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A Winter's Dream

Chapter Text

“Nie Mingjue has died.“

The rumors reach Yunmeng before the official letter.

“I heard it was a Qi deviation; he went mad.”

“But wasn’t that to be expected? He’d always been a berserker, no?”

An invitation to the funeral accompanies the letter and Jiang Cheng sighs as he reads it. Wasn’t all the death and grief supposed to be behind them after the Sunshot campaign concluded? Yet the quiet cry of a toddler from the next room reminds him that these notions are the foolish follies of naïve youths.

He pens a short reply; he will attend. Then he rises and walks to nightmare-plagued child.

For all that Jin Ling is heir to Lanling Jin, sect leader Jin Guangshan nowadays cares for little beyond his own entertainment. Maybe Jiang Cheng ought not to interfere so much, considering his own standing as sect leader of a wholly different sect, but he is unwilling to give up that tiny child, that last piece of his family.

So Jin Ling spends time in Lotus Pier despite Jiang Cheng knowing he’s not the best to raise him. He only vaguely recalls his sister stroking his back to drive away nightmares, or the rare moments of his father’s hand on his hair. Tonight, Jin Ling settles at the gentle motions, relaxing in a more peaceful sleep.

He’s all that’s left for Jiang Cheng. Perhaps that’s why he can’t help but feel sympathy for Nie Huaisang: with his brother gone, there is nobody left for him.

The rumor mill, though, is not kind.

“Qinghe Nie sect is done for. The second young master – he’s useless.”

“Apparently he’s even begged Jin Guangyao to help with the funeral arrangement. What a shame.”

“If Jin Guangyao and Lan Xichen hadn’t been there that day, everyone might have died. Maybe that would have been a better end to them all.”

Granted, Jiang Cheng remembers Nie Huaisang as a kind soul, but not as a gifted cultivator. They may be the same age, yet during the Sunshot campaign Nie Huaisang had been hidden away in Gusu, while Jiang Cheng and –

They’d been out there, fighting. Even Jin Zixuan had made an effort from behind the front lines, since his parents had not permitted him to go into battle.

(Not that any of it had been of use. They’re all dead in the end).

As he arrives in Qinghe, he thinks the rumors were perhaps a bit too unkind. The Nie sect appears to work like a well-oiled machine, even if their leader has an arm in a sling and leans on a crutch as he greets the attending guests. Jiang Cheng thus considers it forgivable if he asked for help with the funeral arrangements, particularly since Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao were his brother’s sworn brothers, too.

Of course, when it’s Jiang Cheng’s turn to greet Nie Huaisang, Jin Ling – who’d been obedient and quiet at his side through the journey – decides he’s had enough. Small hands close around the elegant cane Nie Huaisang leans on.

“What is this?” Jin Ling asks and pulls with enough strength to surprise Nie Huaisang into letting go. Which is a bad decision, because it renders him unbalanced, and Jiang Cheng sees pain flash across Nie Huaisang’s face the moment his weight comes to rest on that injured leg, before it gives out.

Now, dropping the hosting sect leader on the ground at the start of a funeral ceremony for said sect leader’s deceased family appears more than a bad omen, so Jiang Cheng reacts swiftly and catches him. He’s closer than the servants and disciples that leaped into action, plus it’s not as if Nie Huaisang is heavy or tall. Wrapping an arm around his waist and steadying him (after one short moment where Nie Huaisang’s face is pressed right into Jiang Cheng’s chest and that felt strange and warm) is easy.

“Ohhh, is this something like a sword?” Jin Ling asks, eyes wide with wonder and completely oblivious to the breach in protocol that left several onlookers gaping. “It’s pretty.”

“Watch it!” Jiang Cheng growls. His nephew is five, certainly. But they’ve had more than one discussion on proper behavior already.

“It’s fine, Jiang Wanyin,” Nie Huaisang says, still awkwardly depending on Jiang Cheng to remain upright. “This young master is…?” For the travel to Qinghe (already snow-covered and frozen though in Yunmeng the leaves have just begun to fall) Jiang Cheng wrapped his nephew in warmer clothes lacking the colors of his sect.

“Jin Ling,” he replies, and Nie Huaisang nods since he must have guessed it. He doesn’t remark on the oddity of the Jin sect heir arriving with Jiang Cheng instead of Jin Guangshan, which Jiang Cheng is grateful for. He’s heard what the rumor mill has to say on it, already. 

“Young Master Jin,” Nie Huaisang says, addressing Jin Ling and the child looks up to him in quiet curiosity. “How was the journey? I believe this is your first visit to Qinghe?”

Jin Ling nods, happy to be talked to. “It was boring,” he complains. “We did see a lot; there were huge mountains and uncle said there’s all sorts of beasts and creatures living there, but he didn’t go near. He didn’t even stop at the big frozen lake, and we never see that in Yunmeng.”

Jiang Cheng swallows a groan. Nie Huaisang seems to be laughing silently. “Well, your uncle knows best. You see, sometimes these lakes and mountains can be dangerous, so it is better not to go there.”

Jin Ling makes a frustrated noise. “But uncle is the strongest cultivator! And I’m going to be like him, too! I’m going to fight those beasts!” He slashes at the air with the stolen cane like a sword and ends up hitting Jiang Cheng’s kneecap. 

“Be careful!” Jiang Cheng barks out. He ends up dragging Nie Huaisang with him as he dodges a second hit, forcing the man to hop on one leg in a rather unbefitting manner. Not that the arm Jiang Cheng still has around Nie Huaisang’s waist is proper, but the alternative is to drop him.

“Ah, sorry, uncle! Sorry, Sect Leader Nie!” Jin Ling ducks his head, and Jiang Cheng growls because the little brat doesn’t look sorry at all.

At least Nie Huaisang laughs. “Maybe you better try this at the practice grounds? There is a frozen lake there too, and you will need to know how to move on ice and snow if you are going to fight beasts in the mountains.”

Jin Ling’s eyes brighten. To be fair, aside from frozen puddles in Lanling and snow on distant mountains, he’s not yet experienced winter. “Uncle? May I? Please?”

Jiang Cheng frowns. Jin Ling is… due to his status he can’t allow him from his sight outside of Lotus Pier or Koi Tower. On the other hand: they are far from Yunmeng and Lanling, the Nie sect’s compound is well-protected, and Jin Ling isn’t even wearing his sect’s colors.

Nie Huaisang appears to have picked up on his train of thought. “There should be quite a few young masters playing there. And we always have people there to keep an eye on things.”

“Pleaseeeee,” Jin Ling whines. “You’re only going to talk all the time!”

Jiang Cheng had hated sitting still for those boring talks when he was a child, too. Thankfully, his father had rarely forced him to – unlike Jin Ling who has by now attended more sect discussions and conferences than many adult cultivators.

“Fine,” he says. Jin Ling throws his arms around his legs, and there is no dodging the cane as it is driven straight into his thigh. “I love you, uncle! You’re the best!”

Several people watching the scene chuckle. Jiang Cheng wishes they’d do something more constructive – like perhaps convince his nephew to relinquish said cane and return it to its proper owner. Which would have saved him a bruise and the Nie sect leader his face, but alas.

“Zhao Mei,” Nie Huaisang beckons to somebody and Jiang Cheng watches a very tall woman (taller than him) clad in the Nie sect’s colors approach. “Would you mind keeping an eye on young master Jin and see that he returns to his uncle for the evening meal?”

Zhao Mei dutifully inclines her head. “Certainly, sect leader. Also-“ She holds out another cane, and Nie Huaisang thanks her with a laugh.

 


 

The evening meal passes without a hiccup. Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao take seats of honor next to Nie Huaisang, and – a little atypical for these occasions – share stories about the deceased. Not too few are about his accomplishments on the battlefield, but Jiang Cheng finds himself intrigued by the more intimate glimpses Nie Huaisang offers in his recollections.

But not everybody shares that assessment.

“Isn’t it a bit dishonorable to speak like this of Chifeng-Zun?” he overhears somebody whisper as he carries Jin Ling back to their quarters. He’d behaved well during dinner, having tired himself out playing all afternoon.

“Heh, Nie Huaisang probably doesn’t know anything else. I mean, has he ever set foot on a battlefield?”

It’s not wrong, as far as Jiang Cheng knows. But it feels mean-spirited. By the color of their clothes, these cultivators are guests, and he gives them a cold look in passing.

The next two days pass in a mind-numbing procession of rites and formalities. It’s enough to bore even Jiang Cheng out of his mind, and he can’t help but envy Jin Ling who has been summarily excused from attending. Zhao Mei comes to pick him up in the morning, and in the evening his nephew returns with enthusiastic tales of snowball fights and tracking hares with children from families Jiang Cheng never heard of.

Zhao Mei takes him aside. “Forgive my impudence, Sect Leader Jiang,” she says. “If you do not wish for young master Jin to associate with children of … lower status, I will see to it. Please forgive my oversight so far, it is not our way to strictly adhere to formality.”

Jiang Cheng thinks of Wei Wuxian. Of how his father had once decided the same, taken an orphan and treated him like his son. And then it had all gone up in flames, and he still can taste ash.

But he’s never heard Jin Ling talk this happily before.

“It’s not an issue,” he replies, pushing his own grief aside as he has done for years.

 tbc

Chapter Text

“Do we really have to leave tomorrow?” Jin Ling asks on the third day of their stay. With the formalities concluded, many sects takes their leave quickly, fleeing the bitter cold of Qinghe in winter.

Jin Guangyao, before following Jin Guangshan’s retinue south, tilts his head. “I think A-Ling enjoys it here,” he says to Jiang Cheng.

“Staying a day or two longer might be not a bad idea,” Lan Xichen offers, unasked. He looks past Jin Ling - dashing off to join his new playmates - to Nie Huaisang and then back to Jiang Cheng.

The truth is, there is no one waiting back at home. Not for Jiang Cheng, not for Jin Ling.

Carefree, childish laughter drifts from behind dark-roofed buildings, Jin Ling’s voice among them. They might as well stay, Jiang Cheng decides.

With the majority of people departed, the night is quiet. Jin Ling sleeps well here, wrapped in warm blankets, cheeks rosy after a long day of playing outside. Jiang Cheng finds himself restless, the silence allowing his mind to wander. At Lotus Pier, even during the coldest nights, there would always be voices drifting from somewhere, or the familiar movement of water lulling him to sleep. Here the sounds from Qinghe don’t reach the sect’s compound on the mountain and the snow swallows what remains.

Sleep won’t come; he reaches for his cloak and with a sigh steps outside. Fresh snow covers the inner courtyard; the silvery light to it makes him look up. A thousand stars glitter against an ink black sky and Jiang Cheng pauses at the sight.

“The stars here are a bit different from what you see in Gusu and, I imagine, in Yunmeng,” a soft voice offers.

Jiang Cheng jumps. He hadn’t noticed Nie Huaisang at all. Seated on a stone bench in white mourning robes he blends right in with the landscape.

“Though for proper stargazing, you might want to head up the mountain. The view from there is much better. Fewer buildings or trees obstructing the view.”

“Many thanks,” Jiang Cheng returns, peeved at having been caught off guard. He’s about to head back inside, but recalls the plan to extend their stay. “Actually, I wanted to ask earlier, but would it be possible for Jin Ling and I to trouble you a while longer?”

“As long as you wish,” Nie Huaisang replies with an easy smile, seeming as if he had known before. “It looks as if Young Master Jin has taken a liking to the cold, doesn’t he?”

“It’s more that he gets to run wild,” Jiang Cheng grumbles.

Nie Huaisang watches him for a moment. “Is that not a good thing?”

Jiang Cheng falls silent. The words regarding what Jin Ling’s future will hold, the responsibilities he must one day bear - both of them know already. And even if it seems prudent to prepare him from early childhood for these tasks, Jiang Cheng can’t help but agree with Nie Huaisang.

“Maybe this matter might be better suited for conversation inside,” Nie Huaisang offers lightly. “Or not even to conversation. I do have an excellent spirit from the far north, however.”

Jiang Cheng huffs. With the way his mind has been wandering, alcohol feels like a good solution. “Sure,” he huffs.

Within moments Nie Huaisang has lead them - limping - to a secluded pavillon. Despite its flimsy appearance, the inside is warm, with thick furs covering the mats. A servant quietly brings the spirit and cups, then disappears into the night.

“Jiang Wanyin, apologies, but could I trouble you to do the honors?” Nie Huaisang asks, as he awkwardly sits down in order not to trouble his injured leg. With the thick robe gone Jiang Cheng catches sight of the sling again, and agrees swiftly.

“Isn’t it bad to sit outside with a healing injury?” he asks over the first cup. It is truly an excellent liquor, burning down the back of his throat and warming the depth of his stomach.

Nie Huaisang shrugs. “It’s fine as long as you don’t freeze. One of the old healers here also liked to claim evil spirits didn’t like the cold, but that could have been something she made up.”  He matches Jiang Cheng, emptying the shallow cup with one gulp. Jiang Cheng refills their cups without comment.

For as hesitant as their conversation starts out, the alcohol loosens their tongues. They drift from the weather to memories.

“Did you know,” Nie Huaisang offers, voice slurring. “When he was eight, Jin Zixuan raided Madame Jin’s closet? I helped him put on some makeup, and he was really proud of it. Luckily, one of the maids stopped us before we could go outside.”

Jiang Cheng guwaffs. “Right. Didn’t he also complain about the white making him look too pale when we were studying Gusu?”

“He wasn’t wrong,” Nie Huaisang replies, and the cheerful mood grows solemn again. Jin Zixuan is dead. So is Jiang Yanli, and Jiang Cheng’s fingers tighten their grip on the delicate liquor cup.

“Jin Ling will make them proud,” Nie Huaisang says quietly.

Bitterness rises up in Jiang Cheng’s heart. “Without his parents, this will not be easy.”

“No, but he is a talented child. And he has you.”

Jiang Cheng chokes as he swallows the liquid wrong. Nie Huaisang smiles at him, a spark in his eye, and affirms. “I’m not teasing you, Jiang Wanyin. You’re…” He takes a breath, cheeks flushed and glances aside. “You’re a great man. Perhaps it sounds strange, coming from me. But despite my lack of talent, I’m not blind.”

Jiang Cheng finds himself holding his breath.

“When I heard what happened to Lotus Pier, what Wen Chao did…,” Nie Huaisang shakes his head and trails off. Jiang Cheng swallows, the memories rising against his will. “It sounded so devastating, and yet you managed to recover and rebuild in less than a year.”

Perhaps it is the alcohol that makes Jiang Cheng voice an older grievance. “Wasn’t that all due to Wei Wuxian?” he spits. “Isn’t that what everyone keeps whispering even now? ‘Oh, yes, young master Jiang, he didn’t do too bad, no, but well. If not Wei Wuxian he’d have been done for’.”

“You started the rebuilding months before his return,” Nie Huaisang replies evenly.

Jiang Cheng pauses. This truth has been long forgotten by everyone; it’s a shock to hear it now.

“When you pledged for the Sunshot campaign, Wei Wuxian was not at your side,” Nie Huaisang continues.

“Well, it’s clearly something nobody remembers,” Jiang Cheng says bitterly and drains yet another cup. He might rue it tomorrow, but reaches for a refill anyway. “Even if he’s dead, he still continues to take and take and take.”

Nie Huaisang watches him. “You miss him.”

“Bullshit!” Jiang Cheng slams his cup down so hard it cracks. Alcohol spills over his hand and the polished wood, but he doesn’t care. If not for his hands being occupied, he’d lunge at the other man for that outrageous statement.

Yet Nie Huaisang neither flinches nor retreats.

“Bullshit!” Jiang Cheng repeats. “Why would I - He killed my sister! My parents! If not for him, they’d all still be alive; if not for him, we’d still be -” His voice cracks, and he stops himself before a sob can tear itself loose. He bites down hard on his lip, but the pain isn’t enough to overcome the pain inside.

“At the Burial Mound, at the end,” Nie Huaisang continues, eyes dark and far too knowledgeable. “You were there. People say you killed him, but my brother once said it looked more like cultivation backlash. As you know, my family is rather familiar with backlashes, so I’m inclined to take his word for it.”

Jiang Cheng feels the blood drain from his face. He’s always relegated these memories to nightmares, to the darkest corners of his mind. But now they rise again, vicious and unstoppable.

“If you killed him then, it must have been a mercy,” Nie Huaisang says, quiet and certain. “He must have been glad for your presence.”

This is about Nie Mingjue’s death, Jiang Cheng attempts to tell himself. But he remembers, oh he remembers that dark cave and the helpless, convulsing shape of his former brother. And how the fury he’d hardened his heart with has seeped from him, how the hatred had been torn at by better memories, and how in the end, he had reached out for one, pale hand -

Wei Wuxian had died, nonetheless.

“Whatever,” he hisses and furiously wipes the treacherous wetness from his eyes. “He sided with those Wen dogs! He betrayed me!”

“I think, Jiang Wanyin,” Nie Huaisang diagnosis with this quiet clarity that pierces right through any defense, “You have a very kind heart. So kind you need to convince yourself not to forgive him.”

It’s too much. Jiang Cheng lunges for the other, and slams him on the ground.

“What do you know!” he shouts, kneeling over Nie Huaisang and caging him with his arms. “What the fuck do you know? So we’ve studied together, but so what! What is this even supposed to be about?! Am I supposed to be all grand gestures and say ‘I forgive him’ just because he’s dead? As if my sister, my parents, hell, even that golden peacock, as if they weren’t dead because of him too?!”

His chest heaves, his heart pounds. Nie Huaisang gazes up at him, pale and doll-like, and Jiang Cheng recalls his injuries. He shouldn’t have lashed out.

“Forgive me,” Nie Huaisang says before Jiang Cheng can. “I did not mean to upset you.”

“Oh, you didn’t?” Jiang Cheng exclaims, almost laughing.

Nie Huaisang exhales softly. “I thought maybe … Well. My family’s Qi deviations… people change before the end, at times dramatically. It’s not … unusual for those you love to turn on you, hurt you. Hurt others.”

Oh, Jiang Cheng thinks, and his temper cools.

“I dare not to say these compare,” Nie Huaisang continues quietly. “I do, however, stand by my assessment that you are very kind.” And apparently he knows no fear when drunk. With his unhurt arm he reaches up. “If other people fail to see that, it’s because they’re blind.”

A slender hand tugs at the collar of Jiang Cheng’s outer robe. “You’re bold,” he says, breathless for another reason.

Nie Huaisang smiles at him. He’s rather fetching, sprawled against the furslike this, dark eyes wide and pale cheeks rosy from drink. “I was thinking of something both an apology and a way to forget.”

“Oh?” Jiang Cheng returns. Whether it’s from his outburst, or due to liquor, but he feels warm, and the notion is not as absurd as it should be. A hand brushes over the exposed skin of his neck, and sparks follow in its wake.

Nie Huaisang tugs him down by the collar. Their lips meet, a short kiss that’s almost sweet.

Jiang Cheng finds hunger surging in his chest. He follows those lips, searches for more, and Nie Huaisang gladly parts his lips, allowing him entrance. The hand at his collar slips under the garment, sending goosebumps down his spine. His own hand tangles with Nie Huaisang’s hair, holding his head in place, but the other makes no attempt at escaping.

Rather, Nie Huaisang nudges a leg up between Jiang Cheng’s thighs and presses right against his groin. He groans into the kiss, the pressure both heavenly and hellish. Blunt nails scratch over the sensitive skin at the back of his neck, and Jiang Cheng’s mind spins.

Trust Nie Huaisang to know exactly how and where to touch.

The knee at his groin starts rubbing; sparks dance up Jiang Cheng’s spine. He feels dizzy, drunk on something other than liquor, and the small voice in the back of his mind wondering what he’s doing is easily brushed aside. Nie Huaisang meets his lips just as passionately, and among the cacophony of rustling fabric and wet noises, just who gasps is lost.

The arm Jiang Cheng supports himself with trembles. There’s too much fabric between them, so grasping the back of Nie Huaisang’s head, Jiang Cheng pulls them up, not breaking their frantic kisses. Nie Huaisang’s face has flushed, his pupils widened, and Jiang Cheng thinks he looks no better.

He gasps for air, uses the moment of clarity to try and think where to go from here. Their position is awkward; Jiang Cheng kneeling over Nie Huaisang’s outstretched legs, a raised knee trapped before his groin. Before he can realize he lacks the experience to know how to proceed, Nie Huaisang topples them sideways, and only thanks to Jiang Cheng’s quick reaction they don’t end in an even more awkward tangle of limbs. He momentarily remembers Nie Huaisang’s injury and pulls the other man to his chest, so when they fall it’s now Jiang Cheng on his back with Nie Huaisang lying atop of him.

Nie Huaisang laughs, a quiet and musical sound and for some reason even more heat pools between Jiang Cheng’s legs. The other begins to shuffle backward, and the friction of layers of clothes rubbing against Jiang Cheng’s erection has his him twitch.

“Trust me, Wanyin?” Nie Huaisang implores, settling between Jiang Cheng’s leg, and gazes at him with hooded eyes. A hand softly rests on the bulge there, a feather’s touch through the cloth and enough to drive a lesser man insane.

Jiang Cheng swallows harshly and nods. His long outer robe is pushed aside, and nimble fingers work the ties of his trousers open. The last pieces of fabric removed, Jiang Cheng can’t help but shudder as cool air brushes against his erection. Nie Huaisang seems to take moment to appreciate the view, just enough to make Jiang Cheng wonder what he will do. Then he leans forward, and blows against the heated flesh, and it’s pin and needles and stars at once.

Dark hair tickles the soft skin of Jiang Cheng’s inner thighs and lower stomach; a curtain hiding Nie Huaisang’s face. Without meaning to, Jiang Cheng’s fingers tangle with long strands, hold onto it, while his other hand scrabbles uselessly at the fur underneath him.

If this was torture, he’d be begging for mercy, but before his mind can even clear enough to from words, something warm and moist envelopes his length. His breath falters, and it takes him longer than he’d ever admit to realize Nie Huaisang has taken him into his mouth. A clever tongue swirls along the underside, and nothing, nothing has ever felt like this.

He’s no longer sure what noises he makes, not when clear thought vanishes and his world narrows down to a maelstrom of overwhelming sensations. Nie Huaisang takes him impossibly deeper, all the way down to base, and when the softness surrounding him constricts, Jiang Cheng is done for.

His vision whites out, he spills, and it feels as if he’d died and been reborn when sensations return to him. A few loose hairs remain between his clenched fingers, having been pulled out in the heat of the moment. His vision strays to Nie Huaisang, who sits between his legs, dabs at his mouth with a tissue. There’s a flush on his face still, and something must be off with Jiang Cheng’s mind, because his heart skips a beat.

(Oh, he’s never denied the other is beautiful. Everyone had always thought the second young master of the Nie sect was quite pretty).

But as he catches his breath Jiang Cheng can’t help but want more; his body’s desires may have been sated, but not his mind’s. He pushes himself up right, muscles shaking, and captures the Nie Huaisang in another deep kiss. There’s surprise, but Nie Huaisang yields, allowing Jiang Cheng to kiss as deep and long as he wants.

One of Jiang Cheng’s hands seeks out Nie Huaisang’s groin, and despite the heat in his body he can’t help but feel it’s a clumsy move. He finds hardness there, as expected, and Nie Huaisang gasps at the touch.

“Wan - Wan - Wanyin,” Huaisang stammers as Jiang Cheng’s hand seeks skin. Too many layers of cloth between them, but he finds the hemline and slips his hand underneath. Nie Huaisang shudders. “You needn’t -”

Jiang Cheng kisses him. He may not have done this with another man, may not know how to work magic, but he’s not the type to care only for his pleasure alone. So perhaps his strokes are awkward at first, yet he watches as Nie Huaisang’s pupils dilate, and his lips fall open in a noiseless gasp. Jiang Cheng drinks it in, catalogues the little noises, the way his spine arches and the hand Jiang Cheng had used to keep his head in place turns into what keeps him upright.

It’s a hot rush right to his center, this type of power, and Jiang Cheng brings Nie Huaisang swiftly to completion

Chapter Text

Of course, the glow has promptly faded the next morning. Jiang Cheng is woken by Jin Ling rambunctiously trying to dress himself, for once having awoken before his uncle. While his nephew cheerfully predicts what adventures today might hold, Jiang Cheng nurses a headache that not only stems from the liquor.

Did they really do that?

It’s not that they somehow progressed from yelling to kissing, but the utter lack of responsibility and propriety of their actions makes Jiang Cheng’s cheeks burn. For heaven’s sake, they’re both sect leaders. They really ought to know better.

“Uncle?” Jin Ling asks. “Are you alright? Your face is all red.”

He really has no face to meet people today. “A-Ling, how about you show me the training ground today, hmm?” he says. It’s not running away when he’s taking care of his nephew, is it?

The cold air does wonders for his complexion. Jin Ling is brimming with happiness, and the other children also politely greet him even if it’s obvious they’ve never heard of Yunmeng or the Jiang sect. Most of them, he learns, stem from family situated even higher north, and Jiang Cheng can’t readily understand their dialects. Jin Ling faces no such issues.

Sometime later Nie Huaisang joins them. The sect leader leans a little heavier on his cane, but he greets Jiang Cheng with a kind smile. Surprisingly, instead of awkwardness, Jiang Cheng feels affection rise within him.

How silly, he thinks, yet can’t be angry at his foolish heart. Not when Huaisang’s smile turns wry with shared understanding and he sits down to make conversation.

It goes easier, now. Watching over playing children on an icy winter day, Jiang Cheng finds he can voice things he’d not allowed himself to before. Nie Huaisang has seen what’s inside of him; and allowed him to see the same. So they speak of the ones they miss, of more memories, of the frightening amounts of paperwork that come with running a sect.

 


 

A storm arrives in the early the next morning and lasts for two days. With the gates shut, the inhabitants of the Unclean Realm retreat inside where talismans keep the rooms heated and free from ice. Jiang Cheng finds himself with a rare bout of leisure time - Jin Ling is busy exploring hidden nooks and underground vaults with his new friends (under the watchful eye of Zhao Mei), and Nie Huaisang busy with paperwork. It allows him time to read, time to think - something he has long avoided for all the pain stowed up within him.

Still, meditation comes easier than he expected, and in the evening Nie Huaisang joins him again with another bottle of liquor and a smile on his lips. It’s a guest room, tucked away on the second floor above one storage chamber or another, holding a table and a bed. Before long, they find themselves on the bed, and to Jiang Cheng’s surprise Nie Huaisang produces a small vial of oil from his sleeve.

“What are you doing?” Jiang Cheng asks, breathing heavily. He’s on his back, robe in disarray and length exposed. Nie Huaisang looks just as flushed, but manages a grin when oil-slicked fingers reach to stroke Jiang Cheng’s length.

“Just wait and see,” he says, and Jiang Cheng allows his head to drop back.

At first the oil is cool, but the careful strokes warm it up. A tingling sensation races up his spine, but Jiang Cheng doubts he could come from this alone. Perhaps if the strokes came a little faster -

He’s so lost in his thoughts, he doesn’t notice Nie Huaisang shifting above him until the strokes stop. Nie Huaisang positions himself, reaches for Jiang Cheng’s cock again and there’s a brief moment, just long enough for Jiang Cheng to wonder - then his length meets skin and something parts.

Tight, incredible heat envelopes him. Jiang Cheng stops thinking. He’s never, ever felt anything like it, and his toes curl long before he’s even sheathed all the way. Nie Huaisang’s head tilts back, mouth falling open  as he sinks down all the way, impaling himself.

“Oh heavens,” Jiang Cheng gasps as the other bottoms out. It’s overwhelming, bordering on painful, but also not enough and before he understands what he’s doing his hands grip Nie Huaisang’s hip through disarrayed fabric and hold him firmly in place.

Nie Huaisang’s legs give out and he sinks down further, and both men moan at the delicious friction. Jiang Cheng’s hands tighten their grip; experimentally he lifts the other up, moves his own hips along with it - and there’s fireworks running through his body. He doesn’t know what noise he makes; it joins the high-pitched keen he draws from Huaisang.

Speed increasing, they lose themselves to the sensations and tumble over the edge not long after. Nie Huaisang’s arms give out and he slumps against Jiang Cheng, boneless and breathing hard. They’re a both a mess, and the sticky substance drying against their skin and undergarments is quite unbecoming.

But Jiang Cheng finds he doesn’t care. Instead he wraps an arm around the other’s back and closes his eyes.

He’s woken just before dawn by the other. Nie Huaisang is busy tugging his robes back into place, but at some time during the night his hair has come loose and with only one arm he struggles to fix it.

“Good morning, Wanyin,” he greets despite the darkness outside. “It will be another day until the storm has passed, so you can rest longer if you like to. Shall I … shall I send someone with breakfast now or later?”

Jiang Cheng’s body has remained so nicely languid from last night his mind hasn’t yet begun working. It takes him a moment too long to get Nie Huaisang’s meaning. “A little later,” he says, and pushes himself up. “And to my room. I best go back, or A-Ling will wonder where I am.”

Nie Huaisang beams at him, and Jiang Cheng isn’t sure if it’s relief on his face, or if that is his own relief mirrored back at him. But keeping their relations discrete seems like a good idea. Sure, he doesn’t know what the local rumor mill will make of it, but gossip from Qinghe never truly spread south.

“I was thinking we might take him to town once the storm has cleared - if you intend to stay, that is,” Nie Huaisang suggests and swings his legs down.

Jiang Cheng looks at the ceiling. “Alright,” he agrees, with a lightness he hasn’t felt in years. “I don’t mind staying a while longer.”

A faint dust of red spreads over Nie Huaisang’s cheeks, while Jiang Cheng’s face swiftly approximates a tomato as he realizes just what his words sound like. He really has no face to meet his sister, considering how he mocked her for her crush when he’s acting like this.

Then Nie Huaisang attempts to get up, makes a pained sound, and collapses onto the bed again. “Ow,” he mutters, and rubs at his hip.

Now, with all the fabric in the way it’s not as if Jiang Cheng had seen it. But he’s pretty sure he might have left some bruises and their activity last night - if he still feels it in his loins, Nie Huaisang must, too.

Coupled with the still injured foot, Jiang Cheng swiftly decides the other really isn’t in a position to walk, much less master the steep stairs. Tugging his own clothes into place (and ignoring the hardened patch on his undergarments), he stands and lifts Nie Huaisang with an arm under the knees and another around his back.

“Jiang Wanyin,” Nie Huaisang says and it’s not clear if it’s to express protest or gratitude. From his face he doesn’t seem to know either.

Jiang Cheng elects to ignore it and navigates them downstairs. Due to the early hour, this part of the compound lies silent, though he hears noises drifting over from the kitchens. The snowfall has lessened, but by no means stopped and by now the white powder piled in the courtyard must reach higher than his thighs.

“You don’t get much snow in Yunmeng, do you?” Nie Huaisang asks. He’s barely a weight in Jiang Cheng’s arms, but quite warm compared to the biting air.

“Very little,” he agrees, thinking Jin Ling will have a field day.

Indeed, Jin Ling and his gaggle of fellow children claim the courtyard before Jiang Cheng’s rooms in the morning, building snow houses and other sculptures under the expert advice of their northernmost compatriots. At some point, possibly because he’s sleep-deprived, Jiang Cheng is convinced to crawl into the inside of one of these snow houses, and finds it not actually terrible.

“It’s the way to take shelter if lost in a snowstorm,” one of the boys explains, though his dialect makes it difficult for Jiang Cheng to understand him. “The snow protects you from the cold.”

The educational experience ends with Zhao Mei collecting the children (plus Jiang Cheng) for lunch. Nie Huaisang takes one look at the snow clinging to Jiang Cheng’s robes and fails to muffle his giggling.

 


 

Having seen Nie Huaisang limp around quite badly all through the day, Jiang Cheng resolves to ‘return the favor’ in a manner. He’s aware he’s not experienced or particularly skilled in bed, however, he can give a mean massage.

“Strip,” he tells Nie Huaisang brusquely after they’ve finished their smalltalk and moved to the bed that night.

“Ah?”

At this point Jiang Cheng realizes that despite their intimacy, they’ve not actually undressed in front of each other. Still, Nie Huaisang has no business clutching at the collar of his robe like a scandalized maiden.

“I mean,” Jiang Cheng waggles his fingers. “I want to give you massage. You’ve been moving awkwardly all day, and that even hurt to watch.”

Nie Huaisang blinks, still surprised, but relaxes. “Ah, Wanyin, that’s not…”

“It’s fine,” Jiang Cheng insists and, taking courage, reaches for Nie Huaisang’s belt himself. The other hesitates briefly, but allows himself to be tugged over and doesn’t protest as Jiang Cheng unfastens the ties.

Somehow, it feels more intimate than their previous encounters, and perhaps that is what keeps their tongues tied.

“The art of a massage belongs to my sect’s foundations,” Jiang Cheng finds himself saying. “Rigorous training requires a knowledge of the body, and unless you understand how to release tensions, the training won’t succeed. So it’s something everybody learns to do.”

What he wants to say is there’s no need to be nervous. He’s aware other sects hold more delicate sensibilities regarding nudity, but Yunmeng with it’s closeness to water - well, fooling around nearly naked or in clothes so soaked they could as well be off is not that uncommon among the very young and sometimes even the slightly older.

Stripped of his robes and left in his white undergarments Nie Huaisang appears even more slender. It’s when the last layer of fabric falls, that even Jiang Cheng can’t help but pause. He’d noticed the other’s lightness before, but the outlines of his bones stand out stark against pale skin. 

Nie Huaisang bows his head, and Jiang Cheng pushes the matter aside. So what. Considering what he heard about the situation here before Nie Mingjue’s death, losing an appetite isn’t unreasonable.

“If you could lie down on your stomach,” Jiang Cheng says. “If that’s fine with your shoulder.” Swathed in thick bandages, he can’t make out the true nature of the injury. Unlike with Nie Huaisang’s foot; the bandages don’t hide the swelling there. Aside from those, there is a colorful assortment of bruises over his skin, with purple fingerprints on his hips and Jiang Cheng cringes at himself.

“It should be fine,” Nie Huaisang mutters, voice muffled as he streches himself out on the bed.

Jiang Cheng carefully swipes Nie Huaisang’s hair aside, ignores how they both shudder. He sets his fingers expertly along the spine, seeks out hardened muscles. “Tell me if something hurts,” he warns and presses down.

There’s a series of cracks and a shriek.  

Jiang Cheng pauses. “You’re really tense.” He hadn’t expected a reaction like that.

“Ow, ow, ow,” Nie Huaisang mutters, rolls his shoulders. But when Jiang Cheng asks, Nie Huaisang admits it actually felt good. It continues like this, with Nie Huaisang vocally complaining, and Jiang Cheng jabbing his fingers a little harder in on purpose. Before long, the tension drains from Nie Huaisang’s body and pained protests turn into soft sighs.

The fine hairs on the back of Jiang Cheng’s neck rise. Heat begins to pool between his legs, and with a gulp he sets his fingers to the pale flesh of Nie Huaisang’s buttocks.

“Ah, Wanyin?” Nie Huaisang stirs, tries to cast a look over his shoulder.

“Relax.” Jiang Cheng continues rubbing tiny circles into the muscles there. He tries not to think about the other night when Nie Huaisang took him. It seems unreal and he stops himself from parting the bruised flesh to get a look at what offered him incredible, tight heat.

Blood rises to his face. A sweet little groan from Nie Huaisang doesn’t help. His movements have turned from a massage into something else, he belatedly realizes.

“I’m sor-”

“It’s alright,” Nie Huaisang swiftly replies, though his voice is muffled. He wriggles his butt. “Go ahead.”

Jiang Cheng freezes momentarily, inexperience rising its head. “I-”

“Use the oil,” Nie Huaisang instructs, and Jiang Cheng is glad the other can’t see his face. “On your fingers. Lots of it. And be gentle.”

Well. Jiang Cheng swallows down the knot in his throat and reaches for the oil vial. Once the warm liquid covers his fingers he reaches for Nie Huaisang again, heart beating rapidly in his chest. When he finds the hidden entrance it seems so small; if he had not known Nie Huaisang could take him, he would find himself reluctant to believe it.

The skin on the rim is dry. Jiang Cheng remembers wetness and now understands the oil. He reaches for more, dribbles it over flushed skin before he tentatively edges his fingers close to the hole.

Nie Huaisang shudders. “Don’t tease,” he murmurs, and with a gulp Jiang Cheng pushes a finger inside.

It’s warm and tight and by now the hardness between his own legs grows uncomfortable. Nie Huaisang arches his spine; making Jiang Cheng’s finger slip in deeper. Around the digit, the flesh parts, and some spot makes Nie Huaisang cry out softly.

“Right there,” Nie Huaisang breathes, his pale skin red and flushed. “More.” Jiang Cheng jabs the spot again, and is rewarded with a full-body twitch. His own cheeks burn; he pushes a second finger in alongside the first and draws a pleased noise from his partner.

Emboldened, Jiang Cheng moves his fingers. Curling them makes Nie Huaisang gasp and twitch, scissoring sends minutes shivers down his spine, and pumping in and out brings Nie Huaisang’s toes to curl. Jiang Cheng also notices the increased ease of movement as the tight ring of muscle relaxes. Nie Huaisang’s breath turns to gasping, before long his uninjured arm flails blindly into Jiang Cheng’s direction, making him halt.

“Enough,” Nie Huaisang manages, his whole body trembling. “You can…”

Even more blood rushes to Jiang Cheng’s face; his fingers feel clumsy as he strips off his own robes and trails warm oil over his own length. He swallows a moan at the sensation, then shuffles somewhat awkwardly between Nie Huaisang’s legs. The finer logistics of the act yet escape him, but within a moment of his fingers awkwardly grasping Nie Huaisang’s hips, the other shifts backward, curling his spine and lifting his arse at exactly the right height.

Jiang Cheng’s mouth goes dry, he dares not to hold the other too tight, but his mind goes blank the moment the head of his cock presses in. It’s hot, tight, and incredible. He can’t speak of think, only sink forward, slowly draping himself over Nie Huaisang’s back.

Once fully sheathed, he pauses. Draws a shuddering breath, feels Nie Huaisang do the same. His long hair hides the other’s face, and Jiang Cheng finds he doesn’t like it. With one hand he brushes the hair back, then tilts Nie Huaisang’s head, revealing pink cheeks and bitten lips.

“Ah, Wanyin,” Nie Huaisang gasps, blinking at him from wet eyes.

Something in Jiang Cheng’s chest tightens. He never finds out what; a minuscule movement has him sliding back nearly all the way, and his nerves light up. Jiang Cheng slams back in, Nie Huaisang cries out, and they go from there.

This time, Jiang Cheng retains enough wherewithawl to reach between Nie Huaisang’s legs when he feels himself getting close. With sure, swift strokes he brings the other to come, and as Nie Huaisang tightens around him, Jiang Cheng spills, too.

They collapse, breathing hard.

Jiang Cheng’s heart races and so does his mind. Sweat cools on his skin as well as some stickier liquids, but he doesn’t mind it. Feeling that warm body next to his - it should be awkward. The improperness of the act alone… But instead calm spreads through him. He feels warm. Content. Perhaps even a little happy.

After a while, Nie Huaisang stirs. He slowly sits up, brushes his messed up hair aside. He looks adorable, Jiang Cheng thinks and then cringes at himself.

“I’ll head back down and call for a bath,” Nie Huaisang mumbles. He’s about to swing his legs off the bed, but Jiang Cheng catches an errand strand of hair and holds onto it.

“Wanyin?”

Jiang Cheng doesn’t look at him. He knows he’s being ridiculous. But… “How do you plan on getting down those stairs, hm?” Their activities just now, plus Nie Huaisang’s injured foot - though Jiang Cheng knows it’s a real concern as much as it is a pretext.

“Well,” Nie Huaisang smiles. “I suppose it is late…”

He allows Jiang Cheng to tug him back down. They shuffle a bit; thankfully the bed is wide so there’s part not sticky from their actions. Nie Huaisang pulls up the covers and curls himself against Jiang Cheng’s side.

A peaceful silence settles, though it does not yet lull them to sleep. Jiang Cheng finds his mind wandering, wondering at the fate which brought him here. He says as much, and Nie Huaisang agrees. Their words are light, hopeful, and ease the painful edges of other memories.

They speak of their time in Gusu. Nie Huaisang swallows down Wei Wuxian’s name, and Jiang Cheng for once allows a burden to slip.

“I do miss him,” Jiang Cheng admits to the dark room and his quiet partner. “Not the person he was at the end, but who he used to be. Before everything went wrong.” It hurts to admit. But for all his faults, Wei Wuxian had been his brother in everything but blood, and for all Jiang Cheng can’t forgive him for bringing calamity upon them, he knows it wasn’t his fault Jiang Fengmian seemed to prefer him.

Nie Huaisang makes a noise of agreement. “I kept thinking about how you must have felt,” he says. “From what I heard … everyone always described you as angry, but I kept remembering how close you’d been, and I couldn’t help but think that it can’t have only been anger.”

Jiang Cheng snorts. “It was not.” He takes a deep breath; allows himself to share one secret he hasn’t dared to tell anyone else. “Even after our official fallout, we did keep in contact. It was all secret, and we clashed more often than not, but I mean … He’d been our brother. And when Shijie wanted him to come to A-Ling’s one month celebration, and he’d been looking forward for it…

And then it had all gone so terribly wrong. Wei Wuxian - or rather the Ghost General, but that makes little difference - had killed Jin Zixuan. And Jiang Yanli had died not a month later, protecting Wei Wuxian.

A hand wraps around his own; he hadn’t even noticed he’d balled his hands to fists.

“I’m not sure if he kept a journal,” Nie Huaisang offers. “But I know most of his writings have been recovered. They’re at Koi Tower; Jin Guangshan wanted them for some sort of research.”

(Later, more than a decade later Jiang Cheng will recall that tidbit and wonder why he’d not stopped at these words. Any other cultivator, if they even thought of touching the demoic path,; Jiang Cheng would hunt them down. But he’d trusted in the authority invested in the chief cultivator).

“He might not be willing to hand them over, but I could convince Jin Guangyao to put in a good word.”

Jiang Cheng, then as ignorant as his partner of the dormant monster, turns over. “No,” he says. “I don’t care for those crazy writings.” Wei Wuxian never would have written down what he felt or thought; seeing his words will not help ease the pain of the losses he caused.

tbc

Chapter Text

Time passes. It is easy to forget the turmoils of Yunmeng and Lanling between snowy mountains and frozen lakes. The north is a world onto itself, and the names from the south mean little. For the first time Jin Ling appears to enjoy something like a normal childhood, and that’s enough to assuage the guilt Jiang Cheng feels for being away from Lotus Pier for so long. Nights spent with Nie Huaisang are a different pleasure, and for these precious weeks life is a dream where things are alright.

But all dreams end, and while the letters from Yunmeng assure him his presence is not required, Madame Jin asks for Jin Ling to be returned to Lanling. Jin Guangshan’s birthday approaches, and the sect heir needs to be present.

The letter had been sent to Yunmeng, which makes the reply badly overdue. Jiang Cheng could travel directly from Qinghe - it’s faster - yet the implications give him pause. Does he want the cultivation world to know he has lingered here this long?

“Tell Madame Jin one of your healers suggested to stay here for young master Jin’s health,” Nie Huaisang offers as Jiang Cheng breaks the news to him. “While it’s not been popular recently, the Lanling Jin sect did at times send convalescent juniors here for the air.”

Furthermore, there is no stopping Jin Ling from recounting his adventures in the north to his grandmother once he arrives in Lanling. It’s likely what saves Jiang Cheng from a scolding for absconding with the heir for so long (to his own surprise, the winter in Lanling is already over).

“But it’s done you some good, too, didn’t it?” Madame Jin asks of Jiang Cheng, after Jin Ling has been sent off with a maid. There’s a rare affection on her face, worn and weathered by all the losses she has suffered. “Your parents would be proud to see you.”

She was his mother’s best friend. Sister in everything but blood. If anyone would know her heart…

“Alright, I must go and see to some business,” she says and turns, giving Jiang Cheng a chance to wipe at his eyes. “We’ll see you for the celebration.”

 


 

Jin Guangshan’s birthday is in spring. All trees at Koi Tower are in full bloom, and colorful lanterns haven been hung up over the compound. It’s an exercise is opulence, and it’s when Jiang Cheng sees Nie Huaisang again. They exchange polite greetings, warm but no one could tell there’s more between them.

Once dinner has concluded, Jiang Cheng slips from the banquet hall and wanders outside, in a rare good mood. He thinks of finding Nie Huaisang, perhaps sharing a drink among the two of them. They had little time to converse earlier; he’d enjoyed it during his time in the north.

Hands behind his back, he wanders along the festively lit corridors of the Jin sect’s compound. Lantern lights reflect on the water, music drifts from the main hall, growing quieter the further away he gets.

And then, it breaks.

“Huaisang? Huaisang, please tell me what’s wrong!” Down a corridor, somebody calls urgently, and Jiang Cheng’s blood runs cold.

There’s no answer, and Jiang Cheng hurries into this direction, turns a corner and spots Nie Huaisang crumpled on the ground, Jin Guangyao kneeling next to him. His heart stops. He crosses before he knows what he’s doing.

“Ah, Jiang Wanyin,” Jin Guangyao acknowledges him with a forced smile; Jiang Cheng nods in return, but immediately looks back to Nie Huaisang. His face is paler than anybody’s Jiang Cheng has ever seen, eyes blown wide as if from fright but unseeing.

“Huaisang,” Jin Guangyao calls again, setting his fingers against the pulse point of a bony wrist.

“What happened?” Jiang Cheng asks, reaching for the other hand without thinking.

Jin Guangyao gives him a pained smile. “I have no idea,” he says. “Jiang Wanyin, forgive me, could you maybe give him some spiritual energy? I would do it, but …” His cultivation level is not that high, and he must have exhausted himself organizing today’s festivities.

Jiang Cheng sends a pulse of energy into the cold hand, and thankfully Nie Huaisang starts to blink. But the terror doesn’t slip from his eyes, not even as he recognizes both Jin Guangyao and Jiang Cheng. His body starts to tremble.

“Huaisang, what happened?” Jin Guangyao gently coaxes, not releasing his hand and Jiang Cheng mirrors him. Anger stirs in his chest; if there’s some troublemaker at Koi Tower, he will find and end them.

“Ah, third brother, I’m, I’m, I’m sorry,” Nie Huaisang stutters, and some color finally returns to his face. “I… I, it’s really silly. I don’t know, it’s just …” His features shift from frightened to embarrassed. It grants Jiang Cheng a moment of relief.

“... it’s just, you see, sometimes I … sometimes my mind tricks me, and…” He doesn’t complete the sentence. It is not unknown for those who have witnessed violence to suffer from nightmares or the odd daytime vision. Jiang Cheng luckily is not prone to either (his demons have another shape), but with Nie Huaisang’s gentler personality it stands to reason.

It’s also not very becoming for a sect leader, so it’s understandable he’s trying to save face. Jiang Cheng casts a short look to Jin Guangyao and finds himself being watched and assessed. He wills the other to understand that he’s not going to breathe a word.

“It’s quite normal, Huaisang,” Jin Guangyao assures momentarily. “Don’t worry about it. Perhaps you want to rest for a moment?”

To their surprise Nie Huaisang shakes his head. “No, no, I’m sorry,” he says, sounding a little more like himself again. “I… these tend to get worse over time, so I would prefer to take my leave. Please give Sect Leader Jin my apologies.”

“Huaisang, are you sure?” Jin Guangyao asks, a frown appearing on his face. “It’s a long journey, and, forgive me, you look quite ill.”

Nie Huaisang shakes his head, presses his lips together.

Jiang Cheng knows how bad these terrors can get, so he doesn’t really blame Nie Huaisang for not wanting to suffer them before the entire cultivational world. “I can accompany him to the border,” he offers. It’s not that long a trip, he can be back before the night is out.

(It’s not as if his presence will be missed).

“Jiang Wanyin?” Jin Guangyao seems surprised. Then his features soften. “That is too kind of you.”

“Thank you,” Nie Huaisang says, in a small, heart-wrenching voice.

 


 

Jiang Cheng accompanies Nie Huaisang to the border region. They land in a clearing just past a small trading town, and Jiang Cheng finds himself reluctant to let the other man go. Nie Huaisang looks pale, but he’s managed to travel on his saber so far. Qinghe is not much further.

“Thank you, Wanyin,” Nie Huaisang says and then, unexpectedly reaches up and pulls Jiang Cheng down into a kiss. It’s warm and soft and over just as Jiang Cheng wants to lose himself in it.

There’s a pained smile on Nie Huaisang’s face and tears in his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he says. Jiang Cheng doesn’t understand. “I don’t think we should continue seeing each other.”

And then he turns and flees before Jiang Cheng can say a word.

 


 

Jiang Cheng isn’t willing to let it sit, of course not. He tries to seek out the other sect leader, but Nie Huaisang avoids him at meetings, clings to Jin Guangyao and hides behind Lan Xichen. Instead of speaking, he ducks his head at the discussion conferences, whispering only ‘I don’t know’ and it isn’t long before it turns into an unflattering nickname.

Time passes, and Jiang Cheng begins to wonder. Perhaps that winter was just that, a mirage. Jin Ling still speaks fondly of it, yet the memories fade over months and years. Whatever budding capability to grow into his role Jiang Cheng thought he saw in Nie Huaisang has vanished like snow in summer.

Yes, he eventually thinks. Not continuing this weird thing between them has been for the best. It wasn’t bad, and perhaps he will retain a degree of fondness for the other. But he’s got his responsibilities and he can’t go crying to others. It’s best this all remains in the past.  

 


 

Thirteen years pass.   

Wei Wuxian returns. The truth about Nie Mingjue’s death is exposed. Jin Guangyao dies.

 


 

“Sect leader Jiang,” Nie Huaisang calls out. The discussion conference has concluded, the other sects have departed and the Nie delegation has been ready to go, too. Only their leader yet lingers, though Jiang Cheng wishes he would hurry. “I know it is late, but do you have a moment?”

Jiang Cheng would prefer to retire. Sect business has become twice as bothersome after Jin Guangyao’s death, and the odd preference of everyone to hold meetings in Yunmeng starts to wear on him. “Certainly,” he says, and lets his tone convey his meaning.

Nie Huaisang responds with a wry smile and steers him to a more secluded pavilion on the water. Pink lotus blossoms sway in the breeze.

“I will not take much of your time, though I believe what I say may best remain private,” Nie Huaisang begins. Upon closer inspection, he looks as tired as Jiang Cheng feels. Now that he’s no longer considered useless, his workload has increased, too.

Jiang Cheng simply makes a low noise and crosses his arms.

“All those years ago,” Nie Huaisang begins, looking out on the water. “I apologize for abruptly ending things. It was not my aim to hurt you, and it was neither done out of … regret or shame.”

Alright, Jiang Cheng thinks without much emotion. It’s been so long ago, after all…

“I… did not mean to not give an explanation. Yet in the end, all I would have been able to do is lie,” Nie Huaisang continues, and Jiang Cheng recalls memories that have faded with age. Fear on Nie Huaisang’s face. Claiming terrors.

“You did lie,” he says without much heat.

Nie Huaisang smiles. “I had just seen my brother’s head in Jin Guangyao’s study. Next thing I knew Jin Guangyao was standing over me, asking what happened. I had to lie.”

The silence lingers for a moment. “You could have told me,” Jiang Cheng says. “When we parted at the border.” ‘I would have believed you’, he doesn’t say.

“Perhaps,” Nie Huaisang agrees. “I’m sorry.”

He doesn’t attempt to explain it away, and a part of Jiang Cheng appreciates that. It’s not that he can’t guess; but it no longer matters. He was a part of Nie Huaisang’s plot in the end, just like everyone else.

And that hurts more than it should.

“Leave,” Jiang Cheng says. His fate is, it appears, to be second best always. His father chose Wei Wuxian over him, Wei Wuxian chose first the demonic path and then Lan Wangji. Nie Huaisang elected revenge.

Nie Huaisang bows his head, hides his own pained expression. “Alright.”

 


 

And it should end there. They manage to talk politely at discussion conferences, and neither tries to bridge the gulf between them. Jiang Cheng observes a few silent apologies - Nie Huaisang backing Jin Ling against opposition in his own sect, offering support for some Lan juniors wandering into Qishan, a generous donation to Mo village. But no one will forget.

Almost surprisingly, Nie Huaisang continues his efforts. It’s as if his cultivation level had risen overnight, but he joins Lan Qiren in leading ceremonies, participates in highly theoretical discussions, carries his sabre and even joins night hunts, despite laughing he’s not good at it and always allowing others to make the kill.

The latter is what brings them together again.

A village north of Lanling calls for help just after the discussion conference there had concluded. Jin Ling leads the excursion, and as it lies on his way Nie Huaisang follows. Jiang Cheng tags along, because even if his nephew is an adult, he’s not letting him walk into danger alone.

When they arrive, there’s a clear trail of destruction leading from the village into a dark forest. The cultivators enter, yet the beast’s trail vanishes swiftly. They stand among the trees, awkwardly looking around for a sign, and Jiang Cheng begins to think about spirit attraction flags and similar options.

Suddenly there’s a roar.

“Watch out!” Jin Ling shouts, and from the corner of his eye Jiang Cheng sees an enormous dark beast leap out of a hollow tree trunk. Just in front of it stands Nie Huaisang, too close and too surprised to dodge.

Jiang Cheng launches himself forward. He slams into Nie Huaisang, tackles him to the ground just as something sharp tears at his shoulder. They land on the ground, his shoulder burns, an arrow whistles overhead, and the beast abruptly falls silent.

A heavy body hits the ground with a thud; hot liquid runs from Jiang Cheng’s shoulder, but he can’t help staring at the man underneath him. It’s been so long, and yet Nie Huaisang still looks like young man Jiang Cheng once shared a bed with, all wide eyes and slender limbs.

“Uncle, uncle, are you alright?” Footsteps approach, snapping the spell.

Jiang Cheng scrambles aside, and the pain abruptly hits him. The beast - looking like a bear - tore deep gauges into his arm; the entire left side of his robe is soaked, and his vision blurs. He just catches sight of Jin Ling running toward him, a rare look of worry on his face, before everything fades to black.

 


 

He wakes in a barn.

(“It was the best we could do, uncle,” Jin Ling assures him later, apologetic and petulant at the same time. “I’m sorry, but we couldn’t bring you back, not with the wound untreated, and you just had to wake up early.”)

Nie Huaisang sits at his side, feeding him spiritual energy. “Maybe I should also embark on a ten-year con involving everyone and their dog,” Jiang Cheng says in lieu of ‘this feels familiar’. Maybe that’s the blood loss talking.

“If you could avoid bringing back Jin Guangyao, I’d appreciate it,” Nie Huaisang returns without missing a beat. Jiang Cheng snorts. He tries to sit up but is stopped by hands settling on his chest.

“Don’t do that,” Nie Huaisang advises. “That beast got you good, and the claws had been covered in something nasty. The healers think they got everything out, but it would be for the best if you took it easy for a while.”

Granted, for him to have fainted from the wound so swiftly, it must have nearly been fatal. Still, the prospect of sitting quietly doesn’t suit Jiang Cheng well.

“Where’s Jin Ling?” he demands instead.

“Talking to the village head and making arrangements.”

Jiang Cheng looks to the wooden ceiling above him. There’s more holes than roof, and maybe he’s getting comfortable in his age, but he’d rather not stay here. Except they arrived on swords, and carrying an injured adult is something few but Lan Wangji have ever attempted. Meaning he’s stuck until they get a horse or a carriage.

“As you know, this village sits very much in the mountains,” Nie Huaisang continues uneasily. “They’re isolated, which is why it took so long for us to be notified of the beast.”

Jiang Cheng knows. He saw the mountains flying here. He’s not seen roads. A carriage will take weeks.

Nie Huaisang clears his throat. “Actually, it is slightly easier to reach this village from Qinghe,” he says.

Jiang Cheng swallows a groan.

“And I understand if you would rather not, but please consider resting in Qinghe for a while.”

 


 

A light layer of snow dusts the ground when the carriage passes the gates of the Unclean Realm. Jiang Cheng can’t help the hint of nostalgia rising at the sight. Little has changed in the years that have passed; even many of the faces have stayed the same.

His heart aches.

Nie Huaisang gives him space. Or perhaps he is busy, Jiang Cheng doesn’t know. He finds himself watching the snow fall as he remembers and fights the tangle of emotions coiled around his heart. He should not forgive Nie Huaisang for his lies, for his cold-hearted scheming. He should understand avenging a brother and uncovering crime. He should…

A familiar bottle of drink arrives in his rooms with an invitation.

“You can yell at me it you want to,” Nie Huaisang offers in the evening. Jiang Cheng had followed that old path to the pavilion, taken the bottle with him. “I can even yell back, if that helps.”

And Jiang Cheng finds he’s had enough of yelling at people. All the rage left him fatigued, so even if a voice in the back of his mind screeches at him not to forgive, he elects to drink in silence.

They go from there. Drinking in silent companionship to tentative exchanges. Fragments of news from the world to shared memories. Missing puzzle pieces to more personal experiences.

It’s a slower progress. But this time, as the snow melts, that connection remains.

 

The End