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to fly a thousand miles

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Nie Huaisang loved his older brother very much, even if they were as different as can be, because although Mingjue often complained about having to babysit him, he was always the first one to go and protect him.

Like the time he had gotten in trouble with the teachers for painting the mountains near Qinghe when he was supposed to study, or when the disciples spoke ill of him because of his mother, or that one time, when Nie Huaisang was barely four years old, and he first transformed into a bird—a chick, really, so small and with barely any feathers—. He would have fallen to his death if it hadn’t been for Mingjue’s quick reflexes and steady hands.

The sect leader’s wives had been a topic of gossip among the sect ever since the first Nie-furen died, and the sect leader announced he was marrying a woman who was not of the sect, and what’s more—a non-cultivator.

He met her when she was with a dancing troupe, he said.

It was love at first sight, he said.

She had been so quick and powerful, so elegant in her moves, that it would have been lunacy not to marry her.

The most benevolent of gossips claimed that her dancing moves must have surely been so fantastic their sect leader fell in love with a non-cultivator, while the most maleficent claimed that she used black magic to bewitch him. For how else would a man of his caliber marry such a plain woman?

The truth was they had met before, one or two years before he could even think of arranging a wedding.

He had gone on a night hunt up in the mountains, more out of leisure than his usual hunts, since the nearest town was a couple of li away from the base and there weren’t all that many yao that needed dealing with, as most minded their own business and didn’t attack humans that approached.

Once he had reached a clearing, he saw a beautiful bird in green and gray, colors that resembled his sect. He had smiled back then, amused at the thought, and whistled a slow tune to greet the little one.

The bird had turned its head to him, and after considering him for a few moments, responded to the song. The sect leader had felt so calm (a rarity for someone who cultivates with a saber), that he continued the song, and was surprised that the bird dueted with him. He had never been a musically inclined person, and even if they taught the six gentlemanly arts in the Qinghe Nie Sect, he never would be. But he had learned a couple of folksongs, and he knew enough to recognize beauty when he saw it. By the time he was back home, he realized he hadn’t hunted a single spirit.

Intrigued, he had gone again to the same clearing the next week, this time with some food just in case he missed dinner again, and when the green bird from the previous week approached, he offered it tiny pieces of his warm bun. The bird chewed the pieces, first into tiny pieces that could fit its beak that it could then swallow, and whistled in appreciation.

When the sect leader went back to the clearing for a third week, instead of a bird singing atop some tall branch, he found a beautiful woman sitting on a rock. Her hair was a soft shade of brown with a jade hairpiece, her robes an alluring green with brown details, and a tail that had feathers shaped into the broidery.

She wasn’t beautiful like the cultivators in his sect, and yet, he couldn’t deny there was something ethereal about her.

The woman had invited him to dance, and he didn’t even question her, even after she declared to have accepted his courting. He just asked for her name, and her birthdate to have the matchmaker arrange their wedding day.

But even if the sect leader didn’t react much to her being a magical beast, he couldn’t be sure the rest of the cultivational world would be the same. At best their marriage would be seen as bizarre, at worst, they would hunt her for her core.

And so, it was then announced that the sect leader would be taking a non-cultivator as his second wife. They met while she performed with a troupe during a banquet, and he fell in love with her graceful dance.

She took to her duties as Nie-furen rather quick; teaching the younglings how to read and write through beautiful songs of her own making. And she was soon with child, a little hatchling that would be born in late spring.

After Huaisang was born, she had gotten a little sickly. The midwives blame it on her yelling during childbirth and attracting bad spirits, the doctors on her consuming cold foods so soon after birth, while the servants whispered about poisoning or tampering with the protection seals.

Despite this sudden weakness of hers, after Huaisang turned two years old, every day without fail she would try to braid his little tufts of hair. One time Mingjue had approached with curiosity, and treating him as if he was also her flesh and blood, she had braided his hair into a bun. The sect leader, seeing such devotion in his wife’s actions, decided that the braiding pattern his wife wove would become the standard for his sect.

The second Nie-furen died not long after. Way before she could teach Huaisang how to spread his wings. Luckily, as he had learned while playing there once or twice before his caretakers caught him, there might be birds in the garden willing to teach him.

“Hurry up! I have to get back to training or I’ll get in trouble for skipping to goof off with you,” his older brother huffed, a scolding Nie Huaisang didn’t take too seriously. He always came, anyways, if only to check that he didn’t hurt himself.

“Don’t worry, da-ge. I won’t take long, and once the others come, you can go back to your saber.”

Mingjue cupped his hands, ready to catch him again, and rolled his eyes at Huaisang’s wording. “You talk like only I have to practice. Father already arranged for your teachers next fall.”

Huaisang paid him no mind, choosing instead to close his eyes really tight and his little hands into fists. He was using so much force into it that his tiny frame almost shook, before a light shone in his chest and he shrunk to the size of a small chick. A blue chick with ruffled feathers.

Nie Mingjue was already by his side, his hands cupped underneath his tiny form. Huaisang began to chirp—or tried to. Mingjue tried not to think that his little brother looked pathetic like this, but he couldn’t help it when Huaisang could barely even move. He was quite plump, and while Mingjue hadn’t really seen a newborn, he thought they might look like this. In birds.

Huaisang, on the other hand, was finding it a little hard to adapt to his surroundings. Everything was suddenly a lot taller—he was already so tiny as a human!—a lot more overwhelming. And there were other voices besides his da-ge’s in the garden.

“Is he a magpie chick?”

“That poor thing, the mother must have died before he could leave the nest.”

“Look at those feathers! He must be sick.”

“Ah, but he smells human. Such a pity.” There was some disgusted whistling upon this remark.

“In that case I better fly back. Wouldn’t want that stench on me; it could scare future mates off.”

And one by one, the songbirds on the nearest branch flew away. Huaisang felt a little disappointment, and his chirping died away when the last songbird flew off.

Mingjue seemed to notice something was wrong, so he lifted Huaisang to his eye level. “What happened?” Of course he couldn’t understand Huaisang’s chirps, but he could try to be less scary.

Huaisang was about to change back into his human form (being a bird consumed almost all the qi he had managed to gather earlier that day), when a black crow flew over to them.

“You look no older than eight days old,” he cawed, “come back when you’re at least ten or you’ll fall to the ground.”

“Y-yes!” And once the crow also flew away, Huaisang transformed back into his human form, tumbling from exertion.

“What was that?” Nie Mingjue questioned, his brows furrowed since he couldn’t understand a single chirp.

“I think I just got myself a flying shizun.”

By the time Huaisang finally looked ten days old, the crow waited on the tallest branch. Huaisang whistled a greeting, and the crow soared down.

Huaisang took to his flying classes rather easily, his wings spread nicely as he flapped around the small space in his big brother’s hands, and later between the branches up high. Bird behaviour, on the other hand, was difficult for Huaisang, who was unused to preening, and bathing himself on dirt and cold water. He was unused to hunting for small insects, he was unused to scavenging for fruits in the cold winter of Qinghe. Many times the crow had to feed him; he always complained afterwards about him being old enough to start hunting.

At that time, when snow painted the mountains white, the swallows and geese and thrushes had already flown towards the south for a better climate.

“Why don’t all the birds fly during winter?” He had asked the crow one day while they looked for berries.

“Long distance flying is exhausting, you’ll soon discover. It’s better for my kind to save energy this time of the year.”

Overall, he enjoyed these classes. Unlike his human ones. It wasn’t like he was bad at them, his cultivation techniques were even decent. He could gather qi and sometimes condense it in his body. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to spend even half a shichen as a bird.

His cultivation with the saber, though, was abysmal. His brother hadn’t really minded at first, had been the one to indulge him when he didn’t want to train in order to go visit the crow, but after their father died from a suspiciously timed qi deviation, he became harsher. It was probably the stress from being a sect leader at such a young age, but Huaisang couldn’t understand it at the time.

It was almost a relief being sent to Cloud Recesses. Even if they had three thousand rules like he had heard from some rumors, surely there must be a way to pass time.

When they arrived, Huaisang clinging to his brother as they rode Baxia, he couldn’t quite contain the awe in his expression. He had heard there were beautiful landscapes to paint, and while Huaisang had always been proud of the lush forests and the rocky paths of Qinghe, there was just something breathtaking about Cloud Recesses.

“Thank you for allowing my didi to study here.” Mingjue said as they got off at the entrance. Huaisang knew the man that welcomed them, for it was his brother’s friend that used to visit a lot when they were younger. It was the first jade of Gusu Lan Clan, Lan Xichen.

“It is no problem. The Cloud Recesses are always welcome for those who want to learn.” He was taller than Huaisang remembered, his features sharper. There was no doubt he was one of the most powerful cultivators in his generation, if not the most powerful.

Mingjue chuckled good-naturedly. “It will be a miracle if you make this brat learn.” Xichen shook his head.

“Don’t be like that, Mingjue-xiong, I’m sure Huaisang is very good at learning.” Huaisang wasn’t too bothered that they were talking about him like he wasn’t there, because it gave him more time to take in his surroundings.

With one last threat to break Huaisang’s legs if he failed the year, Mingjue and his entourage left the Cloud Recesses. Lan Xichen had invited Nie Mingjue to stay for the greeting ceremony, but he had claimed he had lost enough time dropping Huaisang off, and that Zhonghui could only handle his duties for so long.

The greeting ceremony was rather boring, but Huaisang endured it by sheer force of will and some stolen glances towards Lan Xichen.

Nie Mingjue had always praised Lan Xichen’s strong cultivation base, and bemoaned that Nie Huaisang was’t like Lan Wangji, who was also said to be rather strong, and identical to his brother. Huaisang had been curious about that last fact, but when he asked Lan Xichen about his brother, he was told that he had just entered secluded meditation to improve his cultivation.

When the ceremony finally finished, Huaisang almost sagged in relief. Almost, because teacher Lan had said that the first class would be held at chen-shi and would be used for reciting the three-thousand rules.

Nie Huaisang, it turned out, was not good at learning in Lan Qiren’s class. He was very good at identifying the characters in some of the rules, as they came from poems he had encountered before on his idle days. But memorizing the rules and keeping himself awake…

There was no obligatory wake-up time back in Qinghe Nie. Only a time for breakfast and a time for training. Obviously Nie Huaisang didn’t always follow these times, which got him in trouble frequently with his brother and his instructors. Thus, adjusting to Gusu Lan’s strict rules was rather… difficult.

He also didn’t have much friends since arriving here. Most of the disciples here were at least a year older than he was, and with a core formed years ago, while he was still struggling with his. There was a lot of spiritual energy in the Cloud Recesses, though, so Nie Huaisang had faith that he would manage at least that during his year there, because his test results weren’t looking up.

One day they were allowed to visit Caiyi. Nie Huaisang felt relieved they had some rest from teacher Lan’s atrociously boring droning, the memorizing and the physical training that he also failed.

He hadn’t sneaked off to paint yet because he had forgotten to bring the right type of paper, and also because he hadn’t found the time. So he went first to buy paper, new inkstones and brushes of different sizes. When he passed a stall with Emperor’s Smile, he considered buying one for a moment. But thought better against it and decided to just go back. He would get in enough trouble for sneaking away to paint, he didn’t want to add bringing alcohol to his list of broken rules.

As he was about to meet with the rest of the Nie disciples, a white robe that lacked cloud patterns caught his attention. He not only recognized the clothes all merchants had to wear, but he also recognized the face of this particular merchant because he was the one that Nie Zhonghui met with to buy silks for the sect uniforms and, on occasion, paper for their talismans.

“Ah, laoban. How come you’re all the way to Gusu?” Nie Huaisang knew they travelled to other places to sell their products, but he thought they would go west. Meeting him here close to another of the five major cultivational sects was rather surprising.

“Nie-gongzi, how nice to meet you here.” the merchant returned the greeting with a respectful bow. “I have been changing my route according to the seasons. My clients a little more to the west crave for Caiyi town’s loquats this time of the year,” he lifted a cloth that was covering his caravan. “I guess the only thing to compensate for the emperor’s restrictions on us merchants is the freedom to travel wherever we wish, as the view is quite lovely.” He chuckled, the sound low in his throat.

Nie Huaisang’s eyes widened. “Anywhere you wish?” He had known merchants were to be allowed free roaming in the Unclean Realm so long as they didn’t create trouble, but he hadn’t known the extent of their freedom.

“It’s not much compared to… well, the restrictions. But the sights are always pretty.” He looked at the boats in the dock, and then back to Nie Huaisang. “Well, gongzi, I’ll take my leave. I want to get back to Qinghe by spring.”

Nie Huaisang echoed a farewell, and met with his fellow Qinghe Nie disciples in a daze.

Huaisang wasn’t surprised to discover he hadn’t been able to pass Teacher Lan’s test. That didn’t mean he dreaded any less coming back home to da-ge’s scary face and (somewhat empty) threats of killing him.

Nie Zonghui had come to pick him up the day the other sect leaders had come to pick their disciples, his face amiable as he caught up with the other Qinghe Nie disciples. Nie Huaisang thought for a moment that maybe he could get away with this. Perhaps. If he used his puppy eyes and flew away the moment his brother didn’t forgive him.

“This Nie Zonghui thanks Lan-gonzi in name of Nie-zongzhu, for taking care of our Qinghe Nie Sect disciples and of your Nie-er-gonzi,” despite the fact that Nie Zonghui was more boring than da-ge, he had manners to rival even the elegant Gusu Lan cultivators. It really was better that Zonghui came to pick him up instead of da-ge; at least he would agree to help calm his brother’s murderous intent on the way back.

“There is nothing to thank. It is Gusu Lan Sect’s pleasure to host these classes. We thank Qinghe Nie Sect for attending the lectures.”

Huaisang stared at them bleary-eyed, a little unable to appreciate his beauty in that moment. Last night he had finally given into his desires and went to Caiyi to buy himself some well-deserved wine. Even if he didn’t really hang out with the other disciples. Instead, he had drank one jar of Emperor’s Smile (it really was as good as everyone said it was) and painted. The paper hadn’t been the best for that, but still he managed some pieces that captured the beauty that lay within the Cloud Recesses. He had painted way after the curfew, a shi or two before the bell rang for breakfast that day. So he was understandably tired, which made Lan Xichen’s friendly expressions more than a little frustrating. Even on eight hours of sleep, how could anyone look that good this early?

“Then we shall take our leave and not trouble Lan-gonzi further,” Nie Zonghui let his saber hover above the ground a little, with a pointed look signalling that Huaisang should hop in already (which he did, begrudgingly).

Lan Xichen shook his head, “It was no trouble. I hope to visit Mingjue and night-hunt together soon, maybe we’ll meet again, Huaisang.”

Huaisang bade farewell, but doubted their next meeting would be during a night-hunt in Qinghe Nie territory, if his hunch about da-ge’s mood was accurate.

They arrived home almost at sundown, and luckily Nie Mingjue was busy doing some paperwork to greet them properly (and to holler at Huaisang for failing), so even if he was almost depleted of spiritual energy from flying back (Zonghui could only carry him for so long beforehe told him to fly on his own saber), he sneaked to the garden in the back and transformed. Then he flew to where the crow that had mentored him as a child was.

“I see you’re finally back. Told you migrating was tiring.” He cawed. Huaisang almost chuckled at the response, if it wasn’t for the fact that he was exhausted.

“It was,” he conceded, not hopping in the branches like he normally would. “But da-ge insisted I should go take those classes.”

“Huaisang!” He flinched at his brother’s voice, one wing carefully covering his face. If he could, he would’ve sighed, to steel himself.

“Go down, we can hunt tomorrow. They have new eggs in one of the nests.” Huaisang brightened up at the news.

“I’ll be here at sunrise.” And he soared down, to the scowling face of his elder brother. Now that he was fully matured, his feathers had turned an emerald green (fitting color for Qinghe Nie) that contrasted with his red beak and the black stripe in his eyes. He sagged a little once he was on his two feet, but didn’t dare support himself on Mingjue like he normally would. “Good evening, da-ge. Sorry for not greeting you, you were busy and I didn’t want to impose.”

“Don’t think I don’t know you failed,” Mingjue almost growled. Huaisang almost cowered in response, but his brother continued before he could make more excuses. “I received a letter from Master Lan informing me that you didn’t pass the test.”

Nie Huaisang flinched again, but didn’t quite know what to say. “Master Lan’s lectures are really hard, you know, da-ge?” he muttered. Nie Mingjue glared at him for a second before scoffing.

“Then you’ll just have to try again next time. And hope you pass or I’ll break your legs for sure this time.” And he walked off, letting Huaisang breathe easier once he was gone.

And so a couple of months passed before he was to go to Gusu again. By then Nie Mingjue’s ire had cooled, but the threat of breaking his legs persisted as he went to Gusu yet again to drop his brother off. This time, Huaisang had also made sure to pack the appropriate brushes and paper for drawing, along with the books he had missed during his stay there. Even if he was going to try and pass for real this time, it didn’t mean he couldn’t try and have fun.

During the first day, after having a scroll thrown into his face by accident, Nie Huaisang made friends with two young masters of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect. They were handsome, they were charismatic, they were talented, and Wei Wuxian’s mischievousness contrasted quite nicely with Jiang Wanyin’s claim that he would not get them out of trouble, even if he joined in on the fun later on.

“Say, Nie-xiong,” Wei Wuxian prodded one night while they were eating peanuts—or well, as he and Jiang Wanyin ate. Nie Huaisang already had quite his fill during dinner, “What do you know about Lan-er-gonzi?”

Huaisang looked up from his poetry book and scrunched his face. “Wei-xiong, why ask about him? I don’t know anything.” He sighed dramatically, closed his book and sprawled himself into the table. “Lan-er-gonzi was in secluded meditation during my whole stay, it wasn’t like I got to meet him until today,” then he seemed to remember something as he blinked. “I actually thought it was his brother, Lan Xichen, who was in the lecture with us this morning. They’re so alike, no wonder they’re called the Twin Jades of Gusu Lan!”

There was a glint in Wei Wuxian’s eyes that Nie Huaisang didn’t quite trust. “I see, I see,” he said before bringing more peanuts into his mouth.

“I don’t think any information I give you will help you during your punishment, in any case. It starts tomorrow, right?” Then it was Wei Wuxian’s turn to collapse on the table.

“Ah, don’t remind me,” he whined. “He actually listened to Old Man Lan as he recited the Three Thousand Rules, can you believe that? What a fuddy duddy,” to go with the peanuts, he poured some Emperor’s Smile into a cup, and Huaisang tried not to smile too obviously at his new friend’s disgrace. Wei Wuxian’s eyes widened before a smirk replaced his pout. A drop or two of Emperor’s Smile was spilled on the table in the haste of his mischief. “Say, Nie-xiong. You said you had concealed spring books, right?”

Nie Huaisang definitely didn’t like that look. Especially when the next day Wei Wuxian told him that Lan Wangji destroyed the spring book in rage at a harmless prank (at least he hadn’t lent the nicest one he owned).

“It’s like he can’t take a joke!” He complained. Huaisang stared at the shredded remains Wei Wuxian had managed to savage in his hands, grieving as if he were staring at the remains of a firstborn son.

“Maybe you shouldn’t be such a shameless, disrespectful idiot, Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Wanyin scowled from his bed, and Nie Huaisang never thought they’d agree on something like that.

“It’s probably not wise to keep antagonizing him like that,” he cautioned, his mind going to the rest of his spring books and what might happen to them if Wei Wuxian had access to them.

“But I’m not doing that! I’m just trying to be his friend!” Both Nie Huaisang and Jiang Wanyin looked skeptical at that statement, but decided not to comment further on it.

Despite the incident with his spring book, Nie Huaisang got along really well with both Yunmeng Jiang disciples. It certainly helped that in exchange for the useful gossip and some other bribes (namely Emperor’s Smile and peanuts), Wei Wuxian agreed once or twice to help him study for Master Lan’s tests.

One day Master Lan had gone to Qinghe for a discussion conference so they had no morning classes. Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin were invited by the twin jades to help with some water ghouls, and while Caiyi was one lovely town, Nie Huaisang was more than happy to skip on that. Not for him, no sir! Leave all that ghost banishing to da-ge. Instead, he decided to take a day for himself. He appreciated his new friends, but it had been a while since he had the chance to be alone, to fly.

So after they were gone, he walked to where he kept his stuff and grabbed an inkstone, paper and a brush. “I’ll be painting in the forest,” he told one of the Qinghe Nie disciples that had stayed in the room, just in case anyone asked for where he was.

He walked to the forest, nearing the border of the Gusu Lan Sect. He sat by the river and grinded his inkstone on a nearby rock, wet the ink with some water, and started painting. It was the river where he had gone fishing with Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin, so he painted the fish that he hadn’t managed to catch that day, he painted the rocks at the bottom, he painted the flowing water.

Once the sun wasn’t at its highest, and after three paintings of GusuLan’s nature, Nie Huaisang broadened his senses to see if anybody was watching. Due to his nature, QingheNie’s style of cultivation wasn’t the most compatible for him (and yet his brother tried to get him to practice), but he still knew some of the techniques he had been taught about stealth.

Once he made sure he was alone, he arranged his art supplies in a place they wouldn’t get eaten by a rabbit or splashed on by the fish, and transformed into his bird form.

Immediately he shivered. The air in Cloud Recesses was a lot colder, after all. Huaisang started flapping his wings and flew, hoping to gain warmth. The trees were a little taller than at home, so he had to fly a little more before he could step on a branch. It was a good thing he had eaten a lot in the morning, and that dinner was only a shichen and a half away, because this way he had a lot of energy to fly.

And so he flew, the wind whooshing against his feathers and fading the rest of Cloud Recesses to the background. He circled one of the mountains, following the river. He had no intention of hunting (even if the lack of meat from Gusu Lan’s vegetarian diet was prone to make his feathers turn blue at some point), but watching the other animals from that vantage point was interesting. Up until the point that he noticed a black mass flying amongst the trees, not too far from him near the back mountain.

Suddenly a comment from Wei Wuxian was brought to the front of his mind, about how he had seen one of the Wens exploring the back mountains and being generally sketchy. Nie Huaisang loved a good gossip, yet wasn’t normally one to actually investigate said rumours… more so when the object of said rumour was a bird probably made out of resentful energy. So why was he following the bird? Was he really that bored?

When he saw the bird turn back and stare at him, Nie Huaisang thought that maybe he should have kept that boredom at bay, for that bird looked deadlier than the second young master Lan when he was about to scold Wei Wuxian.

He flew away as fast as he could, but it was like the bird could sense he wasn’t a mere magpie and followed just as quickly, if not more judging by the way he was catching up. Not too far from the part of the river that his stuff lied in, he heard a crunch and fire sped through his left wing, and suddenly he was falling down to the trees and to his death if he didn’t at least try to soar!

With more desperation than he ever felt in his entire life, Nie Huaisang started moving his right wing since the left one was no longer responding (that evil bird probably broke it). He managed to not crash against the dirt to his death and also to not worsen his injury, but then the pain spiked and he knew he probably would need help.

He looked up to see if the greenery hid him from view, and noticed with relief that the Wen’s bird was out of sight. Just like him. His broken wing would definitely heal a lot faster if he was transformed in his human form, when he consumed less spiritual energy, but the transformation would just be so painful, and he could barely move. The guest disciples’ dorms were a few li away, which would take entirely too long if he tried to hop there. What could he do?

Suddenly he heard the crunch of branches near where he was, it was heavier than a rabbit’s and a lot more steady; did someone else decide to take a walk? Whatever the case, he started to cry louder, in hopes that this person could maybe take him back to Cloud Recesses. Please do not let it be a Lan and just someone who will ignore the no-pet rule…

He wasn’t sure whether to curse or sigh in relief when he saw Lan Xichen. Even if he wasn’t such a stickler for the rules like his younger brother, there was little chance of getting much help. But there had been a couple of times Lan Xichen had pretended not to see him breakig the rules, so maybe if he looked really pitiful…?

When he saw the Lan heir kneel and reach his hand, palm facing the sky, Huaisang didn’t think twice before hopping on it, careful not to jostle his broken wing too much. Lan Xichen’s palm was almost as big as his brother’s, and the finger that started caressing his head was much too gentle.

When they first met, back when Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue were in their early teens, Huaisang had thought that they wouldn’t get along at all. Da-ge was all about strength and practicing the saber while Lan Xichen… well, even then, Huaisang had thought he was an immortal. Up until he saw him trip once when he thought nobody was watching. Nie Huaisang often jested with his brother and Zonghui about liking the Lan heir better, for he surely would appreciate his paintings and his poetry; he was a soul that appreciated the finer arts, he’d say. With the way Xichen was caressing his head now, Huaisang had no doubt his thoughts from back then were absolutely right.

Lan Xichen was careful while carrying him, his footsteps steady and nearly silent in the path that led to Cloud Recesses. He didn’t jostle him, for which he was thankful, and hid him from view with his other hand (something that wouldn’t work if Master Lan came and asked what he had! Could Lan-gonzi be even more conspicuous?). Soon they reached the hanshi, and Huaisang felt only slightly self-conscious about the fact that he was in the sect heir’s private quarters.

The room was rather similar to the guest dorms, the only difference being the size of the room and some paintings that were laid to dry on the table. Lan Xichen first laid him on his bed, before he grabbed a bed sheet and wrapped it around him. It was rather heavy, and since Xichen hadn’t taken care to fold his wing, it was rather painful. He cried out at that, and if he wasn’t more worried about his wing, Huaisang would have marveled at the way Lan Xichen’s expression seemed really close to cursing, with his lips pressed tight, and a frown that made Huaisang think Xichen was trying really hard not to tear away his gaze.

“You are rather docile, for a bird,” Lan Xichen observed. Huaisang tilted his head to one side at that, then at the other side, then looked forward. Xichen chuckled that polite laugh of his, and said, “Wangji once found a chick that had fallen from its nest. It also had a broken wing, so Wangji tried to lift it to bring it to uncle. But the bird got scared and started pecking his hand.” He brought his own hands to his lap, seemingly satisfied with his handiwork.

Nie Huaisang stared up at him, then tilted his head again, waiting for whatever Xichen had to say next.

“I’ll be back soon.” With that, he got up and left the room.

Having a bed sheet wrapped around him prevented his broken wing from getting jostled, but it also prevented any other type of movement. Not that he wanted to move around now, since the bed sheet was warm and comforting, but he was going to get bored. There was also the matter of dinner; wasn’t dinner a stick of incense away? Or had he already missed it while he was waiting for help?

He looked around the room for something to entertain himself, but even the pictures he had seen when he first entered the room were not visible from his current vantage point. He was starting to consider singing a little before Lan Xichen entered the room again, with a small bowl full of sesame seeds. Xichen walked to the bed and laid the bowl in front of him.

Huaisang stared at the bowl full of seeds for a few seconds, and told himself that in the Lan kitchens they probably only had this. Ah, so even if he wanted to eat meat as a bird, he would be restricted by the vegetarian diet in Cloud Recesses. Wei-xiong, where’s that fish they caught the other day? Did they want his feathers to turn blue just so he would fit in with the rest of the scenery?

Apparently he stared at it long enough for Xichen to think something was wrong with the seeds, or with him. His lips tightened again and there was a furrow to his brow. How much did Lan Xichen know about birds, anyway? Huaisang sometimes chattered about what he knew to his brother, so he was fairly sure that his brother knew what to do if he found an injured bird, and judging by the way Lan Xichen made sure his wing was folded while wrapping him after a little bit of fuss, he also knew a little. But then again, pets were forbidden in Cloud Recesses. Were they ever allowed to take care of an animal? Did they have a bestiary in the library they could consult?

After thinking about it a little more, Huaisang started struggling in the bed sheet, as if trying to get near the bowl (he wouldn’t want Lan Xichen to think he was in too much pain or distress to eat, after all; he needed the energy). Lan Xichen took notice of his hopping, and placed the bowl more within his reach. He began to peck the seeds, and a little later there was a small cup with warm water placed next to it. Truth be told, most of the water he drank as a bird was either cool or near freezing, would it be ok to drink water that was made for tea?

He drank the water more slowly than he normally would, careful in case something actually happened. But nothing did, so he went back to pecking the sesame seeds. Once he was properly fed, he looked back to Lan Xichen who suddenly looked… tired. Had the exorcising in Caiyi gone wrong? He chirped a little to catch his attention, then raised his head and closed his eyes. For a moment he wondered if his message had been misunderstood, but then he felt those gentle fingers on his head and he chirped again. Then, because he thought Lan Xichen might appreciate the familiarity, he whistled a song he had heard once in Caiyi.

The sun had already gone down quite some time ago, so it wasn’t too long before Lan Xichen started undressing his outer layers (Huaisang looked away when he noticed) and laid down on his bed to sleep. Warm as he was, wrapped in the bed sheet, it didn’t take long for Huaisang to fall asleep, too.

He woke up when he felt cold start to enter his cocoon. He opened his eyes despite the feeling of heaviness in them, and looked around. It was still dark but Lan Xichen was already gone, so it was probably near chen-shi. He was pretty sure that he had slept more last night than he did normally, so Huaisang wasn’t sure if the reason he felt so tired was because he was injured, or still transformed in his bird form. After many years of training, the transformation didn’t tire him the way it did when he was a kid, but it still consumed some energy to maintain it.

His left wing felt stiff, but no longer like he was in a lot of pain, so with his right wing he started loosening the bed sheet that was wrapped around himself. He hopped to the floor, then hopped little by little to the door. Once he was a couple cun away from it, he started to transform back. A broken wing would take a little over two weeks to heal compared to the months it would take his human arm, but he couldn’t miss that many classes before someone noticed he was missing. So he decided to endure the pain for now and revert back to his human form.

Just as he had thought, it hurt a lot, and he had only managed to get himself under control before he opened the door and watched Lan Xichen almost enter with another bowl of sesame seeds in his hands.

“Huaisang?” He sounded suspicious but not outright hostile, and yet Huaisang’s mouth dried up like he was being questioned.

“I, um, good morning, Lan-gonzi,” he replied lamely. He avoided his eyes and hid his left arm behind his back, so Lan Xichen wouldn't notice there was something wrong with it. “I was just, uh…”

Lan Xichen waited patiently in the entrance to his room, but then his eyes wandered away from Huaisang’s face, into the hanshi, and he noticed the rumpled bed sheet now empty of its occupant. His lips tightened for a moment, like the knot in Huaisang’s stomach, before they relaxed and his expression softened with a small huff. “Huaisang, were you keeping another bird in Cloud Recesses?” Bemused, his eyes followed Huaisang’s left hand, which was probably more conspicuous now that he was trying to hide it.

“A-another bird?”

“En. Wangji found your canary and set it free the other day.”

Huaisang’s lips instantly formed a pout. “So it was him. I’m never not trusting Wei-xiong again…”

Lan Xichen’s eyes seemed to chuckle, before he reached the bowl in Huaisang’s direction. “Last night the bird seemed reluctant to eat seeds, but now the bowl is empty. I trust that you, with your bird expertise, will be able to nurse it back to health.” And his smile seemed genuine, somehow.

“Bird expertise?” Could it be really called ‘expertise’ when it was something that was related to your everyday life? “That’s a nice way of saying that I focus too much on birds instead of saber practice.”

The Lan heir just shook his head. “It’s better not to take Mingjue-xiong’s words at face value, you’re the one who knows that best.” He bowed and entered the hanshi, careful not to touch Huaisang in case he jostled the bird. “But know that you are only allowed to care for that bird until its wing heals, then you should let it free with the rest of the wildlife.”

“I will…” he was still in a daze when Lan Xichen nodded and smiled. “Uh, Lan-gonzi?”

“Yes, Huaisang?”

“How did yesterday’s ghoul-hunting go…?” Like extinguishing a lamp when you go to sleep, Lan Xichen’s expression darkened.

“There were… unexpected complications.” He stated, his tone clipped. He then bowed and made a movement to close the door, “You should get back to your dorm, lest uncle find you with the bird. Good day.”

Instead of going to the dorm, he went to the medical wing. He didn’t have nearly enough of a golden core to heal himself overnight, so professional attention was needed. Fortunately the physician didn’t ask too many questions other than how the incident occurred (fought a hostile creature in the forest), and since there wasn’t any lingering resentful energy in the injury, he was free to go after some energy transfusion and tea.

Concealing his injury was harder than he would have liked, but since it wasn’t the hand he wrote with and he had experience ditching off saber practice, he was able to do it quite well if he said so. It was during one of those days that he noticed that there were a lot more birds in the trees than he remembered being a couple of days ago… when there had been none apart from that evil bird. It was rather curious.

So, once his arm was well enough and he made sure there was no one else in the forest, he transformed into a bird and flew to one of the nearest branches. Not far from there stood a thrush, and so Huaisang decided to pose his question:

“Why are there so many of you now?” His chirping wasn’t in any way hostile, more curious than anything. “It was empty a couple days ago.”

The thrush sang back: “A human chased darkness to the lake down the mountain. The darkness filled the air.”

Thrilled to have found a good source of information, Huaisang decided to push. “What kind of human?”

“The human’s feathers were the color of goji berries.”

Contrary to what his brother thought, Huaisang was not nearly so naïve about the political tension between the sects; his own brother was not quiet about his dislike for all the Wen people and how exactly he would like to deal with them. And from what that thrush had told him, about the goji-colored human chasing “darkness” all the way to Biling Lake, the feeling was mutual. This was just a war amongst cultivation sects waiting to start, and he would like Qinghe Nie to remain a powerful sect for many generations to come.

Thus, as much as he wanted to keep being oblivious about anything outside his little bubble of art and comfortable luxury, he could not afford that. His brother couldn’t afford that. His body would never be compatible with his clan’s style of cultivation, but he could prove useful in another way.

He had fortunately passed Master Lan’s exam this time around, so he had a month or so until Mingjue started pestering him again to practice the saber. Which brought him to where he was now.

“Gao-laoban, come in, come in.” Two days after coming back to Qinghe, Nie Huaisang had suggested to his brother that he could start helping with the accounting, because even if his brother was good with arithmetic, accounting was just plain boring and so easy to mess up if you wrote a single number wrong. It also took time that Mingjue could be using to threaten (impress) the newest batch of disciples, so it was with little suspicion that Mingjue accepted that deal. This of course meant that Huaisang got to use the study that used to be only Mingjue’s during the mornings. “Would you like some tea?” He asked before sitting on his side of the table, his back ramrod straight like he never bothered to be.

The merchant just shook his head. “This lowly one wouldn’t want to impose.” Despite his humble tone, there was unconcealed curiosity in his eyes. “But dare I ask what Nie-gonzi’s interest in this lowly one is?”

Huaisang fiddled with the handle of his newest fan, feigning pensiveness, and hummed before replying. “During my year in Gusu, I heard some rumours about the cultivators from Qishan Wen. Nie-zongzhu never attends night-hunts there and I do not travel much, but I have it on good word that merchants travel much, and that they can go to any territory without much suspicion.”

The merchant narrowed his eyes a little at the wording, as it was rather suspicious. “Surely Nie-gonzi isn’t implying…”

From under one of the poetry books Huaisang had lying on the desk, he procured a scroll. A scroll that contained the names of the young men that tried to apply for an apprenticeship in their sect. “Gao-laoban’s son wanted to become a cultivator last year, right?”

His lips thinned, the hands on his lap balled to fists. “That would be right. But as Nie-gonzi is aware, he was rejected, since a merchant’s son ought to have the same job as his father.”

Nie Huaisang hummed, as if he didn’t already know the answer. “And even the marriage prospects for a merchant’s daughter are less than for other women, I take it.” He placed the scroll back on the desk, then, from his sleeve, he procured the seal of the Qinghe Nie clan and placed it next to the scroll. “Nie-zongzhu will expect me to take care of more duties as I grow of age, this includes naturally taking in new disciples into the sect.” He interlaced his fingers, his voice explaining the situation with a steadiness he normally didn’t have. “Or if this Qinghe Nie Sect isn’t to Gao-laoban’s liking, I can always write a recommendation letter.” So long as they didn’t choose LanlingJin (powerful Jin Guangshan might be, he would never dare try something that could anger the Emperor) it was doable.

The merchant’s hands went up in the air immediately, and his expression changed from tense to panicked. “Qinghe Nie is a powerful sect, even this much is more than this lowly one dared to hope for!”

When they wrapped up the meeting, Huaisang gave the merchant one of the canaries he had bribed with a promise of constant food and shelter to be in the cage, but of course he didn’t say that out loud. Instead, he gave the merchant instructions to keep the bird fed and taken care of (with promises of payment) so it would be used as a token of sorts for the guards at the entrance to identify Gao-laoban (and the other merchants he had chatted with). It was to be shown as one of his other goods, but never sold, as this canary was trained to find him if he ever felt the need to deliver a message but was too far away.

He received regular updates from both the merchants and some of the local birds whenever he fancied a flight. He had to take time off his painting and his poetry to keep track of all that, but it served to slip some information to his brother occasionally, even if it also served to make knots in his stomach whenever he thought of the Wen’s hostility and arrogance on the rise, of the way they had decimated small sects. He wanted to think they wouldn’t dare to go against the other four great sects, but with the way they were expanding…

The Qishan Wen discussion conference was a nice distraction. He observed, amused, as the women threw flowers to the cultivators participating in the archery contest. And even if he saw more than one pretty face, he wasn’t nearly as shameless as Wei Wuxian to throw a flower to one of the twin jades. Or to do whatever it was that made said twin jade quit the contest midway through.

Once the contest was over, Lan Xichen walked over to them. Probably to greet Mingjue, if Huaisang were to guess. But it had been almost a year since they last saw each other, and he hadn’t realized how eager he had been to meet again until he saw him amidst falling flowers.

“Xichen-ge!” He yelled once he was close enough for yelling to be appropriate. Lan Xichen quirked an eyebrow at the nickname, and he could feel Mingjue’s ‘what are you doing?’ stare burning into his back. But he couldn’t lose his nerve now, not when he had been thinking about it since the incident with the bird. “Congratulations on your placing. It was only natural that you would do so well, and I wish I had been there to see it.”

Mingjue scoffed. “Then you should have participated along with your shidi and shixiong.”

“Aiyah, but da-ge, you know I’m not good with the bow.” Lan Xichen shook his head, probably amused at their bantering. But then he talked and Huaisang felt embarrassed.

“‘Xichen-ge’?” Huaisang could feel the heat in his cheeks. But he tried to look nonchalant as he shrugged and explained.

“You and da-ge have been friends for so long, ‘Lan-gonzi’ feels too distant.”

“I see,” Xichen almost looked approving, and the heat in his cheeks was paired with warmth in his stomach. Then he bowed to both brothers, “I shall take my leave now, find Wangji and make sure he is well.”

Both brothers bowed in return, and only once he is out of hearing range does Mingjue start to question his little stunt. But Huaisang felt far too pleased with this development to feel threatened by his brother’s annoyance.

He had participated in a couple events that didn’t require much physical prowess, much to his brother’s chagrin, like the calligraphy contest. And by the time they got back to Qinghe, he had almost forgotten the reason he was so stressed. That was until he went to his backyard to take care of his birds and found many of them on the branches, singing non-stop. They were the messenger canaries.

Without skipping a beat, he transformed into a bird and he almost flinched at the way he was assaulted with so many of their songs at once, and it was with great effort that he managed to make out what they were saying, and when he did, he suddenly felt very, very cold:

“The blue mountain was burnt. Humans the color of doves died. One got his leg broken, the head of the flock ran away.”

Only after making sure their food and water were restocked did he walk to his brother’s office. He met a messenger at the entrance, and that message must have been very grave indeed for his brother to not even be phased at his panicked expression.

“Da-ge!” He all but ran to his brother’s side. “It’s Gusu Lan, they were burned to the ground, and Xichen-ge, he’s…” he gulped the urge to sob. His birds from Gusu said Xichen had ran away, but where had he run to? Was he even alive at this point if the Wens did this?

Mingjue was staring at a list of names on the table. Huaisang recognized it as the list of disciples that he had updated before they left for the discussion conference, with the names of each participant written down. But surely he wasn’t worried about how to reward them for their excellent performance.

“Those Wen dogs!” It had been quite a while since he had been this angry. Three months ago, when Wen cultivators had solved night-huntings in Qinghe Nie territory without consulting them. “They requested I give them twenty disciples and my heir for some farce of an indoctrination.”

Once again Huaisang felt like the blood in his body froze over. But before he could think it over, he spoke:

“I’ll go.” Mingjue’s head snapped up, and the expression on his face wasn’t pretty.

“You’re not going.” The tone in his voice was very final, and normally Huaisang would be very happy to avoid putting himself in danger, but this was more than a night-hunt out of his ability range. To refuse such an offer was surely a slight the Wen’s wouldn’t forgive.

“I am. Da-ge, or do you want Qinghe Nie to end up like those no-name sects exterminated because they offended the Wens?” his legs felt like jelly, and his voice rose the slightest bit. But at least his face looked determined, if Mingjue’s expression was anything to go by.

“So you know about that?” He looked defeated, and suddenly all the fight was drained from Huaisang’s body.

“The rumor mill is very vast,” he replied, opening his fan and blowing a little air to cool his heated face. Mingjue sighed, and one hand went to fiddle with the braids on his head.

“Zonghui will go with you, for protection.”

They were sent next week to Qishan, with supplies that were taken as soon as they arrived. Along with their sabres. Huaisang had never been particularly attached to his saber, and in any other situation he would have been glad to get rid of it, but he knew this was a power move, and more so with the Core Melting Hand threatening their cooperation. But it seemed that there wasn’t much to be expected from him, so he played it to his advantage.

Every day he was pitiful: he fainted when Wen Chao requested for a volunteer to read the Quintessence of Qishan Wen, he fainted when they were asked to do field work, he made himself smaller whenever there were eyes on him, and at night he didn’t make a single sound. Huaisang really hoped that after standing up to him once, Mingjue didn’t expect him to put himself in even more risk.

One day they were all led through a forest to look for a cave. They had spent hours looking, and by the time they had found it, everyone was exhausted. They were given little food (even less if you antagonized Wen Chao like Wei Wuxian seemed fond of doing) and there was little respite for the biting sun in the afternoon. So when their journey seemed to be over at last, everyone was more than a little annoyed. It was no surprise, then, that Wei Wuxian started a riot amongst his fellow prisoners after the Wens almost used a female cultivator to bait the creature that lived in the cave.

It was also no surprise when they ended up locked inside the cave. With a blood-crazed Xuanwu.

For a moment, Nie Huaisang considered revealing his status as a shapeshifter to fly out of the cave and get help, and from the look in Nie Zonghui’s eyes, he was considering it too. Fortunately Jiang Wanyin and Lan Wangji had noticed the leaves in the pool, and the other entrance. They were led out in groups, and soon only Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji (who had stayed to fend off the Xuanwu) were left behind. But then the entrance to the cave was blocked, and Jiang Wanyin was rather desperate.

“Jiang-xiong, Jiang-xiong!” Nie Huaisang wasn’t one for comfort, but he didn’t have a bond as deep with Wei Wuxian, and could think somewhat rationally. “You need to get to Yunmeng, Wei-xiong needs you to come rescue him before they are killed.”

That seemed to calm him, and he led his people all the way to Yunmeng. Soon, only the disciples from QingheNie were left, so Nie Huaisang turned to Nie Zonghui, who only nodded his head.

“Get to Nie-zongzhu, to safety. We can walk there.” Once he was completely sure, Huaisang transformed into a bird, safe in the knowledge that his people wouldn’t betray his secret to outsiders. But before he left, he convinced a couple of songbirds to bring his friend some fruits.

He flew for hours with a path to Qinghe Nie clear in his head. Night fell, and he kept flying. Until his wings ached and he could no longer hear the wind’s whistle. So this is why the crows don’t migrate, he thought grimly. And then he flew some more. He flew until he reached his sect and entered his brother’s study, and he all but collapsed once he was there.

“There was a murdering turtle in dusk creek mountain…” he all but gasped, “they took our weapons, the others are running away.” And he fell unconscious in his brother’s arms.

He woke up not long after in his room to the sound of chirping. Mingjue must have brought him while he was unconscious. He had probably been asleep for more than a day, to recover all his spiritual energy. He then saw the canaries in his window and, despite the fact that he still felt tired, he grabbed the small paper that had been tied to its leg.

Once the message had been delivered, he took a small qiankun pouch, filled it with some money, and scribbled a note. He grabbed breakfast and then took a nap while he waited for the note to dry, but once he was done, near sundown, he transformed into a bird once more and, with a firm grip of the qiankun pouch in his claw, followed the canaries to where they had seen Lan Xichen.

Mingjue would probably be proud if he wasn’t so worried about war, with all the spirit energy he had to fly all this way. From Qishan to Qinghe, then from Qinghe to Yunping. And in record time, too!

He arrived at sunrise in a small apartment, pretty much just one bedroom. There, along with Lan Xichen (who was sitting on a bed without his head ribbon and was almost recovered from many wounds), was a boy near Huaisang’s age, maybe younger, who Xichen addressed as ‘Meng Yao’.

The boy was the first to notice his presence in the window, but Xichen recognized his feathers and smiled fondly before telling his companion to open the window more to let him enter. Huaisang flew to the bed, hopped to Xichen’s side, and extended the claw that contained the qiankun pouch.

“I see that your wing has recovered,” Xichen mused as he grabbed the pouch, “and that Huaisang kept you, in the end,” but there was no scolding in his tone. Instead, he opened the note and read it.


The sun has been quite scorching these days, I am sorry I could not be of help in your time of need. But I hope that, now that these words have wings, they can fly a thousand miles and reach you.

With A-Sang I send a pouch filled with some money to travel to either Qinghe or Gusu. Please take care of him, as he is quite fond of you. Or send him back to me with greetings.”

“I take it Lan-gonzi knows the sender?” Meng Yao’s voice seemed suspicious. And if this had happened to him, Huaisang would probably also feel suspicious. Lan Xichen nodded and folded the note.

“It’s from the brother of a friend. He sent some money to go to Qinghe or Gusu.” He stared at the pouch, before he gave it to his newfound friend. Meng Yao almost sputtered at the gesture.

“Ah, but won’t Lan-gonzi need that for travelling?” He shook his head and tried to reject the gesture, which made Lan Xichen all the more eager to give it to him.

“Then you should come with me. Mingjue is an honest and upright man, if you work for him well, he can help you get recognized by your father.” Meng Yao seemed to think over it for a moment, before agreeing.

But before that Meng Yao brought breakfast, and as soon as Xichen had a plate on his hands, he took veggies in his chopsticks and pointed them in his direction. “A-Sang,” he called, and Huaisang probably should have probably chosen a less embarrassing name for his bird self. Meng Yao, on the other hand, just stared.

“Lan-gonzi, aren’t magpies related to crows?” he asked, even if his tone suggested he already knew the answer.

“Are they?” Xichen’s lips pursed a little at Huaisang’s lack of interest in the veggies.

“En, this means they eat mostly meat.” Immediately, Xichen’s face was tinted pink.

“Ah, that would explain the reason it took him awhile to eat the sesame seeds.”

Meng Yao looked too polite to chuckle at his mistake. Instead, he grabbed a piece of grilled meat with his chopsticks and offered it to Huaisang. Huaisang flew over to meng Yao’s lap and accepted the food. He decided then that he rather liked this boy who helped Lan Xichen in his time of need. And when he was fed, he sang that song from Caiyi, hoping to comfort Xichen with its familiarity.

Lan Xichen acompannied Meng Yao all the way to Qinghe before going to Gusu. Huaisang didn’t even have time to transform back and say hello before he was off. And by the time he was sent to Cloud Recesses for his own protection (with threats from Mingjue to not escape), Xichen was already off, building a reputation for himself much like his brother.

But then Huaisang received some reports from his spies and he decided to go to Qishan to pay someone a visit.

Meng Yao looked weird in the white and red of QishanWen, or maybe it was just wistful thinking. He followed him around as close as he dared to while he obeyed Wen Ruohan’s orders, careful to not be spotted by other people, and when Meng Yao was alone, he spoke:

“I always thought that A-Sang was way too intelligent, even for a magpie.” Huaisang didn’t even have the time to feel sufficiently mortified before he continued: “I see now that words indeed fly a thousand miles. Did your brother send you to apprehend me, or have you come to end me after betraying his sect?” Meng Yao’s features had always been attractive, probably inherited from his mother. But these past months he had grown into them, the last of his boyish appearance now dulled by his appraising look.

Huaisang leapt down from his spot on a nearby branch outside and landed gracefully on his feet. “Not at all, I…” he wasn’t sure why he had come. Did he want answers? Did he want information? He knew Xichen was receiving anonymous information, and it definitely wasn’t from him, since his information always went to da-ge first. And neither the merchants nor the birds had enough education to get the detailed QishanWen maps Xichen was being sent. So it was only logical that they had another spy within the sect, probably someone who had defected, someone who had a close relationship to Lan Xichen.

And someone with photographic memory like Meng Yao.

“Da-ge always wrote about you in his letters,” not that there had been many, but in between the reports of the war efforts, he always paid a few words to praise Meng Yao’s dilligence, the way he was working hard to earn his place and become worthy of his father. The last letter he had received from his brother said that he had sent Meng Yao to LanlingJin with a recommendation letter, and then he had heard from the canaries that he was in Nightless City. “He seemed reluctant to let you go.”

Meng Yao chuckled, but it sounded self-deprecating. “You have to leave now. You might be able to fly around undetected, but if anyone else hears you, both of our positions will be jeopardized.” He then eyed Huaisang up and down, a calculating look in his eyes so unlike the warmth and shyness he remembered. “And considering your nature, I wouldn’t put it past Wen-zongzhu to either consume your core in an immortality pill or use you as a hostage.”

Huaisang felt like he had more to say, more to ask, but he knew Meng Yao was right. So he flew back before anyone noticed he was gone from Cloud Recesses. That trip wasn’t completely without merit, though. He had seen a new facet to his brother’s confidante, or the man he had considered as such.

In the safety of Cloud Recesses, Nie Huaisang could only sit and wait for information on how the Sunshot Campaign was faring. He could only sit, read the notes that his canaries brought and fret. A couple of times that he got too antsy to even read poetry, he wandered through the mountain. He didn’t dare cross the border between the male and female disciples, but he did find the children once, running around and trying not to get their white robes dirty. In those times, Huaisang enjoyed reading poetry aloud to them (even if at times they were not patient enough to endure it, or if they didn’t have the necessary knowledge to understand some metaphors).

Qishan Wen, to put it simply, seemed to be the one with the advantage in the war. Even with Nie Huaisang’s and Meng Yao’s combined efforts in espionage, there was too much ground to cover, too many men to kill at once. And for three whole months the battles continued at this pace, until Wei Wuxian was found during the raid of a supervisory office. There had been rumors circulating about his demise at the hands of Wen Chao. They said he had been tortured and thrown into the Burial Mounds, and even if a place with such resentful energy would explain the crooked cultivation he began to use, how could he even come back alive to tell the tale?

It was with Wei Wuxian’s help that the tides turned in their favor, and when news arrived of how they were recovering territory, winning battles against Wen Ruohan’s seemingly endless army… Huaisang allowed himself to hope.

When he received news that the war was over and that they had won, he had felt so relieved he sagged in his seat like all his energy was suddenly gone. It had been a couple of rather stressful months, and it was all Huaisang could do to not sob while grinning like an idiot. While the Cloud Recesses were indeed the most beautiful place he’d had the pleasure to visit, he had felt rather homesick (hadn’t dared to visit in his bird form after last time, even though he hadn’t gotten caught). He wanted to go home, to his brother’s daily complaints about him not training, to Zonghui’s half-hearted attempts to convince him to train. And what’s more, he wanted to see Xichen. It was nice to hear he was still alive and fighting the Wens, but it had been quite some time since they last met.

The aftermath was as disastrous as Huaisang hadn’t expected it to be. Turns out war isn’t only about winning or losing, and the headache-inducing meetings were only slightly better than watching his former friend be one bad look away from attacking his allies.

Nie Huaisang had always known Wei Wuxian was a genius, but with his constant cheer and shamelessness, it was hard to remember there was a thin line between the genius and the madman. After the war, however, that line seemed to have thinned even more. At first he just wanted to dismiss it as the stress from war; amongst the remaining four great sects, Gusu Lan and Yunmeng Jiang were the most affected, with their homes burned to the ground.

Then rumors sprung about Wei Wuxian, that he didn’t carry his sword (something Huaisang wouldn’t condemn but found worrying for such a talented youth), that he didn’t listen to his Sect Leader (something that would not have worried him before the war), that he forsook his entire sect to protect a bunch of Wen dogs.

That last one he heard from his brother, his voice trembling from fury and his jaw tense. He had then looked at Huaisang, like warning him to not protect said Wen dogs, as he did not take kindly to betrayal. He had made that quite clear in his attitude towards Meng Yao, or as he was called now, Jin Guangyao.

Wei Wuxian’s actions, of course, did not make any sense to Nie Huaisang, who liked to think he was a very good judge of character. Why would Wei Wuxian, the man who took due revenge against the Wens for the way they massacred Yunmeng Jiang, suddenly want to save them?

The answer came to him, one day he was helping with the new chicks in the old crow’s family. The family was now made up of 12 members, not counting the four recently-hatched chicks, and since Huaisang considered the old crow family, he had helped gather sticks for the new nest and had been on feeding duties the last two times he went to visit. So now he flew with another crow to gather insects to feed the chicks.

“One family moved to the south.” He cawed as they landed on a rock.

Huaisang asked: “To the south?”

“The dark mountain is not so dark now. And there’s a lot of meat under the dirt.” He didn’t elaborate further, but Huaisang wondered. Were they talking about the Burial Mounds? It would certainly fit the description of it being dark and full of corpses. So a few days later, once he was sure his brother wouldn’t notice his absence, he flew all the way to Yiling, and just stood on a branch near the entrance to the mountain.

He had heard from rumors that Wei Wuxian had ferocious corpses protecting the border, scaring away any wanderers that might come too close to the territory of the Yiling Patriarch. But from there, he saw no such thing. He did wonder, however, what measures had been taken to protect it. Had he put up other wards that would prevent people from entering? And if he did, would these wards recognize Huaisang as a magpie, a magical beast, or a cultivator?

Before he could think too hard on whether entering was a good idea or not, he saw someone come down the mountain. Or rather, two someones.

He had, of course, heard that the oh so blasphemous Yiling Patriarch had messed with the natural order of things and brought a corpse back to life and forced it to do kill any and all people that bad-mouthed him (something so obviously untrue by the fact that that rumor existed). The part about having a corpse seemed true, at least. A corpse that accompanied his still alive sister to shop for food in the market, and then went inside a teahouse.

He had just flown near a window of the teahouse to get a look of the lovely decorations (no, he was not spying on Wen-guniang) until he saw Jiang Yanli in the teahouse. Who was there to meet with Wen Qing. By that point his curiosity was too much to part, so he stayed for a little longer. He listened to their conversation when it turned to be about Wei Wuxian, and the various slander that Lanling Jin had done to him after his little stunt at Qiongqi path. He listened attentively to Wen-guniang as she talked about their daily lives, how the elderly and the weak were at Burial Mounds, about the way Wei Wuxian had taken them under their wing.

Of course there was nothing Nie Huaisang could do for his friend without angering at least two great sects, but if there was something he could do while not letting anyone be none the wiser, it was keeping tabs on the rumor mill. So when words reached him about the way Wei Wuxian protected the Wens not out of treachery but to preserve justice, he made sure that the merchants who frequented Lanling (and the Jin Sect) heard of them.

One day he went to Cloud Recesses to get away from his brother a little (he was getting more irritable than normal, these last days), he noticed the place was… cheerier than he remembered it being. So once Lan Xichen led him into his house to properly catch up, he started asking about it.

“This Huaisang thanks Zewu-jun for his impeccable hospitality.” He bowed with proper etiquette, but his smile probably ruined the effect. Still he felt warm when he heard Lan Xichen’s chuckle.

“Why so distant now, when last time we saw each other you were so eager to call me ‘Xichen-ge’?” He washed two cups before throwing the water and then filling them with tea. Huaisang smelled the strong herbs in it before replying, his voice marred with only the slightest of sheepishness.

“Aiyo, can’t I address you by your proper title? Am I truly so disrespectful?” He faked a pout, and tried not to stare at the new painting on his table.

“I didn’t say that,” Xichen objeced before sipping his own tea.

“Cloud Recesses looks lively,” he said, and took notice of the way Xichen’s smile tensed a little. “Is there a celebration coming soon that I couldn’t take part of during my two years studying here?” He joked, but it fell a little flat at Xichen’s expression.

“Wangji is getting married. The situation is… complicated; the elders and uncle barely approved. And they’re rushing the procession.” Huaisang gulped. Had Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji finally stopped dancing around each other? He remembered a couple of instances where Xichen teased his brother over it, so if that was the case, shouldn’t he be happier? Or could it be that the elders forced him to marry a woman and not entangle himself with someone they would obviously consider the antithesis of what they believed?

“Congratulations. Am I invited to the wedding, or will I have to wait for Xichen-ge’s wedding to see Cloud Recesses decked in red?” He tried teasing again, and this time, Xichen seemed to be shaken out of his reverie.

Xichen looked him up and down, his eyes trailing over every little detail, and Nie Huaisang suddenly felt self-conscious over the way his hair was probably mussed up from the wind, of the wrinkles in his robes, over his posture. Instead of voicing any displeasure whatsoever, Xichen said, “Perhaps. But we would have to ask Mingjue-xiong first, would we not?” before sipping his tea and leaving Huaisang to mentally sputter at the implication.

They drank in silence for a minute, before an idea appeared in Huaisang’s head. He licked his moist lips, the remainders of the bitter tea lingering on his tongue, and voiced an unsure “Xichen-ge?”

“Hm?” Lan Xichen looked up from his tea to observe Huaisang again, his eyes offering his undivided attention to whatever he had to say.

He breathed in deeply to steel himself, and asked: “What are your thoughts on Madam White Snake?”

Lan Xichen filled his cup with more tea, probably to consider the question. “It is quite clearly meant to be a story of good and evil, wherein the tortoise monk seeked to save Xu Xian’s soul,” Huaisang’s heart clenched, then Xichen smiled a little. “But one day while on a night-hunt with Wangji, when the storyteller finished the tale and I asked Wangji what he thought about it, he said it was a story about prejudices against love,” here he chuckled, “I haven’t had much time to think it over, I suppose.”

Huaisang’s voice was almost a mutter as he continued, “What would you do if your wife turned out to be a snake?”

Xichen almost looked amused by his line of questioning, “I would of course still love her, but given the rules of my clan she’d have to hide,” his mouth twitched as if he had bitten into something sour, then he shook his head. “No, that does not sound right. I would loathe to disobey my clan’s rules, but if there is one thing Gusu Lan Clan has precedent for, it is of disregarding rules for the spouse.”

Huaisang took another deep breath. His brother had known about his mother being a magical beast because he asked his father after that time he turned into a chick and scared the lives out of them, and he had accepted it because, even if they were as different as night and day, they were family at the end of the day. Nie Zonghui, along with some core disciples, also knew about his status because Mingjue had made them more or less his guards in case he did stomething stupid, and because they were to be trusted. And telling someone from another clan was probably stupid, but Huaisang felt like it was long overdue.

And he felt like, even if Xichen hadn’t just suggested asking his brother if they could get married, he would like for him to know.

So he took another deep breath, and under the concerned look of Xichen, he stood up and walked to the side entrance that led to the outskirts with Xichen right behind him. Once he made sure no one but the two of them were there to see it, he listened to that tingly sensation in his core, and felt as his surroundings were suddenly gigantic. He flapped his wings and soared around Xichen’s surprised face.

The nervousness in his stomach faded when Xichen smiled and asked: “Will I have to drink realgar wine for you during Dragon Boat festival?” He stretched his hand, and Huaisang landed on it.

Instead of laughing, he began to sing for his beloved.