He continued to sprint away, even though he knew the older boy was bigger, faster, stronger. He ran until he couldn’t run anymore, his legs aching and his lungs on fire. He collapsed up against the shadowed wall, falling into the dirt, fully uncaring of how dusty his robes were going to get. He didn’t even care that his brother would scold him when he was seen in this state before dinner.
Nie Zhonghui found him in seconds, not even sweating, still breathing as leisurely as if he’d walked here at a slow, lazy pace. Nie Huaisang didn’t want to see the other boy’s expression. He didn’t want to see any of him at all. He glowered at Nie Zhonghui’s boots, and hugged his knees to his chest. He wouldn’t speak at all. Let the other boy acknowledge first what he did wrong.
Nie Zhonghui knelt in front of him. The older boy was still in his training uniform, not yet washed or changed back to his more proper robes for dinner. Nie Huaisang was seeing less and less of him each day, each week, and the only times he was able to see him, the older boy was always in training gear. “Er-gongzi,” the older boy began quietly.
Nie Huaisang didn’t respond. He didn’t look up.
“I’ll come whenever er-gongzi wants me to,” he said placatingly. “Haven’t I always? It was only today. I know I said I thought today would be possible, but Sect Leader asked me to help with—”
“Zhonghui-ge likes him more than me, doesn’t he?” Nie Huaisang burst, unable to keep his mouth shut any longer. He couldn’t listen to these excuses any longer. Today, today was supposed to be one of the only chances he could see Nie Zhonghui without having to wait until the evening bell rang, signifying the end of the day’s training for the junior disciples. “Da-ge likes him more than me because he likes fighting and he’s strong and he’s friends with A-Xin, and now Zhonghui-ge likes him more than me, too, doesn’t he?”
His chest was heaving by the time he finished, and when he looked up and caught sight of Nie Zhonghui smiling of all accursed expressions for the other boy to have, Nie Huaisang leaned forward just enough to shove at the other boy’s shoulders. Naturally, because Nie Huaisang had no strength at all compared to anyone else in their sect, the older boy didn’t even waver.
“Er-gongzi,” he said, still in that even, kind tone. He was so kind, so much so that sometimes it thoroughly frustrated Nie Huaisang. It would be better if he shouted back. “Da-gongzi asked me to train with Zixin, and he said that Renshu had to come along, as well. It’s only training. I will be there with er-gongzi the moment it has finished. Doesn’t er-gongzi know this by now?”
It still didn’t change the fact that he hated Yi Renshu.
It was one thing, when his father had taken the boy into the sect, along with numerous other orphaned boys and girls from a nearby town—countless villagers dead from a plague that the Nie Sect’s Healers managed to help eventually eradicate.
It was one thing to see his cousin instantly befriend the boy, among all the boys who came. The same cousin who had always declined to paint or read with Nie Huaisang, who even declined to come see his birds—it was this cousin who immediately took to the quiet, brooding orphan, unsmiling and owlish, leading him out by the hand to play with wooden sabers and craft pretend-talismans.
He could even bear his own older brother allowing the boy to sleep in the dormitories where all the members of the inner clan slept during their junior discipleship. He could bear that, even though he didn’t want to—even though he would have done anything to have his brother turn those proud eyes towards him instead.
It was yet another thing entirely, it was unbearable, if Nie Zhonghui chose Yi Renshu over Nie Huaisang as well.
He was leaving for Cloud Recesses in a matter of weeks, and no one cared.
Nie Huaisang understood, he did—truly, he did. He wasn’t heartless. So many of those boys that had been lost during the errant nighthunt, suspicion of sabotage from the Wen Sect, yet with no evidence to prove it—so many of them had been Nie Huaisang’s friends as well. Distant friends, friends who had grown apart from him as his interests continued towards calligraphy and paintings, and theirs had all gone towards swords and cultivation, but still friends. Several of them had been his second cousins, relatives that he’d played with as a child.
Nie Zixin was lost among them as well.
When those boys had been found, now nearly a month ago, he’d mourned, he’d cried along with the rest of their clan for all of the young lives lost. Nie Zixin, after all, was supposed to have gone to Cloud Recesses as well with Nie Huaisang for the guest lectures. Nie Huaisang had hoped that perhaps several months away, separated from Yi Renshu, would’ve brought his cousin closer to him and farther away from the favored orphan.
“It’s not fair,” he whispered, only meaning to have said it aloud to comfort himself, to alleviate his sadness and anger, but there was hardly anything that Meng Yao didn’t hear. The older boy’s ears were always as sharp as his eyes, but he was much kinder than even Nie Zhonghui was lately.
He spent time with Nie Huaisang as well, uncaring about his strange hobbies and his disinterest in cultivation. Even if he was an attendant, there to help along in the sect, not as fervently accepted and treated nearly as a member of the bloodline as Yi Renshu, Meng Yao was a great deal kinder. Nie Huaisang liked him leagues better.
Meng Yao finished setting up the evening tea on Nie Huaisang’s table and sat down across from him. He was silent for a moment, merely watching Nie Huaisang proceed with pouring himself a cup. Nie Huaisang sipped at it, and could taste nothing at all, even if he knew it was one of his favorite teas. Meng Yao always knew his favorites. This evening, it might as well have been nothing but stale boiled water. Even the cakes were tasteless.
“Yi-gongzi’s condition has worsened,” Meng Yao said softly. “Huaisang should understand that it’s natural for Sect Leader to be concerned.”
Nie Huaisang stared blankly down at the half-eaten chestnut cake in front of him. “Is that orphan his brother?” he said tonelessly, gripping his fan so hard beneath the table that the edges of the finely crafted wood begin to dig sharply into his fingers. “Would da-ge even care if I came back from Gusu as long as that orphan speaks again?”
Meng Yao slowly stood up, stepping around the table to sit beside Nie Huaisang. His fingers were so terribly gentle as they carefully pried the fan out of Nie Huaisang’s hands, the wood having already left deep imprints in his skin. Nie Huaisang continued to look at his plate, not at the older boy. He didn’t think he could bear it if he saw pity in another person’s eyes. It was all he saw, all the time, everywhere he turned.
Except from his brother, except for Nie Zhonghui—in the eyes of the former, it was only ever disappointment, and in the eyes of the latter, something strange, something longing, and yet sad, all the time.
“Huaisang,” Meng Yao said and he sounded so gentle, so much like Nie Huaisang’s mother—the same sort of warmth, the same tone that let Nie Huaisang know there were no expectations of him at all. He would never be scolded. He could say anything, and everything, be anything, and he would be accepted.
He wished she were here. He wished now, more than ever, just for a moment—if she could be brought back to life just to hold him for just one moment, and let him cry against her, then perhaps he would be able to face his brother without shattering.
“Sect Leader cares for all his disciples, and there are many disciples he needs to protect,” Meng Yao said, both of his hands resting firmly over Nie Huaisang’s own, “but he has only one brother.”
It had taken Nie Mingjue a week to search for Nie Zixin and Yi Renshu. The Sect Leader had taken an entire party along with him, even after they’d found the bodies of the other twelve boys days before, already torn apart, some beginning to decompose into the forest floor. Nie Huaisang didn’t think that he would ever forget that week for as long as he lived, even if he wanted to—even if he tried his best to erase it from his memory. Nie Zhonghui and Nie Mingjue had left with six other men to scour the Qinghe wilds, and they had returned seven days later with a bagged corpse in Nie Zhonghui’s arms, and Yi Renshu unconscious and bloody in Nie Mingjue’s.
Yi Renshu’s wounds had healed in the following week, the poison efficiently flushed out by the Nie Sect’s Head Healer herself, and the remaining injuries cleansed and sealed with the expert Healers directly under her. It had been nearly an entire month since he would have been deemed fit to rejoin training, if not for the fact that regardless of anything—everything—that even the sect’s Mind Healers have tried, the boy either would not or could not speak. He wouldn’t respond to anyone, simply sitting in the infirmary bed as if whatever beasts and malevolent spirits he’d encountered had stolen his soul completely from his body.
Nie Huaisang had gone to see him within that second week, after the boy had been physically healed. He had sat there, at the other boy’s bedside, reading to him a few of Nie Huaisang’s favorite poems. Flowery, romantic recitations that Nie Huaisang was certain would have bored the boy to tears had he not been in this strange, empty state.
Whenever Nie Huaisang had asked Nie Zixin, after all, whether perhaps Yi Renshu might want to see Nie Huaisang’s birds or join Nie Huaisang in the libraries, Nie Zixin had always sighed, smiling wearily as if Nie Huaisang was simply that annoying, and said, “If Huaisang asks, Renshu can’t say no to er-gongzi, can he? Don’t ask him—if he wants to, I’ll take him. Huaisang will just make him feel burdened.”
He’d read to him, the entire day, until the sun outside of the infirmary window disappeared below the horizon, and Nie Mingjue came in, bading Nie Huaisang to find Meng Yao for his dinner, and to sleep so that maybe—just maybe, Nie Huaisang would actually awake in time to train in the morning.
Something in Nie Huaisang had cracked in that moment, splintering with thorough indignation.
“A-Xin is dead,” he had spat at his brother, muted rage, even though it made no difference—the boy in the bed could neither see nor hear anything, even when his ears were unblocked and his eyes open. “And—and he’s like this,” he had jabbed his finger towards Yi Renshu, his entire arm shaking, “and still all da-ge cares about is me practicing blade—”
“Get out,” Nie Mingjue had ordered, his voice cold and quiet. He had positioned himself between Nie Huaisang and the bed, back turned to his younger brother because of course. Of course, the only thing that mattered was that Nie Huaisang didn’t disturb Yi Renshu.
Brave, honorable, talented, upright Yi Renshu—the very embodiment of every value representative of and treasured in their sect.
Nie Huaisang had left the room, but remained just outside the doorway for sometime, unable to look away from the fear and anguish in Nie Mingjue’s eyes as he sat down in the cushion laid out beside the bed, head bowed and shoulders shaking as Yi Renshu continued to stare at the wall ahead, as still as a statue, no light or mind left whatsoever in his gaze.
“Having only one brother is the problem,” Nie Huaisang said, eventually, smiling at Meng Yao even as his chest throbbed just to wrestle the expression onto his face. “Da-ge has no one else but me. That’s the problem.”
Two days before Nie Huaisang was to depart to Cloud Recesses with Meng Yao, Yi Renshu spoke.
Nie Zhonghui was the one to alert him—possibly the only person in their entire sect other than Meng Yao who would even remember to alert him. Everyone else in the central part of the Unclean Realm, within the Nie Clan’s keep, regarded him as nearly invisible as of late. The night that Yi Renshu spoke was no different. Nie Huaisang had paused in the midst of his paintings, wanting to finish them before he left as he couldn’t bring any of his supplies with him, hearing the sound of dozens of footsteps running past his windows.
Meng Yao had been finishing up helping him pack, and was now sitting with him in his rooms, reading, when Nie Zhonghui had pushed open Nie Huaisang’s chamber doors without so much as a knock. The younger boy didn’t think he had seen Nie Zhonghui smile like this for months, a huge, elated, wonderful expression that reached his eyes and stretched his cheeks. For a moment, Nie Huaisang’s heart sped, a slight ache in his chest accompanying the stuttering beats.
For a moment, he thought, perhaps, that smile was for him.
Then, Nie Zhonghui had breathed out, his voice relieved and overjoyed, “He talked.”
It took not even a moment for Nie Huaisang to so clearly discern who he was.
Meng Yao closed his book, eyes widening as he looked up at the intrusion as well. “Yi-gongzi?” he asked, as if it could be anyone else. “When—to whom?”
“Sect Leader and Head Healer,” Nie Zhonghui said. “They were there together, talking about if maybe they needed to start thinking about the possibility of sending for a Lan Mind Healer, and then—he just talked. He asked Head Healer for water suddenly, and da-gongzi said his eyes were there again. He’s going to be all right.”
Meng Yao sat up slightly straighter, expression inquisitive and relieved as well. “Are they letting people see him now?”
“Some Sect Elders first, I think, and—and some of the parents of the other boys,” Nie Zhonghui replied quietly. “Da-gongzi will make sure it isn’t too much for him all at once, but—those parents—they were all hoping for his recovery as if he was their son, as well. Da-gongzi said it would bring them all comfort to see and know that he’ll be fine.”
“Huaisang!” Meng Yao exclaimed, abrupt and alarmed, his hand shooting out and gripping Nie Huaisang’s with sudden force. Nie Zhonghui suddenly came forward into the room as well, immediately grasping on his way a nearby tea towel on the tray, sopping up the paint that had soaked all over Nie Huaisang’s writing desk.
He hadn’t even realized he’d been holding the drenched brush onto his paper for so long, so dazed by Nie Zhonghui’s words that he hadn’t shaken off any of the excess paint whatsoever, simply letting the single color bleed throughout the thin parchment. “Sorry—sorry!” he laughed off lightly. “Sorry—I was just—I can’t believe Yi-xiong is all right, I’m so glad.”
Both older boys were still looking at him with a mixture of concern and thorough skepticism, letting him know silently and clearly that he was currently as transparent as his paint-soaked paper had become.
Nie Huaisang cleared his throat loudly, carefully extracting himself away from the other two. He stood from the table and went to sit by one of his shelves against the windows instead, busying himself with rearranging some of the paints there, as if he were attempting to choose his next color. “Will he—has he—will he possibly be cleared to—to come to Cloud Recesses as well?” he asked, forcing himself to keep a straight face. “Da-ge really wanted him to come before—before.”
There was a long, meaningful silence that was loaded with more than Nie Huaisang would ever want to decipher. It was broken by Nie Zhonghui’s response, purposefully light and indifferent. “Before the hunt, Renshu already declined. Da-gongzi was still trying to convince him up to the day that they all departed, but Renshu told me he wouldn’t change his mind. He—he has no interests in cultivation theory, although, I’m convinced he was just warded off by the alcohol ban at Cloud Recesses,” he added, a weak attempt at easing the atmosphere.
Nie Huaisang tried his best, he really did, but he could not at all hide nor restrain the way his shoulders sagged in utter relief. Without a shadow of a doubt, if Yi Renshu—after surviving a hunt that twelve of their finest junior disciples didn’t—journeyed to Cloud Recesses alongside Nie Huaisang and excelled at lectures that Nie Huaisang already failed previously, and then returned to the Unclean Realm with accolades from the Lan Sect Elders themselves—
At that point, Nie Huaisang really might as well simply remain in Gusu forever.
Meng Yao was gone.
Nie Zixin had been dead for years now, and several more of their cousins soon perished at the hands of the Wen Sect.
His brother couldn’t see anything but the war.
Nie Zhonghui had returned alive after leading in a battalion of some hundred and returned with only a few dozen. He was uninjured, and he still held and kissed Nie Huaisang with the same gentle affection, but his smiles came more rarely and his laughter quieter.
There was a likelihood that one of Nie Huaisang’s friends was dead, and the other was just as Nie Huaisang’s brother was—unable to see anything but the war and the survival of his nearly extinguished sect.
It seemed that his brother was vacillating between sending Nie Huaisang to wherever the Lan Sect’s escapees had fled to and were currently hiding, and simply having Nie Huaisang remain here in Qinghe with Nie Zhonghui and the rest of the men of his division to closely guard the sect and Nie Huaisang himself. If Nie Huaisang was indeed sent away, Nie Zhonghui would accompany him, but someone from that division was required to remain in Qinghe and Yi Renshu had already insisted on joining the frontlines.
The only reason Nie Huaisang even knew of all this was because he’d overheard it after skulking around in one of the corridors of his brother’s courtyard. Once again, no one had deigned to tell him anything at all. Even when Nie Zhonghui had come to spend the evenings and nights with him, it was as if the war was not happening at all—as if he shouldn’t speak about the roaring dragon standing in the middle of Nie Huaisang’s bedroom and simply pretend that it wasn’t there, that maybe if he didn’t mention it, Nie Huaisang wouldn’t see it.
The hollowness in his chest that had increased day by day after Meng Yao had been forced to leave suddenly had imploded into an unbearable chasm, threatening to swallow up his heart, upon having overheard the manner in which his brother, Nie Zhonghui, and the Sect Elders spoke of him in the grand hall that evening. If only his name hadn’t been mentioned, if only Nie Huaisang hadn’t known that they were speaking of him, he could’ve easily mistaken their conversation for a discussion of how to transport and guard a sect heirloom rather than a person.
Nie Huaisang nearly fell from his precarious perch upon the stone wall of his courtyard’s central corridor. He only barely managed not to drop his fan as well, snapping it shut and blinking almost in a daze at the abrupt call of his title.
Three years was no short amount of time, but the sight of Yi Renshu in that bed in the infirmary, as well as the two months of perpetual mourning and tension that the sect maintained waiting for a recovery that might have never come, was so embedded into Nie Huaisang’s mind even now that the few times he’d seen of the other boy since then still stunned him somewhat. While Yi Renshu had been mostly kept occupied and away by Nie Zixin and Nie Mingjue, Nie Huaisang had still spent enough time with him before that fateful hunt to know that the other boy never spoke much to begin with.
Three years since his miraculous recovery, nothing much had changed about him, as far as Nie Huaisang could observe during the even fewer times he’d seen the boy since Nie Huaisang had returned from Cloud Recesses. He still never seemed to smile or laugh or possess the ability to grasp at the very concept of a joke. He’d also rejected the position of Head Disciple as well as any sort of direct promotion in rank strictly due to the fact that he wanted no administrative obligations whatsoever.
Nie Huaisang had finally, within the past three years, witnessed the end of Nie Mingjue’s unconditional doting on Yi Renshu. Apparently, even the Sect Leader’s affection for him had begun to shift into the same brotherly frustration that Nie Huaisang was entirely too familiar with when Yi Renshu rejected promotion after promotion if the post had even the barest hint of administration included with it.
A year after Nie Huaisang had returned from Cloud Recesses, he’d actually watched with his own eyes as his brother nearly shattered a porcelain bowl with a single hand in response to Yi Renshu’s calm, unaffected, almost infuriatingly monotonic repeat of, “This disciple is content with his current position, Sect Leader.”
“Is my brother asking for me?” he said now, wearily, painting a sheepish smile on his face as he hopped down from his seat upon the ledge. Yi Renshu, during these recent years, had also had the gall to shoot through an absurd growth spurt that left him nearly as tall as Nie Huaisang’s brother himself. The other boy loomed like a glum, expressionless shadow over Nie Huaisang.
“No,” the other boy said tonelessly. There were times when Nie Huaisang thought that perhaps it would’ve been better if Yi Renshu had accompanied him to the guest lectures at Cloud Recesses. Those unforgettable months felt as if they’d happened an entire lifetime ago. Yi Renshu had always struck Nie Huaisang as so similar to Lan Wangji that perhaps if he’d been there at Cloud Recesses, there would’ve been someone else to balance out Wei Wuxian’s penchant for irritating the Lan Sect’s Second Young Master. Perhaps Wei Wuxian could have split his time between the two of them.
Something in Nie Huaisang’s stomach clenched uncomfortably at the thought of his friend—as far as he knew, there still had been no word whether the other boy was alive or not.
Yi Renshu abruptly pulled a thin, booklet from within his light, day-to-day training armor. Nie Huaisang blinked in mild surprise, recognizing the cover of it immediately. He doubted, after all, that there was anyone else in the sect who even ventured to that part of their libraries. Except, apparently, Yi Renshu wandered into that section of the libraries. For what purpose, Nie Huaisang had no idea—he didn’t think he’d ever seen the other boy open something that wasn’t a cultivation manual.
“Yi-xiong wants to impress one of his many admirers?” Nie Huaisang tried gently teasing, batting his fan lightly in front of his face.
“If they’re admirers, it won’t be necessary for me to impress them,” Yi Renshu said bluntly, as he always did. It was honestly for the best that he was so good-looking, Nie Huaisang thought almost amusedly. Yi Renshu never meant his cutting remarks maliciously or patronizingly—he truly was just that straightforward, something that had yet to be tempered with now Nie Huaisang’s own brother and Nie Zhonghui as well spoiled Yi Renshu so much. Yet, despite his occasional tactlessness, Nie Huaisang had yet to meet a peer of their sect who hadn’t been infatuated with the boy at least once.
“Requesting er-gongzi’s assistance,” Yi Renshu bowed his head slightly, holding the booklet towards Nie Huaisang. “Does er-gongzi know where this disciple might find the second volume from this poet?”
Nie Huaisang stared for a moment, more closely, at the booklet in Yi Renshu’s hands. He wondered if perhaps he was reading the title wrong, even if the stunning artwork on the cover was unmistakable. He wondered if Yi Renshu had enough memory of those terrible two months to appreciate this irony. “How—how does Yi-xiong know of this poet?” Nie Huaisang asked quietly, closing his fan again.
Yi Renshu arched a bemused eyebrow. “Er-gongzi read some of his work to me while I was injured. I could recall the name from the cover, but er-gongzi held the second volume that time. This disciple was only able to find the first in the sect libraries.”
Nie Huaisang took the booklet from the other boy slowly, staring down with even wider eyes at it as he realized there was even a bookmark within its pages. “The first volume is the most well-known of the writer’s works,” he said, tucking his fan into his belt and curiously paging through to where Yi Renshu had marked. A piece on unrequited love. Nie Huaisang closed the book and returned it to Yi Renshu’s hands. “I found the second volume on my own from a traveling merchant. Yi-xiong can have it.”
“This disciple is grateful for er-gongzi’s generosity, but lending it will be enough,” Yi Renshu said, with a rare note of surprise in his usually colorless voice.
“I’ve read it too many times that I’ve memorized it—it’s boring to me now,” Nie Huaisang waved his hand and smiled sheepishly once more. “Yi-xiong will really like this one. It’s much happier.”
It flashed through Yi Renshu’s eyes too quickly that Nie Huaisang thought perhaps he mistook it for simply passing light from the bright afternoon sunshine—but, for a split moment, Nie Huaisang was rather certain that he caught a moment of potent agony engulfing the pale gray of the other boy’s eyes. As soon as it had come, the expression left, smoothed over into the usual neutral expression that Yi Renshu carefully kept composed and collected on his finely featured face. He bent slightly at the waist, hands held in front of him. “This disciple thanks er-gongzi for his generosity once again,” he murmured politely.
Nie Huaisang hurriedly covered as much of his face as he could with his fan, letting his eyes curve on his face in embarrassment. The back of his neck prickled with awkwardness slightly—the memories of childhood envy rushing through his mind at the most inconvenient moment. It was too late for him to begin regretting not being more insistent towards his cousin back then, too many years ago, in being allowed to spend time with Yi Renshu.
Just because the other boy now seemed to have some faint interest in poetry didn’t mean that he would have entertained Nie Huaisang’s hobbies when they were younger—it didn’t mean that Yi Renshu necessarily would ever have preferred reading and painting indoors over play-fighting with wooden sabers and Nie Zixin.
In the end, in this situation, with this atmosphere, as much as Nie Huaisang wanted Jin Guangyao to stay the night, or—better yet—take Nie Huaisang with him back to Lanling, it just wouldn’t be possible. Jin Guangyao immediately returned, as soon as he’d helped tend to the burns on Nie Huaisang’s hands, softly stating in that soothing voice that he always adopted whenever he wanted to convey to Nie Huaisang how important it was to get along with his brother—now, more than ever.
Nie Huaisang’s fury couldn’t be quelled this time, though. He didn’t think it would ever fade, ever again, in the way that it had before. He sat on his bed, staring around his gutted room—barren shelves and tables, no more paintings on his walls, the cabinets where he’d displayed and organized his fans utterly empty. Even if Jin Guangyao returned next time with new gifts for him to quickly begin replacing what had been lost, Nie Huaisang didn’t know how long it would fully take before he recovered everything.
As for what had been burned inside of him by his own brother, he was certain that was irreparable.
He didn’t know how long he sat there, wondering why it had to be now, of all times, for Nie Zhonghui to have embarked on a week-long hunt. Surely, surely, if the older man was here, he would’ve been the one entrusted to Nie Huaisang’s blade lessons for the day—he would’ve calmed Nie Huaisang’s brother, he would’ve let Jin Guangyao hand over all of his gifts in peace, and he would’ve prevented everything from vanishing up in flames.
Nie Huaisang wondered what it said about him now that he didn’t even seem to be able to survive without all of these people in his life to coddle him, to protect him from the brother who’d always claimed he would protect Nie Huaisang both in body, mind, and soul. He wondered if it was even possible for him to survive without Nie Zhonghui, without Jin Guangyao, without Lan Xichen.
He was certainly a vastly different breed from the likes of his friends—regardless of the end that Wei Wuxian met, regardless of the difficulties Jiang Cheng still faced, it seemed as if Nie Huaisang was the only one still unable to even stand on his own two feet.
He was jolted out of his self-pity by a crisp knock against the screens of his window, the one that led out into his courtyard. For a moment, a jerk of excitement went through him at the possibility of Nie Zhonghui somehow returning early. If Nie Huaisang could be wrapped in his arms for tonight, if he could complain and cry and wallow, there was a possibility he could exhaust himself into actually finding sleep even after all of this.
He nearly let slip all of the disappointment that filled his chest into his visible expression when he parted the screens and found himself facing Yi Renshu. In all honesty, at the moment, Nie Huaisang had no more patience to spare for anyone, no more meek smiles, no more pleasantries. He was tired, and all he wanted to do was be held by Nie Zhonghui and sleep. “What does Disciple Yi need at this time of night?” he said wearily, unable to muster even the bare minimum lightness in his tone.
Yi Renshu placed an ever-familiar booklet onto the wooden ledge between them. It had been long enough that Nie Huaisang had forgotten he’d ever gifted this to the other man. Nearly six years ago, at the beginning of the war, if Nie Huaisang even remembered correctly. Certainly, even if he’d recalled, he most likely would’ve supposed that, once Yi Renshu had finished it, he would’ve simply placed it back into the libraries even if it hadn’t belonged to the sect archives in the first place.
Nie Huaisang didn’t know why he was so taken aback that the other man had kept it all this time—and in fairly decent condition as well, the spine of such a fragile binding still intact. He also didn’t understand why the man was returning it to its owner over six years later. Yi Renshu was neither forgetful nor dull.
Nie Huaisang carefully picked up the booklet and held it back out. “I told Disciple Yi that I was giving it to him—Disciple Yi doesn’t remember?” he said, frowning.
Yi Renshu inclined his head. “This disciple remembers,” he said slowly. “He is returning it for the moment to er-gongzi. This disciple will gratefully accept it a second time once er-gongzi has found other books to fill his shelves again.”
There was no greater regret that Nie Huaisang had in that single, split second than not presently having a single fan on him—the sole fan that he’d managed to save was currently behind him on his nightstand rather than in his hand. The only thing he could do to hide his suddenly wet, hot eyes was to bow lower than a Second Young Master would ever need to in front of a disciple. “Thank you,” Nie Huaisang said, even more grateful when he saw, through his blurry gaze, that Yi Renshu simply bowed back, no shift in expression—no pity, no remarks—about the hoarseness of Nie Huaisang’s voice.
Nie Zixin was dead.
Wei Wuxian was dead.
Nie Zhonghui was dead.
His brother was dead.
Jiang Cheng would be of no use.
Lan Xichen trusted Jin Guangyao above all else.
Nie Huaisang was alone.
He’d determined the information, he’d set a plan, he’d ascertained each and every piece required to bring it to fruition, but he was alone, and this was not something he could do alone. Moreover, this was not something he could do when there was no one left for him to trust, when there was no one he could turn to—not as a friend, not as a confidante—but as someone with a desperation for vengeance as strong as his own.
This wasn’t something he could do without his own willing, living, breathing saber.
He rested his arms in his lap, eyes shifting away from the scattered notes on his writing desk to the walls of his quarters. His shelves had long since been filled once more with novels and books of poetry, his walls again covered with paintings and beautiful calligraphed quotes.
Without even a breath of hesitation, he would joyously burn it all a second time if it meant his brother would return.
As his eyes roved, his gaze fell on the set of shelves closest to his bed, nearly a second nightstand save for nearly bursting with piles upon piles of booklets whose pages were worn with time, the ink and paint on the covers fading, binding falling apart at the seams. Nie Huaisang stood dazedly, walking over as if in a trance to the shelf. He stared at the spines of the booklets for a moment, before carefully pulling out one of the most time-worn of them all, holding it in his hands and looking down at the familiar, pale cover.
Between the two of them, they’d emptied five sizable jars of liquor before Yi Renshu’s tongue was loose enough to finally ask, “How can Sect Leader be certain that the Yiling Patriarch will not simply leave Mo Manor as soon as he is able? What if that man were to simply decide to live elsewhere—away from where he might run the risk of being seen and found by old acquaintances, by his enemies?”
Nie Huaisang slowly turned the cup in his fingers, round and round and round, the fine porcelain gleaming in the low candlelight. There was no answer he could give that would satisfy Yi Renshu—there wasn’t a way for him to be able to answer the other man with evidence after all. The lesson that both of them had learned within the recent years was precisely that—that no one’s trust nor loyalty seemed certain regardless of how close the relationship. It would be difficult, considering what both of them had gone through, to explain the source of Nie Huaisang’s unwavering certainty.
“There’s no mystery in this world,” Nie Huaisang eventually began, quietly breaking the silence with a smile, “that Wei-xiong can resist, and there’s no mystery in this world that the Yiling Patriarch cannot solve.”
The skepticism in Yi Renshu’s eyes was both immediate and expected, but the other man neither protested nor pestered Nie Huaisang for a more sensible explanation. Instead, the disciple simply poured himself and his Sect Leader another round.
Yi Renshu knocked back his entire portion in one gulp, setting the cup smoothly back on the table, as he went on to ask, “This disciple understands that Hanguang-jun is drawn to difficult cases, even when the cases do not directly involve his sect. However, how can Sect Leader so confidently expect that Hanguang-jun will recognize the Yiling Patriarch in another body? This disciple expects that the Yiling Patriarch will hide his abilities as well, upon his resurrection.”
This, Nie Huaisang thought, would be impossible to answer in any situation—even if betrayal and trustworthiness were still completely on the table. He didn’t even need to affect a smile onto his face for this, it came onto his lips unbidden. “Even if we bring Wei-xiong back as a rabbit,” he said to the other man’s increasingly perplexed expression, “that Second Young Master will find him.”
Since his brother’s death, Nie Huaisang had gone through an entire spectrum of dramatically intense emotions, but none of those was the sort of outraged frustration that unearthed within him the unreasonable and childish urge to scream, to slam doors, to throw things. He hadn’t felt something like that in years, at this point. Everything was either cold fury or overwhelming grief, occasionally tempered by the sliver of triumph when yet another piece of his plan fell into place.
It was perhaps even rarer that Yi Renshu ever experienced the sort of outraged frustration that had the composed, reserved disciple breaking liquor and tea cups with a single hand, in a way that was all too reminiscent of Nie Huaisang’s own brother. Nie Huaisang didn’t think he’d ever seen Yi Renshu truly irritated in all the time that they’d known each other. He didn’t think that even Nie Mingjue, Nie Zhonghui, or Nie Zixin had ever seen the man irritated or angry ever since Yi Renshu had came to this sect as a young boy.
Therefore, if the context was not so incriminating for the both of them, Nie Huaisang rather felt that tonight’s events, here in Nie Huaisang’s private office, should be jotted down for the sect’s historical archives—it was certainly monumental and rare enough, in his opinion. Two people who’d gone so long without feeling true bursting frustration and irritation finally experiencing that sort of outrage with each other.
“What is the point if Sect Leader is killed?” Yi Renshu gritted out through clenched teeth, a certain sign of the intensity of his swirling emotions manifesting itself in the mild waves of qi that began to leak out from him, sparking from the sheathed blade on his back.
Nie Huaisang successfully refrained from throwing his fan at the disciple’s face, but it was a near thing. They’d worked so harmoniously together for the past few months that he’d forgotten that Yi Renshu was still the ideal Nie disciple through and through, right down to his bones and the morals embedded deep within them. “If I die, and Disciple Yi lives, the plan will still work,” he explained, as if to a child. He was on his last shreds of patience, and even those were soon ebbing away. “If Disciple Yi dies, and I live, it won’t work, and it most likely means that Jin Guangyao has found out.”
Yi Renshu wordlessly bore his gaze into Nie Huaisang’s face for a long time. Nie Huaisang nearly dismissed Yi Renshu then and there from his office because the silence had gone on long enough that it didn’t seem like there would be any more of this pointless discussion tonight. “So,” Yi Renshu finally said, his voice thoroughly displeased, jaw visibly twitching with how tightly the man must be clenching it. “It’s all right if Sect Leader is killed?”
Nie Huaisang hit himself with his own fan, right between his eyebrows in thorough frustration and he collapsed back into the seat behind his desk. He threw his fan onto the table and stared at the ceiling for a moment, before staring back at his disciple.
“Do I look like someone who wants to die?” he asked, before he shook his head quickly, waving his hand even more hastily through the air. “Don’t answer that—I don’t want to die. I’ve told Disciple Yi this, just like I’ve told Disciple Yi that that person needs to still think that Disciple Yi doesn’t consider me his Sect Leader—”
“That’s even more reason for him to try attacking you, if he thinks there isn’t anyone guarding you—”
“It doesn’t matter how strong Disciple Yi is—that person has other ways to overcome strength!” Nie Huaisang was standing again before he realized it. He was shouting, before he realized it, his voice raised loud enough that if it hadn’t been so late into the night, there would certainly be a gaggle of disciples outside of his office who would’ve easily heard his outburst. “Is Disciple Yi saying da-ge wasn’t strong? Zhonghui-ge wasn’t strong? If that person wants me dead, it doesn’t matter if Disciple Yi is with me or not—he’ll kill me, and then he’ll kill Disciple Yi as well. The only reason I’m not dead is because he doesn’t believe that I’d ever be a threat to him, and the only reason Disciple Yi isn’t dead is because when that person still lived here, Disciple Yi still wanted nothing to do with me.”
As soon as he finished, it felt as if he was a puppet whose strings were cut. He fell back into his seat one more time, his hand lethargically taking hold of his fan, snapping it open and tiredly batting it through the air. He’d yelled so much, and was breathing so hard, that even the cool air that he was wafting at himself did nothing for the perspiration beginning to bead at his temples.
“When did I want nothing to do with Sect Leader?” Yi Renshu said, after another absurd length of silence. Naturally, of all things that Nie Huaisang had attempted to elucidate, that was the part that this insufferable disciple decided to latch onto.
“What does Disciple Yi mean when?” Nie Huaisang sighed, raising an eyebrow slightly. “Any time before,” he waved his closed fan in an arch over his head, “all this.”
Yi Renshu’s head tipped to one side, something like curiosity taking over his otherwise characteristically neutral expression. “This disciple and Sect Leader cared about the same people,” he said, sounding confused for some reason, “but we have never shared the same interests. Surely, Sect Leader did not mistake variation for aversion?”
Nie Huaisang’s mouth dropped open slightly—just slightly. It was a mild enough reaction that he quickly snapped his mouth shut again, and covered the lower half of his face with his fan. “Of course not,” he said, clearing his throat. “Fortunately, that person can’t read Disciple Yi as well as I can. He thinks Disciple Yi disapproves of my incompetence, and if Disciple Yi wants to live and wants this Sect Leader to live as well, he should make certain that that person continues to believe so.”
Yi Renshu’s eyes narrowed, and for a terrible moment, Nie Huaisang prepared himself to be thoroughly called out and embarrassed, but whether the disciple decided to spare him or simply hadn’t caught the swift lie, Nie Huaisang never found out.
“This disciple understands all those who’ve never been of our sect,” Yi Renshu said oddly, the entire subject shifting along with Yi Renshu’s tone. He sounded curious again, but lighter now—perhaps even strangely, ridiculously, for some reason, gentle. “Even Zewu-jun, as many years as he’s known Sect Leader—this disciple can still understand.”
Nie Huaisang placed his fan down, his entire face open to see. “Understand?” he echoed mildly.
“Lianfang-jun was close to Sect Leader,” Yi Renshu said, eyes not faltering even for a moment as they held Nie Huaisang’s gaze intently. “As close as shixiong was with Sect Leader—at one point, perhaps closer? Shouldn’t he know that Sect Leader has never been someone to take lightly?” Yi Renshu’s tone took on a slightly worried tone. “He seems to be too easily convinced that Sect Leader is incapable.”
An inexplicable feeling snaked its way through Nie Huaisang’s chest. It was a mixture of pride, triumph, and cold pity. He smiled to himself, glancing at Yi Renshu out of the corner of his eyes. “San-ge is someone who refuses to change,” Nie Huaisang said with a cheerful exhale, the once familiar title coming from his mouth laced in cold mockery. “So it’s hard for him to understand that other people can.”
The Nie Sect’s military division had somewhat fallen into shambles following the Sunshot Campaign. Most of their ranked officers had perished during the war, and there had been so many cultivators from their sect lost that there hadn’t been anyone directly available to be promoted after each casualty. Then, with the increasing unrest their sect faced by way of their Sect Leader’s steadily growing instability as well as all of the issues surrounding the Blade Tombs, the restoration of the division had been pushed down again and again in terms of priority.
Now, with true peacetime restored, while the sect now had both resources, disciples, and the time available to repair the division, there wasn’t exactly a need for it. There was no harm in vigilance, however, and as far as Nie Huaisang had known his brother, the decisions that he would have made in the course of all these events, Nie Huaisang rather thought that this was a choice both of them could have easily agreed on.
Yi Renshu held the darkly lacquered case in his hands as if Nie Huaisang had just bade him to pick up, not only an ordinary melon, but a melon that wasn’t even in season, with absolutely no promises of sweetness nor juiciness. The man was also giving the wide, silk band laid across the case the look that an unripe melon would precisely deserve.
“I’ve never seen someone so unhappy to see themselves rise in rank,” Nie Huaisang commented blithely. He observed the other man over the steaming tea between them.
“Sect Leader knows this disciple is disinclined to desk work,” Yi Renshu said dryly.
“Didn’t I promise Captain Yi that he’d have to do no such thing? He just needs to train the men,” Nie Huaisang said, biting back a laugh at the way Yi Renshu directed his eyes towards the ceiling at the title.
“Sect Leader is not offering me this post,” Yi Renshu said, in a tone that was possibly even dryer. “He is imposing it on me regardless of my response.”
“Of course!” Nie Huaisang chirped, fanning himself merrily. “I want to go to da-ge’s tablet tonight and tell him that I was the one who convinced Yi-xiong to finally accept a promotion.”
Yi Renshu hadn’t looked away from the ceiling yet. “This isn’t acceptance,” he muttered. “This is resignation.”
“Whatever it is,” Nie Huaisang shrugged, “the result is the same, Captain Yi.” He leaned his upper body against the table, elbows resting atop the surface as he smiled conspiratorially over at the other man. “Now, Captain Yi can guard me to his heart’s content! This Sect Leader leaves his delicate self in Captain Yi’s capable protection.”
Yi Renshu sighed as he finally lowered his eyes to level once again with Nie Huaisang’s gaze. “This captain looks forward to witnessing assassins mindless enough to make attempts on Sect Leader’s life.”
Nie Huaisang was in the Ancestral Hall when Yi Renshu found him.
He heard the sound of the captain’s thudding boots, easily recognizable without any qi to quiet the steps. The Sect Leader didn’t turn around, continuing to kneel before his brother’s tablet, watching the smoke of the incense drift up towards the beautifully crafted ceilings of the hall. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched as Yi Renshu first walked to the eastern corner, kneeling before the tablets there for some time. He eventually made his way to Nie Huaisang’s side, and knelt beside him.
A flash of white dangled from Yi Renshu’s belt, catching Nie Huaisang’s gaze when the captain had lowered himself to the floor. Nie Huaisang allowed the silence to continue for just a moment longer, before he lightly remarked, “Captain Yi has come to tell A-Xin to stop worrying about him?”
Yi Renshu’s gaze slid to the side, a rare, infinitesimal smile tugging at the man’s lips as their eyes met. “Something like that,” he said.
Nie Huaisang searched the captain’s expression, something he hadn’t even realized was so unsteady in his chest until he felt it settling upon seeing the contentment and peace in the other man’s eyes. “It appears Captain Yi enjoyed his time in Cloud Recesses,” he tilted his head inquiringly, a question intertwined with a statement.
For a moment, the other man’s expression was far away, but that smile that Nie Huaisang had only seen a few times throughout their decades of knowing each other still remained directed at the Sect Leader himself, strangely enough. “I did,” came the simple reply. Yi Renshu slowly stood to his feet then, and Nie Huaisang turned back to his brother’s tablet for a moment, before huffing out a breath and standing as well.
“This Sect Leader is glad,” Nie Huaisang said, after a short silence. He turned to directly face the other man. A smile spread gradually over Nie Huaisang’s face, a smile that he couldn’t explain even to himself the reason for nor the emotions that came with it. Perhaps, the closest thing would be relief. “Mourning doesn’t suit Yi-xiong.”
The expression that Yi Renshu directed at Nie Huaisang in that moment was also not one that Nie Huaisang could explain in words. He didn’t think that it would be possible either to simply name it as any one, single emotion. The light in his eyes was soft, however, a look that Nie Huaisang hadn’t seen from the captain for years—since a time when they were still just boys, when Nie Huaisang had still thought the most important thing he could have ever lost was his art collection, when Yi Renshu had returned a booklet of poetry to him and watched him cry yet still looked at him with kind eyes.
Carefully, the captain slipped something from within his robes. Nie Huaisang blinked as the other man proferred to him a stunning powder blue fan. It took only a moment for Nie Huaisang to recognize the engraving along the wood as one of the fanmakers from Caiyi. Nie Huaisang had bought several fans during his own time in Cloud Recesses as an adolescent, but those had been lost in the fire along with everything else in his original collection. He’d since returned to Cloud Recesses for conferences, but he’d never had time nor any particular inclination to replace the fans he’d bought in any of the Jiangnan towns.
His throat was tight as he accepted the fan, tucking the one he’d already held today into his belt and opening this one in its stead. Yi Renshu had gifted him fans and artwork before from when the captain went further than the border for hunts or security missions. It was strange then that Nie Huaisang was rendered speechless now, of all times, after he’d already received shelves of trinkets from the captain.
Yi Renshu’s hand clapped down gently on his shoulder, and his smile was somewhat of a grin now, and Nie Huaisang was fairly certain the only time he’d ever seen that expression was when it was directed at someone else, anyone else—his brother, or Nie Zhonghui, or Nie Zixin, or perhaps nowadays, at Wei Wuxian, or Lan Jingyi. “Mourning doesn’t suit er-gongzi, either,” the captain said warmly, before he traipsed lightly out of the hall.