Futures Past pt 11 / on AO3
Nie Huaisang and Jin Zixun chat while punished together, and discover they have more in common than they'd like.
warning for brief mentions of past physical and verbal violence against a child
Nie Huaisang had hoped that he would be allowed to wait until his nose had returned to its usual shape before his punishment. A hope quickly extinguished when Lan Qiren pointed out that he didn't need his nose to be kneeling and thinking about his behaviour. And so, one day after that fight, his face still swollen, Nie Huaisang found himself kneeling after class inside the discipline hall, next to Jin Zixun.
They’d been ordered to kneel inside the courtyard, with their backs to the gate. That way the gravel dug into their knees, and they were exposed to the view of anyone passing by, their shame on display for good, dutiful young people to behold.
Nie Huaisang didn’t much care about shame, but he certainly minded discomfort, and he was in plenty of it. Kneeling like this for so long, without any movement allowed, was the most cruel thing he’d ever been forced to endure in his entire life, he quickly decided. And he had to remain unmoving. Lan Wangji, who had been tasked with watching over them even though he was their junior, had announced that if one of them didn’t stay still, they would both be given lines to copy in punishment. He’d meant it, too, and already Nie Huaisang had gotten them two such sets of lines to do later.
“I’ll break your neck if you don’t stop fidgeting already,” Jin Zixun threatened in a whisper after the second time.
“I’m doing my best,” Nie Huaisang replied in the same tone.
“No talking,” Lan Wangji ordered.
He didn’t say they’d be punished if they chatted again, but of course he didn’t need to. This was the Cloud Recesses. Everything got you punished in this hellish place. Nie Huaisang missed home so badly, more than he’d ever thought possible. When he got home, he would be a good, dutiful, obedient brother, and he would never again complain about the way they did things in the Unclean Realm. Maybe that was the secret to Lan Qiren’s success in turning young men into perfect gentlemen. Everyone was so terrified of being forced to deal again with Gusu Lan’s rules and its awful food that they behaved just enough to never be sent back.
Bored to pieces, his knees hurt by gravel, and his legs cramping, Nie Huaisang tried to entertain himself by mentally reciting every bit of poetry he’d ever enjoyed. Then he tried to see if he could remember every rule of Gusu Lan. Then, in despair, he decided to compose some poetry of his own, all of it about the pains and horror of being far from home and among cruel strangers.
When he glanced at the sky, the sun’s position told him that only a quarter of a shichen had passed, if even that.
It was going to be a very long week.
After an eternity, Nie Huaisang heard something near the gate and spotted Su She lingering there. It made him smile. Probably it was coming close to dinner time, and Su She wanted to catch some time with him on the way to the dining halls. Su She didn’t dare come too close of course, not when Lan Wangji was there, so severe he might have been forty instead of fourteen. But Nie Huaisang was glad to have a friend nearby, and it made the whole thing feel a little less unpleasant.
A little after, Nie Huaisang noticed that Lan Wangji was looking at something. He threw another glance back, only to discover that Lan Xichen was there too, quietly talking with Su She. Neither looked very happy to be in such company, while also making great effort to pretend otherwise. It made Nie Huaisang snort, and that in turn made him wince because of his nose.
When he checked toward the door one last time, both Su She and Lan Xichen were gone. Soon after, the bell calling for dinner rang at last, and Lan Wangji announced that his two victims were free to go.
“Return after dinner,” he reminded them. “If you are late, there will be more punishment.”
After staying so long in the same position, Nie Huaisang found that he almost couldn’t stand at all. His only comfort was to see Jin Zixun didn’t appear in much better shape in spite of a higher cultivation. Together they hobbled toward the dining halls, both pretending not to see the other. By the time they arrived, everyone else had already started eating, but the Lans very generously didn’t remark on that. Nie Huaisang quickly found his place with the other Nie disciples, who served him food and slipped him some snacks they’d sneaked in. For once that their young master acted like a proper Nie, they were determined to encourage him, perhaps in hope that next time he would not just start a fight but also win it.
The second day of punishment was much like the first, except this time Su She didn’t come to visit. It was probably for the best if he didn’t come anywhere near Jin Zixun for a while, Nie Huaisang thought, and he was half sure Lan Xichen must have come to the same conclusion. Perhaps Lan Xichen had asked, or even ordered, that Su She stay away for the time being.
Nie Huaisang tried not to feel upset about that.
He also tried to count how many shades of grey he could differentiate in the gravel of the courtyard. At a little over two thousand, he stopped counting and decided that being bored was, in fact, less boring than that.
On the third day of punishment, a different disciple was overseeing them, one a little less vicious than Lan Wangji. That boy, older than them by a few years but not old enough to be called a man, looked as though he enjoyed being there as little as they did. While Lan Wangji usually either meditated or studied while watching over his victims, that Lan boy quickly grew restless and took to walking around. At some point he even went out the doors to check on something, leaving Nie Huaisang and Jin Zixun alone.
While Nie Huaisang didn’t dare to move, in case Lan Wangji popped by to check on them, Jin Zixun immediately started stretching his limbs, even sitting cross-legged for a little bit once he figured the Lan disciple went for a long walk.
“So, your merchant friend didn’t come around today either,” Jin Zixun said, apparently unable to not be an ass for even an incense stick’s time. “Guess you forgot to pay him his due for the week? You’d have to pay him. How else would anyone spend time with someone like you?”
“Unlike you, I don’t have to pay people to be my friends,” Nie Huaisang replied, still a little unhappy that Su She hadn’t tried to come again but refusing to let it show. “Or do you think those other Jin guys hang out with you because they like you?”
“Well, I guess it’s really your uncle paying them to stay around you,” Nie Huaisang mused, carefully stretching a little as well. “It must be costing him a fortune, too.”
“Maybe you’re not paying them, but you think your brother isn’t forcing his disciples to hang out with you too?” Jin Zixun scoffed. “You think your merchant friend would have bothered with you if you weren’t so high up in Qinghe Nie’s hierarchy? Someone like you, aside from your connexions, what’s your appeal?”
“Shut up, it’s not like that. Su-xiong doesn’t care about these things,” Nie Huaisang exclaimed, allowing his voice to rise higher than was prudent.
The Lan disciple in charge of them, alerted by the sudden noise, returned and mildly scolded them for not being quiet, though he said nothing about both of them having obviously changed position while he was gone. He didn’t leave again for the rest of their time in the disciple halls, for which Nie Huaisang was secretly a little glad. He hadn’t liked at all where that conversation was going.
Su She wasn’t the sort to use others for their connexions. He was too proud for that, too determined to succeed by the strength of his own hard work. He was Nie Huaisang’s friend, sincerely so. And just because Su She had not tried again to see Nie Huaisang since the beginning of his punishment, since Lan Xichen had been manipulated into taking his side at last, offering him the support within his sect he'd always wanted…
Nie Huaisang was angry at himself for having that sort of doubts, and angry at Su She for acting in a manner that allowed doubts to be formed.
But Su She had to have an excellent reason for keeping his distance, and Jin Zixun was just jealous because nobody would ever take a hit to protect him.
Besides, even if they both only had an entourage because people were forced to hang out with them due to their rank, at least Nie Huaisang had a better one. His brother’s disciples, even after three days, were still sneaking him sweets and medicine at dinner, to help him deal with his punishment, still whispering that the whole thing was unfair, that Jin Zixun had been asking for trouble and everyone knew the gossip about him was true. Meanwhile, the Jin disciples were mostly avoiding conversation with Jin Zixun unless he talked first, and didn’t appear to particularly worry for his well-being. Every time Nie Huaisang glanced that way during meals, Jin Zixun was looking sullen and quite lonely.
It made sense because Jin Zixun was the worst person in the world, while Nie Huaisang knew himself to be lovely and delightful.
He knew himself to be kind of funny and generous with sharing the perks that came with his position, anyway, and that was almost the same.
On the fourth day of punishment, Nie Huaisang ended up doing some comparison of his and Jin Zixun’s situation. He hadn’t meant to. But Lan Wangji was the one watching them again, Nie Huaisang was so bored, and he just didn’t have anything to occupy himself except introspection.
Jin Zixun, he promptly decided, was an awful prick and people were right to dislike him. But at the same time, there was a good chance that some people had disliked him from the start, just because of who he was and how he was born, which might have turned him into a prick as a reaction. Nie Huaisang knew he’d been close to doing the same when he was younger, except he was too lazy for that, and also he’d always had his brother who both sincerely supported him and didn’t let him get away with hurting others on those occasions Nie Huaisang had tried abusing his position.
There would have been nobody to be there for Jin Zixun like that, he figured. Maybe his mother, but everyone knew she kept away from the world these days. His uncle could, and certainly should have been a model and a guide, but since the uncle in question was Jin Guangshan, and with the whole scandal around Jin Zixun’s birth… At that point Madam Jin should have stepped up when her husband failed to take care of the nephew they were half raising, but that wasn’t going to happen, not when she was well known to despise all of Jin Guangshan’s bastards. And aside from these two, who could have dared to stand up to that young master, second in line to inherit their sect and with a personality so awful that he was sure to develop a personal grudge against anyone who opposed him?
Maybe in another sect, someone would still have had that courage. But Lanling Jin was a sect of ambitious cowards, or so Nie Huaisang thought after listening to his brother rant against them.
So the only difference between Nie Huaisang and Jin Zixun was that one had been raised right, while the other had barely been raised at all. It made for an unpleasant conclusion: they weren't so different.
And then, there was the matter of gossip. Both of their births had been tainted by scandals caused by adults who really ought to have behaved better. Nie Huaisang had suffered a little from it, mostly when he was very young, but it had been years since anyone but his father had thrown that to his face. But Jin Zixun… everyone knew about Jin Zixun, and everyone brought it up every time he was annoying, which of course happened a lot.
It had to be awful, Nie Huaisang thought as he knelt over gravel, stealing a glance at his companion of misfortune. And so, having reached that realisation, Nie Huaisang felt some guilt over the way he’d acted that day. Sure he had just been trying to protect Su She but maybe, just maybe, he’d taken that a little too far when he’d started insulting Jin Zixun’s birth instead of just his sect and atrocious personality.
Then, to make everything worse, Nie Huaisang realised that just like in his own case, everything about Jin Zixun might have just been baseless gossip, a complete invention.
That ruined his mood for the rest of the day. When he saw Jin Zixun being ignored by the other Jins at dinner, Nie Huaisang almost sprung from his sitting place to publicly apologise to him.
He might have, if he hadn’t disliked Jin Zixun too much to be nice to him in front of an audience.
When day five arrived, and it was again that rather less serious Lan disciple watching them rather than Lan Wangji, Nie Huaisang realised he really was guilty for what he’d said to Jin Zixun, guilty enough to consider making an apology. A real one, too, not just the tearful thing he’d already planned on reciting in front of Lan Qiren.
Because while Jin Zixun was, in fact, the most disagreeable person in the world, a bully, an asshole, self important, and just generally unpleasant… throwing it in his face that he might be an unwanted bastard was a low blow, and had nothing to do with the things that were so detestable about him.
Nie Huaisang waited until, once again, the Lan disciple grew bored of watching them kneel silently and went for a walk. He then waited a moment more to make sure they were alone, before finally daring to speak.
“So, I think I should apologise.”
“Keep that for later,” Jin Zixun snapped at him. “It’s Lan Qiren you’ll need to impress, not me.”
“Old man Lan is a different problem, I’ll convince him,” Nie Huaisang boasted. “But you… This is a real apology. I shouldn't have said that. About your father. I shouldn't have."
Jin Zixun glared at him, looking furious enough that Nie Huaisang feared he was going to be punched again. In the end though, Jin Zixun wasn’t stupid enough to do that again when it had gotten him in such trouble the first time, so he just shrugged.
"Everyone says it anyway. Why should I expect any better, especially from an idiot like you?"
"Because I should know better. I'm… at home, they say the same about me."
Jin Zixun threw him a suspicious look. Probably he'd heard that Nie Huaisang's mother had a bad reputation or he wouldn’t have mentioned her that time, but he'd likely never heard the actual story, though their parents' generation were usually aware of the scandal. Nie Huaisang himself avoided talking about it. It was something of a sore point to this day. He wouldn’t have mentioned it to anyone normally, happy to let the matter be forgotten, but then again he hadn’t really ever met anyone else whose situation was quite so close to his own.
And what was the worst that Jin Zixun could do anyway, when every grown up already knew the story? When they'd just fought so publicly, and sharing gossip would just be seen by other kids their age as a petty and pointless attempt at revenge?
"My mom was married to another man when she started seeing my dad," Nie Huaisang whispered, glancing around to make sure there were no Lans around waiting to punish them for chatting. "A magistrate, I've heard. A bad man, for sure. My father always said he was a very corrupt man, very cruel to the people depending on him."
Nie Huaisang paused for a moment. It was never easy to think about his father, even worse to think about his mother. He missed them both, even if he didn’t remember either too well, and what he could recall was unpleasant in both cases. His mother had died so young, and his father...
"I think my father killed that man, but I'm not sure,” Nie Huaisang continued. “Everyone says if he did, it was a good deed. But anyway, my mother was with child already when she came to the Unclean Realm, so of course people said…"
"With the way your cultivation sucks, they might be right," Jin Zixun said in a flat voice. Nie Huaisang looked around, and punched him in the shoulder. Jin Zixun didn't even wince. "What? It's true, you're terrible at this! What sort of cultivator faints just from being punched? But if neither of your parents are cultivators, I’m surprised someone like you made it this far."
"Shut up! My dad is my dad," Nie Huaisang insisted. "He always said he was sure of it, no matter how many others doubted it. He'd say my mother also was sure, and he never let anyone say otherwise. I was his second wife's son, so I was his son, and anyone who had a problem with it could fight him. And he never changed his mind about that!"
Not until his sabre broke and his mind with it, anyway. Then he'd taken to calling Nie Huaisang a bastard when they were alone, a conniving schemer trying to steal his true son's inheritance, the son of a corrupt man, no better than a cuckoo taking space in a nest that wasn’t his.
Nie Huaisang’s father had had many things to say, by the end, and Nie Huaisang, who’d been ten at the time, hadn’t been so sure anymore who his father was. Not until Nie Mingjue had started pointing out how much he looked like this or that cousin, how the two of them had their father’s eyes.
Nie Mingjue had protected his brother before and after their father died. If he hadn’t been there...
But those last few months didn't matter. That wasn't who Nie Huaisang’s father had really been. Just an empty shell with his face.
"Lucky," Jin Zixun grumbled.
Nie Huaisang thought of his father threatening to strangle him, a few days before finally dying, and nodded anyway. He was lucky, compared to some others.
He was lucky compared to Jin Zixun.
"My dad never defended me," Jin Zixun said after a moment of silence. "The idiot died too soon."
A little surprised that Jin Zixun would make such a confidence, Nie Huaisang still nodded.
It was a well known story, and the Jin hadn't managed to smother as efficiently as the Nie had done with their own scandal. Mostly, they hadn't really tried.
Jin Zixun's father had been Jin Guangshan's younger brother, and he had married a famed beauty who many men of their generation had set their eyes on. Jin Guangshan himself had tried his chance, only to be forced instead into a political engagement with a woman he didn't like while his brother got the true prize. Of course, being Jin Guangshan, neither his own engagement nor the lady's wedding to his brother had changed his interest in her. He had pursued her with ruthless persistence, while she had avoided him with growing desperation.
Only a few weeks after the marriage, the unfortunate lady became a widow when her husband died during a Night Hunt, and it said something about Jin Guangshan that whenever Nie Huaisang had heard that story recounted, everyone always felt the need to point out it really had been an accident. As for his sister-in-law, she immediately announced she would enter permanent seclusion, out of respect for her husband she'd said.
To put herself out of reach of her lecherous brother-in-law, everyone believed.
That seclusion hadn't lasted a month when it was announced that the lady was pregnant. She gave birth shortly after Jin Guangshan's wedding to the fearsome Madam Jin, only for Jin Guangshan to promptly announce that his sister-in-law's son would be his heir if he didn't have sons from his own wife.
With all this happening in less than a year, of course people gossiped. The true parentage of Jin Zixun, then and now, was a matter of much debate.
It didn't help that he looked so much like his uncle.
"I've heard that your mother has always denied all the rumours," Nie Huaisang said, more out of pity than conviction. "And, I mean, she'd know, right ? And if you were your uncle's son you'd have a real claim to Lanling Jin, so she could have tried to scheme and..."
"My mother is an honourable woman!” Jin Zixun barked. “She'd never have borne it!"
"And your uncle is a prick."
Jin Zixun grabbed Nie Huaisang by the collar, and dragged him closer.
"Take that back, or I'll find another part of your face to break!"
Nie Huaisang looked around, in case that outburst had been heard, then shrugged.
"Your uncle is a prick, or else he'd have done more to defend your mom's reputation. I bet he likes that people think he seduced her."
"I'll break your teeth!” Jin Zixun threatened, but he released Nie Huaisang's collar. “Uncle said nothing because gossip aren't worth his time. Only the weak and powerless care about rumours, so he refused to give them any consideration."
"And he likes to have people think he can seduce any woman,” Nie Huaisang pointed out, straightening his clothes. “You know, I've heard that he even went after Qin Furen, from Laoling. You know, that beautiful lady? And…"
"Shouldn't you know better than to spread gossip?" Jin Zixun snapped.
That was the whole problem of course. Nie Huaisang should have known better. It annoyed him to no end when people talked about his parents, because he knew the truth, and they’d told the truth to everyone, so it was ridiculous of people to still debate that.
But other people’s gossip was fun to collect, and sometimes fun to spread as well. Especially when it had a chance of being the actual truth...
"Shouldn't you know better than to bully people for their origins like you do for Su-xiong?" Nie Huaisang grumbled. "Anyway, it's not real gossip, it's real truth. My da-ge saw your uncle try to kiss Qin Furen once some years back, only he interrupted, and later she thanked him for it."
Jin Zixun gritted his teeth. He fell silent a moment, considering the information.
"She's very beautiful," Jin Zixun said with some reluctance. "And just his type. It could be true."
"Da-ge says you can usually trust the women when they speak about these things. He says my mom never showed any doubt at all, no matter how many people pestered her. And I guess your mom's the same. So don't worry, I think we're both our fathers' sons."
"Of course I am," Jin Zixun grumbled. "I didn't need some second rate cultivator like you to tell me that." He paused a moment, and sighed. "I guess I should say thanks anyway. Most people just say my mom wouldn't say it even if the gossip were true. And that's not fair. She's a good person, she wouldn't lie!"
Nie Huaisang looked away to hide a grin. Jin Zixun was a prick and a bully, but he might also be a bit of a mama's boy.
It was kind of cute.
"What's she like, your mom?" he asked.
"Why should you care?"
Nie Huaisang shrugged. He glanced back toward the gate, just to make sure the Lan disciple in charge of them wasn't returning. But they'd truly been abandoned.
"We can have a nice chat,” Nie Huaisang offered, “or we can continue reflecting on what awful people we are for having a personality, which is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses. C'mon, tell me something fun instead. Like how your parents met? And I can tell you about mine? Anything as long as I can forget how bad my knees hurt."
Jin Zixun huffed and puffed, but he started telling the story of his parents' meeting. He was a horrible storyteller, but Nie Huaisang balanced it out by being a great audience.
When the end of the week arrived, and they had to make formal apologies to each other, Nie Huaisang's was more earnest that he'd ever planned it to be. He thought, also, that Jin Zixun seemed a little sorry as well, but that might have only been wishful thinking.
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