpses are scattered around him, and all of them are cut to pieces and so crushed under foot.  There are some in the rice paddy as well.  But it is nothing he hasn’t seen before.  One by one he lays the bodies out.  It would be so much faster if he had someone to help.  On each one, he places a talisman to contain the resentful energy.  Only when all the corpses have been suppressed, does Jingyi step away.  

His body aches; he is tired, and he’s expended a large amount of his spiritual energy.  Still, he needs to go back to town and report to the magistrate.  Someone needs to collect the bodies and bury them properly so that they can’t be used again.  Part of him wants to sit and take a breather.  But that would be stupid in a number of ways.  He’s running on momentum and might not be able to get back up again if he stops moving.  And he has no wish to sit here in the wake of the battle where the absence of fellow disciples haunts his every step.

Jingyi gets back on his sword and flies towards the city.  The wind against his skin is at least refreshing, and when he lands on the road in front of the city he feels slightly better.  The city streets are empty as he walks and there’s no lantern light coming from the windows.  Without the hustle and bustle of people breathing life into the city, it feels hollow and empty.  The eerie feeling and the dark streets make Jingyi feel jumpy.  Do not be ruled by fear , his brain supplies.  But it’s so much harder to fight back the fear without his friend beside him, warm and living and present.

As Jingyi approaches the Magistrates Office, movement near the steps catches his attention.  His hand goes to his sword as his eyes pick out the figures of two people among the shadows.  As he approaches, he keeps his hand on the sword.

“Who’s there?” he demands, voice pitched low to avoid waking anyone in the nearby houses.

“Daozhang, it’s us.”  

Jingyi relaxes as he recognizes Peizhi’s voice, and he lets go of his sword.

“What are you doing here?” He asks them.  “It’s late; shouldn’t you be sleeping?”

“You’re not sleeping,” Peizhi points out, crossing his arms.

“I was working,” Jingyi says resisting the urge to cross his own arms.  “Besides, it’s not safe to be out alone at night.”

“I’m seventeen,” Peizhi says petulantly, “I can take care of myself.”

“Gege,” Liling says in her gentle voice and tugs on his sleeve.  “Don’t be difficult.”  

Peizhi rolls his eyes.

“We wanted to thank you,” Liling says, and Jingyi has to take a step forward to catch her quiet voice.  

“There’s enough room for you to join us at the inn,” Peizhi says.  “You didn’t mention having anywhere to stay.”

The truth is that Jingyi doesn’t have anywhere to stay.  He’d forgotten to find a place while he was focused on his job.  He smiles a bit ruefully, “You didn’t have to do that.  But, I don’t have a place to stay, so if the offer still stands, I’ll join you.”

“Great,” Peizhi says with a smile.  “We can go now? Or?”

Jingyi lets out a sigh; he’s tired to his bones, but things aren’t over yet.  So he shakes his head, “I’ve still got work to do.”

“We’ll wait,” Liling says and sits back down on the steps.

“That’s not necessary,” Jingyi protests.  He already feels a bit guilty that they’ve stayed up waiting for him and for letting them pay for his room at the inn.  He definitely doesn’t want to keep them up longer.  “It’s late.”

“We don’t have anything to do tomorrow,” Peizhi says taking a seat next to his sister and stretching out his legs.  “We can sleep in.”

Be grateful and be amicable, he reminds himself.  Arguing with them now would be both rude and a waste of everyone’s time.  “Thank you,” he says instead and offers them a bow.  

Jingyi walks up the stairs to the door and knocks gently.  From behind the door, he can hear the sound of someone moving around.  When the door opens, soft candlelight spills out.  The man who answers is not the assistant from earlier; he’s a burly man, dressed in plain clothes, who stands with the poise of a fighter.  

“Greetings, Daozhang.” The man offers Jingyi a bow and then steps out of the door for him to enter.  There’s another man in the entrance hall who stands up as Jingyi enters.  He’s slimmer and taller than the man who opened the door, but he too has the easy grace of someone trained in the martial arts.  

“Doazhang,” he says with a bow to Jingyi as well.

Holding his sword in front of him, Jingyi offers them a shallow bow.  

“How can we assist you?” the first man asks.

“I’ve come to make a report,” Jingyi says.  He’s given enough night hunt reports in his life that the words practically roll off of his tongue.  “The group of corpses that has been attacking travelers on the road has been dispatched.  Furthermore, I encountered two larger groups of corpses.  I have suppressed these as well.  Their energy is suppressed, but the bodies remain on the path through the rice paddies north northwest of the city.  There are approximately fifty corpses.  They will need to be collected and properly buried promptly.  There are further details that need to be reported to the local cultivation sect, the Qinghe Nie.  I will provide a report in writing for them.  That is all.”

There are several beats of silence following Jingyi’s reports, and the men process what he has said.  Jingyi half expects to be dismissed like he would be if he had just reported to Hanguang-jun, but of course things are different now. 

“Fifty corpses?” the taller of the two men says incredulously.  The other one elbows him sharply.  Jingyi bites his lip to stop himself from smiling.  Now is the time to be serious.

“Fifty-six to be exact,” Jingyi tells him.

“You fought fifty-six corpses at once?” the tall man asks again.

“No, not all at once.”  Jingyi doesn’t think anyone but Hanguang-jun could even attempt such a thing.

“Nevermind that,” the burlier man says, giving his companion a reproachful look.  “You said that the bodies need to be collected and buried?”

“That is correct.  Leaving them there overnight is irresponsible.  It may cause panic among the farmers.  Furthermore, the corpses need to be buried properly.”

“Is it safe to send our men to collect them?” The burly man asks.  He seems to be the one in charge, or maybe just the one with more sense.

“Perfectly,” Jingyi says.  He’s certain that the demonic cultivator won’t be coming back tonight, and he’s already dispatched the corpses.  “The corpses are unable to fight, and I have suppressed the resentful energy surrounding them.  They are no longer dangerous.”

“Alright,” the burly man says and turns to his companion.  “Go and collect ten of the others.  We’ll need a few carts as well.  Wake the magistrate’s assistant and bring him here as well.”

The other man nods, turns, and vanishes into the depths of the building.

“You’ll have to talk to the magistrate's assistant to leave an official report and get your payment,” the guard tells him. 

“I understand.”  Jingyi resists the urge to sigh.  He’s tired and he aches all over.  What he really wants is to sink into a hot bath or fall into bed.  But duty comes first.  

“Do you need any medical attention?” the guard asks Jingyi.  “It seems like you have had quite a fight.”

Unconsciously, Jingyi rolls the shoulder that had dislocated; it throbs  “There’s nothing life-threatening.  But, I should probably get my shoulder checked by a doctor.”

The man nods.  “We have a contract with a doctor, tell the magistrate’s assistant and he will direct you.”

“Thank you.”

They wait in silence after that.  Jingyi has to resist the urge to pace.  Despite Old Master Lan’s teaching and Gusu’s best training, Jingyi still hates waiting.  But it’s not long before Jingyi hears the hurried footsteps of the magistrate's assistant.  He’s not sure whether he’s impressed or concerned that the man is so energetic after being awoken in the middle of the night.  

When the man appears, he looks slightly rumpled.  Some of his hair is coming out of its tail and his robes were obviously put on hastily.  He would definitely get in trouble for improper appearance in the Cloud Recesses.

Jingyi speaks with him, giving the same report that he gave to the guard.  He collects directions to the doctor and a scroll to write a report for the Qinghe Nie cultivators.  Then, finally, he is free.

“Done?” Peizhi asks from where he’s sitting to the side as Jingyi exits the building.  He’s got his back against the building with one knee up and one leg down.  Not a proper sitting position, Jingyi’s tired mind informs him.  Liling is sitting next to her brother with her head on his shoulder; her eyes are closed.

“Yes,” Jingyi says quietly.  “Is she asleep?”

“Seems so,” Peizhi says.  Then more gently, “Liling, time to move.”

Liling mumbles something and turns her face into his shoulder.  Peizhi sighs.  “You’re too big for me to carry anymore,” he informs her.

“I could,” Jingyi says impulsively and the more awkwardly, “carry her, I mean.  I don’t mean to overstep.  It’s just that you guys have been sitting out here half the night for me.  It’s the least that I could do.”

Peizhi looks from his younger sister to Jingyi.  His eyes are so soft when he looks at his younger sister than Jingyi wonders, not for the first time in his life, what it's like to have a brother or sister.  

“Alright,” Peizhi says.  “If you don’t mind.”

“It’s nothing.”  Jingyi squats down beside the pair of them.  Gently, he tucks one arm around her back and the other under her knees; he’s careful not to jostle her broken arm, which is in a sling now.  His own shoulder complains as he starts to take her weight, but it's more than manageable.  

He stands, and Peizhi stands with him.  Peizhi reaches out and adjusts Liling so that her head is against Jingyi’s shoulder and then nods.  In his arms, Liling seems to weigh practically nothing; it’s almost surprising.  The few times he’s carried or helped support others, it has been his fellow disciples who have much more mass than the girl in his arms.  

Peizhi looks back at him and his face is impressed.  “You really don’t have a problem carrying her, do you?”

“No,” Jingyi says and he keeps his voice low, so as not to wake Liling.  He’s too tired to guard his tongue and blurts out,  “You have no idea how easy this is compared to some of my training.”

“Is the training to become a cultivator really that difficult?”

“Yes,” Jingyi says.  Though, the physical training of a cultivator is not by a long shot the most difficult part of becoming a cultivator.  The formation of the golden core and the regulation of qi is much more difficult.  “as a punishment, I had to do handstands.”

“Handstands?”

“Mn.  I had to copy out the sect rules while doing a handstand.”  He’s saying more than he should, but he’s too tired to worry about it just then.

“You had to write while doing a handstand?” His voice is incredulous, “Is that even possible?”

“Yes,” Jingyi says in answer to both.  “You have to hold yourself on one hand.”

“I don’t believe you,” Peizhi says.  

“I can show you sometime,” Jingyi says.  

“You’ll have to,” Peizhi says with a smile.  They walk in silence the rest of the way to the inn.  Peizhi opens the door when they reach the inn, and Jingyi follows him in.  Peizhi leads him up the stairs to a room at the back.  

“It’s small,” Peizhi says in apology.  The room has two beds, a bamboo mat, a desk, and a screen.  Crossing the room, he gently lays Liling on the bed before backing away.  

“It’s no problem.  I probably would have had to sleep in the street otherwise,” Jingyi says with a smile. Then he sighs, “Sizhui’s right, I should stop and think sometimes.  I’ll take the mat.”

“You can take the bed,” Peizhi protests.  Jingyi shakes his head and moves to adjust the privacy screen so that it stands between Liling’s bed and the rest of the room.

“You paid for the room,” Jingyi said.  “Take the bed.  I’m too tired to argue about it.”

Before Peizhi can further argue with him, and he clearly intends to, Jingyi sits on the bamboo mat.  He rubs his face with his hands.  He just wants to sleep.  

“Jingyi,” Peizhi says, sitting on the edge of the bed.  His hands are twisted together in his lap, and Jingyi sits up straighter to give the boy his entire attention.  

“What is it?”

“Where are you going after this?”

“Dunno exactly,” Jingyi says with a shrug, ignoring the faint pain in his shoulder.  “Why?”

“We, uh, well we were hoping we could travel with you.”  Jingyi blinks in surprise, but Peizhi pushes on.  “It seems like you are wandering around.  We want to do that too, to travel and see new places.  And it’d be safer with you, and, and also more fun.”

Peizhi’s face is a bit red at the end and he’s looking at his hands rather than at Jingyi, and he reminds Jingyi so much of Jin Ling that he almost laughs.  But he knows that’d be rude, so he bites it back.

“It’s fun traveling with you too,” Jingyi says and a small chuckle escapes.  But the smile quickly fades; there’s a reason he’s traveling alone.  He leans against the wall; proper sitting posture be damned.  All he can see is the bone-white snake, the broken bodies of his friends, and Sizhui bleeding onto white gravel.  They had suffered for Jingyi’s failings, all of them, and they were cultivators. They could protect themselves.  “But, I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Why?” Peizhi asks with a frown on his face.  “If it’s about the inn, don’t worry.  The magistrate says it will take some time before things are straightened out and my brother told me to keep Liling away until my uncle is gone.  So we won’t be going back anyway.”

Jingyi closes his eyes.  He feels so tired, and not just his body.  Peizhi is fun to be around, but it’d be selfish for Jingyi to put them in danger.  “Travelling with me isn’t safe.  I’m going to be hunting, and I can’t,” his voice is suddenly very rough, “guarantee that I’ll be able to protect you.”

Jingyi keeps his eyes closed; he doesn't want to look at Peizhi.

“We won’t get in your way,” Peizhi says.  “We can stay behind when you hunt like we did today.”

“It’s up to you.  You’re an adult, and I'm not going to make your decisions for you.”  Jingyi is so damn tired.  “But you should seriously consider what I said.”

“I will.”

“Can I sleep now?” Jingyi says wearily.

“Yes, of course, sorry for keeping you up.  I just wanted to ask.”

Jingyi waves his left hand in dismissal and lays down on the mat.  The hard ground doesn’t feel particularly great on his bruised body, but his fatigue wins, and he falls into sleep.  But it’s not a peaceful sleep.

Sizhui is in his dreams, but it’s not the Sizhui he knows. It’s Wen Sizhui, he realizes, dressed in gray and red like the cultivator from tonight.  His expression is cold, and it’s so unlike him that he hardly looks like Sizhui at all.  In the dream, Jingyi argues with him, desperate to get his Sizhui back.  Because this person wears Sizhui’s beautiful face, but it’s not him.  But Sizhui only gets angrier, until he raises his sword, except it’s not the sword that the real Sizhui carries because it’s hilt is black.  It’s obvious that Sizhui’s going to attack, but Jingyi doesn’t raise his sword; he doesn’t defend himself.  He can’t, won’t, fight him.  When the black sword plunges into Jingyi’s chest, he’s still looking into familiar cinnamon colored eyes.  

He awakes with a start.

Jingyi is drenched in a cold sweat, and he shivers.  The sky has just started to lighten with the first hint of dawn.  Groaning, Jingyi lays back down.  It takes a while for his heart to slow back down to a normal speed and for his breaths to even out, but in the end, he sleeps. 

Chapter Text

Leaving flowers on your grave
Show that I still care
But black roses and Hail Mary's
Can't bring back what's taken from me

As Sizhui waits for Hanguang-jun to show up with breakfast he decides that he desperately needs a bath, probably enough for him to ask for help.  Humility is important and pride is to be avoided, but the idea of needing to have someone help him bathe is somewhere between embarrassing and mortifying.  Sizhui is starting to think that the worst part about this punishment is not the pain but being helpless and useless.  

But when Hanguang-jun enters, Sizhui senses that there is something that he wants to talk about so Sizhui does not bring up his request yet.  It’s hard to say exactly how he can tell that Hanguang-jun has something on his mind; it’s a dozen tiny clues, shifts in his posture and face that are tiny enough that they are hard to place.  But Sizhui has years of experience.

Hanguang-jun is silent as he helps Sizhui into a sitting position.  And he does not speak as he pours tea for both of them.  When he takes a seat across from Sizhui, he reaches for food and still does not speak.  Speaking during meals is forbidden, so Sizhui does not ask what is going on.  Even when they have finished eating there is a silence between them.  Sizhui is starting to get uncomfortable and has to repress the urge to fidget.  

“Today is the funeral,” Hanguang-jun says at last and his eyes are concerned.  

Sizhui’s mouth goes dry.  Of course, he knew that there would be a funeral for the eight disciples lost on the night hunt.  But he hadn’t really thought about it.  It has been years, maybe since the siege at the Burial Mounds since so many disciples died at once.  

“Oh,” is all Sizhui can manage.  

“Will you go?”

Sizhui looks down, unable to meet his father’s amber gaze.  Part of him wants to go, to pay his respects to his fellow disciples, and to grieve for them.  But he also knows what he did.  He used their bodies and manipulated their souls.  What right does he have to mourn at their graves?

“I don't think their families would be happy to see me there,” he says quietly.  He does not look up. How could they be?  And how can he be bold enough to face them?  

“Do not assume to know the thoughts of others,” Hanguang-jun tells him.  Sizhui ducks his head even lower.  His gaze stays on his hands, where they grip the fabric of his pants.  Guilt rises up in him again.  He feels that he should have done more.  He should have offered prayers for them.  Prostrated himself before the ancestors and apologized for using them.  Never mind that he’s physically incapable of such things at the moment.  

“I want to say goodbye,” Sizhui says at last into the silence.

“Then we will go,” Hanguang-jun says.  There is no infection in his voice.  Sizhui cannot tell if Hanguang-jun thinks he is doing the right thing or not.  Perhaps he should have asked for advice before he decided.  Be of one mind , he reminds himself.  The decision is made, and he will stick to it.

“Hanguang-jun,” Sizhui says after a pause.  And he is glad that he is looking down because he’s cheeks are growing warm with embarrassment.

“Mn?”

“I need to bathe first,” Sizhui says even though this is obvious.  He takes a deep breath and swallows his pride, “and I cannot do it alone.”

“I will assist,” Hanguang-jun says, and Sizhui nods meekly.  Still, he doesn’t look up.

“Thank you, Hanguang-jun.”

He expects his father to get up, to fetch a bath, or to order one perhaps.  But he doesn’t move.  Eventually, Sizhui looks up from his hands to where Hanguang-jun is sitting, his face as calm as ever.

“Sizhui,” he says when Sizhui has finally looked up at him.  

“Yes?”

“I will help you so long as I am able.  But I cannot help if you do not ask.”

“Yes, Hanguang-jun.” Sizhui looks down at his hands again.  It’s hard to face his father when he is being earnest; there is an intensity to it that makes it hard to bear.  Senior Wei is right on that account.  “I am sorry.”

Sizhui hears the rustle of fabric as Hanguang-jun gets to his feet and then footsteps as he heads to the door.  Only when he is gone does Sizhui look away from his hands.  All he can do is wait, and so he does.  

Hanguang-jun returns with a bath and warm water.  It is silent between them as he removes Sizhui’s bandages. He helps Sizhui to stand and then to move to the bath, and Sizhui finds that he can walk without too much pain if he moves slowly.  His cheeks burn and his whole face must be red as he is helped to strip and lower himself into the bath.  Blessedly, he is able to wash most of his body while Hanguang-jun prepares new bandages for his back.  He only needs help with the wounds on his back and his hair.  As Hanguang-jun washes Sizhui’s hair, the water begins to turn pink with the blood coming free of his hair.  Sizhui has to look away.  He is helped out of the tub and redressed and rebandaged.  In the end, it was not quite as mortifying an experience as he had feared, and he is incredibly grateful to be clean.

Hanguang-jun makes him drink more of the bitter tea provided by the healers before he helps Sizhui lay down to rest.  His body is trembling slightly from the pain in his back, and he is tired.  It’s so frustrating.  He’s done nothing except for rest for days, and he still feels exhausted.  

“Pain is exhausting,” Hanguang-jun says into the silence and Sizhui looks up in surprise, “and so is grief.”

“Did I say that out loud?” he asks, confused.

Hanguang-jun shakes his head.  “I had the same question.”

How had Sizhui managed to forget, again, that Hanguang-jun had once suffered this same thing?  There is a moment of silence between them, and Sizhui knows that this is an opening for him to ask questions.  But he doesn’t know what to say.  He knows why Hanguang-jun was punished.  Asking about the pain or about the recovery feels like whining.  

“Was it worth it?”  Sizhui knows in his heart that he would make the same decision over again.  He wouldn’t even hesitate.  But he has to ask.  Sixteen years later, do you still think it was worth it?

“Yes,” there is not even a beat of hesitation in his father’s voice.

“Would it,” Sizhui says and pauses, wondering if he’s pressing too far, poking at wounds that aren’t healed.  “Would it have been worth it if Senior Wei never came back?”

He knows that it is obvious what he is asking really.  Will it be worth it, even if I never get him back?  Sizhui’s hands clench, and he resists the urge to reach under the pillow for Jingyi’s forehead ribbon.  The ribbon is his hope, his fragile hope that he will actually get Jingyi back at the end of all this.  

“Yes.”  The answer is the same, but his tone is different.  And Sizhui can hear in it an echo of grief.  He doesn’t ask any more questions.  

Hanguang-jun moves to the door, and Sizhui closes his eyes.  He tucks his arms under his pillow so that he can feel the silk ribbon under his hand.  

“Sizhui,” Hanguang-jun’s voice surprises Sizhui, and he opens his eyes, but he can’t see Hanguang-jun from his position.  “Know your own mind.”

With that, Hanguang-jun leaves, and Sizhui closes his eyes again.  He drifts into sleep, but it’s restless.  He dreams of bone-white scales, the sound of bones snapping, the spill of red blood on white silk, and the whispers of the dead.  

“Sizhui,” someone is calling his name.  At first, it seems like the voices of the spirits that had called to him:  Sizhui-xiong, why?  Why did I have to die? Why are you alive?  I want revenge.  Revenge.  Sizhui-xiong why didn’t you help me?  Why do you get to live?

“A-Yuan!” Someone is shaking him, gently.

His eyes snap open, and he looks around.  His heart is hammering in his chest.  Senior Wei is there with a concerned look on his face.   

“You alright?”

“A nightmare,” Sizhui says, slowly relaxing.  “It was just a nightmare.”

“Want to talk about it,” Senior Wei asks, taking a seat on the ground next to Sizhui’s bed and leaning against the wall.

Sizhui shakes his head, and Senior Wei lets out a sigh.  It’s obvious that he wants to ask about it, but he holds himself back.  His restraint surprises Sizhui a bit.  Perhaps Hanguang-jun is rubbing off on him after all.  

“You are more like Lan Zhan than I thought at first,” Senior Wei says.  “It's hard to see  because you are so much friendlier than he is.”

Sizhui hides a surprised laugh behind his hand, and Senior Wei shakes his head.  “Ah, I’m not saying anything he doesn’t know.  But you and Lan Zhan both, never wanting to talk about things,” he complains, but his voice gets more serious.  “Since neither of you talks, then I guess I’ll have to do it.  Your Hanguang-jun is worried, A-Yuan, and so am I.”

“My wounds-” Sizhui starts but Senior Wei cuts him off.

“I’m not talking about your back.” He points an accusatory finger at Sizhui, “and interrupting a senior is against the rules.” 

Sizhui snorts, not quite able to believe that he’s being lectured on rules by Senior Wei of all people.

“People think that Lan Zhan is difficult to read,” Senior Wei continues as if Sizhui hadn’t reacted at all.  “But you’re like Zewu-jun, hiding everything behind a smile.”

Sizhui frowns at the word ‘hiding’.  It sounds like he’s breaking rules and keeping secrets, which he’s not.  It’s just that he doesn’t like to talk about his feelings; it’s uncomfortable.  He’s still trying to find a way to express that feeling that doesn’t sound contradictory when Senior Wei keeps talking.

“We care about you Sizhui.  There’s nothing that would change that.  You can trust us.  I understand if you still don’t trust me.”  There’s something fragile and pained in Senior Wei’s face, and Sizhui wants to protest, but he shouldn’t interrupt.  “I know I was gone for thirteen years.  But Lan Zhan?  He raised you, and seeing how well you turned out, it seems he did a good job.  I know he seems cold, but I would think you know him better than that.  I don’t know why you don’t trust him either.

“I do,” Sizhui says when Senior Wei finally pauses for breath.  Senior Wei raises an eyebrow.  “I do trust you, both of you.”

“Why haven’t you said anything about what happened or why you did what you did.”

It’s an effort for Sizhui not to make a face.  He doesn’t want to talk about this.  It’s not that he doesn’t trust either of his fathers with the information; he doesn’t want to talk about it with anyone.  Except maybe the one person who isn’t here.

“You already know both those things,” he points out.

“Yes and no,” Senior Wei says.  He leans against the wall, but Sizhui can see the glint in his dark eyes.  It’s easy to forget sometimes how clever Senior Wei really is.  “Lan Zhan has read the night hunt report.”

“I gave the report,” Sizhui points out, he and Jingyi both, actually.

“Interrupting again,” Senior Wei tsks and shakes his head, but his expression is amused. 

“Maybe, I’m more like you than you realized.”

That makes Senior Wei laugh; he shakes his finger at Sizhui in admonishment, but the effect is ruined by his laughter.  It takes a bit for him to sober himself.  Unfortunately for Sizhui, he’s not so easily distracted.  

“Anyway,” Senior Wei says.  “Perhaps we know what happened.  But that doesn’t tell us why or how you feel.”

Sizhui sighs and shifts his weight; he wishes that he could just sit up.  It’s awkward having a conversation when he’s lying on the bed, and he already feels awkward enough without that.

“You know that I saved Jingyi,” Sizhui says.  “You’ve said as much already.”

Senior Wei lets out a long sigh; his expression clearly says that Sizhui is being difficult.  While Sizhui has seen the expression numerous times before, its generally directed at Jin Ling or Jingyi, never at him.  

“A-Yuan, I’m not trying to drag an answer out of you.  I just wish you’d trust us enough to talk about it.  We’re worried.”

Taking a deep breath, Sizhui tries to put his thoughts in order.  His parents have clearly misunderstood his silence.  Part of him is frustrated, surely Hanguang-jun at least should understand.  Take the straightforward path.   Speak clearly so as not to cause misunderstandings.  

“It’s not like that,” Sizhui says at last.  “It’s not that I don’t trust you or that I want to hide things from you.  If I wanted to tell someone, I would tell you, both of you.  But I don’t want to tell anyone.”

“We’re in the dark over here, A-Yuan.  I can’t know the exact shape of your grief.  And I’m doing a lot of guessing here because you keep your feelings very close.  But we’d like to be able to help you.  Or at least to understand.  Lan Qiren told us what you said about saving Jingyi’s life, that’s true.  It could be that you see our brash Lan as a brother.” Senior Wei pauses and takes a deep breath.  “I once sacrificed everything for Jiang Cheng.  And Shijie,” his voice breaks.  Sizhui has never seen him like this, vulnerable, open.  “Died to protect me.  But, Lan Qiren thinks you are more like our Hanguang-jun, who broke all the rules to save this ungrateful senior and took the punishment for it.”  

Sizhui opens his mouth, not sure how to respond, but feeling as if he needs to.  But Senior Wei cuts him off with a motion of his hand before Sizhui can form the appropriate words.

“No, don’t say anything, just think about what I said.  You should probably rest some more.”

With that, the conversation is decidedly over, and Sizhui is left feeling frustrated and a bit guilty.  He feels guilty for worrying his parents.  He’s well aware that both Senior Wei and Hanguang-jun saved him and adopted him at great personal expense, and he has always done his best to be a filial son.  But he’s also frustrated that they are misinterpreting his motives.  Perhaps he’s being selfish, but he doesn’t feel as if he should have to tell them the feelings in his own heart.  And he would have thought Hanguang-jun, with his quiet and private nature, would understand his desires.

Senior Wei told him to rest, so Sizhui closes his eyes and does his best to try and relax.  He manages to doze for a short bit before Hanguang-jun returns.  

Hanguang-jun returns to help Sizhui attend the funeral.  It takes a bit of time for him to help Sizhui into his full set of robes, and Sizhui tries not to think about the fact that he can’t even dress himself.  

“Are you going to be okay,” Senior Wei asks, concern clearly written across his face.  “Remember what happened two days ago?”

“I will help him,” Hanguang-jun says.

“I need,” Sizhui says and pauses.  He needs what? To apologize? To say goodbye?  “To go,” he finishes lamely.

“It’s your choice,” Senior Wei says, but he still doesn’t look happy.  He points at Hanguang-jun instead.  “Don’t let him overexert himself.  Carry him back if you have to.”

“Mn.”

Sizhui opens his mouth to protest, but closes it again.  He knows from experience they won’t listen to him on this matter.

“You should go,” Senior Wei says glancing at the sun out the window, “it’ll take a while to walk there.”

Sizhui can walk, but he has to take small steps.  Anything larger tugs at the wounds on his lower back.  He doesn’t need to lean on Hanguang-jun so long as he goes slowly, for now anyway.  He keeps one hand on his sword and the other awkwardly by his side since he can’t keep it behind his back.  His father is completely silent beside him.  He walks with his usual pose, keeping one hand behind his back, and keeping step with Sizhui as if it was the most natural thing in the world.  

It does take a long time to leave the main complex of the Cloud Recesses.  Hanguang-jun keeps making Sizhui pause until his limbs stop trembling.  They are on the path to the graveyard when they come across a group of disciples.  Logically, Sizhui knew that this would happen, but he still feels a wave of anxiety when he sees them.  He’s suddenly not at all ready to face the rest of his sect, but it’s rather too late for that.  Well, Hanguang-jun would probably take him back to his room if he asked, but Sizhui already made his decision.  The rules say to be of one mind and to know your own mind as his father reminded him earlier.

“Sizhui-xiong,” one of the boys ahead of him says, catching sight of them. It’s a group of junior disciples who all turn around as soon as they hear Sizhui’s name.  Anxiety is twisting his stomach into knots, but he manages a small smile.  

“Sizhui-xiong!  You’re okay! We were worried.” 

They don’t know, Sizhui realizes.  They don’t know what really happened. 

Someone elbows the enthusiastic disciple and nods at Hanguang-jun who is standing silently at Sizhui’s side.  

“Hanguang-jun,” they chorus and as they all hastily offer bows to Hanguang-jun.  He offers them a nod in response, but nothing else.  The kids look from Hanguang-Jun to Sizhui to each other until one of them whispers something and they all rush away down the path, leaving the pair alone.

“They don’t know,” Sizhui says quietly as he starts walking again.

“It does not concern them.”

Despite the fact that his punishment had not been public and only a handful of people had been present, Sizhui had assumed that they would all know somehow.  It is a relief to know that Sizhui won’t have to face the entire sect at once.  But he knows it’s only delaying the storm; he won’t be able to hide his scars for the rest of his life.  

By the time they reach the end of the path, Sizhui’s back is burning again and his body is trembling.  He leans heavily on Hanguang-jun.  There is a slight furrow to his father’s brow; he’s obviously worried.  With one arm, he supports Sizhui’s weight and uses the other to pull out a flask of water and offers it to Sizhui.  

After drinking the water, they rest for a bit longer until Sizhui’s no longer sweating.  He’s grateful that no one comes up the path.  They are almost to the graveyard now.  Perhaps it’s prideful, but Sizhui wants to be able to walk the rest of the way on his own.  

Standing up straight and letting go of Hanguang-jun, Sizhui takes a deep breath and starts up the last bit of the path.  They turn the last bit of the path and the trees on either side of the path abruptly end, leaving them in a large meadow.  The lawn is covered in neat rows of white stone grave markers.  Many cultivators have large tombs or grand markers, but Lan Sect principles prohibit pride even in death.  One should never ask for more than they need, and this graveyard is a reflection of that.  Among the stones, white wildflowers grow, decorating the green grass with the color of mourning.  

Normally, this meadow has the same solemn beauty as much of the Cloud Recesses, despite being a graveyard.  But eight freshly dug graves stand in sharp contrast to the swaths of green and white.  The disruption seems almost violent somehow, as if a massive beast had raked its claws across the ground, and Sizhui can’t look away.

Hanguang-jun’s hand is on his elbow, gently steering him to the side.  After a few moments, Sizhui comes back to himself.  His eyes move from the empty graves to the people around the meadow.  They stand all around the meadow, all dressed in white.  It’s easy to pick out the parents and families of the lost disciples.  They stand closest to the graves, wearing plain robes and clustering together.  Not all of the disciples who died have parents.  Two, like Sizhui and Jingyi, are orphans.  Three have only a mother, and no father.  But grandparents, or great grandparents, sisters, brothers, aunts, and uncles stand together. One of them already has a wife to leave behind.  Men and women rarely mix in the Cloud Recesses, and now that they are, it’s painfully obvious how many more women than men of the older generations remain; a visible reminder of the Sunshot Campaign and the Nightless City.

Sizhui has to look away or he’s going to be sick.  Guilt digs its claws into his heart and Hanguang-jun’s words from before can’t beat it back.  Ten of them, ten of them went on the night hunt, and Sizhui is the only one still standing here.  He has to lean on Hanguang-jun’s arm.  Beside him, Hanguang-jun’s worry is almost palpable, but there’s not much he can do without drawing attention to them.  

“Breathe, A-Yuan,” Hanguang-jun says in a voice that manages to be commanding despite being hardly audible.

Sizhui closes his eyes and counts his breaths until they are calm again.  When he opens his eyes, he sees that Old Master Lan Qiren has arrived and he looks away.  Still, he can feel the weight of his disapproving glance.  However, Hanguang-jun meets his uncle’s eyes with an unwavering gaze until Lan Qiren looks away with a small shake of his head.  

Sizhui’s gaze goes to Zewu-jun, who is standing beside Lan Qiren.  He’s dressed solemnly; the only mark of his sect leader status is his hair piece and the tassel that hangs from his belt.  His eyes meet Sizhui’s and there is no reproach in his gaze; in fact, his eyes are gentle.  Sizhui swallows hard as Zewu-jun turns away.  Besides Hanguang-jun, Zewu-jun has been Sizhui’s closest family, and his reproach would have hurt more than Sizhui can say.

Forcefully, Sizhui turns his attention back to the grave; this is not about him.  The clearing is entirely silent even though there are so many people present.  Sizhui only looks away from the graves when the sound of a xiao floats to him in the air.  The xiao is quiet, but still it fills the clearing.  

The sound is mournful but gentle.  As it reaches the second verse, the first coffin is carried into the clearing.  They are plain and made of pale wood.  They are also firmly closed, and Sizhui is grateful.  Seeing the broken bodies of his companions in his mind is bad enough.  And see them, he does.  Coffin after coffin is carried into the graveyard and memory after memory hits Sizhui.  A guqin joins the xiao, but Sizhui hardly hears it.  His head is full of the sounds of death: pained screams, snapping bones, the thud of bodies falling.  Grief and guilt swell up in him until they choke him, and he trembles, but not with physical pain.  

Hanguang-jun squeezes his arm, just hard enough to get his attention.  He takes a deep breath and tries to focus on the sound of the guqin, on the flowers among the grass, on the smell of freshly turned earth.  The music hangs in the air the way that only spiritual music can.  It’s music you can feel in your body.  Some cultivation sects have prayers for the dead, ceremonies to stop their spirits from becoming vengeful.  Gusu Lan has music.

Later, all Sizhui will remember is the mournful sound of the guqin and the xiao.  That and the white flowers dancing in the wind by the dark slashes in the earth.  The music soothes and mourns at once.  Sizhui keeps his eyes on the coffins, on the grave markers, because if he glances at the broken expressions of the families standing by the grave, he might break himself.  

He’s not even entirely aware of the moment when the ceremony is over.  The music fades from the air, but he can still feel it in his heart.  People filter out of the clearing, leaving the families to say goodbye alone.  Hanguang-jun leads him away with a hand on his elbow.  The effort of walking and the tugging pain on his back breaks through the numbness in his mind.  

It’s not long before he’s sagging against Hanguang-jun.  It feels as if all his energy has been sapped.  Grief rolls through him like a wave, and he stumbles. Hanguang-jun steadies him.  

“Sizhui,” he speaks quietly even though there is no one on the path around them.  “Can you continue.”

Sizhui shakes his head.  There isn’t enough room inside of him to be embarrassed right then.  

“I will have to carry you on my back.”

Mechanically, Sizhui nods.  In a few moments, he’s being lifted off the ground.  Pain blooms across his back as he wraps his arms around Hangiang-jun, but it's manageable.  He presses his face into his father’s shoulder.  The familiar smell of sandalwood soothes him.  Hanguang-jun moves slowly, steadily, in order to avoid jarring Sizhui’s back unnecessarily.   Even though he has no memory of ever being carried like this as a child, he feels like he’s a child again, holding onto Hanguanjun for comfort. Sizhui keeps his face tucked against Hanguang-jun’s neck until they make it back to his room.

 


Gusu

 

It has been several days since Wei Wuxian sent the letter to Nie Huaisang on Sizhui’s behalf.  It’s the first letter he’s sent to Nie Huaisang in years.  Something had changed between them after the incident at Guanyin Temple.  It is hard for him to imagine the Nie Huaisang he had known doing such things.  But, Wei Wuxian is in no place to deny Nie Huaisang vengeance.  How many Wen Sect cultivators had he killed in the Sunshot Campaign?  More than he can count or remember.

Perhaps, Wei Wuxian thinks when the messenger hands him the letter, this will be a good thing.  He loves his husband and the junior disciples, but it would be nice to have a friend again.  Wei Wuxian takes Chenqing from the stand where it usually resides in the Jingshi and heads out of the Cloud Recesses and into the mountains.  

Wei Wuxian hikes for hours, making sure that he is well and truly clear of the area claimed by Gusu Lan.  He looks down as he spins the flute in his hand.  Chenqinq always brings up complicated feelings for him; it is both his greatest power and his greatest loss.  But this time, he doesn’t think about his golden core, or the Sunshot Campaign, or the Nightless City or the siege at the Burial Mounds where he had been killed.  He thinks about Sizhui.  

No matter how he tries, he cannot shake Lan Qiren’s words: You cannot doubt where Sizhui got the idea.   If Wei Wuxian wasn’t here, Sizhui wouldn’t have been punished.  On the other hand, if Wei Wuxian wasn’t here, Sizhui might very well be dead.  

Wei Wuxian shakes his head; there is no point in him dwelling on such things.  Instead he puts Chenqing to his lips.  At first, he just moves his fingers through the patterns of a song, loosening his hands and reminding himself how it feels to play after so long.  Then he plays.

Wei Wuxian doesn’t think about the song as his fingers flicker along the dizi, he thinks about his intent and lets the music follow.  Wen Ning, he calls.  It is a request, not a demand.  Wen Ning has gone his own way and has his own life to live, and Wei Wuxian has no intention to bind the other man to his will.  What he does do is call him.  The music is the worry of a father, an invitation to return, the bond of shared family.  Wei Wuxian plays, and he plays.  There is no telling how far away Wen Ning is; it’s possible that the music won’t reach him.  Wei Wuxian is not all-powerful after all.  

But Wen Ning would want to be here for Sizhui, who is his last remaining family member.  And Wei Wuxian will feel better if Wen Ning is by Sizhui’s side when the boy takes off after Lan Jingyi.  

Wei Wuxian lowers the dizi from his lips and listens as the last of the music fades away.  He spins it once between his fingers before tucking it in the familiar place in his belt.  Then he pulls out the letter from Nie Huaisang, not entirely sure what to expect.

 

 

Wei-xiong, 

Wei Wuxian laughs a bit, he can hear the voice of sixteen-year-old Huaisang calling him.  It reminds him of the letters they used to send between Qinghe and Yunmeng after their time in The Cloud Recesses.  

 

 

I was so glad to receive your letter.  I was rather worried when you departed from Qinghe in such a rush.  I am very sorry to hear about the tragedy.  It is very hard to lose any disciples, let alone eight at once.  I hope that your son is alright, we both know how hard it is to watch so many of your fellow disciples die.  Please offer my sympathies to your husband.  He and his sect must be grieving.  

As to the matter of the missing disciple, I’m always happy to help a friend.  I spoke with the guards.  Really, it’s the least I can do.  They confirmed that it was a young cultivator, around twenty.  They say that he was wearing dark blue, definitely not Gusu Lan robes and no sign of a forehead ribbon.  They didn’t think he was affiliated with Gusu Lan at all until he provided the jade token.  None of this is conclusive but his sword has an engraved white jade hilt with a silver and white scabbard, and they did say that he was handsome and quite tall, maybe 186-192 cm.  (Sounds rather like a Lan to me.  Really how are they all so pretty?)  However, the cultivator immediately went into the city so I really don’t know much more.  

I had someone ask a few questions in town.  Unfortunately, with so many cultivators in Qinghe, it was hard to find anything concrete.  Someone said that a few members of Yao Sect almost got in a drunken brawl with a rogue cultivator matching the description.  But to be quite honest, I think most people wouldn’t mind having a brawl with those idiots.  

I’m sorry that I can’t be of more help.  Please let me know if I can do anything else.  

It has been too long since we talked.  I’d like to invite you back to Qinghe seeing as you had to leave so soon.  You must need a break from the Cloud Recesses.  I can’t believe that you actually live there.  Besides, I could use an outing into the city! 

Sincerely,

Nie Huaisang

Wei Wuxian sets the letter down.  He hadn’t really expected much more information than what they already had, but he can’t help but be slightly disappointed.  He wishes there was more to offer Sizhui.  With a sigh, he picks up the jar of Emperor's Smile that he brought with him and takes a drink.  

Wei Wuxian can’t help but be curious about Lan Jingyi and his motivations.  Over the last few years, he’s come to care about the loud, brash Lan.  Fighting with some Yao Sect cultivators certainly sounds like something he would do without Sizhui or Lan Wangji present to stop him.  If he really did, Wei Wuxian will have to buy him a drink once they’ve found him.   

Still, for all his boldness, Lan Jingyi has always been a Lan.  Clearly, there were depths to him that none of them had noticed.  To walk away and remove his forehead ribbon was a loud yet silent statement. It was as unimaginable to him as a Jiang casting aside their clarity bell.  Wei Wuxian himself had once had to walk away from the sect that raised him, but his clarity bell had hung from his waist until the day his body was destroyed. The only other person he can recall that walked away from their clan was Luo Qingyang.  

Wei Wuxian lets out another sigh and takes a deep drink of his wine.  He’s thinking himself in circles.

He’ll bring the information to Sizhui tomorrow at lunch; it won't make much difference if he gets it now or in twenty-four hours.  And he doesn’t want to interrupt his son’s meditation.  Since his injuries are healed enough that he can sit for extended periods of time, Sizhui has taken to spending most of his day in meditation to focus his qi on healing.  Wei Wuxian, who has never been able to meditate for very long and has never cared to, is quite frankly impressed and maybe slightly intimidated.  

For the next few hours, Wei Wuxian remains in this small mountain clearing with nothing but the wildflowers and the sky for company.  When the Emperor’s Smile is gone and the sun is low in the sky, he rises and returns to the Cloud Recesses.  He returns the next day and the next to play the dizi and wait for Wen Ning.  

 


Qishan

The fragrant scent of herbs fills the air around Wen Ning as he kneels in his garden.  The sun is high overhead and he wears a hat to keep it out of his eyes, but the heat itself has little effect on him anymore.  There’s a hint of a smile around his mouth and his eyes are peaceful as he plucks the weeds from around his carefully cultivated plants.  His fingers lack the dexterity they had in life, but with gentle patience, gardening is more than manageable.  

The herbs around him range from culinary to medicinal.  Wen Ning was never the physician that his sister was, but he did spend years assisting her.  He enjoys caring for his garden and mixing medicines.  In this body, he can’t set bones or perform surgery, but that doesn’t mean he can’t help people.  He and his sister swore oaths long ago to help people, and he will continue to carry that torch for both of them for as long as he can.  And maybe one day he will be able to cancel out all the suffering he’s caused.

In this corner of what used to be Qishan Wen territory, there are no cultivation sects, and Wen Ning is able to live in peace.  Once, Wen Ning’s family had been spread through this area, caring for the people of this region.  They are all dead and their libraries are long since burned, but Wen Ning is here.  The people here are happy to have him, and he is happy to help them by protecting them and providing them with medicines.  

Rising, Wen Ning carries his basket of weeds out past his garden to the compost.  He’s on his way back to the garden to start to harvest some of the herbs when he senses something.  It’s so faint he almost doesn’t notice it.

He pauses and waits with the perfect stillness of the dead.  

The song of the dizi reaches him, not as a sound, but as something deeper.  It’s a call that resonates inside him, in his soul or his bones he’s not sure.  He could never mistake the call of the dizi.  It had brought him back from the dead, it had soothed his anger and resentment, and it had controlled him.  But this is not a command or an order; his body is still his.

Wen Ning closes his eyes and listens to the song resonating in his heart.  It calls him, but it asks instead of demanding.  He can’t explain, even to himself, how he can tell, but the song is sad.  It aches.  But it also whispers of family and connection. It comes from Gusu.

Opening his eyes, Wen Ning turns to face the source of the dizi’s call as if he could see all the way to Gusu and the man playing the song.  But of course, there is nothing.  Wen Ning turns and heads into his small house to pack what he needs for a journey.  Wei Wuxian would not call him if there wasn’t something serious.  And something in the song speaks of A-Yuan.  A-Yuan, Lan Sizhui, Wen Ning corrects himself, is the only family that Wen Ning has left on this earth.  And he has a heart so full of kindness that it practically glows.  

Wen Ning would give up his immortal existence to protect him. 

Chapter Text

Having trouble breathing, suddenly I'm screaming
Why wasn't I good enough

Jingyi’s dreams are drenched in blood.  He dreams of the night hunt, of death after death, of Sizhui covered in blood, of the broken bodies of his friends collapsing like puppets without strings.  When he awakes at 5 am, he’s once again covered in a cold sweat. 

He’s breathing as hard as if he just ran from Gusu to Lanling, and his hands are shaking.  There’s no chance of going back to sleep, and he can’t just sit here.  The walls suddenly seem too close and the air seems to stifle him.  He gets to his feet and grabs his sword.  There’s nothing in his head except the need to get away.  

The cool morning air hits him as he exits the inn.  The city is empty in the grey light of early morning, but this time, Jingyi is glad of it, glad that there are no witnesses to his grief.  He sags against the wall, covering his face with his hands.  His breathing still comes in gasps, but the cool air helps a bit.

Starting with Chen Shenzi and Lan Mingyi, one by one, Jingyi goes through their names.  He wants to remember their faces, their smiles, the time spent sparring together, or wandering through Caiyi town, or even doing handstands in the library together, but the horrible images of their broken bodies keeps forcing its way to the forefront of his mind.  

He can’t escape the images of their dead bodies, but part of him still screams that it can’t be true.  They can’t all be dead.  How can they be there one day and gone the next?  It doesn’t seem right.  What kind of world is this that they can just be snuffed out like that.  He wants to demand answers.  

Part of him is convinced that they are still there, in the Cloud Recesses, and this whole thing is some kind of horrible nightmare.  It doesn’t matter that he knows it’s not true, that the very fact that he’s standing here in a random town north of Qinghe is evidence that they are gone; he can’t quite believe it.  

“I’m sorry,” he whispers into his hands.  His shoulders are shaking with unshed tears.  

I’m sorry that I wasn’t strong enough to save you.  If I had just been stronger, if I had trained more, maybe you would still be here.  I’m sorry that I'm not there to offer incense for you.  I’m sorry that I walked away.  I’m sorry that your rest was disturbed in order to save me.  

There are too many things that he wants to say, but there’s no way to say them and no one to say them to.  They’re all dead.  

Jingyi’s not sure how long he stands there, in the small alley between the inn and the next building with his hands over his face as wave after wave of grief watches over him.  Part of his brain admonishes him not to grieve in excess and he tells it to go to hell.  He feels gutted.  These people have been part of his life for as long as he can remember before he even met Sizhui.  Their sudden absence feels like a tear in the fabric of his existence.  

But eventually, the grief pulls back.  His heart still aches, and there’s still guilt and anger swirling in him, but after a while, he can breathe again.  His hands drop away from his face, and he takes deep breaths of the fresh morning air.  He stares with unseeing eyes are the empty blue sky above him.  Only when his body stops trembling and his breathing has completely returned to normal, does he move away from his spot.  

Mechanically, he heads towards the center of the city where the market is.  The earliest vendors are starting to set up, and Jingyi troubles one of them to buy some fresh fruit before making his way back to the inn.  Liling and Peizhi are still asleep when he arrives, but he’s hardly surprised, he doesn’t think that it’s even seven am yet and they were out late last night.  He’s grateful not to have to face them just yet.  His emotions still feel raw, too close to the surface.  He doesn’t want to talk about it.  There’s no explanation he can give.  

Even though he’s only gotten a few hours of sleep, Jingyi doesn’t try and go back to bed.  Even if he manages to fall asleep, he has no doubt that the nightmares will chase him.  Instead, he sits down at the small table and starts to write out his report for Qinghe Nie. This report is far more detailed than the one he gave to the magistrate’s assistant.  It includes exact estimates of distances to the locations of disturbances on the road and details about the location of the fight as well as descriptions of the mobility of the fierce corpses, their numbers, and the amount of resentful energy being used to animate them.  

The writing goes smoothly until he gets to the part about the demonic cultivator.  He pauses then, staring blankly down at the paper.  Slowly he writes out the basics,

 

The cultivator is a woman between 21 and 25 years of age around 165 cm tall. She carries a pai xiao.

Here, he pauses again.  The next thing he needs to write is about her robes, about the Wen insignia on her sleeves, about her motives.  He needs to say that she wants to destroy Qinghe Nie and likely the other main sects for their part in the massacre of the Wen remnants.  But he knows that as soon as he does that, he will be dragging up decades-old pain and anger.  He’ll be bringing the Wen Sect back into people’s minds and possibly putting Sizhui in danger even if almost no one knows that he’s a Wen.  However, he knows Sizhui and can almost hear him urging Jingyi onward.  

 

The woman wears robes embroidered with the Wen Sect sun insignia.  She claims to be a Wen who survived the Jin labor camps.  

This woman is one of the remnants of Sizhui and Senior Wen’s family, and he’s signing her death warrant.  Nie Huaisang is not known to be as brutal as his brother had been.  But, he has no doubts that Nie Sect will act ruthlessly.  They won’t want a repeat of Xue Yang.  

 

This cultivator claims grievance against the main sects for the genocide of the Wen remnants following the Sunshot Campaign.  She claims to have suffered in the prison camps herself as a young child.

Jingyi hopes that Sect Leader Nie will have some mercy. 

 

I have no doubt that she intends to exact vengeance on first Qinghe Nie and then other sects.  Perhaps she can be reasoned with.  

He doubts it.

 

Furthermore, I believe this woman has some affiliation with well known demonic cultivator Xue Yang.  The evidence for this is first, her use of poison powder as an aerosol attack (used by Xue Yang in Baixue Temple and in Yi City), second, she uses rhetoric identical to that used by Xue Yang (namely, how can the value of their lives compare to my suffering), and third, I believe she would shun affiliation with any formal sect (thus she could not have learned these techniques from affiliates of Lianfang-zun or Su She). 

However, while her skills are not negligible, they are not comparable to those of Xue Yang.  None of the fierce corpses she raised can compare to the ghost general or the sentient corpse raised by Xue Yang.  There is no evidence of the use of an object resembling the stygian tiger seal.  

Furthermore, she lacks a golden core.  She fights with competency, but not with skill, and does not appear to carry a sword.  She was able to escape by the use of the weaponized poison powder.  It is unknown if this was corpse poisoning powder or not, but there were no signs of living corpses.

Jingyi sets down the brush and leans back, staring at the characters on the page in front of him.  He reads them over again, and realizes just how it sounds.  Coming across a Wen Sect member poisoned by hatred and bent on destroying the remaining cultivation sects to the point of raising the dead sounds like something from a story, like something junior disciples might say to frighten each other around a fire.  Wen Sect is a shadow, a monster, in everyone’s mind.  With them all dead, they’ve become something of a boogeyman to junior disciples. Everyone believes that the last of the Wen Remnants were killed in the siege at the Burial Mounds.  But, Sizhui had survived hadn’t he, and Senior Wen is still around.  Who’s to say that others weren’t rescued?  

Well, there’s nothing he can do if Qinghe Nie decides that he’s making up stories.  The evidence will have to speak for itself.  Jingyi picks up his brush and finishes the last bit of the report, detailing how he’d arranged the bodies and bound their resentful energy before returning to the town, giving a report to the magistrate, and charging them with the proper burial of the corpses.  

All that’s left is signature.  Three characters and this whole thing will be out of his hands.  He writes them.  But there’s still guilt in his chest.  Objectively, the demonic cultivator has to be stopped; she’s killed several people, possibly dozens of people.  In all of his night hunts, he’s faced demons, corpses, ghouls, and beasts, but he has never killed or even fought a person before.  

He reminds himself of how Hanguang-jun had fought Xue Yang in Yi City and killed him.  Someone who commits murders needs to be punished, but Jingyi is so tired of death.

Across the room, Peizhi begins to stir as Jingyi waits for the scroll to dry.  He sits up and watches Jingyi carefully write out his own name at the bottom.  

“Working already?” he asks in a half-asleep voice, its kind of endearing.

Jingyi chuckles a bit.  It’s probably eight or nine now, and the only person he knows who would ask that kind of question this late in the day is Senior Wei.  

“Unfortunate habit,” Jingyi says with a smile.  “I grabbed some fruit from the market,” Jingyi gestures to the pears and plums on the table.  “Feel free to help yourself.  I’ve got to deal with the magistrate again.”

“Again?” Peizhi asks, and there’s sympathy in his eyes. His gaze goes to the scroll in front of Jingyi, “I didn’t know that being a cultivator required so much paperwork.”

“It’s not exciting enough to make it into the stories, I guess,” Jingyi says and he stands up.  “I’m going to the doctor.  I might be out for a while.”

His arm aches from shoulder to fingers between the snap of the bowstring and the dislocation.  He doesn’t remember getting hit in the ribs specifically, but he’s fairly certain a few of his ribs are bruised.  Why do corpses have to be so strong?

“Are you injured?” Peizhi asks, face instantly worried.  Jingyi waves away his concern with his left hand.

“It could be worse.  I’m just happy I'm not dead.”

Peizhi’s eyes go wide at that.  And Jingyi looks at him with a serious expression.

“I meant what I said last night, about what I do being dangerous.”

Jingyi doesn’t wait for a response.  He snags a plum off the table and heads for the door.

It takes longer than it should for him to deal with the matters at the magistrate’s office.  The magistrate himself insists on having tea with Jingyi, who feels incredibly awkward accepting so much thanks from both the magistrate and his assistant.  All he wanted to do was leave the report.  But in the end, he escapes with a note promising the doctor payment by the magistrate and the money he was promised, which turned out to be not insubstantial.  

Yet another thing that he’s never had to worry about before, Jingyi realizes with a sigh as he heads towards the doctor.  He’d never appreciated how much work the Gusu Lan Sect actually did behind the scenes.  Of course, he’d heard Jin Ling complain about the never-ending pile of paperwork he had and about all the things his apparently useless staff kept messing up, but he’d never really payed too close attention.  

His musings carry him to the doctor, who is a woman so old that Jingyi thinks she must have known Lan An.  She pokes and prods and threatens him with acupuncture needles.  Even as she poultices the bruises on his arm and checks the damage to his shoulder, she complains about idiot kids always getting themselves into trouble.  Jingyi has heard the healers at Gusu Lan say such things a million times.  At least this time the commentary isn't combined with jibes about his fighting ability or mental capacity.  

The doctor is similar enough to the healers in the Cloud Recesses that it soothes him in a way.  By the time he leaves, the ache in his arm has decreased and his mood has much improved.  He takes the doctor's advice and stops at a leatherworker to buy a set of black  leather bracers.

As he weaves through the crowded market place and back towards the inn, he considers his next step.  There’s not a lot to consider really, he’ll stay on the road leading away from Qinghe.  The question is only how long he’ll stay here.  The answer there is also obvious to him: not long.  He hates sitting around, and there’s nothing left for him to do here.  A voice that sounds a bit like Sizhui tells him that he should cultivate: practice his sword forms or meditate.  

Jingyi makes his way into the inn, and he’s already decided.  He wants to be gone.  Qinghe Nie will be on their way here, and he can’t practice any martial arts here anyway.  Silently, he promises himself that he will do so tomorrow, and maybe meditate too.  

Liling and Peizhi are sitting at a table in the main room and wave for him to join them.  Peizhi waves to get the waiter’s attention.  Jingyi orders four bowls for lunch out of pure obstinacy.  Peizhi orders a round of wine for all of them before Jingyi can do anything about it.  

Jingyi bites his lip, “Peizhi, that’s not necessary.”

Peizhi waves this away, “a round to celebrate getting away from my uncle.”

“I, actually...” Jingyi feels suddenly awkward, “don’t drink.”

“What?” Peizhi looks at him with obvious confusion.  

Jingyi is used to citing the Gusu Lan rules about drinking for this conversation, even if that's not strictly speaking the real reason he doesn’t drink.  That won’t work here.  “It’s against my 

cultivation method,” he explains.

“You told us about drinking with your friends.”  He had, hadn’t he.  Most of the time, it’s just Zizhen and Jin Ling who are drunk, but he doesn’t want to get into that.

“Well,” Jingyi starts and is interrupted by the return of the waiter with their food and wine.  Jingyi pulls his food towards him but doesn’t pick up his chopsticks as he keeps talking.  “Everyone breaks the rules sometimes when they are young.  I tried it a few times.”

Peizhi opens his mouth, but Liling elbows him.

“If you don’t want to drink, you don’t have to,” she says.

“More for me, I guess,” Peizhi says with a shrug and takes Jingyi’s bowl of wine.  

The three of them eat the rest of the meal in silence, and even though he’s been complaining about not being allowed to talk during meals for years, he finds it comforting.  

Once their bowls are cleared away, Jingyi decides to tell Liling and Peizhi about his plans. 

“You’re leaving already?” Peizhi asks, dropping the chopstick he’d been toying with.

“Yes.”

“Peizhi said you were injured,” Liling says, and there’s earnest concern in her eyes; it reminds him of Sizhui. “Shouldn’t you rest?”

“It’s nothing serious,” Jingyi says, and he has to look away.  “I’m fine.”

“You really don’t like to sit around do you,” Peizhi sounds amused.  He leans forward and props his elbow on the table.

“Not really,” Jingyi chuckles.  Sitting around is something Jingyi is, quite frankly, terrible at.

“Guess we’re leaving then,” Peizhi says with a shrug.  

    


The Unclean Realms, Qinghe

 

For a few hours every afternoon, the sunlight falls through the window of Nie Huaisang’s rooms and bathes them in just the right amount of golden light, and he has reserved these few hours of the day for himself.  Because, despite what anyone thinks, he does spend most of his day taking care of his sect.  

Currently, he’s working on one panel of a large folding screen.  Outside of his rooms, he can hear footsteps on the stone floors; everyone in The Unclean Realms seems to walk as if the floor has offended them.  Over the years it has helped him avoid saber practice more time than he can count.  It also means that he’s never been caught indulging in his porn collection.  But right now it’s breaking his concentration, and there are footsteps definitely heading towards his door.  He lets out an irritated sigh.

Not wanting to mess up the painting, Nie Huaisang sets down the brush and turns to face the door.  

Nie Zemin appears in the door and offers him a deep bow, “Sect Leader Nie.”

“Could this really not have waited forty-five minutes?” Nie Huaisang complains even though Nie Zemin is his personal assistant and wouldn’t have interrupted him if it wasn’t important.  Out of habit, he picks his fan up from the table.

“I’m really sorry Sect Leader, but I think you need to hear about this.”

“What is it then?”

“We received a request for aid from a city to the north,” Nie Zemin starts, and Nie Huaisang almost groans.  “And we sent a few cultivators to take care of the problem.  They just returned and they have an interesting report.”

“An interesting night hunt report?” Nie Huaisang’s skepticism is obvious.

Nie Zemin ignores this and holds up a scroll.  “When they reached the town a rogue cultivator had already taken care of the problem.  A problem that turned out to have been fifty-six fierce corpses.”

Nie Huaisang fans his face hard as he tries to process that piece of information.  

“Fifty-six?” he asks a bit weakly.  He’s really glad that this isn’t something he has to deal with.

“That’s what the report says, and it was confirmed by local officials.  The bodies had already been buried when we arrived.  There are two more things, Sect Leader.”

“More?” Nie Huaisang says faintly.  

“According to the report, the corpses were controlled by a demonic cultivator who got away.”

“A what?” Nie Huaisang almost wails.  He really doesn’t want to deal with this.  

“A demonic cultivator,” Nie Zemin says as if it wasn’t a rhetorical question.  “She claimed to be a Wen who survived the Jin labor camps and intends to take vengeance on the main cultivation sects.”

“Why does she have to start here,” Nie Huaisang complains, “can’t she go to Lanling.”

“Do you think giving the Jins access to another weapon is a good idea, Sect Leader?”

That quiets Nie Huaisang.  The new Jin sect leader, Jin Rulan, seems to be too close in temperament to Jiang Wanyin to be as underhanded as his grandfather and uncle had been.  But he was raised, at least in part, in Koi Tower by Jin Guangyao and Qin Su; so Nie Huaisang can’t trust him.  It is probably best if Qinghe Nie Sect takes care of the problem before some other power-hungry sect gets ideas.    

Nie Huaisang can feel a headache forming and rubs his forehead tiredly.  “You said there were two things?”

“You had recently asked about the cultivator who brought the letter for the Chief Cultivator, who seemed to be a rogue cultivator dressed in blue.  I’ve been looking for reports of rogue cultivators in our territory.  This is the only one so far.  I don’t know if it’s the same person, but look at the signature on the report.”

Nie Zemin holds the scroll out for Nie Huaisang who takes it in his hand.  The calligraphy is messier than he would expect out of Lan Sect disciple, but not everyone in Gusu Lan can be as apparently perfect as Lan Xichen, Lan Wangji, and apparently now Lan Sizhui.  Later, he should probably read the whole report and see the information about this demonic cultivator for himself, but for now, he does as his assistant suggested and turns his gaze to the signature at the end of the page.  Three characters: An Jingyi.  The name Jingyi seems familiar, possibly from the list of handsome young masters?  He knows that Lan Sizhui and Jin Rulan are on the list.  But Nie Huaisang has had other things to worry about than the junior disciples of the other sects, and Wei Wuxian hadn’t given him a name. However, the character ‘An’ definitely catches his attention.  While Lan Qiren had considered him a nearly hopeless student, he had retained some of the things he was taught, the interesting things, mostly, like the romantic story of Lan An and his fated person.  

Nie Huaisang smiles.  He might just have something to tell his old friend. 

Chapter Text

'Cause I'm broken when I'm open
And I don't feel like I am strong enough

The day after the funeral dawns cloudy and grey, and Sizhui awakes feeling worn and grey.  At the 5 am bell, he’s decidedly awake, but still drained.  His dream had been shadowy and strange; he’d found himself chasing after a figure in the shadows that he thought was Jingyi.  The grief from yesterday had receded like the tide, leaving him feeling washed up. Even the wounds on his back have decided to be a dull ache rather than a sharp pain. 

Lan Wangji arrives with breakfast, in what seems to be their new schedule.  They eat in silence, and Sizhui is grateful for it.  The disgusting medicinal tea finally manages to break Sizhui out of the fog hovering over him.  He manages not to gag on the drink, but his face twists in distaste. 

Sizhui does not glare at the cup when he puts it down, but he wants to.  Taking a deep breath, he faces his father, who seems faintly amused.  Together, they stack the bowls neatly onto the tray.

Hanguang-jun makes a motion to rise; normally, he would rebandage Sizhui’s back now.  Sizhui raises a hand to stop him.  

“Hanguang-jun, I think that I will meditate for a while.”

There’s a pause and Sizhui waits for his response.

“Do not overexert yourself,” he says.  There’s a warning there, and Sizhui knows Hanguang well enough to hear it.  It is not a threat, there will be no punishment because Sizhui is breaking no rules.  Well, perhaps he would be breaking the rule about being prudent.  It is a reminder of what happened last time he pushed himself too far and a warning of how he could hurt himself if he is not careful.  He is not worried about the pain (pain, Sizhui and his fellow disciples learned from a young age, like punishment is not permanent).  But he is worried about prolonging his healing process.

“I understand,” Sizhui says.  Then he gestures at the incense burner set on his shelves.  “Could you please light the incense for me?”

“Mn.” 

Hanguang-jun retrieves the burner and incense and moves it to the desk. The incense is, of course, Sizhui’s and made of cinnamon and cloves.  When Hanguang-jun places the incense onto the burner and draws a talisman to light it, Sizhui’s gaze darts across the room to Jingyi’s things.  There’s another incense burner there, all the disciples have one, though it's significantly less used than Sizhui’s.  Beside it is incense made of bergamot and pine; Jingyi’s favorite.   

Sizhui closes his eyes and rests his hands on his knees.  Jingyi always smells like fresh air and evergreen trees and bergamot.  But, Sizhui is not here to reminisce; he can do that lying down.  His focus goes to his breathing to the feeling of air in and out of his lungs.  The familiar smell of cinnamon reaches him and helps him ground himself further.  

For a few minutes, Sizhui lets his mind be calm and still.  Thoughts and feelings drift, there is no stopping them completely.  But he lets them pass, not allowing them to affect him.  And slowly they quiet.  After that, he turns his attention to the rush of qi through his meridians.  The steady flow of qi through his body is disrupted horribly all across his back and shoulders.  Many if not most of the meridians are blocked, pinched, or damaged.  Some of the energy flows out of the meridians and into the wounds.  Trying to do anything meaningful with his spiritual energy could easily cause qi-deviation, he realizes.  But Sizhui remains calm.  He sits for a moment doing nothing but acknowledging it, allowing it to be.

He is entirely focused on his meditation, and Hanguang-jun leaves the room without him noticing.  Next, he moves his attention to his golden core.  His spiritual energy is drained, from his body’s natural attempt to heal itself.  That’s fine.  Slowly, steadily, he starts to focus on moving more energy from his core to the wounds on his back.  It is a slow and delicate process, and a bit like surgery, but Sizhui is patient.  

Time is lost to him as he sits.  His entire focus is on the rush of qi through his body and directing the healing energy through damaged meridians.  He cannot use much energy, trying to force it would only make it worse and possibly cause qi deviation.  But, he does what he can.

The incense on the burner runs out, and he does not notice.  The lighting in the room changes as the sun moves higher in the sky.  His focus is on the qi and he hardly notices the ache in his back slowly growing as he sits, and the damaged muscles strain to keep him upright.

“Sizhui,” the sound of his name is soft, and it takes a moment for it to register.  He releases his control on the flow of qi through his body, letting it fall back to its natural pace before opening his eyes.

When he first opens his eyes, he doesn’t see anyone, so he turns his head toward the door.  The pain in his back reasserts itself abruptly, and he grinds his teeth even as he catches sight of the figure at the door.  

Zewu-jun is standing in the door, dressed in white silk robes with his xiao and his sword at his waist.

“Zewu-jun,” Sizhui blinks in surprise.  “Sect leader!”

Out of habit, he attempts to get up, to bow.  Zewu-jun raises his hands to stop him in an almost hasty gesture, but Sizhui stops himself when the pain hits.

“Please,” Zewu-jun’s voice is soothing, “don’t trouble yourself.  You are still healing.”

It takes Sizhui a moment to respond as his brain tries to get over the shock and confusion.  He’s only seen Zewu-jun a few times since he entered secluded meditation.  He had missed Zewu-jun, who had been a constant figure throughout his childhood, but had slowly resigned himself to the fact that Zewu-jun may never leave seclusion.  He knows that Qingheng-jun never had.  Seeing Zewu-jun here, dressed like a sect leader again, causes a wave of emotions to crash into him. Yet again.

“I,” Sizhui takes a deep breath, falling back on years of decorum training.  “Sect Leader, please come in.”

“Sect Leader is it now?” Zewu-jun says, and there’s laughter in his voice.  He’s smiling; it may be a small smile, but it is just as warm as ever, and it is there.  “Maybe I really have been gone too long.”

“I didn’t,” Sizhui says and fumbles again.  Zewu-jun is here, and he’s smiling.  And the warmth in his expression hits Sizhui hard.  If he could stand, if he could run, he might have thrown himself at Zewu-jun and hugged him.  Instead, he settles on the more appropriate, “I am very glad to see you.”

Zewu-jun takes several steps into the room so that Sizhui doesn’t have to look over his shoulder while they talk.  

“It is good to see you too.  Though, I wish it had been under different circumstances.”

Sizhui looks down at his hands, feeling chastened even though there is no censure in Zewu-jun’s voice.  Gusu Lan sect had taken him in and raised him. Hanguang-jun and Zewu-jun had even made him part of their family.  He’d spent most of his life trying to be worthy of that choice.  He’s done everything he could to reflect well on Gusu Lan and his adoptive family.  On the night hunt, he’d thrown all that away.  He doubts he’ll ever do enough good to strike this mistake from his record.  The disappointment in Master Lan Qiren’s face is branded into Sizhui’s mind.  

Sizhui feels a gentle hand on his shoulder and looks up into Zewu-jun’s gentle amber eyes.

“I didn’t come here to lecture you, Sizhui.  I wanted to make sure you are okay.”

“Thank you, Zewu-jun.” Sizhui smiles gratefully, he gestures at the empty place on the other side of his table.  “Please, sit?”

“Back to that again are we?” Zewu-jun says as he settles into the place across from Sizhui.

“Sorry Uncle Zewu-jun,” Sizhui says, and his brown eyes are dancing with mirth.   Zewu-jun lets out a single chuckle.

“I thought that Wangji might actually laugh the first time you said that.”  Sizhui knows it's an exaggeration, but he laughs a bit at the idea.  It hurts when his shoulder’s move, but it feels good to laugh.

“I missed you, uncle,” Sizhui says quietly.  He can’t express the rush of warmth and gratitude that fills him when he looks at his uncle.  He’d never expected to get his uncle back, not really.  In a way, it feels like getting someone back from the dead.  He doesn’t have words to express this, but Zewu-jun has always been good at understanding things left unsaid; so, Sizhui hopes he will understand this.

“I missed you too,” Zewu-jun says and his eyes are soft in a way that’s reserved for those closest to him.  “I never intended to enter seclusion forever, not like my father.  I just needed… time… after Guanyin Temple.”

Grief casts a shadow across Zewu-jun’s face, but it is nothing compared to how he had looked when they had first returned to the Cloud Recesses.  

“You don’t have to explain yourself to me.”  

Zewu-jun nods in acknowledgment.  “Both Jin Guangyao and Nie Mingjue were as close to me as brothers, and to lose them both in such a way…” he trails off and shakes his head.  “But, one should not grieve in excess.  I may have remained in seclusion for too long.”

“Uncle?”  Sizhui’s voice is confused.  

“I had hoped, Sizhui, that you would have confessed your feelings after learning my brother’s story and the story of Song Zichen and Xiao Xingchen.”  Shock hits Sizhui, and there’s not much he can do about the surprised expression on his face.  “But I don’t think you ever told Lan Jingyi, did you?”

“You knew? This whole time?”

“Since you were thirteen, if that’s what you mean, when you asked for my advice.”  

Sizhui takes a moment to digest that.  

“But you never told Hanguang-jun,” Sizhui states.  He adjusts his sitting position, but it does nothing to ease the ache growing in his back.

“Gossiping, as you well know, is forbidden, and so is breaking the trust of others.  You clearly didn’t want anyone to know.  I had hoped that you would tell him, or talk to me again.  But, you are more like Wangji than most people realize.”

“Senior Wei said the same thing yesterday.”

Zewu-jun’s amber eyes dance with amusement, “Wei Wuxian is a very clever man, most of the time.”

Sizhui doesn’t ask.  He’s fairly certain it has to do with the mess that was Senior Wei and Hanguang-jun finally admitting their feelings, and he doesn’t need more details than he already has.

“I wish that I had tried harder to convince you to talk with Jingyi,” Zewu-jun says.  “But perhaps you're stubborn enough that it wouldn’t have done any good.  My words certainly never seemed to affect Wangji.”  

Heat rushes into Sizhui’s cheeks, and he glances down at his hands.  Zewu-jun is probably right.  He can feel his uncle’s gaze on him.

“Sizhui,” the tone of Zewu-jun’s voice changes abruptly, and Sizhui glances up.  “You’re trembling?”

“It’s my back,” Sizhui explains.  He gets to his feet so fast that it startles Sizhui.  

“You should lay down,” he says and moves to help Sizhui stand.  Sizhui leans on him once he’s standing.  Luckily, his legs aren’t trembling, only his back and arms.  His uncle eases him onto the bed, and Sizhui wonders how many times he had helped Hanguang-jun do this exact thing.  It’s weird for him to imagine Hanguang-jun weak and stuck in bed the way he is now.

“Thank you uncle,” Sizhui says once he’s lying down.  Zewu-jun sits down on the edge of Sizhui’s bed and settles a hand in his hair.  

“I should have realized sooner,” he says quietly.

“It’s my own fault,” Sizhui says with a small shake of his head.  

Zewu-jun lets out a sigh, and it sounds sad, but Sizhui can’t see his face.

“Have you changed your mind,” Zewu-jun asks, “about telling Jingyi?”

His voice is quiet when he responds, “Yes.”

“I’m glad.”  Zewu-jun strokes Sizhui’s hair the way he might a child’s, but Sizhui doesn’t mind.  “The two of you deserve to be happy.”

It takes Sizhui a moment to process Zewu-jun’s words, the surety in his tone.

“You think,” Sizhui says haltingly, “you think that he returns my feelings.”  Sizhui wants to touch the ribbon tucked into his robes, but he clenches his hand instead.

“I do,” Zewu-jun’s voice is quiet but encouraging.  Somehow, hearing that out loud eases some of the tension in Sizhui.  Zewu-jun had known that Senior Wei and Hanguang-jun were in love way back when they were students in the Cloud Recesses.  Sizhui hopes his uncle is right this time too.  

“Oh,” Sizhui says.  

“Is there something you want to say?” Zewu-jun asks, his hand still stroking Sizhui’s hair.  “You can tell me anything, okay?”

Sizhui struggles.  There’s another reason he doesn’t talk about his emotions, not just that it makes him uncomfortable or that he doesn’t like it.  He can never find the right words, they get all twisted and tangled, and he can’t straighten them out.  The only person who’s ever been able to help him calm down and untangle all the words is Jingyi.  

“I know,” Sizhui says quietly.  “It’s just difficult.”

“That’s okay.  Take your time.”

The sound of footsteps on the wooden floor interrupts the quiet of the room.  Sizhui can’t look up, but he recognizes Hanguang-jun’s footsteps anyway.  He listens to the sound of footsteps reach his room, and the sound of the door, and knows that Hanguang-jun must be in the room.  But he doesn’t say anything.  

“Wangji is here,” Zewu-jun says quietly, and Sizhui nods.

There’s another long pause, and then Zewu-jun speaks again.  “Do you want to talk about Jingyi or is it something else?”

“Jingyi,” Sizhui answers because that at least is easy enough to get out.

“I’m sorry,” Sizhui says.  He keeps his gaze on the wall.  “I didn’t tell you how I feel, but I can’t.  The way that I feel for him… it’s too big for words.”

How could words ever capture his feelings properly? Sometimes it’s a gentle warmth and sometimes it's a wildfire that threatens to consume him.  It’s both the faint glow in his heart watching Jingyi doze in the grass with the rabbits and the electric feeling of his desire seeing him undressed in the cold springs.  It’s the way Jingyi’s hugs warm him from the inside out.  It’s the depth of his trust when he whispered the truth of his Wen heritage to Jingyi in the silence of their room.  It’s the pride and admiration in his heart watching Jingyi fight.  It's the way Jingyi’s brilliant smile pours sunlight into his soul.  It's the bubbling happiness of laughing together.  It’s those feelings and a million more.  How could one word, or a hundred, ever capture all of it?

Sizhui takes a deep breath.  He knows what he needs to say next, but it's trapped behind his lips.  The truth of his feelings has remained quietly in his heart for years.  I love him.  I love him.  I love him.   The thought is so familiar to Sizhui that it has become part of him.  He’s scared to say it out loud, though he wouldn’t be able to explain why.  It’s almost as if he’s worried the enormity of it all is enough to shake the world should he let it out, as foolish as that seems.   But also, It’s like exposing a part of his soul.  

His speech, when he starts again, is halting.  “I could say that I love him or that… Or that I want to be cultivation partners.  But that’s not enough.”

Sizhui’s heart is pounding like he’s been running.  It’s out now; he said it.  But nothing cataclysmic happens and the feeling in his heart is exactly the same.  Sizhui lets out a shaky breath.

“Mn, I understand.”  Hanguang-jun’s deep voice is calm and comforting.  Zewu-jun is still stroking his hair gently.  

“Thank you, A-Yuan,” he says gently.  

Sizhui nods automatically.  There’s more he wants to ask Zewu-jun, but he’s not sure he’ll be able to get it out.

“There’s something else, isn’t there?” Zewu-jun asks, and Sizhui nods again.  “I’m listening.”

This, Sizhui finds, is easier to say.  “I don’t understand.”  

There’s a long pause as Zewu-jun waits to see if Sizhui will continue.  When he doesn’t, Zewu-jun gently asks, “understand what?”

“Why he left,” Sizhui whispers.  

Beside him, Zewu-jun shifts his weight on the bed.  

“I’m afraid,” he says, “that I don’t have an answer for you.”

Disappointment rises in Sizhui.  It was foolish, but he couldn’t help but hope that Zewu-jun or Hanguang-jun would have answers.  His whole life, he’d turned to them for answers and they’ve always had them.  This is different, and he knows it, but he’s still disappointed.

“I do not think he was angry with you,” Zewu-jun says.  “If that’s what you are worried about.  I have never seen him truly upset with you, and Uncle says that he was distraught to see you injured.”

Even though Zewu-jun is only confirming things that Sizhui already knew, Jingyi’s note hadn’t been angry and Jingyi himself hadn’t lashed out at him, it’s reassuring to hear.

“I suspect,” Zewu-jun pauses.  His words are bordering on conjecture and possibly gossip, both of which are forbidden.  He stops.  “When Wangji was punished, I felt guilty for not being able to prevent it even though I knew that there needed to be a punishment.  If I was the one for whom he had fought the elders, I would have been swamped by guilt.”

“Not your fault.  I made my choice,” Hanguang-jun says.

Sizhui can’t see either Hanguang-jun or Zewu-jun, but he can picture Zewu-jun’s small nod and his father’s steady gaze.

“I cannot tell you the secrets of someone else’s heart, Sizhui.  You will have to ask him yourself.”

“Yes, uncle.”

Somehow, Zewu-jun seems to be able to sense that Sizhui is done talking.  He stands up.  “I think that your bandages need to be changed now.  Wangji?”

“Mn.”

“I will go then.  I have lunch with Uncle.”

Turning his head, Sizhui watches as Zewu-jun retreats from the bed.  When he reaches the door the brothers offer each other a bow before Zewu-jun leaves the room entirely.  Then, Hanguang-jun takes Zewu-jun’s place by Sizhui’s side.  Carefully, he helps Sizhui into a sitting position.  He works in silence, removing the bandages, putting salve on the wounds, and replacing the bandages.  When the process is over, Sizhui is trembling again, and he’s grateful to lay on the bed. 

But Hanguang-jun doesn’t leave.  He sits quietly by Sizhui’s side.  Gently, he places a hand on Sizhui’s forehead checking his temperature.  Then he places his fingers on Sizhui’s wrist to check his qi.  His fingers glow a gentle shade of blue, and the trembling in Sizhui’s limbs ease a bit.

“You pushed yourself today,” Hanguang-jun says.  “Rest.”

“Yes, Hanguang-jun.”

He rises from Sizhui’s side and moves towards the desk.  Curious, Sizhui watches him.  When he summons his guqin, Sizhui closes his eyes.  Soon, the soft notes of the guqin fill the room.  They soothe Sizhui and ease him into sleep.

When Senior Wei wakes him for a late lunch, Hanguang-jun has gone.  Sizhui sits as Senior Wei ladles soup into Sizhui’s bowl and complains that he had to go to Caiyi town to buy it because he’s not allowed in the kitchens.  Sizhui smiles and listens to his complaints, rather grateful to be spared Senior Wei’s cooking.  After lunch, Senior Wei helps Sizhui back into the bed.  He doesn’t try to meditate again that day.  

The next day, after breakfast, Sizhui tries meditating again.  He knows enough about healing, both from Senior Wen and from his Gusu Lan training, to know that the damage to his back will take a long time to heal.  He can get a sense of the depth of the injuries from the damage to the meridians and the broken flow of qi around his back.  It’s disheartening to see how much healing there is to be done.  But Sizhui has always been both patient and determined.

When Sizhui opens his eyes, he’s surprised to find a Jin messenger butterfly slowly beating its wings on the table in front of him.  His message must have reached Jin Ling.  He reaches out a hand for the butterfly.  

“Sizhui,” Jin Ling’s voice issues from the butterfly.  It’s his ‘I’m trying not to lose my temper’ voice, which causes Sizhui to raise an eyebrow.   “I haven’t heard anything from Jingyi.”

Sizhui closes his eyes.  He hadn’t really expected Jingyi to go to Jin Ling, but he couldn’t help but hope.  

Jin Ling’s message continues.  “You should ask Zizhen, he talks to Jingyi more than I do.  Don’t worry so much, Jingyi is an idiot, but he can take care of himself.  We’ll hunt him down and drag him back if we have to.”

That makes Sizhui smile.  He’s grown used to Jin Ling’s rather aggressive method of showing affection over the past three years, and he can tell that Jin Ling is worried too.

There’s a pause and Sizhui would think that the message is over, except the butterfly continues to gently beat its wings from its position on his hand.  After a few beats, the message continues.

“Also, Jiujiu is worried about Senior Wei, but don't tell him that, so if you could give me an idea of what's going on so I can calm him down a bit, that would be greatly appreciated.”

Sizhui’s smile only grows as the butterfly breaks down into a shimmer of gold energy and fizzles out.  Jin Ling’s attempt to deflect his own worry onto his uncle is laughably transparent; not that Sizhui doubts that Sect Leader Jiang is worried or in a bad mood.  

Sizhui will need to write a response to Jin Ling.  And, given Jin Ling’s temperament, he needs to do it sooner rather than later.  But, he needs to think about it.  How much of what happened does he want to tell Jin Ling? What does he dare commit to a letter, which could be intercepted and read by someone other than Jin Ling?  Gusu Lan sect generally keeps its business to itself, maybe it’s the rules against speaking recklessly and maybe it’s some form of sect loyalty.  But the fact that Gusu Lan lost eight disciples will spread eventually.

Still, Sizhui can’t get up to get his ink block, brushes, and paper without injuring himself until either Hanguang-jun or Senior Wei shows up to help him.  So he has time to think about it.  His gaze to the window trying to gauge the time by the sun in the sky, and is surprised to find that he’s been meditating for a few hours.  He’s surprised that Hanguang-jun hasn’t arrived to make him lie down again.  Still, he figures that he won’t have to wait long.  He closes his eyes again.

By the time that Hanguang-jun enters the room, the ache in Sizhui’s back has become almost impossible to ignore.  But he’s still sitting and his shoulders aren’t trembling.  

“Do you need to rest now?” Hanguang-jun’s amber eyes are sharp as he studies Sizhui’s face and posture for signs of fatigue.

“No.”

“Mn.” 

The process of removing bandages, caring for the wounds, and rebandaging his back has almost become routine.  The pain, however, is harder to grow accustomed to.  Sizhui had hoped that he would be able to write the letter to Jin Ling now, but by the time his back is rebandaged, he needs to lie down.  

“Hanguang-jun,” Sizhui says once he’s back on the bed.

“Mn?”

“I want to write a letter to Jin Ling later,” he pauses.  Hanguang-jun says nothing, but Sizhui can sense his questions.  “I told him that Jingyi is missing, and he has questions about what happened.  I don't know what to tell him.”

He’s not sure whether to ask ‘what am I allowed to tell him’ or ‘what do you think I should tell him’, so he says neither.  He trusts that Hanguang-jun knows him well enough to guess his intentions.

“It is your story,” Hanguang-jun says after a moment.  It is your story and therefore up to you what you want to share, Sizhui infers.  He frowns, having expected more guidance.  Though perhaps he shouldn’t have.  Rarely does Hanguang-jun actively dictate things to Sizhui that are outside the sect rules.  Perhaps he thinks the rules already in place are more than enough.

“Be judicious,” Hanguang-jun says when Sizhui does not respond.  It’s a reminder of what his father thinks is the most relevant rule and a method that Hanguang-jun has often used to advise and guide him through his childhood.

“Yes, Hanguang-jun.”

It’s still weird talking to him while he’s lying down when he can’t offer the appropriate bow or salute.  All he can do is watch as Hanguang-jun moves to leave.

For a moment, Sizhui considers telling Hanguang-jun about the last part of Jin Ling’s letter about Sect Leader Jiang and Senior Wei, but he holds back.  Senior Wei and Sect Leader Jiang have started making half steps forward and back on mending their relationship, but Hanguang-jun remains decidedly chilly towards Sect Leader Jiang. Besides, he does not think that Sect Leader Jiang would want it known that he was worried about his former shixiong. 

Hanguang-jun’s departing words break Sizhui’s train of thought.  “I will return.”  

Really, Sizhui should rest, but his mind is preoccupied with the letter to Jin Ling.  There’s no chance of him writing everything that happened.  He has to be prepared for anything that he writes to make its way into someone else’s ear.  Jin Guangyao may no longer be around, but he can’t be the only one with spies.  There’s Nie Huaisang for instance.

There are other things he needs to consider.  Hanguang-jun hadn’t said anything, but Sizhui knows that there is an expectation of what he will and won’t say.  Gusu Lan is full of silent understandings and unspoken agreements; for instance, no one mentions Hanguang-jun’s punishment from sixteen years ago.  Clearly, his father expects that he can figure this one out for himself.  He’d noticed during the funeral that the news of his transgression and subsequent punishment hadn’t spread through the sect.  Clearly, the elders and Zewu-jun expect that, at least, to be kept quiet.

Beyond that, he’s not ready to tell Jin Ling what he did.  Jin Ling has softened, rather grudgingly, towards Senior Wei and even Senior Wen, but he has very strong opinions about demonic cultivation, not that Sizhui can blame him given what happened to his parents and the things Jin Guangyao did.  

Sizhui presses his face into his pillow.  He’s a coward, and he doesn’t want to lose Jin Ling as a friend.  Do not break faith.  Do not deceive.   Sizhui groans into the pillow.  One day, he promises himself, he will tell Jin Ling, but not in a letter. And even if Sizhui wanted to tell Jin Ling everything right now, he could not.  

When Hanguang-jun returns for lunch, Sizhui has not managed to sleep at all and only managed to successfully think himself in circles.  As usual, they eat in silence.  Senior Wei is surprisingly absent, but Sizhui doesn’t comment on it.  Senior Wei keeps his own schedule, if it can be called that, and Sizhui is no longer surprised when he vanishes or reappears at odd times.

After lunch, Hanguang-jun places parchment, ink block, and brush where Sizhui can reach them and retreats to the other side of the room to give him some privacy.  

Slowly, Sizhui writes out his message,

Jin Ling,

Thank you for responding so quickly.  I sent a message to Zizhen as well, but I’ll have to wait for his letter since the rest of us have to rely on old fashioned paper letters.  

You’re right; Jingyi is more than capable of taking care of himself.  

I hope Sect Leader Jiang isn’t making you too miserable, but there is no need for him to worry.  Senior Wei is fine.  I’m afraid that it's, at least in part, my fault that Hanguang-jun and Senior Wei were summoned back to Gusu so suddenly.  I was on a night hunt north of Gusu with Jingyi and some other disciples, and we encountered something we weren’t prepared for.  Eight disciples were killed during the fight.  

I appreciate your offer to help me hunt Jingyi down.  Unfortunately, I’m injured and can’t leave Gusu.  I’m not sure how long it will be before I can travel to Lanling let alone go on a night hunt.  

Sincerely,     

Lan Sizhui

Sizhui sits back and looks down at the letter.   Nowhere does he lie, but he knows that he’s being deceptive.  It’s not something he’s used to doing, and he feels decidedly guilty. 

Be trustworthy.  Do not be deceptive.  Be honest.

Sizhui rolls up the scroll and hands it to Hanguang-jun.

 

Chapter Text

I wanna tell you that you're all that ever mattered
Want you to know that, for eternity, I'm shattered
I tried so hard just to protect you, but I failed to
And in a prison of abandonment I've jailed you

The road that takes Jingyi and his companions onward is decidedly smaller than the road that Jingyi started on outside of The Unclean Realms.   But that doesn’t bother him.  If anything, it's a visible sign of the distance that he’s been able to put between himself and Gusu.  During the day he walks with Peizhi and Liling, sometimes chatting and sometimes walking in silence.  They follow the needle of the compass of evil.

When evening comes, Liling and Peizhi make camp on the side of the road while Jingyi hunts for signs of beasts, ghouls, demons, and the like.  For three nights, he finds nothing.  Instead of hunting, then, he goes through sword forms and hand-to-hand combat training.  His shoulder still aches, but it’s nothing he can’t manage.  

On the third night, Jingyi has another nightmare.  This time, it’s about Sizhui and the courtyard.  It starts off with his memory.  

Jingyi’s arms are twisted behind his back hard enough that the joints hurt, and his voice is silenced.  He feels more helpless than he ever has in his life.  In front of him, Sizhui is being whipped, and Jingyi is so numb with horror that all he can do is watch. Sizhui’s back is covered in blood, and the ground is covered in blood, and everything is red. 

But this time when the whipping is over, they don’t carry Sizhui away.  He’s left half-collapsed in the red-stained white gravel.  Jingyi wants to run to him, but his body doesn’t obey.  When Lan Jiahao releases Jingyi, he turns his back on Sizhui and walks away.  Mentally he’s screaming, telling himself to turn around to check and make sure his friend is okay, but his body keeps walking.  

“Jingyi,” Sizhui says his name, and his voice is rough with pain.  

But Jingyi keeps walking.  

“A-Yi?” Sizhui cries out for him, sounding confused and hurt.  

And he keeps walking.  Sizhui’s voice follows him, begging him to come back.  His heart is breaking, but he can’t make his body turn around or even stop walking.  

Jingyi jerks awake in a cold sweat, looking around him desperately for someone who’s not there.  The sound of his heart pounding is loud in the early morning quiet, and he can still hear Sizhui’s voice calling out for him.  He scrubs his hands over his face hard.

Firmly, he tells himself that it was just a dream as he gets to his feet.  There’s no chance on this earth that he’s going to try and sleep right now.  He reminds himself that he hadn’t been allowed to go to Sizhui and that they had taken his friend away.  Jingyi isn’t even sure if Sizhui had been conscious when they carried him away.  

You still left, didn’t you’ a voice in the back of his mind says.  

Grabbing his sword, Jingyi walks down the road a bit; he doesn’t want to wake up his companions, but he can’t sit still.  He pulls out his sword once he’s put some distance between him and the camp.  Really, he should sharpen and polish the sword, but he needs something more active to distract him right then.  

It’s been ten days since he left Gusu. He wonders if Sizhui is healing. All he can see in his mind is the red splattered blood and the deep wounds, and even though he knows they will,

part of him wonders how wounds like that can ever heal,  Jingyi raises his sword with his left hand; his right shoulder still aches.  He’s gripping the hilt so hard his knuckles are white, but he can’t seem to relax his grip.

How much pain must Sizhui be in? Jingyi’s hand trembles as he starts his sword forms.  He should warm up, but he dives into a complex series of motions instead.  His muscles might complain later, but that's fine.  It’s nothing, really, nothing compared too…    

He doesn’t want to think about how his friend must be suffering now.  When he moves, his motions are more frantic than usual, less graceful. He hopes that Hanguang-jun and Senior Wei are taking care of him, that he’s not alone.  You left him alone.   Jingyi’s eyes are burning and his breath catches in his chest.

Grinding his teeth, Jingyi tries to focus on his exercises.  His left hand is clumsier than his right, and he should focus on the movements.  He wants to focus on the movements.  But Sizhui’s voice from the dream is haunting him.  ‘Jingyi? Where are you going? Please come back? A-Yi?!’

Guilt gnaws at him with freshly sharpened teeth.  On top of the guilt for Sizhui being punished, is the feeling that he might have abandoned Sizhui when his friend needed him most.  Jingyi pivots, his blade slashing through the air with violence more suited to a fight to the death than morning sword practice.  

‘It’s not my fault’, he wants to scream.  He is not the one who punished Sizhui, the one who tied him to a post and whipped him.  Lan Zhihao had held the whip, but Lan Qiren and the other elders had named the punishment.  And Lan Jiahao had held Jingyi so he couldn’t do anything but watch.  It’s so easy to be mad at them, and Jingyi doesn’t fight it.  The blinding rage is easier to handle than the guilt, as he slashes and cuts the air with his sword.  Anger is easier, but it, as fierce as it is, can’t eclipse his guilt entirely.

He might be hot-headed and a bit mercurial, but Jingyi generally has a sunny personality, letting his irritation go as quickly as it comes.  This deep wrath is entirely foreign to him, and if he was in his right mind, he might be scared by the ferocity of this feeling.  But for now, he just wants to escape the guilt.

Jingyi is not sure how long he trains for.  He keeps going until the anger burns itself out, leaving smoldering ashes behind.  Driving his sword point into the ground, he leans on it.  He’s sweating heavily and his muscles are exhausted.  A glance at the sun tells him that he’s been at it for a few hours.  Next, he looks towards the camp where he had left Peizhi and Liling sleeping.  They are sitting up now, but neither had approached him.  

Deciding he still needs a minute, Jingyi plops down on the ground and takes out his sharpening stone and oil for his sword.  Once his sword is cared for and he’s stopped sweating, he gets up and heads back to the others.  He feels tired, not just the way he usually does after long training sessions, but in his heart as well.  

When he reaches the small camp they made, he sits down heavily.  Then he grabs one of their water flasks and drains it.  Liling offers him a pear from their rations without saying anything.  Jingyi thanks her quietly, and that seems to break the tension a bit.

“You were up early,” Peizhi says.

“Old habit,” Jingyi says, and he’s not lying, not really.

“I think we might be getting close to a town again,” Liling says after a moment.

“Yea?” Jingyi asks.  He doesn’t particularly want to go into a town, but they should buy more food, and he wouldn’t mind sleeping in a bed.

“The road is getting wider again,” Peizhi says, “we were talking about it while you were training.”

Jingyi eyes the road critically.  Perhaps it is wider than where they had started the day before.  He shrugs; it doesn’t really matter to him one way or another. The three of them get up and start towards the road.  

“That was really impressive,” Peizhi says to Jingyi as they walk, “what you were doing earlier.  I’ve never seen somebody fight like that.  I didn’t know that you could fight like that”

Liling nods in agreement, but Jingyi shakes his head.

“That wasn’t very good,” he feels his face growing a bit pink.  He’d let his emotions get the best of him and his form had definitely suffered.  “And it was my left hand.  I need more practice using it anyway.”

“You can sword fight with both hands?” Peizhi asks incredulously.  

“Not equally,” Jingyi says.  All the disciples practiced basics with their off-hand after they reached proficiency.  Generally, they just learned enough to defend themselves if their dominant hand or arm was injured.  

“It’s still impressive,” Liling says.

“I’d love to see you in a real fight,” Peizhi says and his eyes are shining. 

“No.” Jingyi’s voice is flat and hard, and it surprises his companions.  He doesn’t want to think about the night hunt north of Gusu, but he can’t help it. 

“Didn’t you fight corpses north of the town?”

“Night hunts aren’t a joke,” Jingyi says and his voice is uncharacteristically hard.  “When you make a mistake people die.  I told you it was dangerous before we left the town.”

“But you're amazing with a sword,” Peizhi protests.  Liling puts a hand on his arm to quiet him.  

Jingyi grinds his teeth.  “Drop it, okay?”  Part of him wants to shake the kid or hit him even though he knows it's not Peizhi’s fault that he doesn't understand.  He can’t even storm away because there’s nowhere to go.  

Liling keeps her hand on her brother’s arm, urging him to remain quiet.  The silence that follows is tense.  The tension slowly eases, but none of them talk.  Jingyi does notice as they go on that the road is getting broader and seems to be better taken care of.  There’s almost certainly a town ahead; he wonders how far it will be.

He doesn’t have to wonder for long.  A little bit before they would normally stop for lunch, they crest one of the rolling hills and a small town appears in a valley ahead of them.  But Jingyi instantly realizes that this isn’t a regular farming town.  On the southwest side of the town, there’s a small compound.  There’s a banner flying above the building, but he can’t distinguish the mark from here. 

“What’s that?” Peizhi asks as they all pause and points to the cluster of fenced-in buildings.

“Either a monastery or a cultivation sect,” Jingyi says. 

He hopes it's the first one, but he’s pretty sure it’s the second.  He stares down at the building straining his eyes even though he knows there’s no chance that he’ll be able to distinguish a sect motif from this distance.  There’s really nowhere to go but forward, but Jingyi stalls on actually approaching.  He has no desire to interact with the cultivation world.  They could recognize him.  They could ask uncomfortable questions.  And Jingyi isn’t good at lying; he doesn’t have much practice.

“Jingyi?” It’s Liling’s soft voice that breaks into his thoughts.  

“Yeah?” 

“Is something wrong?”

“No,” Jingyi says firmly and starts walking forward.  It’s the only choice really.  Given his preference, he’d walk straight through, but he doubts he’ll be able to convince Liling and Peizhi to turn down the chance at a bed, bath, and hot meal without more of an explanation than he feels like giving.  His eyes don’t leave the strong stone walls of the sect residence as they approach.  

According to etiquette, Jingyi should present himself at the sect.  Or that’s what he was taught by Old Master Lan.  Maybe the rules are different for rogue cultivators.  This clan must be a subsidiary clan of the Qinghe Nie, and while he knows that they don’t stand on ceremony the way the Jins might, they are likely to be more aggressive should he offend them.

Liling keeps giving him concerned looks, and Jingyi does his best to relax.  The chance of him being recognized is low, he reminds himself.  Then he allows himself a moment to be grateful for the separatist nature of Gusu Lan.  His name might be well known, largely because of his friendship with Jin Ling and Sizhui, but he hasn’t been to enough cultivation conferences to be easily recognizable.  

There’s still more than an hour walk down to the town, but the three of them agree to hold off on lunch until they are in the town.  Jingyi’s gaze keeps returning to the pennant above the sect's holdings until they get close enough that he can make it out; they are nearly into town by that point.  

Jingyi, having been educated at Gusu Lan by Old Master Lan Qiren himself can, of course, recognize the sect motif of every recognized sect in china.  This one belongs to the Caicun Lin.  They’re a small sect, a subsidiary to Qinghe Nie, they use swords, not sabers, their sect leader is Lin Geming, and Jingyi knows little else about them.  

Luckily, the road into the town leads towards the market and not directly to the sect’s holdings.  Peizhi and Liling want to head directly towards the central market.  But Jingyi hasn’t decided whether to present himself at the local sect or not and has no desire to run into one of the Caicun Lin cultivators on accident.  He also doesn’t want to explain this.  

“Bohai! Come on!” A boy’s voice catches Jingyi’s attention.  A pair of teenagers, maybe fifteen, emerge from between two of the buildings at the edge of town.  Both are dressed in black and green, with swords at their waists: Lin junior disciples.  Luckily, the pair emerged several buildings away from the main road and their attention is on each other and not the main road.

The boy in front, the one who spoke, has an intricate hairpiece on top of his braided bun. Jingyi guesses that he must be Young Master Lin.  He’s holding the hand of the other boy, who has a much simpler hairpiece and pulling him forward.

“Honghui,” the second boy’s voice is quieter.  He’s smiling, but his voice sounds exasperated.  Jingyi has heard that exact same tone from Sizhui more times than he can count.

“Come on! If we hurry up we’ll be gone before the swordmaster realizes we’re missing.”

“We shouldn’t be skipping practice.” The second boy, Bohai, says, but it’s obvious that his resistance is perfunctory.  There’s a smile on his face, and he’s allowing himself to be drawn forward and away from the town.

It reminds Jingyi painfully, forcefully of his younger self.  There’s a lump in his throat.

 

“Sizhui, come on!”  Jingyi says a little louder than he means it to be; he can hardly contain his excitement.  He’s holding hard to Sizhui’s sleeve to tow him along.  They are almost to the main gate. 

“Jingyi!” Sizhui sounds exasperated, but there’s a smile on his face.

“Old Master Lan is in a meeting today.  No one will notice we’re gone if we hurry up.”  If they hurry, they’ll be able to relax by the stream or with the bunnies or in one of the clearings in the woods instead of sitting through more lessons.  

“There are lessons, Jingyi!”  Sizhui is arguing with him, but he lets Jingyi pull him along.  Jingyi looks back at him with a grin.  Sizhui’s eyes are filled with sunlight and there’s a gentle smile on his face.

 

Jingyi’s gripping his sword so hard his knuckles hurt.  He forcefully turns his face away from the pair of junior disciples running away from the town and takes several steps down the road.

Jingyi swallows hard.  “Let’s find an inn and then go for lunch.”  He fails to sound casual, but he keeps walking.  He doesn’t look at the disciples again.  Liling and Peizhi follow him; he sees the worried gaze that Liling gives him, but he ignores it.

“Can’t we go into the town first?” Peizhi complains.

“Jingyi has a point,” Liling soothes him.  “Let’s take care of business first, and then we don’t have to worry.”

“I guess,” Peizhi says, but he doesn’t argue as they head into the town.  It doesn’t take them long to find an inn, there are only two to start with.  This time, Jingyi gets his own room with some of the money that the town paid him for taking care of the corpses.  They’d given him a bonus for the large number of corpses he’d had to face, so he’ll be set with money for a while now.  

Jingyi goes to his room, more to inspect it than anything.  He’s carrying his qainkun pouch, so he doesn’t have an actual pack to leave behind like Liling or Peizhi.  He debates staying in the inn for the rest of the day to avoid any interactions with the local cultivators, but he doesn’t want to have to explain himself to Liling and Peizhi.  Peizhi would probably try and drag him into town anyway.  He looks down at his sword; he could leave it in his room.  Without it, few people would realize that he was a cultivator.  But the idea of going out without his sword feels about as appealing as going out completely naked.  

There’s a knock on the door, and Jingyi realizes that he’s been standing aimlessly in the middle of the room for a while.  

“Coming,” he says and makes his way to the door.  Peizhi is standing there and tapping his foot.

“I’m hungry,” he says and turns, “let’s go.”

Jingyi’s stomach growls in agreement, and he chuckles as they head out of the building.  Unsurprisingly, Peizhi and Liling head towards the market.  They bounce from stall to stall, occasionally buying from the street food vendors as they go.  Jingyi grabs a few buns from a vendor and installs himself against a building wall, out of the flow of traffic through the market.  

The town itself is about the same size as Caiyi Town, but Jingyi doesn’t have a desire to explore.  He watches Peizhi and Liling bounce around the market with a smile, though.  They are clearly enjoying themselves as they taste sweets and examine the handwork of various vendors.  It reminds Jingyi of the night after Yi City where he’d wandered through Tanzhou with Jin Ling, Zizhen, and Sizhui.  It was the first time the four of them really did anything together.  Sure, Jin Ling and Jingyi had almost gotten in a fight after Jin Ling said something rude to Sizhui, but that was par for the course with the four of them.

While Jingyi is content to wait outside the crowd, it seems that the Zhou siblings have different ideas.  He doesn’t even realize that Peizhi and Lilig have changed their course to collect him until they are almost on top of him.  

Peizhi grabs his arm to pull him towards the crowd, but Jingyi doesn’t budge an inch.

He opens his mouth to argue, but Peizhi cuts him off.  “Liling says that she’s tired of you being so serious all the time, and thinks it will be more fun if you join us.”

Jingyi doesn’t have a response to that.  No one has ever accused him of being ‘so serious’ let alone ‘all the time’.  Normally, Peizhi wouldn’t have been able to budge Jingyi even if he used all his strength, but Jingyi’s surprise gives Peizhi the opportunity he needs to pull him forward.

So, Jingyi shadows the two of them as they move through the market.  It’s small but it’s plenty to take up an afternoon as they dither over carts full of toys or fans or jewelry.  At first, he’s quiet, but Liling keeps tugging on his sleeve and Peizhi bombards him with questions.  He finds that he’s enjoying himself as they move through the market.  He play fights with Peizhi for a short bit with the wooden swords and shows Liling how to tell the quality of different fans.  It’s not the same as wandering through Caiyi Town with his fellow disciples, but it’s nice.

It’s nice, at least, until he turns away from a cart selling painted lanterns and finds himself facing a small group of female cultivators.  All four of them are around Jingyi’s age.  For a moment, Jingyi and the girls just stare at each other, both surprised.  One of the girls had a headpiece that almost certainly marks her as a direct part of the Lin family.  

Then Jingyi comes to his senses.  He grasps his sword and raises his hands in a formal bow.  He bows deeper than he would have if he was still with Gusu Lan; it’s a bow more appropriate for a cultivator without a sect behind them.  The four girls respond to his bow.

“I am Lin Lifen,” one girl says, stepping forward slightly, “daughter of Sect Leader Lin.”

“My name is An Jingyi,” Jingyi says quietly, “I am not affiliated with any sect.  I do not mean to intrude in your town.  My traveling companions wanted to enjoy the market.”

The girls’ attention goes to Liling and Peizhi, who are standing somewhat awkwardly behind Jingyi.  Realizing that the attention had shifted to them, they both offered bows.  Jingyi glances from his companions to the girls from Caicun Lin, not sure what to expect.  

Lin Lifen grins at them, and Jingyi’s whole body relaxes as he offers her a smile back.  “We’re having a feast tonight.  Why don’t you three join us?”

“Lifen,” one of the other girls elbows her and offers a pointed look.

“Father won’t mind,” Lifen says with a wave of her hand.  Jingyi certainly hopes that’s the case.  Caicun Lin is a small sect, and Jingyi doesn’t think he’s ever heard anything about its sect leader, which is probably a good thing.  

“Thank you for the gracious invitation Miss Lin,” Jingyi offers another bow, not able to think of how to refuse without being rude.

“It’s my pleasure, Young Master An,” she says with a smile.  “I’d escort you back now to meet my father, but I’m supposed to find my brother.”

“Is he about fifteen?” Peizhi’s voice comes from behind Jingyi and both Jingyi and Lin Lifen look at him.

“Yeah! Did you see him?”

“We saw two boys heading out of town around noon,” Peizhi says.  

Lin Lifen glances at Jingyi for confirmation.  He feels a bit bad for telling on the kids, having been ratted out himself several times, but he nods.  “We saw two junior disciples leaving the town, and I’m fairly certain one was Young Master Lin.”

Miss Lin sighs, “Well, I’m not going down to the river to hunt them down.  They’ll come back in time for dinner... hopefully.”

“Lifen,” the same friend from before says, apparently somewhat of a stickler for the rules.  

Lin Lifen sighs, “He ran off with Bohai again.  They have to go to Gusu tomorrow.  Let’s let them have a little fun today.  We have an excuse to go back anyway: we have guests.”

Her friend rolls her eyes but doesn’t push the matter.

“Right,” Lin Lifen says and gestures for Jingyi and his companions to follow her.  The girls chat among themselves as they walk, but Jingyi and his friends are silent.  He glances at the two of them.  Peizhi grins back at him.  Liling is looking at the swords that the female cultivators are carrying with a curious expression.

The town isn't large, and it doesn’t take long for them to reach the gates of the compound.  They walk through the open gates, and Jingyi glances around.  He immediately recognizes the areas marked off for sword training and the archery ranges.  The buildings are strong stone constructions, much more like the fortress that is the Unclean Realms than the graceful wooden architecture of the Cloud Recesses.  

Lin Lifen leads him to the largest building and knocks on the door before pushing it open without waiting for an answer.  Jingyi blinks in surprise.  This sect is definitely more casual than Gusu Lan or Lanling Jin.  It reminds him a bit of the way Zizhen acts when they are in Baling.  Lin Lifen’s friends wait outside the building as she strides in.

“Father, we have visitors.”  Lin Lifen speaks before Jingyi and his companions are all the way in the room.  Jingyi watches her form as she strides down the center of the room towards the dais at the end with an austere stone chair where an older man, presumably the sect leader, sits. 

“We do?” The man asks and there’s amusement in his voice.  He’s a broad man with heavy set shoulders whose hair is starting to grey at his temples.  “Weren't you supposed to find your brother?”

“He went to the river,” Lin Lifen says, “I don’t want to go all the way there to drag him back.  Besides, he's off to Gusu tomorrow.  Let him have one afternoon off.”

The word ‘Gusu’ causes tension to spread through Jingyi’s whole body, and he has to force himself to relax.  If the disciples are really off for their year at The Cloud Recesses, he doesn’t blame them for wanting to go splash in the river for a while.  He’s never lived outside the Cloud Recesses before now, but he knows how boring most of the guest disciples find it.

Sect Leader Lin sighs and rubs his chin.  “Who’s our guest?”

Lin Lifen turns and gestures towards Jingyi who takes the cue to approach the sect leader.  The Zhou siblings trail behind him, and he realizes that he probably should have given them some tips on appropriate manners for this moment before they walked through the door.  

Jingyi stops an appropriate distance from the Sect Leader’s chair and brings his sword and hands together in a bow.  The bow is probably deeper than strictly necessary, but he isn’t representing anyone other than himself.  

“I am An Jingyi, and I am unaffiliated with any sect.  This is Zhou Peizhi and Zhou Liling.”  The siblings bow even deeper than he had, which is smart of them.  Many cultivators see themselves as above regular people, and while Nie Sect and it’s many of subsidiaries tend to be less haughty than others it's better safe than sorry.  Gusu Lan, for their part, forbids its disciples from such pride and arrogance.  

Jingyi straightens up and looks at Sect Leader Lin, who’s smiling.

“Young Master An,” he says, “what is your business in Caicun?”

“My companions and I are wandering, Sect Leader Lin.  We only intend to pass through.”

Sect Leader Lin nods in acceptance.  “We are happy to offer you our hospitality.  As luck would have it, tonight is a feast.  We were not expecting guests, but I will ask my wife to have rooms prepared for you.”

“Sect Leader,” Jingyi says with another bow, “Your hospitality is most gracious.  It’d be an honor to join you for a meal.  However, my companions, and I have paid for rooms at the inn.  Please do not trouble yourself on our account.”

Sect Leader Lin pauses, and Jingyi keeps his eyes down.  He hates moments like this.  Despite his years of etiquette training, he never feels confident in his statements.  He’s nearly certain that he’s not doing anything too insulting by refusing the rooms, but anxiety wells up.

“I understand,” he says at last.  There’s still a smile on his face, so Jingyi lets himself relax.  He turns his gaze to his daughter, “Lifen, dinner is in one hour.  I expect you to be a good host to our guests.  Please make sure all of you are on time for dinner.”

“Sure thing, dad.” Lin Lifen says with a bow that's more of a head nod than a bow.  She turns on her heel and starts to walk out, motioning for Jingyi and company to follow her.  

“I told you that he wouldn’t mind,” Lin Lifen says once the doors to the hall are closed behind them.  Jingyi smiles.  “I’m afraid there’s not much to do until dinner.  The junior disciples are probably finishing up drills so they can wash before dinner.  We could go back out to the market, but I’m not sure it’s worth it.  We could have a competition if you want.”

“It’s hot,” one of her friends says, “let’s go sit in the shade at least.”  

Lin Lifen shrugs and starts to lead their small group towards a row of benches by the covered walkway shaded by the roof’s overhang.  

“What sort of competition?” Peizhi asks from beside Jingyi.  

“Archery is most common because many people can compete,” Lin Lifen tells him.  “Sometimes swordsmanship, but that is less fun as only two people can compete.  If he,” she gestures to Jingyi, “was a girl, we could do hand to hand combat, but again only two people can compete.”  

Peizhi opens his mouth, and Jingyi knows that he’s going to suggest a swordfight so Jingyi cuts him off.  

“Archery sounds nice.”

If Lin Lifen has trained at Gusu, and it’s a decent bet she has if her family is sending her brother, there is a good chance she could recognize his fighting style.

Then Jingyi does something that he almost never does, because he’s a Lan, and lies.  “But, I don’t have a bow.”

“We have training bows,” Li Lifen says with a wave of her hand.  “They aren’t the best, but they’ll do.  Jiayi, can you fetch a few, mine is in my room, so I will use a training bow as well.”

One of the girls, presumably Jiayi, bows and heads down the covered walkway.  

Jingyi turns to look at his companions, “Can either of you shoot?”

Liling shakes her head and looks at her toes, but Peizhi nods.  He looks a bit anxious.

“I’ve been bow hunting, but I’m probably nowhere as good as you.”  His face is beet red by the end of his sentence.

“It’s just for fun,” Lin Lifen says, “it doesn’t matter who wins.”

The four Lin sect girls, Peizhi, and Jingyi line up across from the practice targets.  It takes Jingyi a few shots to get used to the lighter bow.  The string snaps against his bruised forearm, and he has to resist the urge to wince.

They start close to the targets and after a round of shots, they back up and start again.  It turns out that Peizhi is not bad with a bow; it’s obvious to Jingyi that he has some practice.  But, his skills would be more on par with some of the junior disciples.  Jingyi wins, but he suspects that it's more because Lin Lifen’s arms are getting tired than because he’s significantly better than her.  While Jingyi, Lin Lifen, and Jiayi compete for the first three spots, one of Lin Lifen’s friends drags Liling onto the archery range and starts to show her how to use the bow. 

Jingyi,  Jiayi, and Lin Lifen go for water and stand in the shade of the overhang to cool down.  Jingyi watches as the Lin Sect disciple guides Liling through the basics.  One of Liling’s arm is still in the sling, so she can’t draw the bow, but it’s obvious that the younger girl is having fun.  

“It’s strange to imagine growing up without cultivation training isn’t it?” Lin Lifen asks.

“Very,” Jingyi agrees.  

Just then a bell sounds.

“Just in time,” Lin Lifen says with a smile, “it’s dinner.”

They return to the main hall, where low tables have been set up around the room.  Jingyi walks up the center to offer a bow to Sect Leader Lin and thank him again for the invitation.  Before he has to worry about where he’s supposed to sit Lin Lifen has popped up at his side again.

“Father,” she says with a more formal bow than she gave earlier.  “The guests can sit with the disciples.  I’m sure they don’t want to listen to you and the elders talk about politics and complain about the cultivation conference; they are just too polite to say anything.”

Jingyi is stunned by her assertion and allows himself to be towed away towards the tables with the younger disciples when the sect leader waves the pair of them off.  It reminds him of the way Zizhen interacts with his father, except that Sect Leader Lin seems far more amused than Sect Leader Ouyang usually is.  His arms hurt just thinking about the number of handstands he would have to do if he said something like that to Zewu-jun.  Even Sizhui wouldn’t be able to get away with something like that, not that he would ever even try.  

Jingyi takes a seat at the table with Liling on one side and Peizhi on the other.  Lin Lifen and her friends have been joined by three of boys a few years older than them.  There are two seats left open. 

Lin Lifen introduces him as Young Master An, and Jingyi tries to remember the last names thrown at him.  Unfortunately, he thinks the only one he’ll remember is the boy who’s Lin Lifen’s cousin because they have the same last name.  After the introductions, the Lin disciples chat among themselves, Jingyi doesn’t mind sitting in silence.  But he notices that, beside him, Liling is staring at the swords lying by the female disciples with an expression that he doesn’t recognize.  

“Liling,” he says quietly.  She jumps slightly in surprise, even though he’d tried not to startle her.  She must have been lost in thought.  “What is it?”

“Can they really all fight with those swords?”

“Of course,” Jingyi says, “the sword is an important part of cultivation, so female cultivators use them too.”  He opens his mouth to make an exception for the Qinghe Nie and their saber cultivation, but it’s not relevant so he stops himself.  

Liling just nods; there’s something wistful in her expression.  Jingyi isn’t really sure what to say after that.  He knows that most of what Peizhi and Liling know about cultivators comes from stories, but surely there are stories about female cultivators?  

“Finally!” Lin Lifen’s voice catches most of the table’s attention.  Jingyi follows her gaze to see a pair of boys slipping into the room through a side door.  Jingyi instantly recognizes them from this morning.  However, they both look decidedly more rumpled than they had this morning, and Jingyi has to hide a grin behind his hand.  He’s caught enough couples sneaking the Cloud Recesses to recognize the look.  

They sit in the two remaining seats.  

“I’m sorry we’re late,” says the junior disciple who isn’t Young Master Lin.

“We aren’t late,” Young Master Lin says.  “Just almost late.”

Jingyi, who has used this argument himself on many occasions can’t help but smile.  

“We have guests,” Lin Lifen says and smacks her brother lightly on the back of the head.  

“We do?”

Lin Lifen points at Jingyi and his companions, “Young Master’s An and Zhou and Miss Zhou.”

“Welcome to Caicun,” Young Master Lin says in a perfunctory tone.

“It's nice to meet you,” his friend says in a much friendlier tone.  He smiles at them, and it’s a sweet smile that reminds Jingyi so much of Sizhui that it hurts to breathe for a moment.

He’s saved from having to respond by the sound of a gong from the front of the room.  Sect Leader Lin gets to his feet.  Jingyi resigns himself to a speech; he’s been to enough formal events for that.  But Sect Leader Lin surprises him.

“Tonight we will have a proper send-off for two of our junior disciples who are headed to Gusu for a year under Master Lan Qiren’s tutelage: my son, Lin Honghui, and Cao Bohai.  We are happy to have guests for today’s feast, and they are most welcome.  Everyone, enjoy your evening!”  With that, he sits down and a few servants and some younger junior disciples start to bring food around.  

“Nothing worth celebrating,” Lin Honghui complains.

“Just enjoy the food,” his friend advises.

Serving dishes are laid down at the center of the table for everyone to take what they want.  There’s a lull in the conversation as everyone goes for their favorite dishes and serves themselves.  Jingyi goes for some of the chicken even though it's cooked in a sauce he doesn’t recognize; there are lots of dishes he doesn’t recognize, but they all smell great.

“Come now,” Lin Lifen says, slinging an arm around her brother's shoulders.  “The Cloud Recesses aren't that bad.”

Tension fills Jingyi’s body, and he tries to focus on the food in front of him.  One of Lin Lifen’s friends is pouring wine into cups for everyone.  Jingyi smiles and thanks her, but doesn’t drink it.

“There are four thousand rules!” Lin Honghui complains. 

“Only the Lan disciples follow all the rules all the time,”  Feng Jiayi comforts him.  Jingyi is pretty sure that no one except Lan Qiren, Zewu-jun, and Sizhui actually follow all the rules all the time, but he doesn’t say anything.  No one here knows that he’s associated with Gusu Lan, and he wants to keep it that way.

“It’s going to be so boring,” Lin Honghui complains.

“Honghui,” his friend sets a hand on his shoulder, “don’t complain so much.  Let’s enjoy the evening.”

“I know something that will make you feel better, Didi,” Lin Lifen is grinning as she leans against her brother.  Her brother rolls his eyes and reaches for his chopsticks.  “Lan boys are very attractive.”

Lin Honghui turns bright red and turns to glare at his sister.  Jingyi is glad that the table is watching the pair of them because his face feels warm.

“I thought boys and girls were separated at the Cloud Recesses,” Cao Bohai says, looking much calmer than his friend despite the faint pink tinge to his cheeks.  

Lin Lifen waves her hand as if this is a minor detail, and picks up her bowl of wine.  “What did Jiayi just say about the rules? Besides, everyone knows the Lans are good looking: tall, pretty, strong, gentlemanly, the whole package.  Of course, the head disciple is supposed to be especially attractive.”

Jingyi is suddenly not at all certain that he is going to make it through this dinner in one piece.  Gossiping is forbidden.  He should really have appreciated that rule more.

“He is very attractive,” Feng Jiayi leans around another disciple to join the conversation.

“Now you’ve done it,” one of the other girls mutters and takes a very long drink from her wine.  

“Young Master Lan Sizhui is ranked first among the most attractive young masters,” Feng Jiayi tells Lin Honghui.  “And he is beautiful.  He’s a perfect gentleman, kind, generous-”

“You’ve never even met him,” Lin Lifen interrupts her.

“I have too!  We all did when we got to the Cloud Recesses.”

“You’ve never talked to him,” she corrects.

“He smiled at me!”

“He smiles at everyone.”

Jingyi bites back a laugh.  Wait until I tell Sizhui about this, he thinks.  Then his amusement cracks because he will never be able to tell Sizhui about this or anything else.  

“And he has such a sweet smile,” Feng Jiayi says almost wistfully into her bowl of wine; Jingyi understands the feeling.  

“What do you think, Young Master An?” Lin Lifen asks, clearly trying to include him in the conversation.  

“Me?” He says and his voice is a bit weak.  The problem is, Jingyi knows that he is a terrible liar.

“Have you been to The Cloud Recesses?  Is Young Master Lan as attractive as everyone says he is?”

Jingyi’s brain spins desperately for a second as he tries to come up with an answer.  “I’ve been,” he says.  He knows too much about Gusu Lan to pretend he’s never interacted with them.  

“And Young Master Lan Sizhui?”

How does the sound of Sizhui’s name still give Jingyi butterflies?  Is Sizhui as attractive as everyone says?  ‘That and more,’ Jingyi wants to say.  ‘He’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.’  

“Yes,” Jingyi says, and his voice is a bit odd, “there’s a reason he’s considered the most attractive young master.”

“I told you,” Jiayi says.  “It’s a shame he’s never at the conferences.  Isn’t he our age?  I wonder if he’ll be looking for a wife soon.”

Jingyi’s hand freezes mid-air as he reaches for his cup of tea, and he has to force himself to keep moving.  He is not stupid, and he knows that Sizhui will get married one day; it’s even something he’s thought about seriously.  But it’s also something he has always thought of as vaguely in the future.  Hearing it now, here, by someone who is clearly interested, feels like a blow to the stomach.  You left, a nasty part of his brain tells him, what right do you have to be upset if he finds someone else.

“I haven’t heard anything about a marriage.  Everyone would be talking about it,” one of the other girls says.  It doesn’t do much to ease the sick sensation in Jingyi’s stomach.  “He’s never at the cultivation conferences.  I don’t think he’s ever shown any interest in anyone.  Most of the Lan boys flirt with the female disciples when the seniors aren’t around, but I don’t think he does.  I’m pretty sure it would get around if he was flirting, let alone sneaking around with one.”

The idea of Sizhui sneaking around on the back hill with a girl is so out of character that it amuses Jingyi instead of making him jealous.

One of the disciples is refilling everyone’s wine bowls.  Jingyi glances at his, which is somehow half full.  Peizhi grins at him and shrugs.

“He knows you won’t drink it,” Liling says in her quiet voice.

“Maybe he’s not interested in girls,” Lin Lifen says and elbows her brother in the ribs, almost spilling her refilled bowl of wine.  “Could be that he’s more interested in the male disciples.”

“That’d be a shame,” Feng Jiayi says with a drink of her own wine.  

“He’s not going to marry you anyway,” says the girl who’d said ‘now you’ve done it’ earlier; she’s also the one refilling the wine.  She has the expression on her face that Ziwan usually makes when Zizhen’s been waxing poetic for too long.

“What do you think, Young Master An?” Lin Lifen asks.  What did Jingyi do in his last life to deserve this?  Maybe he should drink something after all.

The truth, he realizes, is that he doesn’t know.  He’s always assumed that Sizhui was interested in girls, even though he’d never expressed interest in anyone as far as Jingyi can remember. No real interest, anyway.  Nothing aside from the quiet agreement he offers when Zizhen finds another person attractive and has to tell all of them.  

“I wouldn’t know,” he manages.  He should know.  How can he not know?

But, Sizhui has never talked about girls or boys, not the way the other disciples and Zizhen do anyway.  He’d never really noticed.  The disciples’ constant chatter about this girl and that boy and kissing and other thing s has always seemed excessive to Jingyi.  So he’d never really thought about the fact that Sizhui didn’t do it.  Maybe he didn’t want to break the rule about gossiping.  But, if Sizhui was interested in someone, he would have told Jingyi, right?  

Right?

A hand on his arm catches his attention, and he glances at Liling who has a concerned look on her face.  He remembers then that he had told Liling and her brother stories about Sizhui and Hanguang-jun.  He hadn’t thought about it at the time since they weren’t cultivators and didn’t know about the politics.  He glances at Peizhi who is half-listening to the conversation as he eats a bowl of beef soup.  They will have questions later, Jingyi realizes, questions he doesn’t want to answer.  He just hopes they don’t say anything in front of the Caicun Lin Sect disciples.

Jingyi smiles reassuringly at Liling and turns his attention back to the conversation.  

“I told you, it was six years ago,” Lin Lifen’s male cousin is speaking.  “I didn’t pay much attention to him. They weren’t in my classes, and he’s pretty quiet.  But he was always with that other boy, the one who was always getting on Old Master Lan’s nerves.”

Jingyi is fairly certain that his heart stops in his chest.  

“Right,” Feng Jiayi leans forward, almost spilling her wine.  “The mini twin jades of Lan!”

Jingyi hides his face behind his cup of tea.  Lan Qiren would go into qi deviation if he heard anyone compare Jingyi to Zewu-jun and Hanguang-jun in such a way.  

“The third-ranked young master is also from Gusu Lan,” Lin Lifen says in a musing voice.  “We saw him a few times, didn’t we Jiayi?”

Feng Jiayi nods, “I remember now. There was always that other boy with Lan Sizhui.”

“He must also be attractive,” Lin Honghui says, finally getting into the conversation, “to be ranked third.  That’s above Sect Leader Jin.”

Lin Lifen smiles, “He had the Lan good looks: fair skin, high cheekbones, and the sharp jawline.  He had a nice laugh.”

Jingyi wonders if he can blame the blush on his cheeks on the wine.  He can’t believe that they haven’t recognized him.  Does he really look so much different than he had four years ago?

“Wasn’t he short though?  Shorter than Lan Sizhui anyway.” Feng Jiayi asks.  Jingyi closes his eyes for an instant.  He hadn’t gotten his growth spurt until he was eighteen. Before that he’d been shorter than Sizhui and even Jin Ling, who was only fourteen when they met.  He’s taller than both of them now, but Jin Ling still likes to bring it up.

“Maybe he’s gotten taller,” Lin Lifen says with a shrug.  “He’s still ranked above Sect Leader Jin.  So he must be very good looking.”

Last time Jingyi had brought up the fact that he was ranked higher than Jin Ling, they’d ended up in a fistfight.  

“Sect Leader Jin would be ranked higher if he wasn’t so prickly,” Feng Jiayi says.  “He always looks like he’s in a bad mood.”

“See Didi,” Lin Lifen pokes her brother again, “it won’t be that bad.  There will be pretty boys.  You can find out if the two Young Masters of Lan are really into girls or not.”

“You want me to flirt with the head disciple of Gusu Lan?” Lin Honghui asks incredulously, while his friend, or boyfriend maybe, laughs behind his sleeve.

The strength of feeling that hits him when he pictures Lin Honghui in the Cloud Recesses flirting with Sizhui surprises him.  He’s never been a particularly jealous person before.  Maybe it’s because Cao Bohai smiles just like Sizhui when he looks at Lin Honghui, and it's so easy to imagine Sizhui’s gentle smile and the soft amusement in his eyes.  

In his mind’s eye, he sees Sizhui in the library pavilion.  The soft afternoon light illuminates the warm highlights in his dark hair and gilds his dark eyes.  He looks up and a smile spreads across his face.  It’s a smile that he usually saves for Jingyi.  Except Jingyi isn’t there; he won’t be there.  Sizhui will be smiling at someone else, someone like Lin Honghui.  His heart screams at the idea.  

It’s a good thing that he put down his chopsticks, too anxious to eat, because he would have snapped them with how hard his hands are clenching.

Peizhi tugs on his sleeve and Jingyi turns to him.

“What exactly are they talking about,” he asks.  “Where is he going?”

This is much safer than talking about Sizhui.  Jingyi takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, forcing his hands to unclench.  “He’s going to the Cloud Recesses to study with the Gusu Lan Sect.  Their teacher, Lan Qiren, is famous.”

“Oh,” Lin Lifen turns towards them, “I’m so sorry; it didn’t occur to me that you didn’t know what we are talking about.  You should have said something.”

“It’s alright.”

“You probably know more about this than I do,” Jingyi lies.  He hopes it isn’t too obvious.  “Why don’t you tell them.”

Lin Lifen and her fellow disciples tell the Zhou siblings about Gusu Lan and the famous 4,000 rules. They comment on Lan Qiren’s lectures and the bland food.  Jingyi is happy to nod along to these discussions.  He’s heard these complaints hundreds of times from guest disciples and from Zizhen and Senior Wei.  He even agrees with some of them.  

At some point the conversation turns towards the cultivation conference, and he learns that Zizhen won the archery competition after all.  He grins.  But it’s hard for him to concentrate on the conversation because he keeps thinking about Sizhui.  His dream from the night before mixes with the conversation from earlier.  He can’t stop thinking about Sizhui, the way he smiles, and the way the sun illuminates his eyes and reveals the faint freckles across his nose.  But he also can’t shake the guilt because right now Sizhui is hurting and Jingyi isn’t there.  On top of that jealousy seems to have dug its claws into him.  

The table is getting rowdy as everyone gets drunker and drunker.  A few times, Jingyi’s gaze lingers on the bowl of wine in front of him, but he doesn’t touch it.  He has too many secrets to keep.  

“Didi,” Lin Lifen says, leaning into her brother.  Her brother is flushed, though Jingyi’s not sure if it's from the alcohol or from the fact that his friend or boyfriend is dozing against his shoulder.  “You have to get up early.  You should sleep.  Bohai’s already most of the way there anyway.”

Bohai smiles sleepily at her, but Lin Honghui makes a face.  

“It’s past nine,” Jingyi says, trusting his internal clock.  The older disciples all laugh.  

“It’s past your new bedtime,” Lin Lifen says laughing and her brother scowls.

“Honghui,” Bohai says sleepily and pulls himself into a sitting position.  “Let’s go.”

Jingyi tries desperately not to think about the evenings he spent with his friends, Jin Ling and Zizhen growing progressively drunker as Sizhui dozes against his shoulder.  He doesn’t watch as Bohai and Lin Honghui slip out of the room.  He desperately wants to leave himself, but he doesn’t want to be rude.

The air is hot from the press of bodies, and the festive mood grates on him.  But he does his best to join in the conversation.  He notices that Liling and Peizhi are both growing sleepy on either side of him.  

“Miss Lin,” he says a few times, and he almost has to grab her sleeve to get her attention.  He gestures to his companions who are obviously tired.  “I’m afraid we must retire.  We’re weary from traveling. We are most grateful for your hospitality; you have been most generous.”

“That’s too bad,” Lin Lifen says with a smile, and her words are slightly slurred from the amount of alcohol the disciples have been drinking.  She gets to her feet unsteadily.  “I like having such a pretty face around.”

Jingyi blushes and gets to his feet.  Liling and Peizhi copy him.  

“Thank you for your company,” Jingyi says and bows.  For once he’s grateful for Old Master Lan Qiren’s etiquette lessons for giving him something to fall back on.  

“One second,” Lin Lifen says looking around her.  Jingyi waits as she checks behind her seat and then between her friends and then finally under the table before coming up with a forest green jar.  She presents it to him, “Some of the local wine, as a parting gift.  I can escort you out,” she offers even though she is visibly unsteady on her feet.

“Miss Lin,” Jingyi says, taking the wine and offering a bow, “there is no need.  Please continue to enjoy your evening.”

“Good man!” one of the male disciples calls, and Lin Lifen’s friends pull her back down to the table.  

Jingyi is more than happy to escape from the hall and out into the night air.  Beside him, Peizhi stumbles slightly, and Jingyi offers him an arm out of habit because it’s usually Zizhen who’s drunkenly stumbling and weaving beside him. But Peizhi only scowls at him.  Jingyi shrugs, because he’s friends with Jin Ling too, and really Peizhi’s scowls do not compare.  Still, Jingyi subtly slows his pace as they move through the streets towards the inn.

“That was a really good feast,” Peizhi says slurring his words.  Jingyi’s surprised he’s not drunker, given that he’s been helping drink Jingyi’s wine.  

“Mn.”

It was a good feast, or it would have been if Jingyi had actually been able to enjoy it.  He listens to Peizhi ramble about the food and then the alcohol and then the company.  Jingyi puts in just enough effort to keep his companion rambling.  Normally, Jingyi is happy to join right in with his friends’ drunken ramblings, but he can’t find the heart for it right then.

They reach the inn and step into the small courtyard between the inn and the restaurant next door.  Jingyi pauses, his eyes go to the dark windows of the inn, and realizes that he won’t be able to sleep even if he goes to his room.  Liling opens the door and Peizhi heads in, but Jingyi shakes his head.

“I need some fresh air after all that,” he says with a smile.  Liling nods and follows her brother inside.  

With a sigh, Jingyi sits with his back against the wall with his knees up; it’s definitely not a proper sitting position, but he really doesn’t care.  The jar of wine dangles from one of his hands as he tilts his head back to look at the stars.  

Is Young Master Lan as attractive as everyone says he is? Lin Lifen had asked.

Jingyi can see the way Sizhui’s dark eyes reflect the night sky as they study astronomy or the exact color they look in the sun.  He knows the exact shape of Sizhui’s profile in silver moonlight and the way that sunlight turns his skin to gold.  He remembers the inky spill of his hair over his shoulders in the morning and the warm highlights it has in the sun.  And he remembers a hundred different smiles.  

He was always with that other boy, the one who was always getting on Old Master Lan’s nerves.

The jar he’s holding trembles as his hands shake.  They’ve always been together, almost as long as Jingyi can remember.  He doesn’t have very many memories from before Sizhui.  And he thought, he promised himself even, that they would always be together.  And now Sizhui is sleeping alone in their room in the Cloud Recesses, and Jingyi is he doesn’t even really know where.  

He wants to close his eyes and have this all be a dream.  He wants to wake up in his bed in the disciples’ dorm.  He wants to hug Sizhui and breathe in the cinnamon and clove incense that clings to his clothes.  His eyes are burning, and he closes them.

Maybe I made a mistake, he thinks, and the thought is both painful and desperate.  If he went back now, would they even take him back?  Would Sizhui even want him back? He tries to remind himself of why he left because Sizhui is always taking punishments for him and this time it was too much, too far.  Going back would be selfish, he tells himself.  

Jingyi’s hands tighten, and he remembers the jar that is still hanging from his fingers.  His eyes open and land on the jar, though it looks gray in the low light.  He stares at it.  He could drink some.  It wouldn’t take much, probably two bowls worth, and he would be asleep.  It’s not like the Gusu Lan Sect rules are binding him anymore.  The reason he gave up drinking was that he couldn’t control himself around Sizhui, but Sizhui isn’t here and Jingyi doesn’t have to worry about trying to climb into his lap.

“Jingyi?” 

Jingyi almost jumps out of his skin at the sound of his name and hits his head on the wall behind him.  He’d been so lost in thought that he hadn’t heard Liling returning from her room.

“I thought you went to bed,” he says as if he didn’t just embarrass himself.  

Liling sits beside him, her gaze goes to the jar of wine still hanging from his fingers.

“I thought you didn’t drink?”

Jingyi sighs and sets the wine on the ground.  “I don’t.”  

They fall back into silence for a long while.  Jingyi should ask her what she’s doing out here and tell her to go back to bed.  But it’s nice to have company.  

It’s Liling who breaks the silence.  “What are you running from, Jingyi?”

Jingyi looks up at her, surprised.  Her dark eyes are concerned, and he has to look away.  

“I’m not running.” He says even though it tastes like a lie in his mouth. His gaze goes down to his hands.  

“I don’t mean running from the law,” Liling says and pulls her knees up.  This is the most that Jingyi has ever heard from her.  “But there’s something going on.  You’re hurting.  I can see it; I’m running from something too, remember.”

Jingyi doesn’t say anything; he doesn’t know what he could say.  He could tell her to go away and mind her own business, and maybe he should, but her expression is gentle and concerned, and he isn’t cruel.

“It has to do with the Gusu Lan Sect doesn’t it?”

Jingyi nods slowly.

“And the boy, Lan Sizhui.”

There’s a long pause.  He closes his eyes and tips his head back against the building.  But in the end, he nods again.  

“You were the boy who was always by his side, weren’t you?”

His whole body trembles, but nods again.  

“What happened?” 

Somehow, the world seems to have shrunk down to just the two of them.  There’s nothing but the darkness behind his eyelids and the soft sound of her voice.  It’s easier, somehow, to speak into this bubble.

“He got hurt,” Jingyi says and his voice is hoarse almost as if he’d been screaming or crying.  “Badly.  We almost died… because of me.”

He curls in on himself, crossing his arms as if it could somehow protect him from his own feelings.  Part of him wants to cry out ‘it was an accident, I didn’t mean for it to happen’.  But he’s learned, as all Lan’s do, that effects are as important as causes.  Not meaning to commit a crime doesn’t absolve you of it.  

“You love him, don’t you?”  Her voice is so small that he almost doesn’t hear it.

“More than anything,” he says.  His shoulders shudder and a single tear runs down his face from behind his closed eyelids.

A warm shoulder presses against his, offering silent comfort.  They sit in the silence of the night for a long time.  And Liling doesn’t comment on the way his breath shudders in his chest or the faint glimmer of moonlight on his tear damp cheeks.

Chapter Text

Early in the morning
I feel stones upon my chest
That I carry to the evening
'Til I lay back down to rest

There are seven targets at the other end of the archery range where Jin Ling stands alone.  Fairy is sprawled out in the shadow of the building to avoid the sun beating down on the courtyard.  Even though Jin Ling is wearing summer robes of lightly woven silk, sweat sticks his inner robe to his skin. Checking the quiver on his back, he counts out the arrows and then turns his attention to the targets.  

He lets out a breath and closes his eyes.  With a smooth motion, he selects an arrow, draws the bow, and releases.  He turns, without opening his eyes.  Draw and release.  Draw and release.  Six times.  He’s in the middle of drawing his bow for the seventh time when he’s interrupted.

“Sect Leader Jin!”

His face twists into a scowl as he releases the arrow.  He lowers the bow and spins to glower at the servant approaching him.  Behind him, six arrows protrude from six bullseyes.  The seventh arrow sits just outside the center ring.

“What?” His voice rings across the courtyard like the crack of Zidian, and Fairy rolls onto her stomach, raising her head to look at Jin Ling.  “Can you all not function on your own for one whole hour?  Do I have to do everything around here?”

The servant bows low, “My humble apologies Sect Leader.  But, you said you wanted to be notified at once if a letter came from Gusu or Baling.”

Jin Ling pinches the bridge of his nose with one hand and reaches out with the other,  “Give it here and go away.”

The servant bows again as they hand it to him and seems more than happy to get away as fast as possible.  One look at the letter and he knows it's from Sizhui and not Zizhen.  He ignores the flash of disappointment that goes through him.  It’s just that Sizhui’s letter is bound to bring him an even bigger headache and Zizhen might actually be helpful; that’s the reason, definitely the reason.

Jin Ling briefly contemplates heading back to his office to read the letter but throws the idea away.  Whatever is in this letter is probably going to make him want to shoot something after reading it.  So he marches over to the bench against the wall where there’s chilled tea waiting for him, wiping his face with a cloth before taking a drink.  

Fairy trots up to him, her bell chiming as she goes.  She presses herself against his legs as he tries to sit on the bench.

“It’s too hot for that,” he complains, half-heartedly pushing her away.  She licks him.  “That’s disgusting, Fairy.”

She sprawls under the bench, well mostly under it, she doesn’t fit all the way.  Jin Ling sits down with his legs stretched out slightly awkwardly to accommodate Fairy.  He really hopes that this letter will say that Jingyi has returned and the idiot managed to get lost between Caiyi Town and the Cloud Recesses somehow, but he really doubts it.  The gods don’t like him that much.

 

Jin Ling,

Thank you for responding so quickly.  I sent a message to Zizhen as well, but I’ll have to wait for his letter. Since the rest of us have to rely on old fashioned paper letters.  

Of course, Sizhui starts with something unfailingly polite and light-hearted.  Sometimes, he wishes Sizhui was a little less of a Lan.  

 

You’re right, Jingyi is more than capable of taking care of himself.  

I hope Sect Leader Jiang isn’t making you too miserable, but there is no need for him to worry.  Senior Wei is fine.  I’m afraid that it's, at least in part, my fault that Hanguang-jun and Senior Wei were summoned back to Gusu so suddenly.  I was on a night hunt north of Gusu with Jingyi and some other disciples, and we encountered something we weren’t prepared for.  Eight disciples were killed during the fight.  

I appreciate your offer to help me hunt Jingyi down.  Unfortunately, I’m injured and can’t leave Gusu.  I’m not sure how long it will be before I can travel to Lanling let alone go on a night hunt.  

Sincerely,

Lan Sizhui

Jin Ling’s scowl deepens as he reads until his face is as dark as a thunder cloud.  He’d gone through a million unlikely situations in his head as he waited for this letter, but none of them compared to this.  

Something we weren’t prepared for.   His eyes go back over the letter.   Eight disciples were killed.  

A chill goes down his spine.  Even though he’d rather cut his tongue out than admit it in front of Jingyi, Sizhui and Jingyi are two of the best fighters he knows.  He’s been night hunting with them enough to know exactly how skilled they are.  Something that could take out Sizhui and Jingyi together with eight other Lan disciples is something that he never ever wants to encounter.

And Sizhui is injured, apparently very injured.  Jin Ling scowls.  Gusu Lan has some of the best healers among the sects, and cultivators are pretty durable.  It’s already been more than a week since Hanguang-jun vanished from the cultivation conference. I’m not sure how long it’ll be before I can travel. Sizhui wrote.  Jin Ling feels a different sort of chill. Nothing short of a near-lethal injury could keep a cultivator as strong as Sizhui unable to even fly for weeks at a time.  

Jin Ling is seized with an urge to fly to Gusu himself to check on Sizhui.  Even though he knows it’s stupid and that he could do nothing to help him.  But Sizhui almost died.  And Jingyi too, if he was there on that night hunt. There’s a feeling like fear in his chest, and he hates it.  

Jin Ling’s temper flares, and he tosses the letter beside him on the bench.  Anger is easier than fear and worry, and so he lets the anger bubble up because anger is easier than fear and worry.

Jin Ling wants to shake Sizhui.  The absolute idiot almost fucking dies and doesn’t bother to tell Jin Ling or Zizhen about it.  How could he not tell his friends about his injury?  Is there another Lan rule about that?  Maybe, but he thinks it has more to do with the way Sizhui is, always putting everyone else first, trying not to worry people even when they should be worried, trying not to take up space.

And Jingyi! Fucking Lan Jingyi!  Their friend almost dies, and Jingyi just fucks off somewhere?

Jin Ling jumps to his feet and starts to pace.  Fairy whines, but he ignores her.

Sizhui is injured, and the only one of them who knows is fucking Jingyi.  And he leaves?  Jin Ling understands why Sizhui didn’t say anything about his injuries even if it annoys him; he’s Sizhui.  But why hadn’t Jingyi told them?  Jingyi talks about everything.  And why did he leave?  Sizhui and Jingyi are always together.  He’s seen Jingyi worrying over Sizhui getting a cut or spraining an ankle.  Sizhui almost dies, and Jingyi just leaves him?

It dawns on Jin Ling: something happened.  Something on the night hunt or after the night hunt.  He growls.  He knows; he knows that he should calm down.  He should go back to his archery.  He should empty every arrow in his quiver into the targets until the anger isn’t boiling in his chest.  But he has an idea.  And he doesn’t know why on earth he hadn’t thought of this before.  Butterfly messengers don’t require an address.  He pulls out a talisman and draws out Jingyi’s name.  

Normally, the sight of the gently fluttering wings of the butterfly messenger soothes him a bit.  Right then he wants to rip it to pieces.

“Lan Jingyi!”  Jin Ling’s voice echoes around the empty archery range.  He’s ordered everyone away but there are probably servants who can hear him.  Whatever, he doesn’t care.

“Where the hell are you? I can’t believe this.  Sizhui sent me a letter asking about you like I would know where you are.”

He grabs his bow and stalks away from the bench.  He keeps talking to the stupid butterfly.

“And he won’t fucking tell me what’s going on.  Only that you’ve gone off on your own, and he’s too injured to go after you.”

He raises the bow and his arrow splits the one already in the center of the target.  

“So now I'm going to have to go all over China searching for you because he is Sizhui and I can't look at him when he's sad. Not to mention that I won't be able to look the Chief Cultivator in the face if I don't help his son.”

The twang of the bowstring punctuates each of his words as he fires arrows as fast as he can manage.

“Look, Jingyi, I don’t know what’s going on because no one will fucking tell me.  But Sizhui’s injured, and he’s sad, and he’s worried about you.  Honestly! I don’t know why he bothers!”

His quiver is empty, and he’s left standing staring at targets bristling with arrows like quills on a porcupine.

“I never thought you were the type of person to run away.  So just come back, because if I have to follow a mopey Sizhui around trying to hunt you down, I’m going to lose it.”

His anger is ebbing as fast as it came because he’s not really angry.  He’s worried and a bit scared.  The arm holding the bow lowers slowly.

“Jingyi,” his voice is quiet.  “Please just come back.  Whatever it is, we’ll figure it out.”

The messenger flutters away over the north wall in the direction of Qinghe.  And he stands staring after it for several long moments until Fairy comes up and butts her head against his legs.  Squatting down, Jin Ling ruffles ears and pets her head.

“What am I going to do with those idiots?” he asks her softly.  In response, she licks his face.  Squawking, Jin Ling falls backwards on his butt into the dirt, and Fairy takes the opportunity to climb into his lap and continue to lick his face.  It takes him several moments to wrestle the dog off of him and get to his feet, but by the end he’s laughing.  

“Come on Fairy,” he says and heads towards the gate to the courtyard.  “Now I really need a bath.  Maybe Jiujiu is right about Lans, afterall. I’ll send a message to Zizhen; I can’t deal with those two without his help.”


  Gusu

 

The jar of Emperor’s Smile by Wei Wuxian’s side is half full, and the sun is high in the sky.  He has his eyes closed as he plays chenqing, the song fills his ears and echoes on the mountainside around him.  When he lowers the dizi from his lips, the song hangs in the air for a long moment.

He spins chenqing lazily between his fingers and takes a long drink of his wine.  He’s been hiking to this back hill every day to play the dizi and call for Wen Ning.  It’s the only thing he can do, and that frustrates him.  

Wei Wuxian is not used to problems he can’t solve.  Or problems he can’t work on, at least.  Monsters he can fight.  People he can work with.  He’d been able to replace his brother’s lost golden core and solve the problem of his own lack of spiritual powers.   

But he isn’t a healer; even with all of the powers he has, he can’t make his son better.  He’d gone through everything about healing and scars he could find in the Gusu Lan library even though he knew there was nothing there that would help, nothing the Lan healers didn’t already know.  Maybe if Wen Qing was here, she could help.  But even she hadn’t been able to prevent the scars entirely.  If the Wen libraries had not been burned to the ground long ago, he would have gone to Qishan to look for himself.  His anger at the destruction of Wen Ning and Wen Qing’s family is old, but it’s kindled anew.  The immortal sects thought themselves the best at everything, but they had killed the best doctors in China and burned all documentation of their knowledge.  

Wei Wuxian had been tempted to go and hunt down Lan Jingyi himself and drag him back.  He wasn’t even sure exactly how he would do it, but he knew he could manage if he wanted to.  But Lan Wangji had convinced him that it was up to Sizhui to make that choice.  And Lan Wangji knew better than anyone else didn’t he?

Still, the way that Sizhui had broken down when he found out that his friend was gone; Wei Wuxian can’t stop thinking about it.  Shijie had once said that Wei Wuxian was born with a smile on his face, and A-Yuan was much the same.  Wei Wuxian had watched him toddling around the Burial Mounds with a smile and watched him play happily on ground cursed by resentful energy.  Even in Yi City and at The Second Siege of the Burial Mounds, Sizhui hadn’t broken down.  He’d remained positive and even comforted others.  Seeing him break down like that reminded Wei Wuxian of Lan Wangji with tears on his face after Gusu had burned and it reminded him of Jiang Cheng and himself crying and fighting as the boat carried them away from the destruction of Lotus Pier.  

Wei Wuxian downs more of his wine.  He would take the world apart piece by piece for his son, but there is nothing he can do. So he comes here every day and plays to call for Wen Ning.  

A bird interrupts his musings.  A bird, a pigeon actually, that flies right up to him.  There’s a scroll attached to it.  Curious, he reaches out for the scroll.  The bird looks at his hand, cocking its head side to side and even ducking to look under his hand

He laughs, “I don’t have anything for you, I’m sorry."

The bird seems to realize this after a moment and hops close enough that he can retrieve the letter.  Once he gets it free of the bird takes off into the sky and circles once before heading north.  The letter is addressed to him and sealed with the symbol of Qinghe Nie.  He shouldn’t be surprised; if anyone would use birds to send messages it would be Nie Huaisang. 

There’s only one thing that he can think of that Nie Huaisang would send him an urgent message about.  He almost fumbles the letter as he hastens to open it.

Wei-xiong,

Something happened that I think may be of great interest to you, regarding your missing disciple.  Qinghe Nie received a request for aid from a Xiyang, town northwest of the Unclean Realms.  However, when our cultivators arrived, they found that a rogue cultivator had already dealt with the problem.  The disciples brought back the night hunt report left by the cultivator.  

Of course, this could very well be a different cultivator.  However, the name signed on the night hunt report is ‘An Jingyi’.  Now, I know I wasn’t the best student in the Cloud Recesses, but I do know the story of Lan An.  (Rather romantic of this young disciple to choose the name, don’t you think? If I recall correctly, Lan An left The Cloud Recesses when he lost his cultivation partner.)  Now, you didn’t give me the name of the disciple who left, but there is a Lan Jingyi ranked third on the list of most attractive young masters (Quite a feat; you were only ranked 4th back in the day, afterall).  I also noticed your son is ranked first; he must take after Hanguang-jun.  Oh, I will also tell you that this cultivator showed exceptional talent during this night hunt.  

Unfortunately, I cannot send you the full night hunt report as it must be kept on record in the Unclean Realms.  However, I included the signature for you to see.  Perhaps you can compare the handwriting to the disciples night hunt reports.  It is possible that the name is a coincidence or an intentional misdirection, but I hope this is helpful.

I hope this helps.  Please give my regards to your husband and son.  And remember that you are welcome in Qinghe any time,

Sincerely,

Nie Huaisang.

 

Wei Wuxian reads the letter three times, hardly able to believe it.  Almost, as he pulls out the paper with the signature, he finds himself holding his breath.  It’s Jingyi’s calligraphy.  Wei Wuxian has graded enough night hunt reports, and checked enough copies of the sect rules, to recognize it.  After a few moments of staring, he tucks the paper away.  He’s tempted to jump up and deliver this news to Sizhui immediately.  

In fact, he’s halfway to standing up when he pauses.  The letter raises several questions.  He sits back down and tucks chenqing into his belt.  Taking a deep drink of his wine,  he props his head on one hand.

For a moment Wei Wuxian wonders why Jingyi put his real name on the document, but it occurs to him that Jingyi was raised a Lan and probably hadn’t even thought about faking an identity.  But, ‘An’ seems like a strange choice of name for someone leaving Gusu Lan; maybe the boy hadn’t been able to think of anything else.  

But Wei Wuxian also remembers Yi City and Jingyi’s one-man dramatization of romantic goodbyes.  

“I’m worried about you! I’m staying.”

“Just go!”

“No, I’m not going.  If I’m going, you’re going with me!”

“Is that not a must?

At the time he’d just thought the kid read too many romance stories.  Actually, he still thinks that.  But he also thinks that maybe the choice of the name An hadn’t been a spur of the moment decision.  Nie Huaisang was right, Lan An had founded Gusu Lan with his cultivation partner, but he had also left the sect when they died.  

And what would spur a boy like Jingyi to vanish without a word? Had he really left without a word?  It seems very strange, now that he thinks about it.  He’s never known Lan Jingyi to do anything without commenting.  The boy is the only person that he’s ever met who runs his mouth about as much as Wei Wuxian himself does.

Lan Wangji had told him about the conversation Sizhui had with Lan Xichen.  Wei Wuxian is not hurt that Sizhui will talk to Lan Xichen when he won’t talk to Lan Wangji or himself; he’s not.  He’s just glad that he’s finally opening up.  And it’s understandable in a way because Lan Xichen is, well, he’s Lan Xichen.  Wei Wuxian remembers something that Lan Wangji had told him only after a bit of prodding:  Lan Xichen’s statement ‘if I was the reason someone I loved was hurt in such a way, I would have been swamped by guilt.’  

On this account, Lan Xichen was absolutely correct.  He remembers the guilt that had swamped him when he found out the reason Lan Wangji had been whipped.  What would he have done if he had been forced to watch when it happened?  

Wei Wuxian has been so focused on his son, that he hasn’t given much thought to the other boy's thoughts and motivations even though he’s the one in the best position to understand him.  Because Wei Wuxian knows the weight and shape of guilt; it’s a familiar companion after all these years.  The loss of Lotus Pier, the death of Uncle Jiang and Madam Yu, his abandonment of Jiang Cheng, the death of Jin Zixuan, the death of Wen Qing, the imprisonment of Wen Ning, Lan Wangji’s scars, Wei Wuxian carries the weight of them all.

Raising the jar of wine to his lips, he discovers that he’s already finished it.  With a sigh he sets the jar back down.  

There’s another thing niggling at him.  Nie Huaisang had skirted the details of the night hunt.  He could easily have said what sort of creature had been hunted, but he hadn’t, even though he had complimented Lan Jingyi’s skills.  He also could have copied the night hunt report and sent the original or included a more substantial handwriting sample than three characters. Wei Wuxian files that information away for later.  For now, whatever had happened is Qinghe Nie’s business.

He rubs his nose.  Later, he will tell Sizhui the name of the town where Jingyi had been.  But first, he wants to talk to his husband.  Glancing at the distance between the sun and the horizon with a critical eye, he determines that he still has a bit of time before he should head back.  

Maybe tomorrow, he’ll bring two jars of wine instead.  

Wei Wuxian raises the dizi to his lips and starts to play again.  Playing the instrument is cathartic in a way as his feelings seep into the music.  He can feel the stir of resentful energy as he harnesses it for the call, but it's far too little to do him any damage.  Not when he’s born the weight of the Burial Mounds on his shoulders for years.  He’s so focused on the music that he doesn’t hear footsteps approaching him.

“Wei-gongzi,” Wen Ning’s voice, gentle as it always is, still surprises him.  “You can stop playing unless there’s someone else you meant to summon.”

The flute music cuts off abruptly, and Wei Wuxian looks up.  Wen Ning is standing a few li away from him on the hill.  His clothes are less ragged than they were last time Wei Wuxian saw him, and his hair is pulled back with a simple hair ornament.  He’s still obviously dead, but he looks better.  He offers Wei Wuxian a bow.

“Wen Ning!” Wei Wuxian jumps to his feet with a grin and offers a half bow in return.  “I wasn’t sure you would come.”

“I’ll always help you, Wei-gongzi,” Wen Ning says with as much of a smile as his face muscles can manage.  But his dark brown eyes are worried.  

“I don’t doubt you,” Wei Wuxian says.  Unconsciously, he rubs his nose with one hand.  “I wasn’t sure where you were or if the song could reach you.” 

“It did, and I came.  Wei-gongzi, what happened?” Wen Ning asks, quietly. 

Wei Wuxian’s smile evaporates.  Something occurs to him that hadn’t before: Wen Ning might be angry.  He’s more prone to quiet than to anger, but Wei Wuxian knows more than anyone that his anger can be devastating.  Sizhui is the last remaining member of his family, and…

“It’s A-Yuan isn’t it?” Wen Ning says when Wei Wuxian doesn’t respond.  

“You can tell from the song?” Wei Wuxian asks, curious.  He plays commands, and the corpses obey.  He’d never asked Wen Ning what he experiences.

“Yes and no,” Wen Ning says.  This is interesting and Wei Wuxian makes a mental note to discuss it later.  Right now there are other things to discuss.

“Sit with me,” Wei Wuxian says, sitting back down on the grass.  Wen Ning obeys, walking closer until he can sit by Wei Wuxian’s side.

“It is about A-Yuan,” Wei Wuxian says, spinning his dizi between his fingers.  

“He is in danger?”

“No,” Wei Wuxian’s gaze is fixed on the rotation of the black dizi through his fingers.  “He is injured, though.”

Wen Ning doesn’t comment, he just waits patiently for Wei Wuxian to continue. 

“You see,” Wei Wuxian starts.  “It happened while we, Lan Zhan and I, were in Qinghe for the cultivation conference. Lan Zhan is the chief cultivator you know, and he has to go to these things.  Zewu-jun was in seclusion as well, so he also had to represent Gusu Lan.  So we had to go to Qinghe-”

“Wei-gongzi,” Wen Ning gently interrupts his ramblings.

“Right, A-Yuan was leading a night hunt.  It should have been a normal night hunt; there were ten of them. They took signal flares and everything.  You know Sizhui; he made sure that they were prepared. But there was a beast they couldn’t handle.  Most of them died.”

Wei Wuxian looks over at Wen Ning.  It’s hard to read his expression since most of his face can’t move, but his eyes are concerned.

“Do you remember A-Yuan’s friend? The other Lan? The one who talks a lot?”

“Lan Jingyi,” Wen Ning says with a nod.  Wei Wuxian is faintly surprised by Wen Ning’s memory.

“The two of them were the only ones that survived.”

“He was injured during the fight?” Wen Ning asks.  He sounds faintly confused.

“No,” Wei Wuxian’s gaze is back on the dizi in his hand.  He really wishes that he hadn’t finished his wine.  “During the night hunt, A-Yuan, he- he used demonic cultivation.  He managed to raise the corpses of the other disciples to hold the creature down so they could kill it.  But they’d sent off signal flares during the fight.  The reinforcements arrived and well, it was obvious what he’d done.  You know how the Lan’s are about rules.  They take them so seriously, and there are so many.  And well, you know how the sects feel about demonic cultivation.  You know, of course you know.”

“He was punished,” Wen Ning says when Wei Wuxian starts rambling again.  His voice is neutral.  

Wei Wuxian can feel the anger and resentment stirring inside his companion, but he can’t hide the truth.

“Yes,” Wei Wuxian says, “he was whipped with the discipline whip.”

Beside him, Wen Ning’s face is blank, but Wei Wuxian can feel the swirl of resentful energy inside of him.  He’s frozen for an instant.  What if Wen Ning loses control?  He has suibian and chenqing.  Chenqing can control Wen Ning, but he’s promised to give Wen Ning his own freedom, going back on that would break the trust between them.  The barrier around the Cloud Recesses would probably keep Wen Ning out, but part of him wants to see the man who whipped his son suffer.  For an instant, he can see Wen Ning snapping a man’s neck, as easy as breathing.  But times have changed.  Wei Wuxian has changed; he tells himself that anyway.  So he does what he does best, and starts talking.

“A-Yuan said that the reason he used demonic cultivation was to save his friend’s life.  He talked back to Old Lan Qiren about it; I couldn’t believe it when I heard it.  I guess he did learn something from me all those years ago after all.  There was a whole scene; though I didn’t see it.”

The resentful energy in Wen Ning is still swirling, but it’s not getting any worse, so Wei Wuxian keeps going.

“Partway through the punishment, Lan Qiren asked him if he would repent for what he did.  But A-Yuan, even though he’s already been whipped, said no.  He said, ‘I do not regret saving Jingyi’s life’ right to Old Man Lan’s face.”

These words have an instant effect on the energy swirling inside of Wen Ning.  The anger breaks into something else.  Something that Wei Wuxian can’t feel.

“He hasn’t expressed any regret,” Wei Wuxian’s voice is uncharacteristically quiet.  “Lan Zhan is the same way.”

“So much suffering,” Wen Ning says quietly.

“What?” 

“So much suffering,” he says a bit more loudly.  “There’s always so much suffering.”

Wei Wuxian blinks.  He hadn’t expected anything like that from Wen Ning.  Really, he should stop being surprised by Wen Ning.  The other man has surprised him so many times: from the time he saved Jiang Cheng from the Wens to the sheer force of resentful energy that he had harbored that had been released when he was reanimated to the day he’d stood up to Jiang Cheng and told him the truth about the golden core swap.

“There’s more,” Wei Wuxian says.  He needs to get the whole story out.  “Lan Jingyi left that night. A-Yuan was sleeping; they kept him asleep for a while.  Lan Jingyi came to Qinghe to tell Lan Zhan and me to go back and take care of A-Yuan.  But he’s been missing ever since.  A-Yuan was distraught when he found out.  He’s still upset.  Though he won’t talk about it.  He’s as stubborn as Lan Zhan when he wants to be.”

“I can think of someone else who can be very stubborn when he wants to be, someone else who was willing to break the rules to help others,” Wen Ning says. 

Wei Wuxian shrugs awkwardly and rubs his nose.  He never knows how to reply to such things.  There are a few moments of silence, but Wei Wuxian can only repress the words bubbling up inside of him for so long.

“The Lans are good healers, but they aren’t as good as your sister.  I wish… I wish she was here.  Your sister could do things no other doctor could.  And for him… But, yeah.  Also, Lan Zhan said something about the healing being part of the punishment.  So, while they are treating it; I don’t think they are doing much to speed the healing or counter the scars.  Your sister isn’t here, but I also remembered that you were a healer too, I thought… well.”

“I will do what I can,” Wen Ning says, “but you’re right.  I’m not A-Jie.  I can’t use needles anymore either.”  He stretches his hands in front of them, staring down at the stiff fingers.  “But I am good at medicines, so maybe I can help.”   

“Thank you,” Wei Wuxian breathes out.  He looks at the sky and checks the distance between the horizon and the sun.  “I should go back soon.”

Wen Ning nods and the two of them get to their feet.  As they walk, Wei Wuxian chatters about Sizhui and life in the Cloud Recesses, but mostly about Sizhui.  Wei Wuxian is so proud of his son, and he tells Wen Ning about how Sizhui finished at the top of his class as a junior disciple and how he leads night hunts now.  He discusses Sizhui’s musical cultivation and his sword work and his calligraphy and his art.  He remembers that Sizhui has been training with the Gusu Lan healers and he tells Wen Ning about that too.  Wen Ning listens with what passes for a smile on his face.    

They are almost to the barrier that surrounds Gusu Lan when Wei Wuxian remembers that Wen Ning doesn’t have a token.  

“Ah, Wen Ning I will have to fetch Lan Zhan to let you in.  Old Man Lan doesn’t trust me with such things.”

“It’s no bother.”

“I should hurry, it’s getting late.”

“It’s alright,” Wen Ning says.  “Don’t hurry.  I don’t need to sleep anyway.  If I remember properly, many medicinal herbs grow on the mountains here.  I will look for useful ones.  We can meet here tomorrow.”

“Are you sure?  I can fetch him.”

“It’s no problem.”

“If you don’t find anything,” Wei Wuxian says, “don’t worry.  I know they have plenty of herbs on hand with the healers.  I’ll get whatever you need.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Wei-gongzi.”

“Tomorrow then,” Wei Wuxian says with a wave.  He steps through the barrier and strolls back towards the Cloud Recesses. 

Chapter Text

Wish I could talk to you, if only for a minute
Make you understand the reasons why I did it

The sun is low on the horizon and the sky is starting to purple with the evening.  A single glowing butterfly flits along in the summer breeze.  The gold swirls that make up its delicate wings stand out against the darkening sky.  It drifts and bobs as the breeze carries it, bringing it closer and closer to the three figures on a road northwest of Caicun.

The figures halt as the sky continues to darken.  Two of them sit together and start to build a fire; the third, who is the tallest and carries a sword on his back, is consulting a black compass in his hand.  The butterfly circles down on the breeze towards the cultivator holding the compass of evil.

A pair of dark grey eyes turn up and watch the descent of the butterfly with a startled expression.  Jingyi stows the compass of evil and holds his hand out for the Jin messenger butterfly.  

“What is that?” Peizhi asks as the delicate, glowing creature settles on Jingyi’s hand.

“It’s a messenger,” Jingyi says and his voice is strained.  His eyes are dark as he stares at the butterfly.  “Excuse me,” he says abruptly and walks away from the two siblings by the unlit fire.

“Lan Jingyi!” Jin Ling’s voice issues from the butterfly.  Jingyi flinches away from the sound of his own name, from the sound of Jin Ling’s voice.  But, he’s still close enough to the fire for Liling and Peizhi to hear the butterfly’s message, so he keeps walking.

“Where the hell are you?” Jin Ling continues.  “I can’t believe this.  Sizhui sent me a letter asking about you, like I would know where you are.”

At the sound of Sizhui’s name, Jingyi stops walking. The hand not holding the butterfly clenches into a fist.  

“And he won’t fucking tell me what’s going on.  Only that you’ve gone off on your own, and he’s too injured to go after you. So now I'm going to have to go all over China searching for you because he is Sizhui, and I can't look at him when he's sad. Not to mention I won't be able to look the Chief Cultivator in the face if I don't help his son.”

His mind conjures up the exact expression that Jin Ling is talking about.  He closes his eyes as if that will shut out the image of Sizhui’s big brown eyes.  

“Look, Jingyi, I don’t know what’s going on because no one will fucking tell me.  But Sizhui’s injured, and he’s sad, and he’s worried about you.  

Injured. Sad. Worried.  Each word hits Jingyi like a physical blow.  

‘Sizhui,’ Jingyi’s mouth forms the shape of his name but his throat is too tight with tears for sound to come out.  He should have known that Sizhui would be worried about him; they have been friends for the better part of their lives.  But hearing it is something else.  But Jin Ling’s message continues, unaware of the agony it's causing. 

“Honestly! I don’t know why he bothers!”  Jingyi recoils as if struck.  The rational part of him knows that this is Jin Ling angry and lashing out.  Sizhui has told him time and time again not to listen to the things Jin Ling says when he’s angry.  But, it still hurts.  And it resonates with the hundreds of other similar sentiments expressed about him.  

“I never thought you were the type of person to run away.  So just come back, because if I have to follow a mopey Sizhui around trying to hunt you down, I’m going to lose it.”

There’s a long pause, and Jingyi thinks that the message is over.  His eyes are closed, and he can’t see that the butterfly is still glowing and fluttering on his hand.

“Jingyi,” the tone of Jin Ling’s voice has changed.  It’s no longer raging, but quiet.  “Please just come back.  Whatever it is, we’ll figure it out.”

Surprise causes Jingyi’s eyes to fly open, but all there is to see is the Jin butterfly breaking up into fragments of spiritual light and drifting down like embers until nothing remains.  He stares at the space where the butterfly had been for a long time.

Never in his life, has Jingyi heard Jin Ling speak to him with anything close to that tone of voice.  It hits him hard.  And the rapid change from anger to pleading leaves Jingyi reeling.  He knows that Jin Ling is his friend, not just Sizhui’s, but he hadn’t really considered that Jin Ling would miss him. And Zizhen, he doesn’t want to think about Zizhen.

Then he realizes then that he’s still standing there staring at empty space.  He can feel the gazes of Liling and Peizhi on his back.  Mechanically, Jingyi pulls out his compass of evil and looks at it.  The arrow points across the road and into the woods, so he follows it.  If he goes back to Peizhi and Liling, they will ask questions that he doesn’t want to answer.  Liling had said she wouldn’t tell his secrets to her brother, that it was up to him to do so.  He’s not ready.  

Jingyi goes into the woods but not very far.  His head is swimming and he’s not in a state to fight something dangerous. He just needed to get away.  He leans against a tree and his head falls back against the wood.  His gaze is on the branches above him and the slivers of sky visible through the leaves, but he’s not really seeing it.

As usual, Jingyi hadn’t put a lot of forethought into his decision to leave the Cloud Recesses.  He’d been driven by his own guilt and his anger towards the sect.  Sizhui, he’d decided would be better off without him there.  He hadn’t really thought about anyone else.  In Qinghe when he’d realized that Jin Ling and Zizhen were so close, he’d only thought that if he wanted to cut himself out of Sizhui’s life, he’d have to cut himself out of theirs too.  He hadn’t thought about how they would react to it.  Even if he had, he never would have imagined Jin Ling’s quiet ‘please just come back.’

And Jin Ling is so angry with him.  Jin Ling is normally annoyed with him, but this is different.  And Jingyi can’t even blame him.  He knows Jin Ling enough to know that, while he’s likely very irritated by Sizhui withholding information from him, he’s mostly angry because Sizhui is hurting.  Once, he watched Jin Ling punch one of his cousins in the face when he’d called Sizhui a bastard.

Sizhui’s hurting, and it’s Jingyi’s fault.  Jingyi’s knees buckle, and he slides down to the ground.  No, he doesn’t blame Jin Ling for being angry with him at all.  The guilt that he’s hardly managed to push back since last night and the conversation with the Caicun Lin disciples, reasserts itself painfully.

There’s another thing that Jin Ling’s message made quite clear.  His friends are planning on coming after him.  And Jingyi’s not sure how he feels about that.  He wants, immortals above, he wants more than anything to have his friends back.  If he could only go back three months to Baling and the four of them sitting on the river banks.  But he can’t go back in time.  Even if he turned around right now and flew back to Gusu Lan, things would never be the same.  

And Jingyi made the decision to leave for a reason.  Sizhui is better off without him.  He has been told this more times than he can count.  He can’t even remember the first time anymore.  Hanguang-jun and Zewu-jun are the only adults in Gusu Lan who have not said it.  He’s been told, Sizhui has been told, Hanguang-jun has been told, that Jingyi will drag Sizhui down, that Sizhui will suffer for being his friend.  But, Jingyi had never thought it would happen like this.

When he was young, all these words had made him angry.  He’d tried so many times to be better, to be enough, but it had never worked.  But he’d grown used to it, the complaints running off of him like water.  Maybe he wasn’t good enough for Sizhui, the perfect Lan disciple, but Sizhui wanted to be his friend, and that’s what mattered.  But in the end, they’d all been right, and Jingyi had dragged him down.  He’d caused his friend more pain than anyone should bear.

No, Jingyi reminds himself, he can’t just go back.  It means more to him than he’ll ever find the words to say that his friends want him back.  Jin Ling makes it sound as if Sizhui wants him back.  Sizhui by all rights should be furious with Jingyi, but of course, he isn’t.  Jingyi scrubs his face with his hands.  He doesn’t deserve Sizhui; he really doesn’t.  He’s not sure he’s ever met anyone that does, but that’s a different issue.  And if he’s not going back, he can’t let his friends waste their time tracking him down.

Jin Ling sent him a letter, and so Jingyi will send one back.  Underneath his bluster, the Young Mistress is a practical person, so he might actually listen to what Jingyi has to say.

Straightening up, Jingyi takes a deep breath.  He squares his shoulders and starts back towards the road.  Be of one mind .  Jingyi made his decision when walked out of the Cloud Recesses more than a week ago and he won’t go back on it.  


Kingfisher Hall, Baling

 

Zizhen is in the middle of getting dressed for the day when someone knocks on his door. He groans.  Who is bothering him this early?

“Give me a minute,” he calls, pulling his second robe on.  Then he realizes that his gray belt is decidedly not in his wardrobe.  With slight despair, he looks at the mess covering most of his room.  There’s not much for it, except for him to start digging through the piles of clothes.

“Zizhen!” Ziwan’s irritated voice comes from outside the door.   Zizhen doesn’t groan; he doesn’t.  But, if Ziwan thinks he’s going to do any sort of training before breakfast she is out of her mind.

“I said give me a minute!” He tosses aside the robes in his hand and moves to the next article of clothing in the pile.  

It’s too early in the morning for any of this, and the only good thing is that it’s too early in the morning to be miserably hot.  

“Zizhen!” 

“I’m working on it!” His pace becomes slightly frantic as he continues to look for his belt.

The sound of the door opening causes him to look up.  As he expected, Ziwan is standing there, arms crossed.  Her expression manages to express both annoyance and exasperation in equal measure.  

“Jiejie,” Zizhen complains, holding his robes closed even though he tied them.  “You can’t just barge in here! What if I was naked?”

“You aren’t.”  Ziwan, unlike Zizhen, is already fully dressed with her hair styled and her sword by her side.

“That’s not the point!” he says waving his free hand at her.  “I’m not decent.”

Ziwan rolls her eyes and jerks her chin towards his desk.  “Your gray belt is on the table.”

“Thanks!” he says with a sigh and rushes over to it.

“You know.  If you cleaned your room, you might be able to find things and get dressed in a reasonable amount of time.”

Zizhen only shrugs as he puts his belt on.  It’s a familiar argument, and he’s not up for it this early in the morning.  With his belt firmly on his waist, Zizhen sets about hunting for his comb, which is also on his desk, thankfully. 

Still standing by the door with her arms crossed, Ziwan just sighs.  Zizhen points his comb at her.

“I don’t know why you are here, but I am not doing early morning practice.”

Ziwan rolls her eyes, “You know, if you practiced sword forms in the morning, it wouldn’t be so hot.”

“Jiejie-” Zizhen starts.  This is another familiar argument.

“But,” Ziwan cuts him off, “that is not why I’m here.  I want to know what your plan is for convincing dad to let us go to Lanling.”

“We could just go,” Zizhen points out, working the comb through his shoulder-length hair.  He knows that Ziwan won't agree to it, but he tries anyway.

“That’s a terrible idea.” 

“Thought you would say that,” Zizhen says, setting down his comb and hunting for his mirror.  “So I have another idea.”

“Which is?” Ziwan taps her foot as she watches her brother hunt for his mirror, which is sitting on his bookshelf.

“You aren’t going to like it.”

“Why doesn’t that surprise me,” she sighs.  Zizhen looks over his shoulder at her.

“Jiejie, do you think you could,” he gestures at his hair.

“No.  Your mirror is on your bookshelf.”  Zizhen grins at her and fetches the mirror before sitting at his desk. He puts his hair half up into a bun; it’s too short to get the whole thing up anyway.  He can feel his sister’s eyes on him and doesn’t have to look up to know that she’s one second away from storming over and making him put his hair up neatly and properly.  

“The plan Didi?” she says after a while.  

Zizhen grins at her and gets to his feet, snagging his fan from its place by his bed as he heads towards the door.  “I’m going to talk with Xiongzhang.”

The two of them step out of Zizhen’s room and head toward the pavilion where the servants will have put out chilled tea and breakfast.  It’s still early, but the air is already starting to become hot and sticky.  Ziwan’s face goes from annoyed to suspicious as she watches her brother fan himself.

“Why are you going to talk to Xiongzhang?”

“Dad doesn’t trust me.”

“Smart man,” Ziwan mutters.  Zizhen, far from being offended, grins.  He loves his father, but he also thinks that he’s far too strict and spends far too much time with the likes of Sect Leader Yao.

“So, I need to convince Xiongzhang first.  If he agrees, then dad will agree.”

They enter the pavilion by the river that runs through Baling and head towards the tables where food for everyone has been laid out.  Kingfisher Hall is not like Koi Tower where Jin Ling has breakfast specially brought to him and his cousins have their own breakfast in a gilded dining hall.  Everyone, from the youngest disciples to the sect leader, eats breakfast in the pavilion.  The Ouyang siblings run with the disciples from dawn till dusk, except for family dinner.  Zizhen is glad for that; he’s seen how lonely it can be for Jin Ling in Koi Tower for all there are so many more people.  

Neither of the twins speaks until they have left the pavilion again.  They start towards the building with the formal receiving hall which is the seat of the sect leader and houses the officers for sect officials.  

“Didi,” Ziwan stares at her brother.  He can tell that she’s noticed he’s avoiding answering her question.  “What are you going to tell Xiaozhang?”

“I’m just going to explain why it’s beneficial for us to curry favor with Jin Ling.”

“That’s the same argument you use every time you go to Lanling.” Ziwan narrows her eyes at her twin.  He’s definitely hiding something.  “It may work for you, but what about me?”

Zizhen’s fan is held high enough to cover half of his face, but he can’t escape his sister's gaze entirely.

“It’ll work,” he says, and his voice is confident.  

“Zizhen,” Ziwan’s voice is dangerous.  They’ve reached the main training grounds.

“Look,” Zizhen says and points to his youngest sister who is sitting in the pavilion by the river and not with the other disciples her age.  “I’ll go talk to Xiaozhang.  You can hunt down Meimei and make her go to morning meditation.”

“Zizhen!”  

Zizhen waves his fan at her and takes off at not quite a run towards the main building.  

“OUYANG ZIZHEN!” Ziwan bellows after him.  He keeps running.  A few disciples glance up in surprise, but they just shake their heads and go back to whatever they were doing. It’s a bit early in the morning for the twins’ antics, but it’s nothing new.

Zizhen doesn’t stop running until he reaches the main building.  Behind him he hears, “Meimei! I can see you hiding!”

He smiles and straightens his robes before heading into the building.  The main room of Kingfisher Hall is vibrant and lively, the graceful architecture constructed of pale wood is adorned with various blues and accents of orange calling to mind the bird that the place is named after.  

Sect Leader Ouyang is currently in his office, and Zizhen makes his way through the hall and around to his brother’s office without running across anyone.  Stopping outside of his brother’s office, Zizhen checks his robes and smoothes his hair before tucking his fan into its place on his belt and knocking.  

“Come in,” Zihao’s voice comes from inside the room, and Zizhen steps in, closing the door behind him.

The office is minimalist and organized, and Zihao is seated behind a carved desk that’s just as neat as the rest of the room.  Like most cultivators, Zihao does not look as old as he is, only appearing to be a handful of years older than Zizhen and Ziwan.  His normally serious expression has been replaced by faint surprise.

“Xiaozhang,” Zizhen says bringing his hands together and offering his brother a small bow, “good morning.”

Zihao tucks away his surprise and offers his brother a smile.  “Good morning, Zizhen.  Why don’t you sit?”

Obediently, Zizhen crosses the room and takes a seat opposite his brother.

“I don’t suppose that you decided to come early and help father and I with the paperwork?”

“Nope,” Zizhen says with a smile.  Pretending to have developed a sudden interest in paperwork and sect leader duties will only make his brother suspicious.  “I wanted to talk to you, but I can help with the paperwork for a bit.”

“What did you want to talk about?”

“I have a proposal,” Zizhen says.  

Zihao raises an eyebrow.  “Are you trying to bribe me into agreeing with you by helping me with paperwork?”

Zizhen shakes his head.  Helping with paperwork is less of a bribe and more of a way of getting his brother into a good mood.  “I don’t need to bribe you.  I have a logical idea and you are a logical man.”

There’s a smile playing at the corner of Zihao’s lips, “and if your proposal is so logical, why are you talking to me instead of father?”

“He won’t hear me out,” Zizhen pouts.  He resists the urge to pull out his fan and play with it because he knows that Zihao thinks it's too feminine and Zizhen wants his brother to be in the most agreeable mood possible.  “He’ll just assume the worst and tell me no.”

“Maybe,” Zihao says with a completely calm expression even though his brown eyes are dancing with mirth, “if you weren’t constantly antagonizing him, he would trust you more.”

Zizhen only shrugs; he’ll stop arguing with his father when he stops being wrong.  But, that’s not the issue at hand.  Zihao sighs, clearly deciding it's not worth his time to give his brother another lecture on filial piety.  

“What’s your idea then, Didi?” Zihao folds his hands on the table and looks at his brother.

Zizhen takes a deep breath and prays to his ancestors that Ziwan won't kill him later.  “You and father were talking about finding a husband for Ziwan.”

Zihao’s clearly surprised, and Zizhen doesn’t blame them.  Last time Zizhen had been involved in one of these conversations, it had devolved into a fight.  Zizhen hadn’t been able to handle the way they discussed his twin’s future like it was a xiangqi piece.  Ziwan might not be the romantic that her twin is, but she deserves the right to find someone she loves and to make her own choice in the matter.

“Setting aside the men your age,” Zizhen says.  Sect Leader Jiang had raised Zizhen’s best friend, the idea of Ziwan marrying him or Sect Leaders Nie or Lan makes him physically sick; he won’t allow it.  Ziwan won’t allow it.

It’s obvious from Zihao’s face that he understands why his brother brought this conversation to him.  He has the sense not to argue with Zizhen about that point just now.  Their father would already be gearing up to tell Zizhen off for being insolent and any further conversation would be derailed.

“Three of the five top-ranked young masters are my good friends,” Zizhen continues.

“It’s true that you have managed very well on that front,” Zihao says.  There’s no bitterness in his voice, but Zizhen knows his brother dislikes that he, with his rebellion and ‘bad attitude’, has been more successful in making politically beneficial friendships than his older brother ever has been.  He, of course, hadn’t been worried about political allies when he became friends with Jin Ling, Lan Jingyi, and Lan Sizhui, and he can’t help but think that has something to do with why he was successful.

“The best political alliance would be a marriage with Jin Ling,” the words taste like ash in Zizhen’s mouth.  He knows that Jin Ling will have to marry someone and that it almost certainly won't be him.  But the idea of his crush marrying his sister is worse, much worse.  Besides, Ziwan and Jin Ling would kill each other before the wedding had time to happen.  “Who is my best friend.  I can tell you that none of my friends are going to marry a girl they don’t know.  It’s important that they get to know her if you really want her to have a chance.”

“I assume you have a proposal on how to make that happen?” Zihao asks, “And I assume it involves you going to Lanling or Gusu?”

Zizhen smiles, “We can’t send Ziwan off alone; it wouldn’t be proper.  Specifically, though, the Lans have asked Jin Ling and I for help.  Taking Ziwan with me would give her a chance to get to know them and prove that she’s a talented cultivator who would be beneficial to have around.”

Zihao’s eyes are calculating.  He knows his brother well enough to guess that Zizhen has his own motives for wanting to go to Lanling and probably for taking Ziwan with him as well.  But, he can’t deny that Zizhen has a very valid point.  

“You want to take Ziwan on a night hunt with your friends?”

“Ziwan wants to go on a night hunt with my friends,” Zizhen corrects him.  That gets Zihao’s attention.  One of the problems with arranging a marriage for Ziwan is her lack of interest.  Zizhen has no qualms letting Zihao think his sister wants to go to spend more time with his friends rather than wanting to go for the hunt itself.  

“I see.” He rubs his hand against his beard.  Zizhen has experience dealing with his older brother, and can tell the minute that he decides to go along with the plan.

“Father might not think it's proper,” Zihao points out.  

Zizhen barely manages to hold in a snort of derision.  The idea of any of his friends doing something untoward with his sister is absurd, and the idea of Ziwan letting anyone get away with trying something even more so. But he needs to at least pretend to take his father's concern seriously.

“Do you think so little of my friends and me?” Zizhen asks with a frown.  “I wouldn’t be friends with someone who would mistreat a lady, let alone make advances on their friend's sister, especially right in front of their friend.  And do you really think that I would let someone disrespect my twin sister?” Then, because he can’t resist.  “Do you think Ziwan would let anyone get away with something improper?”

His brother seems convinced, but Zizhen continues.  “Besides, Sizhui and Jingyi are Lans . It’s against the rules for them to distract female disciples.  They don’t even talk to girls.”

Actually, Sizhui is the only one of his three friends who’s made any comments indicating that he even knows girls exist, and there’s the whole thing with Jingyi being in love with Sizhui, but admitting those things would be counter to his plan.

“Sect Leader Jin’s grandfather was Jin Guangshan,” Zihao points out.  Zizhen frowns; Jin Ling is nothing like Jin Guangshan. 

“And his grandmother was The Violet Spider,” he counters.  “Everyone knows that Sandu Shengshou raised Jin Ling.  Do you really think the son of The Violet Spider would allow his nephew to behave like that?”

“You make good points,” Zihao acknowledges.  They watch each other for a moment, but Zizhen knows he’s won.  “I’ll talk to father.  When are you leaving? Please tell me it's not today.”

“I don’t know yet,” Zizhen admits.  “I’m waiting for a letter, I wanted to give you forewarning.”

“That’s a nice change of pace.”

Zizhen’s expression is entirely unapologetic.  If he gave his father several days warning every time he left, he’d never be able to leave.  

“Right,” Zihao says and points towards a neat stack of papers on a shelf nearby.  “You promised to help me with my paperwork.”

Zizhen sighs and gets to his feet, heading for the shelf.  “By the way,” he says, “I can only stay until the start of wu shi.  I agreed to help Ziwan instruct the younger disciples.”  ‘Agreeing’ is a bit of a stretch of the truth.  In reality, Ziwan had informed him that he would be helping and told him what time to show up.  But agreeing sounds better.

“That’s good,” Zihao says with a smile, “it’s nice to see you taking responsibility.”

 


North of Caicun

It takes another night on the road before they reach the next village.  After Jin Ling’s message, Jingyi had been tempted to turn back to Caicun to send a response.  But he didn’t want to interact with Caicun Lin Sect any further.  He doesn’t want to risk being recognized even though Miss Lin hadn’t recognized him, which is fair enough given they’ve only seen each other a handful of times four years ago.  He certainly hadn’t recognized her.  Also, he’s not sure he can bear anymore talk about Sizhui. 

And, it turns out, he needs time to think about what to write.  Jin Ling’s message spins around and around in his head.  His companions don’t ask him about the butterfly messenger or his odd silence, which he appreciates.  He starts the letter several times.  It's difficult, he realizes, to explain his position when Jin Ling doesn’t know what happened.  And he can’t explain the situation, not in a letter, and not without Sizhui’s permission.  

There’s no doubt that Sizhui will tell Jin Ling what happened; Sizhui doesn’t have a duplicitous bone in his body.  Still, while Jin Ling might have softened towards both Senior Wei and Senior Wen, he still has strong opinions about demonic cultivation.  With his temper, it probably won’t be a pretty conversation.  But Jingyi’s sure he’ll get over it.  Jin Ling is a practical person; he’d understand why Sizhui did what he did.  

Despite chasing his thoughts around for two days, Jingyi finds himself sitting in the inn and staring at a blank page without too much of an idea of what to tell his friend.

“Jingyi,” Liling’s voice is gentle.

“Yeah?” Jingyi looks up from the paper.  The only thing he’s managed to write so far is Jin Ling’s name.

“Maybe you should take a break,” Peizhi says.  He sets his pack down with a thud by his feet.  “We went to the market to get supplies like you asked.  But I don’t think you’ve moved since we left.”

“Oh,” Jingyi says and rubs the back of his neck awkwardly.  “I’m sorry.”

“What are you writing?” Peizhi asks, leaning over and fishing through his pack.

“Gege,” Liling says in a slightly exasperated voice.

“What?” Peizhi says.  “It’s a reasonable question!”

“It’s a letter,” Jingyi says, “for a friend.”

“Well,” Peizhi says, “I talked to some people in the market and they said that it’s pretty wild from here on.  It’ll be days before we reach the next town.  So if you want to send a letter, you’d better do it before we go.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Jingyi says and frowns.  “If we are really headed into such a remote area, are you guys sure you want to continue?  It’s already been a week since you left home.  It’ll take at least that long for you to get back.  You don’t have to follow me into the middle of nowhere.”

“We still have time,” Peizhi says with a wave of his hand.  

“We like traveling,” Liling says.

Jingyi shrugs; he’s not going to argue with them.  They can make their own decisions.  

“Here!” Peizhi says and tosses a small purse at Jingyi who catches it, “the change from the shopping.  Since it seems like we’ll be out for a while, we got an extra bag for food.”

“Thanks.”  Jingyi tucks the small bag into his qiankun pouch.  “I can carry the extra food.”

Peizhi nods, “I’m going to take advantage of having a bed to sleep on and take a nap.”

With a laugh, Jingyi waves goodbye as Peizhi vanishes into the side room where his bed is.

While Peizhi and Jingyi had been speaking, Liling had taken a seat on the ground near the table.  Jingyi glances at her, but she doesn’t say anything so he looks back down at the empty paper in front of him, which is really just taunting him at this point. 

He groans and pushes his bangs out of his face.  The problem isn’t that he has no idea what to write, it’s that he has too many.  There’s also the fact that he can’t just tell Jin Ling everything that happened.  What he needs to do is to persuade Jin Ling to agree with him.  And he has never had great luck persuading Jin Ling to do anything at all.  

“Would it help to talk about it?” Liling asks quietly enough that Peizhi won’t be able to hear in the other room.  “I don’t mean to pry,  But sometimes talking through things can help.”

“I don't know,” Jingyi says miserably.  “I wasn’t expecting a message at all.”

“Maybe you could start there?” Liling suggests.  

It’s as good a point as any so Jingyi shrugs and writes: I wasn’t expecting to hear from you.  I’m sorry that you’ve been dragged into this.

“Was the message from,” Liling says and then pauses, “from him?” 

Jingyi hates the way that she intentionally avoids saying Sizhui’s name as if Jingyi is too fragile to bear the sound of it.  Hates even more that she might be right. 

“No,” he says.  “It’s just a friend.”

“He didn’t sound very happy with you,” Liling says.

“He’s never happy,” Jingyi says automatically.  Liling raises an eyebrow but doesn’t ask.

Jingyi’s gaze goes back to the paper in front of him.  It’s an unfamiliar feeling for him, to not know what to say.  He always has something to say.  Well, he currently has quite a bit to say to Jin Ling.  Maybe it's for the best that he’s writing a letter instead of talking to Jin Ling face to face.  He winces just imagining how that sort of conversation would go between his own inability to not run his mouth and Jin Ling’s inability to control his temper.  

“Maybe you should just write everything you want to tell him,” Liling says.  

Looking up, Jingyi raises a single eyebrow.  He wants to say that that sounds like an absolutely terrible idea, but he doesn’t want to hurt her feelings.

“You can always cross out what you don’t want to keep and try again, right?”

“True,” Jingyi mutters. Then sighs, “I don’t have a better idea.”

Jingyi starts to write.  The words spill out of him.  He tells Jin Ling to talk to Sizhui about what happened.  He writes out the things he thinks Sizhui would leave out of the story, like the fact that it’s Jingyi’s fault.  Then he tries to explain about leaving Gusu Lan.  Reasons, stories, or excuses, he’s not sure which, pour onto the paper.

When he’s done writing, he finds himself staring down at paragraph after paragraph.  He feels better, somehow after putting it all down.  Still, the sheer amount of characters on the paper surprises him.  He hadn’t realized exactly how much had been swirling around in his head until now.  But one thing is for certain, he absolutely cannot send the letter in front of him to Jin Ling.  It’s full of things that Jin Ling doesn’t really need to know and would in no way persuade Jin Ling to Jingyi’s position.

Jingyi leans back and sets down the calligraphy brush, stretching his cramping hand.  Liling is still there, at the side of the table, watching him quietly.  Unconsciously, Jingyi shifts the paper, trying to hide it from view.

“Oh,” Liling says, a blush growing across her cheeks.  “You don’t have to… I’m not… I can’t read.” She ducks her head, looking down at her hands.

“I- oh,” Jingyi says, awkwardly. “I didn’t mean.  I didn’t know.  I, well honestly, I’m a bit embarrassed about the mess of this letter.”

“It’s alright,” Liling says quietly, looking up from her hands.

Jingyi looks at her for a moment, wondering if he should say something.  But she’s clearly embarrassed by her admission, and he has no idea what to say, so he decides it better if he doesn’t mention it at all.  

“I’m just going to cross out pretty much all of this and try again,” he says instead.  He picks up his brush and turns to the paper, striking out line after line of characters. 

Then he pulls out a new piece of paper and starts writing.

Jin Ling,

I wasn’t expecting to hear from you.  I’m sorry that you’ve been dragged into this. But I can’t come back.  

I can’t tell you the details of what happened; it’s Sizhui’s story to tell.  You might have to push him, but he’ll tell you. He trusts you; though he might be afraid of making you angry.  But wait until you see him in person, it’s not something that he’ll put in writing.  

I will tell you because I’m sure that he hasn’t that it’s my fault he’s injured.  He’ll probably say that he doesn’t blame me because he’s Sizhui.  But you, and everyone else I suppose, were right that I was always dragging him into things.  This time it was too much.  It’s better for him if I’m not there.  He should have listened to all of you a long time ago.

Beyond that, I can no longer remain in Gusu Lan.  It’s no secret that I’ve always been a terrible Lan.  I’m probably Lan Qiren’s second least favorite student after Senior Wei.  But, I’ve always believed in the heart of the sect: be righteous.  I no longer have any faith in the elders and Master Lan Qiren.  Hanguang-jun is only one person, and Zewu-jun is still in seclusion.  I cannot be part of Gusu Lan anymore. 

I miss all three of you; I do.  You’re a good friend, Young Mistress.  But it’s best if you let me go.  

It’s much easier this time to get everything on paper.  And he thinks, or maybe just hopes, that this might actually be enough to persuade Jin Ling.   Really, he should just sign the letter and take it out to find a courier.  But there’s one more thing.  He hopes Jin Ling won’t mind.  

I don’t have any right, but I can ask you to do one thing.  Please take care of him for me?

Jingyi

Jingyi’s hand is trembling.  Every time he thinks that he’s finally come to fully accept that he’s never going to see Sizhui or Jin Ling and Zizhen again, the loss hits him like a wave all over again.  Sizhui doesn’t need anyone to take care of him, not really, but Jingyi has always done it anyway, as best he can. Sometimes it’s small things like helping him feed the rabbits.  But sometimes it’s bigger things like waking him up from his nightmares and rubbing his back to help him fall asleep again or sitting quietly and listening to his whispered worries. 

Sizhui deserves someone by his side, someone to help him.  And Jingyi doesn’t want him to be alone.  But the fact that Jingyi is never again going to be the one taking care of him makes everything hurt all over again.  The fact that he is asking someone else to take care of Sizhui because he can’t stings.  But Sizhui’s well-being matters more than Jingyi’s pride, so he asks.

Slowly, Jingyi rolls up the paper and stands up.  He has a letter to send. 

 

Chapter Text

You've taken away everything
And I can't do without, I try to see the good in life
But good things in life are hard to find

The morning dawns cloudy, and the light that filters through the window is grey.  Carefully, Sizhui pushes himself up into a sitting position.  It’s a small thing to be able to sit up by yourself, but he’s grateful for it.  Next, he stands, taking careful steps towards his desk before sitting down again.  He reminds himself not to take such little things for granted in the future.  Be grateful. 

His father arrives with breakfast, they eat in silence, and Sizhui chokes down the vile tea the healers insist that he drink.  

“Are we still going to the Cold Springs?” Sizhui asks when they have finished.  

“Mn,” Hanguang-jun makes a small nod.  It took Sizhui a while to convince his father of the idea.  It’s well known that the Cold Springs can aid in healing, but it wouldn’t do him any good if he collapsed on the way.  

Sizhui looks at the slate grey sky outside the window.  “I don’t think others will wish to use the spring in such weather,” he says.  He’s not sure whether it's a statement of fact or hope.  The Cold Springs are available to any Gusu Lan disciple, and Sizhui does not want to come across anyone while he is there.

“We will go now,” Hanguang-jun says, surprising him.  Mornings in the Cold Springs are usually reserved for more senior cultivators.

“Alright,” Sizhui says and moves to stand.  He can do it on his own now, if he is careful, but his father still reaches out to help him.  He still needs help getting dressed and releasing his hair from its braid, though.  It is embarrassing to need help with such simple things, but Hanguang-jun never complains.  And if Sizhui mentioned his feelings, Hanguang-jun would certainly remind him to be humble and avoid pride.

Together they walk down to the Cold Springs.  There are not many people around; the disciples will be at breakfast, and most of the elders begin their day with training or meditation while the disciples are out of the way.  Hanguang-jun walks close enough that Sizhui could reach out for his support if he needs it, but as long as they walk slowly, he can manage.

“You have a visitor,” Hanguang-jun says as they go.

“I do?”  Sizhui pauses.  Hanguang-jun doesn’t seem unhappy, so that’s a good sign.  “Who is it?”

“Wen Qionglin.”

“Senior Wen!” Sizhui’s excited response is a hair louder than he meant and even though it's far from rule-breaking levels of loud, Hanguang-jun gives him a look.  Sizhui ducks his head at the admonishment.  “When will I see him?” Sizhui asks in a more subdued tone.

“Later,” is all Hanguang-jun says.  

Sizhui doesn’t press for an answer.  He guesses that Senior Wei and Senior Wen will arrive together, which means that it won’t be for at least three or four hours.  The walk to the Cold Springs is not short, and Sizhui’s trembling slightly by the time they make it to there.  Still, it’s a definite improvement from the walk to the funeral.  Hanguang-jun helps him divest, and it’s even more embarrassing out in the open.  Sizhui carefully folds the robes as Hanguang-jun hands them to him.

Sizhui steps away when he is dressed in his pants and undershirt.

“Removing the bandages is best,” Hanguang-jun says.  Sizhui looks at the ground.  The bandages are the only thing hiding the wounds on his back from view; if he removes them, anyone who comes by will be able to see the lash marks on his back.  There shouldn’t be anyone else here now, but it wouldn’t be the first time someone walked into the springs while he was here.

“Yes, Hanguang-jun,” Sizhui says, and his voice is quiet.  The reason he came here is to heal the wounds, and the practical thing is to remove the bandages.  His opposition to removing them is nothing but vanity and cowardice.  Both are forbidden.  

Sizhui raises his chin and unties his shirt so Hanguang-jun can help him out of it.  Staring straight ahead to the fog rising off the icy water, he waits as the bandages are carefully removed.  Hanguang-jun hands him the bandages and he winds them neatly before setting them aside.  

It’s only a few steps to the edge of the water.  Sizhui doesn’t react as the cold water hits his feet, but the chill threatens to send shivers through his whole body.  Wading in up to his knees and then to his waist, he resists the urge to hold his breath.  Instead, he breathes evenly and focuses on the flow of spiritual energy through his body.  It’s a simple task for him to regulate the flow of qi until the chill of the Cold Springs is manageable; he’s had plenty of practice.  

Letting his eyes fall shut, Sizhui opens himself to the energy of the Springs.  The energy feels cool as it interacts with his own, but it’s soothing, not chilling.  When Hanguang-jun steps into the water, he can feel the shift in the flow of the energy around him.  

The next step Sizhui takes causes the icy water to lap at the wounds lowest on his back.  His breath hisses through his teeth.  But he takes another step then another.  The damaged meridians in his back make it difficult for him to keep the cold at bay, and parts of his back feel icy.  But, he sinks down in the water until he’s submerged to his shoulders.  

It’s easy for him to fall into the healing meditative state that he’s cultivated over the last week.  He takes stock of the wounds on his back, which is something that he struggles to do clinically.  Still, he can see that the damage has lessened; though it's hard for him to say how much is natural and how much is from his own efforts.  

He lets the soothing energy of the springs join his own and feels the difference immediately.  Before, when he’d come to the Cold Springs to heal it hadn’t been anything more serious than bruised ribs.  So while he knows how much the Cold Springs can help heal, this is an entirely new experience.

Time fades away from him.  With his eyes closed, the entire world narrows down to the flow of qi through and around him.  The energy of the springs washes over his back, soothing the nerves and healing the damaged meridians.  Through this, Sizhui focuses, regulating the amount of energy to avoid the risk of qi deviation.

Eventually, Sizhui comes out of his meditation, letting the flow of energy through his body settle back to its natural rhythm.  The water feels cool now instead of cold as his body naturally regulates the temperature.  He stands and the water runs down his skin in a rush.  His gaze goes to Hanguang-jun, not far away.  Since his back is to Sizhui, he has a full view of the scars crisscrossing pale skin.

He’s staring, and he knows it.  It’s been years since he last saw the scars, and he’d largely forgotten what they actually looked like.  Now, knowing this is his future, he can’t look away.  The scars are white against his skin, crossing and recrossing, breaking the smooth lines of Hanguang-jun’s shoulders and the muscles of his back.  Even old and healed they are violent and harsh.  Sizhui’s not sure he would be able to count them with the way they cross over one another, but he knows there are thirty-three.  Still, it is not horrific, and his beauty is marred and not ravaged.  The vain part of Sizhui, and it is there, is both soothed and distressed.

Turning away, he starts to wade towards the shore.  It’s better if he doesn’t push himself too hard.  Part of him, and not an insignificant part, wants to stay here as long as Hanguang-jun will let him, but in doing so he would exhaust himself, and then he’d be unable to return or to heal himself further.  Be strict with yourself .  Luckily, Sizhui is patient.  He can wait when he needs to, when it is the best option.  Discipline is a well-cultivated virtue in Gusu Lan.

Unfortunately, putting on clothes by himself is still an ordeal, so he sits on the stony bank in his pants.  He considers meditating, just to meditate and not to heal, but he sets that aside in favor of watching the nature around him.  Never before has he been stuck inside for so long.  It’s been more than two weeks since his punishment, and he’s hardly been outside. 

There’s a breeze today, and it feels nice against his skin.  He watches a bird hopping around on one of the trees and then a rabbit, a wild one, making its way among the tree trunks.  The sun is warm on his skin, and he turns his face up to it.  The air smells faintly of clear mountain springs and pine, and he breathes it in deeply.

For several moments he can forget everything and enjoy the fresh air and sunshine.  But his titled sitting position causes an ache in his back, and the smell of pine always makes him think of Jingyi.  Pulling himself back into a proper sitting position, Sizhui returns his attention to the rabbit from before.  It’s been joined by another.  He watches with a small smile as they play, nosing at each other, chasing each other, hopping around, and occasionally rolling.  Vaguely, he wonders about Hanguang-jun’s bunnies.  He hasn’t seen them since the night hunt.  Undoubtedly, they are being taken care of, but it’s been his job for a long time that he misses them.

The gentle sound of Hanguang-jun moving through the water alerts Sizhui to his father’s presence before he reaches the shore.  He continues to watch the bunnies as Hanguang-jun dresses.

A hand on his shoulder gets his attention, and Sizhui lets his father help him to his feet.  Hanguang-jun hands him fresh bandages to hold, and Sizhui obediently turns to expose his back.  Hanguang-jun’s hands are gentle as ever he spreads ointment across the wounds.  It’s still a miserable experience.  

Once the bandages are back on and Sizhui is dressed, the two of them leave the Cold Springs.  Though he says nothing, Hanguang-jun walks slowly so that Sizhui doesn’t have to push himself too hard to keep up.  Sizhui follows silently behind Hanguang-jun, but instead of heading back to the senior disciples quarters, Hanguang-jun leads him towards the guest housing.  It would have been faster to go through the center of the Cloud Recesses and past the lecture pavilion and the library, but Hanguang-jun leads him on the white gravel path around the edge instead.  

Sizhui does not mind the extra effort.  Except for the funeral, he still hasn’t been around his fellow disciples, and he’s content to avoid that confrontation for now.  Still, by the time they reach the row of buildings used to accommodate guests, Sizhui’s back is aching again.  Hanguang-jun knocks gently on the door of one of the smaller guest apartments.  The door slides open to reveal a grinning Senior Wei who throws himself at Hanguang-jun in greeting.  

“Lan Zhan!” he says after kissing him.  “You brought A-Yuan for lunch with us?”

“Mn,” Hanguang-jun nods in Sizhui’s direction, even though he’s only two li away.  It has always amused Sizhui, how collected Hanguang-jun can look with an over-exuberant Senior Wei literally hanging off him.  

Senior Wei releases his husband and turns his attention to Sizhui, who offers him a smile.  It’s been several days since he last saw Senior Wei, but it's far from the first time the man has disappeared and reappeared suddenly.  

At that moment, someone else steps out of the house.  Senior Wen appears in the doorway with what passes for a smile on his face.

“Senior Wen!” Sizhui grins and offers a shallow bow.  The motion is stiff but doable.  

“A-Yuan,” Senior Wen’s voice is tender, and Sizhui finds himself closing the distance between them and embracing his uncle.  Senior Wen, somewhat awkwardly, pats his head clearly not sure what to do with his arms.  Sizhui releases him and takes a step back, feeling slightly embarrassed for the outburst of emotion, but his face remains as radiantly happy as before.

“What is this!” Senior Wei says in a mock outraged tone, “my own son.  He doesn’t even greet me.  Lan Zhan, I thought you raised him better than this.”

Sizhui turns to face him with an expression of absolute contrition.  He puts his hands and sword together in a formal bow.

“Senior Wei, please forgive this disciple!  I have caused offense.  I sincerely apologize.”  Sizhui starts to bow.  Knowing how uncomfortable it will make his father, Sizhui is fully prepared to offer as deep a bow as he is currently able to, but Senior Wei catches his arms.

“Ah, ah, ah, none of that.”  He releases Sizhui’s arms and rubs his nose.  “Lan Zhan, your son is making fun of me.”

“Mn,” Hanguang-jun says with a small shake of his head.  There is amusement in his amber eyes, “Sizhui has excellent manners.”

Senior Wei gasps and points at him.  He grabs Wen Ning with his other hand.  

“My own family,” Senior Wei wails, “betrayed by my own family.  They are ganging up on me, Wen Ning!”

Senior Wen only chuckles and pats his shoulder soothingly, then he turns and motions towards the interior of the guest house.

“You should come in for lunch or the tea will get cold,” Senior Wen says.  The idea of food distracts Senior Wei from his mock outrage, and he turns on his heel to head inside.  Sizhui follows him in.  The guest house looks much the same as all of the other guest quarters: minimally furnished and decorated in light blue and white.

Sizhui takes a seat at the table beside Senior Wen and across from his parents.  Once he is seated, Sizhui arranges the cups for everyone and pours the tea.  The aroma of the tea fills the air; it's the rich, bold smell of black tea complimented by the faint smell of cinnamon and ginger.  Sizhui can’t help it; he grins at Senior Wen, who not only remembered his favorite tea but brought some with him.  

In the Cloud Recesses, the kitchens usually only stock white and green teas.  Their mild flavor is more suitable to Lan sensibilities and ideals.  Of course, Sizhui has tasted a variety of other teas throughout his life.  But on his journeys with Senior Wen, he had learned about Wen tea traditions as well as the vast variety of medicinal teas.  

Lunch, unlike the tea, is provided by the Gusu Lan kitchens.  Sizhui and Hanguang-jun eat in silence while Senior Wen tells them a bit about his life in Qishan.  

Sizhui is happy for his uncle.  He’d been worried when they parted ways.  There are a great number of cultivators who want Senior Wen dead.  But he is safe, and not only is he safe, but he also seems to have found a place to live where the villagers are no longer scared of him.  

When they finish eating, Sizhui moves to stack the bowls on the tray.  Throughout the meal, the pain in his back had grown from a dull ache to roar, and his motions are tense.  The other three notice immediately, and Hanguang-jun takes the bowl from his hand before Sizhui can protest.  

“You should lay down,” Senior Wei says with a frown.

“He can use the bed here,” Senior Wen says, “I don’t need it.”

“Thank you, Senior Wen,” Sizhui says.  He starts to get to his feet, but before he can manage, Senior Wei is there helping him up.  He wants to protest that he can stand up and walk just fine, but it would be rude and his back hurts, so he keeps silent.  The guest bed is comfortable, and the bedding is the same as the ones issued to the disciple dorms.  

“You shouldn’t push yourself so hard,” Senior Wei says, stroking Sizhui’s hair away from his face.

“I’m fine,” Sizhui says.  The pain in his back eased to a manageable level almost as soon as he laid down.

“Lying is forbidden, A-Yuan.”

Sizhui opens his mouth to defend himself, but Hanguang-jun voice comes from somewhere close by.  “Wei Ying, Sizhui doesn’t lie.”

Warmth blooms in Sizhui’s chest at Hanguang-jun’s words.  

“You’re right.  You’re right, of course,” Senior Wei says.  “Sorry, A-Yuan.”

“It’s alright.”

“Now, you’re Hanguang-jun, and I have to go soon.  The guest disciples will be here soon, and Lan Qiren has everyone running around.”

Sizhui nods in understanding.  The arrival of the guest disciples is the busiest part of the year in the Cloud Recesses.  He, himself, has done more than his fair share of preparation work in previous years.  

“But there’s something I wanted to tell you before I leave you with Wen Ning.”

“Yes?”

“I got a second letter from Sect Leader Nie,” Senior Wei says, and Sizhui’s head snaps around, his shoulders twisting as he tries to look at his father.  Gently, Senior Wei pushes him back into a comfortable position.  “There was a rogue cultivator who took care of a problem for them in Xiyang, a town northeast of the Unclean Realms.  He left a night hunt report, which was brought to Sect Leader Nie.  Jingyi signed his courtesy name, and the handwriting is his too.”

For several moments any response he might have is all tangled up in Sizhui’s mind, and he doesn’t know what to say.  It’s the first news he’s had about Jingyi since Hanguang-jun and Senior Wei got back from Qinghe.  Jingyi is alive. Jingyi is alive, and Sizhui might be able to find him.

“Thank you, Senior Wei,” he says at last.  He wishes he was standing so he could bow, so that he could do something to express how grateful he is to have this news.  “I-,” the words fail.  “Thank you.”

Senior Wei laughs, “I didn’t even do anything,” he says.

“Lying is forbidden, Senior Wei,” Sizhui says.  In truth, Sizhui and Hanguang-jun have both given up trying to hold Senior Wei to the Gusu Lan rules, but Sizhui can still tease his father.

“You are horrible today, who raised you?”

“You did,” Wen Ning says, causing Senior Wei to sputter and Sizhui to laugh.  It feels so good to laugh, like some of the weight in his chest is easing.  He doesn’t even mind that the movement causes the wounds on his back to pull.  Senior Wei mutters something in complaint, but Sizhui doesn’t catch it.  

Once the laughter has faded, Senior Wei gently places a hand on Sizhui’s shoulder.  

“A-Yuan,” his voice is serious now, “I gave you that information, and I trust you to be smart about it.  I better not find you collapsed and bleeding halfway to Caiyi town because you decided to be stupid.”

“I won’t,” Sizhui says.  That’s not to say that he doesn’t want to, because he does.  He wants to chase after Jingyi and find him this instant even though he’s not sure exactly what he wants to do when he finds him.  But he knows that he wouldn’t make it.  He'd end up somewhere between here and wherever Jingyi is, with weeks of healing thrown out the window.

“Good,” Senior Wei says and pats his shoulder before standing up.  “I’m going to hold you to that.”

“Yes, Senior Wei.”

“Wei Ying,” Hanguang-jun interjects before Senior Wei can add anything.

“Right,” Senior Wei says, “we have to go.” 

He bounces to his feet and gives Sizhui one more pat on the head before heading out.  The tempo of his footsteps is faster than Hanguang-jun’s.  Sizhui can always tell when it’s Hanguang-jun walking towards him without looking, the weight and pace of the steps are familiar from his childhood.  But he realizes now that the cadence of Senior Wei’s steps has also grown familiar.  

Once Senior Wei and Hanguang-jun have left, Senior Wen comes and sits on the bed next to Sizhui.

“I’m glad to see you, Senior Wen,” Sizhui says, “But I didn’t know you were coming.”

“Wei-gongzi asked me to come,” Senior Wen says.

“Oh,” Sizhui resists the urge to press his face into the pillow; he should have thought of that. “I’m sorry you had to come all this way.”

“I don’t mind.  There’s nothing urgent waiting for me.  It’s been almost three years since I visited.”

“I’m glad you came.”

“Me too.”

They sit in companionable silence for a while.  Between the comfortable bed and the lingering fatigue from the morning, Sizhui finds himself drifting.

“You should sleep,” Senior Wen says.

“I'm alright,” Sizhui protests, even though he has to blink hard to keep his eyes open.

“Sleep is some of the best medicine.  It restores your energy and lets your body heal itself.”

“Mn.” Senior Wen has said something like this before, but Sizhui can’t remember when.

“Rest now,” Senior Wen says and stands up.  “We can talk later.”

“Will you make more tea?” Sizhui asks sleepily.

“Of course.”

Sizhui smiles as he drifts off.  

When he wakes up, it takes a moment for him to orient himself.  He instantly recognizes that he’s not in his own bed, but his brain is slow to remind him where exactly he is.  Pushing himself up on his elbows, he looks around for Senior Wen, who is sitting on the floor gently washing and laying out a series of plants.

He looks up at Sizhui with a smile.  

“Sleep well?”

“Yes, thank you.”  Sizhui pushes himself up and into a sitting position.  He can feel Senior Wen’s critical gaze tracking his motion.

“Wei-gongzi wants me to look at your injury,” Senior Wen says carefully, “but it’s up to you.”

“You don’t have to,” Sizhui says, feeling bad that Senior Wen was called all the way to Gusu from Qishan to look at his wounds, which are healing just fine.

“I’m happy to help,” Senior Wen says.  

“Alright.  If you are sure.”

Sizhui stands up from the bed and walks across the small room.  

“Here,” Senior Wen gets up and moves the bamboo mat from by the desk.  “Sit in the sunlight so I can see better.”

“Yes, Senior Wen.”  

Sizhui obediently moves to the portion of the floor directly illuminated by the summer sunlight through the window.  He starts to sit and then realizes that he’s still wearing a full set of robes, instead of the one layer he has been wearing in his room.  

“I, uh, I might need help,” he says, feeling his cheeks grow warm.  

“It’s no problem.”

Luckily, getting clothes off is easier than getting them on. Sizhui could get the robes off on his own, but Senior Wen steps up and helps him slide the robes off his shoulders and down his arms without having to raise and lower his shoulders.

Even though Senior Wen is one of the most gentle people that Sizhui knows and would never judge someone for needing help, Sizhui can’t beat back the embarrassment at being helpless.  

“You are moving very well,” Senior Wen notes.  “Wei-gongzi was concerned that the Lans weren’t helping your healing much.  Apparently Hanguang-jun told him that the Lans consider the healing to be part of the punishment.”

“Senior Wei has a point,” Sizhui says.  Discipline wounds are only treated as is medically necessary to prevent infection or other complications.  Wounds take time to heal and that time is included in the punishment.  The lesson is forgotten when the wound heals, after all.  The ache from copying the rules in a handstand lasts for days, making the punishment more memorable than an afternoon of lost time.  He’s never suffered the discipline rod himself, but he’s seen the resulting bruises and welts on Jingyi.  The wounds are the most painful on the second day of healing, an experience that would be lost if the injuries were healed right away.  If you can heal yourself with your own cultivation though, that is a different matter.

After Senior Wen sets Sizhui’s robes aside in a neat pile, he helps Sizhui unwind the bandages.  Then he motions for Sizhui to kneel on the mat.

“How many days has it been since the injury?” he asks as Sizhui settles onto the mat.

“Seventeen.”

There’s a light touch on his shoulder, and he leans forward, bracing his hands on his knees.  Senior Wen’s hands are gentle and careful as they move across his back.  Sizhui is never sure if the caution in his uncle’s touch comes from his shy personality or is a result of his effort to control the unnatural strength he can wield.  Maybe it’s both.

“You’ve been using spiritual energy to heal yourself?” Senior Wen says.  It’s not really a question, but Sizhui answers it anyway.

“Yes, I have.”

“I’m impressed,” Wen Ning says.  “You’ve managed quite a bit of healing.  Healing a wound like this is very dangerous, though.  You could have caused a qi deviation.”

“Yes, Senior Wen,” Sizhui bows his head.

“I’m going to wash off the ointment that you have on and replace it with something more effective,” Wen Ning tells him.  

“Senior Wen,” Sizhui asks as Senior Wen moves away.

“Yes?”

Sizhui gathers his courage for a moment before he asks, quietly.  “How bad is it?” It’s a question he hasn’t been able to ask his father.

“It’s healing very well,” Senior Wen responds.  “Incredibly well, actually.”

“But how bad is it?” Sizhui says, and his voice is trembling. Both vanity and impatience lay under his question, and so he has left it unsaid.  But Senior Wen is not Hanguang-jun or Zewu-jun and has never reproached Sizhui for anything.

There’s a soft sigh from behind him.  “The wounds were quite bad,” Wen Ning says, “as you must know from using your spiritual energy to heal it.  Discipline whips are nasty weapons.  They split through the skin and often into the muscle.  Even one lash can cause serious scarring. With as many as you have here the damage is compounded wherever the wounds overlap.  There are about forty lacerations here? Correct?”

“Forty-one,” Sizhui says quietly.  Eight for the bodies of his friends.  Eight for their souls.  Twenty-five for rules broken.  

Wen Ning returns to sit behind Sizhui, and there’s a stiffness to his motion beyond the normal limitations of being a fierce corpse.  The hands that settle on his shoulders are so gentle that it takes him a moment to realize that it’s anger.  He has never seen his uncle angry; though he has heard about the slaughter at Koi Tower and the Jin labor camps.  He has even heard about how Senior Wen tore into Jiang Cheng when he told him about the core swapping surgery, but he has never seen it himself.  

“I didn’t mean to anger you,” Sizhui says.

“A-Yuan,” Wen Ning says and his voice is gentle despite the tension in his body.  “I’m not angry with you.  It’s just… I have seen so much violence in my life.  I have seen too many innocent people suffer.  It is hard for me to see you suffer.”

“I’m sorry,” Sizhui says again, bowing his head down further. 

“Oh, A-Yuan, it’s not your fault.”

“Uncle,” Sizhui says.  He doesn’t use the informal address often, but he uses it now.  “Please do not be angry with the elders on my behalf.  Anger is harmful to your spirit.  I know the rules of Gusu Lan, and I made my decision.  I knew that I would be punished.”

“You have a good heart, A-Yuan,” Wen Ning says with a small sigh.  There’s a pause, and then he changes the topic.  “I’m going to start with the new salve.  I want to assess some of the damage a bit more, this will probably hurt.”

“I understand.”  Sizhui has grown as accustomed as he can to the daily process of caring for the wounds and the pain that it involves.

Senior Wen starts at his left shoulder and works down the wound.  He doesn’t just apply the salve, though.  His fingers trace the wound, checking the development of scar tissue and assessing the depth of the wound under the scab.  

“It is likely,” Senior Wen says, “that you will lose sensation across parts of your back when this is healed.”

“I, what?”

“Jiejie told me that scar tissue doesn’t have the same sensitivity that regular skin does.  With scarring this extensive, you will almost certainly lose sensation in places.”

Sizhui swallows hard.  Senior Wen’s voice is calm and gentle and that helps, but the news still hits Sizhui hard.  No one had ever mentioned this might happen.  His father hadn’t said anything about it.

“It’s likely,” Senior Wen says comfortingly, “that you won’t notice.  Your back is not a sensitive area to start with.  Unless someone is purposely touching your back, I doubt you would realize.  But, I thought you should know.”

“I understand; thank you for your honesty, Senior Wen.”  The end of the name turns into a hiss as Senior Wen’s hands reach a particularly sensitive portion of his back.  

“I’m sorry,” Wen Ning says immediately, but his hands are steady.  Sizhui just shakes his head; he trusts that Senior Wen is doing his best.  It’s not his uncle’s fault Sizhui is so injured.

Sizhui swallows hard.  “Senior Wen, I was asking earlier, how bad it was?”

“If there’s something specific you want to know,” Senior Wen sounds faintly amused.  “You can ask me.  I’m not going to be upset with you.”

Sizhui bites his lip and winces.  The wound on his lip has been largely ignored because of the damage to his back, but it certainly can still hurt.  

“How does it look? Is the scarring bad?” Sizhui says the words in a rush.

“Ah,” Senior Wen says with a knowing sound.  He doesn’t reproach Sizhui for being vain; he doesn’t even mention it. “Currently, it’s still healing; which means there are lacerations and dark scarring.  Once it’s healed, it’ll take a while for the scars to fade to white, but they will fade.”

It’s a confirmation of what Sizhui already knows, but he somehow hoped that the answer would be different this time.  Vanity is against the rules, but is it really so wrong to want the scars to disappear? to want the violence expunged from his skin.  

“Can you help the scarring?”

“I’ll do what I can,” Wen Ning says, “I’ve seen Jiejie treat wounds from the discipline whip.  But the scars can’t be removed entirely, especially now that they’ve already started to form.  I’m sorry, A-Yuan.”

Senior Wen continues to methodically inspect and treat Sizhui’s wounds, and Sizhui has to resist the urge to squirm as pain lances through him.

“I think that Auntie Wen could have found a way to stop the scarring.”

“She treated Sect Leader Jiang,” Senior Wen reminds him gently.  “And he still has scars.”

“She invented the golden core transfer,” Sizhui says.  “I think that she could do anything.”

Senior Wen laughs.  “Oh, A-Yuan,” he says, and his voice is so fond that it almost makes Sizhui blush.  “But you’re right.  Sometimes it seemed like Jiejie could work miracles.”

They sit in silence for a while as Senior Wen continues to work.  His motions are slower than Hanguang-jun’s, but Sizhui doesn’t mind the extra time.  

“You know,” Senior Wen says after a while.  “You still haven’t asked the question that I was expecting.”

“Which one is that?”

“How long until I am healed?”

Sizhui blushes and mumbles, “one should be patient.”

“That is one of your sect rules isn’t it?”

“Mn,” Sizhui nods, and then admits rather sheepishly, “that was part of why I asked earlier how bad the damage was.”

“You could have just asked.  I’m not in Gusu Lan; I never even came to the Cloud Recesses to study.”

“You didn’t?” 

“Sect Leader Wen thought his clan was better than the others, that there was nothing they could possibly learn from Gusu Lan.  It was inadvisable to argue with him over such things.”

“I didn’t realize.”  Sizhui has heard stories about the arrogance of the Wen’s and their cruelty.  But never from Wen Ning.  He knows that his branch of the clan was separate from the direct line, and hadn’t realized that Sect Leader Wen had so much control over them.  Sizhui waits quietly for a few moments to see if Senior Wen will tell him more, but he doesn’t, and Sizhui doesn’t push.  

There’s a flash of pain as Senior Wen applies his medicine to a particularly sore area, and Sizhui hisses in pain.

“Sorry,” Senior Wen says, “but that is the worst area.  There must be three or four separate lashes crossing here.  It’s clear that Gusu Lan does not often use the whip as a weapon; Meishan Yu or Yunmeng Jiang would never have made such chaotic marks.”

“I had not considered that,” Sizhui says.  Not many cultivators use a whip as a weapon, and Sect Leader Jiang’s zidian is by far the most well known spiritual whip in use.  He’s seen it used to devastating effect on several occasions.  But it had not occurred to him that it might be better to be punished by someone who can wield the weapon more effectively.  As he considers this, he realizes that he has a newfound fear of the purple whip.  He’s entirely certain that he wouldn’t have survived 30 lashes with a weapon like zidian let alone the forty-one he’d taken.

“Relax,” Wen Ning says, smoothing his hands gently over Sizhui’s shoulders.  

Sizhui lets out a breath and shifts his focus away from zidian and back to the original conversation.

“I know the injuries will take a long time to heal completely,” Sizhui says, “But how long until I can travel.”

“That depends,” Wen Ning says, “on what exactly you mean by travel, how much work you put into healing, and how effective this medicine is.”

“I plan to fly to Lanling and to Qinghe.”

“Qinghe,” Senior Wen says with something like amusement in his voice, “Does that have something to do with what Wei-gongzi told you earlier.”

Sizhui’s face grows warm and he smoothes out the fabric of his pants a few times, seeing as fidgeting is against the rules.  After a moment's consideration, he decides to explain.

“How much did Senior Wei tell you?”

“He told me about the night hunt and the punishment.  He told me that your friend, Lan Jingyi, left following the punishment and it upset you.”

Sizhui nods and takes a deep breath.  It’s been more than a week since he admitted his feelings to Hanguang-jun and Zewu-jun, and it’s still just as difficult to talk about.  But Senior Wen has always been easy to talk to; he’s understanding and guileless.  It also helps that Senior Wen is behind him at the moment, and Sizhui’s gaze is fixed on his hands.  He’s learned, mostly by talking with Jingyi, how much easier it is to discuss things when he doesn’t have to try and maintain eye contact the whole time.

“Do you remember Jingyi?  You met him quite a few times,” he says.  It’s easier to start here, somewhere less serious.

“I do.”  Sizhui can hear a smile in his voice.  “He is hard to forget.”

Sizhui actually laughs at that.  “He is, indeed.”

“He was very vibrant,” Senior Wen continues, “and quite unafraid of speaking out.  You spoke quite fondly of him during our travels.”

There’s nothing Sizhui can do about the heat creeping into his face; he hates feeling so transparent, even though he trusts Senior Wen.

“I am,” Sizhui says, and then, “very fond of him, I mean.  He,” he stumbles over his words again and has to pause.  The words are all twisted up in his mouth, and it takes him a second to straighten them out, but Senior Wen doesn’t push or give any sign of impatience.  He simply continues his work.  “He means more to me than anything.  He almost died on the night hunt, and I just couldn’t let it happen.  I knew I would be punished, but I didn’t care.  I didn’t get a chance to talk to him, after… after everything.  When I woke up, he was gone.  And I dont, cant, understand why he left.  But there are things… there are things I need to say.”

As he speaks, Sizhui’s shoulders tense.  The wall that Sizhui keeps around his emotions is always weaker when Senior Wen is around.  He’s not sure why, maybe it’s because he feels safe or maybe it's because of a lingering childhood instinct.  But now, his emotions are rising up and threatening to control him.  Loneliness, confusion, hurt, grief, all of it bubbles up again, and he feels his eyes burning with unshed tears.  Gently, Senior Wen places his hands on Sizhui’s shoulders, rubbing soothing circles into the undamaged skin.  

“If that is what you need.  Then I will support you,” he says. 

“Thank you.” Sizhui’s voice is almost a whisper as he tries to hold back the emotions rising up.

A hush falls on the room, as Sizhui fights for control.  Senior Wen’s hands are steady and comforting on his shoulders, and it helps Sizhui ground himself.  

Senior Wen continues when it becomes clear that Sizhui has no more to say just then.

“To answer your question.  You should wait until the qi can freely circulate through the meridians in your back.  Otherwise, you’re putting yourself at risk of qi deviation or falling from your sword because you are to focused on channeling your energy to fly properly.  It will be longer before you should try running or wielding a sword. Come back tomorrow, and I will see what difference this medicine and your time meditating makes.  Then I can give you a better answer.”

“I understand,” Sizhui says.  “And thank you.”

Chapter Text

I cannot wait to get to know you 
To help you ease the troubles on your mind 
To walk by your side holding your hand in mine
I’ll treasure that for as long as I’m allowed

 

The sun is only an hour away from its zenith, and Jin Ling has gotten nothing done yet this morning.  He’s been in his office practically since the sun rose to try and get work out of the way, but it’s been hours, and he hasn’t managed to do much of anything.  

Part of it is the letter that arrived with his morning briefing and was addressed to him directly in Lan Jingyi’s handwriting.  The letter had almost been lost in the pile of mail that Jin Ling gets every day.  But as he quickly sorted through the pile of paper, he saw a letter had been addressed to Jin Ling and not Sect Leader Jin.  The careless handwriting looked familiar, and when he’d investigated it, he found it sealed with the talisman that Szhui and Jingyi both use to seal their letters.  The trace of spiritual energy binding the letter also feels familiar; it’s a bit like cool water from a stream, and he knows that the seal will glow blue when he breaks it.  The talisman isn’t infallible, but it stops the average person or cultivator from easily accessing the letters.  The letter obviously wasn't from Sizhui, so there was one person it had to be from.  

Jin Ling had almost ripped the letter open as soon as he realized what it was.   The only thing that stopped him was the fact that Zizhen is arriving at Koi Tower today.  Instead of reading it now, most likely losing his temper over Jingyi’s stupidity, and then having to go over the whole thing again with Zizhen later, he decided to wait until Zizhen could read it with him.  It was a logical decision.  But he still finds himself continually glancing at the letter.

The second part of Jin Ling’s distraction, and by far the biggest part of it, is the fact that Zizhen will be arriving at Koi Tower today.  Ever since he received the note from Zizhen about when he would arrive, Jin Ling has been making arrangements.  The kitchens have been instructed to make the foods that Jin Ling has noticed Zizhen favoring during his trips to Lanling.  Two guest rooms in Jin Ling’s wing of the tower were prepared, ones with access to the lotus garden because it’s Zizhen and Jin Ling’s favorite.   Instead of a feast or celebration dinner, which is what normally would be arranged for the visiting son of a sect leader, Jin Ling organized a private dinner with just them because that’s what both of them prefer.  

If Zizhen wanted it, Jin Ling would throw a celebration for every night he was in Lanling.  But when Zizhen and the Lans had first started visiting Jin Ling in Koi Tower, Jin Ling had tried to throw an appropriate feast, and Zizhen had smiled and said “wouldn’t it be better if it was just us?”  

Jin Ling tries hard not to think about that moment too much.

Jin Ling has been close to working himself ragged trying to get everything squared away so that when Zizhen is here they can just be.   It’s inevitable that something will demand his attention.  Especially since he has declared that he will be leaving for an extended night hunt in the near future.  His advisors and subordinates make a lot of noise about not needing him for people who can’t seem to go more than twelve hours without demanding his attention.  He happens to know from the records that they ran things just fine without much intercession on his grandfather’s behalf.  

Really, Jin Ling should focus and finish the last of the paperwork in front of him.  But his mind keeps running away.  He’s checked the guest arrangements an excessive number of times and has to resist the urge to check them again.  Because that at least is something tangible to do.  And something to do is much preferable to dealing with the tangled jumble of feelings in his chest.

Despite what people might say, and he knows that they say it, Jin Ling is neither heartless nor an idiot, and is man enough to admit, at least to himself, that he is hopelessly in love with his best friend.  Normally, he can manage his feelings, keep them tucked away in a tidy fashion.  But every time he sees Zizhen, he finds himself turning into a bundle of anxiety.  He’s starting to give up hope that time will make it any easier.

Even though Zizhen isn’t supposed to arrive until after lunch, every time someone approaches Jin Ling’s office he has to resist the urge to jump up and check. 

When the lunch bell rings, Jin Ling signs the paper in front of him, even though he’d only half-read it, and sets it on the woefully small stack of paperwork that he’s finished.  He carefully tucks the letter from Jingyi into his qiankun sleeve.  Then he makes his way through Koi Tower to have lunch with some of his advisors.  They are tedious company at best, but it’s one of the things that’s expected of him as sect leader.  Jin Ling isn’t stupid enough to think that his position as Sect Leader is irrevocable, not when his uncle, and he had to seize it with Zidian and Suihua.  So he will continue to pander to them where it is needed.

The only thing that gets Jin Ling through Jin Changpu’s long-winded complaints about a supposed drastic uptake in the number of requests for aid being requested from people on the eastern edge of the land controlled by Lanling Jin is the knowledge that in a few hours, he will be wandering around the city with Zizhen and not inside of Koi Tower.

When the meal is over, Jin Ling does not run away, because he is a sect leader and he has an image to maintain, but he does rush.  He stops in his room to check his appearance in the mirror one more time, assuring himself that it’s not too gaudy.  While Jin Ling grew up with the luxury of Koi Tower and political posturing done with expensive clothing, his friends like to make fun of him for overdoing it.  In the years he has been sect leader, Jin Ling has tried to scale back on the standard of opulence set by his grandfather and uncle, but it will take longer than three years to make headway against generations of traditions, and the Jin elders and advisors are not keen on giving up any of their luxuries.  But when his friends are in Koi Tower, Jin Ling takes extra care.

Unfortunately, his mood is rubbing off on Fairy, who is bouncing around him in excitement.  And as he makes his way to the main hall, he has to call her back on numerous occasions.  Still, Fairy is a well trained spiritual dog and once he takes his place on the throne-like seat at the center of the hall, she calmly lays down on the bed placed for her in the corner behind him.  

There are a handful of people who have been given an audience with him today.  He’d severely cut down the number from the normal amount, but it’s something that he has to do.  These audiences are an important way for the community to interact with Lanling Jin, and it allows Jin Ling some level of control over his plan to lessen the gap between the cultivators of Lanling Jin and the people of Lanling.

He listens to those who come before him and offers aid where appropriate.  One of the petitioners is a woman with a young daughter claiming that her father was a Lanling Jin cultivator.  This is not the first time that Jin Ling has heard this, and he’s sure it won’t be the last.  There’s no good way for him to verify the story, so he does what he always does; he sends the girl to the head of the junior disciples to be assessed.  If the girl possesses sufficient spiritual energy and is healthy enough to cultivate, she will be offered a position as a disciple.  The position is conditional, but all of the women who’ve spoken to him thus far have been exceedingly grateful for even that.  Jin Ling doesn’t care about the veracity of the parentage claims.  Lanling Jin has plenty of money and room for those who are talented enough to become disciples.

It takes two hours for him to finish, and he is nearly vibrating in his seat by the end.  As soon as he is done, he makes his way out into the entry courtyard.  He’s not sure exactly when Zizhen will arrive other than ‘any time now’, so he waits.  As he waits, he paces, and Fairy bounces around him, clearly affected by his own mood.  He doesn’t stop her, there’s no one else here but him.

Jin Ling freezes when he finally catches sight of two figures flying from the direction of Baling.  He straightens his robes and checks his hairpiece and forces himself to stand still and be somewhat dignified.  Looking at the pair, he reminds himself that Ouyang Ziwan is also arriving in Koi Tower.  The two of them have never gotten along well, but Jin Ling is determined to give his best impression even if Zizhen will likely make fun of him for being too formal.

In accordance with propriety, Ziwan and Zizhen land outside and have to walk up the long steps to Koi Tower proper.   It’s annoying, but flying directly into a sect's holding is about as polite as walking into someone’s house without an invitation.  And while Jin Ling is the Sect Leader, he is not the only person in Koi Tower.

He orders Fairy to sit and watches the twins ascend the steps.  They are dressed in almost matching outfits of blue and gray, and Jin Ling knows that their faces are undeniably similar.  But the similarities only accent their differences.  Zizhen’s posture is relaxed and casual, his short hair swinging slightly with his steps, where his twin carries herself with a posture strict enough for a Lan.  His eyes are soft where hers are hard; his lips are prone to smiling, and hers to frowning.  Jin Ling was shocked when he first met Zizhen’s twin, and he is far from the first person to be surprised when meeting the second twin.

Jin Ling does not dwell on the contrast between them for long; it’s something he’s observed plenty of times.  His eyes are on Zizhen and Zizhen only.  His cheeks are slightly pink, and his hair slightly mussed from flying, but it only makes him more endearing, which is unfortunate for Jin Ling.  His heart is racing double time in his chest, and he’s so glad to see Zizhen that it’s hard to breathe.  Then Zizhen notices him watching and offers him a dazzling smile, and all of his thoughts flee entirely.  

Falling in love feels a lot like dying. He’s still not convinced that this is supposed to be a good thing.

Desperately, Jin Ling tries to compose himself as the twins reach the last few stairs.  How does he forget every single time the effect that Zizhen has on him? His heart is in his throat.  He’s only now realizing exactly how unprepared he is for dealing with Zizhen without the buffer of the two Lans to help him.  

Ziwan and Zizhen step onto the final step and approach him through the entryway.  He tears his gaze away from Zizhen to study Ziwan for a moment.  Her lips are already curved in a slight frown, and Jin Ling hasn’t even had time to do anything wrong.  Zizhen insists that Ziwan is always like this, but Jin Ling can’t help but feel like there’s a personal reproach in her eyes.  

The Ouyang siblings raise their swords together, almost in unison, and bow.  Zizhen’s bow is perfunctory at best, and Jin Ling enjoys how comfortable Zizhen is around him.  Jin Ling offers a bow of his own with Suihua held in his hand.  

“Greetings, Sect Leader Jin,” Zizhen says in his diplomatic voice, but his eyes are dancing like there’s a private joke between the two of them.  “I would like to formally introduce my twin sister Ouyang Ziwan.”

“I am honored to be greeted by Sect Leader Jin,” Ziwan says without sounding much like it's an honor at all.  Part of Jin Ling is irritated, the part of him that would have lashed out at her only three years ago, but it’s only a very small part now.

“Young Master Ouyang, Miss Ouyang, it is my honor to welcome you both to Koi Tower.  I hope you will enjoy your stay here.”  He gives them a polite nod.  In a way he’s grateful for Ziwan’s presence, it allows him to fall back on etiquette.  And formal etiquette is something he knows how to do.  

They hold for a breath, the picture of perfect civility.  Zizhen shatters it.

“A-Ling!” he says and throws himself on Jin Ling.  Jin Ling gasps in surprise even though he shouldn’t be surprised because Zizhen does this.  But it’s different because Sizhui and Jingyi aren’t here, and Zizhen doesn’t peel himself off of Jin Ling to grab his other friends; he just holds on.  

“Zizhen!” Jin Ling has no idea what to do, and he can hear the alarm in his own voice.  “What are you doing?”

“I missed you,”  Zizhen says, holding on to Jin Ling tighter.  He can hear the words Zizhen doesn’t say, that he misses Jingyi and Sizhui.  Awkwardly, Jin Ling pats his back, because that’s what Sizhui does.

The moment seems to stretch into infinity for Jin Ling.  Zizhen’s body is warm and comforting against his, and he smells like fresh air and flowers.  Jin Ling can’t think of anything else.  His mind is scrambling, panicked.  The desire to hold Zizhen against him is so strong he can almost taste it.  He wants to hold him, to, to, to...

“Zizhen, get off of me,” he manages.  Zizhen lets go, and Jin Ling can breathe again; he takes a deep breath that’s slightly shaky.  

“Right,” Jin Ling says, desperately trying to marshall his thoughts.  Ancestors above, he’s not fourteen anymore; he should have better control of himself.  “I can show you to your rooms if you would like to relax or refresh yourself.  I can have refreshments brought.  It’s a long flight from Baling.”

“Jin Ling,” Zizhen says in a reproachful voice.  “Don’t use your Sect Leader voice on me.”

Jin Ling sighs because, of course, Zizhen has to make this difficult.  He makes everything in Jin Ling’s life more difficult, and Jin Ling loves him for it.  

“Didi!” Ziwan’s voice comes from behind them, and both boys turn to look at her.  There’s an exasperated expression on her face.  “Let the man breathe!”

Zizhen makes a face at his sister but takes another step away from Jin Ling, who pretends he doesn’t notice.  It is easier for Jin Ling to breathe with the space between them.

“I cleared my schedule,” he says to Zizhen in a more casual tone, “I thought you might want to go into Lanling.”

Zizhen beams at him, and his heart flips over.  Turning his attention to Ziwan, Jin Ling gathers himself again.  He’s used to facing disapproval, his uncle is Sandu Shengshou after all, but he finds it grating from Zizhen’s twin.  

“Miss Ouyang,” Jin Ling uses his most gracious voice, even though Zizhen told him not to moments ago.  “Please make yourself welcome in Koi Tower.  You are, of course, invited to join us in Lanling.”

“That is gracious of you,” Ziwan says, “I accept your invitation.”

That surprises Jin Ling.  Normally, Ziwan does her best to get clear of the four of them, appearing to greet them or reprimand them but staying away otherwise.  But Jin Ling nods in acceptance and motions for the pair of them to follow him into Koi Tower proper.  He whistles for Fairy, who, once freed from the command to stay, immediately races to Zizhen to greet him. She licks his hand and Zizhen laughs, scratching her ears and giving her compliments until she flops down on the ground and rolls over.

“Fairy!” Jin Ling cries, his face going red.  “Stop. Come here.”

“Oh, it’s fine!” Zizhen says with a laugh.  But Fairy dutifully rights herself and trots back to Jin Ling’s side.  

Jin Ling leads the pair of them through Koi Tower and points out important areas to Ziwan as they go.  He leads them up a flight of stairs to the next tier of the tower and out into one of the many courtyards.  It’s a pretty enough courtyard with a bridge over a koi pond and a willow tree, but it’s unfortunately occupied.  Motion in the corner of the courtyard catches his attention.

His eyes go to the three disciples who appear to be grappling under the willow tree.  It takes him half a moment to realize that Jin Chan and another boy are trying to pin down a younger boy, probably to stick his head in the koi pond. Irritation flares; could the idiots not act like civilized humans for one whole day?  At eighteen, Jin Chan should be more than old enough to manage not to embarrass their entire sect.

Jin Ling stops walking; the jangling of bells announces that Fairy has come to sit by his side.

“What’s going on here?” Jin Ling says in his most authoritative voice.  

“Sect Leader!” Jin Chan’s friend immediately gives up his fight to bow to Jin Ling. The smaller boy uses the interruption to escape the pair of them, taking several steps away before turning and bowing to Jin Ling.  

“We’re just having a bit of fun,” Jin Chan says in his usual drawl.  Jin Ling clenches his fists, biting back the desire to punch his cousin in the face.  His mind scrambles for a second as he tries to figure out the best way to deal with this.  Rebuking Jin Chan for hazing the younger disciples will only bring attention to it, but it would also look bad if Jin Ling allows his disciples to behave in such a way.

“Jin Ruxin,” Jin Ling says, intentionally using the boy's courtesy name.  “You are a senior disciple now. Aren’t you too old to be harassing the junior disciples?”

“Are you going to punish me, little cousin?” he asks with a smirk.  Jin Ling is really tired of him relying on his family ties to the elders to protect him.    

Jin Ling grits his teeth. Zizhen has drifted forward to stand right next to Jin Ling in silent support.  He can feel Ziwan’s gaze on him, judging him.  

“If you act like a child, then I guess you have to be punished like one.  I expect even Shidi here,” Jin Ling gestures at the boy Jin Chan had been harassing, who’s maybe only fourteen or so, “to know how to behave in polite company.”

“Polite company?” Jin Chan scoffs, “you and your friends you mean?  Or friend, should I say.  It’s just the Ouyang boy.  The Lans aren’t even here.  Did they abandon you too?”

“Jin Ruxin,” Jin Ling’s voice is clipped.  His hands are fisted so hard that his nails are biting into his skin.  He wishes he had Zidian.  He’s going to have his cousin flogged for this.  “Just because you don’t have parents to teach you any better doesn’t mean you can act like a street thug!”

It’s a low blow, and Jin Ling knows it.  Jin Chan’s father, Jin Zixun, had died the same day that Jin Ling’s father had.  A sect leader should be above such things, but Jin Ling is seething.

Jin Chan narrows his eyes at Jin Ling.  “You know, I heard that a bunch of Lan disciples died in a night hunt.  Guess they were even more useless than I thought.  Were your friends among them? Is that where you’re running off to? Going to avenge them? You, your fan toting friend, and a girl?”

Suihua is out of the sheath before the last word is out of Jin Chan’s mouth, but someone is faster than Jin Ling.  He’d been too focused on Jin Chan to notice Ziwan moving forward.  He’s not the only one surprised.

Ziwan is standing in front of him, one hand on her sword.  Her spine is rigid and her delicately pointed chin is raised in defiance; there’s not a single hair or fold of fabric out of place.  Despite her smaller stature she manages to look down on Jin Chan.  She has all the presence of an empress, and the only one who seems not to notice this is Jin Chan.  Jin Ling has never once in his life been swayed by female beauty.  But the image of Ziwan’s defiant stance framed by the willow is undeniably striking.

Jin Ling releases Suihua, letting the sword slide back into the sheath with a clink.  He glances at Zizhen, who doesn’t look particularly offended by Jin Chan’s words.  His gaze is on his sister, and there’s a smirk at the corner of his mouth.

“If you have a problem with me and my brother,” she says coldly.  “Say it openly.  You hide behind your words like a coward.”

“Like I’d be scared of someone from such a useless sect,” Jin Chan scoffs.

“You should be,” Ziwan says.  The comment isn’t even directed at him, and Jin Ling feels a slight chill.

“How cute,” Jin Chan says.  Jin Ling doesn’t wince, but it’s a near thing.  Beside him, Zizhen’s fan snaps open, hiding his expression for a moment.  Then Jin Chan makes it worse and looks over Ziwan’s shoulder at Jin Ling.  “I was starting to think you weren’t interested in girls, little cousin.  I can’t say much for your taste, bu-”

A flash of steel and silk and everyone in the courtyard freezes, especially Jin Chan.  The tip of Ziwan’s sword is a hair's breadth away from his neck.  Her form is perfect, and there is no hint of mercy in her black eyes. 

Jin Chan stares at Ziwan with large eyes.  His hand is raised slightly as if to go for his sword, but he doesn’t move.  He swallows once hard.  

“Did you think I carry this sword because it looks pretty?” Ziwan looks down her nose at him, not even deigning to sneer at him.

A tiny, nervous, shake of the head is the only response Jin Chan gives.  Next to Jin Ling, Zizhen flutters his fan, hiding an amused smile behind it.  But Jin Ling can see the amusement in his black eyes.  With a motion, Jin Ling dismisses the junior disciple, who runs for it.  

“I believe,” Jin Ling says slowly, “that you have offended Miss Ouyang, who is a guest of Lanling Jin and deserving of hospitality.”

Still, Ziwan’s blade does not waver.  Jin Chan glances from her to Jin Ling with something like pleading in his eyes, but Jin Ling’s face is cold.  However, Jin Ling does glance at Zizhen, who gives him a small nod.

“Miss Ouyang,” Jin Ling says, “I apologize for this disciple.  Lanling Jin Sect does not stand behind his actions, and I fully support you if you or your brother wish to challenge him.”

Jin Chan’s eyes go even wider.  Dueling over an insult given is an old and outdated practice, but perfectly valid nonetheless.  Jin Ling glances at Zizhen again for confirmation.  He has never seen Ziwan fight.  He knows Zizhen always speaks highly of her, but it’s also his sister.  Jin Chan is not shabby with a sword, and this could backfire and embarrass Baling Ouyang if Jin Chan were to win.  But there’s nothing but confidence and a Cheshire cat smile on Zizhen’s face.  

“Thank you Sect Leader Jin,” Ziwan says coolly.  “I demand that this man take accountability for his words.”

“As you wish,” Jin Ling says with a nod.  Ziwan sheathes her sword in one fluid movement and steps away.  

“Fighting with women is improper,” Jin Chan sputters with his hand on the hilt of his sword, slightly emboldened by Ziwan’s retreat.

“Insulting women is improper,” Jin Ling replies.  “You have insulted a guest.  Now you must take responsibility for that.  Draw your sword.”

“Jin Ling!” 

Jin Ling’s eyes flash dangerously, and his gaze narrows.  Fairy growls.

“Jin Ruxin, are you not done embarrassing Lanling Jin?”  Jin Ling’s temper is boiling.  He’s been fighting with Jin Chan his whole life. They’ve brawled more times than Jin Ling can count; they’ve drawn swords on each other.   But this is different.  He has insulted Zizhen and his sister and in the process further tarnished the reputation of Lanling Jin, which Jin Ling has been working tirelessly to try and repair.  

A soft hand settles on his shoulder, and Jin Ling doesn’t have to look to know that it’s Zizhen.  His rage recedes the tiniest bit.  He takes a steadying breath before turning to the remaining disciple, who has been watching this whole scene with something between fear and curiosity.  “You. Go to the discipline master and report what happened here.  Tell him that I will speak to him tomorrow on this matter.”

“Yes, Sect Leader Jin!” The boy jerks a bow and bolts, leaving Jin Chan to fend for himself.  Some friend.  As for Jin Chan, he glances from the door his friend just fled through to Jin Ling.  It’s obvious to Jin Ling that he’s trying to find a way to worm his way out of the situation.  Not happening.

“Jin Ruxin, I will say this once as your Sect Leader.  Draw. Your. Sword.”

Maybe it’s something in Jin Ling’s voice.  Maybe Jin Chan has realized that Ziwan might attack him whether he’s got his sword out or not.  But he draws his sword.

Jin Ling and Zizhen retreat to the edge of the courtyard with Fairy as Jin Chan and Ouyang Ziwan stare at each other.  Zizhen leans into Jin Ling until he's standing as close as he can manage while they are both walking.  Jin Ling’s hyper-aware of every single brush of their shoulders. It took years for him to adjust to Zizhen’s casual touches.  But no matter how much he’d shoved or complained, Zizhen wouldn’t be dissuaded.    

Zizhen’s leaning toward him, face hidden from the others by his fan, even if they were to turn around which seems unlikely.  Still, it’s a private expression for him, and Jin Ling feels warmth bloom in his chest.  But Jin Ling does not look at the pretty tilt of his head or the quirk of his lips.

“She’s going to destroy him,” Zizhen says in a whisper.  Jin Ling allows himself a glance, and Zizhen’s eyes are wicked.  Jin Ling’s blood runs hot.  Others might forget that Zizhen has a razor blade edge along with his generous heart, but not him.

“Good,” Jin Ling says with a snort and crosses his arms.

“As you will, Jin Ling calls.

The pair in the courtyard bow to each other.  It’s a study in contrast and one that does not reflect well on Jin Chan.  Across from Ziwan, who is exactly as polite as needed but no more, Jin Chan’s bow looks jerky and his face petulant.  

Their blades come together with the clash of steel on steel.  Jin Chan obviously intends to use his size to his advantage, with a head-on strike.  But as soon as their blades meet, Jin Ling can tell his plan won’t work.  There’s no flash or glow of spiritual energy behind Ziwan’s parry, but it repels the blow with the strength of a strong spiritual weapon.  

As he watches, Zizhen leans into Jin Ling, propping his head on the hand on Jin Ling’s shoulder.  The old instinct to push him away rises up, but he’s also seized with the desire to put his arm around Zizhen, to rest his head against his.  He tightens his arms where they are crossed in front of him and keeps his eyes resolutely on the match in front of him.  He knows that this is how Zizhen is.  He’ll throw an arm around Jingyi’s shoulders, or he would before Jingyi shot up about twelve centimeters, while they chat about books, or hold onto Sizhui’s arm as they walk through the crowd.  This is how Zizhen acts, and Jin Ling isn’t special, but it feels for a moment like he is.  

“You’re right,” Jin Ling says.  “She’s going to kill him.”

Ziwan is faster than Jin Chan and uses her nimbleness and smaller frame to her advantage.  Her fighting style, which Jin Ling recognizes from watching Zizhen on night hunts, is fluid and full of movement, rather like the rivers that run through Baling.  Jin Chan is forced to augment his blows with spiritual energy to counter the force of Ziwan’s blade.  The light of his energy trails behind the blade.  The faint trails of gold look pretty where they hang in the air, but they’re only another indication that he is not as skilled as his opponent.  His motions are choppy compared to hers.  Part of that is his own skill and part is due to the style of Lanling Jin, which relies on bursts of movement and solid hits instead of constant motion and deflection. 

Jin Chan is a mediocre cultivator at best, but his sword work is not without skill.  It’s also apparent that Ziwan is not used to fighting someone with an entirely different sword technique.  But it doesn’t take her long to adjust.

Swirls of blue and gold silk and the flash of sun on steel accent the deadly dance. The motions are almost a blur as Ziwan presses her agility advantage, moving with a level of speed and power that only a cultivator can achieve.  It’s not long before she has him entirely on the defensive.  Jin Ling can see realization and fear dawning on Jin Chan’s face.  Jin Chan tries to push back, but it only makes his motions sloppier.  It gives Ziwan the opening she needs.  Quick as lightning, her sword catches on his, sending it flying.  He tries to summon it back, but Ziwan’s blade is at his throat.  

Her hand is steady, her breath even, her back still straight and chin high.  Jin Ling is quite frankly impressed.  There aren’t many disciples in their generation of any gender that can fight like that.  He could probably list all of them, though perhaps there are female cultivators from other clans whose skills have not been showcased.

“Not bad,” he says, quiet enough that only Zizhen can hear him.   Louder, so Ziwan and Jin Chan can hear him he says, “Enough.”

Across the courtyard, Ziwan sheathes her sword and Jin Chan steps back.  His sword returns to his hand, and he sheathes it so violently that the clang echoes around the courtyard.  He glares at her, but she doesn’t react.  She offers him the appropriate bow, and Jin Ling thinks for a moment that he will storm off without responding.  But he executes a jerky bow before stalking away.  Jin Ling lets him go; the discipline master will deal with him tomorrow.

Zizhen leans in again.  “Jiejie works harder than anyone I know,” he says, and then pauses.  “Except for you.”

Jin Ling feels his whole face go hot at the compliment.  But before he can unstick his jaw and say something, Zizhen is rushing across the courtyard.  Jin Ling just watches him go.

“Jiejie!” He throws an arm around her shoulders.  “That was excellent.  Even Jin Ling said so.”

“I said no such thing!” He strides across the courtyard towards them, and Fairy trots along behind him.

“You said ‘not bad’, which for you is basically the same thing.”

“Didi,” Ziwan says firmly, disentangling herself from her brother.  “You are causing a scene.”

Zizhen rolls his eyes, “I can’t cause a scene, because there’s no one else here.”

“Ouyang Zizhen, will you behave?”

“No idea what you’re talking about,” Zizhen says.  “Do you know what she’s talking about Jin Ling?”

Jin Ling glares at him; he has no desire to get in the middle of a sibling spat and less to be on the wrong side of Ziwan’s temper.  Generally, Jin Ling doesn’t care about making people angry, but Zizhen loves his sister and so Jin Ling always makes an effort to stay on her good side.  

Jin Ling decides not to answer the question and instead turns to Ziwan.  “Miss Ouyang, I am sorry you were greeted in such a manner.  My cousin is… difficult to deal with.  He is the last person in Koi Tower I would have had you meet.”

“Oh just say what you mean, A-Ling,” Zizhen says.  Jin Ling doesn’t blush at the nickname; he doesn’t.  “You don’t have to be so formal just because Jiejie is here.  I can't stand it.”

Crossing his arms, Jin Ling glares at Zizhen.  It wasn’t Jin Ling’s idea to bring Ziwan, who is known to be a stickler for the rules, to Koi Tower.  Now he’s trapped between upsetting Zizhen and offending his sister.  

“Jin Chan is an asshole, and no one should have to deal with him.” Jin Ling says.

Zizhen beams at him, and Jin Ling’s stomach flips over.  His gaze goes to Ziwan in time to catch the barest hint of a smile at the edge of her lips.

“I accept your apology,” Ziwan says with a formality befitting a Lan.  “But I am not one to judge someone on the character of others, related or not.”

“So,” Zizhen says, “snacks?”

Jin Ling snorts, “Come on.  I have some waiting by the Lotus Pond.”

“Perfect,” Zizhen says, grabbing onto Jin Ling’s arm again as he leads the way out of the courtyard.  As they walk, Zizhen tells him about a new book that he had picked up.  Normally, Zizhen would be spouting off this nonsense to Jingyi, but Jingyi isn’t here.  So, even though he doesn’t care a bit about romance novels, Jin Ling listens to Zizhen rant about how the main character is absolutely making the wrong decision.  

Ziwan walks on Zizhen’s other side, calmly examining her surroundings as they walk and not paying any attention at all to her brother’s ramblings.  Luckily, it’s not far to the lotus pond and Zizhen is distracted from his ramblings by the presence of chilled tea and sweets.  

The three of them sit at the low table laid out and Fairy lays down between Zizhen and Jin Ling.  Jin Ling gratefully drinks down the chilled tea.  There are no robes in the world light enough that seven layers aren’t sweltering in the summer.  

“This is the most beautiful courtyard,” Zizhen says looking around at the courtyard with a soft expression.  Ziwan raises an eyebrow, and Jin Ling, even though he agrees with Zizhen, doesn’t blame her; Koi Tower is filled with courtyards decorated with blooming flowers, fountains, ponds, statues, and all other things. “Did I tell you the story about it?”

“If you did I wasn’t listening,” Ziwan says matter of factly before taking a drink of her own tea.

“A-Ling, tell her!” Zizhen says, poking Jin Ling with his fan for emphasis.

“You tell her,” Jin Ling says, crossing his arms and glaring at his friend.  He hates talking about his parents; there are too many emotions involved.  It had taken him a long time, and a lot of alcohol, to admit the story to Zizhen.  He’s not repeating it now.

“Fine,” Zizhen says, and he does.  It’s not a long story at all, and it’s actually more of a fact than anything.  His father had had the lotus pond put here so that his mother would have a piece of home if she decided to stay in Koi Tower.  His father had even worked on it himself, his grandmother Jin had told him.  Zumu is the only one who ever told him stories about his parents together.

It’s weird and embarrassing to hear Zizhen tell his sister his parent’s story like it’s something out of a romance novel.  And Jin Ling wants to beg him to stop, except he’s the one who told him to do it.

“I see,” is all that Ziwan replies, but there is some softness in her black eyes.  Jin Ling wonders at his ability to recognize it, before realizing that it’s because the twins have the same eyes.  

Zizhen narrows his eyes at her, clearly offended that she didn’t appreciate the story.  “I think it’s romantic,” he says with a huff and crosses his arms.

“You think everything’s romantic,” Ziwan points out.

“That is not true!  Corpses, not romantic.  Ghosts, not romantic.”

“What about A-Qing,” Jin Ling says because he can’t resist.

Zizhen gasps and turns to look at him with a betrayed expression.  “Jin Ling!”

Jin Ling just raises an eyebrow at him.  Yi City was Jin Ling’s first real interaction with Zizhen, and Zizhen had baffled him at the time.  He’d called a ghost who was bleeding out of the mouth and eyes ‘bound to be lovely’.  And then cried over a girl he’d never met.  Jin Ling had been prepared to give him a wide berth no matter how cute he was.  But then, when dinner came and Jin Ling sat down by himself as usual, Zizhen had plopped himself down on the other side of the table, declared them to be friends, and refused to leave no matter what Jin Ling said.  Jin Ling wouldn’t say he fell in love with him right then, but he still remembers the warm feeling blooming in his chest.

Ziwan looks from Zizhen to Jin Ling and then shakes her head.  Her expression says ‘I don’t want to know’, but Jin Ling finds it hard to believe that Zizhen hasn’t told her everything about Yi City at least five times.  

“So,” Zizhen says gently fanning himself.  “What’s the plan for the rest of the day Jin Ling.”

“Whatever,” Jin Ling says.  “There’s the market if you want to go.  Dinner will be in the sitting room.”

“Sounds perfect,” Zizhen says.  He smiles at Jin Ling over the top of his fan, and Jin Ling has to look away.  “The market here is so much more fun than back home.”

Ziwan is watching them with a neutral expression. Jin Ling gets the sense she’s annoyed, but he has no idea why.

Once they finish the tea, the three of them get up.  Zizhen eyes Jin Ling, who raises an eyebrow at him.

“Jin Ling, how many layers are you wearing?” Zizhen asks.

“Seven,” Jin Ling says, barely resisting the urge to pull at his collar.  He hates summer, and he hates these robes.  It’s hot and sticky and the silk is clinging to his skin.

“Are you crazy?” Zizhen asks, “go take a few off.  You’re going to faint.”

“No, I’m not,” Jin Ling scowls at him.  “I’m a sect leader, Zizhen; I have appearances to maintain.  I can’t just wear whatever I want!”

“You won’t look very dignified if you pass out!”

“As if I would!”  The two of them stare at each other for a long moment.

Ziwan rolls her eyes and grabs her brother by the shoulder.  She says something into his ear that Jin Ling can’t hear.  But Zizhen rolls his eyes and pushes her off.  

“Are we going to the city then?” Ziwan asks with her arms crossed.

“This way then,” Jin Ling says and stalks towards the door.  The Ouyang twins trail after him, and Fairy trots along behind them with her collar jingling happily.  It’s not very long before Zizhen catches up and puts a hand on his arm.  There’s plenty of room for Ziwan to walk beside them, but she seems content to hang back with Fairy beside her.  Jin Ling still isn’t sure why she’s joining in the first place when she clearly doesn’t enjoy his company.

“Have you heard anything,” Zizhen says in an undertone.

“Anything?”

“From Sizhui?”  

“Nothing since the last message.” Jin Ling frowns. 

“Oh.”  The disappointment in Zizhen’s voice is so obvious that Jin Ling is seized by the desire to comfort him.  His hand clenches on Suihua.  He glances at Zizhen, who’s chewing on his bottom lip.  Zizhen is closer to Jingyi than Jin Ling is.  Jingyi might even be Zizhen’s closest friend.  Jin Ling has never been brave enough to ask; he doesn’t want to hear that Zizhen likes Jingyi better than him even if it’s true.  

“But I got a letter from Jingyi,” he says even quieter than Zizhen had.  He can’t see anyone in the hallway, but that doesn’t mean there’s no one around.  The covered walkway they are in is made with gold gilded lattice walls.  But almost all the walls in Koi Tower are carved, molded, and decorated.  Many of them have holes for spying and many are thin enough to listen through.  Jin Ling doesn’t think that even Xiaoshu, Jin Guangyao, knew all the secret places of Koi Tower, which is built more like a paranoid emperor’s palace than the seat of a cultivation sect.  He certainly doesn't know them all. 

Jin Ling also knows that the elders have people keep an eye on him.  Zumu has people keep an eye on him.  Sect Leader Nie probably also has people keeping an eye on him.  The only place he feels confident in being alone is the privacy of his own rooms.

“What did it say?” Zizhen has brought his fan up.  Jin Ling’s not sure if it’s out of habit or if he’s trying to hide his face.

“I don't know.  It came this morning.  We can read it together.”  Jin Ling watches Zizhen as he talks.  His black eyes are still sad, but a small smile turns up the corner of his mouth.  

“Sounds good,” he says.

“Are you two going to whisper together all the way to the market?” Ziwan’s voice startles Jin Ling.  He straightens his spine and elbows Zizhen away until they aren’t touching anymore.  

It’s a relief to be out of Koi Tower even if it means descending way too many stairs.  Lanling is bustling and busy, but people give the four of them space.  Somewhere between the end of the stairs and the beginning of the market, Zizhen glues himself to Jin Ling’s side again.  Ziwan steps up beside them, and Fairy moves to Jin Ling’s other side.  

Ziwan’s dark eyes scan the crowd before them.  Usually, Jin Ling’s friends relax when they go into the market, outside the oppressive atmosphere of Koi Tower and out from under the eye of senior cultivators.  Even Sizhui, who always walks with his hand neatly behind his back, relaxes a bit, his shoulders softening and sword held a bit lower.  But Ziwan does no such thing.  Her hand stays neatly at her waist, and her posture is just as straight.  Just looking at her makes Jin Ling straighten up a bit.

They enter the market, and Jin Ling lets Zizhen lead the way.  He flits from stall to stall, tugging Jin Ling along behind him.  There are stalls that Jin Ling knows Zizhen likes, a man who sells stories imported from Nihon , a woman who collects rare books, an artist who paints fans in Zizhen’s favorite style, a grandmother who sells glazed sweet potatoes, and so on.  

Jin Ling stops to buy strawberries crystalized in honey, while Zizhen is discussing poetry with an old uncle.  When they’re done talking, Jin Ling offers one to Zizhen, who beams at him, and Jin Ling’s heart flips over.

“Take it,” he shoves both skewers into Zizhen’s hand and turns away.  

He offers the last one to Ziwan, who is watching them with another exasperated expression.  She takes the treat and thanks him.  

The next stall Zizhen goes to is one decorated with fans.  Most of them, he passes right over.  Jin Ling stands back a bit, watching with his arms crossed and his scowl on his face.  He has a good idea of which one’s Zizhen will and won’t like.  He prefers the ones with art to calligraphy.  He dislikes anything that’s gaudy.  He enjoys color, but only when it's well balanced.  Most of the fans at this stall are too ostentatious for Zizhen’s taste; they are obviously designed with Lanling Jin in mind.  

The stall keeper tells Zizhen that ‘he is a man of discerning taste’, and Jin Ling rolls his eyes at the obvious pandering.  The man asks Zizhen who he’s buying a fan for, apparently not seeing the fan tucked into Zizhen’s belt.  When the man tells Zizhen that whatever young lady he’s thinking about is very lucky to have such a conscientious suitor, Jin Ling’s jaw clenches so hard it hurts.  But Zizhen only laughs, shakes his head, and walks away.

“A-Ling,” he says, “you look like a thunder cloud.”

“He was annoying,” is all that Jin Ling says.  He can feel Ziwan’s gaze on the pair of them.  Jin Ling redirects Zizhen in the direction of a different fan maker.  Someone with simpler, more refined taste that he thinks Zizhen will like better.  He’s right.  There’s one specifically that catches Zizhen’s attention.  It's made of carefully painted paper that changes from blue to white and is painted with magnolia blossoms.  He turns it over a few times, gently opening it and closing it as if testing it.

Jin Ling remembers the sad expression in ZIzhen’s eyes earlier and the whole ordeal with Sizhui and Jingyi waiting for them back in Koi Tower.  Another glances at Zizhen’s face as he admires the fan, and Jin Ling is pulling out his money pouch.  He shoves the money into the shopkeeper’s hands.

“Keep it,” he says.  Not quite sure whether he means ZIzhen or the shopkeeper.

“A-Ling?” Zizhen asks, obviously surprised.  Jin Ling’s heartbeat picks up as panic spikes.  Did he just overstep? Friends buy each other things, right? The three of them are constantly mooching off of him anyway.  He’s definitely seen Sizhui and Jingyi buying each other things, like the grass butterfly in Tanzhou.  Fairy presses herself against his knee in silent support.

“Do you want it or not?” Jin Ling demands crossing his arms as if to cage the feelings bubbling up in his chest.  

“I,” Zizhen says and stops again.

“Well, it’s already paid for,” Jin Ling turns away.  Anxiety threatens to squeeze him until he can’t breathe, and his face feels hot.  He knows that Zizhen wants the stupid fan, can’t he just take it?

“Thank you, A-Ling,” Zizhen’s voice is soft, but Jin Ling doesn’t turn back around to look at him.  Zizhen holds the fan to his chest for a moment before letting the shopkeeper take it from him to neatly box it up for him.  

“Whatever.”

As Jin Ling looks around the market, looking anywhere and everywhere except for Zizhen, his gaze falls on Ziwan, who is watching him with an unreadable expression.  Still, Jin Ling gets a sense of annoyance and displeasure from her.  Irritation flares.  No matter what he does, Ziwan always seems to be judging him.  It’s a familiar feeling and one Jin Ling decidedly dislikes.  Bit Ziwan is Zizhen’s twin sister, so he bites back the desire to bark at her and just turns away with his jaw clenched.  One hand drops down to the soft fur on Fairy’s back.  

A touch on his shoulder surprises him, and he looks to see Zizhen, who is smiling at him, and clinging to his arm as if nothing had happened.  Relief floods through Jin Ling like a wave.   Zizhen pulls him along to the next stall and then the next, and Ziwan trails along behind them.  

They’ve been here for hours, they must have, because the crowd is starting to get under Jin Ling’s skin, and he’s getting tired.  He’s still sweating under his robes, and the people pressing around him decidedly do not help.  But Zizhen is smiling, so maybe the entire experience isn't horrible.  

“Ouyang Ziwan,” a voice comes from somewhere to the left.  Both Ziwan and Zizhen turn around, it's an unfortunate result of having such similar names.  Zizhen is clinging to Jin Ling, so he has to turn or have his arm pulled off by Zizhen.  

A tall woman dressed in Qinghe Nie robes and with a saber strapped to her back is standing there.  There’s a small gap in the crowd around her, though Jin Ling’s not sure if it's because of the saber or the woman’s intimidating presence.  

“Nie Qiuyue,” Ziwan says in a formal voice.  But then both women grin.  The smile on Ziwan’s face is soft and bright, and for those few moments, she looks almost exactly like Zizhen.  Jin Ling gapes for a second.  He has never seen Ziwan or Head Disciple Nie smile like that.  Automatically, he looks at Zizhen for a response, and he looks almost as shocked as Jin Ling feels.  Then he snaps his fan open, hiding his mouth, and his eyes go from shocked to curious.

Nie Qiuyue steps forward and wraps her arms around Ziwan, pulling her into what looks like a back-breaking hug.  Ziwan lets herself be embraced, and even gives the other woman a quick squeeze on the arm in response.  It’s everything Jin Ling can do to keep from gaping.  

“I didn’t know you were going to be in Lanling!” Ziwan says.  Her face has settled back down into its normal vaguely irritated position, and Jin Ling is grateful for it.  It was disconcerting to see Ziwan behaving so strangely.  

“You told me you were finally getting out of Baling.  Lanling is close enough to Qinghe; so I took a few days off.”

“I-,” Ziwan says, and for an instant, Jin Ling thinks there’s a blush on her face.  “Thank you, Qiuyue.”

Nie Qiuyue looks over Ziwan’s head to Jin Ling and Zizhen.  Her gaze goes first to Zizhen, who’s still hiding half his face behind his fan, to Zizhen’s hand wrapped around Jin Ling’s arm, to Jin Ling, who meets her gaze with a flat expression.  

“Sect Leader Jin,” she says, sounding surprised.  

“First disciple Nie,” Jin Ling inclines his head.

Nie Qiuyue moves to bring her hands together in a bow, but Zizhen snaps his fan shut with an audible click, interrupting her.

“None of that,” he says, “we’re friends here.  Right, A-Ling?”  Zizhen leans into him, silently telling him to go along with this.  

“Whatever,” Jin Ling says with a roll of his eyes.  Zizhen’s only asking because it’s Jin Ling who has the political power in this situation.  And Jin Ling doesn’t particularly care if Nie Qiuyue bows to him or not.  

“Jiejie,” Zizhen says.  His voice is sweet, but there’s an edge to it.  

“Didi,” Ziwan says, and there’s a warning in her voice.  There’s a long pause as the twins stare at each other while Nie Qiuyue and Jin Ling watch.  There’s obviously some sort of silent conversation or test of wills going on.   Ziwan’s chin is raised slightly, and her eyes are narrowed.  Zizhen’s still gently fluttering his fan, but his dark eyes are intense over his smile.  The only hint Jin Ling has to what's going on is the tension in Zizhen’s body that belies his relaxed pose.  Jin Ling frowns.

“I don’t think I’ve met your friend,” Zizhen says with a genuine smile for Nie Qiuyue.  Someone else might have thought Ziwan had cowed him into behaving, but Jin Ling knows that Zizhen is playing his own game now.  

Ziwan straightens her posture and tosses her head, expression slightly irritated.  “Didi, this is Nie Qiuyue.  We were disciples at The Cloud Recesses together.  She’s a good friend.” 

“I’m happy to meet any friend of Jiejie’s,” Zizhen says.

“It is good to meet you at last,” Nie Quiyue says.  She doesn’t smile exactly, but her expression is friendly.   “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

Ziwan scowls at that.  She mutters under her breath something that sounds like ‘don’t encourage him’.  Zizhen tilts his head the way he does when he’s trying to be charming.  

“I hope some of it, at least, was good.”  

Jin Ling keeps his gaze on Ziwan and Nie Qiuyue because the only thing that looking at Zizhen when he’s trying extra hard to be pretty is going to do is send Jin Ling into heart failure.

“Some of it,” Nie Qiuyue says with a nod of her head and a small smile at the edge of her lips.  Zizhen laughs, though Jin Ling isn’t exactly sure why, and taps his closed fan against his sister’s shoulder. 

Ziwan narrows her eyes at her brother, who just looks back with a wide-eyed innocent expression.  Nie Qiuyue glances from the twins to Jin Ling with a raised eyebrow.  He shrugs; he doesn’t know what’s going on either.

“Sect Leader Jin, Young Master Ouyang,” Nie Qiuyue says before either Zizhen or Ziwan has a chance to open their mouth. “I beg your pardon, but I’d like to steal Ziwan for the evening.”

“Call him Zizhen.  Flattery just goes to his head,” Ziwan says, making a face.

Zizhen’s black eyes are glittering, and Jin Ling is thoroughly confused.  He looks at Zizhen; he has no say in whether Ziwan does anything or not.  But if Zizhen doesn’t want her to go, he might object.

“We’re just enjoying the afternoon,” Zizhen says, “Jiejie is free to do as she wishes.”

Jin Ling nods his agreement because it’s expected.

“We’ll take our leave then,” Ziwan says.  

Zizhen elbows Jin Ling in the ribs, and he bites back a wince, frowning at his friend.  Zizhen mouths the words Koi Tower behind his fan and Jin Ling sighs.

“First Disciple Nie,” he says.

“Yes, Sect leader Jin?”

“Zizhen and his sister are guests of mine.  You are welcome to join us in Koi Tower.  I can have a room arranged for you next to theirs.  A servant can show you the way to your rooms when you return.”

“I don’t want to cause any trouble for you, Sect leader Jin.”

“It’s no trouble,” Jin Ling says, trying to ignore the smile that Zizhen is giving him.

“Don’t trouble yourself further, Sect Leader,” Ziwan says, “Qiuyue can share a room with me.”

Out of the corner of his eyes, Jin Ling watches Zizhen’s face flit through a series of expressions and he pauses.

“As you wish,” Jin Ling says after the moment.  If Zizhen has a problem with it, he can take it up with his sister.  It’s out of Jin Ling’s hands now.  The twins exchange another look, and Jin Ling glances at Nie Qiuyue who shrugs slightly.

“Let’s go, Qiuyue,” Ziwan says, catching her friend by the arm and turning her away.  Zizhen is giving her a look that says ‘we will be talking about this later’, but Ziwan ignores it.  Jin Ling has been a victim of that expression often enough to know that Ziwan can ignore the expression all she wants, the matter will be talked about later.

Nie Qiuyue is tall, taller than Zizhen and almost as tall as Jin Ling, and she has the broad shoulders and heavier build of the Qinghe Nie.  Ziwan looks almost delicate beside her, delicate, but never fragile.  Jin Ling and Zizhen watch the pair of them for a moment.  Zizhen’s gaze lingers on his sister's hand, which is still on Nie Qiuyue’s elbow.

After a pause Zizhen spins around to face Jin Ling, snapping his fan closed almost aggressively and slapping it against his thigh.

“I cannot believe her!” he says before grabbing Jin Ling’s elbow and towing him away.

Chapter Text

I stare into the blackness
It's staring back at me
Why did I try to live without you?
I want you, I need you

The road that winds north under Jingyi’s feet has become rough and narrow.  It’s broad enough to accommodate the oxcarts of the occasional farmers who live in this area, but the three of them have to step off the road to let the carts by.  It’s now several hours past noon and the shadows are growing long, though there are still many hours left in the day.  

There’s something bothering Jingyi, putting him on edge.  It’s almost the sensation of a storm coming; he glances at the sky, but there’s nothing.  For a few moments, he’s confused, trying to figure out what’s going on.  Then his brain catches up to his instincts, and his hand drops to his sword: resentful energy.

He stops walking, and both Liling and Peizhi turn to look at him.

“What?” Peizhi says, but Jingyi raises a hand for silence.  

He turns to face the woods that push up against one side of the road, pulling his compass of evil out to confirm.  The needle’s pointing straight into the trees.  

“Right,” Jingyi says, mind racing.  “There’s something in the woods.  I want both of you to go back along the road the way we came.  Don’t argue.”

Peizhi opens his mouth, but Liling tugs on his sleeve.  Jingyi jerks his chin along the road and motions for them to hurry.  Whatever is in the woods has strong resentful energy.  Jingyi loosens his sword in its sheath before rolling his shoulders and rising up to the balls of his feet and stretching.  As soon as he’s certain Liling and Peizhi are on their way out of his way, he moves into the trees.

The foliage isn’t dense, and he slips through silently.  Jingyi strains his ears for any sound as he moves.  The ground is dappled sun and shade, making the lighting unreliable, but his gaze systematically searches the surrounding area.  As he expected, he hears the creature before he sees it.

He freezes in place, listening for clues to what’s ahead.  Whatever it is is moving fast, and that makes it hard for him to guess.  Usually, he has an idea of what he’s hunting, not having any at all is making him nervous.  He wishes desperately that Sizhui was here.  He’s alone and has no clue what he’s about to fight.  His stomach clenches with anxiety.  At least it's not dark.  

But Jingyi has never ducked out on a night hunt.  Neither his fear of ghosts nor of the dark has ever stopped him.  And this won’t stop him either.  He can do this, he reminds himself.  He defeated the hoard of corpses raised by the demonic cultivator.  He can do this.  The likelihood of it being something like the snake is very low, so he tries not to think about it.  

Silently, he draws his sword fully and moves forward.  He sees a flash of black fabric.  Is there another cultivator here?  Another step forward, there’s definitely a human-sized figure moving through the woods ahead of him.  It could be another cultivator hunting whatever is giving off the resentful energy or it could be a demonic cultivator or a fierce corpse.  At least it’s not the Wen cultivator.

There’s nothing else for it.  Jingyi steps out from his position. There is only a moment for him to process that the figure in front of him is male and dressed in black before a sword is coming at him.  Instinctively, he parries the blow, moving sideways to get away from the attack.  But a second blow doesn’t come.

The figure in front of him is dressed entirely in black except for the snow-white sword strapped across his back.  Jingyi’s eyes slide along the blade pointed at him; he recognizes it.  Slowly, he lowers his own blade.

Song Lan watches Jingyi with a gaze somewhere in between suspicious and cautious.  Jingyi can’t blame him; many cultivators would kill Song Lan just for being a fierce corpse, regardless of the fact that he has regained sentience.  

Jingyi’s well-trained ears can still pick up the sound of something moving in the woods.

“I interrupted your night hunt, didn’t I?  My apologies,” Jingyi says.  His mind is moving faster than his mouth can keep up. “Is it? Uhm, should you?”  He gestures vaguely.

One last critical look at Jingyi and Song Lan spins around.  He darts through the woods, faster than any human could hope to move. Automatically, Jingyi moves to give him back up, even though there’s no way he’d be of any use.  Luckily the monster hasn’t had time to get far, because Jingyi wouldn’t have been able to keep up with Song Lan.  

The monster, which looks like a boar, turns to face Song Lan.  It’s oversized, gorged on resentful energy.  The beast scratches its hooves into the soil, prepared to charge at its opponent.  But it doesn’t get the chance.  In a motion so fast, it’s a blur to Jingyi, Song Lan attacks.  Jingyi’s skin prickles with resentful energy.  Song Lan moves away almost as fast as he came, completely avoiding the blood and dirt that spray as the monster’s head comes free and falls to the ground.  Song Lan’s dark eyes are full of distaste when he turns his gaze from the beast to Jingyi.

Jingyi sheaths his sword slowly, careful not to make any threatening moves.  He has no delusions as to who would win in a fight between them.  He’s seen Senior Wen and Song Lan in action; it wouldn’t even be a fight.   

Sword sheathed, Jingyi raises his hands together and bows to Song Lan.  The expression on Song Lan’s face goes from caution to confusion.

“Greetings Song Lan,” he says. “I am An Jingyi, a rogue cultivator.”

After a moment, Song Lan sheaths his sword and offers Jingyi a bow in return.  There’s curiosity on Song Lan’s face.  There’s a silence before Jingyi remembers that he’s mute.

“I recognize you from Yi City,” Jingyi admits, trying not to wince.  He doesn’t want to remind this man of the worst experiences of his life or unlife.  “I was one of the junior disciples.”

Most people wouldn’t have noticed the change in Song Lan’s face because the only thing that changes about his expression is his eyes. But Jingyi was raised in Gusu watching the Twin Jades, and he is best friends with Sizhui.  He has even traveled with Wen Ning.  He is used to watching the way someone’s eyes change, ignoring the smile or frown underneath, and there is almost unbearable sadness in them.  

Jingyi, in a rare moment, is struck dumb.  Part of him is filled with a burbling desperate need to help, and part of him just aches.  There’s nothing Jingyi can do.  

“I’m traveling with some companions.  Would you like to join us for a while?”  The words are out of his mouth before he can stop them, and he almost winces.  He really doubts that Song Lan has any interest in hanging around with a bunch of kids.  He almost feels like a junior disciple again as he fumbles for words.  “At least for an evening? I mean, there’ll be a fire.  I don’t know if you want some company.  It’s totally fine if you just want me to go away.  I can go away.”

There’s a long moment as Jingyi waits for some sort of response from Song Lan, a nod, a shake of the head, a sign for Jingyi to fuck off and leave him alone maybe.  It shouldn’t be uncomfortable talking to someone who can’t talk back; he’s spent most of his childhood around Hanguang-jun and thought he’d grown accustomed to minimal response, but he finds himself filled with the same almost irrepressible desire to fill the silence that he’d had as a child interacting with Hanguang-jun.

But as he waits a thought comes to him, maybe it’s the lingering feeling of resentful energy in the air, maybe it's the memories of Yi City and Xue Yang, but Jingyi remembers the demonic cultivator.

“Oh!” Jingyi exclaims, and Song Lan raises an eyebrow at his outburst.  “There’s something you should know.  There’s a demonic cultivator, a decently strong one, that I encountered.  I don’t know if she could control you; she would definitely try.  I, uh, well there’s a whole story.  Maybe it’ll be best if I tell you the whole thing?  Maybe we could go sit; it might be more comfortable than standing in the forest the whole time.”

After a moment, Song Lan nods.  There’s something like faint amusement in his expression; Jingyi has seen it often enough on Hanguang-jun.  

“This way then,” Jingyi says and starts back towards the road.  For a short while, Jingyi keeps his mouth firmly shut as he tries to sort out his thoughts.  He tries to focus on what he should tell Song Lan about the demonic cultivator, but memories of Yi City and the story of Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen keep interrupting.  In Yi City, Xue Yang had done something to control Song Lan and Senior Wei had freed him.  Jingyi doesn’t know if the Wen demonic cultivator has the ability to take control of a sentient fierce corpse, but he fervently hopes not.

“I’ll tell you what I know,” Jingyi says as they exit the trees, “I have paper for you to write questions on, but that’ll have to wait until we sit down I guess?”

Song Lan gives him a single nod, and so Jingyi tells him.  Years of writing night hunt reports give him a guideline as he talks, making sure to cover important details.  But, by his own nature, he finds himself telling a story more than giving a report.  Still, he tries to keep it brief, he really does.

They have to walk a bit down the road before they reach the place where Liling and Peizhi had stopped.  They’d been smart enough to wait for a break in the trees and to sit opposite the forested area on the edge of a fallow field. They look up at the sound of footsteps, and Peizhi raises a hand to wave but freezes halfway through the motion at the sight of Song Lan.  

Jingyi pauses in the middle of his sentence; he was mostly done telling the story anyway.  He’d been so focused on dealing with Song Lan that it hadn’t occurred to him how this might look to Peizhi and Liling.  Undoubtedly, they had never seen a fierce corpse, let alone one walking around carrying two swords.

Liling and Peizhi both have wide eyes, and Liling leans closer to her brother.  Out of the corner of his eye, Jingyi sees something on Song Lan’s face.  He can’t tell what it is, but he can guess.  In the past, he’s seen the look on Senior Wen’s face when people shy away from him.  Song Lan once wanted to found a sect where anyone could learn, and he traveled the world helping the average people that the big sects often overlooked.  How must it feel to constantly be faced by their fear now?

“Liling, Peizhi,” Jingyi says, keeping his voice bright and excited.  He doesn’t allow any of his anxiety or worry to show.  His shoulders are tense and his fingers drum against his thigh in a rapid staccato motion, but he knows from experience that almost no one ever picks up on his tells.  

“This is Song Lan, he...”  Again, Jingyi is faced with a quandary. Once, Jingyi would have introduced him as Song Lan, the distant snow and cold frost, but that title had only ever been given out with its pair: Xiao Xingchen, the cool moon and gentle breeze.  “Is a well renowned rogue cultivator.”

It may be technically more accurate to say that he was a well-known rogue cultivator, but what Jingyi said isn’t technically a lie.  Song Lan raises an eyebrow at Jingyi’s choice of words but doesn’t react otherwise.  “He was night hunting, and I interrupted.  I thought he could join us for the evening.”

Liling and Peizhi are both still clearly unnerved; Jingyi really can’t blame them seeing how he just walked up with a fierce corpse and invited him to dinner.  He’d been raised as a cultivator and still been terrified when he first encountered Senior Wen, then again Senior Wen had dismembered a god right in front of him and then tried to kill Jin Ling.  Still, maybe he should be grateful they aren’t completely panicking.  But it seems that Jingyi’s obvious cheer has soothed the edge of their fear, and they nod in acceptance.

“This is Zhou Peizhi and Zhou Liling.  We’re traveling together for now.”

Song Lan takes them in.  It’s obvious by their clothes and the lack of swords that they are not cultivators and that seems to relax him a bit.  

“I’ll just get a fire started then?” Peizhi says, and his voice is a little off, but Jingyi doesn’t comment on it. 

“That’d be great, thanks.  There’s information I need to give Song Lan.”

Jingyi fishes in his qiankun pouch for his paper and brush and ink block.  Once he’s passed the paper over to Song Lan, he glances at his companions again.  Peizhi has headed across the road to gather some wood.  Liling is kneeling by their bags and going through them, but every few moments she gives a furtive glance at Song Lan.  Jingyi offers her another smile, trying to calm her as best he can without drawing attention to her distress.

When Song Lan returns the paper to Jingyi it's covered in meticulously neat writing asking practical questions.  The writing reminds him of Old Master Lan’s writing; exact and precise instead of graceful like Zewu-jun’s or Sizhui’s.  Going down the list of questions, Jingyi provides as many details as he can: a better description of the location, precise details of her appearance, and what he knows about her poison attack.  

Jingyi only barely manages to stop himself from asking about Song Lan’s experience with Xue Yang.  He wants to know more about the story that Senior Wei had told him about with a burning passion, but it’d be cruel to ask him to relive his suffering for Jingyi’s entertainment, and Jingyi is careless, sometimes, but never cruel.

“I was unable to identify the poison used,” Jingyi says carefully, “do you have information that might help me determine what it is?”

For a moment, Song Lan closes his eyes, and it hits Jingyi that he is looking at Xiao Xingchen’s eyes.  It’s a discomforting notion.  When Song Lan opens his eyes he writes a handful of characters and hands it to Jingyi.

The blinding poison burns the skin.  You would have felt it.

With a nod, Jingyi hands the paper back.  A silence stretches around them, and Jingyi glances at his other companions.  Peizhi returned while Jingyi was talking, and now both siblings keep looking at Jingyi and Song Lan with wide eyes.  Peizhi has set the wood for the fire, and Jingyi quickly pulls a talisman from his sleeve to light it.  The paper glows blue before striking the wood and igniting.  Then Jingyi turns his attention back to Song Lan.

“May I ask,” Jingyi says, to be polite, because he’s going to ask anyway.  “What you are going to do?”

There’s a pause before Song Lan starts to write, and Jingyi finds himself drumming his fingers on the scabbard of his sword.  He has never been great with silence, even though he was raised in the Cloud Recesses, and has to fight the urge to babble just to fill the silence.  

He reads the reply when it’s handed to him, carefully not snatching it from the other man’s hands.  He’s also careful not to touch Song Lan as he takes the paper, remembering his mysophobia.

I will not go after her.  Her fight is with the immortal sects, and I have never been associated with them.  I do not think they would appreciate my help as I am, and they have no need of it.  There are people out here, where no sects patrol, who need help.  So here I will remain.

All Jingyi can do is nod.  

“I have one question if you don’t mind.  You don’t have to answer, of course.  But I’m concerned.  Would she be able to control you if she tracked you down?  Because it would be… bad.”  Bad is an understatement, but he’s not sure what else to say.

The answer, when it comes, is not as reassuring as he might have hoped.

I cannot be sure.  She could not easily do so.  Xue Yang had to use iron nails to control Wen Qionglin and me.  Perhaps she could do such a thing, but only if I was defeated in battle first.  

“That's something at least.”  Jingyi had hoped for a solid ‘no’, but he probably shouldn’t have expected one.  Demonic cultivation is full of unknowns, Senior Wei has said it himself many times.  Senior Wei may have invented the path, but there are many questions that even he doesn’t have answers to.  

Jingyi’s fingers drum on the sword hilt.  When he’d interacted with the demonic cultivator, it had seemed clear to him that she didn't have the skill or the knowledge to raise a sentient fierce corpse.  It hadn’t occurred to him until now that she might be able to control Senior Wen or Song Lan.  The idea leaves him cold inside.  He knows the stories of what Senior Wen has done.  Even though he saw Senior Wen fight the dancing Peri god, he still can’t quite reconcile the violence of his past with the sweet man that Jingyi has gotten to know.  

Without Jingyi talking, the campsite has gone completely quiet.  The Zhou siblings are quietly working across the fire.  But Song Lan has started writing again.  Curious, Jingyi tilts his head, but he can’t see anything yet.  But he doesn’t have to wait very long.

You might be considering going after this demonic cultivator.  You are young and still want to save the world.  I can’t tell you what to do, but consider carefully.  The woman is more dangerous than she seems.  I once thought it would be easy to defeat Xue Yang.  He was only a delinquent after all.  It won’t be like fighting another cultivator or night hunting.  She will take advantage of your weaknesses.  

Jingyi takes a moment to digest the words.  Really, he hadn’t considered hunting down the demonic cultivator on his own. 

“I won’t go after her,” Jingyi says.  “Qinghe Nie is a righteous sect; they’ll take care of her.  I wish.” Jingyi sighs.  He knows he’s being sentimental, but he says it anyway.  “I wish she could be saved, that she might change her mind.  But I know I wouldn’t be able to do it.  And if she has to be hunted down and killed, then I want nothing to do with it.”

As he finishes speaking, Jingyi keeps his gaze on the flames that Peizhi is tending.  He can’t see the expressions of his friends, which are somewhere between horrified and curious. 

Song Lan gives him a single approving nod.  It’s something he’s seen many times from Hanguang-jun, and it warms him a bit.  They lapse into silence again, but Jingyi doesn’t have anything to fill it just then.  Thinking about the Wen woman being killed leaves him feeling chilled.  He tries to remind himself that she’s killed people, that she planning on killing even more people, but the idea of murder still doesn’t sit well with him.  It should feel just, but it only feels hollow.

Forcefully, Jingyi shoves the thoughts out of his mind.  Whatever happens there is out of his control. There’s nothing he could do even if he tracked her down.  Instead, he looks down at the papers in front of him.  

‘There are people out here, where no sects patrol, who need help. So here I will remain. ’ The words stand out to Jingyi.  Despite everything, Song Lan hasn’t given up on helping people.  And isn’t this what Jingyi was looking for? A place away from the sects where he can use his skills to help people?  But this half-forgotten piece of land somewhere north of Qinghe doesn’t feel like a destination; he doesn’t feel like he’s reached anywhere.  

Across the fire, Liling has put a pot over the fire to heat up dinner, and Peizhi silently helps her.  How long will they travel with him, Jingyi wonders?  Not for too long, they have a family and a home to go back to.  The fire in front of Jingyi does nothing about the cold feeling in his heart.

Song Lan hands Jingyi a piece of paper.  Jingyi blinks in surprise and glances down at the paper.

I will go now.

Are you sure? You can stay.” 

Song Lan picks up the brush to write, and there is a small, sad smile on his face.  

It is time for you to eat and sleep, and I have no need for either.  It was nice to be with people again and to talk.  Thank you.

While Jingyi is reading the message, Song Lan stands.  Jingyi jumps to his feet.  Part of him wants to try again, to ask Song Lan to stay.  ‘It is nice to be with people again’ .  How long has Song Lan been alone?  Instead, he bites back his words and offers a deep bow.

“It is an honor to meet you again.”  He means it.

Jingyi watches him go, the black lines of his figure fading into the fading light except for the stark white line of Shuanghua.  White for mourning.  When Jingyi heard the story of Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan from Senior Wei, it had broken his heart.  But even though he had seen the man it still felt like nothing more than a story, maybe because he’d interacted with him so briefly.  Now, watching the man fade into the distance it feels different.

When he’d encountered Song Lan in Yi City, Jingyi had been scared witless, but he'd been with Sizhui and his fellow disciples.  When they’d heard the whole story, at last, Zizhen had hugged him as the two of them cried.  Even Sizhui had sat beside him with shining eyes.  But most of his fellow disciples are dead now.  And he’s never going to see Zizhen or Sizhui again.  There are no tears this time; he feels too hollow.

“Jingyi?” Liling asks.  Jingyi is still staring into the dark where Song Lan vanished.  

“Yeah?”  Slowly, Jingyi returns to his seat.  There’s a small folded square of paper that he hadn’t noticed.  He picks it up; he can see that there’s writing on it.

“Are you going to eat?”

“Yeah,” Jingyi says, feeling a bit mechanical, “I should.”

Now that Song Lan has left, Peizhi and Liling both move to sit closer to Jingyi.  For a few minutes they eat in silence but it doesn’t last.  Peizhi is too curious.

“That man, he was, he was dead right?”

Jingyi laughs a bit at that.  “Yeah,” he says, “he’s a fierce corpse.”

“But he’s still a person? I thought that corpses weren’t sentient!”

“They aren’t,” Jingyi says, “except for two.”

“Two?” 

“Two.  The first one was the Ghost General, Wen Qionglin; he was raised by the Yiling Patriarch.  No one thought it was possible, because no one had ever done it before.  The Yiling Patriarch died, and some corrupt cultivators got a hold of his notes.  A demonic cultivator was able to use those notes when he killed and resurrected Song Lan.  But that cultivator is dead.”

“Why didn’t he talk?” Liling asks quietly.  “Is it because he’s dead?”

“No,” Jingyi says, “It’s because his tongue was cut out before he died.”

Liling’s face goes white, and she shivers slightly.  Jingyi understands her response.  To some degree, cultivators are desensitized to blood and violence, but this had horrified him too.  A memory of A-Qing passes before his eyes, and he shudders. It’s been three years, and he still has absolutely no idea what about her had caused Zizhen to say she was bound to be lovely.  

Abruptly, he remembers the discipline courtyard and Sizhui with blood pouring down his face where he’d bitten through his lip.  He’s thought of A-Qing then as well. 

“Did you know him before he died?”  Peizhi asks.  Jingyi is grateful for the interruption.

Jingyi shakes his head, focusing on the conversation, “I only met him like this.”

“Jingyi,” Liling asks, and her voice is unsure, “The woman you were talking about?”

He sighs, “When I went on the night hunt to help the magistrate, I came across a woman using demonic cultivation, like the Yiling Patriarch.  Except, instead of protecting people, she was killing them.  She wants revenge for something that happened a long time ago.  I tried to change her mind, but it didn’t work.  If she doesn’t stop, they’ll be forced to kill her.”

Liling’s face is pale, and Jingyi feels bad for scaring her, but he’s not going to lie to them.  “Couldn’t they arrest her instead?” She asks.

“They could,” Jingyi says, “but they won’t.  Six years ago, there was a demonic cultivator who massacred a whole sect.  Those who captured him imprisoned him instead of killing him despite the complaints of other sects.  He was let free, or he escaped, and he went right back to what he had been doing.  He destroyed a temple and killed everyone inside.  He’s the reason Song Lan is the way he is now.  They won’t risk that happening again.”

Both Liling and Peizhi are looking at him with wide eyes now.

“I told you being a cultivator was dangerous,” he says with a rueful smile.  

“That’s…. that’s horrible!” Liling says, hunching her shoulders.  Peizhi rubs his sister’s back a few times, leaving his hand there in silent comfort. 

“Why does he carry two swords?  Does he fight with two swords?” Peizhi says, obviously trying to shift the conversation to something less gruesome.   “Why is only one white?”

“No,” Jingyi says, “he only uses one sword.  The other sword, the white one, isn’t his.  It’s owner is dead.  I guess you could say that he carries it to remember him.”

“How do you know so much about this Song Lan?”

Jingyi sighs and stares into the fire.  “I told you a while ago about a place called Yi City. That’s where we met.”  Jingyi sighs, “Maybe, that’ll be easier if I just tell you the whole story.”

Peizhi’s eyes light up, and he leans forward.  Beside him, Liling doesn’t look nearly as excited, but her face is curious.

Setting his food bowl down, Jingyi resettles himself into a comfortable position.

“This story is a long and tragic one,” Jingyi warns.  “More than ten years ago, a pair of rogue cultivators gathered renown among the common people and cultivators alike.  They were both humble and skilled.  Together, they traveled through China and they would help anyone who needed it.  They were known as Xiao Xingchen the cool moon and gentle breeze and Song Lan, the distant snow and cold frost…”

From there, Jingyi tells him the story of Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen as best he can.  The only light is the fire, which starts to burn low as the story nears completion.  Liling has tucked herself into her brother’s side and is watching Jingyi with tears shining in her eyes. 

“He travels alone now, with only a sword and the remnants of his partner’s soul to keep him company.  And he’ll continue to do so long after the rest of us are dead.”

His voice fades away, leaving only the sound of the fire cracking and popping. 

“I didn’t know,” Liling whispers covering her face.  “We should have invited him to stay.”  

“Jingyi offered, remember,” Peizhi says, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.  “He could have stayed if he wanted to.”

Jingyi nods in agreement. 

“It’s late now,” he says.  “We should get some sleep.”

After the story, he feels drained.  He misses Sizhui and his fellow disciples.  The loneliness of Song Lan strikes a chord in his heart that feels uncomfortably familiar.  He doesn’t want to talk anymore.

“I’ll bank the fire,” Peizhi says, shuffling away from his sister and towards the fire. 

As he does so, Jingyi remembers the note that Song Lan had left for him.  Quickly, he lays out the bedroll that he’d purchased when he realized they were going to be traveling far away from any towns for a while.  It’s decidedly not comfortable, but it’s better than the ground.  Jingyi grew up with Lan Disciple Dorm beds, so his standards of comfort are pretty low; the bedroll still fails. He can’t imagine what Jin Ling would have to say about it.  

Once the bedroll is out, Jin Ling stretches out as best he can, he’s a bit too tall for the thing, and unfolds the note left by Song Lan.  He glances at his friends, but they are busy with their own bedrolls.  There are only two sentences on the page.  

Solitude is a heavy burden, little Lan, and its path is dark and treacherous.  Ask yourself if you can bear it before you are too far down the road to turn around.

All the breath goes out of Jingyi’s lungs, and he stares at the paper until the banked fire fades down too low for him to read any longer.  He wonders vaguely if Song Lan had recognized him from Yi City after he introduced himself.  Or if he had guessed he was a Lan some other way.    Because Jingyi certainly doesn’t look like one now.  His hand goes to the bare skin of his forehead; it still feels weird sometimes to have nothing there.  

But that train of thought is secondary.  He stares into the dark, and the words seared onto his eyelids as if they were written in fire.  

Solitude is a heavy burden.   It certainly feels like one.  The ache in his chest hasn’t gone away since the moment he decided to walk away from Gusu.  Sometimes it’s easy to ignore, but other times, like now it crushes him and makes it hard to breathe.  

The words on the note hit Jingyi’s doubt like a well-timed sword thrust.  After Jin Ling’s letter, it had taken most of his self-control to gather himself and send a response.  But he’d managed to remind himself exactly why he is out here in the middle of nowhere. 

The path ahead of him might be dark; it certainly looks that way.  And Jingyi has begun to suspect that the broken piece of him that desperately misses his friends is never going to go away.  But he tries to remember what Sizhui did for him.  Sizhui had defied their sect, he had broken rules he held sacred, he had suffered pain, so much pain, and he had done it all for Jingyi.  For him, Jingyi would carry the weight of the world on his shoulders, and so, he will carry on this dark and twisted path no matter how heavy his loneliness might feel. 

That’s what he promises himself.

But he misses Sizhui so much he can’t breathe.  More than anything, he wants to be with him.  He knows, he knows, he knows that Sizhui’s better off without him.  And he’s made it this far.  But he feels so weak.  At least, he thinks, Sizhui is safe in Gusu.  Because if he was here, Jingyi doesn’t think he’d be strong enough to walk away again.  

He turns onto his side, curling up, and covers his face with his hands.  There are no tears; he feels too hollow, too empty, for that.  It feels as if grief and loneliness have carved into him and left him hollow. 

He wishes Sizhui was here.  Would he sit by Jingyi’s side, brush back his hair, and rub his back the way he did when Jingyi had nightmares?  Would he curl up beside him the way he had when Jingyi was still young and too scared of the dark to sleep?  Or would he just leave, the way Jingyi had left him?

Jingyi would deserve it. 

He wonders if Sizhui found his forehead ribbon.  It might have been a stupid thing to do, but he hadn’t been able to walk away without letting Sizhui know just how precious he was.  His ribbon had belonged to Sizhui for years, even if only in Jingyi’s head.  The ribbon should stay with Gusu Lan and with Jingyi’s heart.

Chapter Text

For all the things my hands have held
The best by far is you

 

“Don’t drag me.  I can walk.” Jin Ling hisses, instinctively resisting the pull on his arm.  They’re still in the crowded market, with people all around them.  Zizhen can’t just drag him around like some sort of pet.  

“A-Ling,” Zizhen says, and Jin Ling feels his resistance melting.  With a roll of his eyes, Jin Ling quickens his pace so that Zizhen isn’t pulling on him.  “My own sister!”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Jin Ling tells him with a flat expression.  Something had obviously passed between the twins, but whatever it was, Jin Ling was left completely out of the loop.

“Jin Ling,” Zizhen says, suddenly standing completely still and jerking hard on Jin Ling’s arm.  Jin Ling almost winces; Zizhen is stronger than he looks.  He’s ready to snap at Zizhen for hauling on him again, but Zizhen’s face is genuinely distressed.  “My own sister, my twin sister, is seeing someone and didn’t even tell me!”

“I-,” Jin Ling says, the words taking a second to sink in.  “What? Really?”

“Wasn't it obvious?” 

The two of them have now stopped walking entirely, just staring at each other.  The crowd parts around them, but they’re definitely attracting attention.  Jin Ling can feel the eyes on him, and it makes his skin crawl.  

“Not here,” he says decisively and strides past Zizhen in the direction of Koi Tower with Fairy trailing happily behind him.  Zizhen quickly catches up, grabbing on to his arm again.  Jin Ling finds himself torn between the urge to push Zizhen off of him and the desire to pull him closer.  As the go Zizhen doesn’t try and pull on Jin Ling’s arm anymore, which is good, because Jin Ling will shove him off.  Instead, he keeps pace with Jin Ling as the two of them make their way out of the market.  When they hit the stairs of Koi Tower, Jin Ling realizes that he is hyper-aware of Zizhen’s touch.  Now that they’ve escaped the crowd, people aren’t pressing into Jin Ling’s personal space, and he can relax a bit.  But it also means that there’s nothing to distract him from Zizhen’s touch on his arm, or Zizhen in general.  Nothing beside Fairy anyway.

He glances at Zizhen and is relieved to see that he doesn’t look distressed anymore.  But there’s a furrow between his brow and he’s biting his bottom lip.  Jin Ling has to force himself to look back at the stairs ahead of him as he’s flooded with thoughts of what it would be like to have his teeth on Zizhen instead.  It’s something he definitely had not tried during their single, short fumbling kiss.  They’d been stupid drunk at the time, and neither of them had ever mentioned it again.  Sometimes he wonders if he imagined the entire thing.  But right now Zizhen is concerned, and it is decidedly not the time for Jin Ling to fantasize about kissing him.

As they make their way through Koi Tower, Zizhen is uncharacteristically quiet.  Jin Ling’s not sure if it's because he’s thinking or because he doesn’t want their conversation to be overheard.  Whatever the reason, it’s slightly unnerving.  Jin Ling isn’t used to there being quiet when he’s with his friends.  Jingyi is loud and annoying and Zizhen likes to chatter. It is pretty much never silent between the two of them.  As they make their way into the highest tier of Koi Tower, the place reserved for the Jin Sect leader and the Jin family, Jin Ling starts to worry that he’s doing something wrong, that he’s said or not said something.  Every silent step only amps up his anxiety.  Normally the jingling of Fairy’s harness soothes him slightly, but right now it only emphasizes the quiet.  

As soon as they are into the lotus courtyard, and he’s fairly confident they won’t be overheard, he practically spins around to face Zizhen.  “Spit it out!”

Okay, it’s not his most eloquent moment, but the nerves are making his skin crawl.  

“I just can’t believe that my sister would be seeing someone and not tell me!” he says.

“You’re sure they’re, uh, seeing each other?” The topic of courting, marriage, and romance always makes him uncomfortable, and he stumbles in the middle of the sentence.

“You saw them,” Zizhen says as they make their way towards the covered pathway that leads to Jin Ling’s suite of rooms.  

The rooms have been his since he was old enough to have his own rooms, though they have been expanded, redecorated, and fortified since he became sect leader.  By rights, he could have moved into the old Blooming Garden and the Fragrant Palace, but he’d had it converted into something else.  Even the worst of the Jin elders hadn’t faulted Jin Ling for not taking up Jin Guangyao’s old rooms, not after everything.  Technically, because he resides here, it is called The Blooming Garden, but he still thinks of it as the lotus garden in his head.

“What exactly was I supposed to be seeing?” Jin Ling asks.  He knows that he’s almost woefully inexperienced when it comes to things like this, but all he’d seen was the two girls hug and walk away together.  He’s fairly certain that neither of those things is a sure-fire sign that two people are courting.  

“Ziwan hugged her!”

“She hugged Ziwan,” Jin Ling corrects him.  Part of him really can’t believe he’s having this conversation right now.  

“And Ziwan didn’t stab her!”

“You hug Ziwan all the time.  Does she stab you?”

“Not usually, but I’m her brother so it doesn’t count.”  

“Not usually?” Jin Ling demands, eyebrows shooting up.  He is far from an expert on families, but he’s fairly certain stabbing your siblings isn't normal.  Zizhen waves his fan at Jin Ling dismissively.

“It only happened once, and it was an accident; it was only a scratch really.  But that’s not the point of this conversation.  Did you see the way that Ziwan smiled at her?”

Jin Ling had actually noticed the way Ziwan smiled at Nie Qiuyue.  He remembers, not just because it was the first time he’d ever seen Ziwan actually smile, but because she’d looked so much like Zizhen at that moment.  The curve of the lips, the tilt of the head, the gentle crinkling of black eyes, it’s the exact same smile that Zizhen gives him.  

“I admit that I have never seen Ziwan smile at anyone else,” Jin Ling says.  He’s rewarded by a surprised laugh from Zizhen.  They’ve reached the sitting room of Jin Ling’s rooms, and Jin Ling makes a b-line for the cushioned settee.  Fairy makes her way straight through to Jin Ling’s bedroom, probably to lay on his bed.

“You want to take off your outer robe before you do that,” Zizhen offers before Jin Ling can flop down.  The words sound weird to Jin Ling because they are Sizhui’s words in Zizhen’s voice.   It’s always Sizhui keeping them on track.  Jin Ling, you’ll wrinkle your robes. Jingyi, you’re about to get ink on your sleeve.  Zizhen, don’t forget your fan on the table.  

Jin Ling sighs and starts to pull off his outer robe.  It’s the worst part of his outfit, heavy and embroidered, expensive, and prone to wrinkling.  He hates it, but it’s part of his appearance as a sect leader.  Jin Ling hangs it up and starts on the next robe.  Across the room from him, Zizhen pulls off his outermost robe.  This is something they always do, the four of them, stripping down to an informal but still decent three or four layers of robes when it's just them.  But suddenly, Jin Ling is keenly aware that it is not the four of them.  It’s just him and Zizhen getting undressed.  

Jin Ling keeps his gaze on the robe he’s already hung up and he pulls off the next layer, grateful to be free of the stupid long sleeves.  He tries to wrangle his thoughts back onto a productive path.  Because they are doing what they always do, and Jin Ling is not going to fuck it up because of his stupid feelings.

“Saying you’re right,” Jin Ling says, “about Ziwan and First Disciple Nie, then what?”

Zizhen sighs.  “I’m happy if she’s happy, but she didn’t tell me.”  He doesn’t sound happy.

Jin Ling glances over his shoulder as he pulls off his third outer robe.  Zizhen looks sad and a little lost, and Jin Ling is seized by the desire to hunt Ziwan down and make her apologize.  But he can’t do that, so he casts around for things to say.  

“Maybe she has a reason?” he tries, that’s what Sizhui would say, he thinks.  Jin Ling goes to the carved cabinet and opens it, pulling out a jar of wine.  Then he pulls the string for the bell.  Emotional comfort is something that Jin Ling is horrible at, but he can provide food and alcohol.  So he’ll start there.

“I guess,” Zizhen says, “She must.  But I thought that we told each other everything.”

Jin Ling has never had someone like that in his life.  His closest friend in the world is standing across the room right now moping.  So he knows he can't understand, not really.  But something else occurs to him.

“Everything?” he asks, thinking about the kiss and trying not to blush.

“Everything,” Zizhen says looking right back at him.  Jin Ling has no idea if Zizhen knows what Jin Ling is referring to or if he even remembers what happened.  But Jin Ling might have a better idea of why Ziwan dislikes him so much now.

“Great,” Jin Ling mutters under his breath and finally sinks into the couch.  “Come sit,” he says louder, for Zizhen to hear.  

As Jin Ling pours wine for both of them, Zizhen settles down on the couch right next to Jin Ling.

“You can talk to her about it later right?” Jin Ling asks.  He feels incredibly awkward; he’s horrible with emotions, and he knows it, but neither Sizhui nor Jingyi is here to deal with the situation, so Jin Ling will have to do his best.  Jin Ling is going to beat both of their asses for putting him through this though.

“Oh,” Zizhen says, with steel in his voice and a glint in his eyes, “we are going to talk later.”

Jin Ling almost feels bad for Ziwan, almost but not quite.  He passes Zizhen a bowl of wine and settles back into the couch.  The wine is light and sweet and designed for summer.  Jin Ling finds it a bit too sweet, but he knows that Zizhen likes it; so he doesn’t say anything.  

“Dinners on its way,” Jin Ling tells him.  

“Sounds good,” Zizhen says, “what are we having?”

“Sweet and sour carp,” Jin Ling says because there will be other things, like the candied sweet potatoes, but this is the dish that Zizhen seems to favor.

“My favorite.” Zizhen is looking at Jin Ling with something in his black eyes that Jin Ling’s not exactly sure how to process. 

“I guess,” Jin Ling shrugs and looks away.

“Thank you A-Ling.”

“Don't bother,” Jin Ling says.  Thanks always make him uncomfortable, and he can feel his shoulders tensing up.

“A-Ling?” 

When Zizhen says his name, Jin Ling glances at him.  He’s close enough to touch, but Zizhen has both his hands on around the bowl of wine in his hand.  His shoulders are hunched over; he’s obviously thinking and not relaxing. 

“What?” 

“Do you think Nie Qiuyue is attractive?”

Jin Ling does not choke on his wine, but it’s a near thing.  

“What? Why?” he says, and he can hear how sharp his voice is.  He tips back the rest of his cup of wine and goes for more; he’s going to need it if this is where the conversation is going.

There are not many things about Zizhen that Jin Ling dislikes, but his habit of talking about girls is easily Jin Ling’s least favorite.  Talking about women always makes Jin Ling uncomfortable; there are too many unspoken expectations that he’ll never live up to.  But with Zizhen it's worse, much worse, because it’s obvious that he wants something that Jin Ling will never be.  

“I just think Jiejie could do better,” Zizhen says.  “Sect Leader Lin has a daughter around our age who’s much prettier.”

Jin Ling just stares at his friend for a long moment.  

“First Disciple Nie is a talented cultivator,” Jin Ling points out.  “Her saber work is good enough that she could probably beat your sister.”

“Jin Ling,” Zizhen sighs.  “That’s not the point.”

“Just saying, cultivation wise, she really couldn’t find much better.”

“I guess,” Zizhen says, “but don’t you think she’s a bit intimidating?”

“Your sister is intimidating.”

“That’s fair I guess,” Zizhen says.  “It’s just the first disciple Nie would never have been my first pick.  She could break me in half.  Don’t you think Ziwan would look so much better with someone else? What about the second disciple of Yunmeng Jiang or Lan Liqin, they’re both good cultivators.”

“I guess,” Jin Ling says, trying to unclench his jaw.  He really prefers not to know who Zizhen’s first picks would be.  It makes it difficult for him to deal with them politely later.  “If you say so.”

He’s not looking at Zizhen, but he can feel that Zizhen is looking at him.  “A-Ling, I know you aren’t interested in women.”

Jin Ling feels his whole body tensing.  This is something they’ve never talked about not explicitly, and he really wishes they weren’t doing it now.

“But don’t you look at them? Somewhat? You don’t have to be attracted to someone to know if they're attractive or not.”  Zizhen continues, either oblivious to Jin Ling’s tension or ignoring it.  Knowing Zizhen, it’s probably the second one.  Zizhen is good with emotions, better than anyone else Jin Ling knows.  But he often, when it’s polite, ignores Jin Ling’s distress, allowing him to pretend to maintain his dignity.

It’s a valid point.  And Jin Ling can and does have an opinion on which girls are prettier than others.  But he doesn’t care, except for when his grandmother is pushing him for answers.  But Jin Ling can’t exactly say that he has no idea how good or not good Ziwan and Nie Qiuyue look together because his attention had all been on Zizhen.  

Jin Ling is saved from having to respond by a knock on the door.  They glance up to see a pair of serving girls hovering by the door.  Jin Ling motions for the pair of them to come in.  As the girls take the food to the table, Jin Ling peels himself off of the couch so he can move to the table.  Part of him wants to stay in the cushions, but his stomach wins.

“Sect Leader Jin,” one of the girls says after the plates have been arranged on the table.

“Yes?” Jin Ling frowns at her.  

“I was told to deliver these to you as well.” The girl bows and offers a small golden tray with two letters on it.

“I requested that any new messages be taken to my office.  Can’t this wait?” Jin Ling complains.  One day.  He wants one day off.  Actually, not even the whole day.  He wanted half the day off.  

“Sect Leader, you wished to have any message from the Cloud Recesses brought to you immediately.”

Jin Ling’s mouth goes dry, and it takes a moment for him to swallow so he can speak.  “And the other one?”

“Madam Jin requested this be brought to you immediately.”

“Fine, give it here.”  Jin Ling snatches the tray from her hand.  “Anything else? No? Dismissed.”

Jin Ling doesn’t look at the servants as they leave.  His gaze is on the tray.  Now that he’s holding it, he recognizes the letter from Sizhui and the one from his grandmother.  

“Is that from Sizhui?” Zizhen asks.  Jin Ling looks across the table at him.  For a moment, Jin Ling pauses, reminded of that first dinner three years ago.  Ever since then, Zizhen has sat on his side of the table, because the Lans always sat together on the opposite end.

“Looks like it,” Jin Ling says.  He pulls the message from Jingyi out of his sleeve and sets it on the tray beside the one from Sizhui.  Then he plucks the message from his grandmother off the tray before setting the tray behind him.  “I suggest we eat first.  I’m not dealing with either of those letters on an empty stomach.”

Zizhen laughs, but it's quiet, and his eyes are still worried.  Jin Ling’s stomach twists, and he‘s filled with the desire to comfort his friend, but he doesn’t know how.  

“Let’s see what nonsense Zumu has to say,” Jin Ling says with an attempt at levity.  

The note is short, which isn’t surprising.  Madam Jin has always been a practical woman.

“It’s about Ziwan,” he says as his eyes flit over the characters.

“Oh?”

“Says she seems like an upstanding girl, that it’s good to see someone put Jin Chan in his place.”

“Didn’t she lecture you last time you got in a fight with Jin Chan?” Zizhen asks.  He’s pulled out the fan Jin Ling bought him and is lazily snapping it open and closed.

With a snort, Jin Ling nods, “she did.”

“Anything else?” Zizhen asks.

“That I should tell her when I’m having guests over, and I should be sure to invite Ziwan back.”

“She never said anything that nice about the rest of us,” Zizhen complains.

“Nope,” Jin Ling says, tossing the letter aside.  He’s taken to avoiding his grandmother as ever since he turned sixteen, she only seems to be interested in the topics of marriage and grandchildren.  

“Where’s your filial piety, Sect Leader Jin,” Zizhen says, starting to fill his bowl. 

“This?” Jin Ling asks, raising an eyebrow, “coming from you?”

“I have no idea what you’re implying.”

“Sure you don't.”  Jin Ling rolls his eyes and starts to fill his own bowl.  

Their conversation falls into a familiar pattern as they eat.  They complain and tell stories and laugh.  Jin Ling can feel the tension easing out his shoulders and back.  It’s so nice to chat with Zizhen, who has no agenda or expectations besides his company.  Even dining in Koi Tower involves politics.  It’s a much-needed breath of fresh air to relax, and slouch with his elbows on the table as he talks.  

Jin Ling is deeply grateful for Zizhen.  Xiaoshu, Jin Guangyao, would have said that Zizhen was foolish to be so open and caring, and Jin Ling had thought that too when he first met Zizhen.  But when Zizhen had stood up for Senior Wei to all the sect leaders just because he thought it was the right thing to do, Jin Ling had realized that Zizhen had depths that he hadn’t seen before.  Eventually, he’d realized that Zizhen is brave, much braver than Jin Ling, to carry on being soft and honest.  

For the duration of dinner, Jin Ling lets himself enjoy.  Zizhen has the sort of joy that’s contagious.  And Jin Ling lets himself enjoy his stories and sharp wit. He feels happy here, and it’s such a rare feeling that he’s loath to let it go.  When Zizhen laughs, he doesn’t hide it behind his fan; and Jin Ling is glad.  His laugh is bright and soft, beautiful, and Jin Ling hates to see it stifled.  

They finish dinner and recline slightly, drinks in hand.  Jin Ling catches himself staring; it’s hard not to when Zizhen is so cute when he’s happy.  The curve of his smile, the line of his soft cheeks, the way his eyes crinkle, even the soft sway of his short hair, there are a hundred details and Jin Ling wants to know them all.  

“A-Ling,” Zizhen says, and his voice is soft almost like a caress.  Jin Ling wants to hear him say it again and again.  

“Yeah?”

“You’re actually smiling,” Zizhen says it with a smile so bright that Jin Ling almost isn’t embarrassed.

“Am not!” Jin Ling feels his whole face go red.  

“You were!”

“You were seeing things,” Jin Ling says with a sniff.  

“If you say so,” Zizhen says in a tone that means he will carry on thinking exactly what he wishes.  

“Ugh,” Jin Ling flops back to grab a pillow to throw at his friend, but his elbow hits the tray holding the two letters.  

His happy mood evaporates and he doesn’t have to look at Zizhen to know that he feels the same way.  Jin Ling sits up and takes the tray with him.  His gaze is on the letters, and he’s surprised when he feels Zizhen’s hand on his shoulder.

“Come on,” he says, “the couch is more comfortable.”

He has a point, so Jin Ling gets to his feet.  But he grabs the wine jar on his way up.  When Jin Ling sits, Zizhen plops down beside him, close enough that they’re almost touching.  The easy mood of moments before has evaporated and neither of them is taking advantage of the plush cushions behind them.  

“Here,” Jin Ling says, passing the jar of wine to Zizhen.  “Pour.”

Zizhen raises an eyebrow but fills both of their bowls.

“I have a feeling we’re going to need it.”

Zizhen makes a face but obviously agrees because he drinks his down and pours another.  Then he takes a steadying breath.

“Which one should we read first?” Zizhen asks, staring at the letters in Jin Ling’s hand.  

“Jingyi’s,” he says with more confidence than he feels.  “I have a feeling this one’s more likely to piss me off.”

“Saying that just because it’s Jingyi?” Zizhen says, clearly attempting for humor.

“Because it’s Jingyi’s letter and not Jingyi himself,” Jin Ling says.  

“Alright, open it.”

Jin Ling opens it, ignoring the familiar spark of blue spiritual energy that releases.  He holds the letter out for them both to read, but Zizhen leans in to him anyway as he reads.  Propping his chin on Jin Ling’s shoulder. 

Jin Ling,

I wasn’t expecting to hear from you.  I’m sorry that you’ve been dragged into this. But I can’t come back.  

I can’t tell you the details of what happened; it’s Sizhui’s story to tell.  You might have to push him, but he’ll tell you. He trusts you; though he might be afraid of making you angry.  But wait until you see him in person, it’s not something that he’ll put in writing.  

I will tell you, because I’m sure that he hasn’t, that it’s my fault he’s injured.  He’ll probably say that he doesn’t blame me, because he’s Sizhui.  But you, and everyone else I suppose, were right that I was always dragging him into things.  This time it was too much.  It’s better for him if I’m not there.  He should have listened to all of you a long time ago.

Beyond that, I can no longer remain in Gusu Lan.  It’s no secret that I’ve always been a terrible Lan.  I’m probably Lan Qiren’s second least favorite student after Senior Wei.  But, I’ve always believed in the heart of the sect: be righteous.  I no longer have any faith in the elders and Master Lan Qiren.  Hanguang-jun is only one person, and Zewu-jun is still in seclusion.  I cannot be part of Gusu Lan anymore. I miss all three of you; I do.  You’re a good friend, Young Mistress.  But it’s best if you let me go.  

I don’t have any right, but I can ask you to do one thing.  Please take care of him for me?

Jingyi

The room is completely silent as the two men read.  The absolute quiet is broken rather abruptly by Jin Ling.

“What the fuck, Jingyi!” 

His voice is harsh and loud enough that it entirely eclipses Zizhen’s soft ‘oh.’  But Jin Ling feels his exhale where they are pressed together.  The irritation that had been flooding through Jin Ling as he read through the letter is damped slightly by Zizhen’s response, but he barely resists the urge to jump to his feet.   

Fairy appears at the door, summoned by the sudden shout.

“Uncle was right.  Lans are fucking impossible,” Jin Ling says.  “Fucking impossible.  Both of them.”

“What happened?”  Zizhen’s voice is confused and slightly incredulous as if he’s not sure that there’s any possibility that makes sense.

“No fucking clue,” Jin Ling says.   “But Sizhui better fucking explain this when we see him.” 

“I can’t believe this,” Zizhen says, staring at the letter as if answers might appear.  It’s so much harder for Jin Ling to hold on to his anger, with Zizhen pressed against his side.  But he clings to it because behind it is confusion, sorrow, and something that might be guilt.

“Which part?” Jin Ling asks with a snort.  

“I-,” Zizhen starts, gaze still on the letter.  “Any of it.”

“Sounds about right.”  

Jin Ling doesn’t even begin to know where to process Jingyi’s letter.  The tone of it is so open, raw, that it makes Jin Ling uncomfortable. He’s not used to this side of Jingyi.  Of course, he knows that Jingyi can be as much a romantic as Zizhen, but with Jin Ling, he’s always brash and irritating. 

Zizhen doesn’t respond, and Jin Ling can’t see his face.  But Jin Ling knows he’s upset, and something like panic kicks in.  Because Jin Ling, trying to grapple with his own emotions, hadn’t considered Zizhen.  Zizhen, who is sensitive and prone to crying. 

“Does he really think we’re going to let him go?” Zizhen asks, and his voice is small and wobbly.  

The sound sends Jin Ling’s heart into overtime; he doesn’t know how to deal with tears.  Silently, he prays to whatever god might be listening that his friend will keep it together.  

“I don't know,” Jin Ling says.  “But he’s an idiot if he thinks he can just vanish.”

Zizhen’s body trembles slightly, and Jin Ling freezes.  His first instinct is to tell Zizhen to stop, but he knows that will be the opposite of helpful.

“We’re not going to let him, right?”

“Of course not,” Jin Ling says with confidence.  “I’ll drag him back here myself if I have to.”

He can feel the quiet sobs going through Zizhen’s body, and he needs to do something.  But he doesn’t know what. Sizhui isn't here.  Jingyi isn’t here.  Jin Ling scrambles to remember what exactly Sizhui does when Zizhen is crying.

“Hey,” Jin Ling says, trying to be calm.  Aiming for gentle is too ambitious.  Awkwardly, because Zizhen is mostly behind him, he pats Zizhen’s shoulder.  “We’re going to get him back, even if the idiot gets himself killed.  What else is my useless uncle good for?”

That gets him a hiccoughing laugh but doesn’t stop the tears.  Jin Ling twists in his seat so that he’s facing Zizhen, who attempts to wipe his eyes.  He’d known that Zizhen was crying, but seeing his tears is even worse.  Panic causes his heart to slam into his ribs.  

“Sorry,” Zizhen says with another hiccough.

“It’s alright,” Jin Ling says and his voice is weak.  It is absolutely not alright, but it’s not Zizhen’s fault.  Jin Ling is going to break Jingyi’s legs when they find him.

Jin Ling rubs Zizhen’s back because that’s what Sizhui does, but his touch is delicate, cautious, as if Zizhen might break.  Indeed, it seems to break something because a moment later Zizhen is crashing into Jin Ling.  His face is pressed into Jin Ling’s shoulder as he wraps his arms around his waist.  It takes Jin Ling off guard, and he finds himself pressed back into the cushions, reclining more than sitting.  His whole body tenses and his hands hover in the air to either side of his friend.  

For several heartbeats, there’s nothing in Jin Ling’s head but white noise.  Slowly, he lowers his arms until he’s more or less embracing Zizhen.  His memory tells him that he should say something, something useless like ‘it’s going okay’ or ‘I’m here’, but he can’t seem to get any words out of his mouth.  So he just lets Zizhen cry on him.  The Lans are going to answer for this.  

It takes time for Jin Ling to get his throat clear and his tongue untangled.  As gently as he can he says, “let’s see what Sizhui’s letter says.  Maybe he’s got more information for us.”

Zizhen nods into his shoulder, but he doesn’t let go.  Trying not to jostle Zizhen too much, Jin Ling reaches for the letter on the ground.  He unseals the letter and opens it.  The faint blue spark of spiritual energy is almost identical to the one on Jingyi’s letter.  When it’s obvious that Zizhen has no intention of releasing Jin Ling, Jin Ling sighs and starts to read the letter out loud.

“Jin Ling, I hope this finds you well.”

Jin Ling rolls his eyes.

“I received some information that I thought I should pass on to you.  I had suspected that Jingyi was in Qinghe because the last time someone saw him was outside the Unclean Realms at the discussion conference when he brought a letter to Hanguang-jun.  Senior Wei received a letter from Sect Leader Nie confirming this.  I don’t know the details, but he was in   Xiyang, which is northwest of Qinghe.  I’m not sure when this was, but it’s somewhere to start.  It’s likely he continued northwest and away from the Unclean Realms to a place with fewer cultivators.”

Jin Ling pauses here.  Zizhen’s shoulders are no longer shaking, but he’s still clinging to Jin Ling like a limpet.  Jin Ling is very glad that Sizhui finally sent something useful; he’s not sure he could handle Zizhen becoming even more upset.  He continues.

“I hope you are still willing to help me find him.  I should be able to travel in the next week.  Senior Wen is in the Cloud Recesses helping take care of me.  I will recover much faster with him here.

“See you soon, Sizhui.”    

With a sigh, Jin Ling tosses the letter on the floor.  At least it was something useful this time.  

“It’s been three weeks,” Zizhen says quietly.  He’s still hugging Jin Ling, but at least he’s stopped crying.  “What happened.”

Jin Ling can only shake his head.  He knows what Zizhen isn’t saying.  Anything that took a cultivator as strong as Sizhui out of commission for weeks at a time had to have been horrific.  Whatever it was had caused them to send for Senior Wen.  Sizhui hadn’t said as much, but it’s obvious.  

“He’s fine now,” Jin Ling says firmly.  Not sure whether he’s convincing himself or Zizhen.  But he does know that thinking about Sizhui being hurt and close to death will get Zizhen crying again, and he desperately wants to avoid that.  “And, we have somewhere to start searching.”

“That’s good,” Zizhen’s voice is slightly muffled by Jin Ling’s shoulder, but he sounds deflated.  

There’s nothing to say after that, so they fall quiet.  It’s not an uncomfortable silence, but it seems loud to Jin Ling.  The force of Zizhen’s hug and sent Jin Ling back until he was half lying down, and he can’t sit up properly without pushing Zizhen off of him because Zizhen is still holding him.  The tears are gone and with it most of Jin Ling’s panic.  

It’s comfortable in the warm circle of Zizhen’s arms, but it's also distracting.  Without the conversation, there’s nothing to distract him from the intimacy of their embrace.  Jin Ling’s heart is pounding in his ears and all he can think about is the soft warmth of Zizhen in his arms.  And Jin Ling realizes that he wants Zizhen here in his arms like this, and not just right now.  He wants it too much.  

His heart is in his throat, and he has to resist the urge to shove Zizhen away from him.  Because the strength of his own desire scares him.  This doesn’t mean the same thing to Zizhen that Jin Ling wants it to mean, and he knows that.  He’s not sure if that makes things better or worse.  Unlike Jin Ling, Zizhen is touchy.  He hugs all his friends; he drapes himself over them.  When he’s sad or drunk or both, he clings.  It’s not uncommon for Zizhen to lay on Jin Ling when they’ve been drinking.  And when he’s been drinking, Jin Ling allows it, because he’s weak and unable to push him away when he wants him to stay.  But they aren’t drunk right now.

Jin Ling coughs to clear his throat.  “Are you, uh, going to move anytime soon?”

“I-, oh,” Zizhen says and a cherry blossom blush dusts his cheeks.  He pulls back, but only a bit, and it’s worse.  It’s so much worse because now they are face to face, and Zizhen is so close.  Jin Ling’s breath catches, and there’s no way that Zizhen doesn’t notice.  Jin Ling can feel his face heating up, but Zizhen doesn’t pull back.

“A-Ling,” Zizhen says softly.  Jin Ling trembles slightly.  His gaze drops from Zizhen’s eyes, eyelashes still damp and clinging together, to his lips.  

Zizhen leans in slightly, tilting his head; it’s only a hair's breadth of difference, but Jin Ling’s heart goes into overdrive.  His hands are on Zizhen's waist, and he’s not sure if he wants to push him away or pull him closer.  He’s completely frozen.  

He remembers the night at Lotus Pier.  Just the two of them in the moonlight after Jingyi hauled a sleepy Sizhui away and to bed.  They’d been watching the stars out on the pier and everything was warm and fuzzy with alcohol.   Jin Ling had looked at Zizhen and the way his dark eyes reflected the starry sky and done the stupidest thing he’s ever done in his life, kiss his best friend.  And Zizhen had kissed him back.

There are no stars in Zizhen’s eyes right now, but he’s still beautiful and close enough that Jin Ling can’t breathe properly.  Time seems to stretch into what feels like forever, but it can’t have been more than a few heartbeats.

Then Zizhen closes the distance between them.  When their lips meet, Jin Ling stops breathing.  His eyes are closed, but he doesn’t remember closing them.  The lips against his are soft, gentle.  The kiss doesn’t last very long, but when Zizhen pulls back Jin Ling gasps, and his eyes fly open.  His hands tighten instinctively, pulling Zizhen back towards him, chasing his lips.

This time it’s Jin Ling who kisses Zizhen.  It’s left soft, more demanding.  Jin Ling is gripping Zizhen as if afraid he’s going to vanish into thin air, even though Zizhen is leaning into him.  They linger over the kiss, holding each other.  The kiss is sweet, chaste even, but Jin Ling feels like his heart is going to beat out of his chest.  This time when Zizhen pulls back, Jin Ling forces himself to let go.    

Zizhen sits up, pulling away from him and Jin Ling is too stunned to do anything but let him go.  It feels as if something has shifted between them, but Jin Ling’s not sure how exactly.  This kiss was different than the last, and not just because they’re both sober.  What does Jiujiu say, once is an accident, twice is a choice.  Jin Ling swallows hard and forces himself to sit up too.  

There’s an awkward silence between them, and Jin Ling casts around desperately for something to say.  Because this is exactly what he did not want, exactly why it’s a bad idea to kiss Zizhen in the first place.  

But then Zizhen looks at him and smiles.  Jin Ling lets out a shaky breath.

“Do you want help with your hair?” He asks.  

The idea of detangling the gold chains from his hair on his own is not appealing, but he’s not sure his heart can handle much more.

“I guess,” he says.  But he turns so that Zizhen can access his ponytail. 

Zizhen’s hands are gentle as they smooth down the length of his ponytail and work the chains loose.  After several breaths, Jin Ling starts to relax.  It’s not the first time Zizhen has helped him untangle the beads and chains from his hair.  Jin Ling avoids the hairpiece when he knows he’s going to be fighting, but sometimes, when he’s with his friends, things happen and his hair ends up a tangled mess anyway.  It’s not really a mess now, but he appreciates the gesture.

“I don’t know how you deal with all this,” Zizhen says, running his fingers through the length of Jin Ling’s hair, which falls past his hips.  Jingyi makes fun of him for it, saying he’s as vain as a young mistress, but Jin Ling has no desire to cut his hair.  Your hair is a gift from your parents, and his have never been around to cut it for him.  

“I’m used to it. I guess.”   

Zizhen laughs a bit at that.  The two of them fall into a comfortable silence.  Zizhen works the hairpiece free and releases Jin Ling’s hair from the ponytail before gently braiding it back.  It’s so relaxing that Jin Ling finds his eyes drooping.  It’s hardly late at all, but he’s suddenly exhausted.

“Thanks,” Jin Ling says, pulling the braid over his shoulder to inspect it, unsurprised to find it’s perfectly done.  He’s not sure how exactly Zizhen is so good at braiding when he keeps his own hair so short.  But he chalks it up to the braided hairstyles favored in Baling.  

“It’s nothing,” Zizhen says.  “You should head to bed.  You’re falling asleep.”

“I’m not!”

“You are,” Zizhen says gently.  “You work yourself too hard.  Go and rest.”

Jin Ling pouts.  He doesn’t want to go to bed now.  It’s still early, and he doesn’t want to lose any of the precious time he’s carved out to be with his friend.

“Go sleep,” Zizhen says, getting to his feet.  “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Jin Ling watches him until he’s almost at the door.  “Zizhen!” he blurts out.  He’s not sure what he’s going to say: Come back? Good night? Something else entirely.

“Jin Ling, I should go.”  There is mischief dancing in those black eyes. “Unless you want me to stay the night?” 

Jin Ling knows he’s being teased, but he still almost chokes at the implication.

“Good night, A-Ling.”

“Night,” Jin Ling manages weakly.

Chapter Text

I'd give up my eyes to see you one last time
And I'd give all my fingertips to touch you
And I could paint you picture perfect even if I were blinded

When the five am bell rings, Sizhui is already awake.  As the bell sounds, he gets out of bed, intentionally avoiding looking at the empty side of the room.

Old Master Lan had come to Sizhui’s room for the first time since his injury the day before. Sizhui had scrambled to his feet to bow properly, ignoring the pain across his back at the sudden motion.

“Seeing as you have recovered well, you will present the four thousand rules of Gusu Lan to the new students when class starts tomorrow.  If you cannot recite them, then you will read them,” Old Master Lan had told him.  It has become standard, since the year Senior Wei attended, to read or recite the rules so that no one may claim ignorance in breaking the rules.  

“I will recite them,” Sizhui had responded, chin tilted up defiantly.  For an instant, Sizhui could have sworn he saw a small smile at the edge of Old Master Lan’s mouth.  But then he turns, prepared to leave already.  Sizhui bows again, more careful this time.

“It is good,” Old Man Lan had said quietly, “to see that you are healing well.”  Then he vanished without giving Sizhui time to respond.  Something close to hope kindles in Sizhui’s chest, that maybe he can be forgiven.

By the time that Hanguang-jun arrives for breakfast, Sizhui is already awake, dressed, and sitting at the table.  Thanks to Wen Ning and the Cold Springs, for the first time in what feels like months, but has only been weeks, Sizhui is able to completely get ready by himself.  He is far from completely healed, but he is able to dress himself in the six layers of robes appropriate for a senior disciple, put his own hair up, and tie his own forehead ribbon behind his head.  They are such small things, but Sizhui vows to never take them for granted again.  

Hanguang-jun studies Sizhui for a moment when he enters the room before giving a single nod and continuing to his spot across from Sizhui at the table.

“Bandages?” Hanguang-jun asks and begins to set out breakfast.  But Sizhui stops him with a touch and takes over the task for himself.

“Senior Wen says they can be changed every few days now that the wounds are staying closed.”

“Good.”

Sizhui’s only response is to offer him a freshly poured cup of tea.  Breakfast is consumed in companionable silence.  

“Thank you,” Sizhui says when he has finished the meal.

“Mn?”

“For everything you’ve done,” Sizhui says.  “You have spent every day these last three weeks taking care of me.  For that I am grateful.”

“No need,” Hanguang-jun replies.  Sizhui has heard Hanguang-jun voice this to Senior Wei before, ‘between us there is no need for thank you and sorry’.  

“One should be grateful,” Sizhui says.  Hanguang-jun inclines his head slightly in acknowledgment.  “And it is nice,” Sizhui continues, “to sit and enjoy a meal with you.  It reminds me of when I was young.”

Hanguang-jun’s golden eyes go soft at that as if he remembers too.  He reaches out and cradles Sizhui’s face in his hand for a moment, his fingers intentionally brushing against the silk fabric of his forehead ribbon as he does so.

“You have grown up well, A-Yuan.  You will go soon.  But we will always be your home.”

Sizhui feels his face grow hot.  Senior Wei is absolutely right, it is hard to face his father when he says things like that.  

“Hanguang-jun,” he says, “I do not intend to leave forever.”

“Mn,” Hanguang-jun says, and Sizhui thinks that will be the end of the conversation, but after a judicious pause, his father says one more thing.  “But one can never know everything that lays before them when they start down a new path.”

“Yes, Hanguang-jun.” Sizhui bows his head.  

The bell chimes six am outside of the dormitories.  Both Sizhui and Hanguang-jun glance out the window.

“Master Lan Qiren has requested my help with the students today.”

Hanguang-jun inclines his head; there is no trace of surprise on his face or in his eyes.  

“Lessons for guest disciples begin at seven am,” Sizhui says even though his father knows this even better than him.  “I have only twenty-minutes for meditation in the Cold Springs.”

With a nod, Hanguang-jun gets to his feet, and Sizhui copies him.  The pair of them exit the dormitory together.  It is not loud, because the Cloud Recesses are almost never loud, but it is noisy.  There is also more movement than usual, enough that it’s verging on chaos.  The new students have been arriving for days, and they are too new to have adjusted to the life of the Cloud Recesses.  

Sizhui knows that many of the elders find it irritating, but he has never minded.  It has always been one of Jingyi’s favorite times of the year.  The instructors are all too busy with new students to worry about the rest of the disciples.  The knowledge hits Sizhui with a pang, but he pushes it aside.  

The Cold Springs are unoccupied when Sizhui and Hanguang-jun arrive, as they have been every day this week.  Hanguang-jun has said nothing about it, so Sizhui hasn’t either, but he knows that his father must have done something.  The Cold Springs are a sacred space shared by the entire sect.  Early mornings in the Cold Springs are usually for the elders, who wish to come before the younger sect members arrive and disturb them.  Some elders come even before five am.  

However, Sizhui sets all of this aside as he undresses and braids his hair out of the way.  If it gets wet, it won't have time to dry before he has to be in the Orchid Room to assist Old Master Lan.  Walking around with wet hair is definitely not proper appearance, and Sizhui is determined to be as close to perfect as possible.  

It is more difficult than usual for Sizhui to focus on his meditation in the Cold Spring.  The task has grown easier as the healing progresses and the danger of qi deviation grows smaller.  Twenty minutes is not a long time, and it’s over faster than Sizhui would have liked.  He’d like to remain, but he won’t risk being tardy.  

Hanguang-jun exits the spring to rebandage Sizhui’s back.  It’s a task that Sizhui could manage but is much easier with two people.

“I will go,” Sizhui tells his father once he is dressed and his hair has been released from its braid and properly rearranged.  

“Mn.”  Hanguang-jun has not yet finished redressing himself, but he nods for Sizhui to go ahead.  

Sizhui cannot walk very fast still.  It won’t be hard for Hanguang-jun to catch up if he wishes.  But Sizhui is on his way to the Orchid Room, so perhaps Hanguang-jun will simply go from the Cold Springs to his office.  

The path back from the Cold Springs is empty and quiet except for the small sounds of nature.  When he reaches the Cloud Recesses proper, he can hear the chatter of disciples voices and the softer sound of feet on gravel paths.  The earliest students must be making their way from the dining hall to the Orchid Room.  

As Sizhui makes his way down the stone path, he notices a pair of Lan cultivators on the path ahead of him.  Automatically, he slows his pace.  He cannot tell from behind who they are.  Anxiety wells up in his chest, and he braces himself for his first interaction with his fellow sect members since the funeral.  But the cultivators in front of him don’t notice him; they are lost in conversation.

“Every year it’s the same,” one of them complains.  Sizhui recognizes Lan Jiahao’s, and he stiffens.  “A bunch of kids rushing in and making so much noise.  Can’t the other sects train their disciples any better?”

“It’s been so quiet too,” his fellow responds.  It’s Lan Zhihao.  For an instant, Sizhui is back in the courtyard with his hands bound to a post.

“Indeed.  It’s much calmer without Lan Jingyi around.  Good riddance on that one.”

Anger, real anger, hot as an iron fills Sizhui.  For a moment it’s so strong that he can’t talk, which is probably for the best.  

“Never grew up, that one.” Lan Zhihao agrees.  “His father was such a good man too.  Stood up to Wen Xu himself.  He must be rolling over in his grave to have a son like that.”

“Gossiping is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses,” Sizhui’s voice is cold as the winter mountain wind.  He hardly recognizes it.  

Both Lan Zhihao and Lan Jiahao jump slightly before spinning to face him.  Sizhui doesn’t miss the way their hands tighten on their swords.  Sizhui regards them with a glare worthy of both Hanguang-jun and the Yiling Patriarch.  

It takes a moment for the other two men to gather themselves.  

“Who are you to lecture us on the rules?” Lan Jiahao says with a frown.  It’s meant as a barb, but it can’t get through Sizhui’s anger.

“Is that any way to speak to your elders?” Lan Zhihao says, before quoting one of the Lan Precepts,  “do not disrespect the elder.”

“My apologies,” Sizhui says without an ounce of apology in his voice, “I heard two people gossiping like junior disciples and assumed they must be children.  I expected seniors of Gusu Lan to know the rules better than this.  I apologize for my mistake.”

Lan Zhihao’s jaw clenches hard enough that Sizhui can see the muscle flex.  Good.  Let him be angry.  

He can’t be a fraction of how angry Sizhui is with him.  But Sizhui doesn’t say anything else.  He keeps his mouth shut and lets his gaze speak for itself.  He is furious beyond words, but he is not stupid.  Do not succumb to rage.   Sizhui does not; he is better than that.  There is nothing he can do to them that will not end up with him being punished.

“Is something wrong?” Zewu-jun’s voice comes from behind Lan Jiahao and Lan Zhihao. The pair of them spin to face him.  There is guilt in their expressions.

Zewu-jun looks from them to Sizhui who says nothing.  But his face is cold as winter ice in a way it almost never is.  Zewu-jun’s normally kind eyes grow sharp as they glance from Sizhui to the two Senior Disciples.  

“Lan Zhihao, Lan Jiahao,” Zewu-jun says and his voice is amiable, but there is an edge behind it.  “Your sect leader asked you a question.”

“There is nothing wrong Zewu-jun,” Lan Zhihao says, bowing.  

Sizhui’s jaw clenches, and he barely bites back the words, ‘lying is forbidden.’  He’s not entirely sure that he wants to drag Zewu-jun into this.  He is not calm enough to deal with the situation rationally.

Zewu-jun’s gaze goes to Sizhui, searching his face.  Whatever he finds there, he decides not to push the issue.

“Then will you please allow Lan Sizhui to pass?  My uncle is expecting him in the Orchid Room.”

“Of course Sect Leader,” they say almost in unison before stepping aside.

Sizhui sweeps past them; he doesn’t even look at them.  His hold on his temper is tenuous, and he has no desire to lose it.  Not today.  And not in front of his uncle.  When Sizhui reaches his uncle, he offers him a bow.  The movement is stiff, between the pain in Sizhui’s back and the tension in his shoulders.

His uncle smiles at him.  It is a genuine smile and a kid one.  It helps ease the knot of tension in Sizhui’s chest a little.  Zewu-jun gently touches his elbow and steers him toward the classroom.  

“Uncle will be waiting for you.”

“Yes, Sect Leader.”

Sizhui does not look back as he makes his way to the Orchid Room.  As he walks, he counts his breaths in and out.  He has only ten minutes until he has to present to the new students.  Now is not the time for anger.  The junior disciples have done nothing to wrong him, and it would be unjust to take out his anger on them.  Besides, Old Master Lan is waiting, and he will undoubtedly be watching Sizhui closely.  Sizhui cannot afford to be anything other than perfect.  

It is good that Sizhui has so much practice with meditation because it is not easy to let go of so much anger so quickly.  But he has years of practice, and by the time he is making his way up the steps into the Orchid Room, his mind is tranquil once again.  The anger is not gone; meditation is not magic.  But Sizhui recognizes it and lets it go.  It will not control him.

The classroom is mostly full when Sizhui enters.  Old Master Lan is not here yet.  He will enter the room from his office when the bell chimes the hour.  So Sizhui waits at the back of the room, standing by the wall.  

His gaze drifts over the students.  They seem so young, even though they are only four years younger than himself.  For this first lesson, both female and male disciples are settled at the desks.  Men on the right and women on the left.  As his eyes search the room, he mentally tallies the sects present.  

A pair of girls rush through the door, obviously trying to make it to their places before the bell rings.  The girls are wearing a familiar set of blue and grey robes.  One of them stops, turning to look at Sizhui with wide eyes.  It’s Ouyang Zili, one of Zizhen’s younger sisters.  

“Lan-gongzi!” She bows to him, bringing her sword around so fast that he’s surprised she didn’t hit the girl standing next to her.  

“Miss Ouyang,” Sizhui offers a bow of his own and a smile.  “I’d hurry to your seat if I were you.”

“Right!” She spins around, sword swinging freely by her side and resuming her rush to a spot close to the front of the room.  Several of the girls closer to her huddle closer to her, all of them whispering together.  Several of them throw glances in Sizhui’s direction. 

But Sizhui isn’t watching.  He hadn’t even realized that Ouyang Zili would be coming to the Cloud Recesses.  Guilt rises, and he promises himself that he will apologize to Zizhen later. Normally, Sizhui learns most of Zizhen’s news through Jingyi.  Sizhui should have checked in with him.  But the only letters Sizhui had sent his friend were about Jingyi.  Silently, he chastises himself, he owes his friends better than that.

But he does not have long to dwell on his thoughts, because the bell chimes the hour and Old Master Lan steps into the room.  When he reaches the center of the room, standing behind his desk, the students, and Sizhui all bow.

It’s more like a ripple or a wave than a unison bow, except for the line of Gusu Lan disciples on the far sides of the classroom who bow together.  Amusement sparkles in Sizhui’s eyes.  By the end of the year, they’ll have figured it out, but for now, their bobbing reminds him of the times he’s helped with the smaller children.

“It is my honor to welcome you all to the Cloud Recesses,” Old Master Lan Qiren begins.  Sizhui has heard this speech five times, but he keeps himself focused anyway.  Mentally he checks off the points of the speech: the welcome, a reminder of why they are here, advice for their studies, and so on.

“While you are here you will be expected to follow the rules of Gusu Lan,” Old Master Lan says, nearing the end of his speech.  Sizhui straightens his back slightly, knowing that attention will be on him in a moment. “The rules of our sect are inscribed on the Wall of Discipline, and all of you have walked past it.  However, I have been told that none of my students bother to read them.  Senior Disciple Lan Sizhui will be reciting the rules for you today so that none of you can claim you did not know the rules you were breaking.”

Sizhui steps into the aisle in the middle of the room and bows to Old Master Lan.  He can feel the eyes of all the students on him.  But none of that bothers him so much as the keen gaze of Old Master Lan himself.  

“It is my honor to assist, Master,” Sizhui says before walking to the front of the class.  Several of the students give him nervous or scared looks, and he tries to smile reassuringly.  He waits a few moments to the left of Old Master Lan’s desk until the man has taken a seat and motions for him to begin.

“Do not kill within the Cloud Recesses.  Do not fight without permission.  Do not commit acts of promiscuity.  Do not go out at night.  Do not make noise.”

So the list begins.  There are four thousand rules to recite, but Sizhui knows them all.  He has been able to recite or write all of them for years now.  But it takes time to get through so many.  The rest of the morning in fact.  In previous years, disciples had taken turns reciting the rules with each one taking one volume of the rules.  But the elders want to punish Sizhui, to remind him of the rules, as if he had ever forgotten in the first place

Sizhui keeps his back straight, his sword held properly, and his free hand tucked against the small of his back.  He can feel Old Master Lan’s eyes on him as he speaks.  His voice is steady and calm.  He doesn’t rush, and he doesn’t hesitate.  There will be no mistakes; he is determined.  

Some of the students started taking notes when he began but as the time stretches past the hour mark almost no one is writing the rules anymore.  Several students are slouching in their seats, obviously bored.  A few appear to be doodling.  But by the time the second hour has passed and Sizhui is still reciting rules, there are others who seem somewhere between impressed and intimidated.

When Sizhui finishes his mouth is dry, and there is a dull ache in his back.  But his smile doesn’t waver, and his back stays perfectly straight.  He steps to the side and bows to Old Master Lan, who gives him an approving nod.  Relief fills Sizhui.  The old man’s approval has always been important to Sizhui, and he’d been afraid that he’d lost it forever. 

Sizhui bows to his teacher before taking a seat at the desk to the side reserved for teaching assistants.  Most of the class is still staring at him.  All he can do is smile at them and hope they aren't too intimidated by the sheer number of rules.  

Old Master Lan clears his throat, drawing the attention of the class away from Sizhui and back to the center of the room.  Sizhui lets himself tune out slightly as Old Master Lan quizzes the students over the rules.  Several of the students look absolutely panicked, but Old Master Lan keeps them simple enough.  “What hour should one rise while in the Cloud Recesses?”  “At what time do the gates close?” “Is it or is it not permitted to drink tea in the Library?” and so on.

Even though he’s not listening to everything, he keeps his gaze firmly on whoever is speaking, not letting his eyes wander.  He is determined that Old Master Lan will not find a single fault in his performance. 

Still, it is a relief when the class is released for break.  The female cultivators will be escorted back to their portion of the Cloud Recesses and lunch will be served.  The students have half an hour before lunch to stretch their legs.  Sizhui remains once all the students have exited, ignoring the numerous glances sent in his direction.  

“You did well today,” Old Master Lan says.  “You may go.”

Sizhui bows to him again before making his way out of the Orchid Room.  Most of the students are milling around in the courtyard directly outside of the classroom.  The Lan Sect disciples have scattered to less well-known and therefore less crowded places with their friends.  

A chorus of “Lan-gongzi” greets him as he crosses the courtyard and heads for one of the covered walkways.  He offers a nod and a smile in return.  None of the students try to speak to him beyond an initial greeting, and he is grateful for that.  As he steps into one of the covered hallways and walks away from the students, his shoulders sag the tiniest bit and he breathes a sigh of relief.  

He plans to spend lunch with Senior Wen in his guest house, and he lets his feet carry him along the familiar path.  He’s nearing the gallery wall that depicts the history of Gusu Lan Sect and the story of Lan An when he hears voices ahead of him.  He pauses.  He’s not interested in another run in with the likes of Lan Jiahao.  But the voices in the corridor are young and slightly too loud to be Gusu Lan disciples.  Sizhui has just started to resume his walk when the sound of his own name halts him again.

“So,” one of the boys says, “that was Lan Sizhui.”

“Seems so,” his friend says.  “But didn’t Zeshi say that he’s always with his friend?”

“He did, didn’t he?  Lan Jingyi, right?”

Sizhui recoils as if Jingyi’s name is a physical blow.  He hadn’t realized that their friendship was so widely recognized, and hearing it, after everything, hurts.

“I wonder where he was?” 

 Sizhui makes a face.

“Doing whatever the other Lan Disciples were doing,” he says dismissively.  “They don't need two people to recite the rules apparently.”

“I can’t believe he really recited all those rules, and he didn’t make a single mistake.  No wonder Jiayi thinks he’s perfect.”

“Really? I thought it was kind of intimidating.”  

Sizhui blinks.  He’s never been told that he’s intimidating before.  

“Intimidating?” his friend scoffs.  “Is that all you have to say about him? Really? ”

“What else am I supposed to say?” 

“I don’t know. What do you think?  Was Jiayi right? Is he really the most handsome young master in all the sects?”

Sizhui’s face burns.  He tries to forget that the stupid list exists in the first place, let alone his place on it.  

“Honghui!” the other boy hisses.

“Bohai,” the other boy responds, clearly not at all intimidated.  “Well, I think he’s very good looking.”

“Oh?” 

“Not as handsome as you of course,” the boy backpedals.  

“You are only saying that because we’re together,” the other boy says, but he doesn’t sound offended.

Sizhui steels himself to walk out into the hallway and interrupt this conversation.  He’s not entirely sure where it’s going and he doesn’t want to hear, besides eavesdropping is forbidden.   

“Look at this character,” the boy, Bohai, says abruptly.  

“An?” His friend, or boyfriend, asks.  “Lan An,” he reads, “founder of Gusu Lan.”

“Wasn’t An the last name of that rogue cultivator?”  

Sizhui freezes.  

“Rogue cultivator?”

“Remember,” Sizhui can almost hear the boy rolling his eyes, “the rogue cultivator that sat with us at the feast.  Your sister introduced him as Young Master An.  I know you remember; he was very good looking.  Strong jaw, high cheekbones, eyes like a thunderstorm.  See, I knew you wouldn’t forget a face like that.”

Sizhui’s heart is pounding in his chest so loud that it almost obstructs the conversation he’s listening in on, and with every beat, it seems to say ‘it's him’.  It's him.  It’s him.  It's him.  His breath shudders in his chest as he tries to calm his heart.  There’s no proof, he tells himself.  Nothing concrete.  Not yet.  

“Yeah, you’re right,” the boy says with a laugh, “I remember.”

Sizhui takes a steadying breath and a step towards the gallery and the two boys speaking.  He’s already broken the rule about listening to conversations not meant for him.  But that doesn’t mean he should keep breaking it.  Besides, he needs to know which sect these boys are from.  A not insignificant part of him wants to demand answers from them, but there’s no way to do that without spilling more of the story than he wants to.  But he will go and learn their names and then ask Senior Wei what name exactly Jingyi had signed on the night hunt in Qinghe.

“The four panels must tell the story of Lan An,” one of the boys says.  

“Is that a temple?  Why is there a temple?”

Sizhui turns the corner to the gallery.  There are panels spanning the history of Gusu Lan, but the four of Lan An are the centerpiece and by far the most elegant.

“Lan An was born and raised in a temple, where he became a well recognizes monk,” Sizhui says.

One of the boys actually squeaks as they spin around to face him.

“He decided to descend from the mountain and travel the world as a musician,” Sizhui continues, “In his travels, Lan An found his fated person.  They became cultivation partners and founded Gusu Lan together.  After many years his cultivation partner died.  With his partner gone, Lan An left Gusu Lan behind and returned to the mountains, leaving the world behind.”

Both boys are staring at Sizhui with wide eyes.  Sizhui’s eyes are soft, as they always are when he tells this story.  There’s a smile on his lips despite the turmoil in his heart.  His own words echo in his head ‘With his partner gone, Lan An left Gusu Lan behind and returned to the mountains, leaving the world behind.’     

Sizhui’s fingers clench behind his back as he thinks of the ribbon tucked into his robes.  

“First disciple Lan,” both boys bow to him before he can stop them.  

Sizhui takes in their appearances.  He recognizes the insignia and colors of Caicun Lin, and one of the boys is wearing a headpiece that almost certainly marks him as the son of a sect leader.

“You are from Caicun Lin?” Sizhui says, “Young Masters Lin and?”

Both boys seem surprised that he recognizes them, or their clothes rather.  He supposes that most of the other big sects don't bother to have their disciples learn the details of all the lesser sects.    

“Sect Heir Lin Honghui,” one of the boys says with another bow.  

“Cao Bohai of Caicun Lin,” his friend introduces himself.

“It is an honor to meet you both.  Welcome to the Cloud Recesses.”

“Thank you First Disciple Lan,” they say together.  

Sizhui offers them one last nod and starts off down the gallery hall away from them.  His mind is scrambling.  Caicun Lin is a subsidiary sect of Qinghe Nie.  Sizhui can’t remember exactly where Caicun is, but surely, surely there are too many coincidences for it to be someone other than Jingyi?

Lan An.  An Jingyi.  Senior Wei had not told Sizhui what name Jingyi had signed on the night hunt, only that he had used his courtesy name.  But ‘An’ of all the names.  Jingyi is too romantic, too fond of stories, to use the name of Lan An for no reason.  There are a hundred names he could have chosen from the books he’s read or the histories they’ve studied.  It could be because Lan An had left Gusu Lan behind, Sizhui reasons with himself, but that doesn’t seem right.

There is no one else in the hallway, and Sizhui checks the forehead ribbon tucked into the lapel of his robes.  Lan An had left Gusu Lan and the world behind when he could no longer be with his fated person.  Lan An had also begun the tradition of the Gusu Lan Sect forehead ribbons.  The ribbon means restraint.  The ribbon should not be touched by someone who is not a cultivation partner or family.  Forehead ribbons are exchanged only for marriage and for death, or perhaps for excommunication.

Jingyi what on earth were you thinking?

There’s too much for Sizhui to process.  The note.  The ribbon.  The choice of the name.  

Lost in thought, he doesn’t realize that he’s made it to Senior Wen’s guest room until he’s basically at the door.  The door is open to the lingering summer breeze, and Senior Wen looks up the table where he is sitting with a scroll laid out before him.

“A-Yuan,” he says.  There’s a smile on his face, but concern in his eyes. “Is everything alright?”

“Yes,” Sizhui says, and then pauses.  “Mostly,” he corrects himself because he does not lie.

“Come and sit,” Senior Wen says, and Sizhui obeys.  “Would you like tea?”

“Yes, Senior Wen.”

Senior Wen pulls out the box of tea he’s brought, and Sizhui fills the kettle with water before drawing a talisman to set it boiling.  Senior Wen returns to the table and soon the rich smell of black tea fills the small room.  Once the tea is poured, Sizhui takes the small cup in his hand letting the heat sink into his skin.  

“Is there something you want to talk about?” Senior Wen asks.

“I don’t know,” Sizhui says.  He does not want to talk about his feelings.  But this new information about Jingyi has turned his thoughts into a tangled mess and it might help if he could talk it out.

“Alright,” Senior Wen says, not pushing him.

“Oh,” Sizhui says, remembering something.  Something much easier to talk about.

“Oh?”

“I received a message from Jin Ling.  Zizhen and his sister are in Lanling.  He got my letter, and they are going to fly to Xiyang.  We can meet them there.”

Wen Ning only nods at this information.

“He said,” Sizhui says more quietly, “that he doesn’t want to force you to come to Lanling, or to face Koi Tower, and it will be faster to meet them in Qinghe anyway.”

There’s a strange expression on Senior Wen’s face; one of the ones where the muscles of his face fail to recreate the expression he would have had in life.  But his eyes are both soft and sad.

“You have good friends,” he says quietly.

Sizhui nods in agreement.  There had been many not pleasant conversations between Jin Ling and Sizhui at the beginning of their friendship.  There is too much emotional baggage and background between them for it to be easy to navigate.  Sizhui’s past, Jin Ling’s past, their parents’ stories, their families’ stories: there is so much and almost none of it pleasant.

It had not been easy for Jin Ling to see that Senior Wen had his own past with Jin Sect outside of the death of Jin Ling’s father.  And harder still for him to accept that the things suffered by Senior Wen at the hands of the Jins are not things easily forgotten or forgiven.  Senior Wen would never hold Jin Ling accountable for the sins of his predecessors, but Sizhui does not think that Senior Wen will ever be able to face Koi Tower again.

“So we will head towards Qinghe in the next few days,” Senior Wen says.

“Senior Wei spoke with Sect Leader Nie, and he said he doesn’t mind if we travel through Qinghe so long as we don’t cause any disasters.”

“We will have to avoid causing disasters then,” Senior Wen says with a smile.

“I find that’s generally advisable.”

Senior Wen laughs and shakes his head.  

“Senior Wen?”

“Yes?”

“I have been wondering about traveling.  You said you will come with me.  And I am happy for that.  But you do not have a sword to fly on, and it would take too long for me to walk.  I can take you on my sword, I suppose, but I won’t be able to fly as far.”

“There is no need for you to strain yourself.” Senior Wen says.  “I can travel on foot fast enough to keep up.  We simply need to plan our route, so we go in the same direction and do not lose each other.”

Sizhui nods.  He supposes that he should not have worried.  Senior Wen is a fierce corpse, after all, he has strength and speed well beyond that of a human.  But it is easy for Sizhui to forget.

In the silence that follows, Sizhui finishes his tea and moves to pour more.  The silence doesn’t bother Sizhui, nor does the stop and start speed of the conversation.  He was raised in the Cloud Recesses by Hanguang-jun.  It is not uncommon for conversations between Lan disciples to lapse into silence and it is even more common with elders. 

Sizhui is working on his second cup of tea when Senior Wen speaks again.

“There is still something weighing on your mind.”

“There is.”  

Sizhui sets his cup down and looks at his hands.  He hasn’t told anyone about the ribbon that Jingyi had left behind or the exact words of his letter.  Not only does it feel private, like something that should be between him and Jingyi, but there also are so many emotions that come up every time he thinks about them, that it makes it hard to speak.  

“You don’t have to tell me,” Senior Wen says gently, “but I will listen if you wish to speak.”

“I accidentally overheard some disciples speaking on my way here,” Sizhui says.  “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop.” He starts to defend himself and then stops.  Breaking the rules is breaking the rules even if it wasn’t the intention.  But Senior Wen won’t care anyway.

“And?” Senior Wen says gently as Sizhui stalls.

“They were from Caicun Lin, a subsidiary sect of Qinghe Nie and… and I think they were talking about Jingyi.”

Senor Wen’s lips make a soft ’ah’ but he doesn't make a sound, doesn’t interrupt Sizhui.

“They said there was a rogue cultivator passing through, and the description sounded like Jingyi.”  Sizhui feels his face heating up a tiny bit at that.  The description really hadn’t been that detailed other than attractive with grey eyes, which could easily be a different cultivator if Sizhui is being objective, which he’s not.  “But it’s more than that.  They said the cultivator was using the name ‘An’.”

“An?”  Senior Wen asks, “that means something to you?”

“I forgot you didn’t come here for schooling,” Sizhui says.  “Lan An was the founder of Gusu Lan.”

“I see,” Senior Wen says.  “A rogue cultivator near Qinghe, who looks like Jingyii, and is using the name of Gusu Lan’s founder.  I think it's a good place to look at least.”

Sizhui hears what he doesn’t say: because there's nothing else.  Sect Leader Nie hasn’t produced any more night hunt reports from rogue cultivators, and Jingyi hasn’t sent any messages, not that Sizhui expected any.

“It’s not just that,” Sizhui says, taking a deep breath.  “Jingyi has always been a fan of the story of Lan An.  He left behind life as a monk to travel the world as a musician.  During his travels, he found his fated person.  They became cultivation partners and founded Gusu Lan.  When his partner eventually died, Lan An left Gusu Lan behind.  He returned to his monastery and was never heard from again.”

Sizhui swallows hard.  His gaze is firmly on the cup of tea in his hands as he finishes talking.  There are too many emotions threatening to bubble to the surface.

“His fated person died, and he left Gusu Lan behind never to return,” Senior Wen summarizes, and his voice is very careful.  

Sizhui nods, but it takes a moment for him to realize what Senior Wen is implying.  It feels like a bucket of ice down Sizhui’s back, and his hand involuntarily goes to his chest and the ribbon hidden there.  

“There’s something else I should tell you,” Sizhui says, hand still pressed to his chest.  Despite his words, his hand doesn’t move.  “Except I haven’t told anyone.”

Senior Wen watches him quietly but doesn’t push.

“Do you know about Gusu Lan forehead ribbons?”

“Only that they are sacred.”  There’s cautious curiosity in Senior Wen’s voice.  

“They are,” Sizhui says letting his hand fall away from his chest at least.  “They symbolize restraint.  Lan An taught that one could only let go of all regulations when you are with your loved ones.  It came to mean with your family or your partner.  No one but your cultivation partner or family should be allowed to touch your forehead ribbon.  And it is forbidden to tie your ribbon on someone who is not your fated person.”  

Sizhui has heard of Lans, in marriages arranged by their families, who did not tie their ribbons on their spouse.  It has always seemed heartbreaking to him, to marry someone who you did not feel you could truly give your ribbon to.  

“I did not know that,” Senior Wen says.  Sizhui wonders if he too had seen Hanguang-jun’s forehead ribbon tied around Senior Wei’s hands back in Tanzou.  There had been so much going on that he doubts someone who wasn’t a Lan might remember it.  “But, I assume there is a reason you are telling me this?”

“Other than to further your education you mean?” Sizhui says with a small laugh.  It helps to make the joke, to separate himself from the heaviness of his emotions.  Senior Wen laughs and nods.  

“There are two occasions when ribbons might exchange hands; after you have been given one by your parents, I mean.”

He forces himself to look up at Senior Wen.

“When you get married?” Senior Wen guesses and Sizhui nods.  “And?”

“And when you die,” Sizhui says, gaze dropping back to the table.  He raises one of his hands back to this chest, over Jingyi’s ribbon, and over his heart.  He can feel Senior Wen’s eyes watching him.

His hand is shaking, but he reaches into his robes and pulls out the white silk band.  It feels heavier in his hand than it could possibly weigh, heavier than his own.  Sizhui doesn’t look up from the neatly folded white silk in his hand, so he misses the surprised expression on Senior Wen’s face and the way his mouth falls slightly open.

“Jingyi left this under my pillow when he left,” Sizhui says, fingers closing over the ribbon and hiding it from view.

“That changes things,” Senior Wen says slowly.  

Sizhui finally looks up at him.  He looks pensive mostly, but his eyes are soft.  

“I’m sorry I didn’t say anything before,” Sizhui says.  “I just wasn’t ready to share it with anyone.”

“You don’t need to apologize.  It is something precious to you.  It is yours to tell or not to tell.  I am glad that you trust me enough to tell me.  But, I think there is a reason why you told me.”

“There is,” Sizhui agrees.  He tucks the ribbon back into his robes, fingers lingering over the silk for a moment before he returns his hands to his lap.  He takes a deep breath.  He can feel the maelstrom of emotions that threatens to rise whenever he thinks of Jingyi, the ribbon, the night hunt, or any of it.  It takes an effort of will for him to calm his mind, to sit with the emotions, and not let them drown him.  It would be easier not to court them at all, but he has come this far already.  “Senior Wen, I am so confused.  I don’t know what to think.”

“You are confused about Jingyi?”

“I can’t understand what happened,” Sizhui says, the words almost exploding out of him.  “I don’t understand why he left.  I don’t understand why he would leave his ribbon and just vanish.  How do you say to someone ‘you are my restraint, you are the other half of my soul’, and then just leave?”  His voice cracks.

“You have every right to be confused,” Senior Wen says.  As he speaks, he pours another cup of tea and pushes it towards Sizhui.  

“And now the story of Lan An,” Sizhui says.  His hands are shaking when he wraps them around the cup.  “Lan An, who lost his love and left.  But if it’s me, and the ribbon was given to me, how am I lost?  What did I do?”

Sizhui is failing spectacularly at keeping his emotions at bay now.  Now that the words are out, he can’t seem to stop the emotions from following.  He had intended to explain the situation, to try and make sense of it, but now he’s headed towards tears.

“A-Yuan,” Senior Wen says quietly, “do not blame yourself.”

“I don’t know what to think Uncle,” Sizhui says.  “He left, he also left a letter, but all he said was ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘thank you’.  Then he said goodbye.”

Senior Wen takes in a sharp breath at Sizhui’s words.  And Sizhui glances up at him.  There’s an expression on his face that Sizhui has learned means he’s remembering something and not something happy.  

“You cannot know the secrets of another person’s heart,” Senior Wen says once he’s recovered slightly.

“I want to understand,” Sizhui’s voice is shaking slightly now too.  “I want to understand why he left… so I can get him to come back.  I want to fix this, but I don’t know how.  I don’t know what I did to undo it!”

“Oh, A-Yuan,” Senior Wen moves so that he’s next to Sizhui instead of across from him.  Gently, he places a hand on Sizhui’s shoulder, giving Sizhui the option to lean into him or not.  “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Then why did he go?”

“I don’t know.  But clearly he still cares about you.”

“But then why did he go?”  Sizhui’s voice is louder than he meant, but there’s no one but the two of them here to care.  “I woke up, and he was gone, just gone.  I miss him. I need him.  And he’s just gone.”  There’s an edge of frustration and anger to his sorrow.  Being abandoned is Sizhui’s greatest fear, and Jingyi should know that, but he’d left anyway. 

Senior Wen gently wraps an arm around his shoulders.  

“I’m sure he has a reason,” Senior Wen says.  “He’s always been your friend and he clearly cares about you.  I don’t think he left you alone without a reason.”

“But why?” Sizhui is repeating himself at this point.  But he can’t help it.  Because that’s at the base of all of this.  He just wants to know why.  If he has to lose his fated person, the other half of his soul, can’t he at least know why?  

“When we find him, you can ask him.” 

Chapter Text

I wonder if you know
How it feels to let you go?

Jingyi does not sleep well after Song Lan leaves.  His dreams are filled with Yi City: memory and nightmare mixing together.  He keeps finding himself lost in the fog, choking on corpse poison, alone and unable to find his way out. There are flashes of white, gold, or gray-blue robes, but whenever he turns to them, there is no one there.

When his body wakes him at 5am, he feels as if he hasn’t slept at all.  Slowly, he pushes himself up on his elbows and then up into a sitting position.  Trying to sleep will only bring him more nightmares.  He spots the note from Song Lan still by his bedroll.

With one move, he slices his finger on his sword before drawing out a fire talisman on the note in his own blood.  He flicks it towards the banked fire and watches as it burns away to nothing.

Since he can’t sleep, he drags himself out of bed.  First, he feeds the fire a bit.  It will be a few hours before his companions are awake, and he doesn’t want it to go out completely. Then he focuses spiritual energy on his finger for a few seconds, just enough to make sure it won't bleed anymore.  The cut had been intentionally shallow; his golden core will heal it by the end of the day anyway.

His ponytail has come loose, so he lets it down entirely, running his fingers through it until it’s mostly detangled, before putting it back up again.  Only then does he pick up his sword and head across the road to a clearing that has evidence of being used as a campsite.  After some deliberation, he decides that for today, he will set his sword aside.  He drops it on the ground and counts several paces away.  Starting by raising his hands over his head, he stretches out his body.  He breathes as he moves.  It’s an exercise he hasn’t done properly since he left the Cloud Recesses, probably because it has never been one of his favorites.  

His eyes are closed, and his mind is split between the rush of qi through his meridians, his breathing, and the movement of his limbs. His muscles are tighter than he remembers; probably because it’s been weeks without properly stretching them.   It takes a while until his muscles feel loose and warm again, and he reminds himself to try and do this more often.  But for now, he shifts his focus on the qi through his body.

Slowly, he moves through the motion of a punch, directing his spiritual energy so that it hits his hand when his fist would have passed through its target.  He centers himself again and moves through a kick.  It takes balance and strength to hold himself on one leg for the slow extension of a kick aimed at stomach level, but it’s been almost a decade since he’s had trouble with it.  One by one, he moves through a series of unarmed fighting stances.  With every strike, he channels his spiritual energy along with the motion.  He goes through the whole set twice in slow motion. 

His breathing is even and practiced, and he feels grounded again.  The pain from last night and the frantic panic of his nightmares has melted away, replaced by meditative focus.  He feels more centered now and lets out one long, slow breath.

He bursts from stillness into motion in an instant.  Punch, punch, kick, block, duck, kick.  The motions are ingrained in his muscles.  He doesn’t have to think as he moves.  The motions are graceful and smooth in a way that belies the power behind them.  Each blow leaves a ghost trace of light blue spiritual energy behind.  If he chose, he could push more energy into them, turning a punch into something that could break stone, but this exercise is about control, not power. 

He finishes the exercise in the exact same position that he started.  His breathing has quickened the tiniest bit, and his pulse has stepped up a notch.  But this is routine and far from a strain on his body.  The next series of exercises he goes into is trickier.  But he flows through them with ease, shifting from one motion to the next without any pause or hesitation.  He goes through the series twice and then mirrors the series to attack so that he’s attacking mainly with his off-hand.  

He shifts into another set of exercises.  These are more complex, sometimes acrobatic moves: butterfly style kicks that cause him to leave the ground entirely, sweeping kicks that drop him close to the ground, blocks twist his whole torso, or make him jump.  His heart rate picks up with the new level of exertion.  But none of the motions are a strain.  His muscles flex and tense in familiar patterns without him having to think. At the end, he returns to his initial position and then starts again with the other side.

When he stops moving, his skin is damp with sweat despite the gentle breeze in the early morning air.  His heart rate has picked up and his breathing is coming fast but still completely regularly.  As he stills, the rush of qi through his body settles back to its normal rhythm.

The sun has risen higher in the sky while he trained.   But a glance at his campsite shows him that his friends are still asleep.  He’s grateful for that.  There’s something close to awe in the way that Peizhi watches him whenever he catches Jingyi training that makes him uncomfortable. He has never minded training in front of other people before, but it’s different from competing with his fellows or even demonstrating something for the junior disciples. 

Slowly, Jingyi stretches out his muscles once more.  He feels calm and steady again in a way that only meditation seems to be able to bring.  Though he still can’t meditate properly if he has to sit still.  The gentle breeze cools his skin and his breathing settles back into its natural rhythm.

Snagging his sword from the ground, Jingyi heads back to the camp.  He settles himself on his bedroll and begins to clean and sharpen his sword.  By the time he’s done, Peizhi and Liling are showing signs of stirring, so Jingyi starts to pull food out of their packs for breakfast. 

As he does so, he tries to calculate their food stores and comes to the conclusion that they should try and find a farm to purchase food from.  They aren’t in any danger of starving, and it would be difficult to starve a cultivator like Jingyi anyway.  Liling keeps very good track of their food and has their whole journey.  She can always tell them when they need more and tells them how much to get. 

Liling wakes first, sitting up and rubbing her eyes.  She glances at the fire, which Jingyi is in the process of rekindling, and then to Jingyi himself.  

“Early morning?” She asks carefully.  

Jingyi shrugs and smiles at her.  “Got some training out of the way, so of course I’m starving now.”

“Couldn’t you practice inedia?” She asks as she gets up and rolls up her bedroll.  Beside her, Peizhi only rolls away, clearly not ready to be up for the day.

“I could,” Jingyi says.  “But there’s food here.”

“I thought that cultivators did things like that for practice?”  

Jingyi shrugs.  “Every cultivation sect does things differently.  But, I think you are thinking of monks.”

Gusu Lan are as close to monks as the main cultivation sects get, and Jingyi has had to practice inedia, but that’s beside the point.  He’d rather just eat the food.  

Now that she’s up, Liling comes around the fire to take over control of the food.

“I don’t mind doing it,” Jingyi says.  Gusu Lan isn’t like Lanling Jin, all the disciples have to take turns doing things like helping the kitchen.  He’s not great at cooking, but he can warm up food over a fire.

“I don’t mind either,” Liling says, taking the things away from him anyway.  “I like to feel useful.”

“I do appreciate not having to cook all the time,” Jingyi says.  

“Why are you two so chatty in the morning,” Peizhi complains as he sits up, rubbing his face with his hands.  

Jingyi can’t help but chuckle.  He has never been a morning person.  Half the time, Sizhui is poking him about this or that that he’s forgotten and elbowing him into proper posture at the breakfast table.  But it’s past eight, judging by the sun, and late enough that Jingyi’s body has firmly decided it's time to be awake.

“It’s not that early,” he says.

“It is unless you are a farmer or a monk,” Peizhi mumbles.  Well, he’s not too far off the mark; the rule about rising at 5 am had been written by a monk.

“Or a baker,” Liling says, “or a fisherman, or-”

“I get it, I get it,” Peizhi says grumpily.  Liling pats his arm and hands him a cup.

“Tea will be ready soon; you’ll feel better then.”

“I was thinking that we should stop at the next farm,” Jingyi says, eyeing the food over the fire and wondering if it's warm enough to eat.  

“That’s a good idea,” Liling says, “I’m not sure how far the next one will be.”

“It’s too bad I didn’t bring a bow,” Peizhi says.

“Why?” Jingyi raises an eyebrow.  He does have a bow.

“We could hunt something,” Peizhi says.  “I’m sure there’s plenty of game in the woods because there aren’t many people around.  And I’m certain it would be easy for you.”

“I’ve never been hunting,” Jingyi muses.  Killing is forbidden in Gusu after all.

Peizhi squints at him.

“I’ve never hunted regular animals,” Jingyi amends.  “Night hunting and hunting aren’t the same thing.”

“Still, I saw you at the archery range, and I’m sure you have experience with a moving target.”

“Of course,” Jingyi replies automatically.  There’s not much use in shooting at stationary targets except for sport.

“If we had a bow, we wouldn’t have to worry so much about interacting with farmers.”

“I have a bow,” Jingyi admits.

“You what?  Where? And didn’t you say you didn’t have one back in Caicun?”

Jingyi winces and rubs the back of his neck with one hand.  “Yeah, I did say that, and it’s in my qiankun pouch with everything else.”    

Both Liling and Peizhi are looking at him with curious expressions.  With a sigh, Jingyi reaches into the bag and pulls out his bow.  His hand slides along the smooth wood of the body until it reaches the leather grip.

“This is a Gusu Lan bow,” Jingyi says.  “There’s no way that the girls from Caicun Lin wouldn’t have realized it was.”

“Gusu Lan was the sect everyone was talking about all night, right?” Peizhi asks.

Between them, Liling is watching the interaction with worried eyes.  Jingyi still hasn’t talked to Peizhi about his past.  Peizhi doesn’t seem concerned by it, and Jingyi doesn’t feel like offering it up. 

“That’s right,” Jingyi says.  

“So are you associated with them then?”

“I used to be,” Jingyi says with finality.

Peizhi looks at him for a long moment and then shrugs.

“That bow, it’s beautiful.  Can I see it?”

Jingyi blinks at the sudden change and then shrugs, “sure.”

“Breakfast is ready!” Liling announces as Jingyi moves to give the bow to Peizhi.

“Perfect,” Jingyi says, happily trading food for the weapon.  Peizhi sets his food down and runs his fingers over the body of the bow, tracing the carvings.  He tests the give of the bow with his hands and blinks, then tries it again.

“This bow,” he says without looking up, “seems to have a really high draw weight.”

“It does,” Jingyi agrees.  

“Can I shoot it later?” Peizhi asks.  “I won’t damage it or anything.  It seems really expensive.  I’ll be careful.”

Jingyi laughs.  “You can try.”

“Try?” 

“Try,” Jingyi says with a smile, “I’ll tell you what, if you can draw the bow; you can go hunting with it.”

A spark ignites in Peizhi’s eyes, and he carefully sets the bow aside to eat his breakfast.  They eat in silence, but it doesn’t escape Jingyi’s attention that Peizhi is shoveling his food back as fast as he can.  It surprises him how excited the other boy is but he supposes there haven’t been many exciting things happening recently on their trip.  

After eating, they start to pack up their things, but Liling sets a hand on her brother’s shoulders.

“Why don’t you two go hunting.  I can pack up.”

“Meimei,” Peizhi says.

“Are you sure?” Jingyi asks.  He feels bad leaving all the work to her.

“Gege is going to vibrate out of his skin with excitement,” Liling says, “he’ll drop something.”

“You’re the best sister,” Peizhi says, promptly getting up to retrieve the bow.

“I know,” Liling says, which makes Jingyi snort in amusement.

Grabbing his sword, Jingyi also gets to his feet.  With a nod of his head, he leads Peizhi across the road to the small glen where he’d trained earlier.  Once there, Jingyi produces a bowstring, carefully wrapped and stored separately, and his quiver.  The whole time, Peizhi watches him.  His gaze goes to the white quiver, to the white fletched arrows, to the white leather grip on the bow.

“Is white a Lan thing or something?”

Jingyi actually laughs at that, which only makes Peizhi look confused.

“Yeah,” Jingyi says, “white is one sect colors.”

“Why white?” Peizhi asks, “white is for mourning.”

“That’s a question with a long answer,” he says.  “Let’s go with historical reasons.”

Peizhi looks at him curiously but shrugs.  Luckily for Jingyi, he’s far more interested in weapons and action than history and lore.  Since Peizhi is still holding the bow, Jingyi offers him the coiled bowstring.

“Do you want to string it, or should I?”

“You do it,” Peizhi says, offering Jingyi’s bow back to him.  He’s still holding the bow with something close to reverence.  He really won’t be able to draw it if he isn’t willing to put some force into it.  “I wouldn’t want to mess it up.”

“It’s not fragile,” Jingyi says, taking it from him and bracing it against his foot to string it.  “I promise that I’ve given it more abuse than you possibly could.”

“Is this the bow you learned on?” Peizhi asks eyes slightly wide.

Jingyi shakes his head ‘no’ as he strings the bow.  “I got this when I was old enough for competitions and night hunts.  I wouldn’t have been able to draw this when I was 7 years old.  I might have been shorter than this bow when I was 7 years old.”

Holding up the bow, Jingyi sets his feet and shoulders, before drawing it back most of the way and slowly letting it return to the neutral position just to check everything.  Lowering his drawing arm, he offers the bow to Peizhi.

“You’ve been training since you were seven?”

Peizhi takes it from him, and Jingyi is glad to see that he’s holding it more firmly this time.  

“I’ve been training archery since I was seven,” Jingyi corrects.  “Children don’t have the motor skills and balance for it until around then.  We start with running, jumping, and such almost as soon as we’re able, three years old or so.”

Jingyi hands Peizhi an arrow from the quiver.

“When did you start training with your sword?”

“I started training with a training sword at eight.  You don’t get your own spiritual weapon for a few years after that.” Jingyi tells him.  “But do you want a history of my lessons or do you want to shoot.”

“What should I aim at?” Peizhi asks by way of answer.  

“Whatever you like,” Jingyi says, crossing his arms.  It doesn’t really matter what he aims at because Jingyi’s nearly certain that he won’t be able to draw the bow.  Jin Ling struggles to draw the bow fully; it’s a point of contention.  “Aim for a knot on a tree or something.”

“Right,” Peizhi says.  He sets his feet, adjusts his shoulders, and raises the bow in front of him.  His form isn’t bad at all, but Jingyi had noticed that back in Caicun. 

“Remember, if you can draw the bow, you can go hunting with it.”

“It’s just a bow,” Peizhi says, “of course I can draw it.”

Jingyi bites his lip as Peizhi sets the arrow to the string and tries to draw.  A look of consternation flashes across his face, and it takes most of Jingyi’s limited self-control not to laugh.  Peizhi pulls the string back slowly, and Jingyi can see the muscles in his back and arm trembling slightly.  As Jingyi anticipated, he gets stuck partway through.  His shoulders are shaking.

With an explosive sigh, Peizhi releases his hold, and the string snaps back to position.  

“What the hell?” Peizhi says looking from the bow to Jingyi.  “Is there a trick to it?”

“No,” Jingyi says, but Peizhi doesn’t look like he believes him.  “Try again if you like.”

He does.  His jaw clenches as he prepares to pull back the string, and he takes a deep breath.  Jingyi watches with a smirk on his lips.  

It reminds him of when he was younger and just learning how to use a bow.  They all used training bows back then, small and flexible enough to be drawn by children.  But a few of them, Jingyi included, became bored with the smaller bows and had bothered the instructor about using his bow.  He had, of course, refused and threatened to give them all handstands if they didn’t get back to work.  But Zewu-jun had been watching and interrupted the lesson with an apology to the teacher.  He’d offered to let the children try his bow, on the condition that if they could not draw the bow, they would take twice the punishment offered by the teacher and if they could draw the bow, they took none.  Jingyi had been the first to agree to the bargain.  He’d failed; how could he not, when Zewu-jun’s bow was taller than he was.  He’d taken his handstands without complaint but hadn’t really learned the lesson about humility and recognizing your own limits that Zewu-jun had meant him to.

“Your shoulders are out of line,” Jingyi says.  It’s a common slip up that happens when muscle fatigue sets in; he’s seen it on the junior disciples.  

Peizhi frowns and tries to fix his shoulders.  But his muscles are straining to keep the bow partially drawn and he is forced to release the string and let the arrow fall free.

“You do it,” Peizhi says with a frown.  “I want to watch.”

“As you wish,” Jingyi says, snagging the arrow from the ground.  “But there’s nothing to see.”

He takes the bow that Peizhi rather petulantly pushes at him.  Jingyi knocks the arrow and raises the bow before drawing the string back to his ear and letting the arrow fly, sinking into a tree trunk at the edge of the clearing.  

“See,” Jingyi says, handing the bow back to Peizhi along with a new arrow.  

Peizhi raises the bow in front of him, exactly copying Jingyi’s stance before pulling back on the string.

“You’re only using your arm to pull,” Jingyi points out.  Peizhi releases the string and turns to look at him.

“What does that even mean? Of course, I’m pulling with my arm.”

Jingyi reaches out for the bow, and Peizhi hands it back to him.  This time when Jingyi raises the bow and arrow, he does it slowly.  

“When you pull back on the string,” he says, slowly drawing back.  “Engage your other muscles.  The muscles in your back and chest are larger and using them in addition to your arm helps you pull harder.”

Jingyi holds the bow at full draw for only a few seconds before releasing.  Even for him, holding the bow fully to draw for any length of time is difficult.  It’s meant to be.

“Alright,” Peizhi says taking the bow back and trying again.  Jingyi steps in behind him.  When Peizhi starts to pull his arm back, Jingyi presses a hand between his shoulder blades.

“Tighten these muscles here,” he orders, and Peizhi obeys.  He manages to pull the string back a bit farther than he had before before he’s forced to release the string again.

“Don’t feel bad,” Jingyi says.  “Gusu Lan bows are difficult to draw, even for most cultivators.”  

Peizhi is eyeing Jingyi’s shoulders and arms.  “Do you use spiritual energy to draw it?” he asks.

“No,” Jingyi says, taking back the bow, “it’s not very useful as a weapon if you can’t use it when you run out of spiritual energy.”

“But you use your spiritual energy to wield your sword,” Peizhi points out.

“When I have to,” Jingyi agrees.  “But I can wield my sword without any power at all.  If I ran out of spiritual power, I could still fight, but I would tire much faster.  Relying too much on your spiritual power is dangerous because it can be sealed.”

The expression on Jingyi’s face by the end is grim, as he remembers the siege at the burial mounds and all the cultivators stuck in a cave and unable to properly wield their spiritual weapons.  He remembers Sizhui leading him and the other junior disciples to defend their elders.  Gusu Lan had adjusted its training after that, requiring training sessions without any use of spiritual power at all.  

“I guess,” Peizhi says.  “But isn’t it overkill to have such a powerful bow?  One many people can’t even use?”

“If you cultivate enough strength, you can use a bow like this.  It allows you to be further away from your enemy.  Gusu Lan isn’t known for its archery.  The bow uses power to offset the lack of skill.”

“Did you just say that you’re a bad archer?” Peizhi asks with an amused expression.

“I’m not the best,” Jingyi says honestly.  “Yunmeng Jiang, Baling Ouyang, and other more southern sects are better known for their archery.”

“Don’t you want to be better than them?” Peizhi asks, “why not focus more on training archers then.”

Jingyi laughs, “I asked the same question after my first archery contest.”

“What did they tell you?”

“A man must be wise in how he chooses to use his time,” Jingyi quotes.  It’s something he’s been told numerous times.

Peizhi makes a face, “what kind of answer is that.”

“The kind of answer teachers give you,” Jingyi responds.  “But, we’ve been messing around for a while.  Let’s see if we can hunt anything.”

“If you can hunt anything, you mean,” Peizhi says with a frown.  “I can’t do anything.”

“I’ve never hunted animals,” Jingyi says, “I don’t know where to look.  It’ll be better if you come with me.”

Jingyi could, most certainly, find something in the woods.  He’s trained to listen and look for disturbances.  But in this case, Peizhi has knowledge he doesn't have.  And he can tell that Peizhi is frustrated from his failure with the bow.  

“Let's go then,” Peizhi says.  

Jingyi follows him into the woods.  The last time Jingyi had been in the woods with Peizhi, he had stumbled and trampled loudly in the underbrush.  But now, maybe because it’s light outside and maybe because they’re hunting, he moves much more quietly.  His steps are louder than Jingyi’s, but they are cautious and unobtrusive.  

For a few minutes, they just walk, moving away from the road and into the woods proper.  Then Peizhi leans in and whispers to Jingyi.

“We should wait here, silent as possible, to see what comes by.”  

Jingyi nods his agreement.

The pair of them move until their backs are against a pair of trees, and they are hidden in the dappled light and foliage around them.  Jingyi keeps his arrow knocked to the bow as his eyes search the area around them, ready to draw at a moment's notice.  

A movement in the brush catches his eye, and he turns to look even as Peizhi nudges him.  Jingyi’s gaze is locked on the underbrush, as he very slowly raises his arm to aim.  Whatever is in the brush is small.  In a flash of motion, the creature darts out into the space between two trees.  Jingyi’s most of the way through drawing the bow when he realizes what it is: a rabbit.

He freezes.  It’s not a white rabbit, like those in the Cloud Recesses, it’s dappled in grey and brown, but it’s a rabbit nonetheless.  Instinctively, Jingyi lowers his bow.  The rabbit hasn’t seen them, it’s darted into the shadow of another tree.  It twitches its nose and shifts its ears.  

Peizhi elbows Jingyi, clearly wondering what on earth is holding him up.  But Jingyi just stares at the rabbit: its small nose and fluffy ears.  A myriad of memories flash through his mind.  The first time he’d been met by a field of bunnies and been terrified when they piled on top of Sizhui, Hanguang-jun patiently teaching him to sit still and quietly pet the rabbits, Sizhui holding a rabbit up to his face and putting their noses together, the two of them carrying vegetables from the kitchen up to the bunny hill, and the warm feeling of a rabbit in his arms.

“I can’t,” Jingyi says quietly, but not so quietly that the rabbit can't hear him.  The rabbit, not used to human voices like the ones on the back hill, runs for it.  “Not a rabbit.”

Later, Jingyi will shoot a pair of pheasants out from the underbrush so they can go back to Liling.  But right now, he just stares after the rabbit, trying to ignore the empty ache in his chest.

Chapter Text

Oh my friends
I am heavy
Can I beat within your heart?
Can I bleed within your love?

The wind whistles around Sizhui as he flies north.  As he rises higher, the wind grows chilly even though it’s summer.  The mountains around Gusu spread underneath him, an elegant painting of green and grey and white.  It’s a beautiful sight and one that he never grows tired of.   But right now, it makes him think of the night hunt.  His hand tightens into a fist behind his back.  There is no Jingyi flying beside him and no fellow disciples flying behind him.  It is odd to fly alone normally.  But now, it is worse.  

There are eight disciples who are never going to fly again.  They are never going to get to see the world laid out like a carpet beneath them.  Grief rises up in Sizhui and he wonders, again, why he is the one left behind.  He’d trade if he could, his life for theirs,  to bring all of them back.  But things don’t work like that. 

Sizhui tries to set aside the grief and the guilt.  He tries not to think about the sight of blood on white silk or about the sound of bones snapping.  The wind sounds like the howls of resentful souls if he listens to it.

He counts his breaths in and out.  He is flying.  He can’t afford to lose control of himself now.  It is better, much better, to focus on the flow of qi through his body and the air through his lungs.  Flying is second nature to him; he doesn’t need to think about it, but he does.  And while he’s at it, he pushes himself faster.  

For hours, he flies.  The sun slowly rises higher in the sky and the scenery under his feet changes.  After three hours, Sizhui stops; he lands alongside a small road that he had been following.  Normally, Sizhui could fly much longer, but he is burning through spiritual energy faster than normal and he promised not to push himself. 

There is nothing special about the place where he landed, no city or even a house.  The road is more of a hiking path than a road, and Senior Wen had selected it for this reason.  Sizhui sits for a bit and drinks some water as he waits to see if Senior Wen will cross his path.  There are still several hours of flying left to go and many li to cover before he reaches the place where he and Senior Wen agreed to meet. At this pace, it will take him days to reach Jin Ling and Zizhen.  It would have even if he was at full strength.  But Senior Wen does not appear, and Sizhui decides to get back on his sword.  

The problem with traveling alone, he realizes, is how much room it gives his mind to wander.  He tries to focus on the energy circulating through his body and to keep his mind calm, but even for Sizhui, managing a meditative state for a whole day isn’t practical.  He takes a break after two hours to drink more water and eat lunch.  It takes him another two hours after that before he reaches his destination, a place that is hardly more than a village and positioned at the edge of the forest Sizhui has spent the day flying over.  It’s only around dinner time, but Sizhui feels tired.  

Before his injury, he could have flown the whole day, maybe as long as eighteen hours if he pushed himself.  But his energy is being drained to heal himself.  But even beyond that, Sizhui feels weak.  It’s been three weeks since he’s properly wielded a sword or trained his body, and he can feel it.

He lands outside of the village and walks in.  The villagers all watch him with interest, and he greets them politely.  When he asks, they point him in the direction of the small inn at the village center.  Sizhui pays for dinner and a room using money that Hanguang-jun sent with him.  

As soon as he has finished his dinner, he retreats to his room.  He can feel the curious gaze of the innkeeper on him, and he’s not interested in talking.  Once in his room, he sits to sharpen and oil his sword.  It’s a chore that has been neglected during his healing.

When Senior Wen appears through the window, Sizhui almost jumps out of his skin.  

“I’m sorry,” Senior Wen says holding his hands up in an appeasing gesture.  “I just didn’t want to frighten the villagers.”

“It’s alright,” Sizhui says.  “You just surprised me.”

He’s grown accustomed to Senior Wen’s appearance since they first met and hardly notices his graying skin or stiff motions.  It’s easy for him to forget how other people must see the fierce corpse.  He hadn’t even considered that the common people might be scared of his uncle.

“I should have warned you,” Senior Wen says, coming to sit across from Sizhui.  “How are you?”

Sizhui takes a moment to consider the question before answering.  “I am alright. I am more tired than I thought I would be, but I am fine.”

“That is to be expected.  You are straining your golden core to heal yourself.”

Sizhui nods.  Hanguang-jun had pointed out a similar thing when Sizhui had first been injured.  Even when he’s not focused on it, his golden core works to heal him.  Today, he hasn’t tried meditating to heal at all because he wanted to save his strength for the flight.  

“Any pain?” Senior Wen asks.

“Nothing new.”  His back aches, and the longer he stands or sits the sorer it gets.  But it’s nothing unmanageable.

“May I look?” Senior Wen asks.  “I can redo the salve and bandages now.”

“If you wish,” Sizhui says.  

Sizhui stands and divests himself of his outer robes, neatly folding them as he goes.  As he unties his undershirt and pulls it off, he can feel Senior Wen’s gaze on him.  Even though he knows that Senior Wen is checking his mobility, it makes him feel self-conscious, and he keeps his gaze down on the folded white silk in his hands.

Once he’s done, Sizhui kneels, and Senior Wen helps him unwind the bandages from his chest and back.  A glance at them reveals that they are still pristine white, without a hint of blood, and Sizhui sighs in relief.  He hadn’t felt any of the wounds open, but it's good to have confirmation nonetheless.  He’s not sure what he would have done if his injury had reopened.  Would Senior Wen insist on dragging him back to Gusu? Or maybe even to Lanling, which is closer now.

Senior Wen washes his hands with water from a pitcher and soap pod that he must keep on him, before returning to examine Sizhui’s back.  

“The healing has slowed,” he reports.  “As I expected.  It will take much longer to finish healing now.”

They had discussed this before.  In Gusu, Sizhui had access to the healing properties of the Cold Springs and time to focus his energy on healing.  Without those two things and using his spiritual energy to fly, his wounds will heal much more slowly.  He accepts that.  

“But there’s no new damage,” Senior Wen tells him.

Once a new layer of salve is on and the bandages reapplied, Sizhui decides to go to bed early.  It feels odd after so many years of strict scheduling, but Senior Wen says that it’s the best way to replenish his strength, and Hanguang-jun says it is in accordance with the rules.  

When Sizhui wakes the next day, he finds that the innkeeper is only just waking up.  So he makes tea and waits for breakfast to be ready.  Using the map, he confirms the day’s plans with Senior Wen, who leaves as soon as he’s sure that Sizhui has breakfast.

The day progresses exactly the same as the previous one.  He flies for two or three hours at a time, watching the landscape change under his feet, with breaks in between to rest and eat.  He stops around dinner time and finds a place to stay, this time in a small city.  Senior Wen joins him but doesn’t check his back that night, relying on Sizhui’s word that everything is okay.

On the third morning, Sizhui receives a Jin Butterfly telling him that Jin Ling and Zizhen spoke to the Magistrate the day before and would wait at an inn for Sizhui to arrive.  They will have to wait another night, Sizhui thinks when he checks the map.  He won’t be able to make it there today.  

The rest of the day is the same as the one before except at night, Senior Wen again checks on the wounds on his back.  He confirms that things are still healing, and Sizhui can tell that he’s displeased with how slowly it is doing so.  But Sizhui doesn’t comment on it.

The fourth-day dawns, and Sizhui feels excited, which is refreshing.  It will be nice to see Jin Ling and Zizhen again, and he hopes it will help ease some of the empty ache in his chest.  He keeps his mind firmly on the goal of getting to see his friends again as he flies.  He is on his second flight when he decides to push himself.  The map tells him that he’s not far from the town now.  So instead of taking a break after three hours, he flies for four and a half. 

He lands when the town is in sight and walks to the road.  His back is aching from the strain, but he thinks it is worth it to see his friends.  He searches the area around him for signs of Senior Wen as he approaches the city even though they had planned to meet in the inn.

The sun is high overhead and the town, when Sizhui enters it, is bustling, and he’s only saved from the constant jostling of bodies by the space people leave around him because of his status as a cultivator.  Heads turn as he walks, but he is used to it.  Gusu Lan disciples stand out even more than those from other sects, in their pure white robes.  

As he walks, he studies the market.  Jingyi had been here, quite a while ago now, but he had been here.  That reminder kindles something like hope in his chest.  He feels like he’s finally making progress, heading in the right direction.  

Sizhui tries not to eavesdrop, but several conversations reach his ears as he goes.  Two women commenting on the increased number of cultivators coming through the town.  An old uncle complaining about the same thing.  A grandmother scolding her grandchildren for staring when Sizhui goes past.  

Crowds have never been something he enjoys.  Perhaps it’s a consequence of being raised in the Cloud Recesses, surrounded by silence and plenty of personal space.  Perhaps it’s part of who he is.  Maybe it's related to the vague memory he has of being very young and lost alone in a crowd of people.  Whatever the reason, crowds always make him uncomfortable.  But this is worse.  The people here are louder and closer than the people in Caiyi town.  And Sizhui’s body is tense, constantly worried someone is going to bump into him or his back.  A collision with his back might very well send him to his knees in a market full of people watching.  Just the idea makes him anxious.

When he catches sight of the inn that Jin Ling had mentioned, he breathes a sigh of relief.  Once he’s stepped out of the crowd and into the shadow of the building, it occurs to him now that Zizhen and Jin Ling might not be in the inn.  They had said they would wait, but they might have gone into the city for lunch or to amuse themselves.  

As he enters the building, he glances around the main room.  There are people at two of the tables, but none of them are his friends.  A waiter rushes out of the kitchen and approaches him.

“Young Master,” he says with a bow, “can I assist you?”

“I am looking for my friends,” Sizhui tells him.  The man looks a bit frantic and overworked, and Sizhui offers his best calm smile.  

“Cultivators?”

“Yes,” Sizhui says.  “One of them will be dressed in gold.  The other has short hair and carries a fan?”

“They are dining in the courtyard,” the man tells him.  “Let me show you the way, Young Master.”

“Just point me in the right direction.  There’s no need to trouble yourself.”

“It’s no trouble at all,” the man insists, so Sizhui lets himself be led.  It’d be rude to protest further.  “Just through this door here, and you’ll be in the courtyard.  I’ll fetch some fresh tea for you.  Would you like some lunch sir?”

“That would be appreciated,” Sizhui says, “thank you.”

The man bobs a bow and rushes back into the main room while Sizhui makes his way out into the courtyard.  It’s small but well kept.  His eyes go to Jin Ling, Zzihen, and Ziwan who are seated together.  Jin Ling had mentioned that Ziwan was traveling with them, but he’s still slightly surprised to see her.  She’s never been in any way interested in joining them.

“Hello,” Sizhui says as he takes a few more steps into the courtyard.  “I hope I’m not interrupting.”

“Sizhui!” Zizhen’s voice is much louder, but Sizhui can hear Jin Ling’s voice as well.  Ziwan simply turns her head to glance at him.  Sizhui watches in amusement as the three of them get to their feet.  Zizhen practically jumps up, going from seated to standing in one rapid move.  Ziwan and Jin Ling get to their feet in a much more subdued manner.

“You’re okay!” Zizhen says and rushes towards Sizhui.  

“Wait!” Sizhui starts to say, belatedly remembering Zizhen’s habit of greeting his friends with hugs.

But he’s too slow, and Zizhen crashes into him.  Sizhui’s forced to take a step back, almost stumbling.  Pain bursts across his back, and he gasps, the blood leaving his face.  

At least Zizhen processed Sizhui’s warning before he could fully embrace Sizhui, he pauses with his arms halfway around him.  He jerks his hands back to his chest as if afraid to touch anything at all and takes a step back.

“Sizhui, I’m so sorry!” he says, his face is even paler than Sizhui’s.  Jin Ling and Ziwan are suddenly beside them.  Jin Ling steadies Sizhui with a hand on the elbow before dropping the contact as if he’d been burned.  “You’re still injured!”

“Yes, I’m still healing,” Sizhui says.  He gathers himself and offers his friends a smile.  “I’m afraid you caught me off guard; that’s all.”

“I didn’t mean to,” Zizhen says, hand dropping to the fan on his belt and twisting it.  

“I know that silly,” Sizhui says, “Don’t be so worried.  I’m fine.”

Zizhen bites his lip.  His eyes are suspiciously shiny, and Sizhui feels the familiar jolt of anxiety that happens every time Zizhen comes close to tears.  “I’ve just been so worried.  And I was so happy to see you.  But you're still injured.”

“Zizhen,” Sizhui says gently, interrupting him.  His discomfort is completely hidden behind his soft smile.  “I’m okay.”  He steps forward and carefully wraps his arms around Zizhen and rubs his back.  “I promise.”

Zizhen returns the hug carefully, hands almost hovering over Sizhui’s back instead of touching him.  He can probably feel the bandages under Sizhui’s robes anyway, but he doesn’t say anything.  

“You said you were well enough to travel,” Jin Ling says.  There’s an accusation in his voice, and Sizhui glances at him, returning Jin Ling’s glare with a smile.

Sizhui squeezes Zizhen once, holding him until he starts to relax.  He drops his arms and pretends not to notice as Zizhen dabs his eyes with his sleeve.  Sizhui’s just glad he didn’t start crying.

“I am well enough to travel,” Sizhui says.  “I flew myself here.”

Jin Ling frowns at him, clearly not convinced.  But his gaze goes from Sizhui’s face to someone behind him.   

“You!” Jin Ling says.  Sizhui almost jumps at the rudeness of it.  He turns to look and finds Senior Wen standing in the shadow of the building.  “You’re a healer.  And you are letting him travel like this?”

“Jin Ling,” Sizhui says in a soothing voice.  “I’m fine, really.”

“I assure you that Sizhui is safe to travel,” Senior Wen says.  “I thought he would be fine so long as he didn’t have to fight.  And I’m here to make sure he doesn’t.  I didn’t anticipate Young Master Ouyang’s enthusiasm.”

“I’m sorry,” Zizhen says miserably.  Ziwan frowns at him and leans in to hiss something in his ear.

“A-Ling,” Sizhui says,  “you don’t need to worry.”

“Who’s worried?” Jin Ling scoffs, and Ziwan rolls her eyes.

“Maybe you all should take a step back and let Sizhui sit down,” Ziwan suggests, ignoring Jin Ling’s scowl.  

“Ouyang Ziwan,” Sizhui says, turning to face her, “forgive me for not greeting you sooner.”  

Sizhui offers her a bow, which she returns.

“There is nothing to forgive, Lan Sizhui.  These friends of yours haven’t given you a moment to breathe.”

“Stop standing on ceremony and come sit,” Zizhen says, taking Sizhui’s elbow and steering him towards the table.  As four of them move to the table, Sizhui glances around, but Senior Wen appears to have vanished again.  He’s always worried about making Jin Ling uncomfortable, but he won’t have gone far away.

As Sizhui sits, he can feel the eyes of his companions on him, gauging his movements.  He does his best to sit naturally, but his back is aching, and it shows.  

“Are you sure you should be traveling?” Zizhen asks, biting his lip.  “Not that we’re not happy to see you!”

Sizhui sighs.

“He said that he’s fine,” Ziwan says, glaring at her brother.  “Stop bothering him.”  Zizhen just makes a face at her.

“I couldn’t stand sitting in the Cloud Recesses meditating any longer,” Sizhui says, “and I missed you guys.”

His smile is sad at the end.  Because as happy as he is to see his friends, it still feels like something’s missing.

“Lan Sizhui,” Jin Ling says, “tired of meditating?”

“Indeed.”

“So much for your supposedly perfect patience,” Jin Ling says with a snort.  

Sizhui laughs.  “My patience is very far from perfect.”

“I don’t know.  You voluntarily put up with these two all the time,” Ziwan points out.

“Jiejie!”  Zizhen swats his sister with his fan.  Ziwan just raises an eyebrow at him.  

Sizhui just smiles and shakes his head.  He hadn’t expected that from Ziwan, but he really doesn’t know her that well.  Normally, she appears to scold them and vanishes again.

“Did you see the waiter?” Jin Ling asks, “We’ve finished the food already.  You need to eat something; you’re too thin.”

“He said he would bring something,” Sizhui says.  He ignores the second part of Jin Ling’s statement.  He has lost weight-- how could he not-- but he doesn’t want to address it.  

“What’s taking him so long then,” Jin Ling frowns.  

“The food will come,” Sizhui says, trying to placate him, “I haven’t been here very long.”

Jin Ling crosses his arms and mutters something about useless staff.  Normally, Sizhui would scold him, but he knows that Jin Ling is just venting his frustration at the general situation and not actually insulting the waiter.  But beside him, Ziwan has her lips pinched into a tight line.  

“How was your journey?  Any problems?” Sizhui asks, redirecting.  “Happy to be out of Koi Tower?”

“Always,” Jin Ling says. “The only problem is getting out of Koi Tower in the first place.”

“Buried in duties again, Sect Leader Jin?” Sizhui asks with an amused expression.

“Not exactly,” Jin Ling says.  Zizhen laughs.

“Am I missing something?”

“Jiejie caused an incident.”

“I did not,” Ziwan says.

“An incident?”

“Jin Ling had a disagreement with the elders,” Zizhen tells Sizhui.  The way he says disagreement makes Sizhui think there may have been some yelling involved.  “Because Jiejie and Jin Chan had a sword fight in one of the courtyards.”

“It’s not the first time Jin Chan has gotten in a fight,” Sizhui says.

“It wasn’t a fight,” Ziwan says, chin raised defensively, “it was a challenge.  He insulted me and my brother.”

That doesn’t surprise Sizhui in the least.  He’s not sure that he’s ever had a pleasant interaction with Jin Chan.  

“Jin Chan fights with everyone,” Sizhui says.  While Sizhui usually tries to mediate the squabbles between his friends, namely Jin Ling and Jingyi, and Jin Chan, it’s not always possible.  Jin Chan also happens to be the only person that has caused Sizhui to break the rule about unauthorized fighting.  

“I insisted that he be punished,” Jin Ling says.

“I see.”  

Everyone knows that the Jin elders spoiled Jin Ling and Jin Chan.  They had, anyway, until Jin Ling demanded his rightful place as sect leader.  Jin Ling had been forced to grow up, and his cousin had not.  Though Jin Ling had never been as bad as Jin Chan in the first place.  They may have had similar childhoods, but Jin Ling is a good person underneath his prickly exterior, and try as he might, Sizhui cannot see anything good in Jin Chan.  

It grates on Jin Ling to see his cousin held to such different standards than him.  

“He can’t act like a child forever!” Jin Ling says, voice rising.  “He’s a grown man, insulting guests.  What if he said something like that at a discussion conference?  What if he insulted Sect Leader Yao’s daughter for instance, or if Ziwan had decided to tell her father?  It’d be a nightmare!  Half the cultivation world wants to see Lanling Jin broken down as it is.”

Zizhen, who’s seated beside Jin Ling, leans closer and settles a comforting hand on his shoulder.  

“You’re right,” Sizhui agrees, keeping his voice soothing, and trying to ease the tension in his muscles that always comes when people around him get angry.

“Of course he is,” Zizhen says with a grin, causing Jin Ling’s cheeks to go a bit pink, “And Jin Chan got punished.”

“Excuse me, young masters, miss?”  They all turn around to see the waiter standing there with a tray.  It looks like he’s brought a whole second course to lunch.  There’s way more food than Sizhui could possibly eat by himself.  “I’ve brought your food.”

“Thank you,” Sizhui says as the man sets the tray down on the table.  The waiter quickly gathers the empty bowls and replaces them before setting a new kettle of tea and bottle of wine on the table and starting to pour for everyone.  Sizhui stops him with a gesture before he can pour any wine in Sizhui’s cup, “just tea for me.”

“Of course, Young Master.”  

Zizhen fills up a bowl with food, while Sizhui drinks his tea, pushing it in front of Sizhui before he can protest.  

“Thank you, Zizhen,” Sizhui says, picking up his chopsticks.  Zizhen waves his thanks away before picking up his fan and snapping it open to fan himself.  It’s not one that Sizhui has seen before, but Sizhui is eating so he can’t ask about it. 

The food is good.  It’s certainly less bland than the food in the Cloud Recesses, though the food doesn’t bother Sizhui as much as it does many of his fellow disciples.  But it’s also mercifully not spicy.  Jin Ling and Zizhen sip their refilled wine, but Sizhui is the only one who’s eating.  

“We went to the magistrate,” Jin Ling tells him.  

Sizhui’s head snaps up.

“Keep eating your food,” Jin Ling says irritably.  Sizhui obeys.

“We checked with him, and we’re pretty sure it was Jingyi,” Zizhen tells him, reclining and putting himself firmly in Jin Ling’s personal space.

The rules forbid talking while eating, so Sizhui bites back the questions piling up in his mind.

“The cultivator matched his physical description,” Jin Ling says, “and carried a white and silver sword.  Unless there’s another stupidly tall Lan wandering around, it should be him.”

“We managed to get information about the night hunt too,” Zizhen says, eyes sparkling.  Sizhui’s fairly certain he doesn’t want to know how they did it.  It’s possible that the information was given freely, but given how proud Zizhen looks of himself, Sizhui doubts it.  “They had a very serious fierce corpse problem.”

Sizhui sets his bowl down, chopsticks laid across the empty dish.

“How serious?” he asks.  His heart beats hard in his chest at the idea of Jingyi dealing with ‘a serious’ fierce corpse problem on his own.  Jingyi is a talented cultivator, incredibly talented, but he is only one person.  His mind flashes back to the night hunt and the snake’s horrible red eyes tracking Jingyi’s motions after the last of their companions had been killed. He feels sick.

“Dozens of corpses,” Zizhen says.

Dozens of corpses.  Sizhui hasn’t even seen that many fierce corpses in one place since the second siege at the Burial Mounds.  

“Don’t look so worried,” Jin Ling says with a roll of his eyes.  “The idiot walked away just fine.”

“I still think he was exaggerating,” Ziwan says.  

“He seemed like a very practical man to me,” Jin Ling disagrees. 

“Jingyi could do it,” Zizhen says.  “His sword work is incredible.”

Jin Ling makes a face, keeping his eyes fixed on the table as he fills another bowl and pushes it at Sizhui.  

“You haven’t finished lunch yet.” He glares at Sizhui until the other man picks up his chopsticks obediently.  

“You look pale,” Zizhens says, “are you sure you’re okay.”

Sizhui nods.  He’s tired and worried, but neither of those things is new.  Neither Jin Ling nor Zizhen looks completely convinced.  

“I’d like to know how they ended up with that many fierce corpses in the first place,” Ziwan says.  

“The magistrate wouldn’t say anything about that, just that the Qinghe Nie cultivators said they would deal with it.”  Zizhen glances at his sister, and Sizhui watches as the corner of his mouth quirks up into a smirk, “you could ask Qiuyue.”

“Zizhen,” Ziwan says, a clear warning in her voice.

“Just saying,” Zizhen says, feigning innocence.

Sizhui glances at Jin Ling, wondering what exactly he’s missing, but Jin Ling just rolls his eyes. Apparently, this isn’t a new topic.  

“They said they didn’t know which way he went, though,” Jin Ling says with a frown.  “But I guess he went away from Qinghe; there’s not really a reason to go back.”

Sizhui sets down his bowl.  It’s not empty yet, but he needs to share the information he has.

“I have an idea,” he says, and they all turn to look at him. 

“Where?” Zizhen asks.

“Caicun.”

“Caicun sounds familiar,” Zizhen says, biting his lip.

“Caicun is the seat of Caicun Lin,” Ziwan tells him with a pointed look.  “You would know that if you bothered to pay attention in lessons.”

“They’re a subsidiary sect of Qinghe Nie,” Jin Ling says while Zizhen makes a face at his sister.  “Northwest of here.”

“Exactly,” Sizhui says.  “I heard the Caicun Lin disciples discussing a rogue cultivator who had come through.”

“Lan Sizhui,” Zizhen says, hiding half his face with his fan and wearing a mock scandalized expression, “were you eavesdropping?”

Sizhui’s mouth tightens for a moment as he fights the urge to deny the accusation, “not on purpose,” he says at last.  He knows that Zizhen is teasing, but there’s still a pang of guilt at the accusation.

“What exactly did they say?” Jin Ling asks, leaning in. 

“They said there was a tall, grey-eyed, attractive cultivator going by the last name ‘An’ that was traveling through.”

“Did they say they really say the attractive part?” Jin Ling asks, sounding incredulous.

“You don’t think Sizhui added that do you?” Zizhen says with a frown.

Jin Ling concedes to that point with a nod, and Sizhui barely contains a blush.

“You should rest,” Zizhen says when Sizhui has finished the third bowl.  

“Really,” Sizhui starts to protest.

“Listen to him,” Jin Ling says in what Zizhen calls his ‘Sect Leader voice’.  It’s the voice of someone who expects to be obeyed

It’s not worth fighting, so Sizhui nods in acceptance.  There will be more than enough conflict later.  He gracefully gets to his feet and the others copy him.

“Let’s get you a room,” Zizhen says.  He comes to stand next to Sizhui before linking their elbows together and guiding Sizhui towards the main room.  Jin Ling quickly catches up, walking beside Zizhen with a frown firmly fixed on his face and Fairy trotting at his heels.

“Just ask for the key,” Jin Ling says, “the room is already reserved.”

“Thank you, Jin Ling, you didn’t have to do that.”

“I did nothing,” he says, cheeks slightly pink.  

“When did you do that?” Zizhen asks.  

“You were busy arguing with your sister.”

“We were discussing,” Zizhen says, glancing over his shoulder at Ziwan, who seems content to walk several chis behind them.

“Sure,” Jin Ling says with a roll of his eyes.

Sizhui glances between them and then back at Ziwan.  He gets the impression that something is going on between the twins, but he’s not entirely sure it’s his place to ask.

“Did something happen,” he says after a moment.  “You don’t have to tell me.  It’s just that things seem tense.”

Zizhen frowns, snapping his fan open almost aggressively.  It’s an obvious yes, but Sizhui quietly waits to see what he will say.  

“My sister has a girlfriend,” he says.  

That, in itself, would never upset Zizhen, so Sizhui waits quietly for the rest of the explanation.

“And she didn’t tell me.”

“I see,” Sizhui says.  “I’m sure she had her reasons.”

“So she says,” Zizhen says, but he doesn’t sound angry.  Sizhui puts a reassuring hand on his shoulder.

“You masters!” The waiter rushes to meet them.  “How can I help you? Was the food to your satisfaction?”

“Lunch was very good thank you,” Sizhui says at the same time Jin Ling says, “We’d like the key to the third room.”  Zizhen elbows him, and he belatedly adds “please.”

“I’ll just get my boss then,” the waiter says with a bow, “he keeps the keys.”

The man rushes off, weaving between tables.  Jin Ling crosses his arms, gaze following the waiter.  

“I’m going to my room,” Ziwan says, appearing by Sizhui’s side.  “I have training to do.”

With that, she turns and heads towards the stairs, not waiting for any of them to respond.  Sizhui watches her retreat, back stiff and head held high. In a way, her exit is reassuring; this is the sort of behavior he’s used to from her.

They don’t have to wait long for the proprietor to arrive.  He’s a large man with a cheerful face and a large smile.  

“Welcome, welcome,” he says to Sizhui, “Good to see you have arrived.  I do hope you will enjoy your stay here.  I have your key here.”

Sizhui takes the key with a quiet word of thanks.  

“Do let me know if we can do anything for you, anything at all.  We are happy to serve such esteemed guests.”

“We’ll let you know,” Jin Ling says in a dismissive tone.  But the man doesn’t seem offended in the least, he just bows a few times and bustles off.  

“Let’s go upstairs,” Zizhen says.  He tugs Sizhui by the arm, but it’s a careful motion.  He’s clearly worried about hurting Sizhui again.  And Sizhui’s grateful for his caution, even if it’s frustrating to have to be treated like he’s fragile.

The three of them make their way through the building, Zizhen guiding Sizhui and Jin Ling stalking along beside them.  

“You should take a nap.  You look tired.” Zizhen says as Sizhui opens the door.  “Jin Ling and I will be in the next room.”

Sizhui doesn’t try to argue anymore.  But he does say, “you don’t have to wait around for me.  I’m sure there’s something to do in town more interesting than sitting around.”

“Barely,” Jin Ling says, sounding annoyed.

“You’ve already been waiting for a few days.  Do something fun.  I’ll see you for dinner.”

“Until dinner then,” Zizhen says with a bright smile.  He grabs Jin Ling by the arm and pulls him further down the hall. Jin Ling frowns but quickens his pace to walk beside him.  

Sizhui smiles softly as he watches his friends before he steps back into the room and closes the door.   

He sets the key on the table by the door and carefully takes off his outer robes.  He folds them neatly and sets them by the folding privacy screen. The room is spacious, and it feels almost too big.  He’s never stayed in a rented room alone.  Before Jingyi left, he’d never slept in his own room in general.  The room feels empty and hollow without Jingyi in it.  

He tells himself that he should be used to it by now, but he knows it’s not true.  He purposely pushes aside the memory of Hanguang-jun alone in the Jingshi for thirteen years.  Things won’t end up like that; he won’t allow it.

Several deep breaths later, Sizhui has cleared his mind, slipping into a meditative state.  Mind settled, for now, he lies down on the bed and breathes a sigh of relief as the strain on his back eases.  He hadn’t intended to take a nap, but he feels drained, and he knows that tomorrow they will be flying to Caicun.  It’s not a short flight.  

He sighs, pillowing his head on his hands.  Napping, strictly speaking, isn’t against the rules.  But it's generally forbidden under rules such as ‘time should not be wasted’ and ‘laziness is to be avoided’.  Hanguang-jun has said multiple times that resting to heal isn’t breaking any rules, but Sizhui still feels guilty about it.  For now, Sizhui lets his eyes fall closed, quickly falling asleep.

“A-Yuan.”  The sound of Senior Wen’s voice wakes Sizhui.  Sizhui blinks a few times, as his tired brain remembers where exactly he is.

“Yes?” Sizhui says, pushing himself into a sitting position.  Instinctively, he reaches up to smooth out his forehead ribbon and check his hair.  The good thing about Lan sleeping discipline is that he doesn’t roll around and turn his hair into a disaster anymore.

“You’ve been asleep most of the afternoon,” Senior Wen says, retreating a bit to give Sizhui space.  “I thought you’d want to be away for dinner.  Your friends will worry if you sleep through it.”

“Thank you,” Sizhui says, getting to his feet.  “I didn’t mean to sleep so long.”

“Your body is taking care of itself,” Senior Wen says.  “Speaking of that, how is your back?  I thought Young Master Ouyang was going to tackle you to the ground for a moment.  I’m sorry I didn’t intervene.”

“There’s no need for an apology.  He didn’t mean to hurt me.  And I’m fine.”

“Are you certain? Maybe I should look at it.  We should change the bandages today anyway.”

“If that’s what you think is best.”  Sizhui hadn’t felt any of the wounds reopen, but he’s not going to argue.

“Come and sit then,” Senior Wen says, and Sizhui obediently crosses the room to kneel by the low table.  He slides his inner robe off of his shoulders and undoes the ties on his shirt before pulling it off while Senior Wen lays out bandages, a pitcher of water, and a jar of salve on the table.

With efficient motions, Senior Wen unwinds the bandages before setting them aside.  Silently, he exams Sizhui’s back, occasionally touching a spot.  

“The healing has slowed significantly,” Senior Wen says, and he doesn’t sound happy.  “It will take a very long time to heal if you keep this up.”

“I understand.”

He’d known that this would happen when he chose to leave. But he feels guilty for worrying Senior Wen.

Senior Wen doesn’t respond; he simply begins to wash the wounds on Sizhui’s back.  The pain is much more manageable now than it had been even a week ago.  Even though it’s far from a pleasant experience, he’s grateful that it no longer leaves him sweating and pale.  Still, his jaw is clenched, and his hands are tense on his knees.

“Sizhui!” Jin Ling’s voice comes from outside the door and Senior Wen pauses.  “Zizhen’s worried.  He insists that we bring dinner up to you.  I’m supposed to make sure you’re decent or something.”

Jin Ling shoves the door open, and Sizhui freezes. 

“Why-” Jin Ling starts, but stops, gaze frozen on Sizhui. The angle blocks most of Sizhui’s back from view, but not all of it.

Senior Wen glances nervously between Sizhui in Jin Ling.  Sizhui’s hands tighten on the silk of his pants waiting for Jin Ling to say something.

“What. The. Fuck.”  Jin Ling says, still in shock.  He slams the door shut behind him.

Sizhui bites his lip, not yet able to tell where Jin Ling’s mood is going to go.

“That’s not from the night hunt.”

“No.”

“Those are whip marks.”  

“Yes.”

“Those are from a fucking discipline whip aren’t they.”  Jin Ling says, voice going from shock to anger. 

“Yes,” Sizhui’s voice is smaller than he wants it to be.  He had planned to tell his friends what happened, eventually; he doesn’t like keeping secrets.  But he hadn’t figured out how yet.  

“What the fuck happened,” Jin Ling’s voice is intense even though the volume is pitched low enough that he’s not technically yelling. 

Senior Wen is still hovering between the two, clearly not sure if Jin Ling’s temper is going to turn to violence.

“Can we have this discussion when I’m dressed?” Sizhui says.  He is partly stalling for time, but he also feels extremely exposed kneeling here in his underclothes with his wounds exposed for anyone to see.

Jin Ling glares at him.  “Fine,” he snaps.  “But I am getting Zizhen, and you are going to fucking tell us what the hell is going on.”

“I was planning on telling you,” Sizhui says.

Jin Ling snorts and spins around, ponytail snapping like a whip behind him.  He exits the room and the door slams behind him with a bang.  Sizhui can hear his footsteps on the floor as he storms away.

“Are you going to be alright?” Senior Wen asks, even as he pulls fresh bandages off the table where he had set them.

“It will be okay,” Sizhui says, lifting his arms out of the way.

“He seemed very angry.”

“He might be, or he might not be,” Sizhui says.  “He doesn’t know how else to express himself.”

Senior Wen shakes his head, but his hands continue their steady, efficient motion.

“Do you need me to stay?” 

“No,” Sizhui says.  His hands tighten into fists again.  “Jin Ling and Zizhen are my friends, and I trust them.”

“There,” Senior Wen says, pulling back.  “You should get dressed.  I don’t think it will take very long for him to come back.”

With a nod, Sizhui gets to his feet and pulls his robes back on.  While he moves quickly, it’s not hasty, and every layer is neat and in place.

“I’ll be back later,” Senior Wen says, “the wounds should be cleaned and more salve applied.  But, it’s fine for now.”

“Yes, Senior Wen,” Sizhui offers him a small bow, as Senior Wen disappears out the window.  

Alone, for now, Sizhui closes his eyes and takes several deep breaths.  He’s thought about how to tell his friends what happened, but he still hasn’t figured out exactly what to say.  

Jin Ling is going to be angry, and Zizhen is going to cry.  Those two things are almost a given.  Both of those things make him uncomfortable, even if his friends say he handles it well.  Perhaps it’s because neither tears nor yelling are common in the Cloud Recesses, with anger and sadness always held behind quiet reserve.  Maybe it's just part of who he is.

The sounds of footsteps on wooden floors, alert him to the return of Jin Ling and Zizhen.  There’s a sharp rap on the wooden doorframe.

“Come in,” Sizhui says before either of them has a chance to ask.

The door bangs open again, and Sizhui resists the urge to wince.  He hopes that they aren’t disturbing anyone.  It’s early enough that no one will be sleeping at least.  

“Was that really necessary?” Zizhen says, stepping into the room with a frown.  “I don’t understand why you’re so angry all the sudden.”

Jin Ling motions wordlessly in Sizhui direction, following Zizhen into the room and shutting the door, slightly more quietly.

“Sizhui,” Zizhen says, “are you feeling better?”

“Yes, thank you,” Sizhui says.  

“I was arranging to have dinner brought to our rooms before Jin Ling dragged me up here.  I guess the waiter will bring it.”

“Thank you Zizhen,” Sizhui says with a genuine smile,  “that’s very thoughtful of you.  I’m sorry to trouble you.”

“It’s nothing for a friend,” Zizhen says dismissively.  His gaze goes from Sizhui to Jin Ling.  The three of them are still standing, and Jin Ling hasn’t moved more than a chi from the door.  “Okay, what happened?”

“Ask Sizhui,” Jin Ling says, voice clipped.  

“Let’s sit,” Sizhui says. “While we talk.”

“So you do plan on talking,” Jin Ling says.

“I always planned on telling you,” Sizhui says, and it’s the truth.

“Really? Because you’ve been keeping things to yourself for quite a while now.”

“Jin Ling,” Zizhen says, “what is wrong with you?”

“It’s me is it?”

“Please,” Sizhui says.  “I promise to tell you the whole thing.  But sit.  And don’t snap at Zizhen because you are upset.”

Without waiting for a response, he moves to the table and sits.  He sets his hands on his lap and waits.  Zizhen squeezes Jin Ling’s shoulder gently then tugs him towards the table.  Zizhen sits, keeping a hand on Jin Ling's arm and forcing him to sit or be dragged down.  

“A-Ling,” Zizhen says, “why are you so angry the sudden?  We already agreed that he probably didn’t want to say it in a letter, right?” He directs the last bit at Sizhui.  

Sizhui nods once.  

“See,” Zizhen says.  

“I wanted to explain things first,” Sizhui says.  He doesn’t like Jin Ling being upset with him, especially when he knows that he’s going to get even more upset from here.

“Just spit it out, Sizhui.”  

There’s a pause and a moment that hangs in the air as all three of them wait for the snarky reply that doesn’t come.  There’s no Jingyi to jump to Sizhui’s defense, to tell Jin Ling to stuff it.  The words seem so much harsher when they land without a buffer.  All three of them seem to realize it at the same time.  Sizhui’s gaze drops to the table in front of him, slumping slightly.  Jin Ling’s cheeks grow slightly pink and his shoulders hunch.  And Zizhen bites his lip, glancing between them and fiddling with his fan.

“I wasn’t injured on the night hunt,” Sizhui says, and Zizhen’s eyes lock onto his face.  

“What?”

“I was punished,” Sizhui says without looking up from the table, “with the discipline whip.”

Zizhen gasps audibly.  His grip on Jin Ling’s arm changes so that he’s clutching at his sleeve.

“Bastards,” Jin Ling says with a snarl.  “It’s barbaric.”  

“It’s been almost a month ,” Zizhen says.  Sizhui glances up from the table, Jin Ling’s face is dark as a thunder cloud, but Zizhen’s eyes are calculating. “Sizhui, you weren’t just punished, you were flogged.”

Sizhui nods; his throat is so tight that it takes him a moment to say, “yes.”  

Even though Zizhen had proposed the idea, his face still goes pale when Sizhui answers him.  His free hand flies up to cover his mouth.  Sizhui takes several deep breaths, trying to focus on his friends and not the memories that try to overwhelm him.

“But you,” Zizhen says, “you’re you. What could you possibly have done?”

“Let me tell you the whole thing,” Sizhui says.  “So that you understand why I broke the rules.”

“You broke the rules,” Jin Ling says.

“I did.” Sizhui resists the urge to duck his head as a wave of shame hits him.  He does not regret his choice.  But he also can’t stop his instinctual reaction.

Jin Ling leans back, arms crossed and mouth set in a firm line.  Sizhui takes this as an indication to start.

“It’s exactly like I said in the letter, we were sent on a night hunt in a mountain pass north of Gusu because several merchant caravans had gone missing.  When we got there, the Compass of Evil wasn’t settling, probably because of the resentful energy of those killed by the monster.  We broke up into groups to find it.  One of the other groups located it first and set off a signal. We rushed over, but before we got there we heard screaming.  I don’t know if they tried to fight it on their own or if it found them, but by the time we reached them, they were both dead.”

Zizhen covers his mouth with his hand, too horrified to remember his fan.  Sizhui fights to keep his voice calm like he’s delivering a night hunt report.  But he can hear the screams in his ears.

“The beast was shaped like a snake.”  Sizhui hands clench into fists on his knees.  “Except it was bigger than anything monster I’ve ever seen, closer to the size of a building than the size of an animal.”  

Sizhui takes a deep breath and looks at his friends.  Jin Ling’s angry expression hasn’t changed, but that’s not surprising.  He’d have to be deeply shocked for anything but anger to appear on his face.  So Sizhui watches Zizhen for a reaction; he’s much easier to read.  His eyes are wide and he’s still clutching Jin Ling’s sleeve in one hand.

“Six of us attacked.  But, we quickly saw that our swords couldn’t cut through its scales at all.  And it was too fast to dodge when it decided to strike.  Two of us tried to use Rest, but it didn’t do anything.  The other two disciples showed up and set off a signal for help, but Gusu was hours away by flight.  I decided to use Sound of Vanquishing, and the others were trying to fight, but it was all useless.”

Sizhui’s voice breaks.  His eyes are open, but he doesn’t see Jin Ling and Zizhen, he sees the forest and the sight of Chen Shenzhi being thrown into a tree hard enough his spine snapped.  

“The swords wouldn’t cut it.  Jingyi even drove his sword hilt deep into its eye, but it didn’t do anything but make it angry.  I put more into the attack than I ever have before, but it wasn’t enough.  It just kept killing them.  One by one.  I almost knocked myself out trying Sound of Vaniquishing again, but it didn’t do anything.”

All of the feelings he’s been holding at bay are bubbling up as he talks.  His voice is raw and some of his words tremble.  Zizhen’s eyes are shiny with tears, and he’s inched closer to Jin Ling, whose expression is only growing darker by the second.  

“There were only three of us left and then only two.  And I realized that we were going to die.  Jingyi was going to die; I was going to die.  There was no Senior Wen or Hanguang-jun or Senior Wei to save us.  And…”

His voice stalls.  It shouldn’t be so hard to get the words out.  But he’s scared, he realizes, he’s scared of how his friends are going to respond.  His hands are trembling, so he clenches them harder.  Whatever happens next isn’t going to be pretty, and he’s not at all sure that he’s ready for it.

“And?” Jin Ling says.  His eyes are narrowed.  Sizhui swallows once, hard.  Jin Ling isn’t stupid, there’s a good chance he’s already guessed what Sizhui is going to say.

“And I had an idea.  I was desperate,” he says, trying to explain.  He wants his friends to understand.  He wants Jin Ling to understand.  He doesn’t want him to walk away.  “I couldn’t let Jingyi die too.  So I, I, I used my guqin to raise the corpses.”

There’s a pause of one heartbeat that feels like it stretches out to infinity.  The Jin Ling jerks back, dislodging Zizhen’s hands from his arm.

“You did what,” he hisses.

There’s so much anger on Jin Ling’s face that Sizhui can’t watch it anymore.  He drops his gaze to the table.

“I used demonic cultivation.”  

“Fuck,” Jin Ling swears, volume rising.  “What the fuck Sizhui?”

Sizhui’s shoulders hunch as if to make him a smaller target.

“Jin Ling!” Zizhen exclaims.  Jin Ling shoves himself away from the table hard, getting to his feet.

“I-” Jin Ling says.  “You-”  His mouth works silently for a second as if he can’t come up with anything strong enough to express how he’s feeling.  

“Fuck!” he says, then turns on his heel and storms out of the room.

“A-Ling!” Zizhen cries, rising halfway out of his seated position.

Sizhui’s hands are clenched so tightly that his nails are biting into the skin of his hand.  The sound of the door slamming seems to echo through his entire being.  His stomach clenches hard enough that he thinks he might actually throw up.

He’d expected Jin Ling to be upset, but he hadn’t expected him to leave.  He’d been more or less raised by Sect Leader Jiang and conditioned into thinking demonic cultivation was an offense worth dying for, worth being tortured over.  But Jin Ling has gotten better .  He’s worked on forgiving Senior Wei and Senior Wen.  

“Sizhui,” Zizhen says, and his voice is gentle. Sizhui forces himself to look up.  “You did what you had to do.  I’m glad that you're alive.  He is too; I promise.  He’s just, well, he’s Jin Ling, and he doesn’t know how to process anything without getting angry.”

Sizhui nods once, too many words caught in his throat to say anything at all.  

Zizhen gets to his feet, “Stay here.  I’m going to go deal with him.  We’ll be back, both of us.  I promise.”

“Don’t force him,” Sizhui says, so quietly that Zizhen almost doesn’t hear it.

“Oh,” Zizhen says, expression determined.  “He’s coming back.”

Zizhen crosses the room and opens the door.  He closes it quietly behind him, but SIzhui can hear how quickly he moves down the hall after Jin Ling. 

Alone now, Sizhui closes his eyes.  He still feels vaguely ill, and his body is trembling, but not from pain.  He feels terribly alone.  Jingyi is gone, and now Jin Ling has gone too.  He tries to reassure himself that Jin Ling will calm down and come back.  But there’s no shaking the deep-seated fear that another one of his friends has abandoned him.  

All he can do for now is breathe.  He measures his breath and tries to find the meditative calm he relies on so often, but he can’t seem to reach it.  There’s just too much.  He sits in the silent, empty room trying to keep his breathing steady.  His ears strain for signs of footsteps on the wooden floor, for a sign that Zizhen and Jin Ling are coming back.  His brain spins, desperately trying to figure out a better way to explain himself.  

Time passes, though Sizhui has no idea how much, and eventually he hears footsteps approaching.  He bites his lip, not looking up, not letting himself hope yet. 

Only when the door slides open, does Sizhui look up.  Jin Ling is there, and Zizhen is behind him.  Something close to relief rises in Sizhui’s chest, but he keeps it at bay.  Nothing is for certain yet.  

The pair of them enter the room, and Zizhen closes the door quietly before nudging Jin Ling, who is still hovering by the door, further into the room.  

“What you did was stupid and dangerous,”  Jin Ling says.  “And if you ever do it again, I’m going to break your legs.  But I guess I’m glad you’re okay.”

Jin Ling’s cheeks are a bit pink by the time he’s done talking, and Sizhui smiles.

Zizhen glances between them, relaxing slightly.  He pushes Jin Ling further into the room and says "so... dinner?"

Chapter Text

The miles are getting longer it seems, the closer I get to you

Sizhui awakes to the pale, early morning sun on his face and an unfamiliar bed.  The bed is softer than the one he’s used to, and he feels like he’s sinking into it.  For a few heartbeats he even contemplates going back to sleep; Zizhen and Jin Ling won’t be up and ready for breakfast until seven if his experience is anything to go by.  

But it’s five am now, so he gets up.  The proprietor had left a bath in his room but he’d fallen asleep before he had a chance to use it, so he heads there now.  He draws a talisman on the side and watches as the water slowly begins to steam.  Carefully, he strips down and unwinds the bandages around his back and chest.  He folds them neatly and sets them aside before stepping into the bath.

The hot water feels great on his legs, but he has to bite back a hiss as he lowers his upper body into the water.  He wraps his arms around his knees and finds himself staring blankly at the water.  He feels drained, and it’s not just his spiritual energy.  Dealing with Jin Ling’s temper and reliving the night hunt had left his emotions feeling scraped raw.  

There’s nothing else he needs to do, so he lets himself linger in the bath until the water starts to cool.  He contemplates reheating it for a moment before scolding himself for wasting time.  Still, he takes the time to wash out his hair before he climbs out of the now almost cold water.  After putting on his pants and shirt, he sits to work through his hair with a comb and almond oil.  

He still has time before the others will be awake, and he wonders if Senior Wen will show.  Sizhui had fallen asleep almost as soon as Zizhen and Jin Ling left the night before, meaning that Senior Wen hadn’t had a chance to finish tending to his wounds.  Not too much later, Senior Wen does arrive.  Sizhui should have known that he would never allow the wounds to go untreated.

“Good morning,” he says, when Senior Wen appears, at the door this time, carrying a tray of tea.  

“Good morning, Senior Wen!”  Sizhui starts to get to his feet, to get the tray or assist Senior Wen, but he is waved away so he remains where he is seated.  Sizhui traveled with Senior Wen for months and now Senior Wen has been caring for his wounds for a week, but Sizhui still feels awkward, dressed as he is in only his under robe.  

“How are you?” Senior Wen asks as he pours tea for Sizhui.  The rich smell of the tea reaches his nose, and he knows this is one of the ones that Senior Wen has mixed himself.  He takes the cup curiously; there is a note of something acrid under the spiced tea.

Sizhui knows that Senior Wen is asking about last night but doing so in a way that gives him an out if he doesn't wish to talk, and he appreciates it.  

“I am tired,” he says, because that is the truth.  He is tired from traveling and tired from healing, but mostly he is tired of the weight of all these emotions bearing down on him.  

“I understand.”  Senior Wen waits several moments to see if Sizhui will say anything more, but he does not.  So he changes the topic.  “I hope the tea is bearable.  It should help with your healing.”

“Don’t worry, Senior Wen,” Sizhui says with a smile.  “I’ve been drinking the Gusu Lan medicinal tea for half a month.  Anything is better by comparison.”

Senior Wen smiles and gestures for Sizhui to drink, so he does.  The bitter taste lingers on his tongue slightly, but he drinks all the tea down.

“As expected,” Sizhui says with a smile,  “it tastes much better than the one from Gusu Lan.”  

“Good because you need to drink the rest of the pot.”

“I will.”

“I know.” Senior Wen’s smile is soft, “you are a much better patient than your father.”

“I can imagine.” Sizhui chuckles a bit.  He does not need to hear Senior Wen’s stories to guess that Senior Wei would be a horribly non-compliant patient.

“Why don’t you let me start with your back,” Senior Wen says.  “So Young Master Jin doesn't come barreling in in the middle again.”

“He won’t be awake yet,” Sizhui says, but obediently disrobes down to the waist.  He drinks another cup of tea while Senior Wen unwinds the bandages and inspects.  Sizhui feels his touch, gentle as a feather, across several places on his back.  He doesn’t say anything, but Sizhui can guess his thoughts.  The progress of his healing has stalled since he’s given up on actively healing his back.  The wounds haven’t reopened, but they also aren’t getting better.  

He wonders if Senior Wen will say something, or if he will try and convince Sizhui to focus more on healing.   Even though he says nothing as he spreads salve across Sizhui’s back, Sizhui can tell that he is unhappy.  Biting his lip, Sizhui debates saying something, but he can’t think of anything helpful so he stays silent and obediently drinks the rest of the tea.

“What will you do today?” Senior Wen asks eventually.

“We will go to Caicun.”  He hasn’t actually discussed it with Jin Ling or Zizhen, but there’s nothing else for them to do.

“And once you are there?  Do you have a plan for that?” 

“We will ask if they’ve seen Jingyi,” Sizhui says.  Once again; there aren’t many more options.  

“And then what?” Senior Wen asks.  Sizhui bites his lip again; he’s grateful that that wound, at least, has healed.  He hasn’t thought very far past getting to Caicun.  He was too tired last night, too wrung out.  The silence stretches out as Sizhui searches for an answer. 

“It’s done,” Senior Wen says into the silence.  He doesn’t rebuke Sizhui for his lack of forethought or for his silence, and Sizhui is grateful.  Sizhui lets out a sigh as he hands the bandages to Senior Wen, raising his arms to allow them to be more easily wrapped around his chest.

“Senior Wen,” Sizhui asks, “what would you do?”  

“That depends on what happens in Caicun,” Senior Wen’s voice is steady and his hands are gentle as he works.  “But you know Jingyi and this situation better than I do, better than anyone else, and you should use that.”

“I don’t understand.” Sizhui frowns, but of course, Senior Wen is behind him and can’t see.

“Think,” Senior Wen says firmly.  “I doubt you will suddenly find the answer to where your friend is headed in Caicun.  But if anyone can figure out where he’s headed, it would be you.”

A furrow appears between Sizhui’s brows.  His instinctive response is that he doesn’t know.  He’s confused; he’s been confused for weeks, and he has even told Senior Wen this.  But Sizhui has never been an impulsive person, and so he keeps that initial response to himself even if he can practically taste the words on his tongue.  

Instead, he considers Senior Wen’s words carefully.  He feels like he’s in class and is missing an obvious answer to a question.  But this isn’t a class, and there isn’t an answer that he can have memorized out of a book.  

“Just think about it,” Senior Wen says with a careful pat on Sizhui’s shoulder.  

“Yes, Senior Wen.”  

Sizhui pulls his robes back over his shoulders as Senior Wen moves back towards the door.  He sets a small pouch on the table by the tea set.

“More tea,” he says by way of explanation.  “I should go before the other guests are up for the morning.  I’ll check in with you before you leave for Caicun.”

“Thank you,” Sizhui says, tucking the small pouch of tea into his sleeve.  “I’ll see you in a bit.”

As Sizhui finishes getting dressed and styling his hair, he considers Senior Wen’s question.  He’s still contemplating it when someone knocks on the door.

He opens the door to find a sleepy-looking Zizhen standing in the hallway.   He’s in the middle of a yawn when Sizhui opens the door.

“Good morning, Zizhen.”  Sizhui can’t keep the amusement out of his voice.

“Breakfast?” Zizhen asks, not bothering with a greeting.

“Sounds good.”  Sizhui steps into the hallway and closes the door behind him.  They walk down the hallway in silence.  It’s too early for Zizhen to be feeling chatty, and Sizhui doesn’t mind the silence.  

They head to the garden where they’d eaten the night before, and Sizhui breathes in the fresh air with a smile.  It’s still early enough that the heat of the day hasn’t set in, and the faint breeze is refreshing.  The courtyard is nearly empty, and the single table is barren, but Ziwan is sitting alone in lotus position under the maple tree a few chi away from the table.  Her eyes are closed, and her face in a neutral expression, but somehow, even meditating she looks less soft than her brother.  It reminds Sizhui vaguely of Hanguang-jun who has a flat expression even at rest.

Sizhui pauses, not wanting to interrupt, but Zizhen just continues towards the table.

“Your sister?” Sizhui asks.  Zizhen glances at his sister and shrugs.

“Don’t worry,” he drops down at the table, “unless you plan on screaming, you won’t bother her.  She has lots of practice ignoring annoying disciples.”

Sizhui nods but sits close to Zizhen so he can speak quietly.  

“Where’s Jin Ling?” Sizhui asks.  “He’s usually up first.”

“He decided to wash his hair,” Zizhen says, before smothering another yawn.  “He’ll be down soon.”

“We should order breakfast before he does,” Sizhui says, prepared to get back up.  Jin Ling is even grumpier than normal in the morning and food is the fastest way to remedy that.

“I should have thought of that,” Zizhen says and puts a hand on Sizhui’s shoulder.  “Don’t get up.  I’ll get it.”

“I don’t mind,” Sizhui says.  He’s already awake, and Zizhen is still half dozing.

“Me either.”  Zizhen gets to his feet and stretches languidly.  “I’ll be back.”

Sizhui glances from Zizhen to Ziwan, still meditating by the tree, apparently unbothered.  It fascinates him how they can have such similar features and yet look so different.  The similarities are easier to see now, with Zizhen too sleepy to be animated and Ziwan meditating.  The easiest difference to spot is their hair: Ziwan’s is pulled back into a perfectly neat braided bun without a single hair out of place, whereas Zizhen’s hair is really more down than up, with only half his hair pulled up into his hairpiece and his bangs falling into his face.  There are other things too that are less obvious like the strictness of Ziwan’s posture and Zizhen’s slight slouch.

Zizhen vanishes into the building, and Sizhui realizes that he’s been staring and promptly redirects his gaze to the table.  He stares at his own hands and tries to marshall his thoughts.  There’s plenty for him to consider.  There’s Senior Wen’s question to start.  There’s also the rest of the conversation he’s going to have to have with Jin Ling and Zizhen.  For a moment he’s worried, but he quickly sets it aside.  Neither Jin Ling nor Zizhen is going to push him for any information this early.  Still, Sizhui needs to be prepared.

“Where’s Zizhen?” Jin Ling’s voice interrupts Sizhui’s train of thoughts, and he looks up.    Jin Ling is only a few steps into the courtyard, and his gaze is on Sizhui.  He’s dressed practically today, in narrow sleeved robes that fit under his bracers and without the gold chain headdress he often wears in his hair.  “He left before me.”

“He went to get breakfast,” Sizhui says soothingly. “He thought you’d be happier if you came downstairs to food.”

A flash of something soft crosses Jin Ling’s face before it vanishes behind his usual scowl.  Sizhui smiles a little brighter.  Jin Ling huffs and stalks across the courtyard before sitting next to Sizhui.  Fairy trots behind him, coming to nose at Sizhui.

“Hello there,” Sizhui says, scratching her head.  “I didn’t say hello to you yesterday did I.”

She shakes her whole body, making a small cacophony with the bells on her collar.

Jin Ling groans.  “Fairy, leave him alone.  It’s too early for that.”  He takes one glance at Sizhui’s amused face and scowls.  “Don’t look so amused.  It’s not my fault your sect rises at the crack of dawn.”

“I wasn’t going to say anything.”  He almost never comments on his friends' morning struggles, and not just because it would be rude; Sizhui isn’t above teasing his friends every now again.  But that’s normally Jingyi’s job.  He’s always plenty ready to make fun of Jin Ling especially.

Jin Ling must have realized his comment was somewhat misplaced because a shadow passes over his face and he looks away.  

“You’re down already,” Zizhen’s voice comes from behind them, and Jin Ling perks up.  

“I told you that I’d be right down,” Jin Ling frowns at him, but Zizhen is not at all deterred.  He wedges himself between Sizhui and Jin Ling.  Sizhui obligingly scooches over several inches to give him space, but Jin Ling just glowers at Zizhen, who does not take the hint.  

“I told them we’re ready for breakfast,” Zizhen says, leaning his head onto Jin Ling’s shoulder and yawning again.

“We need a plan for today,” Jin Ling says, apparently ignoring Zizhen’s invasion of his personal space.  Sizhui’s grateful not to have to mediate a tussle between the two.  He’s never completely understood Zizhen and Jin Ling’s interactions, but so long as they don’t devolve into shoving or fighting, he stays out of it.  

“We go to Caicun,” Sizhui says.  

“Do you know how far it is?” Jin Ling asks.

“No,” Sizhui says, reaching for his sleeve, “but I have a map.”

“Can’t this wait until after breakfast?” Zizhen whines.  

Jin Ling rolls his eyes.  “Let’s just get it over with.”

After pulling the map out of his sleeve, Sizhui spreads it across the empty table.  Jin Ling leans over the table to look, dislodging Zizhen from his shoulder in the process.  Zizhen pouts as Sizhui and Jin Ling lean over the lap; Jin Ling tracing the road between Xiyang and Caicun with his finger.  

“We can make it in a day,” he says decisively.  Sizhui bites the inside of his lip as he eyes the distance.

“It’ll be late when we arrive,” Sizhui points out.

“So what?”  Jin Ling snaps.

Zizhen puts a hand on his arm, glancing at Sizhui.  “It depends on what we need to do there, right?  If we want to ask them about Jingyi, we probably shouldn’t show up in the middle of dinner.”

“Is that the plan then,” Jin Ling says with a huff, “show up and ask.”

“Do you have a better idea?” Sizhui asks.  

Jin Ling’s mouth twists into a hard line, but he says nothing.

“Caicun Lin has no reason to hide information from us,” Zizhen says, voice considering.  “There aren’t any feuds between our sects, right? And we’re not asking for sensitive information.”

Jin Ling leans back and crosses his arms.  

“Excuse me young masters?” a soft voice comes from behind them and they turn to see a young woman carrying a tray of food.  “Are you ready for your food?”

“Yes, thank you,” Sizhui says, pulling the map off the table and rolling it up.

“Jiejie,” Zizhen leans back to call to his sister.  “Breakfast.”

Ziwan doesn’t respond, and Zizhen rolls his eyes.  “Ziwan.  Food.”

The waitress sets the dishes in the center of the table before setting out bowls for each of them.  Faint trails of steam rise from the dishes and the smell of fried rice, pork, and eggs fills the air.  The waitress sends a gaze to Ziwan, still under the tree.  

“Should I set a place for the young mistress?” her voice is small.

“Please,” Sizhui says. “If you don’t mind.”

“Jin Ling,” Zizhen says.

“What?”

“Duck.”

“What?” Jin Ling’s voice is sharp.  

Sizhui looks up from assisting the waitress to his friends, ready to intervene.  

“Duck,” Zizhen says.  

Sizhui’s caught entirely by surprise when Zizhen pulls a fan out of his sleeve- not the light blue one from Jin Ling, which he has hanging from his belt- and throws it at his sister.  Jin Ling ducks to avoid being clocked in the head as Zizhen throws.

Ziwan’s eyes snap open, and she catches the fan several inches away from her face.  She looks at it for a second before narrowing her eyes at Zizhen.  Jin Ling, who narrowly avoided being hit in the head himself, is also glaring at Zizhen.  Sizhui bites his lip, not sure what to say or even where to expect the first outburst.

“Get over here and eat,” Zizhen says, turning back to the table and ignoring both Ziwan and Jin Ling.  

In one fluid motion, Ziwan gets to her feet, and her expression is even more thunderous than normal.  

“That was entirely unnecessary,” she snaps.  She takes a seat at the end of the table, which, given that the table is designed to hold at least eight people, leaves her several spots away from the rest of them. The waitress hurries to move a bowl and a cup in front of her.

“You need to eat,” Zizhen says stubbornly.  “And you were going to ignore me otherwise.”

“Meditation is important,” Ziwan says stiffly.

“So is food.”

The two stare at each other for several long moments.  Sizhui watches, not sure if this is a resolution or a quiet before the storm.  He feels his shoulder tensing as apprehension rises.   But eventually, Ziwan sniffs and picks up her tea.

Zizhen, apparently triumphant, turns back to Sizhui and Jin Ling.  

“You almost hit me,” Jin Ling says with a frown.

“I told you to duck.”  Zizhen does not sound the least bit apologetic.

Jin Ling continues to frown at Zizhen, but the other man ignores him, reaching for one of the pears on the table.  After a few moments of being ignored, Jin Ling huffs and tosses his head before reaching out for his own breakfast, piling his bowl high with egg fried rice.  

With the situation apparently diffused, Sizhui finally picks up his own chopsticks.  There’s silence as the four of them dig into their food.  Sizhui is focused on his own thoughts and is surprised when Jin Ling, who’s already finished his breakfast, speaks up.

“I think you should talk to Caicun Lin without me,” His arms are crossed, and he’s clearly not happy.

“What? Why?” Zizhen asks, staring at him incredulously.  It’s decidedly unlike Jin Ling to pull out of a situation like this.

“I’m a sect leader,” Jin Ling says, “if I go, it turns into a political visit.  It may seem like Lanling Jin asking Caicun Lin for a favor or, worse, demanding one.  If you guys go, it’s just a few young cultivators looking for their friend.”

Zizhen makes a face.  “That’s stupid.”

“It’s politics,” Jin Ling says, “so, yes, it’s stupid.”

“You’re probably right,” Sizhui says, after some consideration.

“Of course I am.”

“We fly to Caicun then,” Sizhui says, “but we need to stay somewhere else for the night if you can’t go into the city.”

Flying straight to Caicun will take most of the day as it is.  Just thinking about it makes Sizhui feel tired, but he refuses to say anything. 

“We’ll just go to the next village,” Zizhen says.  

“Just hope it's big enough to have an inn,” Jin Ling says.  “I’ll go ahead and find a place and send you a message.  I might have to go a town or two over to find something decent.”

“Guess that’s all there is to it then,” Zizhen says, but there’s a small furrow between his brows.  

The four of them finish their breakfast and get to their feet.  Together they make their way through the town to the road that leads towards Caicun and away from Qinghe.  Senior Wen appears to walk beside them soon after they exit the town; Sizhui still isn’t sure how he manages to disappear and appear so suddenly.  But he doesn’t ask; instead, Sizhui quietly informs him of the plan.  When he hears that they’ll be flying straight to Caicun, Senior Wen gives Sizhui a concerned look, but he doesn't say anything.  Sizhui gives him his best reassuring smile.  

The four of them wave goodbye to Senior Wen, who will meet them at Caicun, and mount their swords.  Jin Ling takes a minute to get Fairy into the carry bag and to put it on his back.  The others wait in silence, and it’s strange not to have Jingyi poking fun at Jin Ling for his ‘purse dog’.  

Jin Ling and Zizhen rocket skywards, apparently racing.  Sizhui and Ziwan fly up more slowly, catching up with the other two who are hovering above.  The wind has already swept through Zizhen’s short hair, leaving it slightly messy, and Ziwan, hair and clothes still perfectly arranged, frowns at him.

They head northwest, flying high enough that the road is just a slim line winding its way along beneath them.  The landscape here is different from the mountains of Gusu, and Sizhui admires it for a while.  Zizhen and Jin Ling fly in the front, close enough together that they can talk if they call over the wind.  Both Ziwan and Sizhui fly back a bit, alone.

Sizhui doesn’t mind the silence; there’s a lot on his mind.  They’d avoided any serious topics for the rest of last night, with both Sizhui and Jin Ling having reached their limit for the night.  Quite frankly, Sizhui feels like he’s pushed his limit for the year or more after all of this.  But the rest of the conversation will come, and they'll ask why Jingyi left, and Sizhui still doesn’t have an answer.  

And then there’s Jingyi.  Sizhui is starting to feel a spark of hope that he’ll actually get to see him again.  And he’ll have to say something .  There are so many words and feelings that he doesn’t even know where to begin.  

He just wants his best friend back, and he doesn’t know how to do that.  He still doesn’t understand why Jingyi left.  Sizhui’s prepared to apologize for whatever he did to drive him away if he just knew.  Deep inside, he knows that he’d be willing to apologize for things he didn’t do, be willing to beg to have him back.  And why not? There’s nothing he wouldn’t give to get Jingyi back, his pride included.  But he keeps that knowledge stuffed to the back of his mind.  He knows Jingyi, and Jingyi would never demand something like that from anyone, and that’s part of why Sizhui loves him.

There are other emotions there too, waiting under the deep longing.  Something that feels a lot like frustration and anger, and something under that that feels a little bit like fear that he’s not brave enough to face.  

His right hand curls into a fist as he resists the urge to reach for the ribbon tucked into his robes.

As the sun rises higher in the sky and pushes towards noon, Sizhui gives up on those trains of thought.  It’s draining, and he’s doing nothing but thinking himself in circles.  They’ve been flying for hours now, and he’s starting to feel the strain in his back and the draw on his golden core.  They hadn’t planned on stopping for lunch, but Sizhui finds himself hoping they will.  

The sun passes its zenith and neither Jin Ling nor Zizhen shows signs of stopping.  Sizhui knows that he could ask them to take a break.  He also knows they would be happy to oblige him, and Zizhen would probably apologize for not thinking about it earlier.  But he can’t bring himself to ask.  

He’s surprised when Jin Ling raises his hand and signals for them to land, but he breathes a sigh of relief.  The drop down, landing on the dusty road.  Sizhui lets out a long breath as he sheathes his sword.  

“I’m afraid we can’t stop for long,” Zizhen says, glancing at Sizhui.  

Sizhui gathers himself, prepared to insist that they don’t have to stop on his account.  But Jin Ling cuts him off before he even opens his mouth.  “Fairy needs a break.”

As if to prove his point, he sets her bag on the ground and lets her out.  She shakes herself once, before running into the field to use the toilet.  

Sizhui pulls out his water and drinks most of it down.  He wishes he could lay down for a moment, or even sit, to relieve the strain on his back, but there’s nowhere to do either.  Instead, he has to settle for stretching as best he can without pulling anything.  His companions have politely turned to look at Fairy who has turned to sprinting at full speed around them.  

At breakfast, Sizhui had tucked one of the pears into his qiankun sleeve and he retrieves it now.  Really, they should have purchased something for all of them for lunch even though, strictly speaking, none of them need it.  Sizhui makes a mental note to plan ahead for tomorrow.  

Soon, no more than ten minutes later, Fairy comes to sit at Jin Ling’s feet, signaling an end to their break.  Sizhui ignores the not quite subtle enough look Zizhen gives him, as he draws his sword.  Jin Ling gets Fairy back in her bag and the four of them take back to the skies.

It’s late afternoon by the time the city of Caicun comes into sight.  Shortly after, Jin Ling makes a signal, and the four of them land.  Zizhen smooths out his robes while Jin Ling lets Fairy down to run.  Sizhui tries to discreetly roll his shoulders, shifting to try and alleviate some of the ache in his back, but he can feel Jin Ling’s eyes on him.  

“We should walk the rest of the way,” Zizhen says, glancing at Sizhui.  “I don’t want to offend them when we’re going to be asking for a favor.”

“That’s probably best,” Sizhui agrees.  It’s not that long of a walk; he will manage.  

“We can rest for a bit,” Zizhen says.  Before Sizhui can protest that it’s not necessary, Jin Ling speaks.

“Fairy needs some time before we can fly again.”

Sizhui bites back a sigh and nods.  Since they’ve decided to stop, Sizhui sits.  They watch as Fairy prances around them, working out excess energy.  Jin Ling even pulls a ball out of his sleeve to throw for her a few times.  Zizhen joins him, taking turns throwing the ball and watching Fairy tear after it.

For a moment it feels normal.   Jin Ling and Zizhen are smiling, and Fairy’s happy barking fills the air.  But there’s no Jingyi by his side, challenging Jin Ling to throw the ball further or getting up to throw the ball himself.  The lack of his sunny presence leaves the moment feeling chilled.  That, the growing ache in his back, and Ziwan’s silent presence make what should be a comfortable moment feel uneasy.

Soon, Fairy drops the ball at Zizhen’s feet and then flops down right next to it, tongue lolling to the side as she pants.  With a smile, Zizhen and Jin Ling lean down to scratch her ears.  Zizhen straightens up and looks over at Sizhui.

“Ready?”

“Of course,” Sizhui gets to his feet in a single fluid motion.  He smoothes out his robes even though they aren’t wrinkled and looks over at Ziwan.

“I’ve been waiting for you two,” she says.  

Zizhen touches Jin Ling’s shoulder lightly, and Jin Ling glances up at him.

“We’ll see you at the inn, then?” Zizhen says.

Jin Ling nods, his mouth is twisted in distaste, but it was his idea to go on ahead so he can’t really complain.  Zizhen’s touch lingers on Jin Ling’s shoulder for a moment before he turns away and walks with Ziwan and Sizhui towards Caicun.

It takes far longer to deal with things in Caicun than they had planned.  By the time they leave again, the sun is getting low in the sky.  

The Jin butterfly that finds them outside of Caicun leads them along the road.  They fly over a tiny village that’s hardly worth the word and on to the next one.  The light is growing low by the time they land, and Sizhui’s is exhausted.  The pain in his back has started to throb, and he wants nothing more than to lay down for a while.

But there is still more to be done.  At the very least, they need to tell Jin Ling about the information they got in Caicun.  Jin Ling is waiting for them outside of the lone inn, with his arms crossed and Fairy waiting patiently by his heels.  His gaze goes first to Zizhen and then to Sizhui, inspecting them.

“It’s late.” 

“It’s not our fault,” Zizhen protests.  Jin Ling looks at him with an unreadable expression for a second before shrugging and turning away.

“Whatever.  Come in and have dinner.  Unless you already ate.”

“Of course not,” Zizhen says, pouting slightly, but Jin Ling isn’t looking at him.  Zizhen speeds up to walk by Jin Ling’s side, grabbing his arm and ignoring the tense set of Jin Ling’s shoulders.  Sizhui is more than content to trail behind them and Ziwan seems to feel the same.

Ziwan gives Sizhui a critical glance.  

“You should have excused yourself earlier,” she says in an undertone.  

“It would have been rude,” Sizhui says.

“No,” Ziwan says, “it wouldn’t have.  It would have been perfectly understandable since they knew that we’d been traveling and still had further to go.  They were the ones being rude.”

Sizhui just shakes his head.  “They were just excited to have visitors.  They must get bored being such a small sect so far out of the way.”

Ziwan studies him for a moment before shaking her head.  “You are too nice.”  

“Too nice?” Sizhui can’t help but ask.  

“Too nice,” Ziwan repeats.  “Excessively nice.”

Sizhui shakes his head in disagreement but doesn’t say anything.  He doesn’t wish to debate with Ziwan anymore than he had wished to disagree with the Caicun Lin disciples earlier.  So he keeps silent. 

Ziwan’s sharp, dark eyes are on him and after a moment she lets out a small snort and shakes her head, before turning away entirely.

Jin Ling leads them to the inn’s small dining room.  It’s small, with only three tables, two of which only sit four people.  But it’s impeccably clean and warmly lit with lanterns.  It’s also empty except for a young woman, who practically jumps to her feet at the sight of them.

“Young Masters, Young Miss!” She offers them an unnecessarily deep bow.

“We’ll have dinner now,” Jin Ling says imperiously.  Sizhui can tell he’s irritated; he’s nicer when he’s happy.  Luckily, the woman doesn’t seem too upset with him.

“Of course,” she says with another bow.  “Please, take a seat, and I’ll go right to the kitchens.”  

The four of them settle at one of the three tables in the room, and Sizhui has to physically resist the urge to slump down.  Carefully, he sets his sword aside.  

“Well,” Jin Ling says, almost as soon as they are seated, “what did you learn.”

“Jingyi was there,” Sizhui says.  “He’s traveling with two non-cultivators, a pair of siblings according to Lin Lifen.”

At Lin Lifen’s name, Jin Ling’s mouth tightens into a line for a moment, but he says nothing on the topic.  Instead, he asks, “Non-cultivators? Why?”

Sizhui only shakes his head.  According to Lin Lifen, Jingyi hadn’t stated a reason, anything else would be speculation, which is forbidden.  

“Anything else?” Jin Ling demands. “Anything useful?”

Sizhui bites his lip, digging through the endless conversation for something useful. 

“Not really,” Ziwan says.  

“Great,” Jin Ling mutters.  “Do we at least know when he was here?”

“Two weeks or so,” Sizhui says quietly.  

“Fuck!” Jin Ling pinches the bridge of his nose.  Fairy presses herself against his back, and he takes a deep breath.  Zizhen is looking at him with concern and Ziwan with irritation.  “He could be anywhere by now!  What the hell is he even doing out here anyway?  There’s nothing!”

Sizhui tenses slightly at his outburst even though he knows it’s not directed at him.  

“I think that’s the point,” Sizhui says quietly.  

“What?” Jin Ling says, face a mask of confused exasperation.

“I’ve been thinking,” Sizhui says, keeping his voice calm.

“At least one of you does,” Ziwan mutters.  Zizhen and Jin Ling glare at her, but Sizhui ignores it.  

“We’ve been trying to figure out where he’s going.  But I don’t think he’s headed to a specific place.  I think he’s headed away.  We’re at the edge of the cultivation world, and I think that’s on purpose.”

“So he doesn’t want to be around cultivators,” Jin Ling says, “why?”

Sizhui can only shake his head.  “I don’t understand, but it’s the only thing I can think of.”

Jin Ling stares at Sizhui for a long moment.

“If that's true,” Zizhen muses, tapping his fan on the table, “how do we find him?  There’s a lot of land out here.  We’re only five people; we can’t canvas it.”

Sizhui shakes his head and looks down at his hands.  The hope he’d felt blooming the last few days seems to be shriveling in his chest.  They’ve come closer, but it doesn't feel very much like it at all.  

There’s always the old fashioned way of looking: going from town to town and asking.  Jingyi stands out at least, especially here where there are very few cultivators.  But that promises to be a long and slow process.  He knows, in his heart, that he would do it.  He’d walk from town to town across half of China if he has to, but he could never ask his friends to do it.  J