When morning comes, Jiang Cheng wakes up cold.
But this is not unusual. Yunmeng only heats up when the sun flits across its waters, pushing the night’s chill out of its rooms and riverways to make way for the day’s work. Knowing this, the residents of Lotus Pier dress warmly for sleep, exchanging their layers for airier robes at daybreak.
Jiang Cheng knows this, obviously. He has lived here longer than anyone else and is only cold because the sheets have slipped from his shoulders and chest, exposing bare skin to the bite of the morning wind, and because the other body keeping him warm is now absent from his bed.
He gets up and gets dressed in his airy sect uniform, and heads out to find it.
It is not exactly morning, not yet. Jiang Cheng is not a late riser, but the cold has shaken him awake just as the skies begin to shed their darkest blues, darker than the usual shades he sees when he opens his eyes. Dawn’s light paints the old wooden walkways with something new—they really are old now, even though if he tries he can still remember the weight of each plank in his hands as he’d set them in place, one by one.
It is on one of these well-trodden paths that he finds Nie Huaisang, a dark cloth over his shoulders and his elbows upon the railing, silently watching the water. He says without turning, “Thank you for your concern, but I’m not lost.”
Jiang Cheng had been trying to keep his footsteps quiet. “Good, I wouldn’t know what to tell the Nie Sect if I’d somehow misplaced their clan head,” he replies.
At the sound of his voice, Huaisang turns away from the water. His hair hangs unbound and unembellished around his face and down his back, curling around unremarkable grey sleeping robes. “I tucked you in and everything,” he says.
“Not well enough.”
“Oh, you poor dear,” says Huaisang, voice light as his lips curve to tease. “Did you get cold without me?”
“Yes,” says Jiang Cheng.
The mischief slips off Huaisang’s face, leaving just a hint of surprise. “You’re being oddly honest.”
“Don’t count on it. I’m not awake yet.”
Huaisang is, quite unfairly, clearly wide awake, crossing the distance between them with languid ease to rest a hand on Jiang Cheng’s cheek. “You’re cute like this,” he tells him with a soft laugh. In these moments before dawn, his eyes are the brightest stars Jiang Cheng can see. “Like a tiger without claws.”
“I said don’t push it,” Jiang Cheng rumbles, removing Huaisang’s hand from his face. But he doesn’t let go, letting Huaisang lace slender fingers through his rough, calloused ones.
“Come,” Huaisang says as he leads him to the low wooden barricade separating them from the water’s edge. “The sun is about to come up.”
Jiang Cheng lets him, but keeps his frown firmly on his face. “It does that every day,” he says.
Huaisang snorts. The sound is uncouth, at odds with the sanctity of morning and the softness of his face. “One day it won't, and then you'll realise.”
“Whatever. It's a pain. I don't need it.”
“I do,” Huaisang protests. Perhaps he does—the hand in his is cold. Jiang Cheng is close enough now to tell that the cloth Huaisang's wrapped around himself is the dark purple of an undershirt, retrieved from the bedroom floor and nowhere near enough to protect against the chill.
“You don't,” Jiang Cheng tells him, letting go of his hand.
“Huh?” says Huaisang. “Oh,” he adds when Jiang Cheng steps behind him and wraps his arms around his waist to draw him close, ineffective undershirt and all. “How forward, Jiang Wanyin.”
Immediately Jiang Cheng tries to pull away, but stops when Huaisang rests a hand on his forearm.
“Don't second-guess yourself,” Huaisang murmurs, leaning back into Jiang Cheng’s chest and tracing reassuring circles onto his sleeve.
Jiang Cheng itches to roll up the dark fabric, to feel the cold fingers against his skin. “Hmph,” he says instead, resting his cheek atop Huaisang's head.
“Do not fall asleep on my head.”
Jiang Cheng just hums.
“You’re missing the sunrise.”
“I said I don’t need it,” repeats Jiang Cheng, folding his arms tighter around Huaisang. “And you don’t need it either.”
He doesn’t so much hear Huaisang’s laugh as he feels it, shoulders like fluttering wings against his chest. “Is this jealousy? What’re you going to do? Fight the sun?”
“I’ve done it and won,” says Jiang Cheng.
“So you have,” Huaisang agrees, softly.
Huaisang’s hair smells like ink and powder and the water outside Jiang Cheng’s window. “Why didn’t you go back to sleep?”
“My thoughts were loud this morning.” Huaisang twists in Jiang Cheng’s arms to face him properly, lips quirked up at the corners. “I didn’t want to wake you.”
“Hm,” is all Jiang Cheng says, because Huaisang smells like Jiang Cheng’s bed and his hands are on Jiang Cheng’s chest and he really is very close, actually. His hair is down and the sun is fully visible now, the sky orange and grey and blue but Huaisang is looking at none of it and he smells like his shirt and his bed.
“Woke up anyway though,” Jiang Cheng continues.
He only realises he’s taken too long to respond when Huaisang laughs, loud enough for him to hear this time. “Still not all awake yet?”
“Don't know,” says Jiang Cheng. “Are you real, or some dream creature?”
The mischievous spark returns to Huaisang’s eye. “You're welcome to find out.”
It is always like this—a careful hand testing the waters, scattering ripples across Jiang Cheng's restraint. There is only the early morning air, only the tranquil croaking of toads and the faint scent of algae about them and he wavers, but stands resolute.
Huaisang simply closes his eyes.
Jiang Cheng is already leaning down before he realises it, parting his lips to catch the little breathy laugh that escapes Huaisang; again he has lost but each time this consolation prize tastes sweeter on his tongue. The wind picks up and whips some of their hair across their faces and Huaisang breaks away to laugh again, but Jiang Cheng pushes the offending strands back behind Huaisang's ear with a rough hand and chases down the bright sound, muffles it.
“So,” Huaisang says when Jiang Cheng finally lets him up to breathe, looking mighty pleased with himself despite his reddened lips, “am I real, then?”
Jiang Cheng's hand is still held behind Huaisang's ear. He removes it now, watches the dark strands spill over Huaisang's shoulder. “Evidence is inconclusive,” he says.
The wooden planks beneath their feet shake with harried booted footsteps.
They both whirl around to see a young Jiang disciple frozen mid-run behind them, eyes wide. He quickly snaps to attention, greeting them with a bow and an open palm over his fist. “Um, good morning, Sect Leader Jiang.” His eyes flicker to Huaisang, once, twice, then seems to finally recognise him without all the pomp and fancy fabrics and adds, “And Sect Leader Nie.”
Jiang Cheng nods curtly. “Early to training. That's good.”
“Oh I'm late, actually,” the disciple says, then seems to realise he's admitting to a transgression in front of two sect leaders and blushes right red. “Um, I'll be off, then! Bye!” he blurts out, and continues on his mad dash to the training grounds.
From where he's still nestled into his side, Huaisang asks, “Do I really look that bad?”
“Yeah, you're hideous without all that shiny crap you wear.”
The sky is blue now. Lotus Pier has woken up around them while they weren't looking, and now morning is here.
Jiang Cheng realises that his arm is wrapped too tightly about Huaisang's waist and makes to let go, but Huaisang catches his hand and places it on his hip. “I think we could just go right back to bed,” he says. “Don't you think?”
Jiang Cheng snorts like his fingers aren't already curling themselves around the delicate jut of bone. “Unlike you, I have real work to do.”
“Whatever happened to hospitality?” chides Huaisang. “Where are your manners, Jiang Wanyin? Does the Jiang Sect not entertain guests? Is this how you treat them, like freeloaders eating all your food and sleeping in your be—mffgh!”
Jiang Cheng continues to pinch at the front of Huaisang's face, watching as his mouth flaps angrily like a fish's. “You're no guest. And you're right, I'm hungry.”
Huaisang slaps Jiang Cheng's hand away from his face and massages his cheeks like he's trying to un-squish them. “At least let me change into something respectable first.”
The undershirt has slipped off Huaisang's shoulders, hanging off his elbows like a shawl. Jiang Cheng wraps it back around him and says, “You look fine. Let's get food.”
“Jiang Wanyin,” Huaisang says.
Jiang Cheng watches the way his mouth moves over his courtesy name, the soft syllables made softer still in his gentle voice. “Yes,” he responds.
“Are you an idiot?” snaps the gentle voice. “Is your head made of wood? You think I'm going to show my face in front of all your people wearing next to nothing?”
“No,” replies Jiang Cheng.
“That's correct,” Huaisang says, then extricates himself from Jiang Cheng's grasp and sets off in the direction of Jiang Cheng's rooms, the dark purple shirt billowing behind him like a capelet.
Jiang Cheng catches up to him quickly with his longer strides. “But someone already saw you,” he protests.
“I'll have to eliminate him, of course. I'm joking,” he adds when Jiang Cheng pins him with a thunderous frown. “Don’t look at me like that. Why are you following me? Go get your food.”
“Don’t you… need help,” Jiang Cheng mumbles, “or anything.”
Huaisang squints suspiciously at him, then smiles. “Are you offering?”
Jiang Cheng won’t look at him. “I guess.”
Huaisang doesn’t respond immediately, choosing instead to continue smiling like that. An old servant man passes them and Huaisang stops him with a raised hand and a smile. “Good morning, uncle,” he greets in his usual placid, regal tone, despite being severely underdressed for it. “Fine day, isn’t it? Would you be so kind as to do me a favour?”
The servant man glances at Jiang Cheng, who nods and hopes he doesn’t look too bemused. “Of course. Anything for this young master,” says the servant man.
“Oh, I’m not young anymore, really!” Huaisang laughs.
Jiang Cheng coughs. “This is Sect Leader Nie.”
Hearing this, the servant man scrutinises Huaisang’s beaming face until finally he exclaims, “So it is! You look so different!”
“Different good or different bad?” asks Huaisang, all faux coy.
“Of course it wouldn’t be different bad,” replies the servant man with ease, “when it’s the same handsome face!”
“A good answer, a good answer! Drinks are on me on your next day off!”
“Sect Leader Nie, you are generous, but I can’t oblige! I’ve been trying to drink less, you see, for my health.”
“Oh, is that so? That’s quite admirable.”
“Sect Leader Nie,” interrupts Jiang Cheng, “We shouldn’t bother Uncle Liu for too long. What was the favour?”
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” Uncle Liu says. “More importantly, he still calls you Sect Leader Nie?”
Huaisang nods, mournfully. “He’s very proper.”
“ Huaisang. ”
“And impatient. Don’t mind him,” Huaisang says with a wave of his hand. “I just wanted to ask, could you let the kitchen know we’ll be late to breakfast?”
“Late?” Uncle Liu glances at Jiang Cheng again, who fights to keep his face impassive. “I see, I see! Anything for you, Sect Leader Nie.”
Huaisang grins, holding a finger up to his mouth. “Shh! But thank you, Uncle Liu.”
“How are you so shameless,” Jiang Cheng says, once Uncle Liu has bustled away with a bow for him and a wink for Huaisang.
“It’s fine, isn’t it?” Huaisang tilts his head as he looks up at him. “I live here now, too.”
“You… you live…” Jiang Cheng swallows, and tries again. “I have a reputation.”
“For being an old fuddy-duddy.”
An understatement. Jiang Cheng is not a fool. He knows the way people snap to attention when they see him, how conversations interrupt themselves and how replies grow stilted. It is not something that will fix itself just because he has found himself someone who smiles all the right smiles and knows all the right things to say.
When he goes quiet, Huaisang punches him in the side. He barely feels it but he puts a hand to his ribs, regardless. “What.”
Jiang Cheng knows there’s no point in trying to deny anything, and just frowns.
“Your people know what you’ve done for them, and they care for you,” Huaisang tells him.
There is a pointless, scathing retort on his tongue, ready to do its damage. But the sun is up, and there are disciples and servants alike making their way about upon the walkways. Each footstep reverberates under his feet, upon the pier he’d rebuilt with his own two hands. “I’ll do right by them,” he says instead.
Huaisang reaches up to Jiang Cheng’s face again and pats his cheek. “I know you will.”
Jiang Cheng places his hand over Huaisang’s, then sighs and closes his eyes, turning his face into the cold skin. It’s soft still, the unbroken skin of a life lived with no hardships, but there are small imperfections—here, a callus from half-hearted sabre practice, there, the scratch of a thumbnail untrimmed and across the palm, a long, pale scar, imperceptible save for the touch of skin on skin.
When he opens his eyes again, Huaisang is wide-eyed and red-faced. “Wanyin,” he says, voice low.
It is not unusual that Nie Huaisang appears vulnerable: he casts himself as small, even with all his finery and his wiles. But it is not often that Jiang Cheng catches him with guard down, if at all. “If your thoughts are loud,” says Jiang Cheng, “then wake me. I will hear them.”
“Okay,” Huaisang whispers.
Perhaps someone does see when Sect Leader Jiang steps forward and pulls an unfamiliar man in sleepwear into his arms, and perhaps the man laughs too loud and too bright as Jiang Cheng hoists him over his shoulder like a burlap sack. But they also know that the head of the Nie clan has arrived in Yunmeng just yesterday and that they will only have a few days together before he has to return, and so they will speak nothing of it.
Fundamentally, the strength that comes from a union between those of different sects is the promise of a child carrying the bloodlines and hopes of both. If true affection is involved, then all the better. One will marry into the other house, giving up most of their responsibilities to their family and people.
There is no protocol for what they have.
It is almost two years into their dalliance when Jiang Cheng brings it up, one quiet night in Lotus Pier. If they were anyone else then perhaps the way they find each other would be easy by now, practiced, but their hands and mouths are still clumsy. They never have enough time.
“We should end this,” Jiang Cheng says that night, his eyes shadowed with moonlight.
Nie Huaisang is calm, because they are lying as close together as they can without actually fitting into each other and Jiang Cheng’s face and chest are still faintly flushed and his fingers are curled into Huaisang's hips, warm and firm and ever so slightly trembling. “Okay,” he replies in a cold, dead voice and watches as those brows pinch together, the dark eyes underneath going wide. “If I am somehow insufficient,” Huaisang adds, “if it is what you want, then I will agree to it.”
“God.” Jiang Cheng lifts one of his hands from Huaisang’s skin and wipes roughly at his eyes with the back of it. He doesn't look at Huaisang. “At least put up some kind of fight. Don’t scare me like that.”
Huaisang reaches out and pinches Jiang Cheng’s cheek until he gets Jiang Cheng’s full attention again. Fond irritation seeps into his gaze, pushing out the red at the corners. “Then what did you say it for? Are you testing me? How dare you.”
“I…” The sentence fails, and Jiang Cheng puts a hand back on Huaisang’s bare waist. He shivers at the returning warmth, at the reminder of heat shared just moments before. “What do we do now?” Jiang Cheng asks, finally.
“We can do anything we want,” Huaisang says.
It’s an easy answer, but it’s not the one Jiang Cheng wants. “We can’t ,” he says. “You know we can’t.”
Huaisang cannot refute this, because it is true. “What is it you want, regardless?”
“You should already know what I want,” Jiang Cheng tells him, voice ragged.
“It’s always nice to be reminded,” replies Huaisang, wondering if Jiang Cheng can feel how his pulse beats too quickly under his skin.
“You already know,” Jiang Cheng repeats. “But what about you?”
“Me?” Huaisang smiles. “I’m simple, you know. I’ll want anything you want.”
“Stop it,” Jiang Cheng says, his brows furrowed so deep. “What is it you want? From me.”
It had been a nice day. They’d had conferences all the way into the night, of course, but all of it painted over with the promise of closeness until dawn and thus still tolerable, especially when Huaisang slips double-talk into his rhetoric and gets to see Jiang Cheng fighting back a blush right there in his own conference hall.
It is the first time he has felt alive since—
“Please,” Huaisang says. “Tell me again what you want. So I know what to say.”
Jiang Cheng lifts his head from the pillow and brings his lips to Huaisang’s ear. First there is gentle breath, followed by gentler words. Huaisang lets his eyes close.
“I think,” he says, but his voice cracks on the last syllable and he has to try again. “I think that would be nice,” is what he ends up with, a poor match to what the low voice in his ear has told him.
When he opens his eyes, he doesn't know if Jiang Cheng's face truly does fall or if his own clouded mind and beating heart has thrown something across Jiang Cheng's expression that isn't there. But he folds himself into Jiang Cheng anyway, finding the warmth of his neck so he doesn't have to look into those eyes. “I'm sorry,” he says into the air. “It was a test, wasn't it? I'm sorry.”
He feels the rise of Jiang Cheng’s ribcage pulling in a shuddering breath. “Do I ask too much?” he asks. Huaisang will not look at him, but the tremor in his voice is plain to hear.
“Yes. No. I don’t know.” A laugh fights its way out of Huaisang’s mouth as he wraps his arms around Jiang Cheng and pulls him close, half hysteria and half wonder. “But I’m happy. I’m really happy.”
Jiang Cheng clings to him right back, his fingers scrabbling clumsily at Huaisang's shoulders. “So you don't mind?”
“How could I possibly?” His hammering pulse is definitely on full display now, this close to Jiang Cheng. But there is a another erratic rhythm under his, reassuring in its stuttering. “You are so… You are so good.”
“Good?” Huaisang can hear the smile in his voice. “That's all?”
“You be quiet.”
“Your glib tongue failing you?”
“As though my tongue has ever failed you.”
He can practically hear Jiang Cheng's sulking as he shuts up.
They lie there for a little bit, limbs tangled in linen and each other. Huaisang hums something meaningless as he threads his fingers through the loose bits of hair down Jiang Cheng’s neck. The muscles under his hands untense in response, and Jiang Cheng sighs into the line of Huaisang’s jaw. The great Sandu Shengshou sheathing his claws for Nie Huaisang and Nie Huaisang alone.
“I will change everything else,” Huaisang says.
“Mm?” asks Jiang Cheng.
“For you, I will change everything else.”
“Wuh you mean,” Jiang Cheng mumbles sleepily.
He grumbles as Huaisang pulls away from him, but falls silent when he sees the expression on Huaisang’s face. “Come live with me in Qinghe,” he says.
Jiang Cheng frowns. “I’ve already done that.”
“Not on a trip as Sect Leader Jiang,” Huaisang explains patiently. “As Jiang Wanyin, my love. Come and live with me and my family.”
It’s like he’s slapped Jiang Cheng across the face. “With your…” he murmurs. “As your…?”
“My people will be fine. I just…” Huaisang glances away, or as much as he can while Jiang Cheng is still right there in front of him. “I didn't know if you would be.”
Instead of speaking, Jiang Cheng chooses to lean over and brush his lips to the corner of Huaisang’s mouth, light and chaste even though they’d already shared greater passions earlier in the night.
A laugh bubbles unbidden out of the warmth blooming in Huaisang’s chest, and he’s still grinning against Jiang Cheng’s mouth as he promises, “We will tell everyone.”
“Wanyin- xiong! ”
A middle-aged man in deep green robes drapes himself all over a bemused Jiang Cheng the moment he steps into the banquet hall. “Hello and congratulations, Nie- xiong, ” Jiang Cheng tells him as one flailing hand narrowly misses his nose.
The man finally regains control of his limbs and grasps Jiang Cheng by the shoulders. “What's all that formality for? No, never mind! You have to help me, I don't know what to do!”
Jiang Cheng frowns and steadies him by the elbows. “Has something happened?”
“Yes,” the man sobs. “I can't believe I'm finally a fa—! Ow, ow.”
“Wanyin- xiong , we're so glad you could come!” A woman around his age steps up to them, one hand firmly pinching the ear of her drunk husband to peel him off Jiang Cheng. She wears a stern expression on her delicate features in the same elegant manner with which she wears the faint rise of her belly. “Qing- ge , stop making a fuss. You’re going to be a father soon.”
“I know, Pei- er, ” Nie Qingde sobs.
Jiang Cheng smiles at them. “It’s been so long. I’m very happy for you both.”
“Your well-wishes are very appreciated, Wanyin- xiong ! Sorry about Qingde, he’s been drinking my share,” Wu Peiyi says, while her husband blubbers and puts his head on her shoulder.
“Knowing how much you can drink, it’s no wonder he’s like this now.”
Wu Peiyi laughs. “I really am going to miss it, but I think it’s a worthy trade.”
A-jie had never been the drinking type, so there was never any need to worry about these matters. “I think so too.”
“Go enjoy the rest of the banquet while you still can, Wanyin- xiong, ” says Wu Peiyi. “Because they’ll run out of food, I mean,” she hurries to add.
Jiang Cheng shakes his head lightly. “It’s no matter. Thank you for your concern. And congratulations again,” he stresses, hoping he sounds sincere. “Children truly are a blessing.”
It must work, because Wu Peiyi beams at him and gives him a slight bow that dislodges her husband from her shoulder. “That means a lot,” she says, and it sounds sincere. Nie Qingde stands up as straight as he can and bows low with an open palm over his fist, and Jiang Cheng mirrors the gesture towards them both.
“Go, go, enjoy the festivities! Don’t keep your man waiting,” Nie Qingde says, giving him a little shove away from them.
Jiang Cheng is saved from having to come up with a response when a small crowd of well-wishers mob Nie Qingde and his wife, whisking them away in a flurry of cheers and more wine. One blink and he is a lone figure in purple amidst greens and greys and golds.
Fair enough. Where is his man , then?
Strings of red and white lanterns line the ceiling while spiritual flames flicker along the walls, illuminating the shadows that the lanterns don’t reach. The whole town must be here, disciples and common folk alike—Nie Qingde and his wife are known for their work with the residents of Qinghe and are widely popular among both sides of the realm—and Nie Huaisang doesn’t exactly cut a striking figure even on the best of days. If the happy couple are this busy, he can’t imagine where their sect leader has been bundled off to.
Yet, halfway through the hall, between greetings from familiar faces and niceties shouted above the din of the banquet, there is a shift in the crowd, and his eyes catch upon the glint of a golden hair-clasp. Long dark hair streams down from it, almost obscuring the clothing beneath—and what a shame, if it did. A waterfall of deep red begins at the high collar of a cloak and ends in an elegant sweep above booted feet; Jiang Cheng knows that if he pries off the gold plating he will find a pair of slim shoulders carefully hidden underneath. The whole piece seems to glimmer faintly in the firelight. Incomprehensible.
Then the cloak’s wearer steps back, and amidst the swirl of red Jiang Cheng can make out dark grey robes held in place by the familiar black belt with the Nie emblem on its front. Clearly the cloak was supposed to be the only piece of finery upon the otherwise unremarkable (for his man , anyway) outfit that day, but the sinuous movement of the heavy cloak still emphasises the length of those legs, still exposes the curve of his waist.
When Jiang Cheng finally drags his gaze past the slope of his chest and the high collar framing the long neck he meets dark eyes already watching him, appraising his appraisal. He feels his face warm as though he's been caught doing something he isn't supposed to.
What’re you looking at, Nie Huaisang mouths at him.
Jiang Cheng mimes throwing long hair over his shoulder, then tugs haughtily at the collar of a pretend coat.
Huaisang starts to laugh, but stops himself as he realises that he’s accidentally derailed the conversation he was supposed to be in. The slender older man he’d been speaking to turns and spots Jiang Cheng and raises a hand in jovial greeting, while the towering woman beside him with the same stern brow slaps Huaisang’s shoulder so hard he stumbles in Jiang Cheng’s direction. Huaisang turns and seems to snap something back, holding where he’d been hit. She just sticks out her tongue, the childish gesture at odds with the sharp formality of her robes.
Unlike how Jiang Cheng had been accosted left and right by high-spirited acquaintances as he made his way through the hall, the crowd seems to part before Nie Huaisang. His people step back from him and only draw back together once he’s passed them with a small nod and a faint smile.
Jiang Cheng stands perfectly straight to receive him, as primly as any consort should. As Huaisang steps towards him he offers an arm for him to take, but Huaisang continues to step closer and closer until he’s walked right into Jiang Cheng, then drops his head on his shoulder and sighs deeply.
“Oi, you,” Jiang Cheng chides for only Huaisang to hear. “Manners.”
Huaisang doesn’t move, just holds up his hand. One moment.
The moment stretches, and Jiang Cheng begins to feel eyes on them. He puts a hand on the back of Huaisang’s head, half to comfort, half to shield. His hair is soft.
One long exhale later, Huaisang finally peels his face off of Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. “Come, you haven’t eaten, have you?” he asks in his usual placid tone, like there aren’t marks on his forehead from the embroidery on Jiang Cheng’s hastily-packed banquet clothes. “How was the journey? Did you get settled in properly?”
“Don’t fuss. I know how this place works.” Jiang Cheng itches to smooth a thumb over those shallow prints, but the world is watching and so he settles for putting his own arm through Huaisang's to tug him along. “What happened,” he asks. It seems Huaisang's presence envelops him enough that the crowd parts for them both, now.
“I know they care about me,” Huaisang sighs as he places a hand over where Jiang Cheng's rests on his forearm. “But I am still an adult, you know.”
“Of course I know.”
He gives Jiang Cheng a sidelong glance. “No rebuttal?”
“Are you in the mood for one?”
Huaisang laughs under his breath, for only Jiang Cheng to hear. “Not really, no.”
A space opens up for them as they approach the banquet table, but Jiang Cheng marches them right past the feast and towards the array of wines and liquor on display. Huaisang lets out a confused noise. “I'm not hungry,” Jiang Cheng says, putting a cup into Huaisang's free hand and taking another for himself. “We're stepping outside.”
“It'll go right to your head if you don't eat,” Huaisang scolds.
Jiang Cheng sighs. “Don't fuss,” he says again, training his famous glare on Huaisang. To his credit Huaisang doesn't so much as twitch under it, but he does let himself be led through the crowd and out of the banquet hall.
The summer night's air doesn't provide much respite from the stuffiness that comes from half a town cramming themselves into one hall, but the noise is at least somewhat subdued. A couple of stragglers wander about the square. Jiang Cheng stares at the ones nearest to them until they discreetly make themselves scarce.
Huaisang raps him lightly across the knuckles with his fan.
“No, it doesn't,” says Huaisang. “Play nice.” But he lets out another long exhale and sags into Jiang Cheng's side with all his weight and Jiang Cheng can't really find it in himself to feel bad at all. He wraps his arm around Huaisang to hold him steady.
“They like you,” Huaisang adds, quiet even though there’s no one around to hear. “Don’t ruin it over me.”
Jiang Cheng scoffs. “As though their favour would be worth anything if I didn’t have yours.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Huaisang says, sipping at his wine. “Perhaps this was all a ruse to claim Qinghe for yourself, and any moment now you’ll pull out a dagger and end me while my people cheer.”
Jiang Cheng pulls away from Huaisang to stare down into his face. At first Huaisang seems about to complain about the loss of touch, then sees the stern look on Jiang Cheng’s face and looks off to the side.
“Don't be ridiculous,” Jiang Cheng says.
“I’m working on it,” Huaisang says, examining a shrub that Jiang Cheng’s certain isn’t more interesting than him.
Jiang Cheng sighs. “You look nice today.”
Appealing to Huaisang’s vanity doesn’t seem to work today; all Jiang Cheng receives is an unimpressed look, but at least he’s gotten his attention back. “It’s just this cloak over my usual clothes.”
“Well, it looks good,” Jiang Cheng insists, petulant.
“But you, on the other hand,” Huaisang cuts in, trailing off meaningfully. He steps a few paces backward to appraise Jiang Cheng, his red cloak fluttering about his calves as he moves.
“Hey,” Jiang Cheng protests, but Huaisang lifts a finger languidly to his lips and Jiang Cheng forgets what he was going to say.
Huaisang's eyes go sharp as they roam the length of Jiang Cheng’s body, taking in the embroidery across his chest, the light ceremonial armor on one shoulder, the silver bell at his waist. Something at his hip catches Huaisang's attention, and he lingers there for a moment before trailing his gaze back upwards. Jiang Cheng feels it as keenly as the touch of fingers upon his skin, up, up, until Huaisang meets his eyes again.
There is a dark fire in them that makes Jiang Cheng curl his hand tighter around his cup. He swallows. Huaisang's eyes drop to his throat, following the movement, then lowers his gaze further as he takes a sip from his own cup.
“Acceptable,” he says.
Jiang Cheng almost sputters. “A-acceptable?”
“It's just a simple outfit for a small celebration, isn't it?” Huaisang shrugs carelessly. “The embroidery’s nice, I suppose.”
Technically, Huaisang hadn't done anything to him, but Jiang Cheng still feels heat in his cheeks. It's driving him a little mad. “That's all?”
“Did you put a lot of effort into picking it out?”
“... No,” replies Jiang Cheng.
Huaisang raises his chin to look down his nose at Jiang Cheng, every inch a haughty prince. “Then why do you care?”
Jiang Cheng expects to feel irritation, but his chest fills with a much quieter warmth. “Feeling better already?” he asks.
The haughty look falls off Huaisang's face instantly, leaving only a faintly pleased expression. “Much better,” Huaisang says, toasting him from a few chi's distance away. “Thank you for saving me.”
Come back here, he wants to say, here where I can hold you. He takes a swig from his cup and scoffs, “All you have to say to your benefactor is ‘acceptable’?”
A fan materialises in Huaisang's hand, snapping open in front of his face. His companion for the evening is an understated beauty, creamy paper flowering in reds and pinks and lined with delicate streaks of gold. If lowered to his side it'd blend seamlessly into the extravagant fabric of his cloak, but against his skin it only serves to hint at pale lips hidden behind paper.
Jiang Cheng wants to rip it out of his hands and toss it into the shrubbery.
“I'm sparing you the details,” Huaisang says, voice slightly muffled, unaware of the blasphemy Jiang Cheng is committing in his head. “You might not be able to handle the truth.”
“Ridiculous. Who do you think I am?”
Huaisang hums. “I wonder. Who do you think you are?”
Jiang Cheng doesn't like what that tone might mean. “What are you talking about?”
The fan glides shut, and he points it at the spot on Jiang Cheng's hip that had caught his attention before. “Where did you get that?”
Oh. “You left it in our room,” he says, absently fingering the ring of nephrite that he'd affixed to his belt, tracing the familiar lines of the engravings with his thumb. “I was going to return it to you today.”
“By wearing it?”
Jiang Cheng colours again, just a little. “...I thought it'd match my clothes.”
Huaisang taps his chin with his fan. “White jade on purple, hm? I suppose it does.”
“Look,” Jiang Cheng says through gritted teeth, “I don't know what you're talking about but you can just have it back if it's that much trouble.” He begins to unfasten the strings, but a hand reaches out and smacks his own fingers flush to the nephrite, trapping them there against his belt.
Huaisang has stashed away his fan and crossed the distance between them in the span of a heartbeat, without spilling a single drop of wine. “No, it's fine,” he says, a little breathlessly. “You keep it.”
Jiang Cheng stares down into his face, so close to his now, and so suddenly. “What is it,” he asks, voice rough.
“It's mine,” Huaisang says. “Anyone in the Nie Sect who sees it will know it's mine and mine alone. No one else's.”
Jiang Cheng swallows, again. “The sect leader's nephrite?”
“I've been wearing it the whole evening.”
Huaisang nods again.
“I swear to you I am not planning a coup.”
At this Huaisang laughs, pulling his hand away from Jiang Cheng's side. “A toast,” he says as he raises his cup, his eyes alight. “To the new sect leader.”
This close, Jiang Cheng can see gold threads finely latticed along the length of the his cloak, giving it its strange shimmer even in the moonlight. But it is the heavy red fabric that dries Jiang Cheng’s mouth and locks up his limbs.
Left hanging, Huaisang tilts his head and makes a little bemused sound.
Before reason can take him, Jiang Cheng leans forward and hooks his wrist around Huaisang's outstretched arm, then draws his cup back to his lips and downs all of it in one go. The wine burns hot and heady as it hits the back of his throat.
When he lowers his cup, Huaisang's staring at him open-mouthed, his wine still untouched. Jiang Cheng places two fingers on the side of Huaisang's cup and pushes it to his mouth, crossing their arms more tightly together. “Drink, you,” Jiang Cheng mutters roughly.
Huaisang drinks. His eyes don't leave Jiang Cheng's face, and he doesn't retrieve his arm even after he's emptied the cup—just stands there, lips wet with wine, lightly parted.
“Say something,” Jiang Cheng urges once it's clear Huaisang isn't going to.
“Hah,” Huaisang replies, but it is not so much a word as a choked exhale of air.
Jiang Cheng is used to patient fingers trailing ripples along his self-restraint, teasing something, anything out of the waters. Now a confused “what—” is all he manages before Huaisang rips his arm away from his, flinging his empty cup into the shrubbery before throwing himself full force at Jiang Cheng.
He first registers Huaisang's face crashing painfully into his, then feels his own cup fall from his hand as he wraps his arms tightly around Huaisang's waist right as the world tilts, throwing them both onto soft grass.
It knocks the wind right out of him. His face hurts. They stay there for a bit, once Huaisang’s lifted own his face from Jiang Cheng’s and buried it into his shoulder. Jiang Cheng breathes, feeling Huaisang’s body heavy on his chest.
Then Huaisang starts and pushes himself up on his elbows, freeing his hands to check Jiang Cheng's face for injury. His own face is a mess and his hair even more so. “I think you bruised my mouth,” Jiang Cheng says as the soft fingertips on his jaw turn his head this way and that.
Satisfied that he hasn't broken Jiang Cheng's nose or something, Huaisang sighs, then snaps, “Is that how you ask?!”
Jiang Cheng lifts his chin defiantly. “Is that how you answer?”
A few moments pass as Huaisang considers the question, followed by a toneless shriek, like a vengeful ghost. Then he grabs Jiang Cheng's face and kisses him again and Jiang Cheng finds that he is very much alive, that they both are. When they break apart, Huaisang rests his forehead on Jiang Cheng’s instead of pulling away. His hair spills down around them like a curtain.
“I already asked you once before,”Jiang Cheng murmurs, words spoken with Huaisang’s breath in his lungs. “You didn’t answer, either.”
He thinks Huaisang’s eyes might be closed. It’s hard to see. “It was too soon.”
“We’ve known each other over twenty years.”
“Not all of them,” Huaisang replies. “I didn’t love you for all of them, and neither did you.”
Jiang Cheng is quiet.
Huaisang takes in a shuddering breath. “Tell me you didn’t love me for all those years. Promise me you didn’t.”
“I didn’t,” Jiang Cheng lies.
“Thank god,” says Huaisang. “Thank god.”
“But you love me now.” Something in his chest constricts the moment he speaks the words and he has to add, quiet as a prayer, “Don’t you.”
“Don’t second-guess yourself,” Huaisang whispers, and takes Jiang Cheng’s lips with such careful slowness that Jiang Cheng's fingers begin to curl impatiently into the rich fabric of Huaisang's red cloak. His pulse races. Say it. Say it.
“Ahem,” someone says from very far away.
“This cloak is new,” Huaisang complains against Jiang Cheng’s mouth.
“Shut up,” says Jiang Cheng, and shuts him up.
“ Ahem,” says the voice again, loudly enough that they both freeze up. “My goodness. Do you still think yourselves youths?”
Huaisang shoots off Jiang Cheng like an arrow from a bow.
He hits the grass rolling and seems to just keep going, but Jiang Cheng can’t tell because he’s already scrambled to his feet and is pointedly looking everywhere but in Huaisang’s direction. “Hello, auntie,” Jiang Cheng says, a little too loudly. “How have you been?”
‘Auntie’ stands almost eye-level with him, still cutting an imposing figure in formal clothing even though the ceremonial armor is now missing and her outfit is a lot unrulier than it’d been while she was speaking with Huaisang. “Bad, actually,” she says. “You know family. But really, would be a lot better if I didn’t have to see that.”
Jiang Cheng is saved from having to embarrass himself further by Huaisang, who says from quite some distance to his left, “Hello, Aunt Fenghua!” He adds an easy laugh, even though his face is flushed and his hair is a rumpled mess. God, how does Jiang Cheng look? “Fancy seeing you out here!”
“I live here,” Aunt Fenghua says.
“What, in the courtyard?” Huaisang asks breezily as Jiang Cheng goggles at him.
“No!” she retorts, looking annoyed. “Not anymore.”
Jiang Cheng thinks he might scream. “Huaisang,” he says in a voice an octave higher than usual, but it’s not a scream, so. “I think we should leave Aunt Fenghua to her fresh air.”
“Of course, of course,” Huaisang replies, still about two arm-lengths away from him. “Aren’t you hungry, Wanyin?”
“Starving,” agrees Jiang Cheng.
“Good thing we have a lot of banquet left, haha!” Now Huaisang steps towards him, but only to elbow him in the direction of the banquet hall. “We’ll be off, then!”
“I suppose I’ll just have to pretend I didn’t see anything,” Aunt Fenghua says, solemnly.
“Please do,” Huaisang replies, matching her funereal tone. Then he starts hustling Jiang Cheng at top speed back towards the hall.
“H-hey,” Jiang Cheng protests in an undertone as he stumbles to match Huaisang’s pace. “I’m not done talking to you yet.”
From behind them comes the sharp peal of ceramic shattering under a boot, followed by a voice bellowing, “ Nie Huaisang!”
“Ah,” mutters Jiang Cheng.
Huaisang speaks an expletive with the calm, even tone of a scholar reading poetry, and starts walking faster with one hand on the small of Jiang Cheng’s back.
They sweep back into the hall with no fanfare. The celebrations have begun to wind down; most the wine is gone, and the revellers with obligations come morning have all already left. But there are still eyes upon them, enough so that Jiang Cheng tugs Huaisang towards one corner of the hall and places himself between Huaisang and the crowd.
Most of the red has faded from Huaisang's cheeks and returned his face to his usual unassuming demeanor, but Sect Leader Nie would never let himself be seen like this, with the tangles in his hair and the skewed lines of his clothes. Jiang Cheng begins a clumsy attempt to fix what he can.
Huaisang makes a pleased little noise as Jiang Cheng combs his fingers through his hair. “Here, let me help,” he says and reaches up to release his gold hair-clasp, letting his hair fall all over his shoulders.
“Nie Huaisang,” Jiang Cheng seethes, snatching up the clasp and hurrying to pull Huaisang's hair back into something presentable. “Where's your propriety! We are in public!”
“We might be a bit far from propriety now,” Huaisang muses as he straightens Jiang Cheng's clothes and brushes bits of grass off them.
“Ridiculous!’ Jiang Cheng continues to fume as he works: comb this bit back, but not too much. Brush loose strands out of his eyes. Attach the clasp, straighten the ribbons. “You are ridiculous,” repeats Jiang Cheng. “There. Done.”
Huaisang bats his eyelashes. “Pretty now?”
“I see,” replies Huaisang, nodding. “Must be all the shiny stuff I wear.”
Jiang Cheng snorts. “And me?”
“What about you?”
“Do I look presentable,” he clarifies.
“The moment you stepped into the banquet hall,” Huaisang begins, light and easy and low and already Jiang Cheng feels his breath catch. “I couldn’t take my eyes off you. You were the only speck of colour in all this red and you had everyone’s attention and you didn’t even know it.”
Jiang Cheng distantly notes that he’d somehow bitten off too much to chew with just one simple question, but he has no time to dwell on this; Huaisang has caught his hands, soft thumbs pressing gently, insistently, into each of Jiang Cheng’s wrists, demanding his full attention.
“And then you looked at me.” There is another note in Huaisang’s voice now, one Jiang Cheng recognises from quiet nights alone in the study or quiet mornings by the river—never in the last dregs of a great banquet, under a dozen watchful eyes. It is almost a warble, almost a rasp. “And you,” he says, then stops and laughs and Jiang Cheng remembers how they’d greeted each other and feels his face flush at the sound. “You,” Huaisang says again, and stops like it’s the end of his sentence, like that’s all that needs to be said.
Jiang Cheng’s fingers flex restlessly in Huaisang’s grasp. “Does this mean,” is all he manages, surprised that his voice even works at all.
“Yes,” replies Huaisang.
“Yes, Wanyin. That’s exactly what I mean.”
Oh. “Oh.” Jiang Cheng considers this. “But when?”
Huaisang huffs a breath of laughter. “I don’t know. We’ll have to prepare. There’s lots to account for and plenty of work to be done.”
Jiang Cheng silently considers this as well, just as he considers the way Huaisang has laced their hands together, his slender unmarred fingers bumping and sliding against Jiang Cheng’s calloused sword-worn phalanges.
“Why does it matter?” Huaisang asks. There is a smile clear in his voice, and Jiang Cheng draws his gaze back upwards to see it. “We have so much time.”
Jiang Cheng has asked, and asked, and now Huaisang has answered and it is a promise in all but name. “We have time,” Jiang Cheng echoes, disbelieving.
Something amused and fond takes Huaisang’s face. “What’s come over you? Speak properly.”
“Can we leave?” asks Jiang Cheng.
“Are you hungry?”
“No.” Jiang Cheng tugs at his hands, still twined in Huaisang’s. “Can we leave.”
“We just came back.”
“I don’t care.”
Huaisang casts his gaze out over the remaining people in the hall, then replies, “I suppose this isn’t really my celebration, after all.”
“So we can go, my impatient Wanyin,” Huaisang says with a wry twist of his mouth. Jiang Cheng leans down and presses his lips against it, right there in the banquet hall. “Impatient,” Huaisang says again, quieter, after he has frozen up, then thawed bonelessly into Jiang Cheng’s arms. “We have nothing but time.”
The land is in a tenuous peace. Abolishing the position of Chief Cultivator has restored a semblance of amity between the four largest sects, spurring Yunmeng and Qinghe into assisting the rebuilding efforts of the other two sects. There is still work to be done, but in the span of two years Lan Xichen has emerged from isolation and Jin Ling is swiftly growing into his role as sect leader. Things are stable. Calm. In no time, they will have nothing but time.
“Doesn’t mean I have to waste it,” Jiang Cheng tells Huaisang. He would like nothing more than to remove Huaisang from the premises as quickly and efficiently as possible, but they have tested each other’s public limits enough for one evening, and he simply leads him out by their linked hands.
Both Aunt Fenghua and the remnants of their wine cups are conspicuously missing from the courtyard and Huaisang pulls a face at him that lets him know they’ll probably never hear the end of it come morning. Everything is muted now, the night hanging heavy on the cobblestone paths and the branches of the ginkgo trees, but Jiang Cheng’s footsteps are light and he has to curl his fingers tighter around Huaisang’s so he won’t float away.
Perhaps it will be a thousand more tomorrows of weeks spent apart, of imagining dark hair brushing against his arm, a too-loud laugh in the wind. But Nie Huaisang has promised him the rest of all his tomorrows, tomorrows full of soft skin under his and bawdy words in a soft voice, and Jiang Cheng can wait. Right now his hand is warm, and Huaisang hums something toneless under his breath, and Jiang Cheng knows he will wait.