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Empathy

Chapter Text

 

Falling, you’re falling.

You’re falling down the stairs of the brothel, and you can hear your mother cry out your name. You hear her cries as the man drags her by the hair and out onto the street, naked. You try to get up, to help her, but everything hurts and your head is swimming and your body won’t move.

You’re falling down the stairs of the Koi Tower. Your father had sent a man to kick you down. You see your short life rush before your eyes as you roll down the steps, you didn’t know how to stop.

You’re falling down the Koi Tower again. The man whom you once respected, who was the first to recognize your brilliance, has kicked you down. “As expected from the son of a whore,” he says. You despise that title. You despise him.

You murder, you lie, you send everyone you’ve ever loved to their deaths and make a raft out of their bodies so you won’t drown. But the lies have an expiry and you don’t even have the time to scream when it all crumbles around you, when you find ShuoYue stuck in your chest.

You fall again.


Nie MingJue wakes up.

The first thing he realizes, upon being awake, is that he can feel his body. There is sensation and weight. The second thing he realized is that he can control his limbs. He can feel the muscles in his body ache with tension as he sat up.

The next thing is the fact that he’s thinking, forming coherent thoughts rather than whirls of anger and memories that don’t belong to him.

He curls his hands before him, opening and closing his fists. It’s solid, flesh and blood, alive. A glance at the mirror, and it all comes back. He’s Nie MingJue, he is alive. He is on his way to YunMeng, attending the opening of the new Supervision Office, built upon the grounds of the former Lotus Pier.  

He clenches his fists. A few years later, he will lead the Sunshot Campaign, and eliminate every last one of the Wen Dogs. After that, he will die at the hands of his own sworn brother, Meng Yao.

Meng Yao.

The man who calls himself Nie MingJue can feel their memories intertwine. He has experienced Meng Yao’s life in that casket, felt it as the man was kicked down the Koi Tower, felt it as his own hands snapped his neck.

“Brother, you look pale, i-is everything okay?” HuaiSang asks as they depart. His younger half-brother by blood, who will one day plot Meng Yao’s downfall to avenge his death.

 


 

YunMeng

A cloud of anxiety hangs over YunMeng. Though the common folks care not for the strifes of the cultivation world, a power shift like this will surely trickle down. Jiang FengMian has established a good name for his sect, and YunMeng is feelings its loss.

A commotion can be heard from the establishment before him. A woman, half-conscious, is being dragged onto the street by the Madam. A young man follows behind them, begging on his hands and knees.

“Please, I’ll do anything, I’ll take any job that the others won't. I’ll get the money for medicine myself. Please, just give us another month. No. Two weeks! If she doesn’t get better by two weeks we’ll leave.”

This young man is Meng Yao.

Nie MinJue remembers this incident. He had paid the Madam off in the past-life. He never remembered Meng Yao’s face back then, but Meng Yao remembered his.

Seeing that the Madam is unmoved, Meng Yao turns to the crowd. “Please, someone, anyone, my mother’s dying.”

Their eyes meet, and Meng Yao looks perfectly pitiful. He's dressed in simple garbs, and his stature makes him look even younger than his age.

In that moment, Nie MingJue sees the boy for who he will become. Everything he’s seen in his past-life, plus everything he’s witnessed in that coffin. Meng Yao, being kicked down the Koi Tower. Meng Yao, calmly killing his superior officer. Meng Yao, torturing someone for Wen RuoHan with a self-satisfied smile. Meng Yao, receiving mockery for his sleepless efforts. Meng Yao, murdering his political enemies, murdering Nie MingJue, murdering his father, his son, his wife. Meng Yao, with ShuoYue sticking through his chest.

It will be mercy to kill him right here and now.

Unfortunately, Nie MinJue cannot just kill someone on the street without reason.

“You,” he points at Meng Yao, “come with me.”

“This is the leader of the Qinghe Nie Sect!” One of his men immediately shouts. Nie MingJue draws his saber with a bright flash of Qi to demonstrate.

The Madam immediately courtesies, “he’s all yours, Sect Leader.”

A flash of wariness crosses Meng Yao’s face,  immediately replaced by an appeasing smile, something that looks off on such a young face. “Meng Yao is pleased to greet Sect Leader Nie. Let’s discuss business inside, I can offer you some tea." He doesn’t stand up from his kneeling position.

“There’s no need, come with me,” he repeats, his fingers curls around his sword reflexively. The killing intent must have shown because Meng Yao stiffens.

“If Meng Yao has offended Sect Leader Nie in any way, I apologize. My mother… she’s very sick. Please first allow me to–“

He wasn’t making this easy, and Nie MingJue’s patience has run out. He takes a step forward and grabs Meng Yao by the arm.

Sensing his own danger, Meng Yao doesn't get up, instead, he remains kneeled and raises his voice in distress. “Sect Leader Nie, I don’t know what I did wrong. If I have offended you in any way, please let me know what I can do to amend my mistakes.”

It’ll be easy for Nie MingJue to just knock the boy out and drag him out of town, but HuaiSang is tugging on his sleeve nervously. They’re making a scene, with the current delicate atmosphere at YunMeng, it’s best not to cause a panic. He doesn’t want to have to explain this to the Wen Sect later today.

What would Jin GuangYao do?

Deception, a soft voice in Nie MingJue's mind whispers, what is the one thing Meng Yao desires the most?

To take advantage of a child’s desire for the recognition of his father, it's despicable. 

“Calm down,” he let go of Meng Yao’s arm, and the young man immediately prostrates himself before him.

“What are you all staring at?” He shouts to the gathering crowd, "Mind your own business!” These lines wouldn’t have worked coming out of anyone else’s mouths, but he’s Nie MingJue, and his voice holds power. The crowd disperses in equal amount of fear and respect. 

Once the crowd disperses, Nie MingJue commands, “Get up.”

Meng Yao follows obediently, keeping his head lowered.

Nie MingJue pushes down his anger and lowers his voice, “Your father, Jin GuangShan. I know him.”

There was no lie in his statement. He could have claimed that Jin GuangShan sent him, but he didn’t need to, because Meng Yao’s head snaps up like an arrow, his eyes wide with desperate hope.

It’s for the better, Nie MingJue reminds himself. He has never been the type to get sentimental. Many more innocents will die by this man’s hands. There’s no use prolonging his suffering.

“My mother... She doesn’t have much time left. It would make her infinitely happy if he can come to see her one last time."

The wish isn’t something Nie MingJue can answer, so he doesn’t.

“Take her to an Inn and get her some medicine,” he commands HuaiSang, who eyes him with slight confusion but obliges.

“Follow me,” he motions to Meng Yao, who gets up immediately and eagerly follows to his death.

Never has Nie MingJue thought there’d be a day where he would deceive Meng Yao.

It’s easier than you thought it’d be, isn’t it? Asks the soft voice in his head.


They walk in silence.

As they travel further and further from civilization, Meng Yao considers his prospects.

This Sect Leader Nie is impossible to read.

If the man is indeed sent by his father, then has he misread the aggression from earlier?

There isn’t much Meng Yao can offer to a man like this. This man has nothing to gain from killing him. If the man has wanted sex, it’d have happened at the brothel, he certainly doesn’t look like he lacked money. Suppose this man has lied about his status as a Sect Leader, the worse Meng Yao can foresee is to being forced into slavery, which, he supposes, isn’t much worse than being kicked out onto the street with an ailing mother.

If there is even a slim chance that this man is here to help them, Meng Yao will gladly take it.

It is to Nie MingJue’s luck that Meng Yao, still filled with the hopefulness and naivety of youth, doesn’t consider the possibility that his father has sent someone to get rid of his proof of infidelity. But the fact of the matter is, even if this man means him harm, Meng Yao has no way of escaping. This man is a cultivator, and he, a mortal. It’s not like he can outrun him.

As they walk further and further from civilization, Nie MinJue’s head swam with memories of Meng Yao’s life. He remembers walking up the Koi tower, one step at a time with hope in his heart and desperate anticipation heavy in his stomach. He remembers the flare of hope in Meng Yao’s face, the youthful enthusiasm whenever he praised Meng Yao’s work. He remembers the grateful smile he received when he handed Meng Yao his recommendation letter to the Jins.

He remembers Jin GuangYao’s tears when he killed his own son, thinking ‘it’s better this way’, thinking ‘it had to be done’. He’ll make it swift, the child won’t have to suffer. Is what he’s doing any better?

He remembers the Sunshot campaign, the watchtowers, all the lives Jin GuangYao would eventually end up saving.

Is he getting rid of a great evil for the future? Or simply avoiding his own death?

Is Meng Yao’s fall truly inevitable?

At a clearing, they come to a stop.

“Kneel,” Nie MingJue commands, a hand on his saber.

Chapter Text

Nie HuaiSang suspects his brother is possessed.

Ever since their trip to YunMeng, Nie MingJue has been behaving oddly. The other day, when HuaiSang complained about saber practice for what was probably the eighth time, instead of shouting at him, Big Brother asked if he wanted to try practicing with another weapon.

His brother asked if he wanted to try another weapon!

Everyday since Dad passed away, it’s always been saber, saber, saber. “The saber is the hallmark of the Nie Sect Cultivation. We’re butchers, not entertainers.” And yes, the saber is great. Nie HuaiSang thinks it’s great when his brother uses it. But it’s not like HuaiSang can help the fact that he’s not good at it. All his complaints has went unheard to Big Brother… Until now.

HuaiSang had to look up to check if the sky had somehow turned yellow.

Overall, his brother seems to have gotten… gentler and more thoughtful. He doesn’t raise his voice nearly as much and spends much more time staring into space (or, god forbid, at him) thoughtfully.

It all happened after his brother took in the illegitimate son of Jin GuangShan as a disciple, completely out of the blue. (Nobody aside from those present on that day knows about Meng Yao’s heritage. Big Brother has specifically instructed everyone who was there that day to keep it hushed.) Nie HuaiSang has no idea what kind of arrangements his brother has with the LanLingJin Sect, and frankly, doesn’t care. He just finds it a little odd that this was never brought up before.

Nie MingJue’s attitude towards Meng Yao is… a little strange. He’s unusually strict with Meng Yao in comparison to the other disciples, and, knowing his brother, this is a sign of favouritism. (All the younger disciples mentally light an incense stick for Meng Yao and thank him for his sacrifice.) The odd thing lies in the fact that Nie MingJue never seems to take pride in Meng Yao’s accomplishments. One would think he’d be more invested in Meng Yao’s progress considering how much attention he pays him. Nie HuaiSang doesn’t know why, but he gets the sense that Nie MingJue is too careful around Meng Yao, like he’s always judging, always anticipating something.

Meng Yao definitely notices this, and make double the effort to impress. As his shixiong, Nie HuaiSang makes it his mission to occasionally steal the boy from practice so he doesn’t overwork himself into a tinier Nie MingJue.

Suspiciousness aside, Meng Yao is generally a very pleasant person. He’s different than most big sect cultivator kids, no snobbish attitude or overblown ego. And if his brother has, for unknown reason, gotten gentler because of this kid, Nie HuaiSang’s not gonna ask for a refund.


Meng Yao’s mother had passed away shortly after arriving at the Unclean Realm. Even with their best doctors, it was too late to save the woman. Nie HuaiSang had the misfortune of being a witness. Death was uncomfortable enough to begin with, the fact the two of them weren’t even close made it all the more awkward.

He remembered when his own mother passed away. He was crying all over the place begging “mom, mom, please don’t go.” Meng Yao did none of that. Meng Yao was smiling and whispering to her softly as she took her last breath, and continued to hold her hand until it was clear, even to HuaiSang, that the woman was dead. Only then did Meng Yao break down, sobbing and shaking like the world had ended.

That was the first time HuaiSang thought his new shidi was an admirable person.

He remembered crying in his brother’s arms back when his own mother died. He was surrounded by family and people he knew. He couldn’t quite imagine what it was like for Meng Yao, alone in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people. In an awkward attempt at comfort, he hugged Meng Yao, only to end up crying along somehow, despite having no relations to the dead.

When Big Brother got there, they were pretty much crying in a sob pile.

After that experience, Nie HuaiSang felt like he had really bonded with his new shidi, and practically drags Meng Yao around whenever his brother isn’t looking.

Present Time, Unclean Realm Library

It has been a long day of cultivation practice. As per usual, Meng Yao gave his best effort, and Nie HuaiSang gave his best effort to slack off.

“Pst, Yao-Ge,” Nie HuaiSang tugs on Meng Yao’s sleeve, a secretive smile on his face.

“HuaiSang, what is it?” Meng Yao responds with his usual pleasant smile.

“It’s time we bond… as men!” Nie HuaiSang answers, voice completely serious.

“…Hm?“

Nie HuaiSang reveals his treasures.

“A good brother always shares his porn,” he says seriously.

Meng Yao blinks, slowly, face blank.

In retrospect, considering Meng Yao’s background, sharing porn might not have been the brightest idea. HuaiSang opens his mouth to explain himself, but Meng Yao starts chuckling.

“Sorry, sorry, thank you, HuaiSang, I really appreciate this,” he starts idly flipping through, without even a blush or a pause at the lewdest drawings, “I know you’re not trying to insinuate anything. You just caught me by surprise. I didn’t… Heh… I’ve never been shown something like this before.”

“I guess it’s different when you see it live,” HuaiSang scratches his head awkwardly. He tries to keep it polite, but doesn’t quite manage to hide the little spark of curiosity.

“It’s… Different, yes,” Meng Yao lowers his eyes for a moment, “I like these, they’re… artistic.”

The drawings are filled with soft colours, and the people look happy. In its simplistic flatness, everything is clean and abstract. The erotic poetry uses pretty, embellished language, words Meng Yao had heard his mother use from time to time. It’s familiar, yet different.

“Right?” Happy to gain Meng Yao’s approval, HuaiSang’s eyes light up, “Here, this one is my favorite!” He points to a certain poem, and eagerly shows Meng Yao a few more.

“It seems like all of these are between man and woman,” Meng Yao remarks after a while, he glances at Nie HuaiSang with the most innocent look, “a preference?”

“H-how else would it be done?”

“Well you see…”

Meng Yao was in the process of telling a juicy tale from the brothel when Nie MingJue walked in.


Nie MingJue understands Meng Yao, and through Meng Yao, Nie MingJue understands himself. He had always thought of himself as a righteous man, but it was through Meng Yao that he learnt he wasn’t a kind one. What he thought of as justice was arrogance and self-righteousness. Nie MingJue knows this now.

The one Nie MingJue can never seem to understand is HuaiSang.

He had loved his brother in the past life, cared for his wellbeing and saddled him with expectations the way a parent would, but he had never made any effort to understand the boy. Jin GuangYao probably understood HuaiSang better than Nie MingJue ever did, but in the end, he was wrong about HuaiSang too. The scheming, calculating man that orchestrated Jin GuangYao’s downfall – the ruthless man who wagered the lives of children– simply doesn’t connect with his scatterbrained useless brother. Was that man born out of desperation for revenge? Or was he always there, lying underneath the carefree surface?

His own brother, Nie HuaiSang, the one he had held as an infant, the child who used to chase after him calling him “Da-ge,” the teen with the carefree smile. He had watched him grow up. He doesn’t understand how the young man had became a vicious man like Jin GuangYao. The prospect frightens him.

Meng Yao is a hardworking young man. Nie MingJue has admired that about him in their past lives. (It was impossible to hate him like this.) Part of him hopes that Meng Yao’s dedication can act as a positive influence on HuaiSang, part of him dreads the prospect of HuaiSang becoming anything like that man.

When he found the two boys huddled together by Meng Shi’s deathbed, he couldn’t pull HuaiSang away. Meng Yao had lost the person closest to him, it would have been cruel to deny the boy a moment of camaraderie, of comfort that Nie MingJue couldn’t provide. So he left them be.

Perhaps that was a mistake, because HuaiSang practically hung off Meng Yao’s shoulders afterwards, and now, now Meng Yao is telling HuaiSang tales from the brothel.

The boys stares at him.

He stares back.

“I was wrong,” Meng Yao is the first to apologize, carefully, he bows his head, “I shouldn’t have shared such base stories with Young Master Nie. Please forgive this transgression.” He kept his head lowered, eyes downcast.

All traces of anger vanish from Nie MingJue’s mind, replaced by exhaustion. Two boys sharing porn, what should have been a simple disciplinary issue becomes a matter of social standing and class. In both this life and the last, Nie MingJue has told himself that he has never held Meng Yao’s upbringing against him. Yet, when anger overpowered reason, he had called Meng Yao “son of a whore”.

The stories he considered unworthy and base were of Meng Yao’s life.

“Straighten your back, look at me,” he orders, “gossiping about other people is a waste of time, but sharing things from your own life is allowed.”

Meng Yao looks up in polite confusion.

“I’ve never asked you about what your life was like before coming to QingHe Nie,” he takes a seat, beside HuaiSang, whose eyes darts between them nervously, “tell me about it.”

He knew what it was like. He was there, in Meng Yao’s memories. But throughout his life, he’s never made an effort to understand another person. He’s beginning to see its importance.

Meng Yao looks equal parts confused and intimidated. “What would Sect Leader Nie like to know?”

This is more difficult than Nie MingJue imagined.

“Whatever you want to share.”

Meng Yao takes a moment to compose himself, no doubt calculating what to say. The pleasant smile is back on his face in no time. “My mother was known for being learnt in art and poetry…”

Meng Yao tells him about the softer, more sentimental aspects his life, and speaks about the hardship of being poor, of humble labour and growing up hungry. He doesn’t mention any crude details, doesn’t mention cruelty or humiliation, doesn’t mention being kicked down the stairs, doesn’t mention having to hide as men beat his mother, doesn’t mention the worst he’s done to survive. He smiles, bright and seemingly genuine, and says “It’s thanks to Sect Leader Nie’s kindness that I can be here now, fulfilling my mother’s wish and practicing cultivation. Meng Yao is eternally grateful.”

For the first time in this life, Nie MingJue allows his hand to rest upon Meng Yao’s head. “You’ve done well,” he says, and doesn’t elaborate on it.

Chapter Text

“You’re weak. You lack upper body strength. The saber is not suitable for you. Pick another weapon.”

A few months ago, Meng Yao would have been more worried about being kicked out. But now he knows better.

The Sect Leader Nie is… conversationally challenged.

He has realized it’s better to just take Sect Leader Nie’s words, no matter how hurtful they sound, at face value. Nie MingJue spoke the truth; though Meng Yao may get stronger from training, he’s certainly not going to get much larger. Using a large saber is not ideal.

“Maybe you could just use a straight sword, like other sects,” Nie HuaiSang, who is also trying to search for a new blade, suggests. “To be honest, I don’t think my problem is with the saber, I’m just not made for fighting.”

Sect Leader Nie is a difficult man to read. He has a very direct personality, which means he makes it painfully obvious when he’s hiding something, and Meng Yao can tell he’s always hiding something. Meng Yao has never met anyone like this. Those who are accustomed to keeping secrets are generally well versed in subtlety, and those who are not don’t tend to have this many. Nie MingJue makes no attempt to hide the fact that he’s hiding secrets, yet he gives nothing away.

He can also be frighteningly sharp and perceptive at times. Whenever Meng Yao is with him, he has the sense that Sect Leader Nie can see right through him.

Yet, Sect Leader Nie doesn’t have the social grace to talk like a normal person.

Sect Leader Nie is strict, and doubly so towards Meng Yao. HuaiSang has used the word “overbearing”. Truth be told, Meng Yao doesn’t mind it. Prior to Nie MingJue, the only person who’s ever had high expectations for him was his mother, and she pushed him because she cared. Nobody else has ever paid him this much attention. It’s flattering, and every time Sect Leader Nie raises the bar, Meng Yao can’t help but feels a little special.


The day after the death of his mother, Meng Yao had asked Nie MingJue to see his father.

“No,” Nie MingJue answered.

And that concluded the conversation.

A few months passed before Meng Yao asked a second time. On the third time, his impatience was clear.

“If he wanted you around, you wouldn’t be here right now,” Nie MingJue puts it bluntly. He remembers the way Meng Yao was treated in the Jin Sect. He remembers rolling down the steps of the Koi Tower. He understands how important this is to Meng Yao— important enough to kill for. Which is why the sooner he crushes Meng Yao’s hope of recognition from his father, the better.

Nie MingJue wants to stop Meng Yao from becoming a vicious man, but the more pressing thought in his heart is to protect the boy before him. Clever, earnest Meng Yao, who holds hope for the world, who hasn’t perfected faking a smile, whose eyes light up at the barest hint of recognition.

“I understand,” Meng Yao answers, perfect composure, “I know it may inconvenience him to have me around, I just wish to speak to him.”

And what will Meng Yao get in return? Derision? Rejection? Disappointment?

Facing Nie MingJue’s silence, Meng Yao adds, “if my father did not care for my mother, he would not have asked Sect Leader Nie to find us. I’m eternally grateful to Sect Leader Nie for taking us in, but I’d like to thank him in person as well.”

He had never made up a lie about why he took Meng Yao in, and now it seems like Meng Yao had come to his own conclusion. A dangerous misconception.

“Your father never asked me,” Nie MingJue clarifies. It pains him. “He doesn’t want to see you.”

"But you…” Meng Yao frowns, confusion clear. “I… You took us in…”

A question hangs in the air between them, one which Nie MingJue can’t bring himself to answer.

Because I pitied you. Nie MingJue can never bring himself to say the words out loud. Even at this age, Meng Yao has pride, pride which he squashes down as understanding dawns in his eyes, as his knees hit the ground.

“Thank you, Sect Leader Nie,” Meng Yao smiles, imperfect, a stab to the heart, “for your compassion and generosity.”

Nie MingJue remembers what it was like, to put a smile over your injured dignity, to be reminded of your inferiority and having no choice but to give thanks for it. He never wanted to put Meng Yao in this position.

He doesn’t want to see Meng Yao on his knees.

“Stand up straight,” he orders, “look at me. You’re a talented cultivator, a fast learner, and more hard working than any other disciple in this sect. The Nie Sect is fortunate to have you.”

It isn't out of pity. Meng Yao, with all his flaws, is capable, is talented, and works harder than anyone. Nie MingJue respects that.

Meng Yao’s face is frozen in shock.

“Th-thank you, Sect Leader Nie,” he finally manages to answer.

Not knowing how to continue this, Nie MingJue decides to end with a warning, “Prepare yourself, a war is coming."


In the end, Meng Yao picked the soft sword. Nie HuaiSang tried it with him for a bit before going back to the saber.

“It’s so so hard to control,” Nie HuaiSang comments, “suits you, though. Have you thought of a name for it?”

“Not yet, I think I’ll practice with it a bit more before cultivating with it,” Meng Yao answers.


There’s one more oddity that Meng Yao has noticed about Nie MingJue.

He won’t let Meng Yao stand near stairs.

The other day, Meng Yao was giving a report when Nie MingJue suddenly interrupted him.

“Stand here,” he said, pointing at a spot in front of him, “watch where you’re standing. You may fall.”

By the third time this happened, Meng Yao was beginning to wonder whether the sect leader had some misconceptions about his sense of balance.

Sect Leader Nie continues to be a mystery.


“There’s someone you need to meet,” Nie MingJue says to Lan XiChen, “this is Meng Yao, my aide.”

Meng Yao and Lan XiChen have already met, of course. Through empathy, Nie MingJue knew of the first meeting between Lan XiChen and Meng Yao. Lan XiChen, escaping from the Wen with Cloud Recess’s forbidden books on his back, covered in grime and dirt, a vision even in the dirtied white robes. Meng Yao, meeting a cultivator for the first time, filled with wide-eyed wonder. 

When ZeWu-Jun said, “it’s the shame of a lifetime, I’d rather not bring it up,” Nie MingJue felt just a bit voyeuristic. Lan XiChen, too, has his pride, and it’s a shame for Nie MingJue to know of their past without Lan XiChen’s knowledge or consent.

Meng Yao’s eyes lights up — just as it did a lifetime ago — when they meet Lan XiChen’s.

When the three of them sat together and strategizes for the upcoming war, it was like nothing has changed.


"Meng Yao, are you happy here?”

“Of course, I’m grateful to Sect Leader Nie.”

 

Chapter Text

They’re more prepared this time around. With insider knowledge of Wen RuoHan’s tactical habits and resources from Meng Yao’s past life, Nie MingJue holds an advantage.

In his past life, Nie MingJue might have felt dishonourable, using knowledge that he put no effort in gaining. But Nie MingJue is not a young man anymore, and every advantage means more lives spared.


Nie MingJue is frustrated.

Meng Yao had asked for an opportunity to work under a Jin Sect squadron. Once again, he had asked to go back to his father.

“If I can prove myself capable in my father’s eyes–"

“Why do you insist on going back? Are you not satisfied with your life at QingHe Nie?” He can’t say ‘you won’t be treated well’, or ‘they will trample upon your success and claim it as their own’, or ’they will use you until there’s nothing left and ask for more’, or ‘if you go back you will eventually turn evil’. No, he can’t really prove any of that and he doubts any of it would be a real warning to Meng Yao anyway.

“Sect Leader Nie, you have done everything for me, I do not mean to be ungrateful. Gaining my rightful name was my mother’s last wish for me. It may seem petty and intangible, but I…” He pauses and frowns, expression wary, “I want to have my rightful position in society. Is that… shallow of me?”

It may have been a genuine question, or an attempt to play on Nie MingJue’s sympathy. With Meng Yao, nothing’s ever simple. The sentiment isn’t difficult to understand, though. Meng Yao can make a name for himself, but he cannot make one for his mother. His legitimacy will mean the acknowledgment of his mother’s existence from his father.

“You are the proof of your father’s infidelity. Your father’s sect would do everything in their power to discredit you. If you wish to gain their acknowledgment, focus on doing your job here, have some real accomplishment under your belt so they can’t ignore you.“

Meng Yao takes a long moment to digest this.

“Yes, Sect Leader,” he bows his head, “I understand.”

“Good.”

“Sect Leader?”

“Hm?”

“Thank you… for your guidance. Truly.”


The victories do not last.

Wen RuoHan did not rise to power by being predictable, and the knowledge Nie MingJue has from Meng Yao’s past life can only carry them so far. The tide turned, sudden and unexpected, catching everyone off-balance. Nie MingJue’s strategies, which has once brought them to victories, are now responsible for their losses.

Nie MingJue has been prepared for this. If he is to lead them to victory, he must also shoulder their losses. Such is the role of a commander.

That doesn’t make the death of their men any lighter. Nor does it appease their allies. Those who praised him, relied on him earlier in the war, all turned against him the moment they stopped winning. Accusations are flung through the air.

“We’ve been trusting your strategies so far without question, Sect Leader Nie, and stood victorious in many battles, all credited to the Nie Sect. Truly, you’re a brilliant man,” comments a leader from a minor sect. At any other time, this would have been a compliment, but following immediately after a lost battle, it was clearly insincere.

“What are you trying to say, Sect Leader He?”

“Forgive my imprudence, Sect Leader Nie, but just as it had begun to look like we’re making progress, the tide turns on us, and suddenly, you have no more solutions. Sect Leader Nie, is there an insider source you’re not telling us about? Perhaps you know something the rest of us don’t.”

The tension in the room is palpable. No one else dares to speak up, but quiet murmurs of agreements can be heard.

The implication is not a friendly one. Disclose the identity of your spy, unless you’ve been colluding with Wen RuoHan.

“I really wonder, Sect Leader Nie, most of the victories so far has been from the Nie Sect.”

“Sect Leader He,” Meng Yao chimes in with a placating smile, as he kneels down to refill the tea. He keeps his head lowered respectfully. “Your concern is understandable. Tides change, such is the nature of war. Wen RuoHan has always been a difficult man to predict. We must not let a few losses cloud our vision. They are but a small stumble compared to the immense progress we’ve made since the beginning of this campaign. Besides, if Sect Leader Nie does have an insider source, divulging their identity would endanger them and the entire operation, as I’m sure you’ll understand.”

“Your aide has a clever tongue,” he stares at Meng Yao, long and hard, and left it at that.


The next time Nie MingJue saw the other sect leader, the man was on the other end of Meng Yao’s blade.

Meng Yao stood over him, eyes cold as he withdrew his blade. He was swift, careful, robe pristine, unstained by a single drop of blood.

In another life, just like this one, Nie MingJue unsheathed BaXia.

Meng Yao flinches, his terror a perfect replica, “Sect Leader Nie?”

How did this happen?

“Explain yourself,” Nie MingJue growls coldly.

Meng Yao’s knees hit the ground immediately, his sword dropping from his hand.

“Sect Leader, please listen. This man here has been stealing credit for your victories all this time, and now he’s trying to frame you for his recent loss, loss resulting from his own errors. I simply cannot let that happen.”

“So you killed him?!”

How did this happen?

Meng Yao is silent for a moment, before looking up from the ground. “Yes,” he says quietly, eyes steady.

How did this happen?

“So you’re saying that you’ve done this… for my sake?”

How did this happen?!

Silence.

“Have I told you to do this for me?”

Meng Yao flinches. Nie MingJue grabs him by the collar, lifting him upwards. He doesn’t struggle.

“He was an ally to our cause! Any misconduct can be reported publicly.”

“Sect Leader,” Meng Yao composes himself, he takes a large breath. Hoisted by the collar, he can neither kneel nor stand. Speaking is a struggle, yet he speaks softly when he says “I apologize on acting without orders, but If I, your aide, report his misconducts; if you, leader of one of the four major sects, contest his claim, who would look like the guilty one?”

“So you killed him?! Do you think I care about credits more than the life of our ally?”

“Ally?” Meng Yao struggles to pull himself up by the arms, the top of his foot scraping against the ground uselessly, "Sect Leader, you can so easily predict your enemies in war, yet you cannot see the enemies right under your nose. Have you noticed how easily everyone was swayed by his words? When the Wens are gone, all the sects will be fighting to fill the power vacuum. People will be desperate to get rid of you and weaken the Nie Sect. If you allow him to discredit your victories and blame you for all our defeats, you’re going to become the next target.”

Nie MingJue’s loosens his grip, Meng Yao drops to the ground.

He’s right, you know?

“So you’re just going to kill everyone who stands in my way, finish Wen RuoHan’s job for him before he gets to us?”

Silence.

“How many have you killed?”

“Sect Leader…”

“How many?!”

“This is the only one,” Meng Yao answers.

He’s lying. “Can I believe you?”

“Sect Leader, I don’t treat lives lightly, I had no cho-”

He’s lying. “You’re lying.”

Meng Yao stops speaking. His eyes drop to the ground.

It was a mistake. All of this was a mistake. Meng Yao was not a boy, but a monster. Nie MingJue was foolish to think he could tame him.

It was for you. Meng Yao killed for you.

“Tomorrow, you will apologize for your crime before everyone, your fate will be decided by the members of his sect. I will ensure you are tried fairly.”

You’re taking me to my death, he says, voice hollow, in another life.

“I will not,” Meng Yao says in this life, voice trembling, “Sect Leader, you have given me the opportunity to live, to become a cultivator. I owe this life to you and I will not apologize for protecting your interest. I will not implicate you by making this public. If Sect Leader must punish me for this crime…” He draws a long, shaking breath, one which sounded like a sob. “If Sect Leader must punish me for this crime, then strike me down and leave my body here on this battleground. But don’t… please don’t tell anyone what transpired here… Please…”

It was for you.

“Straighten your back and lift up your head,” Nie MingJue instructs.

Meng Yao looks up, eyes wide. He didn’t expect to die. He thought Nie MingJue would have more sentiments. He thought Nie MingJue would never hurt him. He hoped Nie MingJue was on his side, just like he was on Nie MingJue’s.

It was for you.

Nie MingJue raises his saber. Meng Yao closes his eyes.

It was for you. It was for you. Meng Yao killed for you.

His saber strikes the ground beside Meng Yao with a dull thud.

“Reflect upon your actions tonight. Tomorrow, I want you to tell me what you think you deserve. We’re going back to camp.”

Chapter Text

Meng Yao does not wait for the next day.

"Sect Leader He was right, we need an inside source,” he presents to Nie MingJue on the very same evening.

A pause.

“I can be that person.”

The past is repeating itself, right before Nie MingJue’s eyes.


 

“No,” he answers. He remembers Meng Yao’s days undercover, the constant fear that if he even dared to breathe the wrong way, Wen RuoHan would find out. He remembers Meng Yao, eyes cold, killing without remorse.

“The war has stretched on for too long,” Meng Yao continues, “Just earlier today, 134 men have died, even more civilians were displaced.[1] The longer this war continues, the more cultivators will be needlessly sacrificed, and the more civilians will be driven out of their homes. What we need are decisive victories, and, forgive my bluntness, we have not had those in a long time.”

You can’t go.” Not you, anyone but you.

Meng Yao frowns and studies Nie MingJue with apprehension.

“Sect Leader,” he says, determination in his voice, “You’ve asked me to reflect upon my actions, and I have. What I did was wrong. But no amount of regret or punishment would bring back the man I killed. The only way I can atone for my crimes to the He Sect is by offering all of us a chance for a swifter victory.

“Right now, we have an opportunity. Our fallout was heard by our men. Disgraced, I escape in the night to avoid my punishment, joining the Wen Sect with information to defeat you, who have forsaken me. I will tell them the location of our camps, and you will prepare for a swift retreat, giving the Wens an easy victory while minimizing our loss. From that point, I will work to earn their trust.”

A long silence stretches between them.

“You will die,” Nie MingJue says. He knows that Meng Yao will not, but the boy before him, the one he has tried to protect, the one with hope in his eyes, will never exist again.

Meng Yao doesn’t understand this. He blinks, he smiles, and he thinks Nie MingJue is concerned for his safety. He doesn’t know anything. And it’s with naivety and youthful arrogance that he says, “I understand that there are risks, but I can do this. I am the only one who’s capable of doing this. Sect Leader Nie, you’ve given me so many opportunities in the past, allow me to prove myself once more.”

And he was right. Nie MingJue knows Meng Yao’s capabilities first hand. He knows Meng Yao will succeed in bringing down Wen RuoHan.

He remembers Meng Yao, a smile on his face as he ran his blade through a man.

And what is the innocence of one boy compared to the lives of hundreds? If there was even innocence there in the first place.

“Fine, you may go,” Nie MingJue cannot find a reason to refuse him. He cannot find a reason to drag on this war and let more people die. “Well, do you need to stab me?”

“Uh…” Meng Yao blinks, several times, in rapid concession, “I didn’t plan to, but if Sect Leader thinks it’d be more convincing… let me know where to stab?”

“…Nevermind."

And what happens once the war is over? Once you no longer need him? Once he transforms into a monster? What then?


“You know, Yao-Ge, I use to be friends with Sect Leader Jiang, back before all this happened, Wei WuXian too. I use to share porn with them and Wei WuXian would sneak in the alcohol.”

“They’re from Lotus Pier, so back when we first met… Well… You know what happened back then. I thought they died. But look at them now, all dark and foreboding.”

“Hey Yao-Ge, it seems like everyone’s changed a lot in the past year, huh?”

“Da-Ge is more and more distant nowadays. I can’t even talk to him outside of giving reports.”

“I’m kind of scared, you know. What’s gonna become of us? Will we still be able to talk like this when all this is over?”

“Heh, thanks, Yao-Ge, you always know what to say to make me feel better, not like Da-Ge. Honestly, I don’t know how he’d manage without you.”

“I’m gonna miss having you around.”

“Come back safe, Yao-Ge.”


“My sword, I’ve thought of a name for it,” Meng Yao had told Nie MingJue, right before he left.

“WangSheng 望生, hope for life.[2]

“You allowed me to pick this sword, and I thought it fitting to name it in your honour.”

With both hands, he held the sword before Nie MingJue. An offering. Nie MingJue rested his hand upon the hilt.

“You’ve asked if I’ve been happy in QingHe Nie, Sect Leader,” Meng Yao’s smile has something he doesn’t remember from the past-life - a hint of steel, of pure determination, "the answer is still yes.”


But Nie MingJue knows…

Meng Yao won’t return the same.

 

Chapter Text

You live with your heart in your throat.

You watch as a man is flogged to death before your eyes. Wen RuoHan strokes your hair gently, like petting a cat, and says, “Watch, this is what happens to those who can’t do their jobs.” You hear him scream and beg for mercy, over and over, until the screams turn into whimpers then into nothing. You smile, appeasing and soft, and say “As it should.”

You’re stripping the skin off a living man on Wen RuoHan’s order, and you enjoy it. You enjoy the rush of power of having someone’s life in your hands. You like it when they look at you with terror in their eyes. Under your knife, men become objects, and flesh is just flesh. In these temporary moments, you understand what it feels like to play god. You break him down and you feel thrilled, you feel fulfilled. You think of your mother, of Lan XiChen, of Nie MingJue; if they see you right now, would they be terrified? Or disgusted?

You invent creative ways to kill, to humiliate, to cause pain. It pleases him. He rewards you for it and tells you you’re clever. When he smiles at you there’s an aching in your heart, an emptiness that screams to be filled with validation. You smile back and plot his downfall.

You almost get caught sending back a message, but you manage to shift the blame onto the envoy. You remember the man offering you a cup of wine when you first came, patted you on the shoulder and told you what you needed to watch out for. You press the red-hot branding iron onto his thigh as he screams and writhes, and you think, better him than me.

You live with your heart between your teeth, and you tell yourself, just another day, tomorrow there may be an opportunity. Just one more day. You tell that to yourself for the next day, and the next day, and the day after that.

You can’t breathe. You want to scream. You want to hide. 

But you mustn’t.

You have a job to do.

Nie MingJue wakes up in cold sweat.

He looks into the mirror, his own reflection stares back. Those were not his memories, but memories of Meng Yao’s past-life in the Nightless City. He’s been having these dreams ever since Meng Yao went undercover, and they’ve only gotten more frequent.


Meng Yao’s messages are brief and to the point. At the very end of each message, there will always be the same two words, “I’m safe.”

They’re winning again.


He’s at the Fire Palace, and he sees Meng Yao again in the red of the Wen Sect.

“Sect Leader Nie, do you still think you’re the king of HeJian? Look around you, you’re in the Fire Palace now.”

“Fire palace? Nothing but a nest for you Wen Dogs,” spits the cultivator beside him.

“Silence,” Nie MingJue orders, he knows what will happen, but it’s too late, Meng Yao’s blade swings down, and the man falls.

The other cultivator gasps, screams and shouts resounding. “Silence!” He orders again, but seeing that they’re going to die, one cultivator continues to curse boldly. Meng Yao silences him as well, a smile on his face.

“Meng Yao!” Nie MingJue shouts despite himself. Knowing what’s happening doesn’t ease his fury, doesn’t ease the shock of it.

Meng Yao turns to him, head tilted, blinking owlishly.

“Sect Leader Nie,” a pleasant smile appears on the boyish face, “do you think you can still order me around? Have you forgotten the fact that you’d abandoned me? Chased me out?

“Ah,” slowly, Meng Yao approaches Nie MingJue and grips his head with both of his hands, one on each side, forcing him to look up, “but you’ve always been like this, Sect Leader Nie, so full of yourself, trying to control me. What was it that you’ve told me? That no one else will appreciate me like you do?” He snorts, eyes flickering back to Wen RuoHan, who’s lounging on his throne with amusement, "I grew up in a brothel, Sect Leader. Do you think I can’t tell when a man tries to manipulate me?”

A chill runs through Nie MingJue’s spine. Meng Yao’s taunts are different from the past life.

It’s as if gazing upon your own reflection, and noticing something different. Something is very wrong with the Meng Yao before him, both similar and different from the one he remembers from the past-life.

“I’d done everything you ever asked of me,” his voice is soft, but the grip on the side of Nie MingJue’s head tightens until nails are digging into his scalp, “I put in three times as much effort as anyone else without getting a single word of praise. All it took was one mistake for you to abandon me. To toss me out like some cheap damaged goods.”

Something isn’t right.

It’s an act, it’s clearly an act. Meng Yao isn’t like this. Nie MingJue knows this. He knows enough about Meng Yao to know this isn’t real.

But the words still seems wrong. Reflection against distorted glass.

“Is that what you think?” Nie MingJue asks.

Meng Yao freezes.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

A brief note of panic flashes across Meng Yao’s eyes, before a sharp slap knocks Nie MingJue to the ground.

“Sect Leader Wen,” Meng Yao turns his back on him, “if I may be so bold to ask, I’d like to kill this man myself.”

“A dog biting against his former master,” Wen RuoHan laughs, strolling towards them languidly, “how does it feel to be bitten by the dog you’ve picked up from the street, ChiFeng-Zun? Permission granted.”

“Thank you, Master,” Meng Yao bows towards Wen RuoHan, before turning back to Nie MingJue.

“Forgive this transgression, Sect Leader Nie,” he leans in with a cold smile, voice almost a whisper, “I’m going to stab you.”


When Nie MingJue regained his consciousness, Meng Yao was dragging him with an arm around his shoulder, just like past-life, just as he had many times during this war.

Meng Yao had stabbed him in the abdomen, non-fatal, but close enough to look it. His wound was dressed.

“Sect Leader Nie…”

“Wen RuoHan is dead?”

“Yes,” Meng Yao’s voice is steady, without a waver.

“Where’s my saber?” Nie MingJue asks, righting himself and shifting his weight away from Meng Yao.

“Sect Leader Nie, you’re still injured, I’ll keep this safe for you until we get back,” Meng Yao answers.

Nie MingJue doesn’t push. He wants his saber back simply for a sense of security. He knew the moment he laid eyes on Meng Yao again that he can no longer kill him. He used Meng Yao, made him the creature he is, and he cannot bring himself to destroy him, it wouldn’t be right.

“Sect Leader, the things I’ve said earlier… I didn’t mean any of it.”

“Don’t lie to me.”

“I’m not,” Meng Yao answers, “I grew up in a brothel, Sect Leader. I understand that people are as good as they are useful. I don’t mind being used.”

Meng Yao’s identity is built upon lies upon lies upon lies, and Nie MingJue can no longer tell what’s true. He remembers Meng Yao’s cold smile as he killed. He remembers the thrill of causing pain, of taking a life.

“You’ve killed them,” he says, with an equal measure of fury and dread. You’ve killed so many of them.

Meng Yao freezes in his track.

“I had no choice,” he answers, a perfect replica of his past-life.

“You did.” Because he knew. He knew. He was there. “And you chose to kill them.”

Meng Yao opens his mouth to protest, but the finality in Nie MingJue’s voice stops him.

No words came out.

In his two years of working undercover at the Wen Sect, whenever he felt a sense of suffocation, Meng Yao would think of the greeneries of QingHe Nie. He would think of the clean simple architecture, the black columns and the cool stone walls. He would think of the soft rustling of bamboo leaves, and the sound of sabers slicing through the air as disciples practice, of the strange random musings that come out of Nie HuaiSang’s mouth, unfiltered.

Very rarely would he think of Nie MingJue, of a stern backside, of “the Nie Sect is fortunate to have you”, of callous hands against his skin, helping him dress his wounds after a battle.

It occurs to him now, the thought he hasn’t dared to consider in the past two years.

"Hey Yao-Ge… What’s gonna become of us? Will we still be able to talk like this when all this is over?”

Him, blood of their comrades on his hands; him, who delights in suffering; him, treachery personified and the furthest thing away from Nie MingJue’s ideals—would no longer be welcomed back to QingHe Nie.

“I’m sorry,” Meng Yao finally manages to say, awkward, lost.

“You should say that to the people you’ve killed,” Nie MingJue turns away, clutching his wound, walking forward without a glance back.

That’s okay, Meng Yao thinks, he doesn’t live by Nie MingJue’s approval, he simply needed an anchor. He’ll survive. He no longer has to fear Wen RuoHan. He can make this work.

It’s okay.

It’ll be okay.

Everything will be fine. He’ll live another day.

Having noticed that Meng Yao isn’t following him, Nie MingJue stops in his track. He turns to Meng Yao, who just stares back at him blankly.

There are things in this life that he’d never noticed in the past, like Meng Yao’s white-knuckled grip; like the bags under his eyes; like the physical changes since he’s last seen him, the broadened shoulders, the soft features becoming slightly more defined.

He sighs.

“Come on,” Nie MingJue finally says, "Let’s go home.”

Meng Yao blinks, face blank. There’s a moment of absolute stillness before his whole body shakes with violent tremors, before he starts sobbing uncontrollably.

Unceremonial. Uncalculated. Unbidden.

In the end, Nie MingJue wraps his unbroken arm around Meng Yao, and holds the boy until the tremors stop.

Chapter Text

The war goes smoothly after the death of Wen RuoHan. The few remnants of the Wen surrender one by one.

Meng Yao smiles when he and Nie HuaiSang meet again. There’s something different about him now, just like how Wei WuXian is different, like how Jiang Cheng is different, but still, he smiles as he says “I’m back.”

Nie HuaiSang will take what he’s given, so he says “Yao-ge, welcome back” and watches as Meng Yao’s smile deepens. Feeling encouraged by this, Nie HuaiSang moves forward to envelop his shidi in a hug, one which he wasn’t able to give to Jiang Cheng, to Wei WuXian, to his own brother.

Meng Yao smells of blood, of death, of the battlefield, but he returns the hug softly and whispers “thanks”. Nie HuaiSang thinks he hears relief in that voice.

 


 

 

Words of Meng Yao’s accomplishments, of his wit and bravery, has spread without the influence of Nie MingJue. Without the stigma around his background, there is no hiding Meng Yao’s brilliance. Lan XiChen is full of pride, he looks at Meng Yao and sees the sun and moon. He doesn’t see the number of people, cultivators and innocents alike, Meng Yao had to kill. He’s never seen Meng Yao peel the skin of a man, nor Meng Yao breaking down, crumbling under the weight of his accomplishments.

Nie MingJue isn’t sure if any glory is worth that, so he thinks, instead, of the lives saved.

As the war draws closer to its end, as the last of the Wen Sect raises their hands in surrender, a question hangs between the two of them. It’s Nie MingJue who brings it up first.

“You have the accomplishments now. Your father will accept you… if you still choose to go back.”

Meng Yao is caught by surprise. He had plans to bring this up. One last time, he had thought, if the Sect Leader refuses, then I’ll be satisfied to stay at QingHe-Nie. His years undercover made him realize that he thinks of the Unclean Realm as his home… Or perhaps home is by the side of Nie MingJue. But he cannot simply just let go of his rightful name, of his birthright.

He’d never be a Nie. Perhaps he can let himself be satisfied, being Meng Yao, but he was born a Jin.

“Sect Leader Nie…” he says. He cannot bring himself to say ‘I want to stay.’ “Do you think of me as ungrateful?”

It’s selfish of him, to want to leave, yet he fears being unwanted by Nie MingJue. There’s a childish part of him that wants Nie MingJue to stop him.

Nie MingJue doesn’t look at him when he says “You’ve done what I’ve asked of you, I can’t make you stay.”

“But know this, the world may not treat you the same way once you reveal your background, and your family will not treat you kindly.”

“I know…” Meng Yao answers. He thinks he’s ready to face anything after being undercover at the Nightless City. “Thank you for always looking out for me, Sect Leader.”

“Before the victory banquet,” Nie MingJue declares, “I’ll present you to your father.”

“But you will stay in QingHe-Nie for a month after the war’s end. You’re needed in clean-up and restoration.” And that’s his ultimatum, to give Meng Yao a short reprieve, an extra month to guide and protect him.


 

“Make a list of the people you’ve killed while working under Wen RuoHan.”

“Sect Leader…” Meng Yao hesitates, “I-“

“I know that you had no choice," at least for most of them, "but I trust that you remember them.”

Silence.

“There are cultivators who are missing from our list of casualties. Their family needs to know what happened to them.”

“Yes, Sect Leader,” answers Meng Yao.

“The ones you killed at the Fire Palace, I need you to report the news of their death to their families.”

“Sect Leader...?”

“I will come with you, but you will speak.”

It’s a cruel thing to ask, to anyone, (and if Lan XiChen finds out, he’d certainly object,) but Nie MingJue knows that Meng Yao will not break easily. Meng Yao doesn’t lack empathy, he lacks a conscience. He takes the safest route for himself and then convinces himself that it’s the only route. He compartmentalizes and writes away ruthlessness as a necessity.

“I don’t blame you for their deaths, but you will remember them.”

This is the last chance for Meng Yao to be judged for his actions, and not for the circumstances of his birth.


 

Meng Yao cries along with the families, Nie MingJue doesn’t know if it’s from guilt or simply an act to show sympathy, but Meng Yao visits each family without complaint. At the end of the day, his voice is hoarse and exhaustion seeps from his very being.

“When you go back to your father, you’ll be forced to decide between your filial duty and your principles. Remember this.”

“My loyalty lies with you, Sect Leader.”

“I don’t want your loyalty, Meng Yao. I want you to be a righteous person.”

“…”

“Rest early,” Nie MingJue says, giving Meng Yao’s shoulder a soft squeeze, “take a break tomorrow.”

“Sect Leader,” Meng Yao looks up, his normal smile is absent, “allow me to work by your side a little later today. There are reports we still need to sort through.” I don’t want to be alone.

“Very well.”

Meng Yao falls asleep on the desk, a brush in his hand. Nie MingJue wakes him up and drags him to the only bed in the tent.

Nie MingJue sleeps on the floor that night.

Chapter Text

The remnants of Wen stand before Nie MingJue in hushed silence. There’s around eighty of them, more than half were children, elderly, and people bearing permanent injuries from the war.

To think that the residents of YiLing were barely half this number. It was true, the Jin Sect had been slowly killing them off in their labour camps in the past life.

When Nie MingJue had taken up the handling of the Wen remnants, there was no protest. It’s a thankless task. Feeding prisoners is expensive, and executing them all at once would leave a mark of cruelty upon one’s name. Even Jiang WanYin, who hated the Wen Sect with a passion, did not want such an association with his sect.

In his past life, Nie MingJue had stood aside and let the Jins handle the remaining Wen Dogs. Nobody would have guessed the amount of trouble, the amount of deaths, the little group before him would have caused.

The rise of the YiLing Patriarch, the massacre of Nightless Sky.

The safest solution is to kill these people right here and now, before Wei WuXian has a chance to be involved. It would eliminate any possibilities of future uprisings or vengeance from the next generation of Wens.

The crying of an infant breaks the silence. The elderly woman who's holding him tries, to no avail, to hush him. The cries gets louder and louder.

“Here,” Meng Yao offers gently, “let me.” He holds out his arm to take the child.

The Wens eye him with wariness. They knew him first as Wen RuoHan’s executioner, and then as the spy who killed Wen RuoHan. But next to the intimidating figure of ChiFeng-Zun, in the humble robes of an aide, Meng Yao is a soft voice and a familiar face.

The elderly woman finally obliges, too scared to object.

“Shhhh, don’t cry, shhhh,” Meng Yao whispers softly, rocking the infant back and forth in his hold, “be a good boy for grandma, won’t you? You’re a good boy.”

The infant’s cries comes to a stop, unaware of the status of the stranger holding him. Meng Yao smiles, “Good child. There, there."

With the baby still in his arm, Meng Yao turns to Nie MingJue. Voice soft and expression completely blank, he asks, “Sect Leader, what’s your plan?”

The image before him sends a shock through his skull. He almost wants to laugh.

He doesn’t know how to justify his decision to Meng Yao.

Nor will he be able to justify it to HuaiSang later.

He would house one monster, the most dangerous man of them all; yet kill eighty something people, healers, disabled, elderly, children… And for what? Because of the trouble they’ll never be responsible for? Because he’s seen Meng Yao’s memories and not theirs? Because he’s grown attached?

Just last week, he had demanded Meng Yao to face every single family member of the men and women he killed at the Fire Palace. Will Nie MingJue be able to do the same, explain to every single child here of their fate one by one? Will he slaughter each child one by one and watch their bodies burn?

Who is it, really, that justifies cruelty and ruthlessness as necessity?

“Settle the elderly and injured for now, I need to speak to Wen Qing and her brother.”


The terms are simple. Wen Qing will continue to contribute her talent and research at the Cloud Recess. All the youths between age six to sixteen are to be sent to the Cloud Recess for education under Lan QiRen. Under the strict rules of the Lan Sect, they will be treated fairly and without prejudice.

Just like how the Wens had held the heirs of all the sects hostage, the Cloud Recess will hold theirs.

Her brother, Wen Ning, will stay at QingHe along with the rest of the Wens. Their swords will be confiscated. Dwellings will be arranged for them. The able bodied adults will work as labourers to assist in post-war restoration, and will be paid in equal to the lowest wage of the QingHe workers, but no lower. After that they be allowed to find work in businesses run by the Nie Sect. Suitable work will be arranged for the injured and disabled.

Wen Qing is allowed to visit her family in QingHe once every month, to ensure none of them are mistreated. Letter correspondences will be allowed every week.

Neither Wen Ning nor Wen Qing will ever attempt to contact Wei WuXian of Lotus Pier, nor ever set foot at the Burial Mound.

Wen Qing accepts every single term with some skepticism towards the last one — but she doesn’t really have a choice.


“This will be an expensive arrangement,” Meng Yao comments later, as he pour over the terms.

“Then I trust you to see to it.” If there’s anything that Meng Yao excels at, it’s managing people and finance.

“Thank you,” Meng Yao says, after a long while.

Nie MingJue stares at him.

“I knew some of them,” he explains, slowly, his expression still blank, his eyes shifts away. “It’s good to know that I don’t have to end everyone I’ve interacted with in the past two years.”

Nie MingJue doesn’t really know how to answer to that. He’s killed a family member of every single man and woman there. There’s no pride to be taken in showing mercy. He doesn’t know if he has made the right decision.

But of all people, he didn’t expect Meng Yao to thank him for this.

Chapter Text

At the victory banquet, Jin GuangYao is blessed with a name from his father, a name long overdue for 20 years.

Nie MingJue watches as Jin GuangShan paints the cinnabar between Meng Yao’s brows. Red, like blood.

“Yes, what a brilliant son I have! So brave and accomplished.”

“Such determination, rising from nothing and getting this far, working under Sect Leader Nie-” In wakes of his accomplishments, Meng Yao’s humble background serves as proof of his resourcefulness, of his determination. Cultivators from smaller sects circle around him to congratulate him, to pat him on the back. Nie MingJue remembers the same cultivators wiping their cups when Meng Yao served them in the past life. He’s beginning to understand a bit, why Jin GuangYao cared so much about presentation.

The words “son of a whore” has never once been mentioned.

The look on Madam Jin’s face is as ugly as it had been in the past-life. To acknowledge Jin GuangYao as a son is difficult enough, having him overshadow Jin ZiXuan’s accomplishment is worse.

The true star of the evening is Wei WuXian of Lotus Pier, youthful laughter resounding as he takes toast after toast. Nie MingJue remembers what happens to the youth later, what the YiLing Patriarch has done.

Nie MingJue keeps to himself, doing his best to intimidate anyone who tries to toast him. Smartly, most avoid him.

“You look gloom, MingJue-Xiong,” Lan XiChen says, “this is as much your victory as anyone’s, perhaps even more so. Let others congratulate you for it.”

“Or at least…” Lan XiChen trails off at that, taking a glance at Meng Yao, now Jin GuangYao, who manages the newfound attention like a duckling to water, “take pride in the success of those who worked under you. They would appreciate that from you.”

“There’s too much lost,” Nie MingJue says before he can stop himself. He doesn’t mean to bring down his friend’s mood, but Lan XiChen has this genuinity that demanded honesty in return. It’s hard for him to celebrate, knowing the war had dragged on for too long, knowing that there were people he should have saved but didn't, knowing what Meng Yao lost undercover.

He foresaw those losses, yet he couldn’t manage to fix them.

He wasn’t enough.

And he doesn’t know if he will be enough for what’s to come. Wen RuoHan is only the first of many “great evils” that will come to pass in the next two decades.  

YiLing Patriarch, Xue Yang, Jin GuangYao.

“You’re a burdened man, MingJue-Xiong,” says the other sect leader, a sad smile on his face and a gentle hand on his shoulder, “I’ve always had great respect for your sense of responsibility. But our losses are not yours alone to carry.”

“I’d like to make a toast to the real hero of the Sunshot Campaign, a man who has been like a father and brother to me, before I have the fortune to meet my true family; who blessed me with opportunities; who’s led us to victory; Sect Leader Nie,” Meng Yao’s voice rings out among the crowd as he raises his cup with both his hands, smile soft, gold robes radiant under the lamplight.

Nie MingJue raises his cup in return, “Jin GuangYao,” he pauses, and sets his eyes directly onto Jin GuangShan and Madam Jin as he continues speaking, “for as long as you live, you shall have a place as a guest disciple of Nie.”

He said it as a warning to both Jin GuangYao and Jin GuangShan. For as long as he lives, Jin GuangYao will be under Nie MingJue’s watch.

Jin GuangShan gives an awkward, appeasing laugh, “To the lasting friendship between our Sects, then,” he raises his cup as well.

“Father is correct,” Jin GuangYao’s says, but his smile deepens as he looks straight at Nie MingJue, before downing the cup in one gulp.


There is one thing which Nie MingJue has to prevent immediately.

Meng Yao is talking to the young Lady Qin, both of them are chuckling softly. They are about to make the biggest mistakes of their lives.

“Meng Yao, I need to talk to you for a moment,” Nie MingJue motioned.

“Excuse us, Lady Qin,” Meng Yao says gently, Lady Qin nods with a shy smile, waving as they part. Meng Yao waves back.

“Turn her down,” says Nie MingJue, as soon as they’re out of hearing range.

“What?” Meng Yao’s shy smile fades immediately.

“She’s not suitable for you, stay away from her.”

Meng Yao looks almost offended. He opens his mouth, pauses, and contemplates before speaking again.

“Why is that? Sect Leader Nie, Do you know something which I’m not aware of?” Nie MingJue has many secrets. Meng Yao knows this. He also knows that Sect Leader Nie will not interfere with his personal matters without a reason.

Nie MingJue blanks out.

He really didn’t think this through.

The silence stretches as Nie MingJue considers what to say, and Meng Yao’s expression changes to one of wariness.

Preventing him from going back to his father, shooting down his interest in women, Meng Yao has seen this type of possessive behavior in his childhood. (It doesn’t usually end well.)

“Sect Leader Nie… I…”

“She’s your sister,” Nie MingJue blurts out.

Meng Yao blinks.

The silence stretches longer.

“Half-sister, from your father’s side. She doesn’t know about this, but you can confirm with her mother.” Nie MingJue explains quietly.

Meng Yao’s brows furrows. He glances around to make sure they’re still alone before looking back to Nie MingJue with a complicated expression. “I’ve trusted you in war without question, so I’ll trust you in this, but you have to explain to me why you know so much… about my family, my background. Things you have no reason to know about.”

The question has been long since coming.

Nie MingJue considers answering with the truth. Jin GuangYao has always been a better liar than he is. There’s no point in lying.

So why not let him know? What would happen then?

“Sect Leader Nie, I’ve always trusted you with my life…” Jin GuangYao says, there’s a plea in his voice. If only you can trust me the same way.

The red of the cinnabar sits glaring against Jin GuangYao's pale skin.

Nie MingJue opens his mouth.

Chapter Text

A peculiar thing happened amongst the frenzies of the Post-War rebuild.

Nie MingJue, the leader of QingHe Nie, acquired a brothel in YunPing, just off of the YunMeng area. To this, YunMeng Jiang Sect Leader Jiang Cheng simply snorted and made no comment.

“I want you to convert this place to an upstanding business befitting of the Nie Sect,” the Sect Leader Nie was heard saying to his younger brother, “You can turn it to a music house, a theatre, whatever you see fit. Make sure that any worker that wishes to stay have a job to do. I’ve allocated some fund for it, anything extra will comes out of your own allowance. It’s time to put your interest in the arts to use.”

With wide eyes and gaping mouth, Young Master Nie HuaiSang had indicated, “My brother approves of my interests. This is the best day of my life.”


 

Lan Xichen is tired.

A-Yao and MingJue-xiong has been having communication issues ever since A-Yao received his rightful name at the victory banquet. What should have been an occasion for celebration has somehow ended sourly with neither of them speaking to one another by the end of it.

The two had disappeared for a long time together. When they returned, both were weary. The next day, A-Yao departed for LanLing Jin.

Looking for ways to repair this relationship, Lan XiChen taught A-Yao the Song of Lucidity. Hoping it would help MingJue-xiong calm his saber spirit and mitigate his stress.

“No,” was all MingJue-xiong said when they offered, “you will not play that song for me. I do not need it.” That was the end of that conversation. A-Yao looked absolutely crestfallen.

“XiChen-ge, please,” said A-Yao, “Won’t you be there for Sect Leader Nie? I worry about his saber spirit and well-being after the war. I wish he could trust me, but I feel…” he sighed deeply, “I can tell my presence is unwanted. It must be difficult for him, to accept me after the things I’ve done.”

“He cares a lot about you, A-Yao,” Lan XiChen comforts.

“You’ve heard him. He doesn’t want to see me."

The Song of Lucidity gave A-Yao a reason to visit Nie MingJue. He was prepared to make time every week just to visit QingHe Nie, MingJue-xiong had rejected that. Lan XiChen could see how A-Yao would interpret that as a rejection of his person.

“He just doesn’t want you to over-tax yourself with more obligations. He had announced to everyone that you’ll forever have a place as a guest disciple at QingHe Nie, he wouldn’t have done that if you aren’t welcomed back.”

“I hope,” A-Yao said, a weary smile on his face, “that that’s the case.”


“XiChen,” Nie MingJue says to him, “please keep an eye on A-Yao for me. He’s always been closer to you than he was to me. Now that he’s in LanLing, I worry he’ll go down the wrong path again.”

“MingJue-xiong,” Lan XiChen replies, “won’t you have a bit more faith in him? You two have been through so much together.”

“I worry because I know his nature,” Nie MingJue explains, “he lacks a moral baseline. He’d do anything to please those around him, and Jin GuangShan is far from who you’d call a noble man.”

Lan XiChen is tired, tired of playing messenger between two people who for whatever reason won’t talk to one another.

“Why did you refuse him when he offered to play the Song of Lucidity for you?” He asks, patience wearing just a little thin. “He believes you don’t want to see him.”

“I’ve never said that,” Nie MingJue denies, “that’s not what I meant.”

Lan XiChen sighs, “Perhaps you should go visit him at Koi Tower sometimes, then.”

“I don’t have any business with the Jins, nor do I wish to.”

“Am I here on business, MingJue-Xiong?” He asks, patiently.

“We’re both Sect Leaders, it’s natural for you to visit. For me to visit Meng Yao at LanLing without business with Jin GuangShan, that would be…”

“It would send Jin GuangShan a message,” Lan XiChen encourages.

“Ah,” answers Nie MingJue, “I see.”


“Sect Leader Nie…” A blanket of awkwardness settles in the room, “what brings you here?”

The awkwardness of their parting at the victory banquet still hangs in the air.

“You have to explain to me why you know so much… about my family, my background. Things you have no reason to know about. Sect Leader Nie, I’ve always trusted you with my life…”

“The day you find out will be the day of your death.”

“Then I won’t ask anymore.” Jin GuangYao had answered then, “I don’t want to be your enemy, Sect Leader Nie.”

Back in the present, Nie MingJue opens his mouth, “I’m here to check on how you’re settling in.”

“I’ve been well,” Jin GuangYao blinks, before smiling, “Meng Yao appreciate your concern, Sect Leader Nie.” He waits, for an order or something important to discuss. Sect Leader Nie doesn’t simply make visits for no reason.

Nie MingJue frowns, “We’re in private, there’s no need for frivolities. Do not lie to me. Has Madam Jin been giving you trouble?”

Meng Yao pauses, his expression softens, “It’s nothing that I can’t handle, Sect Leader Nie.”

“I know you can handle it.” Nie MingJue says, abruptly. Jin GuangYao waits for him to continue, but there doesn’t seem to be more to the statement.

Suddenly, Jin GuangYao has the urge to laugh. It’s not all that often that you catch the Leader of the Nie Sect being awkward. It’s oddly endearing. Nie MingJue seems to have caught him, and narrows his eyes.

“Never-mind me,” Jin GuangYao suppresses his laugh, “How’s HuaiSang? Is he making any progress with his cultivation?” He knows Sect Leader Nie doesn’t enjoy talking about himself.

“I wish,” Nie MingJue rolls his eyes, expression warming, “He still whines a lot. I have him occupied with managing a new business in YunPing…”

Meng Yao tenses upon the mention of the city, just for a moment. Nie MingJue had purchased the property to prevent Meng Yao from burning it down. There’s no use hiding it, but he probably shouldn’t draw attention to it either.

“He’s coming back to QingHe next week. You should come visit him. He whines to me now that you’re not around.”

“Oh,” Jin GuangYao blinks in surprise, before he smiles again, “Of course, Sect Leader Nie.”

They spent the next hour or two together, discussing how the Wen remnants are settling in, details about finances. In Nie MingJue’s presence, it felt like he’s never left QingHe.


On Nie MingJue's third visit at LanLing Jin, Jin GuangShan had approached him.

“Sect Leader Nie…” He said, with a sly knowing smile, “I see that you’ve taken an… interest... in A-Yao. As I’m aware, he’s your former aide. I’d like you to know, Sect Leader Nie, that he’s spoken very fondly of you."

Jin GuangShan’s voice petered out, followed by a long awkward silence.

“What?"

 

Chapter Text

Jin GuangShan is afraid.

He is afraid of the creature who claims to be his son.

On the victory banquet, before everyone’s eyes, Meng Yao declared his fealty to Nie MingJue.

Once per month, after Meng Yao moves to LanLing Jin, Nie MingJue would visit. As a test, he asked if they were fucking. He wished they were fucking. It would make things much much easier.

Meng Yao was sent by Nie MingJue to spy on him. Plain and simple.

To think that Nie MingJue had raised this scion of his in secret for heaven knows how long, had hidden this child from him and turned his own flesh and blood against him… the thought makes Jin GuangShan sick to his stomach.

And he couldn’t reject Meng Yao, not with those shining accomplishments, not with both Nie MingJue and Lan XiChen backing his claim. Meng Yao is a warning. The Nie Sect is watching him.

With his mother’s soft smile and honeyed words, the creature easily charmed the entire cultivation society. Even Qin CangYe, his most loyal subordinate, takes to the creature immediately.

Just like how he charmed Wen RuoHan.

Jin GuangShan knows what happened to Wen RuoHan.

More than anything, Jin GuangShan fears for his son, his real son, the one he had raised with his own hands. ZiXuan was brought up sheltered, with honour in his heart and no knowledge of treachery. Because when Jin GuangShan eventually leaves this world, ZiXuan would be the only one standing in the way of Meng Yao, of Nie MingJue's total control over LanLing Jin.

The creature calls him “father” and acts subservient. He completes every task given to him with perfection and pretends to seek Jin GuangShan's approval. He meets his mother’s insults and humiliation with a smile.

He easily gains ZiXuan’s trust and pity.

ZiXuan doesn’t stand a chance.

“Get me a list of every woman who came claiming they have borne my child, don’t let the madam know."


Nie MingJue misses the war.

He misses having an enemy to fight. He misses the pressure on his blade as it slices through another man; the single-minded sense of purpose, to kill every single Wen Dog in sight.

Perhaps he has always missed the war. In his past life, the Sunshot Campaign was the only time where he felt like he was at his fullest potential. It was the only time he ever felt complete.

He feels complete when he and his saber are one, when he’s fighting an enemy. 

Nie MingJue remembers the Autumn Hunt at the Pheonix Mountain, it was the one time after the War where he got to feel the thrill of killing. He killed monster after monster, but it wasn’t enough. His saber yearned for more, for the blood of other cultivators, the blood of equals. Nie MingJue had eliminated half the monsters in the mountain that night, not for glory or competition, but simply to quell his bloodlust.

He and Wei WuXian had made Jin GuangYao’s life pretty difficult.


“How do I look?” Nie HuaiSang had asked for Yao-ge’s opinions on his attire for the Autumn Hunt a week prior. According to Yao-ge, he was dashing.

Indeed, Nie HuaiSang knows he looks amazing.

So he’s a little short, and can’t shoot a target while riding with his eyes open or closed. But in terms of attire and general air, Nie HuaiSang thinks he’s doing pretty well. He wouldn’t compare himself to the Lan Jades, but at least on par with Jin ZiXuan. He has a better personality, for starters.

It’s only a pity that all the girls are too intimidated by his brother’s presence to toss flowers at him. Nie HuaiSang looks onto his former Cloud Recess classmates, assaulted by a rain of flowers, with envy.

Jin GuangYao’s voice rings above them, announcing QingHe Nie’s entrance. Nie HuaiSang gives a small wave to the sky. Typical Yao-ge, working hard and organizing. He wonders how many flowers Meng Yao would get if he comes down here.

Right on cue, A single peony bud comes hurling towards Nie HuaiSang. Having not expected any, Nie HuaiSang fumbles to catch it, and in the process, bats it off course… right into his brother’s direction.

So much for looking suave.

Mortification settles in Nie HuaiSang's bones as his brother catches the flower and tosses it back to him.

Nie HuaiSang looks towards the direction the flower came from. Lady Qin Su gives him an awkward wave, looking about ready to flee.

Oh no. No no nonononononnononono. Dage you are not ruining this.

“Thank you!” He shouts to her. “For the flower!” He tucks the flower onto the ring of his saber handle.

Lady Qin gives a shy giggle and points to the sky.

Thank you, Yao-ge. I owe you one.


Nie MingJue did not lose himself in the hunt this time. He spent the earlier part of the night by the side of HuaiSang, until his brother started engaging in conversation with the Lady Qin, and had not-so-subtly hinted for him to go away. He went and assisted XiChen and Jin GuangYao in expanding the hunting grounds.

His saber arm ached all the way.


 

ShiSi Art House, YunPing

Jin GuangYao is watching himself, at a theatrical reenactment of the SunShot Campaign, at the place he grew up in.

The actress who is portraying himself collapses into ChiFeng-Zun’s arms, wounded by Wen RuoHan who had retaliated with one last strike on his dying breath.

“So what do you think?” HuaiSang asks.

“It’s very well done,” he says, with no small amount of amusement, "I see you’ve taken creative liberties.”

“Oh no, I don’t write these script, I like to give the artists full creative liberties. That’s when they do their best.”

“I wonder what your brother would think about this,” Jin GuangYao teases.

“Eh, doesn’t matter,” HuaiSang shrugs, “he won’t see it.”

“Fair enough,” Jin GuangYao says, “I like what you’ve done with this place. It’s…” He’s reminded of the first time the young master Nie had shared porn with him. The place is familiar yet different, clean and veneered over with a fresh coat of paint. When he was small, he’s dreamt of getting out of there, and when they were kicking he and his mother out, he dreaded leaving. Never had he thought he’d be a patron at this very same establishment, remodeled.

“Yao-ge?” HuaiSang brings him out of his reveries, a concerned frown on his face.

He smiles. HuaiSang always manages to surprise him. “It’s wonderful, you’ve done well.”

HuaiSang beams at him. “Let’s hit the market, you wanted to find a birthday gift for ZiXuan-Xiong, right? I know a good craftsman. Maybe he can make ZiXuan-Xiong a tassel or a hair piece. He’s a well-dressed man. Bet he’d appreciate those more than my brother.”

Jin GuangYao nods, “I think it’d be good to get him something here, in YunMeng, it’s something Lady Jiang would appreciate too.”

“Something lotus themed?”

“But not too obvious.”

“Of course.” HuaiSang says, as they stroll out onto the street, “Heh, to think I’d finally get to dress Jin ZiXuan… What about you? Do you have an outfit in mind? Want me to pick for you?”

Meng Yao chuckles, “Thank you, but it’s ZiXuan-Xiong’s celebration, I can’t be too ostentatious.”

“Like it’s not your birthday too. Both my brother and XiChen-Xiong will be there to see you, you know.”

Jin GuangYao stops in his tracks, “They are?”

“I don’t see why not, we got our invitations, just like every year. Is something wrong?”

Jin GuangYao frowns. He pauses for a bit, before asking, “Has Sect Leader Nie accepted?”

“Not yet?”

Meng Yao sighs in relief, “If Sect Leader Nie is there to celebrate my brother, I cannot stop him. However, I must ask him not to come for my sake.”

It’s no wonder that his father has been in a foul mood lately.

“That’s not like you,” HuaiSang notes, “how come? Are you two fighting again?"

“It would be customary for my father to send invitations to all the major sect leaders, but Sect Leader Nie has always politely declined in the past. Father sends invitations out of courtesy, but he’s not expecting ChiFeng-Zun and ZeWu-Jun to actually show up. If they suddenly decide to show up, it would look like… well…” Meng Yao gives a tight-lipped smile.

It’ll be obvious who they’re showing up for, and it’ll be the wrong son.

“It’ll make everything pretty awkward for ZiXuan-Xiong and Father.”

Understanding dawns on Nie HuaiSang’s face. He frowns.

“That’s…” HuaiSang’s lips are pressed into a thin line, he lets out an awkward laugh, “that’s pretty convoluted.”

“I’ll make some time to come to QingHe the day after,” Jin GuangYao laughs, “we’ve never had any fanfare for any of our birthdays anyway.”

“I wish we did though,” HuaiSang sighs, “I like parties.”

“Don’t let your brother hear that. How ‘bout you come to Koi Tower on your brother’s behalf? You’re not a Sect Leader, and use to be a classmate of ZiXuan-Xiong. That’s natural enough.”

“Honestly, the Jins doesn’t deserve you,” Nie HuaiSang says, before looking around to make sure he’s not offending anyone, despite the fact they’re all the way in YunMeng.

Jin GuangYao laughs, “That’s alright. we don’t choose our births, and being the scion of one of the great sect leaders is honestly not bad.”


Jin ZiXuan spent his birthday party staring at Jiang YanLi in a daze.

Young Master Nie HuaiSang made an appearance, bearing gift. Fussy as always, the young man stuck to the side of Jin GuangYao. The younger Jin spent the entire afternoon entertaining Nie HuaiSang, barely having any time to serve other guests.

Despite that, the event was the most well-organized birthday party Koi Tower had in a while.

It's not like Koi Tower lacked actual servants. 

Chapter Text

Wen RuoHan had taught him fear, inflicting it, recognizing it, controlling it, living with it.

That is how Jin GuangYao knows that his father fears him.

And if he truly, carefully thinks about it, he understands why. Meng Yao is a son he never knew about, pushed onto him by force, and the last person Meng Yao bowed to was Wen RuoHan.

Sect Leader Nie also fears him, for reasons unknown.

He wonders if Nie MingJue knew this would happen. That, if by hiding him from Jin GuangShan all these years, he’s ascertained that seed of doubt between father and son.

He doesn’t know. Sect Leader Nie knows a lot of things that Meng Yao doesn’t. Meng Yao can easily read anyone, but he cannot understand Nie MingJue.

“The day you find out will be the day of your death.”

Meng Yao is afraid.

An irrational thought whispers in the back of his mind. Perhaps he and Sect Leader Nie were meant to be enemies.


 

“Is that him, then? Old man? That’s the son that killed Wen RuoHan?” The youth asks, his little canine showing.

Jin GuangShan has just introduced Meng Yao to the newest guest disciple of LanLing Jin Sect, Xue Yang, infamous delinquent with a talent for demonic cultivation. Jin GuangShan had recruited him to research the Stygian Tiger Seal.

“That’s him. What do you think of him?” Jin GuangShan asks.

“Shorter than I thought he’d be,” Xue Yang says with a tsk, “and a wimp.”

This little brat has more energy than he can possibly spend, and always ends up causing a ruckus. Clearly, the brat needs an outlet.

“That’s where you’re underestimating him, like Wen RuoHan did,” Jin GuangShan prompts.

“Hm… So I just need to make him show his true colours. Can I play with him a bit?” Xue Yang asks, testing.

“Yes, I was hoping you can help me keep an eye on him and distract him a little. Of course, you’ll know to be careful of ChiFeng-Zun.”

“Alright, got it!”

“Oh,” Jin GuangShan pauses and waves the boy over. He waits for Xue Yang to lean in. He lowers his voice. “If you ever get a chance, kill him.”

Xue Yang barks out a laugh of bewilderment. “Really? I can do that? Isn’t he your son?”

“That creature,” Jin GuangShan bites out, steel in his voice, “is not my son.”


 

Meng Yao knows how to recognize liars, and everyone over the age of five in LanLing-Jin is a liar. (Everyone except for Jin ZiXuan. Jin ZiXuan is so sheltered he lives in a completely different realm.)

So when his father’s little spy comes bounding to him and wraps an arm around his shoulder, openly declaring, “We’re going to be best friends from now on!” Jin GuangYao thinks he has just met the worst liar in LanLing-Jin.

Still, it doesn’t hurts to have one more friend.


 

He had started with subtle things. Some simple misdirection, whispers in Jin GuangYao’s ears, planting seeds of doubts against the people around him, against his dear Sect Leader Nie. Jin GuangYao took all of this in stride, and Xue Yang had no idea whether his little mind-games worked at all.

Soon after they’d met, Jin GuangYao had started buying him gifts of sweets. Xue Yang appreciated the thought but knew better than to eat any.

He decided it’d be good for him to get his new friend some snacks in return. The first few times, Jin GuangYao pocketed them without eating, which was fine, because those were the snacks without corpse poison in them.

On the fourth time, Jin GuangYao offered to share the snack with him. He took it without hesitation — after all, he had the antidote. He watched as Jin GuangYao ate the corpse poison covered candy, hook-line-and-sinker.

Of course, Xue Yang knew well enough to not include a high dosage. If Jin GuangYao turned into a fierce corpse on the same day, it’d be 1. pretty obvious and 2. no fun.

But it’s the fifth time Jin GuangYao is ingesting corpse poison right before Xue Yang’s eyes, and clearly, he’s still not a fierce corpse.

Well this is awkward.


The first time Jin GuangYao discovered traces of corpse poison in the snacks Xue Yang had given him, he didn’t know whether to be surprised.

It’s not like he didn’t see it coming — Xue Yang did not strike Jin GuangYao as the generous type, so the gift was fishy enough.

The dosage was low though, so either Xue Yang was trying to kill him slowly, or it’s a test or some sort. Jin GuangYao was familiar with mind-games, so he played along. He did some research and found that the common cure to corpse poison was sticky rice.

“You’re honestly just gonna eat that? Right in front of my face?” Xue Yang asks.

“It’s a gift from you, so of course.”

“Cut the crap, you taunting me, Shortie?”

Jin GuangYao takes a bite of his pastry.

Xue Yang laughs, the next second, the edge of a blade is pressed against Jin GuangYao’s side.

Jin GuangYao takes another bite of the obviously poisoned pastry, “Put that away. This isn’t a place where you can make a clean getaway, and I’d make a poor hostage too, considering someone told you to kill me.”

“You got nerves. From your time undercover?” The knife is gone with a flick of Xue Yang’s wrist.

“Of course.”

Xue Yang studies him for a bit, before grinning widely.

“You know what, I like you, so I’m gonna tell you. Your Old Man told me to sack you,” he shrugs, taking a pastry and popping the whole thing into his mouth.

In his mind, Jin GuangYao had expected this answer.

“Straighten your back and lift up your head,” Nie MingJue’s saber glinted against the setting sun.

“This is what happens to useless people who can’t do their job right,” Wen RuoHan’s hand brushed against the back of his neck as they watch the flogging.

“The day you find out will be the day of your death.”

His father is trying to kill him.

Xue Yang’s grin widened, all teeth. “If I’d known you’d be so affected by this, I’d have told you sooner.”

Jin GuangYao schools his expression back to a neutral smile. “Is that right?” He says softly, “Well, thanks for being honest with me now, I really appreciate it.”

Xue Yang rolls his eyes, “Aren’t you guys tired? Being so fake all the time?”

Jin GuangYao’s smile remains, “It’s necessary."

“So,” Jin GuangYao turns back, “does this mean we’re still friends, ChengMei?”

“Sure, you’re more interesting than your old man.”

“Alright then,” Jin GuangYao holds out a hand, “antidote.” He could, of course, eat a lot of sticky rice for the next little while, but to be honest he was tired of eating sticky rice everyday.

“Nah I’d rather you suffer a bit,” Xue Yang gave him another toothy grin, "Teach you a lesson for taunting me.”

“Where’s your proof of good faith?”

“Yeah but I could just give you a different type of poison. You thought of that? Haha, I’m just kidding. Here’s the antidote.”

“Good,” Jin GuangYao pockets the pouch, “now we’re friends.”

“Now, next item of business,” Jin GuangYao closes the lid to the snack with a serious face, "Would there be consequences for you, for choosing not to kill me?”

“I’m not afraid of your old man, Shorty,” Xue Yang says, "‘Sides, he still need me to figure out the Stygian Tiger Seal for him.”

Jin GuangYao chuckles at that, “he’s smarter than he appears, you know? But that’s true, he does need you.”

“I’ll kill him before he kills me. That goes for you too.”

“I’m sure of it,” Jin GuangYao says, smiling. He pauses a little before looking Xue Yang straight in the eyes. “You’ve done quite well for yourself, surviving and getting yourself here. It’d be a shame if the effort’s wasted. Perhaps I can help you fake something to smooth it out?”

A sour look passed Xue Yang’s face before he masks it with a grin again, “Who am I to refuse?”

They draft up a plan.

...

“So how does it feel, anyway? The effects of corpse poison? I’d like to know for my research.”

“I’ve taken notes on the effects, just for my own precaution’s sake. Would you like to see them?”

“Haha, you’re the best, Shortie.”


The next day, Xue Yang has a secret meeting with Jin GuangShan. 

“I couldn’t do it,” Xue Yang says, “I think he’s onto me. I’ve tried everything, putting it in the food, in the laundry, nothing. He’s somehow managed to avoid every single bit of corpse poison.”

“You’ve put it in… what?” Jin GuangShan’s face paled by the second.

“I’ve snuck it in the laundry, in the food, in the water he’d drink…”

“Hold on a second…”

“Oh,” Xue Yang grins, patting the old man on his back, “Of course I’m careful enough to only put it in his items. His food. None of those corpse powder would possibly get into your food or your clothes. I don’t bite the hand that feeds me.”

“Enough,” Jin GuangShan rubs his temples, a quirk Xue Yang has also noticed in the man’s bastard son, the two are more alike then the dad likes to admit, “No more corpse powder. No more risk. Do you know what it’d look like if it got into anyone else’s food?”

It was later in the day when Meng Yao strides into the hall with evident distress.

“Father. Traces of corpse poison has been found in our food! We must do a thorough check!”

“Yes,” Jin GuangShan says slowly, “we should do that, shouldn’t we?”

 

Chapter Text

Jin Ling’s first month celebration passed without any trouble.

According to Jin GuangYao, tensions were high between Jin ZiXuan and Wei WuXian—but in the end, the child had taken a special liking to the demonic cultivator, and had allowed himself to be held by the man. His mother was very pleased with that.

Su She of MoLing had, under firm persuasion, undone the curse a week before the celebration. Since then, Nie MingJue has put the man to good use for various matters.

Perhaps it had been due to his own influence, but Nie MingJue saw no sign of Xue Yang around the Koi Tower. It was understandable—Meng Yao never had a chance to meet Xue Yang on the streets, and therefore wouldn’t recommend him to Jin GuangShan. Still, Nie MingJue went to warn the Chang family to tighten their security just in case.

The Wen remnants had finally managed to settle in QingHe, and work has been found for each adult. Aside from a few of the elderly that had died of old age and a baby being born, their numbers have not changed.

It wasn’t Nie MingJue’s intention to fix the Jin or the Jiang family, or to spare the Wen remnants. It was simply to avoid another massacre. But he saw Jiang YanLi and Jin ZiXuan proudly show off their infant son, the picture of a happy family. He saw the self-acclaimed Twin Heroes of Lotus Pier as they stood proudly side-by-side. He saw the Lady Qin, giggling like a school girl as she was whispering to HuaiSang. He saw it in Meng Yao’s eyes as they visited the Wen settlement together, and bought a whole table of food for everyone from Wen QiongLin’s newly minted family restaurant—pride. Pride in their accomplishment, in attempting the impossible, in seeing people alive.

Nie MingJue had almost forgotten what it felt like to have a battle won. 


A table flipped, followed by loud yelling from the local merchant.

“Sorry about him,” Jin GuangYao bows to the displeased yet clearly frightened merchant, “Are you hurt? Here’s some compensation for your troubles. Sorry about your stand.”

Xue Yang is bouncing off, skipping merrily across with no heed to the chaos behind him.

“Where do you think you’re going, Little Thug?” A string wraps itself around Xue Yang’s wrist as he comes face to face with a pleasant smile.

“Shopping!”

“Does my father not pay you? Do you not have money?”

“Where’s the fun in that?”

Right. Calm. Deep breath.

“Xue Yang,” Jin GuangYao takes a deep breath, “You’ll have a place in society soon, which means people will have their eyes on you, and soon I won’t be able to clean up all your messes."

“You’re not my mom, Shorty! don’t tell me what to do,” the kid rolls his eyes.

“Then don’t make me clean up your mess.”

“I ain’t making you, you’re the one bending over and apologizing.”

Deep breath. Deep breath. Deep breath.

Jin GuangYao rubs his temple. He wonders if this is how Nie MingJue feels all the time.

“You’re very powerful, Little Thug, but there will come a day where you’ll need help from others. That’s why you need friends.”

“Yeah yeah, whatever, Old Hag,” the boy is quickly losing interest, and is already picking up his pace.

“One more thing,” Jin GuangYao catches up to him with in a few quick strides, “You should avoid causing trouble tomorrow. Sect Leader Nie is coming to visit. He’s a man of high moral standards, I don’t think he’d take well to your behaviour.”

“Ahhh…” A grin appears on the face of the little thug, “So that’s why you’re being so gross today! Your beloved Sect Leader Nie is coming. No worries, I’ll stay clear from your quality time.”  

“Don’t cause any trouble, Little Thug,” Jin GuangYao smiles. He’s not even mad. 


A week after the celebration, Jin GuangShan takes back another bastard child, much earlier than he did last life.

“Sect Leader Nie,” Jin GuangYao introduces the boy before him, “this is Mo XuanYu. XuanYu, come greet ChiFeng-Zun!”

Mo XuanYu stammers in his greetings and fiddles with his sleeves. Not wanting to prolong the torture for any of them, Nie MingJue dismisses the boy.

“A… A pleasure to meet you, ChiFeng-Zun. See you, brother!” They both watch the boy shuffles out of the room with just as much excited awkwardness as he came in with.

“You’ll have to forgive him,” Jin GuangYao shakes his head in amused exasperation, “he can be a bit... timid.”

Timid is not the right word to describe Mo XuanYu. Over-eager, perhaps. But Nie MingJue doesn’t bother correcting him. 

“Was this how I looked like when you took me to QingHe?” Jin GuangYao asks.

“No,” Nie MingJue answers, “you were always careful and well mannered… And fearful.” Like a knife hung over his head. Back then, Nie MingJue had often considered killing Meng Yao, and perhaps Meng Yao had sensed it. Or perhaps the boy was simply used to insecurity.

Meng Yao blinks, before a smooth, perfect smile covers his face again. “I’m glad you found my manners acceptable, Sect Leader Nie.”

Meng Yao has changed over time, in more ways Nie MingJue has noticed. The young man before him exude an air of confidence and ease. It’s impossible to tell how much of it is real.

“Sect Leader Nie, I have something to show you.” He pulls out a map, several locations dotted over in red, stark like the cinnabar against Jin GuangYao’s pale skin. Thin lines connect the dots. It’s the Watchtowers. And at the centre of these connections is the Unclean Realm. He listens as Jin GuangYao explains the function of the watchtowers to him, there’s a sparkle in his eyes, of wild ambition and excitement.

In the past life, many had died for the watchtowers to be built. A good portion of the fund collected for building the watch-towers also went directly into the Jin Sect’s pocket.

But if it came down to efficiency and the number of lives saved, Nie MingJue cannot argue against the Watchtowers.

“Sect Leader Nie, if you agree with my thoughts, I’d like QingHe to lead this project,” Jin GuangYao concludes.

“Have you spoken to your father about this?”

“Not yet…” Reservation shows on Jin GuangYao’s face, “my father is currently pushing to instate a Chief Cultivator, what do you think of it?”

“It’s unnecessary.” Nie MingJue snapped.

Jin GuangYao blinks at him, noticing the shift in temperature. Still, he answers, “I do think the sects can benefit from strong leadership, though I don’t think my father is suitable for the role.”

“And you would be?” Nie MingJue asks. Jin GuangYao’s eyes shifts to his hand, he had placed it upon his saber unconsciously.

“That wasn’t what I was about to suggest,” Jin GuangYao says carefully, voice unwavering, “I’m not a Sect Leader. I was about to suggest yourself, Sect Leader Nie.”

“Do you want the position for yourself or not?”

“Does it matter, Sect Leader Nie?”

“Answer the question.”

Jin GuangYao considers him, before answering, “it’s not something I like to think about, especially if my answer will displease you either way.”

“So you do want the position for yourself, then.”

Jin GuangYao gives another glance at Nie MingJue’s hand on his saber, before looking away, “I’d like to be your equal, Sect Leader Nie, but I don’t want to be your enemy.”

“You’re right,” Nie MingJue finally says, after a long pause, "the Watchtowers needs to be built. As always, your suggestions are spot on.” 

He pauses again.

“The QingHe Nie will take on this project. You’re right in coming to me.”

Jin GuangYao looks back to him with a complicated expression, before a smile creeps back onto his face, his eyes brightening once again, “I’m glad. It will be a difficult project without input from other Sects. Will you not consider it, the position of Chief Cultivator?”

Nie MingJue pauses, “I will consider it when it becomes necessary. We can start around the QingHe territories and lead by example. Have you spoken to anyone else about this?”

“No, I wanted to run it by you first.”

“Then we should present this to the other sects for consideration. Lan XiChen will certainly support this. As for your father…”

“I will do what I can to convince my father,” says Jin GuangYao.

Nie MingJue pauses to study him, “How has your father been treating you?” His voice softens.

Something shifts just for a fleeting moment in Jin GuangYao’s eyes. “Generously, thanks to your attention, Sect Leader Nie.”

Nie MingJue studies the young man before him. He looks better in this life than the last. There’re no shadows beneath his eyes, no lingering signs of fatigue. Perhaps the Jins really are treating him better. There’s something he’s missing, but Nie MingJue doesn’t know what to ask, how to prod.

“If I am to present this plan to the other sects, you will not be recognized for your planning, nor will you be openly involved in the initial phase,” Nie MingJue explains, "Do you not want the recognition?”

“Sect Leader,” Jin GuangYao looks at him straight in the eyes, an easy smile on his face, “your recognition means more to me than anyone else’s in the world.”

Nie MingJue feels himself at a loss for words. Affirmation is what Meng Yao needs. It’s simple for someone like Jin GuangYao to say exactly what people needed to hear, but Nie MingJue himself has never made the same habit. It feels disingenuous. He recalls the sense of pride in Meng Yao’s eyes when they visited the Wen Settlement, the sense of pride running in his own veins.

“Jin GuangYao,” Nie MingJue says, it’s difficult for him to utter compliments or encouragement. In the past, he had done so spontaneously, but never purposefully. He’s always associated them with frivolity at best, and flattery at worst. “You’ve done well, I’m proud of you.”

“Sect Leader,” the young man says, expression unreadable, “won’t you call me Meng Yao when we’re in private?”

“Of course,” Nie MingJue blinks, "Meng Yao.”

 

Chapter Text

Nie MingJue had spent the weeks following his meeting with Jin GuangYao planning for the first set of watchtowers. The watchtower project would be providing infrastructure, and therefore could not be built one by one. There would be no effect if there weren’t multiples of them. To build brand new structures would be expensive. Therefore, Nie MingJue had taken to purchasing and repurposing existing high-rising structures within QingHe first.

It was the opening day of the eighth Watchtower when the Chang family was wiped out.

Of course, Nie MingJue had visited the family some time ago, had warned them to take precaution, but with the Watchtower project on his hand, and no sight of Xue Yang, the Chang family matter was quickly forgotten.

And now, they’re looking at a house full of dead bodies.

Another list of names on Nie MingJue’s conscience.


 

“You! You’re responsible for this!”

Jin GuangYao stares at Nie MingJue in utter confusion.

“Why was I not made aware of Xue Yang's presence at Koi Tower?”

Jin GuangYao shrinks back. He opens his mouth to speak, but no words came out.

“I didn’t know he would do this,” he finally says, after a long period of deliberation.

“You were the one who recommended him to your father,” Nie MingJue repeats the lines he has said in his past life. The image of Jin GuangYao before him more and more familiar.

“I… didn’t?” Jin GuangYao’s confusion only increases, “Is that what my father has told you?”

Nie MingJue frowns, caught off guard.

“You’re lying.”

Jin GuangYao’s confusion only grows, “Sect Leader Nie, why would I lie about this?”

He’s not lying.

“My father has been gathering talents from all-over for research in the demonic arts. Xue Yang is one of them. I thought you were aware of this, and didn’t think Xue Yang was more dangerous in particular.” Seeing that Nie MingJue has calmed a bit, Jin GuangYao clarifies.

Nie MingJue’s rage peters out to awkwardness.

This isn’t the past life, and it cannot become the past life. In the past life, Nie MingJue had focused his pressure on Jin GuangYao, forced him to choose between himself and his position in the Jin family. Ultimately, it was what broke them. If Jin GuangYao didn’t recommend Xue Yang in this life, then Nie MingJue doesn’t need him in this picture.

They have the evidence, and QingHe is more powerful this time around. With enough pressure, he’ll make sure Xue Yang is properly executed, with or without Jin Sect interventions.

“I see,” Nie MingJue says, “this has nothing to do with you, then.” He turns away.

“Sect Leader Nie…”

“You may leave. Don’t get in my way.”

A period of silence follows. Finally, Nie MingJue hears a soft “Yes, Sect Leader Nie”.  

Meng Yao leaves without another word.


Just like last life, Jin GuangShan attempts to obfuscate the truth. Jin GuangYao helps him. Though he never speaks against Nie MingJue, he always attempt to placate and distract.

The sight of it disgusts Nie MingJue.

Still, he has decided not to make Jin GuangYao his enemy. He won't address Jin GuangYao or acknowledge his attempts to distract him. He won’t badger Jin GuangYao in private. Until Xue Yang’s execution, Nie MingJue can pretend that Jin GuangYao doesn’t exist.

Xue Yang snarls at him with hatred in his eyes and cursed his entire family as Nie MingJue declares the date of his execution.


It’s Jin GuangYao who approaches him this time.

“Sect Leader Nie,” Jin GuangYao catches him on the stairs after a discussion conference.

Nie MingJue doesn’t break his stride.

“Sect Leader Nie, as a guest disciple of your sect, I request an audience.”

Nie MingJue almost wanted to laugh. Even while defending Xue Yang, Jin GuangYao still has the gulls to claim himself as a Nie Sect disciple. He stops in his track.

“I know your father sent you to plead for him, I have nothing to say to you,” Nie MingJue says, giving Jin GuangYao only the briefest of glance before turning away again. He doesn’t want to look at Meng Yao's face and see him.

Silence follows. Nie MingJue is ready to start walking again when a soft chuckle stops him.  

“My father…” Jin GuangYao’s voice is soft, “My father had told him to kill me.”

The smile on Jin GuangYao’s face is all too perfect, all too calm.

This isn't right.

Even with all his dismissals, all his callousness, Jin GuangShan had never actively tried to kill Jin GuangYao in the past life.

Jin GuangYao is lying.

No, he can't be. He’s pleading for Xue Yang’s life. Saying that Xue Yang has tried to kill him would gain Xue Yang no favour.

Nie MingJue stares at Jin GuangYao in complete and utter confusion.

“Sect Leader Nie, have you always known…?” Jin GuangYao murmurs quietly, almost to himself.

By hiding Meng Yao from Jin GuangShan, Nie MingJue has shaped Jin GuangShan's dismissal into suspicion, and that suspicion into fear.

“I grew up in a brothel, Sect Leader,” Meng Yao’s voice rang in his ear, “Do you think I can’t tell when a man tries to manipulate me?”

No. No. That’s not what he tried to do. 

“No,” Jin GuangYao says firmly with a shake of his head, eyes turning back resolutely, “it doesn’t matter. I’m not here on behalf of my father, Sect Leader Nie.”

Nie MingJue looks back at Jin GuangYao, a step behind him on the stairway. He motions for them to head to a clearing.

“Stand there,” he points to a location away from the stairway.

Jin GuangYao looks over at the stairway, almost bewildered, but complies.

“Explain. Why do you plead for him when he tried to kill you?”

Jin GuangYao studies him.

“Because he’s a child, Sect Leader,” he finally says.

This isn’t an expected answer.

Nie MingJue is not a sentimental man. Jin GuangYao should know this. Yet he presents this ineffective reasoning.

“My father gave him the resources to study the demonic arts and encouraged him to kill me. Xue Yang is a child who’s been given deadly weapons and told to use them, and he used them.”

A child, made into a weapon. Just like how Jin GuangYao had used Xue Yang in the past-life. Just like how Nie MingJue had used Meng Yao.

“Tell me, Meng Yao, what of the children he killed? They’re even younger than him. Why aren’t you pleading for their justice?” Nie MingJue demands. But their lives aren’t on Meng Yao. They’re on him. He’s the one who didn’t stop Xue Yang. He knew the future, and he allowed other things to distract him. He allowed them to die.

Meng Yao remains silent for a bit.

“You cannot bring back the dead, Sect Leader. All I ask is for you to give Xue Yang a chance to live. Sect Leader Nie, do you know what Chang CiAn did to him?”

Nie MingJue has heard, the story of Xue Yang’s missing finger. He doesn’t understand how this plays into the affair. Revenge would be a valid reason to kill Chang CiAn, not for massacring over fifty people. Does Jin GuangYao actually hold sympathy for Xue Yang? Can they even believe the things that come out of the thug’s mouth?

“You would believe everything he tells you?”

“I believe him because I know what hatred looks like,” says Jin GuangYao.

“Sect Leader Nie, do you know? Back when I was at the brothel… on days when men would beat and humiliate my mother, and the Madam did nothing to stop them, when I was held down against the floorboards, powerless as they told me to stop screaming, and the rest of them either watched on with mockery in their eyes or turned away… Back then, there were days where all I wanted was to watch the place burn.”

He knows. He knows. He knows the cold satisfaction as Jin GuangYao watched the brothel burn in his past life. He knows of the feeling of warmth spreading in his chest when Jin GuangYao witnessed his father’s death. He knows the satisfaction of beheading Wen RuoHan’s son. He knows what it felt like to want Jin GuangYao dead at any cost.

“But you didn’t,” Nie MingJue says, after a period of silence.

“There’s no justification for his crimes. But I couldn’t… I didn’t stop him,” says Jin GuangYao, and there’s pain in his eyes, and perhaps a bit of envy. “I couldn’t stop him.” Not like you did for me. 

“Tell me,” Nie MingJue asks, “Did you know about what he planned for the Changs?”

“No.”

“Did you ever asked him to kill anyone?”

“No.”

“Then what happened to them was not your fault,” Nie MingJue tells him, placing a hand on Meng Yao’s shoulder.

Jin GuangYao didn’t know this in the past-life either. And there’s no reason he’d have allowed it to happen in this life. Still, Nie MingJue breaths a sigh of relief.

Meng Yao sees himself in Xue Yang. But is Xue Yang still a man worth keeping? Just because he’s spared Meng Yao, has spared the Wens, has spared Wei WuXian, does that mean he should allow every single fiend to live just to give them an extra chance?

"Xue Yang chose his vengeance, and he’ll need to face the consequences of his actions,” Nie MingJue concludes, finality in his tone.

“Understood, Sect Leader Nie,” says Meng Yao, lowering his head obediently.


But on that very same night, Nie MingJue catches Jin GuangYao releasing Xue Yang from his confinement.

 

Chapter Text

Soft murmurs can be heard from deep within the halls of Xue Yang's confinement.

“I can’t protect you… don’t come back… away from my father and Nie MingJue…”

“Sect Leader Nie, you can’t go in there! Sect Leader Nie!” The lone guard of the cell attempts to chase him down in panic. A gap in the rotation, schedules can be shifted. The other guards must be taking a break. This one belongs to Jin GuangYao.

“Run!” Jin GuangYao’s voice rings out as Nie MingJue charges forward.

Nie MingJue draws his saber in a flash of red as Xue Yang disappears through a hidden door. Jin GuangYao turns to him, panic in his eyes, HenSheng in his hand.

Jin GuangYao has betrayed him once again.

The past repeats itself before Nie MingJue’s eyes and Nie MingJue sees red. Red and gold and flashes of Jin GuangYao’s mocking laughter.

You think it’ll be different this time? You think you can control me? You think you own me?

How dare he? How dare Jin GuangYao mock him? Protect that little scum of the earth and raise his sword against him? How dare he?

He’ll kill him. He’ll kill him. He’ll kill that son of a bitch Xue Yang. He’ll end them both.

Another clash of metal, HenSheng cracks and clatters to the ground. Saber meets flesh.

“Nie MingJue!” Meng Yao’s scream shatters the air around them. The haze clears.

Meng Yao’s face is paler than usual, filled with terror and hope. Waves of Meng Yao’s qi, sharp and clear, is flowing through BaXia from the palm of his hand, from the bleeding gash in his shoulder. BaXia is lodged firmly in Meng Yao’s shoulder.

The sparks amidst the snow on Meng Yao’s robe is dyed completely red.

“Da…ge?”

Nie MingJue can barely register the soft murmur as Meng Yao’s body drops, and crumples to the floor.

BaXia drops to the ground.

This isn’t what he wanted.

This isn’t what he wanted.

This isn’t what he wanted.

“Meng Yao?”

There’s no response. Blood gushes wildly from the gaping wound.

The man Nie MingJue had wanted dead lays unconscious in his arm.

He needs to stop the bleeding. He needs to get help. Meng Yao cannot die here. Not now. Not after everything. Meng Yao cannot die here. Nie MingJue won’t allow him to die here.

With trembling hands, Nie MingJue tears off his sleeve and wraps it tightly around Meng Yao’s wound, hitting a few acupuncture points to stop the bleeding.

They’re at Koi Tower. The guard, where is that guard? Probably ran off to get Jin GuangShan. No. They cannot get help from Jin GuangShan. "My father ordered him to kill me.” Jin GuangShan will let Meng Yao die and pin it on Nie MingJue. They have to get away from there.

In the haze of qi deviation, all Nie MingJue can think of is Lan XiChen.

The Cloud Recess, then. The Cloud Recess is safety.

Nie MingJue picks up WangSheng (“Hope for life,” said Meng Yao, a sword named in his honour) from the ground, carefully as to not break it. A crack runs through the blade where it clashed with BaXia.

“We’re going to find Lan XiChen,” Nie MingJue says aloud as he lifts Meng Yao to his back. Meng Yao makes a weak sound of acknowledgment.

Good. He’s still alive.


Most of the Cloud Recess is asleep when ChiFeng-Zun, wild eyed and covered in blood, qi unstable, tumbles from his saber and crashes by Lan XiChen’s door with LianFang-Zun on his back.

“Save him. Save A-Yao.”

Lan XiChen is wide awake in an instant.

“Fetch Wen Qing! And Fetch Nie HuaiSang!”

 

Chapter Text

“How is he?” Is the first thing to come out of Nie MingJue’s mouth upon returning to consciousness.

“MingJue-Xiong,” Lan XiChen calls out in relief. Nie MingJue nods to him.

“He’s alive, physically, but his qi is unstable and he hasn’t regained consciousness. Your qi deviation must have reverberated,” Wen Qing explains.

“Your qi isn't much better, Sect Leader Nie,” the doctor continues candidly, “normally I’d tell you to rest, but we need to know what happened.”

“I…” Nie MingJue pauses for only half a moment, “Jin GuangYao released Xue Yang from prison. In anger, I had a qi deviation and striked Jin GuangYao down, he brought me back by sending spiritual energy through my blade.”

“Xue Yang is still on the loose, then?” Lan XiChen gathers. Nie MingJue nods.

Wen Qing frowns, “You should have stayed at Koi Tower. Flying took a toll on both of you.”

“I couldn’t,” answers Nie MingJue.

“Couldn’t what? Let down your pride? I have to properly diagnose the two of you and Sect Leader Lan here will have to answer to Jin GuangShan. Give us all the details.”

“Jin GuangShan tried to kill him.”

A cold silence falls in the room, following a sharp intake of breath from Lan XiChen. Wen Qing blinks before she snickers.

“You’re all the same.” Her tone is clipped. “He’s going to have to learn how to wield a sword with his other arm, and his cultivation won’t fully recover for a long time. Neither will yours.”

“Lady Wen,” Lan XiChen places a hand on her arm in warning.

“He’ll worry less if he knows the full picture,” she explains, “rest and recover. I’ll let you know once he wake. Your brother is on his way here.”


Nie MingJue waits.

He waits for his own qi to get back in order. He waits for Meng Yao to wake up again. He waits for news of Xue Yang’s capture.

Lan XiChen no longer plays the Song of Lucidity to him, not after that first time. Without the support of music, all Nie MingJue can do is meditate on his own.

So he waits. He talks to Lan XiChen. He talks to HuaiSang. He let Wen Qing check up on him.

Nie MingJue is taken back to the time during SunShot Campaign, waiting for Meng Yao to come back from being undercover, not knowing which version of him will be back.

Meng Yao had called him Da-ge.

And if Meng Yao does wake up as Jin GuangYao again, will Nie MingJue kill him?

Year after year, Nie MingJue has been chasing after the man who killed him in Meng Yao’s shadows. He has tormented Meng Yao with his doubt, hurt someone who has been nothing but loyal to him over and over, until he almost killed him.

The last thing Meng Yao did was to dispel Nie MingJue’s qi deviation with his own spiritual energy.

“If he is to wake,” Nie MingJue says to Lan XiChen, “I am to be made aware of it at once.”

“Of course.”

“You mustn’t delay a moment to talk to him, in fact, stay away from him and don’t let him speak to anyone else until I speak to him myself.” If Meng Yao is to wake as Jin GuangYao, it will be hard to predict what he will do. One of the last memories Jin GuangYao had was being stabbed by Lan XiChen.

Lan XiChen frowns, sensing Nie MingJue’s hostility, “Why is that, MingJue-Xiong?”

“Why is it that you are so possessive when it comes to A-Yao?" Hearing no explanation, Lan XiChen presses, “Can you be sure that he’d want to be interrogated by you the moment he wakes after what had happened?”

Nie MingJue has his eyes closed and jaws set.

“MingJue-xiong, I cannot answer this request without an explanation. I may not fully understand the depth of your bond to him, but A-Yao is my friend,” Lan XiChen’s voice shakes with something akin to desperation. Just less than a day ago had MingJue-Xiong came in, half dead, with A-Yao covered in blood in his arms.

“XiChen, please,” Nie MingJue says. Lan XiChen deserves some explanation, Nie MingJue knows this. But every voice in his mind is screaming not to get Lan XiChen involved again. Whatever it is between himself and Jin GuangYao, whatever hostility, he can’t allow Lan XiChen to be dragged into this swamp, to be caught between them. He can’t.

His chest hurts where ShuoYue stabbed him.

“MingJue-xiong,” XiChen’s hand is cool against his temple as his qi, steady and calming, passes through, “I’m here.” I’m here. I’m right here. Talk to me. Depend on me.

Nie MingJue should have never allowed Meng Yao and Lan XiChen to meet.

But how can Lan XiChen make his choices if he’s not aware? How can Nie MingJue possibly protect anyone by keeping them in the dark?

“There is a reason,” Nie MingJue takes a deep breath.

Nie MingJue tells the truth as concisely as he can, with no mention of Lan XiChen’s involvement in Jin GuangYao’s death.

“That doesn’t… sound like the A-Yao I know.”

‘A-Yao doesn’t tell you everything,’ Nie MingJue doesn’t say. The truth is, “He isn’t. Not fully.”

“So this is the burden you’ve been carrying by yourself,” says Lan XiChen.

“It’s not yours to carry,” says Nie MingJue.

“Still, I’d like to help you, as a friend… No.” He pauses, “A brother."

"Which is why,” Lan XiChen adds, "I still can’t allow you two to see each other the first thing. Regardless of which A-Yao wakes up, you have to give him time to process. Regardless of what he’s done in your previous lives, A-Yao is still A-Yao here, and I will respect his decision on whether he wishes to see you.”

“XiChen.”

“Have some trust in others, MingJue-Xiong. Have some trust in us.”


Nie HuaiSang is scared.

In Nie HuaiSang's memories, his brother has always been the strongest person alive.

Ever since they were little, Nie MingJue had always been mature and dependable. Even while their father was alive, his brother had seemed stronger, more capable. When their father passed away, Nie MingJue inherited the family like he was meant for it, like nothing in the world could stand in his way.

And then his brother met Meng Yao, and brought him into the sect. After that, his brother only became older. Nie HuaiSang was too young to understand all the changes then, but it was around then when his brother started carrying himself even more like a sect leader. Perhaps it was Meng Yao’s influence, but his brother grew sharper and more gentle at the same time.

In many ways, Meng Yao and his brother were pretty similar. Meng Yao wasn’t strong or forceful. He was gentle in demeanour but sharp as the saber’s edge. He was brilliant, perhaps even smarter than Wei Ying. He completed his duties with efficiency. Despite being the same age as Nie HuaiSang, Meng Yao was mature and capable, just like his brother.

To Nie HuaiSang, Dage could hold up the sky, and if he ever faltered, Meng Yao could help him. People like them were capable of everything, so Nie HuaiSang didn’t have to worry. He could just be a bum, and thing would be fine.

That was what he told himself.

Then the SunShot campaign happened, and Nie HuaiSang was worried that the sky was falling down. He worried when Nie MingJue risked his life each day fighting on the front lines. He worried when his brother and Meng Yao came back with injuries. He worried when Nie MingJue sent Meng Yao away to spy on Wen RuoHan.

But Nie MingJue lived, and so did Meng Yao. They brought them victory and Wen RuoHan’s head. They shot down the sun, but the sky remained clear.

With his arms around Meng Yao’s shoulder and his brother by his side, Nie HuaiSang was lulled into a false sense of safety. At that moment, he thought, this is it, we’re safe now, nothing will separate his family anymore.

When he got to Cloud Recess on Lan XiChen’s call, both his brother and Meng Yao were unconscious. Nie MingJue, qi unstable and bleeding from his eyes, ears, and nose. Meng Yao, covered in blood and face pale as bones.

The sky falls.

It scares him, how close he came to losing his brother, to losing the closest person he has to a brother. It scares him, the fact that he could still lose them, any time. The fact that they are not invincible, that they are fragile.

He doesn’t know which one hurts more, the reckoning that his brother and Yao-ge aren’t invincible, or the fact that his very own brother sought out Lan XiChen instead of himself in a time of desperation.

What can he do? What should he do?

Xue Yang, that’s the catalyst for his brother’s fallout with Meng Yao, the thing that tore them apart. (How dare he?)

He can start by getting rid of Xue Yang.


Falling, you’re falling.

You’re falling down the steps of Koi Tower, and you don’t know how to stop.

Somewhere in your heart, there’s despair and humiliation, but your mind is mostly occupied by pain and fear; pain, that your body is experiencing as you tumble down each step, fear, that you’re going to die like this.

So this is why Nie MingJue tells you to stand away from stairs.

You’re standing at your father’s funeral and you don’t shed a tear. They tell you that you should cry, that it would be unfilial not to. But you don’t have any tears left, all you can feel is rage, rage at the cost of his untimely death. HuaiSang cries for the both of you.

You meet Nie MingJue formally for the first time at the encampment, broad backside and sharp eyes. He tells you to stand with your back straight and head high. He tells you to ignore their idle gossip.

He brings you back to QingHe. He teaches you cultivation and treats you as someone of value.

You watch as Meng Yao comforts the baby in his arm, and you’re truly amazed. At that moment, it seems like the young aide is capable of everything, everything that you cannot. He understands people, he understands how things work. You’re certain that this young man can accomplish anything if he set his mind to it. If only the rest of the world isn’t so blind.

(But the next moment, he’s pulling his sword out of his Jin Sect captain, eyes cold, ruthless. This is not the boy you knew.)

You beg him for forgiveness, you beg him for a path to live, for a path to be. But he doesn’t understand. He pushes you to confess your crime. Doesn’t he know this will kill you? Doesn’t he know?

You beg him for forgiveness. Why can’t he understand that you did this for him? That you’ve only killed the man to protect him? He raises his saber, and you close your eyes. But the saber never landed. You stumble back to camp, dazed. Grateful to be alive. Grateful that Sect Leader Nie hasn’t abandoned you yet.

When you see him again, he’s dressed in the red sun of Wen. He kills in cold blood. He lives with treachery. You want to end him right there and then, but XiChen stops you. You remember the youth holding the baby in his arm, smile gentle. You remember him pouring over the list of supplies and casualties, sorting everything into its place, brilliant, burning, shining. You don’t want to smother him then and there.

He chases you with his saber. Why? Have you not been through enough? Have you not defeated their greatest enemy? All the sleepless nights, all the meticulous planning, and he’s going to kill you. Why? Why? Why? What have you done to deserve this? Why can’t Nie MingJue just let you live?

He tells you, "I’m sorry." He tells you, "let’s go home." He holds you until you stop shaking.

You swear brotherhood with him, and you watch him like a hawk. You will not make the mistake of trusting him anymore. But you will not abandon him. You will make sure he doesn’t go onto the wrong path again.

Your father refuses to acknowledge you. He buries you with thankless tasks and treats you as if you’re not there. His wife regards you with disdain and tries to humiliate you every chance she gets. Nie MingJue allows you to call him brother, but no longer looks at you the way he uses to. (Like you’re someone of value.) He judges you at every turn.

Your father is afraid of you. He treats you with civility before your eyes but sends Xue Yang to kill you behind your back. His wife regards you with disdain and tries to humiliate you every chance she gets. Nie MingJue checks on you, and you’re no longer certain of his intentions. But he’s here, and he asks for your wellbeing. The Koi Tower may be hostile to you, but in the presence of Sect Leader Nie and his brother, you find yourself at home.

You question him about Xue Yang. You push him to get rid of the criminal. How can he not see that Xue Yang is vile, unredeemable scum? Does he still have no standards? No morals?

You shout at him what you’ve been dealing with, composure gone. You’re tired of being judged, of being shouted at and never listened to. You’re tired of trying to meet his impossible standards. He doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand. Why can’t he understand?

You show him your plans for the watchtower, and he approves of them. He still looks at you as if you’re someone of value. He tells you he’s proud of you and your accomplishments.

You kick him down the Koi Tower, and you say what you know would hurt him most, “as expected from the son of a whore.” Later, your anger will be replaced by shame, but by then it’ll be too late to take back the words you’ve said.

Falling, you’re falling again, and this time he’s the one who kicks you down. As you roll, you think you hear the sound of something breaking. (He used to look at you as if you were something of value.)

(You poison his music. You poison his friendship with Lan XiChen. He won’t let you live, so you’ll kill him. You’ll kill him. You’ll kill him.)

No. Stop. Stop. What are you doing? Don’t kill him. Don’t hurt Sect Leader Nie.

Your mind is filled with nothing but anger. That little scum, you’ll kill him. You’ll kill him. You’ll kill him.

You raise your sword and pierces it through his heart. His body falls.

(You wanted to bury him, but he won’t close his eyes. So you split him into pieces and scatters his remains, but he comes after you again and everything’s falling apart. Everything you’ve built is falling apart. You lose them all. You lose Lan XiChen. You think, if I’m to fall, then so be it, and chooses to die by Nie MingJue’s hand.)

He knocks down your sword, and his blade swings towards you. You scream his name. You don’t want to die. You can’t let him die. His saber lodges itself in your shoulder and you send your qi through it, hoping to bring him back.

You won’t let him die. You won’t let him die. You can’t lose him.

You’re falling down the stairs of the Koi Tower. You can’t stop your body from tumbling, can’t stop it from shattering into pieces. But Nie MingJue is there, Nie MingJue gathers each piece of you and attempts to put you back together. He gathers the pieces of yourself in his arm and uttered in choked whispers, “Meng Yao, don’t die. Please don’t die.”


Jin GuangYao wakes up.

You lived three lives. Once as Nie MingJue, and twice as Meng Yao.

There are two Nie MingJues, one just, and the other kind.

“Nie MingJue,” he laughs with a choked whisper, “you fool."

 

Chapter Text

Jin GuangShan asks for his son back. The man plays the very role of a worried father so convincingly that Lan XiChen can hardly believe this is the same man Nie MingJue claims to have made attempts on A-Yao’s life.

“Sect Leader Jin,” Lan XiChen says gently, “please trust that Young Master Jin is in good care here at the Cloud Recess. Wen Qing’s medical skills are unparalleled, but you must understand that he will be unfit for travel until he fully recovers.”

“Still,” Jin GuangShan says coyly, “he’s a member of LanLing Jin, I don’t want to impose upon Sect Leader Lan's hospitality any further.”

“Not at all,” Lan XiChen answers, enunciating every syllable clearly and firmly, “A-Yao is one of my closest friends. I’ll do anything to make sure he's safe.”  

With a deep sigh, Jin GuangShan shook his head, “To think that ChiFeng-Zun would use violence against A-Yao, who has adored him with every fibre of his being. Nevermind, this is my fault, I should never have allowed A-Yao to speak on my behalf for Xue Yang’s matter. That child...”  

“Sect Leader Jin,” Lan XiChen intercepts gently when Jin GuangShan trails off, “if there’s no further request, I’m afraid I’ll have to take my leave. The disciples would be happy to escort you around the Cloud Recess, if you do so desire.”


 

“I will return to QingHe,” Nie HuaiSang announces, "to see to sect businesses in your stead.”

“I’ll come with you,” says Nie MingJue.

“Dage, you should rest,” Nie HuaiSang says firmly, “XiChen-xiong has already offered to assist me in anything I don’t know, and I have the elders to rely on.”

“Besides,” HuaiSang continues, "don’t you want to stay until Yao-ge gets better?”

It’s true, Nie MingJue needs to watch Meng Yao. He needs to know which version of him wakes up. (If he wakes up.)

But Nie MingJue also knows what had happened to Song Lan’s sect in the other life. Now Xue Yang’s biggest enemy are no longer Xiao XingChen and Song Lan, it’s himself. And HuaiSang will become a target.

“You have no idea how dangerous Xue Yang is.”

Nie HuaiSang blinks.

“I do, big brother,” Nie HuaiSang answers, and there’s an odd sobriety in his eyes. “I know how dangerous he can be.”

Nie HuaiSang smiles, and there’s a firmness in his expression that Nie MingJue has never seen before, not even in Jin GuangYao’s memories. Sharpness, a hint of steel. Nie MingJue is suddenly reminded of Meng Yao as he headed out to go undercover at Wen RuoHan’s camp.

Nie MingJue feels his blood chill.

“I’ll be careful,” his brother says, before giving him a nervous smile, “besides, I’m heading right back to QingHe. We’re not a small sect like the Changs. We have hundreds of disciples. It’s not like I’m going to hop on my sword and look for him myself.”

Nie MingJue blinks, “you’re not?”

“Of course not! Look at me! Look at my cultivation! I’m not crazy! I don’t want to fight a homicidal madman!”

“Oh,” says Nie MingJue.


The truth about the Xue Yang's case was this: most people didn't care enough to get involved.

The fact was, despite his notoriety, Xue Yang had never killed anyone of importance. The massacre of the Chang family was an exception, but Xue Yang was thorough in his violence, and he didn’t leave anyone alive save one scion. Even thinking with their toes, it was easy to understand that the Changs were no more, and therefore it’d serve no advantage for any of the major sect to cry justice for them.

Xue Yang had few enemies, but a powerful benefactor. Though Jin GuangShan had denied involvement with the massacre, nobody wanted to damage their relationship with a major sect leader.

When it comes to justice, leave it to ChiFeng-Zun and foolish youths like Xiao XingChen.

And so, one massacre case became a power-struggle between the Nie and the Jin. Most watched on with idle curiosity as Jin GuangYao, son of Jin GuangShan, struggled to manage the butchered relations between his father and his former superior. The Lan Sect, naturally, stood with Nie MingJue to seek justice, but it wasn’t difficult to tell that Lan XiChen took a moderate stance in consideration of Jin GuangYao’s disposition. The Jiang Sect, tied to Jin Sect by marriage, were divided, and withheld their stance, but not without some scathing remarks from Wei WuXian, commander of the corpse army.

Then, overnight, Xue Yang escaped, and both Jin GuangYao and Nie MingJue became incapacitated. The facts were muddled. Witnesses claimed that Nie MingJue went into a qi deviation.

Amongst the rumours, a story emerged. Xue Yang had tricked Jin GuangYao, preying on his friendship and sympathy to let him out of his cell, only to stab him in the back as soon as he got out. Nie MingJue, finding his former aide gravely injured, went mad with rage and entered into a qi deviation.

The depth of Xue Yang’s treachery, the injustice suffered by the Chang Family, by LianFang-Zun and ChiFeng-Zun, heroes of the SunShot campaign, is passed around through tales and heresay. Naturally, Jin GuangShan no longer has any reason to defend Xue Yang. A beast loose in the wild is no longer useful, but dangerous.

A bounty was placed onto Xue Yang’s head.

In the end, all it took was a change in public opinion for the world to turn on Xue Yang. Tales of Xue Yang’s atrocities became worse and worse, and righteous cultivators everywhere sought to take down the thug for glory.

When the boy was finally hunted down and killed by a mob, it was with fanfare and celebration. It was said that the little delinquent cursed at the entire cultivation society before he died, calling up an army of corpses and injuring many. Fortunately, his control of the dead was no match for Wei WuXian of YunMeng. In the end, he was devoured by the very same corpses he brought to life, leaving behind no body to bury.

No one mourned.

It was a sentence long overdue.


“A-Yao.”

When Meng Yao’s eyes lands on Lan XiChen, he isn’t smiling.

Lan XiChen approaches carefully, reaching out a hand to check Meng Yao’s temperature. Meng Yao visibly stiffens, and shifts ever so slightly away. Lan XiChen withdraws his hand.

He can’t tell if Nie MingJue is right. The A-Yao sitting before him seems unusually reserved, but one can attribute that to the shock of almost being killed by someone dear to him.

“How are you feeling?” He asks carefully, taking a seat next to the bedside.

“Much better now, many thanks to—“ there’s a brief, barely noticeable pause, “XiChen-xiong’s care. Jin GuangYao apologize for causing so much trouble.”

“It’s no trouble,” Lan XiChen answers.

“Sect Leader Nie?”

“He’s safe. He’s recovering from his qi deviation, with good progress.”

“That’s good.” There’s a helpless sort of relief in the way Meng Yao’s shoulder settles, yet immediately tenses again with new worries.

“Dage has told me about your past,” Lan XiChen says, vague enough not to give everything away if A-Yao doesn’t remember, but deliberately enough that he would definitely pick up if he does.

Meng Yao’s eyes twitches with recognition and wariness.

“Don’t be afraid, we’re—I'm not going to persecute you,” says Lan XiChen gently, withdrawing his hand, “just focus on getting better first.”

“If he told you, that means he thinks I already remembered,” Meng Yao says.

Lan XiChen isn’t sure what to make of his tone. A-Yao has always been sharp. Nie MingJue’s tale chills Lan XiChen to the bones. He doesn’t want to distress him, but he can’t lower his guard.

“He’s still uncertain as of now,” Lan XiChen says, implying his intent to inform Nie MingJue of his findings. “He wishes to see you, but only when you’re ready.”

“And if I won’t?”

Lan XiChen frowns. He doesn’t want to force anything upon A-Yao, yet he can’t just let him loose knowing everything. “Focus on getting better first. I’m sure you have a lot to process.”

A-Yao gives him a reassuring smile. “Worry not, I’ll speak with Sect Leader Nie tomorrow. I just need some time alone.”

“Of course,” Lan XiChen stands up, preparing to take his leave, “call on the disciples if you need anything.”

Meng Yao seems to study him.

“XiChen-xiong, did Sect Leader Nie tell you about–” His mouth stays open for a bit, but he doesn’t continue. His good hand presses against his chest for a moment before it lowers again, similar to the way Nie MingJue’s did when telling him about the other A-Yao. There’s a secret there they don’t want him to know about.

Lan XiChen shakes his head.

Meng Yao snickers, a mixture of pain and relief, and Lan XiChen doesn’t know how to comfort him.

You of all people, I’ve never wanted you to find out,” says Meng Yao.

If this is the world MingJue-xiong has told him about, Lan XiChen might have been angry, disappointed to hear these words. But in this world, he understands. The anger isn’t for him to bear. In this world, he just want to hold and comfort A-Yao, to take away all the pain.

He think he hates this A-Yao a little, this A-Yao he doesn’t know whose memories torments the one he loves.

But in the end, A-Yao is still A-Yao.

“It’s better this way,” Lan XiChen says, “I wanted to know how to support the two of you, A-Yao.”

Meng Yao falls silent again.

"XiChen-xiong…” Just as Lan Xichen takes his leave, Meng Yao calls out to him, "if you would please… refrain from calling me A-Yao. Just for a little while.”

“Of course,” Lan XiChen agrees easily, seeing another old wound between this A-Yao and the other Lan XiChen.

Another pain which he doesn’t share.


He has prepared for Nie MingJue’s visit, hair tied and properly dressed in the clean white robe of the Cloud Recess. It was unfortunate that his own sparks amidst the snow robe was soiled by blood. He wants Nie MingJue to see him for who he is, not as the boy Meng Yao, damaged and vulnerable.

“You tried to change me.”

Those are the first words Jin GuangYao says —sitting in the centre of the room, upon the matted floor— to Nie MingJue upon their reunion. It’s an accusation, but Jin GuangYao’s tone was mild.

“Of course you would,” he mutters to himself. When Nie MingJue didn’t give an answer, he gives a tired little laugh. “So is this what you mean when you told the day I find out will be the day of my death.”

“How much do you remember?” Asks Nie MingJue.

“Everything,” Jin GuangYao answers, "I always remember everything, you know this.”

He watches as Nie MingJue’s hand rest upon the hilt of his saber, a gesture he’s all too familiar with.

“I’m sorry, Nie MingJue. I cannot be the man you want me to be.” He never could have been. Even as Meng Yao, given a second chance with a clean slate, he couldn’t put himself to Nie MingJue’s standards.

With an exhale of breath, he adjust to a kneeling position.

He’s following the Sect Leader to the outskirts of town, and the man tells him to kneel.

He’s kneeling on a battlefield at HeJian, and Nie MingJue has his saber drawn.

Jin GuangYao closes his eyes. He’s done pleading. He’s no longer scared. Whatever judgement Nie MingJue has for him, it’s long overdue.

As the seconds ticks on, there’s no pain, no death, no violence. He feels a light touch trailing along the wound on his shoulder, barely noticeable through the fabric over his skin.

He opens his eyes to see Nie MingJue’s hand shaking.

Jin GuangYao allows the corner of his lips to quirk in triumph.

“What happened to ‘I’ll kill you, then myself’, Dage?”

“Your shoulder,” Nie MingJue asks.

“Healing, thank you for your concern, Sect Leader Nie,” Jin GuangYao answers with a soft smile.

Nie MingJue’s hand drops.

They sit in silence.

“Which one are you, then?”

“Both,” Jin GuangYao answers, “I am myself.”

“What’s your plan?”

Jin GuangYao gives a light laugh, soft and airy, “Am I allowed to have one now?”

“You always have one.”

Jin GuangYao turns his eyes away with a soft smile. “You should have killed me when we first met in YunPing, before you can be addled with all these sentiments."

Nie MingJue observes the man before him, a pale spectre in Gusu Lan white. He remembers Meng Yao, hope in his eyes as he told Nie MingJue the name of his sword. He remembers Meng Yao, radiant in the sparks amidst the snow robe, raising his cup to him with both hands. He remembers Meng Yao, storm in his eyes as he pleaded for Xue Yang.

“No,” he answers easily enough.

Meng Yao is not a flame he wants smothered.

“If you have done so back then, you wouldn’t be hindered by your guilt now, stuck in a stalemate with me. Was it because I was innocent then?”

“You were never innocent.”

Jin GuangYao frowns. “Even after knowing your memories, I still cannot read you. You tell me, then. Was it pity that made you take me in?”

“Yes,” Nie MingJue admits, “that’s not all of it.”

“Arrogance, then. You thought you could change me.”

“Yes,” Nie MingJue admits again, despite the ire it provokes. But this isn’t it. This isn’t quite right. He needs to find the right words.

“What more do you have to say, Dage?” Jin GuangYao demands evenly, sensing Nie MingJue’s frustration.

“You didn’t kill me,” Nie MingJue says.

Jin GuangYao blinks.

“I did…” his brows furrows in confusion.

“In our first life, when I told you to turn yourself in, you had a chance to kill me but didn't. At the fire palace, you stopped Wen RuoHan from killing me even when it would have been easier for you to be rid of me. Why?”

Jin GuangYao’s frown deepens.

“Does it matter? I eventually had to finish the job,” he answers with a wry laugh.

“Why didn’t you?” Nie MingJue presses.

Jin GuangYao stares at him, at the floor, at the window, and then back at him again.

“You know the answer.”

“Say it,” there’s an urgency in his voice.

“I…” and for once, the words that resounded in Jin GuangYao’s mind, the words that he wanted to shout at Nie MingJue so many times in the past, won't come out. He takes a deep breath, swallows, and closes his eyes. “I didn’t want you to die.”

I don’t want you to die, Nie Mingjue. I never wanted you to die. I didn’t want to kill you. I don’t want you dead.

With that said, his shoulders sag as if all the strength has left him.

Nie MingJue looks to the man before him, the man who had killed him once and saved him thrice, the boy he has seen growing up twice over, and says “I’m glad you are alive.”

A series of soft, shaky laughs escapes from Jin GuangYao’s lips.

Two lifetimes of grudges, bundled and tied neatly in five words. I’m glad you are alive.

When Jin GuangYao looks up again, his eyes are shining. “This life…”

Meng Yao, are you happy here? His sect leader had asked, under the light of the setting sun.

He rests a hand upon Nie MingJue’s chest, clutching lightly at the fabric of his robe, "I’ve been happy.”

To feel safe, to have a place to call home, these are not the things Meng Yao has ever sought for himself. Yet Nie MingJue had done what he could to provide them to him, in his brutish, selfish manner.

He can’t stop the warmth rising from the pit of his stomach, spreading through his chest.

“I’m sorry,” Nie MingJue says, abruptly interrupting the moment and adjusting to a kneeling position facing Jin GuangYao.

Jin GuangYao lets go and looks to him in alarm.

“I’ve never apologized, for humiliating you, for kicking you down and calling you—“ He cuts himself off upon Jin GuangYao’s glare.

There’s no forgiveness to be offered. So instead, he says, “I killed you for it.”

“I know.”

“I’m sorry for…” Nie MingJue continues with difficulty, “I used you. The same way you used Xue Yang in the past life.”

“You recognized my worth,” says Jin GuangYao, “it was important to me.” It made me happy.

They knelt in silence, staring at one another face to face.

“Nie MingJue,” it’s Jin GuangYao who breaks the silence again, “you should know that I am not someone easily satisfied. I do not plan to repeat my previous life, but my father…” He laughs again, the warmth he felt earlier dispersing, “I cannot allow him to continue living.”

“If you wish to kill him,” Nie MingJue answers, "I won’t stop you. But I won’t allow you to involve innocent lives.”

“Innocent?”

“Unrelated.”

Jin GuangYao studies him, “That’s very generous of you, Sect Leader Nie.”

“Your brother?”

“I won’t touch him,” Jin GuangYao says, with a hint of resentment. So Nie MingJue knows he’s telling the truth.

“Good.”

“You would trust me?” He asks, puzzlement and wariness in his voice.

“No. But I know you."

“Dage…” Jin GuangYao says drily, "I’ve hidden things from you repeatedly, it’s not hard.”

“Then don’t,” Nie MingJue says, “we will stop hiding things from each other from this point on.”

“That’s an impossible demand,” Jin GuangYao starts slowly, patiently, "You’re only offering this because of what I have done recently. If you choose to trust me, you risk being tricked again. If one day you choose to doubt me, I have no way of disproving your preconceived notion of my nature. Don’t you see? I can’t go back to living in the shadow of your judgement anymore. I can’t wait on your approval at every turn. I can’t—“

“Meng Yao,” Nie MingJue interrupts, visibly struggling to find what to say before he opens his mouth to question. “What do you want?”

“I want…” Everything. Doesn’t he deserve everything? Recognition, respect, stature. Doesn’t he?

And look where that had gotten him?

“I want to live.” The words slip out of his mouth, unbidden. “And I want you to stay alive.”

“Then let’s live,” says Nie MingJue, almost pleading. He places a firm hand on Meng Yao’s uninjured shoulder, “we can work out the details as we go. Let’s live.”

They can work out the disagreements, can fight, argue, build watchtowers, plot out the future. They can live.

“Okay,” Meng Yao answers,  “okay.”

 

Chapter Text

Nie HuaiSang is scared of changes.

His life was full of changes. The death of his father, the arrival of Meng Yao, the Sunshot Campaign: each event brings a change to those around him, to his brother, to Yao-ge, to his old friends back at the Cloud Recess. Everybody was always changing, and perhaps it was out of sheer stubbornness that Nie HuaiSang stayed the same. Because Nie HuaiSang didn’t want to change.

He didn’t know what would happen to them when he does.

His brother tells him that Meng Yao has awakened, is recovering. Nie HuaiSang is glad the message came from Nie MingJue. This means the two are probably on speaking terms.

“Yao-ge, you’re awake!” Nie HuaiSang exclaims in thoughtless excitement with practiced ease.

He waits for Meng Yao to return his smile. If he can see the same smile again, things will be okay. Things will go back to the way they were.

“HuaiSang,” Meng Yao acknowledges. He doesn’t smile.

No big deal. Not the end of the world. Maybe, if he just wraps his arm around Meng Yao, and feel that he’s real…

His brother steps between them.

An odd atmosphere settles over the room.

It’s Meng Yao that breaks the silence.

“Apologies, HuaiSang. My shoulder is still healing. No hugs for now,” his smile looks slightly strained. Exhaustion, perhaps.

“How are you feeling?”

“Good! I’ve been retraining this arm to regain most of its movements. I can still write with it, so that’s good. My left hand calligraphy is still far from legible."

“Haha, don’t brag. Just being able to write with both hands is pretty amazing already."

They exchange some pleasantries, and HuaiSang fills them in on the current political happenings.

“I heard that Xue Yang died,” Jin GuangYao muses.

“Yes,” Nie HuaiSang eyes him carefully.

Jin GuangYao closes his eyes. He gives a soft, bitter chuckle, “Perhaps it’s what he deserved, after all.”

“No,” Nie MingJue said.

“No?”

“He deserved death, but not like that.”

Wary, on the run, driven by fear until he was cornered and hunted down by a mob, name in tatters and killed like a rat in the gutter.

“How generous of you, Sect Leader Nie.”

There’s a deafening silence. Nie HuaiSang’s eyes flicker between the two sitting before him anxiously.

“There’s a rumour,” says Nie MingJue, “that says Xue Yang was the one to injure Meng Yao.”

“Y-Yes,” HuaiSang scratches his head, “Ah… I can see how people would think that–”

“Did you start it?” Nie MingJue asks.

Both pairs of eyes are on Nie HuaiSang.

“N-no. I mean I wouldn’t know how–”

“Tell me honestly, HuaiSang, did you start that rumour?" Nie MingJue is standing now, figure looming over.

The temperature in the room drops.

“I…”

He looks between the two of them. Why did he think everything will be be okay? His brother hates deception and gossip. Meng Yao wanted to protect Xue Yang.

What if Nie HuaiSang was the one who changed? Will they still be able to go back? What will they think of him now?

“HuaiSang,” Meng Yao’s voice is gentle, bringing him out of his thoughts. He places one hand on Nie HuaiSang’s arm, and another on Nie MingJue’s, “You were trying to protect your brother, weren’t you?”

There’s understanding in that statement. Meng Yao, too, has killed people to protect Nie MingJue.

“I–I was scared,” Nie HuaiSang blurts out, the words blubbered out of his mouth uncontrollably. "When XiChen-ge called me over, I thought I would lose the both of you. I...”

“You’ve done well,” Meng Yao says, and there’s a strange expression on his face, a twist of something unreadable, as if bitter and understanding at the same time. The hand on Nie HuaiSang's arm tightens slightly.

“No,” says Nie MingJue, “he shouldn’t have done that. I was the one who hurt you. I don’t need a criminal to cover up my faults.”

“Nie MingJue,” Jin GuangYao turns to him, eyes blazing, “put down your pride for a moment and think this through. By your own confession, Jin GuangShan will forever hold my injuries against you. He won’t press for charges, but he’ll try to use the incident as a bargaining chip upon every disagreement with the Nie Sect. He’ll try to use this to take over the Watchtower project upon its completion, and appropriate the funding for it to line Jin Sect’s pocket.

"But I can change that. I can back HuaiSang’s story. Xue Yang tried to kill me. You saved me but misremembered because of your qi deviation.

“I refuse to be used by my father against you. Please, Sect Leader Nie, let us protect you.”

“So that I’ll owe you instead?” Nie MingJue asks, tone neutral.

“You don’t owe me anything. I’m choosing to do this. I won’t allow my father to use me.”

“You risked your life trying to protect him back then,” Nie MingJue says, directly to Jin GuangYao, “does he not matter to you anymore?”

“The dead has no need for reputation, Sect Leader Nie,” Jin GuangYao says softly, “you do.”

Nie MingJue studies him for a moment, before closing his eyes.

“Um…” Nie HuaiSang looks between them, “B-brother… I…”

“HuaiSang,” Nie MingJue’s tone softens. He pauses, before making up his mind and placing a hand on Nie HuaiSang’s shoulder. “In the past few weeks, you’ve worked hard.”

His brother’s gaze is intense, but earnest. Without words, Nie HuaiSang throws his arms around Nie MingJue, who stands straight as a tree trunk and equally as rigid. Nie MingJue’s hand made a few stiff pats against his back. Beside them, he can see Meng Yao smiling from the corner of his eyes.

Meng Yao’s smile doesn’t look the same as it did before, somehow. Perhaps nothing can stay the same forever.

They can work with that.


A single incense stick burns before a spirit tablet. There’s no shrine, just a short stool with a tablet, a small incense cauldron, and a box of sweets laying before it.

Jin GuangYao doesn’t bow.

“He had no family, and I’m sure there’d be plenty who’d curse his name from years to come. If I offer an incense stick from time to time, it’d be all he’s getting.”

“In the other life, he lived much longer,” Nie MingJue says, “and killed many more.”

Jin GuangYao nods in agreement.

“Nie MingJue, do you think Xiao XingChen and Song ZiChen’s lives are worth more than his?”

“I did.”

Jin GuangYao closes his eyes, “I suppose you’re right.”

“They’re not the ones you wanted to protect,” MingJue says, his voice neutral, non-accusatory.

“No. They aren’t.”

“You risked your life to protect him. In that other life, he was nothing more than a tool for you.”

“I wanted to give him a chance,” Jin GuangYao says, “your sentimentality rubbed off.”

“I never asked you to extend it to Xue Yang.”

“Because he’s not worth it?"

“No,” Nie MingJue said, “no, I can’t decide that for you.”

Under Jin GuangYao’s watch, Nie MingJue lights a single incense stick and offers it to Xue Yang’s cauldron.

Jin GuangYao blinks.

“He wouldn’t appreciate this,” he finally says.

“He’s dead.”

“Fair enough.”

They watch the incense sticks burn in silence, until the whole thing turns into ash.

“When do you plan to kill your father?”

“When the opportunity arises. I’m not in a rush.”

“Come back to QingHe, then.”

“So you can better keep an eye on me?” Jin GuangYao asks, a hint of amusement in his voice.

“Yes, and I need help for the Watchtowers.”

“Oh,” Jin GuangYao blinks, eyes lighting up with just the tiniest hint of spark. He smiles.

“Much obliged then, Sect Leader.”


Jin GuangShan had no complaint about Jin GuangYao’s decision to move back to QingHe. If anything, he seemed relieved.

His father being on guard against him will make killing him more difficult in the future.

He’s met with a surprise visit from Jin ZiXuan shortly after.

“ZiXuan-xiong,” Jin GuangYao politely inclines his head, curious on what his half-brother has to say. They were never very close in this life, much like the last. Even without the seed of bitterness from Meng Yao’s fall, the two were distant. Jin ZiXuan is, at best, guarded around Meng Yao, doubtlessly influenced by the opinions of his parents and his pride. Meng Yao didn't work as hard to ingratiate himself with his family in this life either, having a stronger sense of belonging with QingHe.

“GuangYao.” Jin ZiXuan acknowledged with a curt nod, lips taut and brows furrowed in a frown. He seem to be struggling with his words, a trait oddly similar to Nie MingJue.

Jin GuangYao waits.

“Father had told me earlier… that Sect Leader Nie…” He doesn’t continue.

Jin GuangYao offers an assuring smile, “Sect Leader Nie did not harm me. It was Xue Yang. He was disoriented under his qi deviation and misremembered.”

It’s not the most convincing lie, but if Jin GuangYao insisted upon it as the victim, no one would really dispute him.

Well, Jin ZiXuan would, apparently, as he continues to frown.

“Sect Leader Nie… how does he treat you?”

His expression is endearing similar to when Nie MingJue asks about Jin GuangYao's wellbeing in the Jin Sect. ‘How are the Jins treating you?’

“Sect Leader Nie has always treated me fairly, as he does with all his men,” Jin GuangYao answers with an easy smile. "He may have a reputation of severity, but it’s never without reason.”

“GuangYao,” Jin ZiXuan grabs him by the arm, a little too forcefully for its intended effect, “I’m sorry that I’ve never been much of a brother to you. But if you’re ever in trouble, I want you to let me know.”

Jin GuangYao almost laughs. Typical Jin ZiXuan, a big heart full of misplaced concerns. He wonders if Jin ZiXuan will believe him if he tells him their father had ordered Xue Yang to take his life.

It’s probably better if his brother never finds out.

“ZiXuan-xiong,” Jin GuangYao asks, “what do you think of our father?”

Jin ZiXuan’s eyes darken slightly. His brother is, in many ways, much more transparent than Nie MingJue.

“Father… has not always been a virtuous man,” Jin ZiXuan says in a quiet voice, “for all the things that our family owes you, I’ll do everything in my power to make it up to you.”

The steps of Koi Tower were cold on their shared birthday. Jin GuangYao remembers the glare of the sun in the sky as he fell.

But that was another life.

“My mother waited for him until the day of her death. She used to speak fondly of him,” Jin GuangYao says calmly, taking note of how his brother’s face darkens. Jin ZiXuan may be ready accept him as a brother for sharing the same blood, but he isn’t ready to accept Meng Shi, a mere prostitute whose existence is a stain to his family name.

His arm is released from Jin ZiXuan’s grip.

“Her remains are buried in QingHe, but I think she’d like a place for her name in the Jin Family ancestral shrine.”

Jin ZiXuan doesn’t answer. The matter isn’t a decision he can make.

“Thank you, ZiXuan-xiong. I really appreciate your concern for me,” Jin GuangYao bows, and means what he says. “I’ll be fine."


Later, in QingHe

“Say, Sect Leader Nie, Have you ever told XiChen-xiong about WangJi and Young Master Wei?”

Nie MingJue blinks.

“Of course you didn’t.” Jin GuangYao rolls his eyes.

“What about them?"

“Well, seeing how they were in that other life, and seeing how Wei WuXian hasn’t lost his grip on sanity in this life, maybe things can go much smoother with a bit of intervention."

“I have no interest in meddling in their personal affairs,” says Nie MingJue with a frown.

“It’ll take a load off of XiChen-xiong’s mind.”

Nie MingJue scoffs. “Last I’ve seen, those two have a long way to go.” Still arguing like school children. Well, on Wei Ying’s part, anyway.

Jin GuangYao laughs, bright, radiant. “Well, if you and I can be allies…”

Nie MingJue closes his eyes, and burns this image into his mind.

Fin. 

 

Chapter Text

“You look tired, Sect Leader Nie. I’ll heat some water for your feet,” was what Jin GuangYao told him.

He was tired, and soaking his feet in hot water sounded nice, still he protested, “You’re not a servant. Don’t trouble yourself with trivialities.”

But Jin GuangYao simply shook his head and said, “it’s no trouble. Your comfort isn’t triviality,” before heading off to retrieve a basin full of hot water and a towel.

Jin GuangYao sets the basin of water before his feet.

“Thank you,” Nie MingJue says. He looks down at the water before him, and back at Jin Guangyao. Jin GuangYao makes no move to get up.

“I’ll help you with your shoes,” he says instead, at which point Nie MingJue finally catches up to what’s happening.

“No, I’ll do it myself,” Nie MingJue insists.

“Please, allow me.” Jin GuangYao looks back up right at him, expression neutral, insistent.

He has no choice but to concede.

Nie MingJue has the vague memories of his mother washing his feet for him, back when his feet were small enough to be held in her hand. She passed away before he was old enough to do the same for her.

He remembers the feet of his father, aged, calloused, odorous; of Meng Yao’s mother, small, misshapen with binding; of Qin Su, larger, yet delicate and almost odourless.

Much like Nie MingJue never got to wash the feet of his mother, Meng Yao never washed the feet of his own father.

Probably for the better.

Jin GuangYao is not exactly gentle when he yanks off his boots, though he’s capable of it. His motions are efficient and methodical, they always are around Nie MingJue. It saves him some embarrassment. Nie MingJue cannot claim his feet are odourless like Qin Su’s, and they don’t share the tenderness between husband and wife, or the filial piety between parent and child.

Carefully, Jin GuangYao removes his socks and sets it to the side, rolling it neatly together. If he minds the odour, he doesn’t show.

Nie MingJue lowers his feet into the water. The warmth feels comfortable against his sore feet, but he’s unsure whether he should relax with one foot in Jin GuangYao’s hands.

“Just relax, Sect Leader Nie, I know how to do this.” Jin GuangYao gives him a half smile.

Nie MingJue knows.

Jin GuangYao’s hands press against his feet gently, rubbing away the dead skin and tension. His eyes are downcast. Nie MingJue can’t read his expression from this angle, he wonders if Jin GuangYao is giving his feet the single-minded focus he gives his work.

He looks so small like this. For a moment, things are simple (like they use to be at the very beginning), and they’re just two people who trust each other. Nie MingJue wants to give him the world.

It’s madness. It has to be.

“Meng Yao, look at me,” Nie MingJue says.

Their eyes meet. The rims of Meng Yao’s eyes are tinted red.

He bends down, and takes Meng Yao’s hand into his own, tracing the rise and dip of each knuckle. Meng Yao’s hands are rougher than they look, from work, from sword practice, a writer’s callous on the middle finger from holding the brush.

He doesn’t know how long has passed when Meng Yao tells him “The water must be getting cold."

“Right,” Nie MingJue lets go of Meng Yao’s hand and bends down to pick up the towel.

“Let me.” Meng Yao gets to the towel before him, and lifts his feet from the water. He wipes the water from Nie MingJue’s feet in the same careful methodical motion, not too fast nor too slow.

“There, we're done.” He folds the towel neatly next to the socks. “I’ll go pour this out,” he says with a hint of a smile and leans down to pick up the basin.

“Wait,” Nie MingJue says. He holds Meng Yao there by both shoulders. He should offer to return the favour. Briefly, he imagines himself kneeling before Jin GuangYao’s feet, the way the other man did just moments before. He imagine looking up at those dark eyes and the delicate features, the soft smile.

He can’t bring himself to say the words.

“It’s okay,” Meng Yao smiles, “this is something I wanted to do for you. Thank you for indulging me. I don’t expect you to return the favour.”

“Meng Yao,” he calls his name, for the lack of better words. He doesn’t let go.

Meng Yao regards him passively.

“Meng Yao.” He lets his forehead to rest upon Meng Yao’s shoulder. He can feel Meng Yao tense and relax. He can smell the faint scent of Meng Yao’s hair, feel it against his face, feel the fabric of worn linen.

“I’m here,” answers Meng Yao softly, putting his hand against the back of Nie MingJue’s head.

“I'm here.”

Chapter Text

In many senses, life in QingHe is much simpler.

There’s no father to please, no mother to displease, no brother or cousin to suck up to, no politics to mind. Sure, Sect Leader Nie didn’t let him sit idle (he wouldn’t have wanted that anyway), but accounting comes far easier than his reflexive needs to please everyone. At least in QingHe, people give him space.

But on some nights, Jin GuangYao still wakes up to Nie MingJue chasing him with a sabre, or Nie MingJue’s sword, gleaming against the setting sun on the battlefield of HeJian, or Nie MingJue kicking him down the steps of the Koi Tower, or Nie MingJue’s undead hand around his neck, crushing it in his grip. Most of the time, it’s all of those at once.

He knows it’s just aftershock.

Nie MingJue is no longer a threat, yet whenever he becomes complacent, whenever he feels secure, his mind insists upon replaying his old memories. Just as a reminder, perhaps.

If Jin GuangYao rationalizes it that way, then it isn’t completely unwelcome.

Still, he finds himself lying awake at night drenched in cold sweat.

It has been one of these nights.

Taking a walk to clear his head, he finds himself standing before Nie MingJue’s quarters. There’s a sense of security there, knowing the man of his nightmares, the subject of his old fear, rests peacefully behind that door. Slowly, carefully, he puts his ear against it and tries to make out the sound of Nie MingJue’s breathing. He closes his eyes and sinks to his knees. Face still pressed against the door, he let his breathing synchronize with the soft snores of Nie MingJue, summer air cool against his skin.

(There was a time, long ago in another life, where he would fall asleep in his hidden room with Nie MingJue’s sealed head in his arms, secure, safe. The difference is that this Nie MingJue breathes, and that one didn’t.)

Jin GuangYao opens his eyes to the morning sun and Nie MingJue’s look of suspicion and concern.

“What are you doing here?” Nie MingJue has a hand on his (good) shoulder, a deep frown on his face.

Well, this is awkward.

“I’m okay,” Jin GuangYao smiles reassuringly, “Apologies, Sect Leader Nie, I didn’t mean to fall asleep here.”

Concern morphs into sheer confusion.

Oh dear.

“Answer my question.” His tone is even, neither clipped nor angry.

From him, Nie MingJue demands honesty. In this case, it isn’t disadvantageous for Jin GuangYao to speak the truth. From Nie MingJue, he has never minded causing guilt or sympathy. He like to think of himself as far beyond shyness or shame. Still, saying ‘I dreamt of all the times you tried to kill me and that one time you did, and I wanted to see you alive” sounds too intentional. From someone like him, it’s too transparent an attempt at manipulation. If he was Nie MingJue, he wouldn’t believe himself.

Jin GuangYao gets up, accepting the offering hand to right his balance. His whole body feels numb from sleeping in an odd position. “You needn’t concern yourself, Sect Leader Nie, it’s not a problem,” he pushes, just once. If Nie MingJue presses further, he can answer.

“I want to know,” Nie MingJue says.

“Would you believe me if I said I just wanted to see you, but didn’t want to disturb your sleep?” Jin GuangYao says with a smile.

“In the middle of the night?” The confusion deepens.

“I dreamt of our other life,” Jin GuangYao says. It’s no issue keeping his tone even, despite his rising heart rate, and the knot in his stomach. He’s well practiced in that. He prepares to be rebuked.

The frown deepens on Nie MingJue’s face and the corner of his mouth twitches, but his expression settles on understanding.

So Nie MingJue too must dream of their past-lives.  What a relief.

“You’re not lying,” he says.

“No, I’m not.” Jin GuangYao places his hand on Nie MingJue’s arm, a gesture of assurance. “I would have come up with a more convincing lie.”

“You don’t need to convince me for matters such as these.”

“No, I suppose I don’t.” Jin GuangYao’s smile broadens.

Nie MingJue stares at him and continues to frown. When Jin GuangYao is about ready to dismiss himself from this awkwardness, he speaks again. “Go back to your room, get some proper rest.”

“Thank you,” Jin GuangYao smiles, “Sect Leader Nie.”


 

It’s evening, and Nie MingJue presents him with a jade charm deep red in colour, carved with the Nie Sect emblem, tied onto a belt tassel. Meng Yao has seen this on Nie MingJue’s person many times in this life. Unlike the token of passage Lan XiChen had given him, this belt-charm is purely decorational.

“I’ve never worn this in the past-life,” Nie MingJue states.

There are minor differences in Nie MingJue’s wardrobe between this life and the last. Jin GuangYao didn’t know it was intentional.

“It can serve as a reminder of where you are, so you know I’m here,” Nie MingJue says, a matter of fact. A practical solution to an emotional problem.

Jin GuangYao lets his fingers to trace over the smooth carving. He can’t help but chuckle.

“Is it funny?” Nie MingJue asks.

He shakes his head, smiling. “Da-ge, you’ve become very considerate.”

Nie MingJue stays silent for a moment. “It’s… what you’d have done if you were in my place,” he finally says.

Ah,  so he learnt it from him.

It wasn’t completely correct. Jin GuangYao would have taken more time. He would have gotten something custom-made, with meaning in every detail, the carving, the tassel.

But this is faster, and Nie MingJue must have wanted to give him a solution before nightfall, before it’s time to sleep.

Meng Yao smiles and pockets the charm.

Reaching behind, he removes an item from around his neck. It is a pearl button, hanging on a red string like a pendant, the one which his father had given his mother, and his mother to him; a token of his mother’s hope. In this life, Meng Yao has never had a chance to use it, and so it had never been tossed away by Jin GuangShan.

He holds it out towards Nie MingJue with an open palm.

“You kept this on you,” Nie MingJue says, a light frown.

“I have,” Meng Yao says, “but I don’t think I need to anymore. Won’t you keep this for me, Sect Leader Nie?”

Nie MingJue eyes him silently, before reaching out and accepting the offering.

His fingers brush against Meng Yao’s palm as he takes it from his hand, touch light as a feather.

Chapter Text

"Do you miss Meng Yao?" Jin GuangYao asks, on an idle day, "the one you tried to protect, the one who gave his life to protect you."

Nie MingJue regarded him carefully. "Are you not Meng Yao?" He asks back. 

"He is part of me, but I cannot return to the state of being him." Of relative innocence. Of full-hearted devotion. Of loving Nie MingJue without resentment.

"You're good," Nie MingJue says, "I don't want you to give your life for me." He extends his hand, letting it hover over the space above Jin GuangYao's right shoulder, unsure where it should land.

Jin GuangYao closes his eyes, and feels Nie MingJue's firm hand against the side of his head, palm against his ear, fingers over his hair. He leans against it slightly. Mindful of propriety.

"Nie MingJue, I..." He lets himself trail off, because no promise can be kept forever. One day, he will change. This feeling will change. 

Without saying anything, Nie MingJue closes the distance between them, and wraps his arms around him.

In that moment, Jin GuangYao was Meng Yao again, standing in Fire Palace after Nie MingJue had said "Let's go home".

In that moment, Jin GuangYao felt forever.