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ashes to the mountains

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There is no such thing as peacetime, not for the innermost cultivators of Qinghe Nie.

This is most especially true for Nie Mingjue.

As the months pass them by, astride and overhead, and the seasons stain the leaves and strip the branches and sharpen the air with the whetstone of a chill, Nie Mingjue loses more and more of himself, steadily but surely. Nothing, truly, at all, seems to be helping it. As though the descent is inexorable and inevitable and the order of their world and all of its things.

Nie Huaisang does not accept it with grace. He does not accept it at all.

He had raged at his brother when the truth of their cultivation had ripped its way out into the open between them; had splintered and broken through the planks of the bridge joining them together. But his rage had only ever been— fear. An unwillingness to watch his brother die before him.

He had made Nie Mingjue pledge, in faith and in soul if not in so many words, to live instead. But that is not solely Nie Mingjue’s burden to bear, that struggle; it is Nie Huaisang’s, too.

Nie Huaisang has never poured so much of himself into any one endeavour not for pleasure before in his life. He has certainly never pored over so many scrolls and texts and every scrap of anything he can possibly get in his hands and beneath his eyes. It’s fitting, in a way, that it is all for Nie Mingjue; apt and right and as it should be.

The outbursts have moved from periodic to persistent over the last month, Nie Mingjue’s splintering and sharding losses of self chartable to the meetings he is demanded to tolerate with the other sects, and the arguments that arise within them. To the visits of Lan Xichen and, most often, more expected, Jin Guangyao, who bring the offering of their music but wrap it in the sordid politicking that can never seem to set aside by anyone for even a moment.

No-one listens to Nie Mingjue. Though he has his sway and is granted his respects, he is rarely heeded when it is so sorely called for; he is a direct man, when he does not set aside his opinions for the sake of face and piety, and his perspectives are inconvenient at their very best. It had been the same with Qishan Wen, in the end, hadn’t it? How many years had Nie Mingjue been dismissed when he spoke of their danger? Qinghe Nie was the dog the Great Sects set upon their enemies, but they could not debark it without defanging it, and so the sound that came with their fury was seen as a price to be paid, a sacrifice to tolerate.

Nie Huaisang did not think he had it in him to hate so much and so severely as he has come to hate the other sects. He knows better, now, and he has learned; the lesson a hard one, practical and unpitying. He watches how so often Nie Mingjue confines himself to his rooms, now, his sense slipping through his grasp, and he hates what is being done as much as he hates what it is forcing both him and his brother to become.

If only they could run. But even if they could, if they could simply leave this viper’s pit, take their sect, and sever their coalition with the rest of the cultivation world at the neck, Nie Mingjue would choose to stay.

The deviation is a bad one, tonight. Enough so that the servants have been sent away, and his brother’s rooms barred up. To keep everyone out, as much as to try and keep Nie Mingjue in. The first time they had enacted this measure, when Nie Mingjue had first toed over the threshold from angry to aggressive, a trouble to a threat, they had tried to keep Nie Huaisang away.

They do not try anymore. When he is like this, Nie Mingjue sees the world as a battlefield, and the people within it as his enemies. Nie Huaisang does not know what Nie Mingjue sees when he looks at him, mind aflame, body ruining itself; if it is some visage of him, less truth than memory, or if the shape he takes in Nie Mingjue’s eyes bears no resemblance to himself at all. But— though there are callous words, sometimes, whenever Nie Mingjue raises a hand to him, he cannot follow through with the blow. Nie Mingjue cannot hurt him, no matter how far he descends, no matter how dire his degeneration into his madness.

In that light, Nie Huaisang can’t justly say it matters what Nie Mingjue sees him as, not when their bond serves to underpin his safety regardless of it.

Nie Mingjue is quiet in his bed when Nie Huaisang enters his chambers. Asleep, perhaps, from the soft, subtle crest and sink of his chest, his face turned away. The room is commendably intact; only an astray altar table has met its end beneath the bludgeon of Nie Mingjue’s wrath, and it is far enough out of the way that Nie Huaisang leaves it be for the morning. He sets down his books at Nie Mingjue’s low table, instead, and pulls the incense he’s hidden in his sleeve out to set it in the burner. Something cold, herbal, calming. No music, though Nie Huaisang knows the notes to what he could at the very least hum, if need be. He’s starting to lose his hope in it, Gusu Lan’s measures of balance that Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao foist upon them.

Nie Huaisang gently pries the silver circlet of his headpiece free from the nest of his braids, sets it down, and takes his time unbinding them all, one by one, until his hair is loose in its crooked spill down his shoulders, his spine. There are many hours still left in the night, and he does not intend to leave until morning, or until he is sent away, whichever so happens to come first. There is no cause for him to not become comfortable, no conflict in stripping down to his inner robe, letting the layers pool beneath him, in kicking off his boots beneath the table.

He doesn’t set the pin in Nie Mingjue’s candle so that he will know when it has burned down to the hour shy of dawn; he pays little attention to the grooves carved into the wax at all, not when he can bend over his books instead. And so, Nie Huaisang is not sure how much time passes, or how long he has been here, in Nie Mingjue’s room, when he hears the shift of his weight, rolling over in his bed. At first, he thinks it is only that, a movement of the body, still snared in sleep. Then, moments later, there are arms winding themselves around his waist, as Nie Mingjue’s thighs bracket his hips in his splayed kneel, his forehead pressing into the join of Nie Huaisang’s neck and shoulder.

Nie Mingjue’s approach is always silent, but his touch is not new, not here. The more and more it happens, this cruel and ceaseless unmaking, the more wrecked and raw Nie Mingjue becomes, after, when he resurfaces. And— well. If they cannot be vulnerable with one another as brothers, who else will shoulder that weight for them? Who else could survive it? Who else would dare risk their back and their life in the trying?

Nie Huaisang leans back within the cage of Nie Mingjue’s body, the cradle of his arms, and presses a palm, clumsy and reaching, to his brother’s throat, through the thick tangle of his sleep-tussled hair.

“It’s okay,” Nie Huaisang tells him. “Nobody was hurt, and nothing was broken that can’t be fixed.” This is part of what Nie Huaisang does for Nie Mingjue, of the few things he can: he gives him an account, after. He tallies the casualties, the sums of every cost of Nie Mingjue’s rampages, and he blunts their edges, offers their confirmations forward as consolations.

Nie Mingjue does not reply, not with anything more than a shaky breath against his neck, hot and damp on his skin even where it catches on the collar of his robe. It is not always that Nie Mingjue can bring himself to say anything, not for this, and it is not something Nie Huaisang needs of him. He pats his older brother’s hair, once, feather-soft and fleeting, before his hand flits away. If Nie Mingjue wishes to hold him, he can hold Nie Huaisang for as long or as little as he likes, until he has had his fill of this taste of comfort.

The crush of Nie Mingjue’s hand when it clamps around his elbow is strong enough to bruise, and it wrests a sound out of Nie Huaisang’s mouth, shock cut with pain. “Da-ge?” he breathes out, his voice still flinching around the sting.

Nie Mingjue’s grip loosens, as if in apology, before the circle of his fingers shifts down Nie Huaisang’s forearm, the drag listless, meandering.

It’s wrong, Nie Huaisang thinks to himself, not without an edge of panic, as he tries to turn his head. His lips brush over Nie Mingjue’s hair, and he parts his mouth just as the scrape of Nie Mingjue’s palm finds his wrist and bears down. Nie Mingjue’s next exhale comes in a rush, ragged and raw. The gust of it cuts through Nie Huaisang’s skin, sinking down and deep to pluck his nerves.

“Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang tries again. Just to be sure, or just in case—

Nie Mingjue does not move with any haste, or force, or violence. But he does move, and while the exertion of his will is a gradual one, as he bends Nie Huaisang’s arm back, he is unshakeable and unrelenting. Nie Huaisang’s legs slide out from beneath him as his spine arches to assuage the demand, his head tipping back against Nie Mingjue’s shoulder to abate the ache. There is no other choice than to sink into the flow, to try and keep his head above the flood of the water; if Nie Huaisang fights it, he knows his shoulder will break well before the spell cast on Nie Mingjue’s sanity does.

And it will not be out of malice, is the terrible thing. Nie Mingjue will break him through to sever his struggles not because Nie Huaisang resists, but because that is the nature of the beast that he is. Because that is what lies beneath the unravelling tapestries and vague veils of humanity pulled over to sit, mangled and misshapen, atop the truth of him. He will break Nie Huaisang because that is the right of his power, and once he realises— that will break him all the worse than Nie Huaisang could ever be broken beneath his hand and within his care.

Nie Huaisang is not afraid; not of Nie Mingjue, and not of what he can do. And so, he bends, and bends, until his wrist is pinned to the slope of his back, his shoulder pulled taut enough to tremble, his elbow pressed into the fan of his brother’s ribs. When he bends too far and loses his balance to the overreach, Nie Huaisang scrabbles blindly for Nie Mingjue’s thigh to catch himself.

He feels his misstep in the way Nie Mingjue’s face jerks up. He bares his teeth against the slope of Nie Huaisang’s nape, shielded by the silken shroud of his hair, and the apology on Nie Huaisang’s tongue instead slips through his lips as a groan as Nie Mingjue seizes him. Nie Mingjue needs only one hand to hold him when he has bent his wrist back to join the first, his fingers roping around the cross of Nie Huaisang’s forearms, and that is not a surprise, to him, not precisely, but the perspective of it is a— a shock. It sends a chill streaking up his spine just as it sparks a heat to swirl through his gut and spill over between his shaking thighs.

“Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang gasps out, at the first roaming graze of his fingers, hooking into the collar of his inner robe. “Sect Leader Nie. Nie Mingjue.” It does not seem to matter what he calls out, for not one name or blow or anything else Nie Huaisang can swing at him can even manage to land. Nie Mingjue’s fingers slide lower, following the fold of Nie Huaisang’s robe where it wraps around his chest, to the ties cinching it together.

“Please,” Nie Huaisang begs, quieter, when Nie Mingjue tears the knot free, rough enough to split the strings from the hems. He brings his palm to rest on the bare swerve of Nie Huaisang’s waist, the brand of his touch staggering, the fan of his fingers spanning over half of him, all too easily.

Nie Mingjue strokes the coarse pads of his fingers up Nie Huaisang’s stomach, to the span of his chest, and Nie Huaisang’s whine shakes out of his mouth at the indolent tease of the touch. He tries to twist himself, in the trap of Nie Mingjue’s body bracketing him, that he might better see his brother’s face, but Nie Mingjue stills him effortlessly and rips his robe down. It bunches at his elbows, tangles there, and then Nie Mingjue is winding it in on itself, tying Nie Huaisang’s arms in place.

There is no give in it, even when Nie Huaisang fists his hands and pulls from his shoulders; and so he is left helpless, unable to do anything but slump against Nie Mingjue’s chest, shivering, something tight and sickening vicing around his heart, spidering up his throat.

“Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang pleads again, voice scratchy. Nie Mingjue is deaf to him, still; through the curtain of his hair framing his profile, Nie Huaisang can see his brother’s eyes, and there is nothing within them but distance. Something vast and vacant and unconquerable.

Nie Mingjue touches him with a firm deliberateness that can’t be forsaken, one hand collaring Nie Huaisang at the neck, the other clutching his knee, forcing his thighs to spread wide. Nie Huaisang swallows around the dryness that wracks his throat, and closes his eyes as fear finally flourishes in his chest. It is not for himself that Nie Huaisang is afraid, but for Nie Mingjue: if he wakes and sees Nie Huaisang like this, or, or worse— just what will he do? How will he cope?

Will Nie Mingjue stir at all?

That— he can’t even begin to consider that, doesn’t want to; doesn’t have to, not when Nie Mingjue’s hand edges tighter around his throat, just enough for him to truly feel the rope of his broad palm pressing down when he swallows again. Not when Nie Mingjue’s hand leaves his knee, certain Nie Huaisang will obey the command inherent in how he has been spread out, and sinks between his parted thighs to close around his cock. Every thought flies out of Nie Huaisang’s head just as his breath rips out of his chest with a fraying whimper. His eyes blur over, the corners stinging, wet, and his mouth falls slack around a hitching moan, the hinge of his jaw nudging along Nie Mingjue’s fingers.

His brother does not even pull him out from his pants, content to stroke him through the fabric until he’s swollen thick and leaking at the tip, precome smearing against the white linen, making it sheer. Nie Huaisang feels so hot he can barely breathe through it, the way it makes his senses shatter and his body shake apart, the sweat beading along the crescents of his vertebrae scalding him. And yet, somehow, Nie Mingjue is impossibly hotter, the brace of his chest against Nie Huaisang’s back an inferno, his hand around his cock a brand.

Nie Huaisang cranes his neck against Nie Mingjue’s hand, tipping his head, and beneath the fluttering swoop of his eyelashes and down the plain of his chest, he sees himself, his tip flushed red, straining against the soaked cotton, slit snubbing along the thread with every languid knead of Nie Mingjue’s hand. It is this that breaks through the dam of him, throws the cage of his ribs wide open like a door; the obscene abasement of how he looks and the undeniable condemnation of the judgement it passes on him. His cock looks so good in Nie Mingjue’s hand, shaft all but subsumed by the furl of his palm and fingers, his thumb circling the flared head, grazing the sensitive skin with the scratch of his pants and his callouses both. Nie Mingjue’s grip looks so good around his cock, as if Nie Huaisang was made and meant for it, for this, to be taken in his brother’s hand.

The roots of this were long sunk deep, their branches pleached; Nie Huaisang runs into Nie Mingjue and Nie Mingjue bleeds through Nie Huaisang and they’re inseparable, indefinable, two parts to one horrifying whole. Once that jagged shard breaks the surface and sinks home, Nie Huaisang cries out, writhing, and he does not stop, couldn’t stop if he had the mind or the want left to, every stroke of Nie Mingjue’s hand on him prising the sobs out to follow, each more wretched and wrecked than the last. There is nowhere to go but to Nie Mingjue; forward into the thrust of his hand, back into the rut of his cock, each shove of his hips grinding it against his ass, hot and immense. Nie Mingjue holds him up and holds him down, neither letting him go nor letting him fall, and Nie Huaisang whimpers and whines and takes it, takes all that he is dealt out.

Nie Huaisang is still scared, still terrified, captive to the heralded storm of this moment breaking and Nie Mingjue waking, but what else can he do? He hasn’t the strength to stop him or the selflessness to spare him. Because— because while he might not have wanted it like this, it is in the wanting of it at all that Nie Huaisang comes undone. Of course such a fantasy has intruded on him before: his brother taking him, using him, in shades and blurs of force. The idea of it has been there for longer than he need admit; stoked by every errant thought and finally set alight and coaxed to an all-consuming blaze by a withering tipping point.

That foreordained moment in the blade shrine, when Nie Mingjue had killed Nie Zonghui and the dwindled remnants of their doomed men, and then had turned on Nie Huaisang and brought the tip of Baxia to his jaw. When he had stopped, and Nie Huaisang had looked upon the red-eyed madness that wore his brother’s face and thought, hysterical and bereft and resigned, Nie Mingjue’s sabre ghosting down his robe, Will he kill me, now, too, or—

Every minute since, when Nie Huaisang has felt a hand on his back or his hip and held hope in his heart that it was meant to linger, or when he has slipped into Nie Mingjue’s room expecting his thrashing rage only to find him bent over instead, his fist stripping his cock, Nie Huaisang has felt that grave, ravenous desire, somewhere deep in the pit of him. If he is honest with it, and honest with himself, he has set it aside and let it lie for so long only because he cannot lose Nie Mingjue for the sake of it. It is a survivable vicissitude, after all, to want his brother like this, in the dark and from a distance.

But losing him? To this, of all the things that could steal Nie Mingjue away, or sunder them both apart? Unsurpassable, unsufferable— he’d sooner die than let it come to pass.

He may no longer have any choice but to see it happen.

Nie Mingjue is merciless in this, methodical, as he is in all other things he gives himself to. There are no half measures in the way he takes Nie Huaisang apart, his face tipping back into the crook of Nie Huaisang’s neck just to mouth at it, his stubble rasping over the thrum of Nie Huaisang’s pulse. When he closes his lips and teeth to suck a livid bruise into his skin, Nie Huaisang wails, fever-pitched, fingers clawing at the rope of his robes, eyes rolling back. Nie Mingjue laves over it with his tongue, soothes over the throb, and then shifts to press his mark higher, to mar the skin that stretches up past even Nie Huaisang’s tallest collars. When Nie Huaisang tries to pant out his protest, the hand on his neck unclasps, only for Nie Mingjue to curve it at the wrist. His fingers hook down on Nie Huaisang’s bottom teeth, the pads pinning his tongue flat, and Nie Huaisang keens, pitiful and muffled and wet.

Time stutters, stalls out. Nie Huaisang whimpers, raw, around the gag of Nie Mingjue’s fingers, as Nie Mingjue tightens his fist, his strokes taking the heel-turn to punishing, every grate and drag of his palm rough, the slick sound of skin and the slap of the linen on his shaft overwhelming, nauseating. He tries to swallow down the spit pooling on his tongue and chokes on it all instead, the tears pricking at his eyes at last spilling over to paint his cheeks, pushed to overflow by the surge of his humiliation. Nie Mingjue makes a sound against his shoulder, between the leash of his teeth, and the croon of it in Nie Huaisang ears sounds so much like—

Nie Huaisang sobs, and sobs, and sobs, and barely even realises, at first, between the heaves of his breath around Nie Mingjue’s fingers and the dizzying lurch of his nerves, flipping over themselves, that he’s come, spilling into the cup of Nie Mingjue’s palm over his tip. He’s so wet as it is, so wrecked, it seems to make little difference to the mess of him. Nie Mingjue eases his fingers out from between Nie Huaisang’s teeth, lets them trace a trail down his rattling throat as his other hand slips from his cock to pet his inner thigh, gentling. The heel of his palm judders against Nie Huaisang’s sternum before the cup of it furls over his pectoral, his damp fingers pinching around his nipple, and the sound Nie Huaisang makes, ripped out from between the gaps in his sniffling whimpers, is feral.

He sags into his brother’s hands, kicking out blindly at the floor, wrists chafing from the vicious twist of his hands in his robe. Nie Mingjue only gives him so much slack, just enough for his head to hang low, chin tucked towards his chest, so he can watch, blearily, as his brother turns his hand over between his legs and closes it back over his cock. For a moment, Nie Huaisang’s scream is soundless, before it finally shakes free of his chest and scrapes up his throat, over his tongue. He surges, sobbing; he’s too sensitive, it’s too much, it hurts, and it hurts, and Nie Mingjue just strokes him through it, tipping and throwing him over edge after edge.

Even when he feels his cock begin to swell, again, within the steady tempt of Nie Mingjue’s hand, pleasure sparking beneath the sting, more spiteful heat than anything sweet, Nie Huaisang fights, futilely, to clamp his thighs together. He bucks and twists, teeth bared, eyes screwed shut, and his struggles just slide off Nie Mingjue like water. Nie Huaisang can’t seem to breathe through his hiccuping wails, can’t seem to get a thought back into his head or a word out of his mouth. He’s going to faint, he can’t help but think, wildly, as Nie Mingjue noses through his hair to mouth at his nape, teeth nipping at the slant of his spine, brought up to the shallows of his skin by the parlous clutch of his frame. Heaven and Earth, he’s actually going to break

“Stop,” Nie Huaisang breathes out, bleak, “stop!” He's not even sure he's speaking any sense at all, or that he wants what he's asking for, truly, let alone in the way he's asking for it. It is so much. It is all so much, and it is not as if Nie Mingjue can hear him, anyway.

Or so he thinks, until he feels the way Nie Mingjue’s hand stutters against him, slows. The tremor in his lips where they’re still pressed to his neck. The way his breath hitches, and then tears.

“Da-ge?” There is little he can do about the way his voice sounds; the way it scrapes and shakes up his shredded throat. There is a lot he can do about the way he seems; how he can shape himself into something calm, and gentle, and unshaken. It is not all entirely a lie, merely— preemptive, perhaps. But it is important, for Nie Mingjue, to learn and to know now, and not later.

“Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang repeats, a little firmer, if only just. “Are you there? Are you awake?”

There’s a pause, a beat, where it seems Nie Mingjue doesn’t even breathe. Then, Nie Huaisang feels his hands fall away, cut cleanly free, and his head tilt, his shallow breath ghosting the bruising mark his teeth and tongue last left. “Huaisang.” It is so very careful, and so very quiet. Agonised. “Yes.”

“Can you untie me?” Nie Huaisang asks, and Nie Mingjue does, in a rush and with a trembling hand. Nie Huaisang feels the knot of the fabric fall slack, and can’t help his little gasp as his shoulders sink into the relief, shuddering. He braces his hands on the floor to steady himself, flinching, and Nie Mingjue surges to his feet behind him, unsteady, and steps back, away.

He can’t have that. Neither of them can have that, so Nie Huaisang grits his teeth and stands up, quicker than he wants, sooner than he can really take. His legs shake beneath him, and he stumbles over his own feet, the swim of his head tipping him off balance, but he catches himself, and pulls his inner robe back over his shoulders.

“Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang calls, turning around. Nie Mingjue looks— he looks— Nie Huaisang has no words for it. Afraid is so inept, ill-suited. It’s the best Nie Huaisang has. Nie Mingjue looks frightened, and it’s not of Nie Huaisang, and not even solely of himself, not anymore, and it’s heartbreaking.

Nie Huaisang swallows, and takes a step forward. Nie Mingjue takes two steps back, his cruelly contorted expression shuttering, gnarling further in on itself. Don’t cry, Nie Huaisang thinks to himself, fleetingly. He’s not sure if he means his brother or himself. “It’s okay,” he says. “You’re here. You’re back now.”

Nie Mingjue’s jaw tightens, somehow, as if there’s still more space left between the arduous grit of his teeth to press down into. He looks away, then back, though he doesn’t quite meet Nie Huaisang’s eyes. With the distance he’s keeping between them, he does not need to bow his head into something subservient; if Nie Huaisang was closer, it would look to be the subdual they both seem to know it is.

“It’s okay,” Nie Huaisang repeats. He takes another step forward, and suppresses the urge that slaps through him to grimace when his pants scrape over his thighs, the fabric sticky and stiff with his drying come. “You didn’t hurt me, and you didn’t break anything that can’t be fixed.”

“Huaisang.” There’s a warning to it, both in the edge to Nie Mingjue’s voice and the way his gaze flicks; first to somewhere behind them, and then to the frayed hem of Nie Huaisang’s robe where he has done his best to bundle it around himself.

“The altar table was from before,” Nie Huaisang counters, fingers curling against his sides as he folds his arms over his chest, pinning his robe closed. “And this is— it’s just fabric, it can be stitched.”

Don’t.” It’s serrated, now, the warning’s edge, virulent and vehement. When Nie Huaisang takes another step forward, Nie Mingjue does not step back, but Nie Huaisang can see how the coil of his whole body jerks with the instinct of it, the desire.

Of course Nie Mingjue would not take a single out Nie Huaisang has to give. Too proud. Too penitent. Still, it was not a waste to try.

“You didn’t do anything I didn’t want. And you stopped,” Nie Huaisang adds, after a breath, “when I asked.” Please let that mean something, he prays to himself, the beg of it miserable and urgent. It has to mean something. It will mean something, if Nie Mingjue will only let it.

There’s a sliver of something in Nie Mingjue’s dark eyes, the burn of it bright and all too brief, but not gone quickly enough for the spark not to catch on the tinder of Nie Huaisang’s tentative hope that, for all this is, it is surmountable. “Huaisang—”

“What?” Nie Huaisang presses in, just as he presses closer, steps all but a prowl from the control he exerts on every shift of his weight to keep himself in check. “Don’t… what?”

“Don’t lie to me,” Nie Mingjue heaves out, devastated. It rives through Nie Huaisang like he’s been struck, and the laugh that sprays out of him in answer is more scandalised than shocked. That Nie Mingjue would even think such a thing is fair, yes. It is not as if Nie Huaisang has never lied to him before, but always for trifling things of no consequence, or— for Nie Mingjue’s sake. To keep him safe. But that his brother would dare hurt him by accusing him aloud, here, of all times and places—

“You think—” Nie Huaisang stutters, “so because it comforts you, it can’t possibly be true?” Damn him, and damn Nie Mingjue, but he can’t stop the way he’s starting to shake, all over, or how his composure is slipping away. “I have wanted this. I have wanted you.”

“Didi,” Nie Mingjue hisses, and Nie Huaisang can hear it, in the tear of his voice, how Nie Mingjue has bent so far back that he’s now on the very verge of breaking, “stop this.”

“Was it not me?” Nie Huaisang blurts out. “Did you not think it was me? Just tell me,” he begs, when Nie Mingjue gives him nothing back but the same horrible quiet that he seems to think is easiest for them both to endure, “if it’s not the same for you, I’ll stop. I’ll go, and I’ll never speak of this again.”

It would break no small part of him, he knows, but nothing he couldn’t put away, nothing that could not be set aside somewhere and left to collect dust. His cultivation is good enough that the bruises will not last more than a day, perhaps two, if he leaves them be. They can be covered between now and then. It would all be— it would be—

Nie Huaisang feels the sob well up in his chest, and curses himself as it drags itself out alongside his next quivering exhale, the tears hemming his eyes spilling out to streak his cheeks. That is what forces Nie Mingjue to yield, to reach back across the space between them and rest his hands on Nie Huaisang’s shoulders, just as Nie Huaisang knew he would, if he cried, and why he didn’t want to. It feels like he’s tricked him.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Nie Mingjue murmurs, soft, the circle of his thumbs against his shoulders shy, but gentling. Unsure, but committed. Nie Huaisang knows what to hear within what is unsaid, with Nie Mingjue, and while he does think it, the terrible little hurt, petty retort of You are, right now, he won’t say it. It’s unfair, and undeserved.

“You won’t,” Nie Huaisang assures him. It’s no less real than his first thought, but it is so much kinder: an upturned palm, rather than a closed fist. “I can take anything you want to give.”

Nie Mingjue’s fingers begin to uncurl from his shoulders, and Nie Huaisang catches him by the forearms. His touch has nothing to it, not even insistence, but Nie Mingjue tightens his grip back into place in answer. It can’t be helped, how Nie Huaisang’s robe falls open around him, again, baring him for perusal, but Nie Mingjue flinches back at the sight for only the moment it takes before their gazes meet.

“How can you be sure of that?”

“How can you?” Nie Huaisang argues in turn. The same thing, thrown back. Neither of them are yet proven right, and so neither of them are yet proven wrong. It is in the approach that they’re differing; Nie Mingjue thinks it too great a risk to try. Nie Huaisang thinks it no great loss to fail. “Let me in, Da-ge. Let Didi help you.”

He’s won, he knows, when Nie Mingjue lowers his head, dragging his eyes away. When Nie Mingjue’s nails bite into his skin through his robe. He’s won, but it’s still too early, yet, to call it a victory.

“Go. Sit on the bed.” It takes Nie Huaisang a moment to obey, but only because it takes a moment for Nie Mingjue to release him. When his brother moves, so does he; Nie Mingjue to elsewhere, and Nie Huaisang to his place. He perches on the mattress, cross-legged, and pulls his robe around himself, swallowing down the laugh that itches its way into his mouth at the amusing absurdity of it. That he’s trying to accomplish an appearance of decorum now, when it’s far too late for that.

He does not cast too appraising an eye over what Nie Mingjue carries with him when he returns, what he sets aside before he sits astride Nie Huaisang on the bed. Nie Mingjue takes his chin between his fingers, and Nie Huaisang turns towards him in acquiescence, eyes sliding shut.

“You’re testing me,” Nie Mingjue remarks, quiet. There are too many emotions in it for Nie Huaisang to extricate one from another, all of them clashing together, conflicted and contradictive.

“I’m not trying to,” Nie Huaisang replies. He trembles at the first touch of something else to his face, damp and warm; likely the cloth from Nie Mingjue’s wash basin. His chin bumps against the snare of Nie Mingjue’s fingers as he swallows, but that is as much as he moves, save to breathe, unsteady, as Nie Mingjue begins to dab tenderly at his eyes. “It’s not on purpose.”

“I know, Didi.” It’s more sigh than whisper, intended as much for Nie Huaisang as for himself. “I know.” He wipes the tears from his eyelashes and his cheeks, before the cloth drags lower, swiping gently over his lips. Never once lifting up from his skin, so Nie Huaisang always knows just where he is, what he is about to touch.

Nie Huaisang feels no amount of patience, not for this, but he is patient. Nie Mingjue leads; Nie Huaisang follows. Just as they’re both meant to; just how it all should be. The cloth swipes down his jaw, stuttering over his chin and Nie Mingjue’s fingers, before it swoops lower, smoothing down the column of his throat. Nie Huaisang reaches behind himself, blindly, and gathers up his hair, sweeping it over his shoulder so Nie Mingjue can better reach the spit and sweat that have dried on his nape, the slightest streaks of blood. Each bruise from Nie Mingjue’s mouth throbs from each touch of his fingers through the cloth, but it’s not unpleasant, the heat that it evokes beneath his skin and the way the ache reverberates after the pressure leaves.

When the drift of Nie Mingjue’s hand stalls, stuttering at the slope of his shoulder, Nie Huaisang reaches for the collar of his robe and strips it back before Nie Mingjue needs to dwell on it for longer than those few seconds. There is something to be found and to be had, in the idea of his brother stripping him, like this, but it can wait for its time to come. For now, allowances must be made, by the both of them, to better guide the way. Accommodations, to slow the descent, to soften the impact that will soon follow.

Nie Mingjue cleans his shoulder, and Nie Huaisang sucks in a breath when the cloth scrapes down his sternum, his stomach; there’s nothing really to wipe away, there, save stale sweat, but the cloth is too dry, now, anyway, to serve as anything more than a postulation. When he at last reaches his waist, Nie Mingjue retreats, then returns, his hand still damp from the cloth when it closes, bare, around the jut of Nie Huaisang’s hip.

“Stand up,” Nie Mingjue commands, “and strip.”

He has already turned away by the time Nie Huaisang has risen to his feet and opened his eyes. From where he stands, Nie Huaisang can’t see anything but the span of his brother’s back, the stretch of his arms as he dips the cloth into the wash basin he’s set down on the side table. If he took a half step, he would be able to see his profile, even through his hair. Nie Huaisang does not, though the desire is more than there; he only does what he has been told, grimacing when the linen peels away from his skin, and then waits for what is next.

Nie Mingjue does not tease him with the wait of it, does not leave him adrift in the oblivion of uncertainty for any longer than what seems to be necessary. “Bow forward,” Nie Mingjue tells him, over the sound of dripping water as he wrings out the cloth, “with your face to the bed, and your hands above you.”

Nie Huaisang takes a steadying breath, and then another, before he goes. His knees slip against the sheets and the heels of his palms skid in turn, maladroit even for him, the tangle of his limbs feeling too long for him, the pull of his skin too tight for the fit of his frame. His eyes sting as he presses his forehead to the mattress; his breath is too hot where it curls back against his mouth with each shaking breath. He hears Nie Mingjue move only when he’s been wholly obeyed, and though Nie Huaisang can’t see him, he has an idea of how he himself must look, and can guess how that sight might shape Nie Mingjue’s expression.

It’s a surprise how swiftly shame sets itself upon him; Nie Huaisang shudders with it, and then jerks as the backs of Nie Mingjue’s knuckles graze the inside of his thigh, prompting him to spread himself wider. As if there is further he can go; if there’s any more of him left that he’s yet to put on display.

“Did you suspect me all this time, Huaisang?” Nie Mingjue asks him, dreadfully and duplicitously even, as he closes his hand and the cloth around his soft cock.

“I— hoped,” Nie Huaisang yelps out, his blood brought to boil beneath his burning skin just from that, the token touch of his brother’s fingers. Nie Mingjue’s purpose is not his pleasure, at least not yet, so he does not linger; he rubs his thumb against Nie Huaisang’s tip before he drags the cloth over to pat down his thighs.

“Then you knew,” Nie Mingjue continues, sounding as steady and sure as the stroke of his hand, “the effect you would have on me, if you were right.”

“Yes,” Nie Huaisang admits, strained. There’s no change in the way Nie Mingjue continues to handle him; neither condemnatory nor condoning, only cursory. He smoothes the cloth between the creases where his thighs meet his ass, and then sweeps it upward, between his cheeks, snubbing over his hole. Nie Huaisang gasps out, squirming, but nothing stays long enough for him to either surge away from or sink back into.

Nie Mingjue leans away, and reaches for something again; Nie Huaisang feels the shift of the mattress beneath his knees, and hears the slosh of the water as the cloth is dropped into it, followed by the clatter of something else against the wood of the table. There are few things Nie Huaisang wants more than to turn his face and look over his shoulder, to know what his brother is doing, but he doesn’t dare. He twists his fingers in the sheets instead, breath stuttering out of his mouth as Nie Mingjue’s weight settles back in behind him.

“Do you understand what I’m going to do to you?” It’s the first fracture in his facade, the way Nie Mingjue fumbles around the words, his voice fraught. There’s a flicker of fear, there, again. Nie Huaisang is not sure who it is for; him, or Nie Mingjue. Perhaps it is for both of them.

“Not yet,” Nie Huaisang answers. He’s not sure he could even presume it; he never thought he would get this far. Had almost been convinced mere minutes ago that any dream of it was dashed with finality. Now, he’s here, bent over and spread out on his brother’s bed. He’s not so officious as to think there are no longer any turns this night can take that he cannot expect.

“Hands,” Nie Mingjue says. It takes Nie Huaisang a moment to understand, uprooted as he already is, and another moment again to move. Nie Mingjue waits for him, the loom of him imperial and imposing and everything but intimidating, to reposition himself, the slope of his spine turning severe as he bends his arms back and folds them together, hands twisting to grasp at his elbows to help secure the pose. It’s— Nie Huaisang pants out, squeezing his eyes shut, sweat catching in his eyebrows.

Something slides between his back and his arms, winding around them before Nie Mingjue draws it tight, and it is only when Nie Huaisang hears it, somehow, over the slam of his heart in his chest and the race of his blood in his ears, the snick of metal looping through leather and notching into place, that it is his own belt, retrieved from the pile of his earlier discarded clothes. He grunts out, winded, as Nie Mingjue pulls him up by the strap and back into his lap, his nails scratching helplessly for purchase against the silk of his brother’s inner robe, Nie Mingjue’s breath hot where it gusts against his sweat-damp temple.

“I’m going to break you,” Nie Mingjue promises, rough, and then he’s leaning forward, bending Nie Huaisang in on himself before he can recover, only to slide his arm beneath his thighs to yank him up from behind his knees. It drives him back into his lap, and the little breath he’s gotten back into his lungs is punched straight back out by the scalding, sinful grind of Nie Mingjue’s clothed cock as it shoves along the curve of his ass, parting his cheeks around the sheer girth of it, the head tucking up behind his balls.

Oh— oh, he really is, isn’t he, and isn’t that—

Nie Huaisang chokes on his own spit with a rattling, rasping heave, head rolling back against Nie Mingjue’s shoulder as he’s shifted, inch by exacting inch, with utter ease, just from Nie Mingjue’s arm bending his knees up towards his own chest. It’s like he’s nothing, at all, to the ripple of strength that runs through Nie Mingjue’s muscles, to the thread of his sinew and the pull of his bones within his frame. It’s one thing to know one’s desires and another to confront them, and everything this is saying about Nie Huaisang, the way he bucks in his brother’s grip and whines, the head of his cock grinding against his belly, is telling his truths to Nie Mingjue, in turn. And that’s more than a little terrifying; certainly all the more daunting than the truths Nie Mingjue’s actions are telling him.

Nie Mingjue reaches behind himself, chin tucking against the crown of Nie Huaisang’s hair, and then his fingers are pressing in between his legs, slick with oil, callouses scratching along the sensitive skin of his perineum before they slide lower. Lower, lower, until they nudge up against his rim, tapping against it as Nie Huaisang shivers, twitching at the tease of pressure. Nie Mingjue pauses, and Nie Huaisang feels him tilt his head, chin rolling against his hair, as he pulls his legs aside, twisting him at the hips, so he can see the back of his wrist where his hand curves over the swell of Nie Huaisang’s ass.

It’s not even a warning, but it’s all Nie Huaisang gets before Nie Mingjue thrusts two of his fingers in, harsh, straight to the root. It burns, the stretch of it, but not nearly as much as it should, if he wasn’t relaxed, if he wasn’t— Nie Huaisang throws his head back, wrenching himself against the belt around his arms and the bonds of the brace of his brother’s arm, mouth falling open around a silent scream.

Nie Mingjue wouldn’t have done that, would not have risked hurting him like that, if he wasn’t sure Nie Huaisang could take at least that much from him at once, and that— and that— the scream finally tears out of him, shredded, and Nie Mingjue tips his face to press a kiss to Nie Huaisang’s hair in a way Nie Huaisang doesn’t need to see to know means he can still watch the way his wrist moves as he begins to fuck Nie Huaisang down onto his fingers.

“You have,” Nie Mingjue rasps, every raw and ruinous word sounding like it’s being ripped out of the very core of him, “never been able to keep secrets from me, not here.” He spreads his fingers sharply, and the slick squelch of the oil as it smears across his rim and drips into him is dizzying, but not nearly as mortifying as the whine that it strings out of Nie Huaisang’s mouth. “Do you understand now, Didi?”

“Yes,” Nie Huaisang keens, “yes—” because it’s true, isn’t it? His brother is the Sect Leader of Qinghe Nie, the Lord of Hejian— there is nothing Nie Huaisang could do in all of Hebei that would not return to him. He doubted there was anything he could even do elsewhere that would not eventually find its way home. The only reason he is afforded his one terrible secret, the truth of what happened in their ancestral hall, is because there were no living left to carry the lie back to Nie Mingjue.

His brother knows, has known, and it doesn’t matter, now, that he’s never acted on it until this moment, because nothing can or will spare Nie Huaisang from what he’s started.

“Good,” Nie Mingjue says, and then he is sliding a third finger in, and there are no words to describe the sound Nie Huaisang makes as he thrashes, fingers clawing uselessly against his brother’s chest, hole clenching down around the intrusion. Nie Mingjue’s cock twitches against him, and the lazy, almost idle grind of it as Nie Mingjue shifts his hips, punches another wrecked whine out of him, his own cock flushed pink and thick and throbbing, needily, where it rests heavily against his thighs.

“You look—” he starts, only to stop himself with a hiss, teeth clacking together, when the rock of his hips jostles Nie Huaisang down too roughly on the breach of his fingers and the sound that follows is all pain without pleasure. Nie Huaisang feels his chest contract against his back, feels the pant of his breath in his hair, the tremor beneath the flex of his thighs.

“Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang croaks out, twinging at the loll of his tongue against his teeth, too thick in his mouth, as his voice fights its way past it. “Please. Please, please—”

It must be enough to cut free whatever thoughts of hesitation or weights of burden that have set themselves down onto his shoulders, because Nie Mingjue groans through the grit of his jaw and starts to move, the clip of his fingers unerring and unrepentant, now, as they loosen him with shove after blunt shove.

“Good,” Nie Mingjue breathes out, and it takes Nie Huaisang a moment, his mind tripping over the exhalation, that Nie Mingjue is picking up the thread he left, “look so good for me, so perfect.”

He curls his fingers and draws them out, every inch of the drag of them roughing over his prostate, and Nie Huaisang’s stream of moans hitches mid-note around a hiccuping sob, his toes curling and his legs kicking out against the bracket of Nie Mingjue’s arm, still hooked behind his knees, forcing the swerve of his spine from something sweet into something savage. Nie Huaisang clamps down around the absence, head spinning with the whiplash of feeling so full to becoming so empty in barely a breath, but Nie Mingjue hushes him, soothing, pressing insensate croons into his hair and his temple and the shell of his ear. Nie Huaisang feels the shift of his hips, the shuffle of his weight between his thighs as he works his pants down enough to tug his cock free, and then the flared tip of it is snubbing at his rim, spurring liquid fire to churn through his veins with every soft smack of it and every promise the hint of its pressure carries.

“So desperate for it,” Nie Mingjue whispers, pressing kiss after kiss against him and mouthing at his hair, breath hot and damp against his scalp. Beneath him, Nie Huaisang can hear the filthy slide of his hand, the slap of skin on skin, as he slicks his shaft with oil. There’s so much of it, too much of him, he’s really— he’s really going to break him—

“Shh,” Nie Mingjue comforts him, soft, as though he knows, from the way Nie Huaisang tenses and whimpers, hoarse, just what he’s thinking, “I’ve got you.” The head of his cock teases against his hole, and then he’s shifting his grip around Nie Huaisang’s knees, bearing him down on it, grunting as his cock steadily sinks in. In, and in, and— Nie Huaisang wails brokenly as he meets the circle of his brother’s fist just as he edges past the feeling of being too stretched.

“Look at you,” Nie Mingjue murmurs, wrecked, awed, his fingers shifting around himself so he can stroke the side of his index against Nie Huaisang’s rim, feeling the way his cock is holding him open and stuffed full. “Going to train you on my cock, Didi. Just like this.”

He holds Nie Huaisang to his chest, steadies him, wrist pivoting so he can ghost and caress the tips of his fingers against Nie Huaisang’s knees, his thighs, every bit of skin he can reach, soothing him as he fucks into him, slow, even though Nie Huaisang can feel in the snap of his hips and the shudder of his chest that he’s struggling to hold back.

There’s so much, and it’s not even all Nie Mingjue has to give for him to take— Nie Huaisang sags back against Nie Mingjue, throat craning, the arch of it so dire it feels like it’s a hair’s breadth from snapping, and his sob gurgles out of him, clotted and wet, sweat stinging his eyes, saliva spilling out past the corner of his slack mouth. Every shove of Nie Mingjue’s cock grinds against his insides, incessant and implacable, and he’s melting underneath the heady, suffocating heat swirling deep within the fount of him.

“You’re perfect,” Nie Mingjue gasps, teeth scraping against his ear, “so tight, look so good on my cock.” He mouths at the skin he can reach, laves his tongue over it, and the slam of his cock is rewardingly rough when Nie Huaisang shivers and squeezes around him, fingers twitching numbly in their loose furl against the plain of his chest. “Going to take it all so well.”

Nie Huaisang chokes on his breath and his tongue and his own strung-out whine as he spills, ruined, come splattering up his heaving chest and splashing across his thighs. Nie Mingjue’s hips stumble, catching in their rhythm, before he tucks his face into Nie Huaisang’s neck and growls, the rumble of it ragged and utterly starved, savage, teeth closing over one of his marks to break the skin and bruise it anew with a greedy suck. Nie Mingjue fucks him through it, and keeps going, even after he’s wrung out another pulse of come to streak the crease of Nie Huaisang’s hip, spreading his knees and tipping Nie Huaisang back so the thick intrusion of his cock is no longer dragging over his prostate with every hungry slide.

“Don’t even need to be touched,” Nie Mingjue grits out, harsh, against his skin, the clench of his fist slapping against Nie Huaisang’s ass, glancing his hole, sharp, as he strokes the rest of his shaft. “Meant for it, Didi. Made to be fucked by me.”

Nie Huaisang groans, incoherent, flailing bonelessly in his hold, and Nie Mingjue slows, just a little, just for him, though he doesn’t stop. Keeps going; keeps cramming his cock into him, from the tip to the halter of his hand, the flared head juddering against his hole every time he slides free only to fuck back in. “So sensitive.” It’s more profanity than praise, but Nie Huaisang preens beneath it, anyway, gasping, and Nie Mingjue’s hips snap, one of his knees slipping against the sheets. It’s just by a fraction, but it’s more than enough to send Nie Huaisang lurching, body flipping over itself, burned out, worn down, unable to do more than survive it, the insatiable stretch of Nie Mingjue’s cock, using him. “Going to get hard for me again? Going to come more on Da-ge’s cock?”

And to think he’d been so reluctant, before. Now his grip over himself has slipped, Nie Huaisang is seeing the beast that is Nie Mingjue’s true face, and it’s— if Nie Huaisang wasn’t so ravished, maybe he’d have something left in him to laugh at it with; the irony. But Nie Mingjue has taken all he can give, and seems to only care to drill down to seek out more, so he can only moan, senseless, each sound slurring together until he can stitch together enough of his shattered senses to speak.

“I don’t,” he stammers, “I can’t—”

“Then don’t,” Nie Mingjue quells, pressing kisses, unbearably close-mouthed, to the pound of his pulse. “So good for me, just like this.”

“I can’t,” Nie Huaisang repeats, frantic, fingers twisting at Nie Mingjue’s robe, forearms chafing against his belt. “I—”

“You know what you have to say,” Nie Mingjue tells him, even as he’s already pulling him up beneath his knees, slipping his cock out so it’s only the flared head, stroking, shallow, just past his rim.

“Stop,” he sobs, and Nie Mingjue eases him free that last raw stretch and sets him down on his knees, the snare of his arm winding instead around his waist to hold the slant of his spent frame upright, fingers already tugging at the belt, working it free. Sensation floods back into his arms in a rush, and he cries out as the blood follows shortly after, needling beneath his skin, the whole of him already edged so far past the brink of his forbearance.

Nie Mingjue shushes his every whine, soft, one hand pressing flat between the juts of his shoulderblades, down on his spine. He turns him towards his stomach, flattening him against the sheets, while his other hand stretches out his left arm, thumb and forefinger pinching and kneading down on the superficial musculature, working the knots of tension and discomfort free. Each press is carefully measured, deliberately pointed, shying away from his acupoints. When he turns his face over by the jaw and straddles the backs of his thighs, lifting his right arm at the wrist, Nie Huaisang can feel the rub of his cock, still wet with oil and his own precome, and he shudders, swallowing thickly, as a heady lust stokes the coals of the snuffed fire in his own gut.

“Da-ge,” he mumbles, “you didn’t—”

There’s a pause, even after Nie Huaisang trails off, leaving it to hang between them both, unsure. Then, he hears Nie Mingjue’s breath stutter out, and feels his hips hitch up against his thighs. “I will,” Nie Mingjue says, rough. “You’re not done yet, Didi.”

A promise, then. Nie Huaisang sighs, shaky, and lets himself sink fully into Nie Mingjue’s sturdy hand, the coil of tension viced through his frame falling slack. Nie Mingjue takes care of him, unhurried, even as the nudge and scrape of the brand of his cock spears shiver after shiver, hot, to skim up Nie Huaisang’s spine. His own cock gives a valiant twitch between his legs, but doesn’t rise; he’s never had much endurance, even in this. Nie Huaisang can’t help but wonder, idle, as Nie Mingjue leans back on his heels, brief, and comes back with the wash cloth, if that’s something Nie Mingjue is going to teach him. If it’s something that can even be taught. Is it just practice and perseverance, as Nie Mingjue has impressed upon him in all other areas Nie Huaisang has never applied himself to before?

There is something to be said, for him, in how this, of all the lessons his brother has for him, is the one he wants to learn.

Nie Mingjue slides his arm beneath him and draws him up, hand cupped against his pectoral, and Nie Huaisang groans, turning his face towards his neck, nosing at the corded muscle, there, in the junction between his throat and shoulder. Nie Mingjue pillows his cheek in his hair, gently wiping down his stomach, between his thighs, before he presses lower, every pet and brush over his cock fleeting, feather-light, his thumb absently swiping against Nie Huaisang’s chest in gentling strokes when Nie Huaisang makes a cut-off sound in the back of his mouth, still sensitive, overwrought.

“Can you take me again?” Nie Mingjue asks, as his fingers rub against his rim, the tip of his forefinger pressing in just past Nie Huaisang’s initial shudder of resistance, his reflexive tightening. He doesn’t do more than that, doesn’t even move, just lets it sit there, a drip of water sliding free to trickle down, mingling with the drying oil.

It’s a good thing that Nie Mingjue knows what to ask, knows when it needs to be about his want and when it needs to be about his will, because Nie Huaisang’s honest answer for this is the one needs to give, but the one he isn’t necessarily glad to admit. He shakes his head, and Nie Mingjue’s answering hum thunders through him, the corner of his mouth pursing in a clumsy kiss against his sweaty locks as he tugs the cloth free.

“That’s all right,” Nie Mingjue reassures him, caressing his flanks as he eases him back onto the bed, Nie Huaisang’s fingers curling clumsily in the sheets as he stutters forward on his hands and knees, gasping out. “You did well. Did so well for me, Didi, took so much.”

Nie Huaisang moans, wrecked, sagging forward, mouth ajar as his forehead presses against the mattress. “I want,” he heaves out, “want Da-ge to come—”

Nie Mingjue’s breath rips out of him, bellowing, like Nie Huaisang’s begging has bludgeoned through the bulk of him, and Nie Huaisang didn’t think he had any shame left in him to feel, but he’s found it, the sweet sear of it licking up his spine as Nie Mingjue takes him by the hips and flips him over.

“Going to come for you,” he growls, rearing back to rip away his inner robe and kick himself free from his pants. “Going to come just for you, Didi. Spread your legs for me.”

Nie Huaisang does, planting his feet against the sheets, heels digging in as he flexes his hips. Nie Mingjue slides forward into a kneel between them, forcing the splay of his thighs wider, enough for his back to twinge and his toes to curl. Nie Mingjue braces his hand astride Nie Huaisang’s face, towering over him, pious and perfect, the pad of his thumb tracing the blade of his jaw, the corner of his bottom lip. He tips his chin down towards his clavicle, blinks the blur out of his eyes, and chokes on a groan when his gaze settles on the sight of his brother’s cock between his legs, swollen and flushed red and leaking from the slit, jutting out from within the trembling cinch of his fingers, fisted at the base.

Nie Huaisang feels his mouth run dry, throat bobbing as he swallows thickly. When his tongue darts out to lick his lips, the edge of it grazes Nie Mingjue’s thumb, punching a shallow exhale out from between the grit of his teeth in turn. Looking at it— looking at him, it’s wholly different to just feeling him, wildly new. His cock is broad and big and blunt as the rest of him and Nie Huaisang has no idea just how much he even managed to take in, but it couldn’t possibly be more than half, and that’s, well. Maybe it doesn’t matter, so much, when Nie Mingjue is going to shape him around it, eventually, until it and they all fit together, as everything is meant to be.

A lot of thoughts cross his mind between the trek of slow seconds, filthy and fleeting; the slap of his brother’s hips meeting his ass when his cock finally fucks all the way in, the stretch of his jaw around him as he tries to tuck it into his mouth, down his throat— he keens, thready, and surfaces out of it as Nie Mingjue presses a kiss to his cheek, the matted mane of his hair sleeting down his face, brushing over Nie Huaisang’s jaw, his throat.

“Later,” Nie Mingjue pledges against his skin, because of course he knows just what he’s thinking. Nie Huaisang sighs out, and tilts his chin, turns his face to traverse the final boundary yet left to cross between them to bring their mouths together in a proper kiss. He reaches down between them, shoulders hunching, his spine curving to accommodate it, and he nips at Nie Mingjue’s bottom lip when the first scuff of his palm over his brother’s tip drags the ragged grunt up from behind his teeth.

It’s strangely intimate, somehow, and somewhat unmaking, the slap of skin and the lewd squelch as their hands knock together, jerking Nie Mingjue’s cock; the heady hitches and gasps of their breaths as they slip out, the slick sound of their kisses as Nie Mingjue coaxes his jaw to part and curls his tongue behind his teeth. Time falls out from underneath him again; Nie Huaisang isn’t sure how long it is, how long he’s kept there, held down in the moment by the bracket of Nie Mingjue’s body, led between seconds and minutes by the tempt of his mouth, the twitch and throb of his cock within his hands as it swells, impossibly thicker.

Nie Huaisang whines out as the clip of Nie Mingjue’s hips frays, fraught, stuttering with a surging crest of desperation, and then Nie Mingjue’s fingers are fisting in his hair and pulling it, arching his neck, as he feeds his groan into the seal of their mouths and comes, spend striping Nie Huaisang’s fingers and splattering up the swerve of his sternum. Nie Mingjue kisses him apart, breathless and senseless, parting them only to mouth at his cheek, his jaw, to nose and lick down the line of his throat, anywhere he can reach, his breaths tearing out of him, shallow and strained, sweat dripping down his chin.

He even comes so much, Nie Huaisang can’t help but think, and it’s that shard of a thought that sends a laugh bubbling up from his chest, his nose crinkling as he snorts. His hands fall against his belly in an awkward, loose clutch around themselves, a sticky mess, and Nie Mingjue slides up to slant their mouths together again, the pry of his tongue gentle as it dips in past his teeth, easing him through every pearl of his giggles until they subside. There’s no subduing the smile on his lips, though, that stretches all the wider when Nie Mingjue lifts himself up to peer down at him.

“Look at you,” Nie Mingjue murmurs, voice interwoven with something all too heavy, inmost and idolatrous, and then he’s bowing himself low, again, his fingers curling in the sheets beside Nie Huaisang’s face, lips pressing a kiss to his brow. Nie Huaisang wishes he could see himself, if only to know what it is that meets Nie Mingjue’s eyes that encourages such exaltation.

“Wait,” Nie Huaisang calls out, when Nie Mingjue draws away, but the steady pin of Nie Mingjue’s palm on his thigh keeps him from springing up, surging out in chase.

“Not leaving you, Didi.” The fetter of his furled fingers tightens down, assuring, before it withdraws. “You can rest, now. Da-ge will take care of you.”

The command of it seems to compel his very exhaustion to settle back over him, sinking in, bone-deep, and his head swims as he feels his senses sag back within him, off-kilter. He slides his eyes shut and breathes out, once, twice, steadying. He tells himself, listening to the sounds of his brother move through the space of his room, that he will be obstinate, just now, just in this way, and disobey, and falls asleep, anyway.

He stirs, sluggish, to a shard of sunlight filtering across his eyes and the circle of his brother’s fingers around his wrist, feeding spiritual energy into his meridians.

“Don’t need it,” Nie Huaisang croaks, voice splintering around residual sleep. Nie Mingjue only shifts his face from where it rests, his cheek pressed to Nie Huaisang’s temple, Nie Huaisang’s frame tucked into the cradle of his body. Then, he turns his other hand over, bends his arm at the elbow, shifting Nie Huaisang against the pillow of his bicep, and digs his index finger in against one of the bruises lining Nie Huaisang’s throat, the closest to his jaw.

Nie Huaisang hisses, squirming. “Da-ge, really, I have powders, and I need to go—”

Nie Mingjue stops, but only so that he can take Nie Huaisang by the jaw, instead, turning him over, until his shoulder slots against the span of his chest. “Do you think,” Nie Mingjue asks, quiet, a little amused, perhaps, if the way his brow quirks is anything to go by, “that I don’t know the instructions you give my servants, when you come here?”

Ah. “Ah,” Nie Huaisang breathes out, and then he bites his lip. There is really nothing he can hide, after all. “Fair,” he accedes, “fair,” and then he allows himself to be led in the rest of the way, by his brother’s fingers trailing his throat, to be kissed properly into waking.

It’s good, for a time. Better. But time moves on, and wheels already well set into motion continue to turn.

So it goes.

Nie Huaisang watches his brother break, in the dead of the night, bleeding out onto the terrace at Koi Tower.

In another time, in another place, perhaps, the shielding snare of Jin Guangyao’s arms manages to keep him away. It does not, here; Nie Huaisang draws into himself, in those most important seconds, and throws his spiritual energy outward with enough shocking force to thrash himself free, and to run across the distance between him and Nie Mingjue before he can be caught.

“It’s okay,” Nie Huaisang chokes out, going to his knees. Nie Mingjue chokes on his tongue and on his blood, eyes hemmed red, clouding over, and Nie Huaisang wraps his arms around him, shields him with the heavy drape of his long sleeves, and tucks his face into the crook of his neck. There’s so much blood; it soaks through him, submerges him, and he feels his sob shake out of him as his fingers sink into Nie Mingjue’s matted hair, combing through the clumped locks soothingly.

“It’s okay,” Nie Huaisang says again, firmer, but only just, only so, sparing a hand to reach between them, to coax Baxia’s hilt from the chain of his brother’s fingers. “I’m here. I have you.” I’m sorry, he thinks, bereft, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I wasn’t here, I’m here now.

Hidden beneath his sleeves and cradled against his body, Nie Mingjue is— subdued. As much as he can be, perhaps. Still, Nie Huaisang feels it, the way he jerks with every stab of a voice that isn’t Nie Huaisang’s, the way his teeth bare into a snarl against his neck.

“He’s gone,” Jin Guangyao chokes out, somewhere overhead. Nie Huaisang turns his head, angling his shoulder in to continue to shield his brother as he looks elsewhere.

“Please let me take him home, San-ge,” Nie Huaisang replies, “just let me take him home. Don’t— don’t have him die in this place.”

When he cannot be reasoned with, when he cannot be convinced that the danger to him is too great, there is nothing left for Jin Guangyao or any of the newly gathered to reasonably do except to concede. Nie Huaisang moves slowly, each shift stilted, steadying, as he works his outer coat free, shoulder by shoulder and sleeve by sleeve, until he can pull it over the top of both of their heads like a bride’s shroud.

“Look at me,” he mouths to Nie Mingjue, peering, desperately, for even the smallest sliver of recognition in the fog besieging his gaze, “Didi has you.”

His coat is enough, so long as everyone else is quiet; Nie Huaisang feels one of their disciples press a hand to his back, helping to guide him, backwards, down the stairs. Baxia is so heavy in his hand, Nie Mingjue’s wrist even heavier in the other. The heaviest weights he’s ever had to carry. The heaviest weights he ever will.

But that’s all right. Nie Mingjue has protected him for a lifetime, after all; if he is to destroy Nie Huaisang with this, he has more than earned it.

When all is done and laid to rest, Jin Guangyao descends into the Stone Castles to silence his most beloved witness.

And, well, when there is not a body to be found, it is not as if he can ask Nie Huaisang where Nie Mingjue is, can he?

That would be telling.