Sizhui has never been so grateful to hear the sound of Hanguang-jun’s guqin in his life than here in Mo Village.
“Hanguang-jun!” the voices of his fellow disciples echo around him. In front of him, the corpses jerk to a stop, and Sizhui feels himself start to relax. Still, he dutifully remains in place with his sword at the ready. A second note echoes from his father’s guqin sounds and the corpses stagger away. Sizhui hears the sound of their brains exploding and watches as the arm falls to the ground.
Around him, the disciples are cheering, and it matches the roar of the blood in his ears. All Sizhui can think is ‘thank god it’s over’. He turns and bows a greeting to his father. Most of the boys are still cheering, but Sizhui looks around. This isn’t over yet. They will still have to bury the bodies and-
“Sizhui!” Jingyi’s voice is definitely loud enough to be considered a shout. Sizhui’s heart jerks in fear before he registers the relief in Jingyi’s voice. But when he spins around, there are no new threats to face, only Jingyi rushing towards him with relief written across his handsome face. A moment later, he’s being swept up off his feet into a bone-crushing hug. He can’t stop the surprised squeak that turns into a grunt as all the air is forced out of his lungs.
“Jingyi,” he says weakly as he wraps his arms around his friend to return his hug. His face flushes with embarrassment and he ducks his head against his friend’s shoulder. Still, warmth floods through him, replacing the desperate adrenaline that had been fueling him. The tension floods out of his body, and he sags even more into his friend’s embrace. Jingyi’s strong arms enclose him, and Jingyi’s warm body is pressed against his. The smell of pine and bergamot fills his nose, and he feels safe.
Sizhui wants to melt into the embrace and let Jingyi carry his weight, but he shouldn’t. Finally, Jingly lowers him down so that he can stand on his own two feet, but he doesn’t let go. Sizhui is glad for the moment to fight back the blush on his face.
“I thought we were going to die,” Jingyi says and his voice is uncharacteristically quiet. He can feel the rapid pace of Jingyi’s heart where their chests are pressed together. Sizhui squeezes him hard.
“Me too,” he says. There are more words at the tip of his tongue. Things like ‘I don’t want to lose you’. But he swallows them down. He hopes that Jingyi can feel the frantic pace of his heart and understand that Sizhui was scared too.
“I’m glad you're okay,” Jingyi says, and he finally lets Sizhui go. Sizhui immediately misses the warmth of his embrace but drops his arms and steps away. Jingyi’s cheeks are a bit pink, and he looks almost embarrassed.
“I'm glad you're okay too,” Sizhui says. For a long second, they just stare at each other.
“Lan Sizhui, Lan Jingyi,” Hanguang-Jun’s voice interrupts their awkward silence, and they both spin around to face him. Sizhui feels his cheeks growing warm again.
“Hanguang-jun,” they greet him. In unison, Sizhui and Jingyi raise their hands to salute Hanguang-jun. Sizhui is grateful for the excuse to avoid his father’s gaze as he bows his head. He has collected himself by the time he meets his father’s amber gaze. Hanguang-jun has the exact same flat expression as always, but there is something in his eyes that Sizhui thinks might be worry. Guilt fills him.
“These disciples apologize for our failure,” Sizhui says, bowing again. Jingyi makes a sound of protest, but Sizhui talks right over him. “And we thank you for coming to our aid.”
There is softness in Hanguang-jun’s eyes, but Sizhui is probably the only one present who can see it. “Do not apologize. The arm has great resentment. You did well.”
Sizhui’s face is burning again. He bows if only to shield his face. As he straightens, his father has already begun to turn away from him and back to the chaos at hand. Sizhui himself looks around to start and make a list of what should be done so he can assist when he notices that the young master Mo has vanished.
He tugs on Jingyi’s sleeve, “Where is he?”
“Who? Which one?”
“Young Master Mo,” Sizhui says.
Jingyi gives him a confused look. “Hmm? Why are you looking for that lunatic? Who knows where he ran off to. He’s probably frightened by my threats to hit him.”
Sizhui doesn’t respond to the question, instead he motions for them to go back to the group and help Hanguang-jun. Jingyi will insist that Sizhui is overthinking things and perhaps he is, but he’ll give Hanguang-jun the information anyway.
It’s still odd to be night hunting with Jin Ling, Ouyang Zizhen, and the others. It’s not that Sizhui doesn’t like them; it’s just different. The members from other sects fight differently than the Lans do. They are louder, and in the evenings they even eat and drink more. A few of the Lan disciples seem inclined to join them. Sizhui does his best impression of Hanguang-jun to put them off of it, but he has no real power to stop them.
They’ve been chasing incidents of violence against cats ever since both he and Jin Ling found dead cats outside their rooms on several occasions. Today though, they had been approached by some townspeople before they left their inn in the morning. The villagers said there was a ghost in the woods that was kidnapping travelers and begged the cultivators for help. Sizhui had automatically agreed to help because his father would have. Jin Ling had frowned at him but hadn’t rejected the idea.
“What gives you the right to speak for all of us?” Jin Ling demands once they are outside of the city. “We are in the middle of the investigation.”
“You-” Jingyi interjects with a scowl on his face, but Sizhui cuts him off with a hand on his arm. Sizhui’s voice is calm as he replies to Jin Ling.
“These people have no protection against whatever is in the woods. We should help them. You can keep going if you don’t want to help. Jingyi and I will search for the beast.”
Jin Ling frowns at him. “Let’s go then,” he finally says and turns in the direction of the woods. They decide to split up into pairs and search. Mostly they break into groups along sect lines, but Ouyang Zizhen rushes after Jin Ling, and the rather flighty Lan Yexuan looks after him with a small frown before making a beeline for another disciple from Baling Ouyang Sect. Jingyi falls into stride beside him as Sizhui reminds the rapidly scattering Lan disciples to check their signal flares and use them if needed. When Sizhui moves into the woods, it’s with Jingyi at his side.
It was nice. He’s been night hunting with Jingyi since they were old enough to go on hunts. Moving with him through the night is familiar and comforting, and he much prefers it to night hunts with all the disciples crowded together. He sighs.
“What is it?” Jingyi asks him.
“It’s nice to have a moment,” Sizhui tells him as they walk. “It’s not that I don’t like the other disciples. But it’s a lot.”
Jingyi gives him a sympathetic smile. Jingyi has never had problems with crowds of people like Sizhui does, but he’s always been understanding.
They continue to make their way through the woods with swords partway out of their sheaths. The woods around them grow unnaturally silent, and he exchanges a glance with Jingyi, who nods. Something is strange here. Sizhui puts his hand on his sword as he slowly moves forward. Jingyi moves closer to him in case something tries to separate them in the dark. There’s a rustling sound akin to leaves in the wind, and Sizhui turns towards it, but he’s not fast enough. Something grabs his leg and jerks. He cries out as pain blooms and he stumbles. It’s too dark for him to see anything, but he swings his sword at the place just beyond his foot as he falls to the ground.
There’s a flash of light that blinds him for an instant, but then he can see. A golden light talisman is burning above him. He looks down and sees a vine wrapped around his ankle.
“Tree demon,” he calls out as Jingyi races past him with his sword out. Sizhui tries to push himself up, but his ankle won’t take his weight. So he pulls out his guqin instead before crossing his legs despite the pain. He focuses on the Sound of Vanquishing . In the light of the talisman, he can now clearly see the writhing tree demon. Jingyi is fighting in a white and blue blur of boy and steel that Sizhui wishes he had time to admire.
Sizhui tears his gaze away and focuses his energy. Jingyi is in danger and so is he. In a single practiced move, he strums the guqin. The chord echoes into the trees somehow carrying the sound of frigid mountain wind. The tree-demon fighting Jingyi starts to writhe. Before Sizhui can gather himself to attack again, it falls limp, and vines and branches crash to the ground. Jingyi turns to him with a grin already spreading across his face.
“That was great, Sizhui!” He sheathes his sword in a single elegant motion. “You’re going to be as good as Hanguang-jun soon.”
Sizhui blushes and changes the subject.
“Do you think there are more?” Sizhui asks. The normal sounds of the forest have returned around them. Still, he doubts that one tree demon is the cause of several missing people unless the demon inhabited more than one tree.
As Jingyi moves towards him, Sizhui stores his guqin in his qiankun pouch. Jingyi offers him a hand up, and Sizhui takes it. He grits his teeth as he stands and puts weight on his bad leg. Jingyi notices immediately.
‘What’s wrong?” The grin is immediately replaced by concern.
“The vine got my ankle,” Sizhui explains. He’s leaning hard on Jingyi despite himself. Sizhui frowns and focuses his energy towards healing the wound.
“Here,” Jingyi says, lowering Sizhui back to the ground. “Let me look at it.”
“It’s fine,” Sizhui protests, but Jingyi is already kneeling in front of him. He gently removes Sizhui’s boot. He raises two fingers to Sizhui’s ankle which is already starting to bruise and swell. A stream of energy runs from his hands to the wound and cool relief spreads up Sizhui’s leg. Above them, the light talisman burns out leaving the scene to be painted in the blue color of Jingyi’s spiritual energy.
“It’s not broken,” Jingyi says, and Sizhui nods in agreement. More healing energy flows from Jingyi’s hand into his leg, and it takes the aching edge off the pain, but the ankle probably still won’t take his weight
“Save your energy,” Sizhui says and places his hand on Jingyi’s. “There might be more tree demons. Just help me up. I’ll have to lean on you a bit.”
“I’ll carry you,” Jingyi says with a dismissive wave of his hand. He’s moving before he finishes his sentence.
“What?” Sizhui’s voice shoots up at the end as Jingyi puts an arm under his knees and one at his back and lifts him off the ground. “You don’t have to do this!”
Sizhui’s heart jumps into his throat. Jingyi is so strong, of course Sizhui knows this. He’s sparred against Jingyi enough times to feel the strength in his swings, and he’s watched his effortless handstands. There are even accidental glimpses of his bare upper body in the cold spring burned into Sizhui’s mind. But it hadn’t occurred to him that Jingyi could do something like this. He knows he’s never going to get it out of his head now. He can feel his cheeks burning and studiously does not look up at Jingyi’s face.
“No,” Jingyi agrees as he starts to walk back towards the road. “But walking will only make your leg worse.”
“But what if there’s another tree demon. You need to fight.” Despite his protests, Sizhui is already relaxing into Jingyi’s embrace. He feels safe cradled against Jingyi’s chest. It’s so nice.
Jingyi smiles at him. There’s the shwing sound of a sword leaving its sheath as Jingyi draws his sword without touching it. Sizhui smiles; Jingyi really has improved his sword cultivation recently.
Still, he continues his argument. “This is embarrassing.”
“It can’t be embarrassing. No one else can see us.”
Sizhui sighs. Jingyi is stubborn, and if he’s set on carrying Sizhui, then Sizhui may as well be arguing with a stone. Besides, he doesn’t really want Jingyi to put him down. It’s hard for him to think about anything other than the warmth of Jingyi’s body or the way he’s being effortlessly supported. Sizhui focuses on channeling healing energy down to his ankle because if he focuses on the press of Jingyi’s body against his, his imagination might run away with him. He can’t lie to himself about the warmth spreading through him or the traitorous part of his brain cataloging every inch of his body that is touching Jingyi’s. But now is really not the time for those thoughts.
So Sizhui keeps his attention on his ankle. Occasionally he glances up at Jingyi as they walk. Even as time wears on, Jingyi shows no sign of strain or fatigue. He spares a second to be impressed by his stamina before he has to very quickly shove that thought away. He’s deeply grateful for the shadow of the night that keeps his blush hidden. He’s not sure how long it is before they begin to hear the sounds of other disciples. One of the louder voices is almost certainly Jin Ling.
“Down,” Sizhui hisses as it dawns on him the picture the two of them must paint. “Put me down.”
“Worried about what young mistress Jin is going to think about you?” There’s an edge to Jingyi’s voice that Sizhui doesn’t recognize.
“No,” Sizhui protests. “It’s not him. It’s… We’re almost grown men. I shouldn’t have to be carried around like a maiden.”
Jingyi snorts, but he sets Sizhui back on his feet. He’s careful to support Sizhui’s weight as the boy tries his ankle again. It’s still wobbly.
“Thank you,” Sizhui says. “I should have said that earlier.”
“It’s no problem,” Jingyi says with a smile. He lets Sizhui lean on him as they approach the others to report.
As Sizhui climbs up the mountain road to the Cloud Recesses with Wen Ning by his side, a strange feeling fills him. Maybe it’s because he’s been gone for more than six months; it’s easily the longest he’s been away from the Cloud Recesses since he was brought here by Hanguang-jun all those years ago. Maybe it’s the fact that he feels more connected to his Wen family than he ever has in his life. Whatever it is, there’s an uneasy edge to his feeling of homecoming.
Wen Ning is silent beside him, but he has given Sizhui a few looks that suggest he’s noticed Sizhui’s odd mood. Still, Wen Ning doesn’t push him.
Sizhui pauses when he reaches the wards around the Cloud Recesses. He wears the jade token that will let him in, but suddenly he feels apprehensive as if he might be denied entrance.
After a deep breath, Sizhui steps through the invisible barrier as effortlessly as he always has. It eases his heart a bit, but then he notices that Senior Wen is not walking behind him. He turns back.
“This is where we say farewell, A-Yuan,” Wen Ning says with a smile.
“I’m sure Hanguang-jun would welcome you,” Sizhui protests. “You can stay for a bit.”
“That’s very generous. But, I have my own path to walk from here.” His face is as kind and gentle as always.
“I-” Sizhui pauses. Wen Ning has been his companion all of these months. He’s also the one who brought Sizhui back to the place he had spent his early life and told him about his family. For years, Hanguang-jun and Zewu-jun had been Sizhui’s entire family. Now that Wen Ning, sweet and generous Wen Ning, has become part of his family, he doesn’t want to say goodbye.
Wen Ning seems to understand Sizhui’s silence. He settles a hand on Sizhui’s shoulder. “I’m not going away forever. I’ll come back if you ever need me.”
Sizhui bows his head to collect himself. He grips his sword in its sheath and bows to Wen Ning who immediately looks embarrassed.
“Goodbye Senior Wen. Thank you. May you be well and safe.”
Wen Ning returns his salute before turning away and heading back down the mountain. For a long moment, Sizhui stands completely still and alone. He turns to look at the Wall of Rules. His eyes scan the rules that are as familiar to him as his own name; the familiarity settle him.
There’s a sound coming from up the mountain, and Sizhui turns to face it. He recognizes the sound of feet moving along the mountain path. Someone must be coming to greet him. He starts to make his way up the path and towards whoever is approaching. A moment later, Jingyi comes skidding into view, and he’s moving fast enough to be breaking the rule about running. But, Sizhui doesn’t notice.
All of the air in his lungs vanishes as he looks at Jingyi; he looks beautiful. A radiant smile lights up his entire face as he catches sight of Sizhui. He looks taller and broader than Sizhui remembers, but that can’t be because it’s only been six months. Sizhui’s heart jumps into his throat as he watches the other boy rushing towards him. His feelings for Jingyi, which he has been able to push aside while traveling and learning about his family, suddenly reassert themselves violently.
“Sizhui!” Jingyi cries out, and he’s definitely breaking the rule about yelling as well. The sound of his name on Jingyi’s lips jolts Sizhui into action.
“Jingyi!” He’s almost as loud as Jingyi is for once.
He flings his arms open as Jingyi barrels into him hard enough that they almost topple over. Jingyi embraces him, and Sizhui feels his back crack as he’s lifted completely off his feet. Laughing, Sizhui clings to his friend as Jingyi swings him around.
The smell of pine and bergamot fill his nose as he presses his face into Jingyi’s shoulder. He is warm and solid, and any lingering feelings of discomfort evaporate. Jingyi’s arms around him feel like home, and he feels that he’s back where he belongs. As he squeezes his friend tightly, a heavyweight in his heart that he hadn’t even noticed lifts, leaving him light and happy.
“I’m so glad you're back,” Jingyi says as he puts Sizhui back on his own two feet.
Sizhui looks up at Jingyi, who has definitely had a growth spurt while Sizhui was gone. The brilliant happiness on that beautiful face threatens to steal Sizhui’s breath away all over again.
“I missed you too,” Sizhui says and hugs Jingyi again.
Sizhui is sitting next to Jingyi and across from Jin Ling and Zizhen in a small dining room in Koi Tower. The table is full of different dishes, and there’s a jar of wine on the table closer to Jin Ling and Zizhen. Sizhui fills his bowl with both beef and vegetables, enjoying the chance to eat meat. He glances at Jingyi, who has stuffed his entire bowl with chicken, and smiles.
Sizhui drinks his tea and watches the way that Zizhen leans closer and closer to Jin Ling as he drinks more of his wine. His cheeks are pink from the wine, and he’s got a soft smile on his face. It’s true that Zizhen is prone to soft smiles, but this one is special: it’s the one he saves for Jin Ling. Sizhui isn’t listening to the conversation across the table. He’s given up on telling the others not to talk during meals, but that doesn’t mean that he joins in. Still, he notices that Jin Ling’s voice is getting louder and louder.
“You think that he’s better than me,” Jin Ling accuses, poking Zizhen hard in the ribs.
“No, I don’t,” Zizhen argues.
“You said-” Jin Ling’s alcohol flushed face is getting redder and redder.
“I said that he’s stronger than you.”
“He is not!” Jin Ling pushes Zizhen away from him, but there’s not any force behind it.
Sizhui and Jingyi exchange amused glances. It isn’t the first time that Jin Ling gets defensive about his abilities, and Sizhui is sure it won’t be the last.
“It doesn’t matter,” Zizhen says. He’s not smiling at Jin Ling anymore, but his voice is soft. His face is worried, and he reaches out to put a hand on Jin Ling’s shoulder to calm him. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.
“Lan Jingyi is not stronger than me!”
Jingyi laughs, and Jin Ling glares at him. Glancing between the two of them, Sizhui bites his lip. He wants to diffuse the situation, but he doesn’t know how.
He shares a helpless glance with Zizhen as Jingyi pipes up. “Sorry, young mistress, but I’m definitely stronger than you.”
Sizhui closes his eyes for a moment. There’s no stopping this.
“How dare you,” Jin Ling is getting to his feet. The Jin disciples who are sitting at the other tables in the room look over at them. “You all think you’re better than me.”
“No one said that,” Sizhui says in his most soothing voice. “Jingyi’s just boasting. He doesn’t mean to put you down.”
“I’ll prove that I’m stronger than him,” Jin Ling says, causing Sizhui and Zizhen to exchange nervous looks. They both know that Lan Jingyi is going to win this challenge, and Jin Ling probably won’t take it well.
“Alright,” Jingyi says, also getting to his feet. He crosses his arms as he faces Jin Ling. The rest of the disciples are watching them now. Bating back a groan, Sizhui glares at Jingyi, who is sober and has no excuse for taking the bait. “How do you want to do this, Young Mistress?”
“They could arm wrestle,” one of the disciples from another table puts in.
“They could lift something,” someone adds.
“I know!” Zizhen says and Sizhui turns his attention back to the table. There is mischief in Zizhen’s eyes, and Sizhui doesn’t like it one bit.
“Well,” Jin Ling demands when Zizhen doesn’t elaborate fast enough.
“You can lift Sizhui!” He says.
Sizhui chokes on his spit for a moment. It takes most of his Lan discipline to bite back a reflexive “what the hell, Zizhen.” Zizhen’s eyes are still glittering with mischief.
“That’s,” Sizhui starts to say ‘that’s not necessary’. But Jin Ling talks right over him.
“Is that all?” Jingyi asks. He turns to Sizhui, who tries to move back, but he’s sitting at the table and only manages to nearly fall over. Jingyi grins at him; it's a familiar grin, and Sizhui’s heart stops for a moment. That smile has gotten Sizhui into trouble more times than he can count, but that he still can’t deny it. He lets Jingyi pull him to his feet. Then Jingyi’s hands are on his waist and hefting him high. Sizhui’s heart is suddenly pounding, and the sound is filling his ears. He can feel his face flushing. When he’s set down, Sizhui immediately turns away so that Jingyi can’t see his blush.
Sizhui turns to look across the table at Jin Ling and Zizhen who looks like he’s barely holding in laughter. Narrowing his eyes, Sizhui looks from Jin Ling to Zizhen.
“Jin Ling,” Sizhui says sounding much calmer than he feels, “why don’t you lift Zizhen. He’s already right next to you.”
Zizhen’s amusement evaporates. He doesn’t even have a moment to back away before Jin Ling is turning to him. Zizhen’s face is flushing scarlet, but Jin Ling is probably too drunk to notice. Jin Ling puts his hands on Zizhen’s waist, and Sizhui thinks that Zizhen might actually put his hands over his face. There’s a moment’s pause, and then Jin Ling lifts Zizhen up and then sets him down. It’s hardly surprising. Jin Ling isn’t weak. He’s trained just as much as the rest of them. Zizhen promptly sits down as if his legs no longer want to hold him up.
“There,” Sizhui says, ready for this to be over. “That’s it. You're both plenty strong.”
For a moment, he thinks that will be the end of it. He even starts to sit down.
“But we don't know who’s stronger!” A disciple says from behind them. Sizhui turns around with his best glare. The disciple isn’t a Lan, but he shrinks back under Sizhui’s glare anyway.
“It doesn’t matter,” his friend says trying to cover for him. But the damage is done.
Jin Ling has his arms crossed, and his face is set in a scowl. “Both of you, then.”
“Both?” Sizhui asks with a weak voice even though he knows what Jin Ling means.
“We’ll lift both of you,” Jin Ling clarifies.
Sizhui closes his eyes. This has to be some kind of nightmare. And if it’s not, he’s going to kill Zizhen tomorrow. He can feel Jingyi standing next to him. Internally, he’s begging Jingyi to back down and to say that this is over. But he knows that he won't.
“Alright,” Jingyi’s voice is even closer than Sizhui expected, and he almost jumps.
“Zizhen,” Jingyi says, “why don’t you come over here?”
Sizhui opens his eyes. There is regret in Zizhen’s eyes; at least Sizhui isn’t alone in his suffering. Sizhui gives him a glare for good measure as he walks around the table.
Sizhui’s distracted when Jingyi puts his hands on his hips. Closing his eyes, he tries to imagine that he’s somewhere else, anywhere else, really. Instead, all he can think about is Jingyi’s hands on his hips, pulling him closer. Sizhui is going to die right here in Koi Tower. Jingyi wraps an arm around his waist, and then he’s lifted into the air in one smooth motion. This time, however, he isn't set down immediately.
Sizhui’s face is burning. Most of his body is pressed flush with Jingyi’s, and a strong arm is holding him close. It feels good, Jingyi holding him. Reminding himself that Jingyi’s only doing this for a dare isn’t helping. He still feels electric everywhere that Jingyi is touching him. Jingyi’s muscles move and flex against his chest as he moves to pick up Zizhen as well. He tries to ignore it, but he can’t. He fists his hands tight to resist the urge to touch Jingyi. Several heartbeats later, Jingyi is putting him back down again.
Sizhui steps away as fast as he can. He needs space and air. Why can’t he breathe properly? He needs to be away from the solid warmth that is Jingyi. Zizhen grabs his sleeve. Sizhui glances at him.
He mouths the words ‘I’m sorry’. Sizhui glares at him, but there’s not a lot of heat behind it; he’s still thinking about Jingyi.
“Your turn,” Jingyi’s voice is smug. Sizhui remembers that this isn’t over. Jin Ling still has to try and lift them. Sizhui makes his way around the table. It’s safer to stand by Jin Ling. Jin Ling doesn’t make his heart pound and his breath catch. A glance shows him that Zizhen is already blushing bright red. Jin Ling copies Jingyi’s method and wraps one arm around Zizhen to heft him. Sizhui hears the surprised squeak that leaves Zizhen’s mouth, and it would be funny if he wasn’t still recovering from Jingyi lifting him. It’s much easier for Sizhui to step forward and let Jin Ling pick him up than it had been with Jingyi. There are no dangerous feelings here. The only danger comes from getting dropped which is drastically less terrifying. Sizhui doesn’t glance behind him at Jingyi; if he had, he might have seen the frown on his face as he watches Jin Ling wrap an arm around Sizhui.
Jin Ling wraps his arm around Sizhui and heaves. His body is trembling slightly, and Sizhui can feel the tension in his muscles as he lifts Zizhen and Sizhui, both of whom are bigger than him. Sizhui feels his feet leave the ground. But Jin Ling is still trembling. He leans back too far with the weight of the two older boys pressing on him. He takes a step back to stabilize himself so that he can put them down, but he’s drunk, and his step isn’t as steady as it should be. Sizhui feels the jerk as Jin Ling loses his balance, and then he’s falling.
There’s a loud thud as all three boys crash to the ground together. Jin Ling coughs as his back hits the ground and then Sizhui and Zizhen crash into him. All of the air flees Sizhui’s lungs as he collides with Jin Ling. He hardly has time to blink before there’s a hand on him, and Jingyi pulls him up and away from the other two.
Sizhui doesn’t miss the glare that Jingyi sends Jin Ling. His hands are on Sizhui’s shoulders.
“Are you alright?” he asks. Sizhui nods. Of course, he’s fine. He glances at the floor where Zizhen and Jin Ling are still halfway in a tangled pile. Zizhen has gone even redder than he was before, which Sizhui wouldn’t have thought was possible. He’s trying to push himself up and scramble away. And Jin Ling is just lying there. But his face has turned almost as red as the vermillion mark on his forehead. For once, he doesn’t look angry. No, his gaze is on Zizhen who is somehow still half on top of him.
Sizhui turns away from them and there’s a tiny smile at the edge of his lips.
“It’s almost nine,” he says even though he has no idea what time it actually is. “We should go to bed.”
Jingyi nods emphatically and follows him out of the room.
Sizhui and Jingyi fly side by side on their swords. They had sighted a Gusu Lan signal flare while night hunting, and they’d immediately gotten on their swords. As they fly, he can’t help but think back to the first time they’d had to use signal flares back at Mo Manor. A shiver that has nothing to do with the cold hair flowing around him goes down his spine.
“What’s wrong?” Jingyi calls over the sound of the wind.
“Just remembering Mo Manor,” Sizhui calls back. Jingyi nods with a small frown.
“It can’t be that bad,” he says. Sizhui silently agrees. “It’s not as if the Yiling Patriarch can come back twice.”
Sizhui laughs, but the wind steals the sound away. As they continue to race forward as fast as their swords will carry them, he feels lighter. Jingyi always has a way of doing that.
They approach the location of the signal flare, and a remote village comes into view. They exchange glances. What are Lan junior cultivators doing out here?
In order to assess the situation, they bring their swords to a halt over the village. It isn’t good. There is a small band of juniors pressed together and surrounded by an entire crowd of corpses. He hasn’t seen this many corpses in one place since the second siege on the Burial Mounds.
“This isn’t good,” Jingyi says, and Sizhui just nods in silent agreement. Even if it looked like it was going to be incredibly dangerous, the two of them must assist the juniors.
Sizhui glances at Jingyi, who looks beautiful standing gracefully on his sword and gilded in moonlight. Sizhui shakes the thought from his head. Now is not the time.
“You should attack from the roof,” Jingyi says. “Use your guqin. Your Sound of Vanquishing should be very effective against such a crowd.”
“Right,” Sizhui agrees. Then he frowns. “You’re planning on diving in there head first, aren’t you?”
Jingyi grins at him.
“I’m best fighting with my sword, and you know it.”
Sizhui frowns because it’s true. Jingyi’s swordsmanship is truly impressive. While it makes the most sense for him to drop down and fight, the idea of Jingyi down there alone is like ice down his spine.
“Jingyi-” Sizhui starts.
Jingyi waves him off. “I’ll be careful,” he promises as he angles his sword down and towards the back of the crowd of corpses. He’s clearly planning to try and draw the corpses’ attention and to split their group. Sizhui frowns even as he aims his sword for the closest rooftop. He wants to fly down with Jingyi and fight by his side. But he knows that Jingyi is right. The best strategy is for him to target as many corpses as he can using his guqin.
Sizhui steps off of his sword and pulls his guqin out in the same motion. His sword sheaths itself as he steadies his hands over the strings. Breathing in and out he draws up his spiritual power and focuses his gaze on the corpses in front of him. He carefully avoids looking at the place where Jingyi is about to start fighting corpses and shoves the worry out of his mind. Years and years of Lan discipline make it easy for him to focus.
With a single, well-practiced motion he strikes the chord for Sound of Vanquishing . The sound hangs in the air unnaturally long. Sizhui watches as several of the corpses fall. Seeing this, he raises his hands to the guqin again. This time he pours more spiritual energy into the attack. The chord that echoes out from the guqin as Sizhui plays is louder than any normal guqin melody. More of the corpses drop, but there are still so many. Sizhui frowns as he raises his hand for another attack. Should he try Rest ? Would he be able to get more of them that way? Be able to slow them down so that the cultivators have a chance?
The Sound of Vanquishing again fills the air even louder than before. Below him, the cultivators seem to have realized that help has arrived and are rallying together. Sizhui can’t resist glancing at Jingyi. Jingyi’s sword dances as he fights and the blue glow of spiritual power leaves trailing lines in Sizhui’s vision.
Tearing his vision away from Jingyi, he turns back to his guqin. He decides to play Rest; he can settle more corpses with Rest than he can kill with the Sound of Vanquishing . Then the cultivators on the ground can make sure they stay down.
Sizhui’s brow furrows slightly as he begins to play and spiritual energy pours out of him and into the song. On the ground, corpses start to stall and sag as he plays, but he stays focused on the strings below his fingers, not allowing his attention to slip for a single moment. As he plays the mass of corpses slowly still and the cultivators that they came to rescue rush forward to put them down while they can. Sizhui sees none of this, all of his focus is on the dance of his fingers over the guqin strings and the energy flowing out of him and into the music.
In his meditative focus, he doesn’t notice that there is someone else on the roof with him. Sizhui has never tried to put this much energy into a single attack, and sweat forms beads on his forehead as he pushes the limit of his strengths. But there are junior cultivators down there counting on the seniors to help them. And Jingyi, Jingyi , is down there.
Sizhui does not hear Jingyi shouting a warning. The only sound in his ears is the song of the guqin. He does, however, feel the sudden sharp pain in his back.
The pain shoots like fire along his nerves and to his brain, and he cries out involuntarily. His hands still on the strings. As he spins around, the wound in his back screams, and his vision goes white. By instinct, he draws his sword, even though his body screams in protest at the pain. His eyes fall on a man standing in front of him. He’s not so much older than Sizhui, maybe in his mid-twenties. But his eyes are dark and cruel.
Demonic Cultivator. The realization hits Sizhui as he tries to swing his sword. But the man is already stabbing at him again with a long, jagged knife. It sinks into Sizhui’s side, and he barely contains a cry of pain.
“You shouldn’t meddle in things that don’t concern you, little Lan,” The man hisses.
Sizhui grits his teeth and doesn’t respond. He forces away the sensation of pain as he gets his sword up to defend himself. The man takes a surprised jump back as Sizhui attacks him, clearly expecting him to be incapacitated. Sizhui uses his spiritual energy to drive his sword and force the man back. It’s easier than forcing his body to move. The dexterity of Sizhui’s sword is certainly less than if he was wielding it in his hand, but he is still able to drive the man back step by step.
The flowing white robes and the silvery shine of moonlight on steel alert Sizhui to Jingyi’s presence as he joins them on the roof. But, the man who attacked him is too busy evading the sword in front of him to realize that someone else has joined the fray. Taking two steps forward, Jingyi runs the man through the back and out through his heart.
The man screams as the sword emerges from his chest. Sizhui summons his sword back to him. Jingyi races over the rooftop towards him, and his face is a mask of worry. Opening his mouth, Sizhui tries to tell Jingyi that he’s okay, but the words don't come out.
The world is getting dark around the edges, and Sizhui stumbles forward, toward Jingyi. As he stumbles, he looks down to catch himself, and he sees the blood on his robes. It is horribly red against the moon-bleached white. Oh.
“Sizhui!” Jingyi is right beside him then. Sizhui focuses his gaze on Jingyi’s face. The rest of the world is getting dark, but Jingyi’s face is pale in the moonlight.
He can feel Jingyi’s hand on his side and the comforting feeling of Jingyi’s spiritual energy flowing into him, healing him.
Jingyi looks so worried, and Sizhui wants to comfort him, but his body won't obey him. He feels himself starting to slump down and realizes that he’s going to fall. But strong arms catch him. He’s sagging against Jingyi and no matter how hard he tries, he can’t push himself back up. His head is starting to spin, and he distantly realizes that it’s probably blood loss.
He feels Jingyi carefully lifting him up. Warmth spreads through him as Jingyi cradles him against his chest. The warmth makes him realize that he’s cold, and he shivers and presses himself closer to Jingyi. Sizhui looks up at Jingyi with eyes that won’t focus.
Jingyi is saying something but Sizhui can’t hear him, he can only see his lips moving. The only sound in his ears is a rushing sound like a river. He tries to focus on Jingyi’s face but the darkness has almost swallowed everything at this point.
Darkness is dragging him down.
“Sizhui!” Jingyi’s voice finally reaches him. “Sizhui, stay awake. Come on. Don’t leave me. We’re going to get help. Come on, stay awake.”
Sizhui tries. He clings to the sound of Jingyi’s voice. There is so much pain in Jingyi’s voice, and he desperately wants to make it go away.
“Jing… yi…” Sizhui finally manages to force the name out.
“I’m here. I’ve got you. It’ll be okay.” There’s a desperate edge to Jingyi’s voice, but Sizhui feels comforted. Jingyi is here, holding him. He will be okay. Still, his vision is dark, and his body is heavy, and it’s hard to stay awake. He doesn’t notice the rush of the wind as Jingyi’s sword carries them through the air or the constant flow of healing energy that Jingyi is giving him.
His eyes fall closed, and he can’t force them open. Not even when Jingyi begs him too.
“Please, Sizhui,” Jingyi’s voice is the only thing in his world and even it is getting further and further away.
“Sizhui hold on.”
“Come on. I love you; I can’t lose you. You have to hold on.”
Sizhui’s flagging consciousness lights up with radiant joy. But even that can’t keep the darkness back, and he falls into unconsciousness without being able to tell Jingyi that he loves him too.
Sizhui and Jingyi are standing in the Lan ancestral hall. For today, a tablet inscribed with the names of Sizhui’s Wen family has been set on the altar along with one bearing the names of Jingyi’s parents and his ancestors. The two of them kneel together and kowtow. Sizhui thanks the gods for the man beside him. His eyes linger on the tablet of his ancestors; he hopes they are happy for him.
Hanguang-jun and Senior Wei are there. Sizhui sends a concerned glance towards Jingyi as they prepare to kowtow again. His parents have been gone as long as Sizhui’s birth parents. Sizhui has an ache in his heart that his real parents can’t be here to see him, but he has Hanguang-Jun who raised him here.
Sizhui glances up at Hanguang-jun as he exits his kowtow. His eyes are incredibly soft, and there is a smile at the edge of his lips. Beside him, Senior Wei is openly grinning at them and his eyes suspiciously damp. Sizhui’s heart soars at the sight.
Still, Sizhui forgets about all of that as he turns to face Jingyi. He looks so breathtakingly handsome in red and gold that Sizhui is frozen for a moment. The gold glints in his hair and the red lends warmth to his pale skin. His dark eyes are dancing with happiness, and there’s a radiant smile on his face. Sizhui can feel the stupid, sappy smile on his face. There are so many emotions bubbling up inside him: love, happiness, dedication, and so much more. When they kowtow to each other, he hopes that Jingyi can see it all.
They look up from the bow, and their eyes meet. It’s real. This is it. Jingyi is actually his husband now. He sees Jingyi’s lips form the word ‘husband’ even as he thinks it. Sizhui beams at them as they stand up. Just like that, the ceremony is over. The sound of sniffling is coming from Senior Wei, but Sizhui can’t take his eyes away from his partner.
In one smooth movement, Jingyi ducks down and sweeps Sizhui up into his arms. Sizhui beams up at him. Sizhui should be embarrassed that Jingyi is carrying him around like a maiden in front of most of the Gusu Lan Sect, but he’s too happy right then. He wraps his arms around his husband’s neck and leans his head against his shoulder.
He relishes the way that Jingyi walks smoothly out of the hall as if he’s not carrying a full-grown man in his arms. Jingyi smiles brightly at him as he carries Sizhui away from the central buildings of Gusu. His smile is brighter than the sun and the happiness in it fills Sizhui from head to toe with warmth.
The sun has broken through the clouds, and it dances is Jingyi’s hair and glints off the gold hairpiece. When Jingyi looks down at him, the sun turns his dark eyes molten and warm.
“You’re so handsome,” Sizhui says, relaxing even further into Jingyi’s grip as they move.
Jingyi laughs. The happy bell-like sound is too loud for the Cloud Recesses, but Sizhui likes the way it fills the whole courtyard and lightens the air around them.
“The handsome one in this relationship is definitely you,” Jingyi says with a wink. He’s looking down at Sizhui again, and his expression is almost unbearably tender. Sizhui tightens his grip on Jingyi’s neck so he can pull himself up to kiss those smiling lips. Jingyi ducks his head down and meets him halfway.
He’s laughing again, and Sizhui smiles as he relaxes back into his husband’s hold. “Keep your hands to yourself,” Jingyi warns in a voice laughed with mirth, “or we aren’t going to make it to the house.”
Sizhui laughs then and rests his head against Jingyi’s shoulder. “Is that a threat or a promise?”
Jingyi just winks at him. He carries Sizhui out of the main complex and towards the house that had once belonged to Jingyi’s parents. Jingyi’s gait is steady as he walks up the mountain path. Sizhui lets his eyes close and focuses on the warmth of Jingyi's body pressed against his. When he opens his eyes again, Jingyi is looking down at him with a soft smile.
“Are you tired?” Sizhui asks, suddenly feeling bad for making Jingyi carry him this whole time. “I can walk.”
“Nonsense,” Jingyi says, hefting Sizhui up for emphasis. “I can hold myself on one hand for a few hours at a time. I can carry you twenty minutes to the house.”
“You don’t have to,” Sizhui says, but he’s not sure why he’s arguing. He doesn’t want to be put down, quite the opposite in fact
“I don’t,” Jingyi easily agrees. “But I can, and you like it.”
Sizhui opens his mouth to protest this fact, but Jingyi shakes his head.
“I’m not stupid, you know,” Jingyi tells him. “I noticed.”
Sizhui opens his mouth and shuts it again. He doesn’t have a good response to that. Jingyi laughs, and the sound fills the forest around them. Sizhui’s unable to resist pulling him down for a kiss. He only pulls back when they are both struggling for breath. There’s heat behind the mirth in Jingyi’s eyes now, and it sends a happy shiver through Sizhui’s whole body.
When Jingyi starts walking again, it’s at a decidedly faster pace. He carries Sizhui up the mountain path and to the small clearing where the house sits. It’s beautiful. The summer sun warms the green grass and wildflowers decorate the small lawn. But Sizhui doesn’t look at it. He has eyes only for Jingyi. The gold on him is glittering and the sun illuminates his jade perfect skin. Sizhui can feel the steel of his arms supporting him and the warmth of his body where they are pressed together. There is nothing better in the world. He lets go of his grip on Jingyi’s neck to trace the line of his jaw and brush his fingers across those high cheekbones.
He’s not sure exactly how Jingyi opens the door when he is carrying Sizhui with both of his hands, but he does. Once they are inside, he gently sets Sizhui on his feet. Part of Sizhui is surprised that Jingyi didn’t deposit him directly onto the bed.
Jingyi set him down but didn't let him go. They are still in a loose embrace. For a long moment, they just stare at each other. Sizhui can’t entirely believe that this is real. That Jingyi is officially his husband. He slowly raises one hand up to Jingyi’s forehead ribbon. His eyes flutter closed when Sizhui’s hand brushes the silk on his forehead. Even though they’ve been touching each other's forehead ribbons for a while now, this feels special. Sizhui’s touch is reverent as he reaches back for the knot behind Jingyi’s head. Jingyi mirrors his motion and together, they pull out the knots that bind the ribbons to them. The silk ribbons fall free. Sizhui reaches out and they twine their hands together, the soft ribbons tangle between their fingers.
Sizhui looks up at Jingyi, who is now a few centimeters taller than him. Jingyi pulls him close and kisses him. The world falls away and there is nothing except each other.