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firefly hour

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At midday, as guests begin to filter in for yet another banquet, the fine fabrics and burnished metals give Koi Tower the impression of being draped in liquid gold. At sunset, the impression is only heightened by the deep orange glow that blazes across the horizon. And then, at a late enough hour that the temperature has noticeably dropped and the only light now comes from lanterns, candles, and a few well-placed braziers, Jin Guangyao finally, finally manages to steal a few moments for himself.

The actual meal had been served seated, of course, but the socializing—oh, the socializing—well, that was done standing up, milling and mingling, and his feet feel as if someone has been driving nails into them, vertically up into the bones of his heels with a hammer, bang bang, and the twin places where his jaw connects to his skull feel as if someone has been using the joints as a mortar and pestle, and neither of those two pains even begins to compare to the ache in his arm, where the flesh has barely even begun knitting itself back together after being slashed apart by Baxia’s blade.

He doesn’t need to check to know that the wound has reopened under the bandages. He also doesn’t need to check to know that the blood has not seeped through to stain his fine new clothes—he has more confidence in his skills than that.

He’s at one end of a long corridor, close enough to hear if something goes wrong and someone starts raising their voice in the banquet hall but not close enough to make out any of the conversations that are being held at a normal volume. It’s his favorite of all the myriad corridors he’s mapped so far in Koi Tower, because it turns sharply at the end into a little alcove but the design of it when viewed from the far end doesn’t obviously indicate that it does so. Perfect for stealing away from the crowd. No one would think to look for him here.

No one should think to look for him here.

There are, however, footsteps approaching. Familiar; light but not at all tentative.

Jin Guangyao hastily tucks the wine jug in between the bench and the wall, where it will be hidden in the shadows, and carefully puts on the appearance of someone who has been thinking about something important, someone who has definitely not been staring at the wall and trying to wash away both his pain and his nervousness.

By the time Lan Xichen steps into view, the mask is firmly in place. Never mind that Jin Guangyao knows that this is the one person with whom the mask might actually be unnecessary; it’s habit, at this point. He wonders if he’ll ever be able to train himself out of it. He wonders if he’ll ever seriously try.

He starts to get up from the bench, planning to try to bow although he knows Lan Xichen will stop him, but Lan Xichen doesn’t even let him get that far—he places a steady hand on Jin Guangyao’s shoulder, the uninjured one, and pushes him back down into his seat.

Jin Guangyao does not let any part of his body or his face give away how impossibly good it feels to be touched by someone who he is absolutely certain does not want him dead.

“Rest, A-Yao, please,” Lan Xichen says, smiling gently. He lifts his hand, only once he’s convinced that Jin Guangyao won’t try to scramble to his feet. “How is your arm?”

“It’s fine,” Jin Guangyao says evenly. Is it a lie if he says it knowing full well that Lan Xichen will see through it?

“Is it?” Lan Xichen asks. He sits down next to Jin Guangyao on the bench and holds out one hand, palm-up, expectantly.

“Yes, it’s nothing,” Jin Guangyao says, but when he lifts his arm to place his wrist in Lan Xichen’s hand, he lets himself wince and exhale sharply in pain.

Lan Xichen gives him a concerned look, but not a surprised one.

It’s nothing is, perhaps not coincidentally, what Lan Xichen had said just before Jin Guangyao had peeled the hastily applied bandages back from his chest in a drafty room at an inn in Yunping. The words had come out strangely at the time because one of the things that was wrong under those bandages—not that you could tell just from looking, given how the dried blood was covering up the full extent of the bruising—was a partially collapsed lung.

He’s healed wonderfully, of course. High cultivation level, and all that—one of the few people whom Jin Guangyao is completely incapable of resenting for it—plus, it’s been years since then. Years, and they’ve made so many other, better memories together in the intervening span of time.

So why is it that here, now, in a relatively safe and absurdly luxurious home, having finally obtained what he worked so hard to achieve, Jin Guangyao is suddenly drowning in a peculiar longing to be back in that room? He’s never been a man who craves familiarity or repetition, but the old memory calls to him. Putting his hands on Lan Xichen’s bare shoulders, early enough in their acquaintance that he hadn’t yet had the heart to dissuade Lan Xichen of the notion that he’d successfully disguised his identity. The first of the many intimacies they’ve shared.

There might be something monstrous about treasuring those old cracked-soil memories more than the rich and fertile present. Then again, some things grow best in a desert. Some things grow best on the sheer face of a cliff. The people he knows how to be to Lan Xichen are thus: a kind stranger, a Nie deputy, a ruthless informant behind enemy lines. He has precious little experience existing in Lan Xichen’s orbit as a recognized son of the Jin family, and even less—although not by much—as his sworn younger brother.

Then again, he’s always adapted well to change.

And—yes, he thinks, smiling to himself despite the pain as Lan Xichen carefully pushes the hem of his sleeve up to inspect the bandages, he could perhaps learn to feel at home in this role too.