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Lan Wangji still remembers summers in Qinghe. 

 

Even with the years trickling down between them, sap-cloudy and somehow rendering each and every recollection dreamlike, he still remembers. These days, with his brother so firmly ensconced in seclusion as to be unreachable, he finds himself thinking of those summers more and more often. Early in the morning usually, when he rises out of sleep and his new husband’s arms, rises up into the golden dawn like drowning in reverse, breathing in light. The memories seep back in to match the dew. 

Running, and running, the strike of his feet on the earth like the beat of a war drum; the smell of pine, flooding his chest and mouth on every inhale; his brother, and his brother’s friend, and a little black-tongued boy with skin as fine as fan paper. 

Now his brother is swallowed up, his brother’s friend is buried, and the little boy - 

The little boy is no longer real. The little boy is now dead, or dead in all the important ways. Or rather, the little boy is dead insofar as he is absent of all the ways whatever little boys grow into ought to be alive. It has been a long sixteen years since Wei Ying’s fall from grace, and since Lan Wangji’s failure to catch him. It has been the longest aching stretch of time that Lan Wangji has ever had to live through. It makes sense that lots of other things had been lost by the wayside in the wake of his own enormous grief, both little things and - 

And important things, mistaken for little things, as important things often are: the soft moon shape of a newly-lit lantern, the sharp taste of wine, the delicate surface of an illustrated book catching under his fingertips. The feel of it dangerously, illicitly silken against the calluses on his skin, made as if to match the sickle-shape of Wei Ying’s red-wet mouth. 

He had known, even then, that Wei Ying had gotten it from Nie Huaisang. He looked at the black ink of curling forms on the page, the drag of their tongues, and remembered the black ink always smeared on the inside of Nie Huaisang’s mouth. 

He tells himself it’s merely because he misses his brother. Lan Xichen has disappeared into a repetition of their family history as seamlessly as if he had done so by design. Each loop of the stitch pulls him closed and separate and gone elsewhere, in his grief, gone to somewhere Lan Wangji can still remember - somewhere he still feels the echo of in his chest some days, even now - but even so, it’s a place Lan Wangji cannot follow him into. Not now. Not anymore. He has Wei Ying to think of. 

Now, he and his brother are once again matching, and once again more out of sync than ever. They still call them the Twin Jades of Lan. As they have ever been, as they were even in their youth, that first summer in Qinghe. 

 

*

 

When the first letter arrives from Gusu, Nie Huaisang nearly laughs himself sick. He carries it in his sleeve, secreted there the whole day long, only to bring it out with a flourish in his family’s ancestral hall and say, “Can you believe it, Da-ge? A day when a Lan writes to me, and it’s not your Xichen. No, your Xichen never writes at all; he turns away my letters, he claims sickness and the whole sorry world is letting him, but his brother! His brother, Hanguang-jun, who would barely smile at me for six summers in a row. He writes. He writes to me! What a wonder! Isn’t it a wonder? What a motherfucking marvel!”

His brother, of course, does not reply. But that is usual, but Nie Huaisang is used to it: he has grown used to it, for he is grown now. It has been over a decade since his brother last called his name, and smiled, and did not have blood in his teeth when he did it. It has been over a decade, and Nie Huaisang still talks to his brother, even though his brother never talks back. He does it in private, but he knows the rest of the clan can hear it. He does not care. 

It has been over a decade, and Nie Huaisang is no longer a young master. He is a lord now. And if he wishes to be a little mad in private, does it matter? If it reached as far as Gusu, did it matter if he was gone a bit silly with grief, as long as the knowledge arrived by way of Lanling? 

Did it matter, as long the pretence of it kept up the sheen of pity in Lan Xichen’s eyes when he looked at him, when he looked, lamb-lost, from Nie Huaisang’s weeping to Jin Guangyao? To a Jin Guangyao who smiled the smile of a Chief Cultivator, weary and resigned, and took on Nie Huaisang’s weight, and promised to solve all his problems but never the greatest one, the one he had woven Nie Huaisang into as surely as a shroud - 

The only one, the only that mattered, this one: that Nie Huaisang had never wanted to be a sect leader. That he never should have been. That by all designs of the universe, he should’ve lived a handful more summers before seeing his only brother buried.  

He is not drunk. No, he is not drunk enough. He takes another swig of the wine. 

“I can’t figure out what he wants,” Nie Huaisang tells the empty room. “But can you ever, with a Lan? They’d smile at their own sworn brother’s murderer and tell themselves it was a misunderstanding.”

He is almost proud of that allusion. It is not as finely crafted as one of Jin Guangyao’s many literary metaphors, spilling out of his mouth and down the steps of the Jinlintai like unrolling silk, but Nie Huaisang does not want to be like - 

The problem with idolising your brother’s murderer, once and long ago, is this: the old habits of emulating can stick, like dirt, and leave you feeling unclean just the same. 

He takes another gulp of the wine, swirling it in his mouth as though to wash the taste of similarity out. The biggest difference is this: he is alive, and Jin Guangyao is not. He is crushed and broken and there is the rubble of a temple in Yunping, there is a man in hiding in the mountains to prove it. 

He is alive, and Jin Guangyao is not, and it doesn’t balance the scales. In the end, slight little Jin Guangyao’s life does not weigh the same as his brother’s: it it because he isn’t worthy to be compared, or because Nie Huaisang is so hollowed out he’s still wanting even when the revenge is served, like a starving man tricked by his own stomach into eating past his fill? 

The question remains, burning: what can Hanguang-jun, newly ascended to leadership of the Lan, want with the last remaining Nie? 

“I hate them,” Nie Huaisang admits, to the room and the silence and all his own ghosts, the air crowded so thick with them it’s abruptly difficult to breathe. “I fucking hate them, I hate them both and you can’t change my mind because -” He takes another. The wine burns. “Because you aren’t fucking here.”  

It's trite phrasing, but he's drunk and death is - 

Death is the most incomparably trite, hollow little thing, isn't it? 

He swallows. He tells himself he does not wait. He tells himself none of this is a challenge: the wine, the cursing, the slovenly posture. None of it is a plea to be reprimanded. 

 

But Nie Mingjue has become soft in death. Complacent. And so, as usual, he stays silent. 



*

 

The letter had been Wei Ying’s idea, as so often things were these days: Wei Ying, sprawled atop Lan Wangji’s chest easy as a cat, sex-flush and content. He had gazed down at Lan Wangji, laughed softly under his breath, and planted a small kiss on Lan Wangji’s mouth, messy and off-centre. 

“You’re contemplating again,” he had said, somewhat delightedly. 

“Contemplating,” Lan Wangji had repeated, the echo a question, and Wei Wuxian nodded, his sharp chin digging into Lan Wangji’s chest as he did it. 

“You’re doing the face for it.” 

“This is always my face,” Lan Wangji informed him, brushing Wei Wuxian’s hair back from his forehead, the strands soft and damp under his touch. “I only have one face, Wei Ying.” 

“You’re fretting, then,” Wei Ying corrects him. “What bothers my illustrious husband so much even I can’t distract him in our bed?” 

He wriggles his hips for emphasis, and laughs at Lan Wangji’s scowl, his attempt to steady him. Lan Wangji, still oversensitive from coming, manages a, “Wei Ying, behave.” 

It earns him another laugh. 

“Never,” Wei Ying promises, then, unerring as a hunting hawk, circles back on the conversation. “What’s wrong, Lan Zhan?” He strokes Lan Wangji’s hair away from his forehead and kisses it, and the gesture threatens to crack Lan Wangji’s chest open, as so many things Wei Ying does threaten to. “My Lan Zhan, won’t you tell me?” 

Like so many other times before, Lan Wangji gives in. 

“Sect Leader Nie is writing to my brother,” he admits. “I only know he has sent no reply. The letters continue. I worry that without a reply, he will persist. Or make trouble.” 

Wei Ying hums, and scrunches up his nose in thought. It’s unbearably endearing. 

“Can’t you write instead?” Wei Ying suggests. “Perhaps that will satisfy him.” 

Lan Wangji is stunned at the suggestion, and then aghast. Nie Huaisang and him have barely exchanged pleasantries since they were sixteen. And Wei Ying - Wei Ying thinks that - 

“I do not think I would be an adequate replacement. I doubt his goal is mere conversation.” 

“That’s a shame, then,” Wei Ying says, in a tone of voice that might imply he was acquiescing, if it was anyone but Wei Ying. Wei Ying has never acquiesced in his life, not unless it would further his intended goals. “I would’ve thought Nie Huaisang might show some care for a letter from an old friend, don’t you? Even if just for the sake of keeping up appearances. It couldn’t hurt, could it? Ah, but Lan Zhan, you know far more about these things! You grew up with him, didn’t you?” 

And then, in typical Wei Ying fashion, he snuggles in for a proper doze. Lan Wangji lets him. Of course, he lets him. He also stares up at the ceiling of their home for a long time afterwards. 

Perhaps he is - 

Contemplating. 

Had him and Nie Huaisang ever been friends? Surely not. Forced acquaintances, at most. Had it been easier, when they were young? No, really: it’s a worthwhile question, worth interrogating the memory. Nostalgia is a kind of blindness. The mind forgets the specifics of the pain it has endured. It can render the obnoxious into an ideal, given enough distance. And the distance is measured like this: in the years since, in the miles between Gusu and Qinghe. In the names they used for each other, long ago, in the time before they were deemed men enough to bear the new expectations bestowed by a courtesy name and not stumble beneath the weight of it. 

Nie Huaisang would not have stumbled. Nie Huaisang only pretended to stumble when carrying his sabre; the rest of the time, he was graceful as a fan dancer. Many disciples commented so, out of the supposed hearing of little boys, said the youngest Nie was better than any maiden hired to spin in the heart of the Jinlintai: but when Lan Wangji had told his brother this, Lan Huan had looked at him soberly, slowing his step in though, and then told him never to repeat what he had just said in front of Nie Mingjue. Lan Wangji had not realised it was not a compliment until his brother’s expression had told him so. 

“We must not tell lies,” Lan Wangji reminded him, and Lan Huan had smiled and said, “It is not a lie, didi . You are avoiding repeating to Mingjue-xiong that which he already knows. Remember? We must also avoid unnecessary speech.” He had sighed, and stroked Lan Wangji’s hair back from his face. “See? You are not telling lies. You are merely following the rules.”  

And Lan Wangji had nodded, and he had not told Nie Mingjue, who after all was his brother’s friend, and so spoke to Lan Wangji in the fond, distant way that the friends of a sibling tend to. He had told Nie Huaisang, spitting it in a fit of annoyance after a long, slow afternoon of being forced to meander with the other boy in search of birds to capture. Nie Huaisang had looked at him for a long time, so long Lan Wangji had felt uncomfortable, felt seen in a way that turned him inside out and made him uncomfortable, and then Nie Huaisang had laughed. And then - 

This is the part of the story Lan Wangji has not told Wei Ying. This is part of the story he will gladly never tell Wei Ying. In the black hole of those years apart, those years where Wei Ying was gone and Lan Wangji believed him gone for always, there had been this, too: there had been Lan Wangji, six years after Wei Ying’s death and half out of his head on the night of the anniversary. Drunk on Wei Ying’s wine, the wine he privately thought of as Wei Ying’s, and only certain that he needed to brand his outside to match his inside, so that everyone who might look upon his skin would know he was marked; a marked man, that he was living through the worst curse that could be visited on any man and somehow still, cruelly alive. That he was enduring the unendurable, and unable to die from it, and the scars of the discipline whip were no longer enough. The way the disciples flinched away from them when Lan Wangji entered the Cold Pond- horror-struck just out of the corners of his eyes, or stared, riveted, or even worse, pretended not to see at all - 

 

It was no longer enough. 

 

He remembers little of the night itself, but for this. In the moment before he branded himself with the Wen seal, over his chest, in the exact mirror of Wei Ying’s all those years before, at the beginning of the war - 

He had looked up, and seen Nie Huaisang watching him. The Wen brand had been in his clan’s keeping, and so he had come, in sleep robes, surrounded by an armed guard of Nie soldiers, to find the intruder in his family’s most sacred place was the illustrious Hanguang-jun - weeping and holding a burning brand to his chest so that the whole world might know that he was burning, that he was burning alive, that being alive was like burning, over and over, it was agony

And Nie Huaisang had not taken it from him. He had held out his hand to his clan, and his soldiers had halted. And he had stood there, the red-hot metal glowing in his eyes, kindled with a kind of dark understanding, and he had watched Lan Wangji burn himself his own body through in a mimicry of his dead beloved, and he had not stopped him. And Lan Wangji had awoken to an empty room in the guest quarters of the Unclean Realm, and a bowl full of medicinal herbs for the healing of burns. When he bowed to Nie Huaisang and thanked him, Nie Huaisang had snapped open his fan, and from behind it, he had said: 

“Whatever are you thanking me for? I don’t know, Hanguang-jun, I simply don’t know. For nothing has happened that we need speak of.”   

 

So they did not, and they never have since. 

 

*

 

It takes some time, and multiple letters enquiring about various petty things, such as Nie Huaisang’s health, and his opinion on the best artisans in the Gusu area, and to recommend a brush-maker of Qinghe origin for a commission, for Nie Huaisang to suspect Lan Wangji’s agenda is that there is no agenda at all. That the newly-ascended leader of the Lan sect is merely making conversation with an old friend. That Lan Wangji is trying to reorient himself into Nie Huaisang’s world in the manner of an old friend. It takes Nie Huaisang so long for two reasons. One is that he was raised in the company of Meng Yao, who had laid relationships out like an account book, like a field of war, and drilled Nie Huaisang in how to navigate them, fleet-footed and cautious as the last moving deer approaching a village full of the starving. He had taught Nie Huaisang well; it was that exquisite dedication to instructing Nie Huaisang that had killed him. 

The second reason is that the idea of putting the word friend in the same sentence as high and mighty Hanguang-jun feels a lot like putting just the bones of a chicken down your throat: you’re more liable to choke than gain anything from it. In fact, just the mere thought that Lan Wangji might be trying to extend an offer of friendship sets Nie Huaisang off laughing again. Had his husband set him up to this? It did reek of Wei Wuxian, but then Nie Huaisang imagines most of what Lan Wangji does is so influenced these days. And yet, did Lan Wangji not remember when they were younger? 

Did he not recall all the interminable summers in Qinghe, Huaisang kicked away from trailing at his brother’s heels to sit instead with his brother’s friend’s brother: little Lan Zhan, in the time before his courtesy hname, and still as silent and solemn and somehow always bored, no matter what games Huaisang invented for them to play? No, not bored: confused, perhaps. Lan Zhan was confused by games, by idleness, by the joy of pointless running and laughing, because all he did was tied to his cultivation and his clan, and he was moored too tightly. Slipping the leash was beneath him, somehow. 

And the further question remains, lingering and sticky with residue accumulated over the years, dust and dirt; as Nie Huaisang had buried it, unanswered, unsought for, as his ancestors always had with corpses in their sword shrine. The thing with that, of course, is you never quite forget the bodies are still there - behind the walls, as surely as if you could hear them breathing right into your ear. 

The question, of course, is this: had Da-ge ever really had friends? Friends in the way you ought to have friends? Not Chifeng-zun’s followers or Nie Mingjue’s lovers, comrades or sworn brothers or disciples duty-bound to die for him? Had anyone ever really been a friend to his brother, or had it always been Lan Xichen and Meng Yao and Nie Huaisang, a trio born out of something almost akin to blood? Duty, love, childhood. As leader of the Nie clan, Nie Mingjue had wanted for nothing, lacked for nothing - 

But for these things, these very small and sparse things: a long life, a quiet death, a friendship forged from mutual understanding and not made fraught by desire. 

 

And so, Nie Huaisang replies to Lan Wangji’s letters, for a time. 

 

*

 

Nie Huaisang arrives in Cloud Recesses unannounced. He is unsure of what he wants, only that he is aching after something, anything: for the right brother to reply to his letters, instead of returning them still sealed. But is Zewu-jun the right brother? What would Nie Huaisang do with a letter that begged his forgiveness? What would he do with one that didn’t even try?  

Nie Huaisang is still not fully certain what has driven him to Gusu, as surely as if jolted forwards by a whip, even after he is admitted by disciples, and escorted to the Hanshi. Only that he is here, standing, long after the war - after both wars, the first one his brother blazed to glory in, and the second one, the private, silent one that has consumed all of his adulthood up until now in its hollow starving maw. 

 

He is here, standing alone in the rooms that, until recently, were the home of one of the only men his brother had ever loved. 

 

Lan Xichen’s absence is felt not in anything as human as dust. No, the Lan have cleaned all that away, diligently, because they are Lan and eschew dirt, just as their sect leader has the whole fucking world, and in the wake of a murderer’s death. Not for Nie Mingjue, not for the man Lan Xichen had called Mingjue-xiong, called Da-ge, called with the certainty of someone aware Nie Mingjue would turn at the sound of his voice, as if pulled by string - and because he was a Lan, the implications of calling Nie Mingjue to heel so obviously in this way flew right over his head, because Lans are above things like dirt, and lies, unless they are telling the lies to themselves, and - 

Nie Huaisang is very, very tired, he realises. The exhaustion sweeps over him in a tremble, even as he thinks idly that he’s shaking with rage. He has no sword on him: he will not become his brother. He will always be compared, but he will never become, and so he clutches at his fan so tightly he feels the ribs strain to hold their shape under his grip: he has always been stronger than he looked, stronger than he has let be seen. 

 

After all, despite everything, he is still a Nie. 

 

The absence is felt in the incense burnt, in a different scent to the one Lan Xichen favoured, that clung to his robes and about his collar so that Nie Huaisang, clinging to him in turn in a show of tears, could inhale it with every false sob. Some of the tears had been real, of course, but they were false insofar as the reason Lan Xichen believed them shed were false: they were false insofar as Nie Huaisang made to lean on him, and secretly hoped to crush Lan Xichen under his own weight. 

The Hanshi is empty as a hollow stomach, gutted of its Jin vases and its beautiful occupant. Nie Huaisang hopes the guilt is eating Zewu-jun alive. 

Without fully realising it, he is moving: he exits the Hanshi, and makes for the back hills. He does not know where the Lans send their outliers to seclude themselves. He knows that Lan Wangji was kept in his own mother’s prison - simply because if Nie Huaisang did not know that, he would not be a very good spymaster. But he is, so he did; and even with all the resources at his disposal, not a single white-clad disciple has let out a single syllable of a whisper with regards to Zewu-jun’s location. The back hills is a wild guess, based on a Cloud Recesses before it was burnt, and on Lan Xichen’s insistence on rebuilding it all as it had been the day he fled, and on the behaviour of animals who go to ground to die.

 

Nie Huaisang inhales, exhales, and begins to climb.  

 

It’s a wild guess. It’s foolish. It’s ridiculous and emotional and Nie Huaisang is moving all the same, scouring the high cliffs and the deep still ponds, looking for any signs of - 

“Sect Leader Nie.”

When he turns, halfway up a narrow, winding path into the upper echelons, Lan Wangji is stood three steps behind, having followed so silently that Nie Huaisang, absorbed as he had been, has ignored all signs of his presence. He has travelled as if stepping on air itself; his hand is folded neatly behind his back, but his other is on the hilt of his sword, and the tension in his fingers is its own kind of warning. 

“Hanguang-jun,” Nie Huaisang replies. He does not smile, but he bows. It is what is expected. “Apologies for this one’s unexpected intrusion. I have come to enquire after the health of your brother.” 

He inspects Lan Wangji’s face: but for the eyes, which sharpen with distaste, his expression remains placid and stubborn as the moon. Fucking Lans. 

“My brother is unwell,” Lan Wangji tells him. “He does not accept visitors. I would have thought you knew that.”

“Yes,” Nie Huaisang admits. “Yes, I know that.”  

“He does not reply to your letters. I cannot tell you if he reads them.” 

“Is that why you write instead?” Nie Huaisang bites back a strangled laugh. “Are you stepping into his role in all ways, Hanguang-jun? Do you think you must advise the Nie clan in his stead? Who are you to us?” Lan Wangji does not answer. He stays standing before him, prepared to block Nie Huaisang’s route whichever way he turns. Which is, for him, an answer. Nie Huaisang keeps pressing. “I doubt he would refuse me if I appeared in front of him.”

“No. I doubt he would. My brother will not refuse most.” 

“No,” Nie Huaisang replies, “Refusal has rarely been in Zewu-jun’s vocabulary.” 

It’s spite, unfettered spite. For a long moment, they merely contemplate each other. Then, Lan Wangji says, “Thank you for the recommendations you sent. We have contracted Master Tsang for our needs with regards to the upcoming lectures. He was appreciative of your praise.”

Nie Huaisang blinks. Even as he hears the faint noises of Wei Wuxian jogging up to them from the tree-line, faux-casual but for the fox-alertness of his gaze, he does not fully look away from Lan Wangji. Hanguang-jun. The other Jade of Lan. The little boy who had asked Nie Huaisang what the point in having fun was, as though pleasure needed a purpose; the little boy who had been bewildered, then offended, by Nie Huaisang lying that he had broken some small trinket of the Nie clan’s in Lan Zhan’s place. 

Nie Huaisang had once thought he didn’t understand loyalty. That he was incapable of breaking the rules to save his own life. He has not, he will admit, thought that for many years now.   

And there’s this, too. There is a part of this story that Nie Huaisang has failed to mention, part of it that he has not thought about in years: the night Lan Wangji had broken into the Unclean Realm, and Nie Huaisang, roused from his bed with a good forty disciples in tow, had found him sprawled amongst the treasures of his clan, holding a red-hot Wen brand over his own heart with a shaking hand. 

He had looked up at Nie Huaisang, the red-hot of the iron glowing in his great hollow eyes, and Nie Huaisang had not stopped him. He refused to let his disciples stop him. Instead, he stood there and watched, because who had there been to witness Nie Huaisang’s pain but the people who had caused it? Because they had been children together once. Because for all Wei Wuxian was Hanguang-jun’s fated person, the long-dead Yiling Patriarch had once been Nie Huaisang’s friend, too. 

This is the part of the story Nie Huaisang will not mention, unless he has to. So far, he has been able to argue that there has been no need. He tells himself it is because it is not useful, as opposed to any lingering sentimentality. Jin Guangyao would have used it; Jin Guangyao would have used it now.   

But Nie Huaisang is very, very afraid sometimes, that he will wake up and see the kind of man that could have murdered his brother in the mirror. He gets closer to it every day, inexorably, even with Da-ge avenged, because he still wants more. He still wants yet more unravelling. He wants to unmake the whole world around the shape of his loss. He wants to unloop it, stitch by stitch, until they are left with enough thread for them all to hang themselves and be done with it. 

In short, he wants what Lan Wangji had wanted, all those years ago, which is to burn down the world. 

And even so, he does not want to become Jin Guangyao. He wants to be better. He wants to surpass him. Is there any real satisfaction in ashes? In a successful ascent that leaves your own son dead? 

 

He does not think the great, late Chief Cultivator had many friends, either.  

 

So Nie Huaisang lets Wei Wuxian spin his silver tongue out into some excuse to take them out of this place, where even in the silent trees it feels as if Nie Huaisang can hear the pull of ghosts. He sees this for what it is: a joint effort to keep him away from Lan Xichen. 

He does not expect to feel relieved. Does this make him a coward? Does he care if it does?

“Let’s go to Caiyi Town!” Wei Wuxian suggests, then side-eyes Lan Wangji’s expression and slaps him lightly on the arm. “Lan Zhan, don’t look at me like that. It’ll be fun! Do you remember fun?”

“I think,” Lan Wangji replies dryly, “We have differing interpretations of the concept, Wei Ying.”

There’s a pause, and then Wei Wuxian throws back his head and laughs. He laughs just like he used to, Nie Huaisang thinks, with a strange little pang, before the rest of him catches up to the astonishing fact that Lan Wangji had just made a joke. A joke that has Nie Huaisang threatening to smile, despite it all. But then he remembers it all, and tightens the shape of his mouth. 

 

*

 

Caiyi Town is not fun. For anyone, it seems. Even Wei Wuxian, chattering to fill the cavernous silence, is a little wild-eyed by the time they make it to an inn - roped into a meal under the guise of Wei Wuxian having some craving for spicy food that apparently could only be satisfied by the specific menu of this specific place. Nie Huaisang is surprised to learn that Wei Ying can still be so transparent in his trickery: that he hasn’t yet learnt to obfuscate. But he supposes Wei Ying has not had the same amount of time as him and Hanguang-jun. 

“Aiyah, Huaisang,” Wei Wuxian is saying now, scouring for conversation in the silence, because of course there is still silence, what outside of letters would Nie Huaisang have to say to Lan Xichen’s brother , “We’re getting old. Hasn’t anyone harped on at you about marrying yet? Not a single one of the clan elders?”

Something twists, low and ugly as knotted rope, in the pit of Nie Huaisang’s stomach. He had forgotten, it seems, Wei Wuxian’s bad habit of letting his mouth outrun his prodigious mind. He has now been reminded.  

“No,” Nie Huaisang replies, keeping his voice light and even. He thinks of Hensheng, so lithe it could be denied, its heft near weightless until the blade sunk home. He thinks of Shuoyue, flashing silvery-righteous in temple light. “No, they haven’t. In our clan, it is customary for the elder brother to marry before the younger can. And my brother was unmarried when Jin Guangyao killed him.”  

He can see it in the stricken look on Wei Wuxian’s face, the frozen smile and the wide eyes: the blade has sunk home. 

There’s very little satisfaction in it, but - 

 

But did Nie Huaisang expect there to be?  

 

Sat beside his husband, Lan Wangji gives Wei Wuxian a look soft with concern, and then turns his eyes onto Nie Huaisang - and his gaze hardens, almost imperceptibly but it does, sure as frost. Resentment flares through Nie Huaisang, as swiftly as if Wei Wuxian had lifted his flute to his mouth and summoned it, but for this: but for the fact he is the origin of it. There is no need to summon it from elsewhere. Nie Huaisang feels he must reek of it. And is that so wrong? Is it so wrong? Does he not deserve a little resentment, even after it’s all said and done, when it’s what’s sustained him ever since he rushed up the steps of the Jinlintai to witness his brother - howling and bleeding and beyond help forever after? 

This is the difference between him and Nie Mingjue: Nie Mingjue’s rage had killed him. Nie Huaisang’s has kept him alive for over a decade. 

And in what kind of world would Nie Huaisang cast aside that which has sustained him for so long? That would be foolish. And for all people say - for all people have always said - Nie Huaisang is not a fool. 

He does not want to be a fool; he does not want to be Jin Guangyao; he does not want, has never wanted, to be his brother. But neither does he have any desire to be like Hanguang-jun, or the Yiling Patriarch: heroes and villains in a land of monsters, set against the landscape of the great sects or the backdrop of war, upon thrones or piles of corpses or - 

Nie Huaisang sees no joy in this kind of glory. Where has it ever gotten any of them?

And yet, Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian: they look happy. Even now, they look at each other and see something greater than an echo. When Nie Huaisang talks to his brother, there is only the sound of his own voice. 

Nie Huaisang rinses the spice from his mouth with wine and waits. He doesn’t have to wait long. He watches Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian make a whole conversation out of just their eyes meeting, and then Wei Wuxian smiles brightly, too brightly, at Nie Huaisang and says - 

If Nie Huaisang is honest, he isn’t really listening. He’s anticipating the excuse that falls from Wei Wuxian’s mouth, and he pretends to accept it. He barely remembers to put up a polite but token protest at Wei Wuxian’s leaving. His gaze is already fixed on Lan Wangji, stuck through like a needle through cloth, like a needle through - 

 

Someone had needed to see to it that Nie Mingjue went to the grave whole. Nie Huaisang had stitched up wounds before. Returning his head to his brother had been, in some ways, a similar kind of thing. 

 

And so then, there they are. Him and Hanguang-jun. Alone together, perhaps, for the first time since they were children. They are no longer children now. 

For a long time, they sit in silence. It is not entirely uncomfortable. Lan Wangji sips at his tea. Nie Huaisang drinks his wine. When he finishes his cup, Lan Wangji pours him another. The perfect arc of his arm feels like pique, down to the hang of his sleeve: or perhaps it’s merely punctuation. 

“How are your birds?” Lan Wangji finally asks. 

“My birds?” 

“I remember you -” Lan Wangji pauses, frowns down at the table, as if the lacquer has personally offended him. “I recall you liked them, in the past. Do you like them still?”

Nie Huaisang does not remember the last time he was asked if he liked anything; regardless of it being asked by Lan Wangji, of all people. He swallows around air and a sudden thickness in his throat.

“I do,” he says. “Yes, I do. I like them a great deal.” 

“I know very little about birds,” Lan Wangji admits. “Anything I ask Sect Leader Nie will make me sound ignorant.”

“I think it would be very difficult for the esteemed Hanguang-jun to sound ignorant.” 

“Do you have a favourite?” Lan Wangji asks now, and when he looks at Nie Huaisang, there is something deeply vulnerable in his eyes, something that strikes Nie Huaisang as surely as a blade ought, because there ought - 

“Is there a purpose to this line of questioning, Hanguang-jun?” Nie Huaisang asks. 

“None.” 

There ought to be a word, for the experience of looking at someone you knew in your youth, only to see the same eyes still there. After all this time. After two wars, and the ending of the world. The familiarity is terrifying. 

“I try not to keep favourites,” Nie Huaisang offers. “But I always feel they can tell, regardless.”

“Does it matter to keep a favourite?” Lan Wangji sounds genuinely curious now. 

“Perhaps not,” Nie Huaisang allows. “But I do not, on account of -” He halts, catching himself. When he looks up, Lan Wangji is still listening. He has not touched his tea since they  first began to speak of birds. “On account of being the second son.” 

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says, and pours him more wine. It takes Nie Huaisang a beat to realise that may have been agreement. It’s hard to tell, with Hanguang-jun. He’s parsing echoes in the dark, in the half-light of old memory. Or maybe not echoes at all: this time, when he speaks, someone is answering back.   

The war is over, and Nie Huaisang does not have to be like his brother. 

They lapse again into silence. It has thawed, somehow. Nie Huaisang breathes. He hopes, absurdly, that Wei Wuxian will take his time in returning. 

Here they are. Here they are now, here they are still: somehow, at the end of all things. Two second sons, raised to the sect leadership at the last minute, the shadows of their siblings the same weight as a cloak. The shape their absence leaves gutting. Overwhelming. And yet - 

 

Here they are. 

 

It is almost akin to a miracle.