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red silk flowers (that better not be blood!)

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The attack had come out of nowhere, and from people who had a brain cell or two. Cultivators weren’t useless without their swords, but they were much less powerful.

Jiang Cheng would be the first to admit he could’ve had a better reaction time, but the shock that someone would dare to snatch Sandu off his belt - never mind whether that should even be possible - slowed him for a second, a second that was long enough for the robbers to grab him and Nie Huaisang into an alley.

Huaisang yelped as someone shoved him towards someone else, who got a tight grip on his arms. Jiang Cheng was grabbed by yet another, swearing furiously as he realized just how many people there were. At least two ringleaders, plus two in the back, and the one holding on too Huaisang. Not to mention whoever else was behind him that he couldn’t see. This was planned.

“Come on now, pretty boy,” one of them leered. “You cultivators make bank - surely you can spare some for us poor mediocre people.” 

Huaisang, in a high-pitched voice, babbled something about how literally no one called them that. Jiang Cheng was too busy wishing Wei Wuxian was here to care.

His brother would’ve known what to do - probably wouldn’t have even left this happen in the first place. Panic was Jiang Cheng’s only true enemy, but what an enemy it was. He couldn’t bring to mind a single talisman or charm that could help.

“We’re just students,” Huaisang argued, yelping again when the one holding him shoved him against the wall roughly. Jiang Cheng saw red and threw his head back against his attacker, taking cruel satisfaction in the shout he heard.

“Violent, are you,” another one said. It was a tall man wearing a red outer robe and with a scar on his neck. “Didi, bring him here.”

Didi? Was this a family of psychos? Jiang Cheng elbowed the man behind him, but only earned a grunt for his efforts. He was dragged to the man who had just spoken. It’ll be easier to kick his ass when we’re closer, Jiang Cheng thought spitefully. The only downside was that he couldn’t see Huaisang anymore.

“Students, you say,” the man said. “You would be missed. Fancy robes, dare say I recognize the sect. You wouldn’t happen to be one of those Jiang children, would you?” He laughed at Jiang Cheng’s stricken look. “And your friend, there - Nie er-gongzi, isn’t he? The… useless one.”

“You-!” Jiang Cheng strained against the person holding him back and lashed out a few more times. He could hear the man’s grunts of pain, and could only hope he’d managed to draw blood.

There was some commotion behind them. The man in front of him looked vaguely amused, and then distinctly surprised, standing up straight and gaping.

“Let him go,” a shaky voice said. Huaisang’s voice. Terrified and stubborn.

Jiang Cheng desperately wanted to know what put that expression on the scarred man’s face. It was one of almost fear, almost respect, definitely one of “didn’t see that one coming”. The man gave a quick nod to the one holding Jiang Cheng, and he was released.

Jiang Cheng backed away from them quickly and turned around to see exactly what had happened. His eyebrows shot up in surprise. Huaisang had his back pressed against the wall and a grown man held in front of him, a fan with red flowers at his throat. The sun glinted off the edge of the silk - or more accurately, the blade at the edge of the silk.

“And Sandu,” Huaisang added nervously, swallowing. His eyes flickered quickly between Jiang Cheng and their attackers. Jiang Cheng felt a spark of something that could be pride, or maybe impression. 

Now that he had the opportunity to look, he could tell the man held back by the red fan was the leader of the troupe. His robes were the nicest, his hairpiece the fanciest, and his face the oldest. And if this really was a family - no one would dare attack with their leader at Huaisang’s mercy.

There was some grumbling, but someone reluctantly tossed Sandu onto the ground in front of Jiang Cheng. He snatched it up almost lovingly, relaxing just by the feeling of the familiar hilt in his hands. He stepped up to Huaisang and unsheathed Sandu, pointing at the people in front of them. “Names, and then out onto the street,” he said harshly, gesturing with his head. 

“Zheng Xinyi,” one of them muttered. It probably wasn’t their real name. Jiang Cheng didn’t have it in him to care - they could be tracked down, no matter what.

One by one, they trickled out onto the street. Jiang Cheng nodded gently at Huaisang, who moved his fan and let Jiang Cheng kick at the man on the ground. “Out,” he said, scowling. “Don’t try that again.”

The man scowled back, but backed off with Sandu in his face. Jiang Cheng walked him out to the street and watched the group move away before turning back into the alleyway, where Huaisang had sunk to the ground.

Jiang Cheng frowned and sheathed Sandu, hurrying back to his friend. “Are you alright?” He asked, hands fluttering about Huaisang, checking for injuries. He didn’t look injured, but there were an awful lot of robes in the way of actually telling.

Huaisang laughed shakily, his hands still trembling. “Just a little stressed out, is all,” he said, voice high. He grabbed at Jiang Cheng’s hands to stop them and squeezed.

“Cool trick with the fan,” Jiang Cheng said, awkwardly settling next to Huaisang. He wrapped his hands around the other boy’s and squeezed back.

“It was da-ge’s idea,” Huaisang admitted. “He said I ought to make my fans useful, if I was going to have so many of them.”

Jiang Cheng started. “They’re not… all like that, are they?” If so, his newfound respect would skyrocket. He was pretty sure he’d seen Huaisang gesturing in Lan Qiren’s direction with an open fan.

“No,” Huaisang said, smiling a little like he knew what Jiang Cheng was thinking. “Just the ones with red flowers.”

Jiang Cheng frowned. “This is the only one with red flowers that I’ve seen. And you’ve shown me your entire collection.”

Huaisang laughed again. “No, I showed you the part of my collection I brought. This is the only tipped one I brought, I didn’t think I’d ever have to use it.” He swallowed, smile slipping.

Jiang Cheng decided to address the question of how many fans do you have exactly, what the fuck Huaisang another day. “C’mon,” he said, as gently as he could. It wasn’t very, but it seemed to do the trick. Huaisang made a noise as Jiang Cheng pulled him to his feet and into an awkward hug. “Let’s go back to the Recesses and tell Wei Wuxian all about how you took down an entire troupe of robbers all by yourself.”
“I think you did that,” Huaisang said, curled into Jiang Cheng’s side. “Give yourself some more credit.”

“It was a joint effort,” Jiang Cheng amended. They stepped out of the alleyway and into the fading sunlight.

That day changed Jiang Cheng’s view of Huaisang completely - he was no longer a slightly useless child that needed protection. Rather, Huaisang was someone who was often underestimated, and Jiang Cheng was probably lucky to not be on the other end of his red flowers. He made a silent vow to not underestimate him again, but like so many others (we’ll be the Twin Heroes of Yunmeng), that one was broken too.

Sixteen years later, fresh from a collapsed temple and a freshly-unraveled web of lies, Jiang Cheng thought back to that day. He shook his head, scowling, and jumped on Sandu. Huaisang had let him in, once upon a time. He could only hope he would do so now.