I refuse to apologize for my love of oddly formatted titles, because I'm worth it. Title and summary inspired by multiples songs from the Black Holes and Revelations album by Muse, written for Xichen Week day four: Trust.
The end of summer is a bittersweet time in the Cloud Recesses. Gusu's mountains brings change to the Cloud Recesses sooner than most — days are shorter and evenings have a hint of chill, and autumn festivals are heralded by the arrival of colorful leaves. For many younger disciples, the festivals in Gusu are their first chance to experience life outside of the Cloud Recesses. For Lan Wangji, it means his brother and husband's birthdays are soon approaching, and for Lan Xichen—
For Lan Xichen, he loses himself in memories of a warm night in Yunping, the humidity of late summer heralding in a rainstorm that couldn't wash away all the spilled blood. It was the end of an era of his life.
He cannot trust himself to make a pilgrimage to the far-off mountain that he is buried under, nor does the Guanyin Temple feel like the appropriate place to remember Jin Guangyao. Instead, Lan Xichen has a small altar in his living quarters, sparsely adorned and mostly out of sight. He trusts his family and few else; enough of Jin Guangyao's legacy has been destroyed without him giving anyone the chance to do the same to his memorial.
Lan Xichen burns incense and runs his hands over a worn jade token, bows, and forces a smile on his face. Late summer is a time for remembrance for him.
For the rest of the cultivation world, it is time to discuss the renewal or modification of trade agreements. Lan Xichen brews himself some tea and settles in to look over a large stack of documents pertaining to the upcoming meetings.
He hadn't planned on exiting secluded meditation, and in many ways, Lan Xichen doesn't feel like he has. The day to day running of the sect relies on Lan Qiren's capable hands, and his brother assists.
However, there's something to be said for being able to talk to people in ways that make them feel comfortable, and that is where Lan Xichen excels. When Lan Wangji represents them at conferences, the icy, stuck up reputation of the GusuLan Sect that Lan Xichen tried so hard to shake returns, now with an underlying thread of distrust due to Wei Wuxian's presence. Lan Xichen doesn't want to face anyone anymore, but in the end, he can't allow himself to be that selfish.
As much as he'd like to.
Less than a year after Jin Guangyao's death, Lan Xichen sits in Koi Tower while LanglingJin Sect elders squabble about borders and territories and other sects watch with various levels of amusement. Jin Rulan glares but can't get a word in; he lacks the years of experience necessary to help in this situation.
Lan Xichen takes a deep breath and stands, effectively silencing the room. "The Lan Sect has plenty of border records and maps that we would happily share for references," he explains, staring straight ahead to avoid meeting any of the surprised gazes in the room.
"So does YunmengJiang," Jiang Wanyin offers, his prickly attitude enough to halt any other complaints. "Whoever shares a border with Lanling should as well, right?"
Following the smattering of agreement and politely muffled grousing, Lan Xichen finds himself back in Koi Tower the next week, piecing together a map of Lanling and its territories with Jiang Wanyin. No one trusts any of LanlingJin's official maps, not with all the "tricks and lies" of their previous sect leader, and no one cares how much extra work this creates.
It's a preview of the exhausting years to come: everything the LanlingJin Sect has stood for or amassed is brought into question, and few are willing to stand up for anything but their own greed. Lan Xichen makes nice with spurned sects, repairs fragile alliances, and watches his own reputation falter every time he stands up for Jin Guangyao's sake.
He doesn't care. He was born into sparkling, pure privilege, and he uses it to defend Jin Guangyao's achievements until he's been smeared a bloody black. The common folk he stood for are worth defending, and Lan Xichen is determined to protect those deeds with all he has.
In Koi Tower's golden halls, there are changes. The changes happen gradually after Jin Rulan takes over, because it's his sect to do with as he pleases. Most wouldn't notice, especially with how subtle most of them are.
But Lan Xichen does.
The colors and arrangements of the flowers in the gardens change after a few years. Jin Guangyao made changes each year, but each decision had his distinctive style behind it. Nothing is wrong with the arrangement now, but it's no longer a design choice Lan Xichen associates with his image of Koi Tower.
There are other things: rugs are moved, pieces of art are shifted around, different shades are used to repaint rooms, and the sum of their parts is a reminder every time Lan Xichen visits.
There's a part of him that is grateful that he's never had to see the Hidden Fragrance Room; he doesn't like to think about the inevitable changes.
Here and now, he's sitting quietly, listening to this year's round of trade proposals. Some sects have stepped up to put forth a new percentage for tariffs, mainly from a group of sects under the LanlingJin Sect.
"It's too unfairly high of a percentage to import from other provinces," Sect Leader Mu says.
"Not all provinces fall under that tax," Jin Rulan points out, annoyed. "Only ones without a specific trade agreement for imports and exports."
"But that doesn't include any of QingheNie's territories," another sect leader pipes up.
"QingheNie and LanlingJin no longer have that kind of convenient agreement," Nie Huaisang says sadly, fanning himself. "You'll have to take that up with Sect Leader Jin."
Lan Xichen's smile tightens. Even now, Jin Rulan is still comparatively young for a sect leader, and it makes him an easy target.
"It's not up for discussion," Jin Rulan snaps.
"Why not? We're all here to work out similar agreements; why not try something fresh?" Sect Leader Min asks, and most of the LanlingJin Sect elders nod in agreement.
"If it's not on the table, then it should be left alone," Lan Xichen says politely, intensely away of every eye on him as soon as he speaks. He's still not seen at events beyond the handful of necessary conferences he attends every year, and apparently, it makes him stick out.
"I see Sect Leader Lan has maintained his unflinching bias," someone mutters, quiet enough that he's probably not meant to hear it. But Lan Xichen has an unfortunate gift for picking commentary out of the annoyed chatter that starts up.
"We're moving on," Jiang Wanyin snaps, leaving no room for disagreement. The conversation shifts to less divisive topics as sects renew agreements with less to argue over.
Lan Xichen relaxes slightly, returning to his light meal as people talk around him. It's an all day affair, but the evenings usually turn into parties, and he intends on retiring to his room once the important policies are discussed. He tries not to let his mind wander the way it does at home, drifting to happier memories or blissful nothingness, but he struggles this time.
He muses on the food - simple but not lackluster, still familiar. They probably still employ the same head chefs, at least for now. It's the little things that are missing, more than the overall quality. Everyone eats the same thing; there are no personally tailored sides. Even the seats for the Lan Sect have a small jar of wine at them. Lan Xichen takes a bite of bright, fresh greens, and tries not to think about Jin Guangyao.
Raised voices rip him from his thoughts and draw his attention to the front of the room.
"I'm not going to start just giving shit away because you think it should be yours," Jin Rulan snaps at a small group. "Is that so hard to get?"
"But there's no proof they were acquired legally—"
"And showing you the records won't do shit because no one ever takes them seriously," he shoots back.
"If you could just let us look—"
"Through years of private records? I'm young, not stupid."
Lan Xichen makes his way over and the crowd parts to let him in. "Are you demanding he bare every single record to prove possession of items that the LanlingJin Sect has had for countless years now?"
Sect Leader Yao turns on him. "What do they have to hide?" he asks, and everyone nods in agreement. "If there's nothing to hide, it shouldn't be an issue."
"If this were any other sect, would you be this insistent?" Lan Xichen asks before he can stop himself. Jin Rulan's face darkens; he knows the answer already, they all do, but no one wants to say it.
"Everyone knows you only care because you're still a Meng Yao sympathizer. It's been ten years- get over it," Sect Leader Yao says sharply.
He should have stayed in the safety of seclusion, should have chosen his words more carefully, should have believed Jin Guangyao- he should have done so much.
"I'm not going to apologize for my past with Jin Guangyao," Lan Xichen says, far more serene and steady than he feels. "And I'm capable of forming opinions of my own in the wake of his death. Are you? You are quick to find fault in so many, Sect Leader Yao. I hope you're never in a position where blame is pointed at you."
Following his words, shocked silence sweeps the hall. Lan Xichen should have stepped in sooner; he should have questioned Jin Guangyao the first time anything seemed amiss, instead of having to defend him posthumously. But he didn't, and he can't do anything else now, because the past is past and only he can keep moving forward.
"Have none of you ever been young and laden with responsibility? So many of us were shoved into positions of power at young ages; have you forgotten what it's like to have everyone around you second guess your actions?" Lan Xichen asks the stunned faces in the room.
Apparently, ten years is his limit. Ten years of heartbreak and built up frustrations and betrayal and loneliness is his breaking point. Lan Xichen takes a deep breath and continues. "You're trying to blame Jin Rulan for the unproven actions a dead man because you care more about power and greed than compassion. You should be ashamed of yourselves."
No one dares speak. There's a strange strength that comes from it, one that he hasn't had in years. "I don't have to move on to be unbiased. Please try to do the same," he says, a smile frozen on his lips that doesn't reach his eyes.
There isn't a single complaint when he excuses himself from the room; he's said his piece and would like to avoid any social situations for another year. His brother can handle the rest of this conference.
Lan Xichen doesn't head to his room. He should, but the crisp evening air refreshes and calms him, and he wanders until he finds himself staring at the entrance to a small courtyard he recognizes. It looks maintained but not recently used, probably because it's so out of the way. That location, removed from most of the bustle and business of Koi Tower, is what made Jin Guangyao and Lan Xichen frequent it.
Now, it serves as a reminder of those times and the years they shared between their sects. Lan Xichen walks though, memories long since pushed down and ignored springing to the surface.
They sat and ate savory-sweet snacks that Jin Guangyao had purchased from a traveling merchant while Lan Xichen worked on a particularly tricky speech for an upcoming banquet.
Jin Guangyao bitched about everyone who'd disagreed with him at an earlier meeting, mocking their reasons for shooting down his ideas, until Lan Xichen had laughed himself hoarse. Jin Guangyao had started doing humorous impressions without meaning to, and he couldn't resist finding it funny.
They'd comforted each other through losses and celebrated successes, and he can't help but wonder: How terrible is it, really, for him to still care about someone he'd been close with for so long? He's had more than enough time to agonize over the lies he knows about and the potential ones he doesn't, and Lan Xichen has chosen, time and again, to look at the flaws, the uncertainties, all of it, and keep every bit of fondness in his heart.
Lan Xichen shoulders through the rest of that meeting and so many others with a renewed tension; he sees judgment in their eyes and actions. That night reminded those who had forgotten and reinforced the opinions of those who never could: Lan Xichen is, and forever will be, a Jin Guangyao apologist.
It's a harsh label, whispered but never said to him directly, because a true accusation would be a political nightmare. The Yiling Patriarch sympathizers that were found and tried and tortured apart by sects in those 13 years were never anyone prominent- wandering cultivators and disciples from minor sects fell under that judgment while the LanlingJin Sect tried to recreate his most dangerously powerful items in secret.
So Lan Xichen is safe, in a sense. No one will try to drag him to trial.
But he doesn't stop.
Lan Xichen stands up against aggressive sect leaders and gossiping minor disciples with the same stern calm. It's met with shock, with silence, with frustration, and Lan Xichen can feel it eroding centuries of the GusuLan Sect's protective reputation. He doesn't care; he knows in his heart he's doing what's right.
Have you heard? Sect Leader Lan is a traitor to those felled by Jin Guangyao's thirst for power; he defends a dead man!
Lan Xichen is rarely seen around the Cloud Recesses. He's heard younger disciples treat his sporadic appearances as something akin to a ghost sighting, because he still prefers the quiet solitude of seclusion. He's away from the stares and the weight of his decisions, and the ache of loneliness feels more appropriate by himself. It's better than watching lifelong bonds form around him, far out of his grasp.
He doesn't see the mob at the gate, led by many of the same sect leaders that laid siege to the Burial Mounds and joined by others who have fallen to the sway of public opinion. He doesn't see them force their way in like Wen Chao did decades ago. He doesn't hear the alarms sound in the peace of his small home.
Lan Xichen opens his door to find his brother, uncle, and Wei Wuxian the only things standing between him and an angry mob. Their grim faces meet his, and Lan Xichen knows that the time has come for him to face the consequences of his loyalty.
Nevertheless, Lan Xichen steps out of dwelling to greet the anger shining in their eyes and the feeling of senseless justice swelling in the air. The best thing he can do is smile politely. "To what do I owe such a large visit?"
Sect Leader Yao steps forward and opens his mouth to speak, only for Wei Wuxian to cut in first. "It's some fun nostalgia for them," he says, pointedly looking at the oldest sect leaders in the group. "You're apparently guilty of some pretty nasty crimes, and they're here to- I'm not sure, actually. Collect you?"
"You aren't part of this," Sect Leader Ouyang points out.
"Sect Leader Lan, there was an uprising against the HangyuMin Sect, led by a group of commoners from across the region," Sect Leader Yao says, cutting off Wei Wuxian angrily. Lan Xichen waits patiently; he has a feeling they're relating it back to something he's done, but he can't imagine what. "You proposed expanding the watchtower program recently, but Sect Leader Min disagreed."
"We decided to hold a vote at a later date," Lan Xichen reminds him politely.
Another cultivator steps forward to speak his piece. "Then why are they suddenly rebelling against that specific sect? Of course it's related!"
There's a fire in his eyes and the crowd cheers him on, pushing others to put forth increasingly ridiculous theories to add to the accusations against Lan Xichen. For his part, he's mostly watching the desperation sink in on Lan Wangji's face; Wangji may have borne witness to this for Wei Wuxian, but he never expected to see the cultivation world turn on Lan Xichen.
During a lull between accusations that can barely be considered related, Lan Xichen steps forward, standing tall. He can feel it, the helplessness born from the whole world trying to slander his name, and it's something he never expected to understand so deeply. He could fight or try to flee, he supposes, but in the end, there's only one ending.
"If you'd like to accuse me, I want a fair trial," he says, offering himself up without a struggle. Lan Wangji reaches out, only for Wei Wuxian to grab his arm and shake his head, and Lan Qiren sighs heavily. There's no such thing as fair when the world is poisoned against someone and all of them know that.
But sometimes, all you can do is play along.
Despite Jin Rulan's absence from the mob that stormed the Cloud Recesses, Lan Xichen is imprisoned deep in the basements of Koi Tower. They take him through a back entrance that he doesn't recognize, with a handful of Jin elders lead the way through twisting, narrow passages. There are generations of secret history here, buried out of the public's eye, and the irony isn't lost on him.
It's the kind of prison that no one leaves alive- or, at the very least, nothing like they were before. Lan Xichen has lived over a decade in his own personal prison, and he supposes the only difference is the lack of sunlight.
The cell suppresses his spiritual energy, leaving him with a strangely empty feeling, one that he can't quite put into words.
It's a greater punishment than his jailers realize. Lan Xichen thinks of, dreams of, is haunted by Jin Guangyao's hands on him, a delicate but firm touch, apologizing over and over with every time he seals away Lan Xichen's spiritual energy, his soft voice pleading for his forgiveness, just this one last time.
Er-ge, Er-ge, please—
It rings in his ears, filling the creeping possessiveness of this long forgotten prison, and—
Days bleed together from the unchanging darkness, pulling him further into depths as he loses track of so much of his sense of self. He sleeps without a guess to the time of day, but hunger keeps him from sleeping eternally. Lan Xichen wishes they'd kill him instead of allowing him to slowly go mad and rot away, ignored and forgotten. Days or years have passed, or something in between, and he has no idea what the correct answer is.
Please, Er-ge, Zewu-Jun—
He sees Jin Guangyao in his dreams and hears him during his days- or what he calls days in the dark.
Perhaps it is different than home.
In a haze, blinded by the eternal darkness of the cell, Lan Xichen slumps against a wall. He's unrestrained; suppressed spiritual energy and limited nourishment do enough to keep him trapped without the help of cuffs or chains.
A touch, so light it's a whisper of the memory of a breeze on his face, stroking his cheek, and another—
Delicate, ghostly, familiar fingers close around one wrist—
Lan Xichen hears him and can't - won't - reply; he doesn't know what to do with nightmares that blur the sleeping and waking world.
Please, Er-ge, look at me—
There's nothing to look at in here and his dreams have long since stopped giving anything he wants to see, and he wants to regain any of the hope he'd slowly cultivated while participating in the backstabbing world of politics again. He wants to believe in anything. He can't. He can't, not while he's trapped in this pit of negligence-fueled despair.
Lan Xichen opens his eyes to—
Darkness, as solid and all-encompassing as always, reaching for him and pulling at him—
He takes a shaky breath, feels those barely-there fingers find his, and stands up.
There are four solid walls in the prison cell, to keep Lan Xichen inside, but no one accounted for anyone else getting in.
No one expected the sealed away ghost of a long dead man to force his way in, to declare himself the only possible solution to Lan Xichen's fate, and to rip his own fate asunder to accomplish it.
Lan Xichen follows, because—
It's not hope. He doesn't expect to find anything or anyone, but he can't waste away like this any longer. If he nightmares want to lead him to death, he will accept it with open arms.
Between the solid walls, there is a deeper darkness, and beyond that, there is freedom. Lan Xichen finds freedom because he lets strange and familiar hands lead him through secret passages that twist around secret prisons, secrets he never knew but Jin Guangyao must have, must have memorized from his first trip through them.
After immeasurably long in darkness, even pale moonlight seems as bright as high noon's sun. The crescent of light hangs among sparkling stars in a scene that Lan Xichen had stopped expecting to see again. It's the most solid dream he can remember having. He can't quite convince himself to believe it, because there's no explanation for the impossibility of his escape.
It's quiet, only the distant noise of running water in the distance, and a soft breeze.
And a gentle smile, almost lost in the night's quiet wind, and he knows he's dreaming, knows nothing here is real, knows he's always been alone, but Lan Xichen reaches out for Jin Guangyao anyway. He reaches for a comfort he expects to dissipate as soon as he gets close, and instead—
His hands are neither warm nor cold. Jin Guangyao feels like nothing but their fingers entwine together nonetheless in a tight grip without any force behind it.
Er-ge, you really don't want me anymore—
His voice is pulling at the edges of his senses, whispering in his ears, begging for him; Lan Xichen had thought it was his own mind, torturing him with memories of Jin Guangyao's desperate pleas for forgiveness, but he was wrong. Jin Guangyao wanted to save him, pluck him from a low point, and rescue him from captors, again, always—
"I'm sorry," he tries, his voice a shallow memory of what it once was, nearly gone from extended disuse.
Er-ge. You have to find me, Er-ge.
Lan Xichen cleans himself up with a learned gentleness. Soft laughter rings in his ears while he carefully cleans white robes darkened by imprisonment, and even if he's still dreaming, he's decided to follow it. It can't get much worse than rotting in darkness, but it means he needs to at least try to look respectable.
Aren't you running from the law now, Er-ge?
Jin Guangyao's voice teases him, barely there and expressionless and so full of life, and Lan Xichen smiles.
"Should I disguise myself better?" he asks the air, the hope he's following, and deft fingers tug at his forehead ribbon until it falls into his hands.
"Of course," he agrees, nodding his head in agreement. It's a distinctive accessory, especially paired with white robes. "A-Yao—"
It's the first time he's acknowledged him by name, the first chance he's taken with it, because he fears that giving too much faith to something will make it disappear.
A desperate plea in the empty night and soft hands on his, again, always—
Er-ge, I can only do so much, until—
Until Lan Xichen finds him. It's vague and directionless, and Jin Guangyao won't elaborate further.
"Sometimes, A-Yao, you should learn to explain yourself better," Lan Xichen says, sighing fondly, and tucks his ribbon close to his heart while Jin Guangyao chuckles in his ear.
Lan Xichen doesn't find him.
He travels in shadows, in secret, to the mountain that Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao were buried under, and digs through soft dirt like it holds the most precious of treasures until his cracked, bleeding fingers hit the solid woof of a coffin. He breathes a sigh of relief. It's here, he just has to break it open, and—
Snapped guqin strings and shoddily replaced nails greet him.
Try again, Er-ge.
There's no body, no Stygian Tiger Seal, and no clues.
"Why did you let me go to a dead end?" he asks in frustration, not expecting an answer.
"Jin Guangyao!" he snaps, and he sees him, perched on the edge of something Lan Xichen can't quite make out, but there's some familiarity…
Find me, Er-ge—
He breathes in. He breathes out. Lan Xichen closes his eyes and breathes in the stench of death and breathes out the anger clouding his senses, and finally, finally, finds calmness. If Jin Guangyao is trying to give him a clue, no matter how obtuse it is, he has to find it. He's puzzled out Jin Guangyao's codes before; he can do it again.
Neither body is here. There are plenty of reasons that's terrifying, though he thinks that a lack of news of an unstoppable fierce corpse terrorizing innocent people is the most striking. The bodies must have been recovered by someone capable of subduing them, or repairing the Stygian Tiger Seal, or both. He doubts Wei Wuxian wants it back and Lan Wangji would never undo the seals on the coffin, so that cuts out two possibilities. Jiang Wanyin took care of any known demonic cultivators years ago, though of course it's possible others have taken it up in secret.
If there was an easy villain to find and blame, no one would have pointed fingers at him. Lan Xichen forces himself to slow down and think. Storming the Cloud Recesses gave them an obvious target, a scapegoat who would let them think they were safe, but Lan Xichen knows there have been other uprisings since. He heard whispers and rumors during his travels here, and there's no one left to blame besides the masses of commoners.
Commoners, who after purchasing real, functional magic tools born from Wei Wuxian's idle brilliance, could no longer be content with letting the great sects push them around. Commoners who decided to voice their frustrations at the cultivation world for keeping their secret techniques hidden for so long.
The Yiling Patriarch, once a terrible villain, has become a folk hero who brought them tried and true ways to protect themselves without having to wait for cultivators to show up. And even if the sect leaders don't see it that way, thinking instead that people have become cheap and ungrateful, the truth remains. The watchtowers started it by giving cultivators more chances to help, but Wei Wuxian took the idea and forged a wholly new path for the common folk without thinking about the potential consequences.
There's a push to let more people learn to cultivate and create even more magic tools, to expose and fight threats better, but most sects only see it as an attack on their positions.
Lan Xichen swears, loudly, as Jin Guangyao's laughter bubbles up around him.
Without a sword or anything to identify himself, no one sees Lan Xichen as a cultivator. Perhaps he's a well-spoken merchant, or he holds a somewhat impressive bureaucratic position, but nothing that draws the wrong kind of attention. With patience and kind words, he travels until he reaches Kaizhou, where a nondescript building, long since abandoned and condemned, houses the slowly growing uprising. He trades information for entrance, spilling secrets of sects that had insisted on using him as a scapegoat. at least now they have proper reason to blame him.
He's pulled inside and faced with hushed judgment, interest, questions - How does he know about them? How did he find them? Can they trust him? - until Lan Xichen bows, polite as can be, and manages to get a word in.
"I'm here to speak to whoever is leading this," he explains. There's a chance, slim and unlikely, that he's in the right place, or this could all be a dream, or a loneliness induced hallucination, but he's going to take what he can get from life without holding back. "He'll vouch for me."
Er-ge is so clever—
"We don't know if we can trust you, let alone take you to see someone so important," one of them says.
"I understand," he agrees, offering them his hands. "Restrain me, or whatever else makes you feel safest."
Solid iron cuffs encircle his wrists, and Lan Xichen is led through the winding, confusing halls of this makeshift fortress, until—
Perched on a raised table, quietly talking to another rebel, sits Jin Guangyao.
Jin Guangyao turns and he doesn't look right, not fully alive or dead, with the Stygian Tiger Seal dangling from his belts. He lacks the tell-tale black lines of a fierce corpse, but blank eyes meet his. They lack any of the warmth or familiarity Lan Xichen associates with him as they bore into him.
Time to say goodbye for a bit, Er-ge.
There's a voice pleading in his ear, whispering apologies and half-formed promises, and the world goes black.
In the wake of Jin Guangyao's death, Lan Xichen considered dying, many more times that he's proud to admit to, before he realized that living was the only appropriate way to mourn and atone for his failures. While locked in the basement of Koi Tower, he lost the ability to do anything long before he could crave the release of death.
Jin Guangyao stands in front of him, clasps their hands together in a solidly real grip, and looks at him apologetically. "Er-ge," he says carefully, testing the air between them.
Solid is a generous term for himself. Lan Xichen feels more like an afterthought of a person. He's floating in nothingness, Jin Guangyao his only anchor. "A-Yao."
A smile twitches at the corners of his lips. "Hello, Er-ge," he says.
"Where are we?" He doesn't ask if they're dead, though the idea won't leave Lan Xichen's mind.
"Mmm, something like limbo, I think," he says, which explains so little it barely counts as an answer. "I needed to talk to you."
Jin Guangyao chuckles. "No, you don't. Don't lie, Er-ge."
He grabs the front of Lan Xichen's robes and pulls him close, and there's no sword, no smell of blood or death, and no impending tragedy in the air, but- it's so much like the time he died, he can't catch his breath.
"I need to borrow your body," Jin Guangyao says, and yanks him down for a kiss.
There's something unique about being a passenger in his own body. It's not something he has the words to properly describe, he doubts anyone would, but he tries anyway.
It's like floating through a haze, unclear and distant, and every action is muted and delayed. He can only feel so much through it, except for the way Jin Guangyao kissed him—
The kiss pushed him into this; he has so many questions but can't formulate anything, can't truly see anything, can't—
He wants to lie to himself, but he already knows that he is so far gone in love with Jin Guangyao that he can't help but trust whatever it is he's trying to accomplish.
Calm down. I'll give it back.
Jin Guangyao's voice filters through his own, fond and teasing. Will he really? Does it matter?
Of course, Er-ge. Stop distracting me with your love confessions so I can take care of this properly.
If he could still do anything, Lan Xichen's cheeks would flush, he'd laugh, and then he'd try to say it better. Jin Guangyao makes Xichen's body step forward, approaching who- or whatever it is wearing his face. The imposter looks up, his smile wrong on Jin Guangyao's lips- not A-Yao's smile at all. Lan Xichen almost wants to stay and watch, but exhaustion and Jin Guangyao's words pull him under.
I know you will.
Lan Xichen falls into the first truly restful sleep he's had in countless years, and trusts Jin Guangyao to fix everything.
Waking up is the biggest risk.
None of it is real, and he's still in the forgotten basement prison, slowly going mad.
None of it is real, and he's still in the isolation of seclusion, slowly wasting away.
None of it is real, and he's still in Guanyin Temple, helplessly watching Jin Guangyao.
None of it is real, and he's still on the run from the Wens, the Cloud Recesses are burnt and gone, and he never met—
Lan Xichen opens his eyes to meet Jin Guangyao's, and nothing besides those eyes matter. If there is chaos or calm, crowds or silence, all of it fades to nothing in that moment.
"Hello again, Er-ge," he says, offering Lan Xichen a hand up from the bed on which he'd been laid. He takes it and revels in just how really, truly solid it is.
"A-Yao," he greets him, taking him in. He's just- he's somehow just the same as always, save for what he's wearing and the lack of cinnabar on his forehead, and his eyes are full of life. It reminds Lan Xichen of the first day they met. Jin Guangyao squeezes his hand comfortingly before releasing it.
"I promised I was just borrowing it," he says, and it takes Lan Xichen a beat to realize that Jin Guangyao is talking about his body.
He laughs, because what else can he do now that everything is so impossibly, ridiculously real? "So you did."
"I appreciate your trust," Jin Guangyao tells him. It's the beginning of something new and the same all at once.
"I have a lot of questions," Lan Xichen counters, still smiling, still holding onto whatever put them back together, because he isn't planning on letting it slip away this time.
Jin Guangyao nods. "Can they wait?"
He breathes out heavily, trying to quell his frustration. "A-Yao—"
"Just for a moment. We're in the middle of a power change in an already delicate revolution," he explains, gesturing around them.
Lan Xichen looks past Jin Guangyao for the first time since he reopened his eyes. Behind him is a curtain, and through that curtain Lan Xichen can see a crowd of worried, suspicious faces waiting for answers. "Of course we are."
Jin Guangyao smiles, squeezes his hand once more, and then pushes through the curtain to face the crowd. "Apologies for worrying you all. My friend has travelled a long ways, and he collapsed from the exhaustion of his journey," he announces. It's amazing to once again watch how he can command a room, be it the shining halls of Koi Tower while impeccably put together or the makeshift base of an underground uprising having just regained control of his body.
All eyes are on them, confused but willing to listen in hopes that it will satisfy their curiosity. Lan Xichen schools his features into something safe and pleasant before joining Jin Guangyao.
"This is Lan Xichen," Jin Guangyao continues, and a wave of gasps and grumbles sweeps through the crowd. "He's been serving as my man on the inside for quite some time now, helping to bring us information and keep the sects from realizing what we are doing here."
Someone steps forward - Lan Xichen recognizes him as one of the ones who questioned him earlier - and speaks for the group. "Why should we trust him?"
"Lying is forbidden among Lan Sect cultivators," Lan Xichen says, moving to stand beside Jin Guangyao. "I can't force you to believe us, but please at least consider our words. Jin Guangyao was born a commoner and had to fight his way into the cultivation world while it looked down on him, only for the sects to turn on him the moment he stepped away from their ideals. He is my truest friend in this world, and I would never turn on him, or on the good of the world. I believe that if justice is to be found, the common people must have a voice in it."
It's another act of trust; Lan Xichen has so few of the answers, but he'll always vouch for Jin Guangyao's words.
Unsure murmurs spread through the crowd and distrust still lingers, until another person steps forward. She's a stranger to Lan Xichen, but recognition flashes on Jin Guangyao's face briefly. "I was a servant in Koi Tower," she begins. "Six months ago, Lan Xichen was locked in a secret prison under Koi Tower, blamed for inspiring the attacks at Hangyu. Despite his innocence, he didn't fight them or try to slander our efforts."
Jin Guangyao shoots him an appreciative look- once again, his good reputation is helping them in unexpected ways.
Lan Xichen merely smiles and gestures at Jin Guangyao. "A-Yao, I believe you're more prepared to lead this than I am," he says, and Jin Guangyao smiles back.
There's a discussion that stretches for hours, a mess of confusion that only becomes more snarled as exhaustion claws at everyone, and in the end, they're shuffled off to a small bedroom with promises to continue working in the morning. The diplomatic air vanishes the moment they're alone; Jin Guangyao breathes out heavily and steadies himself against a questionably stable wall.
Lan Xichen offers him a hand for support and the weary, grateful smile he gets in return is one he's seen countless times, usually after demanding discussion conferences, and—
So much comes crashing around him as he fully understands just how real it all is. After a decade of trying to move on and failing, Jin Guangyao is once again alive. It's an impossible outcome that he never even dreamed of, and yet…and yet, they're standing face to face as he lives it.
"Thank you," Jin Guangyao says, allowing Lan Xichen to lead him to sit on the makeshift bed without complaint. "I'm sure you still have questions."
"I do," he admits, opting to kneel in front of Jin Guangyao instead of trying to sit next to him on the tiny bed. "Let's start from the beginning."
Jin Guangyao nods carefully and takes a measured breath, and Lan Xichen holds up his hand. "From what brought…all of this on, this most recent situation."
"That's a bit shorter."
"I thought you expected me to start much earlier," he admits. "But this is easier. Someone broke into the coffin- a copycat demonic cultivator looking for the pieces of the Stygian Tiger Seal and happy to take two fierce corpses as a bonus. He had some noble intentions originally, I suppose. He wanted to help his fellow people and decided that demonic cultivation was a valuable skill for that fight. He was skilled enough to suppress violent energy while working away at the seal, at least for a while."
Lan Xichen watches him run a hand over the seal, still hanging from his belts, and Jin Guangyao sighs.
"He couldn't keep two resentful fierce corpses quiet forever, and Da-ge broke free. He—" He grimaces before continuing. "Da-ge nearly tore the man limb from limb, and he only survived because he'd developed a way to inhabit a fierce corpse's body."
Jin Guangyao laughs bitterly. "Stealing my body woke up my consciousness and trapped me in the back of his mind while he used me," he says, anger creeping into the carefully measured calm of his voice. "He suppressed Da-ge again and reburied him elsewhere, and then went back to working for the revolution- after mostly repairing my body. So I suppose I could be grateful for that. But I was stuck just watching him, using my face to get further and further."
Jin Guangyao was always well-liked by the common folk - he was one of them and worked hard enough to become the most important person in the cultivation world. It makes sense that he'd be seen as a valuable ally, especially if he'd forsaken the old style of sect cultivation for the tools and tricks of the common folk.
"So I broke out," Jin Guangyao says, low and determined. "I got tired of being a useless passenger and left. I couldn't take back control, but I found a way to just…leave."
"And you found me."
"Who else would help me?" he asks, and then ducks his gaze. "I'm sorry. I should be honest; I didn't choose to find you. I didn't have any choice at all. But…I suppose Er-ge still held some fondness for me, and that drew us together once again."
Lan Xichen reaches up and takes his hand. Their eyes meet again; it's still a beautiful shock to have Jin Guangyao sitting in front of him. "You helped me. I never- I don't think I would have found a way out on my own."
"You wouldn't," Jin Guangyao assures him. "Those dungeons are meant to keep people in."
There's such a finite air to it, Lan Xichen doesn't doubt him. "And then you let me go on a wild hunt across the country."
Jin Guangyao shrugs. "I had limited power and I needed you to work it out on your own. You're clever. I think I gave you plenty of clues."
"A-Yao," he begins, and settles on shaking his head fondly. "I suppose I did get here."
"It all came together in the end," Jin Guangyao assures him. "Thank you for helping me again."
"Always," Lan Xichen promises. He has helped Jin Guangyao enough for seven lifetimes, and despite the trouble and woe it has caused, he has given up on feeling guilty for their mistakes. If Jin Guangyao calls, he will be by his side.
"I—" Jin Guangyao cuts himself off. "We should rest."
Jin Guangyao holds a hand up. "Further questions in the morning, please."
Lan Xichen hasn't been able to forget how Jin Guangyao grabbed and kissed him like a man dying, desperately trying for one last bit of affection. Would he have done the same if they'd been the only two in the temple? He'll never get an answer to that - that day is too marred by betrayal and suffering and loss to pick through - but today isn't. Lan Xichen leans up from his position on the floor to cup Jin Guangyao's cheek and is rewarded with a light blush, just barely visible in the low light of the cramped room.
"Er-ge," he says tenderly, waiting as anticipation hangs between them.
"I missed you," Lan Xichen confesses. "I missed you every day from the moment you died until the moment you led me to freedom."
"I'm finding that you inspire a significant level of foolishness in me," he says fondly. "I don't mind."
"Perhaps you should. You are the esteemed Zewu-Jun, after all."
Lan Xichen laughs softly. "That reputation has been destroyed in recent years, I've heard."
Jin Guangyao leans into the hand on his cheek as his eyes slip shut. "Foolish," he repeats, sweeter this time.
"I can't believe you're here."
"Neither can I," he admits. "I can't believe you're willing to even look at me, but I suppose I shouldn't doubt you so much."
"A-Yao, I think that's been a problem for awhile."
Jin Guangyao laughs at that, smiling through the stress and exhaustion. "I'll admit, I have some trust issues."
Lan Xichen smiles back. "I know."
"Are you going to kiss me, or do I have to do all the work again?" he teases, and Lan Xichen kisses him before he can say anything else.
It's half as desperate and twice as sweet, and Lan Xichen regrets not recognizing his feelings decades ago, when a selfless young man risked his life to save his. But it's probably better this way; they've shed the weight of responsibility their reputations always demand, and there's nothing to stop them from living for themselves.
And each other.
Lan Xichen wakes up to find Jin Guangyao still curled up on his chest, his long hair a rarely seen mess. The sun shines through small cracks in the makeshift walls, and that- that's alright. He shifts to get comfortable and Jin Guangyao cracks an eye to look in Lan Xichen's general direction.
"Good morning," Lan Xichen says softly.
"Mmf," Jin Guangyao mumbles. "I see Er-ge still follows that terrible sleep schedule."
He chuckles. "It's not 5 am."
"I suppose it's not that early," he concedes, making no further attempts to get up. Jin Guangyao snuggles up against him and something catches in Lan Xichen's throat - the hint of tears, perhaps - and he wraps an arm around him. "Oh, are we going back to sleep, Er-ge?"
"If you want to."
"Don't tempt me," he says. It is tempting; after so many months of uncertainty and years apart, it would be nice to just lay back and take it all in slowly, quietly, and peacefully.
"I'm not in any rush to get out of bed," Lan Xichen assures him.
"I'm not in any rush to face this mess of politics we've fallen into, but we're going to have to eventually."
"Always the problem solver, A-Yao."
"I try," he says proudly. "What do you want to do next?"
There are many answers he could give: return to the Cloud Recesses to let his family know he's safe, run from the cultivation world to escape whatever charges they want to pin on him, or—
"Stay with you," he decides on, because whatever he does, he wants Jin Guangyao to be part of it.
"Well, Er-ge, we're wanted men, likely assumed to be dead. Meanwhile, my body has become somewhat of a rebel leader in my absence..." Jin Guangyao says, idly tracing patterns down Lan Xichen's arm. "How about we cause some trouble?"
Lan Xichen laughs hard enough that he almost jostles Jin Guangyao off of him. "You're in quite the situation."
"Perhaps I'll give being a different sort of leader a try," he muses. "What do you say, Er-ge? Are we leading another uprising?"
"Hopefully a less violent one this time," Lan Xichen says.
Jin Guangyao gives him a full-body shrug that turns into a leisurely stretch. "I suppose that's up to the other side."
"If we can talk civilly, I'll be happy to," he says, his pleasant smile barely concealing the danger within. "If they attack first…"
Lan Xichen sighs. "Before anything else, I think we should have breakfast."
"Mm, and clean you up. Really, it's like you were living like a prisoner before this," Jin Guangyao says innocently and Lan Xichen snorts.
"No sympathy for defending you, I see," Lan Xichen teases affectionately, tucking some loose hair behind Jin Guangyao's ear and reveling in the light blush coloring his cheeks. There's still so much they'll need to discuss and work through, but he knows they can face the uncertain future together.