Jiang Cheng tries his best to appear unaffected, but going by how skittish his disciples are around him, he’s not quite managing it.
But Jiang Cheng can’t help it; it’s the first time since Lotus Pier burned and he rebuilt it, that another Sect Leader is coming to visit and Jing Cheng feels like he’s being tested.
He doesn’t like that feeling one bit.
Jiang Cheng straightens up, when the first disciple comes into view, because he’s going to excel whatever test this is, and if it’s going to kill him.
“Jiang-xiong,” Nie Huaisang calls out when they are still a good distance away, but Jiang Cheng can still see how Nie Mingjue rolls his eyes at his over-enthusiastic brother and a tiny part of Jiang Cheng relaxes. Their relationship is a bittersweet-familiar one and Jiang Cheng thinks if they are just here to check in on him, then he can do this.
“Nie-zongzhu,” Jiang Cheng greets Nie Mingjue, bowing low, because even though they are both Sect Leaders now their status couldn’t be more different.
Yunmeng Jiang barely escaped extinction while Qinghe Nie came away as the victor of the Sunshot Campaign, despite the losses they had to endure.
“So formal, Jiang-xiong,” Nie Huaisang complaints and his brother cuffs him over the head for his troubles.
“At least he remembers his manners,” Nie Mingjue says with a sigh and slightly shakes his head when Nie Huaisang makes puppy eyes at him over his fan.
“We’re old friends, there’s no need to be this formal,” Nie Huaisang whines and something in Jiang Cheng goes warm and pleased to hear that Nie Huaisang still considers them friends, even after everything that happened.
“Jiang-zongzhu, please excuse my brother,” Nie Mingjue tells him, overly formal and stiff, but there’s a teasing glint in his eyes and Nie Huaisang puffs out his cheeks in mock outrage.
Jiang Cheng has to bite back a laugh at that, and when Nie Huaisang whirls around to him, he at least pretends to be serious.
“Let me show you to your rooms, you must be exhausted after the travel,” Jiang Cheng says, remembering his manners and starts to lead the Nie delegation towards the guest quarters.
They haven’t been one of his priorities during rebuilding Lotus Pier, but when Nie Mingjue’s formal request of a visit reached him, Jiang Cheng had done his utmost best to get them ready.
He does not want anyone to complain about his hosting skills; besides hurting his pride it would seriously damage the image of his Sect and truth be told, they can’t take much more.
They are barely scraping by as it is.
“It almost looks the same,” Nie Mingjue says suddenly when they are halfway there and Jiang Cheng stiffens. “I heard everything burned down?”
“It did,” Jiang Cheng presses out and he tries to see Lotus Pier with Nie Mingjue’s eyes, but all he can see are the smouldering remains of what used to be his home.
No matter how he rebuilds it, in his mind it will always be the new Lotus Pier. And no matter how he tries to make it look the same, there are subtle differences. Enough of them to make him wonder what his parents would say of it; what his sister and Wei Wuxian would say of it.
Jiang Cheng thinks at least his mother would scold him for not remembering his home correctly and doing such a piss-poor job.
“You did a great job rebuilding it,” Nie Mingjue tells him and Jiang Cheng works his jaw.
“Thank you,” he gets out.
“Did you do a lot of the construction work?”
“Of course I did,” Jiang Cheng stiffly says.
Mostly because there was no one else around who remembered how Lotus Pier used to look like, but also because Jiang Cheng would never only order his disciples around. If he isn’t willing to do something, how can he ask the same of his people?
“Would you like to compare notes later? I did a fair share of construction in Qinghe myself and there are not many Sect Leaders I can talk to about this. Jin Guangshan is not known to get his hands dirty like that,” Nie Mingjue says, and Jiang Cheng can feel the rage bubble up inside him again.
How dare Nie Mingjue say this; how dare he imply that Jiang Cheng’s work isn’t up to par, that he’s lowering himself to do the dirty work. It’s hitting a very vulnerable part of Jiang Cheng, because his father used to say the same whenever Jiang Cheng was quick to help people rebuild after a flood or another disaster.
His mother only ever watched him with piercing eyes, but his father was of the firm believe that they had disciples for this exact reason.
And to hear these similar words out of Nie Mingjue’s mouth now makes his blood boil with anger.
But Jiang Cheng can’t afford to offend Nie Mingjue and Qinghe Nie, so he forces a smile on his face.
“Sure,” he says, aiming for a light tone, but going by the small frown on Nie Mingjue’s face he doesn’t quite manage to do that.
“Jiang-xiong, are you alright?” Nie Huaisang asks, flicking his fan open and moving it in a nervous gesture.
“Of course I am,” Jiang Cheng gives back, because he can’t afford to be anything else.
Not with reconstruction still going on and especially not with Jin Ling being at Lotus Pier at the moment.
Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang share a look at that, one that makes Jiang Cheng’s skin crawl, but he clenches his jaw and simply shows them to their quarters.
He can’t afford to make a mess of the situation, so he swallows all of his rude remarks down and bids them a farewell once he’s sure they are situated.
Jiang Cheng flees and then spends the rest of the afternoon trying to get himself back together. He appointed his most trusted disciple to keep an eye on the Nie delegation, in case they need something and so he spends his time pretending that he’s not vibrating out of his skin with nervousness about this visit.
The first day passes without another incident, and on the second da Jiang Cheng almost feels like himself again. He spends breakfast with the Nie’s, entirely unremarkable except for Nie Huaisang’s incessant shatter and Nie Mingjue’s fond eyerolls, and then he leaves for the training grounds.
He might have to entertain guests, but he’s still the Sect Leader and since they are still in the process of building up again, there are not enough disciples who could reliably teach the new ones.
It’s just one of the many things Jiang Cheng has to oversee himself, so he’s standing at the side-lines, watching his disciples in their training fights.
There are a lot of different styles, since he simply picked up any willing cultivator he could find and while it looks chaotic, it certainly has its merits.
At least the Yunmeng Jiang will always be unpredictable, Jiang Cheng thinks when he watches one of the kids he picked up on the street go for the hair of her opponent.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” Nie Mingjue suddenly says from beside him and Jiang Cheng stiffens.
“Sect Leader Jiang was my father,” he gives back, because it still feels wrong to be addressed like this.
“Jiang Wanyin, then?” Nie Mingjue asks his eyes never leaving the training disciples.
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng agrees and he sees Nie Mingjue nod from the corner of his eyes.
“Nie Mingjue, then,” Nie Mingjue tells him and while it feels so wrong to address Nie Mingjue this casually, Jiang Cheng nods as well.
He keeps his gaze trained on his disciples, hoping that Nie Mingjue will get bored and leave, even though he should offer some entertainment to him, but Nie Mingjue stays where he is.
“They have an interesting fighting style,” Nie Mingjue eventually says, almost offhandedly and Jiang Cheng tenses again.
He has a snappish reply on his tongue, but then his attention is brought back to one of the disciples who make a grievous mistake with the sword and Jiang Cheng is walking up to him, before he can consciously decide to do so.
The disciple tenses in apparent fear, seemingly ready to accept Jiang Cheng’s scolding, and he does scold. A lot. And then he shows the disciple how it’s done right and from that point on it just goes downhill because everyone keeps asking him about this technique and that form and before he knows it Jiang Cheng was roped into giving a lesson.
And all the while Nie Mingjue stayed at the side-lines, silently watching them.
“Apologies,” Jiang Cheng says when he finally manages to get away from his disciples.
“No need,” Nie Mingjue easily says. “You’re good with them.”
Jiang Cheng snorts bitterly at that, because he knows that more than half of them are deathly afraid of him, like the old disciples were of his mother, and the other half barely has the respect for him that he deserves, but there is nothing he can do about it.
It is what it is, he just doesn’t need Nie Mingjue to rub it in even more.
“Let me show you around Lotus Pier,” Jiang Cheng says instead of saying something biting, something that he will regret later, and as if on cue Nie Huaisang materializes next to them.
“I would love to see everything!” he exclaims, not so subtly elbowing Nie Mingjue into the side and Jiang Cheng frowns as he wonders what’s that all about.
“Yes, that would be—nice,” Nie Mingjue says and the delay is noticeable enough that Jiang Cheng can tell that he does not care to see Lotus Pier at all.
Still, he has appearances to hold up, so he dutifully shows them around and with Nie Huaisang’s excitement it’s almost not awkward at all.
“I’m sorry we’re taking up so much of your time,” Nie Mingjue says when Nie Huaisang ran yet again to another stall and Jiang Cheng shrugs awkwardly.
He wants to ask why exactly they are here, but he really does not want to hear that this is an inspection and so in the end he stays silent for so long that answering would be awkward.
So instead he points out one of his own favourite stalls and it seems to be enough for Nie Mingjue to relax, because his shoulders slump and Jiang Cheng hadn’t even realized that he was so tense.
It seems that even if this is an inspection Nie Mingjue is also in great need of some relaxing downtime himself and even though they just came out of near extinction, even though they are barely scraping by, the Yunmeng Jiang always knew how to have fun.
“Come,” Jiang Cheng tells them out of the blue and leads Nie Huaisang and Nie Mingjue towards one of the outer piers.
They can hear laughter and yelling before they even get close and both Nie’s seem rather intrigued by that.
When they finally come into view of the people playing in the water, they stop and Jiang Cheng gives them some time to catch up on the game rules before he speaks again.
“You’re free to join them if you want,” he says and while Nie Huaisang’s eyes go wide Nie Mingjue smiles at him before he reaches for his belt, clearly content to let his clothes drop right where they stand, like the other disciples as well.
Jiang Cheng did not calculate for that at all and he hurriedly averts his eyes from the new stripe of skin that Nie Mingjue reveals.
“Do you have many games like this?” he asks as he gets off his shoes and Jiang Cheng tenses again.
He wonders what it is about Nie Mingjue that always so easily hits him where it hurts; to imply that they do nothing but play is a blow Jiang Cheng is not sure how to deal with. It brings back memories of Wei Wuxian, whining at him to join them in their game, and of his mother’s cutting voice berating him that an heir shouldn’t spent his time with useless play like this.
But before Jiang Cheng can figure out how to reply to Nie Mingjue, Nie Mingjue already jumped into the water, clearly ready to get right in on the fun, and Jiang Cheng is left with Nie Huaisang on the pier.
“Da-ge doesn’t get enough fun,” Nie Huaisang says from behind his fan. “Being Sect Leader is so demanding and it’s good that he gets to enjoy himself a little here.”
Jiang Cheng bites back on the words that being a Sect Leader is not supposed to be fun, and instead he only awkwardly shrugs, making Nie Huaisang frown at him again.
“Why don’t you join them as well?” Nie Huaisang asks with a curious glance and Jiang Cheng scoffs.
“Not all of us have the time to play around like this,” he bites out and when he sees Nie Huaisang flinch Jiang Cheng turns away from him.
“Feel free to roam Lotus Pier as you see fit, there will be people around to answer your questions,” Jiang Cheng tells him, head held high and then he simply marches off.
He’s aching with the want to join his disciples in the water; he misses playing around like that. But he knows that the moment he would start to shed his clothes people would stop, would stare, would freeze in fright and it’s not untrue what he told Nie Huaisang; he does have too much to do to simply slack off like this.
When evening finally falls, Jiang Cheng is bend low over paper work. His eyes are burning and his back is aching, but he can’t stop yet. There are still piles upon piles on his table and if Jiang Cheng doesn’t make a dent in them soon then he might as well drown under them.
“Sect Leader,” one of his disciples suddenly speaks up from the door and Jiang Cheng turns bleary eyes on her.
“What?” he snaps and then immediately winces.
It’s no wonder everyone here is afraid of him.
“It’s young master Jin,” she says apologetically, but Jiang Cheng is already on his feet.
“What’s wrong with him?” he asks, the worry already settling in his gut.
“He’s been screaming for the last half hour. I think he misses you,” she says with a small smile and something warm replaces the worry.
At least Jin Ling is too little to fear him yet.
“I’ll be right there,” he promises, and hurries to finish up the letter he was working on before he makes his way over to Jin Ling’s room.
True to her word, he’s screaming at the top of his lungs, and now that he hears this Jiang Cheng can’t help but to worry again. What if it’s something more serious? He rushes inside the room and immediately snatches Jin Ling out of the arms of his disciple.
“It’s okay now,” Jiang Cheng says, more to Jin Ling than to her. “I have him now.”
“Alright,” she says with a bow of her head and immediately leaves him to it.
“What’s wrong, little one?” Jiang Cheng softly asks when Jin Ling continues to scream but he seems to react to his voice, because the cries get a little bit softer. “I’m here now, there’s no need for you to make such a fuss, brat,” Jiang Cheng whispers, his voice fond, and Jin Ling really stops crying.
He blinks up at Jiang Cheng with his big eyes and then simply snuggles deeper into his embrace.
“There you go, it’s not that bad after all, is it?” Jiang Cheng says, mostly so that he has something to say, because his voice does seem to relax Jin Ling.
Jiang Cheng continues to whisper nonsense to him, until he’s sure that Jin Ling feel asleep and only then does he dare to put him down in his crib.
Jiang Cheng holds his breath once he lets go of Jin Ling, but the boy blessedly slumbers on and Jiang Cheng lets out a soft sigh.
He would never say that it’s a chore too look after his sister’s son, but it is time consuming; and Jiang Cheng doesn’t have much of that even without caring for an infant.
Jiang Cheng knows that he should get back to his paper work immediately, that he shouldn’t stay and linger and simply stare at Jin Ling, but it’s another handful of minutes before he can tear himself away from him.
When he steps outside of Jin Ling’s room, Jiang Cheng immediately tenses when he sees Nie Mingjue leaning against the wall.
“What are you doing here?” Jiang Cheng snaps, but he’s still mindful of the sleeping Jin Ling and Nie Mingjue shrugs.
“I came to find you, but your disciple told me to go here,” Nie Mingjue easily says and Jiang Cheng vows to have words with that disciple.
“You’re good with him,” Nie Mingjue says with a nod towards Jin Ling’s room and Jiang Cheng clenches his jaw.
He knows he’s not good with Jin Ling, barely knows enough about kids to not kill him immediately and he still hears the whispers from Jinlingtai, how he’s bad for the kid, how he’ll corrupt him, how Jin Ling will turn out as angry and cold as him and it’s all too much for Jiang Cheng to take right now.
“Fight me,” he presses out through clenched teeth and when he sees the way Nie Mingjue lights up at that, the anger turns into cold rage.
He brings them to one of the more remote training fields and then he just waits until Nie Mingjue has Baxia ready. Jiang Cheng doesn’t hesitate to bring out Zidian as well as Sandu and then they are off.
It’s a vicious fight and the first time since the war that Jiang Cheng doesn’t hold back. Nie Mingjue has no problems parrying Sandu, but he seems at a loss with Zidian and Jiang Cheng takes shameless advantage of that, though he does keep the electricity running through it to a bare minimum.
He doesn’t want to kill or permanently injure Nie Mingjue after all.
Still, Nie Mingjue is a force to be reckoned with, and while it’s clear that he too is struggling, there’s a smile on his face that only enrages Jiang Cheng further.
Their fight goes on for longer than Jiang Cheng expected, Zidian singing and Sandu clashing with Baxia, but in the end Nie Mingjue tackles him to the ground.
When Jiang Cheng’s back hits the ground, his breath leaves him in a rush and his vision turns black for a moment, before stars appear everywhere.
Jiang Cheng blinks up at the sky, trying to get his lungs to work properly again, but it still takes him an embarrassingly long time.
In the end Nie Mingjue seems to tire of waiting for him to compose himself and he holds out a hand to him.
“You’re a good fighter,” Nie Mingjue says, just as Jiang Cheng is about to reach for his hand. “And you wield Zidian almost better than Sandu,” he tacks on, and Jiang Cheng goes cold.
He wouldn’t have minded this much, before—his mother never did after all—but after what happened with Wei Wuxian, after everyone came after him for not using his sword like he should, it leaves a bad taste in his mouth now.
“What do you know,” Jiang Cheng snaps and slaps Nie Mingjue’s hand away, getting up out of his own strength.
“Jiang Wanyin?” Nie Mingjue asks with a frown and Jiang Cheng squares his shoulders before he faces him again.
“Don’t tell me I fight well when I just lost and don’t ever imply that I am favouring Zidian over Sandu ever again,” he hisses out and when he sees Nie Mingjue’s surprised look on his face, Jiang Cheng quickly turns away.
“Wanyin,” Nie Mingjue calls after him, and the informality stops Jiang Cheng in his steps. “I haven’t had a fight like this in a while. Not many people can hold out against me for as long as you did. Of course you fight well. And I didn’t mean anything with my comment about Zidian; it’s a spiritual tool and you wield it well. That’s all,” Nie Mingjue explains, almost awkwardly, and Jiang Cheng wants to leave, he really does, but he’s rooted to the spot.
“Is that the problem?” Nie Mingjue asks and it sounds like he came closer, though Jiang Cheng didn’t hear any footsteps. “Have I offended you all this time without knowing?” Nie Mingjue wants to know and Jiang Cheng lets out a hard breath.
“I’m not lowering to do the dirty work when I help with rebuilding,” Jiang Cheng says bitterly, even though he knows that’s what everyone thinks.
“Of course not,” Nie Mingjue immediately says. “And that wasn’t what I meant. I really do help with construction every now and then, if my time allows for it. It’s hard work, but also rewarding. I really hoped to compare notes with you. It’s not like Jin Guangshan would ever lift a finger to help any of his disciples like that so I don’t usually have someone to talk to about this.”
Jiang Cheng gives a short nod at that, and then he figures he might as well lay it all out. It’s almost easy, now that he doesn’t have to face Nie Mingjue.
“And when you say my disciples have an interesting fighting style?”
“It’s just that. Interesting. The Yunmeng Style is very clearly still there, but they are not as rigid as before. It’s good to see them fall back to the things some of them clearly learned on the streets. It won’t make that much difference against a monster, but if they ever have to fight another cultivator or something with sentience, it will give them the upper hand. It’s a good thing.”
“The game?” Jiang Cheng whispers, now thoroughly embarrassed by how low he thought of Nie Mingjue and how easily believed he was just here to insult him.
“We have a few with balls, but none in the water. I never saw such a game and I was simply curious if there were more. I’d like to try them all, the last one was fun,” Nie Mingjue says with a chuckle even though he thoroughly lost that game, as Jiang Cheng learned.
“And Jin Ling?” Jiang Cheng asks.
“I just meant that you’re good with him,” Nie Mingjue gives back and Jiang Cheng can almost imagine him shrugging. “He clearly loves you if he settles down by just hearing your voice and you didn’t get impatient once. You clearly love him as well.”
Jiang Cheng takes a shuddering breath when Nie Mingjue falls silent and he finally turns around to him.
“What do you want from me? Why are you here?” he asks, because for all that it has been a few days he still doesn’t know why Nie Mingjue is here.
“I thought I made that clear in my letter,” Nie Mingjue says with a frown that only gets deeper when he sees Jiang Cheng’s confused look. “I’m here to see if we’re compatible. If a courtship between us might work out.”
“You’re what?” Jiang Cheng blurts out and before the frown on Nie Mingjue’s face can get any deeper Nie Huaisang appears at his side.
“This might be my fault,” he admits, tipping his fan against his mouth and seemingly not at all bothered when both Nie Mingjue and Jiang Cheng turn incredulous eyes on him.
“Explain,” Nie Mingjue grumbles and Nie Huaisang gives him a winning smile.
“I stole that page of the letter,” Nie Huaisang says with an easy shrug and Jiang Cheng is so confused he doesn’t even know what to say to that.
“Why would you do that?” Nie Mingjue asks as he pinches the bridge of his nose, but he doesn’t seem angry and Nie Huaisang seems to know that very well.
“Because I know Jiang-xiong and if you had written anything about a courtship he would have clamped right up and then you’d get nowhere,” Nie Huaisang cries out and Jiang Cheng goes red in the face, because Nie Huaisang might not be wrong.
“Huaisang!” Nie Mingjue yells at him, but Nie Huaisang only hides behind his fan and blinks his big eyes at Nie Mingjue.
“I’m sorry?” Nie Huaisang asks, but Nie Mingjue shakes his head.
“No, you’re not,” he heaves out with a sigh. “Go scram before I make you practice your sabre,” Nie Mingjue threatens but when Nie Huaisang laughs Jiang Cheng knows that it’s an empty thread.
“Alright, da-ge,” Nie Huaisang says and promptly dashes away leaving Nie Mingjue and Jiang Cheng in uncomfortable silence.
“I’m sorry about him,” Nie Mingjue eventually says, but Jiang Cheng shakes his head, because there’s only one thought in his mind.
“Courtship?” he asks, because he cannot wrap his mind around this as all and he was not prepared to see Nie Mingjue blush like that.
“See, this is why I wrote it down,” Nie Mingjue grumbles. “It’s easier when it’s written down.”
“Mingjue, courtship?” Jiang Cheng asks again, because it still doesn’t make any sense at all and Nie Mingjue sighs again.
“Yes, Wanyin, a courtship.”
“Do you see anyone else? Did I go visit anyone else?” Nie Mingjue asks and Jiang Cheng simply sits down on the ground again, because of all the reasons why Nie Mingjue could have come, this possibility didn’t enter Jiang Cheng’s head even once.
“You must be joking,” Jiang Cheng whispers and then tenses when Nie Mingjue simply sits down next to him.
“I assure you, I’m not,” he says.
“But then you surely must have changed your mind by now,” Jiang Cheng tries next, because there is no way in hell that Nie Mingjue, esteemed fighter and Sect Leader, would still want to court him after he saw what a mess Jiang Cheng is.
“Between praising your fighting, your way with Jin Ling, your disciples and your construction work, where do you think I changed my mind?” Nie Mingjue shoots back and Jiang Cheng goes still.
“Were you just giving me meaningless compliments?” he asks and that thought suddenly hurts more than he expected.
But if Nie Mingjue had an ulterior goal in mind then of course he’d praise Jiang Cheng. And of course they would all be hollow and empty words.
“Do you know me to be like that?” Nie Mingjue wants to know. “If I don’t like you, then I’ll say so. If I do like you, then I’ll say that as well.”
“You don’t like Jin Guangshan and you never said that to him,” Jiang Cheng gives back, his mind still spinning.
“Oh, rest assured, he knows I loath him. No need to say it out loud,” Nie Mingjue easily gives back but then he falls silent. “Huaisang was right, wasn’t he. You’re totally clamping up on me.”
Jiang Cheng flushes again at that.
“I mean, who wouldn’t? Courtship? With me?”
“With who else? You’re a hero of the Sunshot Campaign. You rebuild your Sect, you’re parenting your sister’s son and you’re not cowering before anyone. There’s much to admire about you, Wanyin.”
“Shut up,” Jiang Cheng breathes out as he hides his face in his hands.
“I will if you give me an answer, Wanyin,” Nie Mingjue says and the way he says Jiang Cheng’s name sends a shiver down his back.
“Can we—how long are you going to stay?” Jiang Cheng asks instead of giving him a concrete answer but Nie Mingjue doesn’t seem to mind that much.
“I can squeeze in a few more days,” Nie Mingjue says with a shrug. “Why?”
“I think—I’d like you to stay for a while longer now that I know why you’re here,” Jiang Cheng gives back.
He can’t quite agree to a courtship just yet, but he thinks he’d like to spent more time with Nie Mingjue, especially now that he knows what he wants from him.
“Sure,” Nie Mingjue easily replies and he doesn’t seem to mind Jiang Cheng’s lack of an answer much.
Nie Mingjue doesn’t behave any different in the next few days either, but at least now Jiang Cheng knows to simply accept the things Nie Mingjue says without searching for a hidden meaning behind his words and since Jiang Cheng knows that this is not an inspection but something completely different he can actually enjoy spending his time with Nie Mingjue.
So much so that when Nie Mingjue eventually has to depart, Jiang Cheng has a courtship gift ready for him.