Nie Huaisang’s first clear memory was not his mother’s death, nor was it her funeral. It was the promise that his brother had made to him shortly after. A strong, calloused hand had cupped his small cheek. A warm breath had brushed across the bridge of his nose. He was pulled into an awkward, but reassuring hug, by a pair of strong arms. A voice that was steady, not at all riddled by the grief that Nie Huaisang felt, had given him a simple promise: “Don’t cry. I’ll protect you now.”
Six words. Two short sentences. Those were enough to make Nie Huaisang’s tears stutter. It was enough for him to nod, to cling to his older brother, and to obediently allow himself to be taken away from the altar.
Following his mother’s death, his father’s conditions began to worsen.
This did not come as a surprise to the people of the Qinghe Nie Sect. Quick temper and an aggressive spirit was the price that came with following the Nie cultivation method. The sudden death of the madam aggravated Sect Leader Nie and pushed him to the brink of qi deviation. Although he had quickly recovered and calmed his emotions, his temperament grew fiercer again.
But Nie Huaisang was still a child. He didn’t know any better and no one could explain it to him. All he knew was that his father yelled at him more, beat him more, and his older brother was now too busy for him.
These changes came rolling in one after another.
During this period of loneliness, where only books and painting accompanied him, Nie Huaisang concluded changes were bad. He liked it better when things were the same. He liked it better when his mother was around, when his father would spare him a smile, and when his brother (although coldly) would listen to him prattle about the sweets that he was allowed to eat that day.
He liked when their fortress in the Unclean Realm felt like home. When it was filled with warmth. But now? Now…
Tragedy struck again a few years after Madame Nie’s death. This time, it was the Sect Leader.
On this day, Nie Huaisang cried extra hard. He had just gotten used to his father’s temperament. This was unfair. He had just figured out how to get along with his father again. He thought that since he had grasped the key, his father wouldn’t leave. So, why? Why did his father leave too?
He resolutely kneeled at the altar. The servants had tried to pull their little young master away. They coaxed him with all kinds of good food, all sorts of sweets, and even new painting supplies at one point. But Nie Huaisang would not budge. He would not even look at them.
This image of their little young master pained them. The normally sparkling eyes were dull and red from crying. If they spoke too much, they were afraid of facing the infamous Nie wrath that they quickly learned their little young master also had.
Their eldest young master—no, he should be called Sect Leader Nie now—had gone out for business shortly after his father’s death. He had attended the funeral processions and sent out letters in the meantime, notifying various sect leaders of what had happened. After the funeral, Nie Mingjue set out to greet each of the larger sects himself.
For two days and one night, Nie Huaisang stayed at the foyer in front of his father’s plaque. His eyes were rimmed red. His voice had gone out. His brother was not home. Outside, rain poured. Lightning flashed; thunder clapped. Normally, Nie Huaisang would act spoiled in this situation. He would say he was scared and crawl into his older brother’s bed. Or his parents’. But now he couldn’t. There was no one.
As Nie Huaisang thought of this, a fresh bout of tears emerged from his dry eyes. He sniffled but didn’t wipe away anything. He allowed his tears to fall freely and drench his white robes.
Behind him, the door clattered open.
Nie Huaisang jumped. The first thought in his mind was that it was a ghost. But how could there be a ghost with such long, stable legs?
His eyes trailed up and he was met with his brother’s scowling face.
“So, you were here,” Nie Mingjue sighed with what seemed to be relief.
“B-Brother. You’re back,” Nie Huaisang awkwardly stood. His hands pressed down the front of his robes in a poor attempt to smooth them out.
Nie Mingjue took in the sight of the child before him. The way his head was pitifully held, the bend in his back, and the tear-stains on his face. Nie Mingjue let out another sigh. He reached behind him and pulled a small bundle in front of him.
The sound of grunting made Nie Huaisang look up. What he saw shocked him to the bones.
It was a boy about his age. His clothes were clean but his face was peeling from excessive sun exposure. His hair was pulled back into a ponytail. His eyes darted left and right nervously and his hands gripped the edges of his robes until his knuckles were nearly white. Finally, his eyes landed on Nie Huaisang.
He bowed. “Young Master.”
“Not Young Master,” Nie Mingjue nudged the child with a bit more force than needed. “Call him shidi.”
“S-shi--?” the boy turned back to look at Nie Mingjue incredulously.
Nie Mingjue stayed firm. His eyebrow was cocked and his chin tilted. He was daring the boy to question him.
“S-shidi,” the boy nervously repeated the greeting. He glanced up. His entire body was stiff as he waited for Nie Huaisang to throw a tantrum. They were all like this—kids that dressed this nicely and lived this large. They all had a temper.
“This…Brother, who is this?” Nie Huaisang asked, unable to take his eyes off the strange boy.
“This is Wei Ying, Wei Wuxian. From today onward,” Nie Mingjue glanced at the shaking boy. He placed a firm hand on the top of his head. Nie Huaisang knew that this was meant to be a comforting gesture, but he also knew that this kid, Wei Wuxian, would find it threatening. “From today onward, he will be your playmate.”
“You were lonely, weren’t you?”
This pair of brothers stared at each other. Nie Mingjue was beginning to think he misunderstood when Nie Huaisang threw himself against his torso and Nie Mingjue felt a bit of wetness through his robes.
He did care.
“Alright, alright,” Nie Mingjue grumbled, awkwardly patting Nie Huaisang’s head. “Pull it together. Aren’t you embarrassed?”
Nie Huaisang shook his head and resolutely clung to his older brother, his sobs not lightening in the slightest.
Wei Wuxian stood off to the side, watching this scene. He silently scratched his nose and his eyes curiously trailed around. White. White decorations. A brown plaque with a name on it. Must be someone’s funeral.
“You!” Nie Huaisang had suddenly pulled away. Tears and snot were still flowing, but the child did his best to look as domineering as his older brother. “From today onward, we’re friends!”
“I’m Nie Huaisang! You don’t need to call me ‘shidi’ or ‘young master’. Just Huaisang is fine.”
Wei Wuxian’s eyes pulled from the child over to his brother. He quickly nodded his agreement.
“You…also don’t have to act as a stranger! If you’re brought into my house as my playmate, that means you’re my person! You don’t have to worry about anything and no one will bully you,” Nie Huaisang approached Wei Wuxian. He hesitated, before imitating Nie Mingjue’s actions and resting his hand on Wei Wuxian’s head. “From now on, I will protect you.”
The small hand on top of Wei Wuxian’s head seemed to carry some sort of magic. The moment it touched him, he felt a burst of warmth that traveled from the crown of his head to the tip of his toes. The weariness he had felt from traveling a long way was washed away. Wei Wuxian stared at Nie Huaisang with wide eyes. He took in Nie Huaisang’s clear, round eyes that held no calculation and only pure, unbridled joy. Wei Wuxian trembled slightly but his response was firm: “Okay, I trust you.”
Wei Wuxian hesitated a moment and rested his hand on the one on top of his head. He pulled it down, but held it. “Since you will protect me from now on, in return, I will do my best to help you.”
Nie Huaisang looked at their hands and turned back to Wei Wuxian. “Really?”
Wei Wuxian nodded. “I would never break a promise.”
Nie Huaisang’s eyes pinched into crescents and he shook the hand that was just as small as his. He turned excitedly to his older brother. “Brother! Since you told Wuxian to call me ‘shidi’, does that mean you’ve accepted him into our sect as a disciple?”
Nie Mingjue nodded, his eyes trailing over to the child behind his little brother.
Nie Huaisang let out an excited gasp. However, when he turned back to face Wei Wuxian, Wei Wuxian detected a difference in his eyes. It was slight, but on his plump, childish face, the contrast was stark. Wei Wuxian felt the warm hand squeeze his own and heard a faint “I’ll protect you”, before he was told to follow the servants to his new room.