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perfect pretenders

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Truly, Jiang Cheng is an enigma.

Nie Huaisang may be an expert at digging up information on people, but in the short time he has known Jiang Cheng, he’s learned relatively little. 

Although, what he does know definitely intrigues him.

Firstly, Jiang Cheng is the brother of the most rebellious young cultivator attending these lectures, Wei Wuxian. The two boys aren’t related by blood, but they bicker back and forth just like siblings raised together from birth. When Nie Huasiang was first introduced to them a few years ago, he’d been confused until Nie Mingjue explained Wei Wuxian’s dire circumstances as a child and how the Jiangs kindly took him in. 

Secondly, Jiang Cheng is overwhelmingly loyal to the Yunmeng Jiang Sect. Fierce, unabashed loyalty. Every question he answers during class, every moment he speaks of his people—his body language and voice overflow with pride. It reminds Huaisang of his older brother's unwavering loyalty to the Qinghe Nie Sect.

Thirdly, Jiang Cheng has a bit of a short temper. A single wrong move from Wei Wuxian during class is enough to incur Jiang Cheng’s wrath. And even though Wei Wuxian is the chief catalyst for Jiang Cheng’s outbursts, there are plenty of other things that may set him off. An incorrect answer on his part, a strand of hair out of place, a rock in his path that has the nerve to trip him. Many, many possibilities.

And fourthly, Jiang Cheng has a very specific… “type.”

“This again?” Jiang Cheng huffs as he lowers his half-empty cup of Emperor’s Smile. 

Yes,Huaisang wants to say.This again. This, as in drinking liquor in the privacy of Wei Wuxian’s quarters away from the prying eyes of Gusu Lan disciples. As well as discussing the matter of Jiang Cheng’s standards for a partner since it was brought to light the last time they drank together. 

“You’re the one who came up with those standards in the first place.” Wei Wuxian grins from ear-to-ear, swaying where he sits. “I’m just relaying this information to inquiring minds. Like a good brother!”

Huaisang hides a giggle behind the cover of his fan. Like a good brother

Jiang Cheng grumbles, “This is coming from the person who has never even kissed someone before.”

Huaisang leans forward and perches his elbows on the tabletop. “Wei-xiong… you’ve never kissed anyone?”

“A man must be honest about these things,” Wei Wuxian insists with a put-out sigh, his cheeks tinted pink. “I—wait, how would you even know that, Jiang Cheng?”

“I grew up with you.”

“Still…”

Huaisang narrows his eyes at Wei Wuxian. “I must say, I’m a little surprised. I always figured you had, you know—” he motions helplessly with his fan—"experience."

Wei Wuxian swivels to face him with wicked intent evident in his smirk, and Huaisang is struck by instant regret.

“You know, that reminds me. All of those books you’ve been generous enough to loan me…” Wei Wuxian sweeps his drunken gaze over Huaisang. “Maybe you’re secretly the most experienced person here.”

Huaisang frantically hides behind his fan once again. Tipsy as he may be, he still has the presence of mind to bat his lashes innocently. “I’m afraid not.”

“Really?” Jiang Cheng blurts.

Huaisang nearly swallows his own tongue. The sheer intensity of Jiang Cheng's stare, even through tipsy half-lidded eyes, sends a shiver down Huaisang’s spine.

“Is it that hard to believe, Jiang-xiong?” He tries to keep his tone light and somewhat flirtatious.

Scarlet creeps up the column of Jiang Cheng’s neck. His eyes dart to a discarded peanut shell on the table, to the hem of his sleeves, to his cup—anywhere that isn’t Huaisang. “I mean, I… it's a fair point.”

“Well, I think we’ve now established that no one sitting here has had their first kiss.” Wei Wuxian looks between his two friends. “Even if it’s a crime to the cultivating world, I haven’t been kissed. Jiang Cheng obviously hasn’t—”

“—Hey!—”

“—and now we know Nie Huaisang hasn’t either,” Wei Wuxian finishes, ignoring his brother’s protests. “It appears we’re all hopeless then.”

Jiang Cheng disputes, “I wouldn't say that we're all hopeless…”

Wei Wuxian releases an affronted gasp. “How shameless! How could you say that about your own friend? Nie Huaisang has been nothing but kind to yo—”

“Shut up! ” Jiang Cheng’s embarrassment reaches its peak. His entire face has gone red, teeth gritted in outrage. “You’re the most shameless one here! You know exactly who I meant!”

Huaisang inhales sharply. His cruel brain catches on Jiang Cheng’s earlier comments. The way his brows furrowed, the surprised sentiment falling from his lips, Really? As if he truly couldn't believe Huaisang hadn't kissed anyone.

“Calm down,” Wei Wuxian attempts to placate his brother, reaching out to pat him on the shoulder only to have his hand shrugged off. “But, really… can you imagine what that’d be like?”

Curious, Huaisang turns his attention from his cup to Wei Wuxian. For someone who’s downed at least half a bottle of Emperor’s Smile, he looks deceptively sober. Somber, almost. Like his next words are enough to flush every ounce of alcohol out of his system. 

Jiang Cheng smooths his fingertips over the rim of his cup. "Kissing someone?"

"Having someone to kiss," Wei Wuxian finishes wistfully. "Wouldn't that be nice?"

Huaisang shifts his gaze to Jiang Cheng. A mental image presents itself then, of the two of them seated on a rock by the stream in Gusu, inching closer, fingers brushing, before Jiang Cheng leans in and—

"That would be nice,” he whispers, unbidden.

Subtleness isn’t exactly Huaisang's forte, especially after he gets a little alcohol in his system, and Wei Wuxian is a vulture. Or more accurately a hawk, zeroing in on Huaisang.

His eyes widen for an instant, and Huaisang knows, without a shadow of a doubt, that he's screwed.

To his relief, Jiang Cheng is too busy glaring at the innocent tabletop to notice the significant look that passes between him and Wei Wuxian.

Thank the heavens. Huaisang's own eyes bulge in a silent plea for Wei Wuxian to keep his damn mouth shut. Not that there are any thoughts to be shared on the matter of him and Jiang Cheng; they're merely friends. Classmates, fellow cultivators. Peers

"Ah," Wei Wuxian drawls cryptically. "I see."

The next time Huaisang catches Wei Wuxian sneaking a bottle of Emperor's Smile into the Cloud Recesses, he's pouring it out at his feet.

Jiang Cheng lifts his head. "What?"

"Oh, nothing. I was just thinking about kissing." Wei Wuxian throws a wink at Huaisang. "Isn't that right, Nie-xiong?"

Huaisang will pour out every bottle of Emperor's Smile. Wei Wuxian will never drink again.

Jiang Cheng leers at his brother, his eyes drunkenly flitting from him to Huaisang. Which makes no sense because, really, Jiang Cheng has no reason to be upset. He isn't the one who was caught ogling his attractive friend. No, that's Huaisang's burden. Not that he found Jiang Cheng attractive with ruffled hair and mussed robes and flushed cheeks or anything foolish like that. Ugh.

"Whatever," Jiang Cheng huffs.

"Don’t be angry." Wei Wuxian grabs the nearest bottle of Emperor's Smile and rocks forward. "I wasn't suggesting that I kiss Nie Huaisang, you know."

Warmth rushes to Huaisang's face with astonishing speed. To his surprise, Jiang Cheng doesn't fare much better.

"You—" Jiang Cheng practically shouts. "I wasn't thinking that at all!"

"Sure you weren't."

"I wasn't! "

"Whatever you say, Jiang Cheng."

Jiang Cheng is positively fuming, smoke pouring out of his ears, when he blurts, "The thought of you kissing him is ridiculous! That would never happen anyway!"

Wei Wuxian's jaw snaps shut, and he draws back in shock. And Huaisang seconds that sentiment—What!? He musters the courage to laugh but hides his fake smile behind the primly painted folds of his fan. "And why’s that, Jiang-xiong? Is it really that unbelievable?”

Stop, stop, stop! Huaisang, no! The tiny voice of reason is drowned out by the sufficiently intoxicated chants of, Huaisang, yes, at the forefront of his mind. 

Flustered, Jiang Cheng gapes at him. His lips move as if he’s about to bite out a smart retort, but a choked, incoherent noise comes out instead. With a flourish, he folds his arms across his chest and juts out his chin. “Because there’s clearly someone else Wei Wuxian would rather kiss.”

Well, this has taken a turn. And for the better, if you ask Huaisang. “Oh,” he coos with a grin. 

Wei Wuxian scoffs and shakes his head. “Jiang Cheng—”

“I have eyes.”

“If you’re suggesting—”

“He has a point,” Huaisang seconds, thankful for the topic change. 

Wei Wuxian purses his lips into a pout. “Okay, you know what? Let’s settle this.”

Oh no.

“I have an idea. A proposition, if you will.” Wei Wuxian straightens his spine and assumes a mockingly serious tone. “For a competition between honorable men.”

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes, mumbling, “How does the Second Jade of Lan put up with your bullsh—”

A competition, ” Wei Wuxian hisses, “that only the people in this room will know about. No one else! Not Lan Zhan, not Zewu-jun or that flashy peacock. Just us.”

Huaisang can’t decide whether to be more intrigued or terrified. “You have my attention."

“Well, since Jiang Cheng has made it clear he believes we’ll all die virgins—”

“—I swear—”

“—let’s have a competition to determine who will find love first! Specifically, which of us can kiss someone first. Or...” Wei Wuxian knits his brows. “Wait, no, even better. We’ll see who can get the most kisses while we're here!”

Huaisang nearly chokes on thin air at the same moment Jiang Cheng bellows, “Wh—What now?”

“Come on, it’ll be fun,” Wei Wuxian insists. “A competition will really spice things up!”

Spice things up, he says. Huaisang covers the way he bites his bottom lip. “I’m not sure if that’s—”

“You’re just scared.” Wei Wuxian points an accusing finger at Jiang Cheng. “Because you know that I’m going to win!”

Jiang Cheng’s left eye twitches, a snarl already forming on his lips. “What the hell are you talking about? How are you so sure you’ll win?” 

“Because I’m very cute, you know.”

“You’re a pain in the ass, is what you are.”

Huaisang sighs and closes his eyes for a moment. This is standard for the two brothers, but that doesn’t mean Huaisang has to enjoy or even tolerate their bickering. Plus, there’s a part of him—a rapidly growing part, actually—that fears what will happen if they follow through with this contest. Because if Huaisang is honest with himself, he knows he’ll be the loser. Certainly not Jiang Cheng.

Wei Wuxian opens his mouth, ready to hurl another barrage of insults Jiang Cheng’s way, when the distinct sound of footsteps cuts him off. 

“No, no, not again,” Jiang Cheng hisses. He jumps to his feet, nearly upending the table. “I’m not going to be punished a second time.”

A hand darts out and snags Huaisang’s wrist, pulling him up from the floor. The sudden and unexpected gesture forces a gasp out of Huaisang. Worse still, the room tilts and turns as they move. I shouldn’t have had that last drink, Huaisang bemoans. 

Weakly, Huaisang protests, “What are you—”

“Getting us out of here before Hanguang-Jun gets our asses kicked again.” Jiang Cheng miraculously manages to stay upright as he leads them to the door. “I’m not going to be here when he storms in and scolds this shameless gremlin.”

“Shameless gremlin,” Wei Wuxian gasps but doesn’t make any move to try and stop them. “I’ll have you know that Lan Zhan will—”

Jiang Cheng doesn’t give him a chance to finish. The door to their room glides open with an audible slam, just quiet enough to hopefully go unnoticed by any wandering Lan disciples. Something about the breeze playing with Huaisang’s hair, Jiang Cheng’s hold on his wrist and the moonlight reflecting off his dark eyes—it draws a giggle out of Huaisang. Adrenaline pumps through his veins, urging him to stick as close to Jiang Cheng’s side as humanly possible.  

Under his breath, Jiang Cheng mumbles a quick, “Let’s get out of here.”

Huaisang barely holds on as he’s dragged through the empty halls. Only the chirping of insects and the distant sound of rushing water can be heard over their frantic footfalls. Darkness shrouds their drunken dash, occasionally bathed in a splash of golden light from the lanterns overhead.

"Jiang-xiong—"

But before Huaisang can say another word, Jiang Cheng makes a sharp left turn and tugs open the door to Huaisang's room. It squeaks on its hinges, and Huaisang has trouble distinguishing the squeak from the surprised yelp he lets out. 

Jiang Cheng closes the door behind them and—because Huaisang’s life is rapidly becoming a joke— plasters himself to Huaisang’s back, a hand clamped over his mouth. Huaisang’s heart races furiously inside his chest. “Mmmf?”

“I swear I heard someone in the hall,” Jiang Cheng explains with only a slight slur. “I think it was Zewu-jun, too.”

The rasp of Jiang Cheng’s voice raises goosebumps along Huaisang’s skin, peeking from the top of his now rumpled robe. Warm, he notes. Everything is warm. The warm, calloused palm pressed to his lips and the warmth of a firm chest supporting his weight from behind. The warm breaths ghosting along the nape of his neck, the curve of his jaw. A few breathless seconds pass in silence before Jiang Cheng retracts his hand and puts distance between them. 

A shame, really

“I was sure we were going to get busted again,” Jiang Cheng mumbles. Huaisang turns and, to his astonishment, the tips of Jiang Cheng’s ears are stained red. “Sorry about that.”

“It’s okay.” Huaisang swallows and puts on his most convincing smile. 

With a shaky inhale, Jiang Cheng rambles, “Do you mind if I, um. Just wait here until we’re sure they’re gone?”

Huaisang can’t remember the last time he’s ever seen Jiang Cheng this flustered. Sure, Wei Wuixan has the power to reduce Jiang Cheng to a blubbering mess with a single word, but those are common occurrences. To Huasiang, at least, they don’t count. 

This—this feels different somehow. Jiang Cheng remains silent as he crosses the room and plops on his bed. Huaisang’s bed. Huaisang’s. Although Jiang Cheng’s movements appear steady and certain, Huaisang catches the way he wobbles, still under the alcohol’s influence. He’s certainly more sober than earlier, but not enough to act like his usual self. 

Wait… Huaisang gives his room a hurried onceover. Scrolls and blank sheets lie sprawled across the table, coupled with jars of ink and a cluster of brushes. In one corner, a stand has been fixed, and the canary Huaisang found perches in its black, wire cage. He wouldn’t consider his space “messy,” by any means, but a voice suspiciously similar to Mingjue’s calls from the depths of his subconscious, “You need to clean this up!”

Hush, Huaisang reprimands the obnoxious little voice. There are far more pressing matters to deal with. Like the fact Jiang Cheng, the Jiang Cheng, has taken residence on the bed I sleep in every night.  

“You can sit down.” Jiang Cheng awkwardly pats the space beside him on the bed, as if its his own, lips curled into a shy smile. “You’re making me uncomfortable, standing like that.”

“Standing like what?” Huaisang covers his smirk with his fan. 

That.”

“I don’t understand, Jiang-xiong. I make you uncomfortable?”

“Gods, stop, you sound like Wei Wuxian.”

“And you sound like Lan Qiren.”

Jiang Cheng scrunches his nose and flops onto his back. “Ew." He lets out a breathless snicker. "Ew. Get over here before I kick you out and let the Twin Jades decide your fate."

For a moment, Huaisang considers stringing Jiang Cheng along a little longer. Just to watch him continue floundering and misspeaking. And, more importantly, to watch the crimson return to his cheeks.

“You wouldn’t dare,” Huaisang gasps, mock-affronted. He shuffles across the room, though, and tumbles onto the bed. The blankets stir, his descent punctuated with a tiny huff from Jiang Cheng. “Wei-xiong would find a way to get me out of trouble anyway.”

Outside, the crickets continue their melodic humming. Jiang Cheng lies flat with his hands folded over his stomach, glaring holes into the ceiling overhead. Cute, Huaisang is helpless to think as he observes the wrinkle between Jiang Cheng’s brows, the determined clench of his jaw. If only he would loosen up every now and then. 

Out of the blue, Jiang Cheng asks, “Who do you think he wants to kiss?”

“Who, Wei-xiong? Hmm.” Huaisang taps his chin with his fan, held loosely in his grip. “I really don’t know.” A sudden burst of mischief and confidence incites Huaisang to turn onto his side, peering down at Jiang Cheng. “But it sounds like you have your suspicions, Jiang-xiong.”

“I think I do,” Jiang Cheng hums. “Although, to be honest, I was worried at first that he…” 

Mystified, Huaisang watches the bob of Jiang Cheng’s Adam’s apple. When he doesn’t continue, Huaisang prods, “Worried he…? What?”

“I thought maybe he’d ask you.”

Oh. Oh

"Ask me?" Huaisang lets out an incredulous scoff. "That's crazy!"

Jiang Cheng turns his head, peering up at Huaisang with scrutinizing eyes. His hair splays across the covers like a spill of ink, several strands having come loose from his topknot. Miserably, Huaisang wonders how soft those strands are. 

"It's not that crazy," Jiang Cheng mumbles and, maybe it's just Huaisang's imagination, but he swears he's pouting. "You two have become good friends.”

Huaisang thinks of the countless occasions Wei Wuxian has been scolded by their teacher for teasing Lan Wangji. Grinning at him, staring at him, taunting him, and—oh—the day he even waved in the middle of lecture like they were the only two people in the room. And yet Jiang Cheng is lying here, worried that Wei Wuxian might have a crush on Huaisang?

He’s about to tell Jiang Cheng he’s a fool, and the alcohol nearly lets him. But… why does Jiang Cheng care in the first place?

Agitated, Huaisang shakes his head. “I don’t think Wei-xiong would ever want to kiss someone like me anyway.” 

“Someone like you?” Through half-lidded eyes, Jiang Cheng sweeps his gaze over Huaisang. “What does that even mean?”

“Well,” Huaisang drawls, twirling one of his bangs around his pointer finger, “In case you haven’t noticed, none of the young cultivators here have taken an interest in me. Qinghe is no different.”

If at all possible, the furrow between Jiang Cheng’s brows deepens. “How do you know?”

A naive voice in the back of Huaisang’s head chants, Maybe Jiang Cheng has taken an interest in me.  The notion is absolutely ridiculous, and Huaisang refuses to even entertain it. He’s simply being kind—as a supportive friend should. There’s no reason to think otherwise. 

“Because no one has approached me! And I definitely don’t have any secret admirers.” Huaisang puffs out his cheeks then exhales. His skin feels warm, the remnants of Emperor’s Smile lingering in his system. 

Without warning, Jiang Cheng sluggishly lifts his arm and reaches for Huaisang. His fingertips lightly graze his cheek, then settle there like it’s the most natural thing in the world. With a strange sense of finality, glazed-over eyes fixed on Huaisang, he blurts, “But your skin is soft. And your face is… nice.”

Huaisang inhales sharply, fire left in the wake of Jiang Cheng’s touch. Burning, burning, he’s burning from the inside out , and Jiang Cheng has yet to move his hand, face screwed up, intently focused on the curve of Huaisang’s cheekbone. It’s an entirely new expression, one Huaisang is sure Jiang Cheng reserves for working on his swordsmanship or strengthening his cultivation.  

Not gaping at his friend, his peer, Nie Huaisang, as they sit in the relative darkness of said friend’s quarters struggling to sober up. 

Huaisang’s gasp appears to snap Jiang Cheng out of his trance. He yanks his hand away as if he’s been shocked, cradling it against his chest. Under any other circumstances, his widened eyes would’ve drawn a chuckle from Huaisang. 

“I—” Jiang Cheng licks his lips, and Huaisang immediately zeroes in on the motion. “You shouldn’t worry about it, really. The whole ‘people taking an interest in you’ thing.”

Again, Huaisang can’t help but wonder where the line between supportive friend and interested party has been blurred. Growing fuzzier with every cursory glance, every moment of charged silence that passes. 

Jiang Cheng decides to cut through the tension with a groan. “I can’t believe Wei Wuxian said that about me…”

Huaisang allows a smirk to reclaim its rightful place on his face. “Said what? Which part, Jiang-xiong?”

“You little—” Jiang Cheng half-heartedly jabs Huaisang in the gut with his elbow. “The part about me… about me losing.”

“Oh,” Huaisang hums, “I see. The competition.” Amidst the bustling into his room and the—well, whatever was happening here, in his bed, Huaisang had almost forgotten about the actual contest. Wei Wuxian’s declaration of war. “You don’t want to lose.”

“Of course not! Especially not to Wei Wuxian.” 

“Would you accept losing to me?” Huaisang teases and promptly bites his tongue. Stupid!

Jiang Cheng goes suspiciously quiet and, for once, Huaisang is thankful Jiang Cheng is staring at the ceiling rather than him. Out of the corner of his eye, he notices the way Jiang Cheng fists his hands in the sheets. 

“Do you have someone in mind?” Jiang Cheng’s inquiry is barely audible, and Huaisang has to lean in a bit closer to hear the rest. “Back in our room, you seemed—It seemed like you might have someone in mind. To… to kiss.”

Oh, you have no idea. Huaisang wishes his fan weren’t out of reach. Any fan would do right now to conceal this condemning blush. He shakes his head, stifles his nerves to the best of his abilities, and lies, “Ah, I really don’t know.”

“Hm,” Jiang Cheng mumbles cryptically. Huaisang can practically see the gears turning inside his head. “I see.”

Anxiety washes over Huaisang. For the first time since they stretched out together on his bed, he’s struck by Jiang Cheng’s proximity. Loose-limbed and lax from the alcohol, as well as the onset of exhaustion, Jiang Cheng looks like a completely different person. Certainly not the stubborn, perpetually angry try-hard Huaisang has come to know from class. It’s not an unwelcome change, certainly, but Huaisang is reluctant to admit he’s become attached to both sides of his personality.

Suddenly, Jiang Cheng clears his throat. "I… well, nevermind.”

Huaisang blinks. “What?”

“No, no, it’s going to… It might sound insane—Wei Wuxian levels of insane.”

“Even more reason to share!”

Jiang Cheng nibbles his bottom lip, and Huaisang allows himself to stare. “I have an idea."

An idea that’s Wei-xiong levels of insane? Huaisang cocks his head to the side. “Oh? You have my attention.”

Jiang Cheng licks his lips, eyes darting around the room. “Like. Seriously insane.”

“Okay,” Huaisang snickers with an eye roll, “I got that part. Just tell me, Jiang-xiong!”

Torn, Jiang Cheng brushes his hair back and huffs, cheeks inflamed. It’s unbearably cute, and Huaisang wants to command him to stop before Huaisang does something foolish like touch those flushed cheeks.  

“I was brainstorming ways we could beat Wei Wuxian, and… there is one option that just might work.” Jiang Cheng pauses to let out a hoarse chuckle. Huaisang can tell the alcohol has yet to wear off; he’s shocked he has a higher tolerance between the two of them. “If you’re up for it.”

“Of course I am.” Huaisang twists his lips into a crooked smile. “What does the brilliant Jiang Cheng have in mind?”

Slowly, Jiang Cheng lifts his gaze to meet Huaisang’s. In the low lighting, his pupils appear to have expanded, eclipsing his irises, the same charming shade of brown as lavish chocolates. The kind Nie Mingjue occasionally buys for Huaisang when he returns home from a conference.

“Well, I hardly expect Wei Wuxian to kiss the person he set his sights on,” Jiang Cheng explains frankly. “Possibly ever, but I imagine it will take some convincing on his part if he does ever manage to pull it off.”

“I agree, I agree.” Huaisang nods along. “So then we may only need to accumulate a few kisses in order to win?”

“Right,” Jiang Cheng confirms with a contagious little grin. “So, hypothetically…” He fixes his gaze on the wall behind Huaisang’s head. “We could kiss someone tonight and already be ahead.”

“So smart! Although, wait. Do you want to go to Caiyi Town? At this hour?” Huaisang lifts a slim, shapely brow. “It’s a bit late for that.”

“No, no, no. I thought maybe, you know. We—we could—” Jiang Cheng motions between the two of them, and Huaisang is certain he must be dreaming. Or drank too much and has begun hallucinating. “The two of us could… we could. Well, kiss. That is.”

Time grinds to a halt. Huaisang brain ceases to function, leaving him to suffer through enough  anticipation to make him lightheaded. Butterflies burst to life in his stomach, beating their wings, forcing his mouth open. “We—us—kissing?”

Every inch of Jiang Cheng’s bare skin flushes, words tumbling and tripping over each other when he speaks. “I mean, I thought because the two of us are friends and have a mutual understanding of the competition and, well, neither of us want to be bested by Wei Wuxian and—” He pauses to draw in a breath, stirring the loose strands of hair framing his face. “It’s just a suggestion.”

Yes! Huaisang’s subconscious is practically screaming at him. Throwing a regular tantrum, beating its tiny fists against the cage trapping it from making Huaisang spout nonsense. Say yes!

“I suppose when you put it that way…” Huaisang trails off, feigning indifference. “We could.”

“We could what? Oh! Oh, right. Are you…” Jiang Cheng’s eyes flick to Huaisang’s parted lips. “Are you sure?”

Common sense seems to have abandoned Huaisang. He can only nod in response, slave to his baser instincts. Cautiously, he chooses to bridge the already narrow gap on his narrow—has it always been this narrow?—bed. Between them, Huaisang’s fingernails scrape across the sheets, desperate to ground him in this moment. A moment straight from one of his most embarrassing dreams. 

“It could be—” Huaisang clears his throat. “Good practice. For, you know. Whoever we kiss in the future.”

It’s a weak excuse, and Huaisang knows full well he’s trying to justify his actions to himself. 

“Right.” Jiang Cheng scoots over until his shoulder presses against Huaisang’s thigh. “Exactly.” 

He then lifts his hand, as he had earlier, and drags his knuckles across Huaisang’s cheek. Much too slow, much too gentle for such a brash swordsman. Rather than pull away again, though, he continues until his fingers meet Huaisang’s hairline, featherlight, regarding every feature with the utmost care as he proceeds. Meanwhile, his gaze follows the trail of his touch as if he can hardly believe what he’s doing. 

Huaisang clenches the blanket in his grasp tighter.

Eventually, Jiang Cheng curls his fingers around the nape of Huaisang’s neck and coaxes him into bending closer. He all-too-willingly obeys; how could he not? The room has gone silent, except for the soft rustling of blankets and hint of bated breath.  

Huaisang bends, folding into Jiang Cheng’s space, mentally preparing himself, and Jiang Cheng cranes his neck, lifting his head an inch or two off the bed and, with the precision Huaisang has come to associate with Jiang Cheng, Young Master of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect, their lips brush. 

Fleeting, a whisper of shared breath, and it’s over.

Or so Huaisang thought. 

Instead of releasing him, Jiang Cheng presses his forehead to Huaisang’s, the tips of their noses still touching. And, for several heartbeats, they stay like that. Waiting. Listening to each other’s breathing, sharing and savoring each other’s body heat. 

“Oh,” Jiang Cheng rasps, “That’s—”

“I know.” 

“I didn’t expect it to feel like…”

“Yeah.”

“Huaisang, should we…?”

Huaisang foregoes the indifference act, an unmistakable note of pleading in his tone when he whispers, “Yes.” 

And this—this is the beginning of Huaisang’s downfall. 

Gingerly, Huaisang presses forward, sealing their lips in a second, albeit a bit awkward, kiss. Jiang Cheng makes the smallest, most curious noise, originating in the back of his throat. Much like a question. Is this okay? It asks. Are we supposed to be doing this? Are we allowed?  

Or maybe a simple, Why does this feel so good?

He’s suddenly reminded of Jiang Cheng’s fingers in his hair as his nails scratch Huaisang’s scalp, and a pleased hum joins the faint shushing of the sheets, bunched underneath them. Jiang Cheng then tilts his head, slotting their mouths together in a true kiss, and, although Huaisang used to think kissing would feel weird, this feels far from weird. 

Without experience to guide them, they merely hover there. Distantly, Huaisang remembers the couples in his favorite romance tales. Oftentimes when they kiss, there’s plenty of moving involved. Tilting their heads, left then right, and moving against each other in heated bliss. 

But, now that he’s here, caught in an actual kiss, Huaisang can’t bring himself to budge. 

Jiang Cheng, who has likely never touched a romance novel in his life, seems content to stay like this, too. The poor thing may not even realize moving should be involved. He’s only ever peeked at Huaisang’s erotic illustrated books over his and Wei Wuxian’s shoulders, much too hesitant to even hold the book in his hands.

I’m really doing this. Huaisang squeezes his eyes even more firmly shut, the next exhale a soft whistle as it escapes his nose. I’m kissing Jiang Wanyin, and he’s kissing me back. 

Reluctantly, he reminds himself this will come to an end soon. His one opportunity, his only chance, to kiss this boy he’s stupidly taken a liking to. Before they wake the next morning, and Jiang Cheng asks that they forget it ever happened. He knows that, realistically, they’ll move on and seek out other people to kiss for the sake of Wei Wuxian’s challenge, and this kiss will be long forgotten. 

The somber train of thought urges Huaisang to smooth his fingers over Jiang Cheng’s sharp jawline, to push past the alcohol clouding his thoughts and commit every detail to memory. Every inch of smooth, unblemished skin. Every breath they exchange. Every contented noise and occasional chirp from the bugs outside. No matter how much it hurts his future self, Huaisang won’t forget this kiss—his first. And with his first crush, no less.

As if he read Huaisang’s mind, Jiang Cheng lets out a sound halfway between a growl and a groan. His teeth catch on Huaisang’s bottom lip as he retreats, putting a couple inches of space between them. He doesn’t move far, though, and Huaisang’s hands fall to Jiang Cheng’s robe, fisting helplessly in the front to hold him in place. A moot point, if the calloused palms cradling Huaisang’s cheeks, are any indication. 

Once again, they remain suspended in the moment. Even the insects seem to have ceased their singing, if only for a minute or two, to give Huaisang and Jiang Cheng time to absorb what they’ve just done.

Eventually, it’s Huaisang that rediscovers his voice. “Okay,” he murmurs, the greatest understatement of the century. “Alright then.”

“Yeah,” Jiang Cheng seconds.

Huaisang loosens his grip on Jiang Cheng’s collar. He refuses to completely let go, though, and Jiang Cheng slides his fingers out of his hair, a gesture that splits Huaisang’s heart cleanly in half. Jiang Cheng mumbles, "Huh."

Huaisang can’t help but respond with a chuckle. Awkward—they’re both so uncharacteristically awkward

“What?” Jiang Cheng joins in Huaisang’s laughter. “Why are you laughing? Was it that bad?”

Huaisang doesn’t miss the underlying seriousness in Jiang Cheng’s question. He worries the kiss was bad—as if the first shy brush of lips weren’t a pivotal moment for Huaisang. As if the concept of Jiang Cheng suggesting he kiss Huaisang weren’t life-changing, in and of itself.

“Not at all,” Huaisang replies honestly, but pauses, relying on humor as a crutch. “For a beginner.”

“You—!” Jiang Cheng sits up and pushes Huaisang over, switching their positions in the blink of an eye. “How can you, a beginner, be so shameless and make that sort of comment?”

“I’ve read about plenty of kisses before.” Huaisang rolls to the side, avoiding another playful jab in the ribs. “That—no, don’t you dare tickle me—that—stop—that has to count for something!”

Jiang Cheng wears a grin wide enough to rival that of Wei Wuxian’s. It’s odd, seeing such genuine joy on this particular Jiang sibling’s face. Huaisang is better accustomed to frustrated sneers, outraged gapes and, on beautifully rare occasions, secretive smiles. I want to kiss that smile, Huaisang muses. 

“No way!” Jiang Cheng drops onto the bed beside Huaisang, situating himself on his side. “Just because I read the history of Chief Cultivators does not mean I’m now a Chief Cultivator.”

Huaisang turns onto his side, facing Jiang Cheng, and rolls his eyes. “Those two examples are drastically different, Jiang-xiong.”

“How so?”

“I think we should go to sleep,” Huaisang smoothly switches topics. “You’re beginning to talk nonsense.”

Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes. This argument is nonsense but the matter of the two of us kissing wasn’t? His gaze seems to accuse. 

Overwhelmed, Huaisang turns onto his other side. “You can stay here for the night,” he explains, as if it weren’t obvious. “If you’re going to be punished for sneaking in alcohol, I would rather the three of us share in the punishment. Seeing as none of us are without blame.”

Silence fills in the lull in their sleepy conversation. And, for a second, Huaisang fears Jiang Cheng has already drifted off to sleep. But his response, a breath against the back of Huaisang’s neck, comes a beat later. “I’m not sure if Wei Wuxian would feel the same about receiving his punishment, but I will stay here.” Another beat. “I would like to stay.”

Heat floods Huaisang’s body, starting at the crown of his head and trickling down to the soles of his feet. Pleased, his toes curl against the sheets. “Then be my guest.”

Behind him, the blankets rustle and shift as Jiang Cheng flips over to face the opposite wall. 

They lie like that, backs to each other, barely a foot apart, for the whole night. 

And if Huaisang falls asleep with fingers pressed to his tingling lips, no one needs to know.