First order of business: don’t underestimate Nie Huaisang, Jin Guangyao decided when he figured out that the bizarre talisman he’d found that promised to abrogate his greatest regrets had actually somehow implausibly worked and he was back in the past.
Back at the right point in the past, no less – he’d spent a considerable amount of time meditating in front of Nie Mingjue’s head and wondering what would have been the right point to have changed things, and he’d settled on here and now. The point at which he’d already defeated Wen Ruohan and earned back his name, ceremony completed and everything sealed, but before his ‘family’ demonstrated how little they thought of him, before he’d sealed his fate by killing Nie Mingjue and losing himself to his family’s schemes forever.
The time when he’d already broken Nie Mingjue’s trust once, and thought he’d lost it forever.
He’d been an idiot, of course.
He’d seen Nie Mingjue’s harshness and assumed it was hatred; he’d listened to his scolding and thought it was disdain; he’d thought that Nie Mingjue had sworn brotherhood with him for the sole purpose of humiliating him, when of course it was only that Nie Mingjue had already shifted over to thinking of him as family and didn’t actually know what to do with family when he wasn’t lecturing them.
Such a waste.
He had considered going back to before – to the time before he’d murdered a man and lost Nie Mingjue’s trust the first time, because nothing that was broken could ever be returned to how it was originally, but that was far too risky. What if him having never left Nie Mingjue’s side meant that they failed to defeat Wen Ruohan? Wouldn’t it all be for nothing, then?
Not to mention the personal inconvenience – he’d lived through war and spying once, and he had no interest in going through it again, thank you – and besides he’d already gotten used to the name Jin Guangyao. It’d be such a bother to have to reaccustom himself to something else if he had to obtain through some other means the name that he had promised his mother on her deathbed that he’d get, and who knew if those other means might lead to some other break with Nie Mingjue.
He deserved for it to be Jin Ziyao, of course, but since when had anything happened the way he’d deserved? Since when did he ever get anything in his life that he didn’t have to scheme for and fight for?
Except perhaps for Nie Mingjue’s affection, that first time.
Oh, he’d schemed to get his attention all right. On his way to Qinghe, he’d listened at every campfire he could, gathered information and rumor about what Sect Leader Nie – the most open-minded of the sect leaders when it came to accepting talent regardless of origin – liked and disliked, and using his mother’s teachings he’d planned a meticulous campaign based on what he learned. A careful balance of being useful and being pitiful, appealing to the man’s respect for competence and his pleasure in standing up for the innocent, engendering good feelings that could be turned to his benefit when he eventually sought out a position of power, slowly at first to avoid giving him the impression that he was using him, and then climbing little by little…
He’d barely gotten past the first step or two of the plan before Nie Mingjue was rushing past him, freely giving him the power and authority he so desperately craved, giving him respect he hadn’t even known was possible to get from someone so different. Nie Mingjue had treated him as far more than a mere deputy, more than a trusted advisor, treated him as a friend.
Nie Mingjue freely gave Jin Guangyao warmth of the sort he’d lacked since his mother died.
Jin Guangyao had been a fool not to realize the value of that, in his first life. Only when he had all the power in the world and none of the love had he realized how much he had had, how much he had lost.
How pointless all that power was, without the love.
It had been an understandable mistake for him to have made – at that time, it hadn’t been so long since he lost his mother, after all, and she’d loved him dearly, so thoroughly, so all-consumingly, that the honest and sincere affection he received from Nie Mingjue didn’t seem so important when it was compared to his ambitions.
Of course, having achieved all of his ambitions through all his schemes only to be brought down by vengeance born of that same Nie warmth and love had been – very educational.
And yet…not quite as educational as the other part of it.
At what had happened between him and his sworn brothers, in the end.
Jin Guangyao’s heart was made of stone, he knew, and it had only ever been moved twice in his life. He had only ever felt his heart beat fast because of the two men who had treated him well with no expectation of receiving anything in return. Lan Xichen, the beautiful and perfect gentleman who smiled at him and relied on him, and Nie Mingjue, the brave and powerful sect leader that found him pleasing and gave him everything, even his trust - at first.
In his past life, he had put Lan Xichen on a pedestal in his heart, the man appearing in every way the very image of the ideal cultivator that Jin Guangyao had dreamed of when he was a child. It had pleased him to be the one to save Lan Xichen, the one to protect him, to provide for him – it had made him feel strong, powerful, even before he actually had the power in his hands. For all that his cultivation was weaker, his age younger, Jin Guangyao was the stronger one between the two of them, and not only when he had saved his life, but after, too. Lan Xichen’s sect relied upon his Jin sect for their rebuilding, and Lan Xichen himself, a yielding personality that hated conflict, often relied on his guidance when it came to politics.
Jin Guangyao had fancied himself the man’s patron, luxuriating in the feeling of having made it so well and so thoroughly that he could keep a man like Lan Xichen, and in so doing he’d fallen for the same trick that each and every prostitute ever born had used on a willing mark since the beginning of time.
What had he not given Lan Xichen, in his first life? What had he stinted on, except perhaps the truths that would only hurt the man to know?
And what had it gotten him, in the end?
A single word from Lan Wangji, with his head turned by Wei Wuxian as always, had been enough for Lan Xichen to ban him from the Cloud Recesses without even a discussion, all the money and time and effort Jin Guangyao had put into rebuilding that very place forgotten as if it had never happened, as if the Cloud Recesses had resurrected itself without outside aid, or perhaps that it had never fallen at all.
A few rumors by prostitute and a bribed maid, and Lan Xichen believed the worst of him.
A child’s trick by Nie Huaisang (though Jin Guangyao hadn’t yet realized all that he’d done), and Lan Xichen had run him through without so much as a blink.
Jin Guangyao did not delude himself into thinking this was a tragedy unique to him. No, he was exactly like every other rich man who’d been squeezed dry by a beauty for his money and his power and abandoned the second it ran out.
Jin Guangyao had been angry, in his first life, that Nie Mingjue had – in his mind – cast him aside when he’d violated the man’s principles, but in the end Lan Xichen had done the same, and it was far worse because Jin Guangyao had given so much more of himself to him.
Chivalry, honor – who needed it?
Certainly not Nie Huaisang, who for his brother’s sake had thrown away every last bit of respectability his birth had ever given him to wade into the muck to fight Jin Guangyao on his own terms and win; barely even Nie Mingjue, who might have clothed his deeds in respectability but who had gone to war – had dragged the rest of the cultivation world into death and despair – in order to avenge his father.
If it had been Nie Mingjue at the temple, not Lan Xichen, would Jin Guangyao had been run through? Or would Nie Mingjue, of the strong will but even stronger heart, have in the end stayed his blade, his terrible Baxia, and allowed Jin Guangyao to flee, just as he’d done so many years earlier?
It was only now, in thinking it over in the harsh light of hindsight, that he even thought to compare them.
He had only known Nie Mingjue for a few years, compared to the nearly two decades he had devoted to Lan Xichen, and yet in those years Nie Mingjue had never, even at his worst, sought to kill Jin Guangyao, even though he could have easily done so. Even full of poison and rot and deliberately instigated madness, driven to calling Jin Guangyao the insult he knew he hated most – although Jin Guangyao could admit to himself in retrospect that he was, at that precise moment, acting especially like a son of a whore – Nie Mingjue had held back his fearsome strength when he kicked him down the stairs of Jinlin Tower.
He hadn’t even bruised a rib in that fall. When his father had kicked him, he’d broken three.
If he had had two decades to work his way into Nie Mingjue’s confidence, earn his love…would Nie Mingjue have so easily turned away from him?
Nie Mingjue would have sought him out to hear his side of the story, the way he always did back in the army camp when troublemakers spread rumors about him in an effort to displace him. He would have called him to the Unclean Realm to explain himself, rather than banning him without a word. He would have refused to listen to rumors presented without basis and insisted on proof, on seeing for himself, insisted on letting Jin Guangyao have the opportunity to defend himself.
He would have protected him from his enemies even as he shouted at him – he would have thrown himself between the sword and Jin Guangyao rather than let him face the penalty of his actions alone.
He would not have run him through so thoughtlessly, as if he were a ghoul rather than a friend.
He would have let him go.
Yes, Jin Guangyao was sure of it. Nie Mingjue would have let him go.
Damn the man, too much an older brother to be able to put any conditions on his love, the naïve idiot probably wouldn’t have stopped there; he probably would have given Jin Guangyao money to help him on his way, wanting to make sure that the life he lived in Dongying would be a good one.
He would have done the same way if it had been Nie Huaisang that had been accused of so much evil. The same way he’d dragged his feet about going to fight Wei Wuxian at the Burial Mounds, even though his own men had been killed by him; the same way he couldn’t bring himself to kill Jin Guangyao even after he’d murdered Nie disciples right before his eyes…
The way everyone in the Nie sect had to train, without exception – except for Nie Huaisang, because Nie Mingjue loved him.
He’d loved Jin Guangyao, once. Loved him enough to swear brotherhood with him despite the blood of those Nie sect disciples scarcely having been washed off his hands – if Nie Mingjue could forgive that, then surely the murder of a few dozen other sects wouldn’t have mattered nearly as much, not the way they mattered to Lan Xichen.
Or, well, maybe they would have, but Nie Mingjue would have broken himself for him anyway.
And then Nie Huaisang would’ve had to find a way to plot against him from a distance, which would be much harder for him, no matter how smart he was. Of course, that was assuming that Nie Huaisang would have plotted against him, instead of scheming to find a way to whitewash Jin Guangyao’s name in order to bring him back to make his brother happy, the way he’d so obviously (in retrospect) done with Wei Wuxian on behalf of Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji, who had been his friends.
First order of business: don’t underestimate Nie Huaisang.
Second order of business: get Nie Mingjue on my side.
It wouldn’t be that hard. Jin Guangyao was older and wiser now, less impulsive than he’d been, a little wiser in the way of people, perhaps. It hadn’t been until he saw the depths of what Nie Huaisang had done – his uncaring eyes that only a few days before had been crying into his shoulder as if Jin Guangyao was the only person in the world who loved him – that he realized that what Nie Mingjue had hated most about Jin Guangyao’s betrayal had been the treachery of it, not the specific actions he’d taken.
He’d presented himself as someone pure and innocent and clean, someone who would never do such a thing, and so when he had done it Nie Mingjue had realized that he had been lied to for all that time. That he had extended trust, and received none.
By the point in time he was at now, Nie Mingjue knew what type of person he was: ambitious and cutthroat, ruthless, a liar and a murderer. And yet, knowing all this, he still had still sworn brotherhood to him – had still extended his trust.
All Jin Guangyao needed to do now, thus, was to extend that trust in return.
For real, this time. Or at least – as close as he ever came to real.
His father’s request that Jin Guangyao use his connections to his sworn brothers to make Nie Mingjue stop his pestering over Xue Yang – so carefully couched in words that could be denied later, and were – would work perfectly. He would pretend to sulk, reluctant to admit what was wrong; Lan Xichen would fall for it at once and try to coax the truth out of him.
He would tell them.
Lan Xichen would be filled with horror, livid at what Jin Guangshan had asked of him, at what he was being forced to do – furious on his behalf, leaping to his defense. The perfect gentleman, as always.
Nie Mingjue, though, wouldn’t trust a word he said. Later, when they were alone, Jin Guangyao could look him in the eye and admit that he’d considered it. That he’d weighed the pros and cons of it, the love of his father and filial duty and, yes, even power –
It’s a waste, he’d say. I don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong, da-ge, you know that, but I know that I don’t want to lose you.
Nie Mingjue would believe him.
He wouldn’t believe the sad and pitiful version of him that Lan Xichen had always liked, but he’d believe the ruthless Jin Guangyao, finally tricked back to the side of righteousness by some unnamed emotion that caught him by surprise – yes, Nie Mingjue would like that.
Lan Xichen wouldn’t.
Jin Guangyao had always known, hadn’t he, even in his first life, that he would only ever be able to please one of them perfectly. He’d known that doing what he needed to do to ensnare Lan Xichen, who loved rescuing the pitiful, would anger Nie Mingjue, who hated hypocrisy; he had decided, his eyes full of the pure moonlight, that he preferred Lan Xichen, and acted accordingly.
Well, Jin Guangyao was not and had never been a stern absolutist, inflexible and unbending. He knew how to learn from his mistakes.
He’d given Lan Xichen a lifetime, and it had turned out – well, for a while, and then terribly.
In this lifetime, he’d see how far Nie Mingjue could take him.
Next order of business – don’t underestimate Lan Wangji. It’s always the younger brothers…