"He is going to become more of a hindrance than an asset, this Sworn Brother of yours. Maybe you should begin thinking of a way to remove your Da Ge and repay him for each and every slight and insult, don't you think so as well, my son ?"
Jin Guangshan's words echoed in Jin Guangyao's mind still, as they had done the entire journey from Carp Tower to Caiyi Town. Now that he'd left his guards behind though, there was nothing to distract him from them, and the enormity of what his father was asking of him finally had a chance to sink in fully. To weigh on his heart.
Objectively, it would be just another life, another murder, on his conscience. He’d had to learn not to let such things faze him, or he would not have survived a week in Wen Ruohan's employ. Not to mention that one life more or less really would not make any difference at this point anymore, would it? He had after all lost count of just how many lives he had ended, or at least he had convinced himself of it. Not by his own hand, no. That number was still only four, and Jin Guangyao intended to keep it that way. But by his orders, his machinations and scheming...
His heart clenched in his chest. He had truly become as manipulating as Nie Mingjue had once accused him of being. Nie Mingjue... The man he had looked up to for so long and whose approval he still longed for. The man he had now been ordered to dispose of. Could he? So far the only person he had killed not just out of duty and necessity had been the Captain of the Guard at the Unclean Realm, and even now he could not bring himself to regret it. But Nie Mingjue?
He stopped ahead of the last set of steps that would deposit him at the gates of the Cloud Recesses. Memories of the first time he'd climbed this path flooded his thoughts and he gasped, his left hand trembling as he recalled Lan Xichen's warmth as the older man brushed his fingers... Xichen. Xichen would be hurt if Nie Mingjue were to perish. Xichen...
Leaning against a tree, Jin Guangyao stared at his hands, his mind conjuring up visions of those elegant fingers dripping with blood, and he could almost hear Lan Xichen crying out his name, disbelieving and oh so hurt. No, not his name. That special name he had started calling him by and that made Jin Guangyao's heart jump every time he heard it. Ah Yao. It felt like a lover's caress and...
Jin Guangyao was no fool. He was well aware of the most shameful secret he was hiding, that he had been hiding since the day he had first met the First Jade of Lan. He loved Xichen, and not in the way a sworn brother should. Nothing would ever come of it, of course. Lan Xichen was an honourable, upstanding man who would never desire the son of a prostitute in such a way. And yet... There were times when Jin Guangyao allowed himself to dream. To wish that maybe one day... Well, that day would never come if he killed their Da Ge.
Jin Guangyao shook his head. He was being a coward. The truth was ... the truth was that he slowly came to realise just why his father had suddenly offered him a place at his side. Not out of paternal affection, but a shrewd acknowledgement of Meng Yao's abilities, not to mention his status as one of the heroes of the Sunshot Campaign. It had been a political maneuver. Nothing more. Still, he had fooled himself into believing that if he proved himself to his father, Jin Guangshan would eventually learn to trust him. Maybe even care for him.
The banquet after the disastrous Night Hunt on Mount Baifeng had taught him that he had gained neither. It was Jin Zixun who had his father's confidence, who he trusted to do ... deplorable things in the name of the Jin Sect. He still felt sick to his stomach thinking of what he had found out later about the experiments that had been conducted at Qiongqi Path and quite possibly other prisoner camps. He understood his father's desire to kill the Wen Sect's Cultivators, but to experiment on innocents?
Yes, Zixun was far better suited to being his father's right hand than he was. Lianfang-zun was nothing but a pretty title. A title Jin Guangyao had so craved, but that now felt like a weight upon his shoulders. How much more would he have to do to receive at least a kind word from his father. How much more was he willing to do, how many more insults and wine cups to his face was he willing to take?
He thought back to his beloved mother who had been so convinced that one day Jin Guangshan would come for him, would raise him to his rightful place. Would she have wanted this for him? This life on the edge, where one small misstep could lose him everything he had worked so hard to achieve? A life where his position was less secure than it had ever been in the Unclean Realm and where his mother's background was used even more as an insult. By his own father at that! His father who had now asked him to dispose of one of his Sworn Brothers.
His hat was slipping as he moved his head against the tree and he chuckled mirthlessly. He was always so careful to ensure it sat straight on his head, seemingly secure just as he pretended to be secure in his own position. The truth was that his hat, just like Jin Guangyao himself, was threatening to fall at any given moment, and maybe it was the proximity to the Cloud Recesses, but he felt that he simply could not go on this way. Whatever he did, it would never be good enough. No matter how much blood stained his hands and pooled at his feet, his father would never deem him worthy. There was ambition and then there was stupidity.
Meng Shi had not raised an idiot and so, leaning against a tree, the warm sun shining upon his face, Jin Guangyao decided that this time he would not do as his father had asked. He couldn't. Not Nie Mingjue. Not the man who had been a mentor to him. The man Lan Xichen loved as a brother. He would be cast from the Jin Sect of course, but it didn't matter. He would make his fortune elsewhere. In Dongying if necessary. But first he would reveal his father's deeds to the world. Maybe someone would believe him. He would also have to admit to his own part in pointing a finger at Wei Wuxian as far as the whereabouts of the last piece of the Yin Metal were concerned when really it had to lie with Xue Yang.
Pushing himself away from the tree, he hesitated. Making such a decision was one thing. Seeing it through though... That was an entirely different matter. Part of him wanted to run away and hide from it all, but he was not the weakling everyone seemed to believe he was and he would not run. Especially not when Lan Xichen was waiting for him. Given that this might turn out to be the last time he got to see Zewu-jun, he was not going to make him wait any longer.
Squaring his back, he walked up the last set of steps, bowing to the Lan Sect disciples who were guarding the gates. They smiled at him, bowing low to the Sworn Brother of their own sect leader. There was no need to let him in. Lan Xichen had given him a Jade Token that he carried with him always. A token of passage that would allow Jin Guangyao entrance into the Cloud Recesses at all times. He would have to return it of course, and his heart ached at the thought, his fingers closing around the cool jade as if he was trying to commit the feel of it to his memory.
Lan Xichen greeted him with a warm smile and a steaming pot of tea in the Hanshi and as Jin Guangyao made to bow, his Sworn Brother stopped him as was his wont. "Ah Yao, how often do I have to tell you that there is no need for this? Especially not when we are alone." His voice was gentle, as were the hands that brushed Jin Guangyao's as they always did. But instead of pulling back straight away, Lan Xichen allowed his fingers to linger and Jin Guangyao's eyes widened. Only then did the taller man step back, an apology on his lips. "I am sorry, Ah Yao. It simply has been too long since our last meeting and I may have needed to ensure that you were really here."
A blush graced Xichen's cheeks, and Jin Guangyao was certain the other man would hear the pounding of his heart. "I am sorry that I could not tear myself away from my duties. But with Jin Zixuan's upcoming wedding and the fallout of Wei Wuxian's defection..."
Xichen nodded and motioned for Jin Guangyao to take a seat opposite him. "You have been working hard, I can see that. You look tired, Ah Yao. Please promise me that you will take better care of yourself."
Jin Guangyao swallowed hard. How was he to even broach the subject he needed to discuss with Xichen when the other man was so kind and caring? "I ... I do not know if I can. I would rather not give a promise to you that I cannot keep, Er Ge..."
Xichen's smile faltered, concern taking its place. "I know I am overstepping the bounds of propriety, even between brothers, but Ah Yao I have watched in silence as your smile lost its lustre, your eyes their sparkle. I know how much this means to you, being by your father's side, but I cannot help but wonder if it is truly worth it." It was obvious the other man wanted to say more, but he held back. Always reserved, always thoughtful.
"I..." Jin Guangyao lowered his gaze to his tea cup and worried his lower lip. Reaching inside his robes, he retrieved the jade token and slowly placed it on the table before sliding it towards Xichen. "I do not think I deserve this anymore, Er Ge. There is something I must do, or rather that I will not do, and it will change everything, I fear. The way you see me as well as everyone's opinion of me."
Xichen shook his head in disbelief, his hand covering Jin Guangyao's where it was still sliding the token across the table. "My opinion of you is not as fickle as you must think it is." There was so much hurt in Xichen's voice, Jin Guangyao wanted nothing more but to take back his words. But he couldn't. There were things the other man needed to hear, and not from others but Jin Guangyao himself.
"I do not think it is fickle, Er Ge, you misunderstand. I simply know that a man as righteous as you will not be able to ... to forgive my shortcomings. No. Not shortcomings. The things I have done are far worse than shortcomings could ever be. And I would have continued committing my ... misdeeds without second guessing if it were not ... for you. I have been asked to do something that I know would hurt you. No matter what happens, that is not something I could ever do. You have only ever shown me kindness and you never spoke disparagingly of my mother or my upbringing."
Jin Guangyao shook his head and slowly withdrew his hand, cradling it to his chest as if he could retain Xichen's warmth that way. "My father has asked me to ... to find a way to rid him of an inconvenience. Not for the first time. But this time I find myself unable to follow his wishes. I know I have blood on my hands, Er Ge, in ways you cannot even fathom, but I will not do this. I will not ... destroy Da Ge..."
Whatever Jin Guangyao had expected, Xichen's reaction was not it. The older man's eyes widened momentarily before he nodded with a resigned sigh. "He is acting sooner than I had anticipated. And I wish he had not dragged you into this, though I admit I am not surprised. He seems to think you are his lackey, willing to do anything to garner his attention. I feared that it might be so, and glad that it is not." Jin Guangyao blinked in shock, and Xichen smiled sadly. "Da Ge is maybe not the best politician, and he sees the world in extremes, but he is a great military leader. A man who might oppose your father when it comes to the position of Chief Cultivator..."
"Er Ge..." For the first time in a long while, Jin Guangyao was lost for words.
"As I said, I have watched quietly, but I think it is time I speak up, no matter how improper. I was not surprised by Jin Guangshan's willingness to take in his long lost son after the Sunshot Campaign, nor by the way he has been treating you ever since. It pains me to see how hard you strive to prove yourself worthy in his eyes when I ... I know he will never see you as anything more than ... a tool to be used. A figurehead. A means to make himself look generous, noble and forgiving."
Xichen's words, while true, hurt. But to think that even a man as gentle as Zewu-jun had picked up on Jin Guangshan's motivations ... before Jin Guangyao had admitted the truth to himself at that, it was jarring. "Is it so obvious?"
Xichen shook his head, "Only to someone who knows what to look out for. Someone who maybe looks out a little too much..." Jin Guangyao frowned, the other man's words puzzling. "Forgive me. I misspoke. I simply ... I can see what being Jin Guangshan's son does to you, and I admit that I do not like it one bit. The misdeeds you speak of, they are a direct result of your father's wishes, are they not? The blood on your hands, bar that of the four lives I know you have taken, stains his just as much as yours. Please excuse my forwardness, but I wish you could see that you are worthy of so much more than what he will ever give you..."
Jin Guangyao glanced up, a smile lifting the corners of his lips as he saw the blush that once again graced his Sworn Brother's cheeks. If only Xichen knew how appealing he looked at that moment ... and how non fraternal his thoughts were. The other man would surely be shocked and disgusted. His smile faded. Even if Xichen was somehow understanding about what he had just revealed, the older man would never be able to forgive him for the impure thoughts and dreams Jin Guangyao had been having ever since the first time they had met.
"Er Ge is too kind." Holding up his hand to forestall Xichen's imminent disagreement, Jin Guangyao shook his head. "You are. I have just revealed to you that I ... that there is blood on my hands not to mention that I have been tasked with the murder of our Sworn Brother, and you still..." He swallowed. "There is more. I fear Da Ge is right when he accuses me of being manipulative and scheming. Wei Wuxian ... it was I who first made Father believe that he was in possession of the last piece of the Yin Metal."
"Not a long stretch of the imagination I fear. Young Master Wei is a changed man, and I wish I knew what has happened to him in the Burial Mounds. Wangji... He worries. He wished to take Master Wei here to the Cloud Recesses, but then..."
"He was right. He was right in his accusations. I only found out about it after the fact, but when I told everyone about his attack on Qiongqi Path, I knew something was not right. Father has been ... conducting experiments on our prisoners."
"So Master Wei was righteous in his anger after all?" Xichen pursed his lips and then nodded slowly. "He will protect those who cannot protect themselves no matter the cost."
"Whereas I was doing the exact opposite. But I will do so no longer. I cannot. Though it is not for the same reasons. I am not that philanthropic. Quite the opposite. I am selfish even now. Selfishly trying to at least prevent you ... hating me. Like the rest of the Cultivation World will. Going against my father means losing everything I have gained, and more. He will not let me fade into obscurity. He will seek to destroy what little name I had before." A price he was willing to pay if it meant that Lan Xichen would not lose his friend and brother. The brother who had always been honest with him that was.
"I could never hate you, Ah Yao. You have saved me, saved our precious texts. I will always be indebted to you. As will Da Ge once he hears of this. I ... I know that had you wished to, you would have found a way to ... dispose of him without anyone being the wiser, so do not underestimate the importance of you choosing not to do so. Maybe now you can move beyond what happened in the past. I know his opinion means a lot to you."
"Not as much as yours," Jin Guangyao whispered before he could stop himself. He fervently hoped that Xichen had not heard him, but when the other man rose to his feet, he knew those wishes were for nought.
"Would you wait here for a moment?" Jin Guangyao nodded meekly, finally taking a sip of his tea. Xichen disappeared in the direction of the guest room he himself had stayed in a few times in the past, a room he would never stay in again now. A lone tear ran down his cheek. He could have kept it all, at least for a while longer. Why had he suddenly been so ... noble?
Xichen returned with a bowl of steaming water and a soft cloth before retrieving two cloth wrapped bundles. Jin Guangyao frowned as the other man knelt by his side, a smile on his lips once more. "I sent word to Da Ge, asking him to travel to Gusu as soon as possible as our brother needs our help. He might be harsh to you in person, but he does worry about you." Jin Guangyao barely stopped himself from snorting. Nie Mingjue? Worried about him? There was no way. Xichen had clearly caught on and was smiling now. "It is true, Ah Yao, even though you do not believe it. Now, you spoke of being selfish, but I fear you are not nearly as selfish as I am about to be. Would you ... allow me?"
Frowning, Jin Guangyao nodded. He would allow Xichen to do almost everything after all. But what the other man did still startled him.
Tender hands loosened the ties of his hat, removing it with a slight nod. "That is better." Reaching for the cloth, he soaked it in the water for a moment before wringing it out and then lifting it to Jin Guangyao's forehead. Pausing, Xichen whispered, "Ah Yao?" The younger man could not reply. Words could not express what he was feeling and so he simply gazed at Xichen, willing the other man to understand. He did. Gently he removed the vermilion mark from Jin... Meng Yao's forehead before sitting back and reaching for the two bundles. "Plain robes that I had made for you as I know that you prefer wandering the Cloud Recesses without anyone realising who you are." He looked unsure then and had to swallow before pointing at the second bundle. "Or these..."
Meng Yao's hands were shaking as he reached for the second bundle.. so much so that it took him several attempts to untie the ribbon that held it together. The first thing he saw once the dark cloth the robes were wrapped in fell away was blue fabric, and then the clouds. The clouds of Gusu Lan. These were the robes of a disciple of the Lan Sect.
"I had these made after the Sunshot Campaign ended. I meant to ask you at Sunburst Palace to join the Lan Sect, to come and live in the Cloud Recesses. But then Jin Guangshan arrived and I lost my chance. I..." Xichen worried his lower lip before continuing, "Do you remember what I asked you on the day we first met? I wondered if you could stay a few days at least. I would ask you again. Stay here, as my personal guest or even one of our disciples. Stay."
"You would ask this of me even though I just told you..." Meng Yao was incredulous. This could not be happening. He had thought that his fall from Carp Tower would once again be a tumble without anyone to stop it. But here was Xichen. "Er Ge... I ... I am not even worthy of calling you that anymore. I am nothing now." He glanced at his hat and chuckled mirthlessly. "I am worse than nothing."
"First of all, you are not. You are still our Sworn Brother, and I am certain Mingjue will be far more ... lenient now that you have shed your father's name again. At least I believe you have?" Meng Yao nodded. "Good. And secondly, I was willing to take in Wei Wuxian, and I still would despite everything that has happened since that day of the Night Hunt. Against the wishes of the Elders if need be. No one would oppose your presence, especially not given everything you have just revealed to me. Even without proof..."
"Oh, but I have at least something..." Reaching into his robes again, robes that now felt heavier than they had only moments before, he presented a few scrolls to the other man. "Father's orders to a group of Cultivators he has been hiding in one of his many manors. They are the ones who are conducting the experiments..."
Xichen smiled and reached for Meng Yao's hands seemingly without realising it. "Then you have nothing to fear. Stay, Ah Yao. Stay where no one will ever think less of you because of who your mother was or because you were not raised as a Cultivator." Or where at least no one would mention it, Meng Yao thought to himself. "This is a place of learning, and I know that you will excel here. Stay..." He squeezed Meng Yao's hands then, and suddenly his eyes widened as if he only just noticed what he was doing. But he did not let go. "Stay," he whispered again. "Stay with me..."
There really was no way to deny such a heartfelt request, and Meng Yao felt tears run down his cheeks as Xichen ... Lan Huan ... Ah Huan pulled him into his arms and simply held him until his eyes were dried up and he was shaking with emotions he could scarcely put into words. The tears came again hours later when he put on his new robes, with the blessing of Teacher Lan no less who showed uncharacteristic glee at the revelation that Jin Guangshan had lost a great mind like Meng Yao's. He also was not surprised to learn what the Jin Sect Leader had been planning, and what he had asked of his own son.
Nie Mingjue had been another story. "And you didn't jump at the opportunity to rid yourself of me? I am hurt, truly. I thought I made it quite clear that I do not trust you and never will." The Nie Sect Leader had glared at Meng Yao for good measure, but instead of coming to Meng Yao's aid, Xichen had simply ... smiled. Clearly because he knew what Chifeng-zun's next words would be. "Well, I think I might be able to trust you now that you are no longer leashed by that pompous fool who calls himself your father when it suits him, but who treats you like dirt otherwise. For a man so smart, you were exceedingly dumb to fall for his nonsense in the first place. Especially since I could tell that you and Xichen..."
Had Meng Yao's Cultivation been stronger, he very likely might have suffered a Qi Deviation then and there because Nie Mingjue, his Da Ge , smiled at him. Before submitting him to the most rigorous training imaginable that soon saw his Golden Core grow remarkably.
By the time Jin Zixuan quietly took over the Jin Sect as a leader, having revealed his father's plans involving Demonic Cultivation ... with the help of Wei Wuxian no less, Meng Yao was not only Lan Xichen's Cultivation Partner, but his husband.
A year on, and on the first birthday of her son, Jiang Yanli had finally snapped and told Wei Wuxian and Wangji to stop their pining and have a little chat about their feelings for one another. It had caused quite a stir during the banquet celebrating Jin Ling's first year, but had led to the feared Yiling Patriarch and the Second Jade of Lan being discovered in a corner of the gardens, liplocked. Which had prompted Jiang Cheng to finally gather all of his courage to travel to the Burial Mounds again and ask Wen Qing for her hand.
Now, two days later, Jin Ling was bouncing happily on his uncle's knee as Jiang Yanli was drawing Meng Yao and his little nephew. As a way for Jin Ling to remember his childhood she had told Meng Yao. "He misses you when you are not here. Between his three uncles, I think you are his favourite. Or maybe your name is simply easier, but he keeps calling for his Uncle Yao far more than his Uncles Xian or Cheng. Not that I blame him. My brothers can be ... difficult to handle at times."
As if on queue, Jin Ling squealed happily, "YaoYao! Where Chen?"
"Ah Ling, your Uncle Xichen is still trying to make your Uncle Cheng and your Papa agree a new trade route, and even your Uncle Yao who normally helps Uncle Xichen with these things had enough and decided to spend his time with us instead." Jiang Yanli smiled at Meng Yao, who chuckled lowly.
Much had changed. He was no longer Jin Guangyao, Lianfang-zun, and part of the Jin Sect. He was however an honoured guest of his brother who was always welcome at Carp Tower. Not to mention that he was the husband of the new Chief Cultivator, aiding Xichen wherever he could with his knowledge, and yes, the occasional manipulation if common sense did not prevail.
He was who he had always been. He was Meng Yao, and that was more than enough.