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Scum Disciple's Adventures into the Unknown World

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1. Log: relaunch-failure_error.log


The demoness lashed out with elongated claws, ooze coating shiny black nails.

Ming Fan grunted as he repelled the attack with his sword, sweat beginning to form from exhaustion. Before this it was an army of demons. Before that he had just woken up from the last night spent dealing with excess paperwork he had yet to finish before he slept on his desk like some sort of undignified new disciple. Yet it was a necessary evil since Shizun was still on his yearly anniversary vacation- so Ming Fan was left to deal with the work that didn’t need the Peak Lord.

Ming Fan planted his feet before pulling forward, slashing at the demoness with energy charged air.

It was supposed to be an easy mission.

A rebel demon terrorizing a small village.

Apparently their intelligence was flawed. Ming Fan cursed his empty stomach, he had woken up too late to fetch some sort of breakfast. It would be the last time he did such a thing.

“Where is he hm?” The demoness tilted her head, she looked a little like a pasty Sha Hualing if he were to draw a comparison. A strange tinge in her skin that wasn’t at all like the beauty of the demoness and second general of Luo Binghe’s demon army. The swaths the demoness called clothes didn’t even suit her complexion. What a waste, her paler form would have looked nicer in a pleasant vermillion instead of the deep sanguine. Such colors were better suited with people who could back up the danger implied in such a bloody color.

“That Shizun of yours? Ming Fan- First General of Qing Jing Peak?”

Ming Fan tilted his head, “This Ming Fan does not believe his Shizun would deign to meet Maiden Demoness without reason.”

“Oh- but I have a reason,” the Demoness’ grin grew feral. “I’m going to kill him and become Lord Binghe’s first wife.”

This again, Ming Fan thought with a sigh. Feeling every bit his forty-seven years despite being a cultivator, the ache in his bones, broken and repaired many times throughout his lifetime. “With respect Maiden Demoness, Lord Luo has repeatedly stated his lack of any interest in taking a marriage partner beyond Shizun.” Get the fucking message you daft beast. Apologies to Shizun and Shang-shishu for overhearing your talks.

“I’ll change his mind.”

Ming Fan sent his most “disappointed-in-you” Head Disciple look, “Many have said the same.”

“Well,” Maiden Demoness’ grin became wider. “I’ll just have to kill him don’t I?”

Shameless, Ming Fan thought with a wince as his sword arm throbbed with strain. Not one proper sentence out of this wrecker’s mouth.

The two enemies clashed a ways away from the sea-side village that had been plagued by the demoness’ machinations. The crashing waves becoming an annoying reminder of happier times. Useless memories.

Ming Fan mentally doubled down and threw his sword harder.

“Ming Fan?”

He swiftly turned as he jolted away from the demoness’ immediate vicinity, Shizun, slightly rumpled and Xiu Ya stained with blood.

Ming Fan frowned to himself, for Shizun was supposed to have been with Luo Binghe. Even with the repaired body, Shen Qingqiu’s cultivation was still catching up with Binghe’s due to the prolonged healing demanded by the search for the Fruit of Cleansing that took place nearly fifteen years ago.

Still, Ming Fan’s sword arm throbbed at the memory, that did not mean Shen Qingqiu had lightened any throughout those years. It was unprecedented for Peak Lords to stay for so long, but with the Cultivation world down by one Sect due to the revealed scandals of the former master of Huan Hua- it was left to Cang Qiong to take most of the weight of two territories while decades long investigations took place by the other Sects- effectively suspending Huan Hua until they finished and Luo Binghe came back from beating the Demon World into submission. Cang Qiong alone was one of the Sects that had hardly lost any resources in the war. A combination of Luo Binghe’s guilt and Tianlang-jun’s lack of personal vendetta against Cang Qiong specifically; supposedly due to a snake demon that happened to be the heavenly demon’s nephew. Even in the present, such rumors remained such.

“What is the situation.” Shen Qingqiu demanded immediately, back straight and in control.

“The Demoness has been plaguing this village for some time, this Ming Fan was sent to deal with the issue. The main hunting parties of Cang Qiong Sect had been split due to necessitating presence in three other towns. This Ming Fan apologizes for his incompetence, Ming Fan had thought he would be able to resolve the issue himself,” He bowed in apology, keeping his senses trained around the area before he straightened himself again. His blood singing a familiar song.

“Ming Fan may correct himself at a later date,” Shen Qingqiu dismissed with a grim expression. “This Shizun knows what the demoness wants.”

Ming Fan bit back a retort, “This Ming Fan understands. Begging pardon, where is Shizun’s Husband?”

“Dealing with other annoyances,” Shen Qingqiu’s expression came together to form an elegant look of annoyance. “These flies are becoming a nuisance.”

Ming Fan bowed his head in agreement, sizing up on the approaching mass of demonic energy as it made it’s fast approach. Flicking his sword seal into deflecting the demoness away from his Shizun.

“Shen Qingqiu,” The Maiden Demoness spat, eye twitching strangely. It was at this moment Ming Fan silenced his mind of present thought as he moved between the demoness and his Peak Lord. It was the same talk, she was going to kill his Shizun. Then take on the role of Luo Binghe’s Wife, treat him with glory and children, blah blah blah- One would think that such a thing would stop after twenty years of unsuccessful attempts to do exactly that- It was his Shizun! Of course Luo Binghe would rather cut his own pillar off than take on someone other than Shen Qingqiu. If he didn’t- the entirety of his martial siblings would come for it themselves! Ming Fan wouldn’t even be the one in the lead, Ning Yingying would be there- front and center. Beloved shidi of hers or not.

It was Ning Yingying after all, who started the riot in Huan Hua territory. If Ming Fan did not hold the title of Head Disciple, he would have thought Ning Yingying would be the one to take over Shizun’s position, sexist tongue wags be damned. She had become rather ruthless ever since the slandering of Shizun’s name, Ming Fan would have been surprised if he hadn’t been there bear witness to Ning Yingying’s vehement cursing that would have made a Bai Zhan Peak disciple blush.

Still, it seems he had overestimated himself as he felt his chest pang with pain. Grunting and kneeling at the sudden tightness around his golden core. Burning as if he was going through a bottle neck. Which shouldn’t have been possible since he just finished from the last one.

The Maiden Demoness grinned and sunk her claws in him.

He swung his arm instinctively, effectively separating her forearms from the rest of her body with a wet squelch. A powerful swing of energy offing the rest of her, clearly from Xiu Ya.

He fell to his knees, veins flaring and injury quickly taking on an unnatural hue. Vison blurring and body growing warm.

He wasn’t certain yet, but Ming Fan felt that he was at death’s door.

As much as didn’t quite want to go as far as to die, it wasn’t that much of a shock when one considered the newly developed situation at hand. He felt his blood turn sluggish, the poison burning his veins, the pain beginning to bloom into a demonic flower of pain and suffering; he took the time to silently curse the rogue demon who had dared to target his Shizun.

Though what was most infuriating was the fact that it wasn’t even by Binghe’s hand did he fall. No, he was felled by a no-name demon attempting to make a name for herself by killing off the Demon Lord’s husband, the audacity! The disrespect. He had not spent forty-seven years clawing his way year after year going through Shizun’s strange moods, later picking his way through paperwork, fighting demons, restraining Ning Yingying from tearing the palace princess to shreds, fighting a war with a heavenly demon’s army, fighting another demon army, and going through the…embarrassing shamelessness of Shizun and Binghe- to be felled by some sort of nobody. It would have made him happier to have been skewered by a demon general at least.

In Shizun’s words: Lame.

“Ming Fan? Ming Fan cease your movements.” His Shizun’s expression was pinched. The Peak Lord frowning as he sent qi through his veins. A pleasant warmth that beat back the burning pain somewhat- where was that useless puppy dog? All the times that Luo Binghe was attached to Shizun’s hip, surely he would be so close by. Where was Shizun’s fan? “Binghe. Binghe, here. Now.”

The aforementioned pup bounded in, his eyes fading from their bright crimson kneeling besides Shizun.

He grumbled at his heart for beating slightly faster – this was no lotus maiden, or even the heroic Liu Qingge, there was no reason to react to Luo Binghe of all people. In his increasing sluggish thoughts, he vaguely heard his title. A finger pressing into his lips with the burning heat of blood, the sheer power on the thing making his nose curl in disgust.

Nearly a decade of war and he still hated that iron taste. Ugh.

His veins still felt as if lava were poured into them, the pain beginning to wrench its roots into his muscles, his core twisted as it struggled to keep up with the poison and do something…else. The situation was very wrong, his core shouldn’t have flared like that mid-battle, and it certainly shouldn’t be acting as if he were going to gain another level in cultivation.

Ming Fan had a suspicion he was not going to get up from this injury this time. As fitting of one of his Peak, he wondered what sort of death he would have. Clearly not a peaceful one. Perhaps is core would tire itself and collapse? Or maybe he would qi deviate with the strain as the heat grew even more. This was certainly not a poison he had heard of, and the demoness had hardly been able to speak through the gurgle of her own blood.

[SYSTEM_90-728634724753: ~ error ]

Hm? Ming Fan’s expression frowned at the strange voice that echoed over his pain. Who are-

[SYSTEM_90-728634724753: ~ error identified: 33284_4]

What the fuck, Ming Fan’s body spasmed as the pain intensified. Oblivious to the cursed snarl as Luo Binghe’s sweat ran with the effort to work faster than the poison- Shen Qingqiu began to worry.

 [SYSTEM_90-728634724753: ~ beginning emergency ejection. Initiating file transfer. File: MING_FAN.zip -> Extended_PIDWxMDZS.html ]

[SYSTEM_90-728634724753: ~ upload 14.7% ]

“Binghe, what’s going on? Why isn’t he healing?”

“Shizun I- I don’t know, his body isn’t responding to my blood the way it should-“

[SYSTEM_90-728634724753: ~ system compensation initiated; request granted to ming_fan...approved…15.2% ]

“What do you mean he isn’t healing- how could he-? Ming Fan? Ming Fan, can you hear me? We have to get him to Mu Qingfang, Binghe ,open a portal-“

[SYSTEM_90-728634724753: ~ inquiry: ming_fan request ]

Re…quest? Ming Fan thought weakly, reality slipping away from him as if it were threads of silk between his fingers. What…do you mean? Who…are…you…?

[SYSTEM_90-728634724753: ~ answer: ming_fan applicable for request prior to file transfer. Information required…16.8% ]

Re…quest. Ming Fan thought hard. Opening the doors to something he hadn’t thought about since coming to Cang Qiong Mountain, since digging the hole- A secret he kept close to his breast and vowed never to speak of. My…family… It would be nice…to see everyone…one…last….time.

[SYSTEM_90-728634724753: ~ processing…approved. Retrieving file MING_CLAN.zip from recycle bin…initiating temporary space…17.3% ]

Shen Qingqiu’s eyes snapped his eyes as Ming Fan’s body convulsed again, Mu Qingfang muttering to a disciple as bottles and qi practically flew across the ward.

He was…smiling?

“Jie…” A quiet voice whispered. Luo Binghe’s eyes snapped from where he was hovering at Shen Qingqiu’s side. Ignoring the sudden curses Mu Qingfang let off as his patient spasmed again.

“Ying-er…Fan-ge…here.”

[SYSTEM_90-728634724753: ~ …28.7% ]

Shen Qingqiu racked his brain, ‘Ying-er’? Ning Yingying? But why…?

“See….you...didi…A-jie…”

“Shifu we’re losing him!” One of Mu Qingfang’s disciple’s stressed. “I can’t- he is fading!”

“Fan-ge,” Ming Fan looked down at his little brother- who looked so much like his own shi- former shidi that it hurt somewhat. Ming Xiying had a fearsome pout on his lips, puffing up his cheeks somewhat. “You should apologize to your Shidi.”

“Ying-di,” Ming Fan strained his muscles for a gentle smile. “I don’t think-“

“Ying-di has the right idea,” Ming Ninghua smiled gently. “We’ve been gone for a long time. Your pain should have never touched your Shidi. This fault is with you.”

Ming Fan pressed his lips together before sighing, weight slipping off his shoulders, “Fine. It is as Hua-jie says. This Fan-di will do as she commands.

That gentle hand held his cheek with a smile, “Goodbye A-Fan.”

“Goodbye elder sister.”

The light engulfed his vision as soon as he finished forcing his apology through his strained body.

[SYSTEM_90-728634724753: ~ …68.5%]

“Binghe.”

Luo Binghe’s eyes snapped to his senior’s sweaty face, pinched slightly.

“Sorry.”

The Demon Lord’s eyes widened, mouth falling without his permission, “M-Ming-shixiong? What do you-?”

[SYSTEM_90-728634724753: ~ …96.4% ]

“Shifu-“

“Get me the-!”

[SYSTEM_90-728634724753: ~ 100.0% Upload Complete ]

The disciple collapsed as their knees gave from under them, pale-faced. “He’s…gone.”

Silence rained upon the Cang Qiong Mountain Sect as the head disciple of Qing Jing slipped away with his wounds.

Chapter Text

2. Log: relaunch-File:MDZSxPIDW.mod-success.log


[SYSTEM_90-728634724753: ~ Upload Successful. ]

[SYSTEM_90-728634724753: ~ file transfer ERROR: MING_FAN.zip -> Extended_PIDWxMDZS.html  ]

[SYSTEM_90-728634724753: ~ Calculating error...error identified. Calculating solution…solution found ]

[SYSTEM_90-728634724753: ~ Initiating transfer: ming_fan.GOLDENCORE.gz -> MING_FAN_ver.02.ai ]

[SYSTEM_90-728634724753: ~ transfer successful ]

[SYSTEM_90-728634724753: ~ Compensation bonuses added: luck boost; TUTORIAL_handicap; NEW GAME + mode added ]

[SYSTEM_90-728634724753: ~ Launch: MING_FAN.ai ]

Program launch in 3….

2…

1

Ming Fan opened his eyes to the haunting feeling of nothing.

No pain, no aches, not even the familiar burn of his eyes against the harsh light as he stared into the sky above. Somehow more blue than when he last looked up.

“What…the…fuck.”

[SYSTEM_90-728634724753: ~ inquiry received]

Ming Fan jolted as the voice echoed in his head, hauntingly flat as if it were nothing more than a demon- no, even worse- a mindless beast that had taken residence within his mind.

Apologies to Shizun, Ming Fan thought out of habit. The familiar yet unfamiliar curse that would normally only be said within the presence of Shang Qinghua leaving his lips. Only heard by Ming Fan due to his duties as the head disciple’s usually hourly habit of refilling his Shizun’s and Peak Lord Shang’s pot of tea.

It left an aching feeling in his head that he vehemently ignored.

[SYSTEM_90-728634724753: ~ inquiry answer: tutorial program recommended

Ming Fan forced his body, strangely light and far less weighted, to sit up. Frowning at the forest floor before tilting his head, staring at the overgrowth of trees and bushes. It was certainly not where he were last, nor was this the visage of Qian Cao Peak last he saw it. He frowned at the voice’s words, “What are you?”

[SYSTEM_90-728634724753: ~ answer: tutorial program recommended]

Ming Fan sighed, “Very well, what is a ‘too-tor-i-al?’”

[SYSTEM_90-728634724753: ~ answer: tutorial - a period of instruction to an individual or a very small group – tutorial program recommended ]

“I suppose a more definitive answer would have been too much of a request,” Ming Fan grumbled. “I accept this…tutorial.”

[SYSTEM_90-728634724753: ~ command accepted. Launching tutorial ]

Ming Fan blinked as his vision flooded with a soft blue color before fading back into the world, the local fauna displaying a gentle ring of aura much like that of qi energy in cultivating peoples. Some fauna sharing a characteristic softer green and some displaying a glaring red.

[ welcome USER: MING_FAN! System will now explain the auras of the plants~ Please pay attention as this will only be explained once (⌒▽⌒)☆ ]

“Could this explanation be…” Ming Fan made a face. “Less ludicrous?”

[ System apologizes <(_ _)> only one setting is available for USER: MING_FAN this tutorial ]

Ming Fan breathed to contain a majority of his annoyance before rolling his shoulder in lieu of asking the…thing to continue.

It was a handful of hours before the system was finally over explaining the strange auras he had begun to see, a fact that Ming Fan celebrated by allowing himself the delight of eating a sweet flower from one of the bushes highlighted in a dark green that system had said indicated “Food”. A useful piece of information Ming Fan treated himself to as he eagerly brewed tea for himself as the sky began to darken and the forest seem to come alive.

His senses were expanded over his general vicinity, noting the different creatures that seem to mull about in the area. Carefully avoiding his more oppressive qi aura, as it should- considering the fact that a part of Ming Fan’s cultivation had apparently carried over into this new and younger body.

There lied the second issue.

Smooth and young hands flexed under his command as he willed his fingers to bend, void of the callouses brought on by years of instruments and swordplay. Of wielding a bow however briefly he had to. The small papercuts he received doing work as Head Disciple of Qing Jing Peak. All gone.

He rubbed his fingers together and drank from the rough rock shaped bowl that he found. Missing the feeling of his fingers brushing together unevenly.

He died. That was not a dream.

Although he could no longer feel the burn in his veins, he had still succumbed to his injuries. Perhaps his wistful thinking of Ning Yingying being Head Disciple had been answered in a morbid fashion. He wasn’t at all angry about it, but there was still a feeling of emptiness. A wonder, if anyone would mourn him. No, that wasn’t right, people would mourn, he hadn’t been so cruel towards his later years that no one would. But he wondered if anyone would miss him, would look up expecting to find him standing there where he wasn’t.

Everyone who he would definitively say they would had already moved onto their next life, no matter what mercy he was granted in speaking with them one last time.

SNAP!

Ming Fan jolted from his thoughts as he stood on his feet, tea spilling out from its uneven vessel as he clenched his fist and gathered his qi in his fist. It certainly wasn’t a monster but the possibility of it being a creature who could conceal their energy could not be ruled out- Ming Fan was in the unfortunate position of having no spiritual weapon at his disposal, so hand-to-hand it was.

He breathed as the bushes rustled apart, a small person- toddler? Came tumbling out from in between the brush. Leaves stuck into curly hair and dirt on a pale cheek, silver eyes staring up at him.

Ming Fan blinked, the child mirrored him.

“For what reason…” Ming Fan swallowed, attempting to wrangle his voice into something softer. “Could young master say why he’s out here by himself?”

And the child, probably overwhelmed with the combination of being in a scary forest with a scary thing in front of him asking questions; wailed.

It took Ming Fan all of two seconds to realize this and panicked.

-

“Better?” Ming Fan finally gained a handle on his voice after a few more tries. The child munching on a sweet fruit Ming Fan had found during his trek and promptly carried the smaller boy over to. Easily climbing up the tree with nimble limbs and bringing down a handful of the things.

“Mn!” The wailing child had quickly changed tunes as soon as he realized that Ming Fan was not a scary thing and had even given him food. His mother always said that nice people were the ones who gave food for free, but father always stressed that it was important to pay the kindness back somehow. Even if you didn’t have money for it.

The child was thinking this exact important fact before he realized once again that his parents were not with him- and teared up.

“None of that now young master,” the stranger said, voice soft, using a sleeve to wipe away rolling tears. “This Ming Fan is sure that whatever problem young master has can be solved with a calm mind and a clear thought.”

The child sniffed and nodded, lips pulled into a pout as he valiantly snorted back snot.

Ming Fan smiled a little at the childish action, “The solution of a problem should be found through problems smaller than the rest, perhaps with young master’s name?”

“Wei Ying’s name is Wei Ying,” Wei Ying said cheerfully, if a little wetly. “Mama and Papa calls Wei Ying A-Ying.”

Ming Fan smiled to reward the child’s progress, “Does Young Master Wei know where his Mama and Papa were last?”

“Mama, Papa, and A-Ying were on a night hunt…but A-Ying was bad and left the camp like Papa said not to,” Wei Ying bent slightly as he hunched over in guilt. “And then A-Ying got lost.”

Ming Fan hummed, “Young Master indeed should have listened to his Papa. Young Master Wei’s Papa has lived many years and met many dangers, so next time Young Master Wei should heed his Papa okay?”

Wei Ying nodded, if a little too enthusiastically that the poor boy seemed to give himself a small headache from it. Ming Fan gave him a smaller, sweeter fruit in compensation.

“How old is Young Master Wei?” Ming Fan tried, to keep the boy talking as he gingerly pushed his senses further than just a handful of distance away from himself.

“A-Ying is this much,” Wei Ying bent his fingers so to indicate his tender age of four. Ming Fan noted that faintly, as it was rare to be with such a coherent four-year old. He’s had experience with a handful of them in the occasional night hunt, but rarely did he ever run into a toddler as articulate as the one before him.

“Young Master Wei must hold a great ability for absorbing knowledge as he has picked up many words early,” Ming Fan nodded his approval. “Would Young Master like this Ming Fan to help him find his Mama and Papa?”

“Mn!” Wei Ying nodded, leaping up to his feet. Ming Fan obliged in the child’s whim of wanting to walk while holding his hand, but he knew sooner or later, the Wei Ying would tire and fall dead on his feet; Ming Fan would have to carry him sometime down the journey. No matter how short it would be since the boy couldn’t have gotten this far on his own.

He circulated his qi in preparation as he set off in a direction that seemed to have the most yang energy. Absentmindedly picking off the stray leaf in curly hair and wiping away the dirt on the youngers cheek with a moistened part of his sleeve.

The walk was a rather uneventful, but with a chatterbox in company, Ming Fan quickly found himself thanking his past for brewing the tea no matter how little of it he actually drank. He answered the boy’s rapid fire questions with the finesse of experience with younger disciples- which he had in spades. Ning Yingying was their peak’s best fighter with Ming Fan standing equally if not slightly under. However, Ming Fan also had the responsibility of handling paperwork and grading some of the works the Qing Jing Disciples would submit. One of those responsibilities had included over watching the newer disciples, as an influx of them came after the war and Cang Qiong Mountain became rather famous for lack of a better target in deeds and popularity. The female disciple rate had gone up as well, almost overtaking if not equalizing the ration. A tribute to Ning Yingying and Liu Mingyan perhaps.

Ming Fan found out about many things he had not known previously due to the increasing demand for Qing Jing’s fiercest with rebellious demons and some of Huan Hua palace master’s previous associates raising ruckus. One of which was that people who had the parts of a female had to go through the hell of monthly blood-letting when they were not expecting to have a child.

It was an interesting and enlightening fact to know, had it not been for the fact that he had to explain to Peak Lord Mu why the bones in his hand were broken. He would have liked to have known it from Shizun earlier since apparently he knew as well and not by one of his shimei’s experience a flash of abdominal pain and promptly breaking the hand in her grip.

It was an accident of course, but that didn’t mean Ming Fan would not be weary when he knew a shimei was on that period of pain and disgruntlement, their fighting performances tended to also be much fiercer and Ming Fan had to be doubly weary if they decided to come to sword practice, in which he would have to strive to avoid coming back the next day thick with Mu-shishu’s liniments. Peak Lord Qi had thankfully been kind enough to give advice as the female disciples of Qing Qiong Mountain doubled, and among her chiefest advice was to keep an eye on the sweets stocks and to make sure each disciple was adequately equipped when it was their time.

When asked, Shizun had stated that sweets stimulated an aspect within the mind that emitted happiness so honestly Ming Fan had no idea why this hadn’t been taught yet.

Still, he was just explaining to Wei Ying of the herbs they had grabbed a handful of as they passed before Wei Ying yawned, jaw opened wide and eyes blinking blearily in a state of sleepiness, if not very close to it.

“Does Young Master Wei wish to rest?” He asked, tilting his head as the boy stubbornly shook his head.

“A-Ying wanna find Mama and Papa.” His mouth was pulled severely, face scrunched with rolls of baby fat, clearly attempting to withhold some sort of emotional response. Ming Fan hadn’t known Wei Ying long enough to be able to tell whether it was petulance or fear.

Ming Fan sighed, kneeling down, “Young Master Wei is feeling sleepy does he not? Thing Ming Fan will carry you, a child requires the passing time of sleep to grow.”

At the sight of conflict, Ming Fan pulled out his gentlest expression, hoping that it had similar affects in this younger body. He hadn’t a chance to gain a look at himself save for a blurry reflection in the water but he knew he wasn’t horrifying to look at. None the less, children were both the most perceptive and least beings in that regard. Little did they care for appearances, but a scary thing stayed a scary thing. “This Ming Fan will find Young Master Wei’s parents while he rests. That way Young Master Wei can grow strong and tall still- and find his parents all at the same time.”

“…okay,” Wei Ying seemed to frown at this before his thoughts cut off with a yawn; allowing Ming Fan to pick him up and maneuver the boy so that he could better link his hands behind his neck and made sure to hold him securely. Wisps of his energy ran down his arms habitually, an instinctive reaction to the prospect of carrying a rather important package for what could be anywhere from minutes to days, but he gently diverted his focus to the task. Spreading his senses across the land as much as he would risk, there were creatures of all shapes and sizes in this forest, but humans were always the easiest to find amongst the woodwork.

He picked the direction with the highest concentration of that familiar energy and continued their journey.

By his estimations, it was the twilight between the new day and the present. The moon nowhere to be seen under the overarching branches, twining together yet never touching. It was clear to anyone, even a person who had never stepped outside man-made structures, that this forest had not been greeted by conquerors in years. Perhaps it never has.

Which was why a brush in the distance, short and stubby with a sense that something had carved into it, grabbed Ming Fan’s attention immediately.

Ming Fan moved Wei Ying slowly in his arms, enough to leave the both of them with the protection of at least one free limb as he inched closer to the disturbed underbrush. Cautious in step, senses closed to the present and front, Ming Fan softened his tread. The gentle brush of trees upon leaves pillowing the hushed crunch of his steps.

His qi flowed easily within him, energy flowing from one part to the next in an infinite, albeit slow, cycle, that same energy built. A swell of power that slowly built as his core generated more energy at his bidding. The smells in the air heightened, the noise sharpened, his vision bathed in more colorful arrays and auras- vibrant even before his deliberate step up- gained a level in hue. In the distance, two auras shown bright in the darker auras of the surrounding life. Distinct in shape, clearly humanoid. Cultivators- if their bright gold glow of yang energy was accurate. Demons were able to disguise themselves temporarily with some aid of talismans or artefacts, it was not so paranoid to believe that it may be a trap.

Still, it was better to spring a trap with eyes wide open than to miss an opportunity.

Ming Fan continued his quiet tread.

-

“Hm,” Ming Fan’s throat rumbled with that small hum. Eyes narrowed at the two cultivators, rogue perhaps, for they wore no articles of clothing nor any other piece that could identify them as part of a Sect. They were pacing across the small bare spot in the overgrowth, the female one at least. The other was sat on the grassy floor, a pensive expression on his face.

“When I find him, I’m gonna-“ the female broke off from her words before looking as if she were going to cry. “Changze, what if-?”

“A-Ren,” the man said gently, his aura was slightly dimmer- as tired as the other looked. “We’ll find him, A-Ying is a small child still. He could not have gone far.”

“I-“ the woman breathed, solidifying herself. Her aura growing in strength as she and her energy calmed at her command. “I’m going out again, maybe…maybe I can find him- he must be so scared right now…”

The man opened his mouth before seeming to think better of it, nodding, “I will stay here in case A-Ying manages to wander back to us.”

Ming Fan reached with his energy, subtly brushing up against their own. Solid and human, distinct and fluctuating. An illusion this was not, either that, or a dangerously advanced cloaking talisman. He would have to rely on the throw of the bone for this situation, it wasn’t something he looked forward to.

What would Shizun do? he wondered to himself, expression pulling to a frown as he attempted to embody his teacher. Most likely- he would perhaps cloak the boy from their sight. Test their knowledge, Wei Ying had talked much of his parents, there had to be something along the conversational babble that was exclusive to the child. But- if they were demons, the chance that they would be able to catch Ming Fan in his lie was too high still; which meant his choice of words must be carefully selected.

Ming Fan sighed, idly adjusting his grip on Wei Ying, to think he believed himself able to get a few days rest from the rabble of near daily quests. It seemed the gods deemed it unnecessary.

Shizun would have also left the boy, Ming Fan thought, carrying him in would risk the boy’s wellbeing. Ming Fan wasn’t in the greatest position to leave him without being confident that he would remain unharmed, so that was ruled out. Being moved to his back would have to suffice.

With careful hands and a clever manipulation of his younger, still malleable limbs, Ming Fan moved sleeping boy to his back. Hands threaded together loosely to support Wei Ying from the bottom so he could straighten without fear of the boy falling. He would have been happier if he had a cloak, but the darkness of the forest will have to suffice for the moment at hand.

He cleared his throat as he approached, staying under the shadows of the looming trees as he eyed the two wearily. “May this One inquire the nature of Master and Mistress’ visit?”

The two had turned at his sound, hands at their swords, one slightly simpler in design than the other. He could feel the air charge with battle before it slowly settled back into calm. The two seemed to exchange significant looks before the man stood and smiled, a gentle expression on his face.

“My wife and I were passing through, apologies for intruding- but I’m afraid we have also lost our son. He is four years of age and shares my looks and my wife’s eyes; if Young Master has seen him we would be eternally grateful.”

Ming Fan blinked slowly, noting the strange nuances in the mans’ speech before tucking it away for a later day. As of yet, he was not sure if it were due to his status as a child or simply a strange characteristic of the world he had found himself in. It reminded him of the far off villages who had their own versions of formal speech, which had the strange tendency to seem informal to Ming Fan’s ears.

He narrowed his eyes, standing taller, “This one is named Ming Fan and begs pardon, for he cannot help but wonder the reason for which Master and Mistress has lost their child.”

“It was my fault,” the man continued, a somber look on his face. “I should have been watching him more closely.”

“We both should have,” the woman cut off gently before turning to Ming Fan, bowing deeply. “Young Master has bestowed us his name; we have done him a disservice by not offering our own. This one is named Cangse Sanren. My husband’s name is Wei Changze, our son is Wei Ying. This mother begs young master, although she most certainly does not deserve mercy, but our wish is simply to hold him again.”

Formal tone, Ming Fan noted. Formal tone that would pass talking with Yue Qingyuan himself. It was strange to hear it after the other man, Wei Changze, had spoken. Perhaps she noticed his own tone and reflected it justly. It was an interesting development if not slightly sus’, as Shizun might say. That sort of wording was one you would give after offending a guardian or a god of the forest, a god of the mountain would require usually some sort of offering. Even a demon lord should one happen to be in the same situation, though Peak Lord Shang may have been an exception and not a rule.

Ming Fan tilted his head at this, “This Ming Fan has come across a child, but whether it is Mistress Cangse’s son, he knows not. This young master has spoken of his parents, and of the night hunt they had departed upon. A story of triumph, as the beast of the hunt had been cowed. Perhaps that same strategy may bring victory yet again.”

Cangse Sanren hummed, her expression smooth even as he eyes seemed to absorb his words quickly, “Young Master Ming may have met this one’s son; two nights before this one, this one and her husband set out to hunt a mad boar that had stolen the lives of many. The boar had been infected, it’s energy imbalanced and leached by a ghost. If this is the beast of which the boy had spoken off, then this mother begs Young Master Ming to tell of his direction if not location.”

Ming Fan hummed, noting the tense coil in the two within the beat of silence. Straightening himself after a moment more, “Mistress and Master may be at ease. For this Ming Fan has promised Young Master in his quest to find an answer to his problem.”

He stepped forward, idly noting the looks of surprise as he came into the moon’s light, still- he moved his chin to the boy sleeping at his back. Small, slightly chunky arms encircling his neck.

“A-Ying,” Wei Changze stepped forward before being blocked by Cangse Sanren, pulled into a deep and low bow.

“Thanking Young Master,” She said, humbling herself before him.

Ming Fan nodded and turned his head to Wei Ying’s sleeping face, gently running a prodding tendril of energy across the surface of the younger’s own young veins before turning back to the two. “Young Master Wei will not wake this night, the travel along the forest tire even the most hardy.”

He tilted and allowed them his back, watching as Wei Changze stepped forward to grasp the younger boy gently by the waist into a small pull, the sleeping boy frowning with a matching noise of discontent before tightening his grip further around Ming Fan’s neck.

He sighed, “This Ming Fan apologizes.”

Wei Changze held on his expression a look of dejection before soothing at the sound of his wife’s quiet laughter, he held the distinct impression that hers was never truly this quiet. “This mother will have to inconvenience Young Master Ming further.” 

Ming Fan shrugged, “Of this, there is no consequence. This Young Master Wei has requested aid, this Ming Fan answered. There is little to do but wait for the rising dawn.”

Ming Fan settled close to their fire, humming and rocking his body slightly as he moved Wei Ying back to the front of his body. His movements were stiff, barely a touch as he kept in mind his greater strength even if he were in the body of a child, at the level of cultivation he was- there were risks to avoid. Ramrod straight, he sat as if in meditation. Shrinking the passage for his qi to a smaller, yet consistent flow. Enough to provide a comfortable heat for the boy in his arms, the muted shivers ceasing slightly.

Breathe, Ming Fan murmured quietly in the privacy of his mind. In.

His chest expanded, the qi circulating with a near silent hum in the landscape of his thoughts.

Out.

Deflation, breath rushing out. The soft tinkle of insects in the forest. The rustle of leaves dancing across the rush of the sky’s breath. Animals breathing in the distance, the snores of huffy leopards. Owls in trees. Wei Ying’s parents moving in the background as they too settled for the night.

In.

Ming Fan settled into a comfortable rhythm and allowed himself to drift along the peace of the night. Back straight, senses settled on the gentle murmur of the forest.

And he rested.

-

Cangse Sanren watched the child from the forest settle with her child in his arms, eyes slipping shut and breath controlled.

She waved her husband over before establishing a silencing charm for their immediate vicinity, it was mere instinct, but she felt if she were to break this tentative peace the child would simply snap out of whatever…meditation he had established for himself.

“He’s…certainly…” She trailed off, breaking from her stare to see her husband’s curious look. “Strange.”

“I’ve never heard you talk like that before,” Wei Changze admitted. “It sounded so…”

Cangse Sanren allowed for a giggle as she leaned back from her seated position, smile easy and as dazzling as the day they first met, as comforting as the warm fire in the cool of the night. “Shifu taught all of us courtesy and manners of course, admittedly I haven’t used it in many years. It was the style she used in the generation of Wen Mao and Lan An, so it was hardly ever necessary when we we’re outside the mountain.”

“Except for now,” Wei Changze added cautiously.

“Except for now,” She agreed, looking over to watch the boy. “It makes one wonder…Speak to this wife Changze, what do you think about this situation?”

“He looked at us as if we were a threat,” Wei Changze said after a moment. “He addressed us as such and was cautious in his wording. Prodding our intent and character without outright accusing us of anything- and he did it out of caution. Wei Ying could have been left behind but he took the risk of exposing him to us and brought him, probably because he couldn’t trust that Wei Ying would remain safe without keeping an eye on him.”

Wei Changze glanced at the boy’s back before turning back to Cangse Sanren, eyebrows biting his lip slightly, “He’s…not a child. I’m not sure what to say- but he doesn’t feel like one. But no child puts that much thought into a first meeting, even if he is weary about new people.”

“Do you think he’s a forest guardian?” Cangse Sanren looked back at the boy with increasing weariness.

“No,” Wei Changze shook his head. “he’s not. There’s…there is power in him, but I don’t think it comes from the forest. I can’t describe it, but…it’s as if his energy is forward ahead of him. Like feelers on an insect, but I think he’s doing it deliberately.”

“…He doesn’t look older than nine,” Cangse Sanren frowned to herself. “That much control for someone so young- that much core development-  Changze, are you sure?”  

“Well,” Wei Changze smiled weakly. “He said his name is Ming Fan. Maybe there’s a relation?”

“Ha ha,” Cangse Sanren rolled her eyes. “Very funny Changze.”

They looked at each other before bursting into giggled laughter- muffled only by the pulsing talisman on the ground before them.

In Ming Fan’s present state, the slight tingles of laughter reached him; he felt at ease upon recognition. The shared laughter of a couple brought a warm ache in his bones, nonetheless, he allowed himself to settle in its warmth.

-

“Fan-ge wake up! At this rate the horses will get to Cang Qiong before you do!”

“Allow him some more sleep; A-Ying, Father had A-Fan up late memorizing the routes. We can bide him some time before he has to leave.”

“Fan-ge told A-Ying to wake him up though.”

A gentle laugh, a tingle on the breeze that sent spasming pains throughout his body, “Then you can tell A-Fan Da-jie told you to let him sleep hm?”

“Young Master Ming! Young Master Ming!!”

Ming Fan’s eyes snapped open, his body burning in familiarity as he doubled over, instinctively controlling his breathing through bouts of harsh gasps and forced holds. Teeth gritted to the point where his jaw ached as the flow of qi was disrupted by his memories and rampant feelings.

With the finesse of practice, he wrestled down his emotions. Walking through the steps to wrench himself off the precipice of qi deviation. Ning Yingying’s quiet chanting and Shizun’s calm voice doing wonders to help him off from the dangerous cliff face. His breath going easier with each passing moment that time moved and his spiritual veins eased, no longer sending streams of burning fire but instead a soothing warmth that settled just under his skin. As it should be.

Your memories are in your past.

They cannot harm you, for they have already come to fruition.

Breathe. Your pain is not internal. Your veins are undisturbed. Find your peace.

Breathe Fang Shixiong! Shizun’s fine, he’s with Binghe right now. Binghe’s alright too, they’re fine. They’re both fine!

Ming Fan sucked in air and held it until he could no longer- and breathed. Slowly, counting the wait to further extend how long he would exhale, until he could no longer.

With his body no longer burning up with the warnings of a deviation, Ming Fan quickly evaluated his body. His veins were still inflamed slightly, and the blockage had eased back into a more manageable state. His core…

His core had leveled up in cultivation.

Before he gauged his core to be of the same level of when he had begun cultivating in Qing Jing Peak, rather low level and closer to a common human rather than a cultivator. Now he held the same level of cultivation after three years of cultivating in Qing Jing Peak, he had been named head disciple during that time and had been seventeen.

There laid the issue, his core had gone through three years of cultivation. His body was roughly five or so years behind, the progress of his body to be able to house the amount of qi cycled by his core was still too young to be able to hold the amount of yang energy he was generating. There were specific reasons why serious cultivation was never pursued until at least fourteen, the standard age was fifteen, and even then- cultivation was a dangerous venture that required learned teachers or risk permanent damage or death. Ming Fan prayed thanks for the fact that his juvenile stupidity hadn’t harmed Binghe- after years looking after younger disciples while Shizun directed the older ones, the understanding of how serious his crime was came crashing like a waterfall. He accepted more of Shizun’s share of paperwork because of it.

He grimaced at the thought; he would have to take care not to stress his body or mind in the future, at least until he could better train his body to accommodate the larger core housed within. Which meant finding a spiritual weapon as soon as possible, which should be able to at least cut the strain on his own body by a third due to the nature of spiritual weapon.

He mourned for his sword, it would have been far easier to have it with him rather than having to find or perhaps even make one himself. To not have it was similar to losing a piece of yourself. Huan Hua Palace may have been the richest of cultivation sects but Cang Qiong was equally as famous, not just because of the Peak System the Sect operated on.

Cang Qiong Sect’s true call to fame was the cultivators it raised. From the time they are deemed worthy enough, their swords were a cut above the rest due to how closely tied together the sword was to its wielder. Spiritual weapons were common of course, but to have a sword from Wen Jian Peak’s caves entitled disciples of Cang Qiong Peak to more advanced sword manipulation to a degree unseen by other cultivators. Shen Qingqiu was famously able to wield his Xiu Ya as if he himself were holding it- it was why most famous cultivators of Cang Qiong were known by their sword.

Xiu Ya’s destruction had been a great blow for all of Cang Qiong Mountain that cursed night, for it was indisputable proof that Shizun had truly died. Swords owned by peak lords that were shattered often remained such, to have it re-forged was seen as a sign of disrespect- one of the reasons why Liu-shishu was so adamant to fight Binghe for Xiu Ya. Disciples didn’t get quite the same treatment if only because their bonds with their own swords were often young enough to be able to pass to a different holder once re-forged, Binghe’s case was very much singular but it was theorized by one of the disciples of Wen Jian Peak that the sword most likely shattered because of the destructive Yin energy Binghe released during the opening of the Abyss. Therefore it wouldn’t have taken up a new master as the bond would have remained; still, it did not make the memories of Shizun staring off into the distance in the middle of a lesson any easier. Many of the Qing Jing Peak disciples had opted to learn on their own as much as possible to lessen the burden, Ming Fan himself had taken on more of Shizun’s peak business paperwork as was appropriate.

His hand ached at the memory but it allowed for Shizun to have his own happiness somewhat at least, with the free time less paperwork granted, he had begun meeting with Peak Lord Shang more often, it was an agreement on everyone’s part that no one mention it. He didn’t mind, and Zhangmen-shibo had not minded too much either; even going so far as to try and minimize the amount of work Shen Qingqiu received personally.

Though, he could have done with far less of the meeting requests from nobles. Honestly, were they so thick faced as to think that someone like Shizun would just come to their homes at a drop of a letter? Surely there had to be more tact in play, even An Ding Peak knew that much.

In hindsight, as much as everyone joked of their disgust with An Ding Peak, everyone knew An Ding Peak could most likely get you to do whatever they wanted without notice. Everyone knew it. (Save for perhaps Bai Zhan Peak, but you wouldn’t expect a boar to be able to remember anything more than basic strategy after all.) Being the peak of logistics meant they knew the exact way to twist your arm into agreeing to do something before you could realize what you agreed to, dangerous games were at play if one was reckless.

He breathed as he felt his mind calm to a stream instead of a rushing river, opening his eyes once again to blink owlishly at the older Wei as the man sighed in relief.

“Begging pardon Young Master Ming,” the man looked as if he had run laps as punishment. “We weren’t sure what was going on.”

He opened his mouth to respond before thinking better of it, shrugging his shoulders instead, “Unpleasant memories are unpleasant by default. This Ming Fan thanks Master Wei and Mistress Cangse for the attempt to aid.”

The two exchanged looks again before nodding and Wei Changze coming to sit behind him while Cangse Sanren went to Wei Ying’s side. Ming Fan noted this without word- regardless of their thoughts and intent, there were larger issues at hand.

With Wei Ying no longer in need of his help in finding his parents, Ming Fan was left at a impasse., There was very little goals he could put together at short notice at the moment. The goals he did have included spiritual weapon could be a reasonable quest, but that left the question of how he could build it in the first place. Although he could sense the presence of the proper materials within the forest, he himself did not have the tools to correctly harvest such resources. Optionally, he could find a settlement and attempt to bargain for tools, but that left the question of how he would finance such an endeavor. There are very little people in the world who would give away valuable assets for free. Least of all to a child too young to be of very many use.  

That was the other concern, he was a child, one belonging to no clan or Sect at that. It left him open to slavers, which as much as it had been abolished as much as they could in his previous life, Cang Qiong Sect and the reign of Luo Binghe had its limits. Perhaps given time, Binghe’s empire could see that particular goal through, but that was another life and he could not stake luck on it without viable evidence. The possibility that Ming Fan lived in the same world was likely, but not certain- it was not a risk he was willing to take. With that particular outlook in mind, Ming Fan’s future was grim.

“Do you have any family here?” Wei Changze’s words cut through his contemplations, Ming Fan looking up to stare at him with confusion. “Perhaps something to go back to?”

Ah, Ming Fan shook his head, “This Ming Fan is no guardian of this forest. This one is simply taking advantage of the kindness provided to him by the Forrest’s bounty.”

“Then perhaps Young Master Ming would like to accompany us?” Wei Changze’s smile was welcoming, to which Ming Fan vaguely wondered what the nature of the two cultivators were besides a couple that it would be Wei Changze to approach the topic with him. The practice perhaps? Cangse Sanren was able to hold the conversation with the style that was familiar to him, but Wei Changze held an honesty in his very being that made it rather easy to trust his intent. It was not often Ming Fan had met a cultivator pair such as this, so he was understandably curious of the details- as all good disciples of Qing Jing Peak would.

Still, Ming Fan bowed his head hesitantly, “This Ming Fan is grateful for the offer and promises to repay honorable Master Wei and honorable Mistress Cangse back, twice-fold.”

“There’s no need to but…if Young Master Ming doesn’t mind,” Wei Changze gave Ming Fan a tired smile as he glanced at Wei Ying from the corner of his eye- excitedly babbling quickly about something as Cangse Sanren nodded enthusiastically. “I would not deny any repayment of this kind.”

That look, that was someone asking for help. Who was Ming Fan to deny such a look, especially when it looked like Peak Lord Shang in the middle of harvest season with piles upon piles of abacuses in his arms while the rest of An Ding Peak ran around with half-crazed mutterings of where they were going to put it all. There were many occasions to mess with An Ding Peak, harvest season was not among them.

Ming Fan huffed; a slight smirk came across his features without his knowledge as he bowed his head in agreement, “This Ming Fan will do his best to watch over Wei Ying.”

Shizun had a word for such a thing, Ming Fan believed that word was ‘babysitter’. Not that he minded, those punishments were always far more enjoyable than copying scriptures. It was only the weak who cringed at the thought of them, honestly, what was more boring than copying words onto paper hundreds of times over? Children, at least, were prone to entertainment at the best of times- annoyance at the worst. Alas, apparently it was a necessary evil to take on so many of these punishments- woe is Ming Fan for having to change diapers and making sure everyone napped on time.

As if, he was doing that for Ming Xiying since before the boy could comprehend smiling. Would A-Jie have time to look after their youngest in the face of taking on their late mother’s clan duties?! Bah! Truly asking for too much that is.

His chest burned with the memory; perhaps not the best thought to have at the moment.

Wei Changze saw the determined light in Ming Fan’s eyes and promptly, slumped his shoulders in relief. Cangse Sanren, he could handle. He had been in between her, Qiren, and Yu Ziyuan for years. But A-Ying and A-Ren? In combination? With those bunny eyes?? He was a man who knew his limits and knew when he needed aid. He was not above recruiting a child for it, even if said child seemed to walk and talk like an elderly cultivator who had been locked in a mountain for a hundred years.

He knew he made the right decision, hours later, when Ming Fan kept an eye on Wei Ying without chaining him to his person and deftly steered him towards interesting (and much safer) things for him to focus on- somehow also getting Cangse Sanren interested in his observations as they continued trekking through the dense forest.

In two weeks’ time, Wei Changze caught Ming Fan’s eye as the boy sipped on tea with an elegance that seemed so ingrained that it seemed born from repetition. Cangse Sanren and Wei Ying had turned in early after expelling their energy climbing trees to get to the different fruits pointed out by Ming Fan- but it seemed to have been a part of the greater plan as Ming Fan’s face twitched into a smirk before smoothing out to nod at Wei Changze; returning to both his tea, and presumably his peace. A hand flipping out as if to tell Wei Changze to rest for the night.

“Thank you,” Wei Changze whispered, and stayed up with the boy to keep watch over their little campsite, the crackles of fire and creatures of the forest filling the void of false silence.

 

 

Chapter Text

3. Log: File:Save_9-8.1300.log


Ming Fan watched with careful eyes as Wei Ying moved to and fro across the market place; eyes wide in childish glee as colors and scents of new and old demanded their attention. Stalls on each side called to, and beyond them as they passed. Boasting their wares and offering temptations of varying degrees for both them and those they intended to attract. Markets like these were not unfamiliar to Ming Fan, every major city had a Bazar such as this that bustled with activity and energy, much like other cities- not all were kind.

So Ming Fan kept a close eye, moving about the crowd with ease and taking full advantage of his shorter height and stature. Ducking under towering adults shopping for the day and keeping his attention concentrated on his charge, who weaved across the crowd as if he were simply a fish within a river. An admiring if not slightly curious feat considering it had only been a few months since Ming Fan had tentatively gave Wei Ying small lessons in moving between obstacles. Not meant to truly train but to keep the curious boy occupied as the three-now four-travel companions traversed through land, town, and beyond.

Ming Fan grimaced as a running customer kicked up enough dirt to make his nose scrunch sensitively at the dust, taking the time to carefully wipe away the dirt before continuing onward. As much as the markets were no doubt interesting, Ming Fan could do without the sheer amount of dirt being kicked up everywhere. He had washed both his own and Wei Ying’s clothes at the river just that morning before arriving to the bustling town of Qinghe Nie’s city nearest to the Nie Sect’s Unclean Realm. Wei Changze had explained that they were passing through due to rumors of a yao infestation a ways away from the city, and that the Nie Sect was too preoccupied with other matters to attend to it.

Ming Fan had scrunched his nose at the notion, for it had implied a Sect to be so unorganized. Yao were hardly the worst of the possible threats and the Nie Sect was among the so-called great five, was it not improper that such a member of such a group could not handle an issue easily solved? Even disciples just shy of seniority for another handful of years could handle a task such as that of yao extermination in Qing Jing Peak. What more Zhui Gan Peak, the peak that took on these sorts of missions the most out of all the peaks. Peak Lord Chen, the lord in charge of the monster-slaying peak, would have simply needed to sweep through before taking care of more problematic matters. Yet, for the sake of fair judgment (and appeasing the nagging voice in his mind that sounded like Shizun), Ming Fan did acknowledge that perhaps the difference in difficulty were different here than they were when he was a disciple of the Cang Qiong Sect. After all, demons were several grades above yao when it came to sheer annoyance.

Ming Fan narrowed his eyes as Wei Ying’s form disappeared at a turn. His legs instantly stepped up the pace as he tracked the spell he had drawn roughly into the clothes with a bit of blood. Third principle of Qing Jing Peak: anticipate possibility.

Coming up behind the boy, Ming Fan reached out to grasp a firm grip on Wei Ying’s shoulder, a light scolding on his tongue before it died down in the face of a red-faced young master. Most likely a little older than his physical body judging by the height and able-body, frantically muttering to himself as he paced across the market.

With the brief reprieve of attention, Wei Ying surged forward and tugged on the young master’s green silk. Garnering the attention of the scowling teen as he tilted his head curiously, “Is Gege lost?”

Ming Fan starred in horror as he realized that Wei Ying most likely knew absolutely no matter of decorum. It made sense at his age- but at the same time, he had repeatedly proven himself to be a very fast learning four-year-old. Instinctively, he shot forward faster than he would have, gently tugging Wei Ying away and bowing to the young master. Low- in hopes of smoothing over any ruffled feathers at the abrupt call of attention.

“This one apologizes for his younger brother,” Ming Fan said hastily, crisp and subservient. Very much not exactly what the young master was expecting out of the second boy who barely went up to his chest. “A-Ying meant no offense to young master, but if young master took offense than this one would be honored to accept consequences toward him in his stead.”

The teen only blinked at them, Ming Fan holding his breath and keeping Wei Ying in a light grasp so as to easily pull him along if they needed to leave faster than a crack of a whip.

“You…” The teen scowled in what seemed to be in confusion before tilting his head. “Why the hell do you talk like an old man?”

Ming Fan sputtered, “I beg your pardon?!”

“You talk. Like an old man.” The young master said carefully, like he was an idiot of the most idiotic sense of the word. Not even Lords would be as rough as this one was, with anyone much less a fellow Lord. Honestly, if this was what the children of this world was like- “Anyway- whatever, it’s fine. I just…whatever.”

Sensing an opening, Wei Ying dived like the merciless swordsman Ming Fan knew for a damn fact the boy was going to grow up to be as he smiled wide and disarmingly at the young master. “Fan-ge is really smart! So if you need help looking, Fan-ge will surely be able to help!”

The young master raised a skeptical eyebrow, “As much as I’m sure you believe that kid, I doubt it.”

Ming Fan twitched back from his half-formed scowl, “Whether or not I can or cannot begins with a matter of stepping forward before turning back.”

Young Master frowned at that, “Can you speak anything other than that old man talk?”

“That is a mystery yet to be solved,” Ming Fan said spitefully. “This one’s name is Ming Fan.”

The irritating scoundrel of a boy snorted, “Sure it is.”

Ming Fan breathed low and restrained himself, chanting scrolls upon scrolls of maintaining one’s composure and not allowing himself to be angered by the…ignorance of others. “Would Young Master grant this Ming Fan the boon of knowing his name?”

“’That is a mystery yet to be solved’” The young master parroted with a smirk, huffing as Ming Fan clamped down on his urge to up and leave. “It’s Nie. Nie Mingjue.”

Ming Fan bowed out of habit, before straightening, “This one asks what Young Master Nie was searching for.”

If he said it more snappishly than he would have normally, Ming Fan was going to be the last to acknowledge it. Though regardless, Young Master Nie seemed to be stuck between a boulder and a pit as he visibly thought over why he should divulge his little reason for panicking before sighing and straightening himself as if to prepare for a scolding.

“I lost my brother.”

Ming Fan blinked, “I see.”

Nie Mingjue scowled after a second of inaction, “Well? Aren’t you going to help me find him?”

Ming Fan leveled a look of utter exasperation he mastered well before the war ended, causing the other boy to pull up his shoulders instinctively without knowing why. “Where was the last place Young Master saw him? Is he wearing the same clothes you are? What is his name?”

“At the market in the stall near the loquats, he’s wearing the same thing as I am sans the main outer robe, his name is Nie Huaisang,” Young master replied promptly, and begrudgingly impressively- so Ming Fan was prompted to exchange more of a decorous response in return.

“Does he have any interests that may draw his attention?” Ming Fan said, bringing to mind several of the stalls they had passed on the way here.

“Fans. And paints. He paints a lot.” Nie Mingjue stare became a little more than simply challenging, as if to dare him to comment on the matter. As if Ming Fan would ever- all of Qing Jing Peak was educated in the both the appreciation and composition of art- and anyone who badmouthed a fan had clearly never seen Shen Qingqiu cleave a demon in half with one for invading the bamboo garden. You had to be a disciple of Bai Zhan Peak to be so uncultured.

Ming Fan hummed and nodded to himself in spite of the other things he wished to mouth off, “Second Young Master has good taste. There’s a stall some ways from here that sold fans, next to the import of paints if this one’s memory serves. It would be prudent to begin there.” He had noted it especially because he wished to return to purchase one, as attempting to trade some of his collected materials in exchange could go very wrong very quickly.

Ming Fan’s pace was brisk even as he made sure to hold Wei Ying’s hand securely between himself and the Young Master. While he could be petty and attribute it to his irritation, a boy lost in a market place was no matter to be spiteful in. A young master especially. Young Master Nie’s protectiveness was evidence of the fact that not only was Second Young Master far younger, but perhaps far more prone to being bullied.  

He expanded his senses, searching before- there. The robes of a well-established sect usually held talismans interwoven within; it was unusual if there wasn’t as it was standard practice, even among the peaks. That would apply doubly so for a young master, especially one so small as the figure he was sensing.

“Wei Ying, stay with Young Master Nie,” He said with the most authoritative voice he could muster in his pre-pubescent body, sensing other characters around the boy of the unsavory sort. “Understood?”

“Yes Fan-ge.”

“What the hell are you-“

Ming Fan let go and sprinted forward, ducking under the crowd and following his senses to find a towering group of older children over a younger boy wearing similar clothes to Nie Mingjue.

Ming Fan scowled and stepped forward, “Just what exactly do you imbeciles think you’re doing?”

The tallest of them turned with a crooked grin, his clothes bearing the mark of a disciple. Unsavory. Utterly unsavory. “Run along kid, we’re just showing this boy his place.”

Ming Fan scowled deeper, “His place is clearly levels above yours if you find it so fitting to gang up on one child.”

One of the disciples, a lacky of some kind, “Why you little-“

“Hold it,” The tallest barked. “If he wants to defend a nobody son of a concubine then let us teach him a fellow lesson.”

Ming Fan rolled his eyes, “If there is any among you who believe yourselves so full of wisdom as to bestow upon this one, this one will climb to the heavens to praise you himself.”

“…What did he say?”

“I dunno he was talking weirdly.”

Ming Fan huffed, bringing his fist together to pop his knuckles one by satisfying one, “This one will forward the kindness bestowed upon him and will speak in your language. I’d like to see you try.”

A nearly fifty year-old cultivator in the body of a hardy and nimble nine year old, a cultivator who had a history of beating down demons with a broken hand when his sword was stuck under too much rubble to call upon. A cultivator who had spent years learning and driving off Bai Zhan Peak’s newer swine off from his own younger martial siblings. The same head disciple who sparred regularly with his Imperial Majesty Heavenly Demon Lord Luo Binghe, and lost to him hundreds among the thousands of times they have sparred.

He would not be fallen by some nobodies. The humiliation of that single instance was more than enough times for Ming Fan to be so very finished with it.

The fact that the disciple goons were highly beyond their skill level was more than a simple understatement. It was a brutal fact. One learned on a hard lesson as Ming Fan systematically dealt with all of them at once as they rushed him, tripping people into each other. Tugging at vulnerable areas in their robes. Pulling harshly and delivering swift and precise blows to places where the sun would not cast its light. It would be a scorching day in the territories of Mobei-jun before Head Disciple Ming Fan of Qing Jing Peak would do something as asinine as losing to a bunch of children.

As they lay weakly on the stone floor, weak and in pain, Ming Fan towered over them with all of the aura of the warrior he was. Tilting his eyebrows condescendingly, none of these disciples would be up to par with any disciple of the Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. Even a disciple of An Ding Peak could drop-kick them off a mountain. “This one will say this once, and only once.”

He crouched to his elbows with eyes narrowed venomously, qi not even a touch disturbed in its flow, “I will give you a grace of five. And all of you will get out of my sight.”

“Five.”

The brats scrambled to their feet.

“Four.”

The tallest of them fled the swiftest as the others scrambled after him. By three, all of them were gone.

Ming Fan huffed, “Cowards.”

He turned to see the boy looking up at him in awe, his expensive silks ruffled and eyes stained and puffy with a detestable streak of snot coming down his chin. Ming Fan’s skin crawled at the thought of the expensive silk being used as a cloth.

He crouched before the boy and offered his sleeve as sacrifice as he wiped away tears and snot, smoothing over his expression, “This Ming Fan offers greetings to Second Young Master Huaisang.”

“You talk weird,” the boy whispered.

Ming Fan sighed, yet another strangely well-developed boy in terms of vocabulary- none of decorum, “This one supposes he does. Does Second Young Master Nie find it annoying?”

“No-! It’s cool! Is gege’s name really Ming Fan?”

Ming Fan allowed an amused huff to escape him, “It is the name this one was given, yes.”

“So cool! You’re like the General Da-ge likes so much!” Nie Huaisang blinked before his shoulder’s slumped, looking just about ready for another round of fierce hot tiers, to which Ming Fan needed to intervene immediately.

“Young Master Nie is looking for you,” Ming Fan held his hand and put on a softer expression. “This Ming Fan will take Second Young Master to him.”

“Okay….Da-ge!”

Ming Fan turned to find indeed, Nie Mingjue holding Wei Ying in his arms as they ran to where they were. Nie Mingjue kneeling to release Wei Ying as he went to Nie Huaisang checking for injuries.

“Fan-ge, hello!”

Ming Fan cheek lifted in a small smirk as he patted Wei Ying’s head, “Hello A-Ying.”

“You little fool! Don’t let go of my hand ever when we’re in a busy place like this! Do you know how long I’ve been looking for you, you little twerp?”

“Sorry Da-ge, but there was so much pretty fans and then some of the older disciples said mean things to me…”

“What the- who the hell-?”

“But Fan-ge saved me! He’s like the General you like Da-ge! He was so cool and sent all of ‘em running back!”

“You-!” Nie Mingjue cut himself off as he scowled, tugging Huaisang up and into his arms. “Don’t ever do that again! If some good for nothing is being mean to you, you run straight to me. And you.”

Ming Fan raised his eyebrows, hand still on Wei Ying’s head. “Yes?”

“What do want?”

Ming Fan blinked, “…begging pardon?”

“What do you want,” Nie Mingjue barked. “For saving my brother. Money? A recommendation to our Sect? A favor?”

Ming Fan frowned, considering before looking at the stall behind him. One particular thing, actually.

Ming Fan walked around the brothers, Wei Ying following happily before he lifted up a simple stained fan and opened it. A small picture of a mountainside with groves of bamboo painted neatly along it’s fabric.

He turned to Young Master Nie, “This one would like to have this fan as his reward.”

“…That’s it?” Nie Mingjue’s confusion was interlaced within his words, his brows coming up with it.

“Yes,” Ming Fan confirmed. “Or nothing at all. Second Young Master Nie is a young child, what sort of person would I be if I allowed him to get beaten by some miscreants?”

“…They might be sons of prominent figures in the Nie Sect,” Nie Mingjue said, slowly, as if trying to point out something. “If they see you, they will demand retribution from you.”

Ming Fan shrugged, “Whether they are young masters or not, it is no excuse to gang up on a child. They are the foolish ones for it, my guilt remains clear for the justice I uphold remains unsullied.” He could probably go paces around them anyhow, though he would rather not risk the health of his mind from how bored he would be.

“…Old man,” Nie Mingjue said finally before sighing. “Fine. Sister Meng! I’m gonna buy the fan this guy has.”

“Oh no Young Master Nie, he can have it for such bravery defending Young Master Huaisang against those brutes. But do tell young man, you could have any of these other fans, perhaps something a little fancier? We have some lovely ones with gold inlays.”

Ming Fan looked at the fan in his hands and shook his head, eyes far away as the bamboo felt good and familiar in his hands. The decorative knots of its tassel in the soft blue-green chords bringing a pleasant feeling between his fingers. “This Ming Fan would like this one please.”

“So weird,” Nie Mingjue grumbled with a sigh. Hands still in the process of opening his pouch as he turned narrowed eyes at the selection. “Huaisang, be quick with your choice. Pick one for the Old Man and one for yourself.”

-

“Fan-ge?”

“Mhm?”

“Why did you ask Da-ge to get you a fan?”

Ming Fan raised an eyebrow, “’Da-ge’?”

“Mhm, Da-ge said A-Ying could call Da-ge ‘Da-ge’,” Wei Ying’s earnest grin pulled a bit of a smaller one from several of the passing crowd as they walked through the main square of the city just before the beginning of the wilderness. In the distance, Cangse Sanren and Wei Changze stood under the shade of a large elm. Leaves shaking slightly against the gentle breeze.

Ming Fan hummed to himself before swiftly expanding the fan to its full width, qi slowly seeping into the wood before he snapped his wrist. A strong gust blowing out from his fan that dissipated once it traveled some ways away. The second fan that was picked out by Nie Huaisang stayed within his sleeve, an elegant depiction of the towering mountains behind the main city of Qinghe. For a child most likely a year older than Wei Ying, he had excellent taste. “I had asked because I needed one.”

Wei Ying tilted his head, confusion evident by the wrinkles of his still pudgy face. “Why does Fan-ge need it?”

“Hm,” Ming Fan thought about it before slightly shrinking his pace. Keeping Wei Ying within a distance where he could hear him but no other could. “Do you remember when Fan-ge’s stomach hurted a lot? A-Ying’s Papa and Mama were worried?”

“Mhm,” Wei Ying nodded from the childish need to emphasize.

“It’s because Fan-ge has a lot of energy in him,” Ming Fan said slowly, trying to think of better ways to best translate it to the intelligent but still four-year old boy at his side. “Too much energy, and Fan-ge’s body can’t keep up with it so it hurts a lot when he accidentally makes too much.”

“How does a fan help then?”

“If I use it to do fun things it helps me use up the energy a lot safer and better,” Ming Fan hummed as he turned the fan over between his fingers. His thumb and forefinger ran across the grain of the wood in a slow rhythm; thoughts tumbled forward to the world by way of his tongue, “If only I had tools…I could try and carve one from some silver bamboo, it would hold up better against the brunt of my energy. I have to be careful with the ones your Da-ge gave me since I might accidentally burn them.”

Wei Ying tilted his head as he listened to it, brows pulling to a frown as he tried to recall something his father did a few months before he met Fan-ge. The memory flashing before his mind’s eye and sending the child into a gleeful mood, “Maybe use something to make Da-ge’s gift stronger?”

Ming Fan halted in his thoughts before turning to Wei Ying, curiosity built into his blank expression, “Can A-Ying explain further?”

“Papa drew something on the umbrella we had to make it stronger, can something like that make the fan better for Fan-ge?”

“The characters will have to be specific for the type of strength needed to extend the effectiveness,” Ming Fan muttered. “A thousand curses to my foolish past and thin face, this one should have studied more under Shang-shishu when the opportunity laid before him. Or perhaps…mimicking the blasting talismans? It would work in theory of stored energy but the output….”

Ming Fan shook his head, “Another time perhaps. Thank you for your help A-Ying.”

Wei Ying’s smile may have possibly temporarily blinded Ming Fan.

-

The crackling fire was calm as Wei Ying eagerly ate into a bun Wei Changze had bought in town while Cangse Sanren finished off the last of what they had needed to do to dispel the Yao and make sure it would be a very long time before the village would be infested again. Wei Changze and Cangse Sanren were talking quietly amongst themselves as they too consumed buns of their own, Ming Fan on the other hand, had absentmindedly stuffed the bun into his mouth as a whole and choked it down without so much as chewing through it. Thoughts centered around his current problem to solve as he drew characters into the dirt.

Wei Changze glanced at the serious look in the nine year old’s distanced gaze and promptly turned to the more sensible of the two children, “So what did you and Fan-ge get up to today A-Ying?”

Wei Ying was about to speak before stopping to swallow the food still in his cheeks, deflating from his puffed bunny look as he quickly glanced at Ming Fan before turning back to his father. “Fan-ge and A-Ying met Da-ge at the markets today!”

Cangse Sanren laughed, “Da-ge hm? Did A-Ying get Da-ge’s name?”

“Um,” Wei Ying turned red as soon as he realized he couldn’t actually recall his Da-ge’s name, turning to Ming Fan with a pinched expression. “Fan-ge called him uh-“

“Young Master,” Ming Fan supplied absentmindedly, tracing another character in the dirt and crossing out the one previous to it.

“Yeah! He called Fan-ge an Old Man!”

Wei Changze sighed as Cangse Sanren cackled, head thrown back and arm around her sides as she practically wheezed.

“Did you catch his name Ming Fan?” Wei Changze tried as soon as his wife began to look less like a laughing monkey and more like herself again, the tingle of giggles filling the air more quietly than her high pitched cackles. Though Wei Ying was still giggling even if he couldn’t quite grasp what was so funny.

Ming Fan hummed- frowning as he crossed out another character and wrote a new one, “Nie Mingjue.”

Cangse Sanren’s laughter paused, the two adults tilting to stare at Ming Fan as one. Wide eyed and slightly more than a little strange in Ming Fan’s absentminded observations.

“Nie…Mingjue.”

Ming Fan looked up, frown on his face, “Yes. Young Master Nie had lost Second Young Master in the market place. This Ming Fan and Wei Ying aided him until his brother was found. In repayment this Ming Fan had received a boon of two fans due to Young Master Nie’s kindness. After, Wei Ying and this Ming Fan traveled to the gates of the city to meet with Master Wei and Mistress Cangse.” Did this one do something wrong? Is what his face said.

Cangse Sanren blinked, “You and A-Ying met Nie Mingjue- and he called you an old man?”

Ming Fan twitched, annoyance surging to the forefront of his mind as he remembered those first few moments of meeting, “His comprehension of my perfectly acceptable decorum and poise had been acclaimed by Young Master Nie as ‘old man-like’ yes. Young Master Nie’s own manners would benefit much from improvement. It is unsuitable to face any fellow Master, much less a Lord.”

Cangse Sanren fell to the side as her cackles continued, this time far longer and far more hysterical as she laughed to her heart’s content. Wei Changze looking to the sky and praying for strength as he very much desperately attempted to save the boy face and not laugh. Wei Ying, however, had no such qualms nor cares about his Fan-ge’s face and therefore joined his mother as the two laughed their heads off.

Ming Fan frowned, “Did this Ming Fan do something especially amusing?”

Wei Changze breathed, low and controlled, “Ming Fan is aware that we are on Qinghe Nie Sect’s territory yes?”

Ming Fan’s frowned drew up in confusion, “This Ming Fan understands…”

“Ah- the Qinghe Nie Sect’s head is the Nie Clan.”

Ming Fan frowned for Cang Qiong Sect had been based on a scholarly system rather than bloodline however, he nodded all the same in recognition that he understood this.

“The heir to Sect Leader is none other than the Young Master of the Nie Clan,” Wei Changze choked back a snicker with determination. “Nie Mingjue.”

“…..oh.”

“Aaaaahh A-Fan, A-Fan- you really are amazing,” Cangse Sanren wheezed, short bursts of sporadic laughter escaping occasionally. “No more of this mistress talk yes? Call this Cangse Sanren Auntie okay? Amusing boys like you who meet the heir to a Sect and leave being annoyed with his manners can only call me Auntie okay?”

“If Auntie insists,” Ming Fan said weakly.

“Hm,” Cangse Sanren had a thought, and it was a thought Wei Changze was curious about as her expression changed. “Actually- hey hey Ming Fan- how about becoming Wei Fan hm? I get to have a second child without going through all the hard work!”

“…Begging pardon?”

“Your courtesy name would be Wei Ming I think- or you could keep Ming Fan if you don’t mind the looks you might get. Wei Ying’s courtesy name is supposed to be Wei Wuxian.”

“….Ahm-“

“But you get to have Wei Ying as a brother officially! I think that’s reason enough to join our family hm? Who wouldn’t want my cute little bunbun to call them Gege!?” Cangse Sanren reached over to pinch a giggling Wei Ying on the cheek.

“A-Ren, you’re confusing him,” Wei Changze sighed fondly before turning to Ming Fan. “But…if it helps Young Master Ming, I would be proud to call him son as well.”

Ming Fan had several thoughts running across his mind. Most of which was how surreal this was- to have a family again, however odd or quickly it might have begun. A part of his mind was hesitant- but another part, a part of him that never quite got over receiving the letter of his family’s deaths, craved it so much that it was frightening beyond compare. Of course, these were all emotions that had not been dealt with, even in his previous life- they were emotions that were kept locked and quietly mourned over a jar of wine and his friends joyful around him. Allowing him to soak in their happiness, their zeal of life. He did not have that now, perhaps not yet, but this…this opportunity.

Ming Fan had lived for forty-seven years. He was a celebrated cultivator for roughly twenty years after the war. He could do this. He could protect his family this time.

But similar to the rest of Qing Jing Peak, expressing his emotions were a far ways away from understanding them.

Though there was one part of that offer that made him frown, “…Why would this Ming Fan be looked at so strangely for being named Ming Fan?”

Cangse Sanren and Wei Changze, looking at each other with various emotions, one of which was breathless amusement and gleeful happiness- broke down in laughter that echoed through the night. While he would never go so far as to replace his former family, he allowed himself the sliver of hope that he could, quite possibly, become a member of this one.

At least until they told him about the legendary cultivators of the ancient Sects: The Swords of Cang Qiong Mountain.

Chapter Text

4. Log: File:Save_10-15.0001.log


Ming Fan hummed to himself in a mindless tune as he sifted through his haul of herbs and plants. Freshly picked throughout their travel, the scents of the medicinal greens and the spices wafted through the air in a peculiar combination.

“How you even find these among the rest of the foliage is beyond me,” Wei Changze commented as he thumbed through the various harvests. “Dāng guī; A-Ren is going to be happy you found this.”

Ming Fan nodded vigorously, for this was part of the reason why he dug up nearly the entirety of it. The fact remained however, that he needed to be careful with how he extracted the extract, for now it was enough that he kept the bundles dry, cool, and clean most importantly.

“Huáng qí as well?” Wei Changze carefully turned over the delicate roots. “Are you planning on becoming a herb dealer A-Fan?”

“The future is never stagnant,” Ming Fan muttered absentmindedly as he folded over the twine over the root bundle. If he was gaging the weather and their destination through the valley correctly, they were going to be able to hit a bout of sunny and dry weather; an excellent time to dry the roots while they were moving along the treeless landscape. It was a matter of figuring out how to make a vessel for such a thing but Ming Fan was close. “A-Ying won’t be able to cultivate his core in at least another four or five years. Until such a time comes, his vulnerability to sickness is such that requires preparation in anticipation. Beyond that- one never knows what may come. Children have died due to lack of proper medicine before; if one is able to save a life due to preparedness than one should endeavor to prepare if it is within their power to do so.”

Wei Changze blinked before smiling, “Is there anything I can help you with A-Fan until A-Ying and A-Ren come back?”

Ming Fan paused as he finished knotting the bundle, “…There a hóng zǎo shrub this one saw while walking. It is rare for one to grow so far north however if we could harvest some…”

Wei Changze got up with a slight bounce in his step, a dazzling – if slightly small – smile on his features that might have been the defining evidence of where exactly Wei Ying got the majority of his happy smile from, “Show me the way oh wise General Ming.”

Ming Fan colored and mumbled out a description of where the shrub should be.

-

“Try not to stray too far A-Ying,” Ming Fan said quietly as he allowed Wei Ying to lead through the market place. “Father and Mother will not be long.”

“Okay Fan-ge~” Wei Ying spotted something and began to walk faster than any five year old had the right to be. “Fan-ge look- look! The butterflies are really pretty.”

The toymaker smiled broadly at his two customers, making encouraging gestures towards the more eager one, “Go on ahead and look!”

Wei Ying smiled brightly as eager small hands grabbed at one butterfly, twirling it between his fingers as he giggled. The waxed paper glowing with a satin sheen under the bright afternoon.

Ming Fan glanced at the shop keep wearily before looking down at Wei Ying’s face, studying it slightly before sighing and turning his head back up, “May this Wei Fan inquire the price for your wares sir?”

Wei Ying giggled at the shop keep’s bewildered face, sucking in his cheeks as Ming Fan glanced down at the sound with a raised eyebrow.

“Uh- ten yuan young master?” The shop keep seemed to say this hesitantly even as Ming Fan reached into his funds without a fuss, hanging over the coins as he gently tugged Wei Ying away.

“Such a strange boy,” the shop keep muttered before shaking his head. “I should visit grandfather again today.”

-

Ming Fan did not like the area that proceeded the Koi Tower of the Lanling Jin Sect. It was crowded, dusty, and filled with rude people to the point where Ming Fan had to consciously hold his tongue from snapping at the careless keepers and shoppers throughout the market district.

“Thanking for your kindness of giving this A-Fan work in the form of washing clothes, again,” He muttered spitefully under his breath as he tugged Wei Ying closer to himself. He refused to get caught in the rabble- refused. Wei Ying heard this and giggled softly. Wei Changze and Cangse Sanren were nearby as they weaved through the keeps and retrieved the supplies they needed, one never more than a hand’s reach away from the children if the other was out further.

Then movement.

Ming Fan grunted as a body slammed against his own, foot shifting reactively to catch himself and prevent both him and Wei Ying from falling onto the stone floor. There was a woman in silk, slightly frayed from age and use. Leaned up against him as Ming Fan caught her fall.

Ming Fan reached to catch the clothed shoulder before she could slip off himself.

“Stupid whore,” a drunken patron hissed, stumbling forward.

Ming Fan noted the shaking in the woman’s form before looking to Wei Ying with a  silent order, the boy nodding and moving around them to gently hold the woman’s other arm. With practice, Ming Fan forced his urge to scowl down in favor of drawing out as much concern and childish innocence left in him as he could.

“May this Wei Fan ask if big sister is alright?” He ground his words to a low but clear mutter, stepping out from behind her to keep her steady in her half kneeled state. The woman seemed to be in shock as she stared at him, mouth open in agape before Ming Fan sensed the drunken man behind him- pitching himself out of reach before returning to the woman’s side with an encouraging tug of her arm. Supported by Wei Ying, they helped force the woman’s legs to move forward- further and out of the way of the drunken man’s careless grapple.

Ming Fan looked up to stare at the drunken man, standing firmly in between, mouth clenched shut as he resisted the urge to spit back venom.

“The hell are you looking at me like that for brat?” The man hissed, arms raised in a fist. “I’ll show you-“

“You will not,” Cangse Sanren’s voice shook the place like thunder as it rolled throughout the bustling market. Stilling the shop keeps in their movements as they instinctively hid themselves from the new threat.

The man, incoherent, cursed the new interloper, “Shut up stupid bitch, I’ll get to you as soon as I finish with-“

At that point, Ming Fan’s more than fifty years of cultivated pride would not allow that to stand, “If Master says Mother is a female dog than he must be a parasite.”

The shop keeps startled at the low voice, the woman behind him jolting before looking to the boy in disbelief.

“You-!”

“You move that arm Jin ZiLiu I will have it removed.”

A new voice entered the scene as woman clothed in delicate gold silks and elegant yet carefully chosen jewels came upon the man like lightning. There was a little boy with her, looking at the scene with childish curiosity. Ming Fan stood straighter, his shoulders rolling back and instinctively covering the woman behind him. Wei Ying moving to grip his wrist with instinctive warning against any rash action.

The woman walked further and scowled at the drunken man, “What a disgrace. You’ve not even a single spot left of your face left after that boy slaughtered it, take a look at yourself ZiLiu. My husband may tolerate your slob disposition, but I will not. The sun is still clearly in the sky yet you saw fit to move around so brazenly, are you or are you not of the Jin Clan?”

“Apologies Madam Jin,” The man cowed under the snappish tone, unconsciously reaching up to touch between his brows.

“Disgraceful,” the woman repeated with visible disgust. “Not even a speck of your vermillion left. Get out of my sight before I lose my patience.”

The man scampered away, much to Ming Fan’s disinterest as he was suddenly faced with the stern face of Cangse Sanren.

“You- what were you thinking saying that to him?”

“Master offered Mother insult, this Wei Fan returned his kindness,” Ming Fan answered automatically, blinking before clenching his jaw. “This Wei Fan apologizes, he will not offer disrespect to his elders if one such situation repeats in the future.”

Cangse Sanren sighed through her nose as she held her forehead. There was tense silence as Wei Changze returned with an exasperated look, drawing Ming Fan’s shoulders up defensively as his mind chewed itself out. If it had been any other, no doubt it would be Wei Fan or even worse, Cangse Sanren who would be punished for his actions. He should not have acted so rashly-

Cangse Sanren busted out laughing.

All eyes turned to her in confusion as she clutched at her stomach, barking out a mad series of wolfish like laughter before leaning on Wei Changze’s shoulder for support, “You called him a parasite!”

“What’s a parasite?” Wei Ying asked at his side.

“A living organism that feeds off a host, a host is the living being the parasite resides with or within,” Ming Fan responded automatically, before frowning as he concentrated on leveling his answer down. “They’re creatures who feed of the thing they’re living with or in. Like lice.”

“Oh okay, thanks Fan-ge.”

“A Parasite! Holy-

Even Madam Jin seemed to lose her composure enough to smile a little before drawing herself together, “You there- what is your name?”

“This one’s name is M- Wei Fan,” Ming Fan bowed at his waist, hands linked together and back ramrod straight. “This one is honored to meet Lady Jin.”

Madam Jin seemed to blink before turning to the two adults, specifically Wei Changze, with a question in her tilted brows. Wei Changze only shrugged helplessly before mouthing, ‘he’s like that’ at her. His arm coming up to support Cangse Sanren’s still wheezing state.

Ah, Ming Fan noted, they called her Madam Jin. The vocabulary change something he still has yet to get used to. He couldn’t remember if he had accidentally called her station higher or lower than what was appropriate.

“Aaaaaa- A-Fan A-Fan, give this mother of yours a hug; you really made me laugh today! Madam Jin, is he not so cute with his strange formality?” Cangse Sanren reached over to pinch Ming Fan’s cheeks. “Only ten yet so cranky, should we be calling you Grandfather Wei then?”

Ming Fan colored, “This one is not-“

“But this Mother knows all too well what it looks like when someone is holding back,” Cangse Sanren’s teasing didn’t let up. “Tell me, what were you really going to call him mn? Promise, we won’t tell!”

“Speak for yourself Cangse Sanren.”

“I won’t let them tell,” Cangse Sanren amended.

“This one-“

“Come on A-Fan! Ooooo! Do we need to send your didi away for a bit? A-Chang can you take A-Ying out to play for a bit?”

“A-Ren…” Wei Changze looked helpless as pleading eyes turned to him. “Don’t tease A-Fan so much?”

“Gege what were you going to say?” Wei Ying asked curiously.

Ming Fan colored until his cheeks were a deep carmine, drawing the eyes of many as the infamous cultivator battered against his good sense- that is, until he broke. “Swine- I was going to call him an insignificant insult to swine who knows not how to respect the world and the people that reside with him even if decency were to find his chrysanthemum and pierce it!”

He paled as soon as he lost his breath.

Silence.

Then howling laughter.

“A-Fan…” Wei Changze sweat dropped as sighed and let his wife fall to the floor in gut wrenching laughter- though he himself was coloring at his restraint. “You-“

“It doesn’t even sound a little bit vulgar! He worded it too well! It cancels out!” Cangse Sanren cackled. “A-Chang A-Chang where’s my paper I need to write it down for Qiren-“

A-Ren,” Wei Changze groaned.

“Gege…?”

“I’ll tell you when you’re older,” Ming Fan squeaked.

“Quite the mouth on him,” Madam Jin said with a dry tone, even as her cheeks were beginning to pink.

“Mama- why does that boy talk like an old hermit from all those stories?”

All eyes went to young master Jin’s curious expression before turning back to Ming Fan- who gaped at being called an old man not once- not twice- not even thrice- but for the fourth time.

He sighed and looked to the heavens, as he muttered spitefully to the being responsible for sending him to the murder of his face. Then promptly, accepted it as a good disciple of Qing Jing Peak would, “One should respect their elders.”

Madam Jin broke as she snickered.

-

“Do you understand what exactly the woman you saved Jin ZiLiu from was?” Madam Jin raised an eyebrow at Wei Fan, apparently Wei Changze and Cangse Sanren’s newest addition to their nomad family.

Ming Fan, having quietly requested a table for his own as he laid open the various stacks of talisman paper before him, cinnabar carefully contained in its own vessel and brush poised mid stroke; quietly set his brush down to address Madam Jin who sat in front of him. Wei Changze and Cangse Sanren playing with both Wei Ying and Young Master Jin in a game of Wei Ying’s invention.

“A brothel worker,” Ming Fan said quietly. The woman’s friends had come up to comfort her the minute Madam Jin had a temporarily lapse with her laughter, carefully tugging the shaken woman away and bowing to Ming Fan in silent thanks as they left. He had not caught her name, but he wasn’t expecting it either. It was common practice to maintain safety and professionalism.

“Would you protect her all the same?” Madam Jin asked, a cold tone infusing her voice with icy disgust. “Even if she were to bed with men already wedded?”

“This A-Fan would answer with a question,” Ming Fan said carefully.

“What.”

“Who is in the wrong?” Ming Fan turned to her with a blank expression, not accusing but- contemplative. Open. “The one who paid for intimacies usually reserved for their spouse? Or the one who works in such conditions in an attempt to preserve their own lives? As much as many would disregard brothel workers, whores, as you and many others would call them. Is it truly their fault to have become who they are? Is it truly any one’s choice to be regarded as an object and not a person? To be spat upon by wives who cannot raise a hand to the person who caused the issue in the first place due to the patriarchal nature of this society?”

Ming Fan tilted his head, “As a man myself- I cannot say I would be able to sympathize with you or her. I cannot. I am not a wife, or married. I also do not work in a brothel. But I can empathize. I will not pretend to stand on a ground of higher moral conduct with you, I am not you. I have not been hurt as you have. And your hurt is as valid as any wound.”

“But,” Ming Fan paused to look Madam Jin in the eye. “I will ask you to consider, who is the true culprit? Who is the one truly responsible?”

Ming Fan turned back to his paper, “Justice is a fickle thing, it changes with time and understanding, with wisdom most of all. It is impossible to definitively name what is black and what is white. But there is one aspect I believe will never change. True justice, is justice in which all of the factors have been accounted for and judged fairly. Afterall, is it not more satisfying to punish the true criminal rather than the goat they use to escape?” 

“You would defend a whore?”

“I would defend a person,” Ming Fan gently corrected. “If that person happens to be a brothel worker then so be it.”

A moment of tense silence, Ming Fan noted the notches in the wood as Madam Jin visibly rolled his ideas in her head. Struggling with the aspect, but he understood. She had been wronged and the cause of her pain was turned upon the very people Ming Fan was defending.

Ming Fan pursed his lip before quietly adding, “Are you familiar with Peak Lord Shen of Qing Jing Peak?”

“Everyone knows the Legend of the Xiu Ya sword, what of it?” Madam Jin’s tone was terse.

“I have read older versions of the stories,” Ming Fan lied smoothly. “He used to visit brothels.”

“A Peak Lord of his disposition? You must have read fakes.”

Ming Fan shook his head, “It was a story of understanding that the ugly cover does not account for the content. He was investigating a series of murders in a town, many had been women. More had been brothel workers- yet these victims did not come to light until Peak Lord Shen consulted the Mistress and her girls, for they were the ones with the most knowledge of the murderers habits and victims. But it was mentioned in the story, that he did this often. ‘Brothels are an excellent source of information’ he had told his disciples. ‘Everyone spills their secrets to them. They are not obligated to keep it and neither should we disrespect them for their practices. A brothel is a life blood for many cannot do so themselves. Others will scorn them. We will help them, and in turn, they will help us. If one were to procure privacy from a brothel than one must first pay with friendship’.”

Ming Fan hadn’t truly understood until that day, but many of Qing Jing Peak learned quickly and adapted. The net of information Shizun was able to gather within one visit was nearly terrifying, but it was also awe-inspiring. They were treated well when they visited, pampered and given luxuries granted to no other customer whether it be fresh fruit or an offer to wash soiled robes. Ning Yingying was a favorite visitor among others due to her bubbly personality and easy going nature when in the company of friends, Ming Fan often preferred to preform alongside the other musicians. But they had solved hundreds of missions and saved thousands of people because of that same relationship. It was a brothel worker who came forward to Cang Qiong Mountain about what happened with Luo Binghe’s blood-mother. It was a brothel worker who protected Shizun when he needed it the most. It was a brothel worker who quietly informed them of demon armies  during the wars. It was a brothel worker who quietly sided with them against a daunting enemy of the then crazed Luo Binghe because of sheer virtue of the fact that Shizun had treated and taught them to treat her and so many like her kindly.

Ming Fan watched Wei Ying’s gentle laugh and hoped he could pass on Shizun’s teachings. Cang Qiong swordplay and clever ancient pieces could drown in his memory, but this he would pass on. He was determined to pass it on.

“You really are an old man, you speak like my father,” Madam Jin sighed. “All these words of wisdom. Don’t you tire of it? Isn’t it exhausting spouting wisdom like a fountain? That Cangse Sanren said you were ten, are you certain she isn’t lying to me?”

“This body has lived ten years,” Ming Fan responded dryly- though to be frank, he wasn’t quite sure either. “I do not believe Father would allow Mother to get away with such an elaborate prank.”

“Wei Changze is as whipped for her as he was with Fengmian as children,” Madam Jin sighed. “If only he exercised his authority a little more he could turn the tide a little- but no. The man is too besotted.”

He chose not to address that tone of jealousy in her voice.

“But…you’re right, Wei Changze is an honorable man. More so than half of the so-called noble blood in most of the Great Sects,” Madam Jin looked to Ming Fan. “I will think on your words and try to focus on the one truly responsible for my rage. As repayment Wei Fan, for sharing your wisdom, this Hàn Yǎzhì will offer aid. Should there be an instance where you require my help, speak, and I will do what I can. I do not guarantee that I would be able to fulfil it.”

Ming Fan bowed his head as much as he could in the seat, “This Wei Fan is honored to have even been offered such a boon. He promises to only call upon honorable Lady Hàn in a time of true need, and will eb understanding if those needs cannot be met. No more, and no less.”

Madam Jin nodded in satisfaction before turning back to watch her son giggle as he ran after Wei Ying through the large room in the inn, the patrons who were kinder folk and the owner had offered the largest room as soon as he saw Madam Jin with them.

“There will be people you know, who will denounce both you and your brother for being the son of a former servant,” Madam Jin watched the other’s expression carefully. “It may be too brash of me to tell you this, but I have a feeling you are already aware.”

“…This one knows,” Ming Fan said after a moment. “There have been other cultivators who have reacted to Mother strangely. She also speaks of cultivators this one has come to know as well known throughout the five Sects, and has told stories of her Shizun Baoshen Sanren. Father has also spoken of his time in Lotus Pier, and of Sect Leader Jiang. However, I sense a hint of…regret.”

“…” Madam Jin sighed. “Yes. Fengmian and Wei Changze were close as children, there was an oath between the two of them- that Changze would follow him forever. Should you ever visit Yunmeng Jiang, you will no doubt find rumors of Wei Ying being Fengmian’s son rather than Changze.”

Ming Fan frowned, “Wei Ying does share Mother’s character, however he shares a majority of his looks with Father. In years’ time there is no doubt he will gain the same broad shoulders Father has, he also shares the same gait.”

“While they are not correct, their suspicions are not based upon mere gossip,” Madam Jin seemed to slump as she sighed. “Ziyuan, that is, Madam Yu- the Violet Spider, will not listen to reason of this, but it is obvious to anyone with eyes that the true cause of the fall out between Fengmian and Changze was that Fengmian felt betrayed.”

“…” Ming Fan tilted his head. A silent question. 

Madam Jin turned to look at the happy couple, “The issue with Wei Changze is that he is too aware of his station. His status as a servant. Which caused disagreement when the proposal from Meishan Yu to marry their eldest daughter to Jiang Sect’s heir came along. Jiang Fengmian was resistant for one reason.”

Her eyes looked pointedly at Wei Changze.

“However, Father did not see why he, a servant, would be worth denying a prominent Sect over.” Ming Fan concluded.

Madam Jin nodded, “Then Cangse Sanren came along and filled a spot in Wei Changze’s stubborn stiff heart. The man was gone as soon as she set her eyes on his lonely back. She may not tell you this, but she knew Wei Changze had returned Fengmian’s favor. He simply forced himself to not acknowledge it for Fengmian’s sake. She would tell you she bothered Wei Changze because he seemed interesting, she would not say that she felt sorry for him- and fell afterward.”

“…That is why we have yet to step foot in Yunmeng territory.”

“As long as Wei Changze feels guilty for leaving Fengmian behind, he will never step a toe in Lotus Pier. He will allow skirts around Yunmeng, but never so close as to reach Lotus Pier,” Madam Jin sighed. “I am telling you this as a warning Wei Fan, Ziyuan has written to me of Jiang Fengmian’s habits. He does not stay with her for long, and he has spent more time on the pier than he does at dinner with her and their two children. There are news of him traveling with disciples at the edges of their territory.”

Ming Fan frowned, “To reconcile or to confront is the question remained unanswered.”

“She wouldn’t know,” Madam Jin sighed- a bit fond but exasperated. “She refuses to see that neither she nor Cangse Sanren is at fault for Fengmian’s behavior. I have no doubt she would blame Wei Ying and yourself if you were to appear before her, never mind if the rumors of Jiang Fengmian being in love with Cangse Sanren were based on incorrect information. Everyone who knew her well would know that it was Lan Qiren who had such a flame, however stomped away it was by the man himself.”

Ming Fan frowned, experiencing a nauseating flashback of Ning Yingying’s years being courted by Liu Mingyan and Sha Hualing, “Have I been adopted into a family of heart breakers?” Oh shit, Wei Ying.

“Perhaps,” Madam Jin smiled, idly noting the smooth change of topic as Wei Changze and Cangse Sanren drew closer. To her, Wei Fan physically straightened in his seat without so much as glancing their way, it implied an awareness for one’s surroundings usually born of a founded caution. The question of course, lied in where exactly that awareness was founded. “Would you like to be a Jin instead Wei Fan? Jin Guangshan may be scum but I believe I can still twist his arm.”

“By honorable Madam’s description, this Wei Fan may sooner host a hostile take-over within a week,” Ming Fan replied with a snappish tone, Madam Jin recoiled at the change with a twitch of her fingers. A sudden wave of dread washing over her before washing away within a blink- the taught poise of a drawn bow relaxing with a controlled release. “Madam Jin will have to settle with being Madam Jin this one is disappointed to say.”

Madam Jin willed her uneasiness to settle, smile forcing itself through practiced motion, “Could you? If you do, this Madam will step down and allow honorable Jin Fan to take the seat.”

“Madam Jin, with respect, there is no way in the depths of the abyss this Wei Fan will be a Sect Leader.” Ming Fan shuddered in his ten year old body. His hand twitched closed in a brush hold before relaxing again, the familiar throbbing pain echoing from his wrist. “The paperwork.”

Madam Jin blinked. Instinctive caution towards this very wrong boy halting for a moment to take on the meaning of that sentence. A willful dissonance, a repulsion from a lucrative seat of power. Because of…paperwork. She would have smiled indulgently had it not been for the genuine tone of vehemence.

She was the Madam Jin of Lanling Jin, she knew lies and liars alike.

She laughed.

The sound of such raw amusement drew attention to her; the eyes of her son seemed to…sparkle as he approached her with curious eyes. She kept her smile and opened her arms to him, hugging him close while Wei Ying hovered close behind, expression openly pleading.

Ming Fan put away his brush and opened his arms, a giggling Wei Ying running straight into them.

“…A-Chang, why do I feel like I’ve been defeated?” Cangse Sanren pouted.

“There there A-Ren,” Wei Changze patted her shoulder sympathetically. “We are no match for Fan-gege.”

“…A-Chang go paint this.” Cangse Sanren harrumphed even in the face of her apparent loss to her adopted son. “I’m going to wave it around to all the jealous mothers of how my cute, smart, sons get along so well.”

“Ah, Cangse Sanren,” Madam Jin called, drawing her attention even as the elegant lady smirked. “A-Fan and A-Ying may call me Aunt.” Keeping a closer eye on this one may be of benefit, if not interest.

Cangse Sanren blinked, mouth agape before turning to Ming Fan. Words died in her throat as she observed an easy disposition in his posture. Ming Fan was many things, as much as they joked of his tendencies to act more like an elder than a child, it was not unfounded. His back was ramrod straight as if he was a Lan all his life, a posture maintained even as he walked unless it was selectively slumped. The way he held his brush was elegant and neat. With Wei Ying as well, he seemed at ease with the rambunctious child. Knew just the right thing to say to draw out the reaction he needed. It was practiced- too practiced for the age he was supposed to be.

And as much as Huá Zháo was a pain in her ass when they were teenagers, the spitfire woman standing firm by Yu Ziyuan’s side throughout the years, she respected her for intelligence. The woman was married the most frustrating man in Sect Leadership and she still maintained power and respect. If she saw something, it was most definitely there.

So she allowed the teasing tone to color her words, “Wei Fan what did you do?!”

Ming Fan frowned, glancing at Madam Jin from the corner of his eye with an absent look before frowning in offense, “This one has done nothing to Han-āyí”

“Hàn?!” Cangse snapped her head between the two before letting out a whine. Calculated, too calculated. How does a ten year old hide his thoughts so well, how does he look us in the eye as he does it? What is with this child- if he is a child at all. “Even I can’t call you Hàn-jie, how is this fair?”

“For one, we were never sworn sisters. For second, you are older than me,” Madam Jin nose turned up at her. You saw it.

“No fair! If my sons can call you Auntie then I can call you Hàn-jie.” I did.

“No.”

“Hàn-jie.”

“A-Xuan go to your biǎo gē while Mama takes care of the whiny old woman.”

Hàn-jie!” She recoiled internally- as hard as she was, as hard as she needed to be- Jin Zixuan was among the most beloved children in this entire screwed up world. Why are you being so mean to Renren?!”

Ming Fan wordlessly lifted the Young Master Jin to his other lap as the three watched Cangse Sanren whine and Madam Jin apparently resorting to her sword in order to retaliate. Screeching and protests giving way to yelling as Madam Jin chased her with a sword and a threat.

Wei Changze sat behind his eldest with a tired sigh, earning a sympathetic pat from Ming Fan.

“Mother is being chased with a sword. By Madam Jin.” Ming Fan muttered dryly.

Wei Changze sighed, “Only the third time this week, it’s still early. She wanted to stop by Yiling for spices later, we may run into Lan Qiren on the way.”

Wei Ying giggled happily as Ming Fan absentmindedly brushed a knuckle against his side- and Young Master Jin cheered for his mother. Caution to be exercised next time. This world is full of hidden swords.

-

It was the dead of night, many days later when Cangse Sanren sat by him near the fire. In one hand, his fan, on the other hand, a branch he used to coax the fire back to a soft roar before it would snuff out completely.

“Who are you? Who are you in actuality that is.”

Ming Fan tilted his head. “This Ming Fan never falsified the claims of his identity.”

Cangse Sanren’s hand lazily twisted the fruit in her grasp, rolling the idea in her mind. “Ming Fan. That is- General Ming Fan.”

He huffed, “This one wonders, why is he known as a General? The war only lasted for roughly a few years at most. If anything I should be known as-“

He paused, fingers flexing before relaxing as he sighed, the fan sliding open with a simple flick and gently brushed air against the surface of the embers. Coaxing the fire just that little much more. “It is no longer relevant.”

“You’re a celebrated warrior, an idol to almost-“

“The General you know,” Ming Fan began patiently. “Is not this one. That Ming Fan, in this world, is noble. Refined. He does not have cracks in his character. He does not have blood in his robes.”

Ming Fan tilted his head quietly, “I do.”

Cangse Sanren considered his words, rolling the ideas in her mind before humming, “All those legends. All those stories. You died younger than the rest of them- but you are also the one without a backstory. It’s blank.”

Ming Fan nodded.

“…Don’t you want them to know?”

“Even if that is my wish, what is there to claim that it would change anything,” Ming Fan snapped the fan closed with a flick of his wrist. Tilting his head slightly with a sigh. “The stories are already ingrained in the minds of the people. Let them have their hero.”

“…You know, you were the one guy among the Swords I thought was the strangest one,” Cangse Sanren admitted. “I didn’t like you very much. It didn’t seem like there was a good reason for you to be so celebrated; except maybe the stories about you from the war. That was impressive.”

Ming Fan rolled his eyes, “The war was a war. My deeds were equal to everyone else who fought. What you all should have been impressed by is my ability to talk down Ning Yingying from removing the Palace Princess’ head from her shoulders.”

Cangse Sanren snorted, “You should have let her.”

Ming Fan leveled a disappointed look at her so practiced and so powerful she hunched her shoulders together instinctively, “That would have ruined the plan induct Gongyi Xiao into Cang Qiong sect without Huan Hua Palace accusing us of poaching.”

“He…lived?”

Ming Fan frowned, “Do your stories speak of him dead? Shizun had been dead for some time before his return, I am rather flummoxed by the idea that you would not speak the same of Gongyi Xiao.”

Cangse Sanren’s mouth remained agape before she stood abruptly, “Who did he end up with?”

“He became a disciple of Shizun-?” Ming Fan blinked at her. “I fail to see how that is relevant.”

“It is every bit relevant, do you know how many hours I spent explaining to Lan Qiren that it was clear to everyone that Gongyi Xiao would have been the most dangerous rival to Luo Binghe’s mission to gain Shen Qingqiu’s hand?? He argued for Liu Qingge, can you believe it?!”

“A-Ying is sleeping,” Ming Fan snapped lowly before poking the fire up again. The steadily strengthening breeze was beginning to be annoying. “And what is so wrong with Liu-shishu? He is the peak of handsomeness among Cang Qiong Peak. Discounting Luo Binghe, but Shizun had been working on that foolish dog’s tendency to separate himself from Qing Jing Peak- it was far less now- that is then, than before.”

Cangse Sanren blinked. “…’himself’?”

Ming Fan tilted his head, “Yes…?”

"Luo Binghe- Supreme Emperor of the Demon lands…was a ‘he’?”

Ming Fan frowned, “I feel that I am missing a detail of vital importance in this conversation.”

“This…this changes everything.”

“It does not change anything; what sort of nonsense are you speaking of?” Ming Fan sighed. “Make no mistake, Luo Binghe was still the strongest demon of his empire with even Mobei-jun and Sha Hualing at his beck. Though I suppose it could be argued that Shizun and Shang-shishu is the true power behind them.”

“Shang …Shang Qinghua, Peak Lord Shang of An Ding Peak?”

“Husband of Mobei-jun…yes,” Ming Fan sighed. “How is it that you have learned all of us yet somehow missed the most vital information? Next I’m going to hear that the details of Ning Yingying’s wedding to Liu Mingyan where forgotten- or worst, changed.

“…….”

“Don’t- what-“ Ming Fan stood up with a thunderous expression on his ten year old features- equally parts hilarious and terrifying with the sheer intensity of it. “Do you have any idea how much blood, sweat, and tears I put into that wedding? Do you know of the mountain of paperwork I had to deal with to let demons on Cang Qiong Mountain for such an event?! The dowry’s to the Liu family I put together with Shizun’s beast recommendations? The sheer amount of food tasting on Luo Binghe’s cooking I attended with the two? Do you have any idea how long I spent sourcing the spider silk from Binghe’s lands while he was busy with the food?! How many people I had to beat into submission into keeping silent of their lecherous opinions before either of them decided to damn propriety and allow their swords to fly? Shizun’s wedding was a disgrace of my work I mourn for, and I did not spend two years of my life only to allow useless imbeciles to forget the glorious declaration of redemption of my blunder that was the marriage of Ning Yingying and Liu Mingyan.”

“…You organized the wedding?”

“I am the Head Disciple of Qing Jing Peak,” Ming Fan deadpanned. “Shizun was busy helping Ning Yingying hunt the creatures for the dowry I recommended to combine with Qing Jing Peak’s dowry. Ning Yingying is among the best cultivators- but hunting requires a more experienced hand. Your skills in observation and investigative thought processes are far beyond average; I’m sure it would not be too difficult to reach a conclusion.”

Cangse Sanren shivered, “You remind me of shifu when you talk like that.”

“With sense?”

“With wisdom.” Cangse Sanren hunched her shoulders closer to her body. “And that snappy voice that makes my hairs stand on end.”

She reached out with a hand and ruffled his hair, laughing as the boy sighed and allowed her to continue the minstrations before he smacked her arm away with a fan.  

“Hey- is that anyway to treat your mother?” Cangse Sanren pouted.

Ming Fan froze.

“Ah- Elder Fan- I didn’t, A-Fan I’m sorry.”

Ming Fan breathed deep, controlling and wrestling down the anger welling up from his veins. Shoving it back into his inner thoughts and expelling them through truths and logic.

He breathed out. “It is fine.”

“It isn’t,” Cangse Sanren said quietly. “But I thank you for your forgiveness. But- if you…”

Ming Fan shrugged, “It is similar to a mission of disguise, Ming Fan and Wei Fan to me, are two different individuals. Ming Fan is an old cultivator who’s life ended. Wei Fan is an entirely different person- he’s…he is still a boy.”

He looked to his hand with a frown, “I am still a boy that is. I am surprised you’ve yet to comment on my improved speech.”

“You still slip into old man territory, no ten-year-old speaks as eloquently as you do.”

Ming Fan sighed and expanded his fan to hide his expression, “This one will humbly accept his status as an old man then. What of you? Hearing of me does not offer a clear image of my character.”

Cangse Sanren snorted, “Well. A-Chang likes you, that’s good enough for me. As idealistic as he can be, he’s got a good sense of character. He believes you to be good for us, and even if you were or were not the illustrious Ming Fan of Qing Jing Peak, I still believe he’s right about you. That you’d be good for Wei Ying, and for us.”

“And hey,” Cangse Sanren grinned. “I’ve officially gained a son who’s not only older than me, but has accolades to bring the Lans to shame!”

“Any disciple of Qing Jing Peak would know that the virtue of integrity is required to be a good cultivator,” Ming Fan deadpanned. “The fifth virtue of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect, that equates to being humble of one’s achievements.”

“A-Fan noooo,” Cangse Sanren pouted. “You sound like Lan Qiren.”

“You may continue to pout, however that is also the main virtue of the fifth Peak. Xian Shu Peak is the peak of integrity. They’re moral character is both undisputable and immovable,” Ming Fan leveled a look at her. “You didn’t believe that our Sect would differ so wildly in overall teachings did you? As much as the Peaks differ, the core teachings remain the same. Leadership. Justice. Truth. Direction. Integrity. Bravery. Compassion. Endurance. Discipline. Determination. Fidelity. Patience. The twelve virtues all disciples of Cang Qiong Sect strive to achieve throughout their life, specializing especially in the virtue of their peak.”

Cangse Sanren blinked, “Huh. There are only stories, I’ve never actually heard of the Cang Qiong Sect as a peak.”

“In difference to the situation, all of you believe us to be legends- not history,” Ming Fan fanned himself. “But I assure you, we were a very functional Sect.”

“I’ll take your word for it- maybe one day I’ll tell Qiren about you. He was a faithful admirer of the tales. He’d bury you in questions.”

Ming Fan gave her a look.

“Which now that I think about it, probably isn’t much of an issue considering how well you work with A-Ying.”

“I can’t imagine that the responsibilities of a Head Disciple have changed much over the course of history.” Ming Fan watched as Cangse Sanren threw her head back in a quiet laughter. Allowing him to revel in the gentle sound before prickle of a claw sunk into his spine and climbed. The small smile of his own dropping into one of dread as he clenched the fan in his fist and drew smaller, a cold wave settling on his shoulders uncomfortably.

Sharp eyes caught the change immediately. “What is it?”

“There is…an unpleasant feeling. I don’t like it.”  

Cangse Sanren’s expression changed. Equal parts apprehensive and unnerved, goose flesh pinching together on her skin as a cold chill fell over her bones like a particularly useless blanket.

“It’s best we go to sleep. I’ll take first watch A-Fan.”

-

“MING FAN TAKE A-YING AND GO.”

“DON’T LOOK BACK A-FAN JUST GO.”

“A-YING, MAMA AND PAPA LOVE YOU-“

The ringing sound of sword hitting rock pounded like a scream.

Silence.

Then a snarl. A bark.

The sound of claw torn flesh and a savage bang of energy roared throughout the land, a howling screech of bloodshed victory- halting to a now horrifyingly calm forest. A thunk on the forest floor, the ground steeped in blood. A hand throbbing with pain and broken bones painfully stitching together as the rest of its nerves burned.

And Ming Fan ran.

 

 

Chapter Text

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“MAMA”

“FAN-GE WHERE’S MAMA”

“FAN-GE WHY DIDN’T YOU DO ANYTHING.”

“FAN-GE”

“FAN-GE”

“I HATE YOU.”

“WHERE’S MAMA?!”

“WHY DID YOU LEAVE MAMA BEHIND?!”

“Fan-ge…?”

Ming Fan jolted from his place, nearly falling off the branch before he clenched on the wood of the tree’s bark. Fingers digging painfully into the uneven surface and stars dancing in his vision before he turned his head.

“Mn,” He tugged the tattered remains of his outer robes closer to the boy. His back stinging painfully. “Sorry, are you cold?”

“Where’s Mama?”

Wei Ying watched with wide eyes as Ming Fan’s eyes began to glisten in under the moon’s light.

Failure.

You.

Should.

Have.

Stayed- “Fan-ge?” Small hands pressed up against his face, sad and understanding. “Mama isn’t coming back.”

Ming Fan closed his eyes and pressed his forehead against the younger boy’s, relishing in the warmth as small fingers gently brushed away falling droplets. “…no.”

“And Papa isn’t coming back either.”

The ringing gentle laughter haunted him. The phantom image of a smile. The ghost of touch against his hair. “….no.”

“It’s just me and Fan-ge.”

“Yes,” Ming Fan grinded his teeth, refusing to sob. “I’m sorry.”

“…Fan-ge.”

“Yes?”

“It’s okay to cry Fan-ge,” Ming Fan’s reddened eyes faced Wei Ying’s pink ones. Silver glinting kindly despite all the reasons why they shouldn’t. “Mama says it’s okay to cry when we’re sad.”

Wei Ying sniffed, rubbing his nose with his robes, snot smearing on the surface, “M-Mama is- w-was very smart so w-we should do what-“

Wei Ying clenched Ming Fan’s robes tighter in his fist, shoving his face into the much broader chest and tried to speak past his hiccupping words. “W-We sh-should do what Mama said. F-Fan-ge can cry. It’s only A-Ying he..re.”

Ming Fan pressed his lips together and tugged Wei Ying to himself, blood and dirt encrusted fingers wrinkling the smaller robes as the emotion welled up in his core. Determination flooded his senses, knowledge and experience looked and assessed.

They couldn’t stay. They couldn’t allow themselves to remain stagnant, neither could they completely push forward recklessly. They needed to move carefully, to take on challenges on their terms. They didn’t need the self-assured arrogance of an age old cultivator. This body wouldn’t be able to handle the same finesse of his former self- he needed something new. To learn and learn quickly, because doing so meant the end for them both if he didn’t.

Ming Fan needed to die.

So he did.

“Fan-ge won’t leave right?” Wei Ying whimpered. “He’ll stay with Ying-er?”

“I’m staying,” Wei Ming whispered. “I’m not going anywhere. Nothing is going to make me move away from your side. I promise.”

Wei Fan hugged his brother more firmly as they cried.

-

A chilling voice echoed throughout the land, drawing the attention of two cultivators who jolted in their seats in shock.

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“Fan-ge!”

Wei Fan opened his eyes within a snap as he looked to his side, Wei Ying smiling eagerly at him.

“I did it!”

“Hoh?” Wei Fan sat up straighter by their makeshift fire before moving over too look at Wei Ying’s work. Carefully written out characters in neat brush strokes dotting the page in simple sentences. Wei Fan smiled, “Good job, these look great.”

“Mn! Now I can help I make the talismans for tomorrow!”

Wei Fan chuckled before reaching out to ruffle curling hair, “I’m sure you can in the future. You want to meditate with me A-Ying?”

“Yeah!” Wei Ying plopped himself in between crossed legs before settling and closing his eyes. His now thirteen year old brother gently coaxing him into a straighter position, pushing back hunched shoulders so that his spine straightened. Closing his eyes and settling on the sound of the wind, coaxing his qi energy to surge through his body anew.  A pleasant tingle echoing throughout  his veins as his core began to wake to the activity.

It still did not reach the same state it used to be, but he was now powerful enough to handle serious situations that required power to be at his beck and call. If he were to gauge it correctly, he felt the state of his cultivation were much closer to the state it was during the beginning of the Demon War. Promising, but nowhere near the state he was during his later years.

Comparatively, Wei Ying was steadily reaching for a state where he could easily help in creating minor talismans. Though he could not perform the similar leaps one would make once they began seriously cultivating, he was getting close to it rather quickly- advanced knowledge aside; he was quick witted and easy to teach, a hunger to know about the world and how it worked that could easily find home elsewhere.

Sometimes Wei Fan thought that perhaps it would be a good idea to join a Sect, over the past few years he had gained many offers. Madam Jin had been kind enough to pursue them once word of Cangse Sanren and Wei Changze’s passing had reached the ever open ears of Lanling Jin. However, he had seen the environment. Observed the haughty atmosphere colored by self-assurance. It wouldn’t do them any good to be there for sheer virtue of the fact that he knew they wouldn’t be treated well. Wei Ying was a five-year-old child. A son of a servant no matter how good of a man that servant was, until he proved himself useful, they would find no comfort.

Yunmeng Jiang represented another problem, the fact that Sect Leader Jiang came personally to take them to Lotus Pier drew many questions to mind. Especially the man’s eyes- there was no clarity. Only grief, grief that grew worse upon looking at the two of them. No matter how much he pitied the man, Wei Fan’s first responsibility was to Wei Ying. Going to a Sect with rumors of a supposed wedlock was not only stupid, but grating for all parties involved. Madam Jin spoke of Madam Yu with respect, and it was a respect Wei Fan would carry with him. If the Sect Leader couldn’t see how much his bias was a bad idea that was an issue Wei Fan couldn’t afford to address until he and Wei Ying had stability.

Routine however, was achieved within a matter of months.

Utilizing his knowledge, Wei Fan returned to the small room Cangse Sanren and Wei Changze had rented for them that night and gathered everything he could. Talisman papers were kept, clothes were folded as tightly as he could get them to make more space. Food and resources were counted, and anything that could be left behind was sold for more funds to maintain them for at least another few months.

It would be some few weeks of heavy bartering and wordless declarations before Wei Fan sold his first talisman- from then on, word of a child cultivator without a master spread throughout the Sects.

He kept Wei Ying close and avoided them all.

But with Wei Ying he kept nothing back, he taught and Wei Ying learned. Games of tag turned into learning how to maintain balance and wit while at great speed. Herb gathering became at the top of their list for when times were at their most peaceful, selling their bounty to apothecaries and doctors when they passed by small villages. Towns who couldn’t afford to buy supplies from their Sect became their most loyal customers; mostly because neither himself nor Wei Ying ever sought anything more than room and a meal. It was pleasing, somewhat, to be of use by the people again. The only thing he missed was the feeling of success in a night hunt. Exchanging small smiles and satisfied baths, with Wei Ying- he couldn’t afford to handle anything more intense than simple tasks and the occasional retrieval. He could leave Wei Ying at the place of their rest of course, but that left the question of what would happen should Wei Ying be left alone.

It was a risk he refused to take in spite of the strengthened fan, so refused he did.

“Hm.”

Wei Ying blinked from his meditation to look up at Wei Fan’s pensive expression, tilting his head, “Is something wrong Fan-ge?”

“I’ve reached another level in cultivation,” again, Wei Fan didn’t say. He hasn’t been this quick to reach a higher level of cultivation since the demon wars, when adrenaline and survival became far more important. “I may be equivalent to a second year disciple now, if we were in a Sect. How about you Wei Ying? Anything different?”

“Not really?” Wei Ying frowned, concentrating on sending a stream of qi throughout his system. “It just feels- a little longer than before? It takes more time to feel what’s going on.”

“May I?” Wei Ying placed his wrist across Wei Fan’s offered palm. A familiar tendril of warmth seeping through his veins unobtrusively- glistening over the surface and just barely enough for Wei Ying to feel his prodding. Wei Ying tilted his head as Wei Fan’s expression changed.

“Did something happen?”

“You’re spiritual veins have grown longer,” Wei Fan hummed as he let go- the warmth leaving with him. “It’s closer to mine in length. How are your senses? Do you feel like you can see better? Feel stronger than before?”

“Sort of?” Wei Ying shrugged. “It’s like- I can hear things from far away. And sometimes they sound really close and like instruments, but I don’t really know what they are- and nobody is playing anything.”

“Instruments?” Wei Fan rolled the idea through his head. “Do they have some sort of feeling attached to them?”

“Sometimes- ah, the Jiejie we helped in Yunping City when she was sick. There was sort of…shrill flutes? I can’t remember anymore since I couldn’t hear it very well, but that’s sort what it was like. Like something bad was gonna happen to her later. Once you gave her medicine it stopped.”

“…Possible precognitive abilities,” Wei Fan muttered. “Or perhaps something more instinctual? I wish- never mind. Well, it’s something to keep close for the future A-Ying. Would you like to play chase now? You might win today.”

Wei Ying grinned, “Yeah!”

-

“Fan-ge, can we stop by Uncle’s stall to get sweets?”

“Hm- I suppose we could. Are you alright with not having more peppers in our meals for this week A-Ying? I can stretch enough for sweets but not both sweets and peppers.” Wei Fan mentally counted their funds in his head- they had just earned payment two villages ago and the last village they were in couldn’t share much more than their home that night.

“Hmmm, that’s okay! That way Gēge can enjoy the food too,” Wei Ying grinned as Wei Fan leaned his head slightly to smirk- one of the habits that hadn’t quite broken over the past few years.

“Thanking Ying-di for his kindness,” Wei Fan bowed with the added courtesy of linking his hands. “This one is truly honored to have such a virtuous and honorable brother.”

“Gēge!” Wei Ying blushed red. “Stop bowing you’re drawing eyes.”

“As honorable brother is eight years of age, there is little I believe he will be ashamed by.”

“I’ll get you one day Fan-ge, just you watch your back.”

“This Fan-ge is confident in Ying-di.” Wei Fan deadpanned, nodding over to the stall. “Go greet Uncle A-Ying.”

“Ok.” Dispute forgotten, Wei Ying quickly began running over to the Uncle’s stall with a wide and eager grin on his face. Arms waving wildly. “Uncle Uncle! Brother and I are back!”

“Well if isn’t Young Master Wei!” the uncle laughed merrily, waving eagerly back. “Back to Qinghe Nie so soon?”

“Uncle, we were here two months ago,” Wei Ying grinned. “So…”

Wei Ying leaned forward, eight year old expression as serious as it could be, “Do you have the goods uncle?”

The Uncle lost his jovial expression, leaning down equally as serious, “I do.”

Wei Fan shook his head in amusement as he pulled out the pouch of money.

“Then Uncle! Three sticks of spiced covered tanghulu please!”

“You got it!”

“Oh- and one regular one for brother please.”

The crowd goers of the market sweat dropped as Wei Fan counted off and handed off the equal coins to the laughing sister who took his funds, accepting the plain tanghulu with one hand and the…more interesting tanghulu in the other.

“Yahooo, thank you Uncle! Big sister!”

“No problem, and come back next time you hear?! There isn’t many of refined tastes like you who enjoy spicy and sweet things Young Master Wei.”

“You got it!”

“Don’t force your brother to eat it okay? Master Wei can’t handle spicy things remember, so don’t get carried away.”

“Eeeeeh- Big Sister I wouldn’t forget such an important thing!”

“Really? How about that time you got your brother to taste Uncle’s Szechuan sauce hm?”

“I really didn’t think it was that spicy Big Sister, honest!”

“Uncle’s sauce. Not spicy. That’s very funny Young Master Wei.”

“Big sister!” Wei Ying turned a pouting face to Wei Fan. “Brother I’m being bullied!”

Wei Fan looked solemn as he offered up Wei Ying’s special tanghulu, mouth shut closed without speaking any defense on his little brother’s behalf.

“Hmf,” Wei Ying pouted as he took the tanghulu.

-

“Qiu Hualing, twenty-three years of age. Died seeming to have died of the cold despite the warm weather these past few weeks,” Wei Fan hummed to himself in their room. Placing a small round stone in one corner of the map. “Lang Shen, twenty. Died similarly, with bruises around her wrist as if she were grabbed. A-Ying, how are the expelling talismans coming along?”

Wei Ying frowned in concentration as he finished a stroke, the character glowing briefly with power before thrumming back to black. “Done- you said we needed twelve of these right?”

Wei Fan nodded before standing, “I’m going to interview the sisters downstairs, stay here and call for me if you run into any trouble okay?”

“Yep!”

“If you’re going to sneak off, leave a note and make sure to have your ribbon on tight.”

“Ye- Gēge!”

“What? We’re you not planning on sneaking out? That would be a first,” Wei Fan looked up with a lifted brow.

“I’m eight Gēge!”

“You are,” Wei Fan acknowledge. “But you’re also a particularly curious eight year old with a penchant for getting into more trouble when I tell you not to do things than if I let it happen. So here we are- make sure you’re ribbon is tight and bring a pocket full of talismans with you alright? Always be polite and if there are people talking bad, let them talk bad and show them up later. “

“…Okay,” Wei Ying pouted. “I wasn’t really gonna sneak out for long though, I promise. I just wanted to look at some metal work I saw in the markets earlier. He said he was working on some cultivator swords for the Nie Sect and that I could watch him later. You keep saying it would be easier for us if you had a sword.”

Wei Fan smiled and gently patted the younger boy’s head, “I’m glad you’re so concerned for me A-Ying, but between us- I much rather you have fun and learn rather than risk yourself. Since you already asked the Master Smith if you could watch you may go, but keep your wits and call me at the first sign of trouble alright?”

“Yes Gēge.”

“Alright, come on then- I’m sure leaving through the door is much easier than what you had planned.”

“Okay Gēge.”

-

“Ah young master Wei,” The Master Smith greeted him- sweaty and covered with soot as he pulled away from the roaring fire. His apprentice at his side, toweling off the built-up sweat with an expression of concentration. “I thought you would never join us, you’re lucky- we’re at the good part.”

“Sorry Master Smith,” Wei Ying bowed at the waist. “Brother wanted to make sure I was alright before he let me leave- oh- isn’t it dangerous to have a picture so close to the forge?”

“Ah?” the Master Smith turned to where Wei Ying was staring. A well-done drawing, pinned carefully to the wooden part of the structure near the forge. Inky black hair spilling across the side of her head and into a long single braid, a delicate beauty mark just slightly near her nose. The picture was painted even, a delicate peach color dusting the subject’s cheeks. Well done in Wie Ying’s opinion. He only wished she was in a more natural pose rather than that, turned to painting carefully recorded one.

The Master smith seemed to look forlorn as he too gazed upon the picture, “Oh- normally yes, but I…well- it’s a picture of my late sister you see. She’s sort of my good luck charm, she was always better than me at this anyway. We just make sure we aren’t hammering near her.”

“Oh- I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine- it was a while ago, I’m better about it now,” The Master Smith gave Wei Ying a tired grin. “Now tell me about this project you’re thinking about Young Master Wei, you’ve gotten quite a bit of my attention when you told me about your idea about this slimmer, multilayered, sabre.”

Wei Ying grinned.

-

Wei Ying cursed everything in all the words he’d get smacked for as he ran full tilt around the winding quiet alleys of the city, the raging ghost behind him crying her head off as she ran- floated? After him. There was very little thoughts in between himself and the rest of what was going on, but he still had the presence of mind to clutch the ribbon in his fingers and pushed his qi into the fabric. The character secretly woven within its stitching’s glowing brightly under the darkness.

He had left the Master Smith barely a hair’s length of time ago. How is it that he managed to find trouble that quickly?!

Or as his brother might say, how is it that trouble managed to find him.

He was just that slightest bit close to losing her when he planted face-first into a strangely squishy wall.

He backed up in surprise, falling on his bottom as he dazedly looked up to try and see what he had just run into. A tall man- teen? With an imposing figure, dressed in Nie Sect clothing turned sharply from the impact. Looking down on him with an expression of furrowed eyebrows, yet was more confused than angry.

“What the hell-?”

“A-Ying get up!”

Wei Fan’s commanding voice drove all of Wei Ying’s instincts into overdrive as he shot forward with a hand to grab at the lapels of the man’s robes. Lifting himself and sidestepping just as his brother flew over both him and the man. Fan glowing with power and a talisman in the other, shooting forward and smacking itself in the chest of the ghost that was chasing him. Void black hair seemed to wave wildly like a flicker of a flame, the ghost’s sunken face twitching into anger. With a beauty mark and high cheekbones, the ghost of Qinghe Nie may have been quite a beauty in her time.

But Wei Ying’s brother had no time to dwell on these observations as he swung his arm into a wide arc, a single wave of bright qi snapping out from the fan’s width and smacking the ghost back with a pop of energy. Crackles like lightning before a strike sizzling through the air before the talisman grew brighter- the paper burning under the character before expelling fully into a ball of light- disappearing with a flash and taking the ghost with it.

Wei Fan turned sharply on his heel, eyes trained on Wei Ying before looking back up at the tall cultivator. Other cultivators with less ornamented robes had their swords out; exchanging glances as they looked uncertainly between the two.

Wei Fan bowed, “Thanking Master for protecting his brother. A-Ying.”

Wei Ying scampered to his brother’s side before bowing low to the taller man.

The man looked between the two and scoffed, “Protecting? I think you did that all on your own.”

“Who,” The man looked between the two. “Who are you anyway, and what are you doing in Qinghe Nie territory?”

“Rogue cultivators sir,” Wei Fan said easily, standing tall despite the eyes on him. “We had heard tales of the ghost roaming through the city while we were here gathering supplies. We thought to also lend a hand in the investigation before we left.”

The man looked at his brother strangely, an unrecognizable expression on his face, “…Have you been here before?”

“Some months ago; prior to that, our first trip was with our parents before their passing.” Wei Fan pressed his shoulder’s back, seeming to look much more imposing despite his vastly smaller frame. There was a sharpness to his eyes as he looked at the master, not a glare- but words unspoken. Why do you ask?

“You look familiar,” The man said before shaking his head. “Apologies Honorable Sir, I’ve been rude to you. This one is Nie Mingjue, Sect Leader of Nie Sect. You are…?”

Wei Ying watched his brother’s thumb twitch in the smallest show of surprise before he bowed low. “This one is named Wei Fan.”

Wei Ying followed suit automatically, “This one is Wei Ying, greeting Sect Leader Nie.”

“…Wei…Fan…” Nie Mingjue blinked, frowning as if he were trying to focus on a slippery frog that stayed far from his reach. “The Prodigious Cultivator from Yiling. A little far from your normal route aren’t you?”

Wei Ying frowned as he turned to Wei Fan, confusion evident on his face while his brother maintained calm. “There was a trail to follow, it just so happened that the Unclean Realm is much closer a place to gather supplies than any other area- so it was best to resupply here. That was the initial reason for us being here prior to the discovery of the ghost.”

“Was staying in the brothel part of that plan?” Wei Ying’s eyes snapped to his brother at the new information, though his eyes were not met.

“Is there a problem with it?” Wei Fan raised an eyebrow in challenge. Cheek twitching slightly in a way that Wei Ying knew was annoyance, apparently their visit wasn’t as quiet as he wanted it to be. There tended to be a risk, going into big cities like this, where larger Sects would attempt to corner them and coral them into a lecture why they should join and how much they could benefit from the Sect. Something Wei Fan – and by default – Wei Ying, was annoyed by. “The inns kindly told us that there were no rooms left with the Conference being held here within the week. So we sought housing elsewhere. The Mistress was very kind to allow us a room for little more than some entertainment, with their own guqin no less. This Wei Fan was happy to help Sister have a much needed break.”

“With a child?” Nie Mingjue narrowed his eyes, and that decided the conversation almost immediately.

“With respect Master,” Wei Ying interchanged before his brother’s acidic tongue could spit venom, smiling without the characteristic warmth in his grin. Drawing out the unnerving feelings from all of the cultivators present before them. “Gēge and I have slept in places worse than Mistress’ best room.”  

The screaming of crows overhead.

Blood encrusted hands desperately grasping rough bark.

Climb.

We need to get higher.

Wei Ying maintained his smile and pulled it just that slightest bit wider. “This one assures Sect Leader Nie, brother is honorable- if that is your implication.”

A cold bucket of water seemed to come over them all as the aura grew dangerous, twin blankets of spiteful pressure overcame them. One a brother naturally defensive, the other retaliating against any question of intent. Both were giving off the unspoken warning that neither of them would tolerate insult. The younger one especially, seemed to vibrate with the warning. Silver eyes glinting coldly.

You know nothing, he seemed to say. So don’t say anything.

“What is there to imply?” Sect Leader Nie, who seemed to be the only one unaffected by the two with his huff of air. “After all, if the honorable Prodigious Rogue decided to grace us with his genius help, there’s little good reason to question our good fortune.”

“Although,” Nie Mingjue leaned his head back with his crossed arms. Grabbing the attention of the older brother. “Master Wei may be interested to know that the Jiang Sect will be arriving in three days’ time.”

Wei Fan leaned back, his head slacking slightly from where they had instinctively tilted the slightest bit forward. Just enough to glare under hooded eyes and accentuate the circles underneath them. He nodded his head slowly after a moment. “I will be sure to share any information about the ghost I have discovered with Sect Leader- if that is his wish.”

“Hm- have you eaten yet?”

“Not yet, A-Ying?”

Wei Ying blinked, threatening smile slipping off as if it were never there. “I could eat.”

“Well come on then- allow this Sect Leader to show to the illustrious prodigy the good food of Qinghe Nie!” Nie Mingjue turned to the disciples that were with him, swords hanging limply in their grasp. “What’s with you all? Move it!”

 

“Before you may make a comment Sect Leader,” Wei Fan said primly as he carefully took food into his pate. “Yes. Wei Ying can handle it.”

Wei Ying currently was shocking the table and the patrons of the restaurant as he dumped an unholy amount of peppers onto his already red plate. Eager fingers grasping his chopsticks as he took a bite, smiling happily as the scorching heat washed over his taste buds and ended in bliss.

“Wei Ying,” Wei Fan said warningly.

The boy’s shoulders rose up in defensive, boyish instinct before cleaning his face with a towel, smiling sheepishly, “Sorry Gēge. Was excited.”

Nie Mingjue seemed to frown between the two before looking onto Wei Ying with new wonder, “You! You’re the strange boy who handles Uncle Shu’s terribly spicy foods.”

“Uncle’s food is exactly the right kind of spicy Sect Leader!”

“The man is from Yunmeng Jiang- from Lotus Pier itself,” Nie Mingjue scoffed. “No wonder he was happy when he last visited. I thought that girl of his had accepted a marriage proposal from the young master always swooning over her.”

One of the disciples looked up sharply, “Is that true Sect Leader?”

“The hell are you looking at me for? Ask Huaisang, he’s the one who keeps tabs on it!”

“Yes!” The disciple looked to another who looked thoroughgoingly incensed. “I told you! Mine is superior!”

“Shut it!” The other younger one barked. “There’s still a chance for Hua-jie to come through! Just you watch, it’s obvious that they have the better relationship!”

“Why you little- are you still pissed because I said Liu Mingyan and Ning Yingying just had a friendly relationship? Xiao-Zhou, that was years ago!”

“And I will never forgive you for it!”

Wei Ying snapped to his brother in concern as a choking sound came from his brother- the other having swallowed his tea wrong and was attempting to avoid a second death as he roughly punched his own chest.

“Damn it- Zhou Qing, Lang Fengyi, cut it out! Not everyone is into that ridiculous spat you two are involved with.” Nie Mingjue turned to hit Wei Fan’s back with a wide but gentle smack. “I apologize for my disciples; they are hard-working but unusual. They will be disciplined later.”

Wei Fan weakly waved it off, voice coming out hoarse, “No trouble.”

“Gēge- here, some water.”

“Thank you.”

“Um- Master Fan,” One of the other disciples that sat in front of them asked. Voice quiet. “How old are you? I mean no offense of course, but you seem a lot younger than the stories-“

“This one is thirteen.”

A pause.

“Thirteen?!”

“What the-“

“We thought you had to be fifteen at least what the hell-“

“How are you even still alive-?”

“Oi.”

“That’s impossible, you’re just exaggerating right? You should be at least-“

“Oi- SHUT IT.”

The disciples quieted, and so too did the nosy patrons of the restaurant.

“Gēge’s thirteen,” Wei Ying chimed. “I’m eight.”

“…Peak Master’s merciful sword- what the hell?!”

Wei Ying and Wei Fan, in true testimony to their relationship, shrugged in sync.

“Well deal with it,” Nie Mingjue grumbled at his disciples. “You’re disrespecting me by disrespecting Cultivator Wei with your stupid reaction. He’s worked hard, recognize it.”

Wei Fan blinked before bowing his head, “Thanking Sect Leader Nie for his kind words.”

“…Though what the hell is up with you for that matter? With how you talk it’s easy to see why people think the two of you are older than you actually are. You say you’re thirteen but what’s with that phrasing? What are you, an old man? What kid has that type of old speech? Actually- what kid manages to make their kid-brother sound like he’s in his teens already?”

Wei Ying’s eyes widened before looking to his brother’s increasingly blushing expression- all that time, Wei Fan never quite got over being called an old man. “I am not an old man!”

“You could’ve fooled me,” Nie Mingjue sighed. “Actually you kind of reminded me of this kid I met years ago with that little brother of his. He must’ve been years younger than me but I could barely understand what he was saying with that old man talk.”

The disciples quieted significantly at that comment.

“I wonder what happened to that kid,” The man said a little wistfully. “Never saw him again- but I thought he’d put up a good fight if we went at it. Huaisang wouldn’t shut up about his praises afterward, it drove me nuts.”

Wei Ying squinted at the Sect Leader- a tingling sensation like he was missing some seriously relevant information. Wei Fan- however, was not thinking about such things and was still trying to get around the fact that he was being called an old man. Again.

“I’m sure you’ll find him one day,” Wei Ying said instead. “Gēge said this once- the people you meet, when you have strong feelings for them- they’ll show up in your life eventually, down the road of your destiny.” Wei Ying frowned- he felt like he didn’t quite say it right, but it suited the situation just fine.

“Hm- I’m sure he would, if he can get over the fact that he’s an old man. I’m sure your brother would know as an old man himself.” Nie Mingjue huffed in amusement- sparking Wei Fan back to life.

“I am not an old man,” Wei Fan hissed. “However, if it suits Sect Leader Nie to name people under false pretenses then so be it.”

“Sure. Old man.”

Wei Ying watched his brother clench his jaw before groaning, hurriedly reaching for his cup as he recognized the look of spite underneath the visible annoyance. “Fine- FINE. Thanking Sect Leader Nie for this delicious food. Qinghe Nie truly serves such glorious meals, if one were to offer this to the gods they will surely weep in gratitude.”

Wei Ying drank the tea in a valiant attempt to quiet his laughter.

“No doubt, if one were to compare Qinghe Nie’s cooking to the most delicious of meals- not even the Judges of the Underworld would deny such a claim; for to do so would be to commit the most heinous of lies. Henceforth if this Wei Fan speaks such poisonous hearsay than this Wei Fan requests the Lords of Truth and Justice to strike down upon-“

Wei Ying broke and started laughing as the Qinghe disciples lost all indication of being able to understand Wei Fan’s increasingly complicated speech as if he were speaking an entirely different language.

“For the love of- enough!”

“-so this one motes to be.” Wei Fan grinned in victory.

Nie Mingjue sighed, “You’ve made your point old man. Now if you would so kindly grace us with your wisdom before you have to leave?”

The disciples of Qinghe Nie startled as Wei Fan’s smirk became blank in an instant- wiped away of the jovial teasing from just moments before.

For some reason, it unnerved them.

-

Wei Ying looked in wonder and the fancier rooms of the Nie Clan main home, pressing closer to his brother as they followed Nie Mingjue to his office. The disciples dispersing back to their rooms while Wei Fan followed Nie Mingjue through the paths and into the wide room. A table sat comfortably at the head of the otherwise barren room with some papers strewn about.

“You sure he should be here?” Nie Mingjue nodded to Wei Ying- who walked at his brother’s heels. “I can have a servant escort him to a guest room if you prefer.”

Wei Fan shook his head, turning to smile at Wei Ying and pointing at a small desk in the room- near but not so close to the Sect Leader’s own. “The details aren’t graphic, and the evidence I have gathered is not so depraved that I have not already taught Wei Ying of it. It’s alright for him to listen.”

“So talk,” Nie Mingjue said as he settled onto the desk. “What do you know about this ghost haunting my territory?”

“Qiu Hualing and Lang Shen, these are the victims you know of,” Wei Fan tapped a report splayed out on the table- to which Nie Mingjue had reacted to with an expression of surprise before wiping it away. “Both women in their twentieth years, died as if they were in a blizzard- yet not only has the temperature in the Unclean Ream been warm, even the tallest mountains accessible to this area have barely any snowfall due to the lack of rain these past few weeks. Thus- in combination with rumors of a malicious ghost- there is one obvious choice in terms perpetrator.”

Wei Ying settled nearby as his brother sat opposite of the Sect Leader, quietly taking out paper and a piece of thin charcoal and drawing under the light the Sect Leader had loaned him upon entering.

“What you are unaware of is the three other victims that the ghost managed to kill prior to the two girls. All of them were former maidens of Mistress Zhang’s brothel.” Wei Fan looked critically at the Sect Leader. “I don’t believe I need to explain why it is that you had most likely not known of this prior to now.”

“There’s no need,” Nie Mingjue replied quietly. “When were they killed?”

“Last year,” Wei Fan said grimly. “This same week.”

Nie Mingjue’s teeth ground together under the force of his anger, “I had just been instated into my position of Sect Leader- I wouldn’t have noticed even if I wanted to.”

Wei Fan frowned, lifting his head to stare.

“What?”

“It is not this one’s place to judge Sect Leader,” Wei Fan said quietly. “But looking now, you can’t be more than fifteen this year.”

“So?”

Wei Fan didn’t say anything for a moment, the tense atmosphere in the room increasing steadily. Wei Ying clutching the piece of charcoal in his hands a little tighter as it seemed to almost choke him.

“This one begs forgiveness,” Wei Fan said after a moment. “It took me by surprise that I hadn’t noticed it. Perhaps there is something about my…way of speaking that often has me forget the correspondence between ages.”

“If you could talk plainly for the rest of tonight that would be appreciated,” Nie Mingjue grumbled. “But- I thank you for your frankness. I already get enough lectures from the elders about my youth, I don’t need it from a hypocrite.”

Wei Fan only smiled, “Prepare yourself some ice Sect Leader.”

“What the hell for?”

“Paperwork,” Wei Fan looked idly at the strewn paper, a raised eyebrow being the only indication of his amusement. “A lot, of paperwork.”

“Don’t remind me,” Nie Mingjue sighed. “I still haven’t made a dent in this week’s reports. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about. You said that the same incident occurred last year, but there obviously has to be something more to it if you’re bringing it up.”

 “Correct.” Wei Fan nodded grimly. “Two years ago- the same thing happened. Three girls, in their twenties. Dead. Same situation, but no one could figure out why. One was the daughter of a jeweler, a maiden to a tea house that closed some time ago, and the Master Smith’s sister.”

Wei Ying stiffened mid-stroke.

“And how did you come across this information?”

“Mistress Zhang has been around this area for many years, although she does not keep tabs on the happenings of this area all year long- when it concerns some of the women, she is the first to know as the oldest Matron and a former cultivator herself.”

“Of the Nie Sect?”

“Wen Sect,” Wei Fan noted the sudden stiffening of the Sect Leader’s position. “She had disagreed with Sect Leader Wen’s practice in ruling over his house and advisors and left the Sect before he could gain any more power. She’s quite content here.”

“I see. Continue.”

“However, a year before the first killings- there was a murder. You may have only heard rumors of it, but there was a scandal concerning one of the more influential clans in this area. The clan Lei.”

Nie Mingjue frowned, “I heard it from my Father before his death, there was no conclusive evidence that could accuse the clan of anything- they were tight lipped and wouldn’t accept our investigation in the first place- before…”

“They all disappeared,” Wei Fan nodded grimly. “Dead most likely.”

“You think the ghost was responsible for it?”

“I think,” Wei Fan said carefully. “That the ghost was a Lei.”

“What?”

“Around the same time of the Lei Clan’s death, one of the maidens in Mistress Zhang’s care had gotten into trouble with a young master of the clan. She had refused his advances but there was much more animosity than just a simple refusal to bed with him, while abhorrent on its own- the descriptions of his actions that night were just too violent and erratic to be a simple matter of refusal. He was the heir to his clan, there is no reason he would forget himself and assault her in the middle of broad daylight at the city square.”

Nie Mingjue frowned, “I had been sent to the Cloud Recesses at the time to keep me out of my father’s increasing conflicts with the elders; I have no knowledge of this.”

Wei Fan nodded, “Mistress Zhang doesn’t know for sure, but it is believed that the Maiden of Lei Clan had been involved with the Maiden in Mistress Zhang’s care. Lian Yin.”

“Involved?”

“Romantically.”

“Hm, and the Lei Clans acted against it. If I remember correctly, there are no records of the Lei Clan having set a betrothal for her.”

“Way of the world, unfortunately,” Wei Fan spat. “Maiden Lian died by poisoning some weeks after the assault. But as a maiden of Mistress Zhang’s care- there was no one willing to investigate- especially so, with the Honored Sect Leader Nie’s increasing tensions with the Wen Sect- there was just no time left to investigate the matter.”

“I see- so it judging by your tone- Maiden Lei turned on her family.”

“Apparently- she attempted to leave. They took offense to that.”

“If that is true, then it is Maiden Lei who is the ghost.” Nie Mingjue frowned. “What of the victims.”

“They shared striking resemblances to Maiden Lian, according to Mistress Zhang.” Wei Fan leaned forward to rest his weight against the table. “The talisman I had Wei Ying make should have been enough to stall her for a day or two. We need to figure out how to excise her.”

“We’d have to find the body first.”

“The Lei Estate,” Nie Mingjue hummed, eyes narrowing in consideration. “It was absorbed into my Clan’s territory after the family perished with no apparent heir, but the fact that the murders are occurring so close to the Conference…either this is some strange coincidence or something else is at play here. How long do you intend to stay?”

Wei Fan looked to Wei Ying, the two sharing a wordless conversation before turning back. “Until Maiden Lei is at peace.”

Nie Mingjue frowned, “We may have to destroy her if her anger refuses to abate.”

Wei Fan smiled, a sharp and slow smirk that seemed to chill the air with its implications.  “We won’t have to.”

Nie Mingjue instinctively knew that one Wei Fan wasn’t one to make those kinds of claims recklessly- and that was enough to terrify.

“This,” Nie Mingjue said, slow and careful with his words. “is assuming that the information you’ve gathered is all accurate.”

Wei Fan nodded, “I have reason to believe they are. The stories check out, and the individuals I was able to contact proved some of the information that can be proven true, were true.”

“And you gathered them from where?”

“The brothel,” Wei Fan tilted his head. “Mostly from Mistress Zhang and the more senior sisters under her care. There are several servants around the area who could also testify, as they eat in the tea house during the evenings.”

“How do you know they are accurate?” Nie Mingjue knew how bad it sounded, the glare he was getting from the older of the brothers was not a pleasant one but it was something he needed to ask.

“Brothels are paid for service,” Wei Fan stated mildly. “Not for silence. Privacy and silence cannot be bought with money in a brothel. ‘If one were to procure privacy from a brothel than one must first pay with friendship’.”

With that declaration, Nie Mingjue sat back, expression unreadable for the most part. It was in between a frown and some other expression Wei Fan couldn’t quite decipher. “I’ll trust your word then. For now, rest- there will be more work to do tomorrow. Until this is dealt with, the two of you are my guests. I’ll show you to where the two of you will be sleeping tonight- that is, if you don’t have anything you left at the Mistress’ house?”

Wei Fan’s expression smoothed over, “Nothing we need tonight. This Wei Fan thanks you for your kindness Sect Leader Nie.”

-

“Gēge?”

“Mhm?” Wei Fan looked up from the records he had requested of Sect Leader Nie, candle flickering under the lantern. “Can’t sleep?”

“I was thinking,” Wei Ying rubbed at his eyes before turning to yawn. “There’s something about all this that feels off somehow.”

Looking up from the paperwork, Wei Fan bodily turned to face Wei Ying tilting his head and waiting for Wei Ying to continue.

“Is there a picture of Maiden Lei?” Wei Ying scooted closer to the table.

Wei Fan turned to the paperwork, shuffling through the various records and cataloged works. “No- I don’t think so, not here anyway. Was there something you noticed when you were with the Master Smith?”  

“I’m not sure, but I feel like…” Wei Ying frowned. “I’m really not that sure yet.”

Wei Fan nodded cautiously, giving Wei Ying a small smile. Small but just as meaningful as every smile Wei Ying imparted, all the more special because of it. An unspoken language spoken through passing glances and meaningful purpose.

Good Night Ying-er, Wei Fan’s smile said.

Wei Ying stretched his body to claim his rightful head-pat before grinning widely.

Night Gēge, Wei Ying’s smile replied.

Chapter Text

6. Log: File:Save_13-104.3.0113.log


Incense wafted through the quiet night, the crowing in the distance soft. Almost equivalent to snores. The quiet shuffling of paperwork barely whispered over the sharp whistles of crickets as the night wore on. A candle burning beneath the paper lantern that casted soft shadows at its corners.

There was something nagging at Wei Fan’s mind.

It was more than just Wei Ying’s earlier note, though that would certainly be enough to raise questions. Cultivator instincts were honed especially for this sort of issues, Wei Ying was young- but he was prodigious. It revealed itself every time Wei Ying grinned in victory in yet another mastered talisman. Sparked the glee in his eyes whenever he came up with a new concept to test. It had both saved their lives throughout the past three years, as well as sent them plunging head first into danger and potential doom.

Still, Wei Ying’s words repeated in mantra across his mind like a stubborn thought. A nagging that was as insistent as it was annoying. An itch he couldn’t scratch, even if he tried physically.

So he searched – most likely insulting his host as he quietly invited himself into the Qinghe Nie records – but it was for a good cause.

Now if only he could keep his mouth shut about how frustrated he was with the organization of information the past ten years, that would be a grand idea indeed. Alas, as Wei Fan sat on the floor and piled paper after paper of irrelevant crop reports and monetary funding- he finally happened upon the information he was looking for.

Sect Records, especially when allied with influential clans, kept a family tree. It was necessary in order to be able to confirm potential heirs. If the world he lived in now remained the same if not similar to his last one, they also had visual records in the form of Sect Commissioned portraits. Standard practice to prevent names from being taken, any good Sect worth their salt kept these under the tightest security in order to prevent any potential “newly discovered heirs” to crop up and take what was not theirs. Cang Qiong Mountain Sect had records, but not like this – as a school based system, a majority of clan alliances were based on a head family basis. Or an accepted disciple recommended by the clan, though the latter was rather rare in comparison. Ming Fan had been one of them as Second Born to the Ming Clan, Liu Qingge and Liu Mingyan were among rare cases due to both having wanted to join, but last he heard- the records room of the Liu clan was kept under the tightest security on Clan territory.

Understandable, while Peak Lord Liu was a second master, he was also a very rich second master. During the end of the Demon War- Liu Mingyan had also come across a large sum of profit, though no one really knows where it came from save for maybe some of the disciples- but they were bound to an oath. Apparently.

The paper he was looking for was crumpled slightly, clearly ripped on some areas as if someone had tried to cut someone off. Probably foiled due to the paper’s obvious survival, it must have also been a serious offense. Sect Records were the core information on everything the Sect has done since its’ creation, any number of scrolls in the room could have the potential information on some massive weakness of the clan- or even clan members across the land who are not a part of the Sect. It also had almost every dirty secret the clan ever covered up- usually of the wedlocked child kind. For the most part at least. It was supposed to be handled by a separate branch of the Sect but for obvious reasons, Jin Guangshan, this was not always the case apparently.

He flipped through the bundled papers, going past generation after generation before- there.

Lei Rùlíng

Black hair, elegant features. Dimple- no high cheek bones? Wei Fan narrowed his eyes. And no beauty mark.

“Shit,” Wei Fan cursed.

-

“Da-ge?”

Nie Mingjue looked up to find Nie Huaisang, still in his inner robes, waddling towards them in the Nie Private library. A book in his hands open, which was among the first of several alarms ringing in Huaisang’s head.

“It’s late what are you doing?”

“What are you doing up?” Nie Mingjue quietly scolded, allowing Nie Huaisang to move closer and helping him sit on his lap. Wrapping one arm around his brother as he continued to hold the book in his hand.

“‘The Tale of the Wronged Gui Po’” Nie Huaisang read with a frown. “Why are you reading this old thing Da-ge?”

“I met someone who quoted something I think,” Nie Mingjue said quietly. “I wasn’t sure if I was hearing it right.”

“Really?” Nie Huaisang looked down. “but that’s Madam Nie’s present to Da-ge isn’t it? I thought it was the only copy left.”

“Everyone spills their secrets to them. They are not obligated to keep it and neither should we disrespect them for their practices. A brothel is a life blood for many cannot do so themselves. Others will scorn them. We will help them, and in turn, they will help us. If one were to procure privacy from a brothel than one must first pay with friendship.” Shen Qingqiu, in a picture of elegance, snapped open his fan. His disciples enraptured by his teachings.

In the background, the maidens of the brothel house smiled as they danced, as they played, as they poured tea, as they entertained Shen Qingqiu and his disciples for that one night.

“That is the lesson this teacher must impart to you on this mission,” Shen Qingqiu gently smiled at the maiden pouring him tea, thanking her quietly. “The lesson, to put it shortly, is to be kind.”

“Word for word,” Nie Mingjue muttered under his breath. “I wonder-“

“SECT LEADER NIE!”

Nie Mingjue snapped his head as a tiny child came through the doors, the disciples hot on his heals, clearly in an attempt to stop him. Nie Mingjue waved them off as he moved Huaisang from his lap, getting up to stand in front of the younger Wei.

“Young Master Wei-“

“Brother’s gone!” Wei Ying cut off. “I dunno where he went but he’s just gone-“

Nie Mingjue extended a hand to grip the shoulders that seemed to dwarf in his hands- the boy was thin but not unhealthily so for his age, it made him wonder, “He’s most likely just around the compound, I can get a servant to-“

“No! You aren’t listening!” Wei Ying huffed, tears beginning to well-up. “Gēge never leaves without telling me where he goes! He left a note that he was going to the Nie Records to look up the clan allies and their portraits! But he’s not there! He’s not anywhere here!”

Wei Ying looked into his sleeves and pulled out a fan, folded closed, the turquoise jade somehow looking mute in its dark red tassel thread, “See?! It’s not shiny! If I were here the jade would be shining! He made it for me last year as my birthday present! Gēge’s fan does the same thing too when I’m close by!”

“What would he be doing in the records-“

“I knew there was something wrong,” Wei Ying continued over him. “I told him about it and he said it might be something but he wouldn’t do something like this! He wouldn’t just leave me!”

“Wei Ying, Wei Ying,” Nie Mingjue’s most commanding voice bounced around the private library. “It’s okay, I will find him for you.”

Wei Ying’s tear covered face seemed to shake the entire room as the quiet sob took over, “Promise?”

Nie Mingjue swallowed, “I promise. Huaisang, could you…?”

Nie Huaisang thankfully took this pleading tone and uncharacteristically jumped on the opportunity to take initiative as he politely smiled and introduced himself to Wei Ying, tugging him along to probably paint something and get something to wipe the kid’s face. Nie Mingjue leaving to march to the record’s room himself.

But Wei Ying’s concerns were valid, as an older brother, Nie Mingjue couldn’t function a handful of feet without knowing where Huaisang was. The same was true the other way around despite neither of them wanting to really admit it, they were the only ones they had left in the entirety of the Unclean Realm.

What he found in the records room was more than a surprise.

The room’s door had been ajar, the papers strewn about the room in piles that seemed to be organized in a way Nie Mingjue couldn’t really afford to look at. There was one stack slightly isolated from the west, spread out on a reading table kept in the records office. On the surface of the wood was a portrait of one of the Lei Clan members, a woman’s face painted elegantly on a nearly four-year-old paper.

Nie Mingjue frowned as he took it in his hands, looking over it and coming up a blank. Whatever Wei Fan had found, he hadn’t left a clue for it.

Wei Ying however, might.

He ran to his brother’s room.

“Wei Ying.”

Nie Huaisang glared at him as Wei Ying’s face snapped up at the sound of his voice, tears began welling up almost instantly, “Where’s Gēge-?”

“This picture,” Nie Mingjue showed him the portrait. “Your brother left this out before he left, do you have any idea why he could have just had this out in the record room?”

Wei Ying squinted at the picture, “I don’t- wait.”

His eyes widened.

“What is it?” Nie Mingjue said impatiently, willing his fingers to keep the grip he had on the portrait light.

Wei Ying paled, “That’s not her.”

“Who’s her?”

“The ghost who was chasing after me,” Wei Ying looked up in horror. “That’s not the ghost-“

“Which means she’s still out there,” Nie Mingjue cursed in his head- the frustrated anger burning up in his chest. He turned to a servant. “Get the disciples up and pick one of them to watch over Huaisang and Wei Ying, tell them I’m headed to the Lei Estate.”

He ran, hoisting his saber forward and landing on the flat of his blade smoothly. Bàxià ringing under his control as he fed the sword his qi.

“Come on,” He urged. “Come on.”

The cityscape of the Unclean Realm seemed to pass by in a streak of light as he urged his saber to fly faster, straight into the slightly decerped estate formally the city estate of the Lei Clan. The sounds and shrieks urging him to dive and land with a roll, saber in hand.

With a swift kick, Nie Mingjue forced the doors open- saber aloft and eyes wide as Wei Fan faced off against the twisted ghost of Lei Ruling.

The other’s arm was bleeding, blood pouring out in trickle amounts as he dripped it across the floor in a shape of a circle- Nie Mingjue wasn’t familiar with it- but he threw himself forward. Slicing at the ghost who hissed at the silver steel of his blade. It was only there that he noticed that the other’s legs had a slight tinge of cold blue in them, iced over as if it were bitten by the frost.

“What the hell are you doing?!” He snarled with a matching scowl, swiping again at the agitated ghost.

“Keep her busy!” Wei Fan gritted in response, frowning in concentration as he continued to draw complex characters on the circle. “I’m almost done!”

“Well get done faster!” Nie Mingjue grunted as the ghost surged forward again, resentful energy rolling off the ghost in waves that slammed against Nie Mingjue’s defenses like a hammer. The energy gave the ghost form, gave her the ability to kill- now it was giving her the ability to push at Nie Mingjue’s strength over and over- no doubt until she could figure out how to kill the both of them.  

“Liars!” The ghost of Lei Ruling screeched brokenly. “Give me back my A-Lian! Give me back my A-Lian!”

Wei Fan .”

“I need more time!” Wei Fan grunted. “Or more blood- damn, do you have a blade on you?!”

“Are you insane?!”

“Does Sect Leader want to perish as a stick of ice?” Wei Fan spat. “The answer is no is it not?! Now give this cultivator an abyss damned blade!”  

“Fine!” Nie Mingjue pulled the small knife from the inside of his boot and flung it towards Wei Fan’s direction- hissing as the ghost of Lei Ruling swiped at his exposed arm and sent a chill of frostbite. “I hope you know what you’re doing!”

“GIVE ME BACK MY A-YIN! MY A-YIN!!”

Nie Mingjue’s breath was knocked from him as the demonic energy slammed into his chest like a bull, flinging him backwards into the wall and effectively exposing Wei Fan as his palm slid across the dirty floor, an accomplished summoning circle now fully formed underneath.

Nie Mingjue blinked past the pain, grinding his teeth as he forced himself to stand from the broken pieces of the wall he just destroyed with his back.

I can’t make it, Nie Mingjue thought with horror. If she gets to him it’s done- he’s dead.

Then Wei Fan slammed his hands into the circle, and it glowed.

“I request an audience with the spirit named Lian Yin,” Wei Fan’s voice pulsed through the room- yang energy surging in a terrifying wave. “Come forth and no other.”

Nie Mingjue watched with wide-eyes as the spiraling yang energy circled outside the circumference lazily before coming together, forming into a shape more resembling a woman. Golden dust and glowing eyes blinking at her summoner as she stepped back within the circle, wide-eyed.

Sweat began to collect at his forehead at the strain of keeping a steady flow of yang energy into the circle, Wei Fan smirked tiredly despite it, “Someone would like to see you.”

Nie Mingjue crawled forward, eyes on the two as the ghost of Lian Yin turned her golden eyes towards Lei Ruling. Hands coming to cup her mouth as if in shock.

“A-Lian, A-Lian,” the ghost said brokenly hand reaching out. “My A-Lian.”

Nie Mingjue was about to check on Wei Fan when another’s voice left Wei Fan’s cut lip.

“A-ling,” A feminine voice came forth from Wei Fan, the other’s expression frowning in concentration. “It’s me, A-Yin.

A-Yin,” the ghost cried desperately, hand running into the barrier. “A-Yin!”

“You can’t pass this barrier dearest,” Wei Fan repeated, eyes pinched tight as more sweat dripped from his forehead. “With you so full of resentment, it will destroy you.”

“A-Yin, my A-Yin. GIVE ME BACK-“

“Lei Ruling,” the spirit of Lian Yin snapped like a crack of a whip. “You know better.”

“Killed,” the ghost sobbed, a new sentence born from the presence of the very woman she had been longing for. For whom she had become an echo of her formal self for. “They killed you.”

“Don’t you think I know that?” There was a dark hint of amusement in the spirit’s voice, accompanied by exasperation just underlying it. “The only reason why I’m here is you stupid, but then you had to go and become a resentful ghost. Honestly A-Ling, this is why I was the one to plan for us.”

“But this has to end dearest,” the spirit’s voice said quietly. “This cannot go on. Those girls you killed- they are not me. I’m here. I’m right here, and I’m waiting for you. I’ve been waiting for you.”

The spirit reached out, yang energy stretching, Nie Mingjue reached out to steady Wei Fan as he swayed where he sat, a combination of exhaustion and blood loss. His eyes trained on the other two.

“Come with me,” the spirit’s voice plead. “Stay with me. You’ve had to listen to those people you called family all your life, but please. I’m begging you, listen to me. Just this once.”

“A-Yin…my A-Yin…” the ghost reached out, yin and yang energy interacting. Coming together, stitching the ghost somewhat back into a more familiar form. Less dead, full of the life that she once lived.

The ghost smiled, “My A-Yin.”

The spirit of Lian Yin smiled before pulling her in, a bright light shining before it disappeared with a flash. The bang resounding throughout the ancient manor and shook the walls, sending Wei Fan back into Nie Mingjue before they were blocked by the wall’s remains. A quiet silence overtaking the night as the situation sunk in.

“By the swords of Cang Qiong.” Nie Mingjue marveled in shock, sword arm and back throbbing. “You did it.”

Quiet.

“Oi, Wei Fan. Wei Fan?” Nie Mingjue turned his head to find the other boy’s body slumped on the floor, the circle dimming as the spirit left. Reaching out with a hand, he sent a tendril of his own qi through the other’s veins. Sucking in a harsh breath as his eyes widened at weak feedback, a sure sign of a dismal amount of yang energy, almost equivalent to a dying man. Even worse was the blood still spilling from all the cuts he had gained throughout the night.

Nie Mingjue panicked.

Taking the limp body in his hands, Nie Mingjue shook with all the strength he had left, the limp head bobbing back and forth with the rough movement. “Oi- Oi! Wake up! Are you so weak that you would die here?! Wake-“

Slap.

Nie Mingjue blinked as he looked down to Wei Fan, one eye sluggishly open and very much upset with him.

“Oh, you’re alive.”

Wei Fan glared, “You t’ink?”

Nie Mingjue shook his head as he slumped over, the footsteps of his disciples pounding through the courtyard. One hand keeping the other steady while the other cradled his heating cheek, the shape of a hand already slightly forming. Bàxià hummed contently by his side.

-

Nie Mingjue woke up to yelling.

A high pitched, very upset, very whiny, yelling.

“Morning big brother,” Nie Huaisang said- oddly cheerful, and way too awake for the time it was. Nie Mingjue stared in horror from his bed as Nie Huaisang offered him tea. “Take this.”

Nie Mingjue stared at it wearily, “What’s in it?”

Nie Huaisang maintained his smile, “Medicine.”

From his bed, Nie Mingjue sat up, scooting back just the slightest bit from the concoction no doubt created to knock him out of commission.

“Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang continued, the smile growing darker despite the fact that the light hadn’t changed at all. “Aren’t you being a little too stubborn?”

The mighty Sect Leader of the Qinghe Nie leaned his head back wearily, the crawling feeling up his spine enough to force away every other feeling of bodily pain and discomfort from being moved after the ordeals of the previous night. “What happened to you? What’s with these complicated tones you know all of a sudden.”

“Ah,” Nie Huaisang turned his head in a direction. “Young master Wei has taught me a lot.”

“Huh?”

“-and you were being really stubborn! Honestly Gēge what sort of cultivator ups and leaves without getting backup when facing a ghost? Haven’t we discussed this a hundred times? Why is it so hard to get help during times like this hah?! Gēge, this Wei Ying understands, it was an emergency- but Sect Leader was still awake so there was no excuse to not recruit him for help before you left! Then maybe maybe you wouldn’t burn out your reserves for qi energy hah?! You’re lucky you didn’t deviate! You’re lucky you can’t deviate right now or so help me Gēge I will make a talisman to tie you to the bed!” Wei Ying huffed, red faced and clearly still crying at full strength. Nie Mingjue was having all sorts of admiring thoughts about the full, and apparently true extent of the younger’s vocabulary. The rumors certainly weren’t fake when it came to the prodigious characteristics.

Then he remembered Huaisang too, was a prodigy- and apparently Wei Ying was also enough of an influence to spread. Peak Lords have mercy.

“This Wei Fan is sincerely apologetic.”

“Not good enough!”

“This Wei Fan is very sincerely apologetic.”

“So you’re not gonna leave this bed right!? We’re not gonna leave this healing room until you’re healed right?!”

“Eh- but the Jiang clan…”

“Bah! Let them come and try to take us, it’s not like you can move when you’re like this. What’s Sect Leader Jiang going to do, carry you?!”

“He tried to last time did he not? This Wei Fan fails to see a possibility in which Sect Leader Jiang Fengmian will not utilize any tactic at his disposal to enhance the probability of us two becoming disciples of Jiang Sect. As air headed as he may be, his tactical mind, this Wei Fan believes, is not to be trifled with,” Wei Fan huffed- a majority of his cuts were wrapped under a layer of bandages. Stained red and other disgusting shades from the various herbs used to disinfect and treat some of his deeper cuts. All while tucked next to a heat source for the streaks of mid-degree frost bite from the ghost of Lei Rùlíng. For all that Wei Fan had faced death and lived, he hadn’t actually looked that bad in the grand scheme of injuries. He sat up right, his expression showed no visible pain- it was rather impressive. Nie Mingjue wanted to wince every second his muscles twitched.

“Don’t change the subject!” Wei Ying pouted. “Gēge, you have to tell me when you’re in pain! We both know how bad you get when you get injured! No moving! Not until everything is healed!”

“This Wei Fan is-“

Gēge if you say that you’re not that hurt I’m gonna really tie you to the bed. No talismans. With rope.” Wei Ying tapped his elbow from where it was crossed. “Gēge said I do a good hog tie right?”

“Is this kid serious?” Nie Mingjue said disbelievingly. “What happened when we got here? Why is there a sudden shift?!”

Nie Huaisang shrugged, “Ehhh Wei-xiong is really fluent.”

“He’s eight, this is beyond fluent. You’re nine, why are you talking the same way?!”

Nie Huaisang pouted, “Wei-xiong showed some really good stuff while we were waiting for you to wake up! Ah, that reminds me Da-ge, we read some of the scrolls in your library.”

“Hm? Which one?”

“The Gui Po one and The Skinner.”

“Huh?! Aren’t those a little too much for you?!”

“Eh? Wei-xiong said he knew the stories though, he wasn’t lying, he even told me about how the scroll wasn’t complete and that Luo Binghe was a man, not a woman.”

“Hah?! But all the scriptures said that Emperor Luo was a woman? Why would they all get it wrong?!” Nie Mingjue paused. “And if the scroll isn’t complete than what’s missing?!”

“Erm, Wei-xiong said that Wei Da-ge said that it’s most likely because the old stuffy jerks from a long while ago couldn’t accept that they were beaten by a demon who married one of the most respected peak lords, especially after the slander back during the plague crisis in Huan Hua Palace. So they made Luo Binghe a woman to save face. Ah- and Wei-xiong also said that Wei Da-ge said a roof piece in the place the Skinner Captured Peak Lord Shen and Disciples Luo and Ning had killed the Skinner. Peak Lord Shen had aimed for it, the Skinner didn’t get skewed with Xiuya.”

“Isn’t that a little too outrageous?”

“Eh-? But Wei-xiong got all the other details right before we read it so he must be right.”

Just what sort of stories does this older Wei tell his brother??? Nie Mingjue’s expression took on the look of complete and utter confusion as the Wei brothers continued their back and forth. That being said, how the hell does Wei Fan even know these stories? The Nie Clan has secretly hoarded the Legends for generations, why would someone who spent most of their life as a Rogue Cultivator even know these things? How does that even make sense in this situation?? Lan Xichen would know perhaps-

“Da-ge you’re making a weird face.”

“My face is not weird Huaisang.”

“You have the face you get when you need Xichen-ge to explain something to you.”

“You brat- oi, wait- he really did tie him up.”

Wei Fan glared at him from the bed, quite literally hogtied to the frame beneath him with only his arms free and a little give to allow the older of the brothers to sit up if he needed to. The individual knots were quite complicated and Nie Mingjue contemplated asking about it, it would be useful in a situation in which they needed to tie up a spiritual beast without directly harming it. Still, “How did you get him to stay still?”

Wei Ying shrugged, having left and miraculously reentered in time to answer Nie Mingjue’s question as he carried with him a bowl of congee, “Gēge said it might help me stay in one place more if I had something in my hands to work on. So after I learned knots, I learned how talismans work and how to make talismans. Gēge I brought you your favorite.”

“Thank you,” Wei Fan sat up, face twitching. “A-Ying could you-?”

Wei Ying seemed to summon a cloth from thin air, “Handkerchief here you go.”

“You are…” Nie Mingjue eyed the duo wearily. “Surprisingly okay with this.”

Wei Ying’s expression twitched into the briefly dangerous territory, “If I don’t make Gēge rest he’s going to go wild. Gēge is banned from Koi tower when Sect Leader Jin is there.”

“…I’m stuck between congratulating you and being almost afraid to ask why.”

“Gēge punched Sect Leader Jin in the face,” Wei Ying’s expression twitched again, while Mingjue would have thought it was a motion to conceal laughter- there was almost…a rage to it. Like he was barely restraining a scowl. “With a broken arm.”

“He has a terribly handsome face,” Wei Fan grumbled. “This Wei Fan just made him look right. That character with that level of handsomeness, isn’t it unfair for everyone? At least if he looks as bad as he is then I can ignore him. This Wei Fan thinks the bad should look bad if they have any decency- but no. Tianlang-jun was a certifiable heart throbber, Luo Binghe could make anyone trip over their robes. Sha Hualing could kill you even if she was a beauty- only that scum Palace Master made any sense. Mobei-jun is just as icy as he is handsome, but no no- Shang-shishu and Shizun are clearly the betters. Who else could slaughter an entire squad of demons? Shizun and Shang-shishu that’s who. And his arm is weak, that brat Mistress’ arm was stronger.”

Nie Mingjue turned to Wei Ying, who had a complicated look on his face as he sighed. “Did he hit his head too hard?”

Wei Ying shook his head, “No Gēge is probably in the middle of healing. He always gets a little strange when he’s tired and starting to replenish his energy reserves. Loose lipped?”

“Did it have something to do with that summoning circle?”  

“Oh I forgot you aren’t familiar with some of the ritual circles,” Wei Ying nodded to himself as he took the now significantly emptier bowel of congee. “Powering the summoning while also providing energy for the spirit to form physically takes a lot of energy- so Gēge probably pushed himself beyond the limits of his core again and qi deviated once the strain finally got to him. Gēge is very strong, but he can get reckless if he’s in the middle between a cliffside and a canyon.”

“Does he always talk about the old Legends?”

“Only when it comes up,” Wei Fan shrugged once eyes were on him, prompting Wei Ying to continue. “Or when he gets really invested, he doesn’t talk about it too much otherwise. One time during a night hunt he had to use up his energy on destroying a goddess statue and he spent the next two hours complaining about how people needed to start being selective about who they worship and taking charge of themselves than relying on blessings- something about the streets being cleaner? He complains a lot about that actually, I think it’s because he hates washing clothes.”

“A-Ying it’s too cold.”

“Here you go Gēge.”

“A-Ying it’s too hot now.”

“Okay,” Wei Ying sighed and shrugged, palms open as if to say- what are you gonna do? Before reaching to tug the blanket so it was only covering half of the older, weirder, Wei. “Gēge will heal on his own time. How are you Sect Leader Nie? Did my brother cause you much trouble? Are you still in pain?”

“Not really,” Nie Mingjue lifted his elbow to his sight to examine the remnants of the frostbite- now fully encased in leaves and a wad fabric. “We worked pretty well surprisingly, and Maiden Lei can rest in peace at least. And the pain is…bearable. But still- why are you so calm about this?”

“Fan-ge says that the best way to get through hardship is to deal with it,” Wei Ying sighed. “But he contradicts himself when he avoids Sect Leader Jiang, which I don’t quite understand since he tells people off all the time despite his whole harking about having good manners.”

“Is it not because the relationship is complicated?”

Both heads turned to Huaisang as he tilted his head at them, Wei Fan however, was staring at the knots.

Wei Ying frowned. “I don’t think you could call it that, can a relationship be complicated when it’s never had a chance to grow? Gēge has always just avoided him whatever chance he got.”

“But Jiang Fengmian is rather famous for having that rumor that he was in love with Cangse Sanren for a long time,” Huaisang hummed to himself. “Mother talked about it sometimes whenever news came up, but she always said it strangely so I wasn’t sure what she ever actually meant by it.”

Nie Mingjue hummed, leaning back on the bed, “Wouldn’t it just be easier to ask? Oi, Wei Fan, why do you avoid Jiang Fengmian?”

“Tch.”

“’tch’?!”

Wei Fan had a complicated look on his face as he poked at the ropes holding him in place, eyes darkening significantly. “That guy…could really use an ass whooping.”

Both the Leader and the heir to the Sect blinked before turning their eyes to Wei Ying, who blinked himself as if he had just processed what had been said, “Ah, Gēge you’re slipping into the other speech again.” 

“This Wei Fan means that he needs to have his ass kicked to shit,” Wei Fan clicked his tongue as he tugged on one part of the knot. “Apologies to Shizun for overhearing his conversations with Shang-shishu. However, Sect Leader Jiang really is frustrating to deal with. Never listening, never thinking. If he gets beat up maybe his ears will start working again- if he gets beat up more maybe his brain will start working too. Did you know he asked for us to become disciples of Lotus Pier? He wanted to even house us with his family! How does that make sense? The lack of common thought is really amazing, I’m in awe of youth. How can someone be so shameless? Even in the time of the Sects this sort of shameless behavior would be really frowned upon; you’re giving the poor kids bad face is what it is. Why would you ever house commoners with your own family without talking hah?! He’s a Sect Leader not a do-gooder, he needs to have some more pride. Not even Zhangmen-shibo would be so shameless, and he has it bad for Shizun even years after that puppy dog married Shizun.”

“And his son has dogs,” Wei Fan continued after a moment. “What does he expect from me for that hah? Ask young master Jiang to send away his companions?? Does he take this Wei Fan a fool? A-Ying has needs but it has to be fair if we spent time there, so obviously the answer was no. Ah- I miss his snow congee, can I have more congee?”

“Dogs?”

“A-Ying is afraid of them,” Wei Fan said mildly, giving off a look of serenity that was very wrong for the current situation, a fan appearing into his hand. “If you say anything bad I’ll hit you.”

He looked back down at the ropes before looking up again, “I will throw this fan at you.”

“Uh- we have dogs too…?” Huaisang trailed off in an attempt to…respond, to the older Wei’s apparent tendency to be “weird” as he healed from a violent drop of energy. “Hunting dogs, will you be okay with that?”

“N-No t-that’s…t-they aren’t close by right??” Wei Ying swallowed, pale and glancing around the healing ward as if he was expecting one of them to come barging in at the mere mention of them. “I-If they’re pretty far I can h-handle it.”

“Just tell the disciples to keep the dogs from here then,” Nie Mingjue sighed. “You people keep complicating things.”

Wei Fan hummed, fanning himself in a way that made Nie Mingjue want to smack the fan out of his hand, “It cannot be helped if you cannot understand our complicated explanations Sect Leader Nie.”

“Yeah Da-ge, don’t you know? Us smart people complicate things because they always get asked complicated questions.” Nie Huaisang looked a little too proud at his apparent revelation. “So the best tactic is to act stupid!”

“’Us smart people’? Why the hell do I feel like I’m being excluded from this?!”

“Da-ge is fine the way he is.”

Nie Mingjue felt his anger peak, “Huaisang!”

-

“Sect Leader Nie?”

Nie Mingjue looked up from his paperwork in his private chambers to find Wei Ying and Nie Huaisang trailing behind with a complicated expression. Which was anything but a good thing in perspective, the boys might be spending a little too long with each other- but at least his brother was happy. “What is it?”

Wei Ying had a complicated expression on his face, “Gēge escaped the rope.”

“Huh?” Nie Mingjue thought about that morning. “But you tied him better than a hog, how did he escape?”

“Sect Leader Nie- I learned how to tie knots from Gēge, I’m just happy it lasted long enough for him to calm down,” Wei Ying sighed. “He wants to see you though.”

“What for?”

“He’s in the records room.”

“Is he…” Nie Mingjue trailed off with a wince. “Sane?”

“No- I think he wants to tell you off for the book keeping?” Wei Ying shrugged. “I’m not sure what he meant by it, sorry Sect Leader Nie.”

Nie Mingjue sighed and got up, surprising himself as he felt no twinge of pain in the movement. Invigorated to walk around more and meet up with the older Wei at the records room. Though, he did hear from the doctor that the younger Wei had fetched some herbs from their pack that contributed to the quick turnaround, so he supposed he had the Weis to thank for his significant cut in bedrest time.

“You boys go play or something, I’ll handle this,” he said just before he entered the records room- a choice he was soon to regret as he opened the doors.

Which he found was in a bit of a chaotic whirlwind.

You,” Wei Fan hissed, looking at the edge of a qi deviation as he pointed from his spot on the floor that was most likely the only clear spot on the wooden floors. “What in the world is this poor excuse of a record room?!”

“If you could cut you’re speech into something that made a little more sense than maybe I can answer your question,” Nie Mingjue spat back. “Besides last year, everything is as it was as it was organized by generations of Sect Leaders that came before me. Why do you look like you’re about to spit blood?”

Nothing is organized,” Wei Fan grumbled, looking over to the piles of scrolls. “The crop harvests for the past ten years are shoved with the horses breed lines- which make no sense. The filings for the approved expenses are all wrong, the night hunt incident reports are everywhere- how did you ever solve any inner-Sect cases with this much chaos?!”

Nie Mingjue frowned, “Why would we use records to solve the cases? Isn’t eye-witnesses enough?”

“Not when the eyewitnesses are dead, as proven by last night,” Wei Fan looked to the ceiling. “I was going to organize the family clan records in thanks and apology for breaking in without permission and for allowing us to intrude on your land a little longer- but this- this hurts me.”

“You just fought with a blood thirsty ghost and complained about not being able to leave when you wanted to,” Nie Mingjue said tiredly- in deadpan. “This cannot possibly hurt you as much as you are saying.”

“Oh,” Wei Fan looked at him with interest. “Do you not understand what a hyperbole is?”

Wei Fan,” Nie Mingjue sighed. “Even if you are as frustrated as you are- the records room is massive. You can’t stay here and organize it and expect to be healed by the time Sect Leader Jiang comes tomorrow. I thought you were going to avoid him? Actually no, you should avoid him. I don’t need an incident on my lands after you punch him.”

“I would not actually punch him,” Wei Fan grumbled. “I would yell at him however.”

“You are a scandal waiting to happen Wei Fan.”

“Sect Leader Nie would be pleased to know that this Wei Fan’s mannerisms happen to be pristine,” Wei Fan huffed. “It is to be expected after such a long time as- well. That does not matter here, but still- these records are ghastly.”

Nie Mingjue rolled his eyes, “You may as well stay here and become my head disciple if you’re so determined to keep the paperwork in shape.”

Nie Mingjue paused.

Actually- why shouldn’t the Wei brothers become a part of his sect? Their personal choice aside, it would be mutually beneficial. Both brothers were most known for rejecting Sect offers but if they accepted his offer than the position would be filled. They would also not have to worry about expenses being in Qinghe Nie Sect’s discipleship. Nie Sect on the other hand, would receive the notoriety of managing to recruit the two geniuses- and most if not all the results of such would be credited to the Sect as a whole.

It was mutually beneficial, but the issue Nie Mingjue had was that he couldn’t tell if either brothers wanted it in the first place. He wasn’t good enough to believe he was doing this purely for selfless intentions- Wei Fan and he clearly worked well together, and the older Wei had an affinity with understanding the documents he received better than Nie Mingjue ever had- he needed the help. But to word it in a way that could convince the older Wei-

Well perhaps that was the issue, Nie Mingjue thought to himself. Perhaps the primary issue Wei Fan had ever faced when it came to offers from other Sects is that other leaders had made their offers with the full intent to convince Wei Fan why he would be a fool to deny them. The older Wei seemed to be the type to admire honesty in this matter rather than cunning. He could appreciate it, of this there was no doubt, he looked impressed with Huaisang whenever his younger brother decided to reveal that sharp beak of his. However, he seemed…more content, with the atmosphere whenever he and Huaisang bickered.

The Wei clan consisting of two was complicated, a mirror opposite to himself and Huaisang. Nie Mingjue preferred straight forward methods of receiving answers. Huaisang knew how to extract one, had been learning from his mother for years until she, and everyone else, died.

Wei Ying was a pursuer, cunning but he sought the answers he wanted for himself. Made all the guesses, all the threats, by himself for himself.

Wei Fan- was complicated. An enigma, a puzzle that kept being both a straight foreword yet winding answer that never quite seemed to exceed anything but the most ridiculous of nature. Observant, honest, annoying, and conniving. Wei Fan was the type of person Nie Mingjue hated the most, the type who would trample over everything if it meant attaining victory. Yet it was a target selected carefully. Planned carefully- well thought out and never quite what it seemed on the surface. Which is what made this exact situation so odd.

“What is it you want?” Nie Mingjue asked after a moment of silence, looking down at Wei Fan from on the floor. “You’re making me think.”

“Is it so bad?” Wei Fan answered, not looking up as he read through the scrolls and threw them across the room- somehow landing precisely where he needed them to. “Having to think? Having to examine the situation rather than going at it from a singular standpoint? A grey overlap amongst the blacks and the whites. The goods and the evils. Isn’t this a more refreshing outlook?”

“It’s not so bad,” Nie Mingjue allowed. “But it’s giving me a headache. So just tell me.”

“What is there to tell?” the response was dry, humorous even. Nie Mingjue was close but he wasn’t getting the answer he needed, he hated games like this. His mother attempted to teach him, but he had always taken after his father more when it came to delicate works like this. He supposed he could lament the fact that he hadn’t learned more.

“Why do you want me to ask you to stay?” Nie Mingjue answered. “What do you get out of it? It’s pointless, you of all people know that. The Nie Sect receives the notoriety, the fame. You receive money, a roof over your head. You could twist my arm into giving you the best building here. But you aren’t- no rather, you don’t want to.”

“Hm…pride, perhaps. A little bit of fun too I think.” Wei Fan shrugged. “It’s a sort of rush, getting people to think, it may be why teaching Wei Ying is so enjoyable. He thinks- he learns. He adapts.”

“He’s eight, it’ll slow down.”

“No, I don’t think it will.” Wei Ying smiled. “That’s part of the problem.”

Nie Mingjue thought about it, tilted his head even, to try and catch up to the puzzle laying at his feet. Carefully arranged and carefully placed, just waiting for him to finish sorting through it. “The Jin Sect is thirsty for more fame. The Lan sect is too rigorous, too stiff, they might stifle all the light in that boy before he ever learns all of those rules no matter how well intoned they may be. The Wens- Wen Ruohan would use him.”

“Then there’s me.”

“And then there is you,” Wei Fan allowed.

“So why do I have to ask if you already know?” The words left his mouth quicker than he could feel them pass his lips. His heartbeat beating a little faster.

Wei Fan smirked, for Nie Mingjue had found the beginning of his answer, he tilted his head as he continued, “Why do you think I want you to?”

“I don’t want you- no, I don’t need you a part of this Sect. That’s why you wouldn’t mind being here,” Nie Mingjue felt the euphoria at the edge of his mind. The thin relief in his chest and the ripples of pride across his body. The addictive feeling of finding the answer, of solving the puzzle. Just right at the edge of falling into that feeling. “You wanted me to ask, because you knew I didn’t really care if you said no.”

It was then when Wei Fan smiled, small but satisfied, standing up and dusting off his robes- the room strangely, immaculate. Organized in a chaotic way, everything was in a pile, but it was more piles than ever existed before in the room. Bandages hung taught across his body, stained by herbs, darkened by blood. Yet Wei Fan still seemed as if he was as fit as he was only days ago. “Feels good, does it not?”

“Shitty,” he lied, reveling in the thrill of a solved mystery. Giddy at the aspect of a puzzle solved, it was maddening and curious. The older Wei certainly wasn’t a slouch when it came to teaching, for a tutor, Nie Mingjue could probably learn more from him than any other of his former teachers. “You dragged me around in circles just to get me to ask that you become members of Nie Sect? Could you be any more pathetic?”

Wei Fan shrugged, “One often takes amusement where it is easiest.”

Nie Mingjue frown returned at that answer, “But it’s not the whole answer you were looking for.”

“It’s alright, you wouldn’t have known.” Wei Fan shrugged, leaning back on a desk propped between two shelves. “But it is tantamount as to why this Wei Fan wishes to become a disciple- to pursue head discipleship.”

“The records room you hate so much?”

Wei Fan laughed in acknowledgement of the well placed sarcasm, shaking his head and beckoning the Sect Leader closer.

Curious, Nie Mingjue stepped forward, following the older Wei to a nearby small window. Opening it with a quiet slide as it revealed the view of one of the gardens in the Unclean Realm. Immaculately kept by Huaisang’s mother and Huaisang after her at least by the servants at his instruction for now, the birds that his brother was so fond off chittering brightly in the afternoon light.

Wei Ying was huddled with Huaisang, talking excitedly, both boys yammering about things Nie Mingjue himself was not truly interested in. Fans, if he would venture to guess, Huaisang’s hands were carefully laid out, pointing to one and talking- Wei Ying nodding along with bright eyes. Brighter than he had seen thus far actually, if Nie Mingjue were to take especial notice.

“The conclusion you failed to reach, Sect Leader Nie,” Wei Fan had said quietly, leaning against the windowsill with an elbow and an amused expression. “Is that Wei Ying made a friend.”

Nie Mingjue nearly snorted to himself as he nodded.

A warning in disguise, very subtle and not at all obvious. If he wasn’t looking for the point he probably would have missed it. It was frustratingly clever and undeniably an underhanded way to imply a threat while simultaneously avoiding declaring intent. A perfect in between truth and implication that would have impressed his mother should she be alive to witness it.

Nie Mingjue rolled his eyes to save face, turning slightly away from the other, mouth moving before he could truly think on his words, “Leave any time you want then, see if I care.”

Wei Fan smirked, dipping his head, “Much obliged. This Wei Fan would be honored to learn, Sect Leader.”

It was in that instant, Nie Mingjue realized a stew of horror and grudging admiration for the other man in equal parts. For he had just offered himself to the Cultivation World and Jiang Fengmian on a silver platter as he just granted both Weis free reign to leave whenever they wished without guaranteeing any sort of fidelity to the Nie Sect for any amount of time.

His neck snapped as he abruptly turned to gape at Wei Fan, the other tilting his head with a smirk.

He had been played.

Wei Fan’s smirk grew that slightest bit wider as his prey realized the crosshairs they themselves had walked into, and patted Nie Mingjue’s shoulder in faux sympathetically. “This Wei Fan will do his best to offer support, Sect Leader.”

Nie Mingjue was about to respond, the rescind his offer damn what it may do to his image- but then, “I never asked you to.”

“To…?”

“To join my Sect,” Nie Mingjue said after a moment, frowning. “You can’t leave my Sect if you never accepted a proposal to join it.”

Wei Fan blinked, expression banking into a small smile. Smaller than Wei Ying’s but no less genuine.

“You are learning Sect Leader Nie,” Ming Fan said with no small amount of warmth, a rolling fire of approval imbedded into his words. “Will Sect Leader Nie allow this Wei Fan and his brother Wei Ying the honor of joining the Sect of Qinghe Nie?”

Nie Mingjue stifled the urge to grin in satisfaction, huffing instead with a scowl before nodding his head, “Qinghe Nie accepts Wei Fan and Wei Ying as disciples. And…”

He turned around to leave the records room, intentionally facing away, “Should Master Wei and his brother find the Nie Sect far too stifling- this Nie Mingjue, Sect Leader of Qinghe Nie- bids them permission to leave this Sect without penalty nor ill will. For as long as the two of you would stay with us. If you accept this offer, both you and your brother are welcomed to stay in the Unclean Realm.”

Nie Mingjue was well on his way back to a comfortable bed when Ming Fan rose to his feet- the records at least half way organized into some form of controlled order. A small smile on his face as he gently tucked away other paperwork that would be filed later with the rest of them that had yet to be dealt with. Smiling as he left the records room with his hands folded neatly behind him and quietly observed the pale moon with the accompaniment of stars. In the distance beyond the Unclean Realm, rolling hills carved into the side with the shade of light sapped green, the faint etchings of edges where the moonlight bounced the slightest bit as it accented the hills. The mighty mountains, looming in the distance further North.

Although it was no mountain of his, he supposed he wouldn’t mind calling this place home.

Chapter Text

7. Log: File:Save_13-106.4.0113.log


“In short Sect Leader Nie,” Elder Shu continued, nervously shuffling before him with the presented papers- essays really, coming from two of their newly minted disciples who had reined terror among the teachers of Qinghe Nie for a solid four days now. “This Elder believes that these two shouldn’t be...interacting, with the others.”

Nie Mingjue raised an eyebrow, “While I can understand your reluctance to teach them considering their repeated correction of your lectures- I fail to see how excluding them from the regular discipleship lessons would do any good for the Sect. Especially considering, as much as anyone would loath to admit it, the both of them are prodigies. The answer, unfortunately, Elder Shu is no. Take the day off.”

Prodigy was a bit of an understatement if Nie Mingjue were to put it mildly. Wei Ying was a terror to his teachers because of that hunger to know more, really, he was surprised the boy didn’t just break into their Sect library himself to consume the rest of the texts they had- however meager it was. Qinghe Nie was more of a marital Sect than it ever was a scholarly Sect, yet that didn’t seem to stop the younger Wei from attempting to balance both scholarly pursuits and martial pursuits at the same time. He was quick to learn sword forms, his stance was as correct as it could be, the only obvious sign that he was new was the stiffness in his motion. Not yet grown into the flow of swordsmanship that came with countless hours of sparing and training.

Besides martial pursuits; he drew, he painted, he could do arithmetic in seconds without the help of any additional aid, and he could play the dizi as well as any of the most seasoned students there. They were frankly running out of things to occupy the boy and it was starting to show. At the tender age of eight still, they couldn’t move to cultivation because not only would that be a momentous amount of stupid, they weren’t sure what they would do if Wei Ying actually succeeded in cultivating so young.

The lack of the more intellectual stimulus also seemed to have a side effect of revealing the hellion the boy was.

While Qinghe Nie Sect was more in control of the tendency to frown upon blood status, at least in comparison to the other Great Sects, it was still there. They were no Lanling Jin, but there are several disciples among the Sect who felt that the Wei brothers were far too privileged for their liking. Never mind that all the two were receiving that was different was the private housing. It had been a request by the older Wei with a detailed essay (which was honestly impressively short and to-the-point) describing their need for a separate space from the other Nie Sect disciples. Nie Mingjue would normally not grant such a request, but the arguments presented by Wei Fan made a reasonable amount of sense.

Both Wei Fan and Wei Ying were, for better or for worse, rogue cultivators far longer than they were disciples. Even more so that they were rogue cultivators of the nomadic tendency; which meant that most of their time of rest was spent in the elements. Not only did this affect the two’s sleeping schedule, it also affected their general routines. The Nie Sect roused their disciples at seven for breakfast before the beginning of their lessons at eight- moving on until noon where lunch would take place and so on. Wei Fan and Wei Ying had an interchanging schedule that often saw both of them taking naps in increments of two to three hours well into the evening which meant that for a time as ridiculous as even five in the morning, one or the other would be awake out of the former necessity of maintaining a constant watch over the course of the evening. While this sometimes meant being up at odd hours, it also manifested into a habit of working during those awake hours as well- whether it be talismans or the mending of clothes. Though more often than not, it was patrol.

Additionally, this also meant that both brothers were able to rouse at the slightest hint of noise. He didn’t quite understand the gravity of it until one of the hunting dogs got agitated by a passing fox, barking until it was calmed by one of the trainers. Nie Mingjue had been up reading reports and had been finally able to go to bed at two in the morning: yet he ran into the brother’s sitting idly near in tree. Tense and wearily staring into the direction of where the hunting dogs were housed.

It hadn’t really been comfortable for anyone to discuss, so Nie Mingjue had chosen to keep his mouth shut.

That being said- apparently, it was still enough to offend some of the disciples as proven when he found a group of them bullying the younger of the Weis. The older having gone to their humble library to continue his studies as mandated by the teachers, since he was the only one among the two that could cultivate.

Nie Mingjue was about to interfere; already a bark of an order at the edge of his tongue when the screaming started.

“Get it off get it off!” One of the older one’s screeched as he ran the other way, the other’s following close behind pale faced. Leaving alone a snickering Wei Ying who had his hands cupped together, and promptly grinned as Nie Mingjue wearily made his approach.

“What,” Nie Mingjue stuttered, his feet halting in its steps. “The hell is that?”

That, happened to be a spider that was sitting comfortably in Wei Ying’s small hands. Eight spindly legs splayed out across pale, rough palms, and calm most bizarrely enough. Nie Mingjue was no scholar, but he remembered enough of his studies to recognize a very deadly spider when he saw one.

“Wolf spider,” Wei Ying replied cheerily. “Wei Ying found this little one too far from his borrow, this Wei Ying thinks it might be near here Sect Leader. Gēge said he would be busy for a while since he’s said he’s going to snatch the position of Head Disciple within three years so he also told me to go explore and learn some stuff that I couldn’t before!”

“And you decided on…insects.” Nie Mingjue couldn’t say it was abnormal but- venomous spider.

“Yep,” Wei Ying looked…adorably happy about it, which may prove to be a problem later considering Nie Huaisang was terrified of anything that had more than four legs. Nie Mingjue had to make an attempt to save Huaisang some face at least. He hadn’t had anything of importance to take care of anyway beyond checking progress on the more senior disciples.

“Then perhaps you should put him back,” Nie Mingjue began. “And I can give you some more lessons on your sabre wielding before you officially claim a sword.”

Wei Ying’s eyes sparkled, “Really? Sect Leader is going to teach me?”

You brats better feel good about my sacrifice, Nie Mingjue thought idly before nodding. “Better than you misunderstanding something. If you’re going to be a member of the Nie Sect than at least hold a saber like a Nie Sect disciple.”

“Yes Sect Leader!”

-

“Ah, Da-ge?”

“What is it Huaisang.”

“Wei-shixiong is terrorizing the teachers again.”

“Seriously?!” Nie Mingjue sighed, slumping over his desk- he had barely made a dent in the reports he was supposed to get done before the day after. “What did he do now?”

“Eh, more like the teachers were asking about his courtesy name.”

“Oh- so? What’s the issue?”

“He doesn’t know.”

“He doesn’t know?” Nie Mingjue frowned. “Doesn’t he know Wei Ying’s courtesy name?”

“He does, but I think he was never told what is courtesy name was supposed to be. It’s either that or it was mentioned so long ago that Wei-shixiong doesn’t remember,” Nie Huaisang shrugged. “And then he got confused because he wasn’t sure how it worked, but he did pick one in the end.”

“Mn? What did he pick then.”

“Míng.”

“Míng? What character?”

“Light.”

“…Isn’t the Fan in his name for gallop?”

“Yeah- oh. So, if you put the two names together wouldn’t it be the same as Ming Fan?” Huaisang tilted his head. “You think Wei-shixiong knows that?”

“Who knows, the old man’s a weirdo.” Nie Mingjue sighed. “Well if it’s already solved then why is he terrorizing the elders?”

“They wanted to do the ceremony, Wei-shixiong said it wasn’t necessary.”

“Well that’s his choice isn’t it?” Nie Mingjue could feel his temper rise. “That kid’s probably so used to being on his own that it’s pretty obvious that he would feel offended, just tell them to lay off.”

“Oh, no that wasn’t the issue.”

“What was the issue?”

“They said if Wei-shixiong was already so advanced then he should also be sent to Cloud Recesses with the next group.”

Absolutely not.”

“Eh? Why do you say so Da-ge?” Nie Huaisang narrowed his eyes at his brother suspiciously.

“If he goes, that means leaving Wei Ying behind here. Which means he will either slaughter us all and make it look like an accident to make the Lan Sect allow Wei Ying to come with him or he’ll slowly take over the Lan Sect and get Wei Ying to come himself.” Nie Mingjue shuddered. “No, I’m not sending Xichen to his doom like that. He’s not going, ever.”

“Da-ge is going a little over the top isn’t he.”

“Huaisang, tell me honestly. Between me and Wei Fan, who would win?”

“Wei-shixiong,” Nie Huaisang said immediately. “You win in brute strength but Wei-shixiong is a quick learner and I heard from the healers that his core level is unprecedented for his age. He’ll run you down before you realize you lost. And that is if A-Ying didn’t get to you first.”

Nie Mingjue sighed, “…Does he really want to be my head disciple?”

“I think you traumatized him, A-Ying said Wei-shixiong goes to the record room once every day.”

“Again with the paperwork- next thing I know he’s just gonna show up here and mess up all my organized paperwork.”

“...what organized paperwork Da-ge?”

“Oh shut it.”

-

“…congratulations on your naming Wei Ming.”

“Hm? Oh thank you Sect Leader.”

“So could you kindly explain,” Nie Mingjue breathed through his nose in the hopes that he could calm his temper before it boiled over. “What you’re doing in my office so early in the morning?”

“Organizing paperwork,” Wei Ming answered blandly, looking over the various reports stewn out the desk before he pointed to one pile. “This one is all the mining profits they managed to get in the silver mines west of here, this one is the predictions for the oncoming winter harvests, this one is damage reports across the villages southward because of a beast that had wandered too close that had sense been disbanded. You have three letters from the Minor Sects in alliance to Qinghe Nie and one letter from Sect Leader Lan and one from Sect Leader Jiang.”

He flapped his hand over to the bundle sealed by the Sect wax, “The rest are grading reports and intersect expenses.”

Nie Mingjue stared.

“Is there something wrong Sect Leader?”

“You realize you aren’t my head disciple,” Nie Mingjue started. “In fact, I haven’t chosen a head disciple.”

Wei Ming blinked, slowly, “Yes…?”

“My point, Wei Ming- is that you should be asleep,” Nie Mingjue gruffed, moving to grab the boy by the arm. “It’s been weeks already. Go back.”

“I can’t.”

“Wei Ming.”

“I am not attempting to undermine your authority on purpose Sect Leader,” Wei Ming sighed, shoulders slumping as he wrenched his arm away. Nie Mingjue hadn’t had a firm grip on it but the loud pop of the joint still made him wince in discomfort. “This disciple has already adapted to the new schedule. The usual habitual routines have nothing to do with tonight’s difficulties.”

“…What is it then?”

“…Memories, perhaps,” Wei Ming glanced away for a moment to look out into the open window. Daybreak’s light already beginning to drive off the shadows of the night, beams of light cascading around the foot hill’s terrain and casting its daytime shadow. In the far South East, in the land of Jiangnan- Lan disciples and guest disciples alike were rousing from their ninth hour slumber for the day ahead. “It would be a shame to miss such a pleasant morning after all.”

Ming Fan tied his robes together firmly before venturing out for breakfast, a list of his tasks already repeating itself in his mind as he went about his rounds. Checking on instruments, rousing disciples: coaxing the younger ones awake and kicking the older disciples out of their beds. Ning Yingying doing the same as his female counterpart and second-in-command.

When all was done, just before he would go back to the kitchens to fetch tea- he would bask in the sun. Just for a few moments, quietly admiring the forest bellow Cang Qiong Mountain beginning to rouse for the day. Birds of the night quieting in favor of the creatures of the day beginning their routine anew.

Not all mornings were like this, but they were nice when they were.

“…Old man.”

“I am not-“ Wei Ming seemed to give up with a sigh. “Fine- I’m an old man. This one hopes that Sect Leader is pleased.”

Nie Mingjue snickered, “Front all you want, we both know if you really hated it I would’ve stopped saying it a long time ago.”

“That is because unlike Sect Leader, this Wei Ming is not petty.”

“Funny,” Nie Mingjue realized after a moment. “If I wasn’t Sect Leader we’d probably be rivals. There aren’t many who can stand up to me in a fight.”

Wei Ming rolled his eyes, “You use your sheer size to your advantage and you’ve got the battle intuition of a demon. A few more years and I could catch up, but that means Sect Leader will also run a little further. It takes much energy simply parrying with your ridiculous height and strength.”

“That being said.” Nie Mingjue turned his head out of curiosity. “Sect Leader, it is perhaps the fact that you lack the concept of organization that evens out your handsome character- what with your very unique ability in comparison to the rest of the world to mix up harvest prediction data with damage expense forms and compensation claims.”

A hand roughly smacked itself across the shorter boy’s head, Nie Mingjue blushing in embarrassment as he scowled, “It’s too early for your smart remarks. Shut up.”

Wei Ming smirked before tenderly rubbing the back of his head, quietly hoping the building frustration would ebb away soon.

-

[ Log: File:Save_13-109.2.1213.log ]

“I’m very glad you were able to make some time for myself and Wangji to greet us Mingjue,” Lan Xichen’s smile was as it usually was as they made their way through the courtyard. The peaceful atmosphere of the outer courtyard seeming to mold itself around the soon to be Sect Leader of the Lan Clan. The younger of the brothers quietly walked behind Lan Xichen, never quite looking up nor looking elsewhere but his immediate surroundings. At around Wei Ying, now Wei Wuxian’s age, the stark difference between the two was almost enough to be funny.

“Well, it isn’t as if there are any major happenings going on,” Nie Mingjue could feel a tick form in his neck. “Well there’s one but I’m hoping they’re both so distracted nothing happens today.”

“…’distracted’?” Lan Xichen’s expression turned confused.

“Sect Leader Nie! Sect Leader Nie!”

Three heads turned to whirlwind in green robes that flew behind him, a mass of birds behind him before he came to stop and two out of the three realized that-

“Look what I made!”

-the birds were in fact, made of paper.

Nie Mingjue, with a small puff of air under his breath, moved forward to ruffle the boy’s hair as soon as he stood still enough. Pride beaming in his smile before he realized that there were an additional two to his normal audience when Wei Fan was busy plotting to take over the Cultivation World.

Ah- that is, when Wei Ming was studying.

“Good job, is this the talisman your brother showed you last week?” Nie Mingjue observed the birds- carefully painted to the point where they looked almost realistic. If he wasn’t careful Huaisang might end up with an entire flock of these things instead of the one pet bird he consented to having inside.

“Yeah! Gēge was right, it’s really hard to get the characters right so that they act the way they need to,” Wei Wuxian grinned again, proud. “If I get a bigger paper I think I can even do eagles!”

“Hm- tell your brother, he’ll remind me later,” Nie Mingjue allowed- if Wei Wuxian did manage to get the eagles, they may prove useful in future night hunts if messages could also be passed through them. The Nie Clan has practiced falconry for generations but it took a long time and some of their hawks were already growing old, and with tensions growing high, the hawks would also be at large risk of danger from…certain enemies. “Has Huaisang been studying as well?”

“Yep! Wuxian told Huaisang to study or else he’ll tell Gēge.”

That, Nie Mingjue thought, is actually a really good tactic. I’ll use it next time- ah, damn. Xichen.

“Xichen, this is one of the newer disciples, Wei Wuxian. His brother’s in the library so you probably won’t get to see him today.”

“Greeting Master Lan! This Wuxian is honored to be meeting you.” Wei Wuxian bowed in a perfect angle, hands perfectly aligned and execution elegant. For as exuberant as the boy was, seeing such a motion had a habit of putting people off balance. Such was the case with the two Lans.

“Ah y-yes,” Lan Xichen bowed in return. “It is good to meet you Young Master Wei.”

Lan Xichen glanced at Nie Mingjue with an uncharacteristic uncertainty- Nie Mingjue couldn’t blame him. This was the first time Nie Mingjue realized how much of the older’s habits stuck with the younger, he couldn’t fault anyone for getting wrong-footed when the person greeting you is both a child and somehow offers one of the most formal greetings you’ve ever heard.

Not one to stay idle, Lan Xichen retained some of his composure as he introduced Lan Wangji, “This is my brother, Lan Wangji.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji bowed, not quite as clean as Wei Wuxian’s, which really would have been strange if not for who the other’s brother was. “Nice to meet you.”

“Honored to meet Second Master Lan!” Wei Wuxian cheerily added, bowing again in that ridiculous exact way before righting himself. “Do you wanna play? I can make more animals! What animal do you want Second Master?”

Lan Xichen smiled as Lan Wangji looked at him with confusion, simply motioning forward, “Go have fun Wangji, I’ll speak more with Mingjue and come find you when it’s time for dinner.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji nodded, stepping forward to follow after Wei Wuxian as the other excitedly talked about the various animals he had managed to recreated through the paper talismans. The other nodding along and tilting his head, asking the occasional question and disappearing into the building the Wei room was.

“He was certainly…”

“Annoying? Cheery? Annoyingly cheery? Really confusing?” Nie Mingjue sighed. “Yeah that’s how it’s been since the Conference.”

Lan Xichen smiled gently, “I am sure Huaisang has fun with him around, I know he’s never been quite that comfortable with Wangji.”

Nie Mingjue shook his head, “He does- but thankfully Wuxian got it nailed in his head that studying was important to live in the future so Huaisang’s been in his lessons more times than he was last year since the boy doesn’t let him slack. I’m taking my victories where I can get them, if Huaisang is this resistant to his lessons then saber training will be a nightmare.”

“Yes, how did that happen I have to wonder?” Lan Xichen moved up the steps to follow Nie Mingjue in the private office of the Sect Leader, eyeing the immaculately organized paperwork across the desk that intrigued. “Young Master Wei couldn’t be any more than six.”

“He’s eight,” Nie Mingjue corrected, motioning for tea to be delivered as he settled behind the desk. “I know, he looks small for his size. Blame the older one, I don’t know what he did but I’m not about to complain when it gets Huaisang to take his position a little more seriously. I can handle a majority, but just in case…”

Lan Xichen’s smile turned that slightest bit strained at the reminder, “It will not be until very long in the future Mingjue, you have my word.”

“Thank you,” Mingjue returned the tired smile as a polite knock echoed through the office.

Lan Xichen turned in surprise as a person in Nie Sect disciple robes entered the building, poised and immaculate. The boy gracefully kneeled to pour the tea before setting aside the kettle, rising without so much as a wrinkle.

Rule 132 and 87, Lan Xichen couldn’t help but note. Uncle would be happy.

“I thought you’d be in the library,” Nie Mingjue grumbled, drinking from the cup with narrowed eyes.

“This Wei Ming was just exiting the kitchen Sect Leader Nie,” The disciple, Wei Ming, replied with a wry smirk, turning to bow to Lan Xichen. “Greeting Master Lan, this one is named Wei Fan, courtesy Wei Ming.”

Lan Xichen blinked, the same greeting? “It is nice to meet you as well.”

“Xichen- meet my living nightmare,” Mingjue drawled, pointing a thumb at the serene disciple. “Wei Ming.”

“Sect Leader Nie exaggerates,” Wei Ming shot back softly. “Having to sit down and calculate the total prediction output for crops this winter is hardly that much of a chore.”

“It is when you whip out the total before I can solve it,” Nie Mingjue scowled. “Whatever, get out.”

“Of course.”

Nie Mingjue waited a few seconds after the disciple left before slumping down to his shoulders, “Damn it, at this rate he might end up running the Sect.”

Lan Xichen paused in his amusement just as he was about to sip tea, “Mingjue? What-?”

Nie Mingjue shook his head, “I’m joking, but he’s been a help since he saw the Nie Records room- apparently it grates on his nerves so he stays up with me to get through all the reports before I gotta get to sleep. It’s sort of…”

Lan Xichen unconsciously leaned closer to hear the details of how one Nie Mingjue, the fierce lion of Qinghe Nie, was somehow cowed by his disciple.

“Terrifying in a strange nuanced way in which it is both helpful and a nuisance,” Nie Mingjue trailed off before he frowned. “If that makes sense.”

Lan Xichen nearly dropped his cup.

“I said something weird didn’t I.”

Lan Xichen could only nod solemnly, “Perhaps having spent much time with Master Wei has caused you to pick up some of his habits as well?”

Lan Xichen looked, really looked, because there really was some things he hadn’t noticed before. As one of his only friends around his age, Nie Mingjue was often a source of interest for Lan Xichen to look at when it came to non-Lan habits. His posture was often slightly slumped and he held his chin in his fist in a way that would not have been acceptable in the Cloud Recesses, it was interesting to see the differences in such a way. Especially so since they were both guaranteed their roles in Sect Leadership. Nie Mingjue already taking up the mantle in his case.

And yet today, Nie Mingjue sat straighter, his elbows were off the table, and his shoulders were rolled back slightly- most likely to help him sit up straight. The tea was held completely and unlike a wine cup, it was subtle yet jarring when one truly looked at it.

So he smiled, “It seems Master Wei has come far to subtly improve his Sect Leader’s posture beyond social events. How wonderful to have such a caring disciple.”

“Lan Xichen are you okay? I guarantee you, Wei Ming isn’t as special as everybody seems to think he is; he’s a grumpy old man. He could probably out-old-man your Uncle.”

“Let’s not talk about my uncle Mingjue,” Lan Xichen chuckled before tilting his head. “I am, however, curious as to how Master Wei and Young Master Wei came to be a part of your Sect. I was under the impression that the two would remain rogue cultivators.”

Nie Mingjue shrugged, “Is it that important? I asked him, he said yes. The rest is what it is.”

“Mingjue, you make it sound so sad.”

“Oi- what is it that I said that made it sound sad?”

“I want details Mingjue, how did you two even run into each other? How did you ask? Did Young Master Wei do something to convince his brother to say yes?”

“Xichen you’re making it sound like he accepted my proposal in courting him- not becoming my disciple, just where are your thoughts?!”

-

Ha chu!” Wei Ying sniffed as he wiped away the sneeze, tilting his head curiously. “That’s strange it’s not cold?”

“Wei Ying is well?”

“Yeah I’m okay Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying shook his head briefly before giving Lan Wangji a wide grin. Happy that the other had relented in using their personal names. “I’m gonna show you how to do a bunny okay?”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji bobbed his head in agreement, eyes shining in a subtle way as he watched Wei Ying pull out a square piece of paper with rapt attention. Wei Ying continued to babble as he talked, occasionally checking to see if Lan Wangji was paying attention as he folded in a complicated way, carefully taking care to tuck as needed before revealing a small bunny made out of paper.

“This is the hard part Lan Zhan, so please watch carefully!”

“I will watch carefully,” Lan Wangji repeated solemnly.

Wei Ying held his breath as he held the brush, dipping it into a paste of cinnabar before carefully drawing the appropriate characters to animate the small animal. Pushing a small amount of his natural qi into it as he would a talisman and taking care not to push too much or risk implosion.

And then- it came to life. It’s paper nose snuffling as it hopped around the table, much to the two children’s amusement.

“Tada! Lan Zhan now knows how to make bunnies hehe,” Wei Ying giggled before tilting his head. “Cloud Recesses rules said you can’t have pets right? So this could work! It’s not really a pet anyway.”

Curiosity peaked, the boy looked up and tilted his head at his darker clothed companion, “Wei Ying knows the rules of Cloud Recesses?”

“My Gēge had me read some when I got bored,”  Wei Ying giggled as the paper bunny huffed against his hand, his qi responding to him in a tingle of connection before the bunny hopped away again. “It’s a lot of rules, it would take me forever to learn them all- I barely remember what I read right now!”

“Wei Ying is smart, he can remember.” Lan Wangji’s focus was on the paper bunny in front of him, sniffing his hand despite being inanimate- a testament to Wei Ying’s skill more than anything else. “If he wished to.”

“Aww, okay. If Lan Zhan wants I’ll memorize some of the rules,” Wei Ying giggled. “How about we make him a friend?”

“Mn.”

-

“Hm…” Wei Ming looked critically down at the scroll in his lap- a historical account of the Nie Sect style of cultivation thus far. It was a little closer to Bai Zhan Peak’s method of cultivation for his taste, but if it has been utilized for this many generations there were clear differences in the methods.

For one, Nie Sect style relied on the adrenaline rush of a battle- whereas Bai Zhan Peak relied on the rush primarily through hunts. It was wilder, more risky, for Bai Zhan Peak. The underlying reason underneath the bravado and peak rivalries laid the foundation as to why Bai Zhan Peak sought after Qing Jing Peak. A majority of the purpose truly lied in the fact that Bai Zhan Peak and Qing Jing Peak butted heads more than a snake against a mongoose, but it wasn’t the only reason. Qing Jing was Bai Zhan’s natural enemy. Where Bai Zhan had martial power, Qing Jing had mental fortitude. The evidence laid with the Lords, Shen Qingqiu was, by all means, weaker in terms of physical strength and cultivation- but he was smarter. In a true, fight to live battle, Liu Qingge’s strength couldn’t stand equal to Shen Qingqiu’s cunning. There was too many factors that could be utilized, too many outcomes to be sought after for the perfect victory. Honor didn’t stand much when it came to a battle to come out alive, it was the main weakness of Bai Zhan Peak- and Qing Jing Peak knew that well.

It was among the chief reasons why Qing Jing Peak was ranked second only to Qiong Ding Peak.

In comparison, the Nie Sect relied on a combination of adrenaline based cultivation. It wasn’t uncommon but it held the same risks, toed the line between yin-energy based cultivation and yang-energy based cultivation. Yang energy cultivation was more stable, more friendly for humans. Yin energy, otherwise known in this world and the era before as Demonic energy, was primal. Loose, ever-changing and unstable. For lack of more suitable words, it was primarily a passive type of energy that relied on instinct. It was a faster way to cultivate but it was dangerous because of the danger it could pose on the body. Demons cultivated it fine because of the fact that the natural strength and durability of a demon often was enough to stave off the negative effects, in turn, Demonic Cultivators were primarily strength and instinct based, taking energy from the pre-existing energy outside of their bodies. That, however, did mean that they sacrificed some of their mental ability because of it. A cunning demonic cultivator could maintain their intelligence of course, but that meant they couldn’t fully utilize the power demonic cultivation allows them.

Yang Energy, on the other hand, required active pursuit. It meant building the well of one’s pre-existing core, layer by layer- level by level. The longer one cultivates the bigger well of energy one could pull from their well, the more the spiritual veins grow, the more natural strength and senses could be built up. It took longer, took more determination, but it did allow oneself to maintain and build mental fortitude rather than primarily relying on instinctual response. It was a lot easier on the human body, as well as strengthen it. Done incorrectly the damage was equally as damning, spiritual veins and cores were close to a human’s natural organs. Damage to one would be equal to damage to another, inflamed spiritual veins could push roughly against the vessels and throw the entire system off.

While it wasn’t openly discussed- it was the primary theory to Luo Binghe’s power. As a man of both a heavenly demon and cultivator origins, he would have had the capability to more than efficiently cultivate both yin and yang energy. It was unheard of for someone to be able to access both to such a degree, humans had limits to how much they could cultivate yin energy and demons couldn’t often maintain the discipline required to cultivate yang energy unless it was a very specific type.

And the Nie Sect did not only rely on adrenaline; there were also other factors. A martial based cultivation would have been simple enough, but the Nie Sect cultivated alongside sword spirits- their sabers often grew with them throughout their cultivation. It was…unnervingly close to the unique cultivation method utilized in Cang Qiong Sect, however, Nie Sect didn’t develop the connection as Cang Qiong did. The sword spirit, according to the records, was a more independent entity. It massively boosted the capability Nie disciples had on the field, with longer flight endurance and fighting endurance, but in turn- a Nie disciple who had violent battles may develop a bloodthirsty sword spirit- which grated on the wielder by drawing out more energy from the golden core. Adding to the fact that the adrenaline based cultivation would develop more powerful emotions as a result, the output of that sort of energy dispersion would wear the body over time- especially if it wasn’t resolved cleanly.

According to the records, Nie Sect Leaders didn’t last long because of this. As leaders, they would be in the thick of battles, combine it with the stress of leadership and the intentioned targeting- they would be both the strongest of the Nie Cultivation style, but the most vulnerable. Especially to qi deviations.

In the worst moments- the dāntián would react strongly to the emotions of the user, and burn the Cultivator from the inside out as it released more energy than the Cultivator could handle. Far more deadly than the bottlenecks he and his fellow disciples had to face during the War, a wholly unprepared vessel being forced to accommodate an overflow. At least for them, demons were the ultimate enemy to train one’s body. Stronger and faster, more powerful than humans- it was natural that years of fighting would eventually develop into a sturdier body as veins would draw out more and more power against more and more difficult foes. But this was by the trickle- the Nie Sect had no such preparation. Additionally- there was one more advantage his past’s Sects had over these Greater Sects of his current life.

Mu Qingfang.

The peak lord of Qian Cao Peak was not just a specialist of the body but also a specialist of the mind. Compassion was Qian Cao Peak’s valued virtue, as such their knowledge of the health of mind and body was nearly equal. If one were to undergo qi-deviation, it was more than just mandatory for one to go to Qian Cao Peak- it was necessary. Especially after the war, Ming Fan had been fortunate enough not to be plagued overtly with battle memories when everything had finished- some of his generation disciples and some of the juniors were not so fortunate. He had looked into it during his three years on the road and precious few moments with Cangse Sanren and Wei Changze; even his time in Qinghe Nie. There were a scarce few who could speak with any sort of expertise about the scars of the mind for both non and cultivators alike. It was staggering as part of a group of students who had spent an entire month-long lesson on the importance of seeking aid for these sorts of things, Shizun had emphasized it heavily after his return- pushing even Luo Binghe to seek his own brand of help for his personal heart demon.

This era- or world, had no such system.

It was more than concerning, it was worrying.

“This could prove troublesome,” Wei Ming muttered to himself, considering the situation. Nie Mingjue was the youngest Sect Leader in the historical line of Nie Leaders. It was a feat, but it was a feat that made him vulnerable to an early deviation- and who knew what other techniques could be in the world. If musical cultivation persisted to the present day, it was equally as likely that a destabilizing song had made it through the passage of time. And these were simply bandages for a bleeding wound, one that would not heal unless measures were taken. Musical cultivation could help improve, but it could not start the body and soul on the path to healing.

“There are too many unsure factors,” he continued- pulling out a scroll of blank paper. “More research is needed.”

Wei Ming scowled as the frustration building at the back of his head grew.

-

“Sect Leader Nie?”

Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen paused to find one of the older Nie disciples, Nie Mingjue’s cousin, Nie Zhonghui at the door.

“Zhonghui,” Nie blinked to find the room significantly dimmed. “What is it?”

“Dinnertime cousin,” Nie Zhonghui bowed to both him and Lan Xichen. “Huaisang has demanded you be there before he is- or he is going to call for aid.”

Nie Mingjue sighed sufferingly before nodding to Lan Xichen, “Let’s go before Huaisang throws a tantrum.”

“Of course,” Lan Xichen smiled. “Ah- as for my brother-?”

“He’s with Huaisang and Wei Wuxian,” Nie Zhonghui smiled in brief amusement. “They’ve managed to amass a…well, I’m sure you’ll see for yourself.”

“Ancestors save me from the likes of Wei Wuxian,” Nie Mingjue grumbled half-heartedly before moving past the doors.

-

“Da-ge look!”

Huaisang looked entirely too pleased with being almost half-way buried under a mass of colorful paper birds and what seemed to be an entire warren’s worth of paper rabbits of varying shades of black and white. Nie Mingjue honestly didn’t have much of an opinion on it save for the vague wonder of how exactly Wei Wuxian had enough energy to get all of these talisman animals to work.

“Xiong-zhang, rabbit.” Lan Wangji held up one particularly large talisman rabbit that looked closer in size to the real-life animal. “May Wangji take one back to study?”

“Well,” Lan Xichen had a considering look on his face- and if he knew his friend long enough, he knew damn well that it was a look of mischief. “It would not technically be against the rules.”

“Mhm! ‘Do not covet animals’? I think?” Wei Ying frowned even with an armful of arms. “Is that right Lan Zhan?”

Nie Mingjue stared in horror while Lan Xichen looked half-way curious half delighted. “Young Master Wei knows of the rules of Cloud Recesses?”

“Gēge said it’s important to know the ways of others so as to best accommodate for their knowledge and needs,” Wei Ying repeated proudly- because that sort of wording really could only come from the older Wei anyway. “And Wei Ying was bored so Gēge said he would test me on what I learned if I studied some boring rules!”

Nie Huaisang burst into a fit of giggles despite himself, hiding behind a flock of talisman birds as soon as Nie Mingjue shot him a look from the corner of his eye.

“Well, I suppose it would be boring to Young Master Wei,” Lan Xichen said good naturedly. “I believe Uncle will allow it Wangji, after all, talismans are not animals.”

“Wei Ming told you to read the Lan Sect rules? When was this?” Nie Mingjue reeled. “How- when did we have a book of Gusulan rules in the library?”

“Gēge found it buried under the saber style diagrams,” Wei Ying said proudly. “He said it looked like someone tried to bury bad memories since it was bent pretty badly before he managed to straighten the pages. He also said it looked like it hid some books I’m too young to know about. According to Gēge at least, but I say I’m just the right age!”

“Where is your brother Wuxian,” Nie Mingjue sighed, resisting the urge to throw his arms in exasperation- he needed to save face before Huaisang and Zhonghui gave in and laughed it off of him. “Drag him out before he unburies all of the Nie Sect’s secrets.”

“Uh,” Wei Ying frowned. “I think he’s still in the library. I haven’t seen him since this morning.”

“Zhonghui, get someone to drag that bane of my existence out from the library before I start to have a deviation,” Mingjue said tiredly- ignoring the smile his cousin was failing to hide as the other left to do just that. “You laugh now Xichen, just watch, you won’t be laughing any longer.”

“I’m sure Master Wei and I can have a riveting conversation of our shared observations of the Nie Sect,” Lan Xichen smiled serenely.

Nie Mingjue snorted.

The Library again? Nie Mingjue thought with some confusion. Isn’t this the fifth time this week?

-

He was right to, Lan Xichen couldn’t hold anything over his head now. He was right and Lan Xichen was right to look as panicked as he was as Wei Ming marched to the dinner table with all the swagger of a seasoned cultivator and none of the appearance. The pre-teenage baby-fat still clinging to his cheeks seemed to just accent the solemn determination on the younger’s expression as he marched over with an almost military precision. Nie Zhonghui following behind him with bewilderment and uncertain whether he should be sequestering the older Wei brother away.

“A-Ying why does Wei-shixiong look like he’s going to scold Xichen-ge?” Huaisang whispered, Lan Wangji’s sharp look going unnoticed as the youngest present official disciples of the Nie Sect huddled closer.

“Oh he’s not mad. Gēge’s mad face makes people start screaming, he just has questions.” Wei Ying said cheerily, waving as his brother approached closer- absolutely ignorant to the shrill sounds of danger reaching a climax in the background of the scene.  

Lan Xichen turned to Nie Mingjue for help, and Nie Mingjue smirked.

“Master Lan, Sect Leader Nie,” Nie Mingjue felt his blood freeze as Wei Ming’s deliberate pronunciation of each syllable fell over him like a hammer. “This Wei Ming hopes to be able to answer some inquiries that has recently come to light.”

Wei Ming’s smile seemed to gleam, no matter how small it was, “After dinner of course.”

Nie Mingjue knew exactly what that cursed smile met, the memories of the first few weeks crashing over him like a vivid bad memory. He didn’t know what sort of endurance this older Wei had but it was hellish when he got that way. No one was spared from the literal crashing waterfall of questions that forced your hind quarters to be glued to your seat no matter what sort of thing you needed to do that day. There was no savior from the terror that was- Wei Ming on a research rampage that required interviews. It was the demonic consummation of all the worst parts of matchmaking and scholarly research combined with absolutely no way out save for lying down and accepting your fate.

Nie Mingjue wasn’t the type of person to curse his ancestors for his bad luck but could they have at least maintained a more detailed account of Nie Sect traditions that weren’t private? It would have saved him at least three whole hours of his life.  

“Gēge look what me and Lan Zhan did!” Wei Ying said excitedly, running over with Lan Wangji walking swiftly behind.

Like a literal flicker of illusion, Wei Ming’s expression wiped free of the danger as he kneeled to brush a gentle finger against the nose of the paper rabbit, smiling indulgently and nodding as Wei Ying began to yammer about his day. Lan Wangji behind him shyly with the same rabbit from before in his arms.

“Ah- Lan Zhan you never met my Gēge right? Gēge this is Lan Zhan- um…Lan…Lan Wangji?”

Lan Wangji nodded, bowing to the older Wei. “Honored to meet Wei Ying’s Xiong-zhang.”

Wei Ming’s smile gentled as he stood and bowed at the waist, exactly that precise angle before rising, “This Wei Ming is honored to meet Lan Wangji.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes seemed to sparkle at the address before looking to the ground shyly, the other unminding of the behavior as he reached out to run a knuckle across the paper rabbit’s head. “This one sees Wei Ying has already taught Young Master Lan of the animate talisman. If young Master likes, Wei Ying and I can give you our small book of animals Young Master can fold and use with the talisman. Wei Ying and I already memorized the animals within, and it would not be troublesome to simply re-write instructions on a new book.”

Lan Wangji’s little head bobbed up and down, a look of wonder in his eyes as he, Huaisang, and the youngest Wei- followed the older Wei like a duckling, hanging on his gently spoken words as they approached the open pavilion with their dinner.

“Mingjue.”

“What?”

“What just happened?”

Nie Mingjue sighed, “Wei Ming happened.”

-

Nie Mingjue looked resigned as Wei Ming swiftly returned from sending Wei Ying to bed, a descriptively serene smile on his face as he brought with him a tray of tea and wine. Picked up from the kitchens.

“What,” He whispered to Lan Xichen as the other startled as soon as Wei Ming seemed to just appear at the door. “Did you think he’d just forget he has questions? No one is spared Xichen, not even the Nie Sect Teachers. Why did you think he’s allowed to be in the library all day?”

Wei Ming set down an entire stack of bundled paper notes, and Nie Mingjue quietly prayed to his ancestors that he would get to bed at least before dawn came.

Wei Ming’s expression of ‘I will get answers’ did nothing to settle his anxiety, but at least he didn’t have to do paperwork tonight. A hollow victory that Nie Mingjue was ready to accept.

“Apologies if this Wei Ming is being brazen,” Wei Ming stated with absolutely no shame whatsoever. “However, this one is interested in the musical cultivation the Lan Sect is specialized in.”

“O-Oh?” Lan Xichen’s expression held onto his characteristic serenity like a lifeline. “What is Master Wei so intrigued by?”

“Does musical cultivation the Lan Sect specialize in include that of a song that would aid in settling qi energy and thus, soothing qi deviation?”

Nie Mingjue paused mid-drink, both he and Lan Xichen exchanging looks before looking at the youngest in the room.

Who really unfairly looked like he was the oldest, Nie Mingjue needed to see what was up with that. “So you know?”

Wei Ming nodded, “There are records of the fates that befell the Nie Sect Leaders prior to yourself, in combination with the work describing Nie Sect style cultivation- it was relatively simple to draw an image from the aforementioned evidence. It is from this basis the question of possible remedies came to mind, musical cultivation being the forefront of the possible answers.”

“It is possible,” Lan Xichen said hesitantly. “There is a family of pieces of Lan creation called the Song of Clarity, the strongest of which is Soothing, played on the guqin.”

“Is there a family of songs that does the opposite?”

Lan Xichen looked especially unnerved, “What does Master Wei intend to do with it if one such collection exists?”

Wei Ming looked as if offended, “Find a counteraction? If there is clarity, there is turmoil. Then surely there is a direct counterbalance for turmoil, one simply needs to create it.”

“What you state is not a simple matter Master Wei,” Lan Xichen’s tone was serious, the friendly quality almost entirely void. “If you are thinking of using Mingjue in an experiment-“

“Do I look like I’m after a seat of power? Do you know how much energy I spend summarizing his reports? Had it not been for the rules of this land, I would have snatched my rightful title as head disciple days ago,” Wei Ming huffed. “but I must earn it, I recognize that. Yet in order for that to occur, Sect Leader Nie needs to live well into the next decade. Longer- if I have any say in it- damn be to the lives who get in my way.”

“I-It is good to know that you are determined as I am to make sure Mingjue lives long, yet what you declare- it isn’t exactly an easy feat to improve on Soothing, much less create a song with the sole purpose of counteracting any subsequent pieces of opposing purpose.”

“Perhaps I cannot,” Wei Ming conceded. “but I can help Wei Ying to do so.”

“Young Master Wei is eight-

“He is prodigious,” Wei Ming cut in, tone serious. “If I continue to teach him, he will continue to absorb every piece of information I throw at him- soon enough, he will not need me to guide him. I’ve spent these past few years teaching him good and bad, in the future, it will be up to him to utilize his abilities as he sees fit. If I get a head start, one of them may be to draft a song far more effective than soothing- the future is uncertain. An ever-flowing river that deigns to change its own course as it will- there is nothing that states that we mere mortals cannot guide its bends. But in the meantime, there must be other pieces that do the same if not more so- I notice that there are no records of past musical cultivation pieces.”

“Well no- not since the Great Void, but even so, such songs remain a mere rumor, there is nothing to suggest that they actually existed.”

The Great Void- a great pain in his ass is what Wei Ming would have rather called it. Not only was it a rather uncreative name, it was also the blanket label for the literal gap in this world’s history. There were no references, not even any theories based on existing facts that venture a plausible explanation much fewer details of what could have occurred. It was like an entire multi-generational era was plucked out of the fabric of time like it was a particularly hideous embroidery.

Alternatively, as one should never rule out other plausible theories until proven incorrect, it was a gap in history that was deliberately destroyed. For what reason, he knew not definitively. But there were plenty of theoretical explanations as to what exactly that reason and, or reasons were.

“I’m sure they’re out there,” Wei Ming replied offhandedly, briefly frowning to himself mid-thought in a brief bout of absentminded action. “If Upwards to the Moon has any effect still that is.”

“…”

“…”

“Wei Ming.” Nie Mingjue said slowly.

“Mhm?”

“Do you play instruments?”

“…The guqin and guzheng, Wei Ying is better than I in dizi,” Wei Ming said slowly. “Though admittedly I’ve not had as much time practicing my skills as I wish, the calluses have yet to build for any intensive play.”

The last time he tried to play more than two of the more advanced songs in his repertoire; his fingers had bled and his arms were sore, but that was not information that he would be divulging anytime soon. Once again, he missed the callouses he built from his time learning music in Qing Jing. A gifted player he was not, but he enjoyed coaxing intricate melodies from the string.

Nie Mingjue sighed, “You couldn’t have mentioned this earlier?”

Wei Ming frowned, “When was I to mention it?”

“You- for the love of- never mind,” Nie Mingjue groaned. “We will discuss this at a later date. After we discuss the sheer amount of what the hell you decided to drop tonight, the fact that you play is the last of my concerns considering everything else.”

Wei Ming frowned, “What is it that I could have possibly have said that has caught you so off guard?”

“Master Wei,” Lan Xichen intersected. “You did just imply that you know a song from the Great Void. Going so far as to refer to it by name.”

Upwards to the Moon is a song from the Void?” Wei Ming frowned, memories rushing. Of clanging swords and pained screams- from his side and the other. He needed to skirt the subject or else, he didn’t think he had the right mental blocks in place to stop a storm. “Strange. It was a very popular piece to use for cultivators experiencing nightmare memories, according to the texts that is.”

Only half a lie, it was in Qing Jing Peak’s library of pieces to help aid against battle dreams. After the war it was used more and more often that it became relatively standard for every musical practicing peak to know the piece, even some Bai Zhan Peak disciples learned it. He used it often, during and after. It was not a Qian Cao Peak cure, but it did well to lighten the hulking burden for the most part.

“Where exactly do you even read all this stuff? First The Tale of the Wronged Gui Po now this? Is there some sort of library hidden in the cave you left that has all this lost texts?”

“It was from before,” Wei Ming fibbed, internally panicking as he could feel the memories resurface despite his efforts. “Before Wei Ying, before- just before.”

He turned to his lap, shutting his eyes to block out the screams and yells. The roar of a wild beast, the sound of squelching flesh.

Damn, he didn’t realize he was getting so worked up from such a simple bout of research. He needed to significantly restructure his process going forward, having to deal with resurfacing memories would prove to be a more than a significant nuisance. Especially if these episodes were starting to occur randomly again.

The screams and the agony. The red fires of the abyss cracking the arena open. The broken bodies of disciples of their generation and so much younger spread across the tournament. The burning smell of ashen wood and the sight of smoke rising from the inconceivable.

The fall. Of greens and blacks, of desperate yells and pleaded whispers. Clashing swords and choking power.

The whispers and the blame, the resentment threatening to choke him and the resentment threatening to consume him whole.

Damn this, He gritted his teeth against the rising storm. I am no longer a child. I was not to blame for this occurrence. It is over and done with.  

Wei Ming doubled over, nails digging into the wood and creaking as sweat began slide down his forehead. His mind reeling from the vivid imagery and cultivation responding to the danger.

“Ming Fan, get up. You’re sect brothers and sisters need you, you’ve no time for this Head Disciple of Shen Qingqiu.” A gruff voice in his memories murmured. “Shen Qingqiu believed in your abilities, therefore so do I, so get up.

“Ming-shixiong, we need to go!”

“Gēge!”

He wrestled his emotions down, slivers of black sparking unnoticeably against the more alarming dribble of red from his nose.

I was not to blame.

There was nothing I could have done.

The tragedy of the Immortal Alliance Conference was not our fault.

These three lines repeated themselves in mantra with varying voices. Most of them Mu Qingfang himself- as he was the one who told a haunted Ming Fan to take them to heart. He was not the worst to be affected by what happened during the Conference, but that did not seem to consolidate well in his head during some years after.

The storms calmed, the power settled.

“I am fine,” he snarled to no one but himself. He forced himself to listen to it, to believe it. “I am fine.”

His core throbbed and he fell back with a gasp, white heat coursing through his veins. Burning liquid and the feeling only grew.

Calm, Wei Ming thought to himself- wrapping himself in good memories- of hiding under demon generals and plowing through the enemies. Of companions and of idols, of mentors. Of friends.

Calm. A soothing voice from his memories murmured.

Slowly, the fire settled- the liquid retreated. Though his veins still burned raw with the odd familiar feeling of newly developed spiritual veins, he had managed to force the early evolution to subside. At least for a little bit until he could direct the energy properly instead of sending him into a violent deviation.

“Hey, hey,” Wei Ming’s eyes refocused, looking up to see the two Sect Leaders pale and propping up his head. “Sit up, your nose is still bleeding.”

“Master Wei we apologize for the intruding questions, we did not- Apologies,” Lan Xichen’s breath seemed as if he was ragged, concern in every feature. “Are you better?”

“Fine,” He repeated, clearing his throat after a moment, pressing harder against his lower stomach with a frown. “I need to look into this too.”

“You aren’t doing anything but resting,” Nie Mingjue gruffed. “You’re so worried about me but where does that leave you? What the hell was that even?”

Lan Xichen had a hand around his wrist, frowning in concentration as he mirrored the small winces Wei Ming managed to make whenever he felt too close to the walls of his still raw spiritual veins. Wei Ming pulled his hand away gently before the Lan could get closer to his golden core, offering a small smile instead.

Nie Mingjue’s hackles raised silently at the sight, the feeling of something being not quite right coming to the forefront of his mind as he looked up, Sect Leaders meeting eyes across the table before a cleared throat cut through their silent communication.

[ Restore to default progress: 39.6% ]

“A delayed reaction I think,” Wei Ming replied with a small hum, carefully directing the focus of attention elsewhere. He promptly decided to ignore his persistent headache- perhaps from reading all day. “I’m fine.”

Nie Mingjue knew he was being lied to, and if he hadn’t already been weary- he would have been then.

Chapter Text

8. [ Log: File:Save_13-109.3.0600.log ]


Wei Fan woke up to his golden core racking up a storm with how sore his abdomen was- he vaguely noted with equal parts amusement and rage, that this must have been what an abdominal cramp felt like.

He did not like it. At all.

To this he protested verbally in the form of a groan as he threw a hand over his eyes, willing the pain to go away as he sent a tendril of energy to evaluate his current condition. Beyond the discussion of musical cultivation, he couldn’t remember much more about what had occurred the night before.

Two levels of cultivation in one sitting? No wonder he felt like he just got kicked by a demonic hippo. Or perhaps got stuck between the jaws of one, either one was an accurate description. Both hurt more than getting killed, he could attest to that.

“Gēge?”

Wei Fan turned to the quiet murmur as Wei Ying lifted his head from the bedside, rubbing at his eyes that were slightly tinged pink.

“Good morning,” Wei Fan muttered, reaching out to gently brush back one of Wei Ying’s stray hairs. “I’m sorry, did I wake you?”

“Yeah, but that’s okay,” Wei Ying scooted closer, coming under the covers to rest his head on Wei Fan’s shoulder, the other tilting his head to slightly rest a cheek on the other boy’s hair. “Are you better?”

“Of sorts. My body feels like I just went a round and ten more against a bear,” Wei Fan mused. “You must have been worried, I’m sorry.”

“Yeah.” Wei Ying wiggled his head to snuggle closer. “But it’s okay, Gēge’s better now. What happened?

“Gēge grew in cultivation by two more. But let’s keep that last part between us okay?” He whispered, lifting a hand to gently brush he winding tuffs of hair with his fingers with a familiarity that was still all too new.

A frown visible on slightly pudgy features, Wei Ying tilted his head. Lips pursed up in a pout that displayed his confusion, “Why?”

“Cultivation evolution isn’t supposed to happen like the way Gēge’s does,” He kept his voice low for the sake of their privacy, even if he knew that they should have been relatively safe behind the walls granted to them. “It’s supposed to be a slow process, but your Gēge had to push it a little. I’ll be fine in the long run, but until then Gēge will probably qi deviate whenever he’s growing higher in cultivation.”

“Qi deviation…” Wei Ying repeated softly. “Sometimes I hear the older disciples mention them, but we haven’t been taught what it really is yet.”

“When one’s body and mind are unstable, it runs the possibility of your core- the dāntián- overloading your spiritual veins. It can happen for any number of reasons- like an injury to your organs or interruption to the flow of qi energy going through your spiritual veins because of an internal blockage.” Wei Ming paused briefly for a breath. “For your Gēge, often this is due to the mind being in the midst of a great battle. My dāntián compensates the energy output, but because I am not using it- it forces a bottleneck that causes my core to grow. Which is why Gēge’s body ends up sore: evolution of the dāntián often also means the growth of spiritual veins- more intertwined with the mortal body as cultivation reaches higher levels. In time- should my cultivation continue to grow, Gēge could become immortal. However, this is not supposed to be a very long time after trials. The higher one’s cultivation grows, the harder it is to rise in level.”

Although, Wei Fan thought to himself. It was strange that his body wasn’t on the verge of collapsing. While it wasn’t abnormal to grow in cultivation faster during high-stress battles that demanded higher output of energy, it came with the price of a battered body and increased sensitivity to the point where it hurt for weeks. He wasn’t feeling anything more than soreness- was he perhaps, given a stronger body during his reincarnation? It was far easier to excuse when he was younger and beginning to push the boundaries of danger in cultivation, but as time moved on there were more and more oddities he began to notice.

These were not the questions he would have expected.

“Am I gonna be like that?” Wei Ying’s voice was quiet, contemplative. Without looking, Wei Fan knew his younger brother was thinking long and hard about the knowledge he had been bestowed.

Wei Fan smiled against soft hair that vaguely carried the whiff of oils and hoped that the other could feel it. “No, Wei Ying should wait to cultivate properly with everyone else normally. An average new disciple does not begin to truly cultivate until thirteen years of age, even with a good foundation for cultivation. Gēge cheated a little and started too early, which is why he has this problem now.”  

“Oh…” Wei Ying was silent for a mere moment. “Will there be more for me to learn?”

“Yes, but that time will come soon enough. For now, Ying-er should play a little more.” Ying-er should stay a child a little longer.

“I’m gonna learn it all,” Wei Ying declared. “So that I can figure out how to make Gēge’s growing not hurt anymore.”

Wei Fan smiled, “I’m sure you can. Now, how about you sleep some more hm? Don’t think I can’t see you turning into a raccoon Ying-er. Sleep for you. Fan-ge doesn’t have a raccoon for a little brother.”

Wei Ying giggled at the whisper yell of declaration, scooting closer until he could press his ear against his throat. A little higher than the jugular, but just enough for Wei Ying to hear and feel every breath, beat, and swallow his brother was making. The older Wei lifting a hand and gently patting Wei Ying’s side in a gentle coax back into the world of dreams.

And dream they did.

-

He woke up with Wei Ying absent from his side, so he assumed the boy was with Huaisang or Wangji, if the other boy was still in the Unclean Realm that is. It was reaching afternoon so either he slept through an entire day and more, or some significant time had passed since he had fallen under a qi deviation induced slumber.

It was a good thing he hadn’t been with him at the time of his waking.

Ming Fan reached out in a panic- a familiar black figure in green robes swaying in the hot air gushed out by the abyss.

Shizun was paralyzed, most likely from going toe-to-toe with that ice demon. Binghe would fall.

The soft bluish-green of Qing Jing Peak seemed to burn away- leaving behind a black, torn robe. Worn from careless wear, crimson red like blood in the shape of the sun at its most scorching. As if the sprawling energy from the Abyss sunk deep into the spider silk of Qing Jing’s robes.

But it was not Luo Binghe who was swaying at the edge, and it was not Shizun with his hands outstretched in a hopeless attempt.

Wei Ying, older and so much more tired. With deep bags under his eyes and an age he wished would never claw into the boy the way it clearly had. Crimson eyes alit with grief and rage.

And he, useless Ming Fan- watched in horror as his fingers slipped and Wei Ying fell out of reach. The scent of decay choked him- and for some reason- for some damned cursed reason- he knew that unlike the unbeatable Luo Binghe- Wei Ying, out of reach and out of his desperate grasp to cling onto his little brother, had died.

Waking up to that, with sweat pulling at his brow, Ming Fan had reached for the sheets to desperately muffle his choked scream.

Then silence. And with that silence, contemplative and quiet in his own mind. Memories, as if jogged by the crude comparison to his little brother and the little Binghe, began to swim anew in the forefront of his thoughts.

And a thought indeed came.

Direct involvement during a deviation.

It was risky since one was essentially putting oneself and the other person on the line, but it did have its merits. For one, the person directing was closer to help soothe the person in qi deviation, for another- if one’s own cultivation was slightly stronger during that moment, it was possible to take on the extra yang energy being spat out by the golden core even siphoning it off. It was also far easier to gain a sense of what was actually wrong since it allowed one to see the blockages preventing a rise in cultivation level, he wasn’t well versed himself but he had the advantage of stories from Liu-shishu of the matter when Shizun had helped him, Liu-shishu had also helped him several times during the war. His own personal experience being the person directing energy was too few for him to do it with absolute certainty that he would not harm the other person- but it was a sizeable amount given the seemingly general lack of knowledge in this world.

It did, after all, also, involve a very experienced and very sure hand since sending any sort of trickle of energy more than a probing strand could be disastrous. Giving someone yang energy was one thing, using your own energy throughout another person’s spiritual veins was an entirely different matter.

Wei Fan winced as a hum overtook his senses, something of a twang that he couldn’t quite hear- a sound he couldn’t quite make out. A feeling that something familiar was there yet he couldn’t quite label what that feeling was.

“So you’re awake.”

Wei Fan startled as he looked up to find Nie Mingjue standing at the doorway, arms crossed and frown present. “Glad to know you’ll be sticking around to drive me insane.”

Wei Fan smirked in spite himself, “Apologies for disappointing Sect Leader, this Wei Fan will bother you once more.” 

“Ugh,” Nie Mingjue walked closer before standing near the bedside, looking slightly awkward where he was but no less stood tall in defiance. Still, he did reach out to help Wei Fan sit up so that was certainly something towards familiarity. Concern was etched in his expression as he quietly observed bitten lips and slightly damp hair from what could have only come from sweat. “Are…are you alright?”  

“I am not at my best I will admit.” Wei Ming winced as his shrug pulled at his muscles. “But beyond soreness and some strange sensitivity, it isn’t troublesome. I wager I could get back to work within a day or two.”

Nie Mingjue watched in a beat of silence before he came to a decision, “A week.”

Wei Fan frowned, “Sect Leader-“

“We aren’t arguing about this,” Nie Mingjue looked down at him over crossed arms. “A week. No less. When I accepted you as my disciple, I also took an oath to look after you. This is me doing that.”

Wei Ming held an expression of contemplation as he leaned back to look over the other cultivator. It was so strange to think they were within the same range of age, technically speaking. The boy was so much younger, Ming Fan felt a slight pang of sympathy as he observed Nie Mingjue’s resolve began to shake slightly as his silence began to stretch. With a sigh, Wei Ming resolved to give the other some face, “Well, I am in no position to deny your order no matter how hopeless you are with paperwork. It’s a true travesty, aren’t you the noble-born between the two of us?”

“Blood doesn’t mean shit when the numbers all start looking the like the same damn thing.” Nie Mingjue’s shoulders relaxed slightly, as if relieved. His finesse could use some work, even without the experience, Wei Ming would not be so oblivious as to notice such a swift change of topics.

“I suppose you have a point,” He leaned back with a smirk. “Even Wei Ying could calculate total croplands faster than Sect Leader Nie.”

“There are a lot of crops how am I supposed to give you the number that quickly?!”  

“Farmers plant their fields on a row by column system, it isn’t difficult to calculate total harvest predictions based on such an agricultural system.” Come to think of it, it was Shang Qinghua who had spearheaded the agricultural revolution according to Sect records. It was amongst the reasons why he had risen to head discipleship so quickly, as skittish as he could be, there was a brilliance when it came to certain advancements. He supposed, in the end, it was why Peak Lord Shang had gotten along so well with Shizun.

In the far reaches of time, as Shen Qingqiu reached for his tea- he sneezed. Scowling and cursing the useless Airplane- who sputtered as his pot of ink spilled mysteriously over his scribbled drafts in his office in An Ding Peak.

Nie Mingjue frowned, “Is there some sort of secret technique of calculation I wasn’t made aware of in time?”

Ah…that was right, in the midst of the few years since becoming a disciple of Qinghe Nie, the knowledge of Nie Mingjue’s abrupt rise to Leadership had honestly slipped his mind. Well, there was no time like the gift of the moment. “Do you happen to have a portion of the harvest reports with you?”

“No.”

“…” Wei Fan waited for movement. “…Well?”

“…Fine! Fine, I’m getting them. Ungrateful Old Man,” Nie Mingjue grumbled as he left the room; taking that strange feeling with him. Almost alarming Wei Fan with how quickly he had forgotten about it.

He tilted his head in contemplation.

When Nie Mingjue returned with the harvest reports, Wei Fan had his answer. The feeling only seemed to grow louder when the man approached, Bàxià at his side as it always was. So either it was Bàxià or Nie Mingjue himself, either one could have been the answer but the chance to test whether it was one or the other would have to come at another time.

Wei Ming flipped over the reports one by one before coming to a harvest report with a relatively small field, “Here- what does that say?”

“…Six wide four tall?”

“What’s the total crop yield?”

“Um, four, eight, twelve-“

“Twenty-four.”

“How the hell did you-?”

“What’s six and six total?”

“Twelve?”

“What’s twelve and twelve total?”

“Twenty-four.”

“Six, and six are six rows and two columns. Twelve total. If you add that with another six rows and two columns, it comes out to another twelve. Totaling to twenty-four columns in all.”

“Yeah?” Nie Mingjue looked strangely fascinated- well he supposed that the swifter calculations like these would have taken a backseat in comparison to the other roles a Sect Leader had to fulfil. Such as political finesse and persona building, logistics just wasn’t at the foremost of things to learn since there were certainly others who could help. Even Ming Fan had only learned due to Shang Qinghua occasionally beckoning him over to play wall as he ranted about miscalculated harvests- albeit the skittish Lord often was happier when there was more rather than less. “Well how about twelve rows and twelve columns?”

“One hundred and forty-four.” He was happy that he didn’t have to use his fingers for that calculation.

“…What the hell?” Nie Mingjue said after a moment, his fingers outstretched to note the numbers as an abacus was decidedly not available.

“We have a complicated number system so I don’t blame you if it is difficult to visualize, however on a grid-by-grid system, it’s easy to quickly find total yield. Did Nie Zhonghui look over this?”

“He did.”

“Here, find one where he already wrote out the total.”

“I have it.”

“Give me the row and the column.”

“Twelve columns, six rows.”

“Seventy-two.”

Wei Ming blinked when he didn’t hear an answer back, looking to question Nie Mingjue only to find that the Sect Leader was staring at the paper. Then towards him, then back to the paper- and back again.

“So?” Wei Ming drawled reflexively, leaning slightly on a loosely closed fist, pressing against his cheek. “Did this disciple present a correct answer?”

“I,” Nie Mingjue started, “Have yet to be able to rationalize how you are able to do it. I can understand if it were based on memorizing the Qīnghuá jiăn, but your reasoning isn’t something I’m familiar with.”

Wei Ming shrugged before tilting his head, “I was taught a calculation method that simplifies the value slightly- in all honesty, it’s far more difficult to memorize the Qīnghuá jiăn rather than the manual application you can utilize the simplified multiplication with- as it utilizes whole values rather than decimal values- the maximum value reached isn’t entirely complete but it doesn’t need to be when you know the basic twelve by twelve values. Then you can manually expand the number.” Just wait till I tell you what An Ding Peak can do with a string, a weight, and some paper to build bridges.

“I can hear what you say- but I cannot say that I understand it.” Nie Mingjue pinked slightly, “I mean I can’t really picture what you mean.”

Wei Ming chuckled, “I can teach you if you like, you might have an easier time with it than attempting to constantly reference or even memorize the Qīnghuá jiăn.”

There was, Wei Ming was amused to note, an image of a very visceral dislike in Nie Mingjue’s expression that he would admit to himself he was slightly waiting for. There weren’t many disciples in Bai Zhan Peak that took a shine to calculation either; based on evidence it was reasonable to think that Nie Mingjue, who could have been accepted to Bai Zhan Peak should he have lived during Cang Qiong’s mightiest, may have similar views. Even in Qing Jing Peak, the interest was not very high- preferring arts over numbers. An Ding Peak was really the only group to obtain some level of obsession since a majority of their duties revolved around careful management of minute details.

For all the amusement he derived from it, he did admit that there was also a slight pang of melancholy at the familiarity.

“Sure,” Nie Mingjue shook his head, as if to clear himself of half-hearted thoughts. Repeating himself with a newfound firmness. “Yes, I’ll learn. Between Sect Leadership and Huaisang- it would be easier to get past all this useless paper if I could do it like you do.”

And then, Wei Ming continued to himself with a silent sigh, the knowledge of the boy was fifteen hammered further into his mind.

So young, he straightened his robes as much as he could whilst in bed, clearing his throat all the while as he motioned for the nearby chair at his bed side. “Listen well then- it will take some time to remember some of it. So do not be discouraged if it fails to make itself known to you immediately.”

Softly he continued, “Everyone learns differently, Sect Leader is no less or more if this does not come easy.”

Nie Mingjue bit back his thanks.

-

[ Log: File:Save_14-165.7.2243.log ]

“Sect Leader Nie! Sect Leader Nie!”

Nie Mingjue’s eyes snapped up at the sound of rushed boots, Wei Ying’s steadily growing strides pounding across the wooden floors as he busted through the door. Nie Huaisang, sat in front of him in order to continue his studies, startled enough that the brush of paint he had been subtly keeping under the table spilled across the wooden floor. Not that Nie Mingjue was supposed to admit that he knew it was there.

“Wei Wuxian, what-“

“Brother has returned,” The boy’s expression, though steadily reentering the aura of a normal child, as a nine-year-old should in spite of his prodigious nature- instantly threw Nie Mingjue into the past as cold steel-faced his own with icy fear. Not debilitating, but fueling. A fear that would only push the boy harder, to swing further, to stride faster. “The Night Hunt went wrong.”

If there were any lingering doubts of his relation to Nie Huaisang, they would have been disbanded as soon as the stony expression settled behind Nie Huaisang’s jaw. As much of a whiny student Huaisang tended to be, he was just as ruthless as he pretended not to be. There was a weariness attached to it for Mingjue of course- but Huaisang was his brother. He couldn’t have hidden his talent as a liar even if he never lied to Mingjue ever, he never understood the front. Neither himself nor Zhonghui have, but if it was for the best as Huaisang felt it was, there was nothing they could do to change the younger’s mind. Still, it was a little startling how easily Huaisang could lie with his eyes. The best liar he knew and despised was Guangshan, and even that miserable whelp couldn’t look his eye if the man was orchestrating some lofty untruth.

Huaisang stood, fan snapped in front in habitual agitation as he glanced at the older Nie- waiting on his reaction before he himself acted. Nie Mingjue did no such pause as he wound his way around his desk, “Take me.”

He was surprised by the amount of Jiang disciples that were in the Nie infirmary, but he was even more surprised to find the violet spider of Yunmeng Jiang sitting idly with her jaw tightly wound.

He didn’t blame Wei Wuxian’s weariness as he slipped slightly behind him. Over the course of the year, he discovered that the boy was in some way, rather entuned with how people viewed him. As such, it was easy for him to pick up the distinct feelings of dislike towards his person. Wuxian never took it personally, Huaisang made sure to keep tabs on that aspect as soon as he realized, but he did take chief concern when that same dislike towards him affected the people around him.

The eldest Jiang heir, Jiang Yanli, was at the pale Wei Ming’s bedside. Working side-by-side with their healers in a rush to get the boy to stop whatever was happening. It seemed to be a qi deviation, but the healers could not find anything that would indicate such- leaving them baffled.

“Madam Jiang,” Nie Mingjue bowed his head in respect to her station. “I admit that in the grand scheme of the situation, I am confused by your presence.”

Madam Yu raised an eye at her address but did not correct him, as she really couldn’t since she is Madam Jiang- but did not often go by it within her territories. Alas, this was the Unclean Realm. The last place she could pass comment at the address, especially when coming from the Sect Leader himself. “Yanli and I were previously alongside a Jin Caravan on the way to Jiangnan before we were attacked by bandits. While myself and several Jiang disciples were able to stand our ground, their numbers overwhelmed. Your disciples intervened- however the bandits who targeted Yanli faced deterrent in the form of the disciple currently unconscious.”

There was a brief steel in her eyes of reluctance, more out of pride than anything else, as she bowed to him formally. “You have my utmost thanks Sect Leader, speak, and this Madam will compensate adequately.”

Nie Mingjue blinked briefly, a denial on his tongue before Wei Ming took that moment to scare the souls out of everyone in the room and groan like a slightly disgruntled fierce corpse.

“uuuuGGGGhhhhhh,” Wei Ming hissed, a hand splayed across his eyes.

“Brother!” Wei Wuxian called out, stepping under Nie Mingjue and swiftly passing Madam Yu to reach Wei Ming’s side. The Madam of the Jiang sect stiffening as the boy who no doubt looked like a certain individual passed her by, the other slipping a hand in the other’s and holding it there. Restraining from sending a prodding line if only because of his inexperience. “Are you better?”

Nie Mingjue watched as the Violet Spider seemed to frown at that- no doubt- like him before, weirded out.

Wei Ying watched with narrowed eyes as Wei Ming grunted, there was a brief squeeze, but the hand wrapped around the other’s arm could feel the tensing of muscle there. The subtle stiffness in shoulders and the brief glance that told Wei Ying that while the other wasn’t in pain, there was a weariness attached to him.

Wei Ying breathed, deliberately slow, in an attempt to not turn around and ask about what happened specifically- what they weren’t telling Sect Leader Nie. His weariness was heightened by the strange look he received passing the Madam by. They hadn’t yet met personally, but his instincts were telling him that kindness would not be the forefront for which he was greeted with from her.

“Better,” Wei Ming’s gruff voice captured Wei Ying’s attention from his observations. Squeezing the hand in his softly. “I just used too much energy I think, and perhaps gotten poisoned. I’m not sure about that one yet- but I did have an arrow stuck in me.”

“Where?” Wei Ying’s eyes pinched as he stepped back slightly to look at the greater image of his brother’s visage, trying to locate the injury before his brother had to tell him.

“Back.”

With reluctance and practiced self-control, Wei Wuxian stepped back and allowed the healers to turn his brother over, snipping away the cloth of the Nie Sect discipleship to reveal past it’s blood soaked remains, the jagged hole that cut deeply and was seeped in barely healing skin and a domed in the places the wound had healed over. It was disgusting enough that some Jiang disciples had to turn away, but Wei Wuxian recognized the small rashes and inflammation that surrounded the wound. An irritant maybe, not incurable but it was going to hurt like the fires of a dragon. Especially when he knew that dome was likely a result of excess fluid, pus maybe. He would have to wait until the doctors could determine what it was.

“A reaction to venom,” The doctor later declared as he examined the sluggishly healing wound. “I believe Master Wei had gone through a short burst of healing before his qi got too far, as the venom no longer appears to be there despite the slow healing wound. We will have to re-open this before the damage becomes irreparable- Maiden Jiang I understand you feel responsible but this really isn’t’ the sight for a lady.”

“I will stay,” the young girl declared solemnly- blatantly he realized that she must be closer to his age. “I’m the reason he’s like this in the first place.”

“If that is what Yanli wishes,” Madam Yu cut in smoothly. “There is no convincing her of anything else.”

Cornered in two fronts, the doctor hesitantly turned to Nie Mingjue. Who turned his eyes to Wei Wuxian.

“Are you staying Wuxian?”

Wei Ying turned to him and nodded wordlessly. To which Nie Mingjue mirrored and turned to the doctor. “They will stay, if it is their wish to leave then it will be by their own power.”

He turned to Madam Yu as soon as the doctor nodded with grim understanding, “Madam Jiang, if you would like to discuss the incident at greater length…?”

It wasn’t so much of a request as it was a silent demand, but the lady Yu ZiYuan nodded in response as she followed him out the door.

He glanced towards Huaisang, Keep watch.

Huaisang’s eyes canted as he focused his attention on the other Jiang disciples. Of course.

In the privacy of his office, with tea served hot and alcohol waiting for just the most appropriate of times, Nie Mingjue silently released a sigh in his mind. His back was straight, his shoulder’s rolled back. His knees refrained from jolting even if there was a part of him that desperately wanted to, given the fact that he is currently alone with one of the cultivation world’s fiercest. But he did not have the time for admiration, he needed answers.

“I will be blunt Madam,” he said firstly- for he was tired. “What happened?”

“It…” Madam Yu seemed to hesitate, just for a moment, to collect herself as the events that occurred flooded her mind’s eye. “is a long tale. But I imagine that you would not mind Sect Leader Nie.”

Nie Mingjue didn’t say anything to that assumption, it was clear to anyone with ears she wasn’t wrong.

“It was after I had taken Yanli with me to visit her fiancé in the Koi Towers,” Madam Yu began. “While the Jin Caravan that accompanied our visit was sent to aid us through to Jiangnan, it was clear that the disciples sent with us were neither the best nor the brightest of sorts. To be expected given it was Jin Guangshan’s command to accompany us.”

Madam Yu took a long drag of tea before she continued.

“We were nearing the boarder when the bandits came. Initially a group of perhaps twenty men, they were hardly a challenge for myself and my disciples- no matter how much more of the weight they had to carry given the incompetence of our intended guardsmen. Though it seems we were not the only ones to realize this as the numbers increased suddenly. Yanli is just about as old as you are I believe, but her cultivation is not very high- it was mere moments before I realized it was her they were after. A bargaining piece perhaps, but that is no longer relevant. It was when my disciples began to tire and slow that the bandits renewed their efforts- that is when your disciples came.”

“While I am curious as to why they were in Lan Sect territory, I cannot argue against their help during that moment. As higher level as my cultivation is in comparison, a group of twenty bandits is much even for myself. To my knowledge, it was the older Wei boy that had struck first- the others followed soon after and relieved some of the pressure on my disciples and drove the bandits off, but not before one had been able to sneak behind me and grab hold of Yanli.”

“Although she made herself a difficult target, it was that boy who intervened and made sure the bandit did not succeed.”

The pause made Nie Mingjue wonder what exactly the Madam was holding back that made her hesitate so, it couldn’t be shame- the violet spider wasn’t the type of person to hold back even if it was.

“That boy cut his arm off.” She continued after a moment. “It was swift, faster than I could see. Afterwards the boy proceeded to turn around and mow down every single bandit within sight armed with nothing but that fan of his. To my knowledge, only the rats who scurried away were the ones to survive the encounter.”

Admittedly, Nie Mingjue hadn’t really seen it in action either, not in a true battle anyway. There were very little instances at the moment where Nie Mingjue was allowed to join the disciples on Night Hunts, especially intersect ones like the expedition Wei Ming was on. It was at the Lan Sect’s insistence that they wouldn’t be intruding, but it was also a guise in which Lan Xichen had begun to teach Wei Ming all that he knew of Cleansing. It was easier to do it when the situation was an interterritorial sect exchange rather than what it may have been if Wei Ming had been fifteen rather than fourteen, a guest disciple of Gusu Lan. He didn’t think they would travel so far as to be able to run into Madam Yu and her group however, perhaps it was on their return but he had yet to know if that was the case.

“Has he fought many humans before?” Madam Yu asked bluntly, shaking Nie Mingjue from his musings.

“If he has prior to joining the Nie Sect, he has yet to speak of it,” he answered. While there didn’t seem to be a clearly stated reason why the Madam would opt to ask of Wei Ming’s previous encounters, one could hazard a guess given the circumstances. There were very specific and very damning reasons why Wei Ming was allowed to join night hunts despite his lack of a suitable sword- he could borrow some of the more training based sabres just fine, but the older Wei’s skill with a fan was enough that even the Elders could not argue against his prowess and therefore could not justify why they wouldn’t allow him to join the interterritorial exchange. It had even been Huaisang who first brought it up, a fact Nie Mingjue was eager to prove as Wei Ming’s fan went up against his Bàxià.

He had won but it was a close thing, there were movements integrated into the younger’s form that seemed sword-like; a clear indication of training, the questions of where and when remained.

“So you have yet to see him in true battle,” Madam Yu’s tone was contemplative, though her words were more than just mere insinuation. “He fights like a demon.”

In their world of honorable cultivators, comparing one’s fighting technique to that of a mythical creature of great power and massive fear attached was an insinuation of the most delicate type. On one hand, it was a comparison that drew to attention great power, brute force- but it also represented a unique type of ruthlessness that even the most brutal of Nie Clan members strived to avoid. There were no doubt humans were capable of despicable action, but being demonic was a description of a different breed.

For a cultivator, it meant they should not even be considered human.

Nie Mingjue considered her words carefully, rolled in his mind, and brought forth the aforementioned implications and considered them, “What is it exactly are you implying Madam Jiang?”

“I am implying,” Madam Yu said slowly, cautiously. “That it would benefit Sect Leader Nie to be cautious around those two. While the other boy is young, but it is clear that he is heavily influenced. Furthermore- such mature cultivation in one so young is unprecedented, while I am grateful he saved my daughter, that gratefulness can only extend so far. Especially if he is one who has successfully managed to perform demonic cultivation.”

Madam Yu paused, sensing the sudden temperature drop, the choking silence as Nie Mingjue dropped his expression and narrowed his eyes at her.

It was a serious accusation to make, but it was an accusation she was willing to stand by. There was little else to explain how such a young man could achieve such feats in a short amount of time, where others saw an unprecedented prodigy, she sensed a force at play. Whether it is sinister or not has yet to be uncovered, but she would take no risk.

And so, Nie Mingjue suddenly realized why Wei Wuxian was so weary of the Violet Spider.  

“Your concerns are valid,” He starts coldly- because it was- there hasn’t been a cultivator alive who reacts to threats by turning around and eliminating them with extreme prejudice.

Fighting against bandits were one thing, turning around and slaying them with nary an effort was an entirely different matter. “But I highly doubt that Wei Ming would turn on us, he hates paperwork far too much and I’ve done nothing to give him reason to scorn me. Wei Wuxian is a brat, but he has been raised well. He terrorizes his teachers most of the time, but he has a good head and a good heart in him. A boy who so earnestly shows me the insects he finds in the Unclean Realm isn’t the type who would bare his teeth at me for no comprehendible reason. I have no reason to fear them Madam Yu, because they have no reason to scorn me. Furthermore, I have been in contact with Wei Ming’s meridians more than a few times. There is no evidence that would support your theory of demonic cultivation.”

Madam Yu nodded her head in acknowledgment, “I am glad to hear it on your behalf Sect Leader Nie, but that does not mean they will not have reason to resent you in the future. Life is unpredictable.”

“It makes one wonder if you are discussing your own issues Madam Jiang,” Nie Mingjue could feel his temper rise like the blood boiling underneath his skin. It was more than just a mere accusation, it was an insult to Nie Mingjue’s capability and honor. It was Nie Mingjue’s word that took in the two brothers and while vocally from a place of caution, even more than that, he could hear the slight undertone of resentment that had nothing to do with being cautious. “I will remind you that the matters of the Jiang Clan are separate from the matters of Nie Clan.”  

It was a testament to her control that Zidian did not spark in spite of the slight twitch of her hand, a visible show of rage so apparent that Nie Mingjue was confident that the only reason why he did not receive a lashing was because of the Madam’s respect to his authority as Sect Leader- and her unwillingness to cause an incident.

In the presence of silence, Nie Mingjue began to stand. Madam Yu following behind as courtesy dictated, “I’ll lead you to your rooms tonight Madam, but consider my words, and I ask that you keep yourself away from my disciples.”

-

Nie Mingjue retreated as soon as he saw her off, opening the jar of wine in earnest. His blood still simmering underneath his skin, outrage on behalf of not just one, but two of his disciples. A tentative friend in a sea of people who either respected, feared, or doubted him and a little boy whom for whatever reason was a target because of who he reminded others of.

But as angry as he was, she made too good of an argument for him to dismiss as the ravings of resentment. He knew little about the older Wei, while the younger was more honest, more open- the brother in turn was more tight lipped about his past and abilities. Cautions, perhaps founded on experience, but it was too big of an issue to ignore that a Sect Leader didn’t quite know the full extent of a Cultivator’s basic ability. Especially so for one so revered as the prodigious cultivator of Yiling.

Wei Wuxian was easy, he was growing still. Nie Mingjue could see and predict the growth in the boy as he has in all the other disciples since he took up his role of Sect Leader based on his progress. Wei Ming was the wild card, the piece he wasn’t sure what to do with.

Capable beyond common sense, powerful beyond reason, secretive and manipulative yet bound to a sense of justice and self-restraint.

He simply did not know Wei Ming, yet that same boy was taking root in the Nie Sect faster than any newly brought in disciple in the history of the Great Sects. He was integrating himself before any of them realized, but they didn’t know a single thing save for the tidbits of humanity that shown through with Wei Ying. Even still, it was a different face; a mere aspect of one characteristic.

The most frustrating part was that he trusted him, even if there were reasons not to. He simply could not consolidate the type of danger Madam Yu had proposed to the same boy who patiently taught him the tricks to get through his paperwork faster than he had ever done- going so far as to help him by summarizing the reports before he was made to read it. It just didn’t make sense.  

But he also couldn’t dismiss Madam Yu’s words, because she was right. He didn’t know what would happen in the future- and worst off, he didn’t know Wei Ming enough to say with confidence that he could anticipate any retaliation that might occur. Within a span of a single year, Wei Ming embedded himself into their lives- as a student, as a teacher, and as a disciple. Yet Nie Mingjue himself could barely even recall a favorite meal, much less any goals the older Wei had in his life save for Head Discipleship.

And that was the problem.

-

“Um,” Wei Wuxian stared at the older girl who had helped the doctor throughout the process- there was now a certifiable hole in his brother’s back but at least there wouldn’t be an infection or a more serious after effect as a result of the now identified sore as a result of an allergic reaction to the venomous arrow. “This one’s name is Jiang Yanli.”

Blinking, Wei Wuxian bowed his head- it was as much as he could do given the fact that his upper body had been nudged at his brother’s bedside. “This one’s name is Wei Ying, courtesy Wei Wuxian. Honored to meet Maiden Jiang.”

Jiang Yanli blinked at such a formal display before she opted to meet the courtesy half way, bowing her head before turning to the other boy- now certifiably passed out. “He is your brother?”

“Wei Ming,” Wei Ying nodded with vigor, and yet there was a slight pinch in her expression that made him uncomfortable. “He’ll be okay though, Gēge wouldn’t fall to something like this.”

Her smile was gentle, it gave off an aura similar to when his own brother offered an assuring smile. Though hers was more practiced, easier to summon, not to mention slightly bigger. His brother wasn’t much of a smiler- but that was fine given that Wei Ying smiled enough for both of them. “If Young Master Wei believes so earnestly, then this Yanli will believe him.”

“Are you okay?”

That seemed to strangely startle as she jolted in place, tilting to look at his concerned expression.

“Gēge and I…we’re kind of used to it.” Wei Ying whispered. “People…a lot are good, but there’s also a lot who are…not so good. So are you okay?”

“Ah- yes I’m fine,” Jiang Yanli tried to maintain her smile, growing brittle at the corners. “I just wished I was- that I wasn’t so-“

Wei Ying stayed quiet, turning his face away slightly to give the other some privacy as soon as her kind eyes turned glassy.

“Average,” She whispered finally, the other pretending not to hear the sudden hoarseness in her voice. If only to allow the illusion of maintained dignity for just a while longer.

“What’s so bad about it?” Wei Ying asked quietly, tilting his head thoughtfully as he moved to raise the blanket around his brother a little higher. “Being average, that is.”

“I…there isn’t, but…” Jiang Yanli did ask herself that. What was so wrong with being average? What was so wrong in being like the common people. Neither her mother nor father ever said anything of the sort, but still…More often than not, in the quiet of Lanling Jin whispered by people who didn’t know her, that is when the vipers came to spit venom. “it would be easier if I wasn’t. I’m just…a girl. I can cook, I can clean, I can manage a household, take care of my little brother and stitch together holes in clothes- I can embroider, I can write. But I am not a Cultivator. I’m not- I’m not what he wants.”

Wei Ying hummed, scratching his head a little, “A lot of people here say that me and Gēge are prodigies. Sect Leader Nie too, I think, though he never says anything about it. Do you wanna know a secret?”

“Mhm,” Jiang Yanli nodded faintly. Just that tiniest bit of resentment still within her, as sweet as the younger boy was- he was a renowned genius. A league of his own entirely different from Jiang Yanli.

“Gēge said that he was taught everything he knows. And then he taught me, just a little earlier than everyone else. Does that make me a prodigy? I dunno, I don’t really know what it means either. I mean- what’s a prodigy except for someone who learns something really early and really quickly right? But doesn’t that mean there’s some…skipped stuff?” Wei Ying fiddled with the edge of the blanket between his fingers. Such a human trait that really shouldn’t have been as endearing as it was. “Important things that got swept away because people were so focused on the stuff you could learn before everyone else does? Is the difference that you don’t have to work as hard? Gēge teaches me lots of hard stuff, I just read more. Practice more, try to remember them better. But I still work for it, it just means sometimes the stuff I already know helps me figure things out faster, sometimes it’s not even that I know it but that I like it enough to keep going even if I fail lots.”

Wei Ying paused, swallowing as he tried to get his thoughts together. He wasn’t good at this talking stuff yet, Wei Ming was much better at it since he did them a lot. Gēge liked to call them: Teaching Moments. But this was important, for both himself and Maiden Jiang; at least that was the feeling he got anyway.

“You’re probably like that too,” Wei Ying said after a while. “You just don’t know how to use what you already know yet. Maybe it won’t be for a good while. But you not being able to cultivate as much as other people, that isn’t a weakness. It just means that you have to work harder and longer than other people. Because it isn’t something you can pick up easily, but you could do it if you wanted to. If you had the determination to. And sometimes that means it doesn’t look the same to you as other people, maybe you’re way of cultivating is using something different. Something more suited to you.”

“People, have their strengths and their weaknesses.” He added thoughtfully, trying to remember something his father once said. Long before everything else happened, but it was something he vaguely remembered hearing one night when the moon was high and Wei Fan was quietly up. It felt more like a dream than a memory, but Wei Fan had repeated it a couple times since then. “What makes someone good is someone who improves their strength and makes up for their weaknesses. Maybe you aren’t good at cultivating a golden core. That’s fine, doesn’t that mean you can cultivate something else?”

‘We are not born good,’ Wei Fan had said quietly one day- they were in a clearing at the skeleton of a former farmland. The house long since been abandoned- the ghosts of the family lingering in the echoes etched into the aged wood. The scratch marked pictures of children- the impressions in the wood worn from furniture. Wei Ying’s eyes were closed.

He had told Wei Ying that the family had moved into their next lives because of monsters.

He did not make false claims, but he never specified the type of monsters they were.

‘That is why,’ Wei Fan idly looked up to the stars above. Clear and face full of nostalgia. It was times like these were Wei Ying wondered what he was looking at. That far-away look that just looked so much like the older people in the passing villages- hundreds of miles from their own body. ‘We are so easily influenced by our earthly desires. We hunger, we greed- for that is the way we have come to live in this world.’

He looked down at the shut-eyed Wei Ying in his lap, expression blank but eyes soft, in the way he often got when he was passing on some lofty wisdom that seemed born from somewhere far away so long ago. ‘Good and bad live on a spectrum between two points. What is light is not always good, and what is dark is not always bad. But what does that say about us who are alive that we fluctuate so easily in between?’

‘Ying-er would you listen to this old fool even in your dreams?’ He would say softly. ‘Would you accept this wisdom of a man who realized too late that everyone else has come so much further ahead of him? Would you do better in the hands of a Leader who sees you for the ghosts that haunts him? Would I be cruel if I believe you would bloom so much more in their hands?’

‘I am not a good man Ying-er,’ he continued. ‘Would you still want me as your brother? Would you still wish for my tainted sins to touch your family legacy? If I told you everything- would you still wish to look at me? Would you still wish to call yourself this one’s brother? When you have so many other martial siblings…’

Wei Ying’s breath shuddered- resisting giving away his woken state.

‘Good bad. Am I good because I have tried to be good? Will I be bad if I give up trying? Improving my strength, making up for my weaknesses. Does that make me a good man? Does that qualify me the title of virtuous? A hero of justice?’

‘Or has the red soaked into my soul and sword already stained me. Demons. Cultivators. Humans. What difference is there. What is black, and what is white. What is the justice of this world. And will I be able to teach you fast enough to stand against the tides of people who would careless. What would Shizun do? What would Shizun say to you in your dreams.’ His brother chuckled faintly. ‘Surely he will tell this disciple to stop being foolish- what is the point of labeling good and bad. They are constructs of people telling themselves they are guiltless for doing bad things in the name of good. To hell with such things- there is only one truth in this spectrum of gray: the good are not good- they simply do good.’

Wei Ying felt his brother tense under him, ‘Yes. Shizun would say to stop moping- improve yourself. Plan for your weaknesses, because good deeds are not done on their own. Only the foolish seek perfection, the cunning seek to cultivate their weakness- and turn that into strength.’

He glanced down at his resting brother before he continued softly, “The meaning of cultivation is an action, at least- that’s how Gēge explained it. To cultivate, it’s a word that says to try to acquire or develop. If that’s what it means, doesn’t that make everybody who’s ever had to work for their skills a Cultivator?”

Wei Ying wished to tell his brother that his reasoning is flawed. Because if good people did not exist- surely Wei Ying would not be here, warm and full- because his brother was here. No- Wei Ying would tell his brother that good people do not necessarily exist the way he thinks they do- and good is also not exactly defined as he has described.

Good is a goal- an achievement that those able to reach it can just as easily loose it. Bestowed upon and taken away by the people one has helped. Some may take it back in as little as a few seconds- but others will stubbornly give until their world ends.

And he would argue that Fan-ge had reached- and kept it ever since he took a little crying A-Ying aside and helped him find his parents, for three people had given him the title: good. And he wasn’t about to do something as dumb as take it back over something as weird as a past he did not know.

“By that reasoning,” He turned to give the maiden a bright smile. “Being able to cook, to stitch clothes together, to manage an entire household, and take care of a didi? You’re already exactly like Gēge. That surely means Jiejie is a really good Cultivator already. Anyone who thinks otherwise are stupid. Stuuuupiddd.

Jiang Yanli’s expression was one of point-blank shock.

She was the eldest of the Jiang heirs. She had spent all sixteen years of her life following her mother’s requests and fulfilling her duties. Of playing elder sister to a brother who was sometimes a little to sullen to understand why their father wasn’t quite like other fathers. She made the meanest Lotus Pork soup in the entirety of Lotus Pier, and for the longest time, she thought that her biggest flaw was the fact that she wasn’t pretty enough. And when that wasn’t the case, it was because she wasn’t that good of a cultivator.

But she knew people, and she knew that this little master, this little rage of the Cultivation World that had people talking for years even after their debut, held his brother at the highest of standards. Placed him at the top and toppled the greatness of an entire Sect Leaders in his eyes.

And he just told her that she was just as good.

She couldn’t help but give a wet chuckle, a sleeve habitually going over her mouth as her watery smile escaped her. The resentment in her heart leaching away in the face of such earnest declarations. “Young Master Wei, you keep up with your flattery and your Gēge is going to go through much trouble later.”

“Eh- Gēge already says that,” Wei Ying laughed too, but there was a lightness in his heart that started to glow as Jiang Yanli laughed merrily, beautifully. As she should be. “Maybe Jiejie could help Gēge! I think you two could be good friends- and and-! I could totally be friends with your Didi right? Gēge and Sect Leader says I’m like mold, no matter what happens I stick around!”

“I don’t know,” Jiang Yanli pretended to hum in thought, laughing as Wei Ying whined. Still quiet in observation to the fact that they were in the infirmary, but regardless. “Oh dear, is Xian xian three?”

“Yes!” Wei Ying tilted his head in a way he knew had Wei Ming grumbling just before he allowed Wei Ying to put more chili in his food. “Xian Xian is three!”

“More like two,” She added amusedly before getting up from the bedside and wiping her tears away. “But can Xian Xian show me to the kitchens? I think your Gēge would heal much quicker with good food. Xian Xian could help.”

“Mhm!” Wei Ying lithely slipped of the bed, pulling the blanket further up and planting a kiss right on his slumbering brother’s hair just as the other had done multiple times. “Will be right back Gēge- don’t move, or I’ll uh, I’ll tell Sect Leader you aren’t resting!”

Jiang Yanli did wonder but she chuckled and allowed the younger of the Wei brothers to lead her off to the kitchens. Never noticing the small smile and an amused glance said supposedly asleep Wei made as they exited the infirmary.

The Wei Ying Balm, he mused. Never fails.

-

“I’m surprised you haven’t busted out of here by now.” Hours later, Nie Mingjue said with a raised eyebrow as Wei Ming lounged in his own personal bed in the infirmary. Not even Nie Mingjue was that bad when he was a child, and he had undergone plenty of injuries in his lifetime. Wei Wuxian had one as well, whether it was due to his own nature or the older’s influence was anyone’s guess.

“On the contrary,” Wei Ming drawled, leaning back on the pillows. “I’ve been told that should I leave, I will eventually be told off. By you.”

“I would if you were out but you aren’t which is far stranger,” Nie Mingjue muttered taking a seat. “I got some parts of the story from Madam Jiang, but I’ve yet to hear a coherent image of what happened that made her so weary of you.”

Wei Ming stiffened, only turning boneless as he slumped against the end of the bed. Hand minutely twitching as he pursed his lip in an attempt to formulate a response, whether it would be a lie or not was the question. “I do believe she’s valid in her fear- what I did…that wasn’t exactly the first reaction a cultivator should have.”

“You mean cutting bandit’s limbs off with a fan?”

“For the most part yes,” Wei Ming rolled his shoulders. “There may have also been some bone crushing, arm breaking- general movements specifically targeted for maximum damage that would unease even Sect Leader Wen- I think that last one is the especial cause for concern.”

“…Are you going to tell me why that happened to be your instinctual response?”

“…” Wei Ming leaned back, eyes briefly clouding over in such a way that indicated that he was usually looking far from where was. “Do I have to?”

“No,” Nie Mingjue allowed. “But I would like you to.”

Wei Ming pursed his lip.  

Nie Mingjue rolled his shoulders, staving off the annoyance and disappointment. As much as his first reaction was demand the information he wanted- he would never be able to overpower the stubbornness of the Weis. Especially if the older one is so reluctant in the first place, it just made him look like an ass. For however much Wei Ming was a student, he was in equal measure a teacher. The man knew how to be stubborn, even if he gave into Wei Ying’s pleas for more chili nine out of the ten times he asks. “So you won’t tell me.”

“No,” Wei Ming shook his head faintly. “I really isn’t your business.”  

“I’m your Sect Leader- your lord and the one responsible for you,” Nie Mingjue’s reply was testy. Annoyed in ways that goes beyond simple disobedience- it was an anger borne from the fact that while Nie Mingjue could trust the other all that he wished- all that he shouldn’t be, the same could not be said for the other half. “If there is something that you are hiding-“

“This is not significant enough that Sect Leader needs to know about,” Wei Ming replied sharply. “I have made my intent clear. I will study, I will become head disciple- and I will aid Sect Leader. Those are my intentions and they will not change for anything save Sect Leader turning his sword on us.”

“Is this how it is then?” Nie Mingjue scowled. “Us versus you? I get that we seem bellow your capabilities, but whether you like it or not you are a part of Qinghe Nie and you will listen to my orders.”

“There are things about me that not even Wei Ying knows of,” Wei Ming’s gaze was defiant- old in ways that made a part of Nie Mingjue uneasy. It wasn’t mere anger but the annoyance of one who has been undermined despite their experience. It was a mirror to his own frustration, but it was- it was beyond frustrating. It was infuriating, maddening, and entirely unfair. Nie Mingjue was the older, the senior between the two of them- yet he was always being treated as the more inferior, the junior, the inexperienced. It felt like a cut of betrayal even if it had no right to be. “What makes you think you have more right than he does to know of what I will not discuss? What makes you think that you and you alone have any claim in my life beyond what I have already promised you?”

“You! You did not promise me anything,” Nie Mingjue hissed, his anger boiling over and the rush of blood reaching his ears. Thoughtless words coming into being as he felt fire in his veins. “You practically manipulated me into allowing you into my Sect, I obliged my part in recognition of that! I accepted you and your brother and accepted you and your strange ways, but you have not given me a single hair’s length of what I have already offered you- what I have already given you. So don’t you dare tell me that I don’t have a right to it.”

“Why are you so insistent of knowing such an insignificant detail?!” Wei Ming snarled, face pulled into a full blown sneer that this body hasn’t gotten used to.

“Because you aren’t telling me the truth!”

Oh- but the actions were so familiar.

“The details of this one’s life is neither the property of Sect Leader- nor anyone else save this one,” Ming Fan’s words were crisp. As sharp as the pure white icicles made in Mobei-jun’s most annoyed moods. “For what reason- this one must wonder- Sect Leader, why you see yourself as something so important that details of my character I keep hidden for a reason is so suitable for you to know- far earlier than my own brother? Is it not enough that I willingly deal in the tomfoolery of the Nie Elders who have yet to understand my comprehension is not equivalent to that of a child? Is it not enough that I do not speak of their banishment of me to the library when I could be helping? Is my intelligence lacking? My experience? Is there anything this Wei Ming has done that has displeased Sect Leader thus far that has given you the impression of this one’s incompetence?”

Nie Mingjue startled with something akin to horror climbing the ranks of his emotions at the exact moment he felt the temperature drop with each sentence.

The birds and insects outside silenced, as if an oppressive force pressed silence upon them.

“I don’t know what sort of person you believe me to be Sect Leader Nie,” Wei Ming replied- it was horrifying the way it was spoken. Completely void of emotion, it was as if Nie Mingjue had just pissed off something with how much whiplash he received at the sudden change. “While my strength may not be substantial- that does not mean that my subsequent usefulness is suddenly nulled due to neither my station, nor my age, nor my unwillingness to share details of which Sect Leader Nie have no business in. So do tell this Disciple, for this one is unfortunately incapable of reading minds, what exactly, do you believe I owe you?”

And this- some part of Nie Mingjue knew, was exactly why he hated arguing with him.

Like a damning waterfall, facts flew into his consciousness like a particularly well-aimed volley of arrows.

His offer was met with dedication.

The request for separate housing repaid with extended labor.

The allowance of their younger brother’s companionship repaid with concern over Nie Mingjue’s future. A promise to solve an unsolvable disease and the vow that he would even ask the very brother he joined the Sect for, to pursue it for no other reason because it was for Sect Leader Nie. 

These were all acts of labor repaid with labor- there was no need for emotional bonds, for closeness, for shared knowledge of each other as people because there were no moments where such occurred. They were not friends, they were Sect Leader and disciple. He had no idea why the idea was so…frustrating. He felt so…ashamed. Ashamed and stupid.  

And hurt.

“Master Nie,” Wei Ming continued- still emotionless. Still as stiff as a board, as if he wasn’t looking at Nie Mingjue but someone else. “Answer this servant if you please. This Disciple cannot do what Sect Leader wishes, so besides my past- what is it, does Sect Leader wish?”

Nie Mingjue was silent- his mouth moving faster than his mind.

“You to stop lying to me.”

He left without looking back.

‘Ning Ying Ying- is this shixiong good?’

‘…Fan-shixiong, Yingying thinks Fan-shixiong is good…’

‘But?’

‘But sometimes,’ Ning Ying Ying looked at him sadly, eyeing the bandages wrapped around his upper tower from his sixth solo night hunt that same month. It had been getting out of hand but they just didn't have the heart to deny pleads for aid, especially during wartime. ‘Yingying doesn’t really know if shixiong knows Yingying cares about him too.’

 

 

Chapter Text

9. [ Log: File:Save_14-166.1.0102.log ]


Wei Ming was stewing in frustration before a voice pulled him away from his thoughts.

“Wei-shixiong?”

“Young Master Nie. Did you need help with something?” Wei Ming put his book down before turning towards the young man, moving to sit up.

Huaisang was quiet for a moment, gathering his thoughts and internally wincing. Wei Ming hadn’t called him by ‘Young Master’ for several months now; which meant the damage he needed to mitigate must have been pretty big, “Da-ge is upset.”

Sighing and leaning back on the bed, Wei Ming tilted his head at the younger Nie. “Is Young Master Nie upset?”

“I dunno what I need to be upset about,” Huaisang said carefully, shuffling where he stood as dark eyes. Somewhere between a really dark gray or a really dark brown that seemed to pick apart everything about him and more. It was moments like these were others usually tried to back off from a clammed up Wei Ming, but Nie Huaisang had the advantage of natural finesse. “A-Ying doesn’t know nothing about it, Da-ge won’t say why he’s upset, but he looks like he did that one time I drew in one of his favorite books in the Cang Qiong series since he kept missing dinner with me. He was upset but he didn’t yell at me, but he did spend a lot of time with the training dummies after. It’s that kind of upset- when he can’t yell at you and I dunno what to do so you need to tell me what to do to make him better.”

The younger boy took a breath, whispering into the quiet of the infirmary, briefly licking his lips, “This Young Master must ask, what did Da-ge do Wei-shixiong?” 

Wei Ming hummed, tilting his head in a habitual motion as he gathered his thoughts. The present situation brought forth important factors he hadn’t yet had the time to consider, and therefore he needed to take measured steps moving forward. For his own gains as well as for the sake of Young Master Nie’s.

And Young Master Nie was a cunning individual, even if most of it was instinctual at his age- there was a considering emotion behind his smile that told tales of a formidable game master should he ever deign to gain a reason to become one. If he wasn’t careful now, it could prove to be a problem in the future.

It was something he hadn’t yet expressed for the sake of maintaining his current situation, a thirteen year-old son of a servant had no place being so observant in his position. Of this, Nie Mingjue’s sudden anger had reminded him. The matter of the current situation of the Great Sects were sensitive to those within the eye of the tumultuous storm of politics. There were things stirring the world, a balance he hadn’t noticed before tilted in one’s side’s favor that left a tingle on his skin as if something was very wrong. The incident with the Jiang Clan was but one symptom of a greater sickness. What remained was a deceptively simple question: What was the cause?

He had his suspicions of course, but he had yet to find evidence. He couldn’t very well pin the cause on something he wasn’t even sure existed.

Still, these were matters to contemplate after he further secured his position within the Sect, “I have never told Wei Ying about my time before I met him and our parents.”

Nie Huaisang looked up in confusion.

“I have not told him, for reasons of which are my own. But those same reasons apply to your brother. What happened before I met Wei Ying- before I met the Wei Changze and Cangse Sanren, they are not something I am willing to discuss, to anyone.” Pettiness. War. Death of a teacher. The bitterness that came after, and the unceremonious death. It was a far cry from the stories of Ming Fan this world had come to know. And he would deign to keep those stories of heroism, what good were stories of heroism if they were not heroic? Better to maintain their image to inspire others rather than sully dreams of a greater tomorrow. “That is my choice, I have to ask that you all respect it. The me of the past, while I do carry some skills from it, he is a different person from the one I am now.”

“What your brother has asked of me…” Wei Ming closed his eyes- breathing out his frustration on his exhale. Opening his eyes only to meet calculating ones. “This is not something of me I could give him. He is my Sect Leader- my Shiz- my shifu, for lack of a better word. Presuming any more than that is beyond presumptuous. This one has already overstepped his bounds.”

“…Wei-shixiong,” Nie Huaisang said carefully, slowly, “What did Da-ge say?”

Wei Ming shrugged, “He implied various things, although in no uncertain terms did he make clear why and how Wei Ying and I have enjoyed his kindness. It is for this reason that I do regret being unable to divulge what he wants- and as for the other…I do not know what he is asking of me.”

Nie Huaisang’s eyes widened, disturbed with a rising feeling of dread forming from bellow his gut, “W-what do you mean ‘enjoyed his kindness’? Da-ge wouldn’t- he doesn’t-“

Wei Ming frowned, “He wanted something this Wei Fan could not give him, demanded him of something he is not even sure how to give. This one regrets, but until Master Nie requests something different of this Wei Fan- what he asks will remain ungiven. And beyond what cannot be given, this Wei Fan cannot give what he does not know.”

Huaisang swallowed nervously, “Wei-shixiong, Da-ge does not see you like that.”

Wei Ming tilted his head, “This one must ask Nie-gōngzǐ to explain further.”

Nie Huaisang breathed, slow and deliberate in an attempt to keep his voice steady even as the bad feeling in his gut began to fester and grow, “Da-ge sees you more like he sees Xichen-ge. Like…a peer, rather than a disciple. There’s not many close to his age, and none of the disciples treat him like you do. Even Zhonghui isn’t so brash with him as you are. You act…older? It’s hard…not to…want to impress you, I think.”

“…And he wants to…” Wei Ming tilted his head. “Impress me…?”

“Maybe? I think Da-ge was just hoping you two could be friends.” Nie Huaisang shrugged helplessly. “He’s secretly very lonely I think. Xichen-ge is younger than Da-ge, so Da-ge tends to…care for him more. With you it’s the other way around.”

“…Huaisang,” Nie Huaisang tilted up at the call of his name- the other’s face scowling, gulping nervously. “Nie Mingjue is upset because we are not friends?

He nodded, internally swearing that he was going to do all the whining and crying in the world for all the nervousness he just pounded through on his brother’s behalf.

Wei Ming sighed, a frown deeply etched into his face.  

“…Do you think you couldn’t be?” Huaisang asked quietly. Worry beginning to crowd his thoughts.

Because even though Wei Ming was terrifying- he was nice. He pushed Huaisang into his teachings with a firm hand at his back to catch him whether he fell or tried to make a run for it. He just made things…easier to stomach. Made them fun even though every lesson was a brutal reminder that his big brother might not be around.

One of the biggest flaws his brother had is that he took things at face value, he only saw what he saw- and not much of anything else. In all honesty, Huaisang thought that he couldn’t really afford to. Sect Leadership was hard, he knew this just from looking, but it was even harder being so young and not really knowing what you were doing. Mingjue had done the best he could, he knew that, but sometimes it was really frustrating that he didn’t understand why Huaisang hated his lessons so much when Mingjue really should’ve been the first one to figure it out.

It had taken Wei Fan a week to realize what was wrong, that said something.

Huaisang knew he was young, but that didn’t mean he was stupid. Something only a few people seemed to realize, and Wei Ming and Wei Ying seemed to be the first to not only acknowledge it but also tried to see things from his perspective. The brothers just…knew, from why he played pretend about being too idiotic to really remember his lessons all the way to why he hated them so much. It was Wei Ming who had taught him his lessons in a round-about way that stuck no matter how oblivious Huaisang tried to be- and it was Wei Ying who had sat with him and quietly admitted that he too sometimes was scared out of his mind that his brother might one day be gone.

“But I think it’s okay now,” Wei Ying had said quietly, deep under the covers of Huaisang’s bed and voice barely a whisper since he had snuck in after a particularly hard day with Mingjue yelling at Huaisang about his lessons. “Cause Gēge promised that even if the gods themselves are trying to drag him away- he’s going to be kicking and screaming until he can’t anymore. I’m pretty sure Sect Leader Nie is the same.”

He wasn’t sure why- but Huaisang felt better. That Mingjue wasn’t really expecting to die, that Mingjue wasn’t just gonna give up and go the same way everyone else in Huaisang’s life had. Their father, his mother- Mingjue was the only one he had left and sometimes Huaisang had that really bad thought that Mingjue might add himself to the list of people who left him behind. But that can’t be right now because the Wei’s were smart, maybe smarter than he is in some ways- so they were probably right about Mingjue not really wanting to leave him on his own.

He really wanted that, really hope that maybe. Somehow, someway, they’d also be smart enough to make sure Mingjue doesn’t have to think about when he leaves. And that couldn’t happen if he can’t fix his big brother’s really stupid mistake.  

“Yes.” Wei Ming continued before Huaisang could protest. “I don’t even know him beyond his role as Sect Leader. Did you think I was pursuing Head Discipleship for my pride? It’s more than that I’m afraid.”  

Nie Huaisang frowned, endlessly more confused and frustrated, “Now I really don’t understand Wei-shixiong.”

“Discipleship and head discipleship are fundamentally two different roles,” Wei Ming explained carefully, frowning as he tried to make sure it was in a way Huaisang could understand. “Discipleship is being taught. Head discipleship implies a closeness, even if for the most part it would be of the type of mentorship- it isn’t uncommon for it to be friendship or beyond. But- before such a thing…it wouldn’t be…proper for me to have such a close tie with Sect Leader Nie before I achieve it. As I have said- what has occurred thus far is already a gross overextension of my privilege as a disciple.”

Granted, Wei Ming did think darkly to myself. I have limited experience beyond the paperwork aspect.

“I don’t think he would care?” Huaisang frowned harder. “Da-ge doesn’t really care about status either. That stuff he said before is pretty much just the hot air from his over-boiled temper, I really promise. He says a lot of stuff he doesn’t mean when he’s mad. And I’ve never heard of that sort of rule.”

Perhaps this really is a new world on its own, the times could not have changed that much. Wei Ming was officially confused, “Does he not? So could you possibly explain why he felt the need to bring up the various boons Wuxian and I have received thus far as Nie Sect disciples?”

Huaisang did wince, which implied many things, “Da-ge isn’t good at communicating.”

“I noticed.” Wei Ming said dryly. “I serve him tea on occasion, we don’t talk about much beyond the paperwork. I know he sits oddly and has a bad habit of eating with his elbows on the table which I’ve attempted to correct as subtly as I can. That is the basis of knowing someone, not friendship. Wei Ying is far closer to him by the basis of knowing each other than I am.”

Huaisang could only bow his head, “I hope Wei-shixiong can accept my apology for my brother.”

“I’ll accept it,” Wei Ming allowed. “If you will consider my own. Somewhat now, I understand Sect Leader Nie’s thoughts. I promise I did not say what I said because I did not want to be friends. It is not the case, this Wei Ming simply assumed courtesy in observation of our different stations.”

“Different stations?”

“Young Master Nie,” Nie Huaisang looked up as Wei Ming’s tone turned just that slightest bit more solemn, more serious. “You and Sect Leader are young masters, we are merely sons of servants.”

“That doesn’t matter though right?” Huaisang argued. “You’re the Sons of Cangse Sanren. You’re even celebrated geniuses- I don’t really see how that can be an issue.”

“We are the Sons of Wei Changze first. I can assure you that both Wei Ying and I are grateful you consider us so greatly, but the rest of the world will not feel the same.” Huaisang starred as Wei Ming tilted his head. A subtle arm creeping up to tug slightly at his robes to reveal a harsh, raised line climbing up from the junction between his neck and shoulder. A pink, harsh reminder of the kind of world they live in. “Prodigies we may be, but that simply means that we are also considerable tools. Where there is admiration, present there is also the oldest heart demon that exists in this world.”

“And his arm is weak, that brat Mistress’ arm was stronger,” Huaisang remembered that comment from so long ago, he hadn’t thought much of it at the time but- still.

Nie Huaisang felt crushed at the realization, of the knowledge of how different the two acted around them. He was actually surprised he hadn’t wondered about it before. It wasn’t that hard to notice that both Weis never truly toed outside what they were given what they were ordered, what they were allowed. Not unless it was for a very strong reason. Wei Ying played but he played for Huaisang or whatever guest he was entertaining. He studied for the Sect, and if not, his brother’s orders based on the Sect. Wei Ming spent time in the library under the recommendation of the Nie Elders, he brought tea and spoke with Xichen-ge under Mingjue’s direct presence. They stayed within their respective spaces, and it hadn’t struck them, neither himself or Nie Mingjue, odd that they would do so when both brothers were like a whirlwind of force personified.

No. It wasn’t odd, Huaisang just didn’t want to see it that way. He- like his brother, did not see it. And he was too stupid to realize it until now.

He swallowed past the tightening of his throat, “F-Fan-ge?”

Wei Ming blinked, surprised. “Ah- yes…?”

Huaisang gripped the edges of Wei Ming’s robes, tight and pale to the point where concerned hands gently held him up by the shoulders- and it burned in such a good way that felt comforting. “Please don’t leave.”

Wei Ming frowned- leaving Huaisang in a mild panic as tears began to well.

“I promise I’ll tell on all those stupid disciples who pick on you, a-and I’ll look after Wei Ying like a proper shixiong! And I’ll tell Da-ge when he’s being stupid so you just have to tell me and I-I’ll yell at him! We really don’t care about you being sons of servants or whatever stupid thing like that it’s just Da-ge really gets caught up in his own head and he doesn’t really know all the squishy stuff-“

“Huaisang…” Wei Ming murmured, low and comforting. “Breath.”

“A-And,” Huaisang sniffed, arms locked mid-way by Wei Ming’s gentle grip before he could use his sleeve to wipe his snot and tears away. “I really like that you’re here and Wei Ying is really fun to be around and you make things so much easier to learn even though sometimes I hate it and I really think Da-ge wouldn’t last without you helping him get through paperwork and you’re really really smart so- so…!”

Huaisang sniffed- crying but for once, not wailing. Not yelling about how unfair things were, so much more different than the ten year old boy who’d scream his lungs out about not wanting to do his lessons until Mingjue yelled at him, and that was before Wei Ming had arrived on the grounds of Qinghe Nie. “Please. You…you and A-Ying…you’re important. A lesson with you than that old hag is so much better- so-! So-!”

“Huaisang?”

“Because you’re important-!” Huaisang stressed- but in reality. His ten-year-old mind simply didn’t have the words to try and express what he wanted to- and that was even more stressful. “Please don’t leave. I’ll be good! I’ll be really good! I’m sorry I was too stupid to notice! I’ll do better!”

The color drained from Wei Ming’s face.

“Shizun, why did you leave me Shizun?!”

“You dog,” Ming Fan snarled. “How dare you-! How dare you-!”

He gripped edges of Binghe’s robes as he shook- stressed and angry, and beyond agonized. Ning Yingying was still on her knees in disbelief, held up by Liu Mingyan. “He died for you damn you- why!? Why did he leave us?” Leave me? “Why did he choose you!?

Ming Fan shook as the fabric slipped from his fingers, numb. He knew the answer. Because Luo Binghe was better than him. He was good. Righteous and kind, talented. He was nothing like Ming Fan who was too stupid to realize it.

And now Shizun was gone.

Because Ming Fan was not Luo Binghe.

“Huaisang,” Wei Ming said quietly. “Why…why would we leave?”

Because-“ Huaisang warbled, tears flowing even faster when he couldn’t form an answer. “B-Because-! No, no- I know the answer-! Just…I just need-“

“Huaisang,” Wei Ming swallowed. “I…we, A-Ying and I aren’t going to leave just because Mingjue yelled at me a little. It’s fine, really.”

“B-But…You said…About that dumb Jin- we…we’re the same type of person aren’t we? We’re both,” Huaisang’s face twisted in disgust, but unable to finish his sentence without the words to finish.

Wei Ming chuckled, if it was a bit sad, no one was around to pick it up. “You aren’t the same as that scoundrel at all, neither of you. I just misunderstood your Da-ge’s intentions that’s all. I just forgot, honest.”

“F-Forgot what?”

Little Huaisang, so smart- but so young. Wei Ming felt guilty, guilty that he unintentionally sent Huaisang into this sort of panic without realizing. Guilty for not taking to account that this little Nie heir was smart enough to realize what Jin Guangshan did, but not mature enough to differentiate his difference from his weariness towards the both of them as people of similar station to the same man who whipped him without much reason. Smart enough to know that they were treated differently by Wei Ming because of their station, but too young to know that he did so because that was the way their society worked and it was just the way he had to play their game before he could turn around and use the rules in his favor.  

He made a mistake- a mistake he was fairly certain had also caused Nie Mingjue to fall along the similar lines of thought of his young brother. No doubt, the true cause behind the sudden outburst from last night.

He used his sleeve to dry Huaisang’s tears, smiling sadly, “I just forgot how young you both are. I’m sorry.”

“…Wei-shixiong.”

“Hm?”

“What is the other thing…” Nie Huaisang blinked frowning. “The one you didn’t know how to give…?”

Wei Ming was quiet for a moment, contemplating in silence before seeming to come to a decision, “Sect Leader has requested this Wei Fan stop lying to him. However…”

Nie Huaisang caught on, “Wei-shixiong never lied.”

Wei-shixiong has never lied. Nie Huaisang felt his resentment towards his brother ebb away. Because Wei-shixiong can’t lie about something he never said, he has never given us lies because everything he does give us is technically true, and Da-ge has never thought to question that he wasn’t getting the whole picture. Because Da-ge can’t see that there was a bigger picture.  

Da-ge Da-ge, Nie Huaisang despaired. How is it that you are the more naïve of the two of us in this matter?!

[ Log: File:Save_14-178.1.0800.log ]

One of the chiefest responsibilities Nie Mingjue had as leader of Qinghe Nie was the obligation to personally look after crisis events. There were not many, but crisis was a flexible term. On one hand, it could mean a monster that was taking the lives of the people under his protection in massive, devastating numbers at unprecedented rates. There was also the noble families under his charge.

The latter was by far the most annoying to deal with.

Still, it was his responsibility, and he also couldn’t ignore the fact that Wei Ming was also one of their best disciples in spite not officially carrying a sabre.

It had been a month since Nie Mingjue had been thoroughly embarrassed into thinking that the two of them shared a friendship, he had been careful then on and thus he had been seeing the older of the Weis even less than he was before. Instead, he dealt with Wei Ying as was usually needed, but he could tell that his time with the boy was also progressively lessening as the younger’s time was taken up with more lessons. Painting, instrument playing, at this rate the boy was going to take up a spot in the highest of cultivators with how many of the gentlemanly arts he was mastering.

Nie Huaisang had surprisingly, not gone to look for him after he sulked for nearly a week after, but he had been doing his lessons without even a token complaint- so there was something to be said about the fact that his brother knew.

He couldn’t help though, but wonder about the stares he was getting from him. Huaisang had never really looked at him like that before, like he was intentionally hurting him somehow- but he couldn’t really understand it and he didn’t have the time to pull Huaisang aside to talk about it. Hard as he may be, the last thing he wanted in the entire world was for Huaisang to feel that way. He needed to make time to talk to Huaisang and he’s willing to suck up his embarrassment and recruit Wei Ming to do it.

Well- that wouldn’t be until later, in the meanwhile, with a team of four consisting of himself, Zhonghui, Wei Ming, and another of his senior disciples: Mei Lin. Together the four set out for the He Clan territory to look into this mysterious plague that supposedly haunted the boarders. Nie Mingjue’s first instinct was wolves, but because Hejian was also the home of a rather prominent ally under Nie Mingjue’s territories- it needed to be addressed with due care.

Wei Ming was quiet, even as the most junior among them, it was rather unnerving considering he hadn’t quite heard a quiet Wei in a while; considering Wei Ying’s nature to talk excitedly of whatever came to mind and the older Wei’s responses. Though he supposed it made sense that the older one was actually quiet in nature.

“Ah, Sect Leader Nie! Our humble He Clan greets you!” The man before them was rather stout from age. One of the pillars of the He Clan, He Quánlì- dressed in the more yellow-green robes of his clan’s colors.

“Sir He,” Nie Mingjue nodded. “We are here regarding your issue.”

“Oh yes yes-! Terrible, simply terrible. An entire three cows gone to those foul beasts! I am glad- honored! That Sect Leader Nie has come personally to address the issue. Dearest wife, the Sect Leader and his disciples have come as you requested.”

The woman dressed in elegant silks stepped forward, refined in her old age and well-mannered as she curtseyed towards Nie Mingjue- to which he responded in kind. She stood tall and well, a testament to her power. Especially since she was officially the leader of her clan, with her husband He Quánlì having taken up her family name.

“Greeting Sect Leader Nie, this He Yùnzhì greets you.”

“Clan Leader He,” Nie Mingjue bowed his head slightly. “These are my disciples. Nie Zhonghui, Mei Lin, and Wei Ming.”

At the call of their names, each disciple bowed in respect. Although the two startled as Wei Ming’s bow was far lower than their own.

“It is a surprise to see one so aware of their position in spite of their reputation and later parentless upbringing, I see that the time spent with your parents have been memories treasured.” He Yùnzhì linked her hands together as she bowed slightly. “For that you have my respect Young Master Wei; please know that you are welcomed as an honored Guest in my House.”

Wei Ming bowed his head, “This Wei Ming is honored Lady He.”

Eyebrows of the older clan members drew up as the new title appeared, but such was the nature of things when they have yet to appear in many years since the dawn of the new generation. Especially when Clan Leaders were more often male than female in comparison to the past generations where the numbers had been opposite- and the generations before where the opposite was also true. Fluctuations appeared, but there were few who remembered the proper state of address for a Clan Leader of female sex.

It was a well-known fact among the old guard that disciples of Baoshan Sanren usually had such education. While Cangse Sanren had a reputation for being a wild Cultivator, it was no surprise to them that her children had managed to absorb such lessons.

Despite the fact that Cangse Sanren taught no such thing, but Wei Ming wasn’t exactly in the position of even wanting to correct that ideal even if he did know such a thought occurred.

Despite the oddity, Clan Leader He took this in stride as she was named before turning back to Nie Mingjue. “I understand, Sect Leader, that our petition for aid may seem frivolous in the light of livestock losses rather than civilians- however it is our understanding that this is merely the beginning for more sinister foes. The cultivators within our family clan have reported an increase of Yin energy as of late in the nearby forests further into the closer to the mountains. We too, suspected it had been the product of a wolf pack getting too comfortable with the lax security- however with the recent injuries of one of our own- it was confirmed that this is not the case.”

Nie Mingjue straightened, “They are still alive?”

“Yes, he will be reprimanded because of his reckless actions but for now he is in a stable condition. If Sect Leader would permit it, I would ask that you question him as soon as possible.” She stood taller in her elaborate hànfú. “This one believes that the situation will soon get worse as the days go by.”  

Nie Mingjue nodded, “If it is no trouble, we will also include ourselves in the night patrols- hopefully to get a better gauge of what exactly we are dealing with.”

Nie Zhonghui stepped forward, bowing, “Apologies for intruding Clan Leader, Sect Leader- but have the bodies of the killed livestock been recorded before disposal?”

“I’m glad to say that they have- I will be sure that Sect Leader receives our recordings of the sustained injuries before the days in. For now I do ask that you allow yourselves to familiarize with the rooms- it is an honor for the He clan to provide to the Nie Sect.” She bowed before beckoning a servant to show them in.

Nie Mingjue noted the disciple lingering just behind the pillar of the He Clan hall, staring right at Wei Ming before they left to follow the servant.

-

Nie Zhonghui stretched as he sat himself on a nearby chair in his cousin’s room- by far the most luxurious of the four rooms they had been provided for. The He estate was not as big as the Unclean Realm nor was it as elaborate as some of the other clans under the Nie charge- however they were practical and tasteful in their build with dusts of dark blue within their architecture; an ode to the river that lead to the ocean up North.

“So. Cousin.”

Nie Mingjue sighed, “What is it Zhonghui.”

“I heard you got into a fight with Wei Ming?” Nie Zhonghui tilted his head.

“Clearly Huaisang has already told you, I don’t see how me telling you would change anything,” Nie Mingjue’s head was tilted slightly off to the side as he unpacked some of his clothing from the Qiánkūn bag.

“I dunno, he just seemed- more curt? He’s definitely been coming to see you less often, but he still leaves notes about the paperwork. I don’t even know how he gets in, reads it and gets out.” Looking at his cousin, Nie Zhonghui noted the slight slump on his shoulders. Though they were not related by blood, there was still an odd balance between kinship and admiration for the boy-turned Sect Leader.

But there wasn’t a day where Nie Zhonghui felt that slightest bit of pity that Nie Mingjue had to take on such weight. Small as it may be, it was a bit of a relief when Wei Ming began doubling down on the paperwork that was building up in spite of both his own and Nie Mingjue’s efforts- neither of them had ever really looked at such things prior to when they had to between Mingjue’s father dealing with Wen Ruohan and growing up as a Cultivator. Though Nie Mingjue had some limited experience, he hadn’t quite gotten a hang of reading in between the fine lines of political overtures just yet.

He just didn’t expect that all of a sudden the same boy who seemed so gung-ho about becoming Head Disciple would just…turn around and somehow get into an argument with him? Nie Mingjue was sometimes a little too black and white oriented when it came to his sense of honor and morality but he had thought the other would side-step the issue somehow, he wasn’t sure why until Huaisang had put it into perspective.

There was truth in Huaisang’s occasional listlessness, but Nie Huaisang spent a lot of time on his mother’s knee; long enough to believe that perhaps he had soaked up more than anyone would have expected. Where Mingjue’s mother was strength in her will, Huaisang’s mother was strength in her cunning.

To put it shortly: Huaisang pointed out that Wei Ming was used to life in combination of on the road, and being infamous. For one, being the son of Cangse Sanren, for another- being the son of Wei Changze. On top of that, being a rogue cultivator with no master to speak of- an even rarer feat. With all clamoring for his allegiance, there also came a jealousy. Privileged as most of them were, in the midst of the chaos brought on by the Wei brothers themselves; they forgot that Wei Changze had been a servant. Infamous as Cangse Sanren was- that was not enough to overshadow the paternal reputation.

Therefore, it was logical to believe that Wei Ming had quickly learned- or carried over teachings from others to separate himself consciously from those of lineage. So natural that it had just seemed like an odd quirk- when in reality it was an expression of separation not many had ever seen in such a long time.

There were several of course, who’s blood often got to their heads- the Jins were the finest examples, but the manners of separation had been far more obvious in the past than it was in the present. The Lans were probably some of the more finer examples save for their naivety, and the Nie Clan has always prided itself in keeping bloodlines and results separate entities. Though it wasn’t always the case, it was something both Zhonghui and Mingjue strove for. Blood didn’t matter when it came to cold silver after all.

Now all this was enlightening for Zhonghui, who immediately reevaluated everything he knew about the Weis. The pieces of Wei Ming’s behavior starting to make sense: the tea, the reading, the constant repayment for things that didn’t seem necessary. The weird fact that despite being a full-fledged cultivating disciple, he didn’t exactly feel like it.

Wei Ying was easier to understand, but the pieces of those feelings were there in the form of address- Wei Ying never familiarized himself with anyone unless he sensed that they wouldn’t mind, and the gremlin was good with people when it came to things like that, even if it seemed more unconscious than conscious on his part. There was a very real separation in the people he interacted with and the people he avoided, and a majority of those he interacted with were servants themselves.

The question was if Mingjue understood, or if he hadn’t yet realized there was an issue in plain sight. He was more than a little concerned about that, Huaisang seemed adamant that Mingjue needed to, “get his stupid head out from stupid and make up with Fan-ge” which was really telling because Huaisang was apparently a lot closer to the older Wei than originally thought and there had to be reasons if Huaisang working himself to a panic about something that only seemed like a disagreement between a disciple and his Sect Leader.

“He’s a genius after all,” Mingjue spat- and that answered that question.

“…Wait- what did you think your argument is about?”

“…How he’s only a part of my Sect for Wei Ying? That he doesn’t trust me to know what I’m doing?” Mingjue frowned. “Is there another reason? Is it not clear from the way he separates himself from everyone? It’s rather obvious to anyone with eyes that he would do far better outside the Sect than in.”

“Mingjue…” Zhonghui trailed off, eyes wide in surprise. “Huaisang told me but- are you seriously pissed off because Wei Ming said you weren’t friends?”

“What of it,” the taller of the two hissed, turning around. “It doesn’t matter anyway. I’m sure by the time Wei Ying is of age those two will up and leave.”

Zhonghui blinked at his Sect Leader, incredulous, stuck in between smacking his own forehead or slapping Mingjue by the side of his head, “By the- Mingjue, I love you as a brother but you really cannot ask me not to laugh at you right now.”

“What would you even laugh at?!”

“Mingjue- he’s Wei Ming. Wei Fan. He is not Cangse Ming.” Zhonghui looked to the heavens and sighed. “No matter what we do he’s always going to put that first until he proves himself. I’m surprised you didn’t pick up on that kid’s near violent spiteful nature. Wei Ying is craftier I’ll grant it, but Wei Ming is a ball of spite waiting for the day Hui Chengmei falls asleep unguarded.”

“Pick up? I got the brunt of it,” Mingjue grumbled. “What nonsense are you even talking about anyway? I’m aware his father’s name is Wei Changze. And Hui has already been disciplined for the missing books and picking on Huaisang.”

“Mingjue- I don’t know how you miss this considering you’re with us for half the evert day’s training- but Hui Chengmei is terrified of Wei Ming. For good reason, he has skinny arms but sparing with him leaves you numb. I haven’t seen that ass and his group so nervous since your father ripped him to pieces.”

“Again- I don’t see how this matters. In any capacity.”

“Aiyo Mingjue- he’s the son of a servant! We might not care but he’s had to for the past three years, four now. You really think he talks like that because he just wanted to? I needed help but you have to find it odd that he talks the way he does to authorities. Not even Madam Yu would demand that level of maximum respect and manners from her disciples, and she’s the strictest of teachers in the Cultivation world. When he’s not with you or Huaisang, talks in third person, he bows so perfectly a Lan would take notes, he apologizes for damn near every possible inconvenience more so for the sake of maintaining that same manner than out of genuine apology.” He sighed through his nose, shoulders slumping as the jovial mood was quickly sapped from him. “Mingjue- he has scars.

“Of?” Mingjue frowned, the seed of doubt firmly planted and watered. Growing swiftly revelation after revelation. “In case you forgot, he was also a Rogue cultivator. Those scars could have come from a number of things.”

“Huaisang said he had scars from a whip.” In a quieter voice, Zhonghui added. “He said that he didn’t even have to show his back to show where they were. Mingjue, Huaisang said they looked too deep to have been from a regular whip.”

Mingjue’s mind snapped on quick, gritting out a name with a snarl, “Jin Guangshan.”

Zhonghui startled.  

’that brat Mistress’ arm was stronger’…” Mingjue explained before trailing; his thoughts consuming him for a moment. “This…puts things into perspective. I don’t believe Wei Ying knows of it either, his anger was apparent that time, but he didn’t say anything- rather, perhaps he couldn’t. Still- a discipline whip? He could have been A-sang’s age- he could have died. What in the hell was that bastard thinking-!?”

“You know, I sometimes forget- but does it ever really strike you odd that the kid’s fourteen now? I know we all call him an Old Man but…” the concern on Zhonghui’s face wasn’t rare, but it was raw and just that slightest bit ashamed. “I kind of forget that those two are still…young. Wei Wuxian is a ball of sunshine even if I hesitate to call him a puppy since he once climbed on me when the dogs came out- but Wei Ming…thinking of him as a child seems…wrong somehow. Disrespectful. Beyond what I thought was respect since you’ve had to go through similar trials.”  

“…He commented on me being fourteen when I took up Sect Leadership a long time ago, I brushed it off but now I wonder…” The conclusions he was reaching was anything but promising, especially if his theory was proven true.

“You have changed since you took up the mantel of Sect Leader,” Zhonghui agreed. “So what does that mean for him?”

“Nothing good.” Mingjue’s stare was grim, “But that does not excuse how he’s operated so far under the Nie Sect. He’s acts almost completely independent from the Sect. Prodigy he may be- maturity aside. That does not mean he should be allowed to continue this self-centered mentality. He’s already been injured more than a handful of times because of it. And more than that…”

“What is it?”

“He lies to me,” Nie Mingjue hissed. “He omits things that are relevant to me as his Sect Leader. I can’t trust that type of behavior Zhonghui- I get that I over stepped my bounds. I get that I’ve said things that I should not have said- but I can’t stand one of my disciples lying to me.”

“Mingjue- not telling you things don’t count as lying,” Zhonghui tried.

“It does when it comes to his well-being,” Nie Mingjue hissed. “The Elders have been undermining him, he’s being treated more like a servant than a disciple and he never bothered to tell me until I pissed him off. There’s more to the Jiang attack incident than he’s telling me, something Madam Yu seems to be aware of that I’m not because Wei Ming won’t tell me.”

Nie Mingjue wished it wasn’t true but it was. He got the story from some of the older disciples that had been growing increasingly curious about why their best scholar was stuck in the library all day and all night. They’ve always been told it was fine, by Wei Ming himself no less- and none of the teachers had opted to correct it. Even some of the servants had noticed but they hadn’t told him because they were asked not to.

He thought it was pride, before he found out that the kid got whipped by Jin Guangshan of all people. He hoped that when Wei Ming punched the rat bastard, he broke that stupid nose.

Damn- Nie Zhonghui thought, his cousin had a point, “…So what do you intend to do?”

Nie Mingjue looked up, a headache forming on his brow. “I don’t know. I really don’t know.”

Zhonghui swallowed back a comment about acting like Huaisang before Nie Mingjue continued.

“But I can’t leave it like this- he needs to understand that he can’t bottle things up like this just because he’s experienced,” Nie Mingjue sighed. “This isn’t about age or maturity or even the damn nobility crap anymore. This is about the fact that if Wei Ming is being mistreated by my Sect- he won’t tell me. That if he’s hurt, or badly wounded- he won’t tell me. If he needs help he won’t ask me.”  

As dreary as the subject was- Zhonghui could feel his respect for Nie Mingjue swell just that bit more.

“Sect Leader! Zhonghui-shixiong!” Mei Lin appeared at the entrance to the room, huffing from expended breath. “It’s Wei Ming!”

-

Wei Ming was sticking his nose where it didn’t belong- that much he knew was for sure.

Was it rude? Extremely. But he was going to pull the ‘I got lost Uncle/Auntie could you please point me back to my room I just wanted something to drink’ card. He’s experienced Wei Ying’s bunny eyes before, there was a slight chance he could pull off the same technique.

But still, there was something in him that didn’t quite sit still. It wasn’t fear, neither apprehension or caution it was…excitement? Excitement. That was certainly an idea if not an oddity. It was why he pulled away from the rest as soon as they were sent to rest in their respective rooms, slipping between people and making his way where his instinct pointed.

He observed outside the room where the previous victim was housed, the cultivator harmed by the He Clan’s problem.

It was flooded with Yin energy.

Not in a way a cultivator would sense, not one of this generation- but one of his. The ones who spent the better half of nearly half an entire decade fighting off creatures who thrived off of demonic energy. On top of his senses rising to full height in the face of such familiar adversaries, there was also the bathe of blood red aura exuding from the room.

A marked.

Fascinating.

There was an itch crawling up his spine at the plausibility of finding something so familiar, a curiosity that perpetuated every single disciple of Qing Jing Peak to ever grace the bamboo forest cultivated by its Peak Lord and those before them. They were the Scholarly Peak after all.

He was no exception.

He checked the halls before the room, void of servants flowing to and fro. An empty pond surrounded by a large creek, and with that- Ming Fan moved forward.

Wei Ming slid the doors open, peaking in to find a person resting at the nearby bed. Sweat drenched and slightly pinked, it was a male- dressed in only his inner robes, arm wrapped heavily with blood still appearing on the surface of the bandage. In such a condition he was, it was a wonder why the Clan Leader hadn’t insisted on seeing him sooner- or perhaps she was quite confident the boy wouldn’t die.

That was an interesting thought indeed.

Wei Ming approached cautiously, habitually putting a miniscule amount of weight before fully stepping upon the floorboards. Movements snake-like, taught, and coiled- before reaching the bed-side. Tilting his head to align with the orientation of the bite mark upon the male’s arm.

A clear line of blood had embellished the outer wraps of the bandage, seeping red and pointed in an arched formation. There were heavier spots in between the lines of lighter shades of blood that indicated deeper wounds in between- perhaps where the skin had been directly punctured.

That sort of alignment with the angle, in combination with the yin tinged energy seeped around the victim, it was a demonic hound- the questioned lied in what type.

Demon hounds were nuisance in singular, but a pack was dangerous. Northern hounds adopted the cold magics of their homeland where Southern hounds leaned more towards their warmer climate. But these were mere puppies in the face of a true Hell Hound- a hulking creature with intelligence that made them on par on a danger with the rhinos. Because of Luo Binghe’s ruling and subsequent conquering- a majority of Hell Hound packs were loyal to only he as the ruling Emperor of the Demon Territories.

Prior to Luo Binghe however, cultivators from all the martial inclined Sects tended to be sent for such cases. Hell Hounds were not enemies to take lightly; the risk for potentially having to battle an evolved Hell Hound made things significantly more problematic for everyone involved. Even for the likes of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect, only senior disciples with adequate night hunt experience were allowed to hunt them down; usually a coalition of Qing Jing, Bai Zhan, and Cang Cao with at least one mandatory senior disciple of Zhui Gan- who specialized in beasts specifically.

The Peak leaders of each peak would be sent if they were dealing with a pack.

There were several types of demons within the demonic realm’s hierarchy: Humanoid Demons- those from the fallen lineage, Bestial Demons- those evolved from demon beasts, and the Gremlins- those tracing their existence to the yin energy generated by the human realm: embodiments of evils. Hell Hounds lied in between Bestial and gremlin origins, hounds formed from beasts and evolved through yin energy- which could extend further to mimic the origins of the yin energy they were influenced by. Gremlins drew their existence from yin energy generated by sins- Hell Hounds evolved directly from the yin energy from one of the four evils.

In perspective- the yin energy drawn by the Hell Hounds usually were drawn from the four banes: Tāotiè, Hùndùn, Qiòngqì, and the Táowù.

But what made them a pain in the ass is that each evolution of Hell Hound was unique.

“You certainly did not have it easy,” Wei Ming muttered under his breath, observing the wound. The vision provided to him by the “System” indicated a sickly green that steadily creeped within the Cultivator’s spiritual veins- that narrowed it down to two of the four sub-categories of Hounds. “What is your name I wonder…?”

As if summoned at his call, an arm lashed out for his neck- grasping in a harsh grip and flipping to the floor- a low snarl rising from the previously fallen cultivator. It was a tribute to his vast experience that Wei Ming leashed a harsher grip on the man’s wrist to prevent true damage from occurring. His reaction immediate as the threat made itself known, mechanical movements born from repeated action taking over as his mind calmed and his options were assessed. The other’s eyes glazed slightly and drool dripping onto his robes.

Wei Ming’s lips curled at the mess but kept his focus remained chained to the present, the infection would reveal its origin if he gave it more time, but he needed to be weary.

The man pushed his weight further- Wei Ming’s arms groaning under the pressure- the glazed look in the man’s eyes seem to flare with a heat crawling from within. The particular heat spoke of a want to consume- in less than pleasant ways.

Fuck, A hound of Tāotiè-!” Wei Ming cursed- twisting in place and channeling an exact amount qi forward to launch the man slightly off of him. A hand shot out to grapple the man’s wrist and twist it backwards to the man’s back- knee pressed between the shoulder blades as the man’s body violently resisted.

Pain in my ass- stay still you damned man, if you’re still conscious then fight back,” Wei Ming gritted- other palm flattened against the man’s back with eyes wrenched shut. The man under him thrashed under his weight, jaw snapping loudly.

In the darkness under his eyelids, a singular thread of energy trickled forth from him. Thin but glowing with power as it slithered through one of the man’s points and slipped along what spiritual veins remained untouched. Within the Cultivator- in any Cultivator- there was a balance. Yin and Yang, the energies of the world in balance within the body- movement and stagnancy. Evolution and consistency. Heart and Mind.

Instinct and Intent. And right now- the instinct was being allowed to roam freely because of the Tāotiè Hound’s influence.

“No wonder Clan Leader He has opted to wait,” he muttered- brows pulled to the center as he nudged his energy towards the mass of foreign Yin energy.

Expel.

The glowing silver of his unique qi signature pulsed around his body in a quickly fading flare; a golden undertone beneath the moonlight color- a sign of a high level cultivator utilizing qi. The golden line of his qi within another’s spiritual veins chased the blackened veins- pushing and pushing.

Begone with thine influence. Expel forth and return to the beast of gluttony. Sweat slid down his face as he concentrated leashing the energy he was pouring into the Cultivator’s body. Begone.

Wei Ming quickly pulled back his energy as the body under his palm slumped, sliding to lean on his side as the Cultivator coughed. Blackened blood spilling onto the wooden floor before he slumped to the side- heavy breathes and wide eyes. Wei Ming eyed him wearily before turning inward.

A third of my power? Wei Ming noted as he evaluated his current state. How unexpected.

“Who the hell are you?” The Cultivator rasped- staring at him.

I need to keep a tighter eye on my Core, he thought before looking up instinctively and bowing his head. “Disciple of the Nie Sect. This Wei Ming greets Shixiong.”

The Cultivator’s eyes widened, a sweat drenched throat bobbing before he hesitantly nodded. “He Qīnggāo….Thank you…for saving me.”

Wei Ming restrained a snort from escaping him as he nodded in lieu of a response, “Begging pardon- this Wei Ming is going to lie on this nice floor some more.”

He slumped fully- his back hitting the floor with a solid and satisfying thud. An audible pop echoing in between their heavy breaths.

Fuck whoever decided The Hell Hounds of Sì Xiōng were a good creation, Wei Ming grumbled to himself- a headache forming. May their hips be sore for an eternity and a day. And fuck this blood and drool on my robes-!

Sometime in the distant past; Shang Qinghua had flinched as he sneezed- groaning as his hips spasmed and slumped further in the bed he shared with his husband. A soft groan filling the room as Mobei-jun mercilessly left him to rot with his soreness. Smugness emanating from every misty cold air.

-

“Wei Ming.”

“Yes Sect Leader.”

“Are you in pain?”

“Yes Sect Leader.”

Good-!”

Nie Zhonghui smoothly and swiftly snapped his elbow before drawing it back, moving forward and squatting as Wei Ming lifted a hand off his eyes to stare at the older cautiously.

“You okay Wei-shidi?”

Wei Ming moved to get up, wincing before lying back down, “In a few more moments Shixiong.”

Clan Leader He was staring at the two cultivators sprawled on the floor- her nephew- her wonderful idiot, battle-prone nephew staring at the youngest Nie disciple with eyes she hadn’t seen since her daughter left with the batch of Nie disciples to the Lan Sect.

Oh no, she idly thought as her nephew continued. He’s doing it again.

Amongst the crowd, a disciple of the He Clan glared at the subdued disciple of Qinghe Nie. Fist clenched together so tightly their knuckles whitened from the pressure.

Clan Leader He’s nephew cleared his throat slightly, “Master Wei if this one may be so bold-“

“He Qīnggāo do not dare say another word.”

He Qīnggāo’s mouth shut closed, “I’m sorry Auntie.”

“Say sorry when you genuinely feel what you did wrong,” She scolded. “Going to seek out the beast like that- did I raise you with no mental fortitude Qīnggāo hah?! You are lucky Master Wei managed to drive the Beast’s poison from you so quickly!”

“Yeah- how did you do that anyway?” Nie Zhonghui asked, looking back down from where he had been unashamedly listening into their conversation. “It would have taken weeks to chase off an infection like that.”

“There is a technique if you understand the cause,” Wei Ming’s words came muffled yet still understandable. “This Wei Ming agrees with Clan Leader He. What you did was stupid.”

He Qīnggāo’s expression briefly grew outraged before it was cut off by a cold tone that chilled the room.

“You had no knowledge of what you were dealing with, judging by Clan Leader He’s reaction- you also did not plan this assault upon the beast well. Wolves perhaps, you thought them to be, that does not excuse reckless action. Wolves are intelligent animals whom hunt in packs, say you chased them alone- what then? Did you expect to be able to defend yourself against an entire pack yourself where Hounds have failed? It was clear you were unprepared and even clearer that you did so from bravado; be grateful it occurred to you to stand under the weight of your actions alone rather than dragging your fellow Cultivators with you.” From his position on the floor, Wei Ming had yet to move since he lied back down- hand slapped over his eyes. “You never take on a Hell Hound of Sì Xiōng on your own. Never. Pick your battles better.”

Nie Mingjue’s neck snapped as he turned. The pain in his arm forgotten.

He Qīnggāo sputtered- opening and closing his mouth before shutting it with a snap and turning away- an embarrassed blush on his cheeks. Grumbling, “How the hell did you know it was a Hell Hound?”

Nie Mingjue did not respond to the sounds of inquiry as he trained his stare at Wei Ming, his blood beginning to boil with that familiar frustrated indignancy again.

This brat hypocrite-!

“Tāotiè Hounds have a distinct energy signature,” mercilessly, Wei Ming added. “And you tried to eat me.”

“I did no such thing-!”

“The drool on my Hànfú says otherwise,” Wei Ming’s teeth was gritted. “It is going to take forever and a day to get your filthy spit and your stagnant blood off.”

Ah, Nie Zhonghui and Mei Lin looked at each other. That’s why he’s upset.

It really hadn’t taken them long to figure out Wei Ming’s intense dislike of things staining his robes. He took care of his Sect robes like they were the only pair he had- and he often protected it violently. The one instance some of the younger disciples in their generation had messed with the Wei Clan laundry- there was screaming.

“So it’s a Tāotiè Hound,” Nie Mingjue spoke through gritted teeth- rubbing the arm where Nie Zhonghui’s elbow had hit far more firmly than he should have been in a conscious attempt to quell his annoyance. “Not the worst then.”

“Far from it indeed Sect Leader, and she bit venom. Most promising.”

Mei Lin looked frowned, “Sect Leader, what does that mean exactly?”

“The Hounds of Tāotiè are easier to bait- and if she bit venom she meant to bring forth another hound. Which means she’s alone.” Nie Mingjue huffed as he scowled. “However the venom they produce to do so requires the blood of a cultivator. The more cultivated or the most potential the better. She will be attracted to anyone giving off the aura of a higher powered cultivators far better than the livestock she’s been feeding on. Stronger blood means stronger pups.”

“Potential?”

“Cultivation can be semi-predicted based on character and ability,” Wei Ming mumbled. “The stronger the character, the stronger the emotions, the stronger the potential.”

“Cultivation is based on intent,” Nie Zhonghui summarized.

“And the stronger the emotion-“ Mei Lin realized-

“The stronger the potential for Yin energy backflow,” Wei Ming finished.

Save for one, all thoughts lead to the same conclusion. The one person known within their territory with the strongest plausible cultivation level. The one among them with the determination as characteristic of a Nie. So strongly that it had caused issues in cultivation for generations.

Sect Leader Nie Mingjue.

Chapter Text

10. [ Log: File:Save_14-166.2.1010.log ]


It was suffice to say that no one agreed with the plan to make Nie Mingjue into bait. Absolutely no one, not even those who couldn’t argue against the plan. Which made up the majority.

Wei Ming was not among them.

“Begging Sect Leader’s forgiveness,” Wei Ming gritted. “But this Wei Ming must insist that not only is the plan for Sect Leader to hunt the Tāotiè Hound alone enormously reckless- it is the highest form of stupidity.”

They were currently eating to store energy for the hunt later that night- with Nie Mingjue needing to leave earlier than the rest of them to draw out the creature.

“Well it isn’t your decision to make,” Nie Mingjue said coolly- idly feasting on some of the He Clan’s specialties. “Since you know so much, you know that we have to get rid of it quickly.”

“This Wei Ming must insist-“

“Are you questioning my authority?”

Wei Ming’s jaws closed with a snap.

Quieter than before, “This Wei Ming apologizes for his impudence. This disciple requests to leave to prepare for later.”

At Nie Mingjue’s nod, Wei Ming left swiftly.

Nie Zhonghui sighed, “Mingjue.”

“I know; damnit it, I know, but it’s the only way he’ll listen to me without argument right now. There’s nothing to be done about it,” Nie Mingjue drank- the atmosphere in the dining hall thick with tension. He felt slightly nauseated at how quickly Wei Ming had reacted to it.. “We can deal with the consequences later- but this comes first.”

“You realize if something goes wrong you’re only enforcing his ideas?” Zhonghui argued. “This is going to hurt us in the long run. This is gonna hurt Huaisang in the long run if we don’t nip this.”

“I do- but we have little choice in the matter,” Nie Mingjue growled. “You know as well as I do that a demonic hound is the worst possible thing this mission could have led to- it’s out of my hands. You saw how he dealt with He Qīnggāo- he didn’t even think to come to us- he acted first without even calling on us for aid.”

“He doesn’t trust us to help him.” Nie Mingjue concluded solemnly. “To him we’re nothing more than a bunch of Cultivators around the same bracket as that fucker Guangshan, that much is obvious now. For now- he thinks that he needs to do things on his own in order to prove himself. But we can’t do anything about it until after this threat is dealt with.”

“I hope you have a plan Mingjue.” Zhonghui said tiredly. “Wei Ying’s a good kid and Huaisang will never forgive you if you somehow can’t convince Wei Ming to stay- or make sure he knows we don’t look down on him for being a son of a servant or something stupid like that.”

“I know,” Mingjue muttered, rubbing a this eyes. “I don’t know if I could forgive myself for it either.”  

-[1900]-

“Sect Leader Nie, if this one may-“

“What Wei Ming?”

Wei Ming swallowed dryly, breathing deep before bowing his head. “This one must insist that-“

“You aren’t coming with me.”

Damn- Wei Ming hid a wince, “Then-“

“Neither are you to come within the vicinity of the creature when its most dangerous. You’re on standby only, those were my orders.”

“This one understands, however-“

“There isn’t a ‘however’, there’s no ‘but’ or ‘except’ or any other of those words,” Nie Mingjue breathed deep. “Or do you think I can’t handle this?”

Wei Ming blinked, “This one does not-“

“Wei Ming.”

“…Sect Leader.”

“…Do you…” Nie Mingjue breathed, fortifying himself. “Do you like it? At Qinghe Nie?”

“…Yes?” Nie Mingjue watched Wei Ming frown in confusion- at least what seemed to be confusion.

“No complaints? Nothing you wish was different?”

“,,,Not particularly?” Wei Ming’s perplexed expression grew more complex as Nie Mingjue’s expression remained unchanged. Stern- stony even, whether at something he did or something else wasn’t something he could determine.

“...Wei Ming,” Nie Mingjue sighed- deciding to switch tactics. Since he so happened to have the genius’ attention at the moment. “What is it you do in the library all day these days?”

“…Research Sect Leader.”

“Is it what you want to do, or what you do because you have no other choice?” Nie Mingjue watched as Wei Ming blinked. Not even bothering to try and answer the question. “Think about your answer. And after I kill this thing, tell me.”

“Yes Sect Leader.”

“…Wei Fan, look at me.”

Wei Ming looked up, expression blank as he watched tired eyes look at him. Which were several levels of frustrating considering he wasn’t even sure if this was because he hadn’t told him about his past, or because he stepped beyond his bounds, or because they weren’t friends.

It did hurt, he admired Nie Mingjue. He was the type of man Ming Fan would have gotten along with in his youth- perhaps even past it.

“You may not think us to be friends as we are,” Nie Mingjue said slowly- quietly. As if unwilling to spook him with some revelation-type news that would throw him off balance. “But we are to me, right now- right here you are my friend. And as your friend, I worry for you- because you never tell me you need help until it’s too late.”

Wei Ming froze.

“Your brother needs you Wei Ming,” He continued. “And as your friend, I would also like to have you around until we’re old cultivators complaining about the new generation and drinking to the end of our prime. But that isn’t going to happen if you don’t learn to trust in me. You’d just leave Wei Ying, Huaisang, and me missing your cranky ass when we look up to find you aren’t there anymore.”

But he wondered if anyone would miss him, would look up expecting to find him standing there where he wasn’t.

Nie Mingjue watched his blank expression, softly adding:

“Think about it.”

He left.

-[2300] -

When the moon rose high and the forest grew silent, Nie Mingjue stood alone in a clearing far into the forested territories of the He Clan.

Bàxià in hand, he folded his legs under himself, closed his eyes, and breathed.

In.

The rustle of leaves faded away.

Out.

Silence. Complete and total.

In.

Slowly- his qi began to expand beyond his core. Filling his limbs with warmth, spreading and stretching to the expanses of his body. His mind was focused, Bàxià rang for battle. The sword spirit welcomed him with excitement.  

At the edge of the clearing, a beast emerged. At the edge of the clearing, silent eyes, all waiting for beats to clash, watched in silence.

Taller than any canine beast that had walked the Earthly Realm, this snarling, drooling, hairless entity stood still at its place in the clearing. The air around it was rancid with the smell of rotting meat. Its aura was immensely packed with demonic energy, writhing and ravenous. This was the Hell Hound of Gluttony. This was the Tāotiè Hound.

Nie Mingjue’s eyes remained closed.

Horns akin to those of a ram curled forward in a gnarly fashion, sharp and deadly, stained in hues of disgusting brown and the dried blood of its previous victims. It’s fangs glistened.

Human, it snarled in a barking, mocking laughter. A twisted expression that made it’s leathery throat pulse with each shout. What fool. What meat. What power. Consume. Consume. ConSUME.

Nie Mingjue ignored it’s howls.

Blood. Bàxià glinted under the moonlight. Blood and battle.

Neither being moved.

And then they did.

Horns clashed with sword with a gritty shrill, Nie Mingjue combatted with the Tāotiè Hound’s force with force. Blow for blow. Sparks flew as Bàxià grinded against the ribbed horns, demon and Cultivator slamming into trees and creating depressions within the soil so deep they would place Nie Mingjue’s knees level with the ground.

On the outside of the clearing, eyes watched.

At the edge of the forest, students waited for their leader to return.

Nie Mingjue’s hips canted as he swung a heavy leg into the Hound’s side- sending it sprawling into a tree. His blood sang with the song of battle, his expression morphed from one of concentration into glee- his sabre agreeing whole heartedly in its bright shine. The song of pounding drums and the thrum of low notes rang only for ears tuned for listening- the shrill swells and whining strings of the Hound echoed and battled for dominance over the music of the night.

The Hound shook off its stagger and charged, head swinging wildly as it sprinted across the forest in an instant.

But the Nie’s piece pounded harder, thrummed louder, and squashed the shrill composition into submission as it willed a final squeal with the wet squelch of blade into flesh.

The Hound slumped to the ground, her broken body pounding into the earth with a decisive thump.

The Hound let out a shrill of maniac laughter.

Nie Mingjue raised Bàxià to claim his victory- only to gaze upon the jagged line across his left hand.

Caught on the Hound’s horns, the wound expanded in black veins across his spiritual channels- burning from the inside out as poisonous energy gleefully spread across the outstretched energy.

The battle song abruptly halted- panic beginning to overtake as Bàxià fell from his grip with a clanging cry. Nie Mingjue’s crippling to his knees as his core burned in deadly reaction to the invading energy, adrenaline and the high of battle turning against him as his veins were forced wider with the outpour of more energy than he should have been able to draw out. The now deadly excess spilling outside of his veins as the burning continued-

This was the price of Nie Sect Style Cultivation.

“Huaisang-“ Nie Mingjue attempted- drawing any and all known knowledge to calm the pour of energy. “Huaisang-!”

Da-ge! He heard through a fog. Then a new voice, not Huaisang’s- but someone else, cut through his quickly hazing mind sharper and faster than any sword.

Honestly.

“Honestly.”

Ming Fan kneeled and swiftly turned the more bulky form of Nie Mingjue to lie against the dirt ground, his thighs providing the only cushion between the ground and the heavy lug that made Nie Mingjue’s skull. Ideally he wouldn’t have to do this so early, ideally he would grow his comfortability with such techniques more before he even attempted this, but the one precious thing Ming Fan did not have was time.

Pressing two fingers against Nie Mingjue’s temple and another at one of Mingjue’s meridians, closest in his reach to his dāntián; Ming Fan closed his eyes and concentrated.

First he calmed the mind- a soothing, hair’s width string of calming energy through the temple. Enough to quiet the thunderous clangs.

Second, he raised that hand as soon as Mingjue halted his squirming. A ball of qi, forming in his hand, draining some of his power.

With caution and the experience of practice, he slowed his own dāntián, his heart beating a few pulses slower.

He sent a tendril of energy towards the wound- halting the poison in its tracks for a few precious moments.

With the hand pressed against the meridian- he drew out the excess energy- siphoning through his own body and into his hand in one careful draw. Adding to the ball of energy building above it. Glowing brighter with each draw, with Mingjue’s newly calmed mind slowly, naturally, returning his own golden core to its regular state.

He carefully maneuvered his energy, tightening the coil so it wouldn’t brush against the inflamed veins. Lifting the energy holding back the poison and swiftly piercing through. Cautiously, carefully, pushing until the wound and the surrounding skin began to bleed with black tendrils fuming a rancid smell.

He would have prostrated before Mu-shishu until his knees bled for a medicinal pill right about now- but he had to work with what he had.

Slowly- the trickle of toxic impurities halted. And he carefully, slowly, withdrew.

Sweat dripping down his face, his lungs burning, and chest beginning to throb- Ming Fan shot the ball of qi into the air- expanding into an avatar of a dragon and bellowing a victorious roar that echoed to the valleys far West.

Ming Fan panted as he released his control on his body, back curling forward as he gasped- sweat drenched hair sticking unpleasantly to his face.

“You…” Ming Fan swallowed back spit. “Are some decades too early to fight a Hell Hound on your own Nie Mingjue.”

The other could not hear him, slumbering peacefully in passed out bliss as Wei Ming had hoped.

“You’re lucky I had practice with Liu-shishu.” He murmured under his breath. “Really what a fool. I suppose the fact that each Hound is unique escaped you hm?”

“Ah well.” He said quietly, raising a hand to carefully maneuver stray strands of bangs from their owner’s face. “This senior will do as he must and praise you Nie Mingjue. Good job. The War God himself would be impressed.”

Nie Mingjue twitched at that.

“Of course that’s what you heard,” Wei Ming grumbled, looking forlornly at his ruined robes.

-

Nie Mingjue woke up to find himself sacked on someone’s shoulder- his legs dangling close to the ground, and a splattering of leaves on his face.

“Try not to move,” A voice said blandly, causing him to pause his squirming. “I’m not very strong you know.”

“Wei Ming?” Nie Mingjue blinked before his body throbbed. “Ow ow-

“Yes well I suppose that is what tends to happen when one qi deviates because of a poison secreted by a Hell Hound,” Wei Ming said with a sigh. “A moment- I’ll set you down to rest.”

Nie Mingjue waited until he was propped up against a tree, unabashedly staring as the other cultivator settled down with a slump. Hair was sticking to his disciple’s face, exhaustion written in every line and twitch the other leaned against a different tree. Breath deep and heavy as if he had just gone through some great trial.

With a scowl, Nie Mingjue started, “If you went after the Hound after I told you not to-“

“Contrary to what you may believe Sect Leader- I can follow orders,” Wei Ming grumbled at him. “This isn’t from the hound.”

“Then…” Nie Mingjue leaned back. “Why the hell do you look like you ran around Qinghe Nie three times?”

“You think you were easy to restrain while you were qi deviating? Wei Ming is grateful for such faith, but it is hardly founded on solid evidence.” Wei Ming sighed, “We should rest here. I’m sure Shixiong and Shijie will come soon enough. There was a rather big signal that went up while you were deviating.”

“About that- how exactly am I alive?” Nie Mingjue turned inwardly. Though his veins felt raw- he also felt, better. There was a pressure off his core that he hadn’t felt in years since he took up Sect Leadership and the stress began to pile up. It was a pleasant surprise- but it should have been impossible. “I was certain I was going to die.”

“An old cultivator came out to help.”

Nie Mingjue looked up, “Old cultivator?”

Waving a hand, Wei Ming continued, “He helped you with your qi deviation- then left. It would be rather rude to question someone like that.”

“…I suppose. Still. I would have liked to thank him.”

“He fixed you and left, just be thankful from afar if you have so many issues with it.”

“Why are you so prickly right now?”

“I am not being ‘prickly’.” Wei Ming scowled. “But first and foremost- before you cut me off I was going to say that I didn’t like your plan because you didn’t account for the Hound itself. Really, what sort of person forgets that Each of the Hounds are unique? How the hell would you have managed against the Tāotiè Hound without even basic preparations?”

“You…” Wei Ming trailed off, more out of frustration than anything else. “Are really reckless. I could have given you some of the talismans I made to help if you had let me.”

“Oh that’s rich coming from you, aren’t you the one who keeps throwing yourself head first into dangerous situations? I can’t rely on you either if you keep up with whatever you’ve been doing- I don’t know what you’re capable of. You’ve never told me what you’re capable of.” Nie Mingjue sighed. Swallowing past his tightening throat as he attempted to…slow down, attempt to sort his thoughts before he spoke this time. “Keep your secrets if you so wish, I’m sorry I tried to pressure you into telling me. I regret that and you have every reason to not tell me. But- honestly, honestly Old Man, there are people other than you who know what they’re doing. You could stand to share the glory sometimes, we won’t make fun of you for needing help or something stupid like that.”

Wei Ming snorted, then considered for a moment- breathing out in a sigh. “I suppose you’ve a point.”

“I do? I mean, I do. Glad you realized it,” Nie Mingjue winced as his body throbbed, cursing as he looked down. The deep forest green of his robes caked in a layer of mud at the hem. Black ooze and blood staining the rest of it in a darker color- the sudden humidity of the night making his inner robes stick. Then the words managed to make themselves understood in the midst of his distraction. “Wait- just when did you have this revelation?”

Wei Ming raised an eyebrow, canting his head to the side as he hummed, “When I watched Sect Leader idiotically going to fight the Hell Hound I suppose.”

“…You watched but…you didn’t…?”

Wei Ming shrugged, “Despite what you may think I view you and the others Sect Leader- I do trust you. That trust extends to the fact I know you understand your limits. I wouldn’t have stayed so long at the sidelines if you did not, much less follow your orders to allow you to deal the Hound yourself. While I wish you trusted me enough to listen to what I had to say- the fact you don’t is not a fault of yours, merely my lack of foresight in realizing how my actions may look to one who is not myself or Wei Ying.”

“I don’t follow.”

Leaning back on the tree truck, Wei Ming looked up to the sky overhead. Slightly obscured by the outstretched reach of the forest- blinks of stars twinkled in the heavens in an ancient call spanning throughout time and space. There was a bit of longing nostalgia in him at the sight, but Cang Qiong Mountain had a far superior view due to the occasional auras that would color the deep blue sky with hues of pinks and greens.

“I promised Wei Ying, long ago, that I wouldn’t leave him.” Wei Ming said after a moment. “I don’t intend to, for as long as he wants me around- and even if he doesn’t, I would simply linger in the background. That is what I have promised; to both him and our parents. It is not in my character to break oaths of that degree.”

“That is why-“ Wei Ming, lightly, through a leaf that cut through the air- charged lightly with qi enough that it smacked Nie Mingjue’s forehead. “Be less reckless in the future. I am not the only one among us two that has a brother to take care of. He still needs you. Wei Ying still needs you, and by proxy: so do I. You are the man who accepted us in your Sect- not anyone else but you. No matter how you look at it, I need you safe and healthy to continue the way we’ve been going. More so now that you are a man that  both Wei Ying and I admire. Which is why you can’t do things like this-” He motioned around him.  

“Hey-“

“I understand you have little trust because of my actions,” Wei Ming trailed off with a frown. “I do not blame you. No doubt that you believe me to be reckless when I’ve shown nothing but the fact- however…How to say this…the risks I take are calculated for the most probable success- believe it or not, my own survival is a large factor in whether I go through with the plan or not.”

“You can’t believe that I would follow that assumption just because you say so,” Nie Mingjue retaliated. “You might have started cultivating earlier than me, but you’re younger by seven years. Wei Fan, I’m not asking you for the world here- what I want is for you to ask me when you need help.”

Wei Ming offered his wrist.

“…What…is this…?”

“My dāntián. Check it.”

“But why-“

“Check.” Wei Ming breathed- “I said I would not tell you of my past. I never said I would never show you- my dāntián is a part of why I am reluctant. I offer it to you know as an explanation.”

“,,,Are you sure?” Nie Mingjue looked wearily at the callused skin, colored from years out in the world. “You didn’t even let Lan Xichen do this.” And that guy is probably kinder than the rest of the world twice over with how much shit he’s been through.

“I need you to trust me- if this is what it takes then I am willing to go through with it.” Wei Ming shrugged. “I’m under no illusion that it may or may not satisfy your curiosity, I am still unwilling to discuss the nature of my past prior to Wei Changze and Cangse Sanren, but while this is a secret while I was hoping to conceal- I am willing to part with it as a token of good will for the sake of this relationship. It is most certainly going to be annoying for me in the future to have revealed this- but...for you I am willing to undertake this hardship.”

Wei Ming ignored the strange stare of confusion from Nie Mingjue as he moved forward to wrap the other’s hand around his wrist. Two fingers enclosed on his pulse- a tendril, weaker than it should have been but no less suitable for the role it was going to play, warming up in his veins.

“Way to make it sound like I’m an upset wife,” Nie Mingjue grumbled.

“Way to ruin the moment,” He said dryly, raising an eyebrow in lieu of squirming against the inexperienced prodding, “I was speaking of our relationship on the basis of a Sect Leader and a disciple; with the hopes of cultivating a friendship that would last quite a long time. What was it you had in mind?”

“…We’re already friends old man.”

“Then as your friend,” Wei Ming smiled at him, small and private. A smile rarely given and rarely performed. “Get on with it already.”

Breathless and wide-eyed, Nie Mingjue thanked everything there was to thank that the night was dark enough to hide his flush of embarrassment, stuttering slightly as he spoke, “You don’t have to do this. I was wrong to use what I gave you as a leverage to get what I want. It wasn’t fair, and it was childish of me. Whether I’m the Sect Leader or not, I’m in no position to demand anything of you that you do not want to do, neither am I to expect you’ll just except me from this just because I gave you things- especially when you’ve already done more than enough for me. We may be Sect Leader and disciple, and others may see us as the Leader of Qinghe Nie and the son of a servant turned cultivator, but as a man- as a fellow human, you are my equal. You don’t owe me anything.”

Wei Ming snorted, shaking his head, “Nie Mingjue?”

“What?”

“As proud as I am that you’re open to discussing this with me,” Wei Ming gave him a look. “You aren’t quite blessed with the natural steadiness of your qi energy; your evaluation of my dāntián at its swiftest without sacrificing caution would be most appreciated.”

“Oh shut up, I’m doing my best here.”

They fell into silence as Nie Mingjue concentrated on maneuvering and Wei Ming placed his focus on keeping still. It was never quite comfortable being prodded by someone else’s energy while conscious, only the most skilled of healers could do it without feeling intrusive. Any cultivator with enough training could do the job, but the level of comfort for the one being prodded was debatable. The cultivators of Ming Fan’s generation especially so were sensitive to it, some demons were able to leech your qi if given the opportunity- which meant one had to maintain awareness to prevent being trapped. They themselves couldn’t quite use it; only leeching with the intent on rendering a Cultivator defenseless, but Luo Binghe had been having issues balancing his yin and yang energies within his body- thus: they had been actively hunting Cultivators. It was some strange coincidence that the human Sha Hualing had found most suitable had also been Shizun.

Wei Ming resisted the urge to flinch as Nie Mingjue’s prodding began to warm under his skin- an indicator that it was going a little too close to outside the spiritual veins. A mumbled apology from Nie Mingjue went unheard, the other having closed his eyes in order to better navigate through the sprawling passages that made up Wei Ming’s spiritual veins.

Nie Mingjue was…unnerved to say the least. While Cultivators have existed for a long time, the spiritual veins in his experience never quite matched up to what he was feeling. He wagered that Wei Ming most likely asked the healers to leave the knowledge of his extensive veins to themselves. Spiritual veins were strange business, the longer one cultivated the more extensive one’s spiritual veins could be if their cultivation called for it. No one really practiced such methods because it involved countless years of dangerous cultivation that was liable to strike them down. Reaching bottleneck was already a dangerous endeavor, practicing the same cultivation from a bygone era that no longer had written accounts magnified the danger by at least ten-fold.

The fact that Nie Mingjue couldn’t even find a comparison to how extensive Wei Ming’s spiritual veins were was a telling fact. That meant that Wei Ming was able to be stronger, faster, with a capacity to sense things beyond what the average cultivator could detect. He would have to ask Wei Ying to look into his spiritual veins more closely, the boy’s teachers had said the boy was gifted but if the younger was following even on the similar stepping stones as his brother, he would need to see for the sake of the boy’s safety. At worst he was copying his brother’s style of cultivation, at most it was some sort of family inheritance- perhaps a product of Cangse Sanren’s history with Baoshan Sanren?

Then he reached the core.

He jolted as he felt the extensive layers, the extensive levels. Oblivious to the shaky exhale of Wei Ming, who had resisted the urge to punch Nie Mingjue in the face out of a knee-jerk reaction to the other’s suddenly distracted, even sloppier prodding.

To Nie Mingjue’s shock, Wei Ming’s cultivation was ahead of his own by several years. Higher than the Nie elders, maybe a little behind from the Lan elders if the rumors of their cultivation were correct. Wen Ruohan’s was extensive though he didn’t know by how much, but Wei Ming most likely would dwarf him in a few years. If Wei Ming even lived for that long.

“You are an absolute fool,” Nie Mingjue cursed as he drew away. “You’re more prone to qi deviation than I am!”

“Ah, there it is,” Wei Ming mumbled, rubbing at the point Nie Mingjue had use to access his spiritual veins- if Nie Mingjue ever wished to cultivate his healing capabilities, he had much work ahead. Though he could understand the reaction, he was certainly not planning to tell the Sect Leader of his cultivation of a completely different style that Nie Mingjue had probably never heard of- he never expected to grow so much in so little time. He wasn’t exactly fighting hordes of demons every week so the fact that he was rising in levels of cultivation was more than a surprise.

Right, Wei Ming thought as he watched Nie Mingjue sputter in the attempt to gather his words together. There was also the fact that the boy was sixteen and not everyone was either an old man like him or a young child like Wei Ying.  

“What exactly have you two been through that you needed to use such a reckless method?” Nie Mingjue said incredulously.

The question brought to mind the stares he got the first few years he attempted to sell his wares- the jeers of other cultivators and the pitying looks sent his way. It had been a blow certainly, Ming Fan had been an established cultivator for almost a century. This sudden reset wasn’t exactly ideal but he didn’t have the luxury of time to lick his wounded pride. “Human doubt, if I were to attempt to give a definitive answer. It was much easier to make money when people stopped doubting my capabilities.”

Significantly easier, but of course being recognized so early on came with its own baggage that he was sure the other was aware of.

“…Yeah, it would be pretty hard to convince people a ten year old was able to make talismans.”

“I was eleven when people began letting me use them to trade,” Wei Ming recalled wistfully. “Camping is nice until you’ve the option to use a bed. Granted there were plenty of kind farmers who let us sleep in their barn houses for the night; they even shared their harvests with us occasionally.”

“…And Wei Ying?”

Nie Mingjue watched the boy laugh, if he could even call it that. It was a weak spittle of chuckling that didn’t even quite sound right- like he wasn’t quite used to expressing such a simple action. He had noticed it once before, but between the fact that he hadn’t cared enough as well as the sudden exposure to mostly only the younger brother, it was easier to notice how wrong it sounded. He supposed it was so strange because Wei Ying giggled, laughed, and cackled so animatedly that it was difficult not to think that Wei Ming was capable of the same.

“He was a pleasure to teach,” Wei Ming said fondly. “Still is- but admittedly he was less of a little shit.”

Nie Mingjue stared before he too started laughing, “So even the Great Fan-ge has those issues huh?”

“Don’t all of we all?” Wei Ming mused- leaning back on a tree, watching the other carefully. “You have another question I think- what is it?”

“…Jin Guangshan,” Nie Mingjue said quietly. “Huaisang told me there are marks. Can I ask why?”

“Ah yes- he whipped me during the time Wei Ying had a tussle with his nephew I believe,” Wei Ming shrugged. “Of course- that is not the reason he whipped me.”

“You were fucking ten that doesn’t give him the right-“

“Wouldn’t it be just fine if that were only the case? Certainly, perhaps such punishments were too severe, but who was anyone to question the will of Jin Guangshan- Sect Leader of the Jin Sect. Even Madam Jin couldn’t hold him back at the time.” Wei Ming chuckled under his breath, leaning on his shoulder in reminiscence. “I intentionally pissed him off after all.”

“…Wei Ying said you punched him,” Nie Mingjue said after a moment. “Why?”

“Because- I did not understand him.”

Nie Mingjue frowned, incredulous, “He’s Jin Guangshan. A lecherous, disloyal, rat of a man who happens to be Sect Leader- what is there to understand?”

“Perhaps you think so,” Wei Ming conceded. “And I understand why you do. However- I must also ask: do you know why he is the way he is?”

“…No.”

“Neither do I, I still do not. Which is why I must.”

“What’s the use of understanding a lowlife like him?”

“Because one cannot truly punish someone if they do not know why they must accept their punishment,” Wei Ming shrugged. “I asked him. I pressed him. Child perhaps I was, that does not mean I was above cruelty to get the answers I wanted. I still do not understand exactly why he is the way he is, which is all the more reason why I must.”

“Some people don’t need a reason, sometimes they’re just like that.”

“And that would be a valid answer,” He argued. “If that were the answer. I must know what it is in order to adequately make sure he can stop doing it. People are not born that way- it is the influence of those around them that eventually lead to a lifestyle of that measure- there is something there. Whether it be his will, or something in life that made him impose that will. But until I know, I cannot in, in good justice, punish.”

“Why?”

“…Luo Binghe.”

“What has that got to do with this?”

“The war happened because the palace master lusted for his own disciple. She fell for a Heavenly demon, they had a child- but she had to kill herself to save the child. Tianlang-jun; the heavenly demon- was imprisoned for so long set by a trap that manipulated honor and image of the woman he loved. Because of that- he started a war. He fought back, thousands of people died. Humans- cultivators- demons: they all died because of a rash punishment of Tianlang-jun. All because of one man, one selfish- disgusting embarrassment of a man.” Nie Mingjue watched Wei Ming’s expression, carefully blank. Yet thousands of miles away.

“You know- you’re pretty good for a human cultivator.”

“…”

“Aw- no welcome greeting? I took care of your Shizun you know.”

“…This one is grateful.” Ming Fan paused- bones weary before his exhaustion kicked in- landing on his knees with a thud as he was forced to use his sword to prop him up. “..This one- is also sorry.”

“Huh?”

“For the crimes we humans have done- against your family. This Ming Fan apologizes to Tianlang-jun.”

“…” Tianlang-jun threw his head back and laughed- it was a bit unhinged. Tired and maniac- all of a sudden Ming Fan found himself thrown on his back, black sharp nails prickling at his neck as the Heavenly Demon snarled over him. “Did you think that was enough? What are you willing to do little disciple, doing something as fucked up as telling me ‘sorry’? Do you think it would rid my hatred of your pitiful species?”

“Will I take you now? Will I take your life in recompence?” Tianlang-jun, wild-eyed and strangely resembling Luo Binghe when they all watched Shizun fall from that rooftop. “Will you give yourself to me?”

Ming Fan watched.

He watched and he made a decision, “If that is what Tianlang-jun wishes.”

Tianlang-jun’s face took on a look of confusion, “But this one does not believe he will take it.”

“…Well well- that’s some thick face you got there,” Tianlang-jun’s hands squeezed slightly tighter. “How long are you going to stick to it I wonder.”

“To cut the bullshit,” Ming Fan said dryly. “If you wanted me dead or to fuck me or whatever ridiculous shit you are spouting, you probably would’ve done it already.”

Silence- then: “BWHAAAHAHAHHAA. Shen Qingqiu really doesn’t mess around with his disciples does he?”

Tianlang-jun continued laughing as he bodily lifted Ming Fan off the ground- oddly gentle as he moved.

“Thank you for your words Ming Fan of Qing Jing Peak, but they are unnecessary.” Tianlang-jun- adjusted his grip slightly as he continued walking. Sensing the human settlement nearby the area. “Keep on entertaining me when you’re around, I’ll consider the debt paid.”

Ming Fan dealt with that senile bullshit Lord for the next few nightmarish years of his life. It was a damn good thing he was pretty otherwise Ming Fan would have skewered him.

Still. His was the Peak of Justice: and it his punishment under the hands of his predecessors were done poorly. This was the least he could do.

Before Ming Fan headed for the harbor town, he wondered if Tianlang-jun was still fond of that tea he ran out of. He needed to grab some before he finished his work otherwise the bastard would whine and cry all fucking day at him.

Of course- he never really got the chance.

“I asked him why his thinking was so backwards. I asked him why he believed the things he did,” Ming Fan had been particularly pissed off by that one. He just didn’t understand- and if he didn’t understand, he didn’t know how to act. “I even wondered if it was because his parents foisted their responsibilities on him, maybe he was never even supposed to gain Sect Leadership in the first place and that’s why he’s such a poor man. He whipped me for that I think.”

Nie Mingjue winced, “Still, he-“

“He was genuinely hurt by it,” Wei Ming continued quietly. “And still I do not know why. Until then, I do not know how to make it so his punishment well and truly does its job.”

“It’s a punishment, what else does it need to do other than to tell him what he did was wrong?”

Wei Ming snorted, “Of course not. A punishment is an act of learning first, it is design to enforce the idea that what you have done is wrong, but it’s just torture if the one undergoing punishment doesn’t even understand what it is they did wrong. How will Jin Guangshan be given the opportunity to learn his mistakes if he keeps thinking he’s well within his right to make those mistakes? What difference does it make in the end?”

“That’s why I punched him,” Wei Ming said after a moment. “Because I do not know how else to tell him that he is wrong.”

“…So you don’t hate Jin Guangshan?”

“He’s a bastard and an ass,” Ming Fan rolled his eyes. “Once upon a time- perhaps, if the world was different and Guangshan had no reason to be guilty. But I have no time to waste on useless platitudes. I hate him, that does not mean I do not want to help him. Besides- Madam Jin is my aunt, she deserves to divorce the bastard if she wants, and that can only happen if I punch some sense into that rat bastard with a too good looking face.”

Nie Mingjue snorted, shaking his head as he lied back. “For a young man- you think about a lot of weird things.”

“One has to keep himself on his toes with a little brother like Wei Ying.”

“I don’t envy you for it, it sounds like hell.”

Wei Ming rolled his eyes, “As much as I love him, he doesn’t exactly have the same awareness I wish he did. There are several robes I had to splice into packs because he ended up ruining them to severe disrepair. The fact that I managed to salvage them at all was a karma in my favor in itself.”

Nie Mingjue watched as a very severe grimace began to overtake the other’s face, “And he has a relationship with mud that I despise.”

“…mud? He’s a young boy, what the hell do you have against mud?!” Nie Mingjue thought back to his own childhood, back when Huaisang didn’t care as much about keeping clean. The two of them often enjoyed making their retainers wheeze to red as they played in the rain and made cakes of mud. Huaisang grew out of it soon after Nie Mingjue’s mother passed away but they were still fond memories. “I enjoyed it sometimes in my youth, it’s a natural thing.”

Wei Ming’s stare of incredulous disbelief was almost enough to drive him to snort, “It’s filthy. Anyone who enjoyed such a thing has something in them that no doubt convinces them of the uses of such ludicrous, obscene thing. Look at the state of my clothing! Blood, gunk, and mud. I’m going to have to burn this.”

“Way to make it sound like I have parasites.” Nie Mingjue grumbled. “It isn’t that big of a deal.”

Not that big of a deal?!” the other hissed. “I’d like to see you attempt to survive a full hour wearing this disgusting thing with a ludicrously heavy Sect Leader passed out on your shoulder dripping blood and impurities. I can feel that shit on my skin.

Nie Mingjue stared, mouth agape as he found himself at a loss for words. Realizing for the first time, in the darkness of the night only lit by the moon’s light that Wei Ming’s entirely left side had been spotted with mud, blood, and ooze. Strands of hair sticking up at the side from where sweat had stuck to the hair and dried overtime.

It looked ridiculous.

And he promptly started cackling.

“You have no idea how hard it is to wash mud off of silk,” Wei Ming hissed. “It’s filthy brown, it gets everywhere, and it is filled with worms and insects eggs. You have no face to laugh at me so boisterously Sect Leader Nie-!”

Nie Mingjue laughed harder.

“You-!”  

Nie Mingjue fell on his side to avoid the clump of mud that had been flung his way with deadly accuracy. Cackling gleefully even over the painful soreness that clutched at his stomach from all the work it was putting in. Wei Ming on the other hand, growing steadily red with rage.

When Nie Zhonghui and Mei Lin came to find them, it was to the sight of Wei Ming screeching about Nie Mingjue’s disgusting habits while the other cackled and looked pleased with himself.

It took them a moment to realize in the darkness that Wei Ming’s face had been caked with mud.

-

Returning to the He Clan Family House was an endeavor in itself with Wei Ming actively trying to beat his Sect Leader every opportunity he had. Responsibility of the angry teen fell to Mei Lin erstwhile the wrangling of their illustrious Sect Leader fell to Nie Zhonghui- who slapped him up the head every time Nie Mingjue made a goading comment about the smell attached to Wei Ming.

Nie Zhonghui had never seen Mingjue act so childish in such a long time that it almost caused a whiplash, but none the less he did obligingly punch the other man with a snide comment about the Sect Leader’s own scent- which appealed to the offended party.

Neither Mei Lin nor Nie Zhonghui predicted He Qīnggāo to take a boulder to the tentative peace.

“You smell like a rotted corpse,” the young master of the He said- nose scrunching in apparent offense to the scent. Considering it would be a political incident if he was referring to Nie Mingjue- it was rather obvious who he was talking to.

“Yes- you would smell like a field of roses and sandalwood if you too were to trudge through blood, gore, and impurities in this humid air and additionally getting mud rubbed all over your face,” Wei Ming said testily. “Go find a wood plank and shove it.”

Mei Lin raised her hands in preparation to catch the younger before someone got punched, “Ah- Wei Ming that’s sort of…”

“If you did a better job at listening to your Sect Leader I doubt you would have had to deal with this mess,” He Qīnggāo replied scathingly.

“Considering he just managed to stalk the Tāotiè Hound by himself without receiving injuries I suggest you reevaluate your definition of a better job instead of grating one of mine over it,” Nie Mingjue replied dryly in surprising defense. “Call your Clan Leader Young Master He, we have business to discuss now that the threat has passed.”

“The fuck’s your damage?” Wei Ming muttered under his breath in an unfamiliar language- a comment that would have had quite the reaction if the relevant parties were present.

Mei Lin observed the young master take on a peach coloring before bowing in stiff acknowledgement. Staring at him with new curiosity.

“What is it Mei Lin?”

She shook her head, turning to hide a small smile, “Nothing Sect Leader. Nice to see you caring about us disciples.”

Nie Mingjue snorted before raising an eyebrow, “’Go find a wood plank and shove it’? That is the weakest retaliation I’ve ever heard, couldn’t you have thrown in a curse or something? You’re being embarrassing.”

“If I were to genuinely insult him,” the deliberate, slow intonation of his voice gave everyone pause as he raised his chin and looked down on them. Never mind that he was the shortest of all of them and clacked with in rather filthy clothes, “you would know of it.”

They stood straighter without knowledge of why.

Left outside the legends of the Xiu Ya sword was that Ming Fan had carried over one of the few silent teachings he received from Peak Master Shen prior to Luo Binghe’s arrival. One he had carried and cultivated as his tenure as Head Disciple continued, only now more quietly in the moments when Luo Binghe was away and threats to the Peak and the Demon Emperor himself began to frequent. One may note that Shen Qingqiu had grown softer with marriage, it was information privy to only Cang Qiong Mountain that knew the Master had simply grown more selective and intense with his retaliations in light of his new status and outlook on life.

The several bodies that they casted out during the occasional demon raid or attempted murders were testament to that fact. But these were not the prim and proper tales of a heroic Peak Master; thus- they were kept exclusive. Shang Qinghua, most notably, was the one who supported in silence and could be just as deadly with his endeavors should he join the Lord he had mange to form a close bond over the course of the past few years.

One did not pick a fight with heavenly demons with a weak spine.

Wei Ming had smiled amiably as the disciple returned with his aunt, bowing in respect before leaving to the bathes the Clan Leader offered in thanks with an established time to reconvene on the morrow.

-

Mei Lin starred as Wei Ming ate his dinner, prim and proper with a straight back. The image of proper etiquette- if it not were the suspiciously bright peach tinged skin from where Wei Ming had vigorously scrubbed at his face.

“Did you peel off your face?” Mei Lin squinted. “That cannot be healthy.”

“My skin is clear. My nails are shorn. It matters little,” Wei Ming said smoothly- before promptly demolishing the rest of his meal. “I am clean.”

Mei Lin squinted, “You’re colored like a peach.

“Perhaps. Or perhaps I am merely freshened.”

Nie Zhonghui went red as he was trying to desperately not choke on his dinner, especially difficult with the humanized shrimp playing as a human right next to him. The Sect Leader on other end of the table, ate and forewent bothering to hide his snorts due to the present company.

Without so much as a blink, Wei Ming pushed a bowl of vegetables in the Sect Leader’s direction. Along with a side of meat, carefully and delicately placed just to the side for enticement.

“I would prefer a space where my laundry is not affected by the training field,” Wei Ming drawled as he carefully and precisely re-plated the meal. “I am open to aiding younger disciples in their sword forms during alternating days, and my understanding of theory as well as practical experience in night hunts make me quite viable as a teacher or tutor to disciples who require it of me. To my knowledge, my understanding is somewhat around the same level as that of a senior disciple.”

Wei Ming shut his mouth with a subtle clack, proceeding to eat with a pointed silence. So long as he maintained poise, there would be nothing to discuss.

Nie Mingjue took a few moments to understand what was just said before breaking away from the trio of matching confusion that had formally made up of himself, Mei Lin, and Nie Zhonghui. He nodded once with a brief smirk.

“Understood.”

Before continuing to tuck into his dinner.

-[0200] -

“Master Wei.”

Wei Ming startled from his seat before rising to meet the voice on the other side, the doorway parting to reveal Clan Leader He standing before him with an amused expression on her features. The slight crowfeet around her eyes crinkling as he bowed his head slightly in greeting before washing away as soon as their eyes met.

“Clan Leader He, to what do I owe this pleasure?” He glanced at the side of his eye. Noting the darkness. “Especially so late at night.”

“I wanted to take the chance to express my thanks in saving my nephew, as well as my apologies,” She said, bowing slightly. “Perhaps this matters little to you Master Wei, but you have done me a great service in saving him. His father, my brother, was dear to me- but now he is what remains of him. And I indeed heard the awful greeting he offered to you.”

“You have my sympathies,” his voice seemed to wash over the relative absence within the hall behind her- sincere and soft. “But my part in saving him needs no thanks, to know that Lady He appreciates his living is enough. As for his greetings…they leave much to be desired indeed. This Wei Ming is confident Lady He will administer swirft and fair judgement.”

“That is also why I would like to impart an exchange to you, if you would accept.” She smiled lightly. “There is news stirring between the leaders, information I believe, would most interest you. Considering your skill and prowess, and wish to look after Honorable Sect Leader Nie.”

Wei Ming tilted his head.

“There are few disciples who would side-step an order so direct as one given to you,” He Yùnzhì smiled with amusement. “To so blatantly risk danger to make sure your Sect Leader remains safe without directly going against him takes cunning- and while he is young, you and I share respect for him. He has grown much ever since he took over for his father.”

With a bowed head and a quiet affirmation, Wei Ming stepped aside to allow the Clan Leader in.

“I will make this brief for our sleep Master Wei.” Her voice was a mere whisper in deafening silence of the night. “What knowledge do you have of the Emperor?”

-[0700]-

Nie Mingjue looked with approval as everyone prepared to leave with the necessary matters taken care of- including a sizeable agreement that would smooth over the He Clan’s relationship with the Nie Sect in establishing a formal branch for the Nie Sect disciples to settle in after reaching the end of their tenure in the Unclean Realm. It was something that his father was going to take care of- however because of obvious circumstances it had been postponed until recently.

“You!”

Wei Ming twitched minutely for a moment before his shoulders slumped and turned to the approaching young master of the He Clan.

Nie Mingjue watched carefully as the other approached- then boldly pointed at the youngest of the group.

“I’m repaying my debt to you one day! So don’t forget me!”

The expression on the surly disciple shifted to one of so much absolute confusion that all three of his seniors shifted off to the side to hide a snort.

“This…Wei Ming acknowledges…?”

Coloring, whatever words He Qīnggāo were about to say was promptly ended when Clan Leader He came from the entrance of the grounds. Walking swiftly and ending his speech as she passed, smoothly coming to a bow. “This Clan Leader hopes that Sect Leader Nie and his disciples have a good journey home.”

“Much appreciated,” Nie Mingjue nodded, turning forward once more.

A fair distance off of the He Clan’s land, Nie Zhonghui ducked slightly to whisper to Mei Lin with a hand covering his mouth.

“What did you think he was going to say?”

“Dunno,” Mei Lin watched as their youngest disciple, who had gone foreword a little ahead, grasped at a section of a bush and pulled. Prompting a snap of a branch and a quirk of a lip as Wei Ming smirked in victory against the oh so vicious enemy- the bush. “You think they talked…?”

Nie Zhonghui glanced as Nie Mingjue yelled something to Wei Ming, the other rolling his eyes and shaking the branches in his hands at their Sect Leader before pulling out a woven sack that neither of them had ever seen before- promptly stuffing the branch inside. “Looks like it. Mingjue has never been the type to leave things unsolved for too long, not unless he thinks he’s in the right of things.”

“Huh.” Mei Lin glanced at her senior. “You think we’re ever going to run into the Cultivator who saved Sect Leader Nie?”

Zhonghui hummed, shrugging after a moment, “If Wei Ming says we’ll probably not find him, then I’m pretty sure we’re not. He did save Sect Leader Nie from his qi deviation no? A cultivator that powerful? We’re not gonna find him unless he wants to be found.”

“I guess you’re right,” Mei Lin said quietly. “Still. Would have wanted to know what his name is, a person like that would probably be on the same level of Baoshan Sanren. Maybe even higher.”

Wei Ming paused mid-step before sneezing.

-

The town proceeding the He Clan grounds was a small yet rather lively community, so when the new faces of their illustrious Sect Leader and accompanying Sect disciples resurfaced- the stalls and shops were a buzz with activity. Mei Lin and Nie Zhonghui were contemplating the food and fan stalls respectively.

Nie Mingjue sighed, “Go on. We’ll meet at the entrance of the town in the evening.”

Both disciples nodded before swiftly making their grand escape into the shops.

Nie Mingjue glanced to his side, expecting an empty space that was in fact, occupied by one Wei Ming has he casually observed the town shops without expression nor any real desire to seek something in particular.

“Wei Wuxian,” Nie Mingjue said after a moment, catching the other’s attention. “Is he still interested in toys?”

Wei Ming only hummed, “Not particularly lately, though he is rather fond of kites and rattle drums.”

“…rattle drum? I was under the impression his preferred instrument was the dizi.”

“Young Master Lan had brought him one the last time he and Master Lan had visited,” Wei Ming hummed to himself. “Though…I do seem to recall another instance with a rattle drum- I’m afraid my memory fails me.”

“And you? What will you be doing this fair break of ours,” Nie Mingjue eyed the other. “If you’re going to attempt to act like one of our generation for once.”

“Ah- well, I’ve heard from Lady He that their local apothecary is quite plentiful. I was planning to return for it but now that it seems we have some time of grace…”

Nie Mingjue sighed.

“Is there an issue?”

“No- I was betting you were going to check some fans, but it seems I was wrong,” he then muttered to himself. “Damn- now I owe Zhonghui some nights off.”

“Apologies for having a wide array of interests,” Wei Ming deadpanned before continuing to walk. “Well- if Sect Leader insists- I will also stop by the fans.”

“I’ll take it.”

-

“While I’m sure Sect Leader Nie has much reason to be here,” Wei Ming delicately took a whiff of some dried roses, a hand waving between himself and the dried flowers before his expression shifted to one of contemplation. “Is there a particular reason you are following me?

“Just curious what someone like you would do in a place like this,” Nie Mingjue shrugged. “and this town has little interests for someone like me.”

“On the contrary, to my understanding there’s a seller of rare tales in a secluded area. Normally exclusive to locals however they do welcome the occasional visitor.” Wei Ming glanced up at Nie Mingjue’s inhale with a smirk. “Rest assured, I will show Sect Leader the way once I’ve gathered the adequate supplies.”

“Supplies?”

Wei Ming nodded, “This place is further North than the Unclean Realm and with adequate forests necessary for the growth of Gaultheria plants. To my understanding- it was brought in by foreign traders who had gotten lost on their way further East. The only other way to get them is to travel to Meishan- their country has far more access to the herbs grown West. However, given the location- this place is far easier to purchase the leaves of the Gaultheria.”

Wei Ming nodded to the Apothecarian, “I’ve already purchased and listed what I need from here. Although I do find great fortune, this apothecary sells Lavender plants.”

Wei Ming continued after a beat of silence, “They’re rather good smelling and an excellent insect repellent.”

“Ah.”

“Customer,” The apothecarian called out. “Your purchase.”

“My thanks,” Wei Ming bowed his head deeply as he accepted the bundle of glass vials, tucking it into his Qiánkūn bag before resetting the tie. Turning to face the waiting Sect Leader. “Shall we?”

“You know much,” Nie Mingjue commented as they rounded the town- going further into narrower streets. “From your past?”

“Father actually, Wei Changze was rather knowledgeable in medicine. With mother’s company, mayhaps it was necessary. He read much and often spoke long with village apothecaries and doctors if we were able to stay for longer periods of time,” Wei Ming stepped to the side to make room for a young child running by. “We shared a common fascination with the practice.”

“Huh.” Nie Mingjue stopped as soon as Wei Ming did, the other pointing ahead. “There. Enjoy.”

“I will be at the stall over there,” Wei Ming nodded to the food stalls congregated in what looked like a town center- the shape of the area circular.

“Do you…” Nie Mingjue trailed off looking off behind them before frowning and shaking his head. “Never mind. Stay with the food venders, I’ll just meet you there.”

With an exchanged nod of agreement, Nie Mingjue ventured into the bookstore while Wei Ming walked ahead towards the vendors. While not overtly genial, his intent remained the same as he lifted his fingers to request two tanghulu, exchanging the money with the food before idly shifting his head to turn over his shoulder. “If you are quite finished, perhaps you would take this in place of rounding the corners behind myself and Sect Leader Nie?”

Within his line of site, a person with common garbs stepped out with no little amount of hesitation. Visibly swallowing before walking over to where Wei Ming was with a simple tilt of the latter’s brow. The stick of tanghulu extended before him in an expression of peace while the other was lifted to his mouth for consumption, a good chunk of the sweet already feasted upon.

“Is there any particular reason you’ve followed me from the He Clan household?” Wei Ming drawled, walking towards more secluded, shaded areas of the square. The other scampering behind him. “Or are you perhaps on a plan to spend a night in the town not particularly known to others.”

The person stalled before scowling, “I don’t like you.”

Well then, Wei Ming rose an eyebrow, “And that is relevant to me because…?”

“You- you’re no better than me,” they argued, “you’re just some hotshot jerk who’s too arrogant for his own good. You’ve got nothing on young master He.”

Wei Ming blinked before narrowing his eyes, “Young Master He is an idiot.”

“You-“

“But-“ He continued, pointing his tanghulu stick forward to accentuate his point. “He is young, idiocy comes with the territory for these things. As it applies to yourself in addition. You came to me, trailing behind not only a disciple but his Sect Leader with him. Then you proceed to tell me off for rather childish reasons of which you’ve yet to actually explain in details that make any modicum of sense- and you’ve yet to actually introduce yourself. Do you expect me to remember you simply because you’ve expressed your dislike of me? Trust- there are for more permanent and painful ways to better brand your dislike of me to the point where I will not forget.”

Wei Ming bit off the last of the strawberry at the end to extend his pause before swallowing, “I did not say those things to Young Master He because I believe myself better than him. It would be idiotic to maintain such dangerous images of oneself. Not only is it narcissistic, it is dangerous for people like us. People who must evolve with every creature, ghost, being, or even gods that we must face for the sake of the common people. Cultivating for glory, fame, and fortune mean nothing if one is dead. It goes beyond idiocy, it’s stupidity. In our line of profession, maintaining humility is a survival tactic.

“So do tell,” Wei Ming drawled sharply, narrowing his eyes and looking down at the servant of the He household who had been staring at him with looks of resentment and contempt. “What exactly was wrong with reminding Young Master He that the next time he has such ideas in his head when he goes hunting- it can and will kill him.”

“You- You-!”

“I have been living this life for a long four years without the aid of Sects and Family Clans,” Ming Fan sneered. “The sheer amount of people I’ve helped due to the unavailability of nearby qualified cultivators is pathetic. The things they were willing to offer me for something as simple as a warding talisman were beyond my imagination. What righteous Cultivator expects more money out of a simple people who make only enough to live? I have helped only a fraction of the people in this world that needed my aid, what of the people I could not reach?”

“I critiqued his attitude because I need him to get over himself,” Ming Fan broke the finished tanghulu with a simple twist of his fingers. “In order to help everyone I need people to help me. Do you think yourself a fan of Cang Qiong Sect? Then know that they would never allow such a thing to happen. Peak Lord Shang would rather keel over than allow such an error in what is basic logistical managing. Peak Lord Liu would take it upon himself to slaughter every beast in his way. Sect Leader Yue would have fielded these requests with due haste because that is his job. Peak Lord Shen would not only have his disciples be sent out to the people in a crisis- he’d convince everyone within his reach to do the same damn thing while the rest of the Peak Lords act because that is the duty they are responsible for.”

“How would you know such a thing?” The servant heatedly responded. “They’re just fairy tales.

“They are stories common sense and moral conduct,” Ming Fan smirked, hiding a throb of pain in his chest as easy as it was to tuck it under a bandage. “They don’t need to be real.”

“A-Jiu.”

The servant turned around, wide eyed as he gazed upon the visage of He Qīnggāo standing before him. Lips downturned and looking far better than he was just a day or so ago when he had been deep in the throes of the Hound’s poison.

“That’s enough, go back.”

“But he-!”

“A-Jiu,” He Qīnggāo smiled softly. “It’s alright. Thank you for defending my honor, but it is unnecessary.”

“….” Wei Ming watched the boy shoot him a dirty look before making his way off.

“I’m sorry for any insult he has offered to you Master Wei,” the taller cultivator said quietly- his knees bending to prostrate before him. “This Qīnggāo will-“

“No need for that,” Ming Fan sighed, reaching out and tugging him up from his near kneeling position. “He had words for me- it was mine to answer.”

“…You are a good man Master Wei. One wonders why one such as yourself remains subservient, even for as decent of a man as Nie Mingjue,” He Qīnggāo’s expression was…odd, soft somehow. Like looking upon something he couldn’t help but care for, Wei Ming had no clue under the sun for why.

“There’s a difference between subservience and respect. Although we are of different standings- that does not change my respect for him, born from what he’s done. Not what he is.” He smirked, shaking his head with a huff of amusement. “A person can live a lifetime of wickedness that cannot be expunged by one good deed. It takes a stronger person to resist such a call, but that is a strength we humans are not always capable of. It is those of us who are incapable of such things that must strive for the goal to act good, not just simply be good.”

He sighed, shoulders slumping before raising an eyebrow in what sort of looked like a skeptical expression, “Admittedly I did not expect to see you again Young Master He.”

The other boy shrugged his shoulders, “I saw A-Jiu following you guys out so I came to see what trouble he’s getting into. Good kid, but he’s kinda…”

“Anger prone?”

“Fair assessment,” He Qīnggāo crossed his arms. “He’s sort of attached to me that’s all, I was the one who got him away from his mother’s family they weren’t exactly what you would call nice people to say the least.”

“He’s a rather bright young man, being able to stay out of Sect Leader Nie’s attention takes no small amount of discipline.” Wei Ming raised his head to look up, “Although I won’t take back my critique of your decisions.”

“Na- I get it, at first I had you figured for this sort of- I dunno. Shoot from the hip prideful guy? Even I’ve heard of the Wei Brothers from Yiling, I just didn’t expect you to be so…” He Qīnggāo waved his hands. “Mature? You kinda remind me of Auntie that’s all.”

“And now?”

“You’re kinda…way older than I expected you to be?” He shrugged, “I also didn’t expect you to be so damn cute so there’s that.”

“…I…begging your pardon?”

“Seriously?” He Qīnggāo tilted his head. “I mean- I know I’m not like everybody else but you’re verbal smack down a few minutes ago was just- woah. You’re not bad on the eyes either, and it’s pretty obvious to everyone that you bite as good as you bark.”

“Really,” Wei Ming deadpanned. “I don’t suppose baby fat has gotten attractive when I wasn’t looking?”

“Oh don’t pretend,” He laughed a little. “Here I thought you were rebuffing me- I get it, you just didn’t know.”

“…I’m almost hesitant to ask but didn’t know what?

“Wei Ming of Qinghe Nie- you saved my life,” He Qīnggāo said meaningfully. “Not only that- but you had the gall to remind me and pull my head out of my ass. I- Auntie’s daughter, my cousin, was kind of like my best friend- I thought we’d stay that way but ever since she’s gone to the Cloud Recesses it’s like we weren’t really…anything. I was mad, then you come in like a hero in green- save my life and kick some sense back into me. It’s kind of hard not to have a crush on you a little?”

Wei Ming blinked incredulously, “There are far handsomer people than me- am I not younger than you by two years?”

“How did you guess that I was sixteen? Wait- never mind, well. You don’t have to start anything with me? It’s a crush not a proposal,” He Qīnggāo laughed a little. “Like you said. I’m an idiot, not stupid. There’s a difference.”

I’m older than you by at least forty years then- Ming Fan thought to himself with increasing distress. How old am I now- fifty? Fifty-one? “That’s…flattering? I suppose?”

“You suppose,” He Qīnggāo laughed, turning his head to smile and wave at a passing girl- who promptly blushed and waved back. “That answer you?”

“How rude, right in front of my tanghulu?” He looked at his hand at the empty stick.

“I’m sorry- am I knocking at a wall here?” He Qīnggāo looked concerned, “You don’t have to humor me if you aren’t into men, I understand.”

“I am not entirely opposed, can anyone truly say they are not partial to man when they’ve seen Lan Xichen in the flesh? Or Nie Mingjue at the peak of training hour?” Wei Ming leveled a look at the other, though his eyes held a spark of humor in them. “You’ve been beaten by gentlemen higher on the list of most handsome Young Masters I’m afraid.”

The other’s amusement returned, “Darn. Though can’t say I disagree. Lan Xichen? Nie Mingjue? What good does this disciple have against those young masters. Although- if you keep going, you might end up on the list yourself.”

Wei Ming thought about Wei Changze and his issues and promptly added to list of worries- Wei Ying has been picking up the six arts at a rather fast pace, and if he took after Father the ranking was the least of his future worries. “I’d rather not. If this is the list for the new generation- I rather not bother comparing.” He was also too old for those things- perhaps he should deliberately botch something.

A Disciple of Qing Jing peak must excel in all the arts, we will not be compared to the likes of Bai Zhan Peak.

Wei Ming sighed internally with no small irritation at the voice sounding very much like Shen Qingqiu before his sudden deviation. His Shizun would haunt his third life if he ever allowed himself to fall to such straights. “Should you not be resting? Hardy you may be- the poison from a Hell Hound is no small injury.”

“Concerned?” He Qīnggāo’s smile was wide and flirtatious- now that Wei Ming knew it was intentional.

“I can be concerned with an acquaintance can’t I?” He disdainfully looked to his bandages. “And I am not risking another of my perfectly clean robes I’m sorry to say. Become a Sect Leader or my younger brother- I’ll consider it.”

“Oh-? This mean I have a chance?”

Wei Ming tilted his head, raising an eyebrow, “I wouldn’t count on it.”

“Not a ‘no’ though,” The other smiled. “Who knows, maybe I’ll become a guest disciple of Qinghe Nie.”

“If you do, I would most likely have become Head Disciple by then,” Wei Ming returned the smile viciously, more akin to a serpent’s conniving grin right before it decides that you were worth wasting precious venom. “And I will run you to the ground.”

“…If you wanted to stay off the list- probably shouldn’t do that.” He Qīnggāo left swiftly after that. Leaving Wei Ming in a shocked stupor.

I threatened you, he thought after the young man with an incredulous frown. What happened to this generation?

“…You didn’t get me one?”

“I assumed you had a different taste from tanghulu,” he answered absentmindedly before turning and eyeing Nie Mingjue’s new package with interest. “I’m glad to see Sect Leader’s quest come to fruition.”

Nie Mingjue certainly looked happy, even if the expression was rather odd to look at. “I want to grab some dumplings before we head out to the evening, the owner told me there was a good restaurant around here. We’ll get some for Mei Lin and Zhonghui later.”

Wei Ming nodded and followed the Sect Leader’s lead, pushing the strange afternoon to the back of his mind.

-

“M-Mei Lin- did you just-?”

“Shhh,” Mei Lin pulled Nie Zhonghui behind the cart as He Qīnggāo walked by with a flushed expression. “Huh- so I was right.”

Huh?”

“He looked at Wei Ming weirdly- I thought it was jealousy or frustration, turns out it was just a crush,” Mei Lin eyed the young master leaving- the little Jiu following next to him as they made their way out through the other side of town leading to the He Clan Household. “Big brother Wei rebuffed him, but I’ll remember his face just in case.”

Zhonghui pulled his gifts for Huaisang and Wei Ying closer to his chest, “The hell is going on?”

“What happened is that Big Brother Wei just got himself a fanboy,” Mei Lin tsked. “Damn hope it’s not gonna get obvious, but after that speech it might be too late.”

“Huh?”

Mei Lin nodded forward, drawing Nie Zhonghui’s eyes to the other townspeople giggling and looking at the perplexed disciple in open-awe. Some of the younger maidens flushing slightly before looking away and walking faster to their destination.

“Things like this’ got legs,” Mei Lin muttered. “And it’s rearing to sprint.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Chapter Text

11. [ Log: File:Save_15-217.2.1043.log ]


“Bring your foot more forward.”

Clang.

“Good, tighten your form.  Focus your strength, allow it to become an unstoppable energy transferred and transformed from your body to your blade. It is no longer a mere weapon at this point, it is an extension of you.” Wei Ming watched with narrowed eyes as Wei Ying raised the training sword aloft. A thick, dull iron blade, but it made an excellent substitute for a ten-year-old. “Now, let’s test your knowledge. What is the difference between the Dao and the Jian?”

“The Dao is a single-bladed weapon while the Jian is double-edged.”

“Which type of Dao is most used in the Nie Sect?”

Dadao, we practice twelve sword forms.”

Wei Ming nodded, watching as Wei Ying cycled through the motion, silver eyes narrowed in concentration, careful as he rotated each form. It wasn’t any good if he were to analyze it from an experienced eye, it was slow and a little less than graceful than what would have been demanded at Qing Jing Peak despite the fact that the swords used in Cang Cao Sect were much lighter and thinner unless one deigned to use their secondary weapon. However, what was lacking in experience was made up for in perfection. Each movement was measured carefully and each step taken was as demanded, Wei Ming was happy to note that Sect Leader’s go-to distraction for Wei Ying was turning out nicely. His grace needed work for certain, it was the basis of his execution; however the parts of the whole were already in place.

Wei Ying just needed to fit it all together himself.

“Gēge?”

“Mhm?”

“Look,” Wei Ying breathed for a moment; the air stilling as if in observation of his necessity for seriousness. The world itself seemed to hold its breath as Wei Ying stilled in first form- his shoulders square, his robes hiding the live circuit that flowed in each and every muscle. Coiling all in wait for the moment to strike.

Were Wei Ying not made of sunshine and smiles, one would easily mistake the boy for a more hardened version of himself.

Wei Ming felt his lip quirk before he stepped back- his arm raised to parry Wei Ying’s strike. Hard and heavy, before the boy drew back.

He twisted the sabre in his grip, meeting Wei Ying’s arc and maneuvering the momentum away- twisting in the opposite direction.

Their swords let off a shrill as metal grinded against metal- though Wei Ying’s blade held the thick edge of a dull practice sword, the ferocity of his strikes were no less as he shot forward like a sprung trap. Wei Ming stepped, his footwork mirroring his age as they danced throughout the practice yard. Metal clanging against metal in a semi-macabre number as they circled each other like prowling lions. If Wei Ming was at the peak of his cultivation, he would have praised the boy for being able to last so long against him. There were little who could match him at the height of his abilities that weren’t Peak Lords, High Ranking Demons, or Ning Yingying. Not at swordplay where he excelled.

At the same time, Wei Ying was a boy, which was why Wei Ming instantly took the opportunity to sidestep and gently tap the flat of his sword against the other’s back in a gentle smack. Wei Ying toppling forward with a yelp as his gravity propelled him more forward than he had planned for.

It was a rather simple mistake, a loss of footing- but Wei Ying had been practicing this particular style for months, he recognized his own extrapolations of the Nie style in the way he moved. Besides the fact that he knew his little brother took every opportunity to watch him when he had a spar with Sect Leader Nie. Wei Ming narrowed his eyes, “What time did you sleep last night?”

Without hesitation, Wei Ying smiled brightly- forehead drenched in sweat, “Early!”

He sighed, shaking his head briefly before nodding over to the rack, “Clean up here, wash up and go take a nap.”

“Awww,” Wei Ying pouted. “I’m not a baby anymore, I slept early! I did! Can’t I just play instead?”

“You did,” Wei Ming allowed, tilting his head slightly as he brushed back the kicked up dirt of the practice field. The pleasant summer breeze passing over the mountainous landscape with a breath from the distant ocean. “You slept early in the morning.”

“Gēge,” Wei Ying drawled, leaning on his practice sword on his chin with a pout on his face. “I’m a big boy now I don’t need naps.”

“I’m only asking for a few moments of rest Wei Ying,” Wei Ming conceded. “A few moments. If you truly cannot fall asleep we can read a bit before I leave and then you can play. Do we have an accord?”

“Aw, okay.” Wei Ying followed his brother as they stepped in line to their small house amongst the Unclean Realm. A little out of the way from the training grounds and lecture halls, the sounds of maneuvering disciples around them as they did their daily chores. A disciple Wei Ming’s age would normally be amongst them, if he hadn’t been a part of the hunting party that was supposed to set out later that afternoon. “You’re going soon right?”

Wei Ming nodded, “I have a handful of time before we set off, but yes, I just need to pack a few things for now before we set off in the late afternoon. We will only be gone for two or three weeks at most, if complications aren’t any more than usual.”

“M’kay,” Wei Ying slid the door open and sidestepped to let his brother in first before following. Shucking off his sweaty disciple’s uniform into their designated washing pile- a majority of Wei Ming’s own robes had already been dealt with in anticipation for his absence.

“Would you like me to wash that before I leave?” Wei Ming asked over his shoulder, picking up bundled packages as he went around his side of the room and carefully laying it on top of each other on the nearby table; Qiánkūn bag beside the items. “You didn’t wash yours yesterday.”

“It’s okay I’ll do it after resting,” Wei Ying tugged over a large tub, stretching for a moment before turning around again. “But can I borrow your robes?”

“You may,” Wei Ming acknowledged. “Do you know where I put the signal flares?”

“Under the shelf I think? There-“ Wei Ying pointed briefly before shrugging on one of his brother’s outer robes. Thick enough to cover what was necessary before his brief stint outside to get some water.

“Found it, thank you A-Ying.” Wei Ming stepped out, having tucked away his gathered items into the Qiánkūn bag before standing up straight. The Nie Sect disciple robes bellowing at his sides, slightly modified to accommodate his shorter arm length with a lengthwise cut down the sleeves of his robes. An armguard firmly attached with a piece of leather looped around his finger. It was unconventional, as most arm guards were firmly attached at the wrist, but Wei Ming had made the modification and it was slight enough that no one had ever commented save for those who watched it being removed.

Another oddity in one of two of the Sect’s most prodigious was his sabre. Unlike the Dadao that was commonplace in the Nie Sect or the Jian that was common in every other sect, Wei Ming wielded the thinner and shorter Liuyedao that curved just the slightest bit at the handle towards the edge of the sword; the point falling into a crescent. 吃一堑 inscribed near the hilt of the blade, mirrored by its opposite sibling by the characters burnt into the sheath. The tūnkǒu carved into a pattern of leaves curving around the words in a seemingly swift movement.

Wei Ming had fallen silent when he first unsheathed the blade commissioned for him by Nie Mingjue. Neither Wei Ying nor the blacksmith’s apprentice had known what to say at first, but the Nie Sect blacksmith had fallen into a solemn silence as he watched his recipient first examine the blade. So unlike the others he had made yet seemingly fit for the young man.

He also silently noted that Wei Ming had been observing his work with a fine eye, eyeing the tang before shifting it slightly in the light to observe the edge.

“This Smith hopes Master Wei not take offense to naming his sabre before you received it, but considering what Sect Leader Nie has described- this one felt it appropriate,” The Smith said after a moment, bowing slightly. “And as thanks- for aiding this one in finding absolution in his sister’s death.”

There was more silence for the briefest of moments before the other slowly looked up, thumb still brushing against the complicated cords tied to the handle. An elegant silver finish decorated the handle’s steel, sleek in overall design.

Wei Ming slid the blade back into the scabbard with a flick of his thumb, folding his hands over two sides of the saber and bowing low, presenting it towards the Smith, “This Wei Fan is honored to have received such a masterpiece. Chī Yī Qiàn is a fine name.”

The Nie Sect would spend the next few months sneaking glances at the older Wei as he practiced with the sabre aside his other duties as a disciple, some would say that they would find the sword glowing as it shot through the practice field. Though some would argue that this was because the only time the older Wei could practice was when the sun was at its highest at lunch. While there were two factions on the opinion of the Nie Sect’s resident prodigal cultivators, their dedication to the pursuit of knowledge was a hardline no one could deny. That meant swordplay in equal measure to the other gentlemanly arts.

Wei Ying sat at the table, looking up with a blank stare as Wei Ming readied for the trip. Tightening knots and items organized, there was an almost mechanical movement with each methodical check. Wei Ying recognized it as his brother’s usual habits from when they were still running through forests and scrubbing ink off the sleeves of their robes.

Well, Wei Ming was scrubbing Wei Ying’s robes of ink. There was a distinct lack of mess when his brother made talismans that Wei Ying just couldn’t mimic even if he did everything he could to try.

Wei Ying grew quiet. “Fan-ge?”

“Yes?” Wei Ying watched as his brother turned away from his work almost immediately- expression softening. “Something you needed?”

“You’re gonna be gone a while,” Wei Ying trailed off slightly, cheerful tone slipping. “More than usual.”

He looked up as Wei Ming came up to his side, sitting down next to him. “I am. This will be the first of many.”

“But you’re coming back.” Not like mama and papa.

“Of course.” Never.

“Okay.” The room seemed to brighten as Wei Ying’s smile returned twice-fold. Bumping shoulders gently into his brother’s side with a small giggle. “Bring me lots of spice from Yunmeng Jiang okay?! No side-tracks! I want those spices back as fast as a Black Moon Rhinoceros Python!”

Wei Fan huffed, eyes rolling to the skies and back again as he shook his head, “See if I get you one now brat.”

“Hehe, promise?” Wei Ying extended his pinky finger.

Wei Fan sighed, a small smile pulling at the corner of his face as he linked their pinkies together in a solemn promise. Wei Ying learned Shizun’s wisdom very quickly.

-

The Nie Sect hunting party consisted a grand total of four Cultivators. Lead by Nie Mingjue, there was additionally Mei Lin, Wei Ming, and Lang Fengyi. This Nie Sect party was to meet up with a party from the Lan sect consisting of Lan Xichen, Lan Qiren, and Xu Renshi. The two parties were to meet with the Jiang Sect on the border between Jiangnan and Yunmeng to deal with one of the single most frustrating beasts to combat during the tenure of Wei Ming’s existence in this world.

The Waterborne Abyss.

Due to the shortage of man-power between all the sects with new cases of beasts, ghosts, and the like popping up across every territory- the Waterborne Abyss just simply could not be handled by any set of senior cultivators. Lanling Jin, while closer to Jiangnan, apparently had their own issues to deal with.

The Wen Sect was a mystery, but it wasn’t something Wei Ming was about to analyze just yet. For now, the present issue was the problem.

Distance wise- it was far easier to go to the problem when coming out of Lotus Pier- hence the need for the Nie Sect and the Lan Sect to meet with the Jiang Sect for the exertion to take place. Wei Ming was…neutral, about it. The travel should have taken a few hours on sword to the Lan Sect territory of MoLing, from there they headed westward to Lotus Pier.

Wei Ming stood at Nie Mingjue’s left while Mei Lin flanked his right, Lang Fengyi walked just behind them as they walked towards the snow white robes that made up the disciple uniform of the Lan Sect. Lan Qiren at the head as he turned as soon as Lan Xichen took notice of the party in forest green.

“Elder Qiren,” Nie Mingjue greeted, bowing appropriately. He had grown like bamboo in Wei Ming’s opinion, in only a span of a year- Nie Mingjue was taller than Wei Ming by nearly an entire head. His shoulders had grown broader with continued exercised with a define jaw. The deadly air of a familiar war god dogged his steps as he walked with purpose and poise.

Lan Xichen- on the other hand, Wei Ming would note- took to growth with all the elegance of a noble Peak Lord. His expression gentle, he bowed his head as Nie Mingjue nodded at him in greeting. But there was a shadow behind his eyes that caught Wei Ming’s attention- a mental note that he made for himself to confront at a later date. Something was haunting Lan Xichen- he would know what soon enough, he was sure of that.

“Sect Leader Nie,” Lan Qiren rose from his greeting. “We will departure soon.”

Nie Mingjue nodded- about to say more before he was interrupted by a child running by into the meeting group.

“Mama!”  

Wei Ming blinked.

Not even Lan Qiren was quite prepared for the child’s tears as the young girl realized that the shorter cultivator among their group was in fact, not her mother. Yet the Nie sect only exchanged looks of exasperation and amusement as Wei Ming swiftly brought the girl into his arms with a gentle hush, bouncing in place to help calm the child down before offering a handkerchief from his sleeve.

“Did little sister lose her mother?”

“M-Mn.”

“Will little sister like for Wei Ming to help her look for her mother?” Lan Qiren snapped up at the name, yet he was paid no mind as Wei Ming watched the little girl bob her head eagerly. Moving her in his arms to look out into the crowd before emitting a low hum, he turned to Nie Mingjue with a slight bow of his head.

“I will not be long Sect Leader.”

Nie Mingjue shook his head, flapping his hand out in acceptance as Wei Ming swiftly braved the crowded marketplace. The sounds of squealing and happy yelling filling out the noise before Wei Ming returned, hands-free and a small glitter of amusement in his eyes.

“Apologies for this one’s rudeness,” Wei Ming bowed at the waist- hands linked together. “Greeting Elder Lan, Master Lan, and shixiong. This one is named Wei Fan, courtesy Wei Ming.”

“It is nice to see you again Wei Ming,” Lan Xichen said warmly as he returned his greeting with a smaller bow, both rising to full height. “Has Young Master Wei been well?”

“Quite well indeed,” Wei Ming mused. “His energy and understanding grows leaps and bounds with each day, this brother is fortunate.”

“You are…” Eyes went to Lan Qiren as he watched the boy carefully, eyes slowly picking him apart as much as he was able. To which Wei Ming responded in kind by standing still and waiting for the elder man to finish. “The oldest child of Cangse Sanren?”

“And Wei Changze,” Wei Ming continued smoothly, an amiable expression on his face. “Elder Qiren is correct, this one is the oldest sibling of the Wei Clan.”

“I see.”

It was only a slightly confused silence that continued on the flight to Lotus Pier, Nie Mingjue and Wei Ming exchanging significant glances- much to Lan Xichen’s wonder and amusement. It didn’t take long for the cultivators to land briefly, just after they passed over the wetlands of the Yunmeng territories.

There stood Jiang Fengmian.

Wei Ming’s lips thinned before smoothing back to normal, Mei Lin and Lang Fengyi taking point in front of them in a seemingly normal switch of rotation.

Lan Qiren and Lan Xichen noticed.

Jiang Fengmian stood, a genial smile on his face as he welcomed the two visiting Sects, “Welcome to Lotus Pier.”

[ Log: File:Save_15-217.2.1725.log ]

Wei Ming was not exactly someone who would be described as ‘relaxed’ as they sat at the dinner table of Lotus Pier. Oh- he chatted idly and made polite conversation with some of the disciples- even greeting Jiang Yanli as she welcomed him after her father had escorted to the main house, introducing her brother smoothly before they were to be seated.

“Why don’t you sit around here?” Jiang Fengmian had said carelessly.

Madam Yu tensed where she stood behind him, eyeing Jiang Fengmian as he continued to think with his heart instead of his head, “We can talk about your parent’s antics while they were here in Lotus Pier.”

Nie Mingjue caught Wei Ming’s eye, subtly tilting his head.

Wei Ming wanted to smack his head into the table. Or eat outside. Either one sounded particularly pleasing.

“This disciple is grateful for the offer,” Wei Ming said, if his expression was slightly strained- only few noticed. “However this disciple will be sitting with his seniors.”

“It would be no trouble,” Jiang Fengmian’s smile was genial- it reminded him of Zhangmen-shibo and frankly it was starting to piss him off. At this rate he should just duck out of dinner and say that he wasn’t feeling very well if this shit kept up.

He was indeed about to play that card when Jiang Yanli smoothly cut in, “May this Yanli request Master Wei’s presence this evening? This one would like to know more of the herbs Master Wei has come to know during his travels as a past cultivator.”

Wei Ming was grateful for the out but he could sense Madam Yu’s intense gaze from here- it was disturbingly similar to Sha Hualing to be frank, or perhaps Peak Lord Qi.

“Wei Ming.”

He turned, bowing to Nie Mingjue as he approached, “Sect Leader.”

“Take the luggage back to our rooms first, you aren’t hungry anymore right?”

Lan Xichen looked on curiously as Wei Ming nodded, bowing, “This one will prepare the rooms for tonight.”

He turned and bowed to Jiang Fengmian, then to Madam Yu, Jiang Yanli, and a young Jiang Wanyin who startled as he too was greeted farewell.

Nie Mingjue sighed internally, turning to Mei Lin and Lang Fengyi with a wordless order.

Keep an eye on him.  

They tilted their heads in acknowledgment.

[2000]

“Hey you.”

Wei Ming looked up from where he was sitting, legs folded under himself as he was simply observing the pier from the view in his room. Frustratingly slightly separate from the others, he assumed a certain someone’s doing.

“Young Master Jiang,” Wei Ming greeted, bowing his head from his position. “To what does this Wei Ming owe this meeting?”

“You…you bowed…at me.”

“Of course, it would be rude of me to not bow to Young Master Jiang, he was there to greet Sect Leader Nie and us disciples was he not?” Wei Ming smiled.

Jiang Wanyin seemed to be a particularly precocious child according to Wei Ming’s observations. He was weary of him to be sure, but there seemed to be an underlying wish to speak to Wei Ming further- perhaps because of that certain difference, or lack thereof to his person while in the presence of the rest of the Jiang clan.

“You didn’t eat right?” Jiang Wanyin said, eyeing him carefully. “Sister made soup. She still wants to talk to you.”

“If Young Master Jiang insists,” Wei Ming continued- rising to his full height. The younger boy came to his waist- looking up at him in wonder before glancing at his sabre.

“Is young master interested in this one’s sabre?” Wei Ming asked quietly. “He may see it after he eats, if this one remembers young mistress’ Pork Rib soup still, he will eat it as well yes?”

Jiang Wanyin looked up in wonder, “You ate Jiejie’s soup?”

Wei Ming nodded, “After this one was injured during the bandit attacks yes, Young Mistress Jiang was kind enough to make sustenance to help this Wei Ming’s recovery.”

“It was the best right?” Jiang Wanyin’s smile was wide and eager. “The best soup you’ve ever had?”

Wei Ming smiled, “There is no comparison.”

And that right there is what officially solidified Wei Ming as Jiang Wanyin’s most favorite person besides his big sister.

[2011]

“Jiejie, I brought Ming-ge,” Jiang Wanyin called out softly into the kitchen. Servants bustled about and around the young master of Lotus Pier, glancing curiously at the trailing older disciple behind him before glancing to each other and going about their business. The nightly stints of the two heirs to Lotus Pier were a regular occurrence for the staff and quietly complied with their occasional night dinners where the two would talk to each other and giggle. The added edition, while surprising, was not enough to stir anything other than a light interest.

Jiang Yanli blinked at Jiang Cheng before glancing up to Wei Ming, her head tilted in confusion before smiling at the both of them, “Good job A-Cheng.”

Wei Ming sat next to Jiang Yanli with Jiang Wanyin in between the two of them, talking amiably of herbs and briefly discussing cooking techniques as the night went on.

Mei Lin, whom was worried about her shidi for not eating that night, saw this and quietly crept back to her room.

“I apologize for father Master Wei,” Jiang Yanli said softly as their little dinner went on. “I did not know he would be so forward.”

“This one understands,” Wei Ming said softly. “This one will just have to adapt thusly, although I admit that it wasn’t quite the obstacle I was expecting during this hunt.”

She laughed, “Tell me Master Wei, in your travels have you come by Lotus Pier? If not, A-Cheng and I would be glad to show you around.” And help you avoid being cornered by father.

“This Wei Ming humbly accepts.” Thank you so fucking much Yanli-mei.

“Ming-ge.”

“Hm?”

“You didn’t add any spicy sauce,” Jiang Cheng frowned. “Did Jiejie forget to put it in for you? It tastes super good with the spicy sauce.”

“Ah- Master Wei can’t handle spices A-Cheng, I did not put it in for him for that reason.”

Jiang Wanyin looked at him as if he was personally betrayed, which brought both the older siblings to a quiet laughter.

Nighttime in Lotus Pier was a cluster of light and life as people bustled to and fro, making that one last purchase before they officially closed for the day. The moon’s light towered high above to illuminate the streets bellow, aided by lanterns of varying colors that glowed warmly in the cool night.

Wei Ming was a little further away from the Jiang siblings, having moved forward at their behest as he spotted a stall filled with various fans, a serious expression in his eyes as he gingerly handled each and every piece while the maker was excitedly softly describing her work.

“Jiejie,” He whispered, prompting Jiang Yanli to lower her head for Jiang Cheng. “Ming-ge is really handsome right?”

Jiang Yanli giggled, “That he is A-Cheng.”

“Then marry him instead of the peacock Jiejie,” Jiang Wanyin said seriously. “Ming-ge has a little brother too so I can play and train with him and you don’t have to worry about me anymore.”

“A-Cheng!” She glanced around in worry, a delicate blush on the apples of her cheeks before her mouth opened to scold her brother.

“And he thinks your soup is the very best,” Jiang Wanyin continued. “He’s loads better than the peacock.”

“As much as I appreciate it,” the Jiang siblings startled at the silent approach, Wei Ming looking at them softly as he offered a bag of loquats he had bought on the way back; two new fans tucked away in his sleeve. “Mistress Jiang and I are just friends Young Master Jiang.”

Jiang Wanyin pouted.

[2200]

Wei Ming stiffened at the knock.

With swift legs, he opened the door to find Nie Mingjue and he promptly sighed in relief.

“That happy to see me huh?” Nie Mingjue mused, walking in at the younger’s beckoning. “Xichen just went to sleep an hour ago. I heard you went out?”

“Lotus Pier is a wonderous place at night,” Wei Ming acknowledge, settling in at the small table besides the open view of the pier- the screen doors wide open and the cool air rolling in.

“So.”

“So?”

“Fengmian asked for you,” Nie Mingjue said carefully. “You gonna confront him?”

Wei Ming scowled, “We shall see.”

Nie Mingjue laughed, shaking his head before glancing up at him in concern, “Are you alright? I know we talked about this but you don’t have to push yourself into this if you don’t want to.”

Wei Ming pursed his lip, “It’s the last one I need before I can accept Head Discipleship, I’ll manage. It’s only a few days.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Wei Ming smiled. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

Wei Ming shrugged, which was just about the most normal thing Nie Mingjue has ever witnessed the eldest Wei doing. He knew- he kept a record and currently ‘shrugging’ and ‘eye-twitching’ were the only ones on the list.

If Wei Ming was eye twitching, it meant that whatever was making him twitch needed to run very fast.

“About Lan Xichen…”

“What about him?”

“Did he seem…alright, to you?”

Nie Mingjue was quiet for a moment, “So you noticed.”

“I did.”

“His mother died recently,” Nie Mingjue said quietly. “His brother has…not dealt with it well, I imagine that neither has he.”

“…”

“Are you going to talk to him?”

“In the future, preferably when he’s alone,” Wei Ming said quietly. “Elder children often get neglected- I don’t want him to think he doesn’t have anyone he can lean on.”

“I’m sitting right here you cranky old man.”

“I mean someone who isn’t a Sect Leader,” Wei Ming mused. “You really are the only friend he has, I’m sure there are times where he believes he doesn’t wish to burden you.”

“Psh- well, I suppose,” Nie Mingjue sighed- drinking from his cup. “If he’s with you he’s in good hands.”

Wei Ming shook his head, chuckling before standing, “I will train some before resting tonight. There are things I need to sort out.”

“Don’t stay up too late, that’s an order.”

“Yes Sect Leader.”

-

Madam Yu didn’t trust the elder Wei.

But that did not mean she necessarily hated him, no matter how her children seemed to see it as they carefully distracted her whenever Wei Ming was passing the halls to help with preparations for the bigger hunt that was to happen within the next few days. No- she did not trust Wei Ming, but that did mean she hated him.

There was something in those eyes that made her weary, like she wasn’t quite looking at the truth when she looked upon the visage of Wei Ming. It was like looking at a grown actor play the part of a child, he didn’t move the way most disciples did. There was a surety in his movements that seemed surly, relaxed and elegant in ways he shouldn’t have been able to achieve with how old he was.

She didn’t feel like she was seeing the truth, and therefore she did not trust him.

She was watching from the sidelines as Wei Ming trained in one of the more secluded fields by himself. It was reserved for guests whenever Lotus Pier would host conferences, however they generally served as empty platforms when it was not so.

It was strange. He was her child, but he never seemed to act like it. He didn’t act like Wei Changze either, she saw more of them in the younger one than she did the older. It made her curious.

Wei Ming, the child who unnerved her. Wei Ming, the man who she felt could end her with a simple swing. Wei Ming, the boy who consciously evaded her husband for close to three whole years on the road.

As if sensing her, Wei Ming turned as he shifted, dark gray eyes pinning her in her place. Watching, waiting. As if he were simply a predator who occasionally deigned to feast on prey, preferring to watch them squirm in their little bowls of life and amusing himself by occasionally disturbing the waters.

He bowed, that strange greeting that went far above what normal courtesy would call for. Not forced, but natural, as if what he was doing was just the way these sorts of things occurred, “Lady Jiang. To what does this Wei Ming owe this pleasure?”

She pursed her lip, “You are strange.”

Wei Ming bowed his head once, “As many others have said, this one must be.”

“What are your intentions?” She walked forward, purposeful, but cautious. In concept: she was aware that this was one of their children. Yet it was difficult to consolidate the image of their child with the boy before her, spitefully avoiding Jiang Fengmian and easily endearing himself to her children. She wasn’t sure of the ploy that was being performed, she wasn’t sure if there even was a ploy. Time had turned her boiling anger and frustration into a low simmer, with every day that passed- that same fire only grew dimmer and dimmer. As the rogue cultivators of Yiling evaded her so-called husband for so long, she couldn’t help but develop a curiosity.

“Today it is to aid in the elimination of the Waterborne abyss at the border between Jiangnan and Yunmeng,” She watched as the boy kept his head bowed. “The ultimate goal is to help Wei Ying grow well.”

“…Do you resent me?”

“There is nothing to resent if nothing has been done.”

Yu Ziyuan pursed her lip, “Your…Aunt, has already told me. The reason you evaded Fengmian was to avoid my ire. Your life would have been easier here, yet you chose to stay away.”

Wei Ming lifted his head, and what she saw was not a boy.

“The easiest way is not always the right way,” Wei Ming said carefully, tilting his head at her as if he were analyzing a fellow cultivator- and not his senior. “Can you say, without doubt, that you would not be hurt for every second we would have stayed here? Could you say that you would not grow bitter with each passing day?”

“Your husband is a decent Sect Leader,” Wei Ming continued after a moment, turning to look towards the bright lights of Lotus Pier. Towards her people that call this place home, to the people who laugh merrily, drink, and eat spice- the people who have thrived under Fengmian’s leadership. “Pardon this Wei Ming for saying, he’s a shit husband and an even shittier father.”

“You pity me.”

Wei Ming shrugged, “Perhaps I do, but you do not need this one’s pity.”

“…How old were you when they died.”

“This one was ten. A-Ying had been five.”

Yu Ziyuan pursed her lip.

“And now you pity me.”

“I am frustrated,” Yu Ziyuan admitted, back straight and eyes tired. “I hated the idea of you, so much so that I felt vindicated whenever he would come home defeated. I felt satisfaction that he felt his failings in being unable to convince you to come to Lotus Pier. It felt deserved.”

Yu Ziyuan scowled, “But then Cangse Sanren appeared before me in my sleep and looked disappointed.”

That wasn’t a light thing for anyone to say, Wei Ming especially knew. His mother of this world was a light hearted person, she felt sincerely, but did not hold the resentment of others against her too closely. She was, by all accounts, a forgiving soul. A kind one. One who would look to a stranger child, far too old for his words, and far too strange for his appearance and feel caution but would not turn away. There were many things others would claim Cangse Sanren to be- they cannot deny that she well and truly lived. To disappoint Cangse Sanren was to sadden her, to turn on their own lives and merely survive.

Wei Ming did not spent long with his mother, but he recognized the kind light she had. The same one that echoed in Ning Yingying with a wicker of a candle that could explode into a column of flame. She was the scorching burn that made the palace princess briefly ripple in shame, the bright light that drew Liu Mingyan in, the warmth that brought Sha Hualing into the fold in conversations. His sister in coven, the one who kicked his ass and the one who made him laugh; the person he thought he was in love with and the woman he would come to call his best friend. Yes- he knew very well what it felt to have that sort of person disappointed in you. Gods knew he had done that one too many times.

That bitterness in the lady before him was familiar, because it mirrored his own.

“She would not ask you to put reminders of your marriage’s failings in front of you,” Wei Ming explained patiently. “Hope that you might not attach the wrongdoings of your husband to Wei Ying perhaps- but she would not ask you to simply set your own feelings aside. Emotions are far more complicated than we might care to believe, its affects are as grand as human acts can be.”

He walked up quietly, standing in front and titling his head, hoping his expression was one of kindness no matter how stiff it tended to be. “Between Madam Yu and this one, this Wei Ming believes he quite right in thinking Cangse Sanren would have laughed and smacked Sect Leader Jiang with her scabbard across the forehead.”

Madam Yu snorted, “She would have torched his clothes too.”

Wei Ming’s expression turned neutral, “That may be arranged today if Madam Yu is unopposed.”

A ripple of silence gently made waves across the evening air, slightly cool from the pier’s waters-

And then Madam Yu snorted in amusement.

One down, one to go.

Seriously. An open Mu Qingfang of this world would do wonders for everyone.

 [ Log: File:Save_15-217.5.0900.log ]

He would amend that statement for it was apparently one down and multiple to go; however he would standby his latter conclusion. Therapy. A doctor of the mind, one to mediate and help one reach an emotional equilibrium with oneself for inner peace without all the hub-hub mystery bullshitting that some older Elders might go for because they would want to do something as inane as act wise.

Wisdom is putting it to good use to aid one’s progeny, not this eclectic bullshit that someone seemed to be decided on because it looked cool.

He thought he would be working on Jiang Fengmian and his mountain of unresolved emotions and attachments first- oh dear no, Lan Qiren took that spot out of left field and smacked him with it like an overenthusiastic disciple of Bai Zhan Peak ready to terrorize his first disciple of Qing Jing- well he wasn’t about to let that shit fly no matter how old this goat seemed to be. The dog needed to be taught new tricks.

Lan Xichen in his unfortunate position of being the eldest nephew and heir to Sect Leadership could only send Wei Ming various looks of apologies as Lan Qiren made statement after statement that was beginning to grate: not only on Wei Ming’s intelligence as an individual but the ancient pride of having been Ming Fan: Head Disciple of Qing Jing Peak.

In the middle of the fucking market place.

In Lotus Pier.

Apologies to Shizun and Shang-shishu for overstepping bounds- but this shit is ludicrous.

Wei Ming did not believe his memory to be of any state resembling poor but even he was having a hard time attempting to come up with a reason why Lan Qiren was running his mouth- apparently because of his habits from the night before? He had been sharing a quiet and informative conversation with Madam Yu about the culture of Meishan and Yunmeng as two territories having grown side-by-side as well as an interesting history of weapon making and battle tactics in Meishan. The conversation had excelled all the way to her summarized account of the creation of her whip: Zidian which again, was fascinating. He was genuinely tempted to reveal himself but it wasn’t as if it were going to be useful in any time in the future if she knew who he was so he kept his damn mouth shut and quietly contemplated the utter hellscape of amusement that might ensue if Madam Yu and the Palace Princess would have had a chance to meet.

Oh- if the Palace Princess did not perish before she would have definitely been right after meeting Madam Yu. They shared similar characteristics but Madam Yu had all the wisdom and understanding of her station that the Princess never had.

Ah- but where was he?

A right.

The strange and perplexing nature of the Lan Sect Mountain Wall of Rules and his increasing confusion in why the fuck is Lan Qiren standing there lecturing him about his sleeping habits?

To be fair to the man, he was doing it subtly. There were various implications of his shared…eccentrics with Cangse Sanren, and it was increasing clear that he actually did not realize that Wei Ming was not born of her despite calling her his mother. The theory of the man’s bitter feelings towards his mother, perhaps one of genuine affection that hat rotted over time, seemed to be more and more truthful the longer he stood there staring at the man who seemed to be on a…streak.

Having Wei Ying at the Cloud Recesses is going to cause him a headache in the future, he could feel it in his bones. Although in all seriousness, if Lan Qiren doesn’t catch up to his own ridiculousness before this hunt ends (which may take longer considering they’ve yet to actually find the source of the Waterborne Abyss) he was going to up and shave Lan Qiren with his own damn sabre.

His Qing Jing Peak curiosity was wondering just how long Lan Qiren could continue lecturing him on idle matters but the part of his pride that spent a long time raising children and looking after them in ways that mattered made him pity the man.

Lan Xichen watched in increasing anxiety as every word from his uncle seemed to drive the youngest cultivator amongst their party to blanker and blanker expressions. Nie Mingjue was elsewhere with the rest of the Nie Sect on their turn to survey the territory in hopes of finding the Waterborne Abyss before it would affect a populated area, but until then he was internally panicking as soon as he could find that he could not understand nor predict what Wei Ming of Qinghe Nie was going to do as Uncle’s lectures grew more and more ridiculous even for him.

“Uncle-“ He attempted, straining a smile. “Perhaps we should-“

“And furthermore,” Lan Qiren fumed, unhearing. “It is no doubt that your inability to respect others is inherent in consideration to your mother however that is no reason to-“

Wei Ming frowned.

Lan Xichen panicked.

“Are you speaking to me as an adult or as a child,” Wei Ming responded idly- raising an eyebrow. “For all I hear is the whining of a child who is taken out their hurt on someone else who happens to be the same color.”

Lan Qiren sputtered, Xichen internally weeping at his Uncle’s destroyed face. The marketplace broke into a whisper as they watched the young master from the night before look increasingly unimpressed with the Lan Elder.

“If one to speak in the basis of ‘furthermore’,” Wei Ming continued. “For Elder Lan’s knowledge, this Wei Ming is adopted. A second point, if Elder Lan is not so immature as to disregard him: Mother, Cangse Sanren maybe to me, however that gives you no excuse to subjugate myself and Wei Ying to her actions against you by simple virtue of the fact that we happened to be of her progeny. In essence, this Wei Ming believes you to be rather ridiculous in the fact that you are clearly in violation to oh…perhaps nine rules of the Lan Sect based on the information I can recall. First and foremost being: Do not speak ill of others.”

Wei Ming sighed in satisfaction as Lan Qiren silenced himself in shock, “Elder Qiren: I am not my mother. Neither is my brother my mother. We may share a name, we may share a face, we may share our habits- but ultimately, we are born not as copies of our parents but as the culmination of them and more.”

He glanced at Lan Xichen in sympathy, “Perhaps- in your state of leaving your emotions unaddressed, in letting those feelings fester in place of allowing yourself the time to retrospect feelings that, according to your rules: you should not have, you allow yourself to be controlled by them. Such as in the belief that us children may eventually go down the same bumps in our journey as our parents have, instead of learning from them.”

Lan Xichen flinched, eyes wide as he stepped back from the gaze of one who has seen much and knows much more.

“We are young Elder Qiren, but we are not blind.” Wei Ming continued softly, understanding infused in his tone. Eyes cloudy not from straying, but from remembering. “So look upon your feelings and question your anger: what is it truly born from? For grief so often tends to fester in anger before it has a chance to be resolved. It is easier than accepting that which cannot be.”

Wei Ming left them with that.

[1100]

Nie Mingjue leaned slightly on his side as Wei Ming made his return with Mei Lin and one of the senior Jiang disciples- there was a look of contemplation on his face even as he discussed quietly with Mei Lin and the other one. A book of sorts, laid out on his palm as he marked something with a single piece of coal.

“Wei Ming. Mei Lin. Report.”

“Sect Leader,” Mei Lin saluted him. “Wei-shidi, myself, and Lu-shixiong have determined that the Waterborne Abyss has moved to somewhere along the edges of Lotus Pier, we are making plans to conduct search patterns so as to better determine its location.”

Nie Mingjue nodded, “Get to rest, we’ll make definitive plans for the Waterborne Abyss after we isolate its location. Wei Ming.”

Nie Mingjue turned his back as Wei Ming followed closely behind- Mei Lin and the Jiang disciple moving elsewhere to spend the rest of their time while another party was being put together.

“I heard you lectured Lan Qiren this morning,” Nie Mingjue said quietly.

Wei Ming nodded mutely, “Is Lan Xichen alright? I may have brought up accounts that were not my business, but they must be said.”

“You’ve been thinking about that for a long time huh?” Nie Mingjue moved to his private rooms- Wei Ming gracefully following behind and catching a servant’s tray of tea with a small nod and a kind look before entering the threshold with it.

The two of them settled along a table facing the open window, Wei Ming folding himself on a cushion while pouring tea while Nie Mingjue simply sat. A look of contemplation on his face as the gentle clinks of fine porcelain touched as tea was poured with practice. Wei Ming was quiet for the moment, but the deliberate smoothness of his expression meant that the other was also attempting to collect himself.

“I’ve been growing concerned for it ever since I studied the Lan Sect rules,” Wei Ming admitted. “Lan Xichen is a caring person, moral in ways realistically- no man could be. The rules do not make room for understanding that the world is neither black nor white, but shades of gray from the stains of black.”

Nie Mingjue rolled his eyes good naturedly, “In today’s language if you please?”

Wei Ming huffed, shaking his head, “What I mean is that Lan Xichen-“

“We already established that he’s your friend too.”

“Fine- Xichen, is…naïve.”

“Wow.” Nie Mingjue deadpanned. “What a revelation.”

With a gentle smack, Wei Ming continued, “What I mean is that his Clan most likely don’t realize the type of damage they’re doing by treating him that way with his rules. Qiren is not a naïve man, that much is true, but he practices emotional repression in the face of having his feelings.”

“Pot-“

“I understand my emotions Mingjue,” Wei Ming rolled his eyes. Unlike an alarming majority of this world. “I don’t simply mean expressing them: I mean understanding them. Interpreting them. That doesn’t necessarily just mean knowing your own emotions. It’s understanding other people as well.”

“It’s being frustrated with Jiang Fengmian and understanding him enough to know you need to confront him sooner or later. It’s sympathizing with Madam Yu because you understand her pain but not letting her walk over you. It’s hating Jin Guangshan but pitying him enough to wish to know his reasons, his story.” Wei Ming leaned back with a sigh. “We’ve had this conversation- enemies can still be your enemies, but you should still take into account their emotions, their lives. To take that away is to declare them a monster- it removes your own accountability to yourself; it’s dangerous.”

Wei Ming did not know how to express just how vastly that danger can be without giving himself away. It was a rampant issue in his time: enemies were enemies. They were to be cut down like everyone else- but it was that same thinking that started the wars in the first place. Would Shen Qingqiu have had to push Luo Binghe down if he knew that neither he nor Binghe would be ostracized for sheer virtue of his bloodline? Would the palace master’s crimes have been found earlier if they took the time to try and understand Tianlang-jun? What has happened, happened, but it cannot be disregarded as a one-in-hundreds mistake. He couldn’t allow it to be.

Because there was something in this world was brewing. He saw it in the worried looks of the interlaying villages. He saw it in the increase of activity, the increase of work for cultivators. It was in Nie Mingjue’s stress lines and it was in each and every time he watched the senior disciples in not just Qinghe Nie, but all around. It was the calm before a storm, the silence before a deafening crescendo. Something was coming and all he could do was prepare and prepare and try to instill as much as he could of his wisdom to the people he cared about.

“Xichen could get hurt badly if I don’t get it through his head,” Wei Ming continued quietly. “He’s…he isn’t a boy- by any means, but there are times when I speak with him that sometimes I believe he doesn’t quite know how people work- how they operate. I worry about him, him and his younger brother. That sect…they have a good purpose but when do they interpret their rules? When do they stop blindly following age old traditions and begin understanding them? Rules aren’t inherently bad- but they must and should be followed by people who can understand why they are there, why they must be followed, and most of all- when to understand when following those rules do more harm than good.”

“…” Nie Mingjue nudged his younger soon-to-be counterpart, “Hey. Nothing is going to happen within the next few years. We’ve got time, we have plenty of time to slowly help Xichen realize truths. You’ve gotten there right? It shouldn’t take long for him to catch up to you, he’s ranked first after all. Really, it’s me you should be worrying about.”

“I do,” Wei Ming responded- if  rather unthinkingly. “I worry about all of you. Sometimes I blink and all of you are so much further away from me. Ying-er is growing faster and faster with each passing day, I don’t doubt that he would be even far more grown by the time we get back.”

“…Okay seriously how are you still acting like an old man at fifteen?”

“Oh shut up.”

- [2110] -

Lan Xichen was currently wandering Lotus Pier, thoughts brewing in his head.

Wei Ming’s words were meant for more than just himself and his uncle, they were more than just a simple critique- it was a deliberate and pointed statement that drove a knife so much further than Xichen was sure Wei Ming knew. Straight through the heart, mercilessly and cleanly, it spoke words about his feelings and his minor feelings of resentment towards the rest of his family save for Wangji.

It started with his father.

It started with his father, and even though he knew he and Wangji had no part in the affairs of his parents from a time before they were born- the resentment still held. The frustration remained.

“I have a story.”

He startled, head rising from its bowed position as a gentle treble spread softly across the night air. In the distance from where he had been walking, a building ahead- secluded from the rest of the Lotus Pier. He hadn’t even noticed he had walked so far, still the voice seemed to pierce through barriers.

“I will sing it for gents to listen.”

Xichen walked ahead, swallowing before gently moving the door aside. An air of warmth spread across his body as soon as the doors opened, gentle candle light providing both heat and light as patrons of the house gently tilted their heads to listen.

“Ladies and gentleman. Calm your heart. Let me, sing a song of Chunsan Resentment.”

The strings of the pípá were plucked delicately with each accompanying lyric, a maiden had startled at the sight of Xichen before reddening delicately. Guiding him to a seat where a view of the musician could be seen. Other patrons seemed to put their affairs on hold in respect to the musician, who’s each delicate pluck seemed to echo and enforce each carefully sung word.

“Narrow it is, the path. I will sing for you, Chunsan a beautiful view.”

Xichen’s eyes widened as one of the maidens previously blocking his view moved out of the way. There- seated poised with a folded posture, a five-stringed pípá in his lap sat Wei Ming. Who’s eyes were closed as his fingers delicately moved across the strings, occasionally with the left hand moving as he was playing, bringing forth a subtle treble.

 “Not as beautiful as Sire Qingqiu, his beau. Pulls strings to Binghe’s heart. In the bamboo house.”

Xichen turned red.

“Clothes half done. Eyes dazed.”

Was this really something a person Wei Ming’s age should be singing?! Surely such things would be inappropriate regardless of how mature the disciple seemed to be. Furthermore, when did he know how to play the pípá?

“Tears flow, my dear Shizun.”

Xichen gaped as Wei Ming refrained from revealing so much as a slight coloring to the words.

“The couple turned upside down. Faint moan rings, trembling spoiled crying voice rings. Xiū Yǎ blade, couldn’t stop Xin Mo.”

One may ask Ming Fan how he was able to sing such a song about his teacher no less, Ming Fan would simply look at the asker with tired eyes before nodding his head towards the bamboo walls of his teacher’s home amongst the grove. Although if a definitive answer was sought-

“He cries: ‘good disciple, spare this teacher’.”

-he would simply answer that he was just too damn thick-faced to even react to such a thing anymore.  

Wei Ming sighed before opening his eyes, jolting as soon as he met eyes with familiar light ochre. Rising to his feet before turning to the matron of the tea house, bowing as he presented the loaned pípá and moving quickly towards the stray Lan.

Wei Ming swiftly sat at the table, silent for a moment before opening his mouth.

“Wei-ge your tea.”

“Thanking Elder Sister,” Wei Ming said automatically, taking the tray and gently setting it down. A small bow of his face before nervously glancing at Lan Xichen from the corner of his eye.

Silence.

Wei Ming cleared his throat, “Tea?”

“Please.”

Wei Ming poured, the gentle smell of the black tea wafting in the air as both cultivators took upon their respective cups and sipped. The awkward silence continuing as the bustle of the tea house seemed to continue, eventually exchanging between tea to alcohol as the patrons shifted to the more nightly guests.

Lan Xichen watched with curiosity as boisterous laughter seemed to erupt from a group that had been present for quite a while, one of the older men batting the others away as he passed a bag over to a passing woman who seemed to be the Lady of the house. She nodded with a small smile, beckoning a server closer to bring tea before taking an offered bag, to which she held as she approached their table.

The woman smiled and quietly passed over the bag to Wei Ming, the other frowning, “Auntie, this one has already told you that he only needs enough for the spices. The rest of these are rightfully yours.”

“Ah, think of it as our thanks for bringing us a complete performance of Resentment of Chunsan Master Wei. While I’ve heard tales of your ability and knowledge, I did not think I believed the stories that you often performed the original,” She pinked. “Well- consider this a thanks. Treat your brother with more of our spices as thanks from us Master Wei.”

“If Auntie insists,” Wei Ming said with a tired expression as she left with a chuckle, once more glancing towards Xichen. “In all honesty, I did not think you would be out so late Master Lan.”

Lan Xichen chuckled dryly, “Well, we are not on Cloud Recesses after all.”

“That we are not indeed,” Wei Ming nodded, sighing as he took another sip. Idly enjoying the cheerful atmosphere. “So something must be on Master Lan’s mind then.”

Lan Xichen allowed his smile to look forlorn, “Xichen, if you please. I…wish to ask you of your words from this morning.”

“I see…” Wei Ming glanced at one of the ladies serving before rising. “Perhaps we shall admire the view whilst we discuss such things then Xichen. It would be a shame to miss a night like this.”

Lan Xichen nodded; politely smiling at the server as she went to clear their table. A small slip of coin leaving Wei Ming’s pouch before anyone could be any wiser.

Their path was relatively clear of people as they walked amongst the numerous twists and turns of each pier. The water bellow thrumming with the occasional low bellow that piqued Xichen’s curiosity for a brief moment.

It must have appeared on his face for Wei Ming caught it, “It’s the alligators.”

“Alligators?”

Wei Ming nodded, “Normally they reside besides the rivers closer to Tangyi South of here- but floods and the connecting rivers have brought many of them here to Lotus Pier. Those bellows are alligators.”

“Oh…” Lan Xichen glanced once more to the distance. “Your father?”

Wei Ming hummed, “Not quite. I read it in the libraries of Qinghe Nie- old records, mostly collecting dust in the corner since it was more of a historical observation rather than anything related to martial cultivation. I read it none the less, these things can be important- or rather simply interesting to know.”

“…”

Wei Ming waited.

“My mother has passed away recently.”

Wei Ming nodded, raising a hand to simply squeeze Lan Xichen’s shoulder. Just once, firm enough to make a presence but light enough to be shaken before he voluntarily removed it.

“My condolences,” He said softly.

“They say not to act- but how can I not when she is the only parent I’ve had?! How can I not when Wangji sits before her house waiting to be let in amongst the snow as he continues to shiver because he believes she would still beckon him- how can I?!” Lan Xichen was shaking in place. Tone carrying a glass like characteristic, as if one wrong ping would send his person crashing across the wood floors of the pier. “And father he- he has not…it is as if he does not care for us, perhaps he never has.”

Wei Ming stayed silent.

“Sometimes I wonder,” he continued softly. “What it would have been for her if Wangji and I were never born? Would she have lived longer? Would she have been happier? Would she have had the freedom we robbed from her?”

Wei Ming withheld a sigh. How to approach this child, that was the biggest question.

Lan Xichen was a kind person, no doubt he would grow to be a kind man. But kindness is not a characteristic that is protected from machinations spanning between the malicious and the well-meaning. Kindness, in turn, also contains nuances.

“Xichen.”

“Y-yes?”

“How old are you now?” Wei Ming asked softly, keeping his eyes where the horizon would be.

“Oh, ah- s-sixteen. Just…just one year under Mingjue.”

You hesitated, Wei Ming thought idly, watching Lan Xichen twitch from the corner of his eye. Younger perhaps? Maybe recently sixteen.

“If she did not want to have you,” Wei Ming said, deliberately sucking the warmth from his tone- drawing up Lan Xichen’s eyes to him. “Do you believe she would have prevented your birth in the first place?”

“W-What do you-?”

“I have met many women in my travels,” Sū Xīyán. “They, like all the rest of us pitiful humans can be just as intelligent, just as cunning, and just as dangerous. Think honestly to yourself Lan Xichen, if she truly did not wish to have you. If she truly thought her life was so terrible that she could not tolerate one more day spending time with you and your brother; if she truly thought there was nothing else to live for. Would she have stayed as long as she had?”

“The capacity to be self-destructive is an instinct we all share as living beings, survival may be our instinct. However, living is always our goal first and foremost.” Wei Ming continued. “Ultimately, it can often supersede our desire to survive. It is the price we pay for our awareness in this world.”

“I do not argue for her treatment, in the first place- I do not know her circumstance. Neither do I know the circumstance for your Sire. Sire he may be, you do not have to necessarily think of him as father if you truly did not wish to. Respect is a given, we are a people of filial responsibilities, but do not allow it to cloud your judgements. There is only so much you can give to a man you’ve never known.” Ming Fan hummed as he stepped forward on the pier, looking down at the water, as black as the night sky above. Illuminated only by a single source of light, carrying the light of the sun sapped of warmth. “Humans are selfish by nature after all, there is no give without take. There is a gain in every kindness, but it is the ones who strive for good who only reach out to achieve satisfaction alone.”

“But I digress,” Wei Ming continued, turning to face Lan Xichen- who seemed to gaze up at him in wonder despite their difference in height. “Do not beat yourself for the thoughts you cannot predict, you are not your mother. Neither are you your father or your brother. You are a product of wonder as everyone else is, a life born from that which we cannot even begin to comprehend. What we are capable of is something that not even gods can predict for we draw power from our emotions, and from our emotions we find strength- so much so that our bodies can burn because we feel too much.”

“Lan Xichen, son of your mother- brother of Lan Wangji.” Wei Ming said quietly, looking up with a soft expression on his face. “It’s okay to be overly happy, just as it is to be overly sad. It hurts- but it can only hurt so much before the pain lessens, even just a little. Diligence cannot be grown properly without rest, morality must be cultivated by one’s own judgement of the world, Harmony can only be achieved by reaching to understand that which has been prohibited. Virtue cannot be fully achieved without empathy. Even forefathers do not hold the wisdom of the entire world. Arguing with your family matters, because it isn’t supposed to matter who wins- it’s supposed to nurture growth. Rules are rules, but it is interpretation that strengthens those words enough for it to matter.”

“Lan Xichen, you are breaking a rule: Love and respect yourself.” Wei Ming held Lan Xichen by his shoulders. “You are not a perfect man, no one expects you to be. So it is alright to cry for the mother you have lost.”

Wei Ming ignored the man shaking in his hands, “I will dutifully punch them in the face for you if they say otherwise.”

“…You could be a teacher,” He deliberately ignored the hoarseness in the others words, ignored the wetness growing on his shoulder. “Your words have so much poetry in them, I cannot help but admire it.”  

“This Wei Ming has some experience.”

Leadership, justice, truth, direction, integrity, bravery, compassion, endurance, discipline, determination, fidelity, patience. These are the virtues of Cang Qiong Mountain, for we are a Sect of Twelve Peaks. We strive for them, but there are times when we cannot reach far enough to grasp them. He pictured Luo Binghe’s resentment, he remembered the lonely moments before Shen Qingqiu had qi deviated- when he would stare at the back of Yue Qingyuan in equal parts hatred and misery. He remembered his failures, he remembered Liu Qingge’s anger. He remembers Ning Yingying’s rage. He remembers his own feelings of wanting to fade into darkness without bothering everyone else as the war grated on them all. Enemies and allies alike.

He remembers telling his feelings to go die in the Abyss as he drew himself together by the fraying threads; for they were in the middle of war and they had no time for this complete and utter bullshit.

The generation of swords, they were called. Forged in the fires of war, quenched in the blood of their fallen friends and slaughtered enemies, tempered by iron-will, and annealed by the anger in our hearts.

Swords of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect indeed.

 

 

Chapter Text

12. [ Log: File:Save_15-217.6.1043.log ]


He crouched as the blade sped across the surface of the water- breaking the surface tension and leaving a spray of mist in his wake. The sun above beat down on the lone cultivator, drawing out the sweat from his neck and soaking up the back of his uniform, his eyes trained on the water bellow for any signs of movement. In the distance, three other cultivators were doing the same as him.

No sign of the Waterborne Abyss.

That alone was enough to raise alarms in Wei Ming’s mind.

Based on the collective data they’ve been gathering the past few days, the Waterborne Abyss had steadily been creeping westward across the connecting rivers and lakes. It should have been quite a distance away from Lotus Pier, but for some reason they hadn’t heard signs of it.

Wei Ming kept his eyes peeled for signs of the red tinged aura of yin energy, he had yet to find any matching the description of a waterborne abyss.

“Tch,” he leaned to the side, encouraging his sabre to bank right. Shredding across the open water with a renewed vigor- his direction heading straight back to their meeting place at Lotus Pier. He knew they were going to stay long to deal with the issue, he hadn’t anticipated the nearly one week spent already on something as simple as finding the Waterborne Abyss.

The landing on the wooden planks of one of Lotus Pier’s many docks was smooth as he easily pulled back the power in his sabre, coming to an easy glide as he smoothly slipped off the blade and back into its sheath. Faintly warm in his hand as he surveyed the area.

It seemed he was the first to arrive.

“Nothing again?”

He turned, bowing promptly as Madam Yu approached with a raised brow, a visible furrow in her expression as she turned to survey the waters with a suspicious glance.

“No, unfortunately not,” Wei Ming pursed his lip, glancing back at the open water before turning back. “And the alligators have stopped making their calls.”

Madam Yu turned, eyes narrowed, “You are certain?”

Wei Ming nodded.

“…I will have a disciple inform your constituents that you have duties elsewhere, for now- A-Cheng and A-Li are picking Lotus pods in the eastern quadrant.” Madam Yu turned her eyes back on him. “I will speak with Fengmian tonight, if what you say is true- we may have a bigger problem.”

Wei Ming nodded, “Agreed. I will go check on them. Has Sect Leader Nie, Elder Lan and Master Lan returned from the north?”

“No, I will also inform your Sect Leader of my request.” Madam Yu frowned, “Something doesn’t feel right…”

Wei Ming pursed his lip, “This Wei Ming will take his leave.”

Madam Yu nodded, “Wei Ming.”

He paused just before he was about to leave, turning with a questioning gaze towards the taller woman.

“Be careful.”

He bowed his head.

-[1114]-

Like his brother, mischief seemed to be attracted to him in almost every sense of the word. To which he would dutifully retaliate that the attentions of miss fortune and sir prize would do well to turn elsewhere before Wei Ming really started to get pissed off.

It starts with his arrival.

Like a demented form of coincidence, he arrives just in time to watch Jiang Cheng be pulled under the surface of the water in his boat. His sister’s eyes were wide as her hands automatically grappled for the boy’s front- knuckles growing as white as she was pale as she attempted to leverage herself against the starboard bow of their boat. The small ship dipping dangerously as she struggled against that which was attempting to take her brother for an impromptu dive under Lotus Pier.

Other Jiang disciples startled with a shout, a majority of the older yet not yet experienced ones freezing in place as panic took over common sense. The severity of the situation baring down on their heads unforgivingly; such was the common reaction of the young and inexperienced.

Thankfully, Wei Ming was neither.

The sabre slid smoothly out of its scabbard like butter in response to the sword seal instinctively utilized by the former disciple of Qing Jing Peak. As if borrowed from lightning, the sabre glowed even as it sped past disciples in a mere instant.

He flipped into the port bow of the ship, counterbalancing the tipping boat enough that Jiang Yanli yelped as she fell back into him. Her grip on Jiang Cheng slipping.

Wei Ming’s mind raced, his hand casting out in response; the sabre glowed hot with power as it maneuvered in an instant within his grasp. Taking him with it as it dove after the younger Jiang heir with a solid splash.

The waters surrounding Lotus Pier were not the clearest water ever, the mud that made up most of the nutrients for the Lotus plants clouded the water as it was kicked by foreign invaders. However, the black streaks flowing past his line of sight were most certainly not native to these watery depths. Finding the purple robes amidst the darkness was not the easiest feat he would accomplish while in the den of the enemy, but it was something he had to do if it meant the boy was going to survive. He doubted Jiang Cheng would have had the time to gulp air no matter how well versed he was with the waters of his homeland.

Wei Ming’s grip was iron as he found purchase of the other’s clothes within his grasp, pulling with a surge of qi and effectively ripping the prey from the grasps of the tentacle-ed enemy. Black tendrils surged towards him in anger, effectively cutting off his supply of air as it grasped around his throat.

With a twist of his hand and two talismans charged, he managed to maneuver a talisman net and synch it onto Jiang Cheng himself, the sword catching the tail end of the loop designed to be hung across a branch and tightening at his commanded pull upwards towards the surface.

He kept feeding the blade as much energy as he could, just until he could sense it break the surface. The second talisman he had charged doing its work as it exploded into an array of bright light to signal aid.

Turning inward, he concentrated all his qi into his palm. The water seemed to fly past him as he was pulled closer and closer into the center. The aura around the darkness was dense enough that he didn’t even need his sight to sense the rabid yin energy that now surrounded him, pulling at his sides and waiting for him to die from lack of oxygen. Unfortunately, swimming wasn’t exactly his best skills- passable enough to survive but in a battle of the water, he was severely outmatched.

Obviously, this would be if he had to fight fair, and there was no one to say that there were rules of combat in this battle for survival against an entity made up of only humans at their most desperate of hour. Unluckily for it, he had promises to keep.

Qi energy swirled in his hand, driving off the darkness with its golden light as it continued to grow larger and larger. Explosive and raw, its size betrayed its impact as he sent more and more power, keeping it tight against each other like air enclosed in a small vessel. The energy growing brighter as the pressure increased. It was a simple exercise of energy manipulation if one were to look into it, but there was no person here or in the distant past that could recklessly improvise the same way Ming Fan of Qing Jing Peak could.

As soon as he felt he could stuff as much energy into his fist as he could, he aimed.

And punched.

-

Nie Mingjue was pissed, no longer at his younger junior but at the freaking bullshit that was the Wei Effect.

It was a term jokingly coined by Wei Ying when he was first beginning his studies as a cultivator just a few months ago. He had been in the midst of his lessons in riding when the stables suddenly lost control of their horses, Wei Ying- having been newly placed so that he could attempt to learn how to ride a much larger horse- had been hoisted away by the scared horses. It wasn’t even a few minutes before Wei Ming had been seen nearly blasting out the doors of one of the lecture halls in full sprint after the horses and even catching up to the point where the older boy had manage to swing onto one himself to help calm the frightened herd. Later it was discovered that some of the older disciples had been messing around with a talisman they had just learned; they had been in view of the horses and the subsequent explosion, while merely a sound, had been enough to scare one of the younger horses into a panic- which then lead to all the horses panicking.

Wei Ying had gotten out with only some minor bruising since his legs had gotten slammed into by some of the other horses- the boy’s thighs were later sore for some time and Wei Ming had nearly worked himself into a qi deviation from pushing so much energy so quickly to catch up to the herd of stampeding horses. They were all lucky that the faster stallions and mares were in a separate facility, otherwise he might realistically be looking at a spiteful grinding in paperwork supervised by certifiable work-addict Wei Ming. After the incident, Wei Ying had clung to his brother’s side with his legs more or less still impersonating a pair of limp noodles and had jokingly called it the “Wei Effect”.

He had twisted his sabre around the instant he saw the alarming red flash in the sky, the other disciples with him following closely behind as he sped across the land as fast as he could push. What he saw instead was a group of disciples running around in a dazed panic, one of them restraining the Jiang children from jumping into the water. The older looked to be in a frantic state while the younger, while red-faced and drenched, was reaching out to the open water with panic etched into his face.

He, however, did not get the chance to do anything given the fact that he was also taken aback by the sudden geyser that erupted a little further out of the pier.

The explosion shook the pier, nearly displacing him and a couple of others with it as it rattled the very foundations that held the wooden building aloft. In a blur of purple and lightning, Madam Yu sped past him and dove in the water with the grace of a crane in flight. It was only a few minutes before she resurfaced with Wei Ming in tow, the latter being dropped into the wooden planks in a dead thump.

Lan Xichen and his uncle sped past him, the elder Lan throwing himself towards the other side as he had Xichen hold Wei Ming at the neck and swiftly gathered energy into his hands, swiftly pressing it into the upper half of Wei Ming’s chest with a swift stab.

Wei Ming’s body jolted upright at the sudden force, turning to the side to spit out the pier’s water before backing up from them in an instantaneous reaction. Eyes unseeing and hands extended in a familiar formation that caused Nie Mingjue’s mind to kick into higher speed as he swiftly shoved the others away from his newly revived disciple; drawing his own sabre.

Wei Ming’s arm twisted, the sabre, previously laying quiet on the pier floor, danced across the air in a deadly swing. Powerful enough to shake Nie Mingjue at the base of his arm as he parried against the attack.

“Wei Fan,” He barked, mustering as much of his authority he could in such a short amount of time. “Stand down.”

Wei Ming failed to respond, instead, eyes narrowing as he twisted his arm again- his blade mirrored his will to a degree that frankly made Nie Mingjue’s blood run cold. It spun in place, lifting slightly and swinging as if Wei Ming were not a few feet away but right there, the sabre shifted on an axis, striking Nie Mingjue with such a speed that he barely had enough time to move away much less take it head-on. Madam Yu and Elder Lan and even Lan Xichen drew their swords, the sound startling Wei Ming enough that his hand formed another complicated motion, the previously familiar sword seal transforming into something Nie Mingjue failed to recognize as power surged into the sabre- splitting it into multiple copies.

Lan Qiren and Madam Yu’s expressions mirrored in their horror as the swords suddenly expanded, the latter bringing up her lightning whip as she fought against two at once.

Then Jiang Fengmian came.

The Sect Leader of Yunmeng Jiang was thunder translated into a picture as he leaped across the scene, sword arm raised high and supported by his other arm. Fighting against three sabres at once, the famous Yunmeng Jiang footwork came into play as he danced between and around the deadly blades.  

Nie Mingjue was fighting off a sabre, he could vaguely hear the sounds of Mei Lin and Lang Fengyi at her back as he fought off what she could not. Nevertheless, the sound of coughing drew his attention as Wei Ming seemed to shake in place, blood dripping down his lips as a qi deviation took over, the sabre copies seeming to waiver in the face of such a disturbance.

Jiang Fengmian wasted no time as he surged forward, throwing off two of the sabres he had been meeting slash for slash before extending a palm and slamming it directly into Wei Ming’s forehead. The younger man dropping into a faint, his sabre abruptly halting from where it had been fighting Madam Yu, falling to the ground with a clang.  

Jiang Fengmian caught him, easing his path to the ground as he swiftly checked his pulse, hissing as the spiritual veins burnt his prodding energy with a heat that could have melted silver.  

He turned, a dangerous expression on his face, “We need cooling talismans now.”

Surprisingly, or perhaps not, it was Jiang Yanli who acted the swiftest- reaching into something he recognized as Wei Ming’s pack and pulling out three of the talismans and running to hand them off to her father. They exchanged nods as Jiang Fengmian sent energy into two of the three, Lan Qiren stepped forward for the last one as they placed them on the meridian points on Wei Ming’s body.

“This isn’t enough,” Lan Qiren mumbled, enough so that the others can hear. “At this rate, his mind will be lost if we can’t get this fever down.”

Nie Mingjue forcibly shook himself from his stupor, kneeling at Wei Ming’s empty side and bringing his sabre to slice across his fingertips. Face pulling into a scowl as he focused on pooling what he could as he drew character after character, cooling talisman after cooling talisman at where the cold would not affect the body as a whole.

Lan Xichen wordlessly came up to his side with a bundle of cloth he recognized was from a piece of his own clothes, wrapping it around Wei Ming’s head.

They worked and they worked, Nie Mingjue keeping a constant flow of energy into his make-shift talismans.

“…forgive…me…shizun…”

Nie Mingjue frowned, glancing until he noticed that the words were coming from none other than Wei Ming.

“Shizun…sorry…sorry.” Wei Ming squirmed, arm spasming and temporarily startling the adults in the vicinity as he reached out. “Shizun.”

His arm dropped in a deadweight.

Lan Xichen frowned, sweat dripping past his forehead ribbon before he looked up to his uncle, “His fever is going down.”

Lan Qiren seemed to sag in place, nodding before he rose, a weight on his shoulders far more prominent than when he had first met. Turning to the Jiang disciples, “What happened?”

“Later Qiren,” Jiang Fengmian stepped forward, approaching Nie Mingjue. “Let’s make sure Wei Ming is being watched by professionals before we attempt to piece together what happened. Sect Leader Nie, if you could…?”

He nodded, “Xichen, if it’s not too troublesome?”

Lan Xichen shot Nie Mingjue a look, “Of course.”

Between the two of them, Wei Ming was easily lifted enough to move. The Jiang, Nie, and Lan parties forming a convoy of sorts as they walked back into the main home of the Jiang Clan. Most if not all of its members glancing worriedly at the man who just proved to be much more dangerous than previously thought.

“Sect Leader Nie.”

He looked up, meeting Madam Yu’s gaze head on, expecting something; a lecture maybe, or something alluding to ‘I told you so’.

She motioned to the disciple limp in his arms, cushioned by his outer robe while Lan Xichen carried the other end in their makeshift sling.

“If anything has been proven today it is that Wei Ming, son of Wei Changze, will not take death lying down,” She declared boldly, ignoring Jiang Fengmian’s startled glance. “He will be fine.”

…Well he wasn’t expecting that but he’ll take it. Those tea parties must have been more interesting than he heard.

[ Restore to default progress: 51.2% ]

It starts with a search.

Nie Mingjue, Lan Qiren, Lan Xichen, Jiang Fengmian, Yu Ziyuan, Jiang Yanli, and Jiang Cheng are sitting idly in an impromptu meeting room outside the infirmary as doctors check over Wei Ming’s condition.

They have been sitting for close to half an hour.

As soon as anxiety came to reach a climax, the doctor exited the room, tired and equal parts perplexed as he bowed to them. Nie Mingjue stood as he was sure some others had before he stared the doctor down, “How is he?”

The doctor seemed to sweat as eyes turned to him with varying intensities, “Ah- well. Rather impossibly- he is awake.”

Lan Qiren frowned at this, “Is he pushing himself to remain so?”

The doctor shook his head, “It seems that the effects of the qi deviation has set his body into a sort of…flight or fight mode that I have never seen the likes of…ever. It’s as if his body has adjusted so rapidly to the events that it refuses to rest until such a time where he is…well, for lack of a better word: ‘safe’. It is this one’s opinion that Master Wei should return to Qinghe Nie as soon as possible, if only so that Master Wei will be able to relax in a more familiar environment. Doubly so regardless if the business is to continue.”

Just before anyone could act, a senior Jiang disciple who had been Jiang Fengmian at the time before the incident came in with panting breath. Sweat dripping intensively and merging with the water droplets that clung to his clothes and skin.

He linked his hands together and saluted, “Sect Leader- this one must report. T-The Waterborne Abyss is....”

Madam Yu frowned, “What is it?”

“I-It’s…” the senior disciple swallowed, turning to glance at Jiang Fengmian before continuing. “It’s destroyed Madam. Only trace amounts of Yin energy are left of it- and even so, much of the main body has been scattered across the water- as have several fish.”

“…”

“What-?”

“That can’t be-“

“What are you saying-?”

“Everyone, please,” Jiang Fengmian turned as everyone silenced at his words, facing Nie Mingjue with the look of a man who will get answers. “Sect Leader Nie, Wei Ming is…your disciple. Does this seem to be something along the lines he could have done?”

Nie Mingjue pursed his lip, “Yes.”

“But how-?” Lan Qiren frowned, tugging anxiously at his beard. “Such a feat of power, surely this was aided in some way? A talisman perhaps. Cangse Sanren was as good at making them as she was in using them.”

Nie Mingjue hesitated.

“It’s possible,” He said instead, minding his words in such a way that Huaisang was no doubt shivering in his seat wherever he was. “Wei Ming is in the habit of preparing a variety of talismans prior to any hunt we undertake; a carry-over from when he was a Rogue Cultivator.”

He avoided Lan Xichen’s questioning gaze, though as he turned, he vaguely wondered where that Jiang kid went.

“If that is the case,” Madam Yu continued under her breath. “Then no doubt this may be how he has somehow retained consciousness- such a blow would have certainly killed any other Cultivator who managed such a thing.”

“Attempting the impossible,” Jiang Fengmian added faintly.

“In any case,” Madam Yu barreled forward. “With these new events at play, it would be wiser to await Wei Ming’s condition to get the story out of him definitively. Now that we know he is not under any major issues.”

Lan Qiren nodded thoughtfully, “Yes that would be wise.”

Jiang Fengmian nodded, “Then we shall reconvince at the earliest convenience before coming to a decision. Is this alright with you Sect Leader Nie? Sect Leader Nie?”

Nie Mingjue frowned at an empty space, just to the side of the older Jiang child before she too glanced to where he was looking, her expression turning to one of shock.

“Where’d the other kid-?”

“JIANG FUCKING FENGMIAN.”

Nie Mingjue flinched, drawing the startled looks from almost everyone else in the room, “Uh oh.”

“GET YOUR FLAT ASS IN THIS ROOM RIGHT FUCKING NOW.”

The doctor startled, “I…does…does anyone know what dialect that is?”

Nie Mingjue sighed, “It’s begun.”

I SWEAR TO FUCK IF YOU DON’T WALK THROUGH THIS DOOR RIGHT NOW I’M GOING TO BRING THE WRATH OF CANG QIONG MOUNTAIN ON YOUR HEAD SO EITHER COME HERE OR I’M GOING OUT.”

“C-Cang Qiong Mountain?” Lan Xichen turned to Nie Mingjue in confusion. “Do you know what he is saying Mingjue?”

“No. But I know he’s annoyed.” Nie Mingjue ignored Lan Qiren’s questioning glance. “Not even the gods can help us if Wei Fan is angry, it’s better if we stand his storm before he decides to turn into a vicious typhoon.”

He gripped Wei Ming’s sabre tighter in his hands. “Preferably before he starts to-“

There was a panicked voice coming from the other end of the door.

“Oh damnit he’s already trying to move,” Nie Mingjue cursed colorfully as he walked past the doctor and into the room.

Jiang Cheng was tearfully clutching at Wei Ming’s borrowed Jiang disciple clothes, the older of the two was turning a strange shade of red as an expression of the likes Nie Mingjue has yet to have seen before overtook the other’s face.

“Where the fuck is he?” Wei Ming snarled.

Nie Mingjue scowled, reaching out on the other side to push Wei Ming’s shoulder down firmly back to the bed, “I don’t know what you’re saying but you need to rest. You used up a lot of energy pulling that stunt so you shouldn’t be up right now. Xichen back me up on this.”

“Oh um, Master Wei it really would be better if you stayed here and rested for the time being- you’ve gone through quite a deviation and-“

“Fuck that, where’s that purple shit faced dipshit of a father?” Wei Ming’s arm was wrapped up in Jiang Cheng’s tearful clutches as he moved his eyes to and fro with a dangerous glare. “I’m gonna rip him a new asshole right after I break his nose.”

“Wei Ming what in the world-?”

Ah Madam Yu, where the fuck is your no faced husband? I’m going to rip him to shreds and kick him down the fucking mountain I swear to Shizun.” Wei Ming’s eyes set upon Jiang Fengmian’s form as soon as the man walked through the door, the doctor trailing behind him.

Bloodshot eyes narrowed, “You.”

Nervous, Jiang Fengmian stepped forward, “A-Ah Master Wei-“

“Here. Now.”

They watched as Jiang Fengmian’s legs moved seemed to walk forward without his permission. Lan Qiren stood straighter at Wei Ming’s commanding tone, subconsciously registering not the disciple Wei Ming but the head disciple and former general Ming Fan.

“You…” Wei Ming seethed. “You are seriously white-eyed blind.”

“And here we go,” Nie Mingjue muttered under his breath.

Lan Xichen glanced nervously between Wei Ming and Jiang Fengmian, as if the one who needed protection was the Sect Leader instead of the one who was freaking bed ridden. “What is going on…?”

“You thought you saw him insult your uncle?” Nie Mingjue whispered. “Watch this shitshow.”

Mingjue.”

“Do you only know how to eat?” Wei Ming continued with a snarl. “With your face being so thick, how is it your eyes are only being used to breathe?! Why does it seem like all seven of your orifices are clogged? You are a Sect Leader are you not? Then why in the name of all the hell judges does it seem like you only get high marks in this and fail at everything else? The monkey king would laugh his prison off if he saw this idiotic display of foolery!”

Lan Qiren may or may not have officially shut down.

Nie Mingjue however, was expecting an explosion of this kind ever since they stepped foot on the pier. Wei Ming was never one to directly confront people like this, given the fact that he preferred back handed comments over direct insults like normal people. Oh, he will certainly tell you off for behavior he finds less than admirable, but in that sort of round-about way that never quite sinks in until he leaves. That however, changed when Wei Ming the Sneaky Bullshit Cultivator turned into Wei Fan the Man Who will Rip your Face Off and You Will Thank Him For It. It really would only happen one of two ways: Either you have officially made Wei Fan so annoyed he starts to dip a toe into angry, or he’s in that strange semi-state of drunk and aware caused by Qi Deviations that he goes and insults you in ways you didn’t even know you could be insulted. It was both fascinating and highly uncomfortable given the fact that he somehow manages to somehow summon and embody a cultivator several hundred years older than you are- he was somewhat gratified that he was not the only one who was fucking terrified of the thing. Jiang Fengmian looked that close to prostrating.

Lan Xichen was looking a little faint himself, Lan Sect Rules state that one should not be afraid of such things or something like that- Nie Mingjue wouldn’t know- but clearly Lan An or any of the Lan Elders never anticipated the coming of Wei Ming the older brother of the shameless Wei Wuxian who could probably out-old man every old man out there and still manage to make you feel bad about annoying him to such a degree. He only knows because he has been on that end once when the other was still fourteen and he’s been a changed man ever since.

The worst part is that when he gets serious, he doesn’t yell. That’s the first sign that things are about to go from yao to straight up heavenly demon.

“You will stand there and you will listen to me,” Wei Ming said coldly. “You will answer what I ask of you, and maintain silence for what I will say to you. Understood?”

“Yes sir.”

Nie Mingjue resisted the juvenile urge to ‘ohhhh’ in the background.

“Look at me. Now look at your son, now look back at me,” Wei Fan said smoothly. “Answer me this Jiang Fengmian- what exactly is strange about what you are seeing?”

“I…I…”

Wei Fan’s gaze grew heavier, disappointment flashing in his eyes as the arm trapped by Jiang Cheng moved subtly. His thumb coming to rub small circles in Jiang Cheng’s palm from where the boy was holding it.

“Your son was just nearly drowned by a waterborne abyss you incompetent fool of a man,” Wei Ming narrowed his eyes. “While your responsibilities as Sect Leader has certainly not been forgotten you cannot neglect your responsibilities as a father. You are Sect Leader Jiang first and foremost, of that I will not object, however you also happen not one but two children who have nearly died today and you are telling me that you fucking forgot?”

Wei Ming cut off the man mercilessly before the other even had a chance to respond, “Jiang Fengmian- you cannot replace us with Wei Changze. You can’t even see behind the veil of grief over your mind- I’m not born of Wei Changze and Cangse Sanren, yet you see him in me all the same. Are you so blinded by your grief that the fact that Cangse Sanren gave birth to Wei Ying and only Wei Ying was forgotten by you? Didn’t it seem strange that for some reason there was an older brother in the picture that you shouldn’t have been able to hear of? Just how many fantasies have you cooked in your grief, just how many times must you ignore the here and now because of a childish mistake you should have been an adult about and moved on a very long time ago.”

“As much as it may pain you, as much grief as it has caused you, as much as I can tell you that while I resent you for acting in such way- I do understand. But you must imprint it in your mind, you must remember this fact because that’s the only way we can move on,” Wei Ming’s shoulders slumped ever so slightly, it brought up the image of a tired old man who was beginning to grow weary of scolding children. Which frankly wasn’t as far off the mark as Nie Mingjue would have thought if he actually knew. “Wei Changze and Cangse Sanren are dead.

Lan Qiren flinched, subtly enough that it almost escaped the notice of others in the room.

“Wei Ying and I are what is left of them, there is nothing you can do to change it,” Wei Ming continued quietly. “But no matter how much we remind you of him, we can’t replace him for you. Jiang Fengmian, don’t waste away on a love lost because of your grief. You live in the here and now, not the past. You have children who need you, a wife that requires at least part of your collaboration as your other half of this Sect. The more you allow yourself to drift on these matters, the parts of your life that you would have wished you were more involved in will end as soon as you start to notice.”

Trust me, Wei Ming’s tired disposition seemed to say. I’ve been there.

“We’re not their ghosts, no matter how much that may seem,” Wei Ming continued quietly. “So stop it with this ludicrous notions of clinging to a lost past. We have long passed the time where such things are tolerable, we are not our parents- and we can’t exist in their stead for you to mourn forever.”

“Jiang Fengmian.” Wei Ming said firmly, with no room to argue otherwise. “You have to move on.”

A-Mian you fool. Wei Changze chuckled fondly. What took you so long to realize?

To almost everyone’s surprise, Jiang Fengmian began to cry.

Under his breath, Jiang Fengmian whispered, “You sound like him.”

Wei Ming shrugged helplessly, “He is my father, some similarities are bound to occur.”

But he isn’t me, Went unsaid. Because he’s gone and I’m here.

“F-Father?”

Jiang Fengmian looked down, startled to see that Jiang Cheng had made his way across the room so quickly, a look of frowning concern on his face as he idly switched his eyes from Fengmian to Wei Ming and back again.

Wei Ming watched as Jiang Fengmian kneeled and hugged his son tight, words only family should hear passing between them as they both clutched at each other with all the strength they could afford. Only a few glances being exchanged between a father and his eldest before Jiang Yanli joined the fray.

Wei Ming slumped in his bed and wished to go the fuck home.

Nie Mingjue nudged him from where he stood, waiting until Wei Ming’s gaze sluggishly. Mouthing to him without a sound.

‘Good job,’ then. ‘You ended up breaking his heart instead of his nose.’

‘Shut up,’ Wei Ming mouthed back

[ Log: File:Save_15-218.1.6000.log ]

Wei Ming carefully surveyed the area as he walked, disciples were grumbling to themselves as they got up for their daily tasks. Sleepy enough that they didn’t notice the figure creeping in the shadows.

So Wei Ming wasn’t officially supposed to be up from his bed, never mind walking around like this, but it wasn’t like a small morning walk was going to stab him in the back or something ridiculous. Granted his sword arm throbbed something fierce, like he had spent a whole day sparing with Liu-shishu or something of the like. The spars in his past life always left him sore from how much energy he had to drive into his sword to keep up with the War God of Bai Zhan Peak.

He would chose to defend himself by saying it was an accomplishment by itself that he could last so long against the man back in his past life.

Pressing up against the side of the wall, he shimmied from hall way to hallway. Ducking and blending in with the other disciples as he walked. His untied hair splayed across his back added to the effect of posing as a sleepy Jiang disciple as he shuffled and ducked under tired gazes.

Eventually, he made it to a secluded area.

With a breathy exhale, Wei Ming crawled forward to sit at the edge of the views end. It was a small room reserved for tea he had found a little earlier in their duration here. Wei Ming hiked up the legs of his pants and dipped it into the cool morning water with a sigh.

He leaned forward, wishing that he could draw the picture before him. Of the wild gaze flying across the open sky as the seasons changed.

“'Line after line has flown back over the border.'” Ming Fan murmured under his breath. “'Where are you headed all by yourself? In the evening rain you call to them- and slowly you alight on an icy pond.'”

Lan Qiren, having stopped previously by being startled by the sight of Wei Ming out of bed. Lonesome and seemingly…old, as the young man looked up to the skies above.

“'The low wet clouds move faster than you; along the wall toward the cold moon.'” Ming Fan continued softly, pausing before continuing forward with the poem. “'If they caught you in a net or with a shot, would it be worse than flying alone?'”

Ming Fan leaned back on his haunches, black hair splayed in an inky mass. Expression blank as he watched the geese fade over the horizon. A tiredness in his bones beginning to weigh as the past few days began to soak in.

So many words, so little effort to make them. So why is it that the solutions have only been revealing themselves now? Why did it need to wait for an old man to come around to rip the badly patched wounds left behind by those lost to the hands of time?

Why did this world need a fifteen-year-old boy with too old of a mind to rip the bandages off for them?

Ming Fan couldn’t really understand how such things came to be after such a long time. Was this really his world? Was his past really simply tales of a fantastical myth? Where is the truth and what is the fantasy? What if he wasn’t Ming Fan- but a boy who believed too much to think otherwise.

Why did he feel so lonely?

Lan Qiren left Wei Ming with his silence.  

Ming Fan watched with forlorn nostalgia as the geese finally disappeared from his sight.

[1520]

“-ei Ming? Wei Ming?”

He blinked as he came back to his wonderings, Mei Lin stood at his side with a frown on her face. “Sect Leader Nie has been looking for you since this morning.”

“Oh,” Wei Ming rubbed at his eyes. “Apologies, I must have dozed off some.”

“It’s fine,” Mei Lin paused briefly, “…are you alright?”

“Hm? Yes of course.”

“It’s just…” Mei Lin trailed off uncertainly, glancing up at him. “You’re crying.”

“Oh.”

“Sect Leader is just outside, I’ll let him in?” She said instead after a beat of awkward silence.

“I- yes. Yes, of course, please do. Thank you shijie.”

Mei Lin escaped smoothly out the door, speaking quietly to someone. Wei Ming paid this no mind as he turned his gaze back outward, folding his feet after kicking off the water some.

“Oi.”

He looked up, Nie Mingjue looming above him with a scowl on his face- more so from exasperation rather than any form of anger he’s dealt with thus far.

“You…” Nie Mingjue trailed off uncertainly, “The hell happened?”

“Existential crisis,” Wei Ming replied dryly. “Terrible for your health, I wouldn’t recommend it.”

Nie Mingjue snorted, “Well that’s obvious but thanks for the warning I suppose.”

Nie Mingjue moved to sit next to the shorter disciple, the other continuing out to observe the scenery once more. There was a silence in the air, not quite suffocating but certainly not one that was remotely comfortable for anyone in long periods of time.

“What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking,” Wei Ming paused as his eyes tracked the movement going across the water. “That I’m quite like that goose at the moment.”

“…I don’t know how to tell you this Old Man but you haven’t grown feathers.”

Wei Ming rolled his eyes.

The solitary goose does not drink or eat, Wei Ming recalled quietly. It flies about and calls, missing the flock. No-one now remembers this one shadow, they’ve lost each other in the myriad layers of cloud.

It looks into the distance: seems to see, it’s so distressed, it thinks it can hear. Unconsciously, the wild ducks start to call,

Cries of birds everywhere confused.

Flick.

Wei Ming recoiled, scowling as he pressed up against the brief throb of his head where Nie Mingjue had flicked him, “Now that was uncalled for.”

“You left me no choice, I had to drag you back down from the clouds somehow,” Nie Mingjue crossed his arms. “What’s wrong?”

Wei Ming shrugged, “An old man and his thoughts, that’s all.”

“Is it something you could only tell Wei Ying or does it run deeper than that?”

Wei Ming turned to face him, eyebrows lifted in clear surprise as he starred in silence. The expression of a person who was taken aback written as if it was a signpost on his face.

“Shut up, I’ve got some emotional intelligence,” Nie Mingjue grumbled. “Better than some of the people here anyway.”

“So you noticed.” Wei Ming mused, sighing. “Well- it’s just some strange thoughts that’s all. I look forward to coming home.”

“’Home’ huh?”

“Is there something else to call it?” Wei Ming raised a brow.

Nie Mingjue shook his head, looking out to the open waterscape. The beginnings of sunset beginning to pull the sky into a darker hue.

“We leave in the morning.”

“As you say Sect Leader.”

Chapter Text

13. [ Log: File:Save_15-218.2.7000.log ]


“You have to write,” Jiang Cheng said stubbornly. “So that you don’t forget me!”

Wei Ming ignored the snickering behind him as Jiang Cheng valiantly tugged harshly on his newly dawned Nie Sect Robes. His argument this morning was rather interesting if not unnecessary, since the boy seemed to have gotten it in his head that Wei Ming would somehow miraculously forget his week of hell and running around as a make-shift hammer of common sense whilst also attempting to find and destroy the waterborne abyss.

Much to his amusement, no one was really talking about it while he was around, which was both interesting and somewhat grating on the nerves.

“I doubt you will have time to write to this one Young Master Jiang,” Wei Ming said instead, voice firm despite it’s quiet nature. Though frankly he was more concerned about his time once he got home, this was the last mission he needed to complete before officially being instated as Head Disciple of Qinghe Nie- and chances are he was going to start scrambling as soon as they let him land on the dirt. “You have many lessons ahead of you now that you are of age.”

Jiang Cheng’s lip wobbled. “Then-! Then-!”

“Your brother,” Eyes turned as Madam Yu unexpectedly stood before them, regal and tall as she looked down at the two. “He’s the same age as Jiang Cheng.”

Wei Ming nodded, “He is.”

Madam Yu frowned, glancing between Jiang Cheng and Wei Ming before sighing, “It would be suitable for him to come here, to know of Yunmeng Jiang and her history.”

The silence in that moment was  so abrupt, one could vaguely hear the splashes of fishing rods being cast in the further distance closer to the town. Which really should have said something considering that Madam Yu had certifiably dropped a literal bomb on their heads.

“His father is Wei Changze is it not?” She said with a scowl. “It would be a dishonor to his lineage if he doesn’t know at least part of his father’s story here in Yunmeng Jiang. Fengmian and I have discussed this, and it would open new avenues between Yunmeng Jiang and Qinghe Nie; the boons to this beginning partnership will also apply to any of Qinghe Nie who wish to study under me as guest disciples of Yunmeng Jiang.”

All Wei Ming was hearing was an argument going in circles about how beneficial this is as a whole and there was no reason to say ‘no’. To which he assumed was due to the fact that they felt Wei Ming would not budge an inch in this strange attempt to make amends. Wei Ming, as merely an adopted son had no such ties, so he assumed they thought it was more suitable to try to appeal to his thoughts about Wei Ying’s growth rather than straight-up saying that they’d like to try and make up for their behavior by teaching Wei Ying about his father’s homeland and become a pseudo student of their teachings- perhaps even be a certifiable member.

He glanced at Nie Mingjue, who looked away as if he had something to be guilty for.

Ah, Wei Ming merely thought in amusement. So that’s what they were doing while I was asleep yesterday.

“I will discuss it with him and write back as soon as possible,” Wei Ming mused- bowing to Madam Yu. “My thanks to Sect Leader Nie, Madam Yu, and Sect Leader Jiang for thinking of such things.”

He pretended not to hear Nie Mingjue’s cursing under his breath as Madam Yu nodded stiffly.

-

“You have his spices?”

“Yes.”

“Good because if you forgot he’s gonna be whining all day and all night about it,” Nie Mingjue grumbled. “He made me promise to remind you.”

Wei Ming rose a brow in question, “My memory is not impeccable but it’s hardly so terrible that I would forget. I bought the spices almost three days ago.”

Lan Xichen coughed abruptly, causing eyes to turn to him as his reddened ears gave away…something. Lan Qiren only had a look of utter confusion as his nephew waved off concerns. Wei Ming had a sneaking suspicion that the poor boy might have been remembering The Resentment of Chunshan, but he couldn’t find it in himself to be particularly embarrassed. It was simply one of those facts you accepted after hearing the song all day and all night if one happened to be staying in a brothel house, the song was quite popular so all of Qing Jing just swallowed the bitter pill and continued on with their lives.

So instead of beating around the bush, Wei Ming simply nodded magnanimously when Lan Xichen’s subsequent pairs of eyes turned to him with wide expressions attempting to communicate by thought alone.

Hm, maybe it was some sort of stroke of good luck that he was the only one to handle the waterborne abyss alone. In hindsight, leaving it to these children might have been a tad more troublesome in execution- and what were they going to do once we found it anyway? No one had included him in their game plans to ultimately get rid of the thing; such a task was hard even in his era. You needed someone of high cultivation level to do it if you wanted it done swiftly, even Ming Fan couldn’t do it on his own until his later few years of his life- not without seriously injuring something anyway.

His hand unconsciously rose to lay flat on where his dāntián should have been, brows mentally furrowing.

“Oi.”

He looked up, “Ah yes.”

With a bow and exchanged goodbyes and unspoken promises to keep in touch (Wei Ming to Xichen this time- he worked hard to get that boy to express his grief and gently shove him on the path to further emotional intelligence and awareness; he’s not letting any fuddy-duddy destroy the progress he’s made thus far) the parties of the Nie Sect and Lan Sect parted for the return home.

[ Log: File:Save_15-218.2.1721.log ]

Wei Ming wished that the return home would be decidedly less eventful than the night hunt but such things were apparently too much to ask for.

Yunping City was…well, it was a city. Not quite as nice as some of the other towns, but not so bad that Wei Ming had an overtly prominent urge to avoid the city as best he could. Besides, he actually had relatively fond memories of the place during his earlier tenures as a rogue.

The Nie Party was staying in the city for some rest before making the last legs back to Qinghe Nie. With Lang Fengyi and Mei Lin walking around the wares before the agreed restaurant Wei Ming had idly pointed out as having good food and even better company.

“Are you going to follow me wherever I go?” Wei Ming asked as Nie Mingjue trailed behind him. “There must be a number of things Sect Leader Nie can amuse himself with rather than just following this disciple.”

Nie Mingjue only shrugged at the already mildly irate man, “I’m curious.”

“About what?”

“You said you’ve been here before right?” Nie Mingjue nodded to the bustling town. “You’re usually a sponge for useless facts, spit some.”

Wei Ming sighed, turning to make a few turns. Considering the other man was taller than him it was no hardship to keep up, but every so often Wei Ming would glance at the man before continuing on his journey. Wordless, the two made their way through the winding and twisting roads just until they made a stop.

“I am going to earn some money,” Wei Ming continued despite Nie Mingjue’s encroaching protest. “Not for myself.”

He opened the doors and walked in; Nie Mingjue following dumbly behind.

Nie Mingjue was expecting a number a things, and considering how they first met he really should have expected the brothel.

There was a surprising chorus of delight upon Wei Ming’s entrance, to which was when he realized where exactly the little shit took him.

Wei Ming smiled, small but no less shit-eating, “Welcome to the Hidden Lotus Mingjue-ge. Do enjoy yourself.”

Eyes turned to him, clearly interested.

Hoh? ‘Ge’? A-Fan?” Women giggled, “Has someone manage to catch your eye? Our little A-Fan who didn’t care about pretty girls or handsome men? How unfortunate! And here we thought you’d be little A-Fan some time longer.”

“He’s a friend,” Wei Ming replied easily, turning his smiling face into something disgustingly kinder. Well- it wasn’t disgusting because it was towards the women but because he could see the hidden glee at Mingjue’s steadily flushing face.

He had never stepped foot in a brothel before, he should be excused as a still very much…active teenager, regardless if he’s had to ruthlessly suppress it through training and the activity that was paperwork. He was starting to really wonder what the hell he saw in this rat bastard of a disciple who clearly took the opportunity to vindictively throw him under the carriage just for following him around.

“You have some thick face if you think you can just come here.” A new voice said.

Nie Mingjue turned to see a young man, perhaps a little younger than Lan Xichen by a year but a little older than Wei Ming even though the old man would live and has lived passed all of them. He had his hands around his hips with an unimpressed expression on his face.

The boy turned his face towards Nie Mingjue, who froze as he felt the frighteningly familiar gaze raked up and down. It made Mingjue feel rather shabby despite the ridiculous fact that Nie Mingjue was wearing his Sect Leader clothes.

The boy turned sharply back to Wei Ming with such a harsh ferocity that he swore he heard a pop, “You ass.”

Wei Ming maintained his facade of innocence, “Yao-ge, that’s an awfully mean thing to say to your golden goose. What if I can’t play anymore because of your cold treatment?”

“Oh don’t pull that with me Wei Fan,” the boy scowled. “Why did you bring the Sect Leader of Qinghe Nie here?!”

“I came with only the intention of earning some more money, the fact that Nie Mingjue followed is his doing alone,” Wei Ming defended, glancing at Nie Mingjue.

“Aiyo you- if it wasn’t for the fact that you helped my mother I would hit you with your own damn sword right now.” The boy hissed, turning to Nie Mingjue with a deep bow. “My sincerest apologies Sect Leader Nie, this one is named Meng Yao. Please forgive us for not realizing, the blame is solely on the man next to you.”

Wei Ming sniffed, “Rude. And it’s a sabre, not a sword.”

Nie Mingjue looked between the two, expression slack enough that no manner of pestering could have hidden the increasingly alarmed and/or surprised look that was growing on his face.

“A sword is edged on both sides whereas a sabre is one-sided-“

“Shut up.”

Nie Mingjue gravely walked forward, startling Meng Yao as he held him by the shoulders, “Meng Yao.”

“A-Ah, yes?”

“As of today,” He said solemnly. “You and I are sworn brothers.”

Huh?”

“Bonded through the fact that we are not blinded to that old man’s magnanimous front and know the truth,” Nie Mingjue said solemnly. “That he is a cranky asshole.

Meng Yao’s expression banked immediately in solidarity, “So you too have suffered, my condolences Sect Leader.”

Rude.” Wei Ming scowled. “Auntie Meng you’re son and my Sect Leader are bullying me. This is a heinous crime, I’ve done no wrong.”

A chuckle echoed through the brothel house as a woman in well-loved silk walked down the steps, the other patrons of the house who were relaxing alongside their company in mild amusement stood up slightly straighter as the matron of the house appeared before them, expression fond.

“There there Wei Fan, allow them this. I’m sure you’ve put your poor Sect Leader through some trials.” Meng Shi replied with a small tilt of a smile.

“Even Auntie Meng has turned against me, what sort of betrayal is this?” Wei Ming grumbled. “Well. I see my presence is unwelcome. This scorned Wei Ming will take his leave then.”

Wei Ming went ignored as Meng Yao waved Nie Mingjue in, “Tell me- what sort of so-called wisdom has he been spouting these days?”

Nie Mingjue easily reached out and grappled at the ends of Wei Ming’s disciple garb with a heavy hand and an even heavier grip, “It’s been hell. He belittled Sect Leader Jiang, Lan Qiren, and may or may not have started having tea meetings with Madam Yu. I’m not sure, he hasn’t told me shit about what he did in Lotus Pier when no one was watching.”

Wei Ming squawked, “So you were having me watched!”

“The last time we you talked about Jiang Fengmian you were muttering something about breaking his nose- you threatened him though I don’t know what you said. Excuse me for thinking that I had a cause for concern.” Nie Mingjue turned back to Meng Yao. “He handed it pretty well all things considered, almost made someone cry.”

Meng Yao rolled his eyes, “He has a habit of meddling with other’s affairs. My mother became in charge of the brothel after he sent the former master of the place into a fit by taking apart his life and laying it out before him. I had known the man for some years but never have I seen him break down in such a way. We were lucky many of the less than savory patrons had started avoiding the place after rumors of a cultivator’s visit began circulating the town. Little did they know it was a twelve-year old running around hitting people with a fan when he got too frustrated.”

“I was not running and it wasn’t because of frustration; there are some people in this world who refuse to listen through anything less than a solid hit to the head. At the time, you so happened to be one of them,” Wei Ming muttered under his breath. “If I had known you two would become such good friends I would have brought Sect Leader Nie here sooner.”

Nie Mingjue pretended to ignore the ladies in the background cooing as he watched Meng Yao’s expression grow that slightest bit softer.

“Thank you for coming by Wei Fan,” the other said quietly.

“Hmph.”

“Oi,” Nie Mingjue shook him slightly from where he had a good grip. “We’re just teasing, ease up Old Man.”

[1750]

“By the gods,” Meng Yao muttered. “It’s gotten worse.”

Nie Mingjue agreed, but in order to understand what they were discussing, one must understand the fundamental habits of Yunping City and the Hidden Lotus. Yunping City was a crossroads to several other countries, Yunmeng was its location but it also allowed an easy access to roads to get to Lanling, Jiangnan, and Qishan due to its’ unique location nestled in between three territories with easy access to a forth if one kept going north and turned west. As such, there were several travelers: merchants, cultivators, farmers, etcetera- that came across the city and subsequently enjoyed what they had to offer. The Hidden Lotus had been one such location, even garnering the attention of a sect leader before, mostly due to its unique prostitutes. Up until a few years ago, the Hidden Lotus had been quite an unsavory place until someone had gone and replaced the former owner with one of their own ladies: Meng Shi- who had recovered from her fever due to the actions of two visiting rogue cultivators.

Unfortunately for any past visitors who took advantage of the easy to payoff previous owner, one of the visiting rogue cultivators was a temperamental then 49 year-old former Head Disciple in the body of a twelve year old with a functioning and rapidly growing golden core. That same “boy” was now 52 and has gotten only more ludicrously ridiculous as his body has begun to mature and catch up to his mind, with a dāntián not only stronger- but more powerful than it really should have been.

Which lead to the one-tenth of an incense stick before disaster that was: One of said older customers visiting for the first time in quite a while crossing paths with a physically 15-year old Wei Ming who was now not only an accomplished cultivator of the Nie Sect- but had a fan club that has only gotten relatively bigger with rumors of his recent defeat of a waterborne abyss now flying around the gossip trails. These variables all lead to the result of Wei Ming bodily kicking out said customer into the street and following him out with a fan drawn and a menacing look on his face while some of the newer ladies taken in by Meng Shi sighed with longing. Some of the new boys that had been recently taken in may or may not have matched but it wasn’t Nie Mingjue’s business.

The yelling from outside actually made it in somewhat and Meng Yao could only rub his temples in exasperation while Nie Mingjue took a sip of some actually good tea that his younger disciple supposedly favored.

The rat bastard was holding out on him, he always gave Nie Mingjue the bitter medicine ones that tasted like grass.

“I’m going to hit him when he comes back,” Nie Mingjue muttered idly. “He always gives me the weird tasting ones- I thought it was just him being an old man but now I know he actually still has a working sense of taste.”

“I just repaired these a few hours ago you ignorant baboon of a man-!”

“Oh? May Sect Leader Nie describes what it tastes like?” Meng Yao asked, watching the doors closely.

“It tastes like tree bark.”

“Ah, then Sect Leader might be drinking Reishi mushrooms- I’ve heard with stress.”

“You spit at me one more time and I will rip your cock out with my bare hands mark my words-“

“You can call me Mingjue, we’ve bonded through knowing the hopelessly cranky-“ Mingjue made a face as the last part registered. “Wait, has he always been this vulgar?”

“A-Ying isn’t here and he doesn’t need to keep appearances,” Meng Yao replied with a sigh. “And I believe that the man he’s currently threatening just ripped his robes, which means that A-Fan is about an incense stick away from-“

“Get back here you useless piece of shit, maybe if I shove this fan up your ass you’ll finally get what it means to have respect-

“…exploding.” Nie Mingjue finished, standing up. “I better grab him before he follows through with his words.”

Meng Yao nodded faintly, muttering to himself, “He most definitely has gotten worse.”  

Nie Mingjue stepped out. The other, calmer and perhaps slightly terrified patrons and courtesans inside simply listened to the idle chatter and the subsequent screaming that followed before silence and a small whimper that faded with time. Abruptly, the doors opened again with Nie Mingjue dragging Wei Ming back.

“A-Fan, have some tea,” One of the women gushed- brushing back his hair as he sat with a scowl that pierced the fear of gods into the other men who were also enjoying the company.

He pointed outside, “If you act like him- not even Sect Leader Nie can stop me from hunting you down. Understood?”

They all nodded.

Meng Yao, sighed, “And thus marks the day that the threat of Wei Fan has begun anew.”

“So when were you going to tell me that you’ve been giving me mushroom tea.”

Wei Ming frowned, “Reishi mushrooms are renowned for their medicinal properties, excuse me for looking after your health Sect Leader.”

“It tastes like tree bark.”

“It’s good for you.” Wei Ming sniffed. “It boosts the immune system-“

“I’m a cultivator for fuck’s sake we don’t get sick.”

-as well as helps your high blood pressure, you’re far too prone for it for my liking,” Wei Ming made a face. “Xichen has commented on it also so don’t you dare tell me that it’s nothing to be concerned about.”

“What are you- my wife?

Meng Yao idly noticed someone gasping, but frankly he was a little more than entertained by the certifiable drama happening right in front of him and his tea.

“Apologies for being so concerned,” Wei Ming rolled his eyes. “And if I was your wife I would do damn well more than just the mushroom tea. I let you get away with the Jīngròu zhīzhā don’t I? Furthermore it’s not as if I give you only Reishi mushrooms you whiny prick, I’ve given you milk tea before haven’t I?”

“You’ve only given it to me once in the past three months you sadistic old man, and none of the servants can tell me what you did to the damn thing!”

Meng Yao smiled leisurely, “I can tell you what he does if you’re so fond of it Sect Leader Nie.”

Wei Ming’s eyes snapped to the man in an instant, “Don’t you dare.”

Nie Mingjue clapped Wei Ming over the head while extending a hand to muffle Wei Ming’s words, the latter angrily speaking through his fingers, “Tell me.”

Wei Ming glared at Meng Yao.

“For the love of- did you just lick my hand?!”

“Meng Yao if you keep quiet about the tea I’ll give you the music to Unsullied,” Wei Ming offered. “Right here, right now. With the lyrics.”

Meng Yao visibly faltered, Meng Shi in the distance straightening with wide eyes. Unsullied was the one song Wei Ming hadn’t preformed in years, not since he last passed by the Hidden Lotus. It had been a favorite once it had been sung but Wei Ming doesn’t often perform it unless he was feeling particularly in the mood for it.

Actually- it was mostly because he was self-conscious about his voice since the piece is originally performed by a man- and that man had previously been Shizun so he really didn’t wish to mess it up.

“…Add the piece A-Ying made when he was here on the dízi and you’ll have my silence. And you have to perform it today.”

“Deal.” Wei Ming used the milk tea threat to help encourage Nie Mingjue do his work on time- it would all be for naught if the man himself figured out how to actually make it. “Give me a quarter of an hour.”

One of the ladies ran out.

Nie Mingjue turned his head to raise an eyebrow in question to Meng Yao.

“It was a very popular song once Wei Fan performed it.”

[1815]

“I can’t believe he’s really going up there,” Lang Fengyi muttered. Currently- the Nie Sect party sans their youngest were eating their dinner at the Hidden Lotus, which had crowded significantly once word of Wei Ming’s impending performance started to spread around. Even Mei Lin and himself got caught up in the news once they heard and made their way over, giving a variety of questioning looks as Nie Mingjue waited on what looked like the best seat to view the performance considering other musicians, mostly women of the brothel, were talking excitedly amongst each other.

Mei Lin glanced nervously at the crowd before turning to Nie Mingjue, “Are you certain this is wise?”

“Why not?” Nie Mingjue shrugged, drinking some milk tea Meng Yao had made out of apology for not surrendering the recipe. “They seem pretty excited about it, we can make fun of him later.”

“That isn’t what I’m concerned about Sect Leader,” she muttered under her breath. “It’s gonna get even bigger after this.”

Lang Fengyi glanced at her, “What’s gonna get bigger?”

Mei Lin shook her head, glancing idly between Nie Mingjue and the still empty stage.

-

“Meng Yao.”

He looked up to find Wei Ming dressed well in one of the clothes offered to him by his mother, he looked less like a disciple and more like a young master of a prominent family with his posture and easy expression that gave nothing away. Meng Yao certainly mistook him for one even in his slightly aged clothes when they first met.

“Is Auntie Shi still asking you to meet with your sire?” the other asked quietly.

“…We have agreed not to discuss it further,” Meng Yao said hesitantly. “I apologize, I know you were hoping to convince her-“

Wei Ming shook his head, “It’s fine. Some people cannot be convinced no matter how hard one tries.”  

“…Does it still hurt?”

Wei Ming shrugged, “It throbs as all old wounds do, but that is a fact of life…do you still desire his approval?”

“…Not so much anymore but…” Meng Yao gave him a helpless smile. “It is what Mother wishes. There is still time to convince her, it’s not as if she will be dying anytime soon. Not anymore. Seeing Madam Jin like that, it has changed my views somewhat. I never would have thought that a woman like her could ever look at me and see nothing but pity rather than hatred. It isn’t…the best, but it’s more than I would have expected.”

Wei Ming hummed.

“The relationship between you and Sect Leader Nie…”

“What of it?”

Meng Yao shrugged uncertainly, “You two seem close, that’s all.”

“We’re friends- or at least, I believe we are? It’s what he wanted before, and I find that I don’t wish to disagree with the notion,” Wei Ming sighed. “Regardless, A-Ying takes precedent.”

“I understand,” Meng Yao said quietly. “But if there is something in your life now that you wish to pursue, I don’t believe A-Ying would mind. If anything he would encourage it.”

Wei Ming threw a curious look towards the other boy, “You’ve lost me.”

Ah, Meng Yao smiled, “Never mind then, you’ve answered the question.”

Wei Ming tipped his head in acknowledgment before turning to leave for his performance.

“Good luck Sect Leader Nie,” Meng Yao murmured under his breath just before he followed after the younger man. “You’re going to need it.”

[1830]

“If you decide to become a cultivator, you’re welcomed to Qinghe Nie,” Nie Mingjue said as soon as everything was said and done. “Thank you for your hospitality Meng Yao.”

“It was an honor Sect Leader- ah, Mingjue,” Meng Yao smiled back. “Your offer is greatly appreciated, however I will help my mother here until then.”

“Of course, I wish the both of you luck,” Nie Mingjue replied. “And don’t think I forgot that we’re sworn brothers- we are, as soon as I can bring Xichen into enlightenment about Wei Ming’s asshole tendencies, he’s still too star-struck but soon enough those ideals of the philosophical thoughtful Master Wei will come crashing down soon enough.”

Wei Ming, in the distance, simply scowled. Voice to worn and body too tired to come up with a witty retort.

“I look forward to the day,” Meng Yao replied with a wily smile of amusement. “Wei Ming.”

“??” Wei Ming rose to meet his eyes.

“Good luck, and thank you.”

The other man grunted, much to the amusement of the watching crowd and beyond. Some people cooing at the motion as he flipped a hand back and forth in front of him as if to wave off the thanks in some strange show of modesty.

Mei Lin watched that group carefully.

“Hey come on,” Nie Mingjue murmured- poking at Wei Ming side. “You gonna be awake enough for this last trip back or am I going to have to carry you?”

Mei Lin’s attention was stolen as Lang Fengyi began to choke, Meng Yao as well seemed to take on a particularly pleased expression that Meng Shi had some trouble discerning why even as she watched from the background; having been previously content to let Meng Yao handle the good byes and farewells.

Wei Ming shook his head, flicking a hand that allowed his sabre to slide and present itself for him to ride with a raised eyebrow towards Nie Mingjue- who shook his head in exasperation.

That was how they left.

[2350]

“GĒGE!”

“DA-GE!”

Wei Ming grunted in surprise as Wei Ying barreled in from what should have been Huaisang’s room- Nie Mingjue had no such issues as he fully took on Nie Huaisang’s excited tackle, the two brothers conversing quietly while the other two simply looked at each other for a few moments.

Wei Ying grinned, “Did you get my spice?”

Wei Ming nodded.

“Yay!~” Wei Ying snuggled closer. “Welcome back Gēge.”

Wei Ming hummed, returning the hug. “Glad to be back.”

Chapter Text

EXTRA FILE 1: Save_16-262.3.1221.log


Nie Mingjue starred at the book before him with a level of seriousness and concentration so severe that many of the visiting disciples thought him to be in intense thought.

Not...exactly.

Where people thought Nie Mingjue was analyzing a document of utmost importance- he was actually looking at a book he accidentally purchased the last time he went out to check the local store. At first he thought that it was some part of the Cang Qiong Series that he had never seen before- the title: War God’s Teachings seemed promising enough.

He probably should have checked with the store clerk when the man gave him a surprised look- but since said man had just shrugged him off and accepted his coin anyway- he figured it was just a passing surprise.

Nope.

“L-Liu-shibo,” Ming Fan pressed up against the wall of the cave- body weary but longing as the taller man- the War God of Bai Zhan Peak pressed in further-

By the gods, what was this? Nie Mingjue was valiantly attempting to keep the red from reaching his cheeks but at this rate-

“Ming Fan…” Liu Qingge murmured, towering over the shorter Head Disciple. The war had raked its claws on all of them, but none more so than the lost master-less disciple who carried on with his head held high. “You don’t have to keep pretenses with me.”

Nie Mingjue nearly gagged at the lines before flipping to another page.

“Haah, Qingge-“

He closed the book with a snap.

He should throw it away.

He really should chuck it at a window right then and there.

But-

But now he was curious. And somewhat offended, Ming Fan was the disciple who rose above his station to lead his peak. Surely he should have been less submissive than…than what the book was saying?

“Sect Leader Nie?”

“GAH-!”

Wei Ming blinked as Nie Mingjue held the book aloft over his head, as if he was afraid Wei Ming would snatch it from his fingers. Admittedly it wasn’t Nie Mingjue’s proudest moment but in the name of the Peak Lords he didn’t know what his head disciple would do to him if he got caught with- with erotica of all things.

“Are you alright?” Wei Ming frowned, turning up to glance at the book. “Good story?”

“Er- it’s…” Nie Mingjue trailed off, mouth impersonating a fish as he scrambled for something to say. “Interesting.”

Wei Ming lifted both eyebrows as he turned slightly and nodded, “I see.”

“Wei Fan.”

Turning back to face Nie Mingjue Wei Ming tilted his head, “Yes?”

“You’ve read plenty of legends of Cang Qiong Mountain,” Nie Mingjue attempted- pausing briefly before he could stutter. “Do you know if Ming Fan had any…other relations? Beyond his martial siblings?”

Wei Ming frowned, “Define ‘relations’?”

“Just…” Nie Mingjue trialed off. “Anybody who wasn’t a part of his martial generation? Maybe someone he…gets along with?”

Hurriedly Nie Mingjue added, “I’m only asking because it seems as if he was a lone wolf in most of the stories.”

“Ah I see,” Wei Ming nodded as if Nie Mingjue’s curiosity made sense- which um- no but he thanked all the gods on his side that Wei Ming somehow pursued that his curiosity was simply on that of a reader rather than…other…reasons. “He frequently sparred with Peak Lord Liu Qingge for one.”

Nie Mingjue choked.

“Mingjue?!”

“No no-“ Nie Mingjue coughed, “Keep- keep going, or expand a little? How did they even get along so well anyway?”

“Ah- well, Liu Qingge was the one who initially steadied me- Ming Fan after Shen Qingqiu’s self-destruction. It seems there was guilt all around so Liu Qingge was one of the peak lords who took responsibility for Qing Jing Peak- and one of his actions was to spar with its Head Disciple as much as possible to further improve the Peak’s survival,” Wei Ming hummed to himself as if in thought. “Initially it was also to help see if he was ready to move on to take the title of Peak Master but…well, it was agreed on mutual sides that such an action during a war was too rash to undertake.”

“Huh- Peak Lord Liu...That’s it?”

“Well, there was also Tianlang-jun. “

Huh?”

Wei Ming shrugged, as if helpless, “There had been a mutual agreement between the two during a brief meeting when Ming Fan was heavily injured. After that they frequently had meetings of tea to discuss things- however, it was mostly one-sided with Ming Fan listening and ignoring Tianlang-jun’s partial flirting.”

“Flirting?”

“It seems to be a characteristic of sorts, it never really expanded beyond words alone- so it’s generally assumed,” by me, Wei Ming did not add. “That it was just some thoughtless comments. Ming Fan wasn’t exactly the best-looking cultivator ever amongst Cang Qiong Mountain Sect so there was also never any romantic interest from outside either- so most flirtations were taken as light-hearted jokes at most.”

Nie Mingjue huffed as if personally offended, “What good are looks when you don’t have the character and the strength to match? Ming Fan deserved better.”

Wei Ming chuckled, “Well. Now we will never know if anyone was interested- his story ends rather early after all.”

“Yeah…” Nie Mingjue frowned, clutching the book in his hands tighter, ”Too early.”

“What was that?”

“Nothing,” Nie Mingjue said hurriedly. “Don’t you have disciples to torture? Was there something you needed from me?”

Wei Ming rolled his eyes, “I was here to deliver tea actually- milk tea this time.”

“Oh hell yes.

Wei Ming shook his head, tilting to conceal a smirk, “Consider this your reward for finishing your paperwork on time. In addition... don’t worry about finishing today- I’ll handle it.”

“…Okay what did I do for the bonus?”

Wei Ming pressed a finger against his lips and winked, “That’s for me to know. Don’t worry- it’s something you’ve done, not something you’ve yet to do. Enjoy your break Sect Leader.”

Wei Ming left as mysteriously as he appeared.

With that said, Nie Mingjue turned back to the book and opened it slightly, reading one of the lines.

“Ming Fan, you aren’t alone anymore,” Liu Qingge muttered, hands cradling sunken cheeks as the tired disciple stared back without many reactions. Without much emotion. Drained was he, all Liu Qingge could feel was pain as he watched the formerly proud disciple be reduced into a shell of his former self. “I’m here. You can rely on me now.”

“…” Nie Mingjue sighed, moving to take a sip of the deliciously cold tea. Somehow not able to wash the sting of vinegar that came up from his chest without much reason why.

"Can't you rely on me, just a little?" You pleaded, gripping the older man by his sleeves. "Why do you have to do everything by yourself?! I may be young but I can fight by your side." 

"[         ],"  Ming Fan smiled sadly. "This is something I have to do." 

His lips were soft, so much softer than the rest of him as he pressed himself up gently. Slowly pulling away like every part of him was begging to stay, it pulled at your heart to watch him struggle between himself and his duty. You wanted to trap him here, to take on the weight of the world that seemed to press against his shoulders without anyone else noticing. To ease that frown just a little, to make him laugh just a little longer. 

"A-jue," Ming Fan said softly under his breath, long lashes flitting up at him and framing dark silver eyes. "I-"

Nie Mingjue turned red again and forced himself to stop fantasizing. 

He thought he was over this phase a long time ago, so why the hell was he picturing Wei Ming as Ming Fan?!

-

“If you’re going to hide erotica I suggest you do so somewhere other than the Sect Library,” Wei Ming scolded. All the same, he sighed as his already re-traumatized juniors simply nodded in affirmation as they bowed to him.

“Next time I find these- I’m burning them,” Wei Ming said carefully, thanking all the Lords he studied under that the red wasn’t reaching his face. “The Sect Library is not your private stash.”

“Yes da-shixiong.”

“Understood da-shixiong.”

He sighed, extending his hand for them to take the previously confiscated books before watching them scramble up to take it.

Still- he could tell they were self-made, the ink stains were far too messy to be from the print press, “And.”

They froze in mid-movement, turning to their head disciple in fear.

“Liu Qingge was considered a god among Peak Lords because he was very handsome and very rich due to his status as a young master,” he said offhandedly. “He wouldn’t begin courtship by sex. Just so you know, there would at least be some months before he would even ask unless otherwise influenced.”

The two disciples’ eyes widened considerably before turning to each other and turning to Wei Ming with a bow, “Thank you Da-shixiong! We will take your words to heart!”

Wei Ming sighed as he watched them go, shaking his head in exasperation and hoping that his ears would stop burning already.

“What the hell is Mingjue reading that stuff for anyway,” He muttered. “I’ve seen better papapa than that by Paper Bird in my day. And who would pass over Bingqiu over that weird pair?”

He shook his head, “Whatever, it’s not my place to judge his preference. They all think they’re fictional anyway.”

Then he thought about Nie Mingjue reading said papapa and gave in, cheeks flushing delicately.

“Enjoy your break now Mingjue,” he muttered, under his breath walking ahead with more stiffness than usual whilst mentally planning how he was going to subtly put the Sect Leader under the grinder. He knew Nie Mingjue wanted some more free time but did he have to read the thing while he was still in his office? He couldn’t have waited to be in his rooms?

Lang Fengyi pressed himself further into the bush, his heart racing as his terrifying yet weirdly amazing teacher Wei Ming passed by him while grumbling under his breath.

To think that Da-shixiong would be critiquing his work and pitting it up against the legendary Paper Bird!

-

Shen Qingqiu paused before throwing a fan, smacking it directly into Shang Qinghua’s forehead.

“OW! Cucumber-bro what was that for?”

“I felt a disturbance and I knew it was you.”

“Cucumber-bro!”

Chapter Text

14. [ Log: File:Save_15-221.1.1221.log ]


When Nie Mingjue finally was given the authority to promote Wei Ming to head discipleship, many disciples and elders within the Sect didn’t quite know what to think in relation to how effective Wei Ming would be as a Head Disciple. They knew that the man was capable of handling teaching, see: Wei Wuxian. But the management of an entire generation of disciples and more at such a young age, many were questioning what sort of exercise of authority Wei Ming would use to keep normally rowdy disciples in line. A reward system? Threats?

Pity that.

Wei Ming starred across disciples that were technically older than him physically, themselves valiantly holding themselves together for what it was worth- but no one could deny that the image was just a little bit comical.

“I doubt you have no idea who I am so we’ll cut the introductions out. We’ll be running around the Sect grounds five times,” Wei Ming said slowly, eyeing all of them. “If I outpace you, you will be adding additional training on top of your work. Yes- it will cut into your free time.”

“You have a grace of a single incense stick, start.”

Exchanging looks, the older disciples began their run. At first they began with a lazy half-jog, it didn’t seem necessary to exert one’s self so early in five laps of the entire grounds.

That is- until Wei Ming ran passed them.

They began to jog- just slightly- it was impossible for Wei Ming to complete the circuit that quickly. Though the disciples who weren’t sure decided to maintain a faster pace, just in case- leaving behind the lazier and mostly disbelieving ones.  

Then Wei Ming came behind them.

“So you’ve chosen additional training,” Wei Ming blandly stated- not even looking as if he was breaking a sweat. “Admirable.”

He ran ahead of them just as they squawked in panic and began to really kick up dirt.

By the end of the fifth pace- those who had decided to cut their losses and run ahead stared in awe as Wei Ming switched to stretching- lithe limbs bent in odd ways as he stretched them behind his back and forward. Bending backwards almost completely ninety degrees before bending forward to pull at his legs again.

Wei Ming straightened, observing the now disciples-in-waiting before nodding to the training field, “Draw your sabres and partner up by twos. I don’t care who you partner up with right now, I want parry exercises and do them as mechanically as you’re able. I will be walking around to observe and improve, if you have any questions ask. No question is too stupid neither is it irrelevant. You cannot know what you do not pursue.”

The disciples scrambled, pairing up as commanded and initiating stance. For the next ten minutes, Wei Ming walked around each pair- occasionally stopping to point something out or offer suggestions that would further improve.

“Da-shixiong, isn’t this a differing style from the Nie Sect Sabre technique?” One of the disciples looked up in curiosity.

“You’ve been training and studying the sabre for close to three years now, four, for some of you,” Wei Ming paused as he quietly nudged the disciple’s feet a little further apart. “You know the basics, now you must extrapolate from it. A good cultivator’s technique is always derivative from their basics, it makes it singular- unique. Erstwhile implementing what they have learned. I’m not here to teach you how to use your sabre, I’m here to show you how to use it most effectively with what you know.”

Wei Ming looked up to stare all of them down, “Second round. I want spars, use what you know and don’t stick strictly to the sword forms. I want you trying to win, not copy the instruction manual.”

This went on for some time.

“That’s a good try but don’t sacrifice your footwork for flare.”

“Lean more towards your opposite side the next time you try that.”

“You’ve got a stronger arm than your opponent- use it.”

It was at that moment that the facts began to sink in; that Wei Ming was one hell of a teacher but he was a damn good one.

-[ Log: File:Save_15-221.3.1711.log]-

“Nie Mingjue we need to talk.”

Nie Mingjue looked up from his paperwork with a raised eyebrow, “What?”  

Nie Zhonghui looked thoroughgoingly rattled, which didn’t make sense considering he just got back from his own night hunt party a day ago and should have been resting in the meantime. Regardless, Nie Mingjue sighed as he turned his attention from the expense bills from the talismans used over the past few days.

“Wei Ming.”

Nie Mingjue frowned, “I thought he was doing well?”

“No you don’t understand,” Nie Zhonghui panted. “He’s doing amazing.”

Nie Mingjue frowned, even more confused than he was before, “So what’s the problem?”

“You remember Lang Hua? Lang Fengyi’s sister who joined a few years after her brother? The one who has trouble holding onto her form?”

“I do- what of it?”

“She’s outpacing her class, now.” Nie Zhonghui, now that he was looking at him, looked genuinely excited. “Her footwork’s improved massively in the past few days- in fact- all of the classes Wei Ming’s been teaching has been excelling. Even some of the lectures, we’ve got better scores than I’ve seen in years Mingjue.”

“Zhonghui, why the hell are you surprised?” Nie Mingjue mused. “Have you seen Wei Ying?”

“Yeah but I thought that was due to the fact that Wei Ying’s a genius I didn’t think it was because Wei Ming was some sort of teaching prodigy,” Nie Zhonghui said excitedly. “He’s even got most of his shidi’s and shimei’s on the same level in terms of strength now.”

“Huh? What does he have them do?”

“Uh…I think they’ve been running over the hills?”

“They’ve what?” Nie Mingjue looked incredulous. “Are you sure? That terrain is rough even for me.”

“I haven’t gotten the juicy details, but I think he ran with them the first time he wanted them to do five laps- he wanted them to do ten but they did well on their tests so he cut it in half as a reward.”

“I can’t believe it, he’s really doing it, the crazy asshole. He’s running them into the ground like he said he was.”

“It’s not like he’s leaving them there anyway- he usually runs ahead of them.”

“For the love of-“ Nie Mingjue sighed, looking down at his paperwork. “Whatever whatever- as long as he doesn’t actually kill a disciple he can do what he likes.”

Nie Zhonghui laughed in his face.

-[1830] -

Clang!

Shing!

Grit-!

Nie disciples of all ages gathered the training field, it was near dusk but that didn’t stop them from eagerly watching as two accomplished cultivators duked it out on the training field. Nie Mingjue was among them as he and some elders watched.

Wei Wuxian side-stepped his brother and attempted to catch him on a backlash- avoided by sheer virtue of Wei Ming’s autonomy as he twisted himself out of the way. The two of them exchanged blows much like a dance, their sabres clanging across the other, beating out a cheerful chorus.

The more time wore on, the more people watched with wide eyes as the two cultivators seemed to step it up a notch. With more fanciful flourishes made to distract and harsher blows, the two exchanged the spotlight like it was a responsibility to avoid. Eventually however, Wei Wuxian waned as his sword arm grew weak- allowing Wei Ming to end their dance as he twisted his sabre around the blade of Wei Wuxian’s practice sword and wrung it out of his hand- forcing the younger to lose his grip and therefore, his match.

Wei Ming was smiling, “You’ve done well.”

Wei Wuxian pouted, “I didn’t win though.”

Wei Ming watched his brother carefully, although it may seem alright, Wei Ying’s pouts weren’t nearly so heavy when he was simply being himself. Which meant something was bothering him.

Wei Ming shook his head, pulling his brother into a side-arm hug as he tugged him closer. Eyeing the crowd with a raised eyebrow, “Don’t you all have something better to do?”

At the poignant jab, everyone who had stayed to watch scrambled back to their duties as if they had something to do in the first place. The only exception being Nie Mingjue as he lingered in the background to watch the brothers walk out of sight.

“A-Ying are you alright?” Wei Ming said softly. “You were distracted today.”

“I’m okay Gēge. I just…” Wei Ying frowned, making a motion to indicate his frustration. “I trained really hard while you were gone and I can’t even get one win in. Maybe I’m not really that good after all.”

“A-Ying…” Wei Ming sighed, trailing off as he tugged his brother closer. “…Maybe A-Ying’s form isn’t suitable for the sabre.”

“But you use it!” Wei Ying huffed in frustration. “I don’t understand why it’s so hard for me.”

The older boy shook his head, “A-Ying- I’m used to multiple weapons. I know what I’m comfortable with and what I’m not. I just happened to be used to my sabre. That doesn’t mean it’s going to apply to you. Why do you think there are Sects who use the sword instead of the sabre?”

“B-But,” Wei Wuxian mumbled. “Da-ge said I was a member of Nie Sect- so I should use Nie Sect form.”

Wei Ming snorted, “That doesn’t mean you have to use it with a Dao A-Ying. Do I look like I could lug around a full Dadao to you? With these stick arms?”

“No…Gēge has strong arms, not stick arms,” Still Wei Ying couldn’t help but laugh. “…So, what should I do Gēge?”

Wei Ming pursed his lip, “Well. You could explore other styles, maybe you can find one suitable for you. I told you about Madam Yu’s offer didn’t I?”

“But…you don’t want me going to Lotus Pier I thought…” Wei Ying trailed off. “We avoided it so long, you always said it’s because there was trouble there…is it really okay for me to go?”

Wei Ming simply smiled, “If there’s trouble- it wouldn’t be because of you. Well- not on purpose anyway.”

Wei Wuxian giggled, trailing off faintly.

“A-Ying?”

Wei Wuxian turned his head and pressed his face against his brother’s clothes. Warm from his body heat and slightly harder from how it was clearly a Head Disciple Uniform. Slightly ornamented and personalized because of his position, it already started to have the unique smell of clean air and floral like. Probably from the lavender Wei Ming gardened regularly on a bi-weekly basis.

“You just got back though,” He grumbled.

Wei Ming smiled, carding a hand through Wei Ying’s messy, wavy hair. “It isn’t as if you’re leaving tomorrow A-Ying. If you decide to do it, and only if. It’s going to be some time before you’re due to arrive. These things take time.”

“What does Gēge want Ying-er to do?”

“…Father grew up in Lotus Pier,” He said softly. In truth, he was reluctant. Even if he talked to Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan, there was no guarantee that Wei Ying wouldn’t face some sort of prejudice or adversary in Lotus Pier. The boy was an almost splitting image of his father and it was growing more apparent by the day, Cangse Sanren’s fun loving tendency softened the resemblance somewhat- but it was still there. Still ripe for people to start rumors that may or may not reset everything Wei Ming had been scrambling for in those few short days. “I’d like Ying-er to learn more about him if nothing else. But Ying-er doesn’t have to leave for Lotus Pier for a long time for that. Whether you want to go or not is entirely up to you.”

He attempted to smile to cover for the uncertainty in his voice.

“…I’ll think about it.” Wei Ying said quietly.

 “That’s all I ask.”

[2050]

“Da-ge?”

Nie Mingjue looked up in surprise as Wei Ying hovered at the entrance of his office, he hadn’t really had any visits from the younger as often as he used to- so it was rare if Wei Ying deemed it necessary enough for a visit.

“Wei Wuxian.” Nie Mingjue nodded his head.

Wei Ying hesitantly stepped inside, expression slightly torn as he hovered just before Nie Mingjue’s desk- the other patiently waiting for Wie Ying to gather his will to talk as he quietly shuffled paperwork together.

“Da-ge, Gēge says I should see if the Yunmeng Jiang style suits me more,” Wei Ying mumbled under his breath. “Would you be mad if I go?”

Nie Mingjue paused, quietly observing the other boy as he fidgeted in place, “Did your Gēge say that going is a good idea?”

Wei Ying nodded.

“Then go,” Nie Mingjue huffed. “A fish cannot climb over a branch in its way- so it has to either fly or swim under.”

Ugh he was starting to sound like Wei Ming, “What I mean is that just because the Nie Sabre style doesn’t suit you, it doesn’t mean you aren’t one of mine.”

Nie Mingjue motioned to Wuxian, “You’ve learned the sabre style well. You do the Nie Sect proud A-Xian. But that doesn’t mean that it’s you. Not even your Gēge strictly sticks to the Nie Sabre Style, it’s not something for everyone- in this world, everyone has to find their own place sometimes. Maybe you’ll learn about yours in Lotus Pier.”

“But…will Gēge be alright if I go though?” Wei Ying bit his lip.

Nie Mingjue frowned, “What’s Wei Fan have to do with your decision?”

“Before…before Gēge didn’t want to go anywhere near Lotus Pier, he always said it was cause Father always looked sad about it so we were respecting his wishes and avoiding it. But now that Gēge says it’s okay- what if he isn’t? What if he doesn’t actually want me to go and is just telling me so I feel better about going if I wanted to,” Wei Ying huffed in frustration. “He always does that- always tells you what he thinks you want to know when you just want him to tell you the real stuff. It’s annoying. But-  But even if it’s annoying he-“

“He wouldn’t be Wei Fan if he didn’t,” Nie Mingjue finished quietly. Internally sighing in exasperation.

Wei Ying sniffed as he nodded.

Nie Mingjue sighed, turning slightly to pop his neck, “Do you want my opinion?”

Wei Ying nodded again.

“I think you should go,” Nie Mingjue raised a hand, a non-verbal request to wait before Wei Ying reacted in any sort of way to him. “Not just because I think it would be good for you in the sense that it would help with your swordsmanship- but because I believe it would do something to prove to yourself and Wei Fan that you can stand on your own.”

“I know you want your Gē to lean you more,” Nie Mingjue continued quietly. “But I don’t think you know how to stand on your own, not yet.”

Wei Ying pouted, “I’m old enough.”

“Kid, you’re ten,” Nie Mingjue huffed with a shake of his head. “No ten year old jumps nearly as far ahead as you and your brother- you’re both too smart for your own good. Which means it can be hard to look back and realize that you need to slow down and wait for the rest of you to catch up. I’m pretty sure you know that already.”

Wei Ying pursed his lip, looking down at his shoes.

“Trust me, your brother and I have had to grow up pretty fast for our ages,” Nie Mingjue continued, placing a heavy hand on the boy’s shoulder. “But I’m pretty sure Wei Ming would tell you that he’d gives less of a shit about it if it means that you don’t have to.”

Wei Ying was silent for a moment, expression pensive.

“If you’re still unsure- talk it out with A-Sang, I’m sure the two of you can sort it out soon enough. I’ll tell Wei Fan that you’re sleeping over tonight.”

Wei Ying nodded, bending forward to move into a hug, “Thank you Da-ge.”

Nie Mingjue sighed but none the less carded his hands in between Wei Ying’s messily tied hair like he’s seen the other do just about hundreds of times. Wei Ying shook slightly before stepping back, rubbing insistently at his eyes with the robes of his sleeves before bowing to Nie Mingjue hastily- slightly less neat than the other would normally do but he didn’t mind as Wei Ying bounded of for Huaisang on the next second.

Before exiting Wei Ying turned and pressed a finger to his lips, “I won’t tell Gēge you said a bad word.”

Stunned, Nie Mingjue watched as Wei Ying disappeared into the hallway.

And promptly burst with laughter.

-

Wei Ming walked into his office at precisely 10 o’clock with a stack of summarized reports. These reports were usually intercepted between its delivery to the Unclean Realm and to Nie Mingjue by Wei Ming to take care off during his ‘off time’ which meant during lunch and breakfast- by which the monster paper-pusher that was Wei Ming the work addict plowed through close to twenty different crop yield reports and did the numbers for the five craft associations based in Qinghe Nie: each craft associations having several different hubs of branches of trades they were connected to. Those statistic reports will then be compiled and forwarded to the Emperor once they pass the Sect Leader’s hands. Qinghe Nie alone had almost 3/8ths of the total crafts guild among the Five Great Sect with Gusu Lan being in charge of 2/8ths. To put it in perspective- while Lanling Jin boasted wealth- technically speaking Yunmeng Jiang was higher in terms of riches, the one bellow Yunmeng Jiang was Gusu Lan. Ignoring the marriage alliance between Yunmeng Jiang and Meishan Yu- which were also technically united territories- the collective worth of Yunmeng Jiang as an entire territory was based on the fact that much of the higher level craftsman of their respective craft associations lived in Yunmeng Jiang. Qishan Wen was only on the top of the list because of the age of the territory- much of the wealth came from family lines paying taxes to the Sect rather than actual production and resource value.

The ranking in terms of total wealth was: Qishan Wen, Yunmeng Jiang, Gusu Lan, Qinghe Nie, and Lanling Jin. Lanling Jin’s opulence was primarily due to the Jin Clan having been a rich family from the get-go. Though in current value- Lanling Jin did have more illiquid assets rather than the liquid assets most of the other Sects had- Qishan Wen included. Qinghe Nie’s biggest branch of the craft guild amusingly happens to be food goods- specifically meats and bakery goods. The Roaring Beast down in the city proceeding the Unclean Realm was the most popular restaurant in Qinghe Nie- if he recalled correctly- even his father and Qingheng-jun had dined their once or twice. It tends to get over filled during the Conferences so there aren’t that many Sect Leaders who enjoy the food in house- so The Roaring Beast sends a delivery boy if it’s requested. One of the chefs in the Nie Sect Staff is one of the grand children of the original owner.

Most of the paperwork was overseeing licenses and approvals for apprenticeship registration- which were things Nie Mingjue handled himself, however it was the number crunching that tended to make him stay overnight working on it. Wei Ming dedicated a handful of hours in between the morning (when the reports were often delivered) and lunch. Thankfully such a check was only a monthly basis rather than daily so it wasn’t actually a ludicrous task- but the sheer amount of checking, cross-checking, calculating, re-calculating, following up discrepancies and the rest were what took the most time and years of Nie Mingjue’s life.

The stack in Wei Ming’s hands reached just under his chest as he held them near his abdomen, walking swiftly and gently placing the stack on Nie Mingjue’s right side while eyeing the small stack of paperwork still yet to be finished in Nie Mingjue’s hands. It was probably half a length of the tip of his finger.

“I really should just get a desk for you in here one of these days,” Mingjue grumbled as he turned his attention back to Sect Expenses. (In Mingjue’s opinion- the single most boring useless paperwork he has to actually read instead of mindlessly sign off.) “Are those the harvest reports or the association reports?”

“Association mostly, thankfully due to the re-working of the data collection we’ve manage to cut down harvest report discrepancies by nearly a third. I only had to send for Young Master Luong twice to double check the data with the farmers,” Wei Ming folded himself in front of the desk- taking a small amount of Nie Mingjue’s pile from the yet-to-be-done. “We’ve got a decent yield this season. Also Master Phung added in one more before I got here.”

“Huh? I thought there wouldn’t be any new additions in the stables, Spring wasn’t just a few months ago.”

“Apparently there’s some late bloomers, a new colt was born a few hours ago- apparently it took them for a surprise too. If the coat is anything to go by, it might have been that northern horse’s line. The one from Sanhe? It bred with Niǎn Sī.”

Nie Mingjue looked up, “That’s the fastest Datong Horse we have. It bred with the Sanhe? We only received it last year, when did this happen?”

Wei Ming leveled Mingjue with a look, “Do I look like a stable boy to you? Well by any means- that colt is one to look after. The Sanhe’s not exactly the slowest horse in the stables either.”

Nie Mingjue and Wei Ming fell into silence as they continued shuffling through paperwork.

Then, “Wuxian came to me earlier.”

“Hm.”

“I told him to talk it out with Huaisang after, he’s most likely sleeping over.”

“Understood.”

Nie Mingjue paused, looking past his paperwork, “He knows you’re reluctant to let him go to Yunmeng Jiang.”

“I would be surprised if he did not pick up on it,” Wei Ming pursed his lip at the document in front of him, reaching out to borrow Nie Mingjue’s brush and make corrections before returning it. “He’s an observant boy, at least for matters such as this.”

“…”

“…” Wei Ming sighed. “It’s unlike you to not take the direct route Mingjue.”

“And it’s not exactly in character of you to leave things as vague as they are,” Nie Mingjue retaliated. “All the kid needs is a definitive answer from you- I’m not saying you have to say yes or no. I’m saying all you have to do is say ‘yes but be careful’ or ‘no, because I’m not sure if they’ll treat you well’. End of story.”

Wei Ming rolled his eyes, “As if such matters can be simplified to such a degree.”

“They can be, you’re the one making it hard.” Nie Mingjue put the paperwork in his hands down. “How long have you’ve been taking care of him now?”

“…I…” Wei Ming frowned, “Well, it must be six years now.”

“And how many times has he gone away from you for anything more than a month? “

“Well there are hardly that many missions that require-“

“Exactly. You’re the one going off on these missions, you’re the one who gets to be distracted for a little while in the meantime that the kid isn’t in front of you.” Nie Mingjue sighed. “I know you’re just being obstinate-“

“Oh you have been reading more lately, that’s good.”

“Ha. Ha. The point I’m trying to make here is that you’re little chick is starting to jump off the nest and it’s giving you anxiety to the point where I don’t think you even notice it’s giving you anxiety.”

…I already know this though? Ming Fan couldn’t help but think incredulously within the privacy of his thoughts. He’s more like a son to me than he is my brother at this point.

“…I’m sorry to tell you this Mingjue, but I’ve already realized that,” Wei Ming couldn’t help but smile fondly. “Thank you for your concern, but I’m aware that I have reservations about Wei Ying leaving to Lotus Pier. It’s why I’m giving him the space he needs to seek out other opinions. He can’t rely on me forever- it will only send him into a deeper state of thinking that he needs to repay me something ridiculous for the sake of some debt that he believes he has. It’s always been the way he is.”

“…You manipulative asshole.”

Wei Ming shrugged.

“Seriously, you are an ass.”

“He isn’t going to learn to question my authority if I keep supporting it,” He responded weakly. “And I am going to keep supporting it for as long as this maintains. He’s my little brother, and as long as I’m alive I’m going to take care of them. I want him to be able to question me- I’m not some sort god- I’m far from infallible. Forcing myself to keep quiet is the best thing to do in this situation.”

“I hate the fact that you make sense,” Nie Mingjue sighed. “Couldn’t you have done it in a less obtuse way?”

Wei Ming raised a single brow, “Do you think it would have worked if I had?”

“…Hah,” Nie Mingjue sighed- rubbing his eyebrows together. “I’m surrounded by you fools. I’m going to turn white-haired and wrinkled cultivation be damned.”

“You keep frowning like that and it won’t be us who causes the wrinkles, apologies for helping you realize the truth.”

“Shut up.”

[Log: File:Save_15-221.4.0200.log]

“Gēge?”

“Mn?”

Wei Ying watched as Wei Ming groggily lifted himself off from his desk. Oh yes- his big brother liked to make everyone think that Wei Ming was above such habits, and yet here he was watching in no small amount of amusement as Wei Ming lifted his head towards his direction with unused talisman paper sticking to the side of his face.

It’s okay, Wei Ying wasn’t going to tell anybody. Not even A-Sang or Da-ge.

“I wanna go,” He whispered. “To Lotus Pier. Cause I wanna learn more about father and study under Madam Yu. She’s said to be a tough teacher and I feel I can learn a lot from her, and I wanna meet Jiang Wanyin and see Shijie again and have more of her Pork Rib Soup. I’m gonna be eleven soon and I think two years is okay for me to learn at Lotus Pier before I go with the Nie disciples to Gusu Lan. And then it’ll be okay because I’ll behave and won’t cause lots of trouble and I’ll make sure to get the highest grades so Gēge doesn’t have to worry if I’m doing well, because I will do well.”

“Even with Jiang Wanyin’s dogs?”

Wei Ying swallowed before nodding vigorously, “If they’re a young master’s dogs, I’m sure Jiang Wanyin can talk to them well.”

“Okay.”

“…”

“…”

“Do you want to terrorize my students before you leave?”

Yes please.”

“Give me a week.”

[Log: File:Save_15-222.1.0500.log]

“Shixiong you’re too slow!” Wei Ying screeched as he ran past of the huffing disciples- easily maneuvering past the obstacle course that Head Disciple Wei put out for them that morning. He had said it was to help them improve their footwork and sense of balance but most, if not all the disciples had a sinking feeling it was also to partially scold them for thinking that they were just about to say running the hills was easy.

Look at your words now, Wei Ming seemed to say to them as young Wei Ying easily trapezed the single upwards facing logs stood on end without so much as disturbing the log. Feet finding level ground easily on the elevated height, all while running full tilt towards the finish line where more contraptions were awaiting them.

“Shidi,” one of the disciples said, legs gingerly moving slowly but surely as she made her way log after log. “How are you doing this so fast?”

Wei Ying paused before turning around giggling, “Gēge had me do this lots before! Except we were crossing a river back and forth! It’s lots easier to run on rooftops once you know how to control slipping!”

He laughed like a particularly pleased monkey who had just found a tree full of ready mangos as he jumped log after log with one foot before jumping to grab the pole and land onto the make-shift platform and onto the next course.

Where is that pride hm? Did I not already tell you that too much pride in one’s abilities will make one faulter? Reflect as you finish. And I want an essay detailing your reflection and your plans to move past your mistake in two days’ time, late work will result in extra laps on future courses.

Da-shixiong your disciples know you do this from your heart but could you take it a little easier?!

Wei Ming, waiting at the end of the course having finished earlier than them, perked up as he felt his name being discussed. Then later turned back down to the papers on the theory on sabre techniques and their associations with sabre spirits that he assigned a week ago; a frown on his face.

Then he looked back at the obstacle course.

Perhaps I made it too difficult? He considered, mentally recounting the several feats the disciples would have to go through before reaching the last quarter. Surely not, it’s hardly even the distance along the sides of Cang Qiong Mountain. A little further than our hill laps but it isn’t as if I intend to have them to run it also. I’m also not assigning hundreds of reading and writing of disciplinary texts as would have been traditional on Qing Jing Peak so surely they have nothing to fear in terms of light punishment.

Have I miscalculated their proficiency with their wrists? He wondered to himself, slightly worried and mystified. I thought I had adjusted adequately with a simple essays reflecting lessons by the ends of the week. I only had a week to rewrite three sect texts a hundred times in Qing Jing Peak’s library- surely this isn’t too much? No, they’re probably slower in this course due to Wei Ying’s presence amongst them- he’s far more proficient at these things than they are. No doubt, that must be the case.

Nodding to himself, Wei Ming continued his grading. What will be the lesson this time? Hm. Ah, ‘Too Much Pride In One’s Abilities’. I will borrow from your teachings Liu-shishu, this disciple is thankful for your passed on wisdom.

Although I probably will do well to refrain from beating my disciples black and blue.

Wei Ying, knowing the mind of his big brother and the disciples he taught- giggled as he pushed himself to go just a little bit faster while keeping an ear out as they struggled to catch up behind him.

It was good for their health anyway!

[1122]

“You are no fair A-Xian,” Nie Huaisang whined. “Why are you making us do work when you only have three weeks left before you leave for Lotus Pier? We should be in the town! You should’ve convinced Wei-shixiong that I should be playing with you instead of studying!”

Wei Ying laughed, “As if A-Sang! I want Da-ge to be in a good mood when I leave, otherwise my prank isn’t gonna go well.”

Nie Huaisang huffed, sniffing as his arm moved. He probably gave Da-shixiong Wei Ming too much power but who could blame him?! Wei Ming was the scariest teacher to ever exist, much scarier than Old Man Lan. Needling the old goats to get Wei-shixiong’s Head Discipleship in order was the worst mistake he ever made!

…Well, not the worst but Da-shixiong should spare some mercy on this Nie Huaisang.

“You could just opt to not do Gēge’s assignment you know,” Wei Ying said with a giggle.

“Shhhh!” Nie Huaisang glanced nervously, eyes darting side-to-side. As if the elder Wei would simply be summoned because of his name being evoked. “Are you trying to bring Ming-shixiong’s disappointed gaze this way? No thank you!”

Wei Ying continued to giggle, “A-Sang, you’re twelve now!”

“I can be an old man and Ming-shixiong will still be scary,” Huaisang hissed, mournfully continuing to write.

“Gēge isn’t that bad,” Wei Ying leaned forward. “Anyway- you wanna see this cool thing I found in the library the other day?”

Nie Huaisang perked up, “What is it?”

Wielding a beat up booklet, Wei Ying grinned and scooted closer to where Huaisang sat. “It was buried under lots of stuff.”

By the looks of the small book, it seemed to be a notebook of some sort. The cover was a solid thick paper that was common as a cover for most people’s notes. Yet the distinct lack of any printed text automatically nulled it as any sort of copy book that just so happened to be in the library.

The work temporarily forgotten (though not without some small sense of guilt considering it was a paragraph Wei Ming wanted to see the next day) Nie Huaisang looked to the book as Wei Ying opened it eagerly. A strange but still legible scrawl written on the inside of the notebook.

A Legend’s Companion?” Nie Huaisang read out loud with no small amount of confusion. “If this is a story why does it look like someone wrote chicken scratch? Their calligraphy is so weird.”

“Right?” Wei Ying opened up the book. “The story is so basic, look: In a far of place, further from the world we know today, there stood a mountain- seriously, who’d write that stuff? It’s such a boring opening. Gēge can make a better beginning than that and it’s Gēge, he’s terrible at made-up stories.”

“Right?...Wait…actually,” Nie Huaisang squinted at the pages, flipping forward and going back and forth on the book. “Why does this writing look familiar?”

“Eh? Did someone we know make it?”

“…A-Ying,” Nie Huaisang frowned, pressing the book nearly to his face as he tried to look at one particular character. “Doesn’t this look like Da-ge’s handwriting?”

“Huh?” Wei Ying scooted, leaning back slightly as Nie Huaisang pressed the book closer for him to see. “…It kinda does.”

“You know who’d definitely be able to know?” Huaisang said seriously.

The two looked at each other, “Zhonghui-ge.”  

-

“Pft-“ Nie Zhonghui bursted with laughter a single minute into reading the book Wei Ying had found in the library. “Where did you brats even find this?!”

“Library,” Wei Ying chimed.

“So?” Nie Huaisang leaned closer. “Is it?”

“Is it what?” Nie Zhonghui glanced up, wide grin still etched on his face.

“Is it Da-ge’s?”

Nie Zhonghui snorted, “Oh yeah. Definitely. Damn, I almost forgot how big of a crush Mingjue had on that guy.”

“Really?” Wei Ying looked to the two, even Huaisang was giggling a little to himself. “What do you mean? Why?”

“Ah, Mingjue used to really go on and on about how great of a hero Ming Fan of Cang Qiong Peak was,” Nie Zhonghui’s lip was twisted fondly. “It’s why Qinghe Nie’s collection is as big as it is now. His mother and the former Sect Leader used to just collect them from other Sects for him whenever they were owed favors. Gusu Lan probably has a good chunk of their collection missing now because of Mingjue. Of the originals anyway- they still have copies of the ones they gave to Qinghe Nie.”

Not for the first time, Wei Ying’s mind wiggled. Writhing and squirming as if something in his head was trying to show itself to no avail. It couldn’t be helped that it wasn’t allowed to fully be remembered, but perhaps it was a mercy of sorts for Nie Mingjue.

For if Wei Ying had remembered, no doubt- it would lead to many a prank.

 “This one’s name is Ming Fan.”

 “Sure it is.”

“Here- I think I…ah, here we go,” Nie Zhonghui had reached over and pulled a book closer to himself. “I’ve got a copy but the original is at Yunmeng in the Jiang Sect Library. Mingjue was pretty upset that he couldn’t get his hands on the original but Madam Nie managed to placate him with a copy of it.”

Zhonghui flipped the book open, revealing the elaborate wood-block print illustrations that foretold different scenes from the Cang Qiong Mountain Sect Legends. ‘The Three Demon Battle’ ‘The Tragedy of the Immortal Alliance Conference’ ‘The Accusations of the Hua Snake’-

“Here we go.”

‘Rise of the Calm and Clear’

The illustration was an elaborate piece featuring a total of twelve. Eleven in the foreground and one in the background. In the background was a man with an elaborate headpiece and clothing, a fan pressed against his lip printed in a slightly faded color to indicate the man’s passing. In the foreground was a man with a sword in hand- the elaborate colors of blue-ish green marking both him and the other figures as disciples of the man in the background. His form was twisted mid-battle as if frozen as he cut through the demon cleanly in half, a serious expression etched into his face. To his right side was a female disciple frozen mid-maneuver as she too cleaved a demon, this time separating a head from a body with her expression relatively blank.

The image wasn’t realistic by any means, but it was a well-done re-production print of what must have been a hand drawn original. Even the clothes had good details down to a subtle pattern printed evenly along the fabric.

“Used to stare at this for hours- I think Huaisang’s mother even commissioned a painting for him- it’s still in his room though he’s since stopped hanging it after he complained about the dust. Funny huh?” Zhonghui looked up, a flash of confusion resting over his face. “Wei Wuxian?”

Wei Ying was staring at the central figure critically- a frown on his face as he tilted his head, a thought clearly occurring but neither Nie Zhonghui nor Nie Huaisang could really say what.

“He kinda reminds me of Gēge,” Wei Ying admitted after a moment. “Not sure why, they don’t even look alike. Gēge favors his left hand, not his right.”

Nie Zhonghui and Huaisang peered down at the picture.

“…He kinda does.”

“Isn’t this a form he’s used before?”

“Weird.”

“…Wait,” Nie Zhonghui looked up. “Are you saying Wei Ming is left-handed?”

“He can do both, he just favors his left.”

He’s been sparring with his right hand though?!”

[Log: File:Save_15-222.5.2400.log]

“Gēge.”

“Hm?” Wei Ming peered up, frowning as Wei Ying rubbed his eyes before dragging a box with him. “A-Ying, what are you doing up?”

“Gēge can you wear this today?”

Both eyebrows lifted in surprise before peering at the box, “Let me see what it is first.”

“Uhuh.”

Wei Ming took the box from Wei Ying, opened it up with a careful precision on the desk in front of him.

“Oh my.”

In the box was an elegantly crafted Sect Uniform, both familiar and strange. The material wasn’t quite right and the color was slightly off- but it’s overall design was more familiar to Wei Ming more than anyone would most likely ever know. Running his hand across the silk, he could tell it was no immortal spider’s silk but it still felt smooth, just not as light perhaps. The uniforms of Qing Jing Peak were lighter than they looked despite the multiple layers, the only exception was the Peak Lord Uniform and the Head Disciple’s. The Head Disciple’s Uniform had an additional layer that sat on top of the standard three layers, a stronger blue compared to the blue-green of the rest of the uniform. Whereas the Peak Lord generally had many more layers in different forms. The winter uniforms were generally the heaviest but they were also rarely used unless extremely cold due to the fact that standard uniforms of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect were built with the intent to wave off cold in mind- they did not live near but on a mountain after all. There was even a tassel, though it wasn’t ornamented with the clear white jade with the elaborate knot signifying his family and rank within the peak, it was a custom piece that most likely wouldn’t have even been replicated even if they did know it existed.   

“…Why do you have a copy of a Qing Jing Peak uniform?” Wei Ming looked up.

“I asked jiejie in town to make it,” Wei Ying rubbed at his eyes. “Gēge kinda looks the part so it would be funny if you walked around in it.”

“Wei Ying-“ Wei Ming tried pausing before looking down at the uniform and looking up again with a frown. “This would have taken ages to make.”

“It’s okay Jiejie actually kinda does it as a side-hobby. Apparently there are lots of people who wanna dress up at Qing Jing Peak disciples.”

And I don’t even want to know, Wei Ming thought instantly, looking down.

He sighed, “Very well. But you’ve used up your prank favors from me this year A-Ying.”

“Okay,” Wei Ying broke his nod to yawn.

“Go to sleep A-Ying,” He said fondly, reaching out to gently ruffle the fluffing head. The boy’s hair was getting wavier and wavier every day.

“Okay, good night Gēge.”

“Good night Ying-er.”

[Log: File:Save_15-222.6.0900.log]

“Sect Leader Nie, it is morning.”

“Mn,” Nie Mingjue grunted- getting up from bed and roughly rubbing his eyes. The crusts of last night’s dust flaking off as Nie Mingjue blearily starred.

“Tea.”

“Mn.”

Nie Mingjue was drinking, feeling a little more awake he turned to address Wei Ming.

And promptly spat out his tea.

“That was certainly uncalled for Sect Leader,” Wei Ming had jumped further away to avoid the spray, an eyebrow what raised.

“What the hell are you wearing?” Nie Mingjue was too horrified to notice that his voice went up in pitch- almost but not quite approaching a slight squeal as he took in the sight before him.

Not the Qinghe Nie robes of a Head Disciple but instead that of a Head Disciple of Qing Jing Peak, with elegant blue-greens and darker shades of green embroidery of leaves etched into the sides. Wei Ming’s hair was tied higher than normal, the latter pulling and gathering all of his hair back save for the strands of bangs too short to be pulled back. Usually the man left it only partially tied to match Wei Ying’s style but today was no such day.

He looked horrifyingly like a certain painting Nie Mingjue kept rolled in his drawers. Though the image wasn’t quite right, Wei Ming was too young, just that slightest bit too short.

“My clothing was at Wei Ying’s request,” Wei Ming said stiffly, his arm shifting and swiftly snapping the loosely hung sleeve with the ease of someone very familiar with the motion. An armguard sheathing behind the layer hanging over the rest of the replica, tied in a neat cross-pattern as the sleeve smoothened. Wei Ming was standing straight, hands coming behind himself as his posture was not stiff but not quite comfortable either, there was a weight. Like the robes were too heavy. “As of today, the favors I am owed to him are no longer.”

Admittedly Wei Ming did look good but Nie Mingjue was going to be the last one to say a damn thing.

“Does something trouble you Sect Leader?”  

Nie Mingjue cleared his throat, “N-No. W-What do I need to do today?”

-

“Is- Is that Da-shixiong?”

“W-What the-“

“Oh my gods-“

Wei Ming raised an eyebrow at the hiding crowd, “Do you not have lectures to attend?”

They scrambled out of the way, yelping as they moved swiftly towards their respective halls for today’s lessons. Wei Ming withheld a sigh.

He elegantly shifted his stance, weaving his hand in front of himself while keeping another behind. As he would have while doing his duties back in Qing Jing Peak.

Nie Zhonghui, looking out the window from where he had been obtaining something to drink before he continued with his duties- spat his water.

-

“Mingjue.”

“I know.”

Mingjue,” Nie Zhonghui hissed. “Why the fuck does Wei Ming look like your painting?”

I don’t know damnit!” Nie Mingjue rubbed his forehead roughly. A cup next to him that he wished was alcohol. “It’s Wei Ying’s request apparently- fuck, is that kid trying to take over now? What did I do, when did I piss him off? Was it the talk? It was the talk wasn’t it- fuck I should’ve just thrown Wei Ming under the carriage and let it be-“

Nie Zhonghui starred at the blush slightly dusting his cousin’s cheeks, “Are you actually into that?!”

“No!”

“Lies!”

“Zhonghui shut up!”

-

Sitting at his desk for calligraphy lessons- Wei Ying giggled.

“Wuxian? Something amusing?” His teacher asked kindly, tilting his head to the side.

“Nope, just a good day,” Wei Ying chirped with a wide smile.

-

“Mei Lin Mei Lin did you see did you see-“

“Shh!” Mei Lin bit out harshly, tugging Lang Fengyi to the side. “Do you want to get caught?”

“But Wei-shixiong-“

“I know. Just about the entire Qinghe Nie knows by now,” Mei Lin rubbed her forehead in frustration. “Our mail is going to get flooded.”

“He really looks like-“

“I know.”

-

“You have my gratitude,” Wei Ming said sincerely- if a little weirded out as he accepted the flowers. “I trust you will be returning to work then?”

“A-Ah yes Young Master.”

He smiled indulgently, or at least he liked to think it was, no one’s ever told him otherwise, “May your journey fare you well.”

The boy ‘eeped’ before saluting him and running off.

“I wonder if that is why Wei Ying told me to talk the way I used to before,” Wei Ming muttered to himself. “Oh well. The day is young.”

Oh my gods-“

“Shut up.”

He also valiantly pretended not to hear Lang Fengyi and Mei Lin for some reason hiding in the bushes.

-

“In summary, it is due to the nature of yin energy that one may utilize the basic principles to eliminating ghosts,” Wei Ming concluded, turning to face his students. “Others may say that such methods are costly in consideration to labor and energy- no doubt valid- however one’s work does not end simply due to the novelty of difficulty. As cultivators, we serve the people. Not ourselves- these are lessons of which we must maintain for ourselves and that of the people we are to protect.”

He paced to the side, “Tonight you will be reading the next chapter in regards to the historical accounts of methods used against fierce corpses. Tomorrow we will be discussing the various dangers involving such endeavors and speaking at length as to why such a creature should never be confronted without at least one more cultivator.”

He saluted them, “This teacher thanks you for maintaining your focus for this long, do enjoy your afternoon.”

He watched approvingly as the disciples gathered their books and materials with them before leaving for the day. There were some disciples who gathered and talked excitedly, looking over to him before giggling to themselves and waving- Wei Ming obligingly raising a hand in response.

“…Lang Fengyi, Mei Lin,” He turned his head to face the window. “May this one know of your motivations in listening to these lectures from windows?”

Two heads popped up, both clearly embarrassed.

“You needn’t have strained yourselves,” He rose a single brow. “Senior Disciples you maybe, that does not dictate your education. If you deem yourself interested in my lectures regarding the various creatures we must face as Cultivators, you are welcome to take a seat in my classroom.”

It was actually quite relaxing to fall into old habits, perhaps he should speak like this more often.

“…We’ll do that.”

“Next time,” Lang Fengyi squeaked.

He bent his head forward in a nod, “I’m sure the both of you will find the lessons most intriguing. Tomorrow at the same time, I’m afraid any further lessons from me today will be physical training- after which the remainder of the day will be dedicated to my other duties. Unless of course the two of you would be amendable to a spar, I will be delighted to offer advice and monitor your disciplines if you so wish of me.”

“Maybe next time,” Mei Lin said smoothly, “We also have other stuff to get done. Come on Fengyi.”

“But-“

“Come on, we have that thing we need to do.”

“O-Oh alright- but, I wanna-“

“if you have questions for me Fengyi, be sure to save it for next time,” Wei Ming smiled, well not quite, but his eyes softened from their usual gaze, “While I do not doubt my schedule would remain clear for long, any question of me is one need answered; for a failure of a teacher I will be if I fail to do so.”

“S-Sure! I’ll take you up on that!”

“Come on Fengyi.”

He watched as they left, Mei Lin tugging harshly while Lang Fengyi made quite a ruckus as he left. It vaguely reminded him of two disciples of his own back on Qing Jing Peak- though he had no doubt that the two would either form a group or become bitter rivals, the possibilities were unfathomable.

Still, as he claimed, he had work to do.

-

“While there is no doubt that Sect Leader is most busy this time of day,” Wei Ming drawled, turning his head to tilt it towards Nie Mingjue. “Does Sect Leader have a particular reason as to why this Wei Ming’s face seems to be a point of interest in this moment rather than the reports in front of you?”

“Why…” Nie Mingjue said softly, “the hell are you talking like an old man again?”

He rose an eyebrow, “I fail to see how my sudden change of speech patterns affect you in any way. While I’m sure this is an unexpected hurdle, there is no doubt that Sect Leader will pass with poise and grace. However, perhaps you should consider first accepting it.”

Stop Nie Mingjue pleaded desperately in the privacy of his mind. Please- this really isn’t fair for me you brat, you don’t even know what you’re doing. “Just- why?”

“This was an additional request from Wei Ying,” Wei Ming admitted with a slight shrug- not enough to actually call it that but it was enough to imply. “Though I cannot particularly discern why he would request such a thing from me, it is actually quite a relaxing practice now that I’ve attempted to do so. Granted there are differences between now and then, but all the same I find comfort in being able to stretch a muscle I’ve not quite found the moment to stretch since coming here.”

He’s definitely got a grudge against me, Nie Mingjue despaired.

Wei Ying doesn’t but it wasn’t as if he could tell Nie Mingjue that.

“If Sect Leader would kindly move his attentions back to his paperwork? This day would move far more swifter than if he simply decided to critique this one’s habits of speech,” Wei Ming tilted his head at him, smiling that half-smile way that was always just the bare definition of a smile. “Unless of course Sect Leader would choose to opt for overtime- by all means, he is welcomed to it.”

Nie Mingjue grumbled as he forced himself to read some boring reports.

-

[Log: File:Save_15-223.6.1000.log]

“All packed?”

“Yep.”

“Clothes?”

“Got it.”

“Talisman paper?”

“Got it.”

“Notebook?”

“Got it.”

“…” Wei Ming sighed, shaking his head before walking over in front of him- gently tugging strands back neatly before re-fixing the boy’s hair ribbon. Gently brushing stray tangles off with his fingers. “..You look ready.”

Wei Ying smiled, “I am.”

“You’ll most likely reach Yunmeng Jiang by tomorrow, arriving at Lotus Pier in the evening,” He said softly. “Don’t push yourself too much and keep an eye on the others alright? Listen to them as well. Lang Fengyi may not seem to be the most advanced disciple, but he’s a good one. So listen to him well as your senior.”

Wei Ying nodded.

“…”

“…”

“I’ll see you soon Gēge,” Wei Ying said softly. “Then you’ll see I grew up really fast.”

“I know,” Wei Ming said softly. “I’ll be here waiting. Don’t get into too much trouble without me alright?”

Wei Ying nodded.

“...I’ll see you later then,” Wei Ming said instead- trying for a smile- an actual smile. Which honestly came out painfully awkward but Wei Ying was happy for it nonetheless. “Until next time.”

“Until next time.”

They pressed their foreheads together, silently absorbing themselves in the moment. The background faded as other disciples spoke with their families- themselves additional guests who would also be training in Yunmeng Jiang as guest disciples. Nie Huaisang, having already said his piece, watched their small moment before turning up to look at Nie Mingjue.

The older Nie had an unreadable look as he watched the two brothers lose themselves for that brief moment- not that it was bad- just, quiet. Out of respect, the other disciples obligingly quieted for the two.

“They’re really close huh?” He whispered.

“Yeah.” Huaisang agreed. “…Da-ge.”

“Hm?”

Huaisang- having been privy for the past few weeks, especially on the memorable day that Wei Ming had paraded around looking and really acting like the hero Ming Fan from Qing Jing peak- widened a grin at the rare opportunity before him to tease his big brother without any sort of reparations, “Ming-shixiong really can look like a legendary hero huh?”

Nie Mingjue colored, hissing under his breath, “Shut up.”

Chapter Text

15. [Log: File:Save_15-224.1.1832.log]


“Nervous?”

Wei Ying glanced up at Lang Fengyi, the older disciple extending a gentle smile toward him as they made their way closer and closer to Lotus Pier. There weren’t any major hitches on their trip over, he had even managed to get a hold of some herbs on the way that Gēge would have probably had to buy in any other instance since they were on less of a time-crunch than the last Night Hunt Party was. Still- he couldn’t deny the fluttering in his belly as the lanterns of Lotus Pier soon came within a cultivator’s view amongst the skies on top of their swords. Even if Wei Ying had been herded to the center as the youngest of the Guest Disciples.

“Yeah,” Wei Ying said quietly. “Are they…”

“Nice?”

“Yeah.”

Lang Fengyi smiled, “They were to me, but tell you what- if they aren’t to you, come to me. We’ll wreak havoc on them before they even realize it’s us- and then we’ll bring the huge sword.”

“Gēge.”

“That’s right, if we can’t do it- Da-shixiong certainly can. Ain’t that right Hua-mei?”

Lang Hua nodded seriously, “We are also your brother’s students A-Xian. If they mess around- we’re showing them that the Nie Sect will not stand for the insult.”

The other disciples chimed- twelve in all, but they had been through the hell that was Wei Ming’s training. A bond forged through blood, sweat, and vomiting; it would take the sword as solid as Xin Mo to break such a thing.

And Wei Ying was a cute kid so whoever made such a bright young child cry couldn’t have been that great of a human being anyway.

With that in mind, the disciples of the Unclean Realm converged on Lotus Pier.

-

Lotus Pier was as dazzling as Wei Ming had described; to a young Wei Wuxian, that was to be expected- but he wasn’t prepared for the small bouts of recognition from the older generation in town as they excitedly called out to them as they entered through the town.

“You must be Young Master Wei, come come- have some treats! You’ve all must have been traveling for ages!”

“Oh my- do come in and rest your weary bones, I’m sure Sect Leader Jiang wouldn’t mind!”

“Ah- you’re the younger Wei right? Come over! Have a souvenir, on the house!”

Wei Ying found himself just a little overwhelmed as people called to him left and right- not that it was entirely unusual- certainly, there were some towns that recognized them as they past- calling out to them for a chat or even to look at some new wares, but not like this- never in a city as big as Lotus Pier.

The sounds seem to pound in his head uncomfortably, anxiety rearing its head in the back of his mind, threatening to consume him whole. The quiet presence of his brother in a new and strange place, gone for the first time in forever. The invisible walls in his mind seem to come closer, threatening to suffocate.

Bark.

The sounds of the wretched beast shoved everything back and his survival forward, Wei Ying visibly paled- catching the attention of Lang Hua as she watched Wei Ying swivel his head towards the noise, eyes searching as he unconsciously slowed- backing up against her.

“Wuxian? A-Xian?”

Where is it? Wei Ying mind reeled, Where is it? And where’s Gēge? Where-?

“Brother,” Lang Hua called out, drawing the attention of their de-facto lead who instantly recognized the look on the young boy’s face.

He crouched down, eyes soft, “A-Ying? Did you hear a dog?”

Wei Ying nodded, sweat beginning to pull around his face as his eyes darted in the crowd. Where is it? Where is it? Where is it? Where is it? Where is it? Where is it?

Where is it?

Where-

“A-Ying, I’m going to lift you up okay?” Lang Fengyi gripped the young boy’s hands a little tighter. “Since you’re higher up, the dogs won’t be able to get you. Is that alright? Squeeze my hands back okay?”

He squeezed back, tightly.

“Everyone, keep an eye out for dogs okay?” Lang Fengyi looked up to confirm their nods before he lifted Wei Ying in his arms- catching the boy under his bum so he wouldn’t be too uncomfortable.

If he begins to panic about dogs, get him on higher ground. Wei Ming’s quiet words before they left echoed in them all. Carry him and let everyone else know that there’s a dog to look out for. Then make sure he’s got a good look at everything, let him squirm if he wants to. If he asks, tell him I’m fine- tell him I’m still at Qinghe Nie, if it’s around evening I’ll be doing paperwork for Nie Mingjue like I always am. I’d be in the kitchens at around eight for tea to give to Nie Mingjue. At night I’ll be in our room studying. Tell him about the surroundings, about what you see- as long as you keep an eye out for the dogs, he’ll be scared- but he will be fine.

“Gēge,” Wei Ying murmured, “Where?”

“He’s at home,” Lang Fengyi said quietly, politely smiling at the other local townsfolk as he passed. “Making tea for Sect Leader Nie.”

“There are no dogs within sight yet, neither do we hear any,” Lang Hua softly confirmed. The others with them nodding in confirmation.

They steadily made their way forward, keeping their ears peeled for dogs yet since the first time they hadn’t heard any. Perhaps already hushed and calmed by their owner in observance to the approaching night. Within a few minutes, they were in front of Lotus Pier.

But who greeted them was not who they were expecting.

Young Master of Lotus Pier, Jiang Wanyin and his sister stood in front of them. The younger glancing up at the sweaty Wei Ying who eyed him wearily.

“I had the dogs go to a separate home for a while,” Jiang Wanyin said softly, watching the grip the other, older boy had on that disciple from before. The forest green sleeve clenched tightly in a white-knuckled grip. “Is that okay? Are you Wei Wuxian?”

Wei Ying nodded, “Jiang Wanyin?”

“Un.”

Wei Ying looked at Lang Fengyi, who obligingly let him down.

Standing before Jiang Wanyin, Wei Wuxian linked his hands together and bowed. Exactly as Wei Ming had before, his expression whipped of that lingering fear temporarily, the sweat being the only visible traces of it.

“Wei Wuxian, honored to be meeting you,” Wei Ying said shyly.

Jiang Wanyin bowed to him as well, solemnly replying, “It is an honor to receive you as well.”

The two peaked at each other from their bows.

“Jiejie made soup,” Jiang Wanyin said seriously. “You wanna eat some?”  

Wei Wuxian brightened, “Yeah!”

-

There were few people who could definitively say they knew what would happen if Wei Wuxian just so happen to begin learning in Lotus Pier. Some argued that the boy’s intelligence and knack for absorbing things would lead him to shoot up in both popularity in regard- other’s argued that the boy’s mischievous nature would get him in deep trouble.

The answer was somewhere in the middle.

Wei Wuxian was indeed a tentative student. He listened to his teachers with an ear and attention that rivaled even the oldest among them, his notes were precise- his questions unheard of but still relevant. Anyone with a decent pair of eyes and ears could tell that the boy had been trained very well in the gentlemanly arts. His calligraphy was elegant, script neat, his marksmanship was enough to rival a Jin, horsemanship was excellent, mathematics was incomparable, and his sense of morals, self, and piety were unwavering. He was, by all definitions, the best student to have ever existed in Lotus Pier.

Some might argue that he was pretty much too good for Lotus Pier. But that was their mistake, for Wei Wuxian was not here to learn how to grow up- he had his brother for that- no, he was here to learn how to use a sword.

Surprisingly or not, Yu Ziyuan, the Purple Spider, was a strict teacher. Despite his young age at the 11, the woman drew no quarter when it came to training. While not harsh, she expected excellence- her standards were high. If it was not perfection it was a waste of her time. Both Jiang children knew this and worried- for who could blame them? Their first sight of Wei Wuxian in Lotus Pier had been him trembling because of the sudden appearance of a dog. A story of which no one, not even the Nie disciples, knew.

Neither Wei Wuxian nor Wei Ming ever deigned to tell what happened, and they never pushed.

So when they peaked out, freed from their studies, to watch how the Nie students faired under the guidance of Madam Yu- them and some odd twenty or so disciples were sharing mutual feelings of pity.

Jiang Wanyin however, had his doubts about whether his pity was needed. Young though he was, there was a certain air about Wei Wuxian that was the same held in Wei Ming when they met. It wasn’t so much as an air of superiority as it was an air of unyielding tenacity. It was perhaps odd that the youngest of the Jiangs had thought this, but it wasn’t so odd when you considered that Jiang Wanyin, for all his moods and sometimes brash way of life, he was perceptive.

He knew his sister had been upset for the longest time about herself, he knew his mother was upset at his father, and he knew his father was upset most of the time until Wei Ming came and set them all on an even path. Wei Ming had arrived and showed them where they were, it was up to them to decide where they would keep walking. His sister, first to be shown her paths, walked forward. Newly unyielding and newly vigored by her newfound direction. His father, still finding his way, walked tentatively forward as he carefully minded his time between the two of them and quietly talking to Wei Wuxian in hushed voices while looking out into an empty lake. Madam Yu, having moved forward on her own- moved more surely. More perceptive of her path, she altered it as she pleased eyeing the newly revealed detours as she walked.

Jiang Wanyin always knew his path was ‘forward’, but he was happy to see that it was on the same one as everyone else. A journey was always nicer when there were others to share hardship with, that is what Wei Ming told him one night during his stay in the infirmary. And a man like that can only teach a younger brother like Wei Wuxian the same type of philosophy.

Wei Wuxian’s expression held a level of calm as he went through the Jiang standard basics. Even after classes ended for breaks, he continued. Every mistake was met with a frown before he repeated from the top. Foot placement was precise, his grip firm yet light. His movements controlled. It was a level of discipline that couldn’t be instilled in any disciple save for one who has been doing it like this their whole lives. Wei Ming was woven into Wei Wuxian, that much was obvious.

“Again,” Madam Yu said firmly.

Wei Wuxian moved.

“Are you attempting to prance or perform adequately? Again.”

Wei Wuxian reset his form, then moved.

“Again.”

Reset. Move.

“Again.”

Reset. Move.

“Again.”

Reset, move.

This went on for some time, neither was kneeling- or at least, Wei Wuxian wasn’t succumbing to the harsh training that would have traditionally broken every other disciple- but Wei Wuxian was not any other disciple. He was Wei Wuxian, youngest of the Wei Brothers and raised by Wei Fan the Rogue Cultivator. He was a boy who watched his brother stay up well past night to keep watch over their camps so that Wei Ying could sleep. He was the boy who watched his brother run himself to his bones and using every scrap of money and food they earned on Wei Ying and Wei Ying alone when only one could eat. He was the boy who asked, the boy who learned- because that was the one way to get his brother to smile on days where it felt like the rest of the world was tilting their heads conveniently away from the suffering of the common people. Wei Ying, the boy who could do nothing as Wei Fan walked tall while his back was dripping red behind him. He was Wei Ying, who watched in horror as his brother threw him into the tree in and allowed himself to be clawed by the yin-infected dog that nearly torn the young eleven-year-old Wei Fan’s back to ribbons.

He was also Wei Wuxian, the boy who vowed that he would never allow his brother to fall into such a state because of him ever again.

So he reset his form, and moved again.

“Enough.”

Wei Ying frowned, uncharacteristic of the smiling boy- but there was no one to see it so late in the afternoon. “This one can do it again.”

No, he could not. His body was trembling, his muscles ached and his legs were sore from standing too long. But he needed to, because he wasn’t good enough to protect himself yet and that meant he still needed Gēge to protect him.

And that was unacceptable.

Madam Yu watched in silence, eyes unreadable.  

He will push himself harder than you’ve ever seen. Wei Ming’s letter had said. He will push until his body breaks- because he did not come here to learn about father. He came to learn how to stand on his own.

How frighteningly accurate, Madam Yu thinks now as she watches Wei Wuxian eye her steadily. Meeting her gaze in ways not even the most senior of cultivators could. She knew what the boy saw. To him- she was no Madam Yu, wife of Jiang Fengmian and someone who knew his parents. She was a teacher, a strict one. One of the best- and therefore, the person he needed to learn from.

He will stand, and he will stumble. But he will not allow himself to admit that he cannot stand straight as he is now- and he will break before he allows himself to rest.

I send him to you, Madam Yu, because I don’t want my brother to grow up so quickly.

Please help him be a child some time longer. Do not allow Wei Wuxian to be like Wei Ming. There is enough that there is one of us, the world wants and needs Wei Ying courtesy: Wei Wuxian. Not another one of me.

This Wei Ming will be in your debt.

“Look at you,” She said softly. “You can barely stand as it is. You can’t help your brother if you keep shaking like a newborn faun.”

Wei Wuxian’s jaw tightened, odd for a ten-year-old boy- but then again. None of the Wei brothers were ever anything other than “odd”. “I will do it again.”

“Stop.” She snapped, “Look at yourself- it’s barely a day into your training here and you’ve already shamed your brother enough.”

The boy flinched.

“Wei Wuxian,” She addressed, firm but not cruel. Loud but not angry. She understood why Wei Ming came to her the way he did- because he knew she would not see Wei Wuxian as a genius. The youngest was truly a product of his parents- as headstrong and tenacious as Cangse Sanren and as sensitive and earnest of Wei Changze. Wei Ming was all there in the boy’s seeming genius- it was intertwined with the boy’s tenacity- his reason for hanging on. It was the force that pushed the boy where he was now, he was no genius. No prodigy, not in this case. He was simply a boy trying to do what he thinks his brother would want of him. “You are insulting your brother’s efforts by doing this.”

Wei Wuxian froze in place.

“Do you think he would be happy hearing you break yourself over this? Look at yourself boy, you’re thin. You’ve barely eaten all day, your legs are shaking and your stomach must be attempting to eat itself alive.” Madam Yu looked down on him. “What would your brother say to you if he saw you in this sorry state?”

Wei Ying looked down, “…He’d be sad.”

“He would,” Madam Yu agreed. “So stop with this foolishness. How are you going to learn all of your mother’s crimes here in Lotus Pier if you throw yourself into nonsense head first?”

“…Mama was really funny. Han-āyí yelled at her last time,” Wei Ying said quietly. “Did Madam Yu do that too?”

“All up and down Lotus Pier,” Madam Yu said, a slight gruffness in her tone as she remembered the infuriating woman. “Your mother was as beautiful as she was annoying.”

She had a pair of eyes, and fortunately, they were not blind to how frustrating the flirtatious woman could be. She was just glad that Yǎzhì distracted her from herself when they were younger, she might have sooner pushed the woman into the pier than just walk away as she did.

“Put the training sword away and come,” Madam Yu turned around. “We will go to the kitchens, there’s a spot on the ceiling that she blackened with one of her experimental talismans.”

Wei Ying followed after her.

-

“Are you okay?”

Jiang Wanyin looked up with a frown before realizing it was Wei Wuxian at his door- in truth, he was attempting to work on an assignment for his calligraphy classes. His hand was never the most steady when it came to delicate works like this so he was facing some trouble. “..Yeah, this stuff’s just hard.”

Wei Wuxian padded over, kneeling next to him and looking at the paper- then looking at his brush hold. “Maybe the hold isn’t right?”

“This is how he taught us,” Jiang Wanyin scowled.

“That’s the standard,” Wei Wuxian agreed. “But sometimes it’s hard when you learn how to write differently. Gēge doesn’t use the standard hold when he’s writing- it’s too unsteady for him, he holds it more towards the brush. Maybe that will work?”

Jiang Wanyin eyed the other boy skeptically but figured there was no harm in trying. He shifted his grip closer to the brush end and wrote again.

This time it was easier.

“It is easier,” Jiang Wanyin noted with surprise. “Thanks.”

“Un.” Wei Wuxian scooted closer for a moment.

The other boy eyed him, “You don’t have training today?”

“Madam Yu said it’s too soon after last time,” Wei Wuxian said quietly. “She said I need to properly look at everything and see the parts Mama broke- there’s a gouge mark near the main room where Mama slipped and crashed her sword in.”

So that was where that came from, Jiang Wanyin had always wondered.

He put his brush down, “You wanna see the markets?”

“Yeah!”

-

“WEI WUXIAN!!”

The thirteen-year-old, clothed in Jiang Sect style uniform, dashed across Lotus Pier with a cackled on his lips as he ran past various venders. The marketplace, used to the chaos incited by the boy, easily maneuvered around him and vice-versa. Some of the young maidens carrying their usual tasks giggled as he smiled charmingly at them as he passed by. A lot has changed in the past three or so odd years since coming to Lotus Pier-

“GET BACK HERE!” Yelled a huffy and scowling Jiang Cheng, red-faced and hot on the heels of the apparent guilty party. “THROW UP A-JIE’S SOUP RIGHT NOW DAMN IT!”

“It’s so good Jiang Cheng why would you want me to do that?!” Wei Wuxian grinned- propping himself along the borders between the pier’s bridges and deftly running across without nary a slip. After rooftops, running along narrow lines was easy. Rooftops were slippery after all. “Be nicer to your shixiong! I hadn’t eaten all day and your bowl was right there! What else was this Wuxian supposed to do?”

“STARVE,” Jiang Cheng barked. “WHO’S FAULT WAS IT THAT YOU WOKE UP TOO LATE TO EAT BREAKFAST? OH YEAH- YOU!”

“Shijie will make more, why are you so prickly Jiang Cheng-? Have mercy on A-Xian, he was too hungry,” Wei Wuxian pouted.

“STOP RUNNING AND I’LL SHOW YOU MY MERCY.”

Madam Yu watched in the distance with an increasing headache growing on her mind, the site was somehow too nostalgic. Except instead of Jiang Cheng running after Wei Wuxian- it was her running after Cangse Sanren with the deplorable woman holding one of her hairpins given by Jiang Fengmian hostage.

“Ahahahhaa- it’s not like you’re gonna use it A-Yu~ I just wanna use it in my experiment! It’s hard to find solid pieces of silver around here!”

“Oh sure- Like hell! Give it back!”

She turned around to head inside, she was too tired to deal.

-

“Huaisang, meet Jiang Cheng- Jiang Cheng, meet Huaisang!”

Wei Wuxian tapped his foot impatiently as the two heirs bowed to each other.

“Okay quick let’s go eat!”

-

“Cousin you’re so cold.”

“Stupid peacock.”

Jin Zixuan felt his face redden as his supposed cousin and the heir of Yunmeng Jiang stood to the side of him with faces of mutual judgment in matching uniform. It’s been the same these past few years and he felt that his supposed ‘Younger Cousin Wei’ was somehow betraying him for the Jiang heir.

“It’s not my fault,” He huffed.

“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian said in deadpan. “Doesn’t mean you get to be mean to shijie. Your capacity for phlegmatic behavior astounds.”

Jin Zixuan colored, “Wuxian! Don’t use words I don’t know, mother already told you this!”

He was educated but even that was too much!

“He means you’ve got the emotional intelligence of a peacock, peacock.” Jiang Wanyin deadpanned, who had simply ended up absorbing information from Wei Wuxian like osmosis in the past three years. “Prideful, dunderheaded, and way too into himself.”

Wei Wuxian nodded solemnly in agreement. “Honestly. Why shijie insists on allowing an ignoramus like you to grace her presence and eat her food. It’s a wonder why you’re on the list for most handsome young masters; someone like Lan Xichen no doubt is more suitable- and yet she’s chosen you.”

Wei Wuxian’s expression turned serious, “Especially since you made her cry yesterday.”

Jiang Wanyin leveled a glare at the Jin heir, “You make her cry again peacock, and we’ll make sure you beg Madam Jin to never let you visit here again.”

Jin Zixuan’s shoulders raised in defense- but he couldn’t really retaliate. He knew he was in the wrong, it was more of a mercy that neither Wei Wuxian nor Jiang Wanyin had acted in anything more than words for the events of last night. He considered himself beyond lucky that the younger hadn’t deigned to write to his brother and set Wei Ming on his ass.

With a grumble, he took out the package from in his sleeve, wrapped by the market lady who had also given him a significant look due to the fact that Maiden Jiang was a frequent customer.

“I bought this as an apology, I overstepped my bounds,” Jin Zixuan mumbled under his breath.

Wei Wuxian inspected the package, glancing at Jiang Wanyin.

“Hairpin.”

Jin Zixuan sputtered, “How did you-?”

“Hm,” Jiang Cheng hummed to himself, eyeing the brown paper. “That lotus flower one Sister He had in her stock. Silver with purple accents.”

Lang Fengyi came up behind the two boys, nodding emphatically, “He chose it himself.”

Lang Hua came up behind Jin Zixuan, “Nary hesitation. Young Master Jin has sensible taste.”

Jin Zixuan was now officially terrified.

“Hm,” Wei Wuxian turned to Jiang Cheng, raising a brow.

“Mn,” Jiang Wanyin nodded. “Very well.”

The four left, leaving Jin Zixuan pale-faced and gripping the brown package in his hands even tighter.

Later, Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian crashed Jin Zixuan’s attempt to present his gift of apology. Sticking by Jiang Yanli’s side as she cooked for the night, much to the eldest’s amusement.

“A-Cheng, A-Xian,” She scolded gently. “If you’re going to be here then help me cook. Ah, A-Xian mother and Aunt wishes to eat congee tonight. A-Cheng can you help him cut the vegetables? Most of mine are already done. Leave the spices out please, we’ll add them later.”

Jin Zixuan knew for a damn fact that he was getting a dump load of spice on his portion when he wasn’t looking- he resigned himself to the knowledge.

-

Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian sat in silence in a room where, not so long ago, Wei Ming had sat to watch the lake with the geese flying as they pleased.

“You’re going back soon,” Jiang Cheng said quietly, drinking something that was most certainly not alcohol. Wei Wuxian was already nearing fifteen in a few months, there were rumors that he would be placed on the roster for students going to Gusu Lan- Jiang Cheng himself was told by Jiang Fengmian that he would also be going if he so wished. “Excited?”

“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian smiled wistfully. “I wonder how Gēge’s gonna react.”

Jiang Cheng snorted, “You know exactly how he’ll react.”

“True.” Wei Wuxian grinned. “Are you going to Gusu Lan with the other disciples?”

Jiang Cheng nodded, “Next year or so. You?”

Wei Wuxian shrugged, “Probably, I don’t wanna go right away even if Huaisang is going this year. I don’t know if I can handle the fuddy-duddy; need to build up resistance from Gēge for a bit.”

“’Resistance’ my ass, you handled mother’s brutal training, didn’t you? I don’t know how you handled that crap at ten,” Jiang Cheng hissed at the memory. “Your brother’s certainly a monster.”

Wei Wuxian pouted, “Just because you aren’t used to it doesn’t mean you get to call him that! Besides- look how well the others turned out! And he didn’t even go all the way on them before we left! You said you liked the obstacle courses.”

“They were fun,” Jiang Cheng acknowledged. “I’m pretty sure none of the others enjoyed falling into the pier though.”

“That’s what it’s for isn’t it? Helps improve footwork,” Wei Wuxian grinned. “Besides, you were laughing too when we were at the end.”

“Yeah- cause it is funny, they’re like squawking geese when they fall lose their footing and fall into the pier,” Jiang Cheng snorted at the memory. “Mother was laughing inside.”

“Like that time I turned Uncle Jiang’s robes rouge or that time I accidentally pushed him into the pier laughing?”

“Definitely when you pushed him. How you didn’t see him is beyond me.”

“I was too busy running from you!”

The two bickered late into the night, content at the quiet that overcame their conversation as they continued to look out into the pier. The night sky dotted elegantly with countless stars above.

[Log: File:Save_16-283.4.2020.log]

Wei Ming grunted as he took the brunt force of the beast in front of him, Nie Mingjue was off somewhere fighting off another.

Wolves- fucking wolves. Why was it always wolves?

He twisted his grip on his sabre, with two hands on the grip, he managed to overpower the beast’s jaws and cleanly slice through its head. Blood splashing on his robes, his thoughts racing as he took on another.

His hair was loose somewhat- the ribbon having been nearly ripped off in the maws of some mutt sometime during the fight. The image made for a slightly demented one as he sliced through another wolf, blood flying and spattering across tanned skin and forest green robes. The polished copper of the Nie Sect emblem pinned against his sash and waist skirt was tinged with a small splash of steadily drying blood.

“Shit-“ Wei Ming cursed- rolling out of the way. His ears were ringing something fierce- not the ringing of a recent head injury- but the ringing of a thundering piece dominating his hearing- deafening him to almost everything else. There was a chorus of voices crying out in an unfamiliar language, the strings of whatever the hell the sound was coming from was rapid- causing the hairs to rise from the back of his neck as tension grew.

He threw his left arm, charged with a surge of golden core energy and successfully killed the other beast.

But the infernal sound did not end.

The piece turned ominous, trumpets blasting in staccato as he turned. The beasts were all dead- so why was the piece not ending.

Nie Mingjue’s nose was bleeding. His sabre glowing ominously as he slowly turned to face Wei Ming- eyes unseeing. The spirit bloodthirsty and searching for another to fight, his own sabre rang similarly but Wei Ming’s superior energy dragged the proverbial beast of the blade down by the collar.

“…Shit,” Wei Ming repeated.

He barely had enough time to parry Nie Mingjue’s heavy-handed strikes. His arm vibrating with the impact. The strings vibrated and battled with the trumpets, a low humming in the undertone ringing under the high notes. A lone bar of string mournfully accenting the rest of the piece.

Every impact brought the ominous fortissimo of trumpets, he needed to stop Nie Mingjue from killing him but he couldn’t exactly incapacitate the other without seriously harming him. His golden core was already straining with the limits Wei Ming was pushing it to, he couldn’t risk over-doing it because he wasn’t trying to kill Mingjue in the first place.

He thought back to the disciples they sent back to the village and cursed his foresight, if they were in the midst of battle there was no guarantee that Nie Mingjue wouldn’t go after them too. Yet alternatively, they could not help him pin Nie Mingjue down. 

He needed to shock the man out of it- he only needed that much and he’d be able to send Mingjue flying but not seriously injure him.

But what the hell could he do?

“If you can’t overpower them, you have to use your head,” Shen Qingqiu’s words echoed in his mind. “You think I could’ve helped your Liu-shishu the way I was? He would have skewered me the first chance he got.”

Think, Wei Ming scowled to himself. What is it that could shock him??

Wei Ming almost got himself stabbed as a thought bloomed in his mind. It wasn’t- it wasn’t conventional but they were well past the need for propriety given the fact that Nie Mingjue was doing a very good impression of one of Luo Binghe’s former generals in the attempt to turn Wei Ming into a human stick. And it wasn’t like there was anyone else to see the humiliation.

He’d just have to kowtow later- his second life was on the line here! Ming Fan didn’t want to die a second time, thank you!

But perhaps there was another way?

[SYSTEM_90-728634724753: ~Severe danger detected, luck boost activated ]

What the fuck?

Wei Ming’s eyes widened as his sword arm swung against Nie Mingjue’s Bàxià. The two swords ringing in high key as Nie Mingjue tripped on thin air.

“What the fuc-“ His right hand shot up and dragged the other down.

It’s soft, how unexpected, Wei Ming noted in a daze. Oh shit shit shit he’s qi deviating-

[SYSTEM_90-728634724753: ~New Game + mode activated, romance route commenced; scenario pusher activated ]

Who are you and shut up! Wei Ming panicked, Nie Mingjue above him growled- fucking growled at him. A tongue swiped across the bottom of his lip, demanding entry and hell no- Nie Mingjue might be eighteen now but no way in hell was he doing this when the other was fucking qi deviating.

An arm came around his waist, pulling him closer and squeezing out a squeak from the rapidly mentally deteriorating Wei Ming as Nie Mingjue tilted his head and oh- what the fuck Nie Mingjue’s never even had a flight of fancy with anyone in the past few years why is he good at kissing?

Nie Mingjue sucked at his bottom lip and Wei Ming had to strangle his unexpected moan with extreme prejudice- fucking focus. The poor man was basically high on yin energy! No fucking focusing on the taught muscles! None!

Two year age difference- fucking get your head out the gutter asshole, you’re fifty-three already! Wei Ming felt a twitch.

Oh gods, Wei Ming rapidly began to push at Nie Mingjue’s ridiculously broad chest. Fucking Airplane what even was his parents-?

No choice, sorry Mingjue I’ll make it up to you later, Wei Ming thought desperately as he brought his knee up swiftly.

Mingjue let out a guffaw of pain as Wei Ming shoved him off, using that brief distraction to slam his palm into the man’s forehead and knock him out. The taller man falling to the floor with a thud- the sabre giving out a petulant whine of twanging notes.

“Shut up,” He seethed at it, his lips sore from the brief gnawing he experienced. He absolutely refused to think of it otherwise. “It’s all your fault.”

Ming Fan sighed, cheeks stained red as he pulled his sleeves back and kneeled next to Nie Mingjue to help him again.

[Log: File:Save_16-283.4.2405.log]

Nie Mingjue came to with a groan, his crotch in pain as he curled up into himself- his entire body feeling like it had just been thrown into a pit of fire- his ashes gathered up and stuck together with spices.

Thankfully it wasn’t as bad as the other times, but still.

He turned to see Wei Ming curled up and red-faced, looking resolutely away from him.

“…Did something-“

“No.” Wei Ming said resolutely. Then turned to glare at him, the bottom of his lip slightly jutting out in a pout. “You ass, you didn’t tell me your energy was building up. We could have dealt with it before we left.”

“Sorry,” Nie Mingjue said- slightly sheepish. “I forgot.”

“Fuck you,” Wei Ming. “Fucking stupid Sect Leader and his fucking incompetent fool tendencies and his-“ handsome face.

Wei Ming paused, turned even more red if that was possible, and looked away. Internally seething.

Puberty my arch-nemesis, Ming Fan hissed- his hackles raised even outside his own mind as his shoulders arched defensively. Go the fuck away no one needs you.

“…”

“…”

“You okay?” Nie Mingjue asked softly, preemptively tensing-

Thwap. “No thanks to you.” Wei Ming huffed, all of Shen Qingqiu’s cursing beginning to drag itself out from his memories. “Dipshit.”

Nie Mingjue decided that it was better for his health if he didn’t retaliate that statement, instead of looking his head disciple over with a critical eye to make sure he didn’t seriously harm him. The younger may have a strong golden core, but if he was making sure he didn’t injure Mingjue then it was more likely that the other would also allow himself to get seriously injured.

Then he noticed that Wei Ming wasn’t so much as pouting as it was that his bottom lip was just puffy- there was a bit of blood too but it didn’t seem like it was from an injury, so where?

He brought up a hand to wipe at the dried blood under his nose and the realization crashed into him like a mad bull.

Oh. “Are you sure you’re alright?”

Wei Ming turned his head and narrowed his eyes at the other’s expression, “You won’t be if you don’t leave it alone. I knocked you out.”

“But-“

“I kneed you in the balls,” Wei Ming said calmly. “And then I knocked you out and fixed your mess like a good Head Disciple. Would you like a second demonstration? No? Then we don’t talk about it.”

Now normally Nie Mingjue would take that threat and quietly avoid drawing the younger man’s anger onto himself- but for once, Wei Ming wasn’t acting like he was older. He wasn’t giving out wisdom like money on new year’s and he wasn’t idly looking at him the way older people look when their younger counterparts do something particularly funny. For once in these long six years- Wei Ming was acting his age; he wasn’t about to let this rare chance for vengeance slip by. He could deal with the damage later, and it wasn’t like Wei Ming was traumatized but more so embarrassed. He knew enough about the other to know the difference.  

So with the bastard confidence of a near-adult, Nie Mingjue sighed, then leaning on his side, with a tired smirk on his face, “Was it good at least?”

This fucking bold child! Ming Fan seethed, turning his head away, “It was terrible. I’ve had better. You better not fucking marry with those skills.”

“Is this permission to practice with you?”

“Y-You-!” Wei Ming sputtered- mouth gaping like a carp. “Shameless!”

He sounds like Lan Qiren, Nie Mingjue thought with no small amount of amusement. “Didn’t answer the question.”

“Fuck you!”

“That might be too much.”

This was a moment Nie Mingjue was going to regret in the future, but that wouldn’t be for a very long time.

For if he had known what he knew before, he would have gently cradled Wei Ming’s hands closer to himself and asked for permission to court.

But that was a story yet to be told.

[Unknown Location]

Luo Binghe looked up as he felt his husband stiffen, the latter rapidly looking off to the side with a strange look on his face.

“Shizun?” Luo Binghe frowned as his husband failed to respond, slowly inching forward to the desk where Shen Qingqiu was working. “A-Yuan?”

Shen Qingqiu narrowed his eyes, “Sorry Binghe- I just thought I felt something just now.”

Luo Binghe nodded uncertainly before scooting next to the former Peak Lord- leaning on the other’s shoulder to read over the paper in the other man’s hands.

Chapter Text

16. [Log: File:Save_17-374.2.1300.log]


Nie Mingjue walked into the office fully expecting a stack of paper for him to hmm and hah over before ultimately signing the thing and sending it off. It was that time of the month yet again- where the harvest reports come to fruition and the actual count of the crops were submitted en masse to the local Sect Leader who then sent it to the Sect Leader of the highest standing.

In other words- him.

Harvest counts were a different beast from harvest reports, occurring once every two years. Where harvest reports were simply estimations of the continuing crop every month, occasionally getting smaller as certain crops were forcibly removed, harvest counts were arguably more important due to the nature of the information fundamentally being circulated within the system of information within the territory. Harvest counts were submitted to gain a certain idea of food stocks within a certain territory, and therefore those numbers were also circulated further and further outward. Some crops were sequestered for inner-territory trade while others were destined to be traded across territories. Qinghe Nie’s main trade goods were wheat.

Wei Ming sat next to his desk, uncharacteristically slumped on the table as his eyes flickered back and forth on the paper in front of him. Occasionally humming to himself before moving a stick of charcoal onto the paper as if to highlight it. He sort of looked like he was grading.

“Essays?” He asked, walking over and sitting himself before his desk with a sigh. Hand coming to massage the back of his neck while the other picked up the first paper on the stack.

“Wei Ying’s letter.”

Nie Mingjue blinked, “Oh yeah, it’s been two years. How is he?”

“He’s staying for an additional amount- two more years I imagine.”

He looked up, leaning back as he quietly observe the other’s smile. Still sort of shitty in comparison to other’s up and down the entirety of Qinghe Nie, and especially in comparison to Wei Wuxian, but it was Wei Ming’s and he was biased enough to like it because the other never usually lifted both corners of his lips like that.

“I guess that’s good news,” Nie Mingjue tried- watching to gauge the other’s reaction.

Wei Ming nodded, folding the letter carefully back how it had been initially, “He’s enjoying himself. That’s more important. The little fool had the gall to make me wait this long before he let me know that he was staying for longer. He was probably trying to figure out how to word ‘I found out I was missing out on some cool things other kids are doing and decided I wanted to do that’ or something along those lines. Honestly.”

Wei Ming’s smile never left despite all the huffing and puffing; Nie Mingjue supposed that that was the nature of things with brothers.

“How’s Huaisang?”

“He had the gall to escape from me this afternoon,” Wei Ming mused, turning to sit up and take a small chunk of the paperwork from Nie Mingjue’s stack. “Instead of telling me he wanted to watch a traveling play that recently arrived in the City- he made excuses and ditched his lessons. Honestly, I would have let him go if he just told me first.”

Nie Mingjue skeptically waved around his paperwork, “I’m pretty confident that he thought you wouldn’t have let him go even if he begged on hands and knees. You hardly ever let me go when I want to do something other than paperwork.”

Wei Ming raised an eyebrow, “Last week. Sparing competition between the disciples, I let you be the prize as the winner’s last sparring partner.”

“Oh come on, that’s basic Sect Leader duties and you know damn well it is.”

“Fine- two weeks ago, you went out drinking with Zhonghui-shixiong and the other senior disciples.”

“You just call him Zhonghui; your position is higher anyway.” Nie Mingjue made a face. “And we hardly stayed out for that long, you made me come back at midnight.”

“You had a meeting with Jin Guangshan about the border mines that morning, I didn’t want you to punch him when you saw him.”

“This coming from you?”

“Exactly.”

Nie Mingjue rolled his eyes, “Still not much evidence of your supposed merciful side, even the disciples are scared to ask you if they can take the day off.”

“They can ask, whether I will say yes or no is entirely up to how they explain why. The younger ones have no issue with this.”

“Because you favor them, obviously. You gave candy to A-Ren yesterday for doing well on her test.”

“Good behavior should be rewarded.”

“And I haven’t been a good Sect Leader, doing all my paperwork and filing things on time?” Nie Mingjue leaned forward. “I’m entitled to a break aren’t I?”

Wei Ming sighed, glancing at the paperwork on the desk.

Then he looked back up to Nie Mingjue before glancing down again.

He held out a hand, “Give me.”

Confused, Nie Mingjue handed over his stack of paperwork.

The other thumbed through each page, eyes flying across each set of information before slipping to the paper behind it, splitting between three fingers in a pseudo notation of each. As he read, his mouth moved as if noting to himself something- it was quite a sight for anyone unfamiliar with the way his head disciple dealt with paperwork.

In time, three distinct piles were made on his desk, none of which he actually understood.

“You need to read these at least before bed,” Wei Ming shoved some odd perhaps no more than ten or less sheets towards him. “These can be dealt quickly tomorrow.”

He nudged the second stack, maybe some odd twenty pages towards his desk.

“I’ll handle these,” He took a sizeable stack- roughly a fourth of the original set of paperwork Nie Mingjue had to handle- and pulled it to himself.

“But-“

“Do you want your break or not?” Wei Ming raised a brow. “Go, enjoy yourself.”

“But I-“

“Mingjue,” Wei Ming said warningly, “Either get out and have your break or stay here and finish the paperwork. It’s one or the other.”

Nie Mingjue sighed at Wei Ming’s no-nonsense tone. The pin has already been secured and nothing other than divine intervention could change Wei Ming’s mind when it was like that.

Fine, he thought petulantly in private before standing. “Alright.”

He looked down at Wei Ming, already getting to work notating the paper and idly circling things and re-writing.

“Thank you,” he said softly. Loaded with more meaning than what he could bare to impart. Things haven’t been the same since Wei Ming took literally half of Sect Leadership burden from Nie Mingjue’s shoulders. Not just took it, but wrestled it off of him. He hadn’t felt this light since he was a child- and yet now here he was- with his qi deviation rate steadily declining to lesser and lesser occurrences. Both Nie Huaisang and Lan Xichen were thrilled with the development, adamant and thankful for Wei Ming’s intervention; a viable cure was on the horizon for his clay sword of a constitution.

He wasn’t sure if they understood that the cure wasn’t so much Wei Ming’s intervention as it was Wei Ming himself.

And he was thankful for it, one day he hoped to repay it even. But until then he had to contest with small little trinkets he saw that he thought the other would find either useful or somewhat amusing. Maybe even try to drag Wei Ming out every now and then, Peak Lords knew the man worked too much.

With that thought, Nie Mingjue quietly left the office.

[1330]

Among the actors Huaisang must have seen this morning when he escaped to watch a show, there also seemed to be a bonus of sorts within the party- a fortune teller.

“Care to see your future Sir?” She had asked him, smile beckoning. She was quite beautiful, even in her simplistic clothing, it certainly garnered the attention of many as several others were drawn into her natural allure. “I have some skills in fortune telling. Perhaps you have interest in knowing about your future cultivation partner.”

He raised a skeptical brow, “How much?”

She looked him up and down, as if somewhat examining him like a piece of meat, “Nothing more than you’re company Master. Those with interesting futures are few and far in between.”

With some hesitation, he nodded, “And what would Madam’s name be?”

“Meiyin Master Cultivator,” She smiled, as if she had just told an amusing joke. Then, she proceeded to turn her wrist, a delicate flower bud appearing as if in thin air.

It must have been in her sleeve, Nie Mingjue noted to himself.

She presented it to him, “Please breath out Master Cultivator.”

Nie Mingjue obliged, stooping relatively low in order to exhale on the flower.

She pulled the flower closer to her, Nie Mingjue just barely catching sight of the flower blooming. Between her thumb and forefinger, she held the fully bloomed flower by the stem up to her eyes to see.

Her smile dropped slightly.

“Something wrong?”

“Ah- no.” She glanced at him with another smile, slightly too wide. “Surprising indeed Master Cultivator. Your cultivation partner is…older than you. Someone you know I believe.”

“I…see,” Nie Mingjue frowned, there weren’t many who were older than him that he knew that well. “What else?”

“Your first meeting was unexpected, somewhat perhaps annoying to the both of you. But after a conflict was resolved, that changed. You have saved each other’s lives, multiple times in fact, and now more than ever you are in each other’s presence more often than not.” She paused for a moment, reading the open petals.  “Your fated person…is not always forthright. Although they may have an interest in others, they will never act on it. They are however, absolute in devotion.”

Nie Mingjue hummed, sounded promising, “What about appearance?”

She peered into the flower, “Plain by other’s definitions. But their beauty is within their actions, not their appearance.”

Nie Mingjue nodded, “Anything else?”

Madam Meiyin’s expression gentled slightly, as if preparing to give bad news, “There are tumultuous times in your future. This red string of yours…It will be pulled to a taught, and if you falter, it may snap. Please, think through your actions carefully, your temper maybe your downfall.”

She looked up to meet his eye, quietly continuing, “And theirs as well.”

Nie Mingjue swallowed, a lump forming in his throat as he absorbed the information. Nodding his head in understanding, “I…understood. Thank you Madam.”

She bowed her head forward. “Thank you Master.”

Despite her insistence, Nie Mingjue placed a sum of money in her hands before turning elsewhere. Thoughts running through his mind as he continued to make his way through town.

Madam Meiyin watched him go before turning to one of the other girls, beckoning her forward.

“Madam?”

She leaned closer, “I need you to deliver a message.”

[2221]

There were moments in the relative quiet that drew Ming Fan’s attention elsewhere, even as he was checking, re-checking, and finalizing certain reports while reading and summarizing others.

The motions were well practiced, ingrained in his habits even after nearly seven or so years. So it was rather customary to let his mind wander to other things as he worked. He didn’t mind paperwork, as it was rather calming in between other tasks, but it was a task prone to lifting its grip on his attention if it wasn’t too demanding.

With an idle hand and knowing that today was a rare day where his time teaching was only in the morning, he let his hair fall from its customary ponytail. Humming as he set the brush down to comb his fingers through it. Idly fiddling until it was more-or-less in a loose braid before looping the hair ribbon through the tail end of the braid.

Completed, Ming Fan set his hair behind his head and continued reading.

Slowly, without the presence of others, he relaxed in his seat. Leaning forward on the wooden desk with his elbows propped up, holding the papers up for him to view more easily.

His legs unfolded, feet touching together as his legs splayed against the floor in a semi-crisscross.

Then the mumbling began.

“Bullshit,” Ming Fan murmured as he read through the reports. “There’s no way fifty yield just disappears without reason.”

“Oh sure, like you need any more greedy fucker.”

“Sound less like you’ve got a stick shoved up your ass to prop you up, then we’ll reconsider.”

“….I’ll let Zhonghui know about this,” He separated that particular piece of paper from the others.

“Shizun? Shang-shishu?”

“Ah Ming Fan come in.”

Shen Qingqiu glanced at Ming Fan’s expression staring as Shang Qinghua was avidly cursing under his breath, there were ink stains on the An Ding Peak Lord’s chin as frantic eyes read stack under stack. Visible eyebags and some bruising on the other immortal was visible, but what may have been more eye-catching was the frantic note-taking the other was doing at the same time.

“He’s alright,” Shen Qingqiu informed his Head Disciple kindly, smiling tiredly. “Just a little stressed.”

Shang Qinghua snorted but made no further comment as Ming Fan set down the cups of tea and lunch for the day.

He caught Shen Qingqiu glance at the congee.

“This Ming Fan apologizes,” He couldn’t help but say. “It is not Luo Binghe’s however…Shizun has not eaten yet.”

Ming Fan bit his tongue after a moment after Shen Qingqiu failed to make a comment, idly waiting before the Peak Lord of Qing Jing allowed a hollow chuckle. The master was still slightly sunken in from the Immortal Conference roughly a month ago.

“Thank you Ming Fan, please, don’t let me keep you from your duties.”

Ming Fan nodded before bowing, ducking out from the bamboo doorway.

As he left, he heard them speak in an unfamiliar tongue, but what it was about- Ming Fan couldn’t say.

“The cannon fodder made you food?”

“He tried, that’s improvement enough. I’m sure it’s filling at the very least. Eat some, it might be an improvement.”

Cucumber-bro!” Shang Qinghua coughed slightly. “Shit.”

“You okay?”

“Yeah, yeah. Aw- fuck, he might have hit harder than I thought.” Shang Qinghua briefly coughed some more before shaking himself. “Alright- alright, we need to get this done. If we can’t find those two flowers within at least three months we’re fucked.”

“Hn.”

Ming Fan blinked.

He didn’t used to be able to understand what they said, why was he able to understand now?

His mind was quiet at the question.

“What is a ‘cannon fodder’?” He wondered out loud, brows pulling together in a frown. “Flowers? Why were they looking for flowers? What flowers?”

He tried to remember more, but like water it slipped from his fingers. Illusive and unyielding, as if it was sentient enough to keep itself away from his grasp.

“…” Wei Ming sighed, shaking his head and forcing himself to focus on the papers in front of him.

[????]

“I don’t want to die.”

“NO.”

“Wei Ming-!”

“Shut up! Shut up and leave! Don’t let me see your face again!”

Ming Fan couldn’t breathe, the air was suffocating, the force of the world baring down on him- his limbs felt numb, like they didn’t even exist.

What was this?

What was happening?

“Ming-shixiong?”

He turned, eyes widening at the familiar tone and tamber.

“How..?” The faceless voice of Luo Binghe echoed around him. “Why are you- where are-?”

“Where are you Ming-shixiong?”

“I- no shut up, you aren’t even here- where is…here…? I don’t-“

“Ming-shixiong? I can’t- I can hear you but I can’t see you.”

“Gēge?”

He turned around towards the voice, “Wei Ying?”

“Gēge, I can’t anymore- I’m sorry, Gēge I’m sorry-“

“Wei Ying? What-“

“Ming-shixiong?”

“Gēge it’s Ming Ying-didi, have you forgotten me? Have you left me behind already?”

“I-I…I-“

Have you replaced me?

“Stop- Stop it-!”

“M-Ming-shixiong don’t, you’re gonna hurt yourself-“

“Gēge…”

“Gēge!”

“Ming-shixiong-“

“SHUT UP. SHUT-“

“Wei Fan!”

Ming Fan surged forward, blood dripping from his nose and lips, kicking the table forward and snapping the oak in half. His limbs flayed wildly. Fist flying and pounding into something flesh that made a grunt at the contact.

“Wei Fan, it’s me- it’s me,” The voice murmured. “Breathe, you have to breathe.”

Stop calling me that,” He hissed. “Who are you? Unhand me-“

“Wei Fan, it’s me. It’s Nie Mingjue, we’ve been friends for damn near four years now. You were nearly killed by a ghost when we first met, you’re brother’s name is Wei Ying, courtesy name Wei Wuxian. You’re Wei Fan, courtesy Wei Ming. You’re in Qinghe Nie, your brother’s in Lotus Pier, he’s staying for another two years.”

That is not my name,” Ming Fan snarled. “I have no siblings left-“

“Wei Fan- stop being such a stubborn ass and stay still; you’re in the middle of a qi deviation-!”

“As if I would believe that demon-“

A-Fan.”

Ming Fan’s eyes widened, his body stilled at the name snarled into his ear. The low baritone partnered with an unfamiliar piece in the background, twangs of notes from an unfamiliar instrument rang in his ear paired with the strum of a low string instrument. It sent a thrum through his spine that was both terrifying and pleasurable. Like the low notes that you could feel in drum beats, pounding through your chest and heart, almost drawing you into its rhythm.

“Calm.”

Ming Fan’s breath shuddered in his chest.

“That’s it, just breathe.”

Ming Fan breathed, as the voice ordered him to.

The flaring in his dāntián stilled, slowly calming as the danger passed.

[ Restore to default progress: 71.2% ]

Nie Mingjue sighed, laxing his grip on his head disciple as soon as he felt the other fall limp, blinking in confusion at him and the room itself.

He pressed a hand into the other’s wrist, checking for damage before sighing, looking up to glance at his desk.

Well- former desk.

The entire thing was destroyed from what seemed to be a pretty solid, fully powered, kick. It was all splinters, he was actually impressed.

“Mingjue?”

He looked down, the other was propped up on his thigh, eyes blinking up at him. “Mn.”

“…hurts.”

Nie Mingjue nodded, “Qi deviation.”

“Ah.” Wei Ming blinked. “I feel fucked over in seven ways.”

Nie Mingjue raised an eyebrow, keeping his voice to a low murmur, this hadn’t happened in years but he knew first hand that everything felt too much after one of these, “We didn’t have that much fun.”

“…Hmph,” Wei Ming glanced at the broken desk sitting in a heaping pile. “Oh. I…sorry about that.”

“I’ll just order another one,” Nie Mingjue thought about it. “Maybe two, you’ve been working in here more often lately.”

“…”

“Hungry?”

“I could eat an entire bovine and then some.”

“Let’s go eat.”

[2430]

“You came back late,” Wei Ming murmured as he tucked into his food, a simple congee and grilled meat with rice, one of the chefs had made for him. Normally it would be more spiced for flavor, but Wei Ming had requested a plain one in light of the pain in his stomach.

“Enjoyed some of the night life,” Nie Mingjue answered- sipping from a cup of what must have been some type of wine. Wei Ming’s nose twanged with the scent, if he focused, he could even hear the clanging of pots and scraping of woks from the kitchens a few doors down. “I managed to save the paperwork before I had to wake you from whatever it was. You actually finished you mad bastard.”

“It wasn’t too complicated. Just reading and editing,” Wei Ming paused to eat and swallow before continuing. “There’s one Zhonghui should look at, western village is having some trouble dealing with some type of yao.”

“I’ll bring it up with him tomorrow.”

“Hn.”

“Two territory owners inquired about visits and some such, something about their daughters being marrying age,” Wei Ming picked up a piece of meat to consume, before looking up to continue the thought. “They’re inviting you.”

“Denied, too much work to do.”

Wei Ming nodded, “Understood.”

“…”

“…”

“Have you ever thought about it?”

“Un?”

“Marriage. Getting married, kids. The whole bit.”

Wei Ming thought back to the days before his family died- there was talk about him having to leave the Sect to settle, but that all ended when his clan was wiped off the map during the first resurgence of demons in the war.

“Once upon a time maybe,” Wei Ming admitted- it was never really something he thought about even as Ming Fan. He was too busy, too angry, still too childish to think of the affairs of adults. Ning Yingying had quickly gone from crush to best friend- and others were simply passing attractions, nothing substantial. It was difficult to believe there was a potential for such things when one was surrounded by peerless beauties on a day-to-day basis. The occasional night in bed was often nothing more than that, a night to feel bruises on your skin from something more substantial -more meaningful- than a mere injury. “Not anymore.”

“Why?”

Wei Ming shrugged, “The standards are too high.”

Nie Mingjue snorted, “Really. So what woman would bewitch the Great Cultivator Wei Ming?”

“…” Wei Ming thought about it seriously. “Someone…someone with a great deal of strength I suppose.”

“Hoh?”

Wei Ming rolled his eyes, “Strength comes in a great deal of forms. Do not discount my words to mean something as meager as physical strength. I mean someone strong enough to know when they’re in the wrong, someone strong enough to keep me in my place when I am wrong. Someone…”

He thought of the various people he had held dear in such ways in his life- in truth, there were…oh perhaps four or so…they never became something like that, but they were precious all the same. Even if he never found it in himself to admit it.

“To share the burden of life with…I suppose,” Wei Ming paused to drink. “Although those are simple characteristics I would come to admire. I…I much rather someone who’d miss me when I’m gone.”

“…”

“…”

Wei Ming sighed, “What is it?”

“You are so damn old,” Nie Mingjue gruffed- internally he felt a twang in his chest. Seriously- was Wei Fan a star-crossed lover in a past life? Someone who only felt a one-sided love? This was sad and he usually enjoyed the sadder stories he came across every now and then- perhaps not when reading them, but still.

“You asked. I merely answered,” one corner of Wei Ming’s lip was curled up in amusement. “And you Nie Mingjue? What does the Sect Leader of Qinghe Nie seek in a person?”

Nie Mingjue snorted, “Someone who’d treat Huaisang well. Strong. Able to keep up with me.”

“Wow.” Wei Ming deadpanned. “You have such complex tastes. ‘Nice to my brother and strong’. The matchmakers will certainly have a difficult time with you.”

“Oh shut up, there’s more to it than that. And it’s not like yours is such a hard line either, you’re practically saying anyone would do.” Nie Mingjue scoffed, turning to look at the younger, “Would you accept a man too?”

“Would there be a problem if I did?”

“...” Nie Mingjue blinked, slightly taken aback by the hostile tone. “No.”

Wei Ming relaxed, shrugging, an amused huff escaping him, “I would not be looking for a fan that would keep me cool and stay with me until I die Mingjue. I would be looking for a partner.”  

“’would be’?”

“There are no guarantees in this world,” Wei Ming continued to look towards his dinner. “I can either die before them, or they could die before me. They could even fall for someone who is not me, or they could choose not to fall at all. It is the way it is. I’m not under any illusions that I would somehow find myself in some type of mythical fairy tale of romance, life isn’t so simple.”

Nie Mingjue cleared his throat, accepting the other’s words with a swallow of his food. The atmosphere growing heavy as the sounds of dinner continued despite the early morning hour.

“…Between me and Xichen,” He said slowly. “Who is more handsome?”

Liu Qingge. “Xichen.”

“Oh you ass-“

“He’s ranked higher than you on the list, I am inclined to agree with it,” Wei Ming said mercilessly. “Genial, kind. Handsome, rich, an heir and a musician. Esteemed in the standards of Gusu Lan. I’d most likely swoon if I deigned to know him more than as a friend.”

“I’m just as handsome,” Nie Mingjue had to admit that his pride had been just that slightest bit pricked. Wei Ming was an artist on top of a teacher- so whatever words about aesthetics he had were most likely based on something substantial.

In other words, if Wei Ming said you were pretty- you probably were.

“Fuck, marry, kill. Me, Xichen, Meng Yao.” Nie Mingjue challenged.

Wei Ming raised a brow, “Marry Xichen, sex with Meng Yao. Kill myself.”

“You-!“ Mingjue sputtered. “That’s not in the game!”

“Mingjue,” Wei Ming tilted his head and smiled like the bastard he was. “I’d rather kill myself than hurt you.”

“…” Nie Mingjue froze, staring at him. All of the moments he had teased Wei Ming from flirting surging through his mind in quick succession with Wei Ming only responding with variances of ‘shut up’ or ‘go away’ or silence. “You fucking liar, you do know how to flirt. What about Wei Ying?!”

“You’re the man whom I trust most, I also trust you with him,” Wei Ming said sincerely. You know, like a bastard.

“I…I…” Nie Mingjue had no words left. “It’s still against the rules asshole!”

He said lamely with a blush on his face.

Wei Fan simply hummed as he sipped his tea.

[Log: File:Save_19-478.3.1000.log]

“Don’t miss me too much Jiang Cheng~” Wei Ying chimed as he tied the Qiánkūn bag tighter around his waist. The expanded space within shook slightly with the multitudes of inventions and notes Wei Ying had written out over the past four years. Even with the return of the original Nie Party two years ago and the prospect of seeing them and his brother again, Wei Ying couldn’t find it in himself to not feel a little sad that he was leaving Lotus Pier. He had already said his goodbyes to the sisters, aunties, and uncles in the market places- he may or may not have another Qiánkūn bag filled with their going-away presents- but that was neither here nor there.

The saddest thing was that he was going to be further away from Shijie’s cooking- that was something to cry about if he ever he was to find a reason!

“Who’s gonna miss you?!” Jiang Cheng barked, arms crossed with a scowl. “Not me!”

Jiang Fengmian, standing behind his son merely turned to the side to let his chuckle out in relative privacy before it could threaten to choke him. Neither Jiang Yanli nor Madam Yu had obligation to save Jiang Cheng face- as proven when Jiang Yanli giggled in partnership with Madam Yu’s scoff.

She stood tall, looking down at him, “Wei Wuxian.”

He stilled, standing straighter, “Madam Yu.”

“You’ve learned a lot.”

Wei Wuxian nodded.

“…” Madam Yu extended her hand, a book held before him. “Keep that safe, it is a gift between the Jiang Sect and the Nie Sect. To my understanding, your Sect Leader is a collector of such things.”

Curious, Wei Wuxian took the book and peered at the title. Fading and old, the ink read:

An Attempt To Capture Cang Qiong Mountain

Illustrated by: Peerless Crane

Text compiled by: Paper Plane

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian’s eyes widened before bowing, the book held gingerly in his hands. “Thanking Madam Yu for this gift. Qinghe Nie will be honored to receive.”

“Hmph, it is repayment for Disciple Wei’s work in improving the various talismans that protect Lotus Pier,” She raised her chin up higher, looking him in the eye before tilting her head forward in a slight bow. “May our Sects continue to work together in peace.”

There was an awkward pause before Jiang Cheng was not-so-gently pushed forward, the other glancing uncomfortably at his parents and sister before turning to Wei Wuxian. Chest puffed out and standing tall.

“Wei Wuxian.”

Wei Ying’s lips curled, “Jiang Wanyin.”

“Who are you calling-! Tch, never mind.” Jiang Cheng breathed deeply, exhaling before whipping the scowl off his face. Eyes staring into Wei Wuxian in a way that he knew was inherited from Madam Yu; in the morning glow of Lotus Pier, they almost seemed violet in color.

“Four years ago, you came to Lotus Pier to learn as a guest disciple of the Jiang Sect,” Wei Ying was impressed- they even got Jiang Cheng to do a speech! How sweet, it must have been Shije’s addition. “We have laughed, and we have suffered. We have beaten back beasts and monsters, and we have won. You have become a close friend and an even closer brother in all but blood to me and therefore, the Jiangs. In these last four years, you have become a person worthy of calling Lotus Pier your home as well.”

Jiang Wanyin extended a hand, two boxes wrapped in a smooth violet silk, not just any violet but The Violet of the Jiang Clan, were presented for Wei Ying to take. “Your father was of Lotus Pier, and he too carried a Jiang Bell. As will you.”

Wei Wuxian starred.

“…your brother too,” Jiang Cheng added belatedly, cheeks reddening at his mistake. “Just take them.”

Wei Wuxian’s hands shook as they came forward, gently clasping around the dark wooden boxes wrapped delicately in Jiang violet silk.

“T-This…” Wei Ying swallowed, “This is-“

“We have watched you grow A-Xian,” Jiang Fengmian smiled. “From a child, you have grown into a promising young man who can only do even greater things in the future. You have become your own person. Someone he…someone Wei Changze would be proud to call ‘son’. As head of the Jiang Clan, it would be an honor for the Jiang Clan to have Wei Ming and Wei Wuxian in the family register.”

Shaking, he turned to Madam Yu.

She rose an eyebrow, “Do you expect me to protest brat? I’ve trained you for four long years haven’t I? I didn’t turn you into one of Lotus Pier’s best on a whim. I expect someone who carries the Jiang name with them to stand honorably.”

“You better not be thinking of saying something stupid like ‘no’,” Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes. “Jin Zixuan might call himself your cousin but that’s just in talk. I’m going to be your actual family if I have anything to say about it.”

Slowly, Wei Ying turned to Jiang Yanli. Who smiled gently at him.

“Shijie?”

“A-Xian,” She said, kind grin never faltering. “I think tánɡjiě will be just fine, don’t you?”

“…Jiang Cheng,” He said weakly. “You’d be calling Gēge your cousin too don’t you know? He’s a lot harder on family.”

Jiang Cheng paled but nonetheless valiantly barreled forward, “So what? I survived until now can’t I? That just means I have an opportunity to get stronger.”

Wei Ying laughed, watery and nodding.

“I’ll…I’ll put it on with Gēge,” Wei Ying said after a moment, sniffing. He smiled brightly.

Bowing, Wei Ying swallowed past the lump in his throat, breath shuddering against his tight chest with every exhale. “Shūshu, Shěnshěn, Tánɡjiě, Tánɡdì. This Wei Ying will be off.”

“Have a safe journey…Tánɡɡē,” Jiang Cheng mumbled under his breath.

Chapter Text

17. [Log: File:Save_19-478.5.0604.log]


Nie Mingjue’s morning starts with screaming.

Specifically, it starts with Nie Huaisang’s screaming.

“DA-GE DA-GE DA-GE,” In a burst of speed and strength that he had never personally seen Huaisang exercise before, the fifteen year old slammed his door open to the point where he felt bad for the wood panels that groaned with a slight crackle as if something had just split.

If there was any doubt about Huaisang being a Nie he’d like to send any of those idiots to his now most likely broken door.

“For the love of the Peak Lords A-Sang shut it,” Nie Mingjue grouched. Because unlike a certain workaholic beast that currently took residence in the left corner of the Sect Leader’s (and subsequent family) personal residence, he wasn’t up at ungodly hours. “Fuck, did you even sleep? How are you up right now?”

“Da-ge, it’s not like it’s not that early,” Huaisang panted, “It’s only 6 o’clock.”

“It’s early o’clock.”

“I know you thought that was clever in your head Da-ge but it really wasn’t.”

“Shut up.”

Huaisang rolled his eyes at him, coming over to tug at his arm, “Come on, A-Xian is back from Lotus Pier!”

“You saw him. Three weeks ago. On a trip.” Mingjue grouched, face pulling into a scowl as his peace was further disturbed. “Go away, I wanna sleep.”

Huaisang pouted, “Da-ge.”

Nie Mingjue grunted, burying himself further under the thick fur and silk lined blanket.

“Fine,” Huaisang harrumphed.

There was a sound of rustling fabric as Nie Huaisang made his way out of his brother’s room. The latter sighing in content as blessed silence returned. Now to return to the abyss that was slumber…

The distinct sound of wood grinding on wood detracted from Mingjue’s attempt to fall back to sleep, a groan making itself known.

“Go away Huaisang.”

Silence.

“I’m not gonna give up even if you give me the silent treatment.”

The bed dipped as weight displaced on the frame, a hand gently patting through the fur of the blanket as if attempting to coax a stubborn child. He could feel a thumb through the blanket sliding back and forth in circles.

Mingjue turned over, eyes shut and intent on ignoring his brother.

Too bad it wasn’t his brother.

A hand passed over the top of the blanket, sliding in and gently thumbing the Sect Leader’s cheek.

Mingjue’s eyes snapped open; annoyed, he sat up with a glare aimed at his brother that failed miserably as Mingjue realized just who was on his bed trying to get him to wake up.

Wei Ming looked half asleep as he smiled at him, hair still undone and loose, it sloped across what must have been the inner-most layer of the wardrobe. The other had sat himself on his bed with a knee drawn up to rest his chin against, hand retracting as soon as Mingjue sat up. It was clear that the other had just gotten up given the semi-drunk state he was in.

“Mornin’” Wei Ming mumbled, blinking at him. “A-Sang said to w’ke you.”

Huaisang was officially a dead man.

“You aren’t up yet,” Mingjue squeaked, voice cracking as he watched Wei Ming’s head bobbed.

“S’lept late, s’okay no classes today,” Wei Ming mumbled. “Comin’ out? S’re’s fo’d.”

“I’ll be out,” Mingjue said weakly- it wasn’t like he was going to be able to go back to sleep with the horrifying image of Wei Ming, less-than-working-mode: Wei Ming, burnt into his mind’s eye anyway.

“’kay,” Wei Ming slipped off the bed.

Just when Mingjue thought he was safe, Wei Ming turned around abruptly, a softly disgruntled expression on his face. Not discomfort but more the realization that you just remembered what you had entered a room to do.

Wei Ming leaned down and pressed his lips against the side of Nie Mingjue’s sweaty hair, leaning back and nodding to himself like he had just did a job well-done rather than sent Nie Mingjue into a state of shock and internal screaming about just how off this whole thing was.

“Kay, done.”

“The fuck was that about-?”

“Shh,” Wei Ming patted the side of Nie Mingjue’s head. “S’bad, no cursing. A’Sang said it’d help. I go’ now.”

“Okay,” Nie Mingjue strangled out. Watching the other drunkenly walk back out his door with some demented grace as the other man straightened and seemed to posture himself as if he was about to walk into a classroom.

He clothed himself faster than he did than in his youth when he would wake up late to his lessons, running out with a thunderous expression that made passing disciples and servants get the hell out of his way.

“HUAISANG!”

[0720]

“OW! OW! OW! Owowowoowow-“ Huaisang whined as Nie Mingjue shook him by the lobe of his ear. “Da-ge that hurts!”

“You little shit,” Nie Mingjue hissed, still in the process of getting the red off his face. “Why the hell did you send Wei Ming to get me up??”

“You wouldn’t get up otherwise!” Huaisang whined.

“You didn’t have to tell him to get me up like I was- like I was his-“ Nie Mingjue sputtered, losing the ability to continue that sentence further. “He was practically drunk!”

“Well yeah, Wei-shixiong always acts like he’s drunk when he’s super tired. It’s okay Da-ge, he won’t remember it anyway.”

“That’s not the point!”

“Why,” Nie Huaisang narrowed his eyes, it was probably the closest he would get to a sneer- more like a leer that spoke volumes about what Huaisang knew and what Mingjue didn’t know. “You want him to?”

N-No!”

“Da-ge…” Nie Huaisang tailed off, nodding solemnly. “Okay, it’s okay I understand.”

“What the hell is there to understand?!”

“I’ll do my best for you Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang continued, disregarding his increasingly angry brother. “But first thing’s first, Wei Ying’s coming back!”

Nie Mingjue scoffed, “He’s probably not gonna get here until noon, I have no clue why you’re so damn excited this early.”

“You’re so boring Da-ge, for our ‘Welcome Back’ party of course!”

“The fuck-? What do we need that for? He’s coming back from training at Lotus Pier it’s not like we sent him off to Gusu Lan.”

“Da-ge you’re so emotionally dumb, this is why you need my help wooing Wei-shixiong.”

“I am not emotionally dumb, I can woo him by myself just fine,” Mingjue’s words caught up to him. Sputtering once again, he’d been doing that a lot lately it seemed. “Like I’m gonna do that!”

“Sure.”

Huaisang.

“Yes yes, you don’t have a crush on Ming-shixiong I get it I get it,” Huaisang sighed. “Well either way, you have to be here when Wei Ying returns anyway so it’s better if you got up to help! Hui-ge, Yi-ge, and Hua-jie are already setting up for the welcome party anyway.”

“He left for four years not a decade.”

Whatever Da-ge,” Huaisang rolled his eyes, “Fine. Just sit there and look handsome and we’ll take care of the rest. Actually- maybe distract Wei-shixiong.”

“The fuck- why?”

“He’s been stressed ever since he woke up properly and realized A-Ying was coming back, so go distract him if you’re gonna be more useless than a limp cabbage.”

“Fine- fine, stop pushing me.”

[0740]

When Nie Huaisang said ‘stressed’, Nie Mingjue had been expecting pacing. Mumbling, perhaps even so far as to venture into angrily doing paperwork territory. He wasn’t expecting Wei Ming to be in one of the tallest mountains on Qinghe Nie.

To be exact, he wasn’t expecting Wei Ming to have gotten on the tallest mountain closest to the Unclean Realm by climbing it.

“What are you even doing here?” Nie Mingjue said incredulously, his sabre cutting through the air as he balanced himself. “How the hell did you even manage to climb this thing?”

“It helps,” Wei Ming grumbled, lifting himself with one arm and swinging over. Essentially flipping himself over the face of the mountain before latching onto a space that was jutting out.  “I had a rough night.”

“You want to talk about it?”

“Not really.”

Nie Mingjue waited for a minute, idly maneuvering the sabre to keep on level as Wei Ming climbed higher. “Do you do this a lot?”

“Occasionally.”

This early?”

“Sometimes at night. It started when Wei Ying left for Lotus Pier.”

“You never told me?” Nie Mingjue winced at his petulant tone. “Don’t take it badly, I’m just surprised it never came up, that’s all.”

“Generally- everyone was sufficiently asleep if I was doing this,” Wei Ming hummed- idly eying another foothold before launching himself up and nearly sending Nie Mingjue on a one-way ticket to hell before he sufficiently latched onto the jutted out rock like a monkey. "It's relaxing.”

“Your definition of relaxing is severely radical.”

“And how would you define ‘relaxing’?”

“Getting drunk? Reading? I dunno, painting for you? Not-“ Nie Mingjue eyed the ground bellow- a good fair distance from ground level. “-coming to a mountain and attempting to reach the top by just- climbing.

“Strange, to my knowledge- relaxing is a verb tense used to describe an action that would ease the individual,” Wei Ming paused as he went over a tricky bit. “To reduce tension, or anxiety specifically.”

“You are climbing a mountain; it’s raising my tension and anxiety.” Nie Mingjue huffed, “Between the two of us, the average person would assume that I am the one going after the rush of battle. Not the monster librarian turned cultivator.”

“Then perhaps when you recall reading as a favored pastime to relax, you were in fact, referencing yourself.” Wei Ming responded, humming to himself as he launched himself forward again. “Unlike the average stereotypical scholar, I prefer a bit of mindless exercise in order to achieve relaxation. Studious reading and painting are forms of contemplative thought, they are actions in which my mind thinks more than it would if I were say- climbing said mountain. Apologies for shattering your world view, however, I find this-

Wei Ming launched himself again- this time latching onto a ledge with a grip that resembled claws, legs folded as if it was in a crouch, before launching himself a second time to an alcove that must have been just under the very peak of the mountain. Thankfully for Nie Mingjue’s heart-rate, it was sizable enough that a certifiable small army could comfortably camp- thereby excluding any potential dangers that his head disciple-apparent adrenaline junky- would face any dangers.

“-much more relaxing.”

Still, Nie Mingjue couldn’t keep out his spiteful tone as he glared at the smirking man before him while clutching his chest, “I hate you.”

Wei Ming shifted a brow in amusement, smirk still set in a place that read ‘arrogant asshole’, “Sect Leader’s declarations of fondness are as endearing as always.”

[0810]

“How you got up there in the time equivalent to drink two cups of tea is beyond me,” Nie Mingjue grumbled, valiantly disregarding any sort of feelings he had pertaining to Wei Ming’s apparent fluidity with his sword seal as he was riding the sabre as if it was nothing more than a sled in the middle of Winter. No, he was not impressed. Even as Wei Ming did a complicated maneuver that had the amazing effect of ripping through the air fast enough that the lower clouds in the sky curved along the air flow generated by the sabre.

He wasn’t jealous. Or amazed.

Bàxià hummed in something that felt distinctly disbelieving.

Wei Ming propped his legs slightly, the sabre following and allowing him to easily bank and turn towards Nie Mingjue without so much as loosing speed before making a complicated gesture that Wei Ming still hadn’t explained despite the numerous begging (disciples) and nudging (Nie Mingjue), the sabre swung as if in response to a dance signal, allowing Wei Ming to face Nie Mingjue behind him while the sabre was still moving forward.

“Well, I had been going at a significant speed before Sect Leader kindly came to personally pick up this Wei Fan,” Wei Ming responded genially- as if he wasn’t just flexing his apparent fluidity at sabre flight and sword seals. Maybe the man originally came from a Sect who’s skills at sword flight were second to none- Nie Mingjue doubts he would know. “This Wei Fan is grateful.”

“Yeah shut up,” Nie Mingjue grumbled- eyes widening as he saw something off the corner of his eye. “Watch out-!”

Wei Ming gave Nie Mingjue his second heart-conniption for the day as he jumped off his sabre that was at least a tall oak tree’s length high in the air, narrowly avoiding the black mass that had suddenly sped across his flight path. Twisting in midair- Wei Ming planned to land back on his sabre, shifting to counterbalance the sabre back in equilibrium.

What actually happened was that Nie Mingjue had surged forward in alarm, snatching Wei Ming in the air and commanding Bàxià to come to a halt.

Wei Ming’s arm snapped forward to link himself to the sabre after briefly losing his connection in surprise.

He turned to look up at Nie Mingjue, “I would have been fine Mingjue.”

“Yeah tell that to my heart rate,” Nie Mingjue huffed, turning to peer at the black mass, where ever it went. Chest heaving as sweat dripped down the side of his face. “What the hell kind of bird was that?”

Wei Ming made a face, recalling the brief image of the unidentified object. “It wasn’t a bird. Birds don’t fly in the paths of cultivators, they know better.”

The Sect Leader of Qinghe Nie’s eyes darkened, “It was planned.”

“Too fast for me to get a good understanding of its signature, but it was most definitely powered by someone’s energy,” Wei Ming agreed. “They knew to stay out of sight, which means that this was most certainly a clandestine effort on someone’s part.”

Nie Mingjue sighed, scowling in frustration, “It’ll have to wait- the area we’re in is too wide to conduct a search. Let’s just get back to the Unclean Realm before Huaisang actually nails me to that Sect Leader chair until I start croaking.”

“I’m sure Huaisang would relieve you of your imprisonment every once in a while,” Wei Ming idly commented, shaking his head before tapping the side of Nie Mingjue’s head lightly.

“What?”

“Thank you for moving to save me,” Ming Fan said quietly. “I appreciate it.”

Nie Mingjue scowl lightened to a frown, “What are you talking about? You’re my friend, of course I would move to help you.”

Wei Fan rolled his eyes, “Oh just accept my gratitude you daft oaf. What would you like?”

Nie Mingjue rolled his eyes, “Wei Fan-”

“That’s not exactly specific Mingjue,” Wei Ming responded obtusely, raising a brow. “Less paperwork tomorrow? Me handling Jin Guangshan in the next Conference? Speak now or forever hold your peace.”

Nie Mingjue sighed, then slanting his eyes in a way that usually made the women in town blush and stutter, “Kiss?”

Nie Mingjue’s enjoyment of teasing lived a short life as Wei Ming hooked the arm not holding a seal around his neck to settle a peck on Mingjue’s cheek. Settling back down to reach out and pat that same cheek condescendingly.

“Your attempt to fluster me is endearing but old tricks don’t work after the fifth time Mingjue,” Wei Ming responded diplomatically. “As I believe we established this morning, I have since adjusted accordingly to your thick face.”

With that, Wei Ming twisted himself off to land gracefully on his sabre. Leaning to smirk at him while tilting his head. Unfairly, he looked a bit like Wei Wuxian when he was being a cheeky shit and knew he was going to get away with it because he looked too cute to be that mad at.

“Sect Leader should consider keeping up.”

Nie Mingjue sputtered, face turning a blotchy red that revealed some of the freckles he had gained overtime training in the sun, “Shut up!”

[????]

Shen Qingqiu paused, eyes narrowed.

“Cucumber-bro?”

“I feel the need to slap someone but I have no clue why,” Shen Yuan said incredulously. “What the actual fuck-?”

Shang Qinghua snickered, “Maybe someone’s digging out your nappa cabbages huh?”

Silence.

“C-Cucumber bro? What are you doing with Xiu Ya?”

“I’m gonna fucking check on my cabbages.”

[0840]

“Da-ge! What took you so- eh? Why do you look like a strawberry that went bad?”

“Huaisang,” Nie Mingjue glared at his brother. “What have you been teaching Wei Ming?”

“What kind of question is that? Why would I be teaching Wei-shixiong anything?! Shouldn’t it be the other way around?! This is a false accusation!” Huaisang cried indignantly- as if he was being accused of murder or orchestrating the fall of some important figure out of vengeance for the loss of his one and only brother and his lover all at the same time.

“Fuck- I have to level up my game,” Nie Mingjue cursed, glaring at an empty space.

“What game? Why do you need to level up?! What is even happening right now?!”

Nie Mingjue huffed in annoyance, “He’s harder to tease now. I have to level up my flirting game or I’m never gonna have fun poking at him anymore.”

Flirting? Da-ge what even-“

“Wei Ming of course! I can’t get him to act like a regular guy if I suddenly lose the ability to fluster him.”

Huaisang blinked, “Da-ge.”

“What?”

“Are you sure you don’t have a crush on Wei-shixiong? Cause this is sounding like you have a crush on Wei-shixiong.”

“Of course not, what gave you that idea?”

You are literally pulling his pony tail!”

“No I’m not, I’m getting him to stutter. Act embarrassed. The regular things a teenager has to go through. You can’t tell me you aren’t resentful of the fact that Wei Ming doesn’t even get flustered when that He disciple comes to bat his eyelashes at him. It isn’t’ fair, I’m evening the playing field.”

“It’s Wei-shixiong. It’d have to be a succubus to get him to stutter over something like that; even then there’s a chance that that won’t even do it. Zhonghui-ge walked into the house while Wei-shixiong was in the middle of a bath and all he said was ‘you might wish to come at a later hour’- And you’re changing the subject!”

Mingjue frowned, “That does sound like him.”

“Still changing the subject!” Nie Huaisang sighed. “Aiyo- no time to talk about this, A-Ying is coming any minute now. Go go go.”

The disciples of Qinghe Nie bared witness as Wei Ming easily slipped into Huaisang’s previous role with corralling the party together erstwhile Huaisang corralled his brother into clean clothes and a bathe. As Mingjue left, they returned to their duties.

It wasn’t like it was an unusual event to witness, not anymore anyway.

[1120]

I don’t wanna die Gēge. Gēge I’m sorry, I have to break my promise.

Gēge I’m scared.

Gēge.

Ming-shixiong please stop it, please return the jade.

Shut up, I’ll teach you a lesson right here and break your arm.

Ming Fan! Stop it! Or I’ll- I won’t talk to you anymore!

Ming Fan- enough, we do not condone such cruelty.

Ming-shixiong why didn’t you save me?

Ming-ge why did you leave us behind to die?

Gēge, I’m scared.

The whimpered murmurs haunted Ming Fan even as he waited anxiously for Wei Ying to come home. There wasn’t much, not in the way of waiting anymore, but the tendrils of last night’s dream still sunk their claws deep. The uncomfortable sense of foreboding echoed in his head and pounded all the way as he climbed the familiar mountain bit by bit. The only reprieve he had from that crawling sensation was in the moments where he had successfully returned Mingjue’s attempt at teasing.

It was sort of cute but unfortunately for Mingjue, being best friends with Ning Yingying ultimately meant seeing Sha Hualing at a regular basis. Thereby rendering his later attempts to fluster null as soon as he realized the nature of what it was.

Being sort of friends with Tianlang-jun also left one with plenty of opportunities to acclimate to flirtatious companions. Luckily, Tianlang-jun was plenty ways even more thick-faced than Nie Mingjue- therefore, his standards were relatively simple to raise in light of those memories. A heavenly demon ‘wall-slams’ you often enough, you tend to get used to it no matter how many times Shang-shishu and Liu-shimei seemed to have a second-hand reaction to it.

Though admittedly he did have a laugh when Luo Binghe ran with his sword drawn, that was funny. He didn’t think ever he’d hear the senior demon squawk until he got rammed out of the mountain. Ah well, demons were generally durable. If being trapped under a mountain didn’t do it, he doubted getting thrown off one would do the demon in. Just for that, he took on a little more paperwork for Shizun than normal in repayment.

He felt a prickle at the edge of his thoughts- an abrupt shift as words silenced and music felt as if it’s volume had been shifted. Whatever piece had suddenly began playing in his mind, silenced- yet there was only two instruments playing.

‘A guqin and a dizi?’

Instinct kicked in as he threw himself bodily to dodge- sabre drawn and shifting kicking his feet in a jump to reset his position.

He braced the unsharpened end of the sabre against forearm, blocking the sword.

“Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian grinned, “Gēge!~ I’m back.”

Wei Ming blinked, “…”

“Gēge?”

“You sound a little like mother,” Wei Ming said, eyeing him suspiciously. “There’s always something planned when you sound similar mother.”

“That’s right! I do have something planned!” Wei Wuxian winked, “but first- a spar Gēge! Your didi has been gone for a long time, I thought you’d like the chance to see how far I’ve grown.”

Wei Ming tilted his head, “Very well.”

One of the disciples- who had drawn their sabre in alarm as their Da-shixiong was attacked by a not-so-mysterious person, swiftly turned around to yell at the disciples in the back.

“WEI-SHIXIONG IS BACK!”

The crowd moved in synchronicity as the Wei brothers isolated themselves to what was in front of him. Wei Wuxian’s new sword suited him well as he danced around on the front of his feet.

Foot work has improved, his arms are stronger too. Wei Ming noted to himself, shifting against the flow of their fight. Their blades crashing together with a high pitched’ twang. Sparks flew as the blades grinded, Wei Ming on the defensive and Wei Wuxian on the offensive.

Wei Wuxian shifted, his body moved fluidly as he sprung attacks in different directions- attempting to find an opening no doubt. He ducked and dodged, the Yunmeng Jiang style of swordsmanship did well with Wei Wuxian’s tendency to improvise. There were even some of Qinghe Nie’s strength in his blows. In the midst of their battle, Wei Ming’s golden core thrummed as it accommodated the energy for the battle.

There was a breath in the fight a moment of stand-still no matter how brief as Wei Ming and Wei Wuxian held their blades.

“You’ve grown,” he said- smiling. Wei Wuxian was just a few centimeters shorter than him now, a few more years and he would most likely undertake Wei Changze’s height and overtake him. Ming Fan was tall in his youth but not as tall as Wei Changze was. Nie Mingjue was perhaps a centimeter or two taller than their father- which was rather horrifying in perspective. He was going to be overtaken by both of them.

“Hehe,” Wei Wuxian giggled.

He dropped low.

Wei Ming’s eyes widened as he twisted himself out of the way, flipping his sabre to his dominant hand mid-movement in the opposite direction to catch Wei Wuxian’s sword before it could smack him on the shoulder.

His grip twisted, maneuvering the sabre along the sword in a shriek of grinding blades and hooking his own pommel just under the guard. Twisting in place to move around Wei Wuxian, he flicked his wrist in succession; the sword wrenching out and off Wei Wuxian’s hold away from Wei Ming and corralling across the stone floors of the Unclean Realm.

It was a Qing Jing Peak maneuver by technicality, the point was to catch the ends of sword that were prone to being ‘caught’ anything from a lanyard to the guard. If you were in a tight spot- you could even use the suspension bands on one’s scabbard to throw off your opponent. It was particularly useful against Bai Zhan who tended to thrust their swords outward as if to stab, making it easier to work around the sword and fling it off. The key was in the strength of the wrist, as it demanded an exact amount of both pressure and angle to guide the blade away from its owner. Ming Fan preferred doing it with his left as it was the stronger of the two, the pain wasn’t as much when he reset his wrist.

Shizun had also nicknamed it- The Bottle Opener Maneuver, which had made sense after Shizun demonstrated the similarities as he opened a particularly difficult to open corked jar.

In a flourish, Wei Ming halted his body and swung the opposite way, blade still held in a reverse grip yet this time, his own flat end was a hair’s breath away from smacking against Wei Wuxian’s chest.

Wei Ming won the spar, but Wei Wuxian’s grin only widened.

“I did it!” He cheered, whooping with both hands in the air. “I made Gēge use his real stance! Hahaha~ Jiang Cheng owes me~”

“You did, good job,” he reached to pat his brother on the head. The corners of his eyes crinkled, “A-Ying has done very well, this Wei Fan is proud.”

“Gēge, Gēge, I’m the one who’s supposed go around making people’s hearts go bam bam,” Wei Ying whined. “If we both have to beat pretty birds away, what’s the point?”

‘Aiyo this one,’ Wei Ming huffed, “This brother does not understand, didi must make himself clearer.”

Gēge,” Wei Ying huffed. “Okay then, but you can’t be mad.”

Wei Wuxian turned to the around, his chest puffed out and arms crossed as his expression darkened. Amusingly, Wei Ming recognized it. It was the same way Madam Yu frowned when she was attempting to drive someone off.

“Hah! This Wei Wuxian has returned, so no more ogling my brother! You hear me!? I will prank you if you do some funny business,” Wei Wuxian declared. “Four years enough! You want my brother you have to do so properly and ask me for permission! I only want the best for my Gēge!”

Wei Wuxian shifted to an unsettling grin, “You must be very very beautiful, very very smart, and very very good and nice!”

Wei Ming’s amused smile dropped into deadpan territory, “Wei Ying.”

“And you must be on the same level as Sect Leader Nie! Work hard everyone! My Gēge is the best there is!”

Wei Ying!”

“You also must be certified by the Lan Sect! My brother is the best swordsman, the best teacher, an excellent father! He is quality goods! And now-!”

Wei Wuxian turned around, grin still stuck on his face as he presented Wei Ming with a wooden box wrapped in a finely woven silk, the bolt of Yunmeng violet was almost mesmerizing enough to belay his curiosity about the box- well, if he wasn’t so increasingly horrified that Wei Wuxian seemed to be on a revenge mission to…sell him off? Advertise him to potential suitors? He wasn’t sure.

Still, he opened it at Wei Ying’s pleading face. Ugh- he must have lost some immunity in the four years the brat had been gone. The boy’s diet is going to be a nightmare and a half.

He blinked.

Nestled in the box was an elegant bell, a bolt of purple and black at the end of its tassel, and engraved on the surface was his name in an elegant script. The ornamentation damned him to the position- for this was not just any Jiang Bell- this was the Jiang Clarity Bell. Ornamented in the tigers the family was compared to- it seems that Madam Yu had opted to declare Weis to be akin to foxes as the Tiger engraved on top of a Lotus Petal was accompanied by a fox. The bell’s ring was clear and pleasing- easing his mind of discord into a cool calm.

But this was a Jiang Bell, which means, “They…?

“Yep,” Wei Wuxian grinned. “Gēge help me put it on!”

“Ah- yes- Um, please hold still,” Wei Ming said softly as he fumbled, sliding the chord deftly into the loop within his waistband. His hands were shaking slightly as he did the chord on Wei Wuxian’s waist- noting the purple robes did look quite good on him. “I..I will write to…to Uncle Jiang later- um, there’s food? Are you hungry? You look thin Ying-er perhaps you should go eat, A-Sang prepared a feast, let me take your bag.”

Nostalgic, Wei Ying thought fondly as his brother fussed over him in light of apparently being overloaded with the knowledge that the two of them might as well been the next heirs apparent to Lotus Pier besides Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng- which by technicality they were. Jiang Cheng had no children yet and there weren’t any other family members besides the two who were Jiang Heirs. It was a political move, Wei Wuxian knew, but it also meant one clear thing to everyone who could see.

You hurt him, the bells said. We come after you.

He turned to look at the other disciples, who stood in awe as Wei Ming revealed his arguably softer side. The taller man was fussing around and quietly scolding Wei Wuxian in a firm but soft voice that they couldn’t quite align with their four-year long experience of the clear voice that cut through shenanigans and the classroom like it was weaponized on its own.

Though Nie Mingjue would have realized that it’s exactly the same way Wei Ming was that morning if he was there to witness it.

Wei Wuxian however, after four years sans his brother, reveled in the vinegar sucking looks.

Gēge is the best after all, Wei Wuxian thought with a smirk before he pouted at his brother. “Gēge, let’s just go eat right now. Xianxian is hungry and Shijie said Xianxian was supposed to wait for Gēge to eat the soup!”

Wei Ming chuckled, shaking his head fondly, adding the nice effect of Wei Ming’s face becoming undoubtedly softer.

The vinegar smell got stronger! Wei Wuxian cackled internally as he tugged his brother’s arm towards the main dining hall of Qinghe Nie where Nie Huaisang would most likely be.

First Plan is Success! Wei Wuxian cheered. Brother will have a cute wife or handsome husband soon enough!

One…might ask why Wei Wuxian was suddenly so set on getting his brother a cultivation partner; it’s a valid question- but there were certain implications with the fact that the Jiang’s had officially adopted the Wei Brother’s into their family register.

One- was that the Wei brothers were now certifiably eligible. As in- desirable for marriage. While Wei Ming’s deeds and Wei Wuxian’s genius had spread across the land quite well, perhaps even excessively, they were still noticeably dogged by the fact that their father was Wei Changze. This was no longer the case as Wei Ming was no officially the next heir to Lotus Pier should something happen to Jiang Cheng.

Second- Wei Ming was arguably one of the if not the strongest cultivators in their generation based on deeds alone. Destroying a waterborne abyss? Exercising a ghost terrorizing the people of Qinghe Nie for more than a few decades? Defeating yao? Wei Ming was known throughout the world as a cultivator before he was known as a disciple.

Third- for as much as his dear elder brother didn’t seem to notice, not only was Wei Ming desirable based on his deeds- he was desirable also based on his character. Polite, courteous, kind most of all- and already well versed in child rearing due to his status as Wei Ying’s sole guardian at a young age in addition to being a Head Disciple. He was also – as the stiff Wei Fan would most likely deny – pretty handsome. Wei Wuxian knew objectively his brother was sort of pretty in that surly that sometimes reminded one of a dignified gentleman- but he didn’t really know what people thought of as pretty or handsome until recently- and Wei Ming fit the criteria.

Also, apparently people were kind of into the whole ‘old man style speech’. This was a shock at the age of twelve when people were making red faces at his brother while he was parading around dressed as Ming Fan but over time he did sort of understand the allure. It was almost like Ming Fan himself had managed to sneak into their world and parade around as this weird disciple.

His Gēge is loads better than some old geezer cultivator of course, but he understands the comparison.

“Huaisang, Sect Leader Nie!” Wei Wuxian walked forward, straightening into a solemn bow before rising. “Wei Wuxian has returned.”

“…Brat,” Nie Mingjue deadpanned. “We could hear you from outside, what’s with this facade?”

Wei Wuxian broke into a wide grin, giggling before nodding his head, “This Wei Ying is glad to be home.”

“Hmph, you better,” Nie Huaisang huffed haughtily before extending his hand as Wei Wuxian and Wei Ming walked around the table to join them in the feast put together or Wei Wuxian’s return. Wei Ming sat on Mingjue’s left while Huaisang sat at his right, and for Wuxian the only seat was on Wei Ming’s unoccupied left side- thereby allowing a neat row of the familiar cultivators and geniuses. The other disciples who were able to join politely paused to observe them walking to their seats before some continued to eat while some continued to watch.

“What?”

“Souvenir, duh.”

“You drained my wallet when you visited Lotus Pier last time!” Wei Wuxian whined. “What are you doing asking your shidi for money Sang-xiong?”

“Oh like the pretty sisters at the market didn’t give you anything when you left. “

“Sang-xiong your information gathering is scary like always,” Wei Wuxian pouted before sticking his hand into the Qiánkūn bag- one of two, Wei Ming would note with interest. “From Jiang Cheng and tánɡjiě.”

Wei Wuxian threw the package over.

“Wei Ying!” Nie Huaisang shrieked, nearly jumping out of his chair to catch it before it landed comically slowly and safely in his hands- a talisman stuck onto the side that would have made sure it survived if Huaisang had let it fall to the floor. “You gremlin!”

Wei Wuxian didn’t care- he laughed. Wei Ming was impressively maintaining his unaffected facade as he raised a brow at his newly evolved troublemaker of a brother. No longer was Miss Fortune and Sir Prize the enemy of Wei Wuxian- they were his, for better or for worse, compatriots. Nie Mingjue had no such reservations about hurting Huaisang’s pride, and therefore let out a deep guffaw as Nie Huaisang huffed at him and Wei Wuxian.

Still Nie Huaisang opened the gift gently. It was a well-made ceramic that opened to reveal a variety of various pots that were made of glass- inside were a variety of pigments in paint chips, cakes, and powders.

“You- you actually…” Nie Huaisang whispered. Lifting one up to read the delicate label that was painted onto the lids. “Gamboge? Malachite? Azurite? Carmine?! Mother of Pearl?!!”

Nie Huaisang looked up, “When the hell did you manage to get a hold of mother of pearl?”

Wei Ming visibly brightened in interest.

“Tánɡjiě frequents the artisans district in Lotus Pier so she asked them to put together something you might like as a painter,” Wei Wuxian puffed up in pride. “Since Lotus Pier is pretty much the biggest when it comes to trading districts, it’s loads easier to get a hold of this stuff. Ah, Sect Leader Nie, Madam Yu has a gift for you.”

Wei Ming watched as Wei Wuxian plucked what looked like an old book from the bag, presenting it to Nie Mingjue- who took it from across the table. On either side, various disciples were watching curiously.

Nie Mingjue had been holding the book one handed, a cup in the other- which he promptly dropped in shock as soon as his eyes scanned the cover.

Wei Wuxian gave Wei Ming an innocent look as the older boy looked his way with a raised brow.

“This is- this is-“ Nie Mingjue’s hands visbly trembled as he held the book. “Yunmeng Jiang had a copy of this?”

Wei Wuxian nodded.

“’An Attempt To Capture Cang Qiong Mountain’…” Nie Mingjue read softly, “said to be the most accurate depiction of the Cang Qiong Mountain Sect- illustrated by the mysterious Peerless Crane with Paper Plane gathering some facts and knowledge about each person.”

In the world of Shen Yuan- it was basically a stat and bio compilation of every popular person in Cang Qiong Mountain- but he made loads of money with the 60-40 split he had with Shang Qinghua so he didn’t care too much about having to ask many people to sit still while he captured their likeness for a more observation based painting rather than an interpretive one.

Wei Ming froze as Nie Mingjue flipped open the book carefully, seeming to skim the contents before coming to a page.

“So this is how you look like,” Nie Mingjue breathed. “Ming Fan.”

Wei Fan, having idly sipped on a re-warmed broth of Jiang Yanli’s famous Lotus Pork Rib soup- began to cough violently.

Wei Wuxian paused from his own consummation of the food to frown at Wei Ming in worry, “Gēge you okay? Here, some tea.”

Wei Ming nodded his head in thanks. Poinently looking away as Nie Mingjue gently placed a gentle finger on the side of the paper. Seriously- he knew Mingjue idolized the idea of him and all, but this was meal time. He couldn’t have done it in his office?! Don’t say his name so damn tenderly, he’s sitting right here!

Well, Mingjue didn’t know he was sitting right there but that wasn’t his problem now was it.

“Gēge,” Nie Huaisang pouted. “Go fantasize about fighting with Ming Fan later, we have to interrogate Wei Wuxian about his time at Lotus Pier!”

“Huaisang, that would be rude after the Jiang Sect presented such a gift- do you know how rare this is? More than half this territory thinks that the Cang Qiong Sect are just stories and not history- this is the one definitive proof we have that they may have been real people,” Nie Mingjue argued. “it’s important to know our past- I thought you of all people would understand that.”

Wei Ming could admit he was mildly impressed.

“Oh hush, you’re only fondling the book because it’s got a real picture of Ming Fan.”

“Y-You--! Shut up!”

“But I’m right! Wuxian, tell Da-ge to stop mooning over Ming Fan when Fan-shixiong is right there!”

“He’s right Sect Leader Nie,” Wei Wuxian looked over to narrow his eyes at the surprised Nie Mingjue. “My Gēge is loads better than that old geezer.”

“A-Ying-“

Nie Mingjue scowled, “Respect your elders brats, Ming Fan is a great cultivator who’s done many feats to earn your respect.”

“M-Mingjue-“

“Did he defeat a waterborne abyss by himself?” Wei Wuxian argued. “Did he defeat your ghost at thirteen? I think not!”

A-Ying.”

“Didn’t Wei-shixiong single handedly help you with your qi-deviation?!” Nie Huaisang jumped in. “I bet he’s not as handsome as Wei-shixiong either!”

“A-Sang…!”

“He’s a noble cultivator of Qing Jing Peak! The Head Disciple of Qing Jing Peak who lead his sect siblings throughout the demon wars! Wei Fan has his noble qualities but this is Ming Fan we’re talking about here!”

Wei Ming, also formally known as Ming Fan, could physicaly feel the tension grow in the dining hall.

“Ming Fan is from history! Stuff today is loads harder in comparison to what they had to deal with in the past!” Nie Huaisang defended.  

“Yeah! And Da-shixiong is plenty strong too! He’s run around the Unclean Realm more times than anyone else without breaking a sweat!” One of the other disciples decided to throw in.

“But Ming Fan ran around an entire mountain Sect that has to be loads harder than running around the Unclean Realm.” Another defended.

“His strength was high and his cultivation was also high, one of the few cultivatiors who could stand up to the might of Luo Binghe,” Nie Mingjue said smugly.

You’re mistaking this one for Liu-shishu! Wei Ming thought desperately, Stop! This Ming Fan only has so much face!

“Da-shixiong is a good teacher!”

He’s a normal teacher!

“Ming Fan was one of the best teachers in Qing Jing Peak!”

He almost killed Luo Binghe!

“Gēge writes, paints, plays instruments, and fights with both hands!”

Only after close to fifty years!

“Ming Fan was second to none in his prowess on the battlefield!”

No one should be proud of being able to kill so easily!

“Wei-shixiong is an excellent painter and a great potential for a cultivation partner!”

Who would want someone like him!?

“Ming Fan was sought out by plenty!”

Now that wasn’t true!

“Wei-“

“Ming-“

“Wei-“

“Ming-“

“Fan-ge”

“Ming-“

“Fan-“

“Ming-“

This…this was all too much. On top of being formally adopted into the Jiang Clan- they were all arguing his good points? Were they blind? Wei Ming didn’t have anything that good about him, he just did what he could in the best way he could- what sort of nonsense was this about what his good points were- they weren’t even that good! Was this whole world too naïve? What if Ming Fan was just glorified by later historians! For all they knew- Míng Fan was a bastard of a human- what did they know about him?! Who were they to declare that Ming Fan was anything approaching good?! What sort of reaction would he get if he told them the truth?! That Míng Fan was a slaughterer- that he made his fame in the war because he was brutal in both fighting and tactics- he dipped so much so into brutality that people started calling him a demon in human skin! He was as shitty disciple and an even shittier shixiong- what sort of right did they have to speak of all the good things about Ming Fan?! He was just a shitty side character- a joke- someone to fill up the space in Luo Binghe’s story of success, love, and happiness. Shen Qingqiu is the real hero of the story of Cang Qiong Mountain- all Ming Fan did was get in his way. They have no idea who he was- and yet they’re praising him like this!? They’re glorifying him just because of a couple words some stupid fool wrote down after he died by some demon nobody?!

Ming Fan was a side character. Nothing more. He knew this for a fact. Why didn’t they understand that? Why could Nie Mingjue understand that?

What would he do if he discovered his precious idol wasn’t so heroic as he thought?

The thought made his heart hurt.

Wei Ming stood up.

The silence that overtook the dining table could have allowed a pin to be heard dropping probably a mile wild. Wei Wuxian was about to add in more when he saw the look on his brother’s face.

It was…tired.

“Gēge will take your bag for you Ying-er,” Wei Fan said softly. “This one woke early and desires sleep. Ying-er may speak with Huaisang and Mingjue some more if he pleases, but this Wei Fan will retire early.”

Haltingly, Wei Ying handed over his bags. Watching with a worried face as Wei Ming bowed to Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang stiffly.

“This Wei Ming takes his leave,” he continued quietly before turning with slightly hurried steps out the door.

“…”

“…”

“…”

“What.” Wei Wuxian said with narrowed eyes turning to every single person still in the dining hall. “Happened while I was gone?!”

[????]

“Shizun.”

“Binghe, what is it?” Shen Qingqiu raised his head, sword still clutched in his hand. He was still feeling aggravated despite checking in on everyone- he just couldn’t figure out why.

“…it’s about Shixiong.”

Chapter Text

EXTRA FILE: Save_19-531.3.1221.log


“I fail to see how you thought this was a good idea in any capacity,” Nie Mingjue huffed as he ran- unable to use his sabre due to the nature of the creature they were hunting.

Wei Ming was dressed in a garb he realistically had no right to be able to move so elegantly in, the hardy and thick uniform of the Qinghe Nie sect were switched with soft, smooth silk that a maiden would wear. A normally decent ponytail was nowhere to be seen in favor of a half knot that was braided decoratively down the side before coming down to splay against his back and sides. He was ignoring the small peeks of pale feet that revealed itself every now and then as the man walked- again, all sorts of strange. 

“How are you even wearing that thing without tripping?” Nie Mingjue grumbled as he ran- far and far away from the monster currently chasing behind him.

“It isn’t actually that difficult once you get a feel for the rhythm required,” Wei Ming said vaguely. Eyeing their path before reaching out to tug Nie Mingjue sharply by the sleeve. Swinging the taller man bodily into a hidden alcove that credited it’s worth to the outcropping of thick trees and other vegetation. The two of them pressing against the side.

“Mei Lin could have done that job just fine,” Nie Mingjue continued to hiss in spite of their predicament. “Why the hell did you have to dress up as a woman?”

“I know Mei-shijie can handle herself just fine,” Wei Ming responded with a sniff. “She certainly did give me hell for it, however, I wasn’t about to risk her propriety if this thing happened to play dirty. It was simply a safety measure to ensure success; not a question of her capabilities. Creatures who target women thusly often don’t fight as according to preordained rules. Men don’t, so why should they?”

“So your solution was to dress up as a woman?

“It convinced you didn’t it? You have no room to speak,” Wei Ming huffed- though he did admit that the situation in itself was rather hilarious. Nie Mingjue wasn’t even involved in the night hunt but due to the incident in the street market, he ended up having the Sect Leader attempting to walk him home. It hadn’t been a serious incident, but an aggressive cat-call within Nie Mingjue’s vicinity had apparently grated on the man’s sense of propriety. Prompting him to act against the perpetrator and attempt to convince a dolled-up Wei Ming that he needed to walk him home. It took the man all of nearly two or three hours that Wei Ming had attempting to get the Sect Leader alone to tell him that the man himself had figured out that he wasn’t actually a woman. Which frankly lead to an unnecessary bout of incredulous sputtering that the Sect Leader had apparently still hasn’t gotten over.

Still- he was flattered that the boy had grown up to be such a respectable gentleman. A swell of pride admittedly did come over when Nie Mingjue valiantly outlined various reasonable arguments as to why he should let Nie Mingjue walk him back home- all of which did not involve belittling him but simply to act as a…deterent, of sorts to the more unsavory folk. It was all very dashing and he was sure that if he was really a woman, he would be swooning indeed.

Well, that was only a partial truth. He was swooning a little, but just a minuscule amount. There wouldn’t be very many people who wouldn’t swoon at such a declaration like that, but Wei Ming simply admired the sentiment. Shame no one else was there to bear witness, he imagined that Nie Mingjue would have shot up some two or three rankings.

Then Wei Ming spotted something that made him freeze in his tracks. 

Wait a fucking minute.

“Well yeah- but still-“ Nie MIngjue paused as Wei Ming slapped a hand across his mouth- shoving him bodily against the wall as the other froze at the sudden action. By Mingjue’s standards, the cultivator was stiffer than he usually was. Body strung like a well-wound chord that was well and truly ready to snap as all of a sudden everything was pulled taught. Wei Ming’s eyes were off in the distance, eyeing something with a distinct bout of hatred that Nie Mingjue twisted his head to get a look.

It was a fucking flower.

Granted a weird looking one but it wasn’t like Nie Mingjue was any particular expert in fauna.

“The hell’s wrong?” He asked past hands that began to sweat uncomfortably. Wei Ming simply glanced at him wearily before shifting his grip, tugging the Sect Leader away and behind him before he flicked a talisman towards the plant.

Torching it. And thereby grabbing the attention of the creature that was after them.

Without so much as a look, Wei Ming pulled out a fan and cut across the air with a militaristic snap. The qi energy pulling and shifting in waves of heat and light as it snapped through the open air and through the weird, tentacle, monster thing. Effectively cutting the monster in half as well as everything roughly a cart’s length behind it.

“Why didn’t you do that earlier?” Nie Mingjue wondered.

Wei Ming simply lifted the fan, now thoroughly destroyed and almost turning into ash.

“Oh.”

“It isn’t one of my usual ones, the carving would have made others suspicious,” Wei Ming replied, eyeing the forest wearily. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Sure?”

-

Ming Fan valiantly looked straight ahead as Shen Qingqiu awkwardly shifted in the room he had paid for in his Head Disciple’s stead. The younger had been night hunting when he came across an unfortunately placed papapa plot point and with the awkwardness of a parent walking into their child at their least greatest moment, the two were now attempting to put the incident behind them.

Though Shen Qingqiu felt distinctly guilty. “You could choose to have a partner you know.”

“If it’s all the same to you Shizun,” Ming Fan gritted his teeth- swallowing past his flush and gripping his wrists so tight Shen Yuan internally wanted to scold the boy for resorting to self-harm- but it wasn’t as if he had room to talk in this situation. “I’d rather suffer.”

Shen Qingqiu remembered the boy’s past with multiple failed crushes with both teams and obligingly felt a little bad. Still, the boy wasn’t so much of a boy anymore in the midst of his 30s so he would let the man do as he wished.

He winced obligingly, “Fair.”

-

"What was that about anyway?" Nie Mingjue asked as they walked- they were some distances away from the main compound of the Nie sect. Overhead there were all sorts of creatures eyeing the two cultivators curiously, the sounds of cicadas filled the air with a distinct ringing that people around the world could no doubt recognize. On any other day, Wei Ming would have liked to walk through the place during his nightly walks for some air. Enjoying the untouched world that he found himself feeling nostalgic in no matter how long ago or how different here and there might have been. 

So he was getting sentimental in his age, as much as he liked to detract any attempts to tease him for his attitude, he was in the end, an old man. 

"A particular fauna you don't wish to have the opportunity to personally deal with," Wei Ming glanced at him from the corner of his eye, "trust me."

"What kind of fauna?' Nie Mingjue said tiredly. "If it's so close to the Unclean Realm, it can't be that bad." 

"The kind that's embarrassing, enough I wager, that anyone involved in the flower will have no wish to be a part of it," Wei Ming's eyes darted in the darkness. Cultivator eyes sharp enough to pick up the subtle colors even with nothing but the moon's light. There was a weary air to his concern that was starting to grate on Nie Mingjue's nerves, simply because Wei Ming wasn't the type to do these sorts of things. He was always infuriatingly sure of himself, going through each night hunt with ease of practice like he's been doing it for several decades rather than years. It was difficult to imagine that the man was even capable of this level of wary paranoia; Mingjue had certainly never been witness to it. 

It was probably why Wei Ming hadn't seen the tree root. 

Nie Mingjue knew that the other man was capable of righting himself, he was never that much of a klutz even on unstable ground, that didn't stop Nie Mingjue from reaching out to catch the younger cultivator before he could face-plant into the forest floor with an outstretched arm. 

Mingjue waited for a beat, specifically for when Wei Ming would manage to get his footing back and straighten himself. They would nod accordingly and Mingjue would let go and that would be the end of it. 

Things were never that simple, unfortunately. 

Nie Mingjue yelped as Wei Ming was suddenly ripped from his grasp- in the night, he could see a fluorescent vine that had seemed to wrap itself around the other cultivator and dragging him into the darkness fo the forest. With little to no other choice, Mingjue gave chase. Past leaves that cut across his cheek as he ran, past startled animals as they woke from his pounding steps, Nie Mingjue paid no mind as he kept his focus on Wei Ming's struggling form. Very much in the middle of attempting to get the damn thing off his leg before it managed to knock him off his concentrated movements by smacking him into the edge of a trunk. Advanced level cultivator or not, it was enough to jar anyone.  

Mingjue cursed and ran faster, moving his arm to call Bàxià forth. He didn’t want to of course, it was hard enough keeping a tight concentration on your flight path, it was a fool’s move to try and fly in a forest- but he’d rather get whipped by branches than lose his head disciple. He was in luck, however, as the vine turned a corner and lead the Sect Leader straight to the main bud that owned the vine.

It was a plant creature, decorated in the strange flowers Wei Ming had violently torched just a few minutes ago, the younger man’s face paled as soon as the flowers on the plant creature’s body began to spread. A soft pink mist emanating in the air and falling on top of the now vehemently cursing man. Which was quite an image considering Wei Ming still look liked a maiden, but now with some cuts and what looked like a small stream of blood rushing down his neck and staining the hànfú.

Nie Mingjue automatically shifted to shove the cloth of his arm over his nose, sending Bàxià forward to skewer the damn thing.

Apparently, it didn’t like its interruption. The winding vines owned by the creature smacked against Bàxià’s edge in annoyance, vines proceeded to creep up and wind around the fallen cultivator. Curses getting louder, Nie Mingjue’s mind rushed for a plan.

“Talismans!” Wei Ming called out, flicking something towards him. “Torch this fucker!”

He smirked, catching the cinnabar painted paper with ease before sending a pulse of his energy through the intricate strokes.

He flicked his hand out, the two pairs of paper careening across the air and into the large bud that seemed to have protrusions of vines that wiggled as it let out a high pitch shriek. The air turned hot as the blast wave swept through the area in a wave of almost blue light. Nie Mingjue had managed to grapple onto Bàxià just before the blast, stabbing it into the ground to hold himself against the force. Wei Ming wasn’t so lucky as he was sent flying across the forest floor and into a tree and some rocks.

Mingjue ran as soon as he felt the ringing in his ears subside, kneeling and turning his head disciple over, the other having an expression of disgruntlement.

“Shit,” Mingjue breathed- Wei Ming’s ankle had looked suitably twisted, either from the explosion or the journey to wherever they were, either way- the shorter boy wasn’t going anywhere for at least a day, not under his own power. “I need to reset it.”

“Do it,” Wei Ming said with gritted teeth. “While I’m too pissed to care.”

Mingjue nodded grimly as he held the foot in his hand, then quickly moved it back correctly. The resulting movement caused Wei Ming to curse heavily, breath huffing. The hànfú was already in tatters, probably a courtesy of the creature. A pale neck slipped from the layers and parts of the outer robe had been burnt enough to reveal the small scars that littered the other man’s back. Nie Mingjue didn’t look out of respect, but he grimly repaired the ankle as much as he could before removing his outer robe to offer later for the other to wear.

Nie Mingjue frowned as soon as he moved his attention away from the immediate injuries, Wei Ming was flushed, breath pitching dangerously fast as he held his forearm against his eyes. As if he had gotten blackout drunk the night before and was regretting it- but it was night time and Wei Ming hadn’t drunken anything.

“Wei Ming?”

Ming Fan shook his head, teeth gritted as shocks of pain ransacked through his abdomen and outward.

“Hey, what’s wrong?”

“Pollen of the plant,” He gritted breath coming even more hitched than before as the pain flared. “It’s like an asphoradic with a torture twist. I fucking hate those things damn it- what sort of two-faced no-face bastard would make something like this?”

Somewhere, Airplane sneezed.

Mingjue frowned, “How bad is it?”

“Imagine every muscle in your body tugging at the same time, painfully, and the only way to relax is to force your muscles to spasm by way release of certain feelings,” Ming Fan grunted as the pain flared even more; he forgot how much he hated these stupid plants. “Shit-“

“Alright move.”

Ming Fan snarled, “Oh hell no, you stay right there.”

“Wei Ming- if you’re so damn concerned about propriety, we can agree never to talk about this, but in the meantime, I’d like to avoid Wei Wuxian flying from Gusu Lan to cut my head off because I let you be in this much pain. Just tell me what I need to do,” Nie Mingjue had that absurdly determined look on his face. It was endearing sometimes but now wasn’t one of them. “You’re smart enough that I doubt you don’t have a way to deal with this with both our faces intact.”

“It’s not your face that’s in danger here,” Ming Fan gritted. “Just stay over there, I’ll deal with it.”

Wei Fan,” Nie Mingjue said darkly. “Tell me that all you’re dealing with is a really bad case of undealt with interests and not some sort of unimaginable pain that you’d rather bite your tongue off than admit actually going through. If you tell me that and you aren’t lying, I’ll back off.”

Ming Fan gritted his teeth together in silence.

“Thought so. I’d rather be embarrassed then watch you go through with this sort of pain so just deal with it,” Nie Mingjue sighed and moved closer. “The faster we get into this the faster we can get out, do I need to do get those off you for a second?”

Do I need to undress you? Is what went unsaid, gods he hated these fucking plants. Wei Ming could already feel his cheeks burning.

“No, that isn’t necessary,” Wei Ming gritted finally. “Just- just stay there.”

“For fuck’s sake A-Fan-“

“No- just-“ Ming Fan panted, “Fuck just stay there. Please. Don’t- don’t do anything, I can handle it. Fuck- for what reason does the gods deem such creatures worthy of life in this world, do they amuse themselves in the suffering of this world’s people, if so this one would like to offer a sword shoved up the- fuck-“

Before Nie Mingjue allowed himself to just say ‘fuck you’ to whatever was keeping Wei Ming from asking for help, the other cultivator shoved himself up. Mingjue was an active man, but he could feel his breath catch as the robes slipped off and revealed the over-tense muscles that seemed to squeeze in on itself painfully. He wasn’t stupid, Wei Ming was a lot of things but he wasn’t ugly.

There seemed to be an ethereal allure to his abnormally flushed face, even the off gray tones under his eyes seemed to add to the overall novelty of a less-than composed Wei Ming, Eldest of the Brothers. Pale, callused hands reached out feebly to grapple onto Nie Mingjue’s robes and tug himself closer.

Nie Mingjue obligingly gripped Wei Fan by the waist, tugging him closer until they were chest to chest- the other’s forehead was already glistening with sweat as he pressed it against his shoulder.

“What next?” Mingjue asked quietly- ignoring the heartbeat he could hear pounding in his ears, but he wasn’t sure from who it was coming from.

“This- hah is fine ungh,” Wei Fan pressed his forehead into his shoulder- like he was trying bodily mold himself to it. “The fu- the plant doesn’t- it can’t tell between- hah I can just- se-se. It helps. Jus- a hug. Would be- it would he- help.”

Mingjue frowned but pulled Wei Ming further, curling his arm around the other’s waist. Which was honestly too thin, did this guy even eat? “You said it was an asphoradic.”

“’S- ‘s like an asphoradic, it- hngh, affects the brain. Has ta- be counter- hn h-happiness. ‘S ebbs with the- there are these- these things, when you feel happy. S’ sometime’s sex, but need- hah you’ need a large dose. For tha’ mn.”

Mingjue could vaguely catch on to what Wei Ming was trying to say. The plant’s pollen elected an asphoradic type response, but because it wasn’t that much it defaulted to having lesser emotions able to tackle it- like happiness. The ultimate goal overall was to induce the body into a relaxed state to counteract the muscle cramps. How it worked- Nie Mingjue had no clue, but it was as much as he could glean from the other Cultivator. He’d like to manage to keep his stubborn friend well and happy if that was okay with the powers that be. “Is there anything else I can do?”

“’S kissin’ ‘s not- s’ faster bu’ not nee- needed.” Wei Ming’s speech began to slur even more, which by all definitions was never a good thing no matter how ‘fine’ the other said he was. “There’s n-ner-? Nerv- there’s thing’ in lips, feel nice-“

Nie Mingjue didn’t even think twice.

If he was honest, it was…nicer, than he thought it would be. There was a certain part of him that had guessed it might feel gross, like trying to kiss a relative or something, but it…wasn’t. It felt good, although a little dry, Wei Fan’s lips were soft and plaint under his tongue. He’s had some brief stints here and there, so he knew what he was doing, but there was something in him that grinned as he swallowed up a sigh.

Gently, Mingjue opened up his lips a little more to swipe a tongue slowly across the bottom of Wei Fan’s lip. His hand raised up to cradle Wei Fan’s cheek, thumb swiping slowly in a coaxing manner. Under his rough thumb, Nie Mingjue marveled at the smooth skin, sliding quietly along the sabre roughened pads as he breathed. A soft puff of warm air hit his own cheek as slowly, humming as lips parted to let him explore curiously, swallowing a sigh as he unconsciously pressed himself closer. Wei Fan tasted vaguely of bitter tea, comforting and strangely warm, with an edge lying just under everything else. Electrifying and addicting. It stole away his breath and filled him with a thrill he thought he could only find in fights whether with his own sabre or living through the fights of others.

Nie Mingjue wanted more.

He suckled Wei Fan’s bottom lip, rumbling in approval as he swallowed down a soft gasp. It was not deep, not as consuming as Nie Mingjue thought these types of things would be. It was comfortable, pleasurable, pleasing in ways no adjective in his repertoire could possibly describe. It was possession in his blood, it was happy in his bones, it was Huaisang’s and A-Ying’s happy laughter, Xichen’s weight-free shoulders, Zhonghui’s pride-filled beams, and it was Wei Fan’s amused smile that never looked quite right but always looked perfect. It was all those things and more. It was all he could want.

But I want more, he thought to himself.

His breath stuttered at the thought, dark and possessive. A plethora of things coming to mind in just how he would take. Pulling away abruptly, his cheeks were stained peach as he ruthlessly shoved down those thoughts- forced himself to ignore the brief whine that almost made him move his hands dangerously away from Wei Fan’s- hands that wanted to grip the other by the back of his neck and keep him still for Mingjue. Hands that wanted to wrap around the slim waist and-

Gods what was wrong with him?

“You um,” Nie Mingjue cleared his throat. “Okay now?”

“Hn,” Wei Ming he looked…better wasn’t the word, but surprised more like, as he looked at him. Still tired but far more alert than he was- gods, it must have been a few minutes ago? It felt like hours. “You…are pretty good. At kissing.”

“…Thanks,” He said, resisting the urge to shove the other man off his lap and go ahead and throw himself in a ditch for Wei Ying.  “Some practice.”

A flash of understanding in Wei Fan’s eyes left Mingjue feeling dejectedly disappointed like he wanted more of a reaction but such feelings were squashed firmly.

“You’ve improved,” Wei Fan said softly, there was a tilt to his smile- like he was looking at him differently. But Nie Mingjue was the last person in the world to know what that look meant.

He felt safer in trying a joke, “Better than some people you’ve kissed?”

Wei Fan laughed, soft and charm like- Nie Mingjue wasn’t sure if he was high or qi deviating- it must have been one of the two.

“Top five,” Wei Fan said fondly.

He looked…he looked old, is what Nie Mingjue wanted to say. Like he was looking at Nie Mingjue than not- it was disquieting in ways Mingjue didn’t even want to think about.

Who are you looking at? He wanted to ask. Who else have you kissed like this? Who else has held you like this?

There shouldn’t have been anyone but him- he’s known the cultivator for a long time now- he would have at least known something about the other four.

Right?

Questions left behind. Answers he doesn’t know he’ll ever know. It was familiar- but it was painful all the same.

Ming Fan looked at Nie Mingjue- and no longer could he see a boy anymore. He’s grown from the market- that much was clear. And it hurt more than he allowed himself to believe that he couldn’t tell this man who he was.

But he couldn’t.

Hopeful. Longing. Ming Fan noted with awe. This is a feeling I haven’t felt in a long time.

Maybe he could tell him. Just not right now.

Not yet.

Until then, Ming Fan would quietly shut himself back a little longer.

One day.

Maybe.

Wei Fan huffed in amusement at Nie Mingjue’s disbelieving expression, “Oh none of that. You’re at least rank three.”

“Oh?” Their teasing was something both of them latched onto. Light-hearted and not so charged. Eager to move on. “Who’s two and one?”

“Who knows?” Wei Ming allowed a wiry smile to take over his expression, wider- but conniving. It was an expression Ming Fan wore when he beat Tianlang-jun in a game, the rush of victory making him feel equal parts light-headed and ludicrously happy. The canker of a heavenly demon always accused him of being sadistic just because he only ever smiled like that when he beat him.

Which was true- but it wasn’t the whole story.

“Alright, since you’re feeling better- come on. I’ll carry you back,” Nie Mingjue grouched- hooking his arms under his backside and lifting easily. “This okay?”

“I’ll live.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“Oh- but can you see?”

“I’ll be fine.”

Their silence was only punctuated by the crunching of leaves, in a curled arm, Wei Ming clung onto Bàxià as he watched Nie Mingjue’s back over the man’s shoulders. Humming under his breath as they walked.

“Did you know we’ve met before?” He asked softly.

Mingjue let out a noise of surprise, “When?”

“Unclean Realm markets,” Wei Ming said, voice quiet in observance to the late hour. “Your brother got lost and it turns out the older sons in the discipleship were bullying him. You called me an old man then.”

“…That was you?”

“I meant to tell you but I wasn’t entirely sure if you’d remember. I still have the two fans you bought me. The bamboo one and the mountain range of the Unclean Realm.”

“Huh...did you ever tell me your name?”

“This one’s name is Ming Fan.”

“Sure it is.”

“Even if I did I doubt you’d have remembered.”

“Is that the reason behind all the passive-aggressive bullshit? A crime of my younger self? Have mercy on this A-Jue, he didn’t know any better.” Oh…shit did that really just come out of his mouth?

Pause.

“Pffff- Hahaha,” Wei Ming turned to giggle. “What was- pffft- what was that?”

“Not my best,” Mingjue decided it was best to attempt to play it off. “I’ll get you yet.”

Wei Míng shook his head, chuckling closed-mouth, “A-Fan looks forward to it. Nie Da-Gēge.

Holy fucKING shIT?! Mingjue coughed abruptly, “S-shut up.”


Luo Binghe glanced in worry at the broken tea-cup clenched in Shen Qingqiu's hands, "Does A-Yuan wish for this Binghe to get stronger cups?" 

Shen Qingqiu sighed, shaking his head, "No- no. I'm sorry Binghe. I-I...have to go...see Qinghua about something. Would you like to come with or do you have other things to do?"

"This Binghe would like to stay here if A-Yuan doesn't mind, is this about the reports of the Happiness Seeking Plant that escaped a few weeks ago?"

"It is," Shen Qingqiu sighed. "If that stupid Airplane wasn't distracted maybe we wouldn't be running around like headless chickens over it- well. I guess it's fine, apparently, some cultivator already set it on fire. I hope it wasn't too bad. Still..." 

"This Binghe can check on it for Shizun if he likes?" 

"No no- it's alright, it's already tough on you going around like this, this A-Yuan appreciates his husband's hard work," Shen Qingqiu smiled past his fan. Soft and regal-like. "Here, before I leave to beat- I mean, talk to your Shang-shishu." 

Luo Binghe cared not about his 'Shang-shishu' but beamed all the same as he leaned down.


MF/WF

A/n: Up there is small "here ya go" type of thing, do with it what you will 

Chapter Text

18. [Log: File:Save_19-478.5.1302.log]


Wei Ming sulked in the bath.

His eyes burned with some variant of irritation in a combination of welling emotions, causing him to sink deeper within the bath.

Shhlick.

Wei Ming raised his eyes as Wei Ying quietly padded through the door, moving to sit near the tub and scoot himself closer, propping his chin against the edge of the wooden vessel.

“Gēge?” Wei Ying said softly. “You okay?”

Wei Ming grunted.

“Sorry for being gone for so long Gēge.”

“Hn.” Wei Ming shrugged, “Not your fault. Nightmares have just returned lately, I’m not sure why.”

“The same as last time?”

Wei Ming nodded.

Last time. Last time when both of them were knee-deep in uncertainty and starvation. Last time when Wei Ying got sick in Lanling. Last time when Ming Fan had built up all those stressful weeks snapped at Jin Guangshan and ripped into him hard enough to break the normally self-controlled manipulator of a Sect Leader into anger. Last time when he got out of that whipping, not only awake and with a fractured arm, but went past all the guards to break that man’s nose.

That last time.

“Are you gonna walk for a bit?” Wei Ying asked quietly. “Do you want me to come with you?”

Wei Ming shook his head.

“Okay, I’m gonna hang out with Huaisang tonight. We’re gonna talk lots okay? Do you want me to tell Da-ge?” Please let me tell Da-ge. At least this. Please tell me you at least trust him.

Wei Ming nodded.

“Okay,” Wei Ying breathed, reaching forward and closing his eyes; dipping his head. Ignoring the droplets of water as Wei Ming tilted forward, gently touching their foreheads together in a beat of silence. “See you later.”

“Hn.”

Wei Ying ran as soon as he knew his brother wouldn’t see his panicked face.

[0102]

When Ming Fan went on a ‘walk’ he did not like to be followed, neither did he like to be scrutinized. It was why he never told Nie Mingjue about his walks. They were moments where he would allow himself to be, well and truly, himself. Ming Fan- the tired cultivator.

It was why he only left in these walks without his Head Disciple uniform, garbed in simple clothes. Wei Ming did not wish to be Wei Ming but Ming Fan. In this world, a nobody, a person of historical fiction, if one were to stretch it.

A nobody.

So he walked.

Leave behind thine selfish sways, stand tall to thee and lead with dignity and intelligence.” He walked further. “Embrace thine cunning, strengthen thine heart. Forge forward the deeds of thee and walk shameless.”

Pay forward deeds onto thine and return twice-fold,” Ming Fan murmured under his breath, sabre idly kept in a light grip as he walked. “Respect thine enemy, forward thy path and stand true to justice. Take on thy weight of duty, giveth thine respect to whom deserves it.”

“Stand justice to thine truth. Burn thine lies and scatter those whom speak falsely. Stand to thine’s own truth and to hell those who seek to obscure it. For they art thine enemy of truth.”

His words echoed softly in the night.

“Thine truth be thine direction. The path thee walks forward with thine knowledge of thy own path. Walk with firm feet and stand tall to weather thy path to righteousness.”

“Pave thy direction with integrity. Allow not the influence of thy sways of evils, walk thine path with thine virtue. Let thine enemy teach thee thine faults, let thine friends teach thee of thyself, let thine masters teach thee of the world.”

“Let integrity bequeath bravery. Fear not that which thee knows not, fear not thine enemy whom knows more. Run to thine destiny with head high held, stand firm; know fear and do not cower.”

The leaves crunched under food, the night’s creatures watched as he walked by. His words echoing through the air in an ancient ode.

“Be brave with compassion, know thine enemy through thyself. Judge enemies of thee knowing they too know life. Understand the crime to understand enemies of thee; mourn thy enemies when they fall.”

“Let compassion fuel thine endurance. Persevere through evils knowing life goes on. Live thine days through each hour, fight through pains of heart and mind through will of thee.”

“Let thine endurance be disciplined and know when thee must kneel. Restrict thyself to thine powers, fight further and fight smarter. Know that each act must be done accordingly, know that each task must require concentration.”

The moon shined brightly above.

“Let thine discipline strengthen with determination. Giveth not thineself opportunity to falter. Rest, but refuse thy urge to lose.”

“Determination must steer fidelity. Recognize thine allies, acknowledge thine family, be loyal to thine friends. Let jealousy die and strengthen the bonds of blood both shared and shed.”

“Let fidelity be supported by patience. Know thy time to speak, understand thy time to listen. Know when to wait, and know when to stop waiting.”

He looked up at the moon, longing and tired. “Let these virtues of the mountain lying under heaven’s blue dome lead thee to thine own good.”

“All these virtues,” Ming Fan murmured to himself. “And I didn’t manage to maintain any one of them.”

He continued walking.

During his time in Qing Jing Peak post-war, Ming Fan appreciated the peaceful silence. With the end of the war came the end of the fearful silence, the weary silence. The quiet which bared the price in the form of concealed enemies and ambushes. The silence itself was difficult to get used to, although the war lasted for only six or so years, the price paid for that war lasted lifetimes. Some people dealt with it better than others, some people had chosen to leave the life of cultivation for something more peaceful. Each person had the blessing of Cang Qiong Sect behind them.

Still, old habits were difficult to break.

Ming Fan’s sabre was drawn the instant his hearing picked up the soft exhales of hitched breathing. Its owner was in pain, of that there was no doubt, but as easy as it was a wounded person it could just as easily be an ambush of some type.

Still- he wasn’t the type of person who would turn away because of a simple threat. That would make him a terrible Head Disciple.

Schooling himself back into Wei Ming, he followed.

The faint iron smell of blood filled his senses as he walked closer to the sound of breathy exhales, the forest itself seemed to quiet before him. Lit auras of different plants and animals that had long since faded into the background of his senses, seemed to come alive as he approached. As he walked further, the faint outline of a person seemed to carve itself from the darkness, enough to be able to make out person- most likely an adult. In an odd position and leaking yang energy- logically, based on the silhouette, it must have been a man injured by some beast.

He moved forward, sabre drawn.

Moving past the bush, he met with a man who must have been already older- around the same age as Madam Yu and Jiang Fengmian if he would hazard a guess. He wore black robes and seemed to have an injury on his side- bite marks.

Hell hound, He noted grimly- changing his stance to one more loose as he extended his senses further.

This must-have alerted the man as he blearily blinked awake, locking onto the sight of him and his dark green robes. Ming Fan wore no disciple garb this time, opting to keep to a simpler dress in nights where he really just needed a walk, some time to be Ming Fan.

“Watch out-!” the man gasped out- blood trickling from his lip. Unfortunately for the man, Ming Fan was already aware.

He was vaguely aware of his left arm snapping forward in a twist as he maneuvered around the launched beast. Muscles and joints popping as he turned, the hound let out a squeal before landing on the ground with a wet squelch. It’s head somewhere off to the side no doubt.

The man looked up to him wide eyed. Which was fair; to the rest of the world, Wei Fan was no more than nineteen. But he was roughly fifty-six already, and his golden core was even more advanced for his age. Everyone’s was in Qing Jing Peak; it was in the nature of how they cultivated in a combination of the existence of demons on top of the usual crowd. A muscle more used is a stronger muscle after all.

Ming Fan eyed the man before moving forward, his cultivation wasn’t very high for his age, which means that he was either a naturally stronger human with a natural energy to match or he began cultivation fairly late in years. Either way, it worked out for him as the poison could only sluggishly affect the man. Luckily it wasn’t full Sì Xiōng Hell Hound, probably a half-mutated one at most. It was a simple matter to plunge a tight coil of yang energy and drive the reeking puss out of the exit wound.

The man still kept looking at him in wonder.

“May this one know master’s name?” He drew away his hand as soon as he was done, only half paying attention as his thoughts raced.

Why is there a hell hound so close to the Unclean Realm? He wondered, wearily training his senses even stricter- pushing his area of awareness even wider. Just what is going on?

“How…how are you doing that?”

Ming Fan’s eyes snapped up, “Pardon?”

“That- I can…I can feel you. Of sorts.”

Feel me? That- that is odd. “Apologies Master, may this one check your meridians? Just for a moment, this one would like to confirm something.”

For someone so curious about him, the man had little to no hesitation throwing his wrist towards Ming Fan for him to take. Odd, but certainly not the oddest he’s ever encountered. Individual people were unique in surprising ways after all.

Now that is a surprise, He thought as his energy trickled through the other man’s veins. Hints of a demonic linage, he must have been descendent of someone who had a child with a demon at one point. Not to the level of Luo Binghe- but he was singularly unique as the son of a heavenly demon. The only other human-heavenly demon relationship known to me had been Shang Qinghua and Mobei-jun; perhaps Chen-shishu and that Heavenly demon of the East- if that fool got his shit together and stopped trying to kidnap Chen-shishu. The Heavenly Demon of the West was already locked away by my time.

“You have a natural disposition to your bloodline to be sensitive with cultivators of my skillset,” He said instead. “I am able of expanding my sense of awareness by several distances- your sensitivity is able to pick it up.” Not that anyone else really knew he was able to do it- most of the disciples had assumed he was never surprised.

“I…see.”

“If you pursue cultivation, you may find your strength increasing,” Ming Fan said simply, his hand was already at the man’s points- slowly trickling in some select amount of yang energy, just enough for his open wounds to shrink a little. “It’s a worthwhile pursuit if you’ve not any other goals.”

“I am already indebted to one Sect,” The man said wearily. “He saved me some years ago.”

“Then there is an avenue of which you can pursue,” Ming Fan said instead, lifting his hand away to dig into his sleeve- he had a bandage in there somewhere.

“…..”

The silence of one who wants to ask questions was hilariously familiar, “Yes?”

“Your…your name? I’d like to know the one who I am also indebted to.”

You most likely would have survived even without my help, Ming Fan thought to himself with a grimace. “Master would have most likely survived even without this one’s intervention.”

“Still. You chose to save me all the same, even without your strong cultivation, that is a choice I respect.” The man said quietly. “I won’t be able to pledge my life to you as I already have…but perhaps in the future- if you have need, you will be free to ask anything of me.”

“As long as it doesn’t cause you to cross the one you are already indebted to,” Ming Fan concluded readily.

“Well, yes.” The man looked down in surprise as Ming Fan reached around his torso- the man was certainly broad- to wrap the bandage securely. “And you’re also doing all this for me- it would be beyond discourteous of me to not at least ask your name.”

Ming Fan hummed, his fingers working deftly. “This one’s name is Wei Ming, Head Disciple of Qinghe Nie Sect. And you master?”

The man startled, visibly caught off-guard as he looked up at him, “You are the one who destroyed the waterborne abyss at Lotus Pier.”

Ming Fan shrugged. Neither confirming nor denying, the man could make his own assumptions about him. “And master? Will he deign to give this one his name?”

“…Zhào,” The man said, his brief pause went briefly noted but dismissed for the time being. “Zhao Zhúliú.”

Ming Fan bowed his head in greeting before rising, examining the clean bandage, “You should be fine with just this- however you would do well to change your bandages after three days’ time Master Zhào.”

“Understood. My thanks.”

“Is there somewhere this one can help you go?” Ming Fan asked quietly.

“No, I will rise as soon as I am able. I’ve always healed fast,” Zhào Zhúliú seemed to test his movement but rotating silently, nodding to himself. “I can start now.”

“Then this one will part ways with you, it’s about time I go back home,” Ming Fan extended a hand.

With some halting hesitation that most likely can be attributed to surprise, Zhào Zhúliú took his offer and raised himself up. An almost pleased smile on the man’s face as he found himself able to move significantly more than he thought he did. Which was not so much of a surprise, Ming Fan had drawn on a bit of yin energy to stimulate the man’s natural healing. Not enough for full demonic cultivation but it was enough for the partially demon descendant’s healing to begin its work.

“May we meet under better circumstances,” Ming Fan said- bowing to salute the man.

“Likewise,” Zhào Zhúliú, surprisingly or not, saluted to him just as deeply if not more so.

Ming Fan had a feeling, somewhere underneath his gut, that their next meeting may not be such a pleasant one.

He kept it in mind as he began his walk back to the Unclean Realm, his shoulders slumping and his heart throbbing with every step forward.

[0323]

Ming Fan crawled into the little house with a sigh, rubbing at his eyes with mild disgruntlement as he shucked off his clothes and grappled for newer sleeping ones. Idly folding it with half-asleep movements before shucking it in the designated “to wash” area.

He tilted his head with a satisfying pop, sighing as he slouched in place.

He was in the middle of putting on new ones when a new voice carried over from beyond the hall- peaking his interest as he looked up.

Nie Mingjue stood, frozen in the hallway.

Ming Fan blinked, looking down at his bare stomach before looking up again. Blinking for a solid few seconds before tilting his head, “Yes?”

“Welcome back,” Nie Mingjue croaked- turning his eyes away from him for some strange reason.

Ming Fan nodded hesitatingly, shrugging on another layer, “Did you need something?”

“Just…” Mingjue trailed off, “wanted to check on you. That’s all.”

Wei Ming’s front was littered with white streaks that peaked across his side. A visible scar in the form of a bite formed a crescent on his right arm, there were slashes. Jagged and uneven, small and almost barely unnoticeable. It was the body of a person who spent a long time getting hurt. If he had turned, Mingjue was certain eh would see the crisscross patterns of a discipline whip.

It was a wonder how the man was still able to move the way he did.

“Do you..” Mingjue cleared his throat. “Have something against Ming Fan?”

Wei Ming paused, turning to face him with an unreadable look before turning forward and continuing to put away his things. Expression shifting to openly contemplative as he moved.

“Yes,” Wei Ming said after a moment. “And no.”

Nie Mingjue waited.

“You and others keep glorifying him, making more than what he is,” Wei Ming said quietly. “A match for Luo Binghe? A heart throb? A good teacher?”

Wei Ming kept moving, avoiding Nie Mingjue’s eyes as he went about the little house. As he had done for the past four years.

Funny how easily a home could stop feeling like a home even if just one person leaves it. He wondered if that was what Wei Ying felt.

Yet another failure for Ming Fan, he mused. Or perhaps this is all on Wei Fan this time.

“He wasn’t any of those things,” He continued, memories flooding as he moved. “He barely won against Luo Binghe- his true match was Liu Qingge in terms of battle prowess. A heart throb? He was rejected by the person he had a crush on, and every other person after. A good teacher? He almost killed his shidi over jealousy.”

“…” Wei Ming turned, “Have you heard of Huayue? it was a great city once- filled with many Sects and cultivators.”

“I’ve heard it mentioned sometimes,” Mingjue admitted. “I assumed it faded away with time.”

“Ming Fan burnt it to the ground.”

“…I don’t…?”

“It was a strategic ploy, many demons had taken up arms within the city. The Sects were overrun but they weren’t going to last for long- so Ming Fan developed a plan,” If Wei Ming closed his eyes, he could still remember the pyres that burnt- but he hated that fucking city so damn much that it honestly didn’t feel like a loss. “And he hated that place.”

“Why?”

Ning Yingying angrily snapped at him, brow furrowed furiously as she expressed her discontent in him in such a way for the first time since they knew each other. “Shut up. Even if you rush up and court death, you believe Shizun wouldn’t know? What would he say if he knew? Shizun would rather himself be infected before letting us suffer or be taken advantage of. Is this is how little you treasure your life?!”

Wei Ming chuckled, dryly and hoarsely, “It served as a reminder of his inadequacy.”

“Clearly, he liked this brat so much… he even bet five thousand spirit stones on him during the Immortal Alliance Conference, carrying such high expectations for him. He was so happy when other people praised him…afterward he wasn’t willing to return the Zheng Yang sword to Wan Jian Feng, insisting on keeping it and making a sword mound behind the mountain…he was heartbroken for such a long time… and in the end, this is the kind of fate that he meets!”

“Think back on those legends of yours Mingjue,” He whispered, “What else is Huayue known for?”

“Ming Fan.”

He turned to face her, her sword was still dyed in blood from the last battle. There were bruises under her eyes from the past few days.

“Are you really going to do this?” She whispered, looking down. “There are homes there; ancestral homes- the Sects-“

“We have to do this Ning-shimei,” he had stopped calling her informally a long time ago since the war begun. “It’s the best way to gain the upper hand against L…against the demon armies.”

“…A-Fan, wasn’t your home here too?”

“…There are no more people to maintain it, there will be no more loss if we lose it. If we manage to hold them here, the other Great Sects stand a better chance of defending against the onslaught of these forces.” Ming Fan turned back, eyeing the sleeping city with a neutral gaze. “It’s tactically sound. Liu-shishu approved.”

“Liu-shishu doesn’t know that this is where the Ming Ancestry Hall is A-Fan. Ming-shixiong, there is still time to consider-“

“Ning-shimei. The refuges will need your spirit and your sword,” Ming Fan kept his eyes on the city. “Please help them as best you can.”

“…This one will do so Da-shixiong.”

Ming Fan felt her grasp his shoulder tightly before turning back to the steady stream of caravans escaping to the closest of the Great Sects. Leaving Ming Fan to watch.

He breathed.

And he lit the city ablaze.

“Huayue was where Shen Qingqiu died that first time,” He murmured under his breath. Barely whispering as he stared at the blank space before him. “And it is where the Ming Ancestry Hall was. Where his Clan Home was.”

And I burnt all of it to ashes.

“The best course of action was to destroy it,” Ming Fan admitted. “The demons would overrun the other Sects too easily if Huayue was allowed to stand as a Hold for them. There were ten Ancestry Halls, countless other family graves.”

“It was a tactically sound decision. Word spread about it pretty quickly, he was praised- no one looked at the people who lost the most. No one really acknowledged it until later when everything was said in done.” Ming Fan’s voice felt separate from himself, like he wasn’t actually speaking. “He was named Bào lì Jiàn.”

Nie Mingjue breathed, “The Ruthless Sword.”

“It’s something I would do,” He whispered. Again. I would do it again. If it meant protecting the others, if it meant destroying that place- that source of grief. I would do it over a hundred times in a hundred lifetimes. I’d take a torch and personally set all of those halls ablaze. “It’s exactly what I would have done in his position, exactly what course of action I would take. So no, Mingjue, I don’t just have something against Ming Fan.”

Wei Ming turned finally- eyeing Nie Mingjue smoothly as he stared him down. Smile wide and sardonic as memories filled his mind. Screaming and yelling- limbs flying, fires consuming. His content as demons shrieked to get away from him. His sadistic pleasure as they scrambled to get away. Eyes tipping from that formally lively dark gray to the dead shade that saw nothing and everything. “I fucking hate him.”

Nie Mingjue stared at him. Silence all consuming.

Then-

“Are you done?” Wei Ming’s eyes widened at that ominous tone of voice. Distinctly angry in a way he had never heard before.  

Wei Ming startled as Nie Mingjue stepped closer- thunderous expression on his face. He wasn’t sure what this was actually- was he going to hurt him? Hit him for badmouthing his idol? Mingjue wasn’t that type of man, it wasn’t making any sense- had he misunderstood his character that much- what-?

He stepped back unconsciously, eyes wide as Nie Mingjue continued to move towards him. Surprisingly light steps tapped against the wood floor of the house as Mingjue continued backing him into a corner. The walls of the house coming up soon behind him as he took one step back with every step Mingjue took forward.

“How long?”

Wei Ming’s breath stuttered as his back his the wall, “W-what do you mean?”

“How long have you hated Ming Fan?”

“I- a-all, all this life.” He whispered, shrinking back as Mingjue loomed over him.

He was about to escape when a muscled arm blocked his way, another blocking the opposite.

Mingjue’s voice was as smooth as it was dangerous as it’s low tones reverbed in his chest. There was a certain type of pleasure he gained just as much as he was afraid of it as Mingjue’s voice continued with that dark pitch.

“Do you know why I’m mad Wei Fan?”

“N-No.”

“You say you hate Ming Fan.” That gravel-like rumble reverberated through his ears like the promise of a possessive lover- it was absurd but Wei Ming was too terrified by the display.

The voice dropped to a whisper, “Isn’t it more accurate to say that the person you hate is yourself?”

Wei Fan’s eyes widened, “I-I-“

“Don’t you dare deny it,” Mingjue hissed- causing Wei Fan to snap his mouth shut with clack. “You said it yourself. It’s what you would have done. It’s what course of action you would have taken. All this time I’ve been by your side, all this time you’ve been bullshitting to Xichen about how he’s worthy to be alive. All this fuckery you’ve been spewing- been lying. And you dare say you have no idea why I’m fucking furious with you right now?”

“I d-don- don’t-“ why was he stuttering? Why couldn’t he get his words together? Why did his chest hurt and his eyes sting- why why why?

Look. At. Me.”

Wei Ming’s breath exhaled rapidly in a gasp as rough fingers forced his chin up, this close, the light hazel of the taller man’s eyes gleamed in the candle light.

“You promised you wouldn’t lie anymore.”

“I-“

“You broke that promise.” Nie Mingjue hissed. “For four damn years you broke that promise behind my back.”

“I didn’t- I didn’t-!”

Yes. Wei Fan. You did.” Mingjue looked tired. “And you’re still breaking it. You’re still lying to me.”

“I’m not-“

Yes you are. Look at you. You’re terrified. Of me. I’m your friend. You’re my friend. I’m supposed to help you as you help me. But I can’t fucking do that when you don’t tell me shit.”

“I- but I-“ aren’t you reacting this way because I betrayed you? “I-“

“You really think I’m pissed because you don’t like Ming Fan? Who the fuck cares? He’s dead!”

Wei Fan flinched.

Mingjue gentled, hurt flashing in his eyes, “I’m more upset because you still don’t ask me for help. You still don’t trust me enough to be vulnerable around me. A-Fan, the fact that you think I value our friendship so little that I’d get mad at you for some stupid thing? That hurts more than anything you could ever do to me.”

“Do you understand A-Fan?” Mingjue pleaded- pleaded. It didn’t sound any sort of right on the man- Mingjue was tall- proud. A person of his position shouldn’t have that tinge of desperation in his voice. “…do you really think I care about you so little that you hating my favorite Qing Jing Peak cultivator would make a difference?”

“Look at me. Please look at me,” Mingjue whispered.

 Look at me and trust me. Nie Mingjue didn’t say. Please- please- you’ve been getting so much worse lately, you’ve been reacting so badly but you’ve never told me what I’ve been doing wrong. You don’t tell me off for things anymore, you don’t make fun of my arguments anymore the way you used to when I got too heated- and now that I know it’s because of this, how do you think this makes me feel? How do you think I feel finding out that you’ve been holding this in again for not just a few months but four years and I never noticed until it got so bad that you’ve been having to leave? How much do you think I hate me too because I didn’t notice until your brother came back?

Wei Fan’s breath stuttered in his throat, slowly tilting his head up. Wide-eyed and red- but tears still not falling.

A-Fan.” His voice cracked at the soft exhale of the other’s name, sad and begging.This isn’t about you hating Ming Fan. This is about you hating yourself.”

In this world there is no difference, the words choked him in his throat.

“Let me help you. Let me hold the weight you carry, even just for a little while. Please- I care about you. You’re someone important to me, someone I can’t lose just as much as I can’t lose Huaisang or Xichen, or Zhonghui or even A-Ying.” That grasp against his back, since when did Nie Mingjue pull him into his arms? Since when has he been cradled to someone’s chest like this? “You aren’t alone. I have you. I’ve got you. So don’t shut me out, I’m here. I’ll listen. But don’t think you have to shoulder this alone. Don’t think you’ve got to hide it just because you don’t want Wei Ying to see. I’m here. I know. And I’ve got you. I’m not gonna let you break.”

“Please.” Mingjue begged. “Please. Just tell me the truth. I don’t care if it’s not your past, but don’t lie to me about this. Never about this.”

“You’re qi deviations have been more frequent lately. A-Fan; I’m scared that you just traded my disposition for yours. Sometimes I wonder if all you did was switch our circumstances around. I don’t want to believe it but right now it’s the only conclusion I got,” He whispered. “A-Sang’s been happier that I’m better, Xichen too. But what about you? What does it mean for you that you’ve been experiencing more deviations than I am? Is it all the paperwork I make you do? I’ll do all of it. Even the ones I hate. Is it the teaching? I’ll take over the workload. Is it cooking for me? The tea you make me? You don’t have to do it anymore. Just stop- I don’t want your help if it means losing you too.

“Just- just tell me. Please.”

Wei Fan stayed silent, wide eyed.

And slowly.

His tears fell.

He broke into an ugly sob, hands shaking as he placed them on the sculpted cheek. Snot beginning to pull down his chin as he roughly rubbed them with a sleeve- his vision blurring under the pour of pain and anguish running down his cheeks.

“I was so scared when they died,” He said in a hoarse whisper. “I’ve taken care of children before but I’ve never had to raise one. I resented the fact that I couldn’t go to Lotus Pier for help- they’re fucking idiots, why did I have to be the one to pull their head of their asses? I hated Jin Guangshan- why doesn’t he see what he has? Why does he continue to let his cock rule his brain? Lan Qiren- why does he have to be so bad at understanding children? Why can’t he see Xichen’s needs and act accordingly? Why do I have to be the one to show him the way?!”

“Wei Ying is such a trouble magnet sometimes I worry that once I stop looking he’s going to fall into some abyss. What if I’m not there in time?! What if I let him die like my other siblings!!? What if I’m pushing Huaisang too much-? What if I’m pushing all the disciples too much?! I’m not preparing them for war but I feel like I have to or else they’re going to die because of something I was too stupid to anticipate!” He sobbed again- voice cracking as he continued to bubble over. Like a too-hot kettle that had enough heat and was finally relieving the pressure. “I worry about Xichen and Wangji, how are they being treated? Are they okay?! Do I have to start a fight with Qingheng-jun!? Do I have to start a fight with Qingheng-jun?! What is with this world and everybody being emotionally fucking stupid?!

His voice became a shriller as he continued, slapping Mingjue on the cheek, the sting faint but present, grounding him. “And you! You! Why are you so ready to galivant somewhere ah!? Tell me when you feel close to tipping over! Stop drinking so late! And stop reading fucking porn in the office!”

Wei Fan didn’t give a rat’s ass that Mingjue’s cheeks were turning red from more than just his slapping.

“Go easy on the oily foods! You’re cultivation helps but you aren’t immortal! Eat your vegetables! Eat your fruits! Drink your damn mushrooms! Stop being ready to pick fights with Sect Leader Jin and Sect Leader Wen! It raises my blood pressure more than your fucking pork rinds! Stop whining about how little milk tea I give you! It’s a fucking reward not your dessert! You want more boba you finish your work on time how fucking hard is that to understand!? Stop pretending that I don’t find out when you sneak out to buy books! Leave a damn note like a normal person and don’t send me careening half-way up and down the Unclean Realm without knowing where the fuck you are!”

“And- And-!” Wei Fan’s voice cracked into a whisper, “Please- please. Your temper is a nuisance sometimes A-Jue but I don’t know what I’ll do if I lose- You can be so blind to your words sometimes- Please remember your temper- I know you have a better handle on it now but every time I read reports I have to think about how you’ll react and I end up spending the morning thinking how I’m gonna word some new letter from the Wens or Jin’s and make it not want to piss you off. Because- because-“

“This A-Fan can’t lose you either A-Jue. This one has seen the life beyond protecting and taking care of one person and expanded it into having a family again. It is this one’s first time in this life having friends again and you-“ You aren’t someone I can live without anymore. You aren’t someone I can just take care of anymore. You’re so much more now and I’m not sure what that means. I’m scared of what that means. “This one hates himself because this Wei Fan isn’t sure if he can protect all of you- because there’s something coming and this one is only one man and if this one loses any of you this one will- he will-“

He sobbed, he sobbed knowing that his next few words most likely wouldn’t make sense, “This one may just burn this whole world down trying to fix it.”

I’m not a good man Mingjue- I’m terrible, a no good scum disciple who did things in the war to insure victory. A no good scum who wants more than he is allowed to have. Who wants you to stop looking at that Ming Fan and to look at him because he’s right here. This embarrassment of a disciple who’s already nearing his sixties and yet he lusts after a young man who should be with a fair maiden to have an heir with and be happy with but he can’t because this fool sixty year-old scum is also nineteen and he can’t tell the difference anymore.

If I lose the disciples, it breaks me.

If I lose the Jiangs, it breaks me.

If I lose A-Yao, it breaks me.

If I lose Xichen, it breaks me.

If I lose Huaisang, it breaks me.

If I lose you, it breaks me.

If I lose A-Ying, it breaks me.

If I lose you both?

Forget breaking. It’s going to rip me apart until there’s no more Wei Fan or Ming Fan left.

Just him.

Just Bào lì Jiàn

Just the Ruthless Sword of Qing Jing Peak left to set the world ablaze once again, and there would be nothing I can do to stop him from ripping this pitiful unknowing world to shreds.

Mingjue held tight, whispering against his forehead, “Thank you.”

“What for?” He croaked.

“You’re trusting me.” Mingjue’s grip turned tighter, if Wei Fan concentrated, he could feel the slight dampness on the man’s cheeks. Could feel his clammy hands and too warm body as they sat in a small corner of the house, clinging onto each other and afraid to let go. “I’ll do better. I won’t let my feelings cloud my judgement. I won’t, I promise you’d be able to pull me out of it if there ever comes a time that you need. So promise me you won’t keep this all bottled up anymore. I can’t- if you have a qi deviation somewhere in the forest, A-Fan I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if you died because I didn’t know you were in pain. I wouldn’t be able to even face Wei Ying if I let anything happened to you.”

“We’ll work on your resentment, one at a time.” Mingjue continued softly. “One step at time. So don’t push me away. I’ll- I’ll tie you to the bed if you do.”

Wei Fan let out a weak laugh, “Kinky.”

Mingjue smiled, watery and curving against his forehead. Not saying anything as he gripped the shorter man tighter.

[ Restore to default progress: 78.7% ]

Chapter Text

19. [Log: File:Save_??-???.?.????.log]


When Ming Fan came to Qing Jing Peak- it was under the expectation that he would be doing it on behalf of his clan.

As second-born to the Clan Ming; it was his role to do one of two things. Marry for the clan or become a cultivator for them. As much as the Ming Patriarch had wished- he wasn’t exactly keen on being married for the sake of nothing more than maintaining the status quo.

So cultivator it was.

Ming Ying’s birth had been one of the few reasons in Ming Fan’s life that he was so reluctant to leave his clan behind. He was a small thing and clung to Ming Fan more so than his personal maids. Most would have found it annoying, and briefly, it was, but Ming Fan was nothing if not soft for imploring eyes and a wobbling lip. The other anchor to his life as Second Born of the Ming Clan had been his sister- wise as she was cunning. She deftly maneuvered her way around high-born politics and secretly evened out the class separation between the Ming Clan and the people under its charge. No one would say that she was the beauty of the territory, but everyone would say that she was most likely the smartest woman you could ever be wedded to. Clever with a wallet, and even clever with her wit- although not grand, she had a decently sized amount of suitors awaiting their chance to woo the eldest Ming child. She understood why he was to leave, but all the same, she smiled as he rode a carriage towards Cang Qiong Mountain to begin his trials.

It was his only regret that he hadn’t stayed just a few days longer before leaving for Qing Jing Peak.

It was the last time he saw them alive.

“Da-shixiong!”

“Stay there!” He snarled- his sword was aglow with blood and energy as he swept past the ambush. The burning pyres of the city behind them were roaring and drenching the moon in its orange flames. He suspected there to be an ambush soon after- when he set the three main buildings on fire, there were too few demons around.

He avoided another demon’s attempt to separate his head from his shoulders, swinging around to cleanly remove its own limbs before dashing to the next. Ning Yingying and his other juniors were busy protecting the continuing line of refugees, but a majority of the demonic forces were on Ming Fan.

He preferred it that way.

He ignored the pain in his core- he hadn’t had ample opportunity to rest for the past few months, let alone enough to settle his energy. Instead- he pushed, he pursued, and he ignored the growing roar of his core as it spun a tornado of rampant yang energy within his body. Uncontrolled and undeterred, he could feel the burn from his toes to his fingertips. His sword growing hotter and hotter with each second.

“Da-shixiong! Ming Fan! It’s too much! You might self-destruct!”

“Don’t mind!” He grunted, swinging his sword wildly to mow down a dozen or so of the demonic grunts. It was only a temporary relief as the yang energy replenished at an absurd rate, beginning the hot burn in his veins anew. “How many are left?!”

Ning Yingying glanced at the tunnels as she parried against the bladed limbs of one demon, a dwindling amount of people were going through the passage that cut through the mountain hills.

“Ten, no less!” Ning Yingying yelled. “Da-shixiong please return!”

With a grunt, Ming Fan let loose another slash of energy. Fanning out and cutting demons in half with barely much resistance before the charge of yang energy naturally dissipated back into the natural world. He forced his senses wide, switching on the defensive as he scooped out the area.

There were more coming.

Ming Fan cursed, “Get in those tunnels and smash the entrance!!”

Three of the juniors besides Ning Yingying startled, almost getting mauled before shaking off the attack. “Da-shixiong what are you saying!”

“There’s more on the way!” He spun his sword into a reverse grip slicing a clean arc through several enemies before folding his hands into a seal- sending the shining blade careening through dozens of demons in succession. “The refugees won’t last if I don’t hold them back. Get inside the tunnel and destroy the entry!”

“Has da-shixiong lost his mind!?” Ning Yingying yelled, shrill and angry as she severed a demon’s head without looking.

“No one is falling for your ditzy act anymore Ning-shimei!” He hollered back.

A brief silence, punctuated by the wet squelch of steal against limbs as the bodies began to pile high. The tension in the air tightened as time moved forward, patience began to grow thin on both sides.

“That isn’t a suggestion Shimei.” Ming Fan growled. “It’s an order.”

“…Get in the tunnels.”

“Shijie?!”

“We have no other choice.” She kicked back a demon. “Ming-shixiong! I’m telling on you to Shizun!”

Ming Fan laughed, maniacal and not at all sane. The energy was already starting to get in his head. “I’ll greet him for you when I see him shimei!”

“Shut up!” Ning Yingying expression was pulled into a comical sneer, the palace princess would have gone running back home with her tail between her legs if she saw it. “Ming Fan, if you don’t come right now Yingying is going to be angry!”

“Then Yingying-shimei will just have to forgive this Ming Fan,” He muttered to himself with a small smile, grimacing as a demon smashed through his right arm. He could feel the bones break and quickly repair with a hot sear, like taking a hot iron to flesh and burning it together.

He breathed through the pain and swung his arm, the sword shot out at his command- his aim shot true and his own spirit satisfied despite the opening he gave the demons as they clawed through his side. A sharp and shrill ring clang and reverberated in the enclosed space like the claxons of a disaster. The mountainside shuddered, an ominous rumble echoing through the mountain pass. The ground shaking ever so slightly as the rocks above began to loosen.

Ning Yingying’s eyes realized what he had done, “Ming Fan you fucking idiot!”

“Go!” He called out, gritting his teeth and forcing back tears of pain. These were his enemies like hell was he going to show weakness in front of them and disgrace Qing Jing Peak. To himself, he muttered, “This Ming Fan is at peace to die here.”

It was a genius ploy for the moment. A gratifying checkmate for those who knew what he had done.

Move the king. Trap the fools.

And strike.

The rockslide began to grow louder, Ning Yingying yelling for him even as the other disciples dragged her behind the shaking entrance. Bits of rubble and sand already beginning to fall.

The rockslide would fall on the existing enemies, effectively crushing hundreds of them under rubble.

And Ming Fan as well.

He breathed, his arm was broken and his golden core was finally beginning to wane. Still, he lifted his sword and swung. Bodies cleaved in half under his swing, heaving as he could feel his ribs crack against a stray attack.

Then-

A slash of energy mowed down demons like water on flame, a bright orange aura exploding around Ming Fan’s ears as demons fell.

His eyes widened as he felt his world tilt on end, his middle squeezing painfully between two limbs as he found himself being hauled underarm. A familiar set of robes sending shudders down his spine as he realized just who had come onto the scene.

Ming Fan.”

He swallowed despite himself, at the ominous tone.

He nervously turned his head as much as he could, “L-Liu-shishu.”  

Liu Qingge mowed down another volley of demons under a clean slash before he wielded his sword underfoot to hop on and fly off. Just in time to escape as the boulders began to freefall on top of the screeching army.

Ming Fan elected to stay silent for his apparently continued health as Liu Qingge flew silently.

“…You’re in trouble with Mu Qingfang and Yue Qingyuan when we get back to Cang Qiong.”

“U-Understood.”

“And no more solo missions.”

“Yes Liu-shishu.”

“Yang Yixuan is going to kick your ass when you’re better.”

He winced- shit, Yang-shidi is going to demolish his ass for the stunt. As one of the disciples who trained directly under Liu Qingge, his skill was comparable.

“…understood.”

“And then-“

Ming Fan swallowed and waited.

“…are you listening?”

“This repenting Ming Fan is listening Liu-shishu,” He said weakly.

“None of this mess anymore Ming Fan,” Liu Qingge was apparently angry- which didn’t spell much good news for Ming Fan’s future. “Your left arm is broken and your ribs are fractured.”

“This Ming Fan is reflecting on his actions.”

“That’s not my point.”

Ming Fan flinched.

“…I’m here. You’re safe. So rest you idiot.” Liu Qingge sighed. “You probably noticed but you were fighting with a broken arm. Impressive, but stupid. If Qingfang doesn’t give you hell for it I’ll do it for him. Understood?”

“Yes Liu-shishu.”

“Good. Now wake up.”

Ming Fan blinked, “Huh?”

The world began to blur, “Wake up and rely on others while you’re at it you backwards idiot of a Head Disciple.”

“L-Liu-shishu? I don’t- what-“ This didn’t happen- or did it? Was this a memory or was it a dream?

Ming Fan found himself waking up as the memory faded away.

“Hm.” In the shadows, an old man muttered to himself as the Ming Fan’s dream continued to slowly disappear into an unknown abyss. “So he’s right.”

The dream demon faded away, the dreamscape crumbling as he left the boy’s dream behind.

[Log: File:Save_19-478.6.1013.log]

“…Mingjue.”

“What.”

“Are you going to let me go?”

“Nope.”

“…I have paperwork.”

“It can wait.”

“…But I want to do them.”

“Nope.”

“Wei Ying.”

“Uhuh?”

“Tell your Da-ge to get off me please.”

“Na.”

“…A-Sang?”

“I dunno. Don’t know. Nope, dunno.”

“…”

“…”

“…”

“…”

“A-Yao since when did you get to the Unclean Realm?”

“This morning. You were asleep.”

“…Xichen, why are you here too?”

“I’m afraid I have no idea what you are speaking of Wei Er-ge.”

“Er-ge? I’m younger than you Xichen-ge.”

“It’s nice that you know but one must be true to oneself Er-ge.”

“…”

A sigh.

“A-Cheng, your knee is on my thigh.”

“Sorry Tánɡɡē.”

“…I apologize for this however,” Wei Ming grunted as he stood, lifting both Xichen and Mingjue at the same time as he rose- which caused some undignified squawking on one half of the party while the other laughed at the ridiculous picture made by one shorter man holding up two people a head or so taller. To be fair, Wei Ming seemed to nonplussed as he simply set them back down on the poor bed that had been the sight of such a dogpile. Meng Yao simply smiled in amusement, a book in his hand where he was behind Wei Wuxian. On the side where Nie Mingjue was, was Huaisang. Wei Wuxian had been on his other side slightly behind Lan Xichen and Jiang Wanyin had somehow wedged himself in between.

At least Wei Ming thinks that’s how it worked, honestly he was busy regulating his internal temperature. These boys ran like furnaces.

Idly dusting non-existent particles off his robes, Wei Ming left for the bathroom.

All eyes turned to Wei Ying, who shrugged, “Yeah, Gēge can do that.”

Meng Yao nodded, not looking up from his book.

Jiang Wanyin was thankful every day that Senior Cousin Wei had opted apparently- not to throw Jiang Fengmian into Lotus Pier.

As if to demonstrate, Wei Ying wiggled his fingers in a sort of presenting manner towards Wei Ming’s direction before the other could make it much further than a little outside the room. To be fair to the older brother, he only sighed before pulling back his sleeve. Flexing an arm.

Firm muscles flexed with barely much of a stretch before he allowed the robes to slip down again, making his way off to get some much needed relief.

[1211]

“Are you all really alright with this?” Wei Ming questioned idly, he twisted his arm, shoving himself upward up another set of ledges before he peered down below. “There is a hiking path you know, save for Jiang Cheng and Wei Ying- you don’t have to follow me up here like this.”

“I. Am. Fine,” Nie Mingjue panted. Nie Huaisang had abandoned him to drag Meng Yao and Lan Xichen towards the hiking trail some distances ago, clued in by the fact that Wei Ming had forgone his formal disciple garb to dress in the high collared versions with splits down the length of where the legs would be, clad in simple dark colored pants. The unofficial garb of Qinghe Nie that meant that some very intense exercise was abound.

Jiang Wanyin shook his head, eyeing the side of the mountain for footholds before deftly climbing with little to no pause for a fair amount of distance, “I’m fine.”

Wei Ying was the other non-affected party as he easily latched onto the side of the mountain like a monkey, not quite catching up to the elder brother but only because he was slipping between people and partially making sure Sect Leader Nie didn’t lose his footing. “Yep.”

“Well, if you’re sure…”

[1405]

“Wei- W-Wei-shixiong,” Nie Huaisang panted- collapsed on the side of the peak where the two had met up. Nie Mingjue was in a not quite yet similar position as he caught his breath on a rather large but flat topped boulder- occasionally nodding as Lan Xichen described the scenery the hiking trail provided. “How do you do this every day?!”

“Only when I have free time,” Wei Ming reached for a skin of water without looking, passing it to Huaisang. “It isn’t as often as you think- once or twice a week. Four to five times- on a bad week.”

Nie Huaisang pointed accusingly to Jiang Cheng- who had been peering out to enjoy the vista, there weren’t many mountains as tall as the one they just climbed in Lotus Pier. Nodding occasionally as Wei Ying pointed out tiny formations in the distance and identified them as certain clan homes or even parts of the outer territories that were shrines.

“And you! How are you standing there all fine?! What sort of hell did you two go through in Lotus Pier!?”

Jiang Cheng snorted, “You think this is hard? Try going through my mother’s punishment chores of cleaning the roofs of Lotus Pier. Then talk to me about ‘hard’.”

Wei Ying turned with a tilted head, “How did you even find this place Gēge? You don’t usually travel far on walks.”

Wei Ming nodded, “I’ll show you. Ah- Huaisang if you gulp too much you’re going to-“

“Gack,” Huaisang began coughing.

“-accidentally swallow wrong.”

Wei Ying laughed as Jiang Cheng shook his head.

With Huaisang recovering, Wei Ming made his way towards Nie Mingjue lightly kicking his leg.

“Oi,” Mingjue grunted- half-heartedly batting away the prodding. “Stop it.”

“Get up,” Wei Ming simply switched to kicking the other leg.

“Carry me,” Mingjue challenged.

Lan Xichen and Meng Yao exchanged glances, Lan Xichen more so out of surprise than Meng Yao from watching his first friend act so childishly.

Wei Ming only smirked, “If Sect Leader insists.”

Wei Ming reached and hauled the Sect Leader over his shoulder, not unlike one would do the same with a sack of potatoes. Much had changed over the past four or so years and one of them had been a nearly exponential increase of power generated by Wei Ming’s golden core. A fact that technically only Nie Mingjue knew- and thus he was continuously subjected to whims such as the like Wei Ming deigned to exercise when he was being a deliberate ass. To put it in perspective, he was already more than half-way to his original level before he died. In that time- he could stand against Luo Binghe for almost a full three hours before his core finally waned. It was also why he had since had to exercise a massive power restraint on himself over the past few years.

“Wei Ying,” he called over his other shoulder- just enough to gather the attention of the youngest three before beginning to walk further. Ignoring Nie Mingjue’s angry sputtering and attempts to dislodge himself all the while being painfully hauled up on Wei Ming’s shoulder and only remaining in place due to the arm wrapped around the man’s middle. Nie Mingjue was a broad adult at the age of twenty-one, so it was beyond discomforting as he wiggled on a thin shoulder just barely cushioned by the stretch of a shoulder muscle.

Though that didn’t apparently stop Wei Ming from leisurely ducking under a sizeable crack within the face of the mountain. Just wide enough to squeeze both himself and the angry sack of potatoes inside until the mountain opened up to reveal what Wei Ming had been sort of hoarding to himself these past few years.

“Oh my,” Lan Xichen breathed- looking up.

The air wafted with cool air that surged upward with a spray of water. Before them were several growths of trees that split the currents of falling water across slim branches. Seemingly replacing the leaves themselves with transparent falling water. The rushing, crashing sounds of the waterfall were softened by the splayed out leaves, muffling what would have been the thunderous rush of water.

It was, essentially, a natural wonder.

“Rather beautiful is it not?” Wei Ming smiled. “Peaceful. Excellent for meditation.”

Wei Ying frowned, turning slowly to his brother, “Gēge, what do you mean by meditate?”  

“Ah, well, I attempt to anyway. I can never seem to meditate to the point of equalization lately- but it helps mitigate a majority of the pain and damage to a minimum,” Wei Ming turned slightly peach, shrugging his shoulders as eyes turned to him. “It’s um..”

He turned slightly, speaking in a quiet manner that almost went unheard with the background noise of the refracted waterfall, “From…my old…sect.”

Nie Mingjue did everyone a favor and did the math.

“…You were in a sect at the age of nine?”

“…” Wei Ming blinked, “How do you-? Er, well I was a member for a rather long time. Then…this one was separated due to…er, excruciating circumstance.”

“Bullshit-“ Wei Ying gasped, clamping his mouth shut.

“…”

“…”

“…”

“…”

“…”

Wei Ying turned pleadingly at Jiang Cheng.

Jiang Cheng raised both hands in surrender, “You’re on your own Tánɡɡē.”

He then turned to Huaisang, who shook his head so vigorously the hairpiece that kept his hair in a half knot began to shake lose.

Wei Wuxian, language-“

“Oh cut the kid some slack, he’s already fourteen.”

“I’ll hear none of that from you of all people!”

“You’re being a fuddy-duddy.”

“With good reason! He’s in front of two leaders! Sect Leaders!”

“We’re practically family already, a little cursing isn’t going to hurt anybody. Right Xichen?”

Meng Yao tugged at the Lan’s sleeve and shook his head solemnly. Lan Xichen found that, as Meng Yao had proven to be a rather intelligent individual, his advice was most likely sound and best followed.

“Anyway- point is that Wei Ying is already fourteen. Hell, he’s probably going to be joining Huaisang and Jiang Wanyin to Gusu next year right? He’s not gonna be your little brother forever.”

“Just because your brother is rather lax doesn’t mean mine has to be!”

“Hey! I know for a damn fact Huaisang collects porn, it doesn’t mean that-“

Huaisang gaped, scandalized and glancing at blushing horror to Jiang Wanyin and the older two men, “Da-ge!”

“Huaisang, you really don’t hide it well.”

“Oh easy for you to say, you’re the one who was reading porn in the middle of broad daylight in the office!”

“We’ve gone over this- it was an accident! I thought it was a legend I’ve never read before and started skimming it that day! It wasn’t intentional!”

“Tell that to the last eighteen times you’ve done the exact same thing!”

Lan Xichen turned to Meng Yao and a Wei Wuxian who was blushing and attempting to melt behind Jiang Wanyin, Huaisang right there with him on the other side of the…entertained? Heir apparent to the Jiang Sect.

“Are they…” Lan Xichen trailed off slightly as he watched the two get…rather close, in the middle of their argument about…the activities of their little brothers? Each other’s peeves? He wasn’t quite sure anymore to be frank. It’s been a long time since the first time he saw the two individually and the fact that the two have grown to act this…bickering? Was a surprise. “Always…? Like this?”

“Oh this is a sort of semi-recent development,” Meng Yao revealed that he had apparently been tugging around snacks as he passed a small bag of sweets to Jiang Wanyin to share with Wei Wuxian and Nie Huaisang- both of which were turning bright peach as the…argument, intensified. “Entertaining right?”

“That’s…a word for it.” Lan Xichen blinked as Meng Yao offered him a treat as well, to which he accepted with a smile. “It’s strangely…pleasing.”

“Father and mother are never like this, it’s fun to watch,” Jiang Wanyin added with a hum. “I’ve never really seen normal bickering like this except with some of the other disciple’s parents.”

Lan Xichen marveled at the revelation, “Is this what it is? An argument between parents?”

Indeed. Because, whether as pitiful or as surprising as it was to note, no one in this conversation had ever been witness to a two-parent household that featured light hearted bickering over menial things that were essentially, hot air. Hence the fascination. It was refreshing to bear witness to an argument that ultimately didn’t really end with the two hating each other, it was more like watching two tigers huffing at each other- but the moment you turned around they were cuddled up next to each other. Jiang Wanyin supposed that in this case, I was more like a tiger huffing at a dragon- and the dragon was letting the tiger fight before snapping its tail in reprimand.

And yes, Wei-tánɡɡē was the dragon in this analogy.

“Essentially,” Meng Yao said graciously before giving Lan Xichen a conspiring smile. “They were like this too during their return from Lotus Pier, it was a rather interesting conversation- entertaining as well. I have to say it’s rather refreshing, if not a little strange.”

Lan Xichen agreed, looking onto the two with a renewed since of admiration. He had known there was something going on but for this yes, Lan Xichen rather liked it as well. He was sure Wangji would be pleased to hear that Wei-shixiong was also doing rather well.

“Sang-ge,” Wei Ying pleaded. “Get them to stop.”

“You do it,” Huaisang griped, “I’m too embarrassed by them. They’re embarrassing. This is torture. It’s unfair. Injustice! Wanyin get them to stop.”

Jiang Cheng hummed, “Na.”

Wei Wuxian grumbled, a wounded look on his face, “traitor.”

“They’re your older brothers,” Jiang Cheng huffed. “They’re essentially your parents, deal with it.”

“No fair, I didn’t give Da-ge permission!” Wei Ying whined.

“Oi! What permission!? Is my Da-ge not good enough for Wei-shixiong?”

“Nope.”

“…Okay I can’t really argue, Da-ge has a lot of work to do still but come on,” Huaisang made a motion towards the two who were, unaspiringly, still arguing. “You can’t tell me there isn’t potential there! The UST! The chemistry! It’s a true match right there!”

Wei Wuxian made a face, “I dunno, I mean, I see it but it’s weird. Gēge acts like he’s the same age as Uncle Jiang- actually, he acts older.”

Lan Xichen had to agree, “He does seem to act like Uncle at times.”

Meng Yao hummed, “However, you cannot disagree that the connection is rather strong between the two. Sect Leader Nie- ah, that is, Mingjue- seems to gravitate towards Ming Fan more often than not. The same is true vice-versa.”

“Right?!” Nie Huaisang exclaimed. “It’s been like that since they first got here. Actually- I think he might also have been that big brother who saved me that time!”

Meng Yao’s eyebrows rose with interest, “Oh?”

Wei Wuxian frowned before snapping his fingers, his face lighting up with realization, “Oh! I remember now! We went to the Unclean Realm and Da-ge was there! They argued for a bit before Da-ge said his little brother was lost, then Gēge went to find him. Wait; that was you?!”

“Yeah! Does Wei-shixiong still keep the fans?”

“Keep them? He cleans them every week- well I dunno if he still does now, but he should. Gēge doesn’t really like to change habits if he’s used to them already.” Wei Wuxian made a frown. “But hey- Da-ge made fun of Gēge that time though.”

“Huh? Why?!”

“Gēge’s name wasn’t originally Wei Fan,” Wei Wuxian sighed in frustration. “I can’t remember it anymore but Gēge used to have a different name and Da-ge made fun of it.”

Huaisang nearly wailed in frustration, “I hate that it sounds exactly like something he would do- despite being not! What’s up with that?!”

“Ah, Wuxian, I do have a question.”

“Oh- what is it Xichen-ge?”

“Did Wei-shixiong always act…well, like that?” Lan Xichen inquired, tilting his head. “I understand that he acted quite mature when we had met- but since you were there from the beginning, I can’t help but wonder if he had always acted…”

“Like he’s from a different dynasty?”

“Well, if there’s no other way to say it…”

“Em…Yeah? Pretty much, he’s always been like that.”

“How perplexing…”

“Hey, it’s getting pretty heated,” Jiang Cheng chimed- by then the bag was already empty, something Huaisang hit his arm for but it wasn’t as if he cared too much.

“Well if you had taken better care of yourself we wouldn’t be in this mess!” Mingjue growled.

“This Wei Fan is sor-ry that Sect Leader Nie apparently cannot fathom the need for propriety and good mannerisms, however such skills are important with interacting with other people- this one understands that the last Conference was quite some time ago however that does not excuse oneself for acting out of line,” Wei Ming snarled.

“Again- and I’m sounding like an uncreative score here- he’s with family, it doesn’t matter.

“There is a distinction between being with friends and being with family- you don’t curse with family-“

“What the hell sort of dynasty did you come from where that much is true? It’s not like Fengmian would bust a gut watching Wanyin accidentally curse from surprise.”

Lan Xichen watched wearily, “Perhaps we should-“

Meng Yao splayed an arm to hold the oldest off, “Give it a few more moments.”

“Like you’ve never cursed before! Or should I reiterate what you said in The Hidden Lotus all those years ago.”

“You are still mad about that? I apologized! Profusely!”

“You took me to a brothel and flirted with all the sisters and some of the waiters, in front of me of course I was pissed! You didn’t even give me enough face to flirt with me for a bit so the sisters didn’t have to think that I was some innocent kid!”

Wei Ying blinked.

Meng Yao smiled at the memory.

“It wasn’t as if it was intentional! I hadn’t realized they had an interest until Mei Lin warned me of it!”

“Oh like hell you didn’t know!”

“You didn’t know either until recently! You didn’t even know I could flirt before!”

“I knew you could; I didn’t know you were practiced,” Mingjue hissed. “I thought it was just some fluke last time! I didn’t know you actually had the damn skill cultivated.”

“I know you think I’m just some sniveling academic with a penchant for swordplay Mingjue but really I’ve attanined life skills too I’ll have you know- like mending my own damn hànfú.” Wei Ming hissed. “What am I- your wife? You intend to make sure I flirt with no one but you?! Oh Husband??!

Meng Yao’s smile widened, “There it is.”

Lan Xichen gaped.

Huaisang threw his hands up, his mouth open in a silent screech.

“Flirting is hardly a life skill- and maybe I will! Do you realize how flooded our mail has gotten since that last stint? We’re up to our ears in useless admiring letters and that He brat keeps pestering me about you all fucking day, you don’t think somebody would get tired of it?” Mingjue sneered, “maybe if I tie you down finally, it wouldn’t be such a damn problem.”

“Oh ha ha, I told him no ages ago- in case you hadn’t noticed, I’ll tell you again. He’s using me to get to you, you ignorant white lotus!”

Wei Wuxian gasped, “Wait- really?!”

“The plot thickens,” Jiang Cheng said solemnly.

Wei Wuxian’s attention was captured successfully, a growing need in his gut to watch more began to sink its teeth in his attention so much so that he huddled with Huaisang and Wanyin to watch. Meng Yao and Lan Xichen had creeped closer to the younger trio as the tension seemed to escalate to interesting heights.

[SYSTEM_90-728634724753: ~Romance route progress identified; scenario pusher activated ]

“I mean have you seen yourself in the middle of training?” Wei Ming ratted off without much thought, rolling his eyes with added affect. “You have the body of a god you sexy idiot. Your muscles are so ridiculously well-defined when they’re at the peak of contraction I feel as if I’m looking at a statue. Do you realize how hard it is not ditch my sabre and begin painting instead? Have you realized that you are literally channeling Liu Qingge every time you go through training that I have to snap all the disciples out of it before they continue doing what they’re supposed to? Bad enough that I find myself occasionally distracted by it- you’ve got the audacity to look good even when your hair is disheveled you unfair, ludicrous, white lotus.”

Wei Ming’s mouth shut as he drew back with arms crossed- a scowl on his face.

“Bad enough that I have to snap disciples out of it when they’re stuck admiring you, it’s a damn pain when I have to snap the seniors and guests out of it.”

“….Eh?”

….Eh?!”

Mingjue blinked, “Say that bit again?”

“I said- ‘bad enough that-‘”

“No the other thing.”

“What other thing?”

“The thing you just said before that.”

“I didn’t say anything before that! Sect Leader Nie, this Wei Fan thinks you should go see a doctor for your ears!”

“You just called me a sexy idiot! Wait- you called me an idiot!”

“This Wei Fan said nothing of the like- but if Sect Leader Nie is calling himself an idiot then it is no doubt true!”

“What is going on?!” Huaisang screeched.

“M-Meng Yao.”

“Mhm?”

“If I invite Wei-shixiong to teach at Gusu Lan next year- perhaps there will be a time for us to discuss his um.” Lan Xichen glanced at the two- pink faced. “Perhaps, unknowing admiration…er- attraction more likely- for Mingjue.”

Meng Yao sighed, smiling and nodding his head genially, “If Master Lan believes he can, he is welcomed to try and steer this ship. However, I have to warn you that the ship tends to steer itself- often into rocks.”

“This Lan Xichen will observe your wisdom Meng Yao.”

“In that time perhaps I can…help Sect Leader Nie.”

“Xichen-ge?”

“Ah- yes Huaisang?”

“You aren’t considering poaching Wei-shixiong right?” Nie Huaisang’s eyes took on a dangerous glint that peered over a fan that no one knew (well- perhaps Wei brothers knew but deigned not to mention it) he had.

“A-Ah, of course not. But in this case…perhaps it is for the best that I attempt to…mitigate? I owe so much to the both of them, this is the least I can do,” Lan Xichen smiled with what he hoped was without any sort of nervousness on his face. “I’m sure Wangji would also like the opportunity to study under legendary Teacher Wei.”

“Hm…” Huaisang continued to eye him for a moment before seeming to wipe of the unnerving expression with a flick of his fan. “Alright, Qinghe Nie will entrust Wei-shixiong to you then Xichen-ge! Please treat him well!” Or else.

“Ah- Gusu Lan will be honored,” Lan Xichen continued to maintain his smile.

“ah- Xichen-ge?”

“Yes Wuxian?”

“Wangji sounds familiar, do I know him?”

They wouldn’t know it- but exactly a few months from now, a silent cold war would begin in the teaching halls of Gusu Lan.

But in a war for Teacher Wei and Wei-shixiong? Qinghe Nie collectively would like to see these brats try.


Doodle Dump

Chapter Text

20. [Log: File:Save_20-526.1.0800.log]


“I know you can handle yourself but please, for the love of my continued sanity, don’t terrorize Qingheng-jun.”

Wei Ming rose an eyebrow. Tilting his head towards Nie Mingjue’s direction in such a way that the message of ‘Seriously?’ was readily received. “What makes you think I would endeavor to terrorize one man Sect Leader Nie? I’m going to be teaching- not hosting therapy discussions. The only reason why such events occurred in Lotus Pier was because Uncle Jiang was persistently annoying.”

“And I know that,” Nie Mingjue pointed out, arms crossed. “But for the sake of the collective sanity of the Lan clan- I’m taking measures.”

Wei Ming scowled, “Measures for what exactly?”

“Your…” Nie Mingjue made a vague gesture. “Everything.”

“Oh thank you.” Wei Ming rolled his eyes, “And you can relax. I don’t intend on causing any undue terror for anyone save for my students.”

Nie Mingjue looked skeptical.

Wei Ming sighed, “What else did you wish to say?”

“…” Nie Mingjue huffed, “Nothing.”

Mingjue,” Wei Ming turned around, arms folded with a frown. “What is this about? Really? You never took on this attitude when I took short trips to Lotus Pier to aid Aunt with training her disciples for a week.”

Nie Mingjue sighed- rubbing the space between his brows. “It’s stupid.”

Wei Ming snorted, “I’m a teacher. I’ll be the one who decides what is and is not stupid.”

Nie Mingjue rolled his eyes, “Look- it’s just- Gusu Lan is the place where all the academics go. The musicians, artists. Those people- and you’re kind of…all about that. On top of that, they’ve got the Jade Twins- my point is that you’ve never been there before and…”

Wei Ming rose a brow, “You’re afraid that I would decide to suddenly ditch Qinghe Nie for Gusu Lan.”

Nie Mingjue scowled, “Way to make my worries sound childish.”

“Mingjue,” Wei Ming sighed- shaking his head as he smoothed down the folds of his hànfú, there was a brief pause before he looked up again. Raising his arms up in a gesture as if to plead innocent or convey sarcasm. “It isn’t as if I’m staying in Gusu Lan all the time. Roughly every five weeks or so I will be returning here to pick up the slack on night hunts or paperwork, this has already been discussed with Xichen, you were there for that conversation. I hate to be the one who would crush your dreams but I am not actually vying for world domination.”

“…Shut up,” Nie Mingjue tilted his head to avoid revealing a sliver of a smile.

Wei Ming smiled, idly stepping around Nie Mingjue to situate himself behind the Sect Leader at his desk before turning serious, "And if you think you can get away from fact that you have to do at least a portion paperwork daily then you are severely incorrect Nie Mingjue. I have spent at almost a decade in this gods damned Sect doing everything from arranging reports to helping lead the motion to fix the Sect owned branches across Qinghe Nie to micromanaging the farms and I will not abandon my position for anything less than some spit at my moral code, so mark my words Nie Mingjie- if you skimp on your duties while I am gone I will bring all the reckonings of the Abyss. Understood?" 

Nie Mingjue swallowed nervously, glancing at one of the arms Wei Ming had that locked him to where he was seated. For a man shorter than he was, the presence could still be overwhelming if Wei Ming really pushed it, "Understood." 

[Log: File:Save_20-526.1.1200.log]

Jin Zixuan was suspicious.

It was the first full day since yesterday that all the guest disciples of Gusu Lan had arrived in Caiyi Town and subsequently to the entryway of the Cloud Recesses. In that time- he had the distinct displeasure of having to interact with Jiang Wanyin yet again- and more concerningly, Wei Ying was happy grinning.

Wei Wuxian did not grin for any innocent reason.

“What’s got you so happy?” He grumbled, folding his arms as Wei Ying seemed to just…walk in circles. As if he were a fox waiting for something to show up and was playfully chasing his own tail to amuse himself in the meantime.

“Oh- nothing,” Wei Ying fibbed- that stupid grin still on his face.

Jiang Wanyin smirked. The Nie heir looked ready to keel over as he vigorously fanned himself and muttered under his breath.

“If I don’t pass this year I am so dead.

Looking at the Nie and Jiang disciples that had come with the other two- Jin Zixuan was steadily growing concerned. The Nie disciples had a solemn aura to them as they talked quietly amongst each other. The Jiang disciples were doing something similar if not, slightly more apprehensive as they seemed to just…congregate around each other and talk. Neither himself, nor the disciples who came with him, or even the Lan disciples knew just what the hell was going on with the two groups. It was like they were expecting their death sentence or something. Save for Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian, considering the two of them looked as if nothing was wrong and tomorrow they were going to raid the town of alcohol.

“Seriously,” Jin Zixuan said finally. “Wei Wuxian, I’m not playing around. Why are you so happy?”

“Well- if you must know dear cousin, I-“ Wei Ying gasped, jumping to his feet from where he had been sitting. “He’s here!”

“No running in Cloud Recesses.”

Wei Ying’s legs froze as if scared stiff, the fifteen-year-old would have lost his balance and smacked straight into the stone pathways of the Cloud Recesses if he hadn’t been Wei Wuxian of the Wei brothers. Instead, he easily twisted in place and launched himself back up, a whine already on his lips as resident Jade Statue Lan Wangji, one of the Twin Jades stood solemnly as if summoned by rule-breaking.

Considering the looks he’s seen the guy pass Wei Wuxian since they first came here yesterday, that might actually be just a ‘Wei Wuxian doing things’ alarm. He was both concerned and fascinated about how one looks to develop this seemingly survival skill.

“But-! Mph, mphhh! Mmmmm mmmm!”

Nie Huaisang paled further. “He’s here. He and Lan Qiren are in the same place. He’s teaching at the same place. I’m done, I’m dead. Jiang Wanyin I’m too young to die!”

Lan Wangji looked over with a visible look of discontent- which was just about the only thing Jin Zixuan could read off the other anyway.

“Oh come on, he’s not that bad,” Jiang Cheng scoffed.

“Mmm!”

“Jiang-shixiong,” One of the purple-clad disciples said solemnly, eyes haunted. “All due respect- but you’ve never actually been taught as a senior by Wei-shixiong.”

Jin Zixuan and the rest of the poor, unknowing children looked to the Nie disciples who were all closing their eyes solemnly.

“Mm? MMMm! MMMMMM!” Wei Wuxian turned to Lan Wangji with wide eyes, watering even as he somehow managed to push his bottom lip up in a pout. “Mmmmm? MMMhmmmmm??”

Lan Wangji twitched before breathing out softly, Wei Wuxian making a noise of success as he smacked his lips and turned on his heel to walk with slightly more extended steps towards some area. Jin Zixuan officially knew not what was going on any longer, and he was pretty sure neither did the Lan Disciples for that matter as they watched in fascination the oncoming storm of Cloud Recesses actively circumvent their rules in the direction of whatever sort of oddity he was so happy about. Slowly- Jin Zixuan made out the forest green robes as the person turned the corner, sabre in hand and walking with a measured step and grace that could have rivaled any Lan.

Oh.” Jin Zixuan said to himself quietly, drawing the eyes of the Jin disciples who had come with him. “Shi-“

“Wangji.”

Lan Xichen stepped beside his brother with a greeting smile, “I see that you’re here to receive our newest guest.”

Lan Wangji frowned before looking towards where Wei Ying was excitedly talking- simultaneously blocking his view of the newcomer. “’Newest guest’ brother?”

“Yes, we will be having a rare occasion here in Gusu Lan. A teacher from Qinghe Nie has accepted a temporary proposal to teach fascinating techniques here in Gusu Lan, it will be a rewarding lesson for everyone,” Lan Xichen’s smile remained amicable. “You’ve already met him once before.”

Lan Wangji seemed to take on a look of contemplation, “Wangji cannot determine exactly who brother is speaking of. “

“Why-“

Lan Xichen continued to name the villain of Jin Zixuan’s nightmares.

“-Wei Ming of Qinghe Nie of course.”

Jin Zixuan was officially- fucked.

[Log: File:Save_20-526.1.1805.log]

All the Lans in the Cloud Recesses were unsure of what to make of tonight’s dinner.

Usually, when guest disciples came to Gusu Lan, one of the more common things they would have to patiently sit through is the talking during dinner. Furthermore, they would also usually weather complaints about the plainness of their dishes. It wasn’t necessarily insulting since it was, after all, a statement of relative truth- but it was unnerving when it wasn’t being said either. Even the second master of the Nie Sect seemed especially subdued.

More surprising, and slowly grating on Lan Qiren’s nerves, was that Wei Wuxian was not making a peep.

No, instead the younger Wei in the room was elegantly seated and dined as if he was a guest in the Emperor’s palace. He made no comment of the food and conducted himself in an orderly manner that had even their Lan Wangji staring hard. His expression was serene, as if he was merely content rather than no doubt criticizing their food like the rest of them. They had heard Wei Wuxian had taken up some Jiang habits due to his four year stay at Lotus Pier- they were expecting complaints about the spices, the thin broth. Something.

Nope.

Just an oddly well behaved Wei Wuxian.

Lan Qiren was quickly feeling his patience grow thinner and thinner as the sense of unease seemed to rise from within. It felt wrong to see the son of Cangse Sanren acting so much so like Wei Changze the second coming, even more refined than before. It felt as if there was an imbalance in the universe and there was nothing anyone could do to correct it. Normally he would be scolding guest disciples by now- but nothing. Not a peep out of the Jiang and Nie disciples, who were often the loudest critics due to their sects having specialized in food in different ways. As a result of their silence, not even the sometimes arrogant Jin disciples made a sound due to the uncertain aura surrounding the Meal Hall.

Still- with Lan discipline, he ate.

Oh- but there was a reason for it, a reason that Lan Xichen was steadily having difficulties attempting to mask. For the answer was sitting right next to him.

Properly seated and back straight with excellent table manners, Wei Ming continued to quietly eat dinner with all the training of a Lan without the seemingly ridged movements. A technique Lan Xichen was close to but not yet able to fully master with Lan Wangji right behind him in terms of progress. Each movement was particularly calculated yet not at all unnatural, balancing precariously in between purposeful yet natural. In other words- the sort of motions you got used to when you have done something over and over again.

Roughly thirty and then some attendances of Immortal Conferences has a terrible habit of instilling those sort of things with you. If you were too stiff, you were gossiped about. If you were too lose you were also gossiped about. The Peak Lords of Cang Qiong have subsequently grown to fulfill that exact range of personal conduction in order to make sure none of the others get one single peep of tongue wagging about their Sect; as Head Disciple, Ming Fan too, was naturally trained in these practices. Though to be fair, the food wasn’t that bad either. Certainly not the best he’s ever had (read: tasted Luo Binghe’s cooking), but it wasn’t necessarily as difficult to take down as say…a dead rat or some subsequent meals he’s had to take in over the years.

It also helps that he’s mastered the art of zoning out without necessarily appearing as such, a habit he instilled in Wei Ying at an early age. These sorts of things were important for skimming politics and it was a skill best learned early; Wei Ying had a short attention span for things he deemed boring so it was in his best interests to learn how to look interested and hear the lessons without necessarily taking part in it. He was confident in his brother’s teachers of course, they were his colleagues after all, but, well- they weren’t Ming Fan who’s personally taught the boy how to read a majority of characters. And basic table manners. And how to cook.

The last one was difficult.

He could cook just fine- you just needed to hide the spice if you wanted to survive without having to run for the nearest dairy farm you could find.

And so- Wei Ming finished his meal with a lasting sip of his tea before rising to full height. The olive green variant of Qinghe Nie robes folded neatly and without wrinkles with him as the sleeves slipped back onto his hands- it wasn’t his practical clothes but he had just spent close to ten or so hours in the cold air and further still.

Dark gray eyes surveyed the area with a smooth dissonance before he locking eyes with his younger brother, dipping his head forward.

Wei Ying solemnly returned the nod.

The night continued.

[Log: File:Save_20-526.2.0500.log]

The Lan disciples were officially confused.

Amongst all of the rules of Gusu Lan, the most difficult rule for even the most earnest of guest disciples was often the rule of rising at five. This was apparently not the case for the most part.

The guest teacher from Qinghe Nie nodded in approval as he quietly guided students around himself, he was neither loud nor commandeering. His voice was firm but not irritating, as he quietly guided the still groggy disciples to their spots and instructed them to stay put until he spoke to them again. One of the few who weren’t swaying on their feet had been some handful of the Jiang disciples as they stretched. Young Master Jin seemed tired but determined as he linked his hands upward, the small pops of readjusted joints making small noises. Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin were the oddities- their bodies fully twisting and bending with their eyes tired but awake. Nie Huaisang was struggling but surprisingly got through the motions without complaining much.

Then the sun rose.

Like a carefully arranged garden, the yard filled with light and hit the groups equally with the rays of the sun. Several disciples blinked and winced as their vision flooded with the sun’s bright rays, some recoiling on the spot just before they instinctively brought their hands up to block out the sun.

“Hello.”

The Lan disciples turned, blinking in surprise before saluting Lan Xichen. Lan Wangji was staring curiously at the crowd, despite the fact that no one save for Lan Xichen and perhaps Wei Ming could tell.

“Interesting is it not?” Lan Xichen further commented with a smile. “It’s my first time seeing Teacher Wei’s methods first hand. It’s most fascinating how many disciples he managed to rouse, this is the most students that have been awake on the first day for some time.”

“You have an hour before breakfast begins,” Wei Ming said firmly- not loud but not so quiet either. It was firm and commanding. “We will walk down the steps of Cloud Recesses and run one lap.”

“Why?”

Jin Zixuan didn’t move much but there was a resounding thunk coming from the Jin disciple next to him.

“It’s much easier to stay awake after you’ve done something physical,” Wei Ming said with a twist of amusement. “Besides that, it will be an opportunity for me to know where all of you are in terms of physical progress. Where Teacher Lan will be taking over your academics, I will be taking over your physical training. For you to be successful, I will need to know where all of you start to understand where you all must end.”

“Jiang Wanyin, Wei Wuxian: Five laps,” Wei Ming continued. “Nie Huaisang, Yan Fēnglàng: four.”

Nie Huaisang had a grimace on his face but accepted his fate nonetheless as he nodded in acknowledgment.

Wei Ming’s arm twisted, bring attention to the fact that he had changed from the olive green swooping robes to one more practical, with a more martial style clothing it was easy to see that Wei Ming had every intent to follow them in running around the mountain until the next hour came around.

“Let’s go.”

In the end, Wei Ming apparently had finished running ten laps by the time everyone finished. Nodding in approval and quietly supporting the more tired disciples as he rose from where he was seated.

“It’s a good start, from here your endurance will grow and you will find yourself getting stronger,” Wei Míng said encouragingly. “Work hard, and you will be attaining your prize by the end of it. Off to breakfast now with you all.”

Then he turned, smirking, “Wei Wuxian.”

Jiang Wanyin turned to snort while Wei Wuxian smiled innocently. Jin Zixuan frowned at his cousin.

“Next time, do better in stashing the contraband,” He lifted an arm to reveal the attempted smuggling of Caiyi town’s famous wine, Emperor’s Smile. “Preferably not under a bush next to the barriers of Cloud Recesses.”

“Awwww,” Wei Ying sighed, yet still smiling as he linked his fingers behind his head. “You found them so fast.”

“Indeed, this one,” Wei Ming nodded off to the corner. “And the six other jars you had stashed around the mountain path. You’re slacking. Rule 18. You’re copying it as soon as you’re done with lecture while doing handstands.”

Wei Ying laughed a cheery giggle that jarred the voyeurs in the distance before he began pouting at the older brother- who simply continued walking back to the Meal Hall.

[1310]

Wei Ming stood before his students with one hand on his sabre, the sleeves of his clothes were tucked under a brace, the lose fabric tensing and bunching up as he moved. The disciples were split into two groups, one group included the likes Jiang Wanyin, Wei Wuxian, Nie Huaisang, Yan Fēnglàng, and some other stragglers of the Nie and Jiang discipleship. On the other side were the Lan disciples, Jin disciples, including Lan Wangji and Jin Zixuan.

“Since today is the first day, I will be assessing your forms and techniques,” Wei Ming said without pause standing before them. “The disciples who’ve worked with me before have already been split from the group where I haven’t worked with. This is because the disciples who’ve worked with me are already familiar with my teachings and thus, I already know their progress. For those who I am unfamiliar with, we will be having a spar in which I will assess your skills and what you may need to improve on. This is an opportunity for all of you to try and best me with what you know. I will remind you that this is not a competition spar. The creatures that we hunt care not for the likes of basic propriety and gentleman rules on the battlefield, these are beasts, ghosts, creatures, and corpses who can and will rip you apart if they are so given the opportunity. Our job as Cultivators is to either help them or make them move on. This will be done in order of age, youngest to oldest. The disciples who’ve worked with me before besides Wei Wuxian, sparring partners. Nie Huaisang, you may use the fan. Jiang Wanyin have you already begun practicing with Madam Yu’s Zidian?”

“Yes teacher Wei.”

“Good- Nie Huaisang uses his fan in similar concept. Take the back corner, Second Master Nie, endeavor to limit the damages. I want to see you improve accuracy this year. Yan Fēnglàng, your footwork still needs work so keep that in mind as you spar, you’re good at thinking on your feet but I want you to have your footwork be near instinctual. Meng Lou, Fa Liu- you will be working on your dodges. The rest of you, I want you to work on efficiency- attempt to best your partner in the most limited amount of movements you can, your opponent should be actively doing the same. This should help you resolve your individual grievances, but I will be walking around after this to make sure everyone’s progressing well.”

“Yes Teacher Wei.” The disciples said in chorus.

Wei Ming nodded, drawing his sabre and falling into stance, “Begin.”

Lan Xichen watched in fascination with some of the elder Lans near the vicinity, Lan Qiren hummed.

“An interesting technique.”

Lan Xichen nodded, watching as the first disciple drew his sword.

The first fight lasted for five minutes.

“You have a good grasp on your basics, foot work has always been a point of pride for the Jiang Sect.” Wei Ming said after, “In order to best improve, you should concentrate on improving the upper half of your body. If you maximize the amount of power you can draw from your arms, you can inflict more damage on your enemy. I will be having you do arm exercises within my class to help you improve, but I suggest taking up more physical tasks that include your arms when you are on your free time. Push-ups are the easiest exercises you can pick up, but if you have questions either myself or Jiang Wanyin and Nie Huaisang are your most suitable advisors. Nie Huaisang had a weaker arm strength than the average sabre user in the Nie Sect but that has improved massively over the course of the past three years. Good work, take a break and join the others when you’ve caught your breath.”

The disciple blinked before smiling brightly, bowing before him, “Thank you Teacher Wei!”

Wei Ming nodded before turning to the eager group, “Next.”

The next disciple stepped forward.

Five minutes.

The next disciple.

Five.

The next disciple.

Five.

With each passing disciple, Wei Ming bested them within the span of five minutes before dutifully informing them of their weaknesses and where they can improve and how to improve. With each comment, he cited disciples who could help them improve and prompted them to rest before continuing with the day.

Meanwhile the students Wei Ming had already been teaching were dutifully fulfilling their spars, their swords clanging loudly against one another save for Nie Huaisang and Jiang Wanyin. Who’s energy charged fan swung an outpour of qi energy towards Jiang Wanyin, who either blocked or dodged with the deftness of someone used to such attacks. Wei Wuxian had shifted on his handstand to demonstrate and discuss the techniques as other disciples had pointed the newer ones, his voice clear and concise as he gave advice.

Lan Xichen wondered what sort of advice he’d get if he sparred.

Then came Jin Zixuan.

The heir of Lanling Jin breathed before drawing his sword, leveling it in front himself and watching as Wei Ming shifted in starting position.

Then he shot forward.

For five minutes, they fought- Jin Zixuan’s technique was by far among the best of its kind from the Jin Disciples. His footwork was concise, his jabs made with pin-point accuracy. On the other hand, Wei Ming easily slipped out from under well-made stabs. Sliding his sabre along one side of the sword before smacking it out of Jin Zixuan’s hand with a swing reminiscent of the base of Nie Sect technique.

In five minutes.

Wei Ming hummed. His sabre twirling around his hand before coming to rest at his elbow, bladed pointed behind him. Jin Zixuan’s Suihua hummed with the steady piece of steady plucked strings and elegant flutes came to a slow halt.

“You’re technique is excellent,” Wei Ming stated firmly. “Your grip could be stronger and your actions require a firmer countenance. It’s clear you’ve invested long hours in improving your swordsmanship and it’s born fruit. What is holding you back is your doubt, there’s hesitation in your stabs however minute. I believe you are also capable of honing your instincts, you’ve the beginnings of what I suspect maybe an aspect within Jin technique in which you are aware of your surroundings to a degree beyond your forward intentions. It is this singular focus that you have that is preventing you from acknowledging those instincts. It is indeed, important to focus on the here and now, but as a natural archer, you must also acknowledge your other skill sets and integrate them within your repertoire. If you are able to naturally extrapolate from your natural instincts and interweave them in your swordsmanship, you may find yourself being able to predict not only your opponent’s moves but better aim your sword to strike true.”

Jin Zixuan nodded, “Teacher Wei- what do you mean by ‘natural archer’?”

“Jin Sect is well known for their arches yes?” Wei Ming continued as soon as he got various responses. “An archer takes several things into account before allowing their notch loose. Windspeed, distance, gravity, and resistance. Strength of the draw, materials of the arrow- the heaviness of the arrowhead. Furthermore, dedicated archers also focus on their quiver amount. They count their shots and take into account what they can lose and what they can gain. An archer at war will often find themselves firing two or three at a time, amidst horseback, they will use their arrows as weapons and they will take all the ammunition they can in battle. The skills of an archer are well suited to someone who is capable of managing several things in succession, as such, the best archers are often those who naturally pay attention to their surroundings. This can be learned of course, but natural archers pick these skills up at a higher rate- therefore they can cultivate these skills for much longer and improve that much more faster before they plateau.”

He thought back about his experience, “Ning Yingying was among the best of the archers in Cang Qiong Mountain Sect- she had a natural ability to evaluate the battlefield and make split second decisions that save arrows and lives. What she has that you currently do not, is the training and confidence that grows with that training. If you read her legends, she’s noted for her ability to shoot across great distance, and her swordsmanship reflects it in writing.”

He nodded his head towards Jin Zixuan, “You will do well to learn from Wei Wuxian, he has a natural affinity for having multiple avenues of his attention at any given time, and his mind is quick on calculations to best improve his chances of success. There are several exercises he has created himself to build upon his skills, and I believe you will improve with them if you so deign to dedicate yourself. You’ve done well.”

Wei Ming narrowed his eyes at the starstruck disciple raising an eyebrow with a slight smirk on his face, “Rest before you continue today. That isn’t a suggestion Young Master Jin.”

Jin Zixuan saluted, “Yes Bi- Teacher Wei!”

Wei Ming nodded, “Next.”

Then came a hush upon the field as Lan Wangji stepped forward, his Bìchén drawn. The disciples, especially those from his own Sect, waited eagerly to see Wei Ming’s assessment of one of the Twin Jades. Their own instructions were treasured due to the conciseness of direction- amidst the newer disciples, admiration was quick to grow under the tender ministrations and watering of their curiosity and individual skill.

He’s only been doing it for almost four decades now, he would have been a pretty bad teacher if he couldn’t get that far.

Wei Ming tilted his head forward in greeting and fell into a stance.

Wei Ming’s mentally noted with surprise the elegant plucking of a guqin as he and Lan Wangji traded blows. The melody was familiar, calming and promising all at once- of a bond never to be broken, as sappy as it was.

Do-Re, Ming Fan thought to himself as he attempted to make sense of the melody. Ti. La. Half mi-La. La-Ti, Ti vibrato. La-Ti. Fa. Do-re.Ti. La. Re-la.

It matches Wei Ying’s Suíbiàn, he noted to himself as he deflected a blow, each note ringing against a familiar melody in his mind. His eyes were already picking out impressive parts of Lan Wangji’s training. He could see Wei Wuxian having difficulties getting out of any fight with the younger of the Lan brothers- the Lan technique was based on rhythm and Lan Wangji especially had a drawing technique to his swordplay, making any attempts to deviate from the steady beat rather difficult- especially if one wasn’t aware of the nuances. However- he was ridged in it, and it was prone to breaking if one was aware of the way the Lan Sect fought. The boy would learn well from Jiang Wanyin- the Jiang Style had a natural unpredictability to it because of their physical prowess with improvisation. If he heard right from Wei Ying, Madam Yu integrated obstacle courses into Jiang Sect training to improve improvisation in split-second moments. Similar to how he trained Wei Ying when he was younger- an enemy you couldn’t predict was more dangerous than an enemy you could exchange blows with.

It is where Qing Jing excelled- predicting an enemy an adjusting accordingly. Which made training in swordsmanship natural. After all, what the hell was the library for if not to also have an entire section dedicated to sword techniques gathered from all across the country?

He twisted his body- shifting his center of gravity around himself to throw his weight sideways. Twisting around Lan Wangji’s sword, he parried a jab with the flatter, wider blade- sending it careening to the side as the younger man’s momentum carried him over.

Five minutes, the flat end of his sabre smacking gently into the boy’s back.

Wei Ming hummed, straightening as Lan Wangji stood straighter. There was a visibly look of confusion on Lan Wangji’s face as he attempted to rationalize their fight- admirable but unnecessary, Wei Ming would do it for him in this case.

“You’ve molded the Lan Sect technique to yourself well, which is part of the issue in your case,” he said carefully, picking apart the fight in his mind with a brief pause before he continued. “Your conduction is flawless and there is little hesitation, the issue lies in the fact that there are more than one singular type of opponent in the world. The Lan Sect technique does well to draw in enemies into your rhythm, but there are people in this world that can notice and adjust according- as I have. It would benefit you to have regular spars with Jiang Wanyin, perhaps even Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian would allow you a chance to notice your technique and be conscious of what habits you’ve developed thus far. Jiang Wanyin is distinctly unpredictable and therefore would benefit you in practice against an enemy that will not fall into your rhythm.”

Wei Ming nodded to himself as his mind raced, “You’ve grown very well since those years ago Second Master Lan, please rest before you continue with the day.”

“…Wangji understands. Thank you, Teacher Wei,” Lan Wangji bowed to salute him before leaving.

Wei Ming twirled his sabre in his hands, turning to the rest of the group, “Next.”

[1836]

“Hm- rotate pair Wei Wuxian with Lan Wangji…evaluation exercise on this day…Hm,“ Wei Ming scratched his head as he looked over his sheets. “He’s got a weaker right side so he should be sparing with…her…A-Cheng could help this one so I’ll give the first rotation spot to him. Hrm- Huaisang is a long distance fighter so his first one would be with Zixuan, and then he could also fight Fēnglàng since she still needs to work on her further distance- actually I need to ask if she’s seen a doctor, I feel her eyesight has been declining somewhat and she did start cultivation fairly late…Fēnglàng should fight Fa Liu.”

The sounds of paper rubbing against each other filled the room, flipping occasionally and with brush strokes quietly scratching across the surface, ink pouring forth as he continued to write.

“We’ll have a training exercise on this day, and then this day will be lecture on practical tactics,” Wei Ming scratched his chin with the end of the brush. “I need to make illusionary talismans before that happens- how many have I got right now?”

He rose from his seat, padding over to flip through his items before clicking his tongue.

“Not enough, damn. I thought I brought enough for the first week,” Wei Ming sighed. “A-Ying must have raided through my stock again. Well, no matter, I’ll just make more tomorrow- I should obtain some talisman paper and cinnabar tonight.”

Wei Ming nodded to himself, checking his paperwork as he continued to mutter to himself. Instinctively quieting as he walked outside, posture straight as he continued to walk.

“Teacher Wei.”

He turned his head up, mind still deep within his musings as he bowed his head, “Master Lan- to what does this Wei Ming owe the pleasure?”

Lan Xichen blinked before spotting the slightly glazed look in the other’s eyes, “Ah- what was your opinion on this class?”

“Interesting students,” Wei Ming said instantly, humming to himself as his thoughts shifted. “I believe Fēnglàng would benefit a trip to the doctor to have her eyes examined but overall she’s a very efficient fighter and well suited for the sword- she also may be capable of soaking up the Jin Sect style since she’s observant by nature. Lan Feiyi has somewhat of a difficulty shifting on his feet but it isn’t something a well-practiced shifting technique can’t help solve. Half of my students would benefit well from more exercise of their lower bodies and abdomen and the other portion need to focus on shifting footwork on lacking grounds- which I may have to consult with Teacher Lan of since it may require some allocation of resources if I am unable to obtain them myself. Second Master Lan is very well practiced and he would be a difficult opponent in any formal battle and perhaps deadlier on the battlefield, however his technique is rather ridged and leaves little room to shift minutely should his opponent be as unpredictable as Jiang Wanyin. It also is a problem if someone like myself or Wei Wuxian become his enemy, the both of us use observation in our fights and it’s relatively easy to voluntarily give into the Lan Sect rhythm in order to circumvent its moves for our own benefit. Rhythmic battle has a place, but it can be problematic if the enemy understands it’s fundamental characteristics enough to parry against it.”

He looked up when his answer lacked a response, “Was there something displeasing to hear Master Lan?”

“No- nothing,” Lan Xichen tilted his head. “You are a very thorough teacher.”

“These are techniques that can save their lives in a night hunt, we’re stretched thin as it is with the rising population of ghosts, ghouls, and beasts-“ Wei Ming frowned. “Is my way of teaching so strange?”

“It is admittedly more personal and practical than what I have seen thus far,” Lan Xichen admitted. “I confess that I am rather envious of my brother for having such poignant advice to improve his swordplay. It makes me feel as if I will left behind.”

“Oh? You are welcome to join if you have the time, or if your schedule would allow it, I will spar with you and give you points on which you may improve,” Wei Ming blinked at his surprised look. “Is the concept of my availability so surprising? You may not be my student but I will never turn down someone who wishes to learn from me. It is my philosophy to answer all questions, no matter how repetitive or seemingly foolish. Every question deserves some type of answer, and I will endeavor to provide one to the best of my ability.”

Lan Xichen made a thoughtful noise, “Uncle would argue that there are some questions that should be left unanswered.”

“A valid point,” Wei Ming acknowledged. “But clearly, there is an underestimation of two important factors to the world.”

Lan Xichen frowned as he thought, attempting to find an answer- but there were so numerous in number that it was difficult to find a singular one, much less two. “What factors?”

“Curiosity, and the unpredictability of the world,” Wei Ming surmised. “Circumstances can change in a blink of an instant- even if one has given up finding an answer, the situation may change radically enough where they will have no choice- in which case it is better to control your fall. Furthermore, do not underestimate curiosity- for it can kill as much as it can revive.”

Lan Xichen paused their silence filling the air as they continued to walk along the empty path around the Cloud Recesses, “Your mind amazes me Wei Ming.”

“It is the same as others,” Wei Ming deflected. “It simply holds more knowledge that most. It is why I am a teacher after all, and I am still merely a student, for I will never truly know all.”

Lan Xichen chuckled, “Indeed. Perhaps if you have time tomorrow we may discuss things over tea. I’ve been wondering what Mingjue has been complaining about for some time but it seems that he really was complaining about nothing.”

“All due respect Master Lan,” Wei Ming mused, head tilted and brows with the slightest hint of a smirk. “I am not the Head Disciple of Gusu Lan.”

[Log: File:Save_20-527.4.1102.log]

“So you got caught.”

“I got caught.” Wei Ying smiled sheepishly. “I really didn’t think Lan Zhan would draw his sword.”

“Oh, so it’s ‘Lan Zhan’ now is it didi?”

“We were both caught after curfew so we’re both punished,” Wei Ying shrugged, a tinge of pink on his cheeks. “I think- Lan Zhan gave himself punishment.”

“I see. Well, I assume you know what you did wrong and will be writing rules?”

“Yes Gēge.”

Wei Ming hummed to himself, silently noting the weariness that clung to his younger brother’s eyes.

He reached out to place a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder, smiling softly. “I’ll see you later.”

Wei Ying brightened significantly, “Un!”

[Log: File:Save_20-528.5.1115.log]

"Again." 

Strike. 

"Again." 

Jin Zixuan panted, his arms felt like dying- but that warning embedded in his demon-teacher-cousin's voice was enough to put the fear of gods into him as he summoned the strength and swung. 

"Hm." 

He suppressed a shiver at that sound.

"That's enough."

Jin Zixuan abruptly collapsed, legs shaking and arms feeling dead. 

"Stretch and practice twenty-five lunges, then you're done," Wei Ming tilted his head at him before offering a waterskin. "You will then write a paper on why it took an entire ten minutes to know where to point your sword against an armored opponent." 

Jin Zixuan nodded solemnly. 

"Good work today," Wei Ming continued softly, offering a smile. "You're making vast strides." 

Abruptly, Jin Zixuan thought he could feel the pain ebb a little as he couldn't help but beam, "Thank you Teacher Wei." 

Wei Ming nodded before linking his hands behind his back, hawk eyes training on the other disciples. 

The observing Lan seniors were equal parts horrified and awed as they watched Wei Ming have similar effects to disciples across his classroom, male or female. Noble blood or not. He pushed them until they broke, and slowly put them back together with nothing more than a few earnest words of encouragement. 

"Lan Wangji. Go through the obstacle course, your left foot nearly lost its grip on the third interchange. Again." 

"Jiang Wanyin, your sword seal wavered on that third flip. Again." 

"Nie Huaisang, aim more accurately. If you are to save a person from a fierce corpse it is advisable to do it without beheading them. Again." 

"Wei Wuxian, maintain your focus. If you slip for a second then a beast will chew on your leg faster than you can blink. Go through the course again and keep that blindfold on." 

All four boys let out a sound of confirmation 

"You've all done well so far but now you must push it until you think you're dying," Wei Ming's voice was firm throughout the courtyard. Rousing and deliberately nuanced to pick up his tired students. "And then push forward until you've squeezed every ounce of your will into this pursuit of improvement. You have all been placed in my class with the argument that you are the best your Sects have to offer. Do not allow anyone to prove you wrong, not even yourself. Forget perfection, that's not what we're after. We are after the best of your skills, the best of your wills, the best of your strengths, and the best of your minds. Perfection is an illusion that will never be attained, we are after the furthest you can reach, the highest level of you're individual abilities that you could possibly attain- and that very thing is within your ability if you could find it in yourself to grasp. To grasp the worst of yourself and drag it to the highest point you can, turn your weaknesses into strengths that no one could take advantage of." 

He watched in satisfaction as each student took on a newly determined look, brows furrowing and sweating, he kept a keen ear for steady heartbeats- for faltering breaths. He took every precaution to ensure that his students pushed themselves and made sure to halt them when they reached the precipice- the point for which doing any more would do more harm than good. 

"We are one day closer to that ideal." Wei Ming declared. "Now prove to me and yourself that you've the will to climb higher, and prove to me that you can come tomorrow to tackle the next day. We are going to run faster, climb higher, and fly longer. Today is the first we will sprint, tomorrow we will walk and reassess ourselves and act accordingly. We will make sure that our bodies are fit and our mines clear. On the third day, we will push past our limits yet again, and on the fourth day, we will assess ourselves yet again. Each time we push we will have reached for higher peaks. And each time we rest we will give our bodies a chance to recover and our minds a chance to understand what that new limit is. If we fall too early then we fall back to earth. There is no perfection; there is the only improvement and in order to achieve that improvement, we must know when to give ourselves time to rest. Know that I will tell you when to stop. Know that my purpose here is to catch you when you fall and bring you back to where you are to pursue another goal the next time. Trust in me and I will take you to that highest peak. Now again!" 

"Yes Teacher Wei!" 

[Log: File:Save_20-534.2.1306.log]

“Hm,” Wei Ming said with crossed arms as he looked down at the sheepish Wei Ying. “I somehow expected it to be sooner, you’ve held on longer than I would have initially predicted.”

Wei Ying pouted, “Why how long did you think it would take?”

“Three weeks.”

“Geeeeeeee.”

“Three weeks and then some days,” Wei Ming smirked as he leaned his head. “I assume you’re repenting.”

“Yes yes, this Wei Ying is reflecting on his actions,” Wei Ying nodded. “Don’t you have a class to teach Gēge?”

“It’s lunch time,” Wei Ming retorted. “However I do have an inquiry.”

“Uhuh?”

“You aren’t normally this sloppy,” Wei Ming leaned his weight on one side- tilting his head at his younger brother. “This is the seventh time you got caught and the ninth time you’ve been punished, Ying-er, is there something I need to know?”

Wei Ying pursed his lip.

A-Ying.”

“I think…Teacher Lan doesn’t really like me that much.”

Wei Ming straightened, a frown etched on his face. “What makes you say that?”

“Um,” Wei Ying glanced around. “It’s not as bad as you think.”

“A-Ying,” Ming Fan breathed slowly in an attempt to maintain calm- that familiar bubble of annoyance fueling the underside of his temper. “Whether it is bad or not, I will be the judge of it. What happened?”

“I had a question, it was about um…” Wei Ying glanced around. “Demonic…energy. Yin energy.”

Wei Ming nodded, motioning for Wei Ying to continue.

“He didn’t really like it- but it can be! A viable source of energy that is- I never said it was a good idea but it is an energy and it was more of a theory than not- Gēge, I promise I would never even touch the stuff, you already explained to me how dangerous it is for humans to try and cultivate yin energy- but…but the question I had- it’s just a theory that’s it. I don’t wanna stray from this nice wide plank, but…it’s a question and I just,“ Wei Ying made a distressed noise. “And I’m just curious but I wouldn’t actually try you know that right Gēge?”

Wei Ming forced his expression to maintain its softness, “A-Ying of course I know that, you’re too smart not to know risks and I trust you know how to control your own curiosity. If ever you happen to end up with demonic cultivation I know there’s some outside factor involve. You aren’t that frivolous, not with these matters.”

“Yeah! And- but,” Wei Ying sighed. “Everybody really acts like I would do it- even Huaisang and Jiang Cheng are telling me not to think about it anymore- but…it’s a question, and questions should at least be asked right? You taught me that, I never said I was gonna answer it- there’s ways to answer them without demonic cultivation but it’s just…frustrating I guess. And Teacher Lan threw a book at my head and punished me so I’m going to the library again this week.”

He resisted the urge to purse his lip in discontent, “Alright. Hey- how about later next week we go into town hm? I have some things I need to buy for class in two weeks, we can make it a day for us.”

“Yeah-….oh…” Wei Ying deflated, visibly raising his shoulders. “Um, I have punishment next week too.”

Wei Ming frowned, “Whatever for?”

“I helped Huaisang with homework, Teacher Lan said I helped him cheat since he got such a good score.”

Wei Ming breathed.

Nope, apparently, it wasn’t going to work this time.

“I’ll be back A-Ying.”

Wei Ying watched with wide eyes as Wei Ming stalked across the courtyard. Lan Wangji followed with wide eyes, hesitating between the two brothers before turning back to look for his Xiong-zhang.

Teacher Wei wasn’t a normally irate person, so finding that look of righteous anger was a jarring scene for someone who’s only been his student.

But Lan Xichen should know what to do.

-

“Mother fucker I thought I already fixed this shit,” Wei Ming seethed as he took a shortcut behind a building to the quarters where he knew for a damn fact where Lan Qiren would be, as well as some of the other Lan elders. But Lan Qiren’s face could go drop into hell for all he cared, the Wei Ying he raised never helped other’s cheat- he only made it so people would understand and memorize information more easily. Perhaps- in another life he would just be handing Nie Huaisang answers in the middle of an exam- but that life wasn’t this one.

So focused was he in his seething anger that he nearly found himself posthumously slapping his arm into a branch in his way, reactively blocking it which had accidentally caused him to force his grip more than he accounted for.  

And promptly snapping that tree into a house.

He blinked.

And sighed, “Oh for the love of everything.”

Wearily, he looked to the house- the tip of the branch puncturing the inside. It wasn’t that big of a hole but he should at least check if there are inhabitants.

He approached the door, splaying his hand across the surface, “Pardon this one, this Wei Ming accidentally caused a branch to fall into Master’s home. May this one know if the owner of the home is alright?”

A startled voice came through, rough and seemingly unused but for some reason familiar, “Y-You caused an entire branch to fall?”

Wei Ming reddened but sighed, “This one was not in control of his emotions at the time, there is a rather stubborn individual this Wei Ming is currently internally quarrelling with due to obstinate behavior. This one apologizes for his actions- may this one see if there are substantial damages inside?”

“Oh- um there’s no need, ah- but if you could ask one of the maids to send a bandage this way-?”

“Bandage? This Wei Míng apologizes for his rudeness but he is going to enter master’s home.” Ming Fan hurriedly shifted to open the door and let himself in in his alarm.

The room onside was lit only by candlelight as he walked in, standing tall and casting his eyes over the area before he came across a man…

Who looked remarkably like Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji!?

“Oh.” He blinked. “You.”

The man blinked in return. “Ah- yes?”

“This one knows you as Qingheng-jun,” Wei Ming said with a twisted lip. “How would this one greet you if one is to use another name?”

“A-ahm,” The self-isolated mysterious Sect Leader of Gusu Lan seemed to experience a bit of a delay in comprehension as the image of this young man clashed with the impression of an elder cultivator in Qingheng-jun’s mind. Although he had been previously acclaimed as a powerful cultivator, he couldn’t help but feel as if he were merely a junior disciple who had just garnered the ire of his elder shixiong.

Wei Ming rose a brow, and even in the darkness, Qingheng-jun with his sizable level of cultivation could see it just fine.

“T-This one is named Lan Xinyi.”

Wei Ming seized the taller man’s arm with a firm grip made of the strongest and most learned of discipline- already setting himself up for a sleepless night filled with firm listening and even firmer talking.

“Greeting Sect Leader Lan, this one is named Wei Fan: courtesy name Wei Ming. This one will now take Master Lan to see his brother for a well past due discussion on the matter of grief, coping, and the appropriate ways of which to properly absorb and interpret guilt and emotions when in the presence of individuals who are able to lend an ear.” He practically dragged the man up with him as he made his way to the door- the other man too shocked about the strength in this young man’s arm to react to his words made deliberately complicated to further delay a resisting reaction. Furthermore, was he being a hypocrite? Technically yes but also technically no. He was Wei Ming but a majority of his issues came from being Ming Fan- and as much as he would like to set his nearly 41 year-old guilt trip of being a terrible human in the first two decades of his life in the form of discussion with adults who would be able to help him straighten said issues, he would also like to point out that he would have to explain the fact that he was Ming Fan before diving into said issues.  

Gods he missed Mu Qingfang, he hoped that man was living a good life in the Heavenly Realm; he deserved it. Seriously. Therapy. Everyone should be able to get some, he fucking missed having therapy as an option. “This Wei Ming will not take any protests at this time.”

Chapter Text

21. [Log: File:Save_20-534.2.1130.log]


Ming Fan breathed slowly. Through his nose, in increments of lasting seconds in a vain attempt to reign in his emotions.

He could do this. He was the oldest person in the room- just – talking. It was a thing he could do- spread thy earthly wisdom and all that stuff. It wasn’t that different from teaching, he could do this without needing to wring anyone’s neck and shake them hard enough for their brains to spontaneously regrow from sheer necessity. Calm.

Gods, he missed Mu Qingfang.

“This Wei Ming imagines that neither Master Lan nor Sect Leader Lan can guess for what reason this one has gathered them,” He said diplomatically- all the diplomacy- all thirty or so odd years of experience of it. He is calm. “Worry, not this one will state in no uncertain terms the reason for this meeting.”

He breathed.

Calm.

“Over the past few weeks since coming to the Cloud Recesses, Wei Wuxian has experienced a grand total of a total of nine times.” He held up a hand to silence Lan Qiren. “Seven of those occurrences were of his own doing, a result of Lan Wangji having caught him in various instances of being out past curfew and attempting to smuggle in alcohol. I know my brother, I understand that these are crimes for which he is guilty of.”

His preferred sword hand tapped against the table rhythmically, poignant as the delicately shaped nail tapped the surface offbeat.

Calm.

“However- it has come to my attention that one of those instances were on the assumption of attempted violation of academic integrity- for which is the one thing I know for a fact he would never do,” Wei Ming said smoothly- barely refraining from adding a snarling tilt to his voice, a hardened stare pointed straight and Lan Qiren as he continued. “For the following facts:”

“One,” Wei Ming said pointedly. “I raised Wei Ying from a young age to appreciate Academic Honesty. He is my oldest student, I have taught him everything from talisman basics to reading and writing. He knows that academic dishonesty benefits no one as it simply misinforms both the teacher and the student of their current progress. I have instilled this heavily because it is valuable for anyone who is a cultivator to know their capabilities and more importantly, their limits.”

“Second,” Wei Ming continued. “Wei Ying is a genius. State what you wish of his disposition, he does not require cheating in order to pass. The boy has the makings of workaholic tendencies that I believe can be attributed to his instances of very singular and near obsessive focus on topics that interest him- I know this because I’ve had to pull him from his researches to eat in multiple occurrences prior to this. The fact that he is on par with Lan Wangji is no accident- he can and has forgone studying and still managed to drag a perfect score with nothing but his logical progression of thinking and his intellect.”

“Third, of all the people he could help cheat- Nie Huaisang is the last person who would receive that sort of help,” He said pointedly. Nail tapping becoming harder and harsher on the table as he spoke. “Nie Huaisang and he have the mutual understanding that he would never help him cheat. From a young age Nie Huaisang has been resistant to his lessons due to a personal matter that is privy to only those of Qinghe Nie. It is based on this understanding that Wei Ying has always encouraged Nie Huaisang to either ask for help prior to exams and tests or simply quit. There is no in-between, and Nie Huaisang knows this. It is only Nie Huaisang’s fear of me that he continues to do so anyway for the sheer fact that he understands that I would be disappointed by the decision.”

“So imagine my surprise when I hear that not only have you punished Wei Wuxian for something as inane as helping Nie Huaisang with homework-“ He ground his teeth, deliberately keeping his tone pleasant. “But that you have been doing this sort of ridiculous nitpicking for a better part of an entire month of having been here.”

Lan Qiren pursed his lip, saying nothing.

“Which brings me to this singular conclusion,” Ming Fan declared. “And thus why we are gathered here today.”

He nodded in Lan Qiren’s direction, “It is based off of my observations that you, Lan Qiren, are still caught up in the past. Wei Wuxian has grown to be more like Cangse Sanren in personality than any of us could have predicted. I do not begrudge him of it, and I do not let him use it as an excuse. His actions are his own, and I punish him thusly for instances where he deserves it. However, this applies to both my colleagues, my students, and my seniors. There are no children here- and the only people who would qualify for anything near the definition are the students. So we are going to handle this like adults.”

“And the first step for that is for you two to actually talk to each other,” Wei Ming stopped his nail tapping. “Lan Qiren, you first.”

The man visibly faltered- glancing between his brother and Ming Fan disguised as a mere twenty-year-old. Looking less like the dignified teacher and more like what he was- the man saddled with too many responsibilities without his say.

Which is exactly why he needed to do this.

Wei Ming pointedly looked at Lan Xinyi before glancing back at Lan Qiren.

And so began the long-overdue Lan Family Therapy Conference, with your host: Ming Fan currently going under the name of Wei Ming.

Internally he sighed and sent his thanks and appreciation for Mu Qingfang.

“I…”

Harder than I think, Wei Ming sighed to himself. “Alright, perhaps I can guide your way. One, you have entirely too many responsibilities.”

Lan Qiren blinked.

“Lan Xichen has barely turned twenty-one years,” Wei Ming pointed out. “You are a teacher, and on top of that, you have taken on the duties that would have otherwise fallen on the Sect Leader. You have too many responsibilities than what you were prepared for.”

Still quiet.

Wei Ming sighed, “For the love of the gods Lan Qiren- it’s unfair. You never were initially expected to take on as many responsibilities as you have. Then suddenly you’re expected to act as the pseudo-Sect Leader on top of being a teacher and a father figure? Aren’t you angry? Aren’t you frustrated? For now- set aside the rules that ask you to be filial to your family, set aside the rules asking you to set aside your frustration. You’re projecting in ways that you yourself have not even begun to fully understand. Think of yourself man, do you really think you’re really the type of person to so pettily accuse a student of academic dishonesty just because you hold a grudge against his mother for a shaved beard? It goes beyond the realm of understanding for someone of your character, it does not make sense. Perhaps- in a world where Wei Wuxian was far more akin to his mother, this would make sense, but we live in this world and Wei Wuxian isn’t the type to prank people in this way. He messes with clothes, he steals things, he moves things to the right by a few inches and watches and laughs as you bump into everything. The only way you’re getting your beard shaven is if you somehow offend him- and so far? He thinks he angered your some reason and that’s why you were punishing him more than what makes sense.”

Lan Xinyi turned slowly to his brother, “Qiren? Is this true?”

“I…”

Lan Xinyi’s expression fell, “Qiren…”

“You left me,” Lan Qiren said finally. “You fell for that woman- and I understand, gods Xiong-Zhang- I do. But- but you left everything to us for her! She killed master- and perhaps he wasn’t the best of people but she committed murder and you left us for him! You left me.”

“…I-“

“And you needed your time to grieve, I too understand this but- even as she stayed for Xichen and Wangji, you never gave your time to them. She did. She who committed murder, she who married you despite her misgivings, she gave me and her sons more of her time than you ever did in isolation. I understand your need to repent but did you have to shut your sons out? Did you have to shut me out?”

Wei Ming watched as Lan Qiren visibly de-aged, although cultivation allowed him to keep his youth, behind the beard and the furrowed brow was a person who was forced to grow up too fast. Who was plopped into a position of power and couldn’t do anything save double down and get work done. It was pitiful in way; specifically pitiful in a way that was familiar though he did not know the exact feeling.

“When she died, they were supposed to have you left too. They’re your children, Yi-ge, I’m just their Uncle.” Lan Qiren’s breath shuddered. “For the longest time I tried to make sure they were nothing like you, I drove the Lan Sect rules into them and they met my challenge head-on. I- I thought it was a good thing but-“

The man let out a breath, heavy and full of emotions Wei Ming could only guess, “I have never seen Wangji so happy than during the times that Wuxian is with him. He’s…he has friends. He spars with the Jiang heir, he occasionally aids the other disciples. He’s…Xichen- he’s better about himself. He doesn’t internalize things anymore, he sits me down to talk when there is something he doesn’t agree with. And it wasn’t my doing but him-“

Lan Qiren pointed at Wei Ming, “This- this meddler who had no business getting into our family matters- He’s at least decades younger and somehow he’s the smartest man in the room.”

Well. In a certain perspective; technically. Oh those were tears- ah well, it wasn’t as if he was terrorizing anyone was he?

“They’ve already moved on from her death, from their mother’s death. It’s been only a handful of years and they’re already living their lives,” Lan Qiren starred at his brother. “Isn’t it time you too moved on, brother?”

Wei Ming shifted his gaze to Lan Xinyi.

“It’s been so long,” Lan Xinyi whispered under breath. “Do you all even still need me anymore?”

“All due respect Xiong-zhang,” Lan Qiren grumbled. “That isn’t your damn decision to make.”

Lan Xinyi laughed, watery before throwing himself at Lan Qiren.

Wei Ming sighed.

Two melodies entered his mind, that familiar guqin chord and the distinct sound of Lan Xichen’s preferred instrument resounded in his ears.

“Pardon me,” He said quietly, standing up to walk and open the door.

Opening the door to Lan Xichen, Wei Ming gave a sheepish smile as he greeted the two brothers.

“Teacher Ming,” Lan Wangji greeted, glancing uncertainly when Wei Ming hadn’t yet moved back to allow them inside their uncle’s home a little ways away from the rest of the lands.

Lan Xichen smiled, a hint of uncertainty hidden behind his eyes, “Is something wrong Wei Ming?”

“Ah well,” Ming Fan swallowed, clearing his throat. “Your uncle is inside.”

Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji perked up slightly, concluding that perhaps Wei Ming hadn’t quite ripped their uncle into pieces.

“-as is your sire.”

Lan Xichen blinked.

“Father….” Lan Wangji trailed off, expression visibly at a loss despite the usual minimal expressions Lan Wangji usually made. “He is…inside?”

Wei Ming nodded, at last stepping aside, “Come in. I’m sure you have quite a few things to say.”

“…All due respect Wei Er-ge,” Lan Xichen breathed. “That’s an understatement.”

Lan Xichen was the first one to breach the entryway.

“I wanna go home,” Wei Ming muttered to himself before turning around anyway. Somebody had to keep the talks going and it might as well be him he supposed. Gods- what was he now? Fifty-seven? Why did he already feel like he was already past his hundreds? Wasn’t that too unfair?

“Alright- round two,” He shook himself before turning around to follow the two brothers.

[Log: File:Save_20-534.2.1402.log]

Wei Ming wanted to crawl into a cave and meditate for a couple hundred years. It was either that or slap his past self as he sat in the middle of a very awkward family meeting that, by technicality, he wasn’t really supposed to be a part of. Yet here he is being a responsible adult.

He hated being a responsible adult. He missed the days of his youth where he could just foist the role on other people.

Even with tea, the atmosphere held heavy awkwardness as Lan Wangji, Lan Xichen, Lan Qiren, and Lan Xinyi all sat together in the building of which Qingheng-jun had secluded himself. It was made more awkward by the fact that the four relatives had sat in silence with Ming Fan, to them- Wei Ming, being the only person even drinking the damn tea.

He really should have steeped it for longer, he needed to get through this mess somehow, and the bitter tea might have been able to get him through the first few hours of part two at least. Part one was already exhausting.

“Xichen,” He said quietly, for once, dropping the normal airs of formality that he would have normally used out of respect, he wasn’t alone with the man but still- it wasn’t as if he wasn’t already trampling on proper mannerisms here. It was either let the awful silence continue or do something about it, and he’d actually really would like to spend time with his brother for some bonding and Wei Ying Smile Therapy before he goes and losses his shit and reveal himself as Ming Fan just to get everyone in line. “Is there not something you would like to speak of to your uncle and father?”

Lan Xichen swallowed visibly as attention veered towards him, which was never easy but Xichen was the complicated one between the twin jades. Lan Wangji was more honest about his feelings but in between the rules and the sheltering, the boy had yet to experience the more complicated ones. So Lan Xichen it was.

“Why,” Lan Xichen said, voice brittle. “Why have you come out now father?” Why not before?

Lan Xinyi took a fortifying breath, looking to Wei Ming (who internally sighed at the motion) for support before speaking firmly, “I’m afraid I was given a firm ‘push’, as it were- by Master Wei to…deal with the issues I have wrought upon you Xichen, Wangji. As well as you brother. And…and you deserve to know what happened, the both of you- so if you…if you do not mind being in this Xinyi’s presence, he will tell you of the day I met your mother.”

Lan Xichen blinked at that, and Wei Ming took that surprise to gently motion for Lan Xinyi to continue.

“Because of the situation you and Wangji had found yourselves in, I couldn’t help but feel guilty due to my part in it.” Lan Xinyi licked his lips and placed his hands on the edge of the table. Gripping it slightly. Lan Qiren, seemingly having had the time to quickly put himself back together, sat straight nearby. “I feared that because I was not there for your mother, because I was not there for the two of you when she passed- that you resented me. Or more accurately, I believed I no longer had a place in your lives because of what I had done.”

“Your mother,” Lan Xinyi broke a little to take a deep breath. “Li Jingan was…kind, and wild in a way that I had never seen before in my life. She attracted me instantly, at first I was…appalled. By her- that she would do such shameless acts, but slowly- as time moved on, she was…magnetic. I could not stay away no matter how much the Lan Sect Rules had said to.”

“But there was…an incident- no, it was- it was something very unforgivable that I cannot possibly describe in a single word. I had not known it at the time, but she had also been targeted by many- one of which was one of the Lan Elders. My teacher,” Xinyi breathed shakily. “She killed him in defense, but many accused her of murder- not only because of the fact that she was well known for being flirtatious, but also because she was not of any family of notoriety.”

“I- she was going to be put to death for her accused murder,” Xinyi shook, and Wei Ming took that moment to grip the older man’s shoulder to ground him to the present. “I tried to stop them, but I hadn’t known the full story until later and by then- it was already too late to fix what I had done.”

“I-I,” Xinyi’s voice cracked, lowering his head. “I’m sorry I…”

Wei Ming cleared his throat, “I…I can continue the story if you find that it is too difficult to retell it yourself.”

Qiren’s attention snapped from his brother to the older Wei in surprise. There were very little people who truly knew the story of what had happened. Not even Lan Qiren himself knew the full story, only that Li Jingan was guilty of murder, the Lan Elders had refused to explain anything else and what’s more, many false stories came to be with the scandal. Lan Qiren could only assume that his brother’s reckless pursuit had caused the issues, and thus…a sort of resentment formed. Not at Xichen and Wangji never them- but of the situation that brought his brother such grief. Thus…this…this mess.

“How do you know what happened?”

Wei Ming sighed lifting to sip his tea before setting it down, “The issue with this gen- with this generation- with these people in power I mean- you have no idea how to drag out information when your reputations don’t do it for you.”

Ming Fan grimaced at his near slip, he really needed to relax some soon, “What this one means is: information exists in places where one might believe it would never be found. And your weaknesses, you Lans, is that you so prolific and so noble-

Wei Ming paused to sigh, “-that you would never think that the people with the most trustworthy information would be the people this society views as the very bottom.”

“What do you-“

“I mean whores Lan Qiren,” Wei Ming said bluntly. “I mean people you pay money to bed or pay money to have company. I mean the street rats, the people others look down on because of some demented sense of superiority when they’re really just the same people. People trying to survive this world. In this world and many others no doubt, it is the bottom of the barrel that holds the most information. It’s the beggars and the sex workers and the orphans and the urchins.”

Ming Fan leaned back closing his eyes and ignoring the various gazes of shock and some other emotions he didn’t care about, “There is a rule in brothels. And that rule is- money pays for service, but it does not pay for silence. Silence is the payment of friendship.”

“And before you would make some inane assumption of my knowledge of such things,” Ming Fan snapped, opening his eyes to stare daggers into Lan Qiren’s barely opening mouth. “This Wei Ming would remind Teacher Lan that he has four more years of living Sect-less on the road than Teacher Lan. Wei Ying and myself have spent more welcoming nights under the care of elder sisters and kind matrons than we have in the cities where the so-called righteous dwell, so you would do well to refrain from questioning the authenticity of this one’s knowledge based on reputation alone.” And I’m the fucking oldest human here so shut it brat.

Lan Qiren sealed his mouth shut, looking all the world like a scolded youth.

Lan Xinyi, although slumped where he was seated, smiled at Wei Ming, “I’ll take responsibility for this- it’s…it’s something I have to do. But please, correct me if I’m wrong?”

Wei Ming tilted his head forward in acknowledgment before returning to his tea.

“With your mother’s death a very clear possibility for her crimes, I came to the conclusion that the only way to spare her life was to do two things.” Lan Xinyi’s voice shook slightly, leaving Wei Ming to carefully watch the two youngest in the room. “Marry her, and for her to bear the next sect heir.”

“It was stupid,” Lan Xinyi continued, visibly swallowing past a lump in his throat. “It was beyond stupid, but at the time I couldn’t come up with any other reason to keep the Elders from putting your mother to justice- to death. Then I locked myself away- I- I am not proud of what I did to your mother, and to you both, and Qiren- but I- I just…”

Lan Xinyi shuddered, “When your mother confirmed she was with Xichen- I was r