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may there be no storm

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng had never been this far outside of the city.

 

There was a road to take north into the rolling hills, countrysides of farmlands and ranches sprawled in stretches of landscape under an endless blue sky. It started as a highway before it slowly shrunk into one lane each way, lined by the limitless horizon. Jiang Cheng was driving or else he might be more awed, might take the time to consider the distance to the end of the world.

 

Jiang Cheng had moved his right hand from the steering wheel to Nie Huaisang’s thigh the second traffic had thinned to nonexistence, the radio going in and out of clarity with every mile beneath their tires.

 

Nie Huaisang had started smiling forty miles outside of town and hadn’t stopped since, a soft smile like fond memories. He was curled up in the passenger seat, his head tilted to rest so he could look out the window at the landscape passing them by. They’d rolled down the windows and the sunroof, breathed in the smell of dirt and dung, Nie Huaisang’s hair dancing golden brown in the sunlight and breeze.

 

“I think you’ll really like it there,” Nie Huaisang told him for not the first time, turning back toward him to smile. His hand found Jiang Cheng’s on his knee, lacing their fingers together. Jiang Cheng glanced over at him, found his boyfriend smiling at him with the sweetest expression. “It’s so quiet this far out of town. Our nearest neighbors aren’t for acres and acres away. If you turn all the lights off in the house, you can see every single star in the night sky.”

 

“It sounds incredible,” he commented, their usual script.

 

And like a cue, Nie Huaisang promised, “I’ll show you.”

 

Jiang Cheng laughed. His boyfriend wiggled around in his chair until he was leaning back against Jiang Cheng’s right side as close as he could with the gear shift in the way, warm skin and pretty brown eyes looking only at him, setting his chest on fire. Nie Huaisang pressed a kiss to his arm, the only part of him he could reach without possibly causing them to crash.

 

“I’m sure you’re sick of hearing me talk about it.”

 

“Of course not.” Jiang Cheng glanced over at him, tried not to be breathless at the soft, loving curl of his boyfriend’s lips. Very tempting. “It’s been months since you’ve been back here, but I’ve dragged you to Lotus Pier dozens of times.”

 

“Your family isn’t that bad,” Nie Huaisang lied because he’s a saint. “It was more convenient for the holidays and weekends.”

 

“But it’s been nearly two years and it’s about time I met your family.”

 

“My brother,” Nie Huaisang corrected unconsciously, fingers curling a little tighter. “I know you two should’ve met before but I was so nervous about it. Da-ge can be… intense.”

 

“And he hates me.”

 

“He doesn’t hate you, he’s never even met you.”

 

“I accidentally talked to him on the phone that one time and he did not sound very impressed.”

 

“To be fair, it was six in the morning and I hadn’t told him yet that you existed.”

 

Jiang Cheng huffed, carefully watching the road. He’d refused to admit it but he’d only gotten more nervous with every passing day, a big bundle of nerves wound tight in his stomach. As a result, he’d only gotten crabbier and jumpier, and the last thing he wanted to deal with was snapping at Nie Huaisang’s brother and making himself seem like even more of an asshole than he already was. Nie Huaisang, however, was used to deciphering the chaos that was Jiang Cheng’s mood swings and always tried to put him at ease every time.

 

This time was no different. Nie Huaisang uncurled himself so he could lean properly over the gear shift, winding his arms around Jiang Cheng’s shoulders and kissing the side of his neck. Jiang Cheng put both of his hands on the steering wheel and held on for dear life to keep himself from veering off the road and killing them both.

 

“A-Cheng,” Nie Huaisang murmured into the sensitive skin under his jaw. Jiang Cheng started counting backwards in his head from one hundred, eyes firmly ahead. “I told you not to worry. Even if he doesn’t like you, it’s not a big deal. Da-ge doesn’t like many people so it wouldn’t be personal.”

 

“I don’t want him to not like me,” Jiang Cheng muttered, counting louder as Nie Huaisang’s hands drifted a little lower, to his forearms and his chest. “I don’t want to be the shitty boyfriend he has to put up with every Christmas. I want his opinion to at least be neutral.”

 

“My brother doesn’t exactly do neutral,” Nie Huaisang told him, mouthing at the shell of his ear. “But he’s not going to hate you.”

 

“Do you need me to pull over.”

 

“Why would I? Is something bothering you?”

 

“Huaisang.”

 

“A-Cheng.” Nie Huaisang pressed a kiss at the corner of his eye. Fingers drifted lower. “Can’t you multitask?”

 

Huaisang.

 

Nie Huaisang giggled but finally relented, releasing him to crash back into the passenger seat. He offered him a smug grin, blush high on his cheeks and laughter breathless. Jiang Cheng wished he wasn’t operating a deadly machine so he could leap over and kiss him until he stopped giggling. 

 

“You’re a menace,” Jiang Cheng agonized, trying and failing to hide his grin. “I can’t meet your brother like this.”

 

It only made Nie Huaisang’s grin a little more mischievous, a little more deadly. “Anyone ever told you that you’re handsome?”

 

“Anyone ever told you you’re a danger to society?”

 

“Plenty of times.”

 

Jiang Cheng reached one hand out and swung, knocking Nie Huaisang in the arm. His boyfriend only laughed harder, swinging back.

 

“I love you,” Nie Huaisang murmured. He took Jiang Cheng’s right hand hostage so he could press a kiss to his fingers, his palm, his wrist. “You are my favorite person and my brother is my other favorite and you two will get along. I just know it. Okay? So stop worrying. And don’t give me that look, I know you are.”

 

“I am,” he reluctantly agreed, letting out a long breath. “I love you too. I’m going to kiss you a lot the second we’re parked.”

 

Nie Huaisang gave his pulse point another kiss before surrendering it back. “Good, because we’re almost there.”

 

Jiang Cheng was certain only someone who grew up in this area and know it like the back of their hand could ever figure it out. The dusty crossroads didn’t seem to have street signs, as far as he could tell, but Nie Huaisang knew every one to turn at. He guided him past fields overgrown with weeds and over rolling hills toward a one-light town, a stretch of buildings with peeling paint that Nie Huaisang pointed out excitedly and individually, telling stories about times he and his brother did something foolish or stories about the children raised among the stocked shelves, in the apartments above.

 

Jiang Cheng had grown up in a glorified suburb, a little community with a lot of old money. His parents had a house on a lake that stretched so far it seemed like an ocean, a sprawl of rickety piers and lakeside where he and his brother flew kites and swam and attempted to drown each other when the roughhoused. Nie Huaisang always told him about growing up in the countryside, on this little family farm that his brother took over when their father died, but it hadn’t seemed very foreign, even in comparison.

 

But now, driving through the absolute middle of nowhere with intermittent cell service and even less possibilities of running into people, Jiang Cheng was willing to admit he was slightly out of his league.

 

He’d met Nie Huaisang through his brother Wei Ying, who had somehow found a job in the city and with even narrower odds found a rich boyfriend who cared a lot about the arts. Enter Nie Huaisang, an artist who also curates galleries, promoting local artists’ work and managing the social media. They wound up at the same awkward birthday party for aforementioned rich, stuffy boyfriend and sparks just—flew.

 

Jiang Cheng saw Nie Huaisang across a room nearly two years ago and the rest was history. It was about time they took this next step so that then they could take the next, and the next.

 

And if the next step meant Jiang Cheng would have to meet Nie Huaisang’s older brother and guardian who spoiled Nie Huaisang even from afar, then he would.

 

Jiang Cheng was not afraid of being disliked by people. He was very afraid of being disliked by Nie Mingjue.

 

He didn’t dare tell any of this to Nie Huaisang, who was determined to believe this week in the countryside at his family farm was going to be sunshine and rainbows. Nie Huaisang was blind in his faith that they would get along like a house on fire or that their lives wouldn’t change if they didn’t, and Jiang Cheng felt a sickly anxiety in his chest because he knew that part wouldn’t be true if it happened.

 

Nie Huaisang had very few people in his life and only one of them was family. If his elder brother didn’t approve, if that relationship strained, Jiang Cheng knew that no amount of love would mean he would be spared. And as nauseous as it made him, he understood in a warped way.

 

He really, really did not want this to be the reason Nie Huaisang left him. He would give pretty much anything to stop that from happening.

 

They passed through that one-stoplight town and made their way back into the rolling hills, Nie Huaisang practically vibrating in his seat and tripping over his words and stories, trying to tell Jiang Cheng everything all at once. A lot of it meant nothing and everything all at once—he sat back and listened to it without comment, chest warm and heart full and his entire body on fire from pure anxiety and terror.

 

Nie Huaisang finally told him to slow down. The farm was the next right.

 

Jiang Cheng practically threw up into his lap. 

 

As if he sensed as much, Nie Huaisang gripped a little harder onto him, pulling Jiang Cheng’s hand up so he could kiss each of the knuckles as he turned right at the rusty red mailbox, pulling his incredibly city- and eco-friendly car onto the dirt driveway.

 

“We’re here,” Nie Huaisang murmured warm and sweet into his skin, smile like sunshine. He finally let him go and Jiang Cheng gripped the wheel with both of his hands, momentarily distracted from his meet-the-family stress as he tried to keep his car’s steering in control.

 

The farmhouse stood at the top of one of the hills, the drive curling toward it like a sleepy snake. The house itself looked rustic, just like something out of a movie with peeling white paint and dark blue shutters and a rusty pickup truck parked at the edge of a big front porch with actual rocking chairs lined up out front. Nie Huaisang was grinning like mad as they made their way closer and he pointed up toward the window on the second floor right hand side.

 

“That one’s mine,” he informed Jiang Cheng excitedly, leaning into him. “There used to be a big tree between there and the porch roof and that’s how I snuck out all through high school, but a storm blew through a couple years ago and toppled it. Thankfully it fell away from the house, but could you imagine what would’ve happened if it hadn’t.”

 

Jiang Cheng parked next to the beat-up pickup, reached over to run his hand through Nie Huaisang’s hair. “Well,” he said, “may there be no storm.”

 

Nie Huaisang laughed and surged out of the car, bouncing on his feet as he gravitated toward the house, big smile and childlike excitement. Jiang Cheng watched him through the car window before he remembered he would have to get out at some point.

 

The air was clean and nice all the way out here, quiet and unburdened by the white noise of traffic and the scents of garbage all over the damned place. The breeze was soft and the world was peaceful and Jiang Cheng could see how people would love it, how they could grow up in this kind of place and decide to stay forever.

 

Nie Huaisang had a big, dopey smile on his face and it took every big of self-control in Jiang Cheng’s body not to smoosh his cheeks. “It never changes,” Nie Huaisang said with a laugh, tilting his head back and breathing in deeply. “Smells just like home.”

 

“Dirt?”

 

“Animal dung,” Nie Huaisang confirmed and laughed some more, as if he was so happy he couldn’t keep it in. Jiang Cheng loved him the most when he was like this, when he loved and laughed freely and openly and felt happiness so incredibly. 

 

Nie Huaisang danced back toward him, curling his arms around his neck like a slow dance. “A-Cheng,” he murmured, pressing their foreheads together. “I’m really glad you could come here with me.”

 

Jiang Cheng put his hands on his hips. “Of course.”

 

Nie Huaisang kissed his cheek before dashing away, opening the trunk. “Come on, I want to show you my room!”

 

They, otherwise known as Jiang Cheng, wasted no time in getting their bags out of the trunk. He hauled them up the porch as Nie Huaisang pushed the door open with no resistance and Jiang Cheng internally lost his mind about being so far removed that locking a door wasn’t necessary. 

 

Jiang Cheng hesitated for just a moment, arms full of bags and nervousness kicking in. Nie Huaisang was several steps inside before he noticed, and he turned back to roll his eyes at him.

 

“He’s not here,” Nie Huaisang told him with an amused grin. “Da-ge’s definitely out working, stop being so freaked out.”

 

“I’m not freaked out,” he muttered, entirely freaked out, and finally followed him in.

 

It was sweet, quaint and simple with exposed wood and artwork Jiang Cheng could immediately recognize as Nie Huaisang’s on the walls. The patterns were all mismatched, worn couches and busy rugs, furniture of different woods and grains. The rooms all ran into each other, living room to the dining room to the kitchen, and so much light came through the windows that Jiang Cheng almost wanted to keep his sunglasses on.

 

There were a set of stairs in front of them, leading up and painted white with the same chipping paint from upstairs. Nie Huaisang led the way, his foot on the first stair—

 

It squeaked. Loudly.

 

“You see now why I went out the window,” Nie Huaisang called over his shoulder as he made his way upstairs, none of the other stairs all that much quieter. “Even stomping around on the porch roof gave me a better chance.”

 

“I see now.” Jiang Cheng awkwardly managed to arrange the bags for the trip up the stairs but didn’t make it far, pausing on the landing. “Huaisang. Is this you?”

 

Nie Huaisang had disappeared far out ahead of him but doubled back, following his gaze. Immediately, his expression shifted to horror. “Jiang Cheng! Don’t look!”

 

Jiang Cheng did no such thing, grinning at the pictures lining the stairway of Nie Huaisang ranging from infant to awkward teenager, barely resisting the urge to say aw out loud as he looked over a picture of Nie Huaisang at about five years old, tongue poking through his missing front teeth as he hugged a pumpkin at a patch. He felt like he might keel over from how many feelings his heart was having.

 

It was the cutest thing Jiang Cheng had ever seen, and he had an adorable baby nephew so that was really saying something.

 

Nie Huaisang finally managed to get his hands over Jiang Cheng’s eyes, making distressed noises. “No, don’t look! I was fat!”

 

“Adorable.”

 

“Chubby!”

 

Jiang Cheng wrestled his sight back, catching Nie Huaisang by the waist and pulling him closer. “Hey, remember in the car when I promised to kiss you a lot?”

 

“You know what? I do.”

 

He swooped forward, capturing Nie Huaisang’s bottom lip between both of him. Nie Huaisang let out a surprised huff of breath before he surged forward, arms around his neck and quiet noises rumbling against his chest. Nie Huaisang twisted his fingers in his hair and Jiang Cheng sucked on the tongue in his mouth, pulling quiet, happy moans from his boyfriend that made his head spin.

 

Nie Huaisang pulled away sharply, breathing heavy. He tugged Jiang Cheng forward by the shirt. “Have I shown you the bedroom? Let’s do that. Right now.”

 

A wash of cold panic ran through his body. “Wait, Huaisang, I can’t have sex with you in this house.”

 

Nie Huaisang gaped at him from two stairs up, lips already slightly kiss-swollen and pupils blown wide. “What?”

 

“It’s your brother’s house!”

 

His boyfriend stared at him, aghast. “You refuse to have sex with me for a whole week , just because it’s my brother’s house?”

 

“Your brother would kill me if he knew.”

 

Nie Huaisang returned back to tugging. “Good thing he’ll never know. Come to bed, A-Cheng.”

 

“Huaisang.”

 

“Jiang Cheng. Love of my life. Thorn in my side.”

 

“Be serious.”

 

“Oh, I’m serious,” Nie Huaisang informed him, narrowing his eyes. “My brother doesn’t know we’re here and will be none the wiser for the next couple of hours. Meanwhile, I have never had sex in my childhood bed but I would sure like to. And what do you know, I have a handsome boyfriend who I love having sex with.”

 

He put his hands on either side of Nie Huaisang’s pretty face. “Huaisang. I am not having sex in your brother’s house.”

 

Nie Huaisang stared back, speechless. “You’re that serious about it.”

 

“Yes”

 

Nie Huaisang pouted. “Can we talk about it later?”

 

“Do we have to?”

 

“Yes. I have strong feelings about this.”

 

“Fine. Later.”

 

Nie Huaisang sighed, finally letting go of his grip on the front of Jiang Cheng’s shirt. “You’re lucky I love you and that I know communication is important because this is not making me happy.”

 

“I refuse to be murdered on this trip.”

 

“He’d only maul you at the very least.”

 

“Later.”

 

Nie Huaisang blew a raspberry at him. “You’re going to blue-ball me in my own childhood home.”

 

Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes, heaving the bags the rest of the way up the stairs as Nie Huaisang led the way, hooking a right at the top of the stairs. Finally, for the first time, he hesitated outside of the door at the end of the hall, glancing back at Jiang Cheng and biting his bottom lip red.

 

“Don’t laugh,” Nie Huaisang told him. “I never really bothered to decorate after I left and it’s a little bit… juvenile.”

 

“Nie Huaisang.”

 

“It’s just embarrassing.”

 

Jiang Cheng would kiss him if his arms weren’t full and straining from handling their damned luggage. “I promise I won’t laugh. Please let me set the bags down.”

 

Nie Huaisang took a deep breath, and then opened the door.

 

The warnings had been dire enough that he truly had not known what to expect. The door swung open and Jiang Cheng braced himself, holding his breath as though it might be deadly.

 

He stared into the room. 

 

“We definitely aren’t having sex in here,” he announced.

 

Nie Huaisang choked on a laugh and hit him on the chest, curling his fingers into his shirt and tugging him in behind him.

 

The bedroom was an obnoxious, startling shade of olive green. It was on every single wall but the floor and the ceiling—those were the same natural wood as the rest of the house, drab brown, but Nie Huaisang had instead covered the floor in rugs of all clashing shades of green and gold, as if heaping every single yard sale find into one place. The walls were covered in movie posters and concert tickets, paintings and photographs from vintage cameras.

 

It was as if this bedroom had been frozen in time. A monument to a boy who left this small town and moved to the city. A boy who moved  on without the rest of these things that remained.

 

Jiang Cheng turned toward his boyfriend and slapped on the most solemn expression he could muster. “Those rugs are not very groovy of you.”

 

Nie Huaisang hung off of him, helplessly giggling. “Stop, stop, my sides hurt. It was a really bad idea I had back in my junior year of high school. My brother told me that I had to learn how to make my own mistakes.”

 

“And then you never repainted or redecorated.”

 

“It just felt like too much work.”

 

“Aren’t you an artist?”

 

“And perhaps this is my vision.” Nie Huaisang let go of him only to drag their bags deeper into the room, depositing them messily at the foot of the unnecessarily large bed, which seemed to be the only piece of furniture that matched if only because all of the sheets and blankets and comforter cover were black. Nie Huaisang launched himself onto his bed and started rolling around. “Doesn’t this look comfy, A-Cheng? Don’t you just wanna join me?”

 

“I will dump water on you.”

 

“I will kill you on sight,” Nie Huaisang assured him with a laugh, rolling over until he was on his stomach, head propped on his hands like he was taking glamor shots. “You haven’t run away screaming yet, my dear. I am very impressed.”

 

“I’m thinking about it,” Jiang Cheng told him dryly because he was a giant liar. He sat on the edge of the bed and a little piece of him was relieved it wasn’t a water bed or something equally as atrocious to match the rest of the room. “Do you wanna unpack?”

 

“Do you really want to prolong the inevitable?” his boyfriend countered as if he wasn’t sprawled on a bed like a Victorian heroine. 

 

Jiang Cheng gave him a pointed look, which was replied with a cheeky smile and his boyfriend’s limbs once again flying in every direction as he rolled himself back off of the bed, landing sideways and straightening up like he did it all the time. His feet seemed to know where to fall here, a muscle memory of an early lifetime avoiding the loudest creaks in the wood.

 

Nie Huaisang straightened up and offered his hand. Grinned at him like he had never been so alive.

 

Jiang Cheng was an idiot about many things, but never once had he hesitated in taking that hand. 

 

So Nie Huaisang showed him everything, from the top down. The bathroom, the pictures and paintings of the hallway, the door to his brother’s room that he must absolutely never confuse with the bathroom. He showed him the stairs that creaked the loudest and the quickest way to sneak into the kitchen in the middle of the night; Nie Huaisang told him stories of growing up in this house and Jiang Cheng hadn’t known how much he’d wanted to know them, quietly drifting behind his boyfriend as he strolled through his memories with a sweet, mindless smile.

 

They walked out the back door and Jiang Cheng squinted out into the rolling fields and wooden fences, breathing in the breeze, gentle and unlike the one from his home, the one that smelled of sea salt.

 

Nie Huaisang hummed happily and snuggled closer to Jiang Cheng’s side. “I’ve missed this part. It never gets this quiet in the city.”

 

Jiang Cheng hummed, squinting out into the horizon line. “How much of this is your family’s?”

 

“All of it,” Nie Huaisang replied with a laugh. He held up his hand and traced it along the horizon, directing his gaze towards parts of the world they couldn’t even see. “There’s a demarcating fence a couple hundred acres out, you can get there by four-wheeler or horse. I’ll show you.”

 

“That’s a whole lot of land.”

 

“Plenty of places to hide when my brother was mad at me,” Nie Huaisang laughed. “Hollowed out trees and overgrown gardens. Ponds and creeks, once you get further out. A whole lot of places to get lost and explore. Sometimes it felt like I could walk all the way to the end of the world, until I realized the horizon would always be slightly out of reach.”

 

Jiang Cheng squinted down at him. Nie Huaisang didn’t notice at first but eventually looked up to investigate his silence, raised his eyebrows when he found him already staring.

 

“Sometimes you say the most insightful things,” Jiang Cheng explained, “and then turn around and talk about if bees have feelings.”

 

“It’s a reasonable question, A-Cheng.” He tugged on his hand, pulling him toward the stairs off of the back porch. “Come on, let’s go meet da-ge.”

 

Jiang Cheng really thought pretty much anything could happen to him and he wouldn’t be fazed. He grew up with his brother and had witnessed a great number of impossible or annoying things happen at his brother’s chaotic discretion, usually leaving him to clean up the disaster it left behind. Jiang Cheng was very good at not panicking in situations such as spontaneous fires but the idea of meeting this man that Nie Huaisang held in such high regard, a man who might not like Jiang Cheng and had the power to make the man he loved second-guess everything about their relationship—suddenly, Jiang Cheng froze, panic creeping its way up from his chest and into his throat.

 

Nie Mingjue was just a person, he knew that. But he was Nie Huaisang’s favorite person, someone in his heart that Jiang Cheng would never be able to compete with. The idea of saying the wrong thing, of doing something wrong and losing Nie Huaisang in the blink of an eye, made him want to take off running in the other direction.

 

Damned if he did, damned if he didn’t. Jiang Cheng had no idea what he’d been thinking, catching feelings like this.

 

He could do this because he had to do this. He had to be on his best behavior and do whatever it took to impress a stranger for the next seven days. He had to hope it would be good enough.

 

Nie Huaisang would never pick Jiang Cheng over his brother. Jiang Cheng had thought he’d understood that until he was suddenly on a farm in the middle of nowhere, feeling like he might throw up and make an even worse first impression than he’d ever made even in his nightmares.

 

Hands on his face. Lips against his chin.

 

“Jiang Cheng,” Nie Huaisang murmured. “Breathe.”

 

“I am breathing.”

 

“Too fast,” his boyfriend pointed out because he was a bit of a bitch but boy did Jiang Cheng love him. “He will like you, I swear. I like you so he will like you. Okay?”

 

Jiang Cheng made a noise like a deflating balloon. He let Nie Huaisang kiss his cheek before tugging him unceremoniously down the steps and onto the grass, fingers tangled tightly together as if he knew Jiang Cheng might consider making a run for it if he didn’t cling with all of his strength.

 

Nie Huaisang guided him toward a barn a good distance away, telling him stories of all of the animals they had on the farm throughout his life, from rabbits and foxes and every stray animal that was abandoned in town that they brought home because the idea of them being alone always made Nie Huaisang cry. He showed Jiang Cheng a gnarled oak with a swing tied onto a high branch and told him about how his brother nearly got stuck up there tying it up for him, but Nie Huaisang had always wanted a swing and his brother spoiled him terribly, so he got a swing.

 

By the time they reached the barn, Jiang Cheng had slightly begun to accept his fate, not to mention he was losing feeling in his fingers. Nie Huaisang dragged him closer, breaking into an energized pace when they caught sight of a towering, beautiful black horse in a fenced off corral wandering aimlessly. Nie Huaisang clicked his tongue and the horse looked up, and then immediately trotted over to him excitedly, snorting and stomping its feet.

 

Nie Huaisang climbed up the fence so he could reach out a hand and pat its muzzle, laughing as the horse nudged at him excitedly, like a large, overeager puppy.

 

“Baxia,” Nie Huaisang cooed, reaching his hand out to scratch its chin. He explained to Jiang Cheng, “Da-ge’s horse. She’s an old girl, but reliable and mostly sweet. You can pet her if you want, she usually doesn’t bite people when I’m around.”

 

The horse stared at Jiang Cheng with narrowed eyes, like she was daring him. He took the hint and shook his head but he watched the way Nie Huaisang spoke to her softly, lovingly petting her. Jiang Cheng had always loved the way Nie Huaisang treated animals, soft and sweet and like they all deserved a name and kisses. 

 

“He must be around, she’s usually only here when he is,” Nie Huaisang explained. He gave Baxia a kiss on her forehead before hopping down, wiping his hands on his jeans as he told her, “I’ll bring you a treat in a bit, I promise.”

 

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a horse close up before,” Jiang Cheng admitted, eyeing the sheer height of the mare, not to mention the stretch of her muscles and the limbs that would happily stomp him to death. 

 

Nie Huaisang led him around the enclosure, leading him toward the edge of the barn. The closer they got, the more Jiang Cheng could hear the sounds of movements, thumps and shuffling. He once again immediately felt ill, even as Nie Huaisang replied, “I love horses, we’ll have to go riding at some point. You’re gonna love it.”

 

Jiang Cheng didn’t even have the time to reply, didn’t even consider the idea of riding one of those giant beasts. They rounded the side of the barn, Nie Huaisang leading the way.

 

The first thing Jiang Cheng saw were the piles of firewood, hulking piles grouped together in some semblance of organization despite the summertime, the buzzing insects and burning sun overhead. And then he saw the axe, swinging down in a neat arch and splitting wood in half as if it were made of butter. And then he saw the man holding the axe and felt his entire soul leave his body.

 

Nie Huaisang practically vibrated out of his skin as he excitedly cried, “Da-ge!”

 

The man turned. A fond smile pulled at Nie Mingjue’s face when he saw Nie Huaisang bouncing as if it was Christmas morning; and then the smile faded when Nie Huaisang reached out and grabbed for Jiang Cheng’s wrist, bringing his brother’s attention to the extra person in their midst; their eyes met and Nie Mingjue’s gaze narrowed, mouth twisting into a distasteful frown as he eyed Jiang Cheng up. Jiang Cheng stared at him in return and was incredibly distressed that he could not, in the end, take off at a panicked sprint.

 

Nie Mingjue might have been the most intimidating man he’d ever seen in his entire life. Jiang Cheng was so, so dead.

 

And as if he could read his mind, Nie Mingjue’s grip tightened on the axe.