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(01)

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Hao Gui is new to the Jiang Sect. He’s an unusual case, having only been part of the cultivation world for a little over four years. He was twelve when his last remaining parent died, leaving him with only distant relatives he didn’t really know, none of whom stopped him when he went to his small town’s home sect and asked to be taken in as a disciple.

He is fortunate enough to be accepted by the small but established Yan Sect. Hao Gui is a hard worker, quickly developing a golden core despite the odds, and catching up to all the basics.

Then, Sect Leader Yan sat him down one day and asked him if he wanted to be a disciple of another sect.

“We’re happy to have you here, don’t get me wrong.” The old man had started with that. “But you have so much potential, and you work very hard. I think it will benefit you to be in a more active sect. You’ve seen how uneventful our sect is, there is little to no action. We’ve always sent our most promising disciples to Sect Leader Jiang, more for their own learning, really. If you wish to really hone your skills as a cultivator, I can refer you to him.”

He looked back on the years he has spent hoping he’ll be able to put the sword forms he’s been learning to good use, and then not being able to because all they ever do in their area is patrol and check wards.

So he bowed to his master and thanked the man for everything he had taught him and done for him, and accepted the offer.

So Hao Gui joins a major sect at sixteen years old. Unusual but not unheard of.

Being a disciple of the great Yunmeng Jiang sect is very different from being in the small, minor Yan Sect. For one, the training is much more challenging, and the disciples are always so busy, even junior disciples like him. Since he does not have anywhere else to go, Hao Gui lives in the disciples’ dormitories in Lotus Pier, so he witnesses just how much goes on in the sect, from the start of the day to late evenings.

“It’s so busy here.” he tells Jiang Yunru, his fellow disciple, once after they’ve finally seen a group of senior disciples off on their routine patrol.

“Really? I heard we’re one of the chill ones, though.” Jiang Yunru says, shrugging. “I guess we look busy to you, if you came from a small sect. Uh. No offense.”

Hao Gui shakes his head. “It’s fine. Yan Sect… is really not busy. At all.”

Yan Sect is known to be notoriously laid-back, he knows. That is why he was grateful that his former Sect Leader sent him off to the Jiang Sect, after all.

“Anyway, you don’t have to be so serious! Jiang Sect is not as strict as, say, the Lan Sect. I heard those guys wake up at 5 and go to sleep at 9, sharp.”

Hao Gui has known that fact already, but he indulges his companion. “I guess you can say that. But here, I’ve heard Madame Yu and Young Master Jiang are very strict with training and conduct.”

“Oh, they are. Very strict! Terrifying, really.” the other teen laughs. “But as long as you don’t mess up so bad, they won’t single you out! For conduct, well… Maybe when we have guests over, or an event, or during a night hunt. But just here in Lotus Pier, everyone’s pretty comfortable with each other. Including the non-cultivators.”

“I see.” Hao Gui says, taking note of everything the other babbles. It is useful information, after all.

“Of course, don’t be too familiar with Madame Yu! I mean, you’ve seen her. Jiang-gongzi… uh, he’s very strict too but he’s okay as long as you do your job and don’t piss him off. Sect Leader Jiang is pretty nice. Wei-gongzi is always cool. And Maiden Jiang is the nicest person you’ll ever meet. It’s a shame she’s usually at Lanling these days.”

“She is engaged to Jin Zixuan now, isn’t she?”

“That’s right! I see you know your cultivation world news! I mean, I just know all this because I’m from a branch family so I’ve been born into it. But I guess they talk about major sect stuff even among non-cultivators, huh?”

“Yeah. I… uh. I keep… updated.”

That is not a lie. Hao Gui does keep updated.

Hao Gui may be a new member of the Jiang sect and the cultivation world, but he’s not entirely unfamiliar with it.

See, all Hao Gui has always wanted in his life, ever since he was a small child, is to be a cultivator . He has read about them and seen news of them in the television, growing up.

Modern cultivation sects hold a certain degree of separation from non-cultivators, but they are still pretty connected with the rest of society. It is its own form of celebrity, specially the major sects, who not only are strongholds of the tradition of cultivation in the modern age, but are also prominent figures of society. With the work they do in keeping their communities safe from fierce corpses, resentful spirits and other such entities... Cultivators are like superheroes, or at least that was how young Hao Gui saw them.

They appear in the news, although the media does care not to intrude too much , unlike with actors and pop stars. After all, they need to respect the people protecting them from the harmful entities that appear now and then.

Hao Gui had always followed these news and read both historical and modern books about cultivators, to the point a lot of his friends from school, when he was a kid, always teased him for being a “cultivation nerd”.

Hao Gui was not a cultivation nerd. He was… a fan. An enthusiast!

So. Yes, he definitely knows most of the cultivation world news. Maybe he knows more than the average non-cultivator who only followed news on the television, because he also buys some… magazines… and follows several cultivation-specific fan blogs in social media... And he has read The History of the Five Major Sects , cover-to-cover. Several times.

He definitely knows that the Lans are super strict, and about their 5 AM to 9 PM day. He also knows about Madame Yu’s infamous temper, which her son seems to have inherited, according to… sources. About Jin Guangshan being a womanizer, about Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen being young, talented, brilliant future sect leaders, and other such things.

And now, he is part of their world. He is a disciple of the great Yunmeng Jiang sect. It is much harder than being in the Yan Sect, but Hao Gui is willing to do the work.

So far, Madame Yu had said that he has potential.

Jiang Fengmian had praised his work ethic.

One time while training, Wei-gongzi patted his back and grinned at him, telling him he has very good control of his qi.

And best of all - the other day, Jiang-gongzi had singled him out during sword drills and told the others to follow his example. Jiang Wanyin, Young Master Jiang, known to be an excellent fighter, skilled cultivator and most of all, the heir of the Jiang Sect, making him an example! Jiang-gongzi even decided to personally supervise Hao Gui’s additional training on the Yunmeng Jiang sword fighting style to help Hao Gui catch up to his peers.

(Hao Gui wouldn’t say it out loud, but Jiang-gongzi is the cultivator he admires most. Jiang-gongzi is his favorite shige.)

(Okay, you know what, he would! Because why not? Jiang-gongzi is an exemplary role model, an amazing cultivator!)

(Ahem. So, uh, yes. Hao Gui is living his dream.)

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He is starting to get used to his life as a disciple of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect. It is easy to get accustomed to it, really. There is a clear schedule to follow and a list of tasks to do. Also, all his shige and shijie are very approachable and always allow juniors to still have plenty of personal time in between chores. If there are significant events or activities like that, he keeps informed.

This is why he’s surprised when, one Saturday afternoon, while he and his fellow juniors are winding down from training, Wei-gongzi pops up out of nowhere and regards them with an assessing look.

Then he nods, probably approving whatever conclusion he came to. “So, I know that you guys know this is just another unnecessary fancy tradition thing, but it’s still a fancy tradition thing. We have to do it so Madame Yu won’t get mad. Get up, if you can get up, and join me to welcome our guests?”

Hao Gui, ever eager - gets to his feet first.  “Of course, Wei-gongzi!”

Wei Wuxian blinks at him and then pats his head. He is 21 years old, if Hao Gui is not mistaken - but he smiles so bright, like a child. “I really like you, new shidi! Okay, everyone, let’s go.”

The others stand up as well and they follow him to the main gates. Hao Gui makes sure his hair and robes are tidy, his clarity bell and sword shiny and pristine.

Guests! This is the first time he’ll be welcoming guests. Who could they be?

He and the others stand in a neat line behind Wei Wuxian as the gates open to reveal a young man, accompanied by a small crowd of cultivators, head tilted while talking to one of them, whose arm he is clinging to. He has long brown hair, braided elaborately and tied up with a yellow bow scrunchie. He is wearing very casual clothing, no weapons, only a paper fan in his hand. There is a tiny yellow bird perched on his shoulder.

Hao Gui thinks he looks a bit... familiar… the dark brown of his hair and the hazel-gold of his eyes… aren’t those characteristics of… which family, again? And then he notices the weapons that the disciples are carrying, and the colors they wear-

“Oh, it’s just Nie-er-gongzi.” he hears Jiang Yunru say softly beside him. “I thought it’s someone more- Well, someone else.”

Jiang Meifen, his older sister, elbows him and whispers back. “Quiet, Yunru! Even if it’s just him, he’s probably here for a formal visit. Mostly.”

“Formal?”

“The cultivation conference next month!”

“O-Oh. Oh yeah, that.”

Second Young Master Nie - Hao Gui blinks. He knew there’s a Second Young Master Nie. Chifeng-zun’s - Nie Mingjue’s - brother, but he never really hears about him- What is his name again?

Young Master Wei clears his throat. “Welcome to Lotus Pier, Huaisang-xiong!”

Hao Gui bows, on instinct. The others do so too, although he notices that they didn’t quite plan on doing so and only followed after him. What’s up with that? This is a young master, right?

That makes Second Young Master Nie finally look at them, and he blinks at their entourage. “Oh, wow, Wei-xiong, why the formal welcome? It’s just me!”

“You’re here for the cultivation conference!” Wei Wuxian says, grinning as he greets the other with a friendly, comfortable hug. “Uncle Jiang said to have at least a formal welcome for a formal guest, or Madame Yu will have our heads. Even if she’s not here right now.”

Nie Huaisang laughs when they let go. “I’m hardly here for the conference, Wei-xiong. It’s a month away! You know what I’m here for.” Then he looks at Hao Gui and his fellow juniors standing behind their Wei-gongzi. “And you had to drag all these kids here, too? They have better things to do with their time. Hi, guys!”

“Hi, Nie-er-gongzi.” Jiang Yunru says.

“I love your shirt!” someone else else says.

Hao Gui turns to reprimand them, but then another voice pipes up. “Who’s the bird, Nie-er-gongzi?”

Nie Huaisang beams at them, glancing at the bird hovering on his shoulder. “Oh, this is Eggolas. He goes where he likes.” As if on cue, Eggolas takes off and goes… somewhere. “Yep. Don’t worry about him, he can find me whenever he wants.”

Then Wei Wuxian drapes an arm around their guest’s shoulders. “What about you, A-Sang? You dragged your own kids here, too.”

Nie Huaisang cozies against Wei Wuxian’s side. “Ah, haha… Da-ge told me to take a bodyguard with me...”

Hao Gui couldn't help but narrow his eyes slightly. 'Aren't they being too close?'

But Wei Wuxian just looks amused. “Six bodyguards?”

“I couldn’t choose! They’re all my babies!” Nie Huaisang pouts, then beckons his ‘six bodyguards’ over to them with his fan. “Come come, don’t be shy, you guys!”

They are all either as tall or even taller than him, definitely bigger too, though Hao Gui could tell they’re also younger. Maybe even about Hao Gui's age. Teenagers, all around fifteen to seventeen. So it’s true what he’d read, after all. Qinghe Nie disciples are built like mountains.

Nie-er-gongzi taps his fan against Wei Wuxian’s chest as he speaks to his juniors. “This is Young Master Wei. Some of you have met him already. If you need to get in trouble, look for him.”

“Hey, now!” Wei Wuxian says, almost looking offended, but then he grins at them. “But yeah, a month is long, kids, so you can count on me if you wanna have a good time around here. I'm the fun one!"

He gets several smiles and grateful bows from the mostly awkward, too-tall teenage cultivators.

Nie-er-gongzi then looks up and blinks. "Speaking of fun, when is A-Cheng coming back?"

A-Cheng? Who is A-Cheng? Hao Gui wonders. Could it be- No, no one is really allowed to call him that, right? Besides his parents and siblings?

"A few days maybe! It's been really quiet in here without him and Madame Yu shouting at poor juniors during drills." Wei Wuxian answers.

Oh, so it is that A-Cheng. Huh...

Wei Wuxian looks towards the disciples again, and then at Nie Huaisang. "So you guys are staying at the Nie house, right? Are you all settled?"

"Well, we pretty much just left our bags there, so we still need to clean up a bit. I thought it's been a long trip though so we could put that off and drop by here to greet you, maybe go on a tour of Lotus Pier to wind down first? With a reliable tour guide…?" he says, batting his lashes up at Wei Wuxian.

There’s little to no resistance there. "Oh, good idea! A tour of the town? I can go with you, I have free time."

Nie Huaisang hums, grinning behind his fan. "A-Xian… your brother is not here, so aren't you supposed to be busier?"

Wei Wuxian returns that with a grin of his own, wagging a finger at his… friend? "A-Sang… my brother is not here, I can finally slack off just a bit!” Then he turns to his disciples. "Don't tell him I said that, please."

Hao Gui's fellow disciples chuckle and nod. Hao Gui frowns - senior disciples should be more responsible! - but he rightfully keeps his mouth shut.

Wei Wuxian dismisses them quickly afterwards, saying they still need to clean up after training, altogether dropping pleasantries and just dragging their guests along for a late lunch on the town.

They didn't even go inside to greet the Sect Leader! What is happening?!

Nie Huaisang goes willingly, laughing and exchanging jokes with Wei Wuxian, his juniors eagerly following them like a set of very tall baby ducks.

Hao Gui frowns. If he were here, Jiang-gongzi surely would not be pleased.

.

"Nie-er-gongzi… I haven't heard much about him. He seems very close to Wei-gongzi." Hao Gui says, when they get back to the dormitories to clean up.

"Oh, yeah, he's close to the family in general, especially Wei-gongzi." Yunru says. “And Jiang-gongzi, of course, that’s a given.”

Meifen-jie continues for him. "He used to live here in Yunmeng with the late Madame Nie because she managed the Nie business branch here. So he and the young masters grew up together. And he still comes over often. He and Jiang-gongzi volunteer in the animal shelter. We've gone with them a couple times, it's fun."

"He's here for the cultivation conference this time, though?" Hao Gui asks. "Is it normal to arrive so early?"

"I suppose not. But some guests who come from far away often come within the same week so they have a few days to settle and prepare, since the conference lasts for days. Knowing Nie-er-gongzi, though, he's probably treating this like a vacation." Meifen-jie laughs. "Well, it's always good to see him."

"You'll like him." Yunru adds. "He's very nice."

.


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Hao Gui learns that Second Young Master Nie is, indeed, very nice.

However, he does not like him.

Okay, to be clear, Hao Gui does not dislike him. He just… doesn't get Nie Huaisang, he supposes.

First off, Nie Huaisang does not behave like how a cultivator his age and his status should, at all. It’s very different from, say, Jiang-gongzi, who is always a serious and proper young master.

The day after his arrival, Nie Huaisang shows up early at Lotus Pier with his bodyguards and then asks the Jiang senior disciple if he could borrow a spot in the training grounds for their morning drills and training. The senior disciple agrees readily, seemingly used to it, and then Nie Huaisang leads his company to a free area in the grounds and assigns one of them to lead the others.

Hao Gui found it difficult to focus on his own drills when the Nie disciples have started their exercises. The saber forms are vastly different from the Jiang swords forms, which Hao Gui is still studying himself.

He is grateful that he is not the only one distracted. Their instructor notices right away, because he eventually calls their drills off early and says “This is a good opportunity to learn about a different cultivation style. Make sure to observe carefully, everyone.”

So they end up watching the Nies practice with their sabers.

Nie Huaisang, notably, is just sitting on the side, watching them happily, sometimes tapping on his phone, Eggolas jumping and chirping on his head or shoulder.

Hao Gui turns to ask Jiang Yunru, “Does Nie-er-gongzi… uh… cultivate?” He hopes his actual question isn’t obvious - ‘Why isn’t Nie-er-gongzi training with the others? Actually, where is his saber?’

Jiang Yunru’s eyes widen at his question, and he looks around first, as if to see if anyone else heard, before answering in a low voice. “Of course! He is a cultivator, although, uh… not with the saber? I think he does fan cultivation? But we’ve never actually seen him practice it… He came to a night hunt with us once, though! But… I think he didn’t do anything then, too- Ah, nevermind!”

“Fan cultivation… For a Nie?” Hao Gui blinks. That’s unlike what he expected of the Nies, from everything he’d read about them. Nies all use the saber. They are proud of their sabers. Fan cultivation is something he’d expect from… the Yu Sect, with their varied cultivation styles, or even the Jiang Sect, who believe in being ‘free and unrestrained’ . But… looking at Nie Huaisang’s slight figure and delicate mannerisms, he supposed he couldn’t quite see the young master wielding a saber, after all. Or even any kind of weapon...

“Yes, yes.” Yunru says hurriedly, almost to shush him. “Just don’t question it, okay? If Jiang-gongzi heard you ask this out loud, he’d have your head. Even Wei-gongzi… he looked really disappointed that one time someone made fun of Nie-er-gongzi’s status.”

“Oh.” Hao Gui blinks. “Alright, I’ll keep that in mind.”

He couldn’t really see it. Wei-gongzi, maybe, he could see being upset that someone made fun of his friend. But Jiang-gongzi has always been very frank and quick to point out flaws in anyone, so maybe Nie Huaisang does practice cultivation, however… little… he seems to do it. Enough to be acceptable, at least.

The Nies finish up their exercises. Nie Huaisang gets up from his perch and then proceeds to dote on his disciples, telling them they are amazing as always. They all bow eagerly and blush at the praise. Then he asks them what they want to do for the day.

One of the girls leans forward and answers him.

Nie Huaisang laughs, and offers his arm to the girl. “Ah, Zhen-mei, this is why you’re my favorite cousin! Yes, let’s go shopping!”

This ‘Zhen-mei’ , a girl who does look more Nie than Nie Huaisang, obviously younger but just as tall as he is, takes the offered arm and they chat enthusiastically while their group takes their leave, not forgetting to thank the Jiang disciples for their hospitality.

“If Wei-xiong asks, we’re in town, okay?”

“Yes, Nie-er-gongzi.” Hao Gui’s shige says, “Have fun!”

His peers wave them goodbye, and Hao Gui stares. Wait, they’re… going shopping? Aren’t they supposed to train? Wasn’t that a warm-up, for more training?! What was that, morning exercise?!

Beside him, Jiang Yunru sighs. "Ugh, I miss the time when we were kids and we can let him drag us wherever he wants to."

Hao Gui turns to him, raising an eyebrow. "What?"

"Nie-er-gongzi used to take us to the animal shelter, or to shop for something, or to ride a boat on the lake. But we've got more work now, so he couldn't exactly just borrow us everytime anymore."

"And Jiang-gongzi allowed it?"

"Well… yeah, I guess. It's Nie-er-gongzi." Yunru shrugs, then sighs again. "Now he has his own disciples to spoil."

"That's not practical, isn’t it? Coddling your disciples and getting them to neglect their duties?"

Now Jiang Yunru and the other disciples stare at him.

Then his friend says, "Hao Gui, I understand now why Madame Yu likes you a lot."

"Huh?"

"You hate fun."

"I do not !"

.


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Hao Gui decides that Nie Huaisang must be... quite spoiled.

The Nies are rich, and he is the second son so he must not have as much responsibility as his brother who is the sect heir. It looks like so, with the way he drifts around Lotus Pier doing nothing in particular, chatting up anyone he comes across, always dressed in flowy summer clothes, hair done up immaculately, waving around a beautifully-painted fan, and accompanied by one or two juniors.

Or perhaps everyone just does as he says because they're scared of Nie Mingjue. The man has a reputation for being one of, if not the strongest cultivator of his generation. Last time Hao Gui saw an article about him, it looks like he is already acting as Nie Sect Leader on behalf of his father, who is more focused on their company nowadays.

That morning, Hao Gui and one of his senior brothers came across Nie Huaisang sitting by the lake with his sketchbook and watercolors. They greeted him and he greeted them back with a smile, asking how their day is going. He even knew Hao Gui’s shige by name, and when Hao Gui asked, his shige only told him that he kinda grew up with Nie-er-gongzi, going to primary and junior high school with him, Jiang-gongzi and Wei-gongzi.

Nie Huaisang seems to know everyone in Lotus Pier, come to think of it. But maybe that’s just because he spent a good deal of time living there.

In the evening, Nie Huaisang and his six bodyguard disciples come along with the Jiang Sect for their night hunt. He does not have a sword or a saber though, so instead he flies clinging to Wei-gongzi.

That’s… uh. Hao Gui never considered that it could be done. And it looks too... intimate , doesn’t it?

But all the way, Nie Huaisang only complains that he’d rather go back to watching the drama series he just started, or go to sleep in his bed, than join them in night hunting.

“-but da-ge only agreed to send me here early if I joined you guys in night hunts, so here we are.”

Wei Wuxian laughs, unbothered by the arms wrapped around his torso. “Aw, don’t worry, Nie-er-gongzi! Your six bodyguards will be there to protect you.”

“Only them? How about you, Wei-xiong? Protect me too, please?”

“Of course, of course, many people would kill me if anything happened to you on my watch.” Wei Wuxian says, patting his head with a smile. “But a little birdie told me that you can actually handle yourself just fine...”

“Which bird? That’s a liar bird. Everyone knows I’m useless!”

“Nope, this bird actually had receipts.” Wei Wuxian grins. “But I know how much you hate doing things yourself, so, fine, I’ll protect you from the dangerous creatures of the night, Nie-xiong! You know how to reach me if you get in trouble.”

“Wei-xiong, my hero!”

“Of course! Just call for me!”

Hao Gui can’t look at them. Why are they so shameless? He looks at the others and they just look amused. Is this their usual behavior? Are his fellow disciples really so used to it?

If Jiang-gongzi could hear them, he’d probably roll his eyes and tell them to stop fooling around.

They land, and the night hunt starts. They split into groups and spread out.

Hao Gui helps a senior disciple defeat a fierce corpse, and then they put talismans in the area for precaution. It’s a slow night, they tell him - but that’s a good thing, and honestly even that is more action than Hao Gui had gotten in his time with his former sect.

A few hours later, they meet back in the designated spot.

Nie Huaisang is already there, with half his bodyguards hovering around him. His disciples look ruffled but otherwise unharmed, chatting with the other Jiang disciples who had also finished with their area. Nie Huaisang looks like… how he looked like when the night started.

Did he go out there at all? He’s just humming and tapping on his phone. Is he… Is he on Twitter? Looking at and liking pictures of… cats?

Hao Gui frowns. Why join the night hunt at all if he’s just going to be lazy and not do anything?

A few minutes later, the rest of Nie Huaisang’s juniors appear. Nie Huaisang, as usual, praises and dotes on them.

Wei Wuxian comes back with his own team, and shamelessly beelines for Nie Huaisang and asks to be praised too, which Nie Huaisang gladly does.

Hao Gui sighs. He really cannot wait for Jiang-gongzi to be back.

 

.


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He didn’t have to wait long, fortunately. The next day, someone tells him that Madame Yu and Jiang-gongzi are back.

When the disciples start their morning drills, Jiang-gongzi is there to join them. He is as strict and focused as always. When Nie Huaisang arrives ushering his own disciples to the usual spot the Nies have been using for their training for the past few days, Jiang-gongzi only blinks and nods, sparing a short smile when the other waves his fan at him happily.

Nie Huaisang sits on his usual spot, which Hao Gui now realizes is the bench where Jiang-gongzi usually leaves his towel and water bottle.

The Jiangs finish their drills first. Jiang-gongzi nods at the juniors. “Well done. I’m glad it doesn’t look like you slacked off while I was gone.”

Hao Gui bows with the rest of the juniors. Though unlike them who all disperse to attend to their usual chores, he steps forward to tell Jiang-gongzi that it’s good to see him back.

He stops in his tracks when he sees Nie Huaisang jogging towards them with Jiang-gongzi’s towel and water bottle.

“Welcome back, A-Cheng.” Nie Huaisang greets sweetly, offering the water bottle.

“Hey, thanks.” Jiang-gongzi says as he accepts the item, flipping it open and taking big gulps of water. “You’re here early.”

“I have responsibilities, you know!” Nie Huaisang replies, airy as he reaches up and presses the towel to Jiang-gongzi’s forehead. “I have to make sure my shidi and shimei are still well-trained, even away from Qinghe.”

Jiang-gongzi makes nothing of it and just lets the other dab at his sweat with the towel, only raising an eyebrow. “I see. Responsibilities, huh.”

Then Nie Huaisang steps closer and drapes his arms around Jiang-gongzi’s neck. “But mostly it’s just ‘cause I missed you a lot.”

This time, Jiang-gongzi lets out an expression that Hao Gui had never seen on him before - a soft, open, affectionate smile. He chuckles and leans down to press a kiss to Nie Huaisang’s forehead. “Missed you too.”

What.

And of course that’s when Eggolas decides to plop on top of Hao Gui’s head. Hao Gui yelps, surprised, drawing attention to himself.

The young masters finally notice him there, and Jiang-gongzi chuckles, while Nie Huaisang blinks. “Oh no, Eggolas, don’t go bothering A-Cheng’s shidi!”

Thankfully Eggolas is an obedient bird, as he takes off and flies to Jiang-gongzi when he reaches his hand out for him. “Eggolas, here.”

Jiang-gongzi only watches, mildly amused as Nie Huaisang stage whispers, “Eggolas, we talked about this, landing on other people’s heads without their permission is impolite-”

Hao Gui fails to catch the rest of that because Jiang-gongzi turns to him. “Hao Gui, did you need anything?”

“A-Ah!” he straightens up. “I- Nothing, Jiang-gongzi! W-Welcome back...?”

“Oh. Thanks. It’s good to be back.”

“And, um, I was… gonna ask if we’ll be resuming my additional training later?”

Jiang-gongzi nods. “Yes. The usual time.”

Hao Gui bows. “Understood. Thank you, Jiang-gongzi, Nie-er-gongzi!”

Then he turns and leaves. He jogs to catch up with his peers, who are all leaving to start the rest of their day.

“Shijie. Yunru.” he starts, when he catches up with Jiang Meifen and Jiang Yunru. “I… uh… I have a question?”

Yunru looks up from his phone and turns to him. “Yeah?”

“Is Jiang-gongzi-... Uh… with... Is he with Nie-er-gongzi...?”

“You mean if they’re dating?” Jiang Meifen replies, raising an eyebrow. “Yeah. You… didn’t know?”

“No! I didn’t! How would I know?” he asks in disbelief. “Why would you think I know?”

“Huh.” Jiang Yunru blinks. “I think I just assumed you knew, because you know all sorts of stuff.” Then he shrugs. “Well, now you know, I guess.”

They keep walking, Hao Gui stewing on this new discovery about his role model, while Jiang Meifen hums a random tune and Jiang Yunru scrolls through his social media feed.

“H… How?”

His shijie snorts. “What do you mean ‘how’?”

“I don’t know, they’re so… different?” he tries. "Jiang-gongzi is really strict and responsible and serious- Nie-er-gongzi is... not? If anything, I thought Nie-er-gongzi was with Wei-gongzi or something!"

That makes Jiang Yunru laugh. “Okay. Well, I'm sorry to sink your ship-"

"They're not my ship!"

"-but Jiang-gongzi has been dating Nie-er-gongzi for a while now. They’re really cute, actually.”

"They are? I... I can't imagine... Jiang-gongzi... with someone like Nie-er-gongzi... Is it... serious?"

Jiang Meifen nods. "Yeah, they've been together since high school. I'm pretty sure they're co-parenting Eggolas and like, fifty other baby animals."

The siblings keep walking, and didn't look back. Hao Gui just stands there, staring after them, mouth hanging open.

 

.


.

 

Later, in the middle of his remedial sword form practice, Nie-er-gongzi drops by, Eggolas chilling on his shoulder like always. “A-Cheng! Oh, sorry, am I interrupting you?”

“No, it’s fine.” Jiang-gongzi shakes his head and leans down so the other could kiss his cheek.  “What is it?”

Hao Gui is careful to not get distracted as he continues his practice, but he does keep an ear out.

“Nothing too important. I’m going to spend the day with your mother, so can I leave Eggolas with you? You’re the only one he doesn’t try building nests on.”

“What? I mean, yeah, I’ll take Eggolas - but what ?”

“Madame Yu asked me if I wanna help her go over preparations for the conference, and I said yes!“

“Oh. She usually does that with jiejie but jiejie won’t be back until next week. You know you don’t have to do that, I can tell her I’ll help her until jiejie comes back.”

“Don’t worry, I wanna do it! I know you have your own stuff to catch up on.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yep. Besides, it’s good practice! The conference I organized earlier this year was a small one. I wanna see what it’s like with something bigger, since the next major one’s on Qinghe next year.”

“Okay, then.” there’s a pause, then Jiang-gongzi chuckles. “Look at you, not passing up on work for once.”

“Haha, you know it’s partly because I wanna annoy Madame Yu with colors and food choices.” Nie-er-gongzi laughs. “I still get you tomorrow, right?”

“Mm, I already told Auntie we can take the dogs out.”

“Okay! I’ll see you later?”

“Yeah, try not to annoy Mother too much.”

“We’ll see!”

Hao Gui glances at them just in time to see Nie-gongzi leave Eggolas in Jiang-gongzi’s waiting hand, and then tip-toe to give him a quick kiss.

Nie-er-gongzi hides behind his fan again, and then nods at Hao Gui. “Good luck with training, A-Cheng’s shidi.”

Hao Gui blinks, not expecting to be addressed. He awkwardly nods back. “Thank you, Nie-er-gongzi.”

He and Jiang-gongzi watch him go, his long ponytail swinging behind his head.

Jiang-gongzi is the first to look away, so he catches Hao Gui staring.

Hao Gui doesn’t notice until Jiang-gongzi clears his throat and raises an eyebrow at him. “Well?”

That startles Hao Gui, and he doesn’t know why, or where his filter went, but he blurts out, "Your relationship looks very stable, Jiang-gongzi."

Jiang-gongzi raises an eyebrow, staring at him.

Hao Gui stares back, and inwardly screams. Oh, he'd gone and done it now. Jiang-gongzi must have thought that was unnecessary. Rude, even. Hao Gui is done for. He will not learn Yunmeng Jiang sword forms anymore. In fact, he'll probably be kicked out of the sect!

"I-... Yeah, it seems that way?" Jiang-gongzi says, surprisingly calm. On his shoulder, Eggolas preens his feathers. "What... about it?"

"N-Nothing, Jiang-gongzi! I am happy that you've found happiness!"

"Uh. Okay." Jiang-gongzi says, blinking. "You're a weird kid. Back to your stance."

"Yes, Jiang-gongzi!"

.

.

.

.

(02)

.

Nie Zhenzhen's seniors and peers always say that she is Chifeng-zun's favorite person. Even her Huaisang-gege says so.

This is not true.

She knows that Nie Mingjue's favorite person will forever and always be Nie Huaisang.

But she appreciates the sentiment. She is happy to be one of the people her prickly older cousin genuinely likes. She takes pride in being Chifeng-zun's apprentice. She is proud of her skill in fighting with the saber, always making sure that Mingjue-ge's praises whenever he sees progress in her training are well-earned.

Her favorite cousin, though, is not Nie Mingjue.

Oh, Nie Zhenzhen loves both her older cousins dearly, and she loves their company a lot, but she'd have to admit that she never feels quite so seen as when she's with Nie Huaisang.

See, Nie Zhenzhen is a Nie , through and through - she is very tall, well-built, not at all delicate-looking. All these, plus her enthusiasm with saber training and combat, always makes Mingjue-ge and her peers, even other girls, forget that she is, in fact, a girl.

Like, a girl girl.

Not Huaisang-gege, though.

When she was a little girl, towering over boys her age and being teased for it, Huaisang-gege had always told her that she's cute.

While the others' birthday and holiday gifts were always cultivation tools, workout equipment and sports gear, Huaisang-gege's gifts are pretty things - hair ribbons, cute plush toys, colorful notebooks, jewelry and makeup.

And as much as she knows Huaisang-gege doesn't enjoy the saber, he's just as keen to listen to her, be it about her cultivation training or the latest fashion trends.

So after her Huaisang-ge asks her if she wants to come with him to stay in Yunmeng for the month leading up to the year's big cultivation conference, she doesn’t hesitate to say yes.

When Nie Mingjue learns of this, he nods in approval and pats her head.

"You're my favorite, Zhen-mei." he says. "Keep an eye on that didi of mine, okay? Don't let him get into too much trouble."

"I'm not your real favorite, Mingjue-ge." she says with a grin. "But okay."

He snorts, and ruffles her hair. "Enjoy yourself too. Then again, you two always have a good time together."

"Yes, we do!"

Nie Mingjue narrows his eyes. "Not too much of a good time though, Nie Zhenzhen."

"Yes, Mingjue-ge." she giggles, and gives her cousin a hug before going on her way.

.


.

 

Lotus Pier is beautiful. She could see exactly why Huaisang-ge likes the place so much. They stroll inside arm-in-arm and are welcomed warmly by Wei-gongzi and a bunch of junior disciples.

Huaisang-ge and Wei-gongzi joke around. She had met Wei-gongzi before, a couple of years ago, when he and Jiang-gongzi came to stay in Qinghe for a few weeks in the summer. Now, Wei-gongzi is still his usual cheerful, playful self as he leads them through town and plays the gracious host as they all sit down in a restaurant.

Nie Zhenzhen and her fellow disciples dig in, eager for new food after their trip. As they eat, Huaisang-ge and Wei-gongzi start chatting.

"Wei-xiong… How long have A-Cheng and Madame Yu been in Meishan, again?"

"Four days, I think. I was still on my way back from my night hunt with Lan Zhan and A-Ning when they left."

"Hm... Four days." Huaisang-ge muses. "Not enough time for the aunties and grandmas to run out of stuff to say, specially with Yanli-jie's wedding happening real soon."

Wei-gongzi snorts. "You know A-Cheng's keeping count of how many times they've told him he's next and asked when he's going to propose?"

Huaisang-ge sighs. "Oh, no. How many has it been?"

"Double digits." Wei-gongzi answers. To his credit, he does sound genuinely sympathetic.

"I told him I'd come along if he wants me to, you know! Since he keeps complaining about the aunties and grandmas..."

"Wow, willing to face the aunties and grandmas." Wei-gongzi laughs. "That's true love, A-Sang!"

"I know! But he told me he'll be fine, and he'll see me in Yunmeng!" Huaisang-ge pouts, but it doesn't stay long as he then sighs. "My poor A-Cheng... I'll just make sure to pamper him when he gets back."

Nie Zhenzhen has met Jiang-gongzi before, too. He hadn’t been dating Huaisang-ge yet back then, although Zhenzhen had already noticed that Huaisang-ge was quite clingy with the other boy.

Zhenzhen had thought that Jiang Wanyin was a bit too stiff and serious. A bit like Mingjue-ge, but seeing as he had been a lanky teen then, he looked less scary and only more grumpy.

Huaisang-ge always told Zhenzhen how he likes his boyfriend who is sweet and who spoils him.

Zhenzhen always wondered if they were actually talking about the same person.

.


.

 

The next day, after morning exercises, Huaisang-ge asks his 'babies' what they want to do.

Nie Zhenzhen jokingly says shopping.

Huaisang-ge's eyes glow.

“Ah, Zhen-mei, this is why you’re my favorite cousin! Yes, let’s go shopping!”

And just like that, they say goodbye to the very welcoming Jiang disciples and they go to the mall.

Nie Zhenzhen idly considers if this is slacking off.

But it's one day, and didn't Mingjue-ge tell her to enjoy herself, too? So she goes along with Huaisang-ge after he dismisses the others to go wherever they want as long as they meet back up for lunch. It reminds Zhenzhen of a school field trip.

She goes with Huaisang-ge to the department store. Like this, with just the two of them, they browse their selections and take turns trying on clothes they like.

Zhenzhen finds a skirt, and she likes how it looks on her when she tries it on. Still, she hesitates, because it's shorter and "girlier" than her usual ones. But Huaisang-ge assures her that it looks amazing on her.

When she returns from changing back into her own clothes, Huaisang-ge is holding up two shirts in his hands, assessing both.

It doesn't look like his usual style, but Zhenzhen gets an answer before she asks.

"Look, Zhen-mei! These will look great on A-Cheng! What do you think? Which one should I get for him?" he asks.

Zhenzhen looks at the shirts and assesses them. "I like the one with the lotus leaves, Huaisang-ge."

"Right? That green looks good with the lavender. This purple one with the silver, though! Ah, they both look good! Maybe I should just get both of them?"

Spending has never been a problem with her cousin, Zhenzhen knows. Both Uncle Renshu and Mingjue-ge spoil him to death.

She watches as Huaisang-ge puts both shirts in their basket and then he goes back to browsing the other designs.

Zhenzhen joins him, picking at the shirts for lack of something else to do. "Huaisang-ge?"

"Hm?"

"What do you like about Jiang-gongzi?"

Huaisang-ge looks up at her, blinking. He chuckles awkwardly. "Oh. Wow, um. Okay."

Zhenzhen quickly looks down. "I'm sorry, is that too personal? I just- I was just curious-"

"No! No, it's fine, Zhen-mei, it's a perfectly valid question." he assures her, this time laughing easier. "Let's see... What do I like about A-Cheng... Well, there are lots of things to like, right? He's handsome, smart, and kind. He's also very compassionate and hardworking. I know he has a reputation for being grumpy, but he's a really gentle person."

Zhenzhen watches as her cousin smiles down at one of the shirts, fingers tracing over the embroidered lotus flowers on the collar.

"But anyone can be those things, right? So... I guess... well, he's my best friend. We're very different people, but he can see past it and still know me. A lot. And he really knows how to show me that he does. I like that most about him, I think."

"Oh." Zhenzhen nods, thinking about her cousin's words. "I don't understand all of it..."

"Ah, meimei, of course you don't! You're still very young." Huaisang-ge says, waving his fan at her with an amused smile. "We never thought about any of that when we started dating, you know! You're what now, fifteen? We were seventeen then, and we started dating out of spite."

She blinks. "Spite?"

"A-Xian kept teasing us and there was a debate and a point to be made- that's a whole other story, nevermind. What I mean is, we started going out because why not? Then... then we realized that, well, it could work, actually."

"Really?" Zhenzhen asks. She didn't know that. Huaisang-ge always seemed so confident, so stable in his relationship no matter how many people thought he and Jiang-gongzi were a strange fit. "So then... you just... kept on going?"

"Yeah, I guess." Huaisang-ge says, smiling. "You know, after that, you just… Okay. It's hard to explain, but it goes like... You discover little things, about each other, that you find yourself wanting to keep? Sometimes they're things that have been there all along, like... like the way he'll always let me hold on to him, crowd or no. Sometimes they're new things, too, like him finally learning to reach out to me when things get too much.

“And... well, those little things that you want to keep, they add up, bit by bit, until you're looking at... this person. This person who makes you want to say 'Hello, person. I want to keep you.' And you do, if you're lucky and they want to keep you too."

It's a very simplistic explanation, Zhenzhen thinks. With Huaisang-ge's love for flowery, dramatic poetry, she had half expected him to start quoting one of his favorite poems, or even make up his own. She didn't expect him to come out with such a straightforward, simple answer like that.

Funny, it's almost like something someone like Jiang-gongzi would say to explain himself.

But, she understands. "I see. You make it sound so simple, Huaisang-ge."

"Ah… is it?" he asks, laughing sheepishly. "I know it doesn't sound very romantic, but-"

"No, no I actually understand it better. It's... It's very sweet. I'm glad you have your person."

Huaisang-ge finally withdraws from the hangers and picks up their basket. "I'm glad too, Zhen-mei."

They twine their arms together again as they march to the cashier to pay for their purchases.

"So when you said you would have come along with Jiang-gongzi to visit his family in Meishan... to help him deal with his aunties and grandmas..." she says, brows furrowed in thought. "What does that mean? Does that mean you're ready to marry-"

" Ahhhhh- next question!"

Zhenzhen pouts. "Aw, Huaisang-ge!"

Huaisang-ge huffs, pouting. "No, nope, pass! I've bared my poor little heart to you enough for today, Zhenzhen!"

Zhenzhen grins, elbowing her cousin, knowing that he's not truly angry with her anyway. "So you agree? You two are next, after Jiang Yanli?"

"Nie Zhenzhen, you stop it.” he warns her, but it’s half-hearted. “You are taking advantage of my weakness while I miss my boyfriend! Have mercy on your poor Huaisang-gege!"

.


.

 

When Nie Zhenzhen meets Jiang Wanyin again two days later, she decides that her initial impression hasn't changed, not completely.

He is still a bit stiff and a little too serious. His brows are always furrowed. He does spare a real soft smile for Huaisang-ge, but his lips stay in an almost-frown the rest of the time.

"We went shopping the other day. I bought you some shirts!"

Jiang-gongzi sighs. "Again? Nie Huaisang, you know you're the reason my wardrobe is full to bursting, right?"

Huaisang-ge whines, clinging to his arm. "Aww, I just want to see you in the nice shirts, A-Cheng~ I don't complain when you buy me things, why do you complain when I buy you things?"

Jiang-gongzi rolls his eyes like he was born to do just that. "Because you're the one asking me to buy you things. I never do that."

"I just missed you a lot. I wanted to give you a 'Congratulations on surviving a week with the aunties and grandmas' present."

"Fine." Jiang-gongzi sighs, but then he frowns. "Wait, who picked the shirts? Tell me it's not Wei Wuxian, because I don't trust-"

"Hey, now. They're perfectly good, decent shirts, Jiang Wanyin!"

"That's what you said about the one the grape shirt."

"You love the grape shirt."

"No, I don't. It says 'Have a Grape Day' . I hate it."

"Ugh, tell him, Zhen-mei! We bought good, not grape-related shirts, didn't we?"

Nie Zhenzhen smiles and says, "We did, Jiang-gongzi. They're really nice shirts."

Jiang-gongzi narrows his eyes at her, but then sighs again. "Alright, fine. Give me the shirts. I'll wear one when we go out tomorrow."

"Okay!" Huaisang-ge finally beams. "You'll like them, I promise."

Nie Zhenzhen watches as Jiang-gongzi shakes his head in exasperation, all while stroking Huaisang-ge's hair, tucking it behind his ear. "I'm only agreeing so you don't throw tantrums."

Huaisang-ge gets up in his face with an impish smile. "You'll regret not being grape-ful about my efforts to pamper you, Jiang Wanyin."

Jiang-gongzi visibly cringes and turns away. "Ugh, I'm going back to Meishan."

That startles a delighted laugh out of Huaisang-ge, and Nie Zhenzhen couldn't help but smile.

Personally, she had always envisioned her favorite cousin with a different person. A sweet and patient one, openly gentle, who would dote on him and have the same love of art, poetry and romance as he does.

But, as Zhenzhen had learned, and as Huaisang-ge had told her- anyone could be sweet, patient and gentle, but love is not in the big wide strokes. It's in the details.

Jiang-gongzi is the person whom Huaisang-ge wants to keep, and Huaisang-ge is lucky, because if Nie Zhenzhen could see right, and that is indeed a smile always tugging at Jiang-gongzi's lips after every silly thing that Huaisang-ge says, Jiang-gongzi wants to keep him, too.

.

.

.

.

(03)

.

Jiang Yunru's favorite shige is Wei Wuxian.

Wei-gongzi is cool, fun, and chill.

Well - he's chill until one of his inventions sets something on fire or makes something explode or manifests a side effect on his latest unwitting victim-... err-... test subject (often a junior, once or twice Jiang Yunru himself) but that's only sometimes!

At other times, Wei-gongzi is a completely cool, fun and chill shige. Jiang Yunru prefers him, compared to his Meifen-jie who is all about schedules, or Jiang-gongzi who can and will make someone run laps around Lotus Pier for missing training, or God forbid Madame Yu who-... Jiang Yunru would rather not think about it, really.

He still has nightmares.

So, yeah. Wei-gongzi. Chill. Except during explosions.

Always cool. Like today, when he turns up to supposedly lead morning training on behalf of Jiang-gongzi who went on another trip - shorter this time, a day and a night at Lanling. Wei-gongzi is all bright and energetic as he decides that it’ll be fun to make his juniors spar with their guests.

“What do you think?” he asks them. “You’ve done nothing but watch each other practice sword forms all week. Don’t you wanna do something different?”

Jiang Yunru, always rallying behind his favorite shige, answers, “Yeah, that sounds cool.”

“That’s the spirit, Jiang Yunru!” Wei-gongzi almost knocks him over when he slaps his back. But it's fine. Then Wei-gongzi turns towards their guests from Qinghe, who had just finished their own morning training. “How about it, A-Sang? Stop spoiling your disciples so much, they’re not your pet birds.”

“No, but they’re still my babies.” Nie-er-gongzi pouts, and then looks at his ‘babies’.

His babies who are all bigger and taller than him. Jiang Yunru would admit that they're kinda scary, but they're the same age as him, so maybe they'll be nice, too, right?

“Hm… Do you guys want to beat up some Jiang disciples today?” Nie-er-gongzi asks. Which. Rude. But fair. They do look like they beat up people for breakfast. And it is morning.

“Do we get a reward if we win, Huaisang-gege?” the tallest of the Nie kids - Dai Lei - asks. His peers on either side of him elbow him and bonk him on the head at the same time.

Dai Lei, according to 'sources', has been trying to propose to Nie-er-gongzi since he was like, eight or something. Jiang Yunru can't wait until Jiang-gongzi hears that some punk his boyfriend used to babysit has been trying to propose to him.

Nie-er-gongzi takes the flirting in stride, though. He probably thinks it's cute. “Only my adoration, Xiao-Lei.” he tells his junior, then he turns to Wei-gongzi. “Alright, you’re on, Wei-xiong.”

Wei-gongzi grins and then he coaxes Jiang Yunru forward. “Right, right. Go on, shidi, you’re up first.”

Okay. What.

Jiang Yunru blinks. “Wait, me? Now?

“Yeah. You said it sounds cool.”

Dammit.

But, well.

What's the worst that could happen, right?

“Aw, fine.”

Nie-gongzi looks at his own disciples before nodding at one of them. The very tall girl. His cousin. Nie Zhenzhen. “Zhen-mei?” he prompts, and she stands up, grinning and ready. “Be nice to the Jiang boy now.”

“I’m always nice to boys, Huaisang-gege.” she says, brandishing her saber.

Hm. Maybe Jiang Yunru should think twice about this...

But it's too late.

They stand across each other in the training yard and do the customary bows.

Jiang Yunru lets out an audible yelp as Nie Zhenzhen strikes at him first. She does it again, and he is immediately on alert, doing about all that he can to not get his head chopped off, because by all means, that seems to be his sparring partner’s sole intent.

“Is that all you got, Jiang Yunru?!”

“Zhen-jiejie, what did I do to you?! Stop trying to kill me!”

Between seeing his own life flashing before his eyes, Jiang Yunru hears when Wei-gongzi whistles.

“A-Sang… Who trained your shimei?”

“Oh, Zhenzhen?” Nie-er-gongzi asks, airy. “She is da-ge’s favorite.”

“Ah.” the other nods. “I feel bad sending our poor Yunru out there now.”

Oh, he better feel very bad, Yunru thinks. Yunru takes back everything good he said about Wei-gongzi now.

Nie-er-gongzi hides a giggle behind his fan. “Oh, no, what have we done?”

Yunru tries not to cry.

He loses, to the horror of his fellow Jiang junior disciples. He is very tired, but when he looks back on it, he… quite enjoyed the experience. He laughs with Zhen-jiejie and tells her that he’ll train harder so he’ll at least give her a challenge when they hold a rematch.

“Sorry... she kinda kicked my ass, Wei-gongzi.” he says as he slumps beside his shige.

Wei-gongzi smiles and pats his head. “It’s fine. I bet she can kick my ass too, shidi. You did good.”

“Thanks, I’ll pass out now.”

Wei-gongzi chuckles, and then regards his other juniors. “Hao Gui, do you want to go next? I know you’re eager to try new stuff.”

Hao Gui blinks in surprise, but he nods.

Yunru perks up. Hao Gui is new to the sect, but he's very talented. Yunru, even though he's younger, has been the guy's unofficial 'guide' while he settles into the sect, so he tries to pay attention to and support his friend.

“Nie-xiong, this is our new disciple, Hao Gui.” Wei-gongzi introduces, and Hao Gui bows to Nie-er-gongzi properly. “Jiang Cheng’s been personally training him in swordfighting.”

It’s true - Hao Gui is a capable swordfighter but in terms of the Jiang Sect’s special sword forms, he is behind his peers, so every day he spends an additional hour or two with Jiang-gongzi to study them. The extra training is obviously doing wonders to get the newbie caught up. Jiang Yunru sat in on one of the sessions once and even found himself re-learning some fundamentals that he might have missed or forgotten through the years.

“Oh? He hasn’t mentioned that.” Nie-er-gongzi blinks, looking Hao Gui up and down. Then after a moment of consideration, he looks to his disciples. “Okay, Xiao-Lei, let’s have you fight all that energy off.”

Dai Lei stands up, grinning excitedly as he heads to the training grounds.

Nie-er-gongzi adds, “If you win, no one will tell da-ge that you’ve been shamelessly flirting with at least half of all the people here.”

Dai Lei beams. “Nice!”

Hao Gui stands across the other teen.

Dai Lei winks at him. “Hey.”

Hao Gui just rolls his eyes, but he greets back, deadpan. “Hey.”

It’s faint, but Jiang Yunru hears Nie-er-gongzi let out a tiny squeak. “W-Wei-xiong, you said A-Cheng’s been training him?”

Wei-gongzi sniggers. “Yep. You see it?”

“Oh, yes. I see it.”

Jiang Yunru sees it too, actually.

But he has no time to ponder about it, because Dai Lei bows at him and he has to bow back, and then, he has to focus on fighting for his life because do all Nies have to spar like they’re trying to cut you in half?!

Jiang Yunru sighs, but holds his breath. Hao Gui is determined to make the Jiang Sect proud, and he’d been introduced as Jiang-gongzi’s mentee, so he fights back with all he has.

He hears his fellow disciples cheering and even some impressed and excited murmurs from the Nie disciples. He does his best to cheer too, despite his exhaustion.

“Ah, he’s very good!” Nie-er-gongzi says, surprised but pleased. “Not many could keep up with my Xiao-Lei.”

Wei-gongzi nudges him. “So who’s this one again, besides being your teenage suitor?”

“Dai Lei. His family’s been Qinghe Nie sect disciples for generations.” comes the answer. “He’d be da-ge’s actual favorite if only he didn’t annoy him by flirting with everyone.”

Oh, man. Jiang Yunru prays for Hao Gui's soul.

Wei-gongzi must think the same because he just gapes at Nie-er-gongzi. “Are all of these kids just Mingjue-ge’s monster apprentices?”

“Yep.” Nie-er-gongzi laughs. “He sent me here to join night hunts, but he can’t spare his senior disciples to babysit me for a whole month, so I told him I’d take the juniors on a field trip, and he said to pick the best ones!”

Hao Gui has used just about all the skills he had learned and tricks up his sleeve when Dai Lei also begins to flag. The match, on lieu of the time limit, gets called a draw.

“You’re good, Hao-xiong.” Dai Lei says with a satisfied grin, and Hao Gui could only nod, still catching his breath.

Dai Lei returns to his young master and preens as Nie Huaisang ruffles his hair and tells him just what a good job he did.

Hao Gui turns to go back to Wei-gongzi and his fellow junior disciples, but he almost falls over as they all crowd around him, congratulating him and praising his sword fighting skills.

They are interrupted when a familiar voice rings out across the field.

“Wei Wuxian! What’s with all the noise? What have you been up to this time? Aren’t you supposed to be supervising sword training?”

Jiang Yunru and all the other junior disciples, straighten up on instinct, all turning to face their young master, who is marching steadily towards them.

“Jiang-gongzi!”

Wei-gongzi, as usual, remains casual and just grins at his brother. “Hey, Jiang Cheng! How's Lanling?”

“It’s Lanling.” Jiang Cheng says, visibly tired. “Lots of gold and-... Eggolas, no.” he sighs, squinting at the tiny bird perched on top of Jiang Yunru’s head.

Yep. Yunru has just been... ignoring that all this time.

Eggolas is a cute bird, okay? It's not like he's pooping in there. He’s just... moving around and stuff.

“A-Cheng!” Nie-er-gongzi cries, and they all watch the grand display of him throwing his arms around their Jiang-gongzi’s neck. “Welcome home! I hate that I'm finally here but you keep leaving!”

Jiang-gongzi rolls his eyes but doesn't pry him away. He only raises an eyebrow at Nie-er-gongzi when he steps back. “Nie Huaisang, are you the reason why the training ground is noisy today?”

Nie-er-gongzi shakes his head, hiding his face behind his fan. “Oh, no, that’s Wei-xiong’s idea.”

There is a general noise of agreement.

“And you enabled him.” Jiang-gongzi says, eyes narrowed, tugging at Nie Huaisang’s now-lopsided bow scrunchie to straighten it.

“I supported him.”

“He totally enabled me. That’s why we’re best friends.” Wei-gongzi says, leaning against one of his disciples, who just so happened to be Hao Gui.

Hao Gui, who is squinting at his favorite young master’s arm just casually wrapped around Nie Huaisang’s waist.

Poor dude. He really hasn't moved on from that yet.

Nie-er-gongzi continues, “Anyways, your juniors learned a lot of stuff.”

Wei-gongzi backs him up. Always a perfect team. “Yes, yes, like how to not get chopped in half by a Nie saber!”

“And my juniors were able to observe the Jiang Sect style too. It’s all very educational, we promise.”

Jiang-gongzi looks between the two of them and at the wide-eyed disciples around him, then just shakes his head in resignation. “Alright, well, you should all go back to training, or at least stop making all this noise, because Mother is going to walk by anytime now. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Wei-gongzi immediately straightens, and then looks at his juniors, slightly panicking. “Uhhh… okay, okay, everyone, in formation, go back to doing drills-”

“Uh, Wei-gongzi?” Jiang Yunru pipes up, finally. “I can’t move my arms.”

They don’t question him. Eggolas has started to put twigs in his hair and he hasn’t done anything about it.

Wei-gongzi just looks at him helplessly for a bit, before sighing and then just waving them all off. “Alright, fine, you’re all dismissed early because you’re all tired from sparring with Chifeng-zun’s murder children. Go, go.”

“Oh, that’s a nice one.” Nie-er-gongzi says. “We should get matching shirts - Chifeng-zun’s Murder Children-”

Before Jiang-gongzi could scold him, one of the aforementioned murder children raises a hand. “Can we go with them, er-gongzi?”

Their young master smiles and waves his fan at them. “Sure! Go and hang out. Be back for dinner, or if you’re eating out, just message me, okay?”

The mixed party of Jiang and Nie juniors bow to the three, and then they walk off towards the dormitories, already chattering excitedly, talking about going to town for the afternoon, some suggesting they catch that new action movie that just came out.

There’s a distant whistle, and Jiang Yunru feels Eggolas abandon his partially-built nest in his hair and fly off. He follows the bird’s flight and watches as it lands in Jiang-gongzi’s outstretched hand. Jiang-gongzi smiles down at the bird before ushering it towards his shoulder while he listens to whatever Nie-er-gongzi is saying.

Absently, he kisses the top of Nie-er-gongzi’s head.

Jiang Yunru sighs.

Wei-gongzi might be his favorite shige, but this soft Jiang-gongzi who manifests himself whenever Nie-er-gongzi is around, is a close second.

 

.


.

“Are we sure it’s okay if we eat out?” someone asks as their group walks inside a family diner after their movie.

Meifen-jie is the one who answers. “Wei-gongzi said it’s fine. We’ll just catch up on whatever chores we missed when we get back. He’s the one who let us have the afternoon free, anyway.”

Someone asks the same question for the Nies, and Nie Zhenzhen says, “I already told Huaisang-ge. It’s fine, I mean, they’re eating out too. I’m sure he won’t mind us being out of his hair for a while now that Jiang-gongzi is home.”

Jiang Yunru sits beside Hao Gui as their crowd settles into two neighboring booths. Hao Gui is focused on his phone, and when Jiang Yunru catches a glimpse he recognizes the familiar account.

Nie-er-gongzi's Instagram handle. @smolnie. That username is… a choice. Okay, it’s quite funny. Jiang Yunru loves it.

The account is public, so anyone can see all the posts. He sees that Hao Gui is looking at the most recent one - a photo of Wei-gongzi, Nie-er-gongzi, Jiang-gongzi and who he recognizes as the Wen siblings whom Wei-gongzi is close friends with, all sitting around a table filled with food in some restaurant.

Hao Gui swipes to view the other photos. There’s one of Wei-gongzi with his arms around the Wens. Wen Qionglin looks shy as usual, and Wen Qing is very pretty, though she looks unimpressed at Wei-gongzi. The next photo is Nie-er-gongzi trying to feed a dumpling to Jiang-gongzi, and the one after that is Nie-er-gongzi kissing Jiang-gongzi’s cheek.

Hao Gui shakes his head as he mumbles, “I really thought he was with Wei-gongzi or something.”

And of course, someone hears him - “You what ?” and suddenly everyone is leaning towards him. Their companions from the other table are also peering at him.

“Oh, he didn’t know Jiang-gongzi and Nie-er-gongzi are together.” Meifen-jie provides for everyone, because she hates Hao Gui, probably.

“What?” someone laughs. “How could you not know?!”

“You thought he was with Wei-gongzi?”

“No way, Nie-er-gongzi is like, totally different with Wei-gongzi than he is with Jiang-gongzi!”

“Give him some credit, he hasn’t seen Wei-gongzi with Lan-er-gongzi.”

Hao Gui frowns. “Who? Hanguang Jun?”

“Yeah- Oh, shoot, you wouldn’t know that either. It’s fine, it’s fine. You’ll see for yourself at the conference.”

“Huaisang-ge and Jiang-gongzi are the most adorable couple, though.”

That last one makes them all turn towards its source, because it just so happens to be Dai Lei.

He blinks at them from where he’s draped over the back of their booth, resting on his elbows. “What? I love love!”

“Okay, Dai-xiong.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be… um… heartbroken?”

“Nah.” he shrugs. “As long as Huaisang-ge is happy, I’m happy.”

“Wow, how noble of you, Dai-xiong...”

“Also, Jiang-gongzi is like, really really scary. Terrifying.” he shudders. “I think I’m taller than him. But I am very scared.”

Nie Zhenzhen shoves him to make him sit down properly. “As if Huaisang-ge will actually pay attention to you anyway.”

“No, I’m his baby! He said!”

“Probably residual affection because he knew you when you were still in diapers.” she teases.

They all laugh teasingly at him, and he just pouts. “That’s mean, shijie.”

Further discussion stops because a waitress arrives with their drinks. Jiang Yunru accepts the glass of soda someone passes around and idly listens to his companions talk about the movie they just watched.

He watches Hao Gui scrolling down Nie Huaisang’s profile. Mostly art and beautiful scenery, even some from Lotus Pier. Photos of animals - birds in the wild, and cats and dogs he assumes are from the animal shelter. Of course, there are also photos with Jiang-gongzi, Wei-gongzi and his other friends, as well as Nie Mingjue and Sect Leader Nie. He spots one photo of Lan Xichen there, too.

“We all follow Nie-er-gongzi.” he tells Hao Gui. “He’s the only one of them who actually posts a lot.”

“I see.”

Hao Gui looks down again at the photo of Jiang-gongzi holding a very adorable husky puppy in his arms.

Jiang Yunru watches as he taps the Follow button too.

.


.

That same evening, Wei-gongzi ambushes Jiang Yunru on his way back to the dorms... to ask him to help test some new talismans.

Testing new talismans is always fun, so he goes.

As he watches Wei-gongzi set up four different talismans on four different training dummies, he says, "So, uh, Wei-gongzi..."

"Hm? Yes, shidi?"

"Hao Gui is pretty much a mini Jiang-gongzi, isn't he?"

Wei-gongzi cackles, but quickly catches himself and quiets it down to a snigger. "Y-Yeah, he's a lot like your Jiang-gongzi, alright. So hardworking! Excellent work ethic! Doesn’t get it when someone flirts with him! We need him to loosen up, though. For real."

"He even has a crush on Nie-er-gongzi that he doesn't realize is a crush, doesn't he?"

Wei-gongzi snorts. "Oh, God, yes, he totally does. He always looks so pissed when he sees A-Sang. Like he doesn’t understand why he keeps looking at him."

They laugh about it for a while, and then they both sigh.

"Okay, enough chit-chat. We need to activate these four talismans at the same time. You take those two, I take these two."

"Okay!" Jiang Yunru perks up excitedly, approaching the two training dummies standing a couple feet away.

"Are you ready? You remember my instructions?"

"Yep."

They both take a deep breath, and raise their hands towards the talismans, channeling their qi.

"Alright, shidi, on three. One, two, three-"

Then, they sing-

"Baby shark, doo doo doo doo doo doo..."

.

The talisman, suffice to say, works.

He can’t wait to use them on his next night hunt and make his fellow disciples - probably Hao Gui - sing to activate them.

Wei-gongzi is still Jiang Yunru’s favorite.

.

.

.

.

(+1)

.

Dai Lei is only eight, but he's sure that he wants to marry Huaisang-gege. Huaisang-gege is nice, and sings pretty, and has beautiful hair, and has many bird friends.

Like a princess!

"Huaisang-gege, marry me!"

"Oh, Xiao-Lei." Huaisang-gege giggles, crouching down so they're face to face as he pats the younger’s head. "But you're still so small! I can't marry someone so small, you know. Can you ask me again, when you're bigger?"

"Okay." Dai Lei nods obediently. "How big?"

"Maybe when you're bigger than me. How's that?"

Hm. That can't be that far off.

"Okay."

.


.

Dai Lei is thirteen, but he's already taller than his Huaisang-gege, who is eighteen! He's always been the tallest boy in his batch, and Huaisang-gege is probably the shortest Nie in history.

He probably has the longest hair, though. Really long hair, which only made him more beautiful in Dai Lei's eyes.

"Huaisang-gege, marry me!"

"Ah, my Xiao-Lei." Huaisang-gege laughs, but he's not teasing. He's fond. "Huaisang-gege still has a lot of stuff to do at school. How about you ask me again when you're a little bit older?"

"Aw..." he whines. "But when?"

"Hm... Let's see. When you're taller than da-ge?"

Dai Lei sighs, but concedes.

"Okay."

.


.

Dai Lei is fifteen, and he just witnessed Huaisang-ge single-handedly mop the floor with Young Master Yao's sorry butt for disrespecting him and the disciples of Qinghe.

"Huaisang-gege, marry me!"

To his surprise, his Huaisang-ge only gives him a strained smile. He watches his shige carry on with hosting the cultivation meeting stone-faced.

Afterwards, he and Zonghui-ge watch as Mingjue-ge rants about how Sect Leader Nie won't stop worrying about Huaisang-ge, who has locked himself away in his room for a whole day, and was telling most everyone to just leave him alone. He is refusing ice cream and Kung Fu Panda. He is even refusing to see his birds.

Then Young Master Jiang Wanyin of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect arrives. An hour later, Huaisang-ge is okay again.

Dai Lei sighs.

"Huaisang-ge." he says, the next time he sees his shige. "I'm glad you're okay again."

He is rewarded with a warm smile, and as if he’s still that too-tall eight year old Nie-er-gongzi used to babysit, he gets a pat on the head.

Huaisang-ge says, “Never change, my Xiao-Lei.”

.


.

Dai Lei is sixteen, and he may have given up on the marriage route, but that doesn't mean he's gonna stop wanting to be the big little kid who showers his shige with praise and attention.

"Huaisang-gege, my bruised cheek hurts. Can you kiss it better?"

After all, Huaisang-ge's laugh is one of the best sounds in the world.

"Xiao-Lei, you terrible flirt. Here, I have something we can apply for that bruise."

"W-Wait, noooo! Huaisang-gege, not the smelly paste!"

"Yes to smelly paste! It's good for your bruises. Now, hold still."

Dai Lei groans. "Ewww..."

.

.

.

fin