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contemplate the darkness, crawl your way out

Chapter Text

It began, as it always did, above the stairs.

 

It began, as it always did, in a flash and a heartbeat and a terrible tremor across his skin. He looked down those gilded stairs, watched them shake and move.

 

He looked down, and moved himself, a leaf in the cruel winds of fate.

 

Ah but the stairs weren’t shaking, they weren’t moving at all. No, he was tumbling down, each edge bruising black into his skin and making him stronger.

 

He could feel the stairs, and he knew he wanted to kill his brother.

 

He could feel the stairs, and had always wanted to kill his father.

 

No one ever knew how long it took, to fall down imperial stairs. They didn’t realize each stone was precious seconds in free-fall, each edge slowed and stopped you.

 

They didn’t know, but he did. He knew every stair. It began, as it always did, above the stairs.

 

It would end at the bottom, where he pulled himself up and the beast in his skin roared. It would end standing above the stairs again, with gentle fingers gripping his.

 

But it began where he made every one of the most fateful decisions in his life.

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

Jin Guangyao blinked his eyes open at the top of the stairs, and felt a foot reaching forward to push him down. A strong leg kicked out, the merciless rage of the man he had always looked up to, of the one he had admired more than any other.

 

At the head of an army, Nie Mingjue looked like a general come to bring salvation. Jin Guangyao had stood behind him so many times, had stood at his side even more. He had seen the silhouette of a man of war and felt inspiration.

 

Then he had felt rejection and was all the more bitter for it.

 

At the top of stairs, though, Nie Mingjue looked like a tyrant king, breaking the clouds from the sky with his scowl.

 

Or perhaps that was wrong, perhaps Jin Guangyao was the snake being thrown down the stairs. Perhaps this was the punishment he deserved, for all his long years of treachery and deceit.

 

It didn’t matter, regardless. Son of a whore, the man had said, and so he would die. With the beast in his skin clawing at his bones and raging a tide of venom, Jin Guangyao would ensure it.

 

But—

 

But he had already been here. He had already done this, had already driven Nie Mingjue past the edge and through a qi deviation.

 

Jin Guangyao had felt those terrible stairs but he had dug his teeth into the man before him and snarled.

 

Nie Mingjue had died a broken and bloody death. Nie Mingjue had been a corpse at his mercy, a dead thorn in his side. Nie Mingjue had been, as always, unstoppable.

 

Then Jin Guangyao had died too, trapped in a coffin with the man he had once respected so highly. He could remember the feel of dead wood closing in around him, blanketing him in a terrible darkness. He could remember corpse-arms come to rip him to shreds.

 

He could remember saving Lan Xichen, and that small success made his grave better than these stairs.

 

What fate was this, that he lived this moment again.

 

He felt the stairs cut into his skin. He felt them bruise, felt them break him. There would be purpled patterns across his thighs, up the lean muscle of his back. He was a canvas before this terrible brush, and it had painted ink into his bones and across his fingers so many times.

 

He fell down the stairs and was a boy of twenty again. His hope had shattered on these stairs, shattered and been crushed into pearly powder beneath the heel of Jin Guangshan.

 

There was sun catching on the gilded steps and making them gleam like a fish decorated with golden scales.

 

Jin Guangyao stood and walked up them with a pained smile, brushed past the servants rushing to help him up. Their hands weren’t needed, now, weren’t wanted. He had only ever enjoyed one pair of hands on his skin, and they were not here to hold him close.

 

He did not speak, as he walked. He hardly dared look at Nie Mingjue, exchanging the same words they had spoken before. They were still just as harsh, still just as furious.

 

He plotted a death, again. Even in a dream, even if it ever stung him, he would plot this death.

 

He did not think of the gentle fingers of Lan Xichen, did not think of how they had always touched his skin like he was a precious thing.

 

He did not thing of the sword that had driven through his chest, cracking bone and drawing blood.

 

Lan Xichen had gentle fingers, he thought, as he stared into the gilded sun. Lan Xichen had always worried for him, he realized, as the man himself rushed from Koi Tower and stared at the broken bond of brothers.

 

Nie Mingjue was rage and fury, but Jin Guangyao just felt cold.

 

In the end, he had saved the one person who mattered most, and that was all the he could ever ask for. Murder would be just as bitterly sweet, the second time. This time, he would plan it ever more carefully.

 

This time, Nie Huaisang would die as well.

 

He stood and did not shake. He stood and did not smile. Servants were waved away, and disciples calmed.

 

Jin Guangyao had lived through this moment before and knew how it would end. He did not shake, but it was no easier to bear.

 

A thousand steps to make him cruel, a thousand steps to break him.

 

He would feel these bruises later, after he could stare down at Nie Mingjue’s body. He would regret it again, he knew but—

 

But the stairs couldn’t be forgiven.

 

In a rush of fluttering white robes, Lan Xichen swept out of the palace, rushing to Jin Guangyao’s side and standing before him.

 

He couldn’t bear how beautiful the man was, how much care he was given.

 

Lan Xichen pressed gentle fingers into his wrist, looked at him with such worried eyes. The man’s fingers were trembling, he noticed, and wondered at that. The corner of his devious mind that was dedicated to paranoia and plotting thought it strange.

 

The rest of him wanted to sooth that trembling away, wanted to make those fingers press into his wrists.

 

He wanted to flinch away too, with the sting of a sword still echoing in his ribs. He wanted to crawl into the man’s lap and sink into his skin, wanted to never let him leave.

 

He wanted so much of Lan Xichen. The man had always given him so much, and treated him the same, through years and brothels and fine halls.

 

Jin Guangyao didn’t want him to die. The beast in his blood swam and snarled at the thought, pressed out like it would consume him.

 

He had never wanted something so badly, through the entirety of his desperate and greedy life.

 

It took him less than a day to plan how to kill Nie Mingjue. It took him a few hours to slip poison into his drink, precious moments more to pin the blame firmly on the resentful and pitiable brother Nie Huaisang.

 

Oh, how terrible a family drama, the gossips would say behind spread fans and with glimmering eyes. A brother driven to poison for his failure, for his weakness and love of fans.

 

Gossip was poison, and Jin Guangyao had a deft hand for liquid death.

 

He watched with shocked eyes as Nie Mingjue clutched at his chest, a big hand crinkling the fine silks of Nie Clan robes. He watched the great man reel, watched him topple forward.

 

Tea cups spilled across the floor as ash and dust, as blood and sand. Polished wood looked so very dirty, when it was stained by broken porcelain and spat blood.

 

It looked even more filthy, with Nie Mingjue laying prone and broken.

 

Son of a whore, echoed through Jin Guangyao’s head and kept him from feeling regret a second time.

 

Light faded strangely from strong eyes. He raced to his brother’s side, pressed fingers that should have healed to the man’s neck. He looked so very desperate, and in many ways he was.

 

He hadn’t wanted to do this, a second time. His hands trembled across Nie Mingjue, trembled and he did not need to fake it. No qi could stop this poison, no desperate healing could slow it. He had chosen it carefully from the vile plants of Yiling, and nothing could stop its miasmatic spread.

 

Tea spilled over the polished wood, and Nie Mingjue died. Baxia slipped from a strong waist with a clatter, and Jin Guangyao knew so much regret.

 

Then he blinked open terrified eyes above the endless stairs.

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

He blinked awake, blinked into being, blinked into pain and terrible loss. The light overhead shone so bright, glittering over gilded stairs and across the tiled roof of Koi Tower.

 

The light glittered off Nie Mingjue too, as the man kicked out at his chest. Jin Guangyao had only a moment to watch that blow fall, to watch it strike towards him.

 

He would fall again, on this day, with the stairs catching his heels and tumbling him down. The Head Cultivator of all the land, who had worked so very hard to do good, to improve the world and keep people safe, no matter what it took, would fall.  

 

He would fall down again, at his sworn brother’s hands.

 

But no, no, he had been pushed down one too many times. He had been called whore’s son one too many times too, and Jin Guangyao couldn’t stand for it again.

 

He had closed his eyes over Nie Mingjue’s corpse for a second time. He had opened them to the stairs and this terrible fall for a third. There was gilded marble surrounding him and glinting in the sun, and it felt like the enemy. But this time it didn’t matter.

 

This time he would strike first.

 

Jin Guangyao lashed out, speed assassin-quick and deadly. His fingers gouged forward, cutting into the soft silk of Nie Mingjue’s robes and striking for the heart. He had spent long hours at Wen Ruohan’s side, learning the tyrant’s skill and clever tricks.

 

He was an assassin, and people so often forgot that.

 

But Nie Mingjue never had. A snake, the man had called him, and watched him like the hawk come to devour him. Jin Guangyao had only ever wanted respect.

 

Instead he was given distrust.

 

So he struck out, but it was a futile attack. Even in this, his brother had him outclassed. The man pivoted on a foot, snarled in rage, and slammed a powerful hand into his arm.

 

The crack of bone echoed so loudly, in this space above the stairs.

 

The sound echoed into his ears, into his very veins. It was so much louder than the pain, so much more cavernous. The beast in his skin boiled and roiled at its noise, a wounded creature given to rage.

 

Jin Guangyao couldn’t help but tremble. He was so used to pain, so used to the sting of sharp knives and the bruises of terrible marble. Jin Guangyao had been thrown down all his life, and he knew all pain as an old friend and older comfort.

 

Somehow, that resonant crack of fracturing bone was unbearable. He had defeated the man before him. He had beaten his own demons.

 

He had fed the beast in his skin and regretted it so much.

 

Whatever fate had cursed him to relive this moment should be burned and devoured, he thought.

 

The sun glinted so very brightly across his fine robes, but his father thought him unfit to wear them.

 

Did Nie Mingjue think the same, he wondered, staring at the man’s furious eyes. The Sect Leader looked like a mountain, strong and unmovable. For so long, Jin Guangyao had only wanted to climb his peaks.

 

Son of a whore, Nie Mingjue had called him three times, and broken his arm.

 

“You dare strike me,” the man said, and it was like an avalanche had come to grind a voice into being. Once that voice had spoken in his defense, and that man had looked at him with pride.

 

Now it was fury and clarity, rage and pity. Now Jin Guangyao hated that look.

 

It was too much, it was all too much. He had broken his masks and cracked his soul open on these steps so many times. He had struck at his brother and revealed his hate, his desperation.

 

He just hadn’t wanted to fall again.

 

Sun shining into his robes and burning him deadly, he laughed. Through the pain, through the sharp ache of cracked bone, he laughed.

 

He laughed and it was far too honest, but what would it matter? Either he would die or he would kill the man before him.

 

Either way he would open his eyes on these stairs again.

 

“So self-righteous, brother. So damned self-righteous, always doing the right thing, always so good.” His arm stung, ached, trembled. He hadn’t fallen down the stairs yet but it was only a matter of time, only moments left.

 

He would open his eyes to the man he had once respected, and he would open his eyes to a pain that went soul-deep and clawing.

 

“Have you never thought that I was trying to do good too?”

 

Nie Mingjue’s face was coated in rage, but it broke for a moment, like the clouds parting before the sun. There was a gleam like Baxia’s blade in his eyes, the fury of a thousand storms in his bared teeth.

 

But for a moment, he paused.

 

“Your good, snake, was wasted in murder and treachery.”

 

Jin Guangyao laughed, and it was a bitter sound. All the politeness had vanished from his face, all the masks had cracked. He was speaking the truth, forced out by a broken arm and his own foolish tongue.

 

But it didn’t matter, couldn’t.

 

He would just kill the man before him again and open his eyes above the stairs.

 

He could play out the entire future again, if he wished to. But ever would he be tied to this man, bound to death and the bruises of smooth marble.

 

Once, he would have loved that with all his famished blood. Now he could only feel his heart twitch and the beast beneath his skin go acidic, could feel it writhe and thrash.

 

He had fallen down the stairs so many times.

 

For the long years of his miserable childhood, all he had ever wanted was to earn a father’s approval. In the perfumed corners of a brothel, in the cracks where he couldn’t hear the faked moans, in the places where no hands reached for his mother, he had thought of escape.

 

Father will come if I am but good enough, he thought, with a child’s folly. It had been the hope he used to chain the beast in his skin, for long years.

 

Then he had met the curse that was Jin Guangshan. Then he had been thrown down the stairs. Now all he had ever wanted was to devour his father’s legacy and rise above it.

 

Nie Mingjue had valued him, once. Jin Guangyao had loved him, once, as fiercely as he loved Lan Xichen.

 

The past was dust ground beneath the heels of fate, beneath the hopes Jin Guangyao once had.

 

He had stared at Nie Mingjue with such hope, once. He had been—

 

He had been young.

 

Now he was old and furious. The beast in his blood had grown into its teeth, and all the love Jin Guangyao had was carefully compartmented away.

 

Place it in a gilded cage and let it scream. He would not obey it now, not as he heard whore’s son.

 

Jin Guangyao was too malleable to listen to the commands of a powerless bird.

 

His arm stung, but Nie Mingjue did not draw his saber. The man was a picture of fierce rage and righteousness, but he had Jin Guangyao in a strong grip.

 

The white robes of Lan Xichen were a blessing, now, even as they made his masks crumble.

 

He had laughed too honestly, had spoken freely. Lan Xichen ran forward with worried eyes and Shuoyue bare and deadly, driving Nie Mingjue back a careful step.

 

Jin Guangyao really needed to kill him.

 

There was a strange awareness in Lan Xichen’s eyes, like he had been frightened, like he had been broken.

 

They caught on Jin Guangyao and wouldn’t look away, wouldn’t shift a fraction.

 

He didn’t know what to make of that, wanted to burrow into the man’s strong arms and never be free. He wanted to run, too, with the memory of a sword buried deep in his chest.

 

But he could never flee from those eyes.

 

“Dage, step back.” The words were sharp, from a gentle voice. They held worry, a depth of fear that Jin Guangyao didn’t expect, even with a broken arm and cold sweat across his face.

 

The rage hadn’t faded from the man’s face, jaw set into fury. But Jin Guangyao couldn’t pay attention to that, only a fraction of him even registering the reaction.

 

All that he was had focused in on Lan Xichen like the man was a flame and he a beastly moth.

 

It wasn’t like Lan Xichen to be sharp, and even less like him to stare at Jin Guangyao so.

 

The man was kind and gentle, noble and soft-hearted. But he was a calm man above all else, a level-headed warrior made to govern a battlefield.

 

This man with worried eyes and shaking fingers wasn’t him.

 

“Leave, Xichen. This is between us.” Nie Mingjue’s eyes were hot as fire, hot enough to burn Jin Guangyao to pieces. The man had never been inclined to cold rage, had never known the restraint of a revenge served frozen and endless.

 

That made him all the more dangerous now, but it didn’t matter.

 

“It is no matter, brother,” he said, with a polite smile. The First Jade needed to go, needed to step careful feet away from this cursed place.

 

Above the stairs was not a space for Lan Xichen and his gentle kindness, and Jin Guangyao couldn’t kill Nie Mingjue with Lan Xichen standing proud and protective.

 

But the man shook his head, and Jin Guangyao felt his heart sink.

 

“No, brothers, I will not leave. A-yao is hurt, brother. I will not let you do more.” The man glanced at the stairs again, glanced at them more times than he should have.

 

Jin Guangyao, with the whole of his spider’s mind focused on Lan Xichen, noticed.

 

Something was wrong, and he had a terrible inkling of what.

 

Fed by the need to know, by the need to help Lan Xichen, Jin Guangyao killed Nie Mingjue in his sleep.

 

This time, he watched his brother die and let himself feel regret. He hadn’t wanted this, not the first time and not the last.

 

He had never wanted this.  

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

 

Jin Guangyao had a theory to test, and ever had he been a man of facts and careful observation.

 

The next time he blinked above the stairs, he did not move to stop Nie Mingjue. He let each bruise purple his skin, let marble stairs press cold and terrible over his bones.

 

His arm did not crack. He did not cry out. He stood, at the bottom of the stairs.

 

The golden sight of Koi Tower greeted him, glimmering in the sunlight like a dragon with such beautiful scales.

 

He had never seen anything he hated more.

 

The same scenes played out, and he made the same motions, spoke the same lines. He noticed Nie Mingjue’s fury, the way his hands shook with rage.

 

Even now, the man was on the brink of a qi deviation, and after that last quiet death, Jin Guangyao couldn’t help but feel—

 

Worry.

 

But that was not for now, that was not the purpose of this terrible fall. He had killed again, stained his fingers bloody and grimy. In the light of this beautiful sun, he was filthy with his origins and his deeds.

 

He had done it for Lan Xichen and his too-knowing eyes. Those eyes stared at him now, strong and deep with the bones lining the ocean floor.

 

They were lovely.

 

“A-yao,” the man said, and all of that terrible kindness came with it. Jin Guangyao couldn’t bear that look, couldn’t bear those gentle eyes and the lips that moved like they held regret.

 

There was so much pain in that face, and he had sworn to never hurt this man.

 

“Do you—”

 

Jin Guangyao cut him off with a soft hand and a masked kindness. They were in the walls of Koi Tower, and he could not see the stairs inside this dignified courtyard. Gentle flowers waved in the sunlight, but Jin Guangyao could not see their beauty.

 

He could not relax, even now.

 

“Ah, brother I am fine, truly.” He smiled as he spoke, smiled past the bruises. His arm ached with a phantom pain, his mind whirled with a thousand thoughts.

 

It had been needed but—

 

He hadn’t wanted to fall down the stairs again. The bruises felt so fresh now, digging into his back like fire and dark memories. He had almost cried out, before the fall, had almost reached out. It had been so much, to bear that pain again.

 

Jin Guangyao had killed every man who had thrown him down stairs. He had never regretted it, though he had regretted the need.

 

Now he had let himself fall. Would he need to break his own bones just as thoroughly?

 

But Lan Xichen just looked at him with dark eyes and reached out cautious fingers.

 

“How many times have you fallen down the stairs, A-yao,” the man asked, and that question sunk into the air like it had been made of gold and weighed down with iron.

 

It was a question Lan Xichen would never have thought to ask, the first time. It was a question that answered so many of Jin Guangyao’s questions.

 

It was a question that hurt so much.

 

“How much do you remember, brother?”

Chapter Text

“Everything,” came the answer, and it felt like a death knell come to quake his bones. The word echoed across a gilded courtyard and into his bones. He was left bare and breaking, before that word, before the swirling anguish in Lan Xichen’s eyes.

 

The man who had killed him remembered it all. Jin Guangyao didn’t know whether to rage or cry at that.

 

He wanted to shrink back in this quiet courtyard, wanted to run until he couldn’t be found. He wanted to snap and snarl, but not at his brother, never his brother. The beast beneath his skin could not hurt this man.

 

There was a memory of sharp steel through his chest, and he flinched even as he drew himself proud and unbreakable.

 

Lan Xichen just raised gentle hands, trembling hands, and pulled him close.

 

“We cannot live that again,” the man said, muffled and broken into the strands of Jin Guangyao’s hair. The words were quiet and fragile as the flutter of gilded wings.

 

Jin Guangyao heard them in the marrow of his soul. He took a breath, let it press at his skin. Here in this gilded courtyard he felt like he could break apart, if Lan Xichen moved his fingers too roughly.

 

He wanted to be broken in those hands. Fine gold robes hung from his shoulders but he felt so very small among unbroken walls and without coffin wood around him.

 

He felt proud, too, for the way his hands did not shake.

 

He felt the sting of a sword and chose to push past it. Worse things had been carved into his life, and by worse men. For all his sins and victories, Jin Guangyao had never wanted to hurt this man.

 

How could he now, when Lan Xichen knew his all and held him with gentle hands?

 

“You cannot kill him again,” Lan Xichen said later, laying strong fingers across the strings of Jin Guangyao’s zither. Silence filled a gentle room like poison spread over a wound, but he could only feel healing.

 

Through hell and fury and a thousand slings of fate, Jin Guangyao had used his bones and beastly mind to keep Lan Xichen safe.

 

He couldn’t stop now, not when those eyes were sad, and not when those hands were so gentle. They had been gentle all his life, from the careful fingers not flinching away from his stigma in the brothel to soft ones cradling his face now.

 

They had been gentle too, when they drove a sword through his chest.

 

Lan Xichen had seen his all, now, with no masks and mirrors. Lan Xichen was still here, standing before him and holding Jin Guangyao’s jaw like it was a precious thing.

 

Those hands felt so very warm, touching his skin. The beast beneath was so calm, with those hands to tame it.

 

Jin Guangyao could do nothing to drive the man away.

 

After a long moment, fraught and taut between them, he pushed the zither away. Lan Xichen lifted his shaking fingers to warm lips and kissed them until they were still and calm.

 

Jin Guangyao had never felt more fragile, for all his furious skill.  

 

Then Lan Xichen leaned in to him, and he breathed in warm air like he was drowning and only Lan Xichen’s lips could give him life.

 

He had not thought to win this. He had not thought it could be his. He had not thought anything gentle could ever be his, though he had coveted it so.  

 

Now he had won it, and no force in the world could keep it from him again.

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

In the space of his own rooms, where no one tread and he could stand alone and vicious, Jin Guangyao stripped off silk robes and looked down.

 

He did not care for what he saw, but it did not surprise him. Standing proud and dark across his skin was a swirling tattoo of blackened energy, driven bruise deep and painful. It stained his chest a terrible shade, the swirls of ink and blood screaming of resentful energy.

 

It was a curse mark, and he stared at it with eyes unseeing.

 

Jin Guangyao had never seen these lines of ink before, but they were familiar as the strokes of Wei Wuxian’s brush. He imagined that the bottom of Nie Mingjue's foot bore a similar mark, drawn in the stiff ink of blood.

 

He imagined his brother’s foot would fit well, over the mark on his chest.

 

This is how they were tied together; bound and broken by that one moment above the stairs, by that first act of violence. Jin Guangyao looked around his gilded room and took in none of its splendor, skin bare to the air and so very cold.

 

Sunlight streamed in to set the polished floor aflame and glimmering, but he could not see any of it.

 

If this is how the curse was forged, they would never be unbound.

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

Long ago, when he first felt bruises press purple and painful into his skin, Jin Guangyao had sworn to kill every man that threw him down elegant marble stairs. He would feel their fates crumble beneath his hands and claim their deaths as his own, he sworn. He would end them with a smile, he swore.  

 

He would own what they once had and feel no regrets. The first three times he killed Nie Mingjue, he felt such regret.

 

Now by Lan Xichen’s request, he collared the beast in his skin and killed no men.  

 

A week passed and he did nothing. Lan Xichen did not leave his side, guard and moonlit guardian with gentle hands. Jin Guangyao was grateful for the warmth, even as he chafed at it. His covetous soul never wanted to part from Lan Xichen, never wanted to step away from strong shoulders and the kindest eyes in all the world.

 

But the man had seen his past and all his masks. There was a frightening vulnerability, in the way Lan Xichen looked at him with knowing eyes.

 

Why was the man still here? Why was Jin Guangyao not dead again on his brother’s sword?

 

He didn’t know, and that made the beast in his skin writhe and fight. It wanted to protect all he had worked for and the good he had accomplished.

 

It wanted to kill, for his pride and safety. But he had made a promise, over the strings of a deadly zither.

 

Jin Guangyao had never cared about honesty, but for Lan Xichen and the future he had lived and hated, he would try.

 

Perhaps this time, his drive would earn him recognition without murder. Perhaps this time, with Lan Xichen at his side and understanding, Jin Guangyao could walk unstained.

 

Hope was a deadly poison, but he drank from it now.

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

The next time Nie Mingjue asked after the notes of his zither, with sharp eyes and a gruff voice, Jin Guangyao just smiled a polite smile.

 

“Lan Xichen will play for you, I am sure,” he said, and refused to lift the instrument. There was a sheen of dust laying over it, collected from two weeks’ neglect.

 

He had ordered the servants not to touch it, for he wanted Lan Xichen to be able to see.  

 

With a coiling rage looming from a strong jaw, Nie Mingjue had never looked more suspicious. But Jin Guangyao just smiled and stepped away.

 

His brother would not believe him. The inked mark on his chest spoke that truth all too clearly, just as it whispered of a death that could never be undone. But it didn’t matter, in the end.

 

Jin Guangyao knew how to change fate, and he would mold his until it bent to his will.

 

His zither grew dust. His plans lay unattended and rearranged. He stopped Xue Yang’s experiments too, with sharp words and polite smiles.

 

There was no need to replicate the majesty of Wei Wuxian, not when Jin Guangyao knew how to get him back. He knew what Xue Yang would cost him and his careful plots; no boy was worth that price, not even if they shared the same inner monsters.

 

He stopped the experiments and apologized under the weight of his father’s anger. He planned a death, but it was not Nie Mingjue’s.

 

He had promised Lan Xichen to keep their brother alive, and so he would do so.

 

Each night he returned to gentle hands and desperate kisses. Lan Xichen stripped him so carefully, in the space of gilded rooms. Worshipful lips pressed into a spot just below his ribs, beneath the span of the curse mark.

 

The man lingered there, each night, and they could both feel the sword hovering between them.

 

Then Jin Guangyao would pull Lan Xichen up and kiss him into distraction. He had craved this for so long, and it made everything worth the price.

 

The beast beneath his skin was so calm, when Lan Xichen looked at him with dark eyes and touched him with gentle hands.

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

“I have never trusted you, snake.”

 

A warm breeze was collecting across his hands, but it did nothing to stop the chill of these words. It didn’t stop the fury of Nie Mingjue’s glare either, the way it burned through his skin.

 

Jin Guangyao just sighed and shaped his eyes into sadness.

 

The words stung, but they were unsurprising. His sworn brother said such things often and would for many years to come; even longer now that Jin Guangyao might let that warrior’s heart beat on.

 

He moved a piece across the polished wood sitting between them, let his eyes fix on the game before them.

 

Better to look distracted and wounded than give away something.

 

“But you’ve stopped the experiments, haven’t you?”

 

Jin Guangyao froze, hand poised above the game between them for a heartbeat too long and a second too short. Nie Mingjue, with all his general’s intelligence, caught the slip.

 

The wind brushed between them now and Jin Guangyao only felt the beginnings of cold. His mind was racing like a sword slithering through the night and the fangs he might need to let strike.  

 

But Nie Mingjue just looked furious and sharply confused, as if expecting this to be a part of some greater plan.

 

“You have, then. What are you trying to pull?”

 

Jin Guangyao looked down and away, let his gaze catch on the silk of his brother’s fine robes and the wide set of his shoulders. He had taken great comfort in those shoulders, once, and greater lust.

 

Now they made him nervous and poisonous.

 

It was a rare day that they were alone together. Lan Xichen had moved to Jin Guangyao’s side and stayed firm, a burr he would never want to be rid of.

 

Somedays, Jin Guangyao couldn’t believe he could reach out and touch the man in all his moon-spun glory. Somedays, he couldn’t believe he wasn’t dead and devoured inside a coffin.

 

Those days were the worst.

 

“I’m trying to do the right thing, brother.” The words were quiet and tired. He had no energy to make them pleading, and even if he had, Nie Mingjue would believe exhaustion more easily.

 

Ever had Jin Guangyao tried to manipulate him, and ever had he failed. Nie Mingjue did not trust him; that stung more than it should in the space over a game of strategy.

 

“Why? Why would you decide to act the part of good after all this time?”

 

He wanted to snarl and bare sharp teeth, at the anger in Nie Mingjue’s voice. Again, the man made assumptions. Again, he was not believed.

 

Jin Guangyao would reach the end of his patience, one day. He hoped Lan Xichen stood beside him to stop his blade when the time came.

 

“Maybe because it has been genuine this entire time,” he said, with more bite than he had intended.

 

And Nie Mingjue, through narrowed eyes and the body of a god of war, said nothing in response.

 

All he did was scoff, the sound was loud with mocking. It was loud with thought too.

 

A week later, the man spoke quick words in his defense. A week after that, he approached Xue Yang and shook him down, checking him over for traces of dark energy.

 

The man found nothing recent, Jin Guangyao knew, but he stared at the mad glint in Xue Yang’s eyes and made a note to watch for revenge.

 

A week after that, Nie Mingjue shamed Jin Guangshan, before court and noble cultivators alike. His brother’s words were sharp and tireless, before the Sect Leader.

 

They were brutal too, and all Jin Guangyao could do was watch, standing at the side and helpless with delight.

 

Only a Sect Leader could do this, and none before had the guts. He couldn’t help the shifting of his robes, even as his face stayed calm and concerned.

 

Nie Mingjue looked straight at Jin Guangyao and scoffed again. The insults did not stop. Neither did the relentless fury.

 

For once in his many lives, Jin Guangyao didn’t know what to think.

 

For long weeks, the Venerated Triad settled into a routine, three stars learning to rotate together again. Nie Mingjue was suspicious and Jin Guangyao felt the beast in his blood boil and writhe that the man was still alive but—

 

But they were in a fragile equilibrium, and with Lan Xichen pressing a warm hand into his back and keeping him far from the stairs, Jin Guangyao swallowed the bitter pill of acceptance.

 

It was a peace that was made to break.

 

It all fell apart like shattering cups, like the tea that fell from Nie Mingjue’s strong fingers and made them weak.

 

Jin Guangyao had never seen anything he wanted less, than to watch the man die again. He raced forward, pressing steady hands to too-warm skin. Corpse dust collected at the base of an elegant cup and told him everything he needed to know.

 

Nie Mingjue would die and Jin Guangyao hadn’t killed him. Nie Mingjue would die because he hadn’t watched Xue Yang closely enough. He had trained the boy too well and been distracted from the revenge boiling in petty eyes.

 

Now he would pay the price again. Nie Mingjue would die and he would wake above the stairs and—

 

He blinked awake at the top of the stairs.

 

After the success lingering on his tongue, he couldn’t bear this, couldn’t bear it again. He had worked hard to keep this at bay, he had tamed so much of the fury in his veins, the learned hate. He had respected this man, once so very long ago.

 

Then he had watched Nie Mingjue stand in his defense, with sharp eyes and never-ending suspicion.

 

Jin Guangyao hadn’t wanted his brother to die, just as he didn’t want to fall again. Not a third time at by this man’s kick, not a third time broken and bruised by rage.

 

He couldn’t bear that again.

 

“No,” slipped from his mouth before he could stop it, before he could snap his teeth closed. It was such a small noise, so quiet and so very fragile.

 

He hadn’t meant to say it into the painful space above the stairs. The beast under his skin rioted at his cracking mask, at every pain that had caused.

 

And Nie Mingjue faltered. That strong leg stopped, and stronger fingers gripped him by the front of his robes and held him fast.

 

Jin Guangyao stood on the top of those long stairs with their fine marble and was held in the hands of the man he had killed three times.

 

He had never spoken in this moment before. He had never spoken at the top of the stairs before, or at their painful end. Always, he had dusted himself off and smiled away the bruises and plotted bloody murder.

 

He had never thought a single word would be enough.

 

He had never thought to call out before.

 

He had—

 

He had never thought Nie Mingjue could be stopped.

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

He played it all out again, but this time it felt so much more precious. He moved as he knew would shape the way Nie Mingjue thought, in learned patterns from the last successful life.

 

Lan Xichen stood at his side, closer than ever, with fingers pressed into his back and a gentle smile etched into his face.

 

Sometimes, on the bad days, the man’s smile was weak and trembling. Jin Guangyao felt a similar weakness, but the lack of bruises in his skin gave him the strength to sooth it away.

 

He felt so very unstoppable.  

 

“You and Xichen are changed.”

 

It was a statement, spoke quiet as if Jin Guangyao were fragile. Nie Mingjue was not gentle, had never been gentle or had the space in warrior’s bones.

 

But the man had been cautious, since Jin Guangyao had broken down above the stairs. The warrior did not rage, when he spoke. Nie Mingjue didn’t snap and snarl at all his plans, either.

 

The watchtowers went forward with Nie Clan approval and watching eyes, but no harsh words. When Jin Guangyao had stopped the experiments of Xue Yang, Nie Mingjue had looked on with a general’s eyes and said nothing.

 

The man had seen past Jin Guangyao’s mask and seen the breakable creature that dwelled inside. Nie Mingjue had decided that creature was not evil.

 

Jin Guangyao had never felt more vulnerable.

 

His brother was still rage and fury, but with each passing day he could see that calm into a controlled storm. Lan Xichen’s playing helped too, loud and powerful with skill. It made the man’s qi gentle and the beginnings of painful deaths fade to deadly memories.

 

Jin Guangyao never wanted to touch a zither again.

 

“People change, brother.” It sounded hollow to his own ears, but it was truth as he had never spoken before.

 

He had sworn to kill every man that pushed him down the stairs. He had failed.

 

But this Nie Mingjue had never given him such bruises. Jin Guangyao didn’t need to kill the mountainous man before him, and he had never felt such relief.

 

“Men change. Snakes do not.” The words were harsh, but their tone was thoughtful, sharp as a sword but not nearly so menacing.

 

The man was looking at him with eyes that burned and broke him. He spoke through a tight throat and all the layers of his masks, and spoke quietly.

 

“Maybe I am a man after all, brother.”

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

Time passed easily, with three lifetimes’ skill at manipulation. All Jin Guangyao had to do was ensure the best future, make the right movements, and destroy the right people.

 

That had ever been something he excelled at. He passed a stack of notes to Xue Yang with modifications but no hesitation, watched clever eyes gleam at the chance at a dark ritual. He felt no regret, after the last life.

 

Wei Wuxian was the more valuable cultivator, after all, and Lan Wangji’s happiness was Lan Xichen’s, too.

 

No one but him could kill Nie Mingjue.

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

There was no sunlight to glimmer on the stairs, in this precious moment. Even the moon was dim, hidden away by clouds and soft memories, hidden and kind.

 

Jin Guangyao stood at the top of the stairs and smiled. It was a small thing, neither sharp nor soft, neither polite nor angry. It was truthful, and it felt strange to let on his lips.

 

But he had won, at last. He never had to fall down the stairs again.

 

There was no one here to watch him stare down, no servants and no disciples to wonder at his vigil. The night was cool, the moon was dim, and so the steps of Koi Tower were abandoned to sleepy gate guards and Jin Guangyao.

 

It meant there was no one to see the warm hand that wrapped around his waist, strong fingers settling over his robes gentle as a kiss.

 

There was no one to see, and so Jin Guangyao relaxed into Lan Xichen’s embrace.

 

They stood there, for a careful moment, looking over stairs that had hurt them so.

 

But he never had to fall down again, as the vanished mark on his chest proved.

 

A voice like water and moonlight spoke beside him, and spoke quiet words.

 

“I wish I could have met your mother.”

 

It was nothing Jin Guangyao had expected to hear, in the space above the stairs. His mother had never been spoken of in Koi Tower, by unspoken order of his father.

 

It was a good thing the man would die soon.

 

“Why?”

 

It was the only word he could manage, the only sound that would break free. For all his masks, he could wear none of them here. Warm fingers were curled around his wrist and searing love into him.

 

He would never grow used to this, even as he coveted it.

 

“She must have been an amazing woman, to raise you.”

 

The words made his smile crack and fracture away, made all his masks vanish into the light of the moon. He was bare, with Lan Xichen standing at his side.

 

He thought of her ugly obsession, of her pathetic waiting. He thought of the gentle hands that had stroked his hair, of graceful fingers across a zither.

 

He thought of her doomed love and spoke.

 

“Yes. Yes, she was.”