They took Jin Guangyao back to Lotus Pier. It was the closest of the Five Great Sects to Yunping, and Sect Leader Jiang's prison chambers had been well-maintained over the years. Lan Xichen had watched him be pushed into the cell, his face wavering between concern and anger, and had left once the Jiang Sect disciple turned the key in the lock to keep him in place behind the bars.
The wooden walls of the room were high, but with openings at the top that let in air and light. Perhaps Lotus Pier was situated too close to water to have underground prisons; most of the larger sects seemed to prefer them. His cell was four walls of iron bars, close enough together to allow a hand to reach out, but nothing more. There was straw on the ground, ostensibly for sleeping on, and a bucket in the corner. They brought him food and water once a day, in the morning, and sent someone to make sure he was still there at night. They were, it seemed, quite confident that nobody could escape. Jin Guangyao probably wouldn't have had any chance even if he hadn't been injured, but with the loss of his arm, his spiritual energy had taken a beating, and it seemed to flicker in and out uncontrollably. He spent most of his time in prison meditating, trying to get it back under his conscious control; if he could maintain a steady stream, he might have some chance of healing himself.
Back in Guanyin Temple, Lan Xichen had bandaged the bloodied remains of his arm with what he'd had on hand, but the blood had long since soaked through and stuck to the bandage, and it needed to be changed. When the Jiang Sect disciple came with his food and water on his second day there, Jin Guangyao requested clean water, at the very least, and a fresh bandage, but the guard simply laughed.
"They'll execute you in a few days anyway, Lianfang-zun. There's not much point."
He did the best he could with what he had available; he pulled the bandage off his wound, only long experience with pain keeping him from crying out, and used some of the precious little water they'd given him to rinse it as best he could. He rewrapped it with the cleanest parts of the filthy bandage, knowing from the angry, swelling edges of the wound that it wasn't healing well.
He repeated the request that evening when the guard came to check on him, and the morning after that. No one came to question him—all that talk Lan Xichen had made of wanting to get answers from him, and he didn't even come to ask the questions. Jin Guangyao would have answered truthfully. What did he have left to lose by lying?
The next morning, he wanted to drink the water more than he wanted a bandage that would never be clean enough; by that evening, he was starting to notice a foul smell coming from the bandage, and his dreams that night blossomed into a nightmare haze of faces jeering at him, screaming in the voice of his father, his brother, his wife, his son. Sometimes he would turn in his sleep and roll onto the wrong side, and the agony of the pressure on the wound would jolt him into awareness for a split second before the dead claimed him again.
When they brought food and water the next morning, he didn't notice until several hours later, and the rice porridge had congealed into an unappetizing mass that Jin Guangyao forced himself to swallow down. He drank his meager water ration and curled up on his good side on the straw again, trying to get warm.
He hovered between sleep and wakefulness for some unknown period of time. He fought the living and the dead in his mind, faces swimming in front of him that he couldn't identify as real or imaginary. Lan Xichen appeared before him, his face worried, and Jin Guangyao reached for his face with his arm, thinking maybe he could hold onto something nice for a little while, but then it twisted into anger, and Jin Guangyao's eyes fell closed. There was a flare of agony at his arm again—had he rolled onto it? Was it on fire?—and then Lan Xichen's voice said "Shh!" so he must have cried out, and wasn't that really too cruel? Surely he was dying, wasn't he even allowed to cry out in pain? Did Lan Xichen have no pity for him at all? He tried to say as much, but then there was a cool hand on his forehead, and, mercifully, he fell into a quiet darkness.
The dreams came and went. He was publicly executed, and it was Nie Mingjue's corpse who severed his head, while Lan Xichen played the Song of Corruption on Liebing to rile up the crowd. His mother was sitting at his bedside, stroking his hair and telling him he needed to get well so he could go catch his father's attention. He and Qin Su were playing together as children, and then she was stabbing herself with Wen Ruohan's knife and her face turned into their son's.
At long last, he woke.
He was lying in a bed. The room around him was small and dimly lit, the light from the window indicating the time as late evening. He had been bathed and his clothes changed. His bandage had been replaced, and prodding gently at the wound let him know that the inflammation had subsided dramatically—it still hurt, but not like it had in prison. The faint scent of tea was in the air, and he realized his throat was parched, and he wanted nothing more than a sip of it. He struggled to sit up, finally leaning on his right arm to support him in the effort.
There was someone at his side as soon as he started to move, a hand on his back to help him get to a seated position. He looked up at the figure, only a little surprised to see it was Lan Xichen. Who else in this world might have enough lingering affection for him to be so attentive? And yet, the last time they'd spoken, he had expected Lan Xichen to sever ties entirely.
He wore robes of a dull blue-grey, and where his forehead ribbon should have been, there was just bare skin.
"Stay still," he said, and Jin Guangyao felt a cool stream of energy flow into him, bolstering his own. "You've been sick for several days, and your spiritual energy is weak. It will take time to recover."
It took some time for Jin Guangyao's voice to work. "Zewu-jun," he said, once he felt he could manage it, bowing his head as respectfully as possible from his position. "Do you think I could have some tea?"
Lan Xichen nodded and left his side, coming back a moment later with a teacup. As he placed it in Jin Guangyao's hand, he clasped his hands around Jin Guangyao's, like he was afraid the cup might fall if he let go too soon. But his strength held, and though his hand shook a little, all the tea within made it to his dry lips and throat.
"You've gone to a lot of trouble for me," Jin Guangyao said once he felt he could speak normally again. "I would hate to think you put in so much effort just for my execution."
"No," Lan Xichen said, his expression serious. "Exactly the opposite."
"Thank you," Jin Guangyao said, although mere thanks were not close to enough repayment. His eyes went up to Lan Xichen's bare forehead again. "I assume you didn't take me from the prison with the other sects' knowledge."
Lan Xichen shook his head. "They'll be looking for us; we'll need to start moving as soon as you're able."
"Where are we now?"
"Xinping. You were in need of medical attention quickly, and I didn't trust anyone in the sects. I found a doctor here and paid him for his silence, but I don't think the silver will keep him quiet if Sect Leader Jiang starts asking about us."
Xinping was still in the Jiang Sect's territory, not far from Lotus Pier. It was a sizeable city, a good place to stay relatively undetected by virtue of the crowds, and large enough to find a skilled physician, although probably one more used to treating those who hadn't cultivated.
"I apologize for the trouble I've given you among the sects," Jin Guangyao said, bowing his head again.
Lan Xichen tensed beside him, then stood up and went to the window. His face was faintly illuminated by the light of a lantern out on the street. "That's what you're going to apologize for?"
"What else can I do?" Jin Guangyao asked, pained. "I'm not sorry that I'm alive, I won't tell you you shouldn't have done it—"
"That's not what I mean," Lan Xichen said, turning back to him. "That was my choice, and I don't regret that you're alive." He sighed and moved to sit at the edge of the bed again. "You know, in Guanyin Temple, what I wanted more than anything was just... for you to show some regret about what you've done. I might not agree with your reasons, but if I felt that you also had struggled with making those choices, I might have...."
"Might have done what? Stood with me against your brother and Wei Wuxian? Against Sect Leader Jiang, against Jin Ling and Sizhui? I don't think so, Er-ge. Even your tolerance has limits."
"You don't regret anything, then?" Lan Xichen said, a tinge of desperation in his tone. "None of what you've done?"
Jin Guangyao considered his options. Lan Xichen probably would not kill him if he told the truth; he still cared enough, it seemed, to nurse him back to health at substantial cost to himself, even knowing everything. Of course he hoped Jin Guangyao was a better person than his actions would indicate—Jin Guangyao had shown him the best parts of himself for years, naturally he was disappointed in the reality.
He could lie and say he regretted everything, but that left a bad taste in his mouth, as well. He wasn't ever going to be Chief Cultivator again. He would be lucky to survive another few years, if he stayed in the country. He might find a few people who wanted to follow him specifically for what he'd done—even the Yiling Patriarch had followers, after all—but that wasn't what he wanted. The worst that would likely happen if he told Lan Xichen the truth was that he would be left to survive on his own, and Jin Guangyao was good at surviving.
"I regret some things," he said, finally. "I regret A-Song's death more than anything, though I knew it was necessary. I did love A-Su, and I wish things had turned out differently for both of us. But I don't regret my part in my father's death, or most of the other people I killed. It was them or me, and I chose myself."
The furrow in Lan Xichen's brow grew deeper as Jin Guangyao spoke, and he stayed silent for a long moment when he was finished. "And... Da-ge?" he prompted at last, his voice strangely hoarse.
That matter was the most complicated of them all. Lan Xichen had stayed away from the topic of Nie Mingjue all through their time leading up to the temple, no matter how many other questions he'd asked. It would be a sore point. "Do you want the truth or a comforting lie?"
"The truth," Lan Xichen said automatically. "Always the truth from you, now, please. The lies are... the lies hurt more than your actions."
"By the time I killed him, I didn't regret it," Jin Guangyao said, a little hesitant, despite the request for honesty. It didn't feel good to tell the truth like this, to watch Lan Xichen's face twist in pain at his words. He'd never wanted that. "But he was good to me back when I was nothing; he saw my value when nobody else did. I regret that it came to what it did."
"But how could you do that to his body?"
"I did far worse in Wen Ruohan's care," Jin Guangyao said. "You can learn to stop seeing people as people, when you need to."
Lan Xichen shuddered and stepped away from the bed again, his face turned so that Jin Guangyao couldn't see it. Jin Guangyao fought the urge to take back his words, to paste a charming half-truth over them to make it more palatable, like he always had before. There was no grandstanding to distract him from Lan Xichen's reaction, here, no plans that needed to continue regardless of what he was feeling.
"Er-ge," he started, when the silence had gone on too long to bear, but Lan Xichen waved him off.
"Thank you for being honest," he said. "I... needed the reminder that you aren't who I thought you were."
"I always wanted to be who you thought I was," Jin Guangyao said quietly. "I just didn't know how to get there."
Lan Xichen looked like he was about to respond, then stopped, his head tipped to one side, listening. "They've come."
Jin Guangyao heard it, then, hushed voices from down the hall. He looked back to Lan Xichen, knowing that without his help, he wouldn't have the strength to escape them. Lan Xichen looked for a moment like he was wrestling with himself, and then he took hold of Jin Guangyao's hand and helped him to his feet, quickly sliding his shoes on and pulling him toward the window.
From that vantage point, Jin Guangyao could see that they were on the second floor; there was a drop from the window down to the ground, and not enough room for them both to go at once. In normal circumstances, the drop wouldn't hurt him, but he felt a wave of anxiety as his spiritual energy flickered ominously within him. Then Lan Xichen pressed his hand to his chest, and he felt another wave of spiritual energy surge through him, strengthening his own.
"Go," Lan Xichen said, and Jin Guangyao did. He landed awkwardly, his missing arm throwing him off balance, but he was still standing. Lan Xichen dropped elegantly to the ground beside him, and looked to the sky, drawing his sword, only to sheathe it again when they saw several dark figures overhead.
Through the alleys it was, then.
The alley wound behind a number of buildings, giving the impression of a maze, but like a maze, there were only so many exits, and those who were after them had done the work ahead of time to find them. As they neared one exit, they were blocked by two cultivators in Jiang disciple robes; backtracking to avoid those, they worked their way to another exit, and found it blocked, as well, and the previous cultivators at their backs. A signal flare went up, bursting Jiang Sect purple in the sky.
They were surrounded. Just five disciples in all, none of them anyone Jin Guangyao recognized, but still disciples from one of the Five Great Sects. Freeing a prisoner was one thing, but Lan Xichen was still a sect leader, and killing anyone from the Yunmeng Jiang Sect would have consequences far beyond the two of them.
"Sect Leader Lan," one of them said, stepping forward. To his credit, or perhaps out of stupidity, he didn't look nervous at all. "We have no quarrel with you. We just need to take Jin Guangyao back with us to Lotus Pier."
"I have no quarrel with you, either, but I won't let you take him without a fight."
Jin Guangyao's heart stuttered in his chest at that. Lan Xichen would fight for him? Even knowing what he had done, even obviously unhappy about it?
Lan Xichen nudged Jin Guangyao toward one wall of the alley and turned his back, attempting to ward off attacks from both sides. Jin Guangyao would have killed for a stack of crates or even a pile of trash to duck behind, but there was just the smooth wall behind him and the narrow alley on both sides. He pressed himself as close to the wall as he could, giving Lan Xichen as much room as possible, and then he waited.
The Jiang disciples attacked.
If there were other disciples in the city, they would undoubtedly be here within minutes. Worse, it wouldn't take long for Sect Leader Jiang to get here, as well. Jin Guangyao had no doubt that Lan Xichen could take care of the few disciples here without bloodshed, but when more came, and he began to tire, would the same be true? Would he be willing to face Jiang Wanyin to save Jin Guangyao's life? They needed to move fast.
Jin Guangyao was barely recovered from a fever that would likely have killed him. He had sword, no instrument, no talismans, and inconsistent spiritual power—he wasn't any help at all. He did what he could to stay out of the way and dodge the blows that made it past Lan Xichen's guard. For his part, Lan Xichen worked with Shuoyue still sheathed, using it to block and bludgeon, but never drawing the blade. When three of the disciples were down, more arrived from the second exit, and Lan Xichen looked back at Jin Guangyao.
"Head back toward the inn," he said, and Jin Guangyao nodded. The alley they'd jumped down had more cover, if nothing else, but was also further from where the signal had gone off. They might be able to outrun the additional cultivators if they weren't boxed in.
Jin Guangyao started to edge his way back, making sure Lan Xichen wasn't far behind him, but when he rounded the corner, there was another group of Jiang disciples, and now the two were more exposed than ever. Lan Xichen kept fighting, and the disciples kept falling, but when another few arrived, he started to show signs of fatigue.
Jin Guangyao could think of several ways he might have gotten out of the situation if he'd been in Lan Xichen's position, but even if he could communicate them without alerting the enemy, none of them fit Lan Xichen's character, and none of them were nonlethal. Since Jin Guangyao wasn't about to surrender himself, he simply had to have faith in Lan Xichen's exceptional swordsmanship.
There were still four cultivators left standing when Lan Xichen stumbled over one of their fallen comrades and lost his footing. It was just for a moment, but it was enough to give one of his opponents a lucky hit, slicing deep into his back. Lan Xichen whirled back and took the man down immediately, but it was obvious from his movements that the damage was severe enough that he couldn't keep going like he had been. The three remaining cultivators could have been slowly picked off, but surrounded, trying to protect Jin Guangyao and prevent any of the disciples from actually dying, and with a significant injury, even Lan Xichen couldn't hold on for long.
From behind him, Jin Guangyao saw his fist clench, white-knuckled, around Shuoyue's sheath. Lan Xichen drew the sword, catching two of the disciples across the front with the movement and knocking the third back enough that Lan Xichen was able to stab him through the chest.
He pulled his sword from the third and turned back to the other two, but one wasn't moving at all, and the other looked like she was trying to focus her energies on healing herself.
Lan Xichen stepped toward her and she looked up at him, obviously trying and failing to be brave.
"Tell Sect Leader Jiang not to send anyone else after us," Lan Xichen said, and flicked the blood off Shuoyue's blade before letting the hilt go and stepping up and onto it. He held out a hand toward Jin Guangyao, who took the hand up but had to press close to Lan Xichen to stay on the blade. They took off into the night sky, and Lan Xichen kept them in the cloud banks as much as possible as they headed away from the city and out of Yunmeng Jiang Sect's territory as quickly as possible.
When the sky began to grow light, they landed near a large river that wound off toward the east to rest a while and determine what their next move would be. Jin Guangyao shivered slightly as he stepped to the ground alone; he'd been in his underclothes when they'd fled, and while the late spring air certainly wasn't freezing, it wasn't comfortable.
They found a place along the river where the water was deep enough to bathe. Lan Xichen pulled out a bag from his sleeve that contained two sets of robes for Jin Guangyao and another set for himself. He took off his outer robe, his movements lacking the grace they ordinarily contained, and looked at the gash in the fabric and its blood-soaked edges with an expression of dismay.
"Put them in the water, quickly," Jin Guangyao said. "Your underclothes, too, or the stain will set."
"I was regretting the tear more than the blood," Lan Xichen said, but he stripped off his undergarments and pushed both them and the torn robe into the river, then dropped in beside them, sucking in a few quick breaths as the cold water hit him.
"I can mend the fabric so you'll barely know it was torn. If the stain sets, there's nothing I can do."
"I should have known you could sew," Lan Xichen said, smiling faintly as his breathing evened out. Clearly frequent dips in the cold spring in the Cloud Recesses had helped his body grow accustomed to the cold shock; Jin Guangyao was quite certain he wasn't going to recover as quickly, but it had to be done all the same.
"It was an easy way to keep me out from underfoot at the brothel," Jin Guangyao said, pulling off his underclothes and starting to unwind the bandage around his arm and chest. "And there were always clothes to mend." Generally torn by noble gentlemen who had no concept of how much clothes cost for ordinary people, or how much work went into mending them so carefully that the next guest wouldn't notice any damage. "Next time we're in a town, I'll pick up a needle and thread." He used his good arm to ease himself into the water, promptly gasping for air as the cold hit him.
It didn't take too long for his body to adjust to the temperature, but it was uncomfortable all the same, accustomed to the warm baths of Jinlintai as he was.
"Let me check your back," Jin Guangyao said, and Lan Xichen turned around compliantly. The wound was already healing nicely—the benefit of his cultivation level. Jin Guangyao had never healed that quickly, even at full strength. "It should be fully healed in less than a day, I think."
"Yes. Despite the problems it caused in the moment, there shouldn't be any long-term damage."
Jin Guangyao ducked down in the water below shoulder level, ignoring the sting as the river's movement brushed along his own healing wound. He would need to focus on building up his spiritual energy again to speed the healing process, which might be a challenge depending on where Lan Xichen planned for them to go.
"What was your plan when you rescued me?" Jin Guangyao said as they soaked. "Nurse me back to health and take me back to the Cloud Recesses?" It wouldn't be a bad life, probably, but somehow he didn't think it would agree with either of them very well in the long term.
Lan Xichen shook his head, his mouth tightening into a small frown. "I hadn't meant to do anything more than open the door to your prison and let the dice fall where they would. I didn't realize that no one had been looking after you."
"Someone thought it was a waste of time, since I would certainly be put to death anyway." He wasn't sure if that had been at Sect Leader Jiang's order or not; he had, after all, prodded rather forcefully at Jiang Wanyin's own insecurities in Guanyin Temple, and that man wasn't one to forgive easily.
"That was never a certain outcome," Lan Xichen said. "We argued the matter for days." He idly pulled his bloodied clothes back and forth through the water until Jin Guangyao took hold of them and began working at the stains earnestly. "I did propose taking you back to Gusu," he admitted. "But it was thought by some parties that it would be too comfortable a prison for you, and that you might have undue influence over me, given our past."
Jin Guangyao's instinct was to protest the accusation, but truthfully, he might well have worked to his own ends through Lan Xichen, if it had come to that. He had never done well being idle. Keeping in mind what Lan Xichen had said about wanting the truth, he avoided saying anything about it at all. "I thank you for your consideration, all the same."
"Everyone seemed to have a claim on you," Lan Xichen continued, an uncharacteristic bitterness in his tone. "Even those who had barely spoken with you suddenly claimed you were responsible for the deaths of their children or grandparents, or that you had corrupted their daughters—"
"Corrupted their daughters?" Of all the things to accuse him of, that one stung the most.
"I know you never did, that's the point. I fought those claims, as well, but every argument I made was further evidence that I was compromised, that my judgment couldn't be trusted. My reputation ceased to matter at all when I wanted the wrong person to live."
Jin Guangyao smiled a little, looking down at the water. "Your kindness worked against you, this time, I fear."
"Perhaps it always has," Lan Xichen said. "If everyone is intractable, then nothing can ever get done. I have always believed that. But looking back on my actions as sect leader, I've begun to see many cases where I should have taken a firmer stand, but backed down in the name of diplomacy or harmony. Even in our friendship, why did I not push harder to find out the truth, when I knew you were doing things I didn't condone?"
"You wanted to believe me a better person than I am."
"I still want to believe that. But sometimes what a person wants doesn't actually matter." Lan Xichen pulled himself up out of the water in one graceful movement, pulling on the second set of robes immediately. He held a hand out to Jin Guangyao to help him out of the river. "Can I help you with your bandage?" he said, the words gentler than his previous ones.
"Yes, thank you." He sat quietly while Lan Xichen dug out a new bandage from a qiankun pouch and neatly wound it around Jin Guangyao's healing wound and chest, tucking the end in. They had taken care of each others' wounds before, after injuries sustained during night-hunts; this was nothing new. But Jin Guangyao felt more exposed than usual, with almost all his secrets out in the open, and Lan Xichen still angry with him, whether he was showing it or not. It was a relief to be able to put his clothes back on, and gain a little more distance.
"And... your hair?" Lan Xichen said. "I thought perhaps we might both put it all up in a knot, rather than just half. Neither of us have worn that style before, so it will be less recognizable."
"I suppose you're right," Jin Guangyao said, already mourning the style he'd worn for decades. He would have to figure out how to put it up one-handed, eventually, but he would cross that bridge when he came to it.
Jin Guangyao had never liked servants touching his hair; he knew too well the ways one could kill someone at this distance. His scalp tingled as Lan Xichen started to gather it up, and he tried not to think about the fact that only his mother and his wife had done this for him before.
"You wanted to go to Dongying, before. Is that still what you want?" Lan Xichen asked, combing through his hair with his fingers.
Jin Guangyao thought, with a pang, of the plans he'd hurriedly cobbled together when the letter had come. Dongying had been a better option, then, with money in his pockets to help ease the way, his status still intact, his mother's body with him, to be re-interred somewhere near his new home, wherever it might be. Now?
Well, his options were limited if he stayed in the country, and there was a good chance he'd be killed if he ran into the wrong person on the road. If nothing else, being in Dongying would help alleviate that particular concern.
"Yes," he said. "It seems prudent."
Lan Xichen nodded and finished off fastening Jin Guangyao's hair with a simple pin, then started on his own. "I thought so. However, since that was also my primary suggestion at the trial, I expect people will be looking for us in every port."
"They'll lose interest after a while, won't they? Some new crisis will emerge to distract them." If Jin Guangyao were in a better position, he might be able to manufacture such a thing, but those days were gone.
"I agree. It will take nearly a month to get there on foot, especially if we linger where we can. By that time, I think there will be far fewer people looking for us."
"If you don't mind an escort. I'll return to Gusu once you're aboard the ship to Dongying."
"Won't your punishment be more severe if you're gone so long?" Jin Guangyao said.
Lan Xichen's face was pinched and unhappy. "Are you actually worried about my punishment, or do you just wish me to leave?"
That stung. "Of course I'm worried!" he said. "You're my closest friend; how can I not be worried about what you'll go through when I can't intercede for you?"
The harsh edges left Lan Xichen's expression, and the corners of his lips turned up into a small smile. "I don't think your intercession would be appreciated in this particular instance."
"No," Jin Guangyao said, and then smiled, pained. "Truly, I appreciate your company, and I would rather have you on the journey with me than not, but I don't want you to make things harder on yourself than you need to."
"I've come this far already," Lan Xichen said. "I may as well see you safely off to Dongying."
Both of them had practiced inedia, and were ordinarily able to go without food for several days. However, they both had injuries, and Jin Guangyao's spiritual energy had been severely impacted by his. In order to heal faster they needed to eat regularly, and they stopped at a small village near where they had landed to purchase some foods for the journey, as well as a sewing kit and a few other things. They bought two travel knapsacks to store the items in; the qiankun pouches Lan Xichen had on him would carry a lot, but ordinary people didn't have access to them.
They continued eastward along the river at a leisurely pace, stopping to camp when they needed rest, and staying out of towns as much as possible. It was easier to be overlooked in larger cities, but they tended to be better guarded; they would make more of an impression in smaller villages, but cultivators didn't frequent them. It was safer to stay away from both, except when they needed to replenish their food stocks.
Jin Guangyao's arm continued healing, and his golden core stopped feeling so off-balance. It wasn't to its former level, and it might never be, but he was glad that it hadn't permanently destabilized from the wound; his cultivation level had never been particularly high.
Lan Xichen's mood was similarly volatile those first few days, but evened out after that. He seemed equally frustrated with himself, Jin Guangyao, and the world at large, which meant he was about where Jin Guangyao had been a decade and a half earlier: angry at himself, and his father, and the world that had demanded he sell his soul to get an ounce of respect. The situation wasn't the same, but Jin Guangyao still understood his feelings.
And the world had never hurt Lan Xichen like it had hurt Jin Guangyao; this was, at most, a temporary breach of trust, one that would be resolved when he went back to the Cloud Recesses, and probably into seclusion. No one would demand his execution. This incident would be one blemish on his otherwise spotless character, but he would stay a respected figure, just as his father had before him, and his brother. Lan family scandals were barely spoken of, where it had simply taken being born for Jin Guangyao to be the subject of gossip.
Well, that was fine. They were from different worlds; naturally the world would treat them differently. Lan Xichen was going to put him on a ship and send him on his way to Dongying. It was enough that Lan Xichen had chosen him here and now, wasn't it? That he would want to spend weeks together with him, even knowing everything, was the greatest blessing he could have hoped for. A bittersweet end to their friendship, perhaps, but one he would treasure anyway.
"I could always tell when you were playing diplomat with people," Lan Xichen said, as they walked. His words were casual, but Jin Guangyao caught a tension in his tone. "I don't know how many other people could. You were exceptional at it."
"You flatter me," Jin Guangyao said, smiling faintly. "But you know me better than anyone, I'm not surprised you could tell."
Lan Xichen continued, seeming to ignore his own discomfort. "Because I could see that, I truly never thought you were lying to me," he said. "You were so open with me about your hardships with your father, I didn't see how it could be a lie."
"It wasn't a lie. None of that was a lie. Of course, I couldn't tell you everything, not without disgracing my father's name. But I did suffer in that family, and I was very grateful to have you to turn to in the middle of it. And I did think, for a long time, that it would be bearable if only I did enough for him."
"Then how did it come to... that?"
"You saw most of it yourself, did you not? No one in that family treated me like I belonged. Even by the name he chose for me, my father rejected me as his son. He was all too happy to assign me the tasks he wouldn't give his legitimate son—working with Xue Yang on the Yin Tiger Seal, keeping the Ghost General compliant—but any small misstep and I was no better than a servant, once again."
"Was it so bad, being a servant?"
Jin Guangyao looked at him incredulously, and didn't bother to answer.
Different worlds, indeed.
By the time they neared Wuyi, they had been on the road for several weeks. They'd seen many other travelers along the way, but few cultivators—they might be losing interest, at this point, or they might still be concentrated in the ports. Wuyi was a large city, technically in Zou Sect territory, but it wasn't the Zou Sect headquarters itself; that was a bit northeast, in Wusheng. Wuyi had enough trade that travelers wouldn't draw any attention, and Jin Guangyao's muscles ached for a hot bath and a real bed. He wasn't used to this kind of travel anymore; he'd been spoiled by sword flight for too long, now. Lan Xichen didn't look sore, but he quickly agreed to the proposition of finding an inn in Wuyi, so he must not have been entirely unaffected.
They entered as they had entered every village along the way—like they belonged, like they had business in town. It wasn't their first time on the run, after all: they had done the same after the Cloud Recesses burned, when they were both much younger and worse at it. They'd stayed alive back then all the same, even when the Wen Sect was looking for Lan Xichen in every city, town, and village.
Here, though, there weren't random groups of Zou Sect disciples roaming the streets looking for them. It was just people, buying and selling at the market, going to work, or home, or to visit friends. Nobody here was looking for them, or at least nobody they could see.
They found an inn in a quiet district. It was small, but the rooms were clean, and the food was shockingly good, although it might simply have been that they had lived on travel food for several weeks.
"We could stay here an extra day or two," Lan Xichen said as they were finishing up the vegetable wonton soup they'd ordered as dinner. "A few more days before we reach the port won't hurt anything."
"Er-ge," Jin Guangyao said, laughing. "One might think you're a hedonist, after all. A warm bath? A clean bed?"
"A few more days in your company, as well," Lan Xichen said, and Jin Guangyao's laugh quieted into a fond smile. The time had somehow never been right for them; Jin Guangyao had needed to marry to secure his status, and he would never have cheated on Qin Su, just on principle. Now she was dead, and he was on his way to Dongying... if he tried to start something now, he worried that Lan Xichen would always wonder if it were a manipulation, no matter how honest it was.
"That, too," he acknowledged.
"I'll speak with the innkeeper tomorrow."
The following morning, Jin Guangyao offered to go pick up the extra food they would need for the final leg of the journey to the eastern sea.
"Do you want me to come along?" Lan Xichen asked. Jin Guangyao weighed the pleasure of his company and the normality of wandering town together against the likelihood that the two of them together would draw more attention than just one, and shook his head.
"Not just now," he said. "I'd like to see what rumors I can learn, and that's easier on my own."
"Ah," Lan Xichen said, and Jin Guangyao could tell his smile was covering up some other emotion, but he wasn't sure what it was. He handed over a few taels of silver without hesitation, however, and Jin Guangyao took them and his travel bag and went to the market.
They had stayed far enough away from other travelers that they had little idea what was happening in the rest of the cultivation world. For someone who had made secrets and gossip his business for over twenty years, it was disconcerting to be so cut off. He made a few purchases at stalls where the owners seemed particularly talkative, and asked what questions he could about the area and Zou Sect activity without seeming overly invested.
"You'd better watch out," one of them said, jovial, "I heard one of the guys they're looking for is missing an arm; they might take you in by accident!" Jin Guangyao laughed along with him, but then decided he had better disappear for a while, in case the man got suspicious. He took his goods and started back to the inn.
He had just turned the corner to the narrow street the inn was on when he saw the unmistakable presence of Zou cultivators, a white field of stars peering out of their night sky robes. There were three of them at the entrance, two entering and one left to stand guard. If they had just been gathering information or going in for a drink, the three would have gone in together; they must have some idea that Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao were staying there.
His mind quickly sifted through the options at his disposal, and at last decided to work his way carefully to the back of the inn, where he might be able to reach the window in time to warn Lan Xichen. It required backtracking around several buildings to avoid being seen by the Zou disciple on guard, and when he finally was within sight of the second-floor window, there was a flash of deep blue with a scattering of white just within. If Lan Xichen hadn't gotten out already, he was too late to warn him.
He stayed close to the wall to keep himself hidden if the man looked outside and stopped just underneath the window, listening as closely as he could to the words drifting down to him. He couldn't catch every word, but he heard enough to learn what had happened.
They had been seen from the watchtowers, before they'd even entered town. They'd been tracked to the inn, and then the disciple had sent word back to Wusheng for reinforcements.
It was just their luck that they had arrived while Jin Guangyao was out.
As the voices faded, Jin Guangyao darted down the alley and around the corner and found a place where he could see the front entrance of the inn but wasn't easily noticeable. Two Zou disciples emerged with Lan Xichen, whose arms had been bound with deity-binding rope, and who now walked between them with some complacency. One of the Zou disciples carried Shuoyue. The third man went inside, likely to wait for Jin Guangyao's return.
They were probably going to Wusheng, to keep Lan Xichen imprisoned until they could capture Jin Guangyao, as well.
Jin Guangyao had some silver left, he had food to travel with; he had everything he needed to get to port and get on a ship. Given Lan Xichen's status and reputation, he was unlikely to be too badly hurt by the Zou Sect before being returned to the Cloud Recesses. Jin Guangyao really should just continue to the port alone.
He stood blankly in that spot for some time after the Zou disciples had disappeared with Lan Xichen, trying to get his body to move, but it wasn't listening. It finally obeyed when the third disciple came out the front entrance of the inn and looked around cautiously before starting off the way the others had gone.
If they were giving up on him returning to the inn, they would probably step up their investigations elsewhere.
He moved. His feet took him to the nearest gate, his mind half looking out for the night sky robes, half stuck in a loop, watching them take Lan Xichen away.
He would be fine. Lan Xichen was a hero of the Sunshot Campaign, a sect leader of one of the Great Sects. The Zou Sect wouldn't dare do anything to him. There were just a few days left in the journey, and afterward Lan Xichen would have returned to the Cloud Recesses on his own, anyway. Jin Guangyao's spiritual energy may have stabilized, but it wasn't what it had been, and and it had never been exceptional. He had one arm and no sword. He couldn't rescue Lan Xichen even if he wanted to. He really had no choice but to continue on by himself.
He made it several li east of Wusheng, staying off the main paths and carefully avoiding the watchtowers, before he decided he couldn't bear it. He'd done many terrible things in his lifetime, but somehow leaving Lan Xichen in prison was too much.
Almost as soon as he'd decided, he changed his mind again. Yes, Lan Xichen was in prison, but it wasn't like he was going to die there; the Lan Sect would start a war, wouldn't they? There was no way Lan Wangji or Lan Qiren would just accept that. The Zou Sect wasn't big enough to hold its own against the Lan Sect; they must know they were courting death if anything happened. They wouldn't do anything to Lan Xichen.
But then he heard Lan Xichen's voice in his head, from their conversation just after he'd woken up: I needed the reminder that you aren't who I thought you were.
Jin Guangyao did want to live up to Lan Xichen's ideal of him. It hadn't ever seemed feasible, not with the threat of ruin hanging over him. Now, he was already ruined; he had nothing left to lose, except his life. He didn't want to lose that, either, even though right now the future looked pretty bleak, but... at his lowest point, Lan Xichen had been there for him. Was it even worth living with himself if he didn't at least try to return the favor?
He turned back toward Wusheng.
The Zou Sect's headquarters turned out to be a comparatively small compound within the city. It was a heavy trade city, which meant there were frequently strangers coming through; that worked in his favor. At least in the city, he might go unnoticed.
Getting into the complex, however, was going to be a problem. He certainly didn't have the strength to fight his way through the entire sect. He could get one of the cultivators' robes, but it wouldn't hold up to more than the faintest scrutiny, not with an arm missing and the Zou Sect on the lookout for a one-armed man. It was still the start of a plan, but he needed something more.
By late evening, after several hours of careful reconnaissance, he'd learned a bit more about the sect, although nothing about Lan Xichen's whereabouts. He'd seen the disciples come and go from the gate; there were guards posted, but they didn't pay much attention to anyone wearing the Zou robes. A group of junior disciples left, laughing and talking among themselves, and from their conversation he determined that they were going out for a night-hunt and expected to be back by morning. If they were as garrulous on the way back as they were on the way out, he might be able to trail in behind them through the Zou compound gate. He would need to get one of the night sky robes before they returned.
He'd like to get one without killing anyone; killing was messy and drew unneeded attention. Since the city was built around the Zou Sect's compound, the cultivators might use the tailoring services in town to have their robes mended; it was worth a look, if he could do it without exposing himself.
The closest tailor to the complex was closed for the night, of course. It didn't look like the owner lived in the shop, which was a stroke of good luck. The lock on the door wasn't anything special, and now that he was mostly healed, it was easy enough for Jin Guangyao to use his spiritual energy to unlock it. He closed the door quietly behind him after entering.
It was entirely dark but for a sliver of moonlight coming in from the window, but he could make out the shape of a compact table facing the door, and a wardrobe in the back corner. There was a small stack of something soft-edged on the table, and when he approached he found a neat pile of clothes, probably the ones that had been finished but not yet picked up by their owners. He took the whole stack to the brightest spot in the room and sifted through it, but no embroidered field of stars jumped out at him.
The wardrobe, then, maybe. He opened the doors in the top half and found more piles. There were name tags facing outward on each item, which wasn't necessarily helpful; only the Zou clan members would have that name, and he didn't want to try to pass as a clan member. An outer disciple's robes would be more discreet; not everyone would expect to know every outer disciple.
He sighed inwardly and started with the pile on the right.
In the middle of the second pile, he finally found one Zou robe. He unfolded it and held it up. It was long enough that he would trip over it if he tried to use it without hemming it. The sleeves were too long, as well, but just by a hand's length, and he only needed to do one arm. The other... he considered pinning it up to the robe, but stuffing it might look more natural.
He needed more light than the bit that was available in the room gave him, anyway, so he took both that robe and another random piece from the wardrobe and put the others back neatly, and then let himself out. He found a place with some lantern light near enough the main road that he could hear anyone coming, but still out of sight of those along the road.
He'd had some practice sewing one-handed while mending Lan Xichen's slashed robes, which made the process easier than it might otherwise have been. There was limited time before the disciples returned, and rushing made this far from his best work, but it only had to hold up for a night and keep him from tripping. He rolled up the other clothes and stitched them into the left arm to give it some bulk.
Once he was done, he tried on the robe. It wasn't a perfect fit, but it would do. He had no sword, but he couldn't risk leaving the area to track one down if he wanted to make sure he was present when the junior disciples returned. He would have to find one once he was inside.
It took another few hours of lurking in the shadows before the group returned. Based on how loud they were, the night-hunt had been a success. They were passing a jug of alcohol between them, and it seemed like they'd already been partaking for some time. That made Jin Guangyao's task even easier. He slipped behind them, unnoticed in the commotion, and trailed them into the compound. The guards outside didn't even give him a second glance.
Once in the courtyard, he moved away from them and into the shadows.
Besides the rowdy juniors, most of the rest of the compound seemed to be asleep. It wasn't hard to keep out of the moon and lamplight and stay in the deeper shadows between the buildings, scouting the area. Rather than a dedicated prison like the larger sects had, it was more likely that the Zou Sect kept a building some distance away from the others that could be used as a prison when needed, and for other purposes when it was not. One building stood out to Jin Guangyao immediately: it was a smallish building, tucked away in the northwest corner of the compound. There were lamps illuminating the door, and the silhouette of a disciple guarding it was visible in front of them. It either held something valuable, or a prisoner, and Jin Guangyao was willing to bet on the latter.
The guard couldn't be the only one watching him, though, right? He felt a surge of fear rush through him, wondering if this whole thing had been a trap, if they would get him while he was trying to free Lan Xichen. Everything had gone smoothly so far, but maybe that was just to make him lower his guard.
The sky was just beginning to lighten in the east, and his disguise wouldn't hold up in the daytime. If it was really a trap, he would need to retreat and figure out another plan. He was already at a significant disadvantage here, and only the element of surprise was on his side. If he didn't even have that, there was no point in continuing.
Indecision made him freeze for a few seconds, hidden between two buildings, but he shook it off. If they had wanted to lure him here, the guards could have grabbed him on the way in, and there would be more people awake and watching. He took a deep breath and continued out past the main cluster of buildings, staying in the shadows as much as he could and keeping his footsteps quiet. As he neared the back of what he expected was the prison building, he made sure to stay clear of the front entrance with the lanterns and the guard.
There was no rear entrance, and the windows were covered with wood lattice, impossible to get through without drawing attention to himself. The interior was dimly lit, but through the lattice he saw Lan Xichen, deity-binding rope keeping him bound to a chair across his chest and at his ankles. His arms were twisted behind his back in such a way that Jin Guangyao suspected they were bound at the wrists, as well. Apparently the Zou Sect didn't want to take any chances that Lan Xichen would find a way to escape, but it seemed excessive. Lan Xichen had cooperated enough to get here with them, surely they didn't need three sets of ropes! But in the light he could half make out the shadows of bruises on his face, and his clothes more torn than this morning, so perhaps he hadn't been as cooperative as it had seemed? His eyes were closed, either sleeping or meditating.
Along the wall across from where Lan Xichen was bound there was a table flanked with bookshelves, and a guard sitting at it with a book, paying little attention to Lan Xichen. Shuoyue was propped up against the wall nearest the door.
Just two guards total, then, and surprise on his side. He quickly formulated a plan, and then put it into action.
He chose the time-honored technique of distracting the guard with misdirected sound: he threw a rock into the shrubs a few feet from the door, and, as expected, the guard outside took a few steps to investigate, his hand on his sword. Jin Guangyao approached from behind him at that moment, slamming his head into the ground with his good arm. His skull cracked loudly, and before the sound could draw the attention of the man inside, Jin Guangyao drew the first man's sword and slid the door to the prison open.
The inside guard had tossed his book on the table and nearly drawn his weapon when Jin Guangyao entered, but from the expression on his face, he hadn't actually expected that the noise he'd heard was something to worry about. Jin Guangyao stabbed him in the chest before he could react, and then cut off the resulting scream by slashing his throat. He grabbed Shuoyue from the corner.
"Er-ge," Jin Guangyao said, turning to Lan Xichen. Lan Xichen looked startled and more disheveled than he had seemed from the window. There was definitely bruising on his face; it seemed the Zou Sect hadn't cared much about his position, after all.
Jin Guangyao used Shuoyue to cut through the bindings and free Lan Xichen. The Zou Sect had tied him tighter than strictly necessary; his wrists were raw, and when they were freed Lan Xichen opened and closed his hands a few times to work the blood back into them. Once he was standing, Jin Guangyao handed Shuoyue back to him, sheathed. "They'll have heard this one's scream," Jin Guangyao said, gesturing to the dead man on the floor. "We need to leave."
"Yes, of course," Lan Xichen said, still wearing that stunned expression. They stepped out of the building, and once again Lan Xichen and Shuoyue took them into the sky. Below them, Jin Guangyao saw a few dark-clad figures emerging from other places in the complex, before they were hidden by clouds.
"There's no point in the slow path now," Lan Xichen said, his voice barely audible above the wind rushing by. "They'll be at every port within a week's journey before tomorrow. We may as well get to Yongjia and try to stay hidden until the next ship leaves."
Yongjia was to the southeast of Wusheng; it wasn't the closest port to the city, and they both hoped that would delay the arrival of any Zou disciples who might guess at where they were headed.
As the sky continued to brighten before them, they came over the mountains surrounding the port and saw the glimmering sea beyond it. Lan Xichen flew lower as they neared, and he landed them as close to town as they could land without drawing the attention of those on the ground.
The city wasn't yet on alert, and they were able to enter without any issues, especially given the Zou robes that Jin Guangyao was still wearing. They made it to dock and found the ticket purchase office, where they learned that it would be another two days before the next ship to Dongying would depart. Lan Xichen bought the ticket for him, and they cautiously searched out an inn that was low profile, near the docks, and had an alternate exit out the back.
Once they were in the room, Jin Guangyao let out a long, quiet sigh, sinking down onto one of the pillows next to the tea table. They weren't safe, not by a long shot, and as the ship's departure grew nearer, the chances the Zou Sect would realize they weren't at the port further north and would start looking in other towns would increase.
"I haven't thanked you for breaking me out of the Zou Sect's custody," Lan Xichen said, heating a pot of tea on the brazier between them. His tone was difficult to read, even for one as experienced as reading it as Jin Guangyao was. "Thank you. It would have been safer for you to continue without me, but you didn't."
"It was the least I could do for you," Jin Guangyao said. "I hated the thought of you in prison." He looked down at his sleeves. "I hate the idea of you in seclusion, as well," he admitted. When he looked up again, Lan Xichen's expression had a soft edge to it.
"It's for the best," he said. "The sect needs someone less likely to compromise on what's right for the sake of harmony, and I'm not yet that person. I might never be that person."
"The Lan Sect has had more than a decade of peace under your leadership," Jin Guangyao said. "The younger generation hasn't had to go through what we did in the Sunshot Campaign. Isn't that worthwhile? You are too hard on yourself."
"Mm," Lan Xichen said, his expression unreadable.
"Anyway, if your goal is simply to remove yourself from the role, you could come with me." He hoped the waver in his voice wasn't noticeable to Lan Xichen. Lan Xichen had been clear from the start that his plan was just to escort Jin Guangyao to his ship and then go back to the Cloud Recesses. Asking him to leave his family, his sect, was ridiculous, but he couldn't go without at least telling him that he would be welcome to come along.
Lan Xichen looked startled, like he hadn't even considered the possibility. "To Dongying?"
"Yes, of course. I'm not going anywhere else," Jin Guangyao said with a hint of awkward laughter.
"I'll... I can't do that," Lan Xichen said, but his face showed more longing than Jin Guangyao had ever seen.
It had been a nice fantasy, but he'd known when he offered that Lan Xichen wouldn't agree. It was enough that he clearly wanted to; it would have to be.
"What will you do when you get to Dongying?" Lan Xichen asked the next morning. They were out for an early morning walk through town, enjoying the sights of shops opening and the fishermen setting out for the day. There was still no sign of the Zou sect in town.
"I have an acquaintance there who is expecting me for a visit," Jin Guangyao said. "But I don't think he'll be as eager to help as he was before all this."
"Not especially. A business associate. We sometimes trade rare goods. I had planned to bring a gift to help improve his generosity, but...." He held out his arm in a shrug. "I'm no longer in a position to bring him anything of interest."
Lan Xichen looked thoughtful for a moment. "Perhaps we could find something in town."
Jin Guangyao shook his head, smiling. "Er-ge, you've done more than I could possibly ask for. Please don't trouble yourself."
"I hate to think of you alone in strange lands," Lan Xichen admitted, "without any money to help you get by, and your arm—"
"The arm will be an obstacle, yes," Jin Guangyao said, "but I've been in strange lands without money before. I'm nothing if not a survivor." At Lan Xichen's troubled look, Jin Guangyao reached out and clasped his shoulder. "You will have your own troubles to worry about," he said. "You don't need to borrow mine."
It was moments like these that he would miss the most. He'd never doubted Lan Xichen's affection, even when he'd had to keep things from him. Lan Xichen had liked him when he was nobody, had never wanted anything from him but his company. He'd treated him as an equal long before they were anything like equals.
Jin Guangyao had been attracted to him since they'd first met, but had pushed the feeling down as far as he could. He knew how precarious his standing was; he couldn't afford any scandal or every tiny bit of status he'd clawed his way into would be gone in an instant. These past weeks had brought a lot up to the surface that he'd avoided thinking about for years.
He had to make it just another day, and then he could look on these last few decades with affection and a little wistfulness, the warmth of Lan Xichen's friendship overlaying the worn fabric of his life.
As Lan Xichen pinned his hair up for the last time, Jin Guangyao found his throat closing up unpleasantly at the reminder that he would soon be entirely on his own. He had had few people he could truly call friends in his life, and now, with Qin Su and Su She dead and Lan Xichen going back to the Cloud Recesses to remain in seclusion for the foreseeable future, Jin Guangyao felt lonely in a way he hadn't felt in a very long time. He would survive; he had done this before, clawed his way up from nothing, with no one on his side. But now that he'd seen the other side of it, he didn't want to go back. It was lonelier at the bottom of the tower than it was at the top.
He took a few deep breaths and had resolved his expression by the time Lan Xichen had finished, enough to give him a genuine, if slightly pained, smile as they prepared to leave the inn.
The window from their room looked out onto an alley from which they could vaguely see the main road. Jin Guangyao saw a group of Zou disciples pass, the first he had seen since their arrival, and then another going the other way a few minutes later. Hopefully that wasn't an indicator that they were all over town. Jin Guangyao was glad they hadn't yet started searching inns.
"Shall we?" he said, with more confidence than he felt, and the two of them left through the usual entrance, like they were normal guests with nothing to hide. They conversed about mundane topics as they walked toward the dock—the price of fruit had gone up, the weather was unseasonably warm, etc.—while they both kept an eye out for the Zou Sect's night sky robes. It reminded Jin Guangyao, again, of their time spent hiding Lan Xichen from the Wen Sect, although this time it was both of them who were being sought, which meant double the chance for them to be recognized.
Still, not every disciple would be able to recognize either of them on sight, much less without the accessories of their offices. Without the vermillion mark and the hat, Jin Guangyao was barely recognizable to most people, and without his forehead ribbon, Lan Xichen, too, was hardly remarkable but for his looks.
As they emerged from the city into the bustling dockyard, the ship loomed tall above them, its two masts rising well above the average building in town. Jin Guangyao tugged Lan Xichen into a shadowed corner of a building at one end of the yard, where he could see the line of people handing tickets over to a man on the gangway, and he took a deep breath. A wave of emotion welled up into his eyes, and he looked up at Lan Xichen, who was looking back at him, opening his mouth to say something. Jin Guangyao was certain, suddenly, that he didn't want to hear whatever it was, whatever pitying words Lan Xichen had to give him—instead, he would do the one thing he'd always stopped himself from doing, and leave Lan Xichen speechless in the process.
He placed his hand on the back of Lan Xichen's neck and pulled him into a kiss.
It wasn't graceful; Lan Xichen wasn't expecting it, for one thing, and stiffened, startled, beneath him—but then he relaxed, and his arms came up behind Jin Guangyao's back to pull him closer. Jin Guangyao squeezed his eyes closed to keep his tears back. Had he done the wrong thing, all those years ago? Would they have had a chance at happiness, if he'd done this instead of looking for his father's approval?
A familiar voice came from a few feet behind him, quiet and yet wholly audible even amid the din of the dock. Jin Guangyao broke apart from Lan Xichen and turned to look at the speaker. It was Lan Wangji, with his laughing shadow, Wei Wuxian, a step behind him.
"Wangji," Lan Xichen said, his voice surprisingly even given what must have been two shocks in a row. He took a step in front of Jin Guangyao, putting his hand out to guard him.
"What are you doing?"
"Of all people, you should understand what I'm doing," Lan Xichen said, shifting his gaze significantly over to Wei Wuxian.
"Jin Guangyao is not Wei Wuxian," Lan Wangji replied, with a sharp look in Jin Guangyao's direction. Jin Guangyao stayed quiet; this wasn't his battle. He wouldn't lay a hand on Lan Wangji, not if he ever wanted Lan Xichen to think of him fondly again.
"No, he isn't," Lan Xichen agreed. "But it doesn't matter." He reached into his sleeve and pulled his headband out from where he'd kept it safely hidden these past weeks, and held it out to his brother. Jin Guangyao stared at it, uncomprehending. "I won't betray the Lan family name, but this is something I need to do."
"Zewu-jun—" Jin Guangyao started, just as Wei Wuxian started saying the same thing.
"Zewu-jun, have you thought this through all the way?" Wei Wuxian asked. "There's no coming back from this."
"I know. I've thought of little else since the temple. Please, Wangji," he said, looking back at Lan Wangji. "All you have to do is let us go. We'll get on the ship and you'll never see either one of us again."
Jin Guangyao stilled in shock. "Er-ge, you don't have a ticket," he said stupidly, his heart racing in his chest.
"Yes, I do," Lan Xichen replied, looking back at him with a smile. "I bought it last night, when I went out to buy food. I was just about to tell you."
"Brother!" Lan Wangji said, fury or some other emotion making his eyes red. "He doesn't care about you."
"I care about him more than anyone else alive," Jin Guangyao said, unwilling to let that particular slander stand uncontested.
"You're also a skilled liar," Wei Wuxian said. "We're supposed to believe you just because you say it?"
"You don't have to believe anything," Jin Guangyao said. "But I hope Er-ge can believe me, about that at least," he said, looking back up to Lan Xichen, hoping with all his heart that everything they'd been through on this journey had been enough to build up some small measure of trust between them.
"I want to believe you," Lan Xichen said, smiling like it hurt him to do so. "I believe that who I know you to be is a true part of you, and not a deception. I believe enough to come with you."
Lan Wangji was still staring at his brother like he was hoping simply staring might bore some sense into him, but eventually he took a step forward and closed Lan Xichen's hand around his ribbon.
"You are still family," he said, and backed away before bowing toward his brother. "Be safe, brother." He didn't bother looking at Jin Guangyao, but stepped to the side to allow them room to move toward the boarding ramp.
Lan Xichen bowed in return, tears in his eyes. "Thank you, Wangji."
"You'd better write," Wei Wuxian said. "Or I'll personally track you down and make sure you're safe." He gave a sidelong glance to Jin Guangyao, but there wasn't any particular malice in his gaze, just wariness.
Once upon a time, Jin Guangyao had used Wei Wuxian to help destroy his brother, had used his downfall to cover his own rise. More recently, Wei Wuxian had been an instrument of his undoing. As far as he was concerned, they were even. He was glad Wei Wuxian seemed to feel the same. He wasn't an enemy Jin Guangyao wanted to have, even safely across the sea.
"I will write," Lan Xichen said, coming out of his bow with a sniffle. "I promise." He turned to Jin Guangyao and ushered him ahead. "A-Yao."
Jin Guangyao stepped forward, feeling the weight of Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian's stares behind them as they approached the boarding ramp. Jin Guangyao pulled out his ticket and gave it to the man there, and Lan Xichen pulled out a matching one and did the same.
Jin Guangyao felt a kind of unreality set in as they walked up the ramp together. He was several weeks later than he'd planned; he had no luggage with him but the clothes on his back and what little he'd picked up along the journey—but Lan Xichen was at his side, and somehow he felt more hopeful about his future now than he had mere hours ago, pondering what his life on the other side of the sea would look like.
They stayed below deck until the ship departed, and then went back up to watch the coastline as it fell away. Jin Guangyao looked over at Lan Xichen, who had tears in his eyes again, and he reached for his hand to give it a reassuring squeeze, hoping it was welcome. They hadn't talked about any of this—not their relationship, not Lan Xichen's joining him, not anything about what they were going to do once they got to Dongying, but when Lan Xichen looked back at him and smiled through his tears, Jin Guangyao thought that everything might just work out, after all.