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A Promise Kept

Chapter Text

The past winter in Cloud Recesses had been cold and long. Now, however, sunlight streamed through the branches of their bamboo forest, illuminating the backhills where the rabbit colony thrived. Seated among them, a young cultivator, recently released from seclusion, was meditating. He’d spent a significant amount of time centering his qi and strengthening his core while confined in the jingshi, as well, but found there was a great deal of comfort in surrounding himself with nature.

One of the black rabbits clambered over his leg, tumbling gracelessly into his lap where it soon made itself comfortable, as it pawed fussily at his robes before nestling down to sleep.

Lan Wangji stroked its dark fur, his eyes closed and features still as a blanket of fog gently rolled over the hill.

Anyone who passed by at that time might have spotted him there and mistaken him for a statue carved from the finest jade, lost to the forest and forgotten by time. Luckily, visitors were rare, with the exception of A-Yuan, who only ever came to see the rabbits when Lan Xichen or Lan Wangji were available to take him.

This was why, no matter how immersed Lan Wangji was in his meditation, he did not miss the sound of light footsteps approaching. Breathing deeply, he shifted his hand to rest on Bichen’s hilt, and waited.

“Psst. Wangji-xiong,” came a not unfamiliar whisper from safely beyond striking distance. Lan Wangji relaxed. This was a nuisance, yes, but not a threat. “Psst. Lan Wangji.”

Curiosity getting the better of him, Lan Wangji peered over his shoulder to see Nie Huaisang waving and gesturing frantically from behind a tree that did nothing to conceal him. There were leaves poking out of his hair.

How had he managed to sneak past the senior disciples stationed at the gate? Later, Lan Wangji would have to ask the pair if anything strange had happened during their shift, like a loud noise with no origin or a rustling in the foliage that had drawn them from their posts.

Instead of mentioning that, he asked, “Why are you here?”

And where was his entourage? Was Sect Leader Nie visiting, as well?

Lan Wangji looked around as though expecting Nie Mingjue to coalesce from the mist.

“It’s just me,” Huaisang admitted a tad sheepishly. “Da-ge doesn’t know I’m here.” This only served to further alarm Lan Wangji. He gently cradled the small black rabbit in his lap and laid it on the ground, watching it sniff at the foliage for a moment before turning his full attention back to Huaisang with an expression that made him duck behind the trunk of the bamboo tree.

Somehow, Huaisang had managed to travel from Qinghe to Cloud Recesses without informing his brother or bringing any of his senior disciples for protection. Everyone knew his core had developed late - what would he have done if he’d fallen from his saber during the journey?

“Wangji, please,” Huaisang said with genuine desperation, as though he’d read his mind, “I need your help.”

There were four magic words that could convince Lan Wangji to do almost anything, and even though Nie Huaisang had abused them on many occasions to convince him to buy pastries from Caiyi town or to allow Huaisang the excuse of entertaining guests so that his older brother didn’t get upset when Huaisang skipped saber training, they were still undoubtedly effective.

For the first time since he’d spotted Huaisang among the trees, he glanced down at the instrument held tightly in his hand. It was a hastily carved wooden piccolo. Wangji looked up at him with a question in his eyes, implicitly giving him permission to explain himself. Sagging with relief, Nie Huaisang informed him that his brother’s temperament and health had been deteriorating at an increasing rate.

He rolled up his sleeves to reveal a trail of healing burn scars marking his skin.

“Da-ge’s threatened to burn my fans before, but I never expected him to actually…” Huaisang trailed off with tears in his eyes, before visibly regaining his composure with a sad smile. “I don’t blame him. If that were all, maybe I’d forgive him and let it go.” His breath hitched. Lan Wangji waited patiently for him to continue. In the brief lull, a white rabbit with scarlet eyes crept close to Nie Huaisang’s feet and began to sniff his robes. Chuckling, Huaisang knelt to scratch between its ears. As he continued to pet its soft coat, he said, “Da-ge took me on a night hunt. Before we left, he embarrassed and insulted me in front of our disciples. San-ge,” he paused, brow furrowing, “taught me how to play the Song of Clarity. It should have helped calm his temper, but every time I played it, Da-ge’s temper only grew worse.” He took a deep breath, meeting Lan Wangji’s eyes with a steady, thoughtful gaze. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Was there a chance that Huaisang had performed the Song of Clarity incorrectly? Lan Xichen had taught Jin Guangyao how to play personally, as any mistakes could heighten qi instability and disquiet in the mind, which was why offering to teach Huaisang had not only been reckless, but against the rules of their sect.

Lan Wangji rose to his feet. “Show me what you've learned.”

Stunned, Nie Huaisang stared at him for a moment, then quickly nodded, rushing to play as though worried his friend would change his mind. Lan Wangji walked beside him as they made their way to the stone path, his hands clasped behind his back as Huaisang placed the piccolo to his lips and played the beginning verses of Cleansing with a startling confidence.

How long had it taken him to learn this? How often had he practiced?

Even as he thought this, an underlying malevolence threaded through the song like a poison. The first discordant note could have been attributed to a simple mistake, but as Huaisang continued to play, the pattern became more familiar. Lan Wangji had caught glimpses of the chaos script during his research at a time when finding anything to halt or slow the corruption of a mind due to demonic cultivation had been his highest priority. The chaos script was intended to accelerate destabilization in the core, to upset the mind with horrific visions and encourage madness.

He did not notice when Xichen called out to them from further up the path, as he was struggling to speak past the taste of blood in his mouth, to move when his limbs were weighted down, to hear when the sound of swords clashing drowned out birdsong and his own screams resounded in his ears.

Upon seeing Wangji stumble on a step, barely catching himself in time, Lan Xichen quickly moved to join them and snatched the piccolo away from Huaisang.

Once the music stopped, the fog that had clouded Lan Wangji’s thoughts cleared. Even so, he was breathing harshly, barely healed pain suddenly fresh in his mind.

Lan Xichen looked ashen as he demanded from Nie Huaisang, “Who taught you that song?”

There was only one person who could have taught Nie Mingjue’s younger brother the corrupted Song of Clarity, yet when Huaisang confirmed it with an oddly detached tone, Lan Xichen appeared as if he were going to be ill. Even so, he did his best to maintain a calm and comforting demeanor throughout the remainder of the conversation.

Sometimes, Lan Wangji wished his brother wouldn’t try so hard.

“I suppose I will have to have a talk with him. That is very advanced cultivation music,” he sounded almost chiding, as though it was Huaisang who should have known better than to attempt the Song of Clarity when his core was underdeveloped.

Lan Wangji watched as Nie Huaisang assured his brother that he would not be so reckless in the future with growing concern. He wore his smile like a mask, but no paper fan in existence would be enough to hide the fury lurking in his eyes.

“I’m sure it was a mistake,” Huaisang said. “I can be so clumsy. Please don’t inform San-ge. I’d be so embarrassed if he knew!” When Lan Xichen heard that, he seemed inclined to believe Huaisang. Perhaps he had simply misremembered Cleansing. Except that he hadn’t been present for the subtle and purposeful inclusion of the distorted notes.

There was nothing accidental about it.

Torn between warning his elder brother and finding out more about whatever it was Huaisang was planning, whatever trouble he was getting into, Lan Wangji kept his silence, restricting himself to bowing in thanks to Lan Xichen for his intervention and then bidding him goodbye when he withdrew after handing Nie Huaisang his piccolo back on the condition that he would not attempt musical cultivation without supervision.

Once he was out of earshot, Huaisang turned to him, “Come with me to the Unclean Realm. Your seclusion has already ended. There’s nothing keeping you here.” Sensing Lan Wangji’s hesitance, he scowled. “I played Cleansing exactly as San-ge taught to me, and nearly died because of it. Now, if I’m right, then my brother is being driven to madness and violence. What would you do if it were Xichen-ge in his place?”

“Huaisang.” Lan Wangji set his jaw. “You do not need to manipulate me.”

Nie Huaisang watched him in silence, equally stubborn, then slumped, allowing his shoulders to fall. “Of course, Hanguang-jun. My apologies.”

Without sharing his intentions, Lan Wangji returned to Cloud Recesses, ignoring Huaisang even as he struggled to keep up with his pace. He informed Xichen that he would be spending time with Nie-er-gongzi in the Unclean Realm, a declaration which worried and delighted his brother in equal measure. It had been some time since Lan Wangji had left Cloud Recesses, and even longer since he’d spent a significant amount of time with someone his own age.

A-Yuan would be cared for by one of the outer families while he was gone. Most likely, he would stay with young A-Yi’s mother, since A-Yuan was quite fond of the rambunctious child and his mother was always happy enough to care for A-Yuan when Lan Wangji was otherwise engaged.

“Can you ride your saber back to Qinghe?” Lan Wangji asked, and only then was Nie Huaisang sure he was going to help him.

Bumping his shoulder, Nie Huaisang replied, “Can you do it while carrying me?”

Lan Wangji frowned. Despite his joking tone, Huaisang truly did appear exhausted, even more so after using what little spiritual energy he’d had to spare after his flight to perform musical cultivation.

“If you allow me to rest,” he conceded to Nie Huaisang’s surprise.

Recovering quickly, Huaisang slapped him on the back and crowed, “That’s the spirit!”

And while Lan Wangji did not complain vocally about the gesture, Nie Huaisang knew better than to try it again within one lifetime.

Chapter Text

Lan Xichen kept no secrets from his sworn brothers, and Nie Mingjue kept no secrets from his didi… or rather he tried to, but his tendency to raise his voice at the slightest provocation mixed with the proximity of his and Huaisang’s rooms often worked against him.

With all that said, Nie Huaisang knew that Lan Wangji was straining himself. It wasn’t just his years of seclusion affecting him, though Huaisang had the sense not to mention it. For all that his Da-ge and Wangji differed on the outside, they had a surprisingly similar stubborn streak, so when Wangji’s sword began to tremble and dip from the effort of carrying their combined weight - a sign of weakness that was mortifying enough for a Lan who had once flown while simultaneously carrying three cultivators with one arm - or when his gaze grew unfocused, mouth pressed tight with ill-concealed pain, Huaisang made a point of complaining. Loudly.

“Eh, Wangji-xiong,” he whined, the altitude and wind turning it into a high-pitched shout, “my legs are so tired they’re going to fall off! I’m hungry, too. If another bird flies past us, even if it’s rare, I may have to eat it. Hey, let’s take a break, okay?” Since Lan Wangji was still stubbornly ignoring him, Huaisang redoubled his efforts to annoy him into self-care. He squirmed, throwing a hand dramatically over his forehead while the other continued clinging to Wangji’s outer robes for dear life. “Oh. I think I’m feeling faint.”

Wangji glanced over his shoulder with a flat expression. “I offered to carry you. You refused.”

“You offered to carry me like a sack of rice! Where is the dignity in that?” Nie Huaisang huffed, and would have crossed his arms over his chest if he weren’t utterly terrified of plummeting to his death. “I deserve to be lifted like a newlywed bride and nothing less.”

“You said we needed to arrive in Qinghe as soon as possible,” Lan Wangji replied, deliberately using his own words against him. And the worst thing about it was Wangji was right. If they wasted too much time, Jin Guangyao might return to Lanling, or perhaps respond to the summons that Lan Xichen was probably drafting as they spoke, if he hadn’t sent it already. Given the sensitive nature of its contents, though, Huaisang was counting on Jin Guangyao being left in the dark as to what Er-ge wanted to discuss with him - namely passing on cultivation techniques that weren’t his to pass on - until he arrived at Cloud Recesses. Er-ge would not dare confront Jin Guangyao in front of Mingjue, not when their relationship was already so fraught with tension and San-ge’s position in the cultivation world was so tenuous.

In the end, Huaisang managed to whine and wheedle Wangji into descending from the clouds to rest and dine on three separate occasions. While this meant that they weren’t quite dead on their feet by the time they arrived in Qinghe, Huaisang knew that news of the peerless Hanguang-jun’s arrival along with the useless Nie-er-gongzi, looking windblown and as exhausted as he felt, would soon reach his brother.

Best to offset that if possible.

“Baohu-shixiong,” Huaisang called out to the nearest guard, as he rushed forward with a breathlessness he didn’t have to fake.

The slightly older disciple glanced at his companion before nodding respectfully. “It’s been some time since I’ve last seen you, Nie-er-gongzi,” he said pointedly. Huaisang’s smile faltered, remembering how he’d left Qinghe without informing his brother as to why or where he was going. As if reading his mind, Nie Baohu quirked a brow. “The Sect Leader has been anxiously awaiting your return.”

Huaisang shifted his weight from one foot to the other. Even though he knew there was little time to lose, he couldn’t help but ask, “How long before Da-ge noticed I was gone?”

“Sect Leader Nie supervises your saber training first thing in the morning,” Baohu responded with a quiet air of grievance. Huaisang grimaced in sympathy. It was a terrible thing to wake up to shouting at so early an hour, but perhaps now his fellow sect members would better understand why it was a challenge worthy of heroes just to live with such a drillmaster and stop ratting out Huaisang’s hiding places.

Leaning in conspiratorially, Huaisang whispered, “To make it up to you, I will buy you the best dumplings in town.”

“Nie-er-gongzi need not to do such a thing,” the second guard, Nie Zonghan said, before hastily adding, “but if he were to do such a thing,” Huaisang flipped open his fan to hide a smile, “then he should buy dumplings for the rest of the disciples, as well.”

They seemed to remember Lan Wangji’s presence when he effortlessly slipped Bichen into its sheath, and bowed in sync. “Forgive us, Hanguang-jun. We will let Nie-zongzhu know you’ve arrived.”

“Ah, that’s okay. No need to trouble yourselves. Would you mind telling me where I can find him?” They directed him to the main stronghold, naturally. Out in the courtyard, lines of disciples practiced their technique unsupervised. The position of First Disciple hadn’t been officially filled since it had only been a month since so many of their men had died in the Sword Sacrificial Hall.

It would need to be filled soon, though. Huaisang suspected that his brother was putting it off out of guilt. Even though he’d tried to spare the truth of what had happened to their disciples, Nie Mingjue had immediately seen through the lie and taken all of the blame for himself, which was why he’d requested for San-ge to play the Song of Clarity for him every day for the past week.

With a put-upon sigh that was only mostly for show, Nie Huaisang handed his saber over to Baihu for safekeeping. The last thing he wanted to do was put San-ge on guard when they approached. Little birds would not willingly enter a cage if they knew the door would fall shut behind them, so Huaisang would have to be patient, be still.

After all, if it came down to his word against the word of a recognized son of Jin Guangshan and the leading contender for the position of Chief Cultivator, there was little doubt in what the result would be.

Though Nie Mingjue, who was constantly on the verge of tossing Jin Guangyao out of the Nie Sect by his robe collar, might believe him, with something so important, with justice for their slain disciples literally hanging in the balance, Huaisang couldn’t bring himself to take the risk.

“Stay behind me and look extra intimidating. If anyone says anything, let me do the talking.” Wangji didn’t say anything, only exhaled a little more loudly than usual. “I’m going to go ahead into the main house and announce our arrival. Can you wait right outside?”

Tension pulled Lan Wangji’s mouth into a thin, unhappy line. “Will you be safe?”

Though the majority of his face was hidden behind his fan, Huaisang’s eyes crinkled with a smile. “If anything happens, I know I can count you to come save me, Wangji-xiong.”

Lan Wangji’s shoulders stiffened at the answer, the lines around his jaw growing taunt with unease. Even so, he nodded, and watched Huaisang enter the center of the Nie Sect stronghold with one his hand wrapped tightly around Bichen’s hilt, keeping close as he’d promised Huaisang he would.

 

Nie Mingjue jumped to his feet the instant Huaisang stepped inside, his footsteps like drumbeats on the stone floor. Like this, Huaisang could almost pretend his brother was happy to see him. Then Jin Guangyao followed his lead, though he stood at a more sedate and controlled pace. A placating expression bloomed on his face, the full force of it on stand-by until Mingjue truly lost his composure.

“Huaisang,” Da-ge said quietly. He looked as though he was staring at a ghost. Knowing that his shock would soon wear off, Huaisang barely suppressed a flinch.

His brother would never have let him ride his saber to Cloud Recesses alone. Keeping him in the dark had been necessary, and yet the dark circles under Da-ge’s eyes told him of the consequences of his actions better than Mingjue’s words ever could.

Due to the lingering soreness in his muscles from nearly two weeks of non-stop flight, his bow bore a stiffness he knew would not go unnoticed, “I have returned, Da-ge.” Ignoring his brother’s sharp, hiss-like inhale, he continued, “It is good to see you well, San-ge. I trust you have been making sure Da-ge is well looked after in my absence?”

...Was that enough?

He peeked through his lashes and the loose clumps of hair falling to the sides of his face to see what Jin Guangyao thought of his manners. A sour taste filled his mouth at the pride that greeted him.

San-ge must have believed his own mannerisms had rubbed off on him, and perhaps they had. Huaisang hastily ducked his head to hide a swell of self-loathing so strong it nearly drowned him.

Nie Mingjue’s expression grew thunderous. His hands clenched into fists. “Where have you-”

“Were you about to play the Song of Clarity, San-ge?” Interrupting his Sect Leader was a transgression worthy of punishment, even for him, but if Mingjue started asking questions he couldn’t answer, everything would fall apart. “Please allow me to stay for the performance, just this once. Please, Da-ge,” Huaisang pleaded, doing his best to sound as if this were simply another one of his whims and mostly succeeding.

“It’s quite alright with me,” Jin Guangyao said soothingly, and did Huaisang imagine a flash of guilt in his eyes? “We were just about to begin, regardless.” He attempted a smile. “Your timing is truly impeccable, Nie-er-gongzi.”

Not trusting his voice, Huaisang merely nodded, then took his seat next to his older brother, Nie Sect Leader and resident active volcano. At least Mingjue had the presence of mind to save his scolding for when they were alone this time.

After what had happened shortly before they’d departed for the Sword Sacrificial Hall, he’d been extra careful about keeping his temper in check for weeks.

Jin Guangyao’s fingers swept over the golden strings of guqin, eliciting a sweet sound that suffused itself within anything it reached. Feeling a familiar tug within his own weak core, Huaisang subtly pulled his hands within his sleeves to hide their trembling.

Da-ge wasn’t looking at him. Da-ge didn’t see.

As the song continued, hitting every note Huaisang had played on his piccolo perfectly, he mentally held his breath, bracing for the shift, the sudden turn from calming to maddening. When it came, the effect was so subtle and insidious he almost didn’t notice. The doubts which always plagued suddenly became a little louder, and in his ears he heard the mocking words of the saber spirit.

Useless. Good-for-nothing.

“Useless,” he heard himself say. The word slipped out easily, as though it had always been his own. Unfortunately, Mingjue’s hearing was quite good. Huaisang could feel his brother’s gaze on him now, and closed his eyes so he wouldn’t have to meet it.

Whether he was angry with him or disappointed, it no longer mattered.

Nie Huaisang was going to save him, regardless.

Rising slowly to his feet, Huaisang brushed off his robes, then called out, “Lan Wangji!” Watching the blood abruptly leave Jin Guangyao’s face was a sight he was going to treasure. “Did that sound like what I played for you?”

Thick iron doors swung open to reveal Hanguang-jun standing tall and straight and stern. The ethereal robes billowing around him lent him the visage of a spirit sent from the Heavens to cast judgment. “It was not Cleansing,” he said, and Huaisang knew Jin Guangyao was damned. “Not completely. A segment was integrated from the chaos script.”

Huaisang started laughing, quietly at first and then louder. Higher. After all the tension he’d been feeling for months, it felt good to laugh. Jin Guangyao looked at him with an expression of horror before settling on Mingjue, “Surely, Nie-er-gongzi must have made a mistake.”

That sobered Huaisang. He snapped his fan open with a snarl, “And how, Jin Guangyao, did I accidentally play a song that increases resentful energy and destabilizes qi?” He wasn’t going to call him San-ge, anymore. He wasn’t ever going to call him San-ge again. “I played exactly what you taught me. I even checked the notes you’d copied from the Lan library to be sure.”

And so the trap snapped shut.

The sabers in their weapon holder began to rattle, with Baxia even emitting sparks of crimson resentful energy. Huaisang couldn’t have cared less.

As he stalked across the room to confront his former friend and traitor, his yellow eyes grew bright with fury. “You have been pushing my brother closer to a qi deviation every time you touch that instrument. Will you confess to it? In front of Lan Xichen, in front of Jin Guangshan, will you confess to it?”

“Huaisang,” Jin Guangyao groveled, falling to his knees with his hands clasped in front of him, “if I have lost your love, at least tell me why.”

Someone might have been calling Huaisang’s name. He ignored them. “You know why! You know exactly what you’ve done!”

In one swift motion, he pressed the edge of his fan against Jin Guangyao’s throat, letting the points of metal hidden behind its pretty design draw blood. “Whatever you may want to believe, the Jin sect will not protect you, nor will they avenge you. You turned your back on the only sect that would.” When it seemed that Jin Guangyao might try to interrupt, he increased the pressure, feeling a vicious satisfaction when his honey-soaked words died with a choke. “You have been poisoning Da-ge’s mind for months!” If he closed his eyes, he could still see the expression of shock Nie Zonghui had worn when his brother had slashed open his throat. “Because of you… Because of you…” He sucked in a shaking breath. “Did you mean for my brother to kill me, too?”

“Please,” Jin Guangyao wailed, “I don’t know what you mean!”

Huaisang lifted his arm to strike him - “A-Sang, wait!” - but when his arm came down another hand halted its motion.

Startled, Nie Huaisang turned his head sharply to see Lan Wangji standing beside him, and for a reason that Huaisang couldn't quite grasp, he looked afraid.

Chapter Text

Jin Guangyao was on his knees.

Trembling.

Unarmed.

Pathetic.

After all those years of admiring him, of seeking his company and counsel, of loving him as though they were truly siblings, Nie Huaisang wanted to scream.

Lan Wangji’s hand tightened around his wrist, “Huaisang.”

While he struggled to form the words that would reach him, Nie Huaisang attempted to break free of his grip. It was going predictably poorly when Lan Wangji called his name again. “Huaisang. You are not the Sect Leader.” Before Nie Huaisang could retort that he was already well aware of that, Lan Wangji gestured towards Jin Guangyao without so much as sparing his tear-streaked face a glance. “He is not a Nie.”

Shooting him a glare, Nie Huaisang snapped, “Why are you trying to protect him?”

Wangji gave a firm shake of his head. “Not him.” The unbreakable shackle wrapped around his wrist eased. “Let the guards take him to the dungeons. He has information.”

Seizing on the opportunity, Jin Guangyao started, “I don't-” His mouth promptly clamped shut.

Nie Huaisang glanced at Lan Wangji to find him finally looking at the man on the floor, a frown turning the corners of his lips. "Take this time to choose your words with care."

If the mood weren’t so tense, Nie Huaisang would have started laughing again.

He relaxed his arm, letting the fan fall so that it was no longer an inch away from his former oath brother’s carotid artery. If Huaisang could have killed him immediately, perhaps even when the corrupted Song of Clarity was still in play, then he might have been able to argue self-defense or temporary madness, but now that Jin Guangyao had purposefully made himself vulnerable and clearly wasn’t resisting, the only interpretation left of any action taken against him would be cold-blooded slaughter.

And Wangji was right. They needed his confession.

There were few ways of dealing with an assassin attempt from another Sect that didn’t end in war, and Qinghe was still recovering from the Sunshot Campaign. How could they ask the Nie disciples to risk their lives once again if they didn’t have all the facts?

While Jin Guangyao had little to gain from Nie Mingjue’s death, Da-ge had openly voiced his suspicion of the Jin Sect, and with the Lan Sect on the fence, his death would effectively silence their last detractor, meaning that Jin Guangshan had reached a new low and used his son as an assassin. It was a pitiable position to be placed in, but even so...

“He’s too dangerous to leave alive,” Huaisang coldly insisted. Lan Wangji’s hand dropped away in a show of trust that may have been ill-considered. Only time would tell. “Even if Jin Guangshan used his death as a weapon against us, an attempt against the Sect Leader’s life is already a declaration of war.” A small whimper issued from behind Jin Guangyao’s sealed lips. Neither of them paid him any heed. “If it were Xichen-ge, what would you do? If you stood in my place, knowing this man groveling at your feet has driven your brother to madness,” this drew a quiet grunt of protest from Nie Mingjue, who’d climbed to his feet at this point and was now making his way across the room to join them, “would you be so reasonable?”

“This is not Huaisang.”

“And what would you know of me?” On a superficial level, he could sense his brother’s presence, but these words had been building up within him ever since his brother’s saber had taken the lives of their disciples, ever since his efforts to calm Mingjue had driven him to despair. He felt the sting in his throat before he realized he was shouting, “I have seen members of my sect slaughtered because of his schemes and his lies.”

- and because of me.

Veins darkened around his pupils, the irises brimming crimson.

“You have no idea of what I’m capable of or what I’m willing to do to protect my sect!”

A heavy hand rested on his shoulder, giving it a comforting and grounding squeeze.

“Huaisang,” his brother called softly, snapping him out of the haze that had clouded his thoughts. Nie Huaisang looked up to see Da-ge staring down at him, his mouth pinched with concern. Their relationship had grown so poisonous lately, each of them hurting the other, always so angry, but now that Huaisang was burning from the inside with the injustice of what Jin Guangyao had done to them, Nie Mingjue seemed strangely and surreally calm. Older and tired and resigned in a way that made him resemble what little Huaisang remembered of their father. “You say he was playing a segment from the Songs of Turmoil?”

Huaisang closed his eyes with a shaky breath. “Yes.”

When he swayed, Mingjue pulled him closer to better support him. Huaisang knew this was only temporary, that soon Da-ge would remember that Jin Guangyao had betrayed him and Lan Wangji would probably have to restrain him with deity-binding ropes to keep Baxia from tasting blood, but for now Huaisang could pretend that his brother cared more about him than revenge.

When Mingjue started speaking again, a creeping note of panic in his voice revealed his previous calm to have been a fragile, shattering thing. “And Jin Guangyao taught you how to play it? He had you practice this in private? For how long, A-Sang? How long have you been playing this alone?”

Huaisang frowned in confusion.

“A month or so. No more.” His shoulders hunched forwards with shame. “I swear I didn’t know what it was. I’m so sorry, Da-ge. I didn’t- I should have realized something was wrong sooner.” He’d needed to make sure there were no mistakes when he showed it to others, and he’d been correct to do so, since both Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao had accused him of simply playing the song poorly when confronted with the corrupted melody.

“Do not play it, anymore,” Lan Wangji interjected. “Your core has sustained damage.” Though his expression was placid, his eyes briefly darted to Mingjue. It seemed he was tired of giving advice that went unheeded, and so had decided to go over Huaisang’s head to the one person who cared more about his well-being than he did.

Da-ge sucked in a sharp breath, his grip on Huaisang tightening to a degree that made him suppress a wince, after which Mingjue forced himself to relax. “Wangji, would you play Cleansing for Huaisang?” Nie Huaisang stiffened, and while Mingjue looked sympathetic, he didn’t take back his request. When he yelled for the guards to come inside, their captain paused at the sight of their Sect Leader, the Second Young Master, and Hanguang-jun all gathered around the kneeling form of a still silenced Lianfang-zun, but quickly gathered himself and bowed. Mingjue inclined his head, then gestured to his traitorous sworn brother with ill-concealed disdain, “Take Jin Guangyao to the dungeon and keep a close eye on him. He is not as weak nor as helpless as he appears.”

As he was pulled to his feet and dragged away, Huaisang felt his gaze inexorably pulled towards him. Catching him looking, Jin Guangyao nodded his head, approval shining in his eyes for an instant, so quick it could have been imagined, and then Da-ge blocked his view as he accompanied the guards down to the cells.

Huaisang clutched his stomach, feeling ill.

Now that everything was done, he sank down to the floor. Lan Wangji stood for a moment longer, then kneeled to join him. He didn’t try to offer comfort as Xichen-ge would have, for which Nie Huaisang was secretly glad. There were no pretty words or platitudes that could mend the wound this betrayal had carved in his heart. When he was ready to speak, he said, “Did you hear him ask when he’d lost my love?” Wangji watched him carefully, possibly monitoring him for a relapse of whatever momentary madness had overtaken him, then slowly inclined his head. Huaisang averted his face to hide how his mouth twisting with bitterness. “If only it were so easy.”

If that were the case, then he would keep his heart in a locked box and toss the box into the sea.

He peered over his shoulder to find his friend’s gaze had grown distant.

Wangji’s fingers dug into his robes, curling around the pure white fabric. “Had I not stopped you,” and he hesitated, weighing his words and their impact before continuing, “would you truly have killed him?”

For once, Huaisang didn’t have an answer. When it came to whether or not he would have killed the man he’d once considered family, he truly and honestly didn’t know. Instead of following that train of thought to a place he wasn’t ready to go yet, he deflected, “Actually, you never answered my question.” Lan Wangji nodded, accepting the abrupt change in topic with grace. “If it were Xichen-ge, what would you do?”

“You know the answer to that already, or you would not have asked.”

Nie Huaisang’s expression slackened in surprise. Then he curled forward, resting his chin on his knees, and scoffed without heat, “So the man who has retreated fifty steps mocks the man who retreated a hundred.”

Already unpacking his guqin, Lan Wangji tilted his head. “If such a day were to come, I would trust that a friend like you would stop me.” Nie Huaisang’s head snapped up, startled by the complete and earnest sincerity with which Wangji had called his friend, and then hid his face in his sleeves so that Wangji wouldn’t see him surreptitiously blotting the corners of his eyes.

Truly, Wangji-xiong was too powerful.

By the time Da-ge returned, Cleansing had already been played twice over, and Huaisang was feeling considerably more clear-headed. This did not stop Mingjue from constantly checking on him like a fussing mother, though Huaisang could hardly fault him for being worried. After having spent so much time coming to terms with his own death and the terrifying knowledge that his younger brother would have to lead their sect without him, to see Huaisang exhibit symptoms of a qi deviation must have shaken him.

Wangji played Cleansing again for Da-ge’s sake, infusing the notes with enough spiritual energy to calm armies engaged in battle.

Once that was done, Nie Huaisang proposed that they discussed their next move. There was little time to lose, after all, and he knew he could never truly rest until some sort of plan, or even the outline of one, had been forged.

“Lan Xichen trusts Jin Guangyao. Without hard proof, he will not listen to us. Not even to you, Da-ge,” Huaisang reluctantly admitted. Even if it was the truth, he disliked stating it so plainly in front of Mingjue. It felt too much like rubbing salt into an open wound, but if they didn’t look at this from a realistic perspective, they’d already lost.

There were Four Great Sects. The smaller sects would fall into line based on what benefited them, or ignore the fighting entirely, which meant they had to concentrate on the Lan and the Jiang. Having Lan Wangji on their side was already an advantage to that end, but in order to have the Lan's full support, they would need to convince their Sect Leader.

Nie Huaisang flipped open his fan, ignoring the wary look his brother gave it.

As for the Jiang Sect, though they had rebuilt themselves from the ground up to become an impressive militaristic force, Jiang Cheng had no interest in any conflicts that would threaten Jin Rulan. Likewise, Nie Huaisang would prefer to leave Jin Rusong out of this if at all possible. He would send letters to Qin Su and Jiang Cheng by raven. The rest would be up to them.

Setting his guqin aside now that the session had been completed, the first of what was likely to be many, Lan Wangji knelt unburdened of his instrument, with a clear gaze and impeccable posture. “I will verify that Jin Guangyao has tampered with our Songs of Clarity. Zewu-jun and Grandmaster Lan will trust my testimony.”

“Actually, that's not quite true,” Huaisang snapped his fan shut with a sharp motion, then shook his head. “You can verify that they were tampered with, but not that it was Jin Guangyao that did the tampering.” Though Lan Wangji waited wordlessly for him to explain, it wasn’t difficult to tell that he was beginning to become frustrated. “He can still claim that he was tricked or framed or put up to it by his father. We have to know what his narrative will be before we can sell Xichen-ge ours, and the best way to loosen his tongue is if he believes the Jin Sect has forsaken him.”

The seed was already there, and Huaisang hadn’t even planted it. It’d always been there, even since his mother had fed him tales of a father who loved him, yet had somehow left him to rot in a brothel. All they had to do was help it grow.

He turned to Mingjue to find him regarding him with an inscrutable look in his eyes. After a moment, though, he seemed to shake himself, as he suddenly looked more alert than he had in months. In some ways, even though they’d been living in the same sect, in the same building, Huaisang felt as though they’d been apart for a very long time. There was a part of him that wanted to wrap his arms around his Da-ge and say,

I've missed you.

But then Mingjue was squeezing his shoulder again, and he put the urge away, locking it up in a box for when their sect was safe. “Let me handle this for now. When was the last time you slept, Huaisang?” And when his younger brother took too long to answer, even throwing a pleading glance at Wangji that the young Lan elegantly pretended not to see, Mingjue effortlessly ignored his protests, picked him up, and carried him to his room, with Lan Wangji following silently behind.

Chapter Text

Rather than waste time resting, Nie Huaisang spent the better part of the afternoon and most of the night drafting letters, and all with a disapproving Lan hovering over his shoulder. Well, not literally, but even when mediating across the room in an impeccable lotus position, Wangji somehow found ways to make his discontent known.

For one, a light breeze kept mysteriously blowing out his candles once it got dark. Every time it happened, Huaisang glanced over his shoulder in annoyance to see that Wangji was in the exact same position he’d left him in, perhaps even asleep since it was fast approaching the Lan Sect’s bedtime, but he wasn’t fooled.

“If you’re going to keep being a nuisance, Lan-er-gongzi,” Lan Wangji opened one golden eye to peer at him, “then you might as well help me finish these letters. The sooner they are done, the sooner I will rest.” Hearing that, Lan Wangji rose soundlessly to his feet, slipping the wind talisman he’d been periodically infusing with spiritual energy under his robes, then made his way to Huaisang’s desk. After pulling back his white sleeves, he grabbed a dish and a dark stick made from charcoal and ash, filled the dish with water from Huaisang’s pitcher, then started grinding more ink for Huaisang to use.

There was a row of tan envelopes on the desk, and a pile of painting supplies and a canvas on the floor where Huaisang had shoved them to make room for the rest. Already, he had completed the letters for the servants closest to Jin Guangshan, and so he enclosed each in an envelope, along with a significant momentary bribe to convince them to follow his instructions.

Once the ink was complete, Huaisang dipped his brush into the dish, remarked favorably on its consistency, then numbered the envelopes to be sent on the fastest birds in the morning. Next, he numbered the letters for Qin Su and Jiang Cheng, ensuring that they would receive warning before Jin Guangshan received a mysterious missive claiming that Jin Guangyao had been imprisoned after an attempt on Nie-zongzhu’s life - which was true - and that he was attempting to implicate Jin Guangshan for the deed.

The latter was precisely true yet, but after a day or so of overhearing his servants speaking of how Jin Guangyao had secretly disparaged him behind closed doors and ambitiously sought to overthrow him, Nie Huaisang was positive that Jin-zongzhu would abandon his son once again. Without the Jin Sect’s protection and with no hope of obtaining his father’s approval, Jin Guangyao would have no choice but to cooperate.

Jin Guangshan was dangerous in the way that petty and vindictive people were always dangerous, like a barking dog with no teeth and blunted claws. He would not last long without a right-hand man as competent as his son beside him.

It was a pity that Jin Zixuan had died on Qiongqi Path. He would have made an excellent heir. Without him, the role would fall to a child, thus putting Jin Rulan in the crosshairs of anyone hoping to gain influence within the sect. Jiang Cheng, however powerful he may have become, could not spend all his days defending his nephew while simultaneously running his own sect, and thus there would have to be a Regent in position that could be trusted, or if not that, then at least trusted not to harm Jin Rulan.

Nie Huaisang groaned, resting his head on the table’s edge.

With Xuanyu from the Mo sect being barely older than Jin Rulan, it seemed keeping Jin Guangyao alive truly was the best choice for now. He should consider himself lucky the attempt on his brother’s life had failed, for had it succeeded, the ramifications of Lianfang-zun's death, no matter how devastating to the Jin Sect, would not have been Huaisang’s concern.

Given that Mingjue still lived, however, perhaps he could spare a little mercy, if only for the sake of Wei-xiong’s nephew.

Curious to see what Wangji was up to, he turned to find him speaking in low tones to a butterfly made of dancing golden light that fluttered sedately in the palm of his hand. The glow cast upon his cheeks lended him an ethereal appearance in the candle’s dim illumination, and for a moment, Nie Huaisang was distracted by an intense desire to paint his likeness. Once the urge had passed, he realized with a sinking sensation who the missive must be for.

Upon noticing his incredulous expression, Lan Wangji explained without a trace of regret, “You do not plan to inform my brother of what has happened here today.” He raised one of his brows slightly, as though waiting for Nie Huaisang to deny it.

Nie Huaisang clapped his hands in front of him, pleading, “Two days, Wangji-xiong. That’s all I’m asking for. If Xichen-ge arrives to offer Jin Guangyao a lifeline, all of this preparation will have been for naught.” He knew Lan Wangji was thinking of his own tragic love, but where Wei Wuxian had fought for the innocent, Jin Guangyao prioritized his own ambitions over the lives of others.

One of the Twin Jades had certainly misplaced their devotion - the cultivation world was only mistaken on which one.

Though Lan Wangji’s eyes narrowed in suspicion, the truth was that he wasn’t particularly thrilled with the idea of bringing a man who'd attempted to murder one of his sworn brothers into his home. However, he likewise did not want to deny Xichen the choice, as he himself had been denied, of standing by his side.

Not even if the thought of losing his older brother to the depth of his feelings filled him with dread.

“Two days,” Wangji agreed at length, relieved and reluctant in equal measure. Before he could dismiss the golden butterfly, Huaisang asked him to send it instead to one of the Nie’s senior disciples with a request. Nie Zonghan’s shift had already ended. He would be free to accomplish a small favor.

After Nie Huaisang finished whispering to the delicate little messenger, Lan Wangji lifted it to the window, releasing it into the night where its flapping wings burned against the blue-ink backdrop of the sky.

“Once this task is complete,” Lan Wangji looked at him with half-lidded eyes, clearly fighting a losing battle with his own fatigue, “you will rest?” Nie Huaisang readily agreed, then fetched a blanket and a pillow for his fading friend. “Don’t,” Lan Wangji muttered drowsily when he returned, as stubborn as ever. “Won’t sleep until you do.”

Nie Huaisang sat back on his haunches with a sigh of both amusement and frustration.

Not even an incense stick later, Nie Zonghan stood outside his door, looking alert in spite of the late hour. Huaisang was ready for him, his arms loaded with delicate trinkets gifted by the Jin Sect. Everything that Mingjue hadn't yet burned. “Take these,” he said, handing them off to his senior disciple with a smile that had no roots in his heart, “and burn them in the courtyard.”

Even without the sun to catch the gold flakes embedded in their paint, the portraits and calligraphy glittered prettily. Each of them had been made by a master of their craft, as Jin Guangyao had only been too happy to demonstrate his wealth and influence after his acceptance into the Jin Sect.

Nie Zonghan struggled not to drop any of the expensive accessories he’d been given. “Are you certain you wish to be rid of these, Nie-er-gongzi?” What he was really asking was whether or not it was wise to publicly dispose of the Jin Sect’s gifts, but Nie Huaisang not only anticipated news of such disrespect reaching the Jin, he was counting on it. It would add credence to the letters that would be sent in numbered order come morning.

“Ah, shixiong, Da-ge is always nagging me about the clutter in my room. I thought it might be wise to trim the fat, so to speak. After all, he’s been so stressed lately.” As he spoke, he deftly pulled one of the sole gifts he’d saved from brother's previous purge from his sleeve, a simple and cheap paper fan that smelled faintly of must after years of disuse. “The least I can do is try not to anger him.” Huaisang nudged Zonghan with a playful air in the hope that ordering his possessions burned in the middle of the night could be passed off as the impulse of an airhead. “What’s a few gifts when I have so many?” Although Nie Zonghui would have realized that this pile actually consisted of the majority of his art collection and likely pressed him on it, Zonghan wasn't familiar enough with him to see through the deceit. Given that, while Nie Huaisang couldn’t physically usher him out without seeming too eager to have the gifts out of his sight, he did adopt a firmer, more dismissive tone, as he held the fan up to his face and said, “Besides, I have found worthier pursuits to occupy my time.”

News of Lianfang-zun’s treachery must have spread through the sect, since in spite of his efforts, Nie Zonghan now regarded him with a sympathetic expression that bordered on pity. If Huaisang hadn’t cared so much for the fan he carried, he might have hit his senior disciple upside the head with it.

Fortunately, Nie Zonghan seemed to sense that his opinion on the matter was not desired, as he bent in as formal a bow he could manage without dropping any of the gifts burdening his arms.

Nie Huaisang watched him turn to hurry down the corridor, then turned to find Lan Wangji looking as though he were going to pass out. His head pitched forward, and all that could be seen of his eyes were crescent-shaped slivers of gold. Not wanting to keep him up any longer, Nie Huaisang doused the candles, extinguished his incense, and for the sake of his friend’s propriety more than his own, stepped behind a changing screen to strip off his outer robes. Then he climbed onto his cot, pulling the sheets up to his chin. He could hear Wangji’s rhythmic breathing, and guessed with a small smile that the Lan had slipped into sleep the instant he was certain that Huaisang would keep his word. On the few nights they’d stayed in an inn together during their trip to Qinghe, they’d shared a room exactly once out of necessity, and at that time too Lan Wangji had refused to take the bed. Considering his pinched expression whenever Huaisang had gripped him too tightly during their flight, the subtle grinding of his teeth, the stiffness of his movements…

He’d been hurt, Nie Huaisang surmised. Probably by a weapon that’d been created to resist the healing effects of a strong golden core, and if Er-ge hadn’t confided in Da-ge, or if Da-ge hadn’t shared it with him, then the reason could be narrowed down significantly. And Nie Huaisang happened to recall from his time in the Cloud Recesses that exactly such a weapon had been in the Lan Sect's possession.

Huaisang clenched his jaw until it ached, burying his nails into his palms.

As a child he'd been taught to fear war, but it had not been war that had weakened Lan Wangji, nor war that killed Wei Wuxian, nor war that had nearly taken his brother from him.

Wide awake with nerves on top of everything else, he turned on his side to face the wall with a huff, and desperately tried not to think of anything at all.

 

In the early morning, there would be nothing left of Jin Guangyao’s gifts save a smear of ash on the courtyard grounds interspersed with flakes of gold that glinted like pieces of stars trapped in stone.

Nie Mingjue took one look at the mess, informed the disciples that they were to begin training under the supervision of their seniors, and set off to find his brother.

Chapter Text

Huaisang was not in his room, nor was he seated at the breakfast table. Based on nothing more than wishful thinking, Mingjue even checked in with the healers, who naturally hadn’t seen him. For someone who ostensibly didn’t want to become sect leader, his little brother seemed determined to give him a qi deviation.

Mingjue stopped walking, his mind flashing back to the snarl of rage and grief and pain he’d witnessed on Huaisang's face.

Where would they be now if Wangji hadn’t stayed Huaisang's hand in time? Even if the Jin Sect had called for retribution on behalf of a newly recognized son that Jin Guangshan didn’t even like, Mingjue had chosen his path long ago.

The Nie Sect would go to war before he let anything endanger his younger brother.

But how could he protect him from their family curse when Mingjue himself wouldn’t survive it? When he'd already hurt his little brother and so many of their disciples because of it? (Yes, he knew what he'd done. A lie, no matter how well-intentioned, could not erase the very human blood that had soaked Baxia's blade.) Putting a stop to Jin Guangyao’s tricks hadn’t saved his life so much as prolonged it, not that he would ever admit as much when Huaisang had come so close to crossing the line that for a moment it seemed as though Mingjue’s greatest fear - that he would be forced watch his younger brother die before him - had come to pass.

He’d buried Madame Nie, Huaisang’s mother, and their father.

He couldn’t bury Huaisang, too. He wouldn’t survive it.

When checking the kitchens didn’t yield any results beyond the servants helpfully informing him that Huaisang hadn’t stopped by for breakfast, he asked them to keep an eye out for them, then made his way towards the bird cages. It was the last of the usual suspects when it came where Huaisang might be and Mingjue was feeling confident about it, since Wangji would never leave the grounds of the Nie Sect without informing him after yesterday’s fiasco, and sure enough the pair were standing outside by the porch, surrounded by empty cages.

Mingjue stopped short of the gravel where they stood, off-balanced. Burning his possessions was one thing, but if Huaisang was planning to release his birds into the wild, then Mingjue was going to have him dragged straight back to the healers.

Then he noticed that the slick-feathered ravens resting on his brother and Wangji’s arms each carried rolls of paper tied to their legs, and he realized with a sense of relief that Huaisang was sending messages, only to immediately tense again at exactly the same realization.

Actually, the ravens were a somewhat recent addition.

Before the Sunshot Campaign, Huaisang had favored exotic birds with brilliant plumage and smaller birds with enchanting melodies. Ravens were hardy and difficult to shoot down in the dark. They were hardy, able to carry missives over long distances to remote and desolate locations that any cultivators could not access, such as the Burial Mounds. On some level, Mingjue had known that Huaisang had continued correspondence with Wei Wuxian, and had turned a blind eye to younger brother’s disappointment when more and more often his ravens returned with his letters still attached and apparently unread.

In the interest of plausible deniability, Nie Mingjue decided that he aggressively did not see any messages. Certainly not any messages bearing important information that shouldn’t be shared without the Sect Leader’s explicit permission and knowledge.

That would be absurd.

Huaisang swallowed hard when he caught sight of him standing on the outskirts, wariness creeping into his gaze. He straightened his shoulders with a bracing grimace, then pasted on a polite and faltering smile. If he bowed as a visiting ambassador would, as well, then political ramifications or no political ramifications, Mingjue was going to march down to the dungeon and start breaking things.

“Did you come to fetch me for saber training, Nie-zongzhu?”

Mingjue winced at the overly formal tone and address. He exchanged a look with Wangji, who normally would have promptly excused himself, but now clearly hesitated. Old bandages peeked out from the hem of Huaisang's sleeves, betraying the presence of still healing burns from the when Mingjue had successfully driven Huaisang away. Huaisang gave him a nudge, "Oh, don't look so gloomy, Wangji-xiong! I'll let you hold my birds again next time, okay?" Lan Wangji stiffly inclined his head, held his arm up to Huaisang’s sleeve so that the raven could hook its claws in, turned and bowed, then wordlessly walked away, leaving Huaisang to face his older brother with a matching bird on each arm and a look of bemusement on his face.

In any other situation, Mingjue might have been amused. As it was, he took the chance to observe the shadows under his younger brother’s eyes. He was pale as a corpse and listing, and Mingjue wished fiercely that he’d either set the ravens on their flight or put them back in their cages, because what should have been an entertaining scene was beginning to make him nervous.

While Mingjue didn’t think much of superstition, he also didn’t believe in tempting fate, and when the dead walked the earth, it was always better to err on the side of caution.

Yesterday, Nie Huaisang had learned a lesson that Mingjue had had seared into his mind since their father died. It was a lesson that he had always intended to shield him from for as long as possible - that sometimes the people closest to you would turn on you.

Sometimes the world could be a cruel, unforgiving place, and sometimes chicks that fell from their nests never learned how to fly.

He supposed he had Jin Guangyao to thank for this. On some level, he knew he had himself to blame, as well.

Forgoing preamble, Nie Mingjue stated, “You had one of the disciples burn your belongings.” When he'd checked Huaisang's room, it'd been so strangely barren of delicate trappings and art that it could have belonged to a stranger.

Huaisang looked somewhat aggrieved at his tactlessness, but thankfully didn’t comment on it. He lifted his arms, letting the ravens he’d carried fly off to their destinations with the messages they definitely didn’t carry. Mingjue was beginning to feel a headache coming on.

“I did,” Huaisang confirmed without any significant feeling. He paused, tilting his head with the same glint of intelligence in his eyes that he so admired in his birds. “Was that all you wished to speak with me about?”

Mingjue reminded himself that it wasn’t the sole reason he’d sought out his brother. Huaisang was offering him an excuse to leave this conversation that he hadn’t wanted and refused to accept. “If this is because of what I’ve done, or because of what I've said in the past-”

“Da-ge, forgive me,” and so, in the end, Huaisang had lasted about a minute of pretending to be deferential, “but now that Jin Guangyao’s many gifts have been appropriately dealt with, I would like very much to rest for the day. Unless... you’d prefer I attend saber practice?”

Nie Mingjue wondered if Huaisang kept bringing that up because he knew that Mingjue wasn’t going to be letting him pick up a saber for the foreseeable future or if his little brother, who always seemed happiest painting mountains and watching the sunset, honestly believed that he would pressure him into training after he’d been forced witness to such a gentle soul come so close to spilling blood for him.

No, Huaisang was watching him carefully, as though it was Mingjue who was in danger of a qi deviation. For the most part, he was being careful, thoughtful, and courteous. Behaving exactly as a Young Master of the Qinghe Nie sect should.

And Mingjue wanted it to stop.

“Huaisang, are you… well?” Huaisang looked up at him in disbelief, his lips parting slightly as though he’d meant to speak and then completely forgotten what he’d intended to say. “I may have neglected to tell you,” because he’d thought it was self-evident, “but I think it would be best if we decreased your saber training. For now.”

He half-expected Huaisang to cheer, or wrap his arms around him the way he’d done when they were younger. Instead, Mingjue saw his little brother’s stiff shoulders fall for a split second, before Huaisang rallied himself once more, making his tone purposefully light and carefree, “If Da-ge is saying such outlandish things, he must truly be worried.”

Unfazed by the act, Nie Mingjue retorted, “I’m serious, Huaisang.”

He reached out to check the pulse point on Huaisang’s wrist, only to suppress a growl of frustration when his younger brother deftly sidestepped him, dancing away like a mirage. His wrist snapped out and a simple, harmless fan appeared. Frustrated as he was with the evasion, Mingjue recognized the fan as the one he’d given to his younger brother as a gift many years ago.

Frowning, Mingjue asked if he could see it, then when Huaisang cautiously approached, he reached out for the paper fan, but feinted at the last moment, grabbing Huaisang’s wrist instead. He barely even noticed Huaisang trying to free himself while he reached out with his own core to gauge the state of his brother’s. As he’d feared, it was practically drained.

He’d have to ask one of the healers to take a look at him, and perhaps offer some spiritual energy of their own to kickstart the process.

“Since when do you hide these things from me?” Seeing Huaisang flinch, Mingjue drew his hand away as if burned. The tension this act resulted in was, unfortunately, more familiar to them these days than the easy camaraderie of their youth.

“It is nothing that will not heal in time.” Huaisang waved his fan with a dismissive air. “Hardly worthy of your concern.”

“And are you to be the judge of what is worthy of my concern?”

Nie Huaisang stopped mid-motion with an expression that was strangely blank. Empty like the face of an unpainted doll. He closed his eyes, drew in a faltering breath, then resumed with more of the false cheer from before, “I should say that I am! The state of your core is a much larger concern than a mild case of spiritual exhaustion. Has there been any sign of improvement since Wangji played for you? I can ask him to play for you again after lunch, if you like.”

“That would,” Mingjue cleared his throat with a cough, “probably be for the best.” He still wasn’t used to his little brother knowing of his troubles and certainly wasn’t fond of the idea that Huaisang might continue walking on eggshells around him to stave off a fate that neither of them had any power to stop. Huaisang’s gaze was as sharp as a falcon's, though. Peeling off the layers from what he said and didn’t say. Rather than leave Huaisang to his own conclusions, Mingjue hurried to reassure him, “I feel more clearheaded. Less angry.” It gave him an immense sense of relief when some of the tension bled out from Huaisang’s slender frame. “With that said,” Mingjue added with a hint of humor that proved the truth of his words more than anything he could have said, “once my core is restored I will go to great lengths to have the Lan Clan write another Song of Clarity so that I may never again have to sit through Cleansing again.”

Huaisang stared at him with wide eyes, not quite believing what he’d heard, then closed his fan, slipping it into his sleeve with a quiet laugh, “There are worse songs to be endured, but if that’s true, you certainly won’t be hearing any complaints from me.”

“I’m happy to hear that, since you will be attending my future sessions, as well.”

Under his breath, Huaisang muttered a heartfelt, “Stubborn.”

This time, Mingjue couldn’t help the slight upward twitch at the corners of his mouth.

Huaisang’s keen eyes darted up to him, then back down to the gray stones at their feet, one of which he idly scuffed with the sole of his shoe.

“Won’t you look at me, A-Sang?” Huaisang stiffened, a frown growing on his face, but did as he was asked. “Jin Guangyao is imprisoned. He will not be harming either of us again.”

For the longest time when they were growing up, Huaisang had hung onto his every word, believing him instantly no matter if he said the sky was made of fish scales or that there was a colony of rabbits with fur white as snow that lived on the moon. Looking at the doubt clouding his expression now, Mingjue couldn’t help but wonder when that time had ended.

“We still do not know for certain how the Jin Sect will react to news of his confinement.” Visibly agitated, Huaisang started to pace, his steps carving a shallow groove with his footsteps through the gravel. “It’s pretty unlikely that a coward like Jin Guangshan would stick his neck out for one of his bastards, but so long as the chances aren’t nonexistent it would be unwise not to prepare for more assassination attempts in the future and, worst-case scenario, another war.” Abruptly, he stopped walking, a feverish glint in his eyes. “You should increase your personal security.” The fact that Jin Guangyao wouldn’t be around to throw himself in front of the nearest blade - conveniently after he’d been caught murdering his superiors - went unsaid.

Mingjue pinched the bridge of his nose. “While I appreciate you finally taking an active interest in politics, I do have advisors for a reason.”

Huaisang looked stricken by the rebuke, though he quickly recovered. “Forgive me, Da-ge. It is merely the fatigue talking.” Leaning forward with the fan he'd put away now pressed to his chest, he boasted, “I traveled for weeks on a saber, you know. It’s only luck that kept my legs from falling off.”

“So I’ve heard.” A letter had arrived from Lan Xichen which had informed him of what he'd already known - that Huaisang had gone to Wangji for help. It also included an urgent request for Jin Guangyao's presence in Cloud Recesses. Nodding towards the empty bird cages, Mingjue said, “You’ve done much of late without telling me.”

“How can I possibly tell my Sect Leader everything when he is always so busy?”

Though this was said with his usual teasing lilt, Huaisang shifted closer to the garden wall so that he could lean against it, and tilted his head up to the sky. A look of contentment grew steadily on his face as the heat of the sun warmed his cheeks. Seeing him like this brought to mind how at peace he’d seemed in the Nie burial chamber when their own impending doom had appeared inevitable.

Leaves returning to the roots, indeed.

The Second Young Master of Qinghe Nie was not adept with the blade, nor was he an especially strong cultivator, but he had the greatest knowledge of astronomy in their sect, an eye for detail, a silver tongue, and a sharp wit. In his own way, Huaisang was as strong as any warrior.

This was a truth that Mingjue had come to ignore, to his shame.

Even so, he'd had never wanted Huaisang to feel as though he needed to force himself to be strong for his sake. Standing before him now, he could see his little brother’s brief tranquility break down as his mind struggled to come up with solutions for problems that weren’t his responsibility to solve.

Mingjue navigated around a pillar to sit beside Huaisang on the low wall bordering the stone garden. “I don’t want you worrying about this anymore, okay?” Huaisang sighed, giving him a flat look that spoke volumes. Regardless, Mingjue was determined to persevere. “You will become the Sect Leader when I die, I have always told you this, but I am not dead yet. I’m still here. And these burdens weighing you down are not yours to bear.”

“How?” Huaisang looked helplessly down at his hands, which bore light callouses from holding a brush for too long and little else. A tear tracked down his cheek. “You could have died yesterday. How could they not be mine?”

Words failed Mingjue, so he placed a comforting hand on his didi’s shoulder, and was taken aback by the tremors he could feel beneath his palm. Pulling Huaisang forward, Mingjue caught and wrapped his arms around him in a tight embrace, then gently rested his forehead against his brother’s and prayed to the ancestors that fate would not separate them in this life.

Chapter Text

Nie Huaisang had no opinion on the cleanliness of dungeons. It wasn’t as though anyone ever asked him for his input when it came to sect matters, and so he never felt the need to form one. Instead, he’d trusted that the criminals and war prisoners locked in the cells to await trial deserved the unpleasant conditions that were generally expected of such places.

His opinion had changed when Wei Wuxian forced the plight of the Wen Remnants into the spotlight, not that it had saved them.

Witnessing Jin Guangyao sitting with perfect posture on the floor of his cell after over a day of imprisonment didn’t stir in him those same feelings of distant compassion. There was nothing distant about what he felt, no way to convince himself that the person imprisoned before him was merely an unfortunate soul whose fate he was powerless to change.

Looking too closely at what he felt would be akin to sticking his face inside a fire for a better view of the flames, and so he shoved them down, burned them, grew a smile from their ashes.

The robes he’d chosen for this unsanctioned visit were in grayscale, and inspired by the manner in which Meng Yao had downplayed what little strength he had by never emphasizing the broadness of shoulders, encouraged the perception of a certain lack of guile along with an overabundance of naivety.

He wanted Jin Guangyao to associate him with the youth he’d watched over during his turn as Da-ge’s deputy, but if Yao suspected an ulterior motive, well, that could work in his favor, too. Nie Mingjue would never have sworn an oath with someone dull, so to combat that, Huaisang had spent every second since he’d sent out his letters brainstorming with Lan Wangji to determine every possible choice Jin Guangyao could make and then how to turn that choice into an advantage.

Surviving in a brothel at such a young age must have been difficult, as was serving in the Nie sect when so many of his peers envied the respect Mingjue had for him regardless of his low status, and then in the Wen sect during the Sunshot Campaign. Maybe that was when Meng Yao, who had once whiled away hours in the Qinghe library searching for illustrations of what Nie Huaisang had sworn was a rare species of avian he’d spotted in the courtyard, had ceased to be.

Whether it was the Wen or the Jin or the brothel where Meng Yao had spent his child, Nie Huaisang’s beloved brother had died, but if Jin Guangyao was willing to pretend otherwise, then Huaisang would play along.

After extracting a promise from Wangji - who’d chosen tonight of all nights to be a light sleeper - that he would remain outside with the guards to make sure they didn’t alert Mingjue and also to lend credibility to Huaisang’s claim that he was supposed to be visiting the prisoner, he’d procured a pot of Jin Guangyao’s favorite tea from the kitchen and now sat in front of his cell, daintily pouring the tea into small earthenware cups.

Nie Huaisang had burst in like the world’s clumsiest whirlwind, probably even overdoing it a bit with the way he’d sloshed tea on the floor. At least his bumbling had quickly allayed Jin Guangyao’s fear that whatever assassin the Jin had sent after him had finally arrived.

“Mingjue doesn’t know that you’ve come to visit,” said Jin Guangyao with understanding when Nie Huaisang passed him his tea through the bars. Since he made no move to drink from his cup, Huaisang brought his own to his lips and took a sip, taking pleasure in watching his former brother’s eyes narrow in suspicion.

Perhaps if the Jin sect had focused a little more on cultivating their cores and a little less on cultivating their paranoia, Jin Zixun wouldn’t have suffered the embarrassment of bearing the Hundred-Holes Curse and would still be alive.

“This isn’t an interrogation, Lianfang-zun,” Nie Huaisang assured him in a facsimile of gentleness that came easily. “I am here only to have a civilized discussion with an old friend.”

The sides of Jin Guangyao’s mouth twitched. “I think we’re a little past the point of games, Huaisang.” Then, perhaps unable to stifle his curiosity, he gestured towards the pot and cups with a sweeping arc. “How did you manage to get the tea set past the kitchen servants?”

As if Lan Qiren could appear behind him at any moment, Nie Huaisang leaned forward conspiratorially, concealing his words with a sleeve, “I once managed to sneak a caged bird into Grandmaster Lan’s classroom, remember?” Settling back with an air of satisfaction, he added with a breezy wave of his hand, “This was barely even a challenge in comparison.”

Talking of old times made his stomach twist uncomfortably, which Huaisang tried to hide with another well-timed sip of his tea, and since allowing his own tea to go untouched would be a flagrant disregard of the lessons that had shaped his upbringing, Jin Guangyao reluctantly followed suit.

When his cup was dry, he placed it down on the tray with only enough force to cause a clatter that could have passed for an accidental disturbance. Jin Guangyao set his cup down, as well, looking up with an impassive expression that couldn’t quite hide the anticipation brimming beneath the surface. The faster Huaisang showed his hand, the faster Jin Guangyao could think of a way to counter it.

But what if he never did show his entire hand? And instead showed just enough cards, bright and brilliant and distracting, to make Jin Guangyao believe that he had?

“What would your mother think of you if she could see you now?” Nie Huaisang inquired calmly, as though they were still having a friendly chat, as though he’d failed to notice the flash of hate in his companion’s eyes at his words. “Would she be proud of the man you’ve become - an oathbreaker and a murderer?”

“You are speaking of the Nie disciples I slew while working undercover for Wen Ruohan?” Jin Guanyao scoffed, distracting Nie Huaisang from pondering what other murders he may have committed that made clarification necessary. Da-ge had never shared with him why he’d banished Meng Yao, and back then, seeing Meng Yao pale and limping and bleeding had always been enough for Huaisang to take his friend's side over his brother's. After all, with no information to go on, was it really such a stretch to assume that Nie Mingjue had overreacted?

They’d argued about the banishment for weeks.

“You and Da-ge really are the same - each of you blaming me for things that cannot be helped.”

“Forgive me, Lianfang-zun,” Huaisang pressed the tip of his perfectly normal paper fan against his cheek, looking thoughtful, “for my eyesight may be poor, but I did not see any strings attached to your limbs when you played your music. Was I mistaken?”

Jin Guangyao’s smile thinned into a bloodless line. “I could have let Wen Ruohan kill him. Who would have stopped me? Who would have blamed me?”

Nie Huaisang huffed out a humorless laugh. “And I’m sure it crossed your mind.” Thrusting his fan towards Jin Guangyao’s face, he asserted confidently, “You spared him because he was still of use to you.” But now the letter of recommendation Da-ge had written for his sake was already sent, the place at Jin Guangshan’s side already secured. That left only the maintenance of the wealth and power he’d attained which Mingjue, with his reputation and inflexible beliefs, would always be a threat to.

Had their affection for Meng Yao, their trust in him, really been nothing more than a means to an end? Was every time he’d defended him from Da-ge just part of his plan to use the friction between them to drive Mingjue further and further towards a qi deviation?

This whole time, was I just another weapon to you? And if you cared for us once, when did that change?

When did we lose you?

It was these questions that Nie Huaisang didn’t have the courage to ask.

True or false. Real or fake. Sometimes, it was better not to know.

Jin Guangyao took a dainty sip of tea, remarking casually, “I’m sure you’ll find such things are true within the majority of the circles we traverse.”

In spite of the promise he’d made to himself to remain calm, Nie Huaisang felt his eyes narrow in warning, “I’m not like you.”

“You once told me you had me more in common with me than you did with Da-ge.”

Huaisang flipped open his fan to hide how much that successfully got under his skin, “Do you still get to call him that after what you did?”

“You mean, after what we did?” It was infuriating to see how Jin Guangyao managed to keep his face pleasant and smooth even when his words were sharpened to draw blood. “How did Nie Zonghui really die, A-Sang? Was it the saber spirit that killed him? Or was it-”

“Enough!”

Squeezing his eyes shut, Huaisang drew in a quiet, pained breath. The echoes of his voice bounced off the stone walls. There was a soft knock at the door, and even though Huaisang was grateful for the reminder that Lan Wangji was waiting outside with the guards should anything happen, he quickly called out that everything was fine before turning his attention back to the prisoner, the traitor, the man he’d once called his brother. “That’s quite enough of that, I think, Meng Yao. We’re all friends here, after all.”

For a time, Jin Guangyao said nothing. Then, cautiously and with a small amount of reproach, “That’s not my name anymore.”

Nie Huaisang had so hoped he would say that.

It was quite fortunate, too, since at a certain point he wouldn’t have had much of an idea of how to carry on this conversation otherwise.

“Da-ge will likely try to execute you. I’m sure he’s already threatened you with it.” Although his manners were far too ingrained in him for him to outright scoff, Jin Guangyao let out a sharp exhale with much of the same general feeling behind it. Da-ge threatening to kill him wasn’t, after all, what one might call a new occurrence. “Or perhaps he’ll just throw you back to the Jins so they can handle your execution.” Nie Huaisang slowly drank his tea, enjoying the subtle hint of spice as the man seated behind iron bars in front of him began to blanch. “The latter may be your best bet at a long life considering how long Xue Yang’s punishment was delayed.”

Some unknown emotion flashed across Jin Guangyao’s face at the mention of Xue Yang, too fast for Huaisang to parse out. It left him feeling as though he’d climbed a staircase only to stumble upon a missing step at the top, and could only fervently hope that nothing in his expression gave away the sudden discomfort. Filing this odd reaction for later, he continued without pause, “Xichen-ge will want to save you, I’m sure.”

At the sound of the Lan Sect Leader’s name, Jin Guangyao’s eyes brightened. Nie Huaisang had always prided himself on recognizing love when he saw it, and now that his suspicions were ostensibly confirmed, it seemed only right that he do everything in his power to make sure that Lan Xichen’s good opinion of his savior was lost forever.

As though to cover for his brief lapse in composure, Jin Guangyao’s voice dripped with contempt when he replied, “Save me? Hide me, more like. He would keep me trapped and preserved like a flower pressed between the pages of a book.” That sounded particularly pointed, and once again Nie Huaisang found himself feeling a bit lost and unable to show it.

He’d known that Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji’s parents hadn’t left seclusion since before Xichen-ge was born and that the reason was a source of shame for the Lan sect, but as for the specifics…

Honestly, what secrets hadn’t Xichen-ge shared with Jin Guangyao?

Outwardly, Nie Huaisang only nodded. “For someone who was begging for his life not so long ago, you’re awfully picky.” He placed his cup upon the tray, then gently pushed the tray away, letting its bottom scrape against the stones in the floor with a discordant noise as he leaned closer with a conspiratorial smile. “I do, however, have an alternate proposition.” Jin Guangyao’s eyes widened in surprise. Huaisang settled back, content to watch the show. “See, Jin-zongzhu’s somehow gotten it into his head that you’ve been plotting to overthrow him which, given what I’ve learned about you over the past couple days, is probably true. As of now, you are Meng Yao once again.”

Ah, there it was. Fury.

The real Jin Guangyao had such an ugly face. “Lies.”

“He claims that he had no knowledge of your plans to assassinate Da-ge, but also that he is not surprised. He should have expected such depravity from the bastard son of a whore, after all.” Making no secret of the fact that he was enjoying this immensely, Huaisang reached into his robes to pull out a letter sealed with the Jin sect’s sigil, “If you don’t believe me, Meng Yao, would you like to see the letter?” It was snatched from his hands.

Huaisang cocked his head, watching with interest as the inevitable realization that he had been abandoned tore Jin Guangyao apart.

“I gave up everything for him,” passed through the bars, a broken whisper from a man on the verge of tears.

“That’s because you’re a fool. A very clever fool, but a fool, nonetheless.” Nie Huaisang sighed, as though frustrated with teaching a lesson to a particularly difficult student. “You had everything you could have wanted - power, influence, family,” he ticked them off on his fingers, “but you threw it all away for the approval of a man who will never want you. He wouldn’t even give you the Zi of this generation, and yet you still believed that he would ever treat you like a son? That he wouldn’t abandon you the very instant you gave him the opportunity?” Jin Guangyao flinched. “Meng Yao, if my brother hadn’t written Jin-zongzhu a letter pressuring him to accept you, what do you think would have happened? The only reason you could ever wear that mark upon your forehead was thanks to Da-ge, and we know how you repaid him for it.”

When he was done, Jin Guangyao looked at him as though he’d never seen him before. He seemed older, tired, shaken. “What do you want, Huaisang?”

“Oh that’s simple.” Nie Huaisang smiled with all the sweetness of honey and nectar and a handful of poisons. “I want you to help me kill Jin Guangshan.”

Jin Guangyao backed away from the bars as though the distance would make a difference. There was nowhere left for him to go.

Piece by piece, a plan unfolded. Jin Guangyao would return to the Jin sect with a retraction from the Nie sect claiming that everything which had been reported by the anonymous letter Jin-zongzhu had received was merely the result of a terrible misunderstanding. The Second Young Master of Qinghe Nie, as flighty and dramatic as ever, had panicked over nothing.

Shortly after his reinstatement, Jin Guangshan would overindulge in his vices to the point of death. As it turned out, Nie Huaisang had been right to assume that Jin Guangyao had already thought of the way in which he would murder his father, though for that at least he could be forgiven, since there wasn’t anyone alive who’d worked under the Jin Sect Leader for more than a day without vividly imagining how it would feel to strangle him.

By the time they’d ironed out the details of this plot, with Huaisang occasionally commenting on how unfortunate it would be if Jin Guangyao were to lose everything he’d worked for to drive home the unspoken truth that the Nie sect could and would expose him at the first sign of treachery, it was nearly dawn. Mingjue would be awake soon.

Nie Huaisang was staring at the soft rays of light slipping through the barred window above them when his thoughts were disturbed by an unwelcome interruption, “You would go this far to protect someone who has hurt you?” Huaisang resisted the urge to pull his sleeves over his bandages as though he were ashamed of them. For him, this was the last trial he needed to overcome to protect his brother. “Did he not murder your shixiong? Did he not burn your gifts and scar your arms?”

Borrowing a page from Lan Wangji’s book, Nie Huaisang said only, “Yes,” then gathered his fan and his tray loaded with an empty pot of tea and cups, and left.

This compromise was more than Jin Guangyao deserved, but even if there was little Nie Huaisang could realistically do to him once he’d returned to the Jin sect, this encounter should have at least made it clear that of the two, Jin Guangshan was a far easier and more deserving target than his brother. It would also buy him the time he needed to find a more effective method with which to deal with such a powerful and influential enemy. And, in the meantime, all he had to do was convince Mingjue that this was the best course of action, get Mingjue to convince Lan Xichen that this was the best course of action, and stay alive.

For now, though, it was late - or was it early?

He knocked on the door to the dungeon, slipping noiselessly through it when it opened, then closed it behind him. He turned to thank the guards before taking Lan Wangji by the elbow and leading him up the staircase, back to the main halls that would take them to his private quarters and his private stash of wine.

Chapter Text

Nie Huaisang burst into his room with only one thing on his mind: To find his hidden stash of rice wine and swallow it.

He was on his third with a pleasantly warm buzz going when the story began to unfurl. “So, my reputation’s about to take a major hit,” he commented to the air, refusing to look Lan Wangji in the eye. “Though I suppose that’s hardly saying much these days.”

No matter how much he had to drink, though, there were some things he would never share. Lan Wangji wouldn’t have approved of his efforts to blackmail their siblings’ sworn brother into murdering his father, even if Nie Huaisang was entirely certain that Jin Guangyao had been planning to do so, regardless, now that A-Song had joined the line of succession.

He told Wangji that the anonymous letters they’d sent would be discredited, that his own actions towards Lianfang-zun would be chalked up to the paranoia of the Nie Sect Leader’s anxious younger brother, and in exchange Jin Guangyao would keep them up-to-date on Jin-zongzhu’s actions and undermine them to the best of his ability when they became a threat.

“A spy,” Lan Wangji surmised.

Slumped on the ground with a jar of wine in his hand, Nie Huaisang attempted to blow loose locks of hair out of his face and was largely unsuccessful. He’d ripped off the bandages he’d worn for weeks shortly after leaving the dungeons, and now had only a moonlight-silver sheen running up and down his arms to remember this entire ordeal by.

Perhaps a little selfishy, he rather hoped that the scars wouldn’t fade. Though the sight of them would cause Mingjue pain, they would serve as a sufficient reminder of what happened when trust was misplaced and carefree Second Young Masters neglected their responsibilities. After having come so close to unwittingly aiding in his brother's qi deviation, there was little chance of him returning to the indolent and pampered lifestyle he'd once led. He was going to miss it, of course, but Da-ge was worth it. Keeping him laughing and smiling and scolding was worth it.

Resting a palm over his face, he peered through the gaps between his fingers to see Wangji staring down at him from where he sat on the edge of his bed with an evaluating gaze.

“This upsets you?”

Huaisang glanced off to the side. “Da-ge will be okay now, I think. I trust you and Xichen-ge will make sure of that.” He ducked his head, hating how his eyes stung behind the curtain of his hair. “I still lost a brother, Wangji. And I don't even know when. Maybe Da-ge did a long time ago, but I...” He couldn't say it. Speaking was his strong suit - it always had been - but now it was like the words he needed to even begin to convey what he was feeling had abandoned him.

There was a sound of quiet affirmation from the bed, and then Huaisang felt himself being jostled slightly as Lan Wangji sat down beside him. He turned to face him with a small frown, “What are you doing? The great Hanguang-jun shouldn’t be sitting on the floor.”

His hands fluttered around Lan Wangji, trying to get him to stand up, but Lan Wangji did what he wanted to do and apparently what he wanted to do was sit on the floor. Once Nie Huaisang had given up on getting him to move and settled once more beside him with a frustrated groan, Lan Wangji reached into his robes and pulled out a delicate paper fan.

Nie Huaisang could recognize the silver accents that outlined the snowy caps depicted on its canvas from the artisans in the nearby Hejian marketplace. In the forefront was a hill obscured by bamboo shoots, and on this hill a small colony of black and white rabbits could be seen blending into the shadows and snow.

Had Wangji commissioned this? When had he managed it?

Tentatively taking the fan into his hands, as though afraid it might break at his touch, Huaisang asked, “What’s this?”

“A fan.”

Nie Huaisang stared at him blankly. “Yes, I can see that, Hanguang-jun. But why are you giving me a fan?”

“A gift. From a friend.” Nie Huaisang gaped at him.

The walls of his room were barren now, the gifts he’d once admired and treasured nothing more than ash. If anyone else had given him a fan, he would have refused it outright, but Lan Wangji wanted nothing more than to cheer him up, to let him know that it was okay to love pretty things and be himself. To help rebuild from the ashes.

It was going to be some time before Huaisang could decide if that was true, but for now he pressed the fan against his chest, saying with a voice choked with emotion, “Thank you, Wangji-xiong. I will cherish it forever.”

He dashed at his eyes, trying to dry his tears before they fell while Lan Wangji stared stoically ahead to let him save face. When he was confident that he could speak without crying, Huaisang set his jar of wine on the floor. “Let us renew our oath as sworn brothers. Technically, it’s not official, but-”

Unexpectedly, Lan Wangji interrupted with a quiet protest.

This was understandable, since when it came to begging for favors Nie Huaisang had always insisted that their sworn brotherhood was completely legitimate even if it’d never been officially recognized by the cultivation community. They’d made their oath to each other in private. That didn’t make it any less binding or meaningful than their elder brothers’.

And by following him to his sect, by hearing out his concerns, by helping him save Mingjue and then watching out for him ever since, Lan Wangji had honored their oath.

If it hadn’t been real before, it certainly was now.

Pulling out a pair of shallow white porcelain cups from his cabinet, Huaisang poured a healthy helping of wine into one, then filled the other with liquid from the bronze hu he kept by his bedside for whenever he woke up parched in the middle of the night.

After handing the second cup to Lan Wangji, he solemnly said, “Swear that you will continue to keep my sect and Da-ge safe, and I swear to you that I will,” he swallowed down the words he would have liked to say, the promise that he would somehow find a way to return Wangji’s happiness, “do everything in my power to repay the loyalty and kindness you have shown me.”

Lan Wangji's golden eyes rested heavily on him. “There is no need.”

“It’s only part of the ceremony,” Nie Huaisang assured him, quelling the guilt that threatened to expose plans for the future that had only just begun to formulate.

They clicked their cups and each took a sip. Afterwards, Lan Wangji looked up at him accusingly, “You put water in my cup.”

Inwardly relieved for the distraction, Nie Huaisang waved off the complaint with a breezy, “It’s symbolic,” despite there clearly being alcohol in his.

And while Hanguang-jun didn’t pout, he did emanate immense displeasure as he dutifully finished his water.

“Did you think I would be so eager to go chasing you through the halls of our keep again?” Nie Huaisang asked him, biting down a smile. “I had to draw so many rabbits to get you to sit still my hand cramped!” And in the chaos of Huaisang snickering at both the memory and the distinctive pink coloring at the tips of Lan Wangji’s ears, the matter of his promise was set aside.

Chapter Text

There are those who say it is impossible to die in your dreams. On that point, Nie Huaisang would like to respectfully disagree.

Every night following their attempt to subdue the saber spirit without sacrificing more corpses to it, he’d dreamt of what would happen if Nie Mingjue had taken even a second longer to wake from his madness-edged fury. His mind conjured the sensation of the blade, warm with blood and crimson hate-filled energy, ripping through his shoulder, splintering his bones as though they gave no more resistance than twigs beneath its heft.

And their dead disciples would watch with white, vacant eyes, accusing, as he fell to his knees, as Mingjue turned his back on him, leaving his corpse to rot with those of their ancestors.

It may have been Mingjue’s blade that took their lives, but they knew who caused their deaths.

It had been over a week since he’d last dreamed of it - the fear, the harsh words spoken in the dark. At the moment, his mind was too torn between nerves, alcohol, and a growing ache in his temples to really settle into a sleep comfortable enough to warrant dreaming, but that didn’t mean the shock on Nie Zonghui’s face after his brother sliced his throat wasn’t seared into the back of his eyelids.

He wasn’t sure how long he’d been stuck in a daze, only that whatever strange trance-like state he’d achieved hadn’t actually made him feel any more rested. When he tried to move his head, a sharp pain traveled through his neck, and he realized with a sinking feeling that he’d never moved from the floor to the bed.

Which meant that whatever his head was resting against, it wasn’t a pillow.

He cracked open one eye to find a pristine white sleeve filling his vision. On the off chance that Wangji wasn’t awake, Nie Huaisang fought the urge to shout or bury his head in his hands out of embarrassment.

If word ever got out about this, he would lose so much face he wouldn’t ever be able to walk among the public ever again.

Careful not to jostle his companion, Nie Huaisang carefully raised his head, then looked up to see a pair of clear golden eyes staring down at him.

Oh. He must have stayed up the entire night. Lan Wangji’s sleep schedule was going to be wrecked.

Huaisang managed a sheepish grin. “Good morning, Hanguang-jun. Sorry I fell asleep on you?” For reasons unknown, he pitched the end of the sentence up like it was a question.

Lan Wangji blinked, then inclined his head in acknowledgment before returning his attention to the guqin across his lap. “I played Inquiry while you rested. There was a spirit who asked me to pass on a message.”

"Inquiry?" Nie Huaisang’s brow furrowed.

Inquiry? Here? In Qinghe?

It seemed they were going to have to talk about the rather poor etiquette of summoning ghosts into another man’s room while he slept in the future. For now though, “There’s a spirit who wants to speak to me? Why me?” Nie Huaisang shivered. “Did he give you his name, at least?”

Lan Wangji made a sound of affirmation. “He did. He asked me not to tell you.”

Burying his growing discomfort and suspicion, Nie Huaisang asked, “I don’t suppose you’ll tell me, anyways?” He fluttered his eyelashes beseechingly.

Lan Wangji remained silent, and with even less expression than before.

If this were a war of attrition with anyone else, there wouldn’t even have been a question of who would have outlasted who, but Lan Wangji could stare at a rock until it blinked if he put his mind to it. After a minute of this, Nie Huaisang slumped against the wall with a tired wave. “Fine, fine. Keep your secrets.” Heaving a hefty sigh, he added, “But you’ll tell me what the message was, won’t you? It’s not often that I receive messages from the dead, so you can hardly blame me if I’m curious.”

“Don’t be so reckless.” Hearing that, Nie Huaisang’s eyes widened to an alarming degree. “It wasn’t your fault.”

There was a long moment of unbroken silence where Wangji kept his gaze focused on his guqin as Huaisang struggled to regain some semblance of coherent thought. “Didn’t-” He cut himself off when his voice came out strangled, coughed delicately into his sleeve, then tried again, “Didn’t Xichen-ge say that spirits cannot lie to you?”

“They cannot.”

There was tension around the edges of Lan Wangji’s mouth and in his shoulders, as though he were expecting an argument on this, but Huaisang could tell from how little sunlight shone in his room that it was still mao shi. His head ached and he was exhausted. Neither of which would earn him any sympathy from his brother if he was late to breakfast.

Given the circumstances, the best he could manage was a hard swallow and several rapid blinks.

What was he supposed to do with this information?

Idly, as though it were as easy as taking a breath, Lan Wangji began plucking out the notes for Cleansing. Upon recognizing the melody, Huaisang stiffened, then politely asked that he play another song. It didn’t even have to be imbued with spiritual energy.

Anything else would do.

Lan Wangji’s hands hovered over the strings as he considered this. When they descended, his long fingers gracefully plucked a melody that painted a picture of loss. Though it wasn’t cultivation music, Huaisang could sense a tale unfolding as he listened, wistful and grieving.

A parting that was not intended.

By the time the chorus repeated, Huaisang found his piccolo and attempted to follow the notes by ear. It wasn’t pleasing to hear, at first - he was certain he’d caught Lan Wangji suppressing a wince - but when the song repeated a second time, and a third, he was able to keep up with the pace.

Eventually, the guqin fell quiet. Nie Huaisang was so focused on playing the correct notes that he didn’t even notice until he’d played through the chorus completely, at which point he faltered, his nerves abruptly getting the best of him.

He parted his lips from the instrument with a laugh. “Ah, Wangji-xiong, how mean of you to play such a trick on me!”

The corners of Lan Wangji’s mouth curved downwards. “Not a trick. You play well.”

Everyone knew Hanguang-jun didn’t lie, yet such praise was rather difficult for Nie Huaisang to believe. He’d made plenty of terrible mistakes during his attempts, and really only the last one had sounded like anything close to the melody Lan Wangji had performed with such mastery.

After deliberating over whether it would be better to strap the instrument to the jade pendant hanging from his waist or leave it on his nightstand with his saber, Huaisang looped the tie around its end, allowing the piccolo to dangle from his sash.

He knew that Lan Wangji had watched his actions carefully, but since he refrained from commenting, Huaisang pretended he hadn’t noticed.

“Where did you learn a song like that?” He asked, instead.

In a short and concise manner, Lan Wangji explained that he’d been passing through a marketplace in Yiling after the Sunshot Campaign when he happened to hear a non-cultivator playing the song in the market. When he’d inquired about the melody, the old man replied that it was a song written for the sons and daughters who went to war and didn’t return.

“Is burning paper money and incense not enough to satisfy their spirits?” Huaisang wondered aloud, honestly curious.

Lan Wangji opened his mouth as if to reply, closed it when no sound was forthcoming, then swept a hand over his black guqin, returning it to his storage pouch. Nie Huaisang was not so oblivious to his feelings as though to repeat his question, so he settled for fetching a soothing cup of morning tea for both of them, then left Lan Wangji to wait for Zewu-jun at the gate while Huaisang went down to the dining hall to meet with Mingjue for breakfast.

He’d thought of one solution, at least, to the threat Jin Guangyao would pose to the Nie sect during the long night. A solution that Mingjue, who had always wanted him to become stronger and more independent, couldn’t possibly refuse.

Chapter Text

Nie Huaisang hadn’t wanted to ambush Nie Mingjue with the decision he’d come to, there simply wasn’t a better time to tell him, so while they were sitting together at breakfast, a once rare occurrence that had been happening more frequently as of late, Huaisang blurted out, “So I’ve been thinking it over recently, given everything that’s happened, and I’ve decided that I’d like to leave the sect.”

Da-ge looked at him as though he’d started speaking in tongues, one spoonful of congee half-way to his mouth. Backtracking slightly, Huaisang clarified, “Ah, but not permanently! And certainly not this instant. So you don’t have to, you know, stab me or anything to make it look convincing when I leave.”

Nie Mingjue set his spoon down, pushed his bowl to the side, then rested his head in his hands. Huaisang patiently waited him out. “Is this some kind of ploy? Do you want something? Because I can’t give it to you if you don’t tell me what it is.”

With a wry smile, Huaisang admitted, “This isn’t a trick, Da-ge. I’m serious this time.” Though his brother still didn’t quite look like he believed him, but doubt was definitely beginning to settle in. “And it’s not because of anything you have or haven’t done, I promise you.” After a steadying breath, he continued, “My path has always ended with a place at your side, but no journey ends where it begins, right? You've have protected me my entire life. Every freedom I have you've given me, but now I need you to trust me. Trust my judgment, and that I will learn to protect myself in my own way," so that Da-ge can finally put his mind at ease.

Mingjue glowered at his congee as though it were somehow to blame.

“And if I don’t agree to this?” For once, Mingjue cast off the armor of Sect Leader, letting his broad shoulders fall. “I did not intend for our home to become your prison, Huaisang.” Regret and despair weighed him down, along with all the other burdens he’d taken on that he’d been forced to carry alone. He’d always been strong in Huaisang’s eyes, so strong that he’d always assumed that Da-ge could carry the world.

It’d taken nearly losing him in the Sword Sacrifice Hall, and then again to a qi deviation, for Huaisang to realize that his brother wasn’t invincible.

The doubt that plagued others when their loved ones went into battle had always been present. He’d just refused to acknowledge it. And now that he'd been forced to confront the reality of Mingjue's mortality, he didn’t know if he could handle it... but what other choice did he have?

Even the tallest tree with the thickest trunk could fall. But if Nie Huaisang remained sheltered in the shadow his older brother cast, he would never be seen as his equal, never be deemed worthy of standing at his side, of sharing the burden he carried on his own shoulders so that it didn’t keep breaking Mingjue down.

There were things Nie Huaisang needed to do that he could never accomplish while under Mingjue’s protection, and there were things which he had already done with the potential for consequences that not even Da-ge could save him from, yet he would try, even if it destroyed his reputation, even if it killed him, and Huaisang couldn’t bear to see it happen.

This wasn’t a scheme or a trick or a plan. This was desperation.

“If my home has become a cage,” he started carefully, “the fault rests only with me and my decisions.” His fingers curled inwards, gathering swathes of gray fabric in his fists. “I’ll be going on night hunts with Lan Wangji once A-Yuan gets a little older. He’s already said yes.” Mingjue looked surprised to hear that Wangji had spoken.

“Or, well, he nodded,” Huaisang hastily amended.

Actually, Lan Wangji would have insisted he ask for Da-ge’s approval before committing either way if he'd brought it up, but Mingjue didn’t need to know that.

His older brother rose to his feet, walked the length of the table to stand at Huaisang’s side, then placed a hand on his head that enveloped his entire skull. “That’s because Wangji hasn’t spent as much time with you as I have. Give him a week and we’ll see if he doesn’t send you back to the Unclean Realm in a box.”

Batting him away half-heartedly, Huaisang whined, “Da-ge is so cruel to me.”

His grip on Huaisang’s head tightened into an affectionate squeeze before Mingjue released him in favor of sitting in the seat beside him. Da-ge held out his hand, palm facing upwards, as his gaze softened with memory. “You were so very small when you were born. Too small. The healers said you wouldn’t live to see your first year, but Father always said you had a strong heart. He said that our blood flowed in your veins, and that made you a fighter.” When Da-ge turned to look at him, his eyes were wet. “To watch you grow, Huaisang, has been one of the greatest joys of my life. If you honestly feel that you must leave, I won’t stand in your way. Just know that this place will always be your home." His fingers curled around Huaisang's hand. "Promise me that you will return and I will give you permission to come and go as you see fit.”

Nie Huaisang gaped at him, momentarily rendered speechless by both the unexpected approval and sincere emotion behind it.

This goodbye wasn’t forever. It wasn’t even today.

There was still so much to do before he would feel comfortable leaving his older brother alone in their sect, but- “I promise.”

Even as the words left his mouth, the implications of what he might have to do to keep such a promise pressed heavily on him, but Huaisang adjusted, sitting a little straighter and straightening his spine to better bear the weight of a burden that was sure to only grow with time. This was, after all, how it should have been from the start.

He cleared his throat, then clapped his hands together in a show of transparently forced cheer, “Now that such gloomy talk is done, let us discuss why letting Jin Guangyao go back to the Jin sect is a very good idea that should be implemented immediately… Ow, Da-ge, you’re squeezing too tight.”

Nie Mingjue let go of his hand, straightening up with a weary sigh. “You still care for him, then?”

“I cared for Meng Yao,” Nie Huaisang was quick to correct him, and would have batted Mingjue with his fan if the latter hadn’t stepped away already. “Whatever happens to Jin Guangyao is of no concern to me, but traitor or not, you must admit that he would be a valuable asset to the Nie sect.”

“I seem to recall him working as my deputy once,” Nie Mingjue noted dryly.

“Yes, but that was before Jin Guangshan severed ties with him.” Surprise flashed over Mingjue’s face at his unexpected knowledge of Jin Guangyao’s disowning, since the news hadn’t been made public as of yet. Instead of acknowledging his mistake, Huaisang barreled past it, “Before the father whose approval he longed for insulted his mother and abandoned him to almost certain death at the hands of our sect.”

“I’m still not ruling out that idea,” was Nie Mingjue’s muttered response. There was an unspoken promise in the tension between his brows that they would be speaking about Nie Huaisang’s resourceful information gathering at another time. Huaisang was just relieved that he was willing to put it aside for now. “You want him to spy for us?”

“It would be similar to what Zewu-jun did when he had Meng Yao infiltrate Wen Ruohan’s ranks," more similar than Mingjue would ever know if Huaisang could help it, "except Jin-zongzhu has half his intellect and even less charisma than a man who routinely transformed his disciples into living corpses.”

Nie Mingjue didn’t appear to be as comforted (or as distracted) by the comparison as he’d hoped. Desperate to hide his nerves, Huaisang tugged a fan out from his sleeve, but before he could snap it open, a heavy hand laid on it.

“And,” Mingjue began with evaporating calm, “this has nothing whatsoever to do with your request to distance yourself from our sect?”

Meeting his steady gaze head-on, Nie Huaisang said blithely, “Nothing at all, Da-ge,” and felt his insides clench at the glimpse of hurt he'd witnessed in Mingjue's expression before it abruptly closed off. He’d lied to his face, but as long as Mingjue only suspected, as long as he didn’t know, then he and their sect would be protected. Huaisang tried to think of what the people would say about him if Jin Guangyao attempted to throw the blame for any past or future crimes at his feet.

They probably wouldn’t believe it, at first. How could a useless dandy such as himself possibly plot the murder of a Sect Leader?

After a while, though they would denounce him. They would interpret his slow-growing core and artistic inclinations as deviations from the norm that should have served as warnings of his twisted nature. Mingjue would be forced to disown him, perhaps even to…

Had he made a mistake?

Huaisang froze, feeling the weight of Mingjue’s gaze on him, even when the servants arrived to clear their plates, and tried not to imagine how it might feel to be slain by his brother.

Misreading his tension, Mingjue let his hand fall back to his side. In spite of this, Huaisang made no attempt to lift the fan. His limbs felt odd, heavy and awkward and disconnected. He wasn’t sure that he could lift them if he’d wanted to.

“I’ll have a messenger sent at once to smooth things over with the Jin sect in preparation for Lianfang-zun’s release,” Mingjue announced as he stood, the strain around his eyes and mouth the only signs of his dissatisfaction with their conversation.

Nie Huaisang followed the sound of his voice, barely processing the words or the footsteps that followed them.

“Da-ge,” he managed, though left him like a gasp, like he was drowning. He didn’t know if Mingjue had heard him, or if it would have changed anything if he had.

Spots dotting his vision like blots of ink, he grabbed at the instrument at his waist, gripping it until his knuckles ached.

“Huaisang?” That wasn’t Mingjue speaking.

Heart lodged in his throat, Huaisang twisted around in his seat to see Lan Xichen standing at the threshold with Lan Wangji. While Xichen-ge was staring at him in undisguised concern, Lan Wangji’s focus was centered on the instrument he had clenched in a trembling fist.

Though they exchanged polite greetings, it was obvious that Lan Xichen was impatient for an explanation. Whatever he’d heard had most likely stemmed from rumors, which couldn’t be trusted. It was why they were always so useful to those who knew how to weaponize them.

Nie Mingjue had already requested for one of their guest rooms to be set aside for Lan Xichen. Not even the lessons drilled into him since he was a child could keep his exhaustion from showing after roughly three days of non-stop flight. It was a testament to the strength of his core and his wealth of spiritual energy that he didn’t so much as sway where he stood.

Naturally, Lan Xichen wished to speak in private with Nie Mingjue, who usually would have jumped at the chance to spend time with him without interruption, yet hesitated.

His eyes darted to Huaisang.

Sensing his discomfort, Nie Huaisang decided it was time to take matters into his own hands. “Wangji-xiong, why don’t we head out into the courtyard? It’s a lovely day outside and I’ve yet to show you the latest addition to my garden.”

To his surprise, Lan Wangji immediately started walking towards the courtyard, lingering only to wait at the steps for him to follow.

 

Since the gardener often let Huaisang tend to the flowers in the mornings, he was able to guide Lan Wangji to the plants that needed the most care, pointing out delicate petals that required shadow in order to thrive in Qinghe’s heat, or the medicinal plants with a soothing ointment in their leaves that required more moisture than most.

Lan Wangji occasionally nodded along as he spoke, and though his attention never drifted, it did seem somewhat divided. Once Huaisang had burned most of his nervous energy on the garden tour, Wangji led him to a bench to sit. “Will you tell me what happened?”

Nie Huaisang stared at his impassive expression for a long moment, then allowed his shoulders to slump.

“I may have told Da-ge that you would take me on night hunts with you,” he confessed.

Lan Wangji blinked. “Mn.”

Throwing his hands up in exasperation, Huaisang exclaimed, “That’s it? You’re not even going to ask why? You know I hate night hunts, so it’s suspicious, right?”

Lan Wangji’s chin dipped slightly, a nearly imperceptible curve appearing at the corners of his eyes. “You have your reasons for what you do. It is not my right to question them.”

“It is when they involve you.”

“I do not mind. You are welcome to come on night hunts with me so long as you defend yourself.” His expression grew stern. “I will not risk the lives of those who would come to us for help because you refuse to wield a blade.”

Huaisang pondered for as exactly as long as was warranted by such a grave request. “You’ll save me if I get in over my head, though, right? Right, Hanguang-jun? Wangji-xiong?”

Apropos of nothing, Lan Wangji observed, “You are feeling better.”

Nie Huaisang allowed his legs to sway, as if pushed by the wind. “Da-ge is surely telling Xichen-ge everything as we speak.”

“En.”

“Do you think he will believe us this time? I don’t…” He spread his hands out helplessly. “I don’t know what else to do if he doesn’t.”

“Brother is not perfect,” Lan Wangji allowed, “but he is kind and he is fair. This time, he will listen.”

“What good is kindness if it leads to indecision?” Huaisang demanded bitterly. “What good comes of inaction? Who does it save?”

A crack appeared in Lan Wangji’s porcelain face. He stared over the wall of the courtyard and into the horizon where the early morning sun rose.

“Those questions are not for me to answer.”

It occurred to Huaisang, then, that he was spoiling for a fight. With Hanguang-jun.

Something clearly wasn’t adding up, but before he could think too deeply on it, a disciple informed them that they were to return to the throne room to speak with Nie-zongzhu and Lan-zongzhu.

Huaisang snuck a glance at Wangji, feeling somewhat vindicated to find his own feelings of reluctance reflected back at him.

Chapter Text

Lan Xichen looked as though he were having a very bad, very long half a decade.

“I have always strived to believe in the best of others, but when it comes to A-Yao it would seem that I have exhibited a certain amount of bias.” Nie Huaisang snorted, then attempted to hide it by coughing into his sleeve. This fooled approximately no one. “It is for this reason,” Lan Xichen continued as though he hadn’t heard, “that you delayed in informing me of the situation, is it not, Wangji?”

Under his brother’s gentle reprimand, Lan Wangji tensed. Nie Huaisang immediately piped up, “You shouldn’t blame him. He wanted to tell you right away, but I begged him not to.”

Lan Xichen turned to him. “Mingjue tells me that you’ve accused Jin Guangyao of attempting to poison him with our sect’s cultivation music. Why did you not say anything in Cloud Recesses?" Was this… an interrogation?

“He all but admitted to the deed when I spoke to him last night,” Huaisang bit out. He could feel Mingjue’s sharpening gaze burning into him. “If it helps,” he added, both out of compassion for his Er-ge and the hope that hearing something sympathetic would make their accusations more palatable, “I think Jin Guangshan really did pressure him to kill Da-ge. It’s not the kind of risk he would take without reason.”

“I still find it hard to believe that A-Yao would do something like this.” Xichen closed his eyes as if steeling himself. “I would like to hear his side of the story before I cast judgment.”

Nie Mingjue opened his mouth to argue, but was drowned out by a resounding snap, the sound of a jade pendant breaking, followed by that of its priceless gem clattering to the floor. He looked down at the remains of the pendant rolling across the stone, then up to the instrument gripped tightly in Huaisang’s hands. “A-Sang?”

Nie Huaisang vehemently shook his head. “Even now you’re still - Do you believe he was framed? Deceived? Is there any way Jin Guangyao could have made such a mistake? I understand why you would assume such of me, Zewu-Jun, but you taught Guangyao yourself. Do you think he would not have noticed if someone had changed the notes? Are you that determined to believe in his lies?”

Xichen raised his hands in a placating gesture. “Huaisang-”

But the time for that had already well and past. “If you choose to listen to him now, I won’t be able to trust you again. He will find a way to convince you of his innocence, to manipulate you, and that would put all of us in the kind of danger that swords and sabers cannot win against.”

“I understand that you’re angry-”

“Yes!” Huaisang exploded. “Why aren’t you?!”

Lan Xichen blinked. “Who says that I’m not?”

For a moment, Nie Huaisang was drawn up short by the unexpected admission. His eyes narrowed as he prepared to press for more details, but Mingjue chose that moment to intercede, “You’re taking this too far, Huaisang.” Nie Huaisang turned to him in disbelief. “Lan Xichen is not our enemy. He is my sworn brother and a trusted friend.”

“Hardly the ringing endorsement it once was,” Nie Huaisang observed acidly. “The best thing for Sect Leader Lan would have been for us to not have involved him in this at all.”

Hearing that, Lan Xichen barely suppressed a wince.

“The Cloud Recesses owe the Jin sect a debt for their aid after the Sunshot Campaign. If their Sect Leader were to be discovered plotting against them, the ramifications would be disastrous. Qinghe Nie, on the other hand, is wealthy and strong. Whatever Jin Guangshan throws at us, the Nie can weather it.”

“If you believe that,” Mingjue demanded, “then why have you chosen now of all times to announce your intentions to participate in night hunts?”

“You think it is out of cowardice?” Huaisang asked. Mingjue had been supportive of the idea when they were alone, but now that Xichen-ge was here, his didi was back to being a fool. “You think so little of me, Da-ge.” There were metal shards in his lungs, glass in his eyes. "But, then, have I not given you reason to? I-”

“We have proof,” interrupted Lan Wangji. His fingers encircled Huaisang’s wrist, resting over his pulse point. A stream of spiritual energy flowed in through the contact and the worst of the anger that had been chewing on his insides like a feral thing receded. “The corrupted Song of Clarity deals damage to the player, as well. If Jin Guangyao had truly been innocent, he would have shown symptoms.” Lan Xichen exchanged a nervous glance with Mingjue, while at the same time Huaisang imagined how gratifying it would be to test the effects of the chaos script on the Jin sect’s very own would-be assassin.

To prove Jin Guangyao’s treachery once and for all by driving him to madness.

And given the precautions he’d doubtlessly taken against it, who knew how many times he would have to listen before it elicited results?

Wouldn’t that be fair after everything he’d done?

Wouldn’t that be just?

Something of his thoughts must have shown on his face because Lan Wangji took a single look at him before kneeling to place an augmented barrier talisman on the ground.

Strands of golden string, stronger than steel, surrounded them on all sides. It was a spell Huaisang remembered from shortly after they’d escaped the Dancing Fairy’s cave, back when Wen Qing was still aiding Wen Chao in finding the pieces of the Yin Iron.

The strands were able to withstand great amounts of force through the very nature of their flexibility, an ingenious invention that stood as a testament to Wei Wuxian’s unusual outlook on life, even if those who used the talismans these days had a tendency to conveniently forget who created them.

Well, not all of those who used them.

As soon as the barrier was complete, Wangji got down on his knees, his posture straight and bracing as though he were kneeling at the Discipline Wall in Cloud Recesses.

Huaisang was dumbfounded. “What are you doing?”

“My core is strong,” Lan Wangji said simply. “Play.”

Mingjue was attempting to cut down the barrier with Baxia and meeting little success until Xichen-ge forced him to stop so that he could reinforce Lan Wangji’s barrier with a spiritual element that would keep the cultivation music from further destabilizing Mingjue’s qi.

Once that was done, Nie Huaisang thought back to Jin Guangyao’s lessons and played the first verse, then another, keeping track as each note carried them closer and closer to the shift from a passable Cleansing to what under his unrefined control would be not a slow-acting poison, but pure, unmitigated chaos.

When they reached the turning point, the change was once again unmistakable.

Lan Wangji grew pale and rigid; his golden eyes glazing over as though with fever.

Blood dripped steadily down Nie Huaisang’s lips. He thought he could hear his brother calling out for him but the words were drowned out by the shouts of men who’d already been silenced.

A wounded sound, anguished and raw, escaped from Lan Wangji’s mouth, and he clapped a hand over it, bending forward as though beneath the force of a blow and -

The barrier shattered as the talisman that had conjured it erupted into blue flames.

Standing tall among the dissipating fragments of the shield, Lan Xichen sheathed Shuoyue, then rushed to Wangji’s side as Mingjue dashed forward to snatch the instrument from Huaisang’s hands and snap it in half.

Lan Wangji sagged in his brother’s hold, barely cognizant after whatever torment the music had made him endure, and when Lan Xichen glanced up at Nie Huaisang, confusion warring with anger warring with hurt, all Huaisang could do was wonder aloud, as he swiped the blood from his mouth and nose, if this was proof enough.

Or did Zewu-jun still need another demonstration?

Lan Xichen's expression grew cold. “I believe you’ve more than made your point, Nie Huaisang.”

Feeling unexpectedly hollow now that the music had stopped and unable to withstand his judgment for another second, Huaisang turned and left. He walked briskly across the courtyard, then climbed to the top of the keep’s perimeter wall. It was the highest point in the Unclean Realm. He'd lost count of how many times he'd snuck up there to paint the mountains or the horizon, or just for a moment of peace.

By the time Nie Mingjue came up to find him, Huaisang had accomplished nothing more than spinning in the same mental circles he’d been trapped in for days.

Chapter Text

Wisps of rain clouds hung over the Unclean Realm, coloring the sky in streaks of watercolor gray.

Huaisang tilted his head up to watch a murder of crows fly over the keep. Wherever they were going, he hoped they would get there in time to outrun the afternoon shower.

A drop of water fell into the courtyard, darkening the stone, followed by another, until they were falling so fast and frequently that Huaisang could barely make out the silhouettes of their disciples as they rushed to find shelter.

Huaisang knew instantly when his brother arrived to fetch him, though it was a knowledge that stemmed more from familiarity with his presence than any noise Mingjue had made. While Nie Huaisang had grown accomplished at bird stalking, it was his Da-ge who had taken the time to teach him how to hunt. Before he’d become Sect Leader, before their father had died, he’d even accompanied him.

Those times were long past now.

He waited for Mingjue to scold him for his intolerable rudeness, for endangering the alliance between their sects, but the silence stretched unbroken. Mingjue joined him on the walkway, leaned against the rain-slicked parapet, and watched with him as water washed over the world.

Huaisang swallowed. Hesitated.

Mingjue let the rain wet his hands, then dragged them over his face.

“I never shared with you my reasons for banishing Meng Yao from the Unclean Realm,” he said eventually, his usual hard-edged demeanor dulled by exhaustion, the circles under his eyes a testament to the fact that Nie Huaisang was not the only one who’d been suffering through restless nights. “During the chaos of the Wen’s invasion, he slaughtered several of his Jin superiors, specifically those who had mocked him. While Lan Xichen has not and likely will never give up his affection for our sworn brother, he has agreed that our suspicions have merit and warrant further investigation. He has likewise agreed not to interfere with ours, despite knowing that it will place Jin Guangyao at significant risk.” His mouth quirked a crooked smile. “It helps that Wangji has suspected the Jins for their greed and corruption for some time now.”

“Is that why he was punished?” Huaisang muttered listlessly, then explained, “He moves as though his back is hurting him, yet he’s been in seclusion for three years. If he were injured so badly during the siege the cultivation world would have heard of it. The fact that no one did means that it was deliberately kept from the public.” If the Head Disciplinarian of the Lan sect, who had only ever upheld the values of his sect, was being treated like a secret shame, then there was something dreadfully wrong with the order of the world. “Lan Wangji didn’t go into seclusion because he wanted to, did he?”

“It was the only way he could remain with his sect after Jin Guangyao informed Grandmaster Lan that Wangji was preventing cultivators from entering the Burial Mounds.”

“And with Cloud Recesses having been rebuilt through the generous donations of Lanling Jin, what choice did they have but to sacrifice their greatest disciple to the whims of the Jin sect?”

Nie Mingjue frowned. “I came up here to tell you that Lan Xichen’s agreed to your terms. Any correspondence between him and Jin Guangyao will be supervised from this point on.” That was a relief. At least one good thing had come of today. Nie Huaisang checked his periphery to find that he was being carefully studied.

“Our sect has always been infamous for its grudges,” Mingjue continued, sounding thoughtful. “I had long believed that you were the exception.”

Thinking of Wen Ruohan, of the siege at the Burial Mounds and countless harangues against Xue Yang and the Jin, Nie Huaisang mused, “Isn’t it a little late to caution me against revenge?”

His brother, at least, didn’t argue the point. “My path has been chosen for me since before the time of my birth. It is dark and violent and almost certain to end in bloodshed and madness. That is not the path I would wish for you.” His weary gaze drifted to the drying blood stains on his didi’s sleeve. "Nor do I believe it the path you would wish for yourself."

Nie Huaisang’s nails scraped against rough stone as he dragged them down the parapet’s rough surface. He could still hear the melody playing in his head, could still see how Lan Wangji had seized as buried memories resurfaced and healing wounds reopened.

“I didn’t ask Wangji-xiong to help me,” he argued weakly. “It was his choice.”

“Because he feared what you would do if he didn’t.”

Nie Huaisang rounded on him, “Then what would you have had me do instead?!”

Mingjue took a moment to fold his elbows so that he leaned more heavily on the parapet, putting him at about eye level with his much smaller brother. “It’s not a matter of what you should have done. It’s a matter of what you did do and how you went about it.” It bore a strong resemblance to the kind of wisdom their father would impart to them before his saber shattered. “Thinking back, if you could live it over again, can you honestly say you wouldn’t have taken a different approach to the situation?” Huaisang preemptively winced when his expression hardened, “Such as asking others for their input regarding the potential side effects of a dangerous method of cultivation that you know practically nothing about?!”

Gritting his teeth against a pulse in his skull that now demanded his attention, Huaisang pressed his fingers against his temples. It wasn’t until the ache eased to a more manageable degree that he realized Mingjue had fallen silent.

When Huaisang peered up at him uncertainly, it was with a sort of tired acceptance that he registered the worry and regret deepening the lines on Mingjue’s profile. He was staring into the distance where the treetops parted to reveal the local marketplace where merchants were busy covering their fresh produce and wares to protect them from the storm.

“Xichen informed me of what he saw you doing in Cloud Recesses.” Nie Huaisang’s shoulders hitched, curling inward like a makeshift shield.

“He understands where you were coming from and I don’t think he will report it to the Lan elders, especially since he assured me that you were not aware of the song’s destabilizing effects while you were in Gusu,” fear crept into Nie Mingjue's voice, “and could still be suffering from them now.”

While it was certainly convenient for Xichen-ge to believe so, particularly if it kept the Nie sect from coming into conflict with Gusu Lan when they needed their alliance more than ever, Huaisang wasn’t entirely sure that was the case.

Not entirely, at least.

After all, he’d never felt completely out of control, never lashed out in a mindless fury as the cultivators of their sect tended to do.

Heedless of his thoughts, Mingjue scowled, “But if you pull anything like what you just did in there again, I’ll break your legs.”

Hearing that, Nie Huaisang buried his head in his sleeves to smother a mirthless giggle because… because... Jin Guangyao, with his impeccable manners and memory, was so much smarter than he was it was ridiculous.

He was a better actor, with a better reputation, and soon enough he would have the power of a wealthy sect behind him. Huaisang didn’t know how long he’d survive if Jin Guangyao painted a target on his back, and Mingjue, for all his strength and honor and battlefield strategy, was the type to run headfirst into dangerous situations. He never looked for the traps lying at his feet.

As influential and admirable as Chifeng-zun was, he couldn’t protect him from this - lies and deceit and betrayal. What scared Huaisang the most, though, even more than the prospect of going up against one of the Venerated Trio, was the kind of person he might have to become in order to win.

“Da-ge,” Mingjue looked up in surprise when Huaisang rested a cold hand on his arm, “could you draw your saber?” Seeing his confusion and apprehension, Huaisang added in what he hoped was a reassuring tone, “I just want to check something.”

He kept his face carefully blank while Mingjue scrutinized him, until at last his brother couldn’t put off drawing his saber anymore without outright refusing. Perhaps he was simply curious to know what his didi was up to now.

Rainwater had pooled into puddles on the stones at their feet, had fallen onto their heads, clinging to their guan and hair. Baxia was slick with it, beautiful and clean and polished. There wasn’t a trace of blood on her blade, nor any sign of the crimson cloud that had enveloped her in the Sword Sacrifice Hall.

“I’m sorry,” Huaisang whispered. It was his fault that the blade had tasted the blood of their allies, that the spirit within had been repeatedly stirred into a frenzy.

If he hadn’t been so stubborn about saber training, if he hadn't grown so close to Meng Yao, if he’d taken an active interest in their cultivation history, if he hadn’t allowed himself to be used as a weapon, then Nie Zonghui and their senior disciples would still be alive.

Without warning, he gripped Baxia by the dull side of the blade and aimed the tip at his throat.

If it weren’t for a shout of alarm from the guards, Huaisang could almost have convinced himself that he was still standing in the halls of their ancestors, alive among corpses who wore the faces of his shixiong.

Alone, except for a brother who didn’t recognize him, whose mind might have already been lost.

His heart racing in his chest, he waited for the spirit in Baxia to recognize the guilt and hate in him, to judge him as he deserved to be judged, but the metal beneath his hand remained cool beneath his touch, and the blade in his grip never wavered.

Rather than righteous fury, the spiritual presence Huaisang could feel brushing against his core thrummed with sorrow.

...Baxia didn’t want to hurt him.

His breath hitched as Mingjue carefully lowered the blade. His older brother looked shaken, torn between tearing into him for risking himself needlessly so soon after Mingjue had threatened to break his legs for it and being violently ill.

Mingjue sheathed the sword without looking at him once. It was more frightening than when he yelled, and Huaisang waited with his arms wrapped around his stomach, unable to speak, for Mingjue to finally realize he was hopeless and leave him behind.

“Didi?” He squeezed his eyes shut and breathed through his teeth, vehemently shaking his head. “Look at me.”

It wasn’t a command. If Huaisang didn’t know better, he would have said it sounded like pleading, but Mingjue never begged anyone for anything.

He cracked open an eye, expecting thunder and fury and condemnation.

Instead, Mingjue told him in a voice filled to the brim with unwavering belief, with the absolute conviction that had shot down the sun, “You’re not evil, Huaisang.”

Ah, Nie Huaisang thought with sudden clarity, I’ve been acting like an idiot.

Even if it was true that Jin Guangyao and he were similar in certain aspects, that didn’t automatically mean that he had to sink to his level. The guilt he carried would not be so easily dismissed, but at least he knew that if he stepped too far from the righteous path, there would always be someone there to bring him back.

That was what he needed.

That was what Nie Huaisang was protecting.

A shiver wracked through his frame, as his adrenaline tapered off, letting in the chill that clung to his robes.

He scooted closer to Mingjue, who always burned like a furnace, letting out a startled squeak when his brother instinctively threw an arm over him.

“I’ve,” his hands ached for something to hold, “made a mess of things, haven’t I?”

Mingjue fixed him with a steady gaze. “You are the Second Young Master of the Qinghe Nie sect, my blood, and my only younger brother. If you believe you’ve acted in a manner that cannot be thought on with pride, then I know you will move heaven and earth to make it right.”

Huaisang straightened his back, or at least as much as he was able to with his brother’s heavy arm crushing him. He shot Mingjue a sour look when the latter didn’t move, knowing for a fact that he was only pretending to be oblivious, and was soon proven right when the arm fell away with a put-upon sigh.

Huaisang rolled his eyes. “Don’t you have Sect Leader duties to take care of, Red Blade Master?”

Mingjue returned the jibe with a flat look, then gestured for Huaisang to take the staircase down to the courtyard, where confused disciples who were clearly hoping for some kind of an explanation as to what they’d just witnessed were soon to be disappointed, since Nie Huaisang wasn’t inclined to explain and their Sect Leader had no intention of doing so.

“If you all have enough time to gape at me,” Nie Mingjue snarled at the guards unlucky enough to have witnessed the scene and not feigned ignorance, “then you clearly won’t mind if I triple your saber drills tomorrow.”

One of the older disciples glanced between Mingjue and their Second Young Master, his brows knitted and jaw set as if ready to step between them at a moment’s notice and — Oh.

Nie Huaisang’s lips twitched into something just to the left of a smile.

“I’m really fine.” He flipped open his fan, fluttering it daintily over his face. “I was just asking Da-ge if he could demonstrate one of the saber techniques I’ve been having trouble with.”

They didn’t appear convinced, which was fair, but chose to defer to the judgment of their Sect Leader and Heir, as Nie Huaisang had hoped they would.

A certain wariness lingered in their movements as they returned to their stations, however, that was not lost on Nie Mingjue nor himself.

Nie Huaisang considered how his conversation with his brother must have looked from an outsider’s perspective after factoring in just how bad things had been between them lately and nearly cursed aloud.

Had Mingjue’s behavior really degraded to such a degree that their disciples believed he would hurt him? (No, look, the burns didn’t count. He stuck his own hands in the fire.)

Clearly, some major damage control was in order.

The Nie sect had seen enough qi deviations to recognize the symptoms of Mingjue’s rapid decline for what they were and Huaisang knew his own behavior hadn’t exactly been encouraging lately, though maybe now that Mingjue’s mind wasn’t actively being poisoned they could—

His brother’s hand rested on his shoulder, an unspoken reminder for him to take things one step at a time. Huaisang took a breath.

Even standing outside the throne room, they were able to feel the calming effects of the Song of Clarity which emanated from within, though there was no guqin playing, only the haunting tones of the xiao.

Trying to gauge exactly how upset Lan Xichen might be, Nie Huaisang snuck a glance at his brother, but didn’t manage to glean much beyond a general sense of unease. Unfortunately, mediating conflict wasn’t exactly his strong suit, as was well-known by just about anyone who’d met him.

Once they were in the throne room, Nie Huaisang walked over to Lan Wangji, who was kneeling with his eyes tightly closed, his hands fisted over his knees, and knelt down beside him.

When the song was complete, Lan Wangji had relaxed considerably, some of the color having returned to his complexion, which gave Lan Xichen enough peace of mind to allow him to turn his attention to the Nie brothers. He observed their sodden clothes with bemusement. “Have you both been standing out in the rain this entire time?”

Nie Mingjue tilted his head towards Huaisang. “It was his idea.”

While Huaisang was thrilled by any and all evidence of his brother’s returning good humor, he kept his composure, placed his palms on the floor and bowed. “This one asks for your forgiveness, Zewu-jun. I do not deny that my actions were reckless, nor that I could have put more effort into finding the proof you desired without endangering myself or Lan Wangji.”

Huaisang could feel the hairs on the back of his neck prickle under Lan Xichen’s stoic gaze. He stifled a sigh of relief when Lan Xichen gradually relaxed. “A-Yao—” He shook his head. “Jin Guangyao has always suffered due to his difficult background in the past. No matter how much he accomplishes, it always seems as though there are those who would undermine him or take credit for his efforts.” Nie Huaisang tasted iron in his mouth, but Lan Xichen wasn’t finished, “In the face of that, I had only ever hoped to be on his side. I see now how that may have blinded me to certain truths.”

For the sake of his own peace of mind, Huaisang chose to interpret Lan Xichen’s carefully chosen words as an apology. “We both trusted him,” he said, keeping his eyes placed firmly on the ground. “So long as you believe me, I…” He dashed imaginary tears away from his eyes, letting his voice falter as though he were too choked up with emotion to continue. Later, he would warn Mingjue against sharing any information with the elder Jade that he wasn’t comfortable falling into the hands of the Jin sect.

Raising his head, Huaisang turned his attention to Lan Wangji. Quieter and with more genuine feeling, he started, “I’m so sorry, Wangji. I never should have--”

“You did not deceive me,” Wangji interjected before he could finish. His jaw had a stubborn set to it, as if he were resigned to the fact that others would attempt to convince him otherwise, yet determined to stand his ground.

An unhappy smile crossed Huaisang’s face. “You volunteered because you were afraid I would try to use it on Jin Guangyao, right?”

Lan Wangji glanced at Lan Xichen, then slowly shook his head. “The effects on me would be evident without causing extensive damage to my core. I was the best choice.”

“Better than Xichen-ge?” Nie Huaisang prodded, ignoring his brother's glare of warning. “He hasn’t been exposed recently, if ever. The effects might not have been so severe.”

“I was the best choice,” Lan Wangji reiterated firmly.

Lan Xichen watched the exchange with a polite smile. “Since I have not always been willing to listen, I must share part of the blame for making you feel as though such actions were necessary to convince me of Jin Guangyao’s guilt, as well as my own. However,” if a blizzard had suddenly struck the Unclean Realm and buried them all in a foot of snow, Nie Huaisang would not have felt colder than he did while bearing the full force of Lan Xichen’s frigid civility, “please do not harm yourself or Wangji again in the future.”

Lan Wangji's brows drew slightly closer together. “Xiongzhang.”

After tucking his xiao away, Lan Xichen bent to place a hand on Wangji’s shoulder. “You are coming back to Cloud Recesses with me.”

Too tired to argue, Lan Wangji nodded. “A-Yuan?”

“Will be much happier once he sees you.” This time, Xichen-ge’s smile was genuinely fond. “You’ve only just left seclusion, Wangji. How could he not miss you?”

“Mn. Rabbits?”

“Are fine. A-Yuan and I have been feeding them in your absence.” He helped Wangji to his feet, took Nie Mingjue up on his offer to stay the night, and the pair departed for Gusu early the next morning after playing Cleansing for the Nie siblings one last time.

Not long after Jin Guangyao was released, a butterfly messenger from Cloud Recesses informed them that a page from the Collection of Turmoil had been discovered to be missing, and as a result, Jin Guangyao had lost all of his entrance privileges on Grandmaster Lan’s orders.

This was soon followed by a series of anonymous gifts arriving at Cloud Recesses, all of them addressed to Lan Qiren, who naturally assumed that someone was trying to court him and thus treated the gifts well, though publically he announced that he was uninterested in marriage. Nie Huaisang laughed so hard when Lan Wangji conveyed this information on to him that he nearly passed out, then quickly launched into his next plan:

Convince Nie Mingjue To Go About His Daily Sect Duties While Carrying Adorable Creatures So That Their Precious Disciples Will Stop Being Terrified Of Him

The title needed work, but the plan, when it was enacted, was a success. And for two very good reasons.

First, the juxtaposition of Nie Mingjue’s perpetual scowl and the sleepy rabbit in his arms as he wrestled with how best to bark orders without startling the poor thing was hopelessly endearing even to those who'd witnessed his frightening outbursts in the past.

And as for the second, well, there was no longer any doubt that Nie Mingjue loved his little brother enough to do everything he could to live for him, up to and including spending entire afternoons pulling white fur off his robes.

Chapter Text

Shortly after Nie Huaisang began night hunting with Lan Wangji, an arrangement most of the cultivation world viewed as a glorified babysitting job for Hanguang-jun, Qin Su received an anonymous letter warning her that her son would be in danger so long as he continued to stay in Koi Tower. She’d heeded the previous note when her husband was taken prisoner by the Nie sect, and so followed the instructions provided after her son survived a near-fatal poisoning, from replacing Rusong with a construct to fool the cultivation world and her husband into believing their child had died, to traveling to Lotus Pier where Jiang Wanyin was awaiting her arrival.

She’d claimed that she’d needed to leave the Jin sect out of grief, then simply never returned, and when her husband pleaded with her to rejoin him, he received a letter, as well.

This second letter carried no message - only the location of his mother’s remains.

And so, Qin Su was allowed to remain in Lotus Pier, to watch the junior disciples grow, including one who took a little longer to learn the techniques than others, but was unfailingly kind, and smiled brightly all the same.

Madam Jin, on the other hand, chose to remain in Koi Tower to spend time with her grandson, and to keep an eye on his regent. She could often be found sending letters filled with images and poetry to a friend of hers, though she refused to name who this friend might be regardless of who asked.

Jiang-zongzhu had not realized that receiving correspondence from their shared informant through a medium besides erotic art was an option until he’d brought several pages of it to a Discussion Conference, only to discover that the other leaders already had access to the information encoded in the borders and from considerably less risque material.

Apparently, after Nie Mingjue had given him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder, his face had shifted colors through the full spectrum until it finally settled on a hue that matched his robes.

One thing was certain - if Nie Huaisang didn’t die laughing, Jiang Wanyin was going to kill him.

Of course, there were still several disadvantages to setting a would-be assassin loose to commit murder. One of them being that once he got started, it was nearly impossible for Nie Huaisang to get him to stop without revealing his complicity and indirectly implicating his brother in the process.

He’d known this would happen to some extent when he’d asked to leave the sect, and accepted that there would be consequences down the line. What he didn’t expect was how tainted he would feel when Jin Guangyao confirmed that Jin-zongzhu was dead, nor how little such feelings would matter when Jin Guangyao used the alleged murder of his son to erect a series of Watchtowers that were ostensibly to keep the common people safe.

With such surveillance, threats could be identified and neutralized sooner, saving lives.

And wasn’t that kind of him? Wasn’t it compassionate?

With little A-Song’s death as the perfect excuse, Jin Guangyao was able to spread his influence and his spies and there was nothing Nie Huaisang could do but grit his teeth, bear it, and hope Da-ge didn’t upset the balance by pushing Jin Guangyao into another attempt on his life - though Wangji was so often chasing assassins away from Nie Huaisang that one had to wonder how he would find the time - until news reached him of something he hadn’t seen coming -

Mo Xuanyu’s fall from grace.

Rumors spread, each of them worse than the next, but the general consensus was that he’d attempted to seduce his married half-brother, and because Mo Xuanyu was a known cut-sleeve, no one questioned it. However, Nie Huaisang had always been of the opinion that Xuanyu-gongzi was a man of good taste, and thus harbored suspicions regarding the validity of this story. In addition, undermining and defaming any who would speak against him had always been Jin Guangyao’s modus operandi, which could very well mean that this boy had information that Nie Huaisang could use.

And if he didn’t, a little birdy may have mentioned that certain irreplaceable manuscripts went missing from the Jin sect library following his expulsion, and those were certain to be of interest.

He managed to arrange a visit to Mo village several months following his exile from the Jin sect. Shortly after he arrived, a donkey tried to take a bite out of his robes, but after meeting Lady Mo and her sons, he found that he actually preferred the donkey. She flattered him endlessly and loudly, clearly hoping that he’d come to train one of her sons in cultivation, despite the fact that the pair of them were well past the age of developing a decent personality, let alone a golden core.

After neatly sidestepping her offer to stay for lunch, he idly inquired after Mo Xuanyu’s whereabouts, watching with interest as her face contorted with hatred.

Still, she pointed him towards a small shed and he nodded his thanks, then took his leave, following the stone path to a ramshackle structure that barely passed for a shed.

Resentful energy oozed from its cracks. The whole place smelled of blood.

Even from the outside, Nie Huaisang could hear its occupant muttering furiously to himself, “No, no, no! It’s still not right! Was it three strokes or four?”

Peering in through the window, he could make out talismans written in blood, a half-completed Body Sacrifice array on the floor, and a man dressed in rags biting his lip as he poured spiritual energy into the sigils marking the paper in his hand.

It seemed that the rumors of demonic cultivation hadn’t been baseless, after all.

Nie Huaisang snapped open a metal-tipped fan with a flick of his wrist, then stepped into the doorway, where he continued to watch for a moment, leaning against the framework with an inscrutable smile, “They say you’ve lost your mind.”

“And what do you think, Nie-er-gongzi?” Mo Xuanyu replied without removing his gaze from his work.

Nie Huaisang let his silver fan fall to his side. “Madness tends to follow Jin Guangyao wherever he goes.”

At that, Mo Xuanyu abruptly ceased his manic movements. When he turned to at last acknowledge his visitor with a raised brow, Huaisang was stunned once again by how young the teen was, and mentally cursed himself for not having found a way to warn the boy.

Mo Xuanyu cocked his head. “You suspect that he cursed me. You think that’s why I’m like this?” Nie Huaisang waited, and was rewarded with a bout of howling laughter. “You’ve met my family, haven’t you?” Wiping at his rouge-framed eyes with his sleeves, Mo Xuanyu’s lips curled into a deadman’s grin, “I hardly needed a curse to lose my mind.”

His cousins beat him, stole what little possessions he had left, starved him, and forced him to sleep on the cold ground every night. His aunt had forbidden him from being seen out in public, treating him as though his very existence was a secret shame that could be buried until the cultivation world forgot his name. Until there was nothing left of the boy but a corpse to be disposed of.

“And Jin Guangyao ordered that you return to this place? Does he know of your treatment here?” Perhaps he’d hoped his stupid and cruel family would kill him, and judging by the collar bones jutting from the boy’s chest, he hadn’t been wrong to think so.

“My aunt wears jewels now she couldn’t afford before I was exiled. My cousin's clothes are of a better quality.” Mo Xuanyu picked a chicken’s feather up from out of the dirt, idly twirling it between his fingers. “There’s no evidence to prove it that I know of, but I think it’s safe to assume that my dear half-brother has hinted to the Mo family that a healthy dose of discipline would set me back on the righteous path.”

Between the flat affectation in his voice and the unearthly gray pallor of his skin, it felt as though the teen’s soul were barely tethered to the world of the living, as though his living body hadn’t quite caught on to the fact that the person who inhabited was already little more than a ghost.

“You’re old enough now. If you wished to rejoin the Jin sect, you could stake a claim on the right to succession.”

A flicker of humanity appeared in Mo Xuanyu’s dull eyes, dim as an ember. “I couldn’t do that to Jin Ling. He’s a bit of a spoiled child, but he was always kind to me.”

“His uncle has raised him well, though I’ve heard that some of Jiang-zongzhu’s infamous temperament has rubbed off on the poor boy.” Nie Huaisang chuckled. “There’s a rather outspoken Lan disciple who constantly addresses him as Young Mistress. It’s quite cute, actually.”

Mo Xuanyu placed his talisman down, gesturing for Nie Huaisang to take a seat on the mat. “A-Ling may have mentioned that boy once or twice. It’s good to hear that he’s making friends his own age.”

Nie Huaisang tapped the tip of his fan against his knee. “But will friends be enough to protect him from his other uncle, I wonder?”

The air in the shed grew colder, the shadows darker. In the face of that, Nie Huaisang refused to shudder. It was a sign of weakness that wouldn’t protect him here.

Mo Xuanyu brought his knees up his chest, staring up at him with a look of passive interest. “I heard once that you burned all of A-Yao’s gifts in your courtyard. And then shortly after he was released back to the Jin sect, you started going on night hunts, which everyone knows you hate. What did A-Yao do to you, I wonder? Whatever it was, it must be a fascinating story.”

“Whatever he may have done to me personally is in the past, and there it is best left. There are far more concerning matters to attend to, such as what his plans are for when Jin Ling comes of age.”

Mo Xuanyu’s brow furrowed. “You think he would hurt him?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time he’s harmed a child,” Nie Huaisang pointed out, and was pleased to see that Mo Xuanyu didn’t appear surprised by the accusation.

For the first time since he’d passed the threshold of this shed, the teen regarded him with bright, clear eyes without a trace of madness. “Why are you here, Nie-er-gongzi? Why didn’t you send one of your disciples to come in your stead?”

“No one knows my current whereabouts.” It was always a gamble - admitting that. “There are reasons I cannot expose your half-brother’s misdeeds. Just as there are reasons why I cannot save you.” The shed’s natural light began to dim as a cloud passed over the sun.

Without judgment or accusation, the teen commented offhandedly, as though the matter hardly concerned him, “You probably could if you wanted to.”

Nie Huaisang thought of how many problems directly defying the Chief Cultivator and the Jin sect would bring, and of how his old friend wouldn’t have hesitated - didn’t hesitate to sacrifice his own reputation when presented with a similar dilemma. But Wei Wuxian wasn’t the one sitting amongst blood and filth and demonic scripts. He wasn’t alive. And it wasn’t Nie Huaisang’s responsibility to save every innocent life he came across.

After all, hadn’t he seen firsthand what happened to those who tried?

Flushing at his boldness, Mo Xuanyu interrupted his unhappy thoughts with, “Ah, but Nie-er-gongzi shouldn’t trouble himself with such things. There’s little left of me to save now, and…” He paused upon finding some kind of hint in Nie Huaisang’s expression, some revealing twitch of muscle that caused him to sit back, a bitter smile twisting his youthful features, “And you’ve already thought of who you hope will replace me, haven’t you?”

Nie Huaisang didn’t deny it.

With a giggle like shattered glass, Mo Xuanyu grabbed a fistful of talismans, held them up to his face, and fluttered them as though he were mimicking the action of holding a fan.

“I’m sorry,” was all Nie Huaisang could say, yet it sounded insufficient. Mo Xuanyu seemed to agree, since he returned to his talismans and manuscripts without acknowledging his presence again for the remainder of the visit. Before he left, however, he turned to say one last thing, "Thank you."

Mo Xuanyu paused in his work, then resumed as though he hadn't, and Nie Huaisang left the shed without turning back again.

Several weeks after this, when the sacrifice ritual was not-so-coincidentally completed during the same week as the night hunt hosted on Dafan Mountain, Mo Xuanyu would mysteriously appear in front of Jin Ling and Jiang Cheng, just in time for Hanguang-jun to save him and send him on his merry way. Later on, when Lan Wangji opted to bring ‘Mo Xuanyu’ to Cloud Recesses to keep him safe while he healed, Nie Huaisang would stick even more closely to an increasingly confused Lan Wangji than he normally would, practically hanging off him so that he could enjoy the lovely shade of green ‘Mo Xuanyu’s’ face turned at the sight, and he would do this knowing that their future happiness would come as a result of a sacrifice neither of them would have approved of.

Even if it was a promise he’d made to a dead man, Nie Huaisang was going to bring Jin Guangyao to justice in order to create a world with one less dagger aimed at his back, one less dagger to hold, and once that was done…

He could finally go home.