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Blame Absent (but alive) Parents

Chapter Text

The first time Nie Mingjue met Lan Xichen, he was six. After trekking up the smooth cold mountain steps, Nie Mingjue and Sect Leader Nie arrived at the elegant wooden gate marking the entrance to the Gusu Lan Sect. As they approached, the mist cleared, a young man with dubious facial hair appeared.

“Sect Leader Nie. You are late,” he clipped, rising from a low bow. “Was the journey unfortunate?”

Sect Leader Nie smiled his usual crooked smile before bowing himself. “Apologies, Second Master Lan. The journey was pleasant, just delayed. My wife-”

“Which one?” Lan Qiren interjected, head tipped up a little. His father’s smile hardened but didn’t fall.

“Madame Nie Fang, Mistress of Arts as opposed to Madame Nie Lei, Mistress of Sabers. She is five months pregnant with my second born and was unhappy that Mingjue would be coming with me – they are quite attached.”

Nie Mingjue blushed. Mama Fang had thrown an incense burner at his father when he announced that he would be taking their son with him, crying that she wanted all her babies and how dare, very dare he take him away from her at this time and that the separation would be too much; he remembers watching his father run for cover behind stone pillars and statues while Mama Lei tried to hold in laughter.

“I wish her a safe pregnancy and birth,” Second Master Lan bowed again before turning, “now if you would follow me-”

As Second Master Lan made small talk with his father, ranging from vague opinions on sect politics to what they were to expect at the summit, Nie Mingjue looked around with child-like curiosity. The mountains were covered with wind-twisted trees growing up between moss covered split stone, glittering waterfalls and sparkling streams. Quiet, sun-dappled pavilions hid in the shadows cast by the mountain walls, silent white-clad disciples gliding throughout the compound. Nothing like Qinghe, insulated with iron walls, the scraping of sabers accentuating the chesty cries and shouts of training students.

He stopped in his tracks as his gaze centred on a small circular pergola situated next to a whispering stream. Sat serenely at the desk was a boy, quietly drawing while a small baby, attended by an old woman, was reaching for the bunnies dangling from a mobile. But the boy! Something about him just caught his breath, the way he gently shifted his head a tad when reaching for some ink, causing the gem hanging from his pristine forehead ribbon to catch the sun. Like a divine child, glowing with purity.

“Mingjue?” His father and Second Master Lan looked at him with concern before following his gaze to the pergola.

Second Master Lan clicked his tongue and tucked his hand behind his back with a flourish of sleeve as he descended the steps down to the clearing. “Xichen, come. Leave Wangji to Nanny Jun.” The boy placed aside his writing before rising and joining the small party on the mountain path. On closer inspection, Nie Mingjue thought, this is not a child but a toddler. The most mature toddler he had ever seen.

“Unca Qiren,” the boy greeted and bowed. He turned towards father and son and hesitated, looking up at his uncle, then bowed gingerly.

“This is Sect Leader Nie and Young Master Nie, Xichen. They will be staying with us at the Elders’ request.” Lan Qiren’s face twisted into a grimace as he said ‘Elders’, his hand tightening on his nephew’s shoulder. “Come.”

Lan Xichen nodded, but only after stealing a small glance to where his baby brother lay, Nanny Jun now swaddling him in the blankets and carrying him off to the nursery. He bowed to Nie Mingjue again. “Lan Huan, courtethy name Lan Thichen.” Nie Mingjue blushed. This kid was adorable.

Sect Leader Nie knelt down to Lan Xichen. “How old are you, Young Master Lan?”

Lan Xichen, shy from being addressed by an unknown adult, clutched to his uncle’s robes. “…three, Thect Leader Nie…” Lan Qiren placed a hand on his head, probably about to lightly scold his nephew for his shyness before Sect Leader Nie chuckled.

“You’re very mature! I wouldn’t have thought you were three years younger than Mingjue – what a fine young man, Second Master Lan, he will surely be the pride of your sect.” Lan Qiren lips turned up ever so slightly at the edges for a second before returning to his usual neutral look. 

Nie Mingjue understood the message in that; ‘this boy will be your greatest ally and friend – take notes’. “Mingjue, why don’t you and First Young Master Lan go and play. We’ll be done soon, I’m sure we’ll reach an agreement quickly.” Sect Leader Nie gave another tight-lipped smile to Lan Qiren.

After sitting in silence for a couple of minutes under the pergola, Nie Mingjue decided to try to talk to Lan Xichen. “So… what do you do for fun? Play swords? Shuttlecock? Hide and Seek?”

Lan Xichen looked at him a little confused before thinking. “Play with A-Than… lithen to the ruleth and Uncle… oh, drawing!” It was now Nie Mingjue’s turn to look confused. He knew the basics, that Gusu Lan embodied discipline and self-control, but not that they didn’t let their children have fun! His new friend seemed to read his thoughts. “It ith againtht the ruleth to make noithe, to thow ek-the-thif ee-mo-thun, emo-thun and to run.”

Nie Mingjue thought over this. “Hide and Seek, then.”

-

As Sect Leader Nie and Lan Qiren exited the meeting chamber, Sect Leader Nie more relieved while Lan Qiren looked positively harrowed, they came upon the sight of Lan Xichen crouching behind a large boulder in the courtyard while Nie Mingjue pretended not to see him, even standing with his back turned to Lan Xichen and asking his father whether he had seen the other boy. As Sect Leader Nie joined in the hunt for the First Young Master Lan, Lan Qiren had not moved. Instead he stared at his nephew who was giggling and smiling! Giggling and smiling at someone who was not his mother. It looks like his brother would receive a nice report today.

The second day, Nie Mingjue met Second Young Master Lan. He’d been inside the Qinghe Nie Sect nursery, other than when he was a baby himself, but Nie Mingjue was sure that he’d never seen such a deadpan baby in his life. No expression. Nothing. But Lan Xichen just gushed and gushed and gushed over his baby brother, about how his A-Than was very happy to meet him (he had a feeling the child’s name was actually A-Zhan and how his new friend could tell whether A-Zhan was feeling anything was a mystery to him) and about whether Nie Mingjue would like to hold him.

“Oh, I-” Nie Mingjue stammered, suddenly bashful, “I don’t know how.

Lan Xichen giggled, Nie Mingjue’s cheeks heating up. “I’ll thow you. Hold your armth out…like…that!” Lan Xichen lifted A-Zhan into Nie Mingjue arms. “Uncle thaid to thupport hith head and to be gentle.”

Nie Mingjue looked down at the baby in his arms, then over to Lan Xichen who just looked absolutely delighted. “Ithn’t A-Than the cutetht?” He squealed as the baby grabbed a lock of Nie Mingjue’s hair, pulling slightly.   

“He is cute.” Lan Xichen’s face lit up even more. “But not for long.” Now he looked scandalised. “As my new sibling will be born soon, and they will be the cutest.”

Lan Xichen did not look happy. “No!” He grabbed his little brother. “A-Than will alwayth be the cutetht. Alwayth!” He shuffled away, seemingly trying to shield his baby brother from the unbeliever. “Don’t lithen to A-Jue, A-Than, he’th a fool.

“I won’t be when you see my sibling when they’re born.”

“A fool, A-Than, a fool. A Thameleth fool.”

“A-Huan!”

-

Just a month later, three months earlier than expected, A-Zhan’s competition was born. His father and mothers would be inside Mama Fang’s chamber for hours at a time with the doctors, only coming out to wash and change clothes. After one week, his father emerged for longer to talk to him.

“Mingjue, your brother was born a little early. He’s very small and very delicate but if you want to, you can see him,” his father said, leading him towards the room, “Do you want to?”

Nie Mingjue fervently nodded and was fizzing from head to toe as his father slid open the bedroom door. The doctor was resting in the chair, Mama Lei was cradling her smaller exhausted wife on the day bed. Both weakly smiled at Mingjue, beckoning him over to pet and kiss him. After his father kissed his wives, he led him behind a screen covering one of the room’s small alcoves.

On a small bundle of blankets quietly lay a tiny baby being attended to by another doctor. Even though he was told what to expect, Nie Mingjue was still shocked about how small his baby brother was compared to A-Zhan; he could fit in his father’s hand! The doctor glanced their way before returning their full attention to the babe.

Nie Mingjue approached a little closer and outstretched one of his fingers, closing his eyes, hand trembling. As a little papery hand grasped onto it, he opened them. A-Sang’s mouth was opened in a little ‘O’ shape, making cute baby noises and waving his thin limbs. Nie Mingjue could feel his father’s grip tighten on his shoulder.

“I’m your big brother, A-Sang,” Nie Mingjue whispered, feeling tears pool, “I’m not going to let anyone hurt you.”

Two months after his new friend’s visit, Lan Xichen received a declaration of war from him. It read: ‘My brother is cuter than yours.’

Chapter Text

The first time Nie Mingjue saw Lan Xichen cry, he was ten. Two small white-clad figures had stepped out of a carriage pulled up at the entrance with Nanny Jun in tow and were walking toward Madame Fang. Nie Mingjue chucked his sabre over his shoulders and ran towards the small party.

“Mingjue! Don’t just run off from – and he’s gone.” Madame Lei pinched the bridge of her nose. “So impulsive.”

Her husband appeared behind her. “Let him be. This is Xichen we’re talking about; they got rather close during our visits and they’ve been sending letters since.”

“Letters on how cute their respective younger brothers are. It has proven that Xichen is blind.”

Sect Leader Nie laughed. “I see where our son got it from.”

Madame Lei elbowed him hard in the side and strode off between the training disciples. She moved her gaze to their wife. “At least we have someone who is able to handle… delicate things. And their mother’s death has broken their hearts. Mingjue is not the most tactful.”

“I’m counting on it,” Sect Leader Nie said, correcting a disciple’s posture as he followed his wife’s patrol, “those boys have probably been surrounded by pity givers or truth sugar coaters; either way the memory of the death has surrounded them. I think Mingjue’s brashness will be refreshing for them. I’ve seen their letters; Mingjue is the closest person to those two brothers.”

“Speaking of their closeness, dear, when are you going to tell them?”

-

“A-Huan! A-Huan!” Mingjue called as he ran over, pulling up his robes which previously hung at his waist and brushing back his hair. “It’s not summer yet! Miss me too much?” Madame Fang, balancing three-year-old A-Sang on her hip, a fan hanging from her free hand, glided over to her eldest son and elegantly but quickly created a screen using her sleeve. As she turned to whisper to Nie Mingjue, Lan Xichen put a small, pale hand on her arm and gently pushed it down.

“Our mother died, A-Jue,” Lan Xichen stated, voice hoarse and broken from holding in sobs. His hand holding his brother was trembling, gripping tighter and tighter before he looked away, pulling at his eyes. Lan Wangji looked more despondent than usual, hiding in his older brother’s robes. “I am sorry for my rudeness, but Wangji and I are very tired. Would-” Lan Xichen recomposed himself. “Would it be possible for us to retire early?”

“Of course, of course. I’ll wake you for dinner – remember, our home is your home.” Madame Fang handed A-Sang to Nie Mingjue before shuffling both boys inside, giving her eldest a quick sympathetic look.

A-Sang squished his shellshocked brother’s cheeks between his two small hands, giggling away as if he didn’t hear the whole conversation. To think Xichen taught him how to hold a baby at this age.

“Da-ge smelly!”

“Da-ge smelly.”

-

As the warm bath water soothed his muscles and washed the sweat from his skin, Nie Mingjue couldn’t get his mind of Lan Xichen. He’d never seen him look so dead behind the eyes, never seen him so pale and never seen him tremble so much. So sad. All his memories of Lan Xichen were of a smiling, hope-full boy embraced by the sun filtering through the trees, feet dangling in crystal clear water, fingers delicately creating different notes on his xiao. Sneaking him extra rice during meals, wiping his little brother’s mouth during dinner, kicking a shuttlecock up again and again into the air.

A high-pitched giggle brought him out of his thoughts. He brought his head down to look at his little brother who had his back turned to him and was collecting his wooden ducks between his arms, grabbing the occasional escapee.

“A-Sang,” he mock growled, “what are you doing?”

His little brother wiggled before spinning around and catapulting his ducks through the water at him. “Attack!” he squealed, “My army of ducks!”

Nie Mingjue made a face of shock. “Betrayed by my own brother! But! I counterattack!” he cried, grabbing the nearest duck and mock eating then sinking it into the water. “Nom, nom, nom.”

But as Nie Mingjue was busy devouring Nie Huaisang’s duck army, Nie Huaisang was launching yet another attack. He had swum behind his brother and jumped on his back. “Counter-counterattack!”

Nie Mingjue smirked and waded to the other side of the bath, making sure there was enough space behind him. “Nice try next time!”

“Wha-” And Nie Mingjue launched himself backwards, dunking both him and Nie Huaisang. He grabbed his brother as he rose for air, not repeating an earlier mistake of half-drowning him while celebrating his victorious win.

Madame Lei knocked on the door. “Boys, dinner, five minutes! I hope you’re dressed!”

“Shit.”

“Shit?”

“Don’t repeat that.”

“Mama! Shit!”

“Mingjue!”

-

As the Nie brothers entered the dining hall, the Lan brothers were already seated, quietly sipping tea. Their mothers sat to either die of their father, who gave them a look for being late but was still grinning. Nie Mingjue got Nie Huaisang seated, set his napkin up, poured his drink and set his spoon in his rice, before taking his seat.

“Sorry for being late. A-Sang launched a surprise attack in the bath,” Nie Mingjue said, blushing a little.

His father’s smile spread wider. “I heard you taught him a new word too.” Nie Mingjue’s cheeks burnt, eyes flicking to Lan Xichen who… didn’t seem like he was listening, instead just staring into his tea blankly.

Dinner was an unfruitful affair. Lan Wangji said nothing, and Lan Xichen answered with simple sentences, a ‘yes’, a ‘no’, a ‘thank you for having us, Sect Leader Nie’, an ‘Uncle’s health is well, Madame Lei’, a ‘Wangji and I are not fussy, Madame Fang, we will eat anything’. The rest of the meal was filled with general, jovial chatter generated by Sect Leader Nie to raise the mood, asking about Nie Mingjue’s day, the details of Nie Huaisang’s surprise attack and ‘oh, his strategy is improving, is it? I wonder where he learnt the art of deception from, Madame Fang?’

What Nie Mingjue did notice was that while Lan Xichen raised his chopsticks, they didn’t always hold food. It seemed he was more preoccupied with getting Wangji to eat. “A-Huan, are you not hungry?” he said, interrupting Madame Fang’s idle chatter about a new fan in her collection. All eyes turned to Lan Xichen and his full bowl of rice and vegetables.

He choked on his breath, face flushing and turned to Lan Wangji, who just tilted his head, face still blank. “Oh, I-I, sorry, the food is lovely,”

“It doesn’t appear you have eaten enough to know, Xichen,” Madame Lei stated.

“Xichen, darling, are you feeling okay? Do you feel unwell?” Madame Fang said, shooting a cold glare to her wife of ‘that was way too direct’. She knelt next to him and stroked his hair. “Do you want to go to bed? We can send over a nice snack.”

“O-oh, no, I-”

“Come on sweetheart, let’s get you some rest.” They were stopped by Wangji suddenly clutching onto his brother’s robes. “You too, A-Zhan?” Madame Fang took Lan Xichen in one hand and Lan Wangji in the other, quickly whispering something to her husband before leading them off.

As they disappeared out of view, Sect Leader Nie whispered to Madame Lei. She got up abruptly and lifted Huaisang.

“Come on, monster, bedtime.”

“No sweets?”

“No sweets.”

“Maybe one? Mama, maybe one?”

“Maybe one.”

“I love mama. Favourite mama,” Nie Huaisang whispered the last part.

“I feel like that is a temporary decree,” Madame Lei said as she carried him off. Towards the kitchens.

As soon as they were alone, Sect Leader Nie turned to his eldest son. “Mingjue, as I am sure you have noticed, Xichen and Wangji are in particularly delicate states.”

“I know. Their mother died.”

“So just be careful about putting them in the centre of attention or making them embarrassed.”

“I was just worried! If he doesn’t eat, then-”

“I know, I know, but next time come and whisper in one of our ears or tell us afterwards. Your mothers and I have seen grief before, have experienced it. We can help them with that. We just need you to try to make him smile, distract him from his mother. Be yourself, actually.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You make Xichen happy, and by extension, Wangji,” Sect Leader Nie said, clapping Nie Mingjue on the shoulder. “They’re here to distract them from their mother, father, uncle, sect, everything. They’re here to be kids. Just for a month or two. Now go to the kitchen and bring them a snack.”

-

Nie Mingjue slid open the door of Lan Xichen’s room. In previous years, they had always shared a room, leaving Nie Huaisang to share his room with Lan Wangji, but this year, his parents had decided that they needed their own space to escape to. And now he knew why.

“A-Huan?” he called, lighting a new lamp and placing the incense holder to one side as he set down the tray. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, they fell upon a bundle of blankets on the bed. “A-Huan? I’ve got snacks and tea?” No movement.

Nie Mingjue went and sat on the bed, removing his shoes before finding an opening in the blankets and climbing in, where he was promptly met by a sniffling Lan Xichen. “Are you crying?”

And he was pushed out of the blanket cave.

He took a red bean bun from the pile and passed it to the crying boy, sticking his arm into the blanket cave. After a few seconds, he could hear sounds of snuffling and chewing. “Can I come back in?” he asked. An outstretched hand stuck out. He placed another bun in it. A few seconds later, the entrance reopened and Nie Mingjue climbed in again. Lan Xichen was still curled up with his back turned to his friend. “I’m sorry for pointing out that you weren’t eating.”

He pulled Lan Xichen around so that he was facing him and held him close. The other boy coughed and started choking on the bun in his mouth in shock and embarrassment.

Panicking slightly, Nie Mingjue carried his choking friend out of the blanket cave and poured out some tea, pushing the cup into his hand. “Drink this.”

Lan Xichen drunk quickly, beating at his chest to get the bun down. “Shou mei tea?” he murmured, smiling into the cup before turning to Nie Mingjue. “How did you know?”

“A-Sang asked A-Zhan,” Nie Mingjue said, omitting ‘because I asked him to’, but adding “because he wanted the kitchen to know. Another point to why A-Sang is the cutest.”

Lan Xichen choked again. “Not so fast-”

“Don’t you mean not tho fatht?”

Mingjue-”

“Yeth, Thichen?”

They both stared at each other for a while before bursting into laughter. After a few seconds, Lan Xichen placed a hand quickly over his friend’s mouth. “Sorry, A-Zhan is sleeping just behind the screen.”

“Ah, sorry. How is he doing?” Nie Mingjue asked, looking over his shoulder at the far side of the room, “He must be a heavy sleeper.”

Lan Xichen walked behind the screen to his sleeping brother, stroking his cheek and kissing his forehead. Nie Mingjue walked over, keeping a distance, watching Lan Xichen hold his little brother’s hand, unfurling the little fingers between his thumb and index. He straightened his blankets and stood up, turning to face his friend, giving him a weak smile.

As they returned to sitting on the cushions and sipping tea, Nie Mingjue needed to break the tension. “A-Zhan made a strong attack there on A-Sang, but A-Sang sucks his thumb in his sleep. So I think my little brother has the edge here.”

Lan Xichen smiled and took an elegant sip of his tea. “If A-Sang is truly the cutest, I suppose I should tell A-Zhan that Mingjue-da-ge has rejected the boxes of dragon’s beard candy he brought. They shall have to be thrown away-”

“No! No, wait, I mean, I-I can get my own dragon’s beard candy!”

“And reject my didi? My cute, adorable, perfect, lovely A-Zhan? Imagine his little face!”

“You’re the only one who can read him – at least A-Sang looks different when he’s happy and when he’s sad. And both are adorable!”

“You find him adorable when he’s having a tantrum.”

“Yes! I do!”

Lan Xichen stared at him for a few seconds before sighing. "I can't fault you there; A-Sang's pout is cute. But A-Zhan does have tantrums – less destructive.”

“He’s had tantrums? You’re the only one who could tell.”

“He’d have them if Uncle was only a minute early in picking us up from mother’s and mother would-” Xichen opened his mouth to continue speaking, but his breath caught in his throat as his eyes glossed over with tears. He covered his face and turned away.

“A-Huan?” Nie Mingjue shuffled around to face him, reaching around in his robes for a handkerchief, “It’s somewhere in here,” he muttered, looking under the table and around on the floor. “I wanted to distract you from her, but…”

Xichen reached inside his own robes and grasped a handkerchief. His fingers were trembling so much that he dropped it as he lifted it. Nie Mingjue caught it and wiped his friend’s face. “A-Huan, it’s okay to cry. It’s just me and you here, just us.” He pulled Lan Xichen into his lap, letting him bury his face into his robes, feeling the tears soak through the fabric to his skin.

They sat, hugging and occasionally reaching for another red bean bun, Nie Mingjue playing with Lan Xichen’s hair, braiding and finger-combing it. “Can you stay?” Lan Xichen whispered into his shoulder, “I do not want to be a bother-”

Nie Mingjue hugged him tighter. “You’re never a bother. Never. I’m here for you.” They moved over to the bed, Nie Mingjue making sure Lan Xichen was tucked in and comfortable before climbing in next to him, putting an arm around him. “I’ll be here in the morning.”

Chapter Text

They promised they’d be back before dark. They promised. Patted him on the head, popped a sweet into his mouth and disappeared into the forest. Now night had fallen and he was not alone. As they moved away from the trees into the clearing, moonlight revealed spit-streaked teeth, blood-streaked tongues and murder-streaked eyes. Nothing like A-Cheng’s dogs.

Wei Ying kicked the ground with his feet, scrambling backwards, his back hitting the rough bark of a tree. His eyes filled with tears as he gripped the bark and started to climb. He got his first leg over the lowest branch when one of the dogs leapt up and latched onto his leg, teeth sinking into his soft flesh. He clung to the branch as another dog yanked at his leg, blood coating its muzzle.

The bark scuffed his hands as he dug his nails in but the weight of the dogs on his legs pulled him down. The hard forest ground knocked the air from his lungs and he couldn’t regain his breath before the beasts jumped on him. Sharp teeth pierced into his arms, legs, shoulders, chest, hair pulled in all directions and claws raking over bruised skin. He screamed and screamed and screamed and screamed.

In the next moment, the dogs were gone, the scrape of metal replacing the sound of snarling. He felt small arms lift his sore bleeding body; he looked up, silver meeting pale gold.

-

Cool fresh air tickled his nose as he cracked open a sleep crusted eye to a dark wood ceiling. Looking down at himself, his skin had been wiped clean, wounds bandaged and hair neatly brushed and tied loosely with a light blue ribbon. The bed was white, the pillows plush and duvet thick, and the room followed suit. Turning his head to the side, he saw a young man with questionable facial hair and a small boy with pale golden eyes, both dressed in white.

“Am I dead?” he croaked. “Was I eaten?”

The man quirked an eyebrow. “No, child. You are at The Cloud Recesses, the home of the Gusu Lan Sect. You may call me Second Master Lan and this-” he turned to the child, “is my nephew, Lan Zhan. We found you outside the forests near Changxing. We have some que-” Lan Zhan put his hand on his uncle’s arm and tilted his head towards a wide-eyed Wei Ying. “Forgive me, you have just woken up. I will fetch the doctor.”

He swept out of the room. Wei Ying and Lan Zhan sat for a few minutes in silence, the space only filled with Wei Ying’s shuddering breaths and whines as he shifted his bruised body into a sitting position, propping himself up on cushions. Seeing him struggling with placing the cushions, Lan Zhan took the cushion from his hand and placed it gently behind his back, retracting his hand quickly before the other boy could reach out and touch him.

“Thanks!” Wei Ying smiled even though his face hurt and pain was shooting all across his body. Lan Zhan’s eyes widened ever so slightly and his mouth moved into a little ‘O’ shape. “Your uncle said you’re Lan Zhan?” Lan Zhan nodded. “I’m Wei Ying! Thank you for saving me! Friends?” he asked, extending a bandaged hand, a twinge of pain making his nose twitch slightly.

Lan Zhan got up, plumped the pillows and pulled up the duvet, getting Wei Ying to lie back down. “Mn. Friendth.”

-

“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan! You’re late!” Wei Ying giggled as he sat up in the bed, the doctor packing up next to him.

“Mn. Thorry.” Lan Zhan said, walking over to the bed, carrying a crate of toys.

Wei Ying shook his head. “Don’t worry!” He turned to the departing doctor. “Can I play yet?” he asked, bouncing up and down slightly.

“Not yet, Young Master Wei. No walking.” Wei Ying pouted. “Don’t even think about it – a few more weeks. Greetings, Second Master Lan.”

Lan Qiren had walked into the room, arms tucked behind his back. He sat down next to the bed, eyebrow twitching. Of course, the child was that of Cangse Sanren and Wei Changze; the two most insane cultivators the world had ever seen. He had thought them intelligent, but looking at this broken, bruised and smiling child cushioned in the bed, he now saw them as idiots. Leaving a four-year-old by themselves while they went on a night hunt, where there was a chance of death! Was it idiocy or arrogance? Whatever it was, they will be getting a lecture when he finds them.

“Your parents are ok. They’re looking for you – once we make contact with them, they’ll come and retrieve you. That is all.” He turned to leave.

“They-they weren’t eaten by dogs?” Lan Qiren looked back at the boy and shook his head. “Sure?” He nodded. Wei Ying slumped back in his bed, tears running down his cheeks in relief. Lan Zhan looked between his uncle and his new friend before gingerly holding onto Wei Ying’s hand, not squeezing too hard nor too loose. Wei Ying threw himself into Lan Zhan’s arms, hands wrapping around his shoulders; Lan Zhan just froze, arms hanging awkwardly in the air.

After Lan Qiren and the Doctor left and Wei Ying’s crying was reduced to sniffling into Lan Zhan’s shoulder, Lan Zhan stared out the window. The sun was shining and a warm breeze was flowing through, carrying a few fresh blossom petals in. Without warning, with all the strength his little body could muster, he attempted to lift a blanket-wrapped Wei Ying.

“Woah, Woah, Lan Zhan? No moving for me, Doctor said.” Wei Ying winced as he was lifted clumsily, tightening his hold around his friend’s shoulders.

“No walking. Not moving.” Lan Zhan explained, walking outside towards one of the outside pergolas. Disciples turned to watch their Second Young Master carrying the injured child through the compound, then run back and come back with a crate of toys, then run back again and coming back with an armful of cushions.

As he settled down next to Wei Ying, pushing the crate of toys nearer to him, Wei Ying tugged on his sleeves. “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan! Pass me that branch,” Wei Ying asked, pointing at a fallen branch of blossom on the stones. “No looking! No looking!”

Lan Zhan turned his back, playing with two wooden rabbits from the box, waiting for his friend to be done with his secret creation. He was nudging their noses together when he felt his forehead ribbon slip down and something light and sweet-smelling replace it. He froze, in shock. He spun around, wide-eyed and ear tips red; Wei Ying was playing with the forehead ribbon, weaving it between his fingers.

“Wei Ying!” Lan Zhan spluttered, reaching up to remove the replacement before his hands were caught and held by the offender.  

“It's ok, they're flowers! Look, matching to mine!” A delicate flower crown sat atop of Wei Ying’s head, a little clumsily made but the soft pink petals covered the loose knots. Surrounded in white blankets, covered with petals and bathed in sunlight, Lan Zhan forgot the offence in favour of staring at the boy who looked like a fairy from his mother’s stories.

-

Of all the strange occurrences in Qingheng-jun’s life, this was among the highest. He had heard that his sons had become obsessed with hide and seek lately after the eldest Nie boy had introduced it to Xichen, but a child that was clearly not either of his children barrelling into his room, hiding under the table then noticing him was not a daily occurrence.

“You look like Lan Zhan!” the child had said. That gave him a warm feeling; he hadn’t been allowed to see his youngest since his wife had died – and that warm feeling was now gone.

“I am his father.”

The boy crawled out from under the table and gave a low bow. “Greetings, Sect Leader Lan.” The gravel crunched outside quietly and the boy ducked behind the table. “Sorry, Sect Leader Lan,” he whispered, “I’m the hider and Lan Zhan’s the seeker!” The footsteps stopped outside the door for a few moments before walking away. “He’s very good. I think-” There was a distant ‘You found me, A-Zhan’, “he’s found big bro Xichen already.”

“You’re friends with my sons?”

“Yes, yes! Lan Zhan looked after me since I was attacked,” the boy said, his face souring, “anyway, do you want to play?”

“Play?”

“Yes, yes, hide and seek! We can both hide from Lan Zhan!” Qingheng-jun’s lips tightened a little. ‘I’ve been hiding from my children for their entire lives.’

“I cannot leave,” he explained.

“Why?”

“The Elders decided that I should stay in seclusion after the death of my wife.” Was that too much for a child? Neither he nor his brother were particularly good with them.

“But you’re the sect leader! You don’t have to do what they say!”

Qingheng-jun stared at this child. How did this boy have more courage than he, a grown man and renowned cultivator, had? Besides, he really really really wanted to see his little A-Huan and A-Zhan play. Screw the Elders?

“Screw the Elders!”

He said that aloud, didn’t he?

-

Of all the high blood pressure occurrences in Lan Qiren’s life, this was among the highest – keeping in mind he hadn’t experienced a teenage Wei Ying yet. He had emerged from the library after his five-hour-long lecture with Wei Changze and Cangse Sanren, their punishment being not being able to see their missing child for five hours after arriving, to see his brother holding a giggling Wei Ying and sitting on the roof, watching a very confused Lan Zhan wander around the courtyard, not realising that looking up was an option. Lan Xichen seemed to have needed to sit down in shock at seeing his father.

Upon seeing Lan Qiren emerge with his parents, Wei Ying smiled even harder and squealed “Screw the Elders!” before demanding to be let down. Lan Zhan looked scandalised as his father and best friend descended from the roof before realising that this was his father and clung to his leg.

Wei Ying ran over to his parents, his father squeezing him. "Papa and Mama are so sorry, A-Ying! We're never leaving you again, we promise!"

"No dogs?"

"No dogs," his father sobbed, checking his son's arms and bursting into more tears at seeing the bandages. 

His mother was currently occupied with promising Lan Qiren that it was not her who taught him that phrase. "Fuck off, Qiren, let me see my kid! I didn't teach him that! A-Ying, Mama's so sorry, baby, come here- let go of my arm you mountain goat! Not my fault if you have a heart attack!"

“Well, tell me, Sanren, who would teach him that but you?” A cough drew their gaze over to the figure in the middle of the courtyard, adorned with a son on each leg. “BROTHER!?”

Chapter Text

“Mingjue! Mingjue! Where are you? Mingjue!” Madame Fang floated through the industrial hallways of the Nie Stronghold, making a mental note to purchase some nice drapes and a few sculptures to make it look more sophisticated, ready for the upcoming discussion conference; the Wen sect had been sighted in Nie lands yesterday evening so she suspected that they were trying to arrive early, catching them on the sly – she’ll see about that. But now, she needed to talk to her son – she had a feeling, a terrible feeling in the seat of her stomach, one that told her that if she should speak now or forever hold her peace.

As she glided onto the veranda overlooking the training ground, she could hear the thunk of a sabre as it cut into wood; a very familiar sound she remembers from when her wife and husband were both trying to court her and competing with each other while she sat up here, coyly fluttering her fan. “Darling?” she asked, stepping down the stone steps and sitting down demurely. “Put your sabre down and come and sit next to your mama Fang.” Nie Mingjue stabbed his sabre down into the ground before slouching down next to her.

“My love, I need to tell you something about Xichen.”

Nie Mingjue furrowed his brows, fist clenching. “Xichen? Is he alright? Has he been hurt?” He went to get his sabre then he felt the gentle tap of his mother’s fan on his shoulder.

“Why do you assume the worst? Xichen is not weak.”

“I know! I know, Xichen is kind and sweet and smart but he… he’s naïve. So I worry. He’d give all his clothes and money away to help somebody else without a thought about himself! Do we need to leave now before he digs out his beating heart for a dead man?”

Madame Fang smiled. “Beating heart for a dead man? Have you been reading some of your father's books again?" It was better than him delving into her private collection of... books. Less about that. "Do you remember-”

“A-Fang! Come on – we’ve got to go! Those corpses aren’t going to wait around for long – ah, hello Mingjue. Training again?” Madame Lei strode over, sabre balanced over her shoulders. She pecked her son on the forehead. “You’re such a hard-working boy – that’s my blood there, A-Fang. When we get back, I think it’s time I taught you the Lei special!”

“And I the Fang special!”

“Babe, that’s just sweeping the leg. It’s not a thing.”

“I see someone’s sleeping on the daybed – how lovely, our husband gets me all to himself.”

“Wait, that’s not fair-”

“Mum! Gross!”

-

As Nie Mingjue stared at the ragged disciple covered in mud and blood, he felt like he’s never going to know what his Mama Fang was going to tell him about Xichen. His core shook, breath caught in his throat.

All he heard was ‘separated’, ‘fog’ and ‘screaming’.

All he knew was that his mothers were gone.

“Da-ge!” Nie Huaisang called from the veranda, his coloured chalks placed down on the little table in front of him as he held up a colourful drawing of a sun. “Pretty?” Baxia slipped from Nie Mingjue’s hand and sheathed itself in the ground, his body feeling limp as he almost stumbled towards his baby brother, putting the picture to one side before encasing him in his arms. “Da-ge? I can’t breathe!” Nie Huaisang giggled, pushing back against his brother’s chest. Nie Mingjue just squeezed him tighter, pressing his face into his brother’s hair.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Focus on Huaisang, the boy squirming in his arms. He hadn’t lost that sweet smell of warm milk that children had and his hair was soft and warm after lying in the sun on a warm afternoon. He just stroked and patted and hugged, ignoring his brother’s protests and whining. He didn’t hear his father ring the bell to dismiss training, nor the disciples leaving the training field, nor his father call his name. It wasn’t until his father put a firm hand on his shoulder that the world started moving again. Nie Huaisang had fallen into a doze in his arms and the sun had dipped below the walls of the fortress, leaving them submerged in a twilight shade.

“Mingjue,” his father greeted, kneeling to stroke his younger son’s hair.

“Did they find their bodies?” Mingjue asked, staring blankly ahead. “Did they find anything?”

His father gave him an…odd look, reminiscent of Xichen’s only a year previous. He reached into his sleeve and taking out two items. He handed them over to his son, running his thumb over them beforehand, his forehead creasing. Nie Mingjue took them, shuffling Nie Huaisang into his lap.

Mama Fang’s battle fan, dark steel scratched and painting stained red, crinkled open as Nie Mingjue turned it over in his hands. The paper was torn, and the clasp was cracked as if it was thrown against something hard. The other item was his Mama Lei’s tassel, a classic silver beast head, the symbol of Qinghe Nie. The charm itself wasn’t bloodied and was looked after well if a little scuffed. The string that tied it to the belt was cut roughly like someone had slashed her leg or stomach. Some bile came up in his throat thinking about his mothers, slashed open with dead, glaucous-glazed eyes, bone shatterings piercing up through skin, purple blooming across their solidifying bodies. He blinked and focused on Huaisang again, burying his head further into the crook of his brother’s neck.

He shoved them back into his father’s hands and curled around his little brother, eyes itchy and stomach-turning. “What…what about…sabres, what about their sabres?”

“Gone.” That fact hung in the air uncomfortably. If they were dead, not dealing with sabres swiftly could have dangerous consequences. “Mingjue, go to bed. Take your brother with you.”

“Father, what happened?”

“Mingjue, I’m not involving you-”

“I’m going to be Sect Leader one day, I want to know how they-!”

“Enough!” His father roared, veins bulging from his head and his eyes glinting mad for a split second before he snapped back. Stumbling back a few steps, back bumping against a pillar, he looked away guiltily, voice hoarse. “M-Mingjue, please, don’t ask anymore. Go to bed.”

Mingjue glared at him before lifting Nie Huaisang, who wrapped his arms around his neck sleepily. At the end of the corridor, he turned around to give his father another glare only to see the man fall to his knees and weep.

Chapter Text

“Did you remember to send word to Sect Leader Nie that we’re planning to leave our gremlin with him?” Cangse Sanren asked her husband while she held onto her son as he sat atop of their donkey, Little Plum. Wei Ying stuck his tongue out at her – she grabbed it and gave him a mock sharp look. “I’ll chop it off.” Wei Ying made as much protestation as he could with his tongue being physically held.

“Mianmian sent it,” Wei Changze responded, ignoring their antics. “Ah! Mianmian wants Ying-er to be friends with Second Young Master Nie; if they can be friends, Mianmian will have confidence that Cheng-er will get on with him.”

“Ziyuan arranged yet another marriage. Without telling the children. Or asking them. Again,” Cangse Sanren huffed, stroking her son’s hair, “How did Huifang let them?”

Wei Changze picked up his pouting wife and put her behind their son on the back of Little Plum. “My love, they are in different worlds! Big sects marry between each other every few generations to keep alliances fresh and I’m afraid it’s their turn. Mianmian has secured-”

“Ziyuan, rather.”

“-has secured a Jiang-Jin alliance and this is just a Jiang-Nie alliance. He has my full support with his decisions.”

“Changze. We were all at the same school together-”

“Admittedly, you gate-crashed rather than attended-”

“-the same school together, and Ziyuan, Wenlei and Fanting were such the trio – Ziyuan makes these decisions, not Fengmian! Is it a surprise that Yanli is engaged to Fanting’s Zixuan, and Wanyin to Wenlei’s second boy? I did always prefer Huifang – very cunning woman. Her and Wenlei’s death was tragic, but I wonder if what Sect Leader Nie thinks is true – it wouldn’t surprise me. Ah, back to our initial topic, Changze, they have forgotten the Lan and the Wen! The Lan won’t say anything but will send over their glares and the Wen, oh I don’t know, murder a small village?”

“Murder the offending clan’s two madams?”

“Changze! The Wens would be hinting at war if they actually did that and even then, they would never win. Back to the matter of betrothals, Fengmian doesn’t have any more children and I’ll eat Little Plum-” Little Plum looked at her, betrayed “-if Ziyuan participates in making another!”

“I guess Ying-er and Cheng-er are like brothers so-”

“Changze! My son will not be their third prize cow! My A-Ying can marry whoever he wants, whoever he loves – whoever you want, little gremlin, you can have.” She ruffled Wei Ying’s hair and squeezed him. Changze looked over his shoulder, catching his son with an uncharacteristically serious face.

“Ying-er, what’s wrong? You’ve a serious face on.”

Wei Ying looked up and stared at his father with big earnest eyes. “Xianxian is gonna marry Lan Zhan!”

Cangse Sanren choked on the air before turning to her husband. “Changze, we’re not sending him to the Cloud Recesses every January anymore. We’re not. I don’t want an old mountain goat as A-Ying’s uncle-in-law!”

“Didn’t you just say our baby can marry whoever he wants?” Cangse Sanren huffed again, burying her face in her son’s neck. “Also, Ying-er, didn’t you say you were going to marry Papa when you get older? Is Zhan-er my rival?”

Cangse Sanren smiled. “A-Ying, see, don’t you want to marry Mama and Papa instead?”

“Just Papa.”

“WHY?”

-

Qingheng-Jun sat at the head of the table, facing a long, long, long, long, long table of Lan Sect Elders, in a meeting he would really rather not be in. One half of the table was squabbling about grain taxes and fishing taxes and milk taxes and paper taxes, while the other half were discussing the emerging Nie-Jiang alliance and trying to decide on which disapproving glare to give both the Jiang and Nie tables at the next discussion conference. A few were whispering about Sect Leader Nie’s outburst at the discussion conference held shortly after his wives’ deaths.

He remembers he was watching Sect Leader Jin get his hand crushed by his wife after trying to pat one of the maids when Sect Leader Nie had stood up abruptly from his chair, unsheathing his sabre and stalking into the middle of the room. He stopped in front of the Wen table before suddenly cutting their table in half in one fell swing and keeping his sabre aloft, the blade inches away from Wen Ruohan’s smirking face.

His little brother stiffened beside him, and Qingheng-Jun felt like he was seventeen again, cradling his broken-hearted brother after a fifteen year old Wen Ruohan had departed the Cloud Recesses after spouting some particularly venomous words.

“Didi,” he had whispered, placing a hand atop his brother’s, “Didi, what is he thinking?”

Lan Qiren swallowed thickly, levelling his slightly quivered voice. “Everything has gone to plan.”

And Sect Leader Nie started to shout, accusing Wen Ruohan in public, in front of the other sect leaders, in front of his sons, accusing him of murdering his wives in cold blood. Nie Mingjue gathered Nie Huaisang into his arms and swiftly left the room.

Wen Ruohan’s face cracked open into a carnivorous smile as his deep voice ran through the room. “Qi Deviation can happen at any time, Sect Leader Nie.”

He had obviously been staring at the group of Elders having that conversation as the room had gone silent. Lan Qiren coughed in classic Gusu style in order to politely regain his attention.

“Qiren-di?”

“Brother. I was wondering if we could commence the meeting now.”

Qingheng-Jun nodded to him and then looked out to the rest of the table. “Of course.”

Lan Qiren coughed again. Perhaps his little brother had contracted a cold or cough of some sort. “I was wondering if we could commence the meeting without Wangji?”

Qingheng-Jun looked down to his youngest son who was seated on his lap. He found it amusing really – they were the spitting image of each other and, fortunately, or unfortunately, his A-Zhan had inherited his inflexible face. Now armed with not only one but two inexpressive faces with golden eyes that seemed to peer into your soul and see all your sins, one unbearably cute, the Elders didn’t stand a chance. His son’s friend had inspired him. Screw the Elders.

His son looked up at him, small baby hands currently playing with one of his own hands. Honestly, who could resist that face? “No, Zhan-er is imperative for the discussions.”

“He’s five!”

“He inherited his mother’s intelligence. Let us start.” At the mention of the late Madame Lan, the tension in the room rose, the Elders realising that they were not only dealing with their Sect Leader, but they were also dealing with a grieving husband and a newly devoted father. They didn’t realise that the ‘righteousness’ they had exacted was now their undoing.

“Sect Leader Lan, Elder Gu-”

“Overruled. I have a proposal.” The Elders looked at their Sect Leader in shock – he had just interrupted someone, broken Rule #2491! “I have not broken Rule #2491 – in a diplomatic discussion scenario, it is overruled by Principle #167. As I was saying, I have a proposal.”

The Elders sat with bated breath, starting the feel the pressure of two pairs of clear golden eyes. Lan Qiren sighed, watching his elder brother from the corner of his eye. “What kind of proposal?”

“A restructure; I propose that the Elders have less power, or rather, share the power. You embody a particular era of Lan discourse; I propose that we should form a council of younger disciples-”

“They are too naïve!”

“Having intergenerational cooperation will help our younger disciples mature faster and enrich our values and debate.” Lan Qiren thought over the reason for his brother’s words; younger disciples' separation from their mothers would be fresh in their memory and middle-aged disciples would never let their children get taken away. With their input, a situation like his sister-in-law’s segregation from her children would never happen.  “And the final ruling is left to the Sect Leader and his higher advisors.”

Uproar. Absolute uproar. Lan Qiren sighed again. Of course, his brother, who married a woman ruled a murderer (that is a story for another time) and was infamous for silently defying the Elders (his youngest nephew’s existence was proof of that) so really what was he expecting?

“And who will be your ‘higher advisors’? A level above us, the Elders?”

“Each generation council will each choose a representative with the addition of up to two of my own choosing. I select Lan Qiren as my only choice as the one who would be my second is dead. I give each council until the end of the season to form and choose a representative. That is all. We will convene next moon cycle.”

The Elders began to protest yet again when the larger set of golden eyes looked up at them from playing with his father’s hand. “That ith all,” he stated before looking down again. After the Elders filtered out, still twittering about the latest ruling, Lan Qiren swept in front of his brother.

“What are you thinking?”

Qingheng-Jun stood up, wrapping his arms tightly around his son who was now playing with his forehead ribbon. “Didi, I cannot… I cannot forgive them, nor myself. All I know is that I want to protect my boys; I know you do too. This is how I see I can do that.”

Lan Qiren reached out and took his nephew’s hand. “It is beneficial, especially for Xichen. Both he and his betrothed will be sect leaders – allowing him a choice of two advisors stops the Elders controlling the whole sect when he will undoubtedly be in Qinghe.”

“Huan-er…is betrothed? He is eight! Did the Elders decide this? Are they ignoring the trend of our family’s love lives?”

“It does not need to be marriage if they decide against it. At least a sworn brotherhood. Young Master Nie is kind to Xichen – I think them a good match.”

“Have I still got Zhan-er? Or have you married him off too?”

“No plans. Qishan Wen keep pestering us but I-”

Qingheng-Jun’s normally stone-hard and water-clear countenance became dark with fury. “Did that bastard not get the message when I smashed his ugly mug in when he last dared to step into Gusu territory? I will never, never-

“Bathtard?”

The two brothers stared at the child looking between them innocently.

“I’m seeing a trend here.” Lan Qiren stroked his nephew’s hair. “I-I don’t plan on marrying him off to anyone. I think alliances are quite secure through the single tie to Qinghe Nie. Just… I am concerned over what Wen Ruohan will do.”

Qingheng-Jun pulled his little brother into a hug, squeezing his son between them. “You are my baby brother, Ren-di, he will never touch you again as long as I live. And he will never touch my sons. However, I wouldn’t mind Lady Sanren’s son as an in-law…”

“Don’t give her an excuse to come here!” And then they were laughing like they were teenagers again, forgetting their tragedies for a few seconds before Nanny Jun came in, quietly and elegantly.

“Sect Leader Lan, Master Lan, I believe First Young Master Lan is having his first tantrum.”

-

They arrived at the Hanshi and handed a sleepy Lan Zhan to Nanny Jun. It was eerily quiet. They slid open the door, expecting a turned over room, torn paper and a red, pouting and wet face. But all that met their sight was Xichen sitting still and trembling with clenched fists at the table, an upturned teapot on the floor, his favourite tea a puddle.

Qingheng-Jun went to speak, but Lan Qiren held his hand up, stopping him. He went over to his nephew, placed the teapot back on the table and sat down on a cushion opposite. “Xichen, what is the meaning of this? You have always upheld our rules and this is a sudden outburst of emotion. Explain.”

Lan Xichen’s lip trembled, his fists tightening. “I have to see A-Jue. I have to, I must. But I am not allowed – I have been told to not even send him letters! He was,” he glanced up at his father, “he was there for me after mother’s death and I must be there for him, I need to be there for him!”

Lan Qiren listened patiently. “Xichen, the deaths of the Madames Nie has made Sect Leader Nie agitated so you cannot go, and Mingjue has to stay in Qinghe due to his training so he cannot come here. I don’t see any reason why you cannot send letters though. You will see each other soon, but not now.”

“I would not be any trouble – I would help with anything! I would!”

“Xichen…”

“Please, Uncle! Mingjue needs me there, Huaisang will need me!”

“They don’t need you there, Xichen, they need you to be happy and safe. It is not your role to play parent or comforter yet. You are only a child.”

“I can learn! Everyone says I am mature for my age! Mingjue, he-he, they n-n-n-neeed m-me!” Lan Xichen broke down halfway through, blubbering with tears and mucus covering his face.

Qingheng-Jun swept his elder son into a hug, wiping his face with his sleeve. The three of them sat in silence as Lan Xichen sobbed into his father’s robes, repeating over and over again that ‘A-Jue needs me, he does!’. As he calmed down, sinking into his father’s warm chest and whimpering as his hair and cheek were stroked, Qingheng-Jun spoke softly. “The rule over not showing excess emotion does not mean to bottle it up, Huan-er. It means to regulate your feelings, letting them out slowly and not to act rashly. These tears of yours have lasted only an incense stick long but do not feel embarrassed about crying itself. Tears balance your brain, but as you get older, you will find other ways of balancing. It is good you feel strongly about Mingjue, and that you want to comfort him. For now, why don’t we send some letters?” Lan Qiren looked impressed with his brother and would have been more impressed if he hadn’t helped his brother rehearse this speech on the way over.

“I can?” Qingheng-Jun nodded. Xichen smiled and scooted over to a chest, scooping out an armful of letters. “I can send all of these? To Mingjue?” They spilt onto the table and Qingheng-Jun and Lan Qiren exchanged a look. “These fifteen-” he separated them into a neat pile, “-are for Mingjue, and these five-” another neat pile “-are for Huaisang.”

As they left a now beaming yet tear-stained Lan Xichen, Qingheng-Jun turned to Lan Qiren. “A good match indeed.”

Chapter Text

Nie Mingjue stared at the small parcel of letters on his desk for a few minutes, heart thudding in his chest. He knew A-Huan couldn’t have come, he wouldn’t have allowed it himself – his father grew ever more unstable and if his friend had gotten injured because of his selfishness, he… he’d never forgive himself. But these were the first letters in months and each day that went by without any word, he thought through every worst-case scenario.

His peers respected him, he knew that. But he couldn’t ignore the whispers, the slightly nervous looks he got as he swung his sabre, practised martial arts, beat every sparring partner they paired him with. He was big for his age, a good foot and a half above everyone else, and twice as strong; not only the physical differences, but he couldn’t always grasp the, the - what was the word A-Huan used – nuances! Nuances. He didn’t get it – why would people beat around the bush, waffle around the fact instead of just saying it? A-Huan always told the truth, never beat around the bush, but it always seemed softer, any bad news feeling like a mere inconvenience. All he achieved was widening eyes, a shivering bow and quick departure.

Ever since, there was a stone on his chest whenever he thought of A-Huan. Had he found a new friend? They lived miles and miles apart, it wasn’t an unreasonable thought. Does he secretly disdain of him and his blunt ways? Lan disciples do not gossip, nor hold ill opinions of anything not inherently evil, but evil is in the action, not the thought; he’s allowed to think poorly of him, he might even do it unconsciously!

He touched the pile of letters on his desk. If they are delivering bad news, something like ‘I don’t want to see you because you’re not educated enough for me’ or ‘you just don’t get the nuances – we can’t be friends’- no both of those are idiotic. He should deal with it like a man, or slightly better, like a Mama Fang. She would know what to do, in these… emotional situations.

He stiffly took a letter from the top, slowly opening it up. He held his breath, read the first couple of lines and let go of it with a shudder. This is how his father descended, unable to order his thoughts and dispel worry and anxiety without his mothers. He devoured each letter, rereading each line, imagining A-Huan’s gentle voice saying each line, his hand carefully combing his hair, knotted through training.

He’d make him forget about his father. He wanted to remember that joyous man who gave crooked smiles and swung you around in every hug; the man who looked over him meeting his baby brother for the first time, the baby brother that could fit into his hands; the man who first taught him how to lift a sabre, positioned his feet in the dirt to create a strong stance; the man who now snapped at the slight sour note in tone, the slightest act of disrespect when, in the past, he would slap them on the shoulder, laugh and tell them not to bother with old stuffy traditions.

He was brought out of his mind by two loud peals of laughter coming from outside his door. He stowed away the letters in a drawer, cheeks bright red at the thought of being caught at this…this…this…ach! Never mind. If his father isn’t in form to control the new form of chaos that entered Qinghe, it is up to him!

He slammed open his room door. The corridor was empty, aside for a trail of… dragon’s beard candy, plated on small wooden plates on the floor. He didn’t like dragon’s beard candy. He loved it. He had been devastated when Mama Lei banned it the moment his training started - what the hell was it doing here? He looked around, mindful of any witnesses to his future enjoyment of the candy, but no one was around. As he bent to pick it up, he heard a small snuffled giggle. He snapped his head to see, but only saw a large bowl slide towards him. He turned it over, looking for anything odd and found a small note, written in juvenile scrawl.

‘For the candy’. Useful. He followed the trail, the dragon beard’s candy slowly filling the bowl, and automatically bent down for the next plate before finding it empty.

“You fell right into our trap!”

“Fool!”

Two pairs of small arms restrained him, one around his calves and the other around his neck. He walked calmly over to a table despite his squirming shackles and deposited the bowl. He looked down and saw his little brother clinging to his right leg; he lifted it square and waited, watching Nie Huaisang hang like a sloth before the small muscles in his arms gave way, the boy plummeting to the ground and landing with a thud. Now for the other one, who had now fixed pigtails into his hair.

“Wei Wu-ahm!” A dragon beard’s candy had been shoved into his mouth by an impertinent and very quick little hand. The demon shrieked in pleasure as his prisoner had gone stationary in favour of chewing. It climbed further up into his head before hanging its scruffy and scuffed little head down in front of his eyes.

“Does it taste good, big bro Mingjue? I bet it does! Huaisang told me-” the demon manoeuvred himself so he faced Nie Mingjue, still holding onto the pigtails like they were beast horns, and wrapping his legs around his chest, “-told me that they’re your favourite candy-”

“Wei Wuxian.”

 “-and the auntie in the kitchen gave me some after I brought her some flowers-”

Wei Wuxian.

 “-and she said I was an angel but-”

“Wei Wuxian!”

“-I took them from the uncle in the garden when his back was turned. He might have noticed by now but he didn’t see me, so I haven’t broken any rules!” Wei Wuxian beamed up at Nie Mingjue, who looked exasperated but also amused.

“You did launch quite the attack on me, the both of you – whose idea was it?”

“A-Sang’s!”

“Very impressive, baby brother.”

“So is it our win?” Nie Huaisang inquired timidly.

Nie Mingjue looked at the two boys, the elder standing boldly in front while the younger peered over his shoulder, but wasn’t obscured quite enough to conceal a little smug smile. They had caused chaos over the past two weeks, swapping water for wine, adding chilli to every single piece of food that ever left the kitchen, moving his sabre around the place, sending him on wild goose chases – literally. The little shits released geese in the disciple’s grounds, labelled five of them one, two three and four five! That just hurt his head to think about, the disciples calling to each other saying:

“I found three five!”

“Which one?”

“Three five!”

“Three or five?”

“Three five!”

“Which one?!”

“I’ve fucking said three five, did I say one, no I fucking didn’t! I said three five!”

“Oioioi calm it - I’m asking three or five!”

“And I’m saying I found three of the number five!”

“The fuck is two?”

 He sighed. If he let them win, they would stop, right? That was logical. The hellscape they had been living in would end, finally. No more frogs in his bed – that was an embarrassing night. Betrayed by his own brother, Nie Huaisang must have told that demon child that the slimy creatures were…well, his screams said it all. Ugh. He could still feel all slimy and disgusting on his leg, bulbous eyes popping out its gross head. Ugh.

“It’s your win,” he said, mock-resigned, “You’ve defeated even me – you-” he tackled Wei Wuxian, who let out a loud peal of laughter, “-with your strength and agility, and you, my baby brother-” he dragged down Nie Huaisang into the pile, “-with your strategy! But-” the boys froze, “-you didn’t think about my combined strategy and strength in luring both of you into a tickle trap!”

The younger boys started struggling to get out of Nie Mingjue’s arms, but he pinned them down, attacking their sides, eliciting squeals and yelps as they squirmed on the floor, trying to claw their way to freedom.

“Mingjue.” At the door stood his father, bloodshot eyes and lank, uncombed hair. Nie Mingjue scrambled to his feet and stood quickly to attention in front of the two boys behind him on their knees, on the defensive.

“Father – I am returning to training presently.” His father nodded slowly before turning and languidly continued drifting down the corridor. Nie Huaisang tugged on his brother’s robes.

“Big brother? What’s wrong with Papa?” he asked innocently. Nie Mingjue stroked his brother’s hair, stroking over the pain he felt over ‘Papa’. The last time he called his father ‘Papa’ was four years ago when he was eight; his father had broken down in tears before becoming angry and throwing a teacup at him.

“Just stay out of Papa’s way for a while – go and play in the gardens, and no mischief. You hear me, Wei Wuxian, no mischief.”

“Sir, yes, sir!”

-

Nie Huaisang opened his little fan as he sat himself demurely down on one of the polished wooden benches in the azalea garden, the reflected pink light bathing him in a rosy glow. He wasn’t oblivious like his brother, no, at the ripe age of four, he knew he was going to be married and who to. What he didn’t know was what marriage entailed other than spending all your time together, but he had to at least tolerate this future partner of his. He watched Wei Wuxian dive into an azalea bush before popping out with large leaves circling his neck. He stuck his tongue out.

“A-Sang, I’m a lizard!” he laughed before making hissing noises and darting back into the bush. This was the boy his future partner played with, was like brothers with. He liked Wei Ying, he really did, and A-Zhan liked him too. Liked him a lot, which spoke lengths about Wei Wuxian’s kindness, which he could see, and patience, which he could not. However, it was stated that Wei Ying was bedridden most of the time he spent at the Cloud Recesses, so they didn’t have to experience… did he just hear Wei Ying mumble whether insects tasted good or not… “Blegh…no these ones don’t – maybe crickets do?” They didn’t have to experience this. Was Jiang Wanyin like him too?

Hm.

Hopefully not. Sorry, Wei Ying.

What this Jiang Cheng had to be like, was rich. Prone to spoiling pets or husbands, for that matter. As long as he could draw, paint and look after his birds without ever having to lift a sabre, he was content. Someone who looked at him the same way his brother looked at big brother Xichen.

‘And that,’ he thought, watching Wei Ying in the corner of his eye crawl on the floor, trying to stick out his tongue like a lizard, readying to pounce, ‘is why,’ he put away his fan, steadying himself for the incoming assault, ‘I could never marry someone like Wei Ying.’ And Wei Ying threw himself at Nie Huaisang.

They both fell into the azalea bush, petals being shaken from the flowers into their now messy hair. They looked at each other in shock before erupting into giggles, Wei Ying doing little impressions of his lizard again, fluttering the now broken leaves around his neck. Nie Huaisang stopped giggling and watched his friend very seriously for a few moments.

“Wei-xiong, what is Jiang Cheng like?” he asked, looking up through his eyelashes.

“Not telling!”

Nie Huaisang blinked. “Huh?”

“Not telling!”

“Why?” He puffed his cheeks out and folded his arms, willing his eyes to wet, before Wei Ying collected up the fallen petals and let them float down into Nie Huaisang’s lap.

“A-Sang. How old are you?”

“SangSang is four!”

“And Xianxian is five! Don’t think about A-Cheng! Who cares about marriage! I don’t! I just want to know whether we’re getting spicy food for dinner or not.”

“You just said you were going to marry A-Zh-!” Wei Ying covered his friend’s mouth quickly and smiled nervously.

“Let’s just have fun!” Wei Ying grabbed the leaves from around his neck, chucked them on Nie Huaisang’s face and scrambled out the bush, “you’re it!”

“Wei-xiong! Wait!” Wei Ying stopped and turned back to his friend, who was dusting himself off from the twigs and leaves. “We’re best friends, right?”

“Sure!”

Nie Huaisang hugged his friend. “Wei-xiong?”

“Yeah?”

“You’re it.”