Nie Mingjue was stubborn. He believed in debts, in fulfilling them. He was honorable to a fault except where rage drove him past it, and it took far too much to carry him to that point.
Nie Huaisang could tell him everything that came after this point, and he might believe him—but even that would be a disaster. Nie Huaisang wasn't proud of how he traveled back to the past, and he wouldn't give Nie Mingjue the opportunity to find out how it had happened. Meng Yao was a dead end, filial loyalty far surpassing anything Nie Huaisang has a chance of breaking in the short time he has remaining with the Nie. And it wasn't like Nie Huaisang could prevent that, not when he wanted Meng Yao to kill Wen Ruohan.
The weak link was, as ever, Lan Xichen. The first time through, Meng Yao only had to look sad and forbearing in his direction, and Lan Xichen was all too happy to help—to help him survive killing so many Nie; to help him swear brotherhood with Nie Mingjue and cement his status; to help him learn the melody that would serve as murder weapon and earn the trust necessary to deliver it straight into Nie Mingjue's broad back.
Meng Yao and Lan Xichen had never been lovers. Lan Xichen was far too honorable to sleep with a married man if nothing else. That said, there was a special degree of trust conferred upon him; a special position of favor. That position needed to be occupied, and Nie Huaisang was willing to do it himself. He was willing to do whatever it took to take all of Lan Xichen's trust and affection for himself, with maybe a little left over to spare for Nie Mingjue.
And if it meant taking advantage of Lan Xichen's hero complex, his affection for small weak things, his love of the delicate and beautiful? Well, no matter what else he might have become, Nie Huaisang had always been small and weak compared to his cohort. He was willing to be as delicate as Lan Xichen needed him to be. He'd spread his legs or push Lan Xichen down if it meant that when Meng Yao became Jin Guangyao that he found no inroads to the Nie.
There was a time, a very brief time, where Nie Huaisang had a shot. Right after the Wens' forced indoctrination and right before the Sunshot Campaign began in earnest, or at least got its name, Lan Xichen had returned from his time in hiding, fleeing from the Wens, and then bringing the disparate parts of the cultivation world together to understand and agree to face the threat the Wens posed. He ended his journey at Qinghe Nie.
Nie Huaisang, for his part, had needed to return from his own journey. Pretending to faint had gotten him out of the night hunt portion of things, but it had also left him in Nightless City at the height of Wen Ruohan's power and at his mercy right before all the sects rose up against him. At the time, Nie Huaisang hadn't been aware of the extent to which he was in danger, but even without knowing the rest of it he'd seen Wei xiong covered in blood as he returned from the dungeons. He'd heard the rumors about human experimentation. He'd been there as an entire village of Wens, the one group you would think would be safe, were turned into puppets to attack Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian, and poor Nie Huaisang, along for the ride.
So Nie Huaisang had feigned weakness until no one paid attention to him, then slipped out of the city like he had every right to. It had gone well enough at first. He hadn't had the sword he'd brought with him, but no Nie would have brought their actual saber to Nightless City after what had happened with the last sect leader, and Nie Huaisang had had no compunctions about leaving a dead sword with no spiritual energy behind. He wasn't sure if he'd have gone back for his own saber, which at that point in his life had lived under his bed unless Nie Mingjue was watching and insisting he show up to saber practice this time.
The journey home had been fine until, at the very end, it had not. He'd been set upon by bandits who hadn't believed that such a well-dressed young master had no money—he hadn't, as one of the Nie disciples had been given control of their purse after Nie Huaisang's post-Cloud Recesses adventure—or that he could pose much of a threat to them. So Nie Huaisang had been forced to fight them, which had also gone fine—he was a cultivator after all, if a poor one—until the very end when, distracted by how fragile these bandits were compared to any Nie cultivator Nie Huaisang had sparred against, Nie Huaisang hadn't noticed that the bandit he'd just disarmed and left lying on the road had a dagger in addition to their confiscated sword. He'd noticed only when it sank into his unprotected back.
But in the end, Nie Huaisang had made it home! Grimy, teary-eyed, and more than a bit bloody, he'd staggered to the entrance to the Unclean Realms and told them to get Nie Mingjue, ready to extract from his brother the promise that he'd never have to go back to Nightless City ever again.
At the same time, a cloaked figure in the form of Lan Xichen had also arrived.
For a moment, a very brief moment, Lan Xichen had faltered. His lips had parted. His eyes had taken in the whole of Nie Huaisang, and he'd looked like he was a few scant breaths from bundling him up and taking Nie Huaisang home with him. His hand had started to rise, lifting toward Nie Huaisang, before Nie Mingjue had appeared with a bunch of Nie disciples to bundle Nie Huaisang and bring him inside, passing him off only to Nie Zonghui and the tender mercies of the Nie doctors.
Lan Xichen presumably had gone to debrief Nie Mingjue and recruit him to a cause Nie Mingjue had been fighting since their father had died. Nie Huaisang had suffered through being poked and prodded by the medics—before finally getting his own in person debriefing from Nie Mingjue, which involved a lot more fussing in the form of lectures than Nie Huaisang was sure Lan Xichen had gotten.
So Nie Huaisang chose his moment. He didn't particularly want to live through the war all over again, but it wasn't like he'd been in any particular danger during it, staying back with the Nie remaining at the Unclean Realms first to heal and then to coordinate home efforts.
When Lan Xichen arrived, when his lips parted, Nie Huaisang didn't look to the gate for the arrival of his brother, no matter how much he wished to see him again. He flung himself forward into Lan Xichen's arms and smeared his blood into Lan Xichen's clothes as a future reminder of this moment. He cried, "Gege, I was so scared!"
Lan Xichen wasn't his erge yet, but he was weak to a person who so obviously needed him. He took Nie Huaisang's weight automatically, easily. His voice was soft as he said, "Huaisang? Are you all right?"
"It was terrible!" Nie Huaisang had calculated where the line was carefully over the years, what was too much, what would make Lan Xichen draw back in disgust and what would carry him forward in concern. The tears were easy to bring to the surface, but Nie Huaisang didn't let them fall, going for the dewy-eyed look over blotchy crying. He didn't want just concern; he wanted attraction. "But are you all right? I was so worried."
"Huaisang!" Nie Mingjue said, almost running through the gates, such was his hurry.
Despite his best efforts, Nie Huaisang's tears spilled over. Lan Xichen's look of concern only deepened.
"Let's get you to a doctor," Lan Xichen said, trying to pass Nie Huaisang over, but Nie Huaisang kept his fingers tangled in the back of Lan Xichen's cloak.
"If I'm going to see a doctor, Xichen ge needs to go, too," Nie Huaisang said firmly. "Who knows what happened while he was gone?"
"I'm okay," Lan Xichen assured him. "But I do need to speak with your brother."
"Then after," Nie Huaisang said stubbornly, letting the faintest touch of petulance shine through. "You have to come visit me and have your own wounds checked over."
"I'll come check on you after," Lan Xichen confirmed. "I promise."
Nie Huaisang released him.
But he wasn't letting go.
Nie Huaisang was a bit of a nuisance during his check-up. He refused to let anyone help clean his wounds, insisting on doing it himself. He whined. He moaned. He was such a bother he drove out all but the most senior doctor they had, and for her, he allowed his face to go serious as he said, "I'll clean everything. You can double check my work, but I'll do it myself."
They were all Nie. He was safe here. But Nie Huaisang wasn't allowing vulnerability with anyone unless it was necessary to his plans. And it was very necessary to his plans that Lan Xichen return to a half-dressed Nie Huaisang damp with wash water, pitifully bruised and painfully vulnerable, his stab wound half-bound. Lan Xichen's expression was gratifying, the heat that briefly passed through his eyes before it was wrapped up and shut away.
It was inconvenient that Nie Mingjue also saw this and started barking at him about getting stabbed. Really killing the mood, Dage.
"This is why you need practice!" Nie Mingjue said.
"If you're going to yell at me, you can get out," Nie Huaisang said like he wasn't drinking in the sight of his brother, safe and alive and full of clear-eyed energy, nothing like the wide-eyed rage in the end or the fierce corpse he'd been turned into.
Lan Xichen started to take a step back, and Nie Huaisang said, "Not you." Taking a calculated liberty, "Huan ge, you can stay and help bandage me back up."
"We have doctors for this," Nie Mingjue said. "And since when are you two so familiar?" Ah, that look of suspicion. Nie Huaisang was glad to see it for all that it was inconvenient.
"He doesn't mind," Nie Huaisang said with a confidence that he was sure would make it true. "Right, gege?"
That turn to Lan Xichen's lips said Nie Huaisang was safely on the correct side between indulgence and annoyance. Lan Xichen was amused, and Nie Huaisang was going to take advantage of it.
"Dage, you can hear all about Nightless City later. Huan ge and I are going to catch up first," Nie Huaisang said. He pushed at Nie Mingjue, not putting too much strength in it. Nie Mingjue would move when he wanted or not at all.
Nie Mingjue looked to Lan Xichen with an expression of pure apology. Lan Xichen smiled back.
"I'll help Huaisang first," Lan Xichen said.
Nie Mingjue went out, leaving the two alone.
"You really do need to let the doctors help you," Lan Xichen scolded, but he helped Nie Huaisang finish cleaning up, then started to wrap the new bandages. His hands didn't linger. He was very respectful.
"I could do it myself," Nie Huaisang admitted, tipping his chin down, then looking up at Lan Xichen through his lashes. "But I wanted you to help me."
Lan Xichen's movements, so professional to this point, slowed, settling on Nie Huaisang's waist. Nie Huaisang smiled, small and sweet.
Look at me, a delicate little bird you want to take home and make a pet of, he tried to project with every iota of his being.
"Huan ge is always so gentle," Nie Huaisang said.
"Huaisang," Lan Xichen said. Everything, from the tone of his voice to the look in his eyes to the way his hands had stilled where they were pressed gently around Nie Huaisang's waist, showed how conflicted he was. After this, the war would harden him. He'd close back in on himself, hide behind politeness and pleasantries, only opening up to the people who got in early enough. This was the moment, and Nie Huaisang was going to inveigle his way in so well there'd be no more room for anyone else.
"Huan ge," Nie Huaisang said warmly, conspiratorially. "I like you helping me." He licked his lower lip and felt only victory at the way Lan Xichen's eyes zeroed in on the motion. "Don't you enjoy it, too?"
"You—" Lan Xichen managed to get out before Nie Huaisang put his thumb firmly on the scale, leaning up to press their mouths together. Lan Xichen opened up beautifully to it, letting Nie Huaisang slide right in, tips of their tongues nudging together. His hands tightened on Nie Huaisang's waist, pulling him in.
"Your bandages," Lan Xichen said when Nie Huaisang pulled back to get his mouth on Lan Xichen's neck. "We should—I should—"
"It can wait," Nie Huaisang said.
And it did.
Nie Mingjue was not impressed by Nie Huaisang's plan even without knowing what it was.
"You know how Lans are," Nie Mingjue said.
Nie Huaisang did. Nie Mingjue had had a talk with him about it early on, before Nie Huaisang had ever gone to Cloud Recesses for classes, back when Lan Xichen had just been his dage's friend who had grown very handsome indeed seemingly from one visit to the next. Lans were notorious for being romantics, for falling hard and never letting go.
Nie Huasang didn't want Lan Xichen to let go.
"I know," Nie Huaisang said. He didn't want to alarm Nie Mingjue, but he let a bit of gravity seep through as he met his eyes
"You're serious," Nie Mingjue said.
"Very serious." Nie Huaisang smiled. "Don't worry, Dage, I'll be careful. This won't be a problem."
Nie Huaisang could have sat the war out safely. But letters weren't enough. Lan Xichen needed in person encouragement to remember Nie Huaisang as the most important person to him.
If at the same time, Nie Huaisang could subtly make the Jin look a little worse, guide public opinion to favor the Nie, that was a useful bonus. By the time he was done, Jin Zixuan was the only Jin anyone would tolerate of his generation. And the generation preceding him? Everyone became far too aware of his father's absence, the way Jin Guangshan never graced a single battlefield with his presence, nor any disciples not directly under Jin Zixuan's command.
At night, Nie Huaisang found his way to Lan Xichen's tent, and during the day he multitasked, making sure nothing slowed down at home from afar while taking a more direct hand in the main war camp. In the process, he befriended Jiang Yanli, a useful ally to cultivate if she could embrace a bit of her own power.
"What are you playing at?" Wei Wuxian cornered him one day. "Are you trying to marry my shijie?"
Nie Huaisang did so little that wasn't calculated these days, but he was startled into a real laugh. "While I would be very happy to tie the Nie and the Jiang closer together, that isn't part of my agenda, no."
Wei Wuxian's eyes narrowed. Resentful energy clung to him, and it wasn't as ominous as Nie Huaisang remembered it being, not after seeing the effect it could have on Nie sabers, the way it seeped into every speck of dirt in the saber tombs.
"Jiang guniang is my friend," Nie Huaisang said simply.
"Then you wouldn't object to my joining you some days?" Wei Wuxian said.
Which is how Nie Huaisang unintentionally saddled himself with the side project of rehabilitating Wei Wuxian's reputation, but it was only to the good if the Jiang stood strong after this, too, and remembered the Nie as their friends.
The war went as it was meant to.
And in the end, the Nie hosted the victory banquet. The Jiang, Jiang Yanli in front and center, took charge of the prisoners of war. Nie Huaisang bullied Nie Mingjue into swearing brotherhood with the leaders of the great sects who took part in the war, and Jin Zixuan as the Jin who made the most prominent contributions, an idea Nie Huaisang had first floated a couple months in, when Wei Wuxian was still in the Burial Mounds and Lan Xichen's spy hadn't gained too big a foothold yet, then insisted on more fervently in the days leading up to the final battle. There was no room for Jin Guangyao here, and Jin Zixuan had never been known to carry a tune in his life.
There was only one stumbling block.
"I don't want to do it," Nie Mingjue said.
"Would you rather let Jin Guangshan take the position?" Nie Huaisang asked.
So Nie Mingjue took up the job of chief cultivator, too.
There was one thing Nie Huaisang hadn't accounted for when engineering his plan to save Nie Mingjue's life.
He was visiting Lan Xichen in Cloud Recesses this time. The war was over, but the threat to Nie Mingjue remained. Nie Huaisang was resting against Lan Xichen's bare chest, tracing circles in the sweat cooling on his skin, and trying to figure out the right approach to convincing Lan Xichen to teach not just him how to play Clarity, as he already knew it, but other Nie disciples who could incorporate it into the Nie discipline, ending every night hunt with a song of healing, of cleansing, helping to stave off the fate of the Nie that little bit longer.
Lan Xichen, for his part, was carding his fingers gently through Nie Huaisang's hair. He had a smile on his face, not the polite one, but something warmer, more satisfied. He looked happy. He looked like a man deeply in love.
Oh, Nie Huaisang thought. Oh, no.
He'd planned for this. He'd planned it. But he hadn't anticipated how it would feel to finally let himself feel all the weight of that regard.
Lan Xichen adored him, and Nie Huaisang was not unaffected.
"Why that expression?" Lan Xichen asked fondly.
Nie Huaisang buried his face in Lan Xichen's chest so he couldn't see it. "It's nothing."
"Is it?" Lan Xichen asked. He was unbothered by Nie Huaisang's sulk. His hand kept up its steady movement in his hair despite the minor change in position.
"It's just," Nie Huaisang considered and discarded plans for how he could use this, how he should say it. In the end, he just said it: "I like you. Rather a lot. Very much, actually."
"And that's a problem?" Lan Xichen asked. He was laughing at Nie Huaisang. Nie Huaisang could hear it in his voice.
"I don't know." Nie Huaisang chanced another look. Lan Xichen was smiling. Lan Xichen was beaming. "Is it?"
"It's not," Lan Xichen said. He slid his hand from Nie Huaisang's hair to his back, gave him a proprietary stroke from the top knob of his spine to the dip of his back. "I would say that works out very well for us both."
And it did.