When Nie Huaisang enters Wen Ning’s hut for the first time, Wen Ning braces for his reaction.
The few people who have been inside—the juniors, some well-meaning aunties and uncles—all had the same response. “Wow, that’s a lot of clutter,” they’d say, tsking, or sometimes, “Oh, your place is full of stuff, isn’t it?”
Even Wei Wuxian’s appreciative, “Ooh, look at all these old things!” gave Wen Ning the same feeling of underlying judgment, well-intentioned as the words might have been.
Wen Ning knows he’s a packrat, knows he hoards things he doesn’t need to, knows it’s even more extreme because of his innate sentimentality and the lean times he’s struggled through. He knows what Nie Huaisang sees, too:
There’s the lone paintbrush, bamboo cracked and streaked with black; fitting, for Wen Ning.
There’s the stack of talismans, some burnt, others useless for their incorrect characters.
There’s the set of tea cups, each one a different pattern, full of little chips and time-worn glaze.
But when Wen Ning looks, he sees these objects in a different light:
The paintbrush was Jiejie’s last possession of luxury. It’s the only thing of hers he has, the only thing he could find in the wrecked village of the Burial Mounds.
The talismans are the juniors’ handiwork. They would have thrown them away, laughing at their own mistakes, but these papers prove that little A-Yuan is alive and well, that he has flourished beyond Wen Ning’s wildest dreams.
The teacups were each abandoned by their previous owner. Wen Ning couldn’t bear to leave any of them alone and empty. Void of purpose.
He knows what it’s like to feel useless. The teacups have a use, in his home.
Wen Ning busies himself with making tea, feeling shame rise up his throat as he listens to Nie Huaisang putter around. What was he thinking, suggesting Nie Huaisang come to his home to rest? And just because Nie Huaisang hadn’t been feeling well after spending all that time with the Lan Disciples! Just because Nie Huaisang had only ever been kind to Wen Ning, in his last life and in this one.
There are at least a dozen suitable inns in Caiyi. None of them are littered with what looks, to anyone but Wen Ning, like trash.
By the time the tea is ready, Nie Huaisang is sitting at the table. “I noticed you were collecting poetry,” he murmurs, idly fanning himself. “For Wei-xiong and Lan-xiong?”
Of all the things Nie Huaisang might notice, the two books are probably the least obtrusive. “I thought they’d make a nice wedding gift… or at least, the start of one,” Wen Ning mumbles into the steam of the teapot as he pours for Nie Huaisang.
Nie Huaisang accepts the tea with his free hand and a polite dip of his chin. “They’re good choices. Lan Wangji is unlikely to have picked those up on his travels.”
For a while they sit in shy silence, Wen Ning watching Nie Huaisang’s delicate fingers where they cradle the teacup. Surely, Nie Huaisang is used to much fancier items; yet the look on his face seems to suggest approval.
Nie Huaisang breaks their shared hush when Wen Ning pours him a second cup. “Thank you for the tea, and for allowing me to rest here.”
Wen Ning ducks his head. “It was no problem, Nie Zong-”
“-Huaisang,” Nie Huaisang interrupts. “Come now, Wei-Xiong had us privately calling you Wen Ning all these years; the least you can do is to call me Nie Huaisang.”
“Nie H-huaisang, then,” Wen Ning continues. “It r-really was no trouble at all.”
At that, Nie Huaisang grins at him, and Wen Ning remembers the toothy smirk that he’d sported as a teenager. He feels all of fifteen again, watching Nie Huaisang smuggle a canary into class.
The rest of their tea is drunk in companionable silence, Wen Ning feeling reassured that Nie Huaisang is not trying to flee his home at the earliest opportunity.
When Nie Huaisang insists on leaving his fan as a little token of appreciation, exhorting Wen Ning to keep him in mind if he wants to discuss wedding presents for the happy couple, Wen Ning has to tamp down a little flutter in his chest, like a sparrow tucked into the cage of his ribs.
Over the next few months, more trinkets and notes join the fan on Wen Ning’s increasingly wobbly shelves. Some are clearly expensive; others are simply unique. All are beautiful, and none were purchased by himself.
Some items aren’t even new. When Wen Ning wrote back to Nie Huaisang in his faltering script, he’d gotten an airy response that there was beauty in things that aren’t perfect.
“Thank you for the lacquered bowl you sent to me,” Nie Huaisang had written, “and for understanding that sometimes shared experiences are enough. Did you know that the lacquer used on weapons is the same material that is used to mend broken pottery into something beautiful?”
Wen Ning keeps that note, too. He keeps it tucked by his pillow, an indulgent pleasure. It fills his chest with warmth, and it almost feels like he’s alive again.
The juniors are visiting, and Lan Jingyi has gotten distracted from helping Jin Ling and Ouyang Zizhen lay out tea and snacks.
“These are new,” Lan Jingyi chirps, admiring Wen Ning’s growing collection, and A-Yuan rolls his eyes and drags him to the table.
Lan Jingyi immediately begins to nitpick the way Jin Ling arranges the tea cakes, and Wen Ning is relieved that he wasn’t expected to answer.
A-Yuan shoots him a meaningful little look though, clearly happy that his Wen-qianbei has found a like-minded friend.
“I noticed your fan—we’re actually on our way to the Unclean Realm,” he informs Wen Ning later, while his friends’ cheeks are stuffed like chipmunks.
Wen Ning is grateful that he can no longer blush. He doesn’t possess any of the physical tells that made his Jiejie laugh at him whenever Wei Wuxian had been around, before… before.
Rather than blushing and stammering as he might have done years ago, he nods and pats A-Yuan’s head. “Be careful while traveling,” he says, then internally debates whether to have A-Yuan pass along the delicate pastries Wen Ning purchased with Nie Huaisang in mind when he was in the market earlier today. It was a frankly unnecessary purchase for someone who has no need to eat. An impulse decision. A waste, if they’re not gifted to someone. But if A-Yuan sees them, will that raise even more questions?
A-Yuan smiles then, interrupting his thoughts. “We’ll be back soon, in just a few days. I’m not sure why we were specifically requested, but Hanguang-jun says it’ll be a short mission.”
Wen Ning makes up his mind and fetches the small box. “Would you mind passing these to Nie H— Zongzhu, please, A-Yuan?”
All his attention is focused on A-Yuan’s pleased smile, now even wider. “I’d love to, Wen-qianbei! I wouldn’t mind at all.”
A-Yuan has always been such a filial child. Wen Ning is grateful that he’s found three friends who have stuck by him, even through the incident at the Guanyin temple and all of the fallout. A generation ago, only one person had looked past Wen Ning’s family name and reached out a hand. These three friends, however, seem to have accepted A-Yuan as Lan Sizhui, even knowing his past.
Their loud chatter brings him back to his current predicament. He’s so busy being relieved that the four juniors don’t question his recent acquisitions further, he barely registers that Ouyang Zizhen is yammering about romantic gestures. It's really not his concern.
As they prepare to leave, each of the juniors bows. “See you soon, Wen-qianbei,” they all chorus as they mount their swords, and then they’re off, A-Yuan bearing his precious present.
A few days later, as promised, the juniors return. They’re slightly red in the face as they land with less finesse than usual, probably hindered by the large object that’s balanced between them. The arrangement is quite precarious, despite the talismans covering their blanket-covered burden.
With more than a hint of confusion, Wen Ning ushers them and their bulky cargo inside.
Jin Ling directs Ouyang Zizhen and Lan Jingyi to the wall, each hefting a corner. When A-Yuan is satisfied, they remove the talismans and blankets.
“Surprise,” A-Yuan murmurs, while the other three have already fallen upon the snacks laid out for them.
Wen Ning blinks. The item hidden underneath the bundle is a beautifully crafted shelf. At first glance, it seems rather simple. Upon closer inspection, though, the shelf is decorated with delicate lacquered flowers. The craftsmanship is unparalleled.
“Nie-zongzhu suggested that we place it out of direct sunlight, so he can rest easy knowing all your belongings are being treated with the care they deserve,” A-Yuan adds.
Hardly daring to breathe—not that he needs the air—Wen Ning peeks over at A-Yuan. He’s got a sly look on his face, reminiscent of how Jiejie used to look when she spoke to Wen Ning about Wei Wuxian. There’s really no doubt that A-Yuan’s a Wen—though he also shows Hanguang-Jun’s calming influence by giving Wen Ning space and pouring the tea without further commentary.
By the time the juniors are gone, fed and watered after their journey, Wen Ning is ready to look at his gift again. He walks back to the shelf and runs a finger across the pristine, polished surface. It’s breathtaking, easily worth more than all of his other treasures combined.
Wen Ning thinks of Nie Huaisang’s fingers, delicately wrapped around an old chipped teacup. He picks up the fan with his own calloused hands and splays out the spines.
Wen Ning has never been to the Unclean Realm. He wonders if shared experiences are enough to permit him entry there.
As he sets the fan down, he wonders what kind of sentimental treasures lie behind the fortified doors of Nie Huaisang’s home.