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When Nie Huaisang was younger, he had a proclivity for daydreaming.

It comes with the privilege of being the younger brother as he was awarded a freedom to pursue luxurious things like the arts, and with this came a robust imagination that was – frankly, far more worth his attention than most things, including his cultivation trainings. On the days when the lessons dragged on with mind-numbing intensity, Huaisang opted to save his sanity by using the time to fantasize about how he would formally announce his courtships to the cultivation world.

In childhood, his thoughts were soft and quiet, born from a child of love and fully enamored by it. He often reminisced about how his father held his third wife’s palm so delicately the day they had announced their intentions before the Nie disciples, and Huaisang enjoyed mimicking his mother’s gentle hums when she listened along to his father’s talks, pretending that his own nods and tender smiles in the mirror were not for his reflection, but only for his future lover.

As he grew older (and well-versed in…all forms of literature), Huaisang’s daydreams turned theatrical, bolder and far more suggestive. Performed in public and – depending on his age and time of night of the fantasy – in varying stages of undress. In these, it was less about the declaration of love; Huaisang had dreamed about that plenty when he was younger. These scenes were instead carefully curated to perfect the damning placement of sweat-slicked limbs and parted robes, of bitten skin and panting mouths. They were purely physical, overflowing with passionate energy teetering on the edge of scandalous, and regularly left Huaisang shivering in excitement. He thought little about who would actually fill the role of his imagined suitor or suitors, and their faces were usually blurred as if he had taken his paintbrush across their features to obscure. Huaisang never cared, never tried to assign anyone to the positions, not when the overarching goal was to chase the thrill over getting caught showing just how much he could love someone.

(There was one long stretch of time during his Gusu Lan studies though, when a face does clear. Not fully, but enough for Huaisang to pick out the familiar sharp gaze and down-turned mouth well enough to make his heart flutter during one of Lan Qiren’s lessons. His daydreams spiraled to a pinpoint focus then, and for several weeks Huaisang spent an exorbitant amount of time learning a new braiding style to see what it would look like in differing levels of dishevelment.)

With age, however, the daydreams came less and less – and as the realities of the cultivation world clashed and burned and stole from Huaisang over time, they were eventually completely forgotten, to be replaced with anxious attempts at memorizing sect leader rites and rituals that were never meant to be his responsibility to learn.

Huaisang’s thoughts don’t stray beyond one single target for many years.

But now, in the aftermath of it all, Huaisang finds himself allowing the peace of daydreaming again. Even if they don’t fully return to their once-beloved vibrancy, he doesn’t mind. Rather, he’s charmed by the soothing comfort of these fleeting thoughts that have adapted along with him and his leadership, to act as reminders that he can again use his heart for lovelier things than righteous vengeance. And as he begins to welcome a particular sect leader into his home and quarters, as his own visits to Lotus Pier increase, as he catches the subtle addition of two thin, intricately woven braids running underneath the dependable thick Yunmeng Jiang-style braids – and the bright red ears of an astute nephew – Huaisang delights once again in his fantasies and their possibilities.

Jiang Cheng beats him to the reveal, in the end.

In the middle of a minor cultivation meeting, no less.

His announcement is casual – too casual, as Huaisang knows Jiang Cheng well enough by now to recognize when he’s speaking without thinking, and the admission is dropped so cleanly into the brief silence between discussion topics that at first none of the other sects seem to understand its weight. And so, when he is asked to repeat himself, everyone is watching as Jiang Cheng fights his shoulders back and raises his chin to snarl out, “I said that I am formally announcing my courtship with Sect Leader Nie!”

His declaration echoes slightly off the walls from the sheer determination in his voice, the only sound in the room at first. But then a shift ripples through the crowd, and a wave of loud, customary congratulations and approving nods are thrown against the two – Huaisang also hears murmured snatches of it’s about time in-between the jubilations, along with a few nearly concealed scoffs further in the back. It continues on for mere minutes, just long enough for Jiang Cheng and Huaisang to give their gratitudes to each sect leader, and then – the meeting continues.

No gasps of surprise, no shouts of scandal over ruined robes or undone hair. Not even the opportunity for anyone to voice their well wishes in the same general direction because Jiang Cheng is sitting across from Huaisang in this meeting, so the sect leaders must turn their heads to congratulate each of them individually.

Huaisang is quietly horrified to the point of laughter, that day.

Truly, nothing in his life is ever going to go how he wants it to go, not even when it comes to love.

Granted, the public reacts more along the lines of Huaisang’s expectations – but not nearly enough to his liking, when only a few rumors swirl around them about how their courtship is only for political reasons, how their public touches are forced attempts at maintaining the illusion of love. The uproar there never comes either, never builds enough momentum to even consider crescendoing into a scandal, and Huaisang declares he is utterly disappointed.

“Certainly you’ve experienced enough drama in your lifetime and mine, A-Sang,” Jiang Cheng likes to remind him in exasperation. “Do you really need any more over something like our relationship? Isn’t it enough to have this acceptance by everyone?”

In response, Huaisang merely flicks his fan and sniffs, but he doesn’t do anything to remove his hand from where it’s tucked within Jiang Cheng’s own.

The handholding in public is new, and may be one of the few things that began following the announcement that Huaisang is perfectly fine with. Apparently, the explosion of the reveal was enough for Jiang Cheng to drop all pretenses of his aversion to intimacy. While their displays of affection are largely innocuous, befitting of two long-standing sect leaders far too used to sharing their love behind closed doors, Huaisang enjoys this new freedom. Even within the restrictions of their esteemed roles, it’s thrilling to be able to indulge himself, to just forgo his fan at times and use his own hand to pull Jiang Cheng close to whisper into his ear. 

Jiang Cheng surely feels the same, and it shows in the way he now wastes little time in planting himself next to Huaisang whenever possible, always within reach. And his hands like to brush against Huaisang all over, casual in that unthinking way of simple affection, whether it be to rest on his shoulder after brushing his hair back from the wind, or against his wrist in a gentle attempt to catch his attention. Huaisang discovers he likes it best when the two of them have the rare chance to put their backs to a wall or empty space; his skin is always left tingling from Jiang Cheng’s slow drag of his fingertips up and down his back, both a comforting weight and an outright tease, when he sometimes risks it to scratch his nails along the base of Huaisang’s skull.

It’s a shame, really, that operating in private for so long has made them so skillful in their secret affections, because no one ever spreads rumors about these kinds of touches between them.

Eventually – finally, Huaisang does get the reaction he has always long dreamed of in the form of Wei Wuxian.

Wei Wuxian, the infamous Yiling Laozu, happily married man into the Gusu Lan Sect to Hanguang-Jun himself, naturally threw all the necessary amounts of excessive energy at the two the second they stepped into Gusu territory on their next visit. He was practically bouncing as he circled around the couple to shower them in congratulations; and was all smiles and exaggerated winks and hoots and hollers for the rest of the evening too, clearly ignoring the heavy Lan disapproval directed at him as he overwhelmed the space with his enthusiasm well into the night. Even after the curfew, when the Lans had dispersed and even Jiang Cheng finally called it a night, Huaisang stayed with Wei Wuxian to savor this moment, in how he got to hide behind his fan, giggling prettily as Wei Wuxian regaled him with all of the possibilities of how he and Jiang Cheng ended up together. As someone long used to being in the shadows, it was exhilarating to finally get his chance to be at the center of so much excitement.

Of course, once Wei Wuxian himself shouted his approval throughout the cultivation world, the other sects decided that it was time to actually take more notice of the couple. Huaisang is fascinated by the eyes that now openly follow them, surveilling their movements much more keenly than before, even if it itches at his skin at times. He’s unused to being so obviously tracked, and finds himself watching back, cataloging any potentially useful observations in the back of his mind out of a long habitual abundance of caution. So when Huaisang idly rests his palm on Jiang Cheng’s collarbone during a quiet break in meetings one afternoon, he is unsurprised by the way everyone turns towards them, as if pulled by an invisible string attached to his wrist.

He does note, with rising interest, how Wei Wuxian also joins in, with his eyes sharpened to the point where Huaisang’s thumb taps against the sliver of exposed skin of Jiang Cheng’s neck.

That night, Huaisang doesn’t let up; especially when every touch appears to leave his lover glowing even among the watchful crowd, but mostly he does it to test a quickly developing hypothesis. He’s uncertain whether Jiang Cheng is aware that his once sworn brother’s eyes were also trained on them for the rest of the evening, but Huaisang shelves this observation for later reflection, instead intent on enjoying how Jiang Cheng’s natural warmth does wonders for his chilled hands.

The following weeks present him with more opportunity for examination as the summer months roll in, bringing with them warmer weather and easy excuses for extra visits to the cool waters at Lotus Pier. Huaisang still hasn’t mentioned anything to Jiang Cheng, not yet, but he does take note of how many of his featherlight touches on Jiang Cheng’s person it takes for Wei Wuxian to begin tilting his head, and how many more must happen for him to brush a finger against his nose in thought.

Wei Wuxian’s retaliation, then, doesn’t come as a shock for Huaisang.

Though he guesses he may have waited a beat too long to warn Jiang Cheng.

“Again! He’s done it again!”

The Qinghe Nie sect boat hasn’t started the process of docking, isn’t even close enough for it to bump against the wood of the dock or for the attendants to be able to reach out and begin tying it off – but none of this stops an irate Jiang Cheng from effortlessly leaping aboard anyway. Huaisang would be impressed by the easy display of agility, if the motion hadn’t rocked the boat hard enough to startle him into stumbling back onto his seat.

“Wanyin—!”

He has enough time to wave his attendant away to the front of the boat and help the others before Jiang Cheng is storming underneath the awning, his shoulders hunched and face twisted in a specific brand of annoyance that tells Huaisang that Wei Wuxian and Company have managed to arrive before him.

“Oh, Wanyin,” Huaisang hides a laugh behind a sigh, and promptly reaches out to pull Jiang Cheng into sitting next to him. Mostly to keep him still, as he knows that he nor his attendants’ boating abilities are yet at the level to where they can keep their balance around an experienced, stomping boatman, even after all these years. Jiang Cheng doesn’t even seem to notice the shift; almost immediately, he leans into Huaisang’s space, just short of embracing him, and nestles his cheek against the other’s.

Huaisang’s ears instantly warm, and he doesn’t try to fight the giddy feeling the action still manages to bubble up inside him. Jiang Cheng wants to be comforted, he thinks, by the way he turns his face against Huaisang’s skin, never once breaking contact until his lips are lightly pressed against Huaisang’s jawline, dry and soft against his skin.

Sighing once more, and with a valiant effort to sound extremely put upon, Huaisang asks, “Would you like to elaborate, A-Cheng?”

Ugh,” the noise of disgust wretches Jiang Cheng away from his spot on Huaisang’s shoulder, but he quickly resumes his place before Huaisang can think to protest, choosing instead to speak into his neck. “Wei Wuxian! I don’t know how he’s found a way to be even more annoying about his marriage to Lan Wangji, but it’s disgusting!”

Huaisang hums and moves to pat his lover’s arm. “And disgusting, how?”

“He’s…he’s listing things now. Things that he does with his husband – things that I never wanted to know that he does in private! He’s been going nonstop since the lot of them got here this morning. I had to push A-Ling out of the room after lunch because it was like he was bursting to go off about what the two of them get up to, just to piss me off!” Jiang Cheng doesn’t start shouting, but his voice surely rises in volume from frustration. Very quickly, Huaisang’s eyes flit around to assess both openings of the boat, checking as much as he can for anyone other than their usual attendants stationed around Jiang Cheng’s private section of dock.

“And Lan Wangji just sits there and does nothing to stop him! As if he’s okay with what Wei Wuxian is spouting, even encouraging him by—by touching him all the damn time! It’s like I’m being tortured with all these explicit details that I could’ve gone the rest of my life never knowing about! Disgusting!”

To punctuate his feelings of revulsion, Jiang Cheng ends his rant with a long, heavy groan and pushes his face further into Huaisang’s skin. Huaisang, frankly, has to hold back a snort at the display, and instead tilts his head to better cocoon Jiang Cheng into his neck, and gently pats his head.

“Does he also do it in front of his boy, Sizhui?” Huaisang asks, and Jiang Cheng shakes his head against him.

“No. At least, not today that I know of,” he grumbles. “In fact, their arrival and everything had been…well, nice, I guess, up until lunch. Then A-Ling started talking about that painting the two of you are going to finish once you got in, after Wei Wuxian asked him about his plans. Since then, he’s been like an annoying mosquito; refuses to leave my side just so he can keep going on—”

The anecdote immediately catches Huaisang’s attention, and it’s a testament to their years together that he can successfully multitask through Jiang Cheng’s complaining. Huaisang still hums appropriately and sympathetically pets Jiang Cheng’s hair through it all, but he also relegates his lover’s voice to background noise as his mind works to finally draw the lines connecting several archived observations, clicking things into place until he comes to a clear, if not hilarious, conclusion.

Never would Huaisang have ever considered the possibility that Wei Wuxian, with his awe-inspiring, passionate romance that rocked the cultivation world and even inspired a new sub-genre in recent romantic literature, would ever feel competitive against his once sworn brother’s own love life.

Huaisang nearly cackles at the revelation. Oh, how his old friend continues to come up with new ways to keep him busy!

Though with an armful of a whining Jiang Cheng, it is not lost on Huaisang that perhaps it wouldn’t hurt for him to step in a little bit, just enough to set this apparent competition up correctly.

Or, at the very least, level the playing field for Jiang Cheng.

“So,” he asks a short while later, after waiting a suitable amount of time once Jiang Cheng has finished, “what exactly has our Wei-xiong been saying about what he and the great Hanguang-Jun get up to in married life? I’m sure the stories they share are—”

Huaisang shrieks with shocked laughter when Jiang Cheng promptly shoves him away, leaving him sprawling across the rest of the boat seat. From this angle on his back, Jiang Cheng looms over him, his thunderous gaze pinning Huaisang as neatly as his palms do against his shoulders, and – Huaisang’s laughter stutters, his breath catches, his thighs open just the slightest more in welcome anticipation. He makes no further attempt to move, and instead chooses to watch Jiang Cheng as the eventual recognition of their positions causes his eyes to widen and his expression to open. Only when he parts his lips in a rough inhale does Huaisang reach up to pull his lover down into him.

He can certainly deal with the problem of Wei Wuxian later.

— — —

It is in fact Wei Wuxian who eventually seeks the other out, after Huaisang has settled his belongings in Jiang Cheng’s private quarters and sets out to rejoin the others; his greeting jovial and footsteps light as he walks in step with Huaisang. Having directed his attendants to join the Jiang disciples as he unpacked, it’s just the two of them walking along the outdoor corridors, their voices intermingling with the sound of the lapping water as they make their way to the main hall.

“Oh Sect Leader Nie, how I have missed you,” Wei Wuxian simpers, and Huaisang laughs freely as he knocks his fan along the dock banister as they walk. “Really, it’s good to be visiting again – and to have you here again at the same time, too! Ah, it’s a shame how old we have gotten, Huaisang, or I would say we should pick back up our most favorite of hobbies – or even, you should visit Gusu more often, and help me inspire some life back into those stuffy walls!”

Huaisang titters, and he casts an exaggeratedly scandalized look over to his friend. “Oh, Wei-xiong, and just which hobby could you be referring to right now?”

Wei Wuxian heartily chuckles but, to Huaisang’s surprise, doesn’t take the offered lede and instead waves away the topic. “Ah ah, no need to bring it back into open air, not out here where anyone could be listening! We can always wait until the cover of night to…indulge ourselves again, if you would like. Instead, I am very interested to hear more about this painting project that you and Jin Ling are doing. He refused to tell me anything about it, even when A-Yuan asked.”

A pause.

“Although it does seem that Jiang Cheng knows all about it, of course.” He hums, and Huaisang begins to pay a little more mind to how Wei Wuxian starts to tilt his head. He flicks his fan open. “Which, make no mistake, makes complete sense. It’s great to hear that Jin Ling has taken a liking to you!”

Ever the conversationalist, Huaisang doesn’t shy away from his friend. His fan stays low at his chest, far below his face, wrists only idly working it to encourage a small lazy breeze as he turns to grin up at Wei Wuxian. “Oh, yes. A-Ling and I have been painting this this large piece for some months—” Huaisang graciously does not mention that the two had been working on the painting for longer than his and Jiang Cheng’s courtship had been made public— “He seems to enjoy it now more than he did when we first started, though he won’t admit it. I’ve had to start bringing my own paints with me at this point, since we always end up exhausting Wanyin’s stash while I’m here.”

“Is that so?” Wei Wuxian nods along, obviously paying attention, but Huaisang watches as his eyes trail down his neck to catch on the edge of his robes, as if seeking some slip of a secret to be there. Huaisang considers the likelihood that, despite the reconstruction done to Lotus Pier and Wei Wuxian’s almost two decades of being away, it surely took Wei Wuxian very little time to memorize the new layout once granted permission to freely roam, including Jiang Cheng’s private quarters and dock.

Huaisang simply smiles, and the speed of his fan remains steady as he says, “We are nearly finished with it though, probably will happen even during this trip, so it can soon be displayed. I’m sure that if I ask A-Ling he may be willing to let you have a peek after dinner, before the boys retire for the night.” He pauses, just slightly, and turns his head to look over the dock path again, surveying the landscape. “That is, if you and Hanguang-Jun would be up to joining Wanyin and I after dinner for this.”

“Ah!” Wei Wuxian’s reaction is immediate, and his body twists fluidly towards Huaisang for the first time to lean in, arms crossed behind his back. “Well, I will have to ask Lan Zhan first, but I’m sure he wouldn’t mind spending time with all of us tonight, before the juniors go to bed. It’ll even be fun to see if he’s gotten any better on putting up with our antics before he calls it quits since last time! Of course—” Suddenly, Wei Wuxian straightens, and he affixes a serene smile to his face as he looks over at Huaisang from underneath his lashes. His laugh is convincingly soft, but his grin is a touch too sharp when he lets out a happy sigh.

Huaisang just barely restrains a snort.

“Of course, once we get him to leave, it’ll only be a matter of time before he comes back to collect me for the night. And really, I won’t be able to say no – not for this man who regularly breaks his own set curfew to stay up into the early hours to please me until I’m fully satisfied. Really, Lan Zhan just loves to—”

“Wei-xiong,” Huaisang interrupts, gentle and smiling. Wei Wuxian turns to him a bit more and matches his smile, though his eyes continue to betray the mirth within them. “If you’re presenting me with the opportunity to hear all about your many bed adventures with the esteemed Hanguang-Jun, then I’m sure you know that I will happily accept this offer! And you will not spare a single detail!”

Wei Wuxian’s smile transforms into an open smirk, and he even bounces on the balls of his feet as he begins to open his mouth—

“Although,” Huaisang continues, ponderously, and he finally tilts his head towards Wei Wuxian as he flicks his fan closed to tap it against his bottom lip. “I suppose then it would only make sense for me to share my own adventures, as friends do.”

Wei Wuxian merely shoots him a curious look, obviously intrigued. “Oh? You would be interested in that?”

Huaisang beams, and excitedly nods. “Mn, oh yes! I bet we could trade tips even. I’m sure you remember that I am always a willing student when it comes to the more interesting things in life, Wei-xiong!”

At this, Wei Wuxian’s smirk turns practically predatory. “Well, if you insist—"

“And I know that Wanyin and I’s relationship has only been public for a few short months, but I’m sure he’s told you about how we’ve snuck around for all those years. You even guessed a few of those secret trysts correctly back then, you know, even if I didn’t fully fess up at the time, Wei-xiong.”

“Wait, what—"

“But oh, all the other stories about Wanyin that I have yet to share! I could tell you about where all we’ve managed to have sex—”

Wait, Huaisang, you – Jiang Chenguh—” Wei Wuxian looks startled, if not outright alarmed at the constant drop of Jiang Cheng’s name in this turn of the conversation, and he stumbles in his stride as he attempts to reorient himself.

“Well, naturally Jiang Cheng. Who else would I talk about, Wei-xiong? I know it’s been several years since our Gusu Lan studies, but there has been a lot that I’ve learned from him since then, like he was my first—”

“No!” Wei Wuxian yelps, practically shouts, and just barely stops himself in physically recoiling from whatever Huaisang was about to say next. “Ahh, I mean—perhaps not everything needs to be shared between friends, eh?”

He crumbles so easily, with such little effort on Huaisang’s part, that Huaisang is practically gleeful.

Ugh, elder brothers.

Instead, Huaisang scrunches his eyebrows and taps his pouting bottom lip, but genially nods in understanding. “Oh. Well, yes I guess that is also true.” For extra measure though, Huaisang sighs and casts a forlorn glance at his friend. “A shame, really. It would have been fun to exchange your many stories about Hanguang-Jun with my own adventures I’ve shared with your shidi.”

Wei Wuxian flinches and only grimaces in response, and although the conversation drops, Huaisang suddenly finds himself having to walk just a little faster to keep up with the other’s new pace as they continue their walk. He doesn’t comment, but rather flicks his fan back open and smoothly offers to have his attendants send some lotus pods to Wei Wuxian’s quarters later as an evening snack, if his friend may be so interested.

— — —

“Alright, what did you do?”

To Jiang Cheng’s credit as a sect leader, he waits until he’s pouring Huaisang’s wine and uses his need to lean into Huaisang’s space as a guise to quietly question him. “He hasn’t said a single thing about any of that shit for the rest of the day, even when we were alone together.”

“You’re welcome,” Huaisang simply responds, and then when Jiang Cheng has filled his cup, says louder, “Thank you, A-Cheng. You are so kind to me.”

Finished with his duty and losing his excuse, Jiang Cheng has no choice but to sit back, ears tinged pink and mollified, and truly, Huaisang considers it all a complete success.

Well, that is for now, because as he moves to drink from his cup and his eyes catch Wei Wuxian’s from across the table, Huaisang has a stirring feeling that the arrival of a new problem may be soon on the horizon, for he recognizes Wei Wuxian’s steady gaze exactly for what it is.

Even a new body and face cannot hide the almost nostalgic familiarity of that glint in his eyes. Once only ever used in the direction of any man who came near his older sworn sister, before ultimately – and especially after their formal engagement announcement – becoming reserved solely for Jin Zixuan.