The sun is shining down on the Cloud Recesses. Nie Huaisang basks it, comfortably allowing it to warm his skin while he settles under the shadow of a tree. Under the shade, he takes out his fan, as to not overheat.
But then Jiang Cheng looks at him and, well, that plan goes awry immediately.
Nie Huaisang knows he must be blushing; heat’s flooded to his cheeks. All Jiang Cheng has done is give him a perfunctory nod, and then go right back to training. Nie Huaisang can’t help but feel a bit melancholy — it can be a bit difficult to capture Jiang Cheng’s attention. The Yunmeng heir is the only reason that Nie Huaisang is down by the training grounds instead of elsewhere, but Jiang Cheng hasn’t paid him more than that one glance yet, hasn’t even called out a ‘hello’. Nie Huaisang sighs. Maybe he will. Maybe Jiang Cheng will take a break.
He has to laugh to himself about that — now that Wei Wuxian is gone, Jiang Cheng has no reason to abandon training. He’s working even harder, now.
Nie Huaisang wants to distract him, but he gets it. And he’s proud of Jiang Cheng for doing something about the crushing pressures of being a sect’s heir, of being the unfavored son.
Nie Huaisang is just -- crushed.
It’s when dusk starts to fall that Nie Huaisang finally stands, knees popping, and decides to take a walk. Jiang Cheng is still cutting an arc of silver across the sky, barely seen as he blends into its dark purple, but Nie Huaisang can still pick out his features if he squints.
His heart aches. Perhaps Jiang Cheng will seek him out later, but for now, Nie Huaisang feels as if he is unworthy to grasp anything: Jiang Cheng’s attention, the saber skills of the Nie clan, his da-ge’s respect. Being around Jiang Cheng is like looking into a fractured mirror: he sees himself, he sees someone better, and he wants to be better, yeah, but -- if he reaches out, will he cut himself on the glass?
A walk might be able to clear his head. The Cloud Recesses are beautiful, the kind of green-blue magic that Nie Huaisang loves to lose himself in and then paint; he chooses the path he knows will take him through sprigs of flowers surrounding the stream. He likes to hear its quiet, burbling music.
And yet his thoughts are going back to Jiang Cheng. Exploring the forests with Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng have left their marks all over it: even the stream he had longed to see reminds him of when he had been fishing with Wei Wuxian, only to playfully kicked in. Jiang Cheng had picked up on his sputtering distress almost instantly and ducked down by his side, grasping his hand to pull him up. One hand at his waist; one hand in his -- warm, unyielding even though his own were wet and clammy. He held onto Nie Huaisang’s hand the whole time as they waded out, and if Nie Huaisang went a little slowly, stumbled a little more than he should have, right into Jiang Cheng -- well, it’s only hurting him in the end, right? Jiang Cheng is sweetness wrapped in thorns, sharpness wrapped in obliviousness.
If he were a woman -- would it be different? Would Jiang Cheng recognize what’s right before him? He can’t help thinking that sometimes, sometimes, it’s like Jiang Cheng does see him, does pay attention to him.
But he doesn’t know.
All Nie Huaisang knows is this: he loves Jiang Cheng -- o, first love, my love -- and specifically, all he has is that knowledge and stitched together moments to keep him warm.
Drinking together with Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng -- their last time before Wei Wuxian had to leave, but none of them had known it -- had filled his heart with warmth. Not just from the liquor, but because the Yunmeng boys are just too funny, and Nie Huaisang is happy to be in their circle.
And then there had been -- that. That moment when he thought Jiang Cheng was going to kiss him. They had ended up running, instead, and throwing up in the bushes -- very unromantic -- but that searing blue gaze had stayed with him.
He remembers Jiang Cheng saying in a whisper that he hoped this won’t reflect badly on the Yunmeng Jiang clan; that his father already thought of him as a disappointment.
You get used to it, Nie Huaisang had blurted, and that’s when Jiang Cheng had looked at him, gaze burning him like fire, and they had been close, so close. And then Nie Huaisang doesn’t remember anything else. That night, he had fallen into a deep sleep, dreams all tangling together, but Jiang Cheng was in every single of one of them, and when Nie Huaisang woke, he was flooded with images of a kiss here, a kiss there, everywhere. In his dreams, Jiang Cheng’s lips didn’t just ghost over his. They met his, chased his, bit his —
He had been so out of it in his first moments of wakefulness that he hadn’t realized he was still tangled in a heap with Jiang Cheng. They had somehow been in Nie Huaisang’s room, but he had fled anyway.
Alone and wandering, he tried to bite his lips, ran his hands over himself. Nie Huaisang is no stranger to chewing his lips and fussing with his hair when he’s nervous, but it had never been rough like how the dream had been. It’s not the same even when he tries.
Nie Huaisang has never been a fan of pain, but in the dream, it had been good. Was it because it was Jiang Cheng? Because it wasn’t real?
He’s drifted all the way back down to the training grounds. His gaze finds Jiang Cheng still there, slashing through the air with his sword gleaming brightly.
Nie Huaisang turns away. He won’t be finding out what his dream means because, well, Nie Huaisang doesn’t like pain.
Jiang Cheng does seek him out, and Nie Huaisang hates how his rabbit heart immediately starts to pound. He wants to run into Jiang Cheng’s arms, wants to kiss the furrow in his brow and stay there burrowed with him. He doesn’t want a home of mountains or even a home of clouds or lotus flowers -- he just wants that space right there between Jiang Cheng’s arms.
“Hey,” Jiang Cheng bumps Nie Huaisang’s shoulder with his as he settles down next to him. “What are you painting?”
Nie Huaisang looks down at the blank fan before him. “I don’t know yet.”
“Okay.” Jiang Cheng moves to lie on Nie Huaisang’s cot now that he has nothing to watch. “Did you want to train earlier?”
No, I just like watching you.
“No, I’d probably cut my hand open,” Nie Huaisang jokes half-heartedly. “I just like it down there. It’s nice.”
“Isn’t it like every other spot?”
It has you.
“Mm,” Nie Huaisang shrugs. He starts to move his brush across the fan, just abstract shapes at first, but it’s with dawning horror that he realizes there’s familiarity there: the slope of Jiang Cheng’s nose, the arch of his brow, the cut of his cheeks, the curve of his lips, even the fall of his bangs. Hastily, he covers them with waves, drowns them. He can feel Jiang Cheng watching him, and his face burns, and he prays, prays, prays that Jiang Cheng doesn’t realize.
“Pretty,” is all Jiang Cheng says, reflexively -- he says this about all of Nie Huaisang’s fans, even if he “doesn't understand what it’s supposed to be.” But he always follows that comment with a sly smile, and it makes Nie Huaisang love him more.
“Then I’ll give you this one,” Nie Huaisang says. “For warm days in Yunmeng, when the winds of the swaying lotuses don’t reach you.”
He thinks that Jiang Cheng smiles at that.
“Should I return the favor?” Jiang Cheng asks, despite not moving. “But you don’t really need another fan, do you?”
“I do, to make up for the one I’m gifting you.”
So Jiang Cheng sprawls back onto the floor, and painstakingly starts to copy Nie Huaisang’s waves. His tongue pokes out; his brow furrows; Nie Huaisang’s heart melts. There is so much more to Jiang Cheng if anyone were to just look -- but at the same time, he wants this all to himself.
I want you, want this with you every day. I want you, the tension bleeding from your shoulders out onto frantic ink. I want you, under my hands as I paint you with kisses and brush your hair back.
I want you and I miss you, because there is a you in my mind, the one who gives me everything I want, but you’re not there when I open my eyes.
What Nie Huaisang ends up saying instead is, “I have a friend who I used to paint fans with. I rather miss her.”
I miss you. I miss you.
“Who?” Jiang Cheng’s wave comes out a bit blotchy, and he frowns, aggressively starts to make it bolder and bigger to mask his mistake. Nie Huaisang stares; the wave is slowly becoming an ocean swallowing the entire fan into one black mass.
“Qin Xue.” Thinking of her, Nie Huaisang chuckles. “She’s supposed to be a lady, but she’s the one who would protect me when we were younger and roll up her robes to play in the woods. She showed me how to paint fans only because she thought I would like it. She thought it was boring, but she would still sit with me. She’s quite a fine cultivator.”
Unlike me, he thinks mournfully.
“If you trained more,” Jiang Cheng’s fan is entirely black now, and he stops to stare at it, “you would also be a fine cultivator.”
“Don’t you know my core must’ve been chewed up in the womb? I’m useless.” Nie Huaisang reaches over with a click of his tongue to take the brush, or the fan -- he doesn’t know yet, could he just be wanting to touch Jiang Cheng? -- but Jiang Cheng leans away, defiant. And maybe with just a bit of a pout.
Nie Huaisang narrows his eyes and grabs for Jiang Cheng again, managing to catch his wrist, but then he’s being pulled, unexpected and unstoppable, and he topples into Jiang Cheng.
Faintly, he registers the sound of an inkwell toppling too, but he only has eyes for the dark spill of Jiang Cheng’s hair. It takes a moment for him to realize that Jiang Cheng’s ribbon has snapped in their fall; it takes him another moment to realize that, even though he’s thrown out his arms to brace himself, he is still very much straddling Jiang Cheng’s lap. As if Jiang Cheng had been trying to catch him, his hands are on Nie Huaisang’s elbows. Yet he doesn’t push him away, perhaps just as shocked as Nie Huaisang is.
And even as shocked as he is, Nie Huaisang still can’t help trying to take everything in.
Jiang Cheng, under soft robes, is lean muscle. Jiang Cheng, under the sweat and dirt of the training grounds, somehow holds the faint scent of the incense that Nie Huaisang had given him; how often does he burn it? Does he think of him?
It seems like Jiang Cheng’s finally come to the same realization as Nie Huaisang, because his face is now suffusing with pink, and Nie Huaisang is so close, so close to long eyelashes and ice chip eyes and — and — they’re close enough to kiss --
(He remembers that night again, but they don’t have wine in their veins now. Nowhere to run.)
“Ah,” Nie Huaisang whispers, and hates how his voice cracks, “Forgive me.”
He tries to move, but finds Jiang Cheng holding him tight. There are waves pushing inside Nie Huaisang, like they’re trying to break a dam and flood out, uncaring of what they destroy in their path.
Jiang Cheng’s lips -- so close, so close.
“Jiang-xiong,” Nie Huaisang says, “will you let go? Or are you working up the courage for a kiss?”
He had been trying to joke, lighten the mood, but longing and panic twist his words. But it does the trick: Jiang Cheng lets go, and Nie Huaisang rights himself, busies himself with fixing his robes.
Jiang Cheng sits up, too, and mumbles something.
“You should kiss the one you like,” Jiang Cheng repeats, a little too loudly. “That Qin Xue.”
“Ah?” Nie Huaisang blinks, but his mouth runs away from him as a suspicious blooms, ugly like a bruise. And just like a bruise, he has to poke at it. “And who would you kiss, then?”
The pink of Jiang Cheng’s cheeks have become red. “This isn’t about me. This is about you.”
“Mm. You have any pointers?” Nie Huaisang asks. “Have you kissed anyone?”
Jiang Cheng looks like he wants to protest. But Nie Huaisang knows he hasn’t; he can thank Wei Wuxian for that.
“Like I said —“
“Isn’t there someone?” Nie Huaisang says softly, moves closer. “Jiang-xiong?”
“Stop being strange,” Jiang Cheng snaps. “I just said there’s no one!”
“You didn’t, actually.”
“Well, there’s no one!”
“Even if there’s no one,” Nie Huaisang asks, “Would you like to try?”
Jiang Cheng’s gaze drops to his mouth.
Nie Huaisang knows desire. Knows it for pretty things, pretty skies, pretty smiles fleeting and fast on the lips of the boy across from him. And he sees it on him, now.
Stitched together moments are unfurling into something greater, something nearly within grasp.
Is it me? Is it me? Is it me?
He reached out, tries to grasp, hold, and Jiang Cheng seems to fall right into his hands, but it’s not as graceful as that, no — it’s abrupt, like planets colliding, in a way that maybe they shouldn’t, or maybe it was an inevitable crash, the way their bodies meet.
The way their lips meet.
Nie Huaisang can’t speak, but he tries to let Jiang Cheng know —
I love you. I love you. I love you.
He wants to kiss Jiang Cheng for the rest of his life, no matter how short it may be.
And then Jiang Cheng breaks away from him.
“Too far,” Jiang Cheng gasps, and scrambles back. Scrambles back, and runs.
He finds Jiang Cheng standing down by the water.
(“Reminds me of Lotus Pier,” Jiang Cheng had said, and they put their feet in the lake and looked up at Gusu’s hills, so unlike Qinghe’s mountains. But Nie Huaisang sometimes wants to forget Qinghe, so he’s okay.)
“I wanted you to kiss me again,” Nie Huaisang whispers, “not run off.”
“I can’t,” Jiang Cheng says, but his hands are on Nie Huaisang’s waist. Is it to hold him at an arm’s length? If it is, why are they pressed chest to chest? Does he even know what he’s doing?
“You already did,” Nie Huaisang says. “Aren’t you supposed to attempt the impossible? Is this really too much?”
He knows how plaintive he must sound, but he had always thought of Jiang Cheng as near yet distant as Gusu’s clouds, as rare and untouchable as a perfect lotus (Jiang Cheng is not perfect, no, but he’s perfect for Nie Huaisang) — to have Jiang Cheng right here against him, how can he let go?
“It was a mistake,” Jiang Cheng says harshly.
“Why?” Nie Huaisang demands. “Jiang-xiong, you’re full of shit.”
“You are!” Jiang Cheng snaps. “I’m not going to be a stand-in for damn Qin Xue.”
Nie Huaisang reaches deep, deep down, somewhere where his chewed up core must be, and finds courage. No hiding behind his fans or his words. Not now. “I don’t like Qin Xue! I like you, you idiot!”
“Idiot?! You’re the i — wait, you what?”
“I like you,” Nie Huaisang says. He presses closer, feels the hands at his waist grip tightly. He knows he’s crowding Jiang Cheng, but Jiang Cheng isn’t moving away, and he needs him to know, needs to clear this up even if his rabbit heart is thump thump thumping. “I like you, Jiang-xiong. Jiang Wanyin, Jiang Cheng, you. Both your names, both sides to you. I like you when you’re quietly kind to me, I like you when you’re laughing yourself sick because you drank too much, when you choke up over something cute, when you’re yelling at me and Wei-xiong but you come with us anyway, when you keep trying even when it’s hard — especially if it’s hard, because you, Jiang-xiong, nothing is ever impossible for you. You’ll always try. There is so much more to you than you ever want anyone to see, but — show me, please. You make me want to stop hiding. I like you. I feel happy with you.”
When he stops, breathless, he realizes he had closed his eyes, unable to look at Jiang Cheng’s reaction. He opens his eyes to Jiang Cheng in bloom, blushing cheeks and wide eyes.
“Nie Huaisang, if this is a joke,” Jiang Cheng’s words are slow, shaking, “I will never forgive you.”
“Kiss me and you’ll know,” Nie Huaisang says.
The words are barely past his lips before Jiang Cheng is kissing him, clumsy in his haste but sweet with that sincerity muddled underneath. Nie Huaisang’s hands hover uselessly before they find a home on Jiang Cheng’s shoulders, and he moves to deepen the kiss.
Something’s bubbling up in him — a laugh, almost, or a sigh, or — he doesn’t know. Jiang Cheng breaks away, looks at him with a worried expression.
“Nie Huaisang,” Jiang Cheng says in a small voice, “you really like those parts of me? Why?”
“I guess I’m just strange,” Nie Huaisang says, and the something bursts out of him. He laughs, light and soaring, and kisses Jiang Cheng again, again, again.