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Keep Me Safe

Chapter Text

Mingjue doesn’t know where he is when he wakes up.

It’s a strange room, bright and airy, the breeze moving gently through the open doors. He’s pretty sure he’s never been here before, because it doesn’t look anything like home, but… he knows this place.

He thinks.

His head hurts.

Mingjue sits up and groans, and tears gather in his eyes and drip down his cheeks, but he wipes them away in annoyance. Father always says he has to work through the pain and so he does, and Mingjue swings his legs over the bed as he tries to stand.

But his legs give way beneath him, and movement from the other side of the room catches his eye even as strong arms wrap around him before he falls.

“Mingjue!” The voice is like music but it sounds worried, and Mingjue cranes his head up to see who had caught him. Brilliant golden eyes stare down at him, concern and fear clashing for dominance on a face that could have been carved from pure jade, and Mingjue blinks.

“Are you a prince?” he asks in awe before he can stop himself, because how could this man not be— even through the worry he shines like the sun on a summer day.

The man’s lips part slightly in surprise, and the arms around him tighten for a moment before he is lifted back onto the bed.

“No, Mingjue,” the man replies softly, a smile curving his lips. “I am just your friend.”

Mingjue frowns. “Are you sure?” he asks, letting himself be propped up against the pillows and fussed over. “I don’t remember you.”

The man settles next to him on the bed, and as Mingjue watches he summons a yellow butterfly and whispers into it. The man turns back towards him as the butterfly flits off, and golden eyes study him carefully.

“How old are you, Mingjue?” the man asks instead of answering him, and Mingjue grins.

“I’ll be eight soon!” he says proudly, because he’s that much closer to getting his own saber now. He can’t wait to grow up. The man’s smile returns at his answer, and Mingjue blinks at the sight of it.

“Congratulations,” the man replies, and Mingjue wants to bury his head under the covers at the sight. “My name is Lan Xichen, but you can call me Lan Huan.”

Lan Huan, Mingjue mouths to himself, staring at the man even though he knows he’s being rude.

But noise from outside startles him and Mingjue jerks his gaze towards the door. A familiar looking man comes over, worry also clear on his face— Mingjue thinks for a moment that this new man looks like Father, a little bit— but Lan Huan raises a hand and the new person comes to a halt immediately.

“A-Sang,” Lan Huan greets, and Mingjue turns to look at him. Lan Huan smiles reassuringly, then inclines his head towards the newcomer. “This is Mingjue.”

A-Sang hesitates, then inhales sharply before smiling at Mingjue. It’s a nice smile, and something in Mingjue tells him, you’re safe here, with them, and he smiles back.

“It is a pleasure to meet you,” Mingjue says seriously, because Mother would be upset with him if he wasn’t polite. “My little brother is called A-Sang too.”

A-Sang darts a wide-eyed glance towards Lan Huan before he bows.

“It’s a pleasure to share a name with your brother,” A-Sang says, and his voice sounds funny, like he’s trying not to cry. Mingjue frowns, because this man looks nice, and he doesn’t want him to be sad. “How are you feeling, A-Jue? Is it okay if I call you that?”

Mingjue nods slowly, because A-Sang reminds him of Father, and Father calls him A-Jue all the time.

“Where am I?” he asks abruptly, and A-Sang comes to stand next to where Lan Huan is sitting. “Does Father know I’m here?”

Once again the two men share a look, and Lan Huan reaches out to pat Mingjue’s hand gently. “Yes,” he says softly. “Your father knows you’re here, Mingjue—”

“You can call me A-Jue too,” Mingjue interrupts, then blushes immediately. A-Sang coughs a laugh, then hides his face behind a fan, and Lan Huan gives him a smile that makes Mingjue’s heart thump wildly.

“Alright, A-Jue,” Lan Huan says, his golden eyes fond. “You’re in my home, in Cloud Recesses.”

“Okay,” Mingjue says slowly, fiddling with the sheets as he looks around the room. It’s nice here, even if it is so much brighter than home is, with everything white and blue. “Why?”

A-Sang’s face turns serious and he snaps his fan shut. “Because you were ill,” he says softly, “and Cloud Recesses is a place of healing.”

Mingjue frowns. He doesn’t remember being ill— he doesn’t remember much, actually, as he tries to think back to before he’d woken up. But the memories fight him, and Mingjue scowls at his lap.

“Is that why I can't remember anything?” he asks, not looking up at them. A-Sang moves to stand next to him and puts his hand lightly on Mingjue’s shoulder.

“A-Jue,” the man says softly. “You’ll remember, in time.”

“Are you sure or are you just saying that to make me feel better?” Mingjue demands, and Lan Huan leans down to catch his eye. Mingjue lets him, and Lan Huan’s smile returns, twice as bright.

“My Clan has many skilled healers, A-Jue,” Lan Huan assures. Something about his voice makes Mingjue want to believe him— he thinks he should trust Lan Huan, even though they’ve just met— Mingjue nods his head slightly, and Lan Huan reaches out to rest a hand on his knee. “It is an unusual illness, but we will do our best.”

The hand on his knee squeezes reassuringly, and Mingjue feels some of the tension drain out of him.

“Okay, Lan Huan. I believe you.”

The sound of soft steps coming up the path makes Mingjue pull his gaze from Lan Huan and crane his neck to see who else was coming. But the sight of gold robes sends fear through his body in waves of heat and flashes of cold, and he reaches out and fists his hands in A-Sang’s robes.

“A-Jue?” A-Sang murmurs, turning to look down at him just as the man comes into the room. “Are you okay?”

Mingjue shakes his head slightly, the movement barely noticeable as he stares at the short man who wears a placid smile like armor. I don’t like him, make him leave, Mingjue thinks, and something of that must have been visible on his face, because A-Sang twists his body until Mingjue is hidden from view.

“How is he?” the new man asks, and Mingjue feels sweat drip down his neck at the sound of his voice.

The hand on his knee lifts off as Lan Huan begins to stand, but Mingjue’s hand darts away from A-Sang and grips him tightly. Lan Huan turns towards him curiously and Mingjue stares back, pale and shaky, and Lan Huan sits back down as a frown crosses his face.

“He just woke up,” A-Sang tells the other man as Lan Huan reaches out to brush hair behind Mingjue’s ears and pat away drips of sweat with the edge of his sleeve. “He was shy as a child.”

There’s something unforgiving about A-Sang’s voice— he sounds like Father, Mingjue’s mind tells him, and he tightens his grip on A-Sang’s robes. Lan Huan doesn’t seem to be paying attention to the other two, the entirety of his focus centered on Mingjue— his racing heart calms, and he leans his head against Lan Huan’s hand.

“A-Jue?” Lan Huan asks in a low voice. “How are you feeling?”

Scared, Mingjue wants to tell him, but he’s a big boy now, and he’s not supposed to be afraid of anything. But the newcomer leans around A-Sang to look at him, and Mingjue cringes against A-Sang’s back and drags Lan Huan between him and the scary man, and Lan Huan’s eyes narrow.

“A-Yao,” Lan Huan says without looking away from Mingjue, “Mingjue isn’t feeling well right now. Perhaps you should visit at a different time.”

The scary man— A-Yao, and Mingjue shivers even as he thinks the name, and for a moment there are multiple A-Yao’s, all laughing at him— steps away.

“Of course, Er-ge,” he says softly. “Please keep me updated on his progress.”

The sound of steps receding comes, and Mingjue finds he can breathe easier, and A-Sang turns as Mingjue drops his hand and leans forward into Lan Huan’s arms.

“A-Jue,” Lan Huan murmurs, running his hand softly over Mingjue’s hair as A-Sang sits next to them on the bed. “Why don’t you like A-Yao?”

Mingjue shivers, and A-Sang’s arm wraps around his waist. “I don’t know,” he answers honestly, then takes a quick breath and adds, “he scares me,” in a rush of air.

There’s a short intake of breath from Lan Huan that Mingjue feels more than hears, and A-Sang’s arm tightens around him.

“He scares you?” A-Sang confirms, and Mingjue’s neck burns from the shame of admitting to the fear, but he nods anyway. “Er-ge,” A-Sang says urgently, “he’s scared...”

There’s something Mingjue is missing here, but Lan Huan smells familiar, and A-Sang feels safe, and he’s just so tired...

“He laughed at me,” Mingjue mumbles, and Lan Huan goes still. Exhaustion rolls over Mingjue like a wave, but he wants them to understand. He yawns, then slumps completely against Lan Huan. “I remember him laughing at me, and everything hurt, and he wouldn’t help…”

A-Sang runs a hand over his hair and Mingjue leans into it, relaxing as sleep pulls him under. Lan Huan lowers him back to the pillows and Mingjue curls up as covers are tucked in around him, and wonders if he’ll remember more when he wakes up.

But A-Sang stands when Lan Huan does, and Mingjue reaches out and grabs a handful of robes.

“Hey,” he says with a frown that is broken by another yawn, and tugs A-Sang back to him. “Don’t leave me alone.” Mingjue watches as a fond smile crosses A-Sang’s lips, and the man settles back down next to him on the bed.

“If you want me to stay, I will,” A-Sang says, and Mingjue considers him for a moment, then leaves his hands in the man’s robes anyway, so he could tell if the other man moves. Lan Huan reaches out and smooths his fingers through Mingjue’s hair, smiling softly.

“One of us will always be here, A-Jue,” he promises, and Mingjue smiles sleepily. “Okay?”

“Okay,” Mingjue replies as he blinks blearily, watching both men, “you’ll protect me, right?”

A-Sang nods, then shifts to tuck Mingjue into his side. “He’ll have to go through me to get to you,” A-Sang says firmly, and Mingjue shuffles closer and buries his head in the man’s side.

“Thank you,” Mingjue murmurs, eyes closing. He tries to listen to the conversation Lan Huan and A-Sang have but sleep pulls at him relentlessly. Exhaustion claims him in moments and Mingjue lets it, too tired to fight.

A hand passes over his hair, and he smiles.

Chapter Text

Lan Qiren watches his nephew carefully.

Xichen is upset, though he tries to hide it— but Lan Qiren has known this man since he was an infant, and the mask of serenity he currently wears has never hidden his true thoughts from Lan Qiren.

It was a lot to process, Lan Qiren could admit. That Nie Mingjue had suffered a qi deviation was easily accepted— an anticipated reaction of his Clan’s cultivation method, although he had been young for it— that he had survived it was astonishing.

Lan Qiren knows from the gossip that his Clan isn’t supposed to indulge in that his nephew is likely the reason for Nie Mingjue’s continued existence. Reports from eyewitnesses had universally mentioned that Xichen had poured all of his spiritual power into Nie Mingjue in an attempt to repair broken meridians.

He sets down his tea cup and regards Xichen steadily.

“Tell me exactly what happened.”

Xichen had returned to Cloud Recesses pale and shaken, Baxia wrapped in silk in his arms and Nie Huaisang at his side. A covered carriage had accompanied them, surrounded by Nie cultivators— since he had arrived, none had been allowed to see Nie Mingjue since his public deviation. Interestingly, Jin Guangyao had left Cloud Recesses mere minutes after his own arrival.

Xichen glances up to meet his gaze, and as Lan Qiren watches, his nephew's perfect mask cracks. It reseals itself in moments, but Lan Qiren feels a shiver of unease race through him.

“Of course, Uncle,” Xichen says, placing his tea cup on the table and folding his hands neatly in his lap. “Mingjue had shown up to speak to A-Yao— Jin Guangyao,” Lan Qiren made no mention of the correction. “I was asked to leave as it was a private matter. But a short while later I heard shouting—” Xichen’s jaw clenches, and the hands in his lap tighten their hold on each other.

“Mingjue was bleeding,” Xichen continues, and Lan Qiren notices that his usually musical voice is as expressionless as Wangji’s was. “Jin Guangyao was holding Huaisang back. I rushed to Mingjue and started trying to heal him.”

Xichen’s eyes flicker and Lan Qiren knows that there are bits of the story that Xichen is leaving out. That Baxia had allowed his nephew close enough to feed Nie Mingjue his own spiritual power, while mid-deviation. That Baxia had lashed out at the healers that had tried to help. That Chifeng-Zun hadn’t taken his gaze off of Nie Huaisang until he’d been forced to by his body collapsing beneath him.

“Why bring him here?” Lan Qiren asks, making sure to keep his voice level. “Surely Qinghe’s healers are as well-trained as ours.”

Xichen’s back straightens minutely. “Huaisang asked— should he heal from the deviation, the Cold Spring would be beneficial.”

Something is being left out, Lan Qiren thinks. Something important. He studies his nephew. Xichen had asked Lan Qiren to come to the Hanshi for tea, but he had yet to ask his uncle for anything.

“Xichen,” Lan Qiren begins, “you seem to have the matter well in hand. What can I help you with?”

Xichen’s entire body tenses, and Lan Qiren stiffens in reaction.


Lan Huan!

Lan Qiren jerks up at the unexpected shout, a frown crossing his face. But Xichen’s body abruptly relaxes, and a child Lan Qiren doesn't immediately recognize darts into the Hanshi.

“Lan Huan!” The boy skids to a halt at the sight of Lan Qiren, and Lan Qiren raises a brow at the appraising look the boy gives him. “Who are you?” he asks, and Xichen huffs a laugh even as the boy rounds the table and lifts the edge of Xichen’s robe to cover himself with it.

“This is my uncle,” Xichen says, seemingly fine with his space being invaded. “Why are you hiding?”

Lan Qiren turns as Wei Wuxian’s voice calls out, “Xichen-ge?” and the boy raises his hand to his lips and makes a shushing sound.

Amusement shines from Xichen’s golden eyes, and he shrugs lightly as he meets Lan Qiren’s gaze. “Come in, Young Master Wei.”

Wei Wuxian enters the room, surprise rolling over his face as he notices Lan Qiren. But he bows to each of them.

“Teacher Lan, Zewu-Jun,” Wei Wuxian greets, purposefully not noticing the over sized lump next to Xichen. “Have either of you seen an eight year old?” Lan Qiren just stares at him, and Wei Wuxian hums thoughtfully, tapping his flute against his chin. “About this high, really cute?” He holds his hand out to his side, and Lan Qiren looks away.

He didn’t exactly approve of Wei Wuxian’s presence in Cloud Recesses, but Xichen and Wangji had both pleaded for the Wen Remnants to be brought into their custody. And Lan Qiren had never been blind to Wangji’s regard of the other disciple—

Xichen’s smile is wide as he answers Wei Wuxian. “Unfortunately we have not, but I will keep my eye out.”

Muffled giggles come from the boy, and Wei Wuxian winks at Xichen before he brings his hands up in another bow.

“Then I will leave you alone,” he says, and leaves the Hanshi as quickly as he had entered.

The boy's giggles become outright laughter as he emerges from Xichen’s robe, and Lan Qiren fights back a smile at the irresistible sound.

“We tricked him, Lan Huan,” the boy praises, grinning up at Xichen.

Xichen’s hand stroke over the boy’s hair, an indulgent smile on his face as he stares down into trusting eyes. “We did,” he says fondly. “But why were you hiding from Wei-xiong?” Xichen asks, and the boy rolls his eyes and slumps across Xichen’s knees.

“He was trying to make me eat poison,” the boy groans, and Lan Qiren was familiar enough with Wei Wuxian’s impossibly spicy taste in food to feel for the boy.

“Ah,” Xichen says in understanding. “Would you like me to send for something a bit milder?” The boy shakes his head, then crawls the rest of the way into Xichen’s lap and rests his head on his shoulder.

“No,” the boy sighs. “I’m tired now.” He burrows into dark blue robes and Xichen allows it, arms wrapping around him immediately, and Lan Qiren wondered who, exactly, this boy was, that his nephew’s reactions came so easily.

“Alright, A-Jue,” Xichen murmurs, and Lan Qiren goes still. “I’ll be here when you wake up.”

But there was no response from the sleeping boy— A-Jue? Lan Qiren stares at his nephew, whose hands are gripping A-Jue with something just shy of desperation.

“Xichen,” Lan Qiren begins, but Xichen’s face crumbles.

Uncle,” he says brokenly. “Instead of dying—” his voice trembles on the word, and Lan Qiren steels his control— “he became an eight year old.” Xichen shakes his head. “I have found nothing on this in the Library,” he continues, staring at the sleeping child. “Huaisang went back to Qinghe to see if anything similar had happened to their ancestors.”

Lan Qiren watches the way Xichen’s body curves around Nie Mingjue’s— protective, agonized— he reaches out and pours himself another cup of tea.

“Why did you ask Jin Guangyao to leave?” Lan Qiren asks, because his nephew was great friends with the man— Xichen’s shoulders tighten.

“When Mingjue woke up,” his nephew says slowly, “he did not remember me or Huaisang.” Xichen glances up to meet Lan Qiren’s gaze. “But he seemed to know us innately— aside from asking where he was, he wasn’t in distress.”

Xichen hesitates, then takes a breath. “When Jin Guangyao came in to see him, Mingjue became pale and shaky, sweating in fear.” Lan Qiren’s gaze sharpens on Xichen’s, and his nephew inclines his head. “So I suggested that Jin Guangyao visit later— he must have taken it as me meaning he was to leave Cloud Recesses entirely.”

Lan Qiren reaches up to stroke his beard in thought. Xichen has always called him A-Yao, he thinks idly, but drops his hand.

“Nie Mingjue is not well known for being scared of anything,” he says instead, and Xichen hums in agreement.

“When I asked why he’d been so scared, A-Jue said that he remembered Jin Guangyao laughing at him while he was in pain, and that he hadn’t helped.”

Silence fills the Hanshi after those words, Xichen’s hand stroking over Nie Mingjue’s hair slowly.

“Who was present when Nie Mingjue suffered his deviation?” Lan Qiren asks, and by the way Xichen’s eyes fall shut he has his answer. “And it is no secret that Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao have never cared for each other.”

“I can’t—”

But Xichen cuts himself off and closes his eyes.

Lan Qiren waits as the silence stretches on, broken only by the soft sounds of Nie Mingjue sleeping in his nephew's arms. He studies the two of them, and wonders how long his nephew had been in love with Chifeng-Zun, and how he hadn’t noticed it before.

“It seems you have already decided what to do,” Lan Qiren states as Xichen makes no effort to continue his words. Xichen makes a startled sound, and Lan Qiren inclines his head towards the sleeping child. “When Nie Mingjue became uncomfortable in Jin Guangyao’s presence, did you hesitate before asking him to leave?”

Pain flashes over Xichen’s face. “How can I accept that Jin Guangyao had something to do with the deviation?” he asks desperately. “Is it even possible to influence? Did I—” Xichen’s voice breaks, and he stares down at the child in his arms. “Did I cause this?” he asks softly, and Lan Qiren scoffs.

“You are not stupid,” Lan Qiren barks at his nephews surprised expression. “Regardless of whether you tried to get them to be friendly with each other, you are not responsible for the actions of others.” At the time, Lan Qiren hadn’t agreed with the sworn brotherhood between the three of them— but he shook his head.

“And part of you must believe that Jin Guangyao has played some role in this regression, or you would not be so protective.”

Xichen inhales softly, then twists his lips. He looks up at Lan Qiren. “I want to seal off Cloud Recesses,” he says, and Lan Qiren waits for further explanation. “To all except those who are specifically invited.”

“So. You believe that Jin Guangyao somehow caused the qi deviation, or you believe that he stood by and did nothing while the man you love died.”

Xichen goes still, and Lan Qiren places his tea cup down gently. “Am I wrong?” he asks, not unkindly, and Xichen shakes his head once. “Then until we discover which unthinkable act Jin Guangyao has committed, I will bring your command to the Elders.”

Xichen meets his gaze, golden eyes guarded, and Lan Qiren lets a rare smile curve his lip.

“I have, however reluctantly, allowed Wei Wuxian to live in Cloud Recesses merely because Wangji loves him.” Lan Qiren stands and pretends to not see the relieved tear that rolls down Xichen’s cheek. “How can I do any less for the one you love?”

He moves around the table and rests his hand on Xichen’s shoulder, and peers down at the sleeping child Chifeng-Zun had once been.

“I will research as well,” he says, and squeezes Xichen’s shoulder reassuringly. He leaves the Hanshi in silence, and stands in the sunlight.

Lan Qiren inhales deeply as he thinks over what he’d just learned— but Xichen’s soft voice floats out of the Hanshi and Lan Qiren steps away, letting his nephew have his privacy as he sings to the child.

Cloud Recesses will be impenetrable within the hour, he estimates, walking the path that would bring him to the council room. And then I shall spend the rest of the evening in the Forbidden section of the Library.

Chapter Text

Nie Huaisang stares blankly at the scroll in front of him. He's read more words in the last three days than he has in the last year combined— and none of them have been helpful. He blinks rapidly, then tries to refocus his attention on the characters that swim in front of his eyes.

Da-ge needs me to help him, he reminds himself firmly, then bites back the urge to cry. Mingjue should be here but he is in Cloud Recesses, somehow a child once more… Nie Huaisang sits back and swallows thickly.

He remembers the fear that had clawed through him at the sight of his brother, shouting incoherently, bleeding as his meridians shattered.

He remembers how Jin Guangyao had held him back, the fear and terror in his face echoed in Nie Huaisang's soul.

He remembers Lan Xichen blowing past both of them and collapsing at Mingjue’s side, hands reaching out instinctively, spiritual power pouring out of him.

Fear hadn't held the Lan Clan Leader back— Mingjue hadn't reacted to his best friend's presence at all, his dark bloody eyes locked on Nie Huaisang’s—

Lan Xichen’s remembered shouts for help ring in Nie Huaisang’s ears and he stands with a deep breath, the memory of Lan Xichen covered in his brother’s blood dancing before his eyes. He exhales slowly, then shakes his head.

“Young Master?”

Nie Huaisang turns at the sound of his name and forces a smile onto his lips. “How can I help you?” he asks, and Nie Qiuyue stares at him, frowning slightly.

“It’s unusual to see the Young Master study with such a serious face,” she says slowly, then adds, “or study at all.” Her head tilts to the side as she examines him carefully.

Nie Huaisang huffs a laugh and waves his fan as he searches for a reason to be in the library. “Ah,” he replies, “just…” But he can’t think of anything to say, and Nie Qiuyue would see through a lie in a moment.

Nie Qiuyue’s shoulders relax and she shakes her head. “Young Master,” she says softly, coming closer. “The Clan Leader is in good hands in Cloud Recesses.” Nie Huaisang stiffens against his will and the older woman’s eyes turn sharp. “Is he not?” she asks abruptly, the clash of steel echoing in her voice.

Nie Huaisang looks up and meets her gaze, and memories of his childhood race through his mind. Nie Qiuyue had been there for both him and his brother— and after their parents had died, the older woman had taken responsibility for both boys, and had guided Mingjue through the early years of his leadership.

Nie Huaisang lets his eyes flicker around the room to confirm that they are still alone, and comes to a decision.

“Auntie,” he says, voice low. “Have you ever heard of anything… unusual… happening during a qi deviation?”

Nie Qiuyue’s eyes narrow.

“Unusual how?”

The trip back to Cloud Recesses passes in silence— Nie Huaisang had saved all of his spiritual power to make the journey back in one go. It was something he’d never had to worry about before; Mingjue, though he had complained, had never denied Nie Huaisang’s presence on Baxia.

But who knows when that will happen again, Huaisang, he tells himself, the fear of possibly having to re-raise his own elder brother a shadow in the back of his mind. Nie Qiuyue paces him steadily, her own saber rock-solid beneath her as they glide through the air.

“Zonghui was unhappy,” she remarks idly, and Nie Huaisang stifles a grimace.

Nie Zonghui had been raised alongside Mingjue— long before becoming his second in command, the two had been the despair of the Unclean Realm, running wild and free and barely listening to anyone other than the Clan Leader.

But even with the additional years, Nie Huaisang knew that Mingjue would recognize Nie Zonghui. And so, he’d asked the other man to remain behind. There was no reason to upset his brother any more than necessary, Nie Huaisang had decided.

“He’s the best to run the Clan while we’re gone,” Nie Huaisang replies evenly, and Nie Qiuyue lifts a brow but looks away. He sighs gently to himself, relieved when the woman says nothing else.

They should reach Cloud Recesses shortly, and Nie Huaisang hadn’t told Nie Qiuyue the specifics of what had happened to Mingjue— he could hardly believe it himself, and he’d been there. The truth, in this case, was better seen than explained.

The guards at the gate of Cloud Recesses draw their swords as the Nie entourage lands, but relax almost immediately at the sight of Nie Huaisang.

“Young Master Nie, Zewu-Jun is expecting you.”

Nie Huaisang inclines his head to the guard who’d spoken, more than pleased that Lan Xichen had carried out his end of the plan and increased the security.

“Thank you,” he replies easily, and enters Cloud Recesses as the ward tingles over his skin.

Nie Qiuyue’s face shows her curiosity for a bare moment before it becomes expressionless once more, and Nie Huaisang sends a tight smile her way.

“Soon,” he says in a soft voice, and folds his fan shut with a snap. “I promise it will all make sense soon.”

“As you say, Young Master,” Nie Qiuyue responds after a moment, and he looks away from her and focuses his attention back on the path in front of him.

The walk through Cloud Recesses is strangely silent— Nie Huaisang is used to a Cloud Recesses that, though respectful of the rules of the mountain, bustles with life. But there are no golden robes of Jin Clan attendants, no violet of Yunmeng messengers— white-clad cultivators are as ghosts in the background, unnerved by the suddenness with which their Clan Leader had sealed the mountain.

Their own darkly colored Nie robes seem even more out of place as they walk through the silence, and Nie Huaisang can’t help but smile as Nie Qiuyue grows even more tense the longer they walk.

By the time they reach the back hill the rest of the Nie disciples have been settled into temporary lodging, and Nie Huaisang and Nie Qiuyue are alone. The sounds of a guqin begin to make its way through the trees, and Nie Huaisang takes a breath to steady his heart.

They’d found some references to previous Nie cultivators surviving their qi deviations— but Nie Huaisang hoped that Lan Qiren had had more luck than them. There had been nothing mentioning a child.

The low building that Nie Huaisang leads them to is bright with laughter and music, the sounds of a dizi and a guqin weaving through the air in a merry pattern, and Nie Huaisang feels his shoulders relax at the joy in the child's laughter, a sound he had not heard from his brother in years.

At his back, Nie Qiuyue goes still.

“Anyone home?” Nie Huaisang asks, knocking his fan against the door. The dizi comes to a halt as Mingjue appears in front of him, dark eyes wide.

“A-Sang!” Mingjue launches himself at Nie Huaisang’s waist and wraps his arms around his brother in a grip that— even now— will leave bruises. “You’re back!”

Nie Huaisang feels Nie Qiuyue’s incredulous stare as he looks down at his brother. “I told you I would be,” he replies fondly, unable to resist the pleased grin that is plastered on Mingjue’s face. “Have Wei-xiong and Wangji-xiong been taking good care of you?”

Mingjue unravels himself from Nie Huaisang’s waist and pouts up at him. “Wei-xiong is mean,” he replies, and Nie Huaisang laughs in surprise.

“How so?” he asks, and Mingjue makes a face.

“He tried to feed me poison!”

A laugh from inside drifts through the doorway, and Wei Wuxian appears behind Mingjue, rolling his eyes.

“My cooking isn’t that bad, A-Jue,” Wei Wuxian protests, and Mingjue huffs, and the sound is so reminiscent of Mingjue as an adult that the breath catches in Nie Huaisang’s throat.

He clears it lightly, then taps Mingjue on the shoulder. “I brought someone to see you,” he says, then steps to the side.

Mingjue’s dark eyes light up with delight at the sight of Nie Qiuyue, and he flings himself into her arms. “Auntie!”

Nie Qiuyue is frozen in shock, still, but the weight of a child wiggling his way up to her shoulders breaks through the astonishment.

“A-Jue,” she says softly, eyes bright with sudden, unshed tears. “I missed you.”

Mingjue hugs her neck tightly, his legs wrapped firmly around her waist. “Did Father send you?” Mingjue asks, entirely at ease in her arms, and Nie Huaisang aches at the sight. His brother was so trusting as a child, it seems— loving and loud and entirely different from the stern man he’d been forced to become. “Are you here to take me away? I don’t want to go home yet, Cloud Recesses is so much fun.”

Nie Qiuyue bites her lip and stares at the sky for a moment before answering. “No,” she says, her voice steady. “I’m just here to visit, I’m not taking you away. And yes,” Nie Qiuyue glances over the top of Mingjue’s head to stare into Nie Huaisang’s eyes. “Your Father sent me.”

Nie Huaisang inclines his head to her in thanks. A small lie, but what were they to do? Admit to a child that his Father had died well over a decade ago? Nie Huaisang shakes his head, then turns to Wei Wuxian with a crooked smile.

“Well?” he asks softly, and Wei Wuxian shrugs and comes closer. The sounds of the guqin do not falter, but Nie Huaisang does not blame Lan Wangji for staying inside— that there are so many people in his home must be an annoyance, given what he knows of the other man.

“Xichen-ge hasn’t had any luck,” Wei Wuxian informs him in a low voice, “and Lan Qiren has been locked in the Forbidden Section for days.”

Nie Huaisang feels his shoulders slump at the words, and Wei Wuxian reaches out a hand to rest on his shoulder. They turn as one to watch Mingjue interact with Nie Qiuyue, and Nie Huaisang thanks all the gods he can think of that the older woman hasn’t changed a single bit over the years, and that his brother had so readily recognized her.

It will be good for him to have a truly familiar face around, Nie Huaisang knows, and breathes a sigh of relief.

But Mingjue catches sight of something behind Nie Qiuyue and drops out of her arms in a flash.

“Lan Huan!”

Nie Huaisang turns along with the others to watch as Mingjue bolts through Cloud Recesses to appear at Lan Xichen’s side, smiling widely. He studies the other man as Lan Xichen smiles helplessly against Mingjue’s obvious delight at his presence, sees the dark shadows under the Clan Leader’s eyes, the hint of strain in the curve of his lips, and clenches his jaw.

But Lan Xichen is a master of his trade, and in moments the signs of exhaustion and worry are swept from his face, and Mingjue’s grin turns shy as Lan Xichen reaches out to brush an errant strand of hair behind his ear.

At the sound of his brother’s name the calm music of the guqin comes to an end, and Lan Wangji appears at Wei Wuxian’s side, a steady, silent presence.

Lan Xichen allows Mingjue to capture his hand and lead him back to the others, and smiles a greeting towards Nie Qiuyue.

“Auntie,” Mingjue says seriously, his voice echoing with the authority that Chifeng-Zun could wield with effortless ease, “this is Lan Huan. He’s my… he’s my best friend!”

Nie Qiuyue’s eyes widen for a split second, her gaze turning towards Nie Huaisang before she answers. But Nie Huaisang shrugs minutely and raises a brow, and understanding flashes through Nie Qiuyue’s eyes in a burst before she turns back to the others.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lan Huan,” her voice barely shakes at referring to a Clan Leader so familiarly, and Lan Xichen’s smile grows wider in response as she bows deeply. “I am Nie Qiuyue.”

Lan Xichen unwinds his hand from Mingjue’s and returns the bow with a solemnity that should have been reserved for a vastly different occasion.

“The pleasure is all mine, Nie Qiuyue,” he replies, though the smile returns as Mingjue snags Lan Xichen’s hand once more the moment the Clan Leader is finished bowing. “Thank you for coming to see him.”

Nie Qiuyue glances around their little gathering, and Nie Huaisang can see her study and dismiss Wei Wuxian as a threat in the moment her eyes land on the other man. But Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen are present, and Nie Huaisang had previously told her that Lan Qiren is researching for them as well, and the remaining tension leeches from her shoulders.

“Thank you,” Nie Qiuyue says softly, turning her gaze back towards Mingjue, who is leaning against Lan Xichen’s side, both of his hands wrapped around one of Zewu-Jun’s. “For caring for him.”

Chapter Text

The silence of the Hanshi is broken only by the soft sounds of cloth over steel— Lan Xichen watches as his reflection stares up at him.

Baxia is cold on his lap, unnaturally still.

He’s held her enough times over the years to know the hum of her energy beneath his hands intimately well— Lan Xichen’s careful fingers stutter over the saber as his breath catches in his throat.

Am I to lose you as well as Mingjue? he asks the saber silently, but his face twists into a grimace at his selfishness. Mingjue is alive— a child perhaps, but still of this world— he bends forward until hair slips over his shoulders and trails along Baxia’s edge.

Polish makes the steel gleam, a task he had taken up to chase the shadows from his mind. But Lan Xichen hadn’t expected such utter stillness from the saber that had danced at Mingjue’s side for more than half his life.

Is it merely because Mingjue has regressed to an age before he received her? Lan Xichen wonders, sitting upright once more as he continues his work. He takes a breath. Or is it a sign that he will stay A-Jue?

One of his hands curls into a fist before he can stop it. Lan Huan, Lan Xichen berates himself silently, that he lives is enough. It’s enough. He stares at the steel braced on his knees. It has to be.

A soft knock at the door has his face smoothing into serenity with the ease of years of practice.

“Clan Leader?”

Lan Xichen takes a breath to ensure that his mask is firmly in place.

“Come in.”

The disciple enters and bows, and Lan Xichen waits to hear what she has to say.

“Lianfang-Zun has arrived.” Rage courses through his veins at the words— he’d made it clear that no one was to enter Cloud Recesses— “He has requested to see you, and waits at the bottom of the mountain.”

Lan Xichen exhales soundlessly, releasing the unnecessary anger that had filled him. His disciples would not have disobeyed him in this, even for Jin Guangyao. Lan Liqiu’s eyes dart to where Baxia rests on his knees and Lan Xichen gives her a pleasant smile for her curiosity. It is no secret that Mingjue is recovering from his deviation in Cloud Recesses, after all— that Gusu and Qinghe have always enjoyed a close friendship even less so.

“Thank you,” he says, and watches as Lan Liqiu meets his gaze once more. “Please tell him I will be with him shortly.”

His disciple bows before she leaves the Hanshi, and Lan Xichen strokes his fingers over the saber’s hilt in thought. No doubt Jin Guangyao has come to ask for an update on Mingjue’s condition, and Lan Xichen wonders how much to tell him as he wraps the saber in silk and puts her away.

He has taken care to hide the saber from A-Jue, not wanting to chance triggering something before they had any idea how this had even happened. But A-Jue has the run of Cloud Recesses, now, and Lan Xichen often finds himself followed by the wide eyed boy. It is better to have Baxia placed to the side; hidden in the depths of his home.

A smile curves Lan Xichen’s lips as he makes his way to where Jin Guangyao is waiting, almost expecting A-Jue to appear beside him. But Lan Xichen knows that Wei Wuxian and Wangji have been tasked with his care today, and that Nie Huaisang is visiting once more, and that A-Jue will be pleasantly distracted for a while longer.

Lan Xichen nods to the sentries as he steps outside the ward, then fixes a slight smile on his lips as Jin Guangyao comes into view.

His retinue is further away, Lan Xichen notes, then reaches out to break apart the other man's bow.

“There is no need,” he reminds, and Jin Guangyao’s humble smile feels shocking against the suspicion Lan Xichen has of him.

“Ah, Er-ge,” Jin Guangyao replies, allowing his arms to fall to his side. “How is Da-ge?”

Lan Xichen’s heart stalls in his chest, his smile freezing in place for a bare moment. “A-Jue still does not remember,” he says softly, and Jin Guangyao hums at the answer.

“How could this have happened?” Jin Guangyao wonders, and Lan Xichen is grateful for the weight of Liebing in his hand as he tucks his other behind his back.

“We still do not know,” he replies honestly, watching as Jin Guangyao’s expression of concern never waivers. “There have been no records found of such a thing in the Nie Clan histories.”

Jin Guangyao lets out a slow breath, then shakes his head. “Tragic,” he murmurs, “that Chifeng-Zun has forgotten who he is.”

Lan Xichen lets his shoulders slump for a moment, and sharp eyes catch the action instantly. “Should we even try to reverse it?” he asks softly, and Jin Guangyao goes still. Lan Xichen shakes his head. “A-Jue… A-Jue is a happy child,” he continues, the weight of Jin Guangyao’s eyes on his skin as heavy as the mountain they stand on. “Happy and trusting, and curious, and he laughs—”

Lan Xichen cuts himself off and turns away, studies the way the sun peeks through the leaves before he continues. Jin Guangyao is silent at his side, patient.

“I cannot recall the last time I heard Mingjue laugh,” Lan Xichen admits after some time. His hand tightens on Liebing. “Perhaps it would be a mercy to let him have this second chance.”

His heart aches as he speaks, memories of Mingjue at his side filling his mind. Of Mingjue in battle, fierce and deadly and so vibrant that Lan Xichen had fallen in love with him over and over again, helpless to do otherwise.

“Is he not suspicious?” Jin Guangyao asks, and Lan Xichen turns to face him. “Of being in Cloud Recesses, not Qinghe,” the other man clarifies, and Lan Xichen represses the urge to frown.

The only one that child is suspicious of is you, he says silently, careful to keep any hint of his thoughts well-hidden.

“A-Sang brought Nie Qiuyue with him,” Lan Xichen tells Jin Guangyao, who nods in understanding.

“And so he believes this is nothing more than a prolonged visitation.”

Lan Xichen merely inclines his head in response. Jin Guangyao exhales heavily.

“Then,” he says slowly, “since a cure cannot be found, perhaps it is best that he cannot remember.”

Lan Xichen turns to face the other man once more. “We will not stop searching,” Lan Xichen tells him honestly, and sees a flash of interest cross Jin Guangyao’s eyes. “It would be an affront to Mingjue to stop. I—” Lan Xichen smiles, self-conscious. “If I were to have such a thing happen to me, I would hope that my friends would search for a way to reverse it.”

Jin Guangyao inclines his head far enough that it is almost a bow of itself. “Da-ge is lucky to have you,” he says softly, and Lan Xichen’s mind is suddenly filled with visions of Mingjue covered in blood, his shattered meridians barely held together by Lan Xichen’s spiritual power— how cold he had been once Mingjue had lost consciousness, his power drained to nothing to keep Mingjue alive—

Lan Xichen hums. “We are lucky to have him.” He blinks away the memories and inhales slowly. “But I fear I must return,” Lan Xichen says, and Jin Guangyao brings his arms up in a bow that Lan Xichen is not quick enough to stop.

“Take care, Er-ge,” Jin Guangyao says, stepping back. “Give my best to Da-ge.”

Lan Xichen inclines his head. “Travel safe.”

He watches until the Jin Clan retinue disappears from sight, then taps Liebing against his chest in thought.

He was quick enough to agree to leave A-Jue as he is, Lan Xichen thinks slowly, turning and stepping through the ward. A-Yao, A-Yao, are you truly behind this? Or have I been unjust in my suspicion of you?

He desperately wants it to be true, wants all this to have been one giant misunderstanding— but A-Jue had been so scared of Jin Guangyao, and Mingjue had never shown fear in his life— Lan Xichen closes his eyes for a brief moment and steadies himself.

Proof is needed, regardless. Lan Xichen bites back a bitter laugh. The best proof would be Mingjue, returned to his proper age and in full control of his memories…

Nie Qiuyue appears at his side a moment later, and Lan Xichen inclines his head in welcome.

“Clan Leader,” she says, bringing her hands up in a brief bow. “Are you on your way to see A-Jue?”

Lan Xichen sends a warm smile her way. “I believe you were told to call me something else,” he teases, and has the unique pleasure of seeing the iron-faced woman blush.

“I’ll save that for when I need my nephew to behave,” she says firmly, and Lan Xichen laughs lightly.

“As you wish,” he replies, “but yes, I am heading to A-Jue. Will you walk with me?”

Nie Qiuyue falls into step with him easily, her hands laced together behind her back. Her silence speaks of curiosity, but Lan Xichen knows the woman well enough by now to wait for her to order her thoughts.

His own swirl in his mind as they make their way through Cloud Recesses, tripping over themselves in his haste to make sense of his emotions.

“Zewu-Jun,” Nie Qiuyue says slowly, calling him from his memories. “You did not allow Lianfang-Zun into Cloud Recesses.”

Lan Xichen lets out a slow breath, then smiles. “Not much gets past you, does it,” he murmurs, then shakes his head. Perhaps it is better this way. “Nie Qiuyue, you have known Mingjue his whole life.”

“I have,” the woman responds, curiosity in her eyes.

“Tell me, then— what is he afraid of?”

Nie Qiuyue barks a laugh, then immediately coughs. “I apologize, Clan Leader Lan, but…” Dark eyes meet Lan Xichen’s. “Chifeng-Zun fears nothing.” Her voice is absolute, firm. “He never has.” Nie Qiuyue tilts her head, watching Lan Xichen. “He will worry, and plan, and suspect, but fear?” She shakes her head, and that is enough.

There is a pause in the conversation as they get closer to their destination, Nie Qiuyue’s eyes burning into Lan Xichen’s side as curiosity overwhelms her.

“A-Jue,” he says finally, delicately, and Nie Qiuyue’s attention turns as sharp as a razor, “was scared of Jin Guangyao.”

The sharp inhale tells Lan Xichen that Nie Qiuyue has quickly come to the same realization that the rest of them have; her suddenly rigid shoulders tells him she believes it. Lan Xichen wonders at her quick acceptance, then tightens his lips in realization. No Nie Clan member had forgiven Jin Guangyao for the murder of their Captain, despite their Clan Leader’s acceptance of the sworn brotherhood.

Silence guides their steps the rest of the way.

They arrive to sounds of laughter ringing through the Jingshi; the high, gleeful delight of A-Jue and the warm amusement of Wei Wuxian weaving in symphony with the guqin that plays through the chaos.

Lan Xichen feels his shoulders relax unconsciously at the cheerful noise and Nie Qiuyue shakes off her tension, smiling as well. They proceed unnoticed up the path, expressions clearing at the sounds of lighthearted play.

“Get back here, Young Master Nie!” Wei Wuxian’s voice rings through the air as the sound of giggling intensifies. "I'm not through with you!"

“Wei-xiong!” A-Jue shrieks, and Lan Xichen can’t help but hasten his steps to see what is happening. Nie Huaisang is leaning on the door, face covered by his fan at whatever chaos is going on inside the Jingshi— A-Jue skids past his brother in a bid to escape Wei Wuxian’s hands, and his face lights up at the sight of Nie Qiuyue and Lan Xichen.

“Lan Huan! Auntie! Save me!”

A-Jue barrels down the path towards them and slams into Lan Xichen’s legs, then shimmies his way up Lan Xichen’s body, sticking his tongue out at Wei Wuxian as he does so.

“You can’t touch me now,” A-Jue says proudly as Wei Wuxian sticks his tongue right back out at the child. “Lan Huan will keep me safe!”

Lan Xichen is stricken by the words— he doesn’t know what expression crosses his face but Nie Qiuyue steps forward abruptly and takes A-Jue’s attention from him as his hand spasms in the back of A-Jue’s robes.

“Of course he will,” she says, like it’s obvious, like Lan Xichen hadn’t already failed once, “why are you being so rude to Young Master Wei?”

“He deserves it,” A-Jue argues, his arms slung comfortably around Lan Xichen’s neck. “He was rude first!”

Wei Wuxian laughs at A-Jue, making a mocking face. “A-Jue, A-Jue,” he teases, “you told Lan Zhan he was playing a song wrong!” Lan Xichen snaps his eyes up to meet Wei Wuxian’s, who meets his gaze and nods. “And Lan Zhan is never wrong.”

Nie Huaisang waves them closer to the Jingshi, and Lan Xichen notices the guqin has gone silent.

“Wei-xiong is correct,” Lan Xichen manages to say as he steps inside, and inclines his head in a greeting to Wangji. “My brother is gifted at music.”

A-Jue yawns, then weaves his hand loosely through Lan Xichen’s hair and rests his head on his shoulder. “That’s okay,” he says simply, “but he’s wrong this time.” Lan Xichen raises a brow to Wangji, who shakes his head once, slowly. “A-Sang,” A-Jue continues, and Lan Xichen turns his body so they both face the other man. “You know I’m right, right?”

Under the weight of everyone’s attention, Nie Huaisang blushes brightly. “Ah, A-Jue,” he dithers, waving his fan in front of his face. “I don’t know…”

Nie Qiuyue huffs a laugh at him and rolls her eyes. “We are not going to make fun of you for some humming,” she says sternly, then grins. “We’ll save that for your saber practice.”

“Auntie!” Nie Huaisang yelps, and Wei Wuxian laughs at him outright, A-Jue giggling in delight at the scene.

Lan Xichen looks over his shoulder at Wangji, though. “Wangji, what was the song?”


His brother’s words strike through his heart like an arrow and Lan Xichen goes still.

“A-Sang,” he says, making an effort to keep his voice even. There can be no possible chance that Wangji performed Clarity incorrectly. “If you please.”

“Ah, Er-ge,” Nie Huaisang complains, pouting. But Lan Xichen watches him until he cracks and folds his fan shut with a snap.

“It was something like this,” Nie Huaisang says, then begins to hum. His forehead is scrunched in thought, but the melody is clear enough, and Lan Xichen tilts his head to the side and wonders what could possibly be different.

But the melody changes, and his blood runs like ice through his veins, and Wangji stands from the guqin and comes to his side.

Nie Huaisang raises a brow as Lan Xichen and Wangji stare at him, but finishes out the melody.

“What?” he asks, pouting again, snapping his fan open. “A-Jue, I got it right, didn't I?”

A-Jue nods into Lan Xichen’s neck. “Sorry, Wangji-xiong,” A-Jue says earnestly, wiggling in Lan Xichen’s grip to face Wangji. “I like yours too, I promise!”

Lan Xichen stares at his brother, golden eyes reflecting his own fears back to him.

It can’t be possible… can it?

“Wuxian,” Lan Xichen says, and tears his eyes from Wangji’s. He reaches down to the pendant on his belt and unlatches it, then sends a burst of spiritual power into the jade. “You recall the melody, correct?”

“Yes, Xichen-ge,” Wei Wuxian says slowly, looking between the brothers curiously.

Lan Xichen nods once, sharply. “Go to the library and play it for my uncle.”

Wei Wuxian hesitates, then spins Chenqing on his palm. “Isn’t he in the Forbidden section?” he asks, and Lan Xichen hands him the pendant that is vibrating with his power.

“This will allow you access.” Grey eyes blow wide at the words, and careful hands reach out to collect the pendant. “Go. Now.”

In the wake of Wei Wuxian’s sudden absence Nie Qiuyue and Nie Huaisang remain behind, worry clear on their faces.

“Er-ge?” Nie Huaisang asks, concerned. “What’s wrong?”

Lan Xichen inhales deeply, and takes a moment to relax the fingers that have begun to grip A-Jue too tightly. A small hand pats his neck gently, dark eyes staring up at him, bright with trust.

“How do you know that melody?” Lan Xichen asks instead of answering, because—

“Jin Guangyao taught it to me.”

Chapter Text

Running through Cloud Recesses isn’t something Wei Wuxian makes a habit of these days— but Lan Xichen’s features had solidified until he looked like a jade statue in truth, and Lan Zhan’s expression had frozen as well. Urgency flits through Wei Wuxian’s soul and adrenaline keeps his feet light as he darts across the mountain, Chenqing clenched tightly in his hand.

No one stops him, though— aside from a few interested glances, Wei Wuxian is left alone in his haste. His feet lead him to the Library Pavilion and he comes to a halt outside of it to catch his breath, knowing better than to burst in like a hurricane even with Lan Xichen’s permission.

The truce between himself and Lan Qiren feels fragile, even though Wei Wuxian knows it’s not. The older man had— if not welcomed him to Cloud Recesses— at least grudgingly accepted his presence.

He takes a breath, then steps inside.

“Teacher Lan?” Wei Wuxian calls out, keeping his voice as respectful as possible as he steps down the stairs. “Xichen-ge gave me permission, I swear.”

A rustle from behind the stacks makes Wei Wuxian look over— Lan Qiren emerges, a brow raised.

“Then why has my nephew sent you?” Lan Qiren asks, and Wei Wuxian bows, then holds Chenqing up in answer.

“I have to play a song for you,” Wei Wuxian begins, and though he knows that Lan Qiren has doubts about his methods, there is no reaction to the dizi in his hand.

Lan Qiren hmphs. “Play,” he demands, and waits with his hands behind his back.

Wei Wuxian takes a moment to remember the tune, then lifts the dizi to his lips. The song— Clarity, Lan Zhan had called it— is difficult, but Wei Wuxian’s memory for music is good. The sound drifts through the forbidden section clearly, and some of the tension eases from Lan Qiren’s face as he listens.

Perhaps I should learn this, Wei Wuxian thinks, then watches closely as he begins the section that had made Lan Xichen and Lan Zhan turn to statues.

Lan Qiren goes still.

Wei Wuxian lowers the dizi from his lips.

“Again,” Lan Qiren demands, his face tight. Wei Wuxian obeys and Lan Qiren closes his eyes and listens intently, a frown on his face. It is hard to translate a hum to music notes but Wei Wuxian does his best and when he finishes, Lan Qiren stares at him. “Where did you hear this?”

“A-Jue said that Lan Zhan was playing Clarity wrong,” Wei Wuxian says truthfully, spinning Chenqing in his hand with his nerves. All three of them reacted badly— what is this? “Which we all know is impossible, but then Nie Huaisang agreed with him, and hummed what I just played.” Wei Wuxian shrugs. “Then I was sent to you.”

Lan Qiren’s lips tighten into a scowl, eyes distant. The older man is silent as Wei Wuxian watches him, then lets out a low sigh.

“Come,” Lan Qiren says, then turns back into the depths of the library. Wei Wuxian follows, curiosity surging through him.

Lan Qiren collects a slim tome from a shelf and settles himself at the guqin that Wei Wuxian has just noticed, then opens the book. He flips through the pages for a moment before he finds what he is looking for.

“Listen,” Lan Qiren says, then begins to play.

At first, all Wei Wuxian hears is music he is already familiar with— but Lan Qiren keeps playing, and his eyes widen in recognition.

“That’s it!” Wei Wuxian cries out, then darts forward and tugs the book from the stand. “‘The Collection of Turmoil’?” he asks, and when he looks up, Lan Qiren’s face could have been carved from stone.

Wei Wuxian offers the book back immediately, but Lan Qiren holds up a hand, then stands. “Come with me.” His voice has the chill of a winter wind, and Wei Wuxian shudders in response.

Wei Wuxian peers around Lan Zhan’s shoulder as Lan Qiren and Lan Xichen listen to Nie Huaisang’s story, A-Jue carefully tucked into Lan Zhan’s bed for his nap.

It is still shocking to see Chifeng-Zun as a child— Wei Wuxian had been terrified when Lan Xichen had first asked him and Lan Zhan to watch over the child who would become Chifeng-Zun. How had it happened? Could it be reversed? Would Chifeng-Zun remember his time as A-Jue if it was? Wei Wuxian had pondered those questions over and over, even as he’d treated little A-Jue the same way that he would have treated his own junior disciples.

But Lan Zhan is a solid presence in front of him, and Wei Wuxian rests his chin on a strong shoulder as they listen.

“Jin Guangyao said that it would be helpful for me to know Clarity too,” Nie Huaisang says, hiding his slight frown behind the ever-present fan. “Did I get it wrong? Did I hurt Da-ge?” His eyes dart between Lan Qiren and Lan Xichen, who are both thin-lipped in a way that Wei Wuxian has never seen before.

“Young Master Nie,” Lan Qiren replies slowly, watching as Lan Xichen stares down at the sleeping child. “What Jin Guangyao taught you was not the Song of Clarity.”

Nie Huaisang goes still. “What was it?” he asks, and Wei Wuxian has never seen the resemblance between this man and his older brother more than he does at this moment. Lan Qiren turns to Wei Wuxian and holds out his hand.

“It is a passage from this,” Lan Qiren begins, taking the Collection of Turmoil from Wei Wuxian. “A slow acting poison when played with spiritual power.”

Wei Wuxian feels Lan Zhan’s spine go rigid and leans heavily against him in reassurance. After a breath, Lan Zhan relaxes.

“...poison,” Nie Huaisang murmurs, staring down at the musical notations. “And he made me play it for my brother—” The man’s voice cracks and Wei Wuxian blinks and looks away.

But his gaze lands on Lan Xichen, and Wei Wuxian sucks in a startled breath.

He has never seen such naked agony before— Lan Xichen sits heavily on the edge of the bed and sighs, and it is a low and terrible sound.

“I did this,” Lan Xichen whispers, and Wei Wuxian wonders if he knows he is speaking aloud. “I taught Jin Guangyao the Song of Clarity—”

“Xichen,” Lan Qiren snaps, his face tight with anger. “It is as impossible for you to teach Clarity wrongly as it is impossible for Wangji to play it wrongly. What Jin Guangyao did is not your responsibility.”

“This book—” Nie Huaisang looks up, stares from Lan Qiren to Lan Xichen to Lan Zhan. “It was in the Forbidden Section, right?”

Lan Qiren inclines his head, and Nie Huaisang’s shoulders draw up to his ears.

“How could Jin Guangyao have reached it, then?” Nie Huaisang looks between them all desperately, and Wei Wuxian can see the way the other man is trying to find a different answer, a better one.

But he clears his throat, and suffers the weight of every eye in the room.

“Jin Guangyao went undercover in Nightless City,” Wei Wuxian says softly. “And he was very successful. He was able to find Wen Ruohan’s hidden chamber and memorize maps to send to Carp Tower—” Wei Wuxian breaks off as Lan Xichen’s eyes close. But he takes a breath and continues. “After that, this chamber would have been easy to access.”

There is silence in the Jingshi as Wei Wuxian’s words ring out. Nie Huaisang is pale, hands white-knuckled where they grip the Collection of Turmoil.

“Then when Da-ge said that Jin Guangyao was laughing at him,” Nie Huaisang began slowly, staring from the book to his brother and back, “and refused to help him—” Lan Xichen makes a soft sound and Nie Huaisang cuts himself off.

“Jin Guangyao had orchestrated the qi deviation, and was pleased to witness its effects.” Lan Xichen’s words drip like ice from his lips and Wei Wuxian is suddenly, deeply grateful that he has never incurred Clan Leader Lan's true wrath. Lan Xichen stands in a rush of motion and Wei Wuxian is stunned at how quickly all emotion is removed from the other man's face.

“Wuxian, Wangji,” Lan Xichen begins, a polite smile on his lips, his amber eyes as hard as flint, “please continue to watch over A-Jue.” Wei Wuxian inclines his head wordlessly. “Uncle, A-Sang, come with me.”

The room empties quickly, and Nie Qiuyue sticks her head inside once they're gone, curiosity written on her face.

“What happened?” she asks, and Wei Wuxian lets out a low breath, then sinks onto the bed at A-Jue’s feet.

“I think Xichen-ge might be about to commit murder,” he says lightly, but Lan Zhan’s gaze scorches into his side and Wei Wuxian grimaces. “Ah, fine.” He looks up as Nie Qiuyue kneels at the side of the bed, her hand on A-Jue’s forehead. “They have the proof that Jin Guangyao caused the deviation.”

Rage courses over the woman's face before it is locked away and Wei Wuxian understands. No one deserves to have a deviation thrust upon them— and though Wei Wuxian had overheard enough conversations over the past month to realize that Chifeng-Zun’s deviation was almost inevitable, for Jin Guangyao to have purposefully sped it up… He shakes his head.

A-Jue sleeps on, peaceful and unaware.

Everything happens quickly after that.

A-Jue is left with Lan Zhan and Wei Wuxian more in the following days; Lan Xichen and Nie Huaisang deep in letters to Carp Tower and the Unclean Realm, Cloud Recesses bustling with activity for the first time in a long time.

Wei Wuxian tries to distract the child as much as he can— Lan Zhan’s rabbits are usually a successful diversion, but today A-Jue is tired and sad, and upset, and trying his very best to hide it.

“What’s wrong, A-Jue?” Wei Wuxian asks, worried. Lan Zhan has covered the boy in rabbits and there has been no answering giggle, no uncontrolled wiggling as the noses tickle his skin— A-Jue lays there, then turns his face away.

“Was I bad?” he asks softly, and Wei Wuxian’s heart shatters in his chest.

“Oh, no baobei,” he replies instantly, and it doesn’t matter if this child is Chifeng-Zun or not, Wei Wuxian gathers him up in his arms and hugs tightly. “Of course not. Why would you think that?”

Wei Wuxian meets Lan Zhan’s gaze over the untidy tail of A-Jue’s hair and sees his own concern mirrored in golden eyes.

“Lan Huan hasn’t come to see me,” A-Jue mumbles against Wei Wuxian’s shoulder, arms tight around his waist.

Wei Wuxian goes still, because— Lan Xichen and Lan Qiren have been locked in discussions concerning Jin Guangyao, and Nie Huaisang has returned to Qinghe—

A motion catches his eye as Lan Zhan sends off a messenger butterfly.

Wei Wuxian loosens his grip on A-Jue and pulls back to aim a smile towards the boy. “Ah, don’t be upset,” he says lightly, then flicks the tip of A-Jue’s nose. “Xichen-ge is the Clan Leader, that’s all. He’s just busy right now.”

A-Jue wrinkles his nose at Wei Wuxian, but his expression lightens. “So…” he says slowly, glancing between the two of them. “He’s still my friend?”

Wei Wuxian gasps, mock-offended. “He better be!” A-Jue tumbles off of his lap and scatters the unsuspecting bunnies as Wei Wuxian attacks him, reaching out to swat at the hands tickling his ribs. “Or else I’ll have to become your best friend!”

“No!” A-Jue cries out, finally laughing. “I don’t want you to be my best friend!”

“Oh?” Wei Wuxian replies, merciless in his attack. Lan Zhan watches them fondly, but makes no move to protect the child. “Who else would it be?”

“A-Sang!” A-Jue says, giggling. “Or Wangji-xiong!” He sticks his tongue out. “Not you!”

“The disrespect!” Wei Wuxian laments, and pulls back to put a hand over his heart. “I have cooked for you with my own hands and this is how I’m repaid?”

“Wangji-xiong is a better cook,” A-Jue says primly, then darts out of range of Wei Wuxian’s reach, hiding on Lan Zhan’s other side. “It’s true!”

Wei Wuxian chuckles quietly, settling back and allowing A-Jue to get away from him. “Oh, fine,” he says carelessly, “I see how it is.”

A-Jue peeks out from behind Lan Zhan, then comes closer once he realizes that Wei Wuxian is done chasing him. He collapses between them, head propped on Lan Zhan’s knees.

“Tired?” Lan Zhan asks, and A-Jue hums in reply, then yawns. “Do not sleep yet,” Lan Zhan warns, and A-Jue sits up with a frown. But Lan Zhan inclines his head to the edge of the field, and Wei Wuxian and A-Jue both turn to look.

Lan Xichen comes towards them, a slight smile on his lips as he takes in the picture the three of them make.

“I must apologize for my lateness,” Lan Xichen begins, then bows solemnly to A-Jue. “May I still join you?”

The smile that bursts across A-Jue’s lips makes Wei Wuxian’s chest hurt from the sight of it— A-Jue launches himself upright and grasps Lan Xichen’s hand.

“Yes,” A-Jue says forcefully, then drags Lan Xichen to the tree they have been leaning against. “Come and sit with us.”

Wei Wuxian can see the strain in Lan Xichen’s eyes, the lines of exhaustion that frame his mouth; he glances towards Lan Zhan, who meets his gaze evenly.

Of course he’s exhausted, Wei Wuxian thinks to himself, turning back to watch as Lan Xichen allows himself to be manhandled by a child. His best friend tried to kill Chifeng-Zun… and almost succeeded. A-Jue climbs into Lan Xichen’s lap like it is his right and Lan Xichen laughs; a bright, lovely sound of surprise that rings through the field.

Lam Xichen draws his knees up and wraps his arms around A-Jue’s thin form, his body forming a cage around the child as A-Jue buries his face into Lan Xichen’s neck. A slender hand passes over A-Jue’s hair gently and Wei Wuxian turns away, then scoots closer to Lan Zhan.

He reaches out and twines their fingers together, pleased when Lan Zhan pulls his hand into his lap.

“Xichen-ge?” Wei Wuxian asks; a soft hum is his response. “Have you decided what to do?”

Lan Xichen sighs, but meets Wei Wuxian’s gaze when he looks over. A-Jue is sound asleep— he sleeps so much, Wei Wuxian worries momentarily, I think he’s sleeping more now— his hands form little fists in Lan Xichen’s robes.

“It is done,” Lan Xichen says heavily. “The order to arrest Jin Guangyao for plotting to assassinate a Clan Leader was sent out by Jin Guangshan this morning.”

Chapter Text

Nie Mingjue doesn’t remember falling asleep— he doesn’t remember waking up.

Time blurs behind his eyes as he stares at a familiar ceiling, his mind quiet and still. There is no urgency in his bones, no restless energy coursing through his veins and Nie Mingjue takes a slow breath and holds it.

His body is heavy, stretched out on a bed that he doesn’t recall being this comfortable. There is no doubt in his mind that he is in Cloud Recesses— he has visited Lan Xichen enough times over the years to recall every detail of the room he is in. It has not changed much since they were boys, after all.

Nie Mingjue’s body disobeys him as he tries to shift on the bed; he is trapped beneath the heavy quilt, a block of lead attached to each of his fingers and to his knees and his wrists. Exhaustion weighs heavily on his eyelids and he gives in as they slide shut, and a soft sigh drifts past his lips.

He wakes again when the room is dark, illuminated by the single candle that flickers in the gentle breeze flowing through the windows.

Nie Mingjue curls his hand into a fist beneath the quilt; relaxes it, then stretches his fingers. His strength returns slowly, gradually. He doesn’t force it. The past is a distant, untouchable memory at the moment, so he leaves it alone for now. That he was injured is obvious— that it was life-threatening is made clear by his surroundings.

There are very few people Huaisang and Zonghui would trust with him in a fragile state— if he was hurt badly enough to be cared for in Cloud Recesses, Lan Xichen must be worried.

The thought makes him swallow, then blink rapidly.

Xichen. This is his home, his bed, his quilt that Nie Mingjue is buried under and he shifts, a frown on his face as he glances around the room. Where is he?

A dark silhouette catches Nie Mingjue’s attention and he stares at it, unable to comprehend what he sees for a long minute. Unbound hair cascades over a still form; pale robes turn gold in the flickering candlelight. Long fingers lay unmoving on the strings of the guqin in front of him, dark lashes rest on jade skin, brow furrowed in thought.

Nie Mingjue hesitates as he watches one hand lift from the guqin, unwilling to disturb Lan Xichen— it must be late, to have the other man be dressed so casually, with even his ribbon set aside, and Nie Mingjue has stolen his bed.

But fingers slowly rise to Lan Xichen’s cheek and wipe gently, and Nie Mingjue forces his obstinate body to obey him.

“Xichen—” Amber eyes blink open at the sound of his voice, and Nie Mingjue pulls himself upright. “Xichen, why are you crying?”

His voice is a demand but he cannot help it— Lan Xichen shouldn’t cry, not now, not ever— Nie Mingjue freezes as Lan Xichen stumbles to his feet.

“Mingjue?” His name is a whisper in the dark, Lan Xichen’s voice shocked and low. Nie Mingjue watches, frowning, as the other man comes to him. The track of tears had dripped to the collar of Lan Xichen’s robes, the fabric wet with the evidence of his sorrow.

“Xichen, what happened?” Nie Mingjue asks, and Lan Xichen’s laugh is a startled hiccup of a sound. “Xichen?”

Lan Xichen comes to a halt at his side, eyes shining with unshed tears and Nie Mingjue is at a loss— is Lan Xichen crying because of him? What did I do? What happened?

“Mingjue, Mingjue,” Lan Xichen collapses gracefully to a kneel at his side, and shaking fingers reach out to touch his face. “Is it you?” Nie Mingjue’s frown deepens at the question, and cool fingertips trace the lines of his forehead, the curve of his cheek.

“Of course it’s me,” he answers roughly, confusion lacing through his veins. “Who else would I be?”

Lan Xichen laughs again and Nie Mingjue watches helplessly as tears begin to stream down his face. He reaches out and gathers the man into his arms, tugging Lan Xichen up until he is pressed to Nie Mingjue’s chest.

“I’m sorry,” Nie Mingjue whispers into Lan Xichen’s hair, his hands curling carefully over heaving shoulders. “I’m so sorry, it’s me, I’m here.”

He must fall asleep again; he wakes up as Lan Xichen begins to pull away. Nie Mingjue tightens his arms in response before his eyes open; a soft laugh comes in answer as a hand covers his own.

“Mingjue,” Lan Xichen whispers, and Nie Mingjue grunts, then slits one eye open. Sunlight streams in and he sees Lan Xichen braced above him, hair spilling over his shoulders, amber eyes alight with something like joy. “Let me go.”

Nie Mingjue hears and ignores the request, then pulls Lan Xichen back onto his chest. “No,” he says simply. “Tell me why you were crying first.”

The light in Lan Xichen’s eyes dims at the mention of last night and Nie Mingjue hates himself for it, but he has to know— what made Lan Xichen cry?

Gentle fingers reach out and brush the hair from his face. “Do you truly not remember the past month?” Lan Xichen asks softly, settling down again as Nie Mingjue makes no move to release him.

Nie Mingjue closes his eyes against the tender caress and allows himself to sink into his memories. They rise to the surface slowly, fragments of scenes that make no sense. He sorts through them— Wei Wuxian chasing him through the trees, sitting in Lan Wangji’s lap as Hanguang-Jun played the guqin, A-Sang hiding his smile behind the fan that Nie Mingjue had given him at his last birthday— Nie Mingjue frowns as he opens his eyes.

“Zewu-Jun,” he says slowly, tasting the title on his tongue, staring up into amber eyes that watch him steadily, “how is it possible that I was a child?” More memories invade his mind— Lan Qiren allowing Nie Mingjue to follow him through the compound, Nie Qiuyue tempering his antics with a single raised brow, Lan Xichen smiling down at him, Lan Xichen holding his hand, Lan Xichen singing to him, Lan Xichen, Lan Xichen, Lan Xichen

Nie Mingjue frees one hand from the man in his arms and presses his fingers to his temple. “Xichen,” he ground out, a migraine beginning to build behind his eyes, “did you make your brother babysit me?”

A soft laugh comes from the other man— Nie Mingjue opens his eyes as cool relief washes through him, Lan Xichen’s spiritual power familiar and welcome in his body.

“He offered,” Lan Xichen says, then tugs himself out of the arms that had loosened at the onset of the headache. Nie Mingjue makes a face of annoyance but sits up as well, then watches as Lan Xichen moves through the Hanshi. “Mingjue—” Lan Xichen grimaces as he speaks. “Do you remember the deviation?”

Lan Xichen returns to Nie Mingjue’s side with water and simple food, and urges him to eat with a single look. Nie Mingjue takes hold of the water but doesn’t drink it— because he hears, through the haze of memory, Jin Guangyao saying, “Didn’t you notice any difference between the Song of Clarity played by me and that of Lan Xichen?”

Rage courses through his veins in a sudden fire— Nie Mingjue stands, uncaring of the water that spills onto Lan Xichen’s floor and the food that falls onto the bed.

“I’m going to kill him,” he seethes. “I’m going to tear his head from his shoulders.”

Nie Mingjue glances around the room until he sees clothing that should fit him— he brushes off Lan Xichen’s hands, not wanting to hear the platitudes and pleas for mercy that would no doubt come from the other. He knows— he knows that Lan Xichen is close to Jin Guangyao but this is unforgivable— Nie Mingjue goes still as Lan Xichen’s hands press against his chest.

Amber eyes meet his own steadily.

“Mingjue,” Lan Xichen says, and Nie Mingjue clenches his jaw against the argument he knows is coming. “I should have trusted you.” Nie Mingjue goes still in shock, and the hands on his chest fall to Lan Xichen’s side. “Jin Guangyao poisoned the Song of Clarity and undid all of our work to stave off your deviation.”

Lan Xichen steps back from Nie Mingjue and brings his hands up in a bow. “Forgive me for not trusting you.”

Nie Mingjue steps forward and breaks Lan Xichen’s arms apart. “You— you knew he had poisoned the song?” Nie Mingjue’s mind is a mass of confusion and it shows in his voice. It eases as Lan Xichen shakes his head firmly and wraps his hands around Nie Mingjue’s wrists.

“We have only just found out, Mingjue— so much has happened in the last month.” Sincerity shines from Lan Xichen’s gaze and Nie Mingjue allows himself to relax, despite the urgency that thrums inside of him. Lan Xichen continues after a slow breath. “Jin Guangshan has already sent out the order for his son's arrest.”

Nie Mingjue stares at the other man, unable to reconcile what he is hearing with what he knows.

He knows he spent the past month as a child— and how had that happened? How could he have regressed in such a fashion?— but the sharp agony of Jin Guangyao's betrayal stings as though it has just happened. And Lan Xichen, who had always strived for peace between his sworn brothers, now calmly stating that he had been wrong in his judgement of Jin Guangyao?

Nie Mingjue shakes his head and takes a step back. He looks around the Hanshi, then sees the mess he’s made of Lan Xichen’s bed. Nie Mingjue takes a slow breath, then tugs his arms free of Lan Xichen. He makes his way over and begins to clean up the scattered food— but gentle hands stop him and pull him back to his feet.

“Mingjue, that can wait,” Lan Xichen says, then urges him to sit at the low table. “Let me tell you what has happened,” Lan Xichen continues, glancing up to meet Nie Mingjue’s gaze. “From the beginning.”

Nie Mingjue rubs his fingers over his temples as Lan Xichen waits in silence.

Jin Guangyao had perverted the Song of Clarity to encourage Nie Mingjue’s qi deviation, had taught A-Sang the same song to make his own brother an accomplice in his murder, and had then turned around and pretended to be sympathetic to the child Nie Mingjue had become?

He lets out a loud sigh and stands. Lan Xichen moves with him, concern etched into the lines of his face.

“Mingjue?” The soft voice makes him pause— he offers the other man a small, tired smile.

“I don’t know where to begin,” Nie Mingjue says bluntly. He remembers most of the past month now; the childish certainty that he was safe and protected fights with the cold knowledge of how close to death he had come. He lifts his empty hand and stares at it. “Xichen, where is Baxia?”

The pause lasts just long enough for Nie Mingjue to feel a frown gather on his brow; Lan Xichen’s jaw, when he looks up, is clenched tightly. He follows as Lan Xichen turns his back to him and walks away.

Lan Xichen pulls a long, silk wrapped object from a chest and places it on the table, then steps back. Nie Mingjue knows that shape, has known it for years— when he removes the silk Baxia remains cold and unresponsive beneath his fingers. He strokes his hand down the length of the blade and a memory comes to him; between one blink of the eye and the next.

“Lan Huan!”

Lan Xichen looks up as A-Jue enters the Hanshi, places a cloth over the saber he had been polishing.

“A-Jue,” he says warmly, then opens his arms to catch the boy flings himself at Lan Xichen. “How are you?”

“Fine,” A-Jue replies, grinning broadly up at Lan Xichen. “Wangji-xiong said that you were going to eat dinner with us, so I came to get you.”

Lan Xichen chuckles softly, then stands. A-Jue slides down to stand on his own, though he keeps one hand wrapped firmly in Lan Xichen’s.

“Then we should make our way over,” Lan Xichen says lightly as he turns to leave the Hanshi. But a corner of the saber shows beneath the cloth and catches A-Jue’s eye, and he reaches out to it. “A-Jue, don’t—”

Nie Mingjue takes a breath.

“When you touched her,” Lan Xichen says from across the table, “you fell unconscious.” Nie Mingjue glances up at the other man. “You have been here since.”

“How long ago was that?” Nie Mingjue asks, and Lan Xichen swallows roughly.

“Three days,” he replies. Lan Xichen folds his hands behind his back, his eyes turning back to the saber. “She has been lifeless since you— you deviated.”

The hitch in Lan Xichen’s voice gives him pause, and Nie Mingjue folds the silk back over Baxia as he stands. The saber is mere metal, now— the strength that had thrummed through her blade gone; the whisper in the back of his mind that urges him to kill fallen silent. Nie Mingjue moves towards Lan Xichen and reaches out, then wraps the other man in his arms and tugs him to his chest.

“I have no connection to her anymore,” Nie Mingjue shrugs as startled eyes meet his own. “Whatever happened, it severed the bond.”

Thoughts flicker through his mind as Lan Xichen stares from him to Baxia— should he commission another saber? A sword?

A thought makes itself known— I am free of the curse of my ancestors— his arms tighten around Lan Xichen. Did Baxia cause his regression? Did the touch of her return him to adulthood? Lan Xichen had mentioned that no one had ever heard of such a thing happening before, and Nie Mingjue knows this man, knows that he would have scoured the depths of hell to find a way to bring Nie Mingjue back—

“What will you do?” Lan Xichen asks, and Nie Mingjue finds himself on the receiving end of a pensive stare. “Now that Jin Guangyao has been found out, and ordered to be arrested?”

Nie Mingjue shrugs once more. He feels… light. Light in a way that he has not felt since he was a student in Cloud Recesses himself, the first time he had held Lan Xichen in his arms. Light in a way that he has not felt since before Baxia’s hold on him became unbreakable.

“I think I should see my brother,” Nie Mingjue says slowly amid memories of his brother and his… aunt… Nie Qiuyue had been here as well, and likely still was. “And my Clan.”

“And then travel to Lanling,” Lan Xichen says with a sigh, then leans his weight against Nie Mingjue’s chest.

Nie Mingjue hums. “And then travel to Lanling,” he repeats, “to deal with that traitor.” Lan Xichen remains motionless against him; Nie Mingjue strokes his hand slowly up and down his back.

Lan Xichen stands upright after a few more silent minutes. “Well,” he says, then curves a smile towards Nie Mingjue. “I think there are a few people who will be happy to see you.”

Nie Mingjue lets out a low laugh as Lan Xichen pulls out of his arms and turns to kneel in front of a chest. “Really?” he asks, disbelief clear in his voice.

Lan Xichen comes back to him with his arms full of dark robes and a smile. “Yes,” he confirms. “A-Jue was a good child, but the world has missed Chifeng-Zun.”

Lan Qiren sends Nie Mingjue to the healers the moment the older man catches sight of him— he goes with little fuss, and allows the stern woman to move him this way and that.

“I remember sleeping often,” Nie Mingjue offers; the healer hums in thought.

“Likely it was your body trying to consolidate your energy,” she says slowly, eyes closed as she tests the strength of his core. “You are weak right now— the transformation must have drained you.”

Nie Mingjue nods— her words make sense, as much as any part of this situation can.

“You should rest and meditate for at least two days before you attempt to travel,” she continues, and Nie Mingjue inclines his head. Only once she is satisfied does she allow him to leave, and Nie Mingjue follows Lan Qiren out of the healing pavilion.

He comes to a halt outside, then lifts his face towards the sun.

“Chifeng-Zun,” Lan Qiren begins after a moment, and Nie Mingjue lowers his face and turns towards the other man.

“Master Lan,” he replies, then bows deeply. “Thank you for the care of your Clan.”

The man accepts his bow with a nod— Nie Mingjue drops his arms and folds his hands behind his back. Sharp eyes look over him before Lan Qiren sighs.

“Xichen has told me that Baxia retains no power,” Lan Qiren says, and Nie Mingjue follows along beside the other man as he is led through Cloud Recesses. “And that you are no longer bound to the saber spirit.”

Nie Mingjue shrugs lightly. Baxia has done her duty over the years— and the greatest evil they had faced together had been Wen Ruohan, and the Sunshot Campaign is a distant memory. “He is correct.” Nie Mingjue refuses to allow himself to crave a new saber— he is free of their power, now. A-Sang will be pleased. He wonders what the rest of his Clan will think.

“Could that be the reason you regressed in age?” Lan Qiren wonders, then glances towards him. “Death should have been inevitable.”

Nie Mingjue remembers vaguely the bursting, shattering pain of his meridians overloading throughout his body— he is thankful for the distance his time as a child has given the memories. But even now, shadows of agony sing through his veins.

“It could have been that, it could have been a miracle from the gods.” Nie Mingjue shakes his head. This is his second chance; he will not look too deeply into the gift he has been given. Lan Qiren allows his answer with a simple nod.

They come to a halt outside the Jingshi and Nie Mingjue blinks past the memories he has of this place. Laughter rings out from inside and Nie Mingjue knows the sound of it, now— Wei Wuxian is freer in Cloud Recesses than he has ever been anywhere else.

Lan Qiren glances towards the path before he comes to a halt. “My nephews are inside,” he says softly. Nie Mingjue hums in acknowledgement. “I am glad you have returned to us.”

Lan Qiren bows to him and Nie Mingjue returns it, and the older man leaves him where he is.

Nie Mingjue takes a breath before continuing, his steps silent as he walks. Lan Wangji sees him enter the room and rises; Wei Wuxian turns to see what has caught his eye and smiles broadly. Lan Xichen’s smile is soft— Nie Mingjue thinks he has not seen a room of people so relieved to see him in many years.

“Chifeng-Zun!” Wei Wuxian’s voice is bright and relieved and Nie Mingjue cannot help the urge to tease him.

He offers the three men a deeply formal bow. “Wangji-xiong, Wei-xiong,” he says as he stands. Wei Wuxian’s face pales— Nie Mingjue bites back his smile. “Thank you for the care you have shown me.”

Wei Wuxian glances nervously between Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji. “Ah, it was no problem,” he stutters, flustered. “It was a pleasure.”

Nie Mingjue raises a brow. “Your cooking was not pleasurable,” he replies, and the sight of Wei Wuxian gaping at him in shock breaks his control. He laughs and Lan Xichen comes towards him and rests a hand on his bicep.

“Mingjue,” he chides gently, and Nie Mingjue nods even as his laughter slows. “How do you feel?”

“Your healers want me to rest,” he replies, moving to join the three men at the table. Lan Wangji pours him a cup of tea and he accepts it with a nod. “They advise I remain here for a while longer.”

“Good,” Lan Xichen says firmly, a sentiment that Wei Wuxian agrees with, going by his expression. “I have sent for A-Sang and Nie Qiuyue.”

Nie Mingjue takes a sip of his tea, and wonders what fortune he has had in his life to have been given not only a second chance, but so many people who care for him.

Huaisang remains firmly at Nie Mingjue’s side, unwilling to be parted from him for even a moment. The tears that had dripped down his brother’s face haunt Nie Mingjue— he reaches out and rests a hand tightly on Huaisang’s shoulder.

“Be at ease,” he says softly. Huaisang glances up then steps closer, and Nie Mingjue allows his arm to encircle his brother in a hug.

“I can’t,” Huaisang replies, his words muffled in Nie Mingjue’s robes. “Not until Jin Guangyao pays for what he’s done.”

Nie Mingjue does not reply— a sound makes him look up; he inclines his head towards Lan Xichen.

“Mingjue, A-Sang,” Lan Xichen greets, and says nothing about the embrace. Huaisang steps away regardless, and schools his face into a smile for the newcomer.

“Er-ge,” Huaisang says, “is it time to leave?”

Nie Mingjue regards his brother for a long moment, and wonders at how much the younger man has grown since he’d been… incapacitated. Though he was still reticent he was self-assured, though he was quiet he was not nervous— it pained Nie Mingjue that it had taken stress and uncertainty that he’d caused to finally help his brother grow up.

“Almost,” Lan Xichen replies. He comes to a halt next to Nie Mingjue, so close their robes no longer move in the breeze. “The last of the horses are being prepared.”

“Good,” Huaisang says, then turns as Wei Wuxian catches his attention. “Excuse me.”

They watch him leave; Lan Xichen allows his fingers to trail over Nie Mingjue’s hand.

“Are you ready?” he asks in a low voice, and Nie Mingjue inclines his head.

They are taking horses to Lanling because he has no saber or sword to ride— the disciples of two Clans are willing to back his claims against Jin Guangyao, and the Jin Clan Leader has orchestrated the arrest of his own son on the strength of their words alone.

“It is past time that the world sees the truth of who he is—” Lan Xichen glances down and away and Nie Mingjue scoffs. “He was actively deceiving you, Xichen,” he says. “Stop taking the blame for his actions.”

Lan Xichen glances up at him and Nie Mingjue raises a brow, and the silent argument concludes as amber eyes turn away. “As you say,” Lan Xichen murmurs, and Nie Mingjue grunts.

“I do,” he replies, then turns towards the waiting horses. “Let’s get this over with.”