‘Really,’ Nie Huaisang thinks, ‘Da-ge has no one to blame for this but himself.’ He is currently somewhere… just outside of Yilling, he is pretty sure, and is once again self-congratulatory about his foresight of stealing a horse instead of trying to sword fly for such a long distance. He would have surely perished many hours ago!
It had been so easy to sneak out of the Unclean Realm that he is of half a mind to send his brother a letter once he arrives at his destination and chide him about the serious holes in their security. It’s one thing for Nie Huaisang to simply leave with only one horse and several purses of gold to his name, but it’s another thing entirely for it to be used by an enemy or even just a particularly drunk disciple. He isn’t sure what his brother will think of such a letter, especially considering what Nie Huaisang is currently doing, but, well—
He might as well do his duty as the Qinghe Nie Second Master one last time.
Yilling, once he actually gets there, is unlike anywhere he has been before. He has lived a pretty sheltered life—going to Cloud Recesses has been the first time his brother has allowed him out of Qinghe—but he had never imagined there could be somewhere like this: dirty and bustling, and so full of people it makes his head spin. It reminds him a bit of what he has seen of Yueyang, when he visited with Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng and the Gusu Lan Second Young Master, and a grin makes its way to his face. Now that’s what he is looking for!
He sells his horse just on the edge of town. The streets seem too narrow for it, and he doubts he is going to need it where he’s going. The farmer points him in the direction of what he has been told is “the only tea house in town, Young Master, but they make good soup and will have a clean bed,” which is less than what he is used to but certainly promising.
“Tea houses,” Wei Wuxian had said, on that near cloudless day in Yueyang, before Xue Yang and all that senseless bloodshed, “are incredibly useful.”
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng has snorted, rolling his eyes. “Someone has to feed you, don’t they?”
“Well, that too,” Wei Wuxian has nodded his head sagely, and snagged a piece of fried vegetables from Lan Wangji’s plate. Nie Huaisang remembered cringing, expecting a retribution from the severe teen that never actually came. “But much more importantly, there is no place people like to gossip more than in a tea house.”
Nie Huaisang is a long way away now from that day and that place, but a good advice is one that holds true no matter the circumstances. True to the farmer’s words, Yilling Tea House stands just in the centre of town. On his way, Nie Huaisang gets tempted no less than seven times by passing merchants' stands, and buys no less than three new items, which he feels only marginally guilty about. He really did need a new sash for his robes, and that liquor had looked really tasty, and who knows when he could buy a new set of brushes again!
When he finally does make it to the tea house, he almost completely forgets the reason he is there and sits down to order a meal. However, with the setting sun behind him and the awareness that he really hasn’t been too subtle about where he was going, and that he should probably get there before his (presumably very angry) brother catches up, he shushes his growling stomach and orders only a cup of tea, sitting down to what he expects to be a very long stretch of time while he waits to hear pertaining information.
However, Yilling must be a very boring place indeed—or perhaps even non-cultivators find this particular piece of news exciting—because not even a few minutes pass before he hears:
“I have seen them in town again.”
It is said in a whisper that is more like a shout, by a man with weathered skin and grey hair. He is surrounded by other men who seem to hang on his every word, and Nie Huaisang only allows himself one moment to grin before focusing again.
“The ghosts?” asks one of the group.
The man who originally spoke groans in disgust. “They are ghosts just as much as we are! I’m telling you, that man who leads them—“
“Wei Wuxian!” crows yet another man who was balding quite unfortunately.
“Shh!” the rest all shush him.
“What will we do if you summon him here?!” hisses a third one, with a set of quite impressive eyebrows.
“I heard he is a monster who took on a human form!”
“I heard he was Wen Rouhan’s prized disciple, who is now seeking revenge.”
“Well, I still think he’s a ghost.”
“I thought he was a war hero…?” the balding man asks, but so quietly, almost as if he is talking to himself.
Nie Huaisang decides to make his entrance.
“Excuse me,” he calls as he walks over and sits down by them, “Might I join you?” He sits down his tea on their table without waiting for their approval, a trick he has learnt from Meng Yao. He really is quite glad the man survived his brother’s famous temper, even though seeing him in Lanling Jin colours was somewhat… off-putting.
“Who the hell are you?” one of them asks, rudely, before being elbowed by the one sitting to his right.
“Can’t you see he is rich,” that one hisses. It’s the one who first caught Nie Huaisang’s attention, and he fondly decides to refer to him as his favorite.
“What do I care if he’s rich,” the rude one hisses back.
“You care,” Nie Huaisang interrupts again, “Because I can make it worth your time.” He flashes from his sleeve one of his many purses before quickly hiding it again. “Come on, seniors, I’m just after a little bit of information, that’s all.”
It was a bit… crude, but it got the work done. The five men gathered around the table quickly exchange excited glances, before Huaisang’s favorite leans forward. “What can this humble senior help you with, Young Master?”
It is halfway up the mountain that Nie Huaisang begins to think this is a mistake.
He is willing to admit (if only to himself) he may have been a bit hasty in his decision to leave the Unclean Realm. He is still absolutely convinced he is right in his plans, but surely there might have been a better way to deal with the situation. A way that wouldn’t have ended up with him knee deep in bog water, sweating miserably as he walked up the mountain to where the group in the tea house insisted the ghosts/demons/whatever lived.
He has heard of the Yilling Burial Mounds, before. It was a favorite tale of his various minders and carers over the years, a way to frighten him into eating his vegetables or going to sleep. “Unruly Young Masters,” they would say, “Will be sent to the Yilling Burial Mounds, from which no person has come back alive!” Nie Huaisang was already too smart for the ruse at five years old, but he had let it work on him still, unwilling to see what other methods they might use.
He idly considers sending them a letter as well, right after the one he will send his brother. See what they think of him now, willingly going there. He can half-imagine them, speaking in that tone they only used to complain about him to his brother: trying to stay so proprietary and polite, while still airing all of their many, many grievances with him.
Meng Yao—oh, it was Jin Guangyao now, wasn’t it? He ought to remember—was the only one who never took that tone. He was also the only one who never resorted to threatening him with the Burial Mounds, and Huaisang wonders what he would make of him now, trudging about in this awful place.
And it is awful. It was warm and humid, and the stench of something was heavy in the air. Every once in a while he accidentally steps on something crunchy, and he refuses to look down lest his fears prove true and he has been desecrating human bones. His robes will never be the same, he thinks mournfully, and vows to make Wei Wuxian buy him new ones at some point in the future. Probably a very, very far off point, but still. He better appreciate this!
It happens as he stumbles away from yet another Probably-Is-But-Would-Rather-It-Not-Be possible bone that he literally crushes into an invisible wall. The impact causes him to stagger back a few steps, but when he looks forward there is really nothing there.
“Wards, huh?” he mumbles to himself, taking out his fan from his sleeve and fanning himself with it. “Should have known. Hm… Let’s see.”
He reaches out with a hand to touch the invisible barrier. There is no physical change, and no pushback from it, but already Huaisang could tell it will not budge. Humming to himself he walks along the wall. “There must be a talisman somewhere. We are too far away from the summit for it to be an array there, and the ground here is too uneven to paint something like that. Ah, Wei-xiong, couldn’t you have made it easier for me?”
After a few moments, Huaisang has to conclude he probably won’t be able to find the boundary of the wall before it is dark, and he is really not keen on being outside of it while night falls on the mountain. Closing his fan, he taps on his chin, contemplating.
“It really must be a talisman, but… hmm, can’t have a visible talisman if you’re expecting enemies, right? That would rather defeat the purpose. But the talisman has to be outside of the boundary, otherwise it could not work. Oh!”
Slipping his fan back to his sleeve he concentrates, channeling some spiritual energy to his fingertips and sending it at the wall. It is a miniscule amount—he already knows that even if he had thrown the full might of his golden core at this barrier it would not crack. However, any barrier, no matter how strong, would react to spiritual energy that was not of its maker.
‘Take that, Lan Qiren,’ he thinks smugly as the barrier ripples with energy, sending waves all around the point of contact until they fade away. Right there, just before they do, they split around a hidden object.
“Aha!” he crows, sprinting over before the ripples could completely disappear. There would be other talismans, of course—it was a complicated and huge barrier, and Nie Huaisang is getting a headache just thinking of how much work must have been put into this. An army would face much difficulty trying to get access.
A small bird like Nie Huaisang however, needs only a small perch.
It is the work of moments to reveal the talisman. To reverse engineer it takes longer. Wei Wuxian is a genius, and Nie Huaisang is no idiot but he doesn’t perceive magic innately the same way Wei Wuxian does. Also, he much prefers to spend his time painting instead of reading or researching, acts much better left to the Wei Wuxians of the world.
Still, Nie Huaisang has his own talents, and better yet, he knows Wei Wuxian, even if not nearly as well as someone like Jiang Cheng or Lan Wangji would know him. But if he were to think ‘ah, would Wei-xiong do so and so like that, or like this,’ it is not difficult to come to a correct answer. Therefore, reverse engineering the talisman isn’t impossible.
Finally, he is in. He makes sure to close the little crack behind him—he’s sure he isn’t being followed, but Wei Wuxian will literally kill him if it isn’t so. He starts whistling as he starts climbing the final stretch of the mountain. Maybe Wei-xiong will appreciate seeing an old friend?
Wei Wuxian, as it turns out, doesn’t appreciate it.
“Nie Huaisang?” he demands, stumbling down the dirt path towards him. “What- are you the one who took down my wards?!”
He looks—awful. His eyes are sunken, his cheeks sallow. The robes he is wearing are nothing like the luxurious fabric he used to wear when he was still Yunmeng Jiang’s first disciple. Instead they are thread beard and worn, from a coarse fabric that looks irritating to the skin. There is a shakiness to his gaite that Nie Huaisang has never seen from his friend, who always walked with such a presence as if to defy a world that has sentenced him to death.
In the split second before he reaches him, Nie Huaisang wonders if that was what he looked like as a child wandering the streets. If his eyes looked as wild, his hair as unkempt. Wei Wuxian had never directly told him about it, of course, but it was such an exciting piece of gossip the year he got adopted that word of it has even reached the Unclean Realm.
He bites his tongue on the concern trying to roll off of it. There will be time for it later.
“Of course it was me!” he scolds instead. “You really should take better care and hide your talismans.”
Wei Wuxian, rudely enough, ignores his (useful!) advice and instead looks at him like he’s mad. “What are you doing here?”
“Betraying the gentry and siding with evil, duh,” Huaisang rolls his eyes. “Now, will you let me in? I’m hungry.”
The top of the mountain looks nothing like what Nie Huaisang expected. It is bare save for a few miserable-looking buildings, with a few plots of lands that have clearly been tended to. Dotting the place are about two dozen people, dressed in the same clothes Wei Wuxian is wearing. Those people were clearly not soldiers, and have clearly never fought in a war. They toil the ground next to the ramshackled buildings. A few of them are busy mending what looks like rags but are probably clothes. They all, without fail, freeze when they see Nie Huaisang.
“Hello!” he greets them cheerfully, pretending he doesn’t see the younger of them flinch and the older cower before him. He brings his hands before him and bows, “I am Nie Huaisang, and I’ll be joining you now. Please take good care of me.”
“You will what—” Wei Wuxian starts to demand before shaking his head. “No, never mind, to the cave with you. Young Master Nie and I,” he calls out to the people around them, “have things to talk about. If you’ll excuse us.” He shepherds Nie Huaisang up a short and crumbling flight of stairs and into—
“The Demon Subduing Palace?” he asks, giving his friend a side-eye. “Really?”
Wei Wuxian snorts. “I think it’s fitting, don’t you?”
From further inside comes a voice. “Wei Wuxian, what—” A familiar woman comes out from one of the inner rooms.
“Ah, Lady Wen!” Nie Huaisang greets her, bowing again. “It’s been a long time.”
She squints at him, dubious, even if she bows in return. “And you are…?”
“Not supposed to be here,” Wei Wuxian cuts in before Nie Huaisang could needle her about not remembering him. Granted, they never really talked and he had mostly been scared of her, but still—he is the second young master of one of the five—four, now—great clans. Surely he merits some space in her memories.
He elbows Wei Wuxian and smiles at her. “Nie Huaisang.”
Her eyebrows jump up, surprised. “Young Master Nie? Wei Wuxian is right, you really are not supposed to be here.”
He pouts at her. “Rude.”
“Not rude,” Wei Wuxian refutes, rubbing the side of his chest where Nie Huaisang elbowed him. He did pride himself on having extremely bony elbows, much to his brother’s chagrin when they were younger. “Appropriate. Nie-xiong, what on earth are you doing here? And what was that about joining us?”
“What, can I not simply visit my good school friend anymore?” he asks, smiling slyly.
Wei Wuxian snorts. “Not when that good school friend has become the cultivation world’s number one enemy, I don’t think so.”
Besides them, Wen Qing sighes. “I’m sure this is going to be a very engaging conversation,” she says, dryly. “But I have things to do. Wei Wuxian, take care to not disturb A-Ning or I will disturb you. Young Master Nie, I trust you to be quieter than Sect Leader Jiang.”
“Like it’s harder to be quieter than Jiang-xiong,” Nie Huaisang snorts, and pointedly ignores Wei Wuxian’s aborted flinch at his brother’s name. He has heard—of course he has heard, about Jiang Cheng’s visit. He is determined that his will be a better one.
Wen Qing nods her head at him, and with one last warning look at Wei Wuxian departs from the cave. “She cares for you a lot. Augh, Wei-xiong, how are you so good with the ladies?” Nie Huaisang complains in a good-natured tone.
“Cares for me? Did you not hear her threaten me?” Wei Wuxian asks, incredulously.
Nie Huaisang rolls his eyes. “That threat was for me, not for you. Since the last time someone visited you you got stab- well. Umm,” he stutters off awkwardly, not intending to say as much as he had.
“I see news travel fast,” Wei Wuxian says,
He walks deeper into the cave and now that Nie Huaisang’s eyes have gotten used to the darkness he can make out a small workspace, messy in the exact same way Wei Wuxian’s room in Cloud Recesses was. He could make out several unfinished talismans and arrays, what looks like several cultivation manuals that Nie Huaisang knows Wei Wuxian shouldn’t have. And—
“Is that a pool of blood?” he asks, fascinated and repulsed at the same time.
“It’s where I bath,” Wei Wuxian replies, and for the life of him Nie Huaisang can’t tell if he’s joking or not. “Haven’t you heard all the rumors? I eat children for breakfast and then raise their remains at dinner. Now, will you finally answer me: what on earth are you doing here?”
There are many different answers he could give to this question. There was the truth, of course, but there were also… shades of it, that might fit better here. “Wei-xiong,” he starts with a whine, “da-ge is being so unreasonable, expecting me to train with the sabre from dawn to dusk, with barely a break! And then once night falls, he sits me down and has me do a sect leader’s paperwork. Insanity! Me, a sect leader? Never!” he vows.
“So?” Wei Wuxian says, unimpressed. “Go run to Jiang Cheng.”
Nie Huaisang makes a face. “He would also yell at me,” he complains. “And before you say anything, both er-ge and san-ge would sell me out to da-ge in a second, so Koi Tower and Cloud Recesses are also forbidden. Really, I could only come here! It only makes sense for me to join a sect that doesn’t practice the sword.”
Wei Wuxian barks out a laugh, surprised. “A sect? What the hell are you talking about?”
“Oh?” Nie Huaisang makes sure to affect surprise. “But that’s also a rumor, that the feared Yilling Laozu is secretly founding a sect on the bones of the Burial Mounds. Wei-xiong was the one who told me to listen to rumors, just now.”
“You—!” Wei Wuxian lets out a shout.
“At least let me stay tonight!” Nie Huaisang pleads. “It’s dark and scary out there now, and I’m sooooo tired.”
Wei Wuxian groans. “Fine, fine! Do what you want. Don’t you dare complain about the food at dinner though, or Wen Qing will surely stab you,” he warns.
Nie Huaisang beams in reply. “I won’t, I won’t!”
“And you leave back to the Unclean Realm tomorrow,” Wei Wuxian stresses out. “I can’t have Chifeng Zun accusing me of kidnapping his didi. He will definitely come here and murder me.”
Nie Mingjue coming here isn’t exactly against Nie Huaisang’s plans, but Wei Wuxian certainly doesn’t need to know that. “I’ll protect you from da-ge,” he vows, and then makes a face. “Well, I’ll give it a go anyway.”
Wei Wuxian collapses on a nearby stone slab with another groan, looking even more exhausted than he had in the harsh light outside. “Yeah, that makes me feel so much better about this.”
It is good that Wei Wuxian has warned him about the food in advance, or Nie Huaisang would surely have said something at the sight of the bowl he was given. It was a pitiful offering, something someone like Nie Huaisang, a spoilt second young master of a major clan, would never have eaten under normal circumstances. But he sees the cinched robes around Wei Wuxian’s waist, sees the haggard and thin faces of the men and women around him, and eats without complaint.
It is when he gets up after the meal is finished that he feels a sudden weight on his shins. Looking down, he smiles. “Oh? Who is this?”
Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes. “Oi, a-Yuan! We really need to teach you some manners.” The child, a-Yuan, merely grins in answer, probably used to empty scolding. He is the only child Nie Huaisang has seen so far in the settlement, and there is a sad story behind it, but he would rather not dwell on it.
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” he waves Wei Wuxian off, and crouches down to be on eye-level with the child. “A-Yuan, was it?”
“So pretty!” a-Yuan exclaims, reaching forward to try and catch his braids, which Nie Huaisang only barely avoids. Nie Huaisang laughs in reply. He doesn’t think he has ever heard anyone refer to the Nie Sect braids as pretty, but he has always thought of them as such. He wonders what his brother would say had he heard this.
“So charming! A-Yuan, flattery will get you everything.” In a spur of the moment, Nie Huaisang reaches into his robes and pulls out his fan. It is not one of the expensive ones in his collection—he would never risk one of those on such a foolhardy journey—but it was a pretty one, of solid make. Nie Huaisang hardly gives a thought before handing it over. “Here, a present.”
A-Yuan’s eyes go wide as he takes the fan from his hand. “For a-Yuan?”
“I don’t see any other little boys around!” Nie Huaisang feels a pang of regret. Had he known a child was here, he would have stopped at one of the many stalls in Yilling on his way. For now, the fan would have to do.
“Nie-xiong, I would have never thought you soft for children,” Wei Wuxian says. He crouches down next to him and taps a-Yuan on his forehead. “And what do we say to the nice gege?”
“Thank you fan-gege!” a-Yuan says, vibrating with excitement. At Wei Wuxian’s nudging, he clumsily bows to Nie Huaisang.
Nie Huaisang grins, pleased with his new title. “You’re very welcome,” he tells the boy. When Wen Qing comes around to bring the boy back to his grandmother, he stands up again. “Wei-xiong, this boy—”
“Orphan,” Wei Wuxian cuts him off. His eyes are sharp. “His parents were murdered at the Jin work camp.”
If it was a test, Nie Huaisang didn’t have to lie to pass it. He flinches. “Wei-xiong…” he trails off, for once not having the words.
“I don’t know why you’re here, Nie Huaisang.” Wei Wuxian looks the kind of tired that was almost painful. “But you should know—I’m going to protect those people.”
That’s the thing about Wei Wuxian that the rest of the cultivation world doesn’t understand. Is he arrogant, prideful, boastful? Yes, of course. But he could have been arrogant, prideful, and boastful as the first disciple of the Jiang sect as well. Would have done better there, in fact. The demonic cultivation, the Wen Sect remnants, the Burial Mounds—none of it was about arrogance.
The Wens don’t have a spare bed, of course, not really expecting any guests, so Wei Wuxian silently leads him to his cave. This, at least, is familiar: Nie Huaisang would often crash at Wei Wuxian’s room in the Cloud Recesses after a night of illegal drinking, and would have to sneak back to his own at the crack of dawn, even before the Gusu Lan disciples would wake. Ah, those days really were fun…
When Nie Huaisang starts getting ready for bed, he pauses when he sees Wei Wuxian sitting at what seems to be the centre of his work station. “Surely you don’t mind sharing, Wei-xiong. I know it’s been awhile, but we have done this before.”
Wei Wuxian smiles at him wryly. “I don’t sleep much these days. It’s alright, I might eventually pass out here. Don’t think the slab of stone I call bed is much more comfortable.”
Nie Huaisang frowns, but doesn’t raise an objection. He is sure Wen Qing knows about this, and if she hasn’t said anything… Although, it might be that she had, but her concerns had been ignored. Nie Huaisang resolves to put an eye on this situation. Wei Wuxian would be of no use to anyone if he ended up dying not from demonic cultivation or a cultivator’s sword but of sleep deprivation.
His friend had been right, of course—the stone slab was hardly comfortable. Nie Huaisang thinks longingly of his bed at the Unclean Realm. Maybe he can arrange for it to be shipped here… He giggles silently, imagining his brother’s face at that. Perhaps not.
Speaking of his brother—Nie Huaisang estimates he might have two… no, maybe three days before Nie Mingjue figures out where he is. He would go to Koi Tower and Cloud Recesses first, obviously, in that order. Nie Mingjue might have complicated feelings about his sworn brother, but it was no secret that Nie Huaisang loved the man who was once his attendant, and would surely look for him there first. Then, when he won’t be able to find him at the gilded halls of Koi Tower, he would go to Cloud Recesses, thinking Lan Xichen might have given him refuge.
Of course, Nie Huaisang wouldn’t be there. He wouldn’t be in Lotus Pier, where he would go next either. And then, when his brother would consider exactly what he had written in his note…
Nie Huaisang shudders slightly under the thin fabric masquerading as a blanket. Oh, he’s going to be so angry. But that’s a problem for future Nie Huaisang. For now, he needs to find a way to convince Wei Wuxian to let him stay…
That’s how he falls asleep, eventually. Cold, tired from his long flight and walk, and lulled to sleep by Wei Wuxian scratching into paper what he was sure is yet another one of his brilliant ideas.
As it turns out, Nie Huaisang needn't have worried. By the time he finally drags himself out of the cave, Wei Wuxian nowhere to be seen, Wen Qing informs him she had sent him out to town with a-Yuan, to stock up on food supplies. She also informs him, with the kind of no-nonsense look on her face that Nie Huaisang distinctly remembers from their Cloud Recesses days, that if he’s going to stick around she’s going to make sure he’s useful. She then abruptly thrusts a wash basin in his hands, and directs him to the corner where a few men and women were already hard at work washing clothes.
It’s a sunny day, but it would hardly be noticeable in the Burial Mounds. The sun feels muted here in the most disconcerting sort of way, as if it was being filtered through several layers of sheer cloth. The quiet around them is unnatural as well, as beyond the sounds made by the new inhabitants of the mountain there are no noises from birds or insects, not even the sound of the trees rustling in the wind.
The Wens make an extreme effort to ignore all of that. They are weary around Nie Huaisang at first, and he doesn’t begrudge them their suspicion. His brother has not been quiet about his disdain and hatred for them, and they know nothing about Nie Huaisang. For all they know, this could be a clever trap.
Well, it was. But not really for them.
Still, Nie Huaisang makes an effort. He asks easy, casual questions, making sure to never step on any toes, to never bring up painful things. He asks about their farming equipment, their schooling plans for a-Yuan, the products they bring to barter in the village. The sort of things no one in Nie Huaisang’s position would ever even dream to care about. He doesn’t, not really, but he doesn’t want to be seen as an enemy to those people, doesn’t want them to feel that even this safe space they have managed to dig for themselves has been disturbed. And slowly, his efforts are recioperated—they tell him of the produce they have decided to plant, of the epic rows between Wen Qing and Wei Wuxian about it. They tell him of Wei Wuxian’s failed experiments, laughing at the way he seems to make himself explode every other day. Most of all, they tell him of a-Yuan, pride and love positively streaming from their every word: about the games he would invent to play, the way he always tries to help but usually just makes a bigger mess, his insistence on playing Chenqing (Nie Huaisang does have to wince at that.)
They become more and more animated as the day goes on, and not for the first time Nie Huaisang finds himself questioning the sects and people that would have condemned them to death, for no reason other than their name.
It is when Nie Huaisang tries to convince granny to let go of his titles (“Please, if everyone here calls me Young Master Nie all the time I’ll end up forgetting my own name!”) that a shout comes from the Demon Subdue Cave. Nie Huaisang looks up just in time to see Wen Qing being flung out by a strong force of power. Alarmed, he stands up, only to immediately flinch back as a dark blur comes running from the cave. He had kind of forgotten about the Ghost General, thought that maybe stories have been exaggerated and that the sweet boy he remembers from Cloud Recesses has already died, but clearly there was some truth to the rumors. Resentful energy comes out of him in waves, and his eyes are completely black, with no thought or emotion behind them.
“A-Ning!” Wen Qing calls out from where she was thrown to, her voice strong despite her anguish. “Stop this!”
Wen Ning only lets out a roar, and Nie Huaisang has no idea what to do. He can’t fight! He didn’t even bring his saber! Oh, if the Ghost General doesn’t get to it first, da-ge really is going to kill him just for that. Resentful energies start to coalesce—first around him, and then around the entire settlement, moving in fast streaks through the air.
The men and women around him start screaming, and Nie Huaisang would have joined them were it not for Wen Suyin clutching at his arm. She has been one of the first people to really open up to Nie Huaisang, treating him with the kind of causal disrespect he has been delighted with. “Aren’t you a cultivator?” she hisses at him, the fear causing her words to feel sharper than usual. “Do something!”
“I’m a bad cultivator!” he hisses back, and then dives down when a piece of equipment comes hurling through the air, displaced by the resentful spirits. Shit shit shit, why is this happening?! The whole point of this was to avoid having to fight anything. With a strangled scream he avoids a shovel thrown his way, and tries to focus. Right, right, a barrier! Like the one Wei Wuxian made on Dafan Mountain, and when Wei Wuxian comes back Nie Huaisang is going to have words with him about why it’s only when he is around that fierce corpses suddenly become a thing Nie Huaisang needs to be concerned about.
With a few muttered curses and quick rolls and turns to avoid the projectiles coming towards him, Nie Huaisang manages a few protective talismans. Using some spiritual energy he hurtles them at the somehow still-standing shack he has been cowering next to. “Everyone, into there, quick!”
Luckily, he has managed to endear himself enough throughout the day that they do what as he yells without complaint, sprinting towards the structure. All that is, except one.
“Lady Wen!” he yells out. “Come on, over here!”
“I’m not leaving him!” she yells back, her eyes still tracking Wen Ning’s erratic movements. “I’ll be fine, tell Wei Wuxian where we went!” Before Nie Huaisang could puzzle her words out, she lets out a quick burst of spiritual energy to catch Wen Ning’s attention, and runs down a path Nie Huaisang hasn’t noticed until then, baiting her brother to follow her.
Then, they wait. Nie Huaisang’s talismans hold, if barely., before the never-ending barrage of resentful ghosts. He doesn’t know how long it would take Wei Wuxian to get there—if he even knew something had gone wrong in the first place—and could only silently pray that his barrier would keep until then.
“You’re not so bad after all,” Wen Suyin pipes down besides him, and he looks down at her.
“Please don’t tell anyone, I have a reputation to maintain,” he tries for half a joke, but it lands miserably, and he falls silent. The other Wens stay quiet as well.
Finally, after what feels like forever, he sees Wei Wuxian come running into the settlement, with, of all people, Lan Wangji after him, holding a-Yuan. With a quick look Wei Wuxian assesses the situation and quickly whips out Chenqing, quelling the resentful energy with a few short bursts of sound. Despite himself, Nie Huaisang is impressed.
“Go tell him what happened,” he tells Wen Suyin.
She gives him a suspicious look. “Why won’t you tell him?”
He can’t exactly tell her that he’s afraid Lan Wangji would sell him out to his brother. “Ahh, I’m too weak to walk,” he whines out, collapsing on the ground. “Completely exhausted my spiritual energy. Couldn’t possibly move even if I wanted to. Really pitiful.”
“Pitiful is right,” she mutters, but does as he asks, running out of the house to where Wei Wuxian is standing and pointing them in the right direction, taking a-Yuan from Lan Wangji with a bemused look. The next moment the two of them hurry down the path Wen Ning and Wen Qing took, disappearing behind the trees.
For the next half hour or so, he helps the Wens clean up the damage done by the resentful energy. Or, well, he tries: he wouldn’t usually do so—would find any excuse to get out of it—but even he isn’t shameless enough to let those life-trodden people do all of the work while he merely watches. It has nothing to do with the way Wen Suyin is looking at him suspiciously, of course.
Someone up ahead cheers: “Wen Ning!” and indeed when he looks up from the piece of wood he is currently holding, trying to figure out where on earth it came from, he sees Wen Ning walking up the path, being supported on either side by Wei Wuxian and Wen Qing, both of them looking exhausted but happy. And, behind them of course, Lan Wangji.
Nie Huaisang shoves the mysterious wood piece into Wen Suyin’s hands, tells her he’s going to check on a-Yuan, and ducks into the nearby hut before any of the returning party could see him. A-Yuan is delighted to see him, as any one with good taste would be, and he spends a delightful afternoon teaching him all sorts of hand-games that he could dimly remember playing with his brother, once upon a time. When a-Yuan goes to bid Lan Wangji goodbye, Nie Huaisang judges the coast clear enough to emerge from the house, and is immediately roped into decorating the little village with lanterns that Wen Qing shoved at him from who knows where.
“What are we celebrating?” he asks her.
“We,” she stresses out, excluding him. He doesn’t let it bother him, she will come around, “are celebrating my brother’s recovery.” She can’t help but smile at that, a small and lovely thing, and Nie Huaisang has to wonder if she will let him paint her at some point. Probably not—and he thinks he might risk his life by asking.
“Also,” she adds, her smile twisting into a more wry one, “Wei Wuxian is going to mope all evening at Young Master Lan’s departure, if we let him.”
Nie Huaisang grins at her, delighted at finding a conspirator. Jiang Cheng never played along with him! “Still in love, is he?”
She rolls her eyes. “Obvious to everyone but those two.” She then seems to remember herself, and she frowns at him. “I don’t have the time to spend gossiping with you, Young Master Nie,” she tells him briskly, and gestures at the lanterns. “Please have those hanging soon. I leave the artistic vision to your expert eyes.”
Nie Huaisang should be put out by her brushing him off, but he has always been weak to a well-placed compliment. “Leave it to me, Lady Wen! We’ll have this place looking fit for an emperor in no time.”
He recruits Wen Suyin and another cousin of hers—he forgot the name, and it seems awkward to ask again—to help him, and they make quick work of it. Soon enough, the entire village is washed with the red light of the lanterns. It doesn’t hide the dirt and grime, doesn’t disguise the place as anything but what it is, but Nie Huaisang can appreciate how, for people who have nothing else, it might still be something special.
Wei Wuxian and a-Yuan certainly seem to think so, as they come back up the mountain. “What is this?” Wei Wuxian exclaims to a-Yuan in a conspiratorial voice. “A-Yuan, it must be for you!” Nie Huaisang can’t tell from this far away, but his face looks somehow even more gaunt than it had the previous day, the parlour of his skin paler and the bags under his eyes bigger.
The child giggles. “No, Xian-gege!” he lets out, “It’s for you!” He abandons Wei Wuxian and runs to his grandmother, who accepts him with open arms.
“What?” Wei Wuxian asks, blinking. Wen Qing comes up to him, a smile Nie Huaisang has never seen on her face. He can’t hear what she tells him from here, but whatever it is makes a vulnerable look slide over his friend’s face.
Dinner is rowdy, in a way that makes Nie Huaisang suddenly miss home. Qinghe Nie might not have the reputation Yunmeng Jiang has for wild gatherings, but it was certainly not quiet. That sense of open and loud camaraderie exists here as well, although it has a tinge of desperation to it, as if they all know that it couldn’t possibly last, but are determined to make it count.
When Nie Huaisang sits next to Wei Wuxian, the latter does a double take, and then sighs. “Nie-xiong, I completely forgot you were here!” he complains, as if that wasn’t Nie Huaisang’s entire intention in the first place. “Why didn’t you say anything? I could have asked Lan Zhan to escort you back to the Unclean Realm.”
Nie Huaisang acts as if he is surprised. “Lan Wangji was here? Wei-xiong, I didn’t know he was a regular visitor! How scandalous.”
Predictably, Wei Wuxian flushes, although that might just be the liquor. “Not regular—” he starts to deny, and then pauses, looking at Nie Huaisang suspiciously. “You did this on purpose.”
“I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Nie Huaisang says, and then takes Wei Wuxian’s cup from his hand and takes a sip. He starts coughing immediately. “This is strong!”
“Uncle Four brewed it himself,” Wei Wuxian says and takes the cup back, laughing at him, the jerk. “You know exactly what I’m talking about, don’t even try. Wait—was it you, who protected them from the resentful energy? I was thinking it was strange that no one was hurt.”
Nie Huaisang shrugs, suddenly a bit self-conscious. “Wen Suyin yelled at me so much that I remembered how to make a protective array completely out of fright, but not of the resentful spirits,” he complains. It wouldn’t do for Wei Wuxian to start expecting things out of him.
There is a loud cheer from behind them, and Nie Huaisang twists around to see Wen Ning entering the cave, looking so embarrassed that he might die all over again. Nie Huaisang wants to think himself a pretty progressive man, but he admits that even he has to surpass a shudder at Wen Ning’s presence. It just feels wrong. However, seeing that he both has fond memories of him from their Cloud Recesses days and that he is scared shitless of Wen Qing, he simply plasters a smile over his face as Wen Ning approaches their table.
“Oh, Young Master Nie!” Wen Ning is clearly surprised to see him, and he quickly bows to him. “I didn’t know we had guests. I... hope I wasn’t too much trouble earlier.” His tone is as sheepish and mild as Nie Huaisang remembers, and he once again has to wonder who exactly had a hand in spreading tales of the Ghost General.
“Not at all,” he waves off his apology and motions him to sit with them. “I’m glad you’re doing better now, Young Master Wen.”
Wen Ning blinks in surprise, presumably at the unexpected title. Nie Huaisang still has manners, thank you very much. “Jiejie and Master Wei made sure of it,” he says. “I’m very grateful.”
“Don’t thank Wei Wuxian too much, a-Ning,” Wen Qing interjects as she sits with them, “his head will get even bigger.”
“Oi, Wen Qing!” Wei Wuxian objects. He has managed to drink a few more cups by then, and his motions are sloppy and uncoordinated, his speech a bit slurred. Nie Huaisang frowns. Has he always been this light on his alcohol?
It gets progressively worse throughout the night. A-Yuan comes to eat with them for a bit, but then gets whisked away by his grandmother when it’s time for him to go to bed, despite his very loud objections. Wei Wuxian had been considerate of the child and had hardly drunk any more of the wine while he was around, but jumped right back into it as soon as he was gone. Nie Huaisang himself has made sure to drink very little, the taste too strong for him, and he exchanges quite a few looks with Wen Qing as Wei Wuxian got drunker and drunker.
It does, admittedly, get slightly more entertaining when he starts waxing poetics about Lan Wangji, although Nie Huaisang can’t bring himself to tease him about it. Every word and sentence is tinged with a pervasive sense of melancholy, as if Wei Wuxian is the only one aware of some kind of final door closing on something, losing something permanently. When he starts talking about how his sister is getting married—and of course Nie Huaisang knew, although he is thankful it was Lan Wangji who broke the news, and the burden wasn’t on him anymore—that sense of loss gets even sharper somehow, and Nie Huaisang really and truly aches for him.
He wants to tell him: ‘don’t worry Wei-xiong. I’ll make sure that even if you can’t be there for her wedding, it will be the last such event you will miss.’ Suddenly, he wants so desperately to make that promise, but he bites his tongue hard on the words, swallowing them down.
It would not help anyone to make such empty promises, least of all Wei Wuxian.
The next day, Wei Wuxian is too hungover to do anything but whine at Nie Huaisang ineffectually, trying to get him to leave. Nie Huaisang, an expert at ignoring what people want him to, gets busy further integrating himself with the Wens. He spends the morning with Grandma Wen and a-Yuan, playing around with the child and generally making a show of himself, trying to paint himself in the least dangerous light possible. After his actions the day before, there is hardly any suspicion left in the eyes of the refugees around him, but he dislikes the idea that any of them might still think him as a threat.
At around noon Wen Ning comes to take a-Yuan away for his daily lessons with Wen Qing, and Nie Huaisang finds himself at a bit of a loss as to what to do then until Wen Suyin finds him and bullies him into helping her with raking the ground before seeding, a task he loudly and continuously protests he is not suited for, to no avail. It leaves him dirty and sweaty in a way not even training with his brother ever got him, and for the first time he questions if any of this is really worth it.
Alright, maybe only half-heartedly so, but still!! He didn’t even know he had some of the muscles that are now screaming at him in pain!!!
Dinner that night is not even half as rambunctious as the night before, everyone tired from yesterday’s festivities and today’s work, but it is still a pleasant enough time, muted conversation feeling the warm, humid air around them. About halfway through the meal he catches Wei Wuxian’s eyes on him. “What is it? Do I have food on my face?”
“You understand, don’t you?” Wei Wuxian asks him, nonsensically.
“Why I had to do it.”
Abruptly, Nie Huaisang understands. He puts down his bowl and considers his friend. “I do.”
A flash of surprise still comes across Wei Wuxian’s face, even though he seems to have expected it. “Of all people, I didn’t think…” he trails off, maybe understanding how offensive he might come across. It’s okay though—Nie Huaisang hardly minds.
“I don’t know many things, Wei-xiong,” he says, “and I’m quite happy with that. But I would like to think I know at least a little bit about good and bad. Maybe a bit more about people. I don’t think I’ve made the wrong choice here.”
“Your brother wouldn’t agree.”
“Da-ge is… complicated.” It’s an insufficient way to describe a man like Nie Mingjue, who came to his power and position too young, too soon. A man who was Nie Huaisang’s father and mother and brother, who stood tall above him like a mountain—a mountain with secret tunnels only Nie Huaisang knew about. “He is righteous, but sometimes it gets twisted. Like he only remembers the vague shape of justice, but his eyes skip on the details.”
“And you are all about the details.”
Ah, what a good friend. “I am!”
Wei Wuxian snorts out a laugh. “You know, if someone were to ask me when we were in Cloud Recesses who would one day stand at my side against the entire world, you wouldn’t have even made the list. No offense.”
“A little offense, but alright. Who would have?”
“Hmm… Jiang Cheng and shijie, of course.” He shakes his head. “Ah, that’s sad. Only them.”
“Not Lan Wangji?”
Wei Wuxian throws him a strange look. “Lan Zhan? He barely tolerated me then, and is outright disgusted by me now.”
Nie Huaisang thinks of the man who came up running behind Wei Wuxian, holding a child he didn’t even know with care and gentleness. The way he stood just a little too close to him while Wen Suyin told them what happened. “Right. Super disgusted.” He slots this into his “for further consideration” mental box, right next to Wei Wuxian’s lack of sleeping and what looks like alcohol dependency. It’s almost like he should make a whole new mental box that’s just devoted to Wei Wuxian’s myriad issues.
Hmm. Sounds like too much work.
“I still don’t really understand what you’re doing here, but I think I at least know why,” Wei Wuxian continues. “I’m… glad. That someone else looks at those people and knows they aren’t monsters.”
Privately, Nie Huaisang thinks that a lot of people look at the remains of Qishan Wen and know they aren’t monsters. That simply isn’t enough to stop them.
That night, Nie Huaisang whines and complains and cajoles Wei Wuxian into bed with him. Like he told his friend on his first night there, they have done so in the past—on nights where either of them was too drunk to sneak back to their own room in Cloud Recesses, they would stumble into bed together, curling up into each other’s warmth and trading giggling kisses, drunk on both alcohol and inexperience. There had been intimacy there, even if it wasn’t romantic. Neither of them had been interested in that back then, happy enough to fool around and have fun with it.
Could Nie Huaisang have fallen in love with Wei Wuxian in the months they have spent being young and carefree? Maybe. He dared anyone to spend some time with Wei Wuxian and not fall in love with some aspect of his being, his mind or his heart or his laugh. For a sheltered boy like Nie Huaisang he had been overwhelming.
Even then though, he had seen how Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji acted together. He might have not put it all together back then, but a part of him knew, and never begrudged his friend for it.
Now, in the darkness of the cave, there is none of that carefree and childish familiarity they once shared. Both of them had grown up (even if Nie Huaisang decidedly less so than his much taller friend) and they had found an awkwardness between them that did not exist all those years ago.
All the same, there is a new-found affinity between them, of two that have looked at the world, found it wanting, and decided to do something about it. Wei Wuxian sighs into his neck.
The world is a blur of black and grey for a moment until Nie Huaisang finds himself knocked flat on his back on the floor, rudely awake. Wei Wuxian is stumbling away from the stone slab he calls a bed after having, perhaps intentionally, knocked Nie Huaisang off of it.
“Good morning to you too,” Nie Huaisang mutters, picking himself off of the floor.
“Someone is at the wards,” Wei Wuxian says, not even apologising. He is shrugging on a set of tattered robes over his underrobe, grabbing talismans and his dizi from his workspace. “Stay here.”
Nie Huaisang, who has a pretty good idea of who could be at the wards, winces. Time for his bet to either pay off or explode in his face spectacularly. “Ah, Wei-xiong—”
“Not now,” Wei Wuxian snaps at him and promptly runs out of the cave, dark robes swirling around him. Now that Nie Huaisang’s eyes are better adjusted, he can tell that it’s actually close to morning, and not as dark as he first thought. Outside the Burial Mounds the skies would surely be tinged with rays of orange and red.
Now cursing a bit himself, Nie Huaisang grabs his outer robe set (wrinkling his nose a bit at the smell—he really should have thought to pack another set) and hurriedly putting them on, not even bothering to fix his braids as he rushes out of the cave himself. He almost collides head first with Wen Qing.
“What on earth—”
“Wei-xiong sensed someone at the wards,” Nue Huaisang rapidly explains. “I’m going there to make sure my brother doesn’t kill him.”
Wen Qing squints at him. “Is that a possibility.”
He can’t do anything but shrug at her helplessly. “With my brother, all manners of violence are a possibility, but I’m hoping to avoid this one.” He takes a few steps before halting again. “Um. Maybe make sure your equipment is prepared? Just in case.”
He takes the road out of the little village, not running but walking slightly faster than his preferred speed of a meandering fool. Even before reaching the boundary he can hear yelling.
“— I don’t know what you’ve planned to do with him—”
“I’m telling you, I wasn’t planning anything, him showing up here has been decidedly out of the realm of possibility for any plan—”
“How did you coerce him to write that letter?”
“I didn’t—what letter?”
“I’m going on a vacation to spend time with far more reasonable people, bah! As if—”
“Why, da-ge,” Nie Huaisang barges in on this nonsensical conversation, only slightly panting. “Don’t you think the Burial Mounds are lovely this time of year?”
“Huaisang!” With a pang of regret, Nie Huaisang looks at his brother’s disheveled appearance. His hair looks greasy and unkempt, his eyes bloodshot as if he has barely slept. Perhaps the biggest clue pointing at his exhaustion is the state of his prise horse standing quietly next to him, its coat muddy and its mane unbrushed. Clearly, he has spent a few days riding it nonstop, probably barely stopping to rest. His eyes, however—
Oh, he’s so angry.
“Great, Nie-xiong, maybe you can explain to Chifeng-zun that I have not kidnapped you using my dark magic,” Wei Wuxian says, rolling his eyes and crossing his arms. He has not relaxed yet, and Nie Huaisang spies his hand placed firmly over Chenqing. Time to de-escalate this, fast.
“Da-ge, Wei-xiong didn’t kidnap me,” Nie Huaisang repeats dutifully.
Nie Mingjue, if possible, looks even angrier. “Huaisang, what the fuck do you think you’re doing here?”
“Wei-xiong is a dear friend of mine, and I haven’t had the opportunity to see him in so long, I thought it was long past time for a reunion. Da-ge always tells me it’s just as important to cultivate my friendships with my fellow cultivators as it is my spiritual power.”
Nie Mingjue groans, bringing one hand up to rub at his eyes. “Huaisang, Wei Wuxian is a demonic cultivator and has been branded a traitor to the gentry. You can’t be associated with him any longer. Now come, I’m leaving.”
Nie Huaisang stays where he is. “Have a safe trip back, thanks for visiting!”
“Huaisang,” Nie Mingjue snaps. “We are leaving.”
Nie Huaisang bows to his brother’s horse. “Please take care of my brother on this journey, Sangsang.”
Wei Wuxian lets out a surprised snort. “Sangsang?”
Nie Huaisang beams at him. “Da-ge named him when he was nine,” he whispers loudly, “it’s really cute isn’t it?”
“Wei-xiong, could you give us a second?” Nie Huaisang asks his friend, knowing it’s time to stop playing.
Wei Wuxian squints at him suspiciously but shrugs, stepping back into the cover of the trees and at least giving them the allusion of privacy.
Before Nie Huaisang can say anything, his brother says, quietly but firmly: “What’s all this about, then? You didn’t come here just to catch up with your friend.”
That’s the problem with Nie Mingjue being the best brother Nie Huaisang could have wished for: he’s the only one who believes in him fully and whole-heartedily, who knows Nie Huaisang isn’t as airheaded as most people think, who calls him brilliant and underhanded (the last one less of a compliment in Nie Mingjue’s eyes, but Nie Huaisang always thought of it as such.) Nie Mingjue loves him, and Nie Mingjue isn’t blind to any part of him. So Nie Huaisang has no choice: he tells the truth.
“What you, and all the other sect leaders, have decided about Wei-xiong and the people he took under his protection? It’s wrong. Da-ge, it’s wrong, and it’s twisted, and I want nothing to do with it.”
Predictably, he doesn’t take it well. “Have you forgotten how Wen Rouhan has killed our father?” His tone is quiet, but Nie Huaisang knows not to take it as a sign of calm reasoning. “Have you forgotten how they have attacked our home, killed our people? They burnt down Cloud Recesses, they burnt down Lotus Pier, they would have burnt down the entire world if we had let them. And now you wish to set them free?”
“So we repay one genocide with another?” Nie Huaisang snaps, suddenly angry. It’s so stupid, this whole thing is so stupid—how can they not see how flawed their logic is, how unreasonable? Or better yet, how do they know it to be true and still dare call themselves just? “The people up there,” he gestures at the mountain, “are not warriors. They are cooks and seamstresses and merchants, farmers and servants. They had no hand in invading our lands, had no power to stop Wen Rouhan from his madness. You would look at the innocent and demand its blood? How does that count as justice?” He looks at Nie Mingjue, expecting to see anger, but sees only confusion.
“We have been told Wei Wuxian liberated experienced cultivators.”
Nie Huaisang is taken aback. “What? Who told you that?”
Nie Mingjue’s face morphs into a… complicated expression. “Jin Guangshan, as relayed by Jin Guangyao.”
“Uh? San-ge must have been confused. Da-ge, please, you have to believe me. I’ve spent the last three days with those people, they are even less of a threat than I am,” Nie Huaisang says, desperate for his brother to believe him. Nothing he has done will mean anything if his brother doesn’t believe him. “Grandma Wen has taught me how to properly wash different fabrics. Uncle Four brewed the worst alcohol I’ve ever tasted, but he was so proud of it I couldn’t say anything. Wen Suyin is maybe two years older than me, she bullied me all day yesterday but then made sure I got enough food at dinner. Da-ge, there’s a child there, barely four years of age. They are not dangerous.”
“Come see for yourself! Spend the day here. You’ve never farmed before, right? It’s awful. It makes you dirty and sweaty and strains all your muscles, so I’m sure you’ll love it.” He’s babbling now, but he just knows that if he gets his brother to the village, if his brother meets those people and sees how they live, he will not be able to turn his back on them. His brother is nothing if not a huge softie for the downtrodden.
“Are you telling me they got you to farm?” The tone is dry, but Nie Huaisang knows what his brother sounds like when he’s poking fun.
“Wen Suyin is mean, I told you so,” Nie Huaisang pouts at him, barely restraining himself from breaking down in giggles. Almost there…
Nie Mingjue sighs. “Wei Wuxian is still a demonic cultivator.”
Nie Huaisang winces. He doesn’t exactly have a rebuttal for that. “Well, yes…”
“I can control it,” Wei Wuxian says, stepping back from the woods. His eyes are hooded. “Nie-xiong, I appreciate what you’re doing, but I’m not going to let the biggest threat here into the settlement just like that.”
Nie Mingjue scrutinises him. Nie Huaisang has no idea what his brother is seeing. Is he noticing the threadbare clothes, the clear exhaustion, starvation? Whatever it is, it must be enough, for he says: “I’ll seal in my spiritual power.”
Wei Wuxian’s eyebrows jump upwards, and even Nie Huaisang gapes in surprise. He never thought his brother would… Wow, he must have done an even better job than expected.
“Great!” he claps his hands, decisively. “Wei-xiong, I trust that’s enough?”
Wei Wuxian just sighs tiredly, giving up. “You have to explain this to Wen Qing.”
Wen Qing does not need much of an explanation. She takes one look at the three of them coming up the road, bows to Nie Mingjue, and says: “I don’t want to know” when Nie Huaisang opens his mouth to explain.
Wen Ning is more outwardly skittish, and Nie Huaisang is ready to do some quick talk to convince his brother that he has always been this way and it's not a sign of him being up to anything nefarious when Nie Mingjue snorts out a laugh. “You look as though you’re going to piss yourself boy, calm down. Aren’t you supposed to be a feral beast?”
Wen Ning blinks at him owlishly. “I… try not to be?”
They have taken Sangsang with them up the mountain since Nie Mingjue refused to leave it alone, and it proves to be a big hit amongst the Wens, who all gather around the beautiful animal despite still being very wary of Nie Mingjue. A-Yuan in particular is ecstatic, having probably only seen a horse once before.
“Fan-gege, fan-gege!” He calls out to Nie Huaisang, giggling while barely being restrained by his grandmother. “Look, a horsie! It’s so big!!!!”
“That’s the child?” Nie Mingjue asks, his gaze soft as he looks at him. People never believe Nie Huaisang when he tells them his brother is good with children, but it’s true!
“A-Yuan,” he calls out to him instead of answering. “Come here, I’ll introduce you to my da-ge and then we can pet the horsie, alright?”
A-Yuan trots over amicably, but Nie Huaisang doesn’t miss the look exchanged between Grandma Wen and Wei Wuxian before she lets him go. Nie Huaisang kneels down in the dirt, already having accepted the fact that those robes are beyond salvation. “This is my da-ge, Nie Mingjue. You can call him—”
“Moustache-gege,” A-Yuan says, his eyes wide. He’s craning his head to look up at Nie Mingjue, who must look like a giant to him. “You’re big like the horsie.”
Nie Mingjue laughs. Wei Wuxian startles at the booming sound. He kneels down right next to Nie Huaisang. “Well, it’s my horse,” he says. “So it needs to be big enough to carry me.”
A-Yuan’s eyes go even wider, if that’s possible. “Moustache-gege’s horsie?”
And that’s how they find themselves spending about an hour trotting Sangsang around as a-Yuan sits on it, giggling and squealing in happiness, Nie Mingjue’s broad hand steadying him so that he won’t fall. Then, Wen Suyin grabs Nie Huaisang and drags him back to the raking, and he loses sight of his brother for about two hours. He remains unconcerned about it until about an hour in, at which point the various aunties and uncles begin to flock to him and quietly but swiftly interrogate him as to his brother’s marriage prospects.
“What? Why on earth do you want to know?” Nie Huaisang gapes at them, and that’s how he learned that his brother has been helping rebuild the shacks destroyed in Wen Ning’s attack two days ago, that he is such a nice boy and so helpful, so gentle with a-Yuan and with his horse. He had helped Grandma Wen to move around her cooking station and gave Uncle Four brewing advice and has possibly also plucked down the sun from the sky to use as their personal heating stove, the reports were unclear.
Nie Huaisang is not at all jealous that his brother managed in less than one hour to endear himself to people he himself has spent days trying to befriend.
When he next sees his brother, having managed to free himself from Wen Suyin’s tyranny, he finds him with his top robe discarded and his braids tied in a knot atop his head, digging into the ground.
“Are you using Baxia?” Nie Huaisang demands.
“They don’t have a shovel.”
“Wei Wuxian suspects there might be an underwater stream passing through this spot. Having a well here instead of outside the boundaries would be beneficial.”
Is this truly the man that not even several hours ago Nie Huaisang had to convince not to murder everyone here? “Uh, sure. Good job, da-ge! Say, are you still not looking for a wife? Asking out of general curiosity.”
Nie Mingjue pauses in his digging and frowns at him suspiciously. “Is this about you being sect heir again? I told you, you are more than capable of—”
“Nope! Never mind, don’t worry about it.” Nie Huaisang hurries away, only to bump into Wei Wuxian. “Wei-xiong!”
“Nie-xiong! Good, I was looking for you, come here for a second.” He gets dragged behind one of the already repaired shacks. “Nie-xiong, what the fuck?”
“I don’t know!”
“No, seriously, what the fuck?”
“No, seriously, I really don’t know!”
“Your brother has been like. I don’t know. Adopted, or something. Grandma Wen asked me if I knew what his favourite food is!”
“Any kind of beef with very little seasoning, he’s a philistine,” Nie Huaisang sighs.
“I told her I didn’t know. They don’t even like me all that much, how come they’re all collectively in love with your brother?!”
Nie Huaisang squints at him, unable to tell if Wei Wuxian is joking. “Wei-xiong,” he says very slowly, “they adore you.” Not even two days have gone by since they have spent all evening fixing up the place and arranging a feast in Wei Wuxian’s name, is he just this dense?
Wei Wuxian waves him off. “Not the point!”
“I guess da-ge is more charming than I realised,” Nie Huaisang says. “Whatever, this still works perfectly. See, I told you I would protect you from da-ge!”
“Soon enough every person here would sign up to protect him from us,” Wei Wuxian mutters and stalks off, to do whatever dark deeds he had planned during the day. Nie Huaisang isn’t rude, he doesn’t pry.
Uncle Four ropes him in to do some alcohol tasting for him, and he doesn’t manage to escape his clutches until late into the afternoon, feeling slightly tipsy and disoriented. He looks for his brother first in the main area of the settlement and then next to where Sangsang has been left to rest, and only then does he set his pace towards the Demon Subduing Palace. When he enters, he sees Wei Wuxian, Wen Qing, and his brother, all seated at Wei Wuxian’s work station, for once free of stray talismans and scrolls. None of them have noticed his entrance, and he stays back, listening.
“I still don’t like you having that thing,” he hears his brother say.
Wei Wuxian’s face curls in distaste. “Would you rather Jin Guangshan have it?” Nie Mingjue scowls, but doesn’t reply. Wei Wuxian continues. “The safest place I can think of is with me.”
“It should be destroyed.”
“And what insurance do we then have for our safety?” Wen Qing says. She doesn’t sound angry or demanding, only tired. “Chifeng-zun, only a few weeks ago you were calling for our blood. I don’t wish to be rude, but how can we know your mood isn’t fickle yet again?”
Nie Mingjue stands up. For a brief second, Nie Huaisang almost thinks he miscalculated—that the presence of the people with the same surname as the man who killed their father has been too much for him, that it’s only now that it sinks in. But no, Nie Huaisang’s brother is better than that, because in front of Wen Qing and Wei Wuxian, he is bowing.
“I have treated you unjustly, and for that I can offer no excuses. But on my name and on my sword I swear that I will not stand by and watch others bring you any harm.”
Nie Huaisang—well, he didn’t expect this. He knew his brother would have no course of action other than to change his mind when he saw those people, that he would know there has been a grave wrong done and that his moral bone would not let him ignore it. But a vow like this one is not something to be taken lightly.
“Chifeng-zun—” Wen Qing begins to say, looking slightly overwhelmed.
“Da-ge’s word is as good as truth, you know,” Nie Huaisang finally steps in. “He would protect you.”
His brother looks at him, fond and annoyed all at once, a look Nie Huaisang is more than familiar with. “Part of your plan all along, I’m sure.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, I was really just trying to avoid sabre practice,” Nie Huaisang deflects, although he knows no one in the room is buying it. “Am I correct in assuming you were arguing about the Stygian Tiger Seal?”
Nie Mingjue’s face darkens. “Yes. I still don’t feel comfortable—”
“Might I make a suggestion?” Nie Huaisang cuts him off. “Wei-xiong, while I’m sure you’re more than capable of controlling its power, you will agree that it is something that is largely unknown to us, and so that it might hide some secrets, even from you?”
“I… guess,” Wei Wuxian allows reluctantly.
“Would it not then be prudent to assign another set of eyes to examine it and explore its properties?”
“Are you saying you’ll be giving me a babysitter—”
“Second Young Master Lan should do nicely, no?” Nie Huaisang barrels on, ignoring his friend. “Da-ge, even you must agree Hanguang-jun’s reputation and abilities are beyond reproach. Surely the other sects won’t be able to complain if he is put in charge of monitoring the Seal.”
“Wangji is certainly more than capable—”
“You can’t!” Wei Wuxian blurts out, looking panicked at Nie Huaisang. “Lan Zhan, what? He would hate it.”
Nie Huaisang strongly doubts that, and he catches Wen Qing rolling her eyes behind Wei Wuxian’s back. “I’m sure he will do it for the sake of knowledge and justice or something,” he says instead.
“Hm, yes, I suppose that could be a temporary measure,” Nie Mingjue is nodding his head slowly, still contemplating it. “I’ll have to suggest it to Xichen, but I’m sure he won’t have complaints.”
Ha! Take that, whichever tutor it was that said he was bad at multitasking! A neat solution to both the Tiger Seal problem and his friend’s helpless crush.
Wen Qing stands up from the table. “What will you do now then?”
“I’ll have to consulate Xichen. Perhaps Jiang Wangyin as well. They should both be told that things are not as we have been told.” A stormy expression comes across his face. “I’ll be very interested to know how this misunderstanding happen.” Nie Huaisang hasn’t had the time to think about it, but his brother was right. Something wasn’t right here.
Well, that’s for his brother to figure out! Nie Huaisang is sooo done with scheming. It had honestly been so stressful! He takes out his fan and starts fanning himself lightly, more than pleased with himself and ready to head back to his comfortable bed and a warm bath, right up until his brother says: “Huaisang, you will stay here.”
Nie Huaisang almost drops his fan. “What? Why?”
His brother raises an eyebrow at him. “It seems you’ve been having so much fun expanding your horizons, I’ll hate to deprive you of the experience.”
Nie Huaisang gapes at him. At the table, Wei Wuxian starts laughing, the traitor. “Da-ge! I assure you, I’ve expanded them all I could. I’m ready to go back.”
“Ah, Chifeng-zun, surely you would not take from us a capable set of hands!” Wei Wuxian calls out, still laughing. “You’ve seen how few resources we have. It would be quite cruel of you.”
“And after my did has worked so hard to make me less of a cruel man,” Nie Mingjue agrees, a wry twist to his lips. A conspiracy! A betrayal of trust!
Resigned to his fate, he still tries glumly: “Surely Lady Wen would have an objection?”
She snorts. “Don’t drag me into this. Your brother surely wants you out of the way of whatever vipers’ nest he is about to uproot. You ought to thank him and try to be useful. Tomorrow you will help me sort through my herbs.”
“Ha!” Nie Mingjue lets out a surprised laugh. “Lady Wen, I see you are more than capable of managing Huaisang. Good.”
“Had experience with this one,” she nods at Wei Wuxian, who looks outraged. Her and his brother exchange long-suffering looks, and belatedly Nie Huaisang realises he should have never, ever made them meet. Not even for the sake of justice.
Much later, after his brother had the chance to himself sample some of Uncle Four’s creations (despite having less of an alcohol tolerance than even Nie Huaisang), he bids the settlement farewell. It has grown late, and it would take him all night to reach Koi Tower. He politely but adamantly refuses Grandma Wen invitation to stay the night, looking much more bright-eyed and awake than he was that morning, clearly eager to move things along.
A-Yuan is in tears at the idea of saying goodbye to Sangsang, and not even Wei Wuxian can cajole him out of it. Eventually, it is Nie Mingjue who pets his head and tells him that Sangsang will miss him too, but will want him to be a good boy until they next meet. Between his soft tone and firm, warm hand, it works, and a-Yuan vows to Sangsang that he will be on his best behaviour until it comes back.
Nie Huaisang escorts his brother and his horse down the path, up until the boundaries’ edge. He is preparing one last ditch effort to try and convince his brother he should come with him—more out of habit than any belief that it would work—when his brother starts talking instead.
“This was a brave thing for you to do, you know.”
“Coming here, helping those people—standing up to me,” he huffs, amusement and pride mixing in his voice. “It was very brave. Somewhat stupid, but brave.”
Suddenly, he feels very warm, even in the cold evening air. “Ah, da-ge…”
“I know you want me to spin it as some airheaded decision you’ve made without consideration, but I know you, a-Sang. You believed in those people even before coming here. Why?”
Nie Huaisang sighs in defeat. “Well,” he says, “Wei-xiong protected them. That was enough for me.”
There is silence for a few moments. “Should I be making some sort of courtship offer to Yunmeng Jiang?”
“Da-ge!” Nie Huaisang sputters. “No! Gross!”
“I do remember he was the fourth on the list of most eligible bachelors, no? I suppose you could do worse—”
Nie Huaisang hits him. Of course, his brother is a small mountain, so it doesn’t even register, but it’s the thought that counts. “He’s a friend,” he stresses out, and vows to never tell him of those sunny afternoons in Cloud Recesses.
Nie Mingjue chuckles. “Alright, alright.” He leans down a little and ruffles his little brother’s hair, despite his objections. “I mean it though. You did good, a-Sang.”
He can’t stop himself from smiling, a small, pleased thing. No matter how much he grows, he will always be his brother’s didi, and he will always bask in his affection and pride. And now that his brother won’t be stuck up his own ass anymore, there surely would be a lot more of that.