Actions

Work Header

Soft Shell

Work Text:

For all that Nie Mingjue had been expecting to find a skulking Wen hanging around, he hadn't expected this.

The man, perhaps only a little younger than Huaisang if they weren’t of an age, simply fell into his arms.

Quite literally.

He'd been stepping forward towards an unfamiliar bow of Wen make leaned against a tree, when the owner of said bow fell out of said tree. It had been instinctive to stretch his arms out and catch that meager weight as the young man squeaked in alarm in an almost familiar way. Wide eyes had stared up at him under disheveled, leaf and debris mussed hair dark hair, pink filling soft cheeks.

The Qi in the little cultivator was gentle and warm.

This tiny Wen whom Mingjue had been mistakenly hunting was most definitely not Huaisang's too bold mysterious paramour. The one whom had no qualms with sending Wen owls into Nie territory and directly to his little brother's door.

Shameless!

Of course Huaisang would have a shameless suitor who couldn’t even make the effort of hiding!

This, this little thing that squeaked in alarm was most definitely not whom he had been searching for. Firstly because he tried to bow to the Sect Leader while still in his arms, and secondly, because the boy stared up at him with flushed awe.

The kinds of people who caught Huaisang's eye and gave the prettier Nie attention wouldn't be interested in a man like Mingjue. Even peripherally, as someone who had just caught the young cultivator in the way of damsels. His clever little brother wouldn't be interested in someone with quite this sort of features.

Someone… soft over sweet edges.

Many times in his life he'd felt awkward when dealing with the other Sects, but he was downright flabbergasted at how the young man stammered and stuttered in his arms. How he covered a reddened face with hands too soft in the places a sword would cause, but callused where the bow might sit.

Wen archery was rare to see these days, the same as all the Wen glass art he'd been seeing accumulating around the Unclean Realm. Honestly, Huaisang's paramour wasn't even trying to be inconspicuous anymore, and that meant Mingjue couldn't let it stand any longer. When it hadn’t been quite so obvious he could ignore it, especially since it was mostly gifts, and Huaisang staring dreamily off into the distance.

At least in the beginning he'd been able to pretend obliviousness, but Huaisang would become suspicious if he didn't act now.

Stupid shameless Wen.

"F-Forgive me!" The young man's voice was soft and terribly polite in a soothing way. "I'm sorry!"

"For what?!"

He demanded as he always did, like the thoughtless fool his younger brother often called him, clearly scaring another squeak out of this tiny thing in his arms. It was no wonder people called him a brutish man, considering this waif and how he could treat him without thought.

"Falling out of a tree and nearly killing yourself?!"

"Um, um -"

"Be careful with your body," Nie Mingjue demanded again of a Disciple not of his Sect. "What would your family say if you were hurt?"

That flushed face was glimpsed briefly as those bright too large eyes peeked between fingers at him. Warm but soft Qi swirled in embarrassed worry against the edges of Mingjue's cliff face, like summer rain.

"I um... This one gives humble thanks to Nie-gongzi for catching him!"

While not what he'd meant, it was good enough.

… Why…

Why was he still holding this Wen?

His first instinct was to drop the younger man at the realization, but then he looked into earnest bright eyes and felt his face twitch. Nie Mingjue might be an abrasive, overly irritable man, but he didn't think he was cruel. At least not deliberately, even if he was rough and brutish.

That would be like kicking a small animal.

Never would he admit it, but one time he'd accidentally tripped over a puppy as a child and he'd cried because he's been so repentant. Not something he liked to think about, even if the memory of his father's arms around him silently soothing distress was startlingly clear.

Setting the Wen down on his feet gently, he endured one of those archer's hands tangling in his robe in what seemed an instinctive bid for comfort. Similar to how Huaisang had been when they had been much younger, and he'd been intimidated by something. It, of course, did not instill a need to defend this tiny thing with too bright eyes and awestruck glimmers of innocence.

Why am I like this?

Scowling at his own weakness for cute, pretty little things, Nie Mingjue waited for the younger man to let go before he stepped back. The leaves and detritus in long silky looking hair made his own rough hands twitch with the need to organize, but he withheld himself.

Clucking over Huaisang and even Xichen was fine, but a random Wen in the woods was definitely too much. The time or two he'd done so to Nie Zonghui he'd been mortified, even if the man himself had been somewhat amused and fond. While some complained about his general demeanor and exacting standards in Qinghe, most Disciples seemed to regard him well despite the small amounts of mothering he couldn't control.

He crossed his arms anyway, to prevent temptation.

"Um, this one is Wen Ning, courtesy name Qionglin," the wide-eyed Wen introduced himself. "Thank you, Nie-gongzi. Sister and cousin would be so upset if I got hurt again!"

Again?

Nie Mingjue had the sudden exhausting thought that this was perhaps a frequent occurrence, falling out of trees and the like. For a long moment he stared down at this unfortunately endearing mess before sighing at the way that the world seemed to throw these kind of people at him. Why was it that he got the well-meaning disasters like Xichen and this Wen thrown at him?

Huaisang might be well meaning most of the time, but he was generally a planned disaster, so he wasn’t quite sure he counted.

He'd never heard of a Wen Ning, and he had no doubt that whoever was courting his brother was a high ranked Wen. To so blatantly court his irritating but beloved little brother meant that this Wen was confident enough, and perhaps powerful enough, not to fear Mingjue’s reputation.

While maybe this one would know who it was, he doubted it. He'd seen the maker's mark on some of those admittedly skilled pieces and he hadn't recognized the title.

A court artist, perhaps?

"Nie Mingjue," he stated plainly, scowling up at the sky. "Be careful in trees, Wen Qionglin."

"N-N-Nie... Ming... Ming... Jue...?"

Those wide eyes got impossibly wider as the young man stared up at him. Fidgeting hands tangled together in sudden stillness, and instead of the paling he expected of a Wen realizing who he was, the boy blushed. Soft cheekbones pinking with pleasing color that brought out the shine in those earnest eyes, which ducked shyly, demurely, for a moment. Thick, sooty lashes were glanced through and Mingjue felt his heart squeeze in his chest at the sight.

What.

Feeling a sudden heat of embarrassment in his own features, Nie Mingjue did what he did best and covered it with anger. What right did this young man have to be embarrassed by knowing who he was?! What right did he have to illicit emotions like this in Mingjue?!

Damnit Huaisang, this was all his fault!

"Why were you climbing?" He demanded – again – trying to take control of himself. "A foolish thing for a cultivator to get injured by!"

"I – Um –!”

“Spit it out!”

“Bird's nests!"

Was blurted out quickly in reaction to his order, the Wen ducking his head and tugging at his robes. Soft looking lips were bitten in nervousness before the young man continued what he was saying.

"I was looking for bird's nests."

For a long moment he was stunned.

"... Why?

"Um... I wanted... Egg... shells?"

"Why are you asking me?"

"I'm sorry!"

Sighing perhaps a touch aggressively, Nie Mingjue rubbed a hand over his face.

"Why did you want eggshells, Wen Qionglin?"

"It's good practice for glass blowing!"

"What."

It took a ridiculous amount of time to get the young Wen to explain himself properly, but after a while he got the gist. The stuttering and flushed cheeks were the kind of adorable that infuriated Nie Mingjue, but he managed to control himself. It wouldn't do to steal and aggressively care for a Wen in this political climate, and Qionglin didn't seem mistreated in any way.

Simply absent minded, perhaps a shade too trusting.

Learning that poking tiny holes in egg to remove the yoke with controlled breaths so as not to damage the shell was an art form and correlating that to glass blowing was strange. Mingjue didn’t have much of a head for more delicate art the way that Huaisang did, especially when Qi was added into the mix.

He could carve, but that was about all he could do.

“Is Wen glass so important as a cultivator?” he asked curiously, thinking of the multitude of things that Huaisang’s paramour had sent over. “That you would practice on delicate eggshells first?”

“Um,” pink blurred cheeks again, and the young man tugged on a strand of hair. “It’s… Well. Wen Qi Fire is a staple of our offensive cultivation methods, but the glass is… creation.”

Wide eyes glanced up at him as the Wen grabbed his bow and then slung it into place on his back with grace that bespoke skill.

“And when we create something… Um, has Sect Leader Nie ever thought about how um, how the Wen are?”

Mingjue could feel his face twist into a rictus of incredulity, almost offended by how ridiculous that question was. Instead of squeaking and trembling away, however, the Wen ducked his head with a small smile, lifting a hand towards his mouth as if to hide it.

Cute.

“Well, um, the art of creating Wen glass has been going out of style in the past century. Similar to archery,” he fiddled with the strap for his quiver. “When we use our cultivation mostly for the destruction of things as Wen Qi Fire is directed by Sect Leader Wen, and this effects our spiritual balance.

“My branch of the family are healers, so we don’t use the offensive Qi techniques that the other branches do as often, so we aren’t as effected,” the young man explained, as if he wasn’t suddenly putting many things into perspective.

To be honest, it had been something of a scandal years ago when Wen Ruohan’s father had been Sect Leader, the sudden leap into aggression. People had thought it was simply the passionate Wen being overtaken by arrogance, by their own admittedly admirable strength and turning into hubris.

But if they had lost sight of their own checks and balances…

Was it deliberate?

The Qinghe Nie had always struggled against Qi Deviation, and if there had been a way to prevent it he didn’t think any of his ancestors would have turned away from it. When it ensured that one could live longer with the ones they loved, how could they? What was a little glass blowing to being able to watch Huaisang get married? What was a little egg painting to sitting on a veranda and drinking tea while picking fun with Xichen?

Nie Mingjue would do anything to be able to stay with his precious people longer just so long as it didn’t countermand his morals, and art? Sure it was softer than he preferred, lacking in skill as he was, but for something like that

It wasn’t even a question.

“At my age now,” continued Wen Qionglin. “I’m expected to use these Qi techniques more, but my spiritual leanings have always been more… fragile. My older cousin from the main branch is teaching me glass art to help combat this, but he’s rather busy with other Disciples too, making sure everyone is as balanced as he can. As healers, there isn’t quite as much demand on my branch, and gathering materials is something I can do on my own.”

Nie Mingjue had an inkling that it was also to keep him out of the sight of main Wen Disciples, considering the young man wasn’t even carrying a cultivation sword.

“So why use wild bird eggs rather than chickens?” he asked after a long moment of silence. “And where is your sword?”

Ah, it almost felt like berating Huaisang about going out without his saber.

Nervous hands fiddled with a well waxed bowstring, and the Wen ducked his head in embarrassment again.

“Um, I um…”

“Spit it out already!”

“I haven’t earned one yet!” he squeaked this time, when Mingjue had expected it previously. “But – but Xu-ge said that he’s commissioning me one anyway, because he and Qing-jie are arguing. She doesn’t want me to get sent out with patrols with the others, but he says that I need to be able to defend myself just in case.”

Well, that told him not a whole lot and was actually rather confusing if Mingjue wanted to think about it any harder.

Despite the matters between them being well resolved, Mingjue found himself somewhat reluctant to leave this little sheltered bit of forest.

Even if this little Wen looked up at him like he was someone worthy of awe and admiration, rather than the unease and fear he normally received from other Sects. It was… nice, to have a hesitant hand that belied a startling grip tug at the edges of his robes to point at a particular bird’s nest and explain the way to use such a delicate shell.

That the shells were surprisingly sturdy, with even just a single hole punctured into them, how they could harden but still look so delicate.

“There are paints we can use,” the young man said with a shy smile, looking up through his lashes, seeming more at ease as time passed. “That can hold our Qi like the glass does. I don’t know how to make them and Xu-ge says they can be hard to –”

“We have paints like this in Qinghe,” he interrupted, thinking of Huaisang’s growing supply. “I will put you in contact with a respectable but affordable seller.”

“Oh! Um, thank you, Sect Leader Nie!”

Conversation drifted towards Wen Qionglin’s use of the bow, something that was generally only open amongst the Jin Sect. Even just the way that he held it, the calluses formed on hands smaller than his own, told Mingjue that this Wen was skilled with his weapon.

Looking over the plain but sturdy wood, the leather wrapped grip and the waxed bowstring impeccably cared for, Nie Mingjue let himself give what advice he could. While the bow wasn’t his favored weapon – Baxia wasn’t overly fond of archery and let him know this quite frequently – he did know how to correct a stance.

What kind of Sect Leader would he be if he couldn’t teach his Disciples, or at least know who could?

“Here.”

Stepping behind the younger man to reposition his arms as he took aim at a white flower several yards away between the trees, Mingjue was again startled by the gentle heat of him. It wafted through silks and pressed like incense smoke against his skin, and he scowled roughly as he resisted the urge to lift the man into his arms once again.

“Straighten your wrist more,” he instructed, pressing carefully against the limb in question, feeling a weight in his stomach at how easy it was to wrap his hand around. “You should be able to fire without the bowstring giving you more welts. Do you normally use a guard?”

“I – I… yes…”

He slid his foot between the younger mans, pulling it back to change the Wen’s stance slightly even as he leaned his torso back slightly to compensate.

“You know to keep your arms and torso as steady as possible,” he leaned down enough to speak into Qionglin’s ear, noting and dismissing the color creeping over them. The Wen was probably embarrassed about the proximity again, but his stance remained impressively unmoved. “That angle should be changed subtly by bending at the knees and hips.”

“… Yes, Sect Leader Nie,” the smaller man breathed quietly, warm Qi pulsing softly like a heartbeat. “I know.”

“You know to control your breathing, to exhale as you release.”

“Y-Yes, Sect Leader Nie.”

“That the circulation of Qi through your meridians can help pass oxygen to your muscles faster.”

“Yes, Sect Leader Nie.”

“Good.”

Ducking down to line up his line of sight with that of Wen Qionglin, he was momentarily distracted by the fluttering of those thick lashes. The little Wen glanced at him out of the corner of his eye, cheeks flushed deep red, and white teeth set into a soft bottom lip. Catching Mingjue looking, the young man blinked rapidly, and his shoulders rose in a sign of nerves before he forced them back to his drawn position.

Subtle muscles were strong, to hold such a position for so long, and it was a mark of how strong the cultivation in this Wen was, that it fed his muscles in such a way. Hadn’t earned a cultivation sword his ass.

Teeth pulled out of that distracting lip, a pink tongue running over indents, before Mingjue focused himself on the target again. He leaned closer to the little Wen who stood in the circle of his arms, never quite touching, stray sensation as lungs expanded and muscles trembled.

Each breath to leave his lips stirred some of that disheveled hair that smelled like sap from his tree climbing adventures and some faintly floral scent. Perhaps a kind of incense he preferred at home, it reminded him of the Cloud Recesses, though he couldn’t match a name to the scent.

He’d have to ask Huaisang when he returned home, even if it would make the troublesome little shit more suspicious. And paranoid.

Ah, yes, he’d definitely have to ask him. It would serve him right to be uneasy for a few days after all the trouble he’s caused Mingjue with his stupid unsubtle paramour.

“Steady your aim. Firm your stance. Read the wind. Feel the tension in your body. Breathe in with the burning of your muscles…”

Wen Qionglin did so, back brushing against Mingjue’s chest as he took a long, steady breath in, their Qi pressing like magnetic poles unsure if they could adhere.

“Now – release.”

A quick, silent breath, the whistle of a bowstring, feathers singing in the air as white flower petals exploded in the distance. The little archer shivered heavily as the tension left his body and he fell back into Nie Mingjue’s hold once more, a near familiar action at this point.

Hands which had been unfalteringly steady until this point trembled slightly as the bow slid out of position to prop against the ground. The drawing arm reached up to grasp at Mingjue’s wrist falteringly as wide bright eyes turned to meet the older man’s. Standing to his full height again, he let his arms settle easily around this skittish thing who looked at him as if he’d pulled the stars from the sky to give to him.

Something hot rolled in his stomach, and Nie Mingjue swallowed against a sudden thickness in his throat pressed with want.

This had not been how he’d expected this little excursion to go, but he couldn’t say that he minded the shy smiles shaped with trembling lips.

Other than his brother, the Sect and Lan Xichen, most people regarded Nie Mingjue with wariness. Sure, Wen tended towards trying to provoke him more regularly than they did staring at him like he was some sort of legend, but this one…

“That was very well done,” he found himself complimenting, that mussed head with flushed cheeks leaned against his chest. “A fine shot, Wen Qionglin.”

“Th-Thank you,” the young man swallowed, taking a shaky breath. “Thank you, Sect Leader Nie.”

“Mm. You may call me Nie Mingjue,” he waved the hand that wasn’t currently being used to hold the Wen upright. “I am not your Sect Leader, and we are not in an official setting. The Qinghe Nie do not hold to as many stringent guidelines as the other Sects.”

“Oh.”

Head ducked and grip tightening on Mingjue’s wrist momentarily, the young Wen looked down towards the ground before looking up through his lashes again. There was something else in bright, earnest eyes, but it wasn’t an expression that he was used to having directed at him, so he couldn’t quite read it. Smooth, pretty cheeks were still reddened, and soft lips were wetted with a quick tongue as the little Wen met his gaze.

“Like – Like the Gusu Lan Sect? I – I’ve heard that… that the Nie and the Lan are good friends,” he barely noticed taking more of the Wen’s weight, sooty lashes flickering on uncertain blinks. “Q-Qishan Wen isn’t very strict, when compared to that.”

“Gusu Lan,” he rolled his eyes with a scoff and absently swung the squeaking Wen into his arms, almost missing the surge of delight the motion brought to bright eyes. Oh. Sometimes he forgot that other than the Lan, the Nie were physically the strongest amongst the Greater Sects. “Has too many ridiculous rules to trifle with. Give me my saber and a restless spirit to cleanse over any of that ‘No Running’ or ‘No Talking at Mealtimes’ nonsense. How Lan Xichen can stand it I’ll never know.”

Bow held carefully in his lap as they approached the arrow the little Wen had fired, Wen Qionglin tangled his free hand in Nie Mingjue’s robes. White teeth dragged against soft pink flesh in what Mingjue was beginning to think was probably a nervous habit.

It was distracting.

“Um Sect Leader – I mean, Nie Mingjue should call this one Wen Ning,” thin, deceptively strong archer’s shoulders lifted to red tinted ears and a pink face ducked to stare at his bow. “Since – since we aren’t standing on ceremony.”

Humming agreeably, he set the young man on his feet again and watched him hurry forward to pick up the fired arrow. It was undamaged and lodged into the soft ground, white petals scattered around the red and black of this little Wen’s robes.

“Wen Ning.”

Testing the name on his tongue he felt a moment of secondhand embarrassment as the young man fumbled the arrow and turned away to cover his near steaming red face with both hands, crouched down. Scowling, he scoffed and looked to the side, hands finding his hips as he tried to avoid the heat in his own cheeks at the ridiculously endearing display.

They rarely even used courtesy names in Qinghe, why was he reacting like this?!

“If you can’t handle it, I won’t use it!” he snapped again his awkwardness. “Do not say things you do not mean!”

“No!” the wide-eyed young man spun around to stare at him ridiculously through his fingers. “I – I mean! Please! Use my name!”

Brows furrowed and features twisting in disbelief, he waited for the young Wen to stand and gather himself.

“I, um,” he fidgeted with his bow as he set it back into place, arrow wiped down and returned to his quiver. “I’ve just… never had someone not family call me by my personal name before.”

“Hmm,” frowning so he didn’t smile – which he’d been told was horrifying to behold once – he turned to face away from this unfortunately adorable Wen. “Then you are Wen Ning.”

“Y-Yes.”

“I must leave soon, Wen Ning,” he informed the younger man, enjoying the way the breeze shifted to give him another whiff of sap and that floral incense. “This was not a misspent afternoon, but I have duties to attend to.”

Unfortunate that he had only been able to clear a few hours to spend looking for signs of Huaisang’s pesky Wen. They had been far more enjoyable with this little Wen than he was sure they would have been had he found the other. It had been surprisingly nice, and he hadn’t felt Baxia rattle with hunger the entire time, not even huffily.

A welcome break, indeed.

“W-Wait!” was called behind him, and he heard the shushing of cloth and the shifting of dirt and twigs. “Wait please, Nie M-Mingjue!”

Pausing so that the young Wen could catch up, he looked down at the hand that tugged at his sleeve before looking into bright, too wide eyes, gaze catching on a partially open pink mouth.

Oh, no.

“Every fourth day!” the young Wen blurted out, red flush in his cheeks and climbing his ears even as it fell down his throat. It couldn’t be healthy, to change color so often. “I’m out here every fourth day!”

The hand tugging at his sleeve slid down, trembling, to rest well maintained fingertips against the back of Nie Mingjue’s larger, rougher hand. He watched that slim throat bob with a nervous swallow, watched thick lashes flutter with anxious blinking and teeth set into soft looking lips. He saw all the makings of fear, but the heat of Qi was full of determination and the Wen’s feet were planted firmly.

“… I may not be able to make time every fourth day.”

“That’s okay! Um, I… I could send an owl if I’m unavailable?” the trembling in that differently callused hand slowed as Nie Mingjue looked down into that earnest face; saw hope intermingled with that nameless something else. “If, if I’m going to be here anyway, there’s no need for Nie Mingjue to worry overmuch about me.”

“Of course I’ll worry!” he snapped without thought. “You don’t even have a sword!”

Ah.

Sometimes, Nie Mingjue wished that Baxia would hurry up and drive him to the grave, so that he didn’t have to bear witness to his own foolishness.

“Oh,” wide eyes practically shone up at him, and Nie Mingjue scowled, wishing that the ground would consume him. “I’ll get one as soon as I can, so that Nie Mingjue won’t worry!”

I’ll still worry, he managed not to say. You look far too breakable and trusting for a Wen!

“Hmph!” turning his hand to engulf the little Wen’s, he took a moment to enjoy bright eyes dipping to stare at it, pink lips parted. “I certainly hope so.”

A small but beaming smile was pointed up at him, and Nie Mingjue realized that he was utterly, and completely outdone.

“This one tries not to tell untruths!”

Utterly, and completely.

Damnit Huaisang!