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In My Defence, I Have None (For Never Leaving Well Enough Alone)

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Nie Mingjue is firmly of the opinion that his brother is a brat. Technically older than him by a couple of decades or not, in many ways, Nie Huaisang is the same little brother he’s always been: spoilt, calculative, and stubborn. Being inside his head has done nothing to dissuade him of this assessment. His brother may believe he’s hidden his manipulative streak well up to this point, but Nie Mingjue more or less raised the boy and he is, unfortunately, keenly aware of how his baby brother likes to get his way. Which is why the desperate doe-eyes his brother is currently aiming at him only serve to make him roll his eyes.

“No.”

“But Da-ge! It doesn’t matter!”

“Eat your breakfast, Huaisang.”

“How can I eat when you’re being so unreasonable?”

Nie Mingjue groans, praying for patience. “Travelling from the future does not mean you’re allowed to slack off and fail your classes this year, Huaisang.”

“But I already passed them, technically! Why do I have to do it again?” Nie Huaisang pouts at him.

Nie Mingjue clicks his tongue in irritation. “Because I sent you here to learn. And I know that you forgot everything you learned here the second you left. I also know that you know that it matters to our sect not to lose face by having its heir fail classes at the Cloud Recesses twice. I’ll be damned if you pull that helpless act again when you’re Sect Leader someday!”

Nie Huaisang’s teasing glint vanishes, his expression shuttering. “I am not going to be Sect Leader! Not someday or ever!”

Nie Mingjue glares back at him for a moment, then sighs. “Huaisang,” he says, trying to soften his tone, “You and I both know it’s still a possibility. Even without Jin Guangyao, our cultivation technique means that Nies live short lives. I need you to be prepared.”

“No,” his little brother says mutinously, refusing to give an inch. He glares at Nie Mingjue and threatens, “If you die again, I will dismantle the entire Nie Sect and order all sabers to be destroyed.”

Nie Mingjue wonders how mad Xichen would be if he violated the ‘no killing’ rule just this once to strangle his brother.

“Huaisang,” he growls, warningly.

“No,” Nie Huaisang glares at him stubbornly, “Da-ge, if you think I’m just going to sit around and wait for you to kill yourself and prepare to replace you just because Nies live short lives—” He breaks off, knuckles clenched white over his fan. “There has to be a way. And Lan Xichen already said he’d teach me Cleansing and Clarity on the erhu. It’ll slow things down at least, until we find something more permanent.”

Nie Mingjue stares at his brother for a few moments, trying to process all of that. It is mostly a well-worn argument at this point, except… Nie Mingjue pinches the bridge of his nose, feeling a headache begin to build behind his eyes.

“Huaisang,” he says slowly, “Did you guilt Xichen into teaching you secret Lan techniques?”

Nie Huaisang stares down at his nails unconcernedly, “I wouldn’t say I guilted him precisely.”

The headache begins to grow with a vengeance. “Huaisang! You can’t just manipulate people into getting your way with everything!”

“Watch me,” says his provocative shit of a little brother.

Fuck sect relations, Nie Mingjue is going to strangle him right here on Cloud Recesses grounds. He opens his mouth to inform him loudly of this plan, only to be waylaid by a firm knock at the door.

Nie Huaisang immediately jumps up to answer it, leaving Nie Mingjue to glower after him. On the other side of the door, a Lan disciple bows and informs them that Lan Qiren has cancelled classes for the day as he is unwell.

Nie Mingjue frowns in concern. It is unusual for any cultivator to fall ill, let alone one of Lan Qiren’s calibre. He wonders what could have struck Lan Qiren down so suddenly and if he should be worried. Xichen had mentioned meeting with his uncle the previous day. Could Xichen be in danger of falling ill, too? If so, Nie Mingjue will certainly have to delay his return to Qinghe the next morning.

He stews in his thoughts until Nie Huaisang returns to the table, smiling mischievously.

Nie Mingjue takes one look at him and sighs, “What do you know?”

Nie Huaisang flips his fan open with a casual air of innocence that doesn’t fool Nie Mingjue for a second. But his brother’s smile only widens as he fans himself languidly, “Nothing at all, Da-ge. Xichen-ge went to talk to his uncle yesterday, didn’t he? How interesting.”

“Huaisang, what—?”

“Eat your breakfast, Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang interrupts cheerfully, digging into his own congee, “Lan Qiren will be fine. And if I’m right, Wei-xiong and Lan-er-gongzi will be here soon to fill us in. We should be prepared to greet them properly, no? I’m sure one of Lan Qiren’s lectures focuses on proper etiquette in receiving members of other sects. So important for maintaining inter-sect relations, Da-ge. Can’t possibly afford to fail that class, can I?”

Nie Mingjue rolls his eyes, and reaches over to smack the back of his brother’s head, ignoring his affronted yelp as he turns back to his breakfast.

 

——

 

True to Huaisang’s prediction (and Nie Mingjue has given up on even acting surprised at this point by his brother’s apparent and uncanny omniscience), there’s a knock on their door not ten minutes later. A moment later, the door slides open as Wei WuXian unceremoniously lets himself and Lan WangJi in, and comes to collapse dramatically at their table.

Nie Mingjue raises an eyebrow at him, which only serves to make Wei WuXian grin impishly.

Nie Mingjue huffs in amusement. He is, much to his chagrin, already rather fond of this irreverent boy. He reminds him too closely of Huaisang at his cheekiest, sometimes. He may be a demonic cultivator, but Nie Mingjue has seen enough of him (in and out of Huaisang’s memories) to know the boy is genuine in his affections and fiercely protective of those he cares for. And evidently, Huaisang is one of the people he cares for. Which means he will keep Huaisang safe. Nie Mingjue approves.

Beside Wei WuXian, Lan WangJi takes his seat far more gracefully. Nie Mingjue pauses in the act of reaching to pour himself some tea, looking between the two and frowning slightly. They look tired. There are dark smudges beneath Wei WuXian’s eyes as he lists against Lan WangJi’s shoulder, and even Lan WangJi has a mild air of weariness about him, which is saying something since Nie Mingjue hasn’t ever seen him have an air of—well, anything, really. He pushes the teapot towards them instead.

“So,” Nie Huaisang says after a moment of silence that remains surprisingly unbroken by Wei WuXian, “You talked to Lan Qiren?”

Wei WuXian slumps in his seat with a sigh. “Oh, we talked to him alright.”

Nie Huaisang makes a noise of sympathy. “He didn’t believe you?”

Wei WuXian waves a hand at him and sighs deeply, “At this point, who even knows?”

Nie Mingjue blinks, taken aback. Lan WangJi shakes his head and clarifies. “Xiongzhang spoke to him. He has been informed of most things up to the end of the war, with the exception of Wei Ying’s demonic cultivation. He is willing to make preparations, provided he has concrete proof soon. He will receive it with the Waterborne Abyss.”

Nie Mingjue nods and then frowns when Wei WuXian continues to look upset, “That’s good, right?”

Wei WuXian nods, but his voice is still a sigh when he says, “Yeah, it’s good. It means that he’s at least willing to listen and act to protect the Cloud Recesses.”

Nie Mingjue blinks. He is still clearly missing something vital. “We received word that he has taken ill.”

Wei WuXian groans, “He’s probably spitting blood about me again.”

Nie Mingjue stares at him disbelievingly. What? He looks at Lan WangJi, who remains tellingly silent, his eyes hard as glass.

Opposite Nie Mingjue, Nie Huaisang sets his tea down, obviously coming to a realisation. “Ah, Lan Xichen told him you were married.”

Lan WangJi stiffens, his face truly looking as though it was carved from impenetrable jade. Wei WuXian slumps even further into his space and groans, “You fucking bet he did.”

Catching Nie Mingjue’s confused frown, he elaborates, “He, uh, doesn’t approve of me.”

“I thought you said he didn’t know about the demonic cultivation?” Nie Mingjue asks.

It is Lan WangJi who answers, voice brittle as he stares at his tea. “Uncle has preconceived notions about Wei Ying.”

Nie Huaisang lets out a hiss of sympathy, “Yeah, he’s never liked Wei-xiong. Even before the whole demonic cultivation thing.”

Wei WuXian shrugs, “Something to do with my mother. Apparently, I take after her.”

Nie Mingjue frowns, finding this ridiculous. He has heard tales of Cangse Sanren, and by all accounts she was an accomplished cultivator. “That’s ridiculous. And it’s clearly too late to object anyway. You’ve been married for years and WangJi is obviously happy. What is there to spit blood about?”

“Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang interjects, “You know how Lan Qiren is. He’s not good with new ideas.” He shoots Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi a small smile, “He’ll get over it.”

They both nod, and Wei WuXian’s answering smile is small but genuine.

“I hope so,” Wei WuXian sighs, “I think poor Xichen-ge is bearing the worst of it, though. He broke the news and went to talk to him once he stormed out of the Jingshi, too.”

Nie Mingjue frowns at that. Storming out indicates that the issue wasn’t resolved. He should go check on Xichen sometime today. Soothing his uncle always leaves Xichen feeling tired and listless.

He sees his brother look at him knowingly over the top of his fan and glares.

They finish their tea in silence. Putting his cup down finally, Lan WangJi makes as if to rise.

“Ah, leaving already?” Nie Huaisang asks.

Lan WangJi nods. “Mn. I have work to do.”

Wei WuXian notices Nie Mingjue’s questioning look. “He’s changing the wards around the Jingshi,” he explains, “Only the old ones were up. Lan Qiren broke through them yesterday.”

Lan WangJi’s expression darkens, “I forgot before. Will not make that mistake again.”

Wei WuXian smiles at him, rubbing a soothing hand up Lan WangJi’s back.

“You can manipulate the wards in the Cloud Recesses?” Nie Mingjue asks, surprised.

Wei WuXian shrugs. “Lan Zhan can. Wards are his area, not mine. He’ll update the ones around the Cloud Recesses over the next few months, too.”

“Mn. They will require more time.”

Nie Mingjue looks at the younger Twin Jade, impressed. Ward manipulation, particularly with regard to wards as old and complex and the ones in the Cloud Recesses requires an enormous amount of skill and usually multiple cultivators working in tandem.

“Can you show me your work sometime? We could use that kind of skill in the Nie Sect.”

Lan WangJi nods. “You require better wards for the Nie ancestral tombs. I will draw up the designs and give them to you soon.”

Nie Mingjue raises his eyebrows at them, more surprised than he would like to admit. Of course they already know about one of the Nie Sect’s most guarded secrets. He saw this in Empathy, but it is still a shock to hear these little confirmations. But wards for the tombs? He looks at Nie Huaisang, who shrugs.

“I asked Lan-er-gongzi to come up with new wards before. We put them up a year ago in our time. They’re very powerful. If he can replicate them, they will be unmatched.”

Nie Mingjue nods and turns back to Lan WangJi. “Thank you,” he says gruffly, “We will pay you, of course.”

Lan WangJi frowns, suddenly looking distinctly unhappy, much to Nie Mingjue’s surprise. “Unnecessary.”

Nie Huaisang waves his fan languidly over his face, but Nie Mingjue can see his eyes crinkling with amusement, though he says nothing. Wei WuXian grins widely when he looks at him in question, sliding an arm around an unhappy Lan WangJi’s waist.

“Ah, Lan Zhan didn’t want payment last time either. But Nie-xiong insisted, and when Lan Zhan refused, he kept finding more and more ridiculous reasons to shower poor Lan Zhan with extravagant gifts in public that Lan Zhan couldn’t refuse until he had made up the cost.”

Nie Mingjue turns incredulous eyes on his brother as Lan WangJi glowers at the wall. “Huaisang. That’s… actually not a bad idea.”

His brother’s eyes light up as Wei WuXian chokes on a laugh. Lan WangJi turns swiftly towards him, his eyes ever so slightly widened. Nie Mingjue has a feeling that on anyone else, that look would be one of open betrayal. He grins, slowly starting to understand why Xichen keeps referring to his little brother as adorable.

He shrugs nonchalantly at the disgruntled boy. “If you’re going to use your extensive skills to aid the Nie Sect, you will be compensated accordingly. It is only right.”

Lan WangJi’s jaw clenches for a minute, before he nods in— not quite defeat, but definitely something not neutral. Nie Mingjue isn’t sure if it’s the amount of time they’ve spent together this week or if the future Lan WangJi is just more expressive, but either way, he feels like he’s definitely getting better at detecting at least some emotions on Xichen’s brother’s face. Xichen will be proud.

“We will discuss it later, once I have recreated the designs.” Lan WangJi says, no inflection whatsoever in his voice. Nie Mingjue is not fooled. He grins.

Lan WangJi stands without another word, bows, and makes his way to the door. Wei WuXian shoots to his feet as well and grins brightly at them both, eyes dancing, and hurries after him, placing a soothing hand on his arm as they leave.

Nie Mingjue snorts as the door closes behind them. He turns back to his brother, who smiles at him gleefully.

“So, are you going to go check on Xichen-ge now?”

Nie Mingjue reaches over swiftly and hits him again.

 

——

 

Nie Mingjue does, in fact, go looking for Lan Xichen soon after, and is surprised when Lan Xichen finds him first.

“Mingjue,” Lan Xichen smiles, but looking too worried and pale for Nie Mingjue’s liking, “Do you have time to talk for a bit?”

Nie Mingjue frowns and nods, letting Lan Xichen lead the way to the Hanshi. He heroically says nothing until Xichen has finished pouring them both tea and has sighed into his cup twice.

“Xichen, what is the matter? Is it your uncle? WangJi and Wei WuXian told me what happened. Has he been making things difficult for you?” Nie Mingjue clenches his hand on Baxia’s hilt, ready to go start his own shouting match with Lan Qiren if necessary.

Lan Xichen startles and meets his gaze. “What? No. Mingjue, no, it’s alright. Uncle is just… surprised. He will come to terms with everything eventually. That’s not why I asked you here.”

Nie Mingjue nods and loosens his hold on his saber. “What is it then? What troubles you?”

Lan Xichen sighs again. Nie Mingjue feels his blood pressure rise in response.

“Mingjue, you’ve seen all of Huaisang’s memories, right?”

Nie Mingjue immediately has a bad feeling about this. He nods anyway. “Whatever he wanted me to see, at least.”

Lan Xichen opens his mouth to speak before visibly hesitating. The seconds drag on.

Nie Mingjue sighs. “Just ask what you want to know, Xichen.”

Lan Xichen takes a breath and straightens then, meeting his eyes determinedly. “Did you find out anything about WangJi being punished? By– by uncle, or the Lan sect?”

Nie Mingjue takes a moment to blink in shock. Well, that was not what he expected. Lan WangJi being punished? Preposterous.

He combs quickly through his borrowed memories but, “No,” he says, shaking his head, “There was nothing in Huaisang’s memories.”

He sees Lan Xichen’s shoulders droop and frowns, concerned, “Xichen, what is this about? Why would WangJi be punished?”

“I don’t know,” Lan Xichen whispers, looking down at his lap, “They’re hiding things from me, Mingjue. But I think WangJi was hurt somehow in their future; by the Lan sect, or uncle, or–or me.”

“Xichen–”

Lan Xichen looks up at him, and Nie Mingjue is shaken by how distressed he looks. “Yesterday, in the Jingshi, uncle thought they were lying and threatened to punish WangJi. He said some things, wrong things, hurtful things, but WangJi, he—Mingjue, he had a panic attack.”

Nie Mingjue freezes. “What?”

Lan WangJi panicking? He cannot even begin imagine such a thing. But then he recalls the weariness on WangJi’s and Wei WuXian’s faces that morning, and wonders if maybe he could.

Lan Xichen’s hands clench tightly in his lap but Nie Mingjue can still see how they tremble. “Wuxian defended him. He was so angry, Mingjue. He told WangJi that he would not let him be punished again. And then, when WangJi was panicking, he kept telling him he would not be hurt. I’ve never seen WangJi like that. He was shaking, Mingjue!”

Nie Mingjue reaches out and places a large hand firmly on Lan Xichen’s shoulder for a moment, urging him to look up. Lan Xichen meets his eyes and oh, he knows that look. It was the same look he used to see in the mirror in the days following his father’s death, when Huaisang would not eat or sleep, and Nie Mingjue had been so terrified of losing him too—the helpless fear of an older sibling who does not know what to do to protect their little brother. His heart aches for the elder Twin Jade.

“Xichen, it’s alright. WangJi is alright. I saw him this morning and he was fine.”

Lan Xichen just shakes his head in response, “How can you know that, Mingjue? WangJi doesn’t like to show his emotions. And the way he was last night– I don’t– I've never-”

Nie Mingjue sees Lan Xichen working himself up again and grits his teeth over the urge to groan. He has never been good at comfort and reassurance. All he has ever had to offer is the truth. He tries it now.

“Xichen, stop. Calm yourself and listen to me,” He waits until Lan Xichen takes a couple of calming breaths, his hands settling once more in his lap as he focuses on Nie Mingjue. Good.

“You know that I saw Huaisang’s memories. But Huaisang was never on the forefront of the war, as WangJi and Wei WuXian were. My brother has always worked best behind the scenes, and even he has come out of this future of theirs changed,” He pauses, sighing at the truth of it but focuses quickly back on the matter at hand, “Those two have probably told you more about their experiences than they’ve told anyone else. But I don’t think either of us will really be able to understand what they’ve been through. Even with Empathy, I don’t. But our brothers are different now. And as much as I hate it, we cannot protect them from everything anymore.” He frowns heavily as he grits out the last part, feeling as though the admission is ripped out of him. His hand clenches unconsciously on Baxia’s hilt. He cannot protect his brother from the world anymore and he hates it. He hates it with a deep and abiding fury.

Lan Xichen stares at him for a moment, his own jaw clenched slightly, then nods, his shoulders dipping ever so slightly in defeat. The troubled look still hasn’t left his eyes however.

“You’re right, Mingjue, as much as I may dislike it. But if what you say is true, why, after all they have been through, did my brother flinch at the idea of being punished by his own clan? He is head of discipline for our disciples and he knows what those punishments entail. So why?”

Nie Mingjue’s frown deepens. He doesn’t know the answer to that. “Have you asked?”

Lan Xichen shakes his head, “I do not think WangJi will tell me willingly.”

Nie Mingjue raises an eyebrow at him. Ah, of course, the rules. WangJi would not lie, but Xichen would not pull the truth out of him unwillingly. They will have to find another source then.

He narrows his eyes in consideration, “Wei WuXian will not tell us if WangJi has asked him not to. But the boy is obviously protective. He may be willing to tell you enough to prevent it from happening again,” He frowns; it is not enough, “Our only other alternatives are Huaisang and that Wen Qionglin.”

Lan Xichen looks at him curiously, “You said there was nothing in Huaisang’s memories?”

Nie Mingjue snorts, “That doesn’t mean Huaisang has shown me everything he knows. We will ask him. Now.”

Lan Xichen startles, “Now?”

Nie Mingjue shrugs, “I’m sure he’s around. I wouldn’t put it past him to spy on us anyway.”

He ignores Lan Xichen’s protests and walks over to the entrance of the Hanshi and pulls the door open. There is no obvious presence on the other side, but Nie Mingjue recalls his brother’s teasing smile this morning with annoyance and has absolutely no faith that his little brother was willing to forgo an opportunity to gather more gossip.

“Huaisang,” he calls out, raising his voice and letting his annoyance show, “Come out. We have a question for you.”

There is no reply. Not even a leaf twitches.

“Stop wasting our time, Huaisang.”

Still nothing. Nie Mingjue rolls his eyes.

“Fine. I’ll close the door. You have two minutes. Don’t keep Xichen waiting.”

He turns back inside, ignoring Xichen’s doubtful look. He knows his brother and exactly how incorrigible he can be. Exactly two minutes later, there is a knock on the door of the Hanshi. He almost laughs at the incredulous look on Xichen’s face. He opens the door to reveal Nie Huaisang’s pouting face.

“Really, Da-ge, you’re so mean,” his brother whines, “Accusing me of spying! I would never.”

Nie Mingjue rolls his eyes but resists the urge to whack him as he leads him to the table where Lan Xichen sits, still looking faintly appalled. He knows his brother is trying to goad him, but he won’t give him the satisfaction. Not in front of Lan Xichen at least. “Cut the crap, Huaisang, and answer Xichen’s question.”

Nie Huaisang unfurls his fan and blinks at them innocently over its rim, “What question, Da-ge?”

Nie Mingjue glares at him. “You know exactly what. Do you know anything about WangJi being punished?”

His brother glances quickly at Lan Xichen, but shakes his head, “No, I don’t know. I really don’t.”

Seeing Nie Mingjue’s sceptical look, Nie Huaisang sighs in exasperation and rolls his eyes. “I mean it, Da-ge. If something happened to Lan WangJi, it wasn’t made known to anyone outside of the Lan clan, and neither he nor Wei-xiong have said anything.”

Lan Xichen’s face falls and Nie Mingjue sighs.

“But you have suspicions,” he accuses.

Nie Huaisang frowns at him in annoyance, but Nie Mingjue refuses to budge. “This is important, Huaisang. Lan WangJi had a panic attack yesterday because of things his uncle said to him. If you know something, tell us.”

Nie Huaisang sobers at that. He hums consideringly for a few moments as he stares at the design on his fan, “Lan-er-gongzi has been working very hard on the wards around the Jingshi today.”

Nie Mingjue frowns in confusion. He knows this already so why— he looks up in time to see Lan Xichen startle. Ah.

“It is understandable, since it is his home. I heard Lan Qiren broke through the wards yesterday. It must have bothered Lan-er-gongzi a great deal. He is very protective of his own,” Huaisang muses, still examining the design on his fan in careful detail.

“Just tell us what you know, Huaisang,” Nie Mingjue barks, losing patience as Lan Xichen flinches slightly.

Nie Huaisang looks up, his face unreadable, “Fine. But I really cannot think of any incident for which Lan WangJi would be punished. Only a time when it might have happened.”

“When?” Lan Xichen asks, staring intently at Nie Huaisang.

Nie Huaisang hums, “For three years after Wei-xiong’s death, Lan-er-gongzi vanished. The Lan clan said he had gone into seclusion to focus on his cultivation. No one thought much of it. Later, I thought he must have been in mourning.”

“But?”

“But now I wonder. A while after Wei-xiong returned, I found out that Lan-er-gongzi had a son. That he was the last Wen child and Lan-er-gongzi had rescued him after the siege on the Burial Mounds.”

“So?” Nie Mingjue asks impatiently.

Nie Huaisang peers at Lan Xichen over the top of his fan, his eyes calculating. “So, Lan-er-gongzi doesn’t seem the type to rescue a child and then immediately abandon him, even to mourn—especially if that child was Wei-xiong’s. I have seen Lan-er-gongzi with his son. They were both very obviously attached to each other. It seems unlikely that Lan-er-gongzi would not see him for three years, particularly since, by all accounts, the child was ill enough to lose all his memories.”

Nie Mingjue feels an uncomfortable twisting in his gut. He doesn’t like where this is going.

He sees his brother look at Lan Xichen consideringly, something unreadable in his eyes, “That doesn’t sound like Lan WangJi, does it, Xichen-ge?”

Something dark and heavy flash across Lan Xichen’s face for a fraction of a moment. “No,” he whispers, his eyes far away, “That is not something WangJi would do.”

“What you’re saying,” Nie Mingjue growls, his hands clenching into fists on the table, “is that Lan WangJi was prevented from seeing his son for three years?”

Nie Huaisang shrugs, “I don’t know, Da-ge. It’s only conjecture.”

Nie Mingjue levels a sceptical look at him, but surprisingly, Nie Huaisang shakes his head at him firmly, “No. It really is, Da-ge. I suspect the only people who can tell you the truth about this are Wei-xiong and Lan-er-gongzi. Even if I’m right, I don’t know why or how Lan-er-gongzi might have been punished, or by whom. And relying on rumours and conjecture will lead nowhere.”

Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen look at him in wide-eyed surprise, anger dissipating.

Nie Huaisang huffs at them and looks away, saying quietly, “Rumours and conjecture were one of the main reasons behind Wei-xiong’s death in our time. I have already hurt them enough in this time. I will not add to it, and especially not like this. I made them a promise. Whatever it is they are hiding, it is their right.”

Nie Mingjue blinks at him, shocked. He forgets, sometimes, just how much his brother has matured. Huaisang is very good at playing the fool.

Across from him, Lan Xichen frowns at his brother. “You hurt them, Huaisang?”

Nie Huaisang looks back at him with raised eyebrows and says a little impatiently, “I brought them back here, Xichen-ge. Because of me, they have lost their son.”

Nie Mingjue feels the shock course through him like lightening, and then immediately feels ashamed for it. How could he not have realised this sooner? One look at Xichen’s suddenly pale face tells him that Xichen has not considered it either. They were parents. The notion is inconceivable to Nie Mingjue. He had known about the child, of course, had seen him briefly in Huaisang’s memories, but somehow, he has failed to connect that knowledge with the reality of the two young teenage boys he had seen this morning. He grinds his teeth together, suddenly furious.

“Oh, WangJi,” Lan Xichen says, soft and sad.

Nie Huaisang looks between them disbelievingly. Nie Mingjue looks away guiltily.

“Will they not adopt him again?” He asks the wall gruffly.

His brother stares at his fan as he waves it slowly, his expression unreadable, “I thought they would but— he was an orphan of war last time. In this time, he has not yet been born.”

“He may be in no need of adoption if their plans succeed,” Lan Xichen realises, grief colouring his tone.

Nie Huaisang nods. Nie Mingjue feels his gut twist. The silence drags on until Nie Huaisang finally snaps his fan closed, startling the other occupants in the room.

He rises in his place, “If there’s nothing else, Xichen-ge, I will take my leave.”

Lan Xichen nods and pulls up a small smile, “Yes, of course. Thank you for talking to us, Huaisang.”

Nie Mingjue stands as well, knowing Lan Xichen needs some time to think. He has much to think about himself. He will check in on him later before he leaves. He gives Xichen a reassuring nod, and Xichen’s answering smile is ever so slightly warmer. He makes his way to the door, only to realise that his brother still hasn’t moved from where he’s standing and looking at Lan Xichen.

“Huaisang,” he calls in annoyance. Why is his brother staring at Lan Xichen like that? Isn't he planning to leave?

His brother startles at his voice and unfurls his fan, waving it in front of his face in a flustered manner. “I’m coming, Da-ge, there’s no need to shout!” He turns back to Lan Xichen, his eyes crinkling at him sadly, “See how mean he is to me, Xichen-ge! You would never be so mean to your brother, would you? No, I know you wouldn’t. I remember, even so far in the future, Lan WangJi still always had so much affection for you. Won’t you teach Da-ge to be nice to me, too, Xichen-ge?”

Nie Mingjue scowls at him and opens his mouth to growl out a reprimand when Lan Xichen speaks, his smile now warm and almost relieved. “Of course, Huaisang. And… thank you.”

Nie Mingjue frowns, looking between them in confusion until Huaisang snags his sleeve as he passes and drags him out. Behind them, Lan Xichen’s smile lingers long after they leave.

 

——

 

“You really don’t know?” Nie Mingjue asks shortly later that night as they settle in Nie Mingjue’s guest room after dinner.

His brother startles slightly before looking up at him with a frown, “I told you I don’t, Da-ge.”

Nie Mingjue shrugs, “I thought maybe you didn’t want to talk about it in front of Xichen, the same as with Jin Guangyao.”

Nie Huaisang’s knuckles whiten on his fan as he shakes his head.

Nie Mingjue sighs, “Huaisang, you agreed not to kill him.”

His brother glares at the wall in front of him, his fan carefully covering most of his expression. “Did I?”

“Huaisang,” he growls warningly.

Nie Huaisang huffs and points his fan at him accusingly, “He killed you. Why do you even care if I kill him?”

“He hasn’t, and he won’t.”

“He’s a viper,” Nie Huaisang hisses, “As long as he lives, you’re in danger.”

“Enough, Huaisang!” He slams his fist on the table, losing patience with this argument entirely. They have already had it more than a dozen times this week and it still always boils down to the same thing, “He already paid for his crimes. But this Meng Yao has done nothing to warrant his death yet. And he won’t ever have to, if we follow your plan.”

“But—”

“Fine!” he snarls, “Then I promise you this. If he steps a toe out of line, if you suspect that he might step a toe out of line, I will put Baxia to his neck myself, whatever anyone else may say.”

Nie Huaisang stares at him intently and Nie Mingjue meets his eyes with his own furious gaze.

“Do you swear?” his brother asks quietly, “Do you swear on our mother’s ashes?”

Nie Mingjue pauses on a sharp inhale. This is more than words for them. This is the deepest promise they can make, an unbreakable vow between brothers. One they have shared since the day after their father died and Nie Mingjue sat his sobbing little brother down and swore to protect him for all of his life. Nie Mingjue lets the remnants of his anger drain away as he straightens in his seat and reaches out a hand to grasp his brother’s shoulder, squeezing it firmly.

“I swear it. Of all his crimes, it is my death you grudge him the most. Then, if necessary, it is my right to take his life.”

Nie Huaisang looks between his eyes, searching for a lie, before letting go of his breath.

“Thank you, Da-ge,” he says quietly.

Nie Mingjue tightens his hand on his brother’s shoulder. His brother should not be so quiet and serious; he was not made for that haunted look in his eyes. He is still so young, even if his soul is old. And no matter his age, it will always be Nie Mingjue’s job to protect him, not the other way around.

But Nie Mingjue was not made for comfort or reassurance. So he shakes the shoulder under his hand and growls, “You just focus on passing your classes this time. I expect you to do better than you did in your lifetime, since you aren’t actually a child anymore.”

The tension broken, Nie Huaisang instantly scowls at him and pulls away from the offending hand. “Da-ge! That’s unfair!”

Nie Mingjue snorts, “Unfair, is it? Lan Qiren knows you’re an adult now. And I’m sure Xichen is already having trouble convincing him that you’re intelligent enough to be one, let alone that you were Sect Leader. Don’t make me lose face when I see the old man next by lazing around now.”

Nie Huaisang's scowl deepens above his fan and he turns away with a huff. “Who needs all that stuff about clan genealogy and all those rules? It doesn’t matter to me. I’m going to be a lazy young master for the rest of my life.”

“Oh, are you now?” Nie Mingjue asks dangerously, “Or maybe I’ll start training you thrice as hard and won’t stop until you’re head disciple.”

“Da-ge, you wouldn’t!”

“What was it you said this morning?” Nie Mingjue asks, grinning ferally, “I believe it was, ‘Watch me’?”

“Da-ge, you—” his brother splutters, pointing his fan at him in outrage.

Nie Mingjue suppresses his laughter and rises to his feet and stretches. “I’ll be sure to start gathering the right tutors and instructors as soon as I get back to Qinghe tomorrow. So make sure you study properly under Lan Qiren until then.”

“Da-ge!”

Nie Mingjue grins and ruffles his little brother’s hair as walks past. “Just focus on your studies for now and leave all the political bullshit to me, okay? That’s my job anyway, as your Sect Leader.”

He makes it all the way to the door separating the sitting room from the inner chambers before he’s called back by a quiet, “Da-ge?”

He turns around with a frown, only to find his brother watching him with a strange, oddly vulnerable look.

“Thank you,” Nie Huaisang says, “For everything.”

Nie Mingjue feels his face redden at the actual sincerity in his brother’s voice and spins back around to storm into the bedroom. What the fuck, Huaisang? “It’s my job to make sure you’re not stuck in the middle of war or whatever,” he growls, “Go to bed, Huaisang. I’ll see you tomorrow at whatever infernal hour we have to wake up at.”

He slams the door shut and storms towards the bed, but not before he hears the giggling, “Goodnight, Da-ge,” from the other side.

Nie Mingjue definitely does not smile in response.