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Heaven's Grandmaster of Self-Saving

Chapter Text

This is a thought.

 

The realization caught him by surprise. Thoughts felt new , sluggish, like newborn animals stumbling when they tried to walk. His mind almost cowered away from the fact that he was thinking, as if it would be safer lying dormant. His brain felt as if rags had been stuffed inside, wrapped tightly around each and every portion of it, squeezing it of the ability to function.

 

It hurt.

 

He shifted a hand, before remembering he didn’t have one. The other tingled. What had happened? Oh, right—HanGuang-Jun, to save Jin Ling, his own nephew— 

 

My nephew?

 

Ah, yes. He was Jin GuangYao. His chest ached, and he coughed, and only then did he realize he had been forgetting to breathe. His lungs felt dry, weak, shuddering like thinning, elderly tapestries in the wind as he inhaled. One. Two. And then he blew it out. 

 

He coughed again. Dust. 

 

Notes filled his ears, a lovely flute warping the atmosphere. He stiffened, remembering where he was lying because Lan XiChen—Lan XiChen— 

 

He stabbed me.

 

And I pushed him away.

 

XiChen’s face when Jin GuangYao pushed him away—desperation, his lips curling, mouth open, eyes popping out of his skull, the flare in his nostrils, the scream Jin GuangYao had lost too much blood to hear, the scream he imagined even as Da-Ge lifted him up, up, up, choking the breath from him, snapping him into death. 

 

What he deserved, he supposed. But at least he’d had the chance to tell Da-Ge fuck you. 

 

Da-Ge lay beneath him. Jin GuangYao scrambled, panic filling him. He turned, falling out of the coffin and onto the floor of the temple he’d built to consecrate the one person who loved him, the temple he poured so much into at the same time he rebuilt the Cloud Recesses for Lan XiChen. Two temples. And the Lookout Towers… he’d devised them for Qin Su, for RuSong.

 

The structures remained, but the for s had long burned to ash.

 

How am I alive? 

 

The music suddenly sounded sinister. Was Jin GuangYao a corpse, one of Wei WuXian’s puppets, akin to Wen Ning now? I don’t want to be controlled! A cry burst from his lips. He could make sound. Spittle flew. His knee throbbed. He turned.

 

A man he didn’t recognize stared at him, and the moment Jin GuangYao’s eyes met his, he knew. 

 

This man was a petty man, angry, insecure, draped in rags and skin filthy. Jin GuangYao got to his feet. He would not be a match for Jin GuangYao. But then who was playing the flute? 

 

“Calm yourself, Jin GuangYao. Your body is still fragile,” came a voice from behind him. 

 

Jin GuangYao whirled. He would not gasp. He would not show fear to whomever— 

 

A man dressed all in white stood before him, and Jin GaungYao couldn’t help it. Horror pried his mouth open.

 

Three faces, distinct faces, peered at him from one larger face. What the fuck? What kind of demonic entity was this? 

 

“Don’t be afraid,” said another voice. A man dressed like a priest walked towards him. The petty beggar glared at the priest, who returned the look with a serene one of his own. “We’re here to help you. Your brother will not awaken.”

 

Well, at least there was that. He didn’t particularly want to give Da-Ge the satisfaction of murdering him again. 

 

Jin GuangYao flexed the hand he had. The other still stung. He shook his wrist and regretted it. Nausea gripped his stomach. Why did his hand hurt if there was no hand? Why did he breathe, if he had been dead? Wen Ning didn’t need to breathe… 

 

“It hurts because it is still a part of you, even if no longer attached,” said the priest simply.

 

What? “Get out of my head!” Jin GuangYao lurched back.

 

“I’m not. I could just tell what you were thinking,” replied the priest. 

 

The man with the demonic faces stepped forward, sighing as if conversing with Jin GuangYao was beneath him . “I am Jun Wu.”

 

“I don’t—” 

 

“I was a god,” said Jun Wu. “And a demon. And now I’m here.” He scowled. 

 

Jin GuangYao felt his throat clench. He quivered. “Why are you here?” Are you going to tear my soul apart? Haven’t I already done a decent job of tearing my reputation apart? Can’t I at least have hope that my soul will have another chance, someday, in a hundred years or whenever the curse lifts? Whatever it’d take, he’d beg or— 

 

“To help you, not to harm you,” the priest said quickly. 

 

Jin GuangYao frowned. 

 

“I’ve done way worse crimes than you,” said Jun Wu, meeting his eyes. 

 

Jin GuangYao paled. How was that possible? Oh, well, if he was a god or a demon or both, he supposed it was more than possible. But still, why would this person admit to that? 

 

You know what I’ve done. He studied his shoes, dusty and dirt-encrusted, dingy against the pristine tiled floor. 

 

“And I... want to atone for them,” said Jun Wu. “Would you?” 

 

Atone?  

 

There was no chance. He was a laughingstock. What was he to do, go and submit himself to lose his head on his knees before a society that always scorned him? How would that be atonement?

 

“You have choices,” said the priest. 

 

What a laugh. “What choice did I have?” Jin GuangYao managed. “If you were a god, you had all the resources—I had—” 

 

Nothing.

 

Don’t make me go!

 

“You had two brothers and two sworn brothers,” said the priest. “But they failed you, too—”

 

“Lan XiChen never failed me,” Jin GuangYao cut in, heart beating. He could feel it. I failed him.

 

If I had told you...

 

The priest sighed. “ If you had choices, what would you do with them?”

 

Jin GuangYao couldn’t answer for a moment. And then he knew. A glowing orb appeared in his mind, a dream he’d never quite been able to grasp even as Mother kissed his cheek, tickled him, assured him he would hold the dream and it would be a reality no matter what happened to her. 

 

I want to be a good man. How long had it been since he was able to hold that warm light in his hand, that hope? Since before he married Qin Su, for sure. And even then, he kept trying. But it was all futile. 

 

It was what he’d always wanted.

 

“Something different,” he answered. “Something better.” 

 

In the end, Mother’s corpse was destroyed in the place built to honor her, because he was trapped by the one person he’d never suspected. Mother, Mother, Mother, come back.

 

Mother, I’m no good, could you still tell me I could be? Would you? 

 

“Good,” said Jun Wu. “Because I can give you that chance.”

 

Jin GuangYao blinked. “What? Do you want me to go and turn myself in?”

 

“Not hardly.”

 

He couldn’t comprehend a single way, and his mind always plotted out dozens if not hundreds of paths. He’d truly screwed up and there was no way back, even resurrected. “What, then? Look for Lan XiChen? I’m sure that’ll go over well, with his brother and the YiLing Patriarch—”

 

“No,” cut in Jun Wu. “We’ll be sending you back in time.”

 

Jin GuangYao goggled at them. His mind struggled to make sense of the words. 

 

“We exist in one world among many,” said the priest, almost apologetically. “In one, you are merely a character in a story, an antagonist until the end even if one to be pitied. In another, you do not exist, but a system to fix things does. And in a third, you still do not exist, but that’s where we come from. And then of course, there is this one, where you were dead but now are alive.”

 

Jin GuangYao couldn’t even pretend he understood. He felt stupid. He hated feeling stupid. He clasped his hand around his elbow, drawing in on himself. 

 

“You can’t change the story one,” said the priest. “But you can change this one, and the one with a system, where Shen Jiu comes from.” He nodded towards the bitter man. “And in the third, you can help—”

 

An inkling of what the man wanted niggled in his mind. “Fix your mistakes?” Jin GuangYao interrupted, focusing on Jun Wu.

 

“A few of them,” replied Jun Wu. “You likewise will not be able to fix all of yours. But some, yes. It may be enough to change your fate, change the fate of Lan XiChen, who now sits in seclusion, gripped by a grief he cannot express, scorned by society who resents his ignorance.”

 

What? Shame prickled Jin GuangYao. “I—I—he’s not—” 

 

Not for me, not for me.

 

I was never worth it, Er-Ge!

 

You care?

 

Still! No! “I never meant for that to happen.”

 

“What we do affects others,” said the priest. “A flutter of a butterfly’s wings may cause a typhoon across the world. They may not have welcomed you as part of the world, but you were, and they were wrong.”

 

That at least made Jin GuangYao feel a bit better. Still, he wanted to cry. He’d never intended to harm Lan XiChen. 

 

Have I truly harmed him so?

 

Jun Wu scowled. 

 

“Why me?” asked Jin GuangYao. “Why did you pick me? As a god—or devil—surely you could have picked anyone.”

 

A smile almost flickered across Jun Wu’s face at that. “There was no one else.”

 

Jin GuangYao frowned. His heart pounded. The idea that he might be chosen for something… 

 

“Because I know what you feel, and you know what I feel,” said Jun Wu. “That is why.”

 

Jin GuangYao didn’t understand. How could a god, someone so powerful, possibly know what a pathetically late cultivator, disgraced committer of incest, son of a prostitute, scorned by his own father, would feel?

 

“In the first world,” said Jun Wu. “You will have access to a system that will assist you in your task. The system is generally for people who transmitigate into others’ bodies. That is what happened to Young Master Shen here. He was transmitigated to this world while another transmitigated into him. Which may be a good thing, because in the world in which he is in a novel, he is a monster, more despicable than you.”

 

Shen Jiu scoffed. 

 

The words still wounded Jin GuangYao, even if “despicable” barely covered it. He had a sudden urge to hide himself. 

 

“Shen Jiu will accompany you, and if you succeed in your tasks there, you will leave him and return to a previous time in your life, transmigrating into your own body. You’ll know everything you know now, but you’ll be able to make new choices, rewrite what happened.”

 

His own body? Earlier? When, before he married Qin Su? Before he even met her? He was afraid to hope. 

 

“You’ll have to live through years of that. Once you’ve achieved a measure of redemption there, you’ll be sent to my world.” Jun Wu swallowed. “I must tell you. If you see me as a white creature, wearing a mask, do not approach. I do not know what sins the system will allow me to rectify, and what it will not. But do not approach me. Just try to—help those you can.”

 

Jin GuangYao squeezed the one hand he had into a fist.

 

“You’ll return to your own world then, in your body, picking up from whatever happened in your redeemed timeline and then… you will be able to live until the timelines intersect, until the timeline catches up with the moment you would have died in the world of your unredeemed life.”

 

“What do you mean?” asked Jin GuangYao. “What happens when they intersect? I return to being a corpse?”

 

“I don’t know what will happen then,” replied Jun Wu. “All I know is that everyone will have two sets of memories, then, both equally true, equally lived. I don't think you'll die.”

 

Not reassuring.

 

“You cannot outrun time, or your sins. Not now. Not ever. No matter what, you will always end up back in this place,” the priest said. Jun Wu glared at him as if those words were no more welcome to his ears than to Jin GuangYao’s. 

 

Jin GuangYao didn’t understand. If there was no point, if fate was set, then why was this god even sending him on this journey? Do you just want me to suffer more? I don't want to die again!

 

The priest managed a small smile. “Do not worry. You will understand what I mean when you need to. You can and will live, if you want to.”

 

Stop being so cryptic. Jin GuangYao functioned best when he had all the information. This seemed rather important, and the god was deliberately leaving it out? 

 

“You cannot not have committed your sins,” the priest tried again. “But you can save yourself, anyways.”

 

“So I won’t have to die?” he ventured again, trying desperately. 

 

“That’s up to you.”

 

He swallowed. He glanced at Shen Jiu, who folded his arms across his chest, glowering as if waiting to spit at Jin GuangYao. “And if I refuse?”

 

“You’re welcome to live,” said Jun Wu. “In the body you have now, in a world that despises you.” His voice made it clear he knew what Jin GuangYao would choose.

 

Jun GaungYao’s stomach cramped. Lan XiChen… 

 

You will hate me forever.

 

If I got a second chance, even if everyone still hates me in the end when they remember, maybe you wouldn’t? Or would you? 

 

I don’t know. I’m afraid I never knew you, not until the moment you stayed with me, stayed to die with you. Or maybe I still didn’t know you. Maybe all I knew then was that you were hope, you were the likes of a human being I could never become.

 

But I wanted to be a good man. 

 

“I once wanted to save everyone,” Jun Wu said. “I couldn’t, and it broke me.”

 

“I abandoned him,” said the priest. “In those moments. I will not abandon him this time.”

 

This is your second chance, too? “Why do you think you can save me?” Jin GuangYao asked. 

 

“I don’t,” Jun Wu admitted. “But I think you might be able to save yourself.” 

 

He wanted to run. But Lan XiChen… 

 

I cannot abandon him. I want to shove you out of seclusion, Er-Ge. 

 

Live. I pushed you away to live. 

 

And still, Jin GuangYao knew there was a part of him smirking, glad someone mourned him. Am I really so awful? Does it matter than I never wanted to be? That I don’t want to be? 

 

“If you are ready,” said Jun Wu. “To make a decision, please do. I have other things to take care of.” 

 

“It’s a big decision,” reminded the priest. 

 

Shen Jiu let out a snort. “And if he says no, what the hell happens to me?” 

 

“You stay here in this body,” said Jun Wu.

 

“Why is my fate dependent on him?” Shen Jiu demanded.

 

“Fine, fine,” said Jin GuangYao. “I’ll do it.” The words tasted like metal as he spat them out. He felt lightheaded. He coughed again. 

 

“Good,” said the priest. “Also, you cannot tell anyone about what is happening, about the dual timelines. They will be unaware until they meet. If you do, you will return here a corpse.” 

 

So I’ll flat-out die . A shiver of fear wriggled through Jin GuangYao. No option of being able to return here as he was now, alive and cursed, was there? 

 

Shen Jiu nodded stiffly. Jin GuangYao copied him.

 

Jun Wu held out a lantern. Fire flickered inside, and incense dribbled out, sweet and floral, like jasmine and lavender. He’d forgotten how much he liked the smell of jasmine. Mother always wore them in her hair. 

 

This time, could I protect her coffin? 

 

“If I should die in these worlds that aren’t mine,” Jin GuangYao began.

 

“Don’t,” said Jun Wu. “You must not die. Not even to sacrifice yourself. Redemptive death is an overused, tired trope, and I’m afraid you’ve already done it.” 

 

Jin GuangYao blinked. Redemptive? Was it redemptive, to die saving Lan XiChen, when XiChen wouldn’t have ever been in danger if it were not for him?

 

The fog from the incense grew thicker. He coughed. Shen Jiu met his eyes. And then the scent’s fingers shot down his throat, grabbing hold of his lungs, filling them, filling them—he felt as if he was going to die from the pressure building inside him, building around him, pushing against each other with his skin in-between— 

 

He landed on sweet grass, two hands in front of him. His hair hung loose, like it had when he was Meng Yao. Shen Jiu still looked much the same as he had in the old world. 

 

Jin GuangYao got to his feet.

 

Where are we?

 

Welcome! chirped a voice inside his brain. Jin GuangYao jerked. You have embarked on a mission to redeem three villains. Congratulations on accepting a quest most would not dare to! 

Chapter Text

Jin GuangYao swallowed. Shen Jiu glared at him as if he was supposed to do something now, but what? And how could he? Wasn’t this Shen Jiu’s world? Could he hear the voice inside Jin GuangYao’s head? 

 

I’ve gone mad. Or is this hell? Is this my own version of hell? It would be fitting, dangling hope in front of him and then keeping it forever out of reach.  

 

This is the quest you accepted, replied the System. Would you like to rescind?  

 

He scowled. No. 

 

You are outside Qing Jing Peak, one of the cultivational sects. The system has done you a favor and delivered you close to your target.

 

My target? For assassination, or— 

 

The System estimates the Scum Villain’s Self Saving System Arc difficulty level as medium.

 

Well, at least this target wouldn’t be so hard. What is my goal here? 

 

Put Shen Jiu on the path to redemption, like the one you have been given by Jun Wu. 

 

How was that possible? Wasn’t that this miserable man’s own choices? 

 

The opportunity is yours to give. 

 

Jin GuangYao’s stomach cramped.

 

The System will give you information and next steps as you need it.

 

Not fair. Which direction? Jin GuangYao spun around. All he saw, everywhere, was coniferous trees jutting high into the air, sharp green scratching against gauzy clouds and azure sky bleeding through. He squinted as the sun emerged, shielding his eyes. 

 

The System wishes to remind you that you have another resource. 

 

Jin GuangYao turned again, searching for something, anything, waiting for that blasted voice to talk again. All he saw was Shen Jiu, standing now, arms folded. This man? The bitter one? Jin GuangYao let out a sigh. “Are you familiar with our location?”

 

“I am,” replied the man.

 

“Good,” said Jin GuangYao. “Then can you lead us, Young Master Shen?”

 

“Where?” Shen Jiu asked, bored and affording him not a shred of respect. “I don’t have a magical voice inside my skull like that priest said you’d get.” 

 

Of course he would get stuck with someone who acted just like Nie MingJue, eagerly searching for mud to sling and condemn him with. Jin GuangYao wondered whether Shen Jiu knew that he was the son of a prostitute. If he did… 

 

If you bring it up, I can’t promise not to kill you.

 

Such a task might ensure you were trapped in this world forever, interjected the System. Murder decreases your level of B points to by 100. At zero, you will be stuck here forever. 

 

How many do I currently have?

 

  1. We’ve already unfrozen the OOC character function for you. There’s no need to have it, since you hardly know your own character. 

 

The words hit Jin GuangYao in the stomach. He swallowed. 

 

“Getting our next steps or having a pleasant chat over mental tea?” demanded Shen Jiu. 

 

If he was being given another chance, why wouldn’t the System give him someone like Lan XiChen: kind, understanding, helpful? Was it just his fate to be trampled under people who viewed him as a filthy rag smeared with a prostitute’s blood? Wasn’t he anything more than that? A lump grew in his throat. I’m a person

 

I’d expect nothing less of the son of a prostitute.

 

Fuck you, Nie MingJue! You think I’m afraid of you?

 

He wasn’t. Not anymore. Because he’d always just feared those words from Nie MingJue, feared those were the words steaming inside his mind whenever he glowered in disapproval at Jin GuangYao, ever since the moment Nie MingJue caught him killing that guard and he realized Nie MingJue had much more faith in Jin GuangShan to do the right thing and give his son a second chance than he had in Jin GuangYao to redeem himself. Jin GuangShan would have been thrilled to cut Meng Yao’s head off and then gone right back to his prostitutes and wine. Within a week he wouldn’t even remember a Meng Yao. 

 

Once those words had been spoken from Da-Ge’s lips, once that boot landed in his midsection, once Jin GuangYao fell, tumbling and tumbling down the Jinlintai, he remembered an almost sense of relief washing through him. He knew. He finally knew. 

 

And besides the bruises Madame Jin left and the new ones now blossoming, he felt one inside him bleeding freely, not held back by any skin: so this is what fathers are. They will shove you down to assert their own supremacy

 

He’d vowed not to be like that as a leader, not ever. RuSong—it was for his own good. Nie MingJue just wanted to kill him. He hadn’t wanted RuSong to die, but, really, what choice had he had?  

 

Jin GuangYao bit the insides of his cheek. Blood, bitter, filtered onto his tongue. 

 

“Well?” snapped Shen Jiu.

 

I really can’t stand you. Jin GuangYao blew out his breath, forcing a pleasant smile on his face. “The system said we were near Qing Jing Peak.” 

 

“Yes, I’m aware.” 

 

“How are you aware?” asked Jin GuangYao, keeping his tone airy and light.

 

Shen Jiu clenched his fists.”I used to be—Peak Lord there.” 

 

Peak Lord? Like a Sect Leader ? Perhaps they did have more in common than Jin GuangYao thought. “So… your old body will be there?” The target? 

 

Shen Jiu let out a snort. “Probably.”

 

“Do you plan to take it back, or—” 

 

“There’s no way.” Shen Jiu kept his tone overly polite, as if speaking to an idiot. 

 

Jin GuangYao had been spoken to in such a tone many times in his life. His cheeks flushed. “Very well, then. They’re not likely to recognize you in your current form, so we can just go and ask for—” And work on a plan in our own time. 

 

“Hospitality? Why? We’re not beggars.” Shen Jiu tugged at the hems of his sleeves. Fraying hems. He looked furious. 

 

You don’t want them to see you like this . Jin GuangYao blew out his breath. “So what do you suggest?”

 

“I don’t know. Don’t you have a magical system you can ask?”

 

He couldn’t take this much longer. Death seemed to have cut his patience in half. “It told me to ask you!”

 

“Well, then it’s an idiot!” Shen Jiu swore, stomping his feet. 

 

Jin GuangYao groped through his mind, searching for a thread to cling to and pull him along. “It is not. It clearly believes that, regardless of your current looks or body, that you are capable of coming up with a plan, or even part of one. It doesn’t see you as less worthy.”

 

“But you do. Your flattery won’t work on me.” Shen Jiu huffed, pushing past him. 

 

Ah, but you’re moving . Jin GuangYao traipsed along behind him. 

 

He wondered. This target had to be Shen Jiu’s old body. Would he have to assassinate the one in his old body, or was there a way to switch them back despite Shen Jiu’s insistence that it was impossible? 

 

But with what the System said about murder…. He didn’t understand. Killing Shen Jiu’s old body was off limits if that was the case. So then what was he supposed to do, exactly? 

 

There has to be a cultivational way. 

 

The sky progressively grew darker as they stumbled over roots and loose stones. Jin GuangYao did not like this terrain. 

 

Would you like to unlock the easy blessing feature? It will cost you 5 B points. 

 

Jin GuangYao bit his lip. Five points wasn’t much. Okay

 

Accepted. Help is on the way. Total B points: 95. 

 

Once the sun completely vanished and lightning cracked, the skies opening up and pouring cold rain onto them, he found he liked the scenery even less. His feet got stuck in the mud. He had to tug to free them. 

 

The System realized the difficulty of your companion and so blessed you with a storm.

 

The System could fuck itself. Five points for this? This? 

 

“Hold on, A-Yao!” Mother would clutch his hands, swing him over the puddles. He’d giggle while she’d let go and then daintily sidestep on her own. But she knew he liked to fly over them, even if he was too big for her to carry anymore. 

 

“Hey! Who the hell are you?” The voice broke through Jin GuangYao’s reverie. He at first thought it was the System trying out a new voice, but no, it was a person .

 

Shen Jiu’s eyes grew huge. Someone he knew? Was this what the System had meant by a blessing because of the storm? 

 

Jin GuangYao turned. A man staggered through the forest, sword slashing aside a tree branch that had fallen in his path. Handsome and proud, judging by his upright posture and protruding chest, his scowl reminded Jin GuangYao of Jiang Cheng. Great .

 

“Bai Zhan Peak Lord,” said Shen Jiu, cupping his hands. He bowed. Jin GuangYao scrambled to follow suit. He hated this feeling. He hated feeling behind, not understanding everything! It stung him like a swarm of wasps, the panic, the need to get a grip on what was happening— 

 

“I’m not aware that we’ve met,” the Bai Zhan Peak Lord responded. 

 

“I don’t believe we have,” Jin GuangYao cut in. “Pardon the intrusion. We appear to have gotten lost in the forest, and—” 

 

“We aren’t lost,” snapped Shen Jiu. 

 

“We are.” Jin GuangYao kept a smile on his face. Shen Jiu looked as if he wanted to kick him down the slope. “There is little shame in asking for help when we need it, A -Jiu.”

 

Now Shen Jiu really was anticipating murder. His eyes flashed. He took a step forward.

 

“We’re close to Qing Jing Peak,” said the Bai Zhan Peak Lord finally. “Shen QingQiu will surely host you for the night. You shouldn’t travel in this weather; it looks to only get worse.” He wiped droplets of rain from his pristine face. “Your name?”

 

“Jin GuangYao,” he said. Not Meng Yao, even if such a name would be more befitting of how he currently looked status-wise. Never Meng Yao. 

 

The man’s eyebrows arched. “Liu QingGe.” 

 

At least this time they knew where they were going. Jin GuangYao was starting to wonder if Shen Jiu had forgotten, or more likely, was taking the long way deliberately avoiding his old home.

 

Jin GuangYao bit his lip, lowering his head. What could he even say? He was going to fail. 

 

No. No, he would not. He had to get back to his world. 

 

If I return to the Jinlintai, will I be head cultivator? No, it should be before that, right? Will I still be Meng Yao? Will I be with the Nie Sect, not have killed the soldier yet? That seemed most likely to Jin GuangYao. Very well, then, he would not kill the commander this time. He’d have all the knowledge he had procured from his time in Wen RouHan’s evil palace, so he wouldn’t even have to go undercover. He could help them from the right side, earn Nie MingJue’s devotion. 

 

The System seldom engages in hypotheticals, but it does wish to inquire as to how you would explain your knowledge. 

 

Jin GuangYao swallowed. I’ll figure it out.

 

You usually do, it concurred, and then went silent. 

 

They entered the sect’s buildings. “Brother, you have guests,” announced Liu QingGe. “I found them wandering through the woods.” 

 

An elegant man, slender and yet strong and secure in his footing, turned to them. Long onyx hair swished around, dangling to his waist. He raised a fan to half-cover his face and Jin GuangYao cringed. He’d have to keep better watch on HuaiSang this time around. 

 

Shen Jiu’s eyes grew huge. 

 

Your old body ? Jin GuangYao bowed deeply to the peak lord. 

 

Congratulations! You have met your target, chirped the System. 

 

The peak lord was Shen Jiu’s old body. 

 

“Don’t worry, Shizun! I will cook more for them, not to worry!” called a cheerful, hyperactive voice. The aroma of something absolutely delicious—rich and roasted, spiced and fresh—wafted through the air. A tall man—you’re the hyperactive one? —appeared. Draped in red and black, hair waving around a face with a red mark in the center where the vermillion mark would be on disciples of the Jin Sect, the man bowed to them. And then he leaned down and kissed the peak lord’s cheek. 

 

“We have guests, Luo BingHe,” snapped Liu QingGe, heaving a disgusted sigh. The peak lord’s fan rose, but not before Jin GuangYao caught sight of a flush on his cheeks.

 

Shen Jiu looked paler and paler. He could be on the verge of a qi deviation based on how horrified and shocked he looked staring at Luo BingHe. Jin GuangYao did not want to imagine how low his B points would get if he lost Shen Jiu to a qi deviation only a few hours into his quest.

 

Luo BingHe noticed the man’s expression, too. Jin GuangYao wanted to swear at Shen Jiu. But Luo BingHe’s shoulders slumped as if chastised, as if he was the son of a prostitute and carried shame around inside of him, shame strong enough to bend him. He shuffled back towards where the smell was coming from. 

 

“Liu QingGe, he is my husband now,” said the peak lord. “Treat him with all the respect you’d treat me with, please.”

 

Now Liu QingGe looked pissed. Jin GuangYao bit back a smile. He’d like to tell Lan XiChen about this. Er-Ge could use it to shut up his proper uncle the next time he complained about WangJi being a cut-sleeve. A peak lord in another world is married to another man.

 

A sick feeling gripped Jin GuangYao. You’re the target. Does that mean I have to wreck your happiness? 

 

The System wishes to restate, yet again, that murder is— 

 

Not an option, Jin GuangYao said. I know. Then what did it want him to target Shen QingQiu for? 

 

The System believes you are best served discovering that on your own. Task difficulty level: easy.

 

Easy? He could do without another voice in his head calling him an idiot. His own already did. 

 

“I am Shen QingQiu,” said the peak lord. 

 

Are you? What made a man a man? Was he still Shen QingQiu? Was Shen QingQiu now him ? What made Shen QingQiu Shen QingQiu and not Shen Jiu? 

 

A female discipline who introduced herself as Ning YingYing chattered as she led them to their spare rooms. A homely male disciple watched her as she passed with his eyes shining, but she didn’t seem to notice. 

 

Jin GuangYao pursed his lips. “Who was she?” he asked Shen Jiu.

 

Shen Jiu scowled. “She’s a stupid, flighty girl.”

 

He was tired of casual misogyny, but certainly not surprised coming from the likes of Shen Jiu. “She seemed smart to me.” 

 

“Ming Fan is in love with her, and he tried to prove it by putting Luo BingHe down,” said Shen Jiu. “I can’t understand why he’s sticking around not that Luo BingHe married that—” He shook his head, face screwed up. “I always thought she had feelings for Luo BingHe.”

 

So the more Ming Fan tried to assert himself someone strong, the more he pushed her away. But Jin GuangYao heard them laughing together, and he wasn’t so sure. 

 

Why can’t you just say it? 

 

You underestimate how much words help. 

 

He wished he’d heard with words what Lan XiChen said to him without words in those precious, precious seconds when he closed his eyes, willing to stay with Jin GuangYao until the end and Jin GuangYao knew that, even if it was just from shame, Lan XiChen was willing to stay with him. He understood that despair. 

 

“Is the mission to give you your body back?” he asked.

 

“Ask the voice in your skull, not me!” snapped Shen Jiu again. 

 

You have already discovered the key to accomplishing your task, replied the System.

 

Jin GuangYao gritted his teeth. What? How? Was there some kind of cultivational skill that would allow him to switch Shen Jiu back into his old body, then? 

 

But if there was, what would that mean? Was he to take down Shen QingQiu, the people who’d welcomed him in? How was that remotely redemptive? It’d have been so much easier if Shen QingQiu was like Shen Jiu in personality… and did he even have very many spiritual powers here? It felt like he’d have about the same as he did back in his world. 

 

They settled in, rooms next to each other, and Jin GuangYao couldn’t take it any more. Next steps?

 

Up to you, replied the System. A brief analysis of your past life indicates you wish to pursue your own agenda as opposed to following precise steps.

 

Jin GuangYao almost laughed. He wasn’t sure if it was rage or amusement bubbling inside of him, but he left his room, strolling through the corridors of Qing Jing Peak. Lightning snapped outside, and thunder rumbled, muffling the sound of his steps.

 

He spotted Liu QingGe up ahead, sitting with a scowl on his face as he stared outside at the wind driving the rain. Nighttime was starting to creep upon them, and the sight of the raging storm brought the scent of cloying incense to Jin GuangYao’s mind, his concern that Lan XiChen would get wet. 

 

I wish I could have felt the rain one more time.

 

“Jin GuangYao.” Liu QingGe stood. 

 

Jin GuangYao bowed in respect. “I was simply looking around.”

 

“Obviously,” replied Liu QingGe, voice cold. 

 

You are Jiang WanYin

 

“Answer me this,” said Liu QingGe. “Why are you here? Really?”

 

Alert: the System would like to remind you of the rule that you must not— 

 

“I am here to help my companion,” he replied. 

 

“What with?” Liu QingGe was clearly the stubborn type. 

 

“He’s looking for someone,” said Jin GuangYao. He said no more.

 

“Hmph.” Liu QingGe blew his breath out, setting a lock of his hair fluttering. The candlelight flickered in a gust of wind, but the flames didn’t die. 

 

“Why do you dislike the peak lord’s husband?” inquired Jin GuangYao.

 

“Please tell me you are not a demon.”

 

Jin GuangYao’s breath hitched. What?

 

Liu QingGe cussed. “I didn’t mean that. I dislike Luo BingHe because… well, most dislike him because his mother was a human and his father a demon. But I have not forgotten how cruelly he treated Shen QingQiu. Do you know, when Shen QingQiu temporarily died, Luo BingHe held onto his body for five years, preserving it? No one knew what he was doing with it, the foul—”

 

Jin GuangYao’s mind instantly concocted another face, a song of inquiry played again and again and again. “He couldn’t give up his idea of a happy ending with his special person.” He temporarily died? And you’re still here, with him? Da-Ge… 

 

Could this temporary death be the key to switching their bodies back?

 

Liu QingGe scowled. 

 

“Do you dislike him because he’s half-demon?” How interesting that the man would be hated for who his father was, not who his mother was. Jin GuangYao suddenly wanted to talk to this Luo BingHe. 

 

But I might have to get rid of his husband… 

 

“It doesn’t exactly make me warm to him, but it’s not what I dislike about him either. He’s viewed as—his actions have brought shame on Shen QingQiu.”

 

“And why do you care so much for Shen QingQiu?” Were they sworn brothers?

 

“He saved me from a qi deviation,” replied Liu QingGe, and Jin GuangYao’s heart immediately started pounding. 

 

“Da-Ge!” 

 

“It’s me!” HuaiSang’s cry ripped through his ears. 

 

“He is a good man,” Liu QingGe added. “Luo BingHe has his pick of women—human, demon, even my sister—who are enamored with him. And yet he chooses Shen QingQiu simply because he was kind to him. He saved me too, but I’m not—”

 

Jin GuangYao thought of WangJi again, the way he commanded, “ do not touch him,” the way he clung to Wei WuXian when Wei WuXian cried out in fear of Fairy. “Love is a decision more so than a feeling.”

 

And Nie MingJue, my father—they never made that choice . It stung. Mother had. Lan XiChen, too, in those last moments. 

 

“You sound like Shen QingQiu,” remarked Liu QingGe. He folded his arms. “He told BingHe, I heard him, that his mother chose not to abort him, which everyone believes she should have done and has told him straight to his face—he told him that she chose to have him, that she loved him, at least a little.” 

 

Jin GuangYao swallowed hard. Mother… The other prostitutes in the brothel, save for SiSi, and the pimps—he knew they’d made her offers for herbs, doctors, and she refused them . “What a pathetic slut,” they’d say. “Thinking he’d come back for her.”

 

“Even if he never does, I have you,” she’d tell him, pinching his cheek where his dimple blossomed when he smiled or cried.  

 

“What do you think?” Jin GuangYao asked.

 

“I think Shen QingQiu has taken on a lot of shame in loving him, but he doesn’t mind, because he loves him,” said Liu QingGe. “Oh, about his mother? I don’t care. I just wish he wouldn’t have dragged others into his need to be acknowledged as being worthy to live.” 

 

But don’t you see, others are all we have! Jin GuangYao wanted to shake the man. And he also wanted to talk to Shen QingQiu. 

 

The System grants you 10 B points for coming to this decision.

 

Huh? Talking? Just talking? 

 

“Everyone hates Luo BingHe for his actions,” said Liu QingGe. “Were it not for those, his heritage wouldn’t matter. It only matters because of his actions.”

 

“That’s awfully naive.” Jin GuangYao couldn’t keep it inside him. He watched lightning snap outside. 

 

Liu QingGe frowned. 

 

“When someone comes from a shameful heritage,” said Jin GuangYao. “People will look for a reason to hate you.”

 

Liu QingGe said nothing. He waited.

 

“My mother was a prostitute,” Jin GuangYao forced himself to say. “And she was a better person than my sect leader father.”

 

“Which sect?” 

 

Oh, shit. He couldn’t say. “It doesn’t matter,” said Jin GuangYao. The thunder drowned out any further questions, as a disciple came trotting up to Liu QingGe, grinning as he told him dinner was ready. 

 

Jin GuangYao made an effort to compliment Luo BingHe on his cooking. It wasn’t hard, because every dish he’d made was really delicious, melting on his tongue. 

 

Shen QingQiu was quiet and seemed to measure his words carefully. Shen Jiu didn’t glare at him as much as Jin GuangYao would have expected. Instead, he focused on someone else, a man who introduced himself as Yue QingYuan, the Cang Qiong Mountain Sect Leader. 

 

Is this someone you remember? Would he be willing to help us? 

 

But when dinner ended, Shen Jiu excused himself instead of talking to Yue QingYuan more. Jin GuangYao wanted to bash his head against a wall. He needed to get back to his world. It had not even been half a day, and he was tired of trying to solve someone else’s problems. 

 

The System would like to remind you that redemption is not a solo effort. 

 

He stiffened. Stalking to his room, he spotted Ming Fan squinting as he peered outside, rain still splashing down but the thunder, at least, quiet. A laugh erupted from the grounds, and Jin GuangYao saw what Ming Fan was watching. 

 

Ning YingYing ran through the rain, chasing a dog, playing with it. Rain plastered her hair to her face, and her robes to her body. Jin GuangYao grimaced. 

 

“Apologies,” Ming Fan said. “I’ll tell her to be more appropriate in front of a guest—”

 

“No,” cut in Jin GuangYao. He didn’t care. “That will only make her hate you.”

 

“Hm?” Ming Fan blinked. The orange candlelight was interspersed with gray shadows streaked across half his face. 

 

“Tell her not what you think you should,” said Jin GuangYao. “But what you want to. Anyone can see how you look at her. Except her. We don’t often see how people look at us until—” 

 

Did you look at me like that before? Before you knew everything? Before you accepted that you would die with me, Er-Ge? 

 

He scowled. “If you like her, tell her.” He turned to leave. System? Does that count as redemption?

 

It is a step , the System replied. We grant you 5 B points. Total points: 105.

 

He hadn’t realized he’d been tense until he breathed a sigh of relief. He paused outside the room he felt certain was the one he needed to find. And he knocked. 

 

Shen QingQiu opened the door. “Jin GuangYao. I—” 

 

“You aren’t Shen QingQiu, are you?” He wouldn’t admit anything about himself. But surely it couldn’t technically be against the rules to confront Shen QingQiu on his little facade. “How did you come to possess his body?” 

 

“Pardon?” The man’s face twisted. He grabbed Jin GuangYao’s arm and yanked him into the room, slamming the door shut. A sword pressed against his throat. Great. “And just who are you? Did you—”

 

“I come from another place, too.” Jin GuangYao flinched. He did not like the memory of being stabbed. It was one thing when he’d stabbed himself; it was another entirely when Lan XiChen had stabbed him. The devastation on his face… 

 

Shen QingQiu narrowed his eyes. He withdrew the sword, slowly. 

 

“Does Luo BingHe know?” asked Jin GuangYao. Come on. Slip up. Give me something I can use. He couldn’t let on his objective. 

 

Shen QingQiu’s eyes widened. “No. He has no need.” 

 

“Why? Do you think he’d leave? And how did you end up here anyways?” 

 

Shen QingQiu sat down with a huff. He gestured for Jin GuangYao to do likewise. “I come from a—very different world. My name there was Shen Yuan, and I loved this book called Proud Immortal Demon Way, but the author blew it…” 

 

He explained. The author of this book sounded like fate writing Jin GuangYao’s life. Dropping everything potentially good or satisfying. 

 

The System would like to remind you that your consequences came as a result of your actions. You do not have to like narrative sense.  

 

Ah yes, he deserved it. All of it. Everyone spitting on his prostitute mother and his— 

 

That is not what the System meant.

 

Well, it’s how I took it! 

 

“And you fell for a main character of a story?” Jin GuangYao remembered what Jun Wu had said. Somewhere, he was part of a story, and he was the main antagonist. 

 

Do lots of people hate me in that world? His stomach clamped. Please don’t hate me

 

“Because he’s attractive? Because you feel safe with—” 

 

“No, you don’t understand,” Shen QingQiu insisted. “I loved Luo BingHe’s character because—he was the reason I was reading the book! Overpowered, sure, but his power was the least interesting thing about him. What was the most interesting was how he—his flaws, how he wanted , how he struggled, how he didn’t care what people thought to his detriment and badassery, and I didn’t even understand how his not caring was because he cared too much and didn’t want to think about it anymore, how he loved so many women because he wanted to feel wanted, how he—” Shen QingQiu’s face was practically purple. Spittle flew from his lips. 

 

Jin GuangYao froze. You love him the way WangJi loves Wei WuXian. 

 

He fucked up, sure. But you see beyond that. You see the good intent even in his mistakes, you see what he could do, you see the good side and want to help the coin land with the right side up.

 

The terrifying pit in Jin GuangYao’s stomach told him that he wasn’t even sure that was the case with Lan XiChen. Do you think the watchtowers were all about me asserting my power and not protecting the common people? Do you think I had Qin Su kill herself? Do you think that I really had no choice about marrying her? Or are you indeed like Nie MingJue? 

 

Why did I accuse you of being like him? I would never think you were anything like— 

 

Or did I want you to be like Nie MingJue, because I wanted someone stringently righteous to approve of me? 

 

He swallowed. He hated Nie MingJue. He did. He did. 

 

Listening to Shen QingQiu—Shen Yuan—explain everything, though, the glow in his voice, the excitement, how he saved Liu QingGe from a qi deviation when the real Shen Jiu had let him die in the story… 

 

Will I hate Nie MingJue when I see him again? Will I be scared, again? 

 

If I save him this time, will he love me like Liu QingGe loves Shen QingQiu—like a real brother? 





Chapter Text

It wasn’t as if ruining the life of someone he liked, even cared about, was a strange experience for Jin GuangYao. He still didn’t know how to describe what he felt when Nie MingJue lost himself to a qi deviation. It certainly wasn’t mere satisfaction at seeing the well-respected sect leader lose himself in front of everyone. No, he’d wanted to stop it, heal him—if he did, would Nie MingJue look at him with gratitude? Or would he still try to kill Jin GuangYao?

 

And his father… 

 

It’s the only way. 

 

Jin GuangYao woke up in a cold sweat, thoughts and regrets tumbling through his mind, slamming against his skull. He rubbed his aching temples. Why did I dream about that? Could he not escape, even resurrected and in a new world? 

 

He did not want to harm Shen QingQiu. He did not want to blow up his life. If they switched bodies, would Luo BingHe still love him? 

 

There has to be another way, right? And is my task really getting Shen Jiu his body back?

 

Is the only way to be better to harm the right people, like Nie MingJue always did? But if he knew it was me doing it, he’d hate me even if it’s not in his world, because I am wrong to him. System? 

 

The System measures in success, not right or wrong. Your current B point level— 

 

Shut up. 

 

He did not like this. He always had a million plans, a million possibilities. And now he was a piece in a game, nothing more. 

 

He rose, wiping the sweat from his palms. He wandered through the hallways, noting the rosy glow of dawn blooming through the halls, sweet petals of golden sunlight drifting to the floor. And he heard a commotion. 

 

Jin GuangYao rounded a corner. Liu QingGe stormed by him with a huff. Jin GuangYao peered. 

 

Ahead stood Shen QingQiu and three strange men, one draping in green and slinking back against a wall, hair limp and shoulders slumped. One was small and grinning, holding to the arm of one who wore a scowl to rival Nie MingJue’s on one of his best days. 

 

Shen QingQiu caught sight of Jin GuangYao as he made to turn. He beckoned to him. 

 

Hm? Jin GuangYao took a hesitant step forward. “MoBei-Jun,” said Shen QingQiu. “I’ll just be—borrowing your husband for a moment.” He grasped the arm of the puny one, dragging him towards Jin GuangYao. 

 

“More demons?” inquired Jin GuangYao as Shen QingQiu ushered them into a small private room. It was simple and wooden, but cozy and warm. He liked one of the paintings on the wall. HuaiSang had once made a similar one.

 

Was destroying my life art to you, HuaiSang? 

 

“Yes,” Shen QingQiu replied. “BingHe’s cousin, Zhu ZhiLang, and an ice demon who fell for this pathetic human.” He shoved the other man. 

 

The smaller man scowled. “Just because he did doesn’t mean I know how I did it.”

 

“I sent word to Shang QingHua last night,” explained Shen QingQiu, turning to Jin GuangYao. “This is the original author of Proud Immortal Demon Way , transmitigated into a character he planned for useless fodder for slaughter. He went by the name ‘Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky.’” 

 

What an airplane was, Jin GuangYao had no idea, but he still almost choked. Was it normal in whichever universe these men originally resided in for an author to have such an obscene name? If his mother had lived in such a world, could she not have been scorned so much?

 

“You transmitigated, too?” Shang QingHua asked eagerly. “You read—” 

 

“No. I’m—something else. Similar, but no.” Jin GuangYao swallowed. “I have to—redeem myself.”

 

“Redemption?” Shen QingQiu rolled his eyes. “Easier said than done. Communication, now, that’s key. Things would have gone much easier if I learned that right away.”

 

“All your communication was always ‘this should be better’ ‘what a waste’ and ‘you blue-balling bastard,’” muttered Shang QingHua.  

 

Sounds like Nie MingJue

 

“So what’s your character’s redemption about?” Shen QingQiu asked. “And Shang QingHua, it’s not as if your pathetic Shen Jiu didn’t deserve what happened to him, but you can hardly blame me for mourning his cut past! He became a completely unsympathetic, fully black monster only fit to be chopped up.” 

 

Shen QingQiu did not understand. Jin GuangYao was the scum villain. And he couldn’t force the admission from his throat. Would they think he was a fully evil being, deserving of losing his hand, his life? Maybe even his soul? 

 

“Hmph.” Shang QingHua stuck his nose up in the air. “We’ll help you, Young Master Jin.”

 

“Ah, because what Shen QingQiu told me last night inspires great confidence that you know how to navigate your own world,” Jin GuangYao retorted. Miscommunication, stumbles, lots of agony that could have been avoided—transmitigating as useless fodder! 

 

Shen QingQiu cackled. “I knew I liked you.”

 

No, no, stop! If he was to succeed, he couldn’t sympathize with Shen QingQiu even a little bit, even if he was supposed to leave Shen QingQiu alive. If there was some kind of spiritual power that could switch Shen Jiu and Shen QingQiu’s bodies, Jin GuangYao needed to break into this man’s mind and find out. 

 

What if that would remove Shen QingQiu from this world? Could Luo BingHe follow? Nausea stirred. 

 

Shang QingHua’s brows pinched together. “It turns out no one can ever fully predict a world. Or a character, or a person, even if we think we know them. They surprise us. I only simplified the characters because I needed praise instantly.” 

 

Well, at least if there was such a power for Jin GuangYao to learn and use, this meant it was likely not to be complicated. 

 

“And does MoBei-Jun give you praise instantly?” snorted Shen QingQiu, who apparently still had bitter feelings towards the original tale. Jin GuangYao wondered just how terrible it was. 

 

“Not hardly. You’ve made your point, so shut up.” Shang QingHua shook his head. “He was supposed to kill me in the original.”

 

“Shen QingQiu mentioned that,” Jin GuangYao said. And yet you fell for him?

 

So Nie MingJue might not always hate me. I just have to act differently. 

 

“By grovelling ,” Shen QingQiu said. “It’s what he does best.” 

 

“Well, I’m not sorry,” retorted Shang QingHua. 

 

Jin GuangYao folded his arms. He knew how it felt to be cannon fodder for fate to throw knife after knife at him, bleed him out for reasons he couldn’t understand. 

 

I’m meant for more than this. That was what Mother told him when he crawled into her bed after the brothel owner beat him, calling him useless, saying he shouldn’t have been born. Mother pulled him close and promised him. You’re meant for more than this.

 

I won’t let you down . He almost had. But now he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t, not with this second chance, even if it meant harming Shen QingQiu’s status. 

 

“Is there demonic cultivation involved?” asked Jin GuangYao. “Can you force a transmitigation, or—” 

 

“No idea,” said Shang QingHua, shrugging his shoulders. “I only know what the system tells me. Don’t you have one?”

 

“It seems to prefer giving cryptic lines and vanishing,” replied Jin GuangYao. 

 

“Useless,” said Shen QingQiu. “It put limits on how we behaved.”

 

“Limits on how you behaved?”  He supposed since his body was his own, the System did not consider that a concern for him.

 

Shen QingQiu nodded. “We couldn’t be too out of character, or we’d lose points and die.”

 

His entire life he’d been trying to collect enough points to be respected by people, but he could never plug the jar and so his points always slid out, out, out. 

 

“I had to act like a bitch,” said Shen QingQiu. “Like the true scum villain Shen Jiu was written as.”

 

Jin GuangYao wondered if that was what they called him now, back in his world. Scum villain. Scum. It hurt, and it echoed. 

 

“Shen Jiu wasn’t intended to be scum,” said Shang QingHua. “Well. I wrote him as such, I admit, but I always intended him to be quite sympathetic. As you were saying, he just felt useless and was trying to grasp whatever he could to prove he wasn’t.” He swallowed, clasping his hands together. 

 

Jin GuangYao leaned back. He had the plot from Shen QingQiu’s point of view, but he wanted more. He needed more to read this Shen Jiu properly, to learn how Shang QingHua formulated his world, to succeed . “Who was he?” 

 


 

Jin GuangYao emerged to find Zhu ZhiLang, this snake demon hated for his parents apparently, telling Luo BingHe that his father was still “curious” about humans. But not curious enough to give a damn about his son. 

 

Jin GuangYao’s heart twisted inside his chest. He wondered. If he had been born a demon, a literal other creature, would people be more willing to give him another chance, or less willing? Was it because he looked like a normal human but acted in a way that scared them all? What exactly scared them all? Why was his blood unclean because of a lot his mother never chose? 

 

But he had another task based on what Shang QingHua and Shen QingQiu had said. He sidestepped the demons, looking for his target.

 

He found Yue QingYuan sitting outside, the grass still damp from the downpours the day before. A serene smile rested on the man’s face. Jin GuangYao wondered why Yue QingYuan smiled now, or if it was just his default. 

 

“Ah, Young Master Jin.” Yue QingYuan climbed to his feet, bowing.

 

Jin GuangYao copied his gestures. He wondered. How much did this man know? “Enjoying the weather?”

 

Yue QingYuan lifted his shoulders. “It is nice.”

 

“My… companion says he was here once, long ago,” said Jin GuangYao carefully. He watched a leaf blow through the wind, tumbling and tumbling as it vanished into a forest of trees. “Shen QingQiu was a bit of a different peak leader then.”

 

“Love seems to have changed him. He’s happier,” Yue QingYuan answered.

 

And that love is not you . “And seems to treat everyone better. From what my companion said, he wasn’t very—”

 

“I don’t know what your companion said or what his purpose was in saying such things,” Yue QingYuan cut in, voice still tranquil on the surface, but with a current layers down. “But sometimes, old wounds heal slowly. But when they do, when you learn a better way, then—”

 

“If there is a better way,” said Jin GuangYao, meeting his eyes. Demonic cultivation?

 

Yue QingYuan frowned. “I don’t tolerate slander of Shen QingQiu.”

 

He’s not the same person ! “And what caused that healing?” 

 

“He woke up one day,” said Yue QingYuan. “After a brief illness. And then—maybe it was the illness, maybe it frightened him, I don’t know. But his first act of kindness was to remove Luo BingHe from the shed. I think he clung to that, to the idea that Luo BingHe was his link back to—”

 

“To what?” asked Jin GuangYao. 

 

Yue QingYuan shook his head, folding his arms. “To a better version of himself.” 

 

“Are you not sad that you could not be his link?” 

 

“It is what it is,” said Yue QingYuan. “He is happy now.” 

 

He’s not, actually. He’s stewing in the guest room! Jin GuangYao gave a short nod. He turned.

 

“Young Master Jin,” called out Yue QingYuan.

 

He paused.

 

“I don’t regret anything,” said Yue QingYuan. “You cannot control someone you truly love, and if you trust them, you won’t even try.” 

 

I’ve never had that luxury, he wanted to retort. Except, judging from what he’d heard, neither had Yue QingYuan. No, he had. With Shen Jiu. Since childhood. Jin GuangYao hadn’t gotten to know Lan XiChen until years later. 

 

It was too late by then.

 

And still fate had made it too late for Shen Jiu as well. 

 

Why wasn’t Yue QingYuan enough for you ? Jin GuangYao did not understand. If he’d had someone with him, suffering with him, not for him like his mother suffered every night to keep him from hunger… 

 

I was the chain that damned her.

 

He almost tripped over a pair of legs. Jin GuangYao swore, catching himself before he splatted on the ground. Zhu ZhiLang flinched as if expecting him to let him have it. “I’m sorry—I wasn’t paying attention—” 

 

Jin GuangYao rubbed the back of his neck. He kept reaching up to adjust his hat, the thing Mother had always encouraged him to wear, but it wasn’t there. He felt naked without it. 

 

According to Shen QingQiu and Shang QingHua, Zhu ZhiLang was BingHe’s cousin, had fought with his father to unite the realms, had saved Shen QingQiu out of duty for his kindness. He wasn’t used to kindness, and even though BingHe’s demonic father didn’t respect him, he at least gave him a place to belong.

 

“You’re the snake demon?” Jin GuangYao inquired.

 

Zhu ZhiLang turned bright red despite his otherwise green hue. He wrapped his hand around his wrist.

 

“They seem awfully welcoming to human guests, but less so to demons,” remarked Jin GuangYao. I’ve probably done worse than you. 

 

“Well, I was part of a plan to—” Zhu ZhiLang licked his lips. “It was not good.”  

 

“Do you think Liu QingGe and the others are more opposed to you because of the plan you tried to execute with your uncle, not your parentage?” 

 

“I don’t know,” replied Zhu ZhiLang. “If it wasn’t for what I did, maybe they would be nice to me, but most people wouldn’t. It’s rather unnerving to see something that shouldn’t exist in me.” 

 

“That’s how people would like to see the world,” Jin GuangYao admitted. “We know otherwise. Some of us have weaker legs to stand on from birth.”

 

“Or no legs,” Zhu ZhiLang joked.  

 

Jin GuangYao almost smiled. 

 

“Where do you come from, Young Master Jin?” asked Zhu ZhiLang, peering up at him. A small ant scurried across the floor. Zhi ZhiLang picked it up, let it run over his fingertips. 

 

Jin GuangYao had never liked bugs. He shuddered. “Somewhere… else.”

 

“Another realm?” Zhu ZhiLang arched his brows.

 

“Yes,” said Jin GuangYao. “But a human one.” He watched as Zhu ZhiLang flinched and then realized the boy must think he was putting him down. And really, why had he felt the need to say that? “Even so, they don’t take kindly to… illegitimate children there.” He wasn’t about to divulge his mother’s status. 

 

“BingHe wouldn’t do well there, then,” replied Zhu ZhiLang. “I don’t belong anywhere. Not in the demon realm, certainly not among humans.” He laid his hand on the ground and let the ant scurry free. He watched it move away from him, eyes sad. “But I wonder. Why is it you tell me? You don’t have to. I can’t really hide what I am for very long.”

 

Jin GuangYao tried to speak and couldn’t. “I suppose I can’t, either.” That’s what Nie MingJue would say. And shouldn’t he quote his righteous brother? For redemption?

 

“You have no friends there?”

 

“No, I do,” said Jin GuangYao. “I—I have two brothers. One is very righteous. One is kind. And there was also a man who served me very faithfully.” Who reminds me so much of you.  

 

“Served?” 

 

“He’s dead.” Jin GuangYao swallowed. Though he wouldn’t be when he returned to his world, would he?

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

It is my fault. I used him. And he knew I was using him, and he thought no more of it. 

 

I did care, didn’t I?

 

Not enough to tell him he didn’t need to be used, reminded the System. 

 

“I wished I had stopped him,” said Jin GuangYao. “He did not need to die for me, and there’s no need to debase yourself for someone who doesn’t deserve it.”

 

For someone who will say “oh, forget about it.” 

 

It’s hopeless, don’t you see? 

 

“If I didn’t,” said Zhu ZhiLang. “If I don’t, then what do I have?”

 

“Shen QingQiu?”

 

Zhu ZhiLang nodded. “Yes, but—” He stopped. 

 

He wasn’t your guiding light, your hope, from childhood. That was TianLang-Jun.

 

And it’s hard to give that up. 

 

System, there’s no chance my father will accept me when I go back, is there? I can’t redeem myself enough for him to like me.

 

Would that really be redemption if he did? 

 

Jin ZiXuan wasn’t condemned by his father’s love. Jin GuangYao’s eyes stung. Why wasn’t he so lucky? 

 

“I am sure,” said Zhu ZhiLang. “This man was at least grateful you noticed him. Sometimes that’s enough.” He smiled. 

 

“I don’t know,” said Jin GuangYao. 

 

“Luo BingHe says that he wants to use what he is for good. Demon, human. He wants to be the bridge between the realms, merge them if not physically.” Zhu ZhiLang leaned closer, his eyes flickering yellow. “But I cannot merge a world of demons and snakes.” 

 

Nor I prostitutes and high society. That would earn him Nie MingJue’s everlasting hate, and not much better from Lan XiChen. “You can still do some good with it, can’t you?” 

 

Zhu ZhiLang frowned. “Reduce the fly population? The rodent one?”

 

“Tie criminals up?” 

 

“Frighten bandits?” They were joking again, and it felt good, to laugh. The sound burst from Jin GuangYao’s lips like butterfly wings. 

 

“I’m happy for my cousin,” Zhu ZhiLang remarked. “He really loves Shen QingQiu. Despite the fact that he wasn’t very nice to him at first.” 

 

Shen QingQiu had mentioned that in the original story, but in the changed one, too? Jin GuangYao flinched, remembering blow after blow on his head, screams echoing around him.

 

Why were you born? 

 

“What do you mean?” he asked carefully. Shen QingQiu and Shang QingHua had shared Shen Jiu’s backstory, his original character arc, but how much had Shen Jiu actually gotten the chance to do before Shen Yuan transmitigated? 

 

When Zhu ZhiLang finished, Jin GuangYao got to his feet. He stomped towards the guest room, flinging open the doors. Shen Jiu was sitting on his bed, looking as if he’d eaten pure dirt and was about to spit it out onto a bed the person who stole his body through no fault of his own and perhaps because of the fact that Shen Jiu did in fact appear to be quite scummy had deigned to give him. 

 

“Yes?” asked Shen Jiu.

 

Jin GuangYao sized him up. Shen Jiu’s new body was smaller than even Jin GuangYao’s. Jin GuangYao had nothing to fear.

 

His hands shot out, snatching Shen Jiu by the throat and thrusting him back against the wall. Shen Jiu coughed. 

 

“Answer me this,” Jin GuangYao ground out. “Why did you take your sad, sad childhood out on Luo BingHe?” 

 

“Huh?” Shen Jiu struggled. “Let me—go!”

 

“I won’t.” He dug his fingers in. “You didn’t have anything to gain from it! You had the title of peak lord, you had Yue QingYuan, you—and still you took it out on a child and ordered him beaten and locked in a shed? Why? Why? Do you have any idea how much I’d have given to have the peace and achievement you had and still have a child who—”

 

“Ah yes,” Shen Jiu managed, lips curling. “Your son. RuSong. I heard you had him assassinated, you son of a whore.” 

 

Jin GuangYao’s fingers froze. He couldn’t bend them. Shen Jiu shoved him back, using the meager spiritual energy he had. Jin GuangYao’s hip slammed into the floor. He coughed.   

 

“He had what I never did,” spat Shen Jiu. “He had the power from birth, he had—what makes you think you’re any better?” 

 

That’s akin to me taking it out on Jin Ling! Which he would never do. He hadn’t even wanted to hold the guqin string to Jin Ling’s throat—he just had no other options then, no choices, none! Shen Jiu had choices! “Parents who abandoned him? You should know better than anyone what it’s like to be kicked around because of shit you have no choice in! Or do you? Do you want me to tell you how it feels to have the person you looked up to, the person you put all your hope in, shove you down a flight of stairs and laugh? To welcome you back and then refuse to even let you hold your nephew, because your blood was dirty even though it was his? To tell you he’d approve of you if, if, if you took care of Xue Yang, if you got rid of Wei WuXian, if you got rid of Nie MingJue, and then to still realize that he never cared, he never cared at all, he didn’t even have to take it out on you because you weren’t even worth that to him?”

 

Oh, forget it, Father had said. 

 

Forget it.

 

It.

 

Forget. 

 

He laughed again, the same bitter gasps he’d erupted into in the GuanYin temple. Shen Jiu glared down at him and he laughed more.

 

“Did RuSong choose his birth?” Shen Jiu shot back, and he wanted to die. 

 

I can’t escape it. Even in a different world. 

 

He’ll never remember me.

 

And no one else will except as a scum villain, unless I succeed, and I’m failing!

 

“You killed them,” Jin GuangYao managed. “You killed the Qius—you fiancee’s family! You had no one else to be bitter at once they were dead, so you took it out on a child when you had a choice? You had choices I never did!”

 

“You had choices, too,” Shen Jiu retorted. “You did not have to kill your son. Or your wife.” His eyes flashed. “And aren’t you angry? Aren’t you angry, too? Didn’t you hate that you had to feign gratitude for the meagerest, filthiest crumbs from your father’s table? Was I supposed to be grateful I could marry Qiu HaiTang when her brother used me as his plaything, reminded me of what I was? Why should I be grateful? Why should I be kind to others like me, when that never brought me anything? At least Qiu HaiTang was not my sister!”

 

Jin GuangYao scrambled to his feet. “You—”

 

“I never loved her,” said Shen Jiu. “You think I had any choice? After what her brother did to me, did I have a choice about marrying her? Did I? Qin Su? She was kind to you, good to you, liked you for you whereas HaiTang only liked what she thought I was—you had the support I never did!”

 

“You—”

 

“You say I took it out on a child? Tell me, Jin GuangYao, before you even knew about Qin Su’s parentage, weren’t you already taking it out on someone?” Shen Jiu’s eyes flashed. “Weren’t you? It really is poetic how Wei WuXian—”

 

Jin GuangYao’s fist flew out. He punched Shen Jiu straight in the mouth.

 

Shen Jiu coughed, spitting out a wad of saliva and blood. And then his foot shot out, landing in Jin GuangYao’s midsection. “You bitch!” 

 

The two of them fell to the ground. Jin GuangYao felt like he hadn’t since he was a kid, furious, unable to control himself, clawing, kicking, biting just to survive.

 

“A-Yao,” Mother said when he was five, using a cloth to pat away the blood smeared on his cheek. “A-Yao, A-Yao. Don’t give them the satisfaction.” She pulled him close. 

 

“It’s not fair,” he’d whimpered, one of the few times he let her see him cry. He never wanted to upset her.

 

“It’s not,” she agreed, massaging his shoulders when she pulled him in for a hug. “You’ll just have to make it fair when you’re part of a great sect someday, mm?” Her eyes were so hopeful. 

 

She always believed he could and would be better. He would make the world better. “You made mine better,” she said, kissing his forehead. 

 

His chest ached. Why—why—why—    

 

He felt something wet dabbing at his cheeks now. Oh. He was crying.

 

Why is the world so fucked up? This one, and mine? Is the world ever good? Does one exist?

 

He kneed Shen Jiu in the sternum. The man gagged. Jin GuangYao pushed him away. He saw Shen Jiu’s eyes glittering, wet. 

 

Both of them sat, panting. Blood dribbled out of Shen Jiu’s mouth. 

 

“Do you still hate Luo BingHe?” asked Jin GuangYao. “Even now?”

 

“I don’t know what to hate. I hate—everything. Fate.” 

 

It’s them or yourself. 

 

Jin GuangYao couldn’t counter him there. He rested his forehead against the wall, and then pushed it against the flat, unyielding surface. Why

 

“Aren’t you lashing out at me?” 

 

The petty, smug tone of Shen Jiu’s voice almost made Jin GuangYao resume their fight. “Are you a child?”

 

“Why did RuSong have to suffer for your sins?”

 

“He didn’t. He suffered for his grandfather’s—if he’d have lived, it’d have been the same—”

 

“Would it?” countered Shen Jiu. He cussed. “Not that I’d have done anything different. But be honest about it. You killed your own son to protect yourself, not out of mercy for him. Do you think your mother would have ever done that to you?”

 

It’d have been better if she had . The thought rose in him like gorge. He covered his mouth to keep from vomiting it out. That’s what all the prostitutes and pimps would say. That was what Jin GuangShan said. That was what Madame Jin would say when she kicked him. “Pity that whore didn’t have the common sense to get rid of you!”

 

I am not your husband’s sin!

 

To her, he was a perpetual reminder of how little her husband loved her, valued her, respected her. All she had left was to make him fear her. 

 

And to Shen Jiu, Luo BingHe would have been… what exactly? A perpetual reminder of what the universe afforded others, but not him, never him?

 

It will crush you, this world.

 

Better make sure it never has the chance.

 

Better make sure you get used to it early, Shen Jiu would have said. 

 

Mother… He turned around and hung his head. “Yue QingYuan would stick by you no matter what. No matter what kind of sins you’ve done. You know that, right?”

 

Shen Jiu glowered at him. “How could I possibly know?”

 

Shen QingQiu said so! That wouldn’t suffice. “I know.”

 

“You can’t be certain. You certainly don’t trust easily; why would I? How can you act without certainty? I haven’t known Yue QingYuan for years.” 

 

Certainty. He’d never acted with that. He’d never been afforded that luxury! 

 

Lan XiChen filled his memories. His tone, his anguish, always asking what never needed to put into words but expressed in the end, the way he closed his eyes, accepted to die with him. The look on his face when Jin GuangYao stabbed himself. The way his mouth fell open, eyes shone with tears when Jin GuangYao used his closeness to seal his spiritual powers. The confusion, the plea. “A-Yao?” 

 

“Er-Ge, I’m sorry.”

 

I only knew when it was too late. 

 

“Why would I trust you when you say that? You don’t know him beyond what, dinner and a talk? Have you even talked? You just want to rush through this to get back to your life.”

 

“Why are you here, then?” Jin GuangYao retorted. “If not to reunite with Yue QingYuan, why are you here? You want to restart a life here where everyone loves you? But they never did before. Why did you agree to this, not knowing what had changed?” Do you see those changes as a rejection of you?

 

Shen Jiu’s mouth hung open. “It’s—too late.”

 

“So don’t you want to take it out on everyone here? Ruin their happiness like you did Luo BingHe’s childhood? Send Shen QingQiu somewhere else?” Is the System about redemption or petty revenge? 

 

Why did it have to be either Shen Yuan or Shen Jiu? Why? 

 

“I don’t!” shouted Shen Jiu. “I wish I hadn’t come here! I wish you’d stayed dead! I wish—”

 

“That’s it,” Jin GuangYao said. “You wish.”  

 

You’ve seen what could have been, in how Liu QingGe and Yue QingYuan look at Shen QingQiu. You’ve seen the respect in his disciples’ eyes. You’ve seen how he walks a strange path between demons and humans because it’s what he wants, and still no one cowers from him.

 

“Yes,” said Shen Jiu, eyes glittering in a strange way, a ghostly way. It reminded Jin GuangYao of a dagger in a treasure vault, a woman’s face forever sealed in it. “I wish. But people like us aren’t allowed to, are we? You’ll fail here. I will fail. I just want—” 

 

It to be over. 

 

No! You don’t get to damn me!

 

A bang. Jin GuangYao craned his neck up. 

 

“What’s going on?”

 

“Young Master Jin, are you all right?”

 

“Is it the demons?” 

 

“Oh, bloody hell!” 

 

“WTF?” 

 

Both of them gaped at Liu QingGe, Luo BingHe, Shen QingQiu, MoBei-Jun, Shang QingHua, Zhu ZhiLang, and Yue QingYuan, all with weapons drawn as if they were fully convinced that some sort of creature had attacked them. 

 

Jin GuangYao side-eyed the room. The floorboards were cracked, a tapestry crooked. Blood still smeared both of their faces. 

 

Lies popped into his head, and Jin GuangYao had a sudden sensation of falling, because he had no idea what lies would stick in this world. He was so out of his element here, unable to predict, to rely on his mind’s common shields. 

 

His gaze focused on Luo BingHe’s sword, which was in front of Shen QingQiu, as if he wasn’t about to let any potential monster attack his husband. 

 

Shen QingQiu sighed, easing the sword down. He pulled out his fan. “A dispute?” 

 

Why do I have to be the Madame Qin here? Why do I have to tell Luo BingHe you aren’t who you say you are? Or are you? 

 

Why is it Shen Jiu or Shen Yuan? Why can’t it be both? 

 

It’s not fair! I am going to fail! Fuck you, System! 

 

“Qi-Ge,” burst out Shen Jiu, desperate to end it. 

 

Yue QingYuan stiffened. Shang QingHua let out a squeak. Shen QingQiu turned the color of curdled milk.

 

And Jin GuangYao knew he had fucked up beyond all measure and would surely be trapped here forever. I take it back! System…  

 

No answer came. 




Chapter Text

Yue QingYuan stood puzzled. “Who—how do you know that name?” 

 

Shen QingQiu looked as if he was about to suffer a qi deviation. Jin GuangYao cringed. He wanted to shrink back against the wall, which was precisely why he couldn’t do so. He grabbed Shen Jiu’s arm, glaring. 

 

“I am Shen Jiu,” the man said, apparently not giving a fuck that Jin GuangYao was about to break his bones.

 

“That’s not possible,” said Liu QingGe. “This is—”

 

Shen QingQiu’s face grew whiter and whiter. He held his hands up in front of him. They shook. Was he afraid he would die now that the secret was exposed? Shang QingHua huddled behind MoBei-Jun, eyes peeking out from behind the towering ice demon. 

 

“What are you talking about?” Yue QingYuan demanded. “Isn’t—”

 

Luo BingHe whirled around to face his husband. “This is Shizun! What—”  

 

“I am,” said Shen QingQiu, and Jin GuangYao wanted to strike him. Don’t— “ And I’m not.” 

 

Shang QingHua moaned. 

 

Liu QingGe withdrew his sword with a shrill shriek of metal. Jin GuangYao tasted blood. He wanted to cry. 

 

I’ve made things worse! I always make things worse! System?

 

Chances of successful conversation happening: 49%. Success rate dropping with each second you do not speak.

 

The chances were that high? Jin GuangYao jerked to attention. He had to act. His gaze swept the room, landing on Zhu ZhiLang, the snake demon. “You.”

 

Zhu ZhiLang blinked. “M-me?” 

 

“Yes, you.” Su She in snake form. Jin GuangYao cleared his throat. You’re the key . “I can—help clear things up, if you will all listen to me?”

 

The System wishes to remind you—

 

The System can stuff its mouth; I know what you plan on reminding me. His problem was never not knowing the rules. He always knew them. He just always also knew how to squirm between them. 

 

“Please,” Jin GuangYao managed, bowing. “Zhu ZhiLang, if you will—help me.”

 

“How?” demanded the demon, eyes flashing, tongue flicking out of his mouth. He stepped towards Jin GuangYao. 

 

“Come here?” Jin GuangYao took a step forward. He kept his hands in the air. “I have no weapons. I just—” No, he had a weapon. He had the best weapon, his favorite one. His tongue.
With that, he was never unarmed. “Shen QingQiu, you cannot tell anyone yourself, no? But Shang QingHua can explain for you, surely? And you can explain for him. It’s a loophole.” If I’m wrong…

 

The System said nothing. Zhu ZhiLang seemed willing to trust him, maybe because he had been singled out, just like Su She. You can be useful. And you’re my backup weapon. 

 

Shen QingQiu’s eyes narrowed.

 

“You… cannot explain?” Luo BingHe asked. “Shizun, are you in danger? Has someone cursed you?”

 

“Yes, him,” said Shen QingQiu, jerking his thumb towards Shang QingHua.

 

MoBei-Jun pivoted in front of Shang QingHua, eyes narrowing. Frost formed on his fingertips. And then a look of befuddlement crossed his face. “ You… cursed someone?”

 

“No!” Shang QingHua wailed. “It’s not—his name is Shen Yuan! He comes from a different world!”

 

“There was a story,” ground out Shen QingQiu. “A story about written by a completely pathetic author who wasted his best characters, the best character ever written about, to satisfy fans. He was a character who—he was brilliant, had suffered so much, was overpowered and intelligent, kind too, capable of equal horror and equal altruistic love, and yet—” 

 

“And there was a reviewer who was the absolute meanest person I ever met,” retorted Shang QingHua. “He died. Too bad.” 

 

“The author also died,” Shen QingQiu shot back. “He was reborn into a useless peak lord—”

 

“And the reviewer was reborn into the character written as the villain and fell for the protagonist because he’d been in love with all along, and helped the protagonist to overcome his—well, not overcome his issues, but walk with him,” said Shang QingHua.

 

“And instead of being killed as the useless fodder he was intended to be, the author was so desperate to live he begged his killer to spare him,” said Shen QingQiu. He wasn’t looking at anyone. He wasn’t arrogant or confident, not now. He looked as if he wanted to jump into a fiery volcano and boil his skin and bones away to ash. He looked as if he wanted to plead, but he at least had that pride left. 

 

Jin GuangYao couldn’t relate. Plead! Ask Luo BingHe for what you want! His forgiveness! His love! Ask! 

 

MoBei-Jun’s icy face suddenly seemed even stiffer. “You—”

 

Shang QingHua clutched MoBei-Jun’s robes tighter. It was a familiar sight to Jin GuangYao. His stomach twisted and cramped. 

 

And MoBei-Jun pried Shang QingHua’s fingers away from his robes one at a time, and with each one, Jin GuangYao felt a stair hitting his ribs as he fell. This isn’t going to work!

 

Shang QingHua shuddered, having nothing to cling to but his own arms. His face crumpled, teeth chattering. He couldn’t look up. 

 

“I killed you?” MoBei-Jun’s face looked gray. 

 

Shang QingHua squeaked. “No. Not now. Not in this—” 

 

“Why would you write me as killing you?” 

 

“It wasn’t me!” Shang QingHua protested. “Okay, well, it was, but—you were the—I wrote you to be my ideal idea of a man, but—Shang QingHua was always useless, just existing to be killed—”

 

MoBei-Jun grabbed him by the chin, forcing him to look up. Jin GuangYao held his breath. “You just exist to be killed?” 

 

Shang QingHua cringed, as if expecting to have his neck snapped. “It wasn’t me!”

 

Yes, it was. 

 

But MoBei-Jun was shaking him. “I would not kill you!” 

 

Jin GuangYao’s mouth fell open. Shang QingHua gaped up at him, tears in his eyes, tears turning to frost when they ran down his face and landed on MoBei-Jun’s hands. 

 

“The original Shen QingQiu was a villain,” whispered Shen QingQiu. “He—was—scum among scum.”

 

Shen Jiu glared. His chest heaved. 

 

“But he had a backstory. And he—I—didn’t want to become that, so I—” 

 

“You’re not Shizun?” Luo BingHe repeated.

 

Shen QingQiu’s shoulders slumped. “I—from the moment I asked you to be brought in from the shed, I have been who you’ve known as Shen QingQiu. I am not the one who recruited you. But I am the one who pushed you into the abyss because—I believed I had to.” 

 

Jin GuangYao held his breath. Shen QingQiu had completely broken the rules, sacrificing himself again. But, nothing happened. System?

 

Congratulations. You have unlocked an achievement level: allow Shen QingQiu and Shang QingHua to graduate from the System. B points achieved: 50. Total points: 155. 

 

“I didn’t have to,” Shen QingQiu managed. “I judged you on things you hadn’t done yet—because I was afraid—”

 

“So you never hurt me,” said Luo BingHe. “You never had me beaten, or—” 

 

“I pushed you into the abyss instead of asking you to go—” 

 

“So which one of you saved me?” demanded Liu QingGe. 

 

“I did,” said Shen QingQiu. “The original Shen QingQiu let you die, helped you die even. In the original story, but the you that’s here never encountered him then.” 

 

“And that’s him?” Liu QingGe pointed at Shen Jiu. 

 

“So…” Yue QingYuan began, voice trembling. “So—” 

 

“The person you apologized to,” choked out Shen QingQiu. “Is not Shen Jiu. He—it was too late when you said it. He was gone and I didn't know where, or if he could still be found. You didn’t deserve to be lied to. I just—you would never be able to hear it, and I—” He bowed low to Yue QingYuan, knees hitting the floor. “I did not earn your loyalty. I—”

 

Yue QingYuan covered his mouth. He looked sickened. 

 

Jin GuangYao wanted to throttle the system. System? What to do?   

 

“But didn’t you?” asked Liu QingGe. “Whoever you are, or whoever you were, it was you who saved me, wasn’t it? The you in this body.”

 

Shen QingQiu hesitated. He nodded. 

 

“Then, Yue QingYuan, isn’t it the same for you?” Liu QingGe asked, turning to him. “Isn’t his kindness to you since that moment he asked Luo BingHe to come back inside—isn’t that all him?” 

 

Shen Jiu’s face grew more and more purple.  

 

The System would like to remind you that you have the entire original novel at your disposal. Shang QingHua and Shen QingQiu explained it to you the other night. Would you like to access this memory? 

 

An idea blossomed in Jin GuangYao’s mind. Yes . He watched as Mobei-Jun embraced Shang QingHua. You want it to be over, Shen Jiu? I’ll help you out there. But you don’t get to die!

 

System awards you 100 B points for the successful reconciliation of one of its canonical couples. Total points: 255. 

 

Jin GuangYao tore through the memories it showed him, finally latching on to one he could use. “In the original tale, Shen Jiu molests Ning YingYing, kills you, torments Luo BingHe without mercy—” 

 

“But I haven’t done any of those things yet!” shouted Shen Jiu, glaring at him. “I haven’t—I—weren’t you just saying not to judge based on things—I wouldn’t touch Ning YingYing, or—why would I?” His gaze beseeched Yue QingYuan, who still looked too befuddled to say anything. And with each second of silence, Jin GuangYao saw the hope bleeding from Shen Jiu’s eyes, the betrayal hardening. 

 

There are conditions to your love

 

“How do we know you won’t?” shot back Liu QingGe. Everyone was now glaring at Shen Jiu. 

 

Fuck . Jin GuangYao squeezed Zhu ZhiLang’s arm, jumping in front of Shen Jiu. He held his breath. Now is the time, or I will kick you! 

 

“If he changed from Shen QingQiu being nice to him, couldn’t I have changed, spending years in another world?” cried out Shen Jiu, gesturing to a pallid Luo BingHe. “Couldn’t I have? Or am I just beyond everyone’s understanding? What, all he needed to become a doting husband was to have someone be kind to him? Do you have any idea what kind of kindness I got in the Qiu household? Beatings and worse! And I had to hide it all, pretend it was all worth it because Qiu HaiTang liked how I looked! Why did he get that chance? Why did you not give that one to me?” He was screaming at Shang QingHua, who instantly ducked behind MoBei-Jun again. 

 

Jin GuangYao’s throat tightened. Snake boy, get moving! Shen Jiu’s mouth puckered. “Fine then! I’ll be the villain you think I am, and I’ll start by—” 

 

Zhu ZhiLang lunged, transforming into a snake and twisting around Shen Jiu, holding him in place.

 

“You know, if you wanted to convince us you were a changed man, this is not how to do it,” remarked Liu QingGe. 

 

Shen Jiu struggled, but the snake squeezed tighter. Jin GuangYao focused on Yue QingYuan. Well? 

 

“It’s not too late,” Shen QingQiu choked out, and Jin GuangYao realized he, too, was looking straight at Yue QingYuan. “As your—friend, if you would still call me that—as the man you’ve known the past seven years, I hope you will take that one piece of advice.” 

 

He is literally trapped in a situation that’s hurting him right now, right in front of you, and you can’t put the connection together? Are you stupid? Jin GuangYao wanted to throttle him. This is your second chance!

 

“I’m sorry!” It burst forth from Yue QingYuan’s lips. Shen Jiu’s struggles abated. Yue QingYuan couldn’t look at him, hand white-knuckled, clutching a sword he sure as hell better not pull out. “‘I’m sorry’ is nothing but an empty phrase; it’s completely useless. I never explained either, so today, you have to hear it. It isn’t so I can beg for understanding. It isn’t so I can win sympathy, but rather, if I don’t say it now… I’m afraid it really will be too late. I’m sorry, A-Jiu.” Yue QingYuan’s shoulders slumped. “I didn’t forget, I never forgot to go back to help you, but I—fucked it up. I—” 

 

Zhu ZhiLang uncoiled himself, transforming back into a man and eyeing Jin GuangYao as if to ask whether he’d done what Jin GuangYao needed him to do. Jin GuangYao gave a nod, and the snake demon beamed from that simple praise. Jin GuangYao felt a twinge inside of him, remembering how desperate he was for even the slightest nod of approval from his father. 

 

Shen Jiu staggered, weak. “It’s too late. Now I’m humiliated. Is that what you wanted; I have no golden core in this form, I’m—” 

 

“I would help you! No matter what! Even if you did those things! Even if you shot me full of arrows! Even if you disappointed me and—” 

 

“Liar!” Shen Jiu wobbled. 

 

Yue QingYuan grabbed him in an embrace. Shen Jiu’s legs shook. And then he collapsed, head resting in the crook of Yue QingYuan’s neck. Blood dripped from his nose. His eyelids drifted shut. 

 

“He needs to rest,” said Jin GuangYao. 

 

Yue QingYuan nodded, hoisting Shen Jiu in his arms. 

 

Do you mean it? Do you really? He won’t believe you. Why should he trust your word that you’d stick by him no matter what, even if he disappointed you a million times over? 

 

Prove it to him. Prove it before you’re tricked into driving a sword into his heart, before his only option is death for you both, or life for you. Prove it, while you can still both live.

 

“Don’t keep secrets from him,” managed Shen QingQiu. “Tell him everything when he wakes, Yue QingYuan.” 

 

Yue QingYuan met his eyes as he swept out of the room. “Thank you.”

 

Congratulations. You have earned 100 more B points for the task of giving Shen Jiu a chance at redemption. Total points: 355.

 

Shen QingQiu dropped his face back down into his hands. He didn’t seem able to stand or even open his fan.

 

Luo BingHe was still silent, and now everyone turned to him. Well, everyone save for Shen QingQiu, who still huddled on the floor.

 

“Shizun… is not Shizun,” Luo BingHe said slowly. “Not the one who recruited me into the sect. But the one who was kind to me.” 

 

“You always mattered to me,” managed Shen QingQiu. His face flushed scarlet, swelling. He clearly wasn’t accustomed to public confessions. Something like this would be incredibly easy for Wei WuXian. “I just—didn’t know how to tell you. I thought that if you knew you wouldn’t—”  

 

“You… were in love with me in a different world? Even though I was so—awful there?” Luo BingHe asked. “Shizun?”

 

Shen QingQiu hung his head. Jin GuangYao held his breath. “Yes.”  

 

“You thought that if I knew you were two different people, I would what?”

 

“Cut him into a human stick and leave him to suffer,” Shang QingHua piped up. “That was his original fate.”

 

MoBei-Jun looked impressed. 

 

Luo BingHe’s face transformed with horror. His mouth plummeted open. His hands clutched his temples. Jin GuangYao tried to imagine Lan WangJi finding out he’d cut Wei WuXian into a stick in another world.

 

Nie MingJue would have cut me into one.

 

Lan XiChen, would you let them do that to me if they deemed it what I deserved? 

 

“I always enjoyed reading about you because—there were so many mysteries and so many possibilities—” Shen QingQiu drew in a shaking breath. “And then when I met you, I was so—I was scared of you, and intimidated, and I let myself—I’m sorry. I’m sorry I lied to you. I don’t even know how I’m able to talk about this now.”

 

You no longer have the System, do you? System?

 

Correct. They have achieved full integration. 

 

Luo BingHe crouched down. 

 

“You were like a puzzle. The whole reason I liked your character was because there was so much to find out,” Shen QingQiu stated again. “But then when I met you, I forgot about that and went only by what I thought I knew, which was wrong.” 

 

Luo BingHe’s hands traced Shen QingQiu’s jaw. Shen QingQiu looked as if he was barely able to keep from flinching back. “Shen Yuan .” 

 

Shen QingQiu’s eyes grew huge.

 

“Shizun saved me, and gave me a second chance,” said Luo BingHe. “When he pulled me out of the shed, and when he came back to life. So I—” His voice trembled. Was he truly crying? “I want to give him another chance.” 

 

Shen QingQiu let out a broken sigh, wet-sounding. Was he crying, too? 

 

Luo BingHe pressed his lips into Shen QingQiu’s. This time, Shen QingQiu grabbed his fan, opening it to block the kiss from other eyes. Luo BingHe grabbed the fan and lowered it, and Shen QingQiu let him, and he didn’t pull back from kissing Luo BingHe either even as his face reddened. 

 

Liu QingGe’s lips curled. 

 

Congratulations! Bonus achievement unlocked: establish BingQiu based on complete trust and communication. Total points: 500. 

 

Jin GuangYao heaved a sigh. 

 

You will have one hour left in this world, and then you will wake up in your own.

 

Jin GuangYao blinked. One hour? That was all it took? Shen Jiu’s not redeemed yet!

 

No, but you have done what you could. The rest is up to him. Besides, it’s never completed until one is dead. 

 

Butterflies flapped in Jin GuangYao’s stomach, feeling as if they were setting off tornadoes and hurricanes in there. He drew in a deep breath. So to complete his redemption in the future, he’d have to… 

 

But I don’t want to die. 

 

“Young Master Jin,” said Liu QingGe, stepping in front of him. “Why were you here?”

 

“I cannot say,” he said as the system set off an alarm. “Please don’t ask. I just—had to return Shen Jiu here. And then I’ll go back to my own world.”

 

“Is your task over?” asked Shang QingHua. Luo BingHe and Shen QingQiu were still intertwined, panting now.

 

“No,” Jin GuangYao said honestly. But at least he’d succeeded at the first one, and the next one would surely be easier, right? It was his own world. He just had to not sleep with or marry Qin Su, not kill the Wen soldier, and—well, would he stay with Nie MingJue or go to his father and let Nie MingJue stand up for him again? Which would be better?   

 

“Best of luck, then,” Zhu ZhiLang said. “If it doesn’t work out and there’s a way to come back here, I think you’d find a place here.”

 

Jin GuangYao gave a wry smirk. “I think I ruined that possibility.” 

 

Zhu ZhiLang sighed. Luo BingHe pulled himself away from Shen QingQiu, who promptly used the fan to cover his swollen lips. “Not hardly.” 

 

I really don’t understand. There wouldn’t be a way, though. If he failed, he would die. But he wouldn’t fail. 

 

“I’ll walk him out,” said Zhu ZhiLang. 

 

Luo BingHe got to his feet, pulling Shen QingQiu with him. They followed Zhu ZhiLang and Jin GuangYao, silent. Liu QingGe huffed and then stomped after them. But he paused. “Shen Jiu…” 

 

“What happened where you come from? How did you know each other?” asked Shen QingQiu.

 

He broke me out of my coffin after a god-demon asked him to . Why would he have done that if he didn’t want hope? If he didn’t want a chance? Jin GuangYao swallowed. “He freed me.” Surely such a vague answer would not violate the System’s rules. 

 

A look of surprise crossed Shen QingQiu’s face. “ He did?”

 

“He was probably getting something from it,” mumbled Liu QingGe.

 

“Does it make it any less real?” asked Jin GuangYao. I’m getting something from this, aren’t I? 

 

“He just wants a chance,” said Luo BingHe. 

 

“It’s hard to learn kindness when every moment has only been repaid with cruelty to you,” said Zhu ZhiLang, voice soft. 

 

“He will be cruel,” said Shen QingQiu. “I am sure, when he wakes up. And he hasn’t a golden core, so—”

 

“There are other ways of cultivating,” said Luo BingHe eagerly. “When he is mean, we will be kind.”

 

“Speak for yourself; I’m not letting him be a bitch,” said Liu QingGe.

 

“At least try to empathize,” Jin GuangYao shot back. He thought of Nie MingJue. 

 

Liu QingGe drew himself up, nose wrinkling. 

 

“Come on.” Luo BingHe tugged Jin GuangYao’s arm. He led him towards quarters he quickly realized were Yue QingYuan’s. 

 

“I don’t want your excuses!” spat Shen Jiu’s voice. Oh great, he was awake.

 

“I don’t have them,” Yue QingYuan replied. “A-Jiu, though, I—never forgot you.”

 

“It felt like it!”

 

“I know, I know! No, I—don’t know. I believe you when you say that, though. And I know if I didn’t find you, if I didn’t tell you, it doesn’t matter, but I never forgot you! Even now, even with that person, Shen QingQiu, I’ve missed—I’ve loved seeing the person I thought was you grow, but—I wanted it to be me beside you, even if I never felt like I deserved it. I still don’t.”

 

Shen Jiu laughed, the sound harsh. “Don’t flatter me, Qi-Ge. I was always the undeserving one, and you were—”

 

“Never! Don’t presume you know what I’m thinking!”

 

“I’ve never heard him shout before,” whispered Shen QingQiu. 

 

“And it’s my fault you don’t know what I’m thinking, because I never told you! I held back because—because I liked you looking up to me, wanting me to help you, because it made me feel like I had significance. And then, when you surpassed me, I was glad. I just wanted—I wanted to be close to you. I want to be.” He drew in his breath. “A-Jiu, my sword is tied to my lifespan. I entered Qiong Ding Peak when I was fifteen years old. I had a goal to reach, and I was impatient for success. Pursuing the Way of Unity of Man and Sword failed, and instead, I ended up like this. Completely the opposite of what I wished for, leaving behind great resentment and lifelong remorse. Obviously it was so I could go back faster; obviously I wanted to immediately go back and get you… but instead, it ruined things. You weren’t wrong. After all, I’m a very impulsive person. After that, Shizun abandoned my entire body and spiritual meridians, and I was shut in the spirit caves for over a year. Everything was a mess, and I had to start over completely. I called out, I shouted, but it was useless. For an entire year, they let me go crazy however I wanted in the dark cavern. Nobody was willing to actually listen to what I was begging for; nobody was willing to let me out;  I used all my energy and effort, but by the time I returned, the Qiu residence had already been destroyed for many days… I really… didn’t purposefully not go back. The only thing was that it turned out that it’s true the world is very cruel, making you and I miss each other completely—”

 

Shen Jiu said nothing. Jin GuangYao held his breath. His mind churned with the memory of Wei WuXian and what he’d done for Jiang Cheng. It hadn’t ended any better for them. 

 

“Get out,” said Shen Jiu, and Jin GuangYao broke inside. “It’s too late.”

 

A shuffling noise, like Yue Qingyuan had gotten to his feet. “I didn’t want you to lose face because of me. So I never told you. Again, for anything it might be worth, even just for my sake: I’m sorry.” 

 

And then: “Wait. I’m apparently capable of all these terrible things. If I did them, would you—”

 

“I’d stop you,” Yue QingYuan managed. “And then I’d stay by your side.” 

 

“Isn’t your life worth more than staying around me?” Shen Jiu bellowed. 

 

Jin GuangYao thought of Lan XiChen. You are the light of his life.     

 

“Maybe,” said Yue QingYuan. “But I choose you.” Footsteps. 

 

“Don’t go.” A small, scared request. “Qi-Ge, don’t go.”

 

The footsteps headed away from the door, and Jin GuangYao’s eyes stung. He could only hope Lan XiChen would be as—no, he wouldn’t even make such mistakes this time.

 

He stepped outside. The air was cool and damp, the ground squashing and squishing beneath his feet, mud sucking his boots. Jin GuangYao spotted a butterfly, yellow and black. It landed on a white peony, taking rest there. Across the grounds, Jin GuangYao spotted Ning YingYing, chasing dogs, and Ming Fan with her. The sound of their laughter wafted through the air. 

 

“We have a lot of possibilities ahead of us,” said Zhu ZhiLang. “I suppose that’s what I’m taking from this. Even if—even if society says we don’t.” His shoulders hunched. “You know, being a snake and a demon.” 

 

“I’m the son of a prostitute,” said Jin GuangYao. “I know.” And I probably, on paper at least, have more in common with Shen Jiu than with Luo BingHe or you.

 

“People maligned my mother too,” said Luo BingHe. “I don’t—I never met her.”

 

“Mine loved me,” said Jin GuangYao. It was too much to hope he would wake up while she was still alive, wasn’t it? 

 

But he wanted it. He wanted her laughter. He wanted to hug her, tell her he knew how much she loved him.

 

“Maybe life was all she could give me,” said Luo BingHe. “But I wanted more.” 

 

I want more.

 

More than her love, more than life. I want to—I want to be loved by as many as possible. I want to do good and be good. I want redemption and I want to never have a single stain on me. I want clean hands this time. He would not marry Qin Su, though he would still save her. He would not kill that commander. He would be a good man this time, earn and keep Nie MingJue’s respect. 

 

Shen Jiu definitely didn’t have clean hands, not even here. But still, Yue QingYuan cared for him. “What will happen to Shen Jiu?” he ventured.

 

“He is not going to be peak lord,” said Liu QingGe. “If you even try to step down, I’ll impale you, brother.”

 

Shen QingQiu laughed as Luo BingHe glared at the threat. “He won’t be. But… he can stay if he wants to.” He clasped his hands around his fan. 

 

“You can give him a chance, even with it all?” So if the timelines intersected eventually, surely he would have wiped the scourge he had once been from people’s memories. 

 

Would that be enough?

 

“Yes,” said Shen QingQiu. 

 

“Do you think he deserves one? Even as a scum villain?” Jin GuangYao managed.

 

“I don’t think it matters what he deserves. Yue QingYuan is his—fated person, in a sense.” Shen QingQiu hmphed, covering his mouth with his fan. “He’s a person, isn’t he? So he has a chance.”

 

“You can’t ever disqualify yourself from that? Even if you’re— “ Jin GuangYao swallowed. W ould you hate me, if you knew? 

 

I’m scared to go back. Scared to endure his commander’s insults again, scared to face Nie MingJue and earn his favor knowing what he knew. Scared to break Qin Su’s heart. 

 

No wonder Shen Jiu had been so reluctant to come to his former home. 

 

Shen QingQiu opened his mouth, spoke a response, but Jin GuangYao couldn’t hear it. Luo BingHe held his husband’s hand. 

 

A golden light surrounded him, and the fragrance of the peonies seemed stronger than ever. The almost spicy sweetness tickled his throat. Jin GuangYao tried to ask them to repeat what they said, but he couldn’t hear his own voice.

 

I’m glad. 

 

Shen Jiu at least had possibilities now. 

 

The butterfly flew close to him. It landed on his finger. He twitched.

 

It flew off, fluttering out a window, and he was lying fully-clothed in a bed, crimson light falling over him.

 

And next to him lay Qin Su, still in her wedding makeup, the veil cast to the side. 

Chapter Text

This cannot be happening. 

 

Jin GuangYao lay stiff, every muscle in his body petrified to his bones. His gaze focused on the veil, and then blurred into a crimson mess, and then focused again.

 

I… married her. 

 

That meant— 

 

System? 

 

Congratulations! You have unlocked your second quest: redeeming Jin GuangYao. 

 

H-how? Wasn’t it already too late? This was after he’d killed the commander, deceived Nie MingJue, accepted his father’s task of watching over Xue Yang! And after he’d impregnated Qin Su, after her mother told him the truth and he still married her, refusing to look at Madame Qin during the entire ceremony. 

 

No, no, no! It was too late, way too late! Way, way too late! 

 

He could get Qin Su to take herbs to end the pregnancy. He had to. But he was still married to her, so what was the point? And Nie MingJue—Nie MingJue would never forgive him for killing the commander! Not ever!  

 

“A-Yao?” came his wife—sister’s—sleepy voice. Her hand landed on his arm. She sat up, hair falling around her face. “Are you all right?” 

 

He recoiled. She blinked, shock on her face. Her lovely face, the one he couldn’t believe looked at him like a god that night he huddled in the Qin Sect, teeth chattering from the cold, and she came to his room. 

 

He’d sent her away then after just a kiss. He wouldn’t stain her honor. He would go about this the right way. But when he finally got Qin CangYe’s permission and she snuck down to his room again to squeal in excitement, clap her hands to her mouth and jump up and down like a thrilled girl getting the gift she’d been wanting for years, and he laughed and laughed too, laughed because he was happy for the first time he could remember, he took her in his arms and kissed her again. Deeper. And she’d kissed back, and he knew what she wanted, and since they would be married anyways… 

 

Why not? 

 

He followed her into bed, A-Su grimacing in pain at first and he was scared he was hurting her, but she told him to keep going. Her fingers explored every inch of his skin, and he felt known, and loved, and then it had all come crashing down with a visit from Madame Qin. 

 

“I’m pregnant,” she had told him only a few days before her mother’s visit. 

 

“Are you sure?”

 

She nodded, face pale. “Can we press for an urgent wedding?” Her eyes filled. “I’m sorry, A-Yao—I thought I was more careful, but—”

 

“Don’t be sorry,” he’d assured her. He took her face in his hands, cupping her cheeks, her lovely, soft cheeks. “It’s not something to be sorry for. I’m—glad. We’ll marry soon. And our baby will be—” 

 

I’m going to have a baby. A shiver of excitement ran through him. He could play with the boy or girl, give them a horse even. Maybe Father would even be excited for him. And he could give Jiang YanLi and Jin ZiXuan’s coming child a playmate! They wouldn’t be lonely. 

 

And we can have more kids after this, too. 

 

“I knew it,” Qin Su had said.

 

He frowned. “Knew what?”

 

“That you were different than most men,” she said. “You—are a good man, A-Yao.” 

 

He’d pretended to be drunk on the eve of his wedding, asked to sleep instead. And now she peered down at him, eyes wide in concern and a fear he knew all too well.

 

Do you regret me?

 

He wanted to scream. It’s not that! Yes, but no! “Sorry. Bad dream.”

 

Qin Su leaned in. “I’ll kiss it away.” 

 

She was so bold. Why? Why? Fuck you, Father! He allowed one quick brush of her lips on his before scrambling up. “We should—go downstairs. We should visit your family, soon; it’s tradition—”

 

He was rambling. 

 

“A-Yao,” she said, frowning and drawing her knees up to her chest. “What’s wrong? You don’t seem yourself.”

 

He shook his head. “Just a dream. About my mother.”

 

“Do you want to talk about it? I like hearing about her.” 

 

You’re too good . He forced a smile. “Not right now. Maybe tonight.” He spotted Hencheng and remembered. He would have one more task to validate their marriage.

 

What if he didn’t do it? What if that led to an annulment? 

 

No, no, that couldn’t redeem him, and even if it could save him, he couldn’t do that to Qin Su! He wasn’t so cruel as to do that to her. He grabbed his sword, nicking the pad of his thumb and hurrying over to the bed. He squeezed the appendage, allowing droplets of blood to stain the sheets, deceive the sect. Qin Su smiled. 

 

“Are you… feeling okay?” he asked lamely. He remembered when other women in the brothel were pregnant, Mother used to brew them a tea to comfort their stomachs. It wouldn’t harm the child, though they usually would find a way to get rid of it. He thought he might remember the ingredients. 

 

A-Su nodded. “A bit queasy, but otherwise okay.” She poked her stomach. “I think it’s a boy.”

 

Jin GuangYao wanted to cry. “I think you’re right.”

 

“He’ll grow up big and strong, twins with A-Li and A-Xuan’s baby.” She grinned, already using overly familiar names for people she didn’t even know that well, because that was just her. How could people not love her? 

 

I will break your compassion. 

 

I already have. I’m damned!

 

The System wishes to remind you that it is never too late.

 

Fuck you. 

 

“I was thinking,” she said. “How about the name RuSong? A-Li was telling me she had her brother pick the courtesy name for her baby. Jin RuLan.”

 

Wei WuXian. Oh, that’s right. His father would already be plotting against the Yiling Patriarch. But Jiang YanLi wouldn’t hate Wei WuXian. Jin ZiXun already would, and Wen Ning was already dead. And Su She— don’t curse Jin ZiXun this time! He’d just have to keep that from happening. Or keep Jin ZiXuan from finding out. 

 

Thoughts tumbled through his mind, each half-formed, and now he was the one feeling nauseated.  

 

“I like RuSong,” he said softly. In the past, he had suggested RuSong, for the pine trees sprouting all around the Qin Sect, the minty, clean scent of them that filled the room the first night they—they— 

 

Why did I name him after a night that doomed me? 

 

He hurried out of his room and through the Jinlintai. Last time, he had headed to his father, telling Qin Su that Father summoned him right away, making it sound like he was too important to take time off. That way they had avoided a traditional visit to the bride’s family a few days after their marriage and a liekly dreadful encounter with Madame Qin, as well. But this time he couldn’t bring himself to head to that man. Surely strangling his father right now wouldn’t be redemption.

 

Or would it? 

 

No. 

 

The System wishes to reward you for a good decision. 

 

“Congratulations, A-Yao!” called out Jin ZiXuan’s voice when he saw him in the hallways. He clapped Jin GuangYao’s shoulder, beaming at him. 

 

This is your reward? 

 

He could not forget that it was Jin ZiXuan who paid extra for the wedding to be nice, almost as nice as his own, when Jin GuangShan couldn’t care less. Yet still, their relationship had never gone beyond formalities. He could never quite tell whether Jin ZiXuan cared at all about his presence. He certainly wasn’t threatened by Jin GuangYao, but that had less to do with Jin GuangYao and more to do with Jin ZiXuan’s arrogance. He turned his nose up at him at first, but got used to him. 

 

Jin GuangYao’s cheeks heated. He wasn’t much for bawdy conversation, but neither was Jin ZiXuan, and so that was all he said. Jin GuangYao curled his fingers, covering the wound to his thumb. “How is your wife feeling?” 

 

“Better,” said Jin ZiXuan. “She was able to keep down her breakfast. Thank you for the tea recommendation.” 

 

Oh, that was right. Even in his past life, he’d given Jiang YanLi some tea to calm her stomach. “I’m glad to hear it.” 

 

Jin ZiXuan shifted as if uncomfortable. How odd. “Maybe you’ll give our son a playmate.”

 

“It could be a girl,” Jin GuangYao countered, even though he knew Jin Ling wasn’t. Well, he does act like a young mistress.

 

“A-Li is certain it’s a boy.” 

 

And you trust her . Jin GuangYao almost smiled. I don’t want you to die. I won’t let that happen this time. 

 

Oh, what’s the point? 

 

“Oh,” said Jin ZiXuan, smile disappearing. “Father wanted me to tell you that Xue ChengMai got drunk yesterday. I dragged him back to his room.”

 

Jin GuangYao winced. “Couldn’t he give me one day of good behavior, even if just as a wedding gift?”

 

“Apparently not.” Jin ZiXuan shrugged. 

 

Why won’t you ask me about why I have to watch Xue Yang? Oh right, you’re still so arrogant, and you have a love that will last and she isn’t your sister! Well, this was already more than they’d ever talked in his past life, when instead of wandering the Jinlintai he’d curled up in a ball the morning after his wedding, feigning a hangover. Success. 

 

When A-Su was ready, they went off to visit her parents. Jin GuangYao did not want to. This meeting had been so awkward in his memories. But the conversation with Jin ZiXuan hadn’t happened in his past life—he’d huddled in his room until midday, pretending to write documents for his father when really he was just trying to use ink to blot out the reality of his situation. 

 

Sure enough, Madame Qin looked sickened to see him. BiCao rubbed her mistress’s shoulder, though she clearly didn’t know yet just why Madame Qin was so upset. 

 

Soon the stress would sicken and kill her. Or was it just natural causes? Could he really be blamed for her death, too? 

 

What am I supposed to do? 

 

She knew… if she knew everything, they were already married. What could she do? System? 

 

Mission: tell Madame Qin the truth. Difficulty level: easy.

 

There. Decision made. Jin GuangYao rose when Madame Qin got to her feet, saying that she had a headache. Judging from her grimace, it was true. She didn’t even need to lie. 

 

Nie MingJue, would you say she was evil for lying to her husband by not telling him A-Su’s true parentage? Hm? What say you then?

 

“Madame Qin, allow me to escort you,” Jin GuangYao said. “You look pale. We can give A-Su a few moments with her father.” Qin CangYe clearly adored his daughter and was happily recounting his tales of rejoicing from the wedding. 

 

Madame Qin met his gaze. He tried to send a message without words. Please .

 

She nodded. “BiCao, please make some tea.” 

 

Jin GuangYao hurried along the hallway with her. When they reached her private room and the door was securely shut, Jin GuangYao dropped to his knees before her. “I’m sorry. I can’t imagine what you must be thinking of me—”

 

“You told me you believed me,” she said, voice cracking. “Are you—my daughter—you’ve damned her, you’ve—” 

 

You still love her. No matter who her father is . And he’d soiled this relationship. “Please, may I explain?” He didn’t dare lift his head. “It’s not what you think. I did not lay a finger on Qin Su last night, and I won’t touch her.”

 

“Pardon?” Madame Qin blinked. “Then how—” Behind her the sky was blue, clear, sun brilliant and bold, golden like the Jin clan’s colors. 

 

He knew she deserved to have him meet her eyes for this; it didn’t mean it didn’t sting. “A-Su is… already pregnant.” His breath hitched. “She told me two days before your visit. I—I was afraid of further delays, and—” 

 

“What?” Madame Qin’s voice came angry, heated. 

 

“I’m not asking you to forgive me, but she—it was mutual. I loved her with all my heart. I still do, but not—I can’t—I won’t—” He tried not to allow himself to cry just yet. Though certainly the tears beading in them would help. It wasn’t as if the tears were faked. Shame bit at his every limb. “I did not want her to be disgraced.”

 

Madame Qin grasped the windowsill behind her. Her lips puckered.

 

“I am sorry,” he whispered. “It was—too late, I was afraid, I was a coward, I should have told you—” He was manipulating and he knew it. Or did he? Was it manipulation if it was, indeed, what he felt? 

 

It was hard to know himself when the truth had only ever been a weapon used against him, or used by him. 

 

“She could take a potion,” Madame Qin said. “You didn’t because you—you wanted—”

 

“Yes,” he said, because there was no point denying it. “I wanted their approval, but—she wants the child.” Even knowing the truth, it was A-Su’s first question. 

 

What happened to A-Song?

 

How did A-Song die?

 

Our son… our son…

 

She would want the child. Even if she knew. Even though it should never have been conceived, was an abomination to nature. She still wanted justice for him. She still wanted him. Even though he wouldn’t be normal, not ever. 

 

Mother, she is just like you. 

 

How the hell was he going to cover this up?

 

“You told her?”

 

He shook his head. Now a tear slipped out. “I don’t—know how.” He met her gaze. “I will not be my father. I will not—I will be faithful to her, treat her as a sister. I will tell her, too… someday. I don’t—I know you must hate me, but I could not let her be disgraced. She’s too good a woman for that. She has all of you and all of Qin CangYe, and none of that—that—” 

 

“The one you have so much of,” Madame Qin said, and her words lacerated him. 

 

He flinched, clutching his abdomen. 

 

“I believe you,” Madame Qin whispered. “I know my daughter. I know how headstrong she is.” Her eyes filled with tears. “Just what are we supposed to do?”

 

He shook his head. “I—he may not even remember, but I will never forgive him for it. I’m sorry.” He bowed his head low again.

 

“A-Yao,” she said, voice alarmed. 

 

You called me A-Yao? She never had before, not even once. Jin GuangYao lifted his head again. “You are braver than he is.” And a better person. You love a child forced on you, and he loathes children he enjoyed creating. No, he doesn’t even loathe us. He doesn’t care about us. He wishes we would disappear, like gnats in the winter. 

 

Her hand reached out, patting his head. “I’m sorry, too.” 

 

He shook his head. “There’s no need to be.” 

 

She helped him to his feet, and it occurred to him. I have someone on my side this time. Who knows, and who wants to keep it a secret too. 

 

The System wishes to congratulate you on accomplishing your task. Fifty B points. Total points: 550. 

 


 

He used the baby as an excuse, like he had the last time. He saw the hurt in Qin Su’s eyes, but he couldn’t hurt it. 

 

“Have you found someone else?” she ventured one night.

 

“No! Never,” he insisted, clutching her. That night, he at least held her as they slept, but he wouldn’t break his promise. Not ever. 

 

Jiang YanLi was quite kind, and Jin ZiXuan treated his wife with respect, even adoration. Gone were his days of being rude to her in public. He practically worshipped her steps, and she loved him, and he had killed him in the past, in the future. Not intentionally, but he still had. Jiang YanLi would accept tea from him without washing her hands. He was clean to her.

 

How did I not remember that? 

 

Lan XiChen and Nie MingJue came to visit a month or so later. Jin GuangYao gulped. His hands went to his throat, tracing it as if to make sure the vertebrae were still evenly spaced, not broken. In his past life, he hadn’t been able to wait so long before seeking out Lan XiChen, seeking comfort from a man whose sect symbol might be clouds but who, to Jin GuangYao, was the sun. 

 

I will not corrupt you this time

 

It was killing him, and when he saw his sworn brother, he wanted to rush towards the sun, heat his limbs. 

 

“A-Yao!” called Lan XiChen. “How is married life?”

 

He looked the same as ever. Jin GuangYao almost started crying. Er-Ge’s hair sparked in the sun like black snow, his eyes twinkled, and his smile—it was all for Jin GuangYao. He didn’t know how evil Jin GuangYao could be. He didn’t know, and maybe he wouldn’t know this time. 

 

How is hiding things redemption?

 

The System wishes to tell you: it isn’t.

 

“Marriage suits you,” Nie MingJue said gruffly. “You look happy.” 

 

Jin GuangYao now wanted to cry from despair. Nie MingJue’s words acted like a surprise thunderstorm, quenching any joy and light he’d felt. 

 

I kill you.

 

And you kill me.

 

Not this time. 

 

Fuck you! You think I’m scared of you?

 

He was bloody terrified. Please don’t call me that name. Do not kick me. Not this time. If he confided in his sworn brothers, Nie MingJue would surely call him that, and worse. 

 

“Fuck you!” came a bellow from across the grounds. Nie MingJue’s gaze darkened. A small figure waved his sword around, terrifying two young cultivators. 

 

“Pay him no mind,” Jin GuangYao interjected. “Xue ChengMei. My father thinks he has great talent.”

 

“You disagree?” Lan XiChen asked.

 

That Xue Yang?” demanded Nie MingJue, because of course Xue Yang’s reputation as a delinquent preceded him. 

 

“No. He’s more talented than anyone I’ve ever met, save for Wei WuXian. Unfortunately, his… behavior makes Wei WuXian’s look acceptable.” Jin GuangYao scowled. “ChengMei! Get back to work!” 

 

Xue Yang glanced over at him. The two cultivators he had been bullying cowered. He crossed his arms and scowled, eyeing Nie MingJue. A subtle threat.

 

If you say a word about what Father has ordered us to do… Jin GuangYao felt a shudder of fear. The sun couldn’t even keep his fingers and toes warm. 

 

He still didn’t know how to extract himself from his father’s orders, and the system was no help.

 

“Fine, fine,” called Xue Yang. “I’ll get back to the Sect Leader’s orders.” 

 

Nie MingJue frowned. “What are those?” 

 

“Practicing cultivation, of course,” said Jin GuangYao. “Separately, because he’s so talented.” What a terrible excuse. This conversation had not happened last time. Sweat, icy, dribbled down his back. Lan XiChen frowned. “Actually, it’s good you came to visit this day. I—we have some news, but I haven’t had a chance to tell others yet. I wanted to tell you first.” Flattery. 

 

“Oh?” Lan XiChen waited. Nie MingJue seemed to catch onto the fact that this news was an evasive tactic and looked pissed. 

 

“Da-Ge, Er-Ge,” he said. “A-Su is expecting a baby. She thinks.”

 

“Truly?” Lan XiChen asked, eyes widening.

 

He nodded, picking a drooping peony and tugging at the browning petals. They fell to the grass in a shower of pink. 

 

Nie MingJue almost looked happy for once, like he was proud of Jin GuangYao. Which he definitely wouldn’t be if he knew. “Congratulations.” 

 

“Thank you.” I’m trapped in a spider’s web. And he had no idea how not to repeat his mistakes. 

 

“The cousins will be like brothers,” said Lan XiChen. “So close in age.” 

 

Yeah, except one of them will be ill. Jin GuangYao nodded, fake smiling as per normal. He felt like he was trapped in a coffin and still alive.

 

“Speaking of Jiang YanLi,” Lan XiChen said carefully. “And Wei WuXian. My brother ventured to visit recently. YiLing. On a night hunt, and then he stayed and had a meal with Wei WuXian. He claims he has awakened Wen Ning’s consciousness.”

 

“Huh?” Nie MingJue jerked at the news. “That isn’t—if he can do such a blasphemous thing—”

 

“Why is it blasphemous if he regains life?” Jin GuangYao asked. 

 

“He’s dead!” Nie MingJue glared at him. 

 

He really should just shut up in this second chance. Such protests would not help Nie MingJue like him. 

 

“I’ve come to deliver the news to the rest of the sect leaders,” said Lan XiChen. “It would appear Jiang WanYin already knows. It was almost a year ago. But they’ll surely want to—” 

 

Attention: the System would like to offer you a shortcut to redemption.

 

Redemption had shortcuts?

 

Task: revealing Jin GuangShan's true self without hurting everyone who was hurt last time. Difficulty level: very hard and long. Should you choose to accept this, you will receive three self-saving bonuses to be used when in dire peril at no cost to your overall level of B points. As a reminder, if you sink to 0, you will be returned to your weakened state. Accepting will also automatically increase your B point level to 1000.

 

Three chances to save himself from mortal danger? And they won't expire?

 

They will not, the System confirmed.

 

“My father will want it,” said Jin Guangyao, deciding instantly. Yes.

 

Congratulations!

 

Jin GuangYao felt no different about the System's congratulations than he had about the well-wishes for Qin Su's pregnancy.

 

“Pardon?” Lan XiChen stopped.

 

Jin GuangYao stepped in front of his brothers. Da-Ge’s brow creased as if furious. “My father. He will want that kind of power. He won’t like that kind of power not being in his hands—he’s afraid of another Wen Sect—” 

 

“So you want us to say nothing? To protect bloody Wens?” Nie MingJue demanded. 

 

“No!” Jin GuangYao swallowed. “Just—be aware.” 

 

Nie MingJue took a step towards Jin GuangYao, towering over him. “What did he ask you to do?”   

 

“Nothing!” Jin GuangYao insisted, voice squeaking. He glanced desperately at Lan XiChen, who held his sword as if ready to protect Jin GuangYao again, as he did in QiShan. “He asked me to do nothing. Yet.” 

 

Except, deeds that rival what I did in the Fire Palace.

 

“You have expertise. I need you.” His father’s smile and confidence convinced him to take the task, not that he’d had a choice. But unlike Xue Yang, he left the experiments vomiting more often than not. 

 

“Are you lying again?”

 

“Why would I lie?” Jin GuangYao asked, desperate. “You know how I—his praise is all I have ever wanted—I’m about to have a child of my own; I can’t risk falling from his favor now. I’m simply saying—if he asks me to take action—”  

 

Nie MingJue blew out his breath, shaking his head. “Every time I think you’ve changed, you prove that you’re still anticipating and living out the worst case scenario. You think I can’t see you manipulating, scheming against your father?”

 

Against him? Jin GuangYao’s mouth fell. “Da-Ge!” It came out a cry. 

 

Lying: loss of 5 B points.

 

“Da-Ge,” interjected Lan XiChen. “A-Yao hasn’t done anything. Your arguments simply aren’t logical. Are you feeling all right?” 

 

The unstable saber. Jin GuangYao swallowed. This time— is it even possible to save you?

 

The System wishes to inform you it is always possible.   

 

“I wasn’t impugning my father’s honor. I just worry for my father’s peace of mind,” Jin GuangYao said quickly, hoping to placate Nie MingJue. “And for A-Li’s. She’s family. It wouldn’t be good for there to be a rift between my brother and father.” 

 

Why are you suspecting a rift?” demanded Nie MingJue. Lan XiChen tilted his head to the side, wondering the same.

 

Jin GuangYao swallowed. “He does not like her brother, and A-Li is nothing if not loyal to those she loves. And Jin ZiXuan loves both. That’s how my mind works, Da-Ge. You know this. I anticipate future conflicts and try to prevent them.”

 

“Tch.” Nie MingJue chewed on his lip. “Or exacerbate them.” 

 

Jin GuangYao felt fire sizzle, burning his skin like it accidentally had one time in the Fire Palace. He jerked back. “Fine. I see you still think I plotted that man’s murder. I’ve apologized. I’ve acknowledged I was wrong time after time after time, but you still refuse to consider that I may not have plotted a single—”

 

Lan XiChen’s mouth dropped open. He had never heard Jin GuangYao bring it up, though Da-Ge had surely told him, and Jin GuangYao had expressed remorse but no details. And XiChen never asked for them. He took Jin GuangYao at his word.

 

You really trust me.

 

“You wore a Wen Sect uniform! You planned it!” 

 

“Because I was already prepared to go undercover—”

 

“You—” 

 

“Hate me if you will,” said Jin GuangYao. “But if not for me doing so, if not for me delivering a relic of a dead man to Wen RouHan and gaining his trust, you would be dead right now.” He’d never dared to say such a thing to Nie MingJue in the past. He took a step back. What have I done?

 

Nie MingJue’s face twisted. His hand rose as if to strike him. Lan XiChen jumped between them. “A-Yao, Da-Ge, why are we rehashing the—”

 

“Are these the kinds of morals you intend to teach your son or daughter?” Nie MingJue roared. “You—” 

 

“You just can’t stand that someone you see as inferior in every way saved you,” Jin GuangYao retorted. His fists curled. His arms shook. He remembered Shen QingQiu, Shen Jiu, Yue QingYuan… all they had to do was ask. 

 

A simple conversation. A simple word, a name, Qi-Ge. 

 

“You’re the one who sees yourself as inferior! I never saw you that way until you—you—” Nie MingJue reached for his saber. 

 

“What do I have to do to earn your forgiveness?” cried out Jin GuangYao. “What? Just tell me! You change what it is so often! Go to my father—I have , now. I won’t apologize for saving your life. You act like I can control people, but I can’t!” His voice choked. I wish I could . “What do I have to do?” He dropped to his knees again. “Just what… am I supposed to do?!” Tell me. 

 

Nie MingJue inhaled sharply. Lan XiChen’s hand squeezed Jin GuangYao’s shoulder. 

 

“I just want to please you,” managed Jin GuangYao. “I don’t know how!” 

 

“If you wanted to please me, you know what to do! Stop worrying so much about what people think of you; do rightly—” 

 

“How?” he demanded. If you thought about it from my perspective… he’d said those words as they escaped Wen RouHan’s palace. 

 

I won’t! Nie MingJue had thundered then. 

 

Nie MingJue seemed to realize what he was thinking. Purple splotches swelled on his face, but he didn’t answer. 

 

“You’re doing the best you can,” said Lan XiChen. “One bad deed doesn’t define you, A-Yao—”

 

“To him it does.”

 

Lan XiChen cringed. 

 

“Jin GuangYao?” called a voice.  

 

Jin GuangYao spun. Oh, you. His heart sunk.

 

Su She frowned. “Is everything all right?”

 

Not hardly. “It is, Young Master Su,” called Jin GuangYao. Another lie. The System chirped its familiar message. He got to his feet. “I should check on A-Su.”

 

Nie MingJue’s silence echoed and echoed inside his head, crushing any thoughts about how he might expose his father, even bruising his desire to want to. 




Chapter Text

The months went by. Jin GuangYao had no clue what to do, and the System wasn’t terribly helpful.

 

System, what do I do? he implored as he sat through another of Xue Yang’s torture sessions, glaring at tongue tea. 

 

It was silent. He was beginning to wonder if everything was a long hallucination, or if hell was just reliving and failing over and over. From the sound of things, Shen QingQiu and Shang QingHua had much more active systems. 

 

Nie MingJue had not brought up their conversation, but every time he viewed Jin GuangYao as lying or manipulating or showing any kind of emotion or telling the truth, his lips puckered and he made a noise of disgust. I disgust you just by existing. 

 

Nie MingJue also had noticed his coldness to HuaiSang now, and didn’t seem to understand it. 

You see, he killed me in our past life. Sort of. And he hurt XiChen, and for that I can’t forgive him.

 

XiChen tried to visit more often than he had last time, but Jin GuangYao was scared. I don’t want to contaminate you . But he couldn’t resist XiChen’s kindness, the way he made it clear he trusted Jin GuangYao, how he wanted to nurture him. 

 

“Da-Ge is anxious over reports from the Burial Mounds,” Lan XiChen said on one of their night hunts, one he readily accepted to avoid Qin Su’s advances at night. His poor wife. “We all are.” 

 

Jin GuangYao paused under the moonlight. “Do you think Young Master Wei is in the wrong?” 

 

“What do you mean?” Lan XiChen inquired. 

 

“He’s doing something that he knows means he can never have a part in our world. He’s doing it to save the Wens, and he’s not even romantically involved with Wen Qing. He cut ties with his shidi and his shijie for it. I don’t understand how he can do such a thing.” 

 

Wei WuXian was a coward, trying to run away from the sacrifice he’d made for Jiang Cheng. And Wei WuXian was an idealist, and he had no value of his own life. Jin GuangYao couldn’t understand that lack of value in his own life. He supposed he’d always seen the cost his life took on his mother. 

 

“Is he wrong?” Jin GuangYao asked. 

 

“I… don’t know,” Lan XiChen replied honestly. A moth fluttered nearby, and he held out his palm for it to land on. A childlike smile came over his face. 

 

“My cousin is cruel,” said Jin GuangYao. “To impress my father.” So am I. Help me.

 

“A-Yao?” Lan XiChen studied him. “What’s been going on with you? I’ve never heard you speak a word remotely critical of your father before, not that I haven’t thought it, but—Da-Ge is concerned, too. You haven’t been acting like yourself since your marriage, but you and Qin Su were so happy and so in love beforehand. I know you’re expecting a baby and that’s such a big life change, but I—is there something else? Is it connected to Wei WuXian? Do you know something that—”

 

The moth flew away, straight at Jin GuangYao’s face. He yelped, ducking. Lan XiChen laughed. “No,” he said. “Nothing to do with Wei WuXian.” 

 

“But something is wrong.” Lan XiChen took his arm, his touch gentle, soft, leading. He sat on a downed log, easing Jin GuangYao down next to him. 

 

“No.” 

 

Lan XiChen sighed.  

 

“You know I’m lying.”

 

“Do you want to discuss it?” Lan XiChen met his eyes. 

 

If only I could. “Da-Ge hates me,” he said. “I really, truly don’t know what to do, Er-Ge. He agreed to become my sworn brother, but he—every time he sees me, it’s as if he views me as worse than the men he told off for mocking my mother ever saw me. I…” His voice trailed off. 

 

I really want his approval.

 

“He doesn’t hate you. He wants to reconcile with you, he does, he just—” Lan XiChen drew in his breath. Several moths now dancing in the moonlight streaming through the trees. He almost couldn’t imagine corpses wandering these woods; they looked so peaceful. 

 

“Why did you trust me?” Jin GuangYao managed. “When you got my letters from the Fire Palace? Surely Da-Ge had told you by then.” He hid his face to the side. “What I did to my superior in the Jin Sect.”

 

“Yes,” Lan XiChen said. “He told me, but not until I got your first letter. He told me your stated reasons, and that you were wearing a Wen Sect uniform. I could not—I did not—at first—and then I realized from the clues you had left who you were, and why you were wearing a Wen Sect uniform. You were already planning to go undercover, weren’t you?”

 

Yes . It’d be such a simple answer, and not a lie, even. 

 

But not clear, pristine truth either. “I had suggested it, but no one listened to me. The superior—he accused me of being a traitor for even suggesting it.” He swallowed. “I don’t know. Part of me—I did it for that reason, yes, but I’m afraid that I—that I—” I killed him out of a petty grudge . He lowered his head. 

 

“I trust you, A-Yao,” said Lan XiChen. “When you found me on that road, injured and carrying the scrolls, and you took the scrolls and books and slung my arm over your shoulder, hauled me away—you yanked my head ribbon off to disguise me—”

 

“I didn’t know what it meant then,” Jin GuangYao joked, holding his hands up. 

 

Lan XiChen snorted. “You lied to the guards who found us in that inn, so convincingly. You pretended to be a cut-sleeve whore, and it worked. My uncle would say lying in such a disgraceful way was wrong. But you saved my life, and because of that, the Gusu Lan Sect—you told me not to give up. You taught me people would still help, that people could use their humiliations and still climb, still be better. I trusted that you had your reasons, and if they were wrong, you would learn.”

 

Jin GuangYao bowed his head. He remembered that day, how he covered Lan XiChen in blankets in the room they shared, how he used blood to smear color onto his lips, yanked his tunic down, kept his hair rumpled. The Wen Sect soldiers couldn’t run away fast enough. He’d thought Lan XiChen was asleep during it, and when the man pushed himself up once they’d left, rasping “How did you think so fast?” he’d blurted out the truth: “my mother was a prostitute.” And he expected Lan XiChen to stagger to his feet, leave. 

 

Instead, he’d eyed Jin GuangYao’s injured wrist from his trip down the Jinlintai and whispered his name: “Meng Yao.” And then: “Thank you.”

 

While stumbling away from the Jinlintai, he’d passed the Wen Sect soldiers on their way to burn the Cloud Recesses. He thought if he helped another sect against the Wens, he might earn his father’s approval. He hadn’t expected the heir to come stumbling through the woods, burned and gasping, choking on leftover smoke. 

 

“I was wrong,” he said. “I know I was wrong to kill him.” Though in truth he regretted more Nie MingJue’s hatred than the man’s death. “I just don’t know how to convince Da-Ge. I don’t know if there is a way.” His voice cracked. “You said once he doesn’t view me as the evil, and I said I knew not to take it personally. That was a lie. He does view me as the evil, and I don’t know how not to take it personally, not anymore.” 

 

“There is,” Lan XiChen assured him. “I will talk to him again. I will say, A-Yao, that I don’t think it’s you. I think it’s himself he’s afraid of.” He clutched Jin GuangYao’s shoulder, face inches away and bathed silver. 

 

How? Huh? Jin GuangYao gaped. 

 

“You are not evil,” Lan XiChen said, clutching his shoulders. “You have your reasons, A-Yao, I believe in you.” 

 

Didn’t Wen RouHan have his reasons? And didn’t he believe in me? He swallowed. “You really don’t see me that way. I know, you’ve never treated me like that. Er-Ge, thank you.” Had he ever thanked him before? He bowed his head. 

 

“There’s no need for that, A-Yao,” Lan XiChen reminded him. 

 

If you see me as evil at some point, can you reconcile it? Can you even see it? Are you more blind than Xiao XingChen was last time? 

 

You are so innocent, Er-Ge, like a child. You know the world isn’t fair and try to make it so. 

 

I can’t bear to lose you. “I want to be a good man,” Jin GuangYao stated. 

 

“I think wanting to be good is the first step,” Lan XiChen said. “And—I admire your courage. Da-Ge will see it. I promise.”  

 

If only. Even if he redeemed himself, Jun Wu had promised it would all be revealed in the end. And could he really control himself? It was so much harder here, where everything felt so familiar. And then, as insurance, he told Lan XiChen a little more. “The brothel where I grew up is in YunMeng.” There, now he couldn’t burn it down.

 

“Have you ever been back?”

 

He shook his head. “There’s nothing for me there.” Except his mother’s casket. This time, he would not allow Nie HuaiSang to destroy her. 

 

Back at the Jinlintai, he made an effort to give Su She extra attention, deflect his attention away from Jin ZiXun. To his knowledge, he’d scarcely seen them interact. Yet when, only two weeks after Jin Ling’s birth, while A-Su was still heavy with their child and Madame Qin had come to stay and help—something she hadn’t done in the past life—he saw Jin ZiXun bellowing at the guards, stumbling through the Jinlintai, he knew. 

 

Fuck!  

 

What do I do? He will definitely blame Wei WuXian. And he will die. Even if Jin ZiXuan doesn’t go. System?

 

Killing him to ease his suffering will not help you. Nor will killing Su She. Chances of getting away with killing Su She: 89%. Chances of getting away with killing Su She in Nie MingJue’s eyes: 18%. Chances of getting away with killing Jin ZiXun: 34%.

 

I wasn’t going to!

 

The System exists in your mind; the System knows. Chances of your denial being self-deception: 100%. 

 

Oh, shut up! Jin GuangYao huffed. 

 

Quest unlocked: save Jin ZiXun and Su She.

 

Fuck you!

 

It was impossible. Damn impossible. Jin GuangYao stormed back towards his room. He found Qin Su curled up on their bed, whimpering. 

 

His heart froze. Ice spiraled through him, sharp and cold. She wasn’t supposed to go into labor for a few more weeks! “A-Su!”

 

“I’m not in labor,” she said, head buried in a pillow. “Just—craving.” 

 

Oh . Jin GuangYao almost laughed. “What are you craving?” He could get it for her. He would. He could still prove his love. “Where’s your mother?”

 

“She went to check on Father; she’ll be back in two days’ time.” A-Su pushed herself up on her elbows, wincing as she massaged her swollen stomach.  “I could smell pork lotus soup down there, but Madame Jin was making it for A-Li. I—” Her face reddened. 

 

Everyone knew how Madame Jin felt about him. Jin GuangYao flushed. 

 

Still, if it was his sister or that woman… He gritted his teeth. He knew what the System would want him to do. 

 

“I don’t want her to say anything to you.”

 

Well, saying something was one thing. The bruises were another. Jin GuangYao forced a smile. “It’s no problem.” And it really shouldn’t be. A-Su deserved her soup. Even if he doubted it would be as good as when Jiang YanLi made it.

 

He headed down to the kitchen, the savory scent spreading through the air, setting his stomach rumbling. He might snitch some from A-Su, if she didn’t kill him for it. 

 

It still stung his heart, even now, that she was his sister. He kept his head low as he entered the kitchen. 

 

Madame Jin looked at him as if he was a cockroach. “What are you doing here?”

 

He swallowed. “My wife is hungry.”

 

“Hmph.” She turned back to her soup. “Get what you need and then leave. The rest of us don’t want to eat contaminated food.”

 

Her hatred burned him again. I hate you. I really hate you. “A-Su said to ask if she could have some of the soup—just a bowl. Her cravings—”

 

“Pah!” Madame Jin dropped her spoon in the boiling pot. Jin GuangYao jumped back as flecks of steaming water splashed and dug teeth into his skin. The servants backed up, staring. 

 

“A-Su is carrying your husband's grandchild—” In more ways than one.

 

A mistake. He shouldn’t have said that. Madame Jin’s eyes grew huge. “Yes,” she said calmly, turning back to the soup and stirring. But he could tell from her measured, deep breaths that she was about to lash out.

 

He wiped sweat off his forehead, taking a step back. 

 

“You think I don’t know what you’re doing, Jin GuangYao?”

 

Genuinely no.

 

“Always thinking you’re better than what you are: the son of a filthy whore! Your child is not going to be sect leader, not going to be anything of note, and you won’t be, either!”

 

Her words were probably more true than she knew about RuSong, and still they struck him like a blow. 

 

“You and that woman should know that you don’t deserve to be here, be grateful we’re feeding you at all, putting you up, spending any time at all on you. You’re useful to my husband, or else he wouldn’t bother to keep you around, but don’t overstep! You’re not an heir, you never will be, and—” 

 

“Do not insult Qin Su,” Jin GuangYao cut in. He couldn’t stand it. That woman? Was that really how she thought of Qin Su? She’d done nothing to deserve this scorn. Was it contagious? His uncleanness? His evil? Had he infected Qin Su? 

 

Of course he had. You’ll be the laughingstock of the world. 

 

In the end, A-Su had grabbed a knife, the one used to steal souls, trap them, because she never wanted to emerge again. 

 

“Oh?” Madame Jin turned around. The back of her hand struck his face. “Who do you think you are to talk back to me?”

 

He toppled over. He really should scurry away. Usually, he did. Last time, he didn’t remember Qin Su craving this soup, or maybe she’d gotten it herself, he didn’t know. But he promised . And he had to—do better.

 

I want to be a good man.

 

In every way.

 

Right now he’d settle for any way he could be. He got to his knees. “Please, Madame Jin—I don’t mean to offend. I just want to help my—”

 

“Stop groveling!” she shrieked. “You think by pity you’ll get what you want? Your pity? Your humiliation? What about mine? What about how your presence means I might as well be on my knees in front of the entire cultivational world every day?” Her foot slammed into his chest. 

 

A kick. He didn’t even bother to dodge. He fell back, head smacking the wall. Heat rushed over him. Something warm trickled down his temple. His chest ached. 

 

“Get out of here, you filthy whore’s son, and don’t—”

 

“I know I am,” he choked out. Mother, I’m sorry! “But—”

 

Another smack, her hand this time. He spat out a wad of blood. And then her hand rose again, and he cringed. 

 

And then someone caught her wrist, and the blow never landed.

 

Jin GuangYao gaped up. Jiang YanLi stood there, stomach still puffy from her pregnancy, A-Ling nestled in one arm, her other clutching Madame Jin’s arm. She wore an expression of true horror. And behind the horror there was a steel, like she’d been through this before somehow.  

 

Oh, fuck. Now Madame Jin would surely try to get him ousted. Nie MingJue wouldn’t take him in—Qin CangYe— 

 

“I came down to see if you needed help, Mother,” Jiang YanLi said, jostling the baby. “What happened?” 

 

He couldn’t say a word. Madame Jin would never forgive him.

 

“Some trash needs to be taught their place,” Madame Jin replied.

 

“But Mother, what happened? A-Yao?” She turned to him, and he heard her voice as she cajoled Jin ZiXuan into setting down his work to feel Jin Ling kicking in her stomach, he heard her as she spoke of her brothers, A-Cheng, A-Xian. And he knew the rumors around Wei WuXian.

 

You have seen this before. 

 

“I came here for A-Su,” he mumbled. 

 

Jiang YanLi’s face softened. “Ah. She’d like some soup?” 

 

He couldn’t even nod. But Jiang YanLi suddenly reached down, handing him Jin Ling. He grasped the child, supporting the baby’s head. He hadn’t even asked to hold him yet, because he knew the answer from the past, but now— 

 

Madame Jin’s face whitened. 

 

“That’s your uncle, A-Ling,” crooned Jiang YanLi. “I’ll bring it to her, A-Yao. You might as well get some experience holding a baby.” She giggled. “And I’ve been wanting to talk to A-Su. It’d be lovely to have a friend my age here.” 

 

You have unlocked a new quest: a friendship between Jiang YanLi and Qin Su!

 

Huh? The System wanted—that? How was that relevant to his redemption? Not to mention that while, in the old universe, Jiang YanLi had always been kind to him, they hadn’t interacted all that much. What had changed? Why was she open now? 

 

“Don’t worry, Madame Jin,” Jiang YanLi assured Madame Jin, reaching out to ladle soup into a bowl. “A-Xuan and I have already discussed it. We’re looking forward to A-Ling and his cousin growing up as close as I was with my brothers.” 

 

Jin GuangYao’s eyes stung. Jin Ling whimpered, and he shushed the baby, rocking him gently. 

 

“You seem quite comfortable with babies,” commented Jiang YanLi, carrying the soup back towards Jin GuangYao’s chambers. “A-Xuan didn’t support his head the first time he held him.”

 

Jin GuangYao almost smirked. So he was better than Jin ZiXuan in something. “He didn’t?”

 

Jiang YanLi shook her head. “He learned.” 

 

Jin GuangYao poked his nephew’s nose, waving his finger around. The baby’s eyes followed it. I’m still going to get you Fairy in a few years. A big dog, just for you. A fluffy one. 

 

Would Jin Ling still love him as much if his dad was in the picture? 

 

“A-Su!” Jiang YanLi entered the room. 

 

A-Su sat up, eyes wide. She clapped her hands. “You did it, A-Yao!” 

 

“She did,” Jin GuangYao admitted. “Madame Jin is protective of her soup.”

 

Jiang YanLi didn’t seem to see the humor. Her brow creased. “Does that happen often?” 

 

“It’s nothing,” Jin GuangYao said, A-Su’s gaze settling on the blood drying by his temple. 

 

“I should go down and smooth things over with her,” Jiang YanLi said. “But, A-Su, I was hoping to invite you for tea tomorrow. I thought we might—talk, about motherhood, about other things. I know Madame Jin and my mother were close growing up, and I hoped—” Her face flushed rosy as if embarrassed to ask for such a thing.   

 

A-Su was not so shy. Her face lit up in a smile. 

 

Jin GuangYao handed the child back to his mother, and no sooner had the door closed than A-Su shoved the soup away from her, got to her feet, and yanked his hat off. 

 

“What?” Jin GuangYao stumbled back. “A-Su—”

 

“She hit you?” A-Su’s eyes flashed.

 

He shrunk. “It’s nothing.” 

 

“Take off your clothes.”

 

Oh, hell no. He shook his head frantically. 

 

“You have bruises, don’t you? Is that why you don’t want to—I realize I’m not exactly attractive in this state, but I’ve been—wondering, I’ve been so confused—did you think someone hurting you would make me respect you less? Why—”    

 

“No! No, that’s not it!” He couldn’t say it. Why was Qin Su so pushy now? She never was earlier. “It’s not that, you’re beautiful, it’s not you, and it’s not—I just—never have been very interested in sex.” 

 

“Does she beat you regularly?” Qin Su had the same tone of voice she had when she was threatening to go to her father over something she found dissatisfying. Which she probably was about to do.

 

“Please don’t mention it,” he pleaded. “It will only make things worse with my father. Please, A-Su—I beg you—”

 

Her lips parted. “You’re terrified.”

 

He shook his head, but it was a lie, and he knew it. 

 

I’m scared, and I can’t even tell you about it. 

 

I don’t want to fail. 

 

Your life depends on my redemption. I can’t let you lose it again. Tears sneaked out of his eyes, dribbling down. And she grabbed him, pressing her face into his chest, holding him. Her hands didn’t wander, and neither did her lips. She just held him, and he caved, holding her, feeling RuSong kicking and squirming inside her belly. 

 

Why can’t I have this? 

 

Because I’m the son of a—

 

No ! How dare he have such a thought? He deserved those kicks. He wanted to kick them out of his brain. System?

 

The System does not control your thoughts.

 

Well, unless you start, I’m going to fail. And A-Su would die, her life reduced forever to a face reflected in a knife from a villain. 

 

Why was this so much harder than it had been in Shen QingQiu and Shen Jiu’s world? He had no way of redeeming himself in Nie MingJue’s eyes. Da-Ge couldn’t even offer a suggestion. Madame Jin hated him worse than she had originally now. If only saving Jin ZiXun and Su She at the same time wasn’t medically and cultivationally impossible. How was he going to achieve the impossible? 

 

Oh.

 

Oh! 

 

Jin GuangYao suddenly scrambled to his feet. A-Su blinked.

 

“Finish your soup,” he told her kindly. “Thank you. I’m going to go—thank our sister. And get you something sweet.” He knew how A-Su loved sweets. 

 

“All right,” she said, still looking hurt.

 

He straightened his robe and his hat, hurrying to his brother’s chambers. He knocked, smoothing his hair. 

 

“A-Yao?” Jin ZiXuan greeted him with a frown. 

 

“Young Master Jin.” He bowed to his brother, gulping. “I’m here to thank your wife for her kindness earlier.” Of course he’d have to garner sympathy from this arrogant golden brat. Oh well. 

 

“She told me,” Jin ZiXuan stated. He stepped back, ushering Jin GuangYao inside. He shut the door behind him. Jiang YanLi rose, rocking a wailing Jin Ling. “My mother really—did that to you?” 

 

He shook his head. “No, no, it’s fine, it’s nothing. I’m intruding on her space. I meant to thank for the soup, not that—”

 

Jin ZiXuan reached out, yanking his hat off. Jin GuangYao cringed. And then his brother shoved up his sleeves, taking stock of the two bruises, the one on his left yellow and green, blood dissolving, the one on his right purple and black, swollen. Jin ZiXuan swore.

 

“Please don’t!” Jin GuangYao begged. “That’s not why I came here! I can live with it; don’t you think I’ve been through far worse, considering where I grew up? I only came here to discuss something much more important.” He swallowed. “Not soup.” Remember, I come from a brothel? Remember, I barely deserve to be here, even though we have the same father? 

 

The baby screamed. Jiang YanLi took Jin Ling out of the room. 

 

“I can’t abide her treating you like that,” Jin ZiXuan said. “I’m going to talk to—”

 

“Jin ZiXun is dying,” he blurted out.

 

Jin ZiXuan’s eyes grew huge. He grasped onto the wall. “What?” 

 

“He’s been cursed,” said Jin GuangYao, swallowing. His fingers knotted around the robes he woe, twisting them, twisting them tighter. “He—the curse of a hundred holes. It’s in its early stages, but he suspects Wei WuXian. You know how he has a grudge against him.”

 

“A-Li’s brother? He—he wouldn’t,” Jin ZiXuan said, voice hedging. It was clear he thought it was possible, but still thought it his duty to protect his lady love’s brother.   

 

“I have an idea,” said Jin GuangYao. “I’m—quite certain it wasn’t him.”

 

Jin ZiXuan narrowed his eyes. “Do you have any idea whom it was?”

 

Jin GuangYao nodded slowly. “But no evidence.” Su She, you bastard.

 

“Who?” Jin ZiXuan now grabbed his sword.

 

“There’s no way of knowing. They’re not… reachable anymore,” Jin GuangYao lied. “But it may not matter.”

 

“Not matter? The only way to fix it is if the culprit is killed—” Jin ZiXuan cursed. “Now I know why ZiXun’s been acting even more hornery than—”

 

“There may be a way to cure him without that,” Jin GuangYao said, searching his brother’s face for any openness. “I know—I really think there’s another way.” 

 

Jin ZiXuan frowned. “How?”

 

You are open to listening. Jin GuangYao heaved a sigh. “When I was in Wen RouHan’s palace, undercover, I read through many letters and papers for information. Some were written by a doctor who knew how to push the boundaries of medicine. One was even about core transfer—”

 

“That’s a fancy,” interrupted Jin ZiXuan.

 

“It’s not.” Jin GuangYao lifted his gaze, meeting his brother’s eyes. “She did it. She transferred golden cores. If she can do that, if Wen Qing can transfer one core to another, surely she knows of a way to cure the curse of a hundred holes.” 

 

“You can’t be serious.” Jin ZiXuan gaped.

 

“I want to save our cousin’s life.” And Su She from his own stupidity! And myself! And you!

 

Jin ZiXuan pinched the bridge of his nose. “But—how do we— Wen Qing . Jin ZiXun is the one whose men hurt her brother, killed him, and he—”

 

“You’re Wei WuXian’s brother,” said Jin GuangYao. “Your wife—” Wei WuXian would never harm YanLi, of this he was certain. Not without despair blinding him, and—   

 

Jin ZiXuan hesitated. “I was planning to invite him to the one month ceremony—I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to invite him in person.”

 

Not the plan! “I was going to offer to escort Lady Jiang—”

 

“I’ll go,” Jin ZiXuan said. “We’re long overdue to have a conversation, anyways.”

 

Could you perhaps not? “What would people say if the sect leader’s heir himself—” 

 

“Father’s gone,” Jin ZiXuan said. “I think he plans on—well, he told my mother that—he’s going to visit one of his favorite women. Well, he told her the location, and she figured it out. They have a son. He was talking about bringing the boy back.”

 

Mo XuanYu ? Earlier than it had happened before, right? Why?

 

“If I am going to be a sect leader, I can’t use others to solve all my problems,” Jin ZiXuan added, swallowing. His grip on his sword looked alarmingly tight, knuckles white. “A-Yao, will you—accompany me? I would need someone I trust, just in case. I’d like not to alarm A-Li—” 

 

You trust me? Jin GuangYao gaped at him. Why? “You barely know me.”

 

“You’re my brother, and Father certainly trusts you enough to give you many personal assignments,” said Jin ZiXuan. “A-Li worries about her brother being alone in YunMeng, even as sect leader. I think I ought to—well, I ought to surround myself with the best advisors, like Lan XiChen and Nie MingJue do with you and with each other.” His face looked the color of a plum, and he glared at his shoes. “Will you come along?” 

 

Jin GuangYao wanted to cry. What if you die? No, no, Jin ZiXun wouldn’t be there this time. System? 

 

Chance of convincing Wen Qing to help: 56%. 

 

Odds were favorable. Jin GuangYao swallowed. “Okay, then. Let’s go.” 

 

Chapter Text

The Burial Mounds were a contradictory place. Fitting for a place that housed the living among the dead, Jin GuangYao supposed. The land emitted an aura of grasping, of desperate screaming despite a silence, of a despair clambering just below the surface. As they landed, Jin GuangYao’s stomach felt as if ants crawled out of it, spilling into every other crevice in his body. His teeth chattered. 

 

Jin ZiXuan, if you die in front of me, I’ll never forgive you.

 

He swallowed. Jin ZiXuan peered around the desolate land around them. 

 

System, where is Wei WuXian? 

 

Wei WuXian is near the caves. 

 

Jin GuangYao took a step forward. No matter what, he must not allow Jin ZiXuan to die here. That would wreck his redemption. 

 

Only you can wreck your redemption.

 

Well, I don’t want him to die!

 

“Where are we going?” Jin ZiXuan asked. He kicked a shard of animal bone. “Good grief, they really live here…”

 

“They at least get to live here,” Jin GuangYao pointed out, sidestepping a decomposing corpse. Boulders and odd rock formations, twisted trees and fallen logs littered the land, as if it was a garbage heap for nature. The boulders looked like creeping monsters, or the bones of a monstrous creature. He covered his mouth. “In Jin ZiXun’s camps, well. They clearly didn’t get to live.”

 

“What do you think of those, A-Yao?” 

 

“Hm?” Jin GuangYao drew up short. A bird called, its warble wailing over the land. He shivered. 

 

“The Wens,” Jin ZiXuan said. “I realize we don’t want a repeat of Wen RouHan, not ever. I remember what they almost did to MianMian in the cave. But…” He shook his head. “ Here ? Do they really not have any better options?” 

 

Jin GuangYao had no idea what to say. Are you testing me? 

 

Jin ZiXuan’s current sincerity: 100%. 

 

What’s the likelihood he repeats my answer to my father?

 

95%. Would you like an easy option to deflect an answer? It will cost you 50 B points.

 

Do it. 

 

A child’s giggle broke out from behind one of the giant boulders. Jin GuangYao froze. 

 

“A-Yuan, A-Yuan, it’s time for bed! Your Granny is gonna be mad if you’re up late!” called an exhausted voice. 

 

A child raced towards them, flapping his arms. “Butterfly! I am a butterfly!” He skidded to a stop when he saw the two strange men. And then he took off again, ducking behind them. He clung to Jin ZiXuan’s leg. 

 

“Um,” said Jin ZiXuan, panic on his face. 

 

“A-Yuan!” A figure draped in threadbare black robe burst around the corner of a boulder. Wei WuXian’s eyes goggled when he saw the two of them standing there. And then his flute rose to his lips.

 

“We come in peace, Master Wei!” Jin GuangYao interjected. His hand had gone out— when? —to hover in front of Jin ZiXuan’s heart. 

 

“Huh?” Wei WuXian lowered the flute. A-Yuan giggled, peeking out from behind Jin ZiXuan. 

 

“Young Master Wei,” said Jin ZiXuan, stepping forward. A-Yuan did not let go of ZiXuan’s legs even as he moved. Jin GuangYao couldn’t hide a small smile. “We’re here to—invite you to A-Ling’s one month celebration, and to ask you for a favor.”

 

“You were never shy, Jin ZiXuan,” stated Wei WuXian, folding his arms. “Well, except that one time in the forest during the hunt, with my shijie.”

 

Jin ZiXuan’s eyes flashed. A-Yuan tugged at the golden tassels from his waist. Jin ZiXuan glanced down. 

 

“Pretty,” said A-Yuan, beaming up at him. “Pretty boy.”

 

Jin GuangYao covered his mouth to keep from laughing out loud. Jin ZiXuan’s eyes popped. But instead of yelling in a rage or kicking like an offended peacock, he crouched down and picked up the boy, hoisting him onto his hip, placing one of the tassels in the boy’s hand. A-Yuan looked delighted. 

 

“Always making friends, hm, A-Yuan? No loyalty there,” teased Wei WuXian. “He abandoned me for Lan Zhan before, too.”

 

Lan WangJi has visited? Of course he had. Jin GuangYao bit back a smile. Poor lovesick Lan WangJi. 

 

“I already got your invitation. And I’ll be coming. Won’t your father—”

 

“A-Ling is my son,” said Jin ZiXuan. “And A-Li insists we use the courtesy name you gave him. Jin RuLan. So, you named him. It’s only fitting you should celebrate his life.”

 

Wei WuXian tapped his flute against his lips. His chin trembled, and it struck Jin GuangYao how much he resembled Jin GuangYao when his father finally welcomed him after the fall of the Wen Sect. 

 

“What’s your favor?” he asked, gesturing for them to follow him.

 

Idiot. Jin GuangYao wanted to shake him. You’re way too trusting. You should be suspecting we’re working on a trap, looking for your weaknesses. They weren’t, but Wei WuXian was still a fool. 

 

“My cousin has been cursed. The hundred holes curse,” Jin ZiXuan said. 

 

Wei WuXian hmphed. “That’s terrible.” 

 

“He thinks you did it.” 

 

Wei WuXian spun around, brows pierced together. “You can’t possibly think—why would I resort to such underhanded tactics? If I wanted to kill your cousin, I would do it in the open. Jin ZiXun is hardly worth my time or attention, anyways.” His gaze darted between both Jins, as if finally realizing that he might be in a precarious position. 

 

“I believe you, but ZiXun won’t,” said Jin GuangYao finally. 

 

“Your word won’t be enough. If I come to the Jinlintai, I’ll be—” 

 

“My father would surely not do anything without fair trial—” 

 

“A trial? So you’ve already made up your mind?” 

 

Jin GuangYao wanted to smack Jin ZiXuan. 

 

Wei WuXian yanked at his robes, stripping to his bare chest. A-Yuan was now gumming on Jin ZiXuan’s tassels, and ZiXuan seemed more amused than annoyed. “See? Do I have any holes?” 

 

“I believe you,” Jin ZiXuan insisted. “That wasn’t why we came here; it wasn’t to arrest you!” 

 

“You’ve never given me the benefit of the doubt before.” Okay, Wei WuXian wasn’t quite so stupid. 

 

“Before, we weren’t family,” Jin ZiXuan snapped. A-Yuan peered up at him, alarmed at his change in voice. Jin ZiXuan pinched his nose, and he giggled. 

 

Jin GuangYao stepped forward. “We were hoping your doctor would know of a way to cure him. Without—” 

 

“Wen Qing? You want to use her now, after you refused to help her? You want her to heal the man had her brother killed?” Wei WuXian glared. He stumbled but regained his balance.

 

Have you been drinking? Jin GuangYao knew that teeter well. System?

 

Wei WuXian’s current anger points: 62. Drinks consumed in the past two hours: four jars of wine.

 

That’s it? He kept his hand ready to protect Jin ZiXuan’s heart as he readied his sharpest arrow. “I know she is an exceptional doctor, capable of the impossible. Like transferring golden cores. To think she actually achieved that.” He kept his voice pacific despite the way he knew his words would pierce.

 

Wei WuXian’s eyes grew huge. He gaped at Jin GuangYao. “You—”

 

Anger points increased to 350. 

 

Jin GuangYao gave him a sweet smile. 

 

Wei WuXian’s nostrils flared. “So you want me to be your puppet?”

 

Anger points now 455. 

 

“No!” Jin GuangYao said quickly. “I—I wish we could meet the man she transferred it to. Shame he’s probably dead in the war.” He was so obviously lying, but Jin ZiXuan nodded. You bought it? What kind of sect leader will you be?

 

Wei WuXian, at least, didn’t buy it, but when he saw Jin ZiXuan did, he exhaled. 

 

Anger points: reduced to 15. Normal levels.

 

“Come with me. You can ask her yourself. I won’t force her to help,” said Wei WuXian.

 

“Your invitation is not conditional on her acceptance,” Jin ZiXuan said. “To A-Ling’s ceremony.” 

 

Wei WuXian’s shoulders stiffened. He gave a small nod. “Thank you.” 

 

He was thanking the man he hated. Jin GuangYao bit back a small smile. 

 

Wen Qing hurried over, squinting in the dull moonlight. A kicked pebble scattered in front of her, clacking and cracking against the ground. She held her arms out to take A-Yuan. 

 

A-Yuan turned away, burying his face in Jin ZiXuan’s hair, refusing to move. Wen Qing’s mouth fell open.

 

“The child… is yours?” questioned Jin ZiXuan.

 

Wen Qing’s nose wrinkled. “No. My cousin’s. Our grandmother raises him after your men killed his parents.”

 

“A-Yuan?” Another voice, familiar in a way that sent Jin GuangYao’s stomach opening up into a pit. He felt himself falling, falling.

 

Wen Ning appeared. He froze when he saw Jin ZiXuan, shoulders hunching. “I…”

 

“This is the fierce corpse?” asked Jin ZiXuan.

 

“I am,” whispered Wen Ning.

 

“He can understand you,” snapped Wen Qing. 

 

“Ning-Ning Uncle!” A-Yuan reached out for him. And it was such a strange sight, the corpse’s pale fingers reaching out and grasping the squirming, living toddler. A-Yuan chortled, clapping his palms against Wen Ning’s face. 

 

The corpse bowed his head to them. “Young Masters Jin.” He turned and left. 

 

“He is conscious,” said Wei WuXian. “Don’t treat him like a thing.”

 

“That’s—astounding,” Jin ZiXuan said, pinching his hair. “Good grief.”

 

And our father is the most astounded of all. So astounded he’s having Xue Yang try to replicate him with dozens and dozens of innocents. Mostly street children, people from brothels, little versions of him. That knowledge probably hadn’t escaped his father. Or maybe it had. Maybe he had forgotten it.

 

“Oh, forget it!”

 

To his father, he was an it. Jin GuangYao wanted to scream. 

 

Wei WuXian cocked his head. “I can’t tell if that’s a compliment or insult.” 

 

Jin ZiXuan rolled his eyes. “Maiden Wen, we are here to request your help.” 

 

She folded her arms, scowling. Jin GuangYao wondered if she might have a staring contest with Madame Jin sometime. He’d pay to see it. “No,” she said. 

 

“No?” Jin ZiXuan’s shoulders slumped.

 

“No, as in it isn’t possible, or no as in you’d rather not?” Jin GuangYao asked.

 

“The latter.” She batted away a fly, her sculpted face turning to him. “What would I gain from it?”

 

Jin GuangYao scowled. “Is that really what motivates a doctor?”

 

“Never,” said Wen Qing, balling up her fists. “My goal is always to save. But you’re asking me to save a man who allowed my brother to be killed, my cousins, my—and he’d do it again. Why wouldn’t I want him to die?”  

 

“Because you’re not bloodthirsty,” said Jin GuangYao. “And because Jin ZiXun is a vindictive person drowning in his own need to prove himself, and he believes Wei WuXian is behind this curse. It won’t be long before he acts. He can’t be reigned in.”

 

Wen Qing started. Wei WuXian cursed. “You’ve already done enough for my sake—”

 

“No,” said Wen Qing. “Why would he even accept my help?”

 

“We might not tell him about it until it’s too late. I can knock him out,” said Jin ZiXuan. “And then he’ll owe you. And I will owe you. The—the Jin Sect as a whole.” He bowed to her.

 

Huh? Peacock? What are you doing? Jin GuangYao gaped. Wei WuXian actually stumbled again. 

 

“We were raised together. His parents are gone. He—he’s not a kind person, but he—he was always told that he was lesser than me, when in truth we pushed each other to do better. I succeeded because of him, and he—still gets treated like he doesn’t matter, and I—” Jin ZiXuan shook his head. “He wants to prove himself to my father. He’s desperate to. It’s no excuse, but I will—try to make steps so that he doesn’t have to prove himself to me. And to close down his abuse of the Wens.” He squeezed his eyes shut. “I will be better than my father!” 

 

If you get the chance… 

 

Would you be? Jin GuangYao gaped at him. 

 

“You will not make steps,” Wen Qing said. “You will do it.” 

 

“I will,” Jin ZiXuan mumbled. 

 

“Is that a promise?”

 

“Mn.”

 

“Come with me.” She stepped forward, skirts swishing. 

 

A few hours later, and both Jin ZiXuan and Jin GuangYao left with bottles in their arms, bottles that they had to make both Jin ZiXun and Su She drink on the same day. When Jin ZiXuan had asked if he was really sure he knew who had cast it, and how he could make the person do it, Jin GuangYao told him the person owed him a life debt.

 

“If Jin ZiXun hurts any more Wens, he’ll answer to me,” Jin ZiXuan added.

 

“What about your father? What do you think he will think of your new merciful Wen policy?” Jin GuangYao asked. 

 

Jin ZiXuan frowned. “I have to start stepping up as a future sect leader. He’ll listen.”

 

He won’t . Jin GuangYao bowed his head. “What if he doesn’t?” 

 

Jin ZiXuan hesitated. “I can never tell with you, A-Yao. Do you want him to praise you, or do you despise him?”

 

Jin GuangYao bit his lip. He must have been acting so different, different enough to be noticed, after he returned. “I—” He wrung his robes. “He will not notice me. You said it yourself. He doesn’t even acknowledge Jin ZiXun, his nephew, of good birth.” 

 

Jin ZiXuan regarded him, silver light odd against the golden motifs of the Jin Sect. He nodded slowly. “I’m sorry.” 

 

Huh

 

He mounted his sword and took off for the Jinlintai, Jin GuangYao following. 

 

Congratulations! the System chirped as the cool night air splashed his face. He almost tumbled off his sword. You have unlocked the new side quest: befriend Jin ZiXuan.

 

What? 

 

“No time to waste,” Jin ZiXuan said as they landed, taking one of the flasks. “I’m going to shove it down Jin ZiXun’s throat right now. You…”

 

“I’ll shove it down his,” Jin GuangYao promised. “I’ll come to your chambers when it’s done.”

 

Jin ZiXuan nodded, taking off. The golden beams of dawn, braiding in and out of magenta and mandarin, spread across the sky. Parts of the jeweled clouds almost looked like a speckled fish swimming in blue water, like the ones Mother used to point out to him in YunMeng. 

 

He hastened to the MoLing Su Sect, pounding on Su She’s door. When he saw who it was, Su She dropped immediately into a bow. “Young Master Jin!” Pure hope saturated his voice.

 

There was no time for pretense. Jin GuangYao held out a flask. “Drink this.” 

 

“Huh?” Su She grasped it. “What for?”

 

“It’s going to heal Jin ZiXun if the two of you drink it on the same day. You know, of that curse you cast.” 

 

Su She turned gray. He squinted against the sunlight. “You… know?” His lips trembled.

 

“Yes,” said Jin GuangYao. “I know.” He stepped forward, hands on Su She’s shoulders. “Su She. Please. I seldom ask you for favors, but I—” Well, yet anyways. “I need you to trust me right now. There are other ways to make him see how wrong he was.” He’s just like Jin GuangShan in that regard, he’s his own worst fear, and he can’t even see it!  

 

“How? I’m not talented enough, I’m not—” 

 

“You are my friend!” Jin GuangYao cut in, grasping Su She’s arms and peering into the man’s eyes. He knew using the word— friend —the word he didn’t really mean, would accomplish his task. “Am I not enough?” 

 

We all just want to be enough . A lump ached in his throat. Why? Why aren’t we? 

 

Su She drew in his breath. He snatched the bottle and gulped it down, shivering as if it was bitter. 

 

The System immediately clanged. Congratulations! You have successfully completed the task of saving Su She and Jin ZiXun: phase one. Now, phase two begins.

 

Phase two? Jin GuangYao was ready to cry. Why was the System so merciless?

 

Phase two: saving them from themselves. Remember, redemption is not a solo effort. Additionally, because of your cruel lie, you can either forfeit 100 B points or actually befriend Su She. 

 

Did he have a choice? The latter. 

 

“Thank you,” Jin GuangYao managed. 

 

“No need to thank me; we are friends ,” Su She said, eyes still glowing with that term. 

 


 

 

When he returned to the Jinlintai, he headed to tell Jin ZiXuan the good news. Unfortunately, he ran smack into Madame Jin on the way there.

 

The woman shoved him. He tumbled down the stairs—thankfully not stairs to the Jinlintai. “What do you think you’re doing up here?”

 

“Jin ZiXuan—asked me to—come see him,” Jin GuangYao managed. He pulled himself to his feet, every joint aching. His sleepless state made everything hurt worse. “We had—”

 

“A night hunt? Is that where you were?” she sniffed as she marched down the stairs. “I don’t know what you’re up to, Meng Yao, but I know that whatever it is, it isn’t good. You think by getting closer to my son, his goodness will rub off you? All that will happen is his light will make your pitch-black filth more and more obvious. And you know that, don’t you?” She towered over him.

 

He gave a quick bow and turned to scuttle away, all the while knowing it was futile. System— 

 

She has 95 anger points. Would you like to use one of your self-saving bonuses? You will still have two left, and all your wit to rely on besides. 

 

Do it!

 

Her words lacerated him. “You’re determined to smear your filth on us all here, aren’t you? Taking him to the Burial Mounds! You won’t rest until everyone’s reputation is as soiled as your mother’s—” 

 

He wanted to scream, block his ears, shout that she shouldn’t dare blaspheme such a good woman. But all he could do was bow his head before her again, absorbing the words. I went to save your nephew!

 

Her hand shot out, striking his forehead. He flinched. Her nails had scratched his skin. 


“Telling your wife I beat you—ha! It’s evident that whore didn’t, or else you’d know your place!” 

 

It was true. Mother had never once laid a finger on him, sitting him down and talking to him when he stole makeup for her or yelled at someone. The other prostitutes, the pimps, the customers—they beat him enough. 

 

“You’re trying to stir up trouble between my husband and his best friend, aren’t you? Now Qin Su has her father involved—”

 

Oh, shit . He felt sick.

 

“You good-for-nothing, sleazy, conniving son of a bitch!” She knocked him back into the stone wall with surprising force. His skull struck. Stars snapped and sizzled in front of him. Two stars grew brighter and brighter, one black, one white. 

 

“Are you a man? Get up?” she shouted, kicking him. “You don’t get my pity for cowering like a worm, you—” 

 

“What do you want from me?” he burst out. The words tasted bitter and unstoppable, scraping his mouth as they streamed out without control, frenzied and stabbing. 

 

She froze. “Excuse me?” 

 

He’d never talked back to her before. “Wh-what do you want from me? To have never been born? I’m sorry, I had no choice in the matter.”

 

Her demeanor snapped, and he instantly knew he wasn’t leaving with less than a broken bone. “You insolent—” 

 

He had to try. The System’s bonus didn’t seem to be working. “Why—why do I have to—is it so bad of me to try to find a place even if—”

 

“You’re the one who defines yourself by your birth!” She dragged his head up by his hair, tossing his hat to the floor. He yelped. “You’re the one who reminds me each and every day! Don’t you get it? ZiXuan is all I have , and you want to take that from me too! You—”

 

“Madame Jin!” came a scandalized voice from the white star. 

 

Jin GuangYao blinked. He focused, rubbing the blood from his eyes. No . His breath hitched. He’d really done it now. Was this the System’s way of saving him? How— 

 

Lan XiChen stood there, aghast, ShouYue gripped in his white-knuckled hand. Nie MingJue stood next to her, face purple. 

 

Da-Ge’s going to kill me! You’ve made it worse! So much for being a good man. Now he was yelling at a woman. Her fist was still twisted in his hair, scalp stinging. 

 

“A-Su wrote to us on a nearby night hunt, telling us there was a problem,” Lan XiChen said. “Madame Jin, what are you beating him for?”

 

“He took ZiXuan to the Burial Mounds, to deal with that—that—”

 

“Your daughter-in-law’s brother?” demanded Nie MingJue. “Why?” 

 

It took a moment for Jin GuangYao to realize the question was directed at him. And he could not tell Nie MingJue that it was to ask help from a Wen. “Jin ZiXuan wanted to invite Wei WuXian to his son’s one month celebration. He wanted to repeat it in person, take the opportunity to smooth things over. He—I went with him because I was concerned it wasn’t safe—”

 

“Don’t lie! You’re never concerned with anybody except yourself!” shouted Madame Jin. “Please—” Her knuckles tightened on his hair, as if she wanted to tear his scalp off. “If you hurt my son—”

 

“Is Jin ZiXuan hurt?” Lan XiChen asked.

 

She hesitated. “No, but I—” 

 

“Madame Jin, please let go of him,” Lan XiChen requested, eyes darting towards Jin GuangYao in fear. “His wife is close to having a child. He—”

 

She let out a bitter laugh. “Of course. You men, you control everything!” She shoved Jin GuangYao back to the floor, turning and stalking off, boots clicking against the floor.

 

Control… 

 

You just want to matter, too? Even you? 

 

Did it matter? She was still hurting him to matter. His arms shook. Why do I have to suffer for your pain? 

 

“A-Yao.” Lan XiChen crouched, helping him to his feet.

 

“You shouldn’t have come,” he mumbled. “Now there will be trouble—my father will—he’ll kick me out, he will, for causing his wife to be—” He clutched Lan XiChen’s shoulders, half-rambling, hysteria tightening around his throat. “I’ll have no place to go!” 

 

“He will not kick you out for that,” scoffed Nie MingJue. “She was in the wrong.”

 

Huh? Jin GuangYao gaped at him. You aren’t blaming me

 

“I know you said she didn’t like you, and I figured this happened on occasion, but—is it really frequent? And so public?” asked Lan XiChen. His fingers traced the bruise on Jin GuangYao’s forehead. 

 

“This time was the worst.” He avoided their eyes. It was true, but he wanted them to think otherwise. He wanted them to sympathize with him. Because each and every time I hate it! I come out bleeding, and I’m not sure how much blood I have left to lose! So much for assuming he could be friends with Jin ZiXuan. So much for assuming he could redeem himself.

  

He didn’t realize he was crying until Lan XiChen pulled him into his shoulder, wrapping an arm around him in an embrace even though he would be leaving tears and snot and blood on Lan XiChen’s white robes. He struggled, but Lan XiChen held him tighter. 

 

Nie MingJue said nothing, but his face was troubled. Lan XiChen helped him clean his face when he calmed down, using his robes again and giving Jin GuangYao a look that suggested he better not protest. Jin GuangYao accepted his help, heart thumping. “A-Su wrote to you?”

 

“She did,” confirmed Nie MingJue. The two of his brothers escorted him towards his chambers. 

 

Jin GuangYao desperately scrambled to find something to tell his sister. When the door opened, though, he forgot it all.

 

She was hunched over, kneeling on the floor, gagging. Her face was red, and she sat in a pool of pink-tinged fluid.

 

“A-Su!” Jin GuangYao broke into a run. “You’re in labor!” Wait, no, it was too early! RuSong was supposed to be born in another week, not now! Did that mean something was wrong? It was supposed to be fine for babies to come early, but he couldn't think of why RuSong would. Am I being punished? “It’s too early, it can’t be today!” His hands shook.

 

Would RuSong die anyways, just in childbirth this time? Would that help me redeem myself? How? 

 

“I’m scared,” A-Su eked out, clutching his shoulder. “A-Yao, A-Yao, I’m—I don’t want—I can’t bear it; it hurts so much—” 

 

“I’ll get help.” Lan XiChen scrambled out of the room. 

 

“Your face,” she choked out. “You’re—”

 

“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s really okay.”  Last time, she had gone into labor while he worked for Jin GuangShan, only found out when he was told hours later. He had vomited while waiting, so anxious about meeting a child he was afraid would be a deformed monster.

 

This time, he knew he wasn’t. And he knew RuSong was a victim of his.

 

No!

 

You are the monster.

 

No!

 

“Xue Yang told me Madame Jin was pissed—that she would probably attack you again when you got back—so I—” She panted. “I wrote to Father and to your brothers—” 

 

“You talked to Xue Yang?” He wanted to protect her from such a man!

 

“Of course!” She cringed. “A-Yao, I don’t understand—I don’t—don’t leave me, don’t leave me, oh god, it hurts—” She screamed into his shoulder.

 

Jiang YanLi joined the midwife. Madame Qin arrived within a few hours, and Jin GuangYao had to pace outside. 

 

I want them to be fine, System. 

 

It was silent.

 

Useless! You’re useless, System! I want them to be fine! I need them both to be fine! Even RuSong—A-Su—she’s scared, don’t—   

 

Lan XiChen, Jin ZiXuan, and Nie MingJue sat with him. Jin ZiXuan brought A-Ling, who entertained them until he got fussy. And then Jin ZiXuan left, but not before squeezing Jin GuangYao’s shoulder as if in comfort and encouragement.

 

Maybe we can be friends. Jin GuangYao was getting a headache trying to predict his brother’s actions. 

 

“She will be okay, A-Yao,’ Lan XiChen assured him.

 

“You can’t know that.” He wrung his hands. 

 

“I—”

 

“She won’t be. Because of me.” It burst out of him, the words fermented and nauseating. He covered his face, dropping to the ground, unable to even keep standing. How was he pacing moments ago? 

 

“A-Yao,” Lan XiChen said. “It’s—”

 

“You heard Madame Jin,” said Jin GuangYao bitterly. “Everything I touch becomes—poisoned, bad—our baby—” I doomed him. I doomed him! She’s not wrong! I killed him! Even if I don’t this time, I’ve doomed him! 

 

System, why not put me before I married her? 

 

He wanted to flee, stab himself and run just like before. But Nie MingJue towered over him. Jin GuangYao could sense his presence even as he huddled on the floor. 

 

“Don’t you believe that, A-Yao,” Lan XiChen said, grasping his temples, forcing him to look at him. “Why would you believe what she says? You’re the hero who helped us win the war. You want to be a good man? You already are!” 

 

Jin GuangYao flinched. Nie MingJue surely was reciting the names of the men he’d slain in the palace right now.

 

“You’re a good husband, a good brother from the sound of things, a—” 

 

I’m none of those things. I want to be good, but the harder I try, the faster I sink . “They say—my mom was rotten, that she—they’ll say the same to our son...” Only after he said it did he realize it wasn’t a good idea to reveal he already knew the child’s gender. But neither of his sworn brothers appeared to pick up on it. 

 

“A-Yao.” Lan XiChen rested his hands on Jin GuangYao’s knees. “My mother was a murderer.” 

 

“What?” Nie MingJue sounded shocked. 

 

Lan XiChen didn’t hang his head. He didn’t curl in on himself like a coward would. He met Jin GuangYao’s eyes. “My mother… you should know that my father usually meditated in seclusion and never interacted with the rest of the world too often. Throughout all these years, the Gusu Lan Sect has been taken care of by Uncle almost single-handedly.” He swallowed, finally squeezing his eyes shut. “The reason that my father often practiced secluded meditation was my mother.”

 

Jin GuangYao reached out, fingers encircling Lan XiChen’s wrists. Last time, it had been another year or so until Lan XiChen told him, apologizing for not telling him sooner. And it had just been the two of them on a night hunt, both sitting on a single tree, Jin GuangYao perched up higher but the moon behind Lan XiChen as he looked up at Jin GuangYao and told his story.

 

There was no moonlight inside the Jinlintai. 

 

Lan XiChen cracked his eyes open again. “When my father was young, when he returned from a night-hunt once, he saw my mother outside of Gusu city.” He smiled. “I heard that it was love at first sight.”

 

Like A-Su with me. He had saved her. 

 

“However, the woman did not care for him as much. In addition, she killed one of my father’s teachers.”

 

“What?” demanded Nie MingJue. “What would—how—”  

 

“I do not know. But, I assume that it was something along the lines of ‘grievances.’ And then,” Lan XiChen explained, “When my father heard of this, of course he was in much pain. But, no matter how he struggled, he still took the woman to his sect in secrecy. Ignoring the objections from his clan, he knelt with her for the Heavens and the Earth without making a sound and told everyone in the clan that she would be his wife for the rest of his life, that whoever wanted to harm her would have to pass through him first.”

 

Jin GuangYao gulped. 

 

“After the ceremony was completed, my father found a house and locked my mother inside. He found another house and locked himself inside. It was called secluded meditation, but it was in truth to repent.” Lan XiChen bowed his chin towards his chest. “Do you think that this was right?”

 

Jin GuangYao couldn't answer. Last time, last time—Lan XiChen hadn’t even asked.  

 

“There was no other way,” said Nie MingJue. “But justice demanded—” 

 

“No,” said Jin GuangYao. “No, it was not right.” 

 

“Then, what do you think would be right?” Lan XiChen pleaded. 

 

Saving her means setting her free. That is not a life. He just shook his head, pretending to be too distraught to give an answer. 

 

A while later, Lan XiChen whispered: “It could be said that my father did this without a care for anything else. All of the seniors of the clan were enraged, but they had all watched him grow up. They could not do anything except guard the secret, hint to the outside world that the wife of the Gusu Lan Sect’s sect leader had an unspeakable disease and could not see others. After WangJi and I were born, we were immediately taken out to be cared for by other people. When we grew older, we were brought to Uncle to be taught. My uncle… has always had a frank personality to begin with. Because of how my mother caused my father to destroy his own life, he began to hate those who behaved improperly even more. Thus, he poured his heart into teaching WangJi and me. He was especially harsh as well. Every month, we could only see Mother once, inside of this cottage.”

 

Once a month? Jin GuangYao still jerked at the detail he knew, a detail that never ceased to hurt him. 

 

“Everytime WangJi and I went to see her, she had never complained about how tedious it was locked inside of here, unable to go out one step. She had never asked about our studies, either. She especially liked to tease WangJi, but WangJi, the more you tease him the less willing he is to talk, the worse of an expression he puts on. He has been like this ever since he was young. However, even though WangJi never said it, I knew that every month he was looking forward to the day he could see Mother. He was like this, and I was the same. But one day, when I was eight, Uncle suddenly told us that we would not need to go any longer. Mother was gone.” He gulped. “I do not know why she did such a thing back then. And, in truth, I…” He took in a deep breath before confessing: “Do not want to know either.”

 

Jin GuangYao didn’t know what to say. 

 

“I love her,” Lan XiChen whispered. “We two suffered for our mothers’ sins, A-Yao. My mother—she chose, somehow, for some reason—yours did not, did she? We are—I’d like to think we are that least—something that made them happy.” His voice came out a plea. 

 

“Er-Ge…”

 

“Do not call yourself damned because of your parentage,” said Lan XiChen. “Or else you’ll be calling me the same, mm?” He smiled, though his eyes were red-rimmed. 

 

It’s because of what I’ve done. 

 

It’s because of who I am that I did what I did, right? Or is it?

 

RuSong… do you think he will have a chance, then? Even with parents who are siblings?

 

He nodded. “Da-Ge, your mother—”

 

“I don’t know much about her. She died when I was two. I can’t even remember a face.” Nie MingJue sounded rather lost. “HuaiSang’s mother, on the other hand—she was fun. She died birthing him, though.”

 

“Maybe not the story for right now,” Lan XiChen said in alarm. 

 

Jin GuangYao struggled to his feet, pulling Lan XiChen up with him. “Let me guess. Did you decide to raise HuaiSang to be the best he could be to honor her?”

 

Nie MingJue’s lips twitched as if in a smile. “Correct.” 

 

You did a terrible job. But Da-Ge was smiling at Jin GuangYao, and so Jin GuangYao made himself smile back.

 

“A-Yao!” Another cry. He whirled. The cry was—squeaky, shrill, and— 

 

Madame Qin hurried towards him, blood on the hem of her robes, but a smile on her face, a real smile, the kind he had never once seen before in either life, not from her. She grasped his arms. “You have a son!” 

 

And—you’re happy about it? Even knowing what you know? “He’s okay? She’s—” Jin GuangYao asked.

 

“Yes, yes, they’re both well!” She clutched his hand, pulling him along. He caught a glimpse of Lan XiChen and Nie MingJue both smiling. 

 

My son… A-Song.

 

A whore’s grandchild, and a rapist’s. 

 

A monster’s son, born of an immoral union in more ways than one.

 

A-Su was beaming, joy radiating from her face like it hadn’t since the night they first made love. She handed him a squirming bundle, and Jin GuangYao remembered last time, how he cried in sorrow and everyone assumed it was tears of joy. He cried, because he did not want to allow his heart to grow close to the baby, did not want to feel his son’s small heart beating under his thumb, a heart that should not by all the laws of nature be brought into existence. He cried, because he wanted to kiss him anyways, because he wanted to love him, because he could never hold Jin Ling but his son, his son was his, and he was an abomination, and he had never been able to mend the split in his mind.

 

Even now, he didn’t know what to do. He was holding the baby, warm and soft, wrapped snugly in a blanket. His hand supported the head. 

 

The baby’s eyes cracked open, and Jin GuangYao saw himself reflected there, yellow and black. The baby wailed. 

 

You don’t deserve to live. That’s what they say.

 

Fuck them. You must live. 

 

If it’s wrong, then I don’t want redemption. Don't make me choose, System, don’t you dare. He clutched RuSong towards his chest. 

 

Last time, he vowed RuSong would enjoy all the comforts of life he could while he lived, vowed that his death would at least matter , would accomplish something.

 

Can his life, living it, accomplish something anyways? System? 

 

The System wishes to tell you: congratulations

 

Chapter Text

I cursed you. 

 

Even so, Jin GuangYao clutched A-Song close to his chest. Even so, he wanted to protect the boy. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

 

Nie MingJue had even smiled at him. Had he smiled last time A-Song was born? Jin GuangYao didn’t remember. Lan XiChen kept playing with the baby, letting him spit up across his white robes without a complaint. 

 

You’re really good with babies.

 

Father refused to hold A-Song, but Jin ZiXuan held him instead. He definitely hadn’t last time. Jiang YanLi and Qin Su seemed to enjoy chatting, which also definitely hadn’t happened in his past life. The System rewarded him with points for their friendship. 

 

Father also had come back with Mo XuanYu, younger than he had been when Jin GuangYao remembered him entering the Jin Sect in the past life. He doubted that Mo XuanYu’s sudden falling into favor was merely coincidentally around the same time RuSong was born, but what could he do? What sparked his anxiety? He still has two heirs left before me! Three, if you count A-Song. He knew his father couldn’t have truly cared for Madame Mo. So, why had he brought him so early? 

 

Wei WuXian attended the one-month ceremony, everyone got along except for when Xue Yang threw a public hissy fit, and Father told Jin GuangYao in no uncertain terms that he did not want Wei WuXian to darken his threshold again.

 

Jin GuangYao threw himself into work, avoiding Mo XuanYu, trying to use his budding friendship with Jin ZiXuan to extract himself from Xue Yang’s antics with the corpses. It was years earlier than last time, but he brought up the lookout towers, suggesting them as a way to prevent another Wen Sect, as a way to prevent the demise and abuse of innocent common folk. When Jin ZiXuan asked him why he was so invested, he told him what he’d only ever told Lan XiChen in his past life: a man attacked my mother, despite her being a merchant’s daughter. Her family cast her out, said she was ruined. So she sold herself into prostitution because she did not want to die. Mother never told him that herself, but her friend SiSi had. SiSi had been only thirteen when she started at the brothel, more of a big sister than an aunty to Meng Yao. 

 

“That’s not right,” Jin ZiXuan told him, stunned. “She did nothing wrong—why did they—”

 

He shook his head.

 

Jin ZiXuan scowled. And a few days later, he brought up the lookout towers with their father, and he gave Jin GuangYao credit, asked him to explain the plans. “I give A-Yao my full support in this.”

 

And because Father wouldn’t want to criticize his precious golden son, he acquiesced. So easily. Jin GuangYao was surprised. The System kept doling out small points for his friendship with Jin ZiXuan and taking them away for the whitest of lies. 

 

“He wants to talk to you,” Xue Yang said, bored, one day about six months after A-Song’s birth. 

 

“Who?”

 

“Your other brother. The little one. I think he thinks you’re handsome.” Xue Yang cackled.

 

Jin GuangYao’s stomach cramped. He glared. How? I haven’t been remotely nice to him!

 

“He’s a cut-sleeve,” Xue Yang said confidently, wiping his bloodied sword on his pants. “I can tell. See the way he walks?” 

 

“Don’t spread rumors. He’s soft, that’s all. Nie HuaiSang—”  

 

“I mean, comparing him to Nie HuaiSang literally makes my point.” Xue Yang grinned nastily. He held up his now-shimmering sword. “Time to get to work.”

 

“Actually,” said Jin GuangYao. “Could you not—” It was still years before Xue Yang’s massacre of the Chang Clan, and he was going to prevent it this time. He was. He just wasn’t sure how much influence his favor with Jin ZiXuan afforded him. That was the problem: he’d died too soon for Jin GuangYao to have nailed down his quirks and tendencies, his limits and hopes. 

 

“Don’t insult someone of Jin blood. You don’t think we all know you’re trash?” Jin ZiXun landed in front of them.

 

Oh, come on ! Jin GuangYao gritted his teeth. 

 

“Excuse me?” Xue Yang’s eyes sparked.

 

You both are equally awful! “Xue ChengMei, go to work,” Jin GuangYao said, realizing he was sentencing the people he’d intended to spare that day to death after all. Why isn’t there a way to spare everyone?

 

You must not die. Jun Wu had warned him. If he asked for help, he’d be executed for his crimes, even if he had helped people escape. Maybe he should just kill Xue Yang. 

 

The System beeped. Murder is— 

 

I know, I know

 

Xue Yang scowled, but he stomped off across the grounds. 

 

“ZiXun, do you need something?” Jin GuangYao asked, keeping his tone pleasant. He watched as Mo XuanYu hung back from the other cultivators, arms wrapped around himself. The boy squatted towards the dirt, digging his fingers into it. 

 

“Yes,” said ZiXun. His breathing came harsh. A bee buzzed around his face and he batted it away, swearing when it stung him. He clutched his hand. “Look. I know—ZiXuan told me you were the one who knew a doctor who made that potion, the one that—well, you know.”

 

Saved you? Jin GuangYao arched his brows. Mo XuanYu pulled up his hands, painting some of the dirt on his face. 

 

“Anyways,” said Jin ZiXun. “I suppose I owe a life debt to him, this doctor, and to you, and I wanted to know who they are.” His lips puckered like owing anybody was the worst of humiliations. Try being kicked down the Jinlintai. 

 

Jin ZiXuan must not have revealed that the perpetrator also had to drink the potion, or else Jin GuangYao was quite certain Jin ZiXun would try to throttle it out of him. Jin GuangYao made a mental note to thank his older brother. 

 

A Wen dog . He was sure that would not go over well, even if ZiXuan was advocating more for them. He still seemed scared to cross his father too much, though. 

 

An idea formed in Jin GuangYao’s mind. The System had been relatively quiet about whatever “phase two” of saving Su She and Jin ZiXun was, but he hadn’t forgotten. “His name is Su She.” 

 

“What?” Jin ZiXun blinked. “Who’s that?”

 

“He’s not a doctor. He’s a cultivator,” said Jin GuangYao. “Formerly of the Lan Sect. He’s started his own Su Sect now. He owed me a favor. He likely wouldn’t want praise—” He’d die for it. “Since I told him I wouldn’t tell. But he probably needs favors to build his sect.” There. A way to keep Su She and Jin ZIXun happy and not killing each other. “His talent is less, but he is loyal.” 

 

The System deducts 5 B points for a lie, however well-intentioned. Total points: 967. 

 

Don’t care. 

 

Jin ZiXun nodded slowly. “Well, I suppose I’ll pay him back with gold.” He nodded. “Thank you, Jin GuangYao.” He bowed.

 

Bowed? In respect? He’d never done that before. Jin GuangYao gaped as his cousin strode away. 

 

He almost laughed. He couldn’t imagine Su She’s face when Jin ZiXun showed up with gold for him. 

 

Mo XuanYu glanced back at him, hearing the laugh. He smiled and waved. And his expression—it was so hopeful that Jin Guangyao waved back.   

 

Jin Ling’s one year ceremony approached then, and Jin ZiXuan had to go and invite Wei WuXian again, insisting Jiang Cheng deliver the message and announcing it publicly. Jin GuangShan humphed and stormed off. When Jin GuangYao met with him, he warned: “it can happen. But this must be the last time.” 

 

Well, at least it seemed like everyone might actually survive Jin Ling’s first year. 

 

Of course, then Xue Yang had to go and ruin everything. 

 

Jin GuangYao was tending to a fussy A-Song, letting A-Su sleep and trying to pretend he wasn’t desperate to squeeze the chubby baby as much as he could, nuzzling his head and breathing in his soft baby scent, when ZiXuan burst into his quarters, panting. 

 

“Xue Yang massacred the Chang Clan!”

 

Jin GuangYao almost dropped his son. Now? Now? Why so early ? “That's not possible!” 

 

“There’s a ruckus, all the clans are coming—” Jin ZiXuan cursed. 

 

“I’ll wake A-Su and give her A-Song,” said Jin GuangYao. “And I’ll be right there, ZiXuan-xiong.”

 

Jin ZiXuan nodded. “Thank you, A-Yao.” He heaved a sigh—of relief? That Jin GuangYao would be there? “You know, you don’t have to keep calling me—I mean, you can call me Ge-Ge, if you want.” Jin ZiXuan’s face was bright red again. “I mean—”

 

Is it really so hard for you to be vulnerable? But he couldn’t laugh. Jin GuangYao felt sick. I caused your death in a past life! 

 

Still…

 

The System awards you 100 B points for achieving a new level in your friendship with Jin ZiXuan!

 

He nodded. “Okay. Ge-Ge.” He was quite certain ZiXuan had told his mother never to strike Jin GuangYao again, because she hadn’t laid a finger on him since A-Song’s birth. He deserved to be given what he wanted, right? 

 

This was worse than the last time, Jin GuangYao instantly realized. Because Xue Yang was more than happy to laugh in the middle of gathering cultivators here for a one year celebration. Wei WuXian even showed up during Xiao XingChen’s laying out of the evidence. Nie MingJue was furious, just like last time. The words were the same.

 

Is it fate? Was there something I should have done to prevent it? 

 

You could have told about your father’s deeds, or warned the Changs.

 

I couldn’t have! They wouldn’t have listened, and my father—I’d never get to redeem myself if— 

 

Wei WuXian’s face was incredulous. Jin GuangYao cast him a silent glance. You were right not to come for a trial last time.

 

You better be careful. He could see Jin GuangShan’s mind whirling, what he was thinking. If there was a way to pin this on Wei WuXian, he absolutely would. 

 

It ended much the same way, and Jin Guangyao wilted. At least this time he hadn’t defended Xue Yang like before. Though Father’s eyes lacerated him, and Jin GuangYao was sure his position was more precarious than it had been before this day. 

 

At least, with Jin ZiXuan asking him to call him Ge-Ge , he had another option.

 

Of course. Why didn’t I see it last time? 

 

Because he still hoped, but now, he knew. There was no hope, not for him, not for his father to care. 

 

Is it my fault they are dead? 

 

You could have done more. Xue Yang chose to swing the blade, the System replied. But it did not deduct points.

 

He buried his face in his hands. Lan XiChen’s hand landed on his shoulder. “Are you all right?”

 

“I’m fine, Er-Ge.” He plastered a smile on his face, bright and convincing to most, even to Jin ZiXuan, but not to his two sworn brothers. 

 

Lan XiChen sighed. “It’s not your fault.”

 

Oh, but it is . The best thing to do was assure that Xue Yang was indeed executed as soon as possible. Nie MingJue would be appeased by the blood of the boy, at least. If he acquiesced to his father’s requests, Xue Yang would escape, slaughter Song Lan’s clan, cause Xiao XingChen to pluck out his eyes. 

 

But how? He’d have to work on Jin ZiXuan. It shouldn’t be hard to convince him—and perhaps even Jin ZiXun now—to execute Xue Yang.  

 

Why do I get a second chance, and he doesn’t?

 

You cannot save everyone and more than you can have everything. Others still choose.

 

Jin GuangYao wasn’t pleased. He glanced among the crowd, more somber than normal, but still celebrating Jin Ling. Wei WuXian presented his nephew with a new beautifully carved talisman, even fancier than the one he gave him for his one-month celebration. 

 

Su She appeared, spotting Jin GuangYao and heading towards him. But before he could get very far, Jin ZiXun called out to him: “Su She!”

 

Su She’s face blanched, but Jin ZiXun had pounced as if he was an old friend. Jin GuangYao had to disguise his laugh with a cough. At least the delight of being identified in a crowd was evident in Su She’s eyes. 

 

“How is fatherhood?” Lan XiChen asked eagerly. 

 

Jin GuangYao turned to him, smirking. “It’s tiring,” he said honestly. “A-Song cries a lot at night. And he—” A lump formed in his throat.

 

I can’t protect him.

 

Can I at least save him? Please.

 

“I’m afraid for him,” he managed, meeting Lan XiChen’s eyes. “I’m afraid he will suffer. I’m afraid I’ll hurt him, even if I don’t want to. I’m afraid—” He curled his fist, pressing it to his lips. 

 

“I think that's fairly normal, A-Yao,” Lan XiChen assured him. “It means you care. And that you love him.”

 

My circumstances are anything but normal. He bowed his head. I love him so much. I really do. 

 

Why did I choose my father over him last time? 

 

Nie MingJue came over to him, a frown searing his face. Jin GuangYao stiffened. “I’ll make sure the sentence is carried out, Da-Ge.”

 

“Hmph.” Nie MingJue didn’t protest. 

 

“HuaiSang seems to be befriending your brother, A-Yao,” Lan XiChen observed.

 

He spotted Mo XuanYu grasping one of HuaiSang’s fans, examining it and grinning, chattering away like a child much younger than he actually was. He opened the fan and HuaiSang gestured, explaining the art.

 

“Oh dear,” said Jin GuangYao. 

 

“Why?” demanded Nie MingJue. “He seems a nice kid. Don’t tell me that after how your mother was treated, you judge—”

 

And just like that, the reminder that Nie MingJue hated him slapped the joy from his chest. “Why do you have to always assume the worst of me?” Jin GuangYao demanded. His voice cracked. 

 

Lan XiChen stepped between them again. 

 

“He is nice, but he’s—not very serious about studying,” Jin GuangYao said. And he’s a cut-sleeve and I recognize the look he’s giving HuaiSang. He did not want to imagine Nie MingJue’s expression if Mo XuanYu seduced HuaiSang. He’d surely be blamed for it. “Look, Er-Ge. WangJi seems to be enjoying himself—oh, no, he’s no good with babies.” 

 

Lan XiChen chuckled. Jiang YanLi had been letting Wei WuXian hold Jin Ling, Jiang Cheng even unable to keep a smile from his face as Wei WuXian cradled the boy. And then Wei WuXian had given the baby to Lan WangJi, who looked completely terrified as opposed to his normal stoicism. 

 

“I see his feelings are still the same as ever,” Jin GuangYao added.

 

“Pardon?” Nie MingJue asked.

 

Jin GuangYao swallowed. “For Young Master Wei.”

 

“I don’t follow.”

 

Of course you don’t. You have the emotional capacity of a brick. Jin GuangYao met Lan XiChen’s eyes. “He doesn’t view him as a scourge despite his reputation. Everyone needs that person.” He’s also in love with him and wants to fuck him. 

 

And Er-Ge, that’s what you are to me. He hoped Lan XiChen understood what he meant. Despite his distance, despite how he knew Lan XiChen stabbed him— I can’t blame you .  

 

Nie MingJue frowned at him. Lan XiChen’s brow furrowed. “Are you saying—that WangJi—” 

 

“Forget I spoke,” he said quickly. He hadn’t counted on Lan XiChen not having an inkling—the man was always so sensitive to his brother— how could you not know until he attacked you? I presumed— 

 

“Are you suggesting something unrighteous in WangJi? The man has never—” Nie MingJue began. 

 

Of course, now Nie MingJue would assume he was impugning the honor of their brother’s little brother, a man of whom nothing unrighteous could be said. As expected as the son of a whore. Jin GuangYao stepped to the side. 

 

“No. You don’t get to scurry away like a rat,” Nie MingJue said, blocking his way. “You’d do best to bite your tongue; Lan XiChen’s been nothing but the most tolerant and even indulgent of you, and yet you start a rumor—”

 

“Da-Ge, that’s not it at all,” Lan XiChen cut in. “Please, don’t chastise him. He was jesting.” 

 

You don’t want to know.

 

You don’t want to know WangJi. You didn’t want to know your mother. You don’t want to know me.

 

Because we are wrong.

 

“A-Yao, don’t go,” Lan XiChen said. “You’ve been so distant lately; I can’t—” His eyes searched Jin GuangYao’s, anxious. 

 

It’s fine. Isn’t that what you want to hear? But he wanted to pry open his jaw, vomit out the truth, even just part of it, wanted Lan XiChen to hold him. He couldn’t hate him, not even now. He held Lan XiChen’s arms. “Er-Ge, don’t worry.” He forced another smile. “I—can’t tell you certain things now. I ask you to trust me.” 

 

His next task was figuring out what to do with the corpses  after Xue Yang was executed. His father—would Jin ZiXuan really forgive him if he exposed Jin GuangShan? Maybe he ought to frame it as protecting their father… he was dense enough to buy it. 

 

“What happened?,” Nie MingJue demanded. “This Xue Yang—I heard you were working closely with him. Were you negligent, or—”

 

“Da-Ge, please,” Lan XiChen said. Jin GuangYao was shaking his head, unable to speak.  

 

“A-Yao!” Qin Su wove through the crowd. Of course, she’d noticed that he was in trouble and was coming to save him. A-Song was nestled in her arms. “Catch!” She shoved the infant into his arms. Nie MingJue instantly stormed off, and Lan XiChen turned back to more pleasant topics. 

 

Jin GuangYao huddled behind his child, trying to quell his quaking. You set me up for failure, System.

 

The System set you up for either failure or success. 

 

What are the odds I can still redeem myself?  

 

The System will tell you the odds after a challenge tonight. 

 

A challenge? Jin GuangYao almost swore, but he didn’t want to sully A-Song’s ears. He brought his son to their chambers, A-Su following. He removed his waistband, setting the belt and HenSheng down and then settling the infant in his cradle, A-Song drifting off to gumming on his daddy’s finger until he drifted off to sleep. Jin GuangYao extracted his hand and turned around to see Qin Su sitting on their bed, hair loose and cascading down her shoulders. 

 

A silk robe drooped off her shoulder. Her makeup was still flawless from the celebration, and she still wore earrings despite the golden hairpins being set aside. She leaned forward, exposing her chest. 

 

Shit. 

 

This was a cruel challenge. He gave a small smile. “I’m tired, A-Su.”

 

“Too tired? Are you sure?” She got to her feet, sashaying over to him. He almost laughed at her gait, and she giggled. “It’s been almost a year, A-Yao. We only had to wait a few weeks. I wouldn’t be surprised if A-Li and Jin ZiXuan have a second little one on the way soon…” 

 

He pushed her away, gently. “I am tired.” His tone was light, face pleasant, but his words firm. 

 

Instead of accepting it like the past life, Qin Su actually flinched. 

 

“A-Su—”

 

“Is it because my body looks different? That’s because of your child. Or is it—didn’t you want to marry me? Once we were married, you lost all interest—but you didn’t even sleep with me until we were engaged—I don’t understand, A-Yao, I really don’t. I don’t need you to want to do it all the time, but—did I do anything, or—” Her lip trembled. 

 

Was this how she felt both times? Or had something changed? Why was she telling him this time? 

 

“I was patient throughout my pregnancy, but you barely look at me anymore, A-Yao.” 

 

“We talk,” he protested. “About—”

 

“Cultivation, and strategies, and I appreciate it, you know I do, but that’s not enough for me. I don’t want to be celibate, A-Yao. I love you. I want to show it to you with my body. Why—is there someone else, or—” Her eyes filled with tears. 

 

“No!” Jin GuangYao protested. “Never, never, A-Su, I promise. I’ll be faithful to you. I have been, and I—it’s not you, it’s just that—I struggle to—”

 

“You do not struggle to get it up,” said A-Su, reaching out and poking between his legs. 

 

Shit . Shame filled his cheeks. How could he still be aroused, knowing who she was? I really am disgusting. 

 

“So it’s me,” A-Su said, voice wobbling. She turned from him, arms wrapped around herself. “I am—not what you want.” 

 

“No!” He didn’t want her to feel rejected, be a laughingstock— never! “It’s not you— I’m the disgusting one, A-Su!”

 

If he slept with her… no . This was a challenge. He would not fall. 

 

“Not to me! Never to me!” She grabbed his face. “Did I do something? I—”

 

“A-Su, I’m not your husband!” 

 

She froze, her hands on his face, and then slowly they drifted down. She took a step back. “What?” 

 

He didn’t know what to say. I can’t. This can’t be happening. He wanted to vomit. “Let’s sleep.”

 

“No!” She grasped his elbow. “What are you saying, A-Yao? We—we married, we consummated it beforehand, not after, I understand, but—we have a son—I’m your wife, you’re my husband, I don’t understand! Is there something more you want us to do? I’ll do it, I—”

 

You deserve so much better than me . Her eyes were streaming now, and his were too. He shook his head. “Trust me?”

 

“No,” she said, and his heart crumpled into a thousand pieces. “Explain. Right now.”

 

His mouth opened. He couldn’t find the words. A ghastly moan emerged. No wonder Shen QingQiu hadn’t wanted to tell Luo BingHe the truth. Even if they love you… I’m so scared. 

 

“What?” she demanded.

 

“Your mother,” he said. “Before our wedding invitations went out. After—right after you told me about A-Song. She came to me. She told me to break off the engagement.”

 

A-Su’s brow creased. “She would not! She helped me through A-Song’s—why does her opinion matter more than mine?” 

 

“My beast of a father raped her.”

 

A-Su froze. 

 

It streamed from him now, poisoned, boiling. “He was drunk, and you—you—are—his. And so I’m your brother, you’re my sister, A-Song shouldn’t exist, and I—” 

 

A crack. 

 

She slapped him. He stumbled back.

 

“Don’t you dare say A-Song shouldn’t exist!” she screamed. “You—you can’t be—”

 

He met her gaze, not even trying to hold in his tears. Yes.

 

“You didn’t… you—” She clutched her scalp. “I’m a product of a crime—my mother—no wonder, no wonder, my father—no, no, no!” She let out a wail, stumbling. He went to catch her and she shoved him away, knees cracking against the wood. She gagged, and then gagged again, bile streaming from her lips. Jin Guangyao pulled her hair back.  

 

“I wish I’d never met you,” she choked out, and despite remembering those words, despite knowing they were earned, Jin GuangYao still flinched. 

 

“A-Song might be—children who are born to close—”

 

“Shut up,” she ground out. “Don’t speak—you don’t have the right to—oh, god ! It can’t be, it can’t be, why did you marry me?”

 

“What was I to do?” Jin GuangYao cried out. “Our—”

 

She was still crying, now too hard to speak. Her mouth gaped, agony ripping from her. “A-Song—”

 

“He—”

 

“Is all I have. Will you—you did it for your father’s—”

 

“No! I didn’t know!” She couldn’t really think that, could she? “We’ll be the laughingstock of the world if it gets out—I’ve spoken to your mother, she understands—” 

 

“You don’t get to make my decisions for me! That’s what got my mother in this place, your bastard father deciding to make a decision for her—” 

 

“It’s not the same! Don’t you dare compare me to him!” he shouted. Could that really be what she thought of him? He was nothing like that man! He wanted to protect her! It wasn’t that he didn’t care about her, but that he cared too much!

 

She froze. And then she laughed, bitter. A-Song began to wail. Jin GuangYao turned, heading towards the cradle. He had to take care of A-Song. For redemption. 

 

If she hated him, what even was the point? He reached for his son. Baby, baby, what do we do? 

 

A strange sound. A sheathing shriek. Metal. For a moment he stood in a forest, dressed in Wen clothing. His hands closed around air, A-Song still crying. 

 

Jin GuangYao whirled. 

 

HenSheng.

 

Removed from his waistband. 

 

In her hands.

 

And the blade was driving towards her stomach.

 

“A-Su!” he screamed, lunging across the room. 

 

Warmth splashed against his hands. He felt things collapsing around him, but it was just him, his knees hitting the floor, his hands weighted down with her, her, her. 

 

Red. 



Chapter Text

A scream wafted through the air. His throat burned. He grabbed her, grabbed his sword—no, no, he shouldn’t pull it out, if he pulled it out she might bleed to death—at least it wasn’t the soul-trapping dagger of Wen RouHan’s this time, right, right?  

 

He tried to give her spiritual energy, the meager bits he had. His hands shook. He could hear A-Song screaming too, two disjointed cries from father and son. A-Su gasped as her skin paled. 

 

He needed help. He wasn’t enough, he didn’t have the proper medical knowledge, he needed— A-Su, A-Su, do I disgust you so much? —he couldn’t leave her even to get help; she’d die if he stepped away— 

 

The door flew open. Two figures barrelled in, drunk and flushed. Mo XuanYu and Nie HuaiSang. 

 

HuaiSang took one look and whirled around, running out to “don’t know.” Mo XuanYu shrieked, and then rushed towards him. “Jin GuangYao!” 

 

“Get away!” He was hysterical. He was gagging. She was still breathing. “I—”

 

“Put pressure on it,” Mo XuanYu shouted, kneeling beside A-Su, her blood staining his robes. 

 

“I didn’t mean to,” Jin GuangYao panted. “She—stabbed herself, why, why, I don’t—you can’t go, A-Su—” I need you!

 

I won’t forgive myself if you die! Not this time! You’re good! You’re good!

 

Footsteps. People crashed through the doorway. Nie MingJue, brought by his brother. Lan XiChen with him, WangJi too. Wei WuXian and Jin ZiXuan, Jiang YanLi holding A-Ling, Jiang Cheng. 

 

Just like last time she died: everyone there, everyone watching.

 

No! He screamed again. “You can’t die!” 

 

“Get back!” Arms wrapped around him. Wei WuXian, wrangling him back, away from her. Nie MingJue, Jin ZiXuan, and Lan WangJi knelt around A-Su, all of them delivering spiritual energy. Jiang Cheng examined the wound. 

 

It was to a vital area. There was no hope, was there? 

 

With a chill, Jin GuangYao realized what it must look like: his weapon protruding from her abdomen. He knew instantly what Nie MingJue would be thinking. Fuck!

 

“A-Yao.” Lan XiChen crouched in front of him, clasping his bloodied wrists in his clean hands. Wei WuXian’s grip relaxed. “What happened?”

 

He wanted to lie. But…

 

Chances of Lan XiChen believing the truth if told to him: 100%. 

 

Of course. “We had an argument—she was sick—A-Song started to cry and I turned to get him, and when I looked back she had—she was—she tried to kill herself.” Jin GuangYao sobbed. “It’s my fault, I never wanted her to—I left HenSheng out, I didn’t think she—” 

 

“A-Yao, A-Yao, it’s okay.” Lan XiChen peered into his eyes. “It’s going to be okay.”

 

“It isn’t—she—” 

 

“She’s alive,” said Lan WangJi, turning to them, face somber. 

 

Jin GuangYao shook from head to toe. “She needs a doctor—it hit her in a vital spot; if we pull it out, I don’t know if you can stop the bleeding.” He crawled forward. “Even a doctor can’t really—save her, I don’t think.” His voice broke into sobs again. 

 

Jiang YanLi was sobbing. Wei WuXian was trying to comfort her. Mo XuanYu stood by helplessly. Nie HuaiSang held A-Song, soothing him. 

 

Nie MingJue met his eyes. “What did you fight about?” he demanded. 

 

A wave of salted hatred stirred inside of Jin GuangYao, brine singeing and stinging. He glared. “Are you blaming me? Go right ahead. You probably think I wanted her to do this, left the sword out for her, don’t you? You’ve always been intolerant of me!” 

 

“A-Yao!” Jin ZiXuan gasped.

 

Nie MingJue’s face swelled purple. “Why would you assume that I'm blaming you?” 

 

Fuck . Now he’d ruined his relationship with Jin ZiXuan too. Jin GuangYao slumped. Lan XiChen held him upright. “He’s distraught, Da-Ge.” 

 

Nie MingJue heaved a sigh. 

 

“Of course.” Jin ZiXuan reached out, and Jin GuangYao felt his hand on his shoulder. “We’ll get her the best care, A-Yao.” 

 

“She can’t die,” he repeated. But she will. 

 

“If only there was one of the world’s best doctors nearby,” said Wei WuXian. “Who might just be able to remove a weapon from a lethal area and keep her alive.” He folded his arms.

 

Are you serious? But— 

 

Jin ZiXuan almost snorted. His fingers massaged Jin GuangYao’s shoulder. “What do you say, A-Yao?”

 

“We can’t transport A-Su,” Jin GuangYao managed. “And to have Wen Qing come here—” 

 

“Wen Qing?” demanded Nie MingJue. “That Wen dog, the one who was favored by Wen RouHan?” His hand drifted towards BaXia.

 

“She’s already helped us out of one bind,” retorted Jin ZiXuan. “We are not excusing her role in the war, but she committed no atrocities that we know of, and she saved my—someone’s life.” He swallowed.

 

You are a terrible liar. Jin GuangYao could have laughed if he didn’t feel like a millstone was resting inside his chest, crushing his lungs and his heart with them. He wheezed. Lan XiChen rubbed his back. 

 

Jiang Cheng scowled, but he said nothing. 

 

“I will go,” said Lan WangJi, straightening. Blood streaked his white robes. “Brother, I can accompany Wei WuXian and smuggle Wen Qing back here. I’ve been to YiLing before.”

 

“I will go with you,” said Jin ZiXuan instantly. 

 

“No, A-Cheng should,” cut in Jiang YanLi. “ZiXuan, I need you to help. We’ll care for A-Song in the meantime, A-Yao. I have milk to feed him, and he’ll be safe with us.” She wiped at her eyes. Jin Ling wailed.  

 

Jin GuangYao trembled. “If we tell Father—if he hears that my sword is what she used—”

 

Jin ZiXuan’s face paled. “A-Yao, he won’t think such a thing. I’ll vouch for you.”

 

“You can’t possibly think he won’t.” Jin GuangYao craned his neck, meeting his brother’s eyes.

 

“If you’d stop acting so guilty, maybe no one would think it,” Nie MingJue retorted.

 

“Da-Ge!” shouted Lan XiChen.  

 

“He adores her,” shot back Jiang YanLi, and even Nie MingJue wouldn’t dare speak back to such a sweet lady whose defense Jin GuangYao knew full well he did not deserve. “Don’t antagonize someone who’s just seen their wife harm herself! That is unacceptable!” 

 

“I-I didn’t mean to imply that!” Nie MingJue sputtered. “I was only saying—that his father would—I know he wouldn’t hurt her!”   

 

“Sect Leader Jin will have a hangover tomorrow,” said Wei WuXian. “Don’t give me that look, ChiFeng-Zun, we all know it. By then, if Wen Qing is able to complete the surgery, we’ll smuggle her back to YiLing undetected. She can heal Qin Su physically, at least.” He blew a loose strand of hair away from his lips. 

 

It’ll take more than just physical healing. Jin GuangYao covered his eyes, moaning in anguish. 

 

Lan WangJi turned to Wei WuXian. “Shall we fly?” 

 

“Didn’t bring SuiBian; I can—” 

 

Lan WangJi grabbed him around his waist, hoisting him up onto BiChen. 

 

“Lan Zhan!” Wei WuXian squawked.

 

Jiang Cheng grabbed Sandu, marching outside onto the balcony with them. They took off, the three of them fading into the moonless night, Wei WuXian’s bitter protests with them. 

 

“Hmph,” said Nie MingJue. “Maybe that’ll be a lesson to Young Master Wei to bring his sword with him. His arrogance will get people killed.” 

 

Oh, shut up. You have to be better than everyone around you, do you? You’re the arrogant one! The morally arrogant one! “I think it’s clear his spiritual powers are inhibited,” said Jin GuangYao.

 

“He… told you this?” asked Nie HuaiSang, watching. Mo XuanYu huddled next to him. 

 

Jin GuangYao shook his head. “Do you really think he would turn down a chance to show off his power if he could still use his sword?”

 

Jin ZiXuan sucked in his breath. 

 

“Is it true?” asked Lan XiChen. To Jiang YanLi, like she would know. And she definitely did not.

 

I could tell everyone the real truth. But he wouldn’t. Not yet. 

 

“I… don’t know.” She looked helpless. “Neither of my brothers mentioned a thing.” 

 

Jin GuangYao’s hand reached out, taking Qin Su’s. Jin ZiXuan and Nie MingJue were still pooling spiritual energy into her, keeping her heart pumping, her chest rising and falling with air. And Jin GuangYao began to cry again. I never wanted you to be hurt.

 

“Don’t die,” he whispered. “You have to live. You can hate me if you want, A-Su, but you have to live. For A-Song. Live for A-Song; he’s lucky to have a mother like you.” 

 

No matter his parentage, no matter the wrongness that knit him together in your womb, you love him.

 

Lan XiChen poured spiritual energy into Jin GuangYao as well. He shook his head. He didn’t want it, and he didn’t deserve it. His entire frame shuddered. 

 

Dawn peeked out from behind the clouds, Qin Su’s skin tone had sunken to the color of milk, and Jiang YanLi had long since taken A-Ling and A-Song back to her chambers when there came a clatter. Lan WangJi and Jiang Cheng had landed, Wei WuXian staying back in the Burial Mounds. And hidden with Jiang Cheng was a small, buxom woman. Nie MingJue’s eyes narrowed the moment he saw her.

 

Jiang Cheng and WangJi had clearly told her what happened. She hoisted a rattling bag with her as she hurried towards A-Su. She crouched, taking her pulse. “You did well with the spiritual energy.”

 

Nie MingJue huffed. 

 

“We’ll need more of it,” she said. “To keep her alive during the surgery. If anyone still has some, stay.”

 

“I do,” said Lan XiChen. “WangJi—”

 

“I will stay. I promised Wei Ying that I would not leave Maiden Wen alone, anyways.” He stepped forward. 

 

“Everyone else, you’ll have to get out,” Wen Qing ordered. Her gaze landed on Jin GuangYao. “What happened?” 

 

“We had a brief argument. She stabbed herself when I turned away,” he recited. “It’s the truth, I swear it. I’d never hurt her.” 

 

“I believe you,” she said. “Though, you must have hurt her. Sometimes words do far worse damage than swords.” She turned back to Qin Su. 

 

Jin GuangYao’s shoulders slumped. Lan XiChen squeezed his arm. He was the one person Jin GuangYao trusted to make sure Qin Su survived if at all possible. “Don’t let her die, Er-Ge. Please.”

 

Lan XiChen’s fingers brushed his chin. “I won’t.” 

 

And hope bloomed. 

 

Jin ZiXuan helped Jin GuangYao to his feet, staggering outside his chambers. Mo XuanYu followed, brow creased and blood caked on his robes. Nie HuaiSang wrung his hands.

 

“HuaiSang, clean yourself and head back to rest,” Nie MingJue ordered. “Young Master Mo, do likewise.”

 

“We cannot attract attention,” Jin ZiXuan added. The two younger men hurried to obey. 

 

“What,” said Nie MingJue, turning to Jin GuangYao. “Did you say to her?” 

 

“Leave him be,” said Jin ZiXuan, stepping in front of Jin GuangYao. 

 

“It’s our business,” said Jin GuangYao tightly. “Not yours. If you’re asking whether I had an affair or disrespected her in any way, the answer is no .” 

 

“No one would think that of you, A-Yao. Your conduct and character is too compassionate,” Jin ZiXuan chimed in, glaring at Nie MingJue.

 

Jin GuangYao’s eyes swam. “Thank you, GeGe.” 

 

Nie MingJue looked as if the name had slapped him. He blinked, as if trying to realize why Jin ZiXuan and Jin GuangYao had become so close. 

 

What are her chances, System?

 

Of surviving the surgery, 89%. Of survival, 58%. The part after the surgery depends on you.

 

They’re that high? 

 

The immediate relief was replaced by a storm. She will still want to die when she emerges

 

He wilted. He wished he was compassionate. Isn’t this just about me? Don’t I just want to survive? 

 

“Thank you for tolerating a Wen,” Jin ZiXuan said quickly, smoothing things over. “I know it’s for A-Yao’s sake.”

 

Don’t pretend he cares about me enough to do that. He just thinks about the right thing. 

 

“Jin GuangYao!” A shout echoed.

 

Oh, fuck! He turned. Su She hurried towards him, eyes bloodshot from alcohol. Jin ZiXun was next to him. What, is he a parasite you can’t get rid of? “We ran into Mo XuanYu and Nie HuaiSang—I heard your wife—” 

 

“She’ll be okay,” Jin GuangYao cut in. “A doctor is treating her. A good one.” He had to believe that. Don’t leave me. 

 

“Which doctor?” demanded Jin ZiXun. “Young Master Su should help, considering his skills.”

 

Su She looked nauseated. “I’m not accustomed to healing injuries such as this, Young Master Jin.” His eyes searched Jin GuangYao’s, as if begging for a way out. 

 

Jin GuangYao had nothing to offer him. He barely had the strength to stand. 

 

His skills?” scoffed Jiang Cheng. “Aren’t you the one who tried to fight Jin ZiXuan and Lan WangJi to hand over that poor girl to Wen Chao to slaughter in the Cave of XuanWu? I doubt Su MinShan has skills that aren’t underhanded and cowardly.” 

 

“Aren’t you the one who told Wei WuXian he should have let all three of them die to spare your parents and sect?” retorted Jin GuangYao.

 

Jiang Cheng blanched. Su She shot him an appreciative glance. Jin ZiXun folded his arms. 

 

“I don’t know who told you such a thing, but you had better never repeat that again,” Jiang Cheng said, voice steely. 

 

Jin GuangYao avoided Da-Ge’s accusing glare. You told me in a past life, when you were drunk and A-Ling was only five, Jiang WanYin.

 

“So what is it exactly that makes you think Su MinShan is such a talented doctor?” Jiang Cheng asked, digging. “Surely the great Jin ZiXun couldn’t have needed help so desperately—” 

 

Fuck you! 

 

“Sect Leader Jiang, why are you antagonizing him?” demanded Jin ZiXuan. 

 

Because I jabbed the wound that has never healed . And Jiang Cheng knew Jin GuangYao’s weakness too. We are both unsettled, scared, trying to balance. 

 

“The curse of a hundred holes,” Su She said quickly. 

 

“There’s a way without killing the caster?” asked Nie MingJue, eyes widening. 

 

“Indeed,” said Jin ZiXuan, tilting his head to the side, eyes narrowing. Su She tugged his robes up, though they were already tightly fastened. Clearly Jin ZiXuan had figured out just who had cast it now. 

 

“That Wei WuXian—” Jin ZiXun balled his fists. 

 

“It wasn’t him,” insisted Jin GuangYao again. 

 

“Well, it was definitely one of the Wens, then.” 

 

Su She was looking greener and greener. 

 

“Truly?” Nie MingJue scowled. “Wen Qing is—”

 

That’s the doctor?” Jin ZiXun unleashed his sword.

 

“Wait, cousin!” Jin ZiXuan grasped SuiHua, not unsheathing it yet still blocking his cousin’s blade. “She needs to save Qin Su. Please, you can’t leave A-Song motherless.” 

 

“Wen Qing did not curse you,” Jin GuangYao cut in, heart thumping. He didn’t have HenSheng, but he wouldn’t hesitate to fight this bastard if Jin ZiXun tried to burst in on the surgery. He’d knock him down the Jinlintai first. She is my family! 

 

“Then ask Wen Qing to tell which of her infernal relatives did it,” said Jin ZiXun. “Until I know who did, I’m still in danger—I—”

 

“Are you so insecure in your skills?” Jin ZiXuan asked. “Trust in them, cousin. You’ve always been good—”  

 

Jin GuangYao couldn’t help it. He laughed. Su She shrunk.

 

“What is funny?” snapped Nie MingJue. 

 

“You can’t see who cursed you?” asked Jin GuangYao. “Very well, then. I’ll tell you.” The laughs kept coming, bubbling up inside him like sickening hiccups. He shook. Su She looked as if he was about to run. Jin ZiXuan opened his mouth as if to protest. “It’s you . You, Jin ZiXun. You cursed yourself.”

 

Jin ZiXun recoiled. “I did not! How—”

 

“You cursed yourself with your arrogance and your rudeness, the way you treat other people whom you see as lesser. And whether or not they’re lesser depends on how they respond to you, whether they acknowledge you or not. Is it any wonder you pissed off the wrong person eventually? It wasn’t Wei WuXian, it wasn’t Wen Qing, but I’m sure they’d like to buy a jar of Emperor’s Smile for whomever did!” Jin GuangYao glared.

 

Nie MingJue’s mouth hung open. 

 

“You—” 

 

“It wasn’t me either,” Jin GuangYao cut in. He yanked at his robes, exposing his chest. “Do you see any rebounding marks? No, you don’t care about evidence. You only care about your petty grudges and not what disasters you might unleash with them!” You got so many killed in the past life!

 

I got so many killed!

 

You made me unforgivable!

 

I was always unforgivable. 

 

“I saved you for the sake of the Jin Sect, not for your sake,” said Jin GuangYao. “To me, you’re as insignificant as a buzzing fly. How does that make you feel?” 

 

Su She’s face crumpled. Jin GuangYao wondered if he was capable of guilt. Jin ZiXun’s face twisted in rage, in terror.

 

“I’m glad you’re alive,” said Jin GuangYao. “Because you’re not worth the lives it would cost if you were to die.” 

 

“At least I’m not the son of a prostitute,” spat Jin ZiXun.

 

“Stop it, both of you!” shouted Jin ZiXuan. “I mean it. Both of you—A-Xun, A-Yao, you’re the two people I trust most, don’t—” 

 

You trust me.

 

You really trust me that much . The shame clawing at him was almost too much to bear.  

 

“A-Yao, making A-Xun bleed isn’t going to heal Qin Su,” said Jin ZiXuan. “These kinds of wounds aren’t solved by wounding the caster. And even that—we found a better way, remember?”

 

Huh? Jin GuangYao blinked. You can think that deeply? He lowered his head. “I apologize.”

 

Jin ZiXun stormed away without another word. 

 

“Watch your back,” commented Jiang Cheng. Su She lingered, face ghastly gray, fingers trembling as he clutched at his hair. 

 

“So much for being compassionate,” Nie MingJue said, the barb cutting at Jin GuangYao’s bones. He stumbled.

 

“Sect Leader Nie, please,” interjected Jin ZiXuan. 

 

“Jin ZiXun does need to learn that if he keeps demanding such honor and tribute from everyone, he’s going to back himself onto more terrible precipices,” Jin GuangYao managed.

 

“A-Li says there are better ways for someone to learn than cruelty,” Jin ZiXuan offered.

 

Jin GuangYao lifted his gaze, meeting his brother’s eyes. He saw his own reflection in them. 

 

Mother certainly had never hurt him, not even once. She never relied on cruelty. The brothel owners, though, each night, dragging him by his hair, stuffing him in hiding while she worked, slapping him, and then the other children in town, the way he learned, so young, that stabbing himself in a nonlethal place would give people enough sympathy to feed a dying boy who wasn’t dying at all.

 

Life is cruel.

 

But not to Jin ZiXuan, right? Although, had he not been cruel to Jiang YanLi at first? And that got him… what, exactly, besides Jiang Cheng and Wei WuXian’s hatred? 

 

Lan XiChen had been brought up by Lan QiRen, beaten for the smallest of infractions, harsh, strict, punished for their father’s love and their mother’s sins. And still he was gentle, mild, kind.

 

I can learn from Er-Ge and GeGe. 

 

Nie MingJue looked confused. Jin GuangYao gave a nod. 

 

“I agree,” Su She cut in, puffing out his chest. “Kindness—goes a long way.” 

 

Jin GuangYao thought of Shen Jiu, of Yue QingYuan answering his barbs not with retorts, but with a gentle settling down beside him, staying close. 

 

Jin ZiXuan narrowed his eyes. “And what exactly makes someone beyond deserving it?” His voice contained a thinly veiled threat. 

 

Su She bowed his head. Nie MingJue still didn’t seem to get it, but Jiang Cheng definitely realized what Jin ZiXuan was implying about Su She, letting out a “pfft.”  

 

Jin GuangYao swallowed. “I’ll apologize. Not that he’ll forgive.” 

 

Jin ZiXuan shrugged. “He’ll have to get over it.” 

 

“He holds grudges.”

 

Su She wandered off, and Jiang Cheng took that moment to clarify: “So it was him ?”

 

“Huh? It wasn’t the Wen dogs?” asked Nie MingJue.

 

Neither brother confirmed, silently agreeing to stay silent.

 

“Then justice—” Nie MingJue began.

 

“What justice is it to kill someone who might respond well to mercy?” replied Jin GuangYao. “Jin ZiXun did not die. Su She is not a delinquent who needs harsh discipline like Xue Yang.” His stomach cramped. Oh right, I have to execute Xue Yang. Soon. 

 

“You spared Su She because he admires you,” Nie MingJue accused.

 

“And?” cut in Jin ZiXuan. “What’s the matter with that? For all A-Yao contributes, he has very little respect here. And for someone who’s supposed to be his da-ge, you seem to hate him, as if you hold a grudge, too.”

 

Nie MingJue’s eyes popped. His mouth opened and closed. Jin GuangYao was willing to bet no one had ever talked to him like that before. 

 

The door opened. Lan XiChen emerged. Jin GuangYao started to shake, but Lan XiChen grasped his arms, steadying him, looking him in the eyes: “Wen Qing said to tell you that she’s going to make it.”




Chapter Text

When the surgery finished, Jin GuangYao rushed into the room. Bloody cloths were cast to the side, a strange hollowed-out tube stained crimson, and bandages wrapped around A-Su, who was asleep. Sunlight drifted down, glistening against her skin. 

 

Wen Qing rinsed stained hands in a small bucket of water. Lan WangJi leaned back against a wall, face impassive. 

 

Jin GuangYao couldn’t even speak. Jin ZiXuan had already departed to make an excuse for Jin GuangYao. Jiang Cheng, too, had left. He turned to Wen Qing, Nie MingJue and Lan XiChen flanking him. “Th-thank you.” 

 

You were turned into ash last time. I watched it happen. I watched your serene face turn into— 

 

Wen Qing snorted, flicking water off her fingers. “The surgery was the easy part.”

 

“What?” demanded Nie MingJue.

 

“I didn’t realize you spoke to Wen-dogs,” she retorted, her eyes cold as she took in Da-Ge. She might be small, but she looked larger than he did in how she stood. “Anyone who will attempt to take their life has a long road ahead of them. The physical healing is easier than healing the mind, the soul. We can’t see those wounds, but they’re no less real.” 

 

“What do I do?” Jin GuangYao managed. He wanted to rush over, hold A-Su’s hand. But she was disgusted by him. What if he made those wounds worse, made them fester?

 

“Listen,” said Wen Qing. “It hurts. You don’t know why fierce corpses are filled with resentment and pain? It’s because their souls are hurt by death.”

 

Jin GuangYao’s stomach twisted as he thought of all the corpses now left to tear each other apart in the Jinlintai. 

 

“You speak of your brother, Maiden Wen?” questioned Lan XiChen. He kept his grip on Jin GuangYao’s elbow, supporting him. 

 

“Hmph.” Wen Qing snorted, getting to her feet and grasping a clean towel, drying her hands. She didn’t answer, but Jin GuangYao could see the pain in her eyes, the way her lips pinched.

 

“I’m sorry for what we Jins have done to you,” Jin GuangYao managed. “You—still helped us. I can never forget that.” And he more than remembered what the Wens had done to—to so many. Things that made Xue Yang look like a child. 

 

Nie MingJue tch’d in disgust, turning on his heel.

 

“Would you rather I was dead?” called out Wen Qing. “Yes, I’m talking to you, Sect Leader Nie. What is so disgusting to you about me, or my brother, that you believe we ought to be dead? What sins have we committed beyond being born where we were?”

 

Oh dear. Jin GuangYao shifted. Lan XiChen cringed, grip digging in. 

 

“You could have spoken up.” 

 

“I’m doing that now.”

 

Jin GuangYao almost choked. 

 

“When it mattered! When you were privileged!”

 

“And risked my brother’s life? Wen RouHan was too clever to kill me, you know that. He would target the ones we love. I promised my parents to protect A-Ning with my life.” Her voice trembled. “What would you say to do then? What is honor, then? Breaking a vow to my deceased parents? Risking—”

 

Nie MingJue’s eyes flashed. “If your parents would want you to trample on the—” 

 

“If I may,” Lan XiChen intervened. “Shall we leave this room? We ought to let A-Su rest; the tension can’t be good for her.” 

 

“Thank you, Er-Ge,” whispered Jin GuangYao. 

 

Wen Qing nodded, striding out onto the pavilion. Nie MingJue stomped after her, never one to turn down a chance to belittle a Wen dog and make sure they knew their place. And Wen Qing seemed ready to let someone have it. Lan XiChen grimaced and hurried after them. 

 

“Go,” said Lan WangJi to Jin GuangYao. “I will watch over Qin Su.” 

 

“You should have trained your brother to be strong, then,” Nie MingJue was insisting, squinting against the sun that shone from behind Wen Qing. “Your own weakness—”

 

“‘Should have,’” mocked Wen Qing. “A coward’s answer.”

 

Nie MingJue drew himself up. Jin GuangYao almost laughed. He’d never heard anyone call Da-Ge a coward before.

 

“You don’t think I know should haves, Sect Leader Nie? I know them more than you. You won your war. I tried to save whoever I could. Sometimes I made the wrong call when treating them, and they died or lost limbs. I avoided the war as much as I could, but how can I change the name I was born with? Fate—” 

 

“Then fight your fate!” Nie MingJue shouted. 

 

“Da-Ge, please keep your voice down,” pleaded Jin GuangYao. 

 

Wen Qing gaped up at him. “Is that not what I’m doing now? Living in YiLing with the elderly, the children, the maimed? My brother—my good, sweet brother—he was the most talented among archers, you know. But he fought not a single battle, only ever saving lives. He may be dead, but he lives. What is that, if not fighting fate?” She was not yelling, but her voice carried a sharp hiss to it, the words wrapping like guqin strings around Nie MingJue. 

 

“You—demonic cultivation is indecent, always—”

 

“You have a little brother, don’t you? If someone had beaten him to death, if the Wens had won the war and let you live, and they took your brother—what would you do? Accept his death?” 

 

“I would kill them all,” Nie MingJue ground out. But his skin held a green hue, as if HuaiSang’s death was something he couldn’t remotely comprehend. Jin GuangYao knew how he loved his brother. 

 

“And then they would kill you. You act as if death is an accomplishment. Do you hate your life so much?” 

 

Nie MingJue’s mouth fell open. “You foul—there are things worse than death!”  

 

“Answer me this,” Wen Qing said, glaring up at the much, much taller man. “What would you have done if Meng Yao wasn’t there when you were captured by Wen RouHan? Died?”

 

“Hey,” Jin GuangYao interjected. Please don’t bring me into this! 

 

“Yes,” Nie MingJue spat. “And died honorably.”

 

Wen Qing laughed, the sound shrill and dark. “You’ve seen death, Nie MingJue. You’ve seen it thousands of times, have you not? Your reputation precedes you. Honorable or not, from the lowest criminal to the soldier leading a charge on a battlefield, from Wen Xu to little children, they all piss and shit themselves. They leave a stench even before their corpses get a chance to rot. There are things worse than death, yes, I believe that as well. But it is so easy for you to say, when you have not died.” 

 

This tiny doctor had no fear, of that Jin GuangYao was certain. But he’d only seen such fearlessness a few times. The Nightless City, when Wei WuXian raised a flute to his lips. Wen RouHan, after losing his sons. 

 

You have nothing left to fear, because you have lost it all.

 

What could be worse than death beyond losing everything that made life worth living, losing your loved ones, living on what everyone as intelligent and realistic as Wen Qing must know was borrowed time? 

 

Nie MingJue took a step back, flinching as if she had slapped him. “I do not kill indiscriminately.” 

 

“Ah, they deserved to die. Again, the privileged’s defense. The defense I heard from Wen RouHan. Did you speak, then?” 

 

BaXia unsheathed. “Do not compare me to him!” 

 

Lan XiChen leaped in front of Wen Qing, unsheathing ShouYue. “Da-Ge! Calm yourself!” 

 

“If you value life so much, a saber spirit isn’t a good way to go about it,” Wen Qing snapped. “It’s a weakness Wen RouHan knew to exploit.” Her gaze flickered to Jin GuangYao’s.

 

She knows.

 

How did she know? Jin GuangShan hadn’t made such a request, hadn’t started closing the noose around Jin GuangYao’s neck just yet. But still, she knew what he would eventually want: the elimination of all who opposed him. You really are… smarter than us all

 

“You dare—”

 

“She’s warning you!” Jin GuangYao finally shouted. “She’s trying to help you, Da-Ge!” 

 

Lan XiChen gaped at him. Nie MingJue almost dropped BaXia. Jin GuangYao gulped. 

 

Warning me?” Nie MingJue asked.

 

“Of—a potential conflict.” Jin GuangYao wanted to vanish. System, what do I do?

 

Nie MingJue’s anger points: 666.

 

“Hypothetically,” he lied. How am I supposed to explain I know the future? 

 

“Do not lie!” Nie MingJue’s voice actually cracked. Lan XiChen, too, looked horrified. 

 

They’ll think I’m aware of a current plot on his life, and said nothing! Jin GuangYao’s mind spun. “Da-Ge, it’s not like what you’re thinking! It isn’t! There—” He swallowed. “Xue Yang. He’s awaiting execution, but I know my father. If he did not execute him right there, he plans to commute his sentence, and eventually let him loose. And he knows that will enrage you, he has to know. And he cannot abide you besmirching his reputation. So—”

 

“A-Yao,” said Lan XiChen. “You cannot be—has he asked you to—”

 

“No! And I would not!” This time, anyways. But if he was asked, what would he do?

 

Jin ZiXuan. He’d go to Jin ZiXuan. Would he believe me over his father?

 

He didn’t even need the System to give him an answer. He knew it, as clear as he knew Lan XiChen and Nie MingJue stood in front of him.

 

I trust him. Yes. Yes, Jin ZiXuan would believe me.  

 

“He already is plotting against Wei WuXian,” managed Jin GuangYao. “He doesn’t give direct orders. It’s all passive aggression. He’s already angry with me for allowing Wei WuXian to visit not just once, but twice. If he hears about A-Su’s condition—the only reason I’m still here is Jin ZiXuan’s favor.” His eyes pooled. “Help me, Da-Ge, Er-Ge, I don’t know what to do!”  

 

Wen Qing didn’t look surprised. Lan XiChen looked pale. 

 

“He’s just like Wen RouHan, just sneakier,” Jin GuangYao whispered. He hunched over. “Maybe I get it from him.” It came out a bitter laugh. 

 

He remembered Wen RouHan’s cruelty. He smelled the bitter blood, the acrid ash from the Fire Palace, heard the screams echoing around him, saw his own reflection in numerous irises and knew they saw a monster and the way they cursed him the way his knives worked scraping skin the way others obeyed him were afraid of him and he hated it and he knew he knew he knew he dreamed it would all be worth it if just but then— 

 

“A-Yao!” He felt an arm grab him. He jerked, stumbling. Spiritual energy, cool, flooded him. It chased away the grimy ghosts of the fire palace. He coughed. 

 

Wen Qing crouched in front of him. His knees were on the floor. Lan XiChen gripped his shoulders. 

 

“Has that ever happened before?” Wen Qing asked.

 

He shook his head. “Just—dreams.” He tried to breath. His chest felt constricted. “I was there again; it felt like I was there again—”

 

“It’s not uncommon,” Wen Qing told him. “Trauma. I see it. Those wounds I talked about, the ones no one can see.”  

 

“I’ll confront Jin GuangShan—”

 

“Fool.” Wen Qing smacked Nie MingJue on the head. His face twisted in offense. “You can’t win charging against a snake.” 

 

“So what, follow a crooked path myself?” Nie MingJue shot back. “I refuse!” He held a sheathed BaXia with both of his hands. “I will not follow the same path as the man who murdered my father!” 

 

Jin GuangYao jerked. Lan XiChen frowned. Above them, the sky deepened to a hearty indigo, clouds starting to pool with crimson beating as they crisscrossed in front of the sun. 

 

“He killed mine, too,” Lan XiChen said softly. “He wasn’t in good health, but he—and I wasn’t even able to be there with him.” He bowed his head, shame on his face.  

 

Jin GuangYao remembered when they’d received word that the Sect Leader of the Gusu Lan Sect had died. He turned to Lan XiChen, whose hands were shaking, and Lan XiChen’s legs had wobbled, and then he collapsed. Jin GuangYao caught him. 

 

“He would want me here,” whispered Lan XiChen. “But then I still—why do I still—”  

 

Jin GuangYao wrapped his arms around Lan XiChen as the man he so looked up to, the man who never once gave him an odd look even after he told him he was a whore’s son, the man who thanked him for saving him, the newest sect leader, shook, sobs wracking his chest. 

 

“He’s gone—he’s gone.” 

 

Jin GuangYao held him until he sobbed himself into an uneasy sleep. Tears slipped down Jin GuangYao’s face, too, even though he’d never met the man. He recalled when Mother died, how he clung to her, how he was scared.

 

“You’ll be all right,” she’d rasped to him. “Your father will take good care of you.” 

 

He still didn’t want her to be wrong, but she was, and that was the cruelest part of all. 

 

“What happened?” Wen Qing asked, her voice docile for once. “We heard rumors, and we heard Wen RouHan’s lies. We never heard the truth; if we asked, we would never get it.” 

 

Nie MingJue glared. “Don’t pretend to care!”

 

“I am a doctor. I care about these things. You don’t think I have seen qi deviations before? They’re horrific.” Wen Qing stared up at him. “They’re merciless, they’re tormenting, it’s like reliving everything horrible, but only you can see it, and you’re all alone. No matter how many loved ones surround you, victims can’t see them. It’s an agonizing way to go, and I wouldn’t even wish it on Wen RouHan, and I’ve wished an awful lot on that man.” 

 

Jin GuangYao swallowed. He remembered the hysteria, the rage, the spittle flying from Da-Ge’s lips. The panic in HuaiSang’s voice, genuine then, the anguished cry from Lan XiChen’s lips— 

 

Nie MingJue heaved himself down next to his two sworn brothers. He said nothing for a few moments. Jin GuangYao and Lan XiChen lowered themselves to sit, too. 

 

Wen Qing hesitated, and then sat across from him. “What happened?” she repeated. 

 

“No one suspected it,” said Nie MingJue. “He was excited to night hunt with me, told me I was doing well. And then—he was screaming, and drooling, and seeing things everywhere. He hacked a tree apart. He was undignified—he vomited, and he couldn’t recognize me.” He glared at Wen Qing like it was her fault. “I’d never seen a qi deviation before, only heard of it.” 

 

“Da-Ge.” Lan XiChen’s eyes brimmed with empathy. Jin GuangYao tried to imagine a younger Nie MingJue, helpless to help his father like he had been helpless to help his mother.

 

“I was… afraid,” Nie MingJue said. “I woke HuaiSang when we returned. He was only eleven at the time. I told everyone else to leave, that it had to just be me and him, and I sat on the edge of his bed and told him what happened, and he blinked and said, ‘but he’ll be all right, won’t he?’” Nie MingJue’s fingers tightened around his saber. “And I could not lie to him. I told him I didn’t know.” He heaved a breath. “But that was a lie to myself. I knew he wouldn’t be.”

 

Jin GuangYao hung his head.

 

“And HuaiSang—when Father died, I had to raise him. And I couldn’t do anything besides accept Wen RouHan’s sympathies knowing he was gloating about it, knowing everyone knew it, and there was nothing that could be done.” 

 

“So you had to pretend for a time,” said Wen Qing.

 

Nie MingJue jerked. “I did not pretend . Even if I couldn’t speak, he knew. I have never forgotten how a man who pretended to be a friend was plotting to murder my father for no reason other than petty jealousy over his cultivational strength. How could I ever forgive that?”  

 

“And he’s dead,” said Wen Qing. “Jin GuangYao slew him to save your life. Are you mad at him for doing what you weren’t able to?”

 

Jin GuangYao squeaked. Was she trying to make things worse for him? 

 

“He did what you couldn’t for your father?” Wen Qing continued. “Or is it that you think he is Wen RouHan? Because he is not. He’s warning you, right now, exactly of what you need to be aware of!”

 

“One might wonder why he is always around the most dangerous of people,” retorted Nie MingJue.

 

He cringed. Lan XiChen held him tighter, and he liked how it felt. Something warm slid through him in spite of the icy currents flowing around them. And then shame. He couldn’t feel this way! 

 

“Including you?” she countered. 

 

Nie MingJue’s face turned purple again. Jin GuangYao clutched Lan XiChen’s robes. 

 

“Why do you still cultivate with a saber?” Wen Qing asked. 

 

“Honoring—”

 

“And HuaiSang? You are terrified of that happening to him, Da-Ge,” Lan XiChen said softly. “You are so strict and yet so indulgent of him.” 

 

“You are not weak,” Wen Qing snarled. “You do not have to cultivate with a saber to prove your strength, to prove your devotion to the Nie Sect, to prove your love and respect of your father. You do not have to have slain Wen RouHan to prove how much his cowardly murder of your father hurt you. You do not have to believe that every person who responds in an underhanded way is going to take what you hold most dear away from you again. You do not have to act like you’re a helpless seventeen-year-old who can’t save the person who matters most to him in the world, because you’re not seventeen anymore!” 

 

Nie MingJue might actually have a qi deviation right now. Jin GuangYao’s teeth chattered. He couldn’t even look at Da-Ge. 

 

You… think of Wen RouHan when you think of me? It was his worst nightmare.

 

Then again… “I’m sorry I did stab you.” He had done it in a place where it wouldn’t cause permanent damage, but for Nie MingJue, that must have been the ultimate betrayal, the thing that damned Jin GuangYao to him. It really does all come down to you. 

 

“Are you a child or are you a man?” demanded Wen Qing. “Make a choice!” 

 

A strange snuffling sound broke through the air. Jin GuangYao shifted his gaze sideways. 

 

Nie MingJue was gawping at Wen Qing, and for the first time since Jin GuangYao had laid eyes on Nie MingJue after Lan XiChen encouraged him to take refuge with the Nie Sect, telling him Nie MingJue was fair and that he’d be able to earn enough achievements to impress his father there, Nie MingJue did not look like a sturdy beacon of righteousness. His lips trembled. His eyes skittered about as if unable to decide where to land. His fingers clutched BaXia so tightly that they were the color of bone. His chest heaved. 

 

“You’ve done enough,” said Wen Qing. “Your father can’t tell you that you he’s proud of you anymore. He’s dead. But if he isn’t, he’d be a fool. It’s up to you to decide if you believe that he would be, or if you want to keep trying to die young to hear him say it again.” She rose. “I’ll check on Qin Su.” 

 

Jin GuangYao didn’t know what to say for once. Lan XiChen—tears slipped down his cheeks. “Er-Ge?”

 

“I never heard it, either,” Lan XiChen whispered. “I hope, but I don’t know. Is his pride even worth earning, considering what happened with my mother?” He covered his face. 

 

You’re no different than me . “Da-Ge, I’m sorry.” He bowed his head low. “For what it’s worth, I think—the two of you deserve to hear it. I think both of you have done well for your sects, as Jiang WanYin has for his sect.” He managed a snort. “I suppose our sect is the only one—well, where we may not want our father’s approval.” His eyes stung. “Yet I still want it. But not at the cost of you.” 

 

Oh, forget it. Father’s voice echoed. 

 

Had he not told himself something similar regarding Nie MingJue?

 

I won’t forget you. Not this time. 

 

“You’ll never get his approval,” Nie MingJue said.

 

He flinched. Though, he did suppose that was a change from Nie MingJue telling him if he just acted more rightly, then he might earn it.

 

And he felt a hand on his head. He looked up. 

 

Da-Ge was patting his head, the feeling he’d never gotten from his father, not once. 

 

Achievement unlocked: show Nie MingJue the life-saving value of empathy. 

Chapter Text

“A-Su?”

 

She stirred. Jin GuangYao reached for her hand.

 

She snapped it back, away from him. So she was aware. Relief poured through him along with the stinging sensation of an antiseptic. If only he could wash away his filth. 

 

“Why?” she whispered. Morning light, rosy and dainty and mingled with shade from clouds, fell across her face like a floral pattern. “Why won’t you let me die?” 

 

Jin GuangYao shook his head. “I can’t—I don’t want you to die, please, A-Su.”

 

“It’d be better for you, wouldn’t it?” she rasped. “Get sympathy from your father, from your sworn brothers—”

 

She might as well have slapped him. “You’re not worth that sacrifice!”  

 

She winced, trying to push herself up on her elbows. 

 

“Don’t,” Jin GuangYao urged. “Wen Qing said you shouldn’t move around just yet.”

 

“Wen Qing?” Qin Su gaped at him. “You went to her? Why?” 

 

“She’s the best doctor,” Jin GuangYao managed. “Da-Ge and Er-Ge were here too. They helped get her. Everyone has been praying to GuanYin for your recovery. A-Su, people love you.” His vision blurred. 

 

He remembered when the Wen Sect’s soldiers surrounded the Qin Sect while Qin CangYe was away, determined to capture the daughter he’d asked to stay behind, the woman more than capable of handing her own troops even if she did not fight. She had a strategic mind. And yet they were outnumbered, and when Jin GuangYao heard the same Nie Sect soldiers who mocked his mother joking how she would surely be passed around, a Wen and Qin heir put into her belly, he couldn’t stand it. A quick ask of Nie MingJue and he had five good soldiers under his command, and they donned Wen garb, snuck in, and ferried Qin Su and some of her soldiers out unharmed. 

 

He’d never forget the look on her face when she saw him, the way she yanked out a sword with trembling hands. When he tossed his Wen Sect garb to the side, showing her the Nie Sect black underneath, her face caved. Sobs broke from her lips. 

 

And when he’d grabbed her hand to keep her from slipping as they made their way down a rain-soaked mountainside and one of the men told her she’d need to wash as he was the son of a prostitute, she’d slapped that man. “Don’t speak ill of the one who saved me.” 

 

She would never look at him like that again, would she? 

 

“A-Song…” she croaked out. 

 

“A-Li and A-Xuan are caring for him. A-Li’s milk hasn’t dried up, so she’s feeding the both of them.” Jin GuangYao gulped. “A-Su, I—my word—I lied to you in an unforgiveable way. I didn’t know what to do. I still don’t know what I should have done, besides not sleep with you.” Tears slipped down his cheeks. “I truly loved you. I still do, but not—not in that way.” He swallowed. System, is that enough? What do I say?

 

The System is not here to provide you answers

 

The System was there to be inconsistent, apparently. 

 

“I trusted you,” she choked out. “I—I’m the one who seduced you, Jin GuangYao. We both know it.” 

 

“I was more than willing.” 

 

“Let’s not discuss this anymore,” she managed. “Please.” 

 

“Don’t hurt yourself,” he begged. 

 

The few days he’d spent with her before sending her along to her father were bright stars in his time at the Nie Sect. She told him lots of romantic tales. He used to recite them to himself when he was trapped in the QiShan, used the memory of her voice to strangle the screams that tried to echo, clung to the memory of her soft hand in his that brief moment as he tried to scrub the skin off his body, hoping against hope it could clean him from the horrors of the Fire Palace. 

 

I’ve condemned you to live a life without that now. Without touch, without kisses, without someone holding you, murmuring into your neck how beautiful you are.

 

He’d never thought he would miss that either, but he did. He did. 

 

I want… nothing less than redemption from love. 

 

She gave a broken laugh. “I’m a—the shame, A-Yao, I can’t live with the lies. I can’t. I’m—” 

 

“We don’t have to decide what to do right away,” he insisted. “I’m—my father’s been told that you took ill. When you recover, you should spend a few days with your mother. The two of you—should decide what to do. I’ll abide your decision.” 

 

“Even if I wanted to tell Jin GuangShan?” 

 

His breath hitched. The light over her face dimmed. 

 

“We can’t,” she said. “For A-Song.”

 

He was relieved. “I know.” I’m still manipulating.

 

The System reminds you old habits are hard to break.

 

“Children of close relatives,” she said, meeting his eyes at last. “They’re often—they struggle. A-Yao, will A-Song—” 

 

“We’ll love him anyways,” Jin GuangYao cut in. “We can say he had an accident, a donkey’s kick, something.” He’d stage a fake scene if they had to. “He’s my son.” 

 

I cannot harm him. I don’t care what points I lose for lying. 

 

Relief surged through her expression. Her eyes closed, and her mouth sagged. “Thank you.” 

 

“Did you think I’d deny him?” he ventured. How much have I redeemed myself? 

 

“I don’t know. I only know that your status matters to you, too much.” Her words came slurred. Wen Qing had said she’d be exhausted for the next few days, need to sleep. 

 

Am I so similar to Jin GuangShan? The thought roared about inside of him, teeth scraping at his core. He rose, heading out to see his brother. 

 

Lan WangJi had flown Wen Qing back to YiLing. Lan XiChen and Nie MingJue had departed with HuaiSang for QingHe, no doubt to consider the best course of action. Jin GuangYao promised to write them letters using the same code he had used to exchange letters with XiChen during his time with Wen RouHan. And before they left, Nie MingJue had grasped Jin GuangYao’s shoulders, looked him straight in the eyes, and told him: “you must confide in Jin ZiXuan.”

 

He knew it, but that didn’t mean he was looking forward to it. Still: Da-Ge was entrusting his life to Jin GuangYao. If there was ever a chance to redeem himself in Nie MingJue’s eyes, this was it.

 

“There’s no time to waste,” Lan XiChen had said, and he could not let XiChen down. He hurried through the corridors.

 

“GuangYao-xiong?” called a bright voice.

 

Not now! Jin GuangYao skidded to a halt. He turned to see Mo XuanYu beaming at him. Why is it I can’t get rid of you? In truth, though, in his past life he’d rather liked the boy despite trying to hate him. XuanYu was interested in all sorts of cultivation techniques, and he looked up to Jin GuangYao in a way no one else ever did save for Jin Ling. XuanYu listened more than Jin Ling did, as well. 

 

“Is your wife okay?” Mo XuanYu asked awkwardly. “I was very worried—that night HuaiSang took me to talk to you, since I was telling him how we have similar backgrounds, and I was too shy and scared you might dislike me, and we heard screaming. I didn’t mean to barge in on you. That was rude.”  

 

Screaming? Jin GuangYao searched his brother’s face. Nothing else? But if Mo XuanYu knew, surely he wouldn’t be looking at Jin GuangYao like he’d hung the sun. 

 

“It’s all right,” Jin GuangYao heard himself say. “It’s actually good you were there. You helped save her life.” 

 

Mo XuanYu nodded. “She’s going to be okay then?”

 

He nodded.

 

“She’s very beautiful. I mean—” Mo XuanYu stuttered. “That’s not what I meant, I—” 

 

Don’t even worry about seeming like you have an interest in women . Jin GuangYao heaved a sigh. He patted the boy’s shoulder. “Let me give you some advice. Hide the fact that you are a cut-sleeve as best you can. Father is not fond of them.”

 

Mo XuanYu’s face reddened. “How—”

 

“It’s obvious,” Jin GuangYao said. “Try to study hard and make friends, as many as you can. Don’t attract our father’s attention. Jin ZiXuan is far less likely to care than Father.” And hopefully Father would be—removed soon. He could work on Jin ZiXuan, get Mo XuanYu favor.  

 

“Father doesn’t really have the right to be offended, considering how many women he’s been with,” Mo XuanYu said. 

 

Jin GuangYao snorted. Ah, yes. Mo XuanYu was so very innocent in so many ways. “The world isn’t interested in fairness.” 

 

Mo XuanYu nodded. 

 

“Study hard,” Jin GuangYao repeated. That way, even if you get sent away this time, you’ll be able to defend yourself from the piece of shit that beats you, and you won’t feel the need to take your own life

 

Guilt chafed at him. So Mo XuanYu—he had been as despairing and desperate as Qin Su had been? He remembered the screams of the boy as they dragged him away, how he said his aunt would beat him, how his mother then hung herself. 

 

I won’t sacrifice your mother. You have to stay.

 

“If you do well next month, ZiXuan and I will invite you to a meal, mm?” 

 

Mo XuanYu’s eyes lit up. “I will! Study hard, I mean!” 

 

“Good.” He swallowed. I hope you get to live. I hope you find a good man .

 

He made it to ZiXuan and YanLi’s chambers, knocking. YanLi heaved a sigh of relief when she heard Qin Su was okay, gathering A-Ling and A-Song in her arms. “I’ll bring her son to her. She’ll feel better seeing him.”

 

Jin GuangYao nodded. He tried to catch a glimpse of his son’s face. 

 

“She’s very protective,” Jin ZiXuan joked. 

 

Jin GuangYao managed a small smile. 

 

“A-Yao, I’ve some bad news,” Jin ZiXuan said as soon as the door closed. “Xue Yang has escaped.”

 

What? No, no, it couldn’t be. He was supposed to rot in prison until he was let out, and then—after Jin GuangShan died, Jin GuangYao sent guards to end him. Though this was far earlier too—Chang Ping hadn’t even recanted yet! Nothing about this made sense! 

 

“Father wants us to look for him, but it appears he has no intention of executing—”  

 

“Because of the Stygian Tiger Seal,” interrupted Jin GuangYao. 

 

Jin ZiXuan blinked. He drew up. “What?”

 

It was now or never. “That’s why he asked me to look after him,” Jin GuangYao blurted out. “Xue Yang is able to create a sort of—replica. He practices on condemned prisoners, on thieves, on common folk who are in the way. He—” Jin GuangYao hung his head. What if he was wrong, and Jin ZiXuan didn’t believe him? 

 

“You cannot be serious.” Jin ZiXuan’s nostrils flared. “A-Yao, you—”

 

“It’s true. I can show you where the corpses are kept.” He met his brother’s eyes. “I’m not lying to you. I—have seen it. It’s sickening. He—tells Xue Yang where to find victims, which people he wants—removed. I’ve been too scared to say anything because I—because I—” He hunched his shoulders. As always, the truth was the best weapon, but it still hurt to say. “I like it here.” 

 

And I like you. And YanLi. And A-Ling, and A-Song.

 

I like belonging.

 

“And I hoped he would—approve of me, if I helped him enough.” He balled his fists around his robes, wringing them. “But—Xue Yang is unhinged. He’ll attack Song ZiChen’s clan to get revenge on Xiao XingChen, I am sure of it. He knows how to best hurt people. Physically and in other ways.” 

 

He learned that from me.

 

“A- Yao.” Jin ZiXuan’s voice shook. “This is—true?” 

 

He gave a sharp nod. “I regret my actions. I will suffer the consequences, but I beg you, don’t harm A-Su or—”

 

“Who do you think I am? Fuck!” Jin ZiXuan whirled around, slamming his fist into a wall. “A-Yao. Take me to the corpses. I swear, I will not let them harm you. The blame is on Xue Yang and my father. If it weren’t for you, he would have still had Xue Yang do it—he wanted to humiliate you, mutilate your soul—” Jin ZiXuan swore again and again. 

 

You really can see fairly?  

 

“Thank you,” he whispered. And then he led Jin ZiXuan down the steps, towards the dungeons where a reeking rot spread through the air. His boots landed in squalid, putrid puddles. A candle flickered on the wall, sending ghastly shapes gyrating against the stone. He sidestepped what he was quite certain was a tongue.

 

Groans and gasps echoed. A hand shot out from behind bars.

 

Jin ZiXuan jumped back. Jin GuangYao stepped in front of him. His heart pounded. That was close. He couldn’t let anyone approach Jin ZiXuan’s heart. You are not dying! System? Risk level? 

 

All corpses are contained. Risk level: low. 

 

Jin ZiXuan’s veins popped in his throat. He spun on his heel. “I’ve seen enough.”

 

Jin GuangYao hesitated, and then hurried after him. Jin ZiXuan marched straight to his father’s council room, throwing the door open. Not many were gathered, but Jin ZiXun was there.

 

“Father,” said Jin ZiXuan. “Why are there dozens of corpses below?” 

 

Why are you blowing your load all at once? Jin GuangYao gritted his teeth. 

 

“Don’t lie to me!” Jin ZiXuan stepped forward before the man could even speak. “I saw them myself! Xue Yang—you had him creating them? What for? What for?” He was bellowing now, eyes bloodshot.

 

“I’ve never heard of these corpses,” Jin GuangShan said calmly.

 

Such a thick face. Jin GuangYao felt hatred stirring again. 

 

“What are you talking about, cousin?” demanded Jin ZiXun. 

 

“Was it your brother who told you that?” Jin GuangShan asked. “Because if I had to venture a guess, I’d say Xue Yang and Jin GuangYao’s closeness is now explained.”

 

Oh, fuck . “You ordered my supervision of him!” Jin GuangYao burst out as Jin ZiXuan glanced at him. 

 

“It would also explain why he’s been inviting Wei WuXian here—surely the YiLing Patriarch is still involved—” 

 

“That’s a lie!”

 

“I don’t believe you, Father,” Jin ZiXuan stated. “I have been inviting Wei WuXian.”

 

“On whose advice?”

 

You snake! Jin GuangYao wished ZhuZhi Lang were here to tie him up.  

 

“I trust A-Yao,” Jin ZiXuan said. “There’s much I didn’t know, and he has not lied to me, Father. You? You lied to Nie MingJue’s face the other day. You never intended to execute Xue Yang.”

 

“On the contrary, I—” 

 

“Well, I think it’s quite clear how to solve this mess,” said Jin ZiXuan. “Find Xue Yang. I’m sure once I interrogate him—”

 

A liar will tell the truth? Pah! No, but he probably would… right? He’d always been polite to Jin GuangYao. He’d expressed how awful Madame Jin was to him. 

 

He gritted his teeth. “Song Lan’s clan,” said Jin GuangYao. “I am certain he’ll go there.” 

 


 

 

“I believe you,” assured Jin ZiXuan. “But in the eyes of the other clans and my mother, Xue Yang’s testimony will be good enough.” He met Jin GuangYao’s eyes. “I don’t have any doubts, A-Yao.” 

 

Jin GuangYao paced in his rooms. Both he and Jin GuangShan had been confined for the time being, though YanLi had made pork rib lotus soup for them, and Qin Su was feeling well enough to sip some. He soothed A-Song, bouncing him in his arms, but the baby seemed to pick up on his anxiety. 

 

A knock. He spun. 

 

Jin ZiXun. Of all people, why him? “Did they catch Xue Yang?”

 

“No.” Jin ZiXun gestured to the baby. “Give him to Qin Su. I need to talk to you.”

 

“Bitch,” mumbled Qin Su. Jin ZiXun’s face colored, but Jin GuangYao hurried to obey. Qin Su accepted their son, allowing him to curl up next to her. 

 

Jin GuangYao stepped into a private side room with Jin ZiXun. 

 

“I have bad news for you, and a debt I want to pay off as quickly as possible so as to never have to speak to you again,” Jin ZiXun informed him, widening his stance as if that might make his dick longer. “I heard your father talking.”

 

Jin GuangYao blinked. 

 

“You better be careful,” said Jin ZiXun. “He seems to have gotten some crazy idea stuck in his brain from that half-witted cousin of mine.”

 

Half… “Mo XuanYu?” 

 

“Yeah, that one. Uncle told him if he ever wanted to see his mother again, he’d be a smart boy to talk.”

 

Jin GuangYao’s stomach felt hollow, the words he wanted to carve and scream knocking around in it, formless and hard. "But he's confined."

 

“You think he doesn't have people to do his dirty work for him? Anyways, Mo XuanYu said you and Qin Su were brother and sister,” ZiXun told him. “Can you imagine? That’s the kind of malicious rumor that no one will believe longer than three seconds except the common people, but it’ll completely discredit you. And for the record, I do think my uncle is behind the corpses, not you and Wei WuXian. That’s what Su MinShan says. But—”  

 

“That’s—desperate,” Jin GuangYao managed. “Everyone will see through that lie. How will it ruin my reputation?” Wouldn’t they? Or would they…

 

How did Mo XuanYu even know?

 

You did overhear us. Which mean HuaiSang, too— 

 

Fuck! 

 

“Yeah, but XuanYu is doomed,” Jin ZiXun said. 

 

System?

 

Odds of Mo XuanYu making it through this without execution or banishment: 33%.

 

No! 

 

The System does not lie. Would you like to accept the side quest “save Mo XuanYu,” or would you prefer to let things fall as they will? Your chances of success if you do nothing are 68%. If you accept this side quest, 51%. 

 

He gritted his teeth. 68% seemed rather low to him. If people believe Mo XuanYu, then… 

 

They’d cast Qin Su out. They’d kill A-Song as an abomination. 

 

He had to protect them first. Mo XuanYu had to be sacrificed. There was no other way. 

 

Why can’t I save everyone? Why can’t it be both? Last time he asked that, it had been both, because Shen Jiu, that cranky, good-for-nothing scum villain, opened his mouth and spoke. That cruel man asked a single name, asked if he was remembered, if there was a chance.

 

Qi-Ge.

 

Shen Yuan’s transmitigation had saved Shen QingQiu, but not Shen Jiu. And now, they were all saved, or were they? Had he accepted Yue QingYuan’s love? 

 

It all depended on Shen Jiu’s choice, and Jin GuangYao was bitter he hadn’t been able to see much of it. 

 

Fuck. 

 

Accept the side quest

 

Congratulations. The System awards you 100 B points for bravery. 

 

“Jin ZiXun,” said Jin GuangYao. “To make up for my saving your life, can you do one more task? No, two more, to save our sect, for the honor of our sect?” 

 

I will not abandon Mo XuanYu. Jin ZiXuan hadn’t abandoned him. But that meant A-Su and A-Song would be in danger. Jin GuangYao scrambled out the window towards a certain chamber. He tapped on the window. 

 

Mo XuanYu looked over. A bruise covered his face, and his lip was split. His eyes widened in hope and then his lips parted in fear. He stumbled over himself as he raced over to Jin GuangYao. 

 

Jin GuangYao balanced on the windowsill. 

 

Mo XuanYu was sobbing. “I didn’t mean to—he said—my mom’s sick a lot, you know, and her sister beats her, and I didn’t want—I’m her only hope—” He covered his face. “I’m such a coward! I’m not brave like you, GuangYao-xiong!”    

 

“HuaiSang,” said Jin GuangYao, digging his fingers into the boy’s shoulders. 

 

“He said we shouldn’t say anything! I didn’t plan to, but Father—Father—” Mo XuanYu hiccuped. “I’m sorry! You’re the last person I wanted to hurt, I want to be like you, I—” His shoulders shook. “It doesn’t matter to me! I still think you’re good, who even cares, you didn’t know—” 

 

He slapped him. “Get ahold of yourself,” Jin GuangYao ordered. 

 

Mo XuanYu gaped, the handprint still imprinted on his face. 

 

“I’m not angry at you,” Jin GuangYao forced himself to say. “Don’t you know, XuanYu, that I know better than anyone how to protect myself in the middle of an emotional crisis. You cannot fall apart until after it’s over and you’ve won. Do you understand me?” He shook him.

 

Mo XuanYu gulped. He nodded, but his eyes were still confused. 

 

“Go to Jin ZiXun,” Jin GuangYao said. “I’m going to set you down on the ground. Tell him to take you to Su She. He’ll know where to go, okay? Tell Su She I sent you and he’ll protect you with his life. I promise. And don’t tell another soul what you and HuaiSang heard.”

 

“My mother—”

 

“She’ll be okay,” he promised, though he had no idea how to guarantee that. Well, in all likelihood, Father wouldn’t think of her for a few weeks. Mo XuanYu was not truly a target. And Jin ZiXun had begrudgingly agreed to tell Jin ZiXuan about their father’s “lies.” 

 

“A-Su is too fragile for such rumors now,” Jin GuangYao had insisted

 

As for himself, there was one place he could go where they would be safe, even if Jin ZiXuan were to find out the truth. He was not so naive to trust Mo XuanYu to keep his word, to trust others not to determine the truth. And in this place, Qin Su could continue to get the care she needed, and A-Song would be safe too. For now. And if things went poorly, at least he would be there, at least he would know the battle plans, considering he’d drawn them up in his past life. 

 

Even if I don’t redeem myself in Jin ZiXuan or Er-Ge or Da-Ge’s eyes, it’s still redemption, isn’t it? 

 

The System beeped in the affirmative. 



Chapter Text

“A-Su, we have to go.” Jin GuangYao shook her awake. 

 

“Huh?” She peered up at him, eyes still empty. “I—” 

 

“He knows,” Jin GuangYao managed, cupping her face. “My father—our—he knows. About us. About A-Song. We have to get out of here. He’ll have A-Song killed, I know he will. For what he is.” B ecause that’s what I did in the past.

 

He’ll pin it on me, spare you, and have me executed. The corpses—he’ll blackmail your mother and father—  

 

“What?” A-Su was terrified. She struggled to sit, spitting up blood. 

 

Shit . He helped her. 

 

“Don’t let him hurt A-Song,” she managed. “A-Yao. You can’t—”

 

“I won’t,” he promised, heart thudding. He placed A-Song in her arms and took her in his arms, flying off on HenSheng.

 

Goodbye, cultivation world . He really had ruined A-Su’s life. She was right to wish she had never met him in both lives. His chest ached like he had been stabbed. 

 

“Are my parents in danger?” A-Su managed. 

 

He gave a small nod. “I’ll make sure they’re warned.” 

 

He landed in YiLing, near the caves. Vegetables sprouted from the soil around it, giving an impression of life growing from the dead. A-Su was in so much pain her lips were white. A-Song burst into tears the moment Jin GuangYao landed on the ground. 

 

“There’s a baby,” came a sluggish, drunken voice. 

 

“I’ll check, Young Master Wei,” said another voice. A figure stepped out from near one of the caves, moonlight drenching his face. 

 

“Wen Ning,” managed Jin GuangYao. “Your—” 

 

“Did her wound open up?” Wen Ning rushed over to them. A-Su drew back in fear of the corpse. He hesitated. “I—” 

 

“Can you get your sister?” asked Jin GuangYao. “And Young Master Wei.” His breath caught. “We need help.” 

 

Wen Ning nodded. He scurried off, hunching his shoulders. Within moments, Wen Qing rushed towards them, wiping sleep from her eyes. Wei WuXian staggered behind her, drunk.

 

“Qin Su,” said Wen Qing. “Can I bring you—examine your wound, give you something for the pain? My Granny can care for A-Song; she has a liquid she would make for my cousin’s baby after he was orphaned. Young Master Jin should talk to—” 

 

Who’s the true mastermind of this place ? “It’s safe,” Jin GuangYao assured Qin Su.

 

She nodded. Wen Ning held out his arms to carry her. Jin GuangYao shifted her into his arms, Wen Qing taking A-Song. 

 

“Sorry,” whispered Wen Ning. “I know I’m cold.” He hung his head as if ashamed. 

 

“That’s—not it,” mumbled Qin Su. Her eyes drifted shut, but not before tears leaked out. And it wasn’t from physical pain if Jin GuangYao had to guess.  

 

“The fuck happened?” asked Wei WuXian, stumbling as he leaned against one of the rock pillars. He looked more unsteady than a tree hit by lightning. He raised a jar of wine to his lips.

 

Nope . Jin GuangYao yanked it from his hands, smashing it on the ground. 

 

“Hey!” Wei WuXian glared at him. “That’s not very—hospitable! I mean, we’re hosting, but—” 

 

“You’ve had enough,” Jin GuangYao said firmly, hand on his shoulder. You really don’t like being alone, do you? It hurts. So you drink. 

 

“Mmph.” Wei WuXian scowled, sliding down against the rock until he was sitting on the dirt. Jin GuangYao rolled his eyes and then lowered himself down too. “So, why are you here? I’m guessing—nothing short of daddy’s—disfavor would—” He hiccupped. “Did he think you stabbed your wife?”

 

“No,” said Jin GuangYao. “It’s worse than that.” He detailed what happened with Xue Yang’s escape, with the corpses.

 

“For real?” Wei WuXian tried to get up and failed. He slumped back. “He wants to create the—Stygian Tiger Seal again? That’s dumb. Why?” 

 

“Power,” said Jin GuangYao. “He can’t control it.”

 

“So, Jin ZiXuan—chose his dad over you?” Wei WuXian picked up a broken clay shard of the wine jar, turning it over and over in his hands. 

 

“No,” said Jin GuangYao. “Please, Young Master Wei, he—” System?

 

Chances of Wei WuXian hearing you out: 100%. 

 

He sighed. “He tortured my little brother. He asked him for—he got some clandestine information, something that could hurt me and A-Su and her whole family if it gets out. I helped Mo XuanYu escape and so now he’ll be working to—well.”  

 

“What did he find out?” Wei WuXian asked, face serious and slightly more sober. 

 

“I can’t tell you,” said Jin GuangYao. I’m asking you to trust me . “We just—we need a safe place to stay. For A-Su to heal.” 

 

“Mm.” Wei WuXian leaned to the side. “Well, that’s what this place is. A safe place. No one wants to come here, unless they have to. But people get to live. And it’s not a prison, not really.” He was mumbling now. 

 

“But you’re lonely.”

 

“Huh?” Wei WuXian cackled. “Listen, A-Yao—”

 

“We are not that familiar.”

 

“I don’t give a fuck. Listen, A-Yao, I stayed here for three months , eating the dead, after Wen Chao tossed me in here. And I came out with the cultivation to turn everyone—everything—against—” 

 

“Yes,” said Jin GuangYao. “Because you had no other power beyond it.”   

 

“Oh, that.” Wei WuXian jabbed his flute—where had that come from?—at Jin GuangYao. “How do you know about that? Wen Qing and Wen Ning didn’t tell you, that I know, so how the fucking hell do you know?” 

 

Jin GuangYao managed a small smile. “It’s not hard to deduce. Jiang Cheng is very talented, but he was never quite so talented. And your sword, SuiBian—you don’t use it. Remember, I have meager spiritual powers. It’s not hard for me to recognize someone relying on other techniques to supplement their lack.” 

 

“Oh.” Wei WuXian frowned. “Hey, can you help me up? I think I really did drink too much.” His voice sounded slurred again.

 

Jin GuangYao got to his feet. “So we can stay?”

 

“Mmph.” The YiLing Patriarch was practically asleep by the time Jin GuangYao hauled him up. 

 


 

 

“Her wound is healing well,” Wen Qing told him. “Another week, and she should be back to normal—physically, at least.” 

 

Jin GuangYao nodded. He was relieved, but his problems were far from over. 

 

He’d fled, and Jin ZiXuan would surely have questions now. Jin GuangYao likely wouldn’t tell everyone what Mo XuanYu had revealed if he had left, seemingly admitting guilt, so Madame Qin and A-Su were protected. But they couldn’t stay at the Burial Mounds much longer than that. He would have to trust Jin ZiXuan not to attack.

 

What have I done? The more he thought about it, the more he thought he might have fucked it all up. Why did he have to flee? Couldn’t have stayed and talked to Jin ZiXuan, told him it was a lie? Why was he so afraid? 

 

That is what the System would have recommended if you had asked. 

 

I hate it.

 

I still don’t want it to be true.

 

I’m scared, I’m so scared.

 

Speaking of scared. Wei WuXian awake with a headache and red-rimmed eyes to Wen Ning standing in the cave entrance, announcing that HanGuang-Jun had arrived.

 

Oh, shit . It was hard to tell who was more alarmed—Wei WuXian or Jin GuangYao. Jin GuangYao wanted to cry. Had Lan XiChen heard what happened? Did he think him responsible for Xue Yang’s crimes? Did Da-Ge? Just when Da-Ge was starting to believe in him again… 

 

He’d long thought that once he made a decision, a choice, it would be over and peace would descend, even if it was a nighttime peace. But that wasn’t the case at all. He’d chosen to save Mo XuanYu over earning Da-Ge’s esteem, over Lan XiChen—would Er-Ge hear him out this time? Surely he would, surely he would—and he still felt as if he stood on a piece of earth rollicking through a quake, no safe place for him to go. 

 

Wen Ning ushered them outside. Lan WangJi stood alone, A-Yuan clinging to his leg just like he had clung to Jin ZiXuan’s. Two woven butterflies were clasped in his hands, but the sloppy grin on his face was all for Lan WangJi. 

 

And Lan WangJi didn’t look horrified or try to shake the child off. Huh. 

 

His gaze, however: it landed straight on Jin GuangYao. And a coldness seeped into his eyes.

 

“Eh, HanGuang-Jun,” began Wei WuXian. “I—”

 

“The entire cultivational world is looking for you,” he said to Jin GuangYao. 

 

“What? Didn’t you just come here for more treatment?” Wei WuXian whirled to face him.

 

“How drunk were you last night?” Jin GuangYao shot back. “My father—Xue Yang—”

 

“Killed Song ZiChen’s sect and put out Young Master Song’s eyes. Xiao XingChen has gone to beg BaoShan SanRen for help,” Lan WangJi stated.

 

Jin GuangYao’s eyes darted to Wei WuXian, who looked slightly nauseated. Guilt? 

 

“Just as you said would happen,” Lan WangJi continued. The sun glittered brightly overheard, but he didn’t so much as squint. A gentle breeze blew his headband through the air, a strand of delicate white amid black. 

 

Jin GuangYao flinched. “I didn’t—that’s not—”

 

“My brother sent me to find you. He’s looking, too.”

 

Hunting me? Jin GuangYao hunched his shoulders.

 

Lan WangJi's gaze seared his. “He said that if I found you, I ought to tell you that he will take you back to the Cloud Recesses if you have done something wrong—seclusion—” 

 

“No,” Jin GuangYao shot back. “I know about your mother, Lan WangJi. No. I have not—A-Su still needs care, A-Song too—they’re innocent. I’m— I did nothing wrong! ” 

 

It’s not my fault! Sleeping with her, marrying her despite knowing—what was I to do? I had no choice! It’s not my fault I didn’t know! If I erred, it was no different than the errs others have made! It wasn’t as if he was naive enough to think Jin ZiXuan and Jiang YanLi had waited; he doubted it was a coincidence Jin Ling arrived slightly early.  

 

I am not worse off because I am the son of a prostitute! Not this time ! He stomped his foot like a child, hat almost falling off. “I did none of the things he’s accusing me of! My father was behind the corpses, he told me to watch over Xue Yang, I know I was wrong to do so, but I didn’t—it wasn’t my idea, and I’m not taking his shame for it! Not anymore!”  

 

“Then why did you run, LianFang-Zun?” asked Lan WangJi.

 

“Because why would I expect a fair trial? With Jin ZiXuan’s support, yes, but—” He shook his head. “He was going to—he is targeting those around me for material to punish me, to use against me, to silence his—the things he’s done wrong. He’s done more than you know or suspect or could even imagine with your little Lan mind, HanGuang-Jun, and I can’t tell you because there are other lives at stake and I’m—I’m trying to—”

 

“Protect all of them,” Wei WuXian supplied. “I know.”

 

He gaped at the man who brought about his downfall, whose downfall he brought about, the man now offering him his own reflection in his eyes. “Yes.” 

 

“Stay here as long as you need,” Wei WuXian said, spinning ChenQing. “Let them come. There’s an army of corpses ready if they—”

 

“Are you really so naive?” barked Lan WangJi, stepping towards Wei WuXian. His hand clasped the man’s upper arm. “If they come, A-Yuan—” He looked down at the child, who didn’t seem to notice the tension. What a peaceful baby. 

 

Wei WuXin gritted his teeth. “I’m more than capable.”

 

“Not alone,” said Jin GuangYao. “My father already wants you dead. By being here, I’ve probably put even larger a target on your back—but I didn’t know where else to go, I’m sorry!” He bowed, chest aching with restricted gasps. 

 

“Don’t worry about it,” said Wei WuXian. “He’s a shit—”

 

Lan WangJi looked as if he wanted to die right there.

 

“If we could leave with Maiden Wen,” said Jin GuangYao. “Go somewhere safe, that can buy you time, especially if HanGuang-Jun reports on it.”

 

“You want HanGuang-Jun to lie?” shouted Wei WuXian. He cackled. “He’d never—”

 

“For you, he’d do anything,” Jin GuangYao cut in. Lan WangJi turned to him, face impassive but eyes suddenly alarmed. Fuck it. “Do you want to die alone? Because for someone who seems to hate the idea of dying enough to live on corpses and turn to demonic cultivation, for someone whose biggest fear supposedly seems to be being alone, you seem to really want it.” 

 

A-Yuan finally whimpered. Lan WangJi’s palm landed atop his scalp, patting his hair. 

 

Wei WuXian’s mouth fell open.“For someone asking for protection, you seem to be awfully interested in provoking me.” 

 

“Wei Ying, calm down,” Lan WangJi interjected.

 

“Say what you mean!” Jin GuangYao burst out. Wen Ning flinched, cowering, which was almost hilarious knowing more than even Wei WuXian currently did about what Wen Ning was capable of. “Say what you mean, you fucking coward!”

 

“Don’t call HanGuang-Jun—”

 

“You’re the one who kissed him during that hunt! You’re in love with him! Tell him if he dies, you’d search for him every year! Tell him if I were to hold a guqin string to his throat, you’d seal your own powers to protect him! Tell him how even if the entire cultivational world hates him and reviles him, you’d be by his side! Tell him that the reason you criticize him to his face while everyone flatters and fears him is because you could never fear him! Tell him that you wanted him to come back to the Cloud Recesses not to arrest him but to save him, because you’re not afraid of him, but for him! Tell him, you fucking bastard!” 

 

Lan WangJi’s face was whiter than Wen Ning’s. He staggered back, seemingly too horrified that his secret was out to realize just how specific Jin GuangYao was being.

 

“Don’t be your father,” Jin GuangYao ground out. Or else—or else—you’re not the one at risk of it! Lan Huan is! Show him, show your brother he doesn’t have to seclude himself for my sins!    

 

“Are you accusing him of being a cut-sleeve?” demanded Wei WuXian. “How dare you—”

 

“Why, is there something wrong with that?” Jin GuangYao retorted.

 

“Are you? Is that why you don’t sleep with Qin Su anymore, since I heard her and my ShiJie talking about it—” 

 

Oh, come on! Well, that explained by Qin Su was more confident and assertive this time around. She had someone on her side. She wasn’t alone. 

 

It’s not like that! It wasn’t. Lan XiChen would never—not because he thought it wrong or anything, unlike his repressed virginal uncle—but because he would need to marry a beautiful woman with the highest cultivation, a woman thoroughly unlike his mother, a woman to give him heirs while Jin GuangYao could only give him… could only give him pain and shame.

 

A lump formed in Jin GuangYao’s throat. You don’t know how lucky you are to be free to choose, HanGuang-Jun, YiLing Patriarch .   

 

Wait. Was he actually—did he think—what was this heat pooling in his belly? 

 

No, no, it wasn’t that. Guilt swarmed him. This was his redemption, not his—no! And why must he still play the bad guy? 

 

“If you love someone,” Jin GuangYao croaked out. “Tell them. Or else it might be too late. People can’t read your mind. A-Su couldn’t read mine. She thought I—she thought—and I—” He clutched his robes, knuckles whitening. 

 

“It was me,” Lan WangJi said. And at the very least, unlike Jin ZiXuan, he didn’t flee after his confession. “At the hunt. Who kissed you.”

 

Wei WuXian’s eyes bugged out. A-Yuan gave up on his stoic father and tottered over to Jin GuangYao. He smiled and lifted the toddler as high as he could into the air. Hello, SiZhui. 

 

“L-Lan Zhan?” ventured Wei WuXian. 

 

Jin GuangYao turned to Wen Ning, supporting A-Yuan on his hip. “Where is A-Su?” 

 

The corpse took the hint, scurrying down the rocky hills. Some grass actually sprouted now, verdant amid rich red soil. Jin GuangYao swallowed. 

 

Wen Qing squatted outside a small hut, heating some congee outside. Jin GuangYao’s stomach rumbled at the sight of the simple food. She smiled up at him, shielding her eyes. “She is resting inside.” 

 

He ducked in, Wen Ning following, looking helpless. He passed A-Yuan to the corpse. Qin Su was sitting up at least, propped by blankets. She lay on a simple sleeping mat, A-Song nibbling on a small bottle that an elderly woman who nodded at him must have given her.

 

“How are you feeling?” Jin GuangYao asked uncertainly. 

 

“Scared,” she said. “A-Yao, is this because of me? Is this all because of me? Is Jin GuangShan saying that—that you stabbed me—” She cut herself off when she saw the look on Wen Ning’s face. “He didn’t. I stabbed myself. But that beast—” 

 

“I didn’t think he did,” Wen Ning said quickly. A-Yuan bit his hair and he didn’t even flinch. 

 

“I don’t know,” Jin GuangYao admitted. “He continues to blame me for the corpses, but—”

 

“You didn’t do that . You’ve done a lot, but not that.” Qin Su glared. “I’ll speak for you. I’ll—”

 

“Your mother, A-Su. I cannot ask her to—” 

 

“How?” she demanded. “How does Jin GuangShan know?”

 

He glanced at Wen Ning.

 

“Oh, who cares if Wen Ning overhears? He’s dead.”

 

Wen Ning hung his head. 

 

“Don’t take it personally. I wish I was,” Qin Su told him. 

 

Wen Ning’s chin rose. “No, Qin Su, you don’t.”

 

“How are you presuming to know what I wish and what I—”

 

“Because being dead doesn’t ease a burden for anyone,” Wen Ning interrupted. “I thought—for so long I thought I was a burden to A-Jie, but she—when I died, she was distraught. She was so happy to see me again because Young Master Wei worked a miracle. Or an abomination, I can’t say which, but I know what people must be saying.” He clutched A-Yuan, shame pressing his features. 

 

Abomination… Jin GuangYao followed Qin Su’s gaze to their son, whose eyes were drifting shut.   

 

“How dare they,” Qin Su managed, voice thick. “How dare they say you shouldn’t exist, when you do?” 

 

Wen Ning blinked.

 

“My apologies,” Qin Su said. “I was cruel in my words. You do matter, and I’m sorry I spoke so—” 

 

“It’s no problem,” Wen Ning cut in, squirming at the thought of an apology from the likes of Qin Su. 

 

“You don’t understand,” Jin GuangYao said. “When Qin Su decides to do something, she will do it. You can’t stop her. Even if it’s just an apology.”

 

Qin Su almost smiled. Wen Ning set a wriggling A-Yuan down. The toddler wobbled as he headed over to his grandmother. 

 

“Do you want to hold him?” Qin Su asked, clearly desperate to make up for her earlier misstep. 

 

Jin GuangYao stiffened. Still… 

 

Wen Ning looked shocked. “Oh, I—I can?” 

 

“Put your arms out.” She lifted A-Song, grimacing in pain. Jin GuangYao hurried to find medication for her. Wen Qing followed him back inside, where they found Wen Ning holding A-Song, softly singing a lullaby to him, a lullaby Jin GuangYao remembered hearing once before from a prisoner in the Fire Palace trying to comfort himself one night. It must have been a Wen Sect lullaby, a song sung by a mother to a beloved baby, now the last dregs of comfort a broken man had.

 

Jin GuangYao killed him the next day, quicker than normal. It was a mercy. He couldn’t even remember his name. 

 

“You should live, Qin Su,” said Wen Ning softly. “Even if everyone in the world seems to hate you. You only need one person to stick by you, after all, and your son and husband will, so that's two.”

 

Poor choice of words. Jin GuangYao accepted a bowl of congee but couldn’t raise it to his lips. 

 

“There’s much you don’t know, Young Master Wen,” said Qin Su, using a term of respect for him.

 

“I know that you are a person,” said Wen Ning. “A-and I k-know that people can’t ever not be people. Even if corpses—that’s why cultivation aims to soothe fierce corpses, right? Because we were people and still are, and we need help. And you are a person, so you deserve to live, just for that.”  

 

A lump grew in Jin GuangYao’s throat. He turned away, forcing the congee down. He supposed it had a nice flavor, but to him it was gruel. Qin Su stared at A-Song, tears filling her eyes.

 

You deserve to live just because you can.

 

Both of you.

 

Do I? Can I? 

 

“Excuse me,” interrupted a voice. He turned.

 

Wei WuXian stood there, arms crossed. Lan WangJi was behind him, so however their conversation had gone, it couldn’t have gone too badly. 

 

“I hate to say this,” Wei WuXian said. “But you can’t stay here, Jin GuangYao. Lan Zhan is right; it’s too dangerous for those who can’t escape if your father comes with an army.” His eyes shifted towards the grandmother and A-Yuan.

 

“We cannot send them away,” Wen Ning protested, still holding A-Song.

 

“That’s not what I’m suggesting,” said Wei WuXian. “Well, I am, but not like that. Lan Zhan suggested it. The Cloud Recesses have already been searched, and QingHe will be searched today as well. The best place for you to go is the place you have no ties to, but I do.” He drew in his breath. “Jin ZiXuan will be informed via his wife, and he can meet you there.”

 

“Didn’t you break off your brotherhood with Jiang WanYin?” demanded Jin GuangYao.

 

“Indeed we did. But I’m sending Wen Qing with you; he still owes her a life debt and so he’ll at least hesitate before shooting her with an arrow. Also, Qin Su can continue to receive her care that way. And when he sees why Wen Qing is accompanying you, he won’t want to risk the life of ShiJie’s best friend.” He nodded at Qin Su, who beamed.

 

System?

 

The System ranks this plan’s chance of success at 67%. The System ranks your chances of success via staying here 38%. 

 

“You’ll leave in the morning,” Wei WuXian said. 



Chapter Text

They had to pause to rest frequently. They had to carry Qin Su; she wasn’t heavy, but she still couldn’t walk more than a few steps on her own and the journey was on foot. Wen Qing and Jin GuangYao hauled her along, taking turns comforting A-Song. The baby was scared of the unfamiliar surroundings and tense atmosphere. 

 

He kept his hat crumpled under his robes. It was modeled on the one Mother had given him, and he couldn’t bear to let it go even if he couldn’t wear it. At one point Jin GuangYao heard dogs barking and caught Wen Qing’s eyes. System? Are they normal dogs, a stray pack, or spiritual dogs charged with hunting us down?

 

The latter, the System replied. Chances of getting caught: 58%. 

 

Shit! He wanted to cry. “Wen Qing—” 

 

Wen Qing suggested they wade through the nearest river to break off their scent, and he agreed. The water was icy this time of year, cold needles pricking his thighs, and he clung to A-Song, terrified he’d drop him. But he didn’t. They staggered up the bank, legs blue under their robes, teeth chattering, but alive. A-Su’s wound leaked.

 

It was night by the time they arrived in YunMeng. Lotus Pier was so close . Their clothes had mostly dried, but A-Su was biting back whimpers of pain with each step, and Jin GuangYao didn’t know what to do. If he carried her now, people might offer to help, and attention was the last thing they wanted when the entire cultivational world had made an enemy of him. 

 

So much for redemption.

 

Redemption is not in the eyes of others, but a personal—

 

Shut up. The System’s mere presence made his stomach flip and flop right now. He needed quiet. He needed to think

 

Wen Qing sucked in her breath. “There are Jin Sect soldiers here.”

 

“Hm?” Jin GuangYao spun around. Sure enough, he spotted a dozen or so cultivators moving through the streets. The crowd stopped at an inn. 

 

Are they looking for us?

 

Yes, the System confirmed. 

 

A-Su spun, taking a step in the other direction. She finally let out a gasp, breath cutting through her teeth as she sucked in air. Her skin turned the hue of a corpse. Jin GuangYao caught her as her legs buckled. He exchanged a glance with Wen Qing. He could fly her to Lotus Pier, but he couldn’t carry all three of them at once. If he had to come back—he might attract attention, anyways— 

 

“Did you see her tits?” guffawed a drunken voice, accompanied by a loud belch. Jin GuangYao gritted his teeth, wringing his robes between fists. He knew those types of voices, the slosh in their tones, the smeared syllables. 

 

Someday, that whorehouse will be a temple. Or would it in this timeline? 

 

An idea suddenly occurred to him. He froze.

 

Was he too late? 

 

The System estimates this as your best chance. 

 

I really have to go back there. He wanted to cry. A-Su leaned against him. A-Song let out a whimper, burying his face in his father’s hair. 

 

For you. 

 

“A-Su, I need you to walk with me a few more streets.” He handed A-Song to Wen Qing, slinging A-Su’s arm around him. “Just a few more. I have a place we can rest for awhile.” He hoped. It wasn’t like he’d gotten details of precisely when SiSi was attacked and kicked out of the brothel. 

 

He remembered her face on that night long ago, realizing it was Meng SiSi, and almost losing his composure. He could not back down from what he planned for his father, but he could not kill the woman who defended Mother and him either.  

 

A-Su nodded, determined. Fire shone in her eyes, flames brighter than the flames of torchlights on the streets. Jin GuangYao pulled her towards the building he knew so well. I’m sorry. “Hold her upright, Wen Qing. I’ll be right back.” 

 

Both of them seemed to have realized his plan, yet neither of them protested. Jin GuangYao staggered towards the door where he was certain no one remembered him, even though the madam was still the same. The woman had struck Meng Shi many times, and yet she wouldn’t recognize her face on him, would he? She probably recognized many faces, but most without names.

 

The steps were the same. The reeking scents, supposed to be pleasant, the same. The nights, uneven and flickering, the same. The wine splashing in the background, the same. 

 

“Is SiSi working tonight?” Jin GuangYao asked, voice dripping honey. “I was hoping she might entertain me again—she’s feisty, that one—” Gorge rose inside of him. He hated acting like this, one role he’d never been willing to play. Men who purchase women deserve the worst

 

The perfumed air dug its fingers up his nostrils. He felt like he couldn’t breathe. It was the same, same, same, but she wasn’t here. She was buried out back. Buried. 

 

Mother! 

 

Mother, help me! 

 

Mother, come save me! 

 

“Hmph. Getting older, that one, but her regular customer is out of town,” said the madam, Madame Meng, as every prostitute had to adopt her surname. “Don’t mind drooping tits?”

 

“Prefer them, actually. Much more experience,” Jin GuangYao said, quoting what one nicer customer had said about his mother. That customer gave them an extra gold coin every time, but Jin GuangYao had still hated the man.

 

Madame Meng chuckled. She strode off, gesturing for Jin GuangYao to follow her. He was ushered into a small room, gauzy curtains fluttering about, the perfume mostly veiling the stench of sweat. But Jin GuangYao could still smell it. When he was very little, before he was old enough to hide elsewhere, he had to hide under the bed, or behind a screen, and listen to the creaks and moans, sometimes the frightened cries, and bite on his knuckles to keep from wailing in fear as he waited for them to leave his mom alone. 

 

“How can I please this young master?” came SiSi’s familiar voice. She sauntered towards him, reaching to undo the top of her robes already. She was tired, that he could tell. 

 

He could cry. “SiSi,” he managed. “It’s me.” 

 

“You’ll have to be more specific.” Her fingernails, long and painted red, scratched his arm as she clasped it. 

 

He shrank back. “Meng Shi’s son. Meng Yao.” 

 

She froze, orange light and gray shadows streaking her face. Her mouth hung open. “M-Meng—” 

 

“Shh,” he hissed, springing closer, clapping his hand over her mouth. “Please don’t make a fuss.” What was he doing? He withdrew his hand. “I’m not here for you. Not like that. Please don’t think that of me.” He bowed his head, shame coloring his cheeks. “I need your help.”

 

“What help could you possibly need from a whore?” Her gaze flickered to his face. “Aren’t you some esteemed war hero now?” 

 

Raucous laughter echoed from the floor below, the sound crawling up his skin. Not hardly . “My wife and I have been—unfairly accused of a crime. I fled with her, a friend of hers, and our baby.” He swallowed. “His name is RuSong, Jin RuSong. My father—he wants us to die. I swear to you, SiSi, we’re innocent—he won’t listen; I can’t risk them harming—you were always so good at helping Mother and I, so kind, that I—” 

 

“That was years ago,” she interrupted, voice hard, face still just as beautiful as it always had been. The lines around her face, those laugh lines, they reminded him of Mother. “A-Yao, A-Yao, what help can someone like me—” 

 

“Please hide us,” he begged. “They’re outside, my wife and friend—she’s injured. A-Su. If you do, I promise I’ll buy your freedom as soon as our names are cleared.” Or he could ask Lan XiChen to do so. He was certain that his Er-Ge would at least indulge him that much. He could only imagine Lan QiRen’s face when his nephew purchased a prostitute’s freedom. “ Please .”

 

SiSi’s lips wobbled. “People don’t usually remember me for anything like that.” 

 

He bowed to her. “Thank you. For all you—”

 

“You don’t need to put on a show for me, Meng Yao,” she said, her hand patting his cheek. 

 

He almost cried. He could hear someone retching down the hallway. 

 

“Meet me out back,” she said, accepting a gold coin.

 

He hurried back outside, bowing politely to the madam he still wanted to light on fire. Did this mean he hadn’t changed at all? Oh, who cared? He gestured for Qin Su and Wen Qing to follow him, A-Song quiet for now. SiSi met them at the back entrance.

 

A-Su bowed her head to SiSi, apologizing for not being able to bend over. Wen Qing bowed completely, and SiSi’s mouth hung open. She didn’t seem to know what to do with a bow directed towards her. They were led into her chambers, SiSi checking each hallway to be sure they could scurry along without being seen. Their footsteps seemed too loud. Fear bit at Jin GuangYao’s neck, and shame burned inside him as they passed a room with loud, erotic moans seeping from it. This is where I’m from. 

 

Once in SiSi’s room, Wen Qing helped A-Su down on the bed, the sheets of which SiSi had tried to straighten.

 

“I’m sorry,” SiSi hissed to him. “I didn’t have time to change the sheets. Or a way to do it without attracting attention.” 

 

He shook his head. “It’s fine.”

 

Wen Qing pulled A-Su’s robe off her chest to check her wound. Jin GuangYao averted his eyes, cooing to a whimpering A-Song instead. That’s my sister. 

 

Please don’t cry, A-Song. Please. 

 

“Meng Shi would like her,” said SiSi. “She’d be proud.”

 

She wouldn’t be if she knew she was my sister . But he couldn’t contradict her. A-Song opened his mouth to wail.

 

SiSi held out her arms for a fussy A-Song, and he blinked and then handed him over. She shushed the baby, wrapping him tightly in a silk robe. It soothed him.

 

Why did I hesitate? Am I really no better? 

 

“Rest,” SiSi ordered, and just like he was ten or twelve again, he nodded, obeying her. He settled on the floor, sitting up, and it wasn’t long before his eyes started to close.  

 

A few hours of dozing later and SiSi shook him awake. He jerked. “I—”

 

“People are searching the brothel.” SiSi cleared her throat. “Or rather, they got the madam to do it—wouldn’t sully their feet by stepping foot in here—” 

 

Shit! Of course to punish someone they would dare to get dirty. The only thing they were worth: condemnation, props for the pure to climb on, climb higher and higher until they either fell or ascended to the heavens, a holy memory while those they climbed on decayed into nothing but dirt. 

 

Shouts echoed below. Feet pounded. A coldness settled in his stomach. 

 

“I can get you out the back, but I don’t have a bribe or—” 

 

“I will turn myself in,” blurted out Wen Qing, rising. “It’s time, Jin GuangYao. That will cause enough of a distraction to allow you and Qin Su the time to fly to Lotus Pier. I—”

 

“No!” Like hell was he letting her sacrifice herself again. Her still remembered her screaming in pain as the flames burst around her—this woman deserved none of it, none at all, only the pimps and—  “A-Su needs your care—”

 

“She doesn’t anymore at this point; any doctor could—” 

 

“If anyone turns themselves in, it will be me,” Jin GuangYao retorted. The moment he said it, he wanted to vomit. I don’t want to die! 

 

It’s what I deserve. I almost didn’t let SiSi hold him—I brought them back here—it always leads back here, doesn’t it? I can never escape this place! Not ever! It was what Jun Wu had said.   

 

A-Su cried out. 

 

The System would like to remind you that redemptive death— 

 

I don’t want to die! 

 

Such a move will fail your redemption— 

 

According to what standards? he yelled. It’s impossible! It’s impossible… maybe they’ll at least remember me well. It’s all I can hope for. 

 

The System would like to remind you of the motto of the sect whose territory you stand in.

 

Jin GuangYao gulped. Attempt the impossible.

 

How? 

 

“You are not going to die, you brat,” snarled SiSi. “Or else your mama’s corpse will spring up and strangle the life from me.” 

 

If only he knew demonic cultivation and that was an option. If he stayed here, she was at risk. If he burned the place down, that would cause enough of a commotion they could escape, but— 

 

Would you like to enable a key reminder that would save you all? It would use the second of your three self-saving moves.  

 

Yes! Yes, do it now!

 

He waited. Nothing. System?

 

Reminder has been activated.

 

I don’t remember anything.

 

It is not you the System is reminding.

 

What? How was this helping? Jin GuangYao hesitated. Fine! “Let’s go. All of us. Towards the back.” He’d try to carry them all away. And if he needed to give HenSheng to Wen Qing, he would. He certainly wouldn’t let them take SiSi. He’d stay behind for her if necessary. He clutched SiSi’s arm. 

 

“Hey!” bellowed a prostitute’s voice as they hurried through the corridors, cloying air choking him. “They’re there, aren’t they! A family with a baby and I’ve never seen that girl before—” 

 

“Isn’t she a new whore?”

 

“No, there are two—” 

 

“I’ll tell!” yelled another girl, a young one. Too young.

 

“No, you don’t; the reward’s mine!” 

 

Jin GuangYao ripped out a cheap talisman, tossing it at them. They shrieked. He ran as fast as he could with Qin Su in his arms, Wen Qing clutching the baby, SiSi terrified. A little further. He could see the gleam of the moon. So close. His ankle twisted. He pushed the door open. He staggered into the back alleyway. 

 

And it was only to see a sword aimed at him, a sword glinting, a sword that cut him down just by the sight of it. 

 

He skidded to a halt, yanking out HenSheng. And then he froze. 

 

This is a dream.

 

The moon illuminated Lan XiChen’s face. 

 

Er-Ge’s eyes were wide with fear. ShouYue was already retracting, light gleaming from the sword and from Lan XiChen’s white robes. 

 

Jin GuangYao felt tears stinging his eyes. You remembered where I told you I grew up.

 

Lan QiRen let out a huff from behind Lan XiChen. It was just the two of them, and the cranky older man looked repulsed at the sight of them rushing from a brothel.

 

“Er-Ge,” Jin GuangYao managed. “I swear, I wasn’t here for anything untoward—we need to get to Lotus—”  

 

Lan XiChen was already moving. He nodded at Jin GuangYao as he grasped Wen Qing and A-Song, putting them on his sword. Lan QiRen glared at his nephew as he pulled SiSi onto his sword. SiSi yelped. Jin GuangYao leaped on HenSheng, and they soared away just as a group of cultivators flooded the alleyway.

 


 

“A whorehouse!” fumed Lan QiRen as they landed inside Lotus Pier. Jiang Cheng strode out to meet them. “Really, XiChen, you must see what kind of company you’re keeping—” 

 

“SiSi saved my mother many times, and she saved our lives and the life of my son right now,” Jin GuangYao panted. The System chirped in approval. “Don’t you dare disrespect her.” He wanted to vomit at disrespecting the elder Lan right now, but he had to. It was what SiSi would do for Mother, and for him. 

 

Lan QiRen’s face swelled. “Taking your wife into such a place—”

 

“I think I learned courage from a Wen and a prostitute more than I ever did in my cultivation,” remarked Qin Su, gingerly getting to her feet. 

 

SiSi burst into laughter. “I like you.” 

 

Jiang Cheng swore as he took in the sight of all of them. He rolled his eyes. 

 

Jin GuangYao cringed, turning to Lan XiChen. His vision blurred. “Er-Ge, thank you—thank you.” He bowed low. Lan XiChen’s hands caught him, as they always did. Even now…  

 

“Jin GuangYao!” 

 

Oh, shit. 

 

Jiang Cheng was not alone. 

 

Nie MingJue strode towards them, face a mask of barely constrained rage. HuaiSang peeked out from behind his brother, using his fan to flutter around his face, and behind him , standing at the entrance to the throne area, was a figure clad in yellow.

 

Jin ZiXuan. 

 

The sight of his two sworn brothers and his blood brother all looking at him—

 

They’d come for him. He turned back to Lan XiChen. Judging by his expression, Lan XiChen knew they were coming and didn’t believe they planned to arrest Jin GuangYao. “H-how did you know I was coming here?” 

 

“WangJi,” replied Lan XiChen.

 

Damn that WangJi. And also, thank goodness for him. Jin GuangYao heaved a sigh, exhaustion cramping each of his limbs. Lan XiChen caught his arm, spiritual energy streaming into Jin GuangYao.

 

“Yes, and now everyone will be coming to siege Lotus Pier again,” Jiang Cheng said bitterly. 

 

“Jiang WanYin, all sect leaders except Jin GuangShan are here,” pointed out Lan XiChen. “And his son and grandchild are here. You are not alone this time.”

 

Jiang YanLi and A-Ling are here

 

“I’ll take Qin Su inside to rest,” Wen Qing said. “Glad to see you look well, Sect Leader Jiang. Will you be able to tolerate my presence at least a little while?”

 

Jiang Cheng’s face turned as purple as his robes. He gestured. “A-Jie and my nephew are just inside.” 

 

Nie MingJue watched her help Qin Su away, SiSi following with A-Song in her arms. 

 

Jin GuangYao gulped. Four pairs of eyes—everyone’s save Nie HuaiSang’s, which focused on the blushing dawn—were now glued to him. The air was cool but still felt too warm, slipping hot fingers into his robes. He squirmed, yet he couldn’t get away from the sensation.

 

“Explain,” Nie MingJue said tersely, looking as if he was barely able to restrain himself from throttling Jin GuangYao. “Explain why you ran, explain why you disgraced yourself, explain why you made a fool of a blood brother who vouched for you!” 

 

Shit . Was Jin ZiXuan that hurt? Jin GuangYao sought out Jin ZiXuan’s gaze, but his brother avoided meeting it directly, focusing on Jin GuangYao’s hands, which were wringing his robes, instead. “I—”

 

“Da-Ge,” interjected Nie HuaiSang. “Perhaps we should—go inside?” 

 

A few moments later and Jiang Cheng was seated on the lotus-shaped seat, scowling. Jin GuangYao stood before him, afraid to even meet Lan XiChen’s eyes. Is this better or worse than last time, to you? 

 

At least I didn’t kill them. 

 

But they were alive for them to see the pain he’d caused them. Qin Su still almost died. He wrung his robes inside his fists, knuckles cracking from force. 

 

“Well?” asked Nie MingJue, breaking the silence. “What do you have to say for yourself?” 

 

He opened his mouth. He had to speak. But he—he shook his head. 

 

“Speak already,” Jiang Cheng snapped.

 

“I—” He could barely hear himself. “I don’t know what to say.” System?

 

The truth. Chances of someone killing you for it: with ZeWu-Jun’s presence, 0%. 

 

Well, what are the chances of them hating me?

 

“Did you lie to me?” burst out Jin ZiXuan. “After I stuck my neck out there for you? Were you working with Xue Yang without Father’s knowledge? Did you want to cause a rift between my father and me? Did you—” 

 

“No!” Jin GuangYao bellowed finally, looking up into his brother’s face. He looked so much like Madame Jin, and also like their father. His eyes stung. “I swear it, Ge—ZiXuan. I wasn’t. I ran from—I ran because—Father—Jin ZiXun said that he was holding Mo XuanYu captive, that he’d beaten him until he revealed something about me—something he could use against me, discredit me, to make it look like Xue Yang’s deeds really were my fault! I didn’t lie to you!”

 

“So then why did you run? I would have believed you!” yelled Jin ZiXuan. Nie MingJue glared from behind him. Lan XiChen closed his eyes. “ZiXun told me that Mo XuanYu came up with a lie because he was scared, and you saved Mo XuanYu from his own folly, but then why did you have to run? Why didn’t you come to me and ask me to protect our youngest brother? Are you really so afraid of a lie? Do you have so little confidence in me?”

 

Fuck. Jin GuangYao felt cold pooling in each of his limbs. “Did… Jin ZiXun tell you what Mo XuanYu said?”

 

Jin ZiXuan shook his head, lips curling. His fingers clenched around SuiHua. “Yes, and I won’t give it dignity by saying something so preposterous aloud!” 

 

Jin GuangYao couldn’t meet his eyes anymore. His gaze focused on his muddy boots. Dirty, like he was. Maybe even ruined. He tried to keep his lips together and failed. A sob cracked his chest.  

 

No one else made a sound. And then— 

 

“It can’t be true,” Jin ZiXuan said, taking a step back. “It can’t be!” 

 

He really was going to lose everything. He dropped to his knees, face towards the floor. “I—didn’t know until—until after—” 

 

“It’s true?” whispered Jin ZiXuan. 

 

“What?” demanded Nie MingJue. “What’s true? What happened?” 

 

“A-Yao,” came Lan XiChen’s voice. “A-Yao, I don’t understand. What are you so afraid of?” His voice trembled, like he was afraid. 

 

Jiang Cheng said nothing, but he was watching. Jin GuangYao could feel the disgust falling onto him. HuaiSang, do you want to help me this time? Say it for me? 

 

Of course not. Maybe HuaiSang had always despised Jin GuangYao. He tried to swallow a bitter laugh and choked on it.

 

“Did you harm Qin Su?” demanded Nie MingJue, completely confused. “I can't imagine—”

 

“No!” Jin GuangYao insisted. “She stabbed herself—I mean, it wasn’t—it is why she stabbed herself, but—” 

 

Jin ZiXuan looked as if he was about to faint. He gaped, skin ashen, hands open in shock. He slammed SuiHua down into the floor, holding onto it for support. 

 

“A-Yao,” whispered Lan XiChen, truly frightened. 

 

It’s no easier to have him see the truth in this life. He didn’t know if he could bear it. He shivered, squirming, desperate. He wished he could choke on air rather than have to say this out loud. 

 

“What happened?” Nie MingJue tried again. “Your father—you said he would want me dead eventually. Why do you still assume I will take his side against you?” 

 

“Because I really am as horrific and disgusting and sinful as you think, but not in—I never meant to be!” Jin GuangYao cried out. “I had no choice!” ZiXuan, please, GeGe—can I call you that ever again?   

 

Nie MingJue drew in his breath. 

 

“I hate myself,” Jin GuangYao whispered. “I hate myself!” But I still don’t want to die! 

 

“Are you trying for pity?” 

 

“If you had no choice,” Jin ZiXuan choked out. “Tell me how, and why , now. Give me and your sworn brothers, and my brother-in-law, a chance to believe you!” 

 

“Please, A-Yao,” said Lan XiChen, studying him with eyes so trusting that they gave him a tiny bit of spiritual energy, enough to loosen the ties in his chests just enough for the truth to trickle out. 

 

“Soon after Qin CangYe gave his approval for our marriage,” Jin GuangYao managed to mumble. “Madame Qin came to visit me. And she told me—she told me that my father, that beast —she told me that years ago, when he was drunk, he raped her. She couldn’t bring herself to tell her husband. She was afraid of the cultivational world’s disgrace.”

 

“What?” Nie MingJue sounded enraged. 

 

“His own best friend’s wife! He didn’t listen to her pleas or anything! He didn’t even seem to remember that—that he’d—that he had a daughter.” Jin GuangYao finally pried his neck up, meeting the only gaze he could look at, the only gaze he had hope in, the gaze that could hold him up or throw him lower than he’d ever been. If you believe in me, even if they all hate me, I can take it .   

 

Lan XiChen’s face drained of color. Jin ZiXuan swore. Lan QiRen gave a huff.

 

“She told me that—that Qin Su and I could never be husband and wife, but only ever could be—brother and sister.” He couldn’t speak further. A shrill cry emerged from his lips, thrust out of him by a despair he hadn’t ever voiced before, not in either life. 

 

“And you married her anyways?” Nie MingJue burst out. “The disgrace that—” 

 

“Da-Ge, don't yell at him!” Lan XiChen, Lan XiChen, he was there, pulling Da-Ge away from him grasping Jin GuangYao, standing between them, like he always was. And then he whirled to face Jin GuangYao himself, pain raw on his face. “Why, A-Yao? I don't understand. How could you—how could you do that? Even if it meant breaking Qin Su’s heart, why didn't you end the engagement? I don't understand.” 

 

“Who would have suffered most?” Jin GuangYao croaked out. “If Qin CangYe and Jin GuangShan had fallen out from—”

 

“Then treat her coldly! Why did you have to make her pregnant?” Lan XiChen’s eyes glittered with tears.

 

“She was already pregnant!” Jin GuangYao didn’t tear his gaze away. Tears streamed down his face. “I didn’t lay a single finger on her after I found out. Not before our wedding, not after. That was what we argued about the other night. I was afraid of any further delays—she was—Madame Qin knows, she knows now, why I—”

 

“You slept with her before you were married?” Nie MingJue glared, and it was coming. He knew it was coming, and there was no way to stop it. 

 

Son of a whore. He clamped his hands to his ears in an attempt to block those words out. He finally tore his gaze from Lan XiChen’s. He couldn’t bear it. If he heard those words, he’d never find redemption. He couldn’t take it. He just couldn’t. System, GuanYin, Mother, anyone, help me! 

 

Lan XiChen stepped closer, shielding him. 

 

“Shut up!” bellowed a new voice.

 

What?

 

Why do you think you can judge a situation based on only half the story? This is why you men are ruining everything! I really wanted to sleep with him back then! A-Yao rejected my advances many times, until Father finally gave his approval for our betrothal, and then he gave in! Jin ZiXuan, I know you can hardly judge that!”  

 

Jin GuangYao’s mouth hung open. Qin Su staggered into the room, clutching her chest in pain, Wen Qing supporting her. She jabbed her finger at the men.

 

“Excuse me, what?” Jiang Cheng said icily, rising. His head turned towards his brother-in-law.

 

Jin ZiXuan shrunk back. 

 

“Honestly, fuck all of you,” Qin Su panted, the foul words so strange coming from her childlike face. “Men like you—men who judge without learning everything—you’re why a disgrace like me exists in the first place!” She covered her face, screaming, a wordless cry. “A sin like me shouldn’t exist—shouldn’t—” 

 

“No!” Jin GuangYao protested. “You do exist, A-Su—”

 

“You do,” came Jiang YanLi’s voice. She carried two babies in her arms. “And I’m glad you exist, A-Su. No matter where you come from.” Her cheeks glistened wet. “If my husband can come from a man who is so evil towards your mother, towards—so many—then that proves your worth isn’t based on him. You’re good. You’re my friend .”   

 

A-Su gaped up at Jiang YanLi. 

 

“I learned long ago that the only thing that can make you disgusting is your choices,” said SiSi’s voice. “Not what was done to you, Qin Su.”

 

“Still,” Qin Su said, voice shaking. She glared at Da-Ge, at Lan QiRen. “You can’t condemn him without condemning me also.”

 

I never deserved your love . It was too pure. Jin GuangYao bowed his head to the ground in front of her. That you are my sister is too good for me. “You aren’t a sin, A-Su,” he managed. “I’m the one who didn’t tell you. You’re not.” Keep breathing. Keep living.

 

It’s good to live.

 

“Then neither are you,” she replied, and he understood. 

 

If that’s what it takes for you to believe it, then—I’ll try. I’ll do. I’ll believe it. And live to stop apologizing for my mother.

 

“A-Yao,” came Lan XiChen’s voice, and he shuddered. And then he saw white robes dropping in front of him, Lan XiChen kneeling before him.

 

“XiChen,” came Lan QiRen’s voice. “This is a disgrace, he’ll be—”

 

“With all due respect, that’s not for you to say, Lan QiRen. He’s of my sect,” shot back Jin ZiXuan. 

 

Jin GuangYao finally lifted his head. Jin ZiXuan… wasn’t disavowing him? 

 

Lan XiChen peered at him.

 

“I’m sorry,” he managed. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Yue QingYuan’s words came back to him. Thanks, System. I know ‘I’m sorry’ is nothing but an empty phrase; it’s completely useless. But you have to hear it. It isn’t so I can beg for understanding. It isn’t so I can win sympathy, but rather, if I don’t say it now… I cannot live with myself. I’m sorry I didn’t trust you, Er-Ge, or you, Ge—ZiXuan. I—I cared too much about what others thought of me. In trying to protect everyone I hurt—I hurt A-Su, I hurt you all, I hurt so many. I know it. I was afraid that you wouldn’t listen, that you wouldn’t understand; I was afraid that I wasn’t enough, that I’d been too awful in the past. I didn’t trust you because—because I thought you all—” I really liked you all. 

 

“Who is behind Xue Yang and the corpses?” Lan XiChen asked.

 

It hurt that he had to ask. He shuddered. “My father.”

 

“Did you suspect Qin Su was your sister before you—” Lan XiChen swallowed.

 

“No.”

 

“We cannot turn aside from incest,” said Lan QiRen.

 

“If he receives punishment, it won’t be from me, Uncle,” Lan XiChen snapped. His hand rested on Jin GuangYao’s shoulder, not shielding him, but crouching beside him. “He is my sworn brother. And he’s of the Jin Sect.” 

 

He sobbed. 

 

Jin ZiXuan looked ashen. “A-Yao.” 

 

You’re still calling me that?  

 

“What a disaster,” Jin ZiXuan managed. And then he walked over to Jin GuangYao. “Get up.”

 

I can’t. He had no strength. 

 

A hand slid to his elbow. Lan XiChen helped him to his feet. Jin GuangYao’s heart pounded. Please have mercy. He wanted to beg. He needed the right words. System— 

 

“As Jin Sect Leader,” said Jin ZiXuan. “As your GeGe, I pardon you, A-Yao.” 

 

GeGe—you still want to be?

 

Sect Leader… you? 

 

His words sank in. Not Jin Sect heir. 

 

Leader. 

 

Jin GuangYao gaped. For me?

 

Jiang YanLi beamed. 

 

“Gusu Lan Sect will support you, Jin ZiXuan,” Lan XiChen said, ignoring Lan QiRen’s grimace. 

 

“Yunmeng Jiang as well,” said Jiang Cheng, standing next to his sister.

 

“If you really hate what the Wen Sect stands for and not just Wens,” came Wen Qing’s voice, directed at Nie MingJue. “Well, now’s your chance to prove it, considering it looks like we have another Wen RouHan stewing.” 

 

“QingHe Nie is behind you, Jin ZiXuan,” said Nie MingJue. Nie HuaiSang had almost vanished behind his fan. 

 

Behind Jin ZiXuan. What about me?

 

“Da-Ge…” He couldn’t believe he was really pushing his luck now. He couldn’t help it. 

 

Tell me not to use that name for you again.

 

Tell me I’m the son of a prostitute.

 

I can’t stand it; just tell me! I’m so greedy; I always want more!

 

Could he still be forgiven? 

 

But he did not get to hear the answer just then, because his vision blurred crimson, and he passed out. 

Chapter Text

He awoke in a small chamber inside Lotus Pier. His head throbbed. He shifted. A soft blanket lay across him, gentle light braiding silver and gold together falling from a window onto his form. 

 

“He’s awake,” came Wen Qing’s voice. “Take better care of yourself, Young Master Jin. Your body couldn’t handle the stress.” She hovered over him, and then stepped back from his bed. 

 

He winced. “A-Su—” His voice came raspy. 

 

“She and A-Song are fine. SiSi is enjoying playing with the babies, and Jiang YanLi has shown them around Lotus Pier.” Wen Qing dipped her head. “And now, people who actually know about the military brouhaha brewing are here.” She waved her hand as she slipped back behind a screen.

 

Lan XiChen rushed around the screen, jaw slack with relief when he saw Jin GuangYao awake. Nie MingJue followed, arms folded. 

 

They know . His cheeks flooded with heat. He sat up slowly. Colors swam in front of his eyes. 

 

“Here.” Da-Ge held something out to him.

 

His hat. He blinked at it. 

 

“It fell last night when XiChen carried you back here,” said Nie MingJue. 

 

A lump formed in his throat. He took it, fitting it onto his head. “I’m—” He swallowed. “Da-Ge, Er-Ge, I know I was wrong. I know it.”

 

“What do you want?” Nie MingJue demanded.

 

He flinched. His stomach churned. The answer was formless, wordless, and he couldn’t stuff it into words. 

 

“I’m not asking that out of anger. What do you want? You have to tell me.” 

 

Oh . He lifted his face and saw Lan XiChen’s soft smile. You spoke to him for me. Again

 

The System estimates your chances of being anything other than brutally honest as 95% likely to enrage Nie MingJue.

 

And if I am honest?

 

22%. 

 

He had no choice, did he? Even if the truth didn’t fit the words well. “I want... your approval,” he managed. “I want your forgiveness. I want you to—love me like your little brother. I want your—I want to be redeemed in your eyes. I would do—a lot of things for it.” He cringed. “I never had—” His chest heaved. His voice cracked. “In the Nie Sect, you were the first person who stood up for me! You were the first person besides Lan XiChen and my mother who saw me as someone who could be good. I—” Crave that. “I want to be a good man, but I don’t know how, especially when I’m starting on so much lower a point than you. I don’t want you to hate me!” The words sounded raw, pathetic, even manipulative. He was scared. 

 

“Hmph.” Nie MingJue blew out his breath.

 

“You choose,” said Lan XiChen, easing himself down next to him, hand against his back. “Every day. You can choose your fate, A-Yao. If they revile you, we’ll stand by you. That was why we made that vow of brotherhood.” 

 

Nie MingJue shook his head. “You were one of the best soldiers I had ever seen. You worked so hard. Was that all for the vain hope of—”

 

Not again, not again! This couldn’t be happening! “What is vain hope, and what’s good? What should be my motivation to be good?” Jin GuangYao asked desperately. 

 

Nie MingJue couldn’t respond. He frowned. “You can never be the person I thought you were.”

 

Fuck . He wanted to shrivel and die.

 

“But,” said Nie MingJue. “You can be a good man anyways, A-Yao, and if any part of that was a lie, I would rather you be who you are, struggles and all.”

 

A-Yao.  

 

That name. 

 

He glanced up, hardly daring to hope. He squinted in the light. 

 

“You cannot ask me to trust you when you don’t trust me,” said Nie MingJue. “So. I will try to be someone you can trust. I will try to listen to you and approach things from your perspective. And you will try to approach them from mine.” 

 

Wen RouHan traumatized you when he tricked your father.

 

You don’t want to be him.

 

I, at least, can understand that . He nodded.

 

And then he couldn’t keep it in. A sob broke through his mouth, and he doubled over. Lan XiChen held him. And then he felt Nie MingJue sitting down next to him, patting his back awkwardly, and he sobbed harder, and both his brothers held him, and Nie MingJue stroked his hair like Mother used to do when he was sick. 

 


 

 

“Bad news,” said Lan QiRen, still avoiding even looking at Jin GuangYao. “The Burial Mounds have been attacked.”

 

“What?” Jin GuangYao leaped to his feet, Jin ZiXuan next to him. They had been discussing plans. “ZiXun and Su MinShan will be arriving,” Jin ZiXuan had said. “Mo XuanYu with them. A-Yao, I want to keep it as quiet as possible for A-Su’s sake, for yours as well, but I’m not sure how successful we’ll be.”

 

“Try,” he’d pleaded. “For A-Song.” 

 

“The survivors are, well—” Lan QiRen curled his lip. 

 

Sure enough, on the pavilion stood Wei WuXian, A-Yuan in his arms, and Lan WangJi. Several other bedraggled Wens were behind him, including Wen Ning. Jiang Cheng looked as he was about to qi deviate right then and there. 

 

“WangJi,” Lan XiChen gasped in relief. 

 

“I suppose I have to put up Wens now,” Jiang Cheng said tightly. 

 

The grandmother wasn’t there. Jin GuangYao caught Wen Ning’s eyes. He gestured, asking.

 

Wen Ning shook his head. 

 

A-Yuan was an orphan now, again. Little SiZhui. The toddler sobbed, burying his face in Wei WuXian’s neck. Wei WuXian looked sick, face gaunt. There were only five survivors. Jin GuangYao swallowed. 

 

“I couldn’t save them,” Wei WuXian whispered. 

 

“Why did you ever think you could, or that it was your place to?” Jiang Cheng reproached him. At the same time, Jin GuangYao could detect some relief shining in Jiang Cheng’s voice. He had his brother back, at least temporarily. 

 

Lan WangJi kept his hand on Wei WuXian’s elbow, as if steadying him. Jin GuangYao didn’t know what to say. 

 

Jiang Cheng rushed about, barking out plans. The crowds dissipated. Wen Ning embraced his sister, who then hurried off yelling about how she needed to lecture Sect Leader Nie on something. Jin GuangYao approached the corpse, the sun beating down on his head, warm despite the time of year. 

 

Corpses, Wens, incestuous siblings, prostitutes, and sect leaders. From what he’d grown up hearing of Madame Yu, she would rise from her ashes if she could to whip them all into shape with Zidian. Jin GuangYao bit back a smile as he clutched the rail, looking down at the lilypads in the water below. 

 

“Is Qin Su all right?” Wen Ning asked. 

 

He nodded. “She’s inside.” He hung his head. “You will hear some news shortly. We are… not husband and wife, but brother and sister.”

 

If possible, the corpse grew even stiffer. 

 

“Everyone will scorn her,” said Jin GuangYao, a breeze too cool for comfort chasing away the sun’s kindly warmth. “And me. I have my brothers, and she has—Jiang YanLi, and—” 

 

“I am sorry,” Wen Ning whispered. “I will not repeat this.” 

 

“Thank you.” He wasn’t even entirely sure why he was telling Wen Ning. Maybe because he didn’t care about the corpse’s opinion. Maybe because he esteemed it. Maybe he esteemed it because he was grateful for the corpse doing what he could not: at least giving A-Su a kernel of encouragement to live. 

 

“It’s painful to have everyone hate you, scorn you,” Wen Ning said. “Even when the Wen Sect was alive and well, I was—p-people looked down on me. I could shoot an arrow, but I was a stutterer. Death seems to have—taken most of that away, but still.” 

 

“Do you wish you had stayed dead?”

 

“No,” said Wen Ning. “But I miss feeling the sunlight.” He almost smiled, as much as he could. “But I can at least see it, and I know it’s there, and other people can feel it.”

 

Jin GuangYao leaned his head back, trying to drink it what he could before the next cold breeze swept over them. “I ended a war and caused another one.”

 

“No,” Wen Ning said firmly. “Your father caused this war, Jin GuangYao. And, truth to be told, I was glad you ended our past war. We did not deserve to win—but we also didn’t deserve what happened to us in those camps.” He looked sad. 

 

Why does it have to be one or the other? Why do you have to be trampled on or be the tramplers? 

 

“I have always been a barely,” said Wen Ning. “Barely a Wen. An archer, but I couldn’t perform in front of people. Barely a human in those camps, now, barely alive. A corpse, of course, I’m not alive, but I still—feel like I am in a lot of ways.” 

 

“That should make you angry,” said Jin GuangYao. “It makes me angry, for myself. Qin Su used to say that anyone who looked down on me could answer to her.”

 

Wen Ning nodded. “Her suicide attempt, Young Master Jin: it’s not your fault. Some of my relatives—well, they ended their lives in the camps. It wasn’t because we failed them, or because they failed—it’s just that sometimes, pain is unbearable, and it’s lonely.” 

 

You’re the only corpse who has ever awakened.

 

You must feel so alone. Jin GuangYao nodded. “Thank you.” 

 

“A-Yao,” called Lan XiChen’s voice. He turned. Er-Ge gave a small smile. “Can we talk?”

 

He nodded, hurrying next to Lan XiChen. They moved along the pier, vendors hawking their wares despite surely being aware of the brewing tension. Jiang Sect cultivators milled about, keeping watch for members of the Jin Sect. Despite claiming he wanted to talk, Lan XiChen was silent. 

 

“Mother bought me my first hat from near here,” Jin GuangYao blurted out, unable to stand it. 

 

“Oh?” Lan XiChen turned to him. His eyes sparkled. “Is that where the hat comes from?”

 

He gave a small nod. “She said a gentleman always looked nice.”

 

Lan XiChen chuckled. 

 

“She was a good woman,” he said finally, out loud. He’d always thought it. He never said it, because he was afraid of the condemnation heaped upon her for what she was forced to live. Because he was ashamed of her. Because he didn’t deserve to be her son. His chest tightened. 

 

“I don’t doubt it,” Lan XiChen said. “From what I recall, mine was… too.” He sighed. 

 

“I wish I could have seen your uncle’s face when you said you were stopping by a brothel,” Jin GuangYao remarked.

 

Lan XiChen actually did snort at those words. “He was quite appalled.” He lowered his chin. “Truthfully, I think Uncle is more than a little disappointed in me.”

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“Not for you,” said Lan XiChen. “Do not apologize. I won’t, not for being your Er-Ge.” 

 

Jin GaungYao’s heart felt warm now, too warm. It beat faster. He flushed. Maybe Mother would forgive him, too, even for his shame over her. “He still came with you, didn’t he?”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“Your uncle. He came with you, even though he was disappointed.” Jin GuangYao smiled at him. “Maybe you let him down, but he still chose to stick by you.” Like you and Da-Ge stick by me . He shivered at the memory. And he recalled Luo BingHe, MoBei-Jun… Yue QingYuan, Shen Jiu.

 

They let you down.

 

You, too, let me down, Lan XiChen.

 

But not in this world. Not yet. 

 

“You don’t have to be perfect,” Lan XiChen said. 

 

Are you speaking to me, or to yourself? “Neither do you,” Jin GuangYao replied, pausing. 

 

“I certainly am not,” Lan XiChen agreed.

 

No, but you try. You try to escape the shadow of your father, of your mother. You bear their shame. You try to live up to your uncle’s standards like I try to live up to Da-Ge’s, and all it brought you was molding you into your father. 

 

Don’t be perfect, Lan XiChen. 

 

You are still my light. 

 

“Did you know about the corpses beforehand?” Jin GuangYao asked. “Everyone believed me so easily. I find it hard to believe that no one vouched for me—”

 

“Yes,” said Lan XiChen. “I had an inkling, I suppose. I assumed you had your reasons. I trusted you that—”

 

“I didn’t,” Jin GuangYao said. “Not beyond pettily trying to earn Father's approval.” His voice cracked. “Do you know what he said, XiChen?”

 

“Mm?”

 

He wanted to tell him. He wanted him to know. And he wanted to hear an assurance, see if Lan XiChen would pity him still. “I wanted his approval more than anything. But do you know what it was that made me lose hope completely? It wasn’t that I’d never be worth a single hair on Jin ZiXuan or one of the holes in Jin ZiXun, it wasn’t that he took back Mo XuanYu, it wasn’t that he tried every possible way to make me a mere figurehead either. It was the truth he once told the maid beside me when he was out indulging himself again. Why was a sect leader who spent money like water unwilling to do the smallest favor and buy my mother’s freedom? Simple—it was too much trouble. My mother waited for so many years, weaving together so many difficult circumstances when she talked to me, imagining for his sake so many hardships. And the real reason was only a single word: trouble.

 

“This is what he said, ‘It’s especially women who’ve read some books who think they’re a level higher than other women. They’re the most troublesome, with so many demands and unrealistic thoughts. If I bought her freedom and took her back to Lanling, who knows how much fuss she’d make. It was best that I let her stay where she was just like that. With her conditions, she’d probably be popular for a few more years. She wouldn’t have to worry about her spendings for the rest of her life.’

 

“‘Son? Oh, forget it.’

 

“Er-Ge, look, these three words are all that I’m worth to my father, ‘Oh, forget it.’” He couldn’t stop the laughter even now, the laughter that swung wildly about, cutting at him from the inside. 

 

“A-Yao.” Lan XiChen clutched his shoulders as a sob broke through. “You are not something to be forgotten.” 

 

Don’t forget me.

 

Don’t forget this moment. 

 

Even when the timelines merge, don’t forget this, please. 

 

Jin GuangYao peered up at Lan XiChen, a lump in his throat, and he knew that it was true, just as he’d known in his past life and tried to avoid it. 

 

It’s you.

 

Fortunately a familiar voice broke through the air. Both of them spun around. 

 

A man draped in a black robe trotted in front of a white-robed Jade of Gusu. 

 

”This wasn’t how I planned on showing you Lotus Pier,” Wei WuXian remarked. “I wanted to see if you could possibly have some fun.” He stuffed a steamed bun into his mouth. Lan WangJi nibbled on his. “Your smiles are so rare, Lan Zhan.” He paused by a certain tree. “Hey, Lan Zhan.” 

 

“Mn?”

 

“I climbed this tree as a child.” Wei WuXian grabbed the branches, hauling himself up like he was eight years old again. Jin GuangYao stood still, watching, XiChen at his side. 

 

“Catch!” Wei WuXian let go, and Lan WangJi caught him.

 

Lan XiChen’s brow furrowed. His mouth form a circle. 

 

Jin GuangYao smiled at him. Lan WangJi did not release Wei WuXian, still holding him. Wei WuXian’s arms were clasped around his neck, and they were staring at each other.

 

“Hey!” barked a voice. Jiang Cheng scowled as he marched over, probably bitter that now that his brother was finally back, he chose to spend time with someone else rather than him. “Are you going to help us plan out a strategy or play around with whatever this thing you have is?” 

 

Lan XiChen frowned.

 

“Watch it,” warned Wei WuXian. 

 

“Jiang WanYin,” Lan XiChen cut in. “Whatever is going on between my brother and Young Master Wei isn’t our concern. Let’s just head back, all of us, mm?” He smiled brightly.

 

Wei WuXian looked surprised to see ZeWu-Jun and Jin GuangYao out as well. He let out a huff, storming ahead of them.

 

Congratulations! Your next task is to help Wei Ying and his brother, Jiang Cheng, reveal the truth to one another! 

 

Congratulations, that’s never going to happen! It’s impossible!

 

Where are you again?

 

Shut up. 

 

He couldn't wait. Given time and the stakes Wei WuXian would probably screw this up, too. Especially considering everyone's team-up with Wei WuXian and who their opponent was, could Wei WuXian just for once consider that the second things went wrong, people would turn on him? You need allies! “Secrets don’t help,” Jin GuangYao began to Wei WuXian. “I learned that.”

 

Wei WuXian arched his brows. “The truth doesn’t always help either.” 

 

“Why do you think he doesn’t have any dogs he loved?” asked Jin GuangYao. “If he’s not waiting for you to come home?” 

 

Wei WuXian’s face blanched. Lan WangJi cast Jin GuangYao a sidelong glance. 

 

Lan XiChen was too polite to ask. So was Lan WangJi. Jin GuangYao gritted his teeth. Fine then. I’ll play the bad guy. Again. “Jiang WanYin!” 

 

“Don’t you fucking dare!” Wei WuXian lunged for him. 

 

Lan XiChen jumped in front of him. Lan WangJi jumped in front of Wei WuXian. The brothers blinked at each other.

 

Well, this is awkward. 

 

“You can’t!” Wei WuXian gasped. “You really can’t; you—” 

 

“I very much can, Wei WuXian,” Jin GuangYao retorted. 

 

“What is happening, WangJi?” asked Lan XiChen.

 

Lan WangJi shook his head, clueless as well. 

 

“What the fuck are you dillydallying for?” Jiang Cheng demanded. 

 

Well, there was no SuiBian to prove it this time. There were, however, two talking Wens. “Jin ZiXun is not going to want to work with Wens, and we need him, Young Master Wei. If Jiang Cheng and Nie MingJue vouch for—Da-Ge already will, but—” 

 

“Vouch for them?” Jiang Cheng demanded. “Pah! They can stay because they’re helping, but I have no intention of—” 

 

They wouldn’t have told you,” Wei WuXian retorted. “So who did? How do you know? Is it really just deduction?”

 

The system set off an alarm. Jin GuangYao gulped. “Like I said before. It’s not hard to deduce who would have helped.”

 

“Helped with what?” Jiang Cheng demanded. 

 

“Ask him to use his spiritual energy to push you,” Jin GuangYao said, and the moment he said it, he knew Wei WuXian would never forgive him. Lan XiChen frowned. 

 

“Why?” demanded Jiang Cheng. “Want to see me with my face in the dirt? I’m Sect Leader here, and that’s my shixiong, and—”

 

“I thought you disowned each other,” Jin GuangYao countered. Wei WuXian cowered behind Lan WangJi. Oh, fuck this.

 

Jin GuangYao lashed out, kicking at Wei WuXian. Lan WangJi knocked him back, and Jin GuangYao was the one with his face in the dirt, grass stuffed up his nostrils, teeth planted in mud. He spat it out. Lan XiChen rushed over.  

 

“If you don’t tell the truth, then it’ll all be for nothing!” Jin GuangYao yelled. “You don’t know—you don’t realize—until I told Jin ZiXuan, Da-Ge, Er-Ge the truth, I was—we could never get anywhere! I still don’t know if we can, but I hope—I want—” Tears pooled in his eyes. “ Tell him the truth! Or else you’re a coward who doesn’t deserve to be his shixiong!” 

 

“What the fuck?” yelled Jiang Cheng. Lan WangJi’s eyes flashed, actually angry now. 

 

“Do you want to lose control eventually? Or do you want help? You have to ask for it.” Jin GuangYao wiped at his face. 

 

“Why now?” Wei WuXian shouted at him. “Why are you making me—you can’t force me to feel what you feel!” 

 

“Because if you don’t, others will target you! And you’re A-Li’s little brother! And she’s A-Su’s best friend! Of course I care!” And I don’t want you to be torn to pieces again! “Do you want to hurt them? Do you want to hurt HanGuang-Jun? Or—” 

 

Wei WuXian’s face screwed up, his lips trembling. 

 

“You’re not a god,” Jin GuangYao said, getting to his feet. “The rules still apply to you. You can’t escape consequences, and you’re smart enough to know it even if you ignore it.”

 

Wei WuXian’s hand shoved out, shoving Jiang Cheng. It barely moved him backwards. 

 

“Huh?” Jiang Cheng blinked. “What are you doing, listening to—”

 

Wei WuXian shoved him again, without looking at Jiang Cheng, both hands this time. Understanding began to dawn on Lan WangJi’s face, Lan XiChen’s. 

 

Shame crippled Wei WuXian’s face, shame that his secret was exposed, shame that he was so helpless and they knew it now. “I’m sorry.” 

 

Jiang Cheng’s mouth hung open. “You—you too? But then why couldn’t she mend it?” 

 

Now the Lan brothers just looked confused. 

 

“She’d written a paper…” whispered Wei WuXian. 

 

The truth began to seep into Jiang Cheng’s face. He stumbled back. “No.” 

 

Wei WuXian shook his head. “Wen Qing said no at first, but—” 

 

“No.” Jiang Cheng glared at him. “No, no, no!” He pushed Wei WuXian, sending him flying onto his back. “Push back!” His voice was clogged with tears. “Push back!”

 

Wei WuXian just looked up at him, helpless.

 

“You—why? Why do you have to be better than me? Why? Can’t I—”

 

“You could never equal him,” Jin GuangYao said coldly. Wei WuXian gaped, struggling to catch his breath. 

 

Jiang Cheng whirled, racing back towards Lotus Pier. Lan WangJi grasped Wei WuXian, helping him to his feet. Wei WuXian’s head hung low.

 

“Core-Melting Hand?” ventured Lan XiChen. 

 

“It wasn’t Wei WuXian’s that he melted,” Jin GuangYao said. “Remember one of Wen Qing’s papers I went over with you?” 

 

Lan XiChen’s mouth hung open. 

 

“I could never equal you either, Young Master Wei,” Jin GuangYao said, still panting from Lan WangJi’s blow. Wei WuXian met his eyes, his own empty. “I’m sorry.” 

 

He strode towards Lotus Pier. He couldn't face Lan XiChen.

 

The System admits you accomplished your task, but it is not pleased with how you did it. No points. 

 

He didn’t even care. Lan XiChen caught up with him, grasping his arm. "A-Yao!"

 

"Don't," he said. "Don't, please."

 

Lan XiChen's brows pinched. "I've never known you to blurt things out so carelessly."

 

"Well, you've never known me to have slept with my sister, fathered a child, and have my father want nothing more than my head either, have you?" he cried out.

 

"Yes," Lan XiChen said. "Apparently I have, even if I didn't realize it! But that's not as if it makes everything about you fake! You are still the friend I had! You are scared, and you're trying to make everyone else afraid, too! But we're here!"

 

He gaped at him. I'm actually trying to make everyone else happy! System, you've set me up for failure, to have to lie! "Do you hate me? Because WangJi will?"

 

Lan XiChen's nose wrinkled. "Of course not, A-Yao." He actually sounded hurt.

 

"I don't know what I'm supposed to do," he whispered.

 

Lan XiChen's face changed. He stepped closer, eyes searching his entire body as if looking for a curse, or something that would reveal just what he was so afraid of. But there was nothing. Here, he was clean, but with the past, could he truly ever be? "A-Yao..."

 

A scream broke out. Lan XiChen grasped his arm, pulling him along as they sprinted into the courtyard to see Lan QiRen, of all people, landing. A woman tumbled to the ground, her pretty pink dress stained red. Her face had been slashed up.

 

“SiSi!”

Chapter Text

“I wouldn’t have had to deal with this if the two of you hadn’t flitted off some place!” thundered Lan QiRen to Lan XiChen. Jin GuangYao paced, hat in his hands. “I went looking for you and your brother, and—”

 

He’d had enough of Lan QiRen insulting Lan XiChen’s righteousness. He’d had enough of all of it. “So what you’re saying is that you regret that you were there to help SiSi?” demanded Jin GuangYao, stopping. “How brave you are. How righteous.”

 

“That’s not what I’m saying!” Lan QiRen’s face purpled. 

 

Jin GuangYao wondered what he must have thought, seeing the woman who was helping them be attacked like this. Had he hesitated before helping her? Did he fend people off for her? His robes were stained with a prostitute’s blood; wasn’t he worried about contamination? 

 

“What happened?” demanded Jiang YanLi, sprinting towards them, Qin Su beside her. Jin ZiXuan followed, shock on his face. 

 

Wen Qing was tending to SiSi. As far as Jin GuangYao had been able to tell, SiSi’s wounds had been seven or eight sharp cuts, deep but not fatal, to her face. He couldn’t help but remember Wei WuXian’s story about saving MianMian, that girl from the Jin Sect, from getting her face burned off by Wen Chao’s mistress. The incident that launched the Sunshot Campaign. 

 

Lan QiRen shook his head. “Group of lowlife thugs. Probably former customers.”

 

You fool. “I doubt it,” Jin GuangYao said. “It’s much more likely a client’s wife or other lover hired them. The targeting of the face is the work of a jealous person.”

 

“Hmph.” Lan QiRen folded his arms.

 

“How did you find her?” asked Jiang YanLi, blinking innocently at the stoic grump. 

 

“I heard screaming while looking for my wayward nephews,” retorted Lan QiRen, sending Jin ZiXuan’s brows up his forehead at the idea that the two jades of Lan would be anything close to “wayward.” “I had no idea the woman had even left this place.” 

 

The door opened. Jin GuangYao spun. Wen Qing slipped out, blood still on her hands, crusted around her fingernails. “She’ll be all right.”

 

“The scars?” ventured Jin GuangYao. 

 

Wen Qing pressed her lips together. She sighed. Lan XiChen closed his eyes. 

 

“She saved my mother,” Jin GuangYao whispered. “And me. Years ago. After a client kicked me down the stairs and humiliated her. She shamed them all for humiliating Mother.” He closed his eyes. 

 

“We will give her a job,” Jiang YanLi said instantly. “Jin Sect can—” 

 

“Your reputation,” Lan QiRen cut in. “Surely, ZiXuan, you—”

 

He really couldn’t handle the sanctimony, not now. His reputation was already shredded; what did he have to lose? “Are you actually blaming—” 

 

“Oh, stuff it,” came a voice. Jin GuangYao winced, knowing what was coming. Shadows of nightfall drifted through the hallway as SiSi pried the door open, bandages wrapped over her face. 

 

“Really, you shouldn’t be talking, SiSi, rest your face,” Wen Qing tried, eyes flashing as if she’d like to have a chance to go at Lan QiRen. 

 

But, no.

 

“I’m guessing you think I deserved it?” SiSi asked, glaring undeterred at Lan QiRen. “Let me ask you, Master Lan: do you think I wanted to be a prostitute? Do you think this was what I had planned for my life? Do you think you have choices when you are twelve and your parents are dead, and someone offers you a place to earn money, to sleep, and it’s so cold out you can’t feel your fingers? When they tell you you will be learning how to stitch clothing, be a maid for a family, can maybe find a merchant husband that way? And then you wake up naked next to the man and realize he drugged your tea, and locks you up for a few weeks until you see customers? And by then, everyone has seen your face, and you know the only way you can marry a rich merchant now is through trying to seduce them? What would you do then, hm? What would you do?” 

 

Jin GuangYao swallowed. He remembered SiSi’s story. She’d always been brash, unashamed. Or was that just armor? 

 

Lan QiRen sputtered. “Go to the law—” 

 

“The law? Oh yes, because the most powerful were certainly not the ones paying to have one of the first goes at a young, recently deflowered girl,” SiSi retorted.

 

Jin ZiXuan looked as if he was going to be sick. Qin Su looked as if she was about to grasp HenSheng from Jin GuangYao’s waistband and march towards the brothel to destroy them all. Lan XiChen closed his eyes. 

 

“Who would take a former whore in?” SiSi asked. Her voice trembled. “If I wanted to leave, where would I go? Is it so wrong for me to want to live, not to starve to death for vain honor that can’t save anybody? Your honor is not honor if it only benefits the blessed, Lan QiRen. It’s cowardice, and it’s fear. You just want to prove you’re better.” 

 

“I do not condemn you,” said Lan XiChen, and everyone gaped at him, especially his uncle. Jin GuangYao didn’t think that he’d ever seen Lan XiChen talk back to his uncle in either of his lives. 

 

“It’s easy to accuse someone else,” SiSi added. She turned away, heading back to lie down. “But thank you for intervening earlier.” 

 

Lan QiRen almost keeled over. Lan XiChen steadied him, but he looked at that closed door in awe. 

 

Jin ZiXuan rubbed his temples. “A-Yao, come with me?”

 

He followed his brother through the small, damp halls of Lotus Pier, wondering whether Jin ZiXuan was offended. Would he want SiSi sent away? That would mean her certain death, and with her face like this now—the muscles in his abdomen clamped around his organs, as if they were strangling them. 

 

“Where will she go now?” Jin ZiXuan asked.

 

“There’s no place,” Jin GuangYao replied. “With her face, no merchant will marry her. With her past…” He swallowed. “I doubt that man plans to cross his wife if she’s the type to hire thugs to attack a girl’s face instead of attacking her husband’s dick.” He stopped. He should not have let such vitriol seep into his tone.

 

But Jin ZiXuan paused, contemplating, before giving a nod. “I suppose it was his choice.”

 

He nodded. 

 

“Perhaps A-Li is right,” said Jin ZiXuan. “We can’t leave her here.” 

 

“You—mean it?” You’ll give her enough to live? You will?  

 

“GuangYao-xiong?” 

 

He turned, Jin ZiXuan with him. Mo XuanYu stood there, Nie HuaiSang behind him, fan covering his face like Shen QingQiu. At least Shen QingQiu had been far less conniving. Jin GuangYao was still terrified of Nie HuaiSang. 

 

Mo XuanYu looked as if he was about to cry again. “I’m sorry. I talked to Qin Su, and she said I should talk to you, and—” He gave a clumsy bow. There were still bruises healing on his face and wrists. 

 

“You talked to Qin Su?”

 

He nodded. “To apologize.” He cringed. “M-my—my mother, GuangYao-xiong, if the money dries up from Jin GuangShan, she’ll—her sister already dislikes her and calls her a whore, hits her, call me a lunatic—if that happens, where will she go? If our father isn’t sect leader any more.” His lip trembled. “Do I still have a place, or—” 

 

Jin ZiXuan swore, face sliced in agony. “So this is how he leaves them all.”

 

Jin GuangYao swallowed. He didn’t know what to say. She’d go where SiSi could go? Her sister would care for her and she should just bite down the beatings? Would Jin ZiXuan be so forgiving of his father’s mistress? 

 

He remembered Jiang YanLi’s arm shooting out, catching Madame Jin’s wrist. How Madame Jin must hate him now, presuming he had turned Jin ZiXuan against his father. His shoulders slumped.

 

“I will find a place for your mother,” Jin ZiXuan told him, putting his hand on his littlest brother’s shoulder. “I promise, XuanYu.” 

 

Why am I so untrusting? 

 

Mo XuanYu’s eyes lit up. “Th-thank you.”

 

Nie HuaiSang cleared his throat. “Come on, XuanYu.” 

 

The boy spun and followed after him. Jin ZiXuan nodded to himself, as if he believed he was doing the right thing. And he was. If they got the chance. 

 

Was this him being untrusting again? Or was his concern legitimate? Kernels of anxiety rolled in his belly. “I’m worried,” Jin GuangYao said to his brother.

 

“What for?”

 

“Father already targeted Mo XuanYu once and I helped him escape. If he wants to find another spy, it’d take very little to target Mo XuanYu’s mother and try to use her as leverage against him and against us.” It’s what I would do.

 

Jin ZiXuan moaned. “So you’re saying he’s a risk?”

 

“I’m saying HuaiSang should keep an eye on him.”

 

“HuaiSang? The head-shaker?” Jin ZiXuan arched his brows. 

 

“He’s not stupid,” said Jin GuangYao. “He’s actually quite calculating.” 

 

The System warns you— 

 

Shut up.

 

“I think we need to end this quickly,” Jin ZiXuan said, blowing out his breath. “He has my mother, too. I know she was cruel to you, A-Yao, but she’s still my mother, and she loves me.” He hung his head. “I never stood up for her, though. To my father. I—” 

 

He was… confiding in Jin GuangYao? Still? Even knowing that Jin GuangYao was an incestuous bastard? He had no words. He couldn’t imagine being in Jin ZiXuan’s position. So he squeezed his brother’s shoulder, knowing it wasn’t enough, and yet even so, Jin ZiXuan shot him a grateful look. 

 

“I’ll tell Da-Ge about HuaiSang,” said Jin GuangYao. “Tell him to warn him. You—” He swallowed. “You should check on A-Ling. I’m sure he misses his father.” He turned quickly. 

 

“A-Yao.” 

 

He turned around again.

 

Jin ZiXuan gave a smile. “I’m sure A-Song misses you, too.” 

 

His eyes stung. You’re still acknowledging him? You don’t view him as the polluted spawn of a whore’s son and his own sister? 

 

“Thank you,” he managed, and both of them nodded and hurried away. He found Nie MingJue standing on the pavilion under the twilight, Lan XiChen nearby looking as if all the fighting around him was wrapping thick hands around his throat and choking the life from him. Shouts from Sect Leader Jiang spilled through the air. Wen Qing stood in front of Da-Ge, examining his saber. 

 

He’s letting her hold BaXia? 

 

“A-Yao,” said Lan XiChen in relief. 

 

“WangJi?” he managed meekly. He still felt guilty over outing Wei WuXian’s secret. Or rather, he felt guilty he didn’t feel that guilty. 

 

“He and Young Master Wei went off to talk.” Lan XiChen adjusted his head ribbon.

 

To talk or to fuck? 

 

“Why are you preparing for your death?” Wen Qing demanded. Jin GuangYao cringed. 

 

Nie MingJue recoiled as she thrust the saber back to him. “We all die. The saber—” 

 

“Have you considered there might be alternate treatments?” Wen Qing asked, folding her arms. “Oh, but you’d rather die young, have your little brother witness you acting like a rabid animal from a qi deviation than ask for help from a Wen, wouldn’t you? You want Nie HuaiSang to endure that, but you can’t even bring yourself to tell him the truth about what cultivating with a saber does?” 

 

Apparently it was a day for women to rip proud men to ribbons. First Qin Su, then SiSi, now Wen Qing. Jin GuangYao paused to watch. 

 

“Don’t presume to know what’s best for my brother, or what I want or don’t want!” Nie MingJue snapped. “Why would you help someone like me? I killed Wen Xu. Every Wen I killed—”

 

“You liked it?” Wen Qing tilted her head up. Tiny compared to him, oval face smooth, pulse visibly pounding in her neck, she didn’t flinch at all. The stars twinkled above them, an audience. 

 

Nie MingJue gaped. “It was justice.” 

 

“Was it? Some of them likely just wanted to go home to their wives and children, no? And you presume you’re able to judge whether or not they deserve to when you can’t decide whether or not your life is worth living?” 

 

“It is!” Nie MingJue finally burst out. “I’m not—”

 

“Let me help you with your qi,” she said. “Yes. I am asking in an exchange for me and Wen Ning to live, A-Yuan too, the other members of my family. Let us live , not in camps, let us assimilate where we want, and I will help you. I’m tired of running. Nie HuaiSang will not have to suffer watching you succumb to your father’s fate, and he won’t succumb to it either. I can fix this. I know I can.”

 

Nie MingJue gave an almost snort. “It’s not as if HuaiSang’s at risk of that. He’d rather cultivate with a fan than with a saber.” 

 

“And if you don’t cultivate yourself into an early grave, that’s likely to be enough,” Wen Qing pointed out. 

 

Nie MingJue mumbled a bit more and then stormed away towards his two brothers. “She acts as if she thinks I’d return her assistance with an unfair execution.” He sounded almost hurt. 

 

You wouldn’t? 

 

Nie MingJue drummed his fingers against BaXia, cursing as he turned and stormed away without another word. Lan XiChen glanced to Jin GuangYao, a quizzical look on his face but realization blooming in his eyes. 

 

A smile spread across Jin GuangYao’s face. Lan XiChen couldn’t hold back a laugh. 

 

“Da-Ge!” called Jin GuangYao, remembering why he’d come there. “Jin ZiXuan has a favor to ask you.” They hurried after him, leaving Wen Qing on the pavilion as Jin GuangYao explained about Mo XuanYu.

 

“HuaiSang?” demanded Nie MingJue, looking more than a little perturbed. “Why would you want him to do undercover—”

 

“He’s smarter than you think,” Jin GuangYao said.

 

“I never thought he wasn’t intelligent!” Nie MingJue was clearly still smarting after Wen Qing’s barbs. And likely couldn’t understand what a crush was. Jin GuangYao had never seen him like this in the past life. 

 

The cramped corridors of Lotus Pier made it so Jin GuangYao had to be careful not to step on Da-Ge’s heels. “I’m not asking him to spy on him. I’m asking him to protect his friend.” His heart hammered. “My father will—he asked me to kill Wen RouHan.” 

 

“What?” Lan XiChen and Nie MingJue both looked stunned, halting. Jin GuangYao stumbled, Lan XiChen catching his wrist. The nearest torch was too far away, masking them all in veils of deep gray. He couldn’t read them if he couldn’t see their faces. And yet… 

 

Jin GuangYao hung his head. “Well, not directly. He refused to see me, even with your recommendation letter, Da-Ge. And then he—the commander said that he had said that ‘that boy better not come back again unless he brings me Wen RouHan’s head.’ I suppose I don’t know whether Father truly said it or not.” He had, he felt certain of it. 

 

Nie MingJue swallowed, moving a few steps closer to the light. Reluctantly, Jin GuangYao shuffled after him, heading towards that orange glow. Nie MingJue studied Jin GuangYao’s face. He looked up at Nie MingJue, hoping he could see. I’m not lying

 

And he was scared. I don’t know how to convince you. But Nie MingJue did not accuse him.

 

“That’s how he operates,” whispered Jin GuangYao. “He works surreptitiously, thought implications and subtle threats. He doesn’t tell you directly what he wants. If he can find a way to manipulate, he will. And Mo XuanYu is clearly terrified for his mother and it worked once before.” He wrung his hands. “I know because this is what I would do, too. For him, and I’m—I know how to manipulate, too. I know you find that disgusting, and I’m not saying it’s not. I’m just saying that I know how to, and you know it.” 

 

“A-Yao,” Lan XiChen protested. “Don’t compare yourself to him.” 

 

I’m manipulating now, aren’t I? Because the truth is my weapon. He met Nie MingJue’s eyes and knew that was exactly what he was thinking. Am I disgusting to you? “Da-Ge. I didn’t expect you to show up when those men were talking about me in the cave. I didn’t expect you to help me. But when I saw you, yes , I hoped you would.” I don’t even know what is manipulation and what isn’t. “I know you asked me if I manipulated you then. I don’t think so. But I don’t know what’s true and what’s not—” His eyes stung. Help me. 

 

Nie MingJue put his hand on his shoulder. Hope flowed through Jin GuangYao. And Nie MingJue reached out, using his other hand to tilt his chin up, study his face for a lie. Jin GuangYao felt completely exposed, no mask handy to slip on. He was a whore’s son, had fathered a child with his sister, married her. And now he was admitting he was manipulative. “I’m telling you this because if we don’t anticipate his machinations, we can’t win. We don’t have to stoop to his level. We just have to—think.” 

 

Nie MingJue gave him a nod. “I believe you.” 

 

“About…”

 

“All of it,” Nie MingJue said, releasing him. “I’ll speak to HuaiSang.” 

 

Exhausted, Jin GuangYao wilted against the wall. He so wanted Nie MingJue’s trust again. 

 

“A-Yao,” said Lan XiChen. And his face was shining. 

 

He had to keep going. “Er-Ge, when I met—”

 

“Stop,” said Lan XiChen, holding up his hand. “You don’t have to debase and lacerate yourself for me, A-Yao. You were never fallen, not to me.” 

 

His eyes stung. He leaned forward, forehead resting on Lan XiChen’s chest, struggling to stand on his own. And Lan XiChen didn’t push him away. Is this manipulation? How could he know? 

 

He just knew that he liked the way his heart sounded when it beat, the shushing noise Lan XiChen’s fingers made as they stroked his back. 

 

Later that night, he brought food to SiSi, who was sitting up, not even crying despite the humiliation that must be burning inside her, the fear. 

 

“I left to meet up with the merchant who liked me,” SiSi said, taking the bowl. “Not to—well. I wanted to tell him what happened. Apparently he’s not even in town this week, and so, it’s goodbye. No one would want this face.” 

 

Jin GuangYao shook his head. “Thank you. I’ve cost you—”

 

“A-Yao, that would have happened anyways.” 

 

He hunched his shoulders.  

 

“I heard you with your sworn brothers,” SiSi said as she sipped the bowl of congee. 

 

He nodded, sitting on the edge of her bed. 

 

“Meng Shi would be proud of you,” said SiSi. “She always was, you know.”

 

“I married my sister.” The words came out in broken shards, the words he wanted to offer to his mother with bloody hands for her to fix, but could not. “I have a child and I—was—I considered not having him, I didn’t want to have him. I’m not like her. I’m far more like that—that old stallion than I am like her.”    

 

SiSi set her bowl aside. “Do you think she never had doubts?”

 

He frowned. 

 

“I didn’t know her then,” SiSi said. “But I knew A-Shi. She had doubts, fearing for you, but she always reassured herself that you would be all right. She didn’t choose to have you because you were the son of Jin GuangShan and she hoped to make her life a little bit better, though surely that was part of it. Yes, I’m sure there was pride there. But so what? She chose to have you because she chose to have you. She wanted you, no matter whether she should or shouldn’t want you. Even when he didn’t want you, didn’t want her, she still wanted you. She never regretted having you. She only ever raised her voice to you when you saw her being brutalized by customers, because she was afraid they’d hurt you if you intervened.” 

 

Jin GuangYao didn’t know what to say.

 

“She loved you,” said SiSi. “And that’s all that matters now, right, now that she’s gone? What matters to your son is not how you once felt towards him, A-Yao, but how you love him now.”

 

Her words were more appropriate than she knew. “You have great faith in me,” he said, knotting his hands in his lap. “Thank you.” He bowed his head. “I loved Qin Su, you know. My—sister. I was sincere in my feelings for her. I do still love her, but not—” 

 

“Don’t tell me,” said SiSi, patting his shoulder. “Tell her .” 

 

He nodded, rising. With the thud of each step he took towards the room where A-Su and A-Song stayed, he heard a voice telling him he didn’t deserve to talk to them, that he was dirty, that he had ruined them. No, no, he could blame the System.

 

No, he couldn’t. 

 

He made it to the room. A-Su stood, rocking the baby in her arms. And Jin GuangYao held out his arms for his son. 

 


 

 

“He sent a letter,” Jin ZiXuan said the next morning, when they all stood in a council room with bloodshot eyes and weary faces. Wei WuXian and Jiang Cheng wouldn’t look at each other, Nie MingJue kept casting frustrated sidelong glances at Wen Qing, and Lan QiRen wore an expression of such disgust one would think he’d just been vomited on. Wen Ning looked as if he might prefer dying again, though the corpse had spent the night wandering after the deaths of his family save his sister, and Qin Su had asked him to sit with them, had him play with A-Song while she and Jin GuangYao took turns sleeping and staying up with the restless child. Only Jin ZiXun was bright-eyed, though Su She next to him looked as if he wanted to melt like wax from the man’s continued attention. 

 

“A letter?” ventured Jin GuangYao. 

 

“He demanded we hand you over,” said Jin ZiXuan. “I’m not doing it, A-Yao.” 

 

He wasn’t surprised. But honestly, their alliances were all hanging by a thread. Jin GuangShan had to anticipate that, and he would pull the thread if he could. 

 

“Well,” said Wei WuXian, drumming his fingers on his flute. “If only there was an army of corpses around the Jinlintai.” 

 

Everyone turned to him.

 

“They’re not under a tiger seal,” confirmed Jin GuangYao. “He doesn’t know how, and Xue Yang wasn’t really able to get that far.” 

 

“With all of us and with my flute,” said Wei WuXian. “We can take the Jinlintai. But that would mean—”

 

“If they’re fighting for our side, it’s hard to argue that he deserves to be deposed for having created them,” Jin ZiXuan said hesitantly. “And I’d rather not have—everything else be made public.” 

 

“Can you control yourself, Young Master Wei?” asked Lan XiChen, voice concerned. 

 

“I will help him,” Lan WangJi said. “Using my guqin.”

 

Lan QiRen moaned. Jin GuangYao noticed a small purple bruise on Wei WuXian’s neck, mostly covered by his hair. He jabbed Lan XiChen with his elbow, gesturing with his eyes. 

 

Lan XiChen followed his gaze, brows lifting slightly when he saw the mark. He smiled. 

 

“How do we address the idea of control?” asked Jin ZiXuan. “They’ll blame A-Yao.” 

 

Nie MingJue humphed. “They won’t accuse him if I speak for him. Let them try.” 

 

“ChiFeng-Zun—” began Jiang Cheng. 

 

“Nie MingJue—” started Wen Qing, clearly having not a single care for respect. 

 

“I will,” said Nie MingJue. “I believe him.”

 

“I say we worry about that later,” Jin GuangYao interjected, heart pounding, warmth wrapping inside him. “Once we’ve won. I know there are risks for me. Just—the longer we wait here, the more he’ll be plotting and gathering against us.” Mo XuanYu’s mother wouldn’t be the only one in danger.  “He’ll try to fracture us. He’ll target those we love most.” And he wouldn’t have to do much work. They were already wounded, all of them. 

 

“So is it a good idea to leave A-Li, A-Su, and SiSi here with the children and the Wens?” asked Jin ZiXuan. 

 

“No,” said Lan WangJi. 

 

Jiang Cheng cleared his throat. “He already has Qin CangYe on his side for now, fed with lies, I’m sure. And keeping him near is a threat to us. He’s likely painting us as threatening Qin Su and Jin RuSong, and Jin GuangYao as having kidnapped or worse. They know he took Qin Su into that brothel; it’s not hard to guess what Jin GuangShan will be saying to his best friend about what Jin GuangYao wanted done there.” 

 

Shit . A-Su would be terrified for her parents. Jin GuangYao covered his mouth. 

 

“But Madame Qin—would she say anything?” asked Lan WangJi. 

 

“She might. I don’t know. But my father might not be expecting me to have been honest,” Jin GuangYao said slowly. “So—we can use that.” The truth is the best weapon .  

 

System, chances of success if we use the corpses to take the Jinlintai? 

 

67%.

 

It was enough. 

 

Chapter Text

A lone flute began to play. Notes wasped through the air, gentle yet deliberate. The moon gleamed above. Jin GuangYao held his breath. 

 

Wen Qing and Wen Ning guarded A-Su, A-Song, A-Li, A-Ling, SiSi, and everyone else else who couldn’t fight near enough to be safe, but far enough to also be safe. Wen Ning could surely protect them. 

 

For a few moments, nothing happened, and Jin GuangYao was about to break into pieces, scream in panic. What if his father had already burned the corpses? What if he— 

 

But no. There . A snarl. Jin ZiXuan gulped, fingers tapping on SuiHua. 

 

Lan XiChen, Jiang Cheng, and Nie MingJue were all positioned with their sects, surrounding the Jinlintai on all sides. Lan WangJi was with Wei WuXian, lending him spiritual energy when he needed it. A guqin string occasionally strummed, luring the corpses across the fields towards the Jinlintai.

 

Jin ZiXuan’s mouth moved. Jin GuangYao recognized the word. Mother .

 

He caught his brother’s arm. “She’ll be okay.” 

 

Jin ZiXuan glanced at him, brows lifted in surprise. And then he gave a small nod. 

 

Jin GuangYao might hate Madame Jin, but he did not want Jin ZiXuan to lose his mother along with their father. Mo XuanYu looked terrified, so Jin GuangYao gave him a reassuring smile. He’d thought it best to leave the boy with those who couldn’t fight, but Jin ZiXuan insisted their littlest known brother get some experience. Jin ZiXun glared at the tower, Su She with the small MoLing Su Sect next to him, casting furtive glances at the man next to him. 

 

The flute took on a more urgent, violent tone, the guqin chiming in. A chorus of hisses and snarls joined the air. And then the corpses raced towards the tower. 

 

“Go,” Jin ZiXuan commanded. “Remember your goal is my father. Do not kill unless you have to.”

 

We’re fighting people who watched you grow up

 

It was an order given in vain. There was no other way. Still, they all nodded. 

 

But they encountered such little resistance that a chill skipped down Jin GuangYao’s spine. It continued when he saw Jiang Cheng approaching the stairs of the Jinlintai, confusion on his face. “Is that it?” he demanded, Zidian sparkling on his fist.

 

“I—” began Jin ZiXuan.

 

Something’s wrong . And when he spotted Nie MingJue, he instantly knew what it was. 

 

You— 

 

He’d been prepared for his father to pull a dirty trick, but not this one. He whirled. “The Gusu Lan Sect!” Lan XiChen!

 

Jin ZiXuan blinked. “Why would he—” 

 

“They’re focusing on them!” shouted Jin GuangYao. Because of me! Because of me, it’s my fault—Er-Ge! I can’t stand it if you die in this timeline! System— 

 

He is alive but the danger level is 89%. 

 

Fuck! Jin GuangYao hauled himself onto his sword, Nie MingJue already soaring off too. His heart pounded. Even though he had complete faith in Lan XiChen’s abilities to defend, he didn’t trust his father. 

 

Sure enough, there was Jin GuangShan, and the majority of his forces: assaulting the Lan Sect. Well—no, the fighting had largely stopped in the center of a field, and that was because— 

 

Jin GuangShan turned around to face him, a slick smile on his face. He stood slightly apart from the rest of the melee, a guqin string wrapped around Lan XiChen’s neck. 

 

“You!” roared Nie MingJue.

 

“Stop!” Jin GuangYao froze. “Stop, stop, you can’t—” Er-Ge!

 

“His life is in my hands,” he once sneered to Wei WuXian, watching the terror gleam in Lan WangJi’s eyes as he tightened the string.

 

Like father, like son.

 

Now he knew how Lan WangJi had felt. And he hated it, the helplessness, the desperation, the realization that if he had just thought more—if—  

 

Lan WangJi landed with Wei WuXian. WangJi’s composure immediately shattered at the sight of his brother in such dire straits, eyes retreating to the same place of fear and fury as they had that night in YunMeng. He held out BiChen. “Sect Leader Jin!” 

 

Lan QiRen pushed his way through the crowd, panting. His face whitened when he saw a small thread of blood trickling down Lan XiChen’s throat. 

 

“Wasn’t hard to capture him when his guard was down, when it looked like victory was in sight,” Jin GuangShan said. “Now. A-Yao.” The name he had never called him, the name Jin GuangYao had always wanted to be called and that now felt sullied. “You are going to confess your crimes, or—”

 

“The corpses are attacking you ,” shot back Jiang Cheng. “You can try to get LianFang-Zun to lie all you want, but—”

 

Jin GuangShan tightened the string. The stream of blood grew thicker, stained Lan XiChen’s white robes. Jin GuangYao looked to Nie MingJue, who looked infuriated, BaXia aimed but ultimately impotent. “You pretended to surrender, didn’t you?”

 

“He did,” called a Lan Sect disciple. 

 

And then pulled a string. Jin GuangYao felt nauseated. He couldn’t look at Da-Ge for shame. The same trick.

 

“I was a fool,” Lan XiChen managed. “And let down my guard. A-Yao, Da-Ge, don’t—”

 

Don’t act like your life is forfeit! Jin GuangYao wanted to scream. He glanced to Jin ZiXuan, Jin ZiXun, Su She. They all looked helpless, reflections of himself.

 

“Jin GuangShan, don’t you dare!” shouted Lan QiRen. He seemed to realize just how unlikely it was for Lan XiChen to make it out of this alive. 

 

System— 

 

The chances of him surviving were 9%. Now they are 18%. Now 56— 

 

What? What had happened? His mouth hung open. Time was helping his chances? Or something else? He had to buy time, he had to think— “Er-Ge, don’t move! Father, I will confess.” 

 

Good. Buy time! 

 

Even if it meant lying? This System was so very inconsistent. He didn’t care. 

 

“To what?” demanded Nie MingJue.

 

Jin GuangYao laid HenSheng down. He took a step forward. 

 

“Well?” asked Father, nostrils flaring. 

 

He swallowed. “I—” 

 

“Hey, old man, isn’t your guard down now?” called a sharp voice. 

 

Jin GuangShan’s gaze focused on a small figure cutting through the crowd of cultivators. The loyal Jin Sect soldiers turned. 

 

She let her scarlet robe fall open, exposing her chest. 

 

Jin GuangShan’s eyes grew huge. His arm— 

 

Lan XiChen grabbed it, twisting it away from him with a crunching crack. He ducked out of Jin GuangShan’s grasp, away from the string. Jin GuangYao let out a shout, rushing towards— 

 

A sword plunged down, hitting SiSi in her back. She stumbled. And then BiChen flew out with a flash of blue light to cut down that soldier. Jin GuangYao dropped to the grass. “ SiSi!” 

 

“Old stallions never change,” she managed. “Even if you’re not beautiful anymore.” Her hand grasped Jin GuangYao’s wrist. A veil covered her lower face. Her brows pinched together as if in agony. 

 

You’re still looking out for me. His eyes stung. He pulled her robes up, covering her like she’d covered Mother long ago. 

 

“The wound’s not fatal,” Lan WangJi said, checking. “She’ll be all right.” 

 

Jin GuangYao sprang to his feet, turning to Lan XiChen. “Er-Ge—” He grabbed his arms. “I—” 

 

“What were you thinking, getting yourself in a bind like that?” shouted Lan QiRen. “I raised you better than that, XiChen! I—” 

 

“Hey, old man,” rasped SiSi’s voice. Her eyes cracked open. “Is yelling at your nephew a way of telling him you love him? I doubt he’s getting the message.” 

 

“Excuse me?” Lan QiRen glared. Lan XiChen’s lips curved into a smile. 

 

She snorted. “Am I righteous to you yet? Or would you rather have let your nephew die?”

 

“How did you know to come?” whispered Jin GuangYao.

 

“Never been content to sit around,” SiSi eked out. She smirked. “Boobs are really effective weapons.”

 

“Do you ever stop talking?” demanded Lan QiRen.

 

“Only when there’s nothing left to say.” Her eyes drifted shut. 

 

“He’s getting away, A-Yao,” said Lan XiChen, his hand clasping Jin GuangYao’s shoulder. 

 

Jin GuangYao gulped. “I—”

 

“Go,” said SiSi. “Uncle Useless will take me to Wen Qing.”

 

“I will not!” Lan QiRen thundered, but Lan WangJi was already mounting BiChen and flying back towards Wei WuXian, and Lan XiChen was already pulling Jin GuangYao along with him. 

 

But truly, how did SiSi know to come? 

 

His question was answered a few moments later when, at the steps of the Jinlintai, where everyone glared up at Jin GuangShan, he spotted Mo XuanYu on the outskirts, in the arms of a small woman who bore more than a slight resemblance to him. And behind them was Madame Qin. 

 

How? 

 

Jin GuangYao turned. Jin GuangShan glared down at them. “You turned my own son against me, you whore’s son—piece of—”  

 

“Shut up!” shouted Jin ZiXuan. “Father, I turned aside too many times while you humiliated my mother, while you humiliated my brother. You did not care for the life of your nephew, you did not care for the life of your daughter-in-law or grandsons, you only care about your own life and where you put your dick!”

 

Jin GuangYao started. He hadn’t expected Jin ZiXuan to use such foul language. Mo XuanYu cowered. Jin ZiXun glared at his uncle. 

 

“Not all of us have the luxury of marrying the love of our life, A-Xuan,” Jin GuangShan stated. 

 

“You do have the luxury of cultivating that love!” Jin ZiXuan shouted. “And you—to Xue Yang, you tried to frame—” 

 

“I did nothing of the sort.”

 

“Is there any crime you won’t commit?” Jin ZiXuan retorted. “No one is safe from you.” His voice caught, and Jin GuangYao cringed. Please— But his brother was too wise to spill that secret. “Why am I not enough to you? Why is my—why—”

 

“I gave you everything!” Jin GuangShan yelled. “Your cultivation is high because I—”

 

“You didn’t love me enough to be a decent human being!” Jin ZiXuan bellowed. “You taught me how to be—how to be entitled, how to—” His face twisted. “Why is your heart so small?”

 

“A-Xuan—”

 

“Don’t call me that! Lay down your sword, renounce your role as Sect Leader, and I’ll—send you to live your days in—” 

 

Jin GuangShan’s face rippled with red and humiliation. “I—” 

 

“We support ZiXuan ,” said Jin ZiXun. “Not you, Uncle. He at least acknowledges us.” 

 

Su She cast Jin ZiXun with a strange look, like maybe he was realizing they both craved the same elixir. Recognition. You exist, you matter.  

 

And Jin ZiXuan—he spent his life cultivating gold and jewels, praise from his father, pats on the head, and he was now watching it dissolve to ash in front of him.

 

It never meant anything.

 

You never loved him that much.

 

Jin ZiXuan had only ever been another thing to polish and brag about, a tool for power. A cry burst from Jin ZiXuan’s lips. 

 

He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t cut his father down even now. He clutched SuiHua, arms shaking. Jin ZiXun stepped up. Jin GuangShan spun to meet his nephew.

 

And then a knife protruded from Jin GuangShan’s stomach, a silver stem amid red petals. It was not a fatal wound, but a wound deep enough to debilitate. Jin GuangShan gagged, blood and spittle flying from his lips. He doubled over, staring in shock at the protruding blade. And then he turned his head. 

 

Qin CangYe stood behind him, face twisted in undisguised loathing. His foot shot out. He kicked Jin GuangShan in the chest, and the once-proud sect leader fell back. 

 

“Seal his powers,” Qin CangYe ordered, and several servants scrambled to obey.

 

“You—” Jin GuangShan gagged again, voice garbled. And then he was silenced. Lan XiChen had used the Lan silencing spell. 

 

“You told him,” Jin GuangYao managed to Madame Qin.

 

“I did not,” she said, voice cracking, and then Jin GuangYao understood who would have asked her to go and save Mo XuanYu’s mother in just enough time to warn SiSi and the others about Jin GuangShan’s plan to target the Gusu Lan Sect, who would have known and had the means to transmit such a message to Qin CangYe.

 

Nie HuaiSang covered half his face in a fan, sliding behind ChiFeng-Zun. 

 

Jin GuangYao sprinted up the steps, panting. Jin ZiXuan had struggled to his feet, face ashen and streaked with sweat. He rubbed at his eyes. “Take him to the dungeons.” He turned away. 

 

“I’m sorry,” Jin GuangYao said, voice quiet. He said it only loud enough for his brother to hear.

 

Jin ZiXuan turned to face him, swallowing hard. He nodded, clasping A-Yao’s shoulder as if to reassure him that he did not fault him.

 

“Sect Leader Jin,” Jin GuangYao added, bowing to his brother. 

 

Jin ZiXuan squeezed his eyes shut. Jin GuangYao caught Qin CangYe’s eyes. He gulped. The man jerked his gaze away, jaw working. 

 

She’s still your daughter, right? Don’t give him credit for her. She’s yours. She’s brave and she does the right thing. She protects those she loves. She’s good

 

The battle was won, but there was so much left to say and do. Jin GuangYao just wanted to collapse. 

 

“What about the corpses?” demanded Jiang Cheng. 

 

“Oh, them,” said Wei WuXian, who had been flown to the top of the steps by Lan WangJi and looked as if he could barely stand on his own from exhaustion. He played a few more notes. The snarling stopped. The corpses crumpled. 

 

“A-Xuan!” Madame Jin burst through the door, eyes red from crying. She scrambled towards her son, who rushed into her arms like he was much, much smaller than he was. 

 

Jin GuangYao stumbled, catching Nie MingJue’s arm. Da-Ge looked down at him. 

 

“You,” he said. “You know HuaiSang is the one who told Qin CangYe?”

 

Nie MingJue stiffened. “Impossible.”

 

Jin GuangYao shook his head. “It was him, and he sent Madame Qin to save Mo XuanYu’s mother too—” Out of what? What tactical advantages? Helping Mo XuanYu, or protecting  Madame Qin, or both? Was HuaiSang actually using his sneaky powers for good? “And Madame Qin must have warned SiSi and the others. He’s so damn smart, Da-Ge.”

 

And for once, I don’t fear him for it. 

 


 

 

He retreated to his chamber, holding A-Song to his chest, the baby restless but smiling sloppy smiles up at his dad. Jin GuangYao held him against his chest, rocking him until he fell asleep drooling on Jin GuangYao’s chest. 

 

The System rewarded him with 500 points for exposing Jin GuangShan. He was too tired to care. 

 

Qin Su requested time to talk to her mother and to her father. Jin GuangYao doubted Qin CangYe would like him very much after that talk, even if the man did not take it out on A-Su. 

 

He wished she had asked him to stay. He wished he could be strong for her. 

 

A-Song nestled against him, fingers clutching his robes. Jin GuangYao lifted his head at a creaking sound. 

 

Lan XiChen stood in the entrance. “Don’t get up,” Lan XiChen whispered, holding his hands out. “I simply needed a place to rest for the night, and Jin ZiXun told me you were in here.”

 

“There’s a separate bed right there,” Jin GuangYao said, nodding across the room. “Er-Ge, are you really—all right?”

 

Lan XiChen’s fingers traced his throat. “I’m afraid I—lost my composure. He appeared before me, he said he was surrendering, dropped his sword. He used an insult towards you, and then I—”

 

Not for me!

 

“And then he insulted my mother,” Lan XiChen whispered. “I don’t know how he knew.”   

 

“Not from me,” Jin GuangYao insisted. “Not from me, Er-Ge. I promise. I didn’t tell him.”

 

Lan XiChen nodded. A-Song woke, crankily whimpering. Jin GuangYao shushed him, stroking his son’s back. “He wants his mother.” Not me.

 

“He’s probably teething,” Lan XiChen remarked. 

 

“Hm?” Jin GuangYao blinked. 

 

Lan XiChen flushed, sitting down next to him. He held out his arms. Jin GuangYao handed the now-sobbing baby over. Lan XiChen peered into his mouth. “Yes.” 

 

Jin GuangYao scrambled to look. “Oh!” A pearly white bump protruded from A-Song’s gums. 

 

“It can hurt,” Lan XiChen said. “Wen Qing might have something to numb it.” 

 

“Poor baby.” Jin GuangYao kissed A-Song’s forehead. How did I harm him in the past

 

“He looks like you,” Lan XiChen said softly. 

 

“I hope he’s taller.” Jin GuangYao wondered how serious the effects of the incest would be. 

 

Lan XiChen chuckled, rubbing circles along the baby’s back as A-Song cried. “A-Yao, I need to tell you something.”

 

He frowned. 

 

“You’ve been—exceedingly brave the past few weeks,” Lan XiChen said, meeting his eyes. His voice cracked. “I’m sorry I never pressed—I knew something was wrong after your marriage, but I didn’t bring it up because I—wanted to believe it was fine.” He swallowed. A-Song’s cries quieted.

 

“There’s nothing to apologize for,” Jin GuangYao said sincerely. But in a past life...

 

“Still.” Lan XiChen bowed his head towards him, keeping his arms around A-Song. “And I think you should know. I’m really proud of you, and Da-Ge—well, he might not say it, you know how he is, but I believe he is too.” 

 

Jin GuangYao’s mouth opened. He couldn’t speak. He gulped back tears. 

 

I wish you were more than proud of me.

 

How greedy he was, wanting more, feeling heat pooling in his groin.  

 

But I’ll take it.

 

“SongSong’s asleep,” Lan XiChen said. 

 

“Don’t wake him, then,” Jin GuangYao joked. Selfish, perhaps.

 

But even though they slept with their heads on opposite ends of the bed, at least they were together with his son in their arms. 

 


 

 

The conference to reestablish order the next day was a nightmare. No one was satisfied with a battle with minimal casualties. They wanted blood, and Jin ZiXuan refused to execute his father. Jin GuangYao and Jin ZiXun both disagreed, but Jin GuangYao wouldn’t tell his brother what to do to his father. Jin ZiXuan had already done so much for him. 

 

So the rest of society turned their attention to the next best target: Wei WuXian. 

 

“How do we know this isn’t your doing, Wei WuXian?” shouted one of the Jin Sect’s most prominent guards. Jin GuangYao had never learned his name. “Jin GuangShan did always say that you were up to no good, partnering with Wens, and using corpses against him—no wonder he wanted to create them! To stop you!” 

 

Wei WuXian rolled his eyes. “You saw no new skills of mine last night.” 

 

“His flute-playing was so effective! How do we know we can trust you?” rang out another voice. 

 

“Did he plot this, using his sister to play with Jin ZiXuan’s mind to turn him against his father?”

 

“Do not insult my wife!” Jin ZiXuan bellowed, SuiHua already unsheathed. Jin ZiXun looked all too eager to follow his cousin’s lead and shed blood even if it was to protect Wei WuXian. Ha . If original Jin ZiXun could see this, he’d have a qi deviation of his own. 

 

“He’s too powerful; look at him! He doesn’t even carry his sword to a battle!”

 

“It’s because he knows he doesn’t need it! One note from his flute, and we’d all be dead!”

 

Tears beaded in Wei WuXian’s eyes. Lan WangJi stood in front of him, face determined and one hand on BiChen. No one was getting through to the man he loved.

 

“Shut up!” A crackle, and a streak of purple lightning flashed through the crowd and hit the man who’d started it all. “Who do you think you are, insulting my shixiong?” Jiang Cheng glared. “I’m sect leader, and as his—”

 

“Didn’t you kick him out?” shouted a woman. 

 

“Yes, that’s right, he did!” 

 

“HanGuang-Jun is with him,” Jin GuangYao said nervously. “Doesn’t that make him—”

 

“No! He—”

 

“He is my husband,” said Lan WangJi. “I married him. You will not touch him.” 

 

“Lan Zhan!” Wei WuXian clamped his palm to his face. Lan XiChen’s mouth hung open. Lan QiRen looked about as close as Jin GuangYao had ever seen him come to swearing.

 

Congratulations! squealed the System. 100 B points for uniting the canonical couple, WangXian!

 

“You? HanGuang-Jun! Will you be walking the path of demonic—” 

 

Everyone was ranting and raving, enraged that Lan WangJi would marry a man and a demonic cultivator at that. Lan WangJi kept his chin high, even as his gaze darted to his brother’s, desperately looking to Lan XiChen for assurance. 

 

Lan XiChen nodded at him, and WangJi’s eyes shone despite the heap of insults piling up. Lan QiRen clutched the wall, knees buckling. 

 

“No further insults to my shixiong are allowed,” Jiang Cheng threatened, even though there was blatant hurt on his face at the revelation that Wei WuXian married Lan WangJi and evidently not told him. 

 

”Well, is he still defending the Wens? Are you defending them now?” 

 

“Wen Ning is an abomination! And Wen Qing should be—” 

 

Jin GuangYao cringed. If these people ever found out A-Su’s parentage, or A-Song’s, they’d be cast out of society, viewed way worse than Wei WuXian ever had been. 

 

“Don’t tell me you’re protecting the Wens now, Sect Leader Jiang, Sect Leader Jin! Your cousin kept them in camps; I’m sure some will want revenge!”

 

Jin ZiXun scowled. “They’re closed. Surely we can find a reasonable compromise—”

 

“There will be no compromise,” Nie MingJue cut in. “They will live at the Nie Sect. Wen Qing will be my wife.” 

 

Jin GuangYao almost fell over. Lan XiChen audibly gasped. Wei WuXian let out a snort of laughter. Jin ZiXuan just looked confused. 

 

Have you even asked her yet? 

 

“If you want her,” said Nie MingJue. “Or her brother, you will have to go through me.” He glared at the crowd. “Does anyone doubt my ability to control Wen Ning or Wen Qing?”

 

Jin GuangYao nudged Lan XiChen with his elbow. “Who will be controlling whom?” he murmured.

 

Lan XiChen coughed into his elbow to disguise a laugh.

 

“Enough bickering,” Jin ZiXuan finally said, and the conference shifted in tone. 

 

“Congratulations, Da-Ge,” Jin GuangYao called when the discussion ended and Nie MingJue left. He and Lan XiChen hurried to catch up. “But maybe you should propose to the bride?” 

 

“It can be a false engagement,” said Nie MingJue, breathing hard as if he just realized he—Nie MingJue, ChiFeng-Zun, he!—had lied to an entire assembly. “Or a false marriage. I—” 

 

“Ask her,” said Jin GuangYao. “Because I’m not so sure she will turn you down.” And he wanted to see Da-Ge smile again. 

 

The System awards you 100 B points for uniting the most unlikely couple. 

 

He heard more voices as he and Lan XiChen waited for Da-Ge to march off, and then slipped after him, following to see him propose to Wen Qing. Jin GuangYao’s ears itched. 

 

“...happy for you,” Jiang YanLi was saying. 

 

“I had no idea you were a cut-sleeve,” Jiang Cheng said. “How did I not know?” 

 

He didn’t know, brother,” Jiang YanLi cut in. “Congratulations to you too, HanGuang-Jun.”

 

Wei WuXian laughed. 

 

“Wei WuXian,” Jiang Cheng managed. “I have to tell you something—about how they captured me when we were on the run…” His voice broke. 

 

The System awards you 200 B points for successfully completing the mission of Jiang Cheng revealing the truth to Wei WuXian.

 

“Are you okay with it?” he asked XiChen, voice hushed. “He didn’t tell you, did he?”

 

Lan XiChen shook his head. “I’d figured it out after what you said, and I noticed he was always happy when Young Master Wei was around.” He drew in his breath. “Uncle is furious, but if WangJi will be happy, then I would not have turned him down if he’d asked my permission.”

 

“I think he knew that,” Jin GuangYao said softly. “He knew you would want a happy ending for him, so he didn’t feel the need to ask. But talk to him. Tell him you wish he had told you. And tell him you’re happy for him.” If your heart is bruised, however you feel it shouldn’t be, please heal it. Don’t punish yourself for feeling pain. 

 

Lan XiChen inhaled sharply. He nodded. “I will.” He snorted. “Truthfully I’m glad he married someone far less uptight. He shouldn’t forego all manners of amusement. That’s not righteousness.” 

 

“A-Yao!”

 

Ah, shit, it seemed like he was never going to be able to witness this proposal. Jin GuangYao turned. Lan XiChen waited for him, and he wanted to tell him to go ahead without him, it would be all right, but he didn’t. 

 

Jin ZiXuan hurried towards him. “I need a right-hand man.” 

 

He didn’t understand. “Hm? ZiXun—”

 

“Is my left-hand man,” Jin ZiXuan interrupted. “A-Yao. I—trust you more than anyone. I’d like you to be—my advisor, my brother, and my friend.” And he bowed.

 

He bowed to Jin GuangYao. 

 

Despite it all. Despite—the criticism he must know would come. Despite the fact that Jin GuangYao would more than deserve scorn.

 

Tears filled Jin GuangYao’s eyes. He didn’t even want to ask the System. “It’d be my greatest honor.” 

 

Chapter Text

Scarlet and gold were striking colors on Wen Qing, bridal scarlet a shade much more vibrant than the Wen Sect red. Even veiled, Jin GuangYao could tell she was smiling. Nie MingJue looked terrified. 

 

How utterly strange

 

He did not envy Nie HuaiSang future witnessing of their fights. But he did look forward to their happiness. 

 

“You told them what?” Wen Qing had demanded, Jin GuangYao and Lan XiChen catching up just in time. Da-Ge stood on an outer pavilion, face redder than Jin GuangYao had ever seen him, the sunset mimicking him in hue as if the entire world was embarrassed for him. 

 

Jin GuangYao used his hand to push Er-Ge back against a wall to better eavesdrop. Lan XiChen covered his mouth with his sleeve, trying to stifle a chuckle.

 

“I—it was the first thing I thought when they were ranting. I have to repay you for the service—”

 

“Cut the bullshit,” Wen Qing interrupted. “Your first instinct is always the saber.” 

 

“Is that what you think of me?” Nie MingJue cut in. His voice had the same sharpness it’d had when he saw Meng Yao murdering the commander. 

 

“No,” said Wen Qing. “But it’s what you want people to think of you, for whatever reason. Well, if it’s not, it’s what you act like you want everyone to think of you.” She snorted. “So why don’t you tell me why you want to marry me?”

 

“Maiden Wen,” he said. “You have an incredible sense of righteousness, and you live it out. I may—” He swore. Da-Ge. Swearing, during a proposal. “Because of moments like what you just said. That’s why I—” 

 

“Even though I turned my back on the atrocities committed by the Wen Sect to save my brother?”

 

“I—given your personality, if you had an option to stop things, I find it hard to believe you would not have.”  

 

“So are you saying you have feelings for me?” Wen Qing demanded. “Or not? Isn’t lying wrong?”

 

“I—suppose,” Nie MingJue managed. 

 

“Okay,” said Wen Qing, voice softer than normal.

 

“Okay?” Nie MingJue echoed. 

 

“Okay, I’ll marry you.” 

 

And then there was a small gasp. 

 

Jin GuangYao couldn’t take it. He spun out from his hiding spot, pulling Lan XiChen along in time to see Wen Qing kissing Nie MingJue, pulling his head down to meet hers. 

 

And now they were married. Unlike himself and Qin Su or Jin ZiXuan and Jiang YanLi, Nie MingJue and Wen Qing had probably waited. And Jin GuangYao couldn’t stop from trying to come up with a bawdy joke to tease Da-Ge with the next time he saw him. 

 

“I would bet my flute she’s on top,” Wei WuXian mumbled to Lan WangJi, and Lan XiChen’s ears turned bright red. “Speaking of. Lan Zhan. Tonight, will you—”

 

Jin GuangYao steered Lan XiChen away so that he would not be forced to listen to his brother describe his sex life, which judging from the moans overheard at night in the Cloud Recesses, was quite active. 

 

He found Qin Su in the crowd, taking a toddler A-Song from her. Now A-Song could say a few words, thus far not terribly behind A-Ling. He wondered if it would last. Probably not. Either way, his son made him smile like nothing else. 

 

Jin ZiXuan had annulled his marriage with Qin Su, using a flimsy excuse of neither wanting the marriage and claiming that he allowed it simply because he wanted to make it up to his father’s betrayed best friend and had a soft spot for his little brother. “Let me take this shame, A-Yao. It’s the least I can do.” He had also made A-Song his secondary heir, as if to quell any backtalking as much as he could before it happened. It was the best they could do, but A-Song would still face pain that Jin GuangYao couldn’t protect him from. It hurt, even now, that reality. “If anyone speaks ill of A-Song, they’ll answer to me.” 

 

After much discussion, A-Su and A-Yao agreed to keep living in the Jinlintai for the sake of their son. At first, Jin GuangYao thought the only option was to go somewhere far, far away, in order to protect his son. Qin Su and Jin GuangYao had separate but adjacent rooms in their shared chamber now. 

 

“I loved you, A-Su,” he’d told her. “Thank you for loving me.” 

 

Do you still think I’m disgusting? Do you still wish you had never met me? 

 

She tilted her face up, pressing her lips to his forehead, over his vermillion mark. “Thank you, Er-Ge.” Her eyes glittered with tears at what they had to say goodbye to.

 

It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t impossible either. Jin GuangYao watched as Qin Su found Wen Ning, weaving her way through the crowd to talk to the corpse hanging outside the crowd. She always found the people others despised, and she loved them. 

 

You are so lucky to have her as your mother, SongSong. Jin GuangYao set A-Song down, helping the toddler balance on his feet. 

 

A-Song grinned up at Lan XiChen, who crouched, holding his arms out. A-Song toddled away from his father and into Lan XiChen’s arms. XiChen lifted him up towards the sky, the child giggling. 

 

“Uncle!” A-Song yelped, holding his chubby arms out. Lan XiChen spun.

 

Mo XuanYu stood there, face painted with an embarrassing amount of makeup that even SiSi wouldn’t approve of. Yet A-Song still adored him, and Mo XuanYu laughed as A-Song tried to scramble into his arms. 

 

Jin ZiXuan and Jiang YanLi stood off to the side, talking to Jiang Cheng. A-Ling and A-Yuan sat in a corner together, A-Yuan sharing his paper butterfly toys with A-Ling. Truthfully, it still seemed like Lan WangJi and Wei WuXian planned on raising A-Yuan, and Wen Qing seemed to think it was best. Jin GuangYao was grateful his revisions to the timeline had not affected this. 

 

“Where is HuaiSang?” asked Jin GuangYao to his littlest brother. His mother, Madame Mo, had been allowed to stay in the Jinlintai as well. He thought her very sweet; she clearly adored Mo XuanYu and even indulged him in makeup. 

 

Mo XuanYu’s face turned even pinker. “He’s fine.” 

 

Jin GuangYao still remembered when Nie MingJue, recently engaged as of only an hour or so prior, had remembered that he’d gotten some interesting news about his supposedly vapid little brother, and marched out to demand to know where he was. When he found Nie HuaiSang studying various types of Jin Sect fans, he had cleared his throat, and HuaiSang jumped.

 

“I hear you overheard.”

 

HuaiSang gulped. “Sorry for not telling you, Da-Ge. I just thought—it was safer if less people knew.” 

 

“It was a wise decision,” Nie MingJue had affirmed, and HuaiSang’s eyes almost popped out of his skull and rolled across the floor at his older brother’s praise. Jin GuangYao smiled. Maybe in this world HuaiSang could use his sneaky plotting skills for something other than ruining Jin GuangYao’s life and his mother’s corpse. 

 

“Oh,” Da-Ge added gruffly as if it was an afterthought. “I’m getting married.” 

 

“What?” HuaiSang yelped. 

 

“What do you want?” Jin GuangYao asked. “With HuaiSang?” He convinced you to commit suicide last time instead of taking you away from Mo Manor. He was not quite so willing to trust HuaiSang with his little brother yet. 

 

Mo XuanYu gulped. He handed A-Song back to Lan XiChen. “Um—” 

 

“Be honest,” said Jin GuangYao. System?

 

Nie HuaiSang’s affection for Mo XuanYu: 100% sincere. 

 

Well. Even if he was uncomfortable, hadn’t Mo XuanYu suffered enough? 

 

“He’s nice to me,” Mo XuanYu whispered. “So few people have been nice to me in my life. My mother—” 

 

He had been welcoming to Mo XuanYu last time, in their past life. The only one who didn’t mock him. And he’d thought, maybe I can be what Jin ZiXuan never was to me . And at least the boy had looked up at him with a grin, with admiration blatant on his face. But now Jin ZiXuan was better than that to him. He hadn’t cast him out when he’d made a mistake.

 

I’m sorry.

 

You deserve happiness.

 

“I think people are making fun of him for being nice to me,” said Mo XuanYu. “They say I’m a cut-sleeve, a disgrace, a lunatic.” He bit his lip. “I don’t know about the latter two, but—I don’t want to be a bad influence on him, and I don’t want to pretend I don’t—care. Because I do. Is it wrong not to want to give him up?” 

 

Jin GuangYao clutched Mo XuanYu’s shoulder. “I’ll talk to ChiFeng-Zun for you and HuaiSang, mm?” 

 

Mo XuanYu’s eyes widened. “You’d—what?”  

 

“You have nothing to be ashamed of.” 

 

Mo XuanYu looked shocked. “I—”

 

“You can be happy. You deserve a chance,” Jin GuangYao said. 

 

“You—you mean it?”  

 

Jin GuangYao nodded, and his brother grabbed him in an embrace, burying his face in Jin GuangYao’s chest and no doubt smearing his makeup. Jin GuangYao sighed. 

 

“Thank you, Er-Ge,” Mo XuanYu said, voice thick. 

 

“Does he feel the same?” 

 

Mo XuanYu nodded, pulling back. “I kissed him after he tried to put salve on the bruises and cuts I had back in Lotus Cove, and I thought he’d flee, but he didn’t. He thought about it and then came back and snuck into my room and kissed me, and we’ve been—kissing since.”  

 

Jin GuangYao snorted. “I won’t mention that to Nie MingJue, but the rest I’ll handle.” 

 

He passed familiar voices on his way back to his chambers with A-Song. Qin Su, sitting on the edge of one of the balconies, Wen Ning standing nearby. He paused. His heart pounded. 

 

“What does it even mean to be alive?” asked Qin Su. “I used to be afraid of you, when I didn’t know you. For your name, for your—status. But you’re still here talking to me. You’re listening. That’s more than most alive people even do.” 

 

“Your father—”

 

“He says he still loves me,” said Qin Su. “And I believe him.”

 

“I do, too,” Wen Ning said quietly. 

 

“Well, if this is your second life,” said Qin Su. “To last as long as a normal one, in Wei WuXian’s estimations, then—you should live it, shouldn’t you? You don’t have to be someone’s dog no matter what they call you. You don’t have to follow Wei WuXian out of gratitude—you’re his friend, not his tool, and you know it. You don’t have to follow your sister unless you want to. You can—”

 

“I don’t want to be alone,” whispered Wen Ning. “Or be useless.” 

 

Jin GuangYao pried himself away. His chest ached. What right do I have for this to hurt? 

 

“Are you serious?” Jin ZiXuan asked the next day, rubbing his head. Jin Ling had apparently been up all night screaming like the little mistress he was apparently still going to grow into. Jin GuangYao couldn’t say he minded it. 

 

“Why not?” Jin GuangYao asked. “The world knows the Second Jade of Lan and the Second Pride of YunMeng are cut-sleeves, are married. Sect Leader Nie and you are both married to women; you have a son and ChiFeng-Zun and Wen Qing likely will have a child soon enough. There’s little concern over bloodlines not continuing. Why not arrange a marriage between our littlest brother and Nie HuaiSang?”

 

Jin ZiXuan sighed. “It makes sense, and they seem to have great affection for each other, but how do you know… it’s that type?”

 

“Mo XuanYu told me,” Jin GuangYao said. 

 

“Ah.” Jin ZiXuan shrugged. “Do you think ChiFeng-Zun will be offended? If we ask for a marriage not to a woman, but to a man?”

 

Jin GuangYao hesitated. It wasn’t as if there were no selfish motives here. He wanted—he wanted— “Probably not, but I can broach the subject with him.” With ZeWu-Jun around, because he knew Nie MingJue wouldn’t think XiChen was slandering his brother. 

 

I’m still scared, Da-Ge. I’m sorry. He hoped with time, burning fear would abate and cooll trust would take its place. 

 

“I think it’s a fine idea,” Jin ZiXun said. Of all people. He’d been moody lately, but the curse hadn’t returned. “More cut-sleeve marriages should be approved. It is not as if it matters.” 

 

Jin ZiXuan nodded. “Very well, then. Do it.” 

 

“Also…” Jin GuangYao hung his head. “I’m not sure she’d ever bring it up herself, but if A-Su wanted to marry again, would you let her?” 

 

“Pardon?” Jin ZiXuan leaned forward. “Is there someone?”

 

He nodded. “I think so. She hasn’t said anything, but I—” He could tell. The way her face lit up when he walked into a room. The sorrow in her eyes when he left, the worry now that he appeared to be leaving for the Nie Sect. 

 

I want her to be happy. If it’s the only thing I can do for her, then I’ll do it . Even if it hurt.

 

He swallowed. Jin ZiXuan’s hand landed on his shoulder, massaging as if he knew it would be hard. “You really did love her.”

 

He nodded again. “It’s Wen Ning.”

 

“The corpse?” yelled Jin ZiXun. “Absolutely not! Qin CangYe—” If anything, learning the truth of Qin Su’s parentage had only made Qin CangYe even more protective over his daughter. 

 

“What A-Su wants, A-Su gets,” Jin GuangYao shot back. “Do you think Qin CangYe would reject her chance at happiness, after it was so—ruined?” 

 

Jin ZiXun looked green. “But can he even…”

 

“There are other... acts,” countered Jin GuangYao. His face heated. 

 

“They probably couldn’t have children,” said Jin ZiXuan, as if he was actually thinking about it. “But I’d imagine they could still consummate—” 

 

“This is our sister!” Jin GuangYao squeaked. He did not want to imagine A-Su and Wen Ning having sex! It hurt too much. 

 

Jin ZiXuan held his hands up. “I’m just trying to educate ZiXun here. He ought to consider marriage soon.” He had changed the subject. Good. A smile curled his lips. 

 

“Pah!” Jin ZuXun scowled.  

 

“Didn’t you always have porn books or—” Jin ZiXuan said. 

 

Jin GuangYao was willing to bet that Jin ZiXun was no virgin, but he doubted he’d ever gotten a girl off. “Advice is good for him.”

 

“No!” Jin ZiXun’s face was scarlet as he made a rude gesture and stormed out.

 

Jin ZiXuan cackled. Jin GuangYao even smiled. “Are you serious about Wen Ning and Qin Su?”

 

He swallowed, and he nodded. “They could ever stay in our—same chamber.”

 

“Wouldn’t that be hard for you?” Jin ZiXuan studied his expression.

 

Everything is hard for me. He lifted his shoulders.  

 

“You don’t have to be in pain to atone,” Jin ZiXuan told him. 

 

Easy for you to say. He focused on clouds outside the window, gray and white racing each other in a bid to overtake the sun. 

 

“Loving A-Li is my redemption,” Jin ZiXuan said, turning away. 

 

“Hm?” Jin GuangYao blinked. “You mean—from badmouthing her—”

 

“No.” Jin ZiXuan faced him again. His eyes reddened, and his lips trembled. “I never told you because I—because I was afraid—no, because I was ashamed. I am. When I turned sixteen—” He drew in a breath. “A-Li knows, I’ve told her. But no one else. Anyways, for that birthday, my father told my mother he was taking me for a night hunt. It wasn’t a night hunt.”

 

Jin GuangYao instantly realized what his brother was about to say. His stomach lurched. 

 

“He said it was time I became a man, and he’d hired a lovely prostitute. I don’t know where she is now, or if she—” Jin ZiXuan hung his head. “It was only that once. Not since, and A-Li’s the only person I’ve ever been with besides—” 

 

“That’s not your fault,” Jin GuangYao said softly. Jin ZiXuan and he had more in common than he thought. Both of them wanted to please their father. 

 

“Hm?” Jin ZiXuan met his gaze. “You… forgive me?” 

 

He nodded. 

 

“I never told my mother,” Jin ZiXuan said. “If I had, maybe she’d have been less harsh on you.” He closed his eyes. “It’s partly why I never confronted Father. I was too ashamed. I—I didn’t want to sleep with her, but I—didn’t want to let him down. It’s a paltry excuse, I know.” 

 

“I understand,” Jin GuangYao said. Jin ZiXuan trusted that man, and his father abused that trust, and of course Jin ZiXuan wouldn’t be able to tell him he didn’t want to. Maybe he thought he should want to. He tried to imagine a teenage Jin ZiXuan trying to pretend he knew what he was doing when he likely had no clue. “Your mother’s been fine to me lately.” With her husband locked up below, life imprisonment. 

 

“Still.” He sighed. “Maybe I will tell her.”

 

“When the time is right,” said Jin GuangYao. “I think your mother will still love you, GeGe.” 

 

A ghost of a smile flitted across his face. “Lan QiRen said that SiSi’s business is going well.”

 

“Yes,” Jin GuangYao agreed. Lan QiRen, of all people, had purchased a place for SiSi in Gusu, and set her up helping other prostitutes leave their profession, teach them weaving and pottery and stitching skills. It was a brilliant idea. “He apparently visits frequently. Just checking to make sure propriety is still in existence there, of course.”

 

“Sometimes I wonder if fate or the gods have a sense of humor,” Jin ZiXuan said, snickering. “I end up with the girl I scorned, ChiFeng-Zun ends up with a Wen, our littlest brothers end up together, Lan QiRen is infatuated with a prostitute who saved his nephew’s life by flashing her breasts at our father.” 

 

Jin GuangYao couldn’t keep his laugh in. It does seem that way. 

 

Was he the exception, then? Or could he hope, too?

 

When he left the room, he ran smack into Jin ZiXun. “Cousin?”

 

“I need to talk to you,” Jin ZiXun said, grasping him by the shoulders.  

 

Jin GuangYao blinked. “Is everything alright?”

 

“It’s about Su MinShan.”

 

Oh, shit. Had he exposed himself? Revealed the truth? Jin GuangYao nodded, striding down the corridor with his cousin. 

 

“He told me he didn’t want to talk to me anymore,” Jin ZiXun said, curling his fist. “Do you know why he said that?” His voice sounded… hurt.

 

What? Jin GuangYao gaped.

 

Second phase of your mission to save Su She and Jin ZiXun is nearing completion! 

 

Huh?

 

Oh, the System had to be kidding him. There was a sense of humor and then there was just insanity. There was no way… is that why you said as much about same-sex marriages? ZiXun!

 

How do I…

 

The truth, chirped the System.

 

Yet clearly not the way he had revealed the truth about Wei WuXian’s golden core, even if the YiLing Patriarch and his brother seemed to be mending things slowly. 

 

“He said nothing,” said Jin GuangYao, facing Jin ZiXun. “But I... will talk to him, ZiXun. I will see what’s going on.” He swallowed. “For what it’s worth, knowing his character, it is more an estimation of his feelings of lesser worth than of yours.” He no longer believed Su She despised Jin ZiXun. Not anymore.

 

“That’s stupid!” Jin ZiXun glared. “I did nothing for him to think—” 

 

That’s exactly it. But Jin GuangYao couldn’t tell him. 

 

Jin ZiXun nodded. “Thank you, LianFang-Zun.”

 

Of course, when he finally got to talk to the man, Su She insisted he did hate him, and Jin GuangYao had to know it was a lie, but he couldn’t convince Su She.

 

“What do you want from me?” Su She burst out at last. “Me to keep being friends with him, knowing it’s all based on a lie? I didn’t save his life; I tried to end it!”

 

“And he’s giving you prestige, helping you out with the MoLing Su Sect, and that isn’t worth continuing to lie?” Jin GuangYao demanded. How much have you changed? 

 

Su She plopped down on the floor with a thunk. He hung his head. “I… can’t do that to him. I need to remember why I hated him, that’s all.”

 

“It sounds to me like you care for him, Su She,” Jin GuangYao countered. “As your friend, I—” 

 

“Please,” Su She interrupted, as he never would have done in the previous life. “Please, don’t make me continue to fake it.”

 

You aren’t faking it. Jin GuangYao wanted to shake him. At the same time, he was so shocked Su She had actually countered him that he could only nod and leave. 

 

Friendship with Su She based on mutual trust and understanding achieved! 50 B points. 

 

He didn’t want it if this was what it meant. But he knew what Su She’s problem was, and why Jin GuangYao was afraid to call him on it. 

 

The hardest person to forgive, for everyone, is ourselves.


 

 

A-Su married Wen Ning quietly when A-Song was two years old. Jin GuangYao and Jin ZiXuan had asked Wen Ning to speak with them on a visit to the Jinlintai, and when Jin ZiXuan began by striking with “do you have feelings for our sister Qin Su?” Wen Ning had sputtered. 

 

“O-of course not, I don’t know why—”

 

“She likes you,” Jin GuangYao had interrupted. “Are you telling me your feelings aren’t the same?”

 

“I—” Wen Ning glanced around the room. He bowed low. “I am—sorry, LianFang-Zun. We talk, I swear, but she only kissed me once, and I pushed her away because—I don’t want to cause a problem, you both have been through so much—”

 

“You literally died,” Jin ZiXuan said. 

 

“We’re asking you because if you like her and she likes you, we’d like you to be able to marry,” said Jin GuangYao. 

 

Wen Ning almost died a second time. He gaped. “But I—I’m—you said it yourself, I’m dead, and when I was alive I was no one special, either. She’s—” He hung his head. “Perfect and beautiful and kind and—”

 

“From what I’ve seen,” said Jin GuangYao. “You were and are now exceptionally kind.” 

 

Wen Ning’s shoulders shook. “I couldn’t offer her a child. Or even—I don’t even know if I could—behave like a normal man.” 

 

“Do you think that matters to her?” asked Jin GuangYao.

 

“B-but, Young Master Jin, wouldn’t you be—you’ve—” 

 

“I want her to be happy,” Jin GuangYao managed. “And she smiles when she sees you.” 

 

Sure enough, they would stay living in their shared chambers at the Jinlintai. “Find someone else,” A-Su encouraged Jin GuangYao. “A-Ning and I would be happy to have you have someone too.” Her eyes filled. “Thank you for my happiness.” 

 

He didn’t feel worthy of her praise, and he could not find someone else, because he already had, and he had no idea how to broach the subject. He was afraid to hope. And he was even more afraid that if it could happen, if Lan XiChen did feel for him, then he would ruin him even more this time when the timelines collided eventually.

 

He approached Nie MingJue a few months after his wedding about a marriage between Nie HuaiSang and Mo XuanYu. Nie MingJue didn’t qi deviate because his wife was next to him, but he demanded to speak to HuaiSang immediately.

 

HuaiSang appeared before his brother, face pale. “What’s wrong, Da-Ge?” He tapped a fan in his hands, anxious.

 

“Do you have feelings for Mo XuanYu?” Nie MingJue burst out.

 

HuaiSang’s gaze swept Jin GuangYao and Lan XiChen, both standing there with Nie MingJue and Wen Qing. “O-of course not.”

 

That confirmed it. Jin GuangYao sighed. Why did it seem this was the default expectation? 

 

“Do not lie to me,” warned Nie MingJue, getting to his feet and approaching. 

 

HuaiSang opened his fan. Nie MingJue’s hand launched out, gripping his wrist and pulling his fan away from shielding his chin. HuaiSang cringed. “Da-Ge, I swear, it hasn’t gone very far; we haven’t—” 

 

Nie MingJue’s face purpled. “Very far? How do you define that?”

 

Oh, no. 

 

HuaiSang gulped. “K-kissing? And some—I mean—we haven’t gone fully—I—” He was stuttering.

 

“Never mind; I don’t want to hear it.” Nie MingJue shook his head. “The Jin Sect sent A-Yao here to ask for a marriage between you and Mo XuanYu.”

 

Nie HuaiSang’s mouth fell open. “Truly?”    

 

“Yes.” Nie MingJue smiled.

 

Wait… were you joking around with your brother? Or trying to? Jin GuangYao was now the one gaping. Lan XiChen laughed. 

 

He spent the next few months battling remnants of people who were still loyal to Jin GuangShan, and helping Jin ZiXuan plan the lookout towers. A-Song seemed to love Wen Ning, but still prefer Jin GuangYao. Jin GuangYao couldn’t believe it himself, but he was grateful. 

 

But life wasn’t without its hiccups and occasional bruises. One day, a familiar girl stormed up to the Jinlintai, demanding to speak to Jin ZiXun. 

 

“What happened?” Jin ZiXuan asked, speeding out. He stopped short when he recognized the girl glaring at him. “Luo QingYang!” 

 

The girl Wei WuXian saved, Jin GuangYao realized. MianMian! 

 

Her eyes were inflamed and red, body shaking. “You killed my husband!” 

 

“What?” Jin ZiXuan’s mouth hung open. He turned to Jin ZiXun, who appeared looking grumpier than he had in years, probably due to the fact that Su She still refused to talk to him. 

 

“I killed no one!” Jin Zixun defended himself. “Except some cultivators who were Jin GuangShan’s—”

 

“He wasn’t!” MianMian glared at them. “You faulted him, you accused him, and he wasn’t even a cultivator! He was accompanying me on a night hunt because I—because he supports me! And you—now he’s gone, and what am I supposed to do?” Tears fell down her face. “He’ll never even meet his child.”  

 

Jin ZiXun looked as if he was about to be sick. “I didn’t,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean to—no, he was with them, he was with them, it couldn’t have been—”

 

Mistakes happened, though, and when the cost was people’s lives… System, did this man live in the other universe?

 

Correct.

 

No! 

 

I couldn’t save him.

 

I robbed the world of a good man. 

 

You cannot save everyone. Our actions have ripple effects which we cannot anticipate

 

It did not make Jin GuangYao feel any better. He’d robbed a good woman of a good man, a supportive man. He’d robbed a child of a father. 

 

“MianMian,” choked out Jin ZiXuan. “I’m—” 

 

Jin ZiXun looked terrified, but of course they wouldn’t punish him. They couldn’t. “I really didn’t mean to. I’m sorry.” 

 

He was apologizing. But was him learning to apologize worth a life? Was a life even the cost? Or was it just carelessness?

 

How many mistakes have we made? 

 

He doubled over. Wasn’t it necessary, though? Wasn’t it? 

 

MianMian didn’t even want to punish Jin ZiXun, as it turned out. She just wanted an accounting, and an allowance that Jin ZiXuan and Jiang YanLi gave her. Her father had been a servant, and her parents were both deceased, as were her in-laws. She had little ways to support herself. She decided to stay at the sect for awhile, A-Su and YanLi helping her. The stench of guilt followed Jin GuangYao wherever he went.

 

No world is inherently better than the last, the System reminded him. Even if you are better in one than the last. The world is still unfair. 

 

Jin GuangYao cried, and Lan XiChen found him crying, and he couldn’t even tell him why. 

 

But when, a few days before Mo XuanYu and Nie HuaiSang’s wedding, they heard that Song Lan had been seen with his eyes looking for Xiao XingChen, Jin GuangYao made his decision.

 

I won’t let you die.

 

I will save who I can.

 

The System warns you: chance of success for the side quest “redeem Xue Yang” is 54%.

 

Wait, that was his quest? Wasn’t it save Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan? Or could one not be done without the other?

 

Okay, fine! I accept ! He still had that one self-saving wish anyways. He gritted his teeth. 

 

“ZeWu-Jun,” he said to his friend, the one he could trust most even if not completely. “I need your help.” 



Chapter Text

“Can you explain why you are so certain Xiao XingChen and Xue Yang are in Yi City?” complained Wei WuXian. The wind whipped around his face as he clung to his husband, the two of them soaring on BiChen. 

 

“You did not have to accompany us, Young Master Wei,” Jin GuangYao said, plastering a smile onto his face. He felt bad leaving A-Song even for a few days. He meant to only go with Lan XiChen, maybe get a chance to talk about how he felt, but instead Lan WangJi had insisted on him and his husband accompanying them. And then Da-Ge agreed to come, and Jiang Cheng too because—well, probably because Jiang Cheng was still trying to repair things. At least he was trying, but even after a full confession the feelings remained like stains.The System had said he had done enough for the YunMeng brothers, that it was no longer his responsibility, but was that really the case? 

 

The truth was, Jin GuangYao had no idea where Xue Yang or Xiao XingChen were. He just remembered from the past. It certainly wasn’t too naive to think that Xiao XingChen might have wound up in Yi City again. Xue Yang, on the other hand… Jin GuangYao hadn’t had him beaten by guards, chased away from the Jinlintai. In fact, there hadn’t been a single sighting of him since the massacre of Song Lan’s clan. Yi City was his only guess.

 

Fine, five B points for a lie were worth the cost. “We had reports of Xue Yang in the area. I can’t think why someone like Xue ChengMei would want to go to such a place unless it was for revenge.” 

 

Deducting ten points for embellishing Xue Yang’s motivations.

 

He scowled, glancing to Lan XiChen. Er-Ge gave him a confident smile, and Jin GuangYao hated himself even for the smallest of lies.

 

“I am very grateful,” Song Lan said softly, voice barely audible through the wind. 

 

“We all know why ChiFeng-Zun came,” Wei WuXian said cheerfully. “He’s just stressing Nie HuaiSang out with the wedding planning, so HuaiSang probably told him to get lost.”

 

Nie MingJue narrowed his eyes. Jin GuangYao bit back a groan. Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes. 

 

He exchanged another secret smile with Lan XiChen. In truth, Da-Ge had confided in them that the reason he was stressed was that Wen Qing was expecting a baby. They didn’t want to announce it until it was safe to do so, which would be after the wedding. 

 

A Wen son or daughter for you, Da-Ge . Who would have thought? 

 

They landed in Yi City at dusk, golden twilight crinkling under the weight of night’s thick indigo silk. 

 

“We ought to find an inn to stay in,” said Lan XiChen, glancing around. 

 

“But if he’s in this city…” Song Lan’s voice trailed off. “And if that monster is here too, then he’s not safe.”

 

“Song ZiChen, if anyone can defend themselves while blind, it is Xiao XingChen,” Wei WuXian said, but he gave in and helped ask around. No one had heard of a blind cultivator, but there was much more to check the next day.  

 

Rain fell outside, setting a dreary weight over an already-dreary place. Thunder crackled. Song Lan peered out the window as they ate some stew prepared by the innkeeper, face solemn.

 

“Are you all right?” asked Lan XiChen.

 

He nodded.

 

“Why haven’t you found him beforehand?’ Jiang Cheng demanded. “After BaoShan SanRen mended your eyes, why did he leave?” He wouldn’t look at Wei WuXian. Jin GuangYao winced. Had they had another tiff?

 

“I… said something to him. In my despair.” Song Lan sat on his hands, biting his lip. “It was a cruel statement. I did not mean it, but I said it, and I fear he believed me.” 

 

“It’s not too late,” Jin GuangYao heard himself saying. He gripped his knees, staring at Song Lan. “It’s never too late. As long as you’re alive.” Maybe even after life. After all, he had died, hadn’t he? “You can make things right.” 

 

Song Lan’s mouth twitched. “I hope you are right, Young Master Jin.” 

 

Jiang Cheng stabbed his spoon into his soup, the wood clacking against the bowl. Wei WuXian glanced at his brother, eyes somber. 

 

Soon Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi wandered up to their shared room. Da-Ge, Song Lan, and Jiang Cheng all had their own rooms, but Lan XiChen had suggested he and Jin GuangYao stay together to save on costs. Even though cost wasn’t a concern for the Jin Sect, Jin GuangYao readily agreed for motives he loathed in himself. 

 

They had two beds, but the room was small and cozy, lit by a single candle. Shadows danced along the walls. Jin GuangYao caught his breath.

 

“I’m happy for Da-Ge,” said Lan XiChen, settling down on the bed closest to the window. Wind rattled the screen. “But I fear he’s going to drive Wen Qing mad worrying about the little one.” 

 

Jin GuangYao laughed. “I’m happy for him, too.” 

 

“A-Song will have another sort of cousin.”

 

He nodded, removing his hat. He never needed it in front of Lan XiChen. 

 

“Are you really okay with Qin Su and Wen Ning’s marriage?” Lan XiChen ventured. “I’ve wondered. It must be—”

 

“I am happy for them,” Jin GuangYao said. “And for myself… Er-Ge, I’ve never been the sort to mind celibacy.” His face reddened. “And I really do not—I will always love her, but not—I don’t desire her any more.” 

 

“I’m sorry,” Lan XiChen said anyways.   

 

“Er-Ge, may I ask you something?” he ventured, lacing his fingers together. He was surprised the System didn’t join the chorus of shouts his conscience was already spewing at him.

 

Lan XiChen removed his boots. “Mm.”

 

His heart thudded. “Have you ever been kissed?”

 

Lan XiChen’s brows pinched. “Pardon?”

 

Jin GuangYao’s face flushed. “I didn’t mean that in a questionable way, or to impugn your honor. I only meant—” 

 

“No,” said Lan XiChen. “I’m not as rigid as WangJi, but no.” He was quiet. “I never have found someone I wanted to kiss.” 

 

See, no one. He doesn’t want to kiss you, A-Yao. “Well, that’s good,” Jin GuangYao heard himself say. “You should wait until you love someone.” He took off his own boots. 

 

A small smile curved Lan XiChen’s face. “For all my talk about WangJi, though, he confessed to me that he and Young Master Wei—well, they slept together in YunMeng before they were married. They married after.” 

 

Jin GuangYao gaped. In reality he wasn’t that surprised, but who would have guessed that even in this timeline, HanGuang-Jun would be so impatient? 

 

“He seemed rather embarrassed,” Lan XiChen said. “But I told him not to worry.” He lay back on his bed. 

 

Jin GuangYao sat on his own bed, mattress creaking. “He loves Wei Ying, and Wei Ying loves him.” 

 

“I know.” Lan XiChen let out a snort. “You know, A-Yao—and please do not repeat this—sometimes I think my uncle might want to marry. But he won’t take the final step. He feels too much of a burden from raising us.” His voice sounded sad.

 

Jin GuangYao blew out the candles. Darkness blanketed the room, and he could shuffle down the bed and listen to the sound of Lan XiChen breathing, could conceal the flush spreading through him. “Is there a specific person you think he might want to marry?”

 

“Mm.” Lan XiChen knew what he was thinking.

 

“He might need a final push,” siad Jin GuangYao. “From his sect leader. To wed someone he loves and to know that his nephews do not condemn him for it.” 

 

“Who would have thought,” Lan XiChen said. “WangJi, a demonic cultivator. My uncle, a former prostitute. Me…” His voice trailed off. 

 

“Someone wonderful,” Jin GuangYao said, a lump in his throat.

 

“I don’t need someone wonderful. I just need someone—I love.” Lan XiChen let out a small laugh. “I really am quite the romantic.”

 

Jin GuangYao didn’t know what to say. He lay there in silence until he drifted off to sleep. 

 

The next morning, they split into groups: Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi, Jiang Cheng and Da-Ge, Lan XiChen and Jin GuangYao, with Song Lan joining their group. They headed towards the market, asking around.

 

A clacking sound echoed. One of the local boys scoffed. “Here comes that blind bitch again.”

 

Jin GuangYao turned. A rather pretty teenage girl, poor and dressed in rags, irises white, used her cane to meander through the crowd. 

 

“Why do you insult her?” demanded Lan XiChen. 

 

“Young Maiden, if your eyes can’t see, it’s best if you don’t run so fast,” called Song Lan, hurrying towards her. He led her to the side.“There are less people on the side of the road.”

“A-Qing is very thankful of Daozhang!” tittered the girl.

“Don’t play around too much. The dark energy here is quite strong. In the future, be careful not to linger outside,” Song Lan warned, as if he were her parent and not only a few years older. Song Lan turned back to another person. “Excuse me. Has anyone seen a blind cultivator who carries a sword in the area?”

“I’m not too sure. Daozhang, you can try asking the people over there.” The same answer they’d been hearing all morning. Jin GuangYao massaged the back of his neck. If he was wrong about Xiao XingChen’s location… 

“Daozhang, why are you searching for the other daozhang?”

Song Lan whirled around. Jin GuangYao peered over, Lan XiChen pausing. “Have you seen him?”

It was the blind girl. “Maybe I have, but maybe I haven’t.”

Wait… last time Jin Ling had mentioned a blind girl! 

Song Lan swallowed. “How can I make it so that you’ve seen him?”

“If you answer a few questions for me, then maybe I’ll remember that I have. Are you a friend of the daozhang?”

Hmph. The girl was smart enough not to trust people. Jin GuangYao’s lips curved. 

Song Lan hesitated. He only replied after a few moments, “…Yes.”

The girl’s eyes narrowed, an odd response for someone who was supposedly blind. “Do you really know him? How tall is he? Is he pretty or ugly? What is his sword like?”

“His height is similar to mine. His appearance is rather fine. His sword is carved with patterns of frost.”

The girl grinned. “I know where he is. Daozhang, follow me!”

“You’re kidding,” Lan XiChen breathed. Jin GuangYao clutched HenSheng as they followed A-Qing, who chattered carefree with Song Lan. 

 

Voices rang out when they drew closer. Familiar voices. Lan XiChen immediately grasped Jin GuangYao’s elbow. 

 

“Whose turn is it today?”

 

The instant he heard the voice, Song Lan’s hands trembled so much that Jin GuangYao could clearly see it. It truly was Xiao XingChen!

“What if, from now on, we don’t take turns anymore? Let’s change it up.”

Fucking hell! Xue Yang really was here! 

“You only spoke up because it’s your turn today, didn’t you? How do you want to change it?”

“Here. There are two sticks. If you pick the longer one, you don’t have to go; if you pick the shorter one, then you’ll have to go. What do you think?”

After a moment of silence, Xue Yang laughed. “Yours is short. I win. You’re going!”

“Alright. I’ll go.”

Xue Yang cackled wildly. “Come back. I’ll go.”

“Why are you willing to go now?”

“Are you an idiot? I tricked you. I picked the shorter one. It’s just that I’ve been hiding the longest stick behind me, so whichever one you pick, I can take out a longer one. I’m just exploiting the fact that you can’t see.” He whistled. 

“What’s wrong?” asked A-Qing in a hushed voice, clearly noticing the tension. 

 

You can see. Jin GuangYao narrowed his eyes at her. She ignored him. 

 

“That man,” breathed Song Lan. He was still shaking, his eyes—Xiao XingChen’s eyes—wide with fury, transported back to a place where he’d seen a scene no one wanted to imagine.  

 

Jin GuangYao couldn’t risk it. He drew HenSheng. Lan XiChen ripped out ShouYue. Both of them flew inside.

 

“What? You can fly?” yelled A-Qing. 

 

“Oh, fuck,” Xue Yang said, a basket clasped in his hand when he saw them. He glanced back at Xiao XingChen, who had frowned and turned towards them. The clouds blocked the sun, but Xue Yang’s sword still glinted when he ripped it from his sleeve. “You—” 

 

“You aren’t going anywhere, Xue Yang,” said Lan XiChen. “Set down your sword.”

 

“Who—Xue Yang is here?” called out Xiao XingChen. His face creased in terror. Xue Yang flinched. 

 

“Xiao XingChen,” managed Jin GuangYao. “I am LianFang-Zun, here with ZeWu-Jun. We’ve come to find you, and to find Xue Yang, who was reported to be found in this area. It appears he’s been with you, posing as a companion.”

 

“What?” Xiao XingChen stumbled. “He’s here? Where?”

 

A-Qing, quicker than a bird, grasped his arm to steady him. “Daozhang! The man who was with us— he’s Xue Yang!” 

 

“Shut the fuck up!” Xue Yang yelled, his scream unhinged. 

 

But it was too late. The truth pierced Xiao XingChen. He trembled. “You’re really Xue Yang?”

 

At the look on boy in black’s face, Jin GuangYao felt something snap inside him. The System didn’t even need to remind him. He knew, he knew from that quaver to Xue Yang’s lip, the crease in his brow, the pulling back of his lips into what might look like a snarl but was only to disguise a wail. 

 

You… for him?

 

He is the light of your life?

 

“No, I’m not,” said Xue Yang, and Xiao XingChen reached for his sword. 

 

“Yes,” said another voice. 

 

“Song Lan?” cried out Xiao XingChen, looking as if his mind was pulling apart from two unexpected reunions. “Song—” 

 

Song Lan glared at Xue Yang. “You are Xue Yang, you—” 

 

“It’s not what you think!” Xue Yang finally screamed. “He found me, he saved me from—I didn’t do anything to him!”

 

“Nothing?” countered A-Qing. “I’ve seen you, you murderer .”

 

Xiao XingChen was hyperventilating, breaths harsh and wet and scared. 

 

“Seen?” echoed Xue Yang. “You little tramp!”

 

A-Qing yelped, ducking behind Song Lan. 

 

In a flash, Jiang Cheng and Da-Ge landed. Xue Yang whirled, and Lan WangJi and Wei WuXian landed behind him. Every single one of them had their swords out, save for Wei WuXian, who backed up towards Xiao XingChen.

 

Xue Yang was surrounded. 

 

He let out a bitter laugh. His eyes sparked. The sword aimed at them. His chest heaved, like he was a scared teenager, which he was. 

 

You will fight until you die, Jin GuangYao realized. “Can you honestly deny that you came here for revenge?” We can hear you out, if you— 

 

Xue Yang’s laughs cracked and crumbled. “If you already have your minds made up, then why would I—” 

 

“He made Daozhang kill people under corpse poisoning—he cut their tongues out, I saw it—” A-Qing cried out. “Daozhang, daozhang, I didn’t tell you because—I didn’t want you to know I could see—”   

 

“You can see?” Xiao Xingchen looked so baffled. He clawed at his temples. “I don’t—I can’t—why, why, what—” 

 

“Put your sword down, animal,” Jiang Cheng sneered. 

 

Xue Yang lunged. 

 

Shit! System— 

 

Jin GuangYao spun his sword out, aiming for his legs. He needed to knock Xue Yang down. He needed to ensure he survived long enough to speak, and speak honestly. 

 

Lan XiChen seemed to realize what he was aiming for and joined Jin GuangYao. Lan WangJi lunged too, deflecting Xue Yang’s blows. Nie MingJue and Jiang Cheng frowned.

 

“Zidian! ” yelled Jin GuangYao. “A trial—”

 

Jiang Cheng slung out the purple lightning. It snapped though the air, striking Xue Yang’s legs. He stumbled. Jin GuangYao hit his arm, and Lan WangJi ripped Xue Yang’s sword from his hand. Lan XiChen kicked Xue Yang’s legs out from under him, forcing him to his knees, chin in the dirt. Jiang Cheng used Zidian to lash his limbs to his torso. Xue Yang let out a desperate wail. 

 

“He was probably biding time to murder you, Xiao XingChen,” Jiang Cheng spat.

 

“Taking advantage of my blindness,” whispered Xiao XingChen, shame on his face. “I—” 

 

“I wasn’t!” Xue Yang finally shouting, spitting out dirt. “Xiao XingChen! I wasn’t! You were—why would you even—fine, then! Fine! I wanted to torture you slowly! Is that what you think? It is, isn’t it? You’ve already made up your mind, so what even is the point?” He was screaming, spittle flying from his lips. He glared up at Jin GuangYao. “To think I ever admired you—you did the same things, you and that dad of yours—” 

 

Nie MingJue actually backhanded Xue Yang. “Do not—”

 

You defended me?

 

“It’s all right, Da-Ge,” Jin GuangYao interrupted. Xue Yang struggled, but Zidian wouldn’t break. “He at least should face a trial and an accounting of his crimes.” 

 

That is not saving him. 

 

It is not, the System confirmed. 

 

How, then? Jin GuangYao gulped. How sincere are his affections for Xiao XingChen? 

 

100%. 

 

Jin GuangYao stumbled. You’re sure? 

 

Affirmative.

 

So the delinquent fell in love with the saint. But judging from the saint reaching out, feeling for Song Lan’s face with his index finger and thumb, tracing the nose and jaw, the saint already had his love. “Z-ZiChen?” 

 

Song Lan was weeping. “Xiao XingChen, I—what he said, what he made you do, it doesn’t matter, it’s not true, it—”

 

“I murdered people?” Xiao XingChen collapsed to his knees. He retched, gagging. A-Qing held his hair. 

 

“It was that delinquent’s fault,” Nie MingJue said. 

 

Xue Yang laughed. “What position are you in to blame me? A friend of his? Are you shameless enough to say that you’re his friend? Hahahaha, Daozhang Song, do I need to remind you of what you said to Xiao XingChen after I wiped out the BaiXue Temple? When he worried about you and wanted to help you, what sort of expression did you face him with? What sort of things did you say?”

 

Song Lan flinched. “I! At the time, I…”

 

“Stop!” cried out Xiao XingChen. “I know what he said, I know it, there’s no need to repeat it!” 

 

Xue Yang cut him short: “At the time, you were upset? You were pained? You were grieving? You didn’t know where to vent your anger? And that was why you took it out on him? To be fair, the reason why I wiped out your temple was precisely because of him. It’s quite understandable why you took it out on him. In fact, it was exactly what I wanted. Well! Who was the one who said ‘from now on, we won’t need to meet again”? Wasn’t it you, Daozhang Song? He listened to your request and disappeared after he dug out his eyes for you, but why have you come to him now? Isn’t this making it a bit too difficult?”

Lan WangJi waved his hand, silencing Xue Yang.

Song Lan moaned, head in his hands. “I didn’t—I didn’t mean it, Xiao XingChen, I didn’t—I had to find you and apologize, I’ve never regretted anything more in my life, I—”

 

“Mmph!” Xue Yang glared. 

 

Song Lan is using the words you want to say, Xue Yang. But you wouldn’t. Jin GuangYao felt nauseated himself as Xiao XingChen retched again. 

 

“I didn’t say anything,” A-Qing said, voice trembling. “Daozhang, Daozhang, I’m sorry—I was too afraid—” 

 

Song Lan rose. Xiao XingChen reached out and tried to grasp for something, grabbing his knee. Song Lan hesitated, and then clasped his hand. Xiao XingCheng was crying too hard to speak, shame written in every feature of his face.

 

“It isn’t enough for everyone else to be a sinner?” Nie MingJue said in disgust to a bound Xue Yang, who craned his neck up at him. “You must make everyone as repulsive as you?”  

 

No, no, that’s not it. 

 

He wants— 

 

He wants— 

 

To not feel alone.

 

He wants to believe he has a chance. 

 


 

“Wow! This place is so fancy!” A-Qing gawked at the Jinlintai as they soared closer. “Is that real gold? Is that mural real? How did they paint it?” 

 

Jiang Cheng had dragged her on his sword, Da-Ge having hauled a bound Xue Yang and Song Lan Xiao XingChen, who still appeared to be in shock. Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes. “It’s rude to point.”

 

“Well, not all of us were raised snobs and so we can still think things are pretty,” retorted A-Qing as they went to land. She whacked Jiang Cheng with her cane. He tumbled off, and she fell too, the blade plummeting. 

 

Thankfully it wasn’t far to fall. Jin GuangYao bit back a laugh. Wei WuXian couldn’t even attempt to restrain himself. He doubled over, howling with laughter. Lan WangJi sighed at his husband. 

 

The doors to the Jinlintai flew open. Jin ZiXuan rushed out. Jin ZiXun was on his heels. Shock marked both of their faces at the chaotic sight of A-Qing and Jiang Cheng sprawled on the grass, Xiao XingChen leaning against Song Lan for support, and Xue Yang still squirming against his bonds. 

 

“GeGe, Da-Ge, Wen Qing should see to Xiao XingChen,” Jin GuangYao said. “He’s just suffered a big shock.” 

 

Nie MingJue nodded, hurrying into the Jinlintai. Jin ZiXuan glared at a captive Xue Yang, who looked as if he wanted to spit at him. “Take him to the dungeons. Away from my father. Gag him.” He let out his breath. “Assemble the sects for a trial.” 

 

Jin GuangYao quickly caught his brother and cousin up on what had happened, greeted A-Su and Wen Ning, and then joined Lan XiChen, Jiang Cheng, Wei WuXian, Lan WangJi, and A-Qing to wait for the assembly. It likely wouldn’t take long. And then—

 

And then Xue Yang will be executed. His head would roll on the floor, a gift for Nie HuaiSang and Mo XuanYu’s wedding. A safer world. And a failure of the task giften to him by the System.

 

Jin GuangYao held A-Song in his arms. The three-year old snuggled against him, glad he was back. 

 

“I’m worried Daozhang will still be mad at me, that I can see,” A-Qing said, rolling her cane between her palms. 

 

“Probably,” Jiang Cheng said flatly. Jin GuangYao rolled his eyes. 

 

“He’s the first person who ever knew that I was a thief and didn’t hate me for it,” A-Qing said, kicking her legs out. “He’s the best person I ever knew. That villain—” Her scowl deepened, and her white irises looked like flaming moons. “I knew we couldn’t trust him, but I never thought he was so—” 

 

“Your daozhang sacrificed his eyes for his friend,” said Jiang Cheng. “It didn’t turn out terribly well.”

 

“They’re both alive,” countered Jin GuangYao. “Together. They’ll be fine.”

 

“Why do you have to make it sound like a sacrifice is his crime?” demanded A-Qing. “Daozhang’s crime is killing people! Murder! Obviously! He sacrificed his eyes out of love! And he isn’t even responsible for the murders; he didn’t know! If anything I’m more responsible than he is, because I saw and kept quiet to spare myself!”

 

“Well, well,” Jiang Cheng said. “Who’s sacrificing their moral standing now?” 

 

“And is that a crime?” 

 

“Maybe your daozhang sacrificed his eyes out of a desire to prove that he really was morally better than average, and therefore all the evil things shouldn’t have happened to him,” Jiang Cheng countered. “If only a scourge like Xue Yang—” 

 

A-Qing shoved his shoulder. “How can you be so cruel? You don’t even know him! I never heard Daozhang mention a YunMeng Jiang Sect at all, much less its stuck-up pig of a sect leader!” 

 

“Pig?” Jiang Cheng’s eyes bulged. “You—”

 

“Is he about to fight a little girl?” whispered Lan XiChen.

 

“She’s not as little as she appears,” Jin GuangYao replied. 

 

“Pig’s a mean name,” commented A-Song. 

 

Jin GuangYao laughed. “A-Song, you have such a gentle heart.” He poked the boy’s chest. 

 

His son beamed. 

 

“Sorry,” A-Qing mumbled to A-Song. “Look, am I going to have to testify?” 

 

“Probably,” Jin GuangYao affirmed. 

 

She blew out her breath. “Can’t wait to see rich fancy people elbow each other. ‘Look at that girl, what a con artist!’ ‘Look at her eyes, isn’t she a demon?’ ‘Thievery is better than prostitution!’ Your cultivational society sucks.” 

 

She wasn’t wrong. And now they were going to condemn someone who exemplified its misery. Jin GuangYao buried his nose in A-Song’s hair. 

 

In my last life, I killed A-Song.

 

Xue Yang killed the Chang Clan in both lives! And villagers! He killed them. He did.  

 

The System wishes to remind you that your task of saving Xue Yang has not been completed.

 

I know, I know! What choice do I have, though? Last time, when he argued for Xue Yang to Nie MingJue, he’d lost Da-Ge’s approval forever.

 

“How befitting the son of a whore!”

 

Da-Ge wasn’t the same this time. But… 

 

“He wasn’t cruel always,” said A-Qing. “He gave me candy. And he once punched someone who said I was ugly. Though he then said they were right.” 

 

Jin GuangYao swallowed. So Xue Yang really was capable of empathy.

 

“I just don’t want him to hurt daozhang anymore,” A-Qing whispered. 

 

“Do you want him to die?” asked Jiang Cheng. 

 

She looked up. “I don’t know. If he’s locked up, he still can’t hurt us, so—” She pressed her lips together. “I just don’t want to lose daozhang. He’s the kindest person I’ve ever met. I don’t want the society to shame him for what Xue Yang made him do. And it’s one or the other, right?” 

 

No one said anything. It shouldn’t have to be, Jin GuangYao thought. 

 

“My sister lives here,” Jiang Cheng said. “If you want to try on a robe rather than those disgusting rags, I’m sure she’d lend you one, A-Qing.”

 

“Huh?” A-Qing frowned. “For real?” 

 

He nodded, avoiding her eyes. 

 

“Is this your chance to prove you’re better than me and therefore I shouldn’t have called you a pig?” A-Qing demanded, crossing her arms. 

 

Jiang Cheng gaped. 

 

“You’re not better than me,” said A-Qing. “But if you want to introduce me to your sister even though you’re getting shit from it, be my guest.” 

 

Jiang Cheng rose to his feet, culled by a beggar girl. “Um, okay.” 

 

“I’ll walk you, Maiden Qing,” Wei WuXian said quickly. 

 

“Ah, good. Let the pig rest.” A-Qing winked at Jiang Cheng, her tone not cruel at all. But she hopped up and followed Wei WuXian. 

 

Jiang Cheng was left slack-mouthed. He curled his hand around Zidian. 

 

The System wishes to remind you that your task is redeeming Jin GuangYao, not earning everyone’s approval. Often they do not coincide.

 

But he had their approval. He had it, he had what he longed for, and he was supposed to just give it up? What if even Er-Ge did not understand this time? 

 

He rose. When the trial commenced, he passed A-Song to Qin Su, who paused, her hand on his forearm. Wen Ning looked perturbed. 

 

“What is it?” Jin GuangYao asked, nervous and eager for a distraction. Can you get pregnant? Are you pregnant? Is—

 

“It’s not me,” said A-Su, concerned. “It’s you. You look terrified.”

 

Jin GuangYao gulped, wringing his robes. “Just—not looking forward to recounting the things Father had me do.” He wouldn’t lie, and he knew that Nie MingJue, Lan XiChen, and Jin ZiXuan had already forgiven him for these things. 

 

“That’s not true,” said Qin Su. “You’re lying. What is it?” 

 

He cringed. “I’m just—I—” How to say he had a magical system that wanted Xue Yang redeemed? And he had no idea how to redeem him beyond an idea that made him want to shrivel up and cry? What, ask Xue Yang to beg for mercy? He was quite certain that if they undid Xue Yang’s gag, the boy would only damn himself. “If you thought everyone would hate you if you said something—if you had no reason for doing something beyond that you thought it was right, even if everyone would hate you for it, would you do it?” I don’t have much practice with that. Last time I was in this sort of situation, I married you.

 

I still don’t know if that was right, or if that was wrong .

 

“If people did not deal with those situations, I would be a disgrace,” Qin Su replied. “Or A-Song wouldn’t be here. A-Ning definitely wouldn’t be here, because Wei WuXian decided it was right to save him.”

 

“If I may? Right or wrong,” ventured Wen Ning. “I think you have to choose something you can bear. That’s what I heard HanGuang-Jun say regarding Young Master Wei, once.” 

 

I’m taking advice from a corpse.

 

I hope you’re right.

 

He nodded. “Thank you.” He patted A-Song’s head before ducking inside the ceremonial hall.

 

Xue Yang had already been forced to his knees, swords pointed at his throat, arms bound in front of him, a gag binding his lips. Xiao XingChen sat near the front, very pale and wan, Song Lan beside him. A-Qing sat with them, too, draped in an elaborate purple robe from the YunMeng Jiang Sect. It was a bit too fancy for a trial, and so she still stood out. A proud smile bloomed on her lips. A hint of makeup touched her face, and she looked far more grown-up with her hair washed and untangled. MianMian, heavily pregnant now, smiled at her, and Jin GuangYao suspected she had helped Jiang YanLi dress A-Qing. 

 

Jin GuangYao took his seat beside Jin ZiXuan. 

 

“You are accused of murder,” began Jin ZiXuan, listing off the massacre of the Chang Clan, along with the massacres of the villages A-Qing had described, and then the descriptions of those he had tormented under Jin GuangShan’s command. 

 

The crowds murmured. A-Qing was called as a witness. Xiao XingChen shuddered as she described how Xiao XingChen had saved a beaten Xue Yang, how Xiao XingCheng had been tricked into murdering people. Her voice dropped to a reluctant whisper. Xue Yang flinched. 

 

Xiao XingChen’s face flamed red, his shoulders drooped, his head hung towards his chest. And then Song Lan described the murder of his temple, how Xiao Xingchen had saved him. Chang Ping had arrived and detailed the massacre of his clan. And then at last they called Jin GuangYao. 

 

He spoke simply, stating the facts. He wanted to spin them to make himself seem better, but he could not. So he was honest, and still the System did not reward him. 

 

The entire time every single witness spoke, Xue Yang focused only on Xiao XingChen, ignoring Song Lan’s protective glares. But Xiao XingChen did not glance at him.

 

“Well,” said Jin ZiXuan, motioning for Xue Yang’s gag to be removed. “Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

 

Apologize, beg for mercy, please. But Jin GuangYao knew he wouldn’t do it. The opposite, in fact. 

 

“I wonder,” Xue Yang managed, voice hoarse and head finally hanging instead of looking at Xiao XingChen. “If my fate will be worse than the fate of the former sect leader rotting in the cells below.” He chortled. “Of course it will be. I’m a street tramp to be trampled under a horse’s hooves, right?” 

 

Jin ZiXuan paled. MianMian’s eyes narrowed. 

 

“Take my head if you want,” Xue Yang said. “I did all those things, and I have few regrets. But don’t pretend you’re taking my head out of righteousness. It’s because it satisfies you and makes you feel righteous.”  He spat onto the ground. “You people think you can lecture me? What a fucking joke!” Wild laughter rent the air. 

 

“Excuse me,” said MianMian, leaning forward. “But has anyone asked why he killed the Chang Clan? The temple massacre, we can infer the why for that, but—” 

 

Yet again, MianMian was shaming Jin GuangYao without meaning to. He shrunk. 

 

“Something something when I was a kid,” said Xue Yang, smirking at her in an unsettling way. “That’s why, but who gives a fuck? Not them.” 

 

“Why does it even matter?” asked Nie MingJue. “The end result is the same. Mass murder, even of women and children!” 

 

MianMian winced, shifting and rubbing her back. “Yes, but the least we can do for the condemned is know why they are condemned.”

 

“You’re in the wrong place if you think people give a shit, girl,” Xue Yang said. “I confess to it all, except to the parts about Xiao XingChen.” He glared up at Jin ZiXuan. 

 

Xiao XingChen’s head snapped to the side. He gaped, finally looking at Xue Yang. A-Qing stiffened. 

 

“I made him kill, yes, but did you not ask or even consider why the village killings stopped over a year ago?” Xue Yang demanded, eyes glowing. “It was because they were my sins, not his! I didn’t want to lead him down a path of ruin! You can say what you want about me, but you don’t get to say that I did that out of revenge! We’re the same , but you won’t condemn him, will you? I—”

 

“You are not the same!” Song Lan yelled, and Xiao XingChen looked away, and Xue Yang squeezed his eyes shut. 

 

“He shouldn’t have meddled with the rights and wrongs of other people. Who was right, who was wrong; would an outsider be able to understand? Or, maybe you shouldn’t have even left the mountain in the first place. Your teacher, BaoShan SanRen, was indeed smart. Why didn’t you listen to her and obediently cultivate in the mountains? If you couldn’t understand the happenings of this world, then you shouldn’t have come! The people that I hate the most are ones who say they’re righteous, who think they’re virtuous, precisely stupid, naive, dumb idiots like you who think the world’s better just because you did something good! You think I’m disgusting? Very well. Would I care if anybody thinks I’m disgusting? How do you know I wasn’t forced to kill the Chang Clan, like your sins are pardonable because I deceived you? How do you know I wasn’t deceived?” 

 

“Were you?” Jin ZiXuan cut in. 

 

“Who would even listen?” Xue Yang shouted back. His eyes were still shut, refusing to look at anyone.

 

“With all due respect,” Jin GuangYao broke in. Anxiety tightened in his throat. “The only chance Xue ChengMei was given in his early life was from our dear father, who plucked him for the purpose of cultivating his worser instincts. He’s never received formal training in decency. Is that not deception of a sort, deception as to what the world of cultivation tolerates?”

 

Jin ZiXuan frowned. “What are you saying, A-Yao?” He rested his chin on his interlocked fingers. 

 

“I’m saying we shouldn’t act too hastily,” Jin GuangYao said, sweat dribbling cold down his back. He couldn’t look at Da-Ge. He couldn’t even look at Er-Ge. He could only look at Jin ZiXuan. Please, understand me

 

“Excuse me,” Nie MingJue interrupted. “We should not allow the criminal to have his words validated. Xiao XingChen is not the one on trial here; he did not know he was killing. You knew full well, whatever your reasons for doing so.”

 

And so did I. So did I. The thrill he felt when his sword sliced into that superior’s chest, the smirk he felt spreading when the man saw his face in a Wen Sect uniform—a disguise, yes, but whether or not the man believed it, it did not matter.

 

You died knowing you failed.

 

“But,” Jin GuangYao finally ventured. “Do we know whether everyone grows up seeing killing as the unimaginable wrong it is? Does everyone who kills know they are killing, what that means?” 

 

“You can’t possibly be arguing for mercy for this fiend!” bellowed Chang Ping. “LianFang-Zun, you are not the one on trial either! Or is it your guilty conscience—”

 

“Enough!” Jin ZiXuan slammed his palm down on the table. “Take Xue Yang away. I will make a decision overnight and announce it in the morning.” He rose. “Song ZiChen, Xiao XingChen, ChiFeng-Zun, Jiang WanYin, ZeWu-Jun, A-Yao, A-Xun. Meet me in my chambers. And A-Li, too. Please.” 

 

Jin GuangYao scurried after his brother. He doubted anyone would agree with him in this group of people. Song Lan certainly would not, nor would Nie MingJue or Jin ZiXun. Jiang YanLi, perhaps… 

 

Lan XiChen closed the door and Jin ZiXuan immediately let out a harsh sigh, turning to Jin GuangYao. “Explain. Now.” 

 

He had no words, and the System wasn’t offering to help. He wondered if he should use his third self-saving chance. No, no, not now. He just stared.

 

“You made us look like fools out there, giving evidence and then trying to make it seem like you thought him innocent. Way to make everyone doubt your innocence, and Jin GuangShan’s too!” fumed Jin ZiXun. 

 

Jin GuangYao fumbled. He met Jiang YanLi’s eyes, uncondemning, curious. “I—I could have protested earlier, after Father gave us the orders, and I did not. I just thought that maybe—” 

 

“You can’t possible see yourself on the same level as him,” Jin ZiXuan cut in. 

 

I don’t know . In the past life… He hunched his shoulders. “Murder is still murder, isn’t it? And once, I thought differently. Like him. GeGe, I’m sorry.”

 

“Xiao XingChen,” said Lan XiChen. “You are the one who has suffered from him most, at least in this room. Chang Ping could otherwise claim that title, but we know you are a fair man. What do you think?” 

 

Huh? Jin GuangYao blinked. Er-Ge was… speaking for him? 

 

“What do you think, ZeWu-Jun?” asked Jiang YanLi.

 

“I think…” Lan XiChen drew in his breath. “I think if it were my decision, his life would be spared. But it is not my decision. Out of all of us, save Xiao XingChen, Jin GuangYao knows Xue Yang the best, and I trust him.”

 

Jin GuangYao could cry. 

 

“I too would spare him,” said Jiang YanLi. “Death, at least, that is. I don’t know if one can make reparations for a human life; it’s not like stealing, when you can repay. How do you make reparations for this?”

 

“He has no loved ones,” retorted Jin ZiXun.

 

“Exactly,” said Jiang YanLi, meeting his eyes. “But because no one would weep for him, is that—” 

 

“I... might cry for him.”

 

Xiao XingChen. Everyone gaped. 

 

“Or not. I—I didn’t know him at all,” whispered Xiao XingChen. “I—didn’t even know who he was. He never told me his name, so I assumed he had a past, but I didn’t assume it was—so personal.” His voice trembled. “Am I only disgusted—do I only not want him to have a chance—because it involves me and Song Lan?” His hand gripped his friend’s.

 

Friend . Yeah, right. Jin GuangYao wasn’t buying it. Outside, rain pitter-pattered against the tower. 

 

“If you did not know him but only knew of his crimes, would you recommend mercy?” countered Nie MingJue.

 

“No,” said Xiao XingChen. “But he told us… stories. About candy.” 

 

Huh? 

 

Xiao XingChen laughed. “I suppose he’s right. I should—maybe I should never have left BaoShan SanRen’s mountain home. But I did. And I wanted to, and I can’t bring myself to regret it. But he’s right that I don’t understand how this world works. All I know is what a life is worth, but I don’t know—what gives someone another chance? Did he ever have a chance to learn what a life is worth?” 

 

Song Lan sucked in his breath, turning his face away.  

 

“Can I speak with him?’ Xiao XingChen asked. “Sect Leader Jin, if I go down with Song Lan and LianFang-Zun, could I see him?”

 

“Is that wise?” questioned Jiang Cheng. “He seems to enjoy twisting things.”

 

“We’ll be there to remind each other of the truth,” said Jin GuangYao.

 

“I’m not going,” said Jin ZiXun. “The less I have to look at that prick, the better.”

 

“I… do not want to risk my father seeing me,” Jin ZiXuan admitted, voice soft.

 

“I will go,” said Jiang YanLi, rising and squeezing her husband’s hand. He smiled weakly at her. 

 

And down they went, Jin GuangYao, Da-Ge, Er-Ge, Jiang YanLi, and Song Lan and Xiao XingChen. Jin GuangYao purposefully did not look towards his father’s cell. It was kept reasonably comfortable, but he never wanted to hear the man’s voice again. Lan XiChen kept his hand on Jin GuangYao’s back, guiding him.

 

They rounded a corner, stopping by the cell. 

 

The door hung open.

 

Blood splotched the ground, reeking. 

 

Xue Yang wasn’t there. Two guards lay on the ground, throats cut, one nearly decapitated, white bone protruding, somehow dirtier than if there was no white. 

 

“He’s escaped?” whispered Song Lan.

 

Xiao XingChen swore. Jin GuangYao doubled over, clutching the wall. Is this my fault? System, how could you? Where is he?

 

The System didn’t respond. 

 

Nie MingJue glared at him. Jin GuangYao covered his mouth. He wanted to vomit, stomach cramping. I— 

 

Lan XiChen’s hand clutched his shoulder, holding him upright.

 

“Sound the alarm,” Jiang YanLi ordered. “Send—”

 

“This one’s alive!” cried Song Lan, crouching further down the tunnel. A guard lay moaning, stabbed through the chest, from the back.

 

He won’t be alive for long. Despite the attempts to give him spiritual energy, that was a fatal wound, and Jin GuangYao knew it. His hand traced his own chest.

 

The man was panting. “Ch—Chang—” He gagged on blood.

 

“Shh. Don’t try to talk,” Song Lan soothed him, stroking his hair. 

 

“Chang Ping,” whispered Jin GuangYao. “He’s still here.” Waiting for justice in one of their guest chambers.

 

Er-Ge nodded, grasping his elbow and maneuvering him out of the dungeons. Nie MingJue helped Jiang YanLi out.

 

“What the—” Jin ZiXuan was pacing outside. 

 

“Sound the alarm,” Jiang YanLi said. “He’s escaped—people are dead—where is Chang Ping?” 

 

“His chambers,” reported Jiang Cheng, already holding his sword in front of him. “A-Qing’s with Wen Qing—I’ll go protect them.”  

 

Jin GuangYao yanked out HenSheng. He took off, as if he could outrun this fault of his. He could hear his sworn brothers’ footsteps behind him. He almost collided with Lan WangJi as he raced through the Jinlintai, Wei WuXian behind him. Bells clanged—the alarm for intruders.

 

“Xue Yang!” Jin GuangYao panted to them, and instantly BiChen was unsheathed. Jin GuangYao pushed past them, burst into the chamber that was Chang Ping’s. 

 

Chang Ping was crumpled to the ground, throat gouged out. 

 

MianMian lay nearby, blood streaming from her abdomen, skin pasty white, an infant screaming from where it lay on her chest.

 

And Xue Yang crouched over her, blood dripping from the sword in his hand. 

 

Chapter Text

The blood-soaked scene might as well have ground all of Jin GuangYao’s bones to dust. He couldn’t so much as wheeze a breath. He couldn’t think. He just saw blood. A sword. Xue Yang. 

 

The baby, a little girl, screamed, yanking him back to reality. MianMian’s head lolled backwards, her eyes half-shut. 

 

“No, no, this isn’t what it seems!” Xue Yang shouted. Blood caked his clothes. He dropped the sword—Chang Ping’s, from the look of it—to the floor with a clatter. “I—” 

 

Nie MingJue soared through the air, clutching the delinquent by his throat, thrusting him back. Xue Yang didn’t even struggle. His head smacked the wall. Nie MingJue looked as if he was a second away from slicing Xue Yang’s head clean off right there. Nie MingJue’s lip actually trembled as he glanced back at MianMian and the baby, probably thinking of his own child growing inside Wen Qing’s womb.

 

Wei WuXian crouched by MianMian’s head. “She’s still alive.” Lan XiChen and Lan WangJi knelt next to her, pouring spiritual energy into her. 

 

“But I didn’t —” Xue Yang protested. 

 

Jin GuangYao sprang into action, tearing the hem of his robe and then shoving HenSheng back inside his waistband. He wrapped the infant in the cloth, soothing the bawling thing. At least she looked unharmed, was breathing and screaming as she should be. 

 

“What—” Song Lan appeared in the doorway, Xiao XingChen behind him. Song Lan covered his mouth, gagging. 

 

“Xiao XingChen!” shrieked Xue Yang, focusing on him. “Xiao XingChen! Xiao XingChen! I didn’t do this! It isn’t what it looks like; I swear!” His screams were shriller than the infant’s.

 

Wen Qing shoved her way inside, crouching next to MianMian and beginning to work. She glanced up at Jin GuangYao. 

 

“The baby’s okay,” he assured her. 

 

“Xiao XingChen!” Xue Yang’s screams reached new heights of desperation. He struggled against Nie MingJue, which was truly a foolish decision. Nie MingJue jammed his elbow into the young man’s throat. 

 

Jin ZiXuan appeared in the doorway. 

 

“Let me—” Xue Yang cursed.

 

“You had the sword in your hand, you escaped, Chang Ping is dead, you are coated in blood, an infant cut from her mother’s womb—” Wei WuXian looked positively murderous as he glared at Xue Yang. 

 

Xiao XingChen sucked in his breath. 

 

Xue Yang’s mouth fell open. “Fuck you! Fuck all of you! Xiao XingChen, I—” And then he tried to jerk out from Nie MingJue’s grasp again, and Nie MingJue grasped his chest, yanking him back. Xue Yang instantly let out a garbled yelp. His eyes rolled back into his head, and he went limp. 

 

What?

 

Nie MingJue kept BaXia to Xue Yang’s throat, clearly having learned a thing or two about a cornered animal playing dead. But Xue Yang wasn’t stirring. Wei WuXian cursed and sprang at him.

 

“Wei Ying!” shouted Lan WangJi.

 

But when Wei WuXian turned Xue Yang over, the boy made no movements. Wei WuXian pressed at Xue Yang’s right pectoral. Blood seeped through his fingers. 

 

He’s wounded? Did Chang Ping fight back? 

 

Wei WuXian yanked at Xue Yang’s tunic and undershirt. A nauseating red sight greeted them: flesh stripped raw, blood gleaming as it trickled out from the wound, a glimmer of bone. Jin GuangYao’s stomach churned. He’d seen this before, in the Fire Palace. 

 

Lingchi. 

 

Wei WuXian met Nie MingJue’s eyes. “He could not have done this to himself.” 

 

“What’s happening?” demanded Xiao XingChen.

 

“Someone performed lingchi on Xue Yang,” said Jin GuangYao. “Fortunately, the wound is not very large.” 

 

“I have my hands full with Luo QingYang,” Wen Qing informed them. “Find another doctor to treat him, okay? And quick. Something happened here that clearly is beyond how it looks. HanGuang-Jun, ZeWu-Jun, please keep giving her energy.” 

 

“Will she recover?” Jin ZiXuan ventured. He looked pale.

 

“Hopefully,” Wen Qing said. “But it’s too early to say. She lost a lot of blood, and there are multiple wounds.” 

 

Xiao XingChen stumbled towards Xue Yang, Song Lan guiding him. He crouched by the boy and began giving him spiritual energy. Jin GuangYao was amazed. Red tears ran down Xiao XingChen’s face. 

 

“How do we find out what happened?” asked Song Lan, closing his eyes and then following Xiao XingChen’s lead, giving energy to the boy who had stolen so much from him. 

 

“There is a way,” Wei WuXian said. 

 

“We are not using your flute to—” started Jin ZiXuan.

 

“I was considering empathy ,” Wei WuXian retorted.

 

Jin GuangYao remembered what Jin Ling had described Wei WuXian as doing in Yi City last time, what he’d seen the YiLing Patriarch do in that temple. He hesitated. System?

 

The System ranks your chances of success, given everyone present, at 95%. 

 

Jin GuangYao swallowed. “Wei WuXian, please.” He stepped forward and placed the infant in Wei WuXian’s arms and whirled. 

 

“A-Yao!” cried out Lan XiChen, but he’d already placed his hand atop Chang Ping’s cooling skull.

 

A flash, and he was consumed by an almost feral fury, a feeling he’d had more than once before. Chang Ping’s steps echoed as he burst out of his door, heading down towards the dungeons.

 

There was no justice here. That beast would claw his way out of it again, thanks to that toad whore’s son. His father, his father, the one he’d spent so much time slaving and even bleeding, risking life and limb on night hunts just to win his approval, and then— 

 

You took him away from me!

 

Chang Ping made his way to the dungeons. If they let that monster live, the rest of his people would die. No, no, the fact that that whore’s spawn wanted to let him live meant the rest of his clan was already doomed! That scum already turned on his own father!

 

“What are you doing here?” demanded a guard.

 

“I’m here to talk to the prisoner.” He had no idea what he would say. 

 

“I’m afraid I can’t let you in,” said one of the guards, his companion joining him. “It’s not authorized.”

 

“Don’t I have the right to just talk?” demanded Chang Ping. “Don’t I have a voice? Aren’t you hearing me? Get out of my way!” 

 

Did his voice really not matter so much? Did no one care? Didn’t he exist? He was breathing! He was leading a clan, and he was scared, and didn’t that matter? Didn’t they not want him to be afraid? Didn’t they know how awful fear was? Didn’t they care, or was he that unnotable? 

 

“No,” said the guard. “It isn’t authori—” 

 

Chang Ping’s sword shot out before he even thought. “Listen—” 

 

Oh.

 

He bled. 

 

He dropped to the ground, and he bled red.

 

No, no, I’m not—this can’t— 

 

The other guard turned on him, eyes huge as he drew his own— 

 

No! Don’t look at me like that! I’m not him! I’m not! Turbulent energy poured through him as he slashed the guard’s throat. Another came running and before he could even shout, Chang Ping hacked his head off. Blood splattered him, and he was shocked at its warmth. He gagged. His fingers found keys, and he ripped open the cell door. 

 

Xue Yang arched his brows at him, gagged and with his spiritual powers sealed. Yet he still smirked, still smiled as if to say— 

 

Chang Ping recalled the words Xue Yang had screamed earlier about Xiao XingChen. We’re the same!

 

We are not!

 

He dragged Xue Yang onto his sword, dragged him back to his chambers. He was still shaking. He could go to Sect Leader Jin now, plead for—no, no, the man imprisoned his own father, he would never show the likes of Chang Ping mercy! He would assume it was all planned! It wasn’t! It wasn’t, right? 

 

He backhanded Xue Yang across the face. The boy stumbled, spiritual powers empty. And then Chang Ping wanted to cut his own throat, but no, no, he couldn’t do that, not with Xue Yang glowering at him, not that— 

 

He threw the boy onto the bed, yanked the boy’s shirt apart. Xue Yang gave what sounded like a laugh, and Chang Ping realized what the lewd likes of someone like him must be thinking. I’m not! I’m not!  

 

He jabbed the sword into the fleshy part of Xue Yang’s chest, and the boy’s eyes bulged. Red blood seeped, and it was warm too. It shouldn’t be warm. The blood of a monster had to be cold, right? 

 

He hacked and he hacked. He wanted to see Xue Yang plead, even gagged. He wanted Xue Yang to realize he had no voice. He wanted Xue Yang to see. He wanted to feel cold blood, he wanted to feel satisfied, he wanted to—he wanted— 

 

Why did he not feel better, even when his blade hit a bone? Xue Yang’s head was thrown back, sweat glistening on a grayish-green pallor. He groaned, eyes shut in agony. This wasn’t satisfying. He needed more, more, moremoremoremoremOREMORE fucking MORE .

 

Let this matter! It matters! It matters! I do! 

 

Well, there was one more option. He yanked his sword back, dragging it along Xue Yang’s skin towards his navel. Maybe he should mock Xue Yang for what the evil brat had initially been thinking and take his manhood. He dragged the sword lower, not pressing hard enough to slice yet. 

 

Xue Yang seemed to realize what he was thinking, and he finally let out a terrified sound. “Mmph!” 

 

Chang Ping felt something wet and hot on his cheeks. He was crying? Xue Yang got to see him cry? No, not this! 

 

“What are you doing?” cried out a voice. 

 

Chang Ping staggered back, sword still in his hands. He gaped.

 

A very pregnant woman stood there, the one who had spoken up for Xue Yang, suggested they hear his motives. The same slut who’d spoken for Wei WuXian before and come crawling back to the sect when her husband—was he even her husband?—was killed. 

 

“Get back, asshole!” MianMian yanked out her sword, scrambling over to Xue Yang. “You think this is justice? How could you? You’re no better, now, you—” 

 

No better? No! You haven’t even asked me how I feel!  

 

MianMian cut the ropes binding Xue Yang’s wrists, yanked his gag out of his mouth, his saliva and blood staining her hands. 

 

He was free, and Chang Ping was— not him, not him! “You can’t free him!” He lunged. He’d take Xue Yang’s head right here, right now— 

 

But MianMian went to block his blow. Except she had never fought pregnant before, and his sword slid into her belly with a squelch. 

 

Her belly.

 

Where her baby was. 

 

MianMian staggered back, panic on her face as she staggered and sank to the floor. 

 

Xue Yang sprang into action. He yanked the sword out of her, turning it on Chang Ping.

 

“No!” Chang Ping lunged, and then he felt something at his throat, something cold. Steel. And he fell, and he could tell the blood was warm as it spread around him, but not warm enough. 

 

Through his hazy eyes, he saw Xue Yang crouching over MianMian, ripping her robes. Xue Yang felt her stomach with his hands and then plunged the sword down into her stomach.

 

Ha… you really are worse than me… 

 

He couldn’t see anymore.

 

But he heard, in the distance, an infant’s cry. 

 

Jin GuangYao jerked, stumbling. Jin ZiXuan caught him. Jin GuangYao tried to breathe, remember it wasn’t him bleeding out.

 

So that’s what you think of…

 

“Song ZiChen,” Jin GuangYao croaked. “It has to be you. Use empathy. Chang Ping won’t try to trap you.” Because he just wants to be known. And, if anyone had words with weight in this situation, it would be Song Lan. 

 

Song Lan blinked. “Why? That—” He trembled, and Jin GuangYao realized he was asking him to relive something that, according to what he knew, might remind him of when he lost all he loved. 

 

“Please,” Jin GuangYao said. You can relate to Chang Ping more than any of us . And people will believe your word more than the son of a whore’s. 

 

“You don’t have to,” Xiao XingChen said, but Song Lan stepped forward.

 

“What did you see, A-Yao?” demanded Lan XiChen.

 

“Xue Yang did not kill the guards or harm MianMian,” he managed. “He saved MianMian’s baby—he only killed Chang Ping.” 

 


 

 

Song Lan quickly confirmed what Jin GuangYao had said. Nie MingJue carried Xue Yang’s limp body towards a room. Xue Yang’s hands were restrained to the bed, but the doctors treated his wounds, sewed him up. Jiang YanLi took the baby girl, A-Qing taking Jin Ling, A-Song, and A-Yuan out to the ground to play hide and seek with them. 

 

I really thought I had fucked it all up. But he hadn’t. Jin GuangYao sat with his sworn brothers, Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi, Jiang Cheng, Song Lan, and Xiao XingChen, watching as A-Qing giggled and chased A-Song through the grass. Sun shone down. In five days, Mo XuanYu and Nie HuaiSang would marry. 

 

“What do you think Jin ZiXuan will decide?” Wei WuXian inquired. 

 

“I truly don’t know,” Jin GuangYao said. “He still murdered so many in the Chang Clan, and Chang Ping’s death doesn’t change that.” He bowed his chin. 

 

“I want to ask for mercy,” said Xiao XingChen, voice soft.

 

Hm? Jin GuangYao gaped. 

 

“I truly thought—I truly thought he had attacked those guards,” Xiao XingChen said. 

 

“Mercy isn’t atonement,” said Lan WangJi.

 

“Isn’t it?” Xiao XingChen tilted his face back, sun landing on his cheeks. “But… the reason I want this is for a selfish reason. I have been selfish many times, I know that. But A-Qing and I spoke about it this morning.” He swallowed, and then ducked his head, as if he didn’t deserve the sun anymore.

 

“What do you mean?” questioned Wei WuXian. Down below, A-Qing caught Jin Ling, tickling him. A-Ling screeched. 

 

“Song Lan,” Xiao XingChen managed. “I don’t hate Xue Yang. I want to, I want to for your sake, but I—I don’t—” 

 

Song Lan closed his eyes. 

 

“I hate what he did to you, and I hate what he did to me, and I don’t know how to reconcile it. It may not be right for me to care for him anyways. But I—but I still do. And so if it is wrong, then it is wrong. If I am wrong, then I am wrong. But every time I have tried to be right , it only winds up causing pain.” Xiao XingChen’s voice cracked. “I listened to you when you said that—something I knew you didn’t mean—because I was a coward and because I was scared. I hid from you because I told myself it was the right thing to do, but I just—didn’t want to face that I was—”

 

“Whatever you are about to say, don’t say it,” Song Lan interrupted, hands gripping Xiao XingChen’s shoulders. 

 

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Xiao XingChen said. “Not again. You’ve already suffered so much on my account, on Xue Yang’s account, but I still don’t want—I am a terrible person.”

 

“You are not!” Song Lan shook him. Xiao XingChen froze. Song Lan let out a crackling laugh, broken and bleeding. “You aren’t,” he finally managed. “You are, in so many ways, a better person than me, Xiao XingChen. You don’t have to live life according to what the world is. You try to live like it should be. I can’t.” 

 

“I don’t—” 

 

“I am the one who said that to you, who blamed you, when I didn’t mean it. But I said it and I was so angry in that moment, I didn’t care whom I hurt. Even you.” His voice cracked. “I lost the people who I could always come back to, and I just wanted someone to—feel that type of—” He drew in a breath. “Maybe I am more like Xue Yang than I thought.” 

 

“With a far less significant body count,” Nie MingJue interjected. 

 

“If you are that one body, does it matter?” Jin GuangYao asked. “But, Song ZiChen, isn’t Xiao XingChen alive?” 

 

“Yes,” said Song Lan.”Yes, he is.” His voice trembled. “And if you want to ask for mercy for Xue Yang, I will stand with you. I may never forgive him. But I—” 

 

You are more important to him, Jin GuangYao realized. Xiao XingChen. 

 

Last time, Song Lan chose revenge, chose the easier path of confronting someone else’s wrong, over confronting his own with the friend he loved, heading off to confront Xue Yang first. And this time, he was choosing Xiao XingChen. 

 

“I never faulted you, Song Lan,” whispered Xiao XingChen. “Not once.” 

 

“But you should. You don’t have to take all the blame all the time.” 

 

“I never wanted to hurt you.”

 

“But you did,” Song Lan said. “And I hurt you. And—that’s okay, isn’t it? Can’t we walk forward together anyways?”

 

Jin GuangYao held his breath. He glanced towards Lan XiChen. 

 

And Song Lan reached out, hesitating as his fingers brushed Xiao XingChen’s temples. They moved around his head, diving between his shining hair, until they found the bandages’ knot at the back of his head. Xiao XingChen sucked in his breath. “Don’t—” 

 

“Please,” said Song Lan.

 

The bandages fell away, revealing sunken sockets covered by Xiao XingChen’s eyelids. And then Xiao XingChen opened them, black lashes and soft skin pulling up to reveal raw pink flesh. A pink tear dribbled out. 

 

Song Lan cried, his eyes bleeding clear tears, tears from Xiao XingChen’s eyes bathing his cheeks and dripping onto Xiao XingChen’s. “You’re the bravest person I know, Xiao XingChen.” 

 

Xiao XingChen’s fingers traced Song Lan’s jawline, his cheekbones, his nose, like he was trying to see him in a new way. And as Xiao XingChen lowered his eyelids, Song Lan’s lips brushed them. 

 

Are we having a double wedding? Jin GuangYao thought wryly. 

 

Xiao XingChen let out a small laugh. “We wanted to start our own sect based on ideals, not on blood, but it seems we don’t even know what those ideals are.” 

 

“We don’t,” Song Lan admitted, clutching his hand. “So let’s find out.” 

 

Jiang Cheng’s gaze skittered to Wei WuXian. But before he could speak, Jin ZiXuan appeared. “Xue Yang is awake.” 

 


 

 

Xue Yang scowled as they walked in, all the sect leaders, Lan WangJi and Wei WuXian, and A-Qing with Song Lan and Xiao XingChen. “Everyone’s here? Gonna take my head off right after healing me? Just to look good? Might’ve just saved your energy.” He tried to laugh, and then stopped with a grimace. 

 

Jin ZiXuan crossed his arms.

 

“We used empathy to understand,” began Jin GuangYao. “Song Lan and I both did.” 

 

“Empathy? That’s fucking dangerous.” Xue Yang was definitely slinging as many curses as he could to disconcert as many as possible. “The guards? Or did that fucker actually die?”

 

“Chang Ping died,” said Song Lan. “Luo QingYang is alive.”

 

Xue Yang hesitated. “The baby?” 

 

“Also alive,” Song Lan said softly.

 

Xue Yang focused on Xiao XingChen. The man couldn’t physically see him, but he focused on the direction Xue Yang was in anyways. “I learned how to cut people open during the experiments Jin GuangShan ordered.”

 

“So you killed other infants?” demanded Nie MingJue.

 

“Did no Wen infants die because of you?” Xue Yang shot back. “But oh right, if it’s your infant, if it’s a Wen you’re fucking, then it’s special.” 

 

Nie MingJue’s face purpled. “You—” 

 

“Stop,” Song Lan interjected. “Xue Yang, stop.”

 

“You don’t have the right to—” 

 

“Oh, but I do ,” Song Lan said. “I did nothing to you, and you targeted—for no reason. You killed the man who to me was what Xiao XingChen is for you. He took me in as a child, when my parents died and I had nowhere else to go.” His voice trembled. “He cared for me, and you killed him.”

 

Xue Yang actually paled, as if he finally understood what Song Lan was saying.

 

“But you didn’t get taken in until later,” Song Lan said, meeting Jin GuangYao’s gaze. Who was he speaking to, again? “So if you have something to say to Xiao XingChen, without a mask on, without bandages, say it. Don’t disguise it with whatever you use to protect yourself. Say it to him, whatever it is. Because he asked for mercy for you.”

 

“He did?” Xue Yang’s mouth hung open. He only then seemed to realize Xiao XingChen had no bandages over his eyes. “I…”

 

“He did,” said Jin ZiXuan.

 

“If you couldn’t be honest with him before,”said Song Lan. “Now is your chance.”

 

Xiao XingChen swallowed. He opened his eyes again. 

 

Xue Yang recoiled at the sight of the naked flesh. He clutched the blanket, biting his lip. 

 

“Xue Yang,” Xiao XingChen said, hand laced with Song Lan’s. “I will listen. I want to hear you.”

 

Xue Yang’s chest heaved. He winced in agony again, settling back. “Can everyone else leave?”

 

“No,” said Jin ZiXuan. “Denied. Whatever you have to say, if it’s truly that important, if it matters to you that much, you’ll say it right here, right now, with all of us here. No matter how ugly or confusing it might be.” He gulped, as if remembering the time he had said something he wanted to run away from. “Say it now, or don’t say anything to the man who’s saved your life twice now.” 

 

Xue Yang glanced at Xiao XingChen, who waited. Song Lan avoided his gaze. Jin GuangYao met Xue Yang’s gaze. 

 

“I wanted to hurt you at first,” Xue Yang blurted out. “That’s why I accompanied you on those night hunts, tricked you into murder… but you were still so nice to me. You didn’t even demand my name, and I—I would have been content never to tell you. But then I did, because—” 

 

You are scared, Jin GuangYao knew. All of your hatred, all of your rage—it comes from fear.    

 

“We are not the same,” Xue Yang conceded. “But… I wanted us to be.” He could barely speak. “I just—didn’t want— to be alone anymore!” His chest heaved with sobs, blood seeping through his bandages, but he didn’t seem able to stop. “I just—everyone always hated me and why, why, why? If I was mean to them first then they—might leave me alone—”  

 

“Then why didn’t you just say that earlier?” demanded A-Qing. “You have to say what you mean, dumbass!” 

 

Jiang Cheng shrank despite the fact that her rage was not directed at him. Well, Jin GuangYao hoped the YunMeng Jiang Sect Leader was contemplating her words. 

 

“Why didn’t you tell him?” demanded Xue Yang. “If you really saw us!”

 

A-Qing hung her head. “Because I deceived him too. About my eyes—that I could see.” She turned. “Daozhang, I’m sorry.” Her voice trembled. “I didn’t—I—”  

 

“I forgive you,” said Xiao XingChen, voice shaking. “And, A-Yang, I—no matter what you did in the past, it doesn’t change the years we spent together. And it doesn’t change the deeds you did, either. And you can’t give those lives back.” He drew in his breath. “It’s not fair .”

 

It’s not, Jin GuangYao knew. 

 

“I left BaoShan SanRen because I wanted to learn about the world, but when faced with it, I didn’t want to. It’s unfair. But…” He reached out, feeling. Song Lan helped him find Xue Yang’s hand. Xue Yang gaped. “I forgive you too . I don’t want you to suffer. And if that means I have to break you out of here to avoid execution, then—” 

 

Xue Yang coughed, trying not to laugh. “Xiao XingChen, you really aren’t very good at this. Announcing intentions doesn’t really help you.” But his voice caught. 

 

“Well, I’m trying not to conceal things anymore,” Xiao XingChen admitted. 

 

The door opened. Wen Qing, accompanied by Wen Ning. And in Wen Ning’s arms was MianMian, awake, alive, her baby girl in her own arms. 

 

Xue Yang gaped. 

 

“She wanted to make sure you were alive,” Wen Qing said, smiling at her husband. 

 

“I’m alive,” Xue Yang rasped. “Is… your baby okay?”

 

MianMian nodded. “Sect Leader Jin, you can’t execute him.” Her face was twisted in pain, and still she was insisting. 

 

Jin GuangYao almost laughed. 

 

“I realize that’s selfish of me, and seems emotional and not rational, just like everyone said last time, but it is logical,” MianMian burst out. Sweat dripped down her face. Her hand shook in pain even as they dangled limp. “He saved my daughter’s life, the last piece I have alive of my husband—he was used by Jin GuangShan. Can’t he give evidence to find what else your father might have been up to? Can’t you give him a chance? What rational says that a life will benefit an entire population, make it better, make it safer? Can’t you keep watch on him elsewise? When Wen Chao wanted to string me up in that cave, would you have responded differently if I had been someone of a different reputation? But I was the daughter of a servant, so you would not have, right? How can killing someone lead to anything but trapping—” 

 

“I will not execute him,” interrupted Jin ZiXuan. 

 

The baby whimpered. MianMian stroked her daughter’s head. “You mean it?” 

 

He nodded. “I had already made that decision.” His voice sounded almost hesitant.

 

Are you worried people think you too soft, or worried that some think you too harsh, harsh enough to forgo mercy? Which makes you least like your father? 

 

Jin ZiXuan sighed. “But there is still one question left unanswered. Why did Xue Yang kill the Chang Clan?” 

 

Xue Yang swallowed. “It relates to… a story I told Xiao XingChen and A-Qing before.”

 

“The child?” asked Xiao XingChen. 

 

“Yes.” Xue Yang kept his voice flat. “The man knocked the child to the ground with a whip, and ran an ox cart over his hand, shattering all the bones in it and grinding one finger into the dirt. That man was Chang Ping’s father. I was seven.”

 

Jin GuangYao swallowed. He remembered the feeling of each and every stair of the Jinlintai slamming into his ribcage. 

 

Xue Yang laughed. “It was a little finger. A finger for fifty lives. Aren’t you disgusted? All of you? Don’t you plan to—I know how you work, I know—”

 

“What do you even want?” demanded MianMian, in too much pain and too exhausted to deal with a temper tantrum. “For Sect Leader Jin to remove his promise? I thought you did not consider yourself disgusting.” 

 

“For a finger?” Nie MingJue’s lips curled.

 

“You must have broken long before that,” said MianMian. “Been ground into the dirt long before that. It’s just that Chang Ping’s father made it physical, made it real.”

 

Xue Yang’s Adam’s apple bobbed. Jin GuangYao had the feeling MianMian was right. 

 

Xiao XingChen reached for Xue Yang’s hand, feeling for the missing finger. Xue Yang screwed his face up, twisting his head away from Xiao XingChen. 

 

“I often wonder what would have happened if Young Master Wei had not shoved himself in the way of the branding iron,” said MianMian. “My face… if it was gone, would I have been kicked out of the Jin Sect long before I left? Would my father have died before the war? The one thing I’ve been confident of is that my husband would still have loved me, and so my baby—” She sucked in her breath. 

 

“The streets are a rough place to grow up,” Wei WuXian said quietly. Lan WangJi tightened his arm around his husband. Jiang Cheng looked abashed. 

 

“You can’t possibly compare us!” Xue Yang shot back to MianMian. “Did you murder? Did you—”

 

Jin GuangYao bit back a smile. Maybe intelligence was more common than he thought in the Jin Sect. And he certainly regretted ever considering MianMian a fool. She was good at manipulating, but for a good cause. 

 

“Ah,” said MianMian. “So you are admitting some people might be better than you? And you are admitting that murder might be a disgusting act regardless of motivation? I bet JiaoJiao had her own motives, too. I bet she had never had favor before Wen Chao, and she did not want it threatened. I bet—” 

 

“Is this your mind after almost dying?” asked Jin GuangYao, amazed.

 

MianMian glared. 

 

“What do you want from me?” Xue Yang demanded. His voice cracked. “Yes, I’m ashamed, okay? Okay, I am! If you killed me, executed me, then at least I could—but now what am I supposed to do?” He almost gagged in pain as he sobbed. “What am I—supposed to do?”

 

“Live,” said Jin GuangYao. “To atone, you live.” 

 

Mission: redeeming Xue Yang: accomplished.   

 

Truly? 

 

He has reached an important place and made a decision, and he has support around him. You have done what you could. 

 

“You won’t be alone,” said Xiao XingChen. 

 

“You won’t be,” affirmed Song Lan. 

 

By the time they all left the room, Jiang Cheng was asking A-Qing about what she had said about saying what she meant. 

 

“I’m a beggar girl,” she replied. “You’re supposed to be teaching me, Sect Leader Jiang.” 

 

Not pig . Improvement.

 


 

 

The next day, Xue Yang detailed everything about his crimes, making a full confession to the court. He spoke of Jin GuangShan, of Jin GuangYao cleaning up his misses, repaying vendors whose stalls he ruined. 

 

And then he reached the part that sent a chill through Jin GuangYao. “When Su She cursed Jin ZiXun…”

 

So Xue Yang had known. Of course he had. Xue Yang seemed not to realize what he’d done, continuing on. Meanwhile Jin ZiXuan was jabbing at Jin GuangYao, expression barely hiding his panic.

 

Jin ZiXun rose. Jin GuangYao searched the crowd until he found Su She. Su She wouldn’t even look at Jin ZiXun. His shoulders hunched. 

 

Jin ZiXun glared at both of his cousins. He turned and stormed out of the ceremonial hall. 

 

Jin GuangYao winced, getting to his feet and hurrying after him. At least Jin ZiXun hadn’t made a huge scene?

 

“You lied to me,” Jin ZiXun breathed the second Jin GuangYao caught up with him. “You told me that he—that you—” 

 

Jin GuangYao didn’t know what to say. “Yes.” 

 

“Why? Was it funny, to see me look like a fool, to see me favor the man who’d tried to kill me in such a way? Was it funny, to see me try to repair a friendship that I thought real that never was?” Jin ZiXun shouted, two red splotches spreading over his cheeks. “Did you and A-Xuan have a good laugh over it, at my expense, at how stupid—”

 

“No, that wasn’t it at all!” Jin GuangYao protested. “I—” Really hurt you.

 

“Jin ZiXun.” The voice came from behind Jin GuangYao. He whirled.

 

Su She stood there, hands clasped in front of him. “Don’t fault him. I—” 

 

“Don’t fault him? Oh, so you were in on it? Was this better revenge, mocking the fact that I fawned over you, that I thought you my savior, that I trusted—” Jin ZiXun glared. “Why?” 

 

“No!” Su She bellowed. “No, it wasn’t! I—it was as petty as Xue Yang’s killing of the Chang Clan, I admit it, but I’ve always—been ashamed! Don’t you know who tried to sacrifice MianMian? Me! When the Cloud Recesses burned down, whose throat did the Wens hold a sword to to help them enter? Mine!” He curled his fist, slamming it into his thigh again and again. 

 

“What does that have to do with me?” Jin ZiXun spat. 

 

“You ignored me! You said I didn’t matter, that I was in your way,  you didn’t even acknowledge me when I went to—” Su She covered his face. “I just wanted to have the right to exist. And you—so I—Wei WuXian was not involved, Jin GuangYao was not involved, he only figured it out when—actually I don’t know how he figured it out. But he—”

 

“I went to Wen Qing with ZiXuan,” said Jin GuangYao. “She’s the one who cured you. The cure means that you both had to drink the same potion on the same day. He did.” 

 

Jin ZiXun glared. “I—” He broke off, and that was when Jin GuangYao saw a sight he never expected to see, not in a million years.

 

Jin ZiXun was crying. In humiliation. He swiped at his eyes. 

 

“I was a coward!” Su She burst out. “Instead of confronting you, I—instead of trying to make myself better, I wanted to take you down.” He tore at the top of his robe, exposing his chest. Over his heart lay the telltale splatter of holes, rebounded from the curse. His shoulders hunched. “That’s why—that’s why we could never be what you wanted. I pushed you away because I—I didn’t want to hurt you, but how was I supposed to know I should never have hurt you when I didn’t realize it until after—”

 

“So what?” Jin ZiXun managed. “Why? Why? Why?” 

 

“Wait,” Jin GuangYao said slowly. “Couldn’t be… what you wanted?” Did you try to enter a relationship with him, Jin ZiXun?

 

“Everything you thought about me was a lie,” said Su She. “I do not deserve your respect. I never did.” He closed his eyes, and then, even though his face turned red and his lips puckered, he sank to his knees.

 

Jin GuangYao blinked. Well, he never saw that one coming. Su She actually humbled himself for the sake of Jin ZiXun. His head hung low, hair dangling over his holes, the holes that damned him. 

 

Ji ZiXun sucked in his breath, taking a step back. 

 

“I cannot make it up to you,” Su She said. “But I—am glad you survived, Jin ZiXun. It wasn’t because you were arrogant I cursed you. It was because I was arrogant and wanted to be acknowledged. It wasn’t you. You were innocent.”

 

Well, that was going too far for Jin Guangyao, but Su She seemed to believe it. 

 

Jin ZiXun’s lips wobbled. He gulped. “Do you still hate me?” 

 

“No. I hate—I hate—” 

 

Yourself .

 

“Everything I said and did was me,” managed Su She. “Except related to the potion, which I didn’t want to discuss because—” 

 

Jin ZiXun stepped closer. Jin GuangYao gripped his waistband. If he should need HenSheng— 

 

Jin ZiXun’s fingers poked at Su She’s curse marks. His face was impassive.

 

“I’m sorry,” Su She managed. “I’m so sorry. I was wrong, I will accept whatever you—” 

 

“Open your eyes,” Jin ZiXun said coldly.

 

Su She cracked them open. They leaked tears.

 

“Look at me.”

 

Su She lifted his eyes, shaking. He was still scared of the disgrace he knew was coming.

 

Jin ZiXun glared. “Tell me the truth. Did you refuse me because I had scorned you?”

 

“Pardon?”

 

“When I asked you to—” Jin ZiXun’s face turned red. 

 

Su She shook his head wildly. “No, it was because of me, because of what I did. Because you deserved better than—” 

 

“Tell me,” said Jin ZiXun. “Tell me what you want from me. Regardless of what you think I deserve! Tell me, if none of this had ever happened, if I had never offended you, if you hadn’t tried to murder me—tell me what you think you would have wanted! Don’t lie to me!”

 

Su She cringed. “I would have…” His voice came a whisper. “Wanted a relationship with you beyond friends, but I—” 

 

Jin ZiXun sank to his knees in front of him. Jin GuangYao gasped. Su She looked as if he was about to faint.

 

Jin ZiXun planted his lips against Su She’s. Su She gasped. 

 

“I’m sorry,” Jin ZiXun said. “I’m sorry I ignored—”

 

“You can’t—”

 

Jin ZiXun cut him off by forcing Su She’s mouth open, pressing deeper. 

 

Jin GuangYao heard a cough behind him. He turned to see Jin ZiXuan standing there, Jiang YanLi next to him, both of them smiling. 

 

Congratulations! chirped the System. You have accomplished the second and final phase of your mission: saving Jin ZiXun and Su She! You have also cleared every hurdle in the road towards redeeming Jin GuangYao. One challenge awaits you.

 

One more? Then would he—he trembled. There were still ten years left! 

 

You will be transported to another world for your third and final quest after the wedding of your brother, Mo XuanYu, to Nie HuaiSang. When you sleep that night, you will wake in a new land. But once you accomplish that task, you will wake back up right on the next day. You will not miss a moment in this new timeline. Think of it as a very long dream. 

 

Even so, Jin GuangYao wanted to cry. He didn’t want to leave. Not yet. He’d miss A-Song and A-Su, Er-Ge, Da-Ge, so much. How long will it take?

 

That depends on you. The System estimates longer than your first task but far less than your current timeline. 

 

That night, he curled up with A-Song in his arms, breathing in his son’s sweet scent. A lump formed in his throat. Daddy will miss you so much. 

 

The wedding came, as magnificent as he would have expected for a wedding between the littlest brothers of two major clans. Nie MingJue wore a soft look, clinging to his wife the entire time. Wen Qing looked positively radiant in her pregnancy, despite the fact that she wasn’t showing yet. And yet Jin GuangYao couldn’t bring himself to smile. He withdrew to one of the balconies, staring down at the Jinlintai. 

 

What if I fail? Why hadn’t apparently succeeding here given him confidence? 

 

A hand landed on his shoulder. “Are you all right?” Nie MingJue’s voice rang out.

 

Jin GuangYao swallowed. He looked up at him and said: “Just thinking.” 

 

“About?”

 

Why are you like this? Jin GuangYao traced his finger along the edge of the rail. “Are you really okay with Xue Yang getting to live?”

 

Last time, you pushed me down the stairs.

 

Last time, I killed you.

 

“It is not my decision,” said Nie MingJue. “Whether I would have made the same one or not… no, I wouldn’t have.” He sighed. “But I trust you.”

 

Jin GuangYao blinked, looking up. His eyes filled.

 

Nie MingJue’s face reddened. “That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”

 

Jin GuangYao nodded. “Thank you, Da-Ge.” Nie MingJue sighed, and then returned to the melee.

 

“He’s proud of you,” came Lan XiChen’s voice. 

 

Jin GuangYao stayed leaning half-bent over the railing. “I know.” And I don’t feel like I deserve it. 

 

I got a second chance. Chang Ping didn’t. Wasn’t it just as unfair as Jin ZiXuan getting favor and him not?

 

Your task is not to fix the world. 

 

He wanted to. He wanted to save everyone. Maybe he still did think himself above other people, still. “We might have more weddings in the future. Song Lan and Xiao XingChen. Su She and Jin ZiXun.”

 

Lan XiChen snorted. “Jin ZiXuan told me he plans for Xue Yang to be kept under house arrest here for the time being.”

 

“Good.” Jin GuangYao dug the pad of his thumb into the rail. 

 

“Will you marry again?” asked Lan XiChen. “A-Su and Wen Ning are so happy. I—”

 

“Will you marry at all?” Jin GuangYao countered, finally straightening up. 

 

Lan XiChen sighed. “I think my uncle will marry SiSi.” 

 

“He better.” Jin GuangYao pried himself away from the rail. “I’m not feeling much like celebrating, I’m afraid.” 

 

Lan XiChen frowned. “Do you want to practice?”

 

“Sure,” he agreed readily. A lie. Or not, because he wanted to be with Lan XiChen. He hurried after him through the hallways. “Er-Ge. Would you forgive Xue Yang if you were in Song Lan, or Xiao XingChen’s, shoes?”

 

“I don’t know,” Lan XiChen said as he slipped into the guest chamber he stayed in. He withdrew LieBing, smiling at it. “I would hope so.” 

 

The moon shined in from the windows. A lump swelled in Jin GuangYao’s throat. “Why?” 

 

“I would hope they can forgive themselves,” Lan XiChen said, settling onto the floor. Jin GuangYao knelt across from him. “I think to hate yourself is—painful. To not forgive yourself—”

 

“Are you speaking of your father?” 

 

Lan XiChen nodded. The candle flickered. 

 

“It hurts others,” Jin GuangYao managed. Lan XiChen, whenever the timelines intersect, you must forgive yourself. You must. You must not forget this conversation. Don’t seclude yourself.

 

I never wanted that for you. 

 

Did I come back for your sake, or my sake? Or our sake? Does it matter?

 

How do I forgive myself? 

 

His hand reached out, clasping Lan XiChen’s. Lan XiChen looked up at him, surprised. 

 

“Er-Ge,” he said, not sure if this was forgiving himself or damning himself, and too afraid to ask. “Don’t be afraid to fall in love. It’s scary, you get hurt, but—I don’t regret falling in love with Qin Su. I wouldn’t go back and fix that.” I really wouldn’t. The System had made a good call. “I have A-Song now. Let yourself love someone. You don’t have to hold yourself back because of your father. Look at WangJi: he’s freer than ever.” 

 

“What if I’m worse?” whispered Lan XiChen.

 

“You aren’t,” said Jin GuangYao. He gripped both of Lan XiChen’s shoulders. “You’re the best person I know. You’re kind and generous, trusting and forgiving. The world needs more people like you, like Xiao XingChen.” He swallowed. “If you find a bride, I can tell you what to do so you don’t disappoint her your first night like Da-Ge definitely disappointed Wen Qing.”

 

“A-Yao!” Lan XiChen’s ears turned pink. 

 

“Maybe I don’t even regret growing up in a brothel. No, I do—but I don’t regret my mother, not anything about—” 

 

“You don’t have to,” said Lan XiChen. “If SiSi has taught us anything, it’s that we all can learn from prostitutes.” He gave a wry smile. “Though I’d rather have you tell me what to do than a prostitute. Like I’ve said, I’ve never kissed anyone.”

 

Jin GuangYao’s heart thudded. He hadn’t expected Er-Ge to take the bait. “I can teach you how to kiss right now.”

 

“Hm?” Lan XiChen frowned, tilting his head back.

 

This was selfish. And he didn’t care. “But you learn by doing,” Jin GuangYao said. “This part, at least. Everyone has a mouth—” 

 

“What—”

 

“Let me show you,” said Jin GuangYao, arms around Lan XiChen’s neck. 

 

Lan XiChen peered at him, lips open. And he didn’t push Jin GuangYao off. He nodded.  

 

Jin GuangYao leaned in, lips brushing Lan XiChen’s, closed and gentle. And then he opened his slightly, nipping and touching with his tongue. Lan XiChen copied clumsily, and it didn’t matter how nervous he was. Jin GuangYao’s hand slid up to cup the back of Lan XiChen’s head, pulling him down as he opened his mouth fully, allowing Lan XiChen’s tongue into his and his into Lan XiChen’s. 

 

And then he was up on Lan XiChen’s lap, straddling him, kissing down, and Lan XiChen’s hand pressed against his shoulder blade. The pressure on his mouth increased. His lips felt numb, but he didn’t want to stop. He wanted to slide his mouth down the soft skin of Lan XiChen’s throat, pale like pristine jade, and stain it purple. But he couldn’t do that to Lan XiChen. 

 

Heat pooled in his belly. He pressed his palms against Lan XiChen’s shoulders, sliding them down to his chest, grinding the heels of his hands into him. And then once he heard Lan XiChen let out a small moan, Jin GuangYao pushed him away. 

 

“Sorry,” Jin GuangYao managed. 

 

Lan XiChen panted, looking at him. “Don’t be sorry. That was—” He inhaled. “Quite a lot.” His fingers rose to his swollen lips. 

 

Jin GuangYao felt mortified. “I—”

 

“Stay,” Lan XiChen requested when he went to get up. “Not for—that. Just stay, A-Yao. I don’t want to be alone.” He lowered his chin. “I’m not—ready for more than that. But, if you will stay, I—I think we should talk, but in the morning, when the wine has worn off.”

 

Are you saying… Jin GuangYao’s heart pounded. Why now? 

 

Er-Ge, I didn’t have a single sip. 

 

But… 

 

“Okay,” he heard himself say. 

 

Chapter Text

The warmth next to him faded. Jin GuangYao’s fingers traced his lips. He had kissed Lan XiChen, and despite his pretense, Lan XiChen surely had seen right through it, had to know Jin GuangYao was kissing him not out of any sort of lesson, but out of affection. Even if he’d tried to shrug it off as Jin GuangYao being drunk. He had to see it. He had to feel that Jin GuangYao couldn’t hold himself back, couldn’t not show Lan XiChen this is what I feel for you. 

 

I’d give it all to you if you asked. 

 

Why was Lan XiChen in denial? Would he not want to know?

 

I want you to know me.

 

You know far more of me than anyone else.

 

But if you saw how broken, infected, and ugly I am, would you still want me? If you knew the things I am capable of? The things I did in another life? 

 

He cracked his eyes open, afraid of what he’d see. He already knew what he wouldn’t see: Lan XiChen.

 

He seemed to be in a sort of palace. Elaborately carved wooden panels, lovely tapestries. Yet everything seemed to be coated in dust or hung crooked, like whoever owned this place couldn’t care to keep it properly cleaned. 

 

Jin GuangYao stumbled to his feet. He could hear voices outside the room. System? 

 

You are in the palace of Quan YiZhen, a heavenly official.

 

What the— Jin GuangYao almost keeled over. He was—in a god’s house? Was he dead? What exactly was happening? Why was he here? 

 

Would you like a reminder of Jun Wu’s words to you? 

 

I remember . He could never forget a thing. 

 

The System ignored him. “I must tell you. If you see me as a white creature, wearing a mask, do not approach. I do not know what sins the system will allow me to rectify, and what it will not. But do not approach me. Just try to—help those you can.”

 

Help. He could do that. Right?

 

The voices sounded like they were arguing. And then came a cracking sound, like wood splitting open. Jin GuangYao hurried out of the room, heading down the stairs. They were coming from below. He reached a corner and froze. The voices were definitely coming from around it.

 

And there was a mirror. Jin GuangYao shifted, the mirror allowing him to see what was happening without barging in just yet. He felt for his belt. HenSheng was still there. He could make out a leg lying limp—someone was unconscious. And a man with a bamboo hat was sitting barely in frame, a man draped in black conversing with someone. Some thing.

 

A creature slipped into the frame, masked, draped in white. His appearance was at once terrifying and glorious. Jin GuangYao pressed back against the wall. So this is you, Jun Wu? I’m not supposed to approach you, so what can I do? 

 

“There are many who know you,” said Jun Wu. “Even if they’ve never met you before, they know of you.”

 

“Really?” The black-clad man flinched

 

“Because, many know of your shidi.” Jun Wu said. “And when your shidi is mentioned, the subject of you would often be raised. The one that’s a foil.”

 

The immediate tensing of both Bamboo Hat and Black Clothes told Jin GuangYao this was a sore subject. Black Clothes’ stature reminded him of Jiang Cheng whenever someone compared him to Wei WuXian. Jin GuangYao knew the feeling: it was what he felt coursing through him, grainy and stinging like sand injected into his veins, when people compared him to Jin ZiXuan in his past life. He just learned to mask it behind a smile.

 

The group bickered, but Black Clothes was clearly not accustomed to devious machinations. Jin GuangYao could almost immediately tell where Jun Wu was going with this. He bit his lip. 

 

He hadn’t expected it to feel so excruciating to see a version of himself. He could almost predict exactly what would come next. First, he offered Black Clothes a return to the Upper Court—had he been kicked down heaven’s stairs?—and then kept prodding about a relationship with this shidi of his.

 

“On what basis must you place yourself in a dissatisfactory position to devote yourself and repay kindness when someone irrelevant shows you grace, but when you show Quan YiZhen grace, he made you fall this low? Yin Yu, to be in the habit of belittling yourself in order to help others is no good habit. You must know, no one will thank you.”

 

Yin Yu… that must be the name of Black Clothes. And the shidi must be the one limp on the ground. Poor Bamboo Hat looked as if he was about to start screaming. 

 

When Jun Wu offered Yin Yu his shidi’s spiritual powers, Jin GuangYao’s stomach lurched. This was—way worse than anything Wei WuXian had done. Wei WuXian’s sacrifice was done from love and a desire to prove he deserved to live, to atone; this was—this was—one of the cruelest forms of stealing he could imagine, besides what that man had stolen from his mother. 

 

“Then if his spiritual powers are transferred to me, will Quan YiZhen… die? Or would something else happen?” asked Yin Yu. 

 

“Nothing will happen, it’s just the process that’s a bit painful, that’s all, but who hasn’t suffered pain in this world? How you want to deal with him afterwards, whether he lives or dies, will be all up to you.”

 

Just a bit painful… ha! Jin GuangYao could have thrown back his head and laughed. System? What do I do?

 

Your task is to save Yin Yu.

 

Fucking hell! How to save someone like this? Someone who seemed to want to damn himself? 

 

The System wishes to inform you that the cursed shackle on Yin Yu’s arm, like the one around Xie Lian’s neck and ankle, contains the ability to suck out one’s blood and soul. 

  

Instantly, Jin GuangYao’s mind retreated to the knife in Wen RouHan’s possession, the knife that lay in the treasure vault, the one he could not so much as glance at anymore without remembering that in another world, A-Su’s soul was trapped eternally in that thing. 

 

And then light exploded, trapping Jun Wu. Except… System, how much danger is Yin Yu still in?

 

Danger levels: 95.

 

He needed to think, he needed to think. He still had his spiritual powers, he could feel them, but they’d always been meager compared to what they might have been. In the mortal world he was far behind his peers, and in the heavenly realm, he must be even more behind. 

 

Yin Yu and Jun Wu were now screaming at each other. 

 

“Admitting I cannot compare is not that hard!” Yin Yu finally yelled, and the words struck Jin GuangYao.

 

I can’t compare. I’m a mortal. They’re gods. I can’t fight them; I’ll lose. 

 

So what… can I do? 

 

He clenched his fists. The two hands he had, a hand Jun Wu had restored. 

 

Yin Yu has resentful energy, correct? He's spent time with demons, in the ghost realm?

 

Affirmative.

 

Jin GuangYao grabbed HenSheng, hacking off a piece of bamboo from the panels' frames. His hands shook as HenSheng whittled for him. What if he couldn’t do it in time? Hell, Wei WuXian had done this in no time at Dafan Mountain! 

 

He raised the makeshift flute to his lips and blew just as Jun Wu stepped out of the white circle of light. To have that kind of power… No, no, he had a plan, he had to trust. The sound assaulted his ears, beyond hideous. 

 

Wei WuXian, don’t fail me.

 

“What the hell is that?” demanded Yin Yu’s voice. Jun Wu whirled, but Jin GuangYao had already slipped back, heart pounding. And then— 

 

“You can run, but your cursed shackle stays on you!” yelled Jun Wu. “ I had pretty much guessed that’s how you would respond. So, I didn’t remove your cursed shackle beforehand!” 

 

Yin Yu whipped around the corner, staggering towards Jin GuangYao. His arm shot out, knocking the wall down in a pile of rubble, separating them from the other three. Yin Yu looked befuddled at the sight of him, but he couldn’t talk. And then—his arm— 

 

Whitened, the shackle— 

 

It’s already draining— 

 

Don’t you of all people know what to do? snarled the System. 

 

Fuck! He didn’t want to do this, he didn’t, he had to. 

 

He released the flute. It clattered to the ground. And he swung HenSheng. 

 

Red blood spilled over Yin Yu’s black robes, Jin GuangYao’s skin and robes. Yin Yu was screaming. Jin GuangYao couldn’t allow himself to question. He tapped several meridians, sealing Yin Yu’s blood flow. The forearm and hand—shackle included—lay on the shards of wood. 

 

Jin GuangYao hurled Yin Yu onto his back, racing off. 

 

“Shixiong!” came a cry. 

 

He had no idea where he was going, or why he was going anywhere at all. Jin GuangYao tried not to panic as he raced outside into what must be the heavenly court, but where to go? Wasn’t Jun Wu here? Had it been taken over by demons? Was Luo BingHe here? ZhuZhi Lang? 

 

Help me, System!

 

“Who—” Yin Yu was struggling, trying to get free. 

 

“Stop struggling if you want to live!” Jin GuangYao finally snarled. They had to get away from Jun Wu. Jun Wu had warned him.

 

What if you don’t get redeemed now, Jun Wu? What if this ruined everything?

 

What can I do? 

 

He ducked behind another palace, gagging from exertion. A god he was not. “Let me help you.” He reached for Yin Yu’s arm, severed at the elbow, tearing his own robes to bandage it. 

 

Yin Yu’s face was white as a sheet, and for a moment Jin GuangYao feared he was already too late, he had failed, the shackle still won, but then Yin Yu gagged and he realized it was just nausea and pain. 

 

“Who—the fuck—are you?” Yin Yu ground out. 

 

“Not a god, not a demon, not sure if I’m even a person here,” Jin GuangYao informed him, fingers shaking as blood dripped off them. “I’m here to help, though.” Or else fuck everything up completely, who knows?

 

The System wishes you would calm down.

 

Ha! Last time he’d woken up in a forest with a companion, next to his sister-wife, and now, in the middle of a divine demon war. Who wouldn’t panic? 

 

“That thing would have captured your soul and your life.”

 

“Why are you—I don’t—” Beads of sweat ran down Yin Yu’s temples. He wailed as Jin GuangYao must have touched where a nerve ended. 

 

“I know it hurts,” said Jin GuangYao. “Losing hands does.”

 

“You still have both of yours!”

 

“Well, that’s a new thing!” Jin GuangYao snapped. For fuck’s sake, it was like he was taking care of Jiang Cheng. Yin Yu wanted to prove he was better than Jin GuangYao. And humiliation still spread through him. What would a man who had been a god think of a prostitute’s son? 

 

If you were once a god, how did you fall?

 

If I were a god, I’d—try to never mess up.   

 

Well, that hadn’t worked so well when he was chief cultivator. “Your shidi will probably be looking for us.”

 

“So?” Yin Yu glared up at him, lying back as he panted. “Let him look.”

 

“You were willing to die for him,” said Jin GuangYao. 

 

“I still hate him.”

 

“You hate yourself ,” Jin GuangYao returned. If this person wasn’t Shen Jiu and that shidi wasn’t Luo BingHe… I guess being gods doesn’t fix your problems.

 

“Excuse me?” 

 

“I know,” panted Jin GuangYao as he worked on the raw flesh. “Because I hate myself .” He could never say it in his world. But, here… 

 

Yin Yu’s eyes closed. 

 

“You still have his spiritual powers,” Jin GuangYao added. “You should probably return those.”

 

“How?” rasped Yin Yu, voice weak. “I never intended to—keep them—” 

 

“A… friend of mine once had his golden core transferred to his shidi, after his shidi’s was melted away by a cruel man who enjoyed torturing children,” said Jin GuangYao. “The one without it never told the one who received it where his came from. But one day the one who received it found out. How do you think he reacted?”

 

“A headache, like the one I have now.”

 

“He was infuriated,” said Jin GuangYao. “Which was why the one who sacrificed never wanted to tell him. His shidi viewed it as him proving that he was better than he was, when in fact, yes, that is what it was. But like you said. So what? Why do you have to be the best?” He… 

 

I’m happier as Jin ZiXuan’s right hand man than I was as chief cultivator. 

 

Yin Yu just moaned in pain. 

 

A bony fish spirit appeared. Jin GuangYao yelped.

 

“Ship-Sinking Black Water,” Yin Yu managed, struggling to sit up. “Get—on—”

 

“On?” Jin GuangYao shivered.

 

The System wishes to offer you a choice. Return to the battle, or accompany Yin Yu to a place of temporary respite.

 

He didn’t even need to ask Yin Yu. He was not risking his life or his mission via Yin Yu’s life.  Respite . He’d just have to hope the rest of the battle went as it had in the past. He couldn’t control it.

 

Jun Wu, figure your shit out.

 

The place the fish deposited them was cold and damp, fog obscuring much of the city around them. Jin GuangYao’s teeth chattered. This wasn’t good. Yin Yu should stay warm after losing so much blood. He hurried to make a fire. 

 

“What is your name?” Yin Yu rasped.

 

He hesitated. Would gods know of him, even if this world was not the same? What if they did? “M-Meng Yao.” 

 

That name. Again. Sparks failed to catch on the wet wood. 

 

“What happened?” Jin GuangYao asked, trying again. “To get you kicked out of heaven?”

 

Yin Yu jerked. “Don’t—”

 

“What, too ashamed? I just saved your life.” Jin GuangYao didn’t care if the System would disapprove. He had to know to accomplish his task, right? 

 

The flames didn’t catch. He yanked out HenSheng, teasing it up Yin Yu’s throat. “What happened?” 

 

“You’re threatening me?”

 

Deducting 50 points for threatening a man who just lost an arm. At least Quan YiZhen isn’t here to trick into spilling the truth and stabbing his shixiong with his words.

 

Jin GuangYao’s face tightened. Did the System have to go there

 

The System wishes to remind you that the truth has certainly helped Jiang Cheng and Wei WuXian repair their relationship, even if it is slow. 

 

He wanted to moan. “I’m trying to save your life, and the lives of people I—need to save, to redeem myself.” 

 

“But I don’t even know you,” protestsed Yin Yu. “I don’t understand.” 

 

“I know. I can’t tell you exactly why or how you’re involved.” He hung his head. “I—need redemption, too. Whatever you’ve done, I’m sure it’s not as bad as what I have.” 

 

Yin Yu regarded him. The former god was propped up against a cold wall. He opened his mouth, and a story poured forth, a story about a man always striving to be the best, and always overcome by a shidi everyone hated for his inconsiderate attitude, a shidi he accidentally almost killed. He was kicked out of heaven for the accident. 

 

Who did I hate?  

 

For someone to have tried so hard to be good, to be unable to express himself just in an attempt to be a kind person in the end… Jin GuangYao remembered the fear and shame in Shen QingQiu’s eyes before his puppy of a pupil, the tremor in his tone when he confessed to Luo BingHe, confessed who he was and where he came from. He remembered the tale Shen QingQiu described, how he sacrificed himself by self-destructing to save Luo BingHe, and all that had accomplished was driving Luo BingHe into misery and everyone hating him. Not much different than Jiang YanLi’s sacrifice to save Wei WuXian ending in Jiang Cheng hating and helping murder the man she’d given her life to save. 

 

There was no way for me to live. It wasn’t the same.

 

But so much was left unsaid. He remembered what Jun Wu had told him: Lan XiChen was in seclusion like his father. Suffering. Because of what was unsaid.

 

I love you. 

 

“You’d rather die protecting your reputation in the eyes of someone you claim to hate than be honest with them?” He shook Yin Yu by the shoulders before remembering it probably wasn’t good to shake someone who had just lost an arm. 

 

“Leave me alone,” mumbled Yin Yu. 

 

His chest heaved, and he was crying, and not for Yin Yu. That still happened.

 

Even when I go back, I’ll have to face him eventually. He’ll know what I did in a past life. Will a new one make up for it? 

 

I’m scared. “I did something terrible,” Jin GuangYao said, and Yin Yu glanced up at him. “I did something—that hurt the people I love most, and even though I’m undoing it now, it can’t change that I did it, and that they’ll know. I don’t want them to know.” 

 

Jin ZiXun, Jin ZiXuan, Wei WuXian, Wen Qing, Qin Su, I caused your deaths. 

 

A-Song, Nie MingJue, I murdered you.  

 

He couldn’t even start a fire. Every spark dissolved into steamy smoke. He coughed. 

 

“Thanks for not letting me die, I guess,” Yin Yu said finally. “Especially not for that brat.” 

 

He wished Wen Qing was here. But Yin Yu should be able to recover, right? He didn’t even know. It was all too confusing. He did not like this world. He was supposed to save whomever he could according to Jun Wu, and he couldn’t even light a fucking fire. 

 

Jin GuangYao pressed his forehead against the stone. I just want to go home. 

 

Lan XiChen, Lan XiChen, I’m a failure. 

 

When he woke, someone was shouting.

 

“You’re here! Ah, you’re here, I’m so glad, Quan YiZhen will be so relieved!” 

 

Jin GuangYao jerked. A crick in his neck ached. He winced.

 

A man with a crooked arm, smeared in sweat and grime, but with a fan to rival any of Nie HuaiSang’s, was crouching over Yin Yu.

 

I... slept.

 

Please don’t be dead! Jin GuangYao scrambled over. Yin Yu blinked up at him. 

 

“Oh no, your arm!” cried out the beggar. “Everyone’s looking for you, you know, but your arm—who are you?”

 

Jin GuangYao managed a placating smile. “I mean no harm.” 

 

“He’s the one who cut my arm off,” Yin Yu said groggily.

 

Oh fuck. 

 

The beggar’s eyes snapped. He held the fan out as if in a threat. Jin GuangYao wanted to scream.

 

“Why are you here?” mumbled Yin Yu. 

 

“I cut it off to save him. The cursed shackle was draining his blood and soul,” Jin GuangYao insisted. “I’m—Meng Yao.” A beggar couldn’t get judgy, right? 

 

“Shi QingXuan,” replied the beggar. “Ah, I see. Sorry for jumping to conclusions.” He tucked his fan into his waistband, accepting Jin GuangYao’s explanation just like that. “Yin Yu, everyone’s worried sick about you; Quan YiZhen is sobbing, he blames himself, it’s—”

 

“Let him worry. I almost died for him.” Yin Yu suddenly seemed to remember that he had spiritual powers stolen from his shidi. “Oh, shit.” 

 

“You don’t mean that,” Shi QingXuan said, aghast. He met Jin GuangYao’s eyes, smiling. “Losing an older brother is really painful, Yin Yu. You know I know.” 

 

You lost one? Jin GuangYao stiffened. 

 

“Sorry about that,” mumbled Yin Yu. “I couldn’t—warn you, not with how things were—” 

 

“It’s water under the bridge; don’t worry,” Shi QingXuan assured him, stroking Yin Yu’s hair. “He even returned my fan to me.” 

 

What is happening? What are you talking about? System?

 

You have other resources. 

 

“Well, we’re both former gods now, aren’t we?” Shi QingXuan asked. “You don’t have to exile yourself to the ghost realm. Me, I’ve got friends here. Everyone calls me Old Feng, it’s no good to be lonely, Yin Yu.”

 

“You used to be a god too?” Jin GuangYao asked. Are you looking for redemption, too?

 

He nodded. “But I never earned it. My brother, the Water Master, he—” Shi QingXuan hung his head. “He switch my fate with another man’s and brought him terrible misfortune…” He detailed what had happened between him and the water demon, He Xuan, Ship-Sinking Black Water, who had infiltrated heaven as the Earth Master Ming Yi and became Shi QingXuan’s best friend. But apparently their friendship wasn’t enough for him to refrain from killing Shi QingXuan’s elder brother, Shi WuDu, in revenge for switching his fate with Shi QingXuan’s. 

 

The gods are potentially even more messed up than humanity, Jin GuangYao decided.

 

And he wondered. If someone had offered him the chance to switch his fate, would he have done it?

 

In the past, definitely. Now… he hated that he still wasn’t sure. 

 

He didn’t want the timelines to intersect. He wanted Lan XiChen in his arms, his lips on his. He wanted to remove all the layers from his skin and from his soul, show Lan XiChen everything. 

 

And he wanted to hide. 

 

How could he simultaneously want two completely separate things?

 

“Well, Jun Wu was defeated,” Shi QingXuan said. “Meng Yao, can you lift up Yin Yu? We should take him to meet with everyone. Quan YiZhen’s not the only one worried about him; Xie Lian is too.”

 

“No they aren’t,” mumbled Yin Yu, and Jin GuangYao recognized that crumple in his voice. He remembered grabbing A-Su in his arms, A-Song in hers, and flying towards the land of the living and the dead to hide.

 

I can’t face it. 

 

They wanted redemption, but they didn’t want to endure the very real agony those seconds would bring, those seconds of waiting, that stripping, the cold that would bite every spare spot on their skin, knives slowly slicing them into a thousand pieces. 

 

Even if they were put back together in the end, that pain would still be real. 

 

“I’ll go with you,” said Jin GuangYao. 

 

“Huh?” Yin Yu frowned. “Why? Who—”

 

“I have… something I need to accomplish,” said Jin GuangYao. System? 

 

The System recommends a conversation with Xie Lian. 

 

“I have to meet with... Xie Lian,” Jin GuangYao said hesitantly. 

 

“He’s a very good god!” chirped Shi QingXuan. “Cast out twice, ascended three times—”

 

“Then do the two of you hope to re-ascend?” Jin GuangYao asked.

 

Shi QingXuan shrugged. “I don’t know.”

 

“It’s hopeless,” Yin Yu said bitterly. “Even if I did, everyone would always see me as the one who got—”

 

Shi QingXuan bopped him on the head with the heel of his fan. “That’s not how I see Xie Lian or you!”

 

“Well, you aren’t normal,” Yin Yu retorted.

 

For once Jin GuangYao had to agree with Yin Yu. But he wasn’t sure that was necessarily a bad thing. Shi QingXuan shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. If even one person stands by your side, how come you can’t lean on them? Quan YiZhen would never abandon you.”

 

“I wish he would. I wish I would.” Yin Yu glared as if daring them to hate his admission.

 

“Fine. But at least I’m going to bring you to a place where they can help heal you. Can you carry him?” Shi QingXuan asked. 

 

Jin GuangYao started. He nodded, scooping Yin Yu up in his arms. Yin Yu let out a grumble. “Um, Shi QingXuan—”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Did anyone else die yesterday? In the battle?”

 

“Only the green goblin Qi Rong. He died saving that orphan boy whose father he possessed. Though I suppose that means the father is dead, too.” Shi QingXuan clucked his tongue.

 

Jin GuangYao almost vomited, but there was nothing in his stomach to heave up. His arms trembled. If I had been there, would this possessed man have died? 

 

The System does not answer these types of “what ifs.” 

 

Fuck you, yes you do, when it pleases you!

 

But, the System said. Adding 50 points for successfully accomplishing part one of the task ‘save Yin Yu.’

 

Part one? He cringed, remembering what part two of saving Jin ZiXun and Su She meant. 

 

And deducting 100 B points for failing to accomplish task ‘save Qi Rong.’

 

That wasn’t ever given to me as a task!

 

Well, it was part of the original plan.

 

His heart constricted. He had failed his first task of the System’s. But it didn’t mean he would fail in this world, did it? What happened if he did?

 

You cannot fail unless you are dead.

 

Great.

 

Shi QingXuan led them through a different part of town. Jin GuangYao spotted a man with a proud ponytail stomping through the streets, face caught up in a grimace. 

 

“Ah, Pei Ming!” called Shi QingXuan. “He was a friend of my brother’s,” he added to Jin GuangYao.

 

“Is that Yin Yu? So he’s alive,” remarked Pei Ming, decked in armor. He marched towards them, boots splashing in muddy puddles. He tried to kick the grime off, but it only went further up to stain his trousers. He swore.

 

You’re a god too?

 

I’m never praying again.

 

“Have you really never heard of any of the gods here, Meng Yao?” asked Shi QingXuan.

 

Jin GuangYao swallowed. “I’m not from around here.” 

 

“But you speak the language,” Shi QingXuan said. 

 

“I can’t say more,” he replied.

 

Pei Ming scowled. “How do we know he’s not working with that demon?”

 

“The demon you revered as head god?’ Jin GuangYao asked sweetly, plastering a smile onto his face. Yin Yu actually coughed as if he wanted to laugh. 

 

“Are you looking for someone, Pei Ming?” asked Shi QingXuan.

 

“Hmph. More like getting away from someone,” Pei Ming said.

 

“Oh, is that demon woman still chasing you?”

 

Jin GuangYao stiffened. 

 

“She is not,” Pei Ming said. “I told her to go love herself instead of trying to earn my love or eternal servitude towards her.”

 

“Well, serves you right for sleeping around,” mumbled Yin Yu.

 

“Eh?” Pei Ming’s face turned as red as the garments he wore. 

 

Oh, so this man was like Jin GuangShan? Jin GuangYao glared. He did not like this Pei Ming. How could Yin Yu and Shi QingXuan not have earned ascension but this kind of asshole had? 

 

The powerful get there by trampling on everyone in their way. Usually the weak, the women, the scorned. At least he’d trampled on the powerful in his first life.

 

Not A-Song.

 

Not Qin Su.

 

Not even Wei WuXian. 

 

He felt sick again. 

 

They passed by, heading towards a certain small temple. Another god in red and in armor, but with a slightly droopier ponytail, a bow and arrow slung across his back, and a pinched mouth sat on the ground with his shoulders slouched. 

 

“Feng Xin!” called Shi QingXuan. “Get Xie Lian, and Quan YiZhen! We found Yin Yu; he’s alive.”

 

“Fucking hell,” mumbled Yin Yu, squirming.

 

“If you try to walk I will drop you head first,” Jin GuangYao warned.

 

“Fuck you.”

 

“Oh!” Feng Xin got to his feet, wobbling slightly. 

 

“Are you all right?” Shi QingXuan asked. 

 

“Fine,” Feng Xin said coldly. His gaze narrowed as it fixed on Jin GuangYao. “Who is this?”

 

“Meng Yao,” Shi QingXuan said cheerfully, thankfully sparing Jin GuangYao from having to use that name again. Maybe Shi QingXuan was okay after all. “He saved Yin Yu yesterday!”

 

“Do you have to yell about that?” hissed Yin Yu.

 

“Don’t tell me someone else is angry over being saved,” Feng Xin said bitterly. “A little gratitude would be nice. Pei Ming’s been stewing all—” 

 

“The same Pei Ming we just came across?” asked Jin GuangYao.

 

“Pah!” Feng Xin shook his head. “Pei Ming’s avoiding the Rain Master because she saved his ass yesterday. Lost his face to be saved by a woman.”

 

“Why?” demanded Jin GuangYao. “What’s wrong with that?” This Pei Ming was Jin GuangShan. Probably thought women were only good for their tits and what was between their legs, but nevermind the consequences. He’d probably abandoned child after child too, being a god and able to do as he pleased! Jin GuangYao gritted his teeth. 

 

“Nothing,” replied Feng Xin. “Except that this Pei Ming made YuShi Huang’s life difficult on earth, mocking her, and then being from a different kingdom, he led a charge against the Kingdom of YuShi. He didn’t have to play dirty, but he had his general, Rong Guang, gather hundreds of criminals and disguise them as normal civilians.” Feng Xin seemed to relish the chance to smear dirt on Pei Ming’s name. How long would it be until another heavenly official turned into a monster with this lot? “He took them to the palace and gave an ultimatum: if the king of YuShi came out and killed himself to atone for oppressing his people, then all his people and family would be spared. If not, they’d all die.” 

 

It wasn’t a terrible plan; in fact, it was quite crafft and one he might have considered in the same place. However, Jin GuangYao remembered what Jun Wu had said about redemption via death not satisfying. “That isn’t atonement if someone is forced. It’s just murder.”

 

“Precisely,” said Feng Xin, pointing at him. “I like you. Anyways, YuShi Huang was the youngest of sixteen children, and she offered to become queen in that moment. She went out and atoned with her death, making fools of Pei Ming and the rest of his kingdom.” 

 

“But she saved his life?” Jin GuangYao asked. He squinted. The sun was finally emerging from behind several thick, gauzy clouds. 

 

“She doesn’t hold grudges,” Feng Xin replied, shielding his eyes. “She’s better than he is in every way, and he knows it.” 

 

“Good,” said Jin GuangYao. Though he doubted Pei Ming knew it. Men like him never acknowledged it. They had to be the best. They lived to polish their egos and trampled on insignificant people like this princess, just for what? For land? For prestige? 

 

“Yin Yu, thank goodness!” called a voice. 

 

Bamboo Hat! Jin GuangYao’s eyes bugged out. Though the hat was now missing, he couldn’t mistake the man’s face. 

 

“Oh, you!” exclaimed the man. Jin GuangYao took a hesitant step back, but as it turned out, he didn’t need to worry.

 

“Hello,” said the man, bowing. “I am Xie Lian.” 








Chapter Text

“J-Meng Yao,” he said, bowing before the god. 

 

“You saved Yin Yu?” Xie Lian rushed to help him. “Thank you so much for that; I didn’t think it was possible! Quan YiZhen was so—”

 

“He can stay worried; maybe the little brat will consider his life choices more if he worries,” Yin Yu grumbled. 

 

Xie Lian studied him, and then let out a good-hearted chuckle. “You’re more honest this time; that’s good.” 

 

Something smelled horrible as it stewed above a fire. For a moment Jin GuangYao thought he would gag despite having nothing in his stomach. He inhaled deeply, pressing the air out, stabilizing his stomach.

 

Xie Lian crouched over Yin Yu, whom Jin GuangYao had set down, fussing over his wound.

 

“I had no choice but to cut off his hand,” Jin GuangYao said, folding his arms. “That shackle would have drained his spirit and life.” It didn’t feel right to be in a godly residence, even a ramshackle one such as this. Which reminded him: when he got back to his world, he’d have to bring up the brothel situation. He couldn’t just leave it be. Jiang Cheng would surely listen, and Lan QiRen and SiSi would support him, right? 

 

I don’t have to burn it down, do I? There’s a place for them now… even the ones I don’t like. And the pimps can get fucked. 

 

He still wanted that temple. He needed it. Even if he was executed at the end of all of this, he wanted Meng Shi’s memory to last. It was what she deserved. 

 

“I know,” Xie Lian said, glancing up at Jin GuangYao. “Thank you for helping him.” He frowned, blowing a strand of hair off his lip. 

 

“Your Highness… where is the Crimson Rain Sought Flower?” rasped Yin Yu.

 

A dark shade fell over Xie Lian’s face. He reached towards his robes, pinching something there. “He’ll return.”

 

System? Did I fail again? Is this… person dead? Because of me?

 

This person has long been dead, and is one of three great calamity demons. Jun Wu is also one, and He Xuan is the other. Hua Cheng, the Crimson Rain Sought Flower, died after the fight with Jun Wu. But his ashes are kept safe, so he will return.

 

Was that what Xie Lian had on him? Jin GuangYao swallowed. System… what is Xie Lian’s relationship with this demon?

 

Akin to Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi’s relationship, or Luo BingHe and Shen QingQiu’s. 

 

Jin GuangYao swallowed. He wondered why the system had chosen those two relationships. Did it have to do with the fourth world in which the three worlds were a story? He pressed his fist against his lips. “I’m glad to hear he’ll come back.”

 

I will come back, Lan XiChen. I will.

 

Would it be better for him not to, though? Considering what would happen once the timelines intersected? 

 

I don’t care. I want to live. And I need to see you. 

 

Shi QingXuan patted Xie Lian’s shoulder. The god smiled again. “What about you? Are you—you seem human, but you were in the heavenly court.”

 

“Oh.” Jin GuangYao pulled his fist from his mouth, twisting the skin around his wrist. “I’m a human.” That would not satisfy.

 

But even as Shi QingXuan opened his mouth and Yin Yu glared at him, Xie Lian simply said, “Okay,” and went back to work cleaning dead skin away from Yin Yu’s wound. 

 

He was too much like Xiao XingChen, this god. Jin GuangYao said little. Only when Xie Lian set Yin Yu to sleep and Shi QingXuan slipped away did Xie Lian lift the veil covering his inquisitive side and sit Jin GuangYao down with a bowl of—who knew what the glop was, but it was a dark shade of green, almost black, and as viscous as glue. 

 

“How many lives have you lived?” Xie Lian asked.

 

Jin GuangYao decided to stuff his mouth with some of the… substance. He couldn’t answer. It tasted bitter and sour, like dirt saturated with a recently decaying corpse, and the texture wasn’t much different than the grainy slime he imagined such dirt would be. He forced himself to swallow, even to smile.

 

Xie Lian frowned at his smile.

 

“I can’t honestly answer that,” Jin GuangYao said. “But… a few. Not here.” System?

 

The System judges your answer appropriate.

 

Xie Lian nodded. “Well, if you can’t, you can’t. Apologies, I should have taken you at your word, but I was wondering if you held back for our company.” He studied the stew. “Is it really okay?” 

 

Jin GuangYao nodded enthusiastically. His stomach threatened to punch him with bile.

 

“Amazing,” said Xie Lian. “Besides San Lang, no one could eat my cooking. I take after my mother, I suppose.”

 

The System wishes to inform you that San Lang is a name of the Crimson Rain Sought Flower.

 

Ah. He cleared his throat, forcing another bite down. “Were you close with your mother?”

 

Xie Lian gave a small nod. Something like shame crippled his face.

 

“My mother was a prostitute,” Jin GuangYao said. Testing him. Are you Lan XiChen, or Jin GuangShan? 

 

“Mine was an empress.” Xie Lian sighed. “And then a fugitive. In the end, she took her own life because…” He gestured to the bandages on his arms. “With this.” 

 

Jin GuangYao didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry.”

 

“Me too,” said Xie Lian. “I loved her. She advocated for me, while my father—he loved me, but he didn’t understand me.”

 

“My father hates me,” Jin GuangYao said. “But, I suppose I did have him deposed.”

 

Xie Lian arched his brows. 

 

“So… was Jun Wu defeated?”

 

“Mm,” Xie Lian said slowly. “He was. The Head Priest is with him.”

 

“Priest?” 

 

Xie Lian leaned forward, expression quizzical. “You mean you have no idea what happened here, and yet you burst in anyways to save Yin Yu?” 

 

“I—know that Jun Wu is also a demon,” said Jin GuangYao. “I don’t know much else.” 

 

“It’s a long story.” Xie Lian laced his fingers together. The bandages around his wrists seemed to almost caress him. But he began, detailing his first ascension with Feng Xin, the archer god, and Mu Qing, Xie Lian’s servant, how there was a lost child, how he had fallen trying to prevent a rebellion. 

 

Jin GuangYao thought of the Wen Sect. There was no way to know if Xian Le was as terrible a kingdom as the Wen Sect had been, but he sympathized with the rebels. Until Xie Lian described life on the run, how he resorted to stealing. 

 

So, you are not a stuck-up prince who cannot understand what drives the common people to sin. Not anymore. 

 

When Xie Lian described how Jun Wu had tied him down and had him stabbed over a hundred times, Jin GuangYao almost vomited. It sounded remarkably similar to how Wei WuXian had killed Wen Chao, and to how he had killed his father in his past life. 

 

Why did we do such things? We aren’t demons!

 

We… 

 

He heard Xue Yang screaming from his memories. “I don’t want to be alone anymore!” 

 

You took the face from the YunMeng Jiang Sect. You humiliated Jiang Cheng, leaving him with a scar for life. You took Wei WuXian’s core from him along with the chance of revenge.

 

You left my mother to a fate of men mounting her, thousands, tied by flimsy ropes that it would have taken you a quick wave of the hand to cut.

 

Do you see it now, Father? Do you feel it now, what it’s like to be on the run from a monster who will not stop in his quest to hunt you down, to hurt you? Do you feel it now, what it’s like to be fucked and fucked until you die while someone could help you is there watching, smiling, not remotely bothered that they’ve left you to die? 

 

“He wanted to turn me into him,” Xie Lian said, describing the recent battle with Jun Wu next, how he had reconciled with Mu Qing, how Mei NianQing, the priest, had stayed with his former friend.

 

Jin GuangYao did not get it. Jun Wu had been a prince too. A prince! And he still felt the need to create disasters just to—to what, really? Because he felt alone? At least I tried to take care of the common people!

 

“I left him with my bamboo hat,” Xie Lian concluded. “I hope he remembers a single moment of kindness can change everything.”

 

“Can it, though?” Jin GuangYao countered, his stew almost finished and his stomach throbbing. At least the viscosity forced him not to interrupt a million times. 

 

Will what I’ve done to fix things matter? Will the cultivational world still want my head? 

 

He thought of Lan XiChen. I’ve never thought of hurting you. Not in any lifetime. 

 

You were my bamboo hat. 

 

Xie Lian shrugged. “Well, whether he wants to try or not is up to him. I think having Mei NianQing by his side will help, though.” He sighed, tracing his fingers along the edges of his bandages. “I almost unleashed the human face plague too, so I suppose I can’t judge.”

 

“You absolutely can,” disagreed Jin GuangYao.

 

“What would I have to gain from that, Meng Yao?” Xie Lian lifted his gaze. Unlike Nie MingJue, he held no judgement in his tone. He might as well have been on his knees before Jin GuangYao, palms out as he asked for mercy. “By condemning someone else, don’t I condemn myself? I can’t let Jun Wu continue to hurt people, I know that. And I stopped him. But—if I deny him that chance to rewrite his fate, what could I do?”

 

“I suppose that’s a luxury of the gods, then,” Jin GuangYao managed. Shame crept within him, tightening its grasp around his ribs, pressing against his spine. “We humans only have one lifetime to atone, and justice often does not let us.”

 

Xie Lian tilted his head, studying him.  “I think you do what you have with what you’ve been given. I—at least San Lang stood by my side, knowing all that I’ve done and all that was done to me. It’s funny, isn’t it, that the latter is more what I was afraid of than the former, in some ways? I couldn’t tell my mother what happened to me. I couldn’t imagine her shame, or my father’s, at what his son was reduced to.” His voice trembled. 

 

I’m ashamed of being a prostitute’s son.

 

I’m ashamed of what I’ve done.

 

The former is not an option to conceal, though.

 

“It all comes down to weakness, though,” Xie Lian mused. “Ashamed of being weak, ashamed of being morally weak, too.” He sighed. “But we are human, or were. We fall. Even the gods are no different, in case the disaster of the past few days hasn’t told you as much.” He smiled.

 

Jin GuangYao didn’t know what to say. 

 

A shuffling noise. He stiffened, turning. 

 

A younger god stood there, eyes darting around nervously. He opened his mouth as if to yelp when he saw Yin Yu asleep. “Sh—” 

 

“Shh!” Xie Lian scrambled over to him. “Don’t wake him, Quan YiZhen, his—” 

 

“He lost his arm?” squawked Quan YiZhen. “I—” 

 

“I cut it off,” said Jin GuangYao, and the god turned murderous eyes to him. Shit. This Quan YiZhen advanced as if he wanted to squash Jin GuangYao.

 

Xie Lian scowled at Jin GuangYao. “To save him, Quan YiZhen, not to harm him.” Xie Lian gestured towards the front of the temple. “Let’s go outside and chat, shall we?”

 

“I need to speak to—” 

 

“Not now you don’t!” Xie Lian trying to be threatening was… not convincing.

 

Jin GuangYao sighed. He walked over and grabbed Quan YiZhen’s arm, wrapping his other hand around the boy’s mouth. The god had no spiritual powers; he was easy to drag along, and for all his slobbery attempts to bite Jin GuangYao’s fingers off, he failed to make a shout. “Mmph!” 

 

“I need to talk to him!” protested Quan YiZhen the moment Jin GuangYao removed his hand. “You can’t—I need to talk to him; I’ve been trying to talk to him for so long!” 

 

“Have you ever considered that he might not want to talk to you, and that other people’s wants matter as well?” Jin GuangYao cut in.

 

His words might as well have slapped Quan YiZhen. The boy’s mouth fell open. His eyes shone. “But—but Shixiong was the one who always—remembered me!”  

 

A lump formed in Jin GuangYao’s throat. He was overcome by the sudden sensation that Da-Ge loomed behind him, towered over him. 

 

You were the only one who acknowledged me who didn’t see me as the son of a whore.

 

But in the end, you saw me that way. In our past life, and once you know, won’t you believe it again? Is there even any hope you won’t?

 

You hated me anyways. 

 

He remembered screaming at Lan XiChen in the GuanYin temple, screaming that he’d always been as intolerant of him as Nie MingJue. But it wasn’t true. Jin GuangYao just had never thought Lan XiChen would harm him, and to find out that he had—he was scared. Was everything a lie? Was everyone else as good at lying and faking as he was? 

 

But hadn’t Lan XiChen been scared, to find out just what kind of person Jin GuangYao was?

 

This time, you won’t kill me.  

 

“Quan YiZhen, you really should listen to them,” interjected a salty voice that made Yin Yu’s barbs seem like innocent pokes from a flower stem. “Or else your shixiong might actually strangle you, and in your current state, you’d die. And none of us would stop him.”

 

Xie Lian sighed. “Mu Qing.”

 

The man was almost too pretty for Jin GuangYao to believe he was a martial god. Mu Qing kept his arms crossed, dainty ponytail swinging as he stepped forward. “Unless, of course, you’re here to try to kill him? Get your powers back?”

 

Quan YiZhen looked horrified. “I’d never hurt shixiong like—”

 

“He hurt you.”

 

“He saved me!” countered Quan YiZhen.

 

Mu Qing blinked. 

 

Jin GuangYao blinked too. “You really don’t hold any resentment?”

 

Some one makes sense,” Mu Qing said, gesturing to Jin GuangYao. Jin GuangYao straightened. He liked Mu Qing. 

 

Quan YiZhen’s lip trembled. “He really—doesn’t want to see me?”

 

“Not at this time,” Xie Lian whispered. “But later, I’m sure—” 

 

“He was willing to die for you,” Jin GuangYao said. “Be willing to step away for him. For now.”

 

Quan YiZhen burst into tears, turning and fleeing. Xie Lian sighed. 

 

“Feng Xin told me Yin Yu was alive,” said Mu Qing. “I saw that brat coming here.” 

 

You were the son of a poor woman, too. A servant. And now you’re a god. Jin GuangYao studied him. 

 

“Thank you,” Xie Lian said. “Friend.”

 

Mu Qing’s lips twitched and then curved upwards. He scowled when he saw Jin GuangYao watching, though. 

 

“Where’s Feng Xin?” Xie Lian inquired, ushering Mu Qing to a tree stump to sit. Jin GuangYao settled on the grass, feeling the soft dampness under him. He ran his hands through the blades of grass, watching stars glitter above. 

 

“Trying to persuade Jian Lan and CuoCuo to stay with him,” Mu Qing replied, hunching his shoulders. “I still can’t believe he was judging me all this time, thinking I was a thief and a rotten person, while he had an illegitimate son with a prostitute.”

 

“JianLan was not a prostitute until there were no options,” retorted Xie Lian.

 

Jin GuangYao faced them. Feng Xin? The archer had an illegitimate child? With a prostitute?

 

“They’re ghosts now,” Xie Lian explained. “But he still wants to care for them. I’m sure Jian Lan will accept; she cares for him—”

 

Cared ,” corrected Mu Qing. “Not all loves last, Your Highness. Child or not.”

 

Jin GuangYao tore up a few blades of grass, thinking of Qin Su, Wen Ning, and A-Song. 

 

“You can care without wanting to start a relationship again,” said Mu Qing. “Sometimes the hurt has been too much.”

 

“How do you know?” Jin GuangYao asked. “When it’s been too much?”

 

Who will abandon me? Who will want my head to roll?

 

Will Er-Ge stay by my side?

 

“Maybe he won’t be so judgemental if you don’t judge him,” Xie Lian ventured. 

 

Mu Qing arched his brows. “Have you met Feng Xin? He’s more stubborn than an ox.”

 

“Does knowing about Jian Lan and CuoCuo really change what you think of him?” questioned Xie Lian.

 

At least Feng Xin seemed like he was trying to take responsibility for his fucks. 

 

“No,” said Mu Qing, letting out his breath. “If only anything would change his mind about me. It won’t, though.” 

 

Jin GuangYao swallowed. If he’d just had the System in his past life, could he have avoided so much pain? Would the trust he and Nie MingJue had now last? 

 

He thought that he finally understood why the System said he couldn’t erase his sins. 

 

“Why don’t the two of you talk to each other?” Xie Lian ventured. 

 

Mu Qing scowled. Jin GuangYao bit back a guffaw. Talking had solved way more than he anticipated in this life. 

 

The System would like to assign you a new mission: reconcile Mu Qing and Feng Xin!

 

Excuse me? Why was everyone else’s disputes constantly becoming his problem? 

 

“Talk to each other,” Jin GuangYao echoed dully.

 

Mu Qing narrowed his eyes. “And who the fuck are you?”

 

“Meng Yao, a human, prostitute’s son,” Jin GuangYao said. Again, the truth was a comfortable—well, not weapon. A tool, a shovel to dig. If Mu Qing saw that he knew a thing or two about having people judge them on their background, maybe he would listen. 

 

Mu Qing wrinkled his nose. 

 

“I’d like to meet this Jian Lan,” Jin GuangYao said softly.

 

“Why?” demanded Mu Qing. “You better not cuck—” 

 

Jin GuangYao jumped. “No, no! I’m not—nothing like that, I just—I’m a cut-sleeve anyways.” Okay, that wasn't entirely true. He had been attracted to Qin Su. He just was now in love with Lan XiChen, and even if he would never get to say it in his old world, even if he would have to deny it to shield Lan XiChen from the inevitable sharp knife of cruel reality, he could say it here. 

 

I love him.

 

Will our entire friendship have to end? Our closeness, now that we kissed?

 

Dammit! 

 

“Me too,” Xie Lian said, a smile on his face as he thought of this Hua Cheng. “You have some sort of task here?” 

 

“You could say that,” Jin GuangYao replied. 

 

He’d wanted to rush through this world at first. Now, he wanted to drag it out. He didn’t think he could bear to push Lan XiChen away from him, not after kissing him, not after all the hope he had.

 

Even though he was more or less redeemed, he still wanted Lan XiChen’s light. You are still the light of my life. 

 

I don’t know if I would even want to survive it without you.

 

Maybe an execution wasn’t to be dreaded, after all.

 

The System would like to remind you to focus on your current task. 

 

“For someone you claim to hate,” Jin GuangYao managed. “You're awfully protective of him, Mu Qing.” 

 

Mu Qing glared. “The fuck?”

 

“Are you sure you don’t have cut-sleeve—”

 

Xie Lian’s eyes bulged, turning to his friend. “ Do you?” 

 

“Of course not!” Mu Qing spat out. “I’m like you—we cultivate, we don’t—we’re abstinent—”

 

“I didn’t ask if you were a virgin, and I doubt Xie Lian will be for long,” said Jin GuangYao. “I asked if you had feelings.”

 

“Yeah, I’d like to bash his head in!” Mu Qing glared. “Well, not really, Your Highness, it’s just that—he’s insufferable, and—” 

 


The seed has been planted. Hopefully it'd be watered and flourish. Soon. 

 

He couldn't wait much longer before going back to Lan XiChen. 

Chapter Text

“What did you do to make Quan YiZhen run into his palace sobbing so loudly no one could sleep last night?” complained a voice that sounded vaguely familiar. 

 

Jin GuangYao stirred. His eyes flew open. The same old dwelling he’d been staying in on this place Xie Lian said was called Mount TaiCang, a refugee place of sorts for the gods while the charred Upper Court was restored. 

 

He sat up, studying the surroundings. Yin Yu wasn’t there. He rubbed his temples. Where had that—god, former god, demon, moral, whatever the fuck he was—gone?

 

Xie Lian stood there, a solemn look on his face. “Mu Qing was rather harsh.”

 

“And water is wet.” That obnoxious general, the one who reminded Jin GuangYao of a godlike Jin GuangShan, snorted. “Oh. That one’s still here.” His tone was familiar, like the other soldiers in the Nie Sect who considered him worth no more than Jin GuangShan’s droppings. 

 

“Meng Yao is passing through,” Xie Lian said pleasantly.  

 

Honestly, how had someone who had been through all Xie Lian had been through come out with such a gentle disposition? Jin GuangYao did not understand, and the unfairness of it all chafed at him. Why can’t I be like you?

 

“Hmph.” Pei Ming turned his attention back to the god like a lowly human was not worth his time. “Listen, you, uh, you haven’t seen Xuan Ji around here, have you?”

 

“Your obsessive ghost lover and stalker? Not at all.”

 

Jin GuangYao almost choked. So Xie Lian could be sarcastic. 

 

“Well, good,” Pei Ming said, scratching the back of his neck. “Hope she’s learned to focus on herself. I heard she left with Yin Yu, though, so I wanted to be sure.” 

 

“Where did Yin Yu go?” demanded Jin GuangYao.

 

“What’s wrong, Meng Yao?” asked Xie Lian.

 

System?

 

Talk to your resources.

 

What use was a magical spiritual system when it refused to give you easy answers? He huffed. “I need to find Yin Yu,” said Jin GuangYao. “As soon as possible.” 

 

“For your quest?” Xie Lian asked. When Jin GuangYao nodded, he sighed, glancing around the temple. “I’d planned to wait until San Lang came back, but—”

 

“No worries, Your Highness,” said Pei Ming, reaching out to pat Xie Lian’s shoulder. “You can stay here. I can accompany Young Master Meng.”

 

Even if he was going by that name here, he still wanted to kick Pei Ming for using it. 

 

“You would… go to the ghost realm?” Xie Lian’s eyebrows shot almost entirely off his forehead. 

 

Pei Ming shrugged. “Might as well.” 

 

“He’s in the ghost realm?” asked Jin GuangYao. He swallowed. “Do I have to… die to go there?”

 

Pei Ming looked at him like he had three heads. “No.” 

 

Well, how would I know? Jin GuangYao did not like feeling stupid. He folded his arms. The sunlight was too bright this morning, the air steamy and foul like a dog’s breath slobbering all over him. Probably the smell was from last night’s dinner. He pulled his robe away from the back of his neck, twisted his hair in his hands. If it’s cooler in the ghost realm, by all means.

 

“Pei Ming, would you really help him?” asked Xie Lian.

 

“Of course.” Something about the way Pei Ming said it, though, plus what Jin GuangYao already knew about him, indicated that he was helping himself as much as helping Jin GuangYao.

 

How am I supposed to help Yin Yu when he doesn’t want to reconcile with Quan YiZhen?

 

What we want and how we act are often two contradictory exercises.

 

He rolled his eyes. A few hours later, they set off with two additions: a descendent named Pei Su—so Jin GuangYao presumed Pei Ming had at least one legitimate child. The poor wife of Pei Ming though; she couldn’t have been any happier than Madame Jin! A small woman named Ban Yue who played with snakes also accompanied them. Jin GuangYao immediately decided he liked Ban Yue. 

 

“Pei Su is temporarily mortal,” said Pei Ming. “So whenever you mortals need to rest—”

 

“Shut up,” Jin GuangYao said. Ban Yue threaded her arm through Pei Su’s. He smiled down at her. 

 

“Why so hostile?” Pei Ming demanded. “I’m helping you.”

 

Where had Jin GuangYao’s familiar smile, the fake kindness that slid through him so easily, gone? Why was it now like pulling teeth to be polite to a god who was indeed getting him closer to his target to complete the System's objectives? Jin GuangYao tried to force his mouth to curve upwards. “Thank you.” 

 

Pei Ming eyed him suspiciously, but said little else.

 

They arrived at a bustling city rich with the stench of decay. Jin Guangyao cringed, pulling his robes up. Ghosts chattered, cackling and ripping apart what looked like a weeks-old maggoty horse corpse. Ban Yue’s snakes even looked scared. 

 

“Why would he go here?” wondered Jin GuangYao.

 

Pei Ming studied him. “Do you not know? Yin Yu was serving the Crimson Rain Sought Flower here since his banishment from the heavenly court.” 

 

Jin GuangYao scowled. “I’m aware. But why would he return here, when this Hua Cheng, San Lang, Crimson whatever, is not here?” 

 

“Like a dog returning to its own vomit,” came Ban Yue’s whimsical voice. She hopped over a puddle of—something fermented. “Maybe he feels he has no other place to go.” 

 

Pei Su gave her an uncomfortable glance, tucking his lips into his mouth. A snake slithered from Ban Yue’s robes and onto his arm, curling up around Pei Su’s neck as if to comfort him. 

 

“I can ask,” Ban Yue added. “Pei Su, Meng Yao, you’re mortal right now. We should describe him, see if anyone’s seen him.” 

 

“Yin Yu?” scoffed one of the women Jin GuangYao asked. Her face heavily painted, she held a squirming fetus spirit in her hand. Something niggled in Jin GuangYao’s memories. “That man? Haven’t seen him, but if he is, I’d have fun teasing.” She eyed Jin GuangYao. “You interested?”

 

Jin GuangYao recoiled. “No.”

 

“I get it,” she said. “Whore not good enough for you mortals, but hey, you’d not have to worry about fathering a bastard or—”

 

Jin GuangYao stumbled back. 

 

“Ah, a prude. Virgin?”

 

“No,” Jin GuangYao said. “Cut-sleeve.”

 

“Hmph.” She rolled her eyes. “Too bad. You’re pretty.”

 

“My mother was a prostitute,” he said quietly. “I am one of those illegitimate children.”

 

The fetus spirit cackled. Jin GuangYao gulped. He tried to see A-Song in the creature. 

 

“Feng Xin misses you, Jian Lan,” he said. The fucking System hadn’t assigned him to save Jian Lan. Of course it was chauvinist as well, the— 

 

“He does and he doesn’t,” she said, the fetus licking her face with a serpent’s tongue. “We’ve both moved on.”

 

“If you’ve moved on, then why are you still here?” Jin GuangYao asked. “You didn’t choose this life.”

 

“I didn’t choose my wealthy parents, either,” Jian Lan said. “I’m here not because I want Feng Xin to come riding in to save me with his arrows—if you know what I mean.” She smirked. “I’m here because it’s the one place no one will treat CuoCuo like a mistake. He won’t ever grow up, but he’s still my son, and I want to live as much as I can with him. As for love, pah. I did love him, sincerely. But now I don’t. I don’t believe in forever.”

 

Jin GuangYao’s blood ran cold. What if, once Lan XiChen found out all he’d done, he no longer loved Jin GuangYao even as his little brother? 

 

Please don’t stop loving me. Please

 

“I’m sure your mother gave up on your father, too, if she ever even loved him,” said Jian Lan.

 

“She did,” Jin GuangYao managed. “But not on me.” Right? 

 

Mom, I’m scared. He wanted to cry out like he had as a child, listen to the sound of her feet padding over to him, feel her arms around him, comforting him. 

 

Jian Lan studied him.

 

“You do have forever love,” said Jin GuangYao, trying to cool his rapid heartbeat. He nodded towards the fetus. “Just not romantic in kind.”

 

Jian Lan laughed. “Clever. And, in truth, I don’t need the money anymore. I don’t really whore myself out. I just thought it’d be good to tease you. We don’t often see mortals around here.” 

 

“Oh.” 

 

She reached out, putting her hand on his shoulder. He swallowed.

 

“Don’t worry,” she said. “You’re right about that. What I feel for CuoCuo—in a thousand lifetimes, it could never fade. I’m sure your mother feels the same.” And she turned and walked away. 

 

After getting a bloody wad of phlegm spat at him an hour or so later, Jin GuangYao decided that no matter what, he could never die again, because being in a coffin with Da-Ge couldn’t be more horrifying than this city. But when he regrouped with the rest, he found Pei Su bleeding from getting into a scuffle with someone. Pei Ming did not look impressed.

 

“I found him, though,” panted Pei Su.

 

“You did?” Pei Ming blinked.

 

Pei Su nodded, Ban Yue holding onto him. His wound wasn’t serious. “I found him. He’s—in—the Ship-Sinking Black Water’s lair. He asked to serve He Xuan.” 

 

“Isn’t that the one who killed Shi QingXuan’s brother?” asked Jin GuangYao. Too many names to remember. “So he likely isn’t very friendly to visitors…” He did not look forward to fighting a demon, but if they had to do so, he would. 

 

“Ship-Sinking Black Water helped us during the battle,” Ban Yue pointed out.

 

Pei Ming’s face was whiter than most of the ghost’s, completely bloodless. He clutched the hilt of his sword, lips moving but no sound emerging.

 

“What’s the problem?” Jin GuangYao questioned. “I’m sure that with a martial god with us—” Was he genuinely sure, or mocking? He didn’t even know himself.

 

“It’s not that,” Pei Ming retorted. “It’s that he killed my friend, Shi WuDu.”

 

Jin GuangYao wanted to moan. 

 

Pei Ming, Shi WuDu, and Ling Wen comprised the trio of “three tumors,” a group of prestigious heavenly gods. Shi WuDu died in He Xuan’s lair. Ling Wen created the brocade immortal, a robe that strangles those who wear it. It was this robe that Yin Yu gave to Quan YiZhen, albeit unwittingly, while— 

 

“Oh,” Jin GuangYao said in realization.

 

“Didn’t Xie Lian tell you?” asked Pei Ming. “About his death?” 

 

“He did,” Jin GuangYao lied, and the System harrumphed and deducted five points. “I’m going. No one else has to.” 

 

“I’ll go,” snapped Pei Ming, as if to preempt any risk that Jin GuangYao might have something to hold over his head and taunt him with. “Just not looking forward to seeing that bastard.”

 

Have you considered how he felt, losing everything he’d worked for? Losing his family? Shi QingXuan said He Xuan’s wife and sister were abducted by a wealthy man who rape them and kept them as slaves! One killed herself and the other was beaten to death for disobedience! The image of HenSheng in Qin Su’s belly still taunted him. But of course Pei Ming wouldn’t think about the lives of a few women. Probably he thought they were lucky to have experienced sex. 

 

Jin GuangYao’s blood boiled. He stomped off with them, preparing to fly towards the water. The wind whipped at his face as they lifted into the air, leaving the ghost city behind.

 

“What are you thinking?” demanded Pei Ming. “I don’t trust that look on your face, Meng Yao. You look like—” 

 

“I have a high opinion of you,” Jin GuangYao said, that pleasant smile sliding across his face, but it was oh-so-thin. 

 

“Excuse—” 

 

“Compared to your peers, that is. Who would’ve thought a man slut was the most moral among heaven’s three tumors?” 

 

Pei Ming’s face flushed as scarlet as his outfit. “Eh? What on earth are you saying?”

 

It was all coming out now, scalding and lashing. “Ditching a ghost woman because she—”

 

Ditching ?” Pie Ming’s eyes almost popped out of their skull. “Listen here, you pathetic mortal. That woman killed dozens of other human brides to satisfy her own happiness. She followed me around for years. She wouldn’t let up. Why do you think that was, huh?”

 

“Because you abandoned her?”

 

“Yeah, well, she has options! She’s a ghost, she doesn’t need to obsess over me! I can’t make up for abandoning her because she’s dead, it’s over, there’s nothing more that can be done about it! But she can move on. She can live. She shouldn't keep dying and trying to make others die to feel like she matters. She should love herself .” Pei Ming looked angry. 

 

“Only the privileged can say that!” Jin GuangYao retorted. “What about those women who were raped and killed themselves from shame after your friend the Water Master switched fates for He Xuan and Shi QingXuan? What about them?” Rain spit at him. Pei Su clung to Ban Yue on his sword. “You don’t give a damn about people who are in the way of your pleasure and your fun, do you? Just you, just you matter, and—you think your life is more important than theirs!”

 

Oh, fuck.

 

The words coming out of his mouth were Nie MingJue’s. Would Da-Ge be pleased or appalled? Would— 

 

Ten points deducted for acting like Nie MingJue in your past life.

 

Jin GuangYao couldn’t tell whether it was okay to grasp that slick satisfaction at having it confirmed Nie MingJue had been in the wrong or whether he should eschew it. 

 

“Can’t I still care about friends who fucked up?” shouted Pei Ming. “Can’t I see how much pain Xuan Ji is in and still not want her to harm me?”

 

Huh? Jin GuangYao couldn’t imagine his father saying something like that. No, the opposite. He would toss someone away if their fuck ups inconvenienced him. “Then why are you running from that ox goddess—the Rain Master?” You’re Jin GaungShan, right? 

 

“Huh?” Pei Ming gaped at him. 

 

“You can’t stand being weak, is that it? Especially not to a girl whose weakness became her strength, hm?” 

 

“You—” Pei Ming lunged at him as they came across a swirling body of water, black like blood. 

 

“Stop!” shouted Pei Su. Ban Yue yelped. Jin GuangYao dodged easily enough, but the proud martial god—he tumbled through the sky.

 

New mission: save Pei Ming. Phase one.

 

A thousand deaths on you, System!

 

He spun on HenSheng, diving down. He managed to snatch Pei Ming right before the man hit the water.

 

And then he found himself submerged in a place he’d never been, a coldness that felt as if each one of his bones had been removed from his body and dipped in ice before being stuck in. His teeth chattered. Pei Ming scrambled to grab his sword. 

 

“Where are we?” whispered Jin GuangYao.

 

“Where do you think, Meng Yao?” Pei Ming glared at him. Pei Su landed, helping Ban Yue get down first. A snake hissed. 

 

“Pretty presumptuous of you to assume you’d be welcome here, Pei Ming,” came a voice from the shadows. 

 

“I didn’t. I’m here helping someone else,” Pei Ming retorted, sword out in front of him. Jin GuangYao wondered which sword he’d choose if forced to choose one. 

 

The System recommends honesty.

 

Fine. “I need to speak to Yin Yu,” said Jin GuangYao, stepping towards the voice. 

 

A black-clad man slid out from the shadows. Thin and pale, hair slung back and a piercing stabbed through his ear, he looked like—like Wei WuXian that night in the Nightless City, the despair wringing his voice as he felt he didn’t deserve any compassion after killing Jin ZiXuan, the rage he directed at Jin GuangShan for murdering Wen Qing and Wen Ning, the hopelessness that cling to his skin even as he laughed and hurled arrows into a youth’s heart. He was someone trying hard to be intimidating, someone drowning in loneliness. 

 

He felt a sharp pinch, reminiscent of the feeling he’d felt when the jade token no longer allowed him into the Cloud Recesses. 

 

When Lan XiChen told him he knew about the Song of Turmoil, he knew, and still—that look in Lan XiChen’s eyes—it had never occurred to him to harm Lan XiChen. He could have sealed his powers and just left him locked up. It was what Su She had recommended.

 

But he brought him with him for a hostage. For a friend. So that when he looked into someone’s eyes, he saw disappointment. So that he had someone to listen when he told him everything he had done, from Qin Su’s identity to the children in the Burial Mounds. 

 

“A-Yao!” The cry that had torn from Lan XiChen’s lips when Jin GuangYao stabbed himself in a fake suicide attempt, the way he rushed to him—the betrayal, the shock when XiChen realized he had been tricked—  

 

“You are?” The demon sounded unamused.

 

Right. He had to focus on the present. Or was this the past? Who even knew. “Meng Yao.” He cleared his throat. “We heard Yin Yu came to you and asked to serve you. I need him. I mean, I need his help with a quest that… I can’t tell you about.” 

 

He Xuan snorted. “You have to be joking?”

 

“Shi QingXuan told me you gave him his fan back; he—”

 

“Don’t bring up that name!” He Xuan yelled. 

 

None of this was working. Jin GuangYao racked his brain. “Fine. I’ll tell you about the quest, a little bit. I can’t say certain things. It’s a quest that started after—after my father threw me down the stairs of his tower. He’s a sect leader, a cultivational sect leader, and he has another son born the same day as me. But his mother is our father’s wife, and my mother is—a prostitute. And he never bought her freedom. He threw me down the stairs. He uses me to do his dirty work. I’ll never be worth the sweat on my brother’s body, not to him. I can’t tell you exactly how, but Yin Yu is—me getting to talk to Yin Yu matters for that, it matters for me being better than my father. He let his wife beat me, he—but my brother, he’s kind to me. I hated him at first, but he’s good to me now. We overthrew my father.” Now he was just rambling. “But if I don’t get to talk to Yin Yu, I can’t go back there. I can’t explain why.” 

 

He Xuan’s mouth hung open.

 

Pei Ming let out a scoff. “So he’s crazy.”

 

“I am not!” 

 

“I believe you,” Ban Yue said softly. Pei Su frowned.

 

“Even if I go back,” said Jin GuangYao. “It won’t be easy. There’s a lot I need to explain to my brother, stuff I don’t want to explain to him.” Like I accidentally got him killed, and you can even pin Jiang YanLi’s death on me too, which to be honest is what GeGe have a harder time forgiving . “But if I don’t get back to him, I don’t even know if there will be a him to explain it to. And I can’t let that happen. So, my cultivation may be weak, and I may be a mortal while you’re a demonic ghost, but if you don’t let me speak to Yin Yu after I saved his life, then I—”

 

“And you think sparing his life means you’re entitled to speak to him?” snapped He Xuan.

 

“Not sparing yours seems to have entitled you to Shi WuDu’s life and Shi QingXuan’s,” replied Jin GuangYao. “Shouldn’t it go both ways?” 

 

He Xuan cocked his head to the side. He did not look happy. 

 

“How has killing Shi WuDu helped you?” demanded Jin GuangYao. “Has it given you back what you deserved? Has it given you any kind of happiness? Has it made you feel understood, or like even more of a doomed creation? Shi WuDu’s switching of your fates was cruel and awful, but your current fate? That’s your own doing. It’s your own fault.” 

 

It was my fault.

 

It was my fault I wound up in the temple, stabbed by the one person I truly loved . It was my fault Nie HuaiSang plotted to kill me just as I plotted against my father.

 

It was my fault Lan XiChen entered seclusion. It was my fault my mother’s coffin was cursed after her corpse was desecrated. 

 

It was my fault, my fault, my fault. He clutched his head, trying not to scream. 

 

It wasn’t all his fault. Yet, it was still partially his decisions that led to those ends. 

 

But I had no idea how else it could have turned out until the System gave me a chance! How was I to know? 

 

It could be different. It could be different for He Xuan. He believed that. If Nie HuaiSang had just wavered, if ShouYue had not stabbed him, if he had just turned to Nie MingJue, if he had confessed earlier, if he had tried to get to know Nie MingJue despite the challenges… 

 

He couldn’t. Because he didn’t want to be condemned. He didn’t want to even risk be told that that was it for him, that there was no next page, that the story had ended. He’d been told that his entire life. And that wasn’t necessarily his fault. 

 

It doesn’t all depend on me.

 

There was so much he couldn’t prevent. The Chang Clan massacre. The cursing of Jin ZiXun, Qin Su’s depression, Wen Ning’s death. 

 

But Xue Yang had confessed, had repented. Xiao XingChen stuck by him, A-Qing too, and Song Lan stuck by Xiao XingChen. 

 

He Xuan gaped at him, looking as if he’d torn his family away from him a second time. His lips trembled. Spittle bubbled. His flashing eyes were rimmed scarlet. Pei Su already stood on his sword, arm around Ban Yue’s waist, reading to soar off. Pei Ming backed away. 

 

“Don’t let this control you,” said Jin GuangYao, voice cracking. “So what? So what, He Xuan? So what? You still have done less sin-wise than me.”

 

Pei Ming snorted. “Oh, really?”

 

“You shut up.” Jin GuangYao met the water demon’s eyes. “So please. I know this sounds nonsensical, but please. Give me a chance, even if you can’t get one yourself. Even if you won’t take it, because you know you have a chance, don’t you? That’s just who Shi QingXuan is. But even if you never want to talk to him again, even if you resent him forever, please don’t make me suffer the same fate. Please don’t make Yin Yu suffer the same fate. It won’t make you any less lonely.” 

 

“You act like I abducted Yin Yu,” snapped He Xuan. “I assure you, I did not.” 

 

“I don’t think you did. But let me talk to him.” 

 

“I heard you loud and clear,” came a voice from behind He Xuan. Jin GuangYao stiffened. Yin Yu hobbled out, arm still wrapped in bandages from where it had been severed at the elbow. “What makes you think I would listen to you? Aren’t you presuming you’re me? I have nothing more to say to Quan YiZhen; that I saved him should say enough!”

 

That should be a thanks. Jin GuangYao recalled how enraged he was when Lan XiChen stabbed him, thinking of all he’d done for him. Had those words been haunting Lan XiChen in his seclusion? His chest constricted. His stomach cramped. “Don’t you have spiritual powers you want to return to him?”

 

Yin Yu hesitated. “What makes you think I don’t think I deserve to keep them?”

 

“Because you never wanted to harm him,” Jin GuangYao said, fighting the urge to strangle this stubborn buffoon. “You only ever wanted to be better than him of your own merit, not merit stolen from him.” 

 

He Xuan’s eyes slid to Yin Yu as if remembering another incident of stealing. 

 

“And so what?” Yin Yu asked softly. “I know I’ll never compare to him. I don’t care about that anymore. I just—I just—” 

 

“Then try to be the decent human being you wanted to be. It’s not like he has any idea how to be one; show him by returning his powers.” 

 

“He’s so stupid he’ll probably turn it down.”

 

“And what does that have to do with you?” choked out Jin GuangYao. You can’t control how you’re seen. You can’t control what people do. 

 

HuaiSang… Da-Ge… Er-Ge… 

 

It hurts. It hurts.  He was terrified at the thought of them remembering what he'd done, of everything he couldn't control. He'd always been so. He couldn't control how he was born, after all. 

 

I'm still glad I went back. 

 

I still love you, Er-Ge, and I don't want you to die, Da-Ge. 

 

Resentment ran, ran, ran out of him, a violent at first that turned into a slow stream, flowing away from him, rinsed by water. 

 

Chapter Text

“Are you seriously going back?” He Xuan asked, folding his arms. His lip poked out, almost as if he was unhappy. Not that that surprised Jin GuangYao; anyone who lived in this kind of environment could not be helping their depression.

 

“I suppose.” Yin Yu still looked as if he’d rather have his teeth pulled out. But he was coming anyways.

 

“You better not come with him,” Pei Ming said, glaring at He Xuan.

 

“Awfully bold considering you’re in my domain,” He Xuan replied. Bony fish swam around them, the edges of their ribs appearing sharper than knives. One of the fish pricked at Pei Ming’s hand. He glared. 

 

Congratulations! chirped the infernal System. You have unlocked your next task: reuniting He Xuan and Shi QingXuan!

 

He killed his brother!

 

That is not an argument you are qualified to make. 

 

Jin GuangYao huffed. 

 

“Stay away from Shi QingXuan,” Pei Ming said.

 

Oh, so it would upset Pei Ming if he were to reunite those two. Well, Jin GuangYao needed no further motivation. 

 

“I helped yesterday at the request of a friend I owed a favor to,” replied He Xuan. “I have no further need to deal with the Wind Master. He has his fan back.” 

 

“He’s not the Wind Master anymore, because of you!”

 

He Xuan’s eyes sparked. His earring swung. “He is more worthy of the title of god than your ilk would ever be.” His gaze shifted to Pei Su, clearly implying a tainted bloodline. 

 

“Excuse—” 

 

“Shut up, Pei Ming,” said Jin GuangYao, enjoying this. “He Xuan, we will leave. Yin Yu—”

 

“I’m coming.” He shuffled towards Jin GuangYao.

 

The look on Lan XiChen’s face when he knew he was about to die, when he needed to have it be Nie MingJue, not Lan XiChen, when he realized he was about to hurt Lan XiChen, when he saw Lan XiChen close his eyes, accept it— 

 

That acceptance was more jolting than if Lan XiChen had screamed and struggled.

 

“I just have one question,” Jin GuangYao continued, tilting his head as he studied He Xuan.

 

“What?”

 

He bit his lip. “Are you more afraid of him accepting you despite it all, or more afraid of him not accepting you?” 

 

He Xuan blinked. His lips parted in shock. 

 

“Huh?” Pei Ming rubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t understand. Why would you think Shi QingXuan would even want to see—” 

 

I killed Da-Ge in a past life.

 

Er-Ge, I still love you. I loved him even though I still did it. I was so afraid. 

 

Er-Ge, Er-Ge, could you forgive me?

 

“You wouldn’t understand,” Jin GuangYao managed.

 

“And you would?” He Xuan scoffed.

 

“Better than you think,” he retorted, grasping Yin Yu by the waist. He Xuan wasn’t ready. Fine. But he didn’t have all the time in the world this time, especially since Shi QingXuan was mortal thanks to He Xuan!

 

His first priority was returning Yin Yu. He’d come back to this water hell if he had to.

 

They landed on Mount TaiCang. Xie Lian was still there, no Hua Cheng nearby. But a small boy sat near Xie Lian. 

 

“Gu Zi,” said Pei Ming. “The one that horrible demon goblin died saving.”

 

Qi Rong, the one who was Xie Lian’s cousin? Jin GuangYao swallowed. From the sound of it, Qi Rong had had a truly awful first few years of childhood with an abusive father. And then he’d taken on his father’s characteristics despite being raised in a palace. Jin GuangYao shivered. He didn’t want to think about Qi Rong. He wasn’t the same. He wasn’t.

 

I let Qi Rong die when I could have saved him. A failed task. 

 

“Yin Yu!” exclaimed Xie Lian, straightening and wiping sweat off his forehead. The child frowned at them. “You came back!” 

 

Yin Yu gave a brief nod. “Still no sign of the Crimson Rain Sought Flower?”

 

Xie Lian shook his head. “He’ll be back. I have faith.” A butterfly floated close to his head, translucent. He beamed at it. 

 

Jin GuangYao flinched as the butterfly swooped closer to him. Wings almost translucent, it landed on his shoulder despite his attempts to avoid it. Its wings opened and closed, lifting up eventually, flying off. 

 

A shout echoed from the nearby woods. Jin GuangYao turned. Xie Lian winced. “Honestly, can’t they get along for more than a moment?” 

 

“Fuck—”

 

“There is a child here!” roared Xie Lian, covering Gu Zi’s ears.

 

“My dad could curse better,” Gu Zi said. 

 

Xie Lian moaned. Jin GuangYao chuckled. The butterfly swooped back into the scene, landing on Gu Zi’s nose. He giggled, going cross-eyed to study it. Ban Yue sent her snakes slithering around, and Gu Zi’s eyes went wide with delight. Pei Su smiled at her. 

 

“You piece of—”

 

Jin GuangYao remembered his other task as Yin Yu hobbled over to the tree stump, glaring at the snakes as if to say they better not come anywhere near him or he would unleash a full assault with his stolen spiritual powers. Jin GuangYao turned and stalked into the woods. From the crunches of downed leaves and snaps of broken branches, Xie Lian and Pei Ming were following.

 

“Fuck—you—” 

 

Jin GuangYao stepped around a tree, a breeze blowing several leaves through the air in a soft dance. He almost laughed at the sight.

 

Feng Xin and Mu Qing had clearly been fighting. Half of Feng Xin’s face was swollen, while Mu Qing’s sword was grasped in his hand. But Mu Qing lay flat on his back, Feng Xin kneeling over him. 

 

“Oh my,” said Xie Lian. Clearly he did have a sense of humor.

 

“Great, now kiss,” Pei Ming directed. 

 

“You—” Feng Xin’s face colored. “How dare you?” 

 

“Get off me!” shouted Mu Qing. “See how fucked up this—” 

 

Pei Ming smirked, folding his arms. “I can see that bulge in your pants, Feng Xin.”

 

Jin GuangYao couldn’t believe this . Is he helping or hurting my mission, System?

 

Helping.

 

He’d rather the opposite answer. 

 

Feng Xin’s face colored, nose twitching as if he was hurt by the implication. He was just as sensitive over his reputation as Mu Qing, wasn’t he? 

 

“Don’t worry, Mu Qing,” Pei Ming drawled, leaning back against the rough bark of a tree. “I doubt you’re missing out, considering Jian Lan and CuoCuo couldn’t leave him fast enough. Must not have been that good.”

 

“There are more things to a relationship than sex!” Jin GuangYao shot back. 

 

Mu Qing’s face was swollen purple. Feng Xin looked as if he wanted to die. 

 

“Look, if you hold yourself up as righteous and make such a mistake, of course people are going to laugh when you fall,” Pei Ming said. Feng Xin hung his head, but he made no move to shift off of Mu Qing. His arms trembled like he didn’t have the strength. 

 

“Like if you hold yourself up as strong and have to get saved by someone better than you in every way?” Jin GuangYao countered. 

 

Pei Ming’s smile vanished. 

 

“Oho,” said Feng Xin, finally kicked off by Mu Qing. “Does our general have a crush?”

 

“Good luck,” said Mu Qing. “You’ll get nowhere with the Rain Master.”

 

Huh?

 

“I do not! She’s a stupid girl!” 

 

Xie Lian coughed. “What were you two fighting about?”

 

Damn, just as things were getting interesting. Jin GuangYao turned back to Mu Qing and Feng Xin. Feng Xin held out his hand as if to help Mu Qing up, but he shoved his hand away. 

 

“Your leg is injured,” Feng Xin said.

 

“And your brain is,” Mu Qing retorted, hauling himself up by clinging to a low-hanging branch. Sure enough, his left leg stuck out at a strange angle. 

 

“It wouldn’t kill you to ask for help. I swear, the only person who sees you as inferior is you!” Feng Xin glared.

 

Mu Qing’s face whitened. “Are you really going to stand there,” he said, arms shaking, face now so white Jin GuangYao couldn’t understand how it had been so maroon moments earlier. “And pretend that you never saw me as beneath you? You accused me of stealing! You were always suspicious of me! You accused me of trying to harm his Highness, when—”

 

“When you just wanted to be f-friends,” Feng Xin mocked. 

 

Mu Qing flinched. 

 

“Have you considered that he maybe wanted to be f-friends with you, too, Feng Xin?” countered Jin GuangYao. Xie Lian folded his arms with a firm nod. 

 

Feng Xin blinked. He snorted. “He doesn’t. For someone who thinks of himself as a servant, he surely has been standing on a godly pedestal since I knew—” 

 

“Shut up!” Despite his leg, Mu Qing looked about to launch himself at Feng Xin. 

 

“It’s not like he’s flawless,” said Jin GuangYao. “Did he ever tell you that he wanted to be friends? Did he ever—”

 

“We—” 

 

“Did you say it?” broke in Jin GuangYao. “Did you? You can’t help someone if you don’t tell them what you’re doing! You’ll only wind up hurting them!” 

 

Da-Ge, I don’t know how to earn your forgiveness. 

 

Now he did. 

 

“I don’t want to be his friend!” Mu Qing shouted. “He hates me! He—” 

 

“And he hates me,” Feng Xin said. 

 

“He’s a blockhead incapable of seeing how someone might think differently than him! He only thinks with his sword and with his other sword, apparently, and—”

 

“I only ever—with Jian Lan—” Feng Xin protested. His voice cracked. Shame mottled his face.

 

Mu Qing stopped, as if realizing he’d gone too far. He swallowed, but he couldn’t force an apology from his lips. 

 

“People can change, Feng Xin,” said Jin GuangYao. “Your Jian Lan doesn’t want to be with you anymore. It doesn’t mean she hates you. It doesn’t have to be either or.” He thought of Qin Su. “Maybe you should allow people room to grow, even if it means growing away from you.” He was willing to bet Feng Xin was someone who prioritized loyalty above all else, who couldn’t understand being left or leaving, even though according to Xie Lian he’d done it, he’d left Xie Lian eventually.

 

Feng Xin’s shoulders hunched. 

 

“Mu Qing was more than willing to sacrifice his reputation to help Xie Lian and Feng Xin while they were on the run,” said Jin GuangYao. “Isn’t that loyalty, just a different color?” 

 

A caterpillar crawled onto Feng Xin’s head. He yelped, plucking it off his scalp and setting it back on the tree bark, gently. 

 

Jin GuangYao was also quite certain that Mu Qing did not hate Feng Xin; rather, he hated what he thought he was in Feng Xin’s eyes. Likewise, Feng Xin did not hate Mu Qing; instead, he hated the idea that his standards might, in fact, not be reachable for everyone, or even for himself. He hated uppity people, he hated irresponsible people, he was like Wei WuXian and trusted so foolishly, so completely, once he trusted. And people had let him down again and again, and he was desperately searching for a way to find a way to fix it, to find a way to right his wrongs. 

 

But you couldn’t always do that. 

 

Jian Lan might never have loved you as you loved her. Or maybe she did, but it changed. 

 

How do you repair trust broken in yourself? 

 

Jin GuangYao didn’t know the answer. Your ambitions are weak compared to how you care for others.

 

“Mu Qing, Feng Xin, I’m tired of this,” Xie Lian said finally. “Please.”

 

“You two have so much more in common than just Xie Lian,” said Jin GuangYao, folding his arms. 

 

“Excuse—”

 

“How—”

 

“I’ve lived a few lives. I can’t give details.” He had learned the hard way. “Stop trying to protect yourselves from really seeing yourselves. Neither of you is more righteous than the other and neither of you is a better friend, and neither of you have any different desires.” You just wanted to be Xie Lian’s friend.

 

Xie Lian cast him an admiring glance. 

 

You failed.

 

So what? 

 

Can you keep going anyways? 

 

Could he? His chest ached.

 

Lan XiChen, in this life, had not seen him at his worst. He would eventually, though. He truly would. And Jin GuangYao didn’t think he could take it. What a hypocrite he was. Some redemption.

 

“To me, the one standing in infinite glory is you, the one fallen from grace is also you. What matters is you, and not the state of you,” recited Xie Lian. “It’s something San Lang said to me once.”

 

If only that kind of love were possible for Jin GuangYao. Lan XiChen had been willing to die with him even knowing how evil Jin GuangYao was, how disgusting—would that still be the case? He couldn't let it happen.

 

I’m so scared.

 

Mu Qing let out a huff and hobbled forward. Feng Xin hesitated, and then offered his shoulder to help. Mu Qing looked as if he wanted to elbow his teeth out, but he accepted.

 

“Not bad,” Pei Ming observed to Jin GuangYao. “Maybe I misjudged you.” 

 

The implication wasn’t subtle. Jin GuangYao swallowed. I’m not risking it with you, playboy. Even if one of his tasks was saving Pei Ming. 

 

When they arrived at the place Xie Lian was staying, Jin GuangYao froze. Ban Yue and Pei Su were still playing with Gu Zi, but to the side was Yin Yu, staring at a person who appeared in the clearing. Quan YiZhen.

 

For once, the martial god wasn’t flinging himself at Yin Yu. His mouth opened and closed, as if struggling with himself, with whether to remember what Xie Lian and Jin GuangYao had said, or whether to throw himself at his shixiong, which he clearly wanted to do. He was practically vibrating from indecision.

 

“I came to return your spiritual powers to you,” Yin Yu said stiffly.

 

“Oh,” Quan YiZhen said, voice very, very small.

 

Yin Yu hesitated. 

 

“Do I need to—do anything?” Quan YiZhen asked awkwardly.

 

Yin Yu’s eyes looked panicked. He gulped.  “I… don’t know how,” he whispered. “I’ll transfer them to you, but—” 

 

“It’s not so simple,” said Xie Lian. “I’m afraid I’ve never seen it done before, either.” 

 

If only Wen Qing were here. Jun Wu was the one who’d switched them and he could surely switch them back. But Jin GuangYao knew he could never ask Jun Wu to do that, not would he bet Jun Wu would help.

 

“Shixiong, Shixiong, don’t worry about it!” cried out Quan YiZhen. “I don’t care, I really don’t care, as long as you’re here.” 

 

Yin Yu blanched, as if realizing that Quan YiZhen’s love for him really wasn’t at all dependent on him being stronger than Yin Yu. 

 

In fact, Quan YiZhen had never once seen Yin Yu as weaker. 

 

Who you wanted to be, you are in his eyes. 

 

“I—you always protected me, anyways,” Quan YiZhen managed. “So it’s fine, really, shixiong. It’s fine.”

 

“Fine?” demanded Yin Yu. “Fine?” He let out a bitter, fragile laugh. “You really are better than me. In every way.”

 

Quan YiZhen looked as if Yin Yu had slapped him. “Shixiong!”

 

“If I was already destined to be no one remarkable, then at the very least, I—wanted to be a kind and perfect person. But… I couldn’t even do that. It’s really so unfair. And truth to be told, even in that moment, thinking that Jun Wu was going to kill me with that cursed shackle, I could only think I’m dying for YiZhen, this little dummy. I still can’t get over it. I wouldn’t have even let go and died with a heart with no resentment and no regrets.” 

 

“What?” cried out Quan YiZhen, anguish strangling his voice. “Shixiong! Yin Yu! You are—amazing! I’d have done whatever you wanted, I’ve always seen you as someone to live up to! I never—do you really think I would think that of you?”  

 

Yin Yu sucked in his breath. “But I—wanted to be a god.” The admission came weak. 

 

Jin GuangYao swallowed. No matter how high Yin Yu wanted to climb, he could not reach the heavens in the way he wanted to. He could not be a god, just like Jin GuangYao could not ever be someone who was not a prostitute’s son, because that was who he was. 

 

Why are some born inferior? 

 

Why is it inferior, to be cultivationally less strong? Why is it inferior at all? 

 

“I don’t care why you gave me the robe,” said Quan YiZhen. “Shixiong, shixiong, don’t you know that I don’t? I won’t give up on you. Even if everyone else does. You stood by me when everyone else said I was annoying, remember?”

 

“You are annoying,” Yin Yu retorted.

 

Quan YiZhen swallowed, lacing his fingers together. “How do I be—less annoying, Yin Yu?”

 

“Don’t ask me,” Yin Yu said. “I hate you.”

 

Quan YiZhen’s eyes pooled.

 

“You do not,” Jin GuangYao said. “Liar.” Takes one to know one. “You hate yourself. If you want to curse something, curse your own weakness.”

 

Yin Yu’s mouth opened and closed again. His eyes gleamed with tears. Quan YiZhen seemed to realize this and gaped. “But, shixiong, you’re good enough as you are. You’re much smarter than I am. You’re—” 

 

Jin GuangYao couldn’t deny that. Pei Ming arched his brows. Mu Qing grimaced, arm still over Feng Xin’s shoulders. 

 

“Don’t insult yourself,” Yin Yu interrupted. “Hm? Don’t do that. Your shixiong tells you.”

 

Quan YiZhen’s eyes lit up. 

 

“It wasn’t kind to let you do whatever you wanted,” Yin Yu managed, voice trembling. “So if you want to learn from me, genuinely, I’m not always going to seem nice to you! I’ll—”

 

Quan YiZhen clapped his hands together as if Yin Yu had offered to praise him forever. H e offered to critique you, idiot.

 

But for Quan YiZhen, that was fine. 

 

It’s you.

 

He just wants you around, Yin Yu.

 

It’s you and not the state of you. 

 

“I don’t know how to return your powers,” said Yin Yu. “But we’ll be on the lookout for a way, and I mean that, Quan YiZhen. I don’t want your powers.” 

 

“Shixiong should get his own,” Quan YiZhen agreed, and Jin GuangYao bit back a smile. 

 

Saving Yin Yu accomplished! 100 B points. 

 

He’d succeeded. And without romance this time.

 

For now.

 

I’m not a matchmaker! Jin GuangYao blew out his breath. 

 

“I liked what you said earlier,” Xie Lian said softly that night, after a meal Mu Qing cooked. Yin Yu had left with Quan YiZhen, and Pei Ming had gone away as well.  “It reminds me. When I defeated Jun Wu, his white armor came off. He was finally—able to be vulnerable. If he wants to be. Mei NianQing is there for him.”

 

Jin GuangYao couldn’t understand how Xie Lian could be so charitable to someone so cruel to him. Yet he owed this whole redemptive chance to Jun Wu.

 

“I almost wish you could meet him,” Xie Lian remarked, and Jin GuangYao’s blood chilled. “I’d think you could offer him some wisdom.” 

 

Jin GuangYao shook his head. He couldn’t. Jun Wu had said to avoid the creature with a white mask. 

 

He wanted to open his mouth, vomit the ugly truth about his backstory, about the things he’d done, to Xie Lian. He felt that if anyone would accept him, Xie Lian would, could maybe even give him advice for Lan XiChen. But Xie Lian rose, ready to sleep. Jin GuangYao was left alone with the System, huddled on a small bed, thinking about his tasks.

 

Shi Qingxuan and He Xuan.

 

Mu Qing and Feng Xin.

 

Pei Ming.

 

How to accomplish this as soon as possible and head back ? He missed Er-Ge. Honestly, after the fight today between Feng Xin and Mu Qing, he might have set himself up for failure there, too. 

 

He replayed the forest fight over and over in his mind. Mu Qing used his background, his style of doing things, to help. Sometimes he made a mess, but other times, it helped.

 

What can I use to help?

 

What was it Yin Yu had said? At the very least, I—wanted to be a kind and perfect person. But… I couldn’t even do that.

 

Maybe Jin GuangYao couldn't be a kind or good person either. But did that mean he could never help people?

 

He had one self-saving wish left and an idea. 

 

You cannot use your wish for that! It is to save you from mortal danger, not to assist you in your redemption!

 

Then I'll put myself in mortal danger to get it.

 

Jin GuangYao was rather impressed the System didn't swear at him.



Chapter Text

Jin GuangYao knew that the heavenly officials looked at him oddly. He was a human, and he had no hope of achieving ascension. No doubt they were wondering why he was still in their world, living with Xie Lian. They certainly didn’t believe he belonged.

 

And he didn’t. But he had a quest. And he was not going to fail any of his other tasks. I need to get home. 

 

“Who is the most trustworthy person here?” he asked Xie Lian. “Besides yourself?”

 

“Mm, probably the Rain Master,” mused Xie Lian. “Pei Ming isn’t bad, too—”

 

Good . Jin GuangYao headed out to have a particular conversation with this goddess. She rode a black ox, carried a sincere smile on her lips, even for Pei Ming, who looked pissed when he saw Jin GuangYao making plans with her. Excellent . She hadn’t remotely considered nefarious intent when he rode the ox with her down Mount TaiCang, but from how Pei Ming’s nostrils flared when YuShi Huang smiled at him with Jin GuangYao behind her, Jin GuangYao could tell he was successful at the first phase of his plan. 

 

Going to yell at me, System?

 

At this point, the System trusts you.

 

Jin GuangYao almost fell off the ox. Why was this System so mercurial?

 

“Are you all right?” YuShi Huang asked in alarm.

 

“Of course.” He plastered a smile on his face. “So, will you help me?” 

 

“It’s a bit devious,” YuShi Huang said hesitantly. A look of sorrow passed her face. “But your intentions are noble, of course.”

“Sometimes you have to sacrifice,” Jin GuangYao said, knowing full well he was manipulating her. But he somehow suspected from the look in her eyes that she at the very least knew that much, and would trust him anyways. 

 

If you want a villain, I’ll be one, but only for good. I’ll wear that mask. 

 

“All right,” she agreed. 

 

He went to the Ghost City next. Jian Lan laughed when she heard his plan. “People don’t gamble much with money here.” 

 

“But you have money,” Jin GuangYao persisted. “Though don't even offer it; you deserve to live comfortably. So, some have it, so some might.”

 

“Some might,” she agreed, CuoCuo in her arms. Her child, a murderer, who never got to live. Of course he resented it.

 

A-Song…   

 

“Please,” he said. 

 

“Why me? I’m not your mom.”

 

“No,” Jin GuangYao admitted, voice catching. “But you are—my—you love your son no matter what he did. And I—hope—I’ll never know, but if my mother could love me like you love your son—” You give me hope.

 

If Lan XiChen couldn’t tolerate him once he knew the truth, maybe he could retreat to this comfort, the idea that his mother still would.

 

And maybe, just maybe, Lan XiChen would still love him.

 

“I’ll contact one of my old clients,” Jian Lan said finally. “Don’t worry. You don’t plan to lose, right?”

 

“I might,” Jin GuangYao said honestly. “But I have a back-up plan for that. I’ll be betting my life, not your chastity.”

 

“Hmph.” Jian Lan smiled. “Watch CuoCuo while I’m gone.”

 

“Okay…” 

 

Babysitting a fetus demon murderer was an experience. In the end, Jin GuangYao played the games he played with A-Song, and the fetus, even though a murderer, laughed with the same light as A-Song and A-Ling. 

 

Jian Lan came back, smiling. And with his life on the line, the System had no choice but to give in, even though its words of trust were replaced by curses and bitterness. 

 

It was two days after Jin GuangYao returned to Mount TaiCang when Pei Ming burst, panting, into Xie Lian’s residence. 

 

“General Pei?” Xie Lian gaped at him. “What on earth—”

 

“Shi QingXuan’s in danger!” Pei Ming shook his head. “It’s got to be the water demon—he’s missing, the peasants said he’s been abducted by a black-clad creature—”

 

Xie Lian’s face turned white. He dropped the wooden spoon he’d been stirring his latest vomit-inducing invention with into the glop. “What? He—he wouldn’t; he even gave his fan back. How could—”

 

“I don’t know; they said he had a fan too!” 

 

“How?” cried out Xie Lian. 

 

“I’m going to go slash that fucking demon to bits,” Pei Ming vowed. “What? Not gonna yell at me, Mighty Meng Yao?”

 

He didn’t appreciate the snark. “No,” he said. “Why? Is this just to prove how strong you are by killing the man who killed your—”

 

“It’s to protect Shi WuDu’s brother!” yelled Pei Ming. Veins stuck out from his throat. He glared. “I don't even like Shi QingXuan and he sure as hell doesn't like me, but WuDu is dead, so who else is there? Are you coming, Xie Lian?”

 

“O-Of course.” Xie LKian hesitated. “Meng Yao—”

 

“He doesn’t get to come,” said Pei Ming. “It’s creepy how he’s still hanging around, and I don’t care how many lives he’s lived. Have you not noticed how when he opens his mouth, more snakes slither through everyone’s mind than is even possible for Ban Yue to produce?” 

 

Xie Lian, at least, would keep Pei Ming from mercilessly slaughtering He Xuan without a word, right? Jin GuangYao decided to ask the System.

 

Chances of Xie Lian preventing bloodshed: 87%. Chances of bloodshed, if it happens, being his own: 94%. 

 

Great. Jin GuangYao gritted his teeth. 

 

“Don’t be rude,” Xie Lian reprimanded him. “I know. But I’m trusting that Meng Yao has his reasons.” He met Jin GuangYao’s eyes. “I see no hatred in him.”

 

Jin GuangYao swallowed. You really are too compassionate.

 

Do I hate? 

 

He didn’t have time to think about that right now. “I can meet up with Feng Xin and Mu Qing. Maybe Quan YiZhen and Yin Yu, if they’re available. We’ll look for Shi QingXuan.”

 

Xie Lian nodded. “I understand.” 

 

Do you? Jin GuangYao wondered if Xie Lian might have a slight idea what he was planning. Either way, he wasted no time in hurrying off to Mu Qing’s residence. 

 

“Fine!” Mu Qing growled. 

 

“Are you really so mad to help look for a former god?” demanded Jin GuangYao.

 

“Of course not!” Mu Qing snapped. “But it’s with you, and you’ll drag Feng Xin into this, and—”

 

“However did you know,” Jin GuangYao replied sarcastically. “How amazingly petty, that you’d risk the life of someone who was always kind, by all accounts, just to stick it to someone you—” 

 

“I never said I wouldn’t help!” Mu Qing glared. 

 

They went to Feng Xin’s palace together. Feng Xin immediately grabbed his bow, slinging arrows over his back as he hurried after them. They flew down Mount TaiCang down to the city. 

 

“It’s most likely Ship-Sinking Black Water took him back to his lair,” Feng Xin said.

 

“It is not,” said Mu Qing. “I understand why that blockhead General Pei thinks so, but he has to know that’s the first place people will look for him. I’d bet he’s in this city.”

 

Good. Jin GuangYao nodded. “I agree.”  

 

Feng Xin sighed, but he didn’t protest. 

 

“Oh,” said Jin GuangYao, deciding that as they descended into the city, now was the time to pounce. “I spoke with Jian Lan in the ghost city, didn’t I tell you? She seemed okay with her life. Even happy.”

 

Feng Xin swallowed. “If she really is happy, then…” He ducked his head, landing on the streets with a clatter. He fumbled to shove his sword back into its hilt. 

 

“What if she isn’t?” asked Jin GuangYao. “What if she just says that because she doesn’t believe you can love someone like her?” 

 

“I can’t force her to see that I care!” Feng Xin roared. “I can’t—I’ve said all that to her, and she insisted it really was that she doesn’t care for me now! And I—” He sucked in his breath. “I believe her. She—what she wants is what she wants, and she doesn’t believe in forever, or at least, not a forever with me.”

 

“I imagine it’d be hard to believe the likes of you wouldn’t hold a grudge forever,” Jin GuangYao pressed.    

 

Mu Qing’s eyes narrowed. 

 

“Please stop,” Feng Xin requested, hand gripping his forehead. “I went and gave her money, okay? I keep giving her—whatever she needs, and CuoCuo too. I know all of this already. But she doesn't want me. What else am I supposed to do? She does not love me. She does not trust me—no, she does trust me, I suppose, but she just—I’m not what she wants.” His voice broke. 

 

A light rain fell down, tapping at Jin GuangYao’s face, casting everything in a dull silver light, the hue of an older blade. 

 

If you trust me, Lan XiChen, is that enough for me?

 

No, no, it was never enough, he knew that. I want your love . He craved it. He wanted to be loved and chosen, forsaking all others, for Lan XiChen.

 

“Then why do you have to bring it up?” Mu Qing demanded. “Don’t we have more important things to do right now?”

 

Are you intervening to defend him ? Jin GuangYao bit his lip. He could make a comment about Mu Qing’s mother, but there was being unkind for a purpose and then there was shoving someone down the stairs at the place they sought acceptance, and he was still afraid of falling over that edge. 

 

“Well,” said Feng Xin, blowing his breath out. “I suppose a brothel would be a good place to hide—or an inn, so we can look for—”

 

Jin GuangYao wanted to vomit. That was not part of the plan. “Or—” 

 

“Good idea,” Mu Qing said quickly. Rain plastered his hair to his forehead, falling faster now. 

 

Forget it. Jin GuangYao had been kicked over the edge. He was stopping that low, shame be damned. “Considering how poor your mother was after your father’s execution, Mu Qing, are you sure she never stooped to—”  

 

“Hey!” bellowed Feng Xin, and the next thing Jin GuangYao knew, he was thrust up against a wall to a building, Feng Xin’s fist driving into his face. “Don’t you dare say that!” 

 

Mu Qing glared at Jin GuangYao with pure disgust in his eyes. “You leave my mother out of this, you vile—”

 

“Mine was a prostitute,” Jin GuangYao choked out. I hate it. I hate what she had to do. I love her. 

 

“Well, that’s your problem, not his!” shouted Feng Xin. “How dare you say something like that?” 

 

“Because I knew it would hurt,” Jin GuangYao said honestly as the System deducted fifty points for unnecessary cruelty. Rain dripped off his cheeks as the pitter patter against the wall echoed, pounding now. His boots were in a forming puddle. 

 

“What do you need to hurt me for?” Mu Qing yelled. “Or Feng Xin? Why are you like this?” 

 

Because I’m hurting . Because I hate that I couldn’t save my mother. Because I hate that I always saw myself as a prostitute’s son, instead of Meng Shi’s son, and might as well have lived in that brothel all the days of my first life. Because I never had the chance to cultivate enough to become a god. Because Jian Lan is satisfied with just her son, the son she couldn’t even birth, the son who murdered countless innocents. Just being able to love him is enough for her. 

 

Mom, would I have been enough for you? If you knew it all?

 

“Because both of you have done the best you can,” Jin GuangYao managed, Feng Xin’s hand squeezing his throat. “You don’t deserve to stew in shame over the things you can’t change—whether it’s where you came from or a mistake you made out of desperation.” 

 

“Huh?” Feng Xin blinked.

 

“The fuck?” demanded Mu Qing. 

 

“Let it go, let it fucking go , if you don’t it will kill you!” 

 

It killed me.

 

It still might. I don’t know how to move forward back in my world knowing my past life. 

 

“You’re gods,” Jin GuangYao said, eyes stinging. “You can still live. I—maybe can’t. Live. Fucking let it go, and live.” 

 

Mu Qing’s expression was unreadable. Feng Xin’s brows were pinched, lips hovering open. 

 

“You don’t hate each other; you hate what you see of yourself in the other,” said Jin GuangYao again. “Did you hate Feng Xin for having a son, Mu Qing? Or was it just a feeling of realizing that he might not be so much better than you after all?”

 

“That wasn’t it at all!” Mu Qing burst out, glaring. 

 

Lightning cracked. Jin GuangYao’s teeth chattered. 

 

Mu Qing was breathing heavily, fury knitting his brows together. “You don’t—it was—realizing that what I knew about him was wrong! A-and everything he thought about me, it was wrong too, and I’d always known that, but he wouldn’t even consider that I might not be some horrible—”

 

“Are you kidding me?” Feng Xin roared. “I thought you were horrible because you were mean!”

 

“Well, I never had the luxury of being kind or straightforward!” Mu Qing’s eyes glittered with tears. “I had to make a reputation from nothing! You were born into one! You have no idea how much I—”  

 

Feng Xin scratched his head, grip loosening around Jin GuangYao’s throat. Raindrops flew off his fingertips, dripped down Jin GuangYao’s chin. “How much you what?”

 

Mu Qing licked his lips. His voice came out hollow. “... envied you.”

 

Thunder rumbled. The rain pelted them. Jin GuangYao wanted to hold his breath, but he couldn’t, he had to gulp in the air to keep his lungs filled. 

 

“Mu Qing,” Feng Xin managed. “I never hated you because of your background. It was always about how rude you were to Xie Lian, even though he liked you anyways.”

 

Mu Qing scowled. “How could that not influence you?”

 

“I don’t know, I don’t know, maybe it did, but it truly was your actions and not your birth!” Feng Xin swore. “My son is—CuoCuo—even his name—he’s still mine, right? And a malevolent spirit who killed countless—and he’s still mine.” Now he was crying, tears and rain together bathing his face. He tried to wipe them both away with his hand, or maybe he was rubbing dirt on it because his hands must have been filthy. 

 

Jin GuangYao’s hands went to his throat. Ew.  

 

The rain kept coming, washing the dirt from Feng Xin’s throat as he spoke. “And I can’t hate him. And I can’t blame Jian Lan for not telling me. I wasn’t very trustworthy like I wanted to be. I’m a—failure.” 

 

Jin GuangYao pried himself off the wall. 

 

“I don’t even know why I was holding them against you,” Feng Xin said. “I—I was just so—I knew I’d lost Jian Lan, though I didn’t know how, I’d lost even my loyalty to His Highness, and I—I don’t have the right to hold your meanness against you anymore, I know that, but I still—” 

 

“You did not fail,” Mu Qing said. More lightning flashed. 

 

Feng Xin blinked. “I don’t believe you’re a bad person.” 

 

Jin GuangYao bit back a smile. 

 

“You really… don’t think I’m a bad person?” Mu Qing asked.         

 

Feng Xin shook his head.

 

“I know you’re not a snob,” Mu Qing whispered. “Seeing how you try to care for Jian Lan and CuoCuo despite knowing that she doesn’t love you and won’t ever again—that’s brave. And I—was wrong in assuming you only cared about your pride.” His face was bright red.

 

Feng Xin swallowed. “Is it too late?” His voice came small.

 

“No,” Jin GuangYao interjected. 

 

Both of them glared at him. “Fuck you,” said Mu Qing. 

 

“It sounds like you’ve never fucked anyone, so no thanks,” Jin GuangYao retorted. Feng Xin, take the hint, you blockhead. 

 

Mu Qing raised his fist. Jin GuangYao ducked. 

 

“Hey!” yelled a voice. He turned. Mu Qing paused his assault. 

 

Pei Ming, Xie Lian, and He Xuan stood there, the latter glaring at the sky as if he hated it, which since he was a water demon, was just stupid. 

 

“You!” roared Feng Xin, drawing an arrow and pulling it back in his bow. He glared.

 

“Calm down,” He Xuan said flatly. 

 

“He didn’t kidnap Shi QingXuan,” Xie Lian interjected. “We searched the entire place, and he accommodated us. He came here to help.”

 

“Help?” demanded Mu Qing. “Help? Like when you pretended to be his friend only to destroy him? We don’t want your help!”

 

He Xuan scowled. “Sometimes, with the likes of you, I’m glad I could never be a heavenly official.”

 

“Fuck off!” Feng Xin let an arrow fly, narrowly missing He Xuan’s ear. A warning shot. Jin GuangYao bit back a smile. So Feng Xin was not happy about He Xuan insulting Mu Qing. 

 

“If even I’m convinced,” Pei Ming said. “And I’m not, but I think it’s worth—this way he can’t hurt—”

 

“Have you forgotten—” 

 

“I’m going to slit him until he tells us where—” 

 

“None of you went looking for him the first time he disappeared, so who are you to judge me?” He Xuan retorted. His golden earring swung, water flying off of it. 

 

“You killed—”

 

“Bastard—”

 

“Hey—” eked out Xie Lian. 

 

A gust of wind. Jin GuangYao yelped, hair flying so fast it slapped his face and stung. He stumbled a few paces back. Feng Xin lost an arrow. Mu Qing had tumbled to the ground. Pei Ming yanked his sword out. Xie Lian beamed as he looked upwards. 

 

“Why are you all attacking each other?” shouted Shi QingXuan. “Didn’t you all just survive a civil war, huh? I—” The Wind Master’s fan was clutched tightly in his hand, and he sat behind YuShi Huang on her ox.

 

“The fuck?” bellowed Feng Xin. 

 

“I’m confused,” stated Pei Ming, sword trembling. 

 

“Oh look, he admitted it,” Mu Qing mocked, getting to his feet. 

 

Xie Lian’s mouth hung open. His eyes turned towards Jin GuangYao.

 

If all I know how to do is manipulate people, then I’ll manipulate them for a good reason. 

 

I have to get back to Lan Huan. 

 

“He doesn’t look abducted to me,” He Xuan spat. 

 

“Abducted?” cried out Shi QingXuan. “I—what?”

 

YuShi Huang helped him off her ox. Pei Ming’s gaze focused on her every move as she gracefully dismounted. The rain made her robe clung to her form. “I asked the Lord Wind Master to help me with some things today. Even as a mortal, he’s quite good at talking.”

 

And you’re not. 

 

“The beggars you were with said you were abducted!” shouted Feng Xin. “We all thought—”

 

“Huh? What? Why would they say such a thing?” yelped Shi QingXuan. His arm still hung crooked. He Xuan’s gaze focused on it for a moment, and then jerked away.

 

“Because I paid them to,” Jin GuangYao cut in. “They’ll have money to eat for months.”

 

“You stole—”

 

“I did not. I won it in the Ghost City.” With Jian Lan’s help. As expected, he bet his life and to use his last self-saving wish to save his life and thereby get the money. The System had yelled at him the entire time. Jin GuangYao ignored it. 

 

“You!” Mu Qing glared. 

 

“They deliberately made it sound like you abducted him!” Pei Ming fumed, turning to He Xuan.

 

“I’m so sorry, General Pei!” Shi QingXuan said. “Feng Xin, Mu Qing, Your Highness—I’ll make it up to all of you, I—” He bowed to each one of them. “And—I’m sorry to have disturbed you.” He bowed to He Xuan.

 

He Xuan looked as if he would like to strip Jin GuangYao of his skin and turn him into a bony human fish. He huffed. “Not your fault.”

 

YuShi Huang stood back, her face simple and observant. She had known, and she at least wasn’t angry at him. If one of the gods tried to kill him, Jin GuangYao had faith she would hurl him onto her ox and take him away. But then Pei Ming probably would find and kill him no matter how long it took nor how far he had to search.  

 

“He Xuan-xiong,” said Shi QingXuan. “Thanks for giving my fan back; I—”

 

“You have your fan back and you can’t even set your arm properly?” interrupted He Xuan. “It won’t heal correctly like that.”

 

“Oh, I don’t really care.”

 

He Xuan looked as if he was about to explode. “You’re an idiot.”

 

“Yes, so?” Shi QingXuan blinked up at him. 

 

“Which of you is the bigger idiot?” Jin GuangYao cut in. “Considering your actions, He Xuan? Well, did they make you happier? How do you feel about losing everything not just once, but twice now, because you chose revenge?” Because you chose, like Song Lan did the first time, to avoid a painful conversation? Because you chose, like Xue Yang, never to tell the truth? Because you chose, like me, never to let anyone see you because the time someone did, they suffered for you? 

 

Mother, Mother, I miss you. 

 

“Don’t be rude,” reproached Shi QingXuan. “I—”

 

“Rude? I killed your brother!” screamed He Xuan. “In front of you! I tricked you! I—” 

 

Shi QingXuan blinked up at him. And then his lip trembled. “Yes, I know.”

 

“I made you want to die,“ He Xuan snarled. “You asked me to kill you, and you were always so full of life. I did that to you. I—”

 

He sounded the opposite of prideful. He sounded as if the words were a braided discipline whip, barbs ready to tear flesh, and each was directed to lash himself.

 

“You told me I could do things,” Shi QingXuan said, examining his fan. “Even though I—”

 

“It was not your fault,” He Xuan interrupted. “And I took it out on—don’t you hate me? You have to! Go on, say it! Say it! Aren’t you afraid of me? Aren’t I your worst nightmare, the creature haunting you in your dreams, tormenting you with the image of your brother’s head dripping blood in my hands, his arms gushing, the way he laughed and laughed until I tore him apart?” 

 

Mu Qing glanced at Feng Xin, the two of them both shrinking.

 

You hate yourself.

 

“Sometimes I’ve hated you,” said Shi QingXuan. “Sometimes, I haven’t. And I am afraid of you, a lot.” He took a step forward. He Xuan jerked as if he planned to step back, maintain their distance, but he didn’t. “Thank you for coming to help me. I’m sorry it was a ruse.” 

 

He Xuan struggled to speak. “You’re a beggar. How can you be happy? You were a god!” 

 

Shi QingXuan swallowed. “It’s hard sometimes, when I’m really hungry, or the time I got lice, and when people look at you like your scum. But Crimson Rain Sought Flower once said to me that what matters is not the state of you, but you yourself. So I think of myself like that. Isn’t that okay?”

 

“Why are you asking me?” He Xuan managed. 

 

What if you don’t like yourself? Jin GuangYao wanted to ask.

 

Shi QingXuan tugged at his hair. “Do you have nightmares about your fiancee and your sister? Your parents?” 

 

He Xuan had nothing to say. 

 

“Eh, well, I could talk more about it, but you’re busy, aren’t you?”

 

He Xuan blew out his breath. “No.” 

 

“Oh?” Shi QingXuan blinked. 

 

“That someone cursed from birth could have such an outlook—I don’t understand,” He Xuan managed. “I really don’t.” He looked lost. “It’s too late.” 

 

“To change your fate?” demanded Shi QingXuan. His eyes glimmered. “No, it isn’t, He Xuan-xiong! It’s like—my brother always said. Your fate is up to you!” 

 

He Xuan shook his head. He didn’t seem to have words. 

 

“There is one thing I want to know. That I’ve wanted to ask you.” 

 

He Xuan huffed, turning his head to the side. The rain fell harder. 

 

“Was it all faked?” Shi QingXuan asked, voice trembling. “Did you always despise me, or—”

 

His voice came low. “I never despised you. Not since I got to know you. I—” He Xuan sucked in his breath, meeting Shi QingXuan’s eyes. 

 

Shi QingXuan nodded, swallowing. He held his head in his hands for a moment. “H-He Xuan-xiong, I—can we talk? Get a drink and talk? If you have money. I don’t, so—”

 

“Not alone!” shouted Feng Xin. “Mu Qing, come on. We’ll keep watch.” 

 

“Fine, fine,” said Shi QingXuan. He Xuan made no move, still looking as if he’d died a second time, but Shi QingXuan finally reached out, tugging his robe with a grimy hand. The rain rinsed it. 

 

The four of them walked away. The rain lightened a little. 

 

“How is he real?” asked Jin GuangYao, amazed at Shi QingXuan. Was it too much to hope that Lan XiChen would respond to him like that when he knew? 

 

Xie Lian studied him. Jin GuangYao immediately felt abashed. Most probably such a righteous god would not approve of his actions. He bowed his head. “I—” 

 

“You don’t need to explain, Meng Yao,” said Xie Lian softly. 

 

“I’m tired of waiting,” Jin GuangYao said. “To go back. To him.”

 

Xie Lian closed his eyes. “Me, too.” 

 

“Have a good evening,” YuShi Huang said softly. She hoisted herself back onto her ox, preparing to ride off.

 

“I’ll never be good enough for her,” said Pei Ming, face pale as he watched her trot down the street, the ox’s hooves clopping in puddles. 

 

His words shivered their way down Jin GuangYao’s spine.

 

Oh.

 

Oh. 

 

Pei Ming truly wasn’t Jin GuangShan. You’re Jin ZiXuan. 

 

Arrogant in every way, less restrained too, sluttier, but when it comes down to it, you know you’re inferior in some ways, you know you’re deficient, and you want to be better. 

 

She’s always been shaming you for your arrogance just by her kindness. And it’s her kindness that draws you in. 

 

He’d been so wrong. Shit! Another failure?

 

No. He refused. Jin GuangYao clapped Pei Ming on the shoulder. Pei Ming’s brows flew up. “Yes?” 

 

“You don’t have to be good enough,” Jin GuangYao said, hoping. “You just have to be wanted.” 

 

Pei Ming frowned. 

 

“Lord Rain Master!” Jin GuangYao hollered. 

 

“What are you—” squeaked Pei Ming.

 

She turned, pausing the ox. The rain slowed to a drizzle. 

 

“Pei Ming has a crush on you,” Jin GuangYao announced sweetly. Xie Lian smiled. 

 

Pei Ming looked as if he had his face pushed into boiling water. He now had two options: deny it and lose her forever but save face, or lose face and quite possibly still lose her. 

 

What do you value?

 

YuShi Huang’s face dissolved into shock. She blinked. “I—what?”  

 

Xie Lian chuckled. 

 

But the words couldn’t be his anymore. He took a step back. Pei Ming looked desperate. “I—” 

 

“It’s really not something to joke about,” YuShi Huang said. “Don’t be embarrassed, General Pei, I’m not taking it seriously; I know it’s a joke.” Was she truly being sincere? Did she really think no one could possibly like her? Because no one ever had? Or was she trying to help Pei Ming save face? 

 

Are you a general or a coward, Pei Ming? 

 

Silence except for the soft wind. YuShi Huang gripped the reins of her ox again, preparing to turn and leave. 

 

“I—it—it  wasn’t a joke!” Pei Ming burst out. “Lord Rain Master!” He charged towards the ox. “I do!” 

 

YuShi Huang stared down at him, completely befuddled. The soft rain was now a mist, saturating the city. 

 

“Let’s go,” Xie Lian said, tugging at Jin GuangYao’s robes. They flew back to Mount TaiCang in silence. Jin GuangYao’s teeth chattered.

 

When they landed, Xie Lian stumbled. Jin GuangYao froze.

 

A man in red stood by Xie Lian’s residence, silver-clad arms clasped behind his back. 

 

Chapter Text

Jin GuangYao hung back. 

 

Xie Lian flew into Hua Cheng’s arms. The red-clad demon pressed his lips against Xie Lian’s, not caring that Xie Lian was soaked to the bone from the rain. 

 

What looked like thousands of silver flower petals burst through the air. Jin GuangYao realized they were butterflies when one landed on his nose, slowly opening and closing its wings. He didn’t jerk away this time. His hand reached out, slow, to stroke the velvety wings.

 

He’d let them have their privacy. If only he hadn’t completely bashed every single relationship he had in this place with the exception of with YuShi Huang, but she was presumably otherwise preoccupied. 

 

He heaved a sigh, heading into the damp forest. 

 

The System would like to remind you that there are consequences for being cruel even if it was for a good cause.

 

Fuck off. He couldn’t deal with gloating now. So much for trusting me. 

 

He wanted those arms around him again, wanted to feel his mouth melding with Lan XiChen’s. An incestuous prostitute’s son still wanted to be loved in every possible way to be loved.

 

“So you’re the one who’s being a dick to absolutely everyone?” interrupted a voice.

 

He turned. A youth stood there, arms folded and a deep scowl to rival Jin Ling’s fiercest frowns embedded in his face. 

 

“Lang QianQiu,” he said. “The martial god of the east.” 

 

Jin GuangYao didn’t know what to say to him. System?

 

His intentions are kind.

 

“If you need a place to stay for the night, you can stay at my palace,” said Lang QianQiu, annoyed. “Since I saw Crimson Rain Sought Flower is back and probably wants to ruin all of Xie Lian’s cultivation tonight.” 

 

Jin GuangYao almost choked. Still, he got up and followed Lang QianQiu through the forest. “Is Xie Lian a friend of yours?”

 

“Bah!” Lang QianQiu scowled. “I’ve only recently decided not to hate him.”

 

“Why?” Jin GuangYao was curious. Was it related to the human face plague Xie Lian had admitted to almost bringing back?

 

As it turned out, yes, it was. Lang QianQiu had believed Xie Lian killed his family and brought ruin on his kingdom of Yong An. But Xie Lian wasn’t exactly responsible—that was more on Qi Rong and another deceased relative of Xie Lian’s—but he wasn’t exactly innocent either.

 

“It’s still strange,” Lang QianQiu said, brewing tea for them. The warm scent of cinnamon and nutmeg filled the air. Jin GuangYao sat on the ground, clothes drying as he sat with his back towards a crackling fire. “I hated him for so long, and I don’t know what to do now that it’s gone.”   

 

“They’re still dead,” Jin GuangYao said. “And it hurts.” He wondered. Even if some forgave him, once they found out, wouldn’t others not forgive him? Which relationships that he treasured would he lose? 

 

I don’t want to lose any of them. 

 

“I guess it’s for the best, though,” Lang QianQiu said, settled down and passing Jin GuangYao a cup of tea. “If I didn’t know the truth, then…” He sighed. 

 

“But the truth didn’t make you feel any better,” Jin GuangYao pointed out. 

 

Lang QianQiu shrugged. “That’s just how it is, I guess.”

 

But what if you couldn’t accept it? Jin GuangYao didn’t know what to say. 

 

“He’d have the right to dislike me, but he doesn’t,” said Lang QianQiu. “But I can’t help how I feel.”

 

And Xie Lian was able to live anyways. Jin GuangYao wished he was less greedy. He wanted everyone to love him. He wanted a thousand times the love that he’d experienced in his life. He wanted everyone’s approval. He wanted their adoration. He wanted to feel safe, cocooned inside their love. 

 

He fell into a restless sleep. When he woke, he meandered around until early afternoon, when he went to Xie Lian’s. 

 

“I’m glad you’re back!” Xie Lian exclaimed. “I was worried!”

 

“Lang QianQiu let me stay,” Jin GuangYao explained. He turned to the eyepatched man. “Hua Cheng, I presume?” 

 

The demon lord smiled. “I heard about you.”

 

Well, hopefully you didn’t spend too much time talking about me last night. Though, judging from the purple bruise on Xie Lian’s neck, he doubted it.  

 

“GeGe also tells me you’ve been up to all kinds of shenanigans,” said Hua Cheng. “Especially of late, and involving a certain He Xuan.” He sat down, gesturing for Jin GuangYao to join them. Xie Lian leaned back against him. “Do tell.”

 

Jin GuangYao somehow felt this demon wouldn’t judge him. He explained about his attempts to get Mu Qing and Feng Xin to talk, to get He Xuan and Shi Qing Xuan to talk, and to save Pei Ming. 

 

Hua Cheng guffawed, slapping the table. “Nicely done. I wish I could’ve seen Pei Ming’s face when you outed him like that.”

 

“I only know dirty tricks,” Jin GuangYao confessed, face warm. “It’s the only way I’ve ever—been able to get what I want.”  

 

“Hmph.” Hua Cheng ran his fingers through Xie Lian’s hair. “I know what you mean, though. I was very much a hated child. The color of my eye, and—”

 

“This eye,” Xie Lian cut in, holding up a scimitar that winked at Jin GuangYao. He yelped. “Go on, pat it.” 

 

Huh? But Jin GuangYao reached out, stroking the blade. He didn’t think the eye was ugly at all. It was red, and it sparkled. The blade shivered under his touch.

 

“He actually likes you,” commented Hua Cheng. “Impressive. But anyways, I was born on a cursed day. The priest told me that I would only bring misfortune on those around me, and GeGe—”

 

“You do not bring misfortune,” interrupted Xie Lian. 

 

“Not anymore, because I died.”

 

“No, because you lived ,” Xie Lian insisted, gripping Hua Cheng’s chin. “You chose a better fate. If you hadn’t lived, I would never have met you. I wouldn’t necessarily—I wouldn’t repeat all the same mistakes if I could go back, but I’m glad I can’t go back. I’m glad, because I have you.” 

 

I am going back. Jin GuangYao’s heart seized.  

 

Last time, Lan XiChen had stuck by him until Jin GuangYao pushed him away. He’d been pushing him away the entire time, and in the end— 

 

It didn’t save you. It imprisoned you.

 

If I set you free, will you still stay by my side? 

 

He had last time, when Jin GuangYao was a far worse person. 

 

I have to—hope. I have to. He thought about how the System had deposited him after his wedding, how he had A-Song as a result. Was he fated to live? Was the Chang Clan fated to die?

 

No, and no, came the System’s answer. Some things are beyond your control. You still need to learn that. 

 

Wonderful. He did not feel excited. He felt scared. “I have… someone. Waiting for me, too.”

 

“Oh?” Hua Cheng arched a brow. 

 

Jin GuangYao hung his head. “I was sent here because I—hurt him terribly at one point, and I—he doesn’t know. And I’m afraid to tell him. And I’m afraid to tell him that I love him. I don’t have stone to carve into a grand statues. I don’t have the talent to paint. I don’t know how to convince him I sincerely—love him.” 

 

But there were paintings, correct? Of the four seasons in his study, painted by Lan XiChen for him. A lump grew in Jin GuangYao’s throat. You’re always creating .  

 

“San Lang’s paintings and statues are not what made me love him,” Xie Lian said. “It’s him. Not what he produces, not what he can do for me—though San Lang has done an awful lot—it’s just him. If he loves you, you won’t have to earn it.” 

 

“You can’t have a relationship built only on statues and fantasy,” Hua Cheng said. “If I never knew all he did, if he didn’t know all I did, then—” He swallowed. 

 

“Our relationship is better for it,” Xie Lian said, squeezing Hua Cheng’s knee. “Learning that he was with me through it all…” 

 

“What is this quest of yours?” Hua Cheng asked, frowning. 

 

“I can’t exactly say.”

 

Your task was to redeem Jun Wu.

 

What? Jin GuangYao wanted to throw his head back and scream at this bundle of a contradictory mess of a System. He said to avoid him! 

 

He said to avoid him while he wore a mask. A scene from his early days here played through Jin GuangYao’s memory. 

 

Xie Lian said it: Jun Wu no longer wore his mask. 

 

“I need to find Jun Wu, actually,” he whispered. 

 

Hua Cheng cringed. “Please don’t.”

 

“I have to.” He got to his feet, heart pounding. “Right now. I just realized it.” And then I can leave?

 

And then you can return.

 

“I—have no idea where he is,” Xie Lian said.  

 

“He might kill him on sight,” Hua Cheng objected. 

 

“No, I don’t think so,” Jin GuangYao said. “But I have to. Or else—I’ll never get back to Lan XiChen.”

 

“Lan XiChen,” Xie Lian repeated. “Your beloved?”

 

He nodded.

 

“The best place to look,” said Hua Cheng. “Is probably the remains of Mount TongLu.” 

 


 

 

Jin GuangYao did not like the volcano. The land was smoldering, coated in deep ash that the wind whipped up. He coughed, the ash irritating his throat. It reminded him of the Burial Mounds, except the Burial Mounds had been a far more welcoming place thanks to Wei WuXian and A-Yuan.

 

Do I really miss that infernal YiLing Patriarch?

 

He held HenSheng out in front of him, boots sinking in ash. An entire kingdom died here, Jun Wu’s kingdom when he was prince. And then he turned into a demon because of the gods’ apathy and refusal to help, because of his hatred for the world, his hatred of the people he had tried to save, his hatred for himself, his hatred for the three friends he pushed into the mountain for letting him down, his hatred for the one friend he still had, Mei NianQing, the priest who had accompanied Jun Wu to Jin GuangYao’s resurrection. The priest who had abandoned him, let him down, and finally stood by Jun Wu’s side in the moment of his defeat.

 

Jin GuangYao used his sleeves to help him breathe. He cringed, soot already coating his skin. Even his footsteps were silent. A place burdened with so much history death should be loud, right? But he could hear nothing. Not even the wind. 

 

“Who are you?” interrupted a voice.

 

He whirled. From behind what looked like a crumpled pillar stepped a man he recognized.

 

The priest.

 

“Mei NianQing!” he blurted out.

 

The man frowned. “Do I know you?”

 

“Probably not,” he ventured. The timeline here wouldn’t have aligned either, would it have? So they wouldn’t remember him. “I’m—looking for Jun Wu.”  

 

“Why?” Mei NianQing’s voice dripped in suspicion.

 

“I’m right here.” The voice came from behind Jin GuangYao. He spun, almost tripping. HenSheng trembled in his hand.

 

A man clad in ash-stained white robes looked at him, eyes empty, face squirming with other faces. Jin GuangYao remembered how he recoiled at the hideous sight in the temple. This time, he could only imagine A-Song, A-Su, Da-Ge’s faces on his. 

 

They had been gone, but they had forever scarred him. No, he scarred himself with them. 

 

Still, according to Xie Lian, the human face plague had actually afflicted the innocent, those who had never killed, with the dead screaming for empathy, screaming for the world to become killers, to be afflicted by the dead.

 

Aren’t there so many better ways to remember? 

 

“Well?” asked Jun Wu. “What do you want? And I’d warn you, boy. I wouldn’t lie.” 

 

Jin GuangYao wracked his brain. 

 

Congratulations! You have unlocked the ability to be honest about the System with its creator, Jun Wu!

 

To be honest? Then: “I’m… supposed to redeem you.”

 

“What?” Mei NianQing’s voice came out. 

 

Jin GuangYao’s teeth chattered. “I don’t know how.” Won’t it take hundreds if not thousands of years?

 

I can’t be away from Lan XiChen that long. He didn’t think he could stand it. He wanted to throw HenSheng and this infernal System down, scream. “You resurrected me.”

 

“Are you insane?” 

 

“No,” Jin GuangYao said. “Not insane. Not more insane, and not any better, than you.” He plunged HenSheng back into his waistband, clutched his knees. “You saved me. You saved a lot of people by offering me a chance to travel back in time.”

 

“He’s insane,” Jun Wu stated, not amused.

 

“I’m not!” Jin GuangYao jabbed his finger at him. “You—priest, you said— you told me we exist in one world among many. You told me to help redeem a man in another world, Shen Jiu, who had transmitigated into my world. You told me to redeem myself, and then to come here, and then I would return to my world to live until the timelines intersected. You told me—you told me the reason you chose me, a scum villain, an incestuous son of a whore, was because you know what I felt, and I knew what you felt!” 

 

Jun Wu gaped at him. His nose wrinkled in disgust.

 

“You told me I could save the man I love,” Jin GuangYao managed, still doubled over. “Who secluded himself in misery after I died, the one man who never judged me, whom I never thought of hurting, who was willing to die with me, but I pushed him—away—”  

 

“I see,” Jun Wu said.

 

“You believe him?” demanded Mei NianQing.

 

“No, but he's amusing, and I’ve seen odder things,” replied Jun Wu. 

 

Jin GuangYao wanted to stomp his feet. You said you understood.

 

“All right,” said Jun Wu. “Tell me more.”

 

What else could he do? He explained the stories of the three worlds, about his old life, about his new life. He seemed to know things that Jun Wu and Mei NianQing were perturbed by, so he supposed that was convincing them.

 

Congratulations! The timelines in your mission of redeeming Jun Wu have now been integrated! 

 

Huh? Jin GuangYao clutched his skull. 

 

Jun Wu stumbled back, rubbing his own skull. Mei NianQing blinked. “What on...”

 

“You saved Yin Yu?” Jun Wu rasped. “I killed—no, wait, there was another, I know there was, that was you?” He frowned. “It’s like… I have two sets of memories just now.”

 

“What happened?” Jin GuangYao managed. “I—I mean—that didn’t happen in the last world, the past—” It worked. I really changed things. “ That’s what you said would happen: the two sets of memories. I don’t know why you sent me back before—so I couldn’t stop you from more things, but I also couldn’t clean up many of my mistakes, and Shen Jiu too—” 

 

“I remember now,” Jun Wu groused. He cussed, kicking a rock. Mei NianQing scowled. “Good grief.”

 

So what now? “You—you said I could go back and live out until the timeline intersected in my world—” 

 

“Yes,” Jun Wu said. “I did.” He sighed. “The reason this didn’t happen in the first world we sent you to is because you didn’t change a past so much as set things right in the present, or future, whichever. Your world is the only one I sent you to in the distant past. This one—”

 

“Why not?” he asked. “You gave me the task of redeeming you—didn’t you want me to stop the human face plague, or—” Are you still glad you unleashed it? 

 

Jun Wu scowled. “I didn’t send you back eight hundred years because I didn’t think it fair for you to have to live eight hundred years in a single night in your old world. You would miss the one you love too much.” 

 

Jin GuangYao’s eyes stung. “How did you know about that? Can you see different futures, or—”

 

“We had a guest in our other timeline,” said Jun Wu, wind flapping his hair. Ash spread around them. Jin GuangYao covered his mouth. “He told us—many things. And suggested this plan.”

 

Shen Jiu? He transmitigated into my world, didn’t he? But how would he have decided on Jin GuangYao? Why pin his hopes on Jin GuangYao? And why was Shen Jiu so reluctant if it had all been his idea? But who else could it have been?

 

“Would you want to go back again?” asked Jun Wu. “Or would you want me to prevent everyone else’s memories of two lives from coming back, once the timelines intersect in your home world?”

 

“You can do that?” hissed Mei NianQing.

 

“I can.” Jun Wu folded his arms. A small smile crossed his face. 

 

You’re really—offering me the chance to conceal it all forever? Then I can have Lan XiChen with me, forever, and never be disgusting to A-Su or Wei WuXian or Da-Ge or—

 

“You’re scared,” said Jun Wu. 

 

Jin GuangYao nodded. He met Jun Wu’s eyes. “So are you, right?” 

 

How do you redeem yourself? You can’t save everyone. You can’t take it all back, and I got more of a chance than most. 

 

How lonely it is. 

 

He spotted a bamboo hat resting on misshapen rock.

 

One person is enough. 

 

Even if everyone hated him, Lan XiChen was enough. 

 

Hadn’t Mother been enough, wouldn’t she have been, if he chose to believe her? 

 

You are good, A-Yao. You will do great things. You are my joy.

 

I did a great thing to you by being born. His eyes stung. Despite what it cost. 

 

“No,” he said. “No, I don’t want you to keep their memories from them.” 

 

Jun Wu looked surprised. Mei NianQing nodded.

 

“Well, then,” said Jun Wu. A strange look, a raw look, both pained and hopeful, like a sunrise after a night of bloodshed, rose in his eyes. “Congratulations. You have accomplished your task.” 

 

“What?” Jin GuangYao’s mouth fell open. Ash flew up, striking him in the face. He coughed. “The System was— you?” Are you so goddamn mercurial?

 

“I don’t think I need to interfere in your head for the next—decade, or so. I hope you find the man you love.” He reached out his hand. “Since I apparently am the ‘System,’ I suppose I can send you back.”

 

“And give Quan YiZhen his powers back,” Jin GuangYao interjected. 

 

“Yes, I’ll do that.” He sighed. “Would you like to see your accomplishment of your tasks? Saving Pei Ming, reconciling Mu Qing and Feng Xin, He Xuan and Shi QingXuan, saving Yin Yu?” 

 

Jin GuangYao blinked. “That’s possible?”

 

“Mm.” Jun Wu gave him a small smile. “Best of luck in your world, Meng Yao.” 

 

His hand landed atop Jin GuangYao’s skull. The second his fingers made contact with Jin GuangYao’s skin, he found himself spinning, almost as if he was in a dream. And yet, he was quite certain, based on the ache he still felt in his ribs, that this was reality he was seeing, maybe a future, maybe present, he could not tell.

 

I would like to confirm this is reality. 

 

“Shixiong! Shixiong!” Quan YiZhen shook Yin Yu, who lay on a bed fast asleep. Yin Yu rolled over, giving Quan YiZhen a look of utmost disappointment.

 

“Guess what?” Quan YiZhen held out his hands. “My powers are back!” 

 

Yin Yu blinked. “Then why do I—I feel—”

 

“He gave you back yours, too, somehow, or maybe his,” Quan YiZhen said. He clapped his hands together. “I’m so glad!” 

 

Yin Yu examined his hands. “You can go back to the Upper Court now, YiZhen.”

 

“Do you want to come?” asked Quan YiZhen. “I already said. I’d prefer to stay on earth or go to a ghost city if you—”

 

“Don’t be an idiot, you little dummy.”

 

“Shixiong!” Quan YiZhen wailed. Yin Yu snorted, almost smiling. 

 

Someone is as excited about you as you always wanted. But maybe it’s not what you wanted.

 

You just wanted to feel like you are enough, Jin GuangYao knew. And to Quan YiZhen, Yin Yu was. 

 

Quan YiZhen suddenly swooped in, clasping his hand against the back of Yin Yu’s neck. He pressed Yin Yu’s face down towards his lips. 

 

Jin GuangYao’s eyes goggled. But then Quan YiZhen pulled away. “Ah! I did it again! I didn’t ask you what you wanted! I’m sorry, shixiong!” 

 

And he turned to run away, leaving a stunned Yin Yu. From the way his fingers traveled towards his lips, Jin GuangYao assumed that Quan YiZhen must have been speaking in abstract terms regarding “again,” because Yin Yu looked absolutely befuddled at the kiss. 

 

“Wait!” Yin Yu yelled suddenly, kicking off the blankets and scrambling up. “Quan YiZhen! Settle down, you’ll alert everyone—get back here! We need to talk!”  

 

Jin GuangYao was laughing, but they couldn’t hear him. The world spun again, and Jin GuangYao fell back, back, until he was inside another palace, and the sound of familiar bickering echoed from behind him. He turned. 

 

“Why? Because he was wrong?” demanded Feng Xin. 

 

“He wasn’t,” huffed Mu Qing. “He was playing us. You still don’t get how mental warfare goes, do you?”

 

Oh, you’re discussing me.

 

“Why did you get so upset when he taunted you about being a virgin? At least you’ve never impregnated someone.” Feng Xin bit into an apple. 

 

“I wasn’t upset!” Jin GuangYao could hear the flush in Mu Qing’s voice. “I have no interest in—my cultivation—” 

 

“It’s actually fun,” Feng Xin said softly, staring at the red and white fruit. “I—don’t really regret it. Even if the consequences—”

 

“I do not need to know this!” 

 

“With Hua Cheng back, I doubt Xie Lian will be one for long. If he even still is.” Feng Xin set down the apple. 

 

Mu Qing fell silent. Jin GuangYao held his breath.

 

“Fine,” Mu Qing said, voice odd, slanted somehow. “I do wonder. I always have. But no one would like me that much.” 

 

Feng Xin got to his feet. His hand landed on Mu Qing’s shoulder. “Are you really so stupid?”

 

“So what?”’ Mu Qing fired back, glaring.

 

And then Feng Xin pushed him back against the wall, mouth pressing Mu Qing’s open, a hand lacing through his as he pushed it over Mu Qing’s head, and Mu Qing wasn’t struggling. Jin GuangYao bit back a grin. 

 

It faded, and blue night appeared. He saw Shi QingXuan, his arm carefully wrapped in a sling, sitting on a swing under a tree. He Xuan sat at the foot of the tree, legs stuck out under where Shi QingXuan swung.

 

“Could you ever really trust me with that?” He Xuan asked. 

 

“Why not?” ShiQingXuan asked, leaning his head against the rope tethering the swing. “Oh, I mean, it’ll take time, so I suppose I can’t say for sure, but I do think so. I really do.” He frowned. “Oh, are you upset because I can’t turn into a woman anymore? Would you wish that I could, to—”

 

“That’s not it.” He Xuan rolled his eyes, twisting a small flower between his fingers. “I mean that I… killed your brother. Mercilessly. I already know other people are thinking that I would seduce you to further my revenge.” He hung his head. 

 

“But that’s not true, He Xuan-xiong, is it?” Shi QingXuan asked.

 

He Xuan lifted his face. He shook his head. “It’s not true. If I ever—make love to you, it’ll be because you want me to. Because I want to.” He drew in his breath. “And about being stuck in a man’s body now: I don’t care. Whatever you see yourself as, whatever your body looks like, it’s you.” 

 

Shi QingXuan studied him, nodding. And he reached out, taking He Xuan’s hand, putting it on his thigh.

 

And then he was in a small hut in the middle of an agricultural field, seeing a rain-soaked Rain Master laughing, the sound as melodious as Meng Shi’s had been in Jin GuangYao’s memories. Pei Ming watched her like she was an enchanting fairy. 

 

“Aren’t you ever going to kiss me?” she asked, twisting her sodden hair. 

 

Pei Ming’s eyes almost bugged out of their sockets. “I—I mean—”

 

“What?” asked YuShi Huang, sitting on a divan, face completely innocent. “I’ve never kissed anyone, much less than been with someone. I’ve been curious. Besides, your reputation—”

 

“Yes,” Pei Ming cut in, his lips twisting. “My reputation.” He lowered his chin. “I’m not proud of it. Xuan Ji was—not undeserved.” 

 

“Mn.” 

 

“I don’t want you to think that I’m only interested in you for sex,” Pei Ming burst out, ears red like Lan XiChen’s got when he was embarassed. Jin GuangYao smiled to himself.  “Usually that is why I have pursued beautiful women in the past. It isn’t why I’m pursuing you, though.” 

 

“You think I’m beautiful?” YuShi Huang asked, surprised. 

 

Pei Ming stopped. “I—er. Obviously.” 

 

She frowned, as if the thought had never occurred to her. “Well, if you ever did want to kiss me, you could teach me what it’s like.”

 

Pei Ming looked as if he was ascending a second time. He set down next to her, reaching for her damp hands. And his were the ones trembling. His hand traveled up her arm, towards her neck. He pushed her hair aside, tilting her chin forward to chastely press his lips against hers. 

 

He pulled back. She gave a small smile.

 

And then he leaned back in, covering her mouth with his, pressing deeper, and she opened her mouth for him. 

 

The world went in and out, the figures fading. Jin GuangYao cringed. He felt dizzy. He— 

 

Was lying next to someone warm. He felt exhausted, as if he hadn’t slept at all, which really he supposed he hadn’t. He turned. 

 

White robes were next to him, a forehead ribbon streaming through strands of silken black, brushing against Jin GuangYao’s cheek.

Chapter Text

I’m back.

 

Jin GuangYao’s fingers rose to his lips. They were still swollen. Moonlight poured through the small window, drenching Lan XiChen in light. But the light outside was already increasing, eclipsing the moon’s silver.

 

He’d turned down Jun Wu’s offer. He had no way to back out now, even if there were years ahead. And they knew. They knew he loved Lan XiChen, and he had just kissed him. 

 

What on earth would he say?

 

What matters is you, and not the state of you. 

 

He got to his feet. He wasn’t going back to sleep, and lying there watching the gentle rise and fall of Lan XiChen’s chest was putting him in an awkward position with no option for relief. He stumbled outside, the cool air greeting his face with a caress. He stepped into the gardens.

 

System?

 

Nothing. 

 

Somehow, Jin GuangYao felt lonely without it. He could hear crickets chirping, frogs peeping. He sat amid the flowers; most weren’t in bloom at this time of year, but a few lingered, waiting despite the cold. Jin GuangYao’s fingers reached out, stroking one of them, feeling the softness of the petals.

 

“LianFang-Zun!”

 

He turned. Wei WuXian sauntered through the garden, carrying a jar of wine. But his gait didn’t have the stagger he had when he lived at the Burial Mounds. “WangJi drank after I asked him to. Now WangJi is passed out.” He plopped down across from Jin GuangYao. “Lovely wedding.”

 

Jin GuangYao managed a smile.

 

Wei WuXian took a sip. Judging from the marks on his arms and neck, he and WangJi had gotten it on despite WangJi having a drink. He offered the wine to Jin GuangYao. He accepted, taking a sip of the liquid. It was surprisingly sweet. He wondered what kind of wine this was. “Bet your old man never would have thrown such a celebration for the marriage of a third bastard son to another man.”

 

“No,” Jin GuangYao said, chuckling as he took another sip. “No, he wouldn’t have.”

 

“I’m glad. Mo XuanYu is very sweet. And he seems to love Nie HuaiSang despite his inability to know anything.”

 

Jin GuangYao coughed, passing the wine back after a third sip. “On the contrary, I think it’s all a lazy act.”

 

“Oh?” Wei WuXian arched an eyebrow. “Care to explain?”

 

He shouldn’t have said that. He was free. Jin GuangYao tilted his face back, trying to bathe it in moonlight. “Not really. He’s just—smarter than he seems.”

 

“I don’t doubt that,” Wei WuXian said, gulping the wine. “So. I saw you coming from ZeWu-Jun’s room.”

 

Jin GuangYao stiffened. Was this revenge for him blurting out not just Lan WangJi’s secret affections, but Wei WuXian’s golden core secret? “We were practicing our instruments.”

 

“I’m sure you were practicing,” Wei WuXian said, studying him. A wicked grin started to slowly spread across his cheeks. “Learning how to strum the best notes, hm? Place your finger right over a certain hole on Leibing, putting that long flute in your mouth, stroking the guqin—”

 

“Stop!” Jin GuangYao’s face steamed with embarrassment. “We didn’t—go that far.”

 

Wei WuXian cackled, striking his thighs. “I knew it!” 

 

“Don’t tell HanGuang-Jun,” pleaded Jin GuangYao. “Or anyone. I don’t want Er-Ge’s reputation—” 

 

“His reputation is pristine, LianFang-Zun, and I don’t think loving you would have any particular impact on it.” 

 

If I’d accepted Jun Wu’s deal, it wouldn’t have. Now it will eventually.

 

Why didn’t I?

 

I… don’t want to lie to him. 

 

He folded his hands, studying the way his knuckles twitched as he clenched them around each other. 

 

“Unless there’s something you’re keeping not just from him, but from everyone,” Wei WuXian said.

 

Jin GuangYao jerked. His heart pounded. How was it—it was still a decade away! How could Wei WuXian possibly— 

 

“From someone who is happily married to a Lan,” said Wei WuXian, watching him carefully. “Whatever it is, he won’t hate you for it, LianFang-Zun. In fact, he won’t even demand you tell him right away. He trusts that you’ll tell him when you’re ready.” A sorrowful look crossed his eyes. “He loves you. WangJi and I have spoken of it. We can see it. ShiJie sees it, too.” 

 

Jin GuangYao closed his eyes. It’s far worse than you’d think. Instead, he turned back to his usual defensive wound, a sword he stabbed into his abdomen, knowing how to avoid vital organs. “I’m the son of a prostitute. I married my sister.” 

 

“He knew the first from the beginning, and the second for years now,” said Wei WuXian. “I don’t think that’s what you’re keeping from him, either.”

 

Shit. Jin GuangYao cringed. “I—can’t bear to hurt him. I’m afraid I will. I’m afraid of myself. I don’t think I’m a good person, and it’s all I want to be . In all my life, I’ve never—I could never even imagine hurting him.” He tried to process those words. All those people, people who couldn’t have known in the past life—they knew? They saw it? Was he humiliating Lan XiChen already? Or was Lan XiChen too innocent to realize what people were saying?  

 

“Well, you have and you will,” Wei WuXian said bluntly. He passed the wine back to Jin GuangYao, who stared at the clay jar cold in his palm. “I know I have hurt HanGuang-Jun. And honestly, he hurt me too at times, yet—we love each other. And we mend those wounds when we can, and we still—if anything, knowing how wrong I was about him makes me love him more; can you believe that? He said he’s loved me from the moment he met me. Or rather, later that night when he couldn’t get me out of his head. And he punished himself for it. But—we’re married now.” He swallowed. “When everyone feared and flattered me, he rebuked me to my face. When everyone hated and despised me, he stood by my side.” 

 

“ZeWu-Jun isn’t great at rebuking,” Jin GuangYao said.

 

“ChiFeng-Zun does that,” agreed Wei WuXian.

 

Jin GuangYao snorted. His fingers tapped at the jar, not raising it to his lips. 

 

He would stand by my side. He was the only one listening in the GuanYin temple

 

“Honestly, you’re better at speaking up,” said Wei Wuxian. “But that’s good. You and ZeWu-Jun, you balance each other out. He needs to look at things as they are, and you need to look at things a bit more hopefully.”

 

The words embedded themselves into his ears. Jin GuangYao laughed. “You’ve thought about this a lot, Wei WuXian.”

 

He wiggled his eyebrows. “Well, it’s not fair for the younger brother to be married and happy before the elder. Also maybe then Lan QiRen would lose every excuse for not marrying SiSi, and we could harass him together at Gusu Lan Sect banquets.” He winked.

 

Jin GuangYao huffed. “If he doesn’t propose to her unless forced to, he doesn’t deserve her.”

 

“Fair. Also Lan WangJi asked me to talk to you.” Wei WuXian leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. 

 

Lan… WangJi wants me to love his brother? His eyes stung. “Thank you, Young Master Wei.”

 

It’s just me holding myself back.

 

I’m still afraid to trust.

 

Wei WuXian took the jar of wine back. He gave a small bow as he got to his feet. “Farewell, good night, good morning, LianFang-Zun.” 

 

The first swirls of lavender blossoms peeked out from behind deep indigo clouds. The moon still gleamed, and a few scattered planets and stars sparkled. Golden wisps of glistening sunlight wrangled their way along the edge of the lilac.

 

Soon it would be five in the morning, if it wasn’t already. Time for the Lans to wake.

 

Jin GuangYao hastened towards Lan XiChen’s room. He pushed the door open, heart pounding. Pressure rose inside his head.

 

I’m scared.

 

But if I had to trust someone, I think it would be you.

 

He stepped inside, shutting the door softly behind him. Lan XiChen was, indeed, awake. It must be after five, then. But he was still sitting on the bed. “Forgot your hat?” He held it out to him.

 

Jin GuangYao swallowed. “I—mn.” But he made no move to reach for it. 

 

“Is everything all right? Were there any late-night ruckuses Sect Leader Jin needed you to put out, or—” 

 

“I left because I needed to think,” Jin GuangYao blurted out. “And then I was interrupted, so I did very little thinking.” No, that wasn’t quite true. He’d thought out loud, with Wei WuXian. And through the—months he’d really spent with Xie Lian. He wrung his hands, clutching his robes in his fists. “Er-Ge—ZeWu-Jun, Lan XiChen, Lan Huan, about last night, I—I—”

 

“You had too much to drink,” Lan XiChen said. “It’s okay, A-Yao—you don't have to—”

 

Jin GuangYao wanted to stomp his foot. The light dripping from the window was a soft peony pink now. “I didn’t drink a single drop at the wedding, Er-Ge. I only had a sip of wine after you fell asleep when Wei WuXian approached me.”

 

Lan XiChen started.

 

Jin GuangYao wanted to grasp his hands, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to touch him, not yet, not until he knew. Because even despite what Wei WuXian said—Lan XiChen was the Gusu Lan Sect leader, he’d need children, he— 

 

Quit stalling! barked the System.

 

You were gone!

 

I will return when I want to. Now, goodbye.

 

“I love you,” he managed. He wasn’t able to say much more; his throat tightened, squeezing away any words. He studied his black boots. 

 

“A-Yao…” 

 

The voice came a whisper, a gentle knife, cutting through the pressure, allowing him to breathe. Jin GuangYao snapped his head up, meeting his eyes. “I love you. I love you like your brother loves Wei WuXian, like Da-Ge loves Wen Qing, like A-Su loves A-Ning, Song Lan Xiao XingChen, like Nie HuaiSang loves Mo XuanYu. I love you. I love you so much I wanted to kiss you last night, not to teach you, but because I—wanted to, and I was afraid to say it. I’d sleep with you, if you wanted. I’d—”  

 

Lan XiChen’s mouth was agape. His eyes bulged. 

 

“I love you,” Jin GuangYao managed again. “If it isn’t what you want—if that isn’t the kind of love you have for me, that’s okay. What matters is you, and not the state of you, not that state of what you—”

 

Lan XiChen grabbed his wrist. Jin GuangYao stopped talking.

 

“I know,” Lan XiChen said. “I know, A-Yao.” 

 

And he got to his feet, and his fingers hovered over Jin GuangYao’s face, as if afraid to brush against his cheeks lest he disappear like a mirage. 

 

He pressed his lips down, shutting his eyes. And Jin GuangYao met them, the warm, soft lips he’d spent almost a year in a night dreaming about kissing again. Lan XiChen was gentle at first, and then he pressed deeper, prying Jin GuangYao’s mouth open with his own, hands sliding all over his back and head and neck and arms, backside and legs, as if he was still trying to convince himself this was real, that Jin GuangYao wouldn’t vanish into thin air like a dream.

 

He pulled back, panting. “You’re crying.”

 

Jin GuangYao blinked. He was? 

 

“I’ve loved you since—since I met you, but I only—realized what it was when WangJi married Wei WuXian,” said Lan XiChen, clutching Jin GuangYao’s shoulders. “And then you were dealing with so much, and I was afraid to—give you another burden. You’d married a woman, and so I—”

 

“You can like both,” Jin GuangYao said. “Wei WuXian does.”

 

“I love you,” Lan XiChen said again, closing his eyes. And then he opened them, repeating himself—”I love you”—thumbs stroking from A-Yao’s temples down to his jawline, tracing until they met at the center of his chin, and then stroking up, towards his lips.

 

Jin GuangYao bit the tip of Lan XiChen’s finger. Not hard. 

 

“You don’t realize how strong and brave you are,” Lan XiChen whispered. “How quick thinking. How intelligent, how capable of goodness, how admirable you are. You’ve—become the sort of man Da-Ge and I both look up to. Really, A-Yao, we only look down to you physically now.” He tapped the top of Jin GuangYao’s head. 

 

Jin GuangYao laughed. “I know. You’re—so trusting, so kind, so accepting—” He struggled to put it into words. He wasn’t ready to say it, not just yet, and he didn’t want to ruin things. “But you are good . So good, and—you’re scared in some ways, but you keep choosing the good over your fear, most times anyways, and I—”

 

Lan XiChen chuckled. “I should have guessed you can see all of me.” 

 

You are afraid.

 

Of yourself. Of things you don’t understand. 

 

I’m not afraid of you. 

 

“I love you for it,” Jin GuangYao said sincerely. 

 

Lan XiChen kissed him again. Slower, deeper. He clutched Jin GuangYao tight against him.

 

Heat already warmed his belly, sinking from his navel. “Um, Er-Ge,” Jin GuangYao managed as he came up for air. “If you don’t stop soon, I won’t be able to.” 

 

Lan XiChen swallowed. His ears tinged pink again. “Why should we?” 

 

You… mean it? “You want to… sleep with me?” Even knowing where my body comes from, where it’s been?

 

“Yes,” said Lan XiChen, pinching Jin GuangYao’s thick hair. “If you want to.” 

 

“We’re not married,” Jin GuangYao pointed out, though he didn’t care. Yet if Lan XiChen did… 

 

Lan XiChen leaned in. Apparently he did not care either.

 

He tugged at the edges of his forehead ribbon. “You—met me at my weakest, when I had nothing, when I was on the run and when you stood to gain a lot from the current system if you turned me in. You lied and adopted a dishonorable guise to protect me. You saved me, and you helped me when you realized just how terrible I was with everyday things like washing clothes—I—I could always be at peace, with you, so—even if I am terrible, then, if I’m with you—”   

 

You don’t see me as unclean. 

 

You don’t see me as needing to prove myself competent. 

 

You never have. You love me. 

 

Jin GuangYao reached out, stroking his jawline. “I’ll show you what to do.” 

 

Jin GuangYao stepped back. He turned, rummaging through the small cabinets in the room to withdraw a small vial of oil. 

 

“That was already here?” Lan XiChen asked, baffled.

 

“It’s for other purposes, but it should work,” Jin GuangYao said, placing it in Lan XiChen’s hand.

 

“What if I hurt you?” 

 

“Then we’ll try again later.” Jin GuangYao sounded confident, but his heart was pounding. What if— 

 

System, you better not be watching. 

 

Nothing. Good. He drew Lan XiChen’s mouth down towards his. He could feel Lan XiChen hardening, his breathing coming faster and faster. He tugged at Jin GuangYao’s robes, tossing them to the floor, scrambling out of his own boots. 

 

Soon Jin GuangYao was only in his undershirt, sitting back on the bed. Lan XiChen pulled off his robes, only in his trousers now. Jin GuangYao admired the taut muscles lining his abdomen, the firmness of his chest. 

 

Lan XiChen leaned forward, hands on Jin GuangYao’s closed knees. He reached past them, lifting the undershirt off of Jin GuangYao. He kissed Jin GuangYao’s neck, right over his throbbing pulse, his voice box, the hollow in his throat. He used his hands to guide Jin GuangYao down until he was lying flat on his back. His hands returned to his knees, and Jin GuangYao allowed Lan XiChen to push his legs open. Lan XiChen settled between them. He kissed his navel, kissed all the way down the thin line of hair running lower. 

 

This is really happening.

 

Lan XiChen removed his trousers. Jin GuangYao decided to tease him. That was something Qin Su had done, teasing him, making sex fun, filled with laughter instead of the sadism of many of the brothel’s clientele. “Impressive.”

 

Lan XiChen’s face colored despite it all, and Jin GuangYao had to laugh. 

 

His fingers fumbled to open the oil. He slid his palms up Jin GuangYao’s thighs. “If I hurt you, let me know.”

 

Jin GuangYao nodded. 

 

At first he felt pressure, stretching, and winced. Lan XiChen immediately stopped, but that wasn’t what Jin GuangYao wanted at all. He shifted. “Okay. Keep going.”

 

Lan XiChen moved, and Jin GuangYao gasped. He tried to get used to the sensation. It wasn’t unpleasant, but he had to breathe through it to get used to it. Lan XiChen was already panting, trying to restrain himself.

 

There was no need. Jin GuangYao moved his hips. “Like this.”

 

Lan XiChen nodded, pulling his hair back from his neck, leaning down to kiss Jin GuangYao. He arched his back. Scarlet and gold light, soft white and sweet blue fell over Lan XiChen’s face, and they were all beautiful. Jin GuangYao cupped his chin, sweat dribbling down from one of his temples. He wrapped his legs around Lan XiChen, pulling him closer. 

 

I don’t want to let you go.

 

Not ever.

 

Lan XiChen groaned, and Jin GuangYao thought how the sound was more musical than such a sound should be, how it enveloped him, soothed him, and then he felt a hand clasp him, pulling him along, reminding him of the first time he flew on a sword alongside Lan XiChen, felt his hands on his hips, how he was scared enough not to look down at the world rushing by beneath their feet, but trusted Lan XiChen enough to keep him upright.

 

He came undone, trembling and panting, Lan XiChen kissing his neck. 

 

Thank you, he thought.

 

I love you.

 

I’m sorry.

 

Right now he didn’t want to think more on the latter. He was—he felt— 

 

Lan XiChen slid out of him, rolling to the side closest to the door. He lay on his back, both of them panting, but his hand latched onto Jin GuangYao’s, fingers threading through his.

 

We had sex, and we’re not even married. Jin GuangYao remembered the last time he had sex before marriage. It led to a marriage. But also to A-Song, and he would not regret his son. A-Su had been right.

 

Don’t you dare say A-Song shouldn’t exist!

 

I’m glad he does. He was—grateful. He thought of Shen QingQiu, Luo BingHe, Xie Lian, Hua Cheng, Shen Jiu and Yue QingYuan, Shi QingXuan and He Xuan, Wei WuXian, Lan WangJi. 

 

I’m glad. 

 

Thank you, Jun Wu .

 

No response, so the System must be closed for the time being. Thankfully. Still, he hoped the god knew it anyways. Even if in another world this couldn’t be, at least it was real in this world, and he could feel Lan XiChen’s sweat still sticking to his skin, still feel his pleasure receding and a contentment steaming in its place.

 

I’m... happy.

 

Had he ever felt this before? In any life?

 

He didn’t think so. He felt—he felt almost light himself, as if he wasn’t a vacant nothingness that sucked all light in. He felt as if he could shine, and it wasn’t from prestige or cultivation.

 

You love me.  

 

“I should talk to your brother and cousin,” Lan XiChen remarked as their breaths returned to them. “And my uncle.”

 

“Oh?” Jin GuangYao shifted onto his side, facing him. 

 

Lan XiChen’s finger poked into the dimple on his cheek. “I want to marry you.” He spoke the words with simple abandon.

 

You—do? “Even though you’re a sect leader and since we’re both—we couldn’t have children?” Jin GuangYao ventured.

 

“You already have a son,” pointed out Lan XiChen. “Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi are raising SiZhui. It’s not as if we are without options. Besides, perhaps Song ZiChen and Xiao XingChen are right: sects can be based on more than bloodline. Sect leaders, too.”

 

Jin GuangYao let out a small laugh. He pressed his palm to Lan XiChen’s bare chest. “Er-Ge… I’m really happy.” 

 

Lan XiChen caught his breath. “Me, too.” 

 

“Your brother will be happy, too,” Jin GuangYao said. “Er-Ge, they—” He detailed what had happened with Wei WuXian. 

 

Lan XiChen laughed. “I guess I’m not as good at hiding things as I thought.”

 

“Leave hiding things for me,” Jin GuangYao teased. 

 

“Oh.” Lan XiChen reached up, grasping his forehead ribbon. He pulled it off and held it out to Jin GuangYao. “It’s yours now. Yours as much as mine.” 

 

The forehead ribbon is sacred. Only yourself and significant others can touch it.

 

Jin GuangYao wove the silk strand through his fingers, and then took Lan XiChen’s fingers, lacing it through his as well. 

 

“So,” Lan XiChen said, a mischievous smile spreading his lips. “How was I, for a virgin?”

 

Jin GuangYao chortled. “Not bad. But we can try some other things, too. Like different positions, and such. And mouths, and hands—really there are a lot of options. But—” He flushed. “I liked having you inside me.” 

 

Lan XiChen’s eyes widened. He stroked Jin GuangYao’s hair with his free hand. 

 

But more than that, Jin GuangYao wanted to assure Lan XiChen. “It wouldn’t matter to me if it wasn’t good. It was, but—it just matters that it was you.” You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to be good. I just want to make love to you. 

 

Lan XiChen swallowed. 

 

You don’t have to please your father. You don’t have to atone for him or for your uncle. You don’t have to redeem your mother. 

 

You just have to live. 

 

The door creaked. “XiChen, your uncle is throwing a hissy fit that you aren’t awake yet; he says there is a lot to take care of back in Gusu. The baby’s making Wen Qing sick and I’ve been up all night, I—” 

 

Nie MingJue’s face froze. Lan XiChen had yanked up the blanket to cover their waists and below, but the forehead ribbon still bound their hands together, and both of them were bare-chested and sweaty. There was no hiding it. Jin GuangYao’s heart skipped a beat. 

 

“Xichen— A-Yao?” he sputtered.

 

Chapter Text

Jin GuangYao yelped, head dropping back towards the mattress. Lan XiChen sat bolt upright. “Da-Ge—”

 

Nie MingJue turned to stalk out.

 

“W-wait!” Lan XiChen called. “Da-Ge, please. Wait outside. We’ll be right out.”

 

Nie MingJue gave a huff that might have been agreement or might have been the start of a qi deviation. Jin GuangYao couldn’t tell. 

 

He tugged the forehead ribbon free and staggered up from the bed, hurriedly dressing himself. Lan XiChen’s hand squeezed his shoulder as if to assure him.Jin GuangYao grasped his hat, scurrying after Lan XiChen as they exited the room. 

 

Nie MingJue stood with his back towards them. His arms were folded. Morning sunlight spilled, weaker during this time of year and yet still warm enough for Jin GuangYao to feel it prick the back of his neck. 

 

“Da-Ge?” asked Lan XiChen.

 

Nie MingJue turned, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “Was—that—”

 

“It was exactly what it looked like,” Lan XiChen admitted. Jin GuangYao swallowed. Nie MingJue searched Lan XiChen’s eyes, and then Jin GuangYao’s. Jin GuangYao half-expected Nie MingJue to dig out his own eyes. 

 

“Da-Ge,” Jin GuangYao managed. “I—”

 

“I plan to marry him,” Lan XiChen said, straightening his back. “I was going to tell you today—it’s all very new to me, too, to both of us.” He adjusted his crooked forehead ribbon. “That was the first—” 

 

“I do not need to know whether that was your first or fortieth time,” Nie MingJue interrupted, hands held up. 

 

“Well, I’m going to marry him,” said Lan XiChen. “I love him.”

 

“And you?” Nie MingJue turned to Jin GuangYao.

 

“He’s the one who confessed to me,” Lan XiChen said.

 

Great, now Nie MingJue would surely think the son of a prostitute seduced Lan XiChen. So much for Da-Ge saying he was proud of him. Jin GuangYao hunched his shoulders. “I love him. I’ve always loved him. It’s not new. The feelings, I mean.”

 

“Well,” said Nie MingJue slowly. “Congratulations.”

 

“Hm?” Jin GuangYao blinked. 

 

“A-Yao?” Lan XiChen frowned.

 

“What’s that about?’ Nie MingJue demanded. “Why are you looking at me like you expect me to slice your head clean off?”

 

What? How? “B-because,” Jin GuangYao eked out. “We’re not married, not yet, and—you’re often suspicious of me, and—”

 

“When have I been suspicious of you?” Nie MingJue’s mouth hung open. “Not in—not since your father was deposed! Why do you always have to assume I’m thinking the worst of you?” 

 

Jin GuangYao almost had a qi deviation of his own. He stumbled. Lan XiChen caught his arm. You truly— 

 

He wracked his brain, trying to think. Surely Nie MingJue had been short of temper since then—but he hadn’t directly tried to blame Jin GuangYao for anything since then, had he? In fact… “Oh,” he whispered. 

 

“I don’t think less of you,” Nie MingJue said. “What do I have to do to earn your forgiveness, now? When will you trust me again?” 

 

You… want my trust? 

 

Da-Ge actually looked… hurt. His brow was creased, his nostrils flaring. 

 

I’ve been such a fool. 

 

Like everyone in that first world feared Shen Jiu, I judged you based on what I knew about the past life and not on what you said and did in this one. You married Wen Qing, for heaven’s sake! You adore her! In the previous life, you never would have done that!

 

“Da-Ge,” he managed, eyes filling. “I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry. I—” Have been what I hated.  

 

“Did you tell him that you forgave him in so many words, Da-Ge?” Lan XiChen asked pointedly.

 

“He’s usually the one who doesn’t need words to see the truth.” 

 

How ironic. It was as if they’d switched places. 

 

“I forgave you long ago,” Nie MingJue said, focusing on Jin GuangYao. “A-Yao.” 

 

“And I forgave you. Well, not a long time ago. Just now, I suppose.” He closed his eyes. Will you be angry at this? I’m still scared. 

 

“Well, I am your da-ge.” Nie MingJue didn’t seem angry. 

 

He wiped at his eyes. “Thank you.” He cleared his throat. “There’s, um, there’s a tonic I used to brew for the women in the—well, where I grew up. And I made it for A-Li and A-Su when they were pregnant; it would probably help Wen Qing as well.” 

 

Nie MingJue nodded. 

 

Jin GuangYao hesitated, the hat still clutched in his hands. Something tickled his finger. He looked down. A moth, or a butterfly, out of season yet somehow there. He smiled. 

 

The insect flew off, and he tossed the hat to the ground, throwing his arms around Nie MingJue. Da-Ge let out an “oof” in surprise. Lan XiChen was laughing, and Jin GuangYao felt Nie MingJue’s arms closing around him, and then Lan XiChen’s arms around both of them, embracing like they were schoolchildren.

 

“The two of you should marry soon, though,” Nie MingJue said when they finally pried themselves apart. He squinted against the sunlight. “So all my little brothers will be married. And your uncle might finally decide someone in the Lan Sect ought to procreate.” 

 

Lan XiChen’s face turned pink. Jin GuangYao had never seem Nie MingJue joke as such. Wen Qing really was good for him.

 

You’ll be a good father, Da-Ge.

 

“I will speak to Sect Leader Jin and Jin ZiXun,” said Lan XiChen. “A-Yao—”

 

“I will speak to A-Su and A-Ning first,” Jin GuangYao interrupted. “It’s the least I can do.”

 

He nodded. Nie MingJue looked impressed. 

 

“You said WangJi already knows…”

 

“Yes, well, someone ought to inform him that we're going to make it official,” said Jin GuangYao, sighing. “And likely let Young Master Wei know that he can collect whatever he won in a bet on us, which we all know he must have made.” 

 

Lan XiChen moaned. Jin GuangYao vowed to reuse the Song of Turmoil if Wei WuXian ever repeated the innuendos he had used the night before. 

 

He scurried through the Jinlintai until he arrived back at his chambers. He slipped inside.

 

“Daddy!” A-Song screeched, racing towards him, chubby arms up in the air. Jin GuangYao crouched, picking him up in the air, tossing and catching him. A-Song giggled. Jin GuangYao might be short, but to A-Song, he was tall. 

 

“A-Yao,” called A-Su, appearing. He could hear sizzles and snaps, could smell something savory and delicious. Wen Ning must be making breakfast. “Have fun last night? Were you with your brothers?” 

 

“I—yes,” Jin GuangYao said, feeling his face burn bright red. A-Song giggled, tugging at his hat strings. Jin GuangYao shifted, removing his hat and placing it on A-Song’s head. It sank over the toddler’s head, who chortled. He set A-Song down, and the boy wandered off with his new toy. 

 

A-Su studied him, clearly realizing that he was in the same clothes as he had worn to the wedding. 

 

“Can I speak to you?” Jin GuangYao asked softly. 

 

She tilted her head, gesturing for him to follow her into the kitchen. Wen Ning smiled at him. Wen Ning, being how he was, didn’t need to eat, but he seemed to enjoy cooking for A-Su and A-Song, and he was a better cook than A-Su. Although, after tasting Xie Lian’s cooking, Jin GuangYao was never going to complain about anyone else’s cooking ever again.

 

“A-Yao has something to tell us,” A-Su said, her hand on Wen Ning’s arm. 

 

He had the feeling she already knew what he was going to say and was trying to assure him that she had already moved on, so he should as well. “I—am going to be married. Again.” 

 

Wen Ning dropped his spoon with a splash. A-Su yelped. “Not you, A-Yao. Just—hot.” She turned to him as Wen Ning inspected her arm as if to make certain she hadn’t gotten burned by the oil splatter. “Congratulations.”

 

He heaved a sigh of relief. “So—you’re really okay with it? That I—”

 

“Of course I am, A-Yao.” She peered up at him. “It’s a weird feeling, but I—you should be happy. And I am.” 

 

He nodded. He remembered it, the sticky confusion, the gratitude and joy for her, this woman he had loved with all of his heart, followed by the pain he wasn’t sure he had a right to, the pain that wasn’t flavored by regret or loss, exactly, but echoed with the sound of a closed door. 

 

“But I’m happy for you. You deserve someone,” she said. “So, who is it? Your little sister needs to make sure they’re good enough for you.” She balled her fists as if preparing to fight. 

 

Wen Ning and Jin GuangYao both laughed. Wen Ning beamed down at his wife. 

 

“It’s ZeWu-Jun.”    

 

“I knew it,” declared A-Su, hanging onto Wen Ning. “How long has this been going on?” 

 

“I’ve—had feelings for—awhile, but only since last night. That’s when we finally talked about them,” Jin GuangYao eked out. “I’m not sure what that will mean for our living arrangement. He is Sect Leader, after all. I may have to split my time between there and here, and—”

 

“That’s okay,” A-Su said. “A-Yao, we will work it out. A-Song will be the child of two sects. Three, really, if you count the Wens.” She beamed up at Wen Ning. 

 

She’d never seen Wen Ning as anyone to be ashamed of, not for his weakness when alive, not for his being killed, not for his sect name. She only ever saw the person, and—it was the same with him, for her.  

 

You really are… too good. He grasped her in an embrace. “Thank you, sister.”

 

“Love you, Er-Ge,” she said. 

 

Er-Ge. He liked how it sounded. “Does that make Jin ZiXuan Da-Ge?”

 

“Obviously.”

 

Wen Ning smiled when they pulled apart. “Congratulations.” 

 

Jin GuangYao kissed A-Song, leaving his hat with him as he made his way to Lan WangJi and Wei WuXian’s room. He was quite certain A-Su would need time to herself—or with Wen Ning. The corpse really treated her like the treasure she was. 

 

He knocked on their door. Lan WangJi yanked it open, Wei WuXian moaning from the bed. “Is it really time to get up now, Lan Zhan? Isn’t it—”

 

“It’s me,” said Jin GuangYao, meeting Lan WangJi’s eyes. “I have—to talk to you, HanGuang-Jun.” He clasped his hands together. 

 

“Did you fuck his brother?” Wei WuXian asked, voice muffled. He pried himself to a sitting position, hair rumpled.

 

Jin GuangYao’s mouth hung open. “ Wei WuXian!” 

 

“He’s not denying it, Lan Zhan,” said Wei WuXian, hobbling out of bed to hang onto his husband’s shoulder. Lan WangJi looked as white as his sect’s robes. But that was when Jin GuangYao noticed that his hair ribbon was not on his head; instead, it dangled from Wei WuXian’s waist. 

 

Wei WuXian caught his gaze traveling. “Hey, we’re married. It doesn’t matter what we—” 

 

“Yes,” Jin GuangYao blurted out. “Yes, I slept with Lan XiChen. I wanted to. I love him, HanGuang-Jun, I love your brother.” He bowed his head. “And he loves me. Your—husband confronted me about it last night, so I don’t doubt you already had an inkling, but—” 

 

“I did indeed,” Lan WangJi said softly. “Sit.” 

 

Jin GuangYao obeyed, settling to the floor. Lan WangJi sat across from him, Wei WuXian leaning back against him. “We’re—going to marry.”  

 

“So SiZhui and A-Song will be cousins!” crowed Wei WuXian. 

 

“Your support is what XiChen wants more than anything else,” said Jin GuangYao, focusing on Lan WangJi. “He adores you, Lan WangJi. He talks about you all the time. He’s so proud of you.”

 

“Hm, even despite me,” mused Wei WuXian. His hair hung loose over his face. Lan WangJi attempted to retie the hair ribbon around his head. It rested crooked. 

 

“In part because of you,” said Jin GuangYao. “I think—your love for Young Master Wei gives him hope, HanGuang-Jun, that he doesn’t have to be your—father. That love doesn’t mean that he’ll lose sight of everything else in his life. Since you and Young Master Wei married, you—you’ve come alive, he’s said it, I’ve seen it, we all have.” He gave a small smile. “So, I suppose I’m here to ask for your blessing.” 

 

“He never got to be a child,” said Lan WangJi softly. “Not with me, not with our uncle.” He met Jin GuangYao’s eyes. “I see him at his happiest with you, LianFang-Zun. He smiles often, but he doesn’t often let people under those smiles. Those smiles are—a shield.” He drew in a steady breath. “So, protect him.”  

 

Jin GuangYao had never conversed so much with his sworn brother’s little brother. Nie HuaiSang was easier to talk to, carefree and silly, whereas Lan WangJi held back, reserving his feelings for Lan XiChen and Wei WuXian, and even then he expressed them more in flinches and closes of his eyes, in tones used for his “mns” and his decisions, rather than with words.

 

He had hurt Lan XiChen in the past. And someday, Lan XiChen would know. Maybe he would tell him. Eventually. He wasn’t ready yet. But… what matters is you, and not the state of you.

 

He had to trust Lan XiChen loved him like that, as Wei WuXian had said. No matter what he was afraid of. “It’d be my greatest honor.”

 

Lan WangJi nodded. “You have my blessing.” A small smile graced his lips. Jin GuangYao did not remember ever seeing him smile before.

 

“Hooray, another wedding,” Wei WuXian cheered. “Hey, Lan Zhan, shall we go meet with the Jins? I think they’ll be wanting to know, to plan—”

 

“Er-Ge said he was going to speak to them while I spoke with you and A-Su—”

 

“And you’re not curious how excited they’ll be for you?” Wei WuXian demanded. He launched to his feet, gripping Jin GuangYao’s wrist and tugging him upwards. 

 

Jin GuangYao suddenly understood why Lan WangJi adored Wei WuXian. He is like a child in so many ways. He has that delight, that wonder. 

 

Wei WuXian rushed them through the halls towards Jin ZiXuan’s conference chamber. He hesitated, and then pushed the door open.

 

Jin ZiXuan sat with Jin Ling on his lap. A-Li smiled from where she stood by the window, and Jin ZiXun and Su She leaned against the wall behind Jin ZiXuan. Lan XiChen sat across from Jin ZiXuan. 

 

“A-Yao, you’re here,” said Jin ZiXuan.

 

“GeGe,” said Jin GuangYao. “I—”

 

Lan WangJi met his brother’s eyes, and he smiled. Lan XiChen’s face dissolved into surprise.

 

“I hear this sect leader wants to make a husband of you,” said Jin ZiXuan.

 

“Husband,” echoed Jin Ling.

 

“You are not getting married before me and Su She,” interjected Jin ZiXun. “I refuse that. Otherwise, good, you’ll be spending time away from here.”

 

“ZiXun!”

 

“What, cousin brother?” 

 

Jin ZiXuan rolled his eyes. “A-Yao, what do you want?”

 

You still wanted to wait and ask me what I wanted, Jin GuangYao realized. You really are careful. You’ve grown into a strong leader, a humble one in many ways. He swallowed. He glanced to Lan XiChen. “I love ZeWu-Jun. I want to marry him. I—I already spoke with our younger sister, too.”

 

“Well then,” said Jin ZiXuan, leaning back as Jin Ling snuggled against his chest. A-Li was positively grinning. “I give my approval.”

 

“Thank you, GeGe,” croaked out Jin GuangYao. His eyes stung. Lan XiChen rose to grasp his shoulders, smile into his eyes. 

 

“Speaking of,” Jin ZiXuan said. “ZiXun, you have yet to ask for my blessing, so—”

 

“I wanted to wait until after XuanYu’s wedding!” Jin ZiXun protested. “But now that the subject’s been brought up, ZiXuan—” 

 

Jin ZiXuan craned his neck back. “Su She? You don’t plan on cursing anyone else, do you?”

 

“I will never use that curse again,” Su She said softly, bowing his chin towards his chest. “I—you would really want me, ZiXun? I know—but I’m not a particularly strong cultivator, have been kicked out of one sect, have—”

 

“We already consummated it; we have to marry,” Jin ZiXun declared. 

 

Wei WuXian burst into laughter. Jin ZiXuan covered Jin Ling’s ears. A-Li pressed her hand over her mouth, stifling her laughs. Lan XiChen whispered to A-Yao: “don’t worry, I didn’t bring that argument up.”

 

“Thanks,” hissed Jin GuangYao. His sexual history, and his parents’, was already far too public for his liking. 

 

Su She sputtered. 

 

“He wants you, Su MinShan,” said Jin GuangYao sincerely. “Even knowing all those things. He wants you. It’s up to you to trust him. Even if you don’t feel worthy of him, he thinks you are.” This is how I feel.

 

Su She gave a small nod. He bowed to Jin ZiXun. “I’d be—honored.”  

 

Jin ZiXun nodded. “Good.” He hesitated, and then grabbed Su She in an embrace, pride be damned. 

 

You’re worth more than that to him. Jin GuangYao had to believe that once the past life was revealed, they would both choose each other again. Just as you are to Su She. He’ll be waking up next to a reminder of his greatest wrong—no, no, to his redemption, his greatest wrong turned into his greatest joy—every day. 

 

“XiChen! There you are!”

 

Lan XiChen turned to the entryway, sighing. Jin GuangYao stiffened. At least with this many people in the room, Lan QiRen couldn’t erupt into too much rage. 

 

Lan QiRen peered around the room. “ChiFeng-Zun made a very curious comment to his wife—”

 

“It’s true,” said Lan XiChen, chuckling. “If it is what I think it is. I’m engaged to be married to LianFang-Zun.” 

 

Lan WangJi nodded. 

 

“I gave my blessing,” Jin ZiXuan interjected. 

 

“As did I,” Jin ZiXun said, unexpectedly coming to Jin GuangYao’s defense. “But only if he marries after Su She and I.”

 

Lan QiRen’s face transformed from a ripe tomato to a purple rotten one to a peeled white bone within the span of just a few seconds. Perhaps he was considering breaking the Gusu Lan Sect’s Rules and swearing. He let out his breath. “Now what am I supposed to do?” he fumed. “Our bloodline—”

 

“Isn’t necessary to maintain our sect’s honor,” interrupted Lan XiChen. “Besides, my husband has a son. And if you truly want to see Lan blood passed on, Uncle, don’t you think it’s past time for you to take matters into your own hands?”

 

Lan QiRen’s lips bubbled. “You—” 

 

“SiSi has been far too patient,” Jin GuangYao cut in. “Likely because she doesn’t want you to think her—well, the assumptions we all know you made at the beginning. She wants to be proper, for you.”

 

“You! ” Lan QiRen shrunk. “You—I—have no indecent designs on the woman! I merely admire her righteousness—”

 

“You don’t have to be worried about losing your righteousness for whom you love,” said Lan XiChen softly. “Uncle. You’ve done well by WangJi and me. Choose your own happiness. It doesn’t have to be either righteousness or happiness. It can be both.”  

 

Lan QiRen regarded his two nephews and their partners, a strange look on his face. It seemed almost as if he was the child and they the uncles. His eyes almost had a distinctive sheen to them. But before Jin GuangYao could make sure, Lan QiRen’s closed.

 

Still, he nodded. 




Chapter Text

Planning three weddings within a short span of time was a job for the star-gazers and for Jin ZiXuan, because he was more than determined to give both Jin ZiXun and Jin GuangYao festive weddings. At least Lan QiRen and SiSi’s would be far smaller. Jin GuangYao was actually surprised to learn they were having a celebration at all, but apparently Lan QiRen had insisted on it. Jin GuangYao wondered if he wanted to prove once and for all that he was not ashamed of having SiSi as his wife. 

 

“You might want to consider the rumors,” huffed Madame Jin, there to help with the budgets. She still wouldn’t look at Jin GuangYao, even if she didn’t abuse him anymore. 

 

“What rumors, Mother?” asked Jin ZiXuan, rolling an ink brush between his fingers.

 

“That it’s awfully convenient that your two brothers, your sister, and your cousin are all entering into marriages where they cannot reproduce. Sure clears the way for Jin RuLan to succeed—”

 

“I—” Jin ZiXuan’s mouth hung open. “Mother! He’s first in line anyways! And A-Song exists—”

 

“The halfwit—”

 

Jin GuangYao shoved his chair back. He glared at her. “Don’t you dare insult my son.” He didn’t care. Let Jin ZiXuan be angry at him. He wasn’t going to let anyone slander Jin RuSong’s reputation. The boy was so sweet, so innocent— 

 

“Aunty, think clearly,” Jin ZiXun cut in. “All of these have been love marriages. A-Yao arranged Nie HuaiSang and Mo XuanYu’s wedding because he already saw the affection there. I love Su She. Jin GuangYao loves Lan XiChen. Qin Su loves Wen Ning. And ZiXuan loves YanLi. Be happy we’re happy, won’t you?” He folded his arms, huffing.

 

Jin GuangYao would never have imagined this cousin of his could make so much sense. 

 

“Besides, we can have kids,” Jin ZiXun added, clapping Su She’s shoulder. 

 

“How exactly do you think you can have a kid?” Jin GuangYao asked.

 

Jin ZiXun wrinkled his nose. “That Lan SiZhui is no less a child of Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi just because Wei WuXian didn’t give birth to him.” He slung his arm around Su She. “Speaking of, ZiXuan-xiong, when are you and YanLi having another little one? I think your mother’s getting impatient.” 

 

Jin ZiXuan’s face colored. Madame Jin harrumphed and got to her feet, storming out. 

 

The rest of the planning went decently well. At the end, as dusk lowered its indigo velvet curtains over the horizon, Jin GuangYao hung back. “I’m sorry for saying that to your mother. I just—A-Song—”

 

“You don’t have to be sorry for speaking up for your son,” Jin ZiXuan insisted, leaning back against the window. He closed his eyes, exhaustion passing over his face. 

 

Jin GuangYao hesitated. “Are you all right?” 

 

Jin ZiXuan tried to nod. He just lifted his shoulders, letting them fall limp. 

 

“What’s wrong?” Please don’t be having second thoughts, please don’t be dying, please be— 

 

“A-Li and I—won’t be having more kids,” Jin ZiXuan blurted out. His lips trembled. “We’ve tried, it just—we’ve lost three pregnancies in the past few years. The last time was—dangerous, so Wen Qing advised us against trying again. She gave A-Li some herbs to prevent conception.” 

 

Jin GuangYao’s mouth hung open. “How did no one know about this?”

 

Jin ZiXuan wiped at his eyes. “I didn’t want to burden anyone.” He covered his face. His voice cracked. “I—she’s been so brave, apologizing, blaming herself, but I—I would rather have her. We have A-Ling. I love her and A-Ling so, so much. They’re what I have. Yes, we wanted more kids, but—” He drew in a shaking breath. “They’re enough. They are.” 

 

Jin GuangYao rested his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “GeGe, it’s not your fault either.”    

 

Jin ZiXuan swallowed. “I know. I just—want to give her everything. She always sees herself as inferior, as weak, and she’s not inferior in the least. She’s—” 

 

“You can’t protect her,” Jin GuangYao said, stepping in front of his brother. “I know. I can’t protect A-Song, or A-Su from—the truth. I’ll still try, but someday, they’ll know.” More than you think. He closed his eyes. “It hurts.” 

 

Jin ZiXuan sucked in his breath. He clutched Jin GuangYao’s hands. “I suppose you do know.” 

 

Jin GuangYao nodded. 

 

“A-Yao?” Jin ZiXuan said. “I—really don’t know how to say this, but I’m—I am still upset with my father for disgracing my mother. I never won’t be. But I’m glad he had you, and Mo XuanYu, and A-Su too. I wouldn’t want to change that it happened.” 

 

That’s the paradox of life. 

 

Wanting to erase the hurt, but never being able to without erasing the good, too.  

 


 

 

Lan QiRen married SiSi first—or second, because the night before Jin GuangYao left to Gusu for the wedding, Xiao XingChen and Song Lan had arrived in the Jinlintai, requesting an audience with Jin ZiXuan. A-Qing accompanied them, appearing through the thick cloud cover. 

 

Xiao XingChen had his bandage over his eyes again, but he was smiling so much he didn’t need his eyes to show what he felt. “We’re getting married.”

 

“Congratulations,” Jin GuangYao said. 

 

“And we wanted to ask,” said Xiao XingChen. “We want it to be quiet, just the two of us bowing, and A-Qing, of course. And we wanted—”

 

“Xue Yang,” Jin GuangYao interrupted. 

 

Xiao XingChen paused, and then he nodded. “We want him there.” 

 

Jin GuangYao’s eyes searched Song Lan’s face. He looked radiant, grip on his beloved’s hand tight. 

 

“He’s down in the fields,” said Jin ZiXuan. “Come on.”

 

They flew off to find Xue Yang serving his sentence, digging irrigation channels in the fields for the time being. Two other cultivators surrounded him. 

 

“You think you can possibly make up for how twisted you are?” taunted one of the cultivators.

 

Oh no. Jin GuangYao stiffened. 

 

Xue Yang ignored them, though his shoulders twitched and the dirt landed on one of their robes. 

 

“Hey!” The cultivator shoved him.

 

“Don’t touch me,” Xue Yang snapped. 

 

“You spread dirt on me! You filthy piece of—you think you’re better than us? Just because you saved one disgraced daughter of a servant and her pathetic spawn?” 

 

Xue Yang clenched his fists around the shovel’s handle. He tossed more dirt on them.

 

“You shithead!” One of the boy’s hands reached out, smacking the back of Xue Yang’s head. Xue Yang looked as if it was all he was doing to keep from using his shovel to bash their skulls to a pulp. But he was resisting. Hope swelled inside Jin GuangYao. 

 

“You don’t want to get in a fight with me,” Xue Yang said, voice silky. “I promise you.” 

 

“Is that a threat?” demanded the first boy, shaking mud off his robes. “All you were ever good for was desecrating corpses! Fitting for someone who got cut up before he was even a man!” He grabbed Xue Yang’s hand, twisting the nub of his pinky finger.

 

Oh shit—

 

But Xue Yang dropped the shovel before he kicked out, nailing that boy in the balls. The other wrapped his arm around Xue Yang’s throat, locking him into a chokehold. The fallen boy moaned, gagging on the ground.

 

“Get up!” yelled his companion. “Get up, you—”

 

“Let go of me, or that’ll be you!” Xue Yang spat.  

 

“You think so? You’re a prisoner here—who do you think they’ll believe? No one’s here to vouch for you! Xiao XingChen left you because he knows what you are: trash!”  

 

Xue Yang let out a feral cry just as Song Lan landed behind them, tapping Chokeholder on the shoulder. The boy twisted. He gaped.

 

Song Lan punched him. 

 

Xiao XingChen landed in front of them. Xue Yang’s mouth fell open. “I—Xiao XingChen! I wasn’t, this wasn’t my—”  

 

“Pathetic,” said A-Qing, sliding off Xiao XingChen’s sword. But she was talking to the boy who was still clutching his crotch. “You men have such an obvious built-in weakness, but you think it’s fine to bully someone who’s brave enough to admit when he is wrong, which you two haven’t done!” 

 

“Huh?” Xue Yang gaped. He turned to see Jin ZiXuan and Jin GuangYao landing. Both juniors shrunk, faces white.

 

“Get back to the Jinlintai,” Jin ZiXuan ordered both of them. “Go to Jin ZiXun and tell him I sent you, and tell him what you did. Let him decide your punishment. As it’s your first offense, I don’t think it’ll be more than digging trenches yourselves for oh, a few weeks. And an apology to Xue Yang. In writing. Tell him that too. If I find you lie in any way, don’t think he won’t tell me, and don’t think I won’t be harsher!”

 

“Yes, Sect Leader Jin,” both boys whispered, bowing low.

 

“Are you all right?” Song Lan held his hand out as if to help Xue Yang up. He blinked up at the cultivator in black before taking his hand. 

 

Xue Yang gulped. “Am I—they started it, they—”

 

“Good job not using the shovel,” Jin GuangYao said. “Cowards, the both of them.” He recalled Da-Ge’s defense of him after repeated bullying over being a whore’s son.

 

“Why are you here?” ventured Xue Yang, dusting himself off. Jin GuangYao noticed blisters on his palms. A-Qing clucked her tongue, digging into the bag slung over Xiao XingChen’s back to remove a salve. 

 

“We’re getting married,” said Xiao XingChen. “Song Lan and me. We’d like it to be a private ceremony with the four of us.”

 

Xue Yang’s mouth was still agape. “The… four of us?”

 

“Did you think Daozhang would forget you?” sniffed A-Qing. 

 

Xue Yang hesitated, and then bowed to Xiao XingChen. Who of course couldn’t see, but Song Lan put his hand on Xiao XingChen’s shoulder, whispering it to him, before A-Qing helped Xue Yang back up.

 

“He’ll be back in a few hours,” Song Lan assured Jin ZiXuan, taking A-Qing onto his sword while Xiao XingChen took Xue Yang. 

 

And he was, with a smile on his face. Jin GuangYao singled him out to praise him for how hard he was working. Praise goes a long way

 

Lan QiRen and SiSi’s wedding was beautiful, small and solemn. Jin GuangYao still couldn’t believe it.

 

You always talked about marrying a merchant one day. Now you’re the wife of a prominent member of a sect that prides itself on righteousness, and he follows your lead for righteousness even more than he follows his own, which is saying something. 

 

And then it was back to the Jinlintai to make the final preparations for Jin ZiXun and Su She’s wedding, this time with Su She present. They sat in a courtyard, spring birds chirping a song, pale sunlight milking the budding grass. 

 

“Any advice, cousin?” Jin ZiXun asked, voice merry as he set a piece of parchment to the side. Jin GuangYao had never seen such childlike pleasure beading in his cousin’s eyes before. He liked it. 

 

“Actually,” said Jin ZiXuan, voice soft. “Yes. In my experience, marriage is more about supporting each other through your deepest shames as well as your best moments. And through it all, growing into a better person. I can’t hide things from A-Li, not when we’re so close, even the things I’d want to.” He drew in his breath, and Jin GuangYao remembered his confession about the prostitute his father hired for him. “It’s such a scary and beautiful thing.” 

 

“Well, you know my deepest shame,” said Su She. “Though, I suppose you know all of them. They’re—” His fingers traced the hole marks on his chest, covered by his robes but not from Jin ZiXun’s eyes. He bowed his head. “I was the arrogant one.”

 

A cloud crossed over the sun. Jin GuangYao squinted up. There were no other clouds in sight, just this one. 

 

“You’ll hurt each other again,” Jin ZiXuan said. “Though, honestly it seems like the two of you are adept at apologizing and—” 

 

“You don’t know mine,” Jin ZiXun said, face gray. “It’s more than just—treating other people with arrogance, A-She. I—” He stopped.

 

Jin GuangYao held his breath. He had no idea what Jin ZiXun was talking about. But— 

 

The cloud passed over, and the sun rays returned. 

 

“When I turned sixteen, Uncle told me we would spend a night hunting together. Just the two of us. I—I thought—and then ZiXuan told me what he really had planned and I—” Jin ZiXun hung his head. “I still went. He brought me to—a prostitute. A human being as a gift.”

 

Jin GuangYao closed his eyes. He wasn’t surprised, but he still felt sick. SiSi—Mother—  

 

“What if I do have a kid? I have no way of looking to find out. I never gave trinkets, I never went back, there’s no way to know. Though I suppose I’m not a sect leader, so—” Jin ZiXun covered his eyes. “I was so—when Uncle brought me, I thought it meant he approved of me. I thought it meant he saw me on par with ZiXuan-xiong. I thought it was an honor, and I didn’t want to let him down. I don’t know if I went back—well, not back, but to others—because I liked it, or because I thought I wanted to be like him, or because I wanted him to hear and approve.” His voice broke. “I never thought about what Jin GuangYao’s mother went through, or what Aunty went through, or—” 

 

“If a kid shows up here one day,” said Su She, voice clear. “Claiming to be yours. We will take them in. We will raise them. We will—” 

 

Jin ZiXun gaped at him. “You—would? Even if it isn’t yours?”

 

“Did you not listen to your cousin?” snapped Su She. “What’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is mine.”

 

Jin ZiXun’s lips trembled. Jin GuangYao had never seen his cousin so unhinged. He let out a messy sob, wiping at his eyes. 

 

“And if I ever get into that dungeon, I will curse your uncle a thousand times over,” Su She promised, and Jin ZiXun actually laughed. 

 

Jin GuangYao, however, felt a distinctive chill run down his spine. He turned. 

 

Madame Jin was standing at the edge of the courtyard, the scrolls with budgets in her arms. Jin ZiXuan looked terrified, literally cowering.

 

“Aw fuck,” said Jin ZiXun. Su She moved himself in front of his fiance, as if to protect him.

 

She set the scrolls down without a word, turning and walking away. Her boots echoed on the floor, clicking and clacking. 

 

“Go to her,” Jin GuangYao insisted, grasping Jin ZiXuan’s wrists. “Right now. Or I will.”

 

“Bad idea,” interjected Jin ZiXun.

 

“Why? You two were groomed to become exactly like him, but you chose not to,” Jin GuangYao shot back. His heart thumped. “You grew past it. You redeemed yourselves, you’re not like him, you’re better.” Please tell me you think it matters.

 

Jin ZiXuan swallowed. He got to his feet, striding down the hall. 

 

“He’s in for it now,” Jin ZiXun whispered, but Jin GuangYao saw the way Su She looked at him, the way his fingers traced Jin ZiXun’s jawline, his nose, he knew.

 

Su She and Jin ZiXun were like Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi, like Jin ZiXuan and Jiang YanLi, like he hoped Lan XiChen was for him and he would be to Lan XiChen. 

 

What matters is you, and not the state of you.

 

Whether right or wrong doesn’t matter. Either way, I will stand by your side.

 

I will bear your sins with you.

 

What are your sins, Lan XiChen? 

 

I will carry them with you. 

 

Jin ZiXuan didn’t bring up whatever had happened with his mother, but she did act cordially, and Jin GuangYao figured GeGe would tell him soon enough. Jiang YanLi pitched in with planning, helping more too. Su She and Jin ZiXun’s wedding went off beautifully. And then Jin GuangYao’s wedding rolled around. 

 

That morning, Jin ZiXuan, Jin ZiXun, Mo XuanYu, and Wen Ning came to help him get ready. They were marrying in Gusu, but Jin ZiXuan had spared no expense despite this being the second wedding he’d paid for for Jin GuangYao.

 

Jin ZiXuan dipped his finger in paint, pressing the vermillion mark between his brows. Wen Ning helped him into his scarlet robes, glittering golden peonies and white clouds sewn onto them. Last time, he'd been left alone to shrug into his robes, feeling like he was going to be sick at having to marry his sister.

 

“A-Li’s work?” he asked.

 

Jin ZiXuan smiled. “She had help, but it was indeed her idea.”

 

“You look so handsome, GeGe,” said Mo XuanYu, clapping his hands.

 

“A-Su wants to see you,” said Wen Ning. “Is that—”

 

“Of course.” Jin GuangYao’s heart hammered in his chest. A-Su entered, draped in soft pink and gold robes, the colors of the Qin Sect. Her mother was with her, and Madame Qin smiled at him, no malice, no despair in her eyes. A cough had gotten worse for her lately, but— you’re happy.

 

“Daddy nice,” said A-Song, gazing up at him. And Jin GuangYao crouched, wrapping his arms around the boy, hoisting him up. A-Song planted a kiss on his cheek. 

 

“Congratulations, A-Yao,” said A-Su softly. “I couldn’t be happier for you.” She rested one hand on A-Song’s head and reached one up to rest on A-Yao’s head. “I think you should know. You’re one of the best men I know, besides Wen Ning. I’m glad you’re my brother.” Her eyes filled.

 

Jin GuangYao’s mouth trembled. 

 

“Why crying?” asked A-Song, still behind in speech in ways that had become more noticeable lately. 

 

“I’m glad you’re my sister,” he whispered. Madame Qin wiped at her eyes. So did Jin ZiXuan. 

 

And then almost everyone left, and there was another knock. He turned. 

 

A-Li, beaming. “You look amazing. ZeWu-Jun is going to be—” 

 

Jin GuangYao laughed. “Thank you for the robes.” His finger stroked the flowing clouds. 

 

“They were my idea, but I was recovering from our most recent—well, you know,” said Jiang YanLi. “I wasn’t the one who finished them; I actually only stitched a few.” 

 

He frowned. “Then—” 

 

“I stitched them,” came another voice. Jin GuangYao lifted his gaze.

 

Madame Jin stood there, her hands clasped in front of her, and he couldn’t contain it again. His vision blurred. You… why?

 

“A-Li asked me to,” she said, anticipating his question. “Who am I to turn down my daughter, the daughter of my best friend?” She stepped forward. “Mo XuanYu’s mother helped, too. And SiSi’s women wove the thread. And—” 

 

They’re all… a part of this? 

 

“And I wanted to help,” Madame Jin said finally. “A-Xuan spoke to me. He told me what his father did to him and A-Xun. Or rather, made them do. He told me on his knees, sobbing, afraid to look at me.” Her voice trembled. “He’s a good man.”  

 

“He is,” Jin GuangYao agreed. “I want to be like him.”

 

“I hugged him,” said Madame Jin, meeting Jin GuangYao’s eyes. “After I slapped him, but I did not slap him for what he said he did. I slapped him because he said: ‘I’ll understand if you hate me now.’ I could never hate him. He’s my son.” She sighed. “And then I realized how your mother must have felt. How my husband never felt, not even towards his own son.” 

 

Jin ZiXuan? Or me? 

 

He supposed it didn’t matter. Either way, she was saying… 

 

“I’m sorry for how I treated you,” said Madame Jin. “I wish you the best in your marriage, and the utmost happiness, Jin GuangYao.” 

 

That name. The name he’d earned. She was finally using it. A-Li was grinning through her weeping. 

 

“Thank you,” he whispered. “Madame Jin.” He bowed to her. Are you not just happy I won’t be around as much anymore?  

 

Either way. 

 

Either way, she had come to him, she had said these words, and they were salves to his blistered, bleeding soul, the sores he seldom showed for shame. 

 

Thank you.

 

I really have a family. 

 

The wedding was full of such joy that the Cloud Recesses might never recover. Wen Qing looked days away from going into labor, and Nie MingJue kept rushing back and forth between comforting her and expressing how happy he was for Lan XiChen and Jin GuangYao. And Jin GuangYao believed him. 

 

He spotted SiSi vomiting at one point, off to the side, and while Sect Leader Yao had to mumble about a disgraceful woman sneaking alcohol in and clearly imbibing too much, Jin GuangYao was quite certain that was not at all why SiSi was sick. She and Lan QiRen were older, but surely they would try for a baby. 

 

Wei WuXian kept joking about the lack of alcohol, but he kept stealing kisses from Lan WangJi, who obliged without hesitation, making it clear he was enjoying himself too. In fact, at a certain point it sounded as if Nie HuaiSang and Mo XuanYu coaxed the story of how Wei WuXian tried to get Jin GuangYao and Lan XiChen to confess to each other out of the all-too-willing man.

 

Xiao XingChen and Song Lan were there too, glowing from their recent wedding. A-Qing had been dressed by Jiang YanLi again, flowers braided into her hair. She crammed sweets into her mouth, and when Jiang Cheng asked her if it was proper, she retorted: “Why do I care if it’s proper? I enjoy them and it isn’t hurting anyone.” She stuffed a pastry into his mouth so that he couldn’t reply. 

 

When they were alone, when Lan XiChen lifted his veil, Jin GuangYao saw that he was already crying. 

 

“Madame Jin helped make the clouds,” he said, showing Lan XiChen. “Madame Mo too, and SiSi—” 

 

“They’re beautiful,” Lan XiChen said. “But I’m afraid I don’t want you wearing them very long.”

 

Jin GuangYao laughed. Lan XiChen picked him up, carrying him towards the bed they would share, this bed in the hanshi, as husbands. Every kiss came slow but intense, like they were savoring each touch of the other’s lips, every slide of their tongues, every scrape of teeth against soft flesh. When Lan XiChen lay him down, Jin GuangYao realized Lan XiChen was crying. 

 

“Really?” he asked, cupping his cheek.

 

“I was just going to say,” Lan XiChen said, using his hair ribbon to tie Jin GuangYao’s hair up. “That ever since you told that lie to the guards at the inn, I had dreams about this. I just—told myself they meant nothing.”

 

“Oh?” Jin GuangYao flipped him over, smirking down at him.

 

“Mm. I—”

 

“A-Huan,” he said as he slid down his husband. “You don’t have to strive to be good enough for me.” You don’t have to discipline yourself. You don’t have to always smile. You don’t have to be a sect leader. 

 

He took him in his mouth. Lan XiChen sucked in his breath. He’d never asked Qin Su to do this for him. He had always thought it degrading when customers made his mother kneel and do such a thing, but now he thought he finally knew what it was like to want to do it, to want to see someone brought to the edges of how much they could handle, but not in a cruel way. 

 

I want all of you.

 

When Lan XiChen pushed him back over, when his body slid into Jin GuangYao’s, when neither of them could say words, only pants and muffled gasps, when sweat soaked the hair at their temples and odd flushes broke out on their cheeks, small bruises mottled their collarbones and necks, he could only think that the more disheveled Lan XiChen looked, the more Jin GuangYao thought he was beautiful, and the more he loved him.

 

And judging from Lan XiChen’s whisper of his name at the very end, when he could speak again, Jin GuangYao believed he felt the same: that to Lan XiChen, he truly, truly was not disgusting at all. 

 

He hoped Lan XiChen knew he was beautiful to him, too. 

 

Chapter Text

Jin GuangYao rolled over in the bed, burying his face in Lan XiChen’s neck as the latter stretched. It was five in the morning, time for the Lans to wake up, and he wasn’t ready. His lower half felt sore from the three times Lan XiChen had buried himself in Jin GuangYao’s body on their wedding night, neither of them able to get enough of each other. His lips still felt swollen from how desperately he kissed him. And he felt so incredibly light. 

 

Lan XiChen chuckled, reaching his hand out to pat Jin GuangYao’s head. Jin GuangYao kissed his neck, feeling the artery pumping under Lan XiChen’s skin. 

 

Husband.

 

We’re married.

 

He’d never thought he could have something like this, not since Madame Qin had come to him to reveal the truth. 

 

Lan XiChen’s arms wrapped around him, holding him close, skin against skin. “Are you happy?”

 

“Mm,” he said. “And you?”

 

“Yes,” said Lan XiChen. “You know, I think my mother—she would have liked you.”

 

Jin GuangYao shifted back and propped his chin up on his hand. “Tell me more about her.”

 

Lan XiChen almost smiled. “She was my favorite person in the world when I was little.” He sighed. “She was always happy to see me.”

 

His smile vanished. Jin GuangYao wanted to bring it back. But… He didn’t want Lan XiChen to bury things anymore. 

 

I want to be trustworthy. Which was ironic considering what he was hiding. 

 

“Father… sometimes he looked at me like I was a sin. He—would tell me to obey Uncle, to take care of WangJi, to be honest and just, prepare to be sect leader.” Lan XiChen made a small laugh. “I suppose when he died, I remember—I remember thinking, you can’t die, Father, you can’t, not yet . I still wanted to hear one thing from him.”

 

“What was that?” Jin GuangYao asked softly, running his free hand through Lan XiChen’s hair. 

 

“Whether he was glad he had me, or if I was a regret—no, no, I wouldn’t have wanted to know that. I think I wanted to hear him say that he loved me.” Lan XiChen shook his head. “I’m sorry, that’s not a topic for this morning—”

 

“I love you,” Jin GuangYao interrupted. “I’m not him, but I’ll say it as many times as you need to hear it, A-Huan.” 

 

Lan XiChen smiled, morning light streaking across his face. 

 

You imprison yourself in this life and the next—albeit not literally, not yet, in this life—not based on me or based on others, but on things beyond your control. You’re afraid of yourself. You’re a traumatized little boy who never got to be a child, either.   

 

It’s not under my control.

 

But I’ll do my best to help you escape, so that once you do know, whether I tell you or you learn when the timelines align, you’ll still be free. 

 

How to do that, though? 

 

He didn’t know. All he knew was that he could, and did, love Lan XiChen. And he would tell him this time. 

 

Maybe it would work. Maybe he could make the world a little bit better by caring for others as he cared for himself, by understanding their pain. Maybe it was that empathy that was indeed so dangerous, not just in terms of the technique, but in terms of its power. 

 

But it sets ghosts free. And maybe the living, too. 

 

“Let’s burn paper money,” said Jin GuangYao. “For your father, your mother, my mother. I think our mothers would have been very good friends, you know.” 

 

Lan XiChen laughed, not the remotest bit offended. “I think so as well.”

 

As they watched the paper money crumble into ash, Jin GuangYao having lit it rather than Lan XiChen because, while no one would know, Jin GuangYao doubted Lan XiChen liked fire very much. 

 

“When the Cloud Recesses were burned by the Wen Sect,” Lan XiChen began. “I—I remember Uncle grabbing me, because I was frozen at first, in shock—thinking that if I couldn’t do anything to protect my cultivators, how could I ever hope to be a sect leader. I just wanted to find Dad and WangJi; I wasn’t thinking about the books or the history—and Uncle shook me, told me to think about the big picture, that’s what a ect leader would do, told me to leave WangJi to him, asked me what Dad had always prioritized, which was our sect.” He drew in a shuddering breath. “I ran into the library, and I heard voices from the front. WangJi, the others—refusing to move, guarding it, giving me enough time to—to grab what I could and flee. I heard WangJi grunt and I knew they’d hurt him, and I—had to keep repeating my uncle’s instructions in my head and turn away from him.” He snorted. “And then I ran into you. You were so quick-thinking in that inn.”

 

Jin GuangYao smirked. “The guard was right, I suppose, just many years too early.”

 

“He was not. He thought you were a whore.” 

 

Jin GuangYao shrugged. “I’m the son of one, so—”

 

“Your mother was a good woman,” Lan XiChen gestured to the ash. “Really, why—”

 

He did not like the needles being turned on himself again. “Let’s—”

 

“A-Yao,” Lan XiChen asked, the hanshi quiet except for the sound of their breathing and damp rain drizzling outside. “Did anything—ever—”

 

“No,” he blurted out, face red as he realized what Lan XiChen was wondering . Don’t ask me that . “Yes, there were perverts who liked children. Once, when I was seven, a man asked me to—kneel down and—he offered me a lot of money, and then my mother appeared, and she slapped him so hard his face was mauled by her nails. That was soon after SiSi arrived; I remember her spitting on the man as he ran out. But no, I never touched him, and Mother made sure that wouldn’t happen again. But yes, people did expect me to grow up into a whore. So I said I would prove them wrong.”

 

“And now you’re the husband of a sect leader.”

 

“Not bad.” Jin GuangYao said, snatching Lan XiChen’s ribbon again. 

 

“I’m sorry that happened,” Lan XiChen said, clenching his fist around his knee. “If I could find that man, I’d—” 

 

“It’s saturated everything,” said Jin GuangYao. “People like my mother, like me, like SiSi.” He swallowed. “We’ll be exploited. It’s impossible to root all of these people out; he wasn’t the only one who ever tried anything, just the most blatant about it. I had others grab me or threaten and—Mother was always there, but—” His eyes welled up. “Da-Ge’s belief in righteousness isn’t so wrong. I just think he misdirects it. Truth to be told, that’s why—I was happy to serve with him. Especially after you told me he was a good man, that he would receive me. And why I was on my way to Gusu when it burns down. ‘Be righteous.’ Your motto.” I want to be. I want to be a good man. 

 

Lan XiChen shook his head. “I think the Gusu Lan Sect has its priorities mixed up in some ways,” he said. “Be righteous, yes. But if we’re sitting up here secluded on a mountain, letting all sorts of abuse happen down below, is that even worth being called righteousness? I’d like to—” He began braiding the ribbon into Jin GuangYao’s hair. “See if we can do more. For people who are not well off.” 

 

“I’d like that,” Jin GuangYao admitted. 

 


 

 

A few weeks later, Nie HuaiSang and Mo XuanYu tumbled off HuaiSang’s saber in the Jinlintai, where Jin GuangYao and Lan XiChen were staying that week. “Da-Ge needs you!” HuaiSang’s face was panicked.

 

“What?” demanded Jin GuangYao.

 

“Wen Qing’s in labor, and he’s melting down.”

 

Jin GuangYao and Lan XiChen exchanged a glance and then a smile. They flew towards QingHe, finding that Nie MingJue, indeed, was pacing back and forth, wringing his hands, hair disheveled. He stiffened when he saw them. 

 

“Da-Ge?” ventured Lan XiChen. “We heard—”

 

“It’s been over ten hours,” Nie MingJue blurted out, clutching his head.

 

“That’s not unusual with a first baby,” said Jin GuangYao. “And Wen Qing is quite small.” 

 

“It’s not unusual?” Nie MingJue repeated, seemingly in need of reassurance. 

 

Jin GuangYao shook his head, putting his hand on Da-Ge’s shoulder. Nie MingJue wilted, slumping down on the floor, burying his face in his hands. Are you really so afraid of not being in control? 

 

No, are you really so afraid of loss? 

 

“She’s strong, Da-Ge,” Lan XiChen assured him, crouching next to Nie MingJue.

 

“We’re here,” Jin GuangYao said. Even if the worst should happen, and he doubted it. We’ll be here for you.

 

“I keep remembering HuaiSang’s mother,” managed Nie MingJue. Nie HuaiSang frowned, as if Nie MingJue didn’t talk much about her, which given his low emotional capacity, was probably exactly the case. “She assured me she would be all right. She wasn’t. She—she lived almost a week after HuaiSang’s birth, but she kept getting sicker and sicker. Fever. I told her I would take care of HuaiSang, but—”

 

“You were six, Da-Ge,” said Nie HuaiSang. “I—”

 

“Don’t you dare apologize; none of it was your fault. And I’m glad I have you.” 

 

“I’m not what you want, though,” Nie HuaiSang stated. Mo XuanYu held his hand. “Don’t pretend otherwise, Da-Ge. I know that you would want me to be strong in cultivation, good with the saber, but—I’m not. Not at all. I’m—”

 

“You’re very much like her,” Nie MingJue cut in.

 

Nie HuaiSang’s face paled.

 

“You look like her, with her round face. You like fans and art, beauty. She was always much more into that than into cultivation. But being strong in cultivation didn’t save Father, either.” Nie MingJue drew in a deep breath. “But you aren’t her. You’re—your own person.” He pressed his lips together. “And I’m proud of the person you’ve become.” 

 

HuaiSang gulped. “Da-Ge…” 

 

“I told you he loved you,” Mo XuanYu said to his husband. 

 

Nie MingJue clenched his fists. “You thought I didn’t?”

 

“No!” Nie HuaiSang insisted. “No, that’s not it! It’s just that—I’m nothing like you, and I thought—that disappointed you.” He hung his head. 

 

“No,” Nie MingJue stated. “Not anymore, HuaiSang. At one point, it did, but that was more because—because I was afraid and I didn’t want to lose you, and I thought you would lose me young because of the saber spirit.” But thanks to Wen Qing, that wasn’t likely to happen.   

 

“Neither XuanYu nor I really fit in in the cultivational world,” Nie HuaiSang said. “So, we understand each other. We both prefer beautiful things to the violent.”

 

“Cultivation can be beautiful,” Mo XuanYu said quietly. “It’s what got me away from that place I grew up in. And it’s exciting.” 

 

Both of them were too old to ever become cultivators at the level of Nie MingJue. Still, Jin GuangYao knew that look, and he smiled.

 

“I’m glad to be here,” Mo XuanYu said. “And happy that HuaiSang loves me, because he’s the best person and the smartest person I’ve ever known.”

 

Nie MingJue arched an eyebrow. Jin GuangYao wondered. Just what was Nie HuaiSang up to, that Mo XuanYu apparently knew of his wily intelligence? 

 

You don’t have to hide from him, HuaiSang, do you? 

 

“My mother knew I was a cut-sleeve from, oh, probably childhood,” said Mo XuanYu. “Seven or so. I had a crush on a neighbor, so he beat me up. And she told me it was fine, that it just meant I loved someone and love was a good thing so long as I didn’t try to make them love me back.”

 

Jin GuangYao remembered the past life. Mo XuanYu hadn’t really harassed him—Father had just left him with no choice but to claim it. No, he had had a choice. But he was too afraid, it was too close to the truth with Qin Su, and his attempt to kiss Jin GuangYao had been seen by several people. 

 

You were never a monster, and you never deserved the shame .  

 

“But she was sad a lot,” Mo XuanYu continued. “Now, she’s happy. Because she’s here. Before this, she was—some days she couldn’t get out of bed, her sister kept telling her she was ruined, good for only what was between her legs, a useless slut. And some days I went hungry because she couldn’t even get up and feed me. But even those days, if I cried loudly enough, Aunty would come and beat me and she would intervene and get beaten herself to protect me.” He pulled his knees against his chest. “I can’t believe someone loves me back.” He pressed his palms against his cheeks. 

 

Nie HuaiSang swallowed. “I can’t believe someone doesn’t think me weak.” 

 

“No one does,” Jin GuangYao said softly. “No one here, at least.” Please just don’t use your strong intelligence to destroy me this time. 

 

Pounding echoed. Footsteps. Jin GuangYao jerked back. 

 

“You have a daughter!” announced Madame Mo, and Nie MingJue reached for her, but he didn’t get to hold her just yet, because he fainted. 

 

They named her Nie Qi. Jin GuangYao never thought he would see Da-Ge cry so hard and so much. He kept stroking the baby’s tiny head. He could hold Nie Qi in one hand. 

 

When the timelines converge, will her existence make up for what I did to you?

 

Over half a year later, SiSi gave birth to Lan QiRen’s daughter, whom they named Lan Lei. Despite her scars, SiSi looked radiant, and Lan QiRen had cried. 

 

“I can’t wait to corrupt her with jokes and the concept of fun,” Wei WuXian whispered to Jin GuangYao, elbowing him in the ribs. 

 

A few years passed. Jin ZiXun and Su She adopted Jin Chan, that brat Jin GuangYao remembered always picking on Jin Ling. Wen Qing and Nie MingJue had a son they named Nie Liu, who was the snuggly sort of child A-Song had always been. A-Song, for his part, grew, though he struggled to memorize and to write. 

 

Jin ZiXuan got Jiang Cheng to readily agree to end the brothel in YunMeng and build a temple to GuanYin in its stead. SiSi’s artists would sculpt and paint for the temple, craft the incense. Jin GuangYao and Lan XiChen spent much time staying at Lotus Pier those months. 

 

Occasionally, Xiao XingChen, Song Lan, and A-Qing had been visiting. Jin GuangYao found A-Qing sitting on the edge of the pier one day, lecturing Jiang Cheng. 

 

“You’re whiny and angry and blame yourself for everything,” retorted A-Qing. “You really ought to get yourself together. Your mother and father, bless their souls, were wrong about you, so why do you still believe them and ask for their approval? They’re dead. They can’t give it to you.”

 

“You!” Jiang Cheng fumed.  

 

“Your father never should have treated you like you were not what he wanted. He was a coward for taking his anger on his wife out on you, a defenseless child, instead of actually addressing the issue with his wife. And she was a coward for taking it out on Wei WuXian, an orphaned child, instead of addressing it with her husband.” She swallowed. “But, I think if they saw what you’ve done with the YunMeng Jiang Sect, they’d be proud of you today. Or else they’re just stupid.” 

 

“Sometimes I wonder,” Jiang Cheng whispered. 

 

“Hm?” She tilted her head, tracing a lily pad.

 

“I wonder if Wei WuXian really was my father’s. I doubt it. I know it probably isn’t true. But there’s no way to know. And then I feel bad for wondering. And then—”

 

“Hm.” A-Qing sat back, scooping some water up in her palms, letting it trickle through the gap between her hands. “Would it matter? If he was, or if he wasn’t?” 

 

Jiang Cheng swallowed. “No. Not towards how I feel about my brother.” 

 

“Aw, you love him.” A-Qing tilted her head back, smirking up at him. “So you had his help to become who you are now. Don’t you think you helped him? Don’t you think that he’s proud of you?” 

 

Jiang Cheng hung his head. Jin GuangYao held his breath. “I—hope so.”

 

“I say he is,” A-Qing said. “In fact, I know he is, ‘cause I asked him. He’s just too stubborn and too believing that he sucks to address it with you.”

 

“He—what?” 

 

A-Qing spun the stem of a water lotus around in her hand. “You’re the same, and that’s why you both deserve to get dunked in the water.”  

 

“What?” But she had already grasped Jiang Cheng by his neck, shoving him into the water. He gasped, flailing. He caught her ankle, tugging her in with him. She shrieked as she landed with a splash.

 

You never got to be a child, did you, Jiang Cheng? You were always trying to prove you could be a good sect leader. Jin GuangYao bit back a smile. He recalled the ridiculous list of requirements in a wife that Jiang Cheng had once told him in the past life, which honestly sounded so much like his sister that Jin GuangYao had cringed and ended the conversation early: naturally beautiful, graceful and obedient, hard-working and thrifty, coming from a respected family, cultivation level not too high, personality not too strong, not too talkative, voice not too loud, and must treat Jin Ling nicely.

 

A-Qing met none of those. Maybe the cultivation one, but she couldn’t cultivate at all. Then again, Jiang Cheng had never mentioned such a list in this world. 

 

You don’t need it.

 

Jin Ling has Jiang YanLi still. 

 

You can look for what you want. You can grow past a traumatized barely-adult man who desperately wanted his family back.

 

“Will we have another wedding soon?” questioned Lan XiChen in a low voice.

 

Jin GuangYao chuckled. “We might.”

 

They made their way over to the temple to see how the construction was coming along. Lan XiChen’s eyes lit up when he saw Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi standing there. “Brother!”

 

Lan WangJi nodded to them.

 

“SiZhui is—” asked Jin GuangYao.

 

“Spending time with Jin Ling and RuSong,” said Wei WuXian. “ShiJie and your damn brother, Jin GuangYao, they’re miracles. They can handle two kids. SiZhui is the most well-behaved, compassionate, sweet boy I know and I still don’t sleep for fear he’ll catch a cold and die.” 

 

Lan WangJi sighed. 

 

Jin GuangYao smirked. “I know the feeling.” What if A-Song had a shorter lifespan? It didn’t seem that severe, but how could he know? And what if A-Song remembered his death? He would find out eventually, and about how his parents were actually brother and sister, but for the time being Qin Su and he did not want to tell the boy. 

 

“We just came from Lotus Pier,” said Lan XiChen. “I assume you’re staying there for the night?”

 

“Yes,” Wei WuXian confirmed. Hammering echoed from where the roof was being set atop the temple. 

 

Jin GuangYao couldn’t resist. “Maybe you can convince your shidi to ask A-Qing to marry him.”

 

“My what to what?” Wei WuXian’s eyes grew huge. Lan WangJi did not look surprised. Clearly, he’d noticed. Wei WuXian, on the other hand, was still oblivious despite having been happily married for years. 

 

“He quite likes her,” Jin GuangYao said. “And she likes tormenting him.” 

 

Lan XiChen grasped his brother’s elbow, steering him away. Jin GuangYao stepped closer to Wei WuXian. His heart pounded.

 

I just want everyone to be happy. 

 

Was it just that it provided protection for himself once the timelines aligned? 

 

Somewhat. And was that so wrong? 

 

“I wish Jiang Cheng would talk to me more,