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I.

Nie Mingjue was a selfish idiot.

Wiping tears from his eyes with furious palms, Nie Huaisang tossed spare robes and books into a qiankun pouch, grabbed his saber, and slammed his door as he stomped through the Unclean Realm.

So what if he skipped saber practice a few times? So what if went painting instead? So what if he used all his spending money for the month on new paintbrushes? It was his money and his time to use as he pleased.

Expertly avoiding their disciples and servants, Nie Huaisang made his way to a secret passage leading outside and shut it behind him. The Nie clan was set to depart for Lanling the next morning for little Jin Ling’s one-month celebration. Since his stupid brother didn’t want to see his face anymore, Nie Huaisang decided he didn’t either and would go a day early. He would enjoy the look on Nie Mingjue’s face when he saw how the cowardly weakling made it to Lanling by himself, while the big strong sect leader required an entourage.

Or at least, that had been the plan when he left.

After a few hours in the cool air with his thoughts, Nie Huaisang was less angry and more fraught with anxiety. He knew exactly what look would be on his brother’s face when they reunited in Lanling the next day. It wouldn’t be one Nie Huaisang could enjoy. It would be one that would make him cry and pass out from sheer terror.

He had no intention of giving up on the trip and going back though. For one, he really didn’t want to see his brother. For another, Nie Huaisang had a strong self-preservation instinct and a better chance of survival if he explained things to Jin Guangyao and got him on his side first. His San-ge always knew how to protect him from his brother’s wrath, ever since he was Meng Yao.

He was flying over Qiongqi Path when he finally came up with a story for Jin Guangyao he was satisfied with. As if reacting to the waning of his rage, his golden core started to ache from fatigue, prompting Nie Huaisang to look for a spot to land. And that was when he spotted a figure he hadn’t seen in over a year.

“Wei-xiong?” Nie Huaisang called out. “Is that really you?”

“Nie Huaisang?” It was indeed really Wei Wuxian. “What are you doing here?”

With a grin, Nie Huaisang landed in front of him and the pale figure that must have been ferocious Ghost General. Nie Huaisang had met Wen Ning before. He’d been a meek timid fellow back then (not unlike Nie Huaisang himself, really), and the Ghost General carried himself in much the same way. Past the unnatural pallor and creepy black veins, he was a man who stood two steps behind the other young masters, with an uneasy smile, and hands folded in front of him.

Absolutely terrifying.

Nie Huaisang knew his manners though and gave Wen Ning a polite greeting, which was returned with startled clumsiness. Then he turned to Wei Wuxian. “I’m on my way to Lanling for little Jin Ling’s one-month celebration.”

“By yourself?” Wei Wuxian frowned and looked around uneasily, hand suddenly on his flute, as though Nie cultivators would suddenly pop up in ambush.

“It’s a long story but yes,” Nie Huaisang assured him. “What about you? Are you…” His eyes landed on a small wrapped box in Wei Wuxian’s hands and lit up. “Were you invited too? That’s wonderful! Oh! Congratulations on the birth of your nephew!”

The last time Nie Huaisang had seen Wei Wuxian had been at the Phoenix Mountain Hunt the previous year. That last appearance was immortalized by his furious public confrontation with Jin Zixun, and subsequent assault on the Wen prison camp under his command. Everyone then had said Wei Wuxian was dangerous and unstable, but looking at his old classmate now, all Nie Huaisang saw was a too tired, too thin man with the faintest spark of hope in his eyes.

The way he smiled was different now, but Wei Wuxian removed his hand from his flute and the two began to chat, and it felt as though they were still fellow students in Gusu.

And it was shortly after they decided to travel to Lanling together that Jin Zixun showed up with an army of cultivators, a nauseating skin condition, and ravings about a curse.

Nie Huaisang looked at the Jin cultivators, then at Wei Wuxian and the Ghost General who stood protectively in front of him.

“Wei-xiong,” he leaned in towards him. “Are you truly innocent in this matter?”

“You don’t believe me either?” Wei Wuxian spat, hurt evident in his reddening eyes – the easy camaraderie from before had vanished.

Nie Huaisang considered it for a moment. As far as he was concerned, Jin Zixun had no one to blame but himself for the conflict a year ago. Jin Zixun had been the instigator of several clashes long before Wei Wuxian finally blew up at him. And frankly, Nie Huaisang didn’t like the man. No matter how much his San-ge insisted they got along better now, all Nie Huaisang remembered was the insults and the bruises.

Nie Huaisang could hold a grudge. He could also recognize an obvious trap.

“I believe you,” he said calmly. “I can think of a good list of people who would see him suffer.” Then Nie Huaisang betrayed all his principles and took a step forward.

“Jin Zixun,” he announced. “It’s me, Nie Huaisang. Call off your men at once. Wei Wuxian is your cousin’s guest. If there is some misunderstanding, we will clear it up in Lanling.”

“Nie Huaisang?” His name sounded like a curse from Jin Zixun’s sneering mouth. “What is Qinghe’s useless good-for-nothing doing with the Yiling Patriarch? By himself?”

“That’s my matter,” Nie Huaisang replied, snapping open his fan. “Call off your men. If I get hurt, will you be the one to answer to Sect Leader Nie?”

“If you don’t want to get hurt, get over here,” Jin Zixun snapped and raised his arm, rallying his cultivators.

Nie Huaisang’s eyes widened, and he took a hasty step back.

“W-Wei-xiong, we have a problem.”

A problem?”

“He’s declared his intent to attack no matter what,” Nie Huaisang stammered, his earlier bravado fading as the archers drew their bows. “You – you need to protect me.”

“Oh really?”

“Wei-xiong, the dead cannot speak – if I die here, you will be blamed.”

“Ah, of course. Don’t worry Nie-xiong, if you die, I’ll make you my Ghost Deputy.”

“Please don’t joke about that,” Nie Huaisang whined, moving to hide behind Wei Wuxian. “How much time do you even think you’ll have? As soon as word reaches my brother, they’ll need to draw up new maps to erase Yiling.”

His poor brother! Nie Huaisang had only wanted to give him a scare and let him worry for a day. If anything actually happened to him…

Nie Huaisang decided. If he survived this, he would never touch a paintbrush again.

Wei Wuxian let out a heavy sigh. “Alright,” he pressed his giftbox into Nie Huaisang’s hands and raised Chenqing to his lips. “Stay close, Nie-xiong. That big brother of yours is second on the list of people I never want to cross.”

“Second? Who’s first?”

“My Shijie, of course!”


II.

“Explain this to me. Now.”

Nie Mingjue was an imposing man. Between his large stature, rattling saber, and unconcealed killing intent, even Jin Guangshan couldn’t hide the traces of fear in his eyes.

There was plenty for him to fear.

Beside him, Jin Guangyao could only offer a strained smile.

“Sect Leader Nie, please calm down. We—

“I will be calm when someone explains why the fuck your nephew,” he glared at Jin Guangshan, “tried to kill my little brother.”

“Of course no one wanted to kill Huaisang!” Jin Guangyao voice was sickening. “He was simply in the wrong place…”

“Consorting with Yiling Patriarch!” Jin Guangshan jumped in. “Perhaps you would like to explain that one, Sect Leader Nie?”

“Mind your own family matters, not mine,” Nie Mingjue snapped. “If your nephew wants to murder Wei Wuxian in cold blood, that’s his problem. But my brother’s safety should have been secured as a first priority.”

“Zixun tried to get him out of the way. But he was taken hostage –

“Even more reason not to attack!

“Father, he was not a hostage,” Jin Zixuan interrupted from his spot on Jin Guangshan’s other side. “Wei Wuxian was protecting him. And if I hadn’t gotten there when I did…”

Nie Mingjue took a deep breath as Baxia rattled ominously against his back.

“Da-ge, let’s not think about things that haven’t passed. Huaisang was a little shaken, but he’s completely unharmed. I promise,” Jin Guangyao said in that soft tone of his.

“What I would like to know is why this even occurred,” Jin Zixuan pressed. “Wei Wuxian was my guest. He was here to see A-Li and A-Ling. Father, what is the meaning of this?”

“You go take a look at your cousin’s chest,” Jin Guangshan snapped. “See what your guest has done.”

Jin Zixuan’s lips pursed into a taut frown as Nie Mingjue scoffed.

“Ah yes, the Hundred Holes Curse,” he said. “The so-called motive behind this attack.”

“Sect Leader Nie, watch yourself,” Jin Guangshan warned.

“Let us all agree that this was indeed the reason for the ambush at Qiongqi Path,” Nie Mingjue said, taking in both Jin Guangshan and Jin Guangyao’s dark expressions. “The casting of the Hundred Holes Curse is not a small matter. If Wei Wuxian is responsible, he will be punished.”

“If!” Jin Guangshan huffed. “Who else would use such vile methods?”

“Against your nephew?” Nie Mingjue considered it. He could think of a good list of people who would see him suffer. “I will take charge of this investigation and find out.”

Jin Guangshan’s face turned bright red. “You? Absolutely not!”

“Da-ge, we’re truly grateful, but this is a Jin clan matter. We couldn’t possibly impose on your time,” Jin Guangyao tried.

“You shut up. This stopped being a Jin matter the moment Jin cultivators opened fire on my brother.”

“Father, I agree with Sect Leader Nie,” Jin Zixuan spoke up. “This concerns Zixun’s life. If Wei Wuxian is innocent, killing him won’t remove the curse. We need to be certain of this. I believe we can trust Sect Leader Nie to be a fair impartial judge.”

“Fair and impartial?” Jin Guangshan yelled. “After that damned brother of his was, according to you, rescued by the Yiling Patriarch?”

“Consider my investigation to be his reward,” Nie Mingjue countered venomously. “Don’t misunderstand. If I learn that Wei Wuxian was behind your nephew’s curse, I will turn him over to your clan for punishment.”

With that, he started to leave, but Sect Leader Jin wasn’t done. “And how much time do you think Zixun has while you play detective?”

Nie Mingjue stopped. He turned back to Jin Guangshan with the most intense glare he could muster. “Sect Leader Jin, as far as I’m concerned, your nephew’s curse is the least of his problems. You should consider how much time he has should Wei Wuxian turn out not to be the culprit.”

He stormed out after that, ignoring Jin Guangyao’s yells and the sound of a cup shattering. Baxia’s rattling grew as Nie Mingjue fought the urge to smash something himself. It had been bad enough to learn that idiot brother of his had run off, but to then get an emergency summons to Lanling because Huaisang had gotten mixed up in an ambush…

Nie Mingjue was going to break his legs the moment he saw him.

A Jin servant led him to the guestrooms that had been prepared for the Yiling Patriarch. A retinue of guards surrounded the pavilion he and the Ghost General had been confined inside, so it was surprising to find Jiang Yanli also in the room, along with her infant child. The child was in Wei Wuxian’s arms. Rocking him was probably the only thing bringing a tiny smile to Wei Wuxian’s otherwise pale tear-stained face. The Ghost General stood nearby, but shrank back the moment the door opened.

Absolutely terrifying, Nie Mingjue thought.

Nie Huaisang was also in the room, but he decided not to lay eyes on him yet.

“Wei Wuxian,” Nie Mingjue announced, causing the feared Yiling Patriarch to freeze in place. “Say your farewells and prepare to head out. The Nie sect is taking custody of you and your Wen dogs until this matter is resolved.”

“And if I refuse?” Wei Wuxian muttered defiantly.

“Then you can defend yourself from the Jin on your own.”

“A-Xian, hush,” Jiang Yanli whispered and soothingly rubbed his back with a gentle smile. She then stood up and gave Nie Mingjue a deep bow. “Sect Leader Nie, thank you for your kindness. I can swear to you before all of my ancestors that this is a misunderstanding. Please. Help A-Xian.”

Nie Mingjue nodded. “If he is truly innocent, then he has nothing to fear.”

Wei Wuxian glared up at him hatefully. “Nothing to fear? Yeah right. Like I would submit the Wen remnants to suffer in your custody. I’ll take my chances in Yiling.”

“Y-Young Master,” the Ghost General stammered as Nie Mingjue crossed his arms.

“Cultivators and fierce corpses will be secured accordingly,” Nie Mingjue told him sternly. “But I give you my word that no one will be harmed.”

“Wei-xiong,” Nie Huaisang spoke up quietly, “Da-ge never goes back on his word. You can trust him.”

“Can I trust his investigation too?” Wei Wuxian snapped.

“It’s the best you’ll get,” Nie Mingjue told him simply, but at Jiang Yanli’s downcast glance added. “The Nie sect take its debts very seriously. You saved my brother’s life today. The least I can do is ensure your safety and a fair assessment of this case.”

“And the Stygian Tiger Seal?”

“What about it?”

“You don’t want it?”

“You think the Nie’s strength is so inferior that we need your trinket to make up for it?” Nie Mingjue snarled. “I’m not Jin Guangshan. Do not make that mistake again.”

Wei Wuxian glared.

“A-Xian.”

“Wei-xiong!”

“Young Master…”

With all three of them urging him, Wei Wuxian lowered his head. Then he gave little Jin Ling back to his sister.

“I’ll go with you,” he agreed. “But the Wen remnants’ safety is not negotiable. Do not make that mistake.”

The ferocity of the threat was ruined by the pain and desperation in his voice. Nie Mingjue could only give him a reassuring clap on the shoulder as he passed by. To the Ghost General, he gave a harsh glare. To Jiang Yanli, a bow and a promise of justice.

And to Nie Huaisang, who started all of this with his damn paintbrushes…

Nie Mingjue couldn’t look at him.


III.

Nie Huaisang could not stay at Carp Tower.

Jin Guangyao had gripped his shoulders and apologized profusely, but the escalated tensions between the Nie and the Jin – tensions Nie Huaisang was more or less directly responsible for – made it difficult to take him in as a guest. It was better that Nie Huaisang forgot about the whole mess and went back to the Unclean Realm to rest.

Nie Huaisang understood. The moment the first arrow was shot, he knew how serious things would become, even if they’d been fortunate to avoid any clan members’ deaths. Jin Ling’s one-month celebration had been cancelled and the Jin had to handle the aftermath. The last thing they needed was the presence of the Nie sect heir they nearly murdered.

However, Nie Huaisang couldn’t go home either. Not while his brother was so mad that he refused to even look at him. Not after he’d dragged him into this mess and forced him to make allowances for the Wen.

Fortunately, the sudden cancellation worked to his favor. A good number of clans had reached Carp Tower before news could reach them – one of them being the Lan. Nie Huaisang didn’t waste a moment throwing himself into his Er-ge’s arms and sobbing to him about the whole big mess he was in.

Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji were immediately alarmed. Lan Wangji in particular was so incensed that he instantly declared his intent to assist the Nie’s investigation and mounted Bichen in the direction of Qinghe.

Lan Xichen, on the other hand, met with Jin Guangyao and Jin Guangshan first. Their meeting lasted a long time, but in the end, Lan Xichen ultimately decided to return to Gusu rather than assist in Lanling. To Nie Huaisang, he smiled kindly and said,

“Your brother will take care of this. I’ll let him know you wish to recoup in Gusu for a few days. The tranquility will be good for you.”

“You’re the best, Er-ge!”

Nie Huaisang suspected that some misunderstanding occurred somewhere – he wasn’t feeling particularly distressed by the Qionqi Path attack, just his brother’s temper, but as long as Lan Xichen let him hide in the Cloud Recesses, there was no need to correct things.

He made himself right at home in his old dorm room, and spent the days wandering the grounds and looking for birds. He thought about painting, but found himself too guilt-ridden to touch any brushes.

Jin Guangyao had told him to forget about the incident, but that proved impossible. Nie Huaisang was content to leave it to the adults to actually handle, but it concerned his friend and family, so he often turned to Lan Xichen for updates.

The more he learned, the worse things looked for the Jin.

The Wen Remnants had been safely relocated to the Unclean Realm. The army of cultivators and corpses Wei Wuxian had allegedly built up turned out to contain only one of each – Wen Qing and her brother. The rest were starved frail elders and a toddler.

The toddler had been a particular sticking point – especially once Nie Mingjue confirmed that the child was too old to be the product of Wei Wuxian and Wen Qing’s enduring isolation. After he’d confirmed that none of the Burial Mounds residents contained any traces of the Hundred Holes Curse, Nie Mingjue turned his investigation to the Jin’s prisoner camps.

Meanwhile, Jiang Yanli had temporarily moved into the Unclean Realm herself to support her brother. She hadn’t been allowed to take Jin Ling with her (tensions and all), but the child would be safe with his father and grandmother. Her move had also roused the previously cowed Jiang clan. Jiang Wanyin’s yelling could apparently be heard all over Carp Tower.

It was about time, Nie Huaisang thought indignantly.

“It’s…good that these things are coming to light now,” Lan Xichen’s frown made him resemble his brother more than ever, “but we still don’t know who cursed Jin Zixun. Wangji is looking into it, but he says there are too many candidates. Jin Zixun was not a popular man.”

“That’s exactly what I told San-ge,” Nie Huaisang lamented. “It was completely unwarranted that they would suddenly target Wei-xiong when the last time he had any dealings with them was a year ago – and he was already headed to Lanling. That ambush was an obvious trap, but if they really care about the curse, they should be looking into that second flutist.”

Lan Xichen looked over at him. “What second flutist?”

Nie Huaisang tilted his head in confusion. “The one at Qiongqi Path? I told San-ge…”

When the arrows started to rain down, Wei Wuxian started playing his flute to control the Ghost General and the resentful energy around them. The Ghost General fought the Jin cultivators, while Wei Wuxian fought Zin Jixun (and Nie Huaisang hid behind his sheathed saber). At one point though, Nie Huaisang thought he heard a second flute. He’d hastily interrupted Wei Wuxian’s playing then – and the few bars that lingered confirmed it.

“There was definitely someone hiding in the shadows,” Nie Huaisang said. He hadn’t thought about it too deeply then because the only notion on his mind was getting to safety and telling San-ge what happened so he could help, but now that he did have to think about it, he found it worrying. “And Jin Zixuan showed up almost immediately after… Er-ge… you don’t think someone was trying to frame…”

Lan Xichen’s expression grew increasingly darker.

Apparently, he did think so.


IV.

“Explain this to us. Now.”

Nie Mingjue was plenty intimidating on his own. With Lan Xichen beside him, there shouldn’t have been a cultivator alive who could stand up to their pressure. And yet Jin Guangshan did just that. Instead of fear, there was only curiosity in his eyes as he tilted his head to the side.

The fear was on Jin Guangyao’s face.

“This is the first I’m hearing of this second flutist myself,” Jin Guangshan admitted lightly. “Something you’re trying to hide?”

“I – Father, I would never!” Jin Guangyao exclaimed. “I don’t know where this is coming from.”

“A-Yao, Huaisang is insistent that he mentioned the second flutist to you,” Lan Xichen said reproachfully. “I don’t think he would lie about this.”

“I really don’t know anything,” Jin Guangyao insisted. “Huaisang was hysterical when we spoke that day. I must have misunderstood his words.”

“I’m sure,” Nie Mingjue remarked and looked toward Jin Zixuan. “And you? Don’t know anything either?”

“I did not notice any flutists on the scene, but I was not paying attention,” Jin Zixuan explained with a frown. “And Nie Huaisang and Wei Wuxian refused to explain anything to me. Your brother in particular was insistent that he would only talk to A-Yao.”

“Convenient.”

“I also don’t know if I would describe him as hysterical,” Jin Zixuan continued. “Between him and Wei Wuxian, he was considerably more composed.”

“Huaisang can keep it together when he needs to,” Jin Guangyao clarified. “He didn’t start crying until after you left us.”

“That part is irrelevant,” Nie Mingjue cut in. “The only thing that matters is that he apparently told you, and only you, that there had been another flutist at the scene and somehow that information failed to reach the rest of us.”

“Da-ge, haven’t you spoken to him as well? Wouldn’t he have told you?”

“We haven’t spoken,” Nie Mingjue said darkly. Jin Guangyao turned to Lan Xichen.

“Er-ge, Huaisang has been with you for several days. Why has this only come out now?”

“A-Yao, you know how Huaisang is. He wanted to forget the whole thing. I only brought it up with him to try to give him some peace of mind.”

Nie Mingjue raised an eyebrow at this. The timid delicate youth Lan Xichen spoke of sounded nothing like his brother. He wondered if there had been some misunderstanding between them somewhere but decided not to mention it.

Jin Guangyao at least shared his confusion, though he quickly covered it up. “Alright, I’ll admit that I may have misinterpreted some of Huaisang’s story. But please believe me, I would never intentionally try to mislead you. What reason would I have for this?”

“A-Yao, we’re not suspecting you,” Jin Zixuan said. “But it is suspect that someone would be playing a flute in the shadows. If the purpose of the ambush was to kill Wei Wuxian, why was he there? Under these circumstances, it only looks like someone was trying to cause an incident and frame the Yiling Patriarch for it.”

That was exactly what it was, Nie Mingjue knew, and watched Jin Guangshan’s reaction carefully.

“I knew nothing about this ambush to begin with,” Jin Guangshan quickly said. “Jin Zixun acted on his own.”

And there it was. Nie Mingjue found new reason to despise the Jin Sect leader every day.

“How worrying that the Jin clan could raise its disciples to rally a hundred cultivators to attack an invited guest, all without the sect leader’s permission or knowledge. And to think this is the same sect leader who wishes to oversee all the sects,” he couldn’t help but retort. It was worth it for Jin Guangshan’s expression, but Nie Mingjue didn’t care to argue that tired old subject now. His attention returned to Jin Guangyao.

“And don’t forget whose deputy you used to be,” Nie Mingjue snapped. “You would never let such a lapse pass.”

“Sect Leader Nie, I thank you for the praise, but I don’t have the same oversight here as I did under your command. I too did not know of Jin Zixun’s intentions.”

“A-Yao,” Jin Zixuan spoke up. “You were the one who’d told me to head to Qiongqi Path.”

“Yes, I knew he was planning something, but I did not know what that was. And what does any of this have to do with the mysterious flutist?”

“Wei Wuxian said something interesting before,” Nie Mingjue said. “He admitted that if Huaisang hadn’t been there and helped him keep calm, there was a chance he might have lost control and took out everyone present, including, say, any brothers-in-law that happened to wander in unexpectedly. I think about that and this second flutist kept hidden from us, and wonder. Who would benefit if such a thing were to happen?”

A bitter chill swept over the room.

“Mingjue!” Lan Xichen exclaimed. “A-Yao would never!”

“Sect Leader Nie, this is too outrageous,” Jin Zixuan agreed.

“Da-ge! I’m innocent!”

“Perhaps,” Nie Mingjue said, unperturbed. “This can easily be disproved as soon as we learn who this second flutist is. If you, with your impeccable memory and attention to detail, have any ideas, please enlighten us.”

Jin Guangyao’s face twisted into something ugly as he pleadingly turned to Lan Xichen. Before either of them could say anything though, Jin Guangshan reminded them of his presence.

“Get out,” he said in a low voice.

“Father?”

“Out!” Jin Guangshan yelled and grabbed the nearest cup to throw. It shattered at Jin Guangyao’s feet. “You are no son of mine!”

It was as though Jin Guangyao’s entire world shattered in that moment. Lan Xichen instantly stood up, moving in front of him protectively.

“A-Yao, please step out,” he whispered. “We will clear this up.”

“Er-ge…”

“Don’t be afraid. Da-ge is only theorizing. I don’t believe you’re capable of this.”

Jin Guangyao gripped his robe, and Nie Mingjue resisted the urge to throw him out of the room himself. But he obeyed, and shakily sauntered out. The door had not closed behind him when Jin Guangshan voiced his next comment.

“Whores like him are all the same. Give them a crumb of your attention and suddenly they think you owe them the world. No different from his whore mother, that one.”

Lan Xichen and Jin Zixuan couldn’t hide their appall. On Nie Mingjue’s back, Baxia rattled although he himself felt strangely calm.

“Well there you have it, Sect Leader Nie,” Jin Guangshan huffed. “You have your culprit.”

“What culprit?” Nie Mingjue snapped. “You heard Xichen. All I said was theory.”

“The Hundred Holes Curse, luring my son to such a dangerous place…”

“A-Yao did not cast the Hundred Holes Curse,” Lan Xichen said firmly. “The caster must have a stronger cultivation base than his victim. This is not the case here.”

“The second flutist!”

“When we find out who that is, we will know,” Jin Zixuan said, showing remarkable composure for someone who just learned his half-brother might have tried to kill him. “This investigation is not over.”

“Exactly,” Nie Mingjue agreed. “And don’t think that nephew of yours is off the hook. I don’t care what Jin Guangyao might have plotted in the background. He was not the one who tried to kill my brother.”

Jin Guangshan’s face turned various new shades of red.

“We can discuss that later.”

“Very well,” Nie Mingjue conceded. “This brings me to the next matter. About your prison camps…”


V.

“I can’t help but feel this is my fault somehow,” Nie Huaisang said, days later at Lotus Pier as he sat on a dock and splashed his feet against the water. “I don’t think I did anything wrong, but I feel responsible, you know?”

Wei Wuxian laughed – a real laugh. “That’s because you are,” he said. “You only uncovered two murder plots, a conspiracy, and war crimes. I’m amazed the Jin haven’t tried to kill you yet.”

“I really don’t think they have time for that now,” Nie Huaisang remarked. “And they did, technically. Da-ge is still trying to get them to hand over Jin Zixun for that.”

It was a shame, he thought, that Jin Zixun would have his curse lifted, only for the Nie to demand nothing short of execution for the attempted murder of their heir, an honored guest, and – thanks to Jin Guangshan’s desire to wipe his hands clean of the first two – conspiring behind his sect leader’s back.

Not that Jin Guangshan himself was off the hook. The conditions of his prison camps and a number of other unscrupulous matters (including research into demonic cultivation) that had been suddenly leaked sparked outrage among the other clans (or rather the Lan, Nie, and Jiang, with the minor clans obediently following the majority), and the current rumors said he would be made to step down as sect leader before the year’s end. The Jin sect as a whole would survive, but how it would look and who would lead it was uncertain.

Jin Zixuan’s right to succession was challenged when it was revealed exactly how little he knew about the inner workings of his sect. Once the perfect son and heir, the gossipers now mocked his attention to courtesy and romance while his family tortured elders and toddlers behind his back. As a fellow sect heir, Nie Huaisang felt conflicted. He knew there were plenty of things his brother hid from him, but Nie Mingjue had always made sure he could handle administrative matters, which he’d done well even before the Sunshot Campaign left him officially in charge of the Nie’s home front. Not even Nie Huaisang could be completely carefree and ignorant.

Jin Zixuan was a good person though, Nie Huaisang thought. He both understood and deeply regretted the implications of his ignorance and resolved to change his ways. It was why as soon as the in-fighting broke out in the Jin clan, he made the decision to send Jiang Yanli and little Jin Ling to Lotus Pier. Wei Wuxian and the Wen remnants followed suit. A year of silence in Yiling and a much juicier scandal from the pompous Jin sect was enough to make the bloodthirsty cultivation community lose interest in the Yiling Patriarch, and Jiang Wanyin was quick to seize on his brother’s newfound backing from Sect Leader Nie to drag him home and formally reinstate him into the sect.

Nie Huaisang had heard that there were many tears involved. He was happy for them. Brothers weren’t supposed to fight.

“Speaking of the Jin, did you hear this one yet? Apparently, during one of their arguments over who should be sect leader, Madame Jin mockingly suggested they name Jin Ling leader and make Shijie his regent if her son isn’t good enough. At least a third of the clan is now seriously backing this.”

“That’s just because they haven’t met your Shijie and think she’ll be easy to control,” Nie Huaisang scoffed, remembering her masterful composure that day at Carp Tower as she ordered the guards to let her see her brother. “Although, if she wants to rule, I’ll support it. That big sister of yours is second on the list of people I never want to cross.”

“Second? Who’s first?”

“My Da-ge, of course!”

The two shared a loud knowing laugh.

“Oh Nie-xiong, Nie-xiong, Nie-xiong,” Wei Wuxian wiped tears from his eyes. “You have to be one of the most outrageous men I’ve ever met.”

“How can I possibly compare to the master?” Nie Huaisang playfully smacked his shoulder with his fan.

“You say this as though you crossing your Da-ge didn’t start all of this,” Wei Wuxian remarked and Nie Huaisang felt a jolt of unease. “And the more I think about it, the more terrifying it is. You ran away to Lanling, only to uncover an ambush. Then you ran to Gusu and uncovered a conspiracy. I’m not sure how I feel about you being in Yunmeng. Who knows what you’ll uncover next?”

“Wei-xiong, please don’t make fun,” Nie Huaisang chuckled warily. With all that happened, he still hadn’t been able to apologize to his brother, and still feared going home. He’d come to Lotus Pier because the situation in the Cloud Recesses had gotten complicated.

Once the second flutist had been connected to Jin Guangyao, it had been remarkably easy to narrow down who it was. There was only one musically talented cultivator that had both a grudge against Jin Zixun and a close friendship with Jin Guangyao. Nie Huaisang had even heard Lan Wangji admit surprise in not figuring it out immediately.

The complications came after though. Su Minshan ended up outed as the culprit behind the Hundred Holes Curse and dealt with accordingly, but Jin Guangyao had essentially been found guilty of attempting to murder his half-brother. Jin Zixuan, however, refused to pursue the matter. He refused to say why, but Lan Xichen had a very heartbroken look on his face when Nie Huaisang asked about it.

Lan Xichen had also, in a move that nearly caused in-fighting within the Lan as well, taken Jin Guangyao to the Cloud Recesses and declared him to be under Lan protection. Nie Huaisang had only caught a glimpse of him, but his San-ge looked like a completely defeated man. He’d wanted to talk to him, but Lan Xichen had pulled him aside and admitted that Nie Mingjue opposed his decision, and it would be better for Nie Huaisang to return home to avoid being caught up in any conflicts.

Nie Huaisang wanted to tell him that there was no way his brother would ever attack the Cloud Recesses, but he got the hint. He also got word at that time that Wei Wuxian was moving to Lotus Pier and called in a favor.

“And you even got Lan Zhan doing it,” Wei Wuxian remarked, glancing over to where Lan Wangji meditated under a tree with little A-Yuan in his lap.

“Huh, what do you mean?”

“Fighting with his brother and running away in response? And they say I’m a bad influence.”

“Wei-xiong, what are you talking about? Hanguang-jun and Er-ge aren’t fighting,” Nie Huaisang said. “Sure, he’s not happy about San-ge’s asylum, but that’s not why he’s here.”

“Why is he here then? Can’t be for my good looks.”

Nie Huaisang stared.

Wei Wuxian stared back.  

“What?”

“Wei-xiong… he is here for your good looks. Or just you, rather. The looks are a bonus.”

“…For surveillance?”

Nie Huaisang smacked his shoulder with his fan.

Ow!”

“You – you – you!” Nie Huaisang smacked him again with each word. “Did you not once think about how quickly we cracked this case? How much free time do you think my brother has? Who do you think did most of the actual work?”

“I was under house arrest! And you weren’t even there!” Wei Wuxian protested, trying to dodge the barrage of fan strikes.

“I got updates from Er-ge,” Nie Huaisang said smugly. “Hanguang-jun worked tirelessly and flew all over to find evidence of your innocence. Not even my brother was entirely convinced, but your dear Lan Zhan refused to rest until you were cleared of all charges.”

Wei Wuxian’s eyes grew wide and he stopped struggling, letting Nie Huaisang get one final hit against his head.

“But why?”

“Because he likes you,” Nie Huaisang said and let out a tired groan. “And yes, I mean in that way. Wei-xiong, aren’t you supposed to be some sort of genius?”

Wei Wuxian whirled around to look at Lan Wangji. Then he turned to Nie Huaisang. Then Lan Wangji again. Nie Huaisang could see his mind processing this revelation as he grew increasingly red, until he finally covered his burning face.

“Nie-xiong.”

“Yes?”

“Go home.”


VI.

And thus, the situation at Lotus Pier became complicated.

Technically, Jiang Wanyin hadn’t pulled him aside for a talk or thrown him out, but Nie Huaisang could tell he really wanted to every time he saw his brother and his brother's new cultivation partner. Not that Nie Huaisang blamed him. The new couple was so sickeningly sweet that even Nie Huaisang was sick of them.

Still, with him single-handedly destroying the last of the Nie’s diplomatic relationships with the Great Sects, Nie Huaisang decided it really was time for him to go home. He landed in front of the Unclean Realm – his beloved home finally looking the imposing fortress it was – and tried not to notice the disciples’ excited greetings and they ushered him inside and gave him all sorts of updates and reassurances.

His brother was on the training grounds, practicing his saber forms. Upon seeing Nie Huaisang, he momentarily froze, but then immediately resumed practice.

“Da-ge, I’m home,” Nie Huaisang said shyly.

“Good. I see you finally remembered whose sect colors you wear.”

Nie Huaisang shrank back.

“W-Wei-xiong sends his regards. And thanks. You know. For everything.”

“Hm.”

“Also, I brought you some souvenirs from Yunmeng. And Lady Jiang sent along a pot of her famous soup.”

“Give them to Zonghui and tell him to write her a letter of thanks.”

“Will do.” Nie Huaisang took another step back. He watched his brother’s saber swings for a few more moments until the pressure became too much and he blurted out, “Da-ge, I’m really sorry!”

The swings stopped.

“I’m sorry for running away and nearly getting killed and dragging you into this mess and not coming home and especially about the paintbrushes and I’ll practice my saber more in the future maybe really and I love you and I’m really, really sorry.”

With everything off his chest, Nie Huaisang breathlessly glanced up at his brother. Nie Mingjue’s face was unreadable.

The silence was agonizing.

“Apology accepted,” Nie Mingjue said sternly. “Don’t do it again.”

And then he returned to his saber practice, as though his brother hadn’t suddenly returned home after a long absence.

Nie Huaisang thought his legs would fail him. He felt real tears stinging his eyes as he nodded and excused himself to his room.

He had expected this. He’d yelled terrible things at his brother, ran away, caused a diplomatic incident, and then stayed quiet and out of sight while Nie Mingjue had to clean up the mess. Nie Huaisang couldn’t even begin to imagine how deeply his brother had been hurt.

He had no other friends to hide with, so he decided to keep to his room for a time, until his brother didn’t hate him as much.

When he opened his door though, the tears started to fall from his widened eyes.

There was a fresh bowl of cut fruit on his table. And next to the bowl were a lined-up series of paintbrushes. Nie Huaisang rushed over to them, and carefully stroked them with his fingers. They were different shapes and sizes, but all of them were of high-quality craftsmanship. They were exactly the kind of brushes Nie Mingjue had complained his brother was wasting money on.

But there were more on the table than Nie Huaisang could afford in a single month. He counted them and quickly realized there was one for each day he’d been gone.

Nie Huaisang hadn’t written in advance to say he would be coming. Had his brother just placed a new brush on his table each day in hopes that Nie Huaisang would come home? And the bowl of fruit. Was that replaced daily as well?

Nie Huaisang was a selfish idiot.

Wiping tears from his eyes with shaking palms, Nie Huaisang turned around and ran off to give his beloved older brother a tight hug.