It’s an idle question that Wei Wuxian asks him during a night hunt while they’re passing time, jointly supervising some of the more cautious disciples. He’s lazily twirling his flute, leaning without a hint of decorum on a tree branch of an ebony tree. “Sect Leader Nie was pretty familiar with you during my year at Gusu…ah, but you had already met him the year before, right?”
Lan Xichen hummed, making sure to keep an eye on the disciples to ensure they didn’t try anything stupid even as he considered his response. “I had met him the year before,” he agrees, “but it wasn’t the first time. I was very close to his brother, of course, but my uncle was friendly with his father, as well. I suppose I was…thirteen when we first met?” He pauses, recalling their age difference. “Oh, Sect Leader Nie would have been seven or eight. He and Wangji used to get along very well back then…but they drifted apart by the time Sect Leader Nie came to study at Gusu.”
Wei Wuxian hums. “Shame.” He does not seem particularly bothered by it.
Lan Xichen gives him a sidelong glance. “Why the curiosity?”
Wei Wuxian shrugs. “Just to pass the time.” And then he brings his flute to his lips and plays a haunting tune—one which Lan Xichen knows will attract a low-level monster or two and finally force the disciples they’re observing to do something. Evidently, the conversation is over…but for Lan Xichen, it’s not. For Lan Xichen, their first meeting was much more than some offhand detail, left to be relegated to the footnotes of history. In fact, he can’t stand the idea.
His eyes slip shut and, for the first time in a while, he remembers.
Lan Qiren and Sect Leader Nie—the one before Nie Huaisang, before Nie Mingjue—were friends. That was what everyone said. “The best of friends” or “The closest of friends” or some variation on the phrase. None of that would have mattered to Lan Xichen much if not for the fact that, since Lan Qiren and Sect Leader Nie were friends, he got to be friends with Nie Mingjue. And, just to be clear: Nie Mingjue was the coolest. He was two years older than Lan Xichen, and a bit stronger, and a lot smarter, and many more things.
Lan Xichen adored Nie Mingjue, so of course he was disappointed when he found out that he wouldn’t be attending Lan Zhan’s birthday celebration. The entire sect had mobilized for it, determined to get Lan Zhan’s icy expression to melt into joy for even a moment, and Lan Xichen wanted that very much, but he was also looking forward to meeting his friend again.
Lan Qiren, upon hearing of his woes, sighed. “I know you are upset,” he allowed, “but Young Master Nie is ill. I’m sure he will send his congratulations to A-Zhan. In the meantime, you’ll get to meet his brother, Second Young Master Nie—Nie Huaisang.”
Ah, yes, Lan Xichen knew him. Nie Mingjue talked about him a lot—waxing poetic of how cute and kind his younger brother was, to the point that Lan Xichen had been convinced that, perhaps, he was nearly as cute as Lan Zhan.
“Bias!” Nie Mingjue would cry if he were to find out.
“The pot calls the kettle black,” was all Lan Xichen would say in response…but he would never get to do that now. Instead, he tugged on his uncle’s robe one more time before asking, “Is Mingjue going to be okay?”
“Yes,” Lan Qiren said immediately. “He will be just fine.”
Instant relief swept through Lan Xichen. Nie Mingjue would be fine. All would be well—and his uncle and Sect Leader Nie were friends, so Lan Xichen was bound to meet Nie Mingjue again. It was more than he could hope for.
His first meeting with Nie Huaisang was entirely unremarkable—he seemed to be nothing close to the bright, boisterous boy Nie Mingjue claimed he was; instead, he cowered behind his father’s hulking form, looking frightfully slight, as if he was the sickly one and not his brother. He was, of course, still more outgoing than Lan Zhan, but most everyone was, so that didn’t matter.
His second meeting with Nie Huaisang was a tad bit more remarkable—it seemed that he’d already become well acquainted with Lan Zhan. He caught the two of them attempting to sneak into the Back Mountain. “To play with the animals,” Nie Huaisang had explained hastily the moment he realized they’d been found out. “We’re not gonna cause any trouble!”
It was, technically, against the rules, but Lan Zhan and Nie Huaisang seemed so terribly eager, so Lan Xichen had let them off with a huff and a smile.
Their third meeting, though…that was one of their most memorable ones. It went like this:
It was stormy the night before Lan Zhan’s birthday. The humidity crept into every nook and cranny of Lan Xichen’s quarters, and though he was lucky enough to not suffer any physical consequences—such as incredibly frizzy hair, which he noted from a few of the other disciples—he still felt incredibly sticky and unclean. In order to stave off the terribleness of it all, he picked up a book and started to read it, immersing himself into the story of what was widely regarded as one of the most important texts of the century.
That was when someone banged on his door.
Lan Xichen opened it, of course—he wouldn’t leave anyone to the mercy of the howling storm—but it wasn’t until the door had slipped shut behind them that he realized who had come in. It was Nie Huaisang, drenched from head-to-toe, teeth chattering as his body shook, braids so loose that they were falling sideways from the amount of water they were holding. As he observed him closer, Lan Xichen started to suspect that not all of the droplets slipping down his face were from the storm. Nie Huaisang confirmed his theory by letting out a choked sob.
Lan Xichen immediately burst into action, retrieving a warm towel and a change of clothes for Nie Huaisang—his own robes were too large, but he did still have a few of Lan Zhan’s (who was also a tad bit too large, but still good enough)—and poking around the fireplace until it was sufficiently warm enough to accommodate them both.
Lan Xichen hadn’t known that it was possible, but in that moment…Nie Huaisang looked even smaller than he ever had before. “Are you all right?” he asked quietly, slotting himself beside Nie Huaisang on his bed.
Nie Huaisang sniffed, pointedly refusing to look at him, but he did speak. “No,” he said. He then failed to elaborate.
Lan Xichen hummed. “Why aren’t you all right?” he tried.
Nie Huaisang gripped the towel closer to himself, then exhaled a shaky breath. “Am I stupid?”
“Of course not,” Lan Xichen said, aghast. “Who told you that you were stupid?” Nie Mingjue had gone to great lengths to describe just how brilliant Nie Huaisang was, and Lan Xichen had no intention of not believing him.
“No one,” Nie Huaisang said, but it sounded extremely bitter. “No one tells me anything. I’m just stupid.”
“You are not,” Lan Xichen repeated firmly. “What brought this on?”
Nie Huaisang’s lips trembled and Lan Xichen spent a single moment terrified that he would burst into tears yet again, but Nie Huaisang managed to swallow the tears down before saying, “Brother is sick.”
“He is,” Lan Xichen agreed, then froze. “Did something happen? Did…did he get worse?”
“I don’t know!” Nie Huaisang yelled. “Even if he did, I don’t know! I only know he’s sick because Brother Zhan told me!”
Oh. Lan Xichen leaned over and carefully took hold of Nie Huaisang’s hand, giving it a soft squeeze. “I’m sorry, Second Young Master Nie, but I’m sure your father and brother just didn’t want to worry you.”
Nie Huaisang shook his head. “No, no—I’m stupid. They also didn’t tell me when my mom died. I just overheard.”
Something squeezed in Lan Xichen’s chest and he was immediately battered with the image of little Lan Zhan, all of six years old, demanding to know why he couldn’t see their mother. Lan Xichen himself had been eleven at the time—old enough to actually be told that she was dead. Nie Huaisang…Nie Mingjue had mentioned it when his father’s second wife had died three years ago. Nie Huaisang would have been four or five, having to overhear her death by accident instead of in a carefully thought out and delicate conversation.
Then the certain phrasing of Nie Huaisang’s caused an inkling of doubt. “Second Young Master Nie,” he said quietly, “what do you mean?”
“Two weeks,” Nie Huaisang said miserably. “I…I thought she got lost in the forest!”
“Is that what they told you?”
“They didn’t tell me anything!”
Two weeks where no one mentioned his missing mother? Lan Xichen stared at him in horror. At least Lan Zhan had been given an explanation, even if it was a flimsy one. “Oh, Second Young Master Nie, I’m so sorry. That was very unkind of them.”
“I’m stupid. Everyone says it. They would have told me if I wasn’t.”
“You are not stupid,” Lan Xichen said firmly. “They just didn’t want to make you sad.”
Nie Huaisang seemed extremely skeptical. “Really?” he asked blankly. “It didn’t work.”
Lan Xichen stared at him in sorrow before straightening his back. “You are not stupid. I’ll tell you everything I know about your brother right now, because you are that smart. I know he’s sick, that he has been sick since before the journey, and that he probably won’t be well enough to attend the celebration in a few days. He…he’s taking longer than usual to reply to my letter—it’s been a good two weeks longer, now—so maybe that was when he got sick?” He sighed. “I don’t know much else that’s concrete. I’m sorry, Second Young Master Nie.”
Nie Huaisang sniffed. “Huaisang.”
“That’s what Brother calls me,” Nie Huaisang muttered. “You can call me Huaisang, too.”
A smile slowly bloomed onto Lan Xichen’s face. “Oh, then you must call me Brother Xichen, Huaisang.”
“Deal,” Nie Huaisang responded immediately before clambering onto his lap. “Carry me.”
For a moment, Lan Xichen stared at him uncomprehendingly, and then the demand finally registered into his head. “Oh,” he said. “Of course.” He scooped Nie Huaisang up—he was a tad bit lighter than Lan Zhan, but not by much, and Lan Xichen was glad for the strength he’d retained from training. “Is there anywhere you want to go?”
“Just…around the room.”
Lan Zhan had recently gotten it into his head that he was too old to be carried, so Lan Xichen decided to relish this, adjusting his balance as necessary to ensure the two of them didn’t topple over. Then, slowly, he paced the room, the way he’d seen his uncle do with Lan Zhan when he was still a toddler. He didn’t know when, but eventually he started humming some senseless tune that vaguely echoed a lullaby his mother used to sing.
The two of them managed like that for a while before Nie Huaisang asked, incredibly quiet, “I’m not stupid.”
“No,” Lan Xichen repeated gently. “Your brother talks about you a lot, I know how smart you are.” A pause. “And no one was hiding anything from you because you’re stupid—they just didn’t want to hurt you. I promise.”
Nie Huaisang took a moment to chew on it, putting so much thought into it that Lan Xichen couldn’t help but wonder what was going on in that little head of his. Then, so quickly that Lan Xichen had no time to react, Nie Huaisang dipped down and pressed a firm kiss to his cheek. Lan Xichen was left speechless for a moment—the last time someone had kissed him on the cheek was his last birthday, when Lan Zhan had done it—but when he did manage to regain his bearings, he asked, “Huaisang?”
“Thank you,” was all Nie Huaisang said in reply.
Lan Xichen shook his head. “Ah—try not to go kissing the cheeks of everyone you want to thank.”
“Okay,” Nie Huaisang said simply, “just you.”
“Just me,” Lan Xichen agreed. And perhaps Nie Mingjue was ill and the birthday celebration wouldn’t be nearly as fun or upbeat as those of the Nie…but Lan Xichen was rather comfy in that little room with Nie Huaisang. He hoped that he would never lose it.
Now, on a night-hunt hosted by the Nie in the middle of Qinghe, and yet containing no sign of Nie Huaisang, Lan Xichen wonders at how easily all that innocent affection had been lost. A single night, it seems, is all it takes. A single night…and he had lost his world.
And, well, seeing as how Nie Huaisang seemed quite keen on not telling him a thing…perhaps Lan Xichen was the stupid one, in the end.