Nie Huaisang stares blankly at the scroll in front of him. He's read more words in the last three days than he has in the last year combined— and none of them have been helpful. He blinks rapidly, then tries to refocus his attention on the characters that swim in front of his eyes.
Da-ge needs me to help him, he reminds himself firmly, then bites back the urge to cry. Mingjue should be here but he is in Cloud Recesses, somehow a child once more… Nie Huaisang sits back and swallows thickly.
He remembers the fear that had clawed through him at the sight of his brother, shouting incoherently, bleeding as his meridians shattered.
He remembers how Jin Guangyao had held him back, the fear and terror in his face echoed in Nie Huaisang's soul.
He remembers Lan Xichen blowing past both of them and collapsing at Mingjue’s side, hands reaching out instinctively, spiritual power pouring out of him.
Fear hadn't held the Lan Clan Leader back— Mingjue hadn't reacted to his best friend's presence at all, his dark bloody eyes locked on Nie Huaisang’s—
Lan Xichen’s remembered shouts for help ring in Nie Huaisang’s ears and he stands with a deep breath, the memory of Lan Xichen covered in his brother’s blood dancing before his eyes. He exhales slowly, then shakes his head.
Nie Huaisang turns at the sound of his name and forces a smile onto his lips. “How can I help you?” he asks, and Nie Qiuyue stares at him, frowning slightly.
“It’s unusual to see the Young Master study with such a serious face,” she says slowly, then adds, “or study at all.” Her head tilts to the side as she examines him carefully.
Nie Huaisang huffs a laugh and waves his fan as he searches for a reason to be in the library. “Ah,” he replies, “just…” But he can’t think of anything to say, and Nie Qiuyue would see through a lie in a moment.
Nie Qiuyue’s shoulders relax and she shakes her head. “Young Master,” she says softly, coming closer. “The Clan Leader is in good hands in Cloud Recesses.” Nie Huaisang stiffens against his will and the older woman’s eyes turn sharp. “Is he not?” she asks abruptly, the clash of steel echoing in her voice.
Nie Huaisang looks up and meets her gaze, and memories of his childhood race through his mind. Nie Qiuyue had been there for both him and his brother— and after their parents had died, the older woman had taken responsibility for both boys, and had guided Mingjue through the early years of his leadership.
Nie Huaisang lets his eyes flicker around the room to confirm that they are still alone, and comes to a decision.
“Auntie,” he says, voice low. “Have you ever heard of anything… unusual… happening during a qi deviation?”
Nie Qiuyue’s eyes narrow.
The trip back to Cloud Recesses passes in silence— Nie Huaisang had saved all of his spiritual power to make the journey back in one go. It was something he’d never had to worry about before; Mingjue, though he had complained, had never denied Nie Huaisang’s presence on Baxia.
But who knows when that will happen again, Huaisang, he tells himself, the fear of possibly having to re-raise his own elder brother a shadow in the back of his mind. Nie Qiuyue paces him steadily, her own saber rock-solid beneath her as they glide through the air.
“Zonghui was unhappy,” she remarks idly, and Nie Huaisang stifles a grimace.
Nie Zonghui had been raised alongside Mingjue— long before becoming his second in command, the two had been the despair of the Unclean Realm, running wild and free and barely listening to anyone other than the Clan Leader.
But even with the additional years, Nie Huaisang knew that Mingjue would recognize Nie Zonghui. And so, he’d asked the other man to remain behind. There was no reason to upset his brother any more than necessary, Nie Huaisang had decided.
“He’s the best to run the Clan while we’re gone,” Nie Huaisang replies evenly, and Nie Qiuyue lifts a brow but looks away. He sighs gently to himself, relieved when the woman says nothing else.
They should reach Cloud Recesses shortly, and Nie Huaisang hadn’t told Nie Qiuyue the specifics of what had happened to Mingjue— he could hardly believe it himself, and he’d been there. The truth, in this case, was better seen than explained.
The guards at the gate of Cloud Recesses draw their swords as the Nie entourage lands, but relax almost immediately at the sight of Nie Huaisang.
“Young Master Nie, Zewu-Jun is expecting you.”
Nie Huaisang inclines his head to the guard who’d spoken, more than pleased that Lan Xichen had carried out his end of the plan and increased the security.
“Thank you,” he replies easily, and enters Cloud Recesses as the ward tingles over his skin.
Nie Qiuyue’s face shows her curiosity for a bare moment before it becomes expressionless once more, and Nie Huaisang sends a tight smile her way.
“Soon,” he says in a soft voice, and folds his fan shut with a snap. “I promise it will all make sense soon.”
“As you say, Young Master,” Nie Qiuyue responds after a moment, and he looks away from her and focuses his attention back on the path in front of him.
The walk through Cloud Recesses is strangely silent— Nie Huaisang is used to a Cloud Recesses that, though respectful of the rules of the mountain, bustles with life. But there are no golden robes of Jin Clan attendants, no violet of Yunmeng messengers— white-clad cultivators are as ghosts in the background, unnerved by the suddenness with which their Clan Leader had sealed the mountain.
Their own darkly colored Nie robes seem even more out of place as they walk through the silence, and Nie Huaisang can’t help but smile as Nie Qiuyue grows even more tense the longer they walk.
By the time they reach the back hill the rest of the Nie disciples have been settled into temporary lodging, and Nie Huaisang and Nie Qiuyue are alone. The sounds of a guqin begin to make its way through the trees, and Nie Huaisang takes a breath to steady his heart.
They’d found some references to previous Nie cultivators surviving their qi deviations— but Nie Huaisang hoped that Lan Qiren had had more luck than them. There had been nothing mentioning a child.
The low building that Nie Huaisang leads them to is bright with laughter and music, the sounds of a dizi and a guqin weaving through the air in a merry pattern, and Nie Huaisang feels his shoulders relax at the joy in the child's laughter, a sound he had not heard from his brother in years.
At his back, Nie Qiuyue goes still.
“Anyone home?” Nie Huaisang asks, knocking his fan against the door. The dizi comes to a halt as Mingjue appears in front of him, dark eyes wide.
“A-Sang!” Mingjue launches himself at Nie Huaisang’s waist and wraps his arms around his brother in a grip that— even now— will leave bruises. “You’re back!”
Nie Huaisang feels Nie Qiuyue’s incredulous stare as he looks down at his brother. “I told you I would be,” he replies fondly, unable to resist the pleased grin that is plastered on Mingjue’s face. “Have Wei-xiong and Wangji-xiong been taking good care of you?”
Mingjue unravels himself from Nie Huaisang’s waist and pouts up at him. “Wei-xiong is mean,” he replies, and Nie Huaisang laughs in surprise.
“How so?” he asks, and Mingjue makes a face.
“He tried to feed me poison!”
A laugh from inside drifts through the doorway, and Wei Wuxian appears behind Mingjue, rolling his eyes.
“My cooking isn’t that bad, A-Jue,” Wei Wuxian protests, and Mingjue huffs, and the sound is so reminiscent of Mingjue as an adult that the breath catches in Nie Huaisang’s throat.
He clears it lightly, then taps Mingjue on the shoulder. “I brought someone to see you,” he says, then steps to the side.
Mingjue’s dark eyes light up with delight at the sight of Nie Qiuyue, and he flings himself into her arms. “Auntie!”
Nie Qiuyue is frozen in shock, still, but the weight of a child wiggling his way up to her shoulders breaks through the astonishment.
“A-Jue,” she says softly, eyes bright with sudden, unshed tears. “I missed you.”
Mingjue hugs her neck tightly, his legs wrapped firmly around her waist. “Did Father send you?” Mingjue asks, entirely at ease in her arms, and Nie Huaisang aches at the sight. His brother was so trusting as a child, it seems— loving and loud and entirely different from the stern man he’d been forced to become. “Are you here to take me away? I don’t want to go home yet, Cloud Recesses is so much fun.”
Nie Qiuyue bites her lip and stares at the sky for a moment before answering. “No,” she says, her voice steady. “I’m just here to visit, I’m not taking you away. And yes,” Nie Qiuyue glances over the top of Mingjue’s head to stare into Nie Huaisang’s eyes. “Your Father sent me.”
Nie Huaisang inclines his head to her in thanks. A small lie, but what were they to do? Admit to a child that his Father had died well over a decade ago? Nie Huaisang shakes his head, then turns to Wei Wuxian with a crooked smile.
“Well?” he asks softly, and Wei Wuxian shrugs and comes closer. The sounds of the guqin do not falter, but Nie Huaisang does not blame Lan Wangji for staying inside— that there are so many people in his home must be an annoyance, given what he knows of the other man.
“Xichen-ge hasn’t had any luck,” Wei Wuxian informs him in a low voice, “and Lan Qiren has been locked in the Forbidden Section for days.”
Nie Huaisang feels his shoulders slump at the words, and Wei Wuxian reaches out a hand to rest on his shoulder. They turn as one to watch Mingjue interact with Nie Qiuyue, and Nie Huaisang thanks all the gods he can think of that the older woman hasn’t changed a single bit over the years, and that his brother had so readily recognized her.
It will be good for him to have a truly familiar face around, Nie Huaisang knows, and breathes a sigh of relief.
But Mingjue catches sight of something behind Nie Qiuyue and drops out of her arms in a flash.
Nie Huaisang turns along with the others to watch as Mingjue bolts through Cloud Recesses to appear at Lan Xichen’s side, smiling widely. He studies the other man as Lan Xichen smiles helplessly against Mingjue’s obvious delight at his presence, sees the dark shadows under the Clan Leader’s eyes, the hint of strain in the curve of his lips, and clenches his jaw.
But Lan Xichen is a master of his trade, and in moments the signs of exhaustion and worry are swept from his face, and Mingjue’s grin turns shy as Lan Xichen reaches out to brush an errant strand of hair behind his ear.
At the sound of his brother’s name the calm music of the guqin comes to an end, and Lan Wangji appears at Wei Wuxian’s side, a steady, silent presence.
Lan Xichen allows Mingjue to capture his hand and lead him back to the others, and smiles a greeting towards Nie Qiuyue.
“Auntie,” Mingjue says seriously, his voice echoing with the authority that Chifeng-Zun could wield with effortless ease, “this is Lan Huan. He’s my… he’s my best friend!”
Nie Qiuyue’s eyes widen for a split second, her gaze turning towards Nie Huaisang before she answers. But Nie Huaisang shrugs minutely and raises a brow, and understanding flashes through Nie Qiuyue’s eyes in a burst before she turns back to the others.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lan Huan,” her voice barely shakes at referring to a Clan Leader so familiarly, and Lan Xichen’s smile grows wider in response as she bows deeply. “I am Nie Qiuyue.”
Lan Xichen unwinds his hand from Mingjue’s and returns the bow with a solemnity that should have been reserved for a vastly different occasion.
“The pleasure is all mine, Nie Qiuyue,” he replies, though the smile returns as Mingjue snags Lan Xichen’s hand once more the moment the Clan Leader is finished bowing. “Thank you for coming to see him.”
Nie Qiuyue glances around their little gathering, and Nie Huaisang can see her study and dismiss Wei Wuxian as a threat in the moment her eyes land on the other man. But Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen are present, and Nie Huaisang had previously told her that Lan Qiren is researching for them as well, and the remaining tension leeches from her shoulders.
“Thank you,” Nie Qiuyue says softly, turning her gaze back towards Mingjue, who is leaning against Lan Xichen’s side, both of his hands wrapped around one of Zewu-Jun’s. “For caring for him.”