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then, 18.

"He's here." Wei Wuxian tells his brother. "The artist? Nie Huaisang? He messaged me, he said he's still here. Can you go get him? You've seen him before, you'll recognize him."

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. Leave it to his brother to invite someone to meet them at a gig and then get distracted with fawning fangirls asking for photos and autographs.

Normally, he'd pass this off to Wen Ning, or better yet, tell Wei Wuxian to go himself, but this one's different.

It's the artist. Nie Huaisang. He's not just one of Wei Wuxian's 'new friends', which basically just meant that they're someone he's trying to make into a fan of the band for promotion purposes. No, Nie Huaisang was invited because he made art inspired by their music - unprompted - and when they offered to pay him for it to use for the cover of Black Lotus’ first self-made album, he did them one better and offered it up to them for free. A good-luck present, he told them.

The least they could do was get him free admission to their next big gig, where they'll be selling their album with his art on the cover for the first time.

Jiang Cheng will be damned if he let that very nice person wander around in this hot, crowded bar just because his brother is occupied with girls taking selfies with him.

So he says "Fine." with a disapproving frown, letting Wei Wuxian know that he's very, very annoyed. Then, he braves the crowd of sweaty bar-goers to find their album artist. He spares curt smiles and polite nods to people who greet him, and he thanks them when they compliment the band and the performance.

About a hundred smiles, nods and 'thank-you's later, Jiang Cheng finds who he's looking for. It wasn't that he recognized Nie Huaisang's face right away. Jiang Cheng has only seen the guy in Instagram photos that Wei Wuxian had shoved in his face, and Nie Huaisang was always wearing some elaborate make-up and strange-or-fashionable outfits from his modelling jobs. Nope, he recognized Nie Huaisang because he's the only person he'd seen that night who looked... lost.

That, and he's sporting a very strained smile and shaking his head at some guy who is, if Jiang Cheng would hazard a guess, trying to buy him drinks, with how he gestured grandly towards the bar.

Jiang Cheng could see why. Nie Huaisang is attractive - of course he is, he’s a model - with his face made up, his hair tied back with braids, and his outfit the kind that had been carefully-selected to flatter his body but still look casual and effortless. Despite all of those though, his face and posture looked… meek. Not shy, just… out of his element.

The kind of person that the obviously half-drunk guy who’s currently bothering him clearly thinks is worth the trouble and will say ‘yes’ if he asks enough times.

Nie Huaisang very obviously pretends to check his phone.

Jiang Cheng knows a call for help when he sees one, so he weaves through the crowd as fast as he can go.

He calls out as soon as he thinks he's in earshot. "Nie Huaisang?" he says. It's the first time he'd said the other boy's name out loud.

Nie Huaisang looks at him with wide, slightly-panicked eyes, and when he first opens his mouth, nothing comes out. Then he visibly composes himself. "I- Um- Yes?"

"Hey. Wei Wuxian asked me to come get you." Jiang Cheng says. Then he tips his chin at Nie Huaisang's unwanted admirer. "You brought a friend?"

"Oh! No, I- He was just- No." he says, finally. Firmly. Jiang Cheng can see his relief at being able to just say it. "We were just talking about how good you guys are."

The guy bothering him looks disappointed, but he steps back and lets out a tight smile. He gives some vague compliment for the band, then just as awkwardly excuses himself.

Jiang Cheng turns to look back at Nie Huaisang, in time to see the other sigh in relief. "You good?" he asks.

"Yes. Thank you. That one was... very determined." he says, earnest, then finally holds out his hand. "Jiang Wanyin, right?"

He shakes the offered hand. The mood and the place isn’t perfect, but he tries his best to be professional. "Yes. It's nice to meet you. Wei Wuxian's been talking about you nonstop. And your art, of course. Thank you, again. The cover looks perfect.”

Nie Huaisang looks down. “Oh, that’s… that’s nothing, really.”

He’s smiling, but he looks nervous. Jiang Cheng wonders if he’s being too… cold. ‘Dammit, Wei Wuxian should be the one doing this.’

So he leans against the bar, trying to be slightly more casual. “Have you seen the album? We put aside some copies for you."

Nie Huaisang blinks. "Wow, really? That's so nice of you guys. I saw the CDs by the entrance. I was planning to get one after the gig. I... I'm just honored you liked my piece so much."

Jiang Cheng doesn't get art. Not much, at least. But when he first saw the CD case with Nie Huaisang's art in the cover, a demo of one of their songs playing in his earphones, he finally felt that this - all of it: the band, the music, the album - was real.

Nie Huaisang's art was a puzzle piece they hadn't known they were missing.

"It's amazing. Honestly." he says, and he means it. "If anything else, it's a lot better than Wei Wuxian's half-assed idea of inverting the colors on some... stock photo of a lotus... and slapping the band’s name there."

Finally, that gets a laugh out of the artist, and he’s still smiling prettily when he attempts to say something nice about the idea. “That’s… That’s a classic way to go about it, I guess.”

“I mean, yes, but that also means every other underground rock band’s done the same thing.”

“Ah. I see your point.” Nie Huaisang nods, thoughtful.

Jiang Cheng takes a second to consider what to say next, but he found that he didn't have to worry about it as he hears a familiar voice call out.

"There you are!" Wei Wuxian stumbles towards them with his big, excited grin. "Nie-xiong, hi! I was waiting for my brother to come find you and bring you to us but I see he chose to keep you for himself."

Jiang Cheng glares. "You've got some nerve saying that, Wei Wuxian. You're the one who invited someone but didn't even bother fetching them yourself."

"Grumpy." Wei Wuxian pouts at him, but smiles again for Nie Huaisang. "I'm sorry, Nie-xiong. I really should've come to get you sooner."

"Oh, it's okay, Wei-xiong! Really!" Nie Huaisang smiles. Easy and comfortable, Jiang Cheng notes. His brother does that to people. Endear them to him effortlessly. "Thanks for inviting me."

"Of course we'll invite you, you're our cover artist! We wanted to give you your copies personally. Come, come!" Wei Wuxian says, slinging an arm around their guest's shoulders. "You've met my brother, now let me introduce you to Wen Ning and MianMian!"

Jiang Cheng trails after them as Wei Wuxian leads Nie Huaisang through the crowds. His brother continues to babble on about the gig and the album and the cover art.

Nie Huaisang listens, attentive, but for a moment, he looks behind his shoulder and he meets Jiang Cheng's eyes.

He looks caught off guard, as if he didn't expect Jiang Cheng to still be there. He blinks the surprise off though, and just sends the other a small smile.

Jiang Cheng nods in acknowledgment, then he watches as the pretty model laughs at something his brother said.

Of course.

Just like all the other pretty people Wei Wuxian had pulled to his gravity.

Jiang Cheng is used to it.

He doesn't know if Nie Huaisang is here to stay, but he's nice enough, Jiang Cheng supposes.

Like with everything else, Jiang Cheng will just have to get used to him too.

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then, 22.

"So then... then this guy says 'So those two brothers, huh? Which one of them are you... you know?' and I was like, 'What? What the fuck?' Wanyin-xiong, what the fuck?"

Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow and takes in his companion's red cheeks, teary eyes and half-full glass of beer. He hadn't been paying attention to how much Nie Huaisang was drinking, because he's usually not the one Jiang Cheng is worried about. That's usually Wei Wuxian, who right now is, surprisingly, not totally drunk, just really enjoying himself on the dance floor with MianMian. Nie Huaisang, on the few times he had joined the band after a gig, usually drank in moderation, always only bordering on tipsy whenever Jiang Cheng drops him home. Tonight though, Nie Huaisang is obviously drunk.

"Yeah, what the fuck." he agrees and comments in one as he reaches out and straightens the other's wrist so he doesn't spill beer on himself.

Nie Huaisang looks down and blinks. "Oh. Thanks, Wanyin-xiong. I like this shirt."

"If you can call that a shirt." Jiang Cheng mutters.

Nie Huaisang, unfortunately, has good hearing even when drunk. "I'm sorry. Is it too much?" He frowns sadly and tugs at the leather jacket - Jiang Cheng's leather jacket - draped over his shoulders in a weak attempt to cover up. "I just thought it looked nice. Do I look too- Is this why people think I'm like, sleeping with you or Wei-xiong or something?"

Jiang Cheng didn't intend to be mean, he's only slightly annoyed, because said shirt was impractical - it was half a shirt - and therefore he'd had to give the other his jacket when he noticed him shivering. Because of course Nie Huaisang didn't bring his own.

"No." he sighs. "No, you look nice. It's alright. Just- If you're dressing up this way next time, bring a jacket, will you?"

"Yeah. Okay. Yeah, that one's on me." Huaisang sniffs. He's not always this sniffy. He can get shy around Jiang Cheng sometimes, but never... dejected. Jiang Cheng kinda feels bad now. "I just miss dressing up- I've been so busy with school. I turned down a lot of jobs to focus on it for a bit. College sucks, Wanyin-xiong."

Jiang Cheng drinks his own beer. Not so much - he knows he'll be driving. "Is that why you're out here getting drunk?"

He meant it as a joke, but Huaisang actually just shrugs. "Kinda." he mumbles, leaning back on his chair, sinking into himself. "There's so much to do. So many requirements and projects and... and I'm older than all of my classmates, so I always feel like I'm behind... and... and finals is next week- Oh my God. I really shouldn't be out here tonight. I'll go back to studying tomorrow, though! I promise! I just needed a break, and Wei-xiong called, and I missed you guys since you've been on tour and-"

"Hey. Hey- Huaisang." Jiang Cheng cuts him off before he starts crying for real. "I'm not your da-ge. I won't scold you."

Huaisang stops short and just looks at him, then he says, "Okay. Thank you."

Jiang Cheng snorts, amused. He watches as Nie Huaisang downs the rest of his beer and then puts his glass down on the table and pushes it away as if to say 'that's it, I'm done'.

"You know it's okay to take breaks." Jiang Cheng says, an attempt to kind of lighten up the mood. He didn't expect to hang out with Huaisang like this - miserable - after months of not hearing from him while the band's been on tour and he's been busy with college. He thought they'd be... happier, maybe.

"I know." Huaisang nods. He slips his arms through the sleeves of Jiang Cheng's jacket and pulls it tight around him as he scoots a bit closer to him on the booth. "It's fun, though. College, I mean. I like... I like learning new stuff. And I do want to get that degree, you know. For da-ge. He always wanted that for me."

Jiang Cheng furrows his brows. "Just for him?"

"Well. For me too, I guess. It's... something." Nie Huaisang muses, closing his eyes as he leans tentatively against Jiang Cheng's side. "Something I accomplished for myself. That's... gotta count."

Ah, so he's a talkative, emotional and cuddly drunk. Jiang Cheng jots that down.

"It does count." he says, surrendering to his fate and propping his elbow on the table, a wordless offer.

Huaisang looks up at him and gives him a tiny smile before laying his cheek on his arm. "Thanks. It means a lot. From you, I mean. We're the same age and you've... done so much, right? You guys are so successful. Like, you're rockstars. Legit rockstars, it's insane."

He almost shrugs, then remembers his friend resting on him. Instead, he just tips his beer glass on his hand, watching the liquid swirl, knowing he's not going to be drinking it. "Yeah. I... I guess we are. Successful."

"Huh? What's this? Wanyin-xiong? You look so gloomy, saying that." Huaisang says, reaching a hand up to poke his cheek lightly. "Aren't you happy?"

"Stop poking. You're weird. And I am. I am happy." Jiang Cheng scowls, batting the finger away.

He means it, too. He is happy. His life's not perfect - the only thing keeping his mother quiet about her obvious displeasure with his career path is the fact that he is successful, and she's supposed to be a positive public figure. His father... well, Jiang Cheng is still waiting for the man to say something, anything, but he doesn't. Not to Jiang Cheng, anyway. Jiang Cheng has songs and lyrics in his head and in his notebooks, but he wouldn't let anyone see those - no, not when they'll never live up to the ones Wei Wuxian had and would continue to make anyway. And while he knows he could confide to his sister, he doesn't want to make her worry, now that she's happy, building her own family. But still - the band is successful, thriving. He's playing music with his brother and with friends he trusts and cares about, sharing them to millions of fans who adore them. It's enough.

"Most of the time." he adds, before he could think about it.

"Hm. I see." Huaisang says, yawning. "Most of the time's good." He nods once, as reaffirming his conclusion. "Yeah, it's good. Good enough."

Now, he has learned that Nie Huaisang is a talkative, emotional, cuddly (cute) drunk, but that one's oddly... serious somehow. Jiang Cheng tilts his head to look at him. "You think so? You don't wanna be... like, happy all the time?"

"Nope." Huaisang says, looking up at him with wide, bright eyes. "If we're happy all the time, are we happy at all? Like, it doesn't... have weight, anymore. It stops... mattering. So it's okay if you're not happy sometimes."

Jiang Cheng... doesn't know what to say to that.

Nie Huaisang stares back at him for a long, long second before turning his head, burrowing on Jiang Cheng's arm. "Oh my God. I'm so drunk." he says, laughing.

"I can tell." Jiang Cheng lets out a chuckle, shaking his head as he jostles the other, who just grabs on to his arm, keeping his undoubtedly blushing face hidden. "You're so weird."

Nie Huaisang mumbles something that sounds like "I'm an artist."

Jiang Cheng just snorts. "Yeah, like that makes it better."

"I know, I know. It's worse." he giggles, patting Jiang Cheng's arm. "I'll send a text to you tomorrow telling you I'm sorry. For being weird and keeping your jacket."

"Excuse me? Keeping my jacket?"

"It's so warm! You have other jackets! You're rich, you can afford soooo many jackets!"

"Yeah, doesn't mean you can steal them." Jiang Cheng jostles him again. "See, this might be why people think you're sleeping with us."

"Ugh. Fuck them."

"Oh, we're swearing now?"

"I'm sorry. Oh God. Don't tell da-ge, please. He's gonna kill me."

Okay, that's funny, actually. "What? He's allowed to swear but you're not?"

"Yeah, because I'm baby."

"You're 22."

"I'm baby forever." he declares, firm. "I'm the most baby. Wait, that's Wen Ning. Okay. I'm the second most baby."

Jiang Cheng is still formulating what to reply to that absolutely ridiculous statement when someone sets down two tall glasses of water on their table.

"S-Sorry it took so long... I was... recognized." Wen Ning says as he takes his seat across them. He looks much paler than usual. "So many... So many pictures."

"Don't worry about it." Jiang Cheng says as he takes one of the glasses and slides it towards Huaisang.

Huaisang accepts with what could only be described as a squeak. "Wen Ning, you're an angel. A baby and an angel. Baby angel! Thank you!"

Wen Ning blinks. "A-Are you okay, Nie-xiong?"

"He's fine, just drunk." Jiang Cheng answers, watching the other down the ice cold water. "It's finals next week."

Nie Huaisang lets out a deep breath when he puts the glass down. "It's finals next week." he echoes, determined. "And I'm gonna pass it! I have to!"

And then Wei Wuxian is there, practically collapsing against Jiang Cheng's other side, pushing him and Huaisang further into the booth. "Hell yeah! That's the spirit, Nie-xiong! Get that degree!"

Nie Huaisang must be too drunk to complain being trampled over because he only sniffs and nods. "Yes! Or da-ge might break my legs!"

Meanwhile, Jiang Cheng growls, trying to push his brother away. "Fuck, get off me, you're all sweaty and shit! And you smell like ten different people!"

"I danced with ten different people." Wei Wuxian says, grinning widely.

"Liar." MianMian said, much more reasonable and waiting for Wen Ning to scoot over before sitting down. "He danced with like, two. And I'm one of them."

"I miss you guys so much." Nie Huaisang whines. "Wei-xiong, I'm gonna knit you a scarf."

"Oh, wow, he's drunk. First time for everything, huh." Wei Wuxian says, peering at his friend, still weakly slumped against his brother's side. "Thank you, Nie-xiong. I'll wait for that scarf. After your finals though, right?"

"Yah." Huaisang nods sleepily.

MianMian laughs. "No scarf for me?"

"Scarf for Miss MianMian too." Huaisang promises. He's serious. Jiang Cheng shakes his head. "And for Wen Ning. And Wanyin."

The others cheer, and Jiang Cheng just watches as Huaisang's eyes close while he snuggles his arm.

A few seconds. And there. He's not moving. Jiang Cheng looks up to address his brother, but Wei Wuxian is already looking at them, smiling fondly.

He makes a show of yawning, then turns towards the others. "I'm all danced out. You guys wanna go home?"

.

Jiang Cheng is the one who walks Nie Huaisang to the door, because of course Wei Wuxian cannot be counted to possibly confront a dog as large as Baxia, who had been there waiting by the front porch for Huaisang to come home.

Huaisang sleepily thanks him for taking care of him, and Jiang Cheng just shrugs, tells him to drink more water and don't stress out about his exams too much.

.

Jiang Cheng never gets his jacket back.

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then, 24.

The silence is awkward, afterwards. Of course it would be, after someone who almost never breaks down just did, on someone who is wholly unprepared for that burden.

Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang weren't the closest. They're friends, of course. They were comfortable. They had their moments.

However, when Jiang Cheng had once imagined finally spilling his heart out to someone, Nie Huaisang really wasn't the first, or even the second, person that came to mind.

Oh, well.

He's done it now.

So. Yes. Awkward. On one hand he holds a cup of hot chocolate - it grounds him, warms him more than he thought it should. His other hand is running through Baxia's fur, the dog's head resting on his knee. He's sitting, slack, on a worn and comfortable couch, one with a soft throw blanket draped over it - it's green, with little birds embroidered on it.

His legs are tangled with Nie Huaisang's, both of them finally quiet after he had calmed down from his breakdown. He doesn't recall how they got into this position, but that's what he's dealing with right now.

Huaisang's fingers are gentle on his hair, brushing them away from his face. Jiang Cheng doesn't meet his eyes. He must look like a mess, if Huaisang himself is trying to fix him up.

In an attempt to say something - anything - that would bring back the easy, comfortable mood that's always been between them, he glances around.

He catches the screen of Nie Huaisang's laptop - recognizes the contents of the open webpage.

"You're... moving?" he asks, squinting to make sure he's seeing it right - yes, those are definitely apartment listings.

"Oh! Um, I guess so? I want to." Huaisang answers, also looking towards the laptop. He fiddles with the hem of his sweater. "I haven't told da-ge yet, but I'm going to. Soon."

Jiang Cheng frowns, looking at the other in curiosity. "Why? And where?"

"Ah, I'm not really looking to move cities or anywhere too far." Huaisang says, waving dismissively. "I just want my own space. For my studio, myself. And, you know, just to get out of da-ge's hair and-"

He nods along as Huaisang shyly states his case. It dawns on him then, the enormity of what he just admitted, just a few minutes before. He had told Huaisang that he's tired, that he's had enough, that he doesn't want to go back home-

And Huaisang had very firmly said, 'Then don't.'

Is this why he could say that so easily?

Because he's moving away himself?

"-I just thought it's about time too, you see-"

Again, and maybe it's because he's just that tired, the words were out of Jiang Cheng's mouth before he could really think about it.

"Do you want company?"

Huaisang stops talking and looks at him. "W-What?"

"Do you... need a housemate?"

The other looks at him in what seems like disbelief, then bemusement. "W-Wanyin-xiong, what are trying to say?"

That finally snaps Jiang Cheng out of it, shaking his head and looking away. "Shit, uh- Sorry, I know we're not- And you just said you're moving to have your own space and all that stuff, I don't know why I thought- Just forget I said anything-"

This time, he's the one to get cut short as Huaisang tugs on his sleeve and calls his name. "A-Cheng." he says, smiling. "It's fine."

Jiang Cheng lets his surprise and confusion linger for one second before shaking his head. "No. No, it's-... I mean, people would talk, and I know you're uncomfortable with those rumors about us, about you and Wei Ying-"

"Well... yes." Huaisang says, considering. "But, it's just gossip, right? I'm-..." He takes a deep breath, and Baxia, always in tune to his moods, transfers from Jiang Cheng's lap to nose at Huaisang's hand. Huaisang looks down at the dog and scratches behind her ear. "I'm just as tired as you are, of stopping myself from doing stuff I wanna do or being close to people I care about, because I'm worrying too much about what the tabloids would say."

He grimaces. He'd always had a feeling that part of the reason Huaisang threw himself behind his college studies was to keep some distance from the band in the public's eyes, but hearing it now is a different blow. "Fuck, I'm sorry-"

"No, don't be. It's not your fault. It was my decision. But now... you’re asking if I want company, right? Well, I didn't plan for it, but I won't mind some." he says, laughing slightly. "Besides, some of the apartments I've looked at and liked always ended up... a bit too big. So maybe I do need a roommate."

Jiang Cheng closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. "You mean it?"

It shouldn't be easy, deciding these things. Right? But somehow Huaisang answers him readily. "Yes. Do you?"

"It can't be that bad." he tries. "We're... friends."

"We are." Huaisang nods, and somehow he looks surprised to be saying it. "But... what about your brother? I can't see him going back home, either."

"We'll find him. We'll find him, and we ask him what he wants to do, and then... we go from there."

Huaisang looks down, fingers tangled against Baxia's fur. He nods. "Sounds like a good plan."

.

.

It figures, Jiang Cheng supposes, that when his brother finds out who he’s staying with, Wei Wuxian calls Huaisang, too. Of course.

It’s unfair, really. Wei Wuxian knows where he is. Why won’t his brother tell him where he is, too? But Jiang Cheng won’t force him, not now. A part of him feels like he owes this to Wei Wuxian - to leave him be, wherever the hell he is - just because Jiang Cheng really should have said something, anything, to defend him from his mother during the worst of this latest shitstorm they found themselves in.

Jiang Cheng has been staying with the Nies for the past week. Nie Mingjue hasn't kicked him out, even after Huaisang announced that he’s going to move in with Jiang Cheng somewhere (they’re still looking). So that’s… a start. He knows the siblings probably talked more about it in private, and Nie Huaisang had somehow miraculously convinced his brother to be okay with it. Jiang Cheng is thankful, but he’s mentally preparing himself because he knows one of these days Nie Mingjue will probably pull him aside for words .

On the other hand, Baxia seems to like him well enough. She’s a sweetheart.

He had just gotten back from walking her when he overhears Huaisang in the kitchen, talking to someone on his phone.

“-it’s not like that. If it is, you would have known. We would’ve told you, because there’s no reason to hide it. Not like you’re doing right now.”

Jiang Cheng had never really heard Nie Huaisang angry, but perhaps this is the closest thing, although he sounds more frustrated than anything.

“I’m sorry. I’m not really mad. I’m just… We’re worried about you. Can you at least tell me that you’re safe, and you’re with people you trust?” - a pause. - “Okay. I’m glad you’re okay. But anytime you need me, you know where to find me. And Wanyin’s here too. He’s not angry with you either, you should know that. He doesn’t blame you for anything.”

There’s a long silence, and Jiang Cheng could hear the inaudible sounds from the phone. His brother is still talking.

It’s not like him to eavesdrop - so he steps inside the kitchen, and Huaisang looks up at him in surprise, though he doesn’t stop Wei Wuxian from talking.

He doesn’t tell Wei Wuxian that Jiang Cheng is right there, either.

Whatever Wei Wuxian had said, he just replies, “Of course I’ll take care of A-Cheng. But that’s not what I’m there for. Your brother can take care of himself. Yeah, he might feel a bit lost after you disband, but he’ll figure it out. Trust in him a little.”

Wei Wuxian says something else, and Nie Huaisang chuckles, his head bowed. Baxia trots up to him and he leans down to pet her.

“No, I’m just keeping him company, that’s all. Wanting to be independent doesn’t mean you also want to be alone, Wei-xiong.”

The rest of the conversation goes by in a blur for Jiang Cheng, who just stands there leaning by the doorway, arms crossed and looking down at an interesting scuff on the floor.

He only looks up when Huaisang ends the call.

Huaisang, however, doesn’t look back at him.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t know him well enough to tell what’s really going on in his mind, but with the way he’s just focusing on Baxia, biting his lip, Jiang Cheng could take a good guess.

"I-I'm sorry. I don't mean to speak for you or anything, I just-"

"It's fine." he cuts him off, because it really is fine. He doesn't need Huaisang to explain. "I never would have told him myself. I guess you did me a favor there." Then he takes a deep breath and says, “So what’s for dinner?”

That obviously catches Huaisang off guard, and he stammers. “Um. I… I haven’t really started yet.”

Jiang Cheng shrugs and just rolls up his sleeves. “Well, what’re we waiting for? We should get started now, your brother’s coming home soon.”

.

At dinner, Nie Mingjue squints at Jiang Cheng, then at Nie Huaisang, and back at Jiang Cheng.

He huffs. “You two are too quiet. And making eyes. It’s suspicious. Did you finally make out on my couch?”

Jiang Cheng chokes.

Nie Huaisang gapes. “Da-ge! No! I told you, we’re not like that!”

Nie Mingjue looks straight back at him. “Ew.”

He watches as Huaisang reaches out and pats Jiang Cheng’s back.

“You two are gross. Pack up already.”

.

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then, 25.

Jiang Cheng is familiar with the saying that you never really know someone until you start living with them. He'd never doubted that fact. It made a lot of sense, too. After all, he spent a lot of his early 20’s cramped in a tour bus with his bandmates and their staff.

So really, he had known, going in, that he'd have to be ready to learn lots of new things about Nie Huaisang when they move in together. He’ll take the new information in stride and accept them, as long as they weren't too... concerning. After all, nobody's perfect. Everyone had their little quirks -

So first, the fans - Nie Huaisang likes his fans. Understandable. Fans are nice, elegant. He has a collection of them. He paints some himself, sometimes. He keeps them on display like Jiang Cheng does his guitars.

Then there were the bird documentaries, and the weird too-sweet cupcakes - Jiang Cheng took those in stride too. The documentaries were interesting. The cupcakes were… well. They’re free cupcakes, and Huaisang always seemed to be in a better mood after making them.

Sometimes Huaisang would get too engrossed in his work and lose track of time? Sure. Anyone would, really, when they were just that invested in their work.

Huaisang is generous with his affections and concerns, and sometimes he would fuss. Jiang Cheng is not used to it, but he knows it's from growing up with only one other family member in his life, who openly spoiled and doted on him. Jiang Cheng had stayed with the Nies for half a month - he’d seen how affectionate the brothers were to each other. So he lets Huaisang fuss over his hair and his clothes, make him tea, or pull him back from his own head when he's being too quiet for comfort.

Which brings him to... the days. He wouldn't call them bad days. He doesn't think he's seen a truly 'bad day' with Huaisang yet. They're just... not-so-good days. That’s what Jiang Cheng calls them. Huaisang doesn’t call them anything. Huaisang barely acknowledges them at all.

He's too busy getting through them.

The not-so-good days are when Huaisang comes home and forgets to announce that he's home. Days when he's quieter, or drifts off in a conversation, his usually quick and witty replies coming slow and half-hearted. Sometimes Jiang Cheng doesn't notice it at all, not until he tells his housemate that he's going out for a walk or to grab something, and Huaisang drops whatever it is he's working on, always so quick to tell Jiang Cheng to wait, because he's going too. Jiang Cheng just nods then, because he knows.

Huaisang had told him a bit about it in passing, when they were looking for apartments.

"I just have off days, sometimes, but they're never too bad, you don't have to worry about that. I get through them just fine."

"Okay." Jiang Cheng told him then. "But don't feel like it's a hassle for me or anything either. I get if you need space every now and then too. Just tell me."

Huaisang smiled at him, shaking his head slightly. "It... doesn't really work like that. But thanks for understanding. I promise, I'll manage just fine."

It's only now that Jiang Cheng is realizing what he meant by 'it doesn't really work like that'.

On not-so-good days, Huaisang doesn't need space. He hates it. He needs company.

On those days, he tends to transfer his work from the studio and to the dining table, where he can see Jiang Cheng working in his room too. When they're watching something, he sits just a bit closer than usual. When they're walking together, he always has one hand on Jiang Cheng's sleeve.

Today, Jiang Cheng is sitting on his bed, strumming his guitar and working out the melody of an old song when Nie Huaisang appears by his doorway.

"Hey." He stops strumming, looking up at his friend. "What's up?"

Huaisang is just... standing there, lingering, staring at Jiang Cheng while he taps a pencil restlessly against the sketchpad he's hugging to his chest.

"Um. Can I draw you?" Huaisang asks. His voice sounds a bit shaky.

Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow. "What, like right now? From there?"

"No. Like, up close. From... there." he says, pointing vaguely at the bed. "But if you're uncomfortable, it's okay! I'll just find something else to study."

"It's fine, I guess." Jiang Cheng says, careful, scooting over on the bed to make space for the other.

Huaisang sits gingerly on the foot of the bed. He flips to a blank page in his canvas and continues to tap on his sketchpad. He glances at Jiang Cheng a couple times before saying, "Umm... don't worry about posing or anything. I'm just doing studies, just... don't mind me."

"If you say so." Jiang Cheng says, then goes back to his notebook and his guitar.

It's the first time since they moved in together that things felt... awkward. No, not awkward- Tense. He feels like he's waiting for something, but he doesn't know what - all he knows is that Huaisang is not talking - and he's always talking, so there must be something wrong.

Huaisang yawns. And then he yawns four more times in the next ten minutes.

Jiang Cheng finally stops and looks up again. "Huaisang. Didn't you stay up late finishing that big commission last night? Then you woke up early to deliver it this morning. Have you taken like, a nap or something?"

Huaisang glances at him and then looks back down on his sketch, biting his lip. "I'm fine."

"You're dead on your feet."

"I can't sleep."

"Really? 'Cause you can barely keep your eyes open."

"I tried, okay? I want to sleep. I just keep waking up." he sighs, rubbing his eyes and yawning again. "My bed feels... wrong. I don't know."

Jiang Cheng opens his mouth to suggest something, but he stops at the last second and wonders if he might be overstepping. Then he takes another look at how tired Huaisang is, and he decides he might as well just throw it out there.

"Do you need company?"

"What?" Huaisang asks, clearly not getting what he's trying to say.

"I know that when you're jumpy, you can't be alone. So do you need me to keep you company so you could go to sleep?"

"Wha- I'm not a kid, Wanyin." he laughs, thankfully sounding too resigned to be annoyed or offended. "You don't have to tuck me in-"

"I didn't mean it like that. I'll just... I dunno, I'll sit there until you're asleep. Or you can sleep here. While I'm working. If you can sleep through the noise or whatever."

Huaisang looks at him helplessly. "I'm bothering you."

"No, you're not. Just come up here and go to sleep. I don't mind as long as you don't kick me off my bed."

With a resigned sigh, Huaisang sets his things aside and moves towards Jiang Cheng, then lies down beside him.

"Wanyin," he calls softly, voice already muffled by the pillow he chose to hug. "I'm sorry you have to bear with me when I'm... like this."

Jiang Cheng shakes his head. "It's fine."

"How did you know?” Huaisang asks, sounding almost mournful. “I tried real hard not to be so clingy, you know. I don't wanna bother you too much. Did... Did da-ge tell you?"

"He didn't. No one told me." Jiang Cheng says, looking down at him, reaching out a hand to tuck his hair behind his ear. "I just pay attention to people important to me."

"Imagine that." A small smile blooms on Huaisang's lips. "I’m important." he whispers, eyes already closed.

“Yeah, well. You pay half the rent, remember?”

That makes him laugh, light and fleeting. "I love you a lot, you know that?"

That makes Jiang Cheng pause, withdrawing his hand in surprise. He knows that. He knows that Huaisang cares for him - they've been friends for a long time, and they'd only just gotten closer, living together over the past few months. But he didn't expect that much... honesty.

Also, he just doesn't quite know how to answer that. "Is the sappiness part of the anxiety?"

"No. It's a side-effect of being sleepy." Huaisang yawns again. "Night, A-Cheng."

Jiang Cheng watches him fall asleep. It doesn't take long.

When he goes back to his guitar, he plays a softer melody.

.

On the next not-so-good day after that, just a few weeks later, Jiang Cheng is typing away in his laptop when Nie Huaisang enters his room and then sits on the bed.

Jiang Cheng glances at him. No sketchbook this time. No pretenses. "You okay?"

"Not really." Huaisang answers him, simple and honest. "Can I stay here for a bit?"

He shrugs, going back to his laptop. “Sure.”

“Thanks.” Huaisang says, then he lies down on Jiang Cheng's pillows and closes his eyes.

.

.


.

.

then, 26.

Here’s how Jiang Cheng sees it. People fall in love with other people all the time. Maybe not all the way, but they almost always fall in love, just a tiny bit.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t, though.

Wei Wuxian does. He can look at someone, or exchange a single greeting with them, and fall in love a little, or see himself falling in love with them eventually. It’s how he connects to people so easy. Jiang Cheng has seen it so many times over the years, his brother being infatuated with someone after meeting them, falling in love with MianMian’s confidence, with Wen Ning’s gentleness, and Nie Huaisang’s imagination. Of course, he never fell all the way - except, apparently, with that Lan Wangji, however the hell that happened - because almost all the time he ends up falling in friendship with them eventually.

It’s a thing. Shut up. It’s how Jiang Cheng calls it.

Jiang Cheng is the opposite. Maybe. He’s still not quite sure yet. He doesn’t fall in love, not even a little, not in the way that his siblings and friends do. He falls in friendship with people instead - at least that’s how he sees it. He thinks maybe that might be how it works with him. He has to fall in friendship first, before falling in love could even be remotely possible for him.

But he has a hard time doing that too, falling in friendship, so over the years he had decided that that’s fine, really. He’s happy with the people he managed to keep in his life. They know him. They care about him. It’s enough. It’s fine if the falling in love part doesn’t happen.

He fell in friendship with Nie Huaisang a good seven years ago. He couldn’t exactly remember how it happened -  just that Nie Huaisang had been a constant during band practice, his art growing with their music. And they went from there.

These days, whenever Jiang Cheng comes home and sees Huaisang on their couch drawing or working on some art thing, or when he walks into the kitchen and finds Huaisang baking another one of his cute-weird cupcakes, or when he looks up from his keyboard and remembers that Huaisang is right there, taking a nap on his bed, his thoughts stray back to those late night car rides after a gig or a party, when they were younger. Huaisang was always quieter when it’s just the two of them, but the silence was comfortable. Jiang Cheng would stop the car in front of the Nies’ house and Huaisang would turn to him and thank him for the ride. And that was it.

If someone told Jiang Cheng then that someday, he’d be living together with that quiet artist that hung out with them sometimes, he would’ve raised an eyebrow in disbelief. If someone had told Jiang Cheng that he would be writing his own songs and Nie Huaisang would be singing them, that they’ll be spending their free time together watching birds or fooling around with silly little projects… he would have laughed, hard, and told them they were crazy.

But against all odds, this is his life now. And it’s not so bad. He has a peace in him that he’s realizing he’s been missing for the past couple of years.

It’s good. It’s almost… better. If he allows himself to be sappy, Jiang Cheng would say he’s grateful that he fell in friendship with Nie Huaisang all those years ago, even though he still couldn’t remember how it happened. It had been such a gradual thing, and then it was just there, without him thinking about it.

Jiang Cheng does remember the exact moment he fell in love with Nie Huaisang, though.

It happened like this: Jiang Cheng is standing in the kitchen, cooking, his tablet propped up in front of him. He’s reading through a new recipe he found on the internet. It’s for a family picnic his sister had planned for next week. They had all agreed on a potluck, and Jiang Cheng will not disappoint his sister by bringing bad food so now he’s doing a test batch.

“Is that for the picnic?” Huaisang asks, stepping inside the kitchen. He looks like he just woke up, and he yawns as he rests his arms on the counter.

“Yep. We’re going to bring good food.” Jiang Cheng says as he starts mixing ingredients, following the recipe by the book. “We will not be like Wei Wuxian.”

“Oof. Definitely not. But Lan-xiong is probably gonna cook for them, right?”

“That’s almost as bad. That guy doesn’t season his food.”

Huaisang giggles. “Okay, then. Let me know if you need me to help you out on the day. We gotta make sure Team Sangcheng brings the best food. After Team Yanli-jie, of course!”

“Team what?”

“Team Sangcheng. It’s what Wei-xiong named us in the group chat. They’re Team Radish, apparently.”

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes, but doesn’t let that distract him from his task.

After a while, he hears soft, tinny chimes from across the kitchen, and he looks up to see his companion holding the mallet of his little toy xylophone, lips pursed and brows furrowed in concentration as he stares down at the instrument. Jiang Cheng had left the xylophone on the counter after Jin Ling had played with it the day before.

He says nothing at first, figuring that Huaisang is just bored and is just hitting random notes, when he recognizes the vague melody his friend is trying to figure how to sound out via trial-and-error.

“What’re you trying to play?”

“Your song.” Huaisang answers, humming a familiar melody as he tries to find the right xylophone notes. “That one you were working on the other day but you said you didn’t like it so you’re dropping it.”

Jiang Cheng raises a brow. “You remember that one?”

“Yeah, I liked it.” Huaisang looks up at him to grin and shrug. “You really don’t?”

“It was too sappy. Not my style.” he shrugs back, returning to his task. He lets Huaisang fiddle around, figuring out the notes, until he sighs and says, “Play an E before that D.”

“What?”

“The green first before blue. Just do it.”

“Oh.” Huaisang nods, and follows his instructions. Jiang Cheng glances up just in time to see his eyes light up. “Ah, that’s it! It’s really nice.”

He plays it again, slowly, probably to get used to it. Jiang Cheng leaves him be, but then-

“I know I’m hard to love sometimes... b ut there’s something soft about you...”

Jiang Cheng looks up, watching Huaisang slowly and carefully playing the melody, eyes sleepy and voice slightly hoarse as he whisper-sings lyrics that Jiang Cheng didn’t expect him to remember.

“...makes me feel soft around you...”

He smiles, small and light. Private, lost in his thoughts while he hums and plays the only part he knows how to play.

“Mm-hm-hm... soft around you...”

And that’s it. That’s it , Jiang Cheng realizes.

This is different, because he feels like he can stand here, in this moment, forever, just looking at Huaisang being soft and silly and singing Jiang Cheng’s heart out, even after Jiang Cheng had basically thrown the lyrics away.

It’s different. It’s new.

It’s good.

.

Like a lot of things in his life, Jiang Cheng doesn’t say anything about it . He does what he does best - he writes it down instead, puts a melody over it. Then hides it.

Except this time, he can’t hide it, not really, because he had promised himself to stop hiding his work.

Still, he throws himself into it. He struggles for a whole week, and then Nie Huaisang catches him suffering and without question bakes him cupcakes.

The cupcake decorations look like bright yellow poop, but he loves them, like he loves Huaisang. He doesn’t say it though, just like he doesn’t tell Huaisang. The weird cupcakes do little to help. But he should’ve known Huaisang would fuss. Huaisang coddles him, and sings his stupid lyrics to try and help him because he’s a good person like that.

Then Huaisang gives him a line. Because of course he does.

“I know what’s on your mind, there will be time for that too-”

And Jiang Cheng knows it’s the line. He couldn’t help but grin as the pieces slid into place in his new song.

“-if you hang with me.”

And it really is perfect. It fits right in, his feelings put into words so well.

Finally, because it was all he could think of at that moment, he kisses Nie Huaisang.

.

.


.

.

now, 29.

"JIANG WANYIN!!!" someone screeches from all the way across the stage, startling Jiang Cheng and everyone else who were busy preparing for tonight's concert, setting up equipment for sound check.

Jiang Cheng whirls around from where he's tuning his guitar. "WEI WUXIAN." he scowls at his brother, who is just sitting on top of one of the speakers and eating snacks while they all work, the bastard. "WHAT."

"Check the bird app! Hurry, hurry!" Wei Wuxian says, waving his own phone around.

"What is it this time?" Jiang Cheng asks, wary. “If it’s another fucking photo of Lan Wangji with a bunny, I swear-”

"For once I think you should listen to him." MianMian says from the drums, a little grin on her face. She’s also holding her phone. "Just check it out, Wanyin."

Jiang Cheng frowns. He wants to be petty with Wei Wuxian and ignore him, but he respects MianMian too much. So he just rolls his eyes as he takes his phone out.

Huh. His notifications and mentions are a mess, as always. He ignores that. Then he sees that Huaisang has apparently tagged him on a tweet, so he opens it.

 

@nhs_art
the house is so quiet without @blacklotus_band playing in the studio. 😭 thankfully bear and i always have wonderful company to keep things lively. we miss you @weiwuxianxian ❤️ @missmianmian 🌸 @ghostning 🖤 and of course my @wanyin 💜 come home soon! xo, 🧸💚

 

Jiang Cheng walks to the side and sits down by the edge of the stage, sliding his earphones on first before he taps his screen to play the video.

The footage is a bit shaky, and it’s the wrong side up - but Jiang Cheng can recognize their home studio. Then whoever is holding the phone rights their hold clumsily.

Sitting on a bean bag is Nie Huaisang, with Bear beside him, head on his lap. Sitting cross-legged on the floor by his feet are Jin Ling holding an acoustic guitar and Lan Sizhui with a familiar toy xylophone in his lap. Slightly behind them, Lan Jingyi is sitting on the drumbox, holding egg shakers.

“Uh, how do I- Like this?” the voice behind the camera says. Jiang Cheng recognizes it instantly. “There, there I got it! Oh, we’ve been recording.”

“Then stop talking already, Zizhen!” Jin Ling says, scowling.

“Geez, so grumpy! Sang-gege can edit this out later!” Zizhen huffs.

“Children, children.” Huaisang sighs, part amused, part resigned. Jiang Cheng wonders how much time it took to get these unruly teens organized. They’re good kids, really, just… full of chaotic energy. “Please don’t fight. We’re here to play something for your uncles- and dad- and awesome auntie.”

Jin Ling withdraws with a pout, hands going back to his guitar.

Huaisang turns to the camera with a little wave. “Hello, Black Lotus band! I have your children!”

Sizhui lets out a little laugh, while Jingyi waves giddily in the background.

“Anyways, they want to play a song for you, and they asked their ol’ Huaisang-gege to help! I volunteered to take the video for them but apparently they want me in it, haha...” He laughs, sheepish. “Since you’re on your reunion tour, we thought it would be nice to have a bit of a throwback. This song-... How old is this song again…?” He asks, looking to the kids.

“Nine… ten years?” Sizhui answers, voice soft and calm as usual. “Maybe more?”

Jin Ling just shrugs. “I think I wasn’t born yet.”

“There you go! Jin Ling wasn’t born yet!” Huaisang continues happily, then he pauses. “Oh wow, we’re old.”

Jiang Cheng chuckles, then raises a brow. If Jin Ling wasn’t born yet, and it’s a Black Lotus song, then… it must’ve been from before the record deal. So- oof. Not that he hated those songs, but… Whoa, they are old.

“But I still remember it so clearly! Even then you guys were the best. Oh, and I know I’ll never sing as good as A-Xian does, so please bear with me! I’m just a fan!”

The camera shakes slightly. “No, you’re not, you’re really good!”

Jin Ling scowls again. “Zizhen, stop ruining the video!”

“Let’s just play before Jin Ling murders Zizhen.” Lan Jingyi says, waving the egg shakers around, the sounds proving effective in shutting his friends up.

Nie Huaisang nods, clapping his hands for order. “Okay, okay! Let’s finish this before your parents come to pick you up. Ready?”

The kids nod. Sizhui counts them off. “Three, two one-”

Jin Ling starts strumming, steady and good from years of meticulous practice - and Jiang Cheng recognizes it instantly. It is indeed an old song, from their pre-record days.

It’s part of that first homemade album they sold at their gigs, the first one with Huaisang’s art in it. That time feels like a lifetime ago.

Then Sizhui plays light, tinny notes on the xylophone, and it makes Jiang Cheng smile. So they’re going for a much lighter approach, huh? The original song is a heavy electric punk rock track, after all-

Huaisang starts to sing.

“All I wanna get is, a little bit closer…”

It's far from Wei Wuxian’s original strong and raw vocals, instead his voice is smooth and airy, fitting the new arrangement well.

“All I wanna know is, can you come a little closer?”

And it’s really good. He never realized how long it’s been since he heard Huaisang sing seriously, after the two of them had finished their own tour and Nie Huaisang went back to his art and modelling while Jiang Cheng focused on working with the band again for their reunion.

Sizhui joins in singing the next lines, the boy’s voice blending with Huaisang’s and keeping the song grounded well.

“The doors are open, the wind is really blowing. The night sky is changing overhead...”

For the chorus, Jingyi adds percussion with the shakers, and he also sings along to provide backing vocals to the other two.

“It’s not just all physical, I’m the type who won’t get oh-so critical, so-”

It’s a good, very casual session, and it’s clear they don’t care to perfect it, instead just playing to have fun with it. Jiang Cheng sits back and relaxes as he watches them play and sing the rest of the song. He laughs when the camera shakes again and Jin Ling mouths a grumpy “Stop dancing!” at Zizhen and gets a muffled “Oops, sorry!” in reply.

They finish with a last gentle strum and light notes on the xylophone, then they clap for themselves before Huaisang turns to speak to the camera again, gesturing at his young companions. “There you have it! Super talented kids! That one’s for you, Black Lotus band! Have fun with the rest of your tour!”

“We miss you!” Sizhui says, smiling sweetly and waving as well.

“Take care out there...” Jin Ling adds, cheeks pink, raising his hand in a shy wave, his face half-hidden behind his guitar. He’s trying very hard to be cool, Jiang Cheng thinks. It’s just very adorable, though.

“Bring souvenirs!” Jingyi chimes in, having real fun with those shakers. He laughs as he narrowly avoids being swatted by Jin Ling. “Zizhen wants a shirt!”

“I do!” Zizhen says, voice too loud since he’s so close.

“Come home soon!” Huaisang says, hugging Bear, holding the dog’s paws to make him wave and blow kisses at the camera. Bear lets out a small bark, and Huaisang laughs. “That means I love you! Bye!”

That’s the end of the video. Jiang Cheng shakes his head, and try as he might, he can't stop smiling.

That is, until he hears a ‘click’, and he turns to see Wen Ning crouching beside him with his phone raised to his face -

“What the fu-”

“Sorry.” Wen Ning whispers, and before Jiang Cheng could do anything, the younger scrambles up and sprints towards Wei Wuxian.

Wei Wuxian, who is cackling . “Didi, your face! Your face is the face of a man so in love, I can’t-! So adorable! Wen Ning, send me the picture, quick! I’m gonna send it to A-Sang! No, no, in the group chat! No wait, on Twitter!”

“Wei Wuxian! I will kill you.” he scowls.

That just makes his brother laugh harder. “Oh, that’s where A-Ling got it from, amazing !”

Jiang Cheng hears a drumroll, and he knows that MianMian has also betrayed him.

Traitors, all three of them, really. Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes, and turns back to his phone.

He makes sure to like the tweet first, then he replies to it via a quote. A single purple heart. Not much, but Huaisang would know , he’s sure of it.

He scrolls down just for the heck of it, chuckling at some of the replies, all loving the cover and adoring the kids. He saw replies from his sister and Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao, too.

Then-

 

@_lotuspancakes
this is too sweet!
but also is nhs wearing a ring? 😳😳😳

@cutienhs_
what? 😲😲😲 his hand is on bear’s fur the whole time?

@blacklotusspring
not on his hand! his necklace! omg 💍 i never saw him with that before 🤔

@_lotuspancakes
the stone is purple 💜
is that what i think it is 😏😏😏

@jiangwany1ns
okay
im gonna go outside
then im gonna sCREAM

 

Jiang Cheng stares down at the thread. Then he exits the app and locks his phone and pockets it- He’ll pretend he didn’t see it-

But of course, Wei Wuxian’s voice is back, hollering once again- “Jiang Cheng! What is this I’m reading about a ring?”

“What ring?” MianMian asks, tapping and swiping furiously on her own phone.

Ah, and here Jiang Cheng thought he’d be able to keep it under wraps for a little while longer.

“Oh. That is a ring." Wen Ning says, very helpful.

He stands, picks up his guitar and turns his back to his bandmates...

“Wanyin.” MianMian warns. “Jiang Wanyin. Where do you think you’re going?”

“I’m gonna take five.” he says, shrugging, not looking at any of them. Or more like, he can’t look at any of them.

“No, no, A-Cheng, stay!” Wei Wuxian pleads. “I’m here for you! Talk to your gege!”

“I don’t want to.” Then, just to be petty, he adds, “Don’t bother me. I’m gonna call my fiance.”

Then he walks away, leaving behind the sounds of screams, applause and cymbals crashing. Yep. Sounds about right. He's not dealing with that. They can have their meltdown without him.

.

.

(He does call his fiance.)

(He listens to Huaisang laugh, and tells him he can’t wait to come back home.)

.

.

.

fin.