Jiang Cheng turns his coffee mug between his hands and wishes it was something stronger. He’s not nervous, not exactly; he just wants this to be over. He regrets arriving at the cafe half an hour early–it’s just given him time to stew, to let his coffee get cold, to pick at the scone he suddenly has no appetite for.
Jiang Fengmian always says, “Arrive in your own time, but don’t be late.” Jiang Cheng always nods dutifully but he has no idea what that means. He tries to live by it anyway; the last thing he wants to do is admit ignorance in front of his father.
The door jingles and Jiang Cheng looks up. A trio of girls push in, following close on each other’s heels, and he sighs, taking a sip of coffee gone cold and bitter.
“Why didn’t you ask me?” The words had crawled up his throat until he had nearly choked, but he had swallowed them back down, fingernails digging into his palm. It wouldn’t have helped; the contract had already been signed and notarized. His input, it seemed, had not been required.
Jiang Fengmian had seemed to be able to intuit something from his silence, however. “We can nullify the arrangement, if necessary,” he had offered half-heartedly when Jiang Cheng had made no response. “Nie Mingjue can be reasonable, I’m sure–”
“No,” Madam Yu had interjected, and Jiang Fengmian had fallen silent. “This is a strategic alliance for our Family. Your sister has brought us closer to the Jins; you will do your part with the Nies.”
My sister loves Jin Zixuan, Jiang Cheng hadn’t said, because it didn’t matter, did it? Not against the future of the Family. He’s always known that his life was in service of the Jiang name; he’d just never had it so clearly spelled out for him before.
Besides, it’s not as if Nie Huaisang is a terrible option. At least Jiang Cheng knows him. More or less.
Jiang Cheng knows him well enough, at the very least, to sternly tell himself not to text when the clock on the wall ticks over five minutes past the hour. Sure enough, Nie Huaisang pushes through the door a few minutes later, looking suspiciously wind-blown and red in the cheeks. He looks around uncertainly, chest heaving, but brightens when he catches sight of Jiang Cheng sitting at a rear corner table. Nie Huaisang’s smile pulls up and he lifts a hand in a cautious little wave; Jiang Cheng sighs and waves back. This is what he’s in for, now.
Nie Huasang orders at the counter, giving Jiang Cheng another few moments to psych himself up. Is he supposed to hug Nie Huaisang? Shake his hand? The second seems uncomfortably formal, considering what they’re here to discuss, but the first far too familiar, given how it has come about.
Nie Huaisang sails over and slides into the opposite chair before Jiang Cheng can put a foot wrong with either option. “Sorry I’m late,” he offers, still sounding the tiniest bit out of breath. “You wouldn’t believe what the traffic was like, and I swear the crosswalks were all against me–”
“It’s fine,” Jiang Cheng says tiredly. “I’m used to it.”
Nie Huaisang raises a brow, as if he knows Jiang Cheng means Wei Wuxian, and Jiang Cheng scrambles for a deflection because he does not want to talk about his brother. “I mean–there’s no hurry. Not that I’m stalling. Not that there’s anything to–you know what,” he says, rubbing a hand over his eyes. “I’m going to start over.”
“All right,” Nie Huaisang says, amused, and Jiang Cheng presses his lips together.
“So.” Jiang Cheng lowers his hand and wraps it back around his mug. “Marriage.” That could have come out better.
“Ours,” Nie Huaisang agrees, leaning back in his chair. He looks unperturbed by the idea, and Jiang Cheng doesn’t know how he feels about that.
“You don’t–object?” he ventures, and Nie Huaisang raises his eyebrows.
“Do you?” Nie Huaisang counters, lifting his mug and taking a sip. He watches Jiang Cheng over the rim, and Jiang Cheng shifts uncomfortably.
“Not–not really,” he admits, and he’s surprised to find that it’s true. “I just wish I’d had more of a choice in this. Or anything,” he grouses.
Nie Huaisang eyes him sympathetically, putting the mug back down. “I know the feeling. But it could have been worse.” He gives Jiang Cheng an obvious up-and-down, and his mouth pulls up slyly. “A lot worse. Could have been Su Minshan.”
Jiang Cheng snorts a laugh, even as the glint in Nie Huaisang’s eye warms him from the inside out. “As if my mother would have allowed that. As if your brother would have.”
Nie Huaisang’s smile falters, and Jiang Cheng’s stomach sinks. Nie Huaisang looks down, fingers tracing the rim of his mug and Jiang Cheng searches for something, anything to say to fill the silence. He’s not great at this; he hadn’t realized how much he’d leaned on Wei Wuxian to smooth over social situations until that was no longer an option. True, sometimes his brother had made things worse instead of better, but Wei Wuxian has always been good at people. Jiang Cheng is acutely aware that he isn’t.
“How is he, anyway. Your brother,” he clarifies when Nie Huaisang looks up.
Nie Huaisang flashes a quick, stiff smile. “Doing well, thank you. Focused on rebuilding, as everyone is. And your parents?” he asks politely, and this is almost worse, this sudden stiff distance between them. Jiang Cheng wants the easy camaraderie of a moment ago back, but he doesn’t know how to get there.
“They’re well. Looking forward to retirement.” Jiang Cheng takes a sip of cold coffee before he remembers and makes a face, putting it back down. “Ready to fight Jin Guangshan and Madam Jin over who can spoil A-Ling the most.”
“I would think that’s a stiff competition,” Nie Huaisang says, smile relaxing into something a little lighter. He hesitates for a moment, and then reaches out. “Here, let me.”
Jiang Cheng sits up straighter as Nie Huaisang reaches for his mug. Nie Huaisang runs his finger lightly around the rim once; the tiniest thrum travels through Jiang Cheng’s hands from the mug and then it warms underneath his fingers, steam rising from the contents.
“Thanks,” Jiang Cheng says, and it’s easier, from there, to let the conversation turn to lighter topics, to stories about how precocious A-Ling is and how maybe Jin Zixuan is all right after all. From there it’s only a short jump to reminiscing about school, and Jiang Cheng even finds himself laughing at Nie Huaisang’s extremely vehement gratitude that he will never have to face down another exam again.
“No tests,” Jiang Cheng says, folding his arms on the table and leaning forward. “I can promise you that much, at least.”
Nie Huaisang’s eyes glint. “Then we’re going to get along just fine, I think.” His phone buzzes and he jumps, picking it up and turning it over. His eyes widen and he reaches for his scarf.
“I’ve–I didn’t realize what time it was, I’ve got to go,” he says, words tripping over each other and he slides his phone away and winds the scarf around his neck. “Sorry–previous engagement and all that.”
“Not this kind, I hope,” Jiang Cheng says, and he means it as a joke, but his stomach is also doing a weird churn.
Nie Huaisang laughs as he shrugs on his coat. “No,” he says with a small smile. “No, not this kind.” He stands and Jiang Cheng pushes himself up too; out of habit, mostly, but now that he’s up it feels awkward. Should he walk Nie Huaisang out? Should they hug? What is he supposed to do with his hands?
Nie Huaisang saves him from imminent implosion by reaching out and taking one of Jiang Cheng’s hands in his. His thumb slides over Jiang Cheng’s knuckles and Jiang Cheng’s fingers curl instinctively.
“It was good to see you,” Nie Huaisang says softly, and Jiang Cheng realizes that they skipped that part, in the beginning.
“It was good to see you too,” Jiang Cheng says, and he’s surprised at how true it is. Nie Huaisang smiles.
“See you soon,” he says, and then with one more squeeze of fingers he’s out the door, on his way out into the blustery afternoon.
Jiang Cheng sits slowly. He lifts his still-steaming coffee and takes a sip. It tastes better than it had fresh from the press.
This is–this is going to work out fine. Isn’t it? Jiang Cheng checks his own phone, vaguely surprised at how late it is already. It’s not what he’d had planned for his life, but to be perfectly honest his plans in this area had mostly been “get married, someday, probably.” He’d never been interested much in the details.
His phone buzzes in his hand, and Jiang Cheng looks down to find a text from Nie Huaisang. It’s a picture of a red-lit crosswalk and a caption that just says, <See???!? :p>
Jiang Cheng feels himself smile, and he pockets his phone. See you soon, Nie Huaisang had said. Jiang Cheng finds himself looking forward to it.
As it turns out, however, the next time Jiang Cheng sees Nie Huaisang is at their wedding.
It’s not intentional. Jiang Cheng is just busy; his father’s retirement is not unplanned but it is approaching with increasing speed, and while Jiang Cheng has spent his life learning the business there’s always more to take on, it seems. He somehow makes it through board meetings and tux fittings, quarterly reports and even a ring consultation without ever connecting the dots–or, apparently, looking at a calendar. People ask things of him and he does them, keeping up as fast as he can until he finds himself in a crowded reception hall, with a drink in his hand that he doesn’t remember fetching, accepting congratulations on a marriage he’d never planned.
It doesn’t feel real. He’d gone through the motions but none of this feels real–but maybe it never does? Jiang Cheng shakes another set of hands and moves on, sipping his drink, his gaze settling on his parents across the room. He wonders if this is what they’ve felt all of these years, the sense of something almost forgotten, something that he has to keep reminding himself of. His mother’s eyes catch his; she looks as proud as he’s ever seen her, and something in him aches even as he straightens under the attention. She beckons him over and he complies, setting the empty glass down as he goes.
“Congratulations,” his father offers as Jiang Cheng draws near. “You’ve done well today.”
“Thank you,” Jiang Cheng says, something warm in his chest uncurling at the praise despite his best efforts. Or maybe that’s the champagne; he vaguely regrets downing the rest of his glass as quickly as he had, but he can’t take it back now.
“There are many families here,” his mother says approvingly, looking out over the crowd. “This will be good for us, and for the city. Tensions are still running high, you know; everyone’s looking for alliances, and we’ve made one of the best.”
Jiang Cheng feels a little light headed. “Is that what this is?” Is that what I am?
His mother looks sharply at him. “Of course it is. Nie Huaisang brings the weight of his Family without making a substantial claim to our holdings. A second son is the ideal leverage–”
“Darling,” his father interrupts mildly as Jiang Cheng puts a hand on a nearby chair to steady himself. “Is this really the time?”
“You signed the marriage contract,” his mother snaps. “You’re a fool if you weren’t thinking about it.”
“I did sign it.” His father reaches out and briefly squeezes Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. “And I wish both of you the very best, no matter where that takes you.”
“Thank you,” Jiang Cheng murmurs again, because what else can he say?
His mother touches her ring, turning it; not the expensive marriage band but the other, the ring Jiang Cheng has never seen her hand without. Zidian gives off a faint spark under her touch, and his mother’s lips firm as if she’s come to a decision.
“Give me your hand,” she says, and Jiang Cheng does; he starts as she pulls Zidian off her finger but her grip is already firm on his hand, sliding the silver ring onto his finger. Her fingers are much smaller than his but that doesn’t seem to be a problem for Zidian; the ring settles comfortably at the base of Jiang Cheng’s finger like it was meant to be there, warm and secure.
“Mom,” Jiang Cheng says faintly. “Mom, what–”
“This is a day of celebration, and a time of transition,” his mother says firmly as she releases his hand. “It’s time for you to have this. You will know when to use it,” she adds. “I always have.”
Jiang Cheng looks down at his hand. Zidian gives off a small, self-satisfied spark and then goes cool against his skin, settling into its everyday appearance. His mother puts a hand on his cheek and he looks back up.
“Remember who your family is,” she says seriously. “Remember the promises you have made, and live by them.”
“I will,” Jiang Cheng answers, stomping down the faint sense of wistfulness because when has he not?
Loud laughter carries over the murmur of the crowd behind him and his mother’s lips thin. She pats him on the cheek and then sweeps away, toward Madam Jin on the other end of the room. His father presses his shoulder briefly, and Jiang Cheng almost thinks he’s going to say something–but then his father follows in his mother’s wake.
Laughter rings out behind him again and Jiang Cheng knows before he turns who will be in the center of the commotion.
Wei Wuxian is bent over Jin Ling, held securely in his mother’s arms. He dangles a little soft toy just out of Jin Ling’s reach, and Jin Ling reaches for it with wide eyes. Jiang Cheng can hear his sister’s “A-Xian, don’t tease,” as he makes his way over.
“That’s your nephew, not a cat,” Jiang Cheng snaps as he draws near, and Wei Wuxian looks up. His face brightens and then goes more reserved as Jiang Cheng approaches, and Jiang Cheng hates, hates that look on his brother’s face but it’s not Jiang Cheng’s fault they’re at this impasse. Wei Wuxian could fix all of this, if he would just come home.
“I know that, of course I know that,” Wei Wuxian says. Jin Ling makes a grab for the little stuffed rabbit and Wei Wuxian lets him have it with a soft laugh. Jin Ling hugs the rabbit close to his chest, and Jiang Cheng feels something twist in his stomach.
“I’m surprised you had room for us,” he says to Wei Wuxian. “Since you’re spending all your time with your new friends these days.”
His sister murmurs “A-Cheng,” but Jiang Cheng refuses to look at her, searching Wei Wuxian’s face for any sign of guilt. Wei Wuxian’s smile goes small and self-deprecating, but then he pastes on a patently false grin and turns to face Jiang Cheng more fully, clasping his hands behind his back.
“The shelter is doing well,” he says, as if the very sound of those words doesn’t scrape over Jiang Cheng’s nerves. “We’re starting a community garden out back. You’re more than welcome to come by and see.”
Before Jiang Cheng can tell Wei Wuxian exactly how likely it is that he’s going to come visit that broken-down building Wei Wuxian is calling a home, a hand slides around his arm and a warm weight leans against his side.
“Wei-xiong!” Nie Huaisang smiles bright and delighted, half-drunk glass of champagne waving dangerously in his free hand. “So glad you could make it.”
Wei Wuxian’s smile slips for just the barest fraction of a second. “I wouldn’t miss it,” he says, gaze sliding back over to Jiang Cheng’s. “Not for anything.” His gaze drops to Nie Huaisang’s hand on Jiang Cheng’s arm, and then further down, and Jiang Cheng knows the exact moment he sees Zidian by the way his eyes widen. He looks back up, mouth parting–
“Oh! There’s Lan Wangji,” Nie Huaisang says, stretching up on his toes and waving. The movement pushes him further into Jiang Cheng’s side and he steadies himself as a tall figure pauses, and then changes course in the crowd. Lan Wangji nods his greetings as he approaches their small circle, coming to a stop on Wei Wuxian’s left.
“Congratulations,” he offers toward Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang. “May your union be–”
“Please don’t say fruitful,” Nie Huaisang interjects, and Wei Wuxian snorts while Jiang Yanli covers her mouth.
“–a long and happy one,” Lan Wangji finishes after a pause. He glances sidelong at Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng barely represses the urge to roll his eyes; if he weren’t currently Not Talking to Wei Wuxian, he’d be tempted to sit his brother down and explain in small words what it means when someone looks at you the way Lan Wangji looks at Wei Wuxian.
Not that he has first-hand experience with any of that. Jiang Cheng glances at Nie Huaisang hanging off his arm, currently expounding at length to Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian, gesturing with his glass in a way that speaks to imminent spillage, but which somehow never happens. The other hand remains wrapped firmly above Jiang Cheng’s elbow, warm and solid and anchoring against the tide of the day.
Jiang Cheng looks up to find his sister watching him fondly, and this time he does roll his eyes. She can look as knowing as she wants, but it doesn’t matter that he and Nie Huaisang don’t have the kind of romance that’s awkwardly unfolding across from them; that they don’t have any kind of romance at all, really. They get along well enough, and his mother was right; this marriage is a strategic partnership, and if there’s a slight ache in his stomach at the thought, it’s probably because he’s had too much champagne.
Speaking of which–Nie Huaisang drains the last of his and looks into the empty glass mournfully. He looks up at Jiang Cheng, imploring–have his eyes always been so big?–and Jiang Cheng sighs.
“Let’s get you another glass,” he says, plucking the empty one from Nie Huaisang’s grasp and setting it on a nearby table. Nie Huaisang beams and Jiang Cheng feels the corner of his mouth turn up.
Wei Wuxian opens his mouth–and then winces, and Jiang Yanli smiles angelically as she removes her heel from his foot. Jin Ling, apparently tired of not being the center of attention for once, throws his stuffed rabbit on the ground and then shrieks at the loss. Jiang Yanli and Wei Wuxian immediately turn to consoling him, and Lan Wangji hovers awkwardly; Jiang Cheng takes that as their cue to leave.
Nie Huaisang hums, leaning heavily on him as they leave the small group behind; his hand slides down Jiang Cheng’s arm until it finds Jiang Cheng’s own and he laces their fingers together. Zidian pulses once, warm against Jiang Cheng’s skin, and Nie Huaisang starts and straightens.
“No, it’s just–” Jiang Cheng stops and turns their hands so Nie Huaisang can see. “It’s just Zidian.”
Nie Huaisang stares at their intertwined fingers, and then up into Jiang Cheng’s face. “Just Zidian.”
It’s starting to feel a little awkward that Jiang Cheng hasn’t unlinked their hands, but Nie Huaisang’s fingers are warm and comforting against his own, and–whatever, they’re married now, Jiang Cheng is allowed to hold hands with his husband if he wants to.
He rolls his shoulder uncomfortably. “I guess it was–a wedding present?”
Nie Huaisang blinks, cheeks turning red–and maybe that’s the champagne but Jiang Cheng knows Nie Huaisang, in this regard at least.
“Not like that. Stop it,” he hisses when Nie Huaisang’s free hand comes up to cover the grin spreading over his face. “Don’t make me think about that and my mother in the same sentence, oh my god.” He flags down a passing waiter and shakes his hand free just long enough to lift two flutes of champagne off the tray.
“Here,” he growls, thrusting one at Nie Huaisang. “This is what you wanted, isn’t it?”
Nie Huaisang’s smile slides into something a little softer and he takes the glass, sipping at it. He turns and surveys the room, the sleeve of his jacket brushing Jiang Cheng’s.
“The party’s in full swing,” he observes. He taps the rim of the glass against his bottom lip, and Jiang Cheng turns his attention to his own drink before he can be caught staring. It’s fizzy and faintly sweet on his tongue, and he swallows heavily.
“Who knew endless champagne was the way to bring everyone together again,” he says, lowering his glass, and he’s only half joking. He’s lost count of how many heads of Families he’s greeted tonight, most of them faces he hasn’t seen since the siege at the Wen estate.
“Mm. A spectacle or a scapegoat,” Nie Huaisang murmurs. “Sometimes that’s all it takes.” Jiang Cheng glances over, surprised. That’s more acerbic than he thinks he’s ever heard from Nie Huaisang–but Nie Huaisang just takes another sip, eyes still on the crowd.
Then his eyes slide over to Jiang Cheng, and his mouth curls up. “Do you think they’ll miss us?” Nie Huaisang murmurs, intent clear in the arch of his brow.
Jiang Cheng’s heart pounds in his chest and he takes a deep breath. “No,” he says truthfully, setting his still mostly-full glass aside. He’s seen his parents making the rounds through the gathered crowd–any connections to be made, business or otherwise, are technically still his father’s responsibility. This is Jiang Cheng’s wedding night. He might not have asked for any of this, but surely he can take this much for himself.
“In that case, Jiang Cheng,” Nie Huaisang says, his hand finding Jiang Cheng’s again in the dim light of the reception hall. “Take me home.”
At this time of night, the ride back to Jiang Cheng’s condo is short–or at least it would be, if they weren’t hitting every red light along the way. Their driver had quietly raised the partition between the front and the rear seats before they had even gotten in, but the discretion is wasted; Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang sit a respectable distance apart, not touching, not even looking at each other.
Jiang Cheng leaves off watching the other cars on the road and sneaks a glance over at Nie Huaisang. He has one arm propped against the window, his face illuminated and shadowed in turn by the passing streetlights. His left hand lays on the seat between them, his wedding band glinting in the uneven lights. Jiang Cheng curls his own hand against his thigh. He should just reach over and curl his fingers around Nie Huaisang’s. His hand is right there. Jiang Cheng should just do it.
Instead he looks out the window again as the familiar streets and intersections wash over him, breathing in and letting the living rhythm of the city ease some of the tightness in his chest.
He doesn’t remember the first time he’d felt the city’s murmur in his veins. He’d thought that everyone could hear it: the way the stoplights sound right before they change color, the subtle breathing of the patched-up concrete, the way the steel-frame skyscrapers sigh in the wind. He’s known people who have left, but he knows more who have stayed, who can’t imagine living anywhere else. He knows the feeling.
“The city has much to offer if you will hear it,” his father had told him once. “Our Family, the other great Families, we have learned to listen well.”
Jiang Cheng had pondered this gravely. Although he had only been six, he had known that this was important, that this was something he should remember.
“What does it ask in return?” He had asked, because even at six, he had known that everything has a price.
His father had smiled. “Only that we live.”
The car pulls to a stop in front of Jiang Cheng’s building. The wind tousles his hair in a friendly fashion as he steps into the night air, and before he can talk himself out of it Jiang Cheng turns and extends his hand back into the car. Nie Huaisang slants him an amused look and takes it, letting Jiang Cheng hand him out onto the sidewalk.
Well. That was easier than expected. Maybe the rest of this will be, too.
Nie Huaisang is quiet on the elevator ride up, but his hand remains warm and secure in Jiang Cheng’s. Jiang Cheng loosens his tie; it seems suddenly overwarm in here, champagne or anticipation or both speeding his blood in his veins. He hopes his palms aren’t sweating.
Nie Huaisang makes a quiet noise of interest as Jiang Cheng lets them into his condo, his hand slipping from Jiang Cheng’s as he goes to investigate the floor-to-ceiling windows on the far side of the living room. The city is an ocean of lights from up here, and as Jiang Cheng locks up behind them he reflects that that’s not a bad first impression to make. There are a line of suitcases in the entry hall, and further in, stacks of boxes fill the spare bedroom; Nie Huaisang’s things, delivered over the last week. It hadn’t felt real at the time, watching the boxes pile up and wondering how one person could own so much stuff. It feels more real now.
Jiang Cheng shrugs out of his suit jacket, dropping it carelessly on the back of the sofa, but his feet won’t carry him over to where Nie Huaisang is now examining a shelf full of artfully arranged decor. Jiang Cheng doesn’t even really know what’s over there; a decorator had been hired for him when he’d moved in and he’s never changed much. Nie Huaisang peruses the shelf intently, pausing before a slim porcelain vase, and Jiang Cheng wonders what these things say to him, these things that Jiang Cheng didn’t choose.
Nie Huaisang looks over his shoulder as if he can feel Jiang Cheng watching. The corner of his mouth lifts and he turns, extending his hand. Jiang Cheng finds his feet moving on their own and when he gets close enough Nie Huaisang takes his hand and pulls him close, sliding it underneath his own suit jacket and around his waist. Jiang Cheng’s fingers flex and then settle; Nie Huaisang’s skin seems to burn through his clothing, warming Jiang Cheng’s suddenly cold fingers.
Nie Huaisang’s other hand slides along Jiang Cheng’s jaw and then Nie Huaisang’s mouth is on his and then Jiang Cheng stops thinking for a few moments.
Nie Huaisang pulls back, licking his lips, and Jiang Cheng blinks. Whatever he sees on Jiang Cheng’s face makes Nie Huaisang smile, and Jiang Cheng is definitely interested in how wet and red his mouth looks.
“Take me to bed?” Nie Huaisang suggests, and Jiang Cheng is more than happy to comply.
In this, at least, it seems they are compatible; Nie Hausaing hums into his mouth as Jiang Cheng walks him backward toward the bedroom, sighs pleasingly under Jiang Cheng’s touch as clothing is discarded on the floor. His skin is still almost fever-hot, even against silk sheets and when Jiang Cheng hesitates, Nie Huaisang grabs Jiang Cheng’s wrist and guides his hand down between Nie Huaisang’s legs himself.
“Is this–okay?” Jiang Cheng asks, even as he reaches toward the nightstand.
“More than,” Nie Huaisang assures him, color high on his cheeks and eyes bright. He licks his lips as he watches Jiang Cheng slick up his fingers. “I’d let you know if it wasn’t.”
That eases something tight behind Jiang Cheng’s ribs, and he presses his lips to the inside of Nie Huaisang’s knee. “Thank you,” he murmurs as he presses a finger in, and he means for going along with this, and for making this easy, and for settling for me.
Nie Huaisang’s body opens up for him like he was made to do it, and as Jiang Cheng sinks in he tries to slow down, to remember this moment in a string of moments that have flown by too quickly. But Nie Huaisang is urging him on, legs wrapping around Jiang Cheng’s hips and hands pulling at his shoulders, and Jiang Cheng gives in. He buries his face in Nie Huaisang’s neck, letting the fingers digging into his back and the little breathy sounds in his ear drive him forward again and again.
Nie Huaisang’s fingers trace over his spine, trailing sparks in their wake and Jiang Cheng shivers. He shifts, bracing himself on one arm so he can reach down between them and Nie Huaisang arches against him as Jiang Cheng gets a hand around his cock. Nie Huaisang moans and Jiang Cheng watches, fascinated as Nie Huaisang’s mouth drops open and his body tightens up around Jiang Cheng. His own release takes him by surprise; one moment he’s watching Nie Huaisang bite his lip and the next he’s collapsing against Nie Huaisang’s chest and shaking through it.
Nie Huaisang’s hands trace soothing patterns over his back and Jiang Cheng realizes belatedly that he must be heavy; he shifts back, rolling to the side, and watches Nie Huaisang watch the ceiling.
“Was that–” Jiang Cheng doesn’t know how to finish that sentence.
Nie Huaisang looks at him, eyes amused and hair damp with sweat.
“I think we did alright,” he says, rolling onto his side so he can look Jiang Cheng in the face. “No complaints here, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Is it? Jiang Cheng doesn’t know. Before he can decide, Nie Huaisang looks down at himself and grimaces.
“I’m going to clean up. Is that your shower?” He slides off the bed without waiting for an answer, padding toward the attached bathroom. Jiang Cheng watches him go, eyeing both the smooth play of muscles across Nie Huaisang’s back and the rosy swell of his ass. The door swings shut just as Jiang Cheng thinks he sees a trickle of white down Nie Huaisang’s thigh. Jiang Cheng sighs, falling back against the pillow and staring down the ceiling as if it will give him answers. He should get cleaned up too, but maybe he’ll just–give it a minute.
A pair of lips press gently against his and Jiang Cheng jerks his eyes open. He hadn’t realized he’d closed them, but Nie Huaisang is lifting his face away from his, the corner of his mouth turned up. He’s wearing only a pair of boxers Jiang Cheng recognizes as his own; they’re a little loose, riding low on Nie Huaisang’s hips, and Jiang Cheng swallows.
Nie Huaisang follows his gaze. “Oh. I hope you don’t mind? My stuff’s still all out in the hall…” he trails off, shifting back on his heels.
“No,” Jiang Cheng says hastily. “No, it’s–it’s fine. It’s good.” He sits up and swings his legs over the side of the bed, but he can’t seem to look away from the peek of hip bone.
“Ah.” Jiang Cheng looks up, and sure enough Nie Huaisang’s mouth is curved in amusement. He slaps Jiang Cheng’s chest. “Go shower. I’m going to steal your spot in bed.”
It seems kind of a pity, to let the water wash away the places Nie Huaisang has touched him; but there will be other nights, Jiang Cheng reminds himself, turning his face into the spray. Days, even. The rest of his life. He waits for the twist in his gut at the thought but it doesn’t come. Instead there’s an empty spot inside him, waiting. He shuts the water and towels himself off, wiping the mirror clean so he can see himself. He doesn’t look any different. He doesn’t know why he’d thought he would.
True to his word, Nie Huaisang is a lump underneath the covers on the bed. However, contrary to his assertion, he’s taken the opposite side than the one Jiang Cheng normally sleeps on. Jiang Cheng slides in carefully, trying not to wake him if he’s already asleep, but Nie Huaisang rolls over as Jiang Cheng turns out the light. He folds a hand under his head, ring glinting in the dim light.
“Marriage, huh?” he says sleepily, and Jiang Cheng blows out a breath.
“Ours,” he says. The coffee shop seems like a lifetime ago; Jiang Cheng feels like he should feel something about that. Instead he just feels tired.
A hand finds his in the dark and squeezes. “We’ll make it work. You’ll see.”
Jiang Cheng finds himself hoping that that’s true. “Go to sleep,” he says instead, and lets Nie Huaisang’s chuckle fill the waiting space as he closes his own eyes.
It’s still there the next morning, the waiting space inside his chest, but Jiang Cheng thinks it’s smaller than the night before. Certainly the scrunch of Nie Huaisang’s face when Jiang Cheng turns on the lights and the sleepy annoyed noise he makes into the pillow do something behind Jiang Cheng’s ribs, although he’s not in the mood to question it too closely. He leaves Nie Huaisang buried under the bedclothes and pads on bare feet out toward the kitchen, shrugging his robe on as he goes.
It’s been suggested to him that he take the next week for his honeymoon, but the first stop even before coffee is his laptop. He lets it boot up and log him in to his company email as he slots a pod into place and lets the coffee machine do its thing.
[Invalid Credentials.] Jiang Cheng frowns at the login screen, turning back towards his laptop. He fills in his credentials manually, hits enter and–
[Invalid Credentials.] Jiang Cheng is just starting to get truly irritated when Nie Huaisang emerges from the bedroom, last night’s dress shirt hanging open around his chest and Jiang Cheng’s buzzing phone in one hand.
“It won’t stop,” he says, handing off the phone and covering a yawn with one hand. His eyes fixate somewhere behind Jiang Cheng. “Coffee? Coffee.”
“That way,” Jiang Cheng points at the counter and then belatedly realizes that wasn’t the best answer. “I mean–hold on, I’ll make you some–”
Nie Huaisang waves him down. “I’ll get it, you answer that.” He pats Jiang Cheng’s shoulder in passing, fingers dragging across the collar of the robe; the shirt billows around him as he passes and Jiang Cheng realizes that he’s actually wearing Jiang Cheng’s shirt from last night.
His phone buzzes again in his hand and Jiang Cheng looks down.
It’s his father. <I told you to take some time. Your account will unlock next week,> it reads. <Enjoy your honeymoon.>
Jiang Cheng sets the phone down a little more firmly than is strictly necessary, the clatter loud in his ears.
“Trouble?” Nie Huaisang murmurs behind him, and Jiang Cheng sighs.
“Just locked out of my corporate account, what could go wrong there,” he says, closing his laptop with a snap.
“Mm. Network problems?” There’s the sound of a cupboard opening behind him; Nie Huaisang sounds like he’s making himself at home, which is–good. That’s good.
“Interfering parent problems,” Jiang Cheng admits, turning. “What are you looking–oh.”
Nie Huaisang has bypassed the single-serve coffee machine entirely and has gone straight for the much more complicated espresso machine next to it. “Where are your espresso beans?” he asks, peering into the cupboard.
“Uh.” Does he have any? “Hang on, I think they’re–” He moves closer, reaching over Nie Huaisang’s shoulder to rummage in the back of the cupboard.
“Aha!” Jiang Cheng beams as he pulls out the package of beans that had come with the machine. He hands it triumphantly to Nie Huaisang, who takes it with a raised brow.
“Have you even used this?” he asks, examining the brand label and the unopened seal on the package of beans.
Well. “The single-serve works fine,” Jiang Cheng hedges.
Nie Huaisang eyes it with some misgivings. “Maybe, but this is better. Or it will be, once we get you a decent roast. I know a place over on Fifth,” he says, turning to the espresso machine and shaking beans into the grinder. “Smoothest blend you’ve ever tasted.”
“Coffee is coffee, isn’t it?” Jiang Cheng says, leaning back against the counter and watching Nie Huaisang work.
Nie Huaisang shoots him a deeply offended glare. “Next you’re going to tell me you drink oaked Chardonnay.”
Jiang Cheng shrugs. “What’s the difference?” He grins and dodges the elbow Nie Huaisang throws his way.
“Please.” The machine starts making noises but Nie Huaisang doesn’t seem concerned so Jiang Cheng won’t be, either. “I’ve seen you argue and win about the aging in a whisky flight.”
“That’s different,” Jiang Cheng says, hands closing automatically around the tiny mug Nie Huaisang shoves in his hand. He eyes it suspiciously; he hadn’t known he even owned mugs this small.
“So is this.” Nie Huaisang nods significantly toward the espresso, and Jiang Cheng obediently raises it to his lips. He has to admit it smells good.
It tastes good, too, smooth and rich and perfectly hot against his tongue. Jiang Cheng swallows and looks down at his mug in surprise.
“See?” Nie Huaisang doesn’t have to look so smug; Jiang Cheng hates being shown up, but somehow when it’s delivered in bare feet with sleepy eyes it doesn’t seem as bad. It should feel like an imposition, to have someone in his life, in his space, delivering opinions first thing in the morning. But those rules don’t seem to apply to Nie Huaisang, standing in Jiang Cheng’s kitchen with his hair mussed from bed and barely dressed in Jiang Cheng’s clothes. He even smells of Jiang Cheng’s soap, Jiang Cheng realizes, suddenly aware of how close they’re standing.
“Are you going to insist on being right all the time, because that’s going to be a problem for me,” he teases–or at least, he means to tease, but apparently that was the wrong thing to say because Nie Huaisang’s face freezes for a second before he turns back to the espresso machine.
“Not all of the time,” he says lightly, but there’s a strain underlying his voice that wasn’t there a moment ago. “It’s not that important.”
Clearly something is, and they’re less than a meter apart but it feels further than that, suddenly. Jiang Cheng shifts, watching Nie Huaisang draw a mug for himself and wonders what set that line into Nie Huaisang’s shoulders.
“Do you want help unpacking?” he seizes on, and it’s an awkward transition but Nie Huaisang lets him have it, turning and leaning his hip against the counter. It does interesting things to the pull of Jiang Cheng’s boxers across his hips, and Jiang Cheng tears his eyes back up in time to catch Nie Huaisang’s smile before he raises his cup.
“I should probably find my own clothes again at some point,” he agrees, taking a sip. “You’re not busy?”
“As it happens, no. I, um.” Jiang Cheng suddenly doesn’t want to admit that he’d planned to spend this week working. “I didn’t plan this honeymoon very well.”
Nie Huaisang smiles and reaches out to squeeze his hand briefly.
“Don’t worry,” he says, rubbing his thumb over Jiang Cheng’s knuckles. “I did.”
Nie Huaisang’s plans seem to consist of dragging Jiang Cheng all over the city: museums, art galleries, restaurants Jiang Cheng has never heard of. They breeze past a waitlist a block long for what Nie Huaisang calls experiential dining and Jiang Cheng calls food too tiny to be properly called food. Afterwards, Jiang Cheng bitches half-heartedly about dying of hunger and Nie Huaisang rolls his eyes and pulls him down a maze of side streets to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that serves up the best noodles Jiang Cheng has ever tasted.
“How did you even find this place,” he asks, swallowing and lowering his bowl. His eyes skim over the walls covered in newspaper cutouts and faded photographs, documenting community triumphs and local victories.
Nie Huaisang toys with his chopsticks. “I walk a lot,” he says, shrugging one shoulder.
He does; that’s another thing they’re doing on this honeymoon. Jiang Cheng doesn’t think of himself as out of shape, but he’s found himself winded more than once on these ventures and has learned not to believe Nie Huaisang when he says their destination is “just around the corner.” Jiang Cheng has suggested more than once that they take a car–Yunmeng Jiang keeps several on call–but Nie Huaisang has shrugged it off each time.
“We’re in no hurry,” he says. “Besides, when was the last time you took the subway?”
It’s been a while. There are plenty of things not to love; he gets his foot stepped on and an elbow to the kidney not thirty seconds after they leave the station. But when he relaxes and sways with the rocking of the car instead of bracing against it, he can admit that it’s been too long since he’s felt the city wrapped around him like this, humming in his bones as the crush of humanity speeds through the city’s veins. He lets himself be swept along as they exit the station, feeling the static of a crowd united in temporary purpose prickle along his skin, carrying him up and onto the street. He blinks and breathes in deep when they emerge in the sunlight again; Nie Huaisang smiles and takes his hand.
“Nothing quite like it,” he murmurs, and Jiang Cheng can feel the spark where they’re pressed skin to skin. He squeezes back, and then when that’s not enough he pulls Nie Huaisang close and cups his face with one hand, pressing their lips together, that spark feeding between them until Jiang Cheng can taste the ionization on his tongue.
“Let’s go home,” he murmurs, and Nie Huaisang’s mouth curves up.
“I thought you were looking forward to the Zhang exhibit,” he says coyly, and then laughs when Jiang Cheng growls.
“Fuck the Zhang exhibit. It’ll be there tomorrow,” he says, turning and tugging Nie Huaisang back the way they came.
“So will I,” Nie Huaisang says, but it’s quiet enough that Jiang Cheng isn’t sure he was meant to hear it. He doesn’t know what to say to it, and Nie Huaisang follows him back down the stairs and onto the next train without further comment, so it must be all right. Jiang Cheng slides an arm around Nie Huaisang’s waist on the ride back; Nie Huaisang leans into him, warm and solid against his side, and Jiang Cheng presses his nose into Nie Huaisang’s hair and lets the city sing in his blood.
It’s his turn to drag Nie Huaisang around, through the doors of his–their, he reminds himself–building and into the elevator. They have the car to themselves; Jiang Cheng presses Nie Huaisang up against the back wall and lets himself taste the current of the city on Nie Huaisang’s tongue. Hands settle on Jiang Cheng’s hips, pulling him closer, and when Nie Huaisang tilts his head to get a better angle Jiang Cheng feels the spark all the way down to his toes.
This is the other other thing they’ve been doing, and Jiang Cheng is desperately grateful for how uncomplicated this is. Nie Huaisang shivers underneath his touch, neck arching against Jiang Cheng’s pillows as he digs his fingers into Jiang Cheng’s back, urging him on. Nie Huaisang’s face goes bright with pleasure and Jiang Cheng watches his mouth fall open on a gasp; with his own release trembling down his spine, it’s difficult to remember why Jiang Cheng has ever worried about this part.
He’d been resigned to the idea of someone moving into his space, into his life, and had grudgingly made room. But between the morning bickering over coffee–Nie Huaisang still insists his roast is better, and Jiang Cheng says he can’t tell the difference just to see him sputter–the afternoons out on the town, and the evenings spent in bed, Nie Huaisang is fitting himself into Jiang Cheng’s life like he belongs there. He makes it all so easy Jiang Cheng wonders why he’d ever been afraid of this in the first place.
It comes back to him the Sunday before his work account is set to unlock–the day before he has to go back to his real life, he supposes. The last week feels almost like a dream, filled with easy laughter and quiet smiles, and when Nie Huaisang reminds him they’re scheduled for brunch with Nie Huaisang’s brother this seems like an easy re-entry into the real world.
As they’re shown to their table, however, he’s reminded that re-entry can also mean on fucking fire.
“What’s that,” Nie Mingjue barks, staring at Nie Huaisang–at his ear, Jiang Cheng realizes. The earring sparkles in the morning light, silver and gold and nothing Jiang Cheng would have ever thought of for himself; but Nie Huaisang had lingered over the window display, and Jiang Cheng had wanted to see if he could turn that wistful smile into a real one.
Nie Huaisang slides into his chair, a smile pulling at his mouth as his fingers brush the new piercing. “My husband got it for me,” he says significantly, and oh, it’s going to be that sort of breakfast. “Do you like it?” His tone makes it clear that he expects a fight, and the way Nie Mingjue’s fingers curl against the tabletop indicates he’s ready for one.
Nie Mingjue glances at Jiang Cheng, who schools his face into indifference. “Frivolous,” Nie Mingjue mutters. “Thought you’d be a good influence on him.” Jiang Cheng sighs and reaches for his drink. “Endless Champagne” seems less like a clever marketing gimmick and more like a necessity, now.
The meal manages to conclude with any bloodshed or screaming, so that’s a one-up on some family meals he’s attended. Jiang Cheng makes a grab for the check when it comes, but Nie Mingjue beats him to it, and somehow manages to stare Jiang Cheng down while signing it. While Jiang Cheng is sure that there’s some message he’s supposed to be divining out of this, he’s not sure what it is.
Don’t fuck this up, probably. Jiang Cheng is trying not to.
He may be mildly buzzed by the time they leave, which is the only excuse he has for bumping Nie Huaisang’s shoulder as they exit out into the crisp fall air. “Is that what I’m supposed to be? A good influence?”
Nie Huaisang blinks at him, eyes wide and a little bit glassy, and Jiang Cheng is reminded that he’d put away even more champagne than Jiang Cheng had. He can tell the exact moment Nie Huaisang connects the dots, however; his face sobers and he looks away, shoving his hands in the pocket of his coat.
“Maybe. I don’t know.” That doesn’t sound entirely true, but Jiang Cheng doesn’t know how to challenge it. Nie Huaisang looks sidelong at Jiang Cheng. “Do you plan on being one?”
Jiang Cheng considers this. “I don’t know how,” he admits with some wistfulness, and Nie Huaisang laughs.
“Then we’re fine,” he says, extracting a hand and looping it around Jiang Cheng’s arm. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”
Jiang Cheng wonders if he should, though, later as he’s headed back to his study with his afternoon cup of coffee in his hands. He can’t get into his email but there are still local files he can review, to-do lists he can draft. He pauses, however, as he passes the spare bedroom where boxes of Nie Huaisang’s things are still piled up. Nie Huaisang hasn’t been very thorough about unpacking, but Jiang Cheng hasn’t felt a sense of urgency about it either; the spaces he’s made in the closet and the dressers are slowly filling, and Jiang Cheng assumes Nie Huaisang will get to the rest when Jiang Cheng starts spending more time at the office.
He doesn’t know what Nie Huaisang plans on doing with himself when that happens, Jiang Cheng realizes. He hadn’t thought to ask.
Maybe now is a good time.
Nie Huaisang sits cross-legged in the center of the room, one medium-sized packing box open behind him and several smaller, more delicate boxes spread out before him. As Jiang Cheng watches, he reaches for one and pulls out a beautiful ornamental fan. He opens it gently, weighing it in his hands before him. His gaze is far away as he runs his fingers over the delicately painted river scene, and for all that Nie Huaisang delights in material things, the look on his face is somewhat distant from that. He looks like he’s listening. Jiang Cheng wonders what he’s hearing.
“That’s quite the collection,” Jiang Cheng says, and Nie Huaisang jumps, face sharpening. It’s never before this moment even occurred to Jiang Cheng to think of Nie Huaisang’s face as anything but open–emotions flit over his face as quickly as he has them, it seems–but he’s never seen Nie Huaisang look like this before either. As Nie Huaisang looks up, his face smooths into the pleasant, amiable lines Jiang Cheng is used to seeing, and Jiang Cheng wonders suddenly if that’s all he’s been meant to see.
Nie Huaisang laughs, and now that he’s listening for it Jiang Cheng can hear the false note. “Collection is a strong term.” He looks down at the boxes spread out before him. “I just wanted to–see them.”
Jiang Cheng steps slowly into the room, cradling his mug in his hands, watching Nie Huaisang watch him from underneath his lashes. He recognizes the fan in Nie Huaisang’s hands, now; Nie Mingjue had sent it to him as a birthday gift back during their university days, and Nie Huaisang had proudly shown it to everyone, exclaiming over the fine watercolors, the way the painted river water rippled with a faint touch of qi.
“Why put them away again?” Jiang Cheng asks, feeling his way forward, and Nie Huaisang’s smile twists.
“It’s ridiculous, to have them all up on display,” he says, in a tone that says he clearly expects Jiang Cheng to agree. Nie Huaisang glances back down at the fan in his hands. He snaps it up over his face and blinks coquettishly up at Jiang Cheng over the rim. “Frivolous,” he adds quietly, and Jiang Cheng can hear the echo of Nie Mingjue’s voice in it.
Jiang Cheng pauses, then sets his mug aside. There are currents here he doesn’t entirely understand; he’s fairly sure, now that he’s paying attention, that he’s supposed to be distracted by a sly look and long lashes fluttering prettily, but he’d seen clearly the unhappy slant to Nie Huaisang’s mouth before the fan covered it. Jiang Cheng is surprised by how much he hates it, how strongly he wants to wipe it away with his fingers or his own lips.
Instead he crouches in front of Nie Huaisang and reaches out slowly, as if Nie Huaisang will spook and run. From the line of tension set in those shoulders, that feels not far from the truth. Jiang Cheng wraps his fingers around Nie Huaisang’s and pulls the fan down gently, until he can see Nie Huaisang’s face. The mask is firmly in place by the time he does, but Jiang Cheng has seen what’s underneath it and he’s moving closer, not away, so that has to mean something.
“Your brother doesn’t live here,” Jiang Cheng says firmly. “You do. Don’t hide yourself away on his account. Or mine.”
Nie Huaisang’s face softens almost imperceptibly, and Jiang Cheng swallows and stands.
“If there’s any wall space left in this place, use it,” he says gruffly. “Beautiful things shouldn’t be kept locked away.”
Nie Huaisang’s eyes widen and Jiang Cheng feels the heat rising in his cheeks. He rescues his coffee mug and beats a hasty–a strategic retreat to his study, feeling the blood pound in his temples the whole way. It’s not like he cares about how this place is decorated. Someone might as well enjoy what they’re looking at.
He’d known Nie Huaisang loved his fans; if he’d been thinking about it, he would have expected them to be the first thing Nie Huaisang unpacked. They hadn’t been. Jiang Cheng wonders about that, and wonders what else he’s missed.
He doesn’t get long to linger on it; he has a predictably full inbox the next morning and he’s checking items off on his phone even as he’s shrugging on his jacket. Nie Huaisang holds out a travel mug as he passes through the kitchen, all sleepy-eyed and barefoot, still in his–in Jiang Cheng’s pajamas, hanging slightly too big on his smaller frame. Nie Huaisang seems allergic to wearing his own clothes to bed, but Jiang Cheng can’t say he minds it.
“What are you up to today?” Jiang Cheng asks as he takes the mug.
Nie Huaisang stretches his arms over his head, and Jiang Cheng tears his eyes away from the strip of skin that exposes above his waistband. “Unpacking. Reading. Exploring the neighborhood. I’ll stay out of trouble, don’t worry.”
“I didn’t–” Jiang Cheng stops, because he’s not sure what he’s negating. His phone vibrates; the car is ready outside. “I have to go. I’ll–see you tonight?”
Nie Huaisang smiles. “You will.”
Jiang Cheng hesitates, and then leans forward to brush his lips over Nie Huaisang’s cheek. This is what people do, right? He’s seen his sister and Jin Zixuan do this when one of them says goodbye, it’s what married people do.
Except Nie Huaisang turns his head just enough that his lips meet Jiang Cheng’s and Jiang Cheng has a thousand things to do but in this moment he can’t remember a single one.
Nie Huaisang pulls back and gives him a playful pat on the chest. “Go on. I’ll see you tonight.”
The morning commute has never seemed so long before, but between traffic and hitting what seems like every single red light between his condo and the Yunmeng Jiang office, Jiang Cheng begins to wonder if it wouldn’t be faster if he just got out and walked. He gazes out the window at the people hurrying along the sidewalks, crowded still but less so than usual, pedestrians walking fast with their heads down. He drums his fingers against his knee; the days are getting darker and the weather colder, but this feels almost like something else.
Yunmeng Jiang feels the same as ever, the familiar purple lotus emblazoned large and familiar behind the reception desk. He gets a standing ovation and a few wolf whistles when he walks in the door, and Jiang Cheng can feel the blush rising in his cheeks even as he waves them down. At the door to his office, he can see his father waiting, smiling. Jiang Cheng stands a little straighter.
“You could have taken more time, you know,” Jiang Fengmian says mildly as Jiang Cheng approaches.
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. “Someone locked me out of my email for a week. I have work to do.”
Jiang Fengmian nods, acquiescing. “And soon you will have more. I want to talk with you about the transition,” he says, beckoning Jiang Cheng into the office.
“Of course.” Jiang Cheng follows him in and, at his gesture, sits in one of the large chairs at the small conference table as Jiang Fengmian closes the door.
“That is for you,” his father says, nodding at the folder next to Jiang Cheng’s elbow and settling into the opposite chair. Jiang Cheng picks up the folder and opens it–and nearly drops it when he sees what lies inside.
“This is–” he looks up, but Jiang Fengmian just nods, so apparently Jiang Cheng is not hallucinating. Jiang Cheng looks back down. “This is the charter for Yunmeng Jiang.”
“It already has my signature, and the board’s,” Jiang Fengmian confirms. “All it needs is yours.”
“I–now? Is this what you’ve been doing all week?” Jiang Cheng demands.
His father smiles slightly. “There were advantages to having you out of the office.”
“I–” I’m not ready, he wants to say, but he can’t say that, not to his father. Besides, whether or not he was ready has never seemed to matter much. “I’ll make you proud,” Jiang Cheng says instead, swallowing and praying his father doesn’t hear the thickness in it.
Jiang Fengmian reaches out and lays a hand briefly over Jiang Cheng’s. Jiang Fengmian opens his mouth and then closes it again, turning to reach for a pen from the desk.
“Sign at the bottom. Then it’s official,” he says, and if Jiang Fengmian isn’t going to acknowledge the catch in his voice Jiang Cheng won’t either.
Jiang Cheng takes the pen, and just like getting married it seems far less momentous than it should, signing his name at the bottom of the company charter. He takes a breath and blows it out; for a moment the world blurs around him, and he can feel something in the city shift, like a chime felt more than heard. The not-sound sinks into his bones and settles, and when he looks up Jiang Fengmian is watching him.
“You’re the head of this Family now,” Jiang Fengmian says. “It’s a heavy burden, and much will be asked of you.”
“I’ll do it,” Jiang Cheng promises. “Whatever it takes.”
Jiang Fengmian smiles, but not entirely happily. “We’re all still recovering from the...difficulty with Qishan Wen,” he says carefully. “Your marriage was an important step forward, and so is this. I just wish they could have come at a better time for you.”
Jiang Cheng thinks of Nie Huaisang, sleeping in his bed and wearing his clothes and handing him coffee, like they’ve been together for years and not eight days.
That seems to be working out all right. Perhaps this will too.
The rest of the day passes in a blur. As soon as Jiang Fengmian opens the office door everything seems to need Jiang Cheng’s attention, from accepting even more congratulations to triaging his inbox to making notes for his first presentation to the board. That last one takes him all the way into the evening, and he’s surprised when a hand enters his field of vision and removes the pen from his grip.
“All of this will be here tomorrow,” Jiang Fengmian says, placing the pen back in the polished cup with its brethren. “Go home to your husband. And don’t log in at home, either.”
“You’re not my boss anymore,” Jiang Cheng says halfheartedly, but he closes his notebook and begins to shut down his computer.
“I’m saying this as your father, who has been married for thirty years,” Jiang Fengmian says mildly, and Jiang Cheng pauses, thinking about all the nights that his father’s light has been the last one in the office, about growing up with an empty spot at the dinner table more often than not.
Are he and Nie Huaisang going to eat dinner together regularly? He hasn’t thought about any of this, Jiang Cheng realizes, but the thought is less panicked and more curious. Jiang Cheng checks his watch; if he hurries, he can be home at a reasonable time. Probably. What is a reasonable time to come home, when you’re coming home to someone and not an empty place? Jiang Cheng doesn’t know, but he finds himself looking forward to finding out.
The drive home is not cooperating, however; after sitting through the signal turn twice at the fourth red light Jiang Cheng gives up and opens the car door.
“Sir?” The driver turns, alarmed–and reasonably so, but traffic is at a complete stop. It’s fine.
“I’ll walk,” Jiang Cheng says, sliding out of the car. “It’s a nice night for it.” He shuts the door on the driver’s feeble protest and quick-walks over to the sidewalk. The crosswalk is still in his favor by the time he reaches it, and although the light changes as soon as he steps foot on the other side, traffic barely moves. Walking will definitely be faster. Jiang Cheng pulls his coat tighter around him as the wind whips through the buildings, clean and fresh with the rain that had passed through earlier. He breathes in and lets the city seep into him, quickening his step and guiding him home.
Nie Huaisang is standing by the floor-to-ceiling windows on the far side of the condo when Jiang Cheng finally opens the front door, arms folded and peering down at the city. The sounds of car horns and idling engines don’t make it up into the quiet of the condo, but the snarl of traffic is apparent even from up here, lines of red lights coiling through downtown and tendrilling out into the neighborhoods.
Nie Huaisang doesn’t seem to hear Jiang Cheng come in but he jumps when Jiang Cheng’s keys land in the small bowl he keeps by the door for this purpose. Nie Huaisang turns, and Jiang Cheng can almost see the frown he’d been wearing before Nie Huaisang’s face settles into pleasant, familiar lines.
“Um.” What is Jiang Cheng supposed to say at this point? He’d imagined several very smooth opening lines on the walk home but suddenly they all seem stupid. “Hi.”
The smile pulling at Nie Huaisang’s mouth eases his face into something more genuine. “Hi. How was work?”
Is this small talk? He can do small talk. “I got promoted,” Jiang Cheng says proudly, hanging up his jacket.
Nie Huaisang’s brows raise. “Promoted?” Then his eyes widen. “That was today?”
“Apparently. I didn’t know either,” Jiang Cheng admits as he takes his shoes off.
“I wish I could have been there,” Nie Huaisang says, and it doesn’t sound like he’s saying that just because he thinks he’s supposed to, or because he thinks it’s what Jiang Cheng wants to hear. He sounds like he means it, and Jiang Cheng has to look away.
“You didn’t miss anything,” he says. He clears his throat and looks back. “You hungry?”
Nie Huaisang lets him have the less-than-graceful change of subject. “I could eat, definitely.” He looks back down at the mess of cars below them. “But let’s walk.”
They find a likely-looking restaurant a few blocks down the street, and the smile Nie Huaisang gives him as Jiang Cheng holds the door warms him from the inside out. Sooner or later Jiang Cheng is going to have to start cooking again or start hitting the gym more regularly, but it’s–nice, rediscovering the neighborhood he lives in with Nie Huaisang, trying this restaurant to see if it’s as good as he remembers (yes) or that one to see if it’s as bad (also yes). Jiang Cheng finds that he likes asking for a table for two instead of one, likes being able to steal some of Nie Huaisang’s dinner, even likes the mock-scowl he gets for it. He likes emerging into the chill of the night air, pleasantly full and with Nie Huaisang’s hand sliding around his arm as they turn and head toward home.
“Traffic’s still awful,” Nie Huaisang observes as they walk past the barely-moving lines of vehicles.
“Everyone forgets how to drive after the rain,” Jiang Cheng says, and although it’s an easy enough platitude something plucks uneasily at his nerves as he squints out over the sea of headlights. He belatedly hopes his driver isn’t still stuck back at the intersection Jiang Cheng had left him at.
“Mm. This feels worse,” Nie Huaisang says as they step off the curb, and Jiang Cheng looks over in surprise–
Which is the only reason he sees the oncoming car. Tires squeal and headlights flash and the world seems to slow down. Jiang Cheng throws himself backward and pulls Nie Huaisang with him as the car comes to a screeching halt just centimeters away.
“Watch it, asshole!” Jiang Cheng yells, shaky with adrenaline as the driver stares at them white-faced through the windshield. “Red means fucking stop–”
“Jiang Cheng,” Nie Huaisang interrupts Jiang Cheng’s rant with a hand on his arm. “Jiang Cheng, look.”
Jiang Cheng shakes off his hand, not ready to be placated, but when he looks where Nie Huaisang is pointing–
Jiang Cheng stills, anger fading into something a little more unsettled.
All of the lights in the intersection are green, both the north-south and the east-west lanes as well as all of the crosswalks, and as Jiang Cheng listens he can hear the shatter of glass and the scream of steel that means someone not far from them wasn’t nearly as lucky.
Nie Huaisang’s hand finds his in the cold evening air.
“This isn’t right,” he says, and Jiang Cheng can hear the same unease he feels sliding down his spine in the low pitch of Nie Huaisang’s voice.
“It’s–probably just an electrical error,” Jiang Cheng says. “Crossed wires.” He doesn’t sound convincing, even to himself.
“Maybe.” Nie Huaisang clearly isn’t buying it, but he doesn’t say anything else either.
Jiang Cheng squeezes his hand. “Let’s go home,” he says, and Nie Huaisang makes a low noise of agreement.
Traffic continues to be a nightmare along his daily commute, so Jiang Cheng elects to start walking. The office isn’t that far, and it’s good for him, to get out on the streets rather than sealed away in a car or his office or his condo. It’s good to let the wind tousle his hair, to let the sounds of construction and traffic and the energy of countless lives all lived on top of one another wash over him.
Since he’s coming home earlier–since he has someone to come home to–he even drags out the seasoned wok his sister had ensured his kitchen contained, preening under Nie Huaisang’s impressed delight. It’s been a while since he’s cooked for anyone besides himself, but it’s nice to remember that he’s good at something besides being the face of Yunmeng Jiang.
“Where did you learn to do this?” Nie Huaisang asks, leaning over folded arms on the opposite side of the kitchen island as Jiang Cheng dices a carrot.
“My sister,” Jiang Cheng says proudly. “She’s an incredible cook, and she made sure that we could–” he falters and clears his throat. “That Wei Wuxian and I could fend for ourselves in the kitchen.”
Nie Huaisag hums, and Jiang Cheng knows he caught the hesitation. “I haven’t seen him in a while.”
Jiang Cheng chops through the carrot with more force than necessary, but the heft of the knife in his hand brings him no satisfaction. “He’s too busy playing house with those people.”
“Not much of a house, from what I hear,” Nie Huaisang says, and Jiang Cheng snorts a bitter laugh, acid curling in his stomach.
“I don’t understand why he won’t just give it up. He doesn’t owe any Wen anything. I don’t understand why he won’t just come home–shit.” He whips his hand away from the cutting board and the knife, shaking out his fingers. He inspects the tip of one finger grimly; the cut is shallow but still bleeding, and it stings more than it should.
“Maybe he thinks he does owe them something,” Nie Huaisang ventures, tearing off a paper towel and coming around the counter. “Here, let me.” He wraps Jiang Cheng’s finger, and Jiang Cheng is perfectly capable of doing this himself but he lets it happen, lets Nie Huaisang take care of him.
“What could he possibly owe more than the rest of us?” Jiang Cheng hisses as Nie Huaisang puts pressure on the wound.
“I don’t know,” Nie Huaisang murmurs. “Maybe nothing. It was just a thought.” He lifts the paper towel away and the cut starts bleeding again. Nie Huaisang tsks and wraps Jiang Cheng’s free hand around the paper towel.
“This is going to need a bandage,” he says, turning and then pausing. “Ah–where do you keep them?”
“Master bathroom, second drawer down on the right.” Jiang Cheng watches the blood seep through the paper towel as Nie Huaisang leaves. Figures that he’d cut himself right when he was talking about Wei Wuxian; even absent, his brother still manages to cause him trouble.
Wei Wuxian’s adoption of the Wen remnants had been the talk of the city for months, and Jiang Cheng has grown extremely tired of finding politic ways to say he has no fucking idea what his brother is doing. The fight with the Wens had been long and protracted and Jiang Cheng still dreams about that last night, sometimes, when the Wen Family estate had burned to the ground. Dealing with the Wens had been the one thing the other four great Families could agree on–and then Wei Wuxian had started collecting the leftovers, and refusing to talk about it or leave the shitty part of town they had set up camp in.
Except for the weddings, Jiang Cheng admits exceedingly grudgingly. Wei Wuxian had come to see both his sister and his brother married.
Nie Huaisang returns with a bandage and wraps it carefully around Jiang Cheng’s finger. His skin is warm against Jiang Cheng’s, and the gentle press of his fingers catches the breath in Jiang Cheng’s throat for reasons entirely unrelated to the sting of the cut. Nie Huaisang glances up at him, a knowing smile spreading across his face, and Jiang Cheng curls his fingers around Nie Huaisang’s.
“Going to kiss it better?” Jiang Cheng asks, and he doesn’t have to disguise the interest in his tone if he doesn’t want to.
“If you like,” Nie Huaisang says mildly, letting Jiang Cheng draw him closer.
“I’d rather you kissed me,” Jiang Cheng says honestly, and Nie Huaisang smiles and obliges, lips moving warm and sure against Jiang Cheng’s own.
Dinner is–delayed. To be honest Jiang Cheng would have been happy to abandon it altogether and spend the rest of the evening in bed, but this is good too, this quiet aftermath sitting at the kitchen counter with Nie Huaisang, poking at his food and surreptitiously eyeing the reddening marks trailing down the side of Nie Huaisang’s neck. Nie Huaisang catches him looking and smiles, one hand coming up to trace over the marks left by Jiang Cheng’s teeth and Jiang Cheng tells himself it’s far too early to be ready for round two.
Maybe after they’ve eaten.
It’s very easy to get used to this, far easier than Jiang Cheng had ever expected. He wakes up in the morning to messy dark hair and sleepy eyes, and spends the day thinking about a warm smile and the gentle–or not so gentle–press of fingers against his skin. He comes home to dinner out on the town or an evening in, and the day he realizes that he prefers the second he has to stop for a moment, to just breathe with that. He barely remembers the walk home, and he’s still thinking about it while he’s hanging up his coat, so what’s happened in his living room while he’s been gone takes him by surprise.
Jiang Cheng blinks, and moves further into the room, drifting toward the long wall. The display takes up most of the available real estate, and Jiang Cheng is pretty sure there had been something hanging here before but he can’t for the life of him remember what it was. Now, the space is filled with fan after beautiful fan, unfolded for display and carefully held in place by nearly invisible brackets. It’s a breathtaking arrangement, and Jiang Cheng recognizes the gift from Nie Mingjue in place of pride at the center.
“What do you think?” comes a voice from his left, and Jiang Cheng looks over to see Nie Huaisang hovering awkwardly in the hallway entrance. He has his phone in his hands, turning it over and over as Jiang Cheng watches.
“They’re beautiful,” Jiang Cheng murmurs as he turns back to look at the display, and Nie Huaisang probably doesn’t mean his sigh of relief to be so audible but Jiang Cheng is certainly not going to call him out on it. “I don’t–I don’t even remember what was here before, if I’m being honest.”
“It was ugly,” Nie Huaisang says, and Jiang Cheng snorts a laugh. Nie Huaisang grins and comes to stand next to him, close enough that their shoulders brush together. “No offense.”
“Are you insulting my taste, now?” Jiang Cheng teases, and Nie Huaisang bumps his shoulder with his own.
“You didn’t choose that mess of a painting,” he says confidently, and Jiang Cheng stills. “You were just living with it.”
It’s true, of course, although Jiang Cheng is fairly confident he’s never said as much to Nie Huaisang. He wonders how much of himself is on display in this place, that Nie Huaisang is able to discern the pieces that are Jiang Cheng and the pieces that are just there.
Jiang Cheng abruptly wonders what Nie Huaisang thinks about himself, in that regard. It seems too much to ask; and suddenly Jiang Cheng is afraid of what the answer might be.
He turns instead back to the display of fans, washed golden in the evening light. “Well I like this,” he says, and he hopes Nie Huaisang can hear the I like you in it.
Nie Huaisang smiles softly, almost shyly, but before he can say anything the lights flicker and dim for several long seconds. There’s an almost inaudible hum as the power comes back up, and when it does Nie Huaisang’s face has creased with worry.
“That’s the third time just today,” he says. “I’ve lost count for the week.”
Jiang Cheng looks out the window, and sure enough there’s a patch of darkness lit only by headlights in the broad expanse of the city below them. “I’m sure City Light is working on it.”
“I know they are, but this is not normal,” Nie Huaisang insists, following Jiang Cheng when he moves over to the tall windows. “I can’t remember the last time we’ve had this many brown-outs, can you?”
Jiang Cheng can’t. “What are you saying?” he asks, looking out over the accumulation of buildings and people and life that make up the city below him. Nie Huaisang is silent for a long moment, and when Jiang Cheng looks over his lips are pressed flatly together.
“Something’s wrong out there,” Nie Huaisang says eventually. “I don’t know what it is, but–everyone’s on edge, after the Wens. I just don’t want to get caught by surprise, that’s all.”
“It’s probably nothing,” Jiang Cheng offers, and he means it to be comforting but Nie Huaisang’s face closes down and Jiang Cheng scrambles to recover. “I mean–we would know if something was that unsettled, wouldn’t we?”
Nie Huaisang looks out over the sea of lights growing brighter against the oncoming night. “Maybe,” is all he says.
Jiang Cheng is having a pleasant dream involving warm brown eyes and a hot, wet mouth when he’s abruptly jerked out of sleep by a hand digging into his arm.
“Jiang Cheng.” Nie Huaisang’s voice is muffled, and Jiang Cheng looks up groggily, he’s sitting bolt upright in bed. His free hand is pressed over his mouth, and when he sees that Jiang Cheng is awake Nie Huaisang shakes him again. “Jiang Cheng, wake up, we have to go right now.”
“Whf–” Jiang Cheng mumbles, pushing himself up on his elbows. He tries to blink himself more awake and checks the time. It’s absurdly early, before his alarm goes off and definitely before Nie Huaisang wakes on his own. “Go where? Why?”
“I can’t–” Nie Huaisang presses his hand harder against his mouth and curls in on himself, and for a moment Jiang Cheng is afraid he’s going to throw up. “It’s my brother, something’s wrong with my brother, we have to–”
Jiang Cheng sits up, propelled toward awakeness by the panic in Nie Huaisang’s voice. “Did you get a call?”
Nie Huaisang takes a deep gulping breath and lowers his hand. When he looks at Jiang Cheng his eyes are wide and almost unseeing with panic. “He’s not there. He’s not there, Jiang Cheng, he’s always been there, and now he’s not, and I don’t know, I don’t, I don’t–” He closes his eyes and shakes his head, and Jiang Cheng reaches out, taking him by the shoulder.
“Huaisang. Huaisang, look at me,” he says, and Nie Huaisang makes a small hurt noise that goes right to Jiang Cheng’s chest, but he opens eyes wet with unshed tears, blinking rapidly. Jiang Cheng tightens his hand. “What do you mean he’s not there.”
“He’s not there,” Nie Huaisang insists, then seems to realize he’s just repeating himself. He opens his mouth and closes it, then throws back the covers and slides out of the bed, away from Jiang Cheng. “I can’t–there’s no time, I have to get to him. You don’t have to come,” he says diffidently even as he tears open the closet door and grabs the first thing he finds, which happens to be Jiang Cheng’s workout hoodie.
“Like hell.” Jiang Cheng shoves himself out of bed. “If you’re going somewhere I’m going with you.” The look Nie Huaisang gives him is unspeakably grateful, and Jiang Cheng tries to stuff down the spike of uneasiness that says Nie Huaisang had expected him to stay behind.
It’s too early for the drive staff to report in, so Jiang Cheng grabs his rarely used car keys and ushers an increasingly anxious Nie Huaisang into the elevator and down to the basement garage. The drive to the Nie Family holdings is tense and silent; every time Jiang Cheng glances over Nie Huaisang is curled in on himself, staring blankly out the window.
Jiang Cheng turns his attention back to the road. “You said he ‘wasn’t there,’ that he’s always been there,” he ventures quietly. “Where’s there?”
Nie Huaisang is quiet for a long time. “You know what they say about us, right? About the Nie Family,” he says eventually.
Jiang Cheng’s fingers tighten on the steering wheel. “I do,” he says shortly. It’s rumored that the Nie rituals are a little...messier than the other Families’. Jiang Cheng doesn’t know what he believes about that; he’s never seen anything along those lines when he’s visited the Nie estate for business, and certainly Nie Huaisang has never brought it up.
“Most of it’s not true,” Nie Huaisang sighs. He sounds a little calmer now, but his voice still carries an edge of strain. “Animal sacrifice. Bound spirits. Maybe that was true a long time ago, but not anymore. But it gets in the blood, that kind of thing, or so I’ve been told.” He falls quiet again and Jiang Cheng lets him as he digests this information.
“In the blood, you said,” he prompts gently after several silent minutes, as they turn into the long driveway of the Nie estate. Nie Huaisang unbuckles his seatbelt as Jiang Cheng pulls up in front of the gates, next to an intercom with a blank stone slate set next to it. Nie Huaisang leans over him, bracing himself on Jiang Cheng’s shoulder as he places his palm flat against the stone slate. He winces a little, then falls back into his seat as the gates open in front of them.
“In the blood,” he confirms, showing Jiang Cheng his palm with a small bloody pinprick in the center. Jiang Cheng blinks, and looks back at the slate; and now that he’s looking closely, he can see the tiny pinhole in the center, just big enough for the slimmest of needles.
“You couldn’t invest in a keypad?” is all he can think to say.
“It’s traditional. Besides, it barely hurts,” Nie Huaisang says, flexing his hand around the small wound. “The main entrance is on the left.”
Jiang Cheng swallows down all the things he can’t figure out how to put into words, and puts the car back in gear. He pulls the car forward and to the left, coasting to a stop in front of the grand entrance. The sun is just peeking over the horizon, casting the grounds in shades of morning-gray and washed out color as Jiang Cheng turns the car off and gets out, circling to where Nie Huaisang is still sitting in the passenger seat. Jiang Cheng opens the door and leans on it, but Nie Huaisang still doesn’t move, looking down at his bloodied hand.
“You were the one who was in such a hurry to get here,” Jiang Cheng says, and it’s uncharitable but Nie Huaisang’s anxiety is infectious, putting him on edge.
“I’ve always known where my brother is,” Nie Huaisang says quietly, tracing his finger over the mark on his palm. “Ever since I was little, since I was born. A Nie always knows where their family is, always. And now he’s not there, and I don’t know where he is, and I’m afraid to find out.” Nie Huaisang closes his fingers over his palm and glances sidelong at Jiang Cheng. His lashes are wet again, clumping together and he looks suddenly smaller than he is, curled in the passenger seat of Jiang Cheng’s car in Jiang Cheng’s oversized hoodie.
Jiang Cheng extends out his hand. “We came all this way. We’ll find him,” he says. He leaves unvoiced the possibility Nie Huaisang is carefully skirting around: that they might not find Nie Mingjue alive. The Nie Family leader is in the prime of his life, and had seemed to be in perfect health the last time Jiang Cheng had seen him. But accidents happen to everyone; and sometimes, Jiang Cheng thinks, remembering the Wens, they’re not accidents.
Nie Mingjue is not dead, as it turns out, but he is in as fine a rage as Jiang Cheng has ever seen him, or at least the aftermath of one. Jagged shards of fine pottery and smashed glass litter the floor of his bedroom, and although Jiang Cheng steps carefully the debris still crunches underfoot.
“Why is he here,” Nie Mingjue grunts. He slants an irritated glance at Jiang Cheng from his seat on his unmade bed as Nie Huaisang draws his fingers in increasingly arcane patterns over Nie Mingjue’s bare chest.
“He’s fine,” Nie Huaisang says distractedly, and Jiang Cheng can feel the pulse of what he’s doing if not the particulars even from his awkward post by the door of the bedroom.
“This is a Family matter,” Nie Mingjue says grouchily, and Nie Huaisang looks up, hands stilling.
“Jiang Cheng is family,” he says sharply. “You made sure of that.”
Nie Mingjue’s brows draw down but he looks away, out the window, and Nie Huaisang puts his hands back on his brother like he’s trying to convince himself past the evidence of his own eyes that Nie Mingjue is still breathing.
Jiang Cheng takes in a breath and lets it out. This is the first he’s heard that Nie Huaisang might not have been quite as willing to enter into this partnersh–into this marriage as he’d indicated, and while it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise it nonetheless sinks something clawed deep in his stomach. Jiang Cheng knows what his reputation is like amongst his peers, amongst the larger community–too sharp, too brash, too prickly–but he had thought, he had thought that maybe….
It doesn’t matter what he had thought. He had hoped that Nie Huaisang knew him well enough to look past all of that; he had hoped that there was something to find past all of that. But it doesn’t matter. Their choices were made for them, for the both of them, and now both Nie Huaisang and Jiang Cheng have to live with that.
“Where are you,” Nie Huaisang is muttering, brows drawing down, and although they have different mothers he looks very much like his older brother when he does that. Nie Huaisang pushes at Nie Mingjue chest a little and Nie Mingjue sways backward, bracing himself on the bed. “Brother, who did this to you? How did this happen?”
“If I knew that, I wouldn’t be sitting here,” Nie Mingjue says testily.
“I’m calling Lan Xichen,” Nie Huaisang says, stepping backwards and pulling his phone from his pocket. “And Jin Guangyao. I don’t care that you’re fighting with him,” he says over Nie Mingjue’s sputtered protest. “You can’t stop me.”
And that’s the problem, right there–Nie Mingjue isn’t dead, but he is absent from whatever familial bond bond he and Nie Huaisang share, and if Jiang Cheng stretches out with the senses the city gives him he can only feel one other person in this room. There’s an absence where Nie Mingjue should be, and the Nie Family leader can’t summon even enough qi to light a candle. It’s like he’s not there, even though his body is still alive and breathing, and Jiang Cheng begins to understand Nie Huaisang’s panic.
“I’ll meet them out front,” he offers, and Nie Huaisang gives him a grateful glance. “I’ll–go now,” he says, under Nie Mingjue’s baleful glare, and as Jiang Cheng shuts the door he can hear an argument rising in volume behind him.
He doesn’t have long to wait, a sleek Lan vehicle pulling up behind his own soon after he’s made it back to the front entrance. Lan Xichen must have broken several traffic laws to get here, but the Lans can certainly afford any infraction he’s picked up along the way. Jiang Cheng would not be surprised if any patrol cars were somehow otherwise occupied when Lan Xichen had sped past them; the Lans always seem to be lucky in that way.
“Zewu-jun, Lianfang-zun.” Jiang Cheng nods as Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao hurry up the entrance toward him. “Thank you for coming. This is–out of my expertise. To say the least.”
“Out of anyone’s expertise, if Nie Huaisang’s description is at all accurate,” Jin Guangyao says pleasantly, but there’s a faint line between his brows that says he’s thinking very hard about something.
“What is your impression, Sandu Shengshou?” Lan Xichen asks mildly as Jiang Cheng leads them back inside.
Jiang Cheng sighs. “He’s–Nie Huaisang keeps saying Chifeng-zun is ‘not there,’ and I can’t come up with a better way to describe it. He’s here,” he adds hastily as he gets two piercing glances. “He’s alive. He’s breathing,” he corrects himself. “But–well, see for yourself. First door on the right,” he says as they approach Nie Mingjue’s bedroom.
“We know,” Jin Guangyao murmurs as he sweeps past and into Nie Mingjue’s bedroom, and Jiang Cheng feels a flush rise in his cheeks. He knows they know, he’s just–being polite. Lan Xichen presses a hand to his shoulder briefly in passing before he enters as well, and Jiang Cheng is left alone in the hallway. He hesitates before heading back inside. He’s the outsider here, any way he looks at it, and while what affects Qinghe Nie is no doubt something Yunmeng Jiang wants to know about, Nie Mingjue’s family matter keeps echoing in his head. Nie Huaisang, Lan Xichen, Jin Guangyao–they all have personal reasons for being here.
Nie Huaisang’s voice rises from the other side of the door, indistinct but clearly distressed, and that makes Jiang Cheng’s decision for him.
“Obviously no one can know,” Jin Guangyao is saying as Jiang Cheng pushes through the door. Jin Guangyao is settled in an armchair, frame tight with tension as he watches Nie Mingjue pace the length of his bedroom. “If this gets out…”
Nie Mingjue’s bathrobe flutters behind him as he turns sharply. “I won’t hide from this,” he barks out, and Lan Xichen sighs.
“No one is suggesting you do,” he says, resting his hand high on Nie Mingjue’s back. Nie Mingjue huffs but deflates slightly. “But there is no gain in advertising it, either.”
“Qinghe Nie is vulnerable,” Jin Guangyao says bluntly. “With your qi vanished and Huaisang–” here Jin Guangyao glances at Jiang Cheng “–relocated, there’s never been a better time for your enemies to move against you.”
“All of my enemies are dead,” Nie Mingjue growls, eying Jin Guangyao flatly. “And if Lanling moves against Qinghe I’ll know who to add to that list.”
Jin Guangyao smiles tightly. “My father will not hear of this from me.”
“Who will he hear it from?” Nie Mingjue sneers, and Lan Xichen shoves him a little.
“Enough. No one in this room–” and now it’s Lan Xichen’s turn to glance significantly at Jiang Cheng “–is going to tell anyone what we’ve seen this morning. A-Yao is correct, however,” he says over Nie Mingjue’s grumble. “Qinghe Nie is vulnerable while you are in this state. I suggest that one of us stay with you until this is resolved.”
“I don’t need a babysitter,” Nie Mingjue sulks. Lan Xichen ignores him.
“Is this retribution for the Wens?” Nie Huaisang asks in a small voice, and all eyes turn toward where he’s sitting cross-legged on Nie Mingjue’s bed, picking half-heartedly at the comforter.
There’s a long silence before anyone answers him. “I don’t see how it could be,” Lan Xichen says finally, kindly. “The Wens are gone.”
“Not quite,” Jin Guangyao says, and suddenly four pairs of eyes zero in on Jiang Cheng.
He folds his arms over his chest and refuses to let himself step back. “Wei Wuxian has no grudge against Qinghe Nie, or Chifeng-zun,” he says, hating the defensiveness he hears in his voice.
“You speak confidently of his motives,” Jin Guangyao observes, and Jiang Cheng’s jaw tightens. “Can you speak to the intent of those he harbors?” Jiang Cheng can’t; he’s had the same thought himself but he’ll be damned if he’ll back down like this.
“He’s harboring grandmothers,” Nie Huaisang interjects, and Jiang Cheng glances over in surprise. “Children. People with nowhere to go. I’ve been there,” he adds, and Jiang Cheng’s brows draw down. “They’re growing radishes, not assassination plots.”
“With all due respect, Huaisang,” Jin Guangyao says gently. “Heavy plans such as these are rarely as visible as the garden beds.”
“Speaking from experience?” Nie Mingjue grumbles, but it’s half-hearted, and he’s watching Jiang Cheng with a heavy, suspicious gaze.
“I’ve been there as well, and I concur with Huaisang’s assessment,” Lan Xichen murmurs, and Jiang Cheng grinds his teeth. Is everyone in the city visiting his brother? “Nevertheless, we should keep an open mind as we investigate. If this is related to the Wens, it may not end here.”
Jiang Cheng’s stomach turns over. He can’t imagine being severed from the city so abruptly as Nie Mingjue appears to have been; he feels faintly sick at the thought of not feeling the subtle tingle of its energy through his veins, the warm, almost overwhelming presence when he reaches for it. He doesn’t know how Nie Mingjue can stand it, and if this isn’t the end, if this could happen to anyone…
If this is related to the Wens, anyone could be next.
“Perhaps this will pass on its own,” Lan Xichen suggests, although no one in the room looks convinced. “I suggest we wait and see.”
“And if it doesn’t?” Nie Huaisang demands, unfolding his legs and sliding off the bed. He wobbles as his feet hit the floor, and he catches himself on the bedpost with a surprised look on his face.
“You’ve overexerted yourself,” Jin Guangyao says disapprovingly. “You should go home and sleep it off.”
“He’s right,” Lan Xichen says firmly over Nie Huaisang’s protest. “You’ve done very well, but you need rest.”
Nie Huaisang looks at his brother in mute appeal, and although Nie Mingjue’s face softens he folds his arms over his chest.
“Go home, Huaisang,” he says, and Nie Huaisang’s eyes go wide. “You can’t do anything more here.”
Nie Huaisang’s face blanches but Jiang Cheng is already moving, and he slides an arm around Nie Huaisang’s waist as he wavers on his feet.
“You’ll stay with him?” Jiang Cheng directs the question at Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao even as he eyes Nie Mingjue sidelong. Nie Mingjue meets his glance and then looks away, jaw tightening.
“We will,” Lan Xichen murmurs. “We’ll call you the instant something changes.”
They agree to a rotating shift over Nie Mingjue’s grumbled protests; as Lan Xichen points out, their small group is comprised of exactly the people least likely to raise eyebrows over an extended stay at the Nie Family estate. Nie Huaisang leans more and more heavily on Jiang Cheng until Jiang Cheng can feel the fine tremble running through him. Jiang Cheng nods a terse goodbye and leads Nie Huaisang carefully back to the car, settling him into the passenger seat. Nie Huaisang falls asleep almost immediately, head lolling to the side, and Jiang Cheng concentrates on driving smoothly and carefully on the way back. Nie Huaisang doesn’t wake even when Jiang Cheng parks and turns the car off, and so Jiang Cheng sighs and gets out, circling the vehicle and opening the passenger door.
“Come on,” he mutters, reaching in to undo the seat belt and Nie Huaisang wakes a little.
“Wh–oh,” he says, clumsy fingers reaching toward the buckle. Jiang Cheng bats them away.
“We’re almost back. Just–here we go,” he says, slipping an arm behind Nie Huaisang’s shoulders and helping him out of the car. Nie Huaisang leans heavily on him and Jiang Cheng shifts to adjust for the extra weight, leading Nie Huaisang back toward the elevator and back towards home.
His home, anyway. He had started to think of it as theirs, but he wonders now if Nie Huaisang would say the same, if that’s why the blood had drained from his face when Nie Mingjue had told him to leave.
Jiang Cheng glances over. Nie Huaisang is blinking slowly but he doesn’t seem all there; whatever he did to try to help his brother seems to have belatedly hit him like a ton of bricks. Adrenaline crash is a bitch, Jiang Cheng knows, and expending that much qi takes a toll as well.
He manhandles Nie Huaisang a little to the side to get at his keys, and lets them into his condo. Nie Huaisang mumbles something that sounds like bed and Jiang Cheng agrees, guiding him toward the bedroom and settling him on the edge of the bed. Nie Huaisang slumps sideways and seems to pass out the instant his head hits the pillow. Jiang Cheng looks at him for a long moment, fingers curling in toward his palm. He takes a deep breath, then rolls Nie Huaisang under the covers. Nie Huaisang barely moves, curling in on himself as Jiang Cheng settles the blankets around his shoulders. He’s starting to feel the effects of the early morning and the wear of uncertainty himself, but he doesn’t think he can sleep yet, so he brushes a stray lock of hair out of Nie Huaisang’s face before straightening and heading back toward the kitchen. Coffee will help him gain some perspective on this; if nothing else, perhaps the familiar ritual will ground him a little bit in a world gone strange and uncertain.
On the way he pulls his phone out, scrolling back through the list of recent messages. He stops when he gets to Wei Wuxian. His thumb hovers over his brother’s name, but eventually he swipes away and calls his assistant instead.
“I’m going to be away from the office for a bit,” he tells her. “No, I don’t know how long. Yes, I’ll keep you updated. No, I’m not going on a second honeymoon, it’s–” he pauses, then forges ahead. “It’s a family emergency.”
Nie Mingjue’s condition does not improve. It doesn’t get any worse–although privately, Jiang Cheng is of the opinion that he couldn’t get much worse and still be breathing–but one day rolls into the next rolls into a week and still Nie Mingjue remains unable to summon even the smallest amount of qi. It’s as if the city no longer recognizes him–as if Nie Mingjue has never reached out and the city has never opened up for him at all.
Nie Huaisang is tense and miserable on the days he can’t be with his brother, and tense and miserable and on edge the days that he can. Jiang Cheng keeps a close watch; Nie Huaisang will, Jiang Cheng guesses, be the first to know if Nie Mingjue miraculously improves, although the odds on that look slimmer every day. Jiang Cheng answers emails from his dining table and watches Nie Huaisang over the top of his laptop. For his part Nie Huaisang spends the days pretending to read, or fiddling with his tablet. More than once Jiang Cheng has caught him staring vacantly at the fan that Nie Mingjue had gifted him from his encampment on the couch.
“He’ll be fine,” Jiang Cheng tries once, and Nie Huaisang blinks and looks at him, refocusing.
“I wish you could promise me that,” he says, looking back down at the book he’s had open to the same page for an hour. Jiang Cheng sighs, turning back to his laptop. He wishes that everything he tries to say to be comforting didn’t sound like a blatant falsehood, as if he’s cursing Nie Mingjue to ill health by hoping for the opposite. But he doesn’t know any other way to go about this, and not for the first time he wishes he had either of his siblings’ proclivity with words.
“Do you want to go over?” he asks instead, because maybe if he can’t say anything to help he can try to find something to do.
Nie Huaisang looks up immediately. “It’s Lan Xichen’s turn to be there,” he says, but it’s hopeful, like he’s willing Jiang Cheng to let him get away with something. Jiang Cheng shuts his laptop with a snap.
“Then Lan Xichen can get used to company,” he says decisively, and Nie Huaisang bounces off the couch with more enthusiasm than Jiang Cheng’s seen from him in days.
“I’ll get my coat. Wait, I need to change my shirt,” he says, looking down at himself. It’s another one of Jiang Cheng’s, which Jiang Cheng had honestly forgotten until this moment because of how comfortable Nie Huaisang has gotten stealing his clothing. It’s slightly too big on Nie Huaisang, slipping to show the curve of his collarbone and the barest edge of shoulder, and Jiang Cheng looks away before he can be caught staring.
“I don’t mind if you don’t,” he says, brushing imaginary dust off the top of his laptop. When he glances up Nie Huaisang is smiling almost shyly at him.
“Coat, then,” Nie Huaisang says, starting toward the entryway–then he stops, and pivots on his toes, heading back toward Jiang Cheng.
“Thank you,” he murmurs, leaning in and pressing his lips to the top of Jiang Cheng’s head. “I–thank you.” He pulls away and Jiang Cheng could swear that there’s color high on Nie Huaisang’s cheeks before he whirls away, heading for the entryway and the coat closet.
Jiang Cheng looks down at his laptop, makes the executive decision to leave it behind, and follows.
The Nie estate is slightly less of a maze every time he visits. He pulls in alongside the vehicle he’s come to recognize as Lan Xichen’s, and quick-steps to catch up with Nie Huaisang as he hurries toward the entrance. Nie Huaisang looks back in apology and slows. He reaches out to take Jiang Cheng’s hand and squeezes, tugging him along and into the house.
Lan Xichen receives them pleasantly, although now that Jiang Cheng thinks about it, he’s rarely seen Lan Xichen be less than pleasant to anyone. At least, not overtly. Nie Mingjue is slightly less enthusiastic but he makes room when Nie Huaisang makes a beeline for the couch he’s sitting on, shifting so Nie Huaisang can settle next to him. Nie Huaisang leans in immediately, putting a hand to Nie Mingjue’s forehead like he’s taking his temperature, and although Nie Mingjue scowls he doesn’t push him away.
“Shall we give them a moment?” Lan Xichen murmurs next to him, and Jiang Cheng nods, hand flexing.
Lan Xichen appears to know the grounds very well, which in retrospect should not be surprising, and he leads Jiang Cheng toward a rear door and out onto a small pavilion. Across the acreage Jiang Cheng can see the high walls that surround the estate, and past that, the blinking rise of the city skyline. There’s the hint of oncoming rain in the air, and the potential for thunder in the dark clouds piling up on the horizon.
“Has there been any change?” Jiang Cheng asks. He knows there hasn’t, but he doesn’t know where else to start the conversation.
Lan Xichen sighs. “None at all, I’m afraid. He’s not the best patient, either–although you did not hear that from me,” Lan Xichen says with a slight smile.
Jiang Cheng huffs a laugh. “No kidding. I knew Chifeng-zun had a bad temper but I’m a little afraid Huaisang’s going to come home without a hand one of these days.” He regrets it almost as he says it; home still rolls around uneasily in his chest, and Lan Xichen is one of the last people he wants to have that discussion with.
He doesn’t want to have it with anyone, really, except for one person. But every time Jiang Cheng even thinks about saying home to Nie Huaisang the word sticks in his throat so badly he nearly chokes.
It’s not important. It doesn’t have to be important.
Lan Xichen is saying something. Jiang Cheng makes himself focus. “...not that bad, really. He was happy to see you today, even if he won’t say it.”
Jiang Cheng blinks, turning away from the stormfront to look at Lan Xichen. “Happy to see Huaisang? He sure doesn’t act like it.”
“Of course he’s happy to see Huaisang, he loves his brother very deeply,” Lan Xichen says calmly. “But no, I said he was happy to see you.”
“Me.” Jiang Cheng is fairly sure Lan Xichen is too respectable to joke about something like this, and that’s the only reason he’s as honest as he is with what comes out of his mouth next. “He thinks I’m a bad influence on Huaisang.”
Now the look Lan Xichen is giving him is almost pitying. “Do you really think he would have proposed the marriage between you two if that were the case?”
“I–Nie Mingjue proposed it?” Jiang Cheng feels the world shift underneath him. He had always assumed it was his mother who’d made the alliance, or at least prompted his father into action.
“Ah,” Lan Xichen says, as if this explains something to him, and Jiang Cheng would dearly love to know what that is. “Does this change things for you, Jiang Wanyin?”
“Should it?” Jiang Cheng retorts. “For someone who supposedly loves his brother so deeply, he sure couldn’t wait to kick Huaisang out the other day.”
“A sentiment I’m sure you can’t relate to,” Lan Xichen murmurs, dry as the desert, and Jiang Cheng flushes.
“We’re all on edge,” Lan Xichen continues before Jiang Cheng can dig himself any deeper. “But I would encourage you to consider what you might do for the ones you loved, in a situation such as this.”
Lan Xichen’s pocket buzzes and he fishes out his phone, glancing at the call ID. “Ah–it’s A-Yao. Please excuse me,” he says, already moving away toward an overhang and lifting the phone to his ear. Jiang Cheng winces as the first raindrop hits him directly on the hairline, and he glares at the darkening sky. It’s not quite raining yet, but it will be soon, and he’s not enough of an idiot to stand there and get soaked when he doesn’t know how long Lan Xichen will be.
He’s just able to trace his way back to the sitting room at the front of the house, but when he arrives Nie Mingjue is the only occupant, one ankle resting on his knee as he stares out the front window, contemplative. Jiang Cheng pauses in the doorway, wondering if he can back away quietly, but Nie Mingjue looks up and catches his gaze. He snorts, and waves Jiang Cheng in.
“Did you lose Xichen?” he asks, but he doesn’t sound that worried about it.
“Jin Guangyao called,” Jiang Cheng says, drifting to a stop near one of the oversized armchairs. Nie Mingjue frowns, pulling out his phone.
“Didn’t call me,” he mutters and sighs, pocketing the phone and looking out the window again as droplets start to hit the panes in earnest. “He always goes to Xichen first.” He sounds vaguely wistful about it, not at all like the man who’d vetoed every suggestion Jin Guangyao had made the last time Jiang Cheng had seen them together.
Jiang Cheng casts about for something to say that’s not can you blame him? Even he can see what a terrible idea that is. “How are you feeling?”
Nie Mingjue huffs. “Like shit.” His fingers curl into the fabric of the couch. “Don’t know how people live like this.”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t either, and he doesn’t ever want to find out. The silence stretches and he scrambles for another conversational gambit.“Where’s Huaisang?”
Nie Mingjue makes a vague upward gesture. “Upstairs. Said he needed something from his room.” He doesn’t appear to feel the need to add anything, and Jiang Cheng is busy turning over his room in his chest when Nie Mingue flattens his hand against the back of the couch.
“Does he–” Nie Mingjue stops, flexing his fingers. “How is he?”
“Worried,” Jiang Cheng says starkly. “Huaisang doesn’t want to be anywhere but here.” It twists something in his stomach to say it but Nie Mingjue deserves the truth of what he’s doing to his brother by sending him away.
“It’s not safe for him here,” Nie Mingjue bites out, and something clicks for Jiang Cheng.
“That’s why you told him to leave,” Jiang Cheng says in dawning realization, and Nie Mingjue finally looks at him. “Why you won’t let him stay longer than a day.”
“Whatever happened took place right here, on these grounds,” Nie Mingjue says in a tone that indicates he’s attempting patience. “Someone or something got past the gates and the wards right into my fucking bedroom and did–” Nie Mingjue gestures at himself. “Did something that not even Guangyao can figure out.”
Jiang Cheng frowns. “I didn’t feel any wards when we came in.”
Nie Mingjue gives him a look that says he’s being very stupid. “You’re with Huaisang,” he says, as if that explains everything, although it explains nothing, at least nothing that Jiang Cheng is going to let himself think about in front of Nie Mingjue. “And right now the safest place for him is with you, away from all of this.”
“You think it’s going to happen again,” Jiang Cheng says, and although it’s not a question Nie Mingue nods approvingly anyway.
“There’ve been no demands, no attempts at leverage, no further incursions,” Nie Mingjue says matter-of-factly. “Whatever this is, it isn’t over.”
Jiang Cheng’s fingers dig into the leather of the chair. “And when it is?”
Nie Mingjue raises a brow. “You’re married, aren’t you? That makes Huaisang your problem.”
“He’s not a problem,” Jiang Cheng snaps, and for some reason that makes Nie Mingjue smile.
“Remember that when he starts filling your place with useless clutter,” Nie Mingjue says, and Jiang Cheng thinks about the fan in the very center of the living room wall with its river scene and its tiny moving people. It’s an obscure art, matching fine qi work to such a delicate painting. It couldn’t have been easy for Nie Mingjue to find an artist with that level of skill, or inexpensive once he had.
Jiang Cheng thinks about the fans that have replaced a painting he can’t even remember, and reminds himself that sometimes doing is easier than saying.
“Upstairs, you said?” Jiang Cheng says in a transparent change of subject, clearing his throat.
Nie Mingjue lets him have it. “Second door on the left after the landing,” he says, looking out the window again, and as Jiang Cheng leaves he thinks he sees the corner of Nie Mingjue’s mouth turn up.
Jiang Cheng takes the stairs two at a time, passing what looks like a small library before he comes to the right door. It’s standing partially open but Jiang Cheng raises a hand to knock anyway. His hand stills, however, as he gets a better look at the room.
Nie Huaisang is sitting on the edge of a tall bed, legs dangling off the side as he braces his hands on the edge of the mattress, apparently absorbed in contemplation of the intricately-patterned rug on the floor. It’s a very nice rug, something that Jiang Cheng is coming to recognize as to Huaisang’s taste. It’s also one of the very few signs of personality in this room. The generic comforter on the bed is very fluffy and very new, and the walls are distinctly bare. There’s a framed picture of Nie Huaisang and his brother on the dresser, and a few lonely paperbacks on the bookshelf but for the most part the room looks cleaned-out and impersonal.
Jiang Cheng has to swallow and breathe past the thing in his throat before he can speak. “Did your brother do this?” he asks, and Nie Huaisang looks up, startled.
“Do what?” He looks genuinely confused, as if Jiang Cheng doesn’t know this is not how Nie Huaisang lives. Nie Huaisang loves beautiful things and he loves looking at them and he’s allergic to empty shelves; Jiang Cheng doesn’t think there’s a flat surface left in the condo that doesn’t have something Nie Huaisang has put on it.
Jiang Cheng gestures. “Where’s all of your–your stuff?” he asks, and Nie Huaisang blinks as if he doesn’t understand the question.
“It’s at our place,” he says, as if the answer is very obvious, and Jiang Cheng pulls up short, our place ping-ponging around in his chest.
“What–all of it?” The fury he’d been working up to turns sideways, into–into something Jiang Cheng can’t name yet, but that’s doing something funny in his stomach.
“Yes?” Nie Huaisang looks hopelessly confused. “Is this a quiz? You promised no tests,” he says plaintively, and Jiang Cheng breathes out something that sounds like a laugh.
“I did say that, I just–wasn’t expecting your room to be this…” empty, he doesn’t say.
“Oh.” Nie Huaisang looks around as if he’s seeing the room for the first time. “Oh, yeah–I guess I cleaned it out pretty well before I left. I told my brother he could turn it into a guest room or something, but he hasn’t even had it painted. Look, there’s nail holes everywhere,” he says, pointing, as if Jiang Cheng’s not rapidly re-ordering the world as he knows it.
“And whose fault is that, I wonder,” he says as his feet start to move, taking him further into the room. Nie Huaisang makes a face at him, sticking out his tongue as Jiang Cheng approaches.
“Whose side are you on,” he demands, mock-aggrieved, and Jiang Cheng reaches out to take his hand when he’s close enough.
“Yours,” Jiang Cheng says, and he must have had too many confusing conversations in too short a time because it comes out raw and sincere. Nie Huaisangs eyes widen and then his face softens. His fingers tighten on Jiang Cheng’s.
“C’mere,” he murmurs, tugging Jiang Cheng forward until he has to step between Nie Huaisang’s legs, the inside of Nie Huaisang’s thighs brushing against his flanks. Nie Huaisang reaches out, curling a hand around the back of Jiang Cheng’s neck, and Jiang Cheng lets himself be pulled down until his mouth meets Nie Huaisang’s. The fingers on the back of his neck tighten, and Nie Huaisang’s mouth moves slow and unhurried against his.
Nie Huaisang makes a small noise almost like a sob against his lips and Jiang Cheng jerks back, eyes flying open. Nie Huaisang’s lashes are damp and his mouth is red and he shakes his head before Jiang Cheng can even say anything.
“It’s not–it’s not you,” he says, and relief blooms in Jiang Cheng’s chest. It’s short-lived, however, as Nie Huaisang sniffs and leans forward. “I’m just–can I–” he slides his arms around Jiang Cheng’s waist and turns his face into Jiang Cheng’s chest, and pressed close like this Jiang Cheng can feel the way he’s shaking. Jiang Cheng settles his arms tentatively around Nie Huaisang’s back. In answer, Nie Huaisang’s arms tighten around him and he sniffs loudly against Jiang Cheng’s chest.
“I’m going to kill them,” Nie Huaisang says, muffled against Jiang Cheng’s sweater. His arms tighten around Jiang Cheng’s waist. “I’m going to find out who caused this and I’m going to fucking kill them.”
Jiang Cheng’s hands stop their slow glide on Nie Huaisang’s back.
“I thought you didn’t know what happened here,” he asks cautiously.
“I don’t.” Nie Huaisang says, pulling back. He scrubs his forearm over his eyes; they’re red and wet but Nie Huaisan’g mouth is set in a flat line. He looks up through wet lashes at Jiang Cheng, gaze clear and determined. “Yet.”
Jiang Cheng cups Nie Huaisang’s cheek in one hand and strokes his thumb over Nie Huaisang’s cheekbone. It comes away damp.
“I’ll help,” Jiang Cheng says softly, and Nie Huaisang smiles grimly before fisting his hand in Jiang Cheng’s sweater and pulling him down. His mouth is fiercer, more unyielding this time, and Jiang Cheng lets himself be held in place until Nie Huaisang is through.
“Thank you,” Nie Huaisang murmurs against Jiang Cheng’s lips as he pulls back, and Jiang Cheng is about to lean back in, to chase the determination in Nie Huaisang’s voice with his tongue, when there’s a knock on the bedroom door.
Jiang Cheng looks up to see Lan Xichen standing in the open doorway, lowering his hand. Nie Mingjue hovers in the hallway behind him, arms folded, and Jiang Cheng fixes his gaze on Lan Xichen to avoid Nie Mingjue’s heavy stare.
“We have a problem,” Lan Xichen says crisply. “Jin Guangshan is dead.”
“Not just dead,” Jin Guangyao announces to the room at large. “Drained.”
Murmurs sweep the gathered crowd, and Jiang Cheng watches carefully, attempting to gauge whether anyone looks less than surprised or too surprised. This room at the Jin estate is packed with Families large and small, and while no one looks exactly happy to be there no one has gotten up and left yet, either. Everyone comes out for a spectacle, Jiang Cheng remembers Nie Huaisang saying.
Or a scapegoat.
Jin Guangshan’s funeral had certainly been a spectacle. Jin Zixuan–or more likely, Jin Guangyao–had spared no detail or expense for the former Family leader, as if throwing enough money and pomp at the occasion would make everyone forget how awful the man had been. Jiang Cheng catches sight of Mo Xuanyu lurking on the edge of the crowd; case in point.
He can’t spare too much worry for Jin Guangshan’s many and varied children, however, not when Nie Huaisang is sitting far too quiet and still next to him. Jiang Cheng nudges Nie Huaisang with his knee and gets a wan smile before Nie Huaisang’s gaze returns to the front of the room.
“What do you mean, drained?” someone calls out, and Jiang Cheng tries to make note of who it is without being too obvious about it.
“Yao Family,” Nie Huaisang murmurs without looking away from Jin Guangyao, and Jiang Cheng settles back in his seat, sighing internally. He may not be very good at this but he’s trying.
“Our father had been in delicate health,” Jin Guangyao is saying politely, Jin Zixuan standing grim and silent next to him. “He had invested significant energy into bindings and talismans to support his...lifestyle. Three days ago they all failed at once, and the results are–as you see.”
“Our father was no novice,” Jin Zixuan interjects, and Jin Guangyao bows his head, ceding the floor. “His mastery of qi and his connection to our city were rivaled by few among us. Something severed that connection, and without it…”
“Without it he had a heart attack and died,” a bored voice says, cutting across the confused murmur of the room. Jiang Cheng turns along with the rest of the crowd to see a young man dressed all in black leaning against the wall, legs crossed at the ankles. The young man crunches loudly on a lollipop and pulls the stick from his mouth. “What? I’m just saying what you’re all thinking.”
“Xue Yang,” Jin Guangyao sighs. “I wasn’t aware you’d been invited to this meeting.”
“I wasn’t,” Xue Yang says cheerfully. “I just came for the snacks and the gossip.” He raises a cup of coffee and slurps obnoxiously. He grins as he lowers it again, clearly enjoying the strained pleasantness on Jin Guangyao’s face.
Jin Zixuan pinches the bridge of his nose. “Did you have something to contribute?” he asks politely, but his shoulders are tight and as much as Jiang Cheng hates to sympathize with his sister’s husband he admits that this kid grates on his nerves.
“Big shot like the old man, fancy protections, and none of that saved him. I’m betting he wasn’t the first,” Xue Yang says, eyes gleaming. “And he won’t be the last, either.”
The room erupts in an uproar as Jiang Cheng leans back in his chair. It’s nothing he hadn’t concluded for himself, but to hear Xue Yang state it so baldly is...unsettling. He glances over at Nie Huaisang, who has left off staring at Jin Guangyao to contemplate Xue Yang. He has that look on his face that means he’s thinking something over, and Jiang Cheng leans over slightly.
“You think–” he starts, but Nie Huaisang is already shaking his head.
“Too obvious,” he says softly, gaze shifting to skim over the room.
“He knew about your brother,” Jiang Cheng points out. “He all but promised more of the same.”
“He guessed,” Nie Huaisang murmurs. “And if the first is right, the second isn’t too far of a leap.”
Jiang Cheng settles back in his chair, scowling. He glances back at Xue Yang–who is now looking directly at him, grinning. Jiang Cheng folds his arms, returning the eye contact until Xue Yang shrugs and looks away.
“...some kind of serial killer?” Jiang Cheng only catches the last half of that statement, not who said it, but it rings out over the quieting crowd. Jin Guangyao puts his hands up placatingly.
“No one is saying anything about a serial killer,” he says with a meaningful glance at Xue Yang. “We are being transparent about what happened here, about what should otherwise be a private Family matter in the hopes that if this has occurred elsewhere, we can all act accordingly.”
“We are stronger together,” Jin Zixuan reminds the room at large. “We have defeated enemies larger than ourselves before. We can do it again, if necessary.”
Jiang Cheng watches the crowd shift uneasily, glancing at each other. The memory of the Wens looms large and unspoken, and who would admit to this kind of weakness in front of everyone, among such uneasy allies?
Nie Mingjue shifts in his chair across the room, and Nie Huaisang draws in a sharp breath as his brother stands.
“Jin Guangshan was not the first,” Nie Mingjue says into the spreading silence. “I don’t know if I was, but if it can happen in the heart of a Family stronghold it can happen anywhere. If you have information, speak up now.” The or else is strongly implied, and qi or no qi Jiang Cheng sits up straighter at that tone.
There’s a general shifting, and then a man Jiang Cheng recognizes from the Ouyang Family stands. “Two days ago,” he says hesitantly. “Not me, but–my cousin. There’s nothing wrong with her otherwise, she’s just–” he spreads his hands helplessly.
Nie Mingjue nods and the man sits down gratefully. “Anyone else?”
One by one the accounts start trickling in. A father here, a sister there; an acquaintance, a neighbor, a friend-of-a-friend. All kept quiet, all suffering in silence, because who would admit to something like this? As the first-hand knowledge peters out, the speculation starts: who could be doing this, and to what end? What kind of ritual or artifact could drain someone of qi without ever approaching them?
As that last question rolls through the room, Jiang Cheng catches more than one sideways glance in his direction. Nie Huaisang puts a hand on Jiang Cheng’s knee, and Jiang Cheng consciously relaxes his jaw.
“...might as well be dead, in that state,” he hears someone mutter, and while privately Jiang Cheng leans toward agreement he doesn’t like the hitch that puts in Nie Huaisang’s breath so he covers Nie Huaisang’s hand with his own, lacing their fingers together. Nie Huaisang squeezes back and Jiang Cheng thinks that these meetings are a lot easier to get through with someone at his side.
“With all due respect,” the Yao Family representative says in a tone that conveys very little actual respect. “Aren’t we overlooking the obvious? There’s one member of our community who isn’t here, who hasn’t bothered to come to any of our gatherings since he started harboring dangerous fugitives.”
He came to my wedding, Jiang Cheng doesn’t say, watching the heads around the room nod in agreement. Before he can figure out how to respond, Lan Xichen cuts in smoothly.
“Wei Wuxian is a Jiang Family matter,” he says with a significant glance at Jiang Cheng. “I’m sure Jiang Wanyin is dealing with him accordingly.”
The crowd of gathered Families settles, albeit reluctantly; no one wants to publicly argue with Zewu-jun, including Jiang Cheng. It’s a save and a directive all at once, and Jiang Cheng feels his jaw tighten again.
“Be that as it may,” Jin Zixuan says, drawing attention back up toward the front of the room. “We must face this together, or we will fall separately.” Murmurs kick back up and Jiang Cheng settles back in his chair. He’s been to enough of these meetings to know that while the important things have already been said, the arguing will continue for a while. Nie Huaisang leans into him, voice pitched low and private.
“I’m going to step out,” he murmurs. “Meet you outside when this is over?”
“I can come with–” Jiang Cheng starts, but Nie Huaisang shakes his head.
“You need to stay and be seen,” he says. “I’ll catch up with you in a bit.” He squeezes Jiang Cheng’s fingers again and disentangles his hand, rising. He slips away, out a side door. Jiang Cheng watches him go, wishing he could follow.
The rest of the meeting is, as Jiang Cheng predicted, largely the same arguments over and over again. After Lan Xichen’s injunction no one explicitly mentions Wei Wuxian again, but Jiang Cheng fields several more unsubtle glances that he pretends not to notice. He tries to survey the crowd, to remember who is here and who isn’t, and it’s not until his gaze reaches the other side of the room that he realizes Xue Yang is missing.
Jiang Cheng scans the room once more. No Xue Yang. He’d probably gotten bored and wandered off. From the timbre of Jin Zixuan’s exasperation he seemed to be a regular at the Jin estate, but Jiang Cheng can’t imagine he’s a friend of Jin Zixuan’s; he must have been a guest of Jin Guangshan’s. Jiang Cheng wonders how long he’ll last now that the old man is dead.
When the gathering concludes Jiang Cheng lingers only long enough for the bare minimum of pleasantries and idle small talk. These kinds of conversations are necessary to maintain relationships among the Families, he knows, but he wants to avoid more questions about Wei Wuxian that he has no answers to. He feels his pocket buzz and makes his excuses to a smaller Family representative who’d managed to place herself between him and the door, pulling out his phone as he goes.
It’s Nie Huaisang. <Going to see about a thing. See you at home.>
Jiang Cheng stands in the middle of the hallway in the Jin Family residence and tries to decide what his stomach is doing. It must be related to the recent incidents; Jiang Cheng is quite sure Nie Huaisang’s had nothing else on his mind since that morning he’d shaken Jiang Cheng awake. But that Nie Huaisang didn’t bother to tell Jiang Cheng where he was going sinks rocks in Jiang Cheng’s gut. No, he doesn’t have to monitor Nie Huaisang’s every movement but–does he think Jiang Cheng doesn’t care where he is?
Jiang Cheng lets his eyes drift over the text again. See you at home, Nie Huaisang had said, and that part–that part spins up something bright and hopeful in his chest that Jiang Cheng tries desperately not to put too much weight in.
Nie Huaisang will fill him in when he gets–when he gets home, Jiang Cheng decides, with a small curl of satisfaction, pocketing his phone. Maybe Jiang Cheng will cook dinner for him, have it waiting.
The problem with that plan, Jiang Cheng realizes, is that Nie Huaisang hadn’t said what time he was coming home, and as it gets later and the sun slips behind the buildings Jiang Cheng finds himself getting anxious, and then irritated. He’s never had to worry about where Nie Huaisang is before; he’s never thought to worry about Nie Huaisang’s whereabouts, but with the city in the state it’s in Jiang Cheng finds himself wishing angrily that Nie Huaisang had waited, or that he himself had followed when he’d had the chance.
More than once he picks up his phone and types out some variation on <where are you?> He deletes each one without sending it. Nie Huaisang had said he would meet him here. Jiang Cheng will just have to take him at his word.
As the sun sets and the dinner hours come and go Jiang Cheng, in desperate need of a distraction, turns to the kitchen. He pulls out ingredients for a simple stir-fry, chopping vegetables with a force that echoes off the walls. The pan sizzles as he tosses it, the sound loud in the quiet of an empty condo. Jiang Cheng hadn’t realized how used to the ambient noise of another person he had become. He sets out two bowls and picks at one of them, managing to eat a few bites before giving up and covering them both to pack away in the refrigerator. The sound of the water running as he washes up is loud in his ears, but not so loud that it masks the sound of the front door opening and closing.
“It’s about time,” Jiang Cheng snaps, shutting off the faucet. He wipes his hands on a towel, heading for the front door and nearly collides with Nie Huaisang as he turns the corner into the kitchen.
“Sorry,” Nie Huaisang says, catching himself against Jiang Cheng. “I guess I–lost track of how late it was?”
Jiang Cheng looks out at the darkened windows, and back at Nie Huaisang. “You lost track?”
Nie Huaisang makes an annoyed face. “Now you sound like my brother,” he mutters, moving past Jiang Cheng toward the living room. He flops down lengthwise on the couch, one arm covering his eyes. “Next you’re going to tell me I shouldn’t be out on my own.”
Jiang Cheng had, in fact, been about to say exactly that. “It’s dangerous,” he grits out, and Nie Huaisang lifts his arm from his eyes.
“Is it?” he says, tilting his head up to look at Jiang Cheng. “Whatever happened to my brother, to Jin Guangshan, to all the rest–it happened in their homes, in the places they should be the strongest. If we’re not safe here, nowhere is safe.” He drops his head back down, looking at the ceiling. “So it really doesn’t matter where I am.”
“It matters to me,” Jiang Cheng says, face flushing when Nie Huaisang looks at him again. He can’t argue with Nie Huaisang’s logic, as much as he would like to; but he absolutely rejects the notion that anything about Nie Huaisang doesn’t matter.
Nie Huaisang blinks, then extends his hand out. Restless unease still curls in Jiang Cheng’s gut but it’s surprising how easy it is to go over and take Nie Huaisang’s hand, to let Nie Huaisang pull him down as he shifts to make room on the couch.
“I’m sorry I didn’t text,” Nie Huaisang murmurs, threading their fingers together. “I didn’t–I didn’t think you’d care as long as I wasn’t in the way.”
Jiang Cheng’s brows furrow. “You’re not in the way,” he contradicts instinctively.
Nie Huaisang’s mouth turns up at the corner. “Just this morning you complained about my clothes filling up the hamper. You threatened to get me my own.”
“That’s different,” Jiang Cheng feels compelled to point out.
“How so?” Nie Huaisang murmurs, thumb stroking over Jiang Cheng’s.
“Because–” Jiang Cheng stops short. Because it is is not a great answer, but he knows deep in his chest that it is different. Sure, it’s annoying that the dirty clothes hamper fills up faster than he’s used to, but he wouldn’t give that up now, not when it comes attached to Nie Huaisang’s laughter and the soft, teasing smile that’s just for Jiang Cheng.
“Maybe I like you in the way,” he settles on, looking away and out the window at the city lit up in the night. “Ever think of that?”
It’s only because he’s listening for it that he hears the soft inhale next to him, and then Nie Huaisang is tugging him down and onto the couch, his lips warm and seeking. Jiang Cheng sinks down onto him gratefully. This, at least, he knows how to do, and maybe careful fingers and the press of lips will convey what he’s struggling to say.
It’s not until much, much later, when Nie Huaisang has slipped into sleep and Jiang Cheng is lying awake in their bed, watching the play of lights over the ceiling, that he realizes that Nie Huaisang never did tell him where he went.
He doesn’t get the chance to ask the next morning; Nie Huaisang is up and gone before Jiang Cheng even wakes and Jiang Cheng showers and makes his own coffee in a silence he’s no longer used to. He makes a face after the first sip. Nie Huaisang had shown him how to use the machine, had brought home beans he had assured Jiang Cheng were of superior quality, but somehow when Jiang Cheng makes the coffee it never tastes as good.
Lacking any other directives–except the one about Wei Wuxian, which he’ll deal with...another day–he heads into the office, although once he’s there he spends most of the day idly skimming his email and checking his phone for a text message that never comes. He leaves the office with no idea what he’d actually accomplished by coming in, but at least he’d gone through the motions.
Nie Huaisang is there when he gets home, at least, and that blossoms such relief in Jiang Cheng’s chest that he doesn’t even ask where Nie Huaisang had gone. Nie Huaisang doesn’t volunteer the information, but maybe...maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe it doesn’t matter where Nie Huaisang goes during the day, as long as he comes home.
Lan Xichen keeps them updated, inasmuch as there is anything to update. A few new cases each week, all the same story: no qi, no apparent hope of recovery, no change for those already affected. No clue as to the cause. Nie Huaisang nods thoughtfully and remains quiet, even after Lan Xichen hangs up.
“What do you think?” Jiang Cheng asks, and Nie Huaisang hums and turns away.
“I think it’s time for bed,” he says, glancing back over his shoulder. “Coming?
Jiang Cheng follows, because what other choice does he have? Nie Huaisang feels like he’s drifting further into himself, away from Jiang Cheng, and Jiang Cheng doesn’t know how to bring him back. If nothing else, he can be with Nie Huaisang as he stares pensively at the ceiling, can pull him close when Nie Huaisang starts to shake. Jiang Cheng wishes desperately that he knew the right words to say, that the press of his lips against Nie Huaisang’s forehead and temple and mouth could be enough. That he could be enough.
Nie Huaisang’s hours become more irregular; sometimes he’s there when Jiang Cheng wakes up in the morning, sometimes Jiang Cheng wakes up to an empty bed. Sometimes Jiang Cheng comes home to Nie Huaisang reading on the couch, and sometimes the closing of the front door echoes into a still quiet.
Jiang Cheng hates it, but he doesn’t know how to undo it, either. He can’t demand that Nie Huaisang be there waiting for him when he comes home, that Nie Huaisang structure his life around Jiang Cheng’s. It’s just that despite the clothes and the decor and the thousand other pieces of Nie Huaisang that have made their way into Jiang Cheng’s space, Jiang Cheng doesn’t feel like any of them don’t belong. Nie Huaisang had slipped so seamlessly into Jiang Cheng’s life that Jiang Cheng hadn’t realized it didn’t go both ways. He has no idea what Nie Huaisang does with his time, no idea how to ask without driving him further away.
It’s nothing he knows how to solve, and so he worries at it in silence, like a bruise that won’t quite heal, with an ache just as deep.
He’s on his way home from another unproductive day at the office when his pocket buzzes, and Jiang Cheng pulls it out only to be disappointed by the name Lan Xichen on the screen.
“Zewu-jun?” he says, putting the phone to his ear and dodging a pedestrian with their head down and scarf wrapped tightly around their face.
“We have another one,” Lan Xichen says without preamble. “Xiao Xingchen.”
Jiang Cheng stops in the middle of the sidewalk. “When?”
“Just last night,” Lan Xichen says grimly. “And this time, we may have a suspect.”
Somehow, when he opens the door to a basement-level room in the Jin Family residence, Jiang Cheng is unsurprised to see Xue Yang sitting in a chair with his hands tied behind him. It looks like Jiang Cheng is the last one here; he sees other Family heads he recognizes, spots Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao with their heads bent together, and nods to Jin Zixuan across the room.
“Has he said anything?” Jiang Cheng murmurs, coming to stand next to Nie Mingjue as Xue Yang looks up his nose with an obnoxious grin at Yao Changsu. From the redness in the Yao Family head’s face, the interrogation is not going well.
“What hasn’t he said,” Nie Mingjue says, folding his arms and shaking his head. “Little bastard has a mouth on him. Nothing useful, though.” He glances sidelong at Jiang Cheng. “Where’s Huaisang?”
Jiang Cheng opens his mouth and then shuts it again. “Out,” he settles on finally, because I don’t know is not an acceptable answer at all, not to Nie Huaisang’s brother.
Nie Mingjue grunts, looking back to where Yao Changsu is stomping his foot in an impressive impression of a toddler. “Trouble in paradise?”
“No.” Jiang Cheng straightens his shoulders. It’s not trouble. It’s certainly nothing he wants to discuss with Nie Huaisang’s brother.
Besides, what is Nie Mingjue going to say? Sorry my brother doesn’t think that you, the person he married, is worth including in his plans? Apologies for thrusting the both of you together? Too bad it didn’t work out but good luck with the rest of your life? He can feel himself frowning and makes a conscious effort to relax his jaw.
Nie Mingjue maintains his gaze toward the front of the room. “Sure,” he says, sounding far from convinced. He hesitates for a moment. “Huaisang looks easy. Not like that,” he adds with a scowl. “But–uncomplicated. He’s not, though. I wish I understood him half as well as you seem to,” he finishes.
Jiang Cheng keeps his gaze up front as well. Maybe if they don’t look at each other they can pretend they’re not having this conversation. “I could say the same.”
Nie Mingjue huffs. “Look at it this way–if he didn’t like you, he’d make sure you wouldn’t want to spend time with him. Look at what happened to his college roommate.”
Jiang Cheng blinked. “Su Minshan transferred because he was switching programs.”
Nie Mingjue glances at him. “Is that what he told you?” Across the room Yao Changsu stomps again and turns away as Xue Yang laughs and laughs, doubling over as much as he can with his hands bound behind him. Nie Mingue sighs in exasperation. “Useless,” he mutters, and Jiang Cheng can’t help but agree.
“You guys are too much, too much,” Xue Yang says, sitting back up with a wide and manic grin. “Bothering with little old me when you’re dropping like flies across this mess of a city. Not even Daozhang’s pristine reputation could protect him.”
“So you admit it,” Yao Changsu snaps out, and Xue Yang laughs again.
“Absolutely not,” he says cheerfully. “If I could, you can bet Daozhang’s the last person I would touch. I’m kind of pissed about that, actually,” he sniffs. “Daozhang’s not going to be any fun like this.”
“And what makes something fun for you?” Lan Xichen asks quietly from his post on the far wall.
Xue Yang’s grin goes wide and sharp. ‘Why don’t you ask Chang Ping?”
“We can’t,” Lan Xichen says calmly. “You made quite sure of that. The police are already on their way to collect you for the murders at the Chang Family estate; this conversation is to try to determine what else you may have done.”
Xue Yang slouches in his chair. “I won’t take credit for someone else’s work,” he says. “That’ll always come back to bite you. But yeah, Chang Family–you caught me red-handed. I don’t see why you’re mad about it, though. Just following in your illustrious footsteps,” he says with a wink.
“The Wens unbalanced the city. We merely corrected that imbalance,” Jin Guangyao says, speaking for the first time.
“Sure,” Xue Yang says easily. “And I merely corrected a long-ago injustice. It all works out, see?”
“Enough,” Jin Zixuan cuts in, looking tired. But then, Jiang Cheng thinks, he always looks tired these days. “If you have nothing more useful to say, the police are waiting.”
“Nice of them,” Xue Yang says with a cheeky grin. “All that Family influence must be good for something, huh?”
“Wait,” Jiang Cheng cuts in as Jin Zixuan presses his lips together. “You said ‘someone else’s work.’ Whose?”
Xue Yang’s gaze finds Jiang Cheng’s and his grin deepens. “Sandu Shengshou,” he says, drawing the title out. “Didn’t see you come in. You’ll like this one: guess whose work the old man wanted me to recreate?”
Murmurs ripple through the room and Jiang Cheng breathes out hard through his nose. He turns on his heel to face Jin Zixuan. “Is this true?” he demands.
Jin Zixuan drags a hand down his face. “It would not surprise me,” he says, although it sounds like it pains him to say it. He turns to Jin Guangyao. “I assume you know more about this?” he says, voice tight.
Jin Guangyao folds his hands in front of him. “Surely this is best discussed in–another venue,” he murmurs, glancing first at Jiang Cheng and then the rest of the room.
“This conversation is not over,” Jin Zixuan says severely, then turns back to Jiang Cheng. “Let’s deal with the problem in front of us. We’ve learned what we can here,” he says to the room at large. “He’s a police matter now.”
A Jin cousin Jiang Cheng doesn’t recognize lifts Xue Yang out of the chair by an arm, leading him none too gently toward the door. Xue Yang goes without resistance, although he swings over toward Jiang Cheng as he passes.
“Smart man, your brother,” he says. “Tell him so next time you see him, ‘kay?” He winks as he’s pulled away and Jiang Cheng’s fists clench.
“Is there nothing he won’t stoop to?” someone behind Jiang Cheng says, and Jiang Cheng knows in his gut that the muttered words don’t refer to Xue Yang.
“Is there something you want to say?” he snarls, turning as Zidian warms on his finger. Jin Zixuan’s hand lands heavily on his shoulder and Jiang Cheng shrugs it off. He doesn’t want anything from Jin Zixuan right now, let alone an injunction to stop. Briefly he wishes Nie Huaisang were here; Nie Huaisang would know what to say, how to fit the pieces together so they made a less terrible picture.
But Nie Huaisang isn’t here, and Jiang Cheng has to deal with things as they are.
Several Family heads step back, and a man Jiang Cheng recognizes as the head of Baling Ouyang is left standing alone. He glances around desperately, then straightens his shoulders as Zidian sparks.
“He may be a reprobate but he all but named Wei Wuxian as the responsible party,” Ouyang Lixun says in a voice that gets stronger as a murmur of agreement sweeps the room. “What are you going to do about him, Jiang Wanyin? When are you going to do something about him?”
“If you don’t, we will,” someone from the back of the room shouts. “Run them out of the city!” someone else chimes in, and Jiang Cheng sees heads nod. For a moment he feels the phantom weight of Zidian in his palm, and wants nothing more than to draw it, to let it scream out his frustration with these people, his fear that they might be right.
He draws a breath and flexes his hand. Out of the corner of his eye he catches Lan Xichen’s concerned gaze and Jiang Cheng runs his fingers over his ring, turning it; not Zidian, but the other one, the one that matches the ring on Nie Huaisang’s hand. Wherever he is.
“The Jiang Family will deal with Wei Wuxian. I will deal with him,” he says sharply when the first sentence doesn’t seem to be enough, and the murmuring crowd settles. “Soon.”
“How many more people do we have to lose until you do?” someone calls from the back of the room, and maybe it’s a good thing he can’t see who it is, Jiang Cheng thinks distantly. He’s always carried a grudge too far, and he can’t afford to make enemies right now.
“Enough,” Lan Xichen cuts in. “If Jiang Wanyin says he will address the matter, that is enough. The Lan Family honors its commitments, and it expects the same of the Jiangs,” he says, making a formal bow toward Jiang Cheng, and Jiang Cheng has never felt quite so supported and undercut at the same time.
He returns the bow in a perfunctory fashion, then turns on his heel and heads for the door, the crowd parting before him. Nie Mingjue starts to reach out for him as he passes, and Jiang Cheng can just hear Lan Xichen’s murmured “let him go,” before he reaches the door.
He doesn’t stop until he’s out of the estate, storming out the front door and throwing himself into the waiting car. He rests his head in his hands as the car starts down the long driveway, curling his fingers into his hair.
“Fuck.” That doesn’t help. “Fuck!” That doesn’t help either.
The driver clears his throat. “Home, sir?”
Jiang Cheng pulls in a deep breath and sits up, letting his head fall back against the seat, belatedly remembering his seatbelt.
“Yes,” he sighs. “Home.”
He’s not ready to face Wei Wuxian yet. He doesn’t know where Nie Huaisang is. Jiang Cheng can’t think of where else to go.
The drive home is interminable, as if his own frustration has been made manifest in the unpredictable lights and snarl of traffic. The Transit Department had released a statement about an unprecedented bug in their systems, concluding with a plea for patience. After sitting through the same light three times, Jiang Cheng can’t help but wonder if the sour feeling in his gut is really just a software bug. He finally gives up and lets himself out of the car three blocks away from his building; the night breeze does little to calm his nerves, although at least movement feels better than sitting still.
He slows as he approaches his building, spotting a solitary figure gazing up at the decorated facade from the sidewalk below. Nie Huaisang draws his phone from his jacket pocket, checking something on the face, then puts it away again. He glances up at the building again and Jiang Cheng wonders what he’s looking at–can he pick out their condo from here?
Before he can draw close enough to ask, Nie Huaisang turns on his heel and heads off down the sidewalk, away from Jiang Cheng.
Jiang Cheng’s feet pause–and then pick up again, before he even knows what he’s decided.
He’s not–it’s not that he doesn’t trust Nie Huaisang. He just desperately wishes that it went both ways, that Nie Huaisang cared enough to include Jiang Cheng in his plans. He’s just curious, Jiang Cheng tells himself. He won’t stop Nie Huaisang from doing anything. They’re just both out for a stroll in the evening, in the same direction.
Besides, maybe this is entirely innocent. Maybe Jiang Cheng will feel like a paranoid idiot when Nie Huaisang ducks into a bakery or a noodle place and emerges with an armful of takeout. Maybe this whole venture is deeply stupid–but it’s feeling less and less so as Nie Huaisang passes restaurant after restaurant without breaking stride or even slowing.
Eventually even that possibility becomes less and less plausible, the boarded up and vacant spaces far outnumbering the storefronts open for business. Jiang Cheng pulls his coat tight around him as the wind whips down the darkened sidewalk; the streetlights are only intermittently lit and the whole place feels cold. Unfriendly. The crowds on the sidewalk have thinned dramatically, and Jiang Cheng has to drop further and further back to avoid giving himself away.
Nie Huaisang turns a corner and disappears from sight, but Jiang Cheng knows these streets, and he has a sinking feeling that he knows exactly where Nie Huaisang is going.
He makes it another half-block toward the corner where Nie Huaisang had turned before the few remaining street lights dim, taking a half-lit boulevard into an otherworldly gloom. There’s a noise like the susurration of a thousand leaves and the wind kicks up, spinning abandoned flyers and debris down the street and pushing at Jiang Cheng’s back. Jiang Cheng reaches a hand out to steady himself, fingers digging into the brick of the nearest building as sensation scrapes across his bones, like a long-awaited breath rushing into starved lungs. Like something waking up.
A streetlamp two blocks back pops, the bulb shattering amidst a shower of sparks as Jiang Cheng turns to look. The tinkling of glass scattering on the concrete has barely stopped echoing before the next closest light blows. Then the next one. And the next.
Jiang Cheng turns and breaks into a run.
He skids around the corner just in time to see Nie Huaisang reach out a hand toward the remains of the Wen estate.The charred and crumbled remains of the once towering edifice are blurred, as if the smoke from that terrible night has remained long past reason, in defiance of the wind whipping at his clothes. Out of the corner of his eye Jiang Cheng can almost see movement amongst the broken beams and soot-encrusted foundation that no one has bothered to clear away.
Nie Huaisang’s mouth moves but Jiang Cheng can’t make out what he’s saying. He takes another step toward the broken and listing gates and the ground shakes underneath them. Nie Huaisang stumbles and then steadies himself even as a howling just on the edge of hearing opens up amongst the ruins, stirring the lifeless shrubbery and debris. Long-dead branches bend toward the pull that Jiang Cheng can feel even from half a block away.
Nie Huaisang takes one unsteady step toward the rush of wind and emptiness that Jiang Cheng can feel pulling at them, and then another, and then Jiang Cheng is close enough to catch him by the arm. Nie Huaisang turns toward him and his face is blank, his eyes overlaid with the same oily film Jiang Cheng can almost see moving amongst the ruins.
It takes less than a thought to draw Zidian, the handle settling solid and comforting against his palm, the one warm thing against the tempest raging around them. Jiang Cheng shoves Nie Huaisang behind him even as the cold wind tugs at his clothes, pushing him in toward the yawning void in the remains of the Wen estate that he can feel more than see.
“You can’t have him,” he spits, Zidian snapping and sparking, and although the wind rips the words from his mouth if feels like the world pauses mid-breath.
You would stand against me for him? The words echo with a thousand voices in his bones, up his spine, filling his skull until it feels like it might burst. Jiang Cheng tips his head back, gasping; something trickles down from his nose and when Jiang Cheng runs the back of his hand above his mouth it comes away bloody.
The city has never spoken to him so directly. Jiang Cheng hadn’t known it was possible. But even here, in the darkest corner of the city that has raised Jiang Cheng up and protected him, there is only one answer he can give.
“Yes,” he snarls, raising Zidian across his body. Zidian sparks in agreement.
The wind screams around them, diving beneath Jiang Cheng’s clothes and leaching the warmth from his skin. He’s never been so cold, not even after he’d fallen through the ice on the northern lake the winter he’d turned eleven. Wei Wuxian had jumped in after him, he remembers distantly; but there’s no brother here to haul him out of the icy depths, just Jiang Cheng and his absolute refusal to give up something that’s his.
And Nie Huaisang is, Jiang Cheng realizes. They may have come at this all backwards but Nie Huaisang has made a place for himself in Jiang Cheng’s life and Jiang Cheng will not give that up, not without a fight, not for anyone.
The wind swirls around them with a furious intensity, so fast it’s difficult to breathe through and Jiang Cheng gulps in air, bracing himself against the pavement. He has to close his eyes against it but he keeps Zidian raised and with his free hand he reaches back, finding Nie Huaisang’s hand in the dark.
With a rush so sudden he stumbles against it, the wind disappears as if it had never been, and as he catches himself Jiang Cheng opens his eyes to a fully-lit street, an unassuming pile of burned debris, and Nie Huaisang’s fingers closing around his.
“Jiang Cheng,” Nie Huaisang says, breathless as he tugs Jiang Cheng around. “Jiang Cheng, did you feel it?”
“What the fuck was that?” Jiang Cheng manages despite the crack in his voice, although the relief blooming in his chest at Nie Huaisang’s eyes, brown and warm and normal overwhelms any sort of shame he might have about that.
“It’s my brother,” Nie Huaisang says, the words trembling with barely-suppressed excitement. “Jiang Cheng, he’s here.”
Then he blinks, as if he’s seeing Jiang Cheng for the first time. “What are you doing here? What happened to your face?”
Jiang Cheng gingerly wipes at his nose, but he appears to no longer be bleeding. “I could ask you the same,” he says grimly. Nie Huaisang’s smile drops minutely, but he takes Jiang Cheng’s hand in his again, one warm thing against the chill in the air.
“Let’s talk about it at home.” He glances over Jiang Cheng’s shoulder at the burned and charred rubble. “It’s not...it’s not very safe, here.”
“No kidding,” Jiang Cheng mutters, but he lets Nie Huaisang pull him away, back toward the warmth of the crowd and the familiar streets he calls home.
Nie Huaisang doesn’t say much on the way back, absorbed in his own thoughts, but his hand remains wrapped firmly around Jiang Cheng’s and that’s–that’s something, Jiang Cheng is sure, although he doesn’t know what. He’s burning with the need for answers, for some kind of explanation–but he’s also almost dizzy with relief. He’s not sure what would have happened had Nie Huaisang walked into the rubble of the former Wen estate, but he knows in his bones that the Nie Huaisang who walked out would not have been the same.
The warm air of their condo feels almost surreal after the chill outside, after–after whatever that was. Jiang Cheng catches sight of himself in the entryway mirror and pauses, fingers coming up to touch the streak of red under his nose. It’s feeling more and more like a dream every minute, but his fingers start to shake and Jiang Cheng forces them back down.
“Here, let me,” Nie Huaisang murmurs, coming up to him with a damp washcloth. He dabs gently at Jiang Cheng’s upper lip, below his nose, wiping away the evidence that Jiang Cheng had apparently stood against the city itself for the sake of–
Jiang Cheng catches Nie Huaisang’s wrist and Nie Huaisang looks up at him. “Tell me why it wanted you,” Jiang Cheng says with what he feels is remarkable calm, under the circumstances.
Nie Huaisang opens his mouth and then closes it again, as if he’s not sure where to start. He draws back a step and Jiang Cheng lets him, watching Nie Huaisang worry the washcloth between his hands.
“I don’t think it was me, exactly,” he says finally. He waves the fingers of one hand, drawing a small arc of qi in the air. “I think it was this.”
Jiang Cheng stares as the implications of that wash over him. “You can’t be serious.”
Nie Huaisang smiles unhappily. “I didn’t want to believe it either. But you know what the city asks of us, I know you must have heard it just as often as I did growing up.”
“It asks that we live,” Jiang Cheng says rotely, and then frowns. “Then why is it–” killing us isn’t quite accurate, but it’s closer to how Jiang Cheng feels than anything else.
“I think that perhaps we don’t understand that phrase as well as we should,” Nie Huaisang says, folding the washcloth and setting it aside, and before Jiang Cheng can demand to know what he means Nie Huaisang takes his hand and tugs him over to the tall windows on the far side of the living room. The city spreads before them, beautiful and indifferent, although its lights are more sparsely populated even the former Wen territory in the distance looks part of the whole from up here.
“Millions of lives, all stacked on top of one another,” Nie Huaisang murmurs. “Hundreds of thousands of dreams and hopes and fears, all welling up in one place. In this place. This city is what we make it but it’s also made of us, of everyone who lives their lives here.”
Jiang Cheng remains quiet. He knows this much; everyone whom the city has spoken to knows as much, even if they don’t speak of it directly.
“And if we draw from it then it also draws from us,” Nie Huaisang continues. “There is no city without us. And in that sense we have dealt it a terrible blow.”
Jiang Cheng swallows as he realizes what Nie Huaisang must be getting at. “The Wens.”
“Five great Families. Five Powers. And now there are four,” Nie Huaisang says quietly. “The city is trying to...correct an imbalance. And it’s using us to do it.”
“That’s what you meant,” Jiang Cheng realizes. “About your brother.”
Nie Huaisang nods. “I could feel him there, when the city erupted. Him and all the others; that’s where they’ve gone. Back to the city.”
Might as well be dead. The words echo in Jiang Cheng’s head. He can’t recall now who had said it but he remembers agreeing. “How do we fix it?”
Nie Huaisang sighs. “You’re not going to like it.”
Jiang Cheng tugs him around so he can look Nie Huaisang in the face. “Just tell me. Stop keeping me in the dark,” he says, and it comes out a little more sharply than he intends.
“Fine.” Nie Huaisang looks him straight in the eye, and Jiang Cheng can’t see anything but resolve there. “You have to talk to your brother.”
Jiang Cheng jerks back reflexively. “No.”
“Yes.” Nie Huaisang’s grip tightens on his hand. “He has the remaining Wens. He’s building them a home. Haven’t you noticed that his part of the city is the most healthy, the most stable?”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t want to admit that anything Wei Wuxian is doing might be right, but more to the point–
“I haven’t been,” he says stiffly, dropping Nie Huaisang’s hand and turning away.
“What–at all?” Nie Huaisang says, and Jiang Cheng folds his arms.
“No,” he grits out. “What’s the point? He’s going to have to give it up sooner or later.”
Nie Huaisang is quiet for a long moment, and then, “And if he doesn’t?”
Jiang Cheng glares at Nie Huaisang’s reflection in the glass. “He has to.”
Nie Huaisang rests a hand carefully on Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. “Why?”
“Because his home is here,” Jiang Cheng erupts. “With his family. And he’s out there, wasting his time with people who–” he stops.
“With people who don’t have one,” Nie Huaisang finishes. “Maybe he knows what that’s like.”
Jiang Cheng bows his head, fingers digging into his arms. “I don’t understand why we weren’t enough,” he says tightly.
“Jiang Cheng,” Nie Huaisang murmurs, and then he’s sliding his arms around Jiang Cheng’s shoulders and Jiang Cheng has to unfold his arms or bump them awkwardly against Nie Huaisang’s chest. Nie Huaisang steps in close, fitting himself to Jiang Cheng’s front and resting his chin on Jiang Cheng’s shoulder.
“You are enough, Jiang Cheng,” he says into Jiang Cheng’s ear, and Jiang Cheng’s hands flex where they’ve come to rest on Nie Huaisang’s back. “You are more than enough.”
Jiang Cheng blinks furiously. “Are you just buttering me up so I’ll go talk to Wei Wuxian?”
Nie Huaisang laughs softly and pulls back, resting his hand on Jiang Cheng’s face. His eyes are warm and clear. “No. No, this is nothing but the truth, I’m afraid.”
Jiang Cheng is not at all prepared to deal with that and so he leans forward, capturing Nie Huaisang’s mouth with his. Nie Huaisang responds eagerly, leaning into Jiang Cheng and sliding his hand around to the back of his neck. Jiang Cheng turns them, walking Nie Huaisang backwards toward the couch and Nie Huaisang laughs into his mouth as their feet trip over each other. This is easier, somehow; Nie Huaisang’s hand in his hair and his mouth on Jiang Cheng’s neck is simpler, far simpler than contemplating Wei Wuxian or the larger world. It’s easier to think about just this, about Nie Huaisang biting his lip as Jiang Cheng gets a hand down his pants, about the press of skin against skin and a desperate gasp in his ear.
After, while Jiang Cheng is lying half on Nie Huaisang and trying to remember how to breathe, he lets himself maybe, possibly contemplate what Nie Huaisang has asked of him. Everything in him rebels against being the one to give in first, but the ache that’s been in him ever since Wei Wuxian left doesn’t seem to care about things like who was right.
Jiang Cheng reaches for Nie Huaisang’s hand. “You’ll go with me?”
Nie Huaisang twines their fingers together. “I wouldn’t let you go alone.”
Jiang Cheng takes a breath and blows it out. “All right.” He tugs the blanket on the back of the couch down over them. They should really get up and move this to the bed, but he’s comfortable here, with Nie Huaisang’s hand stroking through his hair and Nie Huaisang’s heartbeat strong and steady underneath his cheek.
Nie Huaisang runs his fingers over the Jiang braid that runs from Jiang Cheng’s temple to where his hair is gathered behind his head. “I never did thank you, did I?”
Jiang Cheng yawns. “For what?”
“For stepping between me and the city.” Jiang Cheng’s breath stills. He didn’t think Nie Huaisang had remembered that part.
“I didn’t do it for thanks,” he grumbles, and Nie Huaisang’s fingers slow.
“Why did you do it, then?” he asks, and Jiang Cheng curses his ability to say the exact wrong thing at the wrong time.
“What else was I going to do?” He asks shortly, lifting his head. “Let you walk into that–that place by yourself? Like hell.”
Nie Huaisang’s face is unreadable. “You could have walked away. You could have watched and done nothing.”
That’s the stupidest thing he’s ever heard. “No,” Jiang Cheng says very clearly and distinctly. “I couldn’t have.”
That makes Nie Huaisang smile, wide and soft and so fond that something in Jiang Cheng’s chest hurts to look at it. Nie Huaisang tugs him up so he can lean up and press his mouth to Jiang Cheng’s.
“Thank you,” he says softly as he pulls back. “I know, I know. Thank you anyway,” he says over Jiang Cheng’s faint protest.
Jiang Cheng feels his cheeks heating and so he lowers his head to Nie Huaisang’s shoulder again, tugging the blanket more snugly around them. They should really move, and in a minute he’s going to get up and make them go properly to bed.
In a minute.
The wind tousles Jiang Cheng’s hair and blows Nie Huaisang’s back from his face as they emerge from the subway station into a part of the city Jiang Cheng has been refusing to acknowledge exists. It’s nothing like the neighborhood the Jiang Family calls home; the storefronts are worn with age and not enough coats of paint, the sidewalks cracking where small bits of greenery are starting to push through. It is full of life, though; the sidewalks are full but not too crowded, and he can’t spot one vacant storefront. As Jiang Cheng checks the street signs three children push past him in quick succession, giggling, followed by an apologetic looking caretaker.
“Come on,” Nie Huaisang says, taking his hand and pulling him down the street. “It’s this way.”
They never had made it to the bed last night. One moment Jiang Cheng had been assuring himself that he was going to get up from the couch any minute now, and the next he’d been blinking at the morning sunlight hitting his eyes from an unfamiliar angle. Nie Huaisang had stirred grudgingly underneath him, curling toward Jiang Cheng before fuzzily blinking his eyes open. He’d glanced from the back of the couch to the sunlight spilling in from the windows, and his sheepish grin as he looked back at Jiang Cheng had been worth any amount of stiffness from where they’d slept.
Jiang Cheng lags behind a step, letting Nie Huaisang pull him along and watching the sunlight play on the highlights in Nie Huaisang’s hair. The warm brown looks almost shot through with gold in this light, and Jiang Cheng’s fingers itch to touch the braid that runs from Nie Huaisang’s temple to the back of his head.
Jiang Cheng had showered first, and after surrendering the bathroom had wandered out into the kitchen in search of fortifying coffee. He had been nearly to the bottom of his cup by the time Nie Huaisang had reappeared, but it wasn’t until he’d bent his head to the coffee maker that Jiang Cheng had spotted the small braid running along the side of Nie Huaisang’s hair. Jiang Cheng must have made some kind of noise because Nie Huaisang had looked up, and when he had seen where Jiang Cheng was looking he had touched the braid self-consciously.
“Is this–all right?” He had sounded almost shy.
Jiang Cheng’s grip had tightened on his mug, and he hadn’t been able to stop himself from reaching out. “It’s perfect,” he had said, running his hand along the braid to where it disappeared into Nie Huaisang’s half-bun.
Jiang Fengmian wears that braid. Jiang Cheng has always worn one, for as long as he can remember. They’re a part of the Jiang Family line as much as the lotus emblazoned behind the reception desk at Yunmeng Jiang, as much as the house he grew up in, the one he’ll someday inherit. Nie Huaisang almost certainly knows this. Jiang Cheng doesn’t see how he couldn’t.
Nie Huaisang looks back over his shoulder. He catches where Jiang Cheng is looking, and flashes him a small private grin that has Jiang Cheng grinning back, helplessly. Nie Huaisang slows his pace, dropping back until he’s walking abreast of Jiang Cheng. He leans over and bumps their shoulders together.
“It’s better here, right? You can feel it,” he says, looking around. “Easier to breathe,” he says quietly, and Jiang Cheng sobers. He breathes in deep himself, testing, and as he exhales he sees what Nie Huaisang means: the air feels a little fresher here, even surrounded by blocks and blocks of neighborhood and city, the breeze friendly and unaggressive.
Nie Huaisang slows in front of a large building that has seen better days–better decades, Jiang Cheng thinks as his eyes sweep the crumbling facade.
“They’re living here?” Jiang Cheng says before he can stop himself, and Nie Huaisang slants him a sidelong look.
“Mm. Used to be a school,” he says, eschewing the steps leading up to the front door and heading around to a side gate. “Nice layout. Spacious, considering.” He lifts the latch and pushes through the gate, beckoning for Jiang Cheng to follow.
Jiang Cheng pauses, looking up at the lackluster building with its faded paint and crumbling eaves. The longer he looks, however, the more he sees signs of care: charms hanging in one window, a paper windsock spinning merrily in another, window boxes with the last of the season’s flowers perched carefully on decaying sills.
He shakes himself and follows Nie Huaisang through the gate–
And stumbles as something pings through him, almost audible as it zooms off toward the center of the building.
“What the fuck?” He pulls up short, reaching out to catch at Nie Huaisang’s sleeve. Nie Huaisang looks back at him.
“Perimeter alarm. Early warning system,” Nie Huaisang says, turning toward Jiang Cheng. “The Nie estate has something similar. It’s impressive, really, that Wei Wuxian built it himself–”
Jiang Cheng tugs on Nie Huaisang’s sleeve, cutting him off. “I’ve never felt anything like that at your Family’s home,” he says, frowning.
For some reason, that makes Nie Huaisang smile. “I wouldn’t worry about it.” He pulls his sleeve free and tucks his hand into Jiang Cheng’s arm, drawing him further down the little path running parallel to the building. “The garden’s back this way.”
Garden. Wei Wuxian had said they were building one, the night Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang had been married. It seems very long ago.
The walls looming on either side give way to a broad courtyard, larger than Jiang Cheng had imagined could fit back here. A set of rusted playground equipment occupies one corner, and scrubby patches of grass struggle through the hard, bare ground. On the left side, nearest the building, row after row of raised garden beds have been constructed from what looks like salvaged fencing, or maybe siding; the pieces are mismatched but fit snugly together, and little shoots of green poke up from the dark soil within.
Wei Wuxian kneels by one of the beds, his back to the building door, looking faintly ridiculous in oversized gardening gloves and an old and battered apron. He appears unconcerned, poking carefully between the rows of green, although if what Jiang Cheng felt at the gate was any indication he can’t possibly have missed their arrival.
“Wei-xiong!” Nie Huaisang calls, waving, and Wei Wuxian looks up.
“Always good to see you, Nie-xiong,” Wei Wuxian says, shedding his gardening gloves and standing, wiping his hands on his apron. “Especially when you bring such fine company.”
Jiang Cheng lets Nie Huaisang pull him over to the garden bed where Wei Wuxian waits. Wei Wuxian folds his hands behind him as they draw near, rocking forward on his toes.
“Jiang Cheng,” he says politely, which Jiang Cheng just knows is a prelude to something not polite. “You don’t call, you don’t write; I’m beginning to think you don’t love me anymore.” He grins crookedly and Jiang Cheng feels the blood in his temples start to pound.
“I’m not the one who–” he starts, and then forces himself to stop when Nie Huaisang’s hand tightens on his arm. Wei Wuxian glances down at where Nie Huaisang’s hand hooks through Jiang Cheng’s elbow, and then his gaze flicks between their faces. His own expression goes vaguely wistful, and Jiang Cheng stomps hard on the urge to say now you know how it feels.
Maybe he is learning, he thinks, glancing at Nie Huaisang. At the very least, Nie Huaisang has always been better at navigating this kind of conversation than he has, and Jiang Cheng is suddenly desperately grateful that he’s here.
Jiang Cheng clears his throat and looks around. “This looks...nice,” he says, and it sounds stiff and is an obvious falsehood but it relaxes something in Wei Wuxian’s shoulders, and he looks around as well.
“It’s better than it was,” he says, and Jiang Cheng finds that hard to believe except for the way Nie Huaisang is nodding. “Uncle Four finally got the swingset repaired, and A-Yuan has managed to fall off of it so many times Wen Qing is threatening to break it again.”
“Where is little A-Yuan?” Nie Huaisang asks. “And Hanguang-jun? They’re rarely far from where you are,” he says as Jiang Cheng blinks, trying to catch up.
Wei Wuxian smiles thinly. “Out. Away from here. It’s not good for A-Yuan to spend all of his time cooped up in this place,” he says, and while the first part sounds true the second sounds like a convenient platitude. Jiang Cheng shifts uneasily, remembering the ping of the perimeter alarm. Early warning system, Nie Huaisang had said.
“And everyone else?” Nie Huaisang asks carefully. “Wen Qing, Wen Ning? Granny Wen?”
“Inside,” Wei Wuxian answers, and it’s only as he shifts his feet that Jiang Cheng realizes how they’re positioned. It’s the middle of the day; people should be out tending the gardens or at the very least enjoying the brief sunshine. Instead the courtyard is empty except for Wei Wuxian, standing between the Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang and the rear doors to the building.
“Surely you can’t think–” Jiang Cheng starts, feeling something sick twist in his stomach, and Wei Wuxian sighs, suddenly looking very tired.
“You tell me, Jiang Cheng,” he interrupts. Jiang Cheng falls silent. “We’ve been here for months, almost a year, and I don’t see you except the day you get married. All I hear is how the Jiang Family head is going to deal with his wayward brother, and rumors of what will happen if he doesn’t. And then someone–” here he glances at Nie Huaisang “–not naming names, but someone deliberately riles the city so badly we could feel the effects down here. And then you show up. So you tell me what I should think, Jiang Cheng, because it’s getting harder to see daylight from where I’m standing.”
“They want to run you out of the city,” Jiang Cheng says bluntly, because Wei Wuxian should know what they’re up against.
Wei Wuxian smiles tightly. “And is that what you’re here to do, Sandu Shengshou?”
Nie Huaisang’s breath hisses between his teeth. The title hurts, but Jiang Cheng is tired of letting the hurt make his choices for him. That’s only brought them here, and Jiang Cheng wants his brother back.
“No,” Jiang Cheng says, lifting his eyes to the faces peering worriedly out of the second story windows. He can’t adequately count them–but it doesn’t matter, he realizes, dropping his gaze back to Wei Wuxian’s worried face. “No, we’re here to take you home. All of you.”
If they’re Wei Wuxian’s, he’ll take them too.
The inside of the no-longer abandoned building is less run-down than the outside, surprisingly. The floors are cleanly swept, the converted classrooms turned into tidy little living spaces. Wei Wuxian ushers Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang down the hall and into an industrial-sized kitchen where Wen Ning stands at a stove, conscientiously stirring an oversized pot of something that smells, frankly, amazing. His sister sits nearby, drumming her fingers against the large table, and as Wei Wuxian breezes in she shoots to her feet.
“Are they gone? Oh,” she says as Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang follow on Wei Wuxian’s heels. “Nie Huaisang. Sandu Shengshou,” she says stiffly.
“Hi,” Wen Ning says, waving, and Nie Huaisang waves back, abandoning Jiang Cheng to Wen Qing’s stare as he goes to investigate whatever Wen Ning is cooking. Wei Wuxian, because he is a cruel and uncaring brother, follows.
“Wen Qing.” Jiang Cheng nods awkwardly, unsure what to do with his hands.
“Congratulations,” she says, glancing at where Nie Huaisang and Wei Wuxian are conferring, Wen Ning’s head ping-ponging back and forth between them. “I hear it was a lovely wedding.”
“Thank you,” he says politely while trying to mentally compel Nie Huaisang to come back over and save him. “I hope–things are well?”
Wen Qing sits again, folding her hands tightly on the table. “As well as things can be, I suppose.” She sighs. “Don’t take this the wrong way, Jiang Wanyin, but why are you here?”
“What,” Wei Wuxian calls from where he’s attempting to dump a container of pepper into Wen Ning’s cooking. “A man can’t visit his brother?” Nie Huaisang whisks the container out of his hands before more than a small amount falls in, which is probably for the best, although it makes Wei Wuxian pout.
“A man can,” Wen Qing says, fixing Jiang Cheng with an unyielding gaze. “A man hasn’t.”
This is excruciating and Jiang Cheng almost regrets coming down here–but then he glances at Wei Wuxian, almost but not quite looking at him. Jiang Cheng blows out a breath.
“I’m here now,” Jiang Cheng says, looking back at Wen Qing, but not so quickly that he doesn’t see the hopeful grin start on Wei Wuxian’s face. Wen Qing glances between them and her face softens, the corners of her mouth turning up.
“Better late than never,” she says, but her tone is far gentler than it had been a moment ago and Jiang Cheng has learned to take his victories where he finds them, with her.
“Jiang Cheng is never late,” Wei Wuxian says, as he’s shooed away from the stove. He gestures for Jiang Cheng to sit and takes the chair next to him, leaning it back immediately on its rear legs and grinning. “He’s always in his own time.”
Nie Huaisang looks up from where he’s whispering with Wen Ning. “Have I heard that one before?” he asks, coming over to stand behind Jiang Cheng’s chair. His hand rubs warm and comforting along Jiang Cheng’s shoulder and Jiang Cheng feels a little of the tension there fall away.
“Jiang Fengmian used to say that,” Wei Wuxian answers when Jiang Cheng doesn’t. “Still does, presumably.” He glances between Nie Huaisang’s hand and Jiang Cheng’s face and raises an eyebrow, but before he can say something Jiang Cheng will regret, a side door opens, revealing Lan Wangji carrying bags of groceries and an armful of toddler. It’s the most pedestrian Jiang Cheng has ever seen him, but Lan Wangji somehow manages to make even this look dignified, setting the bags on the counter and the boy on the floor. This must be A-Yuan, Jiang Cheng thinks as the boy laughs and makes a beeline for Wei Wuxian, arms held out. Wei Wuxian grins, letting his chair fall forward and scooping the boy up, standing and tossing him in the air so he shrieks with laughter. Wei Wuxian catches A-Yuan again and balances him on his hip, drifting over to where Lan Wangji is calmly unpacking the grocery bags.
“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, you weren’t supposed to be home for hours yet. Not that I’m complaining,” he says, adjusting A-Yuan on his hip. “But what are you doing here? Is everything all right?”
“I could ask you the same,” Lan Wangji murmurs, glancing over Wei Wuxian’s shoulder. Jiang Cheng nods frostily and gets the barest tip of a head in return, and Nie Huaisang sighs behind him.
“I texted him,” Wen Ning says casually, and everyone turns to stare. He tastes his cooking and looks up, eyes wide and guileless. “Did you bring me my radish?”
“Here,” Lan Wangji says, pulling out a produce bag and handing it over. “Wen Ning felt–and I agree–that this was not the sort of thing you should face alone,” he says to Wei Wuxian, and Jiang Cheng grinds his teeth.
“Really wish everyone would stop treating me like the enemy around here,” he says, and Wen Qing raises an eyebrow.
“Aren’t you?” she says, just as Wei Wuxian snaps, “Wen Qing.”
“I am trying,” Jiang Cheng says through a clenched jaw. “To take you home.”
“That’s what you said outside,” Wei Wuxian says, turning and bouncing A-Yuan absently, like this is something he does all the time. “Can Yunmeng Jiang absorb this many people?”
“Not Yunmeng Jiang,” Jiang Cheng says, glancing at Wen Qing.
Wei Wuxian stills. “You don’t–that place was burned to the ground.”
“I know,” Jiang Cheng snaps. “I was there. So were you.” Wei Wuxian’s face tightens.
“Then you know what kind of place it is now,” he says flatly, and Lan Wangji comes up beside him, setting a hand on Wei Wuxian’s back. They look–like a family, Jiang Cheng realizes, but the thought is less wistful than it might have been. He looks at Nie Huaisang, who glances down at him and smiles, thumb rubbing along the side of Jiang Cheng’s neck, and Jiang Cheng remembers the thought he’d had out in the courtyard: if they are Wei Wuxian’s, Jiang Cheng will take them too.
He’d never dreamt of having Hanguang-jun for an in-law, but it could be worse.
“Only because it’s looking for something,” Nie Huaisang counters. “You know what’s been happening in the rest of the city, I know you do.”
Wei Wuxian nods, frowning, but Nie Huaisang continues. “Xiao Xingchen. Ouyang Mei. My brother. But it hasn’t happened here, has it?” Wei Wuxian shakes his head slowly, and Nie Huaisang smiles triumphantly. “This is the one area of the city that’s been left in peace.”
“And you want to disrupt it,” Lan Wangji says mildly, and Nie Huaisang shakes his head.
“I want to restore it to where it belongs,” he says fiercely. “So the pieces that have been stolen can return to where they belong.”
Wei Wuxian hums, rubbing his nose in thought. He passes A-Yuan to Lan Wangji, who accepts him as if this is routine, and leans back against the counter, folding his arms.
“You don’t know that this will work,” he says, and it’s not a question.
Nie Huaisang blows out a breath, and it’s as if it takes all of his assuredness with him, leaving him looking tired and worn. He leans more heavily on Jiang Cheng for a moment, and Jiang Cheng lifts his hand, covering Nie Huaisang’s where it rests on his shoulder.
“It’s the best plan we have,” Jiang Cheng says quietly. “If it works, we solve a whole lot of problems. If it doesn’t–”
“If it doesn’t, we’re even more vulnerable than we are down here,” Wei Wuxian interrupts.
“If it doesn’t,” Jiang Cheng counters sharply, “Yunmeng Jiang will take you. All of you,” he says, glancing at Wen Qing and Wen Ning, at A-Yuan in Lan Wangji’s arms. It’s not a decision he’d known he was going to make before he came here, before he saw his brother again, but it’s the right one, he knows that now.
Wei Wuxian’s face softens and then he’s unfolding his arms and striding across the distance between them, pulling Jiang Cheng up and out of the chair. Jiang Cheng tenses–but Wei Wuxian’s arms just close tightly around him, pulling him in close. Jiang Cheng’s hands flutter awkwardly for a moment, and then settle on Wei Wuxian’s back.
“Thank you,” Wei Wuxian says into his ear, and the strain in his voice has Jiang Cheng’s arms tightening around his brother. “It’s been–I’ve missed you,” he says instead, pulling back. Jiang Cheng clears his throat, grasping Wei Wuxian by the elbows before he can move too much further away.
“Yeah, well. It’s been too quiet without you around,” he says, and it’s a weak comeback but it’s the best he can do past the tightness in his throat.
Wei Wuxian laughs. “I’ll do my best to interrupt you as much as possible, then,” he says, and Jiang Cheng tries to scowl but it turns into a smile despite his best efforts. Wei Wuxian laughs at him again, hands squeezing his arms, then draws back, thumbing something away from the corner of his eye.
“The other Families won’t like it,” Lan Wangji says mildly, but it doesn’t sound as if the thought bothers him too much.
Jiang Cheng snorts. “I didn’t think you cared much about that.”
“I do not,” Lan Wangji says evenly. The implied “but you do” is very loud.
Jiang Cheng’s jaw tightens. Nie Huaisang’s hand slips into his and Jiang Cheng forces himself to relax.
“I choose this,” he says, because it’s important that Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian and everyone in this room hear this. “I choose to do this, because I refuse to give up on my family.”
Nie Huaisang’s hand squeezes his, and Wei Wuxian’s grin could power a city block. He almost looks like he’s going to hug Jiang Cheng again, when Wen Ning clears his throat from over by the stove.
“If that’s settled,” he says, turning the burner off under the pot. “Would you like to stay for lunch?”
A meal at the little Wen refugee camp turns out to be a rambunctious affair, with people hustling in and out of the kitchen, handing off dishes and plates in a complicated pattern Jiang Cheng can’t begin to fathom. Wei Wuxian pulls him and Nie Huaisang over with himself, Lan Wangji, and little A-Yuan; a family meal, Jiang Cheng realizes, looking around the table. Hopefully the first of many.
Wei Wuxian keeps glancing at Nie Huaisang, and Jiang Cheng can’t figure out why until he turns to see Nie Huaisang with his head bent toward A-Yuan, listening intently to a not-very coherent story. At first Jiang Cheng thinks the wistful smile on Wei Wuxian’s face is for A-Yuan, then Nie Huaisang tilts his head and the light glances off the Jiang braid running across his head.
Jiang Cheng nudges Wei Wuxian with his elbow. “If you want one…” is as far as he gets before his throat closes up around the rest of that sentence.
Wei Wuxian is already shaking his head, the tilt of his mouth wry. “Madam Yu might actually kill me if she saw me with one of those in my hair.”
Jiang Cheng puts his chopsticks down and turns to face his brother. “My parents are retired. I say that if you want to wear one, you can.” He picks up his chopsticks and puts them down again. “If you want to, that is.”
Wei Wuxian is watching him with this soft, wondering look. His hand comes up to run along the side of his head almost absently, and he ducks his head.
“Thank you,” he murmurs, and that’s not a yes, I will but it’s not a no thanks, I’ll pass, either, and Jiang Cheng turns back to his food, satisfied.
Eventually A-Yuan starts nodding at the table, worn out from all the excitement. Lan Wangji moves to pick him up but Wei Wuxian beats him to it, scooping A-Yuan up and resting him against his chest.
“I’ve got him, Lan Zhan, finish your food. Rule 874, or something, right?” Lan Wangji’s mouth twitches but he resumes eating, and Wei Wuxian turns. “Jiang Cheng, give me a hand?”
“I’m still eating,” Jiang Cheng points out, and then “ow,” as he’s kicked twice under the table. He gets one smug grin from Nie Huaisang and one flat stare from Lan Wangji, and puts his chopsticks down. “All right, all right, I’m going.”
“How are things, really?” Jiang Cheng asks as they move away from the light and laughter of the crowded dining hall.
Wei Wuxian sighs. “Precarious. I keep hoping the other Families will just leave us alone, but.” He shrugs.
“But you have a perimeter ward set up around this place,” Jiang Cheng finishes for him. “Huaisang said the Nie estate had something similar.”
Wei Wuxian laughs, pushing open a door to a small suite of offices. One of the rooms has been converted to a makeshift nursery, complete with baby gate and crib. “The Nie ward is a little more subtle, but I can’t afford subtle right now.”
Jiang Cheng leans in the doorway, watching Wei Wuxian lay A-Yuan gently down and brush away hair from his sleeping face. “Subtle? Doesn’t sound like your kind of thing.”
Wei Wuxian makes a face at him, straightening. “You want subtle, talk to your husband.” He stops and Jiang Cheng makes a belated effort to control his face. “What? Oh my god,” Wei Wuxian says, delighted. “You’re blushing because I said husband.”
“I’m not,” Jiang Cheng huffs, trying to control the red rising in his cheeks.
“Liar,” Wei Wuxian says fondly, coming over and slinging an arm around Jiang Cheng’s shoulders. Jiang Cheng tries to shrug him off but Wei Wuxian clings, arm tightening. “My little brother, in l-”
Jiang Cheng elbows him hard in the gut and Wei Wuxian doubles over, wheezing. He braces his hands on his knees and looks up, grinning.
“I’m glad you have him,” he says quietly. “I’m sorry I can’t be there, but–I’m glad you have him.”
Jiang Cheng rolls his shoulders uncomfortably, then extends a hand out, pulling Wei Wuxian upright. “I should say the same,” he says gruffly. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here earlier, but–I’m glad you have someone like Lan Wangji.”
Wei Wuxian’s smile softens. “I guess I do, don’t I,” he says, and Jiang Cheng thanks whatever gods are listening that this is one talk he won’t have to have with his brother.
Wei Wuxian’s hand tightens on Jiang Cheng’s. “However this turns out,” he says quietly. “I’m glad you came, Jiang Cheng.”
Jiang Cheng swallows, and his grip tightens in turn. “I am too.”
When they return to the bright lights of the dining hall most of the residents have left, only a few gossiping idly over the remains of the meal. Jiang Cheng can see people out in the courtyard, tending the garden, working on small projects. He hates to uproot them, but there’s more at stake than a line of winter cabbages.
“The Families are restless,” Jiang Cheng says. “We’ll have to move fast.”
“We’ll be ready,” Wei Wuxian says, mouth tilting wryly when Jiang Cheng lifts a brow. “We don’t have much, and it seemed wise not to get too...entrenched. Just in case.”
Jiang Cheng’s mouth flattens, and Wei Wuxian bumps his shoulder. “We’ll be ready,” he repeats. “Go collect your husband, and I’ll see you bright and early tomorrow, okay?”
“Only if you tell yours not to glare at me anymore,” Jiang Cheng grumbles, although something in his chest turns over at the easy way Wei Wuxian says husband.
Wei Wuxian’s own cheeks are turning red as he puts his hands on Jiang Cheng’s shoulders and bodily pushes him into the kitchen. “Oh my god, get out. Get out of here, you have work to do.”
Nie Huaisang has been roped into drying dishes, it seems, and he looks up with relief when Jiang Cheng stumbles in. “Jiang Cheng! Is it time to leave? I think we have–a thing, don’t we?”
Lan Wangji calmly hands Nie Huaisang another dish. “Second cupboard on the left,” he says, and Nie Huaisang sends Jiang Cheng a save me glance as he moves to put the dish away.
“Oh right, the uh–the thing,” Jiang Cheng says. Lan Wangji glances over, unimpressed, but Wei Wuxian takes up Nie Huaisang’s station next to the sink and Lan Wangji appears to accept this substitution. Nie Huaisang practically shoves his towel into Wei Wuxian’s hands and beelines for Jiang Cheng, looping an arm around his and tugging.
“Go on, get out of here. Wouldn’t want you to miss your thing,” Wei Wuxian says, smirking, taking the dish Lan Wangji hands him. His face sobers as he starts to dry. “See you tomorrow?”
“You will,” Jiang Cheng promises, and lets Nie Huaisang pull him away.
They head to the front hall to collect their jackets, and Wen Qing is waiting for them.
“Relax,” she says, picking up Nie Huaisang’s coat and holding it out as Jiang Cheng’s feet slow. “I just wanted to say thank you. For coming, and for what you’ve offered. It means a lot, to all of us.”
“If this goes wrong–” Jiang Cheng starts.
“It won’t,” Nie Huaisang interjects, taking his coat and shrugging it on.
“But if it does,” Jiang Cheng presses on, accepting his own jacket. “Will you accept?” Wen Qing looks out through the warped glass at the street outside. The sunlight picks up the reds and golds of the fallen leaves as the wind dances them lazily down the sidewalk.
“Have you ever left the city?” she asks, and out of the corner of his eye Jiang Cheng sees Nie Huaisang shudder.
“Once,” Nie Huaisang says. “It was awful.”
Jiang Cheng concurs; Jiang Fengmian had taken him to the edge once, where the city proper starts to fade and its comforting presence in the back of his head had grown faint. He’d felt so alone, even gripping his father’s hand, and he remembers wondering if he was going to throw up.
Wen Qing smiles faintly. “They want to run us out,” she says softly. “There’s little life outside, for those of us who’ve learned to hear the city’s song. How cold it must be, to live without it.”
Nie Huaisang’s mouth flattens and Jiang Cheng takes his hand. Nie Huaisang’s fingers wrap around his and squeeze.
“If we can undo what’s been done–in any measure–it will be a relief for everyone, I think,” Wen Qing says, looking back at Jiang Cheng. “But if it can’t be–then yes, we will accept the Jiang Family’s protection gratefully.” She bows formally; Jiang Cheng lets go of Nie Huaisang’s hand to return the gesture, and when he straightens he’s vaguely disappointed to see Nie Huaisang has put his hands in his pockets.
“I’ll let you go. We all have a busy day tomorrow,” Wen Qing says, stepping aside. Then she smiles at Nie Huaisang. “Nice hair.”
Nie Huaisang beams. “Thanks,” he says, smoothing a hand across his braid. The ring on his finger glints in the sunlight spilling in from outside and Jiang Cheng feels something in his chest turn over.
He nods to Wen Qing one last time, and as they step out into the afternoon breeze Jiang Cheng feels lighter than he had going in, lighter than he has in some time. Nie Huaisang’s hand finds his again as they set off down the street, although he appears content to just walk for a while, absorbed in his own thoughts. Jiang Cheng pays more attention, this time, as they approach the subway station, and he can tell as they drift out of Wei Wuxian’s influence; the air feels a little bit colder, the sunlight a little more subdued the further they get from the last remnants of the Wens. Nie Huaisang leans on Jiang Cheng on the train ride back, wrapping an arm around his waist. He keeps his silence and Jiang Cheng lets him, already planning ahead for the phone calls he’s going to have to make when they get back home.
It’s hours later when he finally hangs up on the last call. There are benefits to running one of the largest corporations in the city, especially one as invested in construction as Yunmeng Jiang. Even so, finding a crew that can be made available in less than twenty-four hours is neither easy nor inexpensive.
It is, however, entirely worth it. Or it will be, Jiang Cheng thinks as he pulls his earpiece out, if it brings his brother back and takes that lost look out of Nie Huaisang’s eyes.
He heads over to the couch and sinks down next to Nie Huaisang, who has his knees drawn up, staring out the window. Jiang Cheng lets his head fall back, sinking into the cushions as he draws in a deep breath and lets it out.
“I hate waiting,” he announces to the play of the evening lights over the ceiling.
Out of the corner of his eye he sees Nie Huaisang’s amused smile. “I never would have guessed,” he says, nudging Jiang Cheng’s leg with his foot.
Jiang Cheng scowls and grabs for Nie Huaisang’s ankle, but his fingers just circle loosely around the bone, resting. “What happens when this is over?” he asks before he knows he’s going to, and then winces.
Nie Huaisang hums, digging his toes underneath Jiang Cheng’s thigh. “Life goes back to normal, I guess.”
“Huh.” Normal. “What’s that like?”
Nie Huaisang laughs. “I don’t know. Have you ever thought about getting a dog?”
“Wei Wuxian’s afraid of dogs,” Jiang Cheng says dismissively.
“Your brother doesn’t live here,” Nie Huaisang says, amused. “You do. You said that to me, once. Do you need me to turn it around on you?”
“What? No,” Jiang Cheng says reflexively, and then he stops and lets himself really think about it for a moment. He hadn’t even considered a dog when he’d moved away from his parents’ house, but he hadn’t considered a lot of things, he realizes as he looks around. The room is filled with Nie Huaisang’s touch, now: framed photographs have replaced the generic wall art the place had come with, the new rug under his feet is bright with color, and a hoodie Jiang Cheng recognizes as nominally his lies draped over the back of one of the kitchen chairs. This place looks lived in, in a way that it never had when Jiang Cheng was here by himself.
He looks back at Nie Huaisang. “Do you want a dog?”
Nie Huaisang blinks, as if he hadn’t expected to be asked. A shy smile starts on his face and he folds his arms on his knees, leaning forward. “I’ve never had one. I kept birds, when I was younger,” he offers.
Jiang Cheng considers this. “I could see a bird in here.”
“Really? I mean–they’re more work than you expect,” Nie Huaisang warns, but his face is hopeful.
“That’s why it’s your bird,” Jiang Cheng says, jostling Nie Huaisang’s leg. “And you have to promise not to teach it to say rude things about me.”
Nie Huaisang laughs, pushing back at Jiang Cheng with his feet. “Okay, okay–only nice things, how’s that?”
Jiang Cheng sniffs. “Acceptable.” He sighs, sliding his hand up Nie Huaisang’s leg, resting it on his calf. “I hope you’re right. About tomorrow.”
Nie Huaisang sobers, the lines of his face turning serious. He sighs, resting his cheek on his folded arms, staring back out at the city. “I hope so too.”
Jiang Cheng tips his coffee cup back to get at the last sip, letting it warm him against the post-dawn chill. The sun shines down bright and clear on the remains of the Wen estate, but any warmth it might have to offer is stolen by the wind, curling around the collar of his jacket and ruffling his hair.
At least it isn’t raining, Jiang Cheng thinks as he lowers the cup, looking for a garbage bin. Small mercies, he supposes.
“Here.” Deft fingers pluck the cup out of his hands and Nie Huaisang tosses it in a bin half-hidden by a stack of construction materials. Cup disposed of, he shoves his hands in his pockets and shivers, watching the crew swarm over the site. The beep-beep and low rumble of construction equipment fill the air, along with the smell of diesel. “How long do you think we’ll have?”
Jiang Cheng checks his phone for the fourth time. No new updates from Wei Wuxian beyond <on the way!> sent over forty minutes ago. It’s not easy to move that many people through the city all together but the delay still makes Jiang Cheng itch underneath his skin.
“Depends,” he says, shoving his phone back in his pocket, “on how slow my idiot brother decides to be.” He pauses. “You didn’t–”
“I didn’t tell my brother.” Nie Huaisang slants him a look. “I’m not stupid.”
Jiang Cheng rolls his shoulders. “Then I’d guess we have a few hours at least before Lan Xichen or Jin Guangyao catch on,” he says. “We’ll see how fast everyone else is.”
“Jiang Cheng!” The cheerful call turns Jiang Cheng’s head, just in time to see Wei Wuxian waving, leading his small cadre of Wens up the street. Lan Wangji is with them, as it seems he always is these days, balancing A-Yuan at his hip. Wen Qing and Wen Ning follow closely behind, and the rest of the group after. They huddle together, tired and anxious, and Jiang Cheng wonders how he could ever have thought these people were any kind of threat.
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian repeats as they draw near, nodding warmly to Nie Huaisang. “Nie-xiong. We ready to do this?”
“Took you long enough,” Jiang Cheng says, turning to look back through the open gates at the burgeoning construction site. The foundation is nearly cleared, the bulldozer close to the end of the concrete pad. “The crew’s almost done clearing the foundation. The foreman says it looks good enough to build–to rebuild on,” he corrects himself.
Wen Qing and Wen Ning drift closer to the open gates to the ruined estate, the other Wens crowding close behind them and peering over their shoulders to see. Wei Wuxian steps closer to Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang, hands folded behind his back and Lan Wangji close behind him.
“How is this going to work?” Wei Wuxian murmurs, his voice pitched to carry no further than their small circle. “Do you have a plan or are we just winging it?”
“Winging it is your specialty,” Jiang Cheng grumbles, folding his arms.
“Ah.” Wei Wuxian smiles but Jiang Cheng can see the tightness around his eyes. “So you don’t have a plan.” Nie Huaisang makes a suspicious sounding cough but when Jiang Cheng glances at him, his face is serene and guileless.
“Listen,” Jiang Cheng starts hotly, turning back to his brother–
And then cuts off as something pings through his chest, sharp and urgent, zooming out from the remains of the estate deeper into the city. Jiang Cheng can see his own surprise reflected on Wei Wuxian’s face, and they turn together to see a Wen cousin whose name Jiang Cheng can’t remember with a stricken look, standing frozen just inside the gates.
“Perimeter alarm,” Jiang Cheng breathes as Wei Wuxian curses next to him. “But we never–”
“You’re not a Wen,” Wei Wuxian says grimly, and Jiang Cheng’s stomach turns over.
“Okay, everyone inside,” Jiang Cheng says, raising his voice over the frightened murmuring breaking out. “Now,” he adds, gesturing with emphasis as the small crowd turns to look at him.
Wen Qing and Wen Ning look at each other, and Wen Qing sighs, turning and heading through the gates. Jiang Cheng’s chest pings as she steps over the threshold, and he has to steady himself to breathe through the wave that follows as the rest of the Wens cross over behind her. Jiang Cheng eyes the broken gates as Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji, and A-Yuan follow; there’ll be no closing these, he sees grimly. Just as well, probably. Anything that would keep others out could serve just as well to lock them in.
A hand slips into his and Jiang Cheng looks back into Nie Huaisang’s face, pale but determined.
“Did we have a plan?” Jiang Cheng says quietly, and Nie Huaisang’s mouth quirks up a little.
“I think winging it is the plan,” he says, and pulls Jiang Cheng through the gates.
The Wens part before them and close again behind them, and Wei Wuxian falls in step beside Jiang Cheng as they move further inside, away from the street.
“How long?” Wei Wuxian says grimly and Jiang Cheng shakes his head.
“Your guess is as good as mine. Better, probably,” he says as they approach where the bulldozer is clearing off the last of the soot-stained concrete pad. “You’ve built one of those.”
Wei Wuxian looks off in the distance, toward the center of the city, and then shakes his head. “Not long. You know how Lan Xichen drives.”
Jiang Cheng laughs shortly, but it’s devoid of any humor. “Then we’d better move fast.”
There’s low rumble and a crash from the end of the concrete pad as the bulldozer finishes its last pass, and the foreman turns and waves Jiang Cheng over. Nie Huaisang lets go of his hand and Jiang Cheng almost reaches out and takes it again. Instead he flexes his fingers, feeling Zidian warm and ready against his skin.
“Foundation’s still solid,” the foreman says as they draw near. “Needs to be hosed down, but we can build off of this. Want us to get started?”
“Not yet,” Jiang Cheng says, turning back and waving at Wei Wuxian. “Give us a minute.”
The breeze spins around him as Jiang Cheng sets foot on the soot-blackened foundation, and although he leaves dusty footprints behind Jiang Cheng can’t spot any cracks as he makes his way toward the center. Nie Huaisang trails behind him, and as Jiang Cheng breathes out and lets his senses unspool he can feel the ripple of the Wens approaching behind him.
The world seems to pause as Wei Wuxian steps onto the foundation, Wen Qing and Wen Ning close behind. The breeze dies abruptly, the ambient noise of traffic suddenly muffled and far off. The construction crew look at each other, shifting uneasily, and Jiang Cheng’s ears pop as the air grows tense and heavy. One by one the distant cousins and far-flung remnants of the Family that used to live here step onto the charred and weathered foundation, and as they come to stand in front of him Jiang Cheng feels a sensation like a slow inhalation, of breath paused and held.
Several minutes pass where no one speaks, and then Wen Ning shifts uneasily.
“Is something supposed to happen?” he asks cautiously. Jiang Cheng doesn’t have a good answer to that, so he looks over to where Nie Huaisang is watching the street.
“We’re not all here yet,” Nie Huaisang says, not taking his eyes off the gates.
Wei Wuxian frowns, raising on his toes to do a quick headcount. “No, you said bring everyone so we did, even Granny–oh,” he says, lowering himself back down and turning to look at Nie Huaisang, brows drawing down. “You mean everyone,” he says as the sound of squealing tires sounds from the street.
Jiang Cheng rounds on Nie Huaisang as car doors slam out by the sidewalk. “You knew about the ward.”
Nie Huaisang glances at him sidelong, then looks back toward where Lan Xichen and Jin Zixuan are striding in through the broken gates, Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao close behind them. “Yes.”
More car doors open and close out on the street, and several smaller Family leaders spill in through the gates–whoever was close enough, Jiang Cheng guesses, shifting on his feet as Zidian sparks uneasily.
“What do you expect to happen?” Wei Wuxian says, looking at Nie Huaisang sharply.
Nie Huaisang smiles slightly as his hair starts to lift away from the back of his neck and Jiang Cheng feels static prickle over his skin. “This.”
The broken gates creak and then start to move, dragging over the rough concrete with a terrible screech and trailing a shower of sparks behind them. They swing shut with a clang that echoes in Jiang Cheng’s bones, and the ground trembles faintly beneath his feet. Anxious murmurs break out from both the small party on the foundation and the assemblage of Family heads. Lan Xichen looks from the gate to the ground to the Wens huddled behind Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, but before he can say anything someone shouts from the back of the crowd.
“Wei Wuxian! Release us!”
Wei Wuxian sighs and spreads his hands. “Wasn’t me. Besides,” he adds, putting his hands on his hips. “You all came in on your own. I didn’t invite you here.”
“Then who did, I wonder,” Jin Guangyao says, and Jiang Cheng glances at Nie Huaisang. He’s frowning, head cocked as if he’s straining to hear something, As if he can feel Jiang Cheng watching, Nie Huaisang looks over and shakes his head, leaning close as Wei Wuxian steps in from the other side.
“It’s listening,” Nie Huaisang murmurs. “But it’s still waiting. I thought bringing everyone together would be enough, but–” he gestures helplessly.
“We need something, and fast,” Jiang Cheng mutters back. “You two are the geniuses–you figure it out. I’ll buy some time.”
He steps forward, past Nie Huaisang’s worried face and Wei Wuxian’s tense one, striding forward to the front of the foundation. He stops with his toes just over the edge, swallowing against the pressure in the air.
“Jin Zixuan. Zewu-jun. Lianfang-zun. Chifeng-zun.” Jiang Cheng nods toward the group of Family heads and gets a few reluctant nods in return. “So that’s where the other end of the alarm goes. Funny how I never heard of it.”
“So you’re siding with them now?” someone calls from the crowd and Lan Xichen holds up a hand.
“Sandu Shengshou,” he says calmly. “If your father never chose to speak of it, I cannot pretend to guess at his motives.”
“No one told me either,” Jin Zixuan says flatly, and Jin Guangyao presses his lips together. Jin Zixuan sighs and presses his fingers to his temples. “Jiang Wanyin, please tell me you have an explanation for all of this.”
Jiang Cheng folds his hands behind his back. “We’re trying to–set something right,” he settles on.
“And what wrong are you trying to correct? In this place?” Jin Guangyao says sharply. He looks over Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. “With those people?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Nie Huaisang’s voice sounds from behind Jiang Cheng and he turns, grateful for the assistance. “Five great Families,” Nie Huaisang says as he comes to a stop on Jiang Cheng’s left. A rumble starts among the smaller Family heads and Nie Huaisang ignores it, continuing. “And then there were four. The city is out of balance–we’ve all seen it. We’ve all suffered for it.”
“Huaisang, come here,” Nie Mingjue says gruffly.
“No, thanks,” Nie Huaisang says, slipping a hand into Jiang Cheng’s, fingers squeezing tight. “I’m comfortable where I am.”
Nie Mingjue’s face clouds over. “Huaisang–”
“Brother,” Nie Huaisang cuts over him sharply. “You taught me to always stand with my family. That’s what I’m doing.”
“And you, Wangji?” Lan Xichen calls. Jiang Cheng half turns in time to see Lan Wangji nod respectfully to his brother and take a deliberate step closer to Wei Wuxian.
“I am comfortable where I am,” Lan Wangji says calmly. Wei Wuxian leans into him, giving him the sappiest grin and Jiang Cheng turns away as Lan Xichen sighs.
“Even you, Jiang Wanyin?” Jin Guangyao asks politely. “You would stand against all of us for a handful of people with no Family?”
The wind picks up around Jiang Cheng’s feet, stirring a few stray leaves and rolling a pebble. Jiang Cheng breathes in and lets it out slowly and the air grows even thicker. He lets go of Nie Huaisang’s hand and steps forward, flexing his fingers.
His mother had been right, he thinks distantly as Zidian leaps sparking into his hand. He did know when to use it.
“I would,” he says calmly as the wind picks up, swirling around him and circling outward. “I will, and I am. ”
There’s a distant sound, like a subway train speeding toward him, that Jiang Cheng feels more than hears, and then something surges up through the concrete under his feet, through the soles of his shoes, speeding through his body in a breathless rush, staggering him where he stands. He can dimly hear Nie Huaisang’s alarmed shout, but he’s occupied by the sense of presence spreading through his veins, and when he pulls upright it’s not entirely under his own power.
Zidian snaps and sparks in his hand as the city spreads Jiang Cheng’s fingers, looking at them curiously. He breathes in and tastes the midnight rain on concrete, the electric tang of power lines criss-crossing the streets, the fragile dreams of untold lives. He can feel all of them, Jiang Cheng realizes, working and playing and living and keeping the city alive, but some stand out like bright stars: Wei Wuxian behind him, all bright red and worry and excitement, Nie Huaisang next to him, a cool breath of many greens, bound up in determination and–
“Jiang Wanyin?” he hears, and the city lifts Jiang Cheng’s head to see the Family leaders drawn back a step or two in a small semi-circle around them. Ouyang Lixun draws a quick seal in the air and then stares at his own fingers when it fails to charge.
The city cocks Jiang Cheng’s head. “You would stand against me?” it asks in Jiang Cheng’s voice–but his voice has never sounded like this, echoing off the crumbled walls of the estate with a thousand different tones.
Jin Zixuan takes a step forward but Jin Guangyao catches him with a hand on his arm. “Of course not,” Jin Guangyao says soothingly, although his eyes are dark and watchful. “But surely the ones behind you have earned no favor.”
Jiang Cheng’s coat flares in the gust of wind that swirls around them. “They are mine,” the city snarls through Jiang Cheng’s mouth.
“And the rest of us?” Jin Zixuan asks, voice tight with tension.
The city straightens Jiang Cheng’s spine. “You are mine,” it says, and Zidian sparks in Jiang Cheng’s hand. “Or you are not. Choose.”
Nie Mingjue’s hand comes down on Jin Guangyao’s shoulder, and Jin Guangyao glances at him, then at Lan Xichen. He draws in a breath and lets it out, squeezing Jin Zixuan’s arm before stepping back to stand next to Nie Mingjue. Jiang Cheng observes it all as if from a distance; he feels wrapped up and warm and protected, as if whatever happens next is something that can’t touch him.
But he’s not the only one facing down this crowd, and a spike of worry lets him turn his head. Nie Huaisang stands a few paces back, Wei Wuxian’s hand on his arm as if he’s had to be pulled back. As Jiang Cheng watches, Nie Huaisang’s hand flexes at his side; his brows are drawn down and his jaw is tight and his eyes are fixed on Jiang Cheng’s.
“Jiang Cheng?” Nie Huaisang whispers when Jiang Cheng’s eyes meet his. Jiang Cheng wants to answer him more than anything, but the shuffle of feet in front of him draws the city’s attention back around to the small assemblage of Families.
Lan Xichen has stepped forward, folding his hands in front of himself and bowing. “If wrong has been done we will make amends,” he says clearly as he straightens. “We choose peace.”
The ground trembles under Jiang Cheng’s feet as the city draws in a breath. It turns him until Jiang Cheng can see the Wens, crowded behind Wen Ning and Wen Qing.
“And you?” the city asks, and if something that echoes with the rumble of a subway can sound plaintive, it does. “Will you stay?”
Wen Qing and Wei Ning exchange a glance, and Wen Qing looks at Lan Wangji, balancing A-Yuan on his hip. A-Yuan appears to be watching the proceedings with bright interest, eyes wide on Jiang Cheng. He’d be old enough to hear the city, Jiang Cheng thinks, and sure enough A-Yuan cocks his head at Jiang Cheng as if listening to something just for him.
Wen Qing takes Wen Ning’s hand in hers. “We will,” she says firmly, and the world seems to exhale, wind rushing out in a gust that flattens clothing against limbs and sends the unsteady back a step or two. When it ends the sounds of the city filter back in, cheerful birdsong and far away horns and the distant, ever present rumble of the subway.
The sense of presence drains from Jiang Cheng in a rush, and he wavers again as it leaves him. Nie Huaisang breaks free from Wei Wuxian, almost tripping over his own feet as he rushes toward Jiang Cheng. His arm slides around Jiang Cheng’s waist and Jiang Cheng catches at his shoulder, drawing in a shaky breath.
“Did you know that was going to happen?” he gasps, but when he looks up Nie Huaisang is shaking his head, face pale and lips pressed in a thin, bloodless line.
“I didn’t–I had no idea–” Nie Huaisang pats Jiang Cheng up and down his chest almost frantically, as if reassuring himself that Jiang Cheng is still there. He pulls Jiang Cheng into a fierce hug and Jiang Cheng blinks, hands settling automatically around Nie Huaisang’s back.
“You were gone,” Nie Huaisang whispers into Jiang Cheng’s ear. “You were gone, and I couldn’t find you, and–” he shudders, pulling back and settling his hands on Jiang Cheng’s shoulders. His face looks as determined as Jiang Cheng’s ever seen it.
“Let’s never do that again,” Nie Huaisang says fiercely, but Jiang Cheng is still hung up on something he’d said a moment ago.
“Gone,” he repeats, hands flexing on Nie Huaisang’s sides. “Gone like your brother? That kind of gone?”
“Yes,” Nie Huaisang says impatiently. “And it was awful.”
Jiang feels the corners of his mouth pulling up. “But I’m back? You can tell?”
“Yes?” Nie Huaisang starts to look uncertain. “I can always tell? I thought I told you that ages ago.”
“You did,” Jiang Cheng says. His cheeks are starting to hurt. He pulls Nie Huaisang back in close, hands sliding up Nie Huaisang’s back.
“I just didn’t know you meant me,” he says quietly. Nie Huaisang’s eyes go wide, and he glances away, and then back.
“Oh. Well. Now you know,” he says, almost shyly and Jiang Cheng has to kiss him. A wolf whistle sounds from behind Nie Huaisang and Jiang Cheng lifts one hand long enough to flip his brother off, but he doesn’t lift his mouth from Nie Huaisang’s and he doesn’t let go, either. A throat clears behind him and while he’s tempted to flip them off too, Jiang Cheng reluctantly pulls back, cupping his hand on Nie Huaisang’s cheek when it looks like Nie Huaisang might lean back in.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he says, and maybe Nie Huaisang can hear the weight of promise behind it because he stills, gaze lifting to Jiang Cheng’s.
“Me neither,” he says, slipping his hand into Jiang Cheng’s, and Jiang Cheng knows there’s a grin pulling at his face as they turn to face the other Families together, but he can’t find it in himself to care. The other Family leaders are watching them with expressions ranging from awe to flat disapproval to reluctant comprehension. Jiang Cheng sympathizes with that last one; comprehension means culpability, and he’s culpable too.
Jiang Cheng looks over his shoulder at the Wens crowded together in the center of the foundation, at Wei Wuxian leaning into Lan Wangji as A-Yuan leans over to grab at Wei Wuxian’s hair. Wei Wuxian grins over at Jiang Cheng, and Jiang Cheng can’t help but grin back. He’s making amends, where he can. It will have to be enough.
“Can’t believe you want to let the Wens rebuild,” a voice mutters behind him, and Jiang Cheng is suddenly too exhausted to try to identify it as he turns back to the crowd before him.
“All I see are grandmothers and children and distant cousins,” he snaps. “If you see enemies in that perhaps you need to get your eyesight checked.”
“We have chosen peace,” Lan Xichen reminds everyone gently, and Jiang Cheng tries to relax his shoulders. “Let us at least attempt it.”
There’s a small grumble at that but it doesn’t sound too dissatisfied, and the crowd begins to peel off in ones and twos, some heading back toward the gates, now hanging listlessly open–but some heading slowly toward Wei Wuxian or Wen Qing and offering a cautious greeting. Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang are left with Lan Xichen’s amused gaze and Jin Guangyao’s evaluative one, with Nie Mingjue’s surprisingly good-natured smirk and Jin Zixuan rubbing his eyes.
“I’m sure A-Li will be thrilled to hear about your...determination, today,” he says, dropping his hands, and the slight smile on his face strikes fear into Jiang Cheng’s heart the way little else this morning has.
“That’s a low blow, Jin Zixuan,” he says faintly, and Jin Zixuan laughs and claps him on the shoulder.
“We all pick our battles, Jiang Wanyin,” he says, and then his face sobers. “And I am glad you’ve chosen this one, in the end. If Lanling Jin can help, we will.”
“As will Gusu Lan,” Lan Xichen says. Nie Mingjue nods as well, and Jiang Cheng sighs, feeling some of the weight start to lift off his shoulders.
“Thank you,” he says, glancing again behind him. “I think it would be–better, if we all helped.”
“Five great Families,” Jin Guangyao murmurs,but when Jiang Cheng glances at him he’s looking at Nie Huaisang. “And then there were four. What will this new one become, I wonder.”
“I’m sure that’s up to them to find out,” Nie Huaisang says diplomatically.
“Indeed.” Jin Guangyao smiles pleasantly. “In any case, we are seeking peace. This is a time for building ties, not striking them down.”
Nie Huaisang leans into Jiang Cheng’s side briefly, squeezing his hand. “It’s good to be well-connected,” he agrees, and Jiang Cheng feels like at least a third of this conversation is going over his head.
“Stop it, both of you,” Nie Mingjue says but there’s a smile pulling at his mouth.
“Stop what?” Nie Huaisang says sunnily, but the grin drops off his face a second later as he reaches out toward his brother. “I’d hoped for–more immediate results.”
Nie Mingjue bats his hand away gently. “You’ve done a great deal already. You both have,” he says, nodding to include Jiang Cheng. He looks over their heads at the people milling over the soon-to-be construction site. “They’ve waited a long time. I can wait a little longer.”
“If it doesn’t–if you don’t get better–” Nie Huaisang starts, and Nie Mingjue huffs.
“I have no doubt you’ll turn the city upside down again in search of a solution,” he says. “And here I thought you were going to be a good influence,” he says, looking at Jiang Cheng, but Jiang Cheng can hear the approval in it, now.
“I do my best,” he says modestly, and Nie Mingjue laughs outright.
“You’ll be alright,” Nie Mingjue says, bumping Lan Xichen’s shoulder as he turns to go. Lan Xichen nods his goodbyes and follows, trailed by Jin Guangyao and Jin Zixuan with their heads already bent together. Nie Huaisang leans on Jiang Cheng, intertwining their fingers as he watches them go.
“Do you think he’ll ever come right out and say that he likes me?” Jiang Cheng asks.
“Probably not,” Nie Huaisang says peaceably. “But he does.”
Jiang Cheng squeezes his fingers. “And you?”
Nie Huaisang half leans into him, turning his face into Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. “I can’t believe you have to ask that,” he says, voice muffled by the cloth of Jiang Cheng’s coat. “Have I really been that opaque?”
Jiang Cheng presses his nose into Nie Huaisang’s hair, smelling the scent of his own shampoo. “I can be very stupid,” he says.
Nie Huaisang makes a sharp noise of disagreement and lifts his head. “Well. If it helps to hear it–yes. I like you very much,” he says, pink dusting across his cheeks.
Jiang Cheng’s own cheeks are starting to hurt. “You’re pretty all right yourself,” he says and Nie Huaisang mock-scowls.
“‘Pretty alright,’ he says,” Nie Huaisang starts. “I swear, A-Cheng, if this is how you’re going to be after–”
Jiang Cheng’s heart stutters. “What did you say?”
Nie Huaisang scowls harder. “I was saying that if this is how you’re going to be–”
“Not that,” Jiang Cheng interrupts. “Before that.”
“Oh.” Nie Huaisang blinks and then his smile turns sly. He turns fully toward Jiang Cheng, disentangling his fingers so he can slide his hands into Jiang Cheng’s coat, around his waist. He raises slightly on his toes and leans in, resting his weight on Jiang Cheng and putting his mouth right next to Jiang Cheng’s ear.
“Do you like it when I call you that, A-Cheng?” he murmurs and Jiang Cheng shudders, hands closing around Nie Huaisang’s back. “Do you like hearing it?”
Jiang Cheng’s hands flex. “Yes,” he says raggedly.
He can’t see Nie Huaisang’s face but Jiang Cheng would swear he can hear the smile in his voice, soft and wicked all at once. “Then what do you say, A-Cheng, to taking me home and seeing how it sounds when you–”
“Jiang Cheng!” The call rings out over the rumble of construction equipment starting back up, and Jiang Cheng has never despaired more of his brother’s sense of timing.
Nie Huaisang eases back onto his heels, and his face as it comes back into view is full of amusement. “Let’s go see what he wants.”
“But the other thing,” Jiang Cheng says a little desperately.
“That will keep,” Nie Huaisang says, linking their hands together and swinging them a little as he pulls Jiang Cheng over toward where Wei Wuxian is waving. “I won’t forget if you don’t.”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t think he’s ever going to forget the way Nie Huaisang’s voice sounds curled around A-Cheng, but he’s definitely interested in the other thing too.
Lan Wangji has set A-Yuan down on the ground, crouching next to him and pointing at the construction equipment. As they approach Jiang Cheng can hear his calm, quiet voice carefully sounding out the names as A-Yuan watches raptly. Wei Wuxian ruffles A-Yuan’s hair but his grin goes deeply shit-eating as Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang draw near.
He opens his mouth but Jiang Cheng beats him to it. “Don’t,” he says, and Wei Wuxian’s face goes surprised and angelic. “Whatever you’re going to say, I don’t want to hear it.”
“Jiang Cheng! I’m hurt,” Wei Wuxian says, laying a hand on his chest. “When have I ever? Name one time.”
Jiang Cheng would reach out and shove his brother, but his hand is tangled up in Nie Huaisang’s and he doesn’t feel like letting go. “Do you want that list alphabetically or chronologically?”
“Or in order of magnitude?” Nie Huaisang chimes in helpfully.
“I’m getting it from all sides now! Lan Zhan, save me,” Wei Wuxian demands, tugging at Lan Wangji’s jacket. Lan Wangji pushes himself to his feet, nodding to Nie Huaisang and Jiang Cheng as he turns. His eyes linger speculatively on Jiang Cheng and Jiang Cheng has to force himself not to straighten his spine in response.
“A bold move,” is all he says, but Jiang Cheng suspects he hears a shade of approval in the even tones. Jiang Cheng has been trying very hard not to think about what he’d just channeled, or the fact that he’d done it at all. Trust Lan Wangji to ruin that for him.
“Bold, more like straight-up insane,” Wei Wuxian says admiringly. “I didn’t even know that was possible. Come here, let me look at you. Are you feeling any side effects?”
“Is irritation a side effect?” Jiang Cheng grumbles, but he submits to Wei Wuxian’s poking and prodding and exploratory brushes of qi. “Of course I’m okay,” he says, but the careful, easy touch of his brother’s hands warms him nonetheless.
“You’d tell me if you weren’t?” Wei Wuxian huffs. “What am I saying, this is you. You’d tell me if he wasn’t?” he says, directing it toward Nie Huaisang as his hands settle lightly on Jiang Cheng’s arms.
“I would,” Nie Huaisang confirms, face serious and resolute, and Jiang Cheng’s chest feels too small for the thing it’s trying to contain.
“I’m fine,” he reiterates, and–he does feel fine, he realizes. A little shaky, a little raw as the adrenaline starts to wear off; he’s going to need food very soon but here, surrounded by some of the people he cares most for in the world, Jiang Cheng feels fine. He feels good, like he’s finally figured out a puzzle that’s never made sense before.
“What’s next for you?” he asks Wei Wuxian as his brother’s hands drop from Jiang Cheng’s arms. “Are you going to–” come home, he almost says, but he stops because that’s not quite right anymore, is it? Wei Wuxian may never live under the same roof as Jiang Cheng again, but maybe home has a broader definition than Jiang Cheng had thought.
Wei Wuxian looks down, and Jiang Cheng follows his gaze to see A-Yuan clinging to Wei Wuxian’s leg and grinning from ear to ear. Wei Wuxian laughs softly and bends to pick him up, settling A-Yuan on his hip with the ease of long practice.
“I don’t know yet,” Wei Wuxian says, as if he can hear what Jiang Cheng hasn’t said. He looks around, over the Wens slowly roaming the cleared-off estate. “They’ll need protection for a while, but–” he shrugs and looks at Lan Wangji. “I don’t think we’ve decided.”
The we does not pass by Jiang Cheng unnoticed, but Nie Huaisang squeezes his hand and leans on his shoulder, and Jiang Cheng realizes that he’s happy for his brother, happy that Wei Wuxian might have found something like this for himself.
“You know you’re always welcome,” he says gruffly, swallowing past the tightness in his throat. “All of you.” Lan Wangji gives him a slow, respectful nod and Wei Wuxian looks at Jiang Cheng with such naked affection that Jiang Cheng has to look away.
“Hey,” his brother says softly, and Jiang Cheng looks back. Wei Wuxian shifts A-Yuan to one arm and reaches out with his free hand, wiping a thumb underneath Jiang Cheng’s eye. “Jiang Cheng, are you crying?”
“No.” Jiang Cheng blinks furiously. “No,” he insists as Wei Wuxian’s grin goes wider.
“Oh, I see, I see,” Wei Wuxian says solicitously. “An extremely localized rainstorm, I see.”
“Shut up,” Jiang Cheng says, wiping an arm over his face. “You try channeling the city and see how much control you have after.”
“Maybe I will,” Wei Wuxian says just as Lan Wangji says, “Do not.” Wei Wuxian looks at Lan Wangji, face pulling into a ridiculous pout; Lan Wangji’s eyebrows raise even as his lips twitch up and Wei Wuxian sighs theatrically.
“Fine. I guess I’ll leave that to you. It seems to like you, anyway, and who wouldn’t? Great taste,” Wei Wuxian says, nodding.
“Agreed,” Nie Huaisang says casually, raising up on his toes to look over Wei Wuxian’s shoulder. “I think you’re being flagged,” he says, and Jiang Cheng looks up to see the crew foreman approaching, waving.
“So that was, uh. Something,” the foreman says when he gets close. “Rattled a few piles but didn’t damage anything. You ready for us to get started, or do you want to shake up the ground a little more?” He spreads his hands. “I’m billing you for it either way, so.”
Jiang Cheng laughs, tilting his face up into the sunshine. It’s warmer now than it had been earlier, but the faces around him are warmer still, the faces of these people he cares so dearly for. Nie Huaisang rests his head on Jiang Cheng’s shoulder, and Jiang Cheng lets out a breath that he feels like he’s been holding for a long, long while.
“We’re ready,” he decides. “Let’s get started.”
Jiang Cheng remembers very little else from that morning.
He remembers signing off on contracts and plans, on documents that name Wen Qing and Wei Wuxian as the key stakeholders in the project. He remembers losing his grip on the pen as he’d signed off on the last one, grabbing for it with clumsy fingers that had refused to obey his command. He recalls wavering on his feet as he’d reached for it, and he remembers distinctly the way Nie Huaisang’s arm had slid around his waist, pulling him upright against Nie Huaisang’s smaller frame.
“You have what you need?” Nie Huaisang had asked in a voice that indicated that the only correct answer was yes. The contractors had hastily agreed.
Jiang Cheng dimly remembers that Wei Wuxian had followed them out toward the street as Nie Huaisang had texted the Jiang car service. Jiang Cheng knows that Nie Huaisang prefers to walk, but a car had definitely been the right call; Jiang Cheng had been having trouble getting one foot in front of one another in a straight line, and the subway would definitely have been beyond him. Jiang Cheng vaguely remembers leaning more heavily on Nie Huaisang with what felt like every passing second. Nie Huaisang had just adjusted his feet and taken the weight. Stronger than he looks, Jiang Cheng remembers thinking.
“...said I didn’t know,” he had heard at one point, and had lifted his head to see Wei Wuxian staring intently at Nie Huaisang.
“But if you had,” Wei Wuxian had pressed. “If you had known, would you still have put him in the way like that?”
Jiang Cheng hadn’t known what they were talking about; listening had been one thing, making sense of the words a very different one at that point. Nevertheless he remembers the way Nie Huaisang had leaned his head against Jiang Cheng’s, the way he’d sighed and shaken his head no.
That had seemed to satisfy Wei Wuxian, and he had helped Nie Huaisang manhandle Jiang Cheng into the car when it had arrived. Jiang Cheng remembers his brother’s hands settling him in the back seat, and Nie Huaisang’s fingers wrapping tightly around his own. Jiang Cheng had barely closed his eyes before Nie Huaisang had been coaxing him out of the car again in front of their building, gently bullying him into the elevator and down the hall. The sound of their front door closing behind them is the last thing Jiang Cheng distinctly remembers. That, and firm hands pulling the covers up over his shoulder, warm fingers brushing his hair out of his eyes.
He wakes suddenly, eyes opening to the warm cast of the evening sun over his bedroom ceiling. He watches the play of light and shadow for several long moments, head pleasantly blank and a heaviness in his limbs that says he’s been sleeping deeply for hours. Eventually he lifts his head, slightly disappointed to find himself alone in the room. He rolls over and checks his phone, lying on the bedside table; as the sun suggests, he’s slept most of the day. He feels like it too: slightly groggy and unreal, like the events of the morning had happened to someone else.
They hadn’t, though, and Jiang Cheng shivers even under the thick duvet as he remembers the rush of the city coursing through him. He throws back the covers and swings his legs over the side of the bed, standing. He looks down at himself; he’s in soft pants and a softer shirt, and this is definitely not what he’d been wearing this morning. Jiang Cheng rubs his hands over his arms. He’s not cold exactly, but he does feel–strange, like all the furniture has been shifted slightly to the left, almost the same as it was, but still changed enough to trip over.
He’s probably slept too long. He should find Nie Huaisang. Surely this off-kilter feeling will fade once he’s had a chance to move around a little.
After a quick stop in the bathroom Jiang Cheng pads down the hall toward the living room. He half expects to find Nie Huaisang curled up on the couch reading, but the room is empty except for Jiang Cheng’s coat draped over the back of the sofa. The kitchen stands empty and silent, and when Jiang Cheng backtracks and checks the spare bedrooms and his study he fails to find Nie Huaisang in any of them.
Jiang Cheng pauses in the middle of the hall. There hadn’t been any notifications on his phone, but he feels strangely calm, like he knows that Nie Huaisang isn’t in trouble. Like Jiang Cheng knows where he is, even though he doesn’t.
Except, Jiang Cheng realizes with a sudden inrush of breath, that he does.
Nie Huaisang is down on the street, about half a block away, and moving closer. Jiang Cheng puts a hand out against the wall to steady himself as he tries to concentrate on that feeling of presence, that cool rush of green against the back of his mind like he’d felt this morning. In fact, it’s exactly like what he’d felt this morning, when all of the lives in the city had spun up inside of him, each bright and shining in their own way and utterly overwhelming altogether. This is–a lot more manageable, though, just Nie Huaisang’s brilliant presence moving closer with every heartbeat. If he concentrates, Jiang Cheng can almost feel the bounce in his step.
Jiang Cheng might need to sit down.
He’s on the couch with his hands pressed together over his mouth when the door opens on Nie Huaisang, takeout bags looped over one arm as he pockets his keys. His face brightens when he catches sight of Jiang Cheng, then falls into apologetic lines as he shuts the door behind him and hurries in.
“I’m sorry, I thought–” He practically throws the bags onto the kitchen island as he passes, heading straight for Jiang Cheng. “You were dead asleep, I didn’t think you’d wake or I wouldn’t have left–”
Jiang Cheng holds up a hand and Nie Huaisang stops short. Jiang Cheng can see him practically vibrating on his toes but he can also feel him, a warm echo resonating inside his chest. Jiang Cheng breathes around it, marveling. “Is this what you feel like all the time?”
“I–I really don’t know what you’re talking about,” Nie Huaisang says cautiously. “A-Cheng, are you all right?”
Jiang Cheng opens his mouth and closes it again, and Nie Huaisang’s worried look deepens.
“I’m calling Wei Wuxian,” he says, reaching into a pocket and Jiang Cheng shakes his head.
“What’s he going to do? Besides,” Jiang Cheng says, concentrating. “He’s....south of here. At least thirty minutes, this time of day,” he says, satisfied with his rough estimation. It’s a different way of looking at the city than he’s used to, but he thinks he’s getting the hang of it.
Nie Huaisang’s hand stills in his pocket. “Did you talk to him while I was gone?”
Jiang Cheng grins at him, feeling almost high on sensation and new possibilities. “Nope.”
Nie Huaisang pauses, and then he’s striding forward and reaching out. Jiang Cheng gasps as Nie Huaisang’s fingers close around his wrist, a spark of sensation arcing up his arm in recognition. Nie Huaisang stills, eyes wide as Jiang Cheng’s own feel as he stares.
“A-Cheng.” Nie Huaisang swallows. “How do you know where your brother is?”
“I don’t know,” Jiang Cheng answers breathlessly. “But I can feel him out there, just like I can feel you.”
“You can–” Nie Huaisang traces his fingers down the side of Jiang Cheng’s face, his own transforming into something like awe. “You can?”
Jiang Cheng feels like he might never stop grinning. “I can. Think this morning broke something inside me?”
“Maybe.” Nie Huaisang moves closer, sliding one knee on the couch and Jiang Cheng moves back to make room. Nie Huaisang settles over his legs, one hand still holding Jiang Cheng’s wrist and the other sliding into the hair at the base of his neck. His lips brush over Jiang Cheng’s forehead and it feels electric, like the prickle of Zidian against the palm of his hand.
“Or maybe,” Nie Huaisang says, tilting Jiang Cheng’s head back so Jiang Cheng can see his brilliant smile. “Maybe you’re a Nie.”
Jiang Cheng’s heart threatens to pound out of his chest as Nie Huaisang leans down. His free hand slides around Nie Huaisang’s waist of its own accord, dipping under his shirt, and Nie Huaisang’s skin jumps under his fingers. Jiang Cheng wonders if Nie Huaisang can feel it too, this electric current between them. He thinks so, judging by the way Nie Huaisang’s lips fall open and the way his eyes darken.
Then Nie Huaisang’s mouth is on his, and if Jiang Cheng had thought kissing Nie Huaisang was good before–
Nie Huaisang’s lips move against his and Jiang Cheng feels it thrum through him all the way to his toes, pulling a moan from his chest as he tries to arch up into it. Nie Huaisang settles more heavily over him, releasing Jiang Cheng’s wrist to slide an arm around his shoulders, pulling him close. Jiang Cheng’s fingers dig into Nie Huaisang’s sides, holding him steady as he rolls their hips together, drinking down every small noise Nie Huaisang makes. He can feel Nie Huaisang solid and warm underneath his hands and bright and shining in his chest, like being pressed up against a living current. Jiang Cheng leans greedily up into it, into Nie Huaisang, sliding his hands under his shirt. He drags his fingers up Nie Huaisang’s spine, and Nie Huaisang shudders underneath his hands, breaking off with a gasp.
“A-Cheng,” he says, low and needy, and Jiang Cheng wants to hear him say it again, like Nie Huaisang can’t keep it from his lips, like it’s the only thing Nie Huaisang remembers how to say. Jiang Cheng slides his hands back down Nie Huaisang’s back, settling just below the curve of his ass and holding tight. When he pushes up off the couch Nie Huaisang laughs breathlessly, tightening his grip on Jiang Cheng’s shoulders and wrapping his legs around Jiang Cheng’s hips as Jiang Cheng takes them back toward the bedroom.
“Going to hold me to my promise, A-Cheng?” Nie Huaisang murmurs against his ear, and Jiang Cheng nearly trips and sends them both crashing to the floor. Nie Huaisang laughs again, setting his teeth delicately against the shell of Jiang Cheng’s ear. Jiang Cheng growls, turning and slamming Nie Huaisang up against the wall. Nie Huaisang leans back against it, bracing himself on Jiang Cheng’s shoulders.
“The bed’s that way,” he says, but he doesn’t sound like he minds.
“Don’t care. Too far,” Jiang Cheng says, leaning in to bite at Nie Huaisang’s jaw, and the back of Nie Huaisang’s head hits the wall. He moans so prettily, fingers digging into Jiang Cheng’s shoulders as Jiang Cheng drags his lips down his throat. Jiang Cheng would move mountains for that sound, for the way he can feel Nie Huaisang’s heartbeat pounding both in and against his chest.
Nie Huaisang swallows, throat working under Jiang Cheng’s mouth. He slides one hand down Jiang Cheng’s chest and over his stomach, reaching down between them until he can get a hand on Jiang Cheng’s dick. Jiang Cheng groans, hips thrusting into Nie Huaisang’s hand, and Nie Huaisang makes a noise that Jiang Cheng knows means he’s biting his lip.
“I–fuck, I want to, but I also want you to fuck me,” Nie Huaisang says, stroking his hand up and down Jiang Cheng’s cock through his pants.
Jiang Cheng shudders, fingers digging into Nie Huaisang’s thighs. “Yes,” he says into Nie Huaisang’s shoulder. He draws in a ragged breath and lets it out, pushing himself up. “Yeah. Okay. Bed.”
Nie Huaisang’s legs slide down, and he steadies himself against Jiang Cheng as he finds his balance. “Yeah, bed. Race you there,” he says, then leans up and presses his mouth to Jiang Cheng’s in a filthy slide that turns Jiang Cheng’s brain to white noise.
Jiang Cheng hears Nie Huaisang laugh and when he blinks Nie Huaisang is halfway through the bedroom door, pulling his shirt over his head. He tosses it at Jiang Cheng but Jiang Cheng hasn’t come fully back online yet and it hits him in the face. The soft impact jolts him back into awareness and he claws the fabric away, tossing it aside as he stalks toward the bedroom.
A trail of clothing leads haphazardly toward the bed and Nie Huaisang is settling himself on it, dick jutting up between his legs. Jiang Cheng’s mouth goes dry and he licks his lips as he wonders what it would do to this warm presence in his chest if he put his mouth on Nie Huaisang’s cock. That seems eminently worth pursuing, and he pulls his own shirt over his head, shoving down his pants and kicking them away as Nie Huaisang leans over to the bedside table. Jiang Cheng slides a knee onto the bed just as Nie Huaisang turns and tosses him the lube. He nearly fumbles it but manages not to knock the tube to the floor, setting it aside as he climbs up the bed.
“How do you–mm, okay.” Nie Huaisang’s eyelids flutter and he leans back against the pillows as Jiang Cheng moves between his legs, sliding his hands down the inside of Nie Huaisang’s thighs and spreading them apart. Nie Huaisang rests one arm up over his head, the other hand skimming down his chest as Jiang Cheng settles on his stomach, his own hands curving around Nie Huaisang’s thighs to hold him in place.
“Gonna suck you off first, okay?” The muscles under Jiang Cheng’s hands jump and Nie Huaisang licks his lips, eyes wide and dark.
“If you insist,” he says breathlessly, and Jiang Cheng grins before bending his head and getting to work.
Nie Huaisang’s breath catches audibly as Jiang Cheng licks a stripe up his cock. The muscles in his thighs jump and Jiang Cheng adjusts his grip, digging his fingers in. He takes just the tip into his mouth, rolling his tongue around it and Nie Huaisang writhes under his hands.
“A-Cheng, don’t tease,” Nie Huaisang says breathily, looking down his body at Jiang Cheng, a faint whine in his voice and lips falling into a pout. It’s absolutely intentional and Jiang Cheng faintly despairs that he falls for it every time, but it’s a fair trade, Jiang Cheng thinks, for the way Nie Huaisang moans when Jiang Cheng takes more of him into his mouth, shameless and open and so responsive to Jiang Cheng’s every touch. Nie Huaisang is heavy and velvet on his tongue, and Jiang Cheng hollows out his cheek and sucks just to see the way Nie Huaisang’s head falls back, the delicate arch of his neck at odds with the way his hips are trying to fuck up into Jiang Cheng’s mouth. He’s beautiful like this–he’s beautiful always, but like this, spread out and coming undone under Jiang Cheng’s hands and mouth, he is breathtaking. The thing in Jiang Cheng’s chest brightens and brightens until he has to stop, to pull off and turn his face into Nie Huaisang’s thigh, fighting to control his breathing.
“A-Cheng?” There’s a hand running through his hair, skimming over his braid, and Jiang Cheng looks up into Nie Huaisang’s concerned face. “Are you all right?”
“I’m–” He’s fine. Isn’t he? Jiang Cheng draws in a deep breath and lets it out slowly, and the tightness in his chest eases a little.
“Hey. Hey, come here,” Nie Huaisang says, and Jiang Cheng pushes himself up and crawls up the bed until Nie Huaisang can wrap his arms around him and pull Jiang Cheng close. His hands stroke over Jiang Cheng’s back and Jiang Cheng melts into him, burying his face in Nie Huaisang’s neck. Nie Huaisang lets him just breathe for several long moments, fingers tracing delicate patterns up and down Jiang Cheng’s spine until Jiang Cheng shivers against him.
“I’m ruining the moment,” Jiang Cheng says roughly into Nie Huaisang’s hair, and Nie Huaisang huffs.
“You’re not,” he says, and he sounds so confident that Jiang Cheng can’t help but believe him. Nie Husaisang hooks a leg around one of Jiang Cheng’s and shifts so they’re settled more comfortably together. “This is just–a different kind of moment.”
Perhaps. Jiang Cheng breathes in the scent of his own shampoo from Nie Huisang’s hair and lets that pull out the words that seem to have lodged themselves in his throat. “Thank you.”
Nie Huaisang’s hand strokes over his hair again. “For what?” he says, hushed as if they’re imparting secrets.
Maybe they are. “For–” For giving me back my brother. For becoming a part of my life. For staying.
Instead he pushes himself up on his elbows, so he can see Nie Huaisang’s face. “We’re doing all right at this, aren’t we?”
Nie Huaisang smiles up at him, soft and genuine and just for Jiang Cheng. He reaches up and brushes a stray lock of hair behind Jiang Cheng’s ear.
“Yes,” he says thoughtfully. “Yes, I think we are.”
Then his gaze grows darker and his smile wicked. He leans up and brushes his lips over Jiang Cheng’s. “And I think,” he murmurs against Jiang Cheng’s mouth. “That we’re not bad at this, either.” Nie Huaisang slides his hands down Jiang Cheng’s back, gripping his ass and rolling their hips together. Jiang Cheng gasps at the slide of Nie Huaisang’s cock rubbing hot and heavy against his own, and Nie Huaisang bites his lip on a moan, letting his head fall back against the pillow.
“A-Cheng,” Nie Huaisang gasps, and Jiang Cheng shivers. “I want this, I want you, I want you to fuck me right now.”
Jiang Cheng wants that too, the words sparking down his spine and lighting something deep in his gut. He pushes himself roughly up on his knees, grabbing for the lube. Nie Huaisang hooks one leg around Jiang Cheng’s back, holding him in place as Jiang Cheng slicks up his fingers. Nie Huaisang bites his lip, leg flexing and hips rolling up as Jiang Cheng’s finger sinks into him. Jiang Cheng slides his free hand under Nie Huaisang’s thigh and lifts his leg over his own shoulder; Nie Huaisang smiles and rocks his hips down into Jiang Cheng’s hand.
“More,” he says breathily, and Jiang Cheng is happy to oblige. The second finger pulls a moan from Nie Huaisang’s lips, and the third furrows his brows as his hips jerk, not away but down, fucking himself on Jiang Cheng’s fingers. Nie Huaisang’s hands scrabble in the bedclothes and Jiang Cheng watches, rapt, as his mouth drops open. One hand lifts toward his cock, flushed and leaking against his stomach, then flattens against the bed.
“I don’t–” The muscles in Nie Huaisang’s stomach jump and he whimpers as Jiang Cheng twists his fingers. Nie Huaisang’s eyes open and fix on Jiang Cheng. “I want to come while you’re inside me, so you’d better fucking hurry,” he says a little desperately, and Jiang Cheng presses his lips to the inside of Nie Huaisang’s knee as he pulls his fingers out.
“If you insist,” he says, slicking up his cock and lining it up, and what he means as he starts to press forward is whatever you want.
Nie Huaisang’s chest heaves with short, sharp breaths as Jiang Cheng sinks into him one rocking thrust at a time. Jiang Cheng tries to go slow, to draw it out but Nie Huaisang squirms so prettily in his lap that Jiang Cheng’s hips thrust forward on their own, burying his cock in that tight, slick heat. Jiang Cheng wraps one hand around Nie Huaisang’s thigh and grips his hip with the other, pulling Nie Huaisang flush into his lap and Nie Huaisang moans.
“A-Cheng,” he gasps, reaching a hand out, grasping. Jiang Cheng takes it and Nie Huaisang immediately twines their fingers together, squeezing tight.
“Huaisang,” Jiang Cheng says roughly, and Nie Huaisang smiles brilliantly. He clenches down on Jiang Cheng’s cock and Jiang Cheng gasps, fingers digging into Nie Huaisang’s thigh. Jiang Cheng rolls his own hips in response, drawing an answering moan from Nie Huaisang’s mouth, and once Jiang Cheng starts he can’t stop, hips moving almost of their own accord as Nie Huaisang rocks down to meet him. Nie Huaisang’s legs close around his back and Jiang Cheng lets himself be drawn in, clinging to Nie Huaisang’s thigh and his hand and chasing the heat that builds in his gut with every thrust. He forces eyes open that he doesn’t remember closing, watching pleasure chase itself across Nie Huaisang’s face. His breath is coming short and sharp in a way that Jiang Cheng knows means he’s close, and Jiang Cheng can feel the tension in his own limbs start to grow taut.
He shifts his hand in Nie Huaisang’s grip, turning it so Nie Huaisang’s palm lies against the back of his hand. Nie Huaisang gets it right away, sliding his fingers between Jiang Cheng’s as Jiang Cheng brings their joined hands down to grip Nie Huaisang’s cock.
“A-Cheng,” Nie Huasiang moans as their fingers close around his cock, and the rawness in his voice thrills something swift and electric down Jiang Cheng’s spine. Nie Huaisang repeats his name with each thrust of Jiang Cheng’s hips and stroke of their fingers–“A-Cheng, A-Cheng, A-Cheng,”–until it’s all Jiang Cheng can hear, all he wants to hear. He rubs his thumb over the tip of Nie Huaisang’s cock on the upstroke, just to hear Nie Huaisang say it again, and Nie Huaisang’s voice breaks in the middle, his body tightening up as his cock jerks in their hands. Nie Huaisang bites his lip, breath ragged and eyes screwed shut as he comes. Jiang Cheng strokes him through it as Nie Huaisang’s fingers grow lax on his, trying to draw it out and delay his own release, but then Nie Huaisang blinks his eyes open and grins down at Jiang Cheng, mouth lopsided with such raw affection that something in Jiang Cheng’s chest seizes up. His hips jerk forward as the tension building in his gut snaps all at once and he closes his eyes, turning his face into Nie Huaisang’s thigh as his release drags him under.
A warm hand shifts its grip on his, and then Nie Huaisang is tugging him down next to him. He rolls Jiang Cheng onto his back, tangling his leg with Jiang Cheng’s as he rests his head on Jiang Cheng’s shoulder and loops an arm around his middle. Jiang Cheng can feel Nie Huaisang breathe in deeply and let it out, and his own arm comes up to rest gently against Nie Huaisang’s back.
“I–” Jiang Cheng changes his mind at the last minute. “I’m glad you’re here.”
Nie Huaisang’s fingers trace over his chest. “I am too,” he says quietly, and Jiang Cheng breathes around the bright thing in his chest. He’d thought it was just Nie Huaisang’s presence, but–
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s one and the same.
Jiang Cheng tugs Nie Huaisang closer, pressing his lips to his forehead. “We should get cleaned up,” he says, making no move to do so.
“Sure,” Nie Huaisang agrees, not moving.
“You brought food,” Jiang Cheng remembers.
Nie Huaisang nestles further against him. “It’ll reheat.”
Jiang Cheng feels like there’s something he should be doing here, something he should be saying, that he’s not. “Do you–want anything?”
Nie Huaisang shakes against him, and it takes Jiang Cheng a moment to realize that it’s laughter. Nie Huaisang pushes himself up and Jiang Cheng catches the grin on his face before he reaches down and grabs a throw blanket from the foot of the bed, pulling it up over them and resettling against Jiang Cheng’s chest.
“In this moment?” Nie Huaisang’s lips brush over Jiang Cheng’s jaw. “No.” He catches Jiang Cheng’s free hand in his, thumb sliding over the ring on Jiang Cheng’s fourth finger. It glints in the evening light, and Jiang Cheng turns his hand so he can link their fingers together, resting their hands on his chest and fighting back the yawn he can feel building.
Maybe he doesn’t need to spoil this moment with words he can’t get right. Maybe he can just rest here, with Nie Huaisang warm and solid against him. Maybe Nie Huaisang can hear what he’s trying to say.
If he can’t, Jiang Cheng can always try again tomorrow. The thought curls something warm and thrilling in his stomach, and he turns to press his lips against the crown of Nie Huaisang’s head. Nie Huaisang makes a pleased little sound, and Jiang Cheng feels his mouth lift as he lets heavy eyelids drift closed, the comforting beat of Nie Huaisang’s heart against his ribcage following him down into darkness.
Jiang Cheng wakes to Nie Huaisang’s mouth on his pressing short, almost frantic kisses to his lips and jaw and forehead.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Nie Huaisang mumbles against his skin, fingers gripping tight on Jiang Cheng’s shoulders, and while Jiang Cheng has no objection to being woken up this way he really doesn’t know what this is about.
“Wh-” he mutters, blinking against the last vestiges of sleep as he pushes himself up on his elbows. Nie Huaisang pulls back and his face is shining with the kind of relief Jiang Cheng has seen only once before.
Seen yesterday, in fact, when Nie Huaisang had caught him before he could faceplant in front of Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao and all the rest, and Jiang Cheng blinks as memory comes flooding back.
“He’s back,” Nie Huaisang says, and now that he’s looking, Jiang Cheng can see the dampness on Nie Huaisang’s eyelashes. “I think they’re all back, but my brother, A-Cheng, my brother–”
Jiang Cheng catches one of Nie Huaisang’s hands in his own, a smile starting to curve his lips. “Want to go see?”
“Yes,” Nie Huaisang says. He leans in again, and this time the press of his lips again Jiang Cheng’s slows and calms, as if he’s steadying himself against Jiang Cheng’s mouth. Jiang Cheng pushes up into it as best he can, hand tightening on Nie Huaisang’s, and Nie Huaisang’s lips curve against his like he can’t help himself.
Nie Huaisang pulls away laughing, then turns and flips the covers back, heading for the bathroom. Jiang Cheng rolls on his back as the shower starts up. He’ll get up in a minute, but for now he’s content to watch the morning light creep over the ceiling and listen to the echoes of Nie Huaisang humming to himself.
After his turn in the shower Jiang Cheng emerges from the bedroom to find the coffee maker burbling and Nie Huaisang throwing last night’s takeout away. They’d woken up enough last night to crawl properly into bed but actually leaving the bedroom had seemed like too much effort. Jiang Cheng takes the coffee that Nie Huaisang hands him and makes a low, appreciative noise at the first sip; coffee always tastes better when Nie Huaisang makes it, and Jiang Cheng has given up trying to figure out how.
“Ready?” Jiang Cheng says, holding out a hand, and Nie Huaisang takes it, fingers squeezing tight.
“Breakfast on the way? Breakfast on the way back,” Nie Huaisang decides, already pulling Jiang Cheng toward the door.
“As long as breakfast is in there somewhere,” Jiang Cheng says, but he doesn’t really mind. He’s almost as eager to see Nie Mingjue as Nie Huaisang is, to see if this had worked, if it has all been worth it.
It has, though, Jiang Cheng thinks as he follows Nie Huaisang out the door and down into the streets. It’s been worth it for the way Nie Huaisang looks back at him, hurrying Jiang Cheng along, for the way the sunlight glints off the brown-gold highlights of the braid stretching from Nie Huaisang’s temple to the back of his head. It’s been worth it for a thousand reasons, most of which can be summed up by the solid warmth of Nie Huaisang’s hand in his.
The trip to the Nie estate is shorter than it has been for months, the car sailing through green light after green light until they’re pulling into the driveway in record time. As they roll through the gates Jiang Cheng feels for the first time something band around his chest, testing.
“Is that the ward?” he asks as it dissipates, and Nie Huaisang looks over from where he’s been gazing out the window.
“Hm? Oh,” he says, distractedly. “Yeah. You get used to it.”
“How come I’ve never felt it before?” Jiang Cheng asks as he pulls to a stop in front of the entrance.
“Well,” Nie Huaisang says as he unbuckles his seatbelt, his lips starting to curve up in a shy smile. “It’s a family thing, isn’t it?”
Jiang Cheng stares, and Nie Huaisang leans over and presses his lips to Jiang Cheng’s cheek. “I wouldn’t worry about it,” he offers, and let himself out of the car.
“I’m not worried about it,” Jiang Cheng says to the empty seat, but his own mouth is pulling up at the corners. He shakes his head and gets out of the car.
Nie Mingjue is in as fine a mood as Jiang Cheng has ever seen him, a genuine smile stretching across his face as Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang enter the small nook where he and Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao are having breakfast. Nie Mingjue manages to stand in time to catch Nie Huaisang as he launches himself at his brother, and Jiang Cheng nods politely to the other two as he follows in Nie Huaisang’s wake.
“Zewu-jun, Lianfang-zun,” he offers and Lan Xichen smiles.
“There is no need for formalities any longer between us, I think,” Lan Xichen says, and Jin Guangyao nods in agreement.
“Join us? There’s plenty. Someone doesn’t know when to stop cooking,” Jin Guangyao says with a significant glance at Nie Mingjue, who has stepped to the side to let Nie Huaisang chatter excitedly at him.
“Thank you,” Jiang Cheng says, pulling up a chair. He hesitates a moment, glancing at Nie Huaisang and his brother, then leans in toward Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao. “Listen–I’m having a hard time getting a straight answer out of Huaisang–”
“Shocking,” Jin Guangyao interjects, and Jiang Cheng glares.
“But,” he continues even against the faint flush he can feel rising in his cheeks. “I figure if anyone knows it’s you–why can I feel the ward around this place when I never could before?”
“Do you really not know?” Lan Xichen chides, and Jiang Cheng looks away. His gaze lands on Nie Huaisang; as if he can feel the glance, Nie Huaisang smiles wide and brilliant, eyes flicking toward Jiang Cheng and away again.
“The Nie ward is only detectable in two cases: when an intruder sets it off, and when a family member crosses it,” Jin Guangyao murmurs. “All others pass it unnoticed through invitation, explicit or implicit. You tell me where you fall, Jiang Wanyin.”
“Yeah. All right,” Jiang Cheng says gruffly, looking down to cover the grin he can feel starting on his face. Lan Xichen pours a cup of coffee and hands it to him.
“Is it really so unexpected?” Lan Xichen asks, and Jiang Cheng sighs and takes a sip. It’s good, but not as good as when Nie Huaisang makes it.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he says frankly, and Lan Xichen smiles.
“Too little, I suspect,” he says, taking a sip of his own coffee, and Jiang Cheng can’t help but feel that he might be right.
“You did not tell him that.” Nie Huaisang’s voice rings out, aghast, and Jiang Cheng looks over to see him staring wide eyed at his brother.
Nie Mingjue smiles smugly. “Not my fault you’re keeping secrets from your husband. Su Minshan,” he says over Nie Huaisang’s head. Jin Guangyao laughs outright and Lan Xichen covers what Jiang Cheng suspects is a smile with his mug. Nie Huaisang hides his face behind his hands, but he peeks out through his fingers at Jiang Cheng a second later and Jiang Cheng vaguely remembers Nie Mingjue insinuating something about Nie Huaisang’s college roommate. It seems like an eon ago instead of two days.
He cocks a brow at Nie Huaisang, smile lifting up one corner of his mouth. “You can tell me all about it later. I was promised breakfast at some point this morning,” he says. Nie Huaisang drops his hands, his grin edged with relief.
And it’s–easy, somehow, far easier than Jiang Cheng would have once imagined to let Jin Guangyao grab additional place settings and settle into this extended family meal. Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang bicker over who should get the last steamed bun–“this is my house” “I’m a guest”–but it sounds teasing rather than pointed, and when Nie Huaisang outmaneuvers his brother he plops the prize bun onto Jiang Cheng’s plate, beaming. Jiang Cheng blinks and Nie Mingjue’s scowl starts to darken, then he jerks, and Nie Huaisang’s smile grows even more angelic. Jiang Cheng glances between the two of them and makes his decision.
Jiang Cheng leans over and presses his lips to Nie Huaisang’s cheek, uncaring of their audience. “Thank you,” he says, and Nie Huaisang’s smile goes soft.
Then Jiang Cheng picks up the bun, locks eyes with Nie Mingjue, and takes a huge bite.
Nie Mingjue bursts out laughing. Jin Guangyao gives Jiang Cheng a subtle, approving nod, and Jiang Cheng thinks he might be starting to get the hang of this.
After breakfast Nie Mingjue submits with only mild grumbling to a series of exercises they all learned as children: yes, he can draw a seal, yes, he can charge it, no, he’s not feeling drained by any of it, thank you very much Xichen. Nie Huaisang and Jin Guangyao appear satisfied with the results, and after some time on his phone Lan Xichen confirms that the cases they knew about have all reversed themselves overnight.
“It found what it was looking for,” Nie Huaisang murmurs, hands tracing carefully over his brother’s chest. “And released the rest.”
“What was it doing with all of that qi?” Jin Guangyao asks. “Why drain from the rest of us?”
“Sometimes you fill in the empty spaces as best you can,” Jiang Cheng says before he knows he’s going to. Nie Huaisang looks up. “Until you find what was missing.”
“The city is not human,” Jin Guangyao says mildly.
“No.” Jiang Cheng knows that very well. “But it was born from us.”
“I suppose it’s not a surprise that it might have inherited some of our traits,” Lan Xichen says thoughtfully.
“I’m fine,” Nie Mingjue interjects, brushing Nie Huaisang’s hands away. “Really. Don’t you have someone else to bother now?”
“Don’t listen to him,” Jiang Cheng says, standing and nodding to Jin Guangyao and Lan Xichen. He makes his way over to Nie Huaisang and bumps his shoulder. “You’re not a bother. Even if you are right all the time.”
Nie Mingjue humphs as Nie Huaisang starts to go pink. “You say that now. Get back to me in another couple decades.”
Jiang Cheng raises his eyebrows. “I will,” he says confidently.
“I’m right here,” Nie Huaisang says, but there’s a flush creeping across his face and the beginnings of a smile on his mouth, and a smirk on Nie Mingjue’s.
It’s another hour yet before Nie Huaisang is ready to leave his brother’s side again, but Jiang Cheng doesn’t mind. He’s the one Nie Huaisang comes home to, and Jiang Cheng supposes he could do worse than spend time with his in-laws outside of either a formal or life-threatening setting. When he’s not making Jiang Cheng’s life difficult Lan Xichen has a surprisingly dry sense of humor, and Jin Guangyao laughs far more easily in this company than Jiang Cheng ever would have expected.
It is, however, still a relief when Nie Huaisang comes over and rests his hands on Jiang Cheng’s shoulders, leaning slightly into the back of the chair.
Jiang Cheng cranes his neck up so he can see Nie Huaisang’s face. “Ready?”
“Mm.” Nie Huaisang looks around the room in this house he grew up in, gaze pausing on his brother before he looks back down at Jiang Cheng.
“Yeah,” he says, smiling softly. “Let’s go home.”
Nie Huaisang says his goodbyes without any apparent reluctance, but he still grips Jiang Cheng’s hand a little harder than usual on their way out. When Jiang Cheng heads toward the car, parked where they’d left it, Nie Huaisang’s feet slow even though his steps practically bounce with a strange, restless energy.
Jiang Cheng looks between Nie Huaisang and the car. “Walk?” he suggests.
Nie Huaisang smiles in relief. “Yeah, if you don’t mind.”
“I really don’t.” Jiang Cheng changes course, pulling out his phone to text the car service to come pick up the vehicle. Nie Huaisang falls into step beside him as they head toward the street.
The neighborhood is nice, the sun shining down in the clear, crisp air. By unspoken agreement they pass by the subway entrance and keep walking, hands swinging idly between them. They have nowhere to be and no one to answer to except each other and that, Jiang Cheng thinks, is something he could get used to.
The crosswalk ahead of them changes to red as they approach and on a whim Jiang Cheng turns the corner instead, Nie Huaisang following amiably. They pass a used bookstore and a bakery and all of a sudden Jiang Cheng recognizes where they are.
His steps slow as they approach the coffee shop where he had met Nie Huaisang before they were married. It seems like several lifetimes ago, like it had happened to someone else. As they pause outside the large bay window Jiang Cheng can even see the table they had sat at in the rear corner. It’s occupied by an older couple, one doing a crossword, the other reading. As Jiang Cheng watches, the reader looks up and smiles across the table, like he can’t help it, even as the other chews on the pen and frowns at the puzzle.
They look comfortable. Happy. Everything Jiang Cheng hadn’t dared to wish for when he’d sat at that table, months ago.
“I guess that was our first date,” Nie Huaisang says next to him, and when Jiang Cheng looks over he’s staring thoughtfully into the cafe as well. Nie Huaisang laughs a little. “First and last, if you think about it,” he says, turning toward Jiang Cheng, and the play of a smile around his lips constricts something in Jiang Cheng’s chest so suddenly he feels almost dizzy with it.
“A-Cheng?” Nie Huaisang looks mildly concerned as Jiang Cheng gulps in a breath. “Are you all right?”
“I’m–yeah, I’m fine,” Jiang Cheng lets out the breath and it’s steadier on the way out. “I’m good. I’m great–don’t look at me like that,” he says when Nie Huaisang eyes him skeptically. Jiang Cheng looks back into the cafe, at their reflections painted over the table in the corner, and feels certainty settle over him.
“I just–I forgot something, that’s all,” he says, letting go of Nie Huaisang’ hand and taking the other one, the one with the ring that matches Jiang Cheng’s.
“Do you want to go back for it, or–are you–what are you doing,” Nie Huaisang says as Jiang Cheng sinks to one knee, still holding his hand.
“A-Sang.” Nie Huaisang’s eyes go wide. “Marry me,” Jiang Cheng says and Nie Huaisang looks at him like Jiang Cheng’s lost his mind.
“I already did.” Nie Huaisang tugs on Jiang Cheng’s hand. “Did you forget? Do you have amnesia? I thought you weren’t feeling any side effects–”
“I’m not,” Jiang Cheng says, although he can’t seem to stop the spread of a smile across his face. “We just skipped this part.”
Nie Huaisang stills. “We skipped a lot of parts,” he says cautiously. “It didn’t seem to bother you at the time.”
“It didn’t then. It does now.” Jiang Cheng tightens his grip. “I want you to know that I choose this, that I want this, that I–” he swallows against a suddenly tight throat.
Nie Huaisang’s mouth starts to lift at the corners. “That you what, A-Cheng?” he says softly, but it sounds easy and undemanding, like if Jiang Cheng doesn’t get it right he can try again, tomorrow or the next day or as many times as he needs.
That makes it simple, somehow, and the words spill out of him like he’s been holding on to them for too long. “That I love you,” Jiang Cheng says, and he’s never been more sure about anything in his life. “I love the way you steal my clothes, that your face is the last thing I see at night, and that I get to wake up next to you. I can’t imagine waking up to anything else. Actually, I can, and it’s horrible,” he adds. “So. Marriage.”
“Ours,” Nie Huaisang agrees, his eyes bright and his smile as wide as Jiang Cheng has ever seen it. He tugs on Jiang Cheng’s hand with more force this time, pulling him upright, pulling him close.
“Of course I will. Would. Whatever,” Nie Huaisang says, folding Jiang Cheng’s hand in both of his. “I love you too, if you haven’t figured that out by now.”
Jiang Cheng feels like he doesn’t remember how to stop smiling. “You do?”
Nie Huaisang rolls his eyes but it’s a half-hearted effort at best. “Come here,” he says, lifting a hand to wrap it around the back of Jiang Cheng’s neck. His lips are as warm and firm on Jiang Cheng’s as ever, and they move with a surety and a promise that sets Jiang Cheng’s heart singing. There’s the faint sound of applause as if from behind glass and Jiang Cheng abruptly remembers that they’re in full view of the cafe, but none of that is as important as Nie Huaisang pressing closer, as his fingers sliding into the hair at the nape of Jiang Cheng’s neck.
The wind swirls around them for a moment, billowing out Jiang Cheng’s coat and tossing Nie Huaisang’s hair. It feels almost warm, despite the season, and then it’s gone, chasing leaves and stray papers down the street as Nie Huaisang pulls back and grins.
“Want to go inside? They seem interested,” he says, half-turning and waving. He gets several enthusiastic waves back.
“Ah.” Jiang Cheng eyes the crowd, and Nie Huaisang turns back to him with amusement lighting his eyes.
“Or do you want to go home? You did just ask me to marry you, and while we had one honeymoon I wouldn’t say no to another.” Nie Huaisang’s voice puts a playful spin on honeymoon that has Jiang Cheng breathless with the possibilities.
“The second,” he says quickly. “Definitely the second.”
Nie Huaisang laughs and turns, waving goodbye to the crowd in the cafe as he pulls Jiang Cheng down the street.
“Home it is,” he says, thumb rubbing over Jiang Cheng’s wedding ring, and Jiang Cheng lets the word settle over his heart, filling up the empty spaces. It feels like something he’s never going to forget, like a promise he’ll never have to remember because he’ll always know it. It feels real.
“Yeah,” he says, turning his hand so he can twine his fingers with Nie Huaisang’s. “Home.”