First thing that came to Nie Huaisang’s mind upon waking up was that he had been kidnapped. Instead of lying in his bed, he was lying on a much less comfortable, thin mattress, if it even could be called a ‘mattress’ rather than a ‘mat’. The floor in his bedroom was probably softer than this, which in turn meant that he wasn’t in his bedroom, even though he had definitely lain down there to sleep.
He held down a wave panic, and didn’t open his eyes. Instead he focused on what he could feel and hear – and remember. Last night… Not much had happened, really. He had done his usual work, then tried to paint a fan or two, but the art didn’t seem to amuse him much these days. So he took out a few of the spell arrays his sect had been developing recently, and tried to get them to work instead, which wasn’t really much different than painting, but at least he didn’t keep imagining his brother’s disapproving face while he busied himself with it.
Nevertheless, when he finally had tossed himself onto bed, he ended up thinking about Nie Mingjue. His brother was resting now, but his soul would not reincarnate, and he was trapped in the same coffin as the man who had killed him. True, Nie Huaisang had avenged his death, but… was either of them happy?
He drifted off wishing for another life and another chance, and clearly he slept too soundly, for he didn’t wake up even when someone carried him out. Now sunlight fell on his face, so it was morning if not even later. However, he wasn’t tied up and the kidnappers had been kind enough to cover him with a blanket, so Nie Huaisang risked opening one eye to peek out.
The room that greeted him was… familiar, though it took sitting up and looking around before Nie Huaisang realized that he was in the Cloud Recess. Well, that was weird. Of all people to kidnap him, he would have never guessed that it was someone from the Gusu Lan Sect. Though he supposed that Lan Xichen could hold a grudge against him, but then, was he really the vengeful type? And as a joke or by accident, the kidnappers even put Nie Huaisang into his old room, the same one in which he had stayed while studying under Lan Qiren at his brother’s orders. Bah, even his robes were here, and a painting… and even his old fans…
No, no, no. Nie Huaisang sprang to his feet. Wait a moment!
He shoved the door open and paused, looking across the green trees and blossoming flower. It was late spring or summer, he couldn’t tell, but definitely it wasn’t winter as it should have been. Nie Huaisang swallowed, his heart racing as he staggered forward, up to the river. The kidnappers couldn’t have kept him unconscious for a good few months, could they? But the other explanation that came to his mind was even less possible.
He reached the riverbank, and looked, and he had to sit down. He raised his hands to his face to make sure, but there was no mistake – his features were slightly different now, his cheeks more chubby than they would become in a few years. He wasn’t just younger – he was a teenager, between fourteen to sixteen years old, since that was more or less the time span when he had studied at the Cloud Recess. It had taken him two years to pass, and his birthday was in late spring, and he really wasn’t able to gauge his age based only on his own reflection in the river.
“Huaisang,” a voice called from behind his back.
Nie Huaisang looked up to be greeted by the sight of Jiang Cheng, frowning not unlike his older self. But he looked much different too, shorter and with similar, boyish fat to his cheeks, and most of all, his voice was completely different – Nie Huaisang hadn’t even recognized it at first.
“Brother Jiang,” he laughed nervously, stumbling to his feet. “Good morning.”
He scanned their surroundings, but Wei Wuxian wasn’t anywhere in sight. Did he sleep in?... No, from what Nie Huaisang remembered, Jiang Cheng would wait for his adopted brother and even go wake him up if needed. He would curse a lot while doing so, often swearing that no one was going to bury Wei Wuxian’s corpse, but ultimately, he always waited.
So this was happening already after Wei Wuxian departed from Gusu… Nie Huaisang looked at his reflexion in the river again. This meant he should already be sixteen, and that he had any amount of time between a few days and a good few weeks before his brother came to take him back to Qinghe.
“Is this your sleeping robe?” Jiang Cheng’s voice was distant in Nie Huaisang’s ears. “Why aren’t you dressed yet? Huaisang? Huaisang!”
“Ah…” He blinked and swallowed, trying to think through the heartbeats that pounded in his ears. “I’m… not feeling well today, I guess.”
“You don’t look well,” Jiang Cheng admitted. “But it’s almost the end of the year, skipping lessons now is a bad idea.”
He was probably right. “Yeah… I’ll just get dressed and run. Please, don’t wait for me, Brother Jiang.”
Jiang Cheng’s frown deepened, but he nodded. “Just don’t break your leg.”
“Haha…” Nie Huaisang forced out another laughter.
Jiang Cheng was always a bit crude – too straightforward with his friends – but Nie Huaisang actually liked it. It reminded him about his brother, but without the ‘forcing me to train with the saber’ part.
He went back into his room and closed the door behind, then leaned against it heavily, waiting for his heart to calm down at least a little. His brother… If everything was precisely as it used to be, then his brother was still alive.
Nie Huaisang’s head hurt during the lesson with Lan Qiren, and this time it had little to do with the teacher’s monotonous voice. It hurt because he tried to wrap his mind around the events that were going to happen, and the scope of it was beyond him. The Sunshot Campaign, the rise and the fall of the Yiling Patriarch… His brother’s murder would come only after these grand events. Thinking about this, Nie Huaisang realized and decided a few things.
First, he didn’t really care about the war or the Yiling Patriarch. Yeah, it was sad to see so much death and hatred breed into the world, but Nie Huaisang was no hero to strive to stop it. The one thing he cared for was saving his brother’s life, and the rest of the world could crumble in order for him to achieve that. Of course he would rather it didn’t, but it wasn’t his main concern.
That led to the next thing, and it was – to hell with destiny, or harmony, or however the idea of non-interference might be called. He was not going down the same path, and he was not going to pretend to be the same person unless that would suit him at a given moment. Someone else might have been concerned about sending the world into an even greater chaos and indirectly causing deaths of countless more lives, but Nie Huaisang had no delusions that the world was as small as to only revolve around him. If he changed something, someone else would react to it, but if their actions killed people, those deaths would weight on that person’s shoulder. Nie Huaisang was not the center of the universe, and so he would not take responsibility for anyone but himself.
Besides, check with the point about the world crumbling.
Thirdly and lastly for now, he had to stop thinking that what was happening around him was the ‘past’. It was his present now, and he was going to meddle, so there was no guarantee that any of his memories would actually be useful, especially farther down the line. Some points would probably remain unchanged, like the corridors of the Koi Tower – which he had memorized by heart through the many years he had wandered them while paying his visits to Jin Guangyao – or like Lan Zhan’s stubborn love for Wei Wuxian, which must have already sparked by now. But these were only little isles in the sea of the unknown, and he should double-check himself not to rely on them too much.
Nie Huaisang smiled, fiddling with the fan that he kept in his lap. He was scared, of course he was, terrified of failing, of watching his brother die the second time, of perhaps not even being able to avenge him this time. But he was also excited – because this was his much-coveted chance to set things right.
“Huaisang!” Lan Qiren’s voice cut through his thoughts like a butcher’s knife slashing through a pig’s thigh. “Since you are smiling, I take it that you know the answer to my question this time? ”
Nie Huaisang stood up with a bow, gripping his fan in both his hands. “Ah, please, forgive me, I wasn’t listening at all!”
That was a mistake, of course, and Nie Huaisang realized it as soon as the words left his mouth. His old self wouldn’t have admitted the truth so easily, he would have tried to dodge by claiming that the subject was too difficult, or perhaps he just wouldn’t have said anything at all, not to provoke an even greater anger. He had grown too used to being an adult and a sect leader, even if one that was looked down upon. Sloppy.
A murmur of suppressed chuckles passed through the class, and Lan Qiren’s face reddened. He pointed with a trembling finger at Nie Huaisang.
“You! Copy 'Virtue and Conduct' before next week!”
Oh, so his stay at Gusu would be at last one-week long. Nie Huaisang bowed again. “Yes, I apologize! I will go copy it immediately after classes! Please forgive me!” Did it sound more like his old self? Right now, he would rather not provoke any suspicions about himself yet.
“Good.” Lan Qiren stroke his beard, though his brows still furrowed in irritation. “Sit down.”
Nie Huaisang obliged, keeping his head down, though in fact he fought to suppress a smile. He would copy the rules, he really would start immediately, and moreover, he would sit in the Library Pavilion to concentrate on his work better – or at least so would people think.