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Jin Zixuan finds her a month or two after she leaves the Jin Sect, traipsing around with a handful of other rogue cultivators on the mountains just out of Gusu’s territory. They’d been hunting down the last of the fierce corpses plaguing a small village after a rough storm had completely overturned their graveyard. He , on the other hand, was on a pleasure trip with his insufferable cousin, heading further west for wine and hairpins. The thought of it only served to remind Mianmian just how much the hoarded wealth and the gaudy opulence sickened her.

And to think that she had once admired the Jin sect. Thought it impressive, something to aspire to. 

He gives her a look-over, and there’s a flash of pity in his eyes at the state of her simpler robes, her unadorned hair, the people she’s keeping company with. It makes her hackles rise, offense hardening her stare, sharpening the tip of her tongue. It’s only by grace of their past friendship that Mianmian doesn’t just leave outright, when Jin Zixuan fails to greet anyone in her party and says, “Mia - Ah, um. Miss Luo Qingyang, it’s been a while.”

“It has,” Mianmian says, her tone polite, but cold. “I hope you have been well.”

“I have been doing as well as anyone, given the circumstances,” Jin Zixuan says with an awkward smile. “I was hoping, perhaps, if… if you’re still in the area by the time we’re done with our business, well. I would very much like to catch up with you. Over a meal, maybe?”

To the side, Jin Zixun crosses his arms and snorts, shooting his cousin a look. He’d always been one of those voices that’d suggested that, perhaps Mianmian had gotten close to Jin Zixuan not because of their similar skills and interests, but on the basis that surely a woman like her must’ve had ulterior motives. Jin Zixuan either hadn’t been aware of such gossip, or had simply thought better to ignore it, because such rumors tended to proliferate any time Mianmian spent any length of time with him. So what if she was the daughter of a servant? Was it really so strange for her to be standing on equal grounds with a fellow cultivator?

One of Mianmian’s new friends, a nice young man named Tan Mingyuan, steps in for her, puffing out his chest like it’d make him more intimidating (or intimidating at all) as he demands, “Young Master, are we also invited to “catch up,” or do you have designs on our Mianmian? Surely, you must know how this looks!”

Jin Zixuan looks both bewildered and affronted that he’d insinuate such a thing, drawing up to his full height to stare the young man down. Mianmian could nearly laugh, watching these two idiots posture at each other. “It’s fine, Tan Mingyuan,” she sighs, gently nudging Tan Mingyuan aside before either of them (or Jin Zixun) could start anything. “He’s… an old friend.” And not someone you could afford to cross, she really ought to add, even if the thought of it makes her mouth contort in an effort not to laugh.

When she glances over at Jin Zixuan, the awkward, appeasing look in his eyes smoothes into something a little more hopeful at the idea of being called an old friend. “It looks like we’ll be in town at least until tomorrow. There are still too many dead unaccounted for to call our task complete just yet,” she explains, using the same sort of voice she uses for the village heads that require their assistance.

Jin Zixuan doesn’t seem to pick up on the distance she’s trying to enforce, because he smiles, bright and handsome, and says, “I’ll send a messenger butterfly when Zixun and I have finished our business, then.”

Jin Zixun makes a petulant little sound at the thought of being made to wait while his cousin talks to some girl. Jin Zixuan clearly hears it, because his smile turns strained at the edges, as he pats Mianmian on the arm and says, “I, uh. I’m really glad to see that you’re well. I’d been worried.”

“Mm,” Mianmian hums, hardly deeming it worthy of a proper response, given the fact that he hadn’t even gone after her when she left. Lan Wangji went after her, and he’d barely spoken two words to her.

Jin Zixuan lingers a moment longer, looking a bit like he had more to say, but nothing comes out. Instead, he gives her a shy little nod, and turns to join his cousin.

 

--

 

Corralling corpses isn’t an easy task when there’s a whole mountain to scour, even with five people involved. With the villagers working to tally the missing dead and bury whatever Mianmian and her team had managed to pacify, things go much more smoothly than expected. Of course, they’re still only about 70% done by the time Mianmian receives the messenger butterfly. Tan Mingyuan scrunches up his nose at the sight of it, but his sister, Tan Liyang, nudges her shoulder with a sly grin. “Go on,” she says, winking at Mianmian. “He looked pretty fancy. An old friend, you say?”

Mianmian rolls her eyes. “It’s not like that.”

“Well if you don’t want him, I wouldn’t mind taking him instead,” she laughs, squeezing Mianmian’s shoulders.

“He’s insufferable. You’d try to strangle him in a day,” Mianmian laughs, slipping out of Tan Liyang’s hands. “You sure you’ll be alright without me?”

“Just ‘cuz you’re the strongest of us doesn’t mean we can’t handle it on our own,” Li Yitian calls from over where she’s just finished setting up a few evil-repelling wards.  “It’s just a few fierce corpses.”

“Yeah, yeah. Alright,” Mianmian says. “I’ll be back later.”

“If he tries anything funny - “ Tan Mingyuan starts, crossing his arms over his chest.

“He’s got a fiance. He won’t start anything,” Mianmian reassures him, slapping him hard on the back. “Besides, you think I can’t fend for myself? I beat you to the ground three times the other day.”

Tan Mingyuan splutters and turns red, mumbling excuses as Mianmian hops on her sword.

 

--

 

The restaurant Jin Zixuan chooses is, of course, the terribly lavish sort of place where only the wealthy can afford to dine. When she walks in, the serving girl looks unsurely at her rough-spun robes. Before Mianmian can even roll her eyes, Jin Zixuan is coming up to meet her, waving the serving girl off as he personally escorts Mianmian to their private dining room. It overlooks a pretty river, glittering with lantern-lit boats. A far cry from roughing it in the woods, eating paltry rations over a campfire.

Jin Zixun, thankfully, is not there. “I sent him off ahead,” Jin Zixuan explains, a hesitant little smile on his face, as if waiting to be acknowledged for doing a good job. “I know you’re not exactly fond of him.”

Mianmian snorts. “Name someone who legitimately is.”

Jin Zixuan laughs, quiet and unsure. “I’m sorry I didn’t come find you sooner. I missed you.”

Mianmian shoots him a look that he cringes and shrinks back from. Point made, Mianmian takes a sip of the tea they’ve provided and sits primly in her chair.

Jin Zixuan swallows hard and looks down at his hands.

“So what did you need from me?” Mianmian asks, getting down to business. The sooner she gets done with this, the sooner she can go back and help the others. After all, even if she’s getting dinner now, the others won’t, if they don’t finish soon.

Jin Zixuan frowns. “Is that what you think of me?” he asks, sounding hurt.

“Have you or your sect given me any reason to think otherwise?” Mianmian asks, giving JIn Zixuan a pointed look.

Jin Zixuan caves. WIth a sigh, he tangles his fingers together as he tries to put together the right words to say. “You’re not wrong,” he eventually admits. “I did have a favor to ask of you. But I did genuinely worry for you.”

Mianmian snorts. “Yes. I can certainly tell, given how it took you more than a month to find me. I hadn’t gone far. Our peers have been failing to keep up with their duties, it seems,” she says with a grim laugh.

Jin Zixuan’s lips pull into a thin line. Evidently, he’s aware. Whether he’s done anything about it is another matter altogether. “Are you aware of what’s become of Wei Wuxian in the time you’ve been gone?” he asks, instead.

“I’ve been hearing rumors. He’s taken the Wen fugitives and run to the burial mounds,” Mianmian says, finding it difficult to see the connection between Wei Wuxian and what Jin Zixuan could possibly want from her.

“Yes,” Jin Zixuan says. “The sects are… conflicted about it.”

“Mm,” Mianmian hums.

There’s a pause in the conversation as the waitstaff brings in plates and plates of food. Mianmian hasn’t had so sumptuous a meal since she’d left Lanling. On her admittedly meager income as a rogue cultivator, she’d been living largely on pickled vegetables and rice, as well as whatever the village heads could offer them. But she sure as hell isn’t going to let Jin Zixuan see that.

She’s slow as she picks morsels from the spread and sets it on her bowl of rice. Jin Zixuan pushes the braised spare ribs closer to her with that hopeful, good-dog sort of look on his face. It warms something in her chest, that he remembers her favorite. Just a bit. Not enough to properly forgive him.

“So, what is it about Wei Wuxian that needs my attention?” Mianmian asks, and gods, if this isn’t the best thing she’s tasted in forever. She wishes she could bring some back to the team.

Jin Zixuan blushes, shakes his head. “It’s… not about him.”

Ah.

“Your fiance, then,” Mianmian says. He’d finally made some progress with her during the discussion conference… and then, of course, Wei Wuxian happened. As he is often wont to do.

Jin Zixuan nods, looking down at his bowl. “She thinks of him as a brother. I… I’m sure that she’s… not taking it well. I… wanted to check in with her.”

“So...?” Mianmian asks. “What, do you want me to pay a social visit? I hardly know her.”

“Well, no, I - “ Jin Zixuan mumbles, shrinking back in embarrassment. Somehow, though, he finds his courage, because he takes one of Mianmian’s hands in his and says, “You’d always been an incredible writer. The best I’d ever read. Better than Professor Jin by miles.”

Mianmian snorts, pulling her hand away. She doesn’t miss the way Jin Zixuan’s face falls at the blatant rejection. She makes him wait a little longer, until she’s done picking out some of the greens and setting it in her bowl. “Flattery won’t get you anywhere. I’m not going to write your fiance love letters for you.”

That has him perking up. “No, no, no - I just. If you just looked it over for me,” he says, hurried and hopeful and a little desperate.

Mianmian levels a look at him. “You could get anyone to look it over,” she says dryly. It’s been, what, a month and a half maybe? Had he seriously been sitting on this letter for a month and a half? So much for progress.

Jin Zixuan blushes, and it looks pretty enough on his face that he looks like a bashful young man rather than the idiot he is. “I don’t trust anyone. I trust you.”

Mianmian looks at him, long and hard. He’s so earnest, sometimes, that it’s hard to remember he’s Jin blood. She can’t say no to him, not when she knows how hard he tries to do what’s right and good. A rarity, in a sect paved in gold.

With a long, weary sigh, she holds out her hand. “Alright, pass it over.”

He looks like she personally promised to get Jiang Yanli to fall madly in love with him, as he digs into his qiankun pouch and produces a crinkled piece of paper. “Here’s my first draft,” he says, steeling himself. “Please - please don’t hold back.”

“I don’t intend to,” Mianmian says primly, as she swipes the paper from his hand. He looks so hopeful, like he’s leaving his entire life in her hands.

She gets two paragraphs in before she has to set it down.

“This is terrible,” she tells him, point blank.

He winces, as if she struck him.

“One, she isn’t a sect diplomat, so dispense with the formality. You’re trying to be personable and charismatic. You’re not writing to her brother,” Mianmian says, “And two, you are not your father. Please do not try to flatter her with bullshit like how pretty her eyes are. Do you even remember the last time you looked deeply in her eyes, or whatever?”

Jin Zixuan looks properly cowed. Mianmian really can’t tell him to fuck off when he looks like a kicked dog. He’s trying his best. She knows. He’s trying his best, but there’s still a lot he doesn’t know.

Like how to comfort a woman who probably feels like she’s lost yet another member of her family.

Mianmian sighs. Tells herself that a couple hours of her time and sanity is worth such a delicious dinner. “Alright, let’s fix this up.”

 

It takes two hours, and by the end of it, Mianmian has a budding headache and a full bladder. They’ve picked the table clean and ordered another two pots of tea in between their brainstorming and squabbling, their traded in-jokes and legitimate catching up. Mianmian can’t help it, that she laughs so much in those two hours. It’ll take a whole lot more from Jin Zixuan to make her forgive him, but she can’t help but remember why they’d become friends in the first place.

When the ink is dry enough for Jin Zixuan to fold up the new draft of the letter and tuck it into his qiankun pouch, he smiles bashfully at Mianmian again. “I have another request. You can turn it down, but if you’d like to take it up, I’ll compensate you properly for it.”

Mianmian sighs, rubbing her temples. “What do you need, then?”

“I, ah. I would like for you to deliver it for me,” he says, eyes bright and a little hopeful.

Mianmian levels him with a glare that has him flinching back again, like the past two hours hadn’t happened. “There are plenty of courier services available. Use one of those.”

Jin Zixuan frowns. “Very few of them are as fast as a cultivator on a sword. And of the ones that do consist of cultivators… well, you can understand why I wouldn’t trust them.”

He’s got a point there. But Mianmian doesn’t want to. She’s just started hitting her stride with this group of rogue cultivators she’s been working alongside. They like her. They like her ideas. And most importantly: they’re honest and good at what they do.

“Why does it have to be me?” Mianmian groans.

“Because I trust you,” Jin Zixuan says, again with that earnest look on his face.

She shouldn’t even consider it. It’s certainly nothing she needs to bother herself with, least of all for him. And yet - “Alright. I’ll do it just this once. how much are you going to pay me?”

“Is ten silver taels reasonable? Twenty-five, if you personally deliver Jiang Yanli’s response,” he says, and holy shit - ten silver taels?!

“Are you serious?” Mianmian asks, incredulous.

“Is it not enough?” Jin Zixuan asks, frowning.

Not enough - Young Master Jin, that's practically the monthly salary of a minor official. And you’re offering this for one trip?! ” she hisses at him.

Jin Zixuan slowly nods, looking wide-eyed and foolish. Like a stupid animal caught in a trap.

“Do you think I’m a charity case, Jin Zixuan? Just because I can’t match up to - to the splendor that of the Jin Sect anymore, doesn’t mean you can take pity on me!” she snarls, getting up to her feet. Jin Zixuan has that look on his face, that oh-gods-I-fucked-up-didn’t-I look that almost never leaves his face when he’s with Jiang Yanli. She knows he doesn’t mean anything by it, she does, but he can’t possibly not know how much a trip like this should cost. He’s going to be a sect leader, for goodness sake!

“I - that’s not what I intended,” he says in a small, small voice. “I just - I hold you in high esteem, Mianmian, I - “

“Don’t you Mianmian me, Jin Zixuan! You lost that right the moment you stood by and let your cousin and all the other cultivators in that room lambast me for standing up for what’s right!” she snarls, getting right to her feet.

He looks painfully guilty. Like a kicked dog.

“I - I’m sorry,” he says. Mianmian ought to feel happy about the guilt in his voice, and yet it only serves to make her madder. 

“If you were sorry, you should’ve said something,” Mianmian says, and oh, oh gods, oh no - she can feel the tell-tale prickling behind her eyes, the awful heat high in her sinuses. She didn’t even cry when she was practically pilloried by a bunch of shitty old men calling themselves sect leaders. But she really can’t help it - it had hurt, standing up there, alone and humiliated. Watching as a man who she’d thought was her friend stood by and let it happen.

“I’m sorry,” he says again, like that means anything.

“Fuck your I’m sorry, ” Mianmian says, her voice cracking on a sob. She hates this. She hates this. She never should’ve come. She never should’ve thought of him as her old friend. “Do better, Jin Zixuan. Do better. You’re going to be sect leader one day. You can’t just - “ Mianmian shudders, trying to breathe in deep, to crest the wave of yet another sob. “You can’t pretend you’re a good person if you just sit there and let the bad people run free.”

Jin Zixuan looks thoroughly ashamed as Mianmian gets to her feet and stomps off, pushing past the poor waitress coming in to check on them.

 

--

 

Mianmian’s just finished putting her things down, when the others step into the room for the night. She tries to put on a brave face for the girls, because Li Yitian and Tan Liyang look exhausted and they don’t need her bullshit on top of it, but there’s no mistaking the redness in her eyes.

Tan Liyang is the first one to pipe up, her intensity (and unfortunately, her keen eyes) an exact match for her brother’s. “Mianmian, what happened?” she asks, voice soft and sweet. “Were you crying? What did that young master do to you?”

“It’s nothing - “ Mianmian says, hands coming up to scrub at her face like it’d help the redness go away. “He didn’t do anything to me, I just - “ She bites her lip and lets go of a shivery breath. “Just ignore it. I’m not going to see him again for a long time. How was the hunt?”

Tan Liyang clearly wants to say something, or maybe storm up to Jin Zixuan and hassle him, or something, but Li Yitian, bless her soul, only smiles reassuringly, setting a comforting hand on Mianmian’s shoulder. “Well, we’ve got most of the corpses settled and accounted for,” she begins, and Mianmian is so glad Li Yitian is here - otherwise Tan Liyang would’ve been bugging Mianmian about it for ages. “We’re still missing the remains for the Wu family and the Luo family, but I think we’ll be able to finish everything by tomorrow. You should’ve seen it - Tan Liyang pulled in most of them today.”

“That’s good news,” Mianmian says, putting on a smile as Tan Liyang launches into a thrilling and not-entirely-accurate account of how she’d managed to wrangle three fierce corpses at once.

 

--

 

They complete the mission on time and help the villagers re-bury and perform rites for the dead. In thanks, the village head hosts a small banquet for them and compensates them with a single silver tael split between the five of them for their efforts. All things considered, it’s pretty generous for a team of rogue cultivators.

Mianmian thinks about Jin Zixuan’s wide-eyed look, when she’d practically spat in the face of his ten taels. The trip wouldn’t have taken more than two days by sword. The route isn’t even particularly treacherous.

She doesn’t need the money - she can find enough work as a rogue cultivator to keep herself fed. But… well, it wouldn’t be quite so bad to not have to worry about whether she’d have enough for a room at a village inn. It wouldn’t be quite so bad, if she could help out when she sees Li Yitian looking wistfully at the hairpins for sale at the market, or when she sees Tan Mingyuan eyeing the dignified jade ornaments for his belt, or when she sees Xiao Wenzhou bashfully chatting with the bookseller.

It isn’t fair. It really isn’t fair.

 

--

 

Mianmian gets a messenger butterfly the next day. It’s from Jin Zixuan, entreating her to reconsider, or at the very least come see him. She disperses the golden qi with her fist, disgusted with herself for even considering it.

 

--

 

They decide to head further north, closer to Qinghe. They’re not all strong fliers, but that’s okay; she kind of likes walking. It’s nice to see things from the ground. She’s seen all sorts of interesting new things since she’d stopped being a Jin disciple.

Of course, it’s just her luck that when the Tan siblings and Xiao Wenzhou run off to forage a little extra for dinner, that they run into Jin Zixuan. To his credit, he saves them from a scaled boar (which meant 1, dinner; 2, Jin Zixuan was now Tan Mingyuan’s new favorite person; and 3, Mianmian seriously owed him a favor now), but she very much does not want to deal with him.

Tan Liyang picks up on it quickly and tries to make Jin Zixuan as uncomfortable as humanly possible by playing up the oh-great-and-handsome-young-master-how-could-I-ever-thank-you angle, but he completely ignores her (increasingly physical) advances. He just slips around her when she tries a last-ditch attempt to grab him around the waist and marches right on up to Mianmian with a determined gleam in his eyes. Of course, when he gets within a comfortable speaking distance, he just... stands there, staring awkwardly at her, mouth flapping. Like he’d completely forgotten what he’d meant to say, now that he’s actually here.

“Hello, Young Master Jin,” Mianmian says, praying she looks mean enough to scare him away.

Instead, Jin Zixuan makes an embarrassingly formal bow, and says, loud enough to scare birds out of the trees, “Miss Luo Qingyang, I would like to formally apologize to you for my recent behavior! I entreat you to reconsider your dismissal of our friendship. As a mark of my goodwill, I would like to invite you and your colleagues to the Carp Tower as honored guests!”

Mianmian feels the looks of awe and hope in her team’s eyes at Jin Zixuan’s offer. “I pass,” she grits out.

Jin Zixuan deflates, looking helplessly at her. Unsure of what else to say, but too stubborn to leave just yet. Her friends also deflate, the dream of enjoying a few days in luxury out of this young master’s pocket having been violently dashed to pieces.

Mianmian sighs, bringing a hand to her temple as she says, “Can we speak in private?”

Jin Zixuan perks up and nods, a tentative smile on his face as he waits for her to get up and lead the way.

 

“Okay, first of all,” Mianmian starts, as soon as they’ve walked a good distance away from the rest of camp (though, if she were to be honest, she wouldn’t be surprised if they’d sent someone to eavesdrop), “You do not get to throw around your money to try and weaponize my friends against me!”

Jin Zixuan looks alarmed, “I wasn’t - “

Second of all, you do not get to interrupt me when you’re trying to apologize.”

Jin Zixuan shuts his mouth with an audible click, standing ramrod straight. It’d be hilarious, if it weren’t for the fact that Mianmian is still a little mad at him.

“And third: don’t you ever harass a girl after she’s told you no. And were you stalking me?!”

Jin Zixuan waits a moment to see if she’s done, before saying, “No - no, I wasn’t, I swear! You told me you wanted me to find you. So… I found you.”

Mianmian breathes out a harsh sigh, crossing her arms over her chest as she levels him with the hardest glare she could muster. “Are you doing this just so that I can send your stupid letter?”

“No - “ Jin Zixuan starts, before saying, “I mean, well, if you still wanted to, I would like for it to be you, but I do have a courier lined up in the case that you don’t. Mia - Erm, Miss Luo Qingyang, I really meant it when I said that I missed our friendship. That I worried after you. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t regret asking you to stay.”

Mianmian’s lips pull into a thin line. And then, begrudgingly, she holds out her hand. “I owe you. For protecting the others. But this is a one time thing, do you understand me?” she asks, her voice hard and stern. Emulating Madame Jin’s ire. 

Jin Zixuan reacts appropriately. Carefully, he pulls a small parcel out of his qiankun pouch and hands it to her with both hands. Respectful.

Mianmian rewards that respect by taking it just as carefully and putting it in her own qiankun pouch. 

After an awkward pause, she says, “Are you going to join us for dinner, or are you planning on going back to the Carp Tower?”

Jin Zixuan’s eyebrows rise in surprise, but it isn’t long before he smiles, big and handsome. Hopeful. “I’ll stay. If you’ll have me.”

Mianmian rolls her eyes as she brushes past him. But she can’t seem to muster up any heat to back it up.

 

--

 

Dinner with Jin Zixuan is awkward, but he tries. He stands out in this mismatched group of cultivators, too used to being the heir of a prominent sect to be able to truly connect. But the Tan siblings are good at making him feel welcome, offering him sips of bitter liquor and nudging him to tell them about the discussion conferences and fancy hunts he’s been on. That, at the very least, is something Zixuan is good at - he can talk for ages about his conquests, most of which Mianmian’s absolutely heard before. But Tan Mingyuan’s got stars in his eyes at his tales of heroism, and Xiao Wenzhou loves hearing about the monsters Jin Zixuan’s hunted, so she can forgive Jin Zixuan for going on and on (and on, and on). 

Before long, the sun sinks below the sky and Jin Zixuan has to beg his leave. Before he goes, he leaves a bit of travelling money for Mianmian - an amount the others absolutely boggle over, despite how he very clearly was trying not to go over the top.

Of course, that prompts an entire slew of questions from the group once he’s out of earshot. Mianmian only answers the bare minimum, reminding them that this is only going to happen once, but they’re all so dazzled by the splendor that she can’t help but indulge a few of their questions. Li Yitian is absolutely enamored with Jin Zixuan’s “love story,” cooing over Jin Zixuan’s side of the story like he was some fairytale prince. Quite frankly, it’s hilarious, given that Mianmian had witnessed that entire mess first hand and knows, for a fact, that Jin Zixuan’s overtures had always been the opposite of “fairytale prince.”

Eventually, Mianmian admits that she’ll be gone for about a week as a favor to him. The others are understanding about it - supportive, even - and agree to meet up with her at an inn in Qinghe in a week’s time.

Mianmian’s got half a mind to leave the money with the team, knowing how much the inns in Qinghe cost, but she knows they probably wouldn’t have accepted it, even if they wanted to. She’ll just have to be quick, so as not to make them spend too long waiting after her.

 

The next morning, after breakfast, she hugs them all goodbye and then zips off on her sword. The journey isn’t so bad - it’s lonely, but she makes good time. It’d been a while since she’d felt the ache of flying for hours - both in her feet and in her core. It feels good, in a different way from taking the long route. Exhilarating.

She’s exhausted by the time it hits hour 7 or 8, so she inevitably must stop and camp out. It’s been an age and a half since she’s been out near Yunmeng, and it hardly even looks like they’d been ravaged by war. She’s not actually in Yunmeng proper, but it sure feels like it, what with the humidity (and the mosquitos, ugh ) and all.

It’s beautiful. 

As she lays amongst the tall sedgegrass, staring up at the nighttime sky, she thinks she really ought to get back into her daily training routine.