Work Header

No Meritorious Service

Work Text:

“Jiang-xiong,” says Nie Huaisang, once they are clear enough of the room that Jiang Cheng can slide his arm from his shoulders, “does Wei-xiong seem… strange, to you?”

His voice is pitched low, lacking its boisterous delight of mere minutes ago. When Jiang Cheng looks across to him, his dark eyes are downcast in rare contemplation, his pinched fingers absently turning over his fan within the cup of his palm.

“It’s been a hard few months,” Jiang Cheng replies, a bit too curtly. The corners of his eyes are still stinging, dimly, from half-shed tears. Every wound beneath the skin from ever since Lotus Pier burned continues to ceaselessly open, and he’s starting to forget what his body feels like when it’s not scraped over, run ragged and raw. Jiang Cheng doesn’t want to think about how Wei Wuxian has come back— wrong. He just wants to be allowed his gladness that Wei Wuxian has come back at all.

Nie Huaisang’s brow creases, almost imperceptibly, for a beat, and then he relaxes, a too-wide smile sprawling out across his lips. “Ah, of course, of course. We are living in strange times. We all must seem strange, given that.”

He artfully flicks his fan open with an elegant swoop of his wrist that is so utterly disparate to his usual clumsiness that Jiang Cheng actually snorts at him when he tips his face up towards Jiang Cheng to gauge his expression.

“Empty words to go with your empty head,” Jiang Cheng grouses at him, tone sapless. “Who are you trying to fool, pretending to be a wise young master?”

He shoves at him. It’s not hard enough to make Nie Huaisang do any more than stumble, but Nie Huaisang would stumble over his own feet of his own accord anyway, given the opportunity. All it accomplishes is knocking a squeak out of Nie Huaisang’s mouth as his fingers latch around Jiang Cheng’s elbow for balance.

“Bah!” Nie Huaisang huffs once he’s recovered, obnoxiously and exaggeratedly affronted. He turns his face away and tries to hide the crook of his mouth with the rapid flutter of his fan. “I don’t need to fool anyone with the truth.”

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes and shakes his head, the play of his own smile soft enough to slip free of his features from the motion. The tension overhead dissipates, just like that. Even if it is only at least for now, Jiang Cheng is grateful.

He knows that Jiang Yanli and Wei Wuxian need time together, time alone of him, but he does not know how much. So, Jiang Cheng walks, letting his feet carry him nowhere of particular purpose or consequence, and he hopes time is passing faster elsewhere than it feels as if it is passing with him. Nie Huaisang follows alongside, but the silence they fall into is— calming, almost. Ill-fitting, but companionable.

The Unclean Realm lies open before him as he exits the heart of the compound, and as the buildings give way to tents and dust and terrible, bereft sounds of the near-departed, Nie Huaisang sucks in a shallow, shaking inhale, and Jiang Cheng surfaces enough from himself to look down to him.

“There’s so many,” Nie Huaisang murmurs beneath his breath, and there’s a terrible awe to his voice that sees Jiang Cheng draw to a standstill, Nie Huaisang bumping against his side as his boots scuff through the dirt. “Da-ge doesn’t let me leave the inner grounds without an escort,” he adds, in answer to Jiang Cheng’s unspoken question, “and even then, I’m steered clear of here.”

“Oh, so you’ve made me your accomplice,” Jiang Cheng remarks, dry, trying for— levity. Something; anything, really, to rid Nie Huaisang’s face of that same expression Jiang Cheng has long had his fill of from everyone he sees and has seen of late. “Wonderful.”

It earns a shade of a smile as Nie Huaisang’s gaze lifts from their surroundings to instead rest solely on Jiang Cheng. “He’ll never know.”

“See that he doesn’t,” Jiang Cheng quips back, and that is what gets Nie Huaisang’s teeth to peek out from between his lips. Then, perhaps because he thinks he should, or because he wants to hear it for himself, he adds, “There’s only so much we can do.”

It’s almost the wrong thing to say, but not quite; Nie Huaisang’s smile falters, but does not fall away. “It’s an empty comfort, isn’t it?”

“Your wise young master act is improving,” Jiang Cheng tells him, wry, “but it’s still not convincing.”

“Ah, that’s practically praise from you, Sect Leader Jiang!” Nie Huaisang snaps his fan shut, wrist pivoting cleanly as he reaches up to tap Jiang Cheng on the shoulder with the embossed monture, the heft of it sturdy even in his delicate grip.

“What praise? Who is praising you?” Jiang Cheng gripes, batting the fan away with the backs of his fingers.

“I’ve already accepted the compliment!” Nie Huaisang’s laugh is bright, and his eyes crinkle with it. His fan is drawn away by the drift of his hand as he goes to brush the wisps of hair that have been swept out from behind his ears, and it’s in following that motion, the languid drape of his sleeve and the bend of his elbow, that Jiang Cheng’s eye catches on a blur of colour behind Nie Huaisang’s shoulder, uninvited and unacceptably close.

Jiang Cheng does all he thinks he has time to, in that split second. A bitten-off shout builds up from the back of his mouth as he pulls Sandu from its sheath, and he uses the arc of his swing two-fold; the point of his elbow drives him a lunging step forward, and the flat of his bicep braces against Nie Huaisang’s clavicle, shoving him behind the bulwark of Jiang Cheng’s body.

Sandu comes down on the man’s throat in one clean slice, severing his head from his shoulders with a guttural, clotted scream, and the blade in his hand buries itself to the hilt in Jiang Cheng’s stomach.

“Oh,” Nie Huaisang chokes out, and for one utterly chilling moment, Jiang Cheng thinks he’s been hurt, but then Nie Huaisang’s hands are clasping at his ribs, searching. Within a beat, his fingers are stymying the flow of the blood sluggishly sleeting from around the protrusion of the dagger’s handle. “Oh, oh, this is not—”

“—It’s fine,” Jiang Cheng grits out, “it’s just a cut, stop fretting! Is he dead?” While a feverish heat is beginning to fog his head, settling over the top of his draining adrenaline, it really isn’t even a third as bad as Nie Huaisang’s apparent panic warrants. Jiang Cheng has been stabbed before and will almost certainly be stabbed again.

“Oh, he’s very dead,” Nie Huaisang stammers, somewhat blindsided by Jiang Cheng’s blithe brutality, “he’s very dead and this is not fine!”

The crowd they’ve drawn reaches them; Jiang Cheng blinks sweat out of his eyes to better watch Nie Huaisang as his sect’s disciples begin to check him for harm. Each press and patdown fails to unseat the press of his hands against Jiang Cheng.

“Calm down,” Jiang Cheng berates him, before he promptly spews blood down both of their chests. His head swims violently from the lurch, and when he tries to breathe, it hurts, and that’s— he hadn’t even felt any itch in his throat or pressure behind his ribs that could have warned him it was coming.

“Look,” Nie Huaisang is saying, more coherent, now, but no calmer, “the hilt has a chamber in it for poison.”

“That’s— bad,” Jiang Cheng breathes out.

“That’s bad!” Nie Huaisang agrees. Save the lilting pitch of his voice, he is— surprisingly steady, given his sternum is sopping with Jiang Cheng’s blood, the layers of his robes soaked through. To his men, he commands, “Tell Sect Leader Nie what happened here,” and, “take his head, find who he came in with.” To Jiang Cheng, he asks, “Are you okay?”

“I’ve been stabbed,” Jiang Cheng wheezes out at him, dry. More sweat is dripping down his brow; the stinging droplets catch in his eyebrows, his eyelashes. He sucks in another breath and coughs half of the air back up, a glob of blood dripping down his chin in pursuit.

“And?! You have to give me a bit more to work with!” Jiang Cheng feels what he hopes is indignance curl hotly in the pit of his stomach, but then the bandage of Nie Huaisang’s hands is pulled free, and the heat is immediately swept out and swallowed down by a bitter, biting cold. Their fingers stutter against one another as Nie Huaisang, palms slick with Jiang Cheng’s blood, laces them together and starts to pull him along. Dimly, Jiang Cheng points Sandu out behind him, calling its discarded sheath back to blanket the steel.

“I’m,” Jiang Cheng starts. Stops. Swallows. “Fine. It’s just— cold.”

Nie Huaisang picks up speed, and the stride Jiang Cheng has to fall into just to match him, even though his gait is all the more short-stepped for their height differences, makes the wound smart. His fingers itch, impulsively, to pull the dagger free. Fortunately, his hands are full with Sandu and Nie Huaisang both, which stops him from falling prey to the urge before he can catch himself.

“We need to get you back to your room,” Nie Huaisang rambles, head swivelling as he leads them both from the beaten path and into a cramped alley that Jiang Cheng remembers, vaguely, feeds into the maze-like wind of the eastern grounds of the inner compound. It takes Jiang Cheng a moment to both hear Nie Huaisang’s words and listen to them, and once he does, he begins to resist, reflexive, digging his heels in.

“No!” It’s too sharp, too desperate, but it’s an embarrassment Jiang Cheng has to forgive himself for, for now. If his sister sees him like this— he can’t let her see him like this, not now, not so soon after she’s gotten Wei Wuxian back.

Nie Huaisang stops. He has to; even like this, Jiang Cheng is so much stronger than he is. “Okay,” he relents, “all right,” and then he tugs at the tangle of their hands, urgent, and Jiang Cheng lets the weight of his reluctance slide off his shoulders, gives Nie Huaisang the reins again. “Back to my room, then,” Nie Huaisang tells him as he breaks back into a harried stride, “come on, hurry up—”

“—I am trying,” Jiang Cheng hisses, flinching when his exhale comes out wet, a slick sensation creeping up the back of his throat. “I can only go as fast as you! Grow your legs out and pick up your pace instead of complaining!”

“Oh, thank the Heavens,” Nie Huaisang gasps out, his laughter equal parts gusting and gutted, “at least whatever was in that dagger hasn’t affected your temper!”

Jiang Cheng is all but draped against Nie Huaisang’s back by the time they reach his room, his whole frame shaking with a violent, wracking chill. His knees buckle just as he’s trying to crawl onto the bed, and he’s saved from pushing the dagger further into himself, past the bridge of its guard, by the clumsy grapple of Nie Huaisang’s arms, Sandu clattering noisily to the floor in the struggle.

“Get this out,” Jiang Cheng grunts, agitated, as he sinks flat on his back, knees twitching with the urge to fold up towards his chest, to put pressure on the rending agony streaking across his stomach, to stifle and suffocate it.

“Wait, wait,” Nie Huaisang pleads, stumbling from the bed, and Jiang Cheng fights himself back up onto his elbows to keep his eyes on him. When his hands smooth up his hair, Jiang Cheng’s dried blood flakes off his skin, catching in the strands. Nie Huaisang spins on his heel as he rushes towards one of the corners of his cluttered room, hands flitting between rifling around his shelves and peeling away his outer layers.

“What are you doing?!” Jiang Cheng cuts himself off from anything more, face contorting as he swallows back on something that burns dangerously like bile.

“Da-ge will be here very shortly,” Nie Huaisang replies, huffing as he pulls a small wooden chest free, “the less visible blood on me, for that, the better it will all go.”

“Fuck,” Jiang Cheng heaves out, throwing his head back into the pillows, a hysterical laugh bubbling up from his chest, “just leave it in, I’m dead.”

“You’re fine!” Nie Huaisang comforts him, clambering onto the mattress to sit astride Jiang Cheng’s knees, now stripped down to his inner robes, boots kicked off at the foot of the bed. “Nobody’s dying! Ah, do you want to, pull out the dagger, or should—”

Jiang Cheng already has his hand around the hilt, and has pulled it free with a whine before Nie Huaisang can finish, the rest of his sentence tapering off into a sympathetic squeal. Jiang Cheng drops it into the bed and then lets his arm drop back to his side, shuddering. His whole body feels soaked in sweat, and it’s only making him feel so much colder. It’s almost as if— but it can’t be.

“All right, Jiang-xiong, open your robes,” Nie Huaisang instructs. Behind the rush of his own blood in his ears and his ceaseless trembling, Jiang Cheng can hear ceramic and glass clinking together, faintly, against wood and each other both. “Let me see.”

“You’re used to this.” The observation trips off his tongue helplessly as he tries to claw his numbing fingers into a shape he can use to undo his sash and the ties holding his layered robes together. Jiang Cheng’s not entirely in the right space to stop himself, what with his thoughts and better sense all slipping through his head like a running stream, but it’s. It’s strange. It’s worth pulling to the fore of his focus. He’s never seen Nie Huaisang like this, be it during their studies at the Cloud Recesses to now, in the months Jiang Cheng has spent drifting between the front lines and the Unclean Realm. It’s as if he’s possessed; as if he’s flipped the veil of his ineptitude back to reveal something intuitive and intent.

Nie Huaisang chuckles awkwardly as he bundles up a scrap of gauze in his hand. He swiftly wipes Jiang Cheng's mouth before he starts to dab it tentatively at Jiang Cheng’s stomach once it has been bared, mopping up the slow crawl of blood still dribbling out from the gash. He doesn’t meet Jiang Cheng’s eyes, not completely; though when Jiang Cheng cranes his neck, just slightly, he can see Nie Huaisang is watching him, out from underneath the swoop of his eyelashes.

“Da-ge gets injured quite often,” is Nie Huaisang’s excuse, or explanation, or— Jiang Cheng isn’t certain, entirely. “And, ah, sometimes quite severely. So I know a little.” Jiang Cheng hisses when Nie Huaisang’s fingers snub against a swelling rise beneath his skin, close to the wound, and Nie Huaisang eases up. “This is the first time I’ve helped deal with a failed assassination attempt, though.”

“Great,” Jiang Cheng pants out, hoarse, “I’m so happy for you. Can I finish bleeding out in silence, now?”

“You’re not bleeding out any more!” Nie Huaisang protests, petulant, diverting from his course briefly to pull Jiang Cheng’s boots off. “Hold still,” he continues, when he’s upright again, “I’m going to see if I can find what was in the blade. Can you keep talking to me? Tell me how you’re feeling?”

“Annoyed,” Jiang Cheng fires back, his tongue feeling cold and too thick in his mouth when he tries to curl it around the word. He sighs out and closes his eyes, trying to push down the quakes rippling through his body. “I’m cold,” he continues, more seriously, as he feels Nie Huaisang’s hand ghost against his bare skin, fingers fanning over his stomach, the other fumbling for his hairpiece, easing it free only to discard it within the bed, “It’s really— it’s as if, I’m—”

Jiang Cheng has to bite down on his lip and lock his jaw to stop himself, but it’s too late, and he knows it, knows it in the way Nie Huaisang’s breath hitches and his fingers slant, sliding against Jiang Cheng’s sweat-damp skin. “Like you have an excess of yang?” Nie Huaisang finishes for him. Jiang Cheng hates the way Nie Huaisang’s tone turns; it’s so subtle, but he catches it, beneath the forced placidity: how his voice shakes, becomes strained. “It’s heightened, where you were stabbed. It must have dosed you with, some sort of, probably a herbal concoction to treat yin vacuity, just, concentrated?”

“But it’s—” Jiang Cheng scowls at himself, and his teeth cut through the skin of his abraded bottom lip when he bites down again to leash a whine threatening to cross over the threshold of his throat. If it’s really happening to him, and happening to him now, and there’s no way to avoid it, then, fine, he can accept that, but it’s not— “It feels wrong,” he finishes, voice breaking.

“Your, um, your core, it isn’t absorbing it,” Nie Huaisang says. When Jiang Cheng can collect himself enough to open his eyes, the sight he’s met with is not an encouraging one: Nie Huaisang’s brows are drawn together in a severe furrow, his lips paling from the fraught, thin press of his mouth. “There’s something wrong.”

“With my core?” It can’t be. His core is— fine, it’s reshaped and regrown, Jiang Cheng has been using it. He’s even rutted since he left Baoshan Sanren’s celestial mountain without difficulty or, or complication, so surely there’s no reason, there’s no possibility that his core is—

“I don’t know,” Nie Huaisang answers, “I really don’t know, please don’t—” he doesn’t even get to finish, so Jiang Cheng doesn’t even get to ask Please don’t what? because the door to Nie Huaisang’s room is sliding open, and Nie Huaisang is scrambling to his feet, hands already outstretched in penitent placation.

Nie Mingjue is intimidating, is what Jiang Cheng usually finds himself settling on. Now, in this moment, it’s veering vastly towards petrifying as he watches him cross half the room in a few clipped strides, the movement almost a prowl for how the skirts of his dark robes drift and furl around his legs. There’s a rage on his face just barely contained, a violence affixing the coiled tension of his frame as he meets Nie Huaisang, broad hands snatching his younger brother beneath his arms.

Jiang Cheng flinches, instinctive, at the sight of his roped fingers, but Nie Huaisang makes no show of discomfort, gives away no sight of pain. “Da-ge,” he says, voice soft and soothing, “I’m fine, I wasn’t hurt, it’s not my blood.”

Jiang Cheng expects— it does not matter what he expects, because it’s not what he sees and not what he gets. Nie Mingjue’s expression is fringed with fury, but it’s tempered from his voice when he speaks. “Huaisang.”

“I’m sorry,” Nie Huaisang whispers, and it’s— Jiang Cheng has to close his eyes. Hearing it just makes his body run cold for an entirely different reason, one that he can’t put enough words to in order to explain it in a way that makes sense. He feels as if he’s an inconvenience and an intrusion both, and it’s infuriating and it’s something worse, something snarled and intimate.

My brother is going to kill me. How many times had Jiang Cheng heard that said, with some manner of fear tinging Nie Huaisang’s fussing? But now, here, where he has reason to cower, Nie Huaisang faces his brother without reservation, and Nie Mingjue towers over him only by stature, not by force.

“I didn’t know that he wasn’t supposed to be out there,” Jiang Cheng speaks up. He feels immediately stupid for it, and squeezes his eyes shut all the tighter, licking at his drying lips.

“He didn’t,” Nie Huaisang confirms, backing him firmly. “Sect Leader Jiang was graciously allowing me to keep him company. I followed him when I knew I shouldn’t have.”

“I believe you,” says Nie Mingjue, and when Jiang Cheng opens his eyes, furtive, he finds Nie Mingjue’s words and gaze both are pointed towards him. He punctuates it with a short nod when their eyes meet, and Jiang Cheng finds he can’t look away, even after Nie Mingjue has.

“It all turned out okay,” Nie Huaisang reassures, quiet, turning his hands over so that his palms are resting, downturned, on his brother’s biceps. “Sect Leader Jiang will recover, and we flushed out a Qishan Wen spy—”

Didi,” Nie Mingjue stresses, quieter, and Nie Huaisang falls silent. Jiang Cheng closes his eyes again, as though it will serve to convince anyone, let alone himself, that he hasn’t overheard. “Outside, now,” he demands, louder. Then, as if he has remembered his civilities, owed on their face but remarkably misplaced, given their situation, Nie Mingjue adds, “Excuse us.” And, “Zonghui, attend him.”

It is only then that Jiang Cheng even realises, eyes flying wide, there is another person in the room with them. Nie Mingjue’s presence had so overwhelmingly occupied the room the moment he entered that Jiang Cheng must have looked at least thrice at his side and yet not once seen the other man actually standing there, shrouded and framed in turns by his masters. The humiliation of the discovery batters through him in a thundering crash, and Jiang Cheng feels his bones rattle with it, beneath the unplacatable shivers that are ebbing and flowing in maddening force.

He lets them close again, and takes a steadying breath. It snags in his chest, and the wound on his stomach twinges in turn. Jiang Cheng is all too aware that it seems all he has the power to do is go between staring out and shying back, and it leaves a bitter taste in his mouth and a bitterer resentment brewing in his mind. He startles at the scrape of fingers along his skin, but the roam of the touch has departed even before he looks up to meet the face of its wielder.

“Sect Leader Jiang,” the man greets, then, as if sensing it is the most pressing thing on the tip of Jiang Cheng’s tongue, he adds, “Nie Zonghui.” The cup of his hand over his knuckles in salute is perfunctory; the bare minimum of polite. “Allow me.”

Jiang Cheng nods his assent, and as Nie Zonghui stoops over him again, reaching for the pool of his robes, still bundled around his arms, Jiang Cheng wonders how he’s never seen him before. His name tells of his place; his presence speaks to his power. Jiang Cheng has always thought himself good with names and faces; proficient, if not necessarily praiseworthy. Perhaps he is not as well-practised as he thought.

By the time Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang return, Nie Zonghui has helped Jiang Cheng untangle himself the rest of the way from his soiled robes. Every brush and bump of Nie Zonghui’s hands has stoked a heat in him that hasn’t stuck, hasn’t sunk beneath the surface, and so his body is still rebelling in and with itself. Between them both, at least, they’ve pooled enough of Nie Huaisang’s pillows behind his back to prop Jiang Cheng mostly upright, the position pinching at the hot brand of his wound, but coaxing little blood to dribble from it for the jostling.

It makes it easier for Jiang Cheng to see without craning and contorting himself, and he regrets the accommodation almost immediately. That Nie Huaisang looks upset is what Jiang Cheng notices first; his features are unrepentant in how they’ve shaped themselves around his distress. That Nie Mingjue fares little better is what Jiang Cheng notices second; he is more controlled than his younger brother, more contained, but the set of his jaw is viciously punishing.

Nie Zonghui rises from the side he has been loaned to and returns to the side he belongs at. Jiang Cheng crosses his ankles over themselves to stop himself from making a foolish quip. He does not think, however harmless the nip might be, that Nie Huaisang would cope well with the brusqueness, and he especially does not think Nie Mingjue would cope with it at all.

“You don’t feel any better, do you?” Nie Huaisang asks, his careful hope subdued. Jiang Cheng shakes his head, and Nie Huaisang bares his teeth, grimacing. “That’s… not ideal.”

“One way to put it,” Jiang Cheng remarks, thinking both his tone and the words are unremarkable enough to be safe. His teeth clack together as a harsh shiver sweeps up his spine. “So, you don’t think— I can’t just…” he doesn’t need to finish when they all know what is staying unsaid, so Jiang Cheng stops there.

“Maybe there’s something in it that stops the core from absorbing it,” Nie Huaisang theorises, his voice as pinched as his mouth and brow, “I don’t know. I just know it can’t be good if it stays there. Right?”

A perpetual, permanent imbalance; there really is no way to predict just how much damage such a state could cause. Jiang Cheng has lost his core once, and he’d sooner slit his throat than even run the risk of losing it again. The days without had been— hollow. They’d been worse than any death.

“Sect Leader Jiang,” Nie Mingjue says, and Jiang Cheng snaps out of himself and to attention, “have you dual cultivated before?”

The heat that blooms on his cheeks is the only point of warmth in his entire body. Jiang Cheng swallows, thickly, around the tightness in his throat, and shakes his head, averting his eyes. It spares him from either of Nie Zonghui or Nie Mingjue’s expressions, but not Nie Huaisang's, whose fingers are rubbing idly at the collar of his robes, the column of his throat stained bright red. He is fiddling as if he sorely misses his fan and his ability to hide behind it; Jiang Cheng realises, distantly, that he must have dropped it during the commotion, much like Jiang Cheng dropped Sandu to the floor here, after.

“Um.” Nie Huaisang pauses to swallow, the harsh bob of his throat rippling beneath his tapping fingertips. “Is there anyone you would, or you want to— do that with?”

That Nie Huaisang, of all people, is embarrassed by this line of conversation, will be something that Jiang Cheng hopes he will find extraordinarily funny, someday, in hindsight. For now, it couldn’t be further from amusing. “No,” Jiang Cheng grits out.

“We have to find someone,” Nie Huaisang persists.

“No!” Jiang Cheng snaps, too fast and frighted and fraying, fingers fisting in the sheets. He hates it, and he hates himself for it. A room full of men and he’s coming off as little more than a child. What Nie Huaisang is proposing is completely normal and acceptable and Jiang Cheng is a sect leader, now, he has to do better. He has to be better. But he can’t. Too many people have seen him like this already, he doesn’t want there to be any more. He can’t let it find its way back to what’s left of his family, his sect.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t know if any of them let him gather himself together out of shock or out of sympathy, but none of them speak up until he does again. “Isn’t there anyone, in Qinghe Nie, who could…?”

It’s still not what he wants, but it feels— safer. He’s had to entrust them with his vulnerability by necessity, and maybe he doesn’t entirely trust them, but Jiang Cheng feels just that tantalising scrap of ease more from the thought of leaving it between him and them. Qinghe Nie is a straightforward sect, if nothing else. Nie Mingjue is a good man. He won’t take this up as a knife to drive later into Jiang Cheng’s back.

“We’ve never been a sect with much yin affiliation, ah, historically,” Nie Huaisang explains, slow, as though Jiang Cheng does not know this; as if it will prevent the inevitability of having to give Jiang Cheng an answer. “I’m the only one. Here. With that alignment.”

“Right now?’ Jiang Cheng blurts out, hissing when the slight jolt of his body punishes him with another pang of deep-sunk pain.

Nie Huaisang’s answering smile is awkward, and doesn’t reach his eyes. "At all.”

“That’s—” abysmal, Jiang Cheng doesn’t say. Of course no sect would ever have a perfect divide, but such a dire imbalance within the elements couldn’t be called anything but cursed. It was dismal. It defied any explanation but the divine; something must be rotten within the spiritual roots of the cultivators of Qinghe Nie.

“I’ll do it,” Nie Huaisang says, thankfully mistaking his pause as caused by something else.

“Er-gongzi,” Nie Zonghui interjects. His hand catches Nie Huaisang by the elbow in a gesture that is familiar, stationless, and they share a look that lasts only for the space between seconds, held in one and released in the next.

“I’ll do it,” Nie Huaisang repeats, as Nie Zonghui’s hand falls away. “If Sect Leader Jiang wants to.”

Nie Huaisang doesn’t look at his brother as he offers it, offers himself, and Jiang Cheng very nearly accepts. He would accept it, he knows, without much question, but while Nie Huaisang can tip his gaze away from Nie Mingjue, Jiang Cheng doesn’t have that luxury.

And Nie Mingjue looks—

Like a scream of rage given a man’s shape. His dark eyes are blistering through their slitted glare, and his lips are pressed tightly together, his jaw cinched as if he’s trying to keep a mouthful of blood from spitting out past his teeth. He’s staring at Nie Huaisang, but he’s not stopping him.

“I don’t,” Jiang Cheng answers. Because while he doesn’t think he’s ever seen Nie Mingjue so angry and so aggrieved as he is in this moment, barely anchored in his own body, Jiang Cheng thinks he recognises the root of its cause. He thinks he’s even felt it for himself, before: the white-hot, unmaking fury for a loved one too gnarled and ugly to put to a name.

Jiang Cheng isn’t sure what he’s more thankful for: that Nie Huaisang doesn’t seem relieved by his rejection, or resentful of it. He simply sighs and folds his arms across his chest, the furl of them drawing his inner robe tight across his shoulders. There’s an indecency to the sight that charts a hot streak of heat through the deadened cold of his frame, and Jiang Cheng hitches the sheets further up his thighs, hoping he’s draped them in his lap in a way that isn’t as obvious as he feels it is.

He’s almost tempted to claw his fingers into his stomach and dig down in a desperate last act to keep his head above water. There’s very few things that could make his present predicament worse, but Jiang Cheng has to reluctantly admit that might be one of them. He stays his hands.

“There’s something else,” Nie Huaisang muses, thoughtful, “that we could try? Maybe?”

All of their attentions turn solely onto him at once, and beneath them Nie Huaisang dips his chin, unwinding one arm from his chest to shift his hand through the air, idly, as though sifting through his thoughts. “It’s a foreign source of yang. Since the core isn’t absorbing it, anyway, couldn’t we… trick it?” His hand shifts, and his delicate fingers sprawl out, thumb and forefinger quirking towards Nie Zonghui as he turns his head, shooting each of them a furtive glance, one by one. “Dose over it with a yin tincture, rebalance the dominant element. Then someone Yang rooted could draw it out without starting their own rut.”

“Would that work?” Jiang Cheng tries to keep the hope from his voice, hiding it beneath incredulity. He almost succeeds.

“I have no idea!” Nie Huaisang laughs through his own frown, the scrunch of his features clamant. “I’m making it up! It seems like it would, though, right?”

“Er-gongzi’s reasoning is sound,” Nie Zonghui agrees.

“Right,” Nie Huaisang babbles, “yes, okay, then we would just need—”

“I will.” There is no give in Nie Mingjue’s guard when he breaks his own silence; no ground in his tone for objection. Jiang Cheng feels himself go too still as he watches both Nie Zonghui and Nie Huaisang relent, even though Nie Huaisang’s eyes begin to gleam with the flame of something unpleasantly unreadable.

When Nie Mingjue flits his stare to settle on Jiang Cheng, Jiang Cheng finds himself, futilely, trying to sink further back into the pillows keeping him upright, blunt nails scratching at the sheets clumped in his fists.

“Agreed?” Nie Mingjue prompts. It’s a statement pretending to be a question; a command parading as choice.

“Agreed,” Jiang Cheng accedes, for he is both too powerless and proud, ultimately, to protest.

With little left to argue about, after that, it does not take them all long to map out the remainder of a plan. While Nie Zonghui carefully divests Nie Mingjue of his guan and his outer layers, Nie Huaisang perches on the bed, hip pressed against Jiang Cheng’s thigh, the loose wisps of his hair coiling around his bowed face as he unstoppers a thin vial.

“I have to put it directly in,” he warns, “sorry. I’ll do a touch transference as well, to give your core something natural. It might help take the edge off, but I still don’t think it will feel— sorry.”

“Stop apologising,” Jiang Cheng snaps. It’s sharp, and shaky, but it’s not meant to break skin. “I’m not glass. I’m not going to shatter from a little pain.”

“All right,” Nie Huaisang breathes out, “okay,” and then he’s slinging his thigh across Jiang Cheng’s knees to pin him down as he buries the neck of the vial into the gash on his stomach, upturned, and sinks it as far as it will go before it meets the resistance of yet-unrent flesh.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t scream, he doesn’t, but it’s so close, the wail grating up his throat, seeping through the brutal clench of his teeth. Nie Huaisang’s other hand plants itself on his sternum, the heel of it grinding in, and Jiang Cheng can feel a feverish warmth lick through him from the join of their bodies, different to the ringing throb burning through his stomach. Jiang Cheng tries to kick his legs up, tries to push himself into the relief of it, and Nie Huaisang grunts as he’s unseated, the fan of his hand slipping up to cup Jiang Cheng’s pectoral. Jiang Cheng throws his head back, panting out, eyes blurring, and he feels the mattress shift in a flurry of motion, the vial pulled free from his stomach just as Nie Huaisang yelps and falls away, at too strange an angle to be of his own doing.

“Da-ge!” Jiang Cheng hears him shout, then, “Zonghui!” quieter, further away, only one set of footfalls marking their joint departure. Jiang Cheng’s head swims, lurching in on itself, sickening. His temples ache. There’s a hand spanning his ribs, lifting him, just at the slightest angle, and then he feels the brush of gauze as it teases itself tightly around his stomach, binding his wound.

The hand pulls away. Another settles over his stomach in its place, the basin of its palm cupping over his wound, searing even through the linen. Jiang Cheng fights to open his eyes, mouth running dry, throat growing tight.

He sees Nie Mingjue, when he finally manages it, and Jiang Cheng begins to tremble from something else, that’s not the chill of his rut or the strange heat radiating from his injury. Without his headpiece, the braids usually pinned to the crown of his head have spun down to spill over his shoulders and his spine with the rest of his hair. His expression is hard, but not harsh.

Even stripped back of the stylings that serve to fill out his stature and make him seem all the taller, Nie Mingjue continues to tower, the bulk of him tremendous and terrifying. If he fanned his fingers out, he could subsume Jiang Cheng’s entire ribcage, almost, maybe, with his touch, and Jiang Cheng makes a little cut-off sound at that revelation.

He’s seen the way Nie Mingjue moves, the effortless strength that goes behind it— there’s a part of him, dark and deep, that’s eager for it. There’s a part of him, closer to the surface, that’s scared. Fear is easier to address, easier still to accept.

“Sect Leader Jiang.” Jiang Cheng startles, flinching up against the sturdy press of Nie Mingjue’s hand, breath rushing out of him as his wound throbs. There’s blood enough left in it yet, apparently, to smear the gauze.

Jiang Cheng holds his gaze as best he can, teeth clicking together as he shivers, toes curling in the sheets. “Sect Leader Nie,” he manages.

Nie Mingjue regards him for an all-too long moment, and Jiang Cheng holds his breath throughout it, until his ribs draw tight and his lungs burn with the strain. Then, Nie Mingjue releases him from his regard, and Jiang Cheng gasps out, choking on his exhale. Nie Mingjue flicks his glance, pointed, to the back of his hand, and Jiang Cheng follows it after a beat of hesitation, thighs clenching with a distant, coiling tension.

“It sits low on you,” Nie Mingjue observes, and it takes a moment for Jiang Cheng to catch his meaning, punctuated by the brand of his hand, shackling Jiang Cheng to the bed. “Had it hit Huaisang as intended, it would have gone into his core.” He lifts his hand, and Jiang Cheng lifts his head. “Do we understand one another?”

“Yes,” Jiang Cheng breathes out. Even in his addling state, he can grasp what he is being told through what is unsaid: this is not charity, but payment. Nie Mingjue has nothing to fear from owing a favour, from the surety of his position and the stability of his sect, but Jiang Cheng has everything to lose and nothing to gain from becoming so indentured. There’s a gentleness inherent in the gesture of ensuring Jiang Cheng knows they will be even, after this.

Jiang Cheng is not sure how he feels about it; but he is, at least, certain that he’s grateful for it.

“Good.” Nie Mingjue sinks back onto his haunches, and the drag of his hands scrapes down Jiang Cheng’s sides to snag on the jut of his hips, a nervous judder jostled free by the pressure of his grip. “Wear the scar well, Jiang Wanyin.”

Nie Mingjue draws the sheet back from its pool between his thighs, and Jiang Cheng reaches, tentative, across the distance of the boundary Nie Mingjue has just overstepped. “Nie Mingjue,” he pants, and Nie Mingjue stops, the rough pads of his thumbs snubbing the thin cotton of Jiang Cheng’s waistband. The name doesn’t feel like it fits in his mouth, but it’s okay. Jiang Cheng can work with it. “Wait,” he continues, when he’s sure he’s caught enough of his breath, and surer still that Nie Mingjue has got him held steady, “I don’t— what do I do?”

The chuckle that rumbles out of Nie Mingjue is not meant to be hurtful, Jiang Cheng knows, but it burns him all the same, seeping into the rest of the fire sweeping through him, surging against the stolid chill of his forced rut. “Let go,” Nie Mingjue answers, and then his hands are moving again, palming his hip, down the backs of his thighs. Nie Mingjue moves him as if he is nothing, until he’s stripped Jiang Cheng bare of the last of his vestiges to shy behind.

“Wait,” Jiang Cheng gasps out, though he’s not sure why, he’s not sure what he wants Nie Mingjue to wait for. He’s glad for the excuse that Nie Mingjue gives him to lose his thought when Nie Mingjue hefts him by the waist until his thighs are draped in a too-wide splay across his hips, spine arching to appease the demand of having his ass pressed flush against Nie Mingjue’s lap.

“I have you,” Nie Mingjue says, still sounding steady, but softer, now, for him. Then, “You’re safe.”

The shocked sob is ripped from him before he can stop it. When Jiang Cheng goes to hide his face, he finds both of his wrists ensnared within the cinch of Nie Mingjue’s fingers, and with one hand Nie Mingjue presses them back against the bed, tucked into the slope of his waist, one arm brought to cross his fluttering ribs in a cage of his own body’s making. Nie Mingjue must know before Jiang Cheng does that he needs no more than that to bind him, for when Nie Mingjue takes his hand away, Jiang Cheng stays where he has been put, cheeks scalding with shame.

Jiang Cheng turns his face into the sheets, mouthing at them weakly as he feels Nie Mingjue’s hand sweep up the back of his thigh to hook behind his knee, and he pants out, wet, hips flinching, when he’s bent back until Nie Mingjue has the arch of his foot braced on the broad hill of his shoulder. “Hurts,” he grits out, though the complaint is the least of his cares, the ache barely registering enough to be considered a concern. When Nie Mingjue palms his knee, Jiang Cheng spreads himself until he feels the strain strumming down the sheet of his skin, drawn taut over his tense muscles, and hooks his ankle behind Nie Mingjue without the need for further guidance.

“You can bear it,” Nie Mingjue tells him. There’s a command in it, Jiang Cheng knows, to be obeyed, but there’s also an appraisal in it, too. A compliment. A faith. An expectation that Jiang Cheng finds himself arching his back to meet, hissing out a frayed little breath as his hips rut up against air, the curve of his ass slipping along the silk of Nie Mingjue’s inner robe. His hair, long since freed from its pin by Nie Huaisang, is now beginning to untangle from the ceaseless to-fro of being moved and manhandled, and Jiang Cheng shudders as the strands collar his throat and set there, uncomfortably heavy, against his sweat-damp skin.

Nie Mingjue grasps his ankle, drives the slant of his shoulder into it, pushing the bend of Jiang Cheng’s back from careworn to cruel, and he writhes, kicking out, futile, against the inexorable, immovable brace of Nie Mingjue’s body. A whine strings itself out of his mouth as Nie Mingjue thumbs his navel, tracing the soft smattering of dark hair as it trails lower, and then the heel of his palm is pinning the tip of Jiang Cheng’s cock and he’s coming all over himself with a wrecked shout. His fingers scrabble against the sheets and the back of his hand, clawing for some sort of purchase, wrists still obediently crossed, kept flat against the mattress.

Humiliation sinks through him like a stone dropped into a pond; instinctively, he tries to clamp his thighs together, but Nie Mingjue keeps him spread. He doesn’t laugh at Jiang Cheng, or speak; he just breathes, a little rougher, barely, perhaps, hard to hear over the crackle of the sheets and the race of his own blood in his ears. Nie Mingjue scrapes his thick fingers down Jiang Cheng’s abdomen, and Jiang Cheng thrashes, dizzy, when those fingers slip away only to snub against his hole, wet with Jiang Cheng’s own come.

“I can’t.” Jiang Cheng trembles, hips twitching, and he bites his groan into the sheets as Nie Mingjue breaches him with his thumb, sinking it to the first knuckle, curving it gently against his rim when he tightens down around it. “I can’t—!”

Nie Mingjue has no mercy to show to him; his huge hand pins down as his thumb slides in deeper, cupping Jiang Cheng’s balls up against his body, calloused fingertips scratching along the sensitive underside of his shaft, and he shrieks, slamming the heel of his foot against the small of Nie Mingjue’s spine. As though such an insignificant resistance will spare him from the strange feeling clotting in his gut, intermingling with the churning heat, that sloshes sickeningly within him as he feels himself stretch around the intrusion.

“You can,” Nie Mingjue says. The cuff of his hand leaves Jiang Cheng's ankle only to settle on his throat, fingers tucking beneath the slope of his jaw, urging his face up from the bed and through the veil of his hair. “You’re not finished yet.”

Jiang Cheng feels himself swallow, harsh, against the noose of Nie Mingjue’s fingers, and they slip just a snatch of an inch higher in turn, until Jiang Cheng’s chin has to dip into the webbing between his thumb and forefinger to abate the building discomfort. The change of angle forces his eyes to sweep down the contorted twist of his frame, down to the spread of his legs in Nie Mingjue’s lap, and he chokes, guttural, around a small, needy sound. When Jiang Cheng tries to retreat from the sight of his cock, already growing hard again beneath the pin of Nie Mingjue’s hand, Nie Mingjue shifts the collar of his grip on his throat and clamps his fingers around his jaw.

Jiang Cheng heaves in a ragged breath, chest rattling with it, as he watches his cock jump between Nie Mingjue’s fanned fingers, feels his balls draw up against the clasp of his palm. Watches his wrist bend, just a fraction, and feels the answering thrust of his thumb as it sinks all the way into his hole.

Nie Mingjue unlatches his hand from Jiang Cheng’s throat after a breath, brushing his hair aside before he plants it against the mattress. Jiang Cheng doesn’t try to turn his face away again, but when he squeezes his eyes shut, eyelashes fluttering, there’s no answering chastisement, by word or hand, and so he lets himself rest, briefly, within that goodwill, before he forces his gaze back down. Nie Mingjue’s thumb pulls up against his rim, the grind of it drier, now, skirting past uncomfortable, and Jiang Cheng has to bend with the curve of Nie Mingjue’s back as he shifts down to brace over him, has to let his thighs fall impossibly wider and his foot drop from Nie Mingjue’s shoulder so he doesn’t break.

Everything feels hot, too hot, like he’s on fire from the inside spreading out and the sweat pooling under his arms and behind his knees is just making him hotter, every pant and gasp and whine drying his mouth out. It’s terrible, and too much; wildly, he thinks he must be dying. If he’s not, he’s never going to complain about being cold through a rut ever again: the heat is so much worse, so all-consuming and out of control. Jiang Cheng is so lost in himself and the unfamiliarity of his own body that he doesn’t even realise he’s making sound, stunned and soft and insensate, until Nie Mingjue touches his face, cradling his cheek, thumb dipping in past his parted teeth to press down on his tongue.

“Easy,” Nie Mingjue gentles him, and Jiang Cheng groans around the gag of his thumb, tongue flicking against the rough skin mindlessly, lapping at it, gaze drawn to the way Nie Mingjue’s eyes narrow when they flick down to his lips, before they rise to meet him again. “Hold out your hands.”

Jiang Cheng does, a twinge blossoming in his shoulder as he unlaces himself from his long-held tangle. He furls his hands loosely around themselves, level to his sternum, before the thought of Nie Mingjue driving the flat of the knife of his attention to his chest and its scars unnerves him enough to shift them lower, where it’s safer. Nie Mingjue’s nail taps against the backs of his teeth as he slips it back out to instead stroke over his cheekbone, the dampness providing a pinprick of relief against his blood-hot skin. Jiang Cheng hiccups around a shaky inhale when Nie Mingjue pulls his hand out from between his legs, and then he yelps, jerking, as oil is tipped across the backs of his fingers and down to pool in his cupped palms, the excess spilling over onto his stomach.

“There.” Nie Mingjue runs his fingers through the mess, wetting them, and then he’s reaching back between Jiang Cheng’s legs, elbow pointed out, the tuck of his arm against his waist angled tightly to accommodate the heady press of his fingers as they brush against his hole, smearing oil across his rim. “Touch yourself,” he instructs, and then he waits. He waits until Jiang Cheng can get enough of his splintered senses gathered around him to move his hands, shy, down his trembling belly, waits until Jiang Cheng has fisted his cock, skin squelching, obscene, from the oil, and then he pushes in, lets his finger sink down to the webbing as Jiang Cheng rolls his head back against the bed, whimpering.

It’s worse, than just his thumb, for how it’s so much better; the glide slick and the sink deeper. Jiang Cheng tries to rock into it, tries to roll back from it, and Nie Mingjue allows him neither. His other hand drags back to grip Jiang Cheng's flank, thumb hooking into the crease where his thigh meets his ass, the claw of his fingers digging in just enough to make his skin dimple and his muscles spasm. He holds him there, in place, his one hand feeling as if it could wrap around the whole of his thigh if he just cinched it a fraction tighter, and Jiang Cheng pretends he’s watching the fumble of his own hands around himself, clumsy and stuttering, and not the way Nie Mingjue’s arm shifts as he thrusts his finger, slow enough to make Jiang Cheng ache for the promise of more that he makes whenever the tip of his second finger teases against him.

Nie Mingjue quirks his wrist, shifting his hand in a way that lets him press his thumb down behind Jiang Cheng’s balls, the rough pad of it skating his perineum, and Jiang Cheng jerks in surprise, mouth falling open around a shout that doesn’t quite make it over his tongue, the circle of his fingers coiling too tightly around the base of his cock. “Easy,” Nie Mingjue repeats, the edge to it chiding, now, but not like Jiang Cheng is used to, not laden with some sort of disappointment. His hand stops, finger pulled out so only the tip still sits inside, but even after he’s caught his breath, Nie Mingjue doesn’t continue.

Jiang Cheng sits with it, for a beat, and then two, until he thinks he knows what he needs to do, what is wanted from him, what is going to get him where he needs to go. He resumes the clipped pace of his hand as it rubs his cock, the other drifting lower, hesitantly, until he’s petting his fingers over his balls, smearing the oil there.

“There you go.” Nie Mingjue presses in again, this time with two fingers, keeping it slow for him, coaxing him through the new stretch, the knead of his thumb beneath the curve of his ass soothing, almost enough to lull Jiang Cheng’s attention away from the strangeness, the not-quite sting. His fingers are— all of him is massive, monstrous and immense, and he feels so open, just from this, so close to his limit, how is he supposed to—

Nie Mingjue spreads his fingers, gradual, sinking Jiang Cheng into it, letting Jiang Cheng kick out against the sheets, allowing his hips just enough give that Jiang Cheng feels a semblance of control when he squirms, the shift of Nie Mingjue’s fingers inside him turning rough, matching his flow.

“So well,” he hears Nie Mingjue say, low, the grate of his voice fringed with something hot and sordid, “you’re doing so well.”

Jiang Cheng tells himself as he comes, making a filthy mess of his hand and his stomach, that it’s not this that breaks him. That he begins to sob, frantic and fraught, from the culmination of all that has brought itself to bear on him over the past few months, and even further back. He brings his hands up to clasp around his chest, white-knuckled, fingernails catching at the raised scar tissue left by the discipline whip, and throws his head back, as if hiding all he can of his face will spare his last shred of dignity, will trick Nie Mingjue into thinking the ugly, broken-off wails and desperate swallows for breath are anything but.

It’s not fair. He has endured so much, and now he’s been ruined: by the barest fragment of praise, uncompromising and unconditional, of all things. Doubtlessly meaningless to Nie Mingjue to say, but everything for Jiang Cheng to hear. It would have been better if Nie Mingjue had just held him down to the bed and fucked him like he was made and meant for it; at least Jiang Cheng would have survived that with his pride. But no: the vague nightmare that has become his existence and will soon evolve into his life can’t even allow him to have that.

“Come here,” Nie Mingjue murmurs to him, and it doesn’t even matter that Jiang Cheng resists him. He pulls him up as though he’s weightless, shifts the shuddering drape of Jiang Cheng’s frame until he’s cradled in his lap, limp arms slung over his shoulders, his hand pressed to Jiang Cheng’s nape, turning his face into the shield of his throat. Jiang Cheng curls his fingers, tangling them in Nie Mingjue’s hair, trying to let the soft feel of the strands slinking through his grip and the smooth silk of his inner robe beneath his scraping fingernails ground him in the embrace. He still feels so warm, but he’s not even sure, now, if it’s more the yin or his own embarrassment at his state and stature.

He’s staining the front of the sect leader of Qinghe Nie’s inner robe with oil and his own come and soaking his collar with tears. Nie Mingjue is letting him. It’s utterly unmaking.

Jiang Cheng isn’t sure how many minutes pass, like that; they feel like hours, and they feel like nothing at all, as if he’s stranded in a stasis that only shifts through to the next second when Nie Mingjue lifts his other hand, brings it down between his quivering shoulder blades. He strokes his fingers, slow, down the rungs of Jiang Cheng’s spine, and it’s not— soothing, the touch just an edge too rough for it, too heated when it strays down past his tailbone, but it’s steadying. Sure.

“You’re not finished,” Nie Mingjue says, mouth brushing against his hair as he turns his face towards Jiang Cheng’s ear. “One more, Jiang Wanyin.”

Jiang Cheng muffles his wrecked little whimper against Nie Mingjue’s neck, shuddering when he shifts his hips and feels the press of Nie Mingjue’s cock against the inside of his thigh, as hot and huge as the rest of him, searing on his skin even through the cotton. It’s so— it’s not going to fit. It can’t be made to fit. “I—”

“Easy,” Nie Mingjue soothes. Easy; easy; easy. Like he is some scared thing to be saved; like he is something precious. “Just like this.”

Nie Mingjue drags the heel of his palm down the soft swell of his ass, and gently uses his fingers to part him, the tips nudging against his hole, still slick enough from the oil to offer little resistance to the tease of the intrusion. Jiang Cheng clamps his thighs down against Nie Mingjue’s lap, knees burrowing against his hips, and he feels his back arch from the implacable thrust of Nie Mingjue’s hand as he buries two fingers back inside him, straight to the root. The crook of them and the change in angle both causes them to grind against something that makes Jiang Cheng gasp out in— something, trapped between discomfort and pleasure. It ruts him up against the line of Nie Mingjue’s cock, and Jiang Cheng feels his own twitch, half-hard and oversensitive, between the pin of their bodies. He grunts out, hips stuttering, and the collar of Nie Mingjue’s hand leaves his nape, giving him leave to lift his face up, chin slotting into the hinge between his neck and shoulder, throat bobbing against Nie Mingjue’s clavicle as he swallows thickly.

Then, Nie Mingjue thrusts his fingers again, the slide viciously quick, every reaching inch grinding along that place inside him, tipping the sensation violently from pain to pleasure and back again as the shock slaps a pitiable moan from his mouth. Everything is gone, the heat, the cold, the throb of his wound, it’s all narrowed down to Nie Mingjue, inside him and around him, and he can’t— he can’t do whatever it is that Nie Mingjue wants him to do, wants his body to do.

“Let go,” is all Nie Mingjue has to say to Jiang Cheng’s desperate, shameful gasps, felt in the work of his jaw and throat against him more than heard. Each of his sounds are washed out by the wet slide of Nie Mingjue’s fingers and the rasp of crumpling fabric, and he can feel that Nie Mingjue’s robe has been rucked up by the mindless rut of his cock, already rubbed raw and still made to take more. Jiang Cheng is glad that leaning back to try and look at himself spreads and spears him too harshly for him to bear— it saves him seeing just how shameless he really is.

“I can’t,” Jiang Cheng heaves, eyes stinging with fresh tears, clawing weakly at the broad span of Nie Mingjue’s shoulders. “I—”

It’s not stop, and Jiang Cheng knows it, as Nie Mingjue must. He fucks his fingers into Jiang Cheng harder, unrelenting, unmerciful, giving him the slightest, frightening glimpse of the beast he had first suspected to make its den beneath Nie Mingjue’s skin, right back at the beginning.

“You will.” Nie Mingjue’s voice comes out in one long, rough drag, and Jiang Cheng feels Nie Mingjue’s cock pulse and throb, swollen, still pressed against his inner thigh, a relentless burn, a damning brand. The stretch and stab of his fingers becomes somehow all the more punishing, infinitely and impossibly, and Jiang Cheng chokes and keens, scrabbling, nails scratching down Nie Mingjue’s skin through his inner robes. He feels his own pleasure swirling within him, cresting without peaking, and it’s awful, and it’s too much, and between the thoughts that are flying in and out of his head, their jagged points clipping the edges of his awareness, Jiang Cheng thinks that still, still, Nie Mingjue is holding back. That this is nowhere near all he has to give out, and he could make Jiang Cheng take it, take every ounce and inch of brutality he has until Jiang Cheng is well past the point of breaking, and Jiang Cheng would have no choice but to survive it.

“Please,” Jiang Cheng weeps, torn, “Nie Mingjue, Nie Mingjue—” his tongue trips and twists on it, vacuous and vulnerable, and for one moment, one beat, one breath, he feels Nie Mingjue’s fingers withdraw to the first knuckle, and Jiang Cheng thinks he’s being allowed his surrender. Nie Mingjue has not permitted him to yield once, and he shows Jiang Cheng how foolish his faint little hope is when he folds his ring finger across the underside of his middle finger and shoves them back in all at once, ripping out of Jiang Cheng something animal and inconsolable as he— it doesn’t even feel like coming. There’s no release to it, no relief, just a grim, unfaltering build of pressure low in his gut as he spills against Nie Mingjue’s hip, every nerve aflame, the too-sensitive tip of his chafed cock rolling into the stained fabric, slit snubbing the silk.

It goes, and goes, and goes, and Jiang Cheng feeds the back of his wrist between his teeth to gag his scream as Nie Mingjue’s hand fetters him in place. Nie Mingjue forces him down on the frenetic fuck of his fingers and keeps him there, stuffed too full and stretched too far, wrings him out until there’s nothing left in him even to keep the latch of his teeth sunk into his own skin. Jiang Cheng kicks out, spent, feels his thoughts hurtle back, violently upended, as he’s tipped from Nie Mingjue’s lap and spread out on the bed, and Jiang Cheng feels his hole twitch, sore, against the seat of Nie Mingjue’s fingers as the shift jostles them all too sharply.

Jiang Cheng gulps for air, unhindered and unimpeded, but finds so little of it is sinking low enough in his chest to make a difference, to settle him. The strange, unbearable edge to the heat is gone, but he’s still on fire, the burn so low set in his body that he can’t sweat or shake it out. It’s a fight even to open his eyes; his eyelashes are clumped together, and when he pushes through his vision blurs, unshed tears spilling over to streak down his temples. It’s easier to let his head slant to the side instead of mustering the energy to lift his chin, and when Jiang Cheng has at last pieced enough of himself back together that he thinks he can manage it, he casts his gaze down between his legs, tries to bring Nie Mingjue into focus.

Whatever flimsy equilibrium he’s built splinters back apart at the sight. The careless comb of Jiang Cheng’s fingers have unwound his braids, and the dark mane of his hair hangs from his shoulders, and the tussled shroud of it around his throat only serves to sharpen the severe set of his features. With his skin mottled by the flush of his blood and his dark eyes blown wide and wild, Nie Mingjue looks as if he’s about to break free of the very cage of his body. Something deep in the root of Jiang Cheng urges him to flee, screams for it, but Jiang Cheng can only stay where he is, helpless and enraptured and entranced by the primal play of power beneath the subdued quake in Nie Mingjue’s shoulders, his thighs. How it seems as if the last semblance of his control will snap within the next shift between seconds and leave them both to suffer its consequences.

Nie Mingjue meets his gaze and holds it there, holds the whole of Jiang Cheng in place without effort or care as he shifts his fingers, curving them, the pad of his thumb teasing at his stretched rim.

Jiang Cheng moans, thready, heels slipping against the sheets as Nie Mingjue shifts forward to kneel again between his thighs, angling Jiang Cheng’s hips back into his lap, coaxing his knees to bend until his spine is singing with the torment of being held up and wide, on display. He has to close his eyes; can’t bear to look, not at Nie Mingjue, not at how he dips his chin towards his chest to watch as Jiang Cheng tries to clamp down around the insatiable breach of his fingers, tries to shy away from the prod of his thumb.

“Look at you,” Nie Mingjue breathes out, ragged and ravening, “still taking it. Doing so well.” There’s a threat to it, beneath the heat, something toothy and feral, and Jiang Cheng chokes on the wet whimper that gurgles up his throat in reply, cornered between lust and alarm. That breaks the dam of something in Nie Mingjue, though Jiang Cheng isn’t even sure what, just feels the taut thread of tension snap in two as Nie Mingjue bears down on him, binds him in the brace of his body, thumb dipping in past the desperate clench of his hole as his other hand slides beneath his neck, coaxing him to turn and rest his cheek in the cup of his palm.

“Made for it,” he hears, Nie Mingjue’s breath hot against the shell of his ear, “made to endure.” Jiang Cheng wants to lash out, contrary and irascible, but there’s no tinder for the flare of his disgrace to catch on, no fight left in him to spare. He buries his cheek further into Nie Mingjue’s hand instead, hiding himself, and he feels himself lurch violently, his consciousness pitched from the storm swathing his every sense to plummet towards a still dark.

Jiang Cheng wakes from his unbidden rest with a startling suddenness, spurred by the shake of a hand, firm, against his bare shoulder. He surges towards it before he’s even properly opened his eyes, and his body immediately punishes him for it, slinging him back to the mattress as a shock of pain shoots up his spine. Jiang Cheng grits his teeth, hisses, and blinks, rapid, until the bleariness tapers back and his stare settles on the shape of Nie Huaisang.

“Jiang-xiong,” Nie Huaisang entreats, bending over him, “you have to get up.”

With Nie Huaisang already held aloft in the fore of his focus, the rest of his surroundings take a moment to filter in; first, the room, and then, with a terrible stab of panic, his situation. Jiang Cheng shoots up, disregarding the revolt of his body in protest, and the swing of his body is sharp enough that Nie Huaisang takes a step back, straightening.

“You can’t be in here,” Jiang Cheng snaps, voice cracking, “get out!”

“It’s my room,” Nie Huaisang argues sulkily, and Jiang Cheng actually growls in frustrated panic. He’s never considered himself as someone lacking control, someone who would lose themselves enough to a rut that they’d push themselves on the first available yin rooted body and take what they need by force, but the last few hours haven’t really left him with the most sturdy sense of self, and Jiang Cheng really doesn’t think he could persevere through being proved wrong.

“You don’t get it—” Jiang Cheng starts. Stops. Takes a moment to centre himself, within his body, before touching his hand, tentative, to his dantian.

His yang has been balanced out.

Nie Huaisang pulls his fan from his belt and flicks it out, wafting it lazily against his chest. It looks like the one he’d lost, back outside, though Jiang Cheng can’t be certain, as he hadn’t really concerned himself with the particulars of its design. “Do you think Da-ge would have let me back in here if you were rutting?” he asks, the barb of his voice unduly crude. He’s clearly cross, though it’s not all that apparent to Jiang Cheng if it is at him or something else.

“You’re stupid enough to come, anyway,” Jiang Cheng retorts tightly.

Nie Huaisang looks away, the leaf of his fan skimming the swell of his bottom lip. “Well, maybe,” he says, dismissively light, “all my things are in here, after all.” His eyes flick back to meet Jiang Cheng’s gaze, and he quirks a shaped brow, humming. “Your things are on the altar table just past the curtain. You’ll be late for the banquet if you don’t hurry.”

Is it really so late already? Jiang Cheng glowers at himself, feeling the beginnings of a headache prick behind his eyes and across his temples. “Wait,” he manages, when he sees Nie Huaisang turn to leave, skirts swirling around his knees. “About this, you…”

“About what?” Nie Huaisang interrupts, just a shade too quick to be dismissable as prompting. “I’m not sure what you’re trying to say, sorry, Jiang-xiong.”

He breezes away before Jiang Cheng can get his bearings beneath him enough to object, leaving something unpleasant to set in Jiang Cheng’s stomach in his wake. Without him, there is nothing for Jiang Cheng to do but clamber to his feet; he takes it slow, and yet finds he doesn’t hurt nearly as much as he expected he would, given—

Given, well. That. His stomach aches, certainly, but the bandages have been changed, and there is no new blood dotting the fresh gauze. His clothes, he finds upon unfolding them, have been washed and mended, not enough to escape notice but enough to not draw attention. Jiang Cheng pulls each layer back over himself, favouring the parts of him that sting enough to demand his diligence, and combs his fingers through his hair until it will pass as presentable, twisted up and threaded through the pin of his headpiece. Someone has pulled Sandu out from beneath the bed and propped it up alongside his boots, which Jiang Cheng is absurdly, almost hysterically relieved by, given that it has spared him having to test how well his body will take to kneeling on the floor.

It is dark out when Jiang Cheng at last slips out from Nie Huaisang’s room. He gathers with his siblings without incident, and together they arrive at a time prompt enough to be considered punctual. Nie Huaisang has a warm smile for him by way of greeting, and Nie Mingjue has nothing for him at all.

Nothing is different. Neither of them regard him with any manner of knowing, and Jiang Cheng is— grateful, for that. And yet, oddly, no matter how hard he looks inward, digging down, he cannot find it in himself to feel glad.

Perhaps it will come, with time. Perhaps not. Perhaps, for the better, he will be able to forget this day and how it ever happened at all.