Mei Changsu didn't set out to climb to the foot of the throne on the backs of villains, specifically. It was just easy at the beginning. They were low hanging fruit, and Lin Chen bothered him very slightly less when he focused his less savory activities on the people and companies that made his life at the medical school difficult.
There was certainly no shortage of pharma assholes to take down. Why not start there?
(Lin Chen isn't, exactly, full-up on scruples either. But he gets really fucking pissed off when a patient who ought to be signed off on rest for three months is back at work re-injuring herself in two weeks because she works for a shit company. Lin Chen doesn't like seeing his hard work go to waste. Lin Chen doesn't mind using Mei Changsu as a weapon, occasionally. They both understand exactly what their relationship is and isn’t.)
So it started out that way. And then they developed a bit of a reputation - Mei Changsu and Fei Liu and the others, sometimes Lin Chen if his skillset is useful. If you bring them an interesting enough problem, they'll solve it for you. They'll make someone pay.
As they go along, Mei Changsu starts to see how the pieces are going to take him all the way to the endgame. They start to slot into place so neatly it's almost boring, step by ruthless step. It becomes so easy to see the months and years unfolding ahead of him like toy soldiers and at the end of them, Jingyan on the throne.
He hasn’t seen him since...well. Since. But he keeps an eye on him. Those were some of the first informants he put into place.
Jingyan is languishing about as a third-tier prince. No one has the vision to use him like he should be used. No one knows him well enough to know what he can be. Mei Changsu understands many things but not this: how so many people look at Jingyan and fail to see.
Anyway, he sees the outline of the endgame now. Who he will have to be to get Jingyan to listen to him when the time comes. It will be an asset then: his reputation for helping the helpless, securing the lost, putting the bad guys behind bars.
It will be something he can use to lure Jingyan to him when he's ready to return to the capital. Bait. A lie. Leverage, you might say.
He doubles down.
He keeps stealing what he needs to, to become who he will need to be for Jingyan to trust him just enough. A museum. A yacht. A corporate merger. He keeps smiling as he gives people back their life savings, a necklace, a horse, a long-lost relative.
He pretends it touches the cold center of him to see them happy. It doesn't. Nothing does. Sometimes Fei Liu goes wild with joy at a particular pretty gem, and that’s close to what he remembers warmth was like before, when he was someone else.
Once he gets drunk enough to answer truthfully when Lin Chen asks him what the big score would be - the thing he wants most in this world to get his hands on if he could do it without getting caught.
"There's a pearl," he says. "In the palace."
He doesn’t mean to say it. Their most recent haul had included some very good baijiu. It doesn’t taste as strong as it is, and he drinks so rarely these days.
Lin Chen laughs at him in the most kindly way someone can laugh at their sometimes-patient, sometimes-lover, sometimes-boss, always-friend. All the jewels in the palace and all he would break in for is one pearl?
"I wouldn't need anything else," Mei Changsu says, blurry, but not so blurry that he doesn't change the subject to Fei Liu's dream score. (There’s a porcelain phoenix in a private collection in France. Mei Changsu tucks this information away; later he will look into acquiring it discreetly for Fei Liu’s next birthday.)
Lin Chen never does get him to talk about it again. Mei Changsu gives up drinking entirely. For his health, he says, and dares Lin Chen silently to argue with that.
Tingsheng was not part of the plan but it doesn’t take more than a glance and a quick calculation to put those pieces together. What was he learning to improvise for, if not this?
He mentally slides in a new step in the plan: steal a child. Possibly a few children, to hide the importance of the one, but that’s a detail to be fine-tuned later.
He lets Nihuang introduce him to Jingyan as a visiting scholar. He raises his eyes only the appropriate amount for his station and Jingyan’s. They pass a few civil words and then Jingyan and the boy walk away
Mei Changsu is nearly home again before he recognizes the feeling in his chest for what it is: warmth.