For all his scheming and foresight, Nie Huaisang had never had a long-term plan for his life. For so many years, he had lived his real life in the shadows, scheming against the most powerful man in the cultivation world. In avenging his brother, he had learned to be ruthless, to be vicious in attaining his goals. He has no regrets (though sometimes he cannot help but wonder what his brother would have thought of him now. Would he be proud? Or would he be angry, disdainful of Nie Huaisang’s calculating methods? It would likely be the latter, he knew, but it was nice to pretend otherwise).
There were casualties, of course, as there always are. Lan Xichen may have come out of seclusion a few years ago, but he came out a changed man. His fond and doting Er-Ge has been replaced by a tired and bitter man who refuses to look him in the eye. Mo XuanYu, now Wei WuXian, he supposes, was a necessary sacrifice and one he knows he ought to feel more guilt over. But when he sees Wei WuXian, laughing uproariously with the GusuLan juniors, and Lan WangJi’s fond gaze turned towards his husband, he finds it difficult to feel remorse. No, there was no good life left for Mo XuanYu, with his fractured mind and soul-deep resentment.
He cannot help the way his lips twist at that. He watches the scene in the clearing in front of him silently, cloaked in the shadows of the forest, clutching his favourite fan to his chest tightly. It is one his brother had given him, so many years ago, red in the face and full of awkward affection, refusing to look his starry-eyed little brother in the eye.
Several feet in front of him, the fight continues. Wei WuXian stands on a tree branch at the edge of the clearing with his flute to his lips, resentful energy coiling around him as he suppresses the yaoguai. Below him, Lan WangJi strums his guquin, blasting back any creatures that get too close to his husband and cutting down the resentful beasts that seem to pour into the clearing from the forest by the dozen. At the front, Wen Qionglin tears the creatures apart with his bare hands, protecting the two and fighting with impressive speed.
In a moment’s pause between waves of monsters, he hears Wei WuXian’s strained voice, “Lan Zhan, there are–”
Safe in his hiding spot, Nie Huaisang clutches his fan tighter. How did they figure it out so quickly? He had placed the Spirit Attraction talismans so carefully around the clearing, with an illusion spell over each.
It does not matter though. The array beneath their feet has almost finished absorbing all the spiritual and resentful energy it needs for him to activate it. He is so close. Another minute and it will be enough.
The array had been amongst the few that Mo XuanYu had stolen from Jin GuangYao, when he was still living at Carp Tower. It had been amongst Wei WuXian’s notes on demonic cultivation, in the same tattered notebook as the soul-summoning array that had brought its creator back to life. Nie Huaisang had… acquired the notes from Mo XuanYu before he made himself into a sacrifice, and had kept them hidden in his personal library ever since.
A few years after the dust had settled, however, Nie Huaisang found himself restless. Aside from caring for his sect, and navigating the still grating politics of the cultivation world, he had very little to do. A new listlessness began to creep up on him that even his paintings and his fans could not dispel.
The truth was, Nie Huaisang had very little left. Though avenged, his brother, who had raised and cared for him would never return and threaten to break his legs. Lan Xichen, the closest thing he had had left to family after Da-Ge died, had newly emerged from seclusion but refused to speak to him. Jiang WanYin was still wrapped up in helping his nephew navigate the greedy politics of the Jin Sect and had little time for a childhood friend.
Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi, the most knowing and yet the most friendly (or as friendly as Hanguang-jun seemed to get, really) of his peers, had leapt straight into a life of domestic bliss after the events of Guanyin temple. Nie Huaisang was genuinely happy for them, glad that all his scheming had at least led to some happiness.
Wei WuXian deserved this happiness after everything. And seeing how the terrifyingly stoic Lan WangJi’s entire demeanour softened in the presence of his husband had been a revelation. No, Nie Huaisang grudged them none of their long-awaited happiness.
Nevertheless, Nie Huaisang was restless. He was plagued by dreams of his brother, of the time before the war, before everything burned to the ground and nothing was ever the same again. And he could not help wondering about what could have been if only he had done more, had known more.
And then, one day, he came across the notes again. And in those notes, he found an array that allowed souls to move through time into the past.
(“Wei-gongzi, do you ever think about how you might have done things differently before, if only you had known how everything would turn out?”
“All the fucking time, Sect Leader Nie.”
At Nie Huaisang’s startled look, Wei WuXian’s mouth twisted into something uncharacteristically serious and bitter, “What, do you think I have no regrets, Nie-gongzi? If I had not been so wrapped up in my pride back then, Lan Zhan would not have had to suffer because of me. All those people at Nightless City might still be alive. And Shijie wouldn’t–”
Wei WuXian took a shuddering breath and turned back towards the training grounds, where the GusuLan Sect juniors were practicing their sword forms under the watchful eye of Huanguang-jun. His eyes gentled as he watched Lan WangJi gently correct the stance of one of the juniors, “But that would be selfish of me. And there are some things I would not trade.”
Nie Huaisang looked away, throat bobbing as he swallowed, “I understand.”
He understands, he really does. He remembers having people too precious to risk or lose. But he looks out at the training field and he wonders.)
Nie Huaisang had never claimed to be as good or selfless as Wei WuXian. There are some things he could never let go. So he started to do what he did best—he schemed. Using the array without a plan would be foolish, after all, if they wanted anything to change for the better (and if he wanted to ensure that Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi did not cut him down where he stood after they realised what he had done).
It took a long time to gather the information he needed to make a proper plan, including many an innocent conversation with Wen Qionglin about Wen Ruohan and Wen Qing. He would not be unprepared and terrified this time, if the array worked.
And would the array even work? The doubt stayed his hand for a long time. He would not hurt Wei WuXian more than he had already. There was much he owed him, and accidentally killing him would be a terrible way to repay him. He had little doubt in Wei WuXian’s skill (and it was his untested array that brought his own soul back, after all). But he would be sure, he would find little ways to get Wei WuXian’s opinion on at least fragments of the array before he used it.
There would still be a risk, but Nie Huaisang was nothing if not very very good at winning against the odds.
In the clearing, Huanguang-jun’s sword flew out of its sheath, gleaming palely as it cut through the clearing, finding every hidden talisman with astonishing accuracy and slicing each one neatly in half. As they fluttered to the forest floor, Wei WuXian pushed out more resentful energy through his flute, crushing the remaining yaoguai into the ground until Hanguang-jun and Wen Qionglin took care of them.
In the silence that followed the end of the battle, Nie Huaisang crept forward, still hidden from view, his golden core silencing his movements. The array was ready, he only needed to get inside and activate it, hopefully while the three currently standing in it remained ignorant of his presence. There is a fine line between suspicion and knowledge, Nie Huaisang knows, and he hopes to take full advantage of it, whether or not the array works.
He enters the array, a corner deliberately drawn in the shadows of the trees, and cuts his wrist. He lets his blood drip onto the lines below him, and prays to every god he knows that this works. He has a feeling that no amount of head shaking will get him out of the retribution if it doesn’t.
His blood soaks into the forest floor and for a minute, nothing happens. His heart plummets until, all of a sudden, every line of the array lights up in a dazzling white, blinding him.
He hears Wei WuXian’s surprised shout and Lan WangJi’s panicked, “Wei Ying!”
He has a single moment of hope, before there is a sudden and uncomfortable pull of something deep within him, and everything goes black.
Nie Huaisang wakes up. He is lying in a bed and the ceiling above him looks vaguely familiar. He sits up with a gasp, shaking, in his room in the guest disciple quarters of the Cloud Recesses and stares at his hands in disbelief. They are trembling and familiar, but strangely different as well. Distantly, he wonders why he finds it so strange that his hands had aged with the rest of him.
He stumbles from the bed and staggers to his mirror. Wide eyes look back at him in disbelief from a noticeably younger face.
And Nie Huaisang, filled with hope and terror and immeasurable relief, falls to his knees and weeps.