江山如有待 | It Seems the Hills and Rivers Have Been Waiting - ScarlettStorm - 陈情令 (2024)

Chapter 1

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Fan Dingxiang is sixteen the first time she sees a Wen cultivator.

She’s still sixteen when she kills him, since it happens about a minute later. Truly, it’s hard to say which one of them is more surprised by this. Fan Dingxiang supposes, when she thinks about it afterward, that he must have been more surprised, since he ended up dead.

It goes like this:

Fan Dingxiang steps into the barn with a slop bucket for the pigs, ducking through the door, which in spite of the current generation’s height, remains stubbornly built for people the size of her much shorter ancestors four generations back. The thump of the door startles the man also in the barn, which startles Fan Dingxiang because who the f*ck is in her barn? Bandits, again?

The man turns, revealing red and black robes and a gold crest she half-recognizes. The sword in his hand lets her mark him as a cultivator, but why would there be a cultivator in the barn? Is one of the pigs haunted? And why isn’t he in the purple of Yunmeng Jiang? They stare at each other for a long second in silence and then the cultivator says, “This farm is under the jurisdiction of the Wen Clan now!” Fan Dingxiang has just enough time to think, f*ck that, before he draws the sword and now there’s a f*cking sword pointed at her.

Fan Dingxiang doesn’t hesitate.

She throws the slop bucket at him.

Fan Dingxiang has been wrestling pigs since she was six years old. Fan Dingxiang could carry an entire barrel of pickled pork by the time she was twelve. Fan Dingxiang had a growth spurt at thirteen that means she stands a good hand’s length taller than this man, and even with the way the potions from the apothecary make it harder for her to put on muscle these days, she’s still strong enough to lift a full-grown person off the ground with one hand.

All this to say, when Fan Dingxiang throws the bucket, she throws it hard. It hits the cultivator square in the face, slop exploding everywhere and the bamboo shattering from the impact. The cultivator staggers backwards, blinking slop out of his eyes, and as soon as the bucket left her hand Fan Dingxiang picked up a hoe from next to the door and followed the bucket’s trajectory across the barn. The cultivator doesn’t get a chance to react before she hits him like a charging boar. The metal of the hoe cracks bone as it connects with his head, terror and anger surging up inside her like a thunderstorm, every muscle she knows and some that she doesn’t and her full weight behind the blow.

The cultivator drops like a stone, and the only sound in the barn is Fan Dingxiang’s panting and the unperturbed grunting of the pigs. She thinks for a minute that she should check the cultivator’s pulse, and then she looks down to the end of the hoe to find that it is fully inside the man’s skull. She’s pretty sure that, no matter your cultivation level, there’s no coming back from that one. The bits inside your skull are supposed to stay there--once they’re outside of your skull, you have a real problem.

Fan Dingxiang makes it to the pig trough before she vomits, because even with her knees shaking from horror she’s nothing if not practical. It’s not like the pigs care. They’ve eaten worse.

“Granny,” she says when she’s back in the house, “I think we’re at war.”

Granny looks up from the bowl of rice she’s currently picking rocks out of, eyebrows high, forehead creased. “What makes you say that, A-Xiang?”

“The dead cultivator in the barn is a pretty big clue,” Fan Dingxiang says, having passed through panic and into a strange kind of calm.

Granny blinks and gets up from the table.

---

“Yep,” Granny says, poking the dead cultivator with her foot. “That’s a dead cultivator, all right.” She squints at his embroidery. “You said Wen Clan?”

Fan Dingxiang nods, trying her best not to look above the man’s waist. The hoe is still in his head. She couldn’t bring herself to remove it. “And he said the farm was under their control now.”

“f*ck that,” Granny says, succinctly, which makes Fan Dingxiang stand up a little straighter, because yeah, f*ck that. Granny squints into the middle distance. “Remember some stories about the Wen Clan a long time ago,” she says eventually. “Seem like bad news. Good work, A-Xiang.”

“Thank you,” Fan Dingxiang says, because any compliment from Granny requires a polite response. “Granny, what do we do?” She waves at the sort of everything on the floor of the barn, a little queasy still.

Granny looks at the body for a long, considering moment. “Pigs need feeding,” she says, crouching down to untie the dead man’s belt. “Perfectly good fabric, this. No reason to let it go to waste.”

Fan Dingxiang realizes that perhaps, in her sixty-three years of life, Granny has seen some sh*t. Or, more accurately, seen more sh*t than Fan Dingxiang had previously understood. “Granny,” she says, reluctantly pulling the hoe out of the man’s skull and setting it aside, “what do we do if they come back?

Granny gives her a sharp look. “We protect what’s ours,” she says, as if it’s the easiest thing in the world. “Pigs always need feeding, after all.”

Fan Dingxiang goes to bed that night with a dead man’s sword tucked under the loose floorboard in her bedroom. She lays awake for hours, the bucket flying through the air every time she closes her eyes. If she’s been a handsbreadth to either side, or the tiniest bit lower, she would have missed. She’d be dead, and Granny would probably be dead, and her brother and mother would be dead, and who would feed the pigs then?

I have to be better, she thinks to herself, and falls asleep to uneasy dreams.

---

Fan Dingxiang spends the next three weeks on a new training regimen she invents for herself. It involves throwing rocks at targets and hacking at a half-dead tree with a hoe and sprinting back and forth across the farm fields and doing a lot of push-ups. It’s as close as she can come to what’s described in the adventure novels she buys when she’s scraped up enough money. She’d like a sword, but she doesn’t have the first idea how to use one so she figures it’s better to stick to the hoe. There’s already muscle memory attached to that. (Using the dead man’s sword is out of the question for multiple reasons. Fan Dingxiang thinks it would be rude. Also, it sealed itself and she can’t draw it, not that she tried other than the once when she put it away.) She carries fist-sized rocks in her pockets and sleeps with the hoe next to her bed. No one in her family questions this, not after getting a good glaring from Granny.

Fan Dingxiang is in the middle of her morning chores, halfway into the fourth week since her world changed in a spatter of blood and a cracking of bone, when she spots the second Wen Clan cultivator through the window of the barn. He’s heading for the house, and she can’t get out ahead of him, but she can slip out behind him. She pulls a rock out of her pocket, runs her thumb over the warm stone, and waits.

The training works. The cultivator takes a rock to the skull so hard that when Granny slits his throat it’s just a formality. The pigs eat again, and Fan Dingxiang goes to bed with two swords under her floorboard and thinks about the man’s back turned away, about how both times now, she’s had the advantage of surprise and that’s what saved her.

I have to be stronger, she thinks. I’ll be able to do more if I’m stronger.

---

“How is the medicine working?” the apothecary asks her, gently probing around her jaw. “Any side effects? Are you having any facial hair come in yet?”

“No,” Fan Dingxiang says, submitting to this examination with her usual patience. She thinks for a second. “At least, I don’t have to pluck any more than Granny does, and she’s a woman who didn’t need outside help to grow her boobs.”

The apothecary laughs, a rich sound, and swats her on the shoulder. “Well, you let me know if anything changes. We can always alter the prescription if you need it.”

Fan Dingxiang nods, like she usually does, and waits, like she usually does, for the greying woman behind the counter to grind and mix up her usual order. It’s all very normal and boring and she wants to pound her fists on the wood and scream about the men she’s fed to the pigs and the swords under her bed and the bloodstain that won’t come out of the barn floor.

She doesn’t.

She takes the packet, stows it away in her robes, and picks up the basket with the weekly farm shopping in it. The apothecary fusses after her as she leaves, and Fan Dingxiang makes it a few strides down the road and slows to a stop, considering something. She could go straight home. It’s what she usually does. But in spite of the village carrying on around her, nothing is usual, right now, and there’s someone she could ask about it. It can’t hurt to ask, can it?

Fan Dingxiang nods to herself, lifts her eyes from the road, and takes another path.

The cultivator (there’s only the one living in the village, so they all just call him “the cultivator” if they’re not talking to his face, in which case he’s Chen-xianshi) lives in a house with a very neat garden and a carp pond. Technically, she supposes he’s a rogue cultivator, except that he doesn’t really travel around like they do in the stories. He just lives with his husband and takes care of the occasional ghost or spirit or fierce corpse when they crop up. He tells good stories, and one time when Fan Dingxiang was very small, he’d bought her a replacement pork bun after she’d dropped hers in the mud. Granny doesn’t much care for cultivators, and even she, grudgingly, allows that this one’s all right.

The cultivator is out in the garden when she walks up the path, which is nice because Fan Dingxiang already thinks this might be a weird conversation and if she had to knock on a door she’d probably turn around and go home. He smiles at her, eyes crinkling. “Well, if it isn’t little Fan Zhu’er!” he says, like he’s been calling her since she was actually little. “What brings you out this way?

“Chen-xianshi,” she says, bringing her hands up into the most proper bow she can while also juggling a basket. “This one wondered if she might impose upon you to ask a few questions.” When she stands again his eyes are on her, considering, his mouth quirked with something that might be interest.

“Why don’t you come in for some tea?” he says, waving her through the gate. “It’s always nice when someone stops by to offer some company to an old man.”

They don’t speak again until the tea has been poured, on opposite sides of a low table in Chen-xianshi’s house. His sword is on the table, and Fan Dingxiang’s eyes track to it after a moment. “Well,” the cultivator says, setting a cup in front of her, gaze assessing. “What brings you out to see me today, Fan Zhu’er?”

Fan Dingxiang takes a slow sip of her tea while she gets her thoughts in order. Across the table, the cultivator waits with the patience she associates with someone who spends a lot of time meditating. She appreciates it--Chen-xianshi never treats her like she’s slow just because she wants to be sure of what she says before she opens her mouth.

“Chen-xianshi,” she says, eventually, grassy tea on her tongue, a memory of blood in her nostrils. “What’s the best way to fight a cultivator?”

Chen-xianshi blinks, a moment of surprise rolling across his face before it goes back to his usual calm smile. “Why, Fan Zhu’er!” he says, friendly. “Have I done something to offend you, that you need to fight me?”

Fan Dingxiang looks at him for another moment. He’s rogue, but he’s in Yunmeng Jiang territory, and she doesn’t think there are any issues between him and the sect. She decides to risk the truth. “Two cultivators have come to the farm in the last month. They tried to claim it for the Wen Clan.”

The surprise on Chen-xianshi’s face is more pronounced this time, his grizzled eyebrows climbing his forehead. She can see the shape of the question before he asks it, when he looks at her in front of him, hale and hearty and definitely still alive. “Where are those cultivators now?”

“Dead,” Fan Dingxiang says. The word lands on the table as though carved from stone and dropped from a great height.

“At whose hands?” the cultivator asks.

“Mine,” Fan Dingxiang says, dropping another stone into the conversation. Honesty compels her to add, “Granny helped with the last one.” She takes another sip of her tea, so she can think again. “I think we’re being invaded.”

The cultivator nods, running his hand over his beard in a way that makes him look very wise and scholarly. “I had heard things,” he admits. “I had hoped we were far enough away for it to not be a problem.” He fixes his gaze on her again, worried and a little apologetic. “The best way to fight a cultivator, little Fan Zhu’er, is to be a cultivator.”

Fan Dingxiang nods. “Would it be possible for this one to learn, Chen-xianshi?” she asks, because she has to. Someone has to be able to defend the farm, and Granny, and her mother and brother.

“Hm,” says the cultivator, and he extends a hand expectantly. She offers him hers, and he takes her wrist carefully in his grip and does some kind of cultivator thing she doesn’t understand but it makes him frown. When he releases her arm and looks up at her, it’s with a full apology in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Fan Zhu’er,” he says, his voice as gentle as she’s ever heard it. “Perhaps if you had started much younger it would be possible.”

“Why can’t I?” Fan Dingxiang asks. She’s only a little bit disappointed--it’s not like she had her heart set on cultivation. “I’m not trying to argue, Chen-xianshi,” she adds, bowing again over the table. “I would like to understand.”

“It’s your golden core,” the cultivator says, pouring them both another cup of tea. “It would be the source of your power, if you were to cultivate. Yours is…” he pauses in a way that Fan Dingxiang recognizes means he’s trying to be tactful. “Undeveloped,” he says delicately. “You wouldn’t have the spiritual power needed to follow the path of the sword.”

Fan Dingxiang nods again, sips her tea, and thinks. Chen-xianshi lets her do it, drinking his own cup in a companionable silence.

“Forgive this one’s ignorance,” Fan Dingxiang says, raising her eyes at last, “but not every blade requires spiritual power, does it? Isn’t…” she trails off, struggling for the clever way to phrase her question. She gives up after a moment and finishes, “Isn’t a sword just a really long knife, when you get down to it?”

The cultivator opens his mouth, then closes it, then opens it again, then co*cks his head. “I suppose that’s one way of putting it,” he says, like he doesn’t entirely agree with her.

“And I don’t need spiritual power to fight, now,” she continues doggedly, because she doesn’t. Leaving aside the two Wen cultivators, most of the village bullies know to leave her alone. Fan Dingxiang doesn’t start fights, but she sure as sh*t finishes them, and there’s at least one broken arm to prove it. “If I needed spiritual power to throw a punch I think it’d have come up.”

“I suppose,” Chen-xianshi says again, stroking his beard. He looks even more thoughtful now.

“And, I mean,” Fan Dingxiang forges ahead, because she spent a lot of time getting this speech figured out so now she’s gonna finish it, “Granny always says a man’ll die same as a pig if you gut him.” She makes eye contact with the cultivator, her jaw firming. “I’ve gutted a lot of pigs, Chen-xianshi.” And two cultivators, she doesn’t add but thinks very hard.

Chen-xianshi looks at her for a long, long time. It’s uncomfortable, and Fan Dingxiang kinda wants to squirm, but Granny taught her well. She sits with her spine straight and her shoulders back and her eyes respectfully on the table and she waits. It’s only polite to give him time to think, when he’s done the same for her.

“Why do you want to do this?” he asks, eventually. “It’ll be dangerous. I can’t promise I can teach you anything. It’s amazing you’ve survived so far. Why, Fan Zhu’er?”

Oh, this one’s easy. She doesn’t even think about it. “Because someone has to, Chen-xianshi.”

He makes a satisfied little huffing sound. “Well, little Fan Zhu’er,” he says, pouring her another cup of tea. “Why don’t you come back tomorrow and we’ll see what we can do?”

Fan Dingxiang feels her face crack into a grin, hopeful and huge and not at all the kind of face you should make at a respected cultivator. “Thank you, Chen-xianshi,” she says, pushing back from the table so she can bow all the way down to the ground, her forehead brushing the floor. “This one will do her best not to disappoint you.”

“And I’ll do my best not to kill you,” the cultivator says. “It’ll liven things up around here, that’s for sure.”

---

It goes like this:

Twice a week, Fan Dingxiang goes to Chen-xianshi’s house in the early morning. He proceeds to attack her with a sword, and she tries not to die.

(“If you were in a sect you’d be training every day,” he says.

“I’m not in a sect, and the pigs still need feeding,” she replies, and climbs back to her feet for the twenty-sixth time that morning.)

Fan Dingxiang tries to hold his sword once, as a test. She drops it and passes out almost immediately, which certainly answers any questions either of them had about her ability to weird a spiritual weapon. The next time she comes back, she’s carrying a boar spear and the wickedly sharp knife she uses when she butchers pigs, the one that slips between bone and sinew as though through water. The cultivator looks at the knife and says, “Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to see that on a dark night.”

“You wouldn’t,” Fan Dingxiang says, which is more ominous than she intended. “I mean, it’s best if the pigs don’t see it coming,” she clarifies, lest Chen-xianshi think this has been an elaborate ruse and she’s planning to murder him after all. He gives her an amused smile as he hands the knife back, so she thinks it works. Just in case, she adds, “I’m not planning to murder you, that just came out very creepy.” That makes him laugh until he cries.

“Thank you, little Fan Zhu’er,” he wheezes, wiping his eyes. “Sometimes it’s nice to hear people say so out loud.”

Fan Dingxiang doesn’t learn how to use a sword, but she does learn how to avoid a sword, and that seems just as important. If she keeps him on the other end of the boar spear, she’s pretty safe. Failing that, if she can manage to get inside his guard, she’s also pretty safe, though the process of getting there is dicey at best. She learns some basic parries with her carving knife, but then it gets a nick in the blade and she has to carefully grind that out at home and re-sharpen it, so she stops bringing it. “Probably best if we stick to developing your other skills,” the cultivator says when she explains why. “If it comes down to an actual swordfight you’ve already lost.”

Chen-xianshi has never trained a non-cultivator before, so sometimes he tells her to do something that makes no sense and she just pretends like she understands it. He can’t seem to help making comments about her core (as though she could do anything with that anyway), so she starts clenching her abs whenever he mentions it and that seems to work okay. It’s all serving to make her stronger and faster, at least, which is what she wanted.

“They won’t expect you to fight back,” he tells her, over and over. “That will be your greatest weapon.”

“The boar spear’s pretty good,” she says before she can stop herself, and Chen-xianshi lets out a belly laugh that makes her flush with pride. “The boar spear is a close second,” he amends. “Surprise, and the boar spear.”

“I killed one with a rock.”

The cultivator narrows his eyes at her. “Are you sassing me?”

“Of course not, Chen-xianshi,” Fan Dingxiang says with a little bow and a straight face. “I’m only making sure you have all the information to make an informed ranking of my weapon choices.”

“That’s definitely sass,” he says, and points his sword at her. “Go get your spear so I can try to stab you again.”

“Yes, Chen-xianshi.”

A month or so into this new routine, a Wen cultivator finds Fan Dingxiang in the woods while she’s foraging for herbs, a basket in her hand, rocks in her pockets, and her small utility knife tucked into the back of her belt. Fan Dingxiang knows the warnings about what happens to girls alone in the woods with men, and she thinks, looking at the cultivator’s greedy eyes, that he knows the warnings, too. She makes herself small, flirts and apologizes and lets him back her into a tree, waits until he’s so close she can feel the sick heat of him.

Then she kicks him in the dick so hard his eyes cross and his feet leave the ground for an instant. Instinctively he hunches forward, curling himself around the wicked pain, and as his face comes down she buries her knife in his eye. Bone cracks, blood welling around her hand as the hilt meets his face. Fan Dingxiang steps away from the tree and the body hits the ground.

That’s three.

Carrying that one back to the farm isn’t fun, and heretically, Fan Dingxiang wishes he’d been considerate enough to attack her closer to home. Another sword goes under the floorboard. The pigs eat again. The laundry water goes pink with blood until it finally washes clear. Fan Dingxiang is used to washing blood out of her clothes, but she’s pretty sick of it to be honest.

(“Do you all just think we’re, what--wusses? That we’re incapable? Are we babies to you?” she asks Chen-xianshi at her next lesson.

“It’s easy to become arrogant when you have power,” he admits, which isn’t a no.)

Lotus Pier falls. The news reaches the village long after the events, as most news does. Jiang Fengmian and Madame Yu are dead, the heirs vanished, the sect in disarray. Granny sniffs and goes back to stirring the congee. “Serves ‘em right,” she mutters. “Always flying around like they own the place, fighting over who can do the prettiest magic. Useless.”

“Granny,” Fan Dingxiang says, not disrespectful but pleading. None of them have ever met the sect leaders, or their children, but when purple-robed cultivators come through the village to hunt things Chen-xianshi can’t handle on his own, they’ve always been respectful. (A short, sturdy woman with a sword that shone like light on water once bought her a moon cake. Fan Dingxiang is a food-motivated person. She still remembers that moon cake.)

“Troublemakers,” Granny insists, but her heart’s not in it.

---

Jiang Wanyin re-takes Lotus Pier.

There are four swords under the floorboards.

Fan Dingxiang can turn a cartwheel and do a backflip from standing. Sometimes she does this in between chores, just because it’s actually pretty fun.

She doesn’t let down her guard.

---

Fan Dingxiang is seventeen years old when she hears that the Wen clan has been defeated and the Yunmeng Jiang sect is recruiting. Her brother’s new wife has moved into the house. There are five swords under her bed. She’s stronger and faster than she’s ever been. She can knock a persimmon out of the air with a thrown knife. (Then she picks up the persimmons and washes them off and makes preserves--she’s still a farmer. No sense wasting food.)

She feeds the pigs, and she does the laundry, and she trains with Chen-xianshi, and she thinks. If the war is over then she doesn’t need to keep training, but she’s come to like it. Fan Dingxiang likes the challenge, likes spending time with the old cultivator, likes failing at something a hundred times but knowing if she works, she can succeed. She likes knowing that she could protect her family and her village. She likes the idea of protecting other people, too.

“Granny,” she says as they weed the bok choy, “I think I want to go to Lotus Pier.”

Granny snorts loudly. “Can’t imagine why you would,” she says, throwing a weed into the basket with more force than necessary. Fan Dingxiang opens her mouth to try and make the case she’s been carefully working on when Granny continues, “When will you leave, A-Xiang?”

Fan Dingxiang closes her mouth and blinks. “Soon?” she says. “After this year’s slaughter.” A pause, where she shakes some dirt off a weed and adds it to the basket. “You’re not angry?”

“Oh, A-Xiang,” Granny says, rocking back on her heels. “If you stay here your mother is going to try and marry you to the blacksmith’s son--”

“And he’s a cutsleeve,” Fan Dingxiang finishes, rolling her eyes. “He and I have spoken about it. He’ll be so relieved.” He’s a nice enough boy, and they get along as friends, but Fan Dingxiang would like to marry someone who actually like likes her.

“And maybe you can knock some sense into that sect leader while he’s still young, keep him from turning into a pompous preening rooster,” Granny finishes, because sentimentality is for other people and will be immediately discarded if there are cultivators to insult.

“I’ll try,” Fan Dingxiang says, and Granny makes a pleased sound and goes back to weeding.

---

“They won’t accept you as a cultivator,” Chen-xianshi says when she tells him about her plan.

“I know,” she says evenly. “But I can be of use. And who knows? Maybe the sect leader will go on a boar hunt and need my expert opinion.”

“Stranger things have happened,” the cultivator says, his eyes sparkling. “I have enjoyed training you, Fan Zhu’er. Don’t forget to write.”

---

Fan Dingxiang is seventeen years old when she sets out for Lotus Pier, a boar spear in her hand and five Wen cultivator swords strapped to her back.

---

Jiang Cheng is having a bad f*cking day.

Really, what the f*ck else is new? It’s been a series of bad f*cking days, one right after the other, ever since Lotus Pier burned and his parents died and his brother disappeared and then his brother came back but different and then he fought a war and then his brother won the war with a f*ckload of ghosts. There’s a nasty little tension headache hovering behind his eyes, and he has like fifteen meetings scheduled, and Wei Wuxian has f*cked off again to who knows where. God. He’s the sect leader, but he’s also seventeen years old and he’d rather die than admit this out loud to anyone ever but it’d be really f*cking nice if there was a single reliable person he could talk sh*t out with, other than Yanli who is the best sister of all time but sometimes he just wants to be able to swear at-and-or-with someone about things, and that’s not a-jie.

Anyway.

Jiang Cheng refocuses his eyes on the hall in front of him, where the latest supplicant is explaining an issue that only he, the noble and devoted sect leader, can solve. It sounds like an ordinary night hunt, possibly a fierce corpse. There are a lot of those, since the war, and he mostly listens and nods at appropriate parts and then directs the man to speak with one of the few senior disciples left so they can gather more details. There’s a line to walk between being accessible to the people and being bothered every time someone hears the wind sounding extra creepy, and Jiang Cheng is trying to walk it with mixed success.

The next person to enter is wearing the roughspun robes of a farmer, and his heart sinks just a little bit at the inevitable idea of being asked to weigh in one some petty land dispute. Just farm the same f*cking land and split it equally, who cares? he thinks reflexively as they--she comes to a stop, and then he blinks as he parses her size. Namely, how she’s f*cking huge. The lotus throne is raised on a dais, but he guesses that if he was standing she’d be a good hand or so taller than him and her shoulders are easily as broad. That, in and of itself, is interesting enough that he stops half-worrying about his brother’s whereabouts and actually pays attention as she folds herself to the ground and presses her forehead to the floor.

“Jiang-zongzhu,” she says to the floor, in the most purely rustic accent he thinks he’s ever heard. Is that--does she have a spear with her? This is already more interesting than anything that happened yesterday, and he sits up a little straighter. “Thank you for granting this one an audience.”

“Yes,” he says, a little impatiently. “Why are you here?” Oh, maybe that could have been a little less blunt, but he’s been hearing the same stories about hauntings for weeks and he just doesn’t have enough cultivators yet for all the night hunts and if he needs to add another one to the list he wants it over with already.

She sits back up on her heels and keeps her eyes at approximately the level of his feet. “This one came with the understanding that the Yunmeng Jiang sect is recruiting,” she says in that country voice, her shoulders back and her spine straight. Her face is plain, with a strong jawline, her hair braided and wrapped around her head simply. She looks nervous but not like she’s about to wet her pants, thank god. (That was… certainly a morning, when that had happened.)

“Yes?” Jiang Cheng says, again, this time in question. “Did you have a child for us to train?” He glances around, briefly, but it looks like this girl came alone. Where did she come from? She can’t be much older than he is.

“No,” she tells his feet. “This one wished to join the Jiang sect, if they would have her.”

“Are you a cultivator?” She could be a rogue, though he can’t see a sword with her, just the spear and a bundle on her back.

“No,” she says, steadily. “This one doesn’t possess the core for it.” She pauses and raises her eyes to his, so boldly he finds it a little startling. “I believe that I can be of use to the Jiang sect in spite of that, and I have brought a gift to prove it. May I show you?”

Fully intrigued now, Jiang Cheng nods. The girl unslings the bundle from her back, unties a couple of straps, and unrolls it on the floor in a smooth motion.

Jiang Cheng is on his feet before he even consciously realizes it’s happened, and the reaction murmurs out through the hall. There, on a blanket that belongs on the back of a horse, are five Wen cultivator swords, offered to him by a girl who looks like the word “bumpkin” was invented specifically for her. What the f*ck.

“Where did you get those?” he asks, instead of asking “What the f*ck?” out loud, because that would be unbecoming of his status as sect leader.

The girl meets his eyes again, lifts her chin, and says simply, “I killed the men who carried them.”

That ripples out through the hall in a second set of whispers, and Jiang Cheng sits back down and arranges his robes. Calm. Dignified. He looks at the girl, and then at the swords, and then at the girl again. “How?”

She reaches out one work-roughened hand to hover over the hilt of the sword to his left. “Crushed his skull with a hoe,” she says, then moves her hand to the next. “Threw a rock at his head and slit his throat.” The next. “Knife through his eye.” The next. “Pinned him to the wall with a spear, then slit his throat.” The final sword. “Gutted him like a pig.”

What. The. f*ck. Jiang Cheng eyes her again, then stands. He crosses the hall until his toes nearly touch the roughspun blanket. This close he can see the dust on her clothes and the sweat in her hair. She’s come a long way to get here, that’s clear enough. He holds out one hand expectantly, and after a moment she hands him a sword, the first one, from the man she claims to have killed with a f*cking hoe. He’s not even entirely sure which farm implement that is--one of the ones for digging, right?

The sword weighs heavy in his hand, the workmanship unmistakably of the Wen Clan. He sets a hand on the hilt and tries to draw it, as a test. Absolutely nothing happens--it belonged to a cultivator, and that cultivator is dead, his sword sealed. Jiang Cheng looks down at this common girl. Either she’s telling the truth, and she actually killed the bearers of these swords, or she’s lying and she… What, snuck in somewhere and stole them? Haunted a battlefield like a fierce corpse, gathered them up, and brought them here? Why the f*ck would she go to all that trouble, if it was a lie? He shoves the sword back at her roughly, out of sorts with the questions in his head.

“What are you?” he asks, which isn’t exactly the right question, so he follows it up with, “Who are you?”

“This one is Fan Dingxiang, courtesy name Zhu’er,” she says, bowing again. “I’m a pig farmer, Jiang-zongzhu.”

“Fan Zhu’er.” Jiang Cheng repeats. “Is there a story behind that name?”

“Yes.”

Jiang Cheng waits, but she doesn’t seem inclined to elaborate, so he moves on. “How old are you?”

She sits back up again, her eyes meeting his. “Seventeen.”

Seventeen. Not even a cultivator. Five Wen clan swords in front of her. It’s not a difficult decision in the least. “The Yunmeng Jiang sect welcomes Fan Zhu’er.” Jiang Cheng nods to one of his secretaries, and the man bustles forward to begin the administrative side of things.

“This one thanks you,” Fan Zhu’er says, bowing over her hands. Jiang Cheng gives her a perfunctory nod and returns to the throne. The next supplicant has the kind of self-important face of someone who is about to take up a lot of his time. The tension headache comes back again, full force, and he grinds his teeth. f*ck his life.

Notes:

I did my best with the names! Hope I didn't mess it up too badly!

Fàn Dingxiang 范 丁香 (Lilac), courtesy name Zhu’er 猪饵 (Boar Bait)

Title from http://www.chinese-poems.com/d21.html

Chapter 2

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Fan Dingxiang has been at Lotus Pier a month. In that time, she’s learned the layout of the sprawling, half-dock sect compound; been provided robes that probably only had one owner before her, which is practically new; found an apothecary that can fill her regular prescriptions; and done a lot of chores, not a single one of which involved pig sh*t. Fan Dingxiang hadn’t realized how much pig sh*t featured in her life until it was gone, and she doesn’t miss it even a little.

Unfortunately, her life has been just as training-free as it has been pig-sh*t-free, which is a disappointment. She wasn’t expecting to actually be a cultivator, on account of the whole “no golden core,” thing, but she showed up with five swords! Five! That’s five more than she’s heard of anyone else showing up with! Jiang-zongzhu even seemed impressed with her, from the expression she could discern under the perma-scowl. When she’d imagined it, she’d hoped that they’d see what she could do, and then she’d get to continue combat training, even if it didn’t involve like, f*cking flying or whatever. Instead, the senior disciples looked at her, did that thing with her wrist, and sent her off to join the household staff. Fan Dingxiang doesn’t mind, exactly--if there’s one thing pig farming teaches you, it’s a willingness to do menial, backbreaking labor, and has she mentioned it doesn’t involve pig sh*t? It just seems like a bit of a waste, is all. She keeps up the training she can do in her spare time, doing push-ups and sit-ups and squats in her room, sneaking out to one of the empty courtyards in the middle of the night to run drills with her spear. Fan Dingxiang really doesn’t think she’s asking for a lot, she’d just like a chance to prove herself, and to maybe get to punch a monster.

She’s on her way back to her room after dinner, thinking about whether or not she can find an empty place to train before bed or if it’d be better to sneak out in the dark again, when she turns a corner to find two cultivators tucked into a corner. Fan Dingxiang switches, immediately, to her quiet walk, the one that Granny used to complain about. She doesn’t want to end up in the middle of an awkward situation. Maybe she can find another way past, and leave them to their kissing or whatever.

“Oh, no, I’m fine,” comes a voice on the wind, a girl’s voice, taut with tension under the politeness. “You don’t need to trouble yourself.” Fan Dingxiang freezes. She knows that tone of voice. She’s used that tone of voice. Now that she knows what to look for, she sees the taller cultivator leaning in, blocking the escape route of the smaller one; the hand, over-familiar, on an upper arm. Fan Dingxiang stays in her quiet walk, all the way up until she’s within grappling range.

“Come on,” the taller one is saying, his voice oily, “I hear you’re good with swords--

“Do you need anything?” Fan Dingxiang says, in the voice she uses to give orders to pigs. The male cultivator jumps and half-turns, keeping the female one trapped in the corner. He gives Fan Dingxiang a dirty look, then pastes a smile over the top of it that’s just as oily as his words.

“Oh, no,” he starts, but Fan Dingxiang doesn’t give a single sh*t about what he has to say, looking intently at the cultivator girl in the corner. They’re about the same age, her hair up in one of those fancy styles Fan Dingxiang doesn’t know how to do, subtle makeup expertly applied. She’s giving Fan Dingxiang a very specific facial expression, wide-eyed with a smile that shows all her teeth. Ah.

“Would you like me to escort you back to your room?” she asks the girl, interrupting Oily’s irrelevant lie.

“Oh,” the girl says, extricating herself from the man’s grip, “I wouldn’t want to trouble you.”

“It’s no trouble,” Fan Dingxiang says, obnoxiously insinuating herself between the girl and Oily in such a way that she can sort of scoop her out of his reach, like culling an ill animal from the herd for treatment. Now if she can just get them back down the pier and around the corner...

“We were having a private conversation, actually,” Oily says through the teeth of his smile, stepping in front of them before they can leave, of f*cking course. “I’d like to continue it.”

“Hm,” Fan Dingxiang says brightly, keeping herself between the girl and this human garbage heap without even thinking about it. “We’d all like things we can’t have, wouldn’t we?” She shows him all her teeth and executes a bow that’s just polite enough not to be a direct insult. “I hope your evening is well, xianshi,” she says, in a voice that no one could claim is actually sarcastic.

Oily flushes with anger, dropping the friendly act. “Who do you think you are?” he hisses, drawing himself to his full height and still having to tip his head back to make eye contact. “Do you know who I am?”

“Nope.” Fan Dingxiang smiles at him, anger simmering in her blood. f*cking bullies, the same everywhere. “Sorry. Haven’t been here that long, I’ve only had a chance to learn the things that matter.

“Why you little--” he snarls, which, you know, Fan Dingxiang hasn’t been little in a decade. His hand moves, probably to do some cultivator pigsh*t, and what patience she had left snaps.

Fan Dingxiang grabs him by the throat and then lifts him off the ground. His cultivator pigsh*t hand is trapped in her other fist and she gives it a little warning squeeze. “I’m going to tell you this once,” she says evenly as he goes rapidly purple. “If you harass anyone else in this compound, I will kick you in the dick so hard your balls come out your mouth.”

“I’ll--” he splutters, feet kicking futilely in the air. “--kill--you dare--”

“If you kill me, I will come back as a ghost and then I will haunt your dick until your balls fall off,” Fan Dingxiang adds, just for clarity’s sake. Then she takes three steps to the edge of the boardwalk and throws him in the lake. The splash is immensely satisfying.

“Okay,” she says, turning back to the cultivator girl, who is staring at her with wide eyes and a sort of horrified delight. “We should probably go before he reaches the dock.”

“Right,” the girl says, and grabs her by the wrist with a firm grip. “You’re coming with me.”

Fan Dingxiang lets herself be towed along by someone who is, at most, half her weight. When they reach the cultivator’s quarters she tries to disengage, so she can go back to the servant’s hall where she belongs, but the girl throws open the door and shoves her inside.

“Oh my god, girls,” she says, sliding the door shut and peering past Fan Dingxiang’s shoulder at the three other female cultivators in the room. “You will not believe what just happened.” (Fan Dingxiang is also confused about what happened and why she’s now in the cultivator’s dormitory with a tiny girl pushing her onto a cushion next to the table, but she goes anyway.)

“So there I was,” the girl starts dramatically, flopping down next to Fan Dingxiang with a theatrical wave of her sleeves, “on my way back after dinner, minding my own business, when who corners me?”

“Duan Gaoshang?” chorus the three other girls, and Fan Dingxiang suddenly has a cup of tea in front of her from one of them. She nicknames that one Tea, the one telling the story Sleeves, and after a desperate glance at the other two for distinguishing characteristics goes with Pajamas and Fancy Hair.

“Duan Gaoshang!” confirms Sleeves. “I was trying to figure out if I could get away without having to throw a talisman at him when in comes my hero!” She swoons against Fan Dingxiang’s shoulder, and the night goes from confusing to bewildering. No one swoons against Fan Dingxiang. They ask her to carry heavy things or chop vegetables. She doesn’t know how to handle a world with swooning.

“She did that thing where she was like--” and Sleeves stops swooning and instead gets her shoulder in between Fan Dingxiang and the table, with exaggerated grace “--and he was all, ‘I wanted to finish our conversation’--”

It’s an extremely unflattering impression of Oily’s voice.

“--and she was all, ‘How does it feel to want?’--”

It’s a slightly better impression of Fan Dingxiang, and not actually how the conversation went.

“--and then he was all--”

Sleeves gestures with her hands to indicate cultivator stuff.

“--and she was all, ‘I’ll haunt your dick!’ And then!” She pauses dramatically, and the other three girls lean in. “She threw him in the lake!”

“Wow!” Tea Girl says, somehow making a little sweet cake appear on the table next to Fan Dingxiang’s cup.

“That’s amazing,” Fancy Hair says, leaning forward from her perch on her bed. “We all want to throw him in the lake.” She pouts a little. “Wish I’d been there to see it.”

“She was holding him by the throat!” Sleeves squeals. “It was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!”

“What’s your name?” Pajamas says, running a comb through her hair. Fan Dingxiang blinks into the middle distance several times. This is the most anyone has spoken to her since she left home, other than to give her chore rotations.

“Oh my god,” Sleeves says, throwing herself dramatically onto the table. “You saved me and I forgot to ask your name!” She rises back to her knees and turns to Fan Dingxiang, bringing her hands up in a bow. “Please forgive my rudeness.”

“Please don’t bow,” Fan Dingxiang says, which as the first words to this group of girls is probably not ideal. There are four pairs of expectant eyes on her, and, overwhelmed, she buries her face in her hands and lets out a wild little giggle she wasn’t even aware she was capable of.

“Okay,” she says into her palms. “Okay, okay, okay.” When she looks back up the girls are less expectant and now a little confused, which makes five of them. Fan Dingxiang bows over the table. “This one is Fan Dingxiang, courtesy name Zhu’er.”

“Oh!” Fancy Hair says, her face lighting up in recognition. “You’re Five Swords!”

Fan Dingxiang blinks. What? She blinks again, and says, out loud, “What?”

“I heard about that!” says Pajamas, her eyes going very round. “You really showed up with five Wen swords as a gift for the sect leader?”

“Yes?” Fan Dingxiang says, shoved off-balance by the new direction of the conversation as though a pig had side-swiped her. “I don’t know what else I was supposed to do with them.”

“Did you really walk here all the way from Qishan?” asks Tea, as another little sweet cake appears next to the cup.

“Um--”

“Why aren’t you training with us?” asks Sleeves, propping her elbow on the table and looking up at Fan Dingxiang with pleading eyes.

“I--”

“How did you kill the Wen cultivators?” Fancy Hair leans forward, face avid and bloodthirsty. Fan Dingxiang re-evaluates her threat level immediately--that very complicated hairdo is hiding something. This is too much and she can’t get enough time to think and there are a lot of questions and she does the only thing that makes sense in the moment, namely, putting her head down on the table and covering it with her arms. She can hear several of the girls start talking, followed by a furious shushing.

“Oh,” says the voice that she recognizes as coming from Pajamas. There’s a rustle of fabric, and then a very gentle hand lightly landing on her shoulder. “Are you all right, Fan Zhu’er?”

“Gimme a minute,” Fan Dingxiang says to the wood. It’s wildly informal and not at all the right thing for a servant to say to a bunch of cultivators, but none of these girls are acting like cultivators so… eh? She breathes into the quiet darkness of her sleeves, the lacquered wood smell of the table grounding her back into the here and now. Okay. She’s going to answer these questions and then she’s going to bow and take her leave and go back to her quarters and do push-ups until she forgets this ever happened.

“Okay,” she says aloud, sitting back upright. She points at Tea. “I didn’t walk here from Qishan, but my village is out toward that border.” Next, to Sleeves: “I’m not training with you because I’m not a cultivator.” To Fancy Hair: “With farm implements, mostly.” To Pajamas: “I’m well, thank you for asking, xianshi. I just.. I just don’t talk fast.”

“Ah,” Pajamas says, kindly. “I see. Yes, we can be kind of a lot.” She gives a little bow, less formal than Sleeves. “I’m Zhang Ye, courtesy name Luan. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Beaten to introducing myself to my own rescuer?” Sleeves fake-wails. “That’s simply unacceptable!” She turns and bows as well, overdramatically. “Hu Xuan, courtesy name Yueque.” Hu Yueque sits up and sets a hand on Fan Dingxiang’s shoulder, her face actually serious for the first time since entering the room. “Thank you for intervening. I really do appreciate it.”

“Of course,” Fan Dingxiang says without even having to think about it. Before anyone else can introduce themselves or she can figure out anything else to say, there’s a scrabbling at the window and a male cultivator hauls himself halfway through it.

“Did you hear?” he says gleefully. “Someone threw Duan Gaoshang in the lake!” He blinks up at the room, where Fan Dingxiang instinctively has put herself between the window and the rest of the girls, her utility knife in her hand. “Uh,” he says, less delighted now. “Do I have the wrong window?”

“Wow,” Hu Yueque says, tugging on Fan Dingxiang’s hem. “You move fast. It’s fine, this is my cousin.”

“So this is normal?” Fan Dingxiang says, slowly lowering her knife. In her experience when someone comes through your window it’s for nefarious purposes.

“Totally normal,” Hu Yueque says, tugging on her sleeve now until Fan Dingxiang sits back down at the table. “He’s a cutsleeve, anyway, so it doesn’t matter.”

“He also,” the cousin says, levering himself the rest of the way through the window now that Fan Dingxiang is no longer poised to stab him, “a very kind and reliable and trustworthy person, outside of his taste in romantic partners.” He lands on the floor with a surprising lack of grace for a cultivator and glares at his cousin balefully. “Honestly, my being a cutsleeve is the least interesting thing about me, why do you always lead with that, A-Xuan?” He bows to Fan Dingxiang, who has had more people bow to her in the last five minutes than ever before in her life and is starting to panic about it a little. “Hu Qiang, courtesy name Xinling. Thank you for not stabbing me.”

“This is Fan Zhu’er!” Hu Yueque jumps in before Fan Dingxiang can react. “She’s the one that threw Duan Gaoshang.”

“Hell yeah!” says Hu Xinling, his face lighting up. “You are officially my new hero!” Everyone in the room starts talking at once, and Fan Dingxiang looks longingly at the window. Maybe she can jump out of it while they’re distracted.

“Okay, everyone shut up,” says Zhang Luan, her sweet voice suddenly sharp as a blade. “Look at her, she has anxiety now.” She takes the ignored teacup from the table and sets it gently in one of Fan Dingxiang’s hands. “Drink this and breathe for a second and we’ll finish the introductions when you’re ready.” It’s so kind and polite and wildly improper and Fan Dingxiang really, really has no idea what the f*ck is happening.

“I don’t understand why you’re introducing yourselves to me at all!” Fan Dingxiang blurts, lukewarm tea slopping against her fingers. “I work in the kitchen and lift heavy things! I’m a--I’m a f*cking pig farmer! You all outrank me so much it’s laughable! I shouldn’t even be here.” She breathes into the sudden silence of the room, her hands shaking with nerves. Everyone’s eyes are on her and she doesn’t like it and her skin prickles under the attention. Several people open their mouths to talk at once, and Zhang Luan cuts a hand through the air like a blade. “One at a time,” she insists, and points to Hu Yueque, who has her hand raised like she knows the answer to something.

“You threw Duan Gaoshang in the lake,” Hu Yueque says, as though that’s an explanation in and of itself. “That creep has been creeping on all of us with plausible deniability for months, and you picked him up by the throat and threw him in the lake. You’re basically my best friend, now.”

“Uh,” Fan Dingxiang starts. Best friend? Zhang Luan snaps her fingers and points at Fancy Hair. Fan Dingxiang goes silent again, which is easier.

“Jiang Shao, courtesy name Fengli,” Fancy-Hair-Jiang-Fengli says with a quick bow. “We’ve been watching out for each other for ages, so we really appreciate you keeping an eye on Hu Yueque for us. Also, I really want to know the story about Five Swords.”

“Oh f*ck!” Hu Xinling interrupts, looking like someone just handed him a puppy. “This is Five Swords? Oh my god, please tell us everything, I am dyyyying to know about it.”

“It wasn’t your turn to talk,” Zhang Luan snaps at him, and he claps a hand over his mouth, rolling his eyes. Tea has a hand raised next to her shoulder, in the way that says, “I have a question but it’s also fine if you never ask me, don’t worry about it.” When Zhang Luan points at her, she squeaks like she wasn’t expecting to be called on.

“Oh,” she starts, bowing, “I’m Ma Xueliang. When Duan Gaoshang speaks to me he addresses my boobs the whole time. I hate him very much.” She pauses, and her eyes flick back up to Fan Dingxiang’s. “Did you really say you’d haunt his dick?”

Hu Xinling, in the background, cackles and gets shushed by three voices. Fan Dingxiang closes her fingers around her teacup. This is easier, direct questions are easier. “He threatened to kill me, I think, so I told him if he did I’d come back as a ghost and haunt his dick until his balls fell off.”

“That’s after she already told him if he harassed anyone else she’d kick him in the dick so hard his balls would come out his mouth.” Hu Yueque clasps her hands under her chin and stares beatifically into the distance. “It was poetry.

“Okay, if you said that to Duan Gaoshang, you are officially my new best friend and can have some of these pork buns I stole from the kitchen,” Hu Xinling announces, pulling a bag out of his sleeves and handing her one. Fan Dingxiang sits there, looking blankly from the bun in one hand to the teacup in the other, trying to process the last fifteen minutes of her life.

“If you don’t want to be friends,” Zhan Luan starts, and then does that cutting hand motion at everyone in the room when they make noises of protest, “we will, of course, respect your wishes, but any enemy of Duan Gaoshang is a friend of ours.”

“Also I want to see what else you can lift,” Hu Yueque announces, taking a pork bun from Hu Xinling. “How are you not a cultivator? You picked him up in one hand! By the neck.

“I used my muscles,” Fan Dingxiang says, still trying to catch up. She looks up at the room, uncertain. “You… You want to be my friends?”

Five heads nod furiously. Jiang Fengli has a pork bun sticking out of her mouth. Something unclenches in Fan Dingxiang’s shoulders, and she realizes that everyone in the room is a teenager. Ma Xueliang is still gawky in that way that means she’s not done growing, and Hu Xinling looks like, if he tried very hard for two weeks, he might grow a truly pathetic shadow of a mustache.

“I’m a pig farmer,” Fan Dingxiang says, just to be clear. “I’m extremely low-rank. I don’t even think I technically have a rank.”

Hu Yueque snorts in a way absolutely unbecoming of a noble cultivator. “We,” she says, waving to encompass Hu Xinling, “are from a family of apothecaries. Yunmeng Jiang was desperate.

“I’m a fourth daughter,” Ma Xueliang says, long-suffering. “Cultivation is the best I could have hoped for. Maybe my face will be scarred on a night hunt and they won’t marry me off to some sh*tty lord’s sh*tty nephew.”

“Technically I’m a Jiang,” Jiang Fengli says, “but we’re really distant cousins. Also, mutual enmity can be a bond that crosses rank and position.” She says it like she’s quoting someone, and Fan Dingxiang has some questions about this girl and her fancy hair and her apparent lust for murder.

“Are there, like, rules about fraternization or something?” Fan Dingxiang asks. She likes it here, even if she’s not getting to do any real fighting, and she doesn’t want to get kicked out. Fraternization is one of those words she’s read a few times and isn’t entirely sure what it means but from context she thinks it’s the right one.

Zhan Luan makes a thoughtful noise. “I think there are guidelines for how you’re supposed to approach us, but no one in this room cares about that.”

“It’s not your fault I dragged you in here,” Hu Yueque points out with a mouthful of pork bun.

“I could have stopped you,” Fan Dingxiang says automatically, because Granny raised her to be truthful.

“I bet you could have,” Hu Yueque agrees, squinting at her thoughtfully. “You’re really, really strong. Why aren’t you a cultivator?”

Fan Dingxiang sighs, sets down her pork bun, and offers her wrist to Hu Yueque. Hu Yueque, for her part, takes her hand, interlaces their fingers, and gamely looks at her with a “Now what?” tilt to her eyebrows. No one has held Fan Dingxiang’s hand since she was twelve, and she has to take a second to, again, question her life.

“Uh,” Fan Dingxiang says after a moment. “I thought you were gonna do that cultivator thing with my wrist.”

“Oh!” Hu Yueque says, understanding and embarrassment dawning on her face. “Oh, right.” She shifts her grip and does The Thing. It never feels like anything to Fan Dingxiang, but Hu Yueque looks at her in startlement. “Oh, wow,” she says, awed. “That’s the tiniest core I’ve ever felt in my life.” Fan Dingxiang nods, opening her mouth to say something, when Hu Yueque continues, “It’s like there was a mix-up when you were reincarnated and you got a core for ants.

Hu Yueque!” Zhan Luan says, horrified. Fan Dingxiang’s shoulders start to shake with silent laughter.

Emboldened, Hu Yueque continues, “It’s like you have the core of a baby. A small baby.”

Fan Dingxiang bursts out into heavy, wheezing giggles, setting down the cup of now-cold tea so she can cover her face with one hand. The tension and confusion of the evening pours out of her with the laughter like water through a broken teapot. “Everyone always sounds so sad when they tell me I can’t cultivate,” she says, peeking through her fingers at Hu Yueque. “Please, tell me more about my sh*tty baby core. This is amazing.”

“It’s like someone yelled ‘golden core!’ at you from a li away, and your body barely heard it on the wind,” Hu Yueque says, grinning widely.

“Okay, I gotta feel this,” Hu Xinling demands, and at Fan Dingxiang’s nod Hu Yueque hands over her wrist. Hu Xinling frowns at his hand for a moment. “Damn. You have a core like someone accidentally spilled a single drop of ink in a whole-ass pond.”

“It’s like someone threw rice at a crowd of people to give them golden cores, and you got hit with a single grain. On a ricochet,” Hu Yueque says triumphantly as Fan Dingxiang laughs even harder. “It’s like a mosquito was supposed to sting you to form your core and you smashed it as soon as it landed on you.”

“You have the core equivalent of the twentieth brewing of cheap tea leaves,” Hu Xinling announces to the room.

“It’s like someone looked at a golden core from a mountaintop and thought that’s how big they were supposed to be and gave you one based on that.” Hu Yueque swoons against Fan Dingxiang’s side again. “My hero! She has the core of a disgruntled mouse and yet she saved me!” She peers curiously up at Fan Dingxiang’s face, upside down. “Seriously, though, how are you so strong without a core?”

Fan Dingxiang wipes her streaming eyes and drinks her cold tea as she recovers some level of composure. “I mean,” she says with a shrug when she can speak again. “I’m a pig farmer.” This proves to be not the explanation she’d hoped it would be, as everyone in the room looks at her with blank faces and raised eyebrows. She sighs, muttering, “City girls.”

“I’m a city boy, thank you very much,” Hu Xinling points out without much heat.

Fan Dingxiang ignores him to say, “Do any of you know how much a pig weighs?” Five more uncomprehending faces, and she sighs again. Before she can think better of it, she pulls up her sleeve to the shoulder and flexes. That gets their attention, and Hu Yueque puts her hand on Fan Dingxiang’s bicep with wide eyes.

“Wow,” she says, squeezing. “It’s like a f*cking rock.”

“You haven’t been cultivating the sword path,” Ma Xueliang says, refilling Fan Dingxiang’s teacup. “You’ve been cultivating those arms.”

“I guess,” Fan Dingxiang says, shaking her sleeve back into place. “I mean, I never had a core to draw on or whatever, so I just work hard.”

“Sorry,” Jiang Fenli cuts in, not sounding sorry at all, “now I really, really want to know how you ended up with five swords when you don’t even cutivate like, a little.” She grabs a pillow and hugs it to her chest, her face bright and avid.

“Holy sh*t, yes,” Hu Xinling echoes. “Please tell us everything.

Fan Dingxiang looks around the room to find only interested, open expressions. It hits her, suddenly, that these people actually want to hear her talk, that they want to know what she has to say. It’s so unfamiliar a sensation, warm and weird, that she takes a bite of her previously-abandoned pork bun just so she has an excuse not to speak for a moment.

Fan Dingxiang is seventeen years old when, for the first time in her life, she actually makes friends.

---

“So, everyone knows about Duan Gaoshang?” she asks Hu Yueque on a moonlit night, as they take a water break between bouts of their now regularly scheduled secret sparring.

“The girls do,” Hu Yueque says with a grimace. “We try not to walk alone.”

“Why hasn’t anyone said anything? Reported him?” Jiang-zongzhu would do something if he knew, right? The people say he’s fair. Fan Dingxiang mostly tries to avoid being in the same room as Jiang-zongzhu, just in case he can tell she’s breaking the rules by looking at her. She doesn’t think there’s an explicit prohibition against a non-cultivator training with cultivators, but she also doesn’t want to find out. She cannot overemphasize the lack of pig sh*t at Lotus Pier and how much she’d like her life to stay pig sh*t free.

“Because he’s careful,” Ma Xueliang pipes up from where she’s nursing a wicked bruise on her hip. Fan Dingxiang got her pretty good in the last round. “He only does it when he’s alone, and only on people lower-ranked than him. It’d be our word against his, and he’s a senior disciple.”

“Well that’s hot garbage,” Fan Dingxiang says, her temper simmering up inside her gut. “You shouldn’t have to change how you live your lives based on some sh*tlord bully of a cultivator.”

“I mean, I definitely agree,” Zhang Luan says, stepping forward and drawing her sword, “but it is what it is.” She levels her blade at Fan Dingxiang and grins. “Now come on, I want to see if I can get past that whippy thing you do with the spear.”

Fan Dingxiang smiles back, a sensation she’s still not quite used to, and picks up her spear. She doesn’t stop thinking about the situation with Duan Gaoshang, though. She thinks about it while she trains and while she gets ready for bed and while she works in the kitchen the whole next day. Finally, when she’s done thinking, she borrows the communal calligraphy set and tucks herself away in a corner.

Someone has to try, she tells herself, carefully setting brush to paper. Might as well be me.

---

Jiang Cheng has a lot of questions when he gets dressed one morning and a letter falls out of the sleeve of his freshly laundered robe, questions like, “What the f*ck is this?” and “How the f*ck did this get in my sleeve?” and “Wasn’t this robe supposed to be f*cking clean?” He picks it up, warily, in case it bursts into flames (Wei Wuxian is not as hilarious as he thinks he is) and scowls another question at it when he finds it’s addressed to Jiang-zongzhu. The handwriting is unfamiliar, the strokes careful and broad like the writer doesn’t have a lot of practice. There’s no indication of who sent it, or how it got into his robe. It’s clearly not official sect business, so he sets it aside as he finishes dressing. When he’s done and his hair is tamed and Zidian is on his wrist in a comforting, agonizing weight, he sits at the table with his congee and tea. The letter doesn’t burst into flames when he opens it, either, nor does it turn into a butterfly, make a rude farting sound, or transform into a paperman and jump directly onto his face, so he’s pretty sure he can at least rule out it coming from Wei Wuxian. Shaking it open with a sharp movement, he takes a sip of tea and reads.

Jiang-zongzhu,

This one offers a thousand apologies for imposing on your valuable time. This one knew no other way for this information to reach you without endangering disciples of your sect, who fear retaliation by the subject of this letter. This one can only imagine that Jiang-zongzhu is unaware of the actions of his senior disciple Duan Gaoshang, who preys on junior disciples and household staff. His victims are many and varied, but they are all young, and they are all lower rank. He is careful to do this only when alone, and the women he preys on are unwilling or unable to speak out for fear of his power and status. This one implores you to investigate for yourself and see his dishonorable behavior. A thousand thanks that you would deign to read this one’s humble words.

Jiang Cheng puts down the letter, drinks the rest of his cup of tea, and tries to calm the crackle of Zidian. He doesn’t actually want to whip his table in f*cking half, and that would spill his congee everywhere and he’d have to change robes again. He eats his breakfast, glaring at the letter, drinks another cup of tea, still glaring, and finally reads it again with a glare so hard it’s surprising the paper doesn’t burst into flames. Who sent it and who do they think they are, telling him how to run his sect? If Duan Gaoshang was mistreating women under his command, Jiang Cheng would know about it, wouldn’t he? Someone would come forward, wouldn’t they? Is this a trick by one of the other sects, trying to sneak in and send Yunmeng Jiang into even further disarray by fomenting dissent? How the f*ck did this make it into his robe?

There’s another voice at the back of his head, quieter and calmer under the defensive anger. It answers his questions with other questions, whispering that Jiang Cheng knows how dishonorable men act when they have power, whispers about sins committed under cover of darkness so they don’t make it to the light, whispers that he recognizes this paper as coming from Lotus Pier. It sounds a little like himself and a little like a-jie. He eyes the letter again, balefully, and huffs.

Then he does the sensible thing and goes to talk to someone he trusts.

---

“Oh, A-Cheng,” Yanli says, her eyes on the letter in her hands. They shake almost imperceptibly, and Jiang Cheng isn’t sure if she’s not feeling well today or if it’s because she finds the contents that disturbing. She raises her eyes to him and he gets his answer--it’s because of the letter.

“You think I should take this seriously,” he says, and she nods, folding the letter up and passing it back over. “Why wouldn’t anyone say anything?” he blurts, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“A-Cheng,” Yanli says softly, brushing her hand over his hair. “Do you know that when girls go to Carp Tower for the first time, MianMian pulls them aside and warns them not to be alone with Jin Guangshan?”

Jiang Cheng stares at her, horrified to his bones as the implications of that slowly sink in. “But--” he says, spluttering, “but he’s--why would he--”

“Because he has the power,” Yanli says, “and they don’t.” She folds his fingers over the letter, her touch as gentle as always. “I think whoever sent this was very brave, and stands to lose a lot if she came forward another way. I think she was trusting you to do the right thing. It’s an honor to be trusted that way.”

“Okay,” Jiang Cheng, trying to breathe. “Okay. What do I do, a-jie? I don’t--I can’t just call Duan Gaoshang out in front of everyone without evidence. If it’s true he’d just lie, and--” he taps two fingers to the paper “--this says his victims are too frightened to come forward.” He thinks through the problem, his brain skittering away from Jin Guangshan like a water bug away from the mouth of a fish. “Is there a way I can let the women know I’ll believe them?”

Yanli looks thoughtful, eyes distant. “I can try to pass the word along,” she says, “but actions speak louder than words. If you catch him in the act and punish him, then it sends the message that you don’t stand for his behavior, and will protect the people who need it.”

Jiang Cheng grits his teeth, Zidian sparking purple. “Then that’s exactly what I’ll do.”

---

It takes two weeks. Jiang Cheng has Duan Gaoshang quietly tailed whenever the man is out of his direct eyesight, and is starting to hope that, whatever his previous actions, he’s seen the error of his ways. That would be for the best, wouldn’t it? Jiang Cheng wouldn’t end up down a disciple and the staff would be safe and everything would be fine. He stalks through the juniors at sword practice, occasionally correcting a stance or offering a piece of gruff encouragement (how are they his juniors, some of them are literally older than he is, the f*ck) and catches furtive movement out of the corner of his eye. Jiang Cheng shifts his gaze just as Duan Gaoshang disappears around the edge of a wall, heading somewhere away from the sword training he should be supervising. The very quiet hope Jiang Cheng was nursing, like a seedling at the water’s edge, finds itself stomped into mud immediately. sh*tting f*cking hell.

Jiang Cheng gestures one of the other senior disciples to take over for him and stalks off after Duan Gaoshang. Rage and worry roil in his stomach like spoiled food. What will he find? What won’t he find? What does he want to find? Without any effort his feet transition into silence, a skill learned from years of late-night sneaking around on the pier as a child. He rounds a corner and there, in broad f*cking daylight, in front of god and everyone, Duan Gaosheng has his hand on a servant girl’s upper arm. She’s leaning backward as far as she can, her face very pale and her eyes so wide with terror Jiang Cheng can see the whites all around.

Zidian takes Duan Gaosheng off his feet as easy as breathing, the lightning crackle of the whip splitting the air. He crashes to the deck in a flurry of purple robes, and the servant girl looks up into the full face of Jiang Cheng’s rather considerable rage. She goes even paler, takes a step back, and flings herself to the ground, forehead to the wood.

“This humble servant begs your forgiveness,” she says in a shaking voice, and Jiang Cheng gets an immediate combination headache and stomachache at the fear in it. He finds the power to un-grit his teeth.

“You are not the one who should beg forgiveness,” he tells her, his voice rougher than he means it to be, and he crouches down so he’s not looming over the girl. “Are you unharmed? Did he--” What the f*ck he is he about to ask? (Behind him, Duan Gaoshang moans a little, and Jiang Cheng relishes the sound.)

“This one is unharmed,” the girl says, and Jiang Cheng almost reaches out a hand to pull her out of the bow before he curls his fingers into a fist. He has just enough self-awareness through the anger to realize more men touching her is probably not the solution, here.

“Has this happened before?” The girl cringes and, after a moment, nods. “To others?” he asks, just to be sure, and after a moment the nod comes again. Jiang Cheng’s combination headache/stomachache intensifies. He thinks he might be scowling so much that his eyebrows have joined forces to become one mega-eyebrow.

“It won’t happen again,” he promises, each syllable a sword striking metal. “If anyone else bothers you, any of you, come to me.” He stands, turns on his heel, and grabs the whimpering Duan Gaoshang by the collar of his robes.

“J-Jiang-zongzhu--” he tries, struggling weakly against the hand in his robes. “I didn’t--she was--”

“Shut the f*ck up,” Jiang Cheng snaps, rounding the corner back to the training yard. It’s apparently quite an entrance, as the yard goes stock-still for a moment. One junior cultivator drops her sword with a clatter. Good. This should make an impression, then. Jiang Cheng channels Wei Wuxian for a second by pausing dramatically at the stop of the stairs, just long enough to let the tableau really sink in, and then throws Duan Gaoshang into the dirt.

“It was brought to my attention,” he tells the yard, “that this filthy creature has been harassing the juniors and the maids.”

“I didn’t!” Duan Gaoshang cries, dragging himself to his knees and pressing his forehead to the ground. “It’s all lies! They’re out to get me, please, Jiang-zongzhu! Have mercy!”

Zidian crackles and knocks him onto his back, dust rising up around him. “I saw you!” Jiang Cheng hisses through his teeth. “You dare compound your crimes by lying to me?” Another crackle, another arc of Zidian through the air. “Let it be known that, from this day forward, Duan Gaoshang is no longer part of Yunmeng Jiang. His name shall be struck from the records. He will have no place here.” Jiang Cheng raises his eyes to the crowd, his disciples, and scans their faces. “His behavior has no place here,” he spits. “If any among you have been harmed by him, come to me. I will find a way to make it right.” He lets his eyes linger here and there, on the girl who dropped her sword and now looks somewhere between rage and tears, at another female cultivator whose face is curled up in an avid kind of anticipation, trying to judge who might have sympathy for Duan Gaoshang and therefore need close watching.

Something tugs on the hem of his robes, and Duan Gaoshang has the f*cking audacity to beg, “Have mercy, Jiang-zongzhu! Where will I go?”

“You can rot for all I care,” Jiang Cheng snarls, kicking the man’s disgusting, grasping hands away. “Now get the f*ck out.” He gestures to two other senior disciples and they step forward, grabbing Duang Gaoshang under the arms and dragging him away. Jiang Cheng eyes the crowd one more time. “Well? Those sword forms aren’t going to learn themselves.”

The stillness pops like a soap bubble as everyone in the training yard suddenly remembers themselves, scurrying back into motion like children caught idling by a teacher. Jiang Cheng takes a deep breath, pushes down the remaining anger and the headache/stomachache sharpness, and gets back to work.

A week later, another note falls out of Jiang Cheng’s robes in the morning. This one is smaller, a single character, in that same careful calligraphy.

Thank you.

Something unfurls a little bit in his chest, and when Jiang Cheng inhales, it goes deeper than it has in a month.

Notes:

Oh my god there is nothing like creating a bunch of original characters and then having to come up with their f*ckING NAMES to make you regret your life choices, am I right?

Sleeves: Hu Xuàn 胡絢 (swift?), courtesy name Yuèquē 月缺 (new moon). (17 yrs)
Tea: Ma Xuěliàng 馬雪亮 (bright as snow?), no courtesy name yet. (15 yrs)
Pajamas: Zhang Yè 张燁 (glorious flame?), courtesy name Luán 鸞 (fancy bird). (16 yrs)
Fancy Hair: Jiang Sháo 江芍 (peony), courtesy name Fēnglì 鋒利 (sharp, to the point). (17 yrs)
Window: Hu Qiáng 胡強 (strong), courtesy name Xīnlíng 心靈 (quick-witted). (16 yrs)
Oily: Duàn Yù 段昱 (light, shining), courtesy name Gāoshàng 高尚 (noble, refined). (19 yrs)

I am also advancing what I consider to be the subsidiary motto of the Jiang Clan, namely: Start sh*t, Get Hit.

Chapter 3

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Fan Dingxiang is eighteen when she goes on her first night hunt. It goes like this:

“Fan Zhu’er!” Hu Yueque grabs her by the sleeve and pulls her out of the kitchen. Fan Dingxiang shoots a wild-eyed look at the head cook, who sighs in a resigned way and does a thing with her eyebrows to indicate her forgiveness. (Fan Dingxiang gets that look a lot, as various cultivators pull her away for “Important business,” which is usually, “Hey, how many pushups can you do? What if I sit on your back?” Her training is sort of an open secret among the household staff at this point--sometimes they show up to watch.)

“Lunch is due in two hours,” Fan Dingxiang says as she allows herself to be dragged along a corridor. “What’s so important you need me to stop making the noodles you like?”

“Oh, damn, it’s noodle day?” Hu Yueque slows her steps for a moment, then shakes her head sharply. “Well, there will be other noodle days.” She shoves Fan Dingxiang through the door of her room (that is to say, Fan Dingxiang politely goes where she’s pushed). “Get your weapons and come with me. We have a night hunt, and you’re coming with us.”

Fan Dingxiang drops the boar spear. “What?” she asks, blankly.

“Night hunt. You. Us.” Hu Yueque pronounces each word with exaggerated care as she picks up the boar spear and hands it back. Okay, so Fan Dingxiang hadn’t hallucinated that. She opens her mouth to ask something else, possibly, “The f*ck?” or, “Why?” Fortunately for her, Hu Yueque keeps talking. “Jiang-zongzhu and Wei-gongzi took almost all the senior disciples to the night hunt at Carp Tower, so we got assigned to take care of some fierce corpses out at one of the villages. There’s no one around to care if we sneak an extra person on our team.”

Fan Dingxiang stares at her in silence for long enough that Hu Yueque huffs, takes the boar spear back out of her hands, and tucks it away in a qiankun pouch. The comedy of a spear disappearing into a bag the size of her hand snaps Fan Dingxiang out of her frozen panic, and she pulls out her set of throwing knives and hands that to Hu Yueque, too. “Is this a good idea?” she asks, wariness and excitement warring in her guts.

“All my ideas are good,” Hue Yueque says, insulted.

“What about that time you told me to throw you at Hu Xinling and we both misjudged how far you’d go and you ended up in the lake?” Fan Dingxiang roots around under her bed for the bag with her rope dart in it--she barely hits herself with it at all these days. Might as well take it along.

“We all learned an important lesson about how hard you can throw that day,” Hu Yueque says primly. “Therefore it was a good idea. Is that everything? Come on.”

Fan Dingxiang has read at least the occasional romantic novel wherein the main character must, for possible kissing reasons, dress in a beautiful and mysterious disguise. She’s also read enough adventure novels to be familiar with the concept of dressing in a powerful and mysterious disguise for spying reasons. She has not, until now, thought about how convenient it was for the heroes of those stories that they found perfectly fitting robes.

“If I move I will split this open like an overripe persimmon,” she tells Zhang Luan, trying not to flex her arms or breathe wrong as the girl tries to close the cultivator uniform robes over her chest.

“Jiang Fengli is the closest to you in height,” Zhang Luan insists, as though that’s the important thing when Fan Dingxiang is probably twice as big around. “Oh, hell, you’re right though, there’s no way this will work. Hu Xinling!”

He looks up from his lounge under the window, his amused smirk at their antics turning into mild dread. “Oh, no,” he tries, “I am not involved here--”

“You have the broadest shoulders! Go get your spare robes!” Zhang Luan’s tone brooks no argument.

Hu Xinling tries to argue anyway, with, “They’re men’s robes! We can’t disguise her as a man, she’s too pretty!”

Fan Dingxiang, who has never previously in her life been referred to as pretty and also very much wants to avoid being disguised as a man for personal reasons, says, “Let me go to the laundry and steal some bigger robes.”

“No, there’s no time,” Jiang Fengli says from where she’s putting Fan Dingxiang’s hair up into an elaborate style that is sending confusing sensations to her scalp. “We’ll just fancy you up until no one notices the basic robe is the wrong style. Once we get you out of the compound no one will care.”

“Get your robes, Hu Xinling!” Hu Yueque snaps, steadying Fan Dingxiang’s face with one hand, the other holding a makeup brush. “Do something useful! Okay, now don’t blink.”

With Hu Xinling’s robes, Hy Yueque’s makeup skills, Jiang Fengli’s hairstyling ability, Zhang Luan’s jewelry, and a decorative but practically useless training sword stolen by Ma Xueliang, Fan Dingxiang has to admit she looks pretty much like a cultivator. As long as no one notices the robes are too short and also the wrong style and the sword is unnamed and no one asks her to do any actual cultivation of any kind at all, this might actually work.

“Just walk in step with us and do what we do and no one will notice,” Hu Yueque, criminal mastermind, tells her, which very much sounds fake. Fan Dingxiang has extreme doubts about this whole enterprise, but she supposes the Jiang motto is, “See the impossible and do it anyway,” and this definitely counts as impossible.

“If they kick me out of the sect you’re responsible for compensating me for my lost employment,” she says in response, and then shuts the f*ck up as they pass another knot of cultivators.

Impossibly, it works. No one so much as gives them a second glance as they leave Lotus Pier, and once they’re in the surrounding countryside it’s even easier. The village with the night hunt is apparently two days travel away, and they spend the first night at an inn where the proprietor bows to Fan Dingxiang and calls her xianshi and it’s a real struggle not to drop her sword on the ground in shock.

“I feel bad lying to these people,” she tells Zhang Luan as they get ready for bed. The unearned respect grates on her, makes her feel tight in her own skin. (A voice in the back of her head, one that sounds like Granny, wonders why cultivators demand such respect to begin with. Certainly it’s a lot of work to become one, but it’s also a lot of work to raise pigs, and no one ever bowed to Fan Dingxiang for that.)

“You’re not lying,” Zhang Luan says, combing out her hair. “You’re on a night hunt, aren’t you? Just because you can’t cultivate in the traditional way doesn’t mean you’re not here to help.”

“I guess,” Fan Dingxiang allows from behind the privacy screen. (It covers her to about her shoulders, so it’s doing its job if just barely.) “I can’t imagine the senior disciples would agree.”

“What they don’t know can’t hurt them,” Zhang Luan says with a serene smile that Fan Dingxiang is certain hides a whole lot of secrets. “Now come here, I’ll take your hair down.” Fan Dingxiang smiles to herself as she ties on her sleeping robes, still unused to easy friendship, and does as she’s bid.

They reach the village with the night hunt the next afternoon, the sun still high in the sky, casting dappled shade through the trees. It’s the longest Fan Dingxiang has walked since she joined the sect, and she enjoys the stretch in her legs, enjoys being among forests and farms again after months at Lotus Pier. She listens intently and bows and does her best to match the actual cultivators as they meet with the village elder who describes the situation. In this process she realizes how much of her training has been focused on fighting, and not nearly enough on what she might be fighting.

“Do you have like, a book? On monsters? One that I could borrow?” she asks Ma Xueliang as the elder has them served tea, lifting her sleeve to her mouth to obscure the question. “I didn’t know there were so many kinds.”

Ma Xueliang is too well-trained to express her chagrin outwardly, but her eyes flare open just a touch. “Oh my god,” she breathes, “Oh my god, of course, Fan Zhu’er. I can’t believe we forgot you don’t know.” Fan Dingxiang nods and straightens back up, her eyes on Hu Yueque as the cultivator carefully interviews the village elder, seeking clues that will apparently help in their hunt. The report was of fierce corpses, but she learns over the course of the conversation that there are multiple possibilities as to the source of the issue, and she mentally notes down her questions for later. Chen-xianshi was focused on keeping her alive against cultivators. He didn’t really mention much about monsters and spirits. She’s starting to wish he had.

The night hunt, unsurprisingly, starts in a graveyard. Here, at least, Fan Dingxiang is on more familiar ground. She knows how to act in a graveyard, how to tend to her ancestors properly. That’s not what they’re here to do, but also no one from the village is here to watch and possibly catch her out for being a coreless fraud, so she’s happier to be in a graveyard than possibly ever before in her life. She turns to watch the others setting up talismans in preparation for the hunt and, for the eighteenth time that day, the loose hair hanging down her back blows directly into her mouth.

“God!” she spits, combing it out of her face. That’s the last straw, and she shoves it all into her hand and starts braiding. “How are you all not constantly eating your f*cking hair? Is this a cultivator thing?”

Five confused faces greet this question, and Jiang Fengli frowns. “You know,” she says thoughtfully, “I think it might be? I never get hair in my face when I’m training.” The others nod in agreement. “I think I used to when I was little,” Zhang Luan offers, “but ever since I started training the sword it hasn’t been an issue.”

Normally Fan Dingxiang is cool with her lack of a golden core--you can’t really miss a thing you never had, and she gets by just fine without it. Now, though? “I am so jealous I kinda want to punch you,” she says, tying off the braid with a piece of cord. “That’s so f*cking rude that you have magic hair powers.” No one really has an answer for that, which: fair. Hair safely tamed, Fan Dingxiang sidles up next to Hu Yueque where she’s squinting at a talisman.

“I could probably use my actual weapons,” Fan Dingxiang points out, the training sword for sword babies awkwardly in one hand as though she has any real idea how to use it. She trains against swords, not with swords, though if they’re going to bring her on night hunts now she should probably learn the basics so she can fake it.

Fan Dingxiang realizes with a start that she’s planning for future night hunts. Does she want to do this again? She thinks she might want to do this again.

“Oh, right!” Hu Yueque is saying when Fan Dingxiang drags her focus back. “I forgot, here you go.” She hands over a qiankun pouch, weirdly heavy for the size, and Fan Dingxiang stares at the embroidered fabric blankly.

“Um. I’ve never actually used one of these before,” Fan Dingxiang admits. “Do I just… stick my hand in and rummage around or what?”

“Oh, right,” Hu Yueque says, in a different tone of voice this time, and abandons the talismans. “That’s basically it. That one just has your stuff in it, but when they get really crowded you sort of just think hard about the thing you want to find and it summons it into your hand.” That sounds weird and fake, but Fan Dingxiang isn’t the expert here, so she opens the little bag and puts her hand in it (what the f*ck) and then thinks I’d like my boar spear, please. Before she’s even finished the “please” familiar wood meets her hand, and she proceeds to pull an entire f*cking spear out of a bag that looks like it could maybe carry lunch. A small lunch. Barely a snack.

“Wow,” Fan Dingxiang says, looking from the spear to the bag and bag again. “Wow, that is so f*cking cool.”

“It really doesn’t get old,” Hu Xinling says, having also abandoned the talisman array to watch Fan Dingxiang’s childlike glee as she pulls her rope dart out of the bag.

“You can keep that one,” Hu Yueque adds. “I have others.”

“Thank you,” Fan Dingxiang says fervently, pulling out her throwing knives as well. “This is gonna be so useful.” She puts the mostly useless sword in the bag (what the f*ck) and tucks it away in her robes before arming herself with the things she thinks might actually be helpful. Ma Xueliang, the youngest and therefore most dedicated student of the group, explained on the way over how this would work:

The thing attacking the village is either a fierce corpse or a hungry ghost--the villagers aren’t entirely clear on which, and Fan Dingxiang isn’t sure about the difference anyway. Regardless, it’ll be attracted to the lingering resentful energy in the graveyard, and the array of talismans are basically bait. (Fan Dingxiang understands how to use bait.) When it’s drawn irresistibly into their trap, Fan Dingxiang, Hu Yueque, and Jiang Fengli will keep it occupied (via stabbing) while Ma Xueliang, Zhang Luan, and Hu Xinling suppress and eliminate it (via magic). It should be reasonably straightforward--there’s a reason the seniors thought this night hunt could be handled by a group of junior disciples. (Junior disciples and one pig farmer. Fan Dingxiang takes a quiet moment to reflect on her life. It’s weird.)

Then the sun sets and the fierce corpse shows up, and Fan Dingxiang doesn’t have time to reflect on anything. She stops thinking about her life, about whether she’s going to be caught out as a fraud, about whether they’ll get back to the village in time for dinner. There’s only the fight.

As it turns out, Fan Dingxiang is very good at fighting.

The fierce corpse is fast but clumsy, and Fan Dingxiang has been sparring with cultivators for almost a year. She dodges and ducks and sets her feet and uses the point of the spear to shove the thing into the middle of the array. Flush with success, her mind wanders for a second, just long enough for the monster to grab the end of the spear and yank. Fan Dingxiang goes stumbling forward, the others yelling something in the background, and on pure instinct she co*cks her fist and puts her weight behind it.

Fan Dingxiang is eighteen years old when she punches her first fierce corpse.

It’s f*cking awesome.

The punch lands hard enough to knock the thing off its feet, and Fan Dingxiang wastes absolutely no time in resetting her grip on her spear and burying the point in the rotten ribcage. Bone splinters, the hit pinning the thing fully to the ground, and she leans against the spear to keep it in place.

“Fan Zhu’er!” someone yells, she’s not sure who.

“I’m good!” she yells back, not taking her eyes off the monster. “Can you do the magic with me here?”

“Yeah!” someone else yells, probably Zhang Luan. “It might get a little bright!”

It does. It gets massively bright, actually, magic crackling on her skin like the heavy feeling before a thunderstorm. The fierce corpse yowls, fighting against the magic and her strength, but Fan Dingxiang has experience holding down a wounded creature while it dies and she holds on, teeth gritted and sweating. It bucks once, twice, and all at once the fight goes out of it. Fan Dingxiang almost loses her balance when it stops resisting, it comes as such a surprise, and for a long moment the only sound in the graveyard is their panting breaths.

“Fan Zhu’er!” Hu Yueque says, too loud in the stillness, as she skids to a halt by her shoulder. “Holy gods, are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she says, eyeing the no-longer-particularly-fierce corpse. It’s fully stopped moving. She kicks it, a little, just to make sure, before she pulls the spear back out with a gross crackling noise. “Do we, uh,” Fan Dingxiang says, a little adrift since there are no pigs around for handy disposal, “Do we like… Bury it now?”

“That’s for the village to handle,” Hu Yueque says firmly. “We’ll supervise it, but it’s best for the community to do it.”

“Okay,” Fan Dingxiang says. “Cool.” She pauses. “That was super f*cking cool, right?”

“So cool!” Jiang Fenli says, her perfect fancy hair still perfect and fancy.

“Seriously,” Ma Xueliang says. “You’re coming with us on every night hunt now.”

“You’re stuck with us, kid,” Hu Yueque says, grabbing her arm and squeezing, as though she’s not a full month younger than Fan Dingxiang. “Sorry not sorry.”

“Not sorry,” Fan Dingxiang says, grinning so hard her face hurts.

The rest of the night hunt doesn’t require that Fan Dingxiang do anything other than hold her prop sword, look confident, and bow occasionally. Those are all things she can handle. The next day the others decide to make a detour on their way back for swimming. This is something she’s less able to handle, for multiple reasons.

“Are you sure you don’t want to jump in?” Zhang Luan asks, divesting herself of two more layers of robes. “It’ll feel really nice.” The others are already in the pool, shaded from the worst of the sun by a few trees. Hu Xinling climbs out and onto a rocky outcropping, his trousers and inner robe plastered to his skin by the water, before jumping back in with a splash. It’s all terribly immodest, but no one but her seems to care. It’s also so, so tempting, and the weather is so hot, and if she was alone she’d be in the water, but...

“I’m not really a swimmer,” Fan Dingxiang says, which is true.

“Oh!” Zhang Luan says, eyes wide. “Do you not know how? We can teach you.”

“I don’t,” Fan Dingxiang admits. “We didn’t really have time. Or the right kind of water.” Fan Dingxiang is used to cold, shallow mountain streams, not lakes and lazy, wending rivers.

“Oh, no,” Zhang Luan laments. “Oh, no, Fan Zhu’er, we have to teach you! What if you fell in the lake at Lotus Pier! You can’t drown on us! What would we do without you?”

Fan Dingxiang is forced to admit that’s a pretty good point, but… God. There’s not a way to get around this, no privacy screens or convenient turning away. She’s never had to actually tell anyone before. Everyone in the village just sort of knew, once Granny spread the word. “I’m, uh,” she starts, trying to get her thoughts in order. “I didn’t want to…” She trails off and stares at a tree, like that will help. Zhang Luan, thankfully, is used to waiting for Fan Dingxiang’s brain to work, and settles next to her on the ground in her trousers and inner robe patiently.

“It took me until I was ten to figure out I was a girl,” Fan Dingxiang says in one breath. “And I am. A girl. But.” She shrugs, heart pounding, and makes a vague gesture downward. “I might not be what you’re expecting.”

“Oh.” Zhang Luan nods, a little frown line between her eyebrows, and takes Fan Dingxiang’s hand. “Oh. I see.” She squeezes her fingers and knocks her shoulder into Fan Dingxiang’s. “Thank you for telling me.”

“Yeah,” Fan Dingxiang says, her voice thready. That went well, and was actually surprisingly easy. “So, you know, I didn’t want to just--” she sort of waves at the water “--because sometimes people are. Well.”

“I get it,” Zhang Luan says. “Maybe not the same way, but… I told my parents I want to marry a girl someday, and they were… Not pleased.”

“I’ll beat them up for you,” Fan Dingxiang offers immediately, and Zhang Luan laughs, loud and clear, like bells ringing.

“They’re better about it now,” she clarifies. “I think it took them by surprise.” They sit quietly for a moment watching the others splash around, and Zhang Luan adds, “Is it, like, a secret?

“Not really.” Fan Dingxiang shrugs again, on more familiar ground now. “I’m not ashamed of who and what I am, it’s just not anyone’s business most of the time because it’s not relevant. Right now, if I go swimming, it’ll be relevant.”

Zhang Luan nods. “Do you want to learn how to swim?” she asks.

Fan Dingxiang thinks about it for a second. She likes learning new skills, it’s hot out today, the water looks inviting, and she’s told one person about herself without dying so that bodes pretty well. “I do,” she says.

“Is it okay if the others know?” Zhang Luan asks, very conscientious. Fan Dingxiang thinks about that, too, and nods. They all know Hu Xinling’s a cutsleeve, and probably that Zhang Luan shares peaches, and they seem fine with it.

“Cool,” Zhang Luan says, and then she drops Fan Dingxiang’s hand, stands up, and f*cking yells, “Hey! Fan Dingxiang has a dick! If any of you have a problem with that, you’re welcome to come up here and get stabbed about it!”

Silence falls in the forest for a minute, long enough for Fan Dingxiang to get a little nervous, and then Hu Xinling says, “Nice!” and then Hu Yueque says “She’s still a girl, you asshole!” and then Hu Xinling says, “I never said she wasn’t!” and then they get into a splash fight and Fan Dingxiang starts laughing.

“More importantly,” she says, hands moving to her belt, “I don’t actually know how to swim, and Zhang Luan is apparently going to lie awake at night worrying that I’ll drown in Lotus Pier if you don’t teach me.”

“You don’t know how to swim?” Ma Xueliang says, like this is the biggest surprise of the day. “Oh my god, come get in here! Now I’m gonna worry about you drowning! Come on, come on!”

“Ridiculous,” Jiang Fengli agrees, wading out of the water so she can wave Fan Dingxiang in. “I can’t believe you’ve been there for months with the lake right there, just lurking.

“I don’t think it was lurking,” Fan Dingxiang protests as she strips down to her inner robe and trousers, the water cool on her feet as she picks her way into the pool. “I don’t think lakes lurk.”

“It was waiting to strike,” Jiang Fengli insists. “Not anymore, though.”

Fan Dingxiang is eighteen years old when she learns to swim. She thinks, at the time, that it might be the best day of her life.

---

Jiang-zongzhu comes back from Carp Tower without Wei Wuxian. Fan Dingxiang doesn’t really know what happened, but from the muttering in the kitchen, it’s nothing good.

---

Fan Dingxiang is nineteen when she fights her first yaoguai. This time they plan ahead and steal robes for her from the laundry. She pins it to a tree with her boar spear, gets drunk in celebration, and wakes up with her first hangover. She has no regrets.

--

Fan Dingxiang is twenty when Ma Xueliang first shows her a talisman up-close.

She’s still twenty when she realizes she can use it.

“Holy f*ck,” she says, eyes wide at the red-orange butterflies swirling around her room. “Holy sh*tting f*cking monkey hell, Ma Xueliang! There’s magic I can do with my f*cking baby core and no one told me?

“Talismans aren’t considered particularly strong cultivation,” Ma Xueliang says, the butterflies reflecting in her eyes. “Wei-gongzi was very good at them, and some of us got to learn from him, you know, before he…” She trails off, gaze distant, and shakes herself. “I didn’t know if you’d be able to use them--I know some of the kitchen staff have a stock for keeping food warm at banquets and things.” She pulls a writing kit and some paper out of her sleeve with a grin. “Want to learn if you can make them?”

“Hell yeah I do,” Fan Dingxiang says immediately.

It takes time and practice, but Fan Dingxiang is still twenty when she writes her first successful talisman. “You’ve created a monster, you know,” she tells Ma Xueliang, the little glowing piglet happily oinking its way up and down her arm. “I’m never going to stop making these.”

“I’d expect nothing less,” Ma Xueliang says, scooping the piglet up and setting it on her shoulder. “That’s why I brought these.” She pulls a stack of reference books out of her sleeve and hands them over. “Also, let one of us look them over before you try to activate them. If you blow up your bedroom I think someone might notice.”

“Me. I’d notice,” Fan Dingxiang says immediately. “I promise not to blow up my bedroom.”

She doesn’t. She does, however, manage to invent a talisman that blows up a training dummy when thrown. She writes up a stack of them and stores them in her qiankun pouch for her next night hunt, realizing as she does that she’s assuming there will be another. This is just her life now, split between the kitchen and the cultivators, not quite one or the other. It’s pretty good, she decides, and cracks open the book on advanced talisman making. The talismans the kitchen uses to keep food from spoiling work pretty well, but have to be replaced daily, and she thinks she might be able to improve the design.

---

Jiang Yanli gets married. Fan Dingxiang thinks that’s nice. She likes weddings, though she hasn’t gotten to see very many of them. Everyone says Jiang-zongzhu is happy about it, but up until the wedding she feels him crackling like a thunderstorm about to break any time she’s anywhere near him. Fan Dingxiang is, at this point, very good at avoiding him (she’s still afraid he might be able to tell just by looking at her that she’s been on night hunts, like it’s a cultivation power) so she just keeps doing that. After, when he returns from Carp Tower, someone asks him how it went.

“Wonderful!” he barks, so loudly she can hear him from the next room over. “My sister looked beautiful! It was the best wedding anyone ever saw! She deserves no less! Everything was perfect!”

Fan Dingxiang polishes a banister and thinks, maybe, that Jiang-zongzhu just doesn’t know how to sound happy. She wonders if he ever stops yelling. It seems exhausting.

---

Fan Dingxiang is twenty-one when the kitchen mistress pulls her aside. “Listen,” she says, her steely gray hair up in a severe bun, decorated with a pretty-and-practical band of tooled leather. “We need to talk about your schedule. We all know you’re practically a cultivator.”

“I’m not--” Fan Dingxiang says automatically, and the kitchen mistress cuts her off with a wave of her hand.

“You’re close enough to one,” she says in the same tone she uses to browbeat merchants into giving her discounts. “They take you on night hunts. I don’t care that it’s not official, but you won’t be able to keep up with them if you keep working full shifts in here, too. I’ve seen how tired you are.”

“I’m sorry,” Fan Dingxiang says, bowing. “Please, I’ll do better!”

“Child!” The kitchen mistress slaps her on the shoulder. “I’m telling you to work less with us and train more!”

Fan Dingxiang blinks at the floor, still bowed. “Really?” she asks, before she can think better of it.

“Yes!” The kitchen mistress grabs her wrists and pulls her upright, which is objectively hilarious since Fan Dingxiang has a good two or three hands on her. “I’ve watched you fight them. You have a gift, and you should develop it. We’ll keep you listed on the kitchen staff, but just come in for the mornings, okay?”

Fan Dingxiang stares at her and waits patiently for understanding to come. “Okay,” she says after a long moment. “Um. Thank you?”

The kitchen mistress pats her on the hand. “Just be sure to remember all of us when you’re out there killing monsters,” she says. “We all believe in you. Oh, and I reserve the right to bring you in on noodle days and for banquets.”

“Of course,” Fan Dingxiang says immediately.

“And don’t forget us when you’re designing new talismans.” The kitchen mistress squints thoughtfully at the storeroom. “Maybe come up with something that can sort rocks out of the grains, so we don’t have to do it by hand.”

“I’ll do my best,” Fan Dingxiang says, and she means it.

---

Jiang Yanli dies, and Wei Wuxian dies, and Jiang-zongzhu comes back from Nightless City and brings with him a cloud of rage and grief that all of Lotus Pier can taste in the air, like humidity in summer. Fan Dingxiang tries not to listen to gossip, no matter how loudly it’s discussed by people who apparently don’t care who hears them, so instead she tracks down Hu Yueque, who was there, and gets the full story.

“Wei-gongzi was… clearly not well,” Hu Yueque says, a haunted kind of tension around the corners of her eyes. “I don’t think cry-laughing like that is ever a good sign.”

“Oh, dear,” Fan Dingxiang says, which is something of an understatement. “Yeah, that doesn’t seem great.”

“But, I mean… He didn’t attack us. At least not at first, even when one of those Jin assholes shot him with an arrow. And even then…” Hu Yueque trails off and frowns. “I’ll never say this in front of Jiang-zongzhu, but I was close enough to see Wei-gongzi wasn’t even playing the flute when the resentful energy turned on us. He looked horrified. I don’t know… Maybe he finally just lost it.” She sighs and picks at the hems of her sleeves. “Then Jiang Yanli died, and Jiang-zongzhu says it was Wei-gongzi’s fault, but I saw the body and she was stabbed. It’s not like he was using a sword, you know?”

Fan Dingxiang nods. Wei-xianshi’s refusal to carry Suibian was known even in the kitchens. Fan Dingxiang privately thinks it’s a little silly to carry a sword around in one hand all the time. What if you need to use that hand? What the f*ck are belts for, if not hanging things from them that you might need later but don’t want to carry in your f*cking hand? She doesn’t ask this out loud around any of the actual cultivators, though, because she knows the swords are like, a whole thing.

“I’m not totally sure what happened with Wei-gongzi after that,” Hu Yueque says, dragging Fan Dingxiang’s attention back to the matter at hand. “Everyone was trying to get the Yin Tiger Seal and stabbing each other in the process and I was like, ‘f*ck this sh*t entirely,’ and grabbed some of the other disciples to huddle up against a pillar and stay out of the bloodbath.”

“Smart,” Fan Dingxiang interjects, and Hu Yueque smiles in a way that entirely lacks humor.

“Thanks,” she says. “I mean I thought from the beginning that getting together to try and fight the guy who can summon an entire f*cking ghost army was maybe not the best plan, but no one asks me my opinion.” She leans back against the wall behind her bed, tipping her head back until it thumps against the wood. Fan Dingxiang thinks she looks more tired than she’s ever seen her look before, and that includes the one night hunt where they spent a full sixteen hours tracking a possessed crow up the side of a mountain. “Everyone says Jiang-zongzhu killed Wei-gongzi, so I guess maybe he did. He’s dead, anyway.” That humorless smile comes back, bitter as oversteeped tea leaves, and she finishes, “So we accomplished the impossible, didn’t we? We stopped the Yiling Patriarch.”

Fan Dingxiang sits back and takes that all in. She’d only ever spoken to Wei-xianshi once. She was coming back from late-night training and he was drinking on the end of one of the docks. He had enough empty bottles scattered around him that she was a little worried he’d pass out, fall in, and drown, so she went to check on him. He’d smiled up at her and called her pretty and patted the dock next to him to get her to sit down and the whole time he’d looked so lonely and broken she was struck with the specific and new urge to mother someone probably several years her senior. He’d flirted with her a little aimlessly and eventually she’d managed to convince him to go pass out in his room, and then physically hauled him there when his legs didn’t work properly.

And then a few months later he was gone, and now he’s dead.

“What a useless f*cking waste,” Fan Dingxiang says out loud.

Hu Yueque nods fervently. “It was bullsh*t, the whole thing.”

Silence falls in the room, heavy with a nameless kind of grief, and Fan Dingxiang takes the time to really look at Hu Yueque, her first best friend. She’s grown into her cheekbones since they were both teenagers, filled out with muscle and confidence, still willing to be overdramatic at the drop of a hat. She also looks weighted down, now, dimmed and quiet and shaken.

“Would you like a hug?” Fan Dingxiang offers.

“Oh my god, yes,” Hu Yueque says immediately, practically falling forward into Fan Dingxiang’s arms. “A really good one. Try and crack my ribs.”

Fan Dingxiang doesn’t crack any ribs, but she manages to get all of Hu Yueque’s spine to pop like dried beans dropped into a pan. They share a pot of tea and a few sweet cakes before Fan Dingxiang takes her leave for the night. Back in her own bed she stares at the ceiling, brain going in circles about everything. What would that be like, to lose both your siblings on the same day? To kill one of them yourself? She tries to imagine her brother at the other end of her boar spear and her stomach lurches in immediate revolt. Jiang-zongzhu was so young when he took up Zidian and rebuilt Lotus Pier, and now he’s so young and so alone. It’s not fair, not f*cking fair in the least.

Well. She’s not sleeping anytime soon. Fan Dingxiang climbs out of bed and tracks down her calligraphy set. Maybe it won’t help, but it feels better than doing nothing, anyway.

---

It’s not entirely a surprise at this point when Jiang Cheng punches his arm into the sleeve of his robe and a piece of paper flutters out. This happens occasionally, ever since the first warning about Duan Gaoshang. Once it was a note that a particular junior cultivator had a natural gift for cursebreaking, but was too shy to speak up in training. He’d made a few inquiries (subtly, he does know how to be subtle sometimes, no matter what Wei--anyone says, or said) and got to watch that junior cultivator bloom like a lotus on the pond with the right encouragement from her teachers. They’re not all about cultivator business, though. Sometimes the notes are about more practical matters. Household matters, like budget allotments and cleaning schedules, the kinds of things most people don’t think it’s worth bringing to the attention of a sect leader. It’s always been useful, though, always made Lotus Pier run a little more smoothly once addressed. He’s considered trying to figure out who’s sending him the notes, but honestly? He appreciates the utility of them, and doesn’t want to f*ck that up by snooping too closely.

All this to say that he picks up the note with curiosity, maybe a little bit of anticipation. It’ll be something he can do, surely, a problem he can f*cking address. If there’s just--if there’s a single thing he can fix in the world, right now, then maybe things will make sense for a few minutes. Is that so much to ask?

Jiang Cheng sits down at the table with the breakfast he finds deeply unappealing and only eats out of a clawing sense of duty, pours himself a cup of tea, and opens the note.

Jiang-zongzhu,

Forgive this humble one for overstepping. This one knows this correspondence is inappropriate, but feels compelled. As this is already inappropriate, this also begs forgiveness for the following informality:

Jiang-zongzhu, I am so sorry about your sister. I did not know Jiang Yanli well, but she has always been so kind to everyone around her. The world is lesser for her loss.

I hesitate to add this, but it needs to be said: I am so very sorry about your brother as well. The world is cruel, to do what it did to Wei-xianshi, and it is even crueler to you, that you had to face him as you did. It is unfair, and it is not right, and I desperately wish that things had gone differently, that you had not been forced to bear this burden alone.

My deepest condolences, and my apologies.

Jiang Cheng crumples the paper in his hand, knuckles popping with the force of it. His hand shakes, and he tries to still it, but the shaking is all the way up his arm, in his whole body. How dare--how dare someone presume--who would have the audacity--

The note is blurry, and the table, and the room, and Jiang Cheng realizes distantly that he’s crying and he can’t stop. He curls into himself, hot tears tracking down his cheeks, as he sobs in a way he hasn’t let himself since that horrible day when he lost his sister and his brother, one right after the other, leaving him so painfully, horribly alone. People give him sympathetic looks and occasional condolences for his jiejie, but no one has so much as said Wei Wuxian’s name to him, and the hole by his side where his brother used to be is so empty, and he can’t even tell anyone because the world hates his brother and sometimes he does too, except for how he loves him and misses him and it blazes so horribly sharp all through him to have some anonymous stranger tell him the truth he keeps trying to ignore: It’s not fair.

Jiang Cheng sobs until he has nothing left, scraped out and dried and hollowed as a gourd. Then he wipes his face, circulates his qi until the swollen redness around his eyes fades, and tucks the note away in a qiankun bag in the bottom of a chest, where the others live. He stands and he straightens his robes and he lifts his chin.

Jiang Cheng opens the doors to his room and goes to face the day.

Notes:

It is my firm belief that the only reason no one gets their hair in their face in The Untamed is because once you develop a golden core, it magically wrangles both your hair and robes for Dramatic Purposes.

OKAY SO I did a fair bit of digging and could not find a single historical term for WLW (which is not surprising, uuuuugh) so I decided to borrow "peach sharing/peach eating" which is usually a term for MLM. I already have a wuxia girl trying to make it in a xianxia world, so why not.

Chapter 4

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Thirteen years later...

“Fan Zhu’er!” Hu Yueque bursts into her room, practically skidding across the floor. “Get dressed!”

“I am dressed,” Fan Dingxiang points out, seeing as she is fully dressed in her usual servant uniform. Hu Yueque rolls her eyes expressively, pulls a set of cultivator robes out of her sleeve, and throws them at Fan Dingxiang in a fluttering of silk.

“Get dressed get dressed,” she says. “You know what I mean.”

“Night hunt?” Fan Dingxiang is already undoing her belt, hands familiar with the process. Her hair is tied up in a style that looks appropriate for her rank but will easily transition into a more elaborate look with a few changes. She can put on her makeup in under five minutes, and her weapons are already in a qiankun bag and ready to go, her talismans neatly packed in another. It’s a little unusual for her to go on a night hunt when Jiang-zonzhu is still at Lotus Pier, but it’s happened before.

“Night hunt,” Hu Yueque confirms, catching each robe as it falls and folding them neatly into the wardrobe. “We got the report this morning. One of the villages is having trouble with a yaoguai.”

Nice. Yaoguai are one of Fan Dingxiang’s favorite things to fight. They’re always different, and she loves the challenge. “What kind?” she asks, slipping into the cultivator robes, tying them in place with neat precision.

Hu Yueque’s eyes sparkle. “Apparently,” she says, with her characteristic dramatic flourish, “it’s a monster boar.

Fan Dingxiang freezes, every part of her lighting up. “A boar?” she says, arm half into a flowing sleeve. “Did you say a boar?”

Hu Yueque nods and slides the sleeve on the rest of the way, tying the outer robe in place before she starts on the belt. “Apparently it’s huge and mean and has torn down at least two houses.”

“Oh my god,” Fan Dingxiang breathes, “Oh my god, Hu Yueque. This is my time. I have been called. I was built for this night hunt, specifically. It’s happening.” Belt in place, she shoves her qiankun bags into her robes and pulls half her hair down out of its carefully coiled bun. “I have been waiting my whole life to fight a monster boar and now I have been blessed with this opportunity.”

“I know,” Hu Yueque says, handing Fan Dingxiang a couple of silver hair ornaments while she combs out the hair unspooled across her back. “As soon as I heard I knew I was bringing you along. This is gonna be amazing.

“I’m gonna kill a monster boar,” Fan Dingxiang says, almost to herself, as she smudges on eyeliner and rouge. “This is so f*cking awesome. Hey, do you think I can keep a tusk, once you all purge the resentful energy out of it?”

“If you kill it, you keep it,” Hu Yueque says, handing Fan Dingxiang her non-spiritual sword. “I’m pretty sure that’s a rule.”

“This is the best day of my life,” Fan Dingxiang says, and follows Hu Yueque to the main hall.

---

“This is the worst day of my life,” Fan Dingxiang hisses, trying to hide behind Hu Xinling, who is still shorter than her but not by much. “Why didn’t you tell me he was coming?”

“I didn’t know!” Hu Yueque shoots back out of the corner of her mouth, her face frozen in a respectful kind of attention. “He usually doesn’t come on minor night hunts!”

They both shut up and bow in perfect sync as Jiang Cheng--courtesy name Wanyin; the leader of Lotus Pier; wielder of Zidian; Sandu f*cking Shengshou--looks over the two neat rows of cultivators with a sharp scowl. f*ck. f*ck. Fan Dingxiang started the day getting to kill a monster boar and now she’s going to get kicked out of the sect for impersonating a cultivator. She’s had a decade and a half of life without pig sh*t and she finds herself staring down the blade at having a pig sh*t life again. Dammit. Why couldn’t Jiang-zongzhu just stay out of it on this one perfect f*cking day when she was going to kill a monster boar?

---

Jiang Cheng is gonna kill a monster boar today and it’s going to be the best f*cking thing that’s happened all month. Maybe all year. He hasn’t fully decided whether Wei Wuxian coming back from the f*cking dead qualifies as a good thing or a bad thing yet, and since Wei Wuxian isn’t here, he continues his excellent practice in compartmentalization by just determinedly not thinking about him. Jin Ling is at Carp Tower and safe for now (Jiang Cheng has so many spies there, because he is a good uncle); Lan f*cking Wangji is Chief Cultivator and is absolutely uncorruptable (no matter what people say about his relationship--ugh--with Wei Wuxian); and it looks like there won’t be another major war breaking out between the sects for at least the next week. It’s as good a time as any to go night hunting, like he was a regular-ass cultivator and not the leader of a sect with more important things to do. Jiang Cheng would like to do one simple thing, with a clear start and a clear ending and a messy, bloody part in the middle that’s still very straightforward. Maybe if he does one simple thing it will give him the energy to think about the rest of the extremely complicated bullsh*t he has going on.

Probably not, but a man can hope.

(Jiang Cheng is very carefully not thinking very deeply about Carp Tower, or about the things--and people--they found in Jin Guangyao’s multiple secret dungeons, or about a rosewood comb and the dreams of a boy who died twice over in two separate wars and is somehow still living. That is far too complicated to allow into his conscious thoughts in any capacity, and he keeps it buried tightly, deep down next to where his own f*cking core should be instead of his f*cking brother’s f*cking core, which is another thing he’s determinedly not thinking about.)

He looks over the cultivators he’s taking with him, the blue and purple of Lotus Pier silks comforting in their familiarity while heavy with history. There are a couple of new faces today--Yunmeng Jiang is still small, with so much devastation from the wars, but he’s rebuilt it (with his own two f*cking hands, thank you very much) into something formidable and mildly crowded. Gone are the days when he knew every cultivator by name. Jiang Cheng squints at a tall woman in the back who seems vaguely familiar and wonders when she was promoted, and just as quickly moves on. He trusts his senior disciples. If a cultivator has been assigned to this night hunt, it’s because they deserve to come along. He nods, once, and the two neat lines step to the side with a bow, and he strides down the center and trusts that they’ll fall in after him the way they should.

It’s nice to have something he can trust in.

---

Okay. Okay. Maybe Fan Dingxiang is going to get through this night hunt without being kicked out of Lotus Pier. So far it’s just been walking, and staying at an inn, and sitting at a table while a town magistrate talks to Sandu f*cking Shengshou about the giant boar monster that’s been wreaking havoc. She’s good at all those things, and he’s maybe given her a mildly confused look once or twice, but she’s mostly guessing that the expression is confusion--his eyebrows are so scowly it’s hard to tell what else might be going on, there. She’s just going to stay at the back of the line of cultivators as they head off into the forest, and then maybe she’ll just hide in a tree until everyone else kills the boar (which should be hers, dammit, she was gonna kill that boar) and fall back in line and go back to Lotus Pier and crawl into a closet and stay there.

It’s a solid f*cking plan, for being one she came up with in about thirty seconds, through the freezing, screaming panic in her brain. Jiang-zongzhu is presumably using cultivator magic to track the boar, since he’s going the right way, based on the tracks and the territorial scrapes on the trees. He is not looking at the tracks or the territorial scrapes on the trees, hence the assumption of cultivator magic. Fan Dingxiang pauses and sets her hand against a trunk, deep gouges in the bark at approximately the height of her thigh, comparing them to similar, older gouges at knee-height. f*ck, this thing is going to be huge. It’s a good forest for boar, plenty of chestnut trees and she’s seen multiple types of mushrooms and wild yams (some of which have been recently uprooted by tusks). If this thing is as big as she thinks it is, though, then forage won’t be enough to sustain it. No wonder it’s raiding the village. It must be starving.

And, you know… Evil.

The breeze whispers through the trees, rustling the undergrowth, and Fan Dingxiang takes a moment to wish for quieter weather. The noise should help cover their approach (Jiang-zongzhu does not seem to be someone who appreciates stealth--he’s stalking through the bushes with the same determined stride that echoes off the docks of Lotus Pier) but it’s going to make it harder for them to hear the boar. They’re shockingly quiet, right up until they try to gore you to death.

“It’s close,” Jiang-zongzhu says, coming to a halt with a dramatic fluttering of his purple embroidered skirts. He shuts his eyes halfway and tips his head from side to side, tasting something on the air that’s invisible to her. (What’s not invisible? The gouges on every tree, the torn up ground, and the huge-ass hoof prints partially obscured by fallen leaves.) His eyes snap back open and he whirls around, purple flaring out around him like the bloom of an angry flower. “Partner up and spread out. Drive it into the center.”

“Yes, Jiang-zongzhu!” they chorus with a bow, and then, because Fan Dingxiang’s luck has been absolutely sh*t today, she and Hu Xinling end up the pair closest to the zongzhu in question.

“We should have made a break for the outer end of the line,” she breathes to Hu Xinling, itchy with a mostly-useless sword in her hands instead of the boar spear she should be wielding. Her attention is divided between the undergrowth, where she’s tracking the boar like an actual hunter (the scrapes on the trees are fresher, now and she can smell something salty and gamey on the air), and keeping Jiang-zongzhu in the corner of her vision, a brilliant flash of color against the green-brown of the forest. His attention is forward, hand tight on his sword. He still hasn’t seemed to notice that she’s a fraud, so she has that going for her.

“I know,” Hu Xinling breathes back, covering her defensively as she squats down to investigate what looks like recently dug earth. “While I have nothing but respect for Sandu Shengshou I also live my life in an attempt to get yelled at as little as possible and he’s so good at yelling.”

Fan Dingxiang stands back up and opens her mouth to say something else when two things happen at once: A horrible grunting that comes from a throat that sounds too large to be allowed to exist, and Hu Xinling staggering, dropping his sword, and spitting up blood.

Fan Dingxiang is pretty sure she found the monster boar.

f*ck.

---

Jiang Cheng is really warming to this night hunt--the resentful energy he can feel coming off the forest in front of him is strong and wild. It should be a good f*cking fight, and Zidian nearly crackles on his wrist in anticipation. He’s gonna kill a giant f*cking boar and it’ll be disgusting and messy and prevent him from having to think about anything else while it’s happening. It should be a perfect day.

A horrible grunting noise shudders out through the forest, along with a surge of resentful energy, and Jiang Cheng has just enough time to think, f*cking finally! when a purple blur hits him in the gut and he finds himself moving at speed and also upside down.

“What the f*ck,” he spits, Zidian crackling with energy, hand tight on Sandu. The robes he can see underneath him are Jiang colors, and he parses after a moment that he’s draped over a broad shoulder while the person carrying him is, not to put too fine a point on it, hauling ass. The other shoulder holds another cultivator, Hu Xinling, he thinks. Good kid, reliable, currently passed the f*ck out with blood dripping from his mouth. This is a lot of information to absorb in a short amount of time and that pisses him off.

“What the f*ck do you think you’re doing?” he snarls, twisting against the grip on his waist. Jiang Cheng’s captor(?) jolts him with an aggressive shrug that half knocks the wind out of him, legs continuing to pump through the underbrush with a surprising lack of sound.

“Currently,” they--she pants, “I’m saving your ass, Jiang-zongzhu, so please shut up and let me.” She scrambles up and over a broken-down stone wall, the old remnants of a temple that’s mostly rotted away, and drops him said ass. “Stay here!” she hisses, and Jiang Cheng has just enough time to recognize her as the tall woman from the back of the line before she slings Hu Xinling down with significantly more care and disappears back over the jagged stone. He opens his mouth to yell something after her, remembers the giant monster boar lurking somewhere nearby, and smashes it back into a tight, angry line as he checks on Hu Xinling. Jiang Cheng has managed to ascertain that there are no physical injuries, and is in the process of checking the flow of his qi when the tall woman vaults back over the wall with two more cultivators over her shoulders like she’s carrying bushels of rice.

“Just what the f*ck--” he starts to ask, and before he can get further into the question she sets down both unconscious women and is back over the wall again. Jiang Cheng takes a moment to count mentally and figures that after two more trips she’s going to run out of cultivators, at which point he will tie her to a f*cking tree with Zidian and ask her all the questions he wants. He goes back to checking Hu Xinling’s qi and has a horrible, stomach-dropping, gut-clenching moment when he doesn’t f*cking feel it. Oh f*ck oh sh*t, is there another core-melter? Jiang Cheng tightens his grip, leaving a thumbprint-sized bruise on Hu Xinling’s wrist, and finally gets a flutter in response to his desperate seeking. He drops his hand and rocks back over his feet, grinding the heels of his hands into his eyes as he tries to calm his heart rate. Okay. Okay. Not a core-melter. Jiang Cheng drops his hand onto Hu Xinling’s abdomen just to check, just to be sure, and the pulse of his golden core is such a relief that Jiang Cheng wants to cry a little bit. He takes that impulse and shoves it down under his ribs, and then plasters over it with a frown for good measure as he checks the next unconscious cultivator. (It’s Hu Yueque--good with a sword, also good at making wickedly funny jabs at Yao-zongzhu and Ouyang-zongzhu under her breath where only the sect can hear her. Seeing her unconscious seems starkly wrong.) It’s the same story with her--energy drained, core still healthy, blood on her lips and chin but no physical injuries.

When the seventh and eighth cultivators are draped across the moss and leaf litter in splays of purple silk, Jiang Cheng is ready and waiting, keeping Zidian from sparking only with a mighty effort of will. “If you’re done,” he snarls, grabbing the woman (wow, she’s really quite tall) by the upper arm and whirling her around to face him, “do you think you might have time to answer a few questions from your f*cking sect leader? Namely, what the hell have you done to my disciples?”

She stares him down, eyes flaring with irritation, which makes two of them. With a sharp motion she yanks her arm out of his grip but doesn’t back away or otherwise try to escape, her (wide) shoulders back and her chin up. “I removed them from a dangerous situation,” she says in a steady voice, the tones shaped around a Yunmeng accent but with a heavy rustic base. “Forgive me for doing so without your express permission, Jiang-zongzhu.” Her hands come up into the most sarcastic bow Jiang Cheng has ever seen in his life, and he once watched Wei Wuxian bow to Wen Chao so witheringly he remains surprised that Wen Chao hadn’t deviated his qi on the spot. “Would you have preferred I let the boar feed on all of you?”

Jiang Cheng blinks and scowls. “Feed?”

She nods. “It eats spiritual energy,” she says flatly, hands running through her hair a couple of times as she finger-combs it over her shoulder and starts braiding. “It drained Hu Xinling before I could get him out of there. Since you’re conscious, I assume I got to you in time.” Braid finished, she ties it off with a cord from around her wrist and flicks it back over her shoulder. Jiang Cheng cannot stop staring. What kind of cultivator braids their hair back in the middle of a night hunt? Not even the Nies do that and braids are sort of their whole thing. “I don’t think it’s anywhere near permanent,” she says, snapping his attention away from her hair, “but it didn’t seem exactly smart to just leave them out there.” She bows again, just as sarcastic. “I hope that meets with your approval, Jiang-zongzhu.”

Jiang Cheng glares at her, and then at her hands, barely an inch away from his chest. Abruptly he realizes how inappropriately close he’s standing, almost steps back, and then realizes that as sect leader it’s up to other people to step back from him, so he goes back to glowering. She doesn’t seem to notice, dropping the bow and (hah!) stepping away from him. The momentary triumph is short-lived, as she proceeds to pull qiankun bags out of her robes and completely ignore his glowering. He realizes with another abrupt jolt that she’s not holding her sword--it’s shoved through her belt. What the f*ck kind of cultivator is she?

“I’m not sure what the range of that thing is,” she says, yanking her sword out of said belt and tossing it aside with a lack of respect for the weapon that makes Jiang Cheng almost nauseated. “I’m guessing it was pretty close to me and Hu Xinling, and since you seem fine it can’t drain you from more than ten zhang away.” Normally Jiang Cheng would be yelling by now, but this whole situation is so surreal he can’t quite work out how he should react, especially when she unties her f*cking belt and starts peeling out of her outer robe.

“What the f*ck are you doing?” he snarls, fighting the urge to avert his eyes. Is this some kind of messed-up seduction attempt? Who would do that? Jin Guangshan has been dead for years, and he doesn’t think anyone else would try to honey-pot him, and who would send a rude woman with shoulders broader than his for that job anyway?

She pauses and blinks at him, like she gets undressed in the forest in front of sect leaders every day. “Changing into something sensible,” she says, stuffing the outer robe away in a bag and swapping it for a sleeveless version that she ties and belts in place with efficient movements. “I don’t know how you people manage with those ridiculous sleeves, but I’m assuming it has something to do with how you never get your hair in your face.”

Jiang Cheng glares at her. “What do you mean, ‘you people?’”

She takes a moment to locate her sword, shoves it unceremoniously into the bag, and makes eye contact. Her mouth quirks. “You know,” she says, as she pulls a massive f*cking spear out of it. “Cultivators.” After the spear she pulls out a harness covered in throwing knives, which she shrugs on like she does this every day, and then some kind of rope-chain-thing with a heavy spearhead on the end. It’s all so distracting that it takes him a moment to parse her answer.

“Cultivators,” he says, through narrowed eyes and a tight jaw. She finishes settling the weighted rope in place on her hip, meets his gaze, and nods.

“Cultivators,” she says, gesturing at the unconscious people around them. “You know. Swords and magic and sh*t. Get their spiritual energy eaten and pass out. Long hair and big sleeves that somehow never get caught on stuff.” She arches an eyebrow. “Are you unfamiliar with the concept, Jiang-zongzhu?”

Jiang Cheng has not been sassed this much without either Jin Ling or Wei Wuxian present in probably decades. He’s about to threaten to break her legs when her words ping in his brain. “How are you still standing?” he asks, annoyed at her and the interruption to the hunt and at the sheer gall of this monster boar for incapacitating some of his best disciples. Who the f*ck is this woman, currently flipping through a stack of talismans, hale and hearty and being extremely disrespectful?

She pauses, glances up at him again, and tucks the stack of talismans into the front of her robes before she offers him her wrist in silence. Jiang Cheng takes it suspiciously, in case this is some sort of trap, and presses a questing tendril of qi in to check her core--

“What the f*ck?” he spits, yanking his hand back and giving her a once-over, head to toes.

“Can’t eat my spiritual energy if I don’t have any spiritual energy,” she says, deadpan, tapping her temple. “That’s what we call strategy.”

Jiang Cheng glares at her, absolutely appalled. “What are you?” No core, and not a destroyed one, either, just never formed, and she carried two cultivators at a time without seeming winded--

Her mouth quirks into a smirk, amusem*nt behind her dark eyes. “I’m a pig farmer, Jiang-zongzhu,” she says with a bow that actually seems sincere this time. He glares at her, jaw working, narrows his eyes as that dredges up a buried memory, sparkling like a coin kicked up from the silt at the bottom of a river. A girl, a blanket, blades offered to him in the main hall, eyes meeting his without fear.

“Five Swords?” he asks, incredulous. He’d never--Jiang Cheng hadn’t ever seen her after that day. He assumed she’d washed out, that his senior disciples had tested her combat abilities and found them wanting. There had been so much to do back then that a week later he’d forgotten all about it and now she’s standing in front of him, armed for bear, dressed in robes she certainly shouldn’t be wearing and raising her eyebrows at him like he’s being the weird one.

“Fan Dingxiang, courtesy name Zhu’er, at your service,” she says, and sighs, seemingly to herself. “I was doing so well,” she says under her breath, plaintive, and then visibly straightens her shoulders to get back to business. “The boar yaoguai.”

“You are not a cultivator!” Jiang Cheng snaps, the boar yaoguai the last thing on his mind. “What are you doing here in those robes? Who let you come on a night hunt?” What the everloving f*cking hell has been going on in his sect behind his back?

The woman--Fan Zhu’er, apparently--casts her eyes to the sky as though looking for support from the heavens, like she’s the one holding onto her patience with fingernails. “Jiang-zongzhu,” she says, “there is a monster boar out there and you can’t fight it yourself unless you want to go all blood-mouth like the others. Can we concentrate on killing it?” She bows, this time actually respectfully, and it mollifies him a little bit. “When we are done I will explain everything and submit to whatever discipline you deem appropriate.”

Jiang Cheng’s jaw works, but he is forced to admit she has a point. (He doesn’t like admitting it, but he has to.) “Fine,” he grits out. “We’ll get them somewhere safe and then--”

“They’re safe here.” Fan Zhu’er interrupts him without a care for protocol, pulling the stack of talismans back out of her robes and rifling through them. She seems to sense his questioning glower, because she glances up and gestures vaguely around them, at the stone walls, the collapsed arch that used to be a doorway. “Pigs can’t jump.” This is delivered with the same kind of bored factual energy that Jiang Cheng might used to say, “Cultivators carry swords,” or “Rice is delicious.” She says it like he should already know it, and that’s annoying as hell, because he hadn’t. He’s a sect leader, he doesn’t need to know Pig Facts. “I think you’ll need to fly,” she continues, picking little bundles of talismans out of the larger stack and tying them to her knife harness with casual ease. “If you can stay above its range while I take it down, you should be able to suppress and eliminate the resentful energy.”

“You?” Jiang Cheng asks, arching a skeptical eyebrow. “You’re going to kill the boar? Alone?”

Fan Zhu’er ties the last bundle of talismans to her harness, tucks the rest back away, and meets his eyes with absolute confidence. “Yes.”

They stare at each other in silence for a long moment. She seems very sure of herself. Jiang Cheng scoffs and rolls his eyes, a really juicy one. “Fine,” he says. “Don’t expect me to burn paper money for you.”

“I don’t,” she says, picking up her massive spear and settling it against her shoulder. “I wouldn’t want your pity paper money anyway, Jiang-zongzhu.” Fan Zhu’er jerks her chin at his side, where he’s holding Sandu. “Get up there. At least ten zhang, maybe more like fifteen. If you feel like you’re gonna--” and she makes a little explosive motion next to her mouth, jaw dropped to mimic vomiting “--then. Well. Try not to.”

“You are the rudest person I’ve ever met,” Jiang Cheng says before he can stop himself, and she snorts, loud and shameless.

“Wow,” she says, deadpan. “I’m ruder than Yao-zongzhu and Ouyang-zongzhu? That’s an accomplishment to be proud of.” Her mouth curls up into a smile, a flash of white teeth, a crinkle at the corner of her eyes. It transforms her face utterly, like the crackle of a spell, leaving afterimages on his eyes when it disappears just as quickly. Jiang Cheng takes a sharp step back, orders Sandu out of her sheath with a thought, and takes to the air. Fine. He’ll just stay up here and watch this horrible woman utterly fail at a task she never should have attempted in the first place, and then he’ll kill the boar himself (somehow) and scrape her corpse out of the dirt and tell it, “I told you so.”

Jiang Cheng is satisfied both in his own self-righteousness and his judgement of the outcome of this farce right up until Fan Zhu’er leaps up onto the top of the wall, and then gracefully into the branches of a nearby tree, and then to the next tree, all with light feet and hardly any apparent effort. She pauses there to give him a look like, “Are you coming or not?” and then proceeds deeper into the forest, retracing their path. Jiang Cheng glares at her and follows, branches whispering at his sleeves and the skirts of his robes.

Fan Zhu’er lands on a branch and waits there, boar spear in one hand, the other lightly on the trunk of the tree. “Do you sense anything yet, Jiang-zongzhu?” she asks, voice pitched low.

“Oh, is my professional opinion valued now?” he can’t keep himself from snapping, and she gives him an unimpressed look.

“I could track it on the ground like a normal-ass person would,” she says easily, “but then we wouldn’t be able to discuss strategy without risking you getting your soul et or whatever.” She waves her spear at the tree branch. “I’m doing this for you.”

Jiang Cheng ignores that, and her, in favor of shutting his eyes and letting his spiritual awareness drift out into the forest. There’s resentful energy everywhere, but it’s obvious that it’s just the lingering trace of a larger presence, like having the smell of frying oil on your clothes after too long at a festival. He tips his face side to side, feeling the forest, the rustling of the leaves, the freaky-quiet pulse of Fan Zhu’er’s qi. There? There! He felt the boar yaoguai before, and the heavy, almost humid press of its resentful energy is familiar now.

“That way,” he says, opening his eyes. Fan Zhu’er looks in the direction he’s pointing and runs her tongue over her teeth thoughtfully with a satisfied little nod. He gives her a Look, and she clarifies, “There’s water that direction, which means a good mud wallow. It’s still thinking like a boar.”

“And that’s good?” Jiang Cheng can’t help but ask.

Fan Zhu’er shrugs. “Means I know how to kill it.” She jumps to the next tree before he can respond, and Jiang Cheng clenches his teeth so hard they squeak.

They track it like that, the resentful energy curling through the air like smoke, thickening until Jiang Cheng thinks he could practically slice it and serve it on a platter. Fan Zhu’er pauses at the next tree, co*cks her head and says, “It’s close, yeah?”

“Yes,” Jiang Cheng confirms, and then has to ask, “How can you tell?

“Mmmmn,” she says thoughtfully, thumb sweeping back and forth over the handle of her spear. “You ever been in a room where a fight’s about to break out?”

Jiang Cheng thinks of every party he’s ever attended with Wei Wuxian. “Yes.”

“You know how you can feel the tension? Even if it’s not magic or whatever, but just like, a bar brawl?”

“Yes,” Jiang Cheng says, and then, “How many bar brawls have you been in?”

“Air before a night hunt feels like that,” Fan Zhu’er says, and then casts her eyes sideways at him and adds, “Enough of them.”

“Wait,” Jiang Cheng says, as he unpacks that, “you can sense resentful energy?”

“Yeah,” she says, sitting down on her tree branch. She pulls a drinking gourd out of somewhere (how many qiankun pouches is she carrying?) and takes a drink. “I think most of us can,” she says, gesturing to herself and down at the ground, probably to indicate non-cultivators, “just not from like, a li away. Otherwise how would we know a place was haunted if we didn’t see the ghost ourselves? Hey, you want any?” The gourd waggles in his direction, and Jiang Cheng starts to refuse it automatically, realizes that actually, he is a bit thirsty, has a silent internal war about whether he wants her to think he’s forgiven her for impersonating a cultivator, and finally just takes the damn water like a reasonable f*cking human being. “The back of your neck goes all prickly and you know sh*t’s f*cked, right?” she continues as he drinks. “Sometimes ghosts look normal and all you have to go on is that prickly feeling.”

“Oh, and you’re the expert, are you?” Jiang Cheng snarks. He hands the water back in the next breath, which unfortunately softens the disapproval, dammit.

“I know enough to hunt them,” she says, standing back up and rolling out her shoulders, his words slipping off like water from a duck’s back and making him want to ruffle her goddamn feathers. “Which way?”

Jiang Cheng doesn’t even have to try and extend his spiritual awareness. The resentful energy of the boar hangs in the air like the reek of rotten meat. He points, and Fan Zhu’er gives him a perfunctory nod and leaps to the next tree. Four more trees and they have to slow down, creeping through the canopy as silently as possible. Finally they edge up on a clearing and get their first look at their quarry. Sort of.

Fan Zhu’er sighs. “You know,” she says, barely any breath behind it, “the most f*cking annoying thing about yaoguai is how they always hide up until you attack them?”

Jiang Cheng says nothing but silently agrees, eyes on the patch of too-deep shadow in the brush on the other side of the clearing.

“I’m just saying,” she continues, warming to her subject now, “that it would be nice to be able to get some intelligence on the damn things before they’re charging me at full speed.”

“And you’re speaking from experience?” Jiang Cheng asks, voice dripping acid.

Once again, Fan Zhu’er shows no outward reaction to his tone as she answers his question with, “Yes, actually.” She counts off on her fingers as she continues, “Crow, deer, alligator--that was a wild one--owl, another deer, chicken, snake, another chicken, duck, rat, two chickens at once, turtle, crane.” She chews her lower lip thoughtfully and co*cks her head at him. “Hey, do you have any idea why it seems like birds are so much more susceptible to becoming yaoguai? I’ve been assuming they’re just inherently more evil.”

Jiang Cheng doesn’t know, actually, but remembers being chased by a particularly nasty rooster when he was a kid and is willing to give some credence to the “Birds Are Evil” theory. Their eyes are too f*cking beady and they don’t have facial expressions. He doesn’t trust them. “Are you planning to kill it or just chat all afternoon?” he asks, instead of telling her any of that. “Because if you just want to chat we could do that not in a tree. We could chat somewhere with seats and beverages and a marked lack of resentful energy.”

“How forward of you, Jiang-zongzhu,” she drawls, not changing her facial expression in the slightest. “I am but an impressionable unmarried maiden. You don’t want to put ideas in my head by asking me on dates.”

Jiang Cheng splutters, mixed rage and embarrassment rolling over him from head to toe. How dare this woman make insinuations in that tone of voice! (Sarcastic, part of him points out, it was a sarcastic tone of voice.) Who the f*ck does she think she is, backsassing her sect leader? This is clear insubordination! (Is it insubordination if she’s not technically a cultivator? Jiang Cheng doesn’t know, which makes him angrier.)

“Hold this, please,” is all the warning he gets before she hands him her spear (and, again, why a spear?). Jiang Cheng takes it because dropping it seems somehow worse, and watches in enraged bafflement as Fan Zhu’er pulls out a small knife and a mirror. With steady hands and an almost bored expression she nicks herself behind the ear, the cut bleeding immediately and freely in the way of all scalp wounds. What the f*ck. His question must show in his expression, because she glances at him, shrugs, and says, “For my talismans.” Jiang Cheng frowns about that, and startles when she takes her spear back.

“Thanks,” Fan Zhu’er says, twirling it in her hands in a flourish that seems more habit than anything, a line of red trailing down her neck in a wet gleam. She tenses in the way he recognizes means she’s about to make another leap, and pauses there. “Hey, Jiang-zongzhu.”

Jiang Cheng doesn’t answer, but he does raise one eyebrow in his best, “The f*ck you want?” expression.

“You once asked if my courtesy name had a story behind it.” She grins at him, that there-and-gone again flash. “Prepare to find out.”

And then she f*cking winks, like this is fun, like they’re friends, and before Jiang Cheng has a chance to react she’s sailing gracefully through the air in a flutter of Yunmeng colors to land lightly in the clearing. She plants herself with a wide, solid stance, spear at the ready, and Jiang Cheng takes her recently-vacated spot on the branch and leans back against the tree to watch her untimely death. It’s what she deserves, he tells himself firmly. There’s a reason that commoners pay taxes to cultivators, it’s because they need cultivators to handle situations just such as this. From well below and across the clearing he hears the horrible, carrying grunt of the boar again and his hand clenches on Sandu. Maybe he should--he doesn’t exactly like watching people die needlessly--yeah she’s rude and horrible but does she deserve to get trampled to death under monster hooves?

The boar yaoguai charges out of the undergrowth, huge and as terrifying as expected, resentful energy boiling off of it into the air. Its hooves are, as he’d imagined, monstrous, tearing up the forest floor in great scattered clumps of soil, and Fan Zhu’er just stands there, not even reacting. She must be frozen in fear. Jiang Cheng prepares to send Sandu down--there’s no way the boar could eat his spiritual energy through the sword, and maybe he can distract it enough that she’ll get the f*ck out of the way, like a sensible f*cking person--

Sandu rattles in her sheath, while down below Fan Zhu’er drops her stance lower and brings the spear to bear. The sound of the collision startles birds from the trees, and Jiang Cheng feels the branches around him vibrate with the boar’s awful yowling. He grits his teeth, black resentful energy clouding his view in a seething swirl, fully expecting to see a dead woman and an angry monster when it fades, and he nearly falls out of the f*cking tree when instead his own two eyes f*cking behold the angry monster and Fan Zhu’er, still on her feet, braced in visible furrows where the boar has shoved her backward. Her whole body trembles, the spear lodged firmly in the boar’s massive shoulder, her torso low and her center of balance even lower, refusing to be knocked down. The boar gives another snarling grunt, hooves ripping into the soil as it tries to push forward. Fan Zhu’er lets it, shifting her stance with a practiced motion that allows the boar to run past her, not at her, the spearhead ripping free in a spatter of dark blood. As it passes, Jiang Cheng watches her fingertips come up to touch behind her ear. They come away red, and she snatches one of the talismans off her harness and slaps it on the ass end of the boar as they spin away from each other. Fan Zhu’er takes another leap backward, ending up almost on the other side of the clearing. Jiang Cheng’s not sure why. He doesn’t think it’s wise to allow the yaoguai that much of a leadup to a charge, or the maneuvering room.

Then the talisman explodes in a cloud of blood and burnt resentful boar meat. Ah, Jiang Cheng thinks, his ears ringing as the boar squeals in pain and rage. I see.

The boar whirls, limping, to square off against Fan Zhu’er. She flourishes the spear, looking almost bored as she strides back toward the middle of the clearing, planting herself in the center of the chewed up dirt with apparently-earned confidence. The yaoguai lowers its head, tusks tearing through the bushes in challenge, and it grunts again as it charges. It’s closer to him this time, and Jiang Cheng feels the tree shake with the power of those heavy footfalls. Fan Zhu’er brings her spear back into play and the impact is somehow even louder this time, the resentful energy screaming through the forest. They lock up again, the boar impaled on the spear up to the crossguard, Fan Zhu’er braced low against its weight. Blood streams from the stab wound on the boar’s shoulder and the raw, mangled meat of its back hip, dripping into the dirt to churn up an extra disgusting kind of mud. Jiang Cheng is intimately familiar with blood-mud, and it may be a common feature of night hunts but that doesn’t mean he has to like it.

Below him, Fan Zhu’er shifts her grip on the spear so it’s braced against one hip, reaching for a talisman with her newly-freed hand. Unfortunately for her, the boar takes this opportunity to shake its massive head and rip the spear out of her grasp, leaving her unarmed in the face of its oversized tusks.

(Jiang Cheng is operating under the assumption that this boar is larger than standard--he’s seen pigs before, and those are plenty big on their own. He’s fairly certain that boar don’t usually stand the height of a horse at the shoulder, so it’s likely the resentful energy has both enraged and enlarged the thing. He makes a note to ask Fan Zhu’er that, later, since she seems to know a lot about boar, has the horrified realization that he would have to admit his ignorance in front of a f*cking pig farmer, and resolves to absolutely not do that.)

Fan Zhu’er takes losing her primary weapon in stride, which is pretty f*cked up in Jiang Cheng’s opinion. She leaps lightly backward, making the yaoguai give chase, and touches both hands to the trail of blood on her neck. In a manner far too calm for someone facing down a charging monster, she grabs two more talismans, waits until the boar is too close to manage a turn, and jumps into the air. She does a front handspring over the damn thing with a fluidity that would be envied by veteran festival performers, her hands slapping dual talismans down as she uses the boar’s own momentum to carry them safely away from each other.

(Jiang Cheng surreptitiously covers his ears.)

Two explosions later, the boar is bloody, definitely the worse for wear, and angry. It snarls a sound that doesn’t seem anywhere near something that should come from a pig and whirls on the empty-handed Fan Zhu’er. It’s limping, her spear still dangling from its flank, but it hasn’t gone down yet and it glares at her with beady red eyes, breath loud and rumbling in its chest. They circle each other, both wary, and Fan Zhu’er pulls the spearhead-chain contraption off her belt, eyes never leaving the boar. She starts spinning the end, an arms-length of chain hanging from that hand, loops of slack in the other. It takes very little time before the chain blurs, spinning so quickly it almost looks like she’s holding a shield in that hand, and when the boar charges at her she leaps to the side and looses the spearhead right into its f*cking face. It cracks against skin and bone, flaying open a gash on the thing’s muzzle, and she does a flicking thing with one wrist as she twirls away and in the next moment it’s back to spinning around her hand in that blurred disc. Jiang Cheng fights against his jaw’s natural urge to drop. What the f*ck. Can you have a spiritual weapon without a golden core? Is that what he’s seeing?

Fan Zhu’er sends the spearhead at the yaoguai again and again, battering its skull and shoulders, each hit opening up another cut, each cut dripping more dark, resentful blood into the foul mud of the forest floor. Jiang Cheng is just starting to wonder if he’s going to stand here and watch a woman beat a boar to death for the rest of the afternoon when the monster roars again and flings its head into the next strike, tangling the chain around its tusks and rearing. Fan Zhu’er isn’t quite fast enough to drop the rest of the chain, and it yanks her off her feet and fully into the air. There’s a lot of weight behind the pull, and the boar moves fast. She has no time to recover for a better landing before she slams back-first into a tree hard enough to scrape bark off the trunk and lands on the ground, unmoving.

f*ck. f*ck. Jiang Cheng tightens his hand on his sword and considers his options. The boar looks like it’s been through a meat grinder--he might be able to kill it from a distance with Sandu, and then go in and suppress the resentful energy. It’s possible that it’s doing badly enough now that it won’t be able to drain him like it did the others. If that’s the case he can kill it right in its ugly asshole face and not interrogate why that feels like revenge. He’d definitely prefer that option--he hasn’t gotten to stab a single f*cking thing, and the whole point of this night hunt was getting to do something uncomplicated for once, instead of finding a brand new f*cking complication. The boar trots around to face the probably dead Fan Zhu’er and paws at the ground. It still has chains tangled in its tusks and a spear in its flank, its breathing coming hot and labored and loud. The thing charges before Jiang Cheng has a chance to make up his mind, and he’s tensed to leap out of the tree when Fan Zhu’er, at the last possible moment, rolls to the side and comes swiftly back up to her feet. The boar hits the tree instead of her with a boom that rattles every branch in every tree for probably half a li, and she yanks her spear free in yet another gout of blood.

Time slows, the way it sometimes does in fights, and she glances up at Jiang Cheng where he’s poised to leap, still in the tree. A bright, feral smile plays across her face, there and gone like the reflection of light from a blade, and then she turns, sets her stance, and plunges the spear right into the boar’s haunted monster eye. Even from here he hears the bone crack, and it slumps to the ground slowly, so large the limbs don’t immediately realize it’s dead.

“Jiang-zongzhu!” she yells, attention on the boar, spear still crossbar-deep into its head. Jiang Cheng shakes himself and completes the movement he started earlier, springing out of the tree, already moving his hands through a spell. He casts it as he lands, the purple energy of his qi encircling the massive corpse, and finally, finally, as the resentful energy peels away and coalesces into an oily cloud, he lets Zidian crackle awake. The whip cracks through the air, lashing through the center of the contained cloud and the array keeping it in place, and with a last wail the resentment vanishes, eliminated from the world. Jiang Cheng’s ears pop with the sudden pressure difference, like sometimes happens when he goes flying. The clearing goes silent except for Fan Zhu’er’s panting breaths and Jiang Cheng’s heart beating in his ears. He feels… Jiang Cheng isn’t sure how he feels, which definitely makes him feel annoyed. Does he feel accomplished? Sort of, but the sense of accomplishment isn’t directed inwardly. It’s directly outwardly. At…

Jiang Cheng realizes, for the barest of moments, that he feels proud of Fan Zhu’er, which is utterly horrifying, and he takes that emotion and buries it in the very deepest f*cking parts of his mind and then covers it in rocks. That is absolutely the most unacceptable thing that has happened today.

The universe seems to take that thought as a challenge since, in the next moment, Fan Zhu’er screams, “f*ck yes!” and drops her spear in order to grab him bodily around the waist and throw him into the f*cking air. Jiang Cheng is so horribaffled by the experience that his brain goes fully blank, nothing but a hollow kind of noiselessness inside his skull as she catches him, pulls him into a hug so tight his spine pops, and squeals, “We did it!” He still has no outward response to this. Instead, he is vaguely digging through his memories for the last time someone touched him who wasn’t 1. a doctor, 2. trying to kill him at the time, or 3. Jin Ling, and on a couple of occasions Jin Ling had definitely been frustrated enough to aim at least vaguely at being part of group 2. It was probably sometime before A-jie died, he realizes with that familiar clawing stab of grief that’s never quite softened.

“Woooooooo!” Fan Zhu’er yells, releasing him because apparently she needs her arms to punch the air as she does an enthusiastic and unchoreographed victory dance. “Yeah! Suck it, boar! f*ck you!” She kicks it in the side and makes dual obscene gestures at it. Jiang Cheng’s mouth wants to do something that feels very unfamiliar and he frowns reflexively.

“f*ck!” she says, reeling back around toward him, her eyes bright with glee, her face smeared with dirt and sweat and blood. “Quangu-zongzhu! You were f*cking amazing!” She punches him in the shoulder hard enough that it hurts, and he has no reaction to that since he’s still stuck on Quangu. “The f*cking whip! It just--” and she makes a sound that he thinks is supposed to be Zidian and is mostly there “--and then the array just like, exploded!” The weirdness of this interaction isn’t over, because now she grabs him by both shoulders and shakes him. “I’ve never seen the whip in action! That sh*t is rad!

“Get your f*cking hands off me,” Jiang Cheng finally manages, jerking out of her grip with stiff movements, hot all over with anger and embarrassment and general horror at the informality of this entire inappropriate situation.

“Sorry!” she says immediately, stepping away with her eyes still shining and her face caught in a grin that looks like it hurts. “Didn’t mean to be grabby! It’s the fight energy! This was a good one and I am juiced up!” Her head tips back and she yowls at the sky, hands raised to the heavens as a sound of pure, exhausted elation tears out of her chest. It must be the lingering energy of the fight that makes Jiang Cheng’s ribs feel weird when she does it. That’s the only explanation. “Okay,” she says, apparently a little calmer now that she’s done wordlessly screaming. “Okay, whew, all right, I think I’m good.”

Jiang Cheng scowls at her, because she deserves it.

“So, the resentful energy,” she asks, suddenly all business again, hands on her hips. “It’s gone, right? I can’t feel creepy prickles on the back of my neck anymore so this should be safe?” One arm gestures to encapsulate the monster boar’s everything.

“Do you doubt my skills?” Jiang Cheng asks icily.

“No, Jiang-zongzhu,” she says immediately, which is at least a little gratifying. “I haven’t fought a boar yaoguai like this solo so I wanted to be sure there wasn’t anything else you needed to do.” Her mouth does something rueful. “Normally there are more actual cultivators for the, you know. Stabbing.”

Oh, and doesn’t Jiang Cheng have questions about that. “It’s safe,” he says flatly.

“Great.” Fan Zhu’er bows, her bruised and battered hands coming up in front of her. Is she moving differently, now? “Thank you, Jiang-zongzhu.” Jiang Cheng has a brief moment of appreciation for her, and her apparent return to protocol, and it lasts right up until she turns, yanks her spear out of the boar with a squelchy scraping sound, and uses it to neatly lop off a tusk. She hefts the tusk in one hand and turns it around, eyes appreciative.

“What are you doing.” Jiang Cheng can’t even find the energy to inflect it as a question.

“I’m keeping this,” she says, with a quick flash of a grin and a wink as she tucks it away into a qiankun pouch.

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. “Why.”

“Because it’s rad,” she answers absolutely shamelessly. Her mouth quirks. “Did you want to keep the other one, Quangu-zongzhu?”

Jiang Cheng attempts to light her on fire with his eyes. When that doesn’t work, he spins on his heel, skirts flaring out with a satisfying weight, and stalks off into the forest back the way they came. Footsteps follow him a moment later, and he considers, just for a moment, speeding up. She doesn’t have a f*cking core. She can’t use it to keep up with him, if he really decides to get moving.

She killed that boar by herself, says a voice deep, deep inside him, the one that sounds a little like him and a little like A-jie. You should be able to appreciate that even if you don’t like it.

Jiang Cheng grits his teeth, a muscle jumping in his jaw.

He doesn’t speed up.

--

Fan Dingxiang is pretty sure that, at any moment, Jiang-zongzhu is going to either stab her or whip her or kick her out of Lotus Pier. Every moment that passes where he doesn’t do one of those things is a gift, and she appreciates every single one of them.

He doesn’t speak again all the way back to the temple ruins where they left the others, and she thinks it’s to intimidate her. Joke’s on him: Now that the worst has happened and he knows what she’s been up to, all his capacity for intimidation is gone. She’s avoided him for over a decade and had all that ruined in a single afternoon. The worst he can do is kill her or banish her, now, and somehow that knowledge is a kind of freedom.

Anyway, the point is, she’s not intimidated, and she’s full of a bottomless well of spite that enjoys how mad it apparently makes him that she’s not intimidated. That’s actually a very good thing, because spite is about the only thing keeping her upright. She killed a monster boar! By herself! And got thrown into a tree! There’s only so much the protective talismans she painstakingly embroidered into her robes can do in the face of that, and Fan Dingxiang is pretty sure her entire body is one big bruise. She thinks longingly of a hot bath at the inn and hopes Jiang-zongzhu won’t execute her before she gets to take one.

The others are varying shades of conscious by the time they get back, which is good because Fan Dingxiang is willing to carry people if need be but would definitely prefer not to be doing that, given how she’s using the aforementioned spite to keep from limping. Hu Yueque is up and poking at the others, along with Zhang Luan--those two always did recover quickly--and they look up with matching wild-eyed expressions and a “Jiang-zongzhu!” when he lands lightly on the mossy dirt. They both bow, and then look past him at Fan Dingxiang, who lands not quite as lightly. Hu Yueque blinks, gives her a once over, and then says bluntly, “You look like sh*t.”

f*ck. f*ck. Fan Dingxiang’s plan was to get the others to pretend they didn’t know her, so she could keep all of Jiang-zongzhu’s wrath directed at her and her alone. She gives the two female cultivators a frantic look and a little shake of her head, right as Jiang-zongzhu says, “Ah. So you know each other, then.” Every word comes out clipped, like they’re being carved into a stone tablet. “I am going to have some questions about what exactly has been going on behind my back,” Jiang-zongzhu continues, as Hu Yueque and Zhang Luan melt into apologetic bows, “but right now I want to leave this f*cking forest as swiftly as possible.” He turns to Zhang Luan sharply. “How are they doing?”

Fan Dingxiang doesn’t remember a lot of the walk back to the village and the inn where they’ll be staying the night, other than her own discomfort and her friends occasionally subtly taking her hand to feed her a little bit of their barely-recovered spiritual energy. It doesn’t do the same thing for her that it would for another cultivator, but they’ve learned how to accelerate her healing via careful, directed application. Right now it’s about keeping her awake and on her feet. God, she could eat a whole boar by herself and then sleep for a week. Maybe when Jiang-zongzhu kicks her out of the sect she can find a cheap inn and do just that.

Speaking of inns, there’s one in front of her, and Fan Dingxiang grits her teeth at the indignity of the small set of stairs leading up to the doorway. She makes it up them without outwardly displaying how much pain she’s in and has vague plans to escape to the room she’s sharing with Hu Yueque and Jiang Fengli. Once she’s out of sight she can collapse and get them to rub various salves into her horrible weak non-cultivator muscles and maybe by tomorrow morning she’ll be able to breathe without it feeling like a punch in the ribs every time. Those are definitely bruised, which is better than them being broken, but not by much.

(Fan Dingxiang loves night hunting, but this part? This part sucks.)

Jiang Cheng leads them upstairs (of f*cking course) to his rooms, waits for everyone to arrange themselves in neat lines, heads bowed, swords in hand (f*ck, Fan Dingxiang never got her sword back out. She’s still carrying her spear and wearing the knife harness, god dammit, way to go, her) and casts a narrowed gaze over them like he’s trying to cast fire talismans with his eyes. Fan Dingxiang takes deep, slow breaths and refuses to sway on her feet.

“So.” His voice and mouth are both tight, his shoulders rigid under his robes. “Would anyone like to explain her?” Jiang-zongzhu doesn’t bother to gesture. Fan Dingxiang stands out like a boar among chickens.

“Jiang-zongzhu,” she says, stepping forward before anyone else can try to throw themselves on this particular sword. “Sir.” Fan Dingxiang brings her hands up to bow around her spear, as properly as she can for this wildly improper situation, and discovers what a mistake that was when every muscle in her torso--back, front, and sides--all scream in agony. A pained hiss sneaks out between her teeth without her permission and she feels her face twist up in a wince. f*ck f*ck sh*t dammit, she was gonna be strong.

“Stand up,” Jiang-zongzhu barks, and Fan Dingxiang manages that by leaning partially on her spear, to her own disgust. He’s half a step closer, hands very slightly raised for a moment before he snaps them back to his sides. That angry glare rakes over her from head to foot. “You’re injured,” he says flatly.

“Nothing that won’t heal, Jiang-zongzhu,” she says truthfully. Ugh, is her voice shaking? How disappointing.

Jiang-zongzhu glares at her for a moment longer and rolls his eyes. He does that a lot, she’s learned today. “You’re about to pass out,” he snaps, “and you stink like dead boar. Go f*cking--go do whatever the f*ck you do when you go on night hunts you have no business being on and explain yourself to me in the morning.”

Fan Dingxiang blinks. So she is going to get that hot bath before she gets stabbed to death. Nice. “This one thanks you, Jiang-zongzhu,” she says, bowing again (ow ow ow ow). He whirls away in a huff and before Fan Dingxiang fully realizes what’s happened she’s in her own room, sitting on the edge of a bed, as her friends carefully undress her.

“Did I black out for a second?” she asks. The answer never comes, and the next time she opens her eyes she’s in a tub of hot water that smells like recovery herbs. Okay, she definitely blacked out a little bit.

“Are you okay? Can you drink this?” Hu Yueque asks, from her elbow, holding out a cup of medicinal tea.

“Did you kill the boar? Was it gross?” Jiang Fengli asks, combing the grit out of Fan Dingxiang’s hair.

“Yes to all of those questions,” Fan Dingxiang says, knocking back the bitter brew in two quick swallows. The empty cup is replaced with a bowl of soup, some kind of dumplings floating in broth, and Fan Dingxiang gets through half the bowl before she has a conscious thought again.

“I hugged Jiang-zongzhu,” she says to the room with cold horror, the memory of the fight replaying behind her eyes. “Oh my f*cking god, I threw him in the air and caught him and then I hugged him.”

Hu Yueque goggles at her. Jiang Fengli’s comb snags in a tangle. “You what?” Hu Yueque asks, high-pitched.

“What were you thinking?” Jiang Fengli asks, the comb moving again with quicker strokes.

“It was right after I killed the boar,” Fan Dingxiang says. “You know how I get after a fight. I don’t think I was thinking.” She inhales the rest of the soup, because emotional turmoil isn’t nearly enough to stop her from eating, and passes the bowl back, just in time to be slapped with another recollection. “I called him Quangu-zongzhu.

“Oh my god,” Hu Yueque says, face locked in a rictus of amused horror. “You did not.

“I did,” Fan Dingxiang says, sinking into the tub until the water reaches her chin. “I called him Quangu-zongzhu twice. f*ck me running. I’m just gonna drown myself in this bath. Please burn paper money for me, okay?”

“You can’t drown yourself,” Jiang Fengli says reasonably. “You’ll ruin all my hard work on your hair.”

“Plus after all the effort we put in teaching you how to swim it would be disrespectful to us, your friends, if you died by drowning.” Hue Yueque bats at her head gently. “Rude of you.”

“Fine,” Fan Dingxiang agrees reluctantly, “but when Jiang-zongzhu whips me to death tomorrow for impersonating a cultivator, hugging him, and calling him by an inappropriate nickname, I hope you’ll all burn paper money for me then.”

“It’s not an inappropriate nickname,” Hu Yueque says. She shrugs when they stare at her. “If he doesn’t want to be called Quangu-zongzhu,” she explains, deadpan, “then he shouldn’t have that face.”

“Please tell him that,” Fan Dingxiang says, through the beginning of horrible, irrepressible giggles. “Please tell him that to his face, and then Jiang Fengli will burn paper money for us both.”

“That seems fair,” Jiang Fengli agrees, working on another tangle. “Now as my payment, please tell me how you killed the monster boar.” Her voice sharpens in the way that means she’s probably smiling. “It looks like it was bloody.”

“Have some more soup,” Hu Yueque says, holding out the refilled bowl. “If it’s your last meal before Quangu-zongzhu kills you, you should enjoy it, right?”

Fan Dingxiang smiles and sits up far enough (ow) to take the soup. She might die tomorrow, but at least she has friends. Could be worse. She could have died without getting a bath first.

Notes:

Quangu = cheekbones. She's calling him Sect Leader Cheekbones.

I tell you what it feels extremely silly to write wuxia!

Me, thinking about this fight where Fan Zhu'er uses a rope dart to fight a boar: Haha f*ck yeah!!! Yes!!
Me, writing this fight where Fan Zhu'er uses a rope dart to fight a boar: Well this f*cking sucks. What the f*ck.

Chapter 5

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Fan Dingxiang wakes up the next morning and only regrets it a little bit, so that’s honestly better than some night hunts she’s been on. Between the medicine Hu Yueque shoved down her throat the night before, the variety of salves, the bath, and a solid ten hours of sleep, she’s doing okay, by which she means she’s able to get dressed without help and with a minimum of groaning. She starts, automatically, to style her hair in one of the cultivator-appropriate looks that Jiang Fengli has taught her over the years and pauses, comb still in place. There’s nothing to hide, now. Jiang-zongzhu knows what she is, and therefore there’s no point in pretending to be something she’s not. Fan Dingxiang nods to herself, gets the comb moving again, and separates her hair into two braids that she winds and pins around the crown of her head. It’s how she always used to wear it on the farm. It’s sensible. It doesn’t require ridiculous sword magic to keep it out of her face.

(She does add a couple of the silver enameled hairpins she likes, because impersonating a cultivator comes with some fun perks and she’s not giving all of them up.)

“Uuuuugh,” Hu Yueque groans, half-crawling to the table where Fan Dingxiang is resisting the urge to eat all the congee before anyone else can get any. “I f*cking hate spiritual energy drainage. It’s like having a hangover in your golden core.”

“Sounds unpleasant,” Fan Dingxiang says indistinctly through a mouthful of congee.

“It is,” confirms Jiang Fengli, who looks wan around the face but has fantastic hair, as usual. “It’s like menstrual cramps but not stabby, just a constant pain.”

Fan Dingxiang doesn’t bleed, but the medicine she takes is very good at what it does, and she’s familiar with the time of the month when her guts decide to all, collectively, be assholes. “I’m so glad I don’t have a core,” she says fervently.

“I’m glad you don’t have a core, too,” Hu Yueque says, scraping the last of her congee into her mouth with abominable table manners. “We’d all probably be dead if you had one. Trampled into the dirt by a giant boar. What a way to go.”

“Yeah,” Jiang Fengli says, her eyes almost wistful. “Wonder what that would be like.”

“God you’re weird,” Hu Yueque tells her, not for the first time, and scoots around the table to settle her hands lightly under Fan Dingxiang’s shoulder blades. “Cores do have their uses,” she says, as the warmth of her spiritual energy pours into Fan Dingxiang’s skin like hot water from a kettle. “This is gonna be like, what, a week of twice-daily sessions before you’re back to a hundred?”

“Mmm,” Fan Dingxiang says eloquently, rolling out her neck. “About that much, yeah. We’ll see what the healers can do when we get back to Lotus Pier.” She pauses, frowning as reality sets in. “If I get back to Lotus Pier, I guess.”

“Oh, you’re getting back to Lotus Pier,” Hu Yueque says, darkly. “I’m gonna make sure of that.”

Someone knocks at the door before Fan Dingxiang can respond, and as is his wont, Hu Xinling immediately opens it and shoves his head through without waiting for permission. “Oh, good,” he says, “You’re all dressed. Jiang-zongzhu wants us all in his rooms half a stick of incense ago.”

“Great,” Jiang Fengli says, with an eyeroll worthy of her distant cousin. “Sounds like he’s gonna be in a really reasonable mood.”

“He seems very slightly less angry than yesterday,” Hu Xinling says encouragingly. “Though that could just be because he doesn’t have dried blood on his face anymore.”

“Well,” Fan Dingxiang says with a sigh, climbing to her feet and only wincing about it a little, “putting this off isn’t gonna make it any better.” She gets fully upright just in time to see the tail end of some significant eye contact among the others, but she’s used to that kind of silent conference at the end of a night hunt. They’re probably working out the rotation for who’s going to give her the next hit of spiritual energy to speed up her healing. Should she carry her sword? Would that make Jiang-zongzhu more or less angry with her? Hm. He’d probably see it as a mockery if she carried it, and she doesn’t want to, anyway, so she doesn’t.

Fan Dingxiang always thought that walking to her possible death would feel more dramatic. (Not that she’s thought about it a lot, mind you, but sometimes a person reads adventure stories and then lies awake at night being creative.) It just feels like walking. Maybe it’s that there isn’t a very long hallway, so there just isn’t time for it to feel dramatic before she’s following her friends through a perfectly normal doorway to face whatever awaits her there. (It’s Jiang-zongzhu, obviously, he’s what awaits her there.) He’s standing very rigid, feet apart, shoulders back, in a different set of fancy purple robes, clean ones that don’t have boar blood on them. He really does have very excellent cheekbones, Fan Dingxiang notes absently, and then has to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing.

They all line up obediently, the cultivators and Fan Dingxiang, and they all bow together with a murmured, “Jiang-zongzhu.” Fan Dingxiang feels very calm about the whole thing. She’s not sure if it’s calm because she thinks everything is going to turn out okay, or if it’s calm because she’s extremely far away from the rest of her body right now. She’ll take either, really.

Jiang-zongzhu casts his eyes over his disciples and then over her, slowly, scowling so hard she’s pretty sure it must be giving him a headache. “So,” he starts, the word cold and crisp. Fan Dingxiang raises her chin and prepares to accept whatever he doles out, meeting his gaze without apology or shame. That makes him even scowlier, which makes Fan Dingxiang even more determined to be implacable. She’s pretty sure the room is about to spontaneously combust with the power of his held glare. That’d be interesting. She kinda wants to see it happen.

“Jiang-zongzhu!” Hu Yueque says, breaking the tension like a rock through the surface of a frozen lake. She bows over her sword, then sinks to her knees to press her forehead to the ground. “I have been training with Fan Zhu’er since I was a junior,” she says to the floor. “I’m the one who brought her on her first night hunt. I must share in whatever punishment you intend for her. She wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for me.”

Fan Dingxiang reels with that, almost rocking back on her heels, and scrambles for something to say. Into the brief silence, Zhang Luan steps forward to bow, and then to kowtow on the floor. “Jiang-zongzhu,” she says, voice strong. “I also must be punished in whatever way you punish Fan Zhu’er. I, too, have been training with her for years, and I sneak her onto night hunts whenever I can. I’m the one that stole her a uniform in the first place.”

No! No no no, this isn’t how it was supposed to go! Fan Dingxiang is going to tell her friends to shut up and protect themselves, as soon as she figures out how her mouth works. She doesn’t figure it out soon enough, as Hu Xinling is next on his knees. “Fan Zhu’er is one of my best sparring partners,” he says. “She saved my life yesterday, and it’s not the first time. I, also, insist on sharing in her punishment.”

“I taught her gentry hairstyles,” Jiang Fengli says, kneeling with an enviable grace. “I have helped her disguise herself as a cultivator on dozens of occasions. There’s no one I’d rather have at my side in a fight, Jiang-zongzhu.” She presses her forehead to the mat. “Punish me as you would punish her.”

“Stop it!” Fan Dingxiang finally blurts, taking half a step forward, like if she can get Jiang-zongzhu’s attention again, he’ll forget about the others. “I’m the one who isn’t supposed to be here! Don’t--don’t throw yourselves away for me.”

“It’s the right thing to do,” Hu Yueque says stubbornly.

Silence reigns in the room for a moment, which Jiang-zongzhu breaks with the most annoyed sigh that Fan Dingxiang has ever heard in her life. “Would anyone else like to confess to being part of this?” he asks drily.

“Ma Xueliang stole a training sword for her,” Hue Yueque says immediately. “And taught her how to use talismans. If she were here she’d tell you so herself.”

“Can you not,” Fan Dingxiang says, through gritted teeth. This is making her skin feel itchy and she hates it. Other people aren’t supposed to take the fall for her. Fan Dingxiang does the thing that needs doing! That’s her whole thing.

“Anyone else?” Jiang-zongzhu asks, sounding almost bored now. The three cultivators still standing glance at each other, none of them willing to be the first to speak, but finally one steps forward.

“Jiang-zongzhu,” he says. Fan Dingxiang knows his face but isn’t sure of his name--Liu-gongzi, she thinks? He bows over his sword. “I’ve been on hunts with her before. I didn’t--I thought she just practiced an unusual style of cultivation from one of the smaller sects.” The other two men nod vigorously in agreement, apparently not willing to actually say anything.

“Are you also asking to be punished?” Jiang-zongzhu asks. He sounds exasperated now instead of angry, but Fan Dingxiang isn’t sure if that’s better in the long term.

“Um,” says probably Liu-gongzi. “Not as such--” Hu Yueque and Jiang Fengli turn their heads in perfect unison to shoot him absolutely venomous looks, and he hurries on with, “but she carried us to safety, yesterday, and she’s a good fighter. I’m sure whatever punishment you decide upon will be just.” He bows again, which almost covers up how he just very nearly cast doubt on his sect leader’s decision making abilities.

Fan Dingxiang is having a qi deviation, she’s pretty sure. This isn’t--it wasn’t supposed to go like this! She turns to Jiang-zongzhu, ready to beg, or something. “Shut up,” he tells her as soon as she opens her mouth, and she does so with a click of her teeth. He turns to Hu Yueque in a swirl of purple. “How long?”

“Since I was seventeen,” she answers easily.

Jiang-zongzhu narrows his eyes. “Why?”

Hu Yueque glances across the room at Fan Dingxiang, her face softening. “She found me with Duan Gaosheng,” she says, bringing her eyes back to Jiang-zongzhu. “Fan Zhu’er picked him up by the throat and threw him in the lake.” She bows again, forehead to the floor. “She’s good, Jiang-zongzhu. One of the best I’ve seen.”

“You fought alongside her, didn’t you?” Zhang Luan asks, just pointed enough to be on the right side of polite.

“One time I saw her punch a hungry ghost’s head right off,” Hu Xinling says helpfully. One of Jiang-zongzhu’s eyebrows twitches up at that. He almost looks interested, for a second, before it vanishes back into his usual glower. Fan Dingxiang loves all her friends so much and also she’s going to f*cking murder them. She tries to tell them that with ferocious eye contact and small eyebrow movements, and has to immediately abandon that as Jiang-zongzhu turns back to her with a now-familiar glare. Back to this, then. Fan Dingxiang keeps her hands behind her back and her shoulders square and her chin up. Maybe if he kicks all of them out of Yunmeng Jiang they can go back to her home village and start a new, tiny sect. Maybe they can be a herd of rogue cultivators together. That seems like it might be fun.

“Your injuries,” he barks at her, as though Fan Dingxiang being injured was a personal insult to him. “How long will it take you to heal?”

Fan Dingxiang blinks. Does he care? “About a week,” she says, honestly. “I’ll know more once I see a doctor.”

He scowls at her. “Report to the healers as soon as we get back to Lotus Pier,” he snaps. “I want to know exactly how long it’ll take before you’re in fighting shape, because as soon as you are, I want you in the training yard at chen hour.”

Fan Dingxiang blinks again. “Of course, Jiang-zongzhu,” she says, bowing (ow) for lack of any other real response. She can’t stop herself from adding, “May this one ask why?”

Jiang-zongzhu scowls at her harder. “My senior disciples say you’re good,” he bites out. “I intend to see how good.” He whips around to the others. “Get off the floor. We’re leaving.”

Fan Dingxiang blinks into the middle distance.

That…

That actually went pretty well.

Neat.

---

It takes a week and a half, all told. Fan Dingxiang would have been fine doing whatever it was Jiang-zongzhu was planning after a week, but her wonderful, horrible, loyal, two-faced friends all team up to betray her again.

“I’d prefer two weeks, frankly,” Hu Yueque says a week in, directing her spiritual energy into Fan Dingxiang’s ribs, where they’re still a little tender when she moves wrong. “If we give him a full two weeks to stew, though, he’ll just be even angrier, so a week and a half it is.”

“I’m fine now,” Fan Dingxiang insists. “I’ve gone on night hunts in worse shape than this.”

“Sure,” Ma Xueliang says, pouring tea at the table, “but you weren’t fighting in front of Jiang-zongzhu. We want you at your best.” Ma Xueliang was, for the record, extremely put out that she had been assigned to a different night hunt the day the boar yaoguai f*cked up Fan Dingxiang’s whole life, and hadn’t had the chance to join the others in their defense of her. Fan Dingxiang thinks this is very sweet and also hates it.

“We talked you up,” Jiang Fengli says from her bed, where she’s looking at spring books with Hu Xinling and critiquing the improbability of the poses. “You can’t go out there and wince every time you lift your arms over your head after we bragged about you like we did.” To Hu Xinling she says, “There is no way this would work.”

“Where the f*ck does that artist think the dick goes?” Hu Xinling agrees, frowning at the page. “Or do they think people have dicks coming out of their belly buttons?”

“If you think that’s bad,” Zhang Luan says, leaning over the edge to get a look, “you should see the kind of sh*t they come up with for peach eaters.”

“Wow,” Fan Dingxiang says to Ma Xueliang, accepting a cup of tea. “I am so glad I have such a professional group of friends who are definitely here to help me succeed in everything I do, as long as it involves looking at p*rn and not doing anything else whatsoever.”

“You’d miss us if we were gone,” Hu Xinling sing-songs, turning a page. He makes a face. “I count five arms and only two people.”

“Oh, yeah,” Fan Dingxiang deadpans. “I hear some folks are into that.”

Hu Yueque ends up laughing so hard she loses the thread of her spiritual energy transfer, and collapses against Fan Dingxiang’s side. Fan Dingxiang pats her on the head, smiling. Another half a week isn’t so bad, really, not if it gets her more days like this.

---

Jiang Cheng waits, impatiently, at the head of the training yard. Traditionally, here is where he would supervise his disciples, offering corrections to their form or watching the older ones spar with each other. Today, he’s here to watch a f*cking pig farmer do some kind of sh*t that almost, but isn’t quite, exactly unlike cultivation. It’s not quite the worst thing he’s witnessed in this training yard, but it’s possibly the most frustrating. He resists the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. What is his life.

The pig farmer in question is on the other side of the training yard. Fan Zhu’er; pain in his ass; thorn in his side; Five Swords; fake cultivator; supposedly assigned to work the kitchens (according to his bookkeeper); a damn liar; currently working through a series of stretches and warmups that he’s never really seen anyone do. Is this what people do when they don’t have a core? (Jiang Cheng wonders, briefly, if Wei Wuxian has ever stretched his hamstrings in his whole life, and then skitters reflexively away from the thought of his brother and smashes that whole idea down into a mental dungeon.) Anyway. When she’s done with her whatever-it-is, Jiang Cheng is going to watch her spar against some of his disciples. She’ll get her ass kicked, and then he’ll be able to kick her out of the sect with a clear conscience, for all the lying she’s done, like a f*cking liar.

She killed that boar by herself, that little voice in his head whispers again. Are you sure she’s going to lose?

Jiang Cheng ignores the voice like he ignores a lot of things these days and jerks his chin at his second-in-command. Hua Shaojun has been at his side since the rebuilding days and is technically older than Jiang Cheng, something that never fails to bewilder him when he thinks about it for too long. Hua Shaojun apparently also didn’t know about Fan Zhu’er, and his mouth is a grim line when he steps forward to announce the beginning of the proceedings. Jiang Cheng doesn’t really listen. This is the same process they’d go through if a rogue cultivator wanted to join Yunmeng Jiang--a series of combat trials to see if they’d be an asset in a fight, plus later interviews to see if they’d be a good addition to the culture of the sect. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s happened enough in Jiang Cheng’s time as sect leader that the routine is familiar.

He supposes, with a wry twist to his thoughts, that they won’t have to do the interviews this time. There are a fair number of cultivators stopping by to speak quietly to Fan Zhu’er, or set a hand on her shoulder, and he’s aware of the household staff gathered around the yard, peering out of windows or around the edges of doors. It’s not exactly a surprise, he thinks as he absently watches her with the knife and the mirror, hands steady as she nicks a fresh cut behind her ear. Not a surprise, not after her friends and secret training partners all but begged him to spare her life, but it’s more salt in the wound, making the lie pulse painfully behind his ribs. What else has he missed about his sect, if he missed this?

Jiang Cheng refocuses on the yard, where Hua Shaojun has finished explaining the rules for everyone present--fight until someone yields, any cultivation goes, don’t kill each other you animals--and Fan Zhu’er stands across from an actual Jiang disciple. He’s been out of juniors for about five years. Perfectly competent cultivator, tends to be a little flashy with his swordwork but over a solid foundation. It feels completely unfair to put him up against a civilian, Jiang Cheng reflects as the man and Fan Zhu’er bow to each other, but at least this should be over quickly.

It is, just not in the way he expects. The Jiang disciple draws his sword and drives at Fan Zhu’er immediately, who doesn’t move or dodge or parry with her spear, right up until it seems like it should be too late for her to do anything but get stabbed, at which point she runs fingers behind her ear, grabs a talisman, and steps neatly to the side. She slaps the talisman on a purple-robed back and Jiang Cheng watches with horrified bewilderment as his disciple falls the f*ck asleep. Fan Zhu’er wrestles his sheath out of a slack, unconscious hand, grabs his other hand in her large fist, and sheathes the sword without ever touching it herself. (It’s smart, Jiang Cheng notes distantly. If she doesn’t have a core then trying to wield the sword herself would drain her energy. This way she’s still drawing on the core of the cultivator, who is, Jiang Cheng cannot overemphasize this to himself, asleep.) Once the sword is sheathed she tugs at her bracers, unraveling a neatly-knotted length of cord. She ties the man’s hands and ankles together behind his back, like an animal being brought to market. With another length of cord she binds his sword into his sheath, and picks them both up without apparent effort. Fan Zhu’er carries the cultivator and his sword over to Jiang Cheng, lays them respectfully at his feet, bows neatly, and then tugs the talisman off. There’s a startled snort as the cultivator wakes up, a moment of furious wiggling, and a slump in resignation.

“I yield,” he says, to the dirt of the training yard.

The whole thing took less time than it would take half a stick of incense to burn.

What the f*ck.

“Jiang-zongzhu,” Fan Zhu’er says, with another bow, and then she drops to one knee and politely unties the cultivator, knotting the cords back onto her bracers like she does this all the time. She bows, again, to the cultivator, still kneeling, and he nods back, embarrassed, not meeting her eyes. Jiang Cheng is furious and also something else that he’s steadfastly not addressing. Hua Shaojun steps forward to set up the next round of sparring, against an older woman, Lin-guniang. She’s been with Lotus Pier since he started rebuilding it. She’d been with Jiang Cheng at Nightless City that horrible day when he lost the rest of his family. She’s good.

Lin-guniang bows to Fan Zhu’er, who bows back. When the starting bell rings out, she draws her sword but doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the man who preceded her. She circles, testing Fan Zhu’er’s reflexes, learning the reach of the spear. Only when she has a good idea of what she’s facing does she strike, and Jiang Cheng suppresses a smirk.

Fan Zhu’er deflects every sword attack with her boar spear, tangles up the blade on the crossguard, and disarms her opponent with a quick twist. When the cultivator starts casting a spell, Fan Zhu’er throws a talisman that fills the training yard with fog and disappears. Jiang Cheng hears the sounds of a scuffle and probably the flares of a few more talismans, and when the fog dissipates his disciple is face-down in the dirt, sleeves pinned to the ground with throwing knives, while Fan Zhu’er sits politely on her back.

“I yield,” the obviously defeated Lin-guniang says. Fan Zhu’er stands and bows, then retrieves her knives and slots them back into the harness she wears. She offers the cultivator a hand up, which the woman accepts, and they apparently have a short conversation while Hua Shaojun handles the logistics of the next round. When they separate Lin-guniang looks far more pleased about the outcome of that fight than Jiang Cheng thinks she has any right to, given that she was just beaten by a f*cking pig farmer and cook.

Fan Zhu’er takes her place on the other side of the training yard, blood in a red stream down her neck. She barely looks winded. Jiang Cheng’s jaw aches from clenching.

Hua Shaojun makes the very sensible (Jiang Cheng thinks) decision to have the next two cultivators fight as a unit. They step forward and bow, like actual cultivators do, and Fan Zhu’er steps forward and bows, like apparently pig farmers do, and they all wait for the bell to ring. The cultivators immediately draw their swords and split up, going for a flanking maneuver. Good strategy. Fan Zhu’er adjusts her grip on the spear and charges the taller cultivator, which Jiang Cheng is annoyed to realize is also good strategy. She’s taken away the advantage of flanking by getting in close to one of her opponents, where she can engage directly while still keeping an eye on the second cultivator. The spear flashes in the sunlight, metal clattering against metal--the cultivator she’s fighting can’t get inside her guard, and between her arms and the fact that it’s a f*cking spear, Fan Zhu’er has the advantage of very considerable reach. The second, shorter cultivator circles around behind her, clearly trying to find an attack point out of her direct eyesight, but Fan Zhu’er just keeps circling the same direction, pressing her attacks against her direct opponent and refusing to allow the other out of her eyeline.

This… This is a good f*cking fight, actually. Jiang Cheng’s pulse jumps, the way it does when he sees the juniors finally grasp their sword forms in sparring. Fan Zhu’er fights weird but she fights Yunmeng Jiang weird. He can see the shapes of familiar techniques in her movements, adjusted for the weapon and her lack of a core. He knows the way she plants her feet, and he narrows his eyes and predicts a movement based on the way she slides one foot back and to the side, and in the next moment she knocks the sword aside and drives forward to stab her opponent, clearly, that’s what she’s going to do--

Fan Zhu’er does not stab the cultivator. She punches him in the face so hard he skids backward, then sprints after him to snatch him up by the collar and bodily throw him into the other cultivator. One-handed. Jiang Cheng’s face feels weird, and when he focuses on it he realizes his jaw has dropped, which is unacceptable. He snaps his mouth shut and draws his eyebrows down again until his face feels like his again. There’s still a fight going on.

Fan Zhu’er has discarded her spear in favor of bringing out that weird spearhead on a chain again, which she’s sending at the still slightly stunned cultivators with startling speed and accuracy. She’s managing, somehow, to keep the two of them hemmed in, harassing them with repeated, unpredictable attacks every time they try to split up to flank her again. He can see them strategizing, a discussion happening under their breaths, and the next time the spearhead flies toward them, the taller one tries to deflect it with his sword while the shorter one leaps into the air, flying above the reach of the thing, blade pointed directly at Fan Zhu’er. It’s a great plan, she can’t attack both of them at once. Jiang Cheng wonders, for a brief moment, exactly how she’s going to get out of it.

The spearhead, not for the first time, reverses direction with a speed and control that still has Jiang Cheng wondering if it’s a spiritual weapon. Fan Zhu’er twirls, bending the direction of the chain and weight with her shoulders and a thing with her leg, and proceeds to send it at the airborne cultivator too quickly for him to dodge. It tangles around his body, and she yanks him to the ground. He lands with a heavy thump and a cloud of dust and Fan Zhu’er there to greet him with a talisman slapped onto his back. It seems to… Ah. He’s immobilized. Sure. That makes sense.

Jiang Cheng realizes, with a yawning kind of horror, that he’d expected Fan Zhu’er to do something like that. He’d expected that she’d have a way to avoid defeat. What the f*ck, for serious.

Fan Zhu’er retrieves her spear-chain-thing from the downed cultivator and sets it to spinning again, her eyes on her remaining opponent. Said opponent looks a lot more wary, and the two of them circle each other slowly, both looking for an opening. The spearhead flashes through the air again, there and gone, almost too fast to see. It’s a fascinating weapon, both like and unlike a whip. Jiang Cheng’s hands itch, watching it. He wants to try it out.

The cultivator charges the next time Fan Zhu’er attacks with the chain, knocking it aside and trying to close the distance between them. There’s no way she’ll be able to fight with it up close--it’s definitely what Jiang Cheng would do if he was faced with the same situation and didn’t have a ranged weapon of his own. She doesn’t carry a sword. She’s entirely unprepared for close-quarters fighting, unless she’s hiding some kind of blade in her robes. Jiang Cheng honestly wouldn’t put it past her. He has the distinct feeling that she constantly has more weapons on her than are visible.

Fan Zhu’er takes this sword charge entirely in stride, reeling the chain back in with a sharp movement. The spearhead smashes into the cultivator’s back on the way, sending him reeling, and Fan Zhu’er dodges and slaps another immobilization talisman on his back as he goes staggering past her, and then she catches him carefully by the back of his robes and lowers him to the ground so he doesn’t smash flat on his face. It’s startlingly good manners, and at some point Jiang Cheng will investigate why that gesture makes him feel hot behind the ears.

The wiggling that follows is undignified. The immobilization isn’t complete, apparently, and while neither cultivator can actually get up, or move, really, they can both apparently twitch furiously as they try to do basically anything other than lie on their faces. They can’t seem to move their swords, either--Jiang Cheng sees one vibrate unevenly, the way it sometimes looks when the juniors are first learning how to fly. It skitters perhaps a finger’s width to the side after some apparent effort on behalf of its wielder and then clatters back to the ground. They both yield after that. Fan Zhu’er removes her talismans and helps them both back up from the ground, offering the kind of clap on the shoulder that one of his senior disciples might offer a fellow cultivator after a good spar, and Jiang Cheng is abruptly, violently gripped with a bone-deep fury, or something like it.

When Fan Zhu’er resets on the other side of the yard and the defeated cultivators are clear, Jiang Cheng unfastens the purple cape hanging heavy at his shoulders. It swirls through the air, a flag, a battle standard, a declaration of intent that flutters to the ground as he steps forward himself. A murmur goes through the assorted spectators, which he ignores. Jiang Cheng has been sparring in front of crowds since he was ten years old. This? This is nothing.

Fan Zhu’er, frustratingly, seems to agree. She looks him over, an up-down flick, makes eye contact, and raises one eyebrow. Really? she seems to say. You? Jiang Cheng glowers at her and takes his place. Yes, him. He’ll see how she fares against a real cultivator, and then he’ll kick her out of his f*cking sect like she deserves.

(You absolutely won’t, says that sh*tty little voice in the back of his head. He ignores it.)

Fan Zhu’er bows, with her spear, because she’s coreless and not a cultivator. Jiang Cheng bows, because he is a sect leader and there are appropriate formalities to observe. They make eye contact again, and Fan Zhu’er looks almost amused, and Jiang Cheng hates it, which is obviously why it makes something in his guts clench up.

The bell rings, and something loosens between Jiang Cheng’s shoulders. Weird as this fight is, it’s still a fight. Jiang Cheng knows how to fight. Fighting is easy. Fighting doesn’t require him to think, or feel, or do anything more complicated than strategize and react. Jiang Cheng needs a good f*cking fight, and, annoyingly, he thinks he’s about to get one.

Fan Zhu’er rocks her weight forward onto her toes, knees slightly bent, body at an oblique angle to him to present a smaller target. She has the spear up, defensive, and otherwise doesn’t move. She’s waiting for his first attack, to learn his capabilities before she tries anything herself. It’s a strategy he knows well, something he has to drill into the little impulsive heads of the juniors, being demonstrated with infuriating skill and comfort by a coreless pig farmer. Zidian crackles on Jiang Cheng’s wrist, and he finally lets it spring to life with a push of his qi. The whip coils along the ground, glowing with energy, and Fan Zhu’er has the f*cking audacity to grin. f*ck her, for real. Jiang Cheng snaps the whip at her with a practiced movement. Not to kill. Not even to injure. Just to test. Zidian is capable of incapacitating a decent cultivator with five lashes, sometimes less. Furious as he is, whipping a civilian to death for the crime of being good at night hunting is a bit beyond the pale.

It doesn’t even land. Of course it f*cking doesn’t. Of f*cking course f*cking Fan f*cking Zhu’er watches it come with calm eyes, tracking the curl as it travels from his wrist out to the tip, and moves smoothly to one side as electricity sparks against the dirt. Of f*cking course she does it with the grace of a skilled dancer. Of f*cking course she knows how to dodge a whip, which is a skill Jiang Cheng has seen cultivators older than him fail to master. He reels Zidian back with a flick of his wrist.

It’s f*cking on, now.

Zidian flashes again and again, curling through the air, snapping out to its full length to scorch against the dirt. Fan Zhu’er keeps dodging, smooth and graceful, like a lotus flower floating on water and swirling through the eddies. She’s simply always where the whip isn’t, robes floating out around her as she ducks and weaves, Jiang Cheng’s robes swirling around him in a typhoon of purple as he turns and whirls and keeps Zidian constantly crackling and moving. It’s been a long time since anyone has actually challenged his mastery of Zidian, and a hot, strange satisfaction curls up the back of his neck as Fan Zhu’er neatly flips away from the next stroke, a full handless cartwheel to the side. She lands lightly, eyes still tracking the whip, and on his next attack she catches it on her spear, tangles it with a quick movement, and yanks.

Jiang Cheng staggers forward a few steps, off-balance, before he manages to get his feet underneath him again and brace against the ground with both his legs and a surge of his qi. He flicks his wrist, getting a better grip on Zidian, and gives a solid yank in return, spiritual and muscular power behind the movement. He successfully rips the spear out of Fan Zhu’er’s hands and deposits it somewhere on the other side of the training yard in a clatter that he ignores entirely. Her hands go immediately to the chain weapon, setting it to spinning with an amused? impressed? quirk to her mouth. They circle for a moment, Zidian dragging along the ground in a sparking, popping curve, like a serpent and just as deadly. Fan Zhu’er does a little flourish with the spearhead, a twirl and something like a salute, and waggles her eyebrows at him in an unmistakable, “Bring it,” motion. As though he wasn’t. As though that wasn’t the point of this. Jiang Cheng clenches his fist and snaps the whip at her again.

The details of the next part escape him, when he tries to remember it later. All he has is the impression of fluid movement, of the spark-skitter of Zidian, of the impact of whip against chain as they move together so easily that their fight could have been choreographed in advance. He attacks and Fan Zhu’er deflects, and she sends the spearhead sailing at him and he evades. It’s fast and furious and actually pretty fun? Jiang Cheng hasn’t had fun during a fight in a long, long time, and when that realization hits him the shock jolts out through his qi and Zidian’s next strike stutters. Fan Zhu’er takes the opening immediately, and the impact of the spearhead against his left ribs doesn’t come as a surprise.

It does hurt, quite a bit. There will definitely be bruising. It’s just not a surprise. Jiang Cheng grunts, noting that she deliberately hit him with the flat of the thing instead of the sharpened tip. Probably she understands that stabbing your sect leader, even in a spar, is just not done. The assembled crowd makes a noise, which he ignores. He gives Fan Zhu’er his best glare, snapping Zidian at her with a spin and a snarl, and they’re back at it in a crash of qi and steel. He keeps his eyes on her as they fight, alert to any sign of weakness, any opening in her defense. She must be getting tired, with no core to sustain her, but even though sweat beads at her temples she seems otherwise fine, like she’s willing and able to do this all day. Fully against his will, Jiang Cheng is impressed, and he hates it.

With his next whip-crackle, Jiang Cheng manages to tangle Zidian up with the chain weapon in the kind of knot that happens accidentally and is harder to untie than anything else in the world. They glare at each other across the taut line of their weapons, both ready, both waiting for the other to make a move. Fan Zhu’er plants her feet, tensing, about to pull against Jiang Cheng’s weight, and not this f*cking time, no way. Jiang Cheng beats her to it and yanks, hard, fury and frustration powering his body.

He realizes his mistake immediately, as Fan Zhu’er offers no resistance and instead flies at him with both their combined speed. There’s no chance to react before she drives a knee into his stomach hard enough to knock the wind out of him, then grabs his forearm just above Zidian and uses the continued momentum to twist it around and up behind his back. She’s going to try and tie him up with the chain, probably hit him with a talisman, the strategy is obvious now that it’s happening, and Jiang Cheng flares with that weird appreciation for her skills and his absolute determination not to f*cking lose this fight. He throws his weight back into her grip, knocking her off-balance and dropping the upward pressure on his arm. That gives him the opening he needs to duck and twist toward her, reversing the bend of his elbow into something that gives him the power, and he drives forward into her space and brings his sword hand up to either shove her backward or punch her. He hasn’t quite decided what he’s planning to do when she snatches that forearm in her free hand and they lock up like that, her arms crossed in front of her, strength evenly matched, neither able to bring a weapon into play. Time stops as they test each other’s power, legs braced, arms occasionally twitching as their muscles work. Fan Zhu’er’s face is flushed, her eyes bright. She looks alive, far more pleased than anyone really ought to in this situation, and she grins down at him with that white flash of teeth like light from a blade.

“What are you smiling about?” he snaps, reflexive, because he doesn’t like what that smile is doing to him.

The smile, obnoxiously, gets wider. “This,” Fan Zhu’er says cheerfully, right before she f*cking headbutts him in the face. Jiang Cheng staggers backward, more out of shock than anything else, tasting blood on his teeth. Who the f*ck headbutts their sect leader? He recovers and pulls, dragging Fan Zhu’er in toward him at the same time that he turns, untwisting her arms where they still wrap all the way around his bracers, fingers overlapping her thumbs. Jiang Cheng drops his weight and his center of gravity until he feels her smack against his back, then drives his hips upward while he rolls his shoulders forward and down. Fan Zhu’er goes flying over him and lands flat on her back on the ground hard enough that he feels the impact in his feet. It stuns her, briefly, but that’s all Jiang Cheng needs to get Sandu’s hilt in his hand and rest the point at Fan Zhu’er’s throat.

The world is suddenly silent again but for their combined breathing, Fan Zhu’er’s chest rising and falling as she pants, Jiang Cheng’s pulse pounding in his ears. She looks up at him, face assessing even upside down, and Jiang Cheng tenses minutely, just in case she has something else up her sleeve.

“I yield,” she says, loud enough that the assembled onlookers can hear, and the tension of the quiet breaks into applause and yelling and conversations that Jiang Cheng can catch snatches of even from here.

“--going toe-to-toe with Jiang-zongzhu like that--”

“--evenly matched--”

“--did you see the thing she did with that talisman?”

“--where did she learn that style of cultivation?”

Jiang Cheng grits his teeth. Fan Zhu’er stares up at him, lying still in the dirt, apparently unconcerned about his blade less than a finger’s width from her neck. It looks like she’d just--just f*cking lie there and let him kill her, if that’s what he chose to do.

Jiang Cheng hates the whole f*cking world, for one violent instant.

He takes a step back, sheathes Sandu, and detangles himself from the remaining loops of the chain weapon. “Get up,” he hisses at Fan Zhu’er, and then turns on his most senior disciples, those who report directly to him, those who are in charge of the training and the night hunting logistics and the general evaluations and assignments of the cultivators at Lotus Pier. He doesn’t know what his face is doing, really, but he sees a few of them go pale and one take a half-step back.

“Would anyone like to explain,” he starts, each word clipped and laden with fury, “why this woman has been wasted in the f*cking kitchens for the last fifteen years?”

Strange, how Jiang Cheng can be standing right in front of people, having directly addressed them, and yet it’s like he’s invisible. No one will look at him. There’s a little bit of embarrassed shifting, like he’s facing nervous juniors instead of the people he relies upon to help him lead his sect. Jiang Cheng raises one eyebrow. He’s not going to ask again.

“Jiang-zongzhu,” Liu Changsheng says, nervously, over a bow. He’s right to be nervous, since he’s in charge of recruiting. “Sir. The records--I looked them over, but they were from before my time. She’s--she’s not a cultivator. It said she was tested and found wanting.”

Jiang Cheng has a headache. “Did the records say if her combat capabilities were tested?”

“No, sir.” Liu Changsheng bows again. “Only her core. She, uh. She doesn’t have one.”

Jiang Cheng resists the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose, because he doesn’t want to show that weakness in front of the assembled population of Lotus Pier. “I knew that,” he spits out, “from day one. She told me herself.” He turns to Hua Shaojun, who straightens immediately. “Figure out what her rank would be, based on her skills and seniority, if anyone had done their f*cking job around here, and then see to any necessary arrangements.”

“But--she’s not a cultivator!” someone says, and then immediately hides behind someone else when his viper-sharp gaze tracks the sound.

“Did you just arrive?” Jiang Cheng asks, deeply sarcastic. “Were you asleep for the last shichen? Would you like to come fight her yourself?” Silence meets that statement, and Jiang Cheng allows himself to luxuriate in it for a satisfied breath or two before he whirls around on Fan Zhu’er, who has gathered up her weapons and is waiting with that weirdly infinite patience on the other side of the yard, ready for another spar. “Come with me,” he snaps, and then stalks off toward his office without bothering to see if she’ll follow.

Steady footprints echo his through off the docks, so she is following. Good. Jiang Cheng bypasses Sword Test Hall, which is for showy sect business, and heads into one of the side receiving rooms that’s for actual sect business. You can’t run a sect from a throne room. There’s nowhere to write a f*cking letter.

(Years ago, in a life that belonged to a much younger man, Jiang Cheng remembers seeing Wen Ruohan’s throne room and thinking that it was no wonder the man’s sect had gone all wrong--how the f*ck were you supposed to get any work done in a hall that dark and full of lava? Where did you eat lunch?)

He sweeps in and settles behind his desk, hands on his knees, and glares impatiently at Fan Zhu’er as she stands at attention. “Sit,” he snaps, jerking his chin at the cushions on the other side. Like he’s going to look up at her the whole time and get a crick in his neck. He makes tea, mostly because he wants tea, and also because some part of him can’t stand having any kind of meeting without offering tea, because he thinks jie would be disappointed in him if he didn’t.

In his peripheral vision, Fan Zhu’er sits with a neat movement, robes tucked efficiently out of the way, spear laid across the floor in front of her instead of on the table the way a sword would be. That itches at him as being wrong--weapons deserve better than the floor--but also how do you put a spear on a table and not accidentally trip someone? “Can you use a sword?” he asks, rinsing the cups and then pouring the keemun he tends to favor when he’s at home.

“Enough not to kill myself,” Fan Zhu’er says, a nearly imperceptible tension draining from her shoulders. She accepts the cup and holds it delicately in her broad, callused hands. “I wouldn’t be able to hold my own with one against an actual cultivator.”

Jiang Cheng snorts before he can stop himself, and Fan Zhu’er’s mouth quirks. “If you had the training?” he asks.

“Then yes.” She takes a sip and shrugs. “A sword’s just a really big knife, when you get down to it, and I know how to use one of those. I still prefer having range, though.”

Jiang Cheng takes a moment to breathe through the insult of a sword being called “a really big knife.” “Bow and arrow?”

“Passable.” She waggles one hand, side-to-side. “I can hunt. Don’t ask me to pull off any trick shots.”

Jiang Cheng nods, eyeing her over. His eyes catch on the chain weapon, and he jerks his chin at it. “What is that thing, anyway?”

“Rope dart,” Fan Zhu’er says, setting down her tea and offering it to him for closer examination. It’s heavier than he expected, and now that it’s not flying through the f*cking air at him, he can see the details, how the chain is wrapped in soft leather, much repaired, and the spearhead is inscribed with dozens of talismans.

“Who designed these?” he asks, turning the spearhead to get a better look at a talisman he thinks is intended to take the momentum of the weapon and transfer it into an even harder hit.

“I did,” Fan Zhu’er says, taking a placid sip of her tea and ignoring how Jiang Cheng almost drops the f*cking rope dart. “I design all my talismans.”

“You?” he barks. “How?” No f*cking way, no f*cking way.

“Same as anyone, I guess,” she says with a shrug, like she hasn’t just upended his whole understanding of how talisman cultivation works. “I did a lot of reading and a lot of experimenting to figure out what worked, and only set a few things on fire.”

“You--in the fight? Those?” Jiang Cheng asks, scrambling to find some level of composure as he sets the rope dart aside. He’s a sect leader, he has to get it together. Fan Zhu’er nods and pulls the little bundles off her knife harness, sliding them across the table to his side. He pages through them while she refills their teacups with the easy, polite body language of someone used to pouring tea for others.

The talismans are, not to put too fine a point on it, f*cking inspired. He traces over one, parsing the way the radicals all assemble into the whole, and blinks when it clicks. “It draws on their core,” he says, trying not to show how impressed he is. “The immobilization talisman.”

Fan Zhu’er nods, doing something that might, maybe, be called preening. “The more they try to fight, the stronger it gets.” There’s obvious pride in her voice, and that makes something happen in Jiang Cheng’s guts that he doesn’t like one bit. In an attempt to ignore it, he drops his eyes to the side of her neck, where there’s still a red trickle staining the collar of her robes, which reminds him of another question he had.

“The blood?” He gestures, and Fau Zhu’er brings up one lightly bloodstained hand to hover over the cut.

“Activation,” she says. “I don’t…” Fan Zhu’er stares into the middle distance, clearly thinking, and Jiang Cheng waits impatiently for her to finish her thought. “I can’t cast them in a fight otherwise. It takes too much concentration to get my qi to do the thing. Here.” She pulls out a qiankun pouch, and then a larger bundle of talismans out of it, and tugs two free before stowing the rest away. They’re standard light talismans. Jiang Cheng could probably cast them in his sleep. “So,” she says, holding one between two fingers, “I can either--” she frowns, and Jiang Cheng can feel the surge of her qi working, like watching a mouse trying to drag an entire pork bun back to its burrow. After much, much longer than it normally should, the talisman flares into life, Fan Zhu’er’s suddenly winded face glowing with it.

“Inefficient,” Jiang Cheng observes, and Fan Zhu’er nods.

“Or, I can--” and she runs fingertips through the blood behind her ear and picks up the second talisman, which flares immediately. “It took some troubleshooting to design the talismans for blood activation, but it works a lot better.” Jiang Cheng nods, eyes tracking back to the blood on her hands, on her neck, smeared messily across her throat, where he held his sword while she looked calmly up at him and waited to die. His stomach roils and he doesn’t know why. Maybe he ate something weird at breakfast. Whatever. There’s a cloth next to the brazier, for spills, and he snatches it up and throws it at her.

“Clean yourself up,” he snaps, shoving the water pitcher at her as well, barely not slopping it over the sides in his haste. He slaps the talismans back down on her side of the table for good measure and drains his tea in one go, studying this coreless pig farmer who just fought him to a near standstill as she wets the cloth and dabs it at her neck. He thinks about having an entire sect ready and able to defend themselves, cultivators or not. He thinks about watching her stab a f*cking boar yaoguai to death, solo and confident in her skills. He thinks about the Burial Mounds, that most recent time, and how useful it would have been to have someone there who couldn’t fall victim to Su She’s magical bullsh*t, the rat bastard.

“Can you teach?” he asks, pouring for them again. She blinks, nods, and smiles, the curve of her lips a little, flattered thing. “Good,” he says, viciously. “I’ll have Hua Shaoujun work out a schedule.” There’s still blood on her throat, where she couldn’t see or feel it, and he hates that and something in him snaps.

“f*ck’s sake,” he hisses under his breath, “give me that,” and Jiang Cheng leans across the table to snatch the wet, bloodstained rag out of her startled hands. “Tilt your head,” he snaps, and starts roughly scrubbing the red smears off her skin when she obeys. He shouldn’t be doing this, not really, it’s unbecoming of a sect leader, but now he’s chosen this path and if Jiang Cheng knows how to do one thing it’s following a sh*tty idea through to the very end.

“It wasn’t a waste,” she says, out of nowhere, her voice vibrating under his hand. He scowls a question and Fan Zhu’er clarifies, “Being in the kitchens. I wasn’t wasted there. It’s good work. Important.”

“More important than night hunting?” Jiang Cheng scoffs.

“Yes,” Fan Zhu’er says with no hesitation, grabbing his bracer and leaning away so she can look at his face properly. “How long can you practice inedia, Jiang-zongzhu?” she asks. “How much time would you have to develop your golden core if you had to cook your own food and wash your own clothes and clean your own halls?” Her grip is tight, and he notes for the second time this morning how easily her hand wraps around his forearm. “You have a sect because of your household staff. The people in the kitchen do as much to support the sect as any cultivator does, sometimes more.”

Jiang Cheng yanks out of her grip. “You’re still bleeding,” he snarls, instead of addressing any of that. Fan Zhu’er rolls her eyes and tips her head back so he can resume his ridiculous chore. “Any other insults for your sect leader today,” he asks, with deepest sarcasm, “or do you actually want to stay at Lotus Pier?” The cut is still bleeding, sluggishly, a red slash in a sea of little white scars, and he frowns at it. “If I try to heal this, will it do anything?”

“You’ll be able to get it to scab,” Fan Zhu’er says. “Don’t bother with anything else.” Jiang Cheng nods and presses a little of his spiritual power into the wound, barely any, like he’s trying to encourage a lotus to bloom, and feels a hot wash of satisfaction as the bleeding stops. That turns into a hot flash of embarrassment as he realizes they’re still leaned over the table toward each other, her face turned up to his, far, far too close for propriety. Jiang Cheng sits back down on his side of the table, discards the rag, and pours tea again. Fan Zhu’er watches him in silence for a moment and then announces, “I could have beaten you.”

Jiang Cheng slops tea on the table, the embarrassment turning into immediate, furious disbelief. “Excuse me?”

“I could have beaten you in our fight,” Fan Zhu’er says, serenely, hands folded in her lap. “When I kneed you in the stomach?” Her eyes glint. “It was gonna be the balls, but I decided that would be too rude.” She lifts her cup of tea out of its puddle and takes a sip. “If I’d kneed you in the balls I’d have won for sure, Quangu-zongzhu.”

Jiang Cheng slams the teapot down on the table. “Get out.”

Fan Zhu’er smiles, sharp and pleased. “Sir,” she says, with a bow, and then she takes up her weapons and leaves Jiang Cheng alone in his office with a mess on his table and a mess in his chest and no idea what the f*ck he’s supposed to do about any of it.

Notes:

Oh my goddddd canon writing takes so much longer because I have to actually research things, whyyyyy

I think we can all agree that really, the only thing lacking in The Untamed is dramatic robe removals, right? Why aren't they just Obi-Wanning their robes all over the place before fights? Jiang Cheng would LOVE dramatically removing his outer robe, so I had to give him a cape removal at least. For justice.

A thousand thanks to theleakypen for allowing me to borrow the names ve came up with for vis canonverse JC/WQ fic, otherwise I would truly have been wailing on the ground out of having to name even more OCs.

Should probably update the tags with "fighting as flirting/fighting as foreplay" huh

Chapter 6

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Fan Dingxiang has a very busy few days. Apparently there are a lot of steps involved in suddenly promoting a person from “kitchen staff” straight to “senior disciple,” and most of them have to be invented, since it’s literally never happened before. Some of them are fairly straightforward--she gets a new bedroom, in the cultivator wing instead of in the servant’s wing. The bed is bigger, and she has a view of the lake. That’s nice. She likes that part.

Some of the other changes, though…

“Do I have to?” Fan Dingxiang tries not to sound petulant. It’s not the tailor’s fault.

“It is traditional,” the man says, gesturing to the Lotus Pier uniform that she’s already familiar with, purple silk and flowing sleeves and all. Fan Dingxiang sighs.

“Listen,” she says, leaning forward, making her face as serious as she can, “you and I both know I’m not a cultivator.”

The tailor nods.

“So I don’t have real cultivator powers,” she says, just to be sure they’re on the same page.

The tailor nods again.

“So I can’t magically keep my sleeves out of things.” She clutches her hands together in front of her, pleading. “I’ve tried. I can’t do it. I get them caught on sticks and furniture and I trail the ends through ink or food. It’s a nightmare. I can’t represent the sect well if I have foodstains on my sleeves.” That seems to sink in, because the tailor looks horrified at his creations being so abused. “Can we just work out something with sleeves like this?” Fan Dingxiang asks, gesturing to her current servant’s robes, designed for practicality above all else. “I’m sure a talented creator like yourself could find a way to make them beautiful and befitting the pride of Yunmeng Jiang.” That does it, the man flushing with pride and challenge, and Fan Dingxiang submits to his measuring with relief.

They find her a sword that’s better than the basically toy sword she’s been carrying around but that doesn’t require spiritual power, and she joins the juniors for sword training, which is honestly delightful. Fan Dingxiang loves kids, and it’s eternally hilarious to be taking the same class as a bunch of people who barely come up to her waist. It’s also really fun to actually, properly learn how to use the thing she’s been using as a disguise for over a decade, and it’s especially fun to figure out adaptations for movements that she, not having a core, can’t perform. For example, a cultivator will sometimes just do this thing where they sort of leap forward and float toward an opponent, sword-first. It looks very elegant. Fan Dingxiang just runs at people, which is apparently both unexpected and alarming. The first time she charges her instructor he actually leaps out of the way. (Fan Dingxiang does her best not to seem too pleased by this.)

The other main sword thing she can’t do is flying, which is fine. She just skips those lessons, or rather, while flying lessons are happening in one part of Lotus Pier, Fan Dingxiang is in another part, practicing archery or sparring with her friends. She gets called in to speak to the head of the armory and the weaponsmith, so she can provide specifications for rope darts and boar spears. Then, after they’ve managed to churn out enough basic versions of each weapon, Fan Dingxiang finds herself assigned to train others in their use. Teaching the rest of the household staff is weird but good, but the first time an actual cultivator calls her shijie Fan Dingxiang looks behind herself to see who they’re talking to. A couple days later someone bows and calls her “Fan-guniang,” and she walks right into a support column for the roof.

“I’m not a guniang!” she wails to Hu Yueque and Zhang Luan later, but quietly, since they’re sparring and she doesn’t want anyone to think there’s like, an actual injury.

“You’re as much a guniang as any of us,” Hu Yueque says loyally, because while she is a wonderful friend she doesn’t understand Fan Dingxiang’s pain at all.

“People used to call you Fan-guniang on night hunts,” Zhang Luan points out, darting in to test Fan Dingxiang’s defenses. Since Fan Dingxiang is using a sword instead of a spear, these are not great, but she manages to deflect.

“That’s different,” she insists, knocking aside Hu Yueque’s next attack with the sheath of her sword. “I was pretending to be a guniang, so they were just affirming my disguise. Now actual guniangs and gongzis are calling me guniang and it’s so weird.

“How sad for you,” Hu Yueque says, bored. “What a tragedy, finally getting the respect you’ve deserved for years.” She slips in and disarms Fan Dingxiang with her next move, an elegant little flick of her sword that somehow tears the hilt out of Fan Dingxiang’s hand as though it was coated in oil.

“Guess you’ll just have to get used to it,” Zhang Luan adds, smacking Fan Dingxiang on the ass with her sheath.

“f*ck you both,” Fan Dingxiang huffs, trying to hide a smile.

“Oh, that would be new,” Zhang Luan says, thoughtfully. “I mean, you and I both agreed there was no alchemy but if Hu Yueque was there maybe things would be different.”

“You are married,” Hu Yeuque hisses, while Fan Dingxiang smothers her laughter in her skirts. “I’m not helping you cheat on your wife with Fan Zhu’er.

“Good point.” Zhang Luan frowns into the middle distance, then nods once, decisively. “My wife will just have to be there. Maybe if we push two beds together, there will be room.”

“I’m leaving,” Hu Yueque announces, and then strides away. Eventually Fan Dingxiang stops laughing long enough to find her sword.

More than anything, the transition to being treated as a full-time cultivator means Fan Dingxiang suddenly has free time. And like… a lot of it. She keeps to her previous training regimen, though she moves more of it to actual daylight hours. There’s blocks of time set aside for meditation, and she does join in occasionally but she doesn’t get the same benefits as the actual cultivators, so she mostly just breathes slowly with her eyes shut for a quarter shichen and then leaves to go work on talismans. The whole actual library is open to her now, and she embarks on a quest to slowly read through every single thing in it.

Fan Dingxiang trains, and she teaches, and she gets used to being called shijie, and she still hates being called guniang. She even gets used to Jiang-zongzhu being around all the f*cking time, glaring at her while she’s running sword forms or coaching the kitchen staff through spear practice or working out in the little section of docks she’s very slowly and secretly outfitted for the purpose. (There’s a nice, solid beam she can hang from for pull-ups and suspended crunches, and almost no one goes there. Except, apparently, for Sandu Shengshou. Rude.)

Eventually, of course, someone decides to get weird about her. It’s some dude, because of course. He’s probably been out of juniors for a few years, the kind of cultivator who’s old enough to lead the occasional night hunt but not so skilled that he gets to lead them regularly. Fan Dingxiang is minding her own business in a corner of the training yard, like a reasonable f*cking human being, when he clears his throat loudly. She sighs, internally, finishing the drill she was running with her rope dart, and turns around.

“So,” he says, flanked on either side by a couple of other male cultivators Fan Dingxiang doesn’t know and immediately dislikes. “You’re just walking around like you own the place, huh?”

Oh, lovely. What an auspicious beginning. Fan Dingxiang bows, stopping just shy of where it would actually be polite, and says, “Gongzi.” Her tone is flat and bored. She’s scheduled to teach the teenagers soon and she has neither the time nor the energy for this. “I do, indeed, know the layout of Lotus Pier,” she continues. “Did you need directions?”

His jaw clenches. “You--” he starts, and Fan Dingxiang suddenly, abruptly, does not f*cking care. She doesn’t care about rank or politeness or protocol or trying to soothe this sh*tty man’s ego.

“Okay,” she says, blatantly cutting off whatever he was about to say. “Listen, dude, I don’t know what kind of dick-measuring contest you’re aiming for, but I have a class to teach in a quarter shichen so I don’t have time to f*ck around waiting for you to get to the point.” He opens his mouth and she raises her voice a little as she continues, “We’re gonna make a bet, you and me, and if I win, you agree to ignore me as much as possible and treat me with basic f*cking respect when you can’t ignore me, and we’ll go about our lives like reasonable human beings.”

He sneers, an ugly curve to his mouth. “And if I win?”

He’s not gonna win, but Fan Dingxiang doesn’t tell him that. “Whatever you want,” she says, dismissively. She’s still talking a little bit too loudly, and other cultivators are drifting over. Good. This will be easier with an audience.

“Fine,” he says, “if I win you go become my personal servant, where you belong.”

“Great,” Fan Dingxiang says. She’s going to crush this man and his boring-ass bullying. Her eyes track around to the growing crowd, and she makes eye contact with one of her shijies and shixiongs and says, “Everyone clear on that?” There’s a murmur of agreement, and Fan Dingxiang turns back to sh*tty Bet Guy. “So here’s the bet,” she tells him, sweetly. “You’re going to lock down your spiritual energy and then we’re gonna see which one of us can do the most pushups.”

“What?” sh*tty Bet Guy splutters, very predictably. “You want me to what?”

“Lock down your spiritual energy and then try to beat me in a pushup contest,” Fan Dingxiang repeats, louder and carefully enunciated. Hu Yueque, hovering somewhere behind the man’s left shoulder, makes avaricious eye contact. She knows. Fan Dingxiang keeps her face neutral and co*cks her head at sh*tty Bet Guy. “Do you want to renege on the bet? Does gongzi think he can’t win?”

The crowd mutters about that, various statements about commitments and carrythrough and maybe he doesn’t think he can win drifting around on the air. Fan Dingxiang waits calmly as sh*tty Bet Guy hears absolutely every piece of gossip, getting more and more wound up, and then he finally barks, “Fine!” and moves his hands through The Thing. Fan Dingxiang genuinely feels nothing, but it means something to everyone else and sh*tty Bet Guy looks suddenly exhausted, so she trusts he actually did it.

“Great,” she says, placidly, and jerks her chin at someone randomly in the crowd. “Can you do the honor of counting, guniang?” The woman steps forward with a bow and a murmur of agreement. Fan Dingxiang turns back to sh*tty Bet Guy, whose name she is determined to never learn, just out of spite, and bows. “Shall we?” Boxed into a corner, sh*tty Bet Guy has no option but to hand off his sword and join Fan Dingxiang in the dirt. “We go until one of us can’t anymore,” Fan Dingxiang says, just to make it really, really clear to their observers. She glances up at the woman who agreed to count and adds, “Tell us when to go.”

The cultivator takes a breath, for ceremony. “Go.”

Fan Dingxiang does.

She’ll give sh*tty Bet Guy this: He keeps up with her at first. Thirty comes easily to them both. At forty or so he’s putting in a pretty good showing. By the time they hit fifty he’s starting to flag, not quite matching her speed anymore. “Maybe we should have a second person count,” she offers, easily, ignoring his panting breaths. “So we don’t have to do them on the same timing.”

“f*ck you,” he hisses, even as one of his friends steps forward to take up the burden of counting his significantly slower pushups.

“Ask me nicely,” Fan Dingxiang sing-songs to him, “and I’ll still say no.”

“Hrrng,” he says, but they’re coming on seventy-five pushups now and it seems he doesn’t have the breath for more than that. Well. Fan Dingxiang is coming on seventy-five pushups. She thinks he’s at more like sixty. Cultivators. Once someone has a golden core they stop remembering to properly use their normal core. How sad for sh*tty Bet Guy to be learning the error of his ways like this.

At ninety (for Fan Dingxiang), sh*tty Bet Guy collapses. He tries to keep going, tries quite a few times, actually. It’s like watching a small bird stuck in mud, which is honestly sorta sad, except that small birds don’t deserve to get stuck in mud so Fan Dingxiang always rescues them. This guy brought it on himself. She keeps going, feeling a nice burn through her arms and her abs and the muscles of her upper back, making a mental note to spend some extra time stretching tonight, and to rub on that salve that smells like burnt herbs. Does she need more of that salve? No, she restocked right after the night hunt with the monster boar, she’s good.

Fan Dingxiang finishes her hundred and fifth pushup and transitions smoothly into a side plank, so she can look at sh*tty Bet Guy properly. “Are we done?” she asks, unnecessarily. She turns toward the ground again and does a side plank facing the other direction, for balance and spite. “I could keep going,” she tells a few grinning cultivators, conversationally, “but I really do have a class to teach and I think I made my point.” Pushing to her feet, she offers the sh*tty Bet Guy a hand up that he’ll probably reject, seeing as he’s sweating and red-faced and glaring at her as hard as he can, but like… Fan Dingxiang has been glared at by Jiang-zongzhu for a whole night hunt. This guy’s gonna have to get up way earlier in the morning if he wants to glare better than Sandu Shengshou.

“What are you?” he tries to sneer, ignoring her hand as predicted and doing that thing that presumably gives him his magic back.

“I’m a pig farmer,” Fan Dingxiang says, cheerfully. “And since I won our bet, you can call me Fan Zhu’er.” She lets her smile go sharp. “Fan-guniang if you’re nasty.”

He huffs and whirls away, which: Whatever. The important thing is that there was a crowd, and they got to see what she can do, and they also got to see how she treats bullies. There’s some clapping, actually, and an impressed light in the eyes of some of the disciples she doesn’t know. Fan Dingxiang might still have to throw sh*tty Bet Guy in the lake at some point, but she’ll address that if it happens. Right now she has to teach some juniors how not to hit themselves in the face with their baby rope darts. She’s hoping for a maximum of two bloody noses this time. Junior rope dart class is still a work in progress.

---

A couple days later Fan Dingxiang is working out on the fringes of the training yard. There’s a junior’s class happening nearby, and archery practice off on the kite range, but the adult cultivators just sorta have some free training time for this shichen, and that now includes Fan Dingxiang, which is still so weird. She’s on her second set of crunches when a shadow falls across her face, and she squints up against the sun at the silhouettes of some cultivators. She really should probably bow, but she’s not interrupting her set, so she holds her hands in front of her on the next curl up and kinda nods at them. “Can I help you?”

The cultivators kinda fidget, like the juniors do sometimes when a teacher asks a question in class and they’re all hoping to avoid answering. There’s a hissed conversation, and then someone shoves another silhouette a few steps closer, and that silhouette bows. “Uh, Fan-guniang?” she asks.

“That’s me,” Fan Dingxiang says on her next curl up.

The cultivator bows lower. “We were wondering ifwecouldjoinyou.” She speeds up as she speaks, and Fan Dingxiang thinks this is one of her shimeis. The girl’s shape against the sun doesn’t seem as filled out through the shoulders as it could be. A breath later her words actually register, and Fan Dingxiang finishes her last crunch and lets herself flop to the ground.

“You want to join me?” she asks, sounding it out.

“Yes, Fan-guniang,” the girl says, bowing again, the four other cultivator silhouettes bowing as well.

“For… exercise?” Fan Dingxiang doesn’t have anything else going on right now, so that’s all she can come up with.

“If shijie will let us,” the cultivator girl says, with yet another bow. This is the most bowing that has ever happened to Fan Dingxiang while she’s horizontal. It’s very weird. Fan Dingxiang lets herself mull the request over.

“I don’t have a problem with that,” she decides, “but I honestly don’t know how much use you’ll get out of it.” She shrugs, still on the ground. “What I do is designed for the body, not for the core.” There’s a headache starting somewhere behind her eyes, with all the squinting she’s doing, so she waves a hand at them. “Can you move to the side? You’re all just a bunch of robed shadows right now.”

The group goes even more sheepish, and they shuffle obligingly around until Fan Dingxiang can actually see them. It is, in fact, some of her shidis and shimeis, out of juniors but not quite ready to be called seniors. The girl who was forced into being their spokesperson gives an apologetic little bob of her head. “We’re interested in what you do, Fan-guniang.”

“Your arms are so big,” says someone in the middle of the group, who immediately gets kicked in the leg by someone else. They’re right, though. Fan Dingxiang’s arms are big.

“We thought,” says the spokesperson, hesitantly, “that maybe if we locked down our spiritual power, you could train us to be more like you.”

Huh. Huh. That’s an idea, isn’t it? From what Fan Dingxiang understands, locking down one’s golden core feels pretty sh*tty when you’re used to having it going all the time. She imagines it must be like dousing a fire in the middle of winter, only inside your body. If these kids want to do that willingly? So they can exercise with her? That’s weirdly, wildly flattering. Fan Dingxiang is flattered, and a little impressed, and suddenly very protective of these baby cultivators coming to her (her!) for training.

“Yeah, all right,” she says, climbing to her feet. “You’re probably gonna hate it, though.”

Five bright smiles shine back at her. “That’s okay, shijie,” says the spokes-disciple. “We hate a lot of training, but we still do it.”

“I heard you can crack an egg in your elbow,” another one of the shimeis says, from the back. Her eyes shine avidly. “I want to be able to do that.”

“Do it over a bowl,” Fan Dingxiang says immediately. No sense wasting eggs. Everyone nods, like this is the most important advice they have ever received, and Fan Dingxiang smiles to herself. Okay. Exercise class for kids. This’ll be fun.

It actually is, and two weeks later it’s grown enough to take over half the yard. Fan Dingxiang has had to invent stations and a rotation in order to keep things reasonable, and Jiang disciples she doesn’t know keep showing up, locking down their spiritual energy, and trying to match her toe-to-toe.

They fail, of course, but no one ever makes that mistake more than once, and it always means that they come back the next time a little humbler and with a decent sense of humor about it. Plus she gets to yell at them about proper squat form, which is extremely satisfying. Not all the cultivators join, but that’s fine. Fan Dingxiang doesn’t have room to train them all anyway, and if people like sh*tty Bet Guy want to avoid her, she’s fine with it. The really great thing about it is that it’s working. The people who keep coming back are obviously getting stronger, even without their golden cores engaged. Fan Dingxiang wonders why they never came up with this idea, her and Hu Yueque and the others, and then remembers that they were training furtively in secret and never had the time.

Well, they have the time now, and Fan Dingxiang’s making good use of it.

---

Fan Zhu’er’s up to something weird, and Jiang Cheng doesn’t know what it is and is sure he won’t like it. He heard about the push up contest, of course--he’s a f*cking sect leader, he hears about potential problems in the ranks, okay, he’s competent. It was, he is forced to admit, a good solution. Yunmeng Jiang doesn’t look kindly upon all-out brawls, and sparring has specific rules that are intended to keep it from being a substitute for an all-out brawl. He also heard that Fan Zhu’er did a hundred and five push ups. Without stopping. He hasn’t stopped hearing that since it happened. It’s all people apparently want to talk about, at length, at the top of their lungs, every time he walks through Lotus Pier. Ugh.

(She stopped at a hundred and five, voluntarily, and then taught a whole class on rope dart. Jiang Cheng finds himself wondering what her personal best is, and then drags his mind away to focus on the letter from Ouyang-zongzhu, who is a piece of sh*t. Somehow ended up with a pretty cool kid, though. He’s only met Ouyang Zizhen a few times, but he’s friendly enough with Jin Ling and it doesn’t seem like it’s a ruse to gain favor from a freshly-promoted sect leader. Plus he yelled at his dad to shut up and go rest in a boat that one time, which was f*cking hilarious. Jiang Cheng appreciates a kid who can sass the authority figures in his life.)

It’s afternoon and Jiang Cheng is walking the docks of Lotus Pier without pressing sect business for f*cking once, and is taking the time to just… Look at things. Keep an eye on what’s going on. He tries, honestly, to make himself seem approachable, as much as he’s capable of doing that, because if there are problems he needs to know about, he wants his disciples to be able to tell him. It’s part of his duty as the leader of the sect. He rebuilt Yunmeng Jiang and he will live to see it prosper and he can’t do that if there’s rot in the center, slowly chewing its way to the surface.

(Jiang Cheng thinks of Carp Tower, and a dimpled smile hiding malice. He grits his teeth. Never again.)

He turns the corner into the training yard and drops to a halt, robes swishing against his calves as he tries to parse the sight that greets him. Half of it makes perfect sense, namely, the half with various Jiang disciples running sword forms or sparring lightly. The other half? The half with people laying on the ground or lifting what looks like buckets full of water or lifting themselves on some kind of wooden frame? That half? That half is the problem.

Naturally, Fan Zhu’er is standing in the middle of it, with her servant’s sleeves and braided-up hair and ridiculously broad shoulders. She seems to be supervising this whatever-the-f*ck, because of course she is. Why wouldn’t she be?

Jiang Cheng gets a headache.

Maybe he should just leave. He could do that, couldn’t he? Sect leader’s prerogative. He doesn’t need to investigate whatever the hell she’s doing. It’s probably, like, legal. Fan Zhu’er probably wouldn’t practice demonic cultivation in the middle of the training yard, so as long as it’s not that, there’s no reason he needs to walk over there.

“Jiang-zongzhu,” Fan Zhu’er says, with a bow, from right in front of him, since apparently he walked over there while he was deciding not to do exactly that. She straightens and gives him an inquisitive look. “Can this one be of assistance?”

Jiang Cheng looks at her, then at the sweating, swearing cultivators (and a few of the household staff, he notes) arrayed around her, moving willingly through various forms of self-torture. He lets his eyes come back to hers and raises one eyebrow. What the f*ck is this? he asks, silently.

Fan Zhu’er raises a single eyebrow back at him. What do you mean? she clearly responds, face guileless.

Jiang Cheng’s other eyebrow joins the first. You know exactly what I f*cking mean, don’t pretend you don’t, he glares at her as fiercely as possible.

Fan Zhu’er’s other eyebrow goes up, her face wide and innocent and sun-tanned. I’m sure I don’t know, he can practically hear her say, Perhaps Jiang-zongzhu can make himself more clear?

f*ck. Fine. Jiang Cheng sweeps one arm out to indicate the bizarre scene, sleeve billowing with the movement. “Care to explain this, disciple?” he asks, out loud. You little sh*t-stirrer, he adds, internally.

Fan Zhu’er looks around. He thinks, for a moment, she’s going to pretend not to understand what he’s asking, right up until her eyes narrow at a cultivator doing… squats? Maybe? “Squeeze your butt!” she yells, and not only does the cultivator in question suddenly tighten his stance, half the crowd does as well. It’s like watching a ripple spread in a pond, only it’s clenched asses. Jiang Cheng, who definitely didn’t have to struggle for a moment against the urge to obey a training order shouted with such authority, waits impatiently for her to turn back to him and actually answer.

“This,” she says, solemnly, “is cultivation practice.”

“Cultivation.”

Fan Zhu’er nods. Jiang Cheng looks around, again, at the sea of red faces and harsh breathing. He looks back at Fan Zhu’er. “What kind of cultivation, exactly?”

Fan Zhu’er grins. “We’re cultivating muscles, Jiang-zongzhu.” With that cheerful, inexplicable statement, she turns her back to him. “Rotate!” she yells. “Drink some water before the next station! If you pass out or puke I will dump a bucket over your head, so make good choices!” Several Jiang disciples collapse, complaining, while others drag themselves to their feet to stagger in the direction of the water gourds. Jiang Cheng watches this all happen, unsettled about something he can’t quite place, and then it hits him like a punch to the stomach--he can’t feel anyone’s qi properly. Without thinking, he grabs Fan Zhu’er’s shoulder and yanks her around to face him.

“What the f*ck did you do to them?” he hisses, horror dropping a pit into his guts and clawing up the back of his spine. Those--they’re his disciples, he trained them, it’s his job to protect them as their sect leader, what is going on in Lotus Pier behind his back?

“Nothing?” Fan Zhu’er says, her eyes traveling over his face and then creasing in what looks like genuine concern. His hand on her shoulder is still there, too tight, and she reaches up, he presumes, to remove it. Instead her hand loosely circles his bracer and squeezes, once. “Everyone here is perfectly safe,” she tells him, low. “Some of the juniors asked me to run an exercise class, and then--” She waves her other hand out at the mildly organized chaos around them.

“What’s wrong with their cores?” Jiang Cheng grits out, the words ripped out of his throat. It’s--it’s so many of his disciples, and he can’t feel the pulse of their spiritual energy, and if Fan Zhu’er is secretly a core-melter he will literally, actually kill her.

“Nothing,” she says, firmer this time. “They’re fine. Nothing is wrong.” Not taking her eyes off him, she turns her head slightly and calls, “Hu Yueque?”

“Hm?” Hu Yueque levers herself off the ground and comes over. She’s sweating harder than Jiang Cheng has ever seen her sweat, and that includes the time they fought that lava yao.

“Can you explain to Jiang-zongzhu how the training works?” Fan Dingxiang says. She’s breathing slowly and evenly, gently squeezing his wrist in time with her breaths, and Jiang Cheng realizes he’s matching the rhythm unconsciously.

“Oh, yes!” Hu Yueque says, eyes lighting up, smiling, as though nothing is wrong, as though Jiang Cheng can’t tell from here that she’s not circulating her qi like she should be. She bows, briefly, and through her panting breaths, continues, “Fan Zhu’er is training us in her strength and flexibility building exercises, and we’ve sealed our spiritual energy so we can’t rely on our golden cores to cheat our way through.” She grins, dazed with the kind of accomplishment Jiang Cheng recognizes as coming after a really good spar, or an exceptionally challenging night hunt. “It’s terrible,” she says, still grinning. “We’re getting so strong.”

Fan Zhu’er’s eyes are still on his face, and he doesn’t want it, because they’re too observant and she’s not being a little sh*t anymore, she’s being sincere and he hates that. “You sealed your spiritual energy?” he asks, through the headache and the nausea and his clenched teeth. “Voluntarily?”

Hu Yueque nods. “I had no idea it would be so hard,” she says. “Fan Zhu’er is an absolute beast.”

“Thank you, Hu Yueque,” she says, not looking away. “Now go back to your plank walkouts.”

“I hate you,” Hu Yueque complains as she goes, but she goes willingly and gets back down in the dirt and swears her way through it.

Jiang Cheng has nothing to say to that, to any of this, his tongue having glued itself to the roof of his mouth. Fan Zhu’er’s still squeezing his wrist, which is the one part of his body he’s actually aware of. “Do you want some water, Jiang-zongzhu?” she asks, quietly enough that no one could hear over the general noise of her weird f*cking training.

“No,” he manages, through his heart hammering in his throat, trying to process everything he’s just seen and heard, trying to make it make sense.

She squeezes his wrist again. “If you join us you can see for yourself that everyone is safe,” she says, still in that low voice, like he’s a startled horse she’s trying to calm. “Would you like to join us?”

Jiang Cheng thinks about it, thinks about sealing his spiritual energy, thinks about being weak and helpless and drained in front of his disciples and in front of Fan f*cking Zhu’er, and he’s hit with a surge of violent nausea so hard only his golden core keeps him from swaying with it. He yanks his hand out of her grasp, whirls on his heel, and stalks off without another word. It’s not fleeing, but only barely, and he doesn’t stop moving until he’s out at the end of the docks in the pavilion where he used to have meals with his family, back when he f*cking had a family, before his core was crushed and then restored and everything went to sh*t again and again and again.

Jiang Cheng’s hands clench on the railing so hard his fingernails indent the wood, and he stands and stares into the water for a long, long time.

---

The ceiling, in the darkness, is just as boring as it was when Jiang Cheng went to bed a shichen ago. He knows this because he’s been glaring at it for the last shichen, instead of, you know, f*cking sleeping. He spends another insence stick’s worth of time yelling at himself to close his f*cking eyes and go the f*ck to sleep before he gives up, shoving back the blanket and swinging his legs out of the bed. It’s going to be one of these nights, then. Jiang Cheng knows these nights. He used to have them more often than not, after Sunshot, and then they faded for a while, and then they came back after Nightless City the second time. They’re rare enough, now, thirteen years on, but Jiang Cheng knows from experience there’s no point lying in bed being angry about not sleeping. His cultivation is strong enough that missing one night of sleep won’t bother him too much, and going for a walk is better than doing nothing. He belts one of his simpler outer robes on over his sleep robes, shoves his feet into his boots, and heads out of his room with Zidian ready and waiting on his wrist. (Jiang Cheng doesn’t bother carrying a sword on nights like these, where he can’t sleep and can’t stand still, but he never goes anywhere unarmed. Never.)

Lotus Pier at night is different than during the day, quieter and somehow warmer. The sparse lanterns are there mostly so no one trips and falls into the water, the shadows pooling between them almost cozy. It’s easier to pretend nothing happened, at night, when everyone should be asleep anyway, when the dimness washes out all the colors and makes it harder to tell which building was burnt, which beam was replaced. It’s home. It’s always been home, with all the complicated, agonizing emotions that entails. Jiang Cheng breathes as he wanders, wood and algae and green living things and the humid air over the water. His feet move silently over the piers and walkways, bone-deep familiarity letting him skip any that creak, and he lets himself haunt his sect and, as the memories rise up like mosquitoes from the lake, lets himself be companionably haunted in return.

The sentries are on patrol, and he crosses paths with a pair of them. He politely ignores them and they just as politely ignore him, only a quick glance to ask, silently, if something’s wrong. Jiang Cheng isn’t the only one who can’t sleep, sometimes, isn’t the only one carrying the weight of Lotus Pier’s history. There’s a quiet kind of companionship in knowing that. He wanders out past the main buildings, past the family quarters, all the way through the servants’ wing and the kitchens and the gardens. Very vaguely he thinks about where he’s going to walk next (maybe out over the docks?) when a muffled rattling catches his ear. That’s not a normal sound to hear this time of night, and he follows it around a corner into the open space in front of the stables. A figure, picked out all white and black in the moonlight, whirls through a movement he recognizes, and in the next moment his sleepless, slightly sluggish brain processes what he’s seeing.

It’s Fan f*cking Zhu’er, running drills with her rope dart, at night, in a stableyard. Sure. Why wouldn’t it be. He can’t escape her even in his night-time wanderings. Eyes burning from exhaustion and his stomach churning from something else, Jiang Cheng glares at her mostly out of habit. She’s not actually doing anything wrong, really. She’s just--she’s just a complication he’d really rather not have in his sect or his life. Really, he should kick her out. It would be easier if he kicked her out. He’ll do that anytime now.

Unaware of his ridiculous thoughts, Fan Zhu’er twirls, the rope dart flowing with her movements in that impossible way, and in the process ends up facing him. The dart flies at his face, arrow-quick, and Jiang Cheng doesn’t even bother flinching. The rope isn’t long enough to hit him from here, and besides, Fan Zhu’er sees him lurking in the lamplight and reels the rope dart in before his heart can even beat twice. The weight hangs at her side and everything’s still in the stableyard for a long moment, not even the hum of insects to break the heavy weight of the air.

Fan Zhu’er bows in silence.

Jiang Cheng nods, in acknowledgement.

They stare at each other for another impossibly long breath. Jiang Cheng wonders what she sees when she looks at him, whether she actually sees someone worthy of respect or if she sees the gullible asshole who believed his brother’s stories for fifteen years, the deluded man who lied to himself about his accomplishments until everything came crashing down again. He doesn’t know what he sees when he looks at her, because she’s nothing that makes sense. What is a disciple who’s not a cultivator? Where does she belong?

Fan Zhu’er tips her head to the side, considering.

Jiang Cheng waits, and he couldn’t say why.

Fan Zhu’er offers him her rope dart, hands open, the rope and weight draped across them.

Jiang Cheng stares at her. He thinks about raising one eyebrow, but she probably wouldn’t be able to see it in the darkness. A little war rages inside his head. He shouldn’t be here--it’s inappropriate to spend time with a female disciple at night--she’s a f*cking pig farmer--who is she to try and teach him anything--why has he even let her stay in his sect? Through it all Fan Zhu’er waits in silence, the rope dart across her palms in quiet offering.

Jiang Cheng scoffs at himself and crosses the yard to take the f*cking rope dart. He wanted to try it out anyway, he tells himself. This is just the first real opportunity he’s had. Once it’s in his hands he realizes it’s not hers, it’s one of the training darts. There’s actual rope under his hands, already worn smooth with the stray fibers burned off, the weight on the end left intentionally dull so none of the juniors can accidentally stab themselves to death. Fan Zhu’er takes a step back and unhooks her actual rope dart from her belt, where he hadn’t noticed it hanging. This close he can see that she’s also wearing a single outer robe over her sleeping robes, though she’s one-upped him by throwing her knife harness on as well. She nods at him, once, and settles the rope dart in her hands in an obvious demonstration. Jiang Cheng mirrors her movements, and when she starts to spin the weight, he follows along.

“Do you go anywhere unarmed?” he asks, surprising both of them, because he sure wasn’t expecting that to come out of his mouth. She gives him a sidelong look, her mouth a curved slash in her face in the moonlight.

“No,” she says, eventually. She does something with the rope dart, changes the way it’s spinning, and he mimics it with less grace. She demonstrates it again, the movements deliberate, and Jiang Cheng follows along more smoothly the second time. “I used to,” Fan Zhu’er continues, surprising him a little bit, since she hasn’t exactly been the most open book in the past, “but I learned better during the war.”

Jiang Cheng flinches, barely, and tries to cover it by trying the thing with the rope dart again, the transition from one spin into the other spin flowing almost naturally. When the momentum brings him around to face her again, Fan Zhu’er has let her rope dart sway to a halt and she’s watching him with dark, assessing eyes. “Jiang-zongzhu,” she says, abruptly, bringing her hands up into the most sincerely formal bow he’s seen from her so far. “This one apologizes.”

Jiang Cheng’s mind and body both skitter to a halt, the rope dart swinging wildly past his thigh so close that it brushes his robes. He stares at her in honest bewilderment, trying to remember if she’s done anything inappropriate in the brief time he’s been out here. “For what?” he asks, when nothing immediately presents itself.

She squints suspiciously at him, apparently decides his question is sincere, and clarifies, “Earlier. The training.” Jiang Cheng’s whole body goes hot with anger and shame and frustration, and she continues, “It was clearly--” A pause, while she deliberates on word choice. “--upsetting.”

“It’s fine,” Jiang Cheng replies through clenched teeth. It is. It’s fine. It’s just his disciples cutting themselves off from their golden cores without a care in the f*cking world, asking a coreless woman to teach them how to be strong like she is. Perfectly fine. Why would that be upsetting?

“I should have asked you before I started teaching a class I hadn’t been officially assigned to teach,” she says, the jut of her chin stubborn, her shoulders back. “It shouldn’t have been a surprise.” That is actually a decent point, and Jiang Cheng acknowledges it with an abrupt nod and, hoping to make the conversation end, goes back to swinging the rope dart. It’s a satisfying weight, very different from using Zidian, and he’s getting a bit of a feel for how Fan Zhu’er makes it move like a spiritual weapon even though it very clearly isn’t. She watches him in silence for another few breaths and then joins in, waiting until their weapons are evenly matched in tempo and then demonstrating the technique she already showed him, and then a second movement that ends with her facing the other direction, the rope dart having reversed its swing. Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes and tips his chin at her in question, and she politely does the whole thing again.

She didn’t need to apologize, says the traitorous little voice in the back of his head, always harder to ignore at night. You’re the one who was unreasonable. She couldn’t have known.

Everyone f*cking knows, Jiang Cheng tells himself, trying the new technique and very quickly failing. Everyone knows his core was crushed and his brother’s pulses deep in his belly and it’s the only reason he’s achieved anything, everything he’s ever done a stolen win. He grits his teeth and tries the movement again, and this time his body does what it’s supposed to and he ends up facing the other direction. Fan Zhu’er nods at him, satisfied, and leads him through the same technique in reverse. They flow back and forth like that, motions smoothing into something almost like a dance, the easy sway of a pendulum. The rope dart starts to feel more familiar in his hands, the hemp sliding smoothly across sword calluses, just enough friction for warmth.

“Why did you have this one?” Jiang Cheng asks, abruptly shattering the almost companionable silence. She glances at him and he lifts his hands, indicating the practice dart, and her eyebrows go up in comprehension.

“It’s weighted differently from mine,” she says, taking his question as an apparent opportunity for a break in her instruction and immediately whipping her rope dart through a much more complicated series of drills. “I like to practice with it so I know how to teach with it.”

Jiang Cheng makes a grunt of acceptance and, instead of trying to mimic any of the things she just did, makes the much more sensible decision to practice the things she’s actually taught him. Something itches at him the whole time, like having a seed in his teeth, and out here in the surreal moonlit situation it’s much harder to ignore the way he normally would. He thinks--he thinks--ugh. He thinks he owes her some kind of explanation. f*ck. Horrible. He hates the very concept of it.

“How much do you know about the war.” It was supposed to be a question and instead bursts forth from between his teeth as a frustrated demand. Fan Zhu’er blinks at him and demonstrates the next part of the drill she’s teaching him before she responds.

“I know it was with the Qishan Wen,” she says, after he’s managed the new choreography twice on his own. “I know it was bad. I know Lotus Pier burned, and your parents were killed, and you and your siblings went missing.” Her shoulders come up in a shrug that doesn’t interfere at all with her manipulation of the rope dart. Against his will, Jiang Cheng is impressed. “I know that eventually the Wen were defeated, which apparently had to do with your brother--” Jiang Cheng’s heart cramps up, he hasn’t heard anyone refer to Wei Wuxian as his brother in so long “--and his army of ghosts? Unclear on that part.” Her voice drops off, and she spins the rope dart thoughtfully. “I know I had to protect my family,” she says, quieter, almost to herself. “I know what I did in order to keep them safe.”

Jiang Cheng remembers, suddenly, that she was what, seventeen when she joined the sect? Seventeen, the blood of five grown men on her hands, without even the benefit of having trained for the idea of fighting. She should never have been in that situation. That thought wants to lead to another, something more self-referential, and he shoves it down with the ease of long practice. Together they flow through the form a few times, the movements starting to make sense. It’s, obviously, nothing like a sword form, but it’s still a martial art and it follows the same kind of rhythms. Move. Breathe. Feel the weapon. Make the weapon an extension of yourself. Jiang Cheng has done this since he was old enough to hold a sword. This, at least, is something he knows he did himself.

“Is that it?”

If Fan Zhu’er thinks it’s weird that he keeps having this conversation in fits and starts, she doesn’t show it. She just shrugs again. “I was pretty far away,” she says, reasonably, “and I try not to listen to gossip, no matter how loudly people want to say it.”

Jiang Cheng snorts a startled laugh at that, and gets half a grin in response. They flow together through the drill and add another part to the end, a behind-the-back twirl that brushes against the trailing ends of his hair. Maybe she doesn’t actually know? How could she not know, though, everyone in Lotus Pier has to know. “Where were you the night the sect leaders learned about Jin Guangyao?”

To her credit, she doesn’t make any comments about this, or question what leaders and what they might have learned. She frowns, spinning the dart idly. “The kitchens,” she answers after a moment.

“What, all night?”

Fan Zhu’er gives him a deeply incredulous look. “I avoided you,” she says, with exaggerated pronunciation, “because I didn’t want you to find out what I was doing. You think I wanted to be in the same room as a bunch more of you?” She waves the hand not actively spinning the dart. “Any one of them could have looked at me and used their fancy sect leader powers to read my mind and figure out I was sneaking off to night hunt! No thank you.”

Jiang Cheng blinks at her. “That’s not a sect leader power,” he says, a little helplessly.

“Could have been,” Fan Zhu’er insists, eyebrows stubborn. “Didn’t want to risk it.”

Jiang Cheng scoffs at her, because he’s good at scoffing and can manage it even when bewildered and amused by the idea that he has secret sect leader mindreading powers. They get through another couple repeats of the form before she adds, “It was good of you to hire Sisi.”

The back of his neck goes hot. “She had nowhere else to go,” he mutters, and then, louder, “We might have needed her testimony again.” She--after what she’d gone through? And her bravery in speaking up? Who the f*ck would Jiang Cheng have been if he hadn’t done something? Certainly not anyone his sister would have been proud of.

Fan Zhu’er looks at him like he hasn’t fooled her a bit. “It was good of you,” she says, again. “She’s good in the kitchen and great at hospitality planning. She can lay out a seating chart in her sleep, I swear.”

“Is she settling in well?” Jiang Cheng asks, and means, “Is anyone harassing her?

Fan Zhu’er must understand the question behind the question, because she says, “One of the stablemasters spends more time around the kitchens than he used to, and he keeps finding flowers in the gardens that had their stems snapped. Such a shame, isn’t it, that he had to pick it, maybe Sisi would like it for her rooms?” She smiles, the rope dart whipping past her face, ruffling the hairs that have come loose from her braids. “Sisi seems to like him. She wouldn’t have had that chance if it weren’t for you.”

“Good,” Jiang Cheng snaps, reflexive, trying to get the conversation somewhere else, the attention not on him and his supposedly magnanimous nature. Fan Zhu’er seems to hear what he’s not saying, because she’s an asshole like that, and calmly demonstrates how to use an elbow wrap to change the direction of the dart. “So you don’t,” he tries again, the words knotting up in his throat like so many loose threads, “that night, you didn’t...”

“Quangu-zongzhu,” Fan Zhu’er says, letting her accent go as rustic as possible, “I wish you’d get to your f*cking point before the sun comes up.” She flashes him a grin, informal and completely inappropriate, like they’re friends or something. All at once the threads tangled in his throat flash into nothingness, a weird heat in their wake.

“My core was destroyed. When Lotus Pier burned,” Jiang Cheng says, speaking the words out loud for maybe the first time in his whole actual life. He braces himself for the pity and the useless f*cking apologies and the horrible, sad looks, for the expectation that he’ll perform his experiences in some particular way.

Instead, Fan Zhu’er narrows her eyes at him and says, slowly, “That seems… Bad.”

It’s so blessedly, unexpectedly understated that Jiang Cheng chokes on a laugh. Bad. Bad. Holy f*ck, she really doesn’t know what it’s like to have a core. “Yeah,” he says, weird, hysterical laughter tickling the back of his teeth, “Yeah, you could say that.”

“Mmm,” she says, thoughtfully. She does the elbow wrap a few times, in different directions, with the kind of ease that drags his eyes to it unwillingly. “Coreless, huh?” she asks, voice soft, and suddenly Jiang Cheng can’t look at her.

“I felt him melt it,” he says to the stable wall. “It felt like I was burning from the inside. I thought I was going to die.” He swallows. “I wanted to die.”

“Glad you didn’t.” Jiang Cheng reels around to look at her, and she meets his eyes with no embarrassment. “I like working here,” she says. “No other sect would’ve had me. If I’d stayed home I’d have ended up married to the blacksmith’s son, and he’s a cutsleeve.”

Jiang Cheng stares at her. “That seems like a bad match,” he says, faintly, the ground crumbling away under his feet and leaving him floating instead of falling.

“Would have been,” she agrees. “Granny says he got married to the son of the engraver from the next village over and all the knives they make are unnecessarily fancy.” Her eyes go wistful. “Good for them.”

“I’m glad?” Jiang Cheng says. This is a much weirder conversation than he’d expected it to be, and for some reason that makes it easier. Maybe it’s the darkness. Talking was always easier in the dark, back before, when they were rebuilding after the worst had happened and Jiang Cheng would find A-jie out on the docks at strange hours with a pot of tea and tears in her eyes. It’s easier to admit to things under the cover of night, when the waking world seems far away and everything is fuzzy around the edges with exhaustion. He tries the elbow wrap a few times while a pressure builds in his lungs and throat and around the edges of his mind, and he finally blurts, “I wanted to die because I was weak and pathetic and useless without it. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t hold a sword or lead a sect or avenge my parents.” His eyes burn with remembered tears, and he snarls, “I didn’t want to live like that.”

“Mmm,” Fan Zhu’er says, far too placidly. “Sounds sh*tty.”

Jiang Cheng whips around to look at her, hitting himself in the thigh with the rope dart in the process. He scours her shadowed face for pity or judgement or mockery and finds nothing, which is infuriating. “That’s it?” he spits.

Dark eyes blinking at him in the moonlight. “What else were you expecting, Jiang-zongzhu?”

“I--you--anything!"he half-shouts, loud enough that a horse whuffs and shifts inside the stable, and Jiang Cheng drags his voice down to something that won’t alarm animals. “You don’t even have a core and you--” he gestures, the rope dart swaying wildly “--and I was like that for less than a week and wanted to f*cking die. How can you stand me?” Why the f*ck did he just ask that?

She stares at him in the sudden humid silence, studies him like he’s a sword form she’s trying to memorize. “My dad lost his arm when I was eleven,” she says, abruptly, which is so not what he was expecting that Jiang Cheng makes a vaguely interested noise for lack of a better response. “It got caught in a rope while he was wrangling pigs. Crushed.” Fan Zhu’er gestures at her right forearm, maybe a handsbreadth down from the elbow. “Doctor had to take it off. Nothing they could do.” Her eyes haven’t moved from his face, and he feels like a talisman stuck to a wall, frozen in place. “He was mad about it for half a year before he was willing to start trying out some of the tools the blacksmith made him.”

“The cutsleeve?” Jiang Cheng asks, because he has fully lost the thread and for some reason this detail seems important.

“The cutsleeve’s dad,” Fan Zhu’er clarifies. “He was already good at making tools like that because there was a girl in the village about my same age who was born without an arm. It was a real pain in the ass for her when she was a kid, as you can imagine, because she kept outgrowing things, but otherwise she was just used to it. Managed just as well for most things.” The corner of her mouth quirks up, and she adds, “She did have to give up on any dreams she had of being a master weaver, but I don’t think she dreamed about being a master weaver to begin with, so not a huge loss.”

Jiang Cheng is starting to get the feel for this story and he’s not sure he likes it.

“Dad lost something.” Fan Zhu’er still hasn’t looked away from his face, and she’s speaking with the careful deliberation of someone who wants to make sure they’re understood. “He had to take the time to accept what he lost before he could move on. Took him longer than he wanted to get used to the hook, and the other tools, but eventually he was almost back up to speed. It’d have been different if he’d never known anything else.” Fan Zhu’er pauses, eyes distant, and adds, “Now he did catch a fever three years later and die that winter, but I’m pretty sure that didn’t have anything to do with the arm thing.”

“Probably not,” Jiang Cheng agrees, for some f*cking reason. Did he accidentally get drunk before he came out here?

“I don’t know sh*t about cores,” she says, charging forward as inexorably as the boar yaoguai she’d killed, “but seems to me you had something really sh*tty happen at the same time a lot of other extremely sh*tty sh*t happened. Can’t blame you for reacting badly.” A pause, as she sucks her teeth thoughtfully, and then, “Still glad you didn’t die.”

Jiang Cheng reels in the moonlight with this easy acceptance. He’s had to fight and claw for everything in his life, forcing himself into the mold of being the model disciple and the model heir and the model sect leader, wrapping it around himself like armor to keep anyone from ever actually seeing him, and now this f*cking pig farmer hears about his greatest failure and says, “That sounds sh*tty.” What the f*ck.

“Oh,” Fan Zhu’er says, quietly, tilting her head at him. Her eyes go softer, understanding dawning. “Earlier.”

“I couldn’t feel their qi,” Jiang Cheng mutters, looking somewhere past her left ear, an angry, embarrassed heat flushing the tops of his cheekbones.

“Sorry,” she says, much less formally. “That must have been. Hm. Unpleasant.”

Jiang Cheng jerks his head at her in irritable acknowledgement, feeling prickly and brittle, like a poorly fired teacup. “Not your fault,” he manages, somehow forcing the words out through a tight throat and tighter jaw. Fan Zhu’er stares at him for another few breaths, the silence taut and uncomfortable. She seems to accept whatever she sees, because she nods, once, and spins her rope dart.

Fan Zhu’er starts doing the elbow wrap again and waits until he joins her before she says, “You have one now, right? A core?” He shoots her an exasperated look and she shrugs, unimpressed. “It’s not like I can tell. You can’t butcher a pig, we’re allowed to have different skillsets.”

“Yes,” Jiang Cheng says, carving the words out of himself with a blade. “I have a golden core now.”

She sucks her teeth again, assessingly. “Sounds to me like there’s a story there.”

Jiang Cheng grunts. God, he feels like he’s been fighting a demon for a shichen, drained and tired and weirdly jittery. He tries to work out some of that strange energy with the rope dart, lets the movements and the weight of it become meditative again. “Show me something cool with this,” he says, instead of answering. This has been quite enough of Jiang Cheng’s Miserable f*cking History for one night, thank you.

Fan Zhu’er, politely, doesn’t press the issue. She instead bursts into movement with whipcrack quickness, the rope dart blurring around her body almost like the glow of a spell. She catches it on her neck, twirls, and sends it out at an imagined opponent. Jiang Cheng winces, his ribs still remembering the strike from their spar. It is, as asked, extremely f*cking cool.

“Again,” he says, swinging his practice dart. Fan Zhu’er smirks at him and complies, running the form as slowly as she can, allowing him to follow along with her with his meager skills. He thinks he has the feel for it, so he gets some momentum going with the dart and tries it for himself. The first few movements go smoothly, allowing him to build speed, and he turns into the neck catch and hits himself right in the f*cking face with the weight. There’s a crunching sound that might be his nose, and the pain is white-hot and all-consuming. Jiang Cheng tastes blood and literally can’t see for the shock of it, dropping the rope dart and pressing both hands instinctively to his face. “f*ck!"he says, loudly, and then a hissed, “Ow,” and then, quieter, “f*ck!”

“Oh, nooo,” Fan Zhu’er wails in a near-whisper. “Oh, no, yep, that’ll happen.” She’s clearly trying to smother laughter, and Jiang Cheng would be angrier about that except that if he’d seen this happen to someone else he’d absolutely laugh his ass off. “Come on,” she says, suddenly right in front of him, hands tugging gently at his wrists, “Come on, let me see if you broke it.”

“It’s fine,” he says, thickly, uncomfortably aware of how much taller she is and the startling warmth of her hands on his nearly-bare arms, no layers of robes or bracers to dampen the touch. “I can heal it.” There’s blood dripping from his chin, and he spares a moment of sympathy for the people who do the laundry. It’s not that they’re not good at getting blood out of things, but usually it’s not out of his sleeping robes. He feels like he might owe them an apology, somehow.

“I know you can heal it,” she says, that warm laughter still behind her words, “but I need to check and see if it should be reset so you don’t end up with a bump.” Fan Zhu’er pulls, and he follows her over nearer the lamp at the corner of the yard, feet moving without his permission. “Let me see the damage,” she says, tugging at his wrists again, and Jiang Cheng just totally, entirely, absolutely gives the f*ck up and moves his hands away from his face.

Fan Zhu’er drops his wrists, which makes something weird happen in his stomach, but then she very gently sets her fingers on his jaw, which makes the weird thing happen twice as hard. She tips his face up toward her, her back to the lamp, all the planes of her picked out in gold and silver and shadow. A hiss, through her teeth, and she very delicately traces her thumbs along the edge of his nose. “You really did a number on yourself,” she says, tiling his head back and forth to catch the lamplight as much as she can. Jiang Cheng’s mind has gone completely blank, even the pain fading away as if happening from a great distance, or to someone else. He doesn’t think anyone has ever touched him like this. Her hands are gentle, her fingertips callused, and no one has ever touched him like this.

“I think you’re okay,” she says, taking his chin between her thumb and forefinger and looking him over thoughtfully. She tugs a cloth out of her robes with the other hand and dabs it under his nose, wiping up the blood with fabric still warm from her body heat. “If you were normal I’d tell you to put cool compresses on it, but since you’re magic and sh*t you’ll be fine by morning, right?”

Jiang Cheng nods, carefully, because he doesn’t want to dislodge her hand for some reason.

“That’s good,” she says, half-smiling. “It’d probably raise some questions if people saw you like this.” Fan Zhu'er shakes her head, tipping it to the side ruefully. “You gave yourself two black eyes and a broken nose, you f*ckin’ overachiever. Good job.”

“Thanks,” he says dryly, and she laughs for real, the sound curling through the air like the zip of fireflies.

“Well, go on,” she says, dropping her hands and standing back, Jiang Cheng locking all his muscles to keep himself in place at the sudden, horrifying desire to sway closer to her. “Heal up. We wouldn’t want anything distracting from your best features, would we, Quangu-zongzhu?”

“Those are my best features?” he shoots back, pulling his qi up into his face with a mild internal effort and hoping the bruising hides his blush.

“Mmm,” Fan Zhu’er says, narrowing her eyes at him thoughtfully, and adds, “Your eyes are nice, too.” With that she spins on her heel and walks away into the stableyard, presumably to pick up the mess he left when he smashed his f*cking face in. Jiang Cheng, twice in the same day, very carefully does not flee. He just walks back to his quarters quickly, and shuts the doors behind him very firmly, and forcibly ignores his pulse pounding in his ears.

---

Two days later Jiang Cheng shows up for Fan Zhu’er’s Muscle Cultivation Class wearing robes he can move in. He meets her eyes and sets his jaw and seals his spiritual energy and proceeds to swear his way through a hundred thousand indignities as she pokes under his ribs to make him engage his abs and yells at him (and everyone else) to squeeze their butts and offers a mix of encouragement and friendly insults. By the time the class ends his inner robes are plastered to his body with sweat and his hands are shaking and he’s sore in muscles he didn’t even know he had.

“Well, Jiang-zongzhu,” Fan Zhu’er says, her eyes crinkling up with a smile, “we’ll make a coreless pig farmer out of you yet.” She punches his shoulder and walks off before he can catch his breath, and Jiang Cheng glares at her because otherwise…

Otherwise he thinks he might smile at her.

Ugh. Disgusting. Unacceptable.

He shows up for the next class, too.

Notes:

ETA: Jay did some great art of Jiang Cheng and his self-inflicted broken nose and also his sex panic about Fan Dingxiang, go take a look!

Me: All right, Jiang Cheng! Time to talk about your feelings!
Jiang Cheng: I would literally rather have my golden core melted again.

Chapter 7

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Fan Dingxiang considers herself a pretty sensible person. It’s hard to farm pigs and not be sensible. Dream too much and the pigs will step on your feet, and she didn’t want to get her feet stepped on, so she didn’t spend a lot of time dreaming. (Those f*ckers are heavy--the pigs, not the dreams.) She thinks through her decisions and makes her choices based on the best information she has available to her. She’s solid and reliable and maybe she’ll never be clever like a poet but she’s smart enough to keep herself out of trouble. How else did she manage to spend over a decade going on night hunts without getting found out? She doesn’t do things rashly.

At least, she never used to.

The problem, the thing throwing her sense of self-image into a confused kind of turmoil, is this: She cannot stop f*cking flirting with Jiang-zongzhu.

The first time, on the night hunt? That she can--and does--blame on the post-fight glee. She’s always like that after a successful night hunt. One time she hugged a tree because everyone else was too far away for an easy hug, and she just had so much hugging energy it had to come out somehow. That was a perfectly reasonable reaction, with a perfectly reasonable explanation.

The second time, in Jiang-zongzhu’s office? That was also right after a fight. Totally excusable. Also, he was so weird about wiping blood off her throat that she felt like maybe being a little weird right back would be fair and equitable. It definitely made him mad at her again, which is his natural state of being and therefore what he should be most comfortable with. It was really generous of her, honestly, to do that for him. That’s definitely easily explained away, not like, part of a trend.

And then.

And then.

Jiang-zongzhu showed up at her exercise class, which she’d expected would happen eventually, but she hadn’t expected that he’d have a full-on gray-faced freakout about it. Fan Dingxiang can remember with perfect clarity the way all the color had drained from his features, leaving him pale as an ink painting. She can remember the hard line of his mouth and how he swallowed too much, like he was fighting the urge to puke. She can remember his fingers biting into her shoulder to the point of pain, and how that hadn’t mattered at all because she could feel them shaking. Honestly maybe she should have called him Quangu-zongzhu then, just to give him something else to react to, but it had seemed far more important in the moment to be kind. It seemed to work? He hadn’t thrown up on her or thrown her out of the sect, anyway. Instead he walked out of the night to learn rope dart from her, and never even asked why she was up so late. Instead he told her something that was obviously horrible for him to think about and then broken his own f*cking nose and hadn’t even yelled at her for laughing at him. She’d pulled him over to the lamp and touched his warm face and looked at him, even all bruised and bleeding, and was struck with the sharp, distinct urge to keep him like that. Fan Dingxiang had wanted to keep his face tipped up toward her, wanted her hands gentle on his jawline, wanted his mouth relaxed, lips slightly parted, his eyebrows actually horizontal instead of diagonal for once. He’d just looked so vulnerable, almost delicate, no layers and layers of robes like armor setting him apart. He’d just looked like a man. A pretty man. (A man who had hit himself in the face with a rope dart, admittedly, which hadn’t quite ruined the effect though it had put in a valiant effort.)

She’d wanted to kiss him, okay? She can admit that to herself, in her own head. Jiang-zongzhu is gorgeous when he’s not looking at her like he wants to kill her, (special mention to those cheekbones) and Fan Dingxiang hasn’t seen any action for a few years, and now she’s been close enough to him to find out that he even smells nice. She’s a healthy woman with healthy needs, and he’s cute, and apparently he trusts her or something. It’s a perfectly natural reaction to have, that she obviously cannot tell anyone, ever, because it is also a super bad idea to want to kiss the leader of your sect. Would that even be legal? Are there laws about who you’re allowed to kiss based on rank? Is there an exemption if you work in a brothel, since people of all social ranks go to those? This has never previously been relevant, and Fan Dingxiang makes a mental note to go to one of the tea houses in town where one can ask the working ladies such questions, and, you know, ask the questions.

In the meantime, though, he keeps showing up to her exercise classes and locking down his spiritual energy, which she now knows is kind of a huge deal for him, and then following her directions with a minimum of complaint. He gets all sweaty, and it soaks into the collar of his robes, plastering them to his skin, and last time she’d happened to look over while he was taking a messy drink of water and stared so hard at the droplets running down his chin and neck that she almost swallowed her own tongue.

It’s a problem.

If that wasn’t enough, well, Fan Dingxiang is mature enough to admit that she enjoys f*cking with him, a little bit. He looked so horrified about her general existence on that first night hunt, and she just sorta leaned into it out of spite and nerves. Every time she sh*t-talked him and got a reaction, that just made her want to do it again but harder. Then she got to fight him (which was honestly so f*cking fun), and then he’d told her secrets in the moonlight, and now he willingly obeys when she tells at him to squat deeper. It’s a heady kind of power, getting a reaction out of someone who clearly tries to keep himself separate from everyone else. Also? She swears she’s seen him almost smile at her a couple of times, and now she wants that like she wants to punch monsters. The only facial expressions she’s seen from him are Neutral, Mad, and Madder, and there’s a possible hope for that list to eventually include Smile, and Fan Dingxiang is determined to see it.

It’d be easier if it was just physical, too, if it was just teasing, but the thing is… The thing is, Fan Dingxiang thinks Jiang-zongzhu is lonely. Now that she’s actually watching him instead of avoiding him she’s noticing things, like how he always stands slightly apart from even his most senior disciples. Like how no one ever touches him, except presumably the doctors when necessary. Like how he takes his meals alone, either in his office or out on the pier over the lake. He’s been leading the sect solo for over a decade, and Fan Dingxiang thinks that maybe in that entire time he hasn’t had a f*cking friend. It’s heartbreaking, not that she’d tell him that. (If she told him that he’d definitely whip her out of the sect with Zidian, and she’d still like to avoid that situation.) Fan Dingxiang remembers not having friends, before Hu Yueque forcibly dragged her into an entire extant friend group and changed her life. It f*cking sucked, quite frankly. People need friends!

So there it is. Jiang-zongzhu is unfairly attractive, and lonely, and Fan Dingxiang kinda wants to kiss him and kinda wants to slap him upside the head and tell him to stop pushing people away all the time. She yells at people to clench on a regular basis and thinks that what Jiang-zongzhu needs to do is unclench. The man needs to relax for once in his f*cking life, and she’d tell him that if he asked her, not that he’d ever ask. None of it is Fan Dingxiang’s business, and she reminds herself of that fact and knuckles down and does her new, official job.

(Maybe she’s glad he keeps coming back to the exercise classes, and not for the visual. She thinks it might be good for him, emotionally and physically.)

Fan Dingxiang ponders the whole situation on noodle day, where she still joins the kitchen staff regardless of her new title and responsibilities. She likes making noodles. She likes anything where you start with a clear set of goals and then, through physical work, achieve said goals. She also likes getting to eat the noodles, so it’s all win-win, really. It’s easier to think while her hands are moving, and the sounds and smells of the kitchen are still familiar and soothing in a way the training yard isn’t. The dough goes smooth and pliable as she kneads it, and she pretends that the problem is just as smooth and pliable.

I mean, she thinks to herself, it’s not like I’m going to just plant one on him. Fan Dingxiang has self-control. There are so many people, over the years, who deserved to be punched and who have remained thoroughly un-punched because the consequences of the punching were unacceptable. The consequences of kissing someone can be even worse than the consequences of punching someone, so it should be just as easy to resist if not easier.

Fan Dingxiang takes a moment to be intensely grateful that she’s not coming at this as a blushing, virginal teenager. She and Zhang Luan had a brief fling back when they were younger before they both decided they weren’t actually that into each other in a sex way, and it wasn’t even weird to go back to just being friends afterward. When she was in her twenties there was the waiter at one of the local tea houses who blushed when he caught her eye and stammered when he brought her order. He finally asked her out after half a year of flirting, and Fan Dingxiang had gently explained that she maybe wasn’t what he expected, and he’d listened and expressed his continued interest but admitted he’d eventually be expected to marry a woman who could have his children when he inherited the shop, and once everyone was on the same page about the future they’d engaged in three years of energetic sex and mutual affection. When they inevitably had to split it was with good feelings on both sides, and his eventual wife once brought Fan Dingxiang a full bottle of wine for free. “I understand I have you to thank for some things,” she’d said with a grin, and Fan Dingxiang had toasted her, and now some years later all their kids call her Zhu-jiejie and she gets extra food for free at that tea house. Best possible outcome, really. Anyway, the main point is she’s over thirty and had enough sex to know that it’s nice and fun but not something to ruin your life about, so she’s just… not gonna ruin her life about it.

Fan Dingxiang makes noodles and then eats noodles and puts the whole tangled mess of things out of her mind. It’s not like it’s going to be an ongoing problem or anything. She’ll look respectfully when Jiang-zongzhu sweats into his robes and do her job and that’ll be the end of it.

---

It’s not the end of it.

Fan Dingxiang tends to get in some night training twice a week, more out of habit than anything. Her body just expects to be awake and moving some nights, and who is she to tell it otherwise? It’s not bothering anyone, and she spends half a shichen running rope dart or spear forms (or, nowadays, sword forms) and then goes to bed. This is all totally normal.

Jiang-zongzhu showing up for night training? That is decidedly not normal.

The first time was clearly coincidence. She could tell he was still rattled from earlier, which makes perfect sense. No explanation needed there.

Fan Dingxiang admits she would like an explanation for why he keeps coming back. She wonders if he looks for her on the nights she doesn’t train. She wonders if he realizes she does this twice a week, since he only shows up for the first one, always seven days after the last time. She will never get an answer to any of these questions, because Jiang-zongzhu sure as f*ck isn’t gonna volunteer personal information about himself and Fan Dingxiang is absolutely not going to ask. He seems looser at night, like he sheds the pressure of being sect leader at the same time that he sheds his layers of formal robes and his gleaming silver guan. She thinks he might need this, and since he doesn’t interfere and, in fact, accepts her tutelage with something like gratitude, she doesn’t want to mess that up.

(Also, when he’s in a sleeping robe and just one outer robe, she can see a lot of muscular definition in his shoulders. Fan Dingxiang knows nothing can come of this, but she has functioning eyes. She’s allowed to look.)

The third time it happens she gives up and starts making sure she has a spare for whatever weapon she was planning on training that night. Mostly it’s rope dart. In spite of his rocky beginning (or possibly because of it) Jiang-zongzhu seems determined to learn it, and it’s good for Fan Dingxiang to get to practice her teaching techniques in front of a class of one.

She thinks that’s the end of it, that maybe Jiang-zongzhu is mostly looking to learn a new skill and doesn’t want to fail at it in front of the whole sect. Fan Dingxiang has just about convinced herself of this when, in between skill demonstrations, he barks, “What do you think about our talisman curriculum?” It’s almost shaped like a question, even with how angry he seems to be about it.

“I don’t think you have much of one,” she says, bluntly, because if he asks her a question then by the heavens she’s gonna answer it. His eyes narrow, and she adds, “Based on what I’ve seen, anyway. It’s not like I took those classes.”

He nods, his jaw tight. Fan Dingxiang spares a moment to worry about his teeth, and then he says, “What would you need to do to make an accurate assessment?” and that’s such a startlement that she squints at him in suspicion for a long bit while she waits for her thoughts to catch up. It takes long enough that he shifts a little from foot to foot, hands flexing on the rope dart, and snaps, “Well? Are we going to stand here all night?”

“Sorry,” she says, “I thought I just heard you ask me to assess Yunmeng Jiang’s talisman curriculum, and I must have hallucinated.”

He clenches his teeth harder. Seriously, he’s gonna crack a molar one of these days. “That is, indeed, what I asked,” he bites out, glaring at the rope dart in his hands.

“Huh,” Fan Dingxiang says, and she starts running their previous form to give herself time to think. Jiang-zongzhu falls in next to her, mimicking her movements, and he seems to understand she needs a moment because he doesn’t speak again, and he hardly even seems impatient. “What would you be looking for from my assessment, exactly?”

Jiang-zongzhu looks at her with a glare that she’s pretty sure means disbelief. “Suggestions for improvements.”

That’s what she thought, and then told herself she couldn’t possibly be interpreting it correctly. “Uh,” she says, “I guess I’d want to read over whatever they’re usually teaching from? And then sit in on the classes?” He nods, like that’s the end of the conversation, and Fan Dingxiang blurts, “Why are you asking me?

Jiang-zongzhu glares at her like she’s being deliberately dense, like she’s making fun of him instead of being honestly bewildered. The angle of his eyebrows softens after a moment as he blinks once in what might be surprise. “Have you seen anyone else around here use talismans like yours?” he asks, belligerent.

“No,” Fan Dingxiang says, slowly, “but everyone else around here is an actual cultivator.”

Jiang-zongzhu rolls his eyes, a really good one. She sees whites all the way around as he goes. “Actual cultivators,” he bites out, “don’t care about talismans, so they don’t study them. You do.”

Fan Dingxiang translates that through Jiang-zongzhu’s general rudeness dialect and blinks, surprised, a little candleflame of warmth flaring up behind her heart. “Quangu-zongzhu,” she says, feeling a smile curve across her face, “are you telling me you like my talismans?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he scoffs immediately, but it sounds reflexive rather than sincere. She raises an eyebrow at him as they practice the form again, and at about movement three he speaks. “Your talismans do things I’ve never seen anyone consider before. They’re useful.”

“So you like them,” Fan Dingxiang says, cheerful.

“They’re… creative,” Jiang-zongzhu says, his jaw tight. He sounds like he’s almost in physical pain.

“You like my talismans.” Fan Dingxiang moves through the twirl, Jiang-zongzhu following a beat behind her, and they cast their rope darts at invisible enemies nearly in tandem.

“It would be good for the strength of the sect if we had more than one disciple specializing in talismans,” he says. His tone of voice indicates that he would like to die rather than continue speaking.

“Yeah, like I said, you like my talismans,” Fan Dingxiang says, and beams at him when he scowls. He’s creaking at the seams now like a wine barrel that’s not vented properly, almost ready to explode, and she takes pity on him. “I’ll read over the materials,” she tells him, “and sit in on the classes for two weeks. Is the goal more powerful talismans, or more creativity, or just a deeper understanding of how to design them for different purposes?”

“All of it,” he says, some of the pressure draining from his expression. His throat works a couple times, and eventually he says, “I want to hear any ideas you have on the subject, even if they don’t seem immediately relevant.” It sounds like he had to carve each word on a pebble with his tongue before spitting them onto the ground. No wonder he’s so mad all the time, if he has to work this hard to say something even a little bit nice.

“I understand,” Fan Dingxiang says, solemnly. “Thank you for your confidence in me, Jiang-zongzhu.” It’s an important job, and she’s incredibly flattered that he asked her, that he recognizes her hard-won skill. Pride and accomplishment well up in her, running wildly through the brush of her heart like a boar on a trail, which is definitely what loosens her tongue and lets her add, “Thanks for telling me how much you like my talismans, Quangu-zongzhu.”

“You’re a nightmare,” he shoots back. “I should kick you out of the sect.”

“But you won’t,” she sing-songs, because the corner of his mouth might be twitching a little in a way that doesn’t seem angry and she’s going to track that expression like it’s prey on a hunt. “You like my talismans too much to kick me out.”

“She used to avoid me,” Jiang-zongzhu says to the night sky. “It was so peaceful. What went wrong?” Oh, he’s definitely almost smiling now, she can see it in the glimmer of his eyes.

“You let on that you liked my talismans,” she says, trying to keep her face flat. Fan Dingxiang makes an appraising sound and adds, “And possibly that you like me, too.”

“I will feed you to a demon,” he spits back. “Feet-first, so you can watch it happen.”

“You’d never,” Fan Dingxiang says, with confidence. “You’re too good a cultivator to risk strengthening a demon.” He looks mollified for a moment at the compliment, which she ruins with, “Also you won’t on account of how you like me and my talismans.”

“Rude,” he spits.

“I’m right,” she sends back, a quick parry, blade meeting blade.

“f*ck you,” Jiang-zongzhu says in a huff, throwing his rope dart on the ground and stalking away.

“Ask nicely!” Fan Dingxiang yells after him, to her own absolute horror a moment later when the words catch up to her ears. Holy f*ck, how thick is her f*cking face. She’d pray to her ancestors to save her except they’re probably also reeling in shame. How has she not been whipped out of the sect, seriously? The mortification is so strong that she almost doesn’t notice Jiang-zongzhu stumble at her words as he stalks away, which is a little strange, because when she looks at that section of dock later, the planks are smooth and even.

---

Jiang-zongzhu shows up for her exercise class like he has been, and he studiously avoids looking at her the whole time. That’s fine with Fan Dingxiang. They definitely don’t need to ever discuss the way she keeps hitting on him. Being ignored is great. Being ignored feels normal.

Also, he still clenches his butt when she yells at him to clench his butt, which is important both for form and for Fan Dingxiang’s personal enjoyment.

--

Twenty days later, Fan Dingxiang finds herself in Jiang-zongzhu’s office, which she supposes makes sense. She’d somehow assumed that she’d give her report on Yunmeng Jiang’s talisman curriculum at night, while demonstrating rope dart, since that's how she’d been asked to do it in the first place. This is obviously ridiculous now that she’s thought about it for any length of time at all. It’s official sect business. It should happen during official sect times.

“Well?” he asks, pouring tea like it personally offended him. It’s the first thing he’s said since she came through the door, and if it’s going to be like that, Fan Dingxiang can play the game.

“Your disciples don’t learn sh*t,” she says, dropping the city accent she’s picked up since living in Lotus Pier.

His knuckles tighten, blanching against his teacup. A muscle ticks in his jaw. “Explain.”

“The talisman classes are all based on memorization,” Fan Dingxiang says. “The average cultivator in this sect knows how to create and use specific talismans for specific purposes. That’s not--” she waves one hand, vaguely, looking for the right words “--that’s not knowledge, it’s mimickry.”

“It’s served us well enough so far,” Jiang-zongzhu says, a defiant jut to his chin, and Fan Dingxiang recognizes it as a request for a further explanation rather than a rejection of her statement, and then in the next moment realizes that she was able to recognize that. Huh. Okay then.

“It’s better than not knowing talismans,” Fan Dingxiang agrees, “but it’s dangerously limited.” She taps the table, trying to figure out the best explanation for why. “Okay, imagine you’re a pig farmer.”

Jiang-zongzhu raises one unimpressed eyebrow. “Why,” he says, voice drier than the Yunmeng air ever gets, “would I do that?”

“So you can follow my f*cking metaphor, Quangu-zongzhu,” she shoots back. “Try to keep up.”

Jiang-zongzhu blinks at her very slowly. “Fine,” he says, after a moment. “I’m a pig farmer.”

“Not with those robes,” Fan Dingxiang can’t help adding, under her breath, and she charges onward before he can respond. “You’re a pig farmer, and one of your pigs is sick. Now, you know ten or fifteen pig illnesses, and you know how to treat those illnesses specifically. Good for you! But the problem here is that whatever illness your pig has doesn’t match any of the ones you already know, so you don’t know how to treat it.” She holds up one hand, for emphasis, and then holds up the other one and tips her head toward it. “Now let’s say you’re a pig farmer, and one of your pigs is ill, and you know how to examine the symptoms and diagnose what’s wrong, even if you haven’t seen that specific illness before. You’re in a much better position to actually treat the problem, right?”

Jiang-zongzhu nods, slowly.

“That’s what the talisman classes are like. Your cultivators are learning how to make basic talismans, they’re not learning how to create their own, or the purposes of the radicals, or how radicals combine to make different effects.” Fan Dingxiang leans forward, palms on the table. “That’s a problem, not being able to be creative on the fly, but more importantly, it’s dangerous because they won’t be able to identify a talisman that’s been tampered with.”

His attention sharpens. “Tampered with?”

Fan Dingxiang nods. “Do you have ink? Doesn’t have to be cinnabar, this is just for demonstration.”

Jiang-zongzhu pushes a writing kit over to her side of the table. “Are you not carrying ink and a grindstone at all times?” he asks, sarcasm dripping from every word. “You’re usually so prepared.”

“Oh, I am,” she says, absently, grinding the inkstick. “This was just faster than getting it out myself.” Jiang-zongzhu snorts, and Fan Dingxiang smothers a smile as she dips the brush and sketches out two nearly identical talismans. She slides them across the table, careful not to touch the wet ink, and refills their teacups. “So. What do those do?”

Jiang-zongzhu looks at them suspiciously. He looks at almost everything suspiciously, so Fan Dingxiang doesn’t take this as a personal insult. “This is a light talisman,” he says, tapping the one that is, in fact, a normal light talisman. “This one,” he says, glaring down at the other one, “is almost a light talisman.” His eyes flick up to hers, sharp as a blade. “What is it?”

“Cast it,” Fan Dingxiang says, sipping her tea serenely. “It’s harmless,” she adds, just in case he needs the reassurance.

Jiang-zongzhu scoffs at her, eyes the talisman again, and sketches it out in the air in front of him, spiritual energy glowing purple as he does. He adds the last radicals and twists just so--

Every candle in the room goes out, and the sunlight that ought to be filtering through the windows disappears, casting the whole office into darkness. She hears his hissed intake of breath and takes another sip of her tea, allowing the artificial night to cover her smug smirk. “You see my point?” she says, keeping her voice very even and professional.

A grunt of acknowledgement. “You reversed the talisman,” he says, and then, begrudgingly, “Clever.”

“I like to think so,” Fan Dingxiang says, in that same professional voice. “It wasn’t obvious from looking at it, though, right?” she barrels on, before he can reply. “You have to actually really know talisman designs, and if you were in a hurry and cast whatever someone handed to you, you could get into big trouble.”

Another grunt, this one less annoyed. There’s silence for the space of a breath, the world still night-black, and Jiang-zongzhu asks, “And this is going to last for…”

Fan Dingxiang finishes the countdown in her head. “About… this long,” she says, really crushing down that smirk as she gets the timing right and the darkness recedes, light pooling back through the windows and painting the wood honey-gold. They blink at each other, eyes adjusting, and for the space between one breath and the next Jiang-zongzhu looks impressed. Fan Dingxiang’s heart flutters, which is weird and unwelcome and not something she’s felt in a few years, and god f*cking dammit that’s gonna make it way harder not to kiss him, if he looks at her like that. In the next instant Jiang-zongzhu seems to realize something is wrong with his face, because he crams a scowl onto it and glares down at the talisman designs again. “Could you tell it was reversed before you cast it?” she asks, because he didn’t seem terribly surprised, but also, it was dark and she couldn’t see his face.

“I suspected,” Jiang-zongzhu allows. He picks up his teacup and takes the world’s angriest sip. “I’ve seen similar things before.” He’s still scowling, but his eyes are sad, and Fan Dingxiang casts her mind back over what might cause that particular combination of emotions.

“Oh, right,” she says, pleased when she figures it out. “The spirit lure flags your brother invented.”

Jiang-zongzhu’s knuckles pale around his teacup, the color change there and gone in a flash, just as quickly as the grief and relief whirl through his eyes. “They started as talismans,” he says, with zero inflection, and then drains the cup. “So you think we need to be teaching talisman design as well as creation?” The question is too-fast, too-loud. An obvious distraction. Jiang-zongzhu, Fan Dingxiang thinks, wants to talk about his brother but won’t let himself. That’s fair. It’s weird to know how to talk about someone who died and then came back. As far as she knows, it’s never happened to anyone before, so it’s not like there’s advice that can be given on the subject. (If asked, Fan Dingxiang would tell him to f*cking unclench and just talk to/about his brother if he wants to, but she’ll never be asked, so she doesn’t volunteer this particular suggestion.)

“Yes,” she says, instead of any of that. “They should learn all the radicals, and the variations on the radicals, and how they interact with each other. They should be able to--to read talismans, not just recognize them.” Fan Dingxiang sets her teacup down and tips her head to the side, thinking. “Also, there could be competitions. Challenges. See who can design the best talisman for a particular task with a time limit. Extra points for anyone who doesn’t blow their eyebrows off.”

The corner of Jiang-zongzhu’s mouth ticks up, just barely. “And how many times have you blown your eyebrows off, Fan Zhu’er?” he asks, a thread of humor in his voice.

“Just once,” she says immediately. “Didn’t need to repeat the lesson for it to sink in.”

Jiang-zongzhu rolls his eyes, expressive and long-suffering, and she somehow understands it isn’t directed at her even before he says, “If only all my disciples learned so quickly.”

“I’m one of a kind,” Fan Dingxiang says, refilling their tea with a tiny flourish of her fingertips as she sets the pot back down.

“And every f*cking day I thank the heavens for that,” Jiang-zongzhu deadpans. His mouth goes tight as he looks down at her example talismans. “When can you meet with Zhao-xiansheng to discuss changes to the curriculum? Will co-teaching the class interfere with any of your other duties?”

“Me?” Fan Dingxiang blinks, surprised, that warm curl of accomplishment behind her heart again, like a sleepy cat.

“You may be the most skilled talisman designer in Lotus Pier,” he says, like it tastes disgusting to admit it. “I would be remiss in my duties as sect leader if I let your skills go to waste.”

She grins then, letting it split her face the way it wants without trying to hold it back. “I knew you liked my talismans.”

“Get the f*ck out of my office,” Jiang-zongzhu says, but he doesn’t sound nearly as angry as usual, so Fan Dingxiang counts it as a success.

---

“You need to hire more servants and staff.”

Jiang-zongzhu blinks at her, which is fair, because that’s a weird way to greet someone at your unscheduled but regularly-occurring nighttime rope dart training sessions. “Explain,” he says, instead of, “f*ck off into hell,” so Fan Dingxiang thinks this is going pretty well.

“You’re asking them to do too much,” she tells him, handing over the practice rope dart that she will never, ever tell him that she keeps set aside in her qiankun pouch instead of returning it to the shed with the rest of the training weapons. “They had full schedules maintaining the sect and now you’re asking them to take on cultivation duties as well.”

“They’re not cultivators,” Jiang-zongzhu says predictably, starting their usual warm-ups, loosening his shoulders and wrists before they move on to the actual forms.

“They’re not,” Fan Dingxiang agrees, “but now you have them assigned to classes on weapon training and basic talisman use, and you did that without releasing them from their regular household tasks. Either you need to start assigning cultivators to laundry and cleaning duty, or you need to hire more staff.” She pauses and stares thoughtfully into the distance. “Or you could lower your standards. That’s always an option.”

Jiang-zongzhu snorts derisively. “No.” His voice is flat enough, dismissive enough that Fan Dingxiang actually feels a little stung. Sure, he hadn’t asked for her advice on this matter in particular, but he’s been fairly open to her feedback in other ways. She’s just considering maybe getting actually angry when he breaks the silence. “If I assigned cultivators to the laundry on a regular basis, how many more people would I need to hire?”

Fan Dingxiang barely keeps herself from pumping her fist. Yes! Victory. “At least twenty, if you want the newcomers to learn defense as well,” she says. “Thirty would probably be better.” She eyes him as they twirl through a turn, the silk of his robes gleaming silver-white in the moonlight. “You’re really going to assign cultivators to do laundry?”

The corner of his mouth might, might, twitch up a little bit, but it’s hard to tell through the shadows. “Wet fabric is heavy,” he says, deadpan. “It’s a strength building exercise.”

“Of course, of course,” Fan Dingxiang says, nodding, keeping her face serious with significant effort. “You can really get into a state of flow when you’re hitting a robe against a rock,” she adds. “We could call it working meditation.”

“If it works out I’ll bring it up at the next discussion conference,” he says, still in that deadpan. “I’m sure Yao-zongzhu and Ouyang-zongzhu are looking for new ways to improve their cultivation.”

Fan Dingxiang snorts an inelegant laugh. “If you can convince those two to do laundry as cultivation practice I will bow at your feet.

“Are you looking for excuses to bow at my feet, Fan Dingxiang?” he asks, too easily, and they both freeze. Was that. Was Jiang-zongzhu flirting back? No. There’s no possible way. “What was the next part of this form?” he barks, too-loud, looking at the rope dart instead of at her.

“It’s an elbow wrap,” she says, abandoning any other lines of conversation out of self-preservation, and demonstrates the move.

(Later, in bed, Fan Dingxiang stares at the ceiling and tries to figure out if Jiang-zongzhu meant that the way it sounded, because it sure f*cking sounded flirty.)

---

Jiang Cheng stares at the ceiling and wondered what the f*ck made him say that. Was it possible he was briefly possessed by a ghost? A horny ghost? A horny ghost that speaks solely in quotes from spring books? Low-quality spring books? Possession is, to be clear, the best possible option. If it wasn’t a ghost, then he’s just the kind of sect leader who goes around making completely inappropriate jokes to his subordinates, and Jiang Cheng has spent the last decade and a half trying not to emulate Jin Guangshan in even the smallest way.

It must have been a ghost. Had to be.

(Fan Zhu’er laughs so loudly and freely. People don’t laugh around him very often. It’s not bad to enjoy hearing someone laugh. It’s a perfectly normal thing to enjoy.)

---

Oh, good. A headache, again. Jiang Cheng rubs the bridge of his nose and wonders, not for the first time, if he can just burn all his correspondence, say a monster did it, and then start fresh. He imagines it for a moment--a clean desk, no piles of bullsh*t letters with bullsh*t problems for him to read, no useless f*cking essays from minor sect leaders who ask for his advice in the guise of offering their own, no pointed notes from matchmakers who haven’t gotten the damn hint. It would be so nice. All it would take is one minor fire. That’s reasonable, isn’t it?

Reality intrudes, as it so frequently does. Lotus Pier burned once. He cleaned the ash and soot himself. He’s not adding another fire to its history, no matter how nice it would be to not have to write back to Yao-zongzhu about sword quality. Yunmeng Jiang has a great swordsmith, why the f*ck would Jiang Cheng care about the Yao sect’s swords? Is this some kind of dick metaphor? In which case, why would Jiang Cheng care about the Yao sect’s dicks? He wonders, idly, what he did in a past life to deserve this, his hands moving automatically through the motions to brew a fresh pot of tea. Then he pours himself a cup, takes a sip and a deep breath, and writes some f*cking letters.

By the time lunch rolls around he’s done some real damage on the correspondence stack. There’s just a letter from a matchmaker that he’ll respond to when he can figure out how to do so without filling it with profanity, and a goddamn book from a mayor in a small town deep out in the Yunmeng countryside. It’s at least five times longer than it needs to be, and he thinks, from skimming what is functionally a very boring novel, that it’s about some kind of farming dispute. Jiang Cheng hates farming disputes almost as much as he hates letters from matchmakers. It seems like the kind of thing that ought to be solved by the farmers. It’s not like Jiang Cheng writes letters to rice farmers asking them to settle the arguments that come up at cultivation conferences. He thinks it’s disrespectful of them to waste his time asking a lot of questions about something that he 1. doesn’t know about and 2. doesn’t need to know about. “We’re allowed to have different skillsets,” Fan Zhu’er’s voice says, in his memory, and you know what? She’s right. He’s seen the outcome of incompetent decisonmaking and has no particular desire to add to it. Jiang Cheng hisses a sigh through his teeth, sets the tome aside, and goes to eat lunch outside in the family pavilion, alone, where there’s no correspondence lurking in secret to strike when he least expects it.

He supervises sword training with the juniors that afternoon, then archery. It’s a good crop of kids, even if half of them are so nervous around him they can barely hold their training swords and the other half are so fearless they keep asking him to tell stories of especially cool night hunts instead of focusing on learning. Jiang Cheng never admits it out loud, but he likes kids, even though they sometimes make him feel f*cking ancient. He looks at a fifteen year old who hasn’t grown into her elbows yet and remembers being that age and preparing to fight a war. The best f*cking thing the cultivation world has managed to do for the last fifteen years is not get into another goddamn war. The kids in his sect get to be kids, and for all the envy that licks up the inside of his ribs when he thinks too hard about it, knowing that Jin Ling didn’t have to grow up under that shadow gives him closer to inner peace than literally anything else ever does.

Vague feelings of inner peace don’t answer letters about farming conflicts, unfortunately, and Jiang Cheng re-reads the letter before dinner and comes no closer to finding an answer. He wonders if he can just write back with, “Find the oldest granny in the village and have her solve this for you,” or if that would lead to disaster. From what Fan Zhu’er has said about her granny, he’s pretty sure the woman would slap everyone involved in this particular dispute for wasting time arguing instead of working. Surely there must be a similar granny in this town that could be called upon to enact percussive diplomacy. He thinks about it vaguely, while he eats, and then while he bathes and gets ready for bed, and then he thinks about it while he lays in bed for about half a shichen, and then he gets out of bed, puts on a robe, his boots, and Zidian, and goes to the stableyard, like he does every seventh night and keeps telling himself he shouldn’t and then does anyway. It’s just… It wouldn’t do for his disciples to see him whack himself right in the shin with a rope dart on a tricky maneuver. It’s undignified. He’s the sect leader, he can’t be seen flailing around like a drunk trying to kill a mosquito, and it’s good to learn new skills, and he likes rope dart now that he’s learned how not to smash his face in with it. If he wants to keep learning rope dart, this is how he has to do it. That’s all it is.

(Jiang Cheng carefully mentally skirts around how it’s fine for Fan Zhu’er, technically a disciple, to see him while he’s flailing around like the aforementioned drunk. It doesn’t count. She’s teaching him. Nothing weird there, not in the least.)

She’s there, in what has become their usual spot without either of them actually talking about it. It’s a full moon tonight, bright enough to cast shadows, everything stark black and white like an ink painting, or a mother-of-pearl inlay on onyx lacquer. Light gleams as Fan Zhu’er moves, the blade in her hand fairly glowing as she works through sword forms. She’s getting pretty good, actually--she doesn’t move with the same weightless grace that someone with a core would, but every motion has power behind it, a heavy killing intent that Jiang Cheng wouldn’t want to be on the other side of, except for how he’d actually like to spar with her, sword to sword. He imagines catching a blow on Sandu, feeling it rattle up his arms and into his shoulders. It’d been nearly all ranged weapons, that day he’d tested her skills, and he wonders what she’d be like to fight in a melee battle. Jiang Cheng would lay good money that it would be spectacular.

The next movement brings Fan Zhu’er around to face him, and the sudden eye contact makes him realize how long he’s been silently staring at her, which is really way too long, and Jiang Cheng can feel his face wanting to heat up so he does what comes easiest: He’s an asshole. “You have too much weight in your back foot,” he snaps, scowling, because why would he try any other way to be at this point in his life.

Instead of getting angry, or offended, or hurt, the way she really ought to, Fan Zhu’er does that farmer thing where she sucks her teeth and nods. “It feels more stable.”

“You lack maneuverability.” Jiang Cheng strides forward and gestures impatiently at her to continue, hating himself the whole time. “If you keep too much weight in the back foot it’ll impede your ability to react quickly.” Fan Zhu’er starts the form again, and he paces behind her and watches like a hawk and when shifts her weight incorrectly this time he kicks her in the calf. She staggers to the side, catching herself after a few steps, and levels much less of a glare at him than he probably deserves. “See?” he says, meanly. “No maneuverability.”

“Rude,” she says, and starts the form over. She gets further this time before settling her weight too far back, and he kicks her again, and she stumbles again. It’s really unacceptable the way she just accepts this. She ought to fight back. Jiang Cheng really thinks she ought to make him treat her more politely, which is possibly the weirdest thing he’s ever thought and he wonders if he’s been possessed by a ghost again.

The third time he kicks her she throws her scabbard in his face. “Are you going to offer any actual advice, Sandu Shengshou?” she asks, as he bats it out of the air and it thumps against the packed earth, “or are you gonna keep kicking me until all I understand is that sometimes you f*cking kick me, and not how to keep from getting kicked?” She’s really glaring now, eyebrows diagonal in the white-silver moonlight as she holds out one hand expectantly. Good. This was, for some reason, the outcome he wanted. Jiang Cheng looks from her annoyed face to her outstretched hand, frowns, and realizes she wants him to hand back her scabbard. He gives her a disbelieving look. Sect leaders don’t go picking up other people’s equipment. Sometimes they don’t even pick up their own equipment. Undaunted, Fan Zhu’er’s eyebrows raise in a very “I can wait here all night,” kind of way, and she has the guts to snap her fingers at him. He hates her. This is amazing.

Jiang Cheng throws her the scabbard, as dismissively as possible, and she snatches it out of the air with a smooth movement. “If you kick me again,” she says, a warning in her tone, “I’m going to punch you in the f*cking face, zongzhu or no zongzhu.”

“Am I allowed to hit you with a stick?” Jiang Cheng asks, conversationally, sauntering over to find one of the bamboo stakes that, for reasons he doesn’t entirely understand, live in piles outside of stables.

“Maybe if you ask nicely,” Fan Zhu’er says, in a completely different tone of voice, and there must be a rock or something because Jiang Cheng trips on his next step. When he turns around her face is completely flat, eyes expectant, and she’s holding the beginning of the series of forms, so perhaps he hallucinated what sounded like a bad come-on.

“Take the stance,” he orders, and she does, and this time, instead of kicking her like an angry donkey, Jiang Cheng gently taps her legs with the tip of the bamboo, pressing here and nudging there, until her weight is properly balanced. “Like that,” he says. “You feel the difference?”

Fan Zhu’er nods.

“Good.” He gestures for her to start. She moves through the form, and when her weight drops into her back foot, Jiang Cheng taps her calf with the bamboo. Fan Zhu’er freezes, adjusts her stance, and lunges into the next part of the form. Good. Better. She gets through three more steps before her weight moves wrong again, and this time she corrects it almost before he taps her leg. Excellent.

“It’s the opposite of using a spear,” she says, driving her sword at an invisible enemy who would definitely be dead now. “If something’s charging you want to set your feet, not dance out of the way.”

“It’s called the sword path,” Jiang Cheng says, and then grabs her wrist to adjust her angle, the way he would for any student, and his hand burns when he pulls it away, the way it definitely doesn’t for other students. “If we start cultivating the spear path then your sh*tty footwork won’t matter. Elbow up.”

Fan Zhu’er lifts her elbow and manages to look thoughtful as she whips her sword through the next position. “Does anyone cultivate with spears?” she asks. “Seems like the reach would be useful.”

Jiang Cheng opens his mouth to say something dismissive, co*cks his head, and shuts it again as he thinks about the question. “I think a couple of the smaller sects might,” he admits, and then taps her front leg when she overcompensates on a tricky lunge. He’s drunk on his accomplishments as an instructor, which is the only reason he adds, “And you.”

Her eyes cut to him, flashing steel-bright in the moonlight. “Am I a cultivator now, Jiang-zongzhu?” she asks, and it’s half and joke and half serious.

That’s the question, isn’t it? The one that hides behind Jiang Cheng’s eyes and gives him headaches if he thinks too hard about it. She’s a disciple without a core, and it turns out he had one of those before, but the thing about demonic cultivation is that it’s still cultivation. What does Fan Zhu’er do? Other than slay monsters and fight with talismans and hunt ghosts? Jiang Cheng huffs, annoyed with the uncertainty and the world and with himself most of all. “What else would you be?” he snaps.

“Seem to recall you calling me a pig farmer,” she says, calmly. “More than once, actually.”

“I don’t see any f*cking pigs around here,” he snaps, the words out before he can overthink them, “so you’re sure as f*ck not a pig farmer anymore.”

Fan Zhu’er seems to be fighting a smile, her teeth sinking into her lower lip. “You could get pigs,” she suggests, voice level.

“Absolutely not,” Jiang Cheng says, horrified. He’s seen pigs. They’re huge. Under no circ*mstances is he finding space for those on his sect grounds. “No pigs.” He pokes her in the leg, harder than he needs to, and she obediently adjusts her stance. “You’ll just have to get used to being a cultivator.”

The smile breaks free, curling across her face and making her dark eyes dance in the moonlight. “Whatever you say, Jiang-zongzhu,” Fan Zhu’er tells him, voice bright and pleased, and before Jiang Cheng can stop himself he says, “Jiang Wanyin.”

They both freeze, Fan Zhu’er’s arm extended, weight perfectly distributed between her feet. She stares at him, blinks once, and opens her mouth. She closes it again a moment later, blinks at him again, and manages, “What?”

Well, it looks like Jiang Cheng is stuck with this course of action, so he squares his shoulders and raises his chin. “Call me Jiang Wanyin,” he says, with exaggerated care. “What, are your arms so big you didn’t hear me?” Wow, that was nonsensical as f*ck. Jiang Cheng briefly considers smacking himself in the face with the bamboo in his hand, as punishment so maybe he’ll learn not to be so… Whatever this is.

Fan Zhu’er gives him a confused look, which is fair. “Is that,” she starts, slowly coming out of the stance, sword lowered. She hesitates, obviously struggling for words, and tries, “Is that okay? In the. In the sect?”

Jiang Cheng, very deliberately, looks to the left, then the right, and then back to Fan Zhu’er. “Do you see the rest of the sect here?” he asks, one eyebrow arched.

Her mouth twitches up at one corner, the bewildered surprise fading away as that sardonic confidence he’s come to expect returns to her features. “Point made,” she says, bringing her hands up for a bow. “Thank you for the sword instruction, Jiang Wanyin.”

Jiang Cheng tenses every muscle in his body against the horrible sudden urge he has to shiver. It makes no sense, there’s no reason for it, the air is as warm and humid as usual in Yunmeng, it’s just… He doesn’t think anyone has ever said his courtesy name and made it sound like a name, instead of a polite title (Lan Xichen), an insult (f*cking Hanguang-Jun) , or a joke (Wei Wuxian). Fan Zhu’er’s warm, deep voice curling around the tones makes it sound… Different. Friendly, maybe? He likes how it sounds. f*ck. This was a mistake, telling a f*cking pig farmer his courtesy name--

“What do you know about rice farming?” he blurts, desperate to change the direction of this conversation.

Fan Zhu’er squints at him, confused again but for a much less personal and weird reason. “...Worked on ‘em a bit?” she says, her accent going full rustic. “Everyone pitched in, back home.” She looks around at the empty, moon-bright stableyard. “Are you looking to start one?” she asks, clearly trying to figure out where it would go.

“No,” Jiang Cheng says. Seeing both a potential solution to his current problem and a distraction from whatever the hell just happened, he throws his bamboo stake back on the pile and jerks his head in the direction of the main compound. “Come with me.” He stalks off without waiting to see if she follows, and when her footsteps sound behind him on the pier his shoulders drop involuntarily. Good.

There are sentries, but Jiang Cheng avoids them automatically on the way to his office, because wow does he not want to have to explain this. He slides the door open and flicks his hand at the candles, lighting them with a spark of spiritual energy and washing the room in a gentle glow. When he settles behind his desk Fan Zhu’er is still hovering by the doorway, sword in one hand and a question on her face. “Door?” she asks, free hand on the frame, and Jiang Cheng has to figure out, in a wild panic, whether it’s worse to leave the door open and have it openly known he’s bringing a female disciple into his office in the dead of night, or whether it’s worse to shut the door and make it seem like he’s been clandestine about bringing a female disciple into his office in the dead of night.

“Leave it,” he says, having had enough of f*cking secrets and f*cking sneaking around after all his time in Lanling Jin. He finds the novel of a letter and slaps it onto his desk, jerking his chin at the cushion on the other side. “I want your opinion on this.”

Fan Zhu’er drops to a seat with much more grace than she ought to be able to, given the size of her whole everything, and picks up the manifesto. “Wow,” she says, immediately, flicking through the pages as her eyebrows go up, “this guy certainly likes the sound of his own voice.”

Jiang Cheng barely stops himself from slumping over the table and hitting his head against the wood, like he might have back at Cloud Recesses, when he was a kid and had actual friends. “It’s tiresome,” he says, instead of doing that, and when Fan Zhu’er laughs brightly he kinda wishes he had slumped over the table, because then he wouldn’t be looking at her scrunched up laughing face and feeling weird things happen in his stomach. Luckily for him she turns her attention to the letter, poring over it in silence so he doesn’t have to meet her eyes. He watches anyway, watches her face scrunch up in annoyance, eyebrows twitch in disbelief. He thinks maybe Fan Zhu’er finds this letter just as ridiculous as he does, which is gratifying.

“Well,” she says, breaking the silence, and only years of discipline keep Jiang Cheng from startling visibly, “this man is completely incompetent.”

Jiang Cheng lets out a gusty, long-suffering sigh. “That’s what I thought,” he says, “but he wrote so much f*cking poetry I couldn’t tell if he had an actual real conflict hidden in it or if he just mistook me for a book publisher and was trying to sell me a f*cking novel.”

“Oh, there’s a conflict,” Fan Zhu’er says, arranging the pages of the letter in a neat pile on the table and then immediately scrubbing her hands over her face like a cat trying to clean itself. “Mostly the conflict is this man versus the ability to actually do his job, but there is, in fact, a farming issue too.”

Jiang Cheng wants to bury his face in his hands, resists--because it’s unbecoming of a sect leader--realizes that Fan Zhu’er has seen him break his own nose with a rope dart and only laughed at him a little bit, and goes ahead and buries his face in his hands. “What the f*ck does he actually want?” he asks, despairingly. “It’s something about water usage? Why does he think this is important to me?

Fan Zhu’er makes a sound. It’s not a sound he’s heard her make before, so he lifts his face out of his hands to try and figure out what it means. Her eyebrows are all twisted up, disbelief written across every feature. “Jiang-zongzhu,” she says, with the kind of careful pronunciation that makes it clear she’s using that title for a reason, “of course it’s important to you.”

Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes. “Explain.”

She stares at him for a moment, hands folded neatly in her lap. He’s getting used to this--sometimes Fan Zhu’er needs time to gather her thoughts before she speaks, time to get everything in order, time to decide exactly how rude she’s going to be. Jiang Cheng has just enough time, after that realization, to feel horrified that he expects that from her now before she actually starts speaking and he has to shove his feelings aside and pay attention.

“This man,” she says, gesturing toward the letter, “is the manager of a town in Yunmeng, in Yunmeng Jiang territory, under Yunmeng Jiang protection. For that protection, they pay tithes to Yunmeng Jiang, either in actual money or in products that they grow or make through their labor. It looks like they primarily pay their tithe in rice.” She pauses, raising her eyebrows in question, and Jiang Cheng nods. He recognizes the town name from the accounting books. “The conflict is about rice farming,” she continues. “The farmers in that town have to know, down to the bushel, how much they can expect from a harvest. How much will go to Lotus Pier, and how much they’ll be able to sell at market, and how much they’ll be able to keep for themselves. It is their livelihood.” She presses a hand flat on the table, fingers blanching with the pressure. “I don’t think you can truly understand, Jiang-zongzhu, what it means to have a livelihood. I don’t think you can understand living every day with the bone-deep knowledge that if something goes wrong, you’re always a handsbreadth away from losing everything. For these people, rice is their life.” She co*cks her head, eyes boring into him like needles. “The tithe they pay to you doesn’t change. It is fixed. That means that the worse their harvest, the less they have to live on. That means that when there’s a conflict like this, a conflict that could affect their rice production, it’s important. It will affect their whole lives. And that means that when they can’t figure it out, they have to turn to the highest authority available.” Fan Zhu’er sets her fingers lightly on the letter and slides it back across the table, the movement pointed. “That’s you. This has to be important to you. It’s about your people.

Jiang Cheng glares at her, reflexively, while the slow horror of that whole concept settles into his bone marrow. He knows--he knows he’s responsible for the people of Yunmeng, that responsibility weighing on him like soaked robes since he was a teenager. He’s always seen it as a more specific kind of responsibility--Lotus Pier handles night hunts. Lotus Pier protects the people from ghosts and demons and yaoguai. Lotus Pier has a specific job to do, and they do it. He hadn’t thought of the responsibility going deeper than that, down to the roots, and he’s abruptly furious that he made it to his thirties without figuring it out himself. He wants a drink. He wants to throw himself in the lake. He wants, uselessly, pointlessly, to have someone at his right hand who he could actually talk about this sh*t with as equals. (He was supposed to have that. He was supposed to have that.)

“I see,” he says, after a deep breath, letting this new yoke settle around his neck. Maybe he’ll stop feeling it, eventually. He hardly even winces when he puts on Zidian, these days. Jiang Cheng takes another breath, acknowledges the awfulness of what he’s about to confess out loud, and charges ahead. “I don’t know anything about rice farming,” he bites out, hating to admit ignorance, even when it’s about something he has no need to know in the first place. “I don’t want…” Jiang Cheng refocuses, stops that sentence and tries a different one. “What would you advise?”

Fan Zhu’er looks satisfied for a moment, like Jiang Cheng has passed a test, and the back of his neck flushes hot for some reason. “Best case scenario is we get rid of this useless donkey--” she gestures at the letter “--and replace him with someone who doesn’t need a map and a team of expert guides to find his own ass. But, since I assume that isn’t an option...” She sighs, rolls her eyes, and reaches out a hand for the letter again. Jiang Cheng slides it across the table to her and she glares at it like it personally insulted her ancestors, which it might have. The language is so convoluted anything seems possible.

“Okay,” Fan Zhu’er says, spreading out all the pages on the table, the entire rambling essay visible at once. “Here’s where we start.”

---

Jiang Cheng leaves his office that night with a draft of a response that isn’t just, “Figure your sh*t out, f*ckers,” one that takes into account the needs of the farmers themselves. One that’s well-reasoned and smart and thoughtful and good. He gets into bed, satisfied with the outcome of the day, and then utterly fails to fall asleep. He’s not sure why--he’s not antsy, or worried, or dwelling on old, painful memories. His skin prickles, but not unpleasantly. There’s just something bothering him, something hovering at the back of his mind, slipping away like fish into the lotuses when he tries to reach for it.

“We,” she’d said, casually. “We,” she’d said, easily, like she was expecting to spend more time with him. “We,” she’d said, like they belonged together, like she was planning on sticking around.

“We.” It’s such a simple word. Jiang Cheng stares into the darkness and thinks about it for a long, long time.

Notes:

She's back! She's competent! She's bringing class consciousness to the Jianghu!

So there's some BTS footage of extras carrying polearms in The Untamed and I have decided based on this that some sects use spears. I like polearms and I don't apologize for this! They have reach!

Chapter 8

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

“Discussion conference at Lanling Jin next week,” Hu Yueque says, and the other cultivators draped around her room all groan expressively.

“Why must we suffer?” Jiang Fengli raises her eyes to the ceiling, beseechingly, though her hands don’t stop moving through the complicated twist she’s working into her hair. “Is it not enough that Lanling Jin exists? Why must we be forced to go there?”

“It hasn’t been that bad ever since Jin Guangshan died,” Hu Xinling points out. “Jin Guangyao was apparently a terrible, conniving, sister-f*cking murderer, but he didn’t harass the maids.”

“Small favors,” Ma Xueliang says. “Speaking of sister f*cking--”

Yikes,” Hu Xinling says with a wince.

“--does anyone know how poor Qin Su is doing?” she finishes, as though he hadn’t spoken.

“Starting to be seen in public again,” Hu Yueque says, making a sympathetic face. “She turned down being Jin-zongzhu, and really I can’t f*cking blame her because finding out you’re technically the heir like that is--” she hisses between her teeth “--a lot, but I hear she’s recovered physically.” She drums her fingers on the little bowl of lotus seeds. “Jiang-zongzhu writes to her when he writes to Jin Ling--Jin-zongzhu, I mean, so I think she’s like, the supportive auntie behind the throne.”

“Good for her,” Jiang Fengli says. “Probably one of the safer places to be in Carp Tower. Slightly harder for people to stab you.”

“I’m telling you, it’s really not as bad,” Hu Xinling tries to interject.

“You just like it because you have a Jin boyfriend,” Hu Yueque says, throwing a peeled lotus seed at her cousin, who manages to catch it in his mouth.

“You, too, could get down on some solid gold dick if you weren’t such a snob,” he says, prim tone at odds with the vulgarity of his words.

“No one in Lanling Jin who is into women has a solid gold dick,” Ma Xueliang says with authority. “Maybe it’s different for cutsleeves.”

Fan Dingxiang looks up from her talisman notebook (she’s so close to working out a talisman that will remove taproot weeds from a garden bed) and makes a thoughtful noise. “Zhang Luan’s wife is originally from Lanling Jin, and she’s both cool and into women,” she points out, then misses the lotus seed Hue Yueque throws at her in retribution.

“That’s different and you know it!” Hu Yueque shoves a handful of seeds into her mouth and chews, resentfully. “The ladies in Lanling have always been cooler than the men in Lanling, that’s just facts.” She pauses and considers. “Also, probably fewer of them have solid gold dicks. Not none, but fewer.”

“Clarification accepted,” Fan Dingxiang says. “I’ll take your word for it.” She’s making another sketch of a potential design for the weeding talisman. She’ll need to find a garden to experiment on, eventually, one that isn’t strictly necessary for anyone’s sustenance. If this fires taproot weeds and root vegetables out of the ground she doesn’t want to disrupt an important harvest. That said, the potential for radishes shooting out of the ground at speed sounds extremely entertaining, so it wouldn’t be a total waste of time if the talisman malfunctions.

“You can take your own word for it,” Hu Yueque says. “You’re going to this one.”

Fan Dingxiang drops her brush on the floor. There’s some squealing and fumbling as she cleans up, and then she carefully sets it in the holder and folds her hands in front of her and says, “What?”

Hu Yueque gives her a weird look. “You’re going to the discussion conference,” she says, and that’s what Fan Dingxiang thought she’d heard and it makes just as little sense the second time. “I assumed someone had told you?”

“Nope,” Fan Dingxiang says, staring into the middle distance. Huh. Okay. She’s going to Lanling, apparently. That’ll be new. “Wait, Lanling’s like. A ways away, right?”

“That’s a way to put it, yes,” Jiang Fengli says, drily but not meanly.

“Jiang-zongzhu knows I can’t fly, right? Does he expect me to walk to Lanling?” She squints out the window. “I guess I could get started…”

“Don’t be silly,” Hu Yueque says, around a mouthful of lotus seeds. “You’re flying with me like we always do. Jiang-zongzhu already asked.”

Fan Dingxiang stares into the middle distance for a moment while she works through that. “So,” she says, slowly, “Jiang-zongzhu actually wants me to come? This wasn’t like, a mistake on the roster?”

Hu Xinling snorts. “No f*cking way,” he says, turning the page on his novel lazily. “Jiang-zongzhu is super particular about who he brings to discussion conferences. Only the best of the best, so the other sects get a good look at us and remember they shouldn’t offend Sandu Shengshou and they shouldn’t offend Yunmeng Jiang.”

“And that’s me?” Fan Dingxiang’s voice goes a little squeaky at the end, which is embarrassing.

“It’s always been you,” Jiang Fengli says, pinning a coil of hair in place by feel and moving on to the next one. “It’s just now other people are gonna know about it.”

“Oh,” Fan Dingxiang says, hot all the way from her temples down to her collarbone and behind her sternum, too. She knows what she can do, knows how hard she trains. She doesn’t need outside validation, never has, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t appreciate it when it happens. Her hands come up to cover her red face and she breathes into them, pulse pounding in her ears. Jiang Wanyin thinks she’s the best of the best. He wants her to go to a discussion conference. She’s going to Carp Tower.

“What do I need to know about Lanling?” she asks, dropping her hands. “Specifically, about the food?” Fan Dingxiang has priorities and she doesn’t apologize for them.

“I could write you an essay,” Hu Yueque says. “You might want to take notes.”

Fan Dingxiang picks up her brush again. “By all means,” she says, and shares a grin with the others. She’s going to a discussion conference. This is going to be amazing.

---

“Wow,” Fan Dingxiang says, quietly. “That is an unnecessary number of stairs.”

In front of her, Jiang Wanyin snorts. It’s not loud enough to carry to the gold-robed guards standing at the bottom of the truly excessively tall flight of stairs, but the two rows of disciples behind him share quiet looks of amusem*nt. Fan Dingxiang straightens her shoulders and makes sure she’s holding her sword correctly and hopes an errant breeze doesn’t blow her half-unbound hair into her mouth. She’s wearing the robes with the ridiculous full sleeves, every bit of her the perfect Jiang cultivator, and she misses her weapon harness and her boar spear furiously. She sets her teeth and allows her determination to wash over her. This is her first discussion conference and she’s going to do Jiang Wanyin--and by extension, Yunmeng Jiang--proud or she’s going to die trying.

(He’d given her a weird look when she arrived in full cultivator getup with the others, but Fan Dingxiang thinks that’s probably because he hasn’t seen her like this since that first semi-disastrous night hunt. She keeps startling every time she catches sight of herself in a reflective surface, unused to seeing gentry looking back at her.)

The first hurdle to representing the sect well is, apparently, five hundred f*cking stairs. On the interminable climb up Fan Dinxgiang wonders idly how quickly she could mount them, if she really worked at it. Would she have to stop and take breaks or could she maintain a good run for the whole thing? Maybe she can sneak out at night and find out.

“Jin-zongzhu,” Jiang Wanyin says when they reach the top, halting in a swirl of robes to bow, formally and correctly, to his nephew. Fan Dingxiang bows in unison with the rest of the Jiang contingent, murmuring their greeting, and when she stands back up she gets a good look at the new leader of the Jin sect and holy f*ck, he’s a baby. She’s seen him at Lotus Pier, of course, but mostly at a distance. Seeing him up close, layered in gold robes and hair ornaments and formality and a good two heads shorter than she is? Fan Dingxiang has to force down the urge to bustle this child--this infant--into the cozy corner of a kitchen and feed him soup. Not even his apparently permanent scowl can dampen that urge--she’s far too familiar with seeing that scowl on Jiang Wanyin’s face, who is another person who could use soup, in Fan Dingxiang’s opinion.

“Jiu--Jiang-zongzhu,” Jin-zongzhu says, bowing with a rigid formality that speaks to practice that has not yet become muscle memory. He performs a series of nearly-ritualistic greetings that Fan Dingxiang feels comfortable tuning out, because she’s not expected to respond. Instead she takes the opportunity to surreptitiously eye what she can see of Carp Tower, comparing it to the descriptions she’s heard. It’s certainly decorated… A lot. There are a lot of decorations.

The interior of the hall where the banquet is being held also has a lot of decorations, and the incense is heavy and floral, and there’s a frankly wasteful amount of embroidery. Fan Dingxiang, who embroiders for utility as well as aesthetics, appreciates the craftsmanship and also idly totals the costs for the heavily worked-over cushions the Jiang delegation will be sitting on. She’s going to be putting her ass on a pillow that would buy enough rice for her family back home for a month, easily.

“They sure want to make a statement, don’t they?” she says to Hu Yueque, under her breath, as she scans the room and counts pillows.

“This actually isn’t as bad as it used to be,” Hu Yueque tells her. “Pretty sure it’s the Lotus Pier influence. Hopefully Jin Li--the new Jin-zongzhu will turn out to not be quite as huge an asshole as the previous Jin-zongzhus.”

“He’s only half as big,” Fan Dingxiang says, thoughtfully, “so that would make sense.”

Hu Yueque cackles, loudly enough to attract attention, and when Jiang Wanyin throws a glare their way Fan Dingxiang blinks at him with her most innocent look until she gets a dismissive eye roll. Good. That means things are normal.

“Tell me what I need to know,” she says to Hu Yueque, eyeing the cultivation sects in their various formal robes in various colors populating the banquet hall. Fan Dingxiang makes a point of not listening to gossip when people are talking sh*t just to be sh*tty, but there’s a difference between gossip and intelligence. Knowing which sect is currently feuding with which other sect is useful. Knowing who always has a stash of novels they’re willing to lend out? That’s vital. Hu Yueque whispers important, hard-won tidbits into Fan Dingxiang’s ear as they wait for the rest of the guests to arrive and the banquet to officially start, things like, “You see the Nie woman with the scar over her eyebrow? She f*cking loves cats, talk about cats with her and she’ll consider you a lifelong friend,” and, “Don’t sneak up behind the Ouyang sect guy with the gray hair, he went through Sunshot and he’s rightfully jumpy.” Fan Dingxiang nods and listens carefully and, when she starts feeling snacky, eats two of the mandarins waiting in a carefully-arranged pile on her table. The Carp Tower excessiveness applies to the fruit, as well: The mandarins are perfect. This, she thinks, is a reasonable thing to spend money on. The gilded plate stand the mandarins are on? Less reasonable. At least the maker got paid, presumably.

“Oh, f*ck, there he is!” Hu Yueque straightens up, along with the rest of the Jiang disciples, as a tall man in a very fancy silver guan and flowing white robes strides in. He looks like he’d rather be anywhere else. He looks like the very concept of a discussion conference annoys him. He looks like Fan Dingxiang could butcher a pig in front of him and somehow the blood would roll off his robes.

Ah, yes. Hanguang-jun.

She’s seen him, once, at a distance, that one night in Lotus Pier when every sect leader and their kids showed up to crash the main hall. Fan Dingxiang had, of course, been hiding in the kitchen, but she had to make a run to one of the storerooms and caught sight of a pair of figures across the docks, one in white and one in black. At the time she’d figured that the one in black was Wei Wuxian--he has a very distinctive gait, and apparently being dead for thirteen years hadn’t changed his fashion sense at all--but it’s only now that she can put the numbers together. So that’s what the chief cultivator looks like. Huh. He’s pretty. If she gets tired of looking at the ridiculously ostentatious decorations over the course of the conference, she can just look at him. His white robes are very restful.

“Oh,” Hu Yueque says, sounding a little disappointed. “Oh, I thought…” She trails off, looking around subtly as Hanguang-jun seats himself at the table closest to the dias, other white and blue-robed Lans trailing in after him to take their places in orderly silence. Fan Dingxiang doesn’t know what she means, at first, and then she follows her gaze and finds that Hanguang-jun’s table is set for two, and the second seat is empty. Wei Wuxian, she realizes, that seat was supposed to be for Wei Wuxian and he’s nowhere to be seen, no black crow stalking in amongst the doves. Whatever his reputation and past crimes may be, half of Lotus Pier still looks up to him as their shixiong, and Hu Yueque isn’t the only purple-robed cultivator looking around mournfully. Jiang Wanyin is glaring at Hanguang-jun like the chief cultivator personally kidnapped his brother, but she understands (vaguely) that there’s some other bad blood there. Fan Dingxiang steadfastly decides not to form an opinion until she’s had some dealings with the chief cultivator herself, or at least heard the man speak.

She gets her first chance to form an opinion maybe a quarter-shi later, when everyone has actually arrived and Jin-zongzhu takes his place at the dias at the head of the hall. A woman sits behind and to the side of him, short, with a pretty face at odds with her haunted eyes. “Qin Su,” Hu Yueque breathes behind her sleeve, leaning close enough to Fan Dingxiang so they’re not overheard. Ah. That explains the haunted look, for sure. Jin-zongzhu stands up and makes a speech, welcoming everyone to Carp Tower for the conference, talking up the schedule a little bit, putting perhaps too much emphasis on the hospitality of Lanling Jin, but eh. He’s basically a baby, and it’s a decent speech, if a little bit stilted. When he’s seated again Hanguang-jun stands up, a whisper of elegant white silks, and bows to the assembled cultivators.

“Thank you, Jin-zongzhu. It is my hope that we will have a productive and useful conference,” he says, voice flat and low and still managing to be heard throughout the entire room. Fan Dingxiang thinks he sounds maybe the slightest bit pointed, like he expects some of the attendees to behave otherwise, which she has to admit seems fair based on what little she knows.

Then he sits right back down, speech apparently concluded, and Fan Dingxiang decides that until she learns otherwise, Hanguang-jun is her favorite non-Jiang person here. There’s a bit of muttering that flows through the room, and Hu Yueque breathes, “This is the best speech by a chief cultivator I’ve ever heard in my life,” so it seems like maybe Fan Dingxiang isn’t alone in this opinion.

The banquet is… fine. There’s music, and good dancers. The food isn’t bad, but it's something that Fan Dingxiang can only describe as fussy. Deliberately overcomplicated. Overspiced not in the Yunmeng way that means someone was too liberal with the hot peppers, but overspiced like they want to show off their access to every seasoning at once. The wine is floral and too sweet for Fan Dingxiang’s tastes. The tea? Also floral. The Jins apparently take their flowers very seriously, and it’s not that Fan Dingxiang dislikes flowers. She’s a farmer. She loves and appreciates flowers! She just doesn’t want to eat them all the time.

(Not that that stops her from eating everything she’s given. Fan Dingxiang doesn’t pass up free food.)

By the end of the banquet Fan Dingxiang is almost a little bit disappointed, honestly. Everything she’s heard the others say about discussion conferences made her half-expect someone to storm in and throw a punch, or accuse someone else of murder, or maybe for an attendee to faint dead away very dramatically. Instead it was just a fancy meal. Maybe the more exciting things about discussion conferences happen during the actual conference part?

“We’ve given you a very skewed view of conferences,” Hu Xinling says, when they’ve all gathered in the common room given to their group of Jiang cultivators and Fan Dingxiang has expressed this opinion. “Usually they’re pretty boring.”

“Sometimes something actually gets done,” Ma Xueliang says. She glances around, furtively, and adds, “I know Jiang-zongzhu hates him but I’m pretty excited about Hanguang-jun as chief cultivator.”

“Hard agree,” Jiang Fengli says. “He’s mean and petty but wow can that guy do some work.”

“Don’t let Jiang-zongzhu hear you say that,” Hu Yueque warns them, and then wrinkles her nose as a breeze wafts the contents of their provided incense burner directly into her face. “Oh my god that is so floral.” She waves her sleeve in front of her nose, ineffectually. “How can anyone stand this, I already have a headache.”

“You want me to switch it out?” Fan Dingxiang asks, pulling a qiankun pouch out of her robes. “I brought Lotus Pier incense.”

Everyone stares at her for a moment.

“You brought your own incense?” Ma Xueliang asks, unnecessarily.

“Yes.” Fan Dingxiang pulls it out and sets it on the table, for further confirmation. “I also brought Lotus Pier snacks and wine and oolong tea.”

“You’re a genius,” Hu Yueque says, dousing the current (floral) incense with a wave of her hand. “Why didn’t any of us ever think to do that? What’s wrong with us?”

“Too many things to count, really,” Hu Xinling says, philosophically, and gets hit with a pillow for his trouble.

---

It turns out that discussion conferences alternate between actual discussions (which mostly include the sect leaders and a rotating group of disciples) and practical classes. It’s interesting, though maybe just for the novelty and because Fan Dingxiang never had an opportunity for formal training before. Regardless, she sits in on a lecture about the subtle differences between different types of yaoguai and comes away with three pages of notes and a vague hope that maybe someday she’ll meet a sexy fox spirit. A girl can dream.

After lunch there’s a demonstration of Nie saber technique, which Fan Dingxiang obviously goes to because she’s never seen sabers in action. She settles in between Hu Yueque and Ma Xueliang, who have seen this before, and has just enough time to wonder why they seem so interested in this particular demonstration when the Nies take the practice field and…

Oh. Oh.

“Neither of you are my f*cking friends,” Fan Dingxiang says, eyes locked on a tall woman whose muscular frame is only emphasized by the cut of her robes. Hu Yueque makes a wounded noise, and Fan Dingxiang, unrepentant, adds, “If you f*ckers were really my friends, you’d have told me that Nie cultivators look like that.” A male cultivator leaps through a powerful strike, thighs rippling under his trousers. f*ck. f*ck. There’s a whole f*cking sect of--of muscley-assed saber wielding hotties?

“Fan Zhu’er is right,” Ma Xueliang says to Hu Yueque. “We’ve been terribly remiss in our duties.”

“In our defense,” Hu Yueque says, “we’re around Fan Zhu’er all the time, so honestly the Nies don’t really even rate anymore.”

“This is amazing,” Fan Dingxiang breathes, wide-eyed and unblinking, practically vibrating with excitement. “I’m gonna fight every single one of them.

After the demonstration, Fan Dingxiang walks straight up to the Nie woman with the scar over her eye that Hu Yueque pointed out at the banquet. She’s a little nervous and a lot excited, especially when the woman’s eyes flick over her, assessing the solid build under the delicate robes, and her eyebrow goes up in question.

“Guniang,” Fan Dingxiang says, bowing over her sword like a proper cultivator. “This one has never before been privileged to see Nie saber work in action. She was wondering if she might prevail on you for a more close-up demonstration.”

The Nie woman’s mouth curls up. Her eyebrow twitches. “Did you just ask me if I wanted to f*ck you?” she says, laughter curling through her voice. “Because if so, top marks for audacity.”

Fan Dingxiang thinks over the words that just came out of her mouth and barks a truly horrible laugh. “Oh f*ck, wow, yeah, that absolutely sounded horny,” she says, through her fingers over her face. “No, god, I was honestly coming over here to ask what your workout regimen is, but that also sounds like a come on.”

“Are you gonna ask if I want to come look at your woodcuts next?” the Nie woman asks, grinning openly now.

“There are some woodcuts in my room,” Fan Dingxiang admits, “but they’re part of the general Jin decor and mostly of flowers, so you might be disappointed.” She takes a few deep breaths, willing herself not to get the giggles, and straightens her shoulders decisively. “Hi. Fan Dingxiang, courtesy name Zhu’er, of Yunmeng Jiang.” She bows again, quicker this time. “I really did just want to like, spar, or compare exercise routines. I’m not trying to cause diplomatic incidents at my first discussion conference by hitting on complete strangers.”

“Kong Tai, courtesy name Shanzhai,” the Nie woman says, returning Fan Dingxiang’s bow. She catches her eye and waggles her brows cheerfully. “And I never said no.

Fan Dingxiang blinks at her several times as she catches up with the conversation. “Well,” she says, as evenly as she can, “conference is young, isn’t it?”

Kong Shanzhai laughs uproariously and punches Fan Dingxiang in the shoulder, but like, in a friendly way. “That’s the spirit!” she says, and then her eyebrows crease and she drops her hand to Fan Dingxiang’s bicep appraisingly. “You’re not built like a Jiang. What are they feeding you in Lotus Pier these days?”

“Pork,” Fan Dingxiang says automatically. She flexes, and Kong Shanzhai’s eyes go wider. “I grew up on a pig farm,” she says, both because it’s true and she wants to see the reaction.

“The Nie used to be butchers,” Kong Shanzhai says cheerfully. “I think we’ll get along great, Fan Zhu’er.” She slaps her shoulder again and draws her saber. “So. Sparring?”

Fan Zhu’er grins. “To start.”

Kong Shanzhai’s grin is like looking into a mirror. “To start,” she agrees.

This is the best f*cking day.

---

Jiang Cheng stalks out of the stifling air of the main hall, leaving behind a loud, irrelevant, useless discussion that’s gone way over the time allotted and is now eating into the half-shi break everyone was given. He’s not going to spend a single moment longer listening to Yao-zongzhu drone on than he absolutely has to. He’s going to breathe fresh air and stretch his legs and maybe subtly wander past the practice yards to see how his disciples are upholding the reputation of the Jiang sect.

(Very, very grudgingly, Jiang Cheng has to admit that watching Lan f*cking Wangji scare chattering sect leaders into silence by staring at them very, very intensely while taking a slow sip of tea is hilarious. It’s also effective. They’re near the end of the first day of the conference and they’re actually also near the end of the agenda for the first day of the conference. This is, frankly, unprecedented.)

(He wonders what it would take for Lan f*cking Wangji to use the Lan silencing spell on someone in the middle of a conference. He kinda wants to see it.)

Jiang Cheng whirls around the corner, the practice yards opening up in front of him, and the first thing he notices are the blue and purple robes of his disciples, tangled up in a knot that almost looks defensive. The second thing he notices are the Jiang disciples on the ground, surrounded by yelling cultivators from the other sects. What the f*ck? Is this some kind of brawl? Who would dare--

The yelling, as he gets closer, resolves itself into actual words, words of loud encouragement and even louder counting. “Thirty-seven!” multiple people shout, garbled together, and Jiang Cheng comes to a halt at the top of the stairs, wonders if he’s hallucinating, and decides that, unfortunately, he’s not.

It’s not a brawl. A brawl might be better than finding what he’s found, because he’d at least know how to handle that. Jiang Cheng has been a sect leader for almost longer than he hasn’t been a sect leader at this point, and none of that experience has prepared him to find Fan f*cking Zhu’er in the middle of a circle of cultivators, doing pushups easy as breathing with two of her sect sisters sitting on her back. It’s undignified. Unorthodox. Not the kind of behavior expected at a discussion conference.

It’s also incredibly f*cking impressive. There’s a group of Nie disciples clustered on the inside of the circle, the rest of the Jiang disciples arrayed on the other side, gold and red and even a few white robes pressing close to yell or jeer or silently observe (the Lans, obviously). Most of them are smiling. This is possibly the most fun Jiang Cheng has ever seen people have at a discussion conference that didn’t involve heavy drinking or ill-advised hookups. Fan Zhu’er, Jiang Cheng realizes, has brought fun to a discussion conference. Attempt the impossible, indeed.

“Fifty!” yell the combined throats of three dozen cultivators, and the two smaller women (Hu Yueque and Ma Xueliang, he can tell now, and what a surprise that isn’t) climb off Fan Zhu’er’s back. A female Nie cultivator that Jiang Cheng recognizes and grudgingly respects steps forward and offers Fan Zhu’er a hand up, yanking her into the back-pounding embrace that the Nies tend to favor, and they devolve into affectionate punching almost immediately. There’s more shouting that Jiang Cheng can’t quite make out--Fan Zhu’er is yelling at the Nies? Someone’s issuing a challenge?

Jiang Cheng watches with distant, confused horror as the Nie woman climbs onto Fan Zhu’er’s back, and two other Nie cultivators step forward to monkey themselves onto her arms. There’s a moment with a lot of weird wiggling as the world’s worst acrobatics act gets itself settled securely, more cheering, and then Fan f*cking Zhu’er starts doing squats. She gets to the count of five (three full-grown Nie cultivators hanging off her) before Jiang Cheng accepts what he’s seeing, and then to the count of fifteen before he realizes he’s staring, mouth-agape, and then to the count of twenty before he can bring himself to shut his mouth and tear his eyes away. He scans the crowd, glaring intensely, searching for anyone who will use this shameless display of competence as a weapon, as a reason to look down on Lotus Pier. Instead he finds cheerful faces, shouted encouragement, and even the Lans look a little impressed. He’s not sure if he’s relieved when he finds nothing to be angry about. He’s not sure of any of his emotions right at the moment, everything turbulent like silt kicked up in the shallows of a lake. Unbidden, his eyes track back to Fan Zhu’er, red-faced, sweating, and glowing with the power of her grin as she does another thrice-encumbered squat, and all of the whatever he’s feeling floods the banks, leaving him reeling.

Jiang Cheng turns on his heel and flees, neck burning hot under the sweep of his hair. Well. She’s not embarrassing the sect, at least. Small favors.

---

It’s nighttime, and Fan Dingxiang is awake in Carp Tower, because it’s one of her usual training nights and her body is good at its job. She stares at the silk canopy above her (because of course there’s a canopy) for a little while, debating the merits of trying to sneak out to the training yard versus fighting her own body’s wakefulness. It’s not technically breaking any rules that she knows of, and if she gets caught she doesn’t think it would reflect badly on Yunmeng Jiang, and she knows from experience that trying to wrestle herself into sleep never goes well. Fan Dingxiang sighs and pushes back the quilt, resolving to at least put on one extra robe so she’s not indecent by Jin standards.

The walk to the training yard is quiet, any Jin patrols elsewhere in the massive complex so Fan Dingxiang makes it there without incident. She breathes air scented with actual flowers from the surrounding gardens, warm but not as humid as Lotus Pier, and stares up at the stars. The discussion conference so far has been fine, and sparring with and then showing off for the Nie cultivators was an afternoon well spent, but she’s also been pretending to be An Actual Cultivator the whole time and she misses the comforting weight of her weapon harness and the simple practicality of her servant’s sleeves. She feels like she’s been playing a part, like an actor in a play, and there’s nearly a full week of conference left and she’s going to have to keep doing it the whole time. It’s going to be exhausting.

She’ll do it, of course. She’s not about to cause the sect to lose face. She just wishes she didn’t have to.

The specific scrabbling of nails on stone jars Fan Dingxiang out of her uncharacteristic reverie, and she looks at the source of the sound as it resolves into the fluffiest, prettiest dog she’s possibly ever seen in her life. “Oh, hello!” she coos as it trots up to her, tail wagging, mouth open in the dog equivalent of a grin. She offers her hand for the polite introductory sniff and, formalities completed, the dog headbutts her in the legs. “Aren’t you precious?” Fan Dingxiang says, dropping to sit cross-legged on the stone, and immediately ends up with a lap full of dog for her troubles. “Yes,” she tells it, both hands buried in the ruff around its neck, “you’re just the fluffiest, prettiest dog in all of Carp Tower, aren’t you?”

The dog barks once in what Fan Dingxiang likes to imagine is agreement, managing not to be too loud even though it’s right in her face.

“Indeed,” she says, really getting her fingertips in there for a good scratch, “and I bet you’re the smartest dog in Carp Tower, too.”

The dog barks again, stretching its head up so she has better neck access. Huh, it really seems like this dog is actually answering her. Weird.

“Fairy!” Fan Dingxiang and the dog both look toward this new voice, in the whisper-yell tones of someone trying not to get caught. “Fairy, what are you doing?”

The dog--Fairy barks again, tail wagging, and the presumed owner of the voice skids around a corner and into the practice yard, face flushed, hair messy. “Fairy!” he hisses, stalking closer with a gait that reminds Fan Dingxiang strongly of Jiang Wanyin, “get back here this instant!

Fairy does not. Fairy, in fact, settles its weight even more securely into Fan Dingxiang’s lap and hides its head in her sleeve. This is, objectively, hilarious, and Fan Dingxiang would be able to appreciate that more if she wasn’t meeting a sect leader, alone, at night, with her hair in a sleep braid and her robes askew, because she has realized that Fairy’s owner is Jin Ling, also known as Jin Rulan, also known as Jin-zongzhu, and she’s sitting on the ground with a f*cking dog in her lap like a real rube.

“Jin-zongzhu,” she says, and she really does try to get up but Fairy refuses to move, so she bows as best she can over the dog. “This one apologizes for being unable to greet you properly, but I seem to be encumbered by a dog.”

“Fairy!” Jin Ling snaps, skidding to a stop in front of the two of them, and his eyes snap up to Fan Dingxiang’s briefly. “Whatever,” he says, waving a hand dismissively, “it’s fine. Fairy! Come here.” He snaps his fingers and, instead of doing that, Fairy whines piteously and turns pleading eyes on Fan Dingxiang.

“Um,” Fan Dingxiang says, hesitantly, “I don’t mind?”

“I do!” he snaps, and yep, this kid is a tiny Jiang Wanyin. “She’s a spiritual dog and she’s perfectly well trained and she’s supposed to do what I say.” He glares, balefully, at the dog in Fan Dingxiang’s arms and hisses, “Betrayer.”

“If she’s a spiritual dog,” Fan Dingxiang offers, politely, “maybe she’s trying to say I can help with whatever you were out here to do.” Fairy tries to shove her nose into the front of Fan Dingxiang’s robes, and as she wrestles her away, Fan Dingxiang adds, “Or, possibly, she smells my snack bag.”

“Why do you have a snack bag?” Jin-zongzhu asks, squinting at her in sudden suspicion. “Who even are you, anyway?”

“Fan Dingxiang, courtesy name Zhu’er, senior disciple of Yunmeng Jiang,” Fan Dingxiang tells him, bowing again over the dog and then, as Fairy attempts to go for her robes again, extracting a cold, wet nose from her neck region. “And I have a snack bag in case I, or anyone around me, wants snacks.”

Jin-zongzhu’s nostrils flare at her answer, but apparently he can’t fault her logic. “I know all the senior disciples at Lotus Pier,” he says, instead. “Why haven’t I ever seen you before?”

Fairy takes this moment to try to lick Fan Dingxiang’s face and fending the dog off gives her a moment to think about how she wants to answer that. “I was only promoted recently.”

It isn’t a lie. It’s also not the whole truth, which, apparently, Jin-zongzhu realizes, since he scowls at her and says, “But I haven’t seen you at all, and you’re old.

“Respect your elders,” Fan Dingxiang says to a sect leader, horrified at the actions of her mouth immediately afterward. His little face goes red, only increasing his resemblance to Jiang Wanyin, and she sighs as Fairy, taking advantage of her distraction, licks her cheek. “I wasn’t trained conventionally,” she says, before he can demand more answers, “so you wouldn’t have seen me.”

He glares at her. “What does that even mean?

Okay. Okay. Nothing for it. At least Fan Dingxiang thinks she can trust Jin-zongzhu not to work against the interests of Lotus Pier, or use the truth to try and discredit the sect or whatever. “Well,” she says, shrugging, “I don’t have a core and they didn’t let me join the cultivation classes, even though I showed up with five Wen swords from the men I killed during Sunshot, so I trained in secret until I made friends with some of the disciples and then they snuck me out on night hunts and it turns out I’m so good at killing monsters Jiang-zongzhu promoted me.”

This is, apparently, enough to silence Jin-zongzhu for a short period of time, as he thinks through her story like it’s a night hunt report turned in for grading. “Bullsh*t,” he says, eyes narrowing. “There’s no way my jiujiu would have a coreless senior disciple.”

Fan Dingxiang shrugs. “And yet here I am.” She waves at her outer robes, useless oversized sleeves trailing over Fairy’s fur. “Do you think I could have made it into Carp Tower without him knowing?”

“You just said you used to sneak onto night hunts,” Jin-zongzhu points out, nose turned up, and he has a point.

“I did,” Fan Dingxiang agrees, amusing herself by pulling Fairy’s ears straight back against her head and then letting go so they pop upright, “but that was before he saw me stab a boar yaoguai to death single-handedly and promoted me to senior disciple.” She does the ear thing again, Fairy giving her that delighted doggy grin, and glances up at Jin-zongzhu, who’s watching his dog with a fond expression that immediately goes back to a glower as soon as he sees her looking. “Ask him yourself. He knows what I am.”

“I will,” he says, hotly. Silence descends, broken by the distant call of crickets and the occasional night bird. Fan Dingxiang keeps doing the ear thing to Fairy, wanting to see if the spiritual dog will get tired of it. Signs point to no, as every time Fairy’s ears snap back up the dog tries to lick Fan Dingxiang’s chin. “What are you doing out here, anyway?” Jin-zongzhu asks, clearly trying not to sound curious.

“Well,” she says, “since I spent most of my life sneaking out at night to train in secret, my body sometimes won’t let me sleep unless I sneak out and train in secret.”

“I guess that makes sense,” he says, reluctantly. Jin-zongzhu glares at her again, but his heart doesn’t seem to be in it. He looks tired, more tired than a teenage boy should, more tired than he ought to just for the time of night. Fan Dingxiang is abruptly, all-consumingly furious on behalf of this kid, stuck with a position he wasn’t ready for and a legacy he didn’t deserve and so few people available to share his burden.

“Hey,” she says, “Jin-zongzhu.” She brings her hands up, formally, ignoring the dog once again trying to extract the snack bag from her robes. “May this one be extremely rude for a moment, but in a way that is meant well?”

He blinks at her, bewildered in the moonlight in a way that’s achingly familiar. “Have you been being polite up until now?” Without waiting for an answer he snaps his arm at her, sleeve swishing, and says, “Fine, whatever. It’s not like I can stop you. I can’t even stop my dog from misbehaving.”

Fan Dingxiang decides not to point out that Jin-zongzhu, even though he’s basically a literal baby, could probably have her executed, or at the very least imprisoned, just for existing. Instead, she pushes Fairy’s face out of her cleavage and says, “I just wanted to tell you that it f*cking sucks that you ended up the sect leader so young. It’s unfair and sh*tty and you didn’t deserve that, and you didn’t deserve for it to happen the way it did, and you don’t deserve to have to clean up the lingering messes of your grandfather and uncle.” She pauses, considers what else he might need to hear, and adds, “This is the best discussion conference I’ve ever been to.”

“This is the only discussion conference you’ve ever been to,” Jin-zongzhu snaps, which is true. He sounds angry, but he’s blinking very hard and his lower lip is trembling, which Fan Dingxiang politely ignores. She expects him to turn around and stalk away, or maybe yell at her, or maybe yell at the dog some more. Instead, he drops onto his haunches and wraps his arms around his legs, one hand white-knuckled around the scabbard of his sword. “Are you done being rude?” he asks, and his voice is smaller now.

“Do you want me to be done being rude?” she asks, finally giving in and getting out the snack bag. Her legs are starting to fall asleep, but Fairy is a comforting, warm weight in her lap and she’s not going to just boot the dog away, because she’s not a monster.

“I don’t know,” he says, and after a suspicious squint, accepts a candied slice of mandarin.

Fan Dingxiang sucks her teeth, looking up at the sky, and chews over both the conversation and some mandarin. “Do you want to be Jin-zongzhu right now?” she asks, carefully, “Or do you want to just be Jin Ling, who is, sort of, a little bit, if you look at it the right way, my shidi?”

His head snaps up to stare at her, and Fan Dingxiang watches him in her peripheral vision as she keeps her eyes on the stars. “You’d be my shijie?” he says, and there’s such naked disbelief in his voice that Fan Dingxiang momentarily wants to ask Jiang Wanyin exactly how isolated Jin Ling’s upbringing was, because that’s not the sound of a kid who has friends.

“If you want,” she says, “though I can’t promise I’ll have advice for like, sect leader problems. She lets her accent roughen and adds, “If you have questions about pig farming I can definitely help with those.”

Jin Ling clearly thinks about asking what the f*ck she’s talking about vis a vis pig farming, and just as clearly decides he doesn’t want to know. “You’re old,” he says after a moment, and Fan Dingxiang lets herself feel both offended and flattered, because she’s not that old, when he continues, “when do you start feeling like you know what you’re doing?”

Fan Dingxiang whistles through her teeth. “I have bad f*cking news for you, shidi,” she says, resigned. “No one knows what they’re doing. Adults are just better at hiding it.”

sh*t,” Jin Ling hisses, under his breath, which is the correct reaction. Fan Dingxiang hands him another slice of mandarin.

“I’m exaggerating a little,” she says, shoving at Fairy until the dog lays down properly instead of putting all her weight on one paw right on her thigh. “There’s stuff I know how to do because I’ve practiced it a lot, so if you need a pig butchered or some noodles made, you can call on me. I could probably do that in my sleep. The advantage of being an adult is having more time to get more practice in, and then when you come up against something new, you can compare it against what you already know and, hopefully, figure out a solution. Like…” she shrugs. “I’ve never butchered a cow, but I bet I could do a better job at it than you.” Jin Ling scowls, opening his mouth to protest, and she waves at him. “Not because you’re younger, I’m just assuming you don’t usually butcher things, am I right?”

“I could learn,” he says, snottily, which means Fan Dingxiang is one hundred percent correct and this child has never held a filet knife in the entirety of his time on this earthly plane.

“I’m sure you could,” she says, and tries to sound just the right amount of sarcastic. “But what I mean is knowing what you’re doing is an ongoing process, right? I’ve only been really training the sword for a few months, so no matter how good I am at other stuff, it’s gonna be a while before I feel like I know what I’m doing there. You could probably whip me in a spar.” That last bit is mostly just out of generosity--if she’s only using her sword, Fan Dingxiang thinks she could put up a good fight. If she got to use her talismans and rope dart she’s pretty sure she could kick Jin Ling’s ass. He’s an infant.

“How did you become a senior disciple without knowing how to use a sword?” Jin Ling asks. He’s sneering but also seems genuinely curious. Fan Dingxiang thinks about how to answer, shrugs, and pulls up her sleeve. “f*ck,” he says, eyes on her arm, and then, when she flexes, “Holy sh*t.

“There’s more than one way to fight a ghost,” she says, cheerfully. “My way is just more physical than the usual.” Apparently Jin Ling has nothing to say to that, so Fan Dingxiang tugs her sleeve neatly back into place and hands him another mandarin slice. Fairy is being very good and has been very patient, so Fan Dingxiang digs some jerky out for her. There’s nothing but the sound of companionable chewing from two humans and a dog for a moment. It’s nice.

“How do I get arms like that?” Jin Ling asks, definitely trying to sound less interested than he is.

“Working out,” Fan Dingxiang tells him, “without relying on your golden core.”

His eyes narrow. “That sounds bad.”

“Oh, it’s terrible,” she agrees. “It’s also effective.”

“Whatever,” he huffs. “You have any other grand advice for me, shijie?”

Fan Dingxiang squints at the sky, considering. “Try to drink at least a cup of water for each cup of wine or you’ll regret it in the morning.” She sucks her teeth and adds, “And be nice to your household staff.”

“I--but--what?” Jin Ling sputters, perhaps wondering about the connection between those two pieces of advice. “I’m a sect leader! Who are you to tell me how to run my sect?”

“Someone who used to be the household staff,” Fan Dingxiang says patiently. “You wouldn’t have a sect if it wasn’t for them. They deserve respect, and probably to be paid more.”

“What does that have to do with me?” He looks confused, and maybe a little hurt, and also so, so young. Fan Dingxiang hands him her little packet of mandarin slices and takes a deep breath.

“Okay, so I’m not exactly an expert on current politics, but you don’t know who’s all on your side yet, right? And I bet you’ve mostly been thinking about your disciples, which is fair since they have swords, except that there’s a whole other group of people in Carp Tower who have access to the whole place and no one really looks at them.” She waves a hand at the training yard and surrounding pavilions. “Sects don’t run without staff, but cultivators forget about us a lot of the time, and when they do remember, it’s rarely for a good reason. If you can get your servants on your side, that’s something you don’t have to worry about.” Fan Dingxiang pops a piece of jerky in her mouth and adds, “Also, if your staff likes you, they’ll always make sure your office is stocked with your favorite tea instead of the tea that’s close enough to your favorite that you’re never quite sure if something’s just weird with the water today every time you brew it.”

“You sound as though you’re speaking from experience,” Jin Ling says suspiciously around a mouthful of orange.

“I would never,” Fan Dingxiang says, clutching one hand to her heart. “I am offended and shocked that you would accuse me of something so heartless!” She gives him a pleading, innocent look, waits until his face morphs into something like apology, and then adds, “I wasn’t in charge of the tea. I made sure Yao-zongzhu got the worst noodles, obviously.

Jin Ling laughs, a startled bark that he tries to stifle just as quickly as it happened. Is this what Jiang Wanyin was like as a kid? He had siblings, he couldn’t have been this lonely. “Obviously,” he repeats, with an eye-roll worth of his uncle. She gives him a grin, which he absolutely doesn’t return, although he does offer her another mandarin.

“How do I get the staff on my side?” He asks it like he doesn’t really care, eyes off in the distance, but he’s also sitting up like Fairy waiting for a treat. He’s listening. Fan Dingxiang isn’t about to waste this opportunity.

“Treat them well,” she says, lining up her thoughts, “with as much respect as you’d show a disciple. Thank them for their work. Protect them if people try to hurt them. Learn their names but don’t be weird about it. If you lead by example, other people should fall in line.” She sucks her teeth and finishes, “Also, like I said earlier, paying them more will literally never hurt. No one was ever stabbed to death in their bed by a well-paid servant who respected them.”

“What do you mean, don’t be weird?” he asks, which wasn’t what she’d expected him to take away from that lecture.

“I apologize in advance for what I am about to do,” Fan Dingxiang says, bowing over the now-napping Fairy, and then plasters a horrible, artificial smile onto her face. “Hello, Jin Ling,” she says, saccharine and too-enthusiastic. “How are you doing today, Jin Ling? It’s nice to see you, Jin Ling. I appreciate how hard you’re working, Jin Ling! You’re a credit to the sect, Jin Ling! Thank you so, so much for everything you do, Jin Ling.

Jin Ling’s eyes have gone wider and wider over the course of this speech, and he’s leaned away from her with every repetition of his name. “Okay,” he says, every part of him radiating horror, “Okay, I get it, please stop, this is the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”

Fan Dingxiang immediately drops the voice and the smile, to his obvious relief. “I did apologize in advance.”

“I know,” he says, relaxing bit by bit, “but, wow that was gross.” He scowls, but she thinks maybe not at her. “Do people really do that to you?”

“Not frequently,” Fan Dingxiang says, “I’m too big and strong to be an obvious target. It does happen, though.”

“Wow,” he says, again, and to her surprise, “That sucks.”

They lapse into silence again, thoughtful. Fan Dingxiang looks up at the stars, the moon, and hopes that she helped this lonely, angry boy, hopes that he can overcome the terrible legacy that was left to him. Then she shakes herself, because she’s getting all sad and melancholy, and that’s boring.

“Anyway, enough of depressing sh*t,” she says, pulling out her weapons pouch and extracting her rope dart. “You wanna see something cool, shidi?”

“Yes,” Jin Ling says immediately, then his eyes drop to the rope dart and he frowns. “What’s that?”

“I’ll show you,” Fan Dingxiang promises, “but first you have to help me get your dog off my lap.”

He scoffs at her, but he also helps, and Fan Dingxiang thinks that’s probably a success.

---

Jiang Cheng would like it known--except for how he would not like it known, at all, by anyone ever--that he’s not sneaking. This isn’t the Cloud Recesses. He’s not a junior anymore. He hasn’t been a junior for so long that he has juniors in his sect who weren’t even born when he was a junior. There’s no curfew at Carp Tower, and it’s not like he’s planning to go traipsing through the dungeons or the secret treasure room (especially not that second one, once was enough, yikes), and f*ck, he’s Jin Ling’s f*cking uncle! He raised the current Jin-zongzhu! He’s allowed to go for a walk at night. Show him the rule that says he can’t!

(He’s also not the only one sneaking around--not that Jiang Cheng is sneaking--because he makes it a point to know what’s going on with his disciples. Hu Xinling is not nearly as subtle as he thinks he is, with how he makes eyes at his Jin boyfriend from across the room any time they’re in the same place, and how he shows up to breakfast in the previous night’s under robes and sporting poorly-hidden marks on his neck. There’s probably going to be a marriage contract to negotiate within the next year, and Jiang Cheng is going to have to choose between whether he wants to lose one of his best disciples to the Jins, or bring some snobby, gold-wearing motherf*cker to Lotus Pier. He doesn’t like the idea of losing Hu Xinling, but it would put another cultivator in Carp Tower who he could trust not to try and f*ck over his nephew, which is a huge benefit. Lotus Pier isn’t so fragile now that he can’t allow someone to marry out. It hasn’t been for years. Jiang Cheng saw to that, and it’s one of the accomplishments that doesn’t feel stolen. His brother’s core didn’t train disciples, he did. He can afford to lose some of his people to more pleasant things than war.)

He’d tried to sleep, really, but with the stress of the conference biting at the back of his neck like mosquitoes and his body itching with the sense memory of movement, he’d given it up as a failed idea and now he’s walking. Jiang Cheng has, apparently, become too accustomed to evening practice now. He’d thought that, perhaps, being at Lotus Pier would let him skip this weird expectation slash obsession, but it has not. It’s the night of the week where, at home, he’d wander out to the stable yard and see what weapon Fan Zhu’er had this time. It’s not home, though, and there’s no expectation that she’ll be waiting for him anywhere, and where would she go, anyway? They’ve never spoken about this, and if Jiang Cheng has his way, they never will.

His feet take him toward the practice yards where the combat demonstrations happen, for lack of another destination. He can run some sword drills there, maybe go through some of the exercises Fan Zhu’er does during her strength building classes, until his body gives up and lets him go to sleep like a normal f*cking cultivator having a normal time being tired after a conference. The discussion scheduled for tomorrow is about river passage rights and he’s absolutely certain it means he will spend half the day listening to men who couldn’t find a river if they were pushed into it talking about boats like they know the difference between poling, paddling and sailing. Ugh. Jiang Cheng just wants to f*cking sleep.

Jiang Cheng hears voices as he reaches the turn that will lead him into the practice yard, and he halts automatically, pulling up his qi to heighten his hearing. It’s not that he wants to eavesdrop, exactly, but he’d like to know what he’s about to walk into. If two cultivators are hooking up in the middle of the yard that’s certainly a choice, and if he interrupts he wants it to be deliberate. It’s funnier that way, and he’ll be able to prepare himself for the potential of seeing someone’s bare ass instead of getting an accidental eyeful.

The first thing Jiang Cheng thinks is, That’s Jin Ling’s voice, and the second thing he thinks is, What the f*ck, Jin Ling is way too young to be hooking up at discussion conferences. He steels himself to lunge around the corner and possibly whip someone when the other voice sneaks past the flare of his temper and deflates him like a bubble popping in a swamp.

Why the f*cking f*ck wouldn’t it be Fan f*cking Zhu’er?

He can’t quite catch the words from this distance, but he recognizes the timbre of her voice and the cadences of her speech. She’s… She’s making a joke, one of the ones she does completely deadpan. Jiang Cheng strains his ears and has to blink hard against the sudden angry prickling behind his eyelids when he hears Jin Ling laugh. He hasn’t heard his nephew laugh in far too long, and he clenches his teeth, dizzy with fury and razor-sharp gratitude that Fan Zhu’er managed to pull that out of him in the span of a single conversation.

Jin Ling speaks again, and Jiang Cheng creeps closer, straining his ears and his spiritual power. He doesn’t--he’s not spying, it’s just--that’s his nephew, and his disciple, and he wants to at least know the shape of what they’re talking about even if he doesn’t know the details.

“How do I get the staff on my side?” drifts across the courtyard, in a disinterested, extremely interested tone of voice that Jiang Cheng knows well. His heart clenches in a way he dislikes very much as Fan Zhu’er gives his nephew the same kind of advice she gave him, practical and kind and underscored with knife-edge humor. It all makes perfect sense when she says it out loud, and it’s the kind of thing Jiang Cheng would have never thought to suggest, even if he’d cultivated to immortality and lived for a thousand years. He crushes his eyes shut, scowling because otherwise his face is going to do something horrible, and tries to breathe through the riotous battle behind his ribs. He’s almost found his composure when Fan Zhu’er does something with her voice that is bone-chillingly hilarious, calling Jin Ling by name every single sentence, and Jiang Cheng has to clap a hand over his mouth to keep from giving himself away with the sudden, wild urge he has to laugh. He can just picture Jin Ling’s expression, the way his nose would wrinkle in disgust, like when he was still a toddler and they tried feeding him pickled vegetables for the first time. Fan Zhu’er stops, blessedly, giving Jiang Cheng another chance to find his self-control. He eavesdrops for a bit longer, long enough to hear Fan Zhu’er called Jin Ling her shidi, and his eyes and his heart does that painful thing again that he doesn’t appreciate.

When the conversation stops and the sounds of weaponry take over, Jiang Cheng slips up to the corner of the passageway and dares to peek out around it. Unsurprisingly, Fan Zhu’er has brought out her rope dart, and she’s demonstrating incredibly complicated forms with it for a rapt Jin Ling. Fairy is curled up at his side with her head in his lap, and for the first time in months Jiang Cheng gets to see the nephew that he raised look like a kid again. He watches until his eyes blur, and then he turns around and makes his way back to his rooms.

It still takes him at least a shi to get to sleep, but he’s not so mad about it, this time.

Notes:

Me: Ugh, I know I decided Wen Qing lives but I wish I'd decided Qin Su lives, too, she deserves justice, but it's too late now! I'm already over 60,000 words in!
Also Me: Wait, actually, f*ck that, I'm the author and I can do what I want!!!

The Nie Cultivator Who Will Probably Not Show Up Again: Kong Tái 孔苔 (moss), courtesy name Shānzhài 山寨 (mountain fortress)

Chapter 9

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

“Do you really have a coreless senior disciple?”

Jiang Cheng does not choke on his tea, but it’s a near thing. He keeps himself still with years of practice, swallows the mouthful, and refocuses on his nephew. They’re having a family breakfast before the conference proper starts today, he and Jin Ling and Qin Su. Normally the presence of his aunt (technically his aunt twice over? Jiang Cheng’s head hurts when he thinks too hard about it) keeps him on the slightly more polite side of things, but apparently not this morning.

“What’s it to you?” he snaps, because apparently he’s also not of the polite side of things this morning. Jin Ling is, unsurprisingly, unintimidated.

“Fan Zhu’er said you watched her stab a boar yaoguai to death single handedly,” he says, fiddling with his chopsticks. “Did you? Did she?”

“Yes and yes,” Jiang Cheng says, trying not to look over at Qin Su, who is radiating interest in a way that makes the back of his neck prickle.

“Was it cool?” Jin Ling’s eyes are huge. “How big was the boar? What did she stab it with? Did she use that rope dart thing?”

“Ask her yourself if you’re that close to her.” Jiang Cheng knocks back a cup of tea and pulls a plate of mantou closer.

“She said to ask you,” Jin Ling whines, making a face that he would be very insulted to hear described as a pout. “How does she cultivate without a core, anyway?”

“By eating when it’s time to eat and listening to her elders,” Jiang Cheng shoots at him. He’s pretty sure he hears Qin Su smother a very polite snort behind her sleeve, and he’s intensely glad of it. In the months since the whole… thing with Jin Guangyao she’s been even quieter and more reserved than she was previously, which is saying something. He subtly eyes her over while he empties the teapot into her cup, noting her color is better than the last time he was at Carp Tower, and she looks like she’s been sleeping more. They’re not friends, exactly, and he wasn’t exactly friends with her husband ( Brother!!! part of his head screams, unhelpfully), but he raised Jin Ling with them for over a decade and there’s a certain allyship there, at least. Qin Su didn’t deserve any of that--that mess. The attempted suicide was, perhaps, understandable, but Jiang Cheng can’t help but be grateful that she failed, and that one of Nie Huaisang’s attendants had been (suspiciously) skilled at medical cultivation. Guilt twists in his stomach, because at least past of that gratitude is because she’s still Jin-furen, and Jin Ling hasn’t been left to run a sect completely alone as a f*cking teenager, and that’s a selfish thing to be grateful about. He’s also grateful just for her sake, though--Qin Su deserves better than she got, and if she’s alive, she still has a chance to get it.

“How does she cultivate without a core?” Qin Su asks, tapping her fingers next to her cup twice before she takes a graceful sip.

Jiang Cheng sets the teapot down, on the side of the table nearer the orange-robed maid waiting patiently near the hot water brazier, and says, “With her muscles and a lot of talismans.” He pauses, trying to decide whether or not saying the next thing is a good idea, and eventually adds, “Some of the talismans explode.”

“Oh?” Qin Su asks, raising her eyebrows, as Jin Ling yells, “Cool!” around a mouthful of congee.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Jiang Cheng and Qin Su say in perfect unison, and Jin Ling goes red under their combined scrutiny and swallows mulishly.

“If you’d answered my questions when I asked them earlier I wouldn’t have had food in my mouth,” he sulks. The Jin maid puts the refilled teapot on the table with a bow, and Jin Ling turns to her and says, “What’s your name?” and the table goes fully, wildly silent, so silent it rings in Jiang Cheng’s ears.

“J-Jin-zongzhu,” the maid says, her eyes as wide and round and white as porcelain tea bowls, every cun of her frozen and radiating panic. She nearly flings herself into a bow, saying frantically, “This one apologizes for any offense she may have caused--”

“No!” Jin Ling says, reaching awkwardly for her and then freezing, hands outstretched. “Get up! You’re not in trouble!” Jiang Cheng and Qin Su exchange a look, and he’s pretty sure they’re making the exact same face, and it means “What the f*ck.” “I just--” Jin Ling huffs, crossing his arms and looking away, smashing a scowl on to cover his embarrassment in a way that Jiang Cheng recognizes and absolutely dislikes recognizing. “You always brew the tea at breakfast really well,” Jin Ling tells the wall, going steadily redder, and the maid is so bewildered she forgets to be scared and lifts her head to stare at him as he continues, “and I appreciate that you do such a good job with the tea, so I wanted to thank you.”

The maid, Jiang Cheng, and Qin Su all stare at Jin Ling in silence for long enough that he turns away from the wall to see what the holdup is. As soon as he makes eye contact he goes redder, whips his head back away, and snaps, “It’s not a big deal, it’s fine, whatever.”

“Uh,” the maid says, hesitantly, daring to dart a glance over at Jiang Cheng and then, when he has nothing to offer but a bewildered tilt of his eyebrows, at Qin Su. She swallows, clears her throat, and offers, “This one is named A’Zhi, Jin-zongzhu.”

Jin Ling’s gaze snaps back over at her, mouth half open. He blinks at her, shakes himself, and nods. “A’Zhi,” he says, and it’s stilted and weird but also sincere. “Thank you for the tea.”

A’Zhi glances around one more time, looks back at Jin Ling, and manages, “You’re welcome, Jin-zongzhu.” She looks at Jiang Cheng, pleadingly, and he gives her a nod that he hopes communicates, “Yes, that was weird as hell for all of us, you can escape now and we’ll call you if we need more tea.” She gives the table another bow, politely, and retakes her position next to the brazier, looking rather as though she was just kicked in the head by a horse. Jiang Cheng looks at his nephew and raises a single questioning eyebrow. Jin Ling flushes.

“Shut up,” he says, under his breath, spooning up congee like it’s personally offended him. “I’m trying out some advice I got, that’s all.”

Jiang Cheng knows exactly who gave him that advice, and it makes something happen in his stomach like breakfast isn’t agreeing with him, except for how he’s still hungry, so he reaches for a bun instead of replying. He can needle Jin Ling about it later, as is his duty as an uncle. If Jiang Cheng really doesn’t want to talk about Fan Zhu’er in front of Qin Su, who has spent the last decade or so occasionally making polite inquiries about his complete lack of marital companionship, that’s his business. It’s not like that, anyway, but Qin Su would never believe him, so clearly it’s better to skip the potential for that conversation. Instead, he waits until the meal is done and Jin Ling has preceded them out of the room before he leans in and asks, “Jin-furen. How are... things?”

Qin Su presses her lips together, brows tensing, and then her face smooths out. Jiang Cheng despairs. He is well f*cking aware that he’s possibly the worst person to try and offer comfort to anyone, ever, for any reason, and he feels uniquely unsuited to this particular situation. He figures he wouldn’t want to talk about it, so he does Qin Su what he views as the favor of mostly pretending everything is fine and keeping their conversations to sect matters and Jin Ling’s well-being. Jiang Cheng isn’t even sure why he’s asking, it’s not like his general distaste for talking about, acknowledging, or having feelings has changed. He just. He feels like maybe he ought to ask. Ugh.

“It’s getting easier,” she says, after a moment, gliding down the hall with the kind of smooth gait Jiang Cheng has always found somewhat impressive, being inclined to stalking or stomping most places. “The discussion conference has been good, overall.”

“Has anyone been weird to you?” Jiang Cheng asks, weirdly, like a weird person.

“No,” Qin Su says, and her mouth quirks in the ghost of a smile. “I think Yao-zongzhu was going to try to speak to me, but A’Ling and Hanguang-jun both glared at him so hard he turned around and left. It looked like they were trying to cultivate the ability to set him on fire with their minds.”

“Why hasn’t anyone figured that out yet?” Jiang Cheng wonders aloud, and receives an actual laugh from Qin Su in response.

“It would probably be against orthodoxy,” she says, behind her sleeve, and then looks at him with a calculating gleam he hasn’t seen in years, which pleases and horrifies him in equal measure, because he knows where she’s about to go. “Speaking of unconventional cultivation, what was her name? Fan Zhu’er? You watched her stab a boar to death?”

“I have to go prepare for the conference,” Jiang Cheng says, loudly, hoping the flush on the back of his neck doesn’t travel to his face. He stops and bows to Qin Su with a “Jin-furen,” and then turns to Jin Ling with a “Stay out of trouble.” Then he turns on his heel and definitely doesn’t flee, it’s just that he needs to get back to his rooms as quickly as possible, like a sect leader who has important things to do and absolutely cannot spare the time for his sort-of sister-in-law to ask him questions about his sort-of cultivator disciple. Perfectly reasonable thing to do. Not at all suspicious. He’s fine.

---

Fan Dingxiang stalks through the gardens of Carp Tower, composing a sternly worded letter to whoever thought the lecture she just attended counted as “advanced talismans.” Maybe if you’d just started learning talismans that would have seemed advanced, but at Lotus Pier they’ve started teaching most of what that class covered in their beginning talisman class. The last quarter-shi was almost intermediate level. Fan Dingxiang has come up with more complicated talisman designs by sneezing while holding an inked brush in her hand. This is a discussion conference, come on, what is this “talismans for babies” sh*t? They’d asked for questions at the end of the lecture and Fan Dingxiang had a lot of questions, starting with “How dare you?” She’d bitten down every single one of them and left as soon as possible, and now she’s too frustrated to even consider going to the class about resentful energy identification that she’d thought sounded interesting, even if it probably wouldn’t fully apply to her.

Her feet take her through a moon gate and into a garden she hasn’t seen before, and it’s different enough that she slows down to try and figure out why. It hits her at the same time as the smell registers--lotus blossoms and mud and water, almost but not quite home. She looks up and yes, there’s a lotus pond, in the middle of a tucked away garden in Carp Tower, and she’s hit with a wave of longing for Lotus Pier so fierce it almost bowls her over. They know what she is at Lotus Pier. She doesn’t have to wear flowing sleeves and carry a useless sword and hope no one notices when she ends up eating her own hair. Fan Dingxiang sighs and wanders closer to the pond, hoping to spend a little bit of time alone in a place that smells familiar, and startles when her eyes fall on a pavilion with a person in it, dashing her hopes for alone time and replacing them with hopes of a completely different sort, because--

Wei Wuxian?

The figure startles and whips around, half-falling off his stool, black and red robes completely unlike the sect colors of anyone else in attendance, and Fan Dingxiang sees a wide-eyed face she recognizes. It is Wei Wuxian. She hasn’t seen him up close in over a decade, on account of him being dead, but it’s absolutely him. She’d know that slouch anywhere. This is great, this is fantastic, the others will be so happy to know he’s here. The garden is spacious but Fan Dingxiang’s legs are long, and she’s across the gravel before he has time to stand up.

“Ah, good afternoon, guniang,” he says, smiling at her in obvious confusion. His eyes flick over her robes, taking in the purple and blue, and his shoulders go tight with tension. “Did you need something from me?”

“No,” Fan Dingxiang says, looking him over in return. He looks good, so much healthier than the last time she saw him, less haunted around the eyes. He’s also not sloppy drunk, which probably helps, but his cheekbones aren’t as gaunt and his color is better, too. It looks like he’s been eating and sleeping regularly. Fan Dingxiang approves. “It’s just…” She grins at him, wide, too huge a smile for propriety, and says, “It’s just really nice to see you alive, Wei-gongzi.”

He stares at her for a breath, then tosses his head back and laughs, the sound ringing off the garden walls. “What a nice thing to hear,” he wheezes, wiping his eyes. “Most people are either mad that I’m alive again or are too polite to bring up the whole ‘dead for thirteen years’ thing.” Wei-gongzi rubs his nose and squints up at her, still smiling. “Have we met, guniang?” he asks. “I had a terrible memory even before I died, so I’m sorry if we have and I can’t remember your name.”

“Fan Dingxiang, courtesy name Zhu’er,” she says, bowing over her sword like a good cultivator. “We only met once,” she reassures him as she straightens. “You were drunk at the time.”

“Wei Ying, courtesy name Wuxian,” he says with a twinkle in his eye that tells her how unnecessary he knows the introduction is. He rises to bow and waves her to one of the other seats at the table, eyebrow raised in question, and she nods and sits. “I hope drunk me treated you well,” he tells her, slapping his hand down onto his stack of talisman papers as they rustle in the breeze.

“You told me I was pretty and tried to get me to drink with you,” she says cheerfully, as his face freezes in a smile. “I was afraid you were going to fall into the lake and drown so I carried you back to your rooms and poured you into bed.”

Wei-gongzi chews on his lower lip for a moment and nods. “That does sound like me,” he says ruefully, and looks her over again assessingly. “You’re old enough that you would have been my shimei. Why did we only meet once?” He leans forward and whispers, “Were you skipping your cultivation lessons, Fan-guniang?”

Fan Dingxiang considers her story. Wei-gongzi is, like Jin Ling, also unlikely to try and use the truth of her background as a weapon against Lotus Pier. Wei-gongzi once reverse-engineered his own cultivation path and faced the scorn and animosity of the gentry for it, so he’s probably not going to be too weird about Fan Dingxiang forging her own weird path. Wei-gongzi isn’t carrying a sword. In a wild rush of relief, she decides to tell him the truth.

“I wasn’t a disciple at the time,” she says, watching his eyebrows crease as he tries to figure out what that means. “I was a servant working in the kitchen, mostly. This--” she gestures at her robes and the sword she’s set on the table “--is recent.”

He blinks at her and tips his head, considering. “That sounds like quite a story. Why were you--” and he gestures at her whole thing “--in the kitchen in the first place?”

“Oh, I don’t have a core,” she says, cheerfully, “so even though I showed up with five Wen swords from the men I killed during the war--Wei-gongzi?” His face has gone grey, the same way Jiang Wanyin’s did the first time he found her exercise class. Fan Dingxiang hovers her hand over Wei-gongzi’s shoulder, not quite sure if she should touch him. “Did I say something wrong?”

“No,” he says, shaking himself and plastering on a smile. “No, it’s fine. How did--did you lose your core during the war?” The smile absolutely doesn’t reach his eyes, and Fan Dingxiang spots a pot of tea on the table and refills his cup.

“I never had a core,” she says, nudging the teacup closer and watching to make sure he drinks it. “I’m a pig farmer. That’s why I ended up in the kitchen, they did that wrist thing and sent me off.”

The color returns to Wei-gongzi’s face, and he nods. “That makes sense--wait. Five Wen swords?” He frowns at her, then grins. “You’re Five Swords?

“How come I didn’t know people were calling me that?” Fan Dingxiang complains, pouring herself a cup of tea and then grimacing at the floral aroma. “You weren’t even there.

“No, I was probably drunk in a wine house somewhere,” he agrees easily, “but I remember people talking about it. How old were you? How’d you kill them?”

“Sixteen, and with farming implements, mostly.” She takes another sip of her tea and adds, “I hit one of them in the head with a rock really hard.”

“And then they just put you in the kitchen,” Wei-gongzi says, shaking his head. “What changed?”

“I made friends who snuck me out on night hunts, which was going super well, right up until I ended up on one with your brother,” she says, and Wei-gongzi’s face does the same hurt-happy-sad-longing thing that Jiang Wanyin’s does whenever she uses the words “your brother, and Fan Dingxiang has to resist the urge to pinch the bridge of her nose in exasperation at these two oblivious, stone-skulled fools. “We were hunting a boar yaoguai that ate spiritual energy and he and I were the only ones who didn’t cough blood and pass out.” Fan Dingxiang grins at him. “Can’t lose your spiritual energy if you don’t have any spiritual energy.”

“Checks out,” he agrees, grinning back now, the weird sad look gone.

“So I killed the boar and he dispelled the resentful energy and then, instead of kicking me out, he promoted me.” She waves at herself, head to toes, and finishes, “And now I’m apparently a senior disciple.”

“How’d you kill the boar?” Wei-gongzi leans forward, elbows on the table, chin in his hands, like this is storytime for children. It’s very cute. Fan Dingxiang is pretty sure the cuteness is intentional, and it’s still working on her.

“Boar spear, until that got ripped out of my hands. Then rope dart, then boar spear again, to finish it.” She sucks her teeth thoughtfully and adds, “Talismans, too.”

Wei-gongzi’s whole being sharpens, like she’d squinted and he’d suddenly come into focus. “Talismans? What talismans?”

Instead of answering immediately, Fan Dingxiang digs in her robes for her weapons pouch. She finds it after she digs out the snack pouch and the emergency supplies pouch, tucks the other two back into their respective places, and gets out her book of proven talisman designs. Wei-gongzi presses close to peer at them as she flips through the book, close enough that she’d think he had inappropriate designs 1. he hadn’t been fully fixated on the pages, and 2. she didn’t know he and Hanguang-jun are basically joined at the hip. Fan Dingxiang doesn’t listen to gossip, but she’s watched Hu Yueque faint into Hu Xinling’s arms in re-creation of Wei Wuxian swooning at Hanguang-jun, swoons that Hu Yueque claims to have directly witnessed. There’s not listening to gossip and then there’s ignoring fully established facts.

“Here we go,” she says, finding the explode-on-contact talisman she’d designed way, way back in the day. Wei-gongzi’s eyes flick over the page, tracking each radical and the way it weaves into the whole, and his jaw goes slack with surprise.

“This is good,” he says, fingers sketching it in midair, no power behind it, more like he’s mentally confirming the stroke order. “What’s the range?”

Fan Dingxiang makes a face. “I usually slap them on and then get out of the way,” she admits. “I can’t--I don’t have the power to cast them with my qi unless I really concentrate, so I design them all to be blood activated.” She takes another sip of her disappointingly floral tea and adds, “Definitely stay well back, though, if you want to keep your eyebrows.”

“Noted,” Wei-gongzi says, a little distracted, and then his eyebrows go up. “Ah,” he says in satisfaction, tapping the section at the bottom designed with a deliberate open space where two bloody fingers complete the spell. “I was wondering what this was. Blood activated. Yeah, that makes sense.” His hand hovers over the pages, fingers flexing. “Can I--do you mind if I--”

“Go for it,” Fan Dingxiang says, pushing the book over, and he snatches it up immediately and flips to the first page. “Ma Xueliang told me you were good at them--you know, before--so if you have any suggestions--”

“You designed all these yourself?” Wei-gongzi interrupts, looking up from the water purification talisman she’d designed after that one night hunt when they’d had to fight a frog monster in a polluted, resentful swamp and then there was no clean water to wash in after they’d all ended up covered in stinking mud and frog guts. She nods, and he whistles, low and impressed, as he flips to the talisman for separating rocks from rice. “They’re clever. What made you choose this combination?”

“The first version I tried fired everything out of the bowl, rocks and rice included,” she says, grimacing. “That one took some experimenting.” Fan Dingxiang sighs, rubbing her eyes, and complains, “I was hoping that the talisman class I just took would help me figure out the weeding talisman I’m trying to design, but ugh. It was useless. I’d have been better off taking a nap and hoping the solution came to me in my sleep.”

“Was it Lan-xiansheng?”

“With the white beard and the guan like a fishing net?” Wei-gongzi nods, and Fan Dingxiang blinks. “You know him?”

“He’s been teaching the advanced talisman classes at discussion conferences as long as I’ve been alive.” Fan Dingxiang can’t stop herself from giving him a Look, and he laughs and amends it to, “As long as I was alive the first time around. Is he still calling it Advanced Talismans?”

“Yes,” she grouses. “And maybe it’s advanced if you’ve never seen anything more complicated than a light talisman before, but come on.

“Most of these people haven’t seen anything more complicated than a light talisman,” Wei-gongzi says, dryly. “Why bother with something that takes time and creativity and experimentation and doesn’t require a strong golden core when you could just stab a ghost instead?”

“Why stab a ghost when you can lay a trap for it and then stand around and watch as it thrashes itself out of existence?” Fan Dingxiang shoots back, long-suffering. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love to stab a ghost, but there’s more than one way to kill a pig.” She refills their teacups and squints at him thoughtfully. “Why aren’t you teaching the talisman classes, Wei-gongzi?”

He sputters and laughs, waving her suggestion away with a smile, eyes tight at the corners. “Aiyah, me? Teaching at a conference? No way. I don’t have the patience for junior questions from senior cultivators.”

“So you’re not coming to the conference?” Fan Dingxiang frowns. “I know some of the other Jiang disciples were hoping to see you.”

Wei-gongzi winces a little, worrying the edge of a page in her book with his thumb. “Ah, well, me and discussion conferences have some… Unpleasant history. I’m just here as Lan Zhan’s moral support, and to corrupt Jin Ling as much as I possibly can when he has time for me.” He goes a little quiet, staring off at the lotuses, and adds, “It’s easier for everyone that way.” He’s smaller, somehow, pulled in on himself a little bit, and Fan Dingxiang is just wondering if she should try patting his shoulder or something when he straightens, flashes her a grin, and finishes, “Also, discussion conferences are boring as f*ck. I haven’t even been back alive a whole year yet! Fan-guniang, you can’t mean to make me die of boredom?” He pouts, resting his chin on his hand. “A handsome face like mine, dead too young? Again? That’s just a waste.”

“Mmm,” Fan Dingxiang agrees, drumming her fingers on the table. “Plus, if you die, then I’ll never get to ask your opinion on some of the designs I’m having trouble with. That’d be a disappointment for me, specifically.”

“See!” Wei-gongzi points at her like she’s played a decisive weiqi move. “You get it.” He drains his teacup, grimaces, and sets it down with a clink. “Jins! Ugh! The only thing worse than Jin wine is Jin tea. Do you think there’s any actual tea leaves in this, or is it just flowers?”

“There is actual tea,” Fan Dingxiang confirms, who opened the canister in her room and checked, when she had the same question, “but there are a lot of flowers. Do you want something different?” She pulls her snack pouch back out and lightly shakes it at him. “I brought some Bai Hao oolong from Lotus Pier with me.”

Wei-gongzi blinks at her, eyes wide, mouth half-open in surprise. “You brought your own tea?” he asks, like it’s a weird thing to do. Cultivators. Fan Dingxiang still doesn’t get them.

“Yes,” she says, like it’s obvious, because come on. “I also brought wine and snacks.”

His attention sharpens to the point of a needle, all of it on her snack bag. “Did you happen, in your snack packing,” he starts, with barely disguised hope, “to bring some spicy roasted lotus seeds?”

“Do you take me for an amatuer?” Fan Dingxiang asks, pulling one of the three packets of said spicy roasted lotus seeds out of the qiankun pouch. “I’ve been sneaking snacks on night hunts for longer than you’ve been alive.” She winks. “This time.”

He laughs, the corners of his eyes crinkling. Oh, good. She wasn’t sure if it would be okay if she joked about his dying, but it looks like he doesn’t mind. “Of course, of course,” Wei-gongzi says, when he’s done and can get his face to be serious again. He nods solemnly as she gets the lotus seeds settled within snacking range of them both and inclines his head over his raised hands. “I bow to your superior knowledge, snack-shifu.”

“I have high expectations of my students, tudi,” Fan Dingxiang says, just as solemnly, and hands him the oolong. “As your first lesson you can brew the tea.”

“And what knowledge will I gain from this experience, snack-shifu?” he asks, as he knocks out the wet pile of leaves and flowers into the waiting waste bowl and rinses the teapot.

“Better f*cking tea,” she says immediately, figuring that since he broke the seal on swearing, it’s okay for her to join him in vulgarity. She pulls out a bottle of wine for each of them, and then a packet of tiny dried squid, and then a packet of dried jujubes. Fan Dingxiang takes snacks seriously. She gets everything arranged in a pleasing way, which Wei-gongzi almost ruins when he turns back with the freshly-brewed pot of oolong and very nearly spills it all over the table.

“Oh my god,” he says, setting the pot down hurriedly and reaching for the bottle of wine with slightly shaking fingers. “Oh my god, Fan-guniang, you didn’t. Is this?”

“Hefeng Jiu,” she confirms, popping a lotus seed into her mouth and savoring how not floral it tastes. “The most Lotus Pier of all wines.”

“I invented this,” Wei-gongzi says, awed, turning the bottle over in his hand. “Wow. Okay. I haven’t had this in… Well, I guess over a decade, if we count the time I wasn’t in any shape to be drinking anything, seeing as I was probably incorporeal.” He pulls out the stopper with a satisfying plomp! sound and takes a swig, throat working as he swallows.

“Good?” Fan Dingxiang can’t help asking, her latent kitchen instincts taking over. She has three other kinds of wine in the bag, if he wants something else.

“Perfect,” he says, blinking furiously at the bottle, eyes suspiciously wet. Fan Dingxiang pretends not to notice as she pours tea for both of them, subtly nudging the spicy lotus seeds closer to his hand. Wei-gongzi shoves an impolite handful of them into his mouth and makes a sound like he’s been punched, but happy. “You are a blessing sent from heaven, snack-shifu,” he tells her, fervently. “What do I have to do to convince you to smuggle me Yunmeng snacks whenever we’re in the same place for the rest of our lives?”

“Why don’t you come to Lotus Pier and get them yourself?” She takes a sip of her own wine and watches out of the corner of her eye as he stiffens. In the next breath he laughs, shaking his head, and takes another swig from his bottle.

“Oh, that’s not going to work out,” he says, with false ease, and elbows her in the arm playfully. “You’ll have to be my supplier. What do you say, Fan-guniang? How can I possibly repay you for this?”

There’s definitely some pigsh*t happening here, and Fan Dingxiang is pretty sure if she does a little digging she could find the cause of it, but also, this is their first time meeting (while Wei Wuxian is sober, and can remember), and that conversation is probably a bit deep for this early in their acquaintance. She can let it go. Probably none of her business, anyway. “Actually,” she says, instead of being a nosy motherf*cker, “I’ll take my payment in talisman help, if you’re willing?”

He raises his eyebrows at her, teacup halfway to his mouth. “How many books of talismans do you have?

“Two, currently,” she says, getting out the qiankun bag with her book of draft talismans and notes and writing supplies. “I have the talismans that work--” she jerks her chin at the book still under his hand “--and I have the talismans that don’t work yet. ” The latter notebook slaps onto the table, thicker and much, much messier, loose pages glued in when she’d worked things out on any random paper she’d had available and spattered with ink.

“You said you were working on a weeding talisman?” he asks, around a mouthful of dried squid. Fan Dingxiang is impressed he’d remembered that detail, sprinkled as it was in around the rest of her complaints.

“Yeah, and I think I have it most of the way there,” she tells him, flipping to the appropriate page. “The trouble is going to be making sure it differentiates between weeds and the plants you want to keep. I refer you back to the rice-sorting talisman that shot an entire bowl of rice into my face.”

“Shooting potatoes out of the ground would be hilarious, though,” Wei-gongzi muses, looking over her notes and diagrams. “It’d work as a high-speed harvesting method.”

“You’d have to modulate the force behind it,” Fan Dingxiang says, warming to the idea. “I mean, the big benefit of potatoes is that you almost never have to chase them. I can tell you right now that farmers don’t want to have to chase their vegetables.”

“Oh, yeah, we had the radishes come up really haunted one time,” he says absently, like that’s a normal thing to say, running his fingers over the draft design she thinks is pretty close to functional. “That was a weird day. Tasted fine, though, for a given value of fine, if you like radishes, which I don’t.” His head tips, eyes narrowed on the talisman, and then he lifts a hand to his mouth and bares his teeth--

“Oh my god!” Fan Dingxiang yelps, snatching his wrist. “No! Gross! Why do you all do that?”

“Do what?” Wei-gongzi asks, as though biting your finger open is an acceptable, sanitary occurrence, and she’s the one being weird.

“You all cut your fingers or the palm of your hand! You have to use that hand! Why do you make it harder on yourselves? Do y’all like, enjoy trying to use a sword with the hand you just cut open?” Fan Dingxiang drops his wrist and glares at him until she’s sure he’s not going to try to go for it again, then digs out her writing kit and unpacks it on the table. “Just ask me for some f*cking ink before you open a vein!”

“You use blood on your talismans,” Wei-gongzi says, clearly trying to hide his amusem*nt at her indignation. “You told me so yourself.”

“Yeah! And I cut myself behind the ear, where I can bleed like a motherf*cker without it impairing my actual ability to fight, because I am a sensible person.” She pours water into the ink stone and starts grinding furiously. “And if I need large amounts of blood for a particular design, I cut myself on the leg and catch my blood in a cup and mix it with wine to keep it from clotting and then I bandage my leg before I start writing.” The ink stick slaps down with a clatter and she shoves a brush into his hands. “I don’t charge into battle with open wounds on the parts of my body that will absolutely, positively get covered with the most battle gunk. Cultivators.” Fan Dingxiang crosses her arms and spits on the ground. “You’re so weird.

Wei-gongzi looks like he’s trying not to laugh. “I see,” he says, nodding, and he bows to her over the brush like it’s a sword. “Thank you for your… impassioned instruction on this topic, snack-shifu. This one will endeavor to learn from your wisdom.”

“See that you do,” Fan Dingxiang says with a theatrical sniff, and takes a dainty sip of her wine. “Did you have some suggestions for the weeding talisman?”

“Yes!” Wei-gongzi turns back to the table, accepting the sheet of cheap paper she slides over, and wets the brush. “It’s the earth radical, here? I think if we move it like so…”

“Oh, hmm,” she says, watching him sketch the new version, “and then we shift this one down into the new space?”

Exactly." Wei-gongzi grins at her and hands her the brush. “Show me what you’re thinking?”

Fan Dingxiang sets brush to paper, satisfaction flaring deep in her belly. Maybe she’ll actually learn something at this conference after all.

---

Freed from the conference for the break before the evening banquet (and why the f*ck does every meal at a conference have to be a banquet? Can’t they just have a f*cking normal dinner occasionally?), Jiang Cheng speedwalks through the gardens of Carp Tower, trying to give the impression that he’s on his way to a very important meeting and that he absolutely, positively, should not be interrupted. This is, of course, a lie. He just wants to get far enough away from other people that he can breathe, and not speak to anyone for long enough that he can convince his jaw to unclench. It was an interminable day of listening to people whose only understanding of waterways is that they’re big and wet opine about waterways, and Jiang Cheng didn’t whip anyone or throw a teacup at anyone, and he feels like he deserves a prize for that, frankly.

He passes through two more gates, over a decorative bridge, and into the garden that’s his most hated favorite, where there’s a lotus pond, and once upon a time he’d sit there with his sister and they’d both try to pretend they weren’t missing anyone, that the point that would have been their triangle hadn’t gone and collapsed, leaving them a flat line. Later it wasn’t even a line, Jiang Cheng a single ink drop on a piece of paper, disconnected and floundering. He doesn’t know what shape he’s part of, now.

A laugh cuts across the garden and slips between his ribs like a knife, a laugh he hasn’t f*cking heard properly in practically a lifetime, not free and bright and genuine. Jiang Cheng freezes, eyes snapping to the pavilion, black robes next to purple, two heads tucked close together, and for an awful, wonderful breath it’s like nothing ever happened, like the mistakes and pain of half his f*cking life were just an eternal, terrible dream. Then the woman in purple shoves at the man in black, and reality crashes back in, because he knows those shoulders, and none of his memories involve a woman quite so ridiculously f*cking tall. Why wouldn’t Fan f*cking Zhu’er be best friends with Wei f*cking Wuxian? Sure! That might as well happen! He’s only stared at blank letters every other day, hand on brush, trying to figure out how he could possibly start to write something that would fix things and failed every single time. Naturally she’d just stroll in and succeed where he couldn’t! That’s her whole f*cking thing.

Jiang Cheng is going to turn around and walk away. He’s going to go back to his rooms and pretend he never saw this. He’s going to do what he came here to do, defend and advance Yunmeng Jiang’s goals for the discussion conference. He’s not going to get caught up in irrelevant bullsh*t. That’s what he tells himself, and why it comes as a bit of a surprise when he marches up to the pavilion instead. The swirl of his robes catches Fan Zhu’er’s eye and she glances up at him and grins while, at her side, Wei Wuxian stays bent over a collection of messy scribbles that might be a talisman design or might be an aerial map of the rivers in the area.

“Jiang-zongzhu,” Fan Zhu’er says, cheerfully. “Did you need me for something?” Wei Wuxian looks up, does an absolutely wild double-take, blots ink all over the page, and then freezes, a smile on his face that looks like it was carved there by someone who’d never actually seen a smile before and was giving it their best shot based on a description they’d half heard from a drunk. Jiang Cheng can see the moment he realizes that his back is to a decorative railing and the only way to escape the pavilion is to either pass Jiang Cheng or jump into a lotus pond. Jiang Cheng kinda hopes he’ll jump into the pond. That would be appropriate, somehow.

“Ah, Jiang-zongzhu!” Wei Wuxian says, deliberately relaxing his posture in an obviously-bullsh*t kind of way. “I’ll stop taking up Fan-guniang’s time!” He starts to stand up, gets halfway there, and then Fan Zhu’er claps a hand on his shoulder and shoves him back into his seat like he weighs as much as a kitten.

“We’re almost done with the spirit-reveal talisman!” she tells him. “You can’t leave now. ” To Jiang Cheng she says, “I ran into Wei-gongzi after the advanced talismans class, which was a real stroke of luck because otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten to work on advanced anything. That class was a joke.

“Lan-xiansheng?” Jiang Cheng asks, mouth working without his permission. “With the--” and he gestures to indicate a beard.

“Exactly,” Fan Zhu’er confirms. Jiang Cheng has nothing more to say to that, so he lets his eyes roam, refusing to let them settle on his bro--on Wei Wuxian, and takes in the bottles of wine, and the tea, and the half-eaten snacks that he’s deeply familiar with from Lotus Pier, and he’s struck with a wave of longing and anger so powerful it’s a blessing that he doesn’t stagger under the current. How f*cking long has he wanted exactly this? How f*cking cruel is the universe to show it to him? Did the heavens sit down and plan out precisely the best way to kick him in the kidneys? He glares, at Fan Zhu’er, and then at Wei Wuxian for good measure, because that’s better than actually feeling things.

“Aiyah, don’t look at me like that!” Wei Wuxian says, rubbing his nose and blessedly misinterpreting the motivation behind the glare. “I’m not corrupting your disciple! All these designs are perfectly orthodox, no resentful energy involved, I swear!”

“Well,” Fan Zhu’er says, “to be fair, there’s the resentful energy we definitely created when that incense talisman refused to stop smelling like stinky feet and we started swearing at it.”

“Oh, sure,” Wei Wuxian agrees easily, dropping his hand and giving her a smile, a real one, with his eyes bright and his shoulders loose. “But that’s a natural part of the creative process, it’s not cultivation.

“If you say so,” she says, tapping his hand with the handle of her inkbrush, and Jiang Cheng just stands there, useless, superfluous, looking at something from the outside and not seeing a way in.

“There’s only half a shi before the dinner banquet,” he snaps, tension tight through the back of his skull and shoulders. “Be done with whatever the f*ck this is before then.”

Fan Zhu’er meets his eyes, taking a lazy sip of her wine, and her gaze turns calculating. He doesn’t like it. She sees things when she looks at him like that, things he’d much prefer to carefully keep hidden. “You don’t want to join us?” she asks. “I have more wine, and neither of us will snitch on you if you want to complain about the conference. Right?” The last she says to Wei Wuxian, nudging him with her elbow, and Wei Wuxian snaps upright.

“Uh,” he says, “No? I mean, yes? I mean.” He takes a swig from his bottle, slopping wine down his neck because apparently being raised from the dead did nothing to make him a neater drinker. “No one wants to listen to me, anyway, so even if I wanted to snitch--which I don’t!--it wouldn’t work.” He smiles, that fake, wooden thing, eyes flicking between Fan Zhu’er and Jiang Cheng, clearly trying to figure out what the f*ck is happening.

That makes two of us, Jiang Cheng thinks sourly, before he says, “I wouldn’t want to interfere,” in the most withering tone he can muster. “You seem to have this well in hand.” He gestures at the table, and the ground around it, covered in loose notes and crumpled papers.

Fan Zhu’er stares at him, runs her tongue along her teeth thoughtfully, and raises an eyebrow in a way he knows. Oh f*ck. f*ck. “I see,” she says, challenge dripping from the words to pool on the table. “So you’re just going to leave your coreless disciple--” she gestures to herself “--unsupervised with the Yiling Patriarch--” she waves at Wei Wuxian, who looks startled to be addressed “--to design talismans together. Talismans that I will bring back to Lotus Pier and test there. Without your permission or oversight.” She co*cks her head at him and takes a sip of wine. “That’s certainly a decision you could make, I suppose.”

Jiang Cheng glares at her, heart pounding, skin prickling. How f*cking dare she just--offer him what he wants and can’t have, and in such a way that refusing would mean backing down? It’s like she sat him down in front of his favorite foods and said, “I bet you can’t eat all this.” It’s infuriating, which is definitely the only emotion he’s feeling, and nothing else, definitely not gratitude. He whips his eyes over to Wei Wuxian, who’s staring at Fan Zhu’er in undisguised shock, and snaps, “Well?”

Wei Wuxian looks at him, darts his eyes away and back like fish in a pond, and toys with his teacup. “Anyone would be honored by a private meeting with Sandu Shengshou,” he says, lightly. “How could I pass up the opportunity?” He glances up and winces when he’s been caught, focusing on the talisman design again, but in that bare moment Jiang Cheng is pretty sure he saw a bewildered, painful hope that he hates recognizing.

“Fine,” he snarls, whipping his cape out of the way as he sits down on Fan Zhu’er’s free side. “Someone has to take responsibility, and I clearly can’t trust either of you assholes to do it.”

“That’s the spirit!” Fan Zhu’er says, plonking a fresh bottle of Hefeng Jiu in front of him that he hadn’t even noticed her retrieve. “We’re working on a spirit-reveal talisman right now,” she tells him, filling a fresh teacup with what he can tell on sight is a Lotus Pier oolong. The woman comes prepared. “For situations when there are several potential options with very different solutions--”

“--Because if you use the wrong one,” Wei Wuxian cuts in, around a mouthful of jujube, “you might make it stronger.”

“Voice of experience?” Jiang Cheng asks, dryly.

“Yes,” Wei Wuxian admits, “but I only made that particular mistake once.”

“Right,” Jiang Cheng shoots back, “since you devote yourself to making new and interesting mistakes at every opportunity.”

“That’s called learning by example,” Wei Wuxian says, almost primly. “It’s very effective.”

“Assuming you live through it,” Jiang Cheng snaps, and then immediately hates himself for saying it.

“Doing okay this time around,” Wei Wuxian fires back just as quickly, and then they avoid each other's eyes for a long, awkward moment. Jiang Cheng finds his wine, drinks deeply, and clinks it back down on the table.

“If there’s anyone at this table who hasn’t accidentally blown their eyebrows off at least once, then they’d have a leg to stand on in judgement,” Fan Zhu’er pronounces, blundering through the awkwardness like a runaway cart through a market. “But if you haven’t blown your eyebrows off, are you really living?

“That’s a very specific definition of what makes a good life,” Jiang Cheng tells her, reaching for some squid.

“I think you underestimate the amount of ways people can blow their eyebrows off,” she says. “It doesn’t even have to involve cultivation. Here, look at this design.” She slides it over, then double-takes and tries to pull it back, saying, “No, sorry, that’s the stinky feet one. Wei-gongzi? Where’s the spirit-reveal draft?”

Jiang Cheng holds one hand up, looking at the talisman design in his hand. “What did you say this one was for, again?”

“Changing the scent of incense,” Wei Wuxian says. “Apparently Fan Zhu’er brought her own, which is seriously so smart of her, but we were thinking, what if you could just use a talisman to make incense smell however you wanted?”

“As long as it’s like stinky feet,” Jiang Cheng half-asks, eyebrow raised. He can see what they were going for, but he thinks maybe the use of the fire radical is interacting with something else in a bad way. He knows he’s not as good at talisman designs as either of them, but he also hasn’t been staring at this particular one for the last half-shi, and a fresh perspective is always useful.

“We were definitely able to change how stinky the feet were,” Fan Zhu’er says, mouth somewhere between a smile and a grimace. “But apparently we’re still a ways away from making it smell like something we want to smell.”

“I’m definitely slipping the stinky feet talisman to the juniors first chance I get,” Wei Wuxian says, wiping his chin as he slops wine down it again. “The prank potential is amazing, I’d be a bad qianbei if I didn’t try to corrupt them a little.”

“Lan Qiren is going to kick you out of the Cloud Recesses,” Jiang Cheng tells him, reaching for a fresh sheet of paper, “and you’re going to deserve it. Brush.” Fan Zhu’er hands it over, and he dips it in the cinnabar and sketches out the idea that’s been niggling in the back of his mind since he saw the talisman. A slight adjustment here, an additional radical there, and he looks it over and nods. He sets the brush down, businesslike, and slides the talisman over to Wei Wuxian. “Try that.”

Wei Wuxian looks at the talisman like it’s about to bite him. “Why?”

“I think I worked out the issue,” Jiang Cheng says, keeping his face very flat, scowl in place as easy as breathing. He keeps his anticipation entirely to himself as Wei Wuxian picks up the paper and looks it over, a familiar little frown line between his eyebrows. He apparently doesn’t see anything worrying, since he holds it between his first two fingers (though out at arm’s length, a wise precaution with a new talisman) and concentrates. Red energy flares up, and the talisman disappears, and Wei Wuxian’s look of concentration disappears, replaced by (in order) pride, accomplishment, confusion, disgust, and glowing, unfettered delight.

“Gross! That’s--that’s disgusting!” he complains, his grinning face at odds with his words, “Jiang Cheng! You--!” He waves his hands in front of his face, and when that proves ineffectual, snatches up a book from the table and fans furiously. “You f*cking--a fart talisman?!”

“Oh god,” Fan Zhu’er says, hand over her mouth, eyes crinkled with laughter, “Oh that’s ripe.” She shoves back from the table and crams past Jiang Cheng, escaping the pavilion for the path. “Holy f*ck, Quangu-zongzhu, I didn’t know you had it in you.”

“Technically I didn’t,” Jiang Cheng says, taking a placid sip of tea. “That was all Wei Wuxian.”

“This is the proudest day of my life!” Wei Wuxian announces between gasps, hanging out over the railing in a precarious perch above the lotus pond. “I’ve corrupted a sect leader! The evil of the Yiling Patriarch knows no bounds! My shidi has invented the cultivation world's first fart talisman!” He pretends to wipe a tear from his eye, which is good because he doesn’t see the thing Jiang Cheng’s face does at being called shidi again for the first time in over a decade. Over on the path, oblivious to his struggle, Fan Zhu’er makes a sound like she wants to join in the joke, but she’s laughing so hard she seems to be having trouble breathing, bent over with her hands on her knees. Is she crying? She’s crying laughing. Jiang Cheng is actually a little worried she’s about to die.

“I was just improving on your work,” Jiang Cheng says, as flatly as if he was still in the discussion conference, keeping his inner turmoil off his face like he always does. “You’re supposed to be an expert. It’s not my fault you didn’t figure it out.” He pushes back from the table, smoothing down his robes, and executes a textbook-perfect bow. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have other business to attend to.”

“You can’t leave!” Wei Wuxian leans back into the pavilion, makes a face of immediate regret, and leans back out. “You come back here and take responsibility for what you’ve done!”

Jiang Cheng looks straight at him, and the smile on Wei Wuxian’s face falters under that gaze, his eyes shuttering a little. That’s not exactly what he was going for, but it is going to make this next part more effective, so Jiang Cheng raises one eyebrow and says, emphatically, “No.” He whips around on his heel in the stunned silence and strides off through the garden, past a still-wheezing Fan Zhu’er. It’s quiet long enough that he starts to wonder if he misjudged the situation, and then--

“Jiang Cheng!”

He pauses and turns, casting a glance back over his shoulder. Wei Wuxian is hanging out the closer side of the pavilion now, pointing at him dramatically, eyes bright and cheeks flushed. “This is a war now!” he calls. “I’m gonna get my revenge!”

Jiang Cheng raises his eyebrow again. “You can try,” he calls back, and marches away to the sound of Wei Wuxian’s laughter. It melts something, just a little, cracking pieces off a glacier, and it takes him through the whole next section of garden before he figures out why his face feels weird. He raises a hand to confirm it and drops his fingers as if burned.

He’s smiling.

Huh.

He thinks--

He thinks he likes it.

Notes:

A'Zhi 栀: Gardenia
Tudi 徒弟: Apprentice or disciple

Stop Cutting Yourself On The Damn Hand You Use To Hold Your Sword Challenge!

I have two brothers and I am here to tell you there is nothing more brothers than fart-based revenge.

Chapter 10

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Fan Dingxiang settles into her seat just behind Jiang Wanyin and spares a glance out over the rest of the main hall. The Jiang disciples have rotated through who accompanies him for the “Sect Leader Politics Bullsh*t” part of the conference (Hu Yueque’s words), and her turn has come up, along with Ma Xueliang and a woman she doesn’t know very well but who gives her a friendly nod. The three of them each have a small stack of books--apparently they might need to dig through them and hand documentation over to Jiang Wanyin at any moment. Fan Dingxiang read all the titles and skimmed the beginning of each page as soon as she’d been handed her stack. She’s ready.

Across the aisle in the Nie delegation, Kong Shanzhai catches her eye, smiles, and makes a very long-suffering face. It’s Yao-zongzhu’s turn to open the proceedings, and he’s making the most of it. Fan Dingxiang vaguely wonders if he’s aiming to recite the world’s most boring epic. Did he actually write this in advance? If he’s making it up as he goes she has to admit a grudging respect for his ability to continuously speak without even needing to stop for air.

At the beginning of his next paragraph, Yao-zongzhu turns, catches sight of Hanguang-jun at the top of the dais, and, wonder of wonders, trails off. Fan Dingxiang follows his eyeline and bites her lower lip to keep from laughing, because Hanguang-jun’s face is the most politely, coldly withering thing she’s ever seen in her life. She can feel the urge to speak drying up in her throat, and she’s not even the subject of that look.

“And may the heavens guide us with their eternal wisdom,” Yao-zongzhu says, instead of continuing the thread of his speech about that time he did super well in a night hunt and how everyone should be impressed with him because of it. He bows to the assembled gentry (and Fan Dingxiang, who’s a pig farmer in gentry robes), receives murmured thanks, and sits back down with an attitude he probably hopes looks dignified and instead looks like a retreat. Hanguang-jun says nothing, but he does offer a nod to someone standing off to the side who carries the energy of event managers everywhere, and orange-robed servants glide forward to deposit pots of tea and plates of fruit on tables.

“Thank you,” comes a familiar voice on the air, and Fan Dingxiang follows it to find a mildly scowling Jin Ling nodding to the woman backing away from his table. Her heart surges. This kid! He actually listened! A full-ass sect leader took her unsolicited advice and he’s putting it into practice in public!She strains her ears and catches snippets of other thank-yous, murmured around the room, a pause in the proceedings where work goes from invisible to acknowledged, and she fists her hands in her robes, fiercely glad. Maybe she made a difference. Maybe she helped.

Hanguang-jun doesn’t make a sound that Fan Dingxiang can hear, but somehow the room goes quiet again as he commands attention without apparent effort. He glances up and nods once, sharply. “Let us begin. Yu-zongzhu?”

A stern woman in robes of pale blue-green and deep, deep indigo stands, bows to the room, and begins to speak. Fan Dingxiang straightens her spine, folds her ridiculous sleeves over her lap as gracefully as possible, and pays furious attention. She has a job, and she intends to do it.

---

Jiang Cheng stares into the middle distance and, not for the first time, contemplates what it would be like to fly his sword as far into the wilderness as possible and then live there, leaving the cultivation world behind. He thinks he’d find a cave--no, he’s seen what it’s like when cultivators who abandon their sects live in caves. It’s dank and messy and the nearest thing to a bed is a f*cking rockand he wants no part of that. He’d find an abandoned hut, one that probably belonged to a woodcutter, and he’d fix it up and live a quiet life with only the birds for company, gathering (his imagination starts to fail here) fruits and like… nuts? From the forest. He’d travel into the nearest village once a month to buy things he couldn’t gather, like clothes and candles, and then he’d go back to his little hut and no one would ever bother him and he’d never again have to listen to Ouyang-zongzhu lecture at length about seafood prices and how he thinks fishermen aren’t to be trusted. The one bright spot is that whoever did the seating chart for the conference put the Meishan Yu delegation in between Yao-zongzhu and Ouyang-zongzhu, and they’ve subsequently found themselves unable to team up as easily as usual. Any time one of them starts, Jiang Cheng gets the pleasure of watching Yu-ayi turn her withering, familiar glare in that direction, and it peters out almost immediately. He’s still a little bit intimidated by Yu Zizhan. He probably always will be. She’s too much like his mother for him to react otherwise.

Ouyang-zongzhu finally stops talking about fishing and moves on to other water-based business. “Baling has seen heavy flooding this year,” he announces, as though the weather was a plot to target him, specifically. “Attacks by water-based spirits have increased three hundred percent. Our cultivators are overworked and our neighbors--” he gives a very pointed glare to Qin-zongzhu, who looks insulted “--do not seem to find it a priority to assist in subduing a threat that knows no borders.”

“The flooding has reached Laoling as well,” Qin-zongzhu says, acidly. “Our cultivators are also stretched thin. Perhaps if Baling Ouyang cannot keep up with its territory, it should not attempt to hold so much.”

“Perhaps if Laoling Qin had to do the same amount of rebuilding as Baling Ouyang they would understand the position we are in,” Ouyang-zongzhu shoots back. Jiang Cheng barely keeps himself from rolling his eyes. He’s heard this argument before. They’ve allheard this argument before. Next Qin-zongzhu is going to point out they joined the Sunshot campaign prior to Baling Ouyang--

“The Qin sect sent cultivators to the front lines while Baling Ouyang was still cowering in its beds!”

--as though the war wasn’t over a decade and a half ago, plenty of time for sects who hadn’tbeen almost completely destroyed by the Wens to rebuild. Jiang Cheng knows because he did it,and he doesn’t feel the need to bring it up at every f*cking discussion conference since. Next comes the sniping back and forth between the two about territory and borders and whose cultivators are prettier than the others and have the nicest robes, and Jiang Cheng would just like to move on to the part where they solve the problem.

“What resources are necessary to solve the problem?” Hanguang-jun says, cutting through the argument with the same cold, clean grace as his swordwork. He looks unimpressed. He usuallylooks unimpressed, but Jiang Cheng once spent three months with that walking block of ice as his only company, so he’s familiar with the various ways that Lan f*ckingWangji can look unimpressed. This is one of the most unimpressed looks he has to offer. If Jiang Cheng had to wager a guess, it means, “Stop wasting my time or I’ll curse you.”

“I--” Ouyang-zongzhu starts, thrown. He regroups and continues, “We need more cultivators, and those experienced with water-based creatures. The flooding has led to an increase in drownings and illness, and burials must be delayed until the waters fully recede. In some cases, full villages have been driven from their homes, so they cannot return to the ancestral cemeteries.” Behind him, Jiang Cheng is pretty sure he senses Fan Zhu’ersitting up straighter, the energy of her attention pointed. “In fact--”

“How many cultivators?” Lan Wangji asks, effectively cutting off what was probably going to be another monologue about personal responsibility or whatever. Jiang Cheng can grudgingly accept the existence of the second-meanest Lan (after Lan Qiren) as chief cultivator if it means people like Ouyang-zongzhu can’t monopolize the conference for shichen on end. (Lan Wangji is still a snobby, stuck-up, brother-stealing prick, but the amount of actual workthat has happened so far is unprecedented.)

“Ah,” Ouyang-zongzhu says, wrong-footed, “I hadn’t--Qin-zongzhu is also in need of assistance--”

Lan Wangji’sblade-sharp gaze goes to Qin-zongzhu, who sputters, “I mean--I suppose--”

There’s a tap at Jiang Cheng’s shoulder, and when he half-turns, it’s to find Ma Xueliang on her knees, sliding over a series of reports. “Night hunts in Yunmeng have remained stable,” she murmurs in his ear, flipping the pages to the relevant information. “We have two full classes of juniors ready for more fieldwork, and enough seniors to send along for support and supervision.”

“Thank you,” Jiang Cheng says, along with the nod she’s probably more used to getting as acknowledgement. She blinks at him, once, far too good at politics to show her surprise outwardly. Jiang Cheng looks at the report instead of at her, determinedly ignoring the absolute satisfaction he can feel emanating from somewhere behind him. Whatever. He’s allowed to decide he ought to thank people for their work out loud with the actual words. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with anyone else.

“Would thirty-six do?” he asks the room, enjoying the way eyes swivel, and especially enjoying the way Qin-zongzhu shuts right up. “Lotus Pier can spare twenty-four juniors and twelve seniors, which would provide twelve groups of three.” He takes a sip of his disgustingly floral tea and adds, “Yunmeng Jiang can handle a few water ghouls.” (Behind him Fan Zhu’ermakes a little sound of gratitude, maybe? Or pride? He ignores it. It’s irrelevant. Is it hot in here? The back of his neck seems hot.)

That knife-edge Lan gaze comes to rest on Jiang Cheng. He ignores it, staring cooly across the hall at nothing in particular. “Thank you, Jiang-zongzhu,” Lan Wangji says, with no inflection whatsoever. The pressure of the gaze slips away, and Jiang Cheng enjoys watching Ouyang-zongzhu flinch. “Ouyang-zongzhu? Qin-zongzhu? Is that sufficient?”

Ouyang-zongzhu grits his teeth. Jiang Cheng wonders if he actually needed help, or just wanted to make his sect seem busy. “It would be of great assistance,” he says, bowing in the direction of the Yunmeng delegation. “We appreciate Yunmeng Jiang’s generosity.”

“Having cultivators able to patrol the border region would be a huge help,” Qin-zongzhu says, much more sincerely. “The water ghouls are much more mobile than other hauntings, and many of our boats are in use for transportation purposes. Thank you, Jiang-zongzhu.” He bows properly and settles back in his seat, looking satisfied and relieved. Jiang Cheng immediately feels less petty about offering to send his cultivators--Qin-zongzhu may be far too willing to rehash the same arguments with Ouyang-zongzhu at every conference, but he’s a pretty good sect leader and takes decent good care of his territory, by all accounts.

“Well,” Ouyang-zongzhu says into the general quiet, picking up steam like a pot swung back over a fire, “there’s also the matter of iron trading. I want to revisit--”

“That’s it?”

Jiang Cheng’s shoulders pull tight as the combined cultivators stare in his direction and slightly past him, where Fan f*ckingZhu’er has just spoken and interrupted a sect leader. Ouyang-zongzhu recovers quickly, probably used to charging ahead when other people try to speak, and says, “Baling Ouyang has long been at the mercy of predatory actions from sects with better iron mines--”

“Why are you talking about iron?” Fan Zhu’erinterrupts again, to murmursaround the room. She sounds frustrated and angry. “You’re just--you’re just moving on?

“Moving on from what,guniang?” Ouyang-zongzhu asks, voice dripping with enough condescension that Jiang Cheng wants to punch him with Zidian for daring to speak to one of his disciples in that tone.

“The flooding,” Fan Zhu’ersays, unrattled. Ouyang-zongzhu gives her a look of insulting bafflement, and Jiang Cheng hears her huff and clarify, “You said there were whole villages displaced. That there was disease.”

“Yes, that’s frequently a side-effect of flooding,” Ouyang-zongzhu says, like he’s speaking to a child.

“So what is your plan to help them?” Fan Zhu’erasks, like she’s speaking to a particularly unruly toddler.

Ouyang-zongzhu blinks. “Your sect has already promised cultivators to assist with night hunts. If you’re concerned, guniang, perhaps you can join them?”

“Quite right!” Yao-zongzhu interjects, seeing an opportunity to shove himself in where he isn’t needed. “Ouyang-zongzhu’s disciples are already working as hard as they can! If that displeases you, it’s only fair for you to step up as well!”

“I would be happy to, pending my sect leader’s permission,” Fan Zhu’ersays, her accent sharpening to the point of a needle, “but I am asking if you have any intentions of helping your people,not simply hunting their unquiet spirits after they’ve died of a natural disaster.”

f*ck. f*ck.The realization slams into Jiang Cheng like a kick from a horse. Ouyang-zongzhu even said, he saidthere were refugees and Jiang Cheng hadn’t even noticed, hadn’t thought to ask.

“That’s not our responsibility,” Ouyang-zongzhu protests, like an asshole, and then his eyes narrow. “Who are you to be joiningthis discussion, anyway, guniang? Doesn’t Jiang-zongzhu speak for you?”

“Fan Zhu’eris one of my senior disciples,” Jiang Cheng snaps, over the sound of the disciple in question hissing an inhale through her teeth, probably a prelude to some more very pointed comments. “I have found her consul valuable.” “You f*cking prick,”goes unsaid but very clearly intended.

“It’s not her place to offer consul to other sects!” Ouyang-zongzu says, puffing himself up like an annoyed bird. “How senior can she be if we’ve never seen her before?”

“That’s right!” Yao-zongzhu chimes in, undaunted by Yu-ayi’s withering glare. “She’s a little old to be a new senior. What are you playing at, Jiang-zongzhu?”

“I wasn’t aware,” Jiang Cheng says, each word perfectly formed like fine calligraphy, “that Yunmeng Jiang had to account to Baling Ouyang on matters of inner sect promotions.” “Motherf*cker,” he doesn’t actually add out loud.

“Fan Zhu’er?” Nie Huaisang says, across the room, just loud enough to carry. His voice is pitched like he’s trying to remember something, as though his memories aren’t clean, neatly filed reports. “Oh!” he says again, a moment later. “Fan Zhu’er.That’s right, I heard a rumor--” and then he trails off and hides his face behind his fan. Jiang Cheng glares at the slippery little sh*thead so Nie Huaisang knows at least one person here knows he’s full of it. What’s his game?

“What did you hear?” Yao-zongzhu demands, predictably.

“Oh,” Nie Huaisang says, fanning himself, “I don’t know, I’m sure it was nothing.”

“Come on!” Yao-zongzhu urges him, to the agreement of Ouyang-zongzhu and a few random cultivators who Jiang Cheng sometimes thinks might be hired specifically to rabble-rouse during conversations like this. “Out with it, Nie-zongzhu! I’m sure it’s relevant!”

Behind him, Jiang Cheng is pretty sure he feels Fan Zhu’ervibrating with anger, and that’s a fair way to feel. He was reallyhoping to get through one f*cking discussion conference without a diplomatic incident. Wei Wuxian isn’t even in the room! How is this fair?

“Well,” Nie Huaisang says, as though it’s been dragged out of him and this wasn’t his intention from the start, “I might have heard--I’m sure it’s baseless…” The pause is perfectly timed. Jiang Cheng grits his teeth. “I heard there was a new senior at Lotus Pier… With no golden core.”

Jiang Cheng is going to punch him. Yes, he borrowed a spring book from Nie Huaisang back at Cloud Recesses and then threw it out the window in a panic when someone knocked on the door and it ended up getting rained on and ruined and he’s always felt a little bit bad about that, but he’s going to go put his fist through Nie Huaisang’s fancy little fan and right into his face and teach him to stick his sneaky nose into Yunmeng Jiang business. He’s not even surprised that Nie Huaisang knows. Jiang Cheng put two and two together in the aftermath of Guanyin Temple, and maybe he should be a little more grateful to an old friend for some of that but also f*ck Nie Huaisang, and twice on holidays. Eventually he becomes aware of the uproar in the room, when the roaring in his ears fades, and then the roaring comes right back along with a fresh wave of fury.

“Coreless? Shameful!”

“How can you stand there and expect us to accept an ordinary person as a cultivator, Jiang-zongzhu? Isn’t that too much?”

“What is he playing at?”

“What kind of cultivation could she possibly manage? He must be keeping her around for some otherreason.”

Jiang Cheng is going to commit a murder.

“Watch your f*cking mouth when you’re talking about my disciple!” he snarls, loud enough to cut through the rest of the chatter. The Yao sect man who just spoke blanches, his mouth snapping shut. Good. Maybe the assembled gentry need a reminder of who they shouldn’t f*cking offend. Jiang Cheng adds a glare, for good measure, and then adjusts his sleeves. Calm. Cool. He can handle this. He knows what he’s doing.

“Yunmeng Jiang doesn’t present our agenda until tomorrow,” he says, coldly, which is true, and then, “I was intending to mention this then,” which absolutely isn’t true, and also he didn’t mean to say. His mouth keeps going. “Fan Zhu’eris, indeed, a recently promoted senior disciple of Lotus Pier, but she has been serving the sect since shortly after the Sunshot Campaign, after she presented me with the swords of the Wen cultivators she killed in defense of Yunmeng territory.”

“Yes, that all sounds very impressive,” Yao-zongzhu says, waving him off, “but no core! What can she possibly cultivate?”

Jiang Cheng thinks about throwing his teacup directly into the man’s face. God, he wants to. He opens his mouth to say something really cutting, and what comes out is, “Fan Zhu’eris the inventor of the Boar path of cultivation.”

This is bizarre enough that the whole room goes silent, Jiang Cheng included. The f*ck. The f*ck.The f*ck? Did that actually just come out of his mouth? Behind him he hears the distinct sound of Fan Zhu’er taking a breath, probably to directly ask him, “Hey, what the f*ck?” It’s a fair question, but he started this extremely bizarre course of action and now has no choice but to see it through, so he squares his shoulders and continues, “She instructs others in her cultivation path at Lotus Pier with my full support and blessing. We had a demonstration arranged as part of our agenda.” All of this is a wild lie. Thank god Wei Wuxian isn’t in the room, he’s always known Jiang Cheng’s tells. The only people here who know him that well are Nie Huaisang and Jin Ling, and he trusts both of them not to call him out on it. (He doesn’t trust Nie Huaisang for much else, but he trusts him for this.)

“You expect us to believe a corelesswoman can cultivate?” Yao-zongzhu half-shouts. “What do you take us for? How could she be anything but a liabilityon a night hunt?”

“I watched her take down a boar yaoguai with my own eyes,” Jiang Cheng says through his teeth. “It was larger than an ox and reeking with resentful energy.” He takes a sip of his tea, just to let the room stew. “She stabbed it to death single handedly. She fights as well as I would expect from any Jiang disciple.” “Better than your f*cking cultivators,”he doesn’t say, but tries to really, really imply. “If Yao-zongzhu questions my judgement and cannot wait for the Yunmeng Jiang exhibition tomorrow and would like to see the evidence for himself...” Jiang Cheng pushes to his feet, shoulders back, chin up, Zidian sparkling on his wrist. “We can arrange a more personal demonstration.” Oh, what the f*ck is he doing, why is he doing this?

“I--” Yao-zongzhu starts, going red. “You--!”

“Fan Zhu’er,” Jiang Cheng says, keeping his eyes forward and his stance confident. Play along, play along,he begs mentally. Maybe she won’t. Maybe she’ll just walk out of this ridiculous floral hall and throw down the sword she doesn’t even like wielding and go be a rogue corelesscultivator, fighting boars in the woods like she was born for it. He wouldn’t blame her, he decides, even as the very idea of Fan Zhu’erwalking out makes his guts twist unpleasantly.

“Jiang-zongzhu,” she says, sweeping around in front of him and bowing over her sword with perfect protocol. Jiang Cheng is so relieved he gets a little bit dizzy. He hadn’t even heard her get up, f*ck,they’re doing this. She straightens and looks at him, face outwardly calm, a loyal disciple awaiting orders. It’s only his experience with her facial expressions that allows him to interpret the thing she’s carefully doing with her eyes, which, he’s pretty sure, is her saying, “f*ck you and every ancestor you’ve ever had.” It might also be, “f*ck these motherf*ckers.” Definitely one of those. He can ask her which later, if she ever speaks to him again. Her eyebrow quirks, just a little, along with the corner of her mouth, and this one he knows. “Your move, Quangu-zongzhu,” he hears, in her voice, and Jiang Cheng’s pride flares down in his golden core. They’re doingthis.

“The same demonstration you made for the Nies?” he says, crisply, like he’d had any f*cking idea that he was going to walk around a corner and find her lifting other cultivators for fun and profit. (God, he hopes she understands what he means, because there’s no way to explain it out loud without giving the whole game away.)

She narrows her eyes, going just a little bit blank as she translates that, and then her face sharpens. “Of course, Jiang-zongzhu,” she says with another bow. Fan Zhu’erhands her sword off to Ma Xueliang, pulls a length of cord out of her robes, and proceeds to tie back her sleeves like she’s a peasant woman about to bring in the harvest. It puts a lot more of her arms on display. Nie Huaisang’s eyes go wide over the top of his fan, and Jiang Cheng thinks Yu-ayi even looks a little impressed. The room has gone quiet, watching this preparation, and whatever they were expecting, it clearly wasn’t for Fan Zhu’erto stride to the center of the aisle, radiating Yunmeng swagger, and drop cleanly into pushups.

“We should probably have someone officially counting,” Jiang Cheng says, casually, as Fan Zhu’ersmoothly reaches ten. “It’s easy to lose track once she gets going.”

“Preposterous!” Ouyang-zongzhu says, even as his son immediately starts counting out loud, looking as delighted as it’s possible for a kid to be. “What is this? How is this supposed to demonstrate her cultivation ability?”

“Ouyang-zongzhu, like any venerable cultivator, of course knows that while the core is important, a strong core cannot completely overcome a weak body,” Jiang Cheng says, really trying to make it sound like this is Ouyang-zongzhu’s own idea, not basic cultivation theory all of them should have learned before they ever even picked up a training sword. “Fan Zhu’erhas no core.” He gestures at her, where she’s reached twenty-five and shows no signs of slowing down. “Her cultivation focuses solelyon training the body.”

“While I’m sure that’s admirable,” Qin-zongzhu says, a bit delicately, probably because he knows his daughter isn’t the strongest cultivator around and thus he’s more inclined to be polite on the subject of golden cores, “I must agree with Ouyang-zongzhu that your Fan-guniang isn’t showing cultivator-level abilities.”

(“Thirty-six!” the Ouyang kid says in the background, in chorus with at least one Lan junior and the Nie woman with the eyebrow scar.)

“I see,” Jiang Cheng says, taking the time to pour himself a cup of tea. “Unfortunately, Carp Tower seems to have a dearth of hauntings at the moment.” He crosses to stand beside Fan Zhu’erand casts his eyes over the assembled gentry, trying to project exactly how ridiculous he finds this whole situation, along with a confidence he doesn’t actually feel. “I suppose we can make some adjustments.” Fan Zhu’erreaches the apex of her pushup (“Forty-one!”) and Jiang Cheng says, “Hold.” Fan Zhu’ergoes still, a perfect plank position, so firm and steady she might as well be carved of stone. She’s so--this whole thing is so--

Jiang Cheng hates himself in advance for what he’s about to do.

He sweeps his robes out of the way with his free hand, sits down on her back like it’s the seat of a bench, and does a quarter-turn to face the front of the hall as he tucks his feet up cross legged. “Continue,” he orders, absolutely sure for a horrible moment that she’s going to fling him off her back and leave forever, after being reduced to doing tricks on command like a busker’s pet in front of an audience even more hostile than the average market crowd.

Instead, he feels her back shift under him as she inhales, the interplay of her muscles as she resets her stance, and then the wild, swooping dip as she lowers smoothly down and pushes back up. Jiang Cheng keeps his posture perfect, his face bored, as though this is a daily occurrence at Lotus Pier, and he takes a sip of his tea.

(Wei Wuxian isn’t the only person who knows how to make a scene, okay? Jiang Cheng is just more careful about when and how he chooses to do it. That’s called diplomacy.)

“Forty-two, and, uh, one?” says the Ouyang kid, and then, to a teenage girl Jiang Cheng thinks is probably his sister, “Should we be counting these separately?”

“As you can see, Qin-zongzhu,” Jiang Cheng says, focusing all his mental attention on the room in front of him (oh god, he can feel every muscle in her back, and she’s using a lot of them), “Fan Zhu’er’s training techniques are extremely effective.” His robes feel uncomfortably tight. Is it weirdly warm in this hall?

“Indeed,” Qin-zongzhu says, weakly. “She certainly seems… powerful.”

“All right, so she’s strong!” Yao-zongzhu says, blustering back into the conversation, as annoying and unwelcome as a mosquito in a bedroom. “Strength doesn’t have anything to do with cultivation level! Are you really claiming she can night hunt?”

“Ma Xueliang,” Jiang Cheng says, with another sip of his tea. When Ma Xueliang appears at his side, bowing politely, he spares her a single glance before making direct eye contact with Yao-zongzhu. “Please describe for the room the night hunts you’ve been on with Fan Zhu’er.”

(The back of his neck is as warm as the backs of his thighs, where he’s sitting onFan Zhu’er. She’s so warm.What the f*ck. What happened to his day?)

“Fifty-four!” the Ouyang kid says, while his sister says “Twelve!” Jiang Cheng is pretty sure he sees bets happening in the back rows. People are going to talk about this. Good.

“Zongzhu,” Ma Xueliang says, with another crisp bow. She straightens, fixes her eyes slightly above everyone’s head, and takes a deep breath. “On the first night hunt I went on with Fan Zhu’er, she punched a fierce corpse so hard she knocked it down, and then she pinned it to the ground with her boar spear and kept it trapped while we neutralized it.” She pauses, the corner of her mouth twitching with something like pride. “She was eighteen.”

“A lucky hit!” Yao-zongzhu tries.

“Quiet,” Yu-ayi snaps at him. “I want to hear this.”

“Sixty!”

“Eighteen!”

“The secondnight hunt I went on with Fan Zhu’er,” Ma Xueliang continues, as though she’s delivering a report, “we ended up fighting a deer yaoguai that had grown to the height of a house. She threw Hu Yueque at it sword-first so hard its skull cracked.” She pauses, again, and Jiang Cheng realizes she’s doing it for dramatic effect. “She was eighteen then, as well.”

(Jiang Cheng comes to the conclusion that he needs to go back through a bunch of night hunt reports and figure out which ones were carefully obfuscating Fan Zhu’er’s presence. Immediately after this realization, Fan Zhu’ergrunts quietly and re-adjusts her plank stance, and the feeling of her voice rumbling up through his body makes his brain go screamingly blank.)

“I’ll skip the next two, with Jiang-zongzhu’s permission,” Ma Xueliang says, with a bow, “because they are similar to the first two. On the fifth night hunt we shared, Fan Zhu’er tracked down the source of the illness plaguing the village to a storage shed where a murder victim had been buried. The resentful energy was poisoning their food supplies. Her knowledge of growing up in a similar village meant she saw clues the rest of us didn’t. If she hadn’t been there, it would have likely led to a true haunting, and deaths. Everyone recovered. A one hundred percent success rate.”

“Poisoning the food?” Yu-ayi muses, running her fingers along the hem of her indigo sleeve. “Corpse poisoning usually spreads through water. The food…Hm.”

“Seventy-one!”

“Twenty-nine!”

Fan Zhu’ercontinues doing pushups. She’s breathing a little harder. Her ribs expand under Jiang Cheng’s legs, each inhale lifting him and each exhale dropping him in a counterpoint to the lifting and falling of the pushups themselves. It’s weird. He tries to ignore it, but his heart is pounding as though he’s the one carrying the weight of an entire person on his back.

(Is this what a qi deviation feels like? Jiang Cheng might be about to have a qi deviation.)

“The next one…” Ma Xueliang starts, and then trails off, squinting thoughtfully. “I know it was a yao. Was it the alligator?”

“Crow,” Fan Zhu’ersays, her deep voice vibrating into Jiang Cheng’s bone marrow. Fall and rise, like being on a boat, except she’s solid underneath him like water isn’t. “Tracked it for eight shi.” Another pushup. “Right up the side of a mountain.”

“Right!” Ma Xueliang snaps her fingers. “The alligator was the next one.” She straightens her shoulders, chin coming up. “Fan Zhu’erjumped on it and tied its mouth shut first thing, which made everything that came afterward mucheasier.”

“Ninety-one!” The Ouyang heir sounds like this is the best day of his entire life, so it’s nice that one person present is having a good time.

“Forty!”

“So we’re supposed to take the word of a single disciple as evidence that this woman can night hunt?” Yao-zongzhu cuts in, apparently having overcome his previous fear of Yu-ayi. “That’s ridiculous! We need hard proof!”

“You’ll get it tomorrow,” Jiang Cheng says, voice as cool and cold as the top of a frozen pond. “And if you still don’t believe me after watching her spar, you’d be welcome to try fighting her yourself.” He finishes his tea and adds, “Please let me know with enough time that I can bet against you.”

“Jiang-zongzhu,” Lan Wangji says, his voice cutting through the low hum of the room and Yao-zongzhu’s incoherent spluttering. “Your point has been made.” He makes brief eye contact and inclines his head in something like a thank-you and something like dismissal. It’s surprisingly not assholeish of him, and Jiang Cheng nods back without even being particularly stiff about it.

“Hold,” he says to Fan Zhu’er, at the top of her next push-up, and when she returns to bench form (seriously, is she made of f*cking rocks?) he climbs off with all the dignity he can muster. Jiang Cheng has to lock his knees as he stands, because they want to waver for some weird reason. Probably a delayed reaction from the sh*tload of lying he just did in front of the entire cultivation world. He ignores it and glares out at the room, daring anyone to say anything else about Fan Zhu’er or Yunmeng Jiang or coreless cultivators.

“Ninety-five,” the Ouyang kid says, sounding disappointed, as his sister says, “Forty-four,” and then Fan Zhu’erkeeps doing pushups.Five more, the movements of her arms as smooth and unstoppable as a machine run by a water wheel. She reaches a hundred total, jumps her feet forward to meet her hands, and stands up like a mountain rising out of a plain. There’s applause, mostly from the Ouyang teens, a few Nie cultivators and that one Lan junior. Seeing a Lan clap is possibly the most surreal experience of Jiang Cheng’s life, which is saying something considering the events of the last shichen.

“Wanted to end on a nice number,” she tells Jiang Cheng, as though he needed an explanation. She’s red-faced, sweat curling the hairs at her temples, breathing a bit faster than usual but not so much that it even impacts her speech. It’s f*cking impressive. Jiang Cheng is fully ready to duel anyone who says otherwise. She turns to Lan Wangji and executes the most perfect bow he’s ever seen from her. “This one apologizes for the interruption to the agenda, Xiandu.”

Lan Wangji dismisses her apology with a carefully polite movement of his hand. “No need for apologies,” he says, voice flat but sincere. “Your point was valid.” It’s much more deferential than he’s ever been to Jiang Cheng, the f*cker, and he takes a moment to hate him a little extra, for making Jiang Cheng appreciate the politeness. “Any further questions about Fan-guniang’s cultivation can wait until after the demonstration tomorrow,” he continues, to the room this time, eyes snapping from sect leader to sect leader with the intensity of a hawk. “We will return to the subject at hand.”

“Quite right!” Ouyang-zongzhu says, puffing up like an overconfident rooster. Jiang Cheng barely keeps himself from rolling his eyes as he retakes his seat. Fan Zhu’er shoots Ouyang-zongzhu a glare so full of murder it’s amazing the man doesn’t feel the energy, but that would require that he have a single modicum of self-awareness. “As I was saying; Baling Ouyang has no iron mines within its territory--”

“We will return to the subject of the refugees,” Lan Wangji says, the words as pointed and precise as an arrow. They hit Ouyang-zongzhu with the same force, and the man snaps his mouth shut, opens it again, and silently goggles up at the dais. The Second Jade, every single cun of him Hanguang-jun, turns his head smoothly to Qin-zongzhu and adds, “I believe your people are in similar need.” A pause, precisely timed, and he finishes, “We will seek an equitable solution for those displaced.”

“Good,” Jiang Cheng hears Fan Zhu’er hiss behind him. He grits his teeth, stomach roiling, river-rapids of emotion in his guts. They shouldn’t have--heshouldn’t have needed a reminder.His disciple shouldn’t have had to open herself up to the scrutiny of the sects in order to point out their failures. There shouldn’t have beena failure in the first place. He’s going to do what he can to make sure there isn’t a failure like this in the future, that’s for damn sure.

Lan Wangjiseems to have the same feelings with regard to refugees and the failures of the sects, because he keeps Ouyang-zongzhu and Qin-zongzhu absolutely pinned to the wall until they’ve both outlined acceptable aid plans. Jiang Cheng chimes in occasionally, as his disciples pass him reports about river traffic and food supplies and village population, and the conference at large only gets to move on after decisions have been made and solutions devised for the displaced population. Hanguang-jun makes them send messages immediately.He’s not f*cking around even a little. Jiang Cheng appreciates it and hates that he appreciates it. f*cking Lan Wangji. Prick.

Eventually Ouyang-zongzhu gets to complain about iron trading for a while, and then some other bullsh*t sect leader stuff that Jiang Cheng didn’t have time for even when he wasn’t boiling in guilt about every sect’s constant, ongoing ball-dropping when it comes to taking care of their own people. The whole time he swears he can feel resentful energy pouring off of Fan Zhu’erbehind him, almost the way it felt back when everything went wrong with Wei Wuxian. This isn’t the cold fury of ghosts, though, this is the hot, protective fury of someone who’s very much alive and might be considering causing several people to abruptly be the opposite. He’s surprised he can’t smell smoke. He’s surprised he hasn’t heard her break anything. He is absolutely unsurprised by the near silent little things she says, the hissed breaths and the occasional insult. It’s wildly inappropriate. He doesn’t blame her. Jiang Cheng needs to--when they get out of this interminable conference for the day, he’s going to--to do something. Fix this. It presses on him like deep water, the knowledge that he forced Fan Zhu’erin front of the gentry to perform like a hired dancer. Hired dancers get warning, though. They get paid.Fan Zhu’ergot neither.

Jiang Cheng clenches his jaw around a headache. Just a quarter shichen left, and then he can leave this reeking hall of useless, petty people and breathe fresh air and try to repair the damage.

The bell that announces the end of the day’s meeting rolls out through the room, bouncing off the walls with a kind of carefully-designed harmony that Jiang Cheng might appreciate on another day but this is not that day. He stands, along with his disciples, and they sweep out into the late afternoon sunlight. His headache gets worse and better at the same time, which is really impressive of it.

“You’re dismissed,” he tells his cultivators, and they’re professional enough not to all cheer but there’s certainly the impression of cheering.

“Wine?” he hears one of them say, quietly enough that he’s not sure who, and the answering, “Please.”Good f*cking idea. Jiang Cheng wishes he could get drunk, too.

Fan Zhu’ersays nothing. Fan Zhu’erignores the two women heading back toward the living quarters and instead strides away toward the training grounds. The lingering fury and frustration of the conference radiates from her in waves. It should shimmer like heat distortion, but doesn’t, which is really a failure of reality to be quite frank. Jiang Cheng watches her go, useless and frozen, until she whips around around a corner in a cloud of purple silk and rage. Then his legs finally unstick themselves, and he berates himself for all of his many, many failings as he follows.

She moves fast, clearly fueled by anger, and Jiang Cheng isn’t willing to run to catch up (both because it’s undignified and also because if a sect leader is actually runningsomewhere everyone will assume something is on fire and he doesn’t want to cause a panic), so he speedwalks after her. “Fan Zhu’er!” he hisses, when he doesn’t think he’ll be overheard. “Wait!”

Fan Zhu’erdoes not wait. She rounds another corner, the training yard opening up in front of them when Jiang Cheng chases her down the steps. (No, he’s not chasingher, he’s just… something else that looks like chasing.) There are people around but it’s not crowded, loud enough with the sounds of weapon training that it’d be difficult to eavesdrop, which is good because Jiang Cheng needs to--he needs to express--he needs to tell Fan Zhu’erthat he’s--that he regrets--

“Fan Zhu’er,” he says, low, all his words tangling in his throat, water weeds wrapped up in an anchor. She’s finally stopped moving, standing in an open space near a few Nies practicing saber forms. “Fan Zhu’er, I--” he tries, setting one hand on her shoulder, wanting to get her to turn around.

She turns around all right. Fan Zhu’er whips the f*ck around and drawson him, her sword whistling out of its sheath and at his f*cking neck. Jiang Cheng brings Sandu up to block with the sheath out of pure muscle memory. “Spar,” she snaps at him, eyes blazing.

Jiang Cheng draws his sword. Good. Perfect. This he knows how to do. He takes a step back and bows, because there are rules to sparring, and he has to think about how it would look to others if they didn’t at least f*cking bowfirst. Fan Zhu’erbows back, barely appropriately, and takes a perfect stance. Pride flares in Jiang Cheng’s chest at how evenly distributed her weight is, pride that he immediatelyforgets when she tries to stab him again. He deflects in a flicker of light on steel, and then it’s on.Fan Zhu’eradvances, driving forward with her whole weight behind her strikes, and Jiang Cheng doesn’t lether, exactly, he just doesn’t try very hard to stop her. She needs to blow off some steam? Fine. She can blow it off on him, and then maybe they can talk and he can tell her--

(Deep, deep down, Jiang Cheng knows he needs to apologize for springing that whole messon her, for putting her on display, for f*cking sittingon her without so much as a warning. The rest of him would rather die than ever say the words “I’m sorry” out loud. Jiang Cheng is aware that this is not a sensible way to feel. He still feels that way, because f*ck him is why.)

--something. He can tell her something.

Fan Zhu’erhits him in the ribs with her sheath, which is absolutely not fighting fair, and it snaps him back to full awareness of the actual spar. Right. Jiang Cheng shifts his weight, waits for an opening, and the next time she drives at him, slaps her sword away and slips past her, pushing her off-balance with a jab to the back of one thigh as he goes. She staggers and whips around, sword and sheath up in a defensive position, and they circle for a moment, both wary.

“I know you’re upset,” Jiang Cheng tries, voice low so it won’t carry. Fan Zhu’ersnorts, feints, and goes for a low slash. Metal clashes as he parries with the sheath, dancing away. Good footwork on her part, actually.

“Upset?” she repeats, mockingly, closing the distance between them and raining strikes on him like hail, with sword and scabbard alike. “You know I’m upset?Congratuf*ckinglations, Jiang-zongzhu, you have the bare minimum amount of perception allowed for anyone to claim to be breathing.

Yeah, that’s fair. “That wasn’t--” he starts, and then dodges when she swings at his head, catches her next strike on his blade, and holds her off with braced arms. “That wasn’t how I had planned today to go.”

“What hadyou planned?” she snarls, pushing her whole weight against him, hard enough that he has to slide his back foot out for the leverage he needs to stay still. “Had you planned to just sit there and let them--let them f*cking--”

“No!” Jiang Cheng says, heart pounding with exertion and nothing else. He twists aside, disengaging from her sword as she falls past him. It’s not a stumble--she has too much control for that, but she wasn’t expecting it and it takes her a moment to regroup. “I shouldn’t have--”

“Shouldn’t have what?” she bites out, between strikes that ring against Sandu all the way up into his shoulders. “Shouldn’t have ignored your f*cking sect leader friends while they bickered about pigsh*t?

“Yes?” Jiang Cheng says, dodging, and then, as he swings at her, “No?”

“Which is it?” Fan Zhu’ersneers, deflecting his blade and returning the attack twice over, feinting with her sword and following it up with a jab with her sheath that connects with his ribs.

“I don’t know!” Jiang Cheng admits, sweat prickling under the collar of his robes. “I’m trying--” Fan Zhu’er’s sword rings against his again, and he has to stop speaking in order to deflect it. “I didn’t mean to--” Once again he finds himself interrupted by her attack, and he swears under his breath. “You should have had warning!” he forces out, as he shoves her back with all his strength, gaining a few paces of space between them, the time to speak, and the room to actually breathe.

Fan Zhu’ermakes a face at him. It’s a weird face, angry and confused and questioning. “Warning about what?”

“The whole thing,” Jiang Cheng hisses, furious, his guts squirming. “I didn’t know they’d--I wanted. To be able to ask you in advance before I just--” he gestures, with his sword hand, trying to sum it up and failing “--climbedon you, like you were a horse.”

Fan Zhu’er’s weird face changes into another, weirder face, like Jiang Cheng has started speaking in a dialect she doesn’t know, one spoken primarily by snails. She stares at him. “That’swhat you’re worried about?”

“I’m not worried,” Jiang Cheng snaps, mouth moving without input from his brain. He catches up a moment later and frowns harder than he already was. “Isn’t that why you’re angry?”

Perhaps he’s gone deeper into speaking the snail dialect, because Fan Zhu’er co*cks her head at him, still angry, clearly disbelieving. “I don’t give a f*ck about that,” she says, exasperated, and drives at him again, steel ringing on steel as her sword scrapes against his until the crossguards lock up, leaving them face-to-face, close enough his panting breaths ruffle the hairs that have come loose from her braids. Sweat beads on her temples, her furious face flushed red with exertion and anger, eyes as sharp as her sword. Jiang Cheng gets distracted for some reason, and she takes advantage, kicking at his shin and driving him staggering backward.

“But,” he tries, trying to re-orient himself in the conversation and the fight simultaneously. “Then-- You--”

“I had thought,” she says, through her teeth, “that you all at least f*cking tried.” Fan Zhu’erswings at him, with no finesse, just power and weight, and it rattles Jiang Cheng’s teeth when he blocks it. “I had thoughtyou all were doing your best.” Another bone-jarring strike. Jiang Cheng retreats, giving up ground, mostly just because he’s trying his hardest to understand and it isn’t leaving much capacity for anything else. “I had thoughtthat you all f*cking cared.

“About what?” Jiang Cheng asks, dodging her next strike and feinting with his sword, a slow realization starting to crawl over his skin.

“About your f*cking people!” Fan Zhu’er deflects his attack and thumps him in the thigh with her scabbard, hard.“But you don’t!” Another jab with her sword, that Jiang Cheng parries to somewhere over his shoulder. Her eyes flash, furious, sweat plastering fly-away hairs to her skin. She looks about half a breath from committing a murder, and Jiang Cheng’s heart pounds at that thought for some reason.

“I do,” he says, desperate to make her believe that. She snorts, an ugly, dismissive sound, and closes the distance between them again, swords crashingtogether.

“Do you, Jiang-zongzhu?” she asks, glaring down at him from a hand’s length away. “Do you care? Would you have remembered to ask about the refugees if I wasn’t there? Would anyone?

Jiang Cheng flinches, and Fan Zhu’er’s eyes sharpen. “I--” he starts, voice faltering. “Yes,” he wants to say, “I would have. I’m the person you believed I was.” The words are bitter and harsh in the back of his throat, and he swallows them down like bile. “No,” he says, suddenly exhausted. “Hanguang-jun, maybe,” and isn’t that the worst f*cking thing he’s ever had to admit in his whole life, “but not the others.”

Fan Zhu’erexhales through her nose, growling. “No,” she repeats, voice cold, “you wouldn’t have.” She shoves him back half a step. “I thought the sects were supposed to protect the common people, Jiang-zongzhu, but you f*ckers sit around and complain about silk prices and f*cking debate the best f*cking way to stab monsters,as though there’s a wrongway to stab a monster, and not a one of you gives a sh*t about actuallyhelping!” She shoves him back again, the muscles of her arms and shoulders straining, f*ckshe’s strong and she knows what she’s doing. “You’d rather goon a night hunt than prevent it from happening in the first place, because how else would you measure dicks?” Another shove and he’s practically at the edge of the training ground. “And who suffers while you’re up here eating and drinking more than you possibly need and acting like your problems matter?” Fan Zhu’erblinks, eyes wet, mouth suddenly tight. “People,” she hisses, “Like me. Like my granny and my brother. Do you have anyf*cking idea how easily you could change their lives, Jiang-zongzhu?”

Jiang Cheng would gnaw off his own arm if it meant Fan Zhu’erwould stop calling him Jiang-zongzhu in that tone of voice. “What do you mean?” he asks, uncharacteristically quiet. She’s not pushing against him anymore, and he’s not resisting. They’re just standing, swords pressed together, almost in some kind of salute. He can fix this, he can,he wantsto fix this, he just needs her to tell him how. “What can I do?” he asks, not looking away from that dark, angry gaze for an instant. Tell me,he begs, internally.

She stares at him for a good, long time, scrutinizing every inch of his face. When she finds what she was looking for, she steps back, sheathes her sword, and bows. “Thank you for the spar, Jiang-zongzhu,” she says. “Zhu’erwas honored by your instruction.” It’s all very polite and proper and appropriate and Jiang Cheng hates every instant of it with a white-hot fire. Fan Zhu’erglances up at him and whispers, “You need to speak to me about something elsewhere.”

To say that Jiang Cheng relaxes would be a lie--he hasn’t relaxed in the last twenty years and isn’t about to start now--but relief pours over him like stepping under a waterfall. He sheaths Sandu and bows as well. “Your sword work has improved,” he says, gruff, the way he usually acknowledges success in his disciples. “A letter arrived earlier that you should see,” he adds, lying wildly. “Come with me.”

“Of course, Jiang-zongzhu,” she says, placidly, and follows him off the training field. No one seems to have noticed anything amiss. Small blessings. As soon as they’re out of sight she speeds up, leading him through the gilded warrens of Carp Tower until they end up back in the lotus pond garden. Jiang Cheng’s heart lurches, like tripping over a rut in the road, but the pavilion by the pond is empty, no crow-black robes to be seen. Fan Zhu’erleads him to the table, rifles through her talismans, and shoves two of them at him with a flat, “Cast these.”

Jiang Cheng checks them before he casts them, out of long-ingrained prank-avoiding habit, and finds nothing untoward--one’s a fairly standard warning talisman and the other’s intended to keep them from being overheard. Both flicker up into purple sparks with a pulse of his qi. Fan Zhu’erignores him, pouring herself a cup of water from the waiting supplies on the table and downing it, eyes narrowed at the middle distance.

“Why don’t you care about preventing night hunts?” she asks, before he can open his mouth, and Jiang Cheng squints at her. Prevention? None of his training has gone into prevention, only the standard techniques of liberation, suppression, and elimination. He doesn’t even know what prevention would looklike. Jiang Cheng pours and drinks some water for himself, as a stalling tactic, and tries to think.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” he admits, when his cup is empty and he doesn’t have another easy way to procrastinate. Fan Zhu’erstares at him. She looks like she’s barely holding back from rolling her eyes. Jiang Cheng wants to roll his eyes at himself.f*ck this day.

“Okay,” she says, pressing her fingertips to the inner corners of her eyes and taking a deep, deep breath. “Jiang-zongzhu,” she starts, turning toward him, chin up, shoulders back, like she’s teaching a crowd of juniors, “what’s the most common cause of a haunting?”

“A dead person who hasn’t been buried with the proper rituals to ensure their rest,” Jiang Cheng says, promptly, wishing fiercely that she’d call him Jiang Wanyin again instead of zongzhu, “or someone who dies in such a way that it causes an excess of resentful energy.” It’s an easy question, and obviously a setup. He waits for the strike.

Fan Zhu’ernods at his junior-level answers, her face giving away nothing. “What’s the most common death that leads to a resentful spirit?”

Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes at her, where she’s winding up for the blow. “Murder.”

“Wrong,” she says, flatly, a held moment of stillness before the attack. “I’ve gone through Yunmeng Jiang’s records.” The touch of her forefinger to the opposite thumb. “Hunger.” The next finger. “Disease.” The next. “A lack of needed medicine.” The next. “Fouled water.” Her pinkie finger joins the others, and she taps it. “Tainted food.” Fan Zhu’erwaves her hand at him, fingers spread. “Murder isn’t even in the top five! It’s down after ‘death by childbirth!’ and right above ‘farming accident!’”

“Farming accident?” Jiang Cheng’s mouth asks without his say-so.

“Livestock animals are big,” Fan Zhu’ersays without missing a beat, and then hisses out a breath between her teeth. “My pointis, Jiang-zongzhu, that if you all wanted to avoidhauntings in the first place, you’d actually fixthings, and you clearly f*cking don’t!” She spreads her hands out, clearly livid. “You all talked a lot of sh*t about Wei-gongzi for usingresentful energy, but he wasn’t the one creatingit! Every f*cking time you let one of your people die a preventible death, you risk causing a night hunt!” Her hands scrub over her face, roughly, and she looks exhausted and miserable when she drops them and goes straight for the kill with, “Who here is actually cultivatingthe resentment, huh? Tell me that, Jiang-zongzhu.”

Jiang Cheng might actually puke, the slow horror of that crawling over his skin like one of Wei Wuxian’s ghosts. He opens his mouth, fists shaking at his sides, closes his mouth again, swallows, and tries to breathe. He hadn’t-- She’s right,though, is the thing, it’s like looking at a painting of a rabbit and having it suddenly turn into a duck. What does it say about the great sects, that they condemn the use of resentful energy but ignore the way they allow it to flourish? “Hunger?” he asks quietly, voice hoarse.

Fan Zhu’er’s face goes distant and sad, looking somewhere past him, at a memory. “Starved children make the hungriest ghosts,” she says, twisting the knife she’d already sunk into his ribs, and Jiang Cheng abruptly remembers Wei Wuxian, skinny and terrified and just off the streets. He remembers the way he looked at food, with disbelief and wonder, like it might be yanked away at any second, and he thinks about what would have happened if his father hadn’t found him, thinks about the ghost of his brother, dead as a child and forced to face a cultivator’s sword.

“What--” he starts, desperate, “what do you think I should do? I can’t--Lotus Pier’s coffers can’t cover all of Yunmeng.”

“Your coffers can’t,” Fan Zhu’ersays, moving to the table, “but your cultivators can.” She pulls out one of her stacks of talismans and slaps it down on the table. “I work on talismans for the kitchen,” she says, conversationally, as she rifles through the sheets of paper. “This one, for example--” she shows him a page, where he recognizes the radicals for cooling, and something about endurance? “--keeps food fresh for up to two weeks. Do you know what that would mean for a poor family trying to decide if something had spoiled too badly? If it was worth the risk of sickness when the alternative is starvation?” She flips to another, moving faster, eyes flashing. “This one is for purifying fouled water. What would that do for the flood refugees in Baling? You know how resentment spreads through floodwaters.”

“It’s good,” Jiang Cheng says, helplessly, because it is, it’s a genius design.

“I have an array version, too,” she says, tracing her fingers over the ink. “I think it could be carved into the stone of a well, to keep the water fresh long-term. So many illnesses come from tainted water. You could save so many people.” Her hand clenches into a fist, and she looks at him pleadingly. “Just--just distributing official talismans would be huge! I’ve seen the garbage people sell in the markers because they’re desperate for anything to help! You f*cking--” she cuts her hand through the air, jaw tight “--you use these things like they’re nothing and they could be everything.Do you have any idea what a qiankun pouch would mean to a rice farmer? How much easier it would make that life?”

Jiang Cheng is at least vaguely familiar with what a rice bale looks like. He’s been in markets, to say nothing of the amount of time he had to spend worried about supply chains, during the war and after it. He’s seen the loaded-down wagons and never considered that there was anything amiss, or anything to improve. As soon as Fan Zhu’erasks, though, he pictures a modified qiankun pouch, designed specifically for storing larger items, and how much easier it would be to make and receive deliveries. Why hadn’t he realizedthat? It makes so much sense!

“You don’t need a golden core to benefit from cultivator medicine, either,” Fan Zhu’eris saying, when he drags his attention back on track. “I’ve seen what medical cultivation can do. If we’d had access, maybe my dad wouldn’t have died from that fever, but it’s just--it’s so simple!” She slaps her hands on the table. “What would it cost you? Cinnabar and paper and a little bit of effort? And you could--the people--f*ck,Jiang-zongzhu, you could have the most loyal populace out of all the sects! They would love you!”

Jiang Cheng reels with the flood of information he’s been hit with, trying to find and focus on the relevant pieces as it rushes past. “I don’t--” he starts, feeling as though he’s looking at the edge of a mostly-covered map and trying to imagine the world it's depicting, “I don’t know that we have enough cultivators.”

“If you stop night hunts before they happen, you’ll havethe cultivators,” Fan Zhu’erpoints out, an expertly-aimed kick at a support pillar he wasn’t aware was holding up many of his beliefs. “Isn’t that better? Isn’t it better if they don’t happen in the first place?” She steps closer, crowding him against the railing of the pavilion, radiating challenge like her body heat. “Isn’t preventing resentful energy better than eliminating it, Jiang-zongzhu? Isn’t it?”

Jiang Cheng nods, the movement jerky. “Why haven’t you?” he asks, and when she co*cks her head he waves at the talismans on the table. “Why haven’t you done it already?”

“Because!” Fan Zhu’ersays, flinging her hands up and barely avoiding punching him as she does, “I didn’t know if I was allowed! I didn’t want to get executed for undermining the sect! I’m one person! But you!” She grabs him by the shoulders and actually shakes him. He can feel every individual finger burning through his layers of robes. “You’re the sect leader! You have the power! You can make it happen! You can help,Jiang Wanyin! You just have to doit!”

Jiang Cheng inhales, deep, the sound of his namecrashing into him like a flung rock. He smells the mud of the lotus pond and the ever-present flowers of Carp Tower and the salt of Fan Zhu’er’s sweat and the herbal scent she always seems to carry. She’s so close.She’s still gripping his shoulders, and her hands are so strong. “The other sect leaders will call it unorthodox,” he says, bitter. “They’ll hate it. They’ll never agree to it.”

“I’m not talking to them,” she says, eyes so intense he can see the flecks of black in the iris. “I’m talking to you.I’m talking to Jiang-zongzhu.” Fan Zhu’ershakes him again. “Are you gonna attempt the impossible or not?”

She should really just stab him, Jiang Cheng thinks mournfully. It would be easier to deal with a physical blow than with this pointed emotional warfare. He knows how to bleed. He doesn’t know how to do whatever the f*ck is happening here. “Yunmeng Jiang presents our agenda tomorrow,” he says, cramming everything happening in his heart and stomach into a chest and locking the chest and dropping the chest down a well. “What should our agenda be?”

Fan Zhu’erstares at him, her mouth dropping open with surprise. He gets the barest glimpse of the pink flash of her tongue before she grins, wide and wild. Her front left canine is a little bit crooked, Jiang Cheng notes with something like despair. “You’ll do it?” she asks, still f*cking holding on to him, and it feels like summer in this pavilion with how warm he is.

“I need an agenda first,” he snaps, bristling, turning himself back into the harsh, standoffish asshole everyone sees him as. Fan Zhu’ereither doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, because she yanks him into a hug, thumps him once on the back nearly hard enough to bruise, and then flings herself back over to the table to snatch up her talismans.

“I’ll write something up,” she says, ignoring Jiang Cheng, who seems to have turned into a statue composed primarily of confusion and qi. “I can start on it right away and get it to you early tomorrow morning, maybe late tonight if I’m fast enough. Am I giving a presentation tomorrow on--what was it?--the Boar path of cultivation?” She glances back at him, over her shoulder, eyebrow arched. “The path I invented, apparently?”

“You bet your f*cking ass you are,” Jiang Cheng says, mouth moving on its own, thankfully bypassing the knot in his throat. “I don’t allow my disciples to turn me into a liar.”

“I think we both know that’s not true, Quangu-zongzhu,” she shoots back, shoving her talismans away and picking up her sword. “Anything I should know before I get started?”

“Make two copies,” Jiang Cheng says, finally actuallythinking through the plan, considering the practicalities. “I’ll need to present one to the xiandu before the conference. It would be better not to take him by surprise.”

She nods. “Understood.” Her eyes narrow at him as she sucks her teeth the way she does when she’s thinking, and she says, “I’m going to need--” and then Fan Zhu’er steps forward, reaches over his shoulder, and runs her f*cking hand into his hair.Jiang Cheng freezes for the second time as she draws her hand out and to the side, letting his hair slip through her fingers and slither down his back. Thankfully he doesn’t shiver, on account of being absolutelytrapped in place, every muscle in his body tense at once. “Good,” she says, in a satisfied tone of voice that squirms into the base of Jiang Cheng’s skull. Fan Zhu’erholds up her hand, revealing a couple black strands wound around her fingers, and explains, “I need these to make sure you’re the only one who can open my message.”

“Smart,” he croaks out, rigid. Sandu’s sheath creaks in his grip, but he can’t seem to relax his hand, or move, or possibly even breathe. He’s sweating again. Why is he sweating again?

“I’ll get it to you as soon as I can,” she says, stepping back and dropping into a bow. Jiang Cheng nods, expecting his joints to creak like a rusty hinge. Fan Zhu’erstands, nods, and strides away. Jiang Cheng watches as though from outside of his body as she pauses after maybe three steps and half-turns so she can meet his eyes.

“Jiang Wanyin,” she says, sincere, her face open and hopefully. “Thank you.”

Jiang Cheng cannot speak. There’s nothing in his lungs anymore. He nods, again, and watches her go, and when she’s finallygone and he’s regained the use of his limbs, he collapses into a seat at the stone table and pours himself another cup of water. Maybe when he’s done drinking it the world will make sense.

(It won’t. He knows this. He still hopes.)

---

Fan Dingxiang throws open the door to her quarters, apparently too hard, if the startled faces of her friends are anything to go by. She’s maybe a littlegiddy with relief and excitement and post-fight energy and the lingering fury from the conference, and therefore misjudged her strength. Whoops. Ma Xueliang opens her mouth, probably to ask where she and Jiang Wanyin had gone after they got out of the conference, and Fan Dingxiang beats her to the punch with, “Who wants to grind ink for me?”

“Uh,” Hu Yueque says, as Fan Dingxiang shoves the door back shut and knee-slides into the table, cushion skidding across the tiled floor, “I guess I can?”

“Great!” Fan Dingxiang tosses her useless sword aside and fumbles in her supply bag for her writing kit, slapping the stone and ink on the table where Hu Yueque can reach it and aggressively scooching the plates of snacks and the teapot out of the way. Her hands shake slightly with lingering nerves and what’s probably mostlytriumph. It worked, it worked,he listened, and now she has a realchance to do some good.

“What are you writing?” Hu Xinling asks, from where he’s draped upside-down over a chair. “And with such fervor?” He shoves a mandarin slice into his mouth and adds, muffled, “Love letter?”

“New talisman design?” Ma Xueliang asks, pouring a cup of tea and sliding it over to wait next to Fan Dingxiang’s elbow.

“A long and pointed review about the quality of the food provided at Carp Tower?” Hu Yueque suggests, already grinding the ink with well-practiced movements.

“Yunmeng Jiang’s agenda to be presented tomorrow,” Fan Dingxiang answers, yanking off her belt and throwing off her huge-sleeved outer robes to pool somewhere behind her on the floor. She lays out some paper, picks up her brush, takes a deep breath, and realizes the room has gone completely silent. Even the gentle scraping sound of ink grinding is gone, and she looks up to find three pairs of wide eyes locked on her. “Jiang-zongzhu asked me to,” she says, which only makes their eyes go wider.

“What happened between the end of the conference and now?” Ma Xueliang asks, a tea cake halfway to her mouth and frozen there.

“Forget that, what happened at the conference?” Hu Xinling asks. “Yang-er said you and Jiang-zongzhu put on quite a show.”

Fan Dingxiang whistles, rubbing her hands over her face. “Listen, friends, today has been a day.” She downs her tea, suddenly exhausted, and chases it with two tea cakes and a second cup before she speaks again. “Ma Xueliang can tell you the basics while I write, but the short version is that the sect leaders are useless f*cks, I yelled at Jiang-zongzhu about it for a little while, and I think he’s going to start distributing my talismans to the people.”

Yelled?” Hu Xinling squeaks.

“Talismans?” Ma Xueliang asks, holding the teapot in midair.

“I was really worked up,” Fan Dingxiang says, flushing hot under her collar at the memory of crowding Jiang Wanyin against the railing, of his strong shoulders under her grip. She probablyshouldn’t have done that. He’d smelled nice. She has no regrets. “It was persuasive yelling.”

“Hell yeah,” Hu Yueque says, who has heard Fan Dingxiang’s Cultivation for Commoners rant on more than one occasion, “Oh, f*ck yes, this is gonna be amazing.” She starts grinding ink again like she’s getting paid for it. “Start writing! We can help you workshop your first draft. I’m coming tomorrow, I want to watch this happen.”

“I’m rearranging my schedule,” Hu Xinling announces, “I’m telling Yang-er he has to come to this instead of any of the classes. Yao-zongzhu is going to be so furious.

“You know,” Ma Xueliang says, holding out another tea cake so Fan Dingxiang can eat it and write at the same time, “I was thinking it was Yunmeng Jiang’s turn to ruin a discussion conference.” She brushes crumbs off her hands and refills Fan Dingxiang’s teacup. “This is gonna be fun.

“Attempt the impossible, motherf*ckers,” Fan Dingxiang announces, and she dips her brush in ink, because oh yeah. She’s gonna.

Notes:

Yu-zongzhu: Yu Zizhān 虞紫鸇 (purple sparrow hawk)

I had a hard time tracking down where the Qin sect is supposed to be located and also what the name of that location is, but after doing some digging on the MDZS wiki and cross-referencing it with the map here. This map does not list Laoling, but there are other places online where the clan is referred to as Yueling Qin, so I went with the Yueling location and the Laoling name. Hnnng locations what even are they

This chapter has been converted for free using AOYeet!

Chapter 11

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng can’t sleep.

This isn’t uncommon, really, so it’s not like he’s surprised. It just feels different than the usual reasons he can’t sleep. He’s restless, his skin too tight and too sensitive. He almost wants to take a second bath, but if the first one didn’t fix whatever this is, it’s unlikely that another one would. (Also, it’s late enough that most of the servants are asleep. Jiang Cheng isn’t so decadent a sect leader as to demand people get out of their beds to cater to his every whim. He’s not a Jin.)

(Jiang Cheng supposes that, now that the leaders of the Jin sect are his nephew and his sort-of sister by marriage, he might have to stop thinking thename Jinin such tones of derision. That sounds like a problem for future Jiang Cheng, though, so he ignores it for now.)

He rolls over again, tucking his arms up under his chin. He can feel his face pull into a scowl and consciously relaxes it, rolls out his jaw, takes a deep breath. Sleep.He can do this. He ought to spend approximately a third of his life asleep, there’s no reason he should be this bad at it. Meditating is kindalike sleep, right? Jiang Cheng modulates his breathing, focuses on the flow of his qi, and attempts to meditate himself to sleep.

Two joss sticks of time later, he’s more mentally centered but tragically, still awake. It’s slightly too warm with the blanket on top of him, but when he tosses it back, he’s slightly too cold and stillhis skin feels tight and prickling. His energy is weird. He feels like he wants to move? Maybe? But when he considers going for a walk or just doing some crunches here in his rooms, neither option appeals. He feels… He feels like…

Oh. Okay. It’s obvious now that he’s realized it, but in his defense (he thinks to himself, because he’s secretly a neurotic weirdo, apparently) he doesn’t actually feel this way very often, so he forgives himself for taking a bit to figure it out. Jiang Cheng sighs, a little bit exasperated, tugs his sleeping robes of the way, and palms his dick through the smooth linen of his trousers. He’s half hard already, he notes with mild surprise, and it doesn’t take long before he’s all the way there. He gets his waistband undone and workeddown over his thighs, everything exposed that needs to be, and strokes himself slowly, eyes closed, breathing into the darkness behind his eyelids and letting the sensation wash over his skin and pool near his lower dantian. Already he feels better, both from having identified the problem and from the actions he’s taking to address said problem. He twists his hand on the way back up, bites his lower lip, and shivers.

(It’s not like Jiang Cheng nevermasturbat*s. It’s just not his first choice of activity. First off, going through your teenage years sharing a room with your incredibly f*cking nosy night owl of an older brother doesn’t exactly bode well for any activities that require privacy, and then he fought a f*cking war,and then he rebuilt his sect, and then he raised his nephew, and jerking it mostly just seemed like yet another thing he didn’t have time for. It’s nice when he’s in the mood for it, and Jiang Cheng doesn’t see a need to try and get himself in the mood for it on a more regular basis. From what he’s overheard, this is not a normal way for a healthy man of his stature to behave, but Jin Guangshan was considered a healthy man of his stature and see where following his dick got him.Jiang Cheng’s fine the way he is, thanks!)

Jiang Cheng sighs, thrusting into his fist a little bit, not particularly urgently. His free hand runs over his chest, slipping under the neckline of his robe to tease a nipple. When he does do this, he likes to take it slow, to savor it, let his enjoyment unspool like ink floating out into water. He pinches his nipple lightly, feeling it zing down to his co*ck, and pretends his hand belongs to an amorphous, indistinct person-shaped being, which is as far as he usually bothers to fantasize. The person-shaped being swipes fingers over the head of his co*ck, where he’s leaking, and smears it under the head, where he’s sensitive, and then keeps doing that, teasing him, hand still, fingers moving. It would be good like that, Jiang Cheng thinks, having someone toy with him, someone he trusted to make him feel good. Someone with strong hands (he runs his free hand over his chest again, presses it against his sternum) who could just--just lay him down and touch him wherever they--she wanted, someone who could push him into the mattress and keep him there (he pants, sweat prickling at his temples, leaking over his hand), or someone who could pull him flush against her body and hold him tight while she played with his co*ck until he couldn’t hold back anymore. He imagines warm muscle at his back, herbal scent and salt-sweat and hot breaths on the skin of his neck. He imagines a firm grip on his shoulders, a hand carding through his hair, that same hand clenching into a fist to pin him in place, being crowded against a wall, head tipped back as Fan Zhu’er, silver and black in the moonlight, leans in and kisses him--

Jiang Cheng bites his lip as he comes, abs tight, knees drawn up, feet braced against the bed for leverage as it rolls through him in waves. His qi tingles, his heart pounding all the way out so he feels it in his fingertips, and his brain goes wonderfully, blissfully, brightly blank. He slows his hand but keeps it moving a bit longer, until it’s really too much and he has to stop, and then he palms himself in a comforting weight and catches his breath and floats. f*ck, he really doesfeel better, maybe he should make it a point to do this more often? Jiang Cheng thinks about that as he drifts, thinks about the nice, warm length of another body next to his, Fan Zhu’er’s arm around his waist, lips pressed to his shoulder--

He sits bolt upright, wet hand still ridiculously on his dick, the blanket thrown fully aside. Oh f*ck, oh f*ck.No. He did not--Jiang Cheng did notjust get himself off while fantasizing about one of his disciples! What kind of sect leader does that? Jin Guangshan, that’s (probably) who, and possibly other horrible people with no respect for women or for the distinctions in rank and who probably abuse their power and, and--that’s not Jiang Cheng, that’s not him,he doesn’t dothat. He feels ill just contemplating the idea, and wastes no time in finding a cloth and some water to scrub himself clean.

When the evidence is gone and Jiang Cheng’s heart rate is something approximating normal, he sits cross-legged on his bed and breathes slowly. It was a one-off thing, he tells himself. Obviously he’s not going to do this regularly. It was a fluke, brought on by the stress of the conference and sheer proximity. He saton her earlier that day, which is more physical contact with another person than he ever normally has. It makes sense that his body would get all mixed up in the moment. It’s not like it’ll be, like, ongoing.To prove it to himself, he pictures her, broad shoulders, hair tied neatly up, grinning at him wide enough to show that twisted canine tooth--

Jiang Cheng’s heart lurches, his guts twist, and his dick offers to get re-involved in the party. He shoots his eyes open and stares across the room at nothing. No. No.It’s a fluke, he thinks desperately, nothing more than that. He thinks about sparring with her, sweat glistening on her face, the strain of his muscles as he braces against her weight, thinks about her disarming him with a swift movement and then dragging him in by the collar of his robes to capture his mouth and oh f*ckhe’s doing it again. Jiang Cheng shoves his fists into his eye sockets and grinds them there, as though that would scrub the vision out of his mind. It doesn’t. Instead, his mind whirls back through the last several months, performing every memory he has of Fan Zhu’erlike a sped-up play, and it all suddenly makes sense with the same abrupt feeling as sprinting directly into a wall. The churning in his guts he pretended was indigestion, the heat in his chest he pretended was anger, the way he watched her all the time that he pretended was suspicion. He’s been lying to himself, so furiously he hadn’t even realized it was a lie.

Fan Zhu’eris attractive. Jiang Cheng, specifically, is attracted to Fan Zhu’er. Physically, in his trouser regions. This is, quite possibly, the third worst thing that has ever happened to Jiang Cheng. It is a disaster.He breathes through that knowledge, jaw tight, a sh*tty little headache starting behind his right eye, and when he no longer wants to throw himself into the nearest pond and let the fish eat him, he exhales deliberately and drops his hands back to his knees.

All right. Okay. Jiang Cheng is attracted to Fan Zhu’er. That’s a thing that happened. He’s not going to be able to get rid of it, unfortunately, so he has to figure out what to do moving forward. The option of “fleeing into the woods to live quietly in a hut” looks better every day. He could leave the sect to Jiang Fengli, probably, so it would stay in the family, and she’s obsessed with murder so she’d definitely uphold the “Don’t offend Yunmeng Jiang” reputation he’s built. That’s asolution. He mentally marks it as “worst-case scenario” and moves on. He comes up with a few increasingly nonsensical plans (like hiding behind a column whenever he sees her) and eventually decides that the only real option is to carry on like normal. He will treat her as he’s always treated her and not indicate his new understanding in the world in any way at all. No one can know. No one will everknow. Eventually the feeling will fade and in twenty more years he’ll look back on this time in his life and… not laugh,but be vaguely amused and exasperated by his younger self.

Jiang Cheng nods to himself, eyes closed. That’s settled, then. Having a plan is calming, and he drops back into meditation with the ease of long practice, sinking down into the pulse of his core and the flow of his qi through his body. It’s fine. People are (as Jiang Cheng understands it) attracted to other people all the time and manage to get through their days. It’s not like this is serious,or anything he wants to have go anywhere.

The door to his quarters rattles, and Jiang Cheng goes from meditation to combat-ready in the space of a breath, on his feet with Sandu smacking into his hand before he’s even processed the sound. He lowers the sword, the fight energy still pulsing in his veins. It’s been a long time since the war, but some lessons don’t leave. There’s probably nothing wrong, just the wind, but it’s also too late for the servants to be up and Jiang Cheng absolutely wouldn’t put it past Wei Wuxian to be sneaking around for some talisman-related revenge. He lights a few candles with a twist of his qi and pads into the sitting area of his assigned quarters, ready to neutralize a fart talisman if necessary.

It isn’t a fart talisman. Instead, Jiang Cheng finds a neatly folded bundle of papers, humming with a seal that feels friendly. It feels… attunedto him. He doesn’t sense anything malicious about it, so he picks up the papers, puts Sandu back in her stand, and settles down on the bed with them. An array glows where the folded top flap of the paper meets the rest of it, in the same place a wax seal would be, and when he touches it it dissolves into a shower of sparkles, like a tiny firework. Clearly, Fan Zhu’er(his heart does a thing, and he ignores it) finished her writing project, and just as clearly she used the seal she needed his hair for, and Jiang Cheng is not thinking about her hand running through his hair and the way it tingled all up his scalp and down the back of his spine. He’s thinking about the clever talisman she used, and how easily it could be replicated, and he’s wondering what, precisely, she’s going to suggest as the Yunmeng Jiang agenda for tomorrow, and he flips open the papers and reads the first line and sprints face-first into a stone wall for the second time in the last shichen.

He knows this handwriting. He’s seen this handwriting off and on for the last fifteen plus years,in notes left in his laundry, notes full of advice and condolences and gratitude. This handwriting, and apparently its owner, was the only person to ever openly mourn his brother with him. This handwriting has been supporting him since he was a teenager,gently and firmly guiding him when no one else would or could. Jiang Cheng has wondered for yearswho was sending him those notes, and it was Fan Zhu’er.It’s Fan Zhu’er’shandwriting on over a decade’s worth of folded paper tucked in the bottom of a trunk for safekeeping. It was Fan f*cking Zhu’er the whole time, and Jiang Cheng feels like he got the wind knocked out of him. She was--he thought--for years--why didn’t she--

Jiang Cheng thinks of her again, her irrepressible grin, the sarcastic tone of her voice, the playful tilt of her eyebrows when she calls him “Quangu-zongzhu.” He thinks of her in her servant’s quarters after a day in the kitchen, taking the time to tell him things she thought he needed to know, things no one else bothered with. He thinks of a moonlit stableyard, and the quiet companionship she offers him in the darkness, rope darts in their hands and no questions asked. He thinks about her f*cking snack bag, and how patient she is with the juniors, and the thought and care she puts into her talisman designs. He thinks about her laugh and her practical hair and her unrelenting drive for justice, and when he runs out of things to think about he stares into the middle distance and slowly realizes he’s smiling.

Oh. Oh, he’s not just attracted to her. He likesher. The last time he felt like this he bought a comb.

Well.

f*ck.

---

Jiang Cheng knocks on the door of Hanguang-jun’s assigned quarters, trying very hard not to think about the fact that these are almost certainly also Wei Wuxian’s assigned quarters. He hopes that they at least have separate beds. It’s probably a futile hope, but it’s still there. The part of him that remembers the Cloud Recesses guest lectures is relieved that apparently Wei Wuxian finally f*cking figured outwhat he had going on with Lan Wangji, aka an enormous f*cking crush so large it could be seen from a mountaintop, because his obliviousness was so painful it literally gave Jiang Cheng headaches. The rest of him is grossed out by the thought of his brother being intimate with anyone at all ever, so he does what he does best: he shoves down that thought into a hole in the ground and buries it with dirt and rocks.

The door slides open to reveal a perfectly dressed Lan Wangji, down to the oversized guan, nary a hair out of place in spite of it being ass-early in the morning. Not that Jiang Cheng is surprised--he remembers the Lan schedule. Lan Wangji has likely already been awake for half a shichen, even with at least another half shichen to go before breakfast is served to the people who keep a sleep schedule that doesn’t hate the world. Not to be outdone, Jiang Cheng is in a formal set of purple robes, the creases sharp as sword blades, his hair smooth as glazed ceramic. Hanguang-jun isn’t the only one who wears his reputation like armor.

Lan Wangji stares at him in silence for a beat longer than is polite. “Jiang-zongzhu,” he says, voice flat, and adds nothing else.

“Hanguang-jun,” Jiang Cheng says, through his teeth. He inclines his head by a cun, which Lan Wangji acknowledges with a single blink. f*cker. “I need to speak to you about conference business.”

Lan Wangji stares at him for a breath longer, hawk-gaze less annoyed now and slightly more thoughtful. “Mn,” he says, and steps back to allow Jiang Cheng into the room.

They settle at the table, Lan Wangji pouring them both cups of a Gusu tea that, while not Jiang Cheng’s favorite, is at least better than the floral Lanling swill he’s been drinking. Jiang Cheng taps two fingers next to his cup, because if he didn’t A’jie would never forgive him even from her next life, and can’t help glancing over at the curtained doorway into the sleeping area. The singlesleeping area.

“He’s asleep,” Lan Wangji says, serenely sipping from his cup as he confirms that he is absolutely sharing a bed with Wei Wuxian. Gross. Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes because of f*cking courseWei Wuxian is asleep. Most sensible people are still asleep at this hour. Jiang Cheng is only up because he needed to be sure to catch Lan Wangji before the conference!

“Yunmeng Jiang is altering our agenda,” he says, moving smoothly on to the actual reason he’s here so he can leave as quickly as humanly possible. Jiang Cheng pulls the extra copy of Fan Zhu’er’s writing out of his sleeve and slides it across the table. It’s prudent to give the chief cultivator advance notice of such a thing, and he suspects He Who Appears In Chaos will approve of the plan, and he doesn’t say either of those things out loud because it might give the incorrect impression he has any positive feelings toward Lan Wangji at all.

Lan Wangji puts down his teacup and lifts the first paper with a barely-disguised expression of disdain, right before his eyes actually catch on the first line of characters. Jiang Cheng has the very satisfying experience of watching the Second Jade of Lan’s face change from that disdainful blankness to curiosity, then surprise, then interest, and then he finishes the first page and picks up the second with something that might actually be called haste.Jiang Cheng knows what’s on those pages, because after he had his two-part emotional cart crash last night, he read them through three times before he could fully process the ideas and strategies laid out therein. It’s good sh*t.

(He also had to read them three times because his brain kept, annoyingly, wanting to think about Fan Zhu’er instead of what she’d written, and he kept losing his f*cking place. He’s not admitting that to anyone, ever. He’s trying not to admit it to himself.)

By the time Jiang Cheng’s teacup is empty, Lan Wangji has finished reading through the new agenda and settled the pages back on the table in a neat stack. “This is good,” he says, the most blatantly positive thing he’s ever said about anything relating to Jiang Cheng or Lotus Pier in the last thirteen f*cking years. “Who wrote it?” he asks, witheringly, shattering that one fragile compliment like flinging a teapot onto the floor.

Jiang Cheng bristles internally, scowling past Lan Wangji’s left shoulder. He wants to argue that hecould have written it, that some peopledidn’t have the freedomto run all over the f*cking hills taking on any night hunt they came across to help the common people, because some peoplehad responsibilities,f*ck you very much.

“Fan Zhu’er,” he says, instead of any of that, because as much as he wants to antagonize Lan Wangji, he refuses to be the kind of sh*tty sect leader who takes credit for the work of his subordinates. He’s not a Jin.He’s not going to raise himself up by stepping on the backs of everyone below him. These are Fan f*cking Zhu’er’s ideas, and everyone’s damn well going to know that.

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says, that infuriating little not-a-word that he somehow manages to imbue with all the disdain in the world, except he doesn’t actually sound disdainful. He takes a serene sip of his tea. “Impressive.”

Jiang Cheng isn’t sure if he means the updated agenda or if he means Fan Zhu’er, in general, as a person. Both statements are true. “You’ll support it?” he asks, bluntly. It’s the reason he’s here, and he’d like to leave as quickly as possible.

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says again, this time in a tone Jiang Cheng is pretty sure means agreement. “The ideas are sound. I will be interested to see the results.”

He and Jiang Cheng both. “As soon as we start seeing results I will report them to xiandu, as is appropriate,” he says, as flatly as possible, standing up from the table and running his hands (unnecessarily) down his robes to straighten them.

Lan Wangji nods. “Gusu Lan as well.” He pauses, staring past Jiang Cheng, eyes and shoulders tight. “Yunmeng Jiang’s priorities are admirable,” he says, in what is nearly the coldest voice Jiang Cheng has ever heard from him. It sounds like he hates each word as it comes out of his mouth. He sounds so pissed.Jiang Cheng loves it.

“Xiandu’s opinion is noted,” Jiang Cheng says, almost sincerely. He strides to the door and pauses, his hand on the wood, a tiny war going on in his head. Should he? Would it be a bad idea? Probably. Is that going to stop him? Apparently not.

“Hanguang-jun,” he says, turning to look over his shoulder. Lan Wangji looks up from his second perusal of Fan Zhu’er’s writing, looking perturbed to find Jiang Cheng still in the room. That makes two of them. “Tell him to come,” he says, jerking his chin at the curtain behind which Wei Wuxian is probably drooling on a pillow. Lan Wangji’s face doesn’t move, but he somehow projects the impression of having raised an eyebrow. Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. “To the discussion conference today,” he says, purposefully overexplaining himself just to be petty. “He’ll want to see this.”

Lan Wangji’s face doesn’t change, again, but he inclines a head in something that could barely be described as a nod. Jiang Cheng thinks he might even be a little bit amused? That’s the weirdest f*cking thing he’s ever experienced in his whole life, and he gives Lan Wangji one more nod and flees.

---

Fan Dingxiang is ready.She is so ready. She is readier than she’s ever been before in her whole life.Breakfast: Eaten. Tea: Drank. Robes: Perfection. Hair: Styled. Makeup: Intimidating. She made extra copies of the agenda to provide to the other Jiang disciples, copies of the talisman designs they’ll be debuting, and copies of some of her other talisman designs, just in case. She slept hard and well and she’s done her morning stretching and she has her (useless) sword in one hand. She’s ready.

“Ready?” Hu Yueque asks, unnecessarily, as they all meet up and check each other over before they head out for the morning conference. All five of them are going, Fan Dingxiang and Hu Yueque and Hu Xinling and Ma Xueliang and Jiang Fengli (returned to their rooms halfway through the frantic essay-writing process and immediately roped into the scheme), and apparently there are a few other Lotus Pier cultivators who got wind that something was gonna happen, and they’re alsoplanning to attend the meeting portion of the conference? Fan Dingxiang’s not entirely sure where everyone’s going to sit,but she supposes that’s not herproblem.

“Ready,” Fan Dingxiang returns, shoulders back, chin up. She’s nervous and excited and a little voice in the back of her mind keeps yelling It’s happening, it’s happening!over and over, and it’s right to be yelling but she doesn’t really have time for it. Sure, Jiang Wanyin defended her against a room of the most powerful people in the cultivation world, andtold them she’d invented her own cultivation path, andis going to present her ideas to them today like they’re valid and important and worth pursuing. All of that’s totally true, but it doesn’t mean Fan Dingxiang has to get all feelingsyabout it. Pigs don’t care about your feelings. Feelings don’t get work done.

Hu Yueque opens the door to reveal Jiang f*cking Wanyinright outside, which is startling enough that Ma Xueliang actually yelps. The little feelings voice in the back of Fan Dingxiang’s head gets louder, and she ignores it even harder. “Jiang-zongzhu,” she choruses with the others, bowing, and he makes an awkward little nod to acknowledge the agreement and shifts his weight a little.

“Are you ready?” he asks, glancing at her and then away, teeth clenched. He must be nervous, too. It’s understandable. Changing the agenda at the last minute must be nerve-wracking even for a sect leader.

“Ready,” she confirms, again. Fan Dingxiang wonders if they’re ever going to actually get to the conference, or if they’re just going to spend the whole day just repeating the word “ready” to each other in different inflections. Jiang Wanyin nods, glances back at her, and then double-takes. He gives her a once-over, a growing scowl on his face, and glares at her left earlobe.

“What are you wearing?” he asks, sounding personally insulted. Fan Dingxiang looks down at her standard-issue Lotus Pier senior disciple formal robes, all purple silks and flowing sleeves. They look good. Shelooks good. Every layer is crisp and clean and she doesn’t know what his problem is. A quick glance around reveals that her friends also don’t know what his problem is, as they’re all frowning at her clothes in confusion.

“My robes?” she says, unable to keep it from turning into a question. Jiang Wanyin rolls his eyes, which is not fair at all because Fan Dingxiang is notthe one being confusing.

“That’s not how you dress,” he says, witheringly. “You’re the founder of the f*cking Boar path. I toldthem you’re the founder of the Boar Path. Is this--” and he gestures at her, mouth twisting in displeasure “--how you dress when you actually cultivate?”

Fan Dingxiang blinks at him, the little voice in the back of her head screaming some more. “No.”

Jiang Wanyin huffs, annoyed. “So get f*cking changed,” he snaps. “We don’t have all day.”

Fan Dingxiang stares at him, head empty. What. What.Hu Yueque, thankfully, takes one look at her face and turns to Jiang Wanyin with a bow. “If you’ll just excuse us, Jiang-zongzhu,” she says, politely, and then she slams the doors in his f*cking face and whips around. “What the f*ck,” she whispers, as she pushes Fan Dingxiang into the center of the room and scrabbles at her belt. “What the entiref*ck.”

“I would also like to know the answer to that question,” Fan Dingxiang says, her body kicking into movement as her belt drops away. She shucks off the two outer robes with the long, annoying sleeves, and yanks her formal sleeveless one out of her qiankun pouch. The Lotus Pier tailor went above and beyond, once she persuaded him around to her point of view, and the silk shimmers with a subtle purple-on-blue pattern, the structured jut of the shoulders emphasizing her build. The lining is covered with dozens of painstakingly embroidered talismans, for protection and warding and safety, all Fan Dingxiang’s original designs, all of them invented after learning Yet Another New Thing on a night hunt. She lets Ma Xueliang cast a pressing talisman to remove any creases from the outer robe while Jiang Fengli braids her loose hair and carefully coils it into and around the existing updo. Hu Xinling makes grabby hands at her until she hands over the qiankun pouch with her weapons, and then he pulls out her boar spear, knife harness, and rope dart.

“Do we think I should carry allmy weapons?” Fan Dingxiang asks, arms out to the sides so Hu Yueque can get her belt back on. “It seems like overkill.”

“There’s no kill like overkill,” Jiang Fengli says firmly, pinning the final piece of her braid in place.

“He asked for the inventor of the Boar path,” Ma Xueliang says, helping settle the harness over her shoulders and making sure it lies neatly over her robes. “That’s what he’s getting.”

“f*ck, you look great,” Hu Yueque says, standing back with a massive grin. “Oh, they’re gonna f*cking hate you.You look like you’re ready to do some work.

“I’m always ready to do some work,” Fan Dingxiang points out, shoving her sword into her bag, putting her various bags back away, and accepting her spear from Hu Xinling. Her rope dart is a comforting weight at her side, and she relaxes into herself fully like she hasn’t since they arrived here. Goddamnbut she’s missed the feeling of a spear in her hands, the wind at the nape of her neck, arms than can actually move.She’s saidshe was ready to whatfeels like half the sect this morning, but now? Now Fan Dingxiang is actuallyready. f*ck, she’ll fight the entire assembled gentry if she has to.

Hu Yueque slides the door back open, and Jiang Wanyin looks up and locks eyes with her, and Fan Dingxiang’s stomach does an annoyingly feelingsy thing, which only gets worse when his gaze rakes up and down her body. He’s glaring but he’s also doing something else. Maybe he’s satisfied? And that’s why his eyes look darker than usual?

“Zongzhu?” Jiang Fengli prompts, politely, when the staringhas gone on long enough to get a little bit weird, and Jiang Wanyin scowls, yanks his eyes away, and jerks his head in the direction of the hall.

“Well?” he spits, stalking off in that direction, and they bustle out to follow him, falling automatically into two lines, Fan Dingxiang at the head of one. She eyes Jiang Wanyin’s back speculatively. She can just see his ears from this angle, mostly hidden behind the smooth black fall of his hair (she remembers how warm it was, when she ran her hand through it, how surprisingly soft it was) and the tips are adorably pink. Is he blushing? Or is his anxiety about the conference manifesting in pink ears? Either way, Fan Dingxiang kinda wants to bite them.

“Hey, you,” Jiang Wanyin says, to an orange-robed servant traveling the same direction. The man bows, falling in next to him, as Jiang Wanyin continues, “My disciple will need a stand for her spear when we reach the main hall. Can you arrange that?”

“Of course, zongzhu,” the man says, bowing as he speedwalks to keep up. “At once.”

“Thank you,” Jiang Wanyin says, with a nod, and the servant misses a step and falls behind, his face a riot of confusion. Fan Dingxiang gives him a grateful nod, as well, warm all over with the evidence of the tiny changes that are already happening, skin prickling with anticipation about the bigger, meaningful changes they’ll be able to make if today goes well.

Jiang Wanyin holds up a hand and they all sweep to a stop. They’re around the corner of one of the buildings across a courtyard from the main hall, and apparently they’re going to be standing around here for a little while. A few other Jiang disciples find them and join the line while Jiang Wanyin occasionally glances around the corner and waits for… something.

“Jiang-zongzhu?” she finally asks, when she can feel Ma Xueliang about to start nervous-singing. “Are we waiting for a reason?”

He glances at her and away again, a muscle ticking in his jaw, his ears still pink. “The others are still arriving,” he mutters.

“So we can’t?” Fan Dingxiang asks, wondering if she’s missed some kind of rule about scheduled arrival times.

“Not,” he says, throat tight, “if we want to make an entrance.” He turns away from her, robes flaring, and glares down at his disciples. “All right, assholes, since I see a lot of you invited yourselves, here’s how this is going to go: Fan Zhu’er and the people who are supposedto be here sit with me. The rest of you get to stand, and I swear if I hear one snide commentfrom anyone, I’ll find a lake large enough to drown all of you in and then drown you. We’re attempting the f*cking impossible and we’re gonna act like it. You!” He points at Fan Dingxiang. “Behind me. The rest of you! Two lines behind her. Remind these smug f*cks who they shouldn’t offend.”

“Sir!” the assembled cultivators bark in unison, bowing over their swords. Fan Dingxiang feels a little drunk, and she almost spaces out and misses it when Jiang Wanyin starts walking. She catches up quickly, and they round the corner as a unit, shoulders back, chins up, heels hitting the ground in a satisfying rhythm. Her sect leader in front of her and her sect family behind her, Fan Dingxiang crosses the threshold into the main hall and feels the weight of every eye, taking in her size and her spear and her tied-up hair, and she stares up the aisle, robes flowing behind her, and she lets the motherf*ckers look.

Movement catches her eye, and when she spares a glance over at it, Wei Wuxian is waving enthusiastically at her, grinning ear-to-ear and looking utterly delighted. They didn’t seat him up on the dais with Hanguang-jun, where she thinks maybe the xiandu’s spouse would normally sit, but he’s next to his nephew and, to judge from Jin-zongzhu’s embarrassed scowl, has been harassing him all morning. She gives Wei-gongzi a nod and a quick wink, and he wiggles in obvious anticipatory excitement.

“Jiang-zongzhu!” Yao-zongzhu says, predictably horrified. “What is the meaning of this?” The “this” in question is apparently Fan Dingxiang, since he’s glaring at her like she personally offended five generations of his ancestors.

“My disciple, Fan Zhu’er,” Jiang Wanyin says, icily. “Perhaps you remember her from yesterday?”

“Yes, but,” Ouyang-zongzhu says, gawking openly while, behind him, the teenage boy who counted her pushups the previous day looks like he’s been given a wonderful gift, “what exactly is Fan-guniang doing?

“Where’s her sword?” Yao-zongzhu asks. “What is she carrying?”

Yu-zongzhu, between them, rolls her eyes. “It’s a spear,” she says, deadpan. “Are you having trouble with your vision, Yao-zongzhu?”

“As the founder of the Boar path,” Jiang Wanyin says, not bothering to actually look at either of them, “she cultivates with weapons other than swords, as you will see at the demonstration later.” He tips his chin up and adds, loud enough to carry through the whole hall, “And you can call her Wu Gang Dao.”

Whispers ripple out through the hall at this pronouncement, but Fan Dingxiang doesn’t hear them because the inside of her head is full of a wordless screaming. Holy f*ck. Holy f*cking pigsh*tting hell. Jiang Wanyin just gave her a title.Jiang Wanyin just gave her a title in front of the assembled gentry. Jiang Wanyin just declared her equal to any highborn cultivator, on the strength of her combat skills alone. She stares ahead, unmoving, spear in one hand, and tries not to show how much she wants to run around yelling and punching the walls in excitement. What is her life.

“Jiang-zongzhu,” says Hanguang-jun, cool voice effortlessly silencing the room. He turns his hawk-like gaze on her and adds, “Wu Gang Dao,” in the same tone of acknowledgement, and Fan Dingxiang keeps screaming inside her head. “If Yunmeng Jiang is ready to present?”

Jiang Wanyin inclines his head to Hanguang-jun by maybea cun, turns on one heel, and strides to his seat. Fan Dingxiang settles herself at the table next to his, like she’s a f*cking sect leader or heir, what the actual f*ck, and thanks the servant who brings her the requested spear stand. She, again, wonders if she’s drunk. She’s pretty sure she didn’t drink any wine this morning but what if she had? It would make all of this make more sense.

“Yunmeng Jiang,” Jiang Wanyin says, calmly pouring himself a cup of tea, “is, from this conference forward, engaging in a new technique to handle night hunts.” He pauses, takes a sip, and adds, “By preventing them.”

Oh, the other sect leaders hatethis. There’s a lot of yelling. Fan Dingxiang drinks some tea and stares at Yao-zongzhu, seated directly across from her, until he gets flustered and turns away. f*cker. “As you can see in the documents provided,” Jiang Wanyin says, loudly, cutting through the clamor, “many causes of resentful energy and the subsequent hauntings would be easily avoided with early intervention. Now that Wu Gang Dao has brought this to my attention, Yunmeng Jiang intends to intervene.”

“Ridiculous!” Yao-zongzhu says, not bothering to look at the papers in front of him, where presumably a copy of Fan Dingxiang’s essay has been placed. She bristles--someone had to make that copy for him, probably early this morning. The least he could do is show respect for that work by reading it. “The common people take care of themselves, and we handle the night hunts! You’re saying that we should interfere in their affairs?”

“You already are,” Fan Dingxiang says, before she can stop herself, and bites her tongue. Out of the corner of her eye she sees Jiang Wanyin make a little “Go on,” motion with his hand, and she un-bites her tongue and takes a deep breath. “You are the political leaders of your territory,” she says, trying not to sound too exasperated. “The decisions you make about trade arrangements and tax rates directly affect the affairs of your people. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that sounds like interference to me.”

Yao-zongzhu scoffs. Ouyang-zongzhu gives her a withering look, but Fan Dingxiang has been withered at by a better class of bastard than this, so she placidly pours herself some tea and takes a sip. “Fan-guniang--”

“Wu Gang Dao,” Jiang Wanyin snaps, and maybe it’s weird that a tone that viciously cold makes Fan Dingxiang feel warm all over, but it’s the least weird thing happening today so she’s just gonna have to go with it.

Ouyang-zongzhu presses his lips together in a tight, annoyed line. “Wu Gang Dao,” he says, reluctantly, “exactly who are youto be telling us what to do?”

Fan Dingxiang meets his gaze and shows him her teeth. “I’m a pig farmer, Ouyang-zongzhu,” she says, brightly. “I speak from experience.”

“You--!” he tries, Yao-zongzhu’sface going red as alsoprepares for some yelling, and Hanguang-jun cuts them both off with a calm, “Yunmeng Jiang is presenting.” He glares at the hall until it quiets again and adds, “We will hold questions until the presentation is complete. Jiang-zongzhu?”

“Xiandu,” Jiang Wanyin says with a nod. He squares his shoulders, glances once at Fan Dingxiang, and glares out at the hall, ears still pink at the tips. “Our strategy,” he says, “is threefold.”

The various sect leaders and senior disciples do not manage to hold their questions until the presentation is complete. This is unsurprising, since apparently Fan Dingxiang’s extremely sensible ideas are shocking, horrifying, and generally offensive to their entire belief system, right up until someone they respect indicates they think it’s a good idea, and then they switch directions so fast it’s dizzying.

“There’s no evidence cultivator medicine would work on the coreless!” a Qin disciple says at one point. “Wouldn’t we know if it did?”

“Not if you didn’t bother to test it,” Jiang Wanyin points out, not bothering to hide his exasperation.

“It doesn’t work the same way,” Fan Dingxiang explains, as the only person in the room who knows what she’s f*cking talking about. “When you pass spiritual energy to each other, you just dump it in the other person’s core so theycan use it themselves.That doesn’t work for me. It has to be directed.” This explanation apparently leaves something to be desired, because she’s getting disbelieving looks, confused looks, and--most importantly, in her opinion--curiouslooks. Hm. She can work with curious. “Here,” she says, unwinding one of the bindings on her sleeve and rolling it up, “I’ll show you.” She draws one of her throwing knives, gives herself a showy cut across the meat of her forearm, and digs a handkerchief out of her robes so she can catch the blood before it hits the pristine floors. “Someone come give me some spiritual energy.”

No one moves. Fan Dingxiang rolls her eyes. “I’m bleeding,” she says, which is obvious.“Don’t everyone volunteer at once.”

“I’ll do it.” Kong Shanzhai pushes to her feet behind Nie-zongzhu and picks past him to the aisle, dropping lightlyto her knees next to Fan Dingxiang’s table. She takes the wrist of the non-bleeding arm and a moment later Fan Dingxiang feels the pulse of her spiritual energy, dense and strong.

“Wow,” she mutters, blinking. “You feel like a f*cking mountain.”

“That would make sense,” Kong Shanzhai murmurs back, “given the name and all.” Louder, she says, “I’ve given her enough energy that, on another cultivator, this should have healed by now.” All eyes track to the cut on Fan Dingxiang’s arm, still happily bleeding. “It hasn’t healed,” Kong Shanzhai says, unnecessarily.

“Thank you,” Fan Dingxiang tells her, quietly.

“We need to talk about how exactly you and your itty bitty core held up in our sparthe other day,” Kong Shanzhai tells her, just as quietly, and gives her wrist a friendly, brutal squeeze before she lets go and retakes her spot among the rest of the Nie delegation.

“As I said,” the Qin cultivator emphasizes, “cultivator medicine doesn’t work on ordinary people!”

“Hu Yueque,” Fan Dingxiang says, bored, and holds out her red-streaked arm as her friend joins her. “If you please?”

“Of course, Wu Gang Dao,” Hu Yueque says, coming forward to take Fan Dingxiang’s arm and simultaneously giving her a look that, while subtle, nevertheless screams about her new title. Her spiritual energy dances over Fan Dingxiang’s skin, cozy and familiar, encouraging her body to heal itself instead of seeking a core that doesn’t exist. The bleeding slows, then stops, and Fan Dingxiang wets a clean cloth and wipes away the blood to reveal a neatly knitted scab.

“The energy has to be directed,” she repeats, holding up her healed arm so the room at large can get a good look. “You can’t just dump it in and hope for the best. It’s a learned skill.”

“Thank you for the demonstration,” Hanguang-jun says, before anyone has a chance to start a new argument. To the larger room, he adds, “We will hold conversation until the agenda has been fully presented.”

They continue to not hold their conversation. Her talisman designs are nearly the subject of a protracted debate, but Wei-gongzi co*cks his head, leaning his chin on his hand, and loudly says, “These are impressive! Some of the more creative designs I’ve seen or used. They’d be an asset to the cultivation world.” He lets the knowledge hang in the air, the heavy subtext of his owndesigns and how the sects have used and misused them pressing on the hall. “You wouldn’t haveto use them of course,” he adds in a drawl, toying with the neck of his jar of wine. “No one’s forcing you to make sure your people have clean water and unspoiled food.”

“I think it sounds like a good idea,” Jin-zongzhu says, nose turned up and actively ignoring his slouching uncle. “They’re not even combat talismans! What harm would come from giving these out?” He glances sideways at Wei Wuxian, who waves at him with his wine jug, and looks away with a snort. “We’ve all seen the useless Yiling Patriarch evil-warding portraits. Why not give people something that works?

“If I’d designed those,” Wei-gongzi says, annoyed, “they would work, and they’d be a lot less ugly, too.”

“Gusu Lan intends to distribute these talismans as outlined,” Hanguang-jun says, voice flat, but when he glances over at Wei-gongzi his eyes soften for the space of a breath. That makes three out of the four great sects in agreement, and Nie-zongzhu flutters his fan in front of his face and waves them off.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he demurs, “I’m not good at talismans. If all of you think it’s a good idea then I suppose we’ll do it, too.”

“Meishan Yu will support it,” Yu-zongzhu says, giving Fan Dingxiang a calculating look that she recognizes from older aunties everywhere. Her eyes flick back and forth between Fan Dingxiang and Jiang Wanyin, like she’s doing some math, and adds, “It’s an interesting experiment, and worth pursuing.”

With the four great sects all in support, the smaller sects fall in line as well. Qin-zongzhu in particular would like everyone to know how much he approves of the plan, and how he approved of it all along. Yao-zongzhu and Ouyang-zongzhu sulk but have no supporters. Fan Dingxiang feels giddy with success and slight blood loss. What a f*cking day it’s been, and they haven’t even had lunch yet! Her talismans! Going across the entire cultivation world! She’s going to write a stack of them for her granny specificallyand send them home with her next letter.

“There’s still the question of Fan-gunaing’s cultivation,” Yao-zongzhu brings up later, after he’s already asked forty-six unnecessary questions about her research and talisman designs and background and every night hunt she’s ever f*cking been on.

“Wu Gang Dao,” Jiang Wanyin snarls, hand tight around his teacup, and Fan Dingxiang briefly wishes her hair was still down because the back of her neck feels flushed and she wants to cover it.

“Wu Gang Dao’s cultivation is clearly unorthodox,” Yao-zongzhu says, to general muttered agreement from the room. “This isn’t the first time a Jiang disciple has cultivated an unorthodox path.” More muttering. Jiang Wanyin’s shoulders go tight, a muscle jumping in his jaw. Up on the dais, Hanguang-jun goes predator-still, and Wei Wuxian freezes with his wine bottle halfway to his mouth, eyes wide and worried. “What guarantees can Jiang-zongzhu offer us that this new path won’t lead to the same ruin as the other one?”

“You didn’t mind Wei Wuxian’s cultivation when it won you a war,” Hu Yueque snaps from behind Fan Dingxiang’s shoulder, sounding fully willing to fight half the room.

“Or when it saved you from Jin Guangyao’s fierce corpses and Su She’s treachery,” Jiang Fengli adds pointedly, willing to fight the other half of the room. Jiang Wanyin makes a small movement with his hand and they huff twin annoyed breaths and fall silent again.

“If we’re concerned about whether cultivation paths can lead,” Jiang Wanyin says, quietly furious, “then perhaps we should start with all the cultivators who followed the sword path because they wanted power, and then used that power for cruelty and malice.” He slams his cup down on the table, glaring at Yao-zongzhu like he’s trying to cultivate the ability to set him on fire with his mind. “Wen Ruohan may have been using the Yin iron, but the Wen didn’t use demonic cultivation when they burned Cloud Recesses and sacked Lotus Pier. They used their swords. Is the sword path inherently evil because it was used for evil, Yao-zongzhu?”

“I--” the man says, taken aback and momentarily speechless. He looks around for support, but not even Ouyang-zongzhu has anything to say.

“I mean,” Nie-zongzhu says, tapping his fan on his chin and then snapping it open to fan his neck absently, “Wu Gang Dao’s cultivation is unusual, but is it unorthodox?” He fiddles with his teacup, eyes downcast. “I don’t know, I wasn’t ever very good in my classes, but Wei-gongzi’s cultivation uses resentful energy, which I’m pretty sure is unorthodox by definition, but based on what Jiang-zongzhu is saying, Wu Gang Dao doesn’t use any spiritual energy at all, of any kind.” He turns to the dias and says, beseechingly, “Lan-xiandu, you were the best in our classes! Does that sound unorthodox to you? I’m sure you understand more than I do.”

“Mn,” Hanguang-jun says. “If Wu Gang Dao’s cultivation is unorthodox, then any cultivator who has ever sold a protection talisman to an ordinary person is practicing unorthodox cultivation.” From the hush that accompanies these words, every cultivator in the room has sold talismans at least once, and none of them wants it to be seen as unorthodox. Fan Dingxiang snorts into her teacup. Hypocrites.

“You’ll have a chance to see her cultivation later,” Jiang Wanyin reminds everyone, rudely. “Perhaps we can finish discussing our agenda sometime this century?”

They do manage to get through the rest of Fan Dingxiang’s essay before lunch, mostly because it gets to the point that whenever someone tries to bring up a time-wasting question, they find themselves the subject of triple glares from Hanguang-jun, Jiang Wanyin, and Jin-zongzhu. It’s not thatcomplicated a plan, Fan Dingxiang reflects while she eats her overprepared, fussy meal and washes it down with floral wine and floral tea. 1. Regularly distribute useful talismans to the common people for free, and give instructions on their use. 2. Regularly send medical cultivators on circuits through the outlying villages, to offer any help necessary. 3. Teach non-cultivators the basics of self-defense, so they can stand their ground until a cultivator arrives to take care of dangerous hauntings. It didn’t require that f*cking mucharguing.

“If you said the sky was blue, they’d argue about what shade,” Ma Xueliang tells her later, when Fan Dingxiang complains about it. They’re out in the practice yard, getting ready for Yunmeng Jiang’s “carefully planned cultivation demonstration,” or, more accurately, “Fan Dingxiang showing off while all her friends help her improvise and look cool as hell.” “You and Jiang-zongzhu got everyone on board with an actual change that will have actual effects,” she continues, knocking their shoulders together, eyes bright. “That’s huge.

“It still seems so fake,” Fan Dingxiang admits, stretching her arms above her head and rolling out her shoulders. Across the yard, Wei-gongzi has plastered himself to Hanguang-jun’s side, a crow and a dove roosting together. He sees her looking and waves, grinning ear-to-ear. Next to him, Jiang Wanyin stands with a familiar sour look on his face. Wei-gongzi slaps at his flowing sleeve and says something that makes Jiang Wanyin grimace, but he looks at Fan Dingxiang and gives her a nod. Fan Dingxiang nods back, figuring Jiang Wanyin looks more uncomfortable than usual because he fully invented today’s demonstration out of whole cloth, and refocuses on what she’s actually doing. Spear? Check. Rope dart? Check. Talismans? Check. Willingness to kick the ass of any and all comers? That one’s alwaysa check.

Fan Dingxiang takes the field.

---

“Wow,” Wei Wuxian says, for the third time in recent memory. “She’s reallystrong, isn’t she?”

Jiang Cheng, whose palm is probably permanently embedded with the patterns of Sandu’s sheath from the tightness of his grip at this point, makes an affirmative sound. In front of them, on the demonstration field, Fan Zhu’er has just thrown a Jiang cultivator at a group of Nie cultivators, scattering them like a children’s game, and followed up the throw by charging in with her boar spear. f*ck, she’s impressive, and he’s sweaty about it and hates his life.

“You said she was teaching the servants at h--at Lotus Pier?” Wei Wuxian asks, barely catching himself and wincing. Jiang Cheng tries not to flinch at the reminder that his brother doesn’t see his sect as home anymore, that he’s run off to find his home with another sect, one he used to claim to hate. Why should he? It’s not like Lotus Pier was able to offer him help or safety or support before he died, all the things a home shouldoffer.

“She is,” he confirms, through his teeth. Fan Zhu’er has pinned two Nie cultivators down with her immobility talismans and she’s using her boar spear to harass another, keeping the woman’s attention while, behind the Nie, Hu Yueque and Hu Xinling are closing in with a flanking maneuver. “They’re getting pretty good,” he adds, and dares a glance over to find a look on Wei Wuxian’s face he recognizes, a memory of Wen cultivators and blood in the water mixing with the satisfied knowledge that it won’t happen again without a vicious fight from everyone still breathing.

“Good,” he says, and slaps Jiang Cheng on the shoulder, smiling in a way that almost reaches his eyes. “Is A’Tiao still in charge? I thought she couldn’t get any more scary and now you’re telling me you gave her a spear!”

“She’s definitely scarier now,” Jiang Cheng manages, “but I don’t know if it actually has anything to do with the spear.” This conversation is so close to normal that it’s worsethan if they’d been screaming at each other. Is this what it’s going to be like for the rest of their lives? He and Wei Wuxian, tiptoeing around each other to say things that mean nothing, flat jokes with no teeth? It itches at him. Down below him, Fan Zhu’er has now hit a Nie cultivator withanother Nie cultivator. The remaining Nie woman still standing is laughing so hard she’s having to hold herself up with her saber like it’s a cane. He’s pretty sure that means Fan Zhu’er won. Ah, now the Nie woman is giving Fan Zhu’er one of those back-breaking Nie hugs, and they’re standing very close. That’s fine. That’s great.It’s very cool that they’re punching each other’s shoulders and laughing like old friends.

(Deep, deep down, Jiang Cheng is aware that what he’s feeling is jealousy. He doesn’t want to be feeling that, though, so he pretends he isn’t.)

“She’s clearly already friends with the Nies!” Yao-zongzhu is saying loudly to Ouyang-zongzhu, which gives Jiang Cheng something else to focus his temper on. “This isn’t a fair demonstration. They must have been working together!”

“As I said yesterday,” Jiang Cheng snaps, rounding on the group with a swirl of silks, glad to have someone to glare at so he’ll stop staring at how broad Fan f*cking Zhu’er’s shoulders are in her robes, “if you’d like to spar with her, be my guest.” Movement catches his eye, and he spares a quick look for the practice grounds, drags his gaze back away, and adds, “You’ll have to get in line, though, it looks like the Lans are next.” Specifically, it’s the one loud Lan who claps, enthusiastically dragging a couple of his sect sisters in with him.

“How far do you think you can throw me?” Jiang Cheng just barely hears him ask, and he turns his glare back on Yao-zongzhu pointedly. His skin is crawling with the knowledge that Fan Zhu’er is right there,doing ridiculously strong Fan Zhu’er things, and he wants to stare at her and have feelingsabout it. Ugh.

“I hardly think it’s dignified for a sect leader to get involved in such things,” Yao-zongzhu scoffs, to nodding from Ouyang-zongzhu. Jiang Cheng, who sparred with Fan Zhu’er just yesterday and is going to be haunted by the knowledge for the rest of his reincarnations, thinks about punching him with Zidian. Before he can really get further than picturing how satisfying it would look (his fist sparking purple, Yao-zongzhu’s face rippling with the impact, oh damnit would be fun), Lan f*cking Wangji murmurs something to Wei Wuxian and then glides down onto the field to join the other Lans. He neatly sidesteps the loud Lan teenager as Fan Zhu’er launches him halfway across the practice yard, the kid’s cackling changing cadence as he goes flying past, and bows over his sword.

“Wu Gang Dao,” he says, loud enough to carry, and the assorted onlookers go quiet and tense at the god damn chief cultivatorasking a Jiang discipleto spar. Fan Zhu’er throws a wild-eyed, questioning look at Jiang Cheng, who gives her a tight nod of permission. f*ck, go ahead, why not. This discussion conference has been the wildest one he’s ever attended that didn’t involve a murder, is there a reason not to go all out? Fan Zhu’er bows back and readies her rope dart, and Jiang Cheng looks back over at Yao-zongzhu to find his face screwed up with an expression like Wei Wuxian has not only come back from the dead but has started performing some sort of sexy dance right in front of him. f*cker.He deserves it.

Lan Wangji draws his sword, and Jiang Cheng experiences a brief moment of worry on Fan Zhu’er’s behalf before they actually start sparring. His shoulders drop, barely, because it immediately becomes apparent that Lan Wangji is actuallytreating this as a spar, not as an excuse to try and expose Fan Zhu’er (and by extension, Yunmeng Jiang and Jiang Cheng) as a liar. That’s… disgustingly decent of him. Jiang Cheng hates it.

“They just put her in the kitchens,” Wei Wuxian says, shaking his head, as Lan Wangji and Fan Zhu’er circle each other, feinting, advancing, falling back, her rope dart ringing against his sword. “Who was in f*cking charge back then?”

Jiang Cheng sucks in a breath between his teeth, and Wei Wuxian freezes as soon as the words are out of his mouth. There are a lotof things Jiang Cheng could say in answer to that question, and none of them would be good. His skin is literally crawling, it itches with his discomfort, like--

Jiang Cheng reaches a hand over his shoulder, fingers touching paper, and he yanks the talisman off with a sharp movement. “You little f*cker,” he hisses at Wei Wuxian, eyes on the practice field as Fan Zhu’er does a neat backflip to escape from Lan Wangji’s swipe. “An itching talisman? Don’t think doing this in public means I won’t stab you!” The words are out before he can stop them, and he clenches his teeth because f*ck.

“Stabbing me is the activity that brings people together!” Wei Wuxian shoots back out of the side of his mouth, eyes on the spar, his body both tensed to run away and vibrating with the satisfaction of accomplishing a petty prank. “Also I warned you I’d have my revenge, and you gave me explicit permission to do it, so you have no one to blame for this but yourself.”

“I said you could try,” Jiang Cheng snaps, over the sound of Fan Zhu’er deflecting Lan Wangji’s next strike. “That’s not--that’s not permission.

“It sounded like permission to me,” Wei Wuxian insists. He glances at Jiang Cheng and his mouth curls up, a sparkle in his eyes so familiar it makes something burn inside his ribcage. “We can ask Fan-guniang when she’s done sparring,” he says. “She was there, wasn’t she?”

“I am going to throw you out a window,” Jiang Cheng whisper-yells.

“What was it she called you?” Wei Wuxian muses. “Quangu-zongzhu?”

“Never mind,” Jiang Cheng says, wondering where he went so wrong in his life. “I’m going to throw myselfout a window.”

“Oooh! She’s throwing Lan Jingyi at Lan Zhan now!” Wei Wuxian waves at the practice field, yelling, “You’re doing great!” at everyone involved, Jiang Cheng guesses. While he’s distracted, Jiang Cheng pockets the itching talisman for further review later.

It’s a war, after all. He has to plan for his next strike.

Notes:

Whoooooo boy here it is! Politics!

Please imagine the Jiang crew entering the main hall while something like LIVE FAST DIE YOUNG BAD GIRLS DO IT WELL absolutely blasts in the background.

五钢刀 Wǔ Gāng Dāo = Five Swords. Yeah, let's all pretend I did a better job planning this and back in August when I started writing I had everyone saying her title in Chinese instead of English, okay? Thank you to FaiaSakura and Zelos for workshopping her title with me!

This chapter has been converted for free using AOYeet!

Chapter 12

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Fan Dingxiang comes home from her first discussion conference with one new title, several new correspondance partners, the secure knowledge that, with the help of Jiang Wanyin, she’s managed to effect some real change, and probablyalso with a bunch of enemies, but she doesn’t actually care about that, so she doesn’t bother to count it. She met a lot of cultivators, some of whom she liked. The Nies, collectively? Pretty great.

(Fan Dingxiang may have shared a couple jars of wine with Kong Shanzhai and engaged in an above-the-waist makeout that was very enjoyable for both of them. She hadn’t been interested in more, which Kong Shanzhai had respected, and over the course of the evening’s conversation it turned out that Kong Shanzhai’s cousin was, “Like you, but in the other direction!” and introduced Fan Dingxiang to Kong Mubai the next day, and they spent a quarter shichen comparing the effects of their gender medicines and sharing embarrassing stories. Apparently his voice had cracked when he tried to shout for a full year.Fan Dingxiang had managed to sidestep that whole situation by virtue of when she started taking her prescriptions, but she remembers the most annoying thing being how weak her fingernails had gotten. Kong Mubai’s fingernails are practically unbreakable, and she’s not above admitting to being jealous about it.)

The conference was such a whirlwind experience that the day after she gets home (and gets to sleep in her own bed to the sound of the water and the familiar water bugs! Where the air smells like algae and lake instead of like too many flowers!) she wakes up in the morning and fully expects her life to be different, somehow, like she’ll walk out into the training yard and find the white of Lan robes and the gray-green of the Nies waiting for her. This does not happen, for which she’s grateful, and she falls back into her usual routine happily, right up until a shichen after breakfast when one of the servants comes to find her and she ends up roped into a talisman-drawing frenzy. Apparently Jiang Wanyin meant it when he said Yunmeng Jiang was implementing her ideas as quickly as possible, and Fan Dingxiang watches a room full of junior cultivators with their heads down, painting stacks and stacks of the talismans shedesigned, and she wants to punch and or kiss someone about it. Maybe both. Fan Dingxiang can be into that with the right person.

In less exciting news, creating a plan for widespread change in the way a cultivation sect operates unfortunately also necessitates a lot of meetings where people argue about the best way to implement the plan, and Fan Dingxiang finds herself in a lot of these, along with the highest ranked cultivators and, (delightfully) the head cook and the guy down from the market who’s generally considered to be in charge of the fishing fleet. Jiang Wanyin asks them questions about their daily life and what would be helpful and listens very seriously to the answers and it makes Fan Dingxiang want to straddle him afterward and engage in some above-the-waist makeouts of their own. Taking an active, actual interest in the well-being of the people under his protection is, in fact, very sexy of him, and Fan Dingxiang would tell him so if she didn’t think it would get her kicked out of the sect.

A week after they get back her talismans go out for distribution. The refugees in Baling and Laoling are the highest priority, and the crew of juniors tuck their appointed bundles into their sleeves with solemn faces, the seniors assigned as their chaperones looking on. With all thirty-something of them gone Lotus Pier is quieter, and Fan Dingxiang takes some time to really dig into spear techniques in the classes she teaches to the servants. She thinks they’re about ready to start sparring with some of the cultivators, and makes a note to talk to Hua Shaojun about it.

A letter arrives from Wei Wuxian, to Fan Dingxiang’s pleasant surprise. She wasn’t sure he’d actually rememberto write her, given how easily distractible he is, but apparently the opportunity to talk talismans with someone else who cares was too good to pass up. He includes new drafts of the talisman to change the smell of incense with a note that he’s now managed to make it smell like soup, which is better than the stinky feet smell but still not ideal. There are a couple of his own talisman designs, too, one intended to make the user unnoticeable and one to cure muscle cramps. Fan Dingxiang looks over the latter with extreme interest, as someone who gets a lot of muscle cramps, and makes a few copies to experiment with the next time she wakes up in bed because her calf decides it hates her.

“So you’re writing to Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Wanyin says two nights later, as they run sword drills in a covered pavilion next to the stables that’s usually used for saddling horses in rainy weather. It’s raining now, a comfortable patter on the wood and tile, and Fan Dingxiang adjusts her balance before Jiang Wanyin can poke her with his usual bamboo stick.

“I am,” she says, even though he didn’t actually ask that like it was a question.

“Hmph.” He taps her with the bamboo, bringing her wrist a little higher. Fan Dingxiang thinks maybe he wanted more of an answer, but he’s also not asking any real questions, so she’s not volunteering anything else unless he uses his words. She gets through the whole form, figuring that was the end of it, when he suddenly says, “If you take his side in the prank war I’ll kick you out of the sect.”

Fan Dingxiang grins at him, trying to parse his face in the low light. “Why, Quangu-zongzhu,” she says, fake offended, “do you think I’d be that disloyal to you? What do you take me for?”

“An impertinent little sh*t,” he snaps, and lightly thwaps the side of her hip. “Square your stance.”

“Who’s little,” Fan Dingxiang mutters under her breath and does as asked. Later that same night, after she’s gone to bed, her left calf wakes her up with a wickedcramp, and she gets to test one of the talismans. It works a little toowell, in that she loses muscular control of her ankle once it’s on, but the cramp disappears immediately. The next morning she writes back to Wei-gongzi with some suggestions, and ignores the look Jiang Wanyin gives her when she drops it off with the other outgoing correspondence. She’s allowed to write to whoever she wants, and he’ll just have to deal with it.

“It’s too quiet,” Hu Yueque says a few days later. The truth to her words is apparent, because Zhang Luan and Li Jinrong, her wife, are painting Hu Yueque and Hu Xinling’s nails, respectively. Jiang Fengli, who had her nails painted two days previously, looks at the still-pristine enamel and nods.

“sh*t’s about to go down,” she says. “My nails have gotten too long. I’m gonna get called out on a night hunt and break them all horribly.”

“Are you still on about your fingernail-based divination?” Fan Dingxiang asks, whose fingernails are reliably too destroyed to bother with ever painting them. “That’s not a thing.”

“It’s absolutely a thing,” Jiang Fengli insists. “You’ll see.”

---

It’s a thing. The plea for help arrives the next morning, along with another letter from Wei-gongzi and one from Kong Shanzhai. Jiang Wanyin hands them over, his mouth tight, and doesn’t look her in the eyes. He’s been avoiding eye contact since they got back from Lanling, and Fan Dingxiang can’t figure out why. She admittedly doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to figure it out, though. He can be weird if he wants. She’s not going to try and decode other people’s weirdness, because that sh*t takes a lot of energy and you still run the risk of getting it wrong. Better to just wait and let people either stop being weird or just f*cking tell youwhat the issue is.

“One of the mountain villages is having problems with a monster,” he says to her left shoulder. “We leave tomorrow.”

She blinks at him. “We?”

“Did you have other plans?” he asks, icily, eyes flicking to her face and then away.

“I always have plans,” Fan Dingxiang says, which is the truth. She has classes to run and talismans to design and adventure novels to read, when she’s done with the other things. “You’recoming?”

Jiang Wanyin scoffs. “Obviously,” he snaps. “We’re short-handed, and four people are already dead, and you know what? I don’t have to f*cking explain myself to you.”

“You don’t,” Fan Dingxiang agrees easily, and offers him a mostly-sincere bow as she backs away. He glares at her as she goes, but his heart doesn’t seem to be in it. She wonders, again, why he’s being so weird, and then she goes back to her quarters to read her letters and prep for the hunt. Her emergency supplies bag needs to have some things rotated out, and she makes sure she packs extra bandages, just in case.

They fly out, which Fan Dingxiang wasn’t actually expecting. It makes sense--Jiang Wanyin seems determined to solve the problem before anyone else dies, which is a very appealing trait--and the village they’re heading to is a least a week’s walk away. She gamely hops up onto Hu Yueque’s sword and grabs her around the waist.

“Handsy,” Hu Yueque complains, like she always does.

“Could be worse,” Fan Dingxiang says, like shealways does, and (after a quick glance around to make sure Jiang Wanyin isn’t looking) completes the ritual tit-squeeze that started as a joke when they were teenagers and is now an important part of their flight routine. What would happen if she didn’t squeeze a friend’s boob before a flight? Fan Dingxiang doesn’t want to find out.

“Pervert,” Hu Yueque says, thus completing the ceremony, and she adjusts their balance easily as Fan Dingxiang settles in. They’ve had a lot of practice at this. If they end up flying straight through then Fan Dingxiang will jump onto Jiang Fengli’s sword at some point, and then Ma Xueliang’s, to spread the effort around. Fan Dingxiang is… a lot of person to carry on a sword. If they’re going to be fighting some kind of monster, she doesn’t want anyone to be extra worn out because of her.

“Everyone ready?” Jiang Wanyin asks, scowling out at their group, his eyes lingering on where Fan Dingxiang’s arms are wrapped tightly around Hu Yueque and a muscle ticking in his jaw. There’s an affirmative chorus, and he whirls around, mounts his own sword with a leap, and they’re off.

---

“So what do you think it is?” Fan Dingxiang asks the room as they get ready for bed the night they arrive at the village. The interviews they’ve done have had mixed descriptions, so all they know for sure is that whatever they’ll be hunting is big and has claws.

“Bear yaoguai,” Hu Yueque says immediately, because she always hopes it’s a bear yaoguai.

“Could be a zhujian,” Ma Xueliang offers.

“Those are supposed to have human faces,” Jiang Fengli points out, combing her hair. “No one mentioned a human face, and that’s usually pretty memorable.” Fan Dingxiang agrees. She’s still occasionally haunted by dreams of the one human-faced snake she ran across while on a completely different night hunt, and agrees that if they were looking for something with a human face, someone would have mentioned it. (The features were all wrong,and human heads aren’t supposed to be mounted on snake necks. Eurgh.)

“Baihu?” Hu Xinling tosses out, from where he’s availing himself of Fan Dingxiang’s snack bag. (They’ll kick him out back to his room with the other male cultivators soon, but he usually hangs out with them until bedtime. People are used to it.)

“You think the Guardian of the West is attacking a tiny village on the edge of the mountains and eating farmers?” Fan Dingxiang asks, vaguely horrified that he’s even suggesting such a thing.

“Not the real one,” he clarifies. “A false one, like the xuanwu that Wei Wuxian killed back in the day. The actual baihu has much better things to do than random murders.”

“Like specificmurders,” Jiang Fengli says. “What do you think it is, A’Zhu?”

Fan Dingxiang stretches and thinks about the landscape and the climate, the wildlife she saw on the way in, the nearby mountains. “I think it might be a leopard yaoguai,” she says. They’re not terribly common, but it’s the right terrain for it.

“That’d be cool to fight,” Hu Yueque muses. “I guess we’ll find out tomorrow.”

---

It’s a wolverine yaoguai, which none of them were expecting. Fan Dingxiang hasn’t even seen a normalwolverine before, so when it bursts out of the cave system it’s apparently been using at its den, snarling and brandishing talons at her as long as her f*cking arm, she has a brief moment of frozen, bewildered admiration before she springs into movement. This explains the weird markings she’d seen on the trees on their way up, the deep gouges cut into the soil. Hm. Good to know. She dodges a swipe from those overlarge talons, backflips out of the way, and starts thinking about talismans.

The fight is fast and furious. They hadn’t had time to set up suppression arrays or traps, so it quickly devolvesinto swords and spears and hastily cast spells. It’s just so big,and the f*cker is quick, and the reach on the claws is enough of an issue that Fan Dingxiang can’t get in there with her spear and quickly switches to the rope dart.

“Archers!” Jiang Wanyin yells, Zidian crackling through the air to hit the yao’s flank, the acrid reek of burning hair joining the stink of blood and sweat and churned-up mud. A rock rolls under Fan Dingxiang’s foot, and she leaps to a better position and strikes the wolverine’s head as it snarls at Jiang Wanyin. Above them, Ma Xueliang hovers on her sword, bow and quiver sparkling into being out of her sleeves. Hu Xinling and Hu Yueque scramble back out of the way, summoning their bows as well. Fan Dingxiang runs her fingers through her talismans, spelled arrows whizzing by to sink into thick, oily fur, and she’s just not closeenough.

“Jiang Fengli!” she yells, switching back to her boar spear, sprinting in her direction. “Boost me!”

“f*ck!” Jiang Fengli says, with feeling, throwing her sword and sheath aside and bracing for impact. It’s comical, with Fan Dingxiang easily twice her size, but Jiang Fengli’s core and body are strong as hell, and she cups her hands for Fan Dingxiang’s foot and launchesher into the air. Fan Dingxiang turns a neat forward flip as she arcs, bringing the spear to bear, and she lands on the wolverine’s back with a meaty crunch, breaking several ribs and sinking the spearhead in at the base of the thing’s shoulders. She rubs her fingers at the side of her neck, where she’s bleeding from her usual cut, and slaps as many explosion and binding talismans on the thing as she can before it roars and bucks her off. The spear slips from her grasp, and for all that she rolls when she hits the ground she still loses all the air from her lungs and ends up face-down and gasping. f*ck f*ck f*ck,okay, she can do this, if she just keeps rolling--

The wolverine slams her into the dirt with a heavy swipe of one clawed paw, pain splintering her concentration and radiating up and down her side. There’s a wet rush under her robes, and Fan Dingxiang can’t even make a sound, still furiously trying to catch her breath, now with the weight of a giant f*cking yaoguai on her.

“Fan Zhu’er!” someone screams, sounding frantic and terrified, which is weird because they’renot the one currently being stepped on, and Zidian crackles above her. It must be aimed at the leg currently holding her down, and the wolverine staggers back a step, which is all the opening Fan Dingxiang needs to drag herself to her feet. Jiang Wanyin practically crashes into her, one arm wrapping around her waist to help keep her upright, and oh, hemust have been the one screaming her name. That’s nice. “Fan Zhu’er!” he says again, desperately, his arm tightening, which would feel very sexy if not for how she’s definitely bleeding on that side.

“Ow,” she says, weakly, and then as her brain kicks back into gear, “f*ck!” Fan Dingxiang starts running, dragging Jiang Wanyin with her, just enough breath and sense to gasp out, “Talismans!” in answer to his startled, questioning, “Hwah?”

“f*ck!” he says, which, like, Fan Dingxiang just said,and he throws Sandu at the ground and drags her onto the sword, and Fan Dingxiang doesn’t want to know what will happen if she flies without groping a friend, so she automatically wraps one hand around his ribs and--

Well.

She f*cking grabs Jiang Wanyin’s pec and gives it a good, firm squeeze before she realizes what’s happening. Oh, dear. She’ll be mortified about that later, she’s sure.

For his part, Jiang Wanyin makes a verysurprised sound, one that she will find hilariouslater, and they soar out of the way of a swipe from the very, very angry wolverine’s claws. The ravine in which this whole debacle started isn’t ideal for flying, and Jiang Wanyin ends up taking them into the mouth of a cave, though fortunately notthe one the yao was using as its den. Unfortunately it follows them in, roars, and Fan Dingxiang’s talismans promptly explode.

It’s incrediblyloud. That’s the only thing Fan Dingxiang can actually focus on for a while, is how f*cking loudit was. Explosions? While surrounded by echoing stone walls? Not great, as it turns out. She hurts all over and there’s a rock digging into her lower back and something heavy and warm is draped over her front, which would be much more pleasant if not for the whole rock in her lower back situation. “Ow,” she says, more to test her voice out than for any other reason, and the warm thing on her front groans and shifts. Purple energy sparkles in the air, a light talisman flaring into being (ow, her eyes) and the warm thing resolves itself into Jiang Wanyin. He lifts his head, propping himself up on his elbows on either side of her shoulders, and she takes a moment to mourn that it could have been a much more mutually enjoyable situation that found them in this position.

“Fan Zhu’er,” he says, barely audible through the ringing in her ears, his face making expressions she’s never seen on it before. “Are you all right?” He sits up, straddling her hips (again a position that would be much more fun if it wasn’t happening now) and starts frantically patting his hands over her body (see previous complaint). One comes up to cup her cheek, and she tips her face into it because why not. Jiang Wanyin inhales sharply and rips his hands away like she burned him, which is rude of him, frankly.

“Still breathing,” she manages, and squints vaguely in the direction of the explosion, slowly coming to understand that they’re both covered in dust and little rock chips. “Hey, is it dead? We should probably move if it isn’t dead.”

He turns to look at where the entrance to the cave was and sighs. “I have good news and bad news,” he tells her, long-suffering.

“Hit me,” she says, patting him companionably on the thigh, vision blurry. Her hand stays there. It’s a nice thigh and she wants to touch it.

“Uh,” Jiang Wanyin squeaks, his face going red for some reason. “The good news is that the yaoguai is definitely dead.”

“Hooray.” Fan Dingxiang’s eyes drift shut, and she drags them back open and squeezes his thigh a little. “Bad news?”

“It’s dead because the explosion set off a rockslide and collapsed the entrance to the cave.” Jiang Wanyin very delicately encircles her wrist and takes her hand off his thigh, setting it gently on her chest. “We’re trapped.”

“Oh,” Fan Dingxiang says, looking up at both of him, trying to focus while the two Jiang Wanyins keep moving and fuzzing out. “That ispretty bad.” She puts her hand back on his thigh and pets it while she considers their situation for a moment. “We’re not gonna die in the next half shichen though, right?”

“Probably not,” Jiang Wanyin says. His hand clamps around her wrist, where her fingers were maybewandering a little too high, and pins it there. She escapes the hold on instinct and interlaces their fingers instead. Ah, that’s nice. Holding hands is nice.

“Great,” she says, nodding. “If we’re not gonna immediately die, I’m gonna pass out for a little while.” His face does the weird thing again, and this time she clocks at least some of the expression as panic and concern, so she squeezes his hand. “Don’t worry,” she tells him. “I’ll be okay, okay?”

Jiang Wanyin’s throat works, his mouth starting to shape words and failing. Fan Dingxiang keeps herself awake with a great effort, because she wants him to understand that she’s just tired and needs to tap out for a bit. It wouldn’t do if he was worrying the whole time she was unconscious. She squeezes his hand again, and his free hand comes up. It’s shaking, she notes absently as he pushes hair out of her face (ah, her topknot must have been absolutely destroyed) and lightly cups her cheek.

“If you die,” he says finally, thumb on her cheekbone, “I’ll f*cking kill you.” Fan Dingxiang manages to roll her eyes, but it takes more effort than usual.

“I’m not gonna die,” she promises, letting her eyes finally slip shut. “That was my kill.” Fan Dingxiang sighs, going limp, and mumbles, “Can’t let you take the credit.”

She thinks she might hear a laugh before she tumbles under, but then there’s only the welcoming darkness and she doesn’t hear anything at all.

---

Jiang Cheng is having a lot of feelings and he’s trapped in a cave that doesn’t seem big enough for those feelings, plus there’s the front half of a dead yaoguai in here with him as well as the subject of all his feelings. He likes precisely none of this. Today is not going great.

Fan Zhu’eris still unconscious. Jiang Cheng knows this because he’s sitting cross-legged on the cave floor next to her, eyes trained on the rise and fall of her chest and fully unable to look away. He checked her meridians as soon as he climbed off of her,and there are no blockages or anything to worry about there. He very, very carefully examined her head, not finding any lumps or bleeding or anything to suggest a head injury. (That raises further questions that he doesn’t want to address right now. She got… handsy.If she didn’t have a head injury, why the f*ck was she feeling him up?) He doesn’t want to move her, because while he’s pretty sure her spine is uninjured, he refuses to take that risk while she’s unconscious. He has, however, taken a spare inner robe out of his qiankun pouch and bundled it under her head, and took off his own outer robe to drape over her. (He shook most of the rock dust off of it. He’s thoughtful.) Her face is a little paler than usual, forehead pinched even in sleep, and Jiang Cheng thinks it’s just shock. Even cultivators react like this sometimes, when they’re caught unaware, and she doesn’t have a coreand it’s suddenly hitting him how fragile that makes her.

“I will absolutely break your legs if you die,” he spits at her, the sound echoing off the walls of the cave. “I will never, ever forgive you.” She doesn’t respond, and Jiang Cheng has a burning headache behind his eyes that he refuses to allow to turn into tears. He wishes he could do more. He wishes Hu Yueque or Ma Xueliang or any of Fan Zhu’er’s friends were in here, because theyknow how to help her heal properly, and he doesn’t. He’s holding her hand and passing her a bare trickle of spiritual energy, because he doesn’t know what else to do, and he’s furious about all of it.

“Ungh,” she says, frowning harder, and then, “Oooooof.” Jiang Cheng leans forward, heart in his throat, and watches her eyes blink open and squint against the light of his talisman. She looks at him, looks past him at the walls of the cave, and shuts her eyes again. “f*ck.”

f*ck is right. “How are you?” he asks, and then mentally curses himself for asking something so asinine.

“Been better,” Fan Zhu’ersays, almost cheerful. “Could really do without the f*ckin’ rock digging into my back.” She shifts a little and hisses through her teeth. “Oh, ow, yeah,” she groans, “that’s left a mark for sure.”

“Can you feel your feet?” he asks, shoving forward to hold her shoulders in place before she can move more and possibly cause permanent damage. “Any numbness?”

“Get off,” she grumbles, batting at him. “I can feel every part of me and they all hurt like hell, it’s nothing new.” Jiang Cheng allows himself to be pushed away, and hovers with his hands around her shoulders and elbow as she levers herself to sitting with a heartfelt, “Hrrrrrrngh.” His outer robe falls away as she does, and Fan Zhu’erblinks down at it, and then at Jiang Cheng with a raised eyebrow.

“It’s cold,” he says, the back of his neck hot in spite of the chill of the cave, and she looks at him a moment longer and obviously decides not to say anything else.

“So,” she says, turning to look at the collapsed cave entrance, “we should probably move further away from that so the others don’t have to worry about hurting it as they dig us out. I would also love to wash some of this grit off, and not be in the same room as that stinky pile of meat.” Fan Zhu’erjerks her chin at the dead wolverine and grimaces as the movement jars a sore muscle.

“Wash?” Jiang Cheng asks, trying not to focus on the idea of the washing happening with him in the vicinity. “How much water do you have on you?”

“Enough,” Fan Zhu’ersays, patting over her torso, wincing when she touches her left side, “but don’t you hear it?” That brings him up short, and Jiang Cheng pauses and actually listens for something other than Fan Zhu’er’s breathing. It’s so obvious now that he’s not obsessively panicking--there’s running water somewhere deeper in the cave, some kind of underground stream or spring. “Let’s go be closer to that,” Fan Zhu’ersays, and reaches expectantly at him. “Help me up.”

Having Fan Zhu’erask for help with a physical task is so surprising that Jiang Cheng has to take a breath to actually process it before he pushes to his feet and carefully pulls her up afterward. The sounds she makes are pained--she’s obviously more injured than she looks, but when she’s vertical she takes a deep breath and unhesitatingly slings an arm over his shoulders. Jiang Cheng takes her weight, tries not to enjoy the warmth of her pressed all along his side, and helps her limp deeper into the cave system. There’s only one path, fortunately, so he doesn’t bother doing anything to mark their way. Two turns later the tunnel opens up into an underground cavern, his light talisman reflecting off the far wall, and the sound of falling water comes from a stream pouring down the wall and running along a winding, carved path across the floor before it exits into another, smaller tunnel. It’s far too small to swim or crawl through, so they’ll be stuck in here until his disciples can dig out the entrance.

“Well,” Fan Zhu’ersays, surveying the space, “I’ve slept in worse places.” She starts sinking to the ground again, and Jiang Cheng cups a hand under her elbow and helps her down and doesn’t think about this being the most he’s touched another person in literally years. He kneels, awkwardly, as she settles herself cross-legged, and then she pulls out qiankun pouches and starts pulling things out of those qiankun pouches and he watches, bewildered, as she sets up a full, modestly appointed infirmary. There’s a bamboo sleeping mat that gets covered with a battered, bloodstained quilt, a folding tray on which she lines up salves and bottles of medicine and bandages, and (what the f*ck) she pulls out a couple of actual lamps, fills them with lamp oil, and sparks them alight.

“Here,” she says, handing him a deep bronze bowl as though this is an everyday occurrence and nothing weird is happening here, “go get water.” In a daze, Jiang Cheng does. The stream isn’t deep enough to submerge the bowl, so he holds it under the waterfall and watches it fill and wonders if this is maybe an extremely weird dream. Maybe he hit his head when the wolverine exploded and is hallucinating wildly. The hallucination theory only becomes more plausible when he turns back around to find Fan Zhu’erstruggling out of one of her inner robes. It staggers him for a minute, because he has definitely spent a lot of time diligently notimagining this very scenario, and then she makes a pained sound, her face scrunching up, and he wouldn’t have imagined that.

“What?” he tries, and then runs out of words.

“The water, please?” she snaps, getting the robe off and throwing it aside. She’s down to one robe over her undershirt, and Jiang Cheng’s tongue glues itself to the roof of his mouth. He yanks his eyes to the wall of the cave above her head and walks back over, putting the bowl down, and then he turns around and firmly stares away.

“What are you doing?” he asks, finally, managing to get his mouth working now that he’s not watching her undress.She hisses in pain again and he almost turns around, but he can see the discarded pile of her robes in his peripheral vision and her last inner robe lands on it and he flushes all across his neck and chest and keeps his eyes elsewhere.

“Oh my god,” she says, quietly, and then louder, “Jiang Wanyin, turn around and look at me, please.” He jerks abortively, and she sighs, her voice hitching in discomfort in the middle of it. “I’m decent,” she says, snappishly, and it’s the snappishness that makes him actually turn to look. She’s yelled at him and teased him and snarked at him, but this is new. She sounds done.Fan Zhu’ersounds tired and in pain, and when he glares determinedly at her face he can see that she’s pinched around the eyes, her mouth a hard line. (He can also see that she’s holding a large fold of the stained blanket up to her shoulders, covering what he hopesis at least still her undershirt. Please,he prays to his ancestors, please let her be wearing her undershirt.)

“Jiang Wanyin,” she says, solemnly and stilla little annoyed, “I’m injured. The wound needs to be cleaned and bandaged, and I can’t do that with my clothes on, on account of where the wound is. I need you to stop freaking out about this.”

Jiang Cheng nods. That’s reasonable. He can manage that. He’ll just… he’ll just go hang out on the other side of the cavern, or maybe head back out to the place they came in and kick the dead guai and try not to think about Fan Zhu’er, in here, naked.He’s just about found a meditative state about that, accepting it as necessary, when she says, “I need you to stop freaking out about it because I need you to doit.”

Jiang Cheng’s brain stops working. “Uuuuh,” he says, as he scrambles for purchase as though trapped at the bottom of a greased well. It’s all screaming panic behind his eyes now. There’s no possible way he just heard that, and also no possible way he can be expected to--to put his hands all over her skin, alone together in this cave. “That’s not--” he starts, not sure where the sentence is going, and Fan Zhu’erpinches the bridge of her nose and groans.

“Jiang Wanyin,” she snaps, “this is not a request.I have no idea how long we’re going to be stuck in here, and I’m not f*cking risking getting a f*cking infection because of your f*cking feelings.” Her voice catches, and she hisses between her teeth, wincing. “Ow,” she says, quietly, and then louder, “What, do you expect me to hide it and pretend I’m fine and walk around with an open wound until I pass out? No f*cking way.”

Jiang Cheng, who has done precisely that with almost every injury he’s ever had since he was ten, finds he has nothing to say in response. “All right,” he says, his mouth desert-dry. He swallows, uselessly, hands flexing at his sides, and continues, “So how do we. Do. This.”

Fan Zhu’erlooks at the ceiling of the cave like she’s praying to the heavens for strength. “You were in a war,” she says, blandly. “I assume you’ve dressed a wound before.”

“Of course I have,” he snaps, dropping to his knees so she stops having to crane her neck to look up at him. Anger is good. He knows how to be angry. “I just meant how do we--” and he gestures at her general state of undress, keeping his eyes on her face with the same effort and determination he usually applies to sword forms. She sags a little bit in relief, which makes his stomach squirm guiltily. She’s injured.She needs help,and here he is, delaying that help because he’s uncomfortable with how much he likes her or whatever. I’m an asshole,he thinks, frustrated with himself.

“Go wash your hands,” Fan Zhu’ersays. “I’ll tell you when it’s safe to turn around.”

Jiang Cheng is pathetically grateful for the opportunity to collect himself, and he splashes his face with icy water from the waterfall, wiping away the sweat and grit of the fight, and scrubs his hands. This is medical,he reminds himself. It’s no different from all the times we patched someone up on the front.Except, of course, that he wasn’t attracted to anyone he was bandaging back during Sunshot, and he was almost always bandaging other male cultivators--female cultivators usually found other women to help, because even in war you don’t always want to get half-naked in front of the opposite sex. It was also war.Even ifhe’d been attracted to anyone back then in an actionable way, he was always covered in mud and blood and worn thin with exhaustion and constant terror. This--he swallows, dry-mouthed and not admitting his own nervousness--this is different.

“Done,” Fan Zhu’ersays, weirdly muffled, and Jiang Cheng turns around slowly like he’s expecting someone to jump out and punch him. That doesn’t happen. Instead he just sees her lying face-down on the quilt, an extra robe draped over her hips, her undershirt clearly open but still on. Also, notably, he can see the significant bloodstainon her undershirt, which he hadn’t noticed before, and Jiang Cheng crosses to her and drops to his knees before he can stop himself.

“f*ck,” he says, panic swelling up and washing away the nervousness, his wet hands hovering above the cotton, “f*ck, why didn’t you say something sooner?”

“I was unconscious,” she says tipping her head so she can glare up at him balefully from the corner of her eye. “And between my robes and laying directly on it the bleeding stopped pretty quickly. Unfortunately that means my robe is scabbed directly into the wound, so that’s gonna be fun.” Fan Zhu’erwaves a hand at the bowl of water, a few talismans and some clean cloth set next to it. “Have at it.”

Jiang Cheng recognizes a warming talisman and puts that on the bowl first. The second talisman takes him a moment, but he places it as a water purification talisman and adds it. The third he squints at, trying to work it out.

“It’s for pain,” Fan Zhu’ersays into her crossed arms. “If you put it on my skin it won’t hurt as much.”

Jiang Cheng swallows. Right. Skin. She’s already peeled the undershirt off her arms, wearing it over her back like a blanket, and he steadies his hands and concentrates on very, very carefully peeling back one side of the robe (oh, wow, muscles) and pressing the talisman in place with a little push of spiritual energy, keeping his fingers away from her naked skin.As soon as the spell catches she sighs, her shoulders dropping, and the wave of comfort makes him pleased (for her sake) and despairing (for his). “Are these for the water?” he asks, yanking his hands back and picking up a packet of herbs, just for something to do.

“Yep,” she says, shutting her eyes. “Let that steep for a bit and then get to work.” Jiang Cheng does, while he’s waiting he picks up all the little bottles and jars she’s unpacked and reads the labels. He tells himself it’s so he knows what he needs to do next, but mostly it’s because he desperately wants something to focus on that isn’t Fan Zhu’er’s back, separated from him by a single thin layer of soon-to-be-gone fabric. The medicines are unfortunately finite, and when he’s done reading all the labels twice he can’t justify any more procrastination. Jiang Cheng takes a deep, meditative breath, centers himself in the flow of the qi through his meridians, and picks up one of the cloths. He’s doing this. f*ck.

Fan Zhu’er twitches when he touches the wet cloth to the bloodstains on her robes, and Jiang Cheng winches. “Sorry,” he says, trying to dab even more gently. He’s going to need to get everything pretty saturated, he thinks, to soak off the dried blood and soften the scabs. He focuses on that and not the way the white cotton goes transparent with every pass of the cloth in his hand.

“Didn’t hurt,” she says, vaguely. “Surprised.” A yawn rolls through her, lifting her back under Jiang Cheng’s hand, and she smothers it in the blanket. “Yep, there’s the exhaustion again,” Fan Zhu’er says, like a continuation of a conversation they were already having. “Once I stop moving it’s basically naptime.”

“Is it like this after every fight?” Jiang Cheng asks, curiosity starting to win out over the rest of the nauseating welter of emotions happening in his stomach. He re-wets the cloth and moves on to another section of bloodstain, this one thick and rust-red and worryingly stiff.

“Mmm,” she says, thoughtfully. “Not always this bad, but something like it.” She tips her head and squints up at him sideways. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Quangu-zongzhu, but night hunting is very tiring.”

“You don’t say,” Jiang Cheng says, as dryly as he can, and Fan Zhu’er huffs a laugh and then hisses.

“f*ck,” she says, “hurts to laugh. That’s rude. Stop being funny, Jiang Wanyin.”

“You’re the only one who thinks I’m funny,” Jiang Cheng says, which is true and which he absolutely hadn’t intended to say out loud. He shuts his mouth so hard his teeth click together and dips the cloth again. He’s almost wetted the entire bloodstain, which means over half of Fan Zhu’er’s back is strangely visible through the fabric. At least it’s the mangled half. Small blessings.

“You probably just don’t make jokes to anyone else,” Fan Zhu’er points out, unruffled. “You think the various sect leaders think I’mfunny? They don’t deserve my humor.” She wiggles a little while Jiang Cheng follows that thought to its logical conclusion, since Fan Zhu’er doesmake jokes to him, and therefore must think hedeserves her humor? “You’re probably ready to start peeling,” she says, dragging him back to the present moment, and reminding him of his purpose. Namely, that he’s supposed to take her clothes off.

f*ck.

Okay.

Jiang Cheng steels himself and reaches for the non-bloody edge of her robe, pulling it back and unveiling just… so much skin and so many muscles as he goes, like peeling a mandarin orange somehow strong enough to kill a man. He keeps his breathing even, focusing on meditation techniques and his qi and ruthlessly crushing down the slightest hint of inappropriate physical reactions. In the next breath he reaches the injured part of her back, which is helpful insofar as smothering the inappropriate reactions goes. It’s a lot easier to stop thinking with his traitor dick when he’s looking at livid, dark bruising and a worrying amount of blood. He hisses, the robe catching on a scab, and carefully dabs at the stuck part until it dissolves and he can keep going.

“Oh, yeah?” Fan Zhu’er asks, interested. “Is it gonna be good? How cool is my scar going to be?”

“I don’t know yet,” Jiang Cheng says, ignoring how her voice rumbles through the wet cloth to vibrate his fingertips. “Currently it’s a f*cking mess.”

“Is that the technical term?”

“A big ugly f*cking mess,” Jiang Cheng clarifies, and she laughs again. He has the whole robe off now, and she’s naked from the waist-up and the half of her back that isn’t covered in blood is right there.In a resting posture she’s a little less defined than he thought she would be (not that he, uh, thinksabout her a lot. It’s just. His body has been more demanding than usual lately, and he can’t really control where his mind goes sometimes, and--anyway, whatever), with a layer of skin and fat over the muscle like a well-fed horse.

Jiang Cheng squeezes his eyes shut. A well-fed horse? He should be banned from speaking to women, or possibly even thinking about them, or even existing in their presence. He exhales slowly through his nose, re-opens his eyes, and sets about cleaning all the blood off. “Do you think you have any broken ribs?” he asks, rinsing the cloth, tinting the water in the bowl pink as he works.

“Hm.” Fan Zhu’er inhales deep, filling her lungs as much as she can before she breathes out. “Doesn’t feel like it. It doesn’t hurt that much to breathe, it just hurts when I move or try to engage those muscles.”

“Don’t do that, then,” Jiang Cheng says snippily. Fan Zhu’er lifts one hand to flip him a rude gesture, so he flicks her in the shoulder in retaliation. “Stop moving,” he orders, more and more bruising revealed as he wipes away the dried blood. “I’m working here.”

“You started it,” Fan Zhu’er points out, but she also stops making rude gestures at him so he counts it as a victory. Jiang Cheng focuses on cleaning her back, falling into the kind of meditative state that usually accompanies sword training. There are simple movements he needs to make with his hands, a clear end state, and a rhythm to the whole thing. It’s so straightforward and easy that when he brings the damp, stained cloth to her skin after rinsing it and finds all the blood gone, he blinks in surprise and startles a little. In the next breath his eyes actually take in what he’s seeing, and Jiang Cheng’s stomach twists unpleasantly, because Fan Zhu’er’s back is f*cked up.

“How are you alive?” he asks, horrified, eyes tracing and retracing the claw-shaped gashes still weakly bleeding, the bruising that goes from her hip up to her shoulder blade, the rashy red scabbing that looks like friction burns. She doesn’t have a core,part of him screams wildly, she doesn’t have a core and she can’t heal this by thinking about it and holy f*ck, she could have died,she could have died on any of the night hunts she’s been on and what’s he supposed to do then?

“Too stubborn to die,” Fan Zhu’er says easily. He’s trying to come up with a way to say, “Stop being blase about your own life,” aware that it would make him a massive hypocrite, when she continues, “That and my outer robe.”

“What?” That brings Jiang Cheng up short. He thought she favored the sleeveless outer robe for practicality’s sake, and possibly also because it shows off how broad her shoulders are. Does it serve another function?

“Have a look,” she says, unconcerned about her naked back being all out there in front of him, and equally unconcerned about how she’s still sluggishly bleeding. Jiang Cheng does, because he’s curious, and when he shakes it open he sees what she means: The entire lining is stitched over with carefully embroidered talismans. He’s never seen talisman designs like this before, and he has to examine one for longer than he’ll ever admit before he can identify as a talisman for protection, but specifically from metal.“It’s basically armor at this point,” she says, propping her head up on her fists and grinning at him smugly. “Fireproof, protects me from swords and arrows and blunt impacts. It’s still cloth, though, so there’s only so much it can do when I get literally stepped on.”

Jiang Cheng drops the robe, the physical reminder of Fan Zhu’er’s fragility somehow too much to handle. “Reckless,” he spits, then grabs the bronze bowl and carts it back over to the stream without another word. He dumps the bloody water, watching it swirl red into the current, scrubs off his stained hands and the cloth, and carries a fresh bowl back over. There’s already another warming talisman and purification talisman waiting on the tray, along with a different packet of herbs, so Jiang Cheng prepares the water and hopes he got away without having to deal with the consequences of his words.

“This one for the cuts,” Fan Zhu’er says, pointing at one of the jars, “and this one for the bruising.” She waits until he has the jar open, the little applicator held delicately as he spreads salve over the gashes in her skin (they’re not terribly deep, thank god, that robe must really do some work) and then she says, “I’m not reckless.”

“Oh?” Jiang Cheng asks, deeply sarcastic, putting the next bit of salve on with more pressure than he needs. She tips her head and glares at him sidelong. Jiang Cheng flushes and gentles his hands. God, he’s an asshole.

“No,” she says, flatly. “I’m not. All the risks I take are calculated. Sometimes the math changes. That’s how nighthunting works.

“You could have died,” Jiang Cheng snaps, realizing as the words come out that they’re as unsteady as his hands. He takes a deep breath, stills the shaking with an effort of will, and moves on to the next cut.

“We could all die at any time, Jiang Wanyin,” Fan Zhu’er points out reasonably. “You were in a war. You know this. Even cultivators can slip in the street and crack their skull on a rock. I’ve seen how drunk some of you f*ckers get.” Jiang Cheng has, as well. Jiang Cheng has beenone of the drunk f*ckers, occasionally, but there were extenuating circ*mstances (like the death of his entire family). He doesn’t get blasted at banquets, no matter how much he’d like to escape them. Anyway, none of that is the point, the point is that Fan Zhu’er shouldn’t just wave off her potential death like it’s no big deal!

“Calculate better next time,” he tells her, voice tight, and finishes with the last cut. He means to leave it there, but his mouth has apparently joined forces with his dick to betray him because he adds, “What am I supposed to do if you die?” Fan Zhu’er pushes up onto her elbows a little, mouth opening, and he blusters on, desperately, “No one else at Lotus Pier is as good with a spear or a rope dart as you are! Who the f*ck’s supposed to run your classes? It would be f*cking irresponsibleof you to die.” She’s still raised up, which gives him a very slight view of the curve of her side into where it meets her chest, which his traitor dick would like him to know is where her breastslive, and he puts one hand between her shoulder blades and pushes her back down. “Stop moving, I’m not done.”

Fan Zhu’er laughs, vibrating under his hand on her bare skin,f*ck she’s warm and he can feel just how strong she is, the muscles shifting, and Jiang Cheng snatches his hand back. “All right, Quangu-zongzhu,” she says, grinning sideways at him, eyes glinting in the low light from the lamps. “I would hate for my death to be an inconvenience for you, so I guess I’ll stay alive.”

“Good,” Jiang Cheng shoots back. “It’s about time you started actually respecting your sect leader.” He sets the wound salve aside and picks up a bottle with some kind of liniment in it. “This is for the bruising?”

Fan Zhu’er makes an affirmative hum. “You’re going to need to put it on with your hands,” she says, apologetically. “It’s too liquidy to use an applicator.”

Jiang Cheng hopes, for a brief moment, for an earthquake to collapse the cave and crush him to death. He realizes in his next breath that this would also kill Fan Zhu’er, after they’d just had this conversation about how she’s not supposed to die, so he stops hoping it just in case this time the heavens are actually listening and will send an earthquake out of spite. He prays, instead, for strength as he uncorks the bottle and pours some of the liquid inside into his palm. The strength he asks for has not manifested by the time he’s rubbed his hands together to distribute the liniment, and he has no other way to procrastinate, so he grabs his qi in a chokehold and puts his hands back on her skin. He goes quickly, patting the medicine in as efficiently as possible without letting his hands linger anywhere, and pulls away with a burning awareness of what her naked skin feels like that will never, ever leave him.

“Anything else before we do bandages?” he asks, brusquely. Fan Zhu’er hesitates, which is weird of her. “What?” he snaps. “You waiting for them to dig us out?”

“f*ck off,” she says companionably, reaching out for a good-sized wooden box of salve and nudging it toward him. “This is for muscle fatigue.” She pushes up onto her elbows again, turning to look at him over her shoulder, and says, carefully, “Usually after a hunt one of the others helps me rub it in, but I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

“You care about my comfort?” Jiang Cheng sneers, deeply uncomfortable. “That’s news to me.”

“You keep acting like if you accidentally see my titty you’ll turn to stone,” Fan Zhu’er says bluntly. “I’m not trying to like, seduce you or whatever, so if you don’t want to do this it’s fine, I’ll deal with it.”

Yes, there are parts of Jiang Cheng that would definitely get hard as a rock if he saw Fan Zhu’er’s “titty.” Preferably titt*es. If he’s going to see one he’d like to see both. “What happens if you don’t put it on?” he asks, hoping the light is low enough not to show his blush.

“I hurt like f*ck tomorrow and groan like a creaky door every time I move.”

Jiang Cheng frowns. He’s seen her after a night hunt before, when she presumably had access to salve and someone to rub it onto her back. “What happens if you doput it on?”

“I only hurt like hell tomorrow and groan like a creaky door when I stand up or sit down.” Fan Zhu’er blinks at him, the picture of innocence. “It’s completely different.”

Jiang Cheng gives her a withering look and picks up the salve. “Shut up and lay down.”

Fan Zhu’er obeys, which feels exceptionally weird, and Jiang Cheng makes his mind as blank as possible as he scoops salve onto his fingers and works it into her skin. “You can push a little,” she says of his initial gentle attempts, and then when he does she groans a, “Yes,just like that,” that unfortunately goes directly to his dick. Oh no, oh no,that was definitely a--a sex sound,one that Jiang Cheng can never unhear, and he thinks hard about the yaoguai corpse out in the main part of the cave, trying to distract himself from the other sounds she’s making. It smells herbal, he realizes, and the scent changes as it touches her skin, and he suddenly puts it together that this is what he smells on her when they’re close enough. That makes everything so much worse. Now every time he catches a whiff of her he’s going to remember this moment. f*ck.He hates his life.

“Okay,” he says loudly, the salve worked into every unbruised inch of her back. “Bandages now?”

“Yep,” she confirms, and then looks up at him with a genuine apology in her eyes. “I’m gonna need to sit up for the bandaging,” she says, which Jiang Cheng knew and was steadfastly trying not to think about. “Do you want to shut your eyes?”

Jiang Cheng closes his eyes like he’s seen Zewu-jun do, as though by simply not looking at the world he could remove himself from it, and wishes that were the actual case. Fan Zhu’er shifts around, says, “Ready,” and Jiang Cheng opens his eyes to find that, in a fit of kindness(?), she’s moved all the lamps to his side of the mat. This means that her entire front faces away from him into shadow, making him much less likely to accidentally see “a titty,” but it casts her whole back into burnished bronze, picking out the line of every muscle. Jiang Cheng glares at the injury, since it’s the least appealing part of the whole situation, and picks up a bandage. Between the two of them they get her wrapped up without an excess of touching, although he has to hand the roll of fabric to her so she can wipe it around her front. His fingertips tingle every time they brush, and maybe he’ll go stand directly under the waterfall and let it soak him in freezing spring water after this.

“Done,” he says, finally tying off the last piece and tucking it into the other bandages to keep it secure. Jiang Cheng fists his hands in his lap and stares up at the ceiling. “Do you need anything else?”

“Thank you,” the topless Fan Zhu’er says, pulling a clean undershirt out of one of her many qiankun pouches and shrugging it on. “I’m good.” She tosses a smile at him over her shoulder, and it’s devastating,holy sh*t. “Usually at this point I rub muscle salve into every cun of my body, and I’m still planning on doing that, so if you want to go meditate somewhere…”

“Call for me when you’re done,” Jiang Cheng blurts, and leaves the cavern so quickly there’s probably a dust cloud in his wake.

He does meditate, far enough away down the curving tunnel that he can’t hear the sounds she (presumably) makes while she’s massaging her (presumably naked) skin. Jiang Cheng meditates and ruthlessly crushes his arousal down with an iron grip on his qi, because he’sthe boss of his body, not the other way around. He meditates until he’s actually calm again, until he’s centered and rational and about as relaxed as he normally ever gets (so not, really), and when she finally calls, “Jiang Wanyin?” he opens his eyes, nods to himself, and walks back into the cavern with remarkable inner peace.

Fan Zhu’er looks much better; that’s the first thing he notices. She’s washed the dirt and blood off her face and dressed in sleeping robes, which should feel vaguely inappropriate but they’ve been having nighttime spars in their sleeping robes for months, so it’s fine. Her hair has been combed and tied back in a long braid that slithers over her back, and there’s color in her skin again. She glances up at him, smiles, and says, “Tea?” which makes him look at the rest of the scene, and Fan Zhu’er has set up a full f*cking kitchen.There’s a wok on a metal stand in which something is happily boiling, in spite of the lack of a fire, and a tray with jars of what he thinks might be pickled vegetables, bags that look familiar from the market at Lotus Pier, and a few neat stacks of fresh fruit. She’s pouring tea into an earthenware cup, one already steaming in front of her, and not for the first time Jiang Cheng wonders if he’s hallucinating.

“What is this?” he asks, waving at the whole situation, and thenrealizes she’s put down another bamboo mat with a cushion on it, presumably for him to sit on. She gives him a pointed look, eyes flicking between him and the cushion, and Jiang Cheng sits down. Why not.

“This is my camping setup,” Fan Zhu’er says, passing him the teacup. “The congee will be a little while yet, but I have fruit and also some bao we could heat up if you’re hungry now.”

Jiang Cheng picks up the teacup, sets it down, picks it up again, takes a sip, and sets it down. “You’re making congee?” he asks. “You’re cooking?

Fan Zhu’er makes direct, unblinking eye contact as she picks up her tea, takes a slow sip, swallows, and sets it back down. It’s like her eyes are making him relive all his worst sins, or at least the sin of asking a question that f*cking obvious,and Jiang Cheng refuses to apologize for it but finally says, “Why?”

“Well, Quangu-zonzhu,” she says, deadpan, “unlike some people I actually need to eat to function, and if I need to eat anyway, why not eat well.” She shrugs and takes a bite of a piece of fruit. “Just because I’m stuck in a cave doesn’t mean I have to be hungry and miserable.” Her throat works as she swallows, and she flashes him a smile that shows that crooked canine tooth. “I heard a story about that happening to some cultivators once and it sounded like a bad time.”

Jiang Cheng, who had expected to be hungry and miserable while stuck in this cave, finds he has nothing to say to this excellent point. “How much food do you have with you?” he asks, instead of admitting that.

“Two weeks of the good stuff,” Fan Zhu’er says, “and then another full month of emergency rations. Not taking any f*ckin’ chances.”

Jiang Cheng nods. God, Fan Zhu’er is--she’s f*cking great, and sensible, and he really likes having her around, and it’s all absolutely terrible. He sips his tea and watches as her strong, callused hands lift the lid on the pot and stir the congee, and tries not to think about them grabbing his pec and his thigh. He knows how heavy she is, now, after hauling her up on his sword and helping her through the cave. He thinks about having that warm weight draped over him, crushing him to the ground, and how secure it would feel.

“Do you want to wash?” she asks, startling him out of his horny spiral. He frowns a question, and she waves at the stream. “You can take the bowl if you want hot water,” she says, oblivious to Jiang Cheng’s newhorny spiral. “You’re covered in dirt and I’m not letting you into my bedding like that.”

Jiang Cheng’s brain leaves his body. It’s elsewhere, possibly in another plane of existence. He stares at Fan Zhu’er as blankly as if he was just kicked in the head by a horse and asks, “What?”

“I have another bedroll with me,” she explains blithely. “I prefer to keep it from getting covered in Cave Gunk, so if you want to borrow it, go clean up and change your robes.” Fan Zhu’er pours herself more tea and adds, “I promise I won’t look.”

Jiang Cheng finishes his tea and, face flaming, goes to do as he’s told. He just, you know, openshis inner robes and shucks his trousers behind their welcome cover, never actually fully stripping because he absolutely can not.The freezing water is a welcome shock, and he sticks his face right in the waterfall and screams silently into the spray. This is what you get,he tells his dick mercilessly as it complains about the temperature. If you can’t be calm I will only take cold baths from now on, don’t think I won’t.The scrub down he gives himself is perfunctory and quick, and he dries himself quickly with a talisman and re-dresses in clean clothes using a very acrobatic technique that means he’s never actually naked. He doesfeel better, he admits to himself as he shoves his boots back on and crosses back to Fan Zhu’er’s Traveling Single-Room Home. Jiang Cheng does notadmit this to Fan Zhu’er. He has some pride.

“Congee?” she asks, hefting a bowl at him.

“Please,” Jiang Cheng says, because “some pride” isn’t “a lot of pride.” Fan Zhu’er raised some good points on the whole “why be hungry and miserable in a cave” question, and he thinks it’s worth further investigation.

Dinner is companionable and silent, both of them inhaling congee with pickles and dried spicy shrimp on top until the cooking pot is empty. It’s easily the best thing Jiang Cheng has ever eaten in a cave. They play cards after they eat, because of course Fan Zhu’er brought cards. (“I also have a weiqi set and a xiangqi set,” she says. “I like to be prepared.” Yeah, Jiang Cheng’s getting that idea.) Eventually she starts yawning again, wide and jaw-cracking, and shakes her head a little.

“Okay,” she says, woozy. “Looks like it’s bedtime for me. f*ck, I have no idea what time it is out there.”

Jiang Cheng considers that, reaching out with his spiritual senses to try and get a reading. “I think it’s evening,” he says after a moment. “You’re beating the Lans to bed, but it’s not an afternoon nap.”

“Too bad,” she says, unrolling her bedroll on her sleeping mat and climbing inside. “I love afternoon naps. Great sh*t.” Fan Zhu’er curls up on her uninjured side and sighs so contentedly it makes weird things happen in Jiang Cheng’s chest. “Camping supplies are in that one,” she mutters, jerking her chin at a qiankun pouch embroidered with wisteria. “Feel free to have a dig if you need anything.”

“I will,” Jiang Cheng says, and then, quietly, “Thank you.” She doesn’t respond, her breathing slow and even, and he realizes she’s already asleep. Jiang Cheng watches her for a while, longer than he means to, and thinks about the fragility of her body, and the strength of it, and what it felt like against his. He thinks about her smile, and her jokes, and how she made congee for them in a cave. He thinks about how he’s going to sleep tonight, warm and comfortable, because she not only packs travel bedding but packs extratravel bedding in case someone needs it.

It dawns on Jiang Cheng slowly that he is really, truly, absolutely and utterlyf*cked. Fan Zhu’er is pretty and smart and sarcastic and funny and she thinks he’sfunny and she trusts him enough to let him tend her wounds and deep in Jiang Cheng’s heart of hearts he knows he wants her andhe likes her and it’s wonderful and terrifying and he doesn’t have any idea where any of it is going to go. It’s like someone handed him a friendly puppy, and now he has an armful of squirming affection and just has to f*cking deal with it. What’s he supposed to dowith this?

Can’t do anything right now,he thinks with a surprising level of calm as he climbs into his bedroll. It smells like Fan Zhu’er’s herbal salve, and he turns his head into the fabric and inhales greedily and, somewhat to his own surprise, falls asleep almost immediately thereafter.

Notes:

ETA: Cave art by Jay!!! It's so good! There's a whole-ass CAAAAAVE!!!!

I ran out of energy to name my own OCs so Zhan Luan's wife is named after Li Jinrong from Legend of Fei, a show you should definitely go watch if you would like to see a ponytailed gremlin boy become the devoted service sub of a grumpy sword girl.

Zhujian (诸犍): A leopard-like creature with a long tail and a human face.

Baihu (白虎): The White Tiger. One of the Four Symbols of the Chinese cosmology and guardian of the west.

Both monsters referenced from here.

Fan Dingxiang packs like me. Ask me about my tiny hotel travel kitchen sometime!

Playing cards were invented in China possibly as early as 1127, and Xiangqi has existed in some form since probably the 400s. I genuinely don't know if either of those are ahistorical for the time period The Untamed is set in, but chili peppers and potatoes definitely are, so, uuuh... Fic can have a few potentially ahistorical games, as a treat.

This chapter has been converted for free using AOYeet!

Chapter 13

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Fan Dingxiang wakes up to the darkest darkness she’s ever experienced in her entire life. It’s so incredibly, intensely dark that she momentarily wonders if there’s something over her eyes, or if she forgot being poisoned with something that would destroy her vision. She lifts a hand to check, rolling over onto her back in the process, and pain radiates through her entire body, sore muscles and torn flesh complaining loudlyabout her life choices. It’s wildly effective at making her stop worrying about her eyesight. Ouch.

“Fan Zhu’er?” The voice is sleep-rough and familiar, and all at once Fan Dingxiang remembers: the fight, the explosion, the cave. Right. She’s trapped underground with Jiang Wanyin, and she must have woken him up with whatever sound she made when she rolled over.

“Morning,” she groans. “Maybe? f*cked if I can tell.”

Jiang Wanyin says nothing for a moment, the kind of pregnant silence that means he’s doing some cultivator magic. “It’s morning,” he says. “Or close enough. Light?”

“Please,” Fan Dingxiang says, covering her eyes with her hands. A talisman flickers and flares, and she carefully eases her hands away as she adjusts to the sudden influx of brightness. Her eyes still sting a little, and she has to blink furiously until the cave comes into focus. She levers herself over onto her side, hissing the whole time, and finds one of her lamps ready and waiting. Before she can find the lamp lighter, Jiang Wanyin makes a gesture and it lights itself. Neat trick. Fan Dingxiang mostly doesn’t care about her lack of a core, but she has to admit she’s a little jealous.

“How’d you sleep?” she asks, pushing up to her elbow on her uninjured side, moving as though through mud. Jiang Wanyin knee-walks across the space between their sleeping mats and carefully helps her up to sitting, fretting so intensely she swears she can hear it.

“Fine,” he says, obviously distracted. He stays kneeling next to her, hands hovering absently around her shoulders now that she’s upright. “You? How are you? It hurts? Where?”

“Everywhere,” Fan Dingxiang says, honestly. Jiang Wanyin makes an aborted little move toward her to, what, make her lie down again? She waves him off, rolling out her shoulders carefully. “Mostly it’s normal hurting everywhere,” she says, testing her range of motion. “Back hurts like hell but I’m not f*cking dying,calm down.”

He scoots back to his own sleeping mat and sits there, hands fidgeting with his robes. His hair is rumpled and there are creases on his cheek from the pillow. It’s extremely cute, and Fan Dingxiang allows herself a moment to wish that she wasn’t injured and that he wasn’t such a prude, so she could do something about that cuteness. Alas. Her life is a tragedy.

“I’m guessing they haven’t dug us out, since I didn’t wake up to Hu Yueque’s snot tears,” Fan Dingxiang says, shuffling around to light her other lamps. “We should go check if we can see any actual progress.”

“I’ll go,” Jiang Wanyin says, already shoving his foot into a boot. He pauses, leg still in the air, and says, “She gets snotty when she cries?”

“Like a waterfall,” Fan Dingxiang confirms, thinking absently about breakfast. They should eat some of the bao. Even with the preservation talismans they’re better as fresh as possible. “It’s like all her feelings have to come out her nose.” She stills with her hand on the tea canister. “Uh, don’t tell her I told you that, she gets embarrassed about it.”

She senses more than sees Jiang Wanyin roll his eyes. “I’ll try not to,” he says, shoving his other boot on, “but it’s just so hard for me not to get drawn into conversations with my disciples about their crying habits. I’m the first person people want to discuss their feelings with.” He stomps off before she can respond, his light talisman trailing along behind him, and Fan Dingxiang smothers a laugh so she doesn’t hurt her back. Yes, if asked to describe Jiang-zongzhu, certainly the first word she’d choose is “approachable.”

By the time he comes back she’s managed to get her sluggish qi working well enough to heat water for tea, she’s brewed and taken her gender medicines and some painkillers, and the bao are in her travel wok re-warming with the built-in talisman. Jiang Wanyin glares at her, eyes scanning her neck and hands like he expects to see an injury. Fan Dingxiang rolls her eyes internally. Yes, it’s easier and faster to cast talismans with blood, but she doesn’t haveto. He snatches the teapot away before she can pour, filling their cups and distributing her re-heated bao pointedly. There’s something he wants to say, Fan Dingxiang thinks, washing down a bite of bao with a sip of tea and watching the muscle that keeps flexing in his jaw. Well, he can work his way up to it and then actually f*cking tell her.She’s not gonna guess.

“Thank you,” he says, gruffly, gesturing at their breakfast. It’s definitely not what he actually wants to say.

“You’re welcome,” Fan Dingxiang replies, reaching for the teapot and laughing internally when he rushes to grab it first and fill her cup. “I mean, really, I did this for me, not for you. You’re just getting to tag along.”

“Still,” he says, nudging her cup closer to her. Is he fussing? She thinks he’s fussing. It’s adorable,and mildly annoying. More adorable than annoying right now, but she’s willing to adjust her opinion should the need arise. He doesn’t say anything at all while she finishes her cup, occasionally turning his half-full teacup around in his hands without drinking from it, and finally it clicks back down on the wooden tray and Jiang Wanyin looks firmly at her left ear and says, “Your bandages. We should. We should change them.” His cheeks are faintly pink in the light of the lamps, hands tight fists where they rest in his lap. Ah. Ah.Definitely cute.

“That’s a good idea,” she agrees. The cuts on her back need more salve, and if she can convince him to give her another massage then she’ll be slightly less creaky for the rest of the day. Somewhere in her medical qiankun pouch she has some body-warming talismans that don’t quite replicate the feeling of soaking in a hot bath, but they’ll definitely help with the lingering soreness. The chill of the cave isn’t doing much to help the whole situation where every muscle in her body is mad at her life choices. “You wanna wash up while I get ready?” she asks, because Jiang Wanyin’s cheekbones are starting to go red and she’s worried his head might explode with how hard he’s clenching his teeth. He nods and stalks away, stops halfway to the little stream, comes back to pick up the bronze bowl, and then stalks away again, glaring the whole time. Fan Dingxiang allows herself one exasperated laugh into her hands, shoulders shaking silently, and sets about disrobing.

She manages to get her robes off and the bandages unwound without assistance. The actual wound packing is scabbed on in a couple of places despite Jiang Wanyin’s best effort with the salve, so it helpfully stays on her back as she lays down on the stained quilt and drapes a robe awkwardly over herself. Heaven forbid he sees her in just her trousers, she grumbles to herself mentally. It’s not like she’s had any complaints from the people who have previously seen her in just her trousers.

“Are you ready?” Jiang Wanyin asks, and she turns to crane over her shoulder (ow) to find him standing inside the light of the lamps but facing steadfastly away.

“Did you walk over here backwards?” Fan Dingxiang rolls her eyes so hard she almost gets a headache. This f*cking guy!

“Are you ready?” he asks again, shoulders creeping up and voice tight, and how did this man manage growing up with two siblings when he’s this easy to rile?

“Yes,” she says, taking pity on him and laying her cheek back down on her crossed hands. “My deadly, dangerous titt*es are fully hidden, Quangu-zongzhu. You may proceed.”

“Shameless,” he hisses between his teeth, but he also kneels next to her and starts applying talismans and steeping her herbs without asking questions, so she’ll take it. She feels him pull the robedown to expose her back and he lets out another hiss, with a completely different tone.

“f*ck,” Jiang Wanyin says with feeling. “Is this normal?” Fan Dingxiang makes a questioning sound, and he clarifies, “This bruising.” His fingers trace over her skin so lightly it almost tickles. They’re warm from the heating talisman, which feels nice against the chill of the cave.

“Well, I can’t see it,” Fan Dingxiang says thoughtfully, “but probably. They’ll ripen up pretty nice over the next week or so. Does that not happen for you?”

“I heal before they get this bad,” he says, sounding distracted, and a warm cloth presses against her wound packing. “I suppose I forgot that doesn’t happen for everyone.”

“Cultivators,” she mutters, a little exasperated, a little affectionate, and gets flicked on her uninjured shoulder in retaliation. Fan Dingxiang smiles into her folded arms and drifts a little as Jiang Wanyin carefully soaks off the packing, applies all her salves and liniments, and gives her a brutal massage on all of her available bruise-free back. He doesn’t even ask questions or dither about it, just forces all her knots to give up the ghost under the assault of his thumbs and her muscle salve. Fan Dingxiang is secure enough to admit it’s nice being tended to by someone she finds attractive, and she refuses to feel bad about enjoying the process.

“Do you need to--” he starts, when she’s re-bandaged and shrugging on a robe. Fan Dingxiang glances at him, eyebrow raised, and he waves at her lower body and then at the muscle salve. “You know,” he tells her right earlobe, ears bright red in the low lighting. “Legs.”

Fan Dingxiang bites the inside of her cheek. “Yes,” she says, solemnly. “I do, indeed, need to legs. Thank you.”

“f*ck off,” he snaps, shoving to his feet and stomping away down the cave passage, footfalls echoing on the stone walls.

“Seems like you f*cked off for me,” she calls cheerfully, and laughs when he makes an obscene gesture over his shoulder at her. Ow. f*ck. Laughing is still bad.

Fan Dingxiang gets her muscle salve rubbed into the rest of her body and only spends a little while wishing she was getting a full-body massage from Jiang Wanyin instead. His hands are strong, and decently big. She bets he could wrap them around her quads from the front and drive the heels of his hands into the muscles there and squeeze out all the soreness in a beautiful, excruciating slide. Alas, her life is a mild tragedy. She shakes herself, finishes massaging her left calf, and gets dressed in fresh undergarments and her same sleeping robes. Being in a cave means not having to get actually dressed, Fan Dingxiang has decided, though she does dig out one of her quilted outer robes and tugs that on against the cold.

“Safe!” she yells in the general direction of the entrance. By the time Jiang Wanyin stalks back in, side-eyeing her in suspicion like she might be lying in wait to surprise him with her tit*, she’s packed up most of the medical supplies and generally tidied their campsite. Yesterday’s clothes are covered in blood and dirt and general cave grit and she makes a face. Ugh, those need scrubbing.

“What the f*ck do you think you’re doing?” Jiang Wanyin snaps at her as she starts levering herself to her feet. Fan Dingxiang blinks at him, looks down at the soiled laundry in her arms, and looks back up at him with a raised eyebrow.

“Laundry?” His eyes narrow, his glare scathing, and Fan Dingxiang shrugs the shoulder on her uninjured side. “These stains have already set overnight, I don’t want them to get worse.”

“You’re injured,” he snarls at her, like he finds the idea personally offensive. “Give me that!” and he snatches the laundry from her hands and stomps off over to the stream. Huh. Okay. Fan Dingxiang hadn’t woken up this morning expecting a f*cking sect leaderto wash her laundry,but she’s certainly not mad about it.

“I have soap and talismans,” she says, watching the moment Jiang Wanyin dumps her clothes in the water and then realizes he lacks the proper supplies. He huffs his way back over and then double-takes at the talisman.

“For bloodstains?” he asks, tracing over the radicals with one hand.

“Mmm.” Fan Dingxiang starts getting another pot of tea going. It’s still chilly in the cave and she wants the heat. “I grew up slaughtering pigs,” she says cheerfully. “Those would have made my life so much easier when I was a kid, I tell you what.”

He gives the kind of snort that tells her he’s amused and doesn’t want to admit it, and stalks to the stream, where he proceeds to wash her filthy clothes like he’s trying to work the sins of her ancestors out of them. Fan Dingxiang digs an adventure story out of one of her bags and sips her tea and occasionally glances up to the way his shoulders play under the two light robes he’s wearing as he scrubs her undershirt against the rocks. Nope, no complaints here, other than how she’s cold. Ugh,being injured sucks.Her body has to take time and energy to heal or some pigsh*t like that. It’s f*cking rude, frankly.

“Here,” Jiang Wanyin growls at her, dropping a stack of clean, dry, neatly folded laundry on the mat next to her knee. “Youplanning to try and pull some more bullsh*t, or are you going to rest?”

“Day’s still young,” Fan Dingxiang says blithely, tucking a talisman between the pages of her book to mark her place before she stows the clothing back in her qiankun pouch. “Could get up to a lot of things if I wanted.” Jiang Wanyin’s teeth grind together audibly, and she laughs quietly. “Oh my god, Quangu-zongzhu, calm down. This happens to me all the time, I’ll be fine. I didn’t even need stitches.”

“It shouldn’t,” he mutters, sitting down on his sleeping mat, huffy and annoyed. Fan Dingxiang pours him a cup of tea and goes back to her book without asking for clarification on what he meant by that. The heroine has accidentally fallen into a cave attached to a dungeon and ran into the flirty boy again, and that seems much more interesting than Jiang Wanyin’s grumbling.

He fidgets his way through a whole cup of tea and the next chapter, and when Fan Dingxiang goes to refill her cup he finally snaps and blurts, “How do I heal you?”

Oh. Fan Dingxiang takes a good, long look at Jiang Wanyin, the tightness in his shoulders, the pink on his cheeks, the way he’s very, very determinedly not looking at her. She’s struck, suddenly, by the dual knowledgesthat he’s actually very concerned about her health, and also that she’d really like to make out with him and see how red his face gets about it. The first is sweet, and is part of the reason for the second. She’s a little tired, and a little distracted, and he looks so awkwardabout it that her mouth goes looser than maybe it ought to, and she gives him a crooked grin and says, “Why, Jiang Wanyin, if you wanted to get your hands on me, you didn’t need to come up with an elaborate excuse for it.”

It’s intended to make him laugh, or maybe make him mad. Either one would cut the awkward tension, and then he’s supposed to insult her or give her sh*t about it and they’d snipe at each other and when they were done sniping she’d do her best to explain how he could help and they’d figure it out together. What actuallyhappens is Jiang Wanyin shoves himself back so hard he over balances and falls on his ass, knocking over his fortunately-empty teacup, and all the color drains from his horrified face.

“I would never,” he hisses, sounding just as horrified as he looks. “I wouldn’t--that’s not--that’s disgusting,I would never--” Jiang Wanyin’s mouth works, no more words coming out, and finally he manages, “What do you takeme for?”

Something curdles in Fan Dingxiang’s stomach, cruel and cold. That wasn’t--okay, she knows there wasn’t really anything there, really, she thinks he’s attractive and he respects her enough to keep her in the sect. Sure, maybe sometimes she thinks he’s flirting, and if she’s been misreading that she’ll manage, but… “Fine,” she says, turning back to her book so she doesn’t have to see the look on his face. “You don’t need to make it sound like you’d rather have your hands cut off than touch me, you know. I’m a big girl, I can accept a no.”

“What?” Jiang Wanyin says, still horrified but clearly bewildered.

“There are people perfectly happy to get their hands on me,” she says, snottily.

“Who?” he snarls, in a staggering twist of events. “Who’s been--how darethey--why didn’t you tell me?” She seeks his hands clench into fists in her peripheral vision, Zidian sparking purple on his wrist. Is he jealousnow? He doesn’t get to be jealous!

“Because it’s none of your business who I f*ck, Jiang-zongzhu,” Fan Dingxiang snaps, face hot, angry enough to be even blunter than usual. f*ck, this has gone very wrong, but she can’t stop seeing that blanched-pale face. He doesn’t needto be attracted to her, but her skin crawls with the knowledge that apparently he finds her actively disgusting. f*ck him, then, and not in the good way. Maybe she’ll blow out the lamps and curl up under her blankets and just sleep until the others manage to dig them out. It’d serve him right.

“That’s not--” he splutters, and now he sounds horrified in a completely different way. Fan Dingxiang dares a glance at him, and his face is all screwed up in embarrassment and concern and confusion. “Who you--excuse me?” He hasn’t managed a full sentence since he asked how to heal her, which would be much more amusing if Fan Dingxiang didn’t feel like crawling into a hole and dying.

“I don’t actually,” she tells him, voice flat, and turns a page even though she hasn’t absorbed anything on it. He makes a high questioning noise, and she clarifies, “Excuse you. I don’t think I’m required to, quite frankly. You don’t get to act like the idea of having sex with me is disgusting and then get mad at the idea that other people have had sex with me and then ask me to f*cking excuseyou about it when you haven’t actually apologized.” Each word lands like a blow, and she watches him flinch, viscerally satisfied, and then she stares at him in silence. She’s not backing down.

A red-faced Jiang Wanyin opens and shuts his mouth a couple of times, like a confused fish, and slowly pushes back up to a proper sitting posture. He shuts his eyes, takes a few deep breaths, like he’sthe one who should be upset, and after an agonizing period of time where his jaw keeps clenching and his eyebrows keep twitching, he looks at her again. Well, he looks about a hand’s width past her head. Close enough.

“I’m,” he starts, which is promising, and then stalls out, which is less promising. “You’re not disgusting,” is what Jiang Wanyin goes with, after an inner struggle that plays itself out across his face. Fan Dingxiang raises an eyebrow at him, as sarcastic as she can make it. “That’s not what I--” he sputters, in protest, “I mean--you’re very--” and he waves a hand at her helplessly. “Strong.”

Fan Dingxiang stares at him in silence some more. None of this sounds like an apology, and she lets that show on her face. He huffs and pinches the bridge of his nose, looking annoyed with himself, as he should.

“I am your sect leader,” he says into his palm. “You are my disciple.You are obligated to follow my orders. I wouldn’t--I whipped a man out of Lotus Pier once for doing--that.You--you f*cking toldme about him.” His hand drops into his lap, curling immediately back into a fist, and he finally, actually looksat her, eyes all twisted up with anguish. “You think I’m like that? That I’d--I’d Jin f*ckingGuangshan my way through my sect?” Wow. He looks like he wants to puke. Fan Dingxiang blinks at him, frowns, and runs back through the argument. Oh. Oh.Okay. Yeah, Fan Dingxiang is pretty sure she sees where they went wrong, now, and it’s so obvious she wants to punch something about it.

“You thought I was accusing you of trying to take advantage of me,” she says, because f*ck it, might as well get it all out in the air. Nothing cleans like sunlight. He flinches like he’s been slapped, which is all the answer she needs. Fan Dingxiang gives in to the urge to bury her face in her hands, and she rubs her eye sockets, groaning. “You’re a f*cking dipsh*t, you know that?”

Jiang Wanyin makes a strangled sound that might be the beginning of a laugh. “So I have been told,” he says, “usually not so frankly.”

“Saying things frankly is one of my many skills,” Fan Dingxiang says smoothly, and she looks back up at him, cupping her chin in her hands. “I was joking,” she tells him, exasperated. “I was trying to make it less awkward.”

Jiang Wanyin’s mouth twitches. “Were you,” he says, so drily he might as well be trying to preserve rice for the winter.

“I succeeded in making it differentawkward,” Fan Dingxiang points out.

“Yes, definitely,” Jiang Wanyin says, nodding solemnly. “I especially think it helped when you told me about your previous partners.” His ears are so, sored, along with his cheekbones, but he’s making jokes now and that’s what she’d wanted all along.

“I only told you they exist,” Fan Dingxiang tosses back, primly. “A lady doesn’t kiss and tell.”

His eyes narrow. “You’re not a lady,” he says, voice suspicious. “You’re a pig farmer.”

“Right.” She smiles, a real one this time, and examines her nails. “So buy me two jugs of wine and ask me again if you want details.”

A laugh bursts out of him, so suddenly it looks like it takes him by surprise, and the last of the tension flows out of the cave as though carried along by the water from the stream. “I think you will find I won’t ever do that,” he says, looking about ten years younger and half a war less tense.

“Suit yourself.” Fan Dingxiang shrugs, and then winces when it pulls at her back. “They’re good stories, I’ll have you know.”

“If you keep talking I am going to go sit in the dark with the dead yaoguai,” Jiang Wanyin says, face reddening. Oh, he’s so easy to fluster, and it’s so hard not to fluster him now that she knows how. Still, that’s an actual boundary he’s trying to enforce, so she takes pity on him and sets about brewing another pot of tea, a roasted, nutty oolong to help cut the chill of the cave.

His face keeps floating back to her, that horrified, nauseated expression when he thought she was accusing him of the exact opposite of what she was joking about. He really, reallycares, huh?

“The third Wen cultivator I killed came across me in the woods,” she says, conversationally, the dried tea leaves rattling into the empty pot. “He saw that I was a girl, alone, apparently unarmed, and he decided he was interested in the kind of things men with power are usually interested in when they come across unaccompanied, unarmed girls.” Jiang Wanyin’s head snaps up halfway through the sentence, his eyes full of absolute murder. Fan Dingxiang pours the hot water, meeting his gaze evenly. “I flirted with him until he got close enough, and then I kicked him in the dick so hard his feet left the ground and stabbed him through the eye with my utility knife.”

His jaw tightens. “Good,” he says, vicious. It’s, perhaps, weird that that’s heartwarming, but her heart is warmed anyway. Jiang Wanyin pauses, still fighting with himself about what he wants to say, and asks, “How old were you?”

“Sixteen.”

“f*ck,” he says, with feeling. His face does something complicated, sad and proud and despairing, like he’s looking back through the years and feeling the weight of long-gone days. “That’s f*cked up,” he says, as gently as she’s ever heard him speak. “It’s f*cked up that you had to do that.”

“Mmm,” she agrees, because it isf*cked up, but… “Someone had to do it. Might as well be me.” Jiang Wanyin’s face scrunches up like he wants to disagree with her, and she rolls her eyes. “None of us get to choose what life gives us, Jiang Wanyin. If we start comparing f*cked-up life experiences we’ll be here all day andwe’ll just end up feeling sh*tty. That sounds boring as hell, let’s not.”

“Fair.” He still looks like he wants to argue, but he doesn’t actually say anything else. It’s sweet.

“Anyway, I’m hard to take advantage of,” she goes on, waving at herself. “No one’s even tried it in years. I think I have sort of an energy, you know?”

“You do radiate murder, yes.” He runs the fingers of one hand over Zidian, an absent nervous tic, takes a deep breath, and blurts, “There are a lot of ways I could, though, without--I mean, I won’t,but.” His hand tightens around his other wrist, crushing metal and fabric. “I’m a sect leader.”

Hm. Fair point. Fan Dingxiang is aware of the many, many ways power works, and she can’t deny that being a sect leader puts a person in an excellent position to be a real asshole motherf*cker. While Jiang Wanyin is both an asshole and a motherf*cker, he’s not thatkind of asshole motherf*cker. It’s one of her favorite things about him, when you get down to it.

“I really didn’t think you were going to try something,” she says, as she pours their cups, because she thinks he might like to hear it. “If I thought that, I wouldn’t have let you bandage me in the first place.” She sets down the teapot and adds, thoughtfully, “If I thought that, I would have murdered you in your bed years ago, probably.”

Jiang Wanyin’s mouth opens, then shuts, and he co*cks his head. “Thank you?” he says, like he’s not sure if that’s the right response.

“You’re welcome,” she says, handing him a cup. “You wouldn’t even have seen me coming.”

“Ominous,” he tells her, and it was supposed to be, so she’s glad that came across. She lifts her tea in a salute and takes a sip. He rolls his eyes at her, expressively, and follows suit. It’s companionable and pleasant and much, much less uncomfortable, and when Jiang Wanyin’s cup is empty he sets it down, squares his shoulders and says, “So, now that we’re on the same page: How do I heal you, Fan Zhu’er?”

“Oh, so you dowant your hands on me,” she drawls, and this time she gets the reaction she was looking for, the rolled eyes and loud scoff. “You will have to touch me, though,” Fan Dingxiang says, and shuffles around to make room on her bamboo mat, propping up her torso with a pillow and her wadded-up blanket so she’ll still be able to read. “Come on.”

Jiang Wanyin mutters under his breath about a lack of respect in disciples these days as he settles down on the mat where she patted in invitation, and then glares at her back. (She assumes. It feels like he’s glaring.) “How does this work?”

“Okay,” Fan Dingxiang says, trying to figure out how to describe something she’s never actually done. “So you’re going to pass me your spiritual energy, but you’re not aiming for my core or my meridians. You have to keep it at the wound site, and for some reason that makes me heal faster.”

“Why?”

“f*cked if I know,” Fan Dingxiang says cheerfully. “I’m not a doctor. I just stab things. That’s basically the opposite of being a doctor.”

“Definitely how that works,” Jiang Wanyin says, with great sarcasm, and he settles his hands gingerly on her back. A breath later his qi surges into her body like the breaking of a wave, like a deep riptide current lurking under the surface of a river, and she gasps sharply. The power cuts off immediately, his lands leaving her back. “Bad?”

“Not bad,” Fan Dingxiang says, still reeling. “Too much, though. It’s like I asked for some water and you threw me in the lake. Technically correct, but it’s not fixing the actual problem.”

“Oh,” he says, thoughtfully, and his hands land on her back again, followed by a gentle trickle of spiritual energy, cool springwater bubbling up from the ground in a hot summer.

“Oh,” Fan Dingxiang says, sighing. “Oh, wow, yeah. Like that.”

Jiang Wanyin makes a thinking sound. “It’s barely anything,” he says. “Is this actually helping?”

“Yep.” She can feel the slight itching of healing skin already. That’s the main downside of this technique--it itches so, sobadly. The other downside is how extra hungry and extra sleepy it makes her, she assumes because it’s making her body use its healing energy faster than it normally would. Fan Dingxiang isn’t sure. As previously established, she’s not a doctor.

“What does it feel like?” He’s a little quieter now, his voice soft around the edges instead of snarling.

“Good,” Fan Dingxiang says, honestly. “Different.” He makes an interested noise. “You feel like water,” she clarifies, not sure if that’s actually an explanation that makes sense. It’s true, though. Jiang Wanyin’s qi rolls slowly through her body, heating her chilly fingers and frozen toes, and she gives some serious consideration to moving her blanket ramp out of the way so she can lay down and go right back to sleep. As it is she shuts her eyes and drifts for a bit. A hot bath would be ideal, but this is a close second.

“So… do I just do this for the rest of time, or…?” Jiang Wanyin asks, apparently some time later, and Fan Dingxiang half-startles back awake.

“Yeah,” she says. “Just about. The others usually alternate, so you can go until you get tired and then take a break.”

“Hm,” he says. “How do they not die of boredom?”

“Well, usually there are more of us in a room together,” Fan Dingxiang muses. “And we like. Talk.”

“Ugh.”

Fan Dingxiang grins at the bamboo mat under her face. God, what a prickly asshole. “I’m only two chapters in,” she offers, waving her book over her shoulder at him. “You want me to go back to the beginning and we can read together?”

“Hmph.” His snort is dismissive, but he also scooches over so he can have a better view. “What’s it about?”

“It’s about a tiny girl who wants to murder big dudes with her sword and the chatty flirty boy who just wants to hold her sheath while she does her murders,” Fan Dingxiang says, flipping back to the first page.

“Hmph,” he says, again, failing to sound interested, and Fan Dingxiang grins to herself again. He’s sucha jerk. She really does like him a lot.

---

Jiang Cheng is waymore invested in the novel about the sword girl than he will ever admit to being by the time Fan Zhu’er decides they need to break for lunch. He gives the book a secret longing glance while she talks him through getting some rice going in her talisman-heated wok (she shouldn’t be cooking while injured, he will die on this hill).

“Really?” he asks, when she pulls an entire f*cking ham and a bundle of fresh bok choy out of the qiankun pouch where she apparently stores the entirety of her kitchen larder. “We’re making a full meal?”

“Anything worth doing is worth doing well,” she says, pulling out an array of spices and oils, and that’s how Jiang Cheng learns how to stir-fry while stuck in a cave. This, he reflects as he eats bok choy that is somehow both burnt and slightly undercooked, is definitely not how he’d imagined this night hunt would go. It continues not going the way he was expecting when Fan Zhu’er shoves the dirty dishes at him and passes right the f*ck out during the joss stick’s length of time it takes him to wash them. She warned him about this, at least, so he only worries a little bit and checks her meridians three times before he can let himself meditate.

(He’s meditating instead of reading ahead in the novel while she naps, and he thinks that’s very considerate of him and if someone acknowledged how considerate it was, he’d appreciate it. Hypothetically.)

He emerges from his trance while she’s still deeply asleep, curled up on her side with her braided hair draped awkwardly over her face. That looks uncomfortable--she’s almost inhaling the flyaways every time she breathes in, so without thinking Jiang Cheng reaches over and carefully moves the braid behind her shoulder. She doesn’t react in the slightest, eyes moving under her eyelids as she dreams, and it’s staggering the level of trust she’s shown him. He’s greedy for it and doesn’t know what to do with it. He wants to hold onto it with his fingernails, as though doing so wouldn’t subvert the way she freely gives it. Fan Zhu’er has thoroughly f*cked up his whole world view, and as much as he pretends to be, he’s not actually mad about it. Ugh.This is disgusting. He thinks he actually likesit. Terrible.

Jiang Cheng realizes that he’s been staring at her sleeping face for way longer than he intended, all warm inside and gross and soppy. That is both undignified and mildly creepy, so he yanks his eyes away and goes to run sword drills with Sandu, close enough that he can keep an eye on her and far enough away that he hopefully won’t be too loud. He should probably wake her after a shichen, if she sleeps that much. They’re underground and thoroughly protected from the natural rhythms of the sun, but he doesn’t want them to get too thrown off of their actual schedule and end up awake half the night.

On the second run of his usual forms, he spins to stab an imaginary opponent to find Fan Zhu’er awake and watching him with obvious interest. Jiang Cheng misses a step, corrects, and holds his pose, raising an eyebrow at her.

“Oh, no,” she says, waving, “don’t let me stop you. I’m enjoying this.”

Jiang Cheng is… not entirely certain what he’s supposed to do with that information, so like most things he doesn’t understand, he elects to ignore it. He finishes the forms with an acute awareness of her gaze, and if he maybe makes things a little flashier than he normally would, he’ll never admit it.

“I’m going to need to get up and walk around in a bit,” Fan Zhu’er tells him as he drops back onto his bamboo mat and accepts the cup of water she’s poured. “Do some light stretching, maybe some squats.” A glare starts, without Jiang Cheng’s full permission, and Fan Zhu’er continues, “I’m warning you about this so you can get over your feelings now. If I don’t move I’ll end up even more stiff and sore and pissy about it. I know what my body needs.”

The glare intensifies for a moment before Jiang Cheng actively relaxes his face. “Let me know if you need assistance,” he says, deadpan. “I may be able to find some time in my busy schedule.” When Fan Zhu’er laughs her eyes crinkle up, he notices, because he’s watching her like a normal person and definitely not like she’s the only thing he ever wants to be looking at. He’s in a cave! What the f*ck else is he supposed to look at?

“I will be sure to submit my petition in writing, zongzhu,” Fan Zhu’er says, giving him a mocking little bow over her folded hands. Jiang Cheng pours himself another cup of water, refusing to be flustered at the playful look in her eyes. He drinks and sets the cup back down, noting that he should go refill the bamboo jug in a moment, and then catches on that Fan Zhu’er has, in fact, pulled out a writing kit and is working on a letter. He resolutely does not snoop on what she’s writing, because it’s none of his business, and then she picks up the letter she’s apparently responding to and if Jiang Cheng was still holding his cup he’d have dropped it, because he’d recognize that untidy scrawl anywhere, on account of how it belongs to his brother.

Fan Zhu’er is writing to Wei Wuxian.

He knew this, he knewthis, he’d seen the correspondence come through, but that was intellectual. Seeingthat achingly familiar, deeply messy calligraphy is a punch in the gut, one that bypasses all logic and sinks in deep. Why does sheget to write to Wei Wuxian, when every time Jiang Cheng tries it feels like having his core burned out of him again?

“If you have something to say,” Fan Zhu’er says, finishing a line and setting her brush neatly on a stand, “then say it.” Jiang Cheng doesn’tstartle, because growing up with Wei Wuxian meant he trained himself out of his startle reflex early. Fan Zhu’er looks at him and raises an eyebrow, clearly not fooled for a minute, and this time Jiang Cheng allows himself the glare. “You’re stewing,” she says, flatly, “and if you’re going to sit there and stew at me you can either say what’s actually bothering you or you can go stew at the dead wolverine, because I refuse to be stuck in a cave and stewed at.”

“You used to speak to me with respect,” Jiang Cheng says, snidely, aware that he’s deflecting and hoping she’ll take the bait and get mad at him. That would be preferable. That would be the best possible outcome, frankly.

“I didn’t used to speak to you at all,” Fan Zhu’er says, “and you can pretend all you want that you preferred it that way but we both know you’re lying.” She folds her hands and gives him a look as piercing as any doctor’s needle. “Talk or leave. I’m too tired and too injured to deal with anything else.”

Jiang Cheng snarls, snatches up the bamboo water jug, and stalks over to the spring pouring out of the wall. He thumps the filled jug back down moments later, splattering cold water all over his hand, and takes a moment to be deeply annoyed that delaying this didn’t help at all. There’s still a war happening in his chest, opposing armies laying waste to his heart and lungs, and he takes a horrible, painful breath.

“You’re writing to Wei Wuxian,” he says, because that’s a statement of fact and doesn’t have anything to do with his feelings, for all that saying the words out loud is like peeling briars off of his skin. Fan Zhu’er blinks at him, once, implacable, which is fair since he’s stating the f*cking obvious, and somehow that non-reaction is infuriating, because that’s the issue, isn’t it? “You don’t even knowhim!” he snarls. “You don’t even know him and you get to write to him?”

“Am I supposed to know him withoutwriting to him?” Fan Zhu’er asks, rhetorically. “Would you prefer that I go to Cloud Recesses to discuss talismans with him in person?”

“Yes!” Jiang Cheng snaps, and then, “No!” and then, the anger suddenly exploding in his chest and forcing the words out, “Why is it so easyfor you? When I can’t--I’ve tried--how come youget to do it and not me?”

The words ring in the air, echoing off the walls of the cave, and they stun Jiang Cheng silent. f*ck. f*ck.He said it. He actually said it. “He’s my brother,” Jiang Cheng admits, the way he hasn’t really in years. “He’s my brother and you just glide in here and--” He waves, sharply, unable to describe the horrible, clawing envy that subsumes him every time he sees a letter addressed to Fan Zhu’er and never one for him.

Fan Zhu’er stares at him a bit more and then pours them both some water. “First of all, Jiang Wanyin, I’ve never f*cking glided in my damn life, and I’ll thank you not to misrepresent me.” She turns her cup around and around in her hands thoughtfully, gives him an assessing look, and adds, “Pretty sure it’s exactly because he’s notmy brother that I can write to him without whatever the f*ck’s happening with you.”

Jiang Cheng drinks his water sullenly, one eyebrow quirked in question, and Fan Zhu’er sighsand sets down her cup. “If you met mydidi, you would probably think he’s a perfectly fine man, with adorable kids, and a great wife, and you’d be right. When Isee my didi, I see all that, and I also see the little f*cker who filled my bed with snakes when I was eight.”

“Were they venomous?” Jiang Cheng asks, wondering if he needs to go fight Fan Zhu’er’s brother on her behalf.

“They were not,” Fan Zhu’er says. “And they were alive, and had pooped all over my sheets out of panic because snakes don’t belong in a bed, and I had to go find a bucket and put all these terrified snakes in the bucket and carry them outside, and it was night, and we didn’t have spare sheets so I had to sleep on topof my bed and cover myself with all my robes so I didn’t have to sleep in the snake poop bed.” She sounds so fond, and so exasperated, and it’s hard to hold on to his anger when the corners of his mouth are trying to curl up.

“Did you do something to deserve the snake poop bed?” Jiang Cheng asks, a sentence he was never expecting to come out of his mouth ever.

“It was, apparently,revenge for accidentally dropping a cool beetle on him, even though I said I was sorry!” Fan Zhu’er shakes her head dismissively, lips twisted in amusem*nt. “Completely unjustified, and I’m hurt by your lack of faith in me, Quangu-zongzhu.”

“A good cultivator gathers all the facts available,” he quotes at her, snobbily.

“f*ck off,” she says brightly. “Anyway, what I mean is, you and Wei-gongzi have a lot of history, and a lot of it is exceptionally bad and weird, what with the like--” she waves, vaguely “--ghost army. I don’t have that with him, just like you wouldn’t have that with my didi. Of courseit’s easier for me to write to him! It’d be weird if it wasn’t!”

Jiang Cheng glares at her, because what she just said makes a lot of sense and he doesn’t like having to think about it. Absolutely unconcerned by the ongoing glare situation, Fan Zhu’er continues, “If you want to write to him, just f*cking write to him!If you don’t want to write to him, don’t do it! But don’t expect me to stop talking talismans with someone else who enjoys it just because you can’t get over your hurt feelings enough to send a f*cking letter.

“It’s not that simple,” Jiang Cheng protests, every broken promise and failure knotted and wrapped around his guts like ivy choking a tree to death, tying him to Wei Wuxian in an impossibly tangled mess. The worst of it pulses deep in his belly, his every breath stolen, everythingabout him a lie.

“It can be,” Fan Zhu’er insists, and Jiang Cheng’s rage and betrayal rise up out of his core to flare in his meridians, because she’s wrong,and she needs to know why,so--

“He gave me his core!” Jiang Cheng snaps, punching the mat next to his knee and reveling in the sharp jolt of pain. “Mine was destroyed and he liedto me and told me Baoshen Sanren could fix it, but it was his,he got Wen Qing to give me hiscore and he never told me.” Staying still is stifling, the air thick in his lungs, and he shoves to his feet and paces because if he doesn’t he thinks he’ll scream. “Everything I’ve done since then is with his f*cking core,and he never asked, he just did it,and he died without f*cking telling me! I had to learn from his pet fierce corpse that I’d been duped for--for f*cking years,that my sect and cultivation and everything I’ve done is built on a lie, and you going to sit there and tell me this is simple?He made me an imposter and this is simple?” He’s shouting by the end of it, echoes falling off down the stone passageway, and he heaves for breath in the ensuing silence. He feels ill, and sweaty, and scraped clean. It’s like drawing poison from a wound, or a fever breaking. Jiang Cheng feels lighter for having said it, even as he waits for the inevitable ridicule.

Fan Zhu’er stares at him, her mouth a flat line and her eyebrows tight. Without speaking, she puts away her letter, sets aside the inkstone and brush, clearing the bamboo mat in front of her. “Sit,” she orders, pointing at the newly empty space, and in his blank numbness, Jiang Cheng does. He sits and he faces her and looks in her eyes and waits patiently for the pity and condescension he knows is coming.

Instead of any of that, Fan Zhu’er f*cking slaps him right across the f*cking face. The strike is whipcrack loud, hard enough that his head turns with it, and his cheek heats immediately. It hurts.It’s so shocking Jiang Cheng can’t even react, just stares at her, jaw slack, agog. What the f*ck?

“That’s what happens when you insult my sect leader,” Fan Zhu’er tells him, radiating quiet fury. “Talk sh*t, get hit.”

“Noted,” Jiang Cheng’s mouth says without permission. He has his hand pressed to his cheek, skin burning-hot against his palm, and his whole head has gone quiet.

“Good,” she says, hand flexing like she wants to slap him again. “Okay, so Wei-gongzi gave you his core, and it seems like he lied to you about it, and that’s sh*tty! I’m not gonna sit here and tell you it’s not! But you’re over there trying to tell me that everything you’ve accomplished is because of him? Like it doesn’t count because you didn’t do it with your original core? That, Jiang Wanyin, is a pile of pigsh*t so high I can’t see the f*cking top of it.”

Jiang Cheng closes his mouth and then opens it to argue, not actually having an argument ready, but Fan Zhu’er charges over him like a boar. “I may not have one, but I’m pretty f*cking sureyour core didn’t rebuild a sect. Your coredidn’t train disciples. Your coredidn’t figure out ten thousand trade agreements and marriage alliances. Your coredidn’t raise Jin Ling. Your core didn’t accept me into the sect, or move me out of the kitchens, or train with me at night, or cook sh*tty stir-fry for me in a cave. Your core didn’t listen to Sisi and give her a place to live, or listen to my letters and throw Duan whoever-the-f*ck out for preying on servant girls. Your core didn’t stand up for me in front of all the f*cking gentry! Youdid that! Because Wei Wuxian! Wasn’t! f*cking! There!” She pokes him in the chest on each of the last three words, hard enough that he wonders if he’ll bruise, if he’ll be able to carry her vehemence with him for a little while. “He was, in fact, deadfor a good portion of those things! If you’re going to sit here and tell me that Wei-gongziran Lotus Pier when he was both dead andincapable of politics, I’m going to kick you in the f*cking dick.

“I wouldn’t be alive without his core,” Jiang Cheng says, automatically, still feeling weirdly calm.

“And I wouldn’t be alive without the care and expertise of various doctors!” Fan Zhu’er shouts in his face. “That doesn’t mean the person who stitched up my leg gets to claim responsibility for everything I’ve accomplished since then!” She clutches her own face, dragging it into a grimace that belongs on a fake Yiling Patriarch talisman. “You said Wen Qing did the transfer. How come she’snot the one responsible for everything you’ve done?”

A wall crumbles inside Jiang Cheng’s mind, Fan Zhu’er smashing it with a single, precisely landed blow. That’s a good f*cking question, actually. “I--” he says, trying to figure out why it’s different and failing.

“And like, a core lets you do things you couldn’t do without it, but so does anytool!” Her anger has brought her up onto her knees now, looming over him so he has to look up at her furious face, knowing all that fury is on his behalf. “Does the weaponsmith who made my spear get to take credit for everything I’ve killed with it?”

“That’s different,” Jiang Cheng says, again without an actual argument ready to go about why it’s different.

“I don’t think it is,” Fan Zhu’er says, glaring. “I think you’ve spent a lot of time carrying a lot of guilt and anger and you’re afraid of letting it go because you don’t know what you’re going to be without it.” She drops her hands on his shoulders and gives him one firm shake before settling back down on the mat. “sh*t or get off the pot, Jiang Wanyin. Write to Wei Wuxian or don’t. Pick a path and move forward with it, because whatever’s happening here? Is tiresome.”

A great wash of exhaustion rolls over Jiang Cheng like stepping under the freezing waterfall. Yes.It istiresome. He rolls everything around in his head while Fan Zhu’er gets another pot of tea going, eyes unfocused. His face still stings a little bit. He doesn’t really mind it.

“Here,” she says, and when he blinks back to awareness she’s set a wooden tray between them. There’s the expected tea, a jar of wine, some spicy mixed nuts, neat slices of persimmon, and some small sweet cakes, the molded decoration still perfectly intact. He looks blankly at the tray, and then blankly at Fan Zhu’er. She shrugs and pops a persimmon slice into her mouth. “I got hungry,” she says without shame, “and I like to reward myself when I have hard conversations.”

Jiang Cheng has never, in his life, considered rewarding himself for anything. Before he can think about it too hard, he grabs one of the tea cakes and shoves the whole thing in his mouth. It’s good, sticky and amazingly fresh for being at least four days old, and he really needs to talk to her about getting a qiankun bag enchanted with her food preservation talismans because he could really get used to this.

“You think my stir-fry was sh*tty?” he asks, eventually, when his mouth is free and he’s downed at least one cup of wine. Fan Zhu’er laughs, long and loud, that twisted tooth showing that he likes so much.

“I mean, it was a good effort for your first time,” she says, pouring his wine and her tea. “But yeah, it was a pretty sh*tty stir-fry, Quangu-zongzhu.”

Jiang Cheng hums into his cup. “I’ll try harder next time,” he promises, and knocks back the contents. A few nuts and a persimmon slice later, he takes a deep breath and asks, “You think I should write to him?”

“Yeah,” she says, around a mouthful of cake. “You obviously want to.”

She’s right, and he has to acknowledge that, at least internally. “I don’t know if he wants to hear from me,” Jiang Cheng says quietly. “He hasn’t written.” He picks at a cake for a few breaths and adds, “He hasn’t come to Lotus Pier. It’s been almost a year. I thought…”

Fan Zhu’er looks at the ceiling, like she’s begging the heavens for patience. “Jiang Wanyin,” she says, longsuffering, “what happened the last time your brother was at Lotus Pier?”

The memory flashes back to him, visceral and sharp. Jiang Cheng winces. “Um,” he says, really not wanting to describe it all out loud.

“Exactly,” she says. “Also, eat that cake, don’t play with it, what are you, five?”

Jiang Cheng picks up the cake and takes a bite. Fan Zhu’er gives him an approving nod. “Good. Respect my snacks.” She sips her tea and waits for him to finish the cake before she speaks again. “So, you know, thathappened the last time he was at Lotus Pier, and you don’t write to him, and you barely spoke to him at the conference. How the f*ck is he supposed to know you want him to come?”

That possibility had literally never occurred to Jiang Cheng. His brother has never respected anyone trying to keep him out of anywhere in his whole life.The idea that Wei Wuxian might be trying to respect Jiang Cheng’s wishes by staying away is mind-boggling. He pours himself another cup of wine and chugs it, trying to fit this concept into his understanding of the world.

“You--” he starts, swallows, and re-tries, “You think he’d come if I asked?”

“I think,” Fan Zhu’er says, much more gently than he probably deserves, “that when I pulled out Hefeng Jiu and spicy lotus seeds for him at the discussion conference, he almost f*cking cried with how much he misses Yunmeng food.” She leans forward and touches his forearm, so lightly he can barely feel it through the robes. “Your brother is out there, Jiang Wanyin. He’s alive. If you want him around, you can make it happen, you just have to actually f*cking doit.”

“You still make it sound easy,” he grouses, refilling her teacup.

“Yeah, well,” she says, crunching on a few nuts, “the first motto of the Boar path is ‘Someone’s gotta do it; might as well be me.’”

“Is there a second motto?”

Fan Zhu’er flashes him a feral smile. “‘f*ck around and find out.’”

Jiang Cheng barks a laugh, brash and loud. “Good motto.”

“I thought so,” she says, sipping her tea. Her gaze sharpens, pinning him in place, and she co*cks her head. “So, Jiang Wanyin. You gonna attempt the impossible or not?”

Like Jiang Cheng has ever backed down from a direct challenge in his entire f*cking life. “Give me some paper,” he says, and gets the singular joy of watching Fan Zhu’er’s whole face go bright and proud, smiling like she’s going to be able to light up the cave with it, and he sways forward as though pulled, she’s just--she’s so--

“Jiang-zongzhu!” screams someone who definitely isn’t Fan Zhu’er, since he’s looking her right in the face. “Fan Zhu’er!”

“In here!” Fan Zhu’er calls over Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. “We’re safe!” To Jiang Cheng she says, “Looks like they dug us out! Here,” and she starts handing him bags and packets out of her food pouch.

“What am I doing with these?” he asks, his arms full of various snacks, feeling vaguely cheated by the rescue in a way he doesn’t want to examine very closely.

“Get the bowls out of that one and start setting stuff out,” she tells him, jerking her chin at the bag that holds her camping supplies. There are several more persimmons and a pile of oranges waiting on her cutting board, and she picks up her cooking knife with a determined sort of air. “They’re gonna be hungry. Oh, can you make more tea? I think I have another teapot in there.”

Jiang Cheng cannot believe his life, and he stares at the cave wall for two breaths before he does as asked, setting out snacks for his disciples, in a cave, that he’s been trapped in for a day and a half, because why not. In possibly the world’s most perfect timing, Fan Zhu’er gets the knife put back away just in time for Hu Yueque to come skidding into the cavern, streaked with dust and mud, eyes exhausted and red-rimmed.

“Fan Zhu’er!” she yells, throwing herself into the larger woman’s arms. “Oh my god, we were so worried, are you okay? It stepped on you!”

“She’s injured,” Jiang Cheng tries to say, as Fan Zhu’er says, “I’m fine!” and three other cultivators skid into the room and fling themselves on the pile. There’s a lot of yelling and hugging and crying, during which Jiang Cheng gets to see with his own eyes that Hu Yueque is, in fact, a snotty crier, and he sits and watches the easy way Fan Zhu’er acts with her friends and seethes with a quiet, inappropriate jealousy.

“I’m fine, I’m fine, Jiang-zongzhu is good at bandages, get off,” Fan Zhu’er laughs, shoving everyone off her lap. “You’re all gross,go wash up and change or I won’t let you eat.”

“Eat?” Hu Xinling says, his head popping up. “Eat what?” His eyes land on the spread in front of Jiang Cheng and widen. “Oh hell yeah, snacks!” and then, a moment later, “Jiang-zongzhu!” He looks like he’s about to try and bow, but he’s half buried under Ma Xueliang, and Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes.

“Did you hear her?” he says. “If you want any of this go clean up. You’ll make Yunmeng Jiang lose face if you keep walking around looking like that.”

“Yes, zongzhu!” says the pile of cultivators, and they extricate themselves into separate humans instead of a jumble of limbs and scurry to the stream. He glares after them, still unaccountably jealous, and startles at a warm touch to the back of his hand. It reveals itself, when he looks down, to be Fan Zhu’er’s hand, and he stares in disbelief as she wraps it around hisand squeezes.

“Hey,” she says, low enough not to be heard over the splashing and bickering coming from the stream. “Thanks.”

Jiang Cheng drags his eyes up to her face, the warm smile, the dark eyes, and he turns his hand over so he can squeeze hers back. “You, too,” he says, mouth dry, not sure what’s happening here but glad for it regardless.

Fan Zhu’er’s mouth quirks, fond and familiar. She squeezes his hand one more time before she drops it, Jiang Fengli already on her way back over. Jiang Cheng feels that touch like a curse mark all through the informal meal, shoulder-to-shoulder with his disciples as he refills their teacups. It’s dark and they’re still inside a cave and Hu Xinling is honestly a little bit smelly, but he thinks it might be the best meal he’s ever had. He catches Fan Zhu’er’s eye and she dimples at him, popping a roasted lotus seed into her mouth, and yes. This is the best meal Jiang Cheng has ever had, and he holds that knowledge close and eats another persimmon slice.

Notes:

Caves are for having intense emotional conversations and killing monsters, and they already killed the monster.

This chapter has been converted for free using AOYeet!

Chapter 14

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng gets back to Lotus Pier and before he does anythingelse, before he even reports about the night hunt or changes clothes or eats a meal not cooked in a cave, he sits down behind his desk and grinds ink with furious intensity.

(That’s a bit of a lie. The firstthing he does is escort Fan Zhu’er to the healers and glare furiously at both her and at Han-daifu as he orders that she receive the best medical care possible, no exceptions, and also orders Fan Zhu’er to follow all of Han-daifu’s instructions on pain of punishment. Fan Zhu’er makes a face at him but refrains from asking about what the punishment would entail, which is good, because he doesn’t have any idea what it would be. Anyway,it’s not like he was stayingat the healers, so it counts as just part of the arrival. That’s what he tells himself, anyway, all the way to his office.)

Attempt the impossible,he reminds himself, smoothing out a sheet of paper and wetting his brush. Well, he’s f*cking well gonna.

Wei Wuxian,

How is Gusu? If Hanguang-jun isn’t treating you well, I’ll break his f*cking legs

That gets crumpled up and thrown aside. Probably not a good idea to threaten the Chief Cultivator in writing,and then send it to his house.Jiang Cheng finds a new piece of paper and starts again.

Dear Brother

Ugh, no.Gross. Jiang Cheng thinks about crumpling up this piece, too, but there’s only two characters on it, so he resigns himself to writing a sh*tty draft and then copying it again. Probably best that way. Fan Zhu’er, he thinks, would appreciate the conservation of paper, and he pretends she’s leaning on the table across from him, offering feedback with that sarcastic lilt to her voice. He dips his brush and sets to writing.

Around five drafts later, Jiang Cheng looks down at his page with something like satisfaction.

Hey, asshole.

Is the food at Cloud Recesses still as boring as it was when we went the first time? Don’t answer that, I’ve been there. I know exactly how bad it is. Your f*cking glowing shadow would probably find some way to blame me if you starve to death on his sh*tty cooking, so here are some spices. You know, to add flavor? Have they heard of it there? If Hanguang-jun doesn’t keep you tied to the Jingshi, you know where to come get more if you’re not a f*cking coward.

Dare you to put some in his congee.

Jiang Wanyin

Yeah. That’ll do nicely.It’s early enough in the day that the market’s still open, and Jiang Cheng slips out to buy the absolute spiciest options the stalls have to offer, ground and whole and infused in oil, anything that makes his head spin and his eyes burn when he smells it. He wraps everything up in a box, the bottles and jars carefully padded with straw, and addresses the entire thing to Wei Wuxian at Cloud Recesses, care of the Gusu Lan Sect. The box goes in the pile with the rest of the outgoing mail, and Jiang Cheng celebrates his triumph with a much-needed bath.

Impossible: Attempted. He shuts his eyes and leans his head back against the rim of the tub, soaks in the hot water and his sense of accomplishment. Fan Zhu’erwill be proud of him, he thinks. She’ll probably smile at him, maybe wide enough to flash that crooked tooth that he thinks about a perfectly normal amount. She might tell him that he did well. That would be nice. Jiang Cheng lets himself drift, maybe even doing something like relaxing for a little while (he’s heard it's good for you) before he frowns. Really? Really?

Jiang Cheng looks down at his dick through the water. His dick. Which is hard. Because he was thinking about Fan Zhu’er.

He covers his face with wet hands and makes an extremely undignified sound.

Absolutely not,he tells it. That was a one-time thing. It was an accident. We are not making a habit of this.

His dick is unmoved. His memory, apparently also a traitor, reminds him of how Fan Zhu’er’s skin felt under his hands, the warm, strong muscles of her back, the sounds she made when he dug his thumbs into a particularly tight muscle. What if, his brain posits, what if she was making those sounds in a different context? For example, what if she was face-down on a bed and Jiang Cheng was pressing her down, skin-to-skin, as he--

Jiang Cheng dunks his head under the water. No. No.Maybe he should go back to that cave and stand under that freezing waterfall again, because apparently hot baths are profoundly unhelpful.He surfaces, wiping water out of his eyes, and glares at the wall. All the ethical considerations besides, the idea of pressing Fan Zhu’er anywhere is ridiculous.That’s not how she works. He’s not even sure he couldpin her down, honestly, not in a fair fight. It’s way more likely to be the other way around, Jiang Cheng on his face or on his back, Fan Zhu’er’s full weight on top of him, the warm line of her body and all that muscle--

Jiang Cheng’s dick is even more interestednow, and he drags his thoughts away with all the self-discipline a lifetime of cultivation can give. This is terrible. Everything is terrible. How dare his body betray him like this? Continueto betray him like this, rather. He hates it.

His dick is still hard.

Jiang Cheng sends a prayer to the heavens asking for mercy and forgiveness, and slips his hand under the water.

---

The first thing Fan Dingxiang does when she gets back to Lotus Pier is get dragged to the healers by Jiang Wanyin. The dragging is unnecessary--she was going to go to the healers as soon as she got back. She’s been injured before, she knows how this works.He’s clearly fussing, though, and it’s cute, so she lets herself be dragged and fussed over and glared at.

“Jiang-zongzhu isn’t normally this suspicious of my skills,” Han-daifu says, as she applies more salves to the various parts of Fan Dingxiang’s back that still need salves. “He seems to be taking a special interest.”

Is he? Maybe. Fan Dingxiang lets herself sit with that for a little bit, the idea warming her through. He does like her and respect her. He might, she thinks, be attracted to her, at least a little. It’s hard to tell because he’s so immensely repressed, but he looked at her in a particular kind of way in that cave after she slapped him and it’s making her wonder. (And then there was the moment before everyone else showed up, when Jiang Wanyin swayed toward her, face quietly desperate. She almost kissed him right there. She’s pretty sure he would have let her.)

“I got injured on his watch,” she says, instead of any of that, “and then we got trapped in a cave and he had to bandage me up.” She shrugs the shoulder on her uninjured side. “I think he feels guilty about it.”

“Hmmm,” Han-daifu says suspiciously, but she doesn’t press the point. Instead she presses her fingers into Fan Dingxiang’s acupoints, which is worse physically but probably better emotionally. She leaves with several prescriptions and two weeks off any of her physical duties, which Fan Dingxiang knows better than to argue about. Unlike somepeople, she likes to let her body actually recoverafter an injury. She scrubs cave grime off her skin, a waterproofing talisman keeping her bandages dry, and idly plans her next few classes--she’ll get the shidis and shimeis to demonstrate for each other in her rope dart class. Some of them are more advanced at particular skills, so it’s a workable solution until she can lead it properly again. Probably for the non-cultivator classes they should just focus on talismans and general body conditioning. She can tell people how to stretch while sitting down. She’s very skilled that way.

Fan Dingxiang eats the dinner of three lesser mortals combined, lightly bullies Hu Yueque into reading with her on a dock, Hu Yueque’s qi gently encouraging her body to heal faster, and makes it to her own bed with a sigh of satisfaction that comes from her bones. Just because she cansleep anywhere, she reflects as she cleans her teeth, doesn’t mean she wantsto.

Also, caves don’t have privacy,which she finds herself sorely in need of at the moment. Fan Dingxiang makes sure her doors and windows are locked, casts a privacy talisman for good measure, and digs out the special salve from the box under the bed where she keeps her sex supplies. She runs her hand over one of the glazed ceramic co*cks inside, considering, but… Not tonight. Fan Dingxiang doesn’t have the energy for that level of work. She just wants to come hard and fast and then go the f*ck to sleep.She grabs a cloth while she’s at it and climbs into bed, arranging some pillows so she can recline comfortably. The trousers came off as soon as she got in her door, so she just needs to open her inner robes and enjoy the late autumn Lotus Pier air on her bare skin. Fan Dingxiang sets aside the salve and the rag and relaxes into the bedding for a moment, letting her hands idly play over her torso. The titt*es that Jiang Wanyin was so afraid of are soft, large enough to fill her hands but small enough not to get in the way. She squeezes them and takes a moment to marvel that she grew them herself, admittedly with the help of prescriptions, but still. They’re hers.Fan Dingxiang isn’t vain, exactly, but she likes tit* in general and she thinks she’s allowed to be proud of these ones in particular. She rolls her nipples between her fingers, heat building in the pit of her belly, and lets her eyes drift shut.

Normally Fan Dingxiang likes to take her time and really savor her pleasure, but normally she hasn’t been in close proximity to a man she’s very attracted to while he gives her brutal massages and resolutely doesn’t even try to get otherwise handsy. She’s a little pent up, thanks, so after a few breaths of tit-based self-appreciation she drops a hand between her legs and strokes herself lightly. She’s not hard--she doesn’t get that way without certain specially-designed talismans--but she’s filling out, the skin delicate and soft under her callused fingers. Pleasure rolls through her, up and down her spine, and without further preamble she finds the salve and coats her fingers. The smooth slide is much better, and she circles her fingers around the sensitive part at the tip and spreads her legs so she can roll the fingers of her other hand against her entrance. If she had time she’d get herself worked open and pliant, f*ck herself with her fingers or one of her dild*s, but needs must.

Fan Dingxiang lets her head fall back against the pillows and (with no prevarication or preamble) pretends it’s Jiang Wanyin touching her, kneeling between her legs and scowling down at her with that frown of concentration he gets when he’s trying to master a tricky new rope dart skill. He’d be nervous, probably--there’s no f*cking way a man that repressed wouldn’t be. It’d be sweet. She can imagine his blush, the way his eyes would keep flicking up to check on her, to make sure he was doing things correctly. He’d want a lot of feedback, so she wouldn’t bother keeping quiet.

“Very good,” she says to the fantasy version of Jiang Wanyin, red all the way down to his collarbones, which she can see because in this fantasy he’s wearing a single thin purple robe and nothing else. Fantasy Jiang Wanyin ducks his head to avoid her gaze, jaw clenching, as though she doesn’t already know his eyes are dark and hot, like she can’t see the line of his erection under the fabric. “You can press a little harder,” she tells him, squirming her hips down into his fingers, the slick pressure stoking up the fire behind her bellybutton. His breath catches, teeth biting into his lower lip, and he keeps glancing up at her face and then down at his hands, wanting her reactions and wanting not to be seen wanting them. Ah, she’d have so much fun with him.

“Is it good?” he asks, slick hand working over her shaft in a steady weight, letting her roll up against it for extra friction.

“So good,” Fan Dingxiang says, in her head, to the version of Jiang Wanyin who’s on his knees for her. She reaches a hand out to cup his face, thumb tracing over his lower lip (in the real world both hands are occupied, but that doesn’t matter in the fantasy), and smiles when he shudders and sways his face into the touch. “Do you want to make me come?”

“Yes,” he breathes, lips moving against her thumb. “Please, yes.”

“Good boy.” Jiang Wanyin’s eyes slip shut, his face going slack, the blush hitting even harder. “A little faster,” she tells him, and he speeds up his movements (Fan Dingxiang speeds up her movements), head tipped down, hazy eyes back on his important work. She arches, presses into his touch, a shiver zipping down her spine to join the brazier in her gut as her abs clench up. “I’m close,” she says, grinding against his fingers between her legs and his palm on her dick, every touch a hot nudge toward the edge of a cliff. “Do you want to watch me come, Jiang Wanyin?”

“Please,” he says, breathing hard. “Please, I want to see it.” He swallows, drags his gaze up to her face, and adds, “And then--after?”

Fan Dingxiang shifts her leg and presses her foot lightly into his crotch, trapping his hard co*ck between her touch and his abs. The sound he makes is obscene,the ridge of him hot against her skin even through the robe. “After,” she says, watching him helplessly rut into the pressure, wonderful little whining noises making their way out of his throat, all of them centering to tingle in her guts, “I’ll let you f*ck me.”

Jiang Wanyin makes a broken sound, hunching forward with his mouth hanging open. “Please,” he begs, ragged, and he presses harder, adds an extra sweep to his fingers on the next stroke up her shaft, and Fan Dingxiang comes with one of her hands on her shaft and the other circling frantically over her entrance. It washes over her like a river current, taking everything out to sea, and when it’s done she’s smooth and placid as a lakeshore. Fan Dingxiang flops against her pillows, careful not to pull at her bandages, and pants for breath. f*ck,but she needed that. She stares at the ceiling for a bit, pleasantly wrung out, and thanks the imaginary Jiang Wanyin for his service as she puts him back into the neat mental box where all her sex fantasties live when she’s not actively fantasizing. Fan Dingxiang is good at compartmentalizing and refuses to feel shame about it. She stretches, yawns, and when her legs stop shaking she starts the annoying chore of cleaning up.

Not for the first time she mentally thanks the specialty surgeon she saw some eight years back, and the fellow late-blooming woman at the local brothel who’d recommended said surgeon. Her medications mean she’s never been as messy when she comes as the average dick-haver, but now that she justhas the dick and not the whole package all she has to deal with is a small puddle of slick clear liquid that wipes up muchmore easily than what her previous male partners have produced. Also, now she can’t get kicked in the balls or have them stick to her leg in the humid Yunmeng summer, andher daily medications are less complicated. Win-win-win all around, as far as she’s concerned.

(Hm. She should go visit the brothel and see how A’Tao is doing, actually. It’s been a while since Fan Dingxiang has gotten to hear her sing and share a pot of tea, andthat brothel has excellent food. Maybe later this week.)

Fan Dingxiang finishes wiping off and washes her hands at the basin in the corner, absently tying her robe back closed as she puts away the salve and douses the candles. She climbs into bed with a deep, relaxed sigh, wraps herself around a pillow, and drifts off happily dreaming of it being Jiang Wanyin’s chest under her arms instead.

---

Three nights later finds Fan Dingxiang by the stables, doing a few light squats and hip stretches. It’ll be too cold soon to keep training outside like this, she muses. Normally in the past that meant working out and doing hand-to-hand martial arts as quietly as possible in whoever’s bedroom was largest, but she wonders if Jiang Wanyin will just start escorting her to the main hall, or possibly one of the padded indoor pavilions they use for training the juniors in inclement weather before their cores have developed enough to keep them warm. Yes, she’s assuming that Jiang Wanyin is going to keep up their weekly nighttime training sessions into the indefinite future, but nothing she’s seen has indicated otherwise, so she’s pretty comfortable with this assumption.

“What the f*ck are you doing out here?”

Speak of the zongzhu and he appears. Fan Dingxiang completes her lunge to her own personal satisfaction before she turns around and yep. There’s Jiang Wanyin, silhouetted against the lamplight and radiating his usual fury. Ah, if only he’d glare at her like that in bed. She crosses her arms, mimicking his posture, and raises an eyebrow. I could ask you the same thing,she’s saying, and after a moment he huffs and glances away.

“You’re supposed to be taking it easy,” he says, like he found her committing a f*cking murderor something instead of stretching her legs.

“I am,” she says, sweetly, and keeps her face politely blank when he scowls harder.

“You have a week and a half left before you’re allowed back to your training duties,” Jiang Wanyin snaps, stomping closer. “And I find you out here disobeying Han-daifu’s direct orders?”

“Do you see me doing anything involving my arms or torso?” Fan Dingxiang glares at him, mostly to hide her fondness at his fussing. “I actually doknow how recovery works, you know.” She frowns as something pings at her and her eyebrow goes up again. “I don’t remember telling you about Han-daifu’s orders.”

“You’re my disciple,” he says, pointedly avoiding her gaze. “I’m allowed to know how best to keep my disciples from endangering their health.”

“Is that what’s happening here?” Fan Dingxiang asks, waving around at the whole lot of nothing she’s currently doing. “Endangering my health?”

“If you keep standing around in the cold, yes,” Jiang Wanyin says with extreme granny energy. “Come with me.” He catches her around one elbow and tugs, trying to tow her back the way he came. Fan Dingxiang digs her heels in and he moves her exactly nowhere.

He glares at her.

Fan Dingxiang glares back, physically and emotionally unmoved.

Jiang Wanyin takes a long, deep breath, his face pinching up. “Fan Zhu’er,” he says, with false politeness, “please accompany me to my office. I have some correspondence I would like your expert opinion on.” He sounds like it’s causing him actual physical pain to say it. It’s f*cking hilarious.

“Was that so hard?” Fan Dingxiang asks, just to rub it in a little.

“Yes,” he grits out, tugging on her arm again. “Are you coming or not?”

“Lead the way, Quangu-zongzhu,” she says, as sweetly as she can, and enjoys the annoyed huff she gets in response. He doesn’t let go of her elbow, his hand warm through her robes, and Fan Dingxiang doesn’t mention it because she wants to see how long he’ll leave it there.

Quite a while, actually. Huh. He only drops it once they’re actually in his office, even then he insists on helping her sit down at his desk, nudging the brazier closer and draping a quilt over her shoulders.

“Why do you have a quilt in your office?” she asks, accepting a cup of tea automatically as Jiang Wanyin hands it to her. It smells like ginger and dried fruit, maybe jujubes? Definitely the kind of thing her mother would brew in winter, and not at all the usual keemun she’s noticed he tends to favor.

“It’s cold,” he says, defensively, sitting down behind his desk, notably without a quilt for himself and much further from the brazier. She levels an eye at it, judging the heat level, and guesses that it’s been burning for at least a joss stick, maybe two. Jiang Wanyin definitelyset up his office with the idea that he was bringing her back here, even if he’ll never, ever admit it. That makes her feel even warmer than the tea and quilt, and she hides a little smile as she sips it.

“You said there was correspondence,” she says, glancing around at the empty tabletop. “If that was just a ruse for you to pamper me I’m not mad,” she adds, as Jiang Wanyin’s jaw clenches, “but you don’t actually have to use ruses, you know.”

“It’s not a ruse,” he says tightly, opening a talisman-locked drawer and pulling out a pile of letters. “I just don’t leave my letters laying around willy-nilly for any of my disciples to read.”

“Right,” she says, taking the first letter off the top and scanning it, “just me.”

“That’s different.” Fan Dingxiang looks up from the letter (something about shipping routes on the river) and stares at him. Jiang Wanyin refuses to make eye contact, finally glances at her, and then busies himself pouring a cup of tea, a little color high on those perfect f*cking cheekbones. “I asked you to,” he says, and there’s no way the lacquered wood of the table is thatinteresting but he’s sure gazing into it like it contains the secrets to high-level cultivation.

“You did,” she agrees, eventually, and returns to the letter. “I don’t know as much about rivers as I do about farming,” she says, when she gets to the end, “but this seems worth sending someone out to check on it. If things start getting backed up or lost it’ll have a ripple effect on everything else, and we’re already seeing that with the Baling flooding.”

“What’s what I thought,” Jiang Wanyin says, scooching closer and glancing at the letter as she sets it diagonally on the desk so they can see it from their respective sides. “I’m guessing it’s not an actual night hunt, but if we’re getting pirates along that stretch we need to know.”

“Mmm,” Fan Dingxiang agrees, idly thinking about shifting further toward him and seeing if she can press their shoulders together. “And if it ispirates, it’s worth knowing if they’re legitimately preying on others or if they’re just desperate. You can fix desperate, but you can’t fix asshole.”

“Don’t I f*cking know it,” Jiang Wanyin mutters. “Discussion conferences would be a lot f*cking easier if there was a cure.”

“Well,” Fan Dingxiang allows, “Maybe no one’s really tried. You could assign some cultivators to the problem, have them do some research, see what happens.”

He snorts loudly and nudges her tea closer until she picks up the cup and drains it. “With what cultivators?” he asks, somewhere between amused and annoyed. “You have half of mine out delivering talismans and treating broken legs, and the other half are in Baling fighting water ghouls. Do you have a secret stash of cultivators you’re not telling me about?”

“Oh, Ihave them out there?” Fan Dingxiang asks, knocking her shoulder into his hard enough to make him stagger. “I forgot that I was in charge of the night hunt assignments, Quangu-zongzhu.” She bows across the corner of the table at him, solemn. “This one apologizes for neglecting the duty she didn’t know she had.”

“Shut up,” he snaps, refilling her cup. “It was your idea, and you know it. You’re too smart to pretend to misunderstand me.” Fan Dingxiang blinks at him, shocked and pleased, and Jiang Wanyin snaps his mouth shut and slops tea on the table setting the pot down. “Shut up,” he says, in tones of warning, as though that’s ever stopped her before.

“You think I’m smart,” Fan Dingxiang says, propping her elbow on the table and her chin on her hand. She lets herself grin at him, smug like the fat cat at the biggest fishmonger in the market. “All this time I thought you were just keeping me around for my muscles, Jiang Wanyin. What a pleasant surprise that you appreciate my mind, too.”

“I don’t keep you anywhere,” he huffs, “you just refuse to leave.” His ears are pink, and his cheeks, and he’s glaring at the brazier like it’s insulted five generations of his ancestors. “Of course I think you’re smart,” he adds a breath later, eye darting to her and then away like fish in a lake. “I wouldn’t ask for your opinion if you weren’t.”

Fan Dingxiang wants to keep flirting. She wants to lean over and bite one of those cutely red ears. She wants to grab him by the collar and find out how red his face gets when he’s been thoroughly kissed. (She bets it’ll be hawthorn-red, shiny and sweet like tanghulu.) She just--she really likes him, is the thing, and she’s getting surer and surer that he likes her back, but. He’s still the sect leader, and she’s a pig farmer, and the distance between them may only be the corner of a table but in reality it’s much more than that.

(Also, he’s so repressed he might qi deviate if she kisses him unannounced, and she doesn’t want him to qi deviate.)

Instead of doing anything that involves her mouth parts on his skin, Fan Dingxiang picks up the next letter and says, lightly, “I’ll try not to disappoint you, then.”

“You haven’t so far,” he mutters, low enough that she’s pretty sure he doesn’t mean for her to have heard it. It zings to the center of her even so, curling in the place her golden core would be if she had one and just as warm. She smiles to herself behind the letter, skimming it once and then re-reading more closely.

“Speaking of needing a cure for assholery,” Fan Dingxiang says, wrinkling her nose and glancing up at Jiang Wanyin. “I think you should send someone out for this one, but to check on his wives and concubines, not to investigate the ‘horrible curse preventing me from fathering sons.’” She taps her fingers on her teacup thoughtfully. “Maybe see if any of his daughters want to come to Lotus Pier and train to be cultivators.”

“It couldbe an actual curse,” Jiang Wanyin says, grimacing. “I’ve read similar things in the archives.”

“You don’t think it is, though.”

“I don’t think it is,” he agrees. Jiang Wanyin takes the letter back and glances over it again, nodding. “I think you’re right that we should investigate and invite the daughters.”

Fan Dingxiang hides her smile in her cup and squirms a little bit. We.There’s that word again, lighting up her not-core. Distracted by the feeling, she squirms exactlywrong and pulls the still-healing muscles of her back, which is rude of her body and she doesn’t appreciate it at all.

“What?” Jiang Wanyin asks immediately at her pained hiss, hands hovering like she might need him to either bandage a wound or punch an invisible assailant. It brings the warm feeling back, and Fan Dingxiang waves him off as she very carefully stretches.

“Moved weird,” she says, breathing slowly through the roll of her shoulders and a couple gentle twists. “I’m fine, it was just bad for a bit.”

He snorts in a deeply disbelieving way, rolling his eyes. “Don’t be a hero,” he snaps, and floats one hand over her injured back, almost close enough for her to feel the heat even through the quilt. “May I?”

“Suit yourself,” Fan Dingxiang says, “but you better have snacks or I’ll end up trying to eat your arm.”

Jiang Wanyin rolls his eyes again, so hard it seems like it should hurt. His hand settles on her back, the water-current wash of his qi trickling into her, and at the same time he opens a drawer and tosses a bag onto the table. It rattles in a very familiar way, and Fan Dingxiang opens it to discover spicy roasted lotus seeds. She glances up and meets Jiang Wanyin’s eyes, catches him at a moment where his face is soft and unguarded. He looks hopeful, and worried, and about ten years less stressed. He looks like he cares very much about whether she likes the lotus seeds. He realizes he’s been caught looking and schools his face back into a scowl, but she caught him and she’s never forgetting it. Oh, Fan Dingxiang reallywants to kiss him, now, but again: Qi deviation. She pops a couple lotus seeds in her mouth and crunches them, obnoxiously loudly.

“You think of everything, Quangu-zongzhu,” she drawls. “Careful, or I’ll get used to it.”

“f*ck off,” Jiang Wanyin scoffs, refilling her tea. “Read the letters or get out.”

Fan Dingxiang picks up the next letter, not even bothering to hide her smile. What a pleasant evening. Snacks, tea, and being sarcastic at Jiang Wanyin? She’s having a greattime.

---

Jiang Cheng is having a bad time. Everything is terrible. Jiang Cheng is dying, metaphorically. He’s having what is definitely the third-worst time of his life, and the embarrassment factor alone is pushing it up there to potentially edge out the top two, though that does seem really disrespectful to the memory of his parents and his sister but he thinks A'Jie would probably at least understand his pain. Not that he’d ever tell her about it if she were alive, but she’d, like, understand it in spirit.

The issue is this: Jiang Cheng is horny.Like, in an ongoingkind of way. It’s not like he’s never been aroused before, but previously it’s been an easy thing to take care of, like stretching a muscle or eating a meal: There was a physical need, and he met that physical need, and then the need stayed f*cking met.That’s not what’s happening now. Now Jiang Cheng wakes up horny and goes to bed horny and stays horny in the middle of the day, right in front of his sect and everyone. He’s jerked off more in the last month than maybe in the last ten years put together. He’s been using his hair oil for it now! Because it’s more comfortable! Because of how much he’s been jerking off!

He hatesit.

Jiang Cheng has read spring books and erotic poetry and epic romance novels, ones that described in great detail the desire for a lover’s touch, the hunger for someone else’s body. He’d thought it was exaggeration, or poetic license, or something. There was no possible way people actuallyfelt like that. How would they get anything done?

Well. People do, apparently, feel that way, because Jiang Cheng feels that way. How’s he getting things done? Badly. He keeps getting distracted in meetings, someone making a comment that reminds him of Fan Zhu’er and his mind immediately deciding to imagine what her reaction would be. He walks past the talisman class for the youngest juniors, catches sight of her smiling encouragingly at a reedy girl of about twelve, and nearly walks into a railing. It’s terrible to be away from her and worse to be around her. He’s familiar with affection,with respecting someone, finding them beautiful and interesting and sharply intelligent in a way that fascinated him. He feels all of that, now, and more. Jiang Cheng has never looked at someone and wanted to know what they taste like, before. It’s awful.

It would probably be easier if he stopped spending time with the source of all these new embarrassing feelings, but Jiang Cheng is apparently a weak-willed coward. Either that or he’s immensely brave. He’s not sure which one would lead to him inviting Fan Zhu’er into his office to read official sect correspondence for two weeks in a row. Maybe both, somehow? It was objectively a terrible idea, except for how she’s smart and has good ideas and he came out of both semi-clandestine evening meetings brimming with plans for how to handle the requests and also simmering under his collar with wholly inappropriate attraction. After all, he rationalizes to himself, it’s not herfault that he can’t keep his head to himself. Treating her worse because of his inability to be a normal human being is unfair. It would, in fact, be a sh*tty thing to do. If he starts actively avoiding her he’d be making it weird. He doesn’t want to make it weird.

Then Fan Zhu’er get released back to normal duties, and he watches her do a deep squat with a bamboo pole over her shoulders, weighted baskets on both ends, and he chokes on his own spit. f*ck. f*ck.He’s dying. He’s going to die. Jiang Cheng needs to pick an heir to the sect, and quickly, because he doesn’t have long to live.

He has to buy more hair oil. It’s humiliating.

The best distraction he gets comes in the form of a letter from Wei Wuxian, which arrives with the rest of his official (annoying) correspondence in a sprawl of messy calligraphy. The familiarity of it punches him in the gut, his breath stuttering for a moment. Jiang Cheng’s hands do notshake as he lifts the heavy wooden box the letter is attached to, but that’s because he knows how to keep iron-clad control over his body. (Certain recent developments notwithstanding.) He sets it to the side and ignores it for the rest of the day, through meetings and planning sessions and night hunt reports. It burns in his peripheral vision like a hot coal, and when he finally gets half a shichen to himself before dinner he squirrels it away to his rooms so he can open it in privacy.

He checks it for malicious talismans, first, and then for talismans that aren’t intended to be actively malicious but are definitely going to be annoying. There’s nothing like that, only a protective array pulsing gently under his fingertips. The energy of it is familiar in more ways than one, the curl of his brother’s healthy qi laced through with something colder and more ghostly. Wei Wuxian’s still using demonic cultivation, then. Jiang Cheng frowns and investigates the array more closely, sussing out the flavor of the magic. It’s resentful, yes, but not vicious. Jiang Cheng has had over a decade to get acutely familiar with demonic cultivation, to be able to taste the difference between someone desperately using whatever they had access to and someone causing pain just to revel in the power. This resentment feels ambient,for lack of a better word. It doesn’tfeel like his brother is carrying around an entire f*cking army of ghosts anymore. Jiang Cheng is fairly certain Hanguang-jun would throw an intensely refined fit if Wei Wuxian were acting the way he had right after the war, but Hanguang-Jun also let Wei Wuxian go wander around the f*cking countryside on his own for almost a year. His choices are suspect.

(Jiang Cheng also has to admit that when he saw Wei Wuxian at the conference, he seemed healthy and happy and almost a hundred percent ghost-free. He just doesn’t trust him to stay that way when he’s out of sight, so it’s a relief to find he hasn’t unhinged his jaw and swallowed an entire graveyard in the last month.)

Now that he’s fairly certain the box isn’t going to grow legs and run away (which is a great idea for a prank talisman, and Jiang Cheng makes a note to ask Fan Zhu’er about it) Jiang Cheng unties the twine holding the whole thing together. The paper is smooth and high-quality, much nicer than anything Wei Wuxian would ever buy for himself, and it smells like sandalwood incense. If Jiang Cheng had any illusions about Wei Wuxian’s status as Lan Wangji’s kept man, the stationary destroys that. Shameless.

He takes a deep breath, steels himself, and opens the letter.

Jiang-zongzhu,

What a surprise to hear from such an esteemed and busy cultivator! I appreciate the great Sandu Shengshou for taking time out of his busy schedule to write to this poor common soul, though I wonder if perhaps you’re too busy. Your calligraphy is so tight I’m worried about your health. Maybe you can try to unclench sometime! I hear it’s good for you.

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes hugely, and will never ever admit he also does his best to relax his jaw.

When I opened the box you sent me I found one of the jars had leaked and there were spices all through the straw. Fortunately, it was just the one jar. Unfortunately, I accidentally inhaled the chili dust and almost coughed myself to death. Lan Zhan thought it was an assassination attempt! I managed to wheeze out an explanation before he took off on his sword to come duel you for my honor or whatever. If I’m gonna inspire a new war between the sects, I want it to be for a less embarrassing reason, thank you very much! Though I suppose if my reputation has been rehabilitated enough that people think, “Oh, yes, Wei Wuxian! He choked on some chili powder, like an absolutely useless walnut!” instead of remembering all the stuff with the ghosts and the horrible death, that wouldn’t be so bad.

Jiang Cheng’s face contorts into something between disgust, horror, and (maybe) guilt. Only Wei f*cking Wuxian would look at his own violent demise and think, “Ah, yes, a source of humor.” Shameless morbid little f*cker.

Are you making a face?

Jiang Cheng stops making the face.

Stop making whatever face you’re making before it gets stuck that way.

Jiang Cheng makes a new, different face.

Lan Zhan hates it when I joke about dying, so I try not to do it in front of him, but honestly, I’m the one that died! I think I’m allowed to make jokes about it! It’s not like anyone else is going to! It doesn’t bother me, anyway, so I don’t see why it should bother him so much.

Jiang Cheng finds himself sympathizing with Lan Wangji for the space of a breath and hates it.

I did offer Lan Zhan some of the spices, but he just looked at me very suspiciously and said, “Mn.” I think he’s still stuck on the assassination attempt idea. I told him that if you wanted to kill him you’d just whip him to death instead of trying to trick him into eating poison, but for some reason he didn’t find that very reassuring.

Jiang Cheng snorts a laugh, surprising himself. He can picture the conversation, actually, Wei Wuxian draped over a table, blithely cheerful while Lan Wangji looks on with cold annoyance and tight eyebrows as Wei Wuxian assures him Jiang Cheng would commit his murders honorably.He’s also not wrong. Jiang Cheng would never use poison when stabbing was an option.

Then I dumped a bunch of the oil with the cinnamon and clove in it into my congee and almost cried because it was so spicy, and he got even more suspicious! Unfair! Far be it from me to say that Lan Zhan has any flaws, because he’s completely perfect and the best person ever,

Jiang Cheng gets a headache. Why is Wei Wuxian like this.

but he’s just never going to appreciate spice the way Yunmeng does! Maybe I’ll drag him there someday and take him shopping at the market. There’s nothing like a Lotus Pier market for appreciating good food.

At least in this Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian are still in agreement.

Ah, but Gusu has its perks as well! I’m sure when you come for sect business you don’t get to linger, but Caiyi has rivers and water and a lot of aunties and grannies who seem to think I’m not being fed enough at the Cloud Recesses! I don’t know why everyone is so obsessed with how much I’m getting to eat, but they fuss at me every time and try to give me extra buns and dumplings, as though I have four hands to carry it all. And now you’re worried about my eating! Tell me, Jiang Cheng: Are you secretly an auntie? Do you, deep down, want to pinch my cheeks and tell me I need another serving of rice? I’ll keep your secret, I swear!

Jiang Cheng considered being offended at this, remembers the stern faces and pinching hands of every auntie he’s ever known, and decides to consider it an honor instead. He’s not about to risk facing the wrath of the collected Lotus Pier auntie contingent if it somehow gets out that he thinks being an auntie is shameful. He’d never get the fresh bao ever again if he did that.

There I go again, wandering away from my point, which was this: You don’t get to enjoy Gusu when you come, and since I am so concerned for your poor tense shoulders and your constantly clenched jaw, I thought maybe I could send something along to help with that. If you want more, you know where to find me, and more importantly, I know where to find the secret stash Lan Zhan keeps for me in the Jingshi! (Don’t tell anyone, okay? I’m trusting you!)

Best wishes,
Wei Wuxian

The disgusting knowledge that Wei Wuxian is for sureliving in the Jingshi and almost certainly sharing a bed there with Lan f*cking Wangji makes Jiang Cheng’s lip curl. Gross. Gross.Wei Wuxian is gross, and Lan Wangji is gross, and they’re gross together, apparently. Ugh.Gross. He takes a deep breath, pushes that aside with an effort, and re-reads the letter. Wei Wuxian has always talked around things rather than speaking straightforwardly, so he looks at what the letter actuallysays and then also at what’s left in the margins and around the edges. What he finds is… reassuring. Wei Wuxian is eating well and has people around him to make sure he does so. He’s living somewhere he feels comfortable, and with someone (ugh) who’s willing to break the Lan precepts to make him feel welcome. He’s maybe willing to come visit Lotus Pier, and maybe open to seeing Jiang Cheng the next time he’s at the Cloud Recesses. He skims the letter a third time, just to make sure there’s not some kind of secret coded cry for help located therein, and sets it aside to finally open the wooden box. He has a suspicion of what he’ll find, based on the weight and how said weight shifts and what he knows of his brother. He’s correct: four bottles of Emperor’s Smile sit inside, packed in straw and protected with an array that his brother painted on the box before sending it to him.

Jiang Cheng opens one and takes a sip, not even bothering with a cup. It tastes clean and fresh, biting his throat on the way down to sit warm in his belly. It tastes, he thinks, like a beginning.

---

Two nights later finds Jiang Cheng out by the stables, his breath puffing in the chill night air. They’re going to need to start meeting up in one of the indoor training pavilions if they want to keep doing this, but saying so out loud would mean putting actual words to this… whatever it is, and Jiang Cheng really doesn’t want to define it. It’s ridiculous, and he knows this, but if he and Fan Zhu’er talk about these weekly sparring sessions it’ll become something intentional and planned. He would rather continue to pretend they keep meeting up by coincidence, and he refuses to examine why.

“Evening,” Fan Zhu’er says when he comes around the corner, already halfway through a sword form, cheeks flushed in the dim moonlight. “Swords good for tonight? We can do rope dart if you want, but I wanted to get my muscle memory back in.”

Jiang Cheng looks at the line of her body, one deadly shape from the back of her heel out through the point of the blade. “Swords are fine,” he says, through a dry mouth, and swallows. “Turn your back toes out a little.”

Fan Zhu’er does, and he watches with a swell of pride as she settles into the pose, the new position adding strength to the potential strike. “Ah,” she sighs, satisfied. “Yeah, better.” She moves smoothly through the next section, blade flashing silver, all confidence and coiled power. Jiang Cheng can’t take his eyes off her, because he’s an inappropriately horny creepy asshole, and he thanks the stars above that he at least has the excuse of monitoring her training because otherwise his leering would be obvious even to the dead.

“Have you ever had Emperor’s Smile?” he asks, dragging himself away to go find his usual bamboo stick. The smooth weight of it is grounding, and he tries to concentrate on that and not the play of Fan Zhu’er’s shoulders under her robes as he circles back around to tap her spine at the bottom of her ribcage.

“Can’t say I have,” she says, straightening her back and using that new posture to add weight to her next downward strike. “I don’t even know what category of stuff it is. Tea?”

“Wine,” Jiang Cheng corrects, staring at the curve of her neck where it dives under her robes, because he’s a garbage human. “From Gusu,” he adds, managing not to sound too strangled. She makes an interested noise, lunging forward to murder an imaginary opponent, and how is he so f*cking warm when it’s this cold out? He swallows, refocuses, and says, “Wei Wuxian sent me some,” in a deliberately casual voice.

“You wrote him?” Fan Zhu’er pauses her form to flash him a grin when he nods, eyes bright with, what is that, pride? “I’m glad for you,” she says, her voice warm and sincere. “Good job.”

Jiang Cheng shivers, hairs raising all the way down his spine even as heat blooms in his ribcage. When’s the last time anyone ever told him he was doing well? Who even bothersto say such things to a sect leader? He’s supposed to be above wanting such petty reassurances. “You here to train, or are you here to talk?” he snaps, hoping that the gray-washed moonlight hides how hot his cheeks are.

“I can do both,” she says sweetly, whirling back into the form with a flourish. “I contain multitudes, Quangu-zongzhu.”

“Multitudes of being a pain in the ass,” he mutters, and taps the bamboo pole behind her front ankle until she obediently slides it further forward. He grunts his approval, and as she stabs another invisible enemy, adds, “I wanted to ask for your help.”

“Mmm?” Fan Zhu’er finishes out the form and turns to face him, breathing a bit hard. “Spar?” she asks, hefting the blade in a question, and Jiang Cheng’s gut clenches at the proximity sparring will bring. It’s a bad idea. He shouldn’t do it.

He tosses the bamboo aside and summons Sandu out of his sleeve, because he is weak and pathetic. They bow to each other, collected, and when they straighten Fan Zhu’er gives him a wickedsmile and immediately tries to stab him in the kidney. Jiang Cheng deflects the strike and goes for her throat, her laugh floating out into the night air as she spins out of the way.

“You wanted my help?” she asks, parrying his next attack, their footwork flowing between them like trained dancers, forward and back and around and alway, always coming together.

“I’m going to send him a package,” Jiang Cheng explains, over the clash of steel and their huffed, steaming breaths. He ducks under her blade and gets thwapped in the hip with her sheath for his trouble, and he has to stifle a laugh at how undignified it is. “I want it to seem completely normal until he goes to open it, and then I want it to grow legs and run away from him.”

Fan Zhu’er cackles, loud and unrestrained, and it gives her the opening he needs to get inside her guard. He goes to disarm her, but she strikes before he’s expecting it, dropping her sheath and snatching at his wrist. Her thumb digs in viciously on the tendon, and his hand spasms under the assault. Sandu drops from his numb fingers, the pain arcing through his body to leave him lightheaded. “That’s a great prank idea,” she says, eyes dancing, that twisted canine on display. “I didn’t know you had it in you, Quangu-zongzhu.” She raises her blade, and it’s not like he’s afraid for his safety but he’s not about to yield,so Jiang Cheng drops Sandu’s sheath and grabs herwrist, thumb digging into hertendon, see how she likes it when the tables are turned.

“What can I say?” he says, as her sword clatters to the ground, leaving them both unarmed and tangled together. “I contain multitudes.”

“Multitudes of sass,” she snaps back, and hooks her foot behind his ankle, trying to take him over onto his back. Jiang Cheng stumbles but doesn’t go down, yanking her along with him as he catches his balance, and smacks up against a column.

Icontain multitudes of sass?” he pants, trying to break her hold on his wrist and getting it pinned to the column for his trouble. “The first time we night hunted together you threw me over your shoulder and then insulted me for half a shichen.” Jiang Cheng tries to get a leg up to kick at her, and she twists to the side and then shoves her hip against his, trapping him in place very, very effectively. It’s a good, solid hip, muscular and soft at the same time, and Jiang Cheng starts praying fervently that she doesn’t move that very good hip any further to the right, because his horrible betrayal of a body is currently engaged in betraying him.

“And yet you kept me around,” Fan Zhu’er practically purrs. She does a quick thing with her other hand, breaking his grip and reversing it, and gets both his wrists up above his head and trapped against the wood. The pressure zings straight to his co*ck, and Jiang Cheng takes a deep, desperate breath. Oh no, oh no,this cannotbe happening. “One might get the impression that you wantme to sass you, Jiang Wanyin.”

“Well,” he says, brain whirling and whirling on how to get out of this with his dignity intact while his mouth runs itself without permission, “I’m certainly not keeping you around for your manners.

“You’d be constantly disappointed if that were the case,” she says easily. Fan Zhu’er grins down at him, silver catching on her teeth and the gleam of her eyes. “Yield.”

Jiang Cheng inhales deep, wetting his lips, and wonders if he imagines her gaze flicking down. “No.” What is he doing? What is he doing?

“No?” Fan Zhu’er’s voice is a deep rumble, and she leans a little closer, caging him in against the pillar. They both know if he actually used the power of his core he could escape, but that would be unfair, wouldn’t it? (That’s what Jiang Cheng is desperately telling himself, anyway.) “I won,” she says, low. “What’s it going to take to make you admit it?”

“Something a lot worse than what you’re doing now,” Jiang Cheng snaps. He squirms against her grip to test it and remains held fast, a pleasant burn in his shoulders and a building warmth in his lower dantian. He likes this? Why does he like this? “You’ve barely even insulted me,” he adds, because his mouth apparently has its own agenda and he’s helpless to stop it. “You think I’m just going to give up?”

Fan Zhu’er squints down at him, eyes roaming his face, her mouth quirked thoughtfully, which he knows because he can’t stop staring at it. “You want me to be ruder, Jiang Wanyin?” she asks, with a dangerous tilt to her voice that prickles up his spine and down into his dick. He should escape. He couldescape. Why isn’t he escaping?

Jiang Cheng tips his head up, defiant, steadfastly ignoring the trembling of his entire body and the press of hers and the steady, warm loop of her hands around his wrists. “What’s stopping you?” he snaps. “Are you shy now? You finally found your f*cking decorum?”

Fan Zhu’er grins, so close now the clouds of their breath mingle in the breeze. “You’re cute when you’re trying to rile me up,” she says, the sound of it rumbling from her chest and into his. “Yield.”

Make me,” Jiang Cheng snarls, heart trying to vibrate right the f*ck out of his ribs. Please please please, he doesn’t even know what he’s begging for but please--

Fan Zhu’er kisses him.

Holy sh*t.

Holy sh*t.

Fan Zhu’er’s mouth is hot, her lips soft. She kisses like she fights, he thinks dizzily, direct and unforgiving and with specific, deadly purpose. She presses her body into his, his hands still trapped in her grip, tipping his head back into the pillar and using it as support as she crushes their mouths together. It’s bewildering, too much and not enough, his nerves alight and his blood thundering through his veins. When she pulls away there’s a slick, wet noise that joltsJiang Cheng’s co*ck, and he barely manages to stifle a truly humiliating sound of protest.

“Do you yield?” she asks, so f*cking close, not nearly close enough.

“Do you call that making me?” he snaps, completely involuntarily. He’s panting, unable to get enough air, and his mouth is tingling, and every single cun of his body is furiousthat she stopped.

Fan Zhu’er snorts. “Should’ve known,” she says, which makes no sense at all, and she gives him an appraising look. “Yield.”

“No.” Jiang Cheng will not.He refuses. Her grip on his wrists tightens, and he writhes, teeth clenched tight around the whine in the back of his throat.

“Yield,” Fan Zhu’er orders, from right next to his ear.

“f*ck off.” Jiang Cheng’s face burns, and he’s sohard, and his meridians are on f*cking fire in a way he’s never felt before and it’s so good he never wants it to end, and he will literallydie before he admits any of that out loud.

Fan Zhu’er makes a considering sound. “All right,” she says, low, and then she loosens her grip and makes like she’s going to move away, and Jiang Cheng snaps his eyes open in a full panic.

“No,” he blurts, before he can stop himself. She stills, eyes on his face, and he manages to look up at her, wishes they were closer to the lamp so he could see her in more than shades of silver and black.

“No?” she asks, so f*cking steady, and Jiang Cheng swallows and wets his lips again, wondering if they taste like her now.

“No,” he says, and then, desperately, “I yield.” Whatever it takes, whatever he has to do to keep her like this.

“Mmm,” she says, in that low rumble again. “Good boy.”

Jiang Cheng absolutelymakes an embarrassing noise at that, but he can’t care because Fan Zhu’er’s mouth is back on his, trapping him against the column in a press of heat. She drops his wrists, which he doesn’t like, but it’s so she can get her hands into his hair, which he very much likes. It also leaves his arms free to wrap around her back and crush her closer, her muscles solid under his palms, and Jiang Cheng thinks he might burn up like a talisman and scatter on the wind. She tugs at his hair and to his eternal mortification he moans,but his mortification is much less eternal than he expected because the next thing he knows her tongue is in his mouth, oh f*ck, oh f*ck.

Jiang Cheng has, in fact, kissed before. It involved alcohol and the back hills of the Cloud Recesses and a dare from Nie Huaisang he refused to back down from. It was chaste, closed-mouth, and mostly awkward. He hadn’t seen the point, and he’d told Nie Huaisang as much and got a bao thrown at him for his honesty.

This is not like that. Jiang Cheng sees the point of kissing now, even the gross parts with the spit, and he wants to keep kissing Fan Zhu’er for the rest of the night and probably again tomorrow. He’s going to have to jerk off even more,he realizes in something like despair, and then Fan Zhu’er bites his lower lip and his mind goes blank and blazing. He can’t control his hands where they’re roaming her back and sides to test out the planes of her, learning where she’s softer and harder. He also can’t control his voice--he keeps making sounds, urgent and wild, and she keeps swallowing them down and humming in response. f*ck, he hopes she’s enjoying this, he’s never done anything like it before and he’s terrified of f*cking it up. What if he’s so bad she never wants to do it again?

“Sweet thing,” she murmurs against his mouth, like she can read his thoughts, and Jiang Cheng shudders through his whole body. He whimpers.He hadn’t even known he was capableof whimpering, but here he is. He gets one hand into her braid and drags her back down, because every moment that they’re not kissing is wasted time, and she shoves him into the column with one thigh between his legs, rightagainst his leaking co*ck, and Jiang Cheng slams his head against the wood behind him and keens, long and ragged. Oh f*ck oh f*ck,he wants, he wants--

“Hm,” Fan Zhu’er says, pulling away and cupping his flaming face, her thumb resting lightly under his lower lip. She scrutinizes his face for a long breath while he uses every single shattered piece of his self-control to hold still instead of humping her leg until he spills in his underclothes. “Jiang Wanyin--”

“Jiang Cheng,” he rasps out, his voice twice as low as usual. He can’t--her tongue was just in his mouth,they’re past courtesy names now. He still has one hand tangled in her hair, the other pressed to her low back, the hard ridge of his co*ck trapped against her thigh. They’re so far past courtesy names he’s forgotten the point of courtesy names to begin with.

“Jiang Cheng,” she says, and he definitelyloses his grip on himself and grinds against her thigh a little at hearing his birth name in that low, deliberate tone. “Jiang Cheng,” she says, more firmly, and pins him still with a heavy hand on his hip. “Do you want to keep going?”

Yes, yes,absolutely he does. Jiang Cheng may not have ever wanted anything more in his life. He opens his mouth to say so and the words dry up on his tongue like ash, anxiety bubbling up cold in his stomach. “I--” he tries, his brain coming back from the war and bringing extremely unwelcome thoughts with it. He’s her sect leader.He doesn’t know what he’s doing.“I--” he tries again, and can’t go any further than that, frozen with indecision as every potential repercussion plays out in front of him. They’re not married.They’re not even courting.What are they doing?

“Ah,” Fan Zhu’er says, reading his face as easily as one of her adventure stories. She gives him a warm smile, brushes one more kiss against his slack mouth, and carefully steps away to retrieve her sword and sheath. “Thank you for the spar,” she says, with a bow. “I’ll think about the talisman you brought up.”

And then she’s gone into the night, leaving Jiang Cheng trembling against a pillar, bereft and burning and more turned on than he’s ever been in his life.He covers his face with his hands and takes a deep, unsteady breath.

f*ck.

f*ck.

Notes:

ETA: FANART OF "YIELD/MAKE ME", oh my god, it's so hot, thank you Theo!!!

Oh yeah they horny in this one! Hope this makes up for the wait!

This chapter has been converted for free using AOYeet!

Chapter 15

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Fan Dingxiang walks calmly along the docks of Lotus Pier, feet silent in the way that comes from long practice. She slips into the cultivator quarters and then into Hu Yueque’s room, the talisman seal on the door tuned to her energy (among others) and allowing her to enter without complaint. She takes a moment to tie Hu Yueque’s sword into its sheath, for security, and then crosses the room and sits down on the bed.

“Hu Yueque,” she says, giving her friend’s shoulder a shake, and Hu Yueque blunders awake. Her sword (trapped in the sheath) flies across the room into her hand, and she brandishes it in the general direction of the door.

“Huh?” she says, blinking furiously into the darkness. “Fan Zhu’er?” Her eyes go to her sword, and she squints at the neatly knotted cord looped around the handle. “Oh,” Hu Yueque says, voice still thick with sleep. “Yeah, good call.” She sets the sword aside and climbs awkwardly to sitting, hair rumpled, face pillow-creased and a little puffy around the eyes. “What’s going on?”

“Will you cast a privacy talisman, please?” Fan Dingxiang asks, overly formal.

“Okay...” Hu Yueque says, squinting at her suspiciously. She sketches with her fingers, qi flaring on the air, and an even deeper silence falls over the room. “Now will you tell me what’s going on?” She gives Fan Dingxiang a once-over and frowns. “You’re looking weird.

“Yeah,” Fan Dingxiang says, her heartbeat still tingling in her fingertips. “Well.” She swallows, squares her shoulders, and without further preamble says, “I kissed Jiang-zongzhu.”

“You what?!” Hu Yueque yells at her from approximately an arm’s length away. Fan Dingxiang winces at the volume, glad she thought to ask for the privacy talisman.

“I kissed Jiang-zongzhu,” she says, again, voice steady. Saying it out loud doesn’t make it make any more sense, though it does make it feel more real. She goes a little lightheaded, suddenly, her heart pounding in her throat, because she kissed Jiang Cheng, right on the mouth, with tongue. Wow. Holy f*ck.

“What? No. What?” Hu Yueque half-screeches. “How?” Fan Dingxiang opens her mouth to explain, and Hu Yueque snaps, “Shut up,” waving her hand to cast a few more frantic talismans.

“What are you doing?” Fan Dingxiang asks, genuinely curious.

“Calling for reinforcements,” Hu Yueque says grimly. “I just woke up, there’s no f*cking way I can handle this on my own.”

Fan Dingxiang decides that’s fair, even though she’s vibrating like an off-center pottery wheel at high speed. Hu Yueque waves a hand, sparking a few candles with the movement, and rubs her face with a long-suffering expression that really doesn’t seem entirely fair. It’s not like she’s the one who’s been nursing an antagonistic flirting thing with their sect leader for a few months now. And then kissed him. And maybe rubbed up against his dick. (The sounds he made, phew. It might be nearly winter but Fan Dingxiang is hot under the collar and also in other places.)

A shuffling at the door interrupts her horny musings, and Ma Xueliang slips in, followed by a yawning Jiang Fengli. “Whassssshappening?” Jiang Fengli manages, barely coherently. Fan Dingxiang opens her mouth to explain and Hu Yueque slaps her hand over it.

“No,” she says, firmly. “We’re not going through this seventeen times.”

Fair. Also annoying. Fan Dingxiang licks Hu Yueque’s hand and gets smacked on the shoulder for her trouble.

“Did you call us here to help you hit Fan Zhu’er?” Zhang Luan asks, towing her wife Li Jinrong in by the hand. “Because I’ll help, but I don’t know if that counts as an emergency.”

“There is a lot of her,” Li Jinrong says, squinting through sleep-fuzzy eyes at the tableau as she shuts the door behind her. “Maybe we’re all supposed to take a limb.”

“That makes sense,” Zhang Luan decides, and then visibly counts the people already in the room. “We’re down one, then, unless we’re not supposed to be hitting her torso?”

The window clatters open, and Hu Xinling climbs through, sword under one arm and six entire jugs of wine swinging by their rope handles in his other hand. “I came as fast as I could,” he says, breathless and not having even bothered to throw on an outer robe over his sleeping clothes, socked feet skidding on the smooth wood floor. “You said it was an emergency, so I figured I should bring the emergency stash.”

“Best f*cking choice you ever made,” Hu Yueque says, making grabbing motions at the wine. Hu Xinling tosses one to her, and she uncorks it and starts drinking.

“So why--” Ma Xueliang starts, and Hu Yueque holds a finger up at her, stalling the question as her throat works. When approximately half the wine is gone she pulls the bottle away with a wet gasp.

“Okay,” she says, wiping her mouth on the back of her hand. “Okay.” She points at Fan Dingxiang like she’s going to accuse her of murder. “Tell them what you told me.”

Fan Dingxiang takes a deep breath and sets her hands neatly on her thighs. “I kissed Jiang-zongzhu,” she says, for a third time, and like the repetition of a spell it suddenly becomes true. The sky is blue. Water is wet. Fan Dingxiang kissed Jiang Cheng. She exhales, tension flowing away, and almost laughs at how calm she feels.

Apparently she’s the only one who finds this statement calming.

“You what?

“The f*ck?

“How?”

“Excuse me?”

“Lucky.” That one’s from Hu Xinling, who gives an unrepentant shrug when Hu Yueque shoots him a glare. Next to him, Jiang Fengli has said nothing, but she has divested him of one of the wine bottles and is imitating Hu Yueque’s urgency in drinking it.

“Which of those exclamations would you like me to address first?” Fan Dingxiang asks, trying and failing to keep her weird, giddy glee under control. She reaches for a jar of wine and Hu Yueque beats her to it, snatching it up and hiding it under the covers safely out of reach of Fan Dingxiang’s hands.

“None of them.” she says, regally and a little wine-flushed already, and then she frowns. “Actually, answer the how question. In great detail.” She pokes Fan Dingxiang in the shoulder, frowning even more intently. “What the f*ck, Fan Zhu’er! Spill it! The whole thing!”

Fan Dingxiang does. Zhang Luan makes tea with Hu Yueque’s supplies, and Fan Dingxiang sips it without tasting anything as she tells them about the first night hunt, and the sparring, and the meeting in his office, and the late-night training sessions neither of them ever actually acknowledge, and the flirting that started as a joke and slowly built into something else, something simmering just under the surface. She tells them about Lanling Jin and the discussion conference and the things they didn’t see, and about Jiang Cheng’s apparent disgruntled fondness for her that he’d furiously deny if asked. She tells them about the cave, and her injury, and his furious fussing and soul-baring conversations, which brings them to tonight, and the sparring, and the part where Fan Dingxiang hit Jiang Cheng on the mouth with her mouth.

(She does not tell them about the golden core situation, or about her now-confirmed suspicions about what Jiang Cheng would like in bed. The first one is… not exactly common knowledge, to her understanding, and it’s personal. The second one is also personal, but in a different way. The sounds he made when she pinned him to a pillar are his own business, and possibly, if she’s lucky, her business, too.)

“And then I came here and told Hu Yueque, and...” she finishes, waving her hand to try and encompass the summoning and their avid eyes upon her. The room goes silent, everyone lost in thought, and Fan Dingxiang settles in to wait.

“Here.” Hu Yueque shoves the hidden bottle of wine at her. “Sounds like you probably need this.” She watches through narrowed eyes as Fan Dingxiang opens it and takes a deep gulp. “Again, Fan Zhu’er, I ask you: What the f*ck.”

“Yeah, when you attempt the impossible, you sure don’t f*ck around,” Ma Xueliang says, obviously impressed. “Jiang-zongzhu, though.”

“Yep,” Fan Dingxiang agrees. On this there can be no doubt. She kissed the sect leader. Enthusiastically. “It was definitely him.”

“How was it?” Hu Xinling asks, wiping wine from his chin and looking extremely interested in the answer.

“Good,” Fan Dingxiang says, a little indistinctly. Oh, he kissed like he had no idea what the f*ck he was doing, but he was just as quick a learner in kissing as in anything else, and clearly ready to bend over backwards in the spirit of personal improvement. The flash in his eyes when he said, “Make me”? She’s going to be thinking about that for weeks, just like she’s right now maybe thinking a little too hard about exactly how it felt to press against him, the squirming line of his body.

“Okay, no, gross,” Jiang Fengli says, making a face and averting her eyes. “Stop thinking about having sex with my cousin.”

“Oh, like I’m the only one in this room who’s ever thought about having sex with your distant cousin,” Fan Dingxiang shoots back.

“I told you that in confidence!” Hu Xinling hisses, sounding utterly betrayed.

“Did you think you were being subtle, Hu Xinling?” Zhang Luan asks. Li Jinrong has her hand over her mouth, politely trying not to laugh as Zhang Luan continues, “Was it just coincidence that had you in the front of the line during sword drills with Jiang-zongzhu for the last decade?

“It could have been,” Hu Xinling sulks, with another petulant swig of wine.

“Focus up,” Hu Yueque snaps. “This isn’t about your useless crush, this is about Fan Zhu’er’s actual actions that she did out there in front of the sky and everyone.”

“I don’t think you can call it everyone,” Fan Dingxiang protests. “There’s no everyone in this situation.”

“No,” Jiang Fengli says, extra snottily, “it’s just you and Jiang-zongzhu. My cousin. Our sect leader.

“Who I kissed right on the mouth,” Fan Dingxiang finishes amiably. “More than once.”

“Holy f*ck,” Ma Xueliang says. “Seriously, like. Damn.

The room goes silent for a moment as they all contemplate that eloquent statement. It really does sum up the situation. Fan Dingxiang was there for the kissing, and she’s still impressed and bewildered by it.

“Okay,” Hu Yueque says, giving her head a little shake to dismiss the mutual mental wandering. “Okay, though, but what are you going to do?

That’s a good question. Fan Dingxiang shrugs, takes another pull of wine, and tries, “My job?”

“Which now involves kissing my cousin?” Jiang Fengli asks.

“There is literally no one at Lotus Pier whose job it is to kiss your cousin,” Ma Xueliang points out. “He’s banned by the matchmakers. There has never been anyone employed for cousin-kissing in this sect.”

“Yeah, Fan Zhu’er just decided to be an overachiever,” Hu Xinling says, admiringly. “Way to just, like, go for it.

“Focus up, you horny dipsh*t,” Hu Yueque snaps at her cousin. “We’re trying to figure out a plan, here.”

“Oh, is that what’s happening?” Li Jinrong asks, who’s been sipping tea the whole time with a smirk. “I thought this was just a late-night gossip party.”

“It’s not not a late-night gossip party,” Zhang Luan tells her wife. “We do tend to have those.”

“I know, A-Luan,” Li Jinrong says, playfully long-suffering. “Believe me, I know.”

“None of this is planning!” Hu Yueque half-wails, clutching at Fan Dingxiang’s sleeve. “Fan Zhu’er came to us--”

“I came to you,” Fan Dingxiang sighs. “You’re the one who roped everyone else in.”

“--in her time of greatest need--”

“I mean, I’m not bleeding out, I’m not sure if this qualifies as greatest.”

“--and you’re all sitting there making jokes instead of helping her figure out the crisis of kissing our sect leader.” As usual, Hu Yueque speaks over Fan Dingxiang’s interjections, which is honestly a real balm to her nerves. Ah, normalcy. Hue Yueque turns the full attention of her slightly drunken concern on her, and Fan Dingxiang straightens her posture automatically. “Fan Zhu’er,” Hu Yueque says, very very seriously, one hand settling warm on her shoulder. “What do you want to do?”

Fan Dingxiang’s memory happily brings up the needy sound Jiang Cheng made when she pushed her thigh between his legs, and the way he’d hitched against her like he couldn’t stop himself.

“Stop it!” Jiang Fengli throws a pillow at her, aghast. “Stop thinking about f*cking my cousin, you horny monster!”

“The horny monster was last year’s worst night hunt,” Hu Xinling shoves at her shoulder. “Come on, Jiang Fengli, keep up.”

“Questions of horniness aside,” Li Jinrong says diplomatically, cutting through the impending argument as though with a sword, “Hu Yueque raises a valid question, and I, for one, am interested in hearing Fan Zhu’er’s non-sexy answer.”

Fan Dingxiang drinks some more wine and sighs gustily when she lowers the bottle, intensely grateful for Li Jinrong’s status as someone who has been part of the group long enough to know their quirks without having the history that means she gets caught up in their antics out of habit. It’s extremely useful.

“Well,” she says when she has her thoughts in order, at which point Jiang Fengli has a hand firmly over Hu Xinling’s mouth to prevent him from bursting out with six more inappropriate questions and/or statements, “I’m not gonna lie; I would, in fact, like to do sexy things with him.”

“Understandably!” Hu Xinling half-shouts, wrestling his mouth free from Jiang Fengli’s hold.

“You have a boyfriend!” she hisses, trying to muzzle him again and failing.

“Who has functioning eyes and agrees with me that Jiang-zongzhu is the number one most sexy sect leader!” he manages to rush out before Jiang Fengli gets a pillow over his face.

“Wait, sexier than Zewu-jun?” Ma Xueliang asks with genuine interest.

“Hu Xinling is into mean,” Zhang Luan reminds her, to general agreement.

“We’re never leaving this room, are we,” Li Jinrong half-asks, staring sleepily at the opposite wall.

“Aside from the sexy things,” Fan Dingxiang continues loudly over the hubbub, “I don’t really know.” She spreads her hands helplessly. “I just--I like him, is the thing. I would like to get to keep liking him, in some kind of long-term situation.” She shrugs and takes another hit of her wine, the whole thing seeming wilder and wilder by the moment. “It wouldn’t have to be a thing.

“Oh, it absolutely has to be a thing,” Hu Yueque says. “There is absolutely no way it wouldn’t be a thing.

“He literally whips men out of the sect if he finds out they’ve been preying on girls,” Ma Xueliang adds. “One time Jin Guangshan offered to hire him a girl at a discussion conference and I swear Jiang-zongzhu almost took his head off with Zidian.”

“Real missed opportunity there,” Jiang Fengli says mournfully.

“Yao-zongzhu tried to tell him he should at least get a concubine for some heirs, if he couldn’t find an acceptable wife, and Jiang-zongzhu lectured him about abuses of power for so long that Yao-zongzhu left on his own.” This is from Hu Xinling, who has wrestled himself out from under the pillow of silence and is now hiding behind Zhang Luan. “Like, Yao-zongzhu voluntarily stopped talking to someone.”

“What we’re saying is this.” Hu Yueque grabs Fan Dingxiang by the shoulders and gives her a solemn look, even though her eyes are just the slightest bit unfocused. “You have about as much chance of Jiang-zongzhu agreeing to fool around with you without it being a ‘thing’ as a Yiling Patriarch talisman has of actually working.”

Hu Yueque is right, and unfortunately Fan Dingxiang knows it. There’s a realization hovering around the edge of her mind, one that she usually doesn’t bother looking at head-on, because it’s never mattered before, but:

“I don’t think,” she says, slowly, voice low, “that I get to have that.” She pauses, lines up another sentence, and adds, “I think if I were going to get that, it would have happened already.” She’s had lovers, and cared for them all very deeply, but the operative word there is had. Past tense. Fan Dingxiang is fun, sometimes for years at a time, but she’s not someone people keep, and she’s at peace with that status.

“We can investigate why that’s total bullsh*t at another time,” Hu Yueque says firmly. “We’re not done here.” Her eyes bore into Fan Dingxiang’s like needles, sharp and intense. “Do you want that? Do you want to marry Jiang-zongzhu?”

Whooooo, goodness, there was a reason Fan Dingxiang wasn’t saying it out loud, and it’s because hearing Hu Yueque put the actual words out there makes it way too f*cking much. Her face heats, because apparently this is what makes her blush. f*ck, how embarassing.

“Um,” she says, swallows, and manages to continue, “I guess I wouldn’t say no if he asked.”

Hu Yueque glares. “That’s not a real answer and you know it.”

It is not. Fan Dingxiang knows it. “Yes,” she says, louder this time. “Yes, I do want to marry him.”

Hu Yueque nods, satisfied, and pats Fan Dingxiang on the cheek. “Good,” she says, “Good.” She settles back down, finishes off her jar of wine, and announces, “So now we just have to figure out how.

“I forbid every single one of you from trying to matchmake this,” Fan Dingxiang says immediately. “If any of you try to interfere, I will throw you in the lake, and I will not apologize for it.”

Hu Yueque glares at her but eventually nods. “Okay, yeah, that’s fair,” she agrees, “but we’re all here to encourage you to follow your dreams.”

“Follow them straight under those fancy purple robes,” Hu Xinling says, with feeling, and dodges the pillow Jiang Fengli launches at him in response. Fan Dingxiang buries her head in her hands and laughs to herself, laughs at her friends, laughs at this entire, ridiculous situation.

“Thanks,” she says to the room at large, peeking up through her fingers at the squabbling that has now expanded to involve Zhang Luan and Ma Xueliang. “It’s nice to know I have such a competent and mature team standing behind me.”

“You’d hate it if we were actually mature and dignified,” Hu Yueque says, flopping forward to pull Fan Dingxiang into a hug.

“I would,” Fan Dingxiang agrees, and promptly takes a pillow to the face.

---

For someone having a pretty significant ongoing emotional crisis, Jiang Cheng thinks he’s actually handling things pretty well. It’s almost lunchtime, and he hasn’t yelled at anyone who didn’t deserve it, and the one guy he did yell at absolutely deserved it for elbowing aside an eldery petitioner in his haste to have his absolutely pointless complaint heard. (It did not get heard, because Jiang Cheng had him thrown out of the compound with the instructions to come back in a week with an essay about the importance of showing respect to one’s elders and an apology. The petitioner was there on behalf of her bedridden husband, with a request for a cultivator doctor to come out for an examination, which Jiang Cheng granted. Honestly? Pretty good morning all around.)

He’s pretty sure no one can tell he got back to his rooms the night before, jerked himself off to the most powerful org*sm of his entire f*cking life while his robes still smelled like Fan Zhu’er’s herbal muscle salve, and then stared at the ceiling in panic until dawn. He may not have slept, but he definitely thought about things, a lot, in detail, and not all of his thoughts were horny. (Some of his thoughts were definitely horny, but he’s coming to the reluctant and frustrating conclusion that there’s not a lot he can do about that.) All that thinking allowed him to come to some conclusions after the first shichen of self-flagellation, after he finally ran out of ways to berate himself for being the literal worst person currently alive and turned, instead, in more productive directions. Said conclusions are still open to revision pending the gathering of more specific information, but he’s fairly sure of where they currently stand.

First off, no matter how Jiang Cheng wants to try and twist it, Fan Zhu’er kissed him. He didn’t order her to, or tell her to, or even ask her to. He was maybe sort of daring her to do it with his behavior, but at no point did he speak the actual words, “Hey, Fan Zhu’er, you should kiss me.” He never even said the word “kiss” out loud. It had been a surprise when she’d kissed him, one that shocked him down to his toes, and maybe in retrospect he’d really wanted her to do it but he wasn’t the one that initiated. (He also wasn’t the first one to put a tongue into someone else’s mouth, though he tries not to think about that aspect too much because if he does then he ends up back in his horny thoughts, which are unhelpful.)

So, conclusion: Fan Zhu’er was the kisser. Jiang Cheng was the kissee. Jiang Cheng, being pinned against a pillar at the time, was not the one who made kissing happen. The kiss cannot be laid at his feet. It wasn’t his fault. (He wonders if maybe there might not actually be a person at fault? But that seems incredibly fake, and therefore isn’t one of his conclusions.)

Secondly, following close on the heels of the first conclusion: Fan Zhu’er kissed him more than once. He may not know a lot about kissing, but he’s pretty sure that’s generally a good sign. He certainly hadn’t wanted to kiss Nie Huaisang a second time after their teenage experiment/dare, and he’d very much like it if Fan Zhu’er kissed him some more, possibly right now. He can’t help but remember the tongue thing, and the way she got her hands in his hair. Jiang Cheng hadn’t asked for or expected any of that. She’d just… done it. Competently. Thoroughly. Powerfully.

(There’s a whole separate set of conclusions that Jiang Cheng is still working on, based around how much he’d liked being pinned to a pillar and held in place, and, well… Some of the things he’s seen in spring books are making a lot more sense now. That line of thinking is just as unproductive as thinking about the tongue thing too much, so he’s trying to keep it set aside so he can ponder it in more detail in private. He’s having mixed results with this, but he is trying.)

Third, as previously stated, he’d like Fan Zhu’er to do more kissing to him. He’d also like for her to do more than kissing, like, below-the-waist stuff. He’s always looked at the things depicted in spring books the way he looked at any neutral-to-unpleasant chore; something to be done when necessary, without complaint, but not like something he’d actually enjoy. (Most of them, anyway. Nie Huaisang had lent him one back in the day that he’d described as, “Pretty tame, maybe a little boring,” that involved a man and a woman doing a lot of cuddling and hair-combing, and that definitely seemed appealing up to the sex part. Even the sex part hadn’t been as bad, because they really seemed like they liked each other. He remembers reading that book and hoping wistfully that maybe he’d get lucky enough to do that with someone he liked, not someone he detested who was picked out for him to further an alliance… And then Lotus Pier burned, and he had different priorities.) Jiang Cheng has never actually wanted to do below-the-waist stuff with anyone before, but he thinks it would be good with Fan Zhu’er. She definitely knows what she’s doing, and he’s always liked learning new skills, especially when he’s not being compared against his brother, which is such a horrible thought that Jiang Cheng goes fully, furiously blank behind the eyes while he drinks his soup, the inside of his head nothing but high-pitched buzzing.

Anyway.

So. Fan Zhu’er kissed him, presumably because she wanted to. He wants to kiss her some more. He wants to do more than kissing, and he likes her, and he respects her, and he wants her around his sect for the foreseeable future so she can read his correspondence and give him those smart, sarcastic suggestions, and then maybe pin him to the table and do that thing with her tongue again.

Jiang Cheng realizes he’s been staring into the middle distance long enough for the spoonful of broth he has poised halfway to his mouth to go cold, and he returns to his soup with the back of his neck burning as hot as the brazier. Thank the heavens he’s eating alone.

Right, the point is, Jiang Cheng knows the word for what it means when you want someone to be by your side and work to run a sect with you and then (if you’re lucky) also kiss them and have sex with them, and if you’re a good, responsible, honorable, upright male sect leader (that is: not Jin f*cking Guangshan) the word is wife.

Wife.

It’s kinda burning in his brain, the idea of it, the weight. Jiang Cheng dismissed the idea of ever having a wife… Well, he’s not actually sure when he dismissed it, but dismissed it’s been. The idea of marriage has always seemed like another chore, and he just didn’t want to deal with it when there’s always been something more important to deal with.

“Oh, A’Cheng,” he remembers Yanli saying, her hand a soft weight on his head. “Maybe you just haven’t found the right person.” At the time he accepted the comfort that was being offered and privately thought she was full of it, that there was no way he’d meet someone and then finally see the point of everything he’d been told he should want. Joke’s on him. He has found the right person, and it turns out she’s a f*cking pig farmer.

That fact, unfortunately, is where the word “wife” hits the ground with an unpleasant splat like a rotten melon. Fan Zhu’er is a kind of cultivator now, and a very good one, but she’s a pig farmer, born of pig farmers, and when Jiang Cheng thinks about marrying her, his skull buzzes with a low panic. It’s not--it’s not her, that’s not the problem, it’s him. He’s a sect leader. He’s gentry. He moves in gentry circles and deals with gentry politics and has always assumed, if he ever did get married, it would to a member of the gentry. He thought he’d be getting married to someone who knew the gentry rules, and how to follow them, and how to move through life with the careful politicking that comes with everyone in the room always half-looking for an excuse to destroy everyone else in the room. Fan Zhu’er is not that person, which is definitely one of the things he likes about her, but if he marries her he’d be throwing her to the f*cking wolves, and what kind of husband would that make him?

(Jiang Cheng wonders, for a moment, if there are actually any good husbands among the gentry, because it certainly seems like the numbers add up in the “all husbands are sh*tty” direction. After some furious thought, he decides that Ouyang-furen always seems fairly pleased and content on the rare occasions that he sees her, and the ridiculous brood of Ouyang children show fondness for and no fear of their father, so he has to begrudgingly assign Ouyang-zongzhu to the nearly blank “Good Husbands” list he’s currently tracking. His thoughts wander over to his brother and how much healthier he looks now that he’s actually staying with Hanguang-jun long-term and then bounce off like a stone thrown against a wall. No, no, gross, he is not pondering Lan Wangji’s husbandliness, and in addition no one poured tea for him or bowed in his presence. Lan f*cking Wangji isn’t a husband; he doesn’t get a place on the list.)

Jiang Cheng is acutely aware that even if he doesn’t see Fan Zhu’er’s background as a detriment to her marriageability (in his eyes it’s an asset, quite frankly), the rest of the cultivation world won’t agree. Look at Jin Guangyao, son of a sect leader, or poor tormented Mo Xuanyu, see previous statement about parentage. Yes, Jin Guangyao turned out to be a pretty f*cking terrible person who did some pretty f*cking terrible things, but even when he was just Meng Yao people treated him like garbage, like his mother was the one tainting the bloodline when Jin Guangshan was the person with the power and prestige. Maybe, Jiang Cheng thinks, just f*cking maybe if the world hadn’t treated Meng Yao like he was worse than dog sh*t because his f*cking father refused to acknowledge him or take on his mother as a concubine or take any f*cking responsibility for his wandering dick, maybe Meng Yao wouldn’t have ended up marrying his own sister and murdering his son and all the rest of that rotten miserable mess? f*cking maybe?

(Sometimes, when Jiang Cheng is dropping off to sleep, he remembers what he called Jin Guangyao when they were in Guanyin Temple and he startles back awake with a full-body regret-cringe. It was the most hurtful thing he could think to say, and he was desperate to distract the man and throw him off his stride so hopefully most of them could get out of there alive, but that’s not an excuse to be sh*tty about poor dead Meng Shi. His sister would be so ashamed of him.)

It would be cruel to expose Fan Zhu’er to that level of scorn and disdain. It would be selfish in the worst way to pursue his own desires at the expense of her safety and happiness. What would it make him if he asked her to put her reputation at the mercy of the sects? To paint a target on her back just so he could have her by his side? Would that make him a good husband? Would that make him a good person?

Also, Jiang Cheng reminds himself viciously, thinking about marriage is putting the cart so far before the horse he might as well just carry whatever he needed the cart for. Sure, Fan Zhu’er kissed him, but he’s (acutely, painfully) aware of the fact that she’s kissed other people, and had lovers, and obviously not married any of them. Maybe she doesn’t want to get married? She’s confident and independent and self-reliant. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that she’s sworn off marriage, the way he knows some Nie and Lan women will when they reach a certain level of cultivation. Obviously anyone who didn’t want to marry Fan Zhu’er isn’t worth thinking about. Anyone would want to marry her, so she must be unmarried by her own choice. It doesn’t make sense otherwise.

Jiang Cheng finishes eating lunch and stacks his dishes morosely, staring at his chopsticks without seeing them. He just... Thinking about this on his own has actually been more useful than he would have expected, given his familiarity with the inside of his own head, but he wishes he had someone to talk to. Someone who could give him advice. Someone he trusted. Someone uninvolved in the specific situation, but who would understand his reservations and help him figure out the best path forward. Someone who wouldn’t immediately make fun of him. Since this removes both Fan Zhu’er and Wei Wuxian (ugh) from the running, Jiang Cheng is stuck in the mulling stage, thinking himself in circles with no end in sight.

After lunch he runs sword forms with the mid-teenage disciples, which mostly keeps him from continuing his overthinking agenda. It’s while he’s adjusting the form of a reedy boy who hasn’t quite grown into his elbows that it happens--a glimpse from the corner of his eye of large, dark eyes, a serious mouth, a particular way the hair is twisted. His heart jumps into his throat for a breath until he turns and the face resolves itself into one of the female disciples, scowling as she lunges. They don’t look anything alike, not really. For one thing, his disciple is at least a handspan taller, but… It’s an option, isn’t it?

Jiang Cheng ponders on it for the rest of the day, turning it over and looking at all the edges. By the time he settles at his desk before dinner he has to admit he doesn’t have any better ideas. There’s literally no one else who fits his criteria, so if he wants to move forward, he has to try, right?

(And you could probably stand to have a real conversation about some things, says the little voice in his head that sounds like A’Jie and also like himself and maybe a little like Fan Zhu’er.)

“Attempt the impossible,” Jiang Cheng mutters to himself, and writes a letter.

---

The next week is pretty normal. Too normal, in Fan Dingxiang’s opinion. Jiang Cheng is treating her extremely normally, like a normal person, which is to say he’s avoiding her, except he’s not avoiding her, he’s just acting like she’s any old disciple and not someone he got stuck in a cave with one time and made out with another time. She’s not particularly pleased about this (especially since it seems to preclude getting to do some more makeouts in the near future) but honestly she’s surprised he hasn’t gone into a freakout-based seclusion. A bland nod of greeting while his eyes are slightly to the left of her ear is better than that, so she’ll take it.

“Okay, yeah,” Hu Yueque says, after her exercise class as Jiang Cheng stalks away without looking back. “I hadn’t noticed because it was so gradual, but now that he’s not doing it it’s obvious.”

“Could be worse,” Fan Dingxiang points out, hefting two buckets of water and starting toward the kitchen gardens.

“Oh, sure,” Hu Yueque agrees, “but it could also be better.” She follows along with two more buckets of water, groaning theatrically about the weight, as though she can’t do curls with them now even when her core is sealed.

“So,” she adds, as they’re carefully pouring their water along the irrigation troughs dug between the rows of winter vegetables and herbs, “what’s the plan from here?

“Don’t really have one,” Fan Dingxiang admits, adjusting her pour so the water doesn’t splash up onto the hems of her robes. “Just gonna wait and see for the moment, I think.”

“That’s unlike you.”

Fan Dingxiang shrugs as she pours out the next bucket. She does tend to be someone who sees what she wants and goes for it. Why wouldn’t she? Life’s too short to fiddle around and miss out on the fresh dumplings by pretending you don’t want the fresh dumplings. Eat the fresh dumplings! No one’s gonna make sure you get the fresh dumplings if you don’t make it clear you want the fresh dumplings! It’s a philosophy that’s served her well over the years, but… Well, first of all, she’s pretty sure that if she went straight for the fresh dumpling in this case, she’d give him a qi deviation. She’s also pretty sure she could successfully seduce the fresh dumpling, because the fresh dumpling is incredibly repressed and clearly dying for someone to take care of him in more ways than one. It would feel slimy, though, pursuing someone who probably doesn’t have enough experience to know how to properly say no, so she won’t. They had a whole f*cking conversation about it and everything. Those are the ethical reasons, and they’re pretty solid. There’s also a less ethical reason.

Fan Dingxiang never gets to be the fresh dumpling. She wants to be the fresh dumpling. She wants to be wanted. She wants to be chosen. If she pursues Jiang Cheng, she’ll get what she wants in the short-term, but she’ll never really know if he wanted it, too. She wants Jiang Cheng to figure himself out, to figure out what he wants, and then to choose her with a glad heart and his eyes wide open.

So.

Fan Dingxiang doesn’t have a plan, other than sitting back and doing nothing. She took the first step. He’s either going to follow, or he won’t. It’s up to him.

(Though if he could choose to follow sooner rather than later that would be great, Fan Dingxiang would like to get laid again in this lifetime.)

---

The moon is up, the air is crisp and cold, and Fan Dingxiang is running rope dart drills by the stables. It’s been precisely one week since she kissed Jiang Cheng against a pillar, and she couldn’t bring herself to not come out. Now that she’s here she’s working on her most complicated tricks, the dart spinning so fast it becomes a deadly blur and requires all her concentration. It’s necessary to keep her from fixating on whether or not Jiang Cheng is going to show up at all, and she’s working so hard that sweat prickles along her temples in spite of the chill. It’s fine if he doesn’t come, she tells herself furiously, changing the direction of the dart with her foot as she whips around to face the other direction. He’s allowed to do whatever he wants. They’ve made no promises to each other. There are no expectations to be had.

“When do I get to learn that one?”

Fan Dingxiang does not trip or stutter in her movements or do anything to betray the hot, happy wash of emotion that wells up in her throat. She finishes out the form, gathers her rope dart back up, and slings it on her harness. Only then does she turn around and say, “When you stop f*cking hitting yourself in the knee every time you try to use your leg to change directions on the sweep.”

Jiang Cheng glares at her, his arms crossed. “Maybe if you explained it better I’d be able to figure out how to do it without hitting myself.”

“Nah,” she says, face bored, inwardly glowing. “I think you just suck at it.”

“f*ck off,” he snaps, the corner of his mouth twitching up.

“Make me,” she says, cheerful, and Jiang Cheng snorts and crosses the stableyard. His cheeks are a little pink, maybe, though it’s hard to tell in the moonlight, and it could honestly just be the cold. It’s cute regardless, and Fan Dingxiang lets herself enjoy it. He looks at her actual face for the first time in a week, glances away, and then squares his shoulders. Her traitor heart starts pounding in her chest, anticipation rolling over her skin. Is she going to get to be the fresh dumpling?

“Last week,” he starts, staring intently at her left eyebrow, “I asked you about a talisman.”

Fan Dingxiang blinks at him, disappointed. Okay. Well. “Yes?” she says, trying not to let anything show on her face.

“I realize it may have slipped your mind,” he says, each word as tight as a qin string, his eyes now on her left ear like he’s trying to light it on fire, “but I was wondering if you had given it any more thought.” He’s definitely blushing, and all of Fan Dingxiang’s disappointment melts away under a relieved fondness. So he definitely hasn’t forgotten the making out, then. He’s just not going to mention it. That’s fine. He’s still talking to her and that’s the important part.

“I did a couple tests,” she admits, and he relaxes, eyes flicking to hers properly. “I don’t have it yet, but I do now have a talisman that can make small items float, which if we can upsize would be really useful for moving cargo.”

Jiang Cheng looks interested in spite of himself. “Does it just float in place, or does it move on its own?”

“It just floats in place,” she says.

“Mmmm.” He looks far away for a moment, considering. “If you could design one that moved on its own we could use it as a target for sword practice.”

“Oh, yeah,” Fan Dingxiang says, following that thought immediately. “You’d have to be careful to design it so it only moved within certain areas or distances, though. No one wants a runaway magic talisman target.”

“The kites are bad enough.” Jiang Cheng stares thoughtfully into the middle distance for a breath longer and then shakes himself, eye refocusing. “The leg talisman.”

“Needs more revision,” she says, dragging herself back on track.

“Do you think you can have it done in a week?” he asks, a little eagerly. She smothers a smile, because his excitement, like his blush, is very cute.

“Maybe,” she hedges. “What happens in a week?”

“We leave for the Cloud Recesses,” he says blandly, like this shouldn’t be news. “Do you want to work on the talisman now? My office is warmer than this.” Jiang Cheng waves a hand at the world in general.

“We?” Fan Dingxiang raises an eyebrow. “You’re bringing me to the Cloud Recesses?”

“You think I’m going to take your talisman work and then prank Wei Wuxian with it without letting you see the results?” Jiang Cheng snorts loudly. “What do you take me for?” He turns and stalks away, glancing over his shoulder when she doesn’t immediately follow. “Come on,” he snaps. “I have snacks.”

“Oh, if there’s snacks,” Fan Dingxiang says with deepest sarcasm, and grins when he snorts again. Yeah. She can work with this.

Notes:

Everyone please clap for Jiang Cheng and his emotional growth. He's been working hard on this, entirely against his will.

Chapter 16

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

“This is more stairs than Carp Tower,” Fan Zhu’ermutters, somewhere behind Jiang Cheng.

“At least it’s for a valid reason,” Ma Xueliang whispers back. “Cloud Recesses ison a mountain.”

“I wasn’t complaining,” Fan Zhu’ersays. “It was an observation.”

Jiang Cheng keeps his face sect leader neutral and continues up what is, indeed, a lot of f*cking stairs. They’re not even technically inthe Cloud Recesses yet, but the clear cold mountain waters, snowy peaks, and lush green landscape (as well as personal experience) let him know that the entrance is up one more flight of stone steps and around a corner. He thinks, privately, that the corner is there specifically so Lan cultivators can occasionally make dramatic entrances. There’s probably a rule on the wall forbidding dramatic entrances, but Jiang Cheng spent a war fighting next to Lan Wangji. The man never met an entrance he couldn’t make dramatic as f*ck.

They sweep around the corner, Jiang Cheng at the head of two lines of Yunmeng Jiang disciples, bright purple robes vivid against the swirling mist. (Satisfyingly but not overly dramatic, Jiang Cheng decides.) Ahead of them are the gates, the usual white-robed guards on either side, and just inside the wards stands a tall white figure that might as well be a statue next to a black-robed figure obviously mid-fidget.

Jiang Cheng manages to keep his eye-roll on the inside, but just barely. Some things, apparently, never change.

“Xiandu,” he says, bowing properly as they go through the formal greetings. There’s some murmuring of the kind of blessings no one reallymeans but you always say in times like this, and then Jiang Cheng bows to Wei Wuxian as informally as possible and adds, “Wei Wuxian.”

“Jiang Cheng!” Wei Wuxian is loud enough to break at least three rules at the same time, his grin wide and irrepressible. “So formal, so correct, zongzhu! Just what I would have expected!” The hesitation and caution he showed a year previous are barely there around the edges, mostly leaving him the way Jiang Cheng actuallyremembers his brother: Bright and shameless. “Come have tea!” he’s saying, already dancing backward up the steps. “You’ve come a long way, I’m sure everyone’s thirsty.”

Lan Wangji watches Wei Ying out of the corner of his eye, face soft in a way Jiang Cheng hardly ever sees, and turns to the Yunmeng contingent, head inclined. “This way,” he says to just above and behind Jiang Cheng’s shoulder, and leads them into the Cloud Recesses with measured steps. Pretentious asshole.

They settle in one of the halls, refreshments laid out on the tables in perfect grids. Tea after a journey isn’t considered a meal, so people are allowed to talk, thank god, not that the Lan cultivators in attendance are ever going to be called chatty. There’s going to be enough awkward silence here; Jiang Cheng doesn’t want to deal with more of it than he absolutely must. Technically he and Hanguang-jun will be going over official sect business in a meeting later, but this portion of the visit is considered a reception for “fostering positive intra-sect relationships” via socializing.Ugh.

“Thank you for hosting us,” he tells Lan Wangji, almost sincerely--his request didcome out of nowhere, and on short notice--and waves Ma Xueliang forward. “Please accept this gift, on behalf of Yunmeng Jiang.”

Lan Wangji might hate Jiang Cheng, but he almost never takes that out on his disciples, so he politely accepts the box and examines the canisters of keemun tea inside. “A quality blend,” he says, also almost sincerely. “Thank you for your gift.” This he says directly to Ma Xueliang, not to Jiang Cheng, which most people would consider inexcusably rude but eh. Whatever. The tea isn’t the important thing here.

“Wei-gongzi,” Fan Zhu’ersays, approaching the dias with another lacquered box. Wei Wuxian sits up from his sprawl, almost upsetting his teacup with his elbow, and blinks up at her.

“Fan-guniang!” he cries, delighted. “I was hoping you’d come! I have some ideas--” He trails off as she sets the box down and bows. “Oh,” he says, bewildered. “Is that for me?”

“It would have been improper not to bring a gift for the chief cultivator’s… Close friend,” Jiang Cheng says, through clenched teeth. Under the table, where no one can see him, he tightens his fingers in his robes and does his best to look immensely bored and a little disgusted. It’s his usual expression when in Hanguang-jun’s presence, so it’s pretty easy to find.

“Oh, well,” Wei Wuxian says, “I do hate to be improper.” He smirks in Jiang Cheng’s direction as he reaches for the cords holding the box closed, and Jiang Cheng holds his breath, come on, come on--

The instant Wei Wuxian pulls the knot loose, legs sprout from each corner of the box, smooth with lacquer like they’d been part of it the whole time. The box stands up, shakes itself like a cat waking up from a nap, and in spite of not having a face it manages to give the impression of looking at Wei Wuxian.

“What!” he says, absolutely flabbergasted. Next to him Lan Wangji startles, hand on Bichen in an immediate protective gesture, like Wei Wuxian is about to get murdered by a f*cking box.Wei Wuxian reaches for the box and it dodges his hand, leaps off the table, and gallops down the aisle.

“Hey!” Wei Wuxian yells, jumping to his feet and definitely knocking over his teacup this time. “Get back here!” He gives chase, which is exactly what the talisman is designed to react to, and as soon as he’s within grabbing distance the box starts running again like a dog with a whole roast duck in its mouth. It skids around a pillar, jumps nimbly across two tables, and jukes out of Wei Wuxian’s grasp yet again as he does his best not to step on anyone. Two Lan juniors join the chase, trying to help corner the box between them, and it dives through the legs of one in a ruffling of white cloth and shoots out the other side at top speed. It’s chaos the likes of which Cloud Recesses hasn’t seen since Wei Wuxian’s student days, most likely. Perfect.

“What is happening,” one of the Lan juniors manages to get out, the one that just had the box under his skirts.

“Wei-qianbei is happening,” the second junior says, only he doesn’t seem to be upset at all. He’s actually laughing,so hard he’s almost wheezing, and after a moment Jiang Cheng recognizes him as the Loud Lan.

“This is not my fault!” Wei Wuxian insists over the general cacophony of laughter, chasing the disobedient box around the edge of the room. He skids into a wall and then pushes off it for momentum, swiping at the box and missing. “How is this possibly my fault?”

“Whose else would be it?” the Loud Lan yells, as Wei Wuxian follows the box between the gap in a curtain, behind a shelf, across the dias behind Hanguang-jun, and finally back to the main aisle.

“Unfair!” Wei Wuxian shoots back. “Lan Zhan! Lan Jingyi is bullying me!”

“Not as much as that box is,” Lan Jingyi says, now leaning on the shoulder of a random Jiang cultivator because he’s laughing too hard to stand up.

The box in question is now running in circles that decrease in size, and Wei Wuxian, caught up in the hunt, pursues in little ridiculous circles like a child chasing a rolling plate without the sense to realize he can wait for it to come to him. The box pauses, shivers again, and then the legs neatly fold back up as it plops back to the ground, inert.

Wei Wuxian bodily jumps on it. “Thought you could get away from me, huh?” he tells the box, panting for breath. “Another enemy falls to the terrifying Yiling Patriarch!”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, longsuffering. “Please.”

“I didn’t see youhelping,” Wei Wuxian says, then sticks his tongue out at Hanguang-jun, the Second Jade of Lan, acting sect leader and the chief cultivator. From the look on Lan Wangji’sface, this is not the first time Wei Wuxian has done something this childish in formal company, and for some reason that’s finally what does it.

Jiang Cheng barks a laugh, loud enough to startle the room into something like silence. His brother stares at him, disheveled and wide-eyed, and Jiang Cheng’s composure dissolves like rice paper in water.

“That was perfect,” he gets out between giggles.

Comprehension dawns on Wei Wuxian’s features, and he utterly fails to hide his delight under a scowl. “You!” he accuses, pointing a finger, and that’s when Fan Zhu’erstarts laughing, too.

“Oh my god, you should have seen the look on your face!” Jiang Cheng wheezes. His face hurts. He’s crying ugly, ridiculous tears. He hasn’t felt like this since probably before Lotus Pier burned, and he can’t stop laughing.

“Jiang-zongzhu,” Lan Wangji says, icy, and Wei Wuxian waves him off, also nearly incoherent with high, squeaky giggles.

“I told you,” his brother manages, “I told you about the prank war!”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji acknowledges, still glaring at Jiang Cheng, which only serves to set him off cackling again.

“This was so good, Jiang Cheng!” Wei Wuxian announces, curled up and clutching his stomach. “Oh, ow, it hurts, I can’t breathe.” He takes a few steadying inhales, wiping at his eyes. “Did you come up with it?”

Jiang Cheng is wracked with silent, shaking laughs, now, and can’t even make sounds. He points at Fan Zhu’er, who has half-collapsed to brace herself with her hands on her knees. “Fan-guniang!” Wei Wuxian whines. “Youdid this? I thought we were friends! How could you betray me?”

“Ah,” she says, mostly to the floor, “This one apologizes, Wei-gongzi, but when my sect leader asks for my help, what can I do but obey?” She wipes her red face on her sleeve and offers him a bow. Jiang Cheng pounds his fist on the table, a wicked cramp in his side.

“Quite right, quite right,” Wei Wuxian says, finally levering himself off the floor with the box in his arms. “You can apologize to me later by showing me the actual talisman.”

“Can we come too, Wei-qianbei?” Lan Jingyi asks, perking up like a kitten offered a string to play with. Several other Lan juniors perk up, much more subtly.

“We can discuss extracurricular lessons later,” Hanguang-jun tells them, not unkindly. The kids nod, wilting a little, and a couple of them start tidying the room. Jiang Cheng wipes his face and takes deep, calming breaths, searching for his composure as Fan Zhu’ersweeps back to her seat somewhere behind him.

“Is there an actual present in this?” Wei Wuxian asks as he settles at the table again, “or was getting to chase a box around my present?” His face is still red-flushed, and there are tear tracks on his cheeks from cry-laughing. His ponytail is crooked, his robes are a mess, and Jiang Cheng thinks he may have never seen him look this happy since he came back from the dead

“Of course there’s a f*cking present,” Jiang Cheng snaps, recovered enough to speak normally again as long as he doesn’t make direct eye contact with anyone who’s still laughing. “What, you think the Jiang sect is a bunch of misers?”

“Ahhh, I never said that,” Wei Wuxian complains. “I would have been happy with just getting to chase a box! Jiang Cheng, you’re so…” He trails off with the lid in his hands, staring at the contents of the gift box, which were carefully chosen and packed at Jiang Cheng’s orders, and then plastered with so many of Fan Zhu’er’s talismans he’s pretty sure the thing could have been kicked down a mountain and still survived intact. “What,” he starts, swallows, and looks up at Jiang Cheng. “Is this--”

Jiang Cheng takes a sip of tea, pretending like it goes down easy and not like it might as well be made of gravel. “It’s not the same,” he says, to the calligraphy behind Wei Wuxian’s head. “One of the cooks knows how to make it, and I figured since no one herewas going to ever do it justice…” He trails off, because Wei Ying has lifted the lid on the tureen inside the box and has both hands clasped over his mouth, eyes glittering.

“Oh,” he says, very quietly. “Oh.” He blinks hard, visibly steels himself, and swallows as he looks up at Jiang Cheng again. “How is it still this fresh?” he asks, in what is an immensely obvious change of topic but he also looks like he might burst into tears, so Jiang Cheng will allow it.

“Talismans,” he says, succinctly, because for some reason his throat is tight and he hates it. “Fan Zhu’ercan show you later,” he adds.

“It’ll stay edible for at least three more days,” she says from behind him, “but it’ll be best today, so don’t get sentimental and make it a keepsake.”

“Do I look sentimental?” Wei Wuxian asks, who’s about to cry about a pot of pork rib and lotus soup, like some kind of whiny soup baby.

“Yes,” Fan Zhu’ersays brightly. “Now either put the lid back on or eat it now or you’re gonna let it dry out.”

“Yes, snack-shifu,” Wei Wuxian says, obediently replacing the lid. He politely bows over the box to Jiang Cheng, obviously still struggling to get his emotions under control, and adds, “Thank you for the gift, Jiang-zongzhu. It was very generous.”

“It was soup,” Jiang Cheng scoffs, politely not mentioning Wei Wuxian’s feelings journey. “Don’t get excited.”

“Too late!” his brother chirps, flashing a quick grin at him, and Jiang Cheng snorts loudly and takes a sip of tea so no one can tell he also went on a feelings journey.

The rest of the reception passes without real incident--Lan Jingyi finds an excuse to sit next to Fan Zhu’erand ask her eight million questions about talismans, so Jiang Cheng is pretty sure there’s going to be a rash of legged boxes, crates, baskets, and bowls plaguing the Cloud Recesses for months after they leave. Good. They could stand a little mischief. (Oh, ugh, he sounds like his brother.Gross.) Lan Wangji isn’t much of one for small talk, or large talk, or any talk, really, so as soon as he’s done with his first pot of tea he waves off the offer of a second one and dismisses the room. That’s fine with Jiang Cheng. He came here for a specific reason and he’d like to handle it as soon as possible. He bows to the dais and stands, heading for the door and the promise of sweet freedom, and almostgets there.

“Jiang Cheng!” Wei Wuxian catches up to him just inside the doorway, tugging at his trailing sleeve once and dropping it just as quickly. Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow at him, arms crossed, and Wei Wuxian hides his hands behind his back and sways up onto his toes. Is he nervous? The f*ck?

“There’s a problem with the soup,” Wei Wuxian blurts. Jiang Cheng raises the other eyebrow and glances back into the room at the perfectly intact serving container. He returns his gaze to Wei Wuxian in flat question. “There’s too much of it!” Wei Wuxian insists. “It’s best tonight, right? There’s way too much for me and Lan Zhan and Lan Sizhui to all finish together. I can’t create a diplomatic incident between the Lan and the Jiang by wasting my soup gift the first time you come to visit after I moved in just because you didn’t correctly estimate the amount of soup to bring me.” He bows, and it almost seems sincere. “I demand that Jiang-zongzhu take responsibility for the extra soup by joining us for dinner in the Jingshi tonight and eating it himself!”

Jiang Cheng’s face wants to go on a feelings journey, and he reinsit in with a scowl. “Is your glowing shadow going to be okay with that?” he asks, jerking his head to the front of the hall, where Hanguang-jun stares serenely into the middle distance like the smug asshole he is.

“Yes,” Wei Wuxian says, rolling his eyes in a move so familiar it punches Jiang Cheng right below the sternum. “He promised to be nice, even.”

Jiang Cheng snorts. “Fine,” he snaps. “But there had better be wine.” He pauses, considering, and adds, “And no f*cking pranks.”

Wei Wuxian raises three fingers next to his temple. “I promise there willbe wine and there will notbe pranks in the Jingshi,” he says solemnly.

Jiang Cheng glares at him suspiciously, but he really does seem to be sincere. “Fine,” he says, again. “I’ll come help with your soup dilemma, afterI take care of what I came here for.” He whirls around and stalks out the door, and manages to make it down the stairs onto the walkway. Freedom!

“Do you actually know where you’re going?”

Jiang Cheng takes two more determined steps and then stops, robes swirling around his ankles. f*ck. f*ck.

“Thought so.” He hears footsteps behind him, and Wei Wuxian knocks their shoulders together as he walks by. “Come on,” he says, glancing back at Jiang Cheng. “I’ll walk you.”

He’s in black, not in disciple whites, and his face is older, his eyes wiser, but for a breath they’re teenagers again, and Jiang Cheng is about to follow his brother into the Cloud Recesses back hills and try to keep him out of trouble, and it’s wrong and right and it hurtsso much for a moment that Jiang Cheng can’t get any air into his lungs. It’s nothing like it was before, but it’s happening now, it’s still them,and maybe they can try again.

“Yeah,” he says, when he can speak again. “Okay.”

Attempt the impossible.

---

The walk is nothing special, except that it’s with his brother, who chatters incessantly about anything that comes to mind in the way Jiang Cheng hasn’t heard in years and years and years, so it’s actually very special, not that Jiang Cheng will ever admit it. They go through the main compound, around the back hills, down into a terraced area that Jiang Cheng’s never actually been before. He thinks it might be near the women’s section of the compound; still inside the wards but distant enough you’d probably get lost before you ever found it on your own. Wei Wuxian leaves him here with a hesitant, too-light clap on the shoulder and is gone before Jiang Cheng can even react. He’s probably nervous about Jiang Cheng’s reaction, since the last time anything even related to this came up, it wasn’t like… great.

Whatever. That was then, and this is now.

Jiang Cheng walks down the indicated path, tucked against the wall of the terrace above. There’s bamboo above him, casting dappled shade on vegetable plots, the fields planted with broad beans and garlic and other winter crops he’s not immediately familiar with because he’s not a f*cking farmer. They transition into neatly tended herb gardens, the boundaries sketched out with smooth rocks, occasional labels carved on larger stones informing him that there are patches he absolutely should not step in unless he’d like to get very ill very quickly. It’s exactly what he’d expect, and he’s torn with the urge to either hurry up or dawdle, to get this over with or try to avoid it, and instead of doing either he keeps walking at the same measured pace. The cottage looms up in front of him, smoke rising from the chimney and a familiar medicinal scent on the air that sends his stomach lurching and brings to mind an old, unforgettable pain. Yep, this is it, all right.

The door opens before Jiang Cheng can knock, and he looks into a sharp gaze that hasn’t been trained on him like this since a lifetime before, in a dead forest on a mountain of corpses.

“Jiang-zongzhu,” Wen Qing says, solemnly.

“Wen-guniang,” Jiang Cheng says through a tight throat. He bows, low and formal, Sandu held in front of him like that would defend him against eyes that can see right through flesh and bone. “Thank you for agreeing to speak to me.”

“Of course,” she says, as though anything can possibly be guaranteed in this world. She stares at him unblinking for a moment longer before she steps back and turns, body language an invitation. “Come in.”

Jiang Cheng nods, unable to speak again just yet, and allows himself to be settled at a table. He manages to remember himself enough to pull out the small box and present it to her before she reaches for the teapot, and then, as her eyes narrow at the canisters within, finds the words to explain, “There were farmers from across the border in Liyang who used the same processing methods, and some of them were allotted land in the restructuring. I thought--it was--”

“Thank you, Jiang-zongzhu,” she says, lifting her eyes from the jars and the lapsang souchong inside, the closest thing he could find to the tea he vaguely remembers from a horrible week after everything in his life fell apart. “It was thoughtful of you.” She hefts one of the jars at him. “Would you like some?”

“If my other option is a Gusu white tea that’ll make my mouth feel like it’s never touched water, then yes. By all means.”

Wen Qing’s mouth quirks, there-and-gone, and he watches her helplessly while she rinses the pot and makes the tea. She’s not in the red he remembers her in best, or the roughspun robes of a mass grave, or the filthy rags of a prisoner, looking up from a dungeon at him long after he thought he’d never see her again. Her warm outer robe is a deep maroon, almost plum, her inner robes a soft charcoal gray, the Lan white of an undershirt peeking out at the collar. They’re clean and practical, well-made without being ostentatious; the clothes of a doctor, not of a gentry cultivator. Her cheeks have filled out, the deep bruises under her eyes have disappeared, and her hair is back to a sleek black inkfall. The last time he saw her she was gaunt and haunted, half-starved and knife-sharp under her exhaustion. Even that was a relief at the time, but it feeds something inside of him to see how much she’s recovered.

“Have you been well?” he asks, which is a silly question and he knowsit and he can’t help asking it all the same.

“I have,” she says, voice even as she pours his cup. “I split my time between here and the infirmaries.” Red-gold liquid splashes into her white porcelain teacup, smokey steam rising on the winter air. “I may eventually relocate to Caiyi to set up a practice, but…” Wen Qing sets the teapot down with a quiet clink of ceramic and considers her cup for a moment. “I’m not quite ready for that, yet.”

“Well,” he says, clumsily, “You have time.”

“Mm,” she agrees quietly, and a silence as dense and cold as a Gusu winter falls over the little cottage. Jiang Cheng takes a sip of his tea, too-hot, smoke in his nostrils and tannins on his tongue. What is he doing? What is he doing?

“I know about my core,” he blurts, knocking the silence off the shelf to shatter on the floor. Wen Qing, who was very clearly about to speak, shuts her mouth and regards him coolly. “I know what you did. You and Wei Wuxian.”

Wen Qing stares at him, face blank, eyes piercing. “I know,” she says after a moment. “A’Ning told me he told you.”

Jiang Cheng winces. He had said a lot of pretty horrible things to Wen Qionglin that night, and while he felt justified about it at the time, he’s had almost a year to remember them right when he’s about to fall asleep and jolt awake, heart pounding. He nods stiffly and drinks more of his tea, trying to assemble a sentence.

“I’m not sorry,” Wen Qing says, before he can get there. He’s pinned under her gaze, cut open like she’s about to reach her hands inside him, bloody up to her elbows. “I wish a lot of things hadn’t happened like they had, Jiang Wanyin, but I’m not sorry I did it. I’m not sorry you’re alive.”

There have honestly been days where Jiang Cheng didn’t feel the same, but her words burn in his meridians, the banked coals of his core pushing qi through his body, bright and bubbling. He nods, still stiff, tension in his shoulders all the way down to his tailbone. His qi is there, ready and waiting, and Jiang Cheng breathes deeply and lets it circulate, lets it warm the muscles in his back and soothe away some of the tightness.

“I’m not--I’m not pleased,” he says, refilling their cups, “but I understand. Or I think I do.” Wen Qing nods, and Jiang Cheng sets the teapot down, re-focusing. “That’s not what I came here to ask you about,” he says, for clarification. “I just thought it would be less awkward if I got the whole--” he waves a hand at his abdomen “--out in the open.” A beat. “Not literally.”

Wen Qing blinks at him and her mouth quirks again. “You thought that would be lessawkward?”

Jiang Cheng avoids her gaze, eyes on his teacup. “I succeeded in making it differentlyawkward,” he points out, his lips forming themselves around Fan Zhu’er’s words. It’s strangely intimate, for all that she’s not present, and Jiang Cheng feels the back of his neck heat up.

Wen Qing gives this ridiculous statement much more consideration than it probably deserves and finally nods. “I suppose you did,” she allows. She sips her tea, at ease in her space with its dark wood floors and pale walls, not at all like her home in Qishan but unmistakably hers. He can see bundles of dried herbs hanging from racks on the wall behind her, a chest with at least fifty tiny drawers next to the door that probably leads to the kitchen. There’s a sprig of plum blossoms in a vase on a side table, a little flash of the outdoors to brighten the deep winter. “Well, Jiang-zongzhu,” she says, folding her hands in her lap. “What business brings you to my home?”

f*ck. f*ck.He’s gonna have to actually talkabout it. “Jiang Wanyin,” he says, pulse racing in his veins. “Please. I’m not here as a sect leader.”

Wen Qing’s knowing gaze rakes over him once, twice, and then her face softens and she nods. “Jiang Wanyin.”

Jiang Cheng tries to breathe. This is what he wanted. This was his plan.He f*cking flew here in winterspecifically for this, and he forces his body to obey him enough to say, “I wanted to ask you about marriage.”

Wen Qing’s face does a thing he’s never seen it do before, and he realizes the mistake of his words as soon as they’re out of his mouth. “No!” he blurts, waving his hands like he could catch them and stuff them back down his throat. “Not like that! Not to you.I don’t want to marry you--I mean, not anymore--I mean, not that you’re not very marriageable, what with how you’re smart and pretty and a good doctor and…” His teeth click shut as he reinsin his runaway horse babbling. “I wanted,” he says after a breath, very precisely, “to ask your advice about a potential marriage. For me. To someone else.”

Wen Qing’s eyebrows, which went so high during his monologue they almost touched her hairline, slowly drop back down. Tension pours out of her like water through a basket, and she rubs her forehead with one hand, half-hiding a smile. “Oh, thank heavens,” she says. “For a bit there I really thought I was going to have to turn you down politely when what I really wanted to do is shake your shoulders and ask what the hell you were thinking.”

“That was not a great start,” Jiang Cheng agrees, the embarrassment transforming into a kind of rueful amusem*nt. This is actually going better than he’d feared, even with such a spectacularmisstep, and he’s spent so f*cking longnot saying things he should have said when he had the chance, and even longer saying things he never should have said out of anger, and he’s sick and f*cking tired of both. “I think we could have been good together,” he announces, like digging out a thorn. “I think we could have been good together back then, but I also think that ship has not only sailed, but it caught fire and then sunk in a storm.”

Wen Qing looks at him for a bit, thoughtful, her mouth pursed and her eyes soft. “You might be right,” she says, finally. “We’ll never know.”

“We won’t,” Jiang Cheng agrees, and they sip their tea in silence as they let that settle around them, silt sinking to the river bottom to leave clear water above. There’s a pressure under his lungs, and it takes him a moment to identify it as something else that needs to be said, something he’s carried like a stone in his gut for over a decade. It’s awful. It’s feelings,and apparently he’s going to keep talking about them? Oh, he hates this, he hates it.Fan Zhu’erhas been a horrible influence.

“I’m sorry,” he says, the words dry on his tongue like overbrewed Gusu tea. “I’m sorry I couldn’t do more back then. For you. And your family.” Another inhale, and the smokey tea burns in his lungs like the dry air of Nightless City. “I’ve thought about it. Since. And there was never--I still don’t know how to fixit.”

“You couldn’t have,” Wen Qing says steadily. It startles him into making eye contact, and he sees his own miserable regret reflected back at him, banked with anger and tired acceptance. “Even if you’d thrown the entire weight of Yunmeng Jiang behind us, it wouldn’t have been enough,” she says, with the weight of countless sleepless nights of calculation behind the words. “You’d have just died along with us.”

Jiang Cheng lets out a breath the way he would a mouthful of bad blood, dizzy and defeated. “Still,” he says. “I should have tried.”

“Maybe,” Wen Qing says, with a tilt of her head. “You can’t know. None of us can.” She holds her hands cupped in front of her, as though offering him two choice pieces of fruit. “Wish in one hand and spit in the other and see which one fills up first, Jiang Wanyin. It’s not useful.”

Jiang Cheng snorts at the crudeness, a startled jolt of amusem*nt cutting through the pain. “Spit in the other?” he asks. “What are you, a farmer?”

“I was, once,” she says easily, returning her hands to her lap. “I can grow a mean radish.” Her brows crease in memory as she adds, “Sometimes literally. We had one crop come up extremely haunted.”

“Did you eat them?” Jiang Cheng asks, knowing in his heart-of-hearts what the answer is.

“Of course,” Wen Qing says, because of course. “They tasted fine.” Her mouth goes soft, a fond memory creeping across her face. “Wei Wuxian informed me that haunted potatoes would have tasted much better than haunted radishes.”

“Of course he would,” Jiang Cheng grumbles, pinching the bridges of his nose. His ridiculous f*cking brother.

“You didn’t come here to talk about the potential flavor differences of haunted vegetables, though,” Wen Qing says briskly, brushing the past behind them as though pushing away cobwebs. “You came to me to ask marriage advice, which, if you’ll forgive my saying so, Jiang Wanyin, seems like a very dire situation indeed.”

“I needed someone who wouldn’t make fun of me or gossip,” he confesses, not quite able to make eye contact. “The list was limited.”

Wen Qing makes a thinking noise. “I see.” She refills their cups, and Jiang Cheng manages to look her in the face again, relieved to find her expression mostly neutral. “What would you have done if I’d died in that dungeon?”

“Suffer,” he says, succinctly, and when Wen Qing cracks a smile relief rolls across him like a river current.

“Well, I didn’t die,” she says, over her teacup. “Tell me about it.”

Jiang Cheng does. It takes a while--they go through another pot of the lapsang souchong, and then they pause while Wen Qing goes to get something for them to eat, and then once they’re no longer hungry he goes right back to talking. He’s making an absolute mess of it--he keeps having to backtrack so he can add context to an earlier part of the story, and he definitelyspends way longer babbling about how good Fan Zhu’er fights than he intends to. It’s even moreembarrassing when he spends two full teacups telling Wen Qing about Fan Zhu’er’s exercise class, in detail.Wow, he is useless,he has it bad,how did he ever think he didn’t like Fan Zhu’er?

Wen Qing listens with the patience of a saint, even while he stammers through a very editedexplanation of his new understanding of the confusing world of physical attraction, and then an even more edited version of the kissing. He’s pretty sure he’s mentioned Fan Zhu’er’s shoulders at least thirteen times when he finally gets around to explaining his concerns, like, for example, how every sect leader is going to hate Fan Zhu’erand make her life hell. (He doesn’t mention his other, even more humiliating reservation, which is that maybe Fan Zhu’erwouldn’t even wantto marry him. That’s not a problem coming from an outside source, so he’s not something he wants advice about, or to look at under the cold light of day.)

“I don’t know what to do,” he finishes, when the long ramble comes to a stop, rattling to the ground like a rolling wheel that’s lost its momentum. “I don’t have anyone I can talk to about this and I hoped--I hoped you’d be able to help.”

Wen Qing regards him thoughtfully, allowing the silence to build up. It’s not entirely unpleasant--there’s the breeze outside, the occasional hiss-crackle of coals in the brazier, and she’s obviously considering his tale. It’s still awkward, and Jiang Cheng messes with a mandarin peel, shredding it into smaller and smaller pieces like a nervous child and not a grown-ass sect leader.

“Well,” she says, crisply, when the peel is mush and his thumbnails are stained orange and smell like citrus, “it’s obvious that you should just marry her.”

Jiang Cheng knocks over his teacup. “Excuse me?”

Wen Qing rights his teacup, which was fortunately empty, and gives him an unamused look. “Marry her,” she says, and apparently he wasn’t hallucinating, the f*ck.

“Did you listen to me?” he asks, agog.

“I did,” Wen Qing says, refilling his cup with steady hands. “And I think you should marry her.”

Maybe Jiang Cheng ishallucinating. Maybe this is a qi deviation. “Did you not--did you not pay attention to the reasons why I can’t?”

“I paid attention,” Wen Qing says. She’s very calm about this, which makes one of them. “They didn’t seem particularly compelling. You should marry her.”

“I--” Jiang Cheng starts, heart thumping like a rock kicked down the side of a mountain. “I don’t--what the f*ck, Wen Qing?”

She smirks at him, above the rim of her teacup, looking far more amused by the whole situation than she has any right to be. “Calling me by my name andswearing,” she says, deadpan. “What shocking behavior, Jiang-zongzhu.”

“Sorry,” he says, reflexively, because he wasin fact raised not to swear in front of people who aren’t his close friends. (On the other hand, Wen Qing has literally been inside his abdomen, so who could possibly be a closer friend than that?) Jiang Cheng drinks his tea, trying to center himself on the flavor and heat, and gets a sentence in order before he speaks again. “I don’t understand how you can tell me to marry her like it’s simple.”

“I mean, weddings are complicated to plan, certainly,” Wen Qing says, which isn’t the point at all, and at his plaintive scowl she sighs and schools her face to seriousness. “From what you’ve told me she’s strong; intelligent; a genius with talismans; strong; hilarious; sarcastic; willing to stand up to you; strong; capable of stabbing a boar to death completely on her own; independent; strong; willing to yell at other sect leaders for their political failures at her very first discussion conference; the founder of her own cultivation path; and strong.” She raises an eyebrow. “Did I miss anything?”

“I don’t think I said strong quite that many times,” Jiang Cheng protests weakly, flushed all the way down to his neck.

“You definitely did,” Wen Qing tells him mercilessly. Oh god, he probably did. “Does the person I just described sound like someone who cares about the opinions of petty gentry cultivators?”

“Uh,” Jiang Cheng says. Well, when she puts it that way…

“Didn’t she come up with a plan to improve the lives of the common people that was supported and accepted by all four major sects and the chief cultivator?” Wen Qing goes on, relentless and pointed. “Doesn’t she have the explicit support and respect of the leaders of the four major sects, and a few of the smaller ones?”

“I--” Jiang Cheng tries, “That doesn’t mean--”

“Who, exactly, is going to have a real problem with you marrying this woman?” Wen Qing asks. Jiang Cheng opens his mouth to respond, and she cuts him off with a wave and adds, “Who is going to have a problem whose opinion actually matters?

Jiang Cheng’s teeth click together as he shuts his mouth. Who wouldhave a problem with it? Ouyang-zongzhu and Yao-zongzhu? What are they going to do, lecture him? They already try to lecture him about everything, why the f*ck would he care if they lecture him about his marriage? Random cultivators? Disciples (usually) follow where their sect leader goes, and if their sect leaders respect Fan Zhu’er, they’ll at least pretend to do the same. His parents?They’re dead.His father would probably just be relieved Jiang Cheng even wants to get married, assuming he paid attention. His mother wouldn’t be happy, but she was never happy about anything, and he thinks she’d probably at least respect Fan Zhu’er’s fighting abilities. Yanli would be delighted, and it aches for a moment, knowing that he got to see her wedding but she’ll never see his.

Wait. Wait.When did he start thinking of his wedding as a given thing? He looks up at Wen Qing, wildly, and she nods in satisfaction. “There it is,” she says, pleased. “You should marry her.”

“What if she doesn’t want to?” he blurts, which he definitely hadn’t meant to say out loud but he’s so used to telling himself he can’t have things that apparently he has to tell other people exactly why he can’t have them.

“That would suck,” Wen Qing allows, “but you’d have an answer and could stop wondering. Also, that’s definitely a question for her and not me.”

“True,” Jiang Cheng admits. “I already have your answer.”

Wen Qing snorts into her tea, and Jiang Cheng peels another mandarin so his hands can move, giving his brain a moment to process everything. “Isn’t it selfish?” he asks, when there’s a smooth, unbroken strip of peel on the table and the sweet flesh cupped in his palms. “There’s no treaty, or diplomacy, or anything that’s going to help my sect. I’m throwing away any chance of forging a marriage alliance. Isn’t it selfish to want it?”

“Maybe, but that doesn’t make it the wrong decision.” Jiang Cheng looks up at her sharply, and Wen Qing shrugs at him. “You’ve spent a long time putting your sect before your own wants and needs,” she says, blunt as a hammer. “How’s that worked out for you?” With a bustling compound surrounding the cold lodestone of his loneliness, Jiang Cheng will absolutely never admit out loud. She sees something of it in his face, though, and adds, more gently, “Maybe you can try putting your happiness first for a little while and see what happens.”

Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes at her. “That sounds fake.”

Wen Qing rolls her eyes impressively. “I didn’t say you had to do it forever. I just said you should try.

“If I do and my sect somehow ends up burned to the ground again, I’m going to haunt you long enough to say I told you so,” he warns her, and Wen Qing snorts again.

“You had a soul-calming ceremony. You couldn’t haunt a barn.”

“I would come back justfor this,” Jiang Cheng insists. “I would find a way.”

“I’m sure you would,” she says, exasperated, and steals the peeled mandarin from him so she can pop a segment in her mouth. “Did you need anything else, Jiang Wanyin?” she asks, peeling off a bit of the white pith before she separates the next bit, “Or did I manage to cover your concerns?”

Jiang Cheng glares at the stolen mandarin for a moment, mourning its loss, before he raises his hands and bows across the table. “Thank you for your consul, Wen-guniang,” he says, and means it. “It was very helpful.”

“I’m glad,” she says, and she sounds sincere. “I’d like to meet her, actually,” she continues, as she starts stacking their empty dishes. “I have some questions about how she’s made cultivator medicine work without a core.”

“I can arrange that,” Jiang Cheng says, sweeping the shredded mandarin peels into his hand and then onto a plate, a little shame-facedly. “You have to promise not to tell her anything I said today, though.”

“Of course,” she says, like it should be obvious. Then again, considering he had no idea what happened to his core, he shouldn’t be surprised at Wen Qing’s ability to keep secrets. “Thank you for trusting me with this,” she adds, softly. “I wouldn’t have expected it, but I’m glad you came to me.”

Jiang Cheng nods, his face hot. “Here,” he blurts, reaching into his sleeve and pulling out a little wrapped package. He shoves it across the table at her, not making eye contact, pretending like it hasn’t been burning a hole in his robes the whole time they’ve been talking. He watches out of the corner of his eye as she unwraps it, heart choking him where it’s pounding in his throat. The rosewood comb falls out of the last fold of fabric, and Wen Qing inhales sharply. “It’s not--I don’t mean it like that,” he says, as quickly as possible so he can get the words out and be done with it. “I bought it for you, though, so it’s yours. Do whatever you want with it--burn it, groom a horse with it, find a little Lan with terrible hair and give it to them. Whatever. It’s yours.”

Wen Qing’s fingers curl around the comb, pale against the rich stain of the wood. “You’re sure?”

“I am,” Jiang Cheng says, a nameless tension training away as though from a lanced wound. “I’ve been carrying it for a long time,” he says, too-honest. “I think I’ve been carrying it long enough.”

Her steady, solid gaze rests on him a few breaths longer, and then she nods and tucks the comb into her robes. “Thank you, Jiang Wanyin,” she says. “It’s been a long time since I received a gift from a friend.”

“It’s been a long time since I gave a gift to a friend,” Jiang Cheng admits. It’s been a long time since he hada f*cking friend, which even with everything else he’s said today is too humiliating to say out loud. He thinks Wen Qing hears the unspoken words, though, because she nods and gives him a small, knowing smile.

“Feel free to visit again,” she says. “Now please leave, I have medicine to brew and I don’t need you getting in the way.”

“I wouldn’t get in the way,” Jiang Cheng grumbles, but he allows himself to be herded out the door regardless. The winter sunlight is too-bright, the sky ice-blue above him and endless, and when he walks down the path his feet are so light and unburdened he thinks it might be possible to fly without a sword.

---

Fan Dingxiang has had a pretty great day. Pranking the hell out of Wei Wuxian was immediately followed by Lan Jingyi pulling her into an impromptu talisman discussion with a handful of other Lan juniors, all of them in their white robes and following her around like ducklings made entirely out of snow. They’re studious and mostly quiet (not Lan Jingyi, but the others), but their questions were thoughtful and completely different from the questions she gets from her students in Yunmeng, which made it a good teaching exercise all around. ThenLan Jingyi asked if she’d show them “The cool stuff with your rope dart!” which turned into a sparring session out on the practice grounds that slowly accumulated a larger and larger audience as people showed up to see what the hell was happening. The sparring demonstration devolved into Fan Dingxiang throwing any Lan who asked as far across the field as she could, which is pretty f*cking far.

“This is the best day of my life,” Lan Jingyi announced to the world at large, from halfway up a tree, spitting leaves out of his mouth. Kid loved getting launched. Fan Dingxiang couldn’t blame him.

Lunch was quiet, the food plentiful if bland. Better underseasoned than over, in Fan Dingxiang’s opinion, remembering the too-complicated dishes in Lanling. It was strange to eat in near silence after the boisterous meals in Lotus Pier, but there’s a peace to it as well. Peace seems to be in large supply in the Cloud Recesses, Fan Dingxiang reflects as she wanders the back hills. Lan Jingyi had helpfully pointed out a few paths that lead on easily-navigated loops, so she’s taking the time to sightsee a little. It hasn’t snowed yet, not really, but the mountain peaks above are blanketed in white and there’s icicles at the edges of the streams. It must be beautiful when it really snows, Fan Dingxiang thinks, beautiful and cold and serene.

Hm. Nice to visit, but probably not to stay.

Of course, in the next moment, she comes around a corner and out of a stand of trees to find the most spectacular waterfall she’s ever seen in her life, white mist fluffing up around the bottom as it spills into a wide, rocky pool, and she parks herself on a conveniently flat rock just so she can sit and watch it for a while. She’s not sure if a single waterfall is really enough reason to stay somewhere for a lifetime, but she wouldn’t be surprised if it had been a significant factor in Lan An’s original decisionmaking. There are worse reasons to settle down somewhere. She shuts her eyes and listens to the pouring water and just breathes.

It’s some time later when footsteps on the path pull Fan Dingxiang out of her meditation. Her neck cracks as she turns toward the source, and when purple robes flash through the tree trunks she grins.

“Jiang Wanyin,” she calls over the rushing of the waterfall, the formality in deference to the fact that they’re not outside a stable in the dark of night. “Fancy meeting you here.”

“Yes,” he says, coming properly into view so she can see his eye-roll. “What a surprise to see someone on one of the most common paths in the back hills.”

“It’s not like I know which are the common paths,” she points out, patting the rock next to her. “This is my first time in the Cloud Recesses. I don’t have Quangu-zongzhu’s extensive experience.”

He snorts, sounding amused in spite of himself, and settles on the stone with perfect posture, close enough to touch. “What has my disciple experienced so far?” he asks, sarcastically. “It would obviously be my duty to educate her in any areas she’s missed.”

“Asking about my day, Jiang Wanyin?” Fan Dingxiang drawls, leaning over to knock her shoulder into his. “How thoughtful of you.”

“f*cking tell me or I’m leaving,” he threatens, glaring at the waterfall. She wants to keep teasing him, but alsohe is actually asking about her day, and that makes her warm like a brazier inside her ribcage. The warm feeling wins out, and Fan Dingxiang relents and recounts her morning thus far. It really hasbeen nice.

“And then I found this waterfall, and you found me,” she finishes. Their shoulders have ended up pressed together over the course of the conversation, and she’s not sure if Jiang Cheng hasn’t noticed or actually intended it. It’s nice, either way.

“Hm,” Jiang Cheng says thoughtfully. “That’s actually most of the Cloud Recesses experience. If you’d come as a guest disciple you’d also get to enjoy sitting silently in a room while Lan Qiren lectured you in an unchanging voice all day while you tried not to fall asleep.”

“Maybe I’ll see if I can sit in on a class,” she muses. “Really make the most of my time here.”

“Make sure you break a rule or two,” Jiang Cheng suggests. “Writing lines is a time-honored tradition.”

“I’ll do my best.” Fan Dingxiang leans a little harder into Jiang Cheng’s shoulder, just as an experiment, and he matches the pressure. They sit in the quiet for a bit, enjoying the waterfall and the scenery. It really is beautiful here. Fan Dingxiang is musing about making a talisman that would create the sound of a waterfall, to aid in meditation, when Jiang Cheng goes tense next to her and clears his throat. (He doesn’t pull away, though, so neither does she.)

“There is another thing,” he says to a tree across the way, “that guest disciples sometimes find a common experience at the Cloud Recesses.” It sounds like he’s forcing the words out through a boot resting on his chest, and she glances at him to find his jaw tight and his cheeks pink. Oh?

“Oh?” Fan Dingxiang asks, out loud, hoping this is going in the direction she thinks it might be.

“It’s not. Uncommon,” he manages, and he’s reallyblushing now, “for guest disciples to sneak into the back hills. For. Privacy.”

“Mmmm,” Fan Dingxiang says, sucking her teeth like she’s really giving it some thought. “And are we in the back hills right now?” She edges her hand over until her pinkie just brushes his and leaves it there so he can make the next move, if that’s what he wants. She’s going to be the fresh dumpling, dammit.

“We are,” he says, eyes so intent she’s amazed the tree he’s glaring at hasn’t burst into flames. His fingers twitch, the warm line of his pinkie pressing into hers, and then he snatches her hand in an awkward, grasping movement, like trying to catch a fish before it slips away into the current. It’s clumsy and endearing and Fan Dingxiang’s heart squeezes in a way that’s almost embarrassing. She really likes him so much.

“Do we have privacy right now?” she asks, and her voice has dropped lower, whoops. That’s definitely her sex voice, and she hadn’t meant to get it out yet but apparently it had other plans.

“Uh,” Jiang Cheng says, his hand very slightly sweaty, which is so cute it makes her want to lean over and bite his blushing cheek. “Yes. Definitely. Privacy.” His voice has gone a little squeaky, as though hewasn’t the one to start this.

“What do guest disciples usually do when they sneak off into the back hills to get privacy?” Fan Dingxiang keeps her voice as innocent as possible, which is a bit of a challenge since it’s absolutely still her sex voice. Still. She tries.

“They--” he starts, and his voice wavers sweetly and he clears his throat before he tries again. “They--uh. They usually--kiss.” The last word comes out almost a whisper, like he had to fight to get it out of his throat. Jiang Cheng glances at her, realizes she’s watching him closely, and goes even redderas he snaps his gaze away. f*ck,she’s going to eat this man alive if he’ll let her.

“I see,” she says, staying very calm so as to not give away the frisson of heat crawling up her spine. “And would you say that’s an important experience to have while visiting the Cloud Recesses?”

Jiang Cheng swallows audibly, turns his head to face her so slowly she almost expects to hear the grind of a rusty axle. “I’ve heard,” he says, to her eyebrow, “that many people look back on it fondly.” He’s still holding her hand, their shoulders pressed together, and their faces are very, very close.

“Well,” she says, not leaning away, not leaning in, steady and strong and willing him to come to her, “I’d hate to miss out.” Jiang Cheng’s eyes drop to her mouth, very obviously, and then back up to her eyes as he realizes what he’s done, red all the way across the bridge of his nose. It’s too much, he’s toocute, and Fan Dingxiang can’t resist scrunching up her nose and adding, “Do you think I should ask Ma Xueliang to do it, or should I ask--”

A Lan,” Fan Dingxiang never gets to say, because Jiang Cheng leans in and kisses her before she can get there. It’s as abrupt and clumsy as the hand-holding, his mouth too tense and the press too hard. He’s shaking a little bit, wild with nerves, holding her hand in a death-grip.

It’s quite possibly the best kiss of Fan Dingxiang’s life. Really, the main problem is that it’s too short, Jiang Cheng pulling away after barely a breath. His eyes flick between hers and her mouth a few times before he says, “Well…” Apparently that’s as far as he got, because he goes silent again. He’s still holding her hand.

Fan Dingxiang wants to do a lot of things in that moment, most of them horny, and reins herself in to instead say, “This one isn’t sure if that was a sufficiently memorable experience.” A beat later, just in case that wasn’t clear enough: “You can do better.”

“f*ck you,” Jiang Cheng snaps, and kisses her again. His lips are softer this time, his head tilted for a better angle, and Fan Dingxiang sighs through her nose as she melts into it. She lets him explore a little, sweet sweeps of his mouth over hers, careful attention paid to the top and bottom lip before he seems to get stuck on the bottom one (which is, admittedly, fuller). He brings his free hand up to cup the side of her face as though holding a butterfly, the touch hesitant, like she’s fragile.No one’s never touched her quite so gently, and it shimmers over her skin, goosebumpy and ticklish. Jiang Cheng pulls back again, his eyes warm, the usual scowl gone, and Fan Dingxiang keeps steady eye contact as she turns her head and presses a kiss to the center of his palm. Kissing in the daylight has a massive advantage over kissing in the dark, namely: Jiang Cheng’s pupils dilate, and she gets to watch it happen. f*ck.She drops her free hand to his thigh, about to bodily haul him into her lap, when they hear distant footsteps in the woods, and whistling.

Whistling that’s coming closer.

They both freeze. Fan Dingxiang doesn’t give a sh*t about her reputation, but that doesn’t make this nota compromising position to get caught in, and Jiang Cheng doeshave a reputation to protect. f*ck f*ck f*ck.

“I--” Jiang Cheng breathes, clearly about to panic, so Fan Dingxiang does what comes naturally: She takes charge.

“Get out your sword,” she whispers, shoving to her feet and suiting actions to words, though in her case she gets her boar spear out of her weapon bag. There’s a larger, flatter rock closer to the water, and she leaps for it and whips around to face him, knees bent, spear up. It clicks for him almost immediately, and he summons Sandu in a flash of purple and draws.

“Jiang Cheng!” Wei Wuxian calls, waving enthusiastically a moment later as he comes upon a totally normal sparring session that absolutely explains Jiang Cheng’s red face and Fan Dingxiang’s racing heartbeat. She takes a moment to eye Jiang Cheng over, just to be sure, and his robes are perfectly neat. She didn’t even get a chance to mess up his hair, more’s the pity. Maybe next time? If there’s a next time?

“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng acknowledges, lowering his sword and generally doing a great impression of someone who hadn’t almost been caught necking in the woods. “Did you need something?”

“Did the box run away from you again?” Fan Dingxiang asks, mostly seriously. “It should be a single-use talisman but we had less than a week for testing.”

“The box was fine,” Wei-gongzi says easily, swaying up to them in swishes of red and black robes. “Though I definitely tried to duplicate that talisman as soon as I was back in the Jingshi and only managed to make a lot of things awkwardly limp, so this one humbly asks if you can teach him how to make it tomorrow, Fan-guniang.” He bows, grinning, his face bright and hopeful.

“Of course, tudi,” she says, returning his bow and only cursing his interruption a little bit, because she doeslike him and he didn’t know she was maybe about to blow his brother’s whole mind, sexually speaking.

“Get on with it,” Jiang Cheng snaps, who might also be cursing his brother’s interruption and rather more enthusiastically. He’s still pretty red around the face.

“Jiang-zongzhu,” Wei Wuxian says, giving his brother a bow that’s exactly correct and barely sarcastic. “I came to find you.” He stands, tucking his hands behind his back, and says, a little hesitantly, “It’s almost time for dinner.”

Jiang Cheng stares at him for a long moment, his face doing something weird and soft, before he covers it with a scowl. “I forgot how early you eat in the Cloud Recesses,” he complains, sheathing his sword. “Do they have you going to bed at hai shi, too?”

“Well,” Wei-gongzi says, in a tone even Fan Dingxiang can identify as too-innocent, “sometimes I’m in bed at hai shi, but that doesn’t mean I’m sleeping.”

“You--” Jiang Cheng shouts, stalking forward three steps and swiping at Wei Wuxian’s hair. “How are you still so shameless!”

“I meant sometimes I read in bed!” Wei-gongzi protests, dodging his brother’s swipes. “What did you think I meant?!” Jiang Cheng shoves at his shoulder, and Wei-gongzi ducks under it and runs away, cackling. “You said it!” he calls as he goes, “Not me!”

“You’re horrible!” Jiang Cheng yells after him. “You’re the f*cking worst!” He stares at the retreating shape for a breath and then turns to Fan Dingxiang. “I--” he starts, and then clenches his jaw, blushing all over again. She’s going to shove him up against a tree and kiss him until he forgets how to talk.

“Go on,” she says, instead of doing that. “Go have dinner with your brother.”

Jiang Cheng nods, opens his mouth to say something, closes it again, checks over his shoulder, and darts forward to press a light peck to her cheek. “Thanks,” he whispers, and then turns on his heel and flees like he’s being chased by fierce corpses.

Alone, next to the falls, Fan Dingxiang raises her hand to her cheek and realizes (a little belatedly) that she’s in love.

Huh.

How about that.

Notes:

You know, when I tagged this "Wen Qing lives," I really thought I'd get to her a lot sooner than this.

This chapter has been converted for free using AOYeet!

Chapter 17

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng takes a deep breath, steeling himself for possibly the most awkward dinner since his mother died, and follows Wei Wuxian up the steps to the Jingshi. It’s bad enough that he’s going to be eating with Lan Wangji, he doesn’t see why they need to add the additional weirdness of intruding into Lan Wangji’shouseto the thing.

“Are we going to be able to talk?” he hisses to Wei Wuxian as they take their boots off.

“Lan Zhan won’t say much,” Wei Wuxian tells him cheerfully, dropping his black boots in a pile next to Lan Wangji’s perfectly parallel white ones, “but he’s relaxed about the rules with me.”

The idea of Hanguang-jun being relaxed about anything ever is almost enough to make Jiang Cheng laugh. What would that even look like? “I guess he’d have to be,” he says, “or all you’d do is copy the rules.”

Wei Wuxian makes a face. “Right? There are four thousand of them now, Jiang Cheng! That’s an extra thousand!”

“And whose fault is that?” Jiang Cheng snaps, because he’s seen some of those new rules and they’re verypointed. He realizes the instant it leaves his mouth that it was the wrong thing to say, because Wei Wuxian flinches bodily and, across the room, Lan Wangji and Lan Sizhui go very still.

“Some of them are my fault,” Lan Wangji says cooly, ignoring Jiang Cheng in favor of reaching out a hand to Wei Wuxian and drawing him down at his side.

“One was mine,” Lan Sizhui says, voice soft and cheerful, clearly trying to smooth over Jiang Cheng’s rough edges. “‘It is forbidden to bury other disciples in the garden.’”

This attempt at diplomacy works, because now Jiang Cheng has questions,starting with, “Why did you bury other disciples in the garden?”

“I thought it would make them grow,” Lan Sizhui says. He bows over the table and gestures to the open seat nearest the door. “Thank you for joining us, Jiang-zongzhu.” He and Lan Wangji bow in unison, Lan Sizhuia little more politelythan Lan Wangji, and Jiang Cheng settles on the indicated cushion, feeling awkward, wrong-footed, and unwelcome. He’s familiar enough with Hanguang-jun’s ward to know the kid’s name, but mostly he remembers Lan Sizhuias translating Lan Wangji’s icy silences, which doesn’t mean Jiang Cheng knows him.

“Jin Ling mentions you in his letters,” he says, because talking to a near stranger is easier than talking to his brother or his brother’s silent, glowering protector. “He would be pleased to see you the next time you travel through Lanling.”

Lan Sizhui’s smile goes a little warmer and more honest. “I would be happy to visit him,” he says, glancing across the table, “but I don’t know when I’ll be free to.”

“We can discuss your schedule tomorrow,” Lan Wangji says, in a tone that is neither encouraging or dismissive. He sounds like maybe he actually means that he and Lan Sizhui will discuss Lan Sizhui’s schedule like reasonable people, maybe even equals? When Jiang Cheng was Lan Sizhui’s age his schedule was assigned to him and he was just expected to do it, up until his parents died and he had to start creating his own schedule, so this seems exceptionally weird. He eyeballs Wei Wuxian sidelong to see if he thinks it’s weird, but Wei Wuxian just gives him a smile and a little wave. Weird.

Lan Wangji takes this opportunity to pour tea while Lan Sizhui dishes up rice and vegetables, so any further ruminations on weirdness get set aside in favor of assisting with food and beverage distribution. He gets a surprise when a cup of wine appears on his side of the table, and a further surprise when his teacup contains a nutty keemun instead of the horrible white tea he was expecting. He looks up, a little startled, to find Lan Wangji pouring a cup of wine for Wei Wuxian with the care and dignity of a crane posing at sunset. The weirdness comes back with a vengeance, but Jiang Cheng ignores the wine weirdness, because--

“You’re drinking the tea?”

Lan Wangji finishes pouring the wine, sets the bottle down, and only then turns to Jiang Cheng, eyes fixed somewhere over and behind his shoulder. “It was a gift,” he says, which… Huh. Jiang Cheng hadn’t expected him to actually useanything from Yunmeng Jiang, just out of, like, spite,and the fact that he’s not only drinking the tea but serving it at a family dinner is actually... decentof him? Apparently considering the conversation finished, Lan Wangji turns to spoon bok choy into Wei Wuxian’s bowl, to Wei Wuxian’s well-practiced, exasperated consternation.

“You see what I’m dealing with?” he says to Jiang Cheng, as Lan Sizhuiputs fried tofu skins on top of the bok choy. “It’s like this at every meal. It’s an auntie conspiracy.

“They wouldn’t need to conspire against you if you were capable of eating regularly without a babysitter,” Jiang Cheng huffs, taking the lid off the pork and lotus root soup (finally, a food with flavor) and ladling it aggressively into a bowl. He adds extra pork ribs and slams it down in front of his brother, too loudly for the quiet space, and turns to Lan Sizhui. “Do you eat meat?”

Lan Sizhuiblinks those big, dark eyes at him, amusem*nt nearly hidden at the corners of his mouth. “I do,” he says. “Thank you, Jiang-zongzhu.”

Slightly mollified by the display of politeness, Jiang Cheng fills Lan Sizhui’s bowl with more care, then turns to Lan Wangji. What he wantsto do is throw the ladle in his cold, blank face.

“Do you want pork ribs or not,” is what he says, instead. He can’t quite make it come out as a question, because his teeth are clenched too tight for that, but all the words are there.

Lan Wangji looks deliberately from Wei Ying’s overfilled soup bowl to the tureen, which contains enough for all of them to have two bowls tonight with some left over for tomorrow. “One,” he says, his voice maybe thawed to slush instead of solid ice. “I will leave the extra for Wei Ying.”

Jiang Cheng glares at him for a breath, trying to figure out if Lan Wangji means that as a slight on his own intention to have more than one pork rib, decides he’s probably overthinking it, and serves him a bowl with a couple of extra lotus roots. “Make sure he doesn’t forget about the leftovers tomorrow,” he says curtly, finally filling his own bowl and settling down. “If he starts talking to Fan Zhu’er about talismans we’ll have to drag them away from each other with oxes or something.”

“I will not allow him to forget,” Lan Wangji says, and when Jiang Cheng looks up at him he gets a serious, sincere nod. For a breath they’re across a campfire, mud and blood on their robes, the only two people in the war who ever thought Wei Wuxian was worth looking for. The sense-memory fades, leaving them sitting at a table, but the same feeling hovers around the edges of the room. They’re united, then, in making sure Wei Wuxian eats his soup, and Jiang Cheng nods back in a way that makes Lan Wangji’s stone-cold face soften in satisfaction.

Someone’sgotta make sure Wei Wuxian eats, anyway. Might as well be Hanguang-jun.

In spite of Wei Wuxian’s assurance that they won’t be eating in silence, they do just that for a bit. In fairness, it’s because they’re, you know, eating.Jiang Cheng chews on his flavorless bok choy and watches Wei Wuxian reach for nothing, eyes on Lan Wangji, and frown when his hand hits the empty table. He frowns and glances down, and in the next breath Lan Wangji has stood from the table, crossed to a shelf, and returned with a covered basket.

“There wasn’t room,” he murmurs, lifting the lid and offering it to Wei Wuxian, and the warmth of satisfaction spreads through Jiang Cheng’s stomach along with the warmth of the wine in his hand, because the basket is stuffed full of the spices he sent. It’s so satisfying he almost doesn’t mind the nauseatingly besotted look Wei Wuxian gives Lan Wangji before he rifles through the contents and emerges with the smoked peppercorn chili sauce. A good choice.

“Did you want some?” Wei Wuxian asks after his vegetables are red-brown with spice, misinterpreting Jiang Cheng’s gaze, and offers him the little ceramic jar. Jiang Cheng does want some, actually, and drizzles a much more reasonable amount in his bowl. He offers the jar to Lan Sizhui, just to be polite, and is completely unsurprised when the kid waves it off with a smile. His loss.

The food is better with the chili sauce. The company, unfortunately, is not. Jiang Cheng eats his much improved tofu in silence, brain whirling and whirling for a topic that won’t blow up in his face. He wishes Fan Zhu’er was here. She’s good at talking to people, and she doesn’t have the History with his brother and his brother’s whateverthat makes conversations a delicate balancing act, like an acrobat on a pole trying not to plummet back to the dirt. He swigs his wine and, for lack of any better ideas, blurts, “Been on any good night hunts lately?”

Wei Wuxian lights up, mouth full of pork rib, and makes a sound like he wants to start talking immediately. “No speaking while eating,” Lan Wangji reminds him gently. Jiang Cheng is reluctantly grateful--he doesn’t need to see Wei Wuxian talk with his mouth full. He’s seen that enough.

“Wei-qianbei, Wen-qianbei and I recently investigated an issue in a village near here,” Lan Sizhui says, while Wei Wuxian tries to chew faster. “There were several cases of corpse poisoning that we were able to track to the unmarked grave of a murder victim near the creek upstream, and Wei-qianbei performed Empathy on the man and found he’d been killed by someone who was still living in town.”

“It all went pretty smoothly,” Wei Wuxian says, when his mouth is empty, “except for how the murderer was messing around with demonic cultivation and tried to unleash some ghosts on us.” He makes a face. “They weren’t even goodghosts.”

“We were able to settle everything and bring the murderer to the town magistrates,” Lan Sizhui says. “And Wei-qianbei didn’t even pass out once, so it was very successful.”

Jiang Cheng shoots a furious glare at Wei Wuxian. “You’re still passing out?” he demands, and then, to Lan Wangji, “He’s still passing out and you let him go on night hunts?”

“I barelypass out anymore,” Wei Wuxian protests, as Lan Wangji looks straight through Jiang Cheng and bites out, “I will always allow Wei Ying his freedom.” Not the point, not the f*cking point at all.

“How frequently is he passing out?” Jiang Cheng asks Lan Sizhui, the only sensible person in the room. “What are the circ*mstances? Has he been seeing a healer?”

Lan Sizhuiseems taken aback by this interrogation, which is fair, probably, but Jiang Cheng doesn’t care. “Much less now,” he starts, and Wei Wuxian lunges across the table and covers his mouth.

“A’Yuan!” he wails, “Why must you betray me like this? Lan Zhan, how could you raise our son to be so unfilial?!”

“It is not unfilial for him to be concerned with your well-being,” Lan Zhan says, taking a calm sip of his tea and making Jiang Cheng agree with him for a second time within the same conversation. His brain catches on something, like an uneven paving stone underfoot, and the something assembles itself behind his eyes like expertly carved wooden joints clicking together.

“Wait,” he says, looking at Lan Sizhuimore intently; Lan Yuan;Hanguang-Jun’s ward; taken in sometime after Wei Wuxian died with no explanation; Wei Wuxian calling him ourson; the big eyes and the round cheeks and a warm body against his leg while he stares, horrified, at a mass grave with a garden in it. “Wait,” he says again, gaze skittering back to his brother. “This is him?” He whips around to Lan Wangji. “You foundhim? Was he in the Burial Mounds? Where?

Lan Sizhui freezes, his eyes wide. Lan Wangji’sface ices over, cold on the surface with an inferno underneath. Wei Wuxian’s expression transforms into something carved from stone, eyes flaring. “If you tell anyone,” Wei Wuxian says, in the voice that once threatened to count to three in Carp Tower, the Yiling Patriarch returned from the dead, “if you tell anyoneabout A’Yuan--”

“I looked for you,” Jiang Cheng blurts to Lan Sizhui, who unfreezes enough to blink. “After the--I knew you weren’t--there.With the others.” He does not offer further description. He doesn’t need to, and he’s trying not to say things he’ll regret later. “I couldn’t find you. I thought…” He turns back to Lan Wangji, whose face is no longer frozen with rage but is instead doing something Jiang Cheng’s never seen on it before. “You found him?”

Lan Wangji nods. “Just before Nightless City,” he says, barely audible.

They must have missed each other by a few shichen, at most. “I looked for you,” he says to Lan Sizhui, helplessly.

“You would have taken him in?” Wei Wuxian asks, claiming Jiang Cheng’s attention, and his eyes are wet. “You’d have made him a Jiang?”

“Of course I would have,” Jiang Cheng snaps. “I needed every warm body I could, because someonewasn’t helping me rebuild my sect.”

“No,” Wei Wuxian agrees, too-smoothly, trying to wipe his eyes without it being obvious that he’s wiping his eyes, “I was growing radishes and then dead. Makes it a bit of a challenge.”

“If you’d really put your mind to it you probably could have helped out even while you were dead,” Jiang Cheng snarks, which makes Lan Wangji make a mildly horrified face and Wei Wuxian choke on a laugh. To Lan Sizhuihe says, “If you’re his son then, first off, you have my condolences, and, secondly, you should call me jiujiu.”

Lan Sizhuistares at him in startled silence, which makes sense, because this was probably a lot for the kid to take in. “Jiang… jiujiu?” he says, after a moment, and Jiang Cheng nods, fiercely pleased.

“What’s this jiujiu business?” Wei Wuxian complains. “Shouldn’t you be his shushu?” He’s trying to look offended, but he keeps smiling and his eyes are still teary, because he remains a whiny soup baby.

Jiang Cheng gives his brother a Look.“You want me to believe that between you and Lan Wangji, you’re the dad? Please.”

“I could be the dad!” Wei Wuxian protests. “Lan Zhan! Tell Jiang Cheng that I could be the dad!”

Lan Wangji takes a neat sip of his pork and lotus root soup. “‘This is my son,’” he says, in the kind of voice that means it can only be a quote, “‘who I birthed from my own body.’” He sets down the bowl and adds, “Your words.” As he does so he shares a quick glance with Jiang Cheng, and he seems amused,what the f*ck.

“We could both be the dad,” Wei Wuxian grumbles, failing at hiding his smile. “There are dads who give birth, I’ve read about it.”

“Drink your soup,” Lan Wangji orders, and then, to Jiang Cheng, “It is good. Thank you for bringing it.”

“Yeah, well,” Jiang Cheng says, reeling from the surreality of Lan Wangji saying something nice both about and to him, “it’s not the same as it was.”

“No,” Wei Wuxian says, his gaze steady and intent and all mixed-up with emotions. “It’s not the same, but it’s still good, right?”

Jiang Cheng looks at his brother, safe and alive and healthy, a bowl of pork rib and lotus root soup in his hands, and something deep inside him unclenches for the first time in years. “Yeah,” he says, ignoring how rough his voice comes out. “It’s still good.”

---

“That could have been worse,” Jiang Cheng says. He has a bottle of Emperor’s Smile in his hand and another one already in his belly, feeling loose-limbed and warm even in the chill of the winter mountain air.

“Oh, for sure,” Wei Wuxian says, from Jiang Cheng’s left, sprawling across the roof of the Jingshi. “The first time Lan Zhan took me to a family dinner with Lan Qiren he refused to look at me the whole time and I was so nervous I dropped an entire teapot in his lap.”

Jiang Cheng winces, hissing through his teeth.

“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian says, taking a swig from his bottle and wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “Took me a while to live that one down.”

“I bet,” Jiang Cheng says, and then, “Do you like it here?” “Are you happy here?” is what he means, but that’s still too raw, would give away too much if he said it.

Wei Wuxian blinks at him, the silver light of the moon reflecting off his eyes and skin, leaving the rest of him a pool of shadow. “You know,” he says, slowly, like he’s really thinking it through, “I actually do? Like, younger me would neverbelieve it, but it’s really not so bad.” He pauses, swirling the wine in his jar absently. “There might be a thousand more rules but the whole place is actually a lot more relaxed than it was? Sometime while I was gone Zewu-jun started letting the male and female disciples train together for some skills, and the night hunts are mixed gender now, and I’ve eavesdropped on some classroom discussions about the spirit and intent of the rules versus the literal words of the rules?” He trails off again, takes another swig, and adds, “Also I have Lan Zhan and Sizhui, so yeah. I like it here.”

“Good,” Jiang Cheng says, fiercely. He, much like Wei Wuxian’s younger self, finds the whole idea weird as f*ck, but that doesn’t matter. The wine burns down his throat when he sips, and he adds, trying to be casual, “If you ever get sick of the rules and the boring food and the funeral clothes, I have some juniors who suck at archery.

Wei Wuxian almost falls off the f*cking roof. “What?” he yelps, scrambling back upright. “I--you--what?

Jiang Cheng glares up at the moon. “I assume,” he says, with massive amounts of sarcasm in a bid to cover the nervous pounding of his heart, “you remember the way to Lotus Pier? Or did you forget that, too?”

“I know how to get to Lotus Pier,” Wei Wuxian snaps reflexively. “I just--You’re inviting meto come teach your juniors? The Yiling Patriarch? Scourge of the cultivation world?”

“No,” Jiang Cheng says, rolling his eyes and using his exasperation as fuel to force out, “I’m inviting my brother,Wei Wuxian, scourge of my calm existence and the best archer Yunmeng Jiang has ever produced. Try to keep up.”

“Oh.” Wei Wuxian goes quiet, rolling his wine jar back and forth between his hands. “I, um. I think I’d like that.”

“Good,” Jiang Cheng says, satisfaction settling his stomach. “Just write me first. And let me know if your jade statue is coming, too, so I can warn the kitchen to make boring food for wimps.”

“Lan Zhan isn’t a wimp,” Wei Wuxian says loyally. “He just has a baby mouth. That’s not his fault.”

“Please never f*cking mention Lan Wangji’s mouth to me ever again.” Jiang Cheng shudders. Gross.

“Who’s the wimp now?” Wei Wuxian says, so Jiang Cheng shoves him in the shoulder, and then they immediately devolve into a slap-fight, hampered by the fact that they each only have one hand free and don’t want to spill their wine. There’s no clear winner, by the end, but Wei Wuxian laughs so hard he starts hiccupping, so Jiang Cheng settles happily into his own personal triumph.

“What did you come to--hic--talk to Wen Qing about?” Wei Wuxian asks when he can breathe again. Not even the hiccups can stop his chatter. What a shocker.

“None of your business,” Jiang Cheng snaps, his mouth moving before he can stop it, his whole body wanting to curl up to protect his soft underbelly. He regrets it as soon as it’s out of his mouth--he’s trying not to be so prickly, he’s trying not to say sh*tty things out of reflex, he’s trying.

“Maybe not,” Wei Wuxian agrees, his eyes on the moon. “But when has that--hic--ever stopped me from asking?” His voice is too-light, self-deprecating. He’s trying to make the question into a joke, like he always f*cking does when he actually wantssomething. It makes Jiang Cheng absolutely furious, and he’s about to open his mouth to yell at him about it when Wei Wuxian adds, “You’re not sick, are you?” The question comes out small, sincere, like he’s afraid of asking it and afraid of the answer. Jiang Cheng’s anger dissolves and floats away into the night. He’s f*cking trying, right?

“I’m not sick,” he says, first, though he can’t help adding, “I can’t believe you’reasking me that, I’m-Fine-No-Really-I-Swear-I’m-Fine-Oops-I’m-Actually-Dying-But-I-Won’t-Tell-You-gongzi.” Wei Wuxian makes an offended sound and hiccups in the middle of it, which is hilarious.

“Yeah, well,” Wei Wuxian says when he’s recovered. “You’re my--I was--I just wanted to make sure you weren’t dyingor something.”

“Like you’ll get rid of me that easily,” Jiang Cheng says, and then, before he can overthink it, “You made f*cking well sure of that when you gave me your core.”

Wei Wuxian goes stock-still, like he’s carved directly into the roof. It’s silent for a moment, the natural sounds of life this near a forest muted and hidden like the world is holding its breath. The horrible, choking silence stretches out, twisting and warping like hot metal fresh from the forge, and f*ck, Jiang Cheng shouldn’t have said anything at all, he should have kept it tamped down, he’s ruined this fragile peace again--

Wei Wuxian hiccups, so loudly it echoes, and the sheer absurdity of it leaves them both laughing. It’s wild and painful and unstoppable and embarrassingly wheezy, years of anger and guilt suddenly manifesting as near-silent convulsions of mirth. Jiang Cheng almost drops his wine jar. Wei Wuxian almost rolls off the f*cking roof, and Jiang Cheng grabs his brother by the belt and hauls him bodily back up.

“Don’t you--” he wheezes, dropping Wei Wuxian in a safer location and then slapping the back of his head “--don’t you darefall off something in front of me again. Hanguang-jun will f*cking stab me.”

“Not you, too,” Wei Wuxian complains, red-faced and crying through the giggles that keep taking over when he looks at Jiang Cheng’s face. “Lan Zhan gets worried when I walk over a bridge.He’s out to protect me against railings. I don’t actually likefalling great distances, you know! I try to avoid it!”

“Not well enough,” Jiang Cheng sneers. His brother sniffs dismissively and takes another swig from his bottle. The mask of annoyance lasts right up until they make eye contact, and then they both crack up. There’s nothing even funny anymore except that they can’t stop laughing, and after another slap fight they end up sitting back-to-back by mutual agreement or Jiang Cheng thinks they might laugh so hard they puke.

“Okay,” Wei Wuxian says, a steady weight against Jiang Cheng’s back. “Okay, whew, I think I’m good.”

“We can just never look at each other again,” Jiang Cheng says. “I’m sure that’s a sustainable way to live.”

“You’ve been managing it for almost a year.” Wei Wuxian’s voice is quiet and bitter and wistful, full of genuine emotion. Gross.Jiang Cheng elbows him in the kidney.

“Yeah, well. I meant it when I said you should come visit,” he tells a tree across the yard. “I’m sure Yanli would like it if you did.” Wei Wuxian inhales sharply, and Jiang Cheng adds, “I probably won’t even yell at you this time.”

“Probably?”

Jiang Cheng takes a swig of his wine. “I need to leave my options open,” he says, “in case you cover all my good robes with fish guts or break my favorite teapot.”

“You have a favorite teapot?”

Jiang Cheng does. It has frogs on it. He will never admit this out loud. “You should have told me,” he says, instead. He feels Wei Wuxian go rigid where they’re leaning together but f*ck it,they need to have this out, and maybe when they’re done he can go find Fan Zhu’er and tell her about it and she’ll reward him for being an emotionally mature adult by pinning him against something. “I wish you’d f*cking told me about it beforeinstead of lying about Baoshen Sanren, but at a minimum I would have wanted to find out from youinstead of Wen Qionglin on a day that was already so full of sh*t it might has well have been a latrine.”

Wei Wuxian sighs like his soul is trying to leave his body. “If I’d told you before, would you have accepted it?” he asks, his voice flat and hopeless.

“Of course not,” Jiang Cheng says reflexively, and… oh.

“That’s exactly why I did it,” Wei Wuxian says in that same flat voice. “Everything had gone wrong and I couldn’t fix anything else. I couldn’t give you back your parents or take back Lotus Pier or make sure we were safe, long-term, but I could fix one thing. I could fix you.

“By breaking yourself?” Jiang Cheng snaps, and he doesn’t want to be having this conversation with a tree anymore, so he turns around, shoving at Wei Wuxian’s shoulder until they can see each other’s faces. “What was even your plan?Did you think I’d find you in Yiling and then not notice that you were sick as sh*t and had no qi?”

“Honestly, I sorta figured I’d die in the war early enough that you’d never know anything had changed,” Wei Wuxian says, bluntly honest and far too easily.

“You--!” Jiang Cheng slaps him upside the head, which he absolutely deserves.“How is that a good plan?!”

“I didn’t say it was!” Wei Wuxian points out, ducking away from the next strike. “I don’t think you noticed on account of being unconscious and trying to die at the time, but I wasn’t exactly at my best!”

That’s actually a fair point. Jiang Cheng concedes it with a nod, and then, “I’m sorry about trying to choke you, by the way.”

“Eeeh,” Wei Wuxian says, waving this off like he does everything, “there were extenuating circ*mstances. Don’t worry about it.”

“We really need to talk about your willingness to have the sh*t kicked out of you for no reason,” Jiang Cheng tells him, because yikes,Wei Wuxian, “but I’m only having one horrible feelings conversation tonight, so pay attention.” He puts his hand on his brother’s shoulder and squeezes. “I’m so f*cking mad you did it. I’m so f*cking mad you decided I needed a core more than I needed my brother.I’m so f*cking mad you left me for the Wens, even though I understand why now. I’m so f*cking mad I couldn’t do more to protect you, and so f*cking mad you never let me know howto protect you. I’m so f*cking mad about so f*cking much, and I’m so f*cking tired of it.” Wei Wuxian’s face is cracked open, disbelieving, his eyes wide and wet. Jiang Cheng pats his head, the way Jiejie used to. “I’m so f*cking glad you’re back,” he admits, finally, and his voice breaks in the middle of it, which is fine because he suddenly has his arms full of his ugly-crying brother.

“I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian cries into his shoulder, “I didn’t want any of it to turn out like it did, I didn’t want it and I couldn’t stop it and I tried, I swear I tried.”

“I know,” Jiang Cheng says, and he’s definitely not crying, he just has dust in his eyes or something. “Stop apologizing, it’s gross.”

“Your faceis gross,” Wei Wuxian mutters between hitching breaths. Jiang Cheng considers pinching him for it but decides on patting his back, instead. He can let oneinsult pass without comment, just this once, as a gift.

“If you snot all over my robes I’m making you wash them,” he says a little later, when his brother is no longer actively weeping.

“Joke’s on you,” Wei Wuxian says as he sits up and wipes his eyes, “I have talismans for that.”

They take a moment to surreptitiously straighten their clothes and clean up their faces, both of them resolutely pretending no such tasks are happening. Jiang Cheng gives Wei Wuxian a handkerchief and gets a fresh bottle of wine. Both of these things go unacknowledged, as is the code.

“You called me your brother,” Wei Wuxian says eventually, when they’re back to sitting side-by-side and looking at the moon and acting like their eyes aren’t swollen and their faces aren’t red.

“That’s what you are,” Jiang Cheng says. “Don’t think you’re getting out of it that easily.”

“I wouldn’t dream of trying to get out of it,” Wei Wuxian says, grinning so wide his face must hurt. “I’m here for all your brotherly needs, darling shidi.”

“f*ck off.” Jiang Cheng finishes off his bottle of wine and stows the empty one in his sleeve. The fresh one is waiting in his lap, but he doesn’t feel like going for it just yet.

“And since I am such a caring and considerate shixiong,” Wei Wuxian goes on, as though Jiang Cheng hadn’t spoken, “and since my shidi has assured me he’s not dying and the core I gave him is working perfectly, I wonder what he went to Wen Qing about.”

“None of your f*cking business,” Jiang Cheng tells him. “As previously stated.”

“And as previously stated: I’m asking anyway.” He pokes Jiang Cheng in the arm. “What was it? Did you want to know how make your glares even scarier?

No, but now Jiang Cheng kinda wants to ask, because if that’s a skill he can develop with further training he’s willing to put in the work. “I did not ask her how to make my glares even scarier,” he says, matching Wei Wuxian’s cadence mockingly. He’s really dedicated to this “trying” thing, apparently, because he adds, “I wanted to ask her advice about. Something.”

Wei Wuxian, even full of wine, notices the break in Jiang Cheng’s speech and grins. “Advice about.... something,huh?” He leans over and pokes Jiang Cheng’s arm some more. “About what? Tell me tell me tell me, I’m great at advice.”

“Are you?” Jiang Cheng snorts into his bottle. “That’s news to me.”

“Name one time following my advice didn’t work out.” Wei Wuxian spills wine down his neck when he drinks, because he’s clearly a competent adult human who can be trusted.

“We’d be here all night,” Jiang Cheng deadpans. “I have multiple scrolls on the subject, sorted by the badness of the advice.” Wei Wuxian doesn’t quite choke, but it’s a near thing. He slaps at Jiang Cheng’s leg, and Jiang Cheng lets it land, too distracted to block because he’s psyching himself up for a verybad idea. “Do you promise to keep it a secret if I tell you?”

Wei Wuxian perks up like a dog being offered a treat, a comparison he would find incrediblyinsulting. “I promise!” he says, holding three fingers to his temple. “I’m greatat keeping secrets. I won’t even tell Lan Zhan!” He frowns. “Unless you were asking Wen Qing for advice on how to kill Lan Zhan, in which case I would have to warn him about the attempted murder.”

“I didn’t ask her for advice on how to kill Lan Wangji,” Jiang Cheng says snippily. He opens his fresh jar of wine and holds it without drinking any, like he can find courage just from the action. “I asked her for marriage advice.” He tries to say it offhand, like it’s no big deal. Maybe if he acts casual Wei Wuxian won’t make it a whole thing.

“Marriage?!” Wei Wuxian squawks, immediately making it a whole thing. “What! You? What?! To who? How!”

“Do you need to take a bit and come back to me when you have a coherent question?” Jiang Cheng asks, trying to cover how he can already feel his face heating up.

“Excuse me for being surprised!” Wei Wuxian says, pretending to be offended and failing. “Aren’t you banned from the matchmakers?”

“Yes,” Jiang Cheng admits, “but I didn’t meet her through a matchmaker.”

“Oho,” Wei Wuxian’s eyes glitter in the low light, practically glowing like a cat’s. “So she’s a she.Now we’re getting somewhere.”

“Were you expecting not a she?” Jiang Cheng asks with genuine curiosity. Is that how people see him?

“I wasn’t expecting anything at all,” Wei Wuxian says with a lazy shrug. “You seem to hate pretty much everyone equally, plus, you know I think all types are pretty. I don’t make assumptions.” He pokes Jiang Cheng in the ribs. “Who is she? Do I know her? Is she pretty?”

“Not telling. Yes. Yes.” Oh, Jiang Cheng is reallyblushing now. Fortunately his brother is too distracted to notice.

“You’re not telling me, but I know her,” Wei Wuxian muses. He squints into the middle distance, thinking hard. “That does actually narrow it down quite a bit, because I wouldn’t say I knowa lot of people since I came back. Okay, okay, okay.” He rubs the side of his nose and studies Jiang Cheng. “If you want to get married, you have to actually likeher, which means she’s someone you’ve spent quite a bit of time with. I can safely rule out anyone from the Lan sect, because you’re basically never here. I don’t know anyone in the Jin sect except for Jin Ling, so it’s obviously not any of them, and I’m pretty sure if you were going to marry a Nie it would have been Huaisang.”

“It was one time!” Jiang Cheng complains, covering his face. “It was on a dare!

“So definitely not a Nie,” Wei Wuxian continues, ignoring him entirely. “So it has to be someone from near Lotus Pier, then, which reduces the number of people againbecause if I know her then she was around before and is still alive.” He chews on his lower lip, takes an absent swig of his wine, and snaps his fingers. “What’s her name--Hu something? Really flashy when she fights, good at telling stories, always does the voices?”

“It’s not Hu Yueque,” Jiang Cheng says, resigning himself to this interrogation. It’s his own fault. (He does have to admit Hu Yueque is a pretty good guess--he doesn’t like her that way, but she’s pretty and competent and her stories arefun to listen to. There would be worse options.)

“No, you’d have married her already if it was Hu Yueque,” Wei Wuxian muses. “You wouldn’t have waited this long if it was anyone I knew from back then, I think, unless it was Wen Qing because of the whole dungeon thing, but you asked her for advice so it’s obviously not her. Someone I know… Someone I know who wasn’t around back then...” He drinks again, drumming his fingers on the thatch, and snorts. “Jiang Cheng,” he teases, grinning at him sidelong, “don’t tell me it’s Fan Zhu’er?”

Jiang Cheng’s face is probably the color of Wen Qing’s old robes. “Fine,” he says through clenched teeth, “I won’t tell you it’s Fan Zhu’er.”

Wei Wuxian freezes. “Wait,” he says, after a moment, “Wait. Jiang Cheng.” He sits up and grabs Jiang Cheng’s shoulder, staring at him wide-eyed. “Is it Fan Zhu’er? Really? Really?

Wow, the tree behind Wei Wuxian’s right shoulder is very interesting. Jiang Cheng had better keep staring at it while he gives one single, solitary nod.

The facial journey Wei Wuxian goes on in response to this news is fascinating enough that Jiang Cheng stops staring at the tree so he can watch. Surprise, disbelief, amusem*nt, surprise again, consideration, confusion, amusem*nt again, and finally a broad, genuine smile. “Wow,” he says in a surprisingly gentle voice. “Wow. Okay. I wouldn’t have guessed.”

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. “You literallyjust guessed.”

“Okay, fine,” Wei Ying says, also rolling his eyes. “I wouldhave guessed, apparently, I just wouldn’t have expected.

“Me either,” Jiang Cheng admits. He wants to hide his face in his hands, but one’s holding a jar of wine, and also it would be undignified. He’s a grown-ass adult sect leader,for f*ck’s sake, not some lovesick teenager.

“Wow, you really like her, huh?” Wei Wuxian asks, reading Jiang Cheng’s expression without even trying. Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow and Wei Wuxian waves at his face. “You look like a lovesick teenager.” f*ck.“So, let’s see,” his brother continues, because he’s a smug little asshole, “what was your list? Demure and obedient? Can’t be too loud?”

“I will push you off this roof,” Jiang Cheng hisses, slapping at Wei Wuxian with his free hand. “I will drag you to the waterfall and throw your ass in.”

“Fine, fine, I’ll stop,” Wei Wuxian says, trying to dodge and mostly failing. “I’m just saying she’s not exactly what you had in mind.”

Jiang Cheng makes an annoyed grunt in agreement, because Wei Wuxian isn’t wrong. They sit in silence for a beat, and Jiang Cheng says, “Technically speaking, her cultivation isn’t very high.”

“Oh, yeah,” Wei Wuxian says, nodding. “For sure, she definitely nailed that one.”

They manage to keep straight faces for about another breath and a half before Wei Wuxian cracks a giggle, which means Jiang Cheng fails the fight with his self-control. They both proceed to absolutely lose their sh*t.Jiang Cheng hopes, vaguely, that they’re not being too loud. He doesn’t want Lan Wangji to come ask why they’re cackling on his roof.

“Okay, okay,” Wei Wuxian says, laying flat on his back with his head propped up on the ridge, one hand wrapped over his stomach as he tries and fails to calm down. “Okay, so: Fan Zhu’er.”

Jiang Cheng nods, breathing through the cramp in his side and the way his face f*cking hurtsand he can’t stop smiling even with the pain. “Fan Zhu’er,” he agrees.

“So.” Wei Wuxian tips his head so he can look up at Jiang Cheng, who has stayed upright because one of them should have some f*cking dignity. “What’s happening there? Does she know? Have you asked her? Are you betrothed?

“This is exactly why I didn’t want to tell you,” Jiang Cheng grouses, glaring off into the distance. “I like her. I think she likes me? And no I haven’t asked her, so if you breathe a word of this I’ll break your f*cking legs.”

“I told you!” Wei Wuxian says, clapping his non-wine-holding hand to his heart as though mortally offended. “I won’t tell! It’ll be like the Lan silencing spell. Lips sealed.” Jiang Cheng huffs. Wei Wuxian pats his knee. “You like her? Really?”

Jiang Cheng’s face is so hot.He’s going to burst into flames any second, probably. “Yeah,” he says, “Yeah, I do.” He’s a little bit drunk on both wine and also the energy of having had sh*t out with his brother, and still giddy from the laughing, which is the only explanation he has for why he adds, “She kissed me against a column once and she’s--she’s just so f*cking strong.

“Oh, yeah,” Wei Wuxian says, nodding like he really gets it. “Yeah, I bet. She can probably pick you up with one hand, right?”

“Probably,” Jiang Cheng says. “I--we haven’t tried,but probably.” f*ck, they should try that. Jiang Cheng wants to go find Fan Zhu’er and see if she can pick him up one-handed right now.

“You were doomed,” Wei Wuxian informs him. “There’s no way you could resist someone who could pick you up with one hand. It just makes you feel so safe, right?” His smile goes dreamy, his eyes distant. “Like, not only can they protect you, but if you get hurt they can carry you in their big, strong arms, and then when they’ve decided you’re sufficiently recovered from your wounds they can shove you up against a tree--”

“If you keep going I’m going to break your legs andyour arms and throw you in a pond. I do notneed information about Hanguang-jun’s sex life.” Jiang Cheng shudders, whole-bodied, and takes a swig of his wine. Maybe he can wash the knowledge out of his brain--

Jiang Cheng chokes, sputters, and glares at his bottle suspiciously. It smells like wine, and it burned like wine, but it tasted like… “Did you give me a bottle of f*cking soup,you asshole?”

“It’s not soup!” Wei Wuxian says. His eyes are eager, his mouth a sly curve. “Try it again. It’s fine, it’s not poison or anything.”

Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes at his brother, because he’s definitely pulling some sh*t. He takes another sip, more cautiously this time, and instead of soup he tastes a gingery tea. It still burns like wine though, so he pulls the bottle away, co*cks his head thoughtfully, and tries again. Lychee juice. “What did you do?

“It’s a talisman!” Wei Wuxian shoves up on one elbow and holds out his hand for the bottle, so Jiang Cheng hands it over. “It changes the taste to be things you remember having drank at some point in your life, and a different one each time!” He takes a swig and grimaces immediately. “Ugh, no, I didn’t want to remember thatwine ever again.”

“And whose fault was that?” Jiang Cheng asks, stealing the bottle back and drinking what turns out to be a horrible Gusu white tea that’s been oversteeped. Gross. “Didn’t you promise there wouldn’t be any pranks?”

“Ah,” Wei Wuxian says, raising one wavering finger with great dignity. “I said there wouldn’t be any pranks inthe Jingshi.Technically, my dear shidi, we are onthe Jingshi.”

“You’re the f*cking worst,” Jiang Cheng says, kicking him in the leg. “I’m glad you’re back, you giant asshole.”

“I hate you, too,” Wei Wuxian says affectionately.

Jiang Cheng kicks him again, smiling, and his brother slaps his arm and smiles back.

---

Fan Dingxiang slips between two buildings and onto a path, aware that she’s breaking curfew. She’s not worried about it, though--for all her size, she’s very good at not being noticed, and Ma Xueliang assured her earlier that somelevel of rule-breaking was practically a rite of passage when visiting the Cloud Recesses. It’s not like she’s planning on doing anything loud or obnoxious. Tonight’s the night where, normally, she and Jiang Cheng would meet up, train weapons, and determinedly not talk about how they were expecting the other one to be there. She’s actuallynot expecting him tonight, since he was at dinner with Wei-gongzi earlier and when she saw him making his way back to his quarters afterward, he was grinning ear-to-ear while walking with the extreme care of the very drunk. Good for him. Fan Dingxiang is happy that he’s happy, and also happy to let him sleep it off. She has a different plan for tonight. She heard there were other rule-breakers in the back hills, and she wants to meet them.

It takes some walking, and one mildly harrowing moment when she has to hide in a bush to avoid a routine patrol, but she makes it to her goal without being detected. Fan Dingxiang’s source (Lan Jingyi) told her coming during the day would be better,but that nighttime should work as long as she makes it “worth their while.” To that end she has a qiankun pouch full of bok choy and mint and vegetable scraps sourced from the kitchen.

She’s gonna pet a bunny.

Fan Dingxiang takes two silent steps out of the woods into the clearing and freezes. There’s a white-robed figure sitting in the grass surrounded by several white blobs; apparently she’s not the only one who came out here on a bunny-petting mission tonight. This… complicates things slightly. She’s trying to decide whether to sneak away when the figure turns her direction, which means he’s a cultivator, because no one else would have heard her from this distance. He looks vaguely familiar, maybe? For a moment she thinks it’s Hanguang-jun, but even in the moonlight she can tell the shape of the jaw is different. Regardless of who it is, she’s been caught by a Lan cultivator, so:

“Gongzi,” she says, bowing formally.

“Guniang,” he says, his voice low, resonant, and, above all else, tired.He gives an abbreviated bow, so as not to disturb the rabbits she can now see in his lap. “You’re breaking curfew,” he says conversationally, sounding more amused than annoyed.

“So are you,” she points out, relaxing a little.

“Ah,” he says thoughtfully. “You have a point.” He pets a rabbit for a moment and glances over at her. “I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.”

“Deal,” Fan Dingxiang says immediately. She shifts, a little awkwardly, and tips her head at the ground in silent question. He waves her over, so she sits near enough to him that they don’t have to whisper-yell but far enough away not to intrude on his space. “Fan Dingxiang, courtesy name Zhu’er, of Yunmeng Jiang,” she says when she’s settled. “Thank you for not snitching.”

“You’re welcome,” he says, in that same amused, exhausted voice. “Lan Huan, courtesy name Xichen. What brings you out to break curfew tonight, Fan-guniang?”

“Uh,” Fan Dingxiang says eloquently as her entire world restructures itself around the understanding that she’s breaking curfew with Lan-f*cking-zongzhu,who’s supposed to be in seclusion,“same thing as you, I think?” She pulls some mint out of her bag and inspires a tiny, fuzzy stampede. “I wanted to pet a bunny,” she adds, possibly unnecessarily, suiting actions to words now that three of them are fully in her lap gorging on fresh herbs.

“Ah,” he says, “I see. You came to the right place, then.” Lan-zongzhu (Zewu-jun? He didn’t introduce himself as the sect leader, and Fan Dingxiang might be freaking out a little) gently pinches the ears of the rabbit in his lap and makes them do a little ear dance. The rabbit endures this with as much dignity as a rabbit can have, and, when he releases its ears, shakes itself so hard it falls over. It’s possibly the cutest thing Fan Dingxiang has seen in the last year, and she relaxes muscle-by-muscle. She’s just petting bunnies with a new friend. This is fine.

“Do you visit often?” she asks, winces internally when she remembers that Lan-zongzhu’s supposed to be in seclusion and thus maybe she shouldn’t be bringing attention to the fact that he’s not currently secluding, and tries to save it with, “They seem very affectionate with you.”

“They’re affectionate with anyone who brings them snacks and sits quietly,” Lan-zongzhu says, as though there aren’t at least five rabbits trying to burrow into his robes literally as he speaks. “I don’t know that I’m that special.”

“Looks like the rabbits disagree,” Fan Dingxiang says, as one of the bunnies in her lap, seeing that the fresh mint is gone, abandons her to hop back over to Lan-zongzhu. He snorts, somehow making it elegant, and offers the newcomer a few scritches behind the ears. Fan Dingxiang takes the time to look him over. She’s never seen him before, so the only thing she has to compare him to is his brother. Lan-zongzhu is maybe a little taller (hard to tell when sitting) and smiles more easily, if you can call the thing his mouth does a smile. He looks drawn, a little gaunt, and horribly, deeply sad.Fan Dingxiang wants to make him soup and tea and feed him until the sadness fades. She gets that feeling a lot around sect leaders, it seems. (Well, not Ouyang-zongzhu and Yao-zongzhu. They’re on their own.)

“Do you like spicy lotus seeds?” she asks, because she has no soup.

Lan-zongzhu blinks at her, taken aback. “I’m not sure,” he says thoughtfully. “I don’t know that I’ve had the chance to try.”

“No time like the present.” Fan Dingxiang finds her snack bag and then the bag-within-the-bag. She hands it over, holding it carefully out of reach of the bunnies, and feeds them some bok choy so they stop looking so betrayed.

“Do you carry these with you at all times?” Lan-zongzhu asks, after he’s crunched through a few of them.

“I do.” Fan Dingxiang considers her life and her choices for a moment, pets a rabbit, and adds, breezily, “Normally when I come across terribly sad cultivators at night I want to feed them soup, but the lotus seeds will have to do.”

Lan-zongzhu pauses, another lotus seed halfway to his mouth. “Ah,” he says, so much emotion packed into the syllable that Fan Dingxiang can almost taste it on the air. “Do I seem as bad as all that?”

Fan Dingxiang takes a moment to consider whether she’s going to continue to be this bluntly honest, decides she is, and says, “You also seem tired.”

A lotus seed crunches between Lan-zongzhu’s teeth. “You’re very straightforward, aren’t you, Fan-guniang?”

“I can be,” she allows, instead of saying, “Yes, obviously, you all could be too if you weren’t so repressed.” “It saves time and energy.”

Lan-zongzhu makes a thoughtful sound. “I suppose it would,” he says, with a miserable wistfulness that makes Fan Dingxiang’s heart ache for him. She knows the facts explaining his seclusion--trying to avoid gossip isn’t the same as ignoring major cultivation politics; it’s not like she doesn’t pay attention at all--but she’s getting a much stronger idea of why.

“Sounds like maybe you could have done with a little more straightforwardness in the past,” she offers, keeping her voice gentle.

He tips his head, offering one of the bunnies a small, horrible smile. “I suppose,” he says delicately, “that’s one way to put it.” They pet their rabbits in companionable silence, and Fan Dingxiang amuses herself by seeing if she can hold two in one hand. She can, which means she can pet both bunnies with her free hand, wrapping them up into almost a bunny dumpling. They’re very soft and cute and are shedding all over her robes. No regrets.

“Hey,” she says, mostly to the bunnies, “I’m going to continue to be very straightforward and ask if you wanna talk about it? Or if you want a hug? I’m great at hugs.” One of the rabbits squirms, and she carefully transfers them back to her lap. “I can also just sit here and pet bunnies in silence, but seems like you’ve tried that already without seeing results.”

Lan-zongzhu eats a lotus seed while giving her the most contemplative side-eye she’s ever seen in her life.“Fan-guniang,” he says, “in the spirit of straightforwardness; who areyou?”

This is easy. “I’m a pig farmer, Lan-zongzhu,” she says, giving him a cheerful little bow.

Something crosses his face, relaxing his eyebrows. “Ah. Wu Gang Dao.”

Fan Dingxiang makes a face, her heart racing at the title. “Oh noooo,” she groans, wanting to hide her face in a rabbit. “You’ve heard of me.”

“Only good things,” he reassures her. “I heard them loudly and at length from Wei Wuxian, but they were all good, Wu Gang Dao.”

“Fan Zhu’er is fine, please,” she half-begs. Her title still sits weirdly on her shoulders when she’s not wielding it to piss people off, and she’s not even carrying her spear.She doesn’t want to be Wu Gang Dao right now.

“Then Lan Xichen is fine as well.” Fan Dingxiang lets her disbelief show on her face, and he raises his eyebrows at her like, “What of it?” so fine. Lan Xichen it is.

“Lan Xichen,” she says, her voice steadier than her heartbeat, “you didn’t answer my question.”

“I didn’t,” he agrees, face raised to the moon. He stares up at it for a long time, glowing in his funeral whites as though he’s an actual jade statue come to life, the only movement his hands on the now-sleeping rabbits in his lap. He stays that way long enough that Fan Dingxiang thinks maybe he’s choosing the “sit in silence and pet rabbits” option and doesn’t feel a need to say so out loud when he finally inhales and asks, “How do you move on when it turns out everything you believed was a lie?”

Oooh, that’s a big f*cking question, isn’t it? Fan Dingxiang sucks her teeth and really gives it some thought. Lan Xichen lets her, though it’s possible he’s not practicing patience so much as he doesn’t expect an actual answer.

“Well,” she says, when she has the shape of it, “I think you know somethings aren’tlies, or you wouldn’t be asking the question. Are the rabbits lying to you?”

Lan Xichen gives the furry dumplings in his lap a suspicious look. “Probably not,” he allows.

“So there’s a start.” Fan Dingxiang pets one of the very honest and trustworthy rabbits and gives it a little more bok choy. “Just because something was a lie doesn’t mean you were wrong to believe it,” she says. She spent ten years not knowing she was a girl--though she supposes she can’t really count the first three years, seeing as she was a baby--and she knows other late-blooming women who took even longer to realize it. None of them were wrong,not really, they just needed some time. She’s not about to say all that to Lan-zongzhu,though, so she adds, “It’s also not wrong to want to stand by someone when they’re being mistreated.”

“Let’s assume you’re right,” Lan Xichen says, sounding like he’s assuming the exact opposite. “I still believed lies. I allowed myself to be misled. How can I trust that it won’t happen again?”

Hm. Good question. Fan Dingxiang carefully scouts for rabbits and then lays down, eyes on the hundred thousand thousand stars overhead. “There was a merchant in my village,” she says, remembering a story she hasn’t thought of in years, “who had to travel to the next nearest village a lot. He said it was for work, and was always so sadto leave his wife, and so happyto see her when he came back. She didn’t realize anything was amiss for years,until one day another woman showed up on her doorstep, two children in tow, looking for her husband.”

Lan Xichen takes a breath.

Yeah,” Fan Dingxiang agrees. “He was married to both of them, and lied to both of them that they were his only wife. Kept it up for f*cking yearsbefore the woman from the other village suspected. It’s ridiculous--he could have just married them both straightforwardly and had them in the same household, but.” She shrugs. “He wanted the rush of the lie, or he liked always being welcomed home, or something. I don’t know, I was still a kid. What I do remember is that when they compared notes, they saw the pattern--the things he’d say, how he’d act, it was exactlythe same for both of them. It was easy to see once they had someone to talk to about it who’d gone through the same thing, you know.” She grins, suddenly, and suppresses a laugh so she doesn’t disturb the small blanket of rabbits she’s accumulated. “Oh, I also remember they moved in together and kicked him out and raised all their kids as one family. I liked them. They’d buy me tanghulu sometimes.”

“So your advice,” Lan Xichen says, like he’s assembling a puzzle, “is that I should move in with a stranger, and also buy you snacks.”

“How many people think you don’t have a sense of humor?” Fan Dingxiang asks, shooting him half a grin. Lan Xichen shrugs, which she’s pretty sure means “a lot.” “My advice,” she continues, being sure to over-enunciate a little, “is that you talk to someone else who’d understand.” She lets it hang in the air for a little while, and then (to make sure it really sinks in) she loudly whispers, “I mean Qin Su specifically.”

Lan Xichen winces. “Ah,” he says, the words drawn out of him like water from a well, “I don’t know that she’d want to discuss it. Or speak to me. Or be reminded of my existence.”

“Can’t know unless you try,” Fan Dingxiang points out. “What’s the worst that can happen if you send her a letter? She doesn’t want to reply? That leaves you exactly where you are now.” She tongues her teeth consideringly and adds, “Start doing some kind of physical chores, too. Something with a visible end goal.”

“I do not see how that follows from the previous advice.” Lan Xichen’s voice is polite but skeptical.

“It doesn’t,” Fan Dingxiang agrees. “This is separate but equally useful advice. You’re in seclusion, yeah? So how are you spending your time? Thinking a lot about how you messed up, meditating, drinking tea, and staring at poetry you never actually read?”

Lan Xichen eats a lotus seed in a telling silence. “Sometimes I run sword forms.”

Fan Dingxiang snorts quietly. Cultivators.“Doing something physical keeps your hands busy while your mind works. It gives you a purpose.” She pets the rabbit curled up between her breasts (keeping her hand busy while her mind works, see?) and adds, “It’s also hard to feel like a depressed, useless waste of space when you can look at something you’ve accomplished with your hands and have a real reminder of how you’ve changed the world. Like, f*ck, sure, everything is terrible and people can be awful, but the laundry still needs to get done, and if you wash a bunch of robes you’ve helped,you know?”

Lan Xichen makes a thoughtful sound and co*cks his head. “Do you suggest laundry?”

Fan Dingxiang nods. “Or gardening,” she says, squinting at the moon. “Cooking, but specifically the part where you clean or chop a lot of ingredients. Ditch-digging, now that’s one that’ll really make you feel like you’ve done something.” In her peripheral vision Lan Xichen nods, as though he’s actually committing all of her half-serious suggestions to memory.

“I’ll think about your suggestions,” he tells her, and she thinks he might actually mean it. “Thank you for the conversation and the lotus seeds, Fan Zhu’er.” He hands the packet back over to her and starts carefully transferring rabbits back to the grass, so Fan Dingxiang wiggles a little to wake up her own collection and shoots them off her torso.

“I hope it helped,” she says. They stand, brushing shed fur and grass off their robes. She expects Lan Xichen to head off immediately, back to wherever his seclusion happens, and instead he hesitates, hands flexing at his sides.

“Fan Zhu’er,” he says, formally, turning to face her. “You offered a hug, earlier. If you’ll excuse the impropriety, I think I’d like to take you up on it.”

“Lan-zongzhu,” she says, just as formally, “‘Impropriety’ was almost my courtesy name.” Fan Dingxiang doesn’t allow herself to hesitate, stepping forward into Lan Xichen’s space and wrapping her arms around his ribcage. They’re almost of a height, her chin hooking easily over his shoulder, and he allows his arms to drop over her shoulders in turn. He smells nice, like incense and mountain air, and when she tightens her arms he shudders bodily and leans in. Has no one been f*cking hugging this man?she wonders, attempting to make up for the apparent lack of hugs by squeezing even harder. Yes, seclusion soundslike you’re supposed to spend it alone, but how does that actually help?

Fan Dingxiang hugs Lan Xichen until he sighs, shoulders dropping, and then gives him one more clench that cracks his back before she pulls away. He takes a moment to find his balance and blinks at her, face softer and less haunted.

“Thank you,” he says, giving her a smile that actually reaches his eyes this time. “That was a great hug.”

“I know,” she says smugly, and they share an amused breath. Fan Dingxiang continues her impropriety to pat him on the shoulder. “Take care of yourself, okay? And think about what I said.”

“I will,” Lan Xichen promises. He pulls away and gives her a sweeping bow. “Goodnight, Fan Zhu’er.”

“Goodnight, Lan Xichen,” she says, returning his bow. She turns and heads for the trees, planning the best way to sneak back to the guest quarters, and glances over her shoulder before she disappears. Lan Xichen stands in the middle of the clearing, glowing moonlit white in his mourning robes, beautiful and haunting and still as a snowy mountain. Almost nothing has changed, but she thinks that maybe--just maybe--he doesn’t look quite so alone.

Notes:

If your Yunmeng Bros Reconciliation doesn't involve drunken crying are they even reconciled?

Listen, no one is more surprised that she keeps having deep conversations with sect leaders at night than Fan Dingxiang.

This chapter has been converted for free using AOYeet!

Chapter 18

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Wen Qing is the most terrifying doctor Fan Dingxiang has ever met, which is really saying something, given the number of doctors Fan Dingxiang’s seen in her life. She’s tiny but has this real energyabout her, and when she meets Fan Dingxiang’s eyes it’s like she’s looking straight into her skull and pulling out all her secrets. Not that Fan Dingxiang has a lot of secrets, really, but she has to fight an instinctive desire to confess to that time when she bought three tanghulu at the market and ate one on the way home so when she got there she’d still seem like she was sharing them equally with her brother.

In spite of this terrifying aura, she has a bedside manner that Fan Dingxiang likes immediately; brisk, efficient, and no-nonsense in a very kind way. Wen Qing checked her meridians first thing, narrowed her eyes, and asked, “How many years have you been on gender medicine?” which, like, Fan Dingxiang has had doctors at Lotus Pier treat her for literally yearsbefore they realized she was a late-blooming woman. She asks about Fan Dingxiang’s prescriptions, and once she hears about the blend, asks about Fan Dingxiang’s surgical history.

“Do you think my prescriptions have an effect?” Fan Dingxiang asks, as Wen Qing takes notes. “On how spiritual energy works on me?”

“It could,” Wen Qing says. “I’d need more data before I drew any conclusions, but between the medicine and the surgery and your own meridians you have the yin energy levels I’d expect of a woman your age. I’d be interested to know if you’ve noticed a difference in the healing effects of male cultivators versus female cultivators.”

Fan Dingxiang squints at the wall thoughtfully. “I haven’t really,” she says, trying to remember if there’s actually anything to report on that topic, “but most of my friends are women, so most of the qi I receive is from women. The only man who gives me qi is Hu Xinling.” She considers and adds, “And Jiang-zongzhu, more recently.”

Wen Qing’s eyebrows lift, but she doesn’t ask any follow-up questions about that specifically. She has a lot of otherfollow-up questions about Fan Dingxiang’s injuries and subsequent healing, how much qi is too much, the best ways to direct it, and other technical things that make Fan Dingxiang’s eyes want to cross.

“I’m not sure,” she says, for the twelfth time in short order. “From my point of view I can tell you when it feels right? But I don’t know what that means for the giver. Ma Xueliang came with us, and she’s one of the people who helps me heal? I bet she’d be willing to answer some questions.”

“I imagine that would be helpful,” Wen Qing says with a frown. “I should have thought of that in advance and asked her to come with you.”

“I can send her a message,” Fan Dingxiang offers. “Or, between the two of us, we can send one. Do you have talisman paper and ink?”

Wen Qing does, obviously. Fan Dingxiang writes the message talisman so it will seek out Ma Xueliang specifically and hands it to Wen Qing to activate. Wen Qing’s qi flashes red for a breath and the talisman flares into a fish. It swims in a circle, orienting itself, and darts away into the air, trailing sparks like eddies in the current.

“Are you unable to activate talismans?” Wen Qing asks, since apparently that inspired a whole new list of questions, and Fan Dingxiang settles in for some more explaining. Ma Xueliang shows up a quarter-shichen later, having clearly speedwalked from the main compound, and accepts Wen Qing’s interrogation good-naturedly. Fan Dingxiang sips a smoky tea and chimes in whenever she’s needed to clarify a point, happy to hear about how the qi transfer feels from the giver’s point of view. Wen Qing is blade-sharp, her questions pointed and insightful. Fan Dingxiang thinks she’s learning things about her ownhealing processes she didn’t know before, just from having to answer those brilliant questions. That said, Fan Dingxiang is the kind of person she is, and at a certain point she gets tired of everything happening in the theoretical.

“Do you want to see for yourself?” she asks, interrupting Wen Qing in the middle of asking a very detailed question about qi circulation that has Ma Xueliang’s eyes wide and her brow creased. Wen Qing turns to her, and Fan Dingxiang continues, “We can cut my arm and Ma Xueliang can heal it while you observe.”

Wen Qing’s eyes narrow. “As a doctor, I generally don’t encourage people to injure themselves.”

“Fair,” Fan Dingxiang allows, “but it’ll be fine. I’ve done it before.” Wen Qing gives her a sharp, exasperated look, and both Fan Dingxiang and Ma Xueliang burst out laughing. “Not like that,” Fan Dingxiang clarifies, waving a hand. “I don’t go around cutting my fingers every time I need to cast a spell or letting myself get stabbed to protect people who could perfectly well protect themselves. This is for a good cause, and I’ll be healed by the end of the day.”

“She will,” Ma Xueliang says loyally. “With a shallow cut it’ll hardly take anything to close it up.”

Wen Qing looks between the two of them a few times, clearly considering. “All right,” she says eventually, “but as the medical professional, I’ll make the cut.”

“Works for me!” Fan Dingxiang rolls up her left sleeve and presents her forearm. Wen Qing takes the doctoring thing seriously, making sure to wash the area in question and sterilize her blade. It’s sharp as f*ck, too--Fan Dingxiang barely feels a thing, and the first sign she gets that Wen Qing is done is the blood welling up from the wound.

“I don’t want to do this more than once,” Wen Qing says, setting the blade aside, “so I’m going to monitor both of your meridians at the same time.” To Ma Xueliang she adds, “Go as slowly as possible within reason.” Nods are exchanged, hands are settled on acupoints, and Fan Dingxiang breathes evenly as Ma Xueliang pours warm energy into her skin like tea into a cup. Wen Qing makes a few quiet, interested noises, and when the shallow cut is no longer bleeding she says, “Hold, please,” and makes frantic, detailed notes in silence. Fan Dingxiang takes the opportunity to drink some more tea.

It goes quickly, after that--Ma Xueliang pushes more qi into Fan Dingxiang’s arm, until even the scab peels off and leaves a pink, perfectly-healed line behind. Wen Qing asks some more of those insightful questions and sends Ma Xueliang out into Cloud Recesses at large with a thank-you.

“This is fascinating,” she says to Fan Dingxiang, looking over the pages she’s covered in her neat calligraphy. “Have you considered writing a book about it?”

“No,” Fan Dingxiang says, in full honesty. “I’d be interested in helpingwith a book about it, but I’m not a doctor, Wen-daifu. I don’t have a core, so if I did write a book, it’d be like, ‘Here’s how it should feel on the patient’s side of things, sorry, I can’t give you better instructions than that.’”

“Fair,” Wen Qing says, noting something else down. “You could, though.”

“Could what?” Fan Dingxiang asks, refilling their tea, which she technically shouldn’t be doing as a guest, but Wen Qing is busy writing and Fan Dingxiang wants more tea, so she’s stretching the definition of appropriate behavior in service of getting some.

“Develop a core,” Wen Qing says absently.

Fan Dingxiang almost drops the teapot.

“Pardon?” she says, when the porcelain is safely on the table and her hands are clenched in her lap to keep them from shaking. She must have misheard.

“You could develop a core,” Wen Qing says, again. Oh. Fan Dingxiang didn’t mishear. She must be hallucinating, then.

“Uh,” she says, over the pounding in her ears, doing her very best to be polite about this, just in case she’s not hallucinating, “I don’t think I can, actually?”

Wen Qing looks up from her notes, takes in Fan Dingxiang’s general state of barely concealed panic, and frowns. “There’s no physiological reason why you can’t,” she says, like she hasn’t just upended Fan Dingxiang’s entire understanding of her existence. “You have perfectly healthy meridians and you already understand how to control your qi better than the average non-cultivator.”

“But,” Fan Dingxiang says, wildly, scrambling to put this together in a way that makes sense, “but I’m too old. Chen-xianshi said I was too old when I was sixteen.

“It would be difficult,” Wen Qing admits, “but not impossible. You’d probably never catch up to where you’d be if you received the training at the correct age, but with regular practice I think you could have a perfectly functional core within five years, and with regular infusions of carefully-applied spiritual energy from a compatible donor you could have a core capable of swordflight within ten.”

“I--” Fan Dingxiang starts, has no idea where she’s going, and trails off. She’s panting for breath, close to hyperventilating, and she clenches her hands on her thighs for the grounding pain. Okay. Okay. She forces herself to inhale, long and slow. Fan Dingxiang takes a sip of tea with a hand that’s only shaking a little, sets the cup carefully back down, and exhales until she doesn’t have any air left. “When you say regular infusions of spiritual energy,” she says, pretending like her eyes are able to focus on Wen Qing instead of blurring and skittering around the room, “what exactly do you mean by that?”

“Dual cultivation,” Wen Qing says matter-of-factly. It’s so absurd that it snaps through Fan Dingxiang’s mental spiral, and she raises an intensely skeptical eyebrow at Wen Qing.

“That’s a real thing? I thought it was made up for p*rn.”

“It’s a real thing,” Wen Qing confirms. “Though p*rn has definitely, ah, exaggeratedsome of the effects. And also some of the techniques.”

“p*rn exaggerates most things,” Fan Dingxiang says, thinking involuntarily of some of the more traumatic dick illustrations she’s seen.

“One might argue that’s the point,” Wen Qing says, in the tones of someone who has probably also seen some traumatic dick illustrations.

They share a moment of silent contemplation, which Fan Dingxiang breaks like throwing a rock at a wine jar with, “So what you’re saying is I should find someone to f*ck a golden core into me.”

Wen Qing re-focuses, those sharp eyes trained back on Fan Dingxiang. “That’s certainly anoption,” she says, the corners of her mouth twitching with amusem*nt, “but dual cultivation doesn’t have to involve sex, though given the location of the dantians and the energy exchange, it’s faster and more effective when sex is involved.” She stands and crosses to a shelf, hands trailing over the books in a well-practiced motion, and comes back with a bound paper volume open to an illustration of two people seated, their arms in front of them and their palms pressed together. “Any sufficiently directed energy exchange can be a method of dual cultivation, as long as the two practitioners trust each other and are able to purify and settle the exchanged qi into their cores for long-term use.”

“Huh,” Fan Dingxiang says, pulling the page closer and reading the notes around the diagram. She can only understand about half of it because it’s verytechnical, but what she doesunderstand seems to make sense. “Okay, so dual cultivation is real and I might be able to do it.” This much she can accept, but there’s a huge f*cking question still lingering, so she asks, “Why hasn’t anyone told me I could develop a core before now?

“They likely didn’t know,” Wen Qing says without condemnation. “It’s not arrogance to say I know more about golden cores than any other living doctor, and that was before I spent the last year conducting more research so Wei Wuxian has a fighting chance of getting the baby core his new body came with into something useful, in spite of how terrible that man is at meditating.”

“Working meditation,” Fan Dingxiang says immediately. “He’s a mover, not a sitter.” She’s only spent a handful of hours in the same place as Wei-gongzi but it doesn’t take a genius to know that about him. All it takes is functioning eyes.

“Exactly,” Wen Qing says, like she’s proud of Fan Dingxiang for figuring it out. “And dual cultivation, and medicine specifically designed to help encourage the development of the core and the circulation of his qi. He’s come leaps and bounds just in the last three months.” She pours them both more tea and adds, gently, “I think you could, too.”

Fan Dingxiang drinks her tea and thinks about that. She thinks about it through the next cup, as well, and through brewing a new pot. Wen Qing lets her, ignoring the inappropriateness of the activity, probably because she understands Fan Dingxiang needs something for her hands to do while her brain works. She sits silently and adds more details to her notes and nods her thanks when Fan Dingxiang pours her a steaming new cup. Fan Dingxiang is pathetically grateful for the quiet, because she feels pulled in eighteen different directions by her own thoughts and if she’s going to wrestle anything into submission she needs to devote her whole being to the endeavor. Does she want to develop a core? If she had a core she’d be a cultivator for real,and after so long deliberately distancing herself from that identity she’s honestly not sure how she’d look at herself if she was one.

“This will sound silly,” she says, and Wen Qing gives Fan Dingxiang her full attention immediately, notes abandoned. “It feels like… it feels like if I had a core, it would be cheating.” Everything she’s done, everything she’s accomplished, everything she is, she is in spiteof the cultivation world’s dismissal. “I got here without a core,” she says slowly. “Cultivators think that the only strength worth having comes from a core. I don’t--I don’t want to just give in.

Wen Qing nods. “I understand why you feel that way,” she says, no judgement in her tone. “Having a core doesn’t mean you’re required to rely on it in combat, or to use it as a supplement to your strength. That’s a conscious choice cultivators make, though most of them are trained to rely on their cores so early they don’t realize it’s a choice at all.” Fan Dingxiang makes a surprised noise, and Wen Qing nods again. “Obviously using a core makes it stronger, as with any muscle, but even a core untrained for combat will allow you to heal faster and extend your lifespan.”

“Huh,” Fan Dingxiang says, sitting with that for a moment. She thinks about Jiang Cheng, and how he looks maybethirty in spite of pushing forty. He could live for a few hundred more years at least with all that river-strong qi inside him, couldn’t he? It feels presumptuous in the extreme to consider whether he’d want her around a hundred years down the line, but f*ck it, he’s not in charge of whether she decides to live forever. Maybe she wants to live to be five hundred just to see what life’s like five hundred years from now! She doesn’t need his permission.

(Except for maybe the dual cultivation part. If he… you know. Wanted to help.)

“Where would I start?” she asks, meeting Wen Qing’s gaze with her shoulders back and her chin up.

Wen Qing smiles, a fierce light in her eyes. “Let me write you a list.”

---

Jiang Cheng stares over Lan Wangji’s left shoulder and spends some time adding to his “running away to live in a hut in the woods” fantasy. It’s pretty elaborate now--there’s a section where he’s making the world’s best f*cking stir-fry, satisfied with the knowledge that at any moment his wi--someone’sgoing to get home from hunting and then they’ll eat together. He wishes he was in his woods hut right now instead of in a meeting with the pettiest f*cking man he knows, and Jiang Cheng’s an expert on petty.

The meeting’s actually not going too badly. It’s just the companythat’s excruciating. At least they’re past the generalized, extremely boring normal sect leader stuff--training schedules, the upcoming summer classes at Cloud Recesses, continuing the disciple exchange program Lan Wangji instituted as xiandu ostensibly to foster inter-sect diplomatic relationships, but secretly (Jiang Cheng suspects) because he likes getting the chance to see snotty Jin, Ouyang, and Yao disciples knocked down a peg or two. Jiang Cheng can’t say he disagrees, and also can’t say he doesn’t find it hilarious as f*ck to see the Lan cultivators’ faces when they try Yunmeng food for the first time. Payback, motherf*cker.

“Talisman distribution has proved effective,” Lan Wangji says, getting straight to the point, which is his one good quality. Wait, he also makes sure Wei Wuxian remembers to eat, so it’s his second good quality. Wait, he also took in A’Yuan, so maybe his third good quality? f*ck.“The Lan archives had no information on illness rates in our territory among non-cultivators, so we interviewed the local doctors and made copies of their records.” He pages through a sheaf on the table and checks some numbers. “Illnesses due to tainted water seem to be down significantly.”

“Yunmeng has seen that as well,” Jiang Cheng says, looking over his own sheaf of papers. “What about deaths by childbirth? We’ve cut them in half since the discussion conference, and I hope we can get that rate even lower as we work out better ways to get healers where they need to be.”

“Significantly down,” Lan Wangji confirms, looking at another page. “It is difficult to say by how much. Not every birth is attended by a midwife so the numbers we have may not be accurate.”

“And it’s only been two months,” Jiang Cheng says, leaning over to look at the page Lan Wangji is referencing. “Two months isn’t enough time to predict the long-term changes. How are you handling the healer assignments?”

Rather than answer, Lan Wangji picks a page out of the stack and hands it over. Fine with Jiang Cheng. He’d rather read than listen to Hanguang-jun’s boring-ass voice any day. According to this paper, Gusu Lan has gone with an approach modeled after Jin Guangyao’s lookout towers (which were a good idea, no matter how terrible the man might have been). Two Lan cultivators with at least a year’s experience in the infirmary are assigned to outposts throughout Gusu, with the idea that any village has at least one outpost within a quarter shichen’s sword flight. The doctors and midwives in those villages have been provided with blood-activated message talismans that will alert the outposts to any emergency situations, summoning a cultivator. It’s ingenious, actually, especially for the smaller Gusu territory with its more concentrated population.

“This is good,” Jiang Cheng says, because it is. Lan Wangji blinks at him, maybe almost pleased, which is why Jiang Cheng obviously has to add, “It’s not scalable, though.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes narrow. “For a larger sect,” he starts icily, glaring through Jiang Cheng like he’s not even there.

“It’s not just about cultivator numbers,” Jiang Cheng snaps, “it’s about population density. Been to Yunmeng lately?”

Lan Wangji’s glare sharpens. “Wei Ying has not been welcome in Yunmeng,” he says, and sounds like he means, “You f*cking piece of sh*t.

“He was,” Jiang Cheng spits, “He is,he’s just--you know what, f*ck it, not the point.” He digs around for a map of Yunmeng Jiang territory and slaps it on the table. “Where would your excellency suggest I station my cultivators such that they can be within a quarter shichen’s sword ride of any village that might need them?”

Lan Wangji looks like he’s considering throwing Jiang Cheng’s map into the brazier, but he pulls it closer and examines it anyway. To his credit the glare fades away and turns into a thoughtful expression. “I see.” He taps one of the rivers, and the label next to it. “Mobile populations?”

Jiang Cheng nods, trying not to look too smug. “They follow the river. And some of the mountain people travel with the seasons.”

Lan Wangji nods. “What is your technique?” he asks, sounding genuinely interested.

“Regular patrols and messages,” Jiang Cheng says. “I have cultivators with medical training traveling on circuits to check in with villages about their needs and distribute talismans, and the midwives let us know when birth is imminent and we send someone out specifically and have them stay there through the recovery. We’re limited by numbers and geography, but I’m hoping that the rest of the plan--the reduction in night hunts we should be seeing, and training villagers to handle less dangerous spirits--I’ll be able to take more of my people off night hunt duties and assign them to this instead.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says, which could mean, “That’s a good plan and I support it professionally,” and could also mean, “I hate you and I hope you die in a fire.” It could also mean both! It’s amazing the depth of feeling the man can push into one syllable. What an asshole. “You sent cultivators to assist with the flooding in Baling,” he says, pushing the map aside. “What was the outcome of that?”

Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow. “Didn’t Ouyang-zongzhu and Qin-zongzhu report to you already?”

“They did,” Lan Wangji confirms, his face not changing in the slightest. “It is part of my duty as xiandu to collect as much information as possible.”

Jiang Cheng takes a moment to translate that from “petty asshole.” “You mean you think at least one of them’s lying out his ass, and you want to figure out which one it is.”

Lan Wangji blinks placidly. It’s as good as a yes.

Jiang Cheng grins, sharp as steel. “I am honorbound to assist xiandu in his duties.”

---

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Wei-gongzi asks, even as he helpfully writes talismans. “I feel like at dinner last night they got along pretty well.”

“By which you mean their hatred for each other was barely-veiled instead of being stated outright?” Fan Dingxiang has seen the glares. They’re withering.

“I mean, yeah,” Wei-gongzi admits, “but they both ganged up on me to make me eat soup! I feel like that counts for something!”

“Oh, Wei-gongzi,” Fan Dingxiang says, setting her hand on his shoulder and giving him a look of pure pity. “Everyone who knows you wants to make you eat soup.”

He laughs, bright and loud. “You, too?!” he says, shoving at her hand. “Aiyah, will I never be free of these meddling people and their auntie energy?”

“No,” she says sweetly, and he laughs harder.

“You know,” he says, after he catches his breath, casting about for another piece of talisman paper, “I didn’t get it at first but now I see it, and it’s good.”

Fan Dingxiang scours the past shichen for anything that will explain this inscrutable statement and comes up empty-handed. “What?”

Wei Wuxian freezes for an instant and then melts back into a casual slouch. “Oh, nothing,” he says breezily, waving his brush hand and narrowly avoiding getting cinnabar on his face. “I’m babbling, don’t pay any attention to me. Even I don’t know what my mouth’s doing half the time.”

Fan Dingxiang thinks that’s true, generally, and also that he’s probably lying to her about this instance specifically, but the next talisman she needs to draw requires her full attention so she lets it go. “Remember, you need to activate it as soon as I shove him, or it won’t work.”

“I know, I know,” Wei-gongzi whines, rolling his eyes. “I have more experience with both of them than you do, you know. I’mnot the weak link here.”

“Mmmmm,” Fan Dingxiang says, clearly meaning, “Are you sure?

Wei Wuxian throws his brush at her.

---

Gossiping with Lan Wangji about the Baling flooding is surprisingly enjoyable, not that Lan Wangji would everadmit it was gossiping. He takes very studious notes, which is definitely not something you do when you’re gossiping, so clearlyit’s not gossiping.

“And his son, the one that talks back? He was apparently very helpful. Ouyang-zongzhu might not be carrying out the new directives with any kind of enthusiasm, but his kids are.” Small f*cking favors. Maybe in twenty years or so Baling Ouyang won’t be the second most annoying minor sect. Jiang Cheng can dream.

“Mn,” Lan Wangji hums, writing another line of characters on his page. “Ouyang Zizhen is thoughtful. Righteous.” Another character, the strokes precise, not a single bristle on the brush out of place. “He defended Wei Ying when others did not.”

Ah, there it is. Of course this official sect business meetinghad to go there,because Lan Wangji is the absolute f*cking worst. “Yes,” Jiang Cheng says, jaw tight, “it’s very easy to defend people when doing so won’t endanger everyone you care about and are responsible for.”

“The righteous choice does not stop being righteous simply because it is difficult.” Lan Wangji glares slightly to the left and down of Jiang Cheng in his infuriatingly dismissive way. Jiang Cheng clenches his teeth and thinks about punching him right in his smug f*cking mouth.

“Did you have anything else you needed to discuss,” he says, instead of punching the chief cultivator, which he thinks is extremely diplomatic of him.

“No.” Lan Wangji turns back to his papers in a clear dismissal, and Jiang Cheng wonders what it would be like to whip the table in half with Zidian. Good, he decides. It would be good.

“Xiandu,” he says, restraining himself from the very good action of whipping the table in half, and gives Lan f*cking Wangji something that’s technicallya bow. Asshole. Smug self-righteous snobby stuck-up frog-f*cking ice block. How Wei Wuxian can even stand to be in the same room as him is a mystery Jiang Cheng will never solve.

Still fuming, he yanks the door open and startles when he comes face-to-face with Fan Zhu’er. She grins at him, which flusters him even further, and will later be his excuse for why he didn’t notice Wei Wuxian standing behind her with his hands full of talismans, or the devious glint in her eye.

“Hi, Quangu-zongzhu,” she says, brightly. “Catch!”

Something soft and strangely dense hits his chest, and Jiang Cheng grabs it automatically. This distracts him sufficiently that he can’t react in time when Fan Zhu’er shoves him back by the shoulders with her full weight behind it. He goes staggering backwards and barelyavoids landing flat on his ass.

“What the f*ck?” he asks, regaining his balance but probably not his dignity.

“Figure it out,” she says, her hands on the door. “I believe in you.” Fan Zhu’er f*cking winksat him and slams the door shut. He’s still trying to come up with an appropriate response for the audacity of his disciple when the air shivers and all the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Someone just cast a barrier array, and he’s inside it.

“Jiang-zongzhu?” comes a flat, annoyed voice from behind him, and Jiang Cheng revises his realization. Someone just cast a barrier array, and he’s inside it with the worst person in the world.Two can play at the petty motherf*cker game, so Jiang Cheng pretends he didn’t hear anything and investigates what Fan Zhu’er threw at him instead. It turns out to be a qiankun pouch with two notes attached, one addressed to him and one addressed to “Lan Zhan.” Jiang Cheng goes cold with a sudden horrible premonition, and he opens his note with the same anticipatory caution with which he’d enter a haunted building on a night hunt.

Jiang Wanyin,

You and Hanguang-jun constantly sniping at each other was funny at first but now it’s tiresome, and it’s getting in the way of your relationship with your brother. Work out whatever you have going on with him. You can come out when you can behave like reasonable adult humans around each other.

I believe in you. Don’t f*ck it up.

Fan Zhu’er

Jiang Cheng’s brain attempts to come up with the appropriate response to this and, since he somehow comes up with every response at once, turns into a loud buzzing instead of anything coherent. Without needing conscious input, his body walks back to the door and attempts to open it.

Nothing happens.

Great.

Somehow, through the internal screaming, Jiang Cheng finds his qi and enough of his self-control to test the barrier array. It’s unfortunately good, not that he’d expect anything less from the combined meddlesome efforts of Fan Zhu’er and Wei Wuxian. He presses his hands to it, probing for weaknesses, back doors, anythingthat would allow him to break it down and escape. Nothing. f*ck. f*ck.

White robes flash in his peripheral vision as Lan Wangji does exactly the same thing Jiang Cheng just tried. Jiang Cheng watches with satisfaction as he frowns minutely, qi surging with he tries a different approach, and then frowns harder. Hah! Not so smug now, is he?

“Sandu Shengshou,” Lan Wangji says, not looking away from the wall. “Why has your disciple trapped us in a barrier array?”

“Wei Wuxian helped,” Jiang Cheng points out snappishly. Lan Wangji acknowledges this point with a blink. Or maybe he’s just blinking. Who f*cking knows. Jiang Cheng shoves the note addressed to “Lan Zhan” at him and watches with distaste (and curiosity) as Lan Wangji opens and reads it. Lan Wangji’s blankly annoyed face goes blankly surprised, and then blankly offended, and then mostly blank with notes of sour. He tucks the note into his sleeve and walks back to his desk with measured steps, settling behind it like this is a normal meeting and not hell on earth.

“What did Wei Wuxian have to say?” Jiang Cheng asks, because he’s pretty sure he knows why Lan Wangji looks like he just ate an underripe loquat.

“None of your business,” Lan Wangji says to his left shoulder. Yep, Lan Wangji definitely just got a note telling him to learn to be nice to Jiang Cheng. At least they’re united in this misery. Jiang Cheng makes the wise decision to ignore His Excellency in order to investigate the contents of the qiankun pouch.

“f*ck,” he says, out loud, because f*ck.Lan Wangji looks at him, silently requesting a reason for the profanity. Jiang Cheng squeezes his eyes shut, pinching the bridge of his nose. “There’s three days worth of food in this bag.”

Lan Wangji says nothing, but manages to do so loudly. Jiang Cheng opens his eyes to find Lan Wangji has closed his, suddenly looking very much like his older brother. “Will she do it?”

Jiang Cheng thinks about the look on Fan Zhu’er’s face when she shoved him backward, the glint in her eyes and the determined smirk. “Absolutely.”

Lan Wangji sighs, barely audible but unmistakably. Jiang Cheng, against his will and better judgement, sighs in agreement. There’s a brief, delicate moment of shared feeling between them.

And then Lan Wangji sets his hands on his knees and starts meditating. The delicate moment of shared feeling goes up in flames, leaving Jiang Cheng absolutely furious in its wake. f*ck this. f*ck Lan Wangji. f*ck his snide, snobby, dismissive bullsh*t, and his perfect white robes, and his silences, and his general existence.Jiang Cheng’s not about to be miserable alone, not if he can drag this stone-faced motherf*cker down with him.

“I would rather gnaw off my own arm than spend the next three days in silence with you,” he snarls, throwing himself into the seat in front of the desk, “but gnawing off my arm isn’t gonna get us out of here, so let’s do this.” Jiang Cheng glares at Lan Wangji, curling up the corner of his mouth in disgust. “What’s your f*cking problem with me?”

Lan Wangji sighs again, his mouth going hard, and he opens his freaky hawk eyes to glare back at Jiang Cheng. “Do you need a list?”

“Oh, you have a list?” Jiang Cheng exaggerates his shock, clasping his heart with one hand. “What a f*cking surprise! In that case, what are your multiple problemswith me?”

Lan Wangji folds his hands in his lap, adjusting the fall of one of his sleeves in a move that is precisely calculated to make Jiang Cheng have to wait for a response. “You abandoned Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, in a calm tone that takes Jiang Cheng out at the knees. “You stabbed Wei Ying. Then you killed Wei Ying.” His eyes flick from Jiang Cheng’s shoulder up to his face. “Why shouldn’t I hate you?”

Those are definitely reasons that Jiang Cheng hates himself,but damned if he’s going to admit that out loud. “It was hisf*cking idea!” he says. “Every-f*cking-thing was always hisf*cking idea, and the rest of us just had to go along with it! Don’t tell me youdon’t remember what that was like?”

That scores a hit, Lan Wangji’s stone-carved face twitching before it smooths back out. Hah! “You have many excuses for why you failed Wei Ying,” he says coldly. “Boring.”

“Oh, because youwould have done better in my place?” Jiang Cheng spits. “Because youdid so much better at the time?” He folds his arms and scoffs. “By all means, tell me what I should have done to stop it. Tell me how I could have fixed everything when my f*cking brotherand head disciplewas lying to me!Tell me how I could have saved Wei Wuxian and the Wens without support from any of the other f*cking sects, with my sister married into the Jin and at their mercy?” He leans forward and slaps his hand on the table, Zidian sparking purple with fury. “Tell me, oh great Hanguang-jun, what path I should have taken that wouldn’t have ended up with me and my entire sect, my disciples, all the aunties and uncles and children at Lotus Pier all dead right beside him?” Jiang Cheng waits a moment in silence, Lan Wangji avoiding his eyes, and hisses, “I’ve spent the last f*cking decadethinking about it and I still don’t have an answer, so don’t you daresit there and tell me you’d have done better.”

Lan Wangji’s face is tight with rage and guilt, two emotions that Jiang Cheng is acutely familiar with. “You didn’t try,” he hisses.

“He wouldn’t let me!” Jiang Cheng yells. “You think I didn’t f*cking want to? He was my brother!Do you think I let him go because I didn’t care enough?” Lan Wangji gives him a look that says yes, that’s exactly what he thinks, and Jiang Cheng barely holds himself back from throwing a whole f*cking teapot at him. “How f*cking dareyou,” he seethes, “how dareyou.”

“You killed him,” Lan Wangji growls. “We could have saved him.”

“To what point and purpose?” Jiang Cheng clenches his fists to cover the shaking. “What do you think would have happened if I’d helped you pull him back up? Do you think you could have shielded him from the rest of the world? Hidden him away in the back hills of Cloud Recesses?” Lan Wangji flinches for some reason, and Jiang Cheng isn’t sure why but he’s a good enough swordsman to know when to press the advantage. “He came there to die! Once Yanli--” and his voice breaks, horribly, the way it always does when he tries to talk about her “--died--there wasn’t--he was gone.Neither one of us could have f*cking stopped him, and I think you know it, but it’s easier to hate me than to admit there’s nothing you could have done!”

Lan Wangji’s face cracks down the middle like a dropped cup, exposing something raw, awful, and far too familiar. When he inhales it’s shaky. Good. Good.Jiang Cheng isn’t even closeto done.

“You want to know why I hate you?” he says, relentless on the attack as though with Sandu in his hand. “Here you go: You spent the last thirteen f*cking years acting like you’re the only one who ever mourned him, when what actuallyhappened is you’re the only one who was allowedto mourn him. What was it like to have no responsibilities? To go wherever you wanted and do whatever you wanted, wearing your f*cking mourning whites like a tragic widow while you looked for him?”

“He deserved to have someone look for him,” Lan Wangji snarls, hand dropping onto Bichen’s hilt where the sword rests on the table and clenching so hard Jiang Cheng expects to hear creaking.

“Of course he did, f*ckface!” Jiang Cheng straight-up yells in Lan Wangji’s f*cking face. “We could have looked for him togetherif you weren’t such an assholeabout it! We did pretty okay at that once, or did you forget that, too?” Lan Wangji rocks back, clearly startled, and oh wow, Jiang Cheng is on a roll now. “You’re the only other person who wanted to save him, and you show up three years after he died and look at me like I’m sh*t on your shoe instead of like someone who might f*cking understand? You got to mourn him in public! I had to mourn him in secret! He--” Jiang Cheng’s voice cracks again, and his eyes burn humiliatingly. “There wasn’t even a body!I couldn’t put him in the ancestral hall! I carved a sh*tty little plaque for him and kept it in a locked chest so I could burn paper money for him in my f*cking roomwhere no one would find out I was mourning the Yiling f*cking Patriarch, and you think you’re the only one who ever loved him? f*ck off!”

Silence rings in the room, in Jiang Cheng’s ears along with his thundering heartbeat. Lan Wangji stares at him like he’s been slapped. Jiang Cheng considers slapping him, just so the look on his useless f*cking face is accurate, but refrains. His lungs burn when he breathes, the same way they do after he’s trained hard. It’s a good burn, familiar. It feels like he’s done work.

“You love him,” Lan Wangji says, after far too long a pause.

“Of course I love him,” Jiang Cheng snaps, the back of his neck hot. “He’s my brother.

Lan Wangji considers him, eyes assessing, his mouth a flat line. “You do not treat him kindly.”

“I don’t treat anyonekindly.” Jiang Cheng bristles defensively, listens to the words that just came out of his mouth, and has to admit Lan Wangji might have a point. “I’m trying,” he says, deflating. “If I was niceto him he’d think I was possessed.”

“His stories about his childhood involve large amounts of yelling and punching,” Lan Wangji says, radiating distaste.

“And is he smiling when he tells them?” Jiang Cheng asks. After a moment of obvious inner turmoil, Lan Wangji nods. Jiang Cheng spreads his hands. “There you go.”

“Wei Ying often smiles when things are unpleasant.”

“Well, yeah,” Jiang Cheng agrees, because duh,“but you’re not clueless, Hanguang-jun. You can tell when he means it.”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji doesn’t sound happyabout it, but he does sound like his heart isn’t in the fight anymore. He inhales slowly, exhales in a long push of air, and actually looks at Jiang Cheng without glaring for the first time in literally years.“He misses you.”

“I know,” Jiang Cheng says snappishly, embarrassment crawling over his skin. Ugh, feelings.The yelling was better than this. “I’ve made it as clear as I can that I want him to come to f*cking Lotus Pier. It’s on him if he doesn’t, now, because I’d have to kidnaphim if he still doesn’t get it.”

“Do not kidnap Wei Ying.”

“I wouldn’t,” Jiang Cheng shoots back. “Do you know how annoying he’d be? I--” His eyes narrow, because Lan Wangji’s face is suddenly too-flat, in a different way than his usual flatness. “Was that a joke.” The stone-faced motherf*cker doesn’t change facial expressions at all, and Jiang Cheng glares at him harder. “That was a joke.” Lan Wangji blinks at him once, and Jiang Cheng throws his hands in the air. “f*ck off! God! Bring him to Lotus Pier yourself! See if I care.”

“You do,” Lan Wangji says, and when Jiang Cheng glares at him some more, “care.” He arranges his sleeves again for no f*cking reason. “Good.”

“Yeah, w