There were three certainties to a cultivation conference.
The first was lavish banquets. The highest quality meals were always procured, whether or not they were an accurate reflection of the sect’s regular diet, because when hosting the leaders of the jianghu, one wanted to always show their best. When the host of the conference was the Jin sect, the quality of the meals was especially high, and it was said that the Jin boasted the best attendance numbers for that alone.
The second was the long debates. However good the food, it did not make up for hours of heated arguments that would drag as long as it took the Chief Cultivator to hear everyone out (and he always made sure to hear everyone out). And after everyone was heard, there would be a good amount of summarizing and repetition because there was always someone who had tuned out partway and missed a key detail, only to realize there were implications for his own sect, and thus had to be quickly caught up.
That someone was usually Nie Huaisang, and he was notable for his part in the third certainty. Any cultivator attending a conference with him would always come home with at least one new tale of his dramatics. Like the time he misplaced his saber and forced everyone to help him look for it. Or the time he went missing for an entire day only to suddenly burst into the discussion hall with a rare bird he’d discovered in the garden. Or the time he arranged for some macabre play to be staged as entertainment for his guests (after which Jin Guangyao and Lan Xichen dutifully promised to handle all such arrangements for him in the future).
Nie Huaisang’s dramatics were frustrating, but they were memorable, and occasionally broke up the tension of a heated round of talks, so few could begrudge him too much. Some even looked forward to the spectacle, and always greeted him loudly and cheerfully when he arrived.
The guards of Carp Tower fell into the latter group. This was partly because they weren’t affected by whatever antics occurred, but mainly because their sect leader was, and they always felt a small sense of glee at their sect leader’s misfortunes.
When the Nie delegation arrived for the conference, they quickly stepped forward and bowed to their errant guest, ready to give him a hearty welcome.
And then they froze when they saw his face, their words stuck in their throats as they quickly discovered what Nie Huaisang’s latest disruption was to be.
“It’s so good to be back in Lanling,” Nie Huaisang said airily. “Can one of you announce my arrival to the Chief Cultivator? I have a surprise for him.”
The surprise was one newly grown mustache.
“Huaisang,” Jin Guangyao’s face was very carefully blank, but at the same time he suddenly looked very tired. “Have I done something to upset you?”
It was a reasonable question when faced with Nie Huaisang’s stern glare – an expression that looked completely foreign on him, but the glare lasted only long enough for the question to be asked, before a smile broke through, and Nie Huaisang laughed mirthfully.
“Of course not, San-ge,” he said cheerfully. “But what did you think? Don’t I look just like Da-ge?”
He did. Beside him Lan Xichen chuckled to himself, even as Jin Guangyao continued to look utterly befuddled.
“The resemblance is uncanny,” he agreed dryly. “It’s… different.”
Nie Huaisang nodded and lifted his hand to stroke his brand-new mustache. “A good different, right? I look much more like a sect leader now, right?”
“I… suppose,” Jin Guangyao said, and turned to Lan Xichen for help. Lan Xichen only shrugged.
Nie Mingjue had always been proud of his mustache, and how much older and more mature it made him look. With his boyish grin, elegant robes, and vibrant accessories, Nie Huaisang projected a very different image, but Lan Xichen wouldn’t say it was a bad one.
“As long as Huaisang likes it, that’s the important thing,” he said, and Nie Huaisang beamed. But seeing Jin Guangyao’s unease added. “I think it’s a good thing for Huaisang to try to emulate his brother. Though maybe not just in looks, hmm?”
“We’ll see…” Nie Huaisang replied and snapped open his fan to coyly cover his face.
With the fan in place, he looked like his usual self once more, and Jin Guangyao quickly found his smile again.
“Yes. Yes, of course.”
Huaisang was shy in large groups. Once the conference began, he would hide himself, and Jin Guangyao wouldn’t have to think about the monstrosity that lurked beneath.
Unfortunately for Jin Guangyao, Nie Huaisang’s sudden desire to be more like his older brother meant that he would not keep to himself until he had a question, but would rather sit tall and proud with his fan beside him on the floor (the way others kept their swords) and the mustache on full display.
If Jin Guangyao appeared simply tired at the sight of it, the rest of the cultivation world was completely spooked. It quickly became a common and comical occurrence for a sect leader to be in the middle of an impassioned speech, only to look in Nie Huaisang’s direction and pause, suddenly losing all thought and eloquence.
Some tried not to look, but with Nie Huaisang seated at his usual place beside Jin Guangyao, it was difficult. Jin Guangyao was the one they were mainly trying to talk to, after all.
Some laughs were stifled, some startled gasps quickly became muffled coughs into sleeves. Sect Leader Yao made a point of loudly complimenting Nie Huaisang’s new mustache to justify his constant staring, which only ensured that it remained at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Nie Huaisang simply smiled at them and did his best to look as focused as his brother would have (if his brother ever wore such a carefree smile or carried a fan with a gentle springtime scene in place of a saber - some hapless sect leader's tried to picture it and were terrified).
He was still his usual uncertain self underneath though, struggling to make his point when it was his turn to speak, and constantly reaching up to pet his mustache when he grew nervous.
He often grew nervous.
The discussions dragged.
“Get rid of it.”
Jiang Wanyin’s loud angry voice echoed down the corridor, but his venomous glare deterred anyone who passed by from approaching. He loomed over Nie Huaisang, who had his back to a wall and timidly fidgeted with his fan.
“Why?” Nie Huaisang whined. “I like how it looks.”
“You and no one else,” Jiang Wanyin snapped. He’d tried to ignore it. He’d kept his eyes closed for most of the discussion (it helped with the headaches), but after listening to conversations stretch out for almost an extra hour because of the constant interruptions, apologies, and slip ups, he felt he had to say something. “I am telling you this as an old friend. It doesn’t work on you.”
“It didn’t work on Da-ge either. No one said a word to him.”
“That’s because he was strong enough to snap us all in half.”
“So, what you’re saying is, I should train until I can also snap you in half?”
“No!” Jiang Wanyin yelled, then frowned. “Actually, wait, no – yes, you should train. But not for any mustache related reasons.”
“Yeah, really getting mixed-signals here.”
“No, you’re not.” Jiang Wanyin glared.
The mustache glared back.
Jiang Wanyin blinked first, and then testily snatched Nie Huaisang’s fan, opened it, put it back into his hand, and then raised his arm to cover up the offending facial hair.
“Seriously, what is wrong with you?” Jiang Wanyin said as though the previous disruption hadn't happened. “Is this supposed to be your latest attempt at making our gatherings hell?”
“Why would it be?” Nie Huaisang blinked innocently. “Why can’t it just be that I wanted to grow a mustache so I did?”
“You never just do anything,” Jiang Wanyin grumbled. Nie Huaisang shrugged but his downward glance was defiant.
“Sect Leader Yao said he liked it…”
“Sect Leader Yao likes anything that keeps him in the chief cultivator’s good graces.”
Not making Nie Huaisang cry definitely kept people in Jin Guangyao’s good graces.
Especially after last time.
“Well, San-ge likes it too,” Nie Huaisang continued, even though Jin Guangyao’s eye still slightly twitched every time Nie Huaisang revealed the caterpillar. “And since he likes it, I think I should keep it!”
Jiang Wanyin sighed heavily, and resisted the urge to punch the wall.
He really did.
“Huaisang, can we talk?” Lan Xichen approached one evening with a troubled expression. He had tried his best to stay silent over the past few days, and not draw any unwanted attention to Nie Huaisang nor broach the sensitive topic of the mustache with anyone who was trying to pretend it didn’t exist.
But it bothered him. Immensely.
“Of course, Er-ge! I’m always happy to talk to you,” Nie Huaisang said.
“It’s about your mustache,” Lan Xichen said, and carefully observed Nie Huaisang’s reaction before continuing. “And how everyone is reacting to it…”
“Oh. That,” Nie Huaisang sighed. “It’s fine. I’m not bothered by it.”
“O-Oh? That’s good then.”
“Of course!” Lan Xichen felt the tension leave his body. “I was worried I’d find you upset.”
“I mean, it would be nice if they could try to be a little more subtle, but…”
“I think it would be nicer if they could get used to it already,” Lan Xichen admitted. Perhaps his words were too blunt. Nie Huaisang paused and gave him an odd look. He smiled.
“I think you look very cute with a mustache,” Lan Xichen confessed. He’d thought so the moment Nie Huaisang revealed it, and it concerned him how blatantly their peers expressed their displeasure. A little surprise was one thing, but the constant frowns and pauses were just rude and overblown.
“I’m sure everyone gave your brother just as hard of a time when he first grew his,” Lan Xichen continued reassuringly. “But if everyone could get used to his, they can get used to yours. Don’t let their remarks get to you.”
He’d approached because he really worried that Nie Huaisang would be hurt by the reactions around him. Lan Xichen knew better than anyone how much Huaisang missed his brother and longed to feel closer to him however he could. It wasn’t right that everyone made fun of him for it, especially when the mustache didn’t even look bad on him.
And yet, Nie Huaisang’s expression changed into a scowl, and he opened his fan to cover his face once again.
“Er-ge,” he said reproachfully. “I’m not a child. You don’t have to placate me.”
With those words, he turned around and walked away.
To his disappointment, Lan Xichen did not see the mustache again for the rest of the conference.
The rest of the conference went by much more smoothly.
In the safety of the Unclean Realm, Nie Huaisang finally peeled the mustache off, letting out a long sigh of relief at the pleasant feeling of freedom on his upper lip. It had been a fake of course – he wouldn’t stand the itch and effort needed to maintain a real one. Plus, a fake could be made to look exactly as his brother’s had. He really didn’t need all those muttered comments to know how bad it looked on him. He knew. He hated it too.
The mustache did what it was supposed to. Jin Guangyao hated it, even though he was always the first to support Nie Huaisang’s whims and give him all the comfort and encouragement needed. If Nie Huaisang himself hadn’t agreed with the assessment, he would have kept it just for the satisfaction of Jin Guangyao’s discomfort at having a face so like Nie Mingjue’s looming in the corners of his vision.
Wistfully, he held the mustache to his face and stared into the bronze mirror. If he glared, at a certain angle, it really could look like his brother glaring back at him.
(Stop fooling around, that glare said.)
But at any other angle, the illusion shattered, and Nie Huaisang could only laugh at how stupid he looked. Even now, he couldn’t understand why Lan Xichen called him cute. It had been easy to write off as placation then (and the final excuse not to subject anyone else to the hideous thing), but obviously he’d meant it. Lan Xichen wasn’t a liar. He could omit things, or carefully phrase around them, but he wouldn’t speak so directly if he didn’t believe his words.
“Really, Er-ge? I already knew you were blind, but really?” Nie Huaisang complained to his reflection. He didn’t see it at all. But… in the midst of everyone’s criticisms, muttered and otherwise, it had been nice to hear one person genuinely compliment him and try to lift his spirits.
Maybe when it was all over, if he and Lan Xichen had any relationship left, he could try growing a real mustache.