Nie Huaisang was good at asking for help.
The practiced bat of his eyelashes, the pitiful downturn of his lips, and his general helpless demeanor had been a carefully honed weapon since he’d first realized he could get himself pampered that way, although back then, it had all been so much more lighthearted. However, being perhaps the most adept person in the cultivation world at begging for assistance didn’t mean Nie Huaisang had to like it.
Sure, there were those who would be shocked to realize that Nie Huaisang didn’t actually particularly enjoy having to go to others when a problem became too big to handle. In actuality, the Nie sect didn’t have too many of those problems. Nie Huaisang would be damned— well, more than he already was— if he let his brother’s legacy crumble into dust. And besides, he was better at handling big problems than he wanted to be given credit for.
A Waterborne Abyss, however, was completely out of his wheelhouse. Qinghe wasn’t exactly known for its waters, and although that meant there weren’t that many places for a Waterborne Abyss to arise, it also meant that once one did, it would only be that much more bloodthirsty.
Nie Huaisang definitely needed help with this. He knew, logically, how to get rid of it, but he’d need at least a few people more skilled with water than any of his own sect’s disciples, and that meant…
“You requested my presence, Sect Leader Nie?”
It was a familiar voice, only made less familiar by the lack of annoyance coloring its tone. Jiang Cheng didn’t sound angry, simply resigned and a little bit tired.
“I did,” said Nie Huaisang, setting his fan down before him with a sharp snap and rising to greet his fellow Sect Leader. “Thank goodness you’re here, I don’t know what I’d do otherwise…”
“What do you want me for?” asked Jiang Cheng, and this time his voice took on a little more of its usual acidity. “I’m not here to be leaned on like Zewu-jun.”
“I wasn’t going to ask you for that,” said Nie Huaisang, and he could tell Jiang Cheng was taken a little bit by surprise at the edge to his tone. “I just need to ask for your help with something your sect might have more experience in than mine.”
“There’s a Waterborne Abyss that’s shown up nearby,” explained Nie Huaisang. He crossed back to the other side of his desk to pick up his fan and flick it open in a single fluid motion, pacing with its silk edge fluttering by his chin.
“You know how those have to be dealt with, don’t you?” asked Jiang Cheng. “Why call me?”
“Do you have to be so argumentative?” sighed Nie Huaisang. “Come on, Sect Leader Jiang, you know I don’t like to fight. Would you rather I called someone else? You Yunmeng cultivators are the best at fighting water ghouls, aren’t you?”
“We both know that,” said Jiang Cheng, but he seemed slightly mollified.
“Of course. Now, it’s no use knowing how to exterminate a Waterborne Abyss without the ability to do so. My disciples have the strength to drain the lake it’s taken hold in, but the water ghouls need exorcising too, and letting anyone drown to those things will only make their master stronger.”
“So you need disciples who can swim,” said Jiang Cheng.
“You know I can’t,” said Nie Huaisang, prompting Jiang Cheng to give him a look that seemed as if it couldn’t decide whether to be annoyed or surprised.
“Fine,” said Jiang Cheng. “I’ll take a look at your lake and see how many people it needs.”
“Oh, thank you, Sect Leader J—”
“Shut up. I’ll lead them.”
“Thank you. Really,” said Nie Huaisang. Jiang Cheng’s response was a small, rather haughty huff of breath as he turned in a swirl of deep purple fabric and left to make his observations. At least it was an acknowledgement, thought Nie Huaisang, not that he had expected anything else. As volatile as Jiang Cheng could be, he wasn’t going to explode just from that, and Nie Huaisang knew it.
He still knew his old friend well enough for that, anyway.
Jiang Cheng was not used to being the person that Nie Huaisang called on when he needed help, but with Jin Guangyao dead and Lan Xichen in seclusion, he supposed there wasn’t really a better option.
It really was a shock, sometimes, to realize how few of them were left, back from the days where their list of problems included Wei Wuxian’s gleeful troublemaking, the Wen sect, and a waterborne abyss.
Well. Two of those things were apparently still on the menu, but even so, Jiang Cheng couldn’t help but feel the weight of all the intervening years and their countless agonies. It was all so different, and there were days on which he couldn’t care less, but there were also times that he wanted nothing more than to go back.
Which was, in part, why he had agreed to help Nie Huaisang. Nothing was simple anymore, but clearing a pack of water ghouls and the backbreaking work of dredging a lake and everything in it might just be simple enough.
Nie Huaisang came to supervise when Jiang Cheng deemed himself and his team of disciples ready to set about cleansing the infested lake. Typical, Jiang Cheng thought. He’d only just started to become aware of how often Nie Huaisang seemed to appear by the sidelines, watching. Waiting. Who knew what was going on inside his head.
Not Jiang Cheng, clearly. Whatever. He had long since gotten used to never knowing what was going on inside anyone’s heads. That train of thought brought him to Wei Wuxian, because of course it did, and Jiang Cheng channeled the odd twisting anger that burned in the pit of his stomach at that into tearing water ghouls to shreds, because of course he did.
He wondered if Nie Huaisang was watching him from where he was standing on the shore in his elegant, just-this-side-of-ostentatious robes, the white silk of a fan just visible as a winking spot in the distance as it shielded the lower part of his face.
Pity. Maybe Jiang Cheng should have gotten himself one of those. Sometimes he felt like he couldn’t hide anything from anybody, no matter how hard he tried.
He put Sandu to work on another ghoul until it was nothing but tatters.
“You were out there a long time,” observed Nie Huaisang when Jiang Cheng returned to the shore, soaked to the waist but seeming completely unbothered by it. The violet robes he was wearing were lighter and freer than the ones he had been in when he’d first come by, which Nie Huaisang supposed made sense for someone prepared to get wet.
They’d always been very different people, he thought. Jiang Cheng twisted grey water out of the end of his ponytail, a familiar annoyed scowl curling his lip.
“There were a lot of them,” he said in response. “You were right. It is a vicious one.”
“Mm,” agreed Nie Huaisang. “I know. That’s why I called you.”
The look he got from Jiang Cheng might have passed for arrogance in front of someone else, but Nie Huaisang could read the bitter confusion underneath.
“What?” he said. “Oh, come on, Jiang Wanyin, don’t be that way. You know I have an eye for the best, don’t you? Is anyone better than you at this?”
Jiang Cheng’s answer was a stony silence that hid almost as many dark things as the surface of that lake. Nie Huaisang tossed his head to the side, flicking a stray lock of dark, shiny hair back over his shoulder.
“Well, thanks anyway,” he said. “Hey— will you stay around while we drain the lake? We can’t be sure if all those ghouls are really gone…”
Nie Huaisang had known Jiang Cheng would agree, however grudgingly, before he’d even turned a familiar pleading gaze on him, but there was no harm in doing it anyway.
“Fine,” said Jiang Cheng with a short, harsh sigh.
“How generous,” said Nie Huaisang in a tone that left Jiang Cheng to decide for himself whether or not he was being sarcastic. “You look flushed. Did you get too much sun? The air in the mountains is so clear, isn’t it? I’ll make sure someone gets you an umbrella.”
Jiang Cheng was holding a light paper parasol when he came to check on Nie Huaisang, who was in turn checking on the complicated system of trenches and dams meant to help drain the water from the lake, so Nie Huaisang supposed he’d done his job.
“You’ve already built all this?” he asked.
“We started before you arrived,” said Nie Huaisang. “Didn’t want to waste your time, Sect Leader Jiang, hmm?”
That got him a small nod and a vague noise of approval.
“You’ll have to dig out everything left under the lakebed once it’s empty,” said Jiang Cheng after a moment.
“I know,” sighed Nie Huaisang. “Who knows how long that will take.”
“Less time if we stay and help,” said Jiang Cheng.
“Ah, would you really? Ji—”
However much Jiang Cheng preferred Lotus Pier to— well, to basically any other place in the world, he had to admit that Nie Huaisang knew how to keep his guests in style. The free-flowing purple of his own disciples didn’t look bad against the silver geometry of the Unclean Realm, either.
All in all, he didn’t regret staying to help Nie Huaisang clean up the smashed remains of boats and copious amounts of slimy lake-bottom plants. Even if it was a little bit gross. Jiang Cheng had done far worse, and if he was completely honest, he wanted to see Nie Huaisang’s reactions just a little bit.
It wasn’t quite as fun as Jiang Cheng had hoped, because Nie Huaisang was older and colder and a little more dignified than the teenaged boy that had shrieked bloody murder when Wei Wuxian had put a catfish down the back of his robes, but it was still more fun than doing it alone.
“My boots keep coming off in the mud,” sighed Nie Huaisang, who was shorter than Jiang Cheng and therefore had sunk into the soggy lakebed to a slightly more annoying degree than Jiang Cheng himself.
“I’m surprised you came out here yourself,” said Jiang Cheng.
“Hey,” said Nie Huaisang, somewhat indignantly. “It’s my lake.”
“You could have had your disciples do it. I would have helped lead them.”
“Aren’t you always on about the merit of leading by example?” asked Nie Huaisang. “I’m doing this because you’re here, Sect Leader Jiang.”
There were a couple of truly horrible sucking noises as Nie Huaisang yanked his leg out of yet another slightly deeper well of mud. Jiang Cheng tried not to think about sneaking off onto the mountain around Cloud Recesses to teach Nie Huaisang the joys of wading into ice-cold streams. He’d gotten stuck then, too, one foot wedged between the smoothed-over stones below the cheerfully rushing water, and had immediately panicked and shouted for Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng to pull him free.
I’m doing this because you’re here.
Jiang Cheng shook his head violently to clear the memories, and found himself standing in front of what appeared to be the remains of a small fishing trawler, rotting, splintered wood spiderwebbed by similarly sad-looking tangles of fishing net.
He stole a glance at Nie Huaisang in time to watch him screw up his face slightly in disgust. Nie Huaisang didn’t hesitate to approach, however, seeming to measure the ruined boat with a sweep of his eyes as he pressed gently at the dark wood.
“Hmm,” he said. “I wonder if this has kept enough structural integrity to lift it out in a couple of large pieces rather than plank by plank. Sect Leader Jiang, what do you th—” Nie Huaisang’s words were cut off by a yelp as there was a wet snap and he pitched to the side, one leg suddenly plunging almost up to his thigh in the muck.
Jiang Cheng moved almost before he registered it, catching Nie Huaisang and pulling him upright until Nie Huaisang’s foot caught on something beneath the mud, drawing a pained hiss out of him.
“Ouch,” he bit out through clenched teeth, forcing his grimace of pain back into a calm expression a moment later. “Okay, I’m fine. Something broke underneath me.”
Jiang Cheng shifted his own foot back and forth. The surface they were standing on, he realized, felt like more wood.
“I think that’s a bad sign for the structural integrity,” he said. Nie Huaisang gave a distracted murmur of assent, pushing back and away from Jiang Cheng’s chest as he tugged his ankle free and backed away from the wreckage of the fishing boat, gingerly putting weight on the leg that had gone under.
“Are you hurt?” asked Jiang Cheng. “I can carry you back. We’ll warn whoever’s going to be in charge of lifting this mess.”
“No,” said Nie Huaisang, “I’m fine, really. I can walk.”
A few minutes into the soggy trek back, Jiang Cheng was really beginning to doubt that. Sure, Nie Huaisang had shorter legs than he did, but the difference was nowhere near as pronounced as it had been back when Jiang Cheng had hit his growth spurt and Nie Huaisang hadn’t, so there was really no reason for Nie Huaisang to be lagging as much as he was if his ankle wasn’t hurting him.
“If you’re trying to make me feel bad so I carry you, you should’ve just said yes when you had the chance,” grumbled Jiang Cheng, going back for Nie Huaisang anyway. The look he got in return wasn’t teary-eyed and pitiful, but in fact seemed slightly annoyed.
“Whatever makes you think I’d do that,” said Nie Huaisang as if he hadn’t spent his youth pulling similar ploys. Jiang Cheng had an odd tight feeling in his chest when he realized he actually couldn’t tell if Nie Huaisang was joking or not. He didn’t seem to be, which hurt more than it should have.
Still, the fact remained that he was slowing Jiang Cheng down with his twisted ankle and the slight limp that it’d earned him.
“Get on,” said Jiang Cheng.
“Really?” said Nie Huaisang.
“Just do it before I change my mind and it takes us both an hour to trudge back out of this stupid lake.”
“Whatever you say, Sect Leader Jiang,” said Nie Huaisang, sounding slightly bemused. Jiang Cheng hooked an arm below each of his legs and hiked him up onto his back, ignoring the mud that was definitely getting all over his sleeves. A Sect Leader should be willing to get a little bit dirty.
Well, they were both past a little bit by then, but the principle remained. Nie Huaisang was just as easy to carry as he had been at fifteen, anyway— but then, anyone was better than the eminently bony, lanky, wriggly Wei Wuxian, so if Jiang Cheng could carry him, of course Nie Huaisang was a breeze. He’d always happily melted into being carried, anyway.
Not this time, Jiang Cheng realized. He was just as still and agreeable, and almost as light, but far more tense than the younger Nie Huaisang had ever been.
He almost missed the youthful comfort, no matter how annoyed he’d acted at the time.
“You can relax,” he told Nie Huaisang. “It’s a big lake. You’ll be up here a while.”
“I wouldn’t want to trouble Sect Leader Jiang,” was the reply, soft and serious. Jiang Cheng actually stopped in his tracks at that and twisted slightly to look Nie Huaisang in his honey-hazel eyes.
“If you really hate this that much, I’ll put you down,” said Jiang Cheng. “But you always used to—” he snapped his mouth shut, and Nie Huaisang’s eyebrows lifted slightly.
“Mm,” he said, and wrapped his arms a little tighter around Jiang Cheng’s shoulders. “Keep going, then,” and then, after a pause, “Jiang-xiong.”
Nie Huaisang almost didn’t know why he was letting Jiang Cheng do this. Almost. Ultimately, he thought it was because, deep down, he was always going to like it, no matter how different from their previous selves both he and Jiang Cheng had become.
Still, someone else seemed to remember how it used to be, and if Nie Huaisang wasn’t mistaken, which he rarely was with these sorts of things, Jiang Cheng missed it too. Nie Huaisang had barely realized how tense he had been before Jiang Cheng had stopped and pointed it out, which was… sobering, a little bit. He relaxed into the gentle swaying and the warmth of the afternoon sun, because he knew full well how brittle Jiang Cheng could be, and at this point, Nie Huaisang didn’t actually want to be put down and made to walk all the way back to the dry shore.
He didn’t think Jiang Cheng wanted that, either. He’d always acted so deeply offended at being asked to carry Nie Huaisang or Wei Wuxian for some petty reason or another, but he was silent now, as if afraid to break the spell, to burst the fragile little bubble that had been growing in its filmy, soap-spun way around the two of them.
Nie Huaisang sighed and let himself rest fully against Jiang Cheng’s broad shoulders.
Heavens, he was so lonely. Must have been, if being covered in mud and occasionally bothered by sharp twinges of pain from one ankle was his idea of a time so relaxing he could feel himself slipping towards drowsiness in the middle of the afternoon.
He really didn’t want the bubble to break either. Unfortunately, Jiang Cheng was a fast walker, and solid ground was rapidly approaching. Nie Huaisang prepared himself to get down and brush off some of the mud that was drying and cracking on his pants, but Jiang Cheng just stood there was a couple of disciples from both of their sects flocked over, as if he wasn’t planning to put Nie Huaisang down at all.
Well, alright then. If Jiang Cheng wanted to share the odd looks that Nie Huaisang was entirely used to, that was fine by him.
“What happened?” asked one of the Jiang disciples, who, to her credit, seemed completely unfazed. All of Jiang Cheng’s companions seemed so laid-back that it was almost as if they were balancing him out, observed Nie Huaisang with some amusement.
“There’s a fishing boat out there,” said Jiang Cheng. “Part of it collapsed and injured Sect Leader Nie.”
“Be careful getting it out,” said Jiang Cheng.
That was that. Jiang Cheng did not carry Nie Huaisang back to the Unclean Realm, because it was an hour or so’s ride away by horse, and that would have been ridiculous.
Still, there had been a time when ridiculousness was par for the course, and Nie Huaisang would have bet his favorite fan that Jiang Cheng was thinking about it too.
Jiang Cheng was not good at offering help. He’d always said no when he really meant maybe, when, after a little bit of wheedling, he’d known it would be yes. It hadn’t mattered as much when he’d had Wei Wuxian and Nie Huaisang to drag it out of him anyway, to grin and tease and understand the affection in the way Jiang Cheng would vehemently refuse and then do things anyway.
It’d been far too long since anyone had feared Jiang Cheng little enough to needle him like that. Apart from Jin Ling, but Jin Ling had his own sect now, and even if he really wanted to ask Jiang Cheng for help, he had to watch his step lest he be accused of still being under the thumb of the Jiang sect.
Pathetic. As if Jiang Cheng wanted political leverage for helping his own nephew.
In retrospect, Jiang Cheng had reacted so badly when he’d first realized that Jin Ling was actively refusing his assistance that he should have realized how much it really meant to him that he could help at least one person.
It figured that Jiang Cheng would be terrible at something so important to him. Since when had that not been the case?
“Sect Leader Jiang,” someone said, and Jiang Cheng blinked down at Nie Huaisang’s amused face.
“I was just saying thank you for your assistance,” said Nie Huaisang. “Safe travels, everyone,” he continued, addressing the small group of violet-clad disciples who enthusiastically thanked him before bidding goodbye to the Nie friends they’d made over the laborious process of getting rid of a waterborne abyss.
Nie Huaisang’s expression was inscrutable as ever below the surface veneer of indecision and ingratiation, but when he asked Jiang Cheng if he would ever consider returning to help with some other thing that didn’t matter all that much in the grand scheme of things, Jiang Cheng recognized and accepted the offer, veiled behind silk and honey as he had realized so many of Nie Huaisang’s true intentions were.
“What do you think?” said Jiang Cheng, as if it didn’t mean of course, and Nie Huaisang’s eyes crinkled up at the corners with his coy little smile, because if Jiang Cheng didn’t have it in his battered heart to offer, Nie Huaisang could always ask.