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The Perfect Present

Chapter Text

“This is the worst kidnapping ever,” Nie Huaisang moaned.

Lan Xichen had given up on not smiling about ten complaints ago. “You’re doing very well,” he said.

“I am not.”

“You got me to come with you to the Unclean Realm, didn’t you?”

“You’re the one that flew us here.”

“Well, I’m better at flying on a sword than you are. Still, you did get me here. Against my will, even.”

“You said you thought it was a bad idea,” Nie Huaisang said gloomily. “Twice. And then you stopped protesting.”

Lan Xichen shrugged. “I still think it’s more likely that you remembered the song wrong.”

“And I’m telling you that I am far too incompetent to accidentally come up with a variation that causes the exact opposite effect to what it’s meant to do,” Nie Huaisang said stubbornly. “We’ll go to the room and listen and then you’ll see.”

“But there’s no need to sneak around – we could just ask A-Yao to play it for us, and we’ll be able to see –”

“No! This is my honor at stake here, er-ge. I’m telling you: if you’re there listening, there’s no way san-ge won’t worry about doing it perfectly right, and that means he won’t make any mistakes. You have to hear him when he’s not thinking about it.”

Lan Xichen’s hand was covering his mouth and had been ever since Nie Huaisang had said the word ‘honor’ which – fair. It wasn’t exactly Nie Huaisang’s concern the majority of the time.

Nie Huaisang only kept invoking it because every time he did, it made Lan Xichen giggle-snort in such an embarrassing way that he entirely forgot that he’d been opposed to this little trip.

Kidnapping.

Whatever. No one would ever believe he could successfully kidnap anyone, anyway, and they were probably right.

“Here, er-ge, come through this way,” he instructed Lan Xichen, pushing open a wall.

“Should you be showing this to me?” Lan Xichen asked, following him in. “It’s not a family secret, is it?”

“Only in the most technical of senses?” Nie Huaisang hazarded.

“Huaisang…”

“Listen, if da-ge ever wanted to actually keep a family secret, he just wouldn’t tell me about it,” Nie Huaisang pointed out. “It’s a good system, and it works for us both.”

Lan Xichen was quiet for a moment. “What if there was a secret you had to know,” he finally said. “And he didn’t have a choice but to tell you –”

Nie Huaisang didn’t want to talk about the saber spirits, if only because his brother was much happier thinking he was ignorant of the whole thing.

“Shhhh, we’re almost there. San-ge should be getting started right around this time –”

Sure enough, by the time they arrived, Jin Guangyao was halfway through the opening chords. Lan Xichen settled down in the chair that Nie Huaisang had brought for himself, head tilted to the side to better listen, a soft smile on his face.

That smile slowly faded as the song went on, even though they hadn’t even gotten to the relevant piece yet.

Nie Huaisang really wanted to know why, but he couldn’t ask without giving away their presence – something he’d overlooked. If only he’d brought paper and ink! Then they’d be able to pass notes.

Or possibly he should really give in to his brother’s urging and learn some hand-signs for communication purposes…

Jin Guangyao finally got to the part of the song Nie Huaisang and Lan Xichen had been arguing about, and hah! Nie Huaisang had told him that he’d remembered correctly –

“Er-ge?” he asked, forgetting himself when Lan Xichen abruptly stood up and strode out of the room. “What –”

He ran after him, but he wasn’t fast enough to catch up before Lan Xichen burst into the room where Nie Mingjue was listening to the music.

“– are you doing, A-Yao?!” Lan Xichen was shouting. Actually shouting, which – wow. Lan Xichen never raised his voice; prior to this very moment, Nie Huaisang had honestly believed that his brother had laid claim to all three sworn brothers’ ability to speak at a high volume. “No spiritual power in the beneficial part, full power in the erroneous section –”

Jin Guangyao’s eyes were wide and frightened. “Er-ge, no, you don’t understand –”

“I don’t! A-Yao, why…?”

“I didn’t want to!” he shouted, his eyes darting quickly from side to side the way Nie Huaisang’s did when he was trying to come up with a good lie on the spot. “I didn’t – my father made me –”

“What exactly is going on?” Nie Mingjue said, rubbing his temples; he’d been meditating while listening to the music, and breaking the trance so abruptly had disoriented him. “And – Xichen. When did you even get here? And why are you here?”

Nie Huaisang stopped right before entering the door and abruptly reversed his steps as quickly as he could, even picking up his robes so he could better run away before –

Huaisang!

Shit.

Time to hide.

Nie Huaisang was never especially good at hiding; it wasn’t long before his brother had found him and picked him up by the collar – he felt and probably looked like a kitten being grabbed by the scruff of its neck – and dragged him back to the room, grumbling as he did.

Jin Guangyao was sobbing into Lan Xichen’s shoulder, and Lan Xichen looked upset.

“What happened?” Nie Huaisang asked.

“An excellent question,” Nie Mingjue said, and his face was black with anger, but that was pretty typical for him these days. “What was all that yelling about?”

Silence but for the sobbing.

“There was something wrong with the song,” Nie Huaisang volunteered, since no one else seemed like they were going to. “If you listen too closely, it has a negative effect rather than a positive effect. You see, I was eavesdropping and started coughing up blood –”

“You were what?! Have you –”

“The doctor said it’d be fine with some meditation!”

“Then you should go meditate!”

“Who says I haven’t?” Nie Huaisang protested, for which he got bodily lifted up and shaken like a disobedient puppy which…again, fair. “Okay, okay, I will, I will, I promise! But it doesn’t change the fact that he was trying to kill you!”

Nie Mingjue apparently hadn’t put that together yet and dropped Nie Huaisang like a sack of potatoes. “He was what?!

“Not kill!” Jin Guangyao said immediately. “It was only supposed to disable you – to distract you –”

“Coughing up blood isn’t usually a symptom of distraction,” Nie Huaisang pointed out from the floor, a little skeptical. 

Jin Guangyao wasn’t stupid – even when he’d been Meng Yao, he had always been very smart, very quick to pick things up, to put things together. How could he not know what would happen if he played music designed to destabilize instead of stabilize to a man already prone to qi deviations?

No, it was definitely a murder attempt. It might not have been much of one, but he was going to have to pay.

“You were using it to attack me?” Nie Mingjue asked, his voice low; anyone who didn’t know him might think he was bubbling over with anger – and he was, but to anyone who did know him it was clear that he was hurt. “After all the oaths we swore –”

“It’s a bit more complicated than that,” Lan Xichen said.

Nie Mingjue snorted and turned his face away. “You always defend him.”

“I know that, but it’s different this time, I swear,” Lan Xichen said, and shook his head, his expression pained. “I believe him when he says he was acting under duress.”

“Er-ge…” Jin Guangyao said tearfully, his eyes starting to curve.

Nie Huaisang considered throwing his fan at him. Or possibly at Lan Xichen.

“But the consequences of his actions could have been serious, and that he did not consult us first – either of us – is indicative,” Lan Xichen continued, not looking at him. “Who knows what could have happened if I hadn’t listened to Huaisang’s wild story and even more wild idea of dragging me here?”

Nie Huaisang really wished Lan Xichen would stop giving him credit. Especially credit that might make his brother angry at his actions.

“The answer to that seems clear enough: he wouldn’t have repented even if I were in my grave,” Nie Mingjue said, crossing his arms; disappointment was writ large throughout his features. “Xichen –”

“You’re right, da-ge; and you’ve been right all along,” Lan Xichen said simply, and Jin Guangyao turned to him with an expression of shock. “Don’t look at me like that, A-Yao – we’re your sworn brothers. Even if your father was forcing you, you should never have lifted a hand against da-ge in violation of our oath.”

“But – I told you – my father threatened –”

“And I believe you, A-Yao, I do,” Lan Xichen said, sincerely, reaching out to put a hand on Jin Guangyao’s shoulder. “I’ve always believed you have reasons for everything you do, that the world has misunderstood you. But da-ge is right, too: I don’t know when or how, but somewhere you turned down a wrong path. Whether you thought what you were doing was justified or not, whatever reason there was to your actions, in the end you nearly killed da-ge..! That would have been unforgivable. For some things, it doesn’t matter what types of reasons you might have had.”

“I’m glad we agree on that,” Nie Mingjue said grimly.

“Da-ge swore to be your elder brother because he believed you needed instruction,” Lan Xichen said. “I thought he was being overly harsh with his assessment of you, but I realize now that he was right. We are your brothers; we will help you.”

“Help me how?” Jin Guangyao asked, his voice quavering. “What can the two of you do, one in Gusu and one in Qinghe, when I’m alone in Lanling and suffering? When my life is under threat, when my wife is under threat of even worse..? I have already accepted the name my father gave me, the position he has forced me into; I cannot disobey him without losing everything - what can I do?”

“It’s not what you can do, you – you idiot,” Nie Mingjue snapped. “We swore brotherhood. It’s what we can do.”

“We’ll need to consider the matter carefully,” Lan Xichen agreed. “Da-ge, come with me; I’ll play Clarity for you myself to help calm you, and then we will see about what must be done – both about A-Yao’s behavior, and about his father’s.”

Lan Xichen was probably the only person in the world who had the strength to pull open Nie Mingjue’s clenched fist, and the daring to do so; he led him away, still grumbling and shooting glares back towards where Jin Guangyao was standing.

Jin Guangyao in turn was left behind, gaping at the retreating backs of his two sworn brothers. In the end, he turned to look at Nie Huaisang as if he could offer some explanation.

“If you even think about doing anything to harm da-ge again, no matter what the reason, no matter how small, I will find your mother’s corpse and feed it to wild dogs,” Nie Huaisang told him with a bright smile. “And then you as well. In very small pieces. Are we clear?”

Jin Guangyao’s eyebrows went up, probably because he of all people could tell when Nie Huaisang was being serious, as he so rarely was.

His brother and er-ge might like Jin Guangyao enough to want to keep him around - Nie Huaisang couldn’t blame them, he rather liked the man too when he wasn’t trying to murder Nie Huaisang’s only living relative - but Nie Huaisang was going to make sure that he didn’t make the same mistake a second time.

He was going to make him pay - and then keep paying. 

“Anyway, you’d better come with me to help me find my saber,” Nie Huaisang said, even though he really didn’t want to. “Da-ge will start yelling soon enough; he hates it when I don’t have it around when there’s a war on.”

“But the war is over,” Jin Guangyao said.

“The Sunshot Campaign is over, yes,” Nie Huaisang agreed. “But the Jin sect leader just tried to assassinate the Nie sect leader, after having forced his son to participate against his own sworn oaths...did you really not realize that your brothers would go to war for you?”