I need to stop creating new projects for myself but sometimes, I just really wanna write self-indulgent AUs. Apologies to any funky grammar; editing is for people who aren't trying to write 50k words in a month XD
Jin Guangyao, his closest friend of over a decade, who always has an answer to his problems or a shoulder for him to cry on, who keeps his own life meticulously organized and wholly mundane, gives Lan Xichen a tight, sorrowful smile as he clutches his hands.
"I'm sorry," he says, as if two simple words could possibly contain or explain the situation happening around them. Smoke swirls in the corners of his vision and Lan Xichen nods. Jin Guangyao always has an explanation; that much always rings true. He just has to wait for it.
Small fangs poke out from Jin Guangyao's lips, despite his attempts to hide them, and in the curl of smoke behind them, Lan Xichen thinks he sees the pointed end of a tail. There are countless questions, mostly centered around those things and the horns he thought he saw, but they all seem like parts of an illogical, fantastical fairy tale, and Jin Guangyao is too reasonable to get wrapped up in something like that.
Lan Xichen swallows thickly, trying to find the words he wants to say. "It's- well, I don't think everything is fine," he begins, only for it to quite fittingly be interrupted by part of the building crashing down dangerously close to them.
Jin Guangyao cringes briefly before his polite smile is back. "Xichen, you need to get out of here. There's an exit that way that should still be clear. Follow it until you see the light," he explains calmly, pointing the way to the path.
"What about you?" he asks, in lieu of so many other questions he should probably be asking as well, and Jin Guangyao shakes his head.
"Don't worry about me," he says, and Lan Xichen wants to believe him, but they're in a crisis that is entirely foreign to him with things that can't be explained happening around them.
"A-Yao, don't be ridiculous," Lan Xichen says, gripping his hands tighter. Sharp nails dig into his palms, so sharp he almost feels like that they might draw blood, but he doesn't let go.
Jin Guangyao eventually draws in a deep breath and sighs. "Alright. We'll go together, then," he promises, pulling Lan Xichen up and leading the way to safety. On the shadowy path, Lan Xichen swears he sees the curl of a tail again, but it's gone as soon as he takes a second glance.
His head is pounding from the heavy air and distant noises of destruction, there's dust in the air, and Jin Guangyao's eyes flash a brilliantly bright golden yellow in the darkest depths of their route. It all has an explanation, he tells himself, all of it does, and they just have to get out of the thick of it for it to make sense.
There's a light at the end of the twisting, hall-collapsed hallways. Jin Guangyao pauses behind Lan Xichen, and he looks back at him questioningly.
Jin Guangyao smiles again, softer this time, and lifts a hand to rest it on Lan Xichen's cheek tenderly. "I'm sorry, Xichen. I have to apologize in advance for the inconvenience my murder is going to have on your life," he says, and shoves Lan Xichen in the chest. He pushes hard enough to put him out of reach and it happens so quickly that Lan Xichen is left grasping at nothing but air as Jin Guangyao turns and runs back into the fray.
Lan Xichen stares in shock, too stunned by his words to move at first. But he can't- he can't let Jin Guangyao do something so reckless and dangerous alone, and he tries to follow after him.
A translucent barrier shimmers in front of him, keeping him away, keeping him safe while Jin Guangyao is not, until the building in front of him collapses in on itself. It crashes and burns and every terrible noise from it seals Jin Guangyao's fate.
And after all of that, Lan Xichen's life has to go on.
He quits his job and holes himself up for months afterward, despite his brother and uncle's many attempts to console him. How can he explain himself? His grief is understandable; the depths of betrayal and the way his worldview was changed are not. There's no such thing as magic or demons or strange, fairy tale logic, but that day is forever burned into Lan Xichen's senses in unforgettable ways.
He remembers going to lunch with Jin Guangyao and the two of them walking aimlessly after it to enjoy the nice weather, only for everything to turn fuzzy and warped.
He remembers the smell of brimstone, sulfurous and strange, as smoke curled the building they'd found themselves in.
He remembers the fear in Jin Guangyao's eyes as he looked around, and the way his eyes flashed to solid golden yellow before returning to normal.
He remembers sharp fangs and sharper claws, and the way Jin Guangyao wouldn't quite meet his gaze.
He remembers Jin Guangyao's hand on his cheek, tender as a lover's embrace, and his own sinking desperation when he was left alone.
None of it made any sense. It still doesn't; it shouldn't be real, but he knows what he saw. He knows he saw secrets that Jin Guangyao had kept from him until it was too late to help him, and—
Lan Xichen sleeps too much for months that feel like decades, until he's cried all his tears and then some more. Jin Guangyao knew how much it would hurt him but his apology doesn't make it any easier to move forward, even though Lan Xichen knows that he can't live like this forever. He can't stop hoping for a life where Jin Guangyao didn't resign himself to the terrible fate that awaited him in that building.
Lan Xichen moves across the country and goes back to college.
He has spent enough time regretting the past; he wants to build something new. He wants to paint again, a hobby he hasn't had time for since he was a teenager, and he wants to recapture some sort of accomplishment in his life.
It's not happiness, not quite, but with every day, life feels less like an unobtainable goal. Art school is too demanding for him to spend every moment trapped in his memories. Instead, he paints. He paints scenes befitting a tasteless fantasy novel, riddled with cliches, and tears them apart at his own critiques until he learns how to express them better, learns to twist shapes that haunt him into something more—
He aims for getting lost enough in his art to escape his nightmares and instead, finds a way to convey them more productively.
Lan Wangji worries about the distance between them but gives him his space without pushing, and gratefully accepts an invitation to see one of Lan Xichen's shows, two years into his studies. He arrives with Wei Wuxian in tow, wearing matching rings and offering no explanation for them.
Lan Xichen doesn't think to ask at first; he's just happy to see his brother - or, as happy as he ever gets now - after so long. He hadn't realized how much he missed him until Lan Wangji arrived, and that carries through into the smile on his face.
"Congratulations, brother," Lan Wangji says, once the initial noise and excitement of the event has slowed down. He hands Lan Xichen a simple envelope; knowing Lan Wangji, it's probably a tasteful card with a brief but meaningful handwritten message inside, and Lan Xichen accepts it gratefully.
"Thank you, Wangji. It's still just a student show-" he begins, only to be interrupted by Wei Wuxian's exuberance.
"Nonsense! You still had to work hard, and make something, so it counts," he points out.
Lan Xichen nods. "It does. Though, I suppose some congratulations are in order for you two as well?" he asks, watching his brother's expression freeze and Wei Wuxian's grin widen.
"Ah, you noticed!" Wei Wuxian says excitedly. "We finally started dating - did you know how long Lan Zhan has liked me for? - and then I was like, you know what? Why wait any longer; we could just go get married at the courthouse!"
"There was paperwork," Lan Wangji reminds him.
"Right, right. And I had to call Wen Ning and get him to meet us there, because we needed a witness," Wei Wuxian explains, and Lan Xichen can only imagine what a ridiculous scene they must have made.
"Wei Ying and I didn't plan to make a big deal of it," Lan Wangji says, an unspoken explanation for why Lan Xichen wasn't invited or even told about it before now between his words. Wei Wuxian's impulsiveness is both charming and frustrating to his brother, and this feels like a time when it was both.
"As long as you're happy, it's the right choice," Lan Xichen tells him.
Lan Wangji nods respectfully. "Thank you," he says, before his attention drifts to Wei Wuxian's bright smile.
Lan Xichen feels a bit like an intruder in an intimate moment and desperately wants to excuse himself. "Enjoy the rest of the show. I have other things to take care of still, but we'll catch up later," he says, drifting away before they can disagree. He's happy for them, especially Lan Wangji. His brother had been pining for Wei Wuxian since shortly after they met; it's relieving that his feelings are finally reciprocated. But—
It's another reminder of their lives moving in very different directions. Lan Wangji is building a meaningful emotional life with someone while Lan Xichen can't bring himself to do anything but throw himself deeper into school, because he knows that even with all that it helps him, his art is still very much an escape.
On a rainy weekend afternoon, Lan Xichen forces himself out of his apartment. He has groceries to get, but more pressingly, he has a piece sitting in the studio that he needs to finish for a critique later this week. He's so lost in his thoughts, already planning what direction he wants to take with it today, that he stops paying attention to the sidewalk in front of him.
Lan Xichen walks straight into someone, knocking his umbrella askew and a cup from the stranger's hands. Hot coffee spills on both of them and splatters on the ground, and before he can try to apologize or clean it up, the stranger rips into him.
"Could you watch where you're fucking going, you useless donkey?" he snaps, and Lan Xichen is met with such a powerful sense of nostalgia from the voice that he doesn't even try to respond. "Be more careful; shit, it's not even a narrow sidewalk. Do you know how to apologize, or are you beyond—"
Lan Xichen's gaze meets his and words die between them.
Jin Guangyao stares at him, mouth working noiselessly, before he shoves the umbrella at Lan Xichen as he scrambles backwards. His hair is different - so much longer than Lan Xichen would have ever expected from him - and he no longer looks like a polite, demure office worker in a fitted leather jacket. He can't stop staring, trying to process the differences and the impossibility of Jin Guangyao's living, breathing form standing in front of him.
Lan Xichen snaps out of his shock enough to stride forward and grab Jin Guangyao's wrist before he can vanish down the street. He stills at his touch but doesn't meet his questioning stare, instead looking pointedly at where his empty cup of coffee had rolled to a stop.
"What-" he begins, swallowing a few times to clear his voice, before he tries again. "What are you doing here?"
"It's a long story."
"I've spent the past three years thinking you were dead," Lan Xichen says quietly. "I have time."
Jin Guangyao visibly stiffens, all terrified tension and nerves- though why he's afraid of Lan Xichen is as much a mystery as why a man he'd presumed dead just cussed him out for bumping into him.
He takes a deep breath before agreeing. "Alright. Let's talk," he says cautiously.
All of today's plans for groceries or school left his mind the moment he realized who he'd run into, and Lan Xichen nods. "I'll get you a fresh coffee," he offers, and Jin Guangyao finally looks up at him, gratitude in his eyes shining through the miserable weather.
"That would be lovely."
They slip into the coffee shop Jin Guangyao just left, and Lan Xichen watches him order coffee for both of them. He remembers exactly how Lan Xichen likes his, because of course he does. It's like ending up in a surreal dream, one that threatens to unravel at any moment, if he just looks away for too long.
"Do you live nearby?" Jin Guangyao asks politely, while they wait for their drinks.
Lan Xichen nods. "I was on my way to the campus," he says, as if that somehow explains where he lives, but Jin Guangyao just smiles in understanding.
"I was just…passing through," he says cagily, reaching for Lan Xichen's drink to hand it to him.
"I see," he answers out of habit, despite the years it's been and the questions he still has. Jin Guangyao doesn't say anything else; he's too focused on inspecting his own coffee to worry about anything else.
Once Jin Guangyao has adjusted his coffee to his specifications, Lan Xichen leads him out and down the street, Jin Guangyao stands close enough to share the umbrella as they walk in quiet- a quiet that isn't quite comfortable, but not as awkward as it probably should be. There are years of silence between them already, years that Lan Xichen isn't sure if he's wasted away, and he wants to know the answers that will fill in all the gaps.
Jin Guangyao removes his coat and shoes at the door, and Lan Xichen hangs up his own coat before taking Jin Guangyao's. It's another little thing, another shared routine that should have been forgotten, but that they still so easily fell back into.
"What brought you out here?" Jin Guangyao asks pleasantly, as they make their way further inside.
He could say so much, bear his heart and the pain, but he sticks to something safe. "College. I'm painting again," he explains, sitting at the small dining room table. Jin Guangyao sits across from him and sips his coffee, and something tugs at his heart when Jin Guangyao's eyes slip shut and he makes a small noise of pleasure.
"I'm glad. You always wished you had more time to pursue it," he says between drinks.
How does Lan Xichen even begin to explain everything that brought him out here? He spent so many months mourning someone who, from what it seems, was merely hiding from him, and he doesn't want to admit that he's rapidly discovering a whole new way to experience pain. Jin Guangyao always promised the truth and now, Lan Xichen tries to hope he can trust any explanation he gets.
Lan Xichen drinks his own coffee as he thinks on how to question someone he never thought he'd see again. There's a small part of him that wants to act like nothing has changed—
"I'm sorry," Jin Guangyao says, staring into his drink.
"Where have you been?" Lan Xichen asks.
He swallows and there's only a hint of a smile left on his face. "I've been…around. Working," he says, simply; it's an evasive answer and they both know it.
"…it's not important."
Lan Xichen stares him down in silence until Jin Guangyao finally meets his gaze, and the placid mask on his face slips. "I think, considering everything between us, that you'd at least pretend to tell me the truth."
Jin Guangyao shakes his head. "It's not that- Xichen, it's all going to sound ridiculous, and I don't want you to think I'm some sort of crazy person," he tries.
"I thought you died in a building collapse, but unless I've finally lost my mind, you're sitting across from me," he points out, his voice wavering despite all his efforts. Lan Xichen is calm and composed; he's always been told that it's hard to be disagreeable around him because of his pleasant attitude. But he can't stop the questions that spill from him now, frustration and hurt bubbling to the surface. "Why? What was it that you decided was more important than our friendship? What was more important than any trust we shared? Why- why didn't you want to trust me? I shared everything with you, and then you vanished instead of explaining a thing. Was any of it real at all?"
"Of course our friendship was real!" Jin Guangyao chokes out, clenching his coffee cup until it starts to crumple in his hands. "I could never lie about that! But Xichen, please- how could I explain myself? You would have thought I was insane. Sometimes I still think I am!"
"You never even gave me a chance—"
Jin Guangyao's stifled sob cuts him off, and Lan Xichen wants nothing more than to reach across the table and take his hand. But there's a barrier between them now, years of pain twisted into an ache of betrayal, and he holds himself back.
"Please, try to explain to me why you pushed me away," Lan Xichen settles on saying.
"I didn't want to," he starts, before shaking his head. "I didn't want you to get hurt by getting caught up in any of it. I didn't even know all of the details when we first met, and as they all came out, I didn't know how to tell you. Or anyone. So I had to hide everything because I couldn't trust anyone."
"I always trusted you."
"Maybe- Xichen, please. Perhaps I was selfish, but I wanted to keep believing that I could have a normal life with you, where I could know that in your eyes at least, I wasn't a monster," he says, each word a desperate plea. "But can you blame me? I'm not- I'm nothing you'd want to be around, if you knew the truth."
"You didn't try, A-Yao—"
Jin Guangyao laughs brokenly. "I didn't try- how could I? I never knew my father because he's a demon, Xichen, and my mother had no idea until after she had me. And then what? What was I supposed to do after I found out? Try to explain to you that I'm a fraud, a monster faking his way through life in human skin, hoping his pleasant smile and manners are enough to hide what lurks beneath." He takes a shaky breath and pushes on. "There's an entire world that most people don't know about, and it sounds stupidly unbelievable to anyone with any intelligence. I didn't think I could say it in a way that didn't make me sound like a silly child."
Lan Xichen takes the brief pause to let Jin Guangyao's words sink in. Part of this he'd come to understand on his own already; he watched so much of it unfold around him that day. But the exact specifics have evaded him, because there is truth to his words: who could he ask about it that would believe him and be able to actually provide answers? Jin Guangyao, for one, but until this afternoon, Lan Xichen thought he was dead.
"So, you're a demon?" he asks, trying to understand.
He shakes his head. "Yes and no. My mother was human, so only half."
Lan Xichen nods. The pointed teeth, the glimpses of horns and a curling tail, and glowing golden eyes were all real, then, not something made up in the all around confusion of the day. It's somehow less world-shattering than he thinks it should be. "And you've been gone, doing…?"
"Enemies of my father decided to…collect me. They tried, at least, because they thought I'd work as ransom. As if my father wanted anything to do with me," he says bitterly. "That day you were with me was another attempt, and you got caught in between it because of me. I'm sorry."
He sucks in a breath. "I wanted you to leave with me."
"I didn't want to drag you any further into it," Jin Guangyao says. "You saw, didn't you? You saw what I looked like and impossibilities crashing around us. What could I say after that?"
"The truth, A-Yao," he says desperately.
He laughs again, choking and frustrated. "Everything you know about the world is wrong; magic is real and so are monsters, including the one you called a friend. I had to throw my life away to play unappreciated personal assistant to my father because, even though I'm not a legitimate demon in anyone's eyes, I'm still useful, and that's good enough," he says harshly.
Lan Xichen gives in and reaches across the table, taking one of his hands in his own, and Jin Guangyao looks at him in confusion.
"Even now, after I've lied to you, deceived you, and fulfilled every terrible expectation of my blood, you still want to be kind? Why—"
"Because I still missed you all this time," Lan Xichen answers, cutting him off. "I'm upset that you didn't trust me but- but I still want you in my life, A-Yao. I can't just cut out someone I care about that easily."
Jin Guangyao sits quietly, steadying his breathing, until he sighs softly. "It's not that simple."
Lan Xichen opens his mouth to question him, only for Jin Guangyao's eyes to widen in shock at some unseen horror. He's up and over the table, pulling Lan Xichen with him to roll across the floor and away from the window, as it shatters. There's an explosion of smoke and debris around them, a sickening, creaking noise that could possibly be described as laughter if he's being generous, and a heaviness in the air that he can't place.
Sharp tipped fingers entwine with his own as Jin Guangyao drags him further into his apartment. Sounds of destruction follow them but there's too much thick smoke curling around them for Lan Xichen to see any of it properly, and instead, he focuses in on Jin Guangyao's nervous breathing.
"I'm sorry, Xichen," he says as they tumble into the bathroom at the end of the hallway. "I didn't mean for you to get involved in this."
He takes a second to catch his breath before he realizes how familiar this apology sounds. "Are you going to run off again?"
Jin Guangyao freezes; he looks as though he was thinking of a way to do just that. "I just don't want you to get hurt."
Something crashes against the door and Jin Guangyao's eyes, brilliantly, unnaturally bright, flick over to it before back at Lan Xichen. He takes both of Lan Xichen's hands in his and breathes in. "I'm sorry."
"Please forgive me later," he says, wrapping one arm around Lan Xichen to pull him close while the other claws the air next to them. A gash of inky black appears, torn from nothing, and engulfs them.