When the parcels start appearing, Jiang Cheng can’t help thinking that they must be for Wei Wuxian. But each and every time, they’re brought to him.
“Open it, open it, open it!” Wei Wuxian cries, latching onto him with a grin. Nie Huaisang watches from behind his fan, gaze bright and curious. Absently, Jiang Cheng registers the sweep of long eyelashes as Nie Huaisang looks away, begins to fan his face.
“Let him open it how he wants,” Nie Huaisang says; there’s an edge to his soft voice, even if his gaze is distant. Wei Wuxian withdraws, pouting but still vibrating with excitement. Jiang Cheng takes that moment to turn away and unfold the wrapping.
Before it had been things like pressed flowers and scenes painted on polished stones. Today, it’s a small wooden carving of the most adorable puppy. Jiang Cheng holds it up, marveling at the fine detail.
Wei Wuxian exclaims in delight. “The maiden after your heart has quite good taste in gifts! In men , not so much—”
“It’s cute,” Nie Huaisang says, placating. “Do you like it?”
It reminds him of his three puppies from before. Distantly, he thinks he had told someone the story after drinking one night. But the more he tries to remember, he can’t even recall a sliver of the person’s face, as if it was totally covered from his sight.
He puts the puppy by his window. Two more arrive within the next three week. It feels like having Jasmine, Princess, and Love back. It doesn’t hurt as much as he thought it would. Pushing the dull ache down is the thought that someone made these for him.
Someone chose him.
Wei Wuxian is happy to ask all the questions that Jiang Chang won’t. “Do you think she’s pretty? When did she first see you? What do you think she likes best about you? If she’s making you these gifts, she must be hard-working and well-raised, right? And shy because she won’t show herself! What do you think?”
Nie Huaisang purses his lips thoughtfully. “You met some girls in Caiyi, didn’t you?”
“This idiot did,” Jiang Cheng says. Wei Wuxian just flashes an unapologetic grin, gleefully beginning to relay the tale of the sisters with loquats and how they also thought Lan Wangji was handsome.
“Pity,” Wei Wuxian sighs. “I’m sure he would get gifts too if he were a little more relaxed!”
“ You gave him gifts,” Nie Huaisang says. “The book that I lent you, and he destroyed!”
“You’re right!” Wei Wuxian conveniently ignores half of Nie Huaisang’s words. “And if grumpy Jiang Cheng has an admirer, maybe Lan Zhan has hope!”
Jiang Cheng kicks at Wei Wuxian, but it’s half-hearted.
He finds himself not able to imagine a face for this mystery person, but he thinks that they must look kind, and gentle. Someone like that, no matter their looks, must be beautiful. Imagination has never been his forte, though. That’s Wei Wuxian’s, just like everything else.
“Hey!” Wei Wuxian says. “You should leave her a gift back! Or ask her to meet you!”
“What if that scares her?” Nie Huaisang asks. “A shy maiden like that?”
“She has a streak of boldness,” Wei Wuxian argues. “Sending these gifts. She wants him to notice her.”
“As if you know so much,” Jiang Cheng grumbles. For a moment, his own words send a sudden chill down his spine: Wei Wuxian is artful, isn’t he? Would he send these gifts as a prank?
No. No, his brother cannot be that obviously cruel, can he?
Nor, Jiang Cheng reflects, is he capable of making three dog carvings. Unless he had someone do it for him --
“Perhaps not her, but her affections.” Nie Huaisang’s words interrupt his thoughts. “She doesn’t want to reveal herself.”
“Would she really lose face by this?” Wei Wuxian looks thoughtful. “If a woman was out there thinking of me, sending me gifts, my heart would be all hers.”
Like how you are with Lan Wangji?
From the look Nie Huaisang exchanges with him, perhaps he’s noticed as well.
The room is warm, crammed full of disciples and overflowing with drink and chatter.
Wei Wuxian’s laughter is uproarious, as usual. Jiang Cheng smiles around his cup, tries to keep up with everything that his brother already drank.
He knows it’s not a competition. He knows that drinking this much will just send him teetering over the edge. There’s a fine line between the embrace of liquor, where he’s wrapped in warmth, floating without a care, and the moment where it’ll choke him.
Still, Wei Wuxian is drinking from what must be his sixth jug of Emperor’s Smile, so Jiang Cheng keeps drinking too.
He ends up watching Nie Huaisang. Alcohol brings him out from behind that fan a bit more, but sometimes he’ll still snap it open, flutter it over his flushed cheeks. Nie Huaisang is the pretty picture of demureness, but Jiang Cheng sees how he watches everyone in the room, seemingly taking mental notes of what they do and storing it away.
He thinks, distantly, that Lan Wangji looks at Wei Wuxian like that, too. Like he’s trying to figure him out. He doesn’t blame him, not when he’s looking at Nie Huaisang in a similar fashion. Qinghe’s young master really is an interesting one. Jiang Cheng had thought he would dislike him, honestly, from the flippant way he treats their studies, but -- he doesn’t.
Nie Huaisang’s gaze meets his, and behind his fan, there seems to be the suggestion of a smile.
They get a day to go down to Caiyi. Nie Huaisang wants ink and scrolls; besides drinking Emperor’s Smile, Wei Wuxian is overtly excited to find Jiang Cheng’s secret admirer. This turns out to be a flimsy excuse to talk to every girl they meet.
“They only like him because they don’t know him,” Jiang Cheng says, and like a viper, his words twist around, strike at him and sink their fangs deep. This person sending him gifts — if they ever got close —
“They know a side of him,” Nie Huaisang reasons. “Is that not still him? Even if it’s not wholly Wei-xiong?”
Jiang Cheng’s brow furrows. He doesn’t want to think of sides and liking. Not while Nie Huaisang is looking at him like that, like he can see something that Jiang Cheng can’t.
Wei Wuxian ends up diving into the water and pulling Jiang Cheng with him. The water that’s flung into the air throws a rainbow spectrum across Nie Huaisang’s face as he laughs at them.
The gifts keep coming, even after Wei Wuxian is sent back to Lotus Pier.
Jiang Cheng writes to his sister; as far as she knows, Wei Wuxian isn’t sending them, so he can he please relax and enjoy it?
And so the trinkets and knick knacks continue to breathe life into his room. For the most part, things don’t change, not really. They’re still on a strict routine, it’s just — quieter. Wei Wuxian’s letters burst with energy and questions about Lan Wangji. Between the lines: loneliness.
He won’t say he misses his brother, not out loud. But somehow Nie Huaisang seems to notice, because he starts to spend more time with Jiang Cheng. He fills the void that Wei Wuxian leaves, in his own way. His wit and mischief are a little more subtle, in the way that has Jiang Cheng looking for the corner of a sly smile or the slant of a wink. Sometimes, when Nie Huaisang hides his face from the rest of the world, he turns to Jiang Cheng and smiles. Their secret. These little moments fill Jiang Cheng with a small, golden burst of warmth.
Tonight, they’re supposed to be studying, but Nie Huaisang has pulled a bottle from his sleeve and so they’re sitting on the floor of Jiang Cheng’s room, trying to outdrink each other without laughing too loudly. Nie Huaisang ends up toppling into Jiang Cheng’s lap, and lays there. His dark hair splays across purple robe; Jiang Cheng thinks of bruises, but this doesn’t hurt.
“Now that Wei-xiong isn’t here anymore,” he says wistfully, “how will I pass? My brother’s going to kill me.”
“Who needs him?” Jiang Cheng must be frowning, because Nie Huaisang gives a quiet laugh and touches his lips, tries to push his mouth into a smile. Whatever the result is, Nie Huaisang just keeps giggling as Jiang Cheng sits frozen beneath his fingers. Nie Huisang traces a path up his cheek, up to the hair that falls across his face. Jiang Cheng feels spell-bound, only able to stare, lips parted, at the bright, unfocused eyes gazing up at him.
Nie Huaisang brushes his hair back, his touch soft and fleeting. A dream, Jiang Cheng realizes. This must be a dream. His own parents have never touched him this gently, smiled at him like this.
“Are you saying you’ll help me?” Nie Huaisang says softly. “Can I rely on you?”
“Thank you,” Nie Huaisang says. His hand slides down to rest at the nape of Jiang Cheng’s neck, and he pulls him down, still so, so gentle, to place a kiss on Jiang Cheng’s forehead. “Good night.”
And there, in Jiang Cheng’s lap, he falls asleep.
He can’t bring himself to mention it. He’s afraid it’ll reveal too much, all at once. How he’s filled with want, how it might be from something he never can have, and he doesn’t want Nie Huaisang to know. To look at him differently. To think that he’s unlovable, so unused to a thing like a goodnight kiss that he would react so strongly to it.
Nie Huaisang doesn’t seem to remember, so he keeps his mouth shut. But he can’t help thinking -- hoping? is this hoping? -- that maybe Nie Huaisang does know, because the amount of accidental touches between them seems like it’s increased. Or maybe he’s just grown hypersensitive? A steadying hand on his back, a brush of a hand against his -- and he finds himself reaching out, too.
As hard as he tries to forget, to keep it out of his waking mind, all his feelings erupt at night.
He dreams of the kiss going lower than his forehead, down to his lips and then past that. When he wakes, sweat has melted his robes to his skin and he’s flushed and shaking.
What’s gotten into him?
Nie Huaisang is painting. There’s ink staining his slim hands, his face because he keeps pushing his bangs back. In the end, Jiang Cheng ends up holding Nie Huaisang’s hair back as he finishes his fan. They have an exam tomorrow, and Jiang Cheng uses his free hand to try and look over his books. He tries to read some of the theories to Nie Huaisang at points, and the other boy is damn near hopeless.
“Aren’t you worried about your brother?” Jiang Cheng says. Nie Huaisang moves back, hair falling into his eyes, and so Jiang Cheng can’t see his eyes as he smiles.
“I will never be who my brother wants,” Nie Huaisang says, “but I’m learning that it’s okay.”
“How is that okay?”
“Because I’m who I want to be.”
“Aren’t there responsibilities for you?”
He’s thinking of his mother’s pinched expression, his father’s turned back. Of the weariness that’s already at home in his bones, and makes itself known as he waits for Nie Huaisang’s answer.
“There are,” Nie Huaisang hums, reaching for another fan to paint. He says nothing more. That, apparently, is that.
Silently, Jiang Cheng reaches out and holds his hair back.
The last gift that he receive is a thin scroll tied with a gold ribbon. He tucks it into his robe, and tries to find somewhere to read it. His heart is hammering in his chest because what does it say? what does it say? Never before have words been sent.
The clouds, the sky — they look like Nie Huaisang’s watercolor paintings: rolling and dark. It’s down by the waterfall that Jiang Cheng meets Lan Wangji.
“Your admirer,” Lan Wangji notes, looking at the paper in his hands.
Jiang Cheng doesn’t want to say anything, but somehow ends up blurting, “It’s a poem.”
Lan Wangji looks thoughtful, dips his head, and leaves him be. He must have realized that Jiang Cheng wanted to be alone.
As Jiang Cheng begins to read, he feels heat flushing his skin. He always thought poetry was about sappy details the flower petal lips of a maiden, but this person writing to him is calling him strong. They noticed him, wrote about mannerisms that Jiang Cheng didn’t even know he had. They want to smooth the furrow of his brow when he’s lost in thought. They want to feel the grip of his hand. The broadness of his shoulders. The stray hairs that fall from his bun to rest on his nape.
The write about the way that Jiang Cheng makes them want to be strong, too. And yet, there’s also the way that they want to protect Jiang Cheng from -- from what?
As his face burns red, he realizes that this person must see him often to know these things. Must know him intimately.
Suddenly it feels like more than a gift; it feels like a request.
Come find me.
He tells Nie Huaisang about it.
“They know me,” he says. What he doesn’t say: it’s terrifying, how I’ll inevitably disappoint them.
“Do you want to know them?”
It’s a simple question, but the thoughts that rush through Jiang Cheng’s head are anything but. The way a river rushes through stone and erodes it, careless and cruel but just the way that it is.
Distance is safe. The sun’s light warms from afar, but too close, too much burns.
If he and this person find each other --
“No,” he says, “I don’t.”
The day that Jiang Cheng is meant to return to Lotus Pier is a bright one, sunlight beaming down through the clouds. He’s down by the dock when Nie Huaisang comes to bid him goodbye.
Nie Huaisang presses something into his hands. “This was given to me. To give to you.”
It’s a parcel, small in the palm of Jiang Cheng’s hands. He stares at it, gaping. “Who gave it to you?”
“A beautiful maiden,” Nie Huaisang says. “One I’ve never seen before. Hair and eyes as black as night, and a mouth that told me she would miss you dearly.”
Jiang Cheng blinks. “If you’ve never seen her before, how would I know her? You’re always with me, and don’t you notice everything?”
“She seems the observant type.” Nie Huaisang shrugs. “She said to open it later.”
“Alright,” Jiang Cheng says awkwardly, because Nie Huaisang is so close and he can’t stop looking at his lips. “I --”
“Goodbye,” Nie Huaisang says, sounding nearly breathless, and throws his arms around Jiang Cheng for a moment, just a moment.
He opens the parcel a week later, hands shaking despite the time he’s given himself.
It’s a small ring, the gemstone on it shining from green to purple to back again, and it fits perfectly. He doesn’t know why he feels sick to his stomach looking at it, and yet he can’t take it off. The years pass, somehow. The days drag on and on, but they pass.
He thinks about Nie Huaisang, sometimes. Sees him from time to time when all sect leaders gather, but it is formal and fleeting. It has to be normal, then, to dwell on that night they had once shared. It had been towards the end, and nobody, Jiang Cheng thinks bitterly, has kissed him since.
It has to be normal.
He never expects to see Nie Huaisang at Guanyin Temple, nor does he expect to learn that the so-called head shaker has planned everything. Jin Ling is hysterical, and so Jiang Cheng stays with him for as long as he can. He doesn’t know how much comfort he offers when his own mind is swirling with the weight of the years past, but at least Jin Ling can have one uncle nearby.
When he’s finally alone, he knows what he has to do.
He has to go to Qinghe.
Nie Huaisang receives him with flapping hands and awkward smiles. He runs his mouth, saying so much without saying anything at all, as he plies Jiang Cheng with tea, and it’s enough to give him a headache.
“Don’t,” Jiang Cheng says. “I don’t care.”
“Ah.” Nie Huaisang settles, tucks his hair back into place. Jiang Cheng sees a flash of color on his hand, and seizes it.
It’s the twin of the stone he was given that day in Cloud Recesses. A stone Jiang Cheng has never seen anywhere else.
“Where did you get this?”
“This is quite common in Qinghe,” Nie Huaisang says plainly, and just like that, it all slots into place. The paintings, the poem from someone who must have known him, the carvings of his beloved dogs, the kiss --
“It was you?” Jiang Cheng says.
“You don’t sound surprised,” Nie Huaisang says. “I’ve left you enough hints, Sect Leader Jiang, but still -- I thought you would be surprised.”
“I’ve surpassed that, when it comes to you.” Jiang Cheng sits down next to him, bites back a sigh. He’s suddenly aware of the ache at his temples, and the deeper one in his bones. He raises a hand to his head, remembers the fluttering touch of a boy -- remembers it like it was only moments ago.
“Have a drink with me,” Nie Huaisang says.
Jiang Cheng and alcohol -- over the years, they have mixed less and less. He gets too lost in his thoughts. Before, Wei Wuxian and Nie Huaisang had been there to pull him out. Shijie had been there.
And now all the pieces are scattered.
Nie Huaisang is already walking, and not once does he look back. He’s confident that Jiang Cheng is following, and follow he does, down to a quiet garden where the leaves barely rustle in the wind.
And from his sleeve comes a slim bottle, and down in the grass he sits. He must remember.
When the stars come out, the bottle is empty but Jiang Cheng’s words are just beginning to spill.
“It was you,” he says. “Why? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You never asked,” Nie Huaisang replies. He brushes a loose strand of his hair back, looks straight at Jiang Cheng. “You never even thought it could be me, right?”
“That’s not an answer,” Jiang Cheng says. “After that night. I wanted it to be you.”
“And what did you do about it?” Nie Huaisang challenges. “You never said a word.”
“Neither did you,” Jiang Cheng says, frustrated. “Pulling strings without showing your face. You were just as afraid as I was!”
Nie Huaisang comes closer.
“I’m here now,” He whispers. “I’m here now.”
Perhaps it’s the wave of liquor that’s crashed over him. Perhaps it’s those eyes, bright, wide. The way Nie Huaisang’s mouth is trembling, how he still doesn’t dare to reach a hand out.
He looks tired. Jiang Cheng thinks he must look the same. He wonders what the years could’ve been if they had faced it together. He wonders what the years to come could be, if they would unravel what never was and slip their hands into what is.
“I’m here now,” Nie Huaisang says again. Jiang Cheng doesn’t know who reaches out first -- it’s a daze -- but they collapse together, and there’s the taste of salt and liquor and this, this is what it’s like to kiss Nie Huaisang.
Like he’s breaking through the waters of Lotus Pier on a hot day. Like he’s in the plains of the Cloud Recesses watching the clouds go by, the sun warming his skin. Like everything he can remember bright fragments of. Nie Huaisang is clinging to him, and he remembers that too, but it was never like this. The line between them is but a sliver; Nie Huaisang is in his arms, and here is where Jiang Cheng will keep him.
“This again,” Nie Huaisang says with a tentative smile. “But tomorrow, tomorrow I want to talk.”
“We can talk now,” Jiang Cheng says. “We can talk tomorrow. Whenever you want.”
“I’d rather kiss you.” A shade of the past Nie Huaisang comes through then, in raised eyebrows and an impish smile. “You’ve only gotten more handsome over time, you know?”
“As have you,” Jiang Cheng murmurs, heat suffusing through his cheeks as he says the words. But it’s not the time to worry about losing face; not after they’ve waited so long for this.
For the first time, Jiang Cheng wakes with someone in his arms. Not just someone, he reflects as he blinks sleep from his eyes, but someone beloved. Someone who doesn’t leave under the gaze of the moonlight. Someone who exists in his dreams, and remains when he wakes.
Nie Huaisang blinks up at him. “Good morning.”
“Good morning,” Jiang Cheng says. The urge to hold Nie Huaisang close is already curling through him. Nie Huaisang seems to notice, mouth curling at one end.
“It’s cold,” Nie Huaisang murmurs, pressing himself to Jiang Cheng’s side. He can feel the warmth of the other man’s skin through his thin robes, and then Nie Huaisang rolls on top of him. Long hair spills over a pale shoulder, and now, years later, it’s Jiang Cheng’s turn to reach up and brush back silky bangs.
“Don’t hide from me,” slips from his mouth. “Let me see you.”
“Ah -- here I am.” Funny how Nie Huaisang looks so shy, this head-shaker who’s anything but. Something must show on Jiang Cheng’s face, because Nie Huaisang’s smile turns thin, and he sits back. Jiang Cheng scrambles to bring him back closer. He waits.
“Have I ever done things right?” Nie Huaisang says.
“What’s really the ‘right’ way?” Jiang Cheng scoffs. “Look at Wei Wuxian. Hero turned villain turned hero all over again. Husband of Hanguang-Jun. There isn’t one way.”
Nie Huaisang’s gaze drops. “I--”
“You what?” Jiang Cheng says. “You don’t regret it. I lost my family. I know.”
“You did,” Nie Huaisang says.
“If this is about trust,” Jiang Cheng says, “About me trusting you. Can either of us trust, after what we’ve gone through? Does that matter? You’re tired. I’m tired. Isn’t whatever we can give better than nothing at all?”
A tiny smile. “I --”
“I can love you with what I have left, can’t I?” He hears his own voice break. “If anything -- why me? After all this time?”
“I should be the one saying that,” Nie Huaisang says with a quiet laugh. “You loving me? Why?”
Jiang Cheng purses his lips.
“Whatever your answer is,” Nie Huaisang says, amused, “I want to know.”
“I think you’re the only one,” Jiang Cheng whispers, “who understands.”
“Losing family,” Nie Huaisang says, “Wanting blood.”
“We’re meant for each other.” He tries to sound dry but it just comes out -- wrong. Strangled. “But Nie Huaisang. Why me?”
“I loved you then. I love you now. Everything I told you in the Cloud Recesses, it’s still the same for me. Stronger, even.” Nie Huaisang says. “You think I didn’t keep an eye on you? That I forgot about you even as I avenged my brother? You were safe. That was what mattered.”
“I loved you then,” Jiang Cheng echoes. “And I want to fall in love with you now. To learn every part of you.”
Nie Huaisang’s lips part. “Ah?”
“Nie Huaisang,” Jiang Cheng says, “I haven’t been around. But -- I want to be.”
“For every part?” Nie Huaisang breathes.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Jiang Cheng asks that night. “Why do all this? Involve so many people?”
Jin Ling’s face, spattered with blood, comes to mind.
Nie Huaisang shifts to prop himself up, gazes down at Jiang Cheng. His dark hair spills freely across the sheets and Jiang Cheng reaches out to touch the ends. “Would you have believed me?”
“I don’t know,” He admits. “But if it was just one person you needed dead, that’s easy.”
“What, you’d kill for me?” Nie Huaisang laughs, shoulders shaking as he pulls Jiang Cheng to his chest. “You wouldn’t.”
“What’s one more,” Jiang Cheng says wearily, closing his eyes and letting himself melt in Nie Huaisang’s arms. “When you’ve lost track?”
He needs to return to Lotus Pier, but he knows he’ll be returning differently. Lighter, maybe. And yet as he prepares to leave, he hesitates to step away from Nie Huisang’s side.
“Don’t go.” Nie Huaisang sees his reluctance. He reaches out, links a finger with Jiang Cheng’s. “Stay, even if it’s just for a moment longer.”
How can you say that, Jiang Cheng thinks, when doubts swim in my head? That still, even now, I think that you’ll turn to someone else?
Nie Huaisang tugs him closer, and it’s automatic, how Jiang Cheng dips his head to meet soft, curving lips; and everything, everything but Nie Huaisang washes away.