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never been a natural (all i do is try)

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(8)

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Nie Huaisang likes to cling.

Jiang Cheng has never met another boy as physically affectionate. Maybe there’s Wei Ying, but he’s only like that with A-Jie, or sometimes with Father, mostly when Mother isn’t around. Nie Huaisang is different, though.

Nie Huaisang clings to Auntie Nie whenever he has to speak to her. He holds on to her hand when they walk together. Nie Huaisang always sits pressed up to his mother’s side, always halfway into a hug. When Nie Mingjue is around, Nie Huaisang is always latching on to the older’s shirt, or he is draped across his brother’s back. “Like a monkey.” Nie Mingjue had said, but he doesn't make any move to push the younger away. On the one time Sect Leader Nie had come to visit Yunmeng, Jiang Cheng watched as Nie Huaisang plopped himself right into his father’s lap and was hugged and doted on.

“He’s so… touchy.” Jiang Cheng told his sister once, when he saw Wei Ying draping an arm around their friend and Nie Huaisang immediately snuggled closer.

A-Jie only smiled and then ran her hands through his hair and patted his head. “A-Sang is just comfortable with others, I suppose.”

“We’re eight, A-Jie.” he says with a huff, like Mother does when she disapproves. “He shouldn’t be all clingy anymore.”

But then Jiang Yanli had wrapped her own arm around him and pulled him to her side. He realized he was contradicting his own words, but he couldn’t help but lean into her, because she is comfortable, and soft, and warm.

Is that why Nie Huaisang likes to be all over people so much?

Jiang Cheng gets to ask him, finally, one day while he is walking with Wei Ying and Nie Huaisang through the crowded streets of Yunmeng. There’s a festival in a few days, and people are setting up stalls and booths, busy with preparations.

They’re trailing after Wei Ying as usual, on one of his ‘adventures’ - which this time involves a kite, because of course Father got him a kite after he asked. Jiang Cheng feels someone latch on to his arm. He looks at Nie Huaisang to ask if something’s wrong, but the other boy is only looking forward, and hasn’t slowed down, both of them still following Wei Ying’s lead.

“Why do you cling so much?” Jiang Cheng says, before he could think about how that must sound.

That makes Nie Huaisang stop, and that makes Jiang Cheng stop with him. He quickly lets go of Jiang Cheng’s arm. “I-... I’m sorry, Jiang-xiong! I didn’t mean to make you mad-”

Jiang Cheng could see his friend getting upset, so he quickly shakes his head. “No! No, I’m not mad!” Ugh, A-Jie did always tell him he might get misunderstood if he said things the way he thought them. “I just… I don’t know why you have to cling to me.”

“It’s crowded.” Nie Huaisang says, as if that explains everything.

Jiang Cheng frowns. “So?” They’re eight, they’re old enough to walk on their own, not like smaller kids!

“Da-Ge and Mama always say if we’re in a crowded place, to hold on to someone I know,” says Nie Huaisang, “because I’m small and easily destur-... distru-... I like to look at things. So they know when I stop so they won’t leave me behind and I won’t get lost.”

“Oh.” Jiang Cheng thinks about it.

“I’m sorry. I won’t hold on to Jiang-xiong if Jiang-xiong doesn’t want it.”

Nie Huaisang is looking down, his hands tugging at his too-long sleeves. He’s fidgeting. Jiang Cheng fidgets when he’s nervous, but he always tries not to, because Mother told him it’s ‘unbecoming’ of him. Whatever that means.

Jiang Cheng frowns. He didn’t mean to scare Nie Huaisang. He just met Nie Huaisang, and he didn’t want Nie Huaisang to stay away from him, like his other playmates did, just because Jiang Cheng looked angry when he wasn’t, not really.

Besides, it does make sense. Nie Huaisang is small. Also, he is new to Yunmeng. Jiang Cheng didn’t want him to get lost.

“No, it’s fine, I guess.” says Jiang Cheng, offering his arm again.

Nie Huaisang’s face brightens and he clings to his arm as they start walking again. Even though Jiang Cheng feels a bit unbalanced, not used to the extra weight beside him as they walk, he finds that it’s okay. Huaisang’s hands are soft and warm, like A-Jie’s, and it’s nice to be sure that his friend is right there.

“Hey! You’re still here! I was almost there but I noticed you two were gone! Why did you stop here?” Wei Wuxian complains as he emerges from the crowd in front of them, like a beacon with his big colorful kite held above his head. He stops when he sees Nie Huaisang clinging to Jiang Cheng’s arm. “Are you okay, Nie-xiong?”

“I’m okay, Wei-xiong! I just didn’t want to get lost. There’s lots of people.” Nie Huaisang answers.

Wei Ying, as always, accepts the answer easily. “Ah, I see. I see. Okay. Well, let’s go! So we have time to make the kite go really high!”

With that, he weaves into the crowd again, most people getting out of his way as soon as they see the colorful kite. As usual, Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang follow.

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(14)

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Jiang Cheng hears it when Nie Huaisang thanks the nice old man selling the hand-painted figurines. He taps his phone, sending one last message to A-Jie before he pockets it and turns just as Nie Huaisang walks up to him.

“You all done?” he asks, arm already extended by habit.

“Yup!” Nie Huaisang says as he takes the offered arm. With his other hand, he lifts the little trinket he has bought. “Look! Who does this remind you of?”

Jiang Cheng looks at the figurine. It’s a little brown poodle with beautifully detailed fur and bright friendly eyes. The corner of his lips turn up.

“It’s Meimei.”

“It’s Meimei!” Nie Huaisang giggles, looking down at his latest acquisition as Jiang Cheng leads them further down along the streets of the market. “I just had to get her. Thanks for waiting for me, Jiang-xiong...”

“Eh.“ He shrugs, but only slightly because Nie Huaisang is leaning on his shoulder. “Don’t want you getting lost.”

He feels the appreciative squeeze on his arm, and he keeps walking.

They hear a familiar loud voice shouting from the other end of the street. “Jiang Wanyin, Nie Huaisang- Oh, my God, I love you guys separately but I hate walking with both of you, you are so slow when you’re together!”

Nie Huaisang laughs, and Jiang Cheng, also by habit, shouts right back- “Shut up, Wei Wuxian!”

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(9)

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I don’t wanna go.” Nie Huaisang whines into his arms where he has burrowed his face into, lying on his stomach on the grass. “Don’wanngobaaaaaaack~”

“Huaisang-xiong, all year we hear you complain about missing Qinghe.” Wei Ying says beside him, popping another lotus seed into his mouth before he raises his hands to count off, “Yunmeng is too hot, not like Qinghe. You wanna play with your da-ge, in Qinghe. You miss the birds… in your house in Qinghe.”

“I do miss the birds…” Huaisang says, all glum and pouty. “But I don’t wanna go back to Qinghe this summer. I don’t wanna… it’s gonna suck...”

“Why?” Jiang Cheng asks as he slaps Wei Ying’s hand from his own pile of lotus seeds. Wei Ying should peel some for himself if he wants them so much.

“Da-ge has been going on and on about me starting saber training...”

“That’s so cool.” Wei Ying says.

“It isn’t! It’s heavy, and it’s tiring, and I’m bad at it!” Nie Huaisang says, using Jiang Cheng’s distraction to steal a lotus seed. “And I’m already starting late, other kids smaller than me are gonna be training too-”

Wei Ying snickers. “Haha, for once, you’ll be the tallest in class~”

“Wei-xiong!” Nie Huaisang gasps and pushes at his friend. “Jiang-xiong, did you hear him-”

“He’s right, though.” Jiang Cheng says, in a rare move of solidarity with his brother, just to see Nie Huaisang’s reaction.

Nie Huaisang gapes at him. “Jiang-xiong, you betray me, your best friend?!”

“Oi, I’m Jiang Cheng’s best friend!” Wei Ying says, sitting up.

“You’re his brother, Wei-xiong.”

“-and his best friend! Your brother can be your best friend! Right, A-Cheng?”

Jiang Cheng looks at both of them, then with a scoff, he goes back to peeling lotus seeds. “My best friend is A-Jie.”

They both whine at him and he ignores them until it’s almost sunset, time for all three boys to wash up and make themselves presentable again, for Nie Huaisang to go. His mother should be there soon to pick him up, and then they’ll go home. Nie Huaisang will pack up and he is off to Qinghe the next day, and for the rest of the summer, because his father and brother both think that they’ve delayed his cultivation training enough.

By the time they’ve freed themselves from the dirt and grass they’ve rolled around in that afternoon, Nie Lihua is already at the Jiangs’ receiving room, having a pleasant chat with Jiang Yanli.

Nie Huaisang runs to his mother with enthusiasm as always, but he visibly deflates when she asks him if he’s ready to go. Still, he nods and says goodbye to the Jiang siblings.

“We’ll miss you for the summer, A-Sang.” Yanli says. “I made some treats that Auntie can pack with your things.”

Huaisang’s lips quiver before he launches himself at her with a cry of “Yanli-jie!”. She only laughs and hugs him back sweetly as he mumbled into her dress how kind she is, and how he wishes da-ge was more like her.

“Ah, he’s gonna cry. Are you gonna cry, Huaisang-xiong?” Wei Ying teases, but Jiang Cheng elbows him.

“I’m not!” Huaisang pouts at him.

Before Jiang Cheng could tell him that he better not cry, Nie Huaisang, you’re nine years old, not a baby- Nie Huaisang lets go of Yanli and then goes to hug him next.

Huh.

He had said goodbye to them to spend summers or holidays in Qinghe before, but Nie Huaisang has never hugged him. He must really be nervous.

Jiang Cheng pats his back, awkward, not used to this gesture coming from another boy his age. It’s usually just Yanli-jie. Or Father, very rarely. Or Grandmother, because she dotes on him.

“Jiang-xiong, I’ll probably chop off my own arm with my saber.” Huaisang mourns. “Or someone’s arm. I don’t know.”

“You’ll be fine.” Jiang Cheng says. “You can’t be that bad.”

“I am, though.”

“Your da-ge is strong. He won’t let you chop someone with your saber.”

“Mm. Yeah. You’re right. He is strong. Okay.” Huaisang says, nodding, obviously trying to power through. He finally lets go and steps back. “Okay.”

He still looks sad, though, so Jiang Cheng reaches into his pocket and hands him his pouch of lotus seeds. “Here. You can have it.”

Huaisang looks down at the pouch and sniffs. “Thank you, A-Cheng.”

“Wait, are we all supposed to give him something?” Wei Ying asks. “No one told me!”

At this, Huaisang summons up a haughty huff, an expression he learned from Jiang Cheng, which Jiang Cheng of course got from Madame Yu. It makes his mother and Yanli both hold back their laughter.

“It’s because I’m A-Cheng’s best friend, Wei-xiong.”

“No, I’m A-Cheng’s best friend!”

“I can have two best friends!” Jiang Cheng snaps, making them both look at him. The sudden attention flusters him though, so as usual he fights embarrassment with a scowl. “But if I did, it won’t be you two because you guys are annoying! My best friend is A-Jie!”

They whine at him until Yanli-jie is laughing and Nie Lihua is ushering a still-pouting, but definitely-not-gonna-cry-anymore Nie Huaisang home. 

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(15)

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“Incoming!”

Jiang Cheng barely makes it two steps from the car when he gets an armful of Nie Huaisang. Fortunately, it’s a familiar action and he falls back into it easily, wrapping his arms around the other tight and using the momentum to spin them both around once and making the other laugh.

“You’re here !” Nie Huaisang squeaks, voice muffled in his shoulder. He lets go and looks up at Jiang Cheng, beaming. “Hi!”

“Hi.” he greets back, managing a grin.

There’s the sound of a car door opening, and that reminds Jiang Cheng of where he is, exactly.

“Nie Huaisang.” The gruff voice calls, and they both turn to see Nie Mingjue standing by the driver’s side of the car, frowning with his eyes narrowed at them. “What are you doing?”

Jiang Cheng quickly takes his hands off Nie Huaisang, although with the other basically hanging off of him, his hands just end up… hovering. Wait, why did he do it, anyway? It’s not like he’s touching Nie Mingjue’s precious little brother anywhere inappropriate! It’s a hug! Friends hug everytime. Nie Huaisang hugs everyone everytime!

Case in point: “Hugging my best friend, Da-ge.” Nie Huaisang answers, all innocence and big eyes. “Welcoming him to Qinghe.”

“Is that any way to greet your guest with propriety?

“It is if he’s my best friend, Da-ge.”

“Well, you’ll have all summer to hug your best friend .” Nie Mingjue says, very much making Jiang Cheng fear for his life because of the way the man emphasizes some choice words. “But I think your best friend would want to breathe and greet his host first. Right? Jiang Wanyin?

“Right. I… I better say my regards to Sect Leader Nie.” Jiang Cheng says quickly, and in an attempt to get Nie Mingjue to stop glaring at him like Jiang Cheng ruined his brother’s honor or something, he guides Nie Huaisang’s hands off his neck and just tucks them around his arm instead. There. That’s… probably more acceptable. Right? “Thank you for picking us up from the bus stop, Mingjue-ge.”

“Oh, so you actually remember that you didn’t come alone, then?” Nie Mingjue says, raising an eyebrow.

From inside the car, someone chimes in cheerfully. “Oh, it’s okay, Mingjue-ge! Don’t mind me, A-Sang, A-Cheng! It’s not like I’m hungry and I really need to pee. Take your time in each other’s arms. Please!”

“Ah! Wei-xiong! Sorry!” Huaisang laughs, while Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes as they step aside to make way for Wei Wuxian to step out of the car. “Hi, how was your trip?”

“Lovely!” Wei Wuxian beams. “I slept through it.”

Nie Mingjue passes his car keys to someone and instructs them to take their guests’ luggage from the trunk. Then he walks to the entrance of his family home, gesturing for the three teens to follow him.

“So! We’re training with the Qinghe Nie Sect. Should be interesting, should be fun...” Wei Wuxian muses as Nie Huaisang also takes his arm and leads both brothers to follow after Nie Mingjue.

“Wei Wuxian, don’t even.” Jiang Cheng says, glaring at his brother, because he knows that tone . “Have some shame. Don’t cause trouble for Sect Leader Nie.”

Wei Wuxian promptly pretends he didn’t hear that and just continues his rambling. “I’ve never really fought against a saber before! A-Sang, is there someone I can spar with? Except your father and your brother, of course, I don’t wanna die yet, and also Jiang Cheng should have that honor.”

“What are you even talking about.” Jiang Cheng deadpans.

“Well, aren’t I here to escort Young Master Jiang as he asks Sect Leader Nie for Second Young Master Nie’s hand?”

That answer makes Jiang Cheng disentangle from Nie Huaisang so he can try to clobber his brother. “Wei Wuxian, you little-!”

Wei Wuxian only beams at him. “Is that not so? I’m sorry, with the way you were welcomed, I thought that was the case, ahaha- Ow!

“Ah, don’t fight! You just got here!” Huaisang squeaks, stuck in the middle of his two friends' rough-housing. This is what Jiang Yanli has to deal with all the time, bless her heart-

“Jiang Cheng started it!”

“You’re the one who keeps running your mouth causing misunderstandings-!”

But he’s too late, because they all forgot about Nie Mingjue, who has been there the entire time and pretty much heard every word that has been said.

“Jiang Wanyin.”

“Why me?!”

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(16)

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Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian offer to help Nie Huaisang and his clubmates to clean up after the Pride event, but Nie Huaisang shoos them, saying he shouldn’t keep them so late because they still have to catch their bus back to Yunmeng.

Hearing that, his clubmates also proceed to shoo Nie Huaisang from cleaning up, so that he can see his two guests off.

So Nie Huaisang accompanies the two of them to the nearby bus stop, thankfully just a few blocks away from the high school. 

The three of them wait huddled together, Wei Wuxian with his arm draped loosely around Nie Huaisang’s shoulders, who is as usual tucked against Jiang Cheng’s side. Wei Wuxian and Nie Huaisang keep up their usual chatter while Jiang Cheng is content to listen to them talking about art, movies and pop idols, things he only had second-hand interest in.

Between school, training, night hunts and their growing list of other responsibilities to their sects, it’s been a while since they’d all had a whole day with the three of them together and just hanging out.

They see the bus coming from down the road and finally let go.

“Thanks again for coming all the way here.” Nie Huaisang says, hugging Wei Wuxian, who ruffles his hair playfully. Normally, he’d complain about that, but this time he just laughs.

“Aw, no, thanks for inviting us! I had so much fun. And food!” Wei Wuxian snickers. “Please come to Yunmeng more often, and not just to clean up animal poop with Jiang Cheng!”

“Yes, yes. I’ll try for you, Wei-xiong.” Nie Huaisang says as he lets go, and when he turns and to his surprise, it’s Jiang Cheng who hugs him first. “Ahaha, A-Cheng, please, you’ll see me next week!”

Wei Wuxian blinks at them curiously, then proceeds to tease, “Aww, did you want an extension of the Jiang Cheng Loving Hours?”

“Shut up.” Jiang Cheng snaps, but he squeezes Nie Huaisang tight for a moment before letting go. He crosses his arms as he says, “Thanks. For. Uh. You know what.”

Nie Huaisang only tilts his head, smiling knowingly. “For the pin?”

Jiang Cheng’s eyes widen a fraction, but he nods. “Yeah. The pin.”

“What pin?” Wei Wuxian asks, but before either of the two could deflect, the bus stops in front of them. He bounces in place, stepping forward as he waits for the passengers getting off. “Ah, here we are! Take care on your way home, A-Sang!”

“Da-ge will pick me up, don’t worry about me.” Nie Huaisang says, then he turns when Jiang Cheng touches his arm lightly.

“About. The… pin.” Jiang Cheng continues awkwardly, still not quite sure how to say it . Huaisang lays a hand on top of his and he manages to continue, quieter this time so only the other boy could hear. “I’ll tell A-Jie when I get home.”

“Oh. That’s good.” Huaisang says, smiling encouragingly. “I’m sure it’ll turn out just fine, A-Cheng.”

He nods, biting his lip. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m sure it will.”

“It’s Yanli-jie! I mean, come on.” Nie Huaisang says with a light laugh. Then he hums, looking like he’s considering something before he just shrugs and then tiptoes to press a kiss to Jiang Cheng’s cheek.

Oh. That’s new.

Jiang Cheng blinks. “What.”

“For luck!” Nie Huaisang says with a wink.

“Uh.”

Then of course Wei Wuxian has to shout, “Ahhh! I saw that! Are you two-”

He’s cut off when Huaisang flips his fan open - since when did he have it on hand? - and waves it urgently at the bus’ direction. “Wei-xiong, don’t you have a bus to get on?”

“But- But you and A-Cheng-” Wei Wuxian splutters, looking between a perfectly innocent Nie Huaisang and Jiang Cheng who has walked past him as if nothing happened. “Since when-”

Jiang Cheng scoffs as he gets on the bus. “Fine, keep babbling over there like an idiot. I’m leaving you behind. I don’t mind.”

“But- Ah, Jiang Cheng! Wait!

On the bus ride home, Jiang Cheng puts on his headphones as his solution to Wei Wuxian pestering him for answers to questions like “Are you kissing now?” and “Is this another It’s-Just-Huaisang Thing like the clinging and hugging and volunteering?” and “No really are you kissing now?”

After a while, when Wei Wuxian gives up because he found snacks in his bag, Jiang Cheng finally takes his headphones off and says, “Oi. Wei Wuxian.”

Wei Wuxian is chewing junk food as he answers, “Hm?”

“When we get home, I have something to tell you and A-Jie.”

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(17)

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The Yunmeng Jiang Sect disciples adore Second Young Master Nie. See, his presence around Lotus Pier usually means good news.

If Nie Huaisang is there on a Saturday, it means that he’ll soon be stealing Young Master Jiang for their usual volunteer work in the animal shelter. It means that the day’s training will be presided by Young Master Wei or some other senior disciple - and don’t get them wrong, they do sincerely look up to their sect heir’s skill and leadership - but it’s nice to have an easy day once in a while, you know?

If Nie Huaisang is around during a vacation season, he’ll usually spend time watching them train and encouraging them, sometimes bringing them snacks he made with Jiang Yanli. That’s always nice. Sometimes he disappears, because he found a nice spot to read or draw or take photos, and whenever someone comes across him, he always greets them kindly and asks about their day. That’s very nice too. Sometimes - these are the best times - he’ll pop up at random in the middle of training and whisk Young Master Jiang away on a random errand or some other chore. And unlike with Young Master Wei, Madame Yu actually lets it pass . Like she actually likes him. Is that possible? They’re not sure, but they won’t question it.

Today is a Saturday and it’s vacation season.

It’s a week after their disciples returned from the Gusu Lan lectures, the beginning of the last month the summer break, when Nie Huaisang arrives at Lotus Pier with a grin on his face, his sticker-riddled pull-up luggage, a turtle on a portable terrarium, and a cat on a pet carrier backpack - the one that looks like a tiny space capsule.

One of the disciples had greeted him right away with a bow, taking the terrarium and the luggage, welcoming him to Lotus Pier and telling him that Young Master Jiang is currently occupied with preparing for a night hunt with their senior disciples. He was offered refreshments, but Nie Huaisang only shook his head and waved his fan, saying they shouldn’t go to the trouble, that he knows his way around, and that he’s sure “A-Cheng” will come find him to say goodbye before he leaves for the night hunt anyway.

About an hour later, Jiang Cheng does find him in one of the pavilions near the training grounds.

What he sees makes Jiang Cheng pause.

Nie Huaisang is sitting with a big fluffy cat in his lap and is surrounded by a bunch of junior Jiang Sect disciples who are taking turns casting what looks like a smaller, easier variation of Wei Wuxian’s spell that creates butterfly-shaped dancing lights, all in an effort to entertain the cat. The cat is very obviously entertained.

To Nie Huaisang’s credit, he does appear to be legitimately educating his small army of preteens, as when Jiang Cheng walks up to them, he sees that his friend is holding one of the boys’ hands to guide him through the spell.

Little butterflies spark up from the young disciple’s fingers, the cat tries to chase after them and the other kids and Nie Huaisang laugh and coo at the sight.

Jiang Cheng clears his throat, and that catches their attention.

“Young Master Jiang!” The kids quickly scramble to stand up and bow, but Jiang Cheng waves it off, telling them not to bother, so they settle back down.

Instead, he raises a brow at his best friend. “Nie Huaisang, you just got here and you’re already teaching my disciples a spell known to set many stray clothing on fire.”

“Don’t worry, A-Cheng, I’m teaching them the kid-friendly version!” Nie Huaisang answers, beaming as he picks up the cat and raises it towards Jiang Cheng. “It’s good exercise, it’s pretty, and it makes Chi happy.”

“You have a cat now?” he asks dubiously, but he does set aside the night hunting equipment he’s carrying so he can take the cat. Chi, as Nie Huaiang called it, is too trusting for a cat, because it immediately makes itself comfortable in Jiang Cheng’s arms. He chuckles as he runs his fingers through soft fur. “Oh, hey there. You’re sweet.”

“I’m cat-sitting for the summer.” Nie Huaisang explains. “My cousin is going to train in the mountains with some other disciples - yeah, I know , Qinghe is in the mountains, I meant the mountains mountains, okay - so she asked me if I want to take Chi for a while, and I asked her if it’ll be okay to take Chi to Yunmeng with me, and she said it’s fine, so yeah we have a cat now!”

Jiang Cheng looks back at him. “We?”

“We.” Nie Huaisang nods. “You love her, A-Cheng. Don’t try to lie to me.”

“Fine.” he rolls his eyes, then he peers at the cat’s face. “Hello, Chi. I’m Jiang Cheng. Welcome to Lotus Pier. I hope my disciples are treating you well.”

Said disciples, when he looks at them, are all staring up at him like he’d grown two heads.

“What?” he asks, frowning.

They knew Young Master Jiang liked animals. They really did. They knew he volunteered at the animal shelter in his free time and he never let them pick on the strays around Lotus Pier.

They didn’t know Young Master Jiang could look so nice and friendly, though. He’s always so scary when training them, and he scowls just like Madame Yu! They didn’t even know he could smile like… that !

Nie Huaisang holds back his laughter as the young disciples look away and bow, some shaking their heads and stammering out their apologies . ‘Nothing, Young Master! Sorry, Young Master!’

“Anyways, I have to go.” Jiang Cheng says, passing Chi back to Nie Huaisang. “You sure you don’t wanna tag along? Dust off your fans?”

“Oh, I’m good.” Nie Huaisang says, smiling as he cradles sweet fluffy Chi. Oh, Jiang Cheng wants to take her back already. “It’s still early, maybe I’ll go to the shelter. I haven’t been in a month because finals, and it’s our day.”

A nod. “Right. Mandu missed you.”

“Chi will have a friend!” he cheers, shaking the cat slightly. Then he turns to the junior disciples who were observing their exchange with fascination. “You guys should go with me. You’d love all the animals, they’re so cute, there’s lots to do, we feed them, we bathe them, we clean the pens, we take the dogs on walks, we play with the babies-”

“A-Sang...” groans Jiang Cheng. He’s not opposed to it, but what would Mother say-

“Do you guys wanna go?” Nie Huaisang asks the kids, who all look back at him and then at Jiang Cheng with expressions that are a cross between excited and terrified. Nie Huaisang also turns to Jiang Cheng, blinking his big damn eyes. “A-Cheng, can they go? They’ve finished their drills! It’s summer!”

Jiang Cheng feels like they’ve had this kind of conversation before, way way back.

Please? It’ll be a learning experience!”

He knows what his answer will be. Why else would he delay it?

He turns to the dozen or so nine-to-twelve year olds. “You’re all sure you finished your drills today?”

“Yes, Young Master Jiang!” they all answer. To be fair, they all did look haggard and disheveled from training.

“Fine. But you’re responsible for them.” he tells Nie Huaisang, who smiles brilliantly. Then he looks back at the juniors. “Don’t cause trouble for Young Master Nie or the staff. You represent the Jiang Sect. Understood?”

“Understood, Young Master Jiang!” - and Jiang Cheng has to admit, that’s more enthusiasm than he had ever heard from them before. He almost contemplates offering to take them to the zoo next time he has to boost morale.

“Thank you, A-Cheng.” Nie Huaisang says, face pressed up against Chi’s because that’ll make him cuter and therefore more powerful.

Jiang Cheng struggles not to grin. Instead, he only rolls his eyes and says, “I’ll see you when I get back.”

With that, he turns to leave.

“Ah! A-Cheng, you forgot something!”

Jiang Cheng turns back around, brows furrowed. Nie Huaisang looks back at him and tilts his head, expectant.

He blinks. What? Oh! Huh. Well. Okay. It’s nothing new, no big deal. It’s usually Nie Huaisang’s thing, but Jiang Cheng has done it a few times before. It’s something they got kinda used to doing recently, especially when they haven’t seen each other in a while. It’s basically just how they greet each other these days.

So he leans down and presses a kiss to Nie Huaisang’s cheek.

There is silence as he steps back, but when he looks at the other, he frowns. “What?”

Nie Huaisang’s shoulders are shaking as he hides his face behind his fan. “A-Cheng, you’re very sweet, but I… I actually meant your talismans and qiankun pouch.”

Ah.

Jiang Cheng’s eyes find the said items that he had set down on top of the pavilion’s railings earlier when he had to hold Chi.

“Right.” he says, making sure he’s looking at neither Nie Huaisang nor the eerily quiet junior Jiang Sect disciples who are seeing all this . Live. In the flesh With their very own young eyes. He takes the talismans and the qiankun pouch. “I knew that.”

Then he just. Walks away.

He hears an ever familiar giggle, and a very sweet “Be safe, A-Cheng~!”

He also hears one very brave child ask, “Young Master Nie, are you and Young Master Jiang boyfriends?”

Jiang Cheng almost trips.

Nie Huaisang, the gremlin, answers, “Hm... I don't know... Are we? I need to ask Young Master Jiang about that. I’ll update you when he tells me."

“Oh, okay.” the kid says, sounding very wise and self-assured. Jiang Cheng envies him.

Also - great. Now he owes a bunch of ten years olds a clarification on his relationship status.

“Alright, everyone wash up! Surprise field trip!”

.

At least, Jiang Cheng thinks, Wei Wuxian hadn’t been there. Wei Wuxian would never let him live that down.

Speak of the devil- they’ve barely left Lotus Pier to start the hunt when his brother sidles up to him- How does one sidle up to someone while flying on a sword? Jiang Cheng doesn’t know, but Wei Wuxian sure does. The older is wearing his trademark shit-eating grin - God, what did he do this time?

“Ah, Jiang Cheng, who would’ve thought you’d go be all lovey-dovey with your boyfriend around innocent young children, huh?”

Jiang Cheng wants to shove him off his sword.

“How do you even know?!”

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(coda)

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“Ziyuan,” her husband calls to her softly, almost shyly, across the breakfast table - and that’s not new. Yu Ziyuan doesn’t look up from her book, not yet. She’ll bother when he says something of significance. “About A-Cheng…”

Fine. She looks up, waiting for him to continue.

“Could he be… um... seeing someone?”

Oh, she knows this one.

“Do you actually mean to ask if I think he is dating Nie Huaisang?”

Jiang Fengmian looks surprised that she got to the point so quickly.

It wasn’t a hard guess at all, really. 

He should know better than to try to be subtle while asking this kind of question while the two of them are having breakfast on a balcony overlooking the Yunmeng Jiang Sect training grounds where they have a full view of their son and senior disciples dispersing from their morning drills, where Nie Huaisang and Jiang Yanli are sitting to the side with towels and bottles of water ready, where they can see Jiang Cheng accept the items from Nie Huaisang and then leaning down to pet that cat they’re apparently pet-sitting together for the rest of the summer, where Nie Huaisang is grinning and saying something that makes Jiang Cheng smile.

“Well…” Jiang Fengmian says, even more awkwardly now. “Is he? They’re an… unusual pair.”

Yu Ziyuan considers this. Unusual? Perhaps at first glance.

She knows that her husband does appreciate their son, but he doesn’t really see him. Jiang Fengmian thinks that Jiang Cheng is a good son and an ideal heir - responsible, dedicated and headstrong - but he misses the fact that, unlike his mother who Jiang Fengmian is convinced he takes completely after, the boy is not cold. While Jiang Cheng does take his responsibilities very seriously, he is young and he is soft. He is passionate about other things and he does thrive with physical affection, which Nie Huaisang seems to have an endless supply to give simply because of the kind of family environment he grew up in.

Yu Ziyuan doesn’t think her husband really sees who Nie Huaisang really is, either. He is fond of the Nie boy - who in Lotus Pier isn’t? - but perhaps only because he’s a nice kid who he watched grow up close to his sons and daughter. He certainly has not noticed the sharp way the boy can hone in on people’s personalities and emotions then act accordingly, or the fact that it is Nie Huaisang - not Nie Mingjue - who is a constant presence in Nie Renshu’s side during Nie Corp meetings. That boy is intelligent , and as for his cultivation, well, there must be a reason he’s fine with people thinking it’s below average. Yu Ziyuan had talked to his teachers, though, and they had other things to say about that.

It’s an unusual pair, yes. But Yu Ziyuan wouldn’t say it’s a bad one.

That said, she had been asked a question, so she answers, “I don’t think he is. Not yet, at least. I believe he’d tell us when it happens.”

This surprises Jiang Fengmian, for the umpteenth time this morning. “You think so?”

Yes, Yu Ziyuan thinks so. Jiang Cheng might be wary of both his parents for different reasons, but he is also painfully honest, and he is terrible at keeping secrets anyway.

“He has no reason not to.” she says, looking shortly towards the courtyard again. The four children are heading back to the house now, probably to eat their breakfast as well. Nie Huaisang and Jiang Cheng are holding hands. Really, she wants to scoff, why are they delaying it?

“It’s not as if we disapprove.” she adds, in a tone that very much also says: ‘No, Fengmian, we do not disapprove. Argue with me and you’ll lose.’ She finishes with, “A-Cheng knows that.”

Her husband hums. “I see.”

Yu Ziyuan goes back to reading her book.

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fin