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In the Jaws of Victory

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Prompt: Dreams / Ribbon / Birthday

The invitation said: ABSOLUTELY NO DOGS OR DOG PARAPHERNALIA. ANYONE ATTEMPTING TO GIFT JIN RULAN WITH A NEW DOG WILL BE IMMEDIATELY ESCORTED OUT OF KOI TOWER AND BANNED FROM ALL JIN SOCIAL EVENTS FOR A YEAR AND A DAY.

It’s understandable. He’s still a little bit in mourning for Fairy, for all that she passed seven months ago, old and fat and mostly blind. And he’s so close with his Dajiu, now, of course he doesn’t want to get a new dog.

All of which is to say that Nie Huaisang, with a brace of bouncy, squeaky, cuddly, guaranteed Wei-Wuxian-safe spiritual ferrets, is going to win this birthday party.

“Of course you found a loophole,” Wei Wuxian grumbles, perpetually suspicious, even though he’s clearly entranced by the sight of a tipsy Jiang Wanyin dragging a gold tassel back and forth for one of the ferrets to chase.

“It’s not a loophole, it’s a completely different animal. If he wanted no pets the invitation should have said no pets.”

But he didn’t not want a new pet, actually. Obviously.

“Thank you, Nie-shushu,” says Jin Rulan, who has somehow grown into a reasonably gracious young man. Nie Huaisang attributes it to navigating Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian’s always slightly incendiary relationship, and learning what to avoid. The other option is influence from those Lan friends of his, who, to be fair, seem perfectly fine, but Nie Huaisang has no interest in being fair, and would prefer to credit the Lan for nothing.

So.

This line of thinking gets cut off by a hug.

“You are really unreasonably tall,” Nie Huaisang mutters into his collarbone, and pats Jin Rulan on the shoulder.

“Happy birthday.”

*

Later in the evening, Nie Huaisang is drinking out on the stairs; he needed a little air.

“He calls you shushu?”

Lan Xichen. It’s not the first time they’ve seen each other at a public event since he left seclusion, but it is the least formal.

“Isn’t it past your bedtime?”

Huaisang.”

“Er-ge.” Lan Xichen doesn’t get to scold him like a child; they’re both adults now, both sect leaders. Lan Xichen is fucking coward -

“If you hadn’t been hiding for years, maybe you’d already know what he calls me.”

He hears the little crumpled inhale that means Lan Xichen is restraining himself, and grins into his wine.

Why does he call you shushu?” Lan Xichen asks, as though with great patience. Nie Huaisang lets a shrug roll out of him.

“Ask the birthday boy, he insisted. We talked, while you were tucked away. I can’t tell if he’s very forgiving or very not, but he said I owed him an uncle, so I ought to act like it.”

He’s oddly compelling when he puts his mind to it, that boy.

“I rather think you owe him an aunt,” Lan Xichen murmurs, with the kind of deliberate, calm viciousness Nie Huaisang associates far more with his little brother.

Ouch.” Nie Huaisang is almost proud of him. “But let’s not pretend you hate me for Qin Su’s sake.”

“I don’t hate you.”

“Do not tell lies.”

“...I don’t want to hate you.”

Lan Xichen sits down next to him. He takes a slow, deep breath.

“I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for loving him if I don’t forgive you for destroying him. And I don’t think Mingjue would want either of us to be - to be -”

“Ruined?”

“Miserable.”

“Well, I guess we’ll never know,” Huaisang spits, the bitterness like a strangler vine climbing his backbone, curling through his ribs, bursting out of his jaw.

“Don’t. Don’t do that, don’t - deny how good he was.”

“That wasn’t -”

“It is what you were doing. It doesn’t matter if we deserve it, or if we failed him. Not to him, it wouldn’t. He loved us.”

Well.

“...fuck.”

Nie Huaisang is pretty sure he’s always going to be mostly miserable, even if he wins a hundred birthdays. But maybe he doesn’t have to be ruined. Maybe - he doesn’t have to be so lonely. Maybe -

(Of course you would find a loophole.)

Carefully, gradually, selfishly, he allows himself to slump against Lan Xichen’s shoulder. Lan Xichen drapes an arm around him, and Nie Huaisang - doesn’t hate it. But he hates -

“It is past my bedtime,” Lan Xichen admits, sounding morose about it, and Nie Huaisang snorts. 

“Should I take you to bed?”

It sounds so loud because he’s drunk, probably.

Lan Xichen coughs.

“I’m not sure you could even find it, in this state.”

“Oh, fuck you.”

“Drink some water,” Lan Xichen tells him, passing over a jug, and Nie Huaisang scowls.

“I don’t need you to take care of me. I won. I -” The birthday, he means, only it comes out slouching and sideways and he can’t seem to explain.

“Will you let me anyway?”

Why?”

“I don’t want to hate you,” Lan Xichen says again, measured and gentle as always used to be. Just that tone makes him feel like a child again, throwing himself on Xichen-gege’s mercy and begging to be allowed to paint with him instead of practicing saber. “So I have to practice. Behaving the way I do want to be.”

Nie Huaisang shoves himself to his feet - or he tries to, anyway, but standing up reveals he’s much drunker than he thought, and he stumbles, has to grab Lan Xichen’s shoulder to steady himself. It feels so good and part of him wants to pull his hand back as if burned.

“No - you don’t - you don’t get to be good to me, you don’t get to pretend -”

Lan Xichen’s hand is so steady on his waist, strong and absolutely solid.

I am not pretending,” Lan Xichen murmurs, not quite sharp, but firm, fierce. “And I’m not making up for anything, either. If you wanted that from me, you should have given me the chance a decade ago, instead of -”

His hip is going to bruise; Nie Huaisang only realizes when the ache of Lan Xichen’s grip relaxes again.

“You’re always such a fucking disappointment,” Nie Huaisang hisses, even though it isn’t completely true, even though Lan Xichen did what Nie Huaisang needed in the end. “He would have - you’re supposed to -” Zewu-Jun, the first Jade of Lan, the only man who ever supposedly rivaled Da-Ge for righteousness, but gentle and understanding when he was stern. But he allowed evil to flourish, he’s still allowing - Nie Huaisang knows what he’s done, he knows what he’s become, and still -

Mingjue wouldn’t hate you,” Lan Xichen tells him, low and weighty as a punch to the gut. “And I won’t do it for you either. If you want justice, you’ll just have to be less hateful.”

Nie Huaisang would slap him, if he didn’t think he might fall over if he let go of Lan Xichen’s shoulder.

“I hate you,” Nie Huaisang chokes, lies. He needs to get out of here before he starts fucking crying. He won, damnit. He won.

Lan Xichen pulls in a slow, deep breath. 

“You can hate me after you drink your water,” he murmurs patiently.

“Don’t treat me like a child.”

He expects don’t act like a child. He doesn’t expect -

“I’m treating you like my little brother.”

“Give me the fucking water,” Nie Huaisang snarls. His wine jar is empty and he needs something to drown the sob wriggling in his throat.

Lan Xichen hands it over, standing carefully and stroking Nie Huaisang’s back.

“If you don’t tell me no, I’m going to carry you, now,” Lan Xichen tells him. 

“I hate you,” he says again, soft and sulky, yielding and rotten as a bruised plum. 

Lan Xichen scoops him up, and Nie Huaisang shudders, curling against his chest and hiding his face against Xichen’s shoulder. He hates how good it feels, warm and safe and solid even as his head spins. Lan Xichen drops a kiss against his temple, soft and light as a feather, and Nie Huaisang finally loses the fight against his own tears.

*

The next morning, his head hurts, but less than he expected, and Lan Xichen is waiting in his room with a pot of tea. 

“Why are you really here, Er-ge?” he asks, sitting partway up, keeping his blankets bunched around him as a shield from more than the November morning chill.

“I missed you.”

“You don’t even know me anymore,” Nie Huaisang points out, and he means it to be taunt, but it comes out mournful.

“That too,” Lan Xichen agrees calmly.

“What?”

“Last night you said if I hadn’t been hiding, I’d know more about you. Well, I’m not hiding anymore. Are you?”

“You don’t want to know me now.”

“No, you don’t want me to know you, now. But you’ve made enough decisions for me, Huaisang.”

“I’m a vicious, cruel, two-faced wreck. There’s nothing worth knowing.”

“You’re clever, thoughtful, and kind to bring the best gift for a man who reminds you of the person you hate most. You hate yourself because you still care about righteousness. You were brave enough to do something difficult and dangerous alone. Even if I hate how you did it, and what you did to me - I think the man who could do all of that is worth knowing.”

He hands Nie Huaisang a teacup, heat seeping through the smooth glaze. Nie Huaisang takes it.

“Will you let me?”

Nie Huaisang drinks the tea. He doesn’t answer for a long time.

“Will you help me fix my hair, Er-ge?”

Lan Xichen smiles. It’s really - absurd, that a mortal man gets a smile like that. Even after -

He’s warm sitting beside Nie Huaisang on the bed; his hands are strong and deft. They don’t feel quite like Da-ge’s, but the tenderness in them is just the same. Nie Huaisang breathes through his nose and doesn’t flinch away. When Lan Xichen is done fixing his braids and pinning them up in his hairpiece, he brushes the rest of Huaisang’s hair to the side and presses a kiss to the back of his neck.

“Thank -”

“Don’t thank me,” Nie Huaisang cuts him off. “Just - don’t.”

Lan Xichen hums.

“Alright. Will you come to breakfast with me?”

Huaisang lets himself say yes.