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Nie Huaisang knows that Jiang Cheng is a very private person. It doesn't seem like it because Jiang Cheng is best friends with Nie Huaisang, and is best friends and foster brother with Wei Wuxian, so a lot of people just assume that he inherently loves chaos and loudness and things being destroyed in increasingly creative ways. Which is not untrue, but does not carry in the complete truth, which is that Nie Huaisang doesn't even know what Jiang Cheng's favorite food is. He assumes his favorite color is purple because that's what he always wears, but maybe he just started wearing purple because he frankly just looks stunning in the color and he probably knows that. He also thinks he likes lotuses, but he's not even sure about that either, just going off a painting in his room.

And while Nie Huaisang wants to push deeper, wants to find out everything he can about Jiang Cheng, it feels like there's something stopping him a lot, something that he can't really define. He doesn't want to scare him off, but that's only a part of the issue. He doesn't want to make him feel like Nie Huaisang is demanding his time and attention, which isn't the truth either.

What Nie Huaisang thinks that he wants most of all is for Jiang Cheng to realize that he wants Nie Huaisang to know the truth and just start telling him about it, even though he knows that's very likely to never ever happen. He can dream, but he knows that it's likely to only remain there.

So he's left with knowing that the only way that he's ever going to learn more about Jiang Cheng is if he just goes to the man and talks to him, figuring out all the questions that burn in Nie Huaisang's brain. Because while he knows that Jiang Cheng is a very private person, he always knows that he's a good man and a good friend and if Nie Huaisang is going to lie all his cards on the table, he really wants to ask Jiang Cheng out.

Because he's a good man and a good friend and because Jiang Cheng is the most beautiful man that Nie Huaisang has ever seen in his life, and he doesn't think he's exaggerating that fact. Shoulder-length black hair that's always in a ponytail, sharp blue-violet eyes, delicate features and a pouty mouth, long legs and a tiny waist. . . .

Nie Huaisang has known Jiang Cheng for two years now and he's starred in many wet dreams, those long legs wrapped around his waist as Nie Huaisang pins him to a bed and utterly goes to town when he fucks him, enjoying the wide mouth and the pretty, pretty sounds that come out of it as he fucks him.

But that's neither here nor there.

And it all ends up culminating with Nie Huaisang nervously standing outside of Jiang Cheng's apartment, playing with his hands as he tries to make himself to just knock on the door and tell Jiang Cheng how he feels. He has lotuses, tied together with a purple ribbon, ready to give them to him with a smile and a compliment, but the idea of being rejected, something that has never really scared Nie Huaisang before, bounces around his brain and makes him clam up.

He doesn't want Jiang Cheng to reject him. That would actually be terrible, something that he couldn't stand at all. Because if Jiang Cheng rejects him, then this makes their friendship weird and strange and something will fundamentally change about it, something that Nie Huaisang doubts that they would ever get back. But . . . his brother didn't raise a coward, so after ten minutes, he forces himself to raise his hand and knock three times on Jiang Cheng's door, solid and final, the start of either the best chapter in Nie Huaisang's life or the closing of it. He doesn't know yet.

It takes Jiang Cheng a minute to open the door, blinking bleary eyes at Nie Huaisang as he's dressed as casually as he's ever seen him, purple sweats and a t-shirt with a faded logo on it for "Xian Le Productions," a company that he thinks Jiang Cheng interned for in freshman year if Wei Wuxian's ramblings are correct. His hair is out of the ponytail, falling in gentle waves around -his face, and he has white fuzzy socks with purple polka dots on them.

He looks adorable, and Nie Huaisang thinks about waking up every morning to this. His heart beats with how much he loves the idea of it.

Jiang Cheng doesn't say anything, just opens the door wider for Nie Huaisang as he turns on his heels and heads back to his bedroom, sliding back underneath the massive nest of blankets he's made for himself. Nie Huaisang's heart jumps in a strange beat, a curdle of fear in his gut. He doesn't know what's going on, but Jiang Cheng never acts like this.  He's loud and abrasive and the person that Nie Huaisang thinks that he's in love with.

"A-Cheng?" he whispers, taking a small thrill in using the nickname without permission, but Jiang Cheng doesn't snap at him to stop. "A-Cheng, what's wrong?"

"Tired," Jiang Cheng whispers, his voice higher than Nie Huaisang is used to hearing from his mouth. "Heart hurts. Head too." He screws up his face. "Feel small."

Nie Huaisang sets the lotuses down on his desk, takes a step closer to Jiang Cheng, brushing his dark hair from his forehead. "Small?" he asks.

Jiang Cheng frowns. "Young? It's hard-" he takes a deep breath, the edge of a sob creeping in. "I feel . . . myself, but not . . . myself-myself."

An idea creeps into Nie Huaisang's mind, a story of a story that he heard from Shi Qingxuan. That he knew someone who would go into something called "littlespace," a state of mind where someone regresses in age to a point where it's like they're kind of like a child? He thinks. He's not sure exactly, but he wonders. . . . Himself, but not himself? Feeling small and young?

"Jiang Cheng, is this little space?" he whispers. Jiang Cheng's face lights up, and he nods. "Yeah! I remember. . . . That's what it's called. I forgot." His eyes close. "I looked it up when I was . . . yeah, that's what it's called." His thumb is sliding into his mouth. "Don't tell anyone. This is a secret." Nie Huaisang can only barely make out the words. "Especially not Jiejie or Xianxian."

Okay, Nie Huaisang can figure this out and ignore the screaming panic in his mind.

"What do you need?" he asks. Shi Qingxuan hadn't told him what they needed when they went into the little space. He had just said it, and then went to annoy He Xuan about something while Jiang Cheng had sat next to him, stock still, something that he had paid no attention to at the moment, but now it's startlingly clear.

Jiang Cheng looks at him, his eyes dazed and his thumb in his mouth. "A hug?" he asks, his voice shaky and soft, sounding so young and Nie Huaisang wonders just how young Jiang Cheng is right now. And he wonders why Jiang Cheng looks like he's about to cry, when he's only asking for something as simple as a hug.

Then he remembers Jiang Cheng's parents and that horrible lunch where he met them and it ended up with Jiang Cheng sobbing in a bathroom, and he thinks that when Jiang Cheng was actually a child, there were probably a lot of times he was denied a simple hug. Nie Huaisang doesn't remember not getting or giving at least three hugs with Nie Mingjue every day growing up.

He slides off his jacket and lays down on the bed, opening his arms up, and Jiang Cheng instantly dives in, his head fitting perfectly underneath Nie Huaisang's chin. He makes a soft noise of comfort, his arms curled up in-between their bodies while Nie Huaisang carefully closes his arms around him. His hair smells like grapefruits and his skin like aloe. He's warm and solid in Nie Huaisang's arms, and he doesn't want to let him go. He said that his head hurt and his heart hurt, and it hurts Nie Huaisang's own because he doesn't think that Jiang Cheng should ever feel like this.

"Chengcheng," he says, testing out the pet name. If this is a state that Chengcheng goes into with something of regularity, then Nie Huaisang thinks that he should have a name for it that means something. Chengcheng sighs, nuzzling into him.

"Do you need anything else?" he asks, and Chengcheng nods, pointing down at the foot of the bed. 

"Ranran," he mumbles, and Nie Huaisang sees a stuffed husky that must have gotten pushed down in the shuffle. He quickly gathers it up for Chengcheng, cursing the fact that he never takes Da-ge up on his offers to take him to one of the yoga classes he teaches. He's not very flexible, but Chengcheng needs it, so he's going to get it.

And the sigh of satisfaction when he hands it to him makes the fact that he thinks he pulled a muscle in his back worth it.

"Thank you," Chengcheng whispers. "Ranran is my best friend."

"Really?" Nie Huaisang says, laughing as Chengcheng presses up against him even more, his stuffed dog happily in his arms. "What about me? I thought I was your best friend."

He meant it to be a teasing joke, but he regrets it a moment later when Chengcheng looks up at him with eyes that are starting to water as he stumbles over "I'm sorry! I'm sorry! You're my best friend too!" Fast breathes are leaving his body, and he's shaking his head. "I'm- I'm sorry." The tears are sliding down his cheeks. "Please don't be mad at me."

Nie Mingjue would kill him if he ever found out that Nie Huaisang made Chengcheng cry. It doesn't matter that his brother has no idea about Chengcheng's existence, the moment he does find out about it, he will kill Nie Huaisang for making Chengcheng cry.

If there's anything left of him after Jiang Yanli and Wei Wuxian finds out that he made him cry.

Nie Huaisang might actually die if they ever found out about this.

If they even know about it.

"Chengcheng," he whispers. "I'm not mad at you. Not at all. I was just teasing you, but I went too far and it was wrong. I'm sorry."

Chengcheng’s sobs still. "You're saying sorry to me?"

He will beat up Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan as soon as he possibly can. God, it's becoming so clear that all of Jiang Cheng's present issues truly are their fault. He's surprised that an adult is apologizing to him? Well, then fuck all the adults in his life.

Chengcheng looks at him, his eyes watery with surprise over actually being treated kindly, and God, this hurts so fucking much. Nie Huaisang can't imagine growing up like this. He smiles, making his face as open as possible to gain the trust he wants to earn from Chengcheng, and he must see something that he likes, because he dives his head into Nie Huaisang's chest, taking a deep breath as he holds Ranran tightly.

"Thank you," he whispers. "Thank you, Sang-gege."

His hands are wrapped in Nie Huaisang's shirt, his face pressed tightly against his chest, the stuffed dog being squeezed tightly. He feels so small in Nie Huaisang's arms, and he doesn't want to let him go.

Well, he's already in a bed and he thinks that Chengcheng is quickly falling asleep, so he might as well close his eyes and catch up on some sleep of his own. He'll figure out what to do when he wakes up and Chengcheng is still around, if that even happens.

Right now, he's just going to sleep.

*

He wakes up to Chengcheng moving his head, but not actually waking up, and his phone buzzing in his pocket. He quickly grabs it, his eyes narrowed at the person who would dare disturb him and Chengcheng's sleep, brightening when he sees that it's his brother.

Where are you? his brother is asking, his text grammatically correct like all of them are.

napping, why do u care?

A-Sang, really?

if ure going 2 yell @ me, do it later? im tired rn

It's nothing important, I just need to drop some things off at your apartment, but I wanted to know if you wanted to grab lunch after I did.

cant, napping @ w/friend, later?

What friend?

He is not going to respond and deal with the overprotective Da-ge. The overprotective Da-ge that he doesn't think Jiang Cheng would want to know about Chengcheng. He will let Nie Mingjue stew in his own worry because he doesn't trust himself to keep this a secret yet, because panic is starting to rise in his throat as he begins to quickly look up age regression on his phone, cursing when all it gets him at first is porn and then digging until he finds something.

Anything.

He will take scraps at this point.

Typing in "non-sexual age regression" finally gets him the posts that he's looking for. Most of it is really just explanations of what it is, noting that it usually comes out of trauma (remembering the Jiangs, Nie Huaisang doesn't question it), but there's enough in there about what to do that Nie Huaisang decides to take as help. Stuffed animal is a check, soft blankets are a check, a comforting person around is hopefully a check, and making sure to eat and drink will be checked as soon as Chengcheng is up and ready to move around.

Nie Huaisang's hand is starting to play in Chengcheng's hair, marveling at how silky smooth his strands are. After this, he's going to have to ask Jiang Cheng about his hair regimen.

His phone is blowing up with Nie Mingjue's texts, and then texts from Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao because Nie Mingjue is worried about him and venting to them, causing a feedback loop that makes Nie Huaisang want to throw his phone at the wall.

He doesn't think about the fact that he can see that Jiang Cheng's phone is on, but silent, because while he knows that Jiang Yanli and Wei Wuxian love their brother, it's normal for them not to check in with each other for a few day's at a time. They were able to fuck off to a friend's house, disappearing to take a break for their mental health, based on the stories that Nie Huaisang was heard, and they got use to cutting everyone off for a couple days.

Jiang Cheng, he knows, was never allowed to leave.

Chengcheng makes a whine in the back of his throat, and Nie Huaisang looks down to see a furrowed brow and hands gripping his shirt tightly, planting his face even further into his chest. He's always so impressed at how small Jiang Cheng can make himself, even before he knew about this age regression. He's been the one curling up in Nie Huaisang's lap in the backseat of the car even though logic would make you think that it would be better if Nie Huaisang sat in his. But no, it was like Jiang Cheng saw his lap, thought "Free real estate," and sat down like there wasn't five inches of height between them.

Nie Huaisang had felt like he had died, gone to heaven, and then Saint Peter smiled evilly and pushed him down to hell where it was just an eternity of having a sweet smelling Jiang Cheng in his lap while trying desperately to pretend he didn't have a boner and constantly angling his hips away.

That bastard Wen Ning had seen through it and asked Nie Huaisang "innocently" if he was okay, like Nie Huaisang wasn't being driven wild thinking about how tight Jiang Cheng's body would be if he fucked it, how high Jiang Cheng's moans would be, how pretty he would look with the cutest fucking blush on his cheeks.

He is never going to get drunk around that asshole again, that's for sure.

Jiang Cheng had looked at him, frowned, and asked him what was the matter as his gentle fingers had prodded Nie Huaisang's face as he checked for a fever. He had only been able to think about commanding Jiang Cheng to put his fingers in Nie Huaisang's mouth, let his Sang-gege get them nice and wet, then reach back and prep himself while Nie Huaisang watches before he fucks him.

Wen Ning had smirked the entire time.

Cinnamon roll, his ass.

But right now, even pressed up in a bed together, Nie Huaisang can't really find it erotic because he doesn't think Chengcheng is suppose to be erotic.

(Though one of the sites had some definitions of trauma that could lead to age regression that makes Nie Huaisang so very afraid.)

He's just . . . he's just Jiang Cheng, but wanting to be loved and appreciated in the way he never felt he was when he was an actual kid. When he needed to be hugged and comforted by someone, not having his family run away from him or yell at him or actually being doing both at the same time. He doesn't think it's anything bad . Unusual maybe, but the fact that there seems to be a fairly big online community means that there's certainly more people who need this than Nie Huaisang would have thought.

He sighs as he wraps his arms even tighter around Chengcheng as he begins to whine himself awake, blinking his eyes open as tears begin to fall. "Gege?" he whispers. "Gege, you're still here?"

His eyes are wide in wonder, at the thought that he might actually be able to wake up in the arms of someone who wants to comfort and love him, his mouth open as he takes in the fact that Nie Huaisang's still here.

He raises a hand to brush the hair away from his face, Chengcheng tilting his head to look at him.

"Gege's here," he forces out as he tamps down the rage he feels towards the Jiangs. "Gege's not going to leave you."

Chengcheng nods, and it's so clear that he's only now just beginning to believe it. "And no closet?" he whispers, and Nie Huaisang can't stop himself.

"What closet?"

He stills and then looks down at Nie Huaisang's shirt, tracing his fingers along the skull pattern that he's wearing. "When Muqin and Fuqin see me like this, they get angry, and they shove me into a closet until they think I'm acting normal again." Chengcheng begins to shiver as his voice cracks. "I don't like the closet, gege. It's cold and dark and I can't have Ranran with me, but they tell me I have to do it or else I'm bad and I don't want to be bad." He tightens his grip around that stuffed dog while Nie Huaisang begins to see red. "It's really scary, Gege."

He thinks he might be crushing Chengcheng as he holds him so tightly, but he cannot even begin to care about anything like that when the only thing he can possibly worry about is figuring out how to kill the Jiangs and make it look like an accident.

"You won't be put in a closet," he says, biting back his fury. "You won't be cold or scared or left in the dark and I will never, ever take away Ranran. He's your puppy. The only thing I will ever do to you is hold you and make sure that you feel safe. It's the only thing I want to do. Do you understand me?"

Chengcheng blinks at him for a moment, and then eagerly nods, the fact that not only did Nie Huaisang climb into bed willing to hold him, but also was still there when he woke up safely is enough to earn his trust, and it's such a low price. He wants to beg Jiang Cheng to make people take more to earn his trust, but then he remembers how Jiang Cheng is when he's not like Chengcheng, and his heart hurts all over again because it's so clear that he was a trusting kid who had that abused out of him.

He hates the Jiangs. He hates them so fucking much. He wasn't aware it was possible to hate people like this, but it is and Nie Huaisang hates them. He rolls over so that Chengcheng is laying on top of him, too light for his weight, even accounting for his build. He buries his face in Chengcheng's hair, pushing down the fury until it's nothing more than a spark that he will ignite later.

"Gege, will you take care of me again?" Chengcheng whispers softly, sounding so scared that he's going to hear no, likely because his own parents told him that when he asked if he would be taken care of. "You're really nice and you don't yell or hit. I like . . . I like you! You're safe."

Nie Huaisang closes his eyes. "Of course, I will, Chengcheng," he whispers. "Anytime you need me, and I'll repeat this later, you just give me a call."

Chengcheng giggles, squeezing him tightly before he shifts and settles. Despite the height difference, Nie Huaisang is broad enough to easily hold all of Chengcheng, who's quickly falling back to sleep. Nie Huaisang, not really sure about what else he can do, follows him.

*

He wakes up to sharp breathing, like someone on the verge of a panic attack, and for a moment, Nie Huaisang thinks that he's twelve years old and listening to his big brother turned sudden guardian either crying himself awake or asleep because of the stress he's under, but then he realizes that he's not. He's twenty-one with a tall, slender body on top of him, and he's still wearing all his clothes. He grimaces even as he opens his eyes, the memories from earlier that day flooding back to him as he looks at Jiang Cheng who's staring up at him, eyes red-rimmed and mouth trembling as he clings to Nie Huaisang's shirt. He flinches when he sees that he's awake, turning to face the wall as he whispers out in a tear-stained voice, "I know you're not going to want to be friends after this, but can you please not tell anyone?" His hands clinch his shirt even tighter. "I don't want people to know what a freak I am."

Nie Huaisang stares at him, at how utterly certain Jiang Cheng is about being thrown away because he did something unexpected, something outside of the usual social norms, and he finds his heart splitting in two because he remembers Chengcheng asking not to be locked in the closet and saying that he can be a good boy. And maybe this was always just going to be something that Jiang Cheng just did when he was stressed, but Nie Huaisang can't ignore the fact that Jiang Cheng had so much trauma, even from a young age, with his parents, and that literally treated him so badly as a small kid that Jiang Cheng has to hide in his age for refuge and desperate hope that he'll be held and told he's good enough.

He doesn't know how to say any of that.

The only thing he manages to say is, "How old were you when it started?"

Jiang Cheng hunches in on himself when he mumbles, "Sixteen. I managed to hide it the first couple times, but then my parents started arguing in front of me and I panicked." The tears start to spill over, pressing his face into Nie Huaisang's chest as he sobs, "I woke up in the closet because they told me they weren't going to indulge me acting like a child when I was already a man, and I just wanted them to stop yelling." His sobs begin to pick up force, and Nie Huaisang can't stop himself from running his fingers through Jiang Cheng's soft hair, his heart breaking over what his parents had done to him that he never could have deserved.

"It was so scary," Jiang Cheng chokes out, "because I remember being dark and cold and just wanting someone to hug me, but no one ever does." He presses his face against Nie Huaisang's sweatshirt. "And I know it's fucking pitiful. You don't have to tell me. I shouldn't be turning into a little kid just because they get mad. I know I should just suck it up. But it's really hard."

It is truly taking everything inside him not to go to the Jiangs and wring their necks for what they've done to their child. He wants them to look at Jiang Cheng and realize the pain they've caused him and make them get on their knees to apologize. He wants to make them realize just how incredibly deeply they fucked up. He wants to make sure that they never see Jiang Cheng ever again, because they don't deserve to gaze upon him.

He wants to do everything he can possibly do to make Jiang Cheng feel safe at the end of the day.

"Okay," he whispers. "What can I do to help?"

Jiang Cheng's head jerks up to look at him, blinking as he whispers, "Help?"

Nie Huaisang shrugs, pretending like he isn't feeling self-conscious about this. "I mean . . . you don't deserve to be scared. You deserve to feel safe and this is what your mind's doing to make sure that happens." He grips Jiang Cheng a little tighter. "So let me help."

Jiang Cheng looks at him, and then nods his head with uncertainty. "Okay," he whispers, sounding like he's on the verge. "I want you to help."

Nie Huaisang knows this is just the start. But it's a fucking start .