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“…wow,” Nie Huaisang said when Jiang Cheng finished explaining. “That’s – that’s bullshit.”

Jiang Cheng flushed. Secretly, in his heart, he agreed a little bit with Nie Huaisang’s assessment, but at the same time he couldn’t just sit around while someone said things about his father…

“Before you say that I can’t say something like that, I’m not being cruel or dismissive, I’m describing the situation accurately using crude words,” Nie Huaisang said, holding up his hands. “It’s not the same.”

That…sounded wrong.

“Back me up here,” Nie Huaisang said to the others in their group. They’d been put into a single group by the Wen sect, all of them but Mianmian who’d snuck over by climbing a tree, and given a too-small, too-crowded tent to sleep in and a single fire pit to warm themselves. How that had let them to sitting by the fire and sharing stories of how they’d been sent here, Jiang Cheng wasn’t sure. “Sect Leader Jiang deciding that because the Wen sect only asked for blood heirs that he wouldn’t sent Wei-xiong here alongside Jiang-xiong because he might get hurt is a situation can be, and indeed must be, accurately described as being total bullshit, right?”

“…it kind of is,” Jin Zixuan said. “Sorry, Jiang Wanyin.”

“It definitely is,” Mianmian said, emboldened by her sect leader’s agreement. “Absolutely bullshit.”

Even Lan Wangji hummed. It was a pretty neutral sound, but it might be an affirmative hum.

Well, if everyone agreed

Jiang Cheng’s shoulders went down a fraction from where they’d been hovering around his ears. 

“I wasn’t just taking it too personally?” he asked, seeking confirmation. “I mean, Father’s right – it doesn’t make sense to give the Wen sect two hostages when they’ve only asked for one, and there’s always the risk that Wei Wuxian would get hurt –”

“Your father should be concerned about whether you get hurt!” Nie Huaisang exclaimed, slapping the ground. “They don’t feed us, they make us work in the fields, and who knows what else…! When my brother heard about their request, he nearly killed the Wen sect’s messenger, he was so angry!”

“My mother was angry, too,” Jiang Cheng offered. “She and my father got into a big fight –”

Nie Huaisang jabbed a finger at him, rather rudely. “From the story you told, your mother only got really angry when she heard Wei Wuxian was staying behind.”

“…so?”

“There’s a difference between being upset over your son’s well-being and being upset that – that – that, I don’t know! That your favorite dog is losing the race!”

“My mother threw a vase at my father’s head when she heard that he’d agreed to send me here,” Jin Zixuan said quietly. He was actually a lot more tolerable without his retainers puffing him up and egging him on all the time, and having to work side-by-side in the fields had revealed that under the flash and arrogance there was an introverted boy who disliked dealing with people nearly as much as Jiang Cheng did. “Then she spent the next two days trying to find a way out of it, then hovered for the rest of the week before I left.”

“My father punched a wall,” Mianmian recalled. “Mother had to sit on him before he tried something crazy, like petitioning to remove me from the sect or something. Not that’d I’d ever have let Jin-gongzi come here alone, of course.”

“See?” Nie Huaiwang said, gesturing at them all. Lan Wangji hadn’t volunteered, but obviously no one would ask him, either; they’d all heard about the burning of the Cloud Recesses. No one had agreed to send him here. “Violence in response to an unreasonable request! Violence! Anything less is unacceptable!”

“You know, for the very first time, I think see your resemblance to the rest of the Nie sect?” Mianmian said, chin on her hand.

“You’re exaggerating,” Jiang Cheng said. “No, not about the resemblance, about – the other part. It’s not anywhere near as bad as you’re all making it out to be; Wei Wuxian’s always been my father’s favorite, and Mother’s always been angry about it. It’s not a big deal.”

“They should not compare you,” Lan Wangji said. He didn’t talk much, so everyone always listened when he did. “It is inappropriate.”

Jiang Cheng didn’t know what to do with that. He’d never not been compared to Wei Wuxian, not since he’d arrived at the Lotus Pier all those years ago…and maybe even before.

“Even Lan-er-gongzi agrees,” Nie Huaisang said, pulling his knees up and putting his chin on them with a pout. “It’s all bullshit, I’m telling you. I’m taking you back with me to the Nie sect when all this is over. If your parents want you back, they can come ask nicely.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Jiang Cheng told him.

“You could come to Lanling if you prefer,” Jin Zixuan said, and Jiang Cheng turned to stare at him. “What? Your mother and mine are friends. It’d be fine. I wouldn’t – it wouldn’t be a problem.”

“I’m the heir of the Jiang sect,” Jiang Cheng exclaimed, throwing up his hands. “I can’t not go back!”

“Don’t think of it as not going back,” Mianmian said. “Think of it as taking a long detour.”

“You’d like Qinghe,” Nie Huaisang put in. “My brother’s really cool. He gives great hugs.”

“I bet he does,” Mianmian muttered appreciatively.

“Gross, Mianmian.”

“He’s seventh on the list of most attractive male cultivators, and in my personal opinion should be a good few places higher up. Get used to it.”

“I don’t do hugs anyway,” Jiang Cheng interjected before he somehow got sold up the river – he knew how this sort of thing went. “Father doesn’t like them.”

“…your father hugged Wei Ying when he arrived at the Cloud Recesses to collect him,” Lan Wangji said neutrally.

“Fine. He doesn’t like them with me. Never did, not really, the whole time I was growing up…well, I mean, I guess he did sometimes when I was really young, before Wei Wuxian came...”

“Are you seriously saying your father hugs Wei Wuxian and not you?” Jin Zixuan asked. “And that he - he stopped hugging you when Wei Wuxian was there? Because that’s – that’s…”

“Bullshit?” Nie Huaisang suggested.

Bullshit,” Jin Zixuan agreed with surprising vehemence.

“You’re exaggerating,” Jiang Cheng said.

“No,” Lan Wangji said.

“No, what? No they’re not exaggerating, no they’re not –”

“No. It is bullshit.”

“…did we just get a Lan to curse?” Mianmian asked, eyes wide. “I didn’t even know Lans were allowed to do that. Ever.”

“It is not a curse,” Lan Wangji said with dignity. “It is an accurate description of the situation.”

Vindication,” Nie Huaisang hissed. How Jiang Cheng had missed that he was such a vicious little snake during their time at the Cloud Recesses, he had no idea, and judging by the amused expressions on everyone else’s faces, they felt much the same. “See, Jiang Cheng, this is why you –”

“Time to sleep,” Lan Wangji interrupted. His internal sense of time was more reliable than any clock when it came to sleeping and waking, and no one complained – if they stayed out much later than nine the Wen sect guards would come to accuse them of making trouble, and no one wanted to be labelled a trouble-maker.

Mianmian disappeared back over to the women’s camp – boring in comparison, according to her, but more likely she just wanted to keep her word about watching over Jin Zixuan – and the rest of them shuffled back to bed.

Some time later that night, when Jiang Cheng was lying in the middle of a pile of arms and legs he could no longer differentiate, he stared at the ceiling and asked quietly, “…is it really that bad?”

An arm looped around his waist tightened, and a foot lightly nudged him from the other direction.

“It’s not that it’s bad,” someone said, and their voice was so faint that he couldn’t tell which of the boys it was. “It’s that you deserve better.”

Jiang Cheng didn’t know what to say to that.

He continued not to know what to say the next day, but that was the day that they got forced to act as bait on a night-hunt into a giant lightless cave and Mianmian nearly got herself killed, followed very shortly by Jin Zixuan and Lan Wangji for standing up for her.

Under normal circumstances, Jiang Cheng would think first about his sect and only later about everyone else, and he tried, really, but – well, the Wens were attacking anyway, and somehow it’s Nie Huaisang of all people who hisses, “Get Wen Chao!” and Jiang Cheng had, and for a moment there it looked like they were going to be okay.

And then they all got stuck in a cave with a corrupted Xuanwu.

Minus the Wens, which was at least something.

“There are fresh maple leaves on the water,” Lan Wangji said. “There must be a way in and out.”

“I can dive in and check it out if someone distracts the Xuanwu,” Jiang Cheng offered. When they stared at him, he shrugged. “I’m a good swimmer.”

“You’d better be an amazing swimmer,” Jin Zixuan said. “I don’t want to have to plan your funeral.”

“I don’t think we get funerals here,” Nie Huaisang put in. “So if you die, you’ll stink up the whole place and we’ll all be very upset. I mean, gross!”

Jiang Cheng had by this point gotten used to Nie Huaisang’s – Nie Huaisang-ness, but it couldn’t be denied that everyone was a lot less terrified after listening to Nie Huaisang complain about nonsense for a bit. So much so, in fact, that it abruptly occurred to Jiang Cheng that maybe Nie Huaisang was doing it on purpose which…he wasn’t sure what to do with, so he decided to just put out of his mind.

Lan Wangji and Jin Zixuan put their heads together and eventually decided on each of them using a fire talisman as a distraction, alternating between them, while Jiang Cheng crept to the water and found a way out, which he reported back.

“Someone will need to stay behind as a distraction,” Lan Wangji said solemnly. His hands were clasped together, and Jiang Cheng knew what he was going to say before he said it.

“No way,” he said. “You’re not staying behind. If anything, I should; I’m the best swimmer, I might be able to get around it even if it’s not distracted.”

“You know where the exit is; it is better if you lead those going out.”

“A description will do the trick just as well,” Jiang Cheng argued. “And anyway, it’s not – it’s not as if I’ll be missed at home, the way all of you would be.”

They all glared at him, then, and he shrugged angrily.

“It’s true,” he said, and he could say it only because Wei Wuxian wasn’t there to stop him. He wouldn’t even think it, if Wei Wuxian was there; Wei Wuxian always knew when it was coming and interrupted him with a smile or a joke or something, and so the bitterness never got a chance to be let out. But he wasn’t here now, they were, and everyone else seemed to think it was all bullshit and maybe it was, okay, maybe it was. But it didn’t make it any less true. “My father has always said that Wei Wuxian understood the sect motto better than I did. He wouldn’t be upset at all if the sect went to him instead, and if I was dead or injured he’d probably just give him the Jiang surname in my honor or something. Let me be the one to stay.”

“Uh, question,” Nie Huaisang said. “Why does anyone have to stay? Can’t we just set up a trap or something?”

“A trap?” Jin Zixuan said. “What do you mean?”

Nie Huaisang shrugged and looked at Lan Wangji. “Do you know Chord Assassination?”

Lan Wangji blinked, surprised, but nodded.

“Okay, so, here’s the idea…”

It was an extremely stupid idea, based on using the chords as part of a pulley, some Wen sect soldiers and swords used as counterbalance weights, but as a distraction it worked pretty beautifully right up until the last moment when Jiang Cheng was helping Lan Wangji – whose leg was broken – swim through the water and the Xuanwu abruptly noticed that they were all going to leave and dashed after them, getting its head stuck in the exit hole they were using.

“Should we behead it or something?” Jin Zixuan asked, staring at the thrashing beast. “It can’t be allowed to hurt others.”

“Using what?” Mianmian asked, holding up a Wen sword in disdain. “These pieces of – well. These swords? It wouldn’t work.”

“I can still do Chord Assassination,” Lan Wangji said, and with all of them heaving together they were able to hold the string down tight enough to eventually cut the thing’s head off at the neck.

Nie Huaisang even used the opportunity to go pick out some sort of sword that was sticking out of the creature’s side, which he’d declared to be extremely ‘aesthetic’ if you looked at it from a certain perspective.

By that point, they were all exhausted, but no one wanted to stay a second longer in Qishan than they had to – especially since one of the small sect cultivators who’d wandered further away had seen Wens incoming – so Jiang Cheng put Lan Wangji, now totally exhausted, on his back and they all ran away.

“Come visit me in Qinghe sometime!” Nie Huaisang shouted, waving as the Nie sect disciples split off in a different direction. “I promised you some high-quality proper affection hugs from my da-ge, Jiang Cheng! Just you wait, you’ll see how good they are!”

(They are every bit as good as promised.)

Chapter Text

“Absolutely not,” was the first thing Nie Huaisang’s brother said when Nie Huaisang first raised the idea of kidnapping Jiang Cheng for his own good. “Absolutely fucking not.”

“Nie sect principle three,” Nie Huaisang said.

“Well, shit,” his brother said.

This was because Nie Huaisang’s brother is the best.

“I’ve gotten other people involved in this,” Nie Huaisang added helpfully.

“You’d better have,” his brother said. “I am not dealing with the fallout from this on my own.”

Nie Huaisang nodded happily. That was about what he’d expected.

A few moments later, his brother asked, “Why are we kidnapping him, anyway?”

-

“This is temporary,” Nie Mingjue said gruffly.

Very temporary,” Jiang Cheng agreed, sounding stiff and awkward. “I don’t even know why I’m here.”

“You know exactly why you’re here,” Nie Huaisang objected. “I told you why!”

Jiang Cheng gave him a dirty look.

“Also I have no idea how da-ge got you here, but you’re staying,” Nie Huaisang said firmly. “For as long as it takes for your parents to show that they deserve you returning to them. You’re not getting a choice.”

Jiang Cheng’s face was turning red.

“That’s not the deal, Huaisang,” Nie Mingjue interjected. “Jiang Wanyin can return home at any time he wishes.”

Nie Huaisang glared, but his brother ignored him.

“He can also stay as long as he wishes,” he said, and this time it was Jiang Cheng’s turn to stare. “If you want others to respect him, you must first pay him the respect he deserves yourself. Now, I have to go, but Jiang Wanyin – know that our home is always open to you.”

He put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed it, then ruffled Nie Huaisang’s hair, and left.

Jiang Cheng looked dazed.

Nie Huaisang smirked.

“…you said something about him giving out hugs?”

Oh yeah,” Nie Huaisang said. “Great hugs.”

-

“I can’t believe you would betray me like this,” Nie Huaisang whined. “And after all I’ve done for you!”

“A little training’s not going to kill you,” Jiang Cheng said. “Come on already.”

“My brother put you up to this, didn’t he? You sold me out for a hug.”

“I sold you out for the opportunity to go on a proper night-hunt,” Jiang Cheng said. “Also, he said he was proud of the progress I’ve been making on my cultivation and sword training since I got here. And gave me a hug.”

Nie Huaisang grumbled but conceded that his brother was especially difficult to resist when he was in full big brother mode. If he wasn’t, Nie Huaisang wouldn’t have been nearly so willing to give up the neat new sword he’d found in the Xuanwu’s cave and store it down in their saber halls until his brother and Baxia could figure out how to suppress it - he hadn’t even realized it was full of resentful energy at first, and he still thought it was especially aesthetic.

“Besides, if you don’t practice something soon, he’ll come after you himself,” Jiang Cheng said. “Wouldn’t you rather train with me?”

No. You’re just as crazy as he is.”

Jiang Cheng looked disturbingly complimented.

“I’ll come look at your birds later,” he offered.

“You’d do that anyway,” Nie Huaisang said. “You love my birds.”

Jiang Cheng did, too. Nearly as much as he loved all the feral cats that roamed the walls of the Unclean Realm, every single one of which seemed to have immediately pegged him as a soft touch and come nosing around for treats – Nie Huaisang had never seen Jiang Cheng look so calm and peaceful as when he had a cat under his palm.

It really put into perspective how stressed he looked the rest of the time.

“Oh, all right,” he groaned, and Jiang Cheng beamed. “Just know that I hate you.”

“Same to you, Nie-gongzi,” Jiang Cheng said, completely insincere. “Same to you.”

-

“You know, I’m surprised my parents haven’t shown up to demand me back yet,” Jiang Cheng said over lunch one day. “It’s not – it’s not a problem. It’s only – I thought – Mother at least –”

“Oh, they’re demanding all right,” Nie Huaisang sniggered.

“…Nie Huaisang, what have you done,” Jiang Cheng said.

“Conspired, that’s what,” Nie Mingjue said. “I don’t know if I should thank you for discovering my brother’s sole talent, namely for scheming and conspiracies, or to blame you for it, Wanyin – but you do have very loyal friends.”

Jiang Cheng blinked.

“Well, first your parents went to Lanling,” Nie Huaisang explained. “On account of Jin Zixuan and Mianmian very obviously sneaking food around and buying all sorts of things that you would like before smuggling them – very poorly and obviously, mind you – into Jinlin Tower, and of course they were also overheard talking about something that sounded an awful lot like ‘Wanyin’; everyone assumed they were hiding you. Turns out they weren’t, of course; it was just a stray dog they’d named something with similar tones. Not their fault everyone got the wrong idea!”

Jiang Cheng’s eye twitched.

“And then, of course, they went to Gusu, on account of Lan Wangji telling everyone you were his sworn brother –”

“His what?!

“Well, close enough. On account of how you saved his life.”

“I did not!”

“I thought I heard something about how you carried him on your back as you fled from the Xuanwu’s cave and the Wen sect’s ambushes, when he was exhausted and could not walk,” Nie Mingjue said mildly, and Jiang Cheng spluttered. “Had I heard wrongly?”

“…well, no…but...”

“Of course, you weren’t at Gusu,” Nie Huaisang continued, ignoring them both. “Though there were some heavy implications for a little while that you’d gone off with Lan-gongzi –”

“Isn’t he missing?”

Nie Mingjue coughed and looked down at his plate.

“And none of you said anything?” Jiang Cheng asked, looking between them. “At any point? Did you just, what, not talk to them?”

“I have spoken with your parents several times since they have started looking for you,” Nie Mingjue said, and his voice was suddenly hot with roiling anger. “I have concluded that Huaisang had a point regarding the necessity of their learning how to ask for your return.”

Jiang Cheng blinked.

“Your parents are jerks,” Nie Huaisang volunteered. “And you deserve better.”

“Yes, thank you,” Jiang Cheng said, a little strangled. “I think I – got that.”

Good.”

-

“It’s just, my jiejie –”

“Supports you being here. She sent you a care package. It’s in your room.”

“…Wei Wuxian –”

“Sent a note along with the package. Says to keep up the good work.”

“How did you even get something like that?!”

“I have my ways.”

-

Nie Huaisang was staring blankly at the wall when Jiang Cheng walked in and did a double take.

“Okay,” he said to Nie Mingjue, sitting patiently nearby with a letter in his hands. “You broke him. How?”

“He just discovered that he inadvertently saved a great deal of lives,” Nie Mingjue said. “As did you, by agreeing to come here.”

“I only agreed to come here because you lied and told me it was necessary to help defend my sect,” Jiang Cheng grumbled, clearly not meaning it.

Nie Huaisang let out a high-pitched and somewhat hysterical giggle.

“It was,” Nie MIngjue said solemnly, offering him the letter. “It appears that Wen Chao was given permission to attack and crush the Jiang sect, but has been delaying in anticipation of your return on account of wanting to deal with all of you at once. The delay allowed our spies time to discover his plans, and to carry warnings to your parents. They were thus able to fortify the Lotus Pier’s defenses against invasion, and to hold it off until aid could arrive – which they wouldn’t have managed if he’d attacked at once, as he would have if you’d been there.”

Jiang Cheng stared.

“Would you like to sit down and stare at the wall?” Nie Mingjue offered kindly.

“…yes please.”

-

“How’d you convince him to let me come here, anyway?” Jiang Cheng asked Nie Huaisang as he packed up his things. He was finally heading back to the Lotus Pier, albeit only long enough to collect soldiers and come back to join what they’d started calling the Sunshot Campaign – his parents had finally figured out where he was and sent word that had, in the view of the Nie, just barely qualified as sufficient to get some leeway.

Lan Wangji was waiting in the hallway to escort him there, and he’d sworn to Nie Huaisang that he would not allow either of Jiang Cheng’s parents to say anything untoward while they were there. He’d looked very serious while he said it, too, which pleased Nie Huaisang to no end and made Jiang Cheng look more than a bit nervous.

“You’re only asking that now?” Nie Huaisang asked, amused.

Jiang Cheng shrugged. “You going to tell me or not?”

“It was easy,” he said. “I just invoked Nie sect principle three.”

“…what’s that?”

“‘A fire burns all the same’,” Nie Huaisang said. “Variously interpreted as: ‘Treat your neighbor’s harm as your own’, ‘Do not stand idly by as your neighbor bleeds’, or ‘Indifference to evil is equivalent to evil’.”

Jiang Cheng stared.

“How about ‘if you see someone who needs you, you have an obligation to act’?”

Jiang Cheng blinked. “Okay,” he said. “And?”

“And what?”

“And what else did you say? You convinced him to literally kidnap the heir of another Great Sect; I can’t believe that you accomplished that simply by saying ‘hey principle three applies here, let’s do this’.”

“Maybe I did,” Nie Huaisang sniffed.

Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes. “Fine, keep your secrets. I’ll get them out of you one day.”

“Maybe you will,” Nie Huaisang said.

-

“Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang said. “If I wanted to keep Jiang Cheng permanently, what principle would I have to invoke for that?”

“Nineteen.”

“Nineteen?” Nie Huaisang frowned. “But, da-ge, principle nineteen is the one about marriage – oooooooh.