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“This is all your fault anyway,” Nie Huaisang grumbled, burrowing himself further into his pile of embroidered cushions.

Jin Zixuan, kneeling next to the bed, made an effort not to roll his eyes. He had learned, over the past few months, that it was a dreadful idea. Nie Huaisang, already capricious because his brother spoiled him, had become quite temperamental as of late. It was bad enough when he started shouting and arguing, but sometimes he started crying when he was upset, and that was just the worst.

Besides, he knew that Nie Huaisang didn’t really blame him for this situation. It had been Nie Huaisang who had suggested they fool around, after Jin Zixuan’s engagement had fallen through, and it was Nie Huaisang again who had professed that there really wasn’t much of a chance of any consequences for said fooling around. An omega outside of heat wasn’t that fertile, Nie Huaisang had said, and neither were betas in general, he’d added. Between a mother who had ordered him to never share anyone’s bed until marriage and considered she’d done her job educating him, and a father who’d given him a list of brothels for his fourteenth birthday and told him to figure things out himself (a list Jin Zixuan had promptly burned, terrified his mother might find it and punish him), Jin Zixuan hadn’t been in a position to do anything except trust his friend.

A mistake, as it had turned out.

A huge mistake. Nearly as huge as Nie Huaisang’s round stomach.

“More tea,” Nie Huaisang demanded.

Jin Zixuan immediately obeyed, pouring some fresh tea for the other boy.

“How was the archery contest then?” Nie Huaisang asked after taking a sip. “Da-ge said you placed well?”

“I came third,” Jin Zixuan confirmed, picking a slice of peach from the tray he’d brought, and holding it for Nie Huaisang to bite into, which he did. “Only because Lan Wangji threw a tantrum though, so I feel I didn’t do so well. Everyone wondered why you weren’t there, by the way. Jiang Cheng was very cross.”

“He’s always cross anyway,”  Nie Huaisang retorted, before opening his mouth to silently demand another slice of peach. Jin Zixuan obeyed of course. “Did they figure anything was off?”

Jin Zixuan shook his head. Although Jiang Cheng had seemed somewhat suspicious, when Nie Mingjue hinted that he just didn’t like to bring his brother in Wen territory, not even for a discussion conference, everyone bought into it. Who would have imagined the truth, anyway? Nie Huaisang acted a little flirty with everyone, but he was the one person everyone would have assumed to be knowledgeable enough to avoid such a situation. 

Even if somehow the news breached out, who would suspect Jin Zixuan of fathering that child though? Although they had become quite close in private, in public Jin Zixuan had still acted aggravated by his friend’s antics in public, to the point of usually refusing to acknowledge they were friends at all. It would have been easy to pretend this situation had nothing to do with him, to leave Nie Huaisang to his trouble and go on with his own life without ever thinking of his bastard child, except to remember in the future that it couldn’t be used as a match for the legitimate children he’d have with a spouse chosen by his parents.

It would have been easy.

It would have been what his father would have done, what his mother would have encouraged, still hoping for an alliance with the Jiang.

Instead Jin Zixuan had run to Qinghe the instant he’d received a letter from his friend hinting at his predicament, and hadn’t left again for months, not until his father threatened to come get him by force if he didn’t show up at the discussion conference in Nightless City. Even then, he’d refuse to go home with his parents, pretending he was tired of Lanling and wanted to explore and Night Hunt on his own. He’d managed to convince his mother that his father’s behaviour disgusted him too much to be around him lately, and his father that he’d found a pretty face to have fun with in Qinghe.

It wasn’t even a lie. Nie Huaisang really was pretty, and Jin Zixuan really despised his father for all the bastards he’d sired and abandoned over the country.

“I wish I had been there with everyone,” Nie Huaisang sighed. “It would have been fun.”

“It really wasn’t,” Jin Zixuan insisted. “The Wen were furious to have lost their own tournament, your brother says they’re probably going to retaliate in some way.”

Surprised to hear this, Nie Huaisang sat a little straighter in his nest of cushions.

“Da-ge said told me there was nothing to worry about!”

Jin Zixuan winced, and offered his friend another slice of peach as a distraction. It didn’t quite work, Nie Huaisang pushed away the piece of fruit and frowned.

“Since when does da-ge even talk to you? Wasn’t he mad about…” Nie Huaisang gestured at his round stomach. “Did you two make up?”

Jin Zixuan shrugged. He didn’t know where he stood with Nie Mingjue. The man had punched him in the face hard enough to break his nose when Jin Zixuan had told him he was responsible for Nie Huaisang’s predicament, and then refused all of Jin Zixuan’s offer for an honour marriage. But at the same time, he hadn’t kicked Jin Zixuan out of the Unclean Realm yet, and didn’t seem to mind that Jin Zixuan was spending most of his time in Nie Huaisang’s room now that Nie Huaisang couldn’t appear in public.

It would be a far cry to say that Nie Mingjue liked Jin Zixuan, but he might have somewhat approved of him, at that was already more than Jin Zixuan would have expected.

“I wonder if this is it,” Nie Huaisang sighed, flopping back against his cushions with a sour expression. When Jin Zixuan threw him an inquisitive look, he clarified: “I mean, if there will be a war. I know Qinghe Nie is ready for it, da-ge made sure of it, but the others… well, first of all, for small sects it’s a big risk. And then… the Lans are pacifists, Jiang zongzhu is the backbone of overcooked noodles, and your father…”

Nie Huaisang hesitated, but there was nothing he could say that Jin Zixuan hadn’t already thought.

“My father is pretty likely to side with the Wen, unless they insult him somehow,” Jin Zixuan said, and while Nie Huaisang grimaced, he still nodded a touch too fast.

“If he does, what will you do?” Nie Huaisang asked.

The question, asked with affected casualness, took Jin Zixuan by surprise, but not as much as the speed and intensity with which the answer hit him.

“I’ll fight alongside your brother,” he exclaimed, taking one of Nie Huaisang’ hands in both of his. “I’ll protect your and our… and your child, no matter what.”

Nie Huaisang’s eyes went wide at that earnest declaration. He quickly looked away, trying to discreetly blink away a few tears.

“Nobody’s asking you to do that,” Nie Huaisang mumbled. “I’m… you don’t even like me all that much. You don’t need to turn against me for someone you just happened to fuck once or twice, someone’s that’s not even your friend.”

It was Jin Zixuan’s turn to stare with wide eyes.

There was that funny thing about Nie Huaisang. Because he was the first one to point out his faults, the first one to laugh at his own expense, because he never took himself seriously, it was easy to think he really didn’t care what others thought of him. But he listened and memorised everything that was said or done, and took it to heart.

“You are my friend,” Jin Zixuan retorted. More than a friend, perhaps. He’d really enjoyed Nie Huaisang’s company even in Gusu, and after several months in each other’s company, with this child they’d have in just two or three weeks… maybe it wasn’t only friendship anymore, though it definitely was that as well. “And do you think I could ever look at myself in a mirror if I abandoned my friend, my child?”

“And since you’re so vain, it’d be hard for you to live without mirrors,” Nie Huaisang said with a devious smile that made Jin Zixuan want to… but they hadn’t kissed since he’d rushed to Qinghe months ago. It used to be Nie Huaisang initiating everything, but he hadn’t started anything all this time, so to Jin Zixuan the message was clear. He might have started feeling more than he ought to, but Nie Huaisang probably didn’t want anything but friendship. “You really would stay here with m… with us?” Nie Huaisang insisted. “Against your family?”

“At this point, aren’t you family as well?” Jin Zixuan asked, one of his hands letting go of Nie Huaisang’s to come and rest on his round stomach. Right then the child was quiet, but he could still feel its bursts of spiritual energy now that the date of birth was approaching. “Both of you are who I want to be with.”

“You’re so stupid,” Nie Huaisang grumbled, putting his free hand over Jin Zixuan’s on his belly. “If you keep that up, I’ll tell da-ge to say yes if you ask again that we marry, and then where will we be?”

“Together,” Jin Zixuan replied, his heart thundering in his chest. “So maybe I’ll ask again, while we can.”

“Idiot,” Nie Huaisang grumbled, turning away as if that could hide how red his face was turning. “I hope the baby is smarter than you.”

“Hopefully it’ll get your brain, my good looks, and your brother’s good sense.”

Nie Huaisang, still looking away, still red in the face, laughed. It was the most beautiful sound in the world, and Jin Zixuan hoped he would continue hearing it for the rest of his life, however short or long that might be.