The last time that the political temperature between the different sects has felt this cold, yet so heated – it was probably right when the Wen Sect started causing havoc. A good few years before it all spiraled out of control.
Yet, the biggest difference was, Nie Huaisang wasn't sect leader at that time. During the war, Nie Huaisang was an eighteen year old boy, who was still a little too silly to partake in these horrifying things. At the time he would look at his terrorized friends, and hold his head in his hands. 'Thank god this isn't me' he'd think, and feel very, very awful about thinking that. Because well, the only reason why it 'isn't him' is just because it is them who fought in the war. His friends, some of them even younger than himself, went out of their way to fight, out of... revenge? A sense of duty? Morals?
Whatever drove them – it didn't drive Nie Huaisang the same way. The entirety of the Wen Sect was just too abstract of an entity to put a face on, and he finds it hard to hate something that doesn't even have a face.
So instead of fighting for some cause he had no part of, he'd stay back, and help the injured, and help organize, and help keep things clean, and most importantly, help his peers, talk to them everytime he had the chance, in a feeble attempt to remind them that this is temporary, that, while it's high stakes, will end someday, and this is not a constant state – fighting, fearing for your life.
He doesn't think he did a very good job.
Considering, considering, considering. Considering how everyone ended up. Don't they still fear for their life? Don't they still try to claw out their way out of every situation with the same desperation they had during the war?
He thinks about Wei Ying, how he turned into a changed man after the three months he was missing, and how that changed man would flinch away from Nie Huaisang's friendly touch, and how that changed man would partake in violence with such glee, and how that changed man already died twice in a sense, because the man that came back with a flute and eyebags darker than the night sky was not Wei Ying anymore.
Nie Huaisang thinks about Wei Ying, and then he doesn't think about Wei Ying, because now he isn't an eighteen year old boy anymore, and he isn't too silly to handle sect politics now. Because now he's a sect leader, and there's an advisor urging him to talk, and he's been staring at the wall for too long.
"Tensions are high, sect leader. What do you suppose we should do?"
Nie Huaisang looks at his saber next to his chair, the same place where Baxia always used to be. His saber is untouched, unused, only taken out when it was truly too rude to not have it present. "Do you believe there is something that needs to be done?"
"Sect Leader!" his advisor knows how Nie Huaisang is like, he knows that his sect leader is usually a pushover and whiny and has not an ounce of interest in politics – it's almost funny, seeing the frustration make the man's face red.
"Oh, don't get angry." Nie Huaisang makes a dismissive gesture. "If there was something that needed to be done, I would do that." He stands up, walks over to his own saber. He gently touches the hilt, like it isn't something that is used to kill and hurt and nothing else. His thumb carefully glides over the engravings. He turns around to face his advisor again. "Hear me out."
His advisor stands there, arms crossed and anoyed, but intruiged.
"There really is nothing to do. If you believe that the Jin sect will cause problems – well, they will not."
"How can you-"
"I can say that because the Jin Sect is nothing but puppets right now. Either the Jiang Sect is controling it, or heavily influencing it."
"Then we still have to be careful."
"The Jiang Sect is not conspiring against us."
"You don't know that."
Nie Huaisang sighs. He can hardly say that he knows Jiang Cheng's character from the days of Cloud Recess – vouching for the political climate to stay in tact beacuse you believe someone is good. That brought them to this point to the first place.
It's also hard to say that he might, might have a spy or two hidden between the disciples and servants of almost every major sect. He wanted to retrieve them after the whole affair with Jin Guangyao was over, but yet...
But yet, the aftermath of it is messier than the main event, and sadly, Nie Huaisang can't just discard the title of sect leader. He has to stiffle the chaos before it turns into something too overwhelming to handle for everyone involved.
"Whether they're conspiring against us or not isn't even important – they simply can't make a move." Nie Huaisang turns around on his heel and sits back down. "There are too many eyes on them right now. One wrong move, and they're done for."
"Elaborate, please." The crossed arms fall to the advisors sides.
"There's not much to elaborate, to be honest. Of course, with Jin Guangyao's crimes revealed-" Nie Huaisang doesn't spit the name with venom, but with a cold neutrality- "People will be more attentive to unmoral desicions the Jin Sect makes. On the Jiang side – well, even though he isn't part of their sect anymore, people still have a deep connection of Wei Wuxain and the Jiang Sect in their minds. They might not have as many eyes on them, now with the attention shifted to Jin Guangyao, but any moves against the other sects will be spotted imidiatly, and called out as such."
The advisor nods. Nods some more. Looks at Nie Huaisang with his bushy eyebrows raised. "Sect Leader, when did you turn smart?"
Bold as ever. Insulting your own sect leader to his face – you won't hear these kinds of stories outside of the Nie Sect.
Nie Huaisang smiles. "I don't know what you mean. I really don't know."
If you asked the Nie Huaisang of almost two decades ago to say one good thing about the war, he'd probably try to punch you in the face.
If you ask the current Nie Huaisang, he probably would still want to punch you in the face, but there is still one thing he bitterly appreciates about that time: how exceedingly, and terrifyingly simple it all was.
With all the pleasantries gone during the war, the only social rule people lived by was kill or die. Tactics are complicated, and fighting formations are complicated, and injured people are complicated, but the solution always remained the same.
Kill or die.
Things aren't like that when there isn't a war going on. It's more like-
What will offend this important person? What will give you a favor for that important person? What will break this frail situation? What will mend it? What is important? What needs to be discarded?
And the worst, worst, worst part about it is, there is never just a choice to make between two options. There are a thausend choices and only three of them end in a semi-positive outcome.
But now he's on his way to the Jin Sect, because Sect Leader Jin – not Jin Guangyao, Nie Huaisang reminds himself over and over – invited him, as it is common for new sect leaders.
(Nie Huaisang stared at the invitation letter for hours on end. Put it in a cabinet and then took it out again to read it again. Again. Again. Again. Then there's bile in his throat, and then he's holding his head, and this time he's thinking, god, god, why is this me, and he looks at the letter again. Again. And somewhere distantly he realizes that Jin Guangyao probably taught Jin Rulan how to write, and that's why these brushstrokes seem so familiar, and why every character looks just like the ones he used to write, and why he's pressing his cheek against the cold floor right now, in an attempt to calm down before someone finds him.)
He is escorted by his disciples, up the steep steps, and Nie Huaisang notices how they keep sending each other worried side glaces, how they keep their eyes trained on their sect leader and his face – they're waiting for him to break, to turn around. And he doesn't blame them. He does want to turn around. Just seeing that golden nightmare in front of him makes him feel like shit, but he already freaked out over the letter, so now he burries his thoughts with other thoughts, about what he'll draw when he comes home, or how he'll call the baby birds he watched hatch just yesterday.
It does make things a little more bearable, and he goes through the motions so easily that it almost makes him sick again.
But then very suddenly he's in front of the young Jin Rulan, but maybe his vision wavers, or his mind falters, because he almost whines San-ge and his eyes almost fill with empty tears, and his body almost grows weak to collapse on the man he wants to decive – but this is a fourteen year old kid that is really trying to look respectable right now, and Nie Huaisang stands in front of him, and he keeps standing there, because his mind is blank, and instead of words he hears the blood rush in his ears and-
"The Nie Sect welcomes the new Sect Leader with great pleasure. We hope that we can work together to keep up the peace." his head disciple bows after saying that, and Nie Huaisang bows too, as if on cue.
"Sect Leader Jin," Nie Huaisang clears his throat. "I sure hope that even with – ah, that we can remain on good terms."
The young boy's face scrunches up, and it's not in displeasure, but rather him being caught up in his thoughts himself, and Nie Huaisang tries not to smile nor frown.
"The... Jin Sect..." his voice is too quiet for the big hall, so he tries again. "The Jin Sect does not doubt our – good terms," he stammers out.
They share many senseless pleasantries, and Nie Huaisang is pretty sure that young sect leader Jin would want to do anything but this right now – Nie Huaisang is also not very stoked about being here.
The Jin Sect offers for him and his disciples to spend a night or two after a quiet dinner, and Nie Huaisang would very vocally decline, if he weren't a sect leader, and if he didn't care about making Jin Rulan feel somewhat respected.
So, with his whole being laced in dread, he is brought to the guestroom he would always be in, back when he visited San-ge and the room looks the same, and it feels the same, and his mind is confused because he's back here but there is no next step to contemplate, and no revenge to think about.
Restless, restless, covered in sweat and shaking. He lays down, and he stays down, and sleep doesn't come early, and when it comes it's almost funny-
Funny, how the human brain works. The last time he had a nightmare was a few months after his brother died, and it was on the day he figured things out, when he looked Jin Guangyao in the eyes and saw someone terrifying-
One would assume that the brain would choose dreams as a way to vent out all the knowdlege Nie Huaisang had to keep to himself, but in that time, he barely had any dreams. When he had them, it was so incomprehensible, that he would not find meaning, good or bad, in any of them.
But! And that's the funny part, he wants to argue. Funny, after all is over and done with, he finds himself dreaming, and it's comprehensible, too comprehensible, and he's fourteen years old, and Jin Guangyao is Meng Yao, and Meng Yao is kind, and he's caring, and he braids A-Sang's hair, and he reminds him to eat when he's too engrossed in his drawing, and he helps him up when he trips and-
Nie Huaisang wakes up before the sun rises. He sleeps in right after.
Now he's twenty something something something, but it isn't important, because the years all melted together, into some incomprehensible lump of time that he barely remembers. Meng Yao is Jin Guangyao, he's Sect Leader Jin, he's Lianfang-zun, but most importantly he's San-ge, and San-ge is comforting him again, because A-Sang is crying again and again and again and Nie Huaisang is so tired of these tears, because they never mean anything at all, and he hates how San-ge holds him so lovingly, like he's a little brother, like he's sweet and dumb and innocent, and San-ge holds him like he means it.
He hates it, and he hates it some more, because somewhere in his heart he feels depended on him, it feels right to be held like that when it shouldn't, but now San-ge is gone, and no one holds him, and San-ge is gone, and he shouldn't need to be held anymore.
"You're awake early," one of his disciples tells him, and he's so fucking cranky that he almost bites out an insult, but he holds it in, and bites it down. Like always. Like always.
There is no comfort in this never ending nothing, nothing, nothing and nothing that his life has become, because it isn't nothing, but it feels like nothing.
Because so long there was only one thing he cared about, and that thing is now gone, resolved, and what's next.
Nothing. Nothing and nothing and nothing.
He picked up his brush ten times, and ten times he put it down again. He looks, sqints in the mirror, then looks away because he can't bear it. He walks a mile in his room, and then sits down because his feet hurt, and he attends to his birds, but they sing the same song, so he doesn't bother too much.
His world has been turned upside down, but the scenery is the same, and the people are the same, and the gossip is the same, but now it's rebranded, and how can everything be the same when it shouldn't?
He sleeps too long and he eats too little, he forgets how to laugh at jokes, he draws a mountain but it's too small, he goes to sleep again and wakes up drenched in sweat.
Things happen, or things don't happen, but he doesn't notice, because one day passes and another day passes, and they might have not existed at all.
Distantly, with the eye of someone who isn't involved, he notes that people worry for him. His doctor does not have kind eyes, and even lesser kind words, but she talks in a way to him like he's fragile, when he really isn't, but maybe when she talks to him he doesn't really feel spoken to, and when she does her regular check-up she tells her that he's not sick, but he very well could be if he doesn't look after himself – and something about that makes him weirdly satisfied, because finally, finally, finally – after years of being completely disconnected with the person you are to yourself, and the person you are to everyone else. Finally, his mind and body align, and finally people can see how rotten he is.
"I'll get sick – that's fine."
And the doctor watches him in despair, like he's beyond saving and that just makes him feel more satisfied.
The never-ending loop of nothing and more nothing becomes comfortable, right when Nie Huaisang figures out that it isn't never-ending.
Because right now he is back to all his senses when it all seemed so subdued, and his senses are much more attentive than they usually should be because-
A dark figure sits in his unlit room, and if it were one of his disciples or servants or advisors or- anyone in the Nie sect, they would've replied to him already.
The figure moves their hand, and Nie Huaisang can only see it in the faint moonlight, so he presses himself against the door, ready to storm outside and yell if the figure were the lurch at him.
They don't – the pull something out of their robes and hold it between their index and middle finger – with a slight twitch the thing ignites, and now Nie Huaisang realizes that it's a fire talisman and now he realizes that the person is very very very likely not here to assasinate him or any other kind of major evil-doings – this person has mellowed out, and Huaisang only expects minor evil-doings from him.
"Wei-xiong, you really scared me, you know?"
"Didn't expect for you to come to your room so early, y'know!" Gleefully he turns on all the candles he can find, and Huaisang is still pressed against the door, less so because he's still scared, but because he's lost, and he isn't really sure what he's supossed to be doing.
"You look awful, Nie-xiong." Wei Ying approaches him, and Huaisang feels himself backing further into the door. The other seems to notice, and stops walking.
"Pray tell, Wei-xiong. What the hell are you doing here?"
"Snooping around. I haven't been to Unclean Realms in a few years, and I wanted to see what kind of changes Sect Leader Nie decided to make."
"Nothing." he shrugs. "Why change it if it works."
"So boring. Say, Nie-xiong, how about we ditch this place and go adventuring."
"Ha-ha." Huaisang finally feels himself relax. He pushes himself off the wall and takes a step forward. "I'll leave my sect to rot, sure."
"Aww, I was only joking."
"And I laughed. Didn't you hear it? I can repeat it. Ha-ha."
Wei Ying snorts, and it feels so so far away. Huaisang hasn't had an interaction like this in months, maybe years, if he thinks too much about it. It's surreal, absurd, and all the other words that explain this feeling of unrealness.
"If dear Sect Leader Nie can't go adventuring with me then I surely hope that he doesn't have anything against a sip of Emporor's smile?"
Nie Huaisang hesitates, because he hasn't drunken alcohol in sixteen years, and he may have acted like he did, but he really really didn't.
"Keep me in check, Wei-xiong. I don't wanna end up puking my guts out."
He does end up puking his guts out. But maybe not in the literal sense.
When he first drinks a bit of the Emporers Smile, he may have forgotten that it takes time for alcohol to enter your system, so he drank another cup, and then another, but suddenly it all hits him at once, and he's laughing, what the hell, what the hell, he's laughing and then he's heaving, his chest hurts all at once, and his eyes burn, and Wei Ying is holding him to calm him down. Nie Huaisang shamelessly leaning into Wei Ying and while he does it he tells him why, "I haven't been held since San-ge died," and that makes him laugh again, and he realizes how hysteric it sounds, but it aligns, it aligns to his inner workings, so he's satisfied.
"Wei-xiong, Wei-xiong. What do you think. Did San-ge truly love me?"
Wei Ying is twirling Huaisangs hair between his fingers, but he realizes that may be more of a nervous motion than trying to be comforting because – ah, Wei Ying probably regrets bringing alcohol with him. The funny way his face contorts when Nie Huaisang asks him the question, like it's painful to see his former friend in such a state – especially because they're disproportionally drunk. Wei Ying may be tipsy at best.
"Nie-xiong, I barely saw yours and Jin Guangyao's relationship. I can't even make an educated guess."
Huaisang sighs and leans even further into Wei Ying. "San-ge, did you love me?"
"Nie-xiong!" he whines. "Stop being a weirdo."
"Oh, oh, just play along. Give me my fucking closure."
"I'll never get you another drink..." Huaisang doesn't even have to look to know that Wei Ying is pouting. "I'm sure Jin Guangyao had very complicated-"
"Whatever. I hate him."
Wei Ying's hand that was twirling Nie Huaisang's hair stops in it's tracks, like he considers punching him. Just for a second. "Do you?" he asks in a low voice.
"..." the easy smile that never came so easy leaves his face, replaced with a thin line for his mouth. "Why do you ask."
"You want your closure."
"Wei-xiong, do you..." he grabs onto the next best thing, which just happens to be Wei Ying's sleeves. "A genuine question. Do you think hating someone and loving someone is exclusive? Can you do both?"
"Yes. You... you can do both."
"Then. Then i think it's that. Wei-xiong. Or it isn't love, or anything like that – maybe he and Er-ge were the only ones left who seemed to love me, and instinctivly I loved back. You know."
"It's complicated Nie-xiong. You should probably think about this when you're sober."
Huaisang groans. "I unearthed all this and now I'll have to deal with it..."
Really, Huaisang wonders where all the honesty comes from – and he can blame it on the alcohol, but really, but really it's because-
Wei Ying should know the most authentic Huaisang, because he knew him when he was seventeen, and when he was whole and alive and happy, and he knows Huaisang now, but he doesn't know the Huaisang the cultivation world has known for the last decade, the false face painted on his face for everyone to see, simply to convince one man.
There is comfort in knowing that Wei Ying doesn't automatically associate him with that decade of acting, and with that comfort comes vulnerability.
"Isn't it unfair?"
Wei Ying looks at him. "Hm?"
"I mean – sometimes I wonder how you had it so much worse than I did. But then you end up in such a happy place."
"Are you not in a happy place?"
And that sends Huaisang into a laughing fit again. A short one, but it's answer enough.
"And what's holding you back now, A-Sang?"
The name makes Huaisang curl into himself, and Wei Ying's hand scratches his scalp a little, so he makes a sound embarrisingly close to a sob.
"I don't know."
"For once. I really don't."
"A-Sang," the voice is gentle in a way that will also point an accusatory finger at him. "Do you wallow in your pain because you think it's nice? Is it comfortable down there, in that pit with trash and mud and flies?"
"It is comfortable," he nods.
"Do you know how comfortable it will be to get out of that pit?"
"I don't try to think about it."
Wei Ying looks him in the eyes, and it makes Huaisang uneasy. "You try to get out of the pit, and suddenly you notice that there's mud and trash on you, and you think, 'ew, when I was wallowing in that pit of mud and trash I wasn't covered in mud and trash' but that's not true. You're covered in mud and trash, but in a pit full of it you won't notice."
"Wei-xion. Wei-xiong. Maybe I'm meant for the mud-trash-whatever pit."
"Huaisang." Wei Ying's voice turns sharp. "Was I also meant for it then? Sixteen years ago?"
"There you have it. No. You aren't meant for it. We both did unmoral things, and we both have our reasons for it."
Huaisang looks, and he looks and looks, and Wei Ying looks back, and something flares up in his chest, something he hasn't felt in such a long time, and his eyes widen when he realizes-
A small flame of hope burns inside him, and suddenly he'd feel awful about letting it die out, and suddenly, when he thinks about leaving this world for good, hypothetically, all hypothetically, it doesn't feel comfortable anymore, but it leaves a bad taste in his mouth and he, and he, he-
He pukes his guts out.
Nie Huaisang wakes up in the morning, and he wakes up for real, and he wakes up on the floor, hungry and awake, awake and for the first time in months he craves breakfast which battles against the nausea of the hangover, and his fingers itch to grab his brush, and his birds are singing impatiently, and the rush goes away after an hour, but the feeling of being awake doesn't. And underneath it all he's scared, he's scared that this newfound feeling is temporary, and that thought rears it's ugly head when he stops in his tracks, or lies in his bed, but then he laughs at an unfunny joke and then he starts caring about something again he stopped caring about, and then he catches himself thinking about the future, and-
Things are so complicated, he whines. There are still so many steps he needs to take before he thinks he can be happy without feeling some kind of dread, and his doctor smiles at him at the next check-up, and he feels the sun on his skin and he likes it, and he lies in his bed and thinks about the pains he caused, and he goes on a walk and enjoys nature, and he-
He's alive, he suddenly notices, and it should be clear, of course, but it was never a conscious thought in his head. Now that it is... now that it is...
He's alive, he's breathing. His heart is pumping.
Isn't that enough?
He smells of mud and trash and everyone around him sees it, but instead of recoiling in disgust they cheer him on, they extend their hands they-
Nie Huaisang is alive, and people like that.
Nie Huaisang is alive, and he thinks he likes that.