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the rings come last

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The first time Jiang Cheng gets engaged, he’s seven.

“Will you marry me?!” 

The visiting Jiang family all freeze in horror (except for Wei Wuxian who immediately falls over in laughter - Jiang Yanli covering her mouth to hide the smile she struggled against). Madam Yu was quick for apologies, already moving towards her son who held his ground. Face bloated with air as he stared down Nie Huaisang in the center of the boy’s home. 

They’d just met. The Jiang family just crossed the threshold into greeting the Nie elder, bowing low with respect and courtesy. Taking in the fine home where Wei Wuxian had been gossiping about how they had horses on the property and couldn’t contain himself. Jiang Cheng had never seen a horse outside of his books or when they were relevant for a seven year old. But his mind was more on the lecture they’d been given before leaving to meet his father’s friend. This was family business, his mother explained. They needed to make a good impression - it was important. 

So nothing, Jiang Cheng thought, would move him to embarrass his family. Not even the strangled excitement at the prospect of seeing horses, not even that.

Then he met Nie Huaisang.

They were similar in age, the boy with long hair and a bright smile lingering to the side of his elder brother. Waiting for them with an out of sync family greeting as the three Nie men welcomed them to their home.

Even years later he didn’t know what possessed him as a child to suddenly blurt out “will you marry me?!” once Nie Huaisang was properly introduced. Maybe it was Jiang Cheng’s lack of other friends besides his brother and sister - maybe it was because even at seven years old Nie Huaisang was the prettiest human being he’d ever seen in his life. 

Regardless of the reason, he yelled “Will you marry me?!” before his parents and host even had the chance to finish introductions.

His mother apologizing, his father explaining his outburst, Wei Wuxian laughing - only Nie Huaisang hadn’t responded (the quite tall and quite intimidating Nie Mingjue had snapped “what?” only to be given a sharp look by his father and shriveled back to silence.)

Jiang Cheng opened his mouth again, embarrassment leaving him dizzy as his mother urged him to speak up, apologize for his words...when instead Nie Huaisang let out a laugh like a songbird’s call and suddenly two hands grabbed his own.

“Yes!” The boy agreed, sap colored eyes so impossibly bright in Jiang Cheng’s memory. “That sounds fun!” 

“Huaisang!” Nie Mingjue seemed to be looking at his father for guidance but the tall, tall, tall man had joined Wei Wuxian, laughing at the situation while Madam Yu seemed to be the only one left scrambling to get ahead of the situation.

“Let’s go right now!” Nie Huaisang was stronger than he looked. Smaller than Jiang Cheng but managed to pull him along with a single tug. Guiding him away from the family gathered and giggling wild as they went. His own head was hot with confusion until Wei Wuxian suddenly joined the fun.

“Run away! Run away!” His brother cheered from behind. “Go get married I’ll hold them off!” and then proceeded to tackle the teenage Nie Mingjue with a war cry.

Nie Huaisang hid them in his room, an enormous space with more toys than Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng combined! They ducked into a broad canvas tent, painted to look like some ancient general’s camp. Bullish monsters in brass stitched into the sides of stiff green fabric, inside like it’s own room! Complete with tables and chairs, books and dolls, exactly one million paints and even a television! 

“You can live here now!” Nie Huaisang announced. “But don’t call me wife. I’m also a husband ok?” 

“Ok.” He nodded, looking around as Nie Huaisang fumbled with something to the side and the tent was lit up by wire strings of small lights hanging in even patterns. Giving the space the illusion of being filled by fireflies or fairies above and Jiang Cheng smiled at the excitement building in his chest. 

“Do you have a ring?” Nie Huaisang asked, his brunette hair flipped around as he seemed unable to keep still. Moving this and that, rearranging things until having the cushion to the left of the 5 foot plush dog was somehow a better fit.

“Ah. No.” He thinks of the ring his mother wears, but doubts she’d let him borrow it.

“How can you propose without a ring?!” Nie Huaisang laughed, making his ears burn.

“Well I didn’t know I was going to propose until I saw you!” Jiang Cheng frowned until, with the same confidence of their daring escape Nie Huaisang collected Jiang Cheng’s hands. He gave them a firm squeeze and looked quite like he had the world figured out. Which was good because Jiang Cheng was usually very confused about things at that time.

“That’s ok! I’ll get them later.” The boy promised, his freckles suddenly very noticeable and if Jiang Cheng hadn’t proposed already he probably would have again. 

.

It was an eventful visit to say the least.

Yanli and Wei Wuxian caught up to them shortly after - then Nie Mingjue had been ordered by his father to keep an “eye on the newly weds”. Which proceeded to mean he was dragged into a game of ten thousand questions by Wei Wuxian about how old he was, how tall, how strong can he throw a boulder? How about a child? Can he throw him? 

It ended with the frightening Nie brother sitting on the floor while Nie Huaisang taught Jiang Cheng how to braid using the older boy’s exceptionally thick hair. All while Yanli and Wei Wuxian put on a show using a rather expansive costume collection in Jiang Cheng’s new fiance’s room.

 

-

 

The second time he’s engaged, he’s seventeen and  wholly unprepared for the full weight of Nie Huaisang’s head to crash into his lap, his friend’s sound of agony echoing throughout his bedroom.

“I give up!” The boy exclaimed, moving to pull at Jiang Cheng’s shirt in an attempt to smother himself. “It’s not worth it.” 

“Don’t be stupid.” Though he was surprised initially, Jiang Cheng was in fact quite used to Nie Huaisang’s theatrics. Especially during study where the other made it a point to pout and whine and fall over himself when his mind simply couldn’t focus on the work. It was never that Nie Huaisang wasn’t smart, he was in fact entirely too intelligent for his own good. Only his interests did not lay in numbers or historical dates - but creative arts and performance. “If you don’t pass this exam your brother will stop letting you study here.” 

Nie Huaisang made a noncommittal noise, the outline of his face scrunching beneath Jiang Cheng’s shirt. He could feel hair fall from the eternally sloppy bun and tickled where the spoiled boy and his hips met. Suddenly Jiang Cheng was quite aware of his shut bedroom door and the fact they were now sharing his bed...

Years of knowing Nie Huaisang gave him plenty of time to make himself immune to these moments - where his thoughts were dashed at the first touch of the boy. His proximity to Jiang Cheng’s person in direct parallel to how little Jiang Cheng could breathe without effort. Tell himself to keep his pulse low, his body lax. They were best friends first - his crush shouldn’t ruin that. 

Puberty was truly the bane of Jiang Cheng’s existence. Nie Huaisang’s natural preference of clinging to him only made it worse. But after ten years allowing this behavior how could he ask the other to stop? (How also could Jiang Cheng convince himself he would be fine if Nie Huaisang ever stopped?)

“I have made a decision.” The boy puffs his face, blowing a frustrated sound while un-burying himself from Jiang Cheng’s shirt - though he remained with his head in his lap and no sign of returning to his work. Hair now tangled over his face, determined expression impossibly cute. Jiang Cheng had to remind himself not to smile just because Nie Huaisang, prince of perfect presentation and six hours to get ready, was comfortable looking so ridiculous with him.

“This ought to be good.” Jiang Cheng set down the book he was reviewing, hand moving to begin putting the messy brunette strands back in place best he could from the angle.

“I should just marry a rich man and never work a day in my life.” 

Jiang Cheng’s first order was to flick the boy in the temple, unmoved by the “ow!” and following pout.

“I’m serious!” 

“That’s the problem.” He rolls his eyes, already wanting to return to his book and ignore this silly conversation.

“Hear me out!” Hands got in his way, pulling at the book and easily snatching it from his loose grip. “I’m pretty, we know this, and I’ll make a great housewife!”

“Is that so?” Jiang Cheng was not impressed, staring down at Nie Huaisang who seemed far too excited by this future prospect. “Let me ask, in your household, who does the shopping?” 

Nie Huaisang was quiet.

“And, remind me. When you leave your paints scattered around or charcoal debris gets everywhere - who cleans that up?” 

“That’s unfair.” Nie Huaisang interrupted, frowning against the stolen book. “My brother is very tidy and I don’t have a chance to clean up - and Meng Yao doesn’t let anyone in the kitchen! I’ve tried!” 

“How many kitchens are in your home?” Jiang Cheng asks, watching Nie Huaisang’s face go blank.

“...two?” 

“One. You have one kitchen.” 

Jiang Cheng tweaks his nose, calling him impossible and snorting at the squeal of indignation which arose.

“Ok fine!” The boy cries, slapping the book against Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. Playful but with bite. “Maybe housewife is not the word for it. But if he’s rich enough I could just spend all day with my art and be waiting for him in the parlor room, lounging elegant and needy and then I’ll never have to work again.” 

“You’re above that.” Jiang Cheng comments, struggling to retrieve his book from eccentric hands.

“If it means I never have to take another math test, I can lower my standards. It’s a sacrifice, but someone has to make it.” 

Half tempted to grab a pillow and smother Nie Huaisang for his own sake, Jiang Cheng doesn’t focus further on the pretty face speaking such ridiculous things. Instead he tries to look as neutral as possible, pretending the thoughts in his mind and heart were only logical - and letting them slip was actually completely under his control.

“If you’re willing to go through all that, just marry me.” 

The last bit of hair still clinging to the bun fell loose when Nie Huaisang jumped - head turning to stare upwards with sap colored eyes looking bronze in the light. 

He thinks that, in a few months time, Nie Huaisang’s hair will be long enough to reach his elbows. They’ll probably go to the Jiang lakehouse, spend a week in the spring fishing and swimming. Build fires for Wei Wuxian to tell spooky stories over and Jiang Cheng will offer to braid Nie Huaisang’s hair for him. The way that the boy taught him when they were seven, giggling to each other as they stuck bright flower barrettes into Nie Mingjue’s hair.

“My future wife doesn’t have to keep the house,” Jiang Cheng’s heart is pounding, he wonders if the other can feel it where his cheek is pressed into his belly. “You can paint or - whatever - all day. Just at least know how many kitchens we have.” He pauses. “And graduate high school. Those are my conditions.” 

Nie Huaisang doesn’t laugh at him. In fact the boy is looking funny, maybe too still and that’s such a bizarre thing to see in a boy who never held still.

 The silence makes his stomach hurt, the fear that oh you stupid jerk you said too much ! Jiang Cheng has lived ten years without muddying the waters between his feelings for Nie Huaisang and their friendship. Why did he have to go and do that!

“Will you marry me?!” That’s the first thing he said to this guy without a damn thought in his head. It felt very much like that.

“Yes!” Nie Huaisang erupts, almost smacking himself in the face when his hands burst forward, slapping Jiang Cheng in the chest instead. “That sounds fun! And way easier than tricking some weird guy into spoiling me for the rest of my life. You already do!” 

“Hey!” Jiang Cheng has lost control of his temperature and he’s burning hot as Nie Huaisang begins planning all the things they’ll have in their house. The dogs and fine furniture, three pools he expects Jiang Cheng to have built for him. Going wild over the prospects of having an entire floor of their house be a closet!

“...And in the spring we can…” 

“Wait a second.” Jiang Cheng presses the weight of his palm over Nie Huaisang’s mouth, stopping him cold and flustered. “First off, I’m not spoiling you for free. If you want me to give you all these excessive things you better become some big shot artist and give me something to brag about at the office besides how pretty you are...” 

He sounds ridiculous, he knows. But he’s never said these things aloud. Things he wants, things he considers whenever anyone asks him What do you want out of life? Jiang Cheng’s answer is always the same in his heart. He’s seventeen and hopelessly in love with his best friend, it just makes sense to want to give him a good life, right?

“Secondly. Don’t get too excited, I won’t marry you if you can’t even get through high school so you better pass this exam or else I’ll retract the offer.” 

Jiang Cheng lets Nie Huaisang pout and whine for a moment, let his excitement fall to complaints and teasing that he’s already a cold husband . It’s enough to relieve him of the chokehold around his heart, afraid he’d gone too far. 

But the smile his friend wears is brilliant and all-consuming and he feels like everything will be just fine.

Especially when Nie Huaisang gives him his first kiss not a second later.

 

-

 

The third time Jiang Cheng gets engaged, he’s twenty-three and crying.

He’s always been quick to cry. Petty things didn’t shake him, but he was always sensitive if someone he loved was involved. Tears were bound to happen. His eyes couldn’t take the sight of them upset, or sad or yelling at him or over him and he felt like a damn child unable to control himself. 

This time he’s crying tears which feel too hot down his face, letting them fall without a care in the damn world. So what if he’s crying? Shouldn’t he be allowed to cry without feeling shame once? 

The reason for his tears are Nie Huaisang. That’s probably why he can’t stop himself, can’t control the hiss as he sucks in breath trying to recompose himself only to fail and choke on the knot in his throat

“I’m sorry.” Nie Huaisang says as he breaks his heart. He looks sorry and that makes it simply impossible to feel angry at this moment. Even if he feels it was only right to be angry, he can’t summon the emotion with Nie Huaisang so close.

The most beautiful man in the world is sitting on the bed they’ve shared for two years, his things neatly packed. Jiang Cheng has just been informed that in a day Nie Mingjue will come to collect most of it. Store it while his brother is away. The rest Nie Huaisang will take with him on a plane, going further away from Jiang Cheng than they’ve been from one another in sixteen years.

“a-Cheng.” 

“I don’t understand?” His voice breaks and Nie Huaisang winces at the sound. “I thought...I didn’t know…” He’s stumbling over his words, making no sense and it’s difficult to breathe.  

“You’re planning on turning down the offer.” 

“What?” Jiang Cheng hates how calm his boyfriend of six years sounds. Why isn’t he upset? Why is this so easy for him?! “You’re doing this because of an internship?” 

“No. It’s not that.” Nie Huaisang frowns, hands perfectly still where they rest in his lap. Usually he fiddles with his hair or earrings or sleeves when he’s nervous. Nothing. No sign that this man feels more than sorry  by the look in his eyes and perfect posture. “I’m doing this because of why you won’t take it.” 

There weren’t many reasons. No buffer or soft blow to the obvious. So Jiang Cheng is left recalling the night he was offered the thing he worked so hard for - and just as quickly planned to throw away. In truth he hadn’t realized what would be asked of him when he set his sights on the prestigious program. If he had known Jiang Cheng can’t say for sure if he’d even have tried in the first place.

That. That thought right there is why Nie Huaisang’s things are packed.

“You’re breaking up with me because I won’t move across the country?” 

“How can you say it like that?” Finally he looks hurt, but not out of guilt for breaking Jiang Cheng’s heart. Nie Huaisang looks hurt as if he’s being forced to do this. “You won’t take it because you won’t leave me behind.” 

“Some people might call that romantic.” He interjects and is surprised at the scowl marring the other man’s features.

“I call it toxic.” 

“Toxic?” Head goes hot, tears continue falling. “You think I’m toxic!” 

“I think I’m tired!” Nie Huaisang’s hand hits the bed. “I’m tired of watching you pass on things that you’ve decided are out of your reach, and using me as an excuse not to go for them. I’m tired of turning down offers to study abroad because I don’t want to leave you alone. I’m tired of all the ways we love each other dragging each other down.  We’re not good for each other like this. You can’t look me in the eye and tell me you’re happy with the way things are!” 

Jiang Cheng opens his mouth to protest. To say proudly that he never knew that’s how Nie Huaisang felt. That he never would want the man to hold himself back because of him. That he’d be happy to watch Nie Huaisang leave for months with new friends on an exciting adventure while Jiang Cheng was left waiting in their apartment for him to come home. That he hasn’t spent the past two years in his studies deciding that, if he has the one he loves at home, he can lower his aspirations. 

Choosing to stay close. Keep them safe in their bubble, and make a life out of that instead of trying for more.

He closes his mouth.

It’s over. 

Jiang Cheng forgot what he always wanted, to give Nie Huaisang everything to make him happy.

They’re both just making themselves miserable and calling it devotion. That realization dries up his tears. 

“I love you.” Jiang Cheng says, quiet and hurt and knowing there’s no going back. Nie Huaisang is stubborn and he’s prideful and they can’t ignore what’s so obvious. 

“I’ve never doubted that.” 

.

They kiss goodbye. Nie Huaisang holds his jaw with warm hands, thumbs stroking the arch of his cheekbones like he was trying to make a memory against his fingertips. Jiang Cheng holds him, but not too tight. Knows if he squeezes he’ll be tempted not to let go and that would only make them both miserable. 

The only thing he can do is carry the other’s bag to the front lobby of their building, watch him fiddle with his keys and remind Jiang Cheng that he can always call. Always reach out to him. This isn’t a break up to end their connection, this is so they can relearn how to breathe on their own.

Jiang Cheng slips his ring into Nie Huaisang’s bag. 

His mother gave it to him the day he graduated. It was his grandfather’s and given to her on the day she married, to one day pass on to her son. A reminder of their family, their responsibilities to take care of those they love, to protect their home. 

He tucks it into Nie Huaisang’s bag because Jiang Cheng’s home was this man’s smile. It didn’t feel right to keep it. 

“Do you know I love you?” Are the last words Nie Huaisang speaks to him before the cab arrives. He can’t help but think about their first meeting, and then how they promised to marry each other as teenagers. Naive and sweet and impossible.

Jiang Cheng chuckles against the raw hurt that the ring in Nie Huaisang’s bag is hardly the best engagement ring, but he’d always thought that , that’s how I’ll propose. The object that means the most to him, given to the person that means everything.

He guesses as this man, stepping into a cab to be taken far away, will never know Jiang Cheng has proposed again.

Maybe this time Nie Huaisang will say no.

.

In a month Jiang Cheng is moved across the country to start his new work. 

They keep in touch as promised, but are careful. They don’t talk on the phone much, message every couple days. Nie Huaisang sends him photos and updates on his classes, of the museums and workshops he’s able to attend. Jiang Cheng rants about shitty coworkers, how his headaches are back, that Yanli is having a baby. They can go a week or a month without speaking but there are constant hearts or comments on social media posts. It's something Jiang Cheng isn’t good at keeping up with but he gets a dog for an excuse to have Nie Huaisang comment with all caps. Promising to bring treats when he visits one day.

The dog is also an excuse to not come home to an empty place, void of purpose.

Months go by, he slowly learns to live without Huaisang. Hates it, but thinks what he’s doing is good. 

That took awhile, to be proud of himself just for himself. To accomplish things because he wanted to and not to try and prove to a parent or partner that he was worth something. He can’t bring himself to date, and is more than terrified Nie Huaisang might, but that’s not something he focuses on past the sting of their situation. He’d accept it, if it happens, but Jiang Cheng can’t look at another person even a fraction of the way he’d look at the one he loves.

One day, months in, Jiang Cheng finds himself laughing and it’s not fake or painful. Nie Huaisang isn’t there and he can still feel happiness. That surprises him most of all.

It’s a start.

Jiang Cheng isn’t mailed back the ring, so either Nie Huaisang is planning on giving it back in person or he’s lost it. Either is fine, he’ll accept either so long as it’s under the man’s decision. Whatever Nie Huaisang wants, Jiang Cheng will agree to.

.

It’s a year later when he gets a call in the middle of the day. Nie Huaisang is in Malta. The call is expensive but there’s nothing that would stop Jiang Cheng from answering. 

Nie Huaisang is drunk and crying. He’s asking him if he ruined them, if it was his fault all along? Did he make Jiang Cheng feel worthless or trapped or was he not good enough for him? 

Jiang Cheng tells him no, of course not. He could never, this was better right? He’s so good, he’s perfect, he’s everything he’s ever wanted. But Nie Huaisang was right, they were burying each other. It was good, it was the better decision. He’d never want to be like his parents. 

Nie Huaisang saved them, really. 

“Do you know how much I miss you?” The man sobs on the other end of a phone so far away and Jiang Cheng can’t hold him and that hurts more than when they realized they couldn’t be together.

“Of course I do.” He’s almost afraid he’s going to break his phone, squeezing it so tightly. “And we’ll see each other again and it will be ok. We’ll be ok, whatever that looks like.” 

Nie Huaisang laughs, it’s a sloppy hiccup of a sound but it stops Jiang Cheng from buying a plane ticket that second and flying to him. 

“You asked me to marry you when we were kids.” The man says, the sound of his earrings scrape the receiver and he can tell that Nie Huaisang is about to pass out. “Do you regret that?”

“a-Sang.” His voice drops. He used to whisper Nie Huaisang to sleep when they were first in university. Hold him tight, recount his day at the lowest his voice could go and let the man snore away against his chest. He’d give anything to hold him again, even if it was for a visit - even if the man would be jetting off on a new adventure the next day. A night would be enough. “I gave you a ring didn’t I?”

Another hiccup, the sounds of pillows and blankets and the man’s breathing feels like home.

“Your ring?” 

“It’s yours.” Jiang Cheng closes his eyes, wishes he could see this man’s face. “Even if you don’t remember this in the morning, it’s only ever been meant for you.” 

“I still love you.” 

“I only love you.” 

.

The rest of the day Jiang Cheng tries not to wait around for the “I’m sorry for last night, what happened?” message. He’s terrified for it actually and stays up too late with no sign of Nie Huaisang. No call or message or email or anything. His stomach sinks at the silence and he’s flipping through his phone when he gets an alert. 

Mian Mian, a girl in Nie Huaisang’s travel group, uploaded a new photo. He followed her because she’s nice. They met back in school when Nie Huaisang first started in the art program so it wasn’t hopefully inappropriate to follow her account. Thrilled whenever Nie Huaisang shows up in her photos or posts. 

The caption just says “Look at this happy boy” with a parade of emojis and stars. The subject of her post framed in the lanterns of an outdoor pavilion, their world otherwise out of focus. 

But it’s Nie Huaisang, looking perfect with gold gleaming in his hair and eyes clear and happy with the bow of his smile.

And Jiang Cheng’s ring hanging from a silver chain around his neck.

He taps to like the photo, forgetting how to breathe. Seconds later he gets a message.

Good morning. 

I love you.

 

-

 

The last time Jiang Cheng got engaged, he’s twenty six.

Long distance relationships turned out to be workable.

Missing Nie Huaisang was only tolerable because when they saw one another, that happiness soothed the wound of longing and kept him going. 

Everyday was a test, to see how better he could do, what he could accomplish to share with Nie Huaisang when their schedules managed to align for a video chat or call. Messaging only allowed in certain hours and an agreement for boyfriend black outs if their work simply needed their entire focus.

The shine that youth had once given their relationship was gone, replaced by something better. The feeling that this was real and something worth fighting for. So lonely nights, empty beds, watching a plane take off not knowing when they’d get their next chance - he would survive it by making sure Nie Huaisang had something good and happy to come back to.

Being honest with themselves is the hardest part, which felt strange to admit.

When Nie Huaisang decides to come home their conversation was tense. He chose to move in with his brother rather than where Jiang Cheng had relocated to. It made sense, but hurt them both and took a couple days for him to calm down and understand. Of course that was best, he was sorry. 

It did mean Nie Huaisang could stay with him for full weeks now. Here and there, frequent enough that his coworkers knew this beautiful man who’d hide by Jiang Cheng’s desk and jump out with flowers. Already using his devastating charm to convince the floor supervisor to let him leave early. 

Jiang Cheng would get to spend days showing Nie Huaisang around the city he’d grown to love, the places he thought the other would like. They’d run around with his dog during the day, sleep in late and kiss until stomachs wouldn’t stop complaining of hunger. Waste that day lounging in only sleepwear at most and Jiang Cheng could braid his boyfriend’s hair so it doesn’t get tangled in the chain around his neck. 

The ring never taken off.

It wasn’t the life he expected to have with the one he loved, but it was worth it.

.

Right after Jiang Cheng turns twenty-six, his parents get divorced.

It’s a strange thing, lacking heartbreak or misery. He thinks they love each other but they can’t stand one another - and sometimes love isn’t enough to fix that. It’s mostly amicable, but even if it wasn’t his father wouldn’t say otherwise and there’s no real way to tell how his mother feels. 

Nie Huaisang says it’s alright to be angry at his father. They talk about it over the phone one night, Jiang Cheng drinking straight from the bottle of sweet wine left over from his boyfriend’s last visit. Exhausted and confused by the whole thing.

“I don’t like being angry at him.” 

“I know baby.” The endearment made him smile, it didn't matter how many times Nie Huaisang called him pet names, his heart couldn’t take it. “When will you be back in town? I can pick you up from the airport?” 

“About a week, I have some things to hand off here. But I’ll be heading straight to meet Wei Wuxian and Yanli, I haven’t seen Jin Ling in three months.” 

Nie Huaisang agrees, tells him to “pencil him in” but gets quiet soon after. It doesn’t feel awkward but it makes Jiang Cheng worry without reason - so he asks rather than let it go.

“I just miss you.” 

“I miss you too.” 

“I’ve been thinking about moving there.” 

Silence.

“You don’t want me to?” 

Jiang Cheng straightens his posture, needing to secure himself to say words he really doesn’t want to.

“I want you , but we agreed not to even consider who would move where until things settle for us.” 

“I know.” Small, sad voice of the one he loves. 

“You’re doing so well there, you can’t just uproot. Don’t you have three gallery offers? That’s insane, and you’ve been talking about your upcoming study with that restoration artist, you can’t miss that.” 

“I know.” 

“I love you.” Jiang Cheng says like breathing, the words giving him life. “We’ll wake up next to each other one day for the rest of our lives, but we have goals to accomplish first.” 

“I regret the day you grew emotional intelligence.” Nie Huaisang whines to cover the sound of his crying. It doesn’t kill Jiang Cheng this time, because he knows the stress of it. Wanting and waiting for the chips to fall in the right order so they could finally have everything they want. He no longer feels he has to be there for every second of Nie Huaisang’s life, hoarding these moments for himself. Instead he’s grateful for the times they have.

“Blame yourself, you made me grow up.” 

“Dammit. I’m too smart for my own good!” 

“I’ll see you in a week.” 

“I love you.” 

“I love you.” 

.

In a week, his parents give them their company.

Jiang Cheng is staring at them like they’ve lost their damn minds.

“With the separation under way we have to also consider the best path for our business.” His mother said as if it somehow made the whole idea make sense. “So you’ll start where best suits you and work towards eventually taking over. It’s rather simple.” 

“But,” He’s embarrassed to stumble over himself. “I don’t have the experience or the…” 

“We’re well aware of that, didn’t you hear me?” His mother rolls her eyes and he wonders if that’s really what he looks like. “You’ll get the experience. We’re not handing a twenty year old our life’s work. You have to earn it.” 

At some point in his childhood Jiang Cheng just accepted he would never be deemed good enough for them. He assumed one day that his work towards their needs was a fruitless venture. His mother wouldn’t hire him when he was in school and his father always asked is this what you really want

So he stopped trying.

And now. This?

“Wanyin,” His father’s voice was even and soft, and he thinks he might even be smiling at him. “We’re asking you, not telling you. If this is what you want your mother and I are in complete agreement that it is what would make us happy. But if your aspirations lay elsewhere, don’t think you’d be letting us down.” 

His mother didn’t look so convinced, but it was a strange veil to the anticipation he also saw. A look which told him she agreed and understood and would accept whatever his answer. 

.

He meets Nie Huaisang after dinner. 

Nie Mingjue was selling the family home now that their father and Huaisang’s mother had moved away to warmer climates. It was strange seeing it empty, the massive structure had always been something intimidating as a boy, but eventually felt like a second home (even if there weren’t horses). Gravel driveway wasn’t as pristine as he remembered it, moving trucks and real estate agents in and out. Likely busy trying to decide what to do with the lifetime of antiques Lady Nie collected. She liked old, beautiful things and her husband liked to spoil her - sounded familiar. He had to call them soon, they’d always been good to him.

Nie Huaisang had driven there with his brother and stayed later so picking him up was only the right thing to do. The doors unlocked and the path familiar. Jiang Cheng stepped inside the room where he first met Nie Huaisang and fell in love and wondered if anything would be as cheesy as that?

He calls for Huaisang and hears a faint response above.

“I’m in my old room!” It calls again as he approaches the mammoth stairs. “Can you help me with a box? Then we can go!” 

“I get back and you’re already putting me to work?” He complains without heat, smiling lightly as he trailed after the sound. A good distraction from the knot inside of his belly as his parent’s words echoed in his mind. “Can we get a drink after this, I have something I need to talk to you about.” His steps quicken, thinking that was a bad thing to say out of context. 

Jiang Cheng opens the door to a childhood room, expecting chaos and cardboard and Huaisang trapped in packing tape. Instead finds he’s stepped into the past.

 

The massive room is empty save for a large canvas tent of green and gold. The entry pinned so Jiang Cheng can see inside to the evenly woven strands of fairy lights, bright gold and white. The interior lacked the toys and children’s things from the last time he saw this tent, but in place of those nostalgic things kneels Nie Huaisang on a blanket, waiting.

He is ethereal in the light, the expression nervous and sweet with excitement. His hair in a long single braid, heavy over one shoulder and the freckles which Jiang Cheng knows by heart are like scattered gold across the scrunched nose when he beams. 

“What are you-” 

“Hear me out.” There’s music playing from somewhere, a sappy song he once drunkenly sung on their year anniversary. A stupid teenager in love and lacking the words to explain it so he stole a song. “I love you.” 

“I believe you.” Jiang Cheng feels half his face smile while the other is trapped in the daze of simply how beautiful Nie Huaisang looks, framed in light and smiling at him. For him. Only him.

“So I’ve considered, we’ve been together for awhile now and maybe we can’t live together just yet. I’ll accept that, you’re right. Our lives just don’t fit the way we want. But…”

“But?”  He’s stepping closer, sits down too hard on his knees to be across from this man he loves. 

“But I still want a life with you. Even if we don’t see each other every day, even if we have to depend on phone calls for now.” Huaisang is smiling but there are silver tears building in his eyes. “That’s ok because I have you. And you have me. I want you to never doubt that.” 

Jiang Cheng knows he could not love this man more than he already does.

“a-Sang,” 

“No. Let me.” Nie Huaisang fumbles with something around his neck. The silver chain with Jiang Cheng’s ring - except this time it’s not alone. A ring of similar build is pulled from the chain, but the broad gold body is entirely new. Textured metal with green gems crushed and laid in a pretty shape. Something which reminded Jiang Cheng of his lover’s more delicate ink work. Knowing immediately this ring was brought into existence by Nie Huaisang’s design.

“You’ve asked me three times already,” Nie Huaisang’s voice is strong, confident in his decision while Jiang Cheng can’t remember how to speak. “Wanyin, will you marry me?” 

 

He cradles Nie Huaisang’s skull with a hand before surging forward. Lips meet, weight shifts, and the blankets laid out beneath this tent catch their bodies as they tumble back. Kissing soft and desperate, weeks apart and left greedy for one another’s touch. Jiang Cheng feeling Nie Huaisang’s hands at his jaw, the smallest whine as he squeezes fingers through the long hair. The temptation to never part, to forgo the need to breathe in exchange of living off the comforting sweetness of this man’s mouth is all too strong. 

Hearts race where bodies align, Nie Huaisang whispers his name and Jiang Cheng knows everything has brought him to this moment.

“a-Cheng,” The voice trembles, fingertips push him back and the loss of Nie Huaisang’s mouth is a tragedy. Quickly healed at the image of Huaisang, hair messy and cheeks flushed, lips red and still shining gold beneath him. “You didn’t--” 

“Yes.” He says quickly. Kissing the man’s mouth loud and sharp. Kissing him again more frantically across his cheek and jaw and smiling mouth until he has Nie Huaisang laughing under him. Pinned by his weight and his fervent need to kiss him for every second they’ve been apart. “Yes.” 

.

Of all the times to cry, Jiang Cheng is surprised in himself that he doesn’t. He’s too happy to cry.

Nie Huaisang, however, does. After mouths fall numb from kissing beneath copper wire stars, Jiang Cheng explains that he’s coming home. His fiance immediately curls  in a ball and sobs while swearing he’s not crying. Letting Jiang Cheng hold him - kiss his throat and hair and damp cheeks until all that’s left is for them to stay entangled. Hold one another’s hands and forget to blink as they lay close. Afraid of missing a second of each other. Saying “I love you” no less than a thousand times. Those three words the only ones that seemed important, further conversation pointless beyond that. Happy to laugh and kiss then return to silence. 

What do you want out of life? Jiang Cheng has been asked before.

This.

His answer never changed.

Only This. 

All they’ve ever wanted in the place where they first met.