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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.

Chapter Text

If she’d thought Yunmeng was pretty in the evening, it couldn’t compare to its beauty in the full light of day. With its iridescent lakes and its lush grasses, its bright blue skies and docile wildlife, the place looks like it’d come out of a dream.

Mianmian feels a bit like a little girl again as she sped close to the water’s edge, skimming the sparkling waters with the tips of her fingers and laughing as she scares away a few freshwater fish. Once or twice, a lotus farmer calls out and waves, all too used to the cultivators in Yunmeng helping out where they can. Mianmian laughs and waves back, darting out of their lakes, not unlike all the fish she’s spooked.

She really ought to take the others down this way - even if Sect Leader Jiang was meticulous about keeping the area around Yunmeng protected, she’s sure they’d manage to find work. Besides, the others would enjoy the change in scenery.

As she gets closer to the Lotus Piers proper, she can’t help but linger at the gates and look. Sure, it’s no Carp Tower, but the Lotus Piers has its own special charm. Sect Leader Jiang had managed to seamlessly build over the scars of Wen occupation, returning the Piers to something as close to what his parents had left him as possible. But even then, the differences run deep - a brash liveliness that comes from a young community; an altered skyline from the freshly built diaojiaolou - stilt houses - that overlook the piers; a careful consideration for the lakes and the fauna that had deteriorated over the past few centuries, the inevitable result of striving to keep up with their peers.

Although the new Lotus Piers lacked the rustic elegance of unbroken generations, Mianmian thinks that somehow, perhaps, it had grown closer to its core roots than before. Sect Leader Jiang had made it a place that knew the meaning of loss, a place that knew the meaning of reclaiming that loss, scars and all. A place that embodied the motto - to attempt the impossible. And now, more than ever, it felt human in a way that the great cultivational sects had forgotten how to be.

Mianmian wouldn’t mind settling out here someday, after she’s done with all the travelling and cultivating. She could probably even pretend to be a villager, stay out of the politics of the cultivation world for good.

They’re thoughts for another time, as a couple of disciples guarding the gates cheerfully welcome her into the Lotus Piers. It’s reassuring, to see that even after the losses of war, he’d still managed to earn the loyalty of so many disciples. But it’s clear, now, that a lot of them are fresh. That Sect Leader Jiang is fresh.

When she tells them that she’d like an audience not with Sect Leader Jiang, but with his sister, their faces go a bit bewildered. Like Sect Leader Jiang hadn’t established a protocol for such a thing. It’s… kind of telling and kind of sad, Mianmian thinks, that the disciples have to pass her around to more and more senior disciples, until one of them finally caves and tells her that she’d best speak to Sect Leader Jiang first.

Does Jiang Yanli not get many visitors? Sure, Sect Leader Jiang was notoriously protective of his sister, but surely she had friends. People to visit her. Couriers to send her letters and gifts.

She couldn’t have been all alone in these months following the war.

Mianmian thinks of Jin Zixuan - surrounded by people that cared about him and depended upon him, yes. But standoffish. Distant. Unpracticed with people who weren’t obligated to listen to him. Unpracticed with vulnerability, with being human. Ultimately, unfortunately, alone.

She swallows down the weight that’s formed in her chest and holds her head up high as a small group of merchants leaves the audience chamber and she’s let in.

When she meets Sect Leader Jiang’s eye, he looks stricken. Like he recognizes her. Like he remembers what she did. What she said.

She’d never expected that she’d make an impression on him, too caught up in her anger, her outrage over the hypocrisy and complacency in the room.

He’d been one of them, too. He hadn’t said a single thing in Wei Wuxian’s defense.

“Sect Leader Jiang,” Mianmian says, greeting him with a formal bow.

“Please. It’s fine, Miss - “ Sect Leader Jiang starts, before, in embarrassment, he says, “I’m sorry. I was never told your name. I only know you by - I only remember your nickname.”

“I apologize for my rudeness. My name is Luo Qingyang,” she says, straightening up. Watching as he watched her.

They stand there in awkward silence, before Sect Leader Jiang says, “That time, at the discussion conference… thank you for defending Wei Wuxian.”

Oh. She hadn’t expected that.

“I was only saying what needed to be said,” she says. Prim and proper. No fingers pointed.

Sect Leader Jiang flinches back anyways, like he’d been struck. Mianmian had heard that Wei Wuxian and Sect Leader Jiang had a big fight when Wei Wuxian defected from the sect. And yet, here is Sect Leader Jiang, thanking her for caring about the very man he cast out.

“You were forced to leave your sect. For a man that hadn’t even known what you did for him,” Sect Leader Jiang says, eyeing her simple robes. Nothing like the layers and layers of fine silk she’d once worn. Offence rises at the back of her throat, snarling and biting.

“I was not forced to leave my sect,” Mianmian explains, voice clipped. Her hands rest at the small of her back, legs shoulder width apart. Stable. Powerful. “I chose to leave of my own volition after witnessing the clear corruption in my sect. I could not stand to wear their emblem any longer.”

Sect Leader Jiang swallows and nods. “Your dedication to justice and morality is laudable,” he says quietly. And then, after a pause -  “If you’d like… there’s room in Yunmeng for you. We would be honored to have someone like you among our ranks.”

Mianmian’s chest squeezes, almost painfully. At least someone recognizes her. Even if it’s months too late.

Instead of responding, she chokes out, “I’m here to request an audience with your sister.”

“Oh,” he says awkwardly. “I believe she’s in the kitchens. I’ll have a disciple escort you there.”

“Thank you,” Mianmian says, bowing graciously at Sect Leader Jiang. He looks like he wants to stop her, to tell her to stand straight, as if they were equals. Not unlike Jin Zixuan.

A senior disciple practically comes running, eager, maybe, to look good in front of Sect Leader Jiang. Sect Leader Jiang politely dismisses them both, and then Mianmian is subject to the labyrinthine innards of the Lotus Piers. It’s not unlike Qinghe’s fortress, built into a mountain and made to accommodate nature’s whims. Straight pathways are broken by odd angles, made to accommodate the unsteady wetland ground. Units are built in imperfect locations, courtyards not perfectly square. It’s pretty, Mianmian thinks, as she walks across delicate, bridge-like pathways that criss cross over the streams of water below, linking the different units of the Piers together.

“You like it?” the disciple asks, turning around to face Mianmian as she walks ahead. “Maiden Jiang was the one that came up with the bridges. It’s a little inconvenient, but I think it’s pretty.”

Mianmian looks around, taking note of how each bridge begins as closely as possible to a given entrance, while also maintaining an aesthetically pleasing formation. It was impressive, given that most of the units, recently built or otherwise, didn’t exactly line up well. 

“It’s nice,” Mianmian says, running her hand along one of the carefully latticed rails. “Maiden Jiang has a skilled eye.”

“Right? Don’t tell Sect Leader Jiang I told you this, but I’m so glad he listened to her advice. He wanted to try and make it exactly like Lotus Pier used to be, but if he got his way, we’d still be building!”

Mianmian huffs a quiet laugh. “I like it the way it is. Sometimes a fresh start is what you need.”

“Exactly!” the disciple says. “Anyways, here we are!” She looks excited as she eagerly pushes Mianmian in.

The heat of the cooking fire hits Mianmian like a wall the moment she steps through the door. The absolutely mouthwatering smell hits her right after, even harder than the heat had. Her knees wobble a little, as she remembers the last thing she had eaten was a cheap mantou she’d picked up a few towns away from the Lotus Piers. Even though she could easily go days without eating - well, her stomach doesn’t quite have that same sort of discipline. 

The disciple grins knowingly at her, detaching herself from Mianmian’s side to swan on over to the lone figure in lavender, sipping from a little tasting bowl. “Is there any for me, Maiden Jiang?” she croons, peering over Jiang Yanli’s shoulder like a begging cat.

Jiang Yanli laughs, quiet and warm as she teasingly pokes the disciple’s forehead. “A-Yue,” she says, gentle even as she chides her. “If Sect Leader Jiang knew you were begging so shamelessly, he’d have you run another twenty laps,” she says, even as she reaches up to a cabinet and grabs a little bowl for the disciple.

“Even if he had me run forty, it’d be worth it,” the disciple laughs, delight growing as she watches Jiang Yanli spoon the beautifully glistening pork ribs into the bowl.

“When you’re done eating, don’t forget to bring my bowl back, okay? Why don’t you run off and fulfill the rest of your duties, hm? A-Cheng won’t be happy to see his head disciple goofing off!” Jiang Yanli says, patting the disciple’s hand affectionately.

“Yes, ma’am!” the disciple says, trotting off like a cat that’d stolen a particularly delicious morsel of fish.

When Jiang Yanli turns to face Mianmian, she understands, a little bit, why Jin Zixuan might be so besotted with her. While she didn't quite leave an impression, as far as her looks or her demeanor went, Mianmian knew, at her very core, that this person in front of her was one of the few that she could say, with absolute and unerring sureness, was proof that there was good in the world.

Or maybe, she was just really, really hungry.

Jiang Yanli’s perpetual smile quirks up a little higher as she asks, “Would you like some, too? I’ve just about finished.”

Mianmian swallows hard and pulls her parcel out from her qiankun pouch, holding it out with both hands as she strikes a formal bow. “My name is Luo Qingyang. I’ve come on behalf of Jin Zixuan. As a token of his high esteem, please accept this letter!”

“Oh!” Jiang Yanli says, in such a way that Mianmian can’t help but glance up. Her eyes are wide and gleaming with surprise, her cheeks taking on a rosy flush - not from the oppressive heat of the kitchen, but from genuine delight. Ah, she’s so pretty like this. Just as pretty as any of the delicate blossoms flitting about the Carp Tower.

Jiang Yanli approaches Mianmian, and she quite nearly drops the parcel, thinking Jiang Yanli would take it in hand. But instead, Jiang Yanli delicately touches her hands to Mianmian’s wrists, urging her, with just the slightest pressure, to stand up. “Please,” she says with a heart-fluttering smile. “Join me for a meal?”

Mianmian can’t exactly say no, can she?

 

These pork ribs are so delicious Mianmian could cry. The ones she’d had at the restaurant were good, yes, but surely, they had nothing on Jiang Yanli’s cooking.

It’s just the two of them sitting here at this little table, overlooking the pretty courtyard. It should feel awkward, given that she’s hanging out with Jin Zixuan’s fiancee, with whom she’s never properly spoken to, but surprisingly… it doesn’t. Jiang Yanli is frighteningly good at making people feel welcome, focusing her attention solely on them. They talk as if they were old friends catching up, and not once does she try to pry open the little parcel, even though it’s clear she wants to. As they slowly make their way through the pork ribs and the vegetable soup, Mianmian catches her absently stroking the artisanal wooden box.

When Mianmian finishes her first bowl, she can’t help but derail their current conversation with a, “That was probably the best meal I’ve had in years. Thank you, Maiden Jiang.”

Jiang Yanli flushes, ducking her head in bashful pleasure. “Oh, please. You flatter me,” she smiles. Mianmian finds herself wanting to make Jiang Yanli smile more.

“It’s the truth!” Mianmian insists. “You can really tell when someone cares while they’re cooking. Do you cook often?” The Yunmeng Jiangs are easily recovered enough to hire cooks - it’s rare for a woman of higher upbringing to cook often. And yet, clearly Jiang Yanli is well practiced in the art.

Jiang Yanli shrugs, humble. “I suppose I do. I’ve always found it… comforting,” she admits. “It’s hard to let your thoughts stray when you’ve got a knife in hand, you know.” She laughs at that, but it sounds a little distracted, a little hollow.

Mianmian frowns. “I take it you’ve had a lot to think about lately, huh?”

Jiang Yanli slowly nods, just once. Like it’s embarrassing to admit it. Like she’s not used to confiding in someone else.

The thought breaks Meanmian’s heart. “If you want, you can tell me about it. I don’t mind. You can rest assured that I won’t tell anyone - being a rogue cultivator and all, I doubt I’ll get a chance to spill your secrets, even if I wanted to,” she promises, with as comforting a smile as she can give.

Jiang Yanli frowns - “You’re not with the Jin Sect anymore?”

It’s a deflection, a clear one, even if she sounds genuinely concerned. In the little time she’s spoken with Jiang Yanli, they’ve mostly spent it talking about things… other than her. Mianmian gets the impression it’s less because she and Jiang Yanli are only acquaintances, and more because… well, Jiang Yanli doesn’t seem the sort to share her burdens. Not quite unlike her brothers.

Mianmian isn’t about to add to her burdens. “It’s a long story,” Mianmian laughs. “But trust me, I chose to. No tears were wasted on that decision, trust me.”

Jiang Yanli looks at her for a long moment, before saying, “You’re very, very brave, Maiden Luo.”

“You really don’t have to - I’m not - “ Mianmian starts, but Jiang Yanli sets a gentle hand on hers and her thoughts completely fizzle out. “Y-you can just call me Mianmian,“ she finally chokes out, staring down at where their hands touch. She can’t bring herself to look Jiang Yanli in the eye.

“Then you can call me A-Li,” Jiang Yanli says back, voice warm. Smiling.

“I couldn’t possibly - that’s - “ Mianmian manages. “It’s improper, when you’re - and I’m - It’d be too overfamiliar.”

“And ‘Mianmian’ isn’t?” Jiang Yanli laughs, soft and bell-like.

“I mean, everyone calls me that,” she mumbles, embarrassed. “Can’t I call you by name?”

“No honorifics,” Jiang Yanli demands - at least as demanding as one can get, when smiling so indulgently.

Mianmian bites her lip, glancing up at Jiang Yanli.

“Otherwise, I’ll keep calling you Maiden Luo,” Jiang Yanli sing-songs. It’s terribly embarrassing, but Mianmian has to concede defeat.

“Alright, alright,” she says, warmth blooming in her chest. She can’t help but smile - that’s just what Jiang Yanli does to a person, Mianmian supposes. “If you’re really so stubborn about it, Jiang Yanli.”

“Okay, Mianmian,” Jiang Yanli smiles back. It’s wide, genuine. “Would you like another helping?”

Mianmian nods, cheeks warm from smiling so much as she nudges her bowl closer. Jiang Yanli fills both their bowls with another serving and easily moves the conversation elsewhere.

 

When both of them can hardly stand to eat another bite, Mianmian gently nudges Jiang Yanli to open the parcel. After hardly any coaxing she does, cutting the twine off with the knife she’d brought for the white peaches, careful not to touch the blade to the box, as if it’d scratch the lacquer. It was a pretty thing, with its delicate, peony cutouts and almost luminous mother-of-pearl inlays. Knowing Jin Zixuan, it was probably made specifically for whatever he’d bought her. It wasn’t especially large, after all.

“Oh,” Jiang Yanli says, blinking as she delicately pulls out the hairpin.

Oh is right. The hairpin is gaudy even for Lanling standards. It’s well-made, of course, but the wrought-gold peony is huge , just about as big as a real one, Mianmian figures. It completely overshadows the secondary design elements. And the dripping trails of pearls and rubies? Practically an afterthought. A very jingly, very tangly afterthought.

There is no doubt in Mianmian’s mind that that hairpin had been designed by a man who was very good at making jewelry, and very bad at knowing what women liked. It is also the exact sort of present someone like Jin Zixuan would’ve gotten for someone, given that he’s obnoxiously wealthy and therefore anything within the realm of normal, practical gift-giving sounded too pedestrian. 

Mianmian says as much to Jiang Yanli, who can’t help but choke out a laugh, out of both surprise that Mianmian would badmouth him right to his fiance’s face and relief that she didn’t have to be the one that said it. Mianmian can’t help but laugh either, which makes Jiang Yanli laugh even harder, until she has to fan her own face to keep from crying in laughter.

“That’s not a hairpin,” Miamian says, motioning to the very size of it, “It’s practically a weapon! What kind of dangers does he think you’ll encounter out here? You could club something to death with it, I swear!”

“Stop, Mianmiman, stop, my stomach hurts!” Jiang Yanli sobs, pouring tea out for both of them with laughter-shaky hands. She spills a little bit, and Mianmian can’t help but delight in the fact that Jiang Yanli was so amused that she couldn’t compose herself at all.

“I swear on both my parents’ graves that I had no say whatsoever in the selection of this hairpin. Gods above, it sure is ugly,“ Mianmian sighs, trying to keep the laughter from bubbling up again. “Do you want to try it on?”

Jiang Yanli flushes, her laughter turning to embarrassment. “Something like that surely wouldn’t suit me,” she says, glancing away from Mianmian, down at the hairpin. Like before, she can’t help but rub her thumb against the gift, like it was something precious that she couldn’t help but care for.

Mianmian watches her, the way she curls shyly in on herself at the thought of calling attention to herself. “You’re right,” Mianmian concedes, trying to ignore the hurt look on Jiang Yanli’s face, long enough to add, “I think you’d be much prettier with real peonies. You’ve got the sort of face that deserves real flowers.”

Oh, ” Jiang Yanli says again, glowing with - with that same bashful pleasure from before. “That’s - I mean, I couldn’t possibly compare - “

“Take the compliment,” Mianmian laughs, patting Jiang Yanli’s hand. “I mean it. I really do. I think you’re lovely. Much better than the girls at the Carp Tower, that’s for sure.”

Just as Mianmian finishes speaking, Jiang Yanli blurts out, “I think you’re pretty too!”

Her face really goes red at that, her entire body pulling back with her embarrassment. Mianmian can’t help but blush herself, a little bit of Jiang Yanli’s embarrassment leaking into her own demeanor. With a nervous little laugh, Mianmian says, “Honestly, we ought to just put that hairpin in a vase. It’ll last longer than most flowers, at any rate. And you won’t have to have something like that tugging at your hair all day.”

Jiang Yanli blinks and then smiles, clearly glad that Mianmian decided to change the topic. “You’re right,” she says, not-so-inconspicuously rubbing at the redness still staining her cheeks. “I hardly know what else I’d do with it.”

“If it were me, I’d melt it down and put it out of its misery,” Mianmian says, rolling her eyes on a sharp laugh.

“I could never,” Jiang Yanli admits.

“No matter how ugly it is?” Mianmian asks, and Jiang Yanli can’t help but laugh, too.

“No matter how ugly it is. It’s a gift, after all,” Jiang Yanli says, steadfastly.

“See? Better than any of those Carp Tower girls,” Mianmian grins. “Myself included.”

Jiang Yanli glances away shyly, taking a sip of her tea. “Um. This is, maybe, a weird thing to ask, but…” she says, though she loses her confidence halfway. Mianmian waits patiently as the awkward silence stretches on, before Jiang Yanli asks, “I’m sure there are other girls he’s close to, and - “

“Girls? Him?” Mianmian snorts. “No. Absolutely not. That guy’s clueless.”

“But what about - “ Jiang Yanli starts, staring up at Mianmian, before letting her gaze drop again when she loses her nerve.

Mianmian frowns, uncomprehending. And then - “Wait, you don’t think - me and him?”

Jiang Yanli looks ashamed as she continues not to look at Mianmian. 

“That’s so funny,” Mianmian says, completely unable to hold back her laughter.

At the very least, it keeps Jiang Yanli from suspecting the worst. Even if it makes her expression crumple a little in embarrassment.

“It’s fine - It’s fine, really. There were a lot of rumors spread about us in Lanling, but most of them came from jealous young mistresses who couldn’t come close - and spiteful young masters wanting to keep riffraff like me away from their precious young master. We’re really just friends, I swear. After all - would you ask a secret lover to deliver a letter to your betrothed?” Mianmian asks.

Jiang Yanli slowly nods along, realizing the logic is sound. Embarrassment still colors her body language, though, and Mianmian can’t have that. “Hey, why don’t you take out the letter? You don’t have to be shy about reading it around me; I actually helped him write it. Er. Rewrite it.”

“You did?” Jiang Yanli asks, blinking up at Mianmian.

“I did,” Mianmian nods. “The first draft was… not good. I don’t know how he does it. Did you know that that man won the junior poetry competition three years in a row when he was a teenager, and he still writes shit like Your eyes are like stars; I could get lost staring into them?

“That’s… impressive,” Jiang Yanli says, covering her mouth with her sleeve to hide her amusement. There’s no hiding the way her big doe eyes crinkle up. It’s terribly cute on her - no wonder Jin Zixuan always freezes up like a rabbit staring down the wrong end of a wolf’s snout.

“That’s one way to put it!” Mianmian laughs. “He’s incredible on his own, but the moment you put him in front of a girl he likes, his brains melt right out of his ears.”

That has Jiang Yanli uncurling from herself, eager to be reassured that the guy she likes likes her back. “You really think he likes me that much?”

“Well, he waited a month and a half to send it out, just to make sure that the letter was absolutely perfect. Does that count?” Mianmian asks.

Evidently, it counts.

Jiang Yanli can’t stop smiling, even when she tries. Carefully, she pulls the letter from the bottom of the box and breaks the wax seal.

Mianmian doesn’t hold her breath in anticipation. She totally doesn’t. That’d be a weird thing to do.

Jiang Yanli reads it once, and then once more with a knowing smile. “You wrote this, didn’t you?” she asks, passing the letter over to Mianmian and pointing at the line.

“I suggested it,” Mianmian says, a little bashfully. “How could you tell?”

“My brothers and Young Master Jin… have a very antagonistic relationship. Even if he’s trying to make me feel better about… everything that’s happened, he’d never openly praise Wei Wuxian,” she laughs.

“Oh,” Mianmian says, ducking her head in embarrassment. “Well - it’s true, even if he’d never admit it out loud. Jin Zixuan might not agree with Wei Wuxian in general, but he’d agreed with his intentions.”

Jiang Yanli nods, appeased. 

Somehow, Mianmian is compelled to say, “I agreed with him too, that time.”

That makes Jiang Yanli blink at Mianmian, her confusion melting into a sweet little smile. Her hand is warm when she reaches over to squeeze Mianmian’s, and something in her chest starts to flutter. Mianmian smiles back, hoping her face looks normal instead of - instead of whatever it looks like right now.

Thankfully, Jiang Yanli returns her gaze to the letter, pulling her hand back into her own space. They make a game of it - Jiang Yanli going through the letter with a fine-toothed comb to try and catch which ideas were Jin Zixuan’s and which were Mianmian’s. She’s surprisingly good at it. The ones she suggests are all correct, but she doesn’t quite manage to catch all of them. Mianmian almost promises to do better next time - so that Jiang Yanli won’t be able to tell at all - but then, she remembers that there won’t be a next time. Jin Zixuan is supposed to leave her alone after this.

She really shouldn’t feel so disappointed about that.

At some point, halfway through the game, Mianmian throws propriety to the wind and moves to the seat next to Jiang Yanli’s. It lets Mianmian watch Jiang Yanli’s thought process as she points - this one? This one? - at each suspect line. By the end of it, Mianmian doesn’t even need to look at where she’s at in the letter to know when she’s about to pick out a line. She can just see Jiang Yanli’s face, the way her brows relax, her eyes shine with excitement as she tests her cleverness. Mianmian tucks that tidbit away, so that when she sees Jin Zixuan next she can -

Oh. Yes. She isn’t going to be seeing him any time soon.

When they finish, Jiang Yanli shyly asks Mianmian more about the first draft, and Mianmian goes on an entire rant about the kind of crap Jin Zixuan tried to fit in there. The vitriol with which Mianmian rants about Jin Zixuan’s questionable writing choices makes Jiang Yanli burst into laughter more than once, mostly because Mianmian makes a big effort to also emphasize that normally, he is not this brand of idiot, so she knows Mianmian criticizes with love, rather than virulent hate the way Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian do.

By the time Mianmian finally winds down, Jiang Yanli has a thoughtful look on her face. It prompts Mianmian to say, “Sorry, I went a little overboard, didn’t I?”

Jiang Yanli blinks at her, surprise written on her face as she palms one of the peaches. “No,” she laughs, shaking her head. “No, that’s not it. I just was thinking - “

And then she pauses, looking down at the peach. “Do you think he meant it? All that sappy stuff about me that you had him cut out? I mean, you weren’t wrong to; if I hadn’t had you to explain everything to me, I probably would’ve rolled my eyes at it, but…”

She trails off, her quiet laughter tinged with a hint of self-deprecation. As if to distract herself, she reaches over for the knife and starts cutting into the peach, offering Mianmian the first slice.

Mianmian takes it gratefully. It’s delicious - sweet and delicate on her tongue. “If you’ll allow me to be honest, I don’t think so. Most of what he’d tried to write were the sort of platitudes you’d tell a concubine. Not someone you were serious about,” she says. And then, hurriedly, so as not to hurt her - “Not that he sees you that way - he adores you. He just… doesn't know how to put it into words. Politics, he can do, easy. He was made for that. But people, let alone women? You'd have a better time asking him to attempt the impossible.”

Jiang Yanli laughs along, but it sounds hollow compared to their earlier mirth. She’s quiet, as she carves into the peach. One slice for Minamian, one for her.

Mianmian feels like she ought to say something, to cheer her up. She doesn’t know Jiang Yanli well, but… well, she gives off the air of a person who was always considered an afterthought. The plain friend. The second choice. And Mianmian couldn’t bear to be the asshole that made her feel that way.

“If it makes you feel better,” she says, not even sure where she’s going with this, herself, “I think those sorts of things don’t suit you anyways. You're… He likes you because you’re the sort of person who would still be attractive, even after their beauty faded,” she says, and she means it. “I’ve only known you for, what, an hour or two? But I can tell. You’re kind of special.”

That has Jiang Yanli blinking up at her, at a loss for words. Before she can actually say something, they both hear the crunching of gravel as Sect Leader Jiang approaches the courtyard. When he sees Mianmian already there, he blinks, looking surprised. “Am I interrupting?” he asks.

“A-Cheng,” Jiang Yanli greets him warmly, getting up from her seat. “Mianmian and I already ate, but if you want, I can - “

“It’s fine, A-Jie. I can get it myself,” Jiang Cheng says, stiffly. And then, after a pause, he says, “Miss Luo Qingyang, if you’d like to rest, I’ve had a guest room prepared for you in the Lotus Pier. I wasn’t sure if you were planning on staying the evening, but the trip back to Lanling is long.”

Mianmian bows at him, low and formal. “Thank you for your generosity, Sect Leader Jiang. I’d hate to further infringe on your hospitality, but…” she trails off, looking at Jiang Yanli. “Unless you have a discrete courier on hand, I would like to request to stay long enough to deliver Maiden Jiang’s response.”

It was awfully presumptuous of her, and if Sect Leader Jiang denied her request, she’d leave peacefully. But Sect Leader Jiang looks between her and Jiang Yanli and nods, once, sharply. “We would be honored to have you as our guest.”

Mianmian bows again. “Thank you, Sect Leader Jiang. The honor is mine.”

“I can have a disciple take you to your quarters whenever you’re ready,” Sect Leader Jiang says, as Mianmian straightens up. But Mianmian can’t help but bite her lip and glance over at Jiang Yanli, reluctant to go. “If Maiden Jiang is amenable, I would like to continue our conversation. It’s been fun.”

Sect Leader Jiang looks over at his sister, and something in her eyes must tell him all he needs to know, because he nods at her again. “Very well. A-Jie, I’ll see you for dinner? Miss Luo Qingyang, you’re also welcome to join us, too, if you’d like.”

“Thank you again for your generosity, Sect Leader Jiang. I would be honored,” Mianmian says. With that, Jiang Cheng turns and leaves.

Once he’s out of earshot, Jiang Yanli turns to Mianmian, face flushed with pleasure as she says, “Thank you. I’m… I’m really glad you enjoy my company.”

“Of course,” Mianmian says. “It’s been fun, right?”

“Yes!” Jiang Yanli exclaims, quick to reassure Mianmian. And then, after a pause -  “Truthfully, I’m flattered that you’d rather stick around. I, ah. I live a rather sheltered life. Aside from the disciples, I don’t often have opportunities to make friends.”

Ah. Mianmian’s chest clenches. She’d very much like to be Jiang Yanli’s friend, she thinks.

“Isn’t it lonely?” Mianmian asks, gently taking Jiang Yanli’s hand. It’s warm and soft, hardly callused from her sword. 

“A bit,” Jiang Yanli admits, gesturing back at the table for them both to sit. “I don’t have many close friends. It’s even lonelier without A-Xian around.”

Mianmian’s face softens, schooling it into something softer, more sympathetic. “You two were close, huh?”

“He’s one of my closest friends. My brother in all but blood,” she says, quietly. “I miss him a lot. And even if he can’t publicly admit it, A-Cheng does, too.”

“Ah,” Mianmian says awkwardly. “I’m sorry.”

And then, after a second - “It’s unfair. It’s just - it’s really, really unfair. Everything that’d happened to him, it - ” she starts, biting her lips as her own hurts rising up. “There’s just - there’s so many things about that entire situation that burn me up inside, even now! I can’t bear the thought of being a sect cultivator anymore; the entire system’s just rotten!”

Jiang Yanli looks sad as she nods. “You’re… really brave, Mianmian. I admire you a lot - what you did for A-Xian. What you gave up. I couldn’t do it, if I were in your shoes.”

Mianmian laughs, but it’s a quiet, bitter thing. “Yeah, well,” she says, gesturing between them. “A lot of the pros outweigh the cons.”

“Mm,” Jiang Yanli hums, nodding. And then, hesitantly, she adds, “If there’s anything Yunmeng could do for you - “

Mianmian shakes her head. “I didn’t defend Wei Wuxian for money. Nor did I leave the Jin Sect just to join another one. Even if I get the impression that Yunmeng might suit me better,” she says. “It was just the right thing for me to do at the time. And besides, I got to get to know you a little better, didn’t I?”

That puts a shy little smile on Jiang Yanli’s face. “That’s true,” she agrees. “I’m grateful for it.”

Chapter Text

The next morning, Jiang Yanli takes Mianmian out on the lake. It’s the biggest one on the Lotus Piers, and this early, they’ve got nearly the whole lake to themselves. There are a couple of early risers, some servicefolk heading over to the Piers from the town nearby, and they wave to Jiang Yanli on their way past.

Jiang Yanli brought supplies to write with, but she’d set them aside to spend time with Mianmian as they drift leisurely along, nibbling on lotus seeds and dipping their fingers in the water.

“Hey, Mianmian?” Jiang Yanli asks, digging her fingernail into the skin of the next lotus seed.

“Yeah?” Mianmian murmurs, staring down into little trails her fingers make in the water. She can see the little brown fish darting about under the shade of the lotus leaves, so close to the surface she almost wants to reach in and grab one.

“Are there a lot of lakes near the carp tower?”

“Mmm,” Mianmian hums, thinking about it in that lazy way this early morning encourages. “No, not really, I don’t think. There’re some man-made lakes, a few rivers and streams running along the mountain. I think there’s a good-sized one up on phoenix mountain somewhere, but I haven’t been to it personally.”

“Oh,” Jiang Yanli says softly, sounding disappointed.

“Sorry,” Mianmian says, and slowly, she’s starting to make the connection. “But you know, if you told him, I bet you he’d take you up there whenever you like. Every day if he thought it’d make you happy.”

“Mm,” Jiang Yanli hums, considering. “I suppose it’d take a little getting used to, huh?”

“Yeah. The weather’s pretty nice, but the altitude can be a bit much,” she says, rolling over so that she can properly look up at Jiang Yanli. Jiang Yanli reaches out for her hand, and when Mianmian gives it over, Jiang Yanli gently uncurls her fingers to drop a lotus seed into her palm. Like a little treasure.

It’s still a little warm from Jiang Yanli’s skin.

Before Mianmian can say something stupid, she pops it right into her mouth.

“I got sick when I studied at Gusu,” Jiang Yanli sighed. “Altitude sickness.”

“Mm,” Mianmian hums around the lotus seed. It’s good, sweet and a little nutty. When she cracks it open with her teeth, the bitter sprout falls out on her tongue, and she turns her face away to pick it out.

“You can just drop it in for the fish,” Jiang Yanli tells her, so Mianmian does.

“You’ll get used to it eventually,” Mianmian says, because she feels like she ought to. But she remembers hardly ever seeing Jiang Yanli outside of classes, back in Gusu. She’d always been pale and withdrawn back then. Hardly even talked to her betrothed, or anyone for the matter, save for her brothers and Wen Qing, who was helping her with her condition; back then, Jin Zixuan had thought she was ignoring him, as embarrassed and indignant because of their arranged marriage as he was. Mianmian hadn’t known enough not to agree with him.

“Mm,” Jiang Yanli hums. She doesn’t sound too convinced. It makes Mianmian sit up properly and look at Jiang Yanli. It makes her want to comfort her. With a bare little smile, Jiang Yanli hands her another freshly peeled lotus seed, and when Mianmian takes it, their fingers brush. Just enough to remind Jiang Yanli that she’s here.

“Are you worried?” Mianmian asks, as gently as she can. “He loves you, you know.”

“I know,” Jiang Yanli says quietly. She doesn’t know - none of them can actually know, until Jiang Yanli is already in the Carp Tower. They’ve never lived together before, never even spent more than an afternoon together, and, well - it’s not uncommon for a man to live in a separate residence from his wife after marriage.

She looks like she knows it, too. Mianmian doesn’t want her to think about that - doesn’t want her to worry about that. She wants Jiang Yanli to just… enjoy this lazy morning, enjoy the slowly encroaching heat of early summer, enjoy the frogs still croaking and the dragonflies zipping about and the waterbirds flying overhead. She wants her to enjoy Mianmian’s company.

“Hey, are the fish here tasty?” Mianmian asks, dipping her hand so far into the water her sleeve gets wet. “We ought to go fishing.”

Jiang Yanli laughs, quiet and a little distracted. “They’re delicious, but I can’t stand fishing. The hooks, ” she says, with an exaggerated shiver.

“You’re scared of hooks?” Mianmian laughs, looking up at her. Her face is flushed with good humor, her cheer a little less forced than before.

“It looks... painful. For the fish. I can’t stomach it,” Jiang Yanli says with a rueful smile. “Whenever the boys went fishing, they’d always have to hack off the head before they brought it to me to cook, or else I’d start crying.”

“Didn’t you work in the medical tents during the war? Surely you’ve seen worse,” Mianmian laughs, leaning in to take in each of Jiang Yanli’s expressions, each of her little fond little gestures.

“Okay, but people are different,” Jiang Yanli shyly insists. “I can talk to them. Remember them, take back some last words to their families, maybe. I didn’t, during the war. But I could have. When an animal is dying, you can’t comfort it. It’s just… scared and alone. And then it’s gone.”

“Oh, sweetheart, ” Mianmian murmurs, reaching over to take Jiang Yanli’s hand where it’s breaking apart the lotus pod. Just to hold it a little - the same impulse one would have in the face of something precious, something you’ll never have again. Jiang Yanli startles at the touch, but she quickly relaxes in Mianmian’s hold.

“I know, it’s silly,” Jiang Yanli says with a quiet laugh as she looks out into the water. A trail of waterfowl drift contentedly just a little ways away, letting the current push them down the lake. Mianmian wants to pull her attention back, wants Jiang Yanli to listen to what she has to say.

“No - no, it’s just. I can’t believe someone like you exists,” Mianmian says. “Even after everything that’s happened to you.”

Jiang Yanli smiles, but she doesn’t say anything. She just squeezes Mianmian’s hand back. Mianmian can’t help but fluster a little, tittering brainlessly as she looks anywhere but at Jiang Yanli. As she clings to Jiang Yanli’s hand like a lifeline.

It takes a few seconds before she realizes she’s even doing it.

“Okay, okay, okay, this is kind of a downer of a conversation. What do you like to do out here, anyways? If fishing is off the table,” Mianmian asks, pulling her hand away, embarrassed at her own forwardness. Jiang Yanli’s hands easily go back to breaking away bits of lotus pod to get to the seeds as she ponders the question, apparently unaware of the intimacy of such a gesture.

“Oh, well. There’s a theater in town that has some excellent performers… some of the music houses are lovely, I hear, but I haven’t gone myself. The market’s usually - “

“No,” Mianmian says, cutting her off. “What do you like to do?”

Jiang Yanli has that look on her face, like she’s not quite sure what to say, but she doesn’t want to say the wrong thing. “I, I’m really quite boring. It’s not like I can go adventures with everyone, after all,” she admits, cheeks rosy. She looks down at the lotus pod in her hand, not really meeting Mianmian’s eye. “After teaching the junior disciples and helping around the Piers, there isn’t much time left in the day.”

Mianmian huffs a little, rolling her eyes fondly. “Well, if you had all the time in the world, what would you be doing right now? If you didn’t have to babysit me.”

“It’s not babysitting if I enjoy it,” Jiang Yanli protests, a little bit of a sulk to her voice.

“You know what I mean,” Mianmian laughs, nudging Jiang Yanli’s ankle with her foot. Softening her voice, she says, “I just want to know more about you, is all. You’ve got to have more hobbies than stress-relief cooking.”

Jiang Yanli bites her lip and looks down. “I like stories,” she admits, a little shy. Like it’s something childish, something to be ashamed of.

“Yeah?” Mianmian grins, leaning in, encouraging her. “Reading them or writing them?”

“...both,” Jiang Yanli admits, a little quieter, a little more shy.

“Tell me about one. I’ve got a friend in my nighthunting group that loves books, but he never has the money or the room in his pack to buy too many,” Mianmian grins.

Jiang Yanli bites her lip and glances up at Mianmian with a tiny smile. “Well, I - I’m not much of a storyteller, but there’s this one that I really like…”

 

They spend an hour or two longer on the boat, until the early summer heat gets a little unbearable and Jiang Yanli suggests they go in before they get sunburned. For all that Jiang Yanli has little faith in herself… well, once she gets past her hesitance, she’s a captivating storyteller. She really puts her body into it, gesturing with her hands as she speaks, eyes sparkling with enthusiasm. While she’s hardly as practiced as the storytellers in the theaters, there’s a charm to her that Mianmian can’t shake, and she finds herself prodding Jiang Yanli for another one, and then another.

When they finally stop back in the Lotus Piers, Jiang Yanli lets Mianmian walk her to the main classroom, because she’s got to teach calligraphy with the young ones pretty soon. She’d invited Mianmian to sit in and watch, but when they slide the door open, the disciple from yesterday - A-Yue - is already in there, joking around as she reminds one of the young students the correct stroke order for ‘begonia’.

“Maiden Jiang,” A-Yue greets, folding her hands in a formal salute.

The 12 or so children, too, stand up and greet Jiang Yanli in unison.

“I’ll cover class today. Why don’t you enjoy a day off with your visitor, hm?” A-Yue grins, and there’s a bit of a slyness there, a foxishness that could just as easily be attributed to her narrow eyes and pointed nose as her demeanor.

Jiang Yanli, of course, makes a token protest, but A-Yue plays up the run along now, you’re interrupting class! angle and shoos them both right out the door. When Jiang Yanli looks up at Mianmian, there’s that shyness in her body language again, like maybe she’s worried Mianmian’s going to tire of her and she’s only putting up with her because she’s the only person around that Mianmian vaguely knows.

Mianmian wishes she could stick around long enough for that small awkwardness, that hesitation of an early friendship, to melt away.

“Would you like to share some watermelon with me?” Jiang Yanli offers, and of course, Mianmian can’t say no. She loves watermelon.

 

--

 

The afternoon finds them in Jiang Yanli’s suite, where her personal study is located. The window there lets in plenty of light, overlooking a lake so densely filled with lotuses that Mianmian can hardly see the water. No wonder Jiang Yanli had asked about the lakes in Lanling.

She’s twice offered to let Mianmian rest in her rooms, insisting that Mianmian didn’t have to sit with her while she wrote back to Jin Zixuan. But once again, it seemed more out of a sense of obligation - like she thought Mianmian might’ve had somewhere better to be than to accompany her - than a tiring of Mianmian’s company. After the second time that Mianmian’s assured her that she’d rather stay here, Jiang Yanli doesn’t ask again. But she does perk up a little, pleased to be reaffirmed of Mianmian’s esteem for her.

She’s about a paragraph in on the letter, finishing up the standard pleasantries, when her brush stills and she asks, out of the blue, “I should send him a present, shouldn’t I?”

“I mean, you don’t have to,” Mianmian says, but now that Jiang Yanli’s got it on her mind, she can’t stop thinking about it.

“What do you think he would even want? He’s got enough money to buy anything he’d need…” Jiang Yanli murmurs, more to herself than anything. “It’s not like some Yunmeng trinket would be enough for someone like him… I could - I could maybe send him some local fabric, or tailor a set of robes for him, but…” Jiang Yanli glances up at Mianmian. “You can’t stay long, can you?”

Mianmian shrugs. She can’t, but she doesn’t want to tell Jiang Yanli that. She’d said she’d deliver Jiang Yanli’s return message, but in all honesty, she could only wait a couple more days before the others would move on from Qinghe… They couldn’t afford to wait for her very long. “I’ll be here a few days longer,” Mianmian offers, but it’s not nearly enough time to make Jin Zixuan some proper clothes - not that Jin Zixuan would be allowed to wear robes in that purple dye the Jiangs are known for anyway. For the Jin sect heir, it’d be laughable - even if Mianmian is sure that Jin Zixuan would be delighted to have something sewn by his beloved’s hand.

Jiang Yanli frowns, tapping her brush against her pretty bottom lip as she thinks. Mianmian’s eye can’t help but be drawn there, the way Jiang Yanli purses it just the slightest bit as she thinks. She almost wants to tap her finger to her own bottom lip, if only to approximate what it’d feel like.

Mianmian catches her thoughts straying somewhere strange and immediately straightens up, clearing her throat as she casts about the room, hoping Jiang Yanli didn’t notice. Her eyes alight on a well-done landscape painting set on the wall, a gift from Second Master Nie, if the signature at the bottom is any indication. Inspiration strikes, and before she can stop herself, she blurts out, “What about some artwork? A portrait of yourself, maybe?”

The moment the words come out, she can’t help but feel the need to explain herself. So before Jiang Yanli shoots her down, she adds, “If he’s going to try and tell you how pretty you are, he’d probably do a whole lot better if he had a reference. Maybe then he’d get it right.”

Jiang Yanli blinks at Mianmian, and for a second there, Mianmian thinks that maybe she’d been staring a little too hard. But Jiang Yanli only laughs and shakes her head, a shy smile on her face. “A portrait of me? Isn’t that a little...”

“It’d be perfect. It’s something he can’t get in Lanling even if he paid his weight in gold for it. And besides, what kind of besotted fiance would he be if he didn’t have a picture of you to pine over?” 

That gets Jiang Yanli to laugh, cheeks flushed with mirth. But Mianmian can tell she’s warming up to the idea. “Well, I’m not much of an artist,” Jiang Yanli says, unable to keep from smiling when she looks over at Mianmian. It hits Mianmian like an arrow to the gut, the way Jiang Yanli’s eyes sparkle in the Yunmeng sunlight. “If Wei Wuxian were here, he’d be able to whip one up in a few minutes. Not that he’d ever let Young Master Jin have it.”

Mianmian laughs. “How about I do it? I’m not a half bad artist, myself. And if I were the one to make it, well, none of his hangers-on could say that it was out of vanity, could they? How about it? I can do a few sketches right now, while you write.”

Jiang Yanli smiles, biting her lower lip as she considers it.

“I’ll give me something to do,” Mianmian offers, and that’s what makes Jiang Yanli cave. She fetches a painting set for Mianmian and a small stack of paper and asks Mianmian what she should do.

“Just work on your letter, sweetheart,” Mianmian says, grinding out the ink. She’s not even aware of what she says until she looks up to see Jiang Yanli’s blush intensify.

Jiang Yanli does do as ordered, but even she can’t help but glance up every few minutes, curious to see Mianmian’s progress. After the third, very conspicuous glance up, Mianmian glances up, too, shooting Jiang Yanli a look.

She makes the cutest little eep! and tries her best to look busy. It’s not very effective.

“How’s the letter going?” Mianmian asks, grinning.

“It’s fine - I’m just - It’s fine,” Jiang Yanli squeaks out, blinking hard at her paper. It is, very clearly not not fine.

Mianmian laughs. “I don’t have to help you too, do I?” she teases, making Jiang Yanli fluster a little more.

“No!” she cries out, shuffling her paper and hurriedly re-inking her brush.

The teasing is enough for Jiang Yanli to finally focus on her letter, and Mianmian can work on her practice sketches in peace. She gets through four or five, before Jiang Yanli laughs a little awkwardly and says, “I’m not used to being stared at so much.”

“You’ve never gotten your portrait done?” Mianmian asks, though to be fair - neither has she. But she’s not a rich young lady, so at least she’s got an excuse.

“Not properly,” Jiang Yanli says. “I would model for Wei Wuxian every once in a while, but I suppose he’s so used to me that it never took him long to finish.”

“Not all of us are geniuses like him,” Mianmian laughs, taking care to render the gentle line of her nose.

“You’re very skilled, though,” Jiang Yanli says quietly, eyes flicking up at Mianmian. Mianmian’s too busy trying to get the curve of her smile down that she can’t look up. But she can feel Jiang Yanli’s eyes on her. It’s - it’s a little unnerving, to be observed so carefully. No wonder Jiang Yanli had gotten flustered.

“I think I’m getting the hang of your features,” Mianmian says absently, as she appraises sketch #5. It’s a close representation of Jiang Yanli’s delicate features, but it doesn’t quite capture the liveliness in her smile, the way her sheer presence makes you feel. Maybe sketch #6 will be better.

She can still feel Jiang Yanli’s curious eyes on her, and in an effort not to get flustered herself, she blinks up at Jiang Yanli and asks, with a very pointed tone of voice, “How goes the letter?”

O-Oh! ” Jiang Yanli gasps, like she’d forgotten all about it, hunching her shoulders over her paper as she considers her next sentence. There’s a smile on her face, though. It’s infectious.

 

--

 

When Sect Leader Jiang comes into the study, only to realize that his sister is busy, he offers to have dinner sent up. Mianmian hadn’t even realized it’d gotten so late, engrossed in her careful study of Jiang Yanli’s hands as she is, and when she blinks up at him, she finds the sky already a rich, sunset-gold. Jiang Yanli invites him to stay, but he glances between them and shakes his head. “I don’t mind having dinner on my own every once in a while,” he assures them, before he hightails it out of there.

Jiang Yanli makes a face at him as he goes, and it’s so childish Mianmian almost laughs. “You always have dinner together?” Mianmian asks with a fond smile.

“We try to,” Jiang Yanli says with a shrug. “After all, we won’t be able to in the future.”

“Mm,” Mianmian hums, fiddling with the corner of her paper. “It’s good that you’re so close. My dad was always busy working, and my mom was frail. After he passed, she followed suit soon enough. It’s only because she’d been Madame Jin’s handmaiden throughout their youths that I was able to stay with the Jin Sect.”

“Ah,” Jiang Yanli says. “You’re an only child?”

“Yeah,” Mianmian says.

“Must’ve been lonely,” Jiang Yanli murmurs, reaching out to touch her finger to one of Mianmian’s ink-stained fingertips. “It’s already - without Wei Wuxian, it’s lonely enough as it is. I don’t know how Jiang Cheng will handle my leaving.”

“Is that why it’s taken you so long to have the ceremony?” Mianmian asks, looking down at where they connect. She lets her gaze trail up the line of Jiang Yanli’s arm, up the pale column of her neck to the face she’s been staring at all day. Jiang Yanli looks a little melancholy.

“Yeah. It’s - we’ve been through a lot these past few years. And Jiang Cheng is still young and unsure. He’s an adult in his own right… but he’s got no close connections with the remaining great sects. He’s prone to losing control of his emotions and speaking with his heart, not his head. And he cares so much . So much that it hurts,” Jiang Yanli says quietly. “I’m worried about him. It’s not so bad to want to be around for him a little while longer, is it? To wait until he’s a little steadier? After I’m gone, he’ll be all alone.”

“Ah,” Mianmian says, nodding along. “But you do want to get married, right? To Jin Zixuan?”

Jiang Yanli bites her lip, cheeks flushing a pretty pink as she nods. “Yes. I do. I really, really do. I just wish...”

“You just wish…?” Mianmian prompts, thinking on the hesitation, the unsureness she’d seen from Jiang Yanli these past two days.

Jiang Yanli offers her a smile, but it’s a tired one. “I just wish things could be simple. I wish I didn’t have to choose.”

Mianmian inches her hand a little closer to Jiang Yanli, until they can tangle their fingers together. It’s the best comfort she can give Jiang Yanli right now, even if it doesn’t feel like much. Jiang Yanli clings to her until their dinner comes.

 

--

 

In the quickly fading light, Mianmian finally sits Jiang Yanli down for a proper portrait. She’d done a total of 8 sketches that day and feels about as confident as she’s ever going to be. She still can’t quite get that feeling right, but at the very least, she could properly capture Jiang Yanli’s likeness.

Mianmian suggests that Jiang Yanli do something she enjoyed for the portrait. Jiang Yanli thinks on it for a long moment, before asking one of the servants for some more of those peaches from yesterday. They had been delicious, Mianmian thinks, mouth watering as they sit down together.

For the next hour or two, she paints Jiang Yanli carefully slicing peaches. One slice for Mianmian, one slice for her. It feels about as close to natural as Mianmian can get, after having learned Jiang Yanli’s face, the soft cadence of her voice, the inherent rightness of her presence over the past two days. And as soon as Mianmian gets the initial sketch onto paper - the best one she’s had all day - she has the inane desire to destroy it. To hide it away, so that this specific image stays between herself and Jiang Yanli.

She’s not sure, exactly, what that means. Just that she felt Jin Zixuan hadn’t earned the right to this specific moment.

Instead, she picks warm colors to soften the gleam in Jiang Yanli’s dark eyes, to draw out the glow in her cheeks, to try and emulate the feeling of welcome that Jiang Yanli exudes. It’s easier to render this in colors than in the stark black ink she’d used for the sketches. And yet, it still can’t hope to compare to Jiang Yanli’s presence. There’s so much more to her than image alone, and Mianmian wishes she had the skill to express that.

In the end, Jiang Yanli still loves it, her eyes hardly able to pull away for more than a few minutes at a time. “It’s really - do I really look like that?” Jiang Yanli asks, blushing and pleased.

No, Mianmian thinks. It’s not enough; this is just a pale shade compared to you, she wants to say, but instead, she puts on a smile and asks, “Do you like it?”

Immediately, Jiang Yanli nods her head. “You make me look…” she bites her lip, cheeks flushing. “You make me look beautiful. Even just doing something so mundane. You’re incredible, Mianmian.”

“I was only drawing what I saw,” Mianmian assures her with as encouraging a smile as she can muster.

Jiang Yanli looks up at Mianmian, her gaze lingering long enough that Mianmian feels seen through. But Jiang Yanli simply touches her fingertips to the back of Mianmian’s paint- covered hand and smiles. “Thank you,” she says, soft and genuine and sweet. Her eyes shine like the moonlit lake just outside, and Mianmian regrets the low light, the fact that she can’t simply capture this in her mind to paint on another day.

“There’s no need to thank me. It was fun,” Mianmian chokes out, trying for casual and probably failing.

They linger like this, close in the halo of lamplight, before finally, Mianmian has to duck away, heart thumping in her chest as she said, “It’s getting late. I ought to get some sleep if I’m to head out early tomorrow.”

“Yes, of course,” Jiang Yanli says, and Mianmian would like to think that Jiang Yanli’s tone of voice is a little disappointed. Their hands stay connected a moment longer, until finally, Mianmian must pull away.

--

 

Jiang Yanli is waiting for her when she wakes in the morning, parcel clutched against her chest. They have a quick, sleepy breakfast - just some congee Jiang Yanli had whipped up herself, and she has the nerve to try and apologize for how simple it is - like Mianmian isn’t absolutely melting at the homeyness of it all. As she watches Jiang Yanli stuff the bowls full of toppings - “You’ll need your energy if you’ll be travelling, right?” - Mianmian is struck by the all-encompassing yearning to stay.

When they finish eating, Jiang Yanli walks her to the gates, and it’s a lingering, meandering thing, as if Jiang Yanli didn’t have children to teach in half an hour, as if Mianmian didn’t have a team to catch up to in a few days.

Even still, the walk seems much too short. Mianmian stares up at the grand wooden beams holding up the gates of the Lotus Piers, the beautiful metal filigree laid into the wood, still scorched in places from Wen occupation, the lakes stretching into forever beyond that. She doesn’t want to go just yet, but -

Jiang Yanli touches a hand to Mianmian’s wrist and smiles at her. “You’re welcome back any time, you know. This isn’t goodbye,” she says gently.

Mianmian has to swallow back the thickness in her throat. To think that she’d been here only two days, and already, she’s found in Jiang Yanli a comfort she hadn’t known she needed.

“I’ll be here for a while yet. You can write me, too, if you have the time to spare,” Jiang Yanli adds. “I’m glad that we were able to become friends.”

Mianmian smiles at her, and it's a wet and aching thing. “I am, too. I want to come back, but I don’t know when I’ll get the chance,” she says, settling her warmly hand over Jiang Yanli’s. 

“That’s okay. I’ll make time for you when you can,” Jiang Yanli assures her. Mianmian has the sudden urge to take Jiang Yanli with her, to bring her along with the other rogue cultivators and show her the things beyond these lakes. It’d be an adventure - the sort Jiang Yanli had so admired in her stories. Her cultivation isn’t that much worse than Xiao Wenzhou’s, and she’s a clever thing. She’d be able to pull her weight.

It’s just a passing folly though, one even Mianmian knows is impossible. But someday, she’d like to travel with Jiang Yanli. She thinks it would be a lot of fun.

“I’m off, then,” Mianmian says, patting Jiang Yanli’s hand.

“Come back soon, okay? I’ll miss you,” Jiang Yanli smiles.

Mianmian’s chest throbs as she laughs, gently, reluctantly, pulling away. “I’ll see you again,” she says.

“I hope so,” Jiang Yanli replies, and then Mianmian is on her sword, heading east, to Lanling.

Chapter Text

It would be smarter, Mianmian knows, to head straight to Lanling rather than take the roundabout way through Qinghe to leave some funds for the others as they wait for her. Quite frankly, it shouldn’t take more than an hour or two to finish her business with Jin Zixuan. But there’s still a certain… reluctance to return to the place you’d willingly left. Even if it’s only a quick visit, just to deliver a letter to Jin Zixuan; even if it doesn’t matter a single whit what the disciples at the Carp Tower think; even if by no measure at all is it a failure to be temporarily employed as a courier and more permanently employed as a rogue cultivator.

It still feels a bit like a failure, Mianmian thinks. To be coming back so soon. To be coming back dressed so commonly, with her rough-spun robes and her travel-worn hair. But she’d promised Jiang Yanli. That is enough to keep her chin up, to keep her bottom lip from trembling as she scales the steps of the Carp Tower, a privilege bestowed upon any guest unlucky enough to come up without a friend waiting for them at the bottom of the steps. The Lanling Jins sure do love to watch other people squirm - even if it’s under the guise of introducing guests to their history via the giant fuckoff statues and plaques and murals lining the grand stairway. 

She can feel the curious stares of Jin disciples as they zip past her on their swords. Technically, they, too, are supposed to walk up the steps of the tower to celebrate their Sect’s rich history, but it’s not like any of them do when they’ve got peonies adorning their chests.

It’s just a small bitterness, of course. When Mianmian had the same, didn’t she also fly up the stairs? Didn’t she also spare a passing glance, an innocent curiosity toward the guests of the towers? It’s only a small privilege, Mianmian thinks, but now that she’s on the other side of it she understands the sting of her sect’s barbs. 

She gets about halfway up the second staircase when she hears someone cry out - “Mianmian-Shijie!”

She has all of two seconds before she has an armful of chatty Jin disciple to deal with. “Shi Qingxuan!” Mianmian laughs, spinning them around the way they like to be spun around before setting them down.

“Where have you been? I’ve missed you,” Shi Qingxuan pouts, turning on those big teary eyes.

Just beyond the massive cloud of their fluffy hair, she can see their brother, Shi Wudu, huffing out an impatient gust of air, eyes rolling as he floats over to the both of them. With both of the Shi siblings trotting over, it’s no surprise that the rest of their little group follows suit.

“A-Xuan,” Mianmian smiles indulgently, tucking a flyaway behind Shi Qingxuan’s ear. It’s a soothing motion for both of them; if Mianmian is focusing on Shi Qingxuan, she isn’t focusing on all the other curious disciples hopping off their swords to judge her. “I thought your brother would’ve told you - I left the sect.”

“I did tell him,” Shi Wudu grumbles, crossing his arms. “He didn’t want to listen.”

Shi Qingxuan goes all teary-eyed, their pretty mouth twisted up in a pout. “Really? You’re serious?” they asked, tugging at her sleeves. “You were doing so well - all the junior disciples miss you! You honestly could’ve been named head disciple in a few years. Why did you go?”

Mianmian tries to look casual as she shrugs. “I decided it wasn’t for me.”

From the group of onlookers, Mianmian hears a snort. Of-fucking-course Jin Yixi would be here. “If you’re too good to be in the Jin Sect anymore, why are you here? Did that Wei Wuxian tire of you already?” she titters, sneering at Mianmian the way she had the day Mianmian left. “We really ought to kick you down the stairs like the rest of the riffraff.”

Mianmian takes a calming breath, smiling sharply at her. “I’m surprised you’re still here too. Based on our parting words, I would’ve thought you’d run off to join Sect Leader Yao. I mean, I suppose you’re right in thinking he’s a little more handsome than Sect Leader Jin, but the mouth on him - though I suppose that’s something you two would have in common,” Mianmian all but snarls.

Jin Yixi nearly shrieks with rage, stomping up to where Shi Qingxuan is quickly asserting themself between her and Mianmian. It’s only by grace of Shi Wudu’s protectiveness over his younger sibling that he stops Jin Yixi before she can get to Mianmian. “Lang Qianqiu, why don’t you take the others back up to report to Headmaster Jin?” he says, more of an order than a question. Lang Qianqiu nods severely and takes Jin Yixi by the elbow. She tries to shake him off, but given that Shi Wudu is her senior, regardless of his status as an outer sect member, she’s obligated to listen to him. Doesn’t stop her from making an ugly face at Mianmian, though.

“She’s such a bitch,” Shi Qingxuan mumbles under their breath, patting at Mianmian’s shoulders.

“Qingxuan,” Shi Wudu says sharply. A warning. 

Shi Qingxuan makes a whining sound, but Mianmian pats their hand. “Your brother is right. It’s not smart to badmouth an inner sect member. Even if she’s an insufferable suck-up.”

To the side, Shi Wudu snorts, the corners of his mouth lifting. It has Shi Qingxuan grinning under their sleeve as they glance up at Mianmian. “Mianmian-Shijie, what brings you back?” Shi Qingxuan asks, a little softer. Trying to ease Mianmian’s nerves a bit, maybe.

“I’ve got something to deliver to Jin Zixuan. He’d asked a favor of me a little while back, and I’m here to see it through,” Mianmian explains.

“So… you’re not coming back?” The puppy-dog eyes, again. Shi Wudu rolls his eyes at his sibling’s shamelessness. Mianmian only pats their hair. “They’d accept you back, you know. If you wanted to.”

“No, I’m not coming back,” Mianmian says. “Besides, you always did say I looked stunning in seafoam. The quality could be better, but isn’t this cute on me?” she asks, twirling around for Shi Qingxuan.

Immediately, Shi Qingxuan brightens up, clapping delightedly. “Yes, yes! Yellow really was too mild for your complexion. Wasn’t enough contrast. Heck, even the quality isn’t so bad - if you dressed up a little, maybe with some pearls…”

Mianmian can’t help but smile, even if she feels a bit rueful. She misses this - talking about silly little things with her juniors, strolling around the ornamental gardens, tackling the sort of hunt that required a little finesse, a little cleverness. And spending money. That was a pretty big perk of being a sect cultivator. But playing rogue wasn’t so bad all the time - at least she had the freedom to wear seafoam robes, even if they weren’t pure silk, enchanted with a hundred minor protective spells. She doesn’t regret leaving her entire, Jin-yellow wardrobe behind, even if they were easily the most expensive things she owned.

Eventually, they run out of things to talk about, and Shi Wudu gets a little tetchy about keeping Headmaster Jin, when he’s supposed to be the lead disciple in their hunt. “Do you want a lift to the top of the stairs?” Shi Qingxuan asks, even as their brother clicks his tongue with his impatience.

“No, it’s fine. Go catch up with the others. I’ll get to the top eventually. And besides, it’s nice reading up on the bullshit they’ve come up with for all the Jin Ancestors,” Mianmian grins.

That gets even Shi Wudu’s prickly self to snort. Mianmian feels a little bit better now, as she watches the two siblings hop on their swords and zip off.

It’s a long way up the steps of the Carp Tower, but there’s a nice breeze about, and the sky has a bit of cloudcover. Maybe it’s not so bad being back, after all. 

By the time she makes it to the last staircase, the sun is high in the sky and even with the cool mountain breeze, it’s getting a little unbearable, given the general lack of shade all around. At the very top of the stairs, though, pacing back and forth, Mianmian can see Jin Zixuan waiting for her. Granted, he’s so caught up in his own pacing that he doesn’t realize it’s her ascending the stairs until she’s halfway up. But when he notices, he can’t help but rush down to meet her, an eager smile on his face.

“You’re here!” he exclaims, craning his neck like he’s expecting Mianmian to have the package out and ready for him.

“I’m here,” Mianmian agrees, waiting for Jin Zixuan to demand his parcel like a spoilt child on his birthday. It’s not especially fair of her, but she ought to have the right to be a little shit to Jin Zixuan if she wants it, given everything.

Instead, Jin Zixuan offers a hand to her and says, “I don’t have anything prepared at the moment, since you came so suddenly, but - would you like to join me for a meal? I’ve got some time between my duties. And besides, I’ve got - a gift, for you. Since you, uh, didn’t want to be paid. For your help.”

Mianmian’s taken aback for a moment. Jin Zixuan blinks, studying her face, before saying, “I mean, if you wanted payment instead, I could - I could arrange it. If you could give me a few moments longer.”

“No. No, it’s fine - I’ll… join you for a meal, I guess,” Mianmian says, feeling warm and a little fond when she sees him brighten up. It’s been a while, since anyone’s been that happy to see her. Of course it’d be a little flattering. 

“Yes, excellent - maybe - perhaps, we should eat in my courtyard, then? The peonies are in full bloom and its - they’re lovely,” he offers, hope blooming across his face. And then after a moment of deliberation, he adds, “Or, if you’d like, we could… eat in the mess? I’m sure all the juniors would love to see you. You’d always been the favorite out of the senior disciples.”

The thought of eating in the mess with Jin Zixuan, all his cousins and hangers-on spitting rumors and glaring malevolently at her, makes her feel queasy. “Let’s go to your courtyard,” she firmly decides, letting Jin Zixuan take the lead.

Even just walking through the spacious, extravagantly-decorated hallways made her skin crawl. Who knows what kind of stupid rumors people like Jin Yixi had spoken about her in the time she was away? Regardless of whether or not she was popular, Mianmian’s sudden desertion was bound to lead to speculation, and even if their words couldn’t touch her, they were still difficult to bear.

What did they think, the people passing by, as Jin Zixuan kept a steady pace, with Mianmian just a half step behind him? Did they remember the innocent camaraderie between the two of them? Or did they think ah, so Jin Zixuan is his father’s son after all? Could they recognize her outside of her silken yellow robes, or did they just see the plain linen and think unworthy of my attention? Did they remember her departure and pity her return, or did they wish to spit at her feet for thanklessly betraying the sect that raised her...?

 

It’s only when they’re finally alone, at the familiar table underneath the pretty silk trees covered in those little pink fringes, that Mianmian relaxes - albeit not by much. It’s probably inappropriate that Jin Zixuan is spending time alone with an unmarried female cultivator. She hadn’t thought about that in a long time, too stubbornly entrenched in their strictly platonic friendship that she hadn’t needed to worry about it. Now that she’s no longer a Jin Sect cultivator, well. She had no defense of being shimei and shidi, if someone wanted to spread a vicious word.

It feels like she ought to hurry up with her business here. If only so that she can leave.

“You’re not going to ask me about why I’m here?” she asks, as they wait for their meal to arrive.

Jin Zixuan perks up, his attention fully held. “Um. How was Yunmeng? Was Maiden Jiang doing alright?”

Mianmian sighs, finally tucking a hand into her qiankun pouch. The parcel is still in good condition, the painting carefully wrapped around a hollow tube and bound at both ends, so as not to crumple. “For you,” she says. “You can see for yourself how Jiang Yanli is doing.”

Jin Zixuan doesn’t raise his eyebrow at how she refers to his fiance, too busy taking the package like it was some priceless treasure, something meant to be handled with utmost care. “You brought back her letter,” he says, his voice soft. Reverent. Grateful.

“I brought back her letter,” Mianmian nods. “You can read it now if you want.”

It’s obvious he wants to. But he bites his lip and sets it aside, determined to ask, instead, “How was your trip?”

Mianmian wants to roll her eyes, wants to blow a raspberry at him. Wants to tug on his ears because he’s trying so hard, even if there’s no need right now. “It was fine. Jiang Yanli took me out on the lakes,” she says.

“She did?” Jin Zixuan asks with a bashful smile. “Did you have fun?”

Mianmian thinks Jin Zixuan is actually asking something closer to Did you like her? But with such questions come common ground, and Mianmian can’t lie when she says, “I did. Jiang Yanli is easy to get along with. And her cooking is phenomenal.”

“You got to taste her cooking?” Jin Zixuan asks, eyes bright with longing. “I still think about the soup she made me during the war.”

Mianmian snorts. She remembers that fiasco quite well. She’d spent the rest of the campaign making sure the bitch that’d tried to steal Jin Zixuan’s heart stayed far, far away from him. Of course, she’s not going to remind him of that, even if she very well could, because she’s not actually a terrible person. But she’s not above making him jealous. “She made me braised pork ribs the first day, and she made dinner for Sect Leader Jiang and I the evening after. If she hadn’t been busy writing your letter, she probably would’ve made dinner for us every night,” she gloats, revelling in the way Jin Zixuan’s brows turn up in dismayed envy.

They’re momentarily interrupted by the servants bringing their meal - a luxurious spread of carp, prawns, pork soup, and stuffed tofu. As they pick through the food, Mianmian can see the way Jin Zixuan appraises their meal on a scale of how-much-better-would-it-have-been-if-my-fiance-made-it and nearly laughs. “Also - “ Mianmian says, kicking Jin Zixuan’s shin under the table, “I can’t believe you chose that hairpin to send her.”

Jin Zixuan frowns, mid-bite. “What was wrong with it?”

“It looks like you stopped into the most expensive store in whatever town you were in and bought the most expensive hairpin there,” Mianmian says, shooting Jin Zixuan a look.

Jin Zixuan shrinks a bit, dropping his eyes to his food with all the guilt of a dog caught doing something bad.

“You did, didn’t you?” Mianmian gasps, setting her chopsticks down. “Did you even think about what she’d like?”

“Zixun said it looked fine,” he says in a small voice, looking embarrassed, having been called out so viciously.

“You trusted your cousin to decide your gift? One, have you seen the way he dresses? Two, he does not give a shit about what anyone might like, let alone Jiang Yanli - why would you trust his opinion? And three, how dare you just throw random presents at her willy nilly, as if she were some floozy that could be won over with money?” Mianmian demands, offense rising in her chest at the thought of sweet, thoughtful Jiang Yanli being treated more like a favored concubine rather than a beloved wife.

“Well, what would you have gotten her?” Jin Zixuan sulks, scowling at Mianmian. It makes her irritable, even if she knows he’s only being prickly because he’s embarrassed.

“I don’t know! Something personal! Something you know she’d like! Something that made you think of her! It doesn’t have to be expensive - just put a little bit of heart into it,” Mianmian says, throwing her hands up. “Like - you could give her a book. Your favorite book! She likes stories, and it’d help her get to know you better.”

Jin Zixuan frowns, pushing his prawn across his plate like a child. “Books? But that’s so pedestrian.”

Mianmian can’t roll her eyes hard enough. “It’s not about whether something is pedestrian or not - it’s about whether or not she’d like it. And I’m telling you that she’d like a good book,” she says.

“She really likes books? But shouldn’t I be sending her - y’know, jewelry, or clothes, or normal girl stuff?” Jin Zixuan says doubtfully, still sulking a bit at Mianmian’s suggestion. She could strangle him, probably. The servants wouldn’t get here in time to stop her.

Please don’t send her ‘normal girl stuff.’ At least, not without someone who knows her taste. Besides, how much easier can it get? She. Likes. Books. Easy gift! In fact - in your next letter you should ask her about it. She already knows I’m helping you out - “

“You told her?!”

Mianmian rolls her eyes at his interruption as she continues “ - so I’m sure she’d be okay with me telling you she likes stories. Ask her about the one she’s writing.”

“She writes? ” Jin Zixuan asks. And then after a pause, he says quietly, “I didn’t know that.”

“Well if you stop interrupting people and listened, maybe you’d pick up a few things about them,” Mianmian grumbles, rolling her eyes as she stabs through the carp a little too harshly.

Jin Zixuan shrinks back a little, and somehow, inexplicably, Mianmian feels a little bad about it. “Well. For the record, she’d like anything you sent her. Even if she didn’t know what to do with it,” Mianmian says, looking down at what’s left of the food. They’d hardly made a dent in it. Honestly it would’ve been enough to feed her and her friends pretty well - or at least, burn a hole in their pockets trying.

“Yeah, well - I want her to actually like it. The things I send her, I mean. I just… don’t know what she likes,” Jin Zixuan mumbles, face flushed with embarrassment and frustration both.

“Well, for starters - probably not the kind of things the girls here like. She’s… not really confident about how she looks,” Mianmian says.

Jin Zixuan’s eyes snap up to look at Mianmian, as if she’d personally insulted his fiance. “What’s wrong with how she looks?!” he demands.

Mianmian rolls her eyes. “What are you getting mad at me for? I think she’s lovely!”

“Well - Well of course you do! Because she is!” Jin Zixuan splutters. “She’s - she - her smile is - and, and her hands - and - “ His face grows red, voice quickly growing quiet and shy as he tries to come up with words to explain just what he thinks of his future wife’s smile. And her hands, apparently.

Inexplicably, it makes Mianmian embarrassed, too, to be thinking about Jiang Yanli’s smile. And her hands. So instead, she tries to cover it up with a very disaffected eye-roll and a, “You don’t have to tell me twice. Why don’t you open up the package and see?”

Jin Zixuan frowns in confusion, but obediently, he cuts open the seal keeping the painting flush against the tube, spreading it out against the bench to avoid the risk of getting it dirty.

Mianmian watches his face as he does, an anxious excitement welling in her chest as she watches his frown lift and soften, as his mouth parts in reverent awe. “Oh,” he breathes, his hand moving. She can’t see what it’s doing from where she’s sitting, but his movements are slow and gentle.

When he finally tears his eyes away to look up at her, his eyes are big and sweet and pretty, in a way that reminds her of just how handsome Jin Zixuan is. It’s these unguarded moments, the things he doesn’t actually let other people see, in which Mianmian remembers he’s something like the third most handsome of this generation’s cultivators. Honestly, she forgets that people think that of him - that if she hadn’t known him since they’d both been young, she, too, might’ve been one of those that admired him for his looks.

“You painted this,” Jin Zixuan says, with a sureness that… unsettles something in Mianmian’s chest. Makes her heart thump a little faster.

It makes her not want to trust her own voice. So instead, she nods.

The smile that blooms across Jin Zixuan’s face ought to be something he didn’t let others see. Or at least, people other than, maybe, Jiang Yanli. “I knew it,” he says, looking back at the painting. “I’ll… I’ll treasure it.”

Mianmian nods, and she thinks about the sketches she has, still carefully tucked into her qiankun pouch. It feels, almost, as if she should pull them out and show those to him, too, but - well, she doesn’t want to. It’s strange, the impulse to keep them hidden, to guard them so jealously when she knows Jin Zixuan will offer her that dazzling smile again. He’d appreciate the gesture. He’d treasure the sketches, just as she knows how he’ll treasure this amateur painting of his fiance.

And yet - still, she can’t help but feel like the sketches are hers. The moments she’d spent learning the curve of Jiang Yanli’s cheek, the sparkle of her eye, the line of her pretty lips - those are hers.

Mianmian very much does not want to examine what that might mean about herself.

The remainder of their meal is… well, a little distracted. Jin Zixuan can’t help but peek at the painting every few minutes, as if it’d fly away if he didn’t keep his eye on it. And every time he sees it, his lips pull into a pleased little smile, one Mianmian isn’t even sure he realizes he’s making. It’s… terribly endearing, this reminder of just how earnestly Jin Zixuan loves Jiang Yanli.

And Mianmian? Well. She can’t help but be distracted, too. By… a lot of things. Things she’s trying not to think about.

Soon, their stomachs fill to the point where they can’t possibly eat more, and Jin Zixuan calls for the remaining food to be taken away. Asks Mianmian, politely, if she’d like to rest up before departing. Frankly, the thought makes her nauseous, and she tells Jin Zixuan as much while she’s still in the safety of his courtyard. Jin Zixuan doesn’t take offense.

He keeps her up on the goings-on of the sect and tells her, a little shyly, that Jin Guangyao had been keeping some really interesting ideas - watchtowers, of sorts, stationed all over the place, so that even the remotest of villages could request help. So that the cultivation world could be sooner notified of fierce corpses and beasts and curses. He hopes to help his half-brother bring it up to the council of elders once the plans are more finalized and the expenses calculated. It’ll be a way that the four great sects could equally contribute to the cause, while also fostering relationships between sects. It’ll also be a way to help fledgeling sects and rogue cultivators find more consistent work and gain more experience. If they can get it to work… well, things might really start changing for the better.

The thought of Jin Zixuan being so excited about something like this is… it’s encouraging. To see his sense of justice applied more abstractly, to see the ways in which Jin Zixuan is legitimately trying to do better. Mianmian can’t help but feel a bit of admiration for him.

Eventually, they run out of things to say, and Mianmian has to beg her leave. But before she goes, Jin Zixuan remembers his present for her - “Here,” he says, pulling out what is, quite frankly, a huge stack of messenger butterfly talismans. Powerful ones - the sort that’d be able to reach even Yunmeng, if they had to. These don’t come cheap, and they both know it. Mianmian nearly declines - after all, she can make do on a rogue cultivator’s budget, but Jin Zixuan’s already dropped the stack into her hands.

“They’re not much - “ The stack itself could’ve easily cost 3 taels. Maybe more. “ - but, well, I figure they’d be useful. And it’d be a way for you to contact me if - well, if you’d ever like a reason to go to Yunmeng again.”

Jin Zixuan bites his lip, and hurriedly adds - “Not that - not that, y’know, I’ll be harassing you to send my letters for me again, or anything. If you don’t want to. But I’d also... like to spend more time with you. I’ve missed your company.”

Mianmian rolls her eyes, but she can’t help but smile. “Thank you, Jin Zixuan,” she says. And then, after a moment, “I’ll be helping my friends out in Qinghe for a week or so, but… if that hunt finishes early, I wouldn’t mind helping you with your letters. Yunmeng is… really nice, actually. I’d like to have a reason to go again.”

Jin Zixuan’s eyes go big, and he breaks out into a bright smile, nodding eagerly at her. “I’ll - I’ll send a message, when I finish, and maybe we can meet up?”

“Sure,” Mianmian says. “Just… not the Carp Towers. If you can help it.”

“Ah,” Jin Zixuan laughs, awkwardly. “That’s - that’s fine. You’ve got plenty of ways to contact me now, so… I’m sure we can find somewhere you like better.”

Mianmian nods, smiling. “I can make my way back out - I still remember the way. You don’t need to walk me,” she tells him, as he walks her to the exit of his courtyard. His face drops a little bit, but it’s clear he understands. They don’t… exactly run in the same circles anymore, and it’d be bad for both of them if baseless rumors started up.

Still, she does kind of miss Jin Zixuan’s company. Even if he’s kind of insufferable.

Walking out of the Carp Towers feels like a breath of fresh air. On her own, people don’t glance her way, and she can slip out more or less unnoticed. Once or twice, she catches sight of some people she’d never gotten along with, but as part of the crowd, well… she simply didn’t register. It should’ve been a little grating but, well, after the harrowing experience of being perceived simply for the crime of standing next to Jin Zixuan, she’s grateful for it.

She shakes her head as she makes her way down the thousand steps of the Carp Towers, thinking how much nicer things would be if Jin Zixuan were someone else. He is where he needs to be, but… well. Things could be so much simpler.

Chapter Text

Mianmian makes it to the inn not more than an hour or two after the others. They actually spot her coming in from the first floor and wave her down to come eat with them, clamoring for news about Yunmeng and Jin Zixuan and the juicy details about the love between the young master and his wife-to-be.

Mianmian tells them about Yunmeng - about how beautifully it was rebuilt, how lovely the lakes were, how welcoming the people. She tells them about the food Jiang Yanli had made, and how she had been well remembered by the sect leader. Tells them that they really ought to go visit some time - she’d be happy to take them around. By the time she’d finished talking, Tan Liyang was practically ready to pack her bags.

Li Yitian nudges her about seeing Young Master Jin at the Carp Tower, and Mianmian pulls out the stack of messenger butterfly talismans. “ Woah, ” Li Yitian breathes, because out of all of them she would know just how painstakingly crafted these were.

“Yeah,” Mianmian says with a quiet laugh. “So, uh. If I decide to help him out more often, I’ll at least be able to contact you guys without too much trouble.”

Xiao Wenzhou looks at the stack, and then looks up at Mianmian, biting his lip as he musters up the courage to ask, “Mianmian, are you - do you think you’re going to be helping them out for a long time? I mean… You’d be paid better than if you stuck with us.”

Ah. Mianmian smiles and shakes her head. “No way. It’s probably a year or two tops before everything gets settled and they marry. Only an idiot would ditch you guys for a quick buck,” she says, laughing quietly. The question doesn’t sit well with her, though. The assumption that she belongs with them instead of here, with people she liked to think of as friends, grates at her for reasons she’s not quite sure of. 

“You should think about it, though,” Li Yitian says. “It’s good money. Really good money. It’d be stupid to turn down work like that.”

Mianmian makes a face. “I don’t want to be a deliveryman. I like the girl he’s getting married to, is all. I can’t just let him screw things up with her.”

Li Yitian shoots Mianmian a pointed look, but before she can say anything, Tan Liyang cuts in, “I don’t see why it’s such a big deal. You can come and go as you please. It’s not like you’ve got any obligation to us, not when you’ve got plenty of good prospects lined up.”

Mianmian frowns, an inexplicable uneasiness bubbling up in her stomach. “I don’t. It’s just a favor for an old friend, okay? It’s not like he’s taking me in and hiring me long-term.”

Tan Mingyuan chews thoughtfully on a bone and says, “He probably would if you’d let him.”

Mianmian scowls at her. “Do I seem like the kind of person who’d just be a layabout and do nothing to earn her keep?”

“No,” Tan Liyang says, steadfastly ignoring her ire. “But it’s kind of obvious he cares about you. If you wanted to be a layabout and do nothing to earn your keep, he’d probably be willing to fund that.”

“That’s - “ Mianmian starts, but Tan Liyang isn’t… wrong. Jin Zixuan might be a bit naive and a bit misguided, but he’s willing to do a lot for the people he cares about. It... doesn’t make Mianmian feel any better about him worrying after her. About him offering what comes upsettingly close to charity.

Even more upsettingly, Li Yitian sighs dreamily and says, “I wouldn’t mind that. Being taken care of by a guy like him. I mean, I wouldn’t even mind being a concubine - don’t non-cultivators do that all the time?”

Mianmian makes a face at her and sets her chopsticks down with a clack. “Don’t you have any self-respect?”

“Yeah, I do - “ Li Yitian snaps at her, a scowl marring her pretty features. “Enough, at least, to want to have something a little better for myself than living nighthunt to nighthunt and camping out in the woods every other night. At least you’ve got options. What do the rest of us have?”

Mianmian nearly chokes on her tea with how mad that one little comment makes her. But when she looks around the table and sees the others more or less agreeing with Li Yitian, she can’t help but feel… a little cold.

Abruptly, she pushes her plates away and gets up. “I’m heading upstairs. Goodnight, all of you,” she says, stomping up to the lone room she’d rented, a privilege she’d bought with some of the travelling money Jin Zixuan had given her.

 

--

 

It’s Xiao Wenzhou who knocks on her door later that night and asks to come in. She lets him, because technically, he hadn’t done anything to earn her ire beyond asking the question that started the argument. But she’s still a little upset. “I’m sorry, about earlier,” he says, standing awkwardly in the doorway until Mianmian gestures for him to sit. “I didn’t know my question would lead to - all that.”

“It’s fine,” Mianmian says quietly, not looking at him.

They let the room settle into an awkward silence for a long moment, before -

“You know, it’s not like - it’s not as if we’d judge you for going, though,” Xiao Wenzhou says, his voice almost too quiet to hear from anxiousness. “People have come and go before. Why stab yourself in the foot when you can use what life gives you?”

Mianmian scowls, crossing her arms over her chest. “I don’t want his charity. I don’t want to rely on someone who’s inevitably going to drop me the moment things get hard.”

That, out of anything, has Xiao Wenzhou laughing that little hiccupy laugh of his. “And you’d rather deal with village heads trying to cheat you out of your silver?”

“That’s not - “

“It is,” Xiao Wenzhou says with a smile. “It’s the same thing. You just don’t want to think of it that way because you’re still upset at him.”

Mianmian’s lips pull into an unhappy, thin line. “Mianmian,” Xiao Wenzhou says, all gentle and sweet and disarming. “We want you to have good things. We don’t need you to worry about us; friends celebrate each other’s opportunities just as much as they support each other in times of need. It’s not a betrayal of your morals if you decide to work with him more than you work with us.”

Mianmian makes an offended little scoff, but Xiao Wenzhou only laughs. “Mianmian, don’t let your stubbornness ruin a good thing for you. I’m not asking you to be best friends again or anything - just that you give yourself a chance for something good.”

Mianmian thinks, briefly, about Jiang Yanli, about her promise to welcome Mianmian back to the Piers. She thinks, too, about how when she’d parted ways with Jin Zixuan, she couldn’t help but feel… glad, knowing that Jin Zixuan took her advice to heart.

“I don’t know what happened between you two,” Xiao Wenzhou gently concedes. “But it seems like he’s trying to make amends. Or, at the very least, you matter enough to him that he wants to spend more time with you. I’m not telling you to forgive him if what he did was bad enough not to warrant it… But hey, I mean - even if it was that bad, isn’t it all the better that you’re taking his money?”

Mianmian snorts. “Everyone thinks Tan Liyang is the shameless one, but isn’t it you?” She asks with a dry laugh.

Xiao Wenzhou shrugs and grins, not denying the accusation. Mianmian slaps his shoulder, shaking him for his cheekiness. When she finally settles down, she says, “I just don’t want to be his deliveryman full time. You’re… not wrong, about it being an opportunity. But I still prefer going on nighthunts; at least then I know I’ll actually be helping people.”

“Well, I mean, you’d be helping a lot of people if you got those two married. You said so yourself, that she’d be good for him,” Xiao Wenzhou says gently.

Mianmian rolls her eyes. They both know that’s not what she’s thinking about, when she says she wants to help people. “I’ll think about it,” she finally concedes, crossing her arms over her chest.

“That’s the spirit,” Xiao Wenzhou grins, patting Mianmian’s shoulder. Mianmian rolls her eyes and shoves him a little, but she’s not all that upset anymore.

Eventually, she remembers to tell Xiao Wenzhou about the books Jiang Yanli recommended. By no means is Mianmian as talented a storyteller as Jiang Yanli, but Xiao Wenzhou looks excited, anyways - doubly so when she tells him how big Jiang Yanli’s library is, and how she often let the disciples read her books; she’s sure if Mianmian asked, maybe she could even borrow one or two for him. 

Eventually, Tan Mingyuan stops by to hassle Xiao Wenzhou for spending so much time with Mianmian unaccompanied. It was his way of checking in on her, of course, but his old fashioned ideas still made her roll her eyes. He hangs around a little while longer, bugging Mianmian about the Jiang Sect training regimen until Tan Liyang comes by to drag the boys out of her room.

By the time she turns in for bed, Mianmian feels a bit better. A bit lighter in her chest.

 

--

 

A few days later, they find themselves working alongside a few teams of Qinghe disciples and some other rogue cultivators to wrangle a fei yi niao infestation near Laoling. It’s not especially strenuous work - just mentally-taxing, finicky work. The money is good and the risk is low, but it’s far from thrilling to be setting and checking snares day in and day out. 

The pay they’re receiving is only a fraction of what Qinghe Nie will receive once they cull the catch and process them. Fei yi niao meat is a strong medicine, if you’re willing to put in the effort of preparing it properly - a poison if not. Most rogue cultivators don’t have the equipment or the expertise for it, so the Nies will making a mint off the stuff. Mianmian tries not to be too bitter about the fact - after all, their paychecks will end up being pretty hefty regardless.

They’re in their second day of work when Mianmian gets a messenger butterfly from Jin Zixuan. It settles elegantly on her palm, and when she dispels the slip of glimmering qi, it leaves behind an invitation to meet for an evening meal. Likely a repeat of last time.

When she sees Xiao Wenzhou smiling knowingly over at her, she can’t help but stick out her tongue at him. He pays it no mind, trotting over to help her reset the snare she’d been fiddling with before getting interrupted by the butterfly. “I suppose we won’t be seeing you for dinner?” he asks, hands surprisingly steady for such a bookish guy.

Mianmian scrunches up her face at his smugness. “Perhaps,” she admits. “I’m tired of picking bones out of fish.”

Xiao Wenzhou snorts and shakes his head. “Eat well for my sake, yeah?”

Mianmian blows a raspberry and resettles her cage over her shoulder. “I don’t expect you’ll be eating too badly, either. How many cages are you on?”

“Third cage today. I just guess I’m just lucky,” Xiao Wenzhou shrugs, as he wanders off to tell the others the news.

 

--

 

They meet at a restaurant that does incredible roast lamb, and Mianmian makes Jin Zixuan laugh until his stomach hurts with stories about the fei yi niao hunt. He’s... cute when he laughs, the sound of it clumsy and unpracticed and real in a way he’s not allowed to be, normally.

He looks so much younger like this. Softer. More approachable.

It hurts, a little, thinking about how rare it is to see Jin Zixuan laugh these days. Or, at least, it was rare when she still lived at the Carp Tower. She wonders if Jiang Yanli has ever seen him laugh, or if he’s always just been too nervous around her to. Hopes that Jiang Yanli will make him laugh more, when they marry. It’d be good for him.

“How do you do that?” Jin Zixuan asks, once he’s finally caught his breath. His cheeks are glowing with mirth, and he looks so terribly handsome. He has his mother’s delicate features all over his father’s beautiful bone structure, and it’s never quite so apparent as when he smiles.

“Do what?” Mianmian asks, serving herself some more wine in an effort to disguise the fact that she was too busy looking at him to keep track of what he was saying - and then, upon further deliberation, she tops off his cup, too.

“Make people laugh,” he says, voice a little small, a little embarrassed, maybe, that he can’t do something so simple.

Mianmian pauses, blinks up at him. And then her brows furrow as she really thinks about the question. “I don’t know,” she says simply. “I’m not that funny. I just say things, and then you laugh. Maybe you’re just easily amused by how stupid small furry things are.”

Jin Zixuan still can’t help his smile as he raises a skeptical eyebrow at her and absently, she thinks maybe she ought to try capturing that specific look on paper. For Jiang Yanli. She’d, uh. Mianmian thinks she’d like it, the way his handsome features turn the fond exasperation into something a girl might think about.

“I really don’t know,” Mianmian says, a little louder than she’d intended it to be, as she tries very hard not to think about the little flutter in her chest. “I just think about all the stupid things I do and make fun of it.”

Jin Zixuan frowns, nibbling on a strip of caramelized onion. “Why would you want people to laugh at you?”

Mianmian shrugs. “They’re not laughing at me. It’s not like they’d think less of me because I made a fool of myself trying to catch one stupid fei yi niao. It’s just - I don’t know, when I tell it, they’re laughing with me,” she says. “There’s no point in trying to pretend that I’m perfect and nothing I do ever goes wrong. People just like hearing about interesting things that happen.”

Jin Zixuan frowns a little harder, but it’s more the sort of frown one makes when thinking, rather than the sort that Jin Zixuan often makes. The conversation falls into a lull as they both pick at their food, but it’s not… uncomfortable, exactly. Just thoughtful.

“Maybe you ought to take some time away from the Carp Tower,” Mianmian eventually suggests. “Slum it a little. Go on a night hunt with people who don’t know you. It’s… not easy for you to be, y’know, stupid, when you’ve got to represent the Jin Sect, is it?”

Jin Zixuan shrugs and pushes around a little cut of meat on his plate. “Come out with us on a hunt some time,” Mianmian urges him. “The others like you well enough. You don’t have to impress them or anything - just be yourself.”

Jin Zixuan rolls his eyes a little, before Mianmian amends, “Be the person you are when it’s just you and me, then. That’s easy, isn’t it?”

“It’s - it’s not the same,” Jin Zixuan protests. “I’ve known you since we were kids. Them, I - “

“It’s fine, ” Mianmian assures him. “Really. Come out with us some time. Whenever you have a few days free. I promise, it’ll be good for you.” 

Jin Zixuan makes a face before finally, reluctantly, agreeing. Mianmian isn’t going to push her luck and urge him on one the next time she’s back int he area- the fact that he’d agreed is more or less enough to assure her that yes, someday he will message her asking if she’d like company on a hunt with a bunch of normal people for once. For now, she accepts his agreement and takes the conversation elsewhere.

“Hey, have you finished writing your response to Jiang Yanli yet?”

Jin Zixuan flushes, a bashful little smile on his face at the mention of his fiance. “I - almost,” he says. “She spent a lot of her letter talking about your visit. You helped take her mind off of things for a while. Thank you for that, by the way.”

“She talked about me?” Mianmian asks, surprised. “What’d she say?”

“Good things,” Jin Zixuan says, an amused smile on his face. “You know, she used to be intimidated by you.”

“I’m sorry, she what? ” Mianmian asks, nearly choking on her wine. “You’re kidding me.”

“I’m not,” Jin Zixuan says. “I don’t have the letter on me, but she said so. She wants to get to know you better.”

Oh. Well.

Mianmian can’t help the way her cheeks go warm and pleased at that. “I liked her too. She was…” Briefly, she’s at a loss as to what to say. Two days isn’t enough to truly get to know someone, but - Mianmian liked what details of Jiang Yanli’s life she had given her. They’d clicked so easily, she couldn’t help but like her. “She was great,” she says, a little lamely. And then, after an awkward pause, she adds, “You know, after I’m done helping the others with the fei yi niao infestation in Laoling, I could probably help deliver the next letter.”

Jin Zixuan stares at her with an expression she didn’t quite understand. But it’s a good one, she thinks, as it pulls into a genuine smile. “You want to?” His voice is soft, but even if Mianmian wasn’t looking at him, she’d be able to tell he was smiling.

“I wouldn't mind,” Mianmian says, feeling inexplicably embarrassed.

“I’d like it to be you, if you could,” he says. 

“Then I’ll go,” Mianmian decides, trying to ignore the fluster in her chest - no doubt excited at the chance to see Jiang Yanli again. Not at - not at anything else, of course.

“You’ll be done with the hunt in a few days?” Jin Zixuan asks, eyes bright enough in the low restaurant light that Mianmian has to look away.

“Y-Yeah,” she says. “You’ll have plenty of time to finish your draft and find a proper gift. If, y’know, you still think a book is too pedestrian, or whatever.”

Jin Zixuan quietly laughs and nods. “Do you want to take a look at what I’ve got so far?”

“Yeah, sure. Hand it over.”

--

 

When Mianmian messages Jin Zixuan about being available for the next delivery, Jin Zixuan messages her back saying he can’t get away from the Carp Tower until later in the evening. They agree to meet the next morning instead - Mianmian sends Jin Zixuan the name of the inn they’re staying at and leaves it up to him when she departs for Yunmeng.

He doesn’t quite make it for breakfast, and they have a bit of time to kill, so Tan Mingyuan bugs Mianmian about sparring with him until Jin Zixuan gets here. He’s almost got down that disarming move Mianmian was trying to teach him, and some practical experience wouldn’t hurt. “Just don’t try to kill me this time,” Tan Mingyuan pleads, to which Mianmian rolls her eyes.

“I’m not about to roll over and let you stab me so easy. Literally no one else will do that for you,” Mianmian teases, flicking his forehead. “Come on - out to the courtyard.”

Tan Mingyuan makes a face at her, but easily follows her out. They start slow - Tan Mingyuan, for all his exuberance, had always done better with a bit of a warmup. Enough to calm down his nerves and get him thinking, rather than reacting. 

They mime the disarm a few times - slowly, without force, so Tan Mingyuan remembers the feeling. And then Mianmian speeds it up, strengthens her footwork, throws in feints and parries. Tan Mingyuan tries to keep up, his only goal to find her weak points, identify places in which he can use the disarm.

Mianmian doesn’t make it easy for him, but by the time they really get into it, he’s too focused to sulk and whine. He manages the disarm twice. Mianmian still ends up forcing him to the ground.

From the periphery, she hears a quiet laugh. “Still have that tricky footwork, huh?” Jin Zixuan asks, using the momentary lull in their spar to make himself known.

To Tan Mingyuan he says, “She did that all the time during the war. Trip you up and stab you when you’re down. It was terrifyingly effective.”

Tan Mingyuan looks up at Mianmian and pales, young enough to have avoided fighting in the war altogether. When Mianmian gets him to his feet, she shrugs. “Better them than me,” she says simply staring up at Jin Zixuan.

Jin Zixuan nods and smiles. “Better them than you,” he agrees, patting her arm. And then, to Tan Mingyuan - “You did good. Just keep an eye out for when she does this - “ he mimics the movement of Mianmian’s feet when she goes in for the kill, when she slips out of her usual defensive posture and pushes aggressively into her opponent’s space - “Because if you’re not careful, she’ll gut you.”

Tan Mingyuan stares up at him, eyes wide. His adam’s apple bobs when he swallows, realizing, quite acutely, how far out of his league the woman he’d been travelling with and the young master she was friends with were. “How - how do you - I mean, what do you do if she - “

Jin Zixuan raises his eyebrows. And then he looks at Mianmian, a quiet question in his eyes. You up for a spar?

Mianmian huffs, blowing a stray hair out of her face. “Alright, alright fine. Watch us, Tan Mingyuan,” she says, and then, to Jin Zixuan - “You’d best take off your fancy outer robe, Young Master Jin - it wouldn’t do for you to come home bruised and dusty.”

“Alright,” Jin Zixuan says goodnaturedly, tugging off his belt, so that he might undo the clasp keeping his yuanlingpao fastened. Tan Mingyuan hurries to take the fine silk from Jin Zixuan, scurrying over to the sidelines where the others had gathered to watch.

Unlike with Tan Mingyuan, Mianmian goes for Jin Zixuan’s throat. Jin Zixuan is more than happy to do the same. It’s a time-honored tradition, one that got the captain of the guard to vow never to leave them in the same sparring group ever. Not that Jin Zixuan didn’t just naturally gravitate toward her anyways; everyone else in their age group was too scared to be caught beating Jin Zixuan in a fight, so he often could only spar with the assistant instructors. And Mianmian, because Mianmian didn’t mind fighting to win when she had Madame Jin on her side.

Besides, it was stupid of them to even assume they’d be able to get a hand on him - and, if they even got that far, that they’d be able to beat him grappling. Jin Zixuan wasn’t just some spoiled young master - he was a spoiled young master with the skill to back it up.

Mianmian doesn’t stand a chance against Jin Zixuan at proper swordplay, not anymore. At the soonest opportunity she could, she went for a disarm. He knew her well enough that he was on guard against it - though it’d been long enough that he’d forgotten how tricky she was on her feet. Tricky, enough, at least, to grab him by the sleeve and tug him off balance.

Jin Zixuan barks out a cry of surprise as he tries to get as far away from her as he could, knowing she’d use that opportunity to aggressively push in. It’s not easy, not when she’s quicker than he is, and in the end, she gets what she wants - a disarm. From the sidelines, she can hear Tan Mingyuan crying out in excitement when he realizes she was using the maneuver he taught her, but it doesn’t last long when she sets aside her own sword as well.

They always preferred hand-to-hand, anyways. 

Jin Zixuan grins at her as he tries to leverage his height and weight, but she’s too fast for him to get a proper grab in. A few seen-through feints, a few aborted swipes, and Mianmian is laughing, loud and bright as they play . Of course, given the chance, if Jin Zixuan got a hold of her, he’d be throwing her to the ground or engaging her in a grapple, and she’d for sure have to tap out. But it’s fun, rolling away from his strikes, throwing her own in. Pretending to reach for him only to strike him elsewhere.

It’s clear she’s gotten rusty in the few months they’ve been apart. She blames it on her lack of a rigorous training regimen. But it’s still fun, even when she gets caught by him and thrown over his knee.

Jin Zixuan, like a perfect gentleman, catches her before she makes contact with the ground, and for a long moment, they stare at each other, giddy and breathing hard. Like nothing had ever changed. Mianmian can’t help the laughter that bubbles out of her chest, when Jin Zixuan harmlessly drops her to the ground - and again, when she hooks an ankle under his and tugs him off balance. If she could, she’d catch him the way he’d caught her, but it’s also kind of satisfying watching him fall heavily on his ass, eyes blinking owlishly in surprise. And then - because Mianmian’s giggling is infectious, he laughs, too, rolling onto his knees to get up.

If it’d just been them, he probably would’ve tried to get revenge - maybe would’ve started play-wrestling, since they were already on the ground. As it stands, they have a crowd, and, well - it’s not like they’re kids anymore. Jin Zixuan will be getting married soon.

Mianmian isn’t sure why she’s thinking about that, let alone why she feels just a little disappointed that their spar had ended so soon as she watches him dust off his butt and knees. She knows she’s got a job to do, knows that he’s probably got to zip right back to Lanling soon, too, but - well, it had been fun.

He holds out a hand to her and she easily takes it. When the others come over, he can’t help but grin at her, mouthing “I won,” like the pompous little shit he is. Tan Mingyuan shyly hands Jin Zixuan his robes, and when their hands touch, he can’t help but gush over how cool that was, how impressive their footwork or whatever.

Mianmian stands by and lets him field the questions, feeling a little… nostalgic, maybe. Rueful, that they’d let... everything get in the way of their friendship. Xiao Wenzhou had been right, that she was still a little mad at him. But it’s hard to stay mad, when she remembers all the reasons why she’s missed being his friend. She… understands, why he couldn’t say anything to defend her. Why he had to be Jin Zixuan, Sect Heir instead of Jin Zixuan, her friend. She might not have forgiven him for that just yet, but she understands.

She thinks about this, when he hands her the letter and a little more travelling money. With a small smile and a wave, she says goodbye to all of them and steps onto her sword, resisting the urge to turn and look back as she flits away towards Yunmeng.

Chapter Text

When Mianmian lands at the doors to the Lotus Piers, she’s recognized immediately by one of the disciples. “Miss Luo, welcome back!” the disciple - A-Yue, if Mianmian remembers right - says, waving her over. “Are you bringing another parcel for Maiden Jiang?” Mianmian nods, taken aback by her boundless enthusiasm. She almost feels like she ought to pull it out, if only just to sate A-Yue’s curiosity.

A-Yue purses her lips in what Mianmian assumes to be kind of a frown. “She’s actually not really feeling so great right now. I don’t know if she’ll want to see anyone,” she says, glancing over at the other disciple. “She had to skip out on your literature class, right, Liang-Xiong?”

The other disciple, nods, offering Mianmian a proper bow. “I’m Liang Wenge, Mo Yingyue’s third shidi,” he says a little stiffly. “Maiden Jiang has indeed missed today’s literature class. Our substitute informed us that she was feeling ill. It happens, on occasion.”

Mianmian frowns. “It does?”

Liang Wenge glances at Mo Yingyue, before nodding. “Yes. Her constitution is frail. It’s not uncommon for her to take a day or two every few months due to illness or - um, other conditions. She tries not to miss too much class, but sometimes, when she shows up, Sect Leader Jiang comes by to force her to rest.”

Mianmian can’t help the sinking feeling in her chest as she asks, “Does she get any visitors when she’s ill?”

Mo Yingyue shrugs. “Well, when the disciples try to, Sect Leader Jiang tells them to stop goofing off and get back to work. If she’s not sick sick, usually she’ll be back in a day or two.”

It makes sense - she probably didn’t need a bunch of rowdy disciples to bother her while she’s trying to rest. But it still sounds - 

Mianmian frowns and says, “I should see her.”

Liang Wenge looks at Mo Yingyue and says, “Maybe it’d be a good idea to ask Sect Leader Jiang, first.”

“I can ask him!” Mo Yingyue grins. “Just wait here, okay?” And before Liang Wenge can stop her, Mo Yingyue runs off to ask.

“...She just wanted to get off guard duty, huh?” Mianmian asks with a laugh, and, startled, Liang Wenge also can’t help but laugh. His cheeks go red when he catches himself, his entire body straightening up as he tries to hold it in, but Mianmian grins, seeing right through him.

When Mo Yingyue comes jogging back, she’s already waving Mianmian over. “Liang-Xiong, I’m going to escort Miss Luo to Maiden Jiang’s chambers!” she calls out to him.

“Don’t dawdle,” he grumbles at her, but Mo Yingyue is already dancing away, pretending not to hear him.

Mianmian follows dutifully after her, but she can’t help but roll her eyes, too. “Hate guard duty that much, huh?” Mianmian asks, making Mo Yingyue bark out a laugh, countering with,

“Maybe I just love Maiden Jiang that much!”

Mianmian snorts at the obvious evasion of the topic, and Mo Yingyue takes it goodnaturedly. She’s charming, in a way that reminds Mianmian a bit of what she remembers of Wei Wuxian, and she can see why Sect Leader Jiang might tolerate her antics, why Jiang Yanli might indulge her company.

It’s a bitter thought, one that has Mianmian sick with sympathy, and Mianmian can’t help but want to see Jiang Yanli sooner. If only just to check that she really is okay.

 

When they quietly open the doors to Jiang Yanli’s suite, Jiang Yanli is already awake, curled up in bed with a thin blanket wrapped around her. On the floor is a tray of food that’d clearly been left for her hours ago, half-eaten and set aside.

Jiang Yanli lies there, eyes squinted shut in a pained grimace, the flush on her cheeks harsh against her wan skin. There’s a cold sweat beading at her temples, and when she realizes they’re here, it’s a dim awareness - not in the sense that her senses appear clouded, but more in the sense that there’s something distracting her from her usual welcoming cheer.

“Don’t get up on our account,” Mianmian says, before Mo Yingyue can say anything. “Please, rest.”

“I’ve been resting all day,” Jiang Yanli mumbles, but she looks relieved to lie back down. “It’s good to see you again, Mianmian. I’m sorry you caught me at such a bad time.”

“It’s fine,” Mianmian smiles, inspecting the tray and neatening it, so that Mo Yingyue might take it to the kitchens on her way out. “How are you feeling?”

“Better than before, I promise,” Jiang Yanli says. It doesn’t sound especially convincing. “A-Yue,” she chides, “Shouldn’t you be on guard duty?”

Mo Yingyue slumps her shoulders, kneeling by Jiang Yanli’s bedside. “But I’d rather visit Maiden Jiang,” she theatrically whines. “Sect Leader Jiang won’t let us come see you!”

“Yes, because he knows how many of you would be skipping out on important classes to come play with me,” Jiang Yanli says, pinching Mo Yingyue’s nose until she pulls back, laughing. “There are grapes on my table. Why don’t you share those with Xiao-Liang?”

Mo Yingyue’s eyes glitter as she bounces to her feet. “Thank you, Maiden Jiang!” she croons, squeezing Jiang Yanli’s hand affectionately.

“And please take the tray, if you can? I haven’t any appetite,” she says, eyes slipping shut as if with exhaustion. 

“Yes, ma’am!” Mo Yingyue chirps, grabbing the tray and running off with a bunch of grapes. 

When the doors shut behind her, Mianmian can’t help but laugh, “She’s got so much energy.”

“Too much, sometimes,” Jiang Yanli laughs. It sounds tired, shot through with an undercurrent of ache that makes Mianmian ache in sympathy. “I’m really sorry you came to see me when I’m like - this.”

“Nonsense. If you want, though, I can leave you alone…?” Mianmian offers, even if she can’t help but want to stay and fret over Jiang Yanli.

“No! Please, don’t,” Jiang Yanli groans, trying to turn over. Mianmian stops her with a gentle hand on her shoulder, and begrudgingly, she stills. “I’ve been cooped up all day. I’m too nauseous to eat and too uncomfortable to sleep, and I can hardly focus enough to even read. I won’t be much company, but if you could stay a little while, I’d appreciate it.”

Mianmian laughs, casting about for something to sit on. When she finds nothing nearby, Jiang Yanli just pats an empty spot on the bed for her to sit.

It’s - it feels a little… well, surely it’s understandable, that Mianmian might be a little embarrassed to sit down somewhere so intimate. But obediently, she sits, staring down at Jiang Yanli, with her sleep-mussed hair and her bright eyes and those delicate, birdbone wrists of hers poking out from her sleeping robes, until she can’t help but blurt out, “What’s wrong?”

Jiang Yanli blinks up at her, and her flush deepens, suffusing across her cheekbones to her ears and a bit down her neck. “It’s - it’s nothing really to fret about I just - “ She glances around the room as if there could be anyone listening in, and then whispers, “It’s that time of month.”

Mianmian winces. “Ah. It’s… really bad, then?” she asks, rubbing her own stomach in sympathy.

“It’s the worst. It feels like I’ve got hot knives stabbing me every few seconds,” she groans, letting her head flop down on the pillow.

“Does anything work for you?” Mianmian asks.

Jiang Yanli laughs miserably. “I can’t take another dose of pain medication for another three hours, and the ones they’ve given me have just about worn off.”

“What about acupuncture?” Mianmian asks.

Jiang Yanli shivers. “I don’t like needles if I can help it,” she admits, almost pitifully. “I know there’s nothing wrong with it, but it just - it makes me think of this time, once, when A-Cheng got… really, really sick. Needles all over. I couldn’t stand to look at him.”

Mianmian nods, taking Jiang Yanli’s hand in hers. It’s fever-warm and feels painfully frail. “What about massage? A little acupressure?” she asks. And then, feeling a little hysterical, she adds, “Or maybe even, y’know - “ with an indecent gesture to illustrate.

“Mianmian!” Jiang Yanli cries out, standalized into laughter, her trembling hand clinging onto Mianmian’s. Her other hand curls pitifully around her stomach and Mianmian would feel bad if it weren't for the fact that Jiang Yanli was curling into her pillow, giggling helplessly.

"I swear, it helps!" Mianmian insists, laughing along with her. Her own cheeks are warm from her own brazenness, from the mere thought that Jiang Yanli would even -

"Maybe next time, then," Jiang Yanli says, blinking slowly up at Mianmian, and now Mianmian can't not think about -

"So! Did you want to try a massage?" she asks, wincing as her voice cracks awkwardly at the end.

Jiang Yanli has the grace not to mention it as she gently protests, "I can’t just bother the healers for a massage any time my stomach hurts. They’ve got better things to do.”

"I can do it," Mianmian offers without thinking, because she is stupid and being around people she likes and wants to impress makes her extra stupid. She’s immediately filled with the most intense urge to slap herself in the face because they’d just been joking around about masturbation and now Mianmian is (innocently!!) offering to touch her. What is Jiang Yanli supposed to think? Mianmian might as well excuse herself from the room to throw herself into a lake.

But of course, Jiang Yanli being Jiang Yanli, doesn’t take offense at all, looking up at Mianmian with those big, pretty eyes and shyly asking, “Would you? I mean - you don’t have to, of course, but - well, I’m a little desperate at this point.”

“Yes,” Mianmian says, feeling a little faint. “Of course.” Which is how Mianmian finds herself with Jiang Yanli’s feet in her lap, helping her pull her socks off.

“You really don’t have to give me a - a foot rub on top of everything else,” Jiang Yanli protests, her own voice soft and - well, a little eager.

 “I don’t mind, Mianmian says, taking one of her bare feet in hand and gently moving it this way and that, trying to improve some of the circulation. “Besides, there’s an acupoint here, too.”

“You know a lot, don’t you?” Jiang Yanli breathes, as Mianmian starts pushing in harder, kneading with her thumbs. She giggles a little, foot twitching in Mianmian’s hands as she murmurs, “That’s ticklish.”

Mianmian swallows hard and wills the heat in her cheeks away as she moves her thumbs away from Jiang Yanli’s sensitive arch. “I did it for my mom a lot,” Mianmian murmurs, because she feels like she ought to be quiet as she rubs her thumbs in circles on the ball of Jiang Yanli’s foot.

Jiang Yanli makes a soft sound of contentment, the tenseness in her muscles slowly relaxing with every movement of Mianmian’s thumbs. “Your mom was lucky. Having a good daughter like you,” Jiang Yanli practically purrs, lax and pliant in Mianmian’s hands.

Mianmian laughs. “I was a hellraiser. Your mom was lucky she had you. I can’t imagine the sorts of trouble your brothers got into,” she says offhandedly, as she moves to gently bend Jiang Yanli’s cute little toes. Her feet are soft the way pretty womens’ feet are - nothing like Mianmian’s, with their thick, rough skin from fighting, from travelling by foot. She’s glad she’s not the one getting her feet rubbed; it’d be too embarrassing to see those ugly things in Jiang Yanli’s pretty, smooth hands.

Jiang Yanli stiffens a moment, before laughing absently. “I…” she starts, drifting off a little as she considers her words. “I was a handful in a different way,” is what she settles on. “I’m not a good cultivator, nor am I ambitious or clever. The best she’d ever get out of me was to marry me off.”

“Oh,” Mianmian says, biting her lip. “That’s - “

“It’s fine, Mianmian,” Jiang Yanli says gently, making a quiet little squeal as Mianmian tries her arch again. She tries to pull her foot away, cheeks bright and smiling even despite the discomfort of their conversation. Mianmian laughs and moves down to the heel of her foot and her ankle.

“Well, if it’s worth anything - I think you’ve got plenty of things going for you. Even if you’re not like your mother,” Mianmian says, careful as she works the delicate bones of Jiang Yanli’s ankle. “You’re incredible with people, you know that? If it weren’t for the fact that you’d be heading to Lanling soon, you’d be an amazing diplomat. You’re already a great teacher.”

“That’s not - “ Jiang Yanli starts, but Mianmian feels like she ought to continue for - for Jiang Yanli’s sake, but also because she wants Jiang Yanli to know what she thinks of her.

“You know, I was there at the banquet when we took the Nightless city. I saw the way you handled Sect Leader Jin’s harassment,” Mianmian says. “I know you had to wait for the opening Wei Wuxian gave you, but - the way you managed to deescalate the situation and maintain everyone’s face? That was powerful. That took a lot of courage and quick-thinking.”

Jiang Yanli gasps, eyes fluttering shut as Mianmian manipulates her ankle. “Does that hurt?” Mianmian asks, her chest feeling tight at the sight of Jiang Yanli, mouth open and eyes shut, dressed in only her inner robes, with her undone hair pooling all around her. It feels - it feels almost frighteningly intimate.

“N-no - No, that’s - it’s good,” Jiang Yanli chokes out, scrunching up her shoulders a little. “It feels nice.”

“Okay,” Mianmian says quietly. “Okay.”

She continues massaging Jiang Yanli’s ankle and the top of her foot a little longer, before swapping to the other one and repeating the whole process. It’s slow, quiet work, but it’s nice - calming. They don’t talk too much - just little smatterings of mindless conversation as Jiang Yanli makes soft, pleased little sounds. Mianmian slowly works her way up each of Jiang Yanli’s calves, careful to pay close attention to the acupoint on her inner calf, just a little ways below her knee, until she quite nearly moans in relief.

“Better?” Mianmian asks, cheeks heating because - well - 

Yes, ” Jiang Yanli says, soft and breathy and -

Mianmian swallows hard, as her hands migrate higher, to her thighs, until Jiang Yanli squirms a little and laughs, complaining about how ticklish her inner thighs are. There’s a flush on her face as she watches Mianmian’s hands work her outer thighs, and then her hips, before settling low on her stomach. Still - still in an appropriate location, but Jiang Yanli’s breath is coming in with just the slightest shake, her eyes big and dark and shining. “Okay?” Mianmian asks, her own voice just a little bit breathy, her hands on the cusp of trembling, if it weren’t for the soft expanse of Jiang Yanli’s belly to keep her steady.

“Okay,” Jiang Yanli breathes, slipping her eyes shut as Mianmian kneads into the soft hollow of her pelvis, the tiny swell of her lower stomach.

Jiang Yanli breathes out a long satisfied sigh, only just slightly colored with sound, and by the time Mianmian just about finishes - Jiang Yanli’s stomach growls.

They blink at each other, faces flushed and red, before Jiang Yanli starts laughing, and Mianmian can’t help but follow suit. “I can see if the kitchens have anything on hand,” Jiang Yanli offers, moving to get up.

Mianmian’s quick to stop her, hands gently easing her back down. “It’s fine - I can get it. Or, if you want, I can make something for you…? I remember the way to your kitchen.”

“I couldn’t possibly - you’re a guest, Mianmian,” Jiang Yanli says. “Besides, thanks to you, I feel much better. If anything, I can do it - “

“You ought to rest. If you’re feeling better, maybe you can read Jin Zixuan’s letter while I throw together something easy,” Mianmian says, grabbing the slim parcel from her qiankun pouch and shoving it into Jiang Yanli’s hands. Before she can even protest, Mianmian flits away, slipping through the door as her heart pounds - with the anxiety of hoping to please someone whose tastes she could only guess at, of course. What else could she have to be flustered about?

Thoughts of what she could possibly make for Jiang Yanli, what she herself prefers to eat when she’s got no appetite, flit through her mind, each one less suitable than the last. Mianmian’s used to eating whatever - after all, when you’ve grown up with a mother who was often too sick to cook, you eat whatever you can put together. But Jiang Yanli’s different - she knows good food; enjoys making good food. What could Mianmian possibly make to satisfy her?

A few people glance curiously in Mianmian’s direction, wondering after her troubled expression, but no one stops her as she makes her way to the same kitchen she’d seen Jiang Yanli cooking in the first time she’d visited. It’s still empty, though well-kept, and Mianmian must assume it’s Jiang Yanli’s personal kitchen, or at least something close to it - after all, it’s tucked a ways away from the mess, small enough for only one or two cooks at a time.

It’s as she’s stoking up the fire that none other than Sect Leader Jiang stops in, filching dried jujubes from a basket near the door. When she notices him, he freezes like a rabbit staring down a mountain lion, nearly dropping his handful of jujubes as he hides them behind his back. “Mia - uh, Miss Luo,” he says with an awkward smile. “It’s good to see you.”

“Likewise, Sect Leader Jiang,” Mianmian greets him, just as awkward, as she stands up.

“...what are you doing in my sister’s kitchen?” he asks, clearly trying to make small talk. It comes out a little too accusatory to be especially good on the small talk front, but in the little time that she’s known him, Mianmianth’s learned that’s just what he sounds like.

“I was thinking about making something for her to eat,” Mianmian says truthfully. And with a smile, she adds, “I won’t tell her you stole her jujubes.”

Jiang Cheng splutters and turns red, begrudgingly pulling the jujubes out from behind his back, if only to tuck them safely into his qiankun pouch now that he’s been caught. With an almost childish sulk in his tone, he says, “Well. If she can eat, just make some eggs and rice - she likes hers a little on the runny side. And, uh, there’s ginger in that cupboard over there if you want to make her ginger tea for her stomach.”

“Eggs and rice?” Mianmian says, just a little skeptical. “I mean I’m no chef, but isn’t that kind of… lackluster?”

“That’s all she ever wants to eat when she’s on her period,” Jiang Cheng says, flushing at the mention of his sister’s... bodily functions. “Seriously, if it’s not the congee the kitchen ladies force on her, it’s just eggs and eggs and eggs.”

Mianmian blinks at Jiang Cheng, and then laughs, because it truly sounds like a younger sibling complaining about his older siblings habits. “Thank you for letting me know,” she says, as he stares at her, unsure of whether to be offended or pleased that he’s made a girl laugh. “You’re a good little brother.”

“I - well of course!” Jiang Cheng splutters. “I grew up with her. It’s a given that I know what she likes.”

Mianmian smiles and nods, as she reaches over to prepare some rice. “If you’ve got some time, Sect Leader Jiang - “

“If you want to ask to stay, it’s fine. Mo Yingyue already told me,” he mumbles, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else than to be making smalltalk with the only person who defended his older brother when he couldn’t. “Yunmeng will always welcome you with open arms.”

“Thank you for your graciousness,” Mianmian smiles, as she lids the pot and turns around to face him. “But actually, I just wanted to ask what you thought about, y’know, your sister getting married.”

“Oh. Uh,” he says, blinking at the unexpected question. “It’s what she wants. It’s what my parents wanted. I don’t think it matters what I think. I’m just going to do my best to plan a wedding worthy of my sister.”

“I think it matters what you think,” Mianmian says encouragingly. “Your sister does, too.”

Jiang Cheng’s shoulders rise a little, just on the cusp of defensive. “I… don’t get along with Jin Zixuan,” he admits. “But… I can see that he cares. Underneath all that.

Mianmian can’t help the way she snorts, covering her smile with a sleeve as she asks, “All that, huh?”

Jiang Cheng crosses his arms over his chest, embarrassment coloring his cheeks. “I mean - you know. Aren’t you friends with him?”

“Yeah, I suppose so,” Mianmian shrugs, a smile still dusting her lips. “You know, he’d begged her to stay with him in Lanling, during the hunt.”

“Yeah, well,” Jiang Cheng says uncomfortably, his voice going a little defensive. “She… had other things to be worried about. It’s not surprising that she’d turn him down!”

“No, I agree with her. Jin Zixuan’s timing was shit,” Mianmian laughs, watching as his shoulders slowly, slowly relax. Jeez, this guy was strung up tighter than a pipa.

“When is it not shit?” Jiang Cheng snorts. “He never thinks about where anyone else is coming from.”

Mianmian huffs a laugh and nods in agreement. “You’re definitely not wrong about that. When are they getting married, anyways?”

Jiang Cheng shrugs. “You’ll probably know when I know,” he says. “She’s been... wiffle-waffling about it, I think. I mean, clearly, she likes him - she’s liked him since we were kids. It’s just…” He makes a vague gesture and looks at Mianmian.

Mianmian nods, understanding. “Wei Wuxian, huh?” All three of the Jiang siblings were alike - worrying after people when they didn’t have to, even when it hurts to. Hearts too big for their own good. It’s admirable, Mianmian thinks, even if it’s painful to watch.

“Don’t tell her I told you but… she’s been having nightmares. I’m this close to hiring a Gusu disciple to stay a while and play for her,” Jiang Cheng says quietly. “I should’ve taken her with me when I went to Yiling to - uh. To… disown him.” He bites his lip, looking at Mianmian like he wants to explain what had happened, like he’s worried she might judge him. She doesn’t say anything, so he steels himself and carries on - “But truth be told, if she’d gone… either she would’ve begged to stay, or the guilt would’ve killed her. She wouldn’t have let herself marry under those circumstances, and she has to marry Jin Zixuan.”

It’s quiet for a few moments, the burble of cooking rice the only sound in the kitchen. And then, Mianmian asks, “Why?”

Jiang Cheng looks at her, his big eyes just as pretty and just as filled with grief as his sister’s, and says, “It’s the only thing she’s ever really wanted for herself. I want her to stay in Yunmeng just as much as everyone else here does, but - she should get to have this at the very least.” And then, after a pause, “Besides, Yunmeng needs the alliance. She knows this just as well as I do. She’s lucky it’s something she wants, but…”

“Mm,” Mianmian nods. “Sect politics.”

“Sect politics,” Jiang Cheng agrees, nodding. They descend into another long silence, before Mianmian asks,

“You ever thought of marrying?”

That makes Jiang Cheng splutter and turn red. “I - I’m still - it’s a long time before I - I mean, I can’t - “

Mianmian laughs. “Don’t worry, Sect Leader Jiang. I’m not interested in you in the least.”

He looks both relieved and offended as he stares, wide-eyed at her. “But, you know, it’d do you good to have some companionship,” she says quietly. “Romantic or otherwise.”

Jiang Cheng’s eyes go soft and weary as he says, “Life... doesn’t go the way you expect it to, sometimes. I’ve made my peace with that.”

“Mm,” Mianmian hums, nodding.

“What about you?” he asks, after a long breath. “Was there anyone - “

“No,” Mianmian says immediately, laughing awkwardly. “No, definitely not. I’ve spent most of my life in the Carp Tower, and you know how those prospects are.”

Jiang Cheng winces and nods. “You’re not wrong,” he concedes with a gruff, awkward laugh. “Still, it shouldn’t be hard for someone like you. If you wanted someone.”

Mianmian laughs quietly, shaking her head. “I’m the daughter of a servant. No family to speak of,” she says. “And now, no sect to back me. If I’m going to try my luck, I think I’d rather it be at something with better odds.”

Jiang Cheng frowns, looking like he wants to say something further, but he keeps his mouth shut. After a moment, he hesitantly asks, “Jin Zixuan never tried to ask you back?”

“I wouldn’t want to go back even if he did,” she says simply. “I don’t really care about prestige or protection. I’d rather spend my time trying to do the right thing than losing myself to sect politics.”

Jiang Cheng frowns harder. “Some things you can only do with the help of sects backing you up,” he protests.

“That’s true,” Mianmian says simply. “But that’s why there are people like you, who can step back and think about that sort of thing. Even if I had the status to back it up, I can’t play politics. It takes the sort of person that I just can’t be. If I get mad, I get mad - I don’t have the patience to think about how many people are put in danger because I lost my cool and punched someone.”

Jiang Cheng quietly nods, apparently finding some deeper meaning in Mianmian’s words. “You’d do it on someone else’s behalf, too, wouldn’t you?” he asks, frowning like he’s contemplating something.

“I mean, yeah? Isn’t it a cultivator’s duty to protect the weak and downtrodden?” Mianmian asks, crossing her arms.

Jiang Cheng bites his lip and nods, looking - looking past Mianmian. Thinking about something else. “Even if it came at great risk to you, to the point where you’d have to - wait, no. Never mind, you’ve already answered that question.”

Mianmian frowns at him and says, “I did?”

“You left, didn’t you? Of your own volition,” Jiang Cheng says, frowning not at Mianmian, but at some spectre in a distant corner of his mind. Mianmian has no idea what this conversation means to Jiang Cheng - she just knows that he’s talking about something completely different, even as he addresses her. “You left behind everything. All of your friends and loved ones. Practically gave the Jin Sect permission to blacken your name to the ground. You did it because you thought it was right.”

Mianmian nods, still confused.

Jiang Cheng’s voice is quiet, vulnerable, as he asks, “Did you think about them? About Jin Zixuan and your other friends, when you left?”

“...yes. Of course I did,” Mianmian says, truthfully. “But I don’t regret leaving.”

“I see,” Jiang Cheng says, breathing out a long sigh. After a lingering pause, Jiang Cheng looks away and says, haltingly, “The rice is probably about ready by now. If you need anything, just ask one of the disciples. The same rooms from before are being prepared for you. You can stay as long as you need.”

Mianmian nods, bewildered. “Thank you, Sect Leader Jiang. It was good talking to you.”

Jiang Cheng blinks at Mianmian, a little surprised, and then nods back. “Likewise,” he says, turning and stiffly leaving the kitchen.

 

--

 

It doesn’t look like much, when Mianmian puts it all in a basket to bring to Jiang Yanli. If she’s going to be real with herself, it’s practically a peasant’s meal. But she doubts Sect Leader Jiang would willingly sabotage his sister’s meal, given how protective he is of her. It’s embarrassing, but she’ll just have to trust in Jiang Cheng’s advice - or Jiang Yanli’s kindness.

When Mianmian slips through the door again, Jiang Yanli quickly sets aside the book she’d been skimming through - no doubt, it was Jin Zixuan’s gift; thank fuck he’d listened to her advice. Mianmian can’t help the way her heart thumps nervously in her chest as she drags a table over to the bed, setting the basket down on top of it. As she starts spooning rice into the bowls, Jiang Yanli cranes her neck, peering over Mianmian’s shoulder as she says, “It smells good.”

“I ran into Sect Leader Jiang on my way there. He said you like eggs?” Mianmian says, a little unsure of herself. 

“Ooh!” Jiang Yanli coos in delight, “Yes, yes - the congee the kitchen ladies make is good, but it’s too thick. I can hardly swallow it down when I’m nauseous. Eggs are always easy on the stomach.”

Heartened, Mianmian cuts a generous portion of the omelette she’d made and sets it on Jiang Yanli’s bowl. “I threw in some mushrooms and ground meat. Is that okay?” Mianmian asks, passing Jiang Yanli her portion.

“Mm, yes,” Jiang Yanli grins, eagerly digging in. “Thank you, Mianmian.”

“How’re you feeling?” Mianmian asks, watching as she takes her first bite and makes a soft little sound of delight.

Jiang Yanli politely waits until she’s done chewing and swallowing, before she says, “Better. Much better, thanks to you.”

Mianmian grins, a flush of pleased warmth settling in her stomach as she serves herself. “It’s really nothing. The least I can do in return for such generous hospitality last time.”

Jiang Yanli shakes her head. “You don’t have to do all this just for something like that - it was a pleasure to have you around,” she protests. “Your company is its own reward.”

Mianmian laughs, hiding her grin behind her spoon. “Well then, just consider this something I’d gladly do for a friend.”

It’s Jiang Yanli’s turn to flush in pleasure. With some food and rest, a bit of color has returned to her face, softening her expression into something girlish and sweet. Mianmian finds herself wishing she could always put that expression on her face.

Chapter Text

Mianmian stays at the Lotus Piers a little longer than last time - four days this time, instead of two, urging Jiang Yanli to take her time writing the return letter. Regardless of Mianmian’s hovering, after that first day, Jiang Yanli is determined to get back to work, cramps or no cramps. And so, Mianmian finds herself occupying her mornings at the training grounds, alongside Sect Leader Jiang. 

He’s not actually allowed to teach her any of the techniques, but that’s fine - she can run her own drills in the spare courtyard. Besides, he lets her spar with the senior disciples all she wants, to shake off the rust a little. It feels good; she’d almost forgotten how good it felt to beat someone in a proper fight. To get beaten in turn. That he’s trained his disciples to be so skilled in Yunmeng Jiang swordplay in so little time is testament to Jiang Cheng’s dedication and his students’ respect for him.

Needless to say, by the time she’s ready to join Jiang Yanli in the afternoons, she’s sore and aching. But it’s a good ache, one that she’s missed in her time apart from organized cultivation.

They fall into an easy rhythm, taking time to catch each other up in their few hours apart, giggling over what this or that disciple did in class, or how Mianmian had managed to pull one over Mo Yingyue again. Once they’re done talking about other people, Mianmian asks how Jiang Yanli feels, offering her a massage if she notices any signs of pain or sluggishness or general malaise. Honestly, it’s Mianmian’s favorite part of the day, for how calming it is. Maybe Jiang Yanli knows this, because every time Mianmian asks, she’s always happy to accept.

Once they’ve relaxed themselves into an easy quiet, they enjoy a late lunch in the study, where they’ll read or play music, or simply enjoy each other’s company. Just as Jiang Cheng said, Jiang Yanli makes eggs with almost every meal - though thankfully, she remembers to make something a little more substantial for Mianmian. It’s painfully endearing. Mianmian has to remember this, so that she can pass it on to Jin Zixuan. He’ll need it when they’re married, when neither Mianmian or Jiang Cheng can be there to remind him.

She’d have to teach him how to give a proper massage, too, for when Jiang Yanli’s cramps get bad. And if her stomach goes a little hot and tight at the thought of Jin Zixuan’s broad, careful hands on Jiang Yanli’s feet and calves and thighs, well - it’s... probably just the burn of her muscles acting up again. With all the sparring she’s been doing, it’s inevitable that she’d be feeling the ache.

Sometimes, when she’s alone at night, she thinks about what tiny little details of Jiang Yanli’s life she ought to share with Jin Zixuan. It feels like there’s almost too much to talk about, in the tiny snatches of time she has to pass Jiang Yanli’s letter off or edit Jin Zixuan’s. Which of Jiang Yanli’s quirks should Mianmian share with him, when she feels like she ought to share them all? Which ones will he inevitably learn about on his own; which ones will he find a quiet little delight in when he catches her at it?

It warms Mianmian to think of it. To see the ways in which they’ll someday grow to know each other. Should she feel envious? Should she want something like this for herself? It feels a little silly to, when she’s neither Jin Zixuan nor Jiang Yanli. She’s just… glad for them. Glad that someone will be there to ease Jiang Yanli’s loneliness, to take on her burdens so she can stubbornly continue to shoulder everyone else’s. Glad that someone will be there to gently guide Jin Zixuan, to teach him to be better amidst all the corruption and hypocrisy within Carp Tower.

She can’t help but linger on this, as she watches Jiang Yanli tap the brush against her bottom lip, considering what else to say to Jin Zixuan. When she glances up at Mianmian - who is similarly tapping her own bottom lip, lost in her thoughts as she is - she smiles, her eyes curling up into pretty little crescent moons.

Would it be in poor taste to send Jin Zixuan another portrait of Jiang Yanli, nestled inside the novel Jiang Yanli had decided to send him? She’s pretty like this, even despite the paleness in her face, and Mianmian wants to share this sight with someone who’d appreciate it.

Perhaps it’d be too intimate a sight to send him - Jiang Yanli smiling as bright as the moon with her night-dark hair down, dressed in little more than her inner robes. There’s a redness in her cheek where she’d been resting it against her knuckles as she jots down something for Jin Zixuan that makes her smile.

It’s a sight that’ll grow very familiar to him, soon - something he’ll see every night, probably, once they’re properly married. But right now… would it be improper?

Maybe. 

She can’t capture it as well as she’d hoped, anyways. She only has the black ink she’d brought with her tonight, and it turns everything a little sharp, twists the simple delight of their camaraderie into… something else. Something that gives Mianmian pause. Makes her want to set it aside, along with the sketches she’d made the last time. Something for herself to look back on, maybe. To admire her skill with the brush, of course, while she reminisced about the balmy Yunmeng evening.

Eventually, Jiang Yanli yawns, politely hiding her face behind her sleeve. “Tired?” Mianmian smiles, setting aside her wet brush. It feels… well, this is a picture that she almost doesn’t want to show Jiang Yanli. She hides it amongst the others, praying that the ink had already dried, when Jiang Yanli peers over to look at what Mianmian had accomplished.

“A little bit,” Jiang Yanli says. “Did you manage to draw anything you liked?”

Mianmian smiles and passes over a picture of the view from the window. It makes Jiang Yanli laugh in delight, even as she admonishes Mianmian for using up so much of her own ink.

“Wait here, Mianmian,” she smiles, flitting off into the other room like she hadn’t complained about her cramping to Mianmian just a few hours ago.

When she comes back, it’s with a brand new inkstick, a lovely little thing with plum blossoms carved into it, the flowers brushed over with a little red paint. “Please take this - I’ve had it as a present from Second Master Nie for years now and never had an occasion to properly use it. Maybe with you, it’ll see more life,” she says, grabbing Mianmian’s wrist and pressing it into her hand.

“I can’t take this,” Mianmian says, even as her fingers curl posessively around it.

“Please,” Jiang Yanli smiles, and ah, Mianmian wants to try again, to beg another sheet of paper from her if only to capture this smile, too. “I want you to have it.”

“It’s such high quality. It’d be wasted on me,” Mianmian protests, leaning into Jiang Yanli as if that would lend her any power to resist.

“It wouldn’t be wasted with you. Besides, maybe you could use it to start writing me? You could draw me some of the things you see on your travels,” Jiang Yanli says, her smile turning a touch shy. “I mean - of course, I wouldn’t force you to. But it’s a thought.”

Mianmian bites her lip, staring down at where Jiang Yanli is still holding onto her wrist, and sighs. “Alright,” she says, blinking back up at Jiang Yanli. “I will. Thank you, Jiang Yanli.”

“Please, Mianmian - you know there’s no need for thanks between us,” Jiang Yanli smiles, her hold lingering a touch longer, before a yawn forces her to let go, so that she might cover her mouth.

“I’ll let you get some sleep,” Mianmian says, gently patting Jiang Yanli’s hand.

“Oh, alright,” Jiang Yanli says with a little pout. She watches as Mianmian puts away the inkstick and gathers her stack of paintings, and then she walks her to the door of her chambers. The walk seems both much too long and much too short with Jiang Yanli’s hand tucked warmly at Mianmian’s elbow the way it is, and when she finally pulls away at the door, Mianmian finds herself wanting to pull her back.

“You can find your way back alright?” Jiang Yanli asks, leaning against the doorframe as she watches Mianmian with her moon-bright eyes.

“I’ll be fine,” Mianmian laughs, wishing, a little, that she was shameless enough to ask Jiang Yanli to walk her back. “It’s nearly a full moon out and the lamps are all well lit. I’m not going to trip over a bridge and drown.”

Jiang Yanli laughs, soft with sleepiness. “Alright,” she says, eyes lingering on Mianmian’s face long enough to make Mianmian a little embarrassed.

“Sleep well, alright?” Mianmian asks, reaching out to squeeze Jiang Yanli’s hand one last time before she goes.

“Mmhmm. I will,” Jiang Yanli says, the corners of her mouth tugged up, just a bit. Just enough to gentle her face even further, to impress a sweet smile onto her lips.

Mianmian nods, an awkward bob of her head as she finally, finally turns around, fighting the urge to look back as she flees. She almost wants to reach back into her pouch and run her thumb against the engraved flowers of the inkstone - not out of some possessive glee at how exquisite it is, but only to confirm that it’s there, that she hadn’t already lost something Jiang Yanli had given to her. It’s only just barely that she manages to refrain.

As she makes her way back to her rooms, she finds the Yunmeng night too pretty to resist. A symphony of frogs and crickets greets her as she makes a decisive turn to the left instead of her usual right, heading toward the outer edges of the Lotus Piers. The heat has long gone, leaving behind a comforting cool that’ll be gone by late morning along with the gentle, if damp, breeze that meanders in from the west. Even now, this late into the season, fireflies are still flitting about, lighting up the air with tiny, blinking stars. She nearly wants to run back to Jiang Yanli’s chambers and grab her by the hand, just to drag her out so they can savor the evening together, if only for a little while longer.

She won’t, of course, because Jiang Yanli needs her sleep. But maybe she can suggest a nighttime stroll tomorrow, before she has to leave.

She’s not sure how long she’s out here for, but it’s certainly long enough that her eyes have adjusted to the relative darkness. That’s how she spots the figure out on one of the piers, sitting alone at the edge. It’s definitely not one of the disciples on nightwatch - otherwise they’d have a lantern - and while the person doesn’t look like they’re out to cause mischief, Mianmian can’t help but feel protective of the Lotus Piers. She calls out to them with a, “Hey! Shouldn’t you be headed back to your rooms? It’s well past dark!”

The figure startles, nearly falls off the pier, before whipping around - no doubt to squint at Mianmian and try to figure out who she is. “Miss Luo?” their - his - voice calls out. She knows this voice - 

“Sect Leader Jiang?” Mianmian calls out, making her way over at a quick clip. “What are you doing out here?”

Jiang Cheng waits until she’s stepped onto the pier to scoot over and offer her a place beside him. She takes it without hesitating, dropping down to dangle her feet over the edge, the way she had seen him do just a few seconds ago.

She can’t see that well in the darkness, even with the moonlight to help her, but it’s clear this is the most dressed-down she’s ever seen him, with his hair gathered back in a loose braid and his outermost robe missing. The only ornament on him, aside from Zidian of course, is his clarity bell.

“It’s a nice night,” Jiang Cheng says quietly, staring up at the moon.

“It is,” Mianmian agrees, looking up with him. “Shouldn’t you be heading to sleep soon? It’s late.”

“I should say the same to you,” Jiang Cheng counters. The darkness softens his normally harsh tone, gentling it into something more human and less authority. “Did you just come from A-Jie’s room?”

“Mm,” Mianmian hums. “We lost track of time.”

Jiang Cheng looks over at Mianmian for a long moment, before saying, “Thank you. For taking care of her.”

Mianmian snorts. “She’s my friend.” 

“Yeah, well,” Jiang Cheng shrugs. “You’re good to her. I’m grateful.”

Mianmian hums in lieu of a proper response and leans back, getting comfortable. “Hey, the other day - when we were talking…” Mianmian starts, feeling out the words in her mouth as she goes. “What were you thinking about?”

“What do you mean?” Jiang Cheng asks, staring over at her. There’s a stiffness to his posture - that same defensiveness that comes from talking about his personal thoughts and opinions. The discomfort and vulnerability of being asked about himself, and not what he must represent. She can tell the difference between that and outright dislike if only because she's had so much practice reading Jin Zixuan.

“I know we weren’t just talking about me,” Mianmian says. “It’s been bothering me for a while now.”

Jiang Cheng splutters, caught off guard for a moment, before shrinking into himself a little. Cautious, as if Mianmian even came close to posing a threat to him.

Mianmian waits to see what he does, to see if he deflects or if he gives in.

Like a cat uncurling from its hiding spot to inspect an offering of food, he lets go of a long sigh and asks, hesitantly, “Do you think I did the right thing? Letting Wei Wuxian go.”

Ah. Mianmian smiles, a little wryly, and says, “No.”

Jiang Cheng rears back, his entire body telegraphing hurt. But I’m not one of the thousands dependent on you,” Mianmian adds. “I can’t tell you what’s right or wrong, Sect Leader Jiang. I’m just a rogue cultivator.”

Jiang Cheng deflates, curling back in on himself as he scrubs his face with his hands. “I just keep thinking about all the things I could’ve done differently.”

“And?” Mianmian asks. “Did it change anything?”

“No,” Jiang Cheng says, a little miserably.

“You can’t really change what you’ve already done, but you can decide what happens next, can’t you?” Mianmian asks. “Yiling is only a few hours’ flight away.”

Jiang Cheng bites his lip, sighing again. “I can’t send aid. Not in any way that matters. The cultivation world has its eyes on Yunmeng. I’ll get caught, and then everything we did to - to protect Yunmeng would’ve been for naught.”

“Then don’t get caught,” Mianmian snorts, grinning over at him. He sounds like Jin Zixuan like this - always trying to play by the rules and operate above the board in a game stacked against him. Noble, but untouchable - unwilling to be swayed even by his own humanity. It’s admirable in theory, but in practice - well. 

Jiang Cheng stares at her, incredulous. “It’s not that simple - people talk, even when they don’t mean to. It’s too much of a risk.”

“Is it?” Mianmian asks. “Seems simple to me, especially in Yunmeng, where you deal with hundreds of merchants a day. What’s a few fudged reports? It happens all the time in Lanling. I’m sure you’ve got more than enough money to make up the loss, anyways.”

Jiang Cheng is quiet for a long time, before he asks, voice wry, “I thought you were the sort to do the right thing.”

“Well then, I guess my definition of “the right thing” doesn’t quite match up with that of the cultivation world’s anymore. Is it not the right thing to allocate resources where they need to go and do what you must to ensure the safety and health of your people?” Mianmian asks archly. “Might be unorthodox, but it sounds like proper administration to me. Of course what do I know? I lived in Lanling most my life.”

Jiang Cheng is very quiet for a while. And then, cautiously, he says, “I’d be risking the safety and health of far more people than I ought to. Besides, embezzlement tends to set a dangerous precedent.” Ah, the lady doth protest too much. Mianmian gets it, she truly does - but if she’s learned anything in her time in Lanling, it’s that such noble pursuits often get stymied by those with less-than-noble intentions. It might be hypocritical of herself to say so, but if the cause is right and just, why hesitate?

“A dangerous precedent? For who? Unless you’re keeping something from the rest of us, I haven’t seen anyone lined up to be your heir just yet,” Mianmian counters. “Sect Leader Jiang - I may be speaking from an uninformed perspective, but if I had to choose between a shitty status quo and doing what I have to do to, y’know, do my job and protect people , I’d choose the latter.”

“It’s not my job to protect them!” Jiang Cheng grumbles, but it sounds more like something he’s trying to convince himself of than something he actually believes.

“But you want to, don’t you?” Mianmian asks. “Or at the very least, you want to protect Wei Wuxian, who wants to protect them.”

“I - “ Jiang Cheng starts, but he quickly cuts himself off. “He’s my brother. Of course I want to protect him. Of course I want to help him. But he’s allied himself with the Wens, and anyone with the surname Wen is an enemy of the cultivation world.”

Mianmian hums, letting the words settle in a bit. And then, she asks, “Hey, what would you do if you weren’t a sect leader? If you were like me, a rogue cultivator just barely on the fringes of the cultivation world. What would you do?”

Jiang Cheng takes in a breath as if to respond - before letting it go in a long sigh. “I can’t. Thousands of people depend on me to keep them safe. I can’t risk that.”

“Sect Leader Jiang, that wasn’t my question,” Mianmian says. “But, well. I think we both know the answer to that, don’t we? Maybe you should talk to someone who understands this a little better than I do. It'd do you some good to get out of your own head.”

After a pause, she adds, in as coaxing a voice as she can muster without being seen through, “I’ll bet your sister would appreciate being privy to your thoughts.”

“I can’t, she’s - “

“Your sister. Who loves you, and wouldn’t want to see you sitting on a pier in the middle of the night, thinking yourself in circles,” Mianmian says, unable to keep herself from rolling her eyes. “Besides, she’s a clever thing, more than she gives herself credit for. If anyone could help you untangle that situation, it’d be her.

Jiang Cheng stares at her for a long time, still uncertain.

Mianmian sighs, knowing that until Jiang Cheng takes that step for himself, she’s not going to be able to do anything to convince him. They stay like that, staring quietly out at the water until the light of the fireflies sears into her tired eyes. She stays there with him just a touch longer, but she can only take so much, before she, too, must sleep.

“It really is awfully late, Sect Leader Jiang,” Mianmian says, swinging her legs up onto the pier. “I think I’m going to have to turn in. Don’t stay out here too late, or you’ll get bitten up by mosquitos.”

Jiang Cheng nods, watching as she stretches and yawns. “Goodnight, Miss Luo,” he says quietly.

“You can just call me Mianmian,” Mianmian says, figuring if they’re familiar enough for Jiang Cheng to ask for her advice, they’re familiar enough for this.

“Well - well, then, you can - Jiang Wanyin is fine, then,” Jiang Cheng mumbles, a twinge of embarrassment caught in his voice.

Mianmian laughs and nods, getting up onto her feet. “Jiang Wanyin it is, then. Goodnight.”

“...Goodnight.”

 

--

 

Jiang Cheng is half-distracted at the training grounds the next morning, but that’s neither here nor there. Whenever he catches Mianmian’s eye, he turns red with embarrassment and barks out more orders to his disciples, but to an untrained eye that’s nothing out of the norm.

Once she rinses off the sweat of training, she heads over to Jiang Yanli’s study the way she usually does - only to find her nodding off at her desk, her eyes smudged with dark, sleepless circles.

“Hey sweetheart,” Mianmian murmurs, gently brushing back a stray hair from Jiang Yanli’s forehead. “What’s happened to you?” 

“Sorry, Mianmian I - “ she starts, before she’s cut off by a loud yawn. “I didn’t sleep well last night.”

“You seemed pretty tired when I left. Couldn’t sleep?” Mianmian asks, frowning.

Jiang Yanli is quiet for a while, before nodding miserably. “I woke up from a dream about A-Xian,” she says quietly. “It’s been happening… a lot lately. But this one was worse than the others. Young Master Jin was there.”

“Yeah?” Mianmian asks quietly, settling down beside her. “What happened?”

“I don’t know,” Jiang Yanli sighs, rubbing her eyes. “They were surrounded by Jin disciples, and A-Xian was… really, really angry. I think, maybe, he thought that Young Master Jin had brought them to - um. Well, Young Master Jin was trying to calm him down and explain the situation, but - A-Xian had his flute, and then blood started rising from the ground, swallowing up all of the Jin disciples. By the time I had gotten there… Young Master Jin had already gone under.”

Mianmian grimaces, curling an arm around Jiang Yanli for comfort. Jiang Yanli curls into her, pulling Mianmian into a loose embrace, her forehead resting against Mianmian’s shoulder. “It’s okay,” Mianmian murmurs, rubbing her hand up and down Jiang Yanli’s back. “It was just a dream.”

Jiang Yanli shakes a little in her hold, drawing in a deep sigh and slowly letting it go. It’s a while yet, before she pulls away from Mianmian, her eyes glossy and her cheeks flushed with embarrassment. “Have you told your brother about this?” Mianmian asks, frowning and rubbing a crease her robes had left on Jiang Yanli’s cheek.

“No,” Jiang Yanli murmurs, looking a bit ashamed. “I don’t want to worry him. He’d gotten so scared when I told him the first time that I’ve been having nightmares and - well, he’s got enough burdens to carry as it is.”

These Jiang siblings…!! Mianmian shakes her head, laughing humorlessly as she says, “You can rely on him, you know. He’s your brother.”

The corners of Jiang Yanli’s mouth pull down in the smallest of sulks. “If you don’t rely on him, how will he know that he can rely on you, too? You’re not the only one who misses Wei Wuxian,” Mianmian tells her gently.

Jiang Yanli sulks a little harder, and Mianmian almost wants to pinch her cheek for it - to think, even Jiang Yanli could have a childish side! “Siblings need to take care of one another - but you can’t help someone if you don’t know they’re hurting. If you two just keep dancing around each other, nothing’s ever going to get done.”

“I know,” Jiang Yanli says. “I know, but it all just - seems impossible. There isn’t enough time to figure out a plan, not when I’ll have to marry soon. And - and who would help us? Everyone is so scared of A-Xian, even though he’d never - I mean, he wouldn’t - It’s not like him, all those rumors.“

Mianmian nods, rubbing her knuckles up and down Jiang Yanli’s back. “I know,” Mianmian says quietly. “I wouldn’t have defended him if he were - like that. That’s why you and your brother need to orchestrate a way to clear his name. Or at the very least, prove that he’s not as dangerous to everyone as he seems.”

“But - “ Jiang Yanli starts, before stopping and frowning.

Mianmian takes her hands and squeezes them gently. “If anyone could do it, it would be you. I wasn’t kidding, when I told you you’d make an excellent diplomat.”

Jiang Yanli looks doubtful, but Mianmian can’t help but persist. “Seriously. Talk to your brother. Between the two of you, I know you can figure something out. It’s better than sitting around and worrying yourselves into an early grave.”

Jiang Yanli laughs, but it has little humor in it. “I - maybe,” she mumbles, looking down at their joined hands.

“You know, you Jiang siblings are all alike,” Mianmian huffs, rolling her eyes with a quiet little laugh. “You don’t want to let anyone else carry your burdens. Don’t you know that there are people who love you? Who want to help you? They won’t love you any less for it.”

Jiang Yanli stares up at Mianmian, her eyes a little glossy as she looks for something there. Mianmian isn’t quite sure what she’s looking for but - well, whatever it is, she must find it, because Jiang Yanli bites her lip and nods a little, laughing quietly at herself. “You’re right,” she says, looking a bit cowed. She doesn’t offer any promises to follow through on Mianmian’s advice, but at the very least, she agrees.

Mianmian fondly shakes her head and wills herself to smile. “I can’t force you to do anything, but seriously. If you keep him in the dark, he’ll just worry for you more.”

Jiang Yanli shrinks into herself a little, but eventually, she nods. She looks like a chastised child, and Mianmian can’t help but want to soothe her. “Alright, alright. I won’t bully you anymore,” she sighs, squeezing Jiang Yanli’s shoulder. “Come on, why don’t you get comfortable? You haven’t gotten your massage yet.”

“Oh, really you don’t have to,” Jiang Yanli protests, cheeks coloring. “You’ve been indulging me way too much.”

“Yes, because you don’t ever indulge me,” Mianmian laughs, nudging at her shoulders. “Cooking for me and giving up your free time to entertain me and all. Totally doesn’t count.”

“But I like doing that!” Jiang Yanli protests, even as she goes down easily.

“And you think I don’t enjoy this? Me, the person who never does anything she doesn’t want to do?” Mianmian asks.

That gets Jiang Yanli to laugh - an actual, genuine one. Mianmian can’t help but feel a little heartened at that. “Did you want me to get your head and shoulders first? To help you relax a bit.”

“Well - alright, I suppose,” Jiang Yanli says, cheeks pink. “If it’s no trouble.”

“Jiang Yanli,” Mianmian laughs, scooting over so that Jiang Yanli’s head can rest in her lap a bit. “It’s seriously no trouble.”

Jiang Yanli sighs, trying to relax against Mianmian as she lets her undo her braids and ornaments. It’s harder than it looks, because Mianmian herself only ever puts her hair up in utilitarian ponytails, even when she was living in Lanling. She accidentally snags Jiang Yanli’s hair once or twice, but Jiang Yanli only laughs through the sting and sits up to help.

Mianmian is struck by how warm her hands are, how soft. She’s got no explanation for the way her cheeks grow warm, beyond the embarrassment of not quite knowing how to undo even Jiang Yanli’s modest ornaments.

“I’m sorry - did it hurt? I’m not used to anything more complicated than a ponytail,” Mianmian laughs, burying her fingers in Jiang Yanli’s loose hair. “Seriously, I didn’t realize you had that many pins in there.”

“It’s fine - it didn’t hurt,” Jiang Yanli says, smiling. She easily leans back into Mianmian’s touch, relaxing on instinct now. Like the other times Mianmian’s had the chance to take care of Jiang Yanli, they settle into a comfortable quiet rather quickly. For all that Jiang Yanli doesn’t often ask for care, well - she soaks it up eagerly, going lax against Mianmian in no time at all.

“Feels nice,” she hums, eyes slipping closed as she luxuriates in the feeling of Mianmian’s fingers against her scalp. It’s cute - it’s so damn cute, watching Jiang Yanli bask like a cat in sunlight.

It honestly shouldn’t come as a surprise, that soon after slipping her eyes shut, Jiang Yanli’s breathing starts to even out. She hadn’t slept much last night, after all. But it still makes something fond bloom deep in Mianmian’s chest.

She’d wanted to ask Jiang Yanli out onto the lake today, but perhaps they won’t get to it. Jiang Yanli still needs to finish her letter, after all - and Jin Zixuan’s attentions are much more important than Mianmian’s indulgences. It’s alright; Mianmian’s in no rush - they’re bound to find time the next time Mianmian stops by, after all. And if not then, then the time after, or the time after that.

Chapter Text

Things settle into a predictable enough rhythm over the course of the next few letters. After she delivers Jiang Yanli’s letter, Mianmian will spend a week hunting with the others while Jin Zixuan compiles his letters. Maybe, if it’s an easy hunt, or if the village is especially pretty, she’ll find time to scribble something quick for Jiang Yanli and turn her letter into a paper bird - easily intercepted or damaged, but generally the easiest way to send letters. Eventually, Jin Zixuan will use a messenger butterfly to invite her to dinner where they’ll laugh and squabble over his awful attempts to flirt with Jiang Yanli. By the next evening, he’ll have a parcel wrapped up and ready for her. Then, Mianmian will spend a day or two travelling on her own - and she loves that, loves having the time to be alone, to think, to just fly and enjoy the world around her - before landing in Yunmeng, where she’ll train in the mornings with Jiang Cheng and spend her afternoons with Jiang Yanli.

She does, in the end, get that quiet evening boat ride, and it’s so terribly nice, Mianmian can’t help the way her heart aches to have it again.

It’s a day after she’s dropped off Jin Zixuan’s letter, when she gets a messenger butterfly from him, asking if she and her friends would like to join him on a nighthunt. It’s at a village along the coast, just a little ways south of Langya - no more than a day’s travel from where they’re currently at. Conveniently, the team had just finished a hunt, sending off a handful of animal spirits that’d been causing mischief around town, and they were free to go gallivanting with Lanling’s Young Master (Tan Mingyuan’s words, not hers).

She sends him a butterfly back, and not a few minutes later, receives another one asking if she and her friends would like to join him for a meal to talk out the details of the hunt.

Jin Zixuan meets them the next day, few villages over, at the nicest place in town. When they get to the restaurant, Jin Zixuan had already ordered them a feast, awkwardly gesturing for them all to sit and eat. Before the others can get too distracted by good food and good wine, Mianmian nudges him to explain the situation , because they’ve got to know what they’re in for if they’re actually going to take this seriously.

“The village is within our territory, so I can only officially offer you the job through a contract with the Jin Sect. Unfortunately that means a cut of payment goes first to the sect,” Jin Zixuan explains, swallowing his delicate bite of grilled duck. “But it’s still a relatively well-paying job, and if things go well, the Jin Sect could request your assistance again.. This is what you can expect to be paid, if you accept.” Jin Zixuan hands an invoice to Li Yitian, whose eyes go big as she passes it around.

It’s a generous sum for a rogue cultivator, Mianmian thinks, as she looks it over. She personally approves.

“Food and lodging for the duration of the hunt has already been arranged through the village head, but if anything happens, the Jin Sect is happy to reimburse you anything that gets used or destroyed in the hunt,” Jin Zixuan adds, practically biting his lip as he waits for their judgement.

“We’ll help out,” Tan Liyang blurts out, looking at the rewards. “We’re definitely in - where do we gotta sign?”

Jin Zixuan smiles, encouragingly, as he pulls out a piece of spelled paper and a tiny pan of red pigment and offers it to everyone. “This will serve as a binding contract until the aforementioned services are rendered. As soon as I place my thumbprint on it, it’ll go right to the Headmaster at the Carp Towers and the contract will be settled. Please look it over before you make any proper decisions,” he says, an almost perfect mimicry of the Headmaster’s tone. Mianmian almost laughs.

Li Yitian takes a look at the contract first, approves, and stamps. After that, no one cares to read through, because once Li Yitian says it’s fair, it’s probably fair enough for the rest of them. Jin Zixuan looks a little surprised that the proceedings had gone so fast, but he’s pleased about it. He glances up at Mianmian when it’s all done and smiles, cheeks flushed with the thrill of a plan come to fruition.

Mianmian looks at him and smiles back, excited to be on a hunt with Jin Zixuan again. Knowing him, it’ll probably be more exciting than what they’ve been working with lately, and Mianmian can’t wait.

The mood is good as they eat and drink to their fill, chatting about whatever aimless thing they can think of. Jin Zixuan does his best to keep up with the conversation, even if he’s naturally a bit quiet. It’s a fine evening, and under Young Master Jin’s tab, Mianmian and her friends eat well and make merry.

 

“Say, Young Master Jin,” Tan Liyang eventually says, leaning drunkenly into his space. He leans back a little, an awkward smile on his face as he gently sets a hand on hers, keeping her wine cup from sloshing over. “Oh~ a little forward, aren’t you?” she laughs.

The face Jin Zixuan makes in turn makes everyone else at the table laugh.

“Okay, okay, I get it,” Tan Liyang play-sulks. Jin Zixuan seems to be at a loss as to what to do, hands held up in awkward placation - not that he’s entirely sure of why she might be sulking. Mianmian nearly steps in to save him, but Tan Liyang slings an arm over his shoulder before she can get a word in edgewise, pointing over at Mianmian. “I simply would like to inquire,” she says, trying to elevate her language in the way drunk people do to when they want to pretend they’re not as drunk as they actually are, “What was our lovely Mianmian like back at the Carp Tower?”

Jin Zixuan blinks. “I’d assume the same as she is when she’s not,” he says with a wry smile pointed right at her. The way his eyes tease up into amused little crescents makes Mianmian hiccup in surprise, her eyes going big at the fact that Jin Zixuan can play around, even around some near-strangers. He hadn’t had that much to drink.

Tan Liyang laughs, smacking Jin Zixuan in the arm. “You two grew up together, right? Surely you could spare a childhood story or two.”

Jin Zixuan can’t help but huff a laugh, eyes lowered almost demurely as everyone at the table turns their attention to him. “Well, when we were 14…”

“Oh gods, not this again,” Mianmian groans, downing the rest of her cup in one go. Xiao Wenzhou immediately leans over to fill it up again, the corners of his mouth turned up in a cheeky grin.

“Oh ho?” Li Yitian grins, nudging Mianmian with an elbow. Mianmian rolls her eyes, slumping in her seat as the inevitable happens. “Do tell, Young Master Jin.”

“She’d always been popular, you know. Smart, hardworking, funny - the kind of girl who beat all the others at sports but didn’t try to brag about it. Everyone liked her because she looked out for everybody,” Jin Zixuan starts. Everyone nods along grinning in agreement, especially because it makes Mianmian slouch in her seat, groaning in embarrassment.

“It was fine when we were all children, but then, we all started growing up, and all the boys started noticing her,” he continues, eyes flicking over to Mianmian, a flush on his face at the thrill of having an eager, engaged audience. “They trailed after her like ducklings, falling over themselves to get her attention.”

“Little peacocks, all of them,” Mianmian grumbles, hiding her face in her arms.

Jin Zixuan laughs, a bright, bell-like sound. “Yes, yes!” he nods in agreement. “Meanwhile, Mianmian is completely oblivious. Mind you, there are boys falling off their swords, trying to do tricks for her, trying to show off at practice for her, plucking flowers from my mother’s garden for her. There were even some girls who left love notes under her door.”

That got the others to hoot and jeer at Mianmian, teasing her for her popularity. Mianmian sulked and sipped at her wine, because what else was she supposed to do but sit through it? Jin Zixuan, at least, seemed to be having a good time telling this story. “It all kind of… whipped up into a frenzy, I think? People started wanting Mianmian’s attention just because everyone wanted her attention, and it got so intense that even my cousin - “

UUUUGGGGGHHHH, ” Mianmian groans, trying to bury herself in her own arms.

Jin Zixuan laughs, eagerly continuing, “My cousin, who’s uh. Well, he’s not easy to get along with on the best of days.”

“He’s the most insufferable, arrogant little pissant you’ll ever meet, trust me,” Mianmian mutters under her breath. Beside her, Tan Mingyuan looks both scandalized and thrilled to see Mianmian badmouthing someone so vehemently.

He starts noticing her, not really because he liked her or anything - she’s got too much of a spine for a guy like him - and makes this huge deal out of making her fall madly in love with him,” Jin Zixuan says. “He starts making a betting pool and everything. It was so awful.”

“And? What happened?” Xiao Wenzhou asks, shoving a piece of eggplant in his mouth to hide his smile. Not that it works - the corners of his mouth can’t help but pull up, eager for the punchline.

“Honestly I’m not sure,” Jin Zixuan says with a laugh. “His entire approach was… well, honestly I wouldn’t have been surprised if his mother was worried he’d been cursed.

“First, he starts parading around in his most expensive clothes, alternating between reciting poetry verses and throwing around disparaging comments any time Mianmian was around. Which, because she often hung out with me, was a lot. And then, he started carrying around a guqin and quite nearly pretending he was the Second Jade of Gusu, sitting down to practice it at any chance he got - doubly so, when Mianmian was around.”

“I thought he was harassing me,” Mianmian sighs, rolling her eyes. “I don’t particularly care for guqin music. And he was pretty bad at it.”

Jin Zixuan laughs, mirth bright in his eyes. “Yes, so she started avoiding him, but then he started seeking her out - not that he’d ever admit it. I remember him trying to bribe Headmaster Jin to put them in the same nighthunt group. Obviously it doesn’t work, but we’ve only got so many disciples. It was inevitable they end up on a hunt together. So finally, finally, Headmaster Jin sends us off on a nighthunt - Me, Mianmian, Zixun, and two other girls, who were our juniors at the time. The first night, while we were figuring out the situation, he kept trying to pull the girls away to flaunt his money, offering to buy whatever they wanted because he’d just been paid for a nighthunt a few weeks before. Mianmian told him to cut it out, and focus on the mission, so he starts trying to upstage her, showing off his vast reserves of knowledge and experience.”

“It was all wrong. We were arguing over the plan for hours! And the worst part was, he ended up completely misleading the girls. Jin Zixuan was the only one who had the sense to take my side. So when it was time to deal with the ghosts, we were all in complete disarray,” Mianmian adds, remembering exactly how frustrated she’d been at the time. A little bit of her exasperation must bleed through, because next to Jin Zixuan, Tan Liyang starts giggling.

Jin Zixuan nods along. “Mianmian and I had to do almost everything, because Zixun had gotten cursed and was rampaging all over the place alongside the ghost,” he says. “In the end, she ended up breaking his nose while trying to save one of the girls from him. He looked truly horrific!” he said, making a gesture with his hands to illustrate the copious amounts of blood streaming down from Jin Zixun’s face. Xiao Wenzhou laughs in delight, even as Tan Mingyuan hides his face in secondhand embarrassment. “And that’s not all - “

“It isn’t?” Tan Mingyuan asks.

“Oh my god…” Mianmian groans, even if she can’t help but smile at the memory.

“The girl Mianmian saved? She completely fell head over heels. So the remainder of the trip, she and Zixun kept trying to compete for Mianmian’s attention. It was so embarrassing - they both kept trying to flirt with her, and it kept getting more and more outrageous. And, mind you, Zixun’s nose was in a splint and he sounded like this -” Jin Zixuan turns his voice all stuffed up and nasally as he speaks, making Tan Liyang nearly spit out her drink from laughing so hard, “- while boasting about all kinds of embarrassing things, like how he knows how to take care of girls. He’d never had a girlfriend in his life.”

“It was so awful, once I figured out this entire time he’d been trying to flirt with me,” Mianmian laughs, even if the second hand embarrassment makes her cringe. “Once, the other girl even called him out on it. Like, really, really loudly. In front of everyone in the restaurant. She said all kind of mess about him and his, er - masculinity. It was so bad he nearly cried.”

“Augh, nooo!” Tan Mingyuan cries out, covering his face as he tries to imagine the scene. 

Jin Zixuan winced and nodded. “He couldn’t bear to be seen around Mianmian after that, so he flew off ahead. But with him gone, that just made the other girl a little too bold.”

“It got so bad that I couldn’t sleep in the girls’ room at the inns,” Mianmian groaned. “She even tried to - to seduce me, I think! She snuck into bed with me when everyone else was sleeping!”

Tan Liyang whistles at Mianmian. “Look at you, Mianmian. A regular ladykiller, aren’t ya?”

Stop, ” Mianmian laughs. “It was so awkward. I mean, she was cute and all, and it was pretty much harmless, but I just. Couldn’t handle her. I ended up sneaking out onto the roof one night.”

“I found her shivering up there when the other girl knocked on my door and asked me if I’d seen her,” Jin Zixuan laughed. “We didn’t want to wake up her secret admirer - “ Mianmian absolutely rolls her eyes at his cheeky sarcasm, “So I sent the other girl back to her room and promised to look for her. In the end, I found her shivering on the roof and had to sneak her back into my room. She refused to sleep on Zixun’s bed, though.”

Li Yitian raises her eyebrows at Mianmian, a smirk on her lips.

“I slept on the floor ! You’re all terrible!” Mianmian laughs, sucking down the rest of her wine. She’s in a good mood though, glancing over at Jin Zixuan. He’s already looking at her, his eyes warm with wine and good food.

“When we finally got back to the Carp Tower, guess what happened?” Jin Zixuan asks, his tone softening now that juicer parts of the story have already been told.

“What happened?” Tan Liyang eagerly asks.

“The other girl, not the one who kept squabbling with Jin Zixun - her name was Su Meihua, and she pulled me aside to the gardens after everything was over. We walked around for a while, and then she - “ Mianmian starts, trying to rub away the pleased little flush on her cheeks. “She kissed me. It was my first kiss.”

Beside her, Tan Mingyuan gasps theatrically, and Li Yitian can’t help but coo over it. “We dated for something like a month,” Mianmian said. “That first week was probably the best time of my life.”

“You only say that because Zixun refused to go to classes with us for a whole week,” Jin Zixuan says, rolling his eyes.

“Hey, okay, not just that, but once I was off the market, people stopped acting stupid around me specifically! It was great!” Mianmian protests.

“God, I wish that were my problem,” Li Yitian sighs, settling her cheek against her palm, as she sips longingly at her wine.

“Hey,” Xiao Wenzhou says, gently nudging Jin Zixuan with his elbow. The cute, sweet, innocent look on his face is an absolute fucking ruse, because clearly, Xiao Wenzhou is the worst of them - as evidenced when he asks, “What about you? Did you ever have a crush on Mianmian?”

Jin Zixuan blinks, cheeks reddening as he glances over at Mianmian. Just as he opens his mouth to respond, Mianmian beats him to the punch, all but yelling, “Alright, alright that’s enough! He’s been engaged since he was a child - knock it off.”

“Aww,” Li Yitian says, propping her chin up on her hands as she glanced up at Mianmian from her eyelashes. “Even if you’ve got duties to your family, sometimes the heart yearns, doesn’t it? It’s romantic.

Mianmian scowls. “Even if he did, I don’t want to hear about it!” she says, rolling her eyes. “He was like a little brother to me back then.”

Back then, ” Xiao Wenzhou teases. “So what about now?”

“You - You - !!! You’re all shameless!” Mianmian splutters, covering her face. “Zixuan, tell them - “

“Zixuan, huh? You’re on a first-name only basis now, huh? Did you ever call him A-Xuan when you were kiddies?” Li Yitian laughs, poking Mianmian until she groans and hides behind Tan Mingyuan.

“Aww, don’t be like that,” Tan Liyang laughs. She turns to Jin Zixuan, her voice turned into a drunken stage whisper as she says, “Don’t worry, Young Master Jin, you can tell us later, when she’s not looking.”

Jin Zixuan chokes on his sip of wine and coughs through his laughter, until Xiao Wenzhou has to start slapping his back for fear that he’ll choke.

 

--

 

They’re in a pretty good mood as they travel together to the little village, their newfound camaraderie with Jin Zixuan making them willing to poke and prod and tease. Even if Jin Zixuan’s unpracticed at it, he enjoys their attentions, likes that they don’t try too hard to impress him the way the other disciples at the Carp Tower do. It makes him comfortable enough that he can just awkwardly exist with them, not worried about having to look like the perfect Young Master Jin.

It’s not a long journey, but it’s fun all the while. At least, until they get to the village.

Perhaps she ought to have expected this, Mianmian thinks, when she sees the nervous, shifty-eyed look of the village head as he receives them. The welcoming party - his family, as well as a few people Mianmian understands to be prominent villagers: merchants and benefactors, elders, officials of some sort of repute - regards them with the same curiosity and vague skepticism most non-cultivators do, but unfortunately, her impression of them has already been spoiled by the village head, distorting their relatively neutral faces into ones of similar doubt and disdain.

"Young Master Jin," the village head manages with an uneasy smile. "Thank you for coming so soon. With everything that’s happened, the villagers have been too scared to go out and fish. Soon, we won’t be able to feed our families!”

There’s a brief pause, an awkward silence, as the village head glances conspicuously at Mianmian and the rest of them and says, “If I may have a word with you in private, though - "

Jin Zixuan puts on a haughty glare, one Mianmian is intensely familiar with. It's his Young Master glare, the one he uses on people he doesn't especially like in hopes that it'll make them go away. "Anything that must be said to me in private can be said in the confidence of my colleagues," he insists, practically daring the old man to say what they all know he's thinking right now.

The village head looks flabbergasted for a moment, but he quickly draws himself up, steeling himself for what will inevitably be an unpleasant conversation. For all that Mianmian has decided that she very much did not care for this weaselly fellow, she could at least respect his willingness to say what must be said. "Young Master Jin - if I may inquire about your guests?"

"Colleagues," Jin Zixuan corrects him, enunciating every syllable. The village head shrinks back a bit, staring up at Jin Zixuan in consternation. "They are a team of skilled cultivators who will be assisting me with detaining the beast. I have requested their expertise on this matter and hold them in high regard."

"But - but I was promised a team of Jin Sect Disciples," the village head protests, looking just as uncomfortable and embarrassed as Mianmian and her team are.

Jin Zixuan holds firm, his Young Master glare darkening. "A team consisting solely of Jin Sect Disciples would require an additional 3 months' wait. Moreover, given the backlog of work in Lanling Jin’s territories, it’s likely that the job would be relegated to a group of younger, less experienced disciples - not out of disrespect, but simply due to the fact that with the recent dismantling of the Wen sect and its affiliates, Lanling Jin is spread thin,” he says, arguing with a steely ferocity generally reserved for court disputes. “It’s not unusual these days for Lanling Jin to take on skilled, contractual cultivators to help fill in the gaps that must be filled. My colleagues are well-trained individuals with years of field experience.”

“Jin Zixuan - “ Mianmian starts, grabbing his sleeve. “It’s fine, you don’t have to - “

Jin Zixuan turns to Mianmian, his stare hard. “We can let them wait the 3 months, if Village Head Xia has made you and your team uncomfortable. There are other villages within Jin territory requiring assistance - I’m sure they would appreciate your help,” he says, voice uncompromising.

...Ah.

There’s something a little frightening about a man willing to leverage another man’s desperation against him. Jin Zixuan has done everything in his power to become a man unlike his father, and yet… there are subtle ways in which they overlap. Evidently, this is one of them. The thought makes Mianmian uncomfortable; surely it’s an unfair comparison. And yet -

His gambit hits its mark.

“That’s fine - “ Village Head Xia says weakly. “It’s - fine. Please, Young Master Jin, our village needs your help.”

Jin Zixuan doesn’t exactly smile, but his shoulders relax just a fraction - not enough for someone to notice, but Mianmian’s been by his side since they were children. She notices. “Tell us more about the beast,” he says.

 

--

 

Jin Zixuan is a completely different man when he’s at work. When there’s a goal to be met, he doesn’t constantly look to Mianmian for guidance and approval. He doesn’t awkwardly show off or try to please. He quickly pins down the situation and sets about figuring out where everyone could best be used.

Inadvertently, he also manages to make the entire team look very, very impressive in front of the non-cultivators, consulting Xiao Wenzhou about lore and Li Yitian about this or that binding talisman he’d seen her use. When Tan Liyang catches a slip-up, he gracefully thanks her and adjusts the plans just as naturally as he would have at a war table with other prominent sect members. He’s a natural.

In no time at all, they come up with a plan. The monster they’re dealing with sounds a lot like an aoyin, a four-horned bull covered in straw. They’re not especially known for their intelligence - just their single-minded rage and carnivorous tendencies. From what it sounded like, the aoyin had gotten lost on its way down the mountain and had since started terrorizing the fishermen. Traditional weapons weren’t much of a match for several tons of angry giant demon bulls, but it shouldn’t pose too much of a problem for a handful of experienced cultivators.

They decide, in short order, to split up the team - Li Yitian and the Tan siblings preparing the trap at the other end of the beach, and Jin Zixuan, Mianmian, and Xiao Wenzhou flushing the beast out and leading the chase. While it would’ve been preferable to have Tan Mingyuan as their third, given that he’s the best flier of the group save Mianmian, Xiao Wenzhou had a better sense for the hunt - and the survival instincts to avoid getting gored by the bull’s horns.

It’s well into the evening, by the time they finish strategizing, and the village head begrudgingly escorts them to their lodging. It’s not the fanciest place Mianmian’s ever stayed at, but there’s three rooms between the six of them. Not the worst, though Mianmian’s surprised Jin Zixuan doesn’t think to ask for an additional room at the inn for himself. Since it’s pretty much a given that the Tan siblings would have to room together, Mianmian turns to Li Yitian - only to find Tan Liyang already clinging to her, ‘calling dibs’ with a not-so-subtle wink at Mianmian.

That, of course, has Tan Mingyuan flushing and squawking, scandalized as he stares wide-eyed between Mianmian and Jin Zixuan. Jin Zixuan, similarly wide-eyed, turns to the innkeeper, holding his finger up in the manner in which insufferable people do when they ask to speak to an employee’s higher ups. Before he can get a single word out, however, the woman shrugs and says, “We only have four rooms at this inn. The last is already occupied, Young Master.” And then, if it’s any consolation, she makes a sly little smile and glances over at Mianmian.

Mianmian can’t help but find herself flushing, whipping around to glare over at Tan Liyang. But of course, that sneaky little fox had already nabbed the key and started bodily moving Li Yitian towards their room.

“Well, I’m not rooming with Tan Mingyuan,” Mianmian says, throwing her hands up. Xiao Wenzhou can’t help but laugh, hiding it behind his sleeve as he grabs Tan Mingyuan by the shoulder and says,

“I’ve got him.”

“Hey!” Tan Mingyuan cries out, as he’s gently dragged to their room. “What if I want to room with Young Master Jin!”

“He’d make you sleep in the hall, with the way you snore,” Xiao Wenzhou laughs, which makes Tan Mingyuan scoff in wordless offense.

That, of course, leaves Mianmian, Jin Zixuan, and the innkeeper, who is impatiently shaking the remaining key. Jin Zixuan stares at Mianmian with that guileless, wide-eyed look of his until she huffs a hard sigh and grabs the key from the innkeeper. “Let’s go,” she mumbles, trudging up the stairs after the traitors.

Quietly, like a dog awaiting punishment, Jin Zixuan follows after.

 

--

 

They make it up to the room with little fanfare, the doors of the girls’ and the boys’ rooms already shut and locked to ward off the hurricane of Mianmian’s temper. Really! These shameless little - 

Mianmian sighs for the umpteeth time as she jabs the key into the lock and pulls open the door. Thankfully there are two beds, but the room itself is small, with a dressing screen so thin it might as well not even be there. 

Well! It’s not like there’s much of a difference, both privacy- and space-wise, between sleeping in a room with Jin Zixuan and sleeping around the same campfire as him. It’s not like it’d be - any sort of betrayal of Jiang Yanli’s friendship, to be sleeping in the same room with her childhood friend, who just so happens to be Jiang Yanli’s handsome fiance.

“Mianmian,” Jin Zixuan finally speaks, making her jump. “If it makes you so uncomfortable, I can ask Xiao Wenzhou to trade with me. You get along with him, right?”

“No - no, it’s fine. Don’t bother,” Mianmian sighs, waving him off. “I should be asking you that - you’re going to get married to Jiang Yanli soon. Isn’t this a little…”

“It’s fine,” Jin Zixuan says, immediately. “Jiang Yanli wouldn’t get upset about something like this.”

Mianmian raises an eyebrow, because, well - “Aren’t you worried about what people will say? I mean, back at the Carp Tower, there were enough rumors, weren’t there?”

Jin Zixuan’s eyes go a fraction wider as he sits down on the nearest bed. Apparently, he hadn’t thought of that. He’s silent for a moment, eyes cast away as he thinks about his response. It takes long enough that Mianmian nearly loses her nerve and offers to leave, when he says -

“No.” He sounds earnest as he says it, but it’s still - “We both know the truth. That’s what matters. And besides, Maiden Jiang likes you. In the end, the only opinion that matters is hers, right?”

Mianmian huffs, flopping down on her own bed. “They’ll say you take after your father,” Mianmian says,  just a little sulkily. She knows it’s a low blow - sees it in the way Jin Zixuan’s shoulders go stiff, in the way his face shutters - but she refuses to regret it, continuing with the next logical statement, “And they’ll say I - “

“If they say anything about you, I will - I’ll - “ he stammers, face growing dark. “I’ll make sure that they are… corrected.

He looks so serious about it that, for a moment, Mianmian can’t help it - she laughs. That blinks Jin Zixuan out of his strange little mood, the furrow of his brow less threatening and more confused as he stares at her. “Idiot. Shouldn’t you be thinking about your position as Sect Heir?”

Jin Zixuan looks a little lost for a moment as he says, in turn, “Your reputation is more easily damaged than mine. You’re a woman, you no longer have the backing of the sect, and you have neither the resources nor the formal social connections to protect you from such gossip. If anyone says something, you’d be the one taking the brunt of the scorn.”

Mianmian huffs and rolls her eyes. “You’re just as bad as Tan Mingyuan - you’re too young to be so old fashioned. Whatever - if you’re fine with this, I’ll drop it.”

“Okay,” Jin Zixuan says, and when Mianmian looks over at him, she gets the impression that he might even be… pleased.

“Do you want to get dressed for bed first, or shall I?” Mianmian asks, gesturing toward the screen tucked into the corner.

“It’s fine if you go first. I’ll fetch some warm water to wash up with,” Jin Zixuan says, and Mianmian can’t help but roll her eyes in fond exasperation. Of course this rich young master would demand warm water to wash his face with. With a sigh, she grabs her things and pulls the screen open, hearing the door shut just as she starts tugging at her belt. 

He must locate the innkeeper pretty quickly, because soon after she’s got her outer robe pulled off, she hears the door open and close again. From her qiankun pouch, she pulls out a new set of inner robes and starts shrugging off the ones she’d been wearing.

For all that she’s aware of how easily one might be able to see light through the thin dressing screen, she doesn’t actually think to angle herself in a way that might avoid any untoward thoughts. And so, when she finishes dressing and pulls it aside, only to see Jin Zixuan looking delicately away, the tips of his ears still pink, she can’t help but feel a little -

There’s a knock at the door, and before Mianmian can say anything, Jin Zixuan gets up and announces, “I’ll get it!”

It’s the basin of warm water, accompanied by two little towels. Jin Zixuan thanks the woman as gracefully as he can, dipping his head in an anxious little bow as he waves her off. And when she’s gone and the door is closed, Jin Zixuan pushes the basin into Mianmian’s hands and says, “You wash up first! I’ll - I’ll just get dressed for bed. Yes.”

Mianmian doesn’t even have enough time to get a word in edgewise, before Jin Zixuan is tugging open the dressing screen again and fumbling with his clothes.

Mianmian idly watches as his shadow clumsily tugs open his robes, before shaking her head and staring down at the basin of water. Perhaps even Jin Zixuan, who kept apart from men and women alike, had such thoughts from time to time.

Did he see Mianmian’s shape through the thin silk and think about Jiang Yanli? Or was he all too aware that it was Mianmian undressing, no more than a few feet away? She can’t help but think about the question Xiao Wenzhou had posed just the other night, can’t help but think about the way Jin Zixuan’s cheeks had gone flushed and his eyes bright as he looked over at her.

She’d made the comparison earlier in the evening and felt it uncomfortable, but… truly, in what ways was Jin Zixuan his father’s child? He’d proclaimed and affirmed his love for Jiang Yanli enough times by now for people to take him seriously after so many years of denial, but did his eye ever stray?

It was uncharitable of her to have these thoughts. Resolutely deciding not to think of it, she scrubs at her face with the washcloth and hopes that that’s enough to explain away the redness in her own cheeks. Not that Jin Zixuan asks, when he emerges from behind the dressing screen.

They talk about - whatever. Things neither of them especially care about, as Mianmian hands the basin over to Jin Zixuan and, for lack of anything better to do, watches him wash his face. He makes quick work of it, and then gets up to put everything away.

The evening is quiet and awkward in a way that itches all over Mianmian’s skin. It shouldn’t be like this with Jin Zixuan. They’ve been good friends for so long, and an evening alone together is nothing in the face of - of all that.

When he finally blows out the little lamp and settles into bed, Mianmian can’t help but stare up at the ceiling and think about the way he had looked as he washed his face, the water soaking into and dripping down from his loose hair at his temples. The tiny shimmer of water pooling in his cupid’s bow. The single waterdrop that’d been caught in his pretty eyelashes.

Chapter Text

In the morning, they head out for the coast, hoping to scout out the area and, if lucky, observe the aoyin’s behavior patterns before solidifying their attack strategy. The morning air out here is crisp and clean, with just the slightest bite of chill from the mist rolling in from the waters. A morning like this would normally be bustling with fisherman taking off for the seas, but instead it's still and silent, eerily so. Even the gulls have been scared off by the beast.

The only sound for miles is that of the rolling tide, ceaseless no matter what calamitous creature might come by.

It’s early enough that everyone is still soft and unhurried with sleep. The six of them slowly, casually explore the area in a vague cluster, keeping an eye out for signs of anything unusual about the area. After all, even with an aggressive magical beast lurking about, it’s odd that there’d be so few signs of life.

Of them, Li Yitian and Jin Zixuan are the most awake, keeping a lookout for any advantageous locations to create an array. They’d have their work cut out for them if they were to establish it on the pebbly shore, but there isn’t much else to work with out here. Apparently, the aoyin had even broken apart not only several boats that had been dragged ashore, but it had also completely destroyed the pier, leaving little more than wooden debris scattered around the beach.

It was a pitiful sight, really - doubly so, as Mianmian watches the Tan siblings reverently touching what’s left of the boats on the shore.

“You okay?” Mianmian asks, sidling up to Tan Mingyuan, who’s gently running his hand down the bow of a boat that’d been practically cleaved in half; the rest of it was in splinters all across the shore.

“Mn,” Tan Mingyuan says dully. “We grew up in a fishing village way south of Gusu. Something like this would’ve been... cataclysmic. It’ll take ages for them to rebuild.”

“Mm,” Mianmian hums. “It’s a shame.”

“Yeah,” Tan Mingyuan sighs.

“But hopefully, we can deal with it soon. The sooner we find the aoyin, the sooner this village can get back on its feet,” Mianmian says with as encouraging a smile as she can muster.

Tan Mingyuan allows himself one last sigh, and pats the boat one last time. When he turns to look at Mianmian, there’s a determined glint in his eye, as if seeing all this destruction had reinvigorated him. Seeing him like this, Mianmian can’t help but smile and pat his hair.

In her periphery, Mianmian can see Tan Liyang and Xiao Wenzhou on one side, strolling along the surf, and Li Yitian and Jin Zixuan on the other side, quietly talking over the practicality of leading the aoyin to the far-off brush vs trying their best on the pebbly shore. If it weren’t for the fact that there were shards of boat all over the beach, Mianmian could almost believe it to be a fun little vacation.

And then, she hears it -

The low, bone-shakingly loud roar of a bull, echoing through the hollow stretch of beach.

“Fuck,” Mianmian hisses, drawing her sword. The mist is thick enough that it’s not easy to see too far into the distance, and from the way the sound had echoed, she can’t be sure of which direction it would be coming from.

“Get on your sword - we’ve got to retreat,” Mianmian says, grabbing Tan Mingyuan’s arm as she keeps an eye out for the beast.

“But - “ Tan Mingyuan starts, before he’s cut off by the sight of the creature barrelling through the fog, coming in from the scrubby brush.

Li Yitian only has half a second of warning, before she’s swept up into Jin Zixuan’s arms, the both of them only just barely avoiding getting gored by the creature’s horns. Her shaky cry is what sets them all in motion, drawing their swords and scrambling to get out of the way as best they can.

To put things simply, the aoyin is huge - 7 or 8 feet tall, without counting the vicious crown of horns, and easily heavy enough to crush all of them under its heavy hooves. For all that it’s beautiful - its form statuesque, its coarse fur gleaming white - Mianmian can’t help but balk at its sheer presence. Up close like this, it’s hard to imagine surviving such a creature.

It doesn’t take long for Li Yitian to hop on her own sword and stay afloat, but as Mianmian surveys the scene, she realizes that not all of them are safe - Xiao Wenzhou is still trapped on the ground, and Tan Liyang is looking between him and the rest of them, unsure of what to do.

Mianmian is struck through with fear at the sight of them still lingering within harm’s reach, her heart hammering loud in her ears. She can’t help but hold her breath, debating whether to fly to them and risk spurring the aoyin into action, or to wait for it to make the first move, on the off chance that it’d just… go away.

Even on a good day, Xiao Wenzhou has a hard time taking off, and Tan Liyang can’t possibly carry him in the way Jin Zixuan had so easily grabbed Li Yitian. The aoyin seems to sense this - or at the very least, it seems to understand that of the six available prey, that specific one is the most afraid, and therefore the easiest target - because it suddenly takes off toward the shore.

“No!” Mianmian gasps, propelling herself forward as fast as she can, her heart beating in her throat as she speeds toward Xiao Wenzhou.

Her first thought is that she won’t make it in time. At best, she might be able to intercept and at worst, he’ll be gored by the beast just a few feet away from her. Her second thought is - well, she doesn’t have time for a second thought, because just as her heart starts to fill with panic, she hears -

“Mianmian! Burst talisman!” Jin Zixuan calls out, dispelling the worst of her thoughts. Just like that, Mianmian is a disciple again, following Jin Zixuan’s lead through yet another beast hunt. Immediately she moves to intercept, one of the burst talismans they’d prepared earlier in the morning at the ready.

She swallows down an instinctual fear as she approaches the beast, activating a burst talisman, before flitting away to escape the explosion. It takes a precious second or two to go off, but it does its job - startled, the beast veers off course, pulling instinctively away from the bright light and sizzling heat. In that time, Jin Zixuan scoops Xiao Wenzhou up onto his sword, whisking him away, towards where Tan Mingyuan is waiting to take him off Jin Zixuan’s hands.

They hadn’t made anything more powerful than the burst talisman, working under the assumption that they’d have time to scope out the beach, and Mianmian is nearly certain Jin Zixuan will call for a retreat, but - 

“I sent Li Yitian off to start the array. Tan Liyang will be assisting her. This isn’t ideal, but we’re going to give it a shot now while we’ve got the chance,” Jin Zixuan calls out to her, his voice the only thing clear enough to cut through the sound of her heartbeat, the buzz of adrenaline in her veins.

“Mianmian, you’re taking the lead,” Xiao Wenzhou calls out from where he’s clinging to Tan Mingyuan. Absently, Mianmian realizes that he’s shaking, but somehow, his voice stays steady as he advises her - “It’s wary of you, make yourself bigger and see if you can goad it into thinking you’re taking its prey!”

“Easy for you to say!” Mianmian cries out, even as she obediently zips closer to the beast. They’d planned on using a series of burst talismans and traps to corral the aoyin towards the binding array Li Yitian had planned out with Jin Zixuan, but clearly they hadn’t had the time to prepare anything more than the talismans. This would have to be enough - and when they ran out, they’d just have to leverage whatever else they had on hand. 

When the aoyin sees her, its nostrils flare in anger, a menacing roar buzzing through her very core. Quite frankly, it’s not the biggest thing she’s ever taken down, nor the scariest, but there’s definitely something about it that induces fear into others. Knowing, now, that the fear isn’t hers, Mianmian swallows down the weakness in her heart, the trembling in her gut, and quickly tugs open her belt.

Vaguely, in her periphery, she can hear Tan Mingyuan yelping, but there really isn’t the time for that. If she can parade through the Carp Tower in only her inner garments, then she can do it on this endless stretch of pebble beach.

Before her and just barely out of reach, the aoyin digs its feet into the ground, preparing to attack. It can’t, just yet, even if Mianmian feels the shock of fear all through her bones. But she knows it's smart enough that if it can’t get her, it’ll lose interest quick, and she can’t afford to have it lose interest.

Quick as she can, she whips off her outer robe and holds it in front of her body, lowering just enough to be within the aoyin’s attacking range. As Xiao Wenzhou predicts, it certainly gets the aoyin’s attention, if the way it snorts and paws at the ground is anything to go off of.

The taste of fear is sour in her throat, thudding in her chest, slowing down her reflexes, and she hates it. She hates it, but there’s not much time to think about it, because it’s barreling right at her, thankfully a little to the left, where the majority of her robes are swaying. Mianmian rolls to the right, just barely snatching her robe out from getting completely demolished by the thing’s horns, and the process begins again.

Every time she’s within a few feet of the thing, her palms go sweaty and her entire body feels like it wants to crawl right out of her skin through her mouthhole; it's a uniquely awful sort of experience. But she thinks about Xiao Wenzhou and how he’d looked facing down this thing, and she forces herself to swallow down her nerves as she sways her robes again.

She’s about five seconds too late in realizing that this time, the aoyin’s aim is true, but before it can get too close, a burst talisman flares on the other side of the aoyin, causing it to stumble and skid a few inches too far in it’s attempt to get away from the searing heat.

“I’ve got your back!” Jin Zixuan calls out to her, looking like he’s feeling the effects of being too near it, too. “Focus on the aoyin!”

Mianmian swallows, and she nearly drops her robes with the prickling feeling at the back of her eyes. This creature’s really fucking things up for her right now, if she’s about to cry in relief over something like this, of all things.

But she’s grateful that she isn’t alone. She’s really fucking grateful.

“Try and buy some time,” Xiao Wenzhou calls out to them. “It’ll take a while for them to set up the array.”

“This isn’t easy, you know!” Mianmian cries, but stubbornly, she stays in the beast’s orbit, jerking her robes around to draw its attention.

“Both of you - fly over and help speed things up! Mianmian and I can keep it distracted, and you can use a burst talisman to let us know when you’re ready,” Jin Zixuan says, his voice surprisingly steady despite the very imminent threat staring him down.

“You sure?” Tan Mingyuan asks, staring down at the two of them. “This looks - “

“Hurry up! If you really want to help, you can just fly on back once you drop Xiao Wenzhou off,” Mianmian growls as she sets up yet again to bait the bull. It’s really mad, now that they’d tricked it once already, and it’s eyes are flitting between the both of them, trying to size up the bigger threat.

“I’m a faster flyer - I’ll be bait,” Mianmian says, despite the way her heart hammers in her chest and the way her stomach coils itself into knots at the very thought of it. She thinks of Xiao Wenzhou staring down the face of death, thinks of Jin Zixuan and how Jiang Yanli would feel if Mianmian had to tell her the news if things didn’t go to plan. It bolsters something inside her, keeps that sinking pit of fear from consuming her whole.

With a stubborn set to her eyebrows, she zips closer to the aoyin and waves her robes more wildly. It gets the aoyin’s attention, and though it approaches more cautiously, unwilling to let Jin Zixuan out of its sight, it’s still pretty aggravated.

Jin Zixuan nods gravely as he shifts into gear. “I’m with you. Figure 8’s, until they’re ready.”

Mianmian nods, but doesn’t respond. She doesn’t have to. Jin Zixuan knows she’ll always follow his lead in a hunt.

Mianmian skims down low enough to grab a rock and toss it in the aoyin’s direction and that’s all it takes - the creature charges, deadly horns aimed right to her chest. Mianmian hardly has the time to skid out of the way, even with the precious few seconds the uneven terrain gives her, and she just barely feels the tug of the longer back horns at the edge of her robes as she dodges to the side of the creature’s mad dash.

It’s quick to catch its bearings, stumbling along the pebbles before coming to a halt, nostrils flaring in an irritated snort, and charges after Mianmian again. She hardly even has to wave her outer robes at it for it to come crashing along after her.

Once or twice, when it gets too close for comfort, Jin Zixuan tugs its attention away from her with a well-timed burst talisman, sending the creature scrambling off course. It buys them a little time to regroup as the beast refocuses, but never truly enough. It’s a harrowing few minutes, the adrenaline coursing through both their bodies stretching the time out into what feels like hours, before they hear it - the burst talisman from far off into the distance, the frantic cry of Tan Mingyuan as he speeds toward them, waving his arms.

At the soonest moment, Mianmian straightens out the aoyin’s trajectory, and Jin Zixuan comes around the back, spurring it on with another talisman from his quickly depleting stack.

The fear had been manageable - thrilling, even - when they were goading it into jerky, uneven figure 8’s, but now, leading the long chase down the stretch of beach, with the ghost of the aoyin’s hot breath puffing against her neck, Mianmian feels ready to crawl right out of her skin. It takes all she has to keep her eyes open, to keep her heart focused, when all she wants to do is blink tears out of her eyes and wail in fear.

But Jin Zixuan is behind her, and Tan Mingyuan is coming up to flank the beast’s other side. All she has left to do is fly, and fly fast.

It feels like an eternity and a half, broken by the occasional sound of burst talismans and the angry roar of a giant, angry bull, before Mianmian sees Tan Liyang waving her down towards the gray-black cliffside jutting out from the side of the pebble beach. The damp cove underneath it, dug out by the waves at high tide, had been hastily painted in the oily red paint Jin Zixuan had brought them, the array as meticulous as they could get it in such short notice. Knowing Li Yitian, though, she didn’t doubt that it would do the job.

The only issue would be if they smeared it in the struggle to contain the beast. But Tan Liyang, Xiao Wenzhou, and Li Yitian were there to keep that from happening, and in the worst case scenario, Mianmian was no stranger to hastily handpainting a makeshift array as needed. It’ll be fine.

The fear crawling down her neck tells her it won’t be, but she’s been swallowing the sour taste of it down for the past half hour. She can keep it down a little while longer.

That is, until she hears Tan Mingyuan yelp behind her, and on instinct she can’t help but turn and look. They’re so close to the array, but the aoyin must have caught on to the trap, because it’s begun to veer off to the side, toward the water instead of the clumsy terrain leading up to the scrubby flatland and the cliff.

Mianmian feels the buzz of ozone left behind from a minor qi blast - Jin Zixuan must be out of burst talismans, fuck - but it isn’t enough to trick the beast into chasing after him. She can feel the false fear drawing away like the tides as the aoyin tires of her and starts chasing after Tan Mingyuan; she can feel the real fear rushing in to replace it.

“Pull up!” she cries, her voice cracking with the full knowledge that Tan Mingyuan, for all his graces and good points, is just as stubborn as Mianmian is, with about half the sense.

“We’ve almost got it!” Tan Mingyuan protests, despite the fact that his sister is off to the side screaming for him and Jin Zixuan’s eyes are wild with fear as he abruptly changes course towards him.

He won’t be fast enough, Mianmian knows, as she watches that glorious, deadly crown of horns lower. She won’t be fast enough either.

Mianmian acts before she thinks, speeding not toward Tan Mingyuan, but toward the aoyin itself. Her plan is stupid, the rational part of her brain tells her, but its drowned out by the thrum of fear in her gut and the scream of adrenaline pounding in her chest.

In the almost eerie calm between heartbeats, Mianmian lands just behind the elegantly humped back of the aoyin’s neck, her feet unnaturally steady - grounded amongst the scratchy twigs of the aoyin’s fur. And then, she thrusts her blade into the creature’s neck.

She’ll never forget the sound of the beast’s enraged roars as it bucks her off of its back, right into the water.

She falls bodily into the sloping depths, the sharpness of the impact punching all the air right out of her lungs. It’s natural, then, that her mind goes black for a quick moment, her lungs taking in water as the crading tides begin to pull her away from the shore.

 

She comes back in bits and pieces, her consciousness fading in and out between the heavy hands pumping into her chest and the violent expulsion of liquid from her lungs. Her entire body hurts all over, and everything feels awful and cold. It’s an unbearably long time before she feels like can breathe right - not those painful, hiccoughing exhales and the barely-adequate sips of air she can swallow down, but actual breathing, unassisted by the warm mouth forcing air between her bluing lips.

It’s a while, before she feels good enough to force her eyes open. In the aftermath of waking, she feels a bit like the way she does after drinking way too much - groggy and inexplicably uncomfortable, her heartbeat flitting weakly in her aching chest.

When really she comes to, she’s cradled in a sniffling Tan Mingyuan’s lap, with Jin Zixuan’s outer robe draped over her sodden body. They’re on the cliffside just above the cove, the small flame of a few fire talismans steadily burning beside them to keep her chilled body as warm as they can get it. Vaguely, in her hazy periphery, she can hear Li Yitian and Jin Zixuan’s voices as they perform a few curse-dispelling rites for the beast, as it clearly hadn’t been the only thing at play here.

“A-Jie - A-Jie, I think she’s awake!” Tan Mingyuan cries out, jostling her enough to make her dizzy.

“Mingyuan - “ Mianmian croaks out, squinting as she waves her hand in the general direction of his face. It lands with a quiet little slap, and he holds her hand against his teary cheek as he nods.

“Yes? Yes? What is it? You shouldn’t strain yourself too much Mianmian, you almost drowned,” he says, a fresh gush of tears coming from his eyes.

“Shut up,” Mianmian manages, smacking him again. It has no power behind it, but Tan Mingyuan cries anyways. “Don’t do that again ‘r I’ll kill you.”

That startles a hiccuping laugh from Tan Mingyuan as he makes the ugliest little sniffle. And then, Tan Liyang is by her side, gently taking Mianmian from her increasingly soggy brother. “Hey, sweetheart. How you feelin’?” she murmurs, a welcome reprieve from Tan Mingyuan’s overexcited wailing.

“Like shit,” Mianmian groans, curling into Tan Liyang’s stomach. “What happened?”

“You were in the water for a while, while we subdued the aoyin. We thought you were done for. Young Master Jin said your heart had stopped for a moment,” Tan Liyang murmurs, her own hands trembling as she holds Mianmian close. Her voice is so soft and sweet, and for a moment, Mianmian can’t help but think of Jiang Yanli.

She wishes Jiang Yanli were here to hold her. That would be… really, really nice. Tan Liyang is soft, but Jiang Yanli is… she’d definitely be more comforting.

“Ha,” Mianmian manages, the sharp little exhale making her head throb. “I’ve been through worse.”

“Yeah, well,” Tan Liyang says, her own voice a little thick, “don’t fucking do that again.”

“Mm,” Mianmian groans, burying her face further into Tan Liyang’s body. “Does Xiao Wenzhou still have those herbs? The good stuff?”

Tan Liyang laughs, and it sounds a little wet. “Yeah. Yeah, I’ll get him to brew them up for you. With a little extra honey, ok?”

“Mm, yeah,” Mianmian hums quietly. “You’re the best, Tan Liyang. I’m going to close my eyes a little while longer, ok? My head hurts like a bitch.”

“Wait. Stay awake with me. Just a little longer,” Tan Liyang says quietly. “Stay awake until Mingyuan gets Young Master Jin up here.”

“Mm,” Mianmian hums. “Yeah, okay.”

 

--

 

Mianmian valiantly stays awake until Jin Zixuan can scramble up to the cliff and take her pulse. When he finds that she’s more or less alright, he cups her face in his hands for a long moment, his handsome expression crumpling until Mianmian rolls her eyes and pinches her nose, assuring him that, “Hey, you said I was alright, didn’t you? It’s just a headache, really.”

Jin Zixuan lingers in his concern a little while longer, knowing it’d be pointless of him to beg her never to do something like that again, before asking Xiao Wenzhou to show him what he’s going to brew for her. Once approved, Xiao Wenzhou gladly upends the rest of his herb stash to see if he can find any more.

The medicine makes her drowsy, and after a final check to make sure she’s fine, to make sure there aren’t any blockages the way there often are after something like this, Jin Zixuan lets her slip her eyes shut.

She’s glad to know that Xiao Wenzhou had indeed given her the good stuff, because when she wakes up a few hours later, her entire body feels all giggly and floaty and slow.

They’d fetched her sword and robes out of the water before they could wash away, drying them as best they could. But they were all stiff and awful from the seawater, scratchy even against her drug-dulled senses, so Jin Zixuan just lets Mianmian bury herself in his clothes for a while.

It’s nice. Soft. She hadn’t worn silk in ages.

And it smells like jasmine too, which is a plus. Incense and jasmine. Or perhaps that’s just Jin Zixuan, as he hasn’t let Mianmian out of arm’s length all evening. If she weren’t all wobbly from the pain medication and if she were in better condition overall, she’d probably protest his mother-henning a little more. But Jin Zixuan is warm and sweet against her side, and he’s gently urging spiritual energy into her tapped out meridians from his own tapped out meridians, and he’s carefully offering food to her, practically hand-feeding her with how sluggish and clumsy she is. Hell, he even lets her rest most of her weight against his shoulder, slumping against him even though, by now, he’d usually complain about her sharp chin and pokey elbows.

It’s nice to be pampered a little, doubly so if she’s all soft and hazy from pain medication. Everything just feels… really, really nice.

 

--

 

They make it back to town before darkness falls. Jin Zixuan had volunteered to carry Mianmian on his sword, given that she was in no shape to be flying at all, let alone on her own. Once they’re taking off, Mianmian is glad for it - after all, it always gets a little cold in the air, but Jin Zixuan is a warm and steady presence at her back, holding her close against him whenever she gets a little too unsteady.

They stop at the inn long enough for Jin Zixuan to change out of his clothes, and then he leaves her to the girls while he heads off to the village head’s residence. By the time he gets back, Mianmian is cleaned and dressed and already asleep.

They stay in the village another day to recover and confirm that nothing else in the case had been overlooked. Although Mianmian feels well enough to help out, they force her to stay back at the inn. Much to her chagrin, Jin Zixuan suggests a babysitter, knowing Mianmian well enough to know that if no one was keeping tabs on her, she’d probably run off and make things worse trying to be useful.

Tan Mingyuan is the first to volunteer, feeling guilty for being the reason why Mianmian needed a babysitter in the first place, but Tan Liyang (thankfully) tugs him away, knowing full well that if Tan Mingyuan didn’t get on Mianmian’s nerves, then Mianmian would probably convince her impressionable little brother spar in the inn’s courtyard. Between Li Yitian and Xiao Wenzhou, then, Xiao Wenzhou offers to stay, knowing Li Yitian had a better eye for details than he did, and would therefore be of more help to Jin Zixuan when they returned to the beach.

And so, Mianmian spends most of the morning dozing off while Xiao Wenzhou quietly reads. In the afternoon, after their lunch, Mianmian writes a brief little letter to Jiang Yanli, and then spends the next few minutes showing Xiao Wenzhou how to make and send paper birds. With his mediocre cultivation, he can’t spare the qi to make the bird fly especially far, but it’s a fun little lesson, regardless.

When everyone reconvenes for their evening meal, Jin Zixuan says, “In order to be compensated for your work, I’m going to need you to accompany me back to the Carp Tower.”

Tan Mingyuan swallows down his bite and asks, “All of us? Because A-Jie and I were sort of planning on staying a little while longer. To help repair some of the damaged boats. It’ll be room and board for every day we work, plus a little extra silver.”

Jin Zixuan taps his chopsticks against his bottom lip and considers it for a moment. The gesture is so reminiscent of Jiang Yanli that Mianmian can't help but smile - and subsequently shove another bite into her mouth, to try and hide it, because Li Yitian is nosy as hell, and will bother her about why she’s grinning until she caves.

“Well, the sum paid can be received by a representative. So if you would rather stay here, it should be fine as long as I have someone from the group,” he says, looking to Li Yitian and Xiao Wenzhou.

“I’m going!” Li Yitian says with an eager smile. “I’ve always wanted to see inside the Carp Tower! And I can go shopping after!”

Xiao Wenzhou nods. “It would be nice to see what the bookstores in Lanling have to offer… besides, someone’s got to make sure Li Yitian doesn’t spend all of her cut.”

Li Yitian sulks and smacks Xiao Wenzhou in the arm, but they’re both giddy with excitement at the thought of going with Jin Zixuan.

Jin Zixuan lets his gaze drift over to Mianmian, knowing full well how she feels about visiting Carp Tower again. Mianmian doesn’t say anything, looking away from him to cut another morsel of fish to put on her bowl. “Mianmian,” he starts, his voice a little quiet, a little shy. “Do you think you could accompany us to Carp Tower? At least partway. If you’re feeling well enough for the trip out to Yunmeng, I think I could have a letter prepared before we get there.”

Mianmian slowly chews her bite of fish and rice, and by the time she’s done, she’s made up her mind.

“Alright, I’ll go.”

 

--

 

They could’ve probably made it in less than a day if they flew. Hell, Jin Zixuan could’ve easily spent the night in comfort, safe in the hallowed halls of the Carp Tower. But he’s happy enough to hoof it with the rest of them, out of solidarity for Xiao Wenzhou’s slowly developing qi reserves and Mianmian’s recovering body. Besides, Carp Tower is maybe about a day and a half’s walk from the little village they’d just left - it wasn’t unheard of for a cultivator to return a day or two late from a hunt.

“You delinquent,” Mianmian teases, elbowing Jin Zixuan when they take a quick midafternoon break. “You’re just making excuses to skip out on your duties.”

Jin Zixuan takes it easily, the way he probably never would have if it were anyone other than Mianmian poking fun at him. He simply rolls his eyes, shoving the rest of his snack in his mouth in lieu of rising to her bait.

Their trek is much quieter for lack of the Tan siblings, but it’s not so bad to have a little peace and quiet for once. Xiao Wenzhou occupies his time asking Jin Zixuan about different beasts he’d seen at cultivation conference hunts, and Li Yitian prods Mianmian about all the best places to visit in Lanling, until Xiao Wenzhou decides they ought to stop a little early for the day. They’d made good time, and would be able to hit the Carp Towers before their midday meal if they woke up early tomorrow - and besides, Mianmian had spotted a few crawfish in the little creek running through their clearing. They wouldn’t find a campsite this perfect again.

With the sun still high in the sky, Xiao Wenzhou enlists Mianmian into helping him weave some quick traps for the crawfish while Li Yitian shows Jin Zixuan how to identify and dig for wild tubers. It’s all good fun, and Mianmian honestly regrets not insisting the Tan siblings join them. Aside from the fact that Tan Mingyuan was the best campfire cook of them, he probably would’ve had fun splashing around the creek.

By the time the sun is low in the sky, they’ve got a full catch - two whole basketfuls of crawfish ready to boil, four small fish to roast over the fire, and a happy pile of starchy tubers, wild ginger, and water spinach to toss into the pot.

As they work together to prepare their evening meal, it’s clear that this is definitely where Jin Zixuan’s strengths do not shine. At first, he sticks to Li Yitian, tasked with scrubbing the dirt off of the tubers and gently cutting off any secondary roots and radicals. That’s all well and good, until he finishes the job and joins her in peeling the roots.

Suffice to say, when he’s done with his first tuber, Li Yitian laughs until she nearly cries and sends him off to help scale and gut the fish with Mianmian and Xiao Wenzhou.

He does not like scaling and gutting fish. In fact, he hides behind Mianmian half the time, watching in disgusted fascination as Mianmian scrapes the tiny little scales off with her knife, sending them flying every which way. He does not care to have scales littering his fine robes, thank you very much, and pointedly tells Mianmian as much.

Xiao Wenzhou tries to show him how to gut the fish, but he gets squeamish, staring in horror as Xiao Wenzhou cheerfully cuts off fins and slices into bellies, pulling out slimy entrails like a pro. “Young Master Jin, I’m afraid if you ever get lost in the wild, you wouldn’t be able to survive,” he teases, as he hands Jin Zixuan the cleaned fish to gingerly slide onto skewers.

“I’d just suffer through inedia until Mianmian rescues me,” Jin Zixuan sniffs, his face still a little green at the sight of Xiao Wenzhou’s gore-covered hands.

Xiao Wenzhou laughs, full-bellied and bright at Jin Zixuan’s unabashed childishness, and sends him off to tend to the fire. Jin Zixuan pretends not to sulk at his clear dismissal. 

Before long, the meal is ready to eat, and they eagerly tuck into it. Jin Zixuan starts with the fish and greens, staring warily at the crawfish, even as the others begin piling up mounds of shells.

“Does the young master not like crawfish?” Li Yitian asks, as she watches him nudge a crawfish over in favor of grabbing another chunk of the tuber.

Jin Zixuan’s cheeks redden in embarrassment as he quietly says, “I’ve never had it before.”

“What?!” Xiao Wenzhou asks through a mouthful of steaming-hot tuber. Gracefully, he’s remembered to cover his mouth but only just so. “But eating crawfish is the best part of summer!”

“You’ve gotta remember,” Mianmian says, amused, “that Young Master Jin hasn’t often had the opportunity to enjoy lowbrow cuisine.”

Li Yitian mock-frowns over at Mianmian and says, “For shame, Mianmian. You call yourself his friend and yet you don’t even show him the joys of real food?”

Mianmian shrugs and reaches over, grabbing a crawfish and setting it down in Jin Zixuan’s hand. “It’s easy. First you twist off the head and suck out the juice - “ she says, demonstrating for Jin Zixuan. “And then you just pluck off the rings of its shell until you can get a good grip on the meat, and eat.”

Jin Zixuan watches her, before frowning down at his own crawfish. “You suck out the brains?” he says, in clear dismay.

Everyone around the campfire nods, eagerly watching him to see his reaction.

“If you can’t handle crawfish, how are you supposed to marry someone from Yunmeng?” Mianmian teases, grabbing another crawfish and twisting it open.

Jin Zixuan watches again as she sucks out the juice, eyes lingering on her mouth a moment longer than necessary - but before she can call him out on it, he turns his attention down to the crawfish in his hands, frowning as if it had done him ill. Gingerly, he twists the head off of the body and, bracing for the worst, he brings the head up to his lips and sucks. He’s so incredibly dramatic about it that Mianmian wants to roll her eyes. But as he blinks his eyes open, a newfound appreciation for brains clear on his face, she can’t help but feel a little elated. As if eating a crawfish for the first time was something that demanded celebration.

Indeed, Xiao Wenzhou laughs and cheers Jin Zixuan on as he struggles with the shell, and when the first ring finally pops off and he can grab a hold of the meat, the entire campfire breaks into applause. For all that there’s an embarrassed flush on Jin Zixuan’s cheeks, he can’t help but smile, too, as he reaches out for a second crawfish.

“So how do you like it,” Li Yitian asks, nudging him with her elbow.

“It’s good. Thank you,” he says, his voice tinged with a little shyness. 

“Don’t thank me,” Li Yitian grins. “Thank your crawfish-laoshi.” She nudges her head in Mianmian’s direction, laughing in delight as Jin Zixuan smiles and formally thanks Mianmian - or rather, the most esteemed crawfish-laoshi - for teaching him to eat proper cultured food.

Mianmian laughs and rolls her eyes, stuffing her mouth with more water spinach.

 

--

 

Jin Zixuan agrees to take first watch, citing that he was planning on writing to his beloved while the others get some rest. Li Yitian coos over how sweet it is, while Xiao Wenzhou sighs wistfully about his own sweetheart back at his village. Mianmian tells Jin Zixuan to wake her for second watch, so she can bug him about his writing while he’s still awake.

Not that she’s had to interfere as much lately, now that Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli are a little better acquainted now. But he’s still happy to let her peek at his letters, suggesting topics to talk about and adding her own input on the things they’ve taken to enjoying together. Mianmian hasn’t looked at a second draft since the first letter or two, thinking it better to leave them some semblance of privacy, but she lets herself indulge in this, at least.

In all honesty, she doesn’t have any right to meddle in their affairs, now that it’s clear that they get along well. But she can’t help but want to - to leave her mark, to worm her way into their lives, to keep them from forgetting about her, when they’re so wrapped up in each other. She’s got no right to their attention, but she isn’t going to lie to herself; she knows she’ll probably keep it up until they inevitably put some distance between themselves and her - after all, they belong in different circles. It’s only by chance that she’d ever have the opportunity to enjoy their company. Naturally, when they’re married, they’ll realize it too. And then, she’ll gracefully bow out, the way she’s supposed to.

Even if she’s prepared for this inevitability… it’s still a little lonely to think about.

 

Jin Zixuan’s so focused on his letter that doesn’t wake her for her shift, but she remembers to get up anyways. The moment he hears rustling from the bedrolls, Jin Zixuan jolts, quickly hiding his letter behind another sheet of paper as he glances wildly over.

Mianmian can’t be sure in this darkness, but she thinks, perhaps, she sees a flush pooling in Jin Zixuan’s cheeks the moment they make eye contact.

“You didn’t wake me,” she says, shoving aside her blanket as she slowly wanders over to Jin Zixuan.

“I - I’m sorry. I didn’t realize so much time had passed,” he says, swallowing hard as he tries to discreetly straighten the pile, to hide the paper he’d been working on.

Mianmian yawns and blinks, staring down at the little stack of papers in Jin Zixuan’s hands. “What were you working on?” she asks, settling down on the log beside him. It’s so short that their knees can’t help but touch. Mianmian isn’t sure if it’s just the fact that Jin Zixuan has been sitting in front of the fire for hours, or if that's just the way he is, but he feels hot against her.

“Nothing!” Jin Zixuan responds just a little too quickly, his voice a little odd. “Just - y’know, I’m just working on my letter is all.”

“Yeah?” Mianmian asks, eyeing the stack of papers a little more pointedly. For all that he grew up in Lanling, Jin Zixuan is a shit liar. At least to the people that matter. He can rattle off bullshit to a stranger about as well as the rest of them, but if he cares? He couldn’t lie his way out of a paper bag.

He wants to do good, to be good, for the people he loves. So much so that he usually doesn’t even bother trying to lie to her face - Mianmian’s always been able to catch him at it, and there’d never been any real point to it. So whatever it is that’s lying at the bottom of Jin Zixuan’s stack, it must be something important enough that he can’t tell Mianmian about it.

It hurts, a little bit, recognizing the ways in which they’re slowly growing apart. But Jin Zixuan is a sect heir, after all, and Mianmian is nothing but a rogue cultivator playing courier. She lets it slide, whatever it is, but she watches Jin Zixuan with hard eyes, letting him know that she’s letting him go just this once.

“What’ve you guys been writing about?” Mianmian says, instead, nudging Jin Zixuan over with her hip. She doesn’t miss the way Jin Zixuan’s shoulders relax, the way his breath comes out in what could almost be a sigh of relief at her mercy. With a smile, Jin Zixuan begins talking about Jiang Yanli’s previous letter and how she’d shared some of the silly poetry some of her students had written.

He makes Mianmian laugh - of course he does, when he himself is laughing as he recalls some goofy little 9-year-old’s poem - but it’s not enough for her to forget about that quiet little lie burning at the bottom of his stack.

Chapter Text

For the first time since she'd started carrying messages around, Mianmian takes it easy on the trip back to Yunmeng. It’s not like she feels bad, necessarily - but more like her spiritual energy’s been lower than usual, as it’d been helping her body recover from the stress of nearly drowning. Physically, she really was fine! But she knew her limits. Jin Zixuan wouldn’t fault her for taking a little while longer.

And really, a little bit of alone time did her some good. With some of the traveling money Jin Zixuan gave her, Mianmian splurged on renting a room at an inn rather than choosing to rough it in the woods. It wasn’t the first time she’d done that in her history of travelling between Yunmeng and Lanling, but it wasn’t like she made it a habit to, either.

But, without having to dedicate her time and brain energy towards setting up camp and gathering food for her evening meal, Mianmian finds herself thinking of the letter burning a hole inside her qiankun pouch. In all honesty, it could’ve just been some matter of sect politics that Mianmian shouldn’t be privy to, or it could’ve just been a little love poem for Jiang Yanli that Jin Zixuan was too embarrassed to have see the light of day. It might not even be in this package - it could just as easily still be in Jin Zixuan’s qiankun pouch. Hell, he might’ve even burned it early that morning, before Mianmian even woke up.

Either way, it wasn’t any of her business - Jin Zixuan made that pretty clear. It’s just that the more she thinks about it, the more it grates at her: the way he’d told her he had her back when they fought alongside one another, but as soon as they were in the clear, it was back to business as usual. Really, she should’ve expected this. After all, it’s not like she should be privy to everything he does, it’s just - he didn’t have to lie to her face about it when she caught him in the act.

Mianmian’s better than this; she’s not about to open Jin Zixuan’s letter to find out what he’d written - not only would it be a huge breach of trust, but it’d be unprofessional as hell. Jin Zixuan trusted her to be discreet and secure; if she broke his trust, then the likelihood of her not being able to see either of them was… terrifyingly high.

Mianmian doesn’t want that. Doesn’t want to think of Jiang Yanli spending her days being the caretaker, with no one to bully her into having fun, into not having to care . And for all that she’s annoyed at him… she doesn’t want to think of Jin Zixuan sitting in that pristine golden tower all alone, with no one he could trust by his side, either.

And if she’s really going to be honest, she doesn’t want to think of herself, with nowhere to go - after all, Li Yitian has her parents to return to for the midautumn festival, and Xiao Wenzhou has his sweetheart waiting for him back at home, and the Tan siblings have each other through thick and thin. Who does she have...?

Although she hadn’t finished her meal, for once, Mianmian just couldn’t stomach eating more. She chalked it up to her slowly replenishing spiritual reserves.

 

--

 

She makes it to Yunmeng just after dinner the next day, and as soon as the disciples at the gates see her, they immediately send for Jiang Yanli. It’s quite a departure from the usual routine, but maybe something important had come up. Surely, it wasn’t anything bad, given that the disciples are still loitering about, excitedly babbling over Mianmian’s encounter.

“I heard you only used burst talismans to take it down,” Feng Xin says, practically shoving his way into Mianmian’s space.

Beside him, Mu Qing scoffs and rolls his eyes. “How could you take down a fully grown aoyin with just burst talismans? It’d be like asking someone to put out a wildfire by blowing on it.”

At the drop of a hat, as he’s often wont to do, Feng Xin turns on Mu Qing with a snarl. “Are you calling Maiden Jiang a liar?!” he cries out, a vein in his neck already throbbing. And then, after a second, he gestures wildly at Mianmian and redoubles his efforts, crying out, “You really have some guts, when Maiden Luo is right here!”

“I didn’t call anyone a liar. Don’t put words in my mouth,” Mu Qing snaps, sneering at Feng Xin. “If anything, you’d be the liar for those baseless accusations!”

“Mu Qing, you - !!” Feng Xin hisses, lunging after his - er, friend(? Honestly, with the way they acted around each other, Mianmian wasn’t sure).

“Boys!” Mianmian snaps, pushing herself bodily between the two teenagers before a fight broke out between them. She didn’t want to be the one to have to explain to Sect Leader Jiang why Mu Qing and Feng Xin beat each other up again. “Quit it! Mu Qing is right, anyways - we only used the burst talismans to guide it to the binding array. It was pretty tricky; the aoyin’s cultivation gave it secondary abilities we weren’t prepared for. To be honest, though, I’d been knocked unconscious for that part.”

Mu Qing shoots a smug look over at Feng Xin, but Feng Xin is too busy gasping dramatically at the fact that Mianmian had been knocked unconscious by a great beast to notice. He opens his mouth to ask about it - because of course he does, he’s a teenage boy - when Jiang Yanli comes rushing over, crying out in what might be a rage, “Luo Qingyang, what are you doing here do soon?! You should be resting!”

The boys flinch back at Jiang Yanli’s tone, so reminiscent of her brother it felt a little unreal. Mianmian, too, can’t help but flinch back - but more out of the fact that she’d never seen Jiang Yanli so angry before, let alone at her - doubly so when Jiang Yanli is barrelling right at Mianmian so fast she’s practically running.

Jiang Yanli stomps up to her so fast, Mianmian can’t help but wonder if Jiang Yanli planned on tackling her to the ground. Whether Jiang Yanli had the power to or not, Mianmian can’t help her own self preservation instincts. As soon as Jiang Yanli is in range, Mianmian dips low and pushes in, grabbing Jiang Yanli around the middle and hefting her up onto her shoulder like a sack of rice. It seems to catch her off guard, because Jiang Yanli cries out, her anger momentarily forgotten as she scrabbles for purchase, her feet kicking out adorably and her hands clutching at Mianmian’s shoulders and hair. “Mianmian, what are you doing?! Put me down! You’re still recovering!” Jiang Yanli cries out, wiggling in Mianmian’s hold, as if that were enough to get Mianmian to drop her.

Mianmian can’t help but laugh, twirling Jiang Yanli around until she, too, can’t help but laugh, the sound of it bright and bubbly in the hot evening sun. In front of them, the boys go completely silent, eyes bugging out of their heads as they watch Mianmian treat their beloved Maiden Jiang so casually.

“Mianmian, let me down!” Jiang Yanli giggles, her bad humor completely dissipated. Obediently, Mianmian slowly lowers her to her feet. Her cheeks are still flushed from laughing, but even the good cheer doesn’t stop her from forcefully taking Mianmian’s wrist in hand and jabbing her fingers into Mianmian’s pulsepoint. Her brow furrows just slightlighty as she closes her eyes, concentrating on the flow of Mianmian’s energy.

They stand like that for a long moment or two, heedless of the way Mu Qing and Feng Xin are still staring at them, until finally, Jiang Yanli sighs and drops Mianmian’s hand, letting her own hands come up to squish Mianmian’s cheeks. “Don’t scare me like that, okay? I was really, really worried,” she says, staring earnestly into Mianmian’s eyes until Mianmian can’t help but glance away, her own cheeks stained pink at being chastised.

“I’m really okay, though,” Mianmian says quietly. “I’m here, aren’t I?

“Young Master Jin sent me messenger butterflies, letting me know what happened. I was sick with worry, Mianmian,” Jiang Yanli says, her voice softening as she relents, tucking some of Mianmian’s hair behind her ear. “I still can’t believe he let you fly all the way to Yunmeng only a few days after you nearly drowned!

Mianmian laughs, taking one of Jiang Yanli’s hands in hers. It’s terribly warm, softer than Mianmian could ever hope to be, and Mianmian can’t help but take comfort in it. “He wouldn’t send me off if he didn’t know I could handle it. Besides, if it were up to me, I probably would’ve left sooner.”

“Mianmian!” Jiang Yanli cries, taking the lobe of one of Mianmian’s ears and tugging on it. “If you run yourself ragged coming to find me, don’t be surprised if I get upset! I care about you! What if you’d gotten hurt or stranded along the way? What if the trip puts too much stress on your body? I couldn’t bear to be the reason why you don’t come back.”

Something in Mianmian’s chest goes soft and weak, crumbling like a wet pastry in the face of Jiang Yanli’s concern. “I’ll be fine. I know you’d take care of me,” she says with a smile, her heart throbbing with just how much she means it.

Jiang Yanli’s smile twists a little with emotion, her laugh coming out wet.

To the side, Mu Qing coughs discreetly into his fist, and right next to him, Feng Xin’s ears are bright red, unable to look either of them in the eye. Jiang Yanli jolts, embarrassment flushing her cheeks as she realizes that they’ve made quite a scene.

Her hand slips down to squeeze around Mianmian’s, and she asks, “Have you eaten yet? I’ll heat some dinner for you.”

 

--

 

Jiang Yanli had already eaten, and Mianmian feels a little awkward being the only one eating, so she breaks the tension by handing Jiang Yanli the letter.

It’s a little disappointing, when Jiang Yanli takes it gratefully and slips it into her robes to read later, the way she’s recently started doing. Mianmian hadn’t had reason to call her out on it before, and she couldn’t possibly start doing it now without looking a little suspicious. So she stays quiet about it, her curiosity burning at the bottom of her gut. 

To distract herself, she ends up telling Jiang Yanli about the mission and what had happened - at least, to the best of her ability. Jiang Yanli, for all that she’d spent the first few minutes of their time together scolding Mianmian for her recklessness, can’t help but be absorbed by the story, gasping at all the right parts. Her eyes gleam in the golden light of the evening sun, as she subconsciously leans closer and closer to Mianmian, attention rapt.

It’s… a little embarrassing, yes, to have Jiang Yanli’s attention so thoroughly focused on her. But it’s also… a little pleasing, too. Mianmian can’t help but peacock a little, not unlike the way Jin Zixuan does when he’s eager to entertain, and Jiang Yanli eagerly soaks it all in. At least, unlike the Jin Zixuan of a few months ago, Mianmian has the social competence to tell whether or not Jiang Yanli is engaged.

Before the subject of the aoyin can tire itself out, Mianmian starts talking about what happened after - and then, remembering the crawfish, she can’t help but burst into a harrowing tale of Jin Zixuan’s cooking incompetencies.

Jiang Yanli laughs so hard she nearly cries, clutching her stomach as she giggles helplessly. It feels, a little, like a victory. Like something to preen over, that Mianmian had made Jiang Yanli laugh like that.

 

--

 

When Jiang Cheng is finished with his duties for the day, he stops by Jiang Yanli’s study and awkwardly invites himself in.

Jiang Yanli smiles indulgently at him, tugging him closer to her so that she can gently pat his hair and thank him for working hard today. Before he can splutter out a protest, she heads off to her private little pantry to grab them all some snacks. Jiang Cheng’s cheeks burn, flushing all the way to his ears at the humiliation of being treated like a child. But it’s clear by the way he doesn’t follow through with his protests that he enjoys the attention. It’s only by grace of having gotten used to Mianmian that he even lets Jiang Yanli do this around her.

Over these past few weeks, she’s gotten to know Jiang Cheng a little bit better - at least enough that he lets his guard down around her a bit. They’re working at being friends, but Jiang Cheng defaults to either prickly or awkward when he’s not sure how to navigate a social situation. Somehow, Mianmian gets the idea that he hasn't had many female friends before.

It’s not all bad, though - a few times, now, she’s managed to catch Jiang Cheng on his late-night musings, and they’ve had some good, thoughtful conversations in the unguarded hours of the night. Sometimes, she can even manage to pull out some of that stubbornness and snark of his, much to her delight.

Today’s one of those awkward days, Mianmian thinks, as she watches him stiffly take a seat at Jiang Yanli’s small table. Graciously, Mianmian gets up from where she’s sitting and joins him, and before she could not-so-graciously wait for Jiang Cheng to start the conversation, Jiang Yanli comes back with a few pastries and a little pot of tea.

As they pick at their snacks and sip at their tea, Jiang Yanli keeps glancing pointedly over at Jiang Cheng, until he coughs into his fist and straightens, swallowing hard around the knot in his throat. “Mianmian, I - um, about a conversation we had a few weeks ago…” Jiang Cheng starts, glancing back at Jiang Yanli. Jiang Yanli huffs a little sigh and nudges him with her elbow. He scowls back at her, before straightening up a little more, putting on what Mianmian recognizes as his Sect Leader Jiang face.

“As per our conversation a few weeks ago regarding the issue in Yiling…” he proceeds, stiffly.

“Oh, you’re going for it?” Mianmian asks, brightening up. It’s heartening to hear, that for all that Jiang Cheng is a product of his society and status, he’s still someone who deserves the loyalty his disciples have given him. That despite the pressures of the status quo weighing him down, he can find a way to change things.

“Y...es,” Jiang Cheng chokes out, making a mess of his pastry by crumbling the crust between his thumb and forefinger. “My sister and I had several fruitful conversations on the matter, but we’ve both concluded that not much can be done without making formal contact with our... client.”

"As such, we would like to invite you to come along with us, when we conduct our negotiations with him,” Jiang Cheng continues. “He’d probably enjoy seeing you.”

Mianmian raises her eyebrows and glances up at Jiang Yanli. “We’d also like to let you know that, should anything come of our negotiations, we want to preemptively offer you a position to assist in… facilitating our relations with said client,” Jiang Yanli adds, carefully feeling out her words. “You’re one of the few people we can trust with the matter, you understand.”

“Of course, you would be well compensated for your time and services,” Jiang Cheng cuts in. “And you would be doing good for people, just like you wanted. Sure, it probably won’t entail nighthunting, but given the… delicate nature of the region, you might be asked to perform duties similar to that of a nighthunting cultivator. The details will be hazy until we have had a chance to negotiate with our client.”

Mianmian blinks between the both of them, sees the hopeful gleam in Jiang Cheng’s eyes and the aching yearning in Jiang Yanli’s, and says, “When are you planning on having the negotiations? I appreciate your consideration for the position but uh. We should probably take things one step at a time, for now. I’m still - I’m still not sure what I want, just yet, but maybe once things get a little clearer…” 

She shrugs, letting the Jiang siblings draw their own conclusions about the topic. It’s not - it’s not like she’s opposed to the idea of, y’know, a dependable income and the protection of a sect. She just… doesn’t want more of the same old shit from before. 

Even still, Jiang Cheng blinks - once, then twice, followed by a series of rapid blinks - before turning his face away, his cheeks and ears going red as that hopeful gleam turns a little wetter. It’s Jiang Yanli that keeps her composure, her natural smile growing big and genuine as she says, “Thank you, Mianmian. We’re thinking about meeting there in person in a few weeks, but we’ve been sending messages back and forth.”

“Yeah?” Mianmian asks, grinning. “How’s he doing?”

Jiang Yanli brightens up as she starts talking about Wei Wuxian’s letters, his little drawings, his playful anecdotes about a little boy named A-Yuan.

 

--

 

As the evening wears on, Mianmian finds herself lingering on the daybed in Jiang Yanli's room long after Jiang Cheng left, her wrist held obediently out for Jiang Yanli so that she might pour her own limited reserves of spiritual energy in. Mianmian doesn't quite remember how, exactly, Jiang Yanli had convinced her into allowing this, but when it comes to Jiang Yanli, she's always been a pushover.

And besides, Jiang Yanli had been a war medic once. She knew the best ways to use her spiritual energy to promote recovery.

It's just - at times like this, when the world’s gone syrupy and soft with sleepiness, and it’s just the two of them, quietly talking about nothing at all, really, Mianmian can't help but feel how intimate the act of sharing spiritual energy could be. She'd always rather liked the tingling warmth that was someone else's spiritual energy slipping into her own, melding together in her meridians and spiritual veins. But it’s inexplicably different, when it’s like this. If you asked Mianmian, she wouldn’t be able to explain it - it’s just… different.

Maybe it’s the act of staring up at Jiang Yanli’s face as she explains some new recipe she’s trying out - after all, her eyes are bright and smiling; her cheeks are flushed with pleasure of being allowed to blabber on about something she actually cares about; her nose is cute and petit, just barely gleaming with the day’s oil; her mouth is plush and pink and - 

Maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s the press of her two fingers against the thin skin of Mianmian’s wrist, maybe it’s the way Mianmian can feel Jiang Yanli’s spiritual energy targeting specific meridians, maybe it’s the way Jiang Yanli’s spiritual energy flows through her like hot water on a cold day.

Whatever it is, Mianmian feels… restless, in a way that she doesn’t usually feel when it’s someone else sharing their spiritual energy with her. She has to force herself to relax, has to force herself not to sit up and pace anxiously around until the excess energy crawling up her legs dissipates. Mianmian knows she’s hardly one to sit still, but here, in the quiet, stuffy heat of a closed room in Yunmeng, the pull to act feels even stronger. She feels compelled to do something, though she hardly knows what that something is.

“I’m not boring you, am I?” Jiang Yanli asks, a knowing look in her eye.

“You’re not,” Mianmian hurries to assure her. “But to be honest I’m not quite sure I understand why you’re so vehement about whether or not a bone is in your steak.”

“Mianmian!” Jiang Yanli gasps in mock-offense. “How could you say that?!”

Mianmian huffs a laugh and shrugs. Jiang Yanli huffs theatrically, finally pulling her fingers away as she says, “Now I’ve got to show you the errors of your ways. Tomorrow - tomorrow I’ll definitely make you say it's better with the bone in!”

Mianmian smiles up at Jiang Yanli, struck by the lingering warmth of her spiritual energy. She wants - 

She’s not sure what she wants, really. It’s kind of a relief, that Jiang Yanli has finally put distance between them, that the restlessness of being so intimately close to someone can finally start to dissipate. But Mianmian can’t help but want to pull Jiang Yanli back into her space, so caught up in Jiang Yanli’s orbit as she is. In the end, as she tries to sit up, Jiang Yanli sets a hand against her shoulder and says, “It’s fine. Why don't you rest a while? I’ll go fetch us some tea.”

Reluctantly, Mianmian lies back and plays at circulating her qi through her meridians a while. But with Jiang Yanli gone, Mianmian can’t help but let her eyes slip shut, and before she knows it, she’s out cold. 

 

When she comes to, it’s already dark enough that Jiang Yanli’s lit a few candles. She wakes up gently - the sort of waking that comes slow and syrupy and sweet, the sort that doesn’t quite feel like waking. Everything still has a hazy glow to it, a dreamlike halo that’s slow to burn away.

When Jiang Yanli notices her stirring, she smiles and sets her letter down, coming over to pet Mianmian’s hair. “Go back to sleep, Mianmian. You should just stay the night," she murmurs, smiling gently down at her.

With the shamelessness that comes with sleep, Mianmian nuzzles into Jiang Yanli’s hand and huffs like a contented animal, settling back against the cushion. “You sleep too,” Mianmian murmurs, her words sloppy and slurred with each slow flutter of her eyelashes.

Jiang Yanli laughs, patting Mianmian’s hair like a child. “I will, soon.”

“Promise?” Mianmian asks, as if she were actually capable of holding a conversation instead of moments from sleep. Her hand comes up and clumsily feels around for Jiang Yanli’s hand.

Once Jiang Yanli realizes what she’s doing, she laughs, giving Mianmian’s hand a gentle squeeze. “Yes, I promise. After this letter,” Jiang Yanli promises, sending a flush of spiritual energy through her meridians. Mianmian’s so drowsy, she hardly even remembers why the letter was such a big deal. All she knows is that Jiang Yanli’s hand is soft and pleasant against her cheek, and the feeling of her spiritual energy is comforting in a way words can’t quite describe.

“Mm,” Mianmian mumbles, consciousness slipping away with the slowly pooling warmth in her core. 

 

--

 

Jiang Yanli’s already awake and making breakfast by the time Mianmian wakes up, sparing her the embarrassment of coming to terms with the fact that she’d completely dozed off in Jiang Yanli’s room. By the time she’s washed up and ready to face the day, Jiang Yanli has a delicious spread out and ready for her.

“Come out to the market with me. I’ve got the day off, and A-Cheng already knows about your hunt - he won’t let you come training with him so soon,” Jiang Yanli teases, gesturing towards the breakfast that Mianmian usually doesn’t let herself eat for fear of throwing it all up on the training ground.

With far less reluctance than Mianmian would like to to admit, she sits and eats. It’s delicious.

 

Even if she isn’t training, by the time mid-morning hits, Mianmian’s still prickling with sweat.  The heat in Yunmeng in July is unreal, and when she looks over at Jiang Yanli, she realizes that she’s not faring much better. “This is the second heat wave this month,” Jiang Yanli complains, when they take a break at a little out-of-the-way teashop.

“The humidity just makes the heat worse,” Mianmian adds, fanning herself with an idle hand. “I don’t know how you can live like this.”

Jiang Yanli glances over at her and laughs faintly. “It’s Yunmeng. If you aren’t spending half the year in a lake, then are you truly in Yunmeng?”

Mianmian laughs. “I haven’t gone properly swimming since I was a girl.”

Jiang Yanli raises her eyebrows, shooting Mianmian a look.

“Okay, no, that was getting thrown in the water while doing my job. I mean, like, actual swimming,” Mianmian laughs, reaching over to steal one of the little gooey rice balls from Jiang Yanli’s sweet soup.

“You’d think that someone who’d nearly drowned would want very little to do with big bodies of water,” Jiang Yanli says a little delicately, smiling faintly as she watches Mianmian pop it in her mouth.

Mianmian snorts. “I was pretty much out of it the second I hit the water. And besides, the heat’s a pretty good incentive to go splashing around - it’s too bad the robes are kind of a drag.”

Jiang Yanli blinks at Mianmian, tilting her chin just so, in a way that makes her look charming and innocent. “You swim with your robes on in Lanling?”

 

--

 

They cut their market trip short, blaming it on the heat. But Mianmian is pretty sure the heat outside’s got nothing to do with the heat in her cheeks, the way she flusters every time Jiang Yanli brushes close or gently touches her hand, her wrist, her shoulder. Had they always been so close? Had they always touched so much? Mianmian is sure they had, but it feels - different, now, in a way she’s too embarrassed to try to explain.

By the time they’re back in the Lotus Piers proper, Mianmian can’t get away soon enough, the excuse of I just need to wash the sweat off her only defense against Jiang Yanli’s attention, her knowing eyes.

Really, it’s probably just Mianmian overthinking - too overly conscious of herself, now that she’s gone and gotten herself into a tizzy over Jiang Yanli’s innocent comment. But what else is she to do? It’s not like she can help it; Mianmian has eyes - and - and other things, a healthy imagination being one of them!

What is she, a grown adult with a perfectly normal libido, supposed to do, when another grown adult - a very beautiful, very smart, very charming, very - when another very attractive grown adult whose attentions she enjoys gives the implication that it is a common thing for her to remove her clothes and spend her time getting wet? Nevermind the fact that said attractive grown adult is getting married to Mianmian’s best friend - who, ah, who also happens to be. A very attractive. Grown adult. They are supposed to be very attractive grown adults together. Without her. But apparently, her heart - and, er, other things - haven’t quite gotten the memo...!

In the end, Mianmian comes to very few conclusions, deciding it best to just sit in the water until she stops thinking about it.

She ends up sitting in the water for a very, very long time.

 

--

 

Mianmian is an adult, and being an adult, she swallows down her embarrassment after a day or two of trying (and failing) to act normal. It helps, a bit, that the thick, soupy heat is an ever-present irritation, something that occupies her mind slightly more than the thought of Jiang Yanli stripping down and hopping into a lake.

But only just slightly. Sometimes, when they’re alone in the study, Jiang Yanli takes a handkerchief and tugs the neck of her robes down to wipe at the sweat there. Sometimes, she’d let the ru of her ruqun slip off her shoulders, or she would pluck at the hems of her qun to get a little airflow under there, and, with a little giggle, she’d encourage Mianmian to do the same. And sometimes, she’d go as far as to stick her hand in the little bronze jian they had and pluck out a sliver of ice, sliding it around in her hands and patting the melted icewater onto her cheeks and decolletage.

It was a good thing Mianmian could blame the feverish heat in her cheeks on the weather. To be fair, it’s at least partially true. Sure, she couldn’t explain away the fact that she would inexplicably be unable to look in Jiang Yanli’s direction for minutes at a time, but Jiang Yanli had the grace not to ask for an explanation, anyways.

It didn’t stop her from breaking into a little smile every time Mianmian found the courage to look back. Once, she even murmured a sweet little, “Ah, there you are,” as she reached over to tuck a sweat-soaked strand of hair out of Mianmian’s face.

To put it simply, Mianmian nearly died on the spot.

 

Everything comes to a head, as things are wont to do, at the hottest hour of the hottest day of the heatwave. The night previous had hardly felt like night; even the soothing balm of darkness did little to fight away the oppressive heat. No one slept with blankets on, their windows open to the muggy air as if it would do anything to make the thick air breathable, an invitation to welcome in any little relief. Really, all it did was welcome flies and mosquitos in, but there wasn’t anything to be done.

The morning comes less like the cresting of a wave and more like the continuous trickle of a stream - more of the same old thing, and yet, different solely for the fact that time has passed. The sunlight dribbles in, bringing with it a fresh swell of wet, humid heat.

By the time everyone is up for training, it’s so damn hot that everyone is more or less useless - Jiang Cheng calls off training because even his senior disciples look dead on their feet after 10 minutes of swinging their swords around. Everyone practically kisses the ground Jiang Cheng walks on when he calls for watermelons to be brought over and shared instead.

When Jiang Yanli and a few of her calligraphy students come by with melons in hand, it’s pretty much decided - if today was going to be a wash, they would do better to just take a day off than languish in mutual suffering. The young disciples make a huge clamor, bustling about to meet their friends and spread cheer, as if their excitement alone was enough to forget the heat.

In the chaos and rush of students excitedly planning out how to waste their day, Mianmian feels a tug at her sleeve. And when she looks up, she sees Jiang Yanli smiling secretively at her, a plate of watermelon slices in hand. With those clever eyes of hers shining bright with mischief, she gestures toward the exit of the training grounds with her head - a clear invitation to escape with her.

When Mianmian glances over at Jiang Cheng, she finds him glancing past her at his sister, his eyes just a fraction wider, his cheeks flushed with the heat. With a huff, he looks away, shooing off his disciples and corralling the ones that linger off toward the paltry shade.

That seems permission enough - whether it be for Jiang Yanli to tug Mianmian away, or for Mianmian to let herself be tugged away, Mianmian isn’t quite sure. Either way, Jiang Yanli’s tugging gets more insistent, and what else is Mianmian to do but follow along?

They weave through throngs of disciples, and when the disciples are gone, they slip through gateways and little wooden paths and open-air corridors, until they get to a boat. It’s just a simple row-boat - nothing particularly special about it, but it's the only boat tied to the pier at the moment. It’s got a little canopy the way some pleasure-boats do, but it’s small, made for no more than a couple of people. Only two oars.

Jiang Yanli slips onto the boat with a natural ease, and Mianmian follows suit, with significantly less ease. The boat bobs and wobbles precariously as Mianmian stumbles in, arms held out for balance. It makes Jiang Yanli laugh as she holds the watermelon aloft, careful not to let their precious snack fall while Mianmian gets her bearings.

When the rocking finally steadies, Jiang Yanli sets the watermelon onto one of the thwarts and takes up the oars.

“You don’t have to - I can - “ Mianmian starts, at least until Jiang Yanli affectionately rolls her eyes at Mianmian.

“It’s fine. We’re not going far,” Jiang Yanli laughs, eyes bright and cheeks flushed. Sweat is beading at her hairline, clinging to the fine strands. “Besides, I‘m pretty sure I know how to row a boat better than you do.”

Chastised, Mianmian sits back, shyly taking a slice of watermelon. “Where are we going?”

“The magnolia cove,” Jiang Yanli grins, a bright excitement shining on her face. “It was my mom’s favorite place, so no one ever goes there - not even after she passed.”

“Oh,” Mianmian says, unsure of whether or not she should offer condolences. It’s been years, and everyone’s lost someone, but it still must hurt.

Before Mianmian can open her mouth, Jiang Yanli laughs and says, “It’s my favorite place, now. No one ever bothers me here. I just wish I could’ve taken you in the springtime - it’s beautiful when they’re in full bloom.”

“There’s always - we can always go some other time,” Mianmian says, awkwardly, remembering a touch too late that there might not be another time. Jiang Yanli will be going to Lanling, soon, and like hell was Jiang Cheng about to take Mianmian somewhere like this.

Not that she’d let him. Clearly, it’s something that’s Jiang Yanli’s, and only hers.

The thought that Jiang Yanli might take her here makes her guts go all hot and squirmy. Or maybe it’s that look in Jiang Yanli’s eyes as she rows - the satisfaction of putting effort into something difficult - or the way her skin is glistening with sweat, or the way the forward motion when she rows makes her chest - 

Mianmian swallows wrong and nearly chokes on a chunk of watermelon. Nearly. She only barely manages to swallow it down without coughing and spluttering all over Jiang Yanli, but it’s a near thing. Her face must not look all that composed, though, if it makes Jiang Yanli laugh like that.

As promised, it doesn’t take much too long before the scrub grass and low bushes start to give way to trees, and the edges of the lake start to pinch inwards. Before long, Mianmian finds them in a tidy little area, almost like an inlet - a cove, like Jiang Yanli had said - fenced in by a grove of magnolia trees. They cast a cool shade across the water - an utter relief from the sunlight, but not quite from the heat. Once they reach the shade, Jiang Yanli is content to let them drift, dropping her hands from the oars to lean over and quickly rinse the grit from her hands, before reaching over for a slice of watermelon.

She eats with relish, a happy hum slipping past her lips as she takes that first satisfying crunch. The slice is big, maybe a bit too big for her mouth, and it smears juice all over her face. Not that she minds - she only giggles and wipes at her face with the backs of her hands, the wide, transparent sleeves of her daxiushan slipping down her forearms to expose her pretty, bird-bone wrists.

Mianmian can’t help but be charmed, feeling almost compelled to take another bite of her own slice - as if that’d bring her somehow closer to Jiang Yanli in some inexplicable way. Watching Jiang Yanli enjoy her watermelon makes the fruit taste all the sweeter, as if somehow, the enjoyment radiating off of Jiang Yanli had sunk right into her skin, mixing into her natural inclination for watermelon the way spiritual energy melds together.

Jiang Yanli glances over at Mianmian and laughs, bright and sparkling in the midday shade, reaching out with her thumb to brush against the side of Mianmian’s mouth. “Look at you - you’re a mess,” she giggles, brushing away whatever she’d seen there.

“Yeah, well - “ Mianmian manages, heart thumping so hard in her chest she’s almost dizzy with it, “You’re one to talk. Look, it’s dripping into your sleeve!”

Indeed, in cleaning off Mianmian’s face, Jiang Yanli had accidentally tilted the watermelon in her hands until the juice ran down her wrist. With hardly a thought, Jiang Yanli brings her wrist to her mouth and sucks the juice right off, leaving behind a gleaming stripe of skin.

Suddenly, Mianmian feels - breathless and hot, as if the wet, sucking air had simply been too thick for Mianmian’s lungs to parse. As if her head were suddenly doused with a dry sort of water, her ears swimming with the lingering unsteadiness of - of desire.

“Mianmian?” Jiang Yanli asks, smile sweet and charming. As if Mianmian weren’t gaping at her like a fish or some similarly ugly, insignificant creature. “You alright?”

“Yeah, uh - yeah. The uh,” Mianmian stammers, body moving on autopilot in the absence of her brain. “You know. The heat. Whew.” Lamely, she waves her hand in front of her face, accomplishing little more than blowing hot air back in her face.

“Even in the shade, it’s pretty hot, huh?” Jiang Yanli asks, leaning over to trail one of her delicate hands in the crystalline water. Her hair slips over her shoulder, clinging to her skin as she absently tucks it back, and when she looks back up at Mianmian, there’s that gleam of mischief again. “Come into the water with me. I'll keep you safe."

Mianmian blinks, and then blinks again. She must not have heard correctly. She offers an awkward smile, the universal sign of I-didn’t-quite-get-that-but-I-don’t-want-to-annoy-you-by-asking-you-to-repeat-that.

“You said you’d wanted to, right? A couple of days ago?” Jiang Yanli asks, grinning as she slips off her translucent silk daxiushan, leaning forward to undo the tight knot of her hezi.

Mianmian instinctively looks away, bringing her hand up so as not to see Jiang Yanli’s steadily increasing lack of clothing. “Wh-what are you doing?” Mianmian chokes out, her voice coming in a painfully high squeak.

Jiang Yanli pauses briefly in her stripping and says, “I’m going into the water. If I jumped in with everything on, I’d get all tangled up!”

“Okay, but - we’re - it’s - “

“It’s fine; no one’s around,” Jiang Yanli laughs. “It’s not like I’m shameless enough to take everything off. It’s still the light of day!”

Does that mean you’d take everything off if it were night? Mianmian pointedly does not ask. That is a dangerous question for many, many, many reasons, and Mianmian is not going to make this weird. Besides, this is normal for Jiang Yanli. She probably - she probably doesn't even realize what she’s doing to Mianmian.

Mianmian doesn’t want her to know. She couldn’t possibly bear it, if Jiang Yanli were to look over at her and see - the flush on her cheeks, the shallowness of her breath, the way her thighs flex together because she couldn’t possibly let herself squirm.

“Aren’t you going to come in, too?” Jiang Yanli asks, when she’s down to her white trousers and purple neiyi, which is strapless, of course, because 1. Her daxiushan was translucent and it wasn’t proper to just have the straps peeking out and 2. The universe is conspiring against Mianmian, determined to punish her for every little sin she’s committed since she’d been born.

“I - “ Mianmian starts, her brain scrabbling to come up with a suitable excuse as to why having as many layers on as possible was a great idea, actually.

She glances down at Jiang Yanli’s neiyi, at the way her generous cleavage peeks up over the edge, at the way it shows off her pretty collarbones and smooth shoulders. As if burned, her eyes turn away to Jiang Yanli’s face, which is charmingly flushed, her lips glimmering with juice and her hair sticking to her skin in terrifyingly appealing ways. And then, because Mianmian is trying not to be an awful, awful human being, she settles on Jiang Yanli’s eyebrows, because that, at least, seems like an innocent enough place to look. There is no way at all that she will ever have weird feelings about eyebrows, nosiree.

“Mianmian?” Jiang Yanli asks, tilting her chin in that way that she had when she had asked Mianmian whether or not they wore clothes when they went swimming in Lanling.

“I - it’s white,” Mianmian croaks out, cheeks hot. It takes a long second for Mianmian’s brain to catch up with what her mouth had just blurted out, and even Jiang Yanli can’t help but blink a little in confusion. “My neiyi. It’s white. It’ll - if I go into the water, you’d be able to - “

“Oh, is that it?” Jiang Yanli asks with a laugh. “It’s not that big a deal. If you want, we can trade. Mine’s dark so no one would be able to see anything. Not that anyone ever comes here. It’s just us out here.”

“No, um - “ Mianmian starts, but Jiang Yanli is already reaching behind her back to untuck the ribbon and pull off the knot. By the time she’s got her wits about her, Jiang Yanli’s neiyi has already gone undone; the only thing keeping it up is her hand and the ample swell of her chest.

What else is Mianmian supposed to do?

Slowly, gingerly, she reaches down to undo her belt, her fingers clumsy and trembling as she tries not to look Jiang Yanli in the face. Or, y’know, anywhere else. “I, I’m soaked in sweat, Jiang Yanli, you really don’t want to - “

“It’s fine. We’re going into the water, aren’t we?” Jiang Yanli laughs, and in Mianmian’s periphery, she sees Jiang Yanli daintily take a second slice of watermelon. Juice drips down her fingers, pooling in the cup of her palm. Ready to overflow. “If your neiyi is the only thing stopping you from coming in, it’s easily dealt with. Besides, the water is wonderful.”

Mianmian bites her lip, her breath coming in a little shallow as she squirms out of her qun and picks at the knots of her ru.

“Oh, let me help you, sweetheart,” Jiang Yanli murmurs, leaning forward to help tug open the bottom knot of her ru. Mianmian really has no idea how Jiang Yanli’s neiyi stays on, but it’s - it’s doing its best.

Jiang Yanli smiles as Mianmian’s ru comes open, and Mianmian is mortified to find that yes, there are sweat stains on it. But Jiang Yanli doesn’t pay it any mind - already she’s shimmying out of her own neiyi, her arm carefully crossed over anything immodest. But - well - that alone is - it’s enough to make Mianmian’s heart flutter like a panicked bird, seeing the plush give of Jiang Yanli's breasts against her arm.

Mianmian swallows hard, unsure of where to look, when there’s so much - when Jiang Yanli is so - 

Jiang Yanli laughs and says, “Here, I’ll wash mine, too. I wasn’t exactly swinging swords around this morning, but I’m still pretty sweaty, myself. You don’t mind, do you?”

“I, um,” Mianmian stammers, turning away to hurriedly tug her own neiyi off. Being the sort with a halter top, of course it gets caught on Mianmian's hair. Because that's simply her luck today, isn't it? “I’ll - yeah. It’s. Okay.”

She doesn’t even think to cover herself as she leans over to vigorously shake her neiyi in the water, hurriedly scrubbing at the places that’d gotten wet with her own sweat - partially because she was so embarrassed she could die, and partially because if she was doing this, at least she wasn’t looking at Jiang Yanli.

Still, she can’t help but feel dismayed that, as she pulls the fabric out of the water and wrings it out as best she can, it still goes thin with water. She can see the color of her fingertips bleeding through, and it’s - it feels like she couldn’t possibly give this to Jiang Yanli to wear - and yet, what else can she do? Jiang Yanli is already holding out her own neiyi for Mianmian to take.

So she takes it, unable to look Jiang Yanli in the eyes - or in the, uh, anywhere else, as she hands Jiang Yanli hers. They’re quiet, as they try and wrestle the wet fabric onto their bodies, the awkward plap plap of the fabric loud in the relative quiet of the tree-lined cove. The one upside to all this, Mianmian thinks, is that Jiang Yanli’s neiyi does feel good against her skin, the water turning it comfortable and cool - at least until the heat of her body and the ambient heat around them soaks into it.

“You ready?” Jiang Yanli asks, prompting Mianmian to glance up. The moment she does, she immediately regrets it - the white fabric of her neiyi clings against Jiang Yanli’s every curve, highlighting things Mianmian hadn’t let herself think about, like the dip of her waist, the tiny divot of her bellybutton, the indulgent swell of her breasts. And if that weren’t enough, Mianmian can just barely see the color of her nipples, peeking through the thin fabric.

Mianmian can feel her restraint unspooling, a heavy heat singing in her blood at the sight of Jiang Yanli. It’s in turns mortifying and terrifying, the way she throbs with the desire to touch. To slip her fingers under the clinging white neiyi and feel the softness of Jiang Yanli’s body underneath.

She can’t get into the water soon enough. At least, maybe then, the flush of feverish heat pooling - in her cheeks, in her belly, her fingertips and toes - might cool down a bit. With a hard swallow and an awkward nod, Mianmian leans over the edge of the boat and inelegantly plops right in.

The water does feel good - cool and refreshing, clinging around her like a sweet embrace. She sinks into it, tries to stay under until the raging, frantic song of her blood calms, but it’s no use - her lungs couldn’t possibly hold enough air for her to ever recover from this. So reluctantly, she resurfaces into the muggy heat, feeling almost like she’d dived into a warm bath, into an alien air, instead.

As soon as she comes up, Jiang Yanli drifts near, smiling at Mianmian as she reaches out to push the sodden bangs out of Mianmian’s face. “There you are,” she quietly laughs, so gentle that the heat in Mianmian’s face rages once more.

“Here I am,” Mianmian croaks, an awkward smile on her own face.

“Come swim with me,” Jiang Yanli says, taking Mianmian’s hand and tugging her deeper into the cove. Mianmian can’t help but follow after, pulled so helplessly into Jiang Yanli’s orbit that she couldn’t possibly pull away.

Chapter Text

Mianmian can’t quite remember how she got here, but they’re back at the magnolia cove again, their boat pulled ashore for lack of anything to tether it to. Jiang Yanli had taken her hand and pulled her further into the grove, where the muddy bank gives way to the low, cushiony sedge grass. Here, the wall of trees is so thick Mianmian can hardly see the lotus lakes just past them; like this, it feels like it’s just the two of them out here, like they’re in their own little world.

It’s in this grassy glade where Jiang Yanli finally lets go, dancing away from Mianmian to sit down at the gnarled roots of an old magnolia. “Come here,” Jiang Yanli says, eagerly beckoning to Mianmian - so of course, Mianmian obediently comes closer.

But the moment Mianmian is within reaching distance, Jiang Yanli takes her by the elbow and pulls her in, so that Mianmian comes down clumsily on top of her. “I’m sorry,” she begins to say, but she’s promptly cut off by the press of lips against her lips, the sound of Jiang Yanli’s quiet giggling, muffled by her mouth.

Oh, ” Mianmian breathes, lips parting against Jiang Yanli’s lips, surrendering to that lovely slip of tongue, that playful little nip. How had Jiang Yanli learned to do this, when she’d been betrothed from the beginning? Who could she have practiced with, that she could bring Mianmian to her knees with only a kiss? Mianmian wants to feel... affronted, maybe, that someone had taught Jiang Yanli the things a husband teaches his wife, but the thought of Jiang Yanli sneaking someone away to this secret place to steal a few clandestine kisses, a few furtive touches, only makes the sudden heat in Mianmian’s gut flare to life.

Mianmian’s never been so helpless as she is before Jiang Yanli, so eager and desperate to please. What can she do, but follow Jiang Yanli’s lead? It already feels like an impossibility that this would happen at all, and yet - here they are.

Here she is. She’s not about to jinx it.

In just a few traded kisses, Jiang Yanli had systematically taken down each of Mianmian’s higher functions, rendering her brain hazy and lust-sweet the moment they touched. How could Mianmian hope to pull away?

“That’s it,” Jiang Yanli purrs, pulling Mianmian closer against her, until she can feel the plush give of Jiang Yanli’s chest against her own. She’s shockingly warm against Mianmian, the heat of her bleeding through the clinging fabric of her white neiyi, through the fabric of Mianmian’s robes.

“Do you want to touch me?” Jiang Yanli asks, the next time they part - though parting is hardly the right word for it, when every whispered sweetness has her lips brushing against Mianmian’s in a mockery of a kiss.

“Mmhmm,” Mianmian hums, melting right into her, her willing mouth a silent plea for more - for the shocking thrill of Jiang Yanli’s tongue against hers, for the pleasure-sharp bite of her teeth, for the sweet ache of suction against her lower lip.

“Good. My good girl,” Jiang Yanli croons, taking Mianmian’s hand in hers. The gesture is painfully intimate, the way her thumb brushes lovingly against the rough calluses of Mianmian’s palms, as if memorizing the strange topography of Mianmian’s skin. “Come, touch me.”

Mianmian falters for a moment, the weight of her hunger warring with the intrinsic fear of scaring Jiang Yanli off, of asking for too much. But her hunger wins over for a brief moment, just long enough for her eyes to flick down, long enough for Jiang Yanli to catch her at it. Before she can backtrack and apologize for her boldness, Jiang Yanli laughs, guiding Mianmian’s hand where it’d wanted to go.

Jiang Yanli easily arches into the touch, her nipples already hard, as if her pleasure-hot body knows to welcome Mianmian’s touch. She shouldn’t - she knows she shouldn’t be doing this, even if she’s not entirely sure why, but Mianmian can’t help but brush her thumb against that peaking nipple, can’t help but trace the faint shape of her areola through the thin fabric. Jiang Yanli sighs contentedly into her mouth at the touch, her arms coming around Mianmian’s neck and drawing her in for another kiss. Like this was something normal, like this was the natural progression of their relationship. It doesn’t seem quite right, but - 

But Jiang Yanli is - she’s - Mianmian wants nothing more than to please her, wants nothing more than to make her gasp and sigh, just like that. Jiang Yanli eagerly presses her body against Mianmian’s, as she licks along Mianmian’s teeth, groaning when Mianmian pinches her, when Mianmian kneads at her willing body through the thin layer of her neiyi.

“Yanli - “ Mianmian gasps, heat throbbing between her legs as Jiang Yanli bites her lip, as she nips a little trail of fire down Mianmian’s jaw. It drives her to distraction, unable to hold onto her thoughts, unable to say anything more than, “Yanli, um, I - “

“I know,” Jiang Yanli murmurs, spreading her legs so that Mianmian can fit more heavily against her. “Don’t worry, darling. It’s fine.”

Even through the layers of their clothes, Mianmian can feel the humid heat between her legs, hot and wet like Yunmeng summer. Mianmian can hardly breathe; for all that the air around them is temperate, it’s almost as if the atmosphere in her lungs has gone thick and soupy, the buzzing desire in her blood choking out everything that isn’t Jiang Yanli.

Her lips settle at the hollow of Mianmian’s neck, sucking until the skin there goes hot and sharp, until Mianmian’s hands can’t help but clutch at her, until her hips sutter futilely against Jiang Yanli’s. She feels mindless and animal, so overwhelmed with hunger she can hardly hold onto the lingering feeling of unease.

There’s something Mianmian is forgetting, but she’s completely lost sight of it under Jiang Yanli’s attentions. What has she forgotten? It’s - it’s important, she knows that much, but Jiang Yanli’s mouth is hot against her collarbones, and her hands are moving down Mianmian’s sides, and her legs are spread so obscenely wide, welcoming - offering. She can’t think with Jiang Yanli grinding against her like that, breathing a soft, satisfied ah as she leisurely rocks against Mianmian. 

“Mm,” Jiang Yanli hums, nuzzling Mianmian’s breasts, where her robes have come undone. She’s not wearing anything underneath - vaguely, she understands that something is odd about that, too, but she forgets it as soon as Jiang Yanli begins to draw her robes down her shoulders, kissing every inch of revealed skin until she can lick one of Mianmian’s nipples into her mouth.

Oh, ” Mianmian breathes, squeezing her eyes shut as her hands clutch at Jiang Yanli’s shoulders for support.

“That’s it, darling. That’s a good girl,” Jiang Yanli sighs, taking Mianmian’s nipple gently between her teeth and tugging.

Mianmian is cursing now, unable to help the way her hands come up to grab Jiang Yanli’s hair, unable to help the way her hips twitch down against Jiang Yanli’s welcome warmth, unable to help the way her pussy aches to have something to flutter around. 

As if she’d heard her thoughts, Jiang Yanli’s other hand, the one not curled indulgently around Mianmian’s breast, slides down, down, down, slipping past the edge of her trousers, her underthings, to settle against the cushiony mound of her pussy.

“Please,” Mainmian breathes, voice soft as a prayer, arching into Jiang Yanli’s touch. “Please.”

Jiang Yanli hums, abandoning her earlier efforts to nose against the valley of Mianmian’s breasts; she wiggles her first two fingers further down, until she can feel the slick skin of her labia. Mianmian chokes on a breath, as Jiang Yanli’s fingers brush against her clit, teasing it with her fingertips until Mianmian’s hips jerk helplessly closer, seeking contact.

Jiang Yanli pauses in her idle kisses, huffing a quiet laugh into Mianmian’s sternum as she traces circles around Mianmian’s clit - enough to make Mianmian shiver, but hardly more than that. Just a tease.

Mianmian wants - she needs more.

“What should I do for you, darling?” Jiang Yanli asks, tugging open Mianmian’s trousers and slipping them past the pale curve of her ass. It’d be - embarrassing, maybe, to be so exposed, if Mianmian weren’t so caught up in the gentle tease of Jiang Yanli’s fingers circling her clit, in the sharpness of Jiang Yanli’s teeth grazing against her other nipple. “Want me to bring you off like this? Or do you want me to fuck you?”

Mianmian’s hips jerk again, pussy throbbing with the thought of getting fucked, with the thought of Jiang Yanli’s pretty, delicate fingers filling her up. The tip of Jiang Yanli’s middle finger teases her hole, brushing up and down it in long, indulgent strokes; Mianmian can’t help but whimper as her pussy flutters around it, trying to coax it in.

Mianmian burns - she’s so hot with want, it almost hurts.

“Yanli, sweetheart,” Mianmian chokes out. “I - I’m - “

“You’re so wet, Mianmian,” Jiang Yanli murmurs, pressing an indulgent kiss against her breast. “I’ve barely touched you and you’re already twitching for me.”

Mianmian wants to be embarrassed about it, wants to have some semblance of shame, but how can she when this is all she’s wanted for months?

Her breath comes out in a whine as Jiang Yanli keeps playing with her hole, teasing her finger against it and feeling it squeeze hungrily around whatever it’s given. “How about this - I’m going to put three fingers in you,” Jiang Yanli promises, eyes dark as she holds Mianmian’s gaze. “And I’m going to bring you off, and when I’m done, I’m going to show you how to eat me out. Do you like that idea?”

“Oh,” Mianmian gasps, hips rolling down, chasing those teasing fingers as best she can, “Oh, please. Please.

“Good girl. You’re so sweet for me, Mianmian,” Jiang Yanli smiles, pressing innocent little kisses to her skin even as she slips two fingers in, in a single filthy stroke. Mianmian sighs, low and sweet, her body fluttering around those beautiful fingers, welcoming her in. There’s hardly any resistance, Mianmian is so wet for her.

Jiang Yanli’s fingers are terribly clever, scissoring inside her, flickering against that spot inside Mainmian that makes her twitch and shiver and moan. “Look at you,” Jiang Yanli murmurs, her other hand coming up to rub at Mianmian’s clit, her pace punishing and quick. “So perfect.”

Mianmian can’t sit still, can’t stop the desperate ah, ah slipping from her lips as she struggles not to slump uselessly against Jiang Yanli. Her body arches desperately against Jiang Yanli, hips stuttering with the motion of Jiang Yanli’s glorious hands. It’s all - it’s all so much, pleasure so sharp it nearly hurts.

All too soon, she feels it - the telltale flush of heat high in her chest, blooming hotter and hotter as Jiang Yanli’s clever hands make a mess of her. Jiang Yanli must feel it in the way Mianmian’s pussy squeezes helplessly around her fingers, in the easy slide of her slick, in the helpless clutch of her hands against Jiang Yanli’s shoulders, because she laughs delightedly.

“Are you close? You take it so easily,” she says, a third finger slipping in, stretching Mianmian out so that she feels it, so that she cries out. She’s so wet, though, it doesn’t even hurt - it just feels hot, the way her muscles do when they’re being pushed a little harder than usual. The good kind of ache. “I bet I could put a fourth in without any trouble at all. You’d let me, wouldn’t you, darling?”

Mianmian whines, wordless and animal in her throat, but they both know a yes when they see it. 

With three, Jiang Yanli’s fingers aren’t nearly as clever as before, but they don’t have to be, not when Mianmian’s so close, not when her pussy is so full, not when she's twitching and squeezing so helplessly around those fingers. The bright, hot thrall of orgasm is so close she could taste it like salt on her tongue, and it’s not long before Mianmian’s turned into a trembling, whimpering mess, her hands scrabbling frantically at Jiang Yanli, trying to dispel that restless heat building higher and higher and higher and -

And Mianmian’s hips snap up hard, her body going so taut it feels like it’s trying to tear itself apart with every wave of heat cresting at the shore. The hand on her clit doesn’t relent, rubbing her through her orgasm, drawing it out until Mianmian’s sobbing for relief. Her pussy clenches down again and again and again, helpless against the heavy tides of pleasure threatening to pull her under.

It feels like ages before Mianmian finally comes down, her pulse beating hard in her cunt, in her ribcage, in her ears. When the heat rolling through her body abates, she looks down to see Jiang Yanli licking her fingers clean, one at a time until they’re glistening. It’s nearly enough to set her aflame again; if she weren’t so exhausted from just the one, she’d maybe try for another.

“Oh, Mianmian, you’re perfect,” Jiang Yanli sighs, cheeks hollowing obscenely on the last one. “Are you tired, baby? Here, lie back for me - that’s it,” Jiang Yanli purrs, rolling Mianmian over until she’s on her back.

Jiang Yanli’s already naked for her, her body soft and triumphant in the low light of the glade. She swings a leg over Mianmian’s chest, straddling her in a single smooth motion. Mianmian wants to grab her, wants to feel the give of her body under Mianmian’s hands, wants to feel the satisfaction of holding Jiang Yanli like she belongs to her.

As if reading her mind, Jiang Yanli says, “Go for it. I don’t mind,” and grabs Mianmian’s hands, settling them on her generous hips so that Mianmian’s thumbs fit perfectly in the crease of her thighs. Like they belonged there, like Mianmian had any kind of claim to her, to this. Jiang Yanli’s breath comes out in a long, satisfied sigh, murmuring praises as she scoots forward on her knees, close enough that Mianmian can kiss at her inner thighs, can press her teeth against Jiang Yanli’s unrelenting softness and bite.

Jiang Yanli groans, long and sweet, her hands coming up to sink into Mianmian’s unbound hair. “Are you ready?” she asks.

Mianmian frantically nods, desperate for Jiang Yanli to know how much she wants her, how much she’s wanted her. Slowly, carefully, Jiang Yanli lowers herself onto Mianmian’s watering mouth, the heady scent of her pussy enveloping Mianmian’s senses. She could get lost like this, licking long stripes up and down Jiang Yanli’s pussy at her command, drinking in the taste of her slick, sucking on her clit until her jaw hurts. She would do it, would drop to her knees for Jiang Yanli at the merest word, would finger her until her pussy fluttered around her fingers in tight little waves. All Jiang Yanli had to do was ask, and she would do it.

“Mianmian - oh, Mianmian, you’re doing so good. Your mouth is so perfect,” Jiang Yanli breathes, rolling her hips helplessly into Mianmian’s mouth. It sends a hot flush through her system, to know that she’s doing well, to know that she’s pleasing Jiang Yanli. Eager for more, eager to hear those lovely moans tumbling from Jiang Yanli’s mouth, Mianmian redoubles her efforts, lapping against her clit until she can wrap her lips around it and suck.

“Oh, oh, oh, ” Jiang Yanli sobs, thighs flexing and trembling above Mianmian. Her breathing goes rough, her beautiful chest heaving as she curls over, settling her hand against the tree for balance as she rides out the pleasure of Mianmian’s mouth.

“Mianmian, I’m close,” she whimpers, “Mianmian, oh, you’re so good to me. I love you, I - ah - “

Mianmian’s chest goes tight and hot, the words I love you, I love you, I love you, echoing in her blood, singing louder than Jiang Yanli’s moans, louder than her heartbeat, louder than the slick sounds of Jiang Yanli against her mouth.

So loud that she almost doesn’t hear -

 

“Ah - A-Xuan, I love you.”

 

Mianmian blinks her eyes open, something cold and dreadful easing into her bones like a winter chill. From here, she can see, just barely, the way Jiang Yanli’s face turns away, occupied with something behind her; she can see those two hands - two perfect, broad hands, the palms no doubt callused, but carefully tended to, so as not to irritate his future wife’s skin - those two achingly familiar hands settle on his future wife’s breasts, kneading them and pinching her nipples, making her cry out in pleasure. Mianmian’s tongue slows, her mouth gone slack as she watches Jin Zixuan kiss his future wife, as she watches him briefly pull away to look over Jiang Yanli’s shoulder - right at Mianmian.

 

--

 

Mianmian gasps awake, thighs slick and pussy throbbing, her heart pounding in its cage like a beast begging to be set free.

“Fuck,” she breathes into the humid, early morning air. There’s static in her ears and a tell-tale heat stinging at the back of her eyes as she fights for breath, fights to calm her aching heart. “ Fuck.

 

--

 

A heavy rain breaks out over the skies of Yunmeng, bringing with it a blessed relief from the heat. Mianmian’s in a foul mood for training today, too distracted by the whirl of conflicted emotions to be of much other use than to be Jiang Cheng’s verbal punching bag. With a concerned furrow to his brow, he sends her out of the training hall to cool her head in the rain, so she runs and runs and runs around the outdoor training grounds until Jiang Cheng comes out to find her, a spare oil paper umbrella in hand. She hadn’t realized so much time had passed - she hadn’t realized that training had long since finished, so mired in her thoughts as she was.

“What’s up with you?” Jiang Cheng asks, after a long silence.

Mianmian stares dully at him, panting so heavily she feels nauseous. Everything’s hitting her all at once, now that she’s standing still - both the physical repercussions of running at full speed for nearly an hour and the mental repercussions of lusting after her best friend’s fiance. Guilt tastes sour at the back of her throat, choking her up even more, until she can hardly speak. “It’s nothing,” Mianmian manages after much too long a pause, so quiet she’s nearly drowned out by the rain.

“Like hell it’s nothing,” Jiang Cheng growls. “If I get you sick, A-Jie will kill me.”

At the mention of Jiang Yanli, Mianmian nearly flinches back. Nearly. 

But Jiang Cheng is sharp; he catches on a lot easier than expected. “Hey, what happened?” he asks again, voice softening. It grates against her skin in a way she can’t begin to verbalize right now, but she can see that he’s trying. “I thought you two had a good time out in the cove? What changed between last night and today?”

“Nothing. It’s really nothing,” Mianmian says again. “I just - I need to go. Soon. I’ve stayed too long.”

Jiang Cheng frowns even further. “Mianmian, I - you know you’re always welcome in the Lotus Piers. You could never stay too long.”

She knows he means it to be comforting, but it just feels like another lead weight in her gut. “I know,” she says, hoping to soothe the sad, confused look on Jiang Cheng’s face. She’s already done enough as it is; she couldn’t bear it if she’s made this sad man even sadder. “But I… there’s something I need to tell Jin Zixuan. Something important. I hadn’t realized I needed to say it until now.”

There’s a long pause as Jiang Cheng watches her, trying to parse out the storm of strange emotion on her face. Eventually, Jiang Cheng frowns, clearly uncomprehending if the way he awkwardly settles a hand on Mianmian’s shoulder is anything to go by. “Seriously, is everything okay? You can - I’m your friend, Mianmian. You can tell me if something’s wrong.”

Mianmian bites her lip. It means a lot that Jiang Cheng would say that to her, but right now, she can’t - she can’t handle that right now. Instead, she swallows around the knot in her throat and nods. “Everything’s fine, Jiang Wanyin. I promise. Everything will be fine.”

 

--

 

After Jiang Cheng finally backs off, making that kicked dog look he doesn’t realize he makes when he’s worried and no one’s telling him anything, Mianmian hides in her room under the guise of taking a hot bath. It seems a little counterintuitive, given how long she’d been out in the rain, but if it’ll get her some privacy, she’ll take it.

She’s in there long enough for the water to grow cold, thinking circles around the issue she’s been trying to avoid for weeks, now - namely, that she’s undeniably attracted to her best friend’s fiance.

She thought she had a handle on it - after all, it wasn’t as if she was doing anything wrong in gravitating towards Jiang Yanli. They’re friends. She likes spending time with Jiang Yanli, and Jiang Yanli likes spending time with her. It’s not like Mianmian would try and steal Jin Zixuan’s wife or anything.

Really, she just wanted a friend. But clearly, things have gotten out of hand, if she’s having these kinds of thoughts about her “friend”.

There’s not much else to do about it - she just needs to suck it up and put some distance between them until the feeling fades. Ask Jin Zixuan to find a new courier. He’d had someone lined up before - she’s sure he could find someone to take her place for good. It’d be fine. 

She’ll still come with them to Yiling to see Wei Wuxian. She’d made a promise and she intends to keep it. But after that - well. Hopefully Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli can hurry up and marry, so that they wouldn’t have to be quite so alone.

 

She’s finally lugging her sorry, soggy self out of the tub when she hears a knock at her door, the sound of Jiang Yanli’s sweet voice calling out to her. “Mianmian? Can I come in? A-Cheng said you weren’t feeling well.”

Mianmian nearly slips, heart pounding in her chest at the thought of seeing Jiang Yanli right now. It's not like she’s avoiding Jiang Yanli - after all, she did usually train with Jiang Cheng in the mornings - but she’d kind of hoped she’d have a little more time to pull herself together before she had to look her in the eye.

“I’m - I’m fine. Give me a second, I just got out of the bath,” Mianmian manages, throwing on her inner robes, despite the fact that she’s still dripping all over the floor. She’s torn between the puppydog instinct to see Jiang Yanli as soon as possible and the miserable impulse to fuss and draw this out as long as she can. In the end, after a few harrowing minutes of throwing on her robes and debating whether or not to try tying her wet hair back, Mianmian resigns herself to facing Jiang Yanli and pretending as best she can that everything’s normal.

It’s not exactly easy, but there’s no point in drawing this out. She’s already made her decision. She’s made more difficult ones before. With a fortifying breath, Mianmian lets Jiang Yanli into her guest room.

“Is everything okay? A-Cheng was really worried,” Jiang Yanli says, stepping into the room without invitation, as she had grown used to doing over the course of their friendship.

For all that Mianmian had steeled herself for this, she can’t help but realize, with dismay, that all her resolve crumbles the moment she sees Jiang Yanli’s worried face. “Everything’s fine, I swear,” Mianmian chokes out, trying her best to salvage what she can of her composure. But she can’t help her instinct to make Jiang Yanli smile, to ease Jiang Yanli’s heartaches. “I guess I’m just a little antsy to get back is all,” Mianmian lies. “I’ve stayed a little too long, I think.”

Jiang Yanli frowns, the same little furrow between her brows as her brother. It makes Mianmian’s chest ache for the fondness she feels, the fondness she can’t find the power in herself to curb. “Don’t sulk like that,” Mianmian huffs, unable to help her smile. And - well - if she’s going to quit cold turkey after their trip to Yiling, she might as well get her kicks in now. So as not to… prematurely alarm Jiang Yanli, of course.

Gently, she reaches out to ease the furrow between Jiang Yanli’s brows, heart thudding in her ribcage as she rubs her thumb against that little divot.

“Well, why shouldn’t I?” Jiang Yanli huffs right back, though she can’t help the smile easing onto her lips at the familiar touch. “It’s a little selfish of me, I know, but can’t I be a little disappointed that you want to leave? It feels like we haven’t spent enough time together.”

Mianmian laughs, ignoring the dull throb in her chest as she says, “I’ve been here longer than usual already.”

“It doesn’t feel like it!” Jiang Yanli pouts, her voice gone childish and sulky. It’s cute. Mianmian shouldn’t be thinking these thoughts, if she’s going to stop seeing Jiang Yanli. “We spent all week dead and miserable from the heat!”

“Yeah, well,” Mianmian shrugs, trying for casual and failing spectacularly. “Your fiance’s going to wonder if you’ve forgotten about him if I don’t deliver your letter.”

Jiang Yanli huffs in amusement, crossing her arms over her chest as she counters with a, “He’s not a rabbit. He won’t waste away if I don’t write him back immediately.”

“You’d be surprised,” Mianmian deadpans. Jiang Yanli's eyes brighten in delight at Mianmian’s callous disregard for Jin Zixuan’s dignity. Mianmian can’t help it, the flush of pleasure that wells up from her chest at the fact that she’d made Jiang Yanli smile. It feels nice to launch into another embarrassing story of Jin Zixuan in the months following the soup incident. Almost normal, if it weren’t for the little stab of guilt she feels every time she catches herself relaxing into Jiang Yanli’s bubbly laughter.

 

--

 

It’s still raining the next morning, so Jiang Yanli sends her off not only with her letter and a lunch, but an oilcloth mantle as well. “I’d give you an umbrella, but you can’t really fly like that. This should keep you dry enough,” she says, settling it over Mianmian’s shoulders before she can even protest.

“I can’t take this,” Mianmian frowns, touching her hand to the clasp. It’s got a pretty little mother-of-pearl inlay in the shape of a dragonfly in flight. It feels like something Jiang Yanli would’ve chosen, even if she likely wouldn’t wear it, and that makes something sweet and painfully cloying well up in Mianmian’s chest.

“It’s either this, or you stay until the rain dries up,” Jiang Yanli says, her brows set in a firm line. Brokering no argument.

Mianmian sighs, accepting the mantle in defeat. “I’ll bring it back when we see each other again.”

“You ought to keep it,” Jiang Yanli says with the sort of smile that makes Mianmian’s heart throb. “Purple looks good on you.”

Mianmian bites her lip, unable to help the flush of pleasure in her chest. She wrestles it down with the desperation of a rabbit fighting off a wolf, and like most rabbits fighting off wolves, fails.

“Keep an eye out for messenger butterflies. Or messengers in general. I might request some assistance from you in the days preceding the trip,” Jiang Yanli tells her, smoothing the fall of the mantle on Mianmian’s shoulders.

Mianmian nods dutifully, but her countenance softens when she the anxious glint in Jiang Yanli’s eye. “I’m proud of you,” she says quietly, allowing herself to reach out and fuss with Jiang Yanli’s hair. “If anyone could figure out this fucking mess, it’d be you.”

Jiang Yanli smiles, soft and sweet, touching her hand to Mianmian’s as if it’d keep her there a little longer. “I’m not doing it alone,” she says, staring up at Mianmian with those big doe eyes of hers.

Slowly, like a voice calling out in the fog, Mianmian realizes how close they’ve gotten - close enough that she could just lean in and -

Mianmian jerks back, hiding her embarrassment by pulling the hood over her face. “I’ll see you soon,” she promises, trying not to think of the fact that the next time she sees Jiang Yanli, it’ll be the last for a while.

Jiang Yanli’s expression goes warm and sweet. “I’ll see you soon,” she echoes, her hands lingering on Mianmian’s just wrist a moment longer..

Mianmian nods and hops on her sword. She pointedly doesn’t look back.

Chapter Text

Normally, when Mianmian is coming back from Yunmeng, she sends a messenger butterfly ahead. Today is no different - only instead of her usual “Heading back,” she writes, “When are you free?”

Messenger butterflies are fast, on account of running entirely on spiritual energy and not being able to carry more than what you can write on a single sheet of talisman paper. But that doesn’t account for the fact that people are busy. Logically, Mianmian knows she probably won’t get an answer for a while, but the nervousness still eats at her. What the hell is she going to tell Jin Zixuan when they finally meet? What is she going to do when Jin Zixuan inevitably asks her why she wants to quit? What if he won’t let her see either of them again? What is taking him so goddamn long to respond?!

The afternoon is bleeding into evening and the drizzle finally gives way to a watery sunset, when Mianmian finally decides to camp. Jin Zixuan still hasn’t answered, and she’s absolutely useless with that frenetic, anxious energy.

It’s not a punishment, she reassures the Jiang Yanli in her head, as her feet touch the squelching, muddy ground. Heading to the closest village would force Mianmian to make a detour, and really, it wasn’t the worst campsite in the world. She’d camped in worse. After all, she could have rocks digging into her back and wild animals nipping at her toes. A little mud was nothing.

Besides, setting up camp and hunkering down for the night meant she spent less time wallowing in her misery and more time being productive. Not that that stops her from dropping everything the moment she sees the glimmer of golden qi in her periphery. She nearly ruins her dinner in her haste to dispel the messenger butterfly, to see Jin Zixuan’s response of “Noon, tomorrow; market square restaurant” written in sparkling qi.

It’s both a sigh of relief and a brand new rush of anxiety to see him set a time and place. Now that she knows she has to do it, it feels… better, almost. She’s resigned to it; she has no way to escape. All she can do is meet her fate head on.

 

--

She’s close enough to Lanling that she doesn’t need to rush, but the dread pooling in her gut makes her want to. It’s always better to rip the bandaid off before the wound can fester, and Mianmian is no stranger to doing what must be done. The only issue now is what she’ll say - whether she should spill everything and reap the consequences she deserves, or bite her tongue and hope that it’s worth bearing this guilt.

It’s the coward’s choice, Mianmian thinks, but in the end, she resolves to keep it to the bare minimum. If Jin Zixuan asks, then she’ll tell him. But if he doesn’t… well - Jin Zixuan keeps his share of secrets. At least this secret is one better off not told.

Jin Zixuan is waiting for her at her favorite restaurant, sitting at the veranda even on a warm day like this. The waiter attending looks helplessly at him, no doubt offering time and again to relocate this clearly wealthy young master inside, where it’s cooler. But he waves the man off, using the musician playing nearby as his excuse to stay outside - keeping his eyes peeled for Mianmian.

She can tell when he catches sight of her, because he nearly gets up from his seat, ready to wave her down like an excitable child. Mianmian shoots him a look - he knows better than to make a scene, even if it’s clear he’s a little nervous. Maybe she shouldn’t have been so eager to have everything done with - clearly he’s clued in that something is off this time.

“Is everything alright?” Jin Zixuan asks, as soon as Mianmian is within earshot. “Your message was - “

“I’m fine,” Mianmian says, cutting him off as she settles into the seat across the table.

He relaxes minutely, waiting for Mianmian to say more. But she doesn’t - or rather, she can't seem to figure out what to say let alone the right way to say it - so after an awkward moment, he offers a paltry, “How was Yunmeng?”

Mianmian’s ears burn as she thinks about the magnolia cove, about watermelon juice running down Jiang Yanli’s wrists, about water slipping down her neck, pooling in the hollow of her clavicles, only to overflow between her - 

“It was hot,” Mianmian says abruptly, her words stilted and awkward. She can’t help the adrenaline fogging up her veins, tying up her tongue, leaving her too jittery to summon up her usual eloquence. Instead of talking about literally anything else, she asks, “Did the heatwave get to Lanling?”

“No,” Jin Zixuan says, watching her with an idle curiosity. Too trusting to be wary of her sudden strangeness, the way anyone else would. It makes her feel even worse, that she’s hiding something so big from him. “It had been much the same as usual. Tell me about your trip. What did you do this time around?”

Mianmian’s mind blanks, too focused on the way her gut uncomfortably churns to remember anything other than, well, the reason why her gut is churning. Ultimately, she waves it off with a vague, “I spent most of it lying around and complaining of heat.” Jin Zixuan seems amused enough by that response, huffing as he pours Mianmian a little tea.

“At least you had a chance to recuperate,” he offers, voice gentle as he brings the rim of his own cup to his lips. It’d be a little patronizing, maybe, if Mianmian weren’t so hung up on her own mental balancing act.

“I told you I was fine,” Mianmian says, rolling her eyes. It doesn’t quite carry the usual annoyance, but it’s an attempt at normalcy that both of them appreciate. “But yes, I got plenty of rest. If you count slowly stewing to death as rest.”

Jin Zixuan laughs at that, a proper one. “Surely that’s not the worst that could’ve happened.”

“Ah. Yeah,” Mianmian chokes out, because she figures catching feelings for her best friend’s fiance is pretty up there in terms of bad things that could’ve happened. That churning, awful thing inside her wants to come clean, wants to blurt out how she felt about every little shamelessness Jiang Yanli indulged in in the confines of her own house. It wants to pull out every messy sketch, every stolen glimpse of Jiang Yanli and await judgement. It wants to crack open its chest and let all the shame flow out like a lanced wound. 

But the fear inside her - the only thing that speaks louder than her shame - isn’t quite ready to talk about it. So awkwardly, she changes the subject. “Hey - by the way, can you get your letter done within the week? I promised I’d accompany Jiang Yanli on a trip pretty soon.”

“Oh?” Jin Zixuan asks, a look of understanding brightening his eyes. “To... visit a few relatives in the next town over, right?”

“You know about it?” Mianmian asks, a sneaky little idea niggling at the back of her mind like a looming spirit. She’s speaking before she realizes it, unspooling the advantage he’d unwittingly given her. “So then you’ve got to know about the, uh. The future prospects she’s offering me. Regarding her relatives. I’ll have to quit this arrangement pretty soon, you know.”

Jin Zixuan’s brow furrows and he says, “I - yes, but I thought there’d be time yet before things are finalized.”

“Yeah, well,” Mianmian says with a casual shrug - or, at least, one that tried for casual and choked and died halfway through. “This wasn’t meant to be forever.”

Jin Zixuan stares at her, long and hard, the furrow in his brow digging deeper on his face. It’s clear he wants to say something, to call her out on her obvious avoidance of something, but just as he opens his mouth to say it, he swallows it back down. With a smile just slightly tinged with unhappiness, he says, “Mm. That’s a pity. But if that’s the case… this is the only free afternoon I have. Would you like to help me choose a gift?”

“...alright,” Mianmian agrees, even if every moment in his presence is an agonizing reminder that she’s lying to him. But what else can she do? Even if her skin crawls with the need to get away, to hide under a rock until the guilt disappears, she still wants to spend time with him. After all, she likely won’t see him for a while, after she ends all of this. He’s her best friend - how could she not want to be with him?

Even if it feels… a little too easy, that Mianmian had gotten away with what felt like such an immense secret, she can’t help but feel relieved that she can still have this. But Mianmian sees in Jin Zixuan’s eye what she had felt that night she caught him with the letter - it isn’t so much that she had slipped through his fingers, but that he was letting her go.

It sinks another lead weight into her gut. But if he won’t ask, then she won’t tell.

They make their way through the meal talking about this or that project he’s been working at with Jin Guangyao. He’s got nothing but good things to say about his half-brother, a genuine excitement gleaming in his eyes as he touts Jin Guangyao’s talents. “He’d been the one that came up with the contract hunting, actually,” Jin Zixuan proudly says between bites. “Father got all the credit because he brought it up with the elders, but it was Guangyao’s idea. It’s really frustrating, that people don’t trust him enough to support his ideas, when they’re so brilliant. He always has to go through someone else to get everyone on board.”

“Mm,” Mianmian hums, watching the empathetic frustration on Jin Zixuan’s face. “That’s what it’s like to be the child of a servant, though,” she muses. “If you ever want to be something more than just a servant, you have to fight the world for everything you earn and still only get half of what you deserve. And no one’s going to thank you for it - forget about praise, you’re lucky if people just leave you alone.”

The furrow in Jin Zixuan’s brow carves deeper. “That’s not right.”

“Yeah, well. That’s life,” Mianmian shrugs. “I don’t really know him that well. But I respect him, for what he’s trying to do.”

Jin Zixuan stares at her, looking upset and - and helpless. “It’s - it’s unfair.”

“It’s the status quo,” Mianmian says.

“Well - well fuck the status quo,” Jin Zixuan says, almost vehemently. He hardly ever curses, and Mianmian feels a visceral delight every time he does. “I’ll change it. When I’m sect leader, I’ll change it.”

Mianmian blinks at him, and it feels like she’s looking at something completely new. He’s handsome like this - but he’d always shone brighter when he had a goal to accomplish, an opportunity to prove himself. Even if it’s too naive a goal, Mianmian can’t help but feel a little moved, just looking at him. With a faint smile, she gently kicks his shin with her foot and says, “You better. I’ll be rooting for you.”

Jin Zixuan blinks at her and breaks into a sweet, abashed smile. “Yeah?” he says, as if Mianmian’s approval was enough to instill in him the confidence he needed.

“Yeah,” Mianmian says. “Of course.”

 

By the time they’ve paid their meal, Mianmian’s mood has more or less gone back to normal, the awful tension twisting knots in her chest having dissipated with good food and pleasant conversation. It’s easy to be lulled into a sense of security, when Jin Zixuan is smiling at her like that, laughing at this or that little story. When he’s dropping mushrooms into her bowl because he knows she likes them. When he goodnaturedly lets her steer the conversation wherever she likes - namely, away from anything related to quitting, to Jiang Yanli, or to whatever Mianmian plans on doing from here on out.

She’s stuffed by the time they’re done, and she’s eager to get moving, so they take a walk. As they head out into town, she realizes, with a quiet little pang, that Lanling feels… different, now that she’s had time away from it. A new building here, a few new faces among the vendors there, the simple feeling of differentness that a different season brings. She hadn’t quite realized just how much a few months can change a place.

It’s not as if she made a habit of going into town too often - she’d always kept herself busy on hunts and the like, as she wasn’t quite as frivolous and self-indulgent as most of the other girls at the Koi Tower - but she can still feel the difference as if Jin Zixuan had pointed it out to her.

And, well, yes, he does point out a few new things - not because he’s showing off or playing tour guide, but because he’s excited to show them to her. The first place they stop at is a new dessert shop; Jin Zixuan practically drags her there swearing up and down that their pastries were the most delicious in Lanling, and when they get there, he buys a little box of their favorite pastries to share. The uncle manning the shop gives Jin Zixuan that knowing sort of look that strangers often give him when they see them together, and slips in an extra sesame pastry without them noticing.

They’re halfway down the road before Jin Zixuan realizes it and by then, it’d be too embarrassing to go back and protest. So with pink cheeks, he breaks it in half and gives Mianmian her share. The flaky pastry leaves crumbs on Jin Zixuan’s fingers, and like a kid, he brings it up to his mouth to lick them off.

He’d never do something like that in front of anyone else. His mom, maybe, but she’d probably scold him for his inelegant behavior. Mianmian tries not to think about it, tries not to think about how much trust Jin Zixuan puts in her.

Instead, she sets her sights on dessert. Like he’d said, their sweets really were delicious. The pastry is gone in two bites, and with it the slight pang of guilt in Mianmian's chest. When she looks over at Jin Zixuan, he's already stuffing his face with a delicate little slice of osmanthus cake.

She doesn't turn away in time before he glances over, and when he does, he huffs a little laugh and reaches out to brush the crumbs off her cheek.

Mianmian's cheeks grow hot as she swallows, batting his hand away. He takes it back in stride, laughter in his eyes as licks the crumbs off his thumb. If anything, the act only makes Mianmian's cheeks get hotter, a faint little fluster rising in her chest as she watches him continue on, like it’s natural for them to be so familiar.

When he finally swallows his bite of osmanthus cake, he laughs, soft and sweet, looking over at Mianmian. "Why are you embarrassed?"

 "Aren't you being a little overfamiliar? We're still in town, you know! Anyone could see you goofing around with me and think the wrong thing. I mean, isn't that why that uncle thought we're, y'know - " Mianmian starts, feeling the heat flush all the way to her ears.

"You think he thought we were a couple?" Jin Zixuan asks, cheeks flushing pink, too, as he blinks at her. 

"I mean, what is he supposed to think? A young man bringing a girl around town with him, buying her sweets and acting friendly?" Mianmian says with a huff, reaching into the box for a hazelnut cookie for an excuse not to look him in the eye.

Jin Zixuan… doesn't look displeased at the thought, his gaze prickling on Mianmian's skin as she brings the cookie to her mouth. "Is that really what we look like?"

"Well… there's always been petty rumors about us," Mianmian grumbles, careful to brush crumbs off her own face after she's done with the cookie.

"It never really occurred to me that people actually believed them," Jin Zixuan says, and when Mianmian looks up at him, incredulous, she realizes he looks… well, a little awed is probably the best descriptor for it.

"Shouldn't you be more worried about something like this? You've got a reputation to uphold! Aren’t you worried Jiang Yanli might… I don’t know, doubt you?" Mianmian protests, because even if she can’t possibly imagine Jiang Yanli doubting him (stubbornness clearly runs in the family, blood or not), the fact is, if she's thinking about that, then she isn't thinking about the fact that Jin Zixuan almost looks pleased that people think them involved.

Jin Zixuan shrugs. "We’ve only been properly writing for a few months now, but… well, she was quick to dismiss misunderstandings,” he says. “And besides, she likes you.”

Mianmian feels that last bit sink into her gut like a cold needle. She feels terrible as she says it, but in a slapdash effort to hold onto her sanity, she says, “Okay, but it’s different in person. When you’re writing, it’s easy to say things you don’t mean.”

“Is it? Different, I mean,” Jin Zixuan asks, a little archly. “Is it so difficult to lie in person?”

Mianmian’s lips pull into a taut line. “No, it isn’t,” Mianmian admits. “But at least you have something to work off of. If it’s a letter, you can’t see the look in their eyes, the set of their shoulders, or whether they lean into you or away from you.”

Jin Zixuan makes a quiet hum of consideration, before he says, “In some ways, writing makes it easier to be truthful. To say everything that needs to be said without worrying about being judged.”

Mianmian knows Jin Zixuan isn’t the sort to intentionally say anything backhanded - but when he looks at her, she has to push down the urge to flinch back. It’s all too easy to imagine that casual glance as a look, as if he’s holding it over her head that he knows she’s keeping something from him. She knows he’s not like that, and yet - 

Mianmian regrets taking another cookie, because it doesn’t quite go down right. Rather than admit defeat, Mianmian changes the subject, pointing over at a shop selling good stationary. “Let’s - let’s go take a look at the books. Jiang Yanli would probably appreciate a new notebook.”

The look Jin Zixuan gives Mianmian is scathingly clear - he knows she’s trying to escape, and he’s letting her go. It’s mortifying to concede defeat in such a cowardly way, but she’ll take it, if it means she doesn’t have to endure Jin Zixuan seeing her through to her goddamn core.

 

They look at books and writing supplies for a while, before they go wandering off to look at some of the more common gifts in the marketplace - namely scarves and hairpins and pretty little jade tokens. Along the way, they get distracted by sugar paintings - Mianmian buys him one that looks like a horse because he’d been eyeing it, and even though he protests, he still takes it with reverence. Mianmian gets one, too, because she thought the goldfish was cute, and because if things went Jin Zixuan’s way, he’d probably be holding onto the sugar horse until it melted. 

The golden sugardust lingers on his lips when Mianmian finally goads him into eating it, and Mianmian finds it hard to look away - at least until Jin Zixuan realizes what she’s looking at and licks it off his lips with a lingering slip of his tongue. When he’s done he innocently asks, “All clean?”

“All clean,” Miamian chokes out, swallowing hard and looking away. She manages to quickly cover her tracks when she spots a stall selling painting supplies, and when she says she wants to go there next, her voice only trembles a little.  

 

By the time the day is done, Jin Zixuan hasn’t bought anything other than a few snacks and trinkets - not for Jiang Yanli, but for him and Mianmian to share. Mianmian scolds him for it, but it’s not a big deal. He promises he’s got a backup gift in mind, in case they didn’t find anything in the market.

“Why did you even ask me to come with you, if you didn’t think you’d find anything? You could have been doing something more important,” Mianmian grouses, even if she can’t help the smile on her face. It had been a good day; lots of fun.

“Why not?” Jin Zixuan asks with a smile that makes him look young and handsome and golden. “I got to spend time with you. I’d say that was a good use of my time.”

Mianmian huffs, but she can’t help the pleased flush on her cheeks.

 

--

 

They meet up for dinner two days later, in a tiny town halfway to Yingchuan, just a day short of the deadline Mianmian had given. She’d gotten a paper bird with some carefully vague instructions just that afternoon, asking her to purchase a 25kg bag of rice and three bolts of sturdy linen before she approached their rendezvous point. In the message, she was assured that Jin Zixuan would send along the funds for it when they saw each other next, alongside a few packages of his own.

If she rearranged things a little, it would just barely manage to fit the space allotted in her qiankun pouch. Hopefully. Depending on what he’d be bringing.

When she meets Jin Zixuan in the cozy little restaurant, he’s already ordered. It’s a much more modest spread than some of the ones they’d had in weeks past. His frenetic need to impress had faded away after weeks of re-familiarity and Mianmian’s stubborn insistence on not wasting food, and it feels - good, actually, to know that Jin Zixuancan relax around her.

“Hey,” he says with a warm smile, when she slips into their booth. “I’ve got something for you.”

Mianmian snorts. “Another 50 kilos of materials to cart off?” she asks.

Jin Zixuan laughs, wry. “Not quite that much. But yes. Here you go,” he says, passing her an unmarked qiankun pouch.

“Should I ask?” Mianmian asks, taking the pouch from him.

“Probably better if you don’t?” Jin Zixuan shrugs. “I’m not quite sure, but it never hurts to be careful. Have you gotten your, ah, portion of the scavenger hunt yet?”

“No - Linen’s cheaper closer to Yunmeng,” Mianmian says. “Besides, I was told you would be funding my portion of the, ah, scavenger hunt?”

“It’s in the qiankun pouch, too,” Jin Zixuan says, pushing the lamb stew closer to Mianmian. She spoons a portion into the bowl and leans over to shovel rice into it, too. Even if it makes Jin Zixuan cringe.

“Hey, I don’t judge you about your pickles thing,” Mianmians says, sticking out her tongue.

“It’s not a thing, ” Jin Zixuan protests, as he picks at the greens. “I have a perfectly healthy respect for pickles.”

“If no one was around to see, I bet you’d drink the juice,” Mianmian accuses, making Jin Zixuan scoff in mock-offense. Not that he denies it.

The evening continues in a similar good humor, cushioned by Jin Zixuan’s easy acceptance that this would be the last letter Mianmian will bring to Jiang Yanli. He doesn’t bring it up in conversation, but it’s clear in the slightly bittersweet tone of the evening that he’s thinking about it. Regardless of how either of them feel about losing this excuse to hang out, they keep the conversation light, choosing not to bring up any bitter feelings - that is, until, of course, Jin Zixuan inevitably pulls out the letter.

It’s just a letter.

“What, you didn’t manage to find a gift for your fiance after all?” Mianmian asks, shooting him an amused look. “I told you we should've gotten her that brush stand but you said noooo.

“It's not that I didn't manage to find one - " Jin Zixuan blurts out, his cheeks pinking, "It's just that, ah. It's… a little unconventional."

"Unconventional?" Mianmian asks, skeptical. "Sounds like something a guy who didn't bring anything would say."

Jin Zixuan huffs and roll his eyes a little impatiently. "It's something she's told me she'd be interested in - it’s just, I’d never had the opportunity to figure out the logistics. I figured, if this is the last letter you’ll deliver for me, I might as well give it a shot." He says it goodnaturedly, like it doesn’t hurt him that Mianmian is quitting, and it’s a relief - albeit a stinging one - to see him take it in stride.

"Yeah? What is it?" Mianmian asks, letting herself be intrigued as she watches him for any clue as to what it might be. With Mianmian’s eyes on him, the color of his flush deepens, and Jin Zixuan’s hands can’t help but get a little restless, pushing the food on his place this way and that.

“Before I show you, you have to promise you’ll deliver it,” Jin Zixuan says, looking Mianmian right in the eye, despite how clearly the desire to look away is written in the line of his shoulders.

“Of course,” Mianmian says, more out of eagerness to find out what it is than anything.

“And you have to close your eyes,” Jin Zixuan says the quietest tremor in his voice. If she hadn’t been listening for it, Mianmian wouldn’t have caught it. But he almost looks nervous about it.

“Why? How are you going to show me if my eyes are closed?” Mianmian laughs.

“Just do it,” Jin Zixuan says, his face pulling into his natural pout.

“Alright, alright,” she says, obediently closing her eyes. “Hurry up; I’m really curious.”

She can hear Jin Zixuan getting up from his side of the table, and she can’t help that her heart thumps a little harder in anticipation. She hides her trepidation by being a little shit, asking, “Is it something embarrassing? Is it something you don’t want me to - “

Then she feels it. Something soft and warm and lingering against her lips. Just a little bit wet. Tasting faintly of the wine from their dinner. The wine only Jin Zixuan had been drinking.

She can’t help it, the way everything goes dizzy in that moment of realization; she can’t help that she leans against him for just one second of weakness. She can’t help that her mouth drops open in a whispery little sigh, as he gently cups her cheeks with his warm, warm hands.

And then, everything comes back all at once and she pulls away so abruptly, it’s almost violent. Her hand moves on impulse - she hears more than feels her hand connecting against Jin Zixuan’s face, too startled to throw a proper punch. Indeed, his cheek is red, the same red as her stinging palm as she blurts out, “What the fuck was that?!”

Jin Zixuan’s eyes are wet - just as wet as his kiss-pink lips - but they’re set and determined as he says, “Deliver it to Maiden Jiang. You promised.”

“Jin Zixuan, what the fuck?! ” Mianmian cries out, just this shade of hysterical as the shock takes over. “I’m not going to - How dare you fucking - I can’t belive you - “

“Please,” he says quietly, his voice rough with - with something that makes Mianmian’s heart pound heavy in her chest, with something Mianmian doesn’t want to think about. “Please deliver it.”

Mianmian is outraged, because if she's outraged, then at least she won't feel quite so exposed, quite so vulnerable. “I’m not going to - I’m not some plaything for you and your wife!”

“That’s not what this is,” Jin Zixuan insists, a furrow in his brow. A familiar fear that he'd screwed things up glimmers in his eyes, but he quickly blinks it away. Before it could be used against him.

“Well then what the fuck is it?" Mianmian snaps, trying to ignore the way her chest aches - because of course. Of course. She was an idiot to trust a Jin. "You better give me a real good reason for this, because I’m about two seconds from walking out of this restaurant for good.”

“She loves you,” Jin Zixuan says, as steady as he can. Trying to keep a hold of the conversation. "I thought you loved her back. I’ve seen it in the way you talk about her.”

He’s awfully calm about this. At least one of them is, Mianmian thinks with a bitter laugh. This secondhand admission of Jiang Yanli's feelings almost hurts even more than the thought of - the thought of being played with. Being used. She should be ecstatic that Jiang Yanli might feel the same way Mianmian does, but instead she simply feels - empty. Ashamed, maybe, that she’d once thought she’d be happy about - about this.

“So what? Do you want me to make a cuckold of you? Is that it?" Mianmian demands. Even she knows it sounds ridiculous, but she doesn't know why else he would want this. "Do you think I’m that much of a scoundrel? Jin Zixuan, I’m your best friend. How could I do that to you? How could you think that of me?”

"I want her to be happy," Jin Zixuan insists, a frantic fear starting to bubble through the cracks in his mask. "And if that would make you happy, too - "

"Jin Zixuan, I knew you were naive, but I didn't realize it was this bad," Mianmian hisses.

That gets Jin Zixuan's attention, and his carefully constructed calmness crumbles. "I'm not as much of a fool as you want to think I am," he snaps, hurt. "Yes, I am sheltered. Yes I am naive. But I'm not stupid. Do you think I would trust my fiance with just anyone? It could only ever be you."

"What, because I'm a woman? Because I have no status, no bearing, no power to challenge you?" Mianmian scoffs, unable to look at him.

"Because I love you, you idiot!" he snaps, hands slamming the table. “And even if you didn’t love me back, at least I could - “

His words choke off, mouth shutting with an audible click as he realizes what he’s saying.

Mianmian sneers at him, because what else can she do when her heart is thudding painfully in her chest, when the heat choking up her lungs is growing unbearable? Everything else had been - it had hurt, yes, but it wasn't - it wasn't like this. “Don’t play with me, Jin Zixuan. I didn’t think you were that cruel.”

“I’m not - I’m not lying to you,” Jin Zixuan says, a plea in his eyes. He looks horrified that she'd think that, but what else is she supposed to think? He’s only ever had eyes for one person, and once upon a time, Mianmian had taken comfort in that thought. "Please Mianmian - I'm not. Trust me."

"I can't," Mianmian says. She swallows hard, looking down at the remains of their dinner. It really had been too good to be true.

With a sigh, she takes the letter and slips it into her Qiankun pouch. “I’m leaving.”

Jin Zixuan looks like he wants to stop her, but she knows he wouldn't lay a hand on her. He's not his father; he'd never. And yet…

Mianmian swallows hard and turns away. Jin Zixuan calls after her, but once it's clear she's made up her mind, he doesn't try again.

Chapter Text

When Mianmian finally comes down from - from everything, she feels… tired, mostly, from the thoughts circling around and around and around in her head, and from, y’know, hopping on her sword and just going. Everything is just - worse than before. In a distinctly different way, but still - bad. Because regardless of whether or not Jin Zixuan was telling the truth, regardless of whether or not they loved her - were in love with her - she'd still accused him of some pretty awful things in the heat of the moment.

After all, could you blame her? Things like this didn't happen, and they sure as hell didn’t happen to people like her. It’s the kind of thing you’d read in a novel, maybe, but never see in real life. Sure, she could accept that maybe they were attracted to her in different ways, for different reasons. But in the end, attraction wasn’t necessarily love. It didn’t guarantee a future. It didn’t guarantee respect and care and compromise. And it sure as hell didn’t protect her, once they inevitably get married and leave her behind.

Polite society doesn’t take well to people like her - people that didn’t fit into their perfect little lives. Even on the off chance that Jin Zixuan was telling the truth - that he was in love with her, that Jiang Yanli was in love with her… in the end they would have no choice to give her up. So why even bother with the kiss? Why even bother with - with all of this pretense?

Mianmian just couldn’t make sense of it. Couldn’t imagine Jiang Yanli, who loved Jin Zixuan so helplessly, having room in her heart for anyone else. Couldn’t imagine Jin Zixuan, who tried so hard to be good, to be the furthest thing from his father he could possibly be, kissing someone other than his betrothed. Couldn’t imagine either of them taking such a risk for - for someone like Mianmian.

 

The night has gone deep and dark by the time Mianmian finally exhausts herself. It’s not until she gets to the gate of the nearby town that she realizes she’d already made it to Yunping. She doesn’t often stop here; usually she’d have stopped an hour or two ago, well before she got here. And besides, Yunping is close enough to Yunmeng that, on a normal day, she would’ve been able to fly straight past.

Well. Today isn’t exactly a normal day, and she doesn’t exactly have the energy to power through, so Yunping it is.

She’s never been through here at night. It’s a pretty town, all lit up with the warm red of lanterns, populated enough that people are still moving about even well into the night. During the day, it looks like any other bustling town, but right here, right now, everything feels intimate and close in the way a city lit up like stars would feel. It’s the sort of evening you’d want to spend with someone else, and Mianmian's chest aches at the mere thought of it.

She stops at the first inn she sees and pays for a room for the night. She’s too tired to eat, so she just asks them to draw her a hot water bath and sits in it until her skin goes pruny. For once, her mind is quiet; she’d exhausted all of the whys and wherefores on her flight here, and all she has to show for it is heartache and a headache.

With a long, long sigh, she closes her eyes and slides down until her chin is only just above water. Like this, in the warm embrace of the bath, she can’t help but touch her trembling fingertips to her lips.

Something in her chest squeezes so painfully that she sucks in a deep breath and slips under the water. It’s quiet under here in a way that it isn’t outside, the kind of quiet that sinks everything into itself. Almost like the quiet you’d get when you’ve meditated through the night, and the birds haven’t started chirping yet. It’s comforting.

She can’t stay under forever, but for the precious few seconds she’s there, she doesn’t think about anything at all.

 

--

 

After she's had a chance to sleep on it, she decides she's a little upset. After all - why hadn't they told her about it? Eased her in? Given her an actual choice rather than - than this? For all that Mianmian couldn't ever imagine Jiang Yanli wanting something so - so illogical, so risky, so unheard of, Jin Zixuan's voice hadn't wavered at all when he told Mianmian that it had been Jiang Yanli's idea. And Jin Zixuan was such a shit liar, he even had trouble lying by omission, so there had to be some truth to it.

What else could she do but ask Jiang Yanli about it? 

Mianmian spends her time in Yunping's market thinking about what she'll say when she sees her. But she can't help but find herself thinking in circles again, doubt creeping in now that she knows she doesn't know Jiang Yanli as well as she thought she did.

That alone makes her heart ache, and she'd been doing a passing job trying to ignore all her hurts. But this one slips through her guard like a stray arrow, and it hurts so much even the shopkeep gives her a worried look.

She's so lost in her own thoughts she doesn't even consider haggling with the shopkeeps, and she actually likes haggling. She just - buys the rice and the fabric, stuffs it in her Qiankun pouch, and spends the rest of the afternoon wandering aimlessly, getting as thoroughly lost in Yunping’s markets as she is in her own head.

By the time she looks up again, it's well into the afternoon, and even if she's early - well, she figures she wouldn't be turned away from the Lotus Pier gates. Besides, maybe it'll give her the chance to get Jiang Yanli alone and actually - talk.

Not that she knows what to say. Even after hours of trying to figure it out, she still has nothing. After all, what else can she ask but why?

Well, Mianmian thinks, there's nothing else to be done. So she hops on her sword and heads toward the Lotus Piers.

 

--

 

Yunping isn’t far from Yunmeng. It’s still light out when she makes it to the gates of the Lotus Piers - if anything, she’s probably made it just in time for the tail end of dinner, if she was hungry. Right about now, Jiang Yanli is probably with Jiang Cheng, sitting through his anxious fretting over the pointless details of their itinerary. Mianmian hasn’t traveled with him before, but knowing how protective he is over his sister, she wouldn’t be surprised if he were a micromanaging mess.

Her thoughts are confirmed when Liang Wenge’s brow furrows, unsureness written across his features as he debates whether or not to tell Mianmian to just go in and see them. In the end, his partner at the gates, a younger disciple named Tian Sheng, takes it upon himself to run off to announce Mianmian’s arrival.

Now that she’s here, she can’t help but panic a little, her heart pounding hard in her chest. Her thoughts whizz by, too fast for her panic-clumsy brain to catch a hold of and process - as if all of her thoughts these past few hours simply decided to swarm her at once. In the clamoring din of her brain, only this is clear: that she’s not ready to see Jiang Yanli, that she probably won’t ever be ready to see her, and that she absolutely will be seeing Jiang Yanli very soon, if the look on Tian Sheng’s face means anything.

Mianmian almost asks one of the disciples to escort her to the private dining room she practically knows like the back of her hand, but it feels childish to. As if she were planning to hide behind the skirts of someone older and more worldly than she. Instead, she forces herself to hold her chin up high and makes her way inside. 

As expected, Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng are eating dinner, heads bowed over a paper copy of their itinerary. They speak in careful, hushed tones, and the moment Jiang Cheng senses someone in the vicinity, he stops his sister from speaking altogether.

And then, of course, Mianmian shows her face and the Jiang siblings practically sag in relief. “Mianmian, you’re early!” Jiang Yanli smiles, slipping out from her seat to bound up to Mianmian, a skip in her step like she can’t help but want to be in Mianmian’s personal bubble again.

It’s both a little flattering and nerve wracking, seeing the object of Mianmian’s complicated feelings coming up to her and clasping her hands.

“Hey,” Mianmian manages, her voice weak. She can’t really bring herself to look Jiang Yanli in the eye, but at least having Jiang Cheng around gives her an excuse.  “I uh. I brought Jin Zixuan’s letter. And also his gifts. ” She adds the emphasis, so that they’ll know that she’s referring to the things Jiang Yanli had requested him to purchase. Not - not the other thing. Her heart is still beating high in her throat at the thought of having to eventually “deliver” the other thing.

“Have you eaten yet?” Jiang Cheng calls from the table, gesturing to a seat nearby. “A-Jie made too much. If you’re not gonna eat it, Mo Yingyue’s probably going to conveniently be in the area and swipe it all.”

“A-Cheng!” Jiang Yanli chides, despite her laughter. By the look on her face, she’s got no compunctions about the fact that he’s not wrong, even if it’s rude to say so.

Everything almost feels normal, like this - as if Mianmian didn’t have a million questions to ask and a million reasons why she doesn’t want to. As if Jiang Yanli had no idea that her betrothed had kissed Mianmian, that he had told her they’d both loved her, that Mianmian is sick with hope and shame and - and turmoil. Jiang Yanli has to know. If Jin Zixuan is the man Mianmian thinks he is, there’s no way she wouldn’t know.

Of course, lately, she’s been realizing how little she knows about anything anymore, so, well. Who knows?

Quickly, Jiang Yanli ushers her over to sit with them, piling her bowl high with rice and fish and greens despite Mianmian’s halfhearted protests. When Mianmian is given a set of clean chopsticks to eat with she realizes, with dismay, that of the contents of the spread, Jiang Yanli had given her everything she tended to favor.

It’s a painful reminder of what she could have, if the world they lived in wasn’t the world they had. If none of them had anything to lose, and Mianmian could just - love them, without having to worry about when the other shoe would drop. If she could just put herself in their hands and trust that they’d treat her gently.

 

--

 

They set off in a carriage set for Jiangling around midmorning, both out of respect for Jiang Yanli’s low cultivation and for the fact that it was more covert, in a roundabout sort of way - after all, sometimes the best way to hide was to hide in plain sight. Their official itinerary was set for them to head to Kuizhou from there (and their unofficial itinerary was set to make an “unexpected stop in Yiling” when Jiang Yanli “suddenly fell ill and needed to stop and rest for a few days.” They’d find a way to smuggle her out of her room at the inn and head up to the Burial Mounds to visit Wei Wuxian for a few hours, before stealing back to the inn by nightfall). After that, it would just be a straight shot to Meishan. They’ll legitimize the trip by visiting a few cousins, and then head back to Yunmeng by boat.

With just the Jiang siblings, Mianmian, and the coachman, it’s a relatively peaceful trip. Because Mianmian got motion sickness something fierce when she was in a coach, she was given a lovely brown horse to ride on. The back and forth sway of the horse’s gentle lope is meditative, almost, and Mianmian can’t really bring herself to dwell on all the questions swirling in her mind when one or the other Jiang sibling would hold up the privacy curtain and idly chat with Mianmian about nothing in particular. For the first time in what feels like a while, Mianmian lets herself think about nothing but the warm sun and the lush greenery. She’d made her peace with the fact that won’t have a chance to get Jiang Yanli alone for a while - so she might as well enjoy it while it lasted.

They don’t take many breaks, and it takes quite a while to get to Jiangling on foot, so by the time they’ve got their two rooms at the inn, Mianmian is too tired and achey to really have that conversation with Jiang Yanli. And then, on the next day, when they begin to approach Yiling, Jiang Yanli doesn’t have to do much to convince the coachman to take a detour - she legitimately does get a little sick. Mianmian doesn’t blame her. Motion-sickness is awful.

So they find a nice little inn in Yiling to stop at and Jiang Cheng frets over his sister (because if he doesn’t fret over his sister, then he’ll fret over all the worst-case scenarios that’d happen when they steal into the burial mounds), and Mianmian can hardly get a word in edge-wise with Jiang Cheng hovering like an especially persistent hummingbird.

With little else to do, Mianmian says she’ll stop by the marketplace to purchase some ginger candy for the rest of the trip. It’s a fine excuse - if anything, it’d help provide more legitimacy for their cover while also conferring the benefit of giving Mianmian a chance to be alone for a little while.

Yiling’s streets are bustling in the way that towns just on the cusp of “big” tend to be. Despite the ever-looming “threat” of the Yiling Patriarch, the people here are surprisingly lively.

Of course, after she passes not one, not two, but three individuals dressed in black and red robes just vaguely reminiscent of Wei Wuxian’s, she understands why - they’re not scared because they’re just used to it. With so many idiots pretending to be The Yiling Patriarch (or his disciples, or, even victims that’d survived to tell the tale), pawning off their clearly counterfeit goods, it’s easy to think he’s just a stupid myth that someone came up with to scare children into eating their vegetables.

Mianmian can still hear the echoing, nasally voice of the last guy, calling for people to come purchase evil-repelling portraits of the dastardly, devilish patriarch, as she asks the auntie manning a small apothecary stall for a bag of their candied ginger. She can’t help but roll her eyes at how stupid it all is, and the auntie managing the shop laughs in sympathetic delight. “You’d think they’d be done with this farce after three months, but I guess not,” she says, goodnaturedly joining Mianmian in her eye rolling. “I’ve never seen hide nor hair of this Yiling Patriarch fellow. Just those fools running around and bothering the tourists.”

Mianmian puts on her best wide-eyed tourist face and asks, a little theatrically, “You’re really not scared of him? I heard he raises the dead to do his evil bidding!”

The auntie snorts. “He’s never bothered me none. And none of the dead folk in the town cemetery, either.” And then, she leans in, almost conspiratorially, and says, “If you ask me, with how peaceful it’s been, I’m surprised the Yiling Patriarch schtick is still selling. There’s this one fellow who swears up and down that he’s the Yiling Patriarch, but all he sells is radishes!”

That has Mianmian laughing along with her, so hard she almost doesn’t notice the gentleman coming up behind her until she turns around and damn near bumps into him. “You really ought to look where you’re going - “ Mianmian starts, only for her jaw to drop when she gets a proper look at him.

None other than Hanguang-Jun stands before her, a… surprised(?) look on his generally impassive face as he stares back at her. “Maiden Luo,” he breathes, as if it wasn’t just a coincidence, but some act of fate that he was to run into her in the middle of a busy marketplace.

“H-Hanguang-Jun?” Mianmian says. “What are you doing here?”

“I - “ he starts, before hesitating. Unsure of what to say. It’s a little surprising to see on Hanguang-Jun’s face, but Mianmian’s seen it enough times on Jin Zixuan to know what to do.

“Actually, do you want to get out of this crowd? We could stop somewhere and grab a bite to eat,” Mianmian says, with what she hopes is a friendly smile. And then, she realizes what she sounds like and adds, “As, um. As… friends? It’s fine if you’re busy but - “

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says, almost immediately. Mianmian’s frenetic backpedaling stutters to a halt, her heart thumping quick from the nervousness of - of asking The Second Jade of Lan out for something as casual and flippant as “a bite to eat.”

“I - um. I don’t go to Yiling often. Do you know anywhere good?” Mianmian asks, still a little flabbergasted that he’d said yes.

Lan Wangji stares at her, before nodding just once. “Follow me.”

Lan Wangji leads her through the streets of Yiling like he knows the place, like he comes here often. There’s only one reason why he’d visit a place like Yiling and Mianmian can’t help but think about Wei Wuxian, can’t help but think about how, not long after she'd left the Jin Sect, she caught sight of a man in white leaving well before the banquet was over. Her vision had been too blurred with tears to see who it was, but in hindsight how could it be anyone other than Lan Wangji?

He takes her up to a quaint little restaurant that smelled strongly of spice - certainly not the fanciest of Yiling's options, nor the shabbiest. Something small. Cozy. Private, in a way someone like Lan Wangji would probably enjoy.

The server does a double take when she sees Lan Wangji, and when she looks over at Mianmian, her brow furrows just the slightest. "Left your son behind this time?" she asks, and it's phrased as a teasing jab, but there's a hint of disapproval in her tone.

Son?! Mianmian's mouth gapes open, astounded that this random woman would accuse Hanguang-Jun of - 

"Mn," Lan Wangji says, without batting an eye. "He is with his family."

The server gives Lan Wangji a look, the sort that'd end in a disappointed little tsk if it weren't the second young master of Lan she was speaking to. It all feels a little surreal, that Mianmian is here, sitting in on this increasingly awkward conversation between Lan Wangji and this judgmental waitress. Thankfully, the woman gets to business soon, setting down a pot of tea as she asks them what they’d like to order.

Lan Wangji orders for the both of them, listing a healthy mix of vegetarian side dishes to go with the grilled whitefish. When the waitress leaves, he warns Mianmian, a little helplessly, "The food here is spicy."

Mianmian laughs. "I kind of figured. I didn't realize you folks in Gusu could handle this sort of spice. Everything we had during your uncle's lessons was quite mild."

Lan Wangji swallows and awkwardly nods, watching after the waitress with what Mianmian likes to think of as trepidation. In the wake of the waitress’s departure, Mianmian tries to be good - she really does - but as the silence drags on, she can't help but blurt out - "You have a son?"

Lan Wangji blinks at Mianmian for a long moment and shakes his head, no. It takes a second for him to find the words to respond. Eventually he settles on, "A-Yuan belongs to a friend of Wei Ying’s. The last time I was here, Wei Ying told the waitresses that he had given birth to A-Yuan, and that he was ours."

Mianmian snorts. She didn't know Wei Wuxian all too well, but it wasn't outside of her expectations for him to be a prankster. Granted, his idea of a practical joke was a little unorthodox, but well… "Sounds like you two are close," Mianmian smiles.

"Mn," Lan Wangji says, though he doesn't sound too convinced. After a long pause, he adds, "He's been troubled as of late. I worry."

"Is that why you're here? I can't imagine someone like you all the way out in Yiling otherwise," Mianmian muses. "You're pretty dedicated to him."

"Mn," Lan Wangji hums, staring down at a small blemish on the table. There's a quiet melancholy suffusing all through his features, from the limpid gold of his eyes to the set of his shoulders, as if he was the one who’s been “troubled,” not Wei Wuxian.

But Mianmian gets it. Somehow, she gets it.

It's a little rude to ask straight away, Mianmian knows, but somehow, people like them seem to, ah, know one another. It seems like such a small detail in their lives, in the face of everything else, but -

"Hanguang-Jun, do you - um, I'm sorry, this is a weird question, but I just - " Mianmian drops her voice, in case anyone might be listening in, because it feels wrong for someone to overhear, to witness this part of Lan Wangji without his permission - "Are you… in love with him?"

Lan Wangji flinches back. His eyes are wide in surprise; his adam’s apple bobs in a hard swallow. To any passing observer, Lan Wangji looks not too far off from how he normally does. But in this single moment, he is the most uncomposed Mianmian has ever seen him, and she’s got years of discussion conferences to work off of.

It takes a long moment for him to recover, and in that long moment, Mianmian is scared she’d completely offended him. But then - something about him seems to just... come loose, like a heavy burden has finally been lifted from his shoulders.

"Don't worry - Don't worry, I won't say anything, I just - "

" Yes, " he says quietly, almost desperately. "I am. In love with him.”

“Ah,” Mianmian breathes out, and it comes out a little relieved, too. “Ah, wow. That’s - wow. Really cool. I uh - me too!”

Lan Wangji blinks at Mianmian, before his eyes narrow. “Wait - wait, no, that’s wrong, I mean like - I, uh, I like women. And men, but, mostly women. Not the Wei Wuxian kind of men. I’m just saying that I kind of get it.”

“Oh,” Lan Wangji says, and maybe it’s the dim lighting, but Mianmian wants to think that maybe his shoulders had relaxed just the slightest bit.

And then the food comes. To say that it’s extremely awkward is an understatement, because Lan Wangji feels beholden to the no-speaking-while-eating rule, and Mianmian hasn’t had a meal this quiet since, well, her days at the Cloud Recesses. The only saving grace of this meal is the fact that if Mianmian isn’t talking, at least she can’t make a fool of herself in front of the second most eminent cultivator of their generation.

Not that it stops her from saying, in the quiet of their post-meal tea, “You know, I kind of figured he had a crush on you. He never stopped bothering you back when we were studying at Gusu, and during the Indoctrination Camp, he kept asking the wardens to do you favors.”

Oh. Oh, that was the wrong thing to say. Lan Wangji’s back stiffens, and he looks at her with those doleful eyes and shakes his head. Fuck. Had that all really just been… Wei Wuxian being friendly?

Mianmian cringes. “Whoops. Uh. Sorry.”

Lan Wangji shakes his head. “He has more pressing concerns than my feelings.”

“Oh,” Mianmian says awkwardly. “For the record, I really am sorry. For, y’know. Throwing it in your face”

“It’s fine,” Lan Wangji says.

There’s a painfully long pause, before Lan Wangji says, “He thought, once, that I had feelings for you.”

Mianmian chokes.

At least she didn’t spit out her tea.

“He thought you had what?! ” she cries out, heedless of how her reaction had drawn a few eyes. Lan Wangji looks out into the rest of the restaurant with such an awful scowl that people immediately turn away.

“Mn. It was mortifying,” Lan Wangji says, in the sort of tone that people who are desperately trying to find a sliver of goodness in an otherwise bleak situation have. His eyes slide over Mianmian, as he says, “But I do admire you. As a cultivator. As someone who had the courage to abandon her sect and live by her morals.”

“Oh,” Mianmian says, heart sinking. 

“That’s why I stopped you today. I wanted to - speak with you, I suppose,” Lan Wangji admits, staring down at his teacup. “I’m not usually so impulsive. I’m sorry if this has - if I have wasted your time.”

“No - no,” Mianmian chokes out, “I think - I think I was the one that wasted your time. I’m not really as great a person as you think I am.”

Lan Wangji levels her a look, as if perhaps he thought what she had said was extremely stupid. It’s sort of heartening, in a roundabout way.

“No - no really, I’m - heavens, I’m kind of a mess,” Mianmian says. It’s absolutely mortifying to be telling this to - to Hanguang-Jun of all people, but when she sees Lan Wangji tilt his head in a wordless invitation to continue, she can’t help but feel relieved. She hasn’t talked about this to anyone, and she feels like she could die from it.

She bites her lip, heart thumping high in her throat as she thinks about what to say. It’s too embarrassing to tell the full truth, but she wants - she needs someone to understand her. “Okay, okay. Um. So, it’s… sort of like your situation with Wei Wuxian, actually. Like, if you were to start a relationship with him, a lot of people you care about - a lot of people in your sect would be really upset, right? They would feel hurt, even. Or betrayed,” she says, hoping it’s not offensive to, y’know, remind him of his troubles in order to explain her own troubles.

Lan Wangji’s lips pull into a tight line, but he doesn’t protest. He just nods, a glimmer of what Mianmian hopes is understanding in his eye.

“It’s a little different because, um, I like this girl, right? But if I try to go any further with her it’s, uh. Well, I feel like I’d be doing something unspeakably awful to someone I care about. A friend of mine,” Mianmian says.

Lan Wangji’s brow furrows, as he asks, “Why? Did this woman do something to hurt them…?”

Mianmian shakes her head. “No, no - it’s just, um. If I tell you the exact situation, you’ll probably guess it straight away, haha. I don’t think my friends would appreciate their dirty laundry aired out, even if it’s to someone as virtuous as Hanguang-Jun.”

She glances at Lan Wangji, and Lan Wangji looks a bit like maybe he’d like to reassure her. But in the end, he keeps his mouth shut. “See? Okay, the weird thing about it is that my friend told me that it was okay to, y’know, be with her. But the thing is, I feel like part of why he suggested it is because he’s still, uh. He still feels guilty over some stupid shit he did when he was younger. I guess I’m just sort of worried he’s not telling me to pursue her because he actually wants me to, but because he’s trying to, I dunno, redeem himself for his past actions.”

“Hmm,” Lan Wangji says, pouring himself another cup of tea and topping off Mianmian’s cup as he goes. “Have you told him this?”

“No,” Mianmian says, cheeks flushing as she takes a sip. “I kind of freaked out at him and left.”

And then after a pause, she adds, “There’s also, um. There’s also… another issue going on.” Gods above, she can feel her cheeks burning as she looks away from Lan Wangji, and down at his hands. With a deep, steadying breath, she admits something she’s never even had the guts to admit to herself , “I, um. I think I might. Have feelings. For my friend, too. And he’s told me that I could have both, but - it’s - that’s not really how the world works, is it? No one is that good, and even if he is, none of us are in a position where we could just - I mean, relationships between three people… it’s just too good to be true. So now I’m just stuck here, miserable, because I want this, but I know it’s impossible.”

“Ah,” Lan Wangji says, nodding as he thinks over her words. He doesn’t seem to be judging her, and it’s such a relief that Mianmian wants to cry.

“Yeah,” Mianmian says with an awkward laugh. “So, you really don’t have to admire me, Hanguang-Jun. I’m a mess.”

Lan Wangji makes a quiet little huffing sound, and if Mianmian didn’t know better, she might’ve though that perhaps it was a laugh. “I can’t speak to your situation,” Lan Wangji says with the sort of elegant delicacy that makes Mianmian feel like she’s not pouring her heart out to one of the most impressive men he’s ever met, but rather, to an old mentor. Someone she can trust. “But I don’t think you’re a mess. I think that you are afraid of losing something important to you, and you feel that it must be addressed now, before you lose them because of your indecision.”

Mianmian swallows, thumbing the rim of her teacup. “Yeah, that’s just about it, yeah.”

“If he loved you - if they both loved you - they would give you time to decide,” Lan Wangji says quietly. “When you are afraid, you can’t see the whole picture - you only see things colored by your fear. It’s not wrong to ask them to wait until you can see things clearly. And it’s not wrong to ask for help, either.”

“Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. Thanks, Hanguang-Jun. I really, uh - “ Mianmian says, blinking the wetness out of her eyes and  swallowing around the lump in her throat, “I really needed that.”

“Mn. I’m glad I could help you,” Lan Wanji says, and he sounds like he means it.

They’ve pretty much hit the dregs of this particular teapot, and before Lan Wangji can say goodbye to Mianmian, she blurts out, “Hey, actually - um. I’m here with Jiang Yanli and Jiang Wanyin. Would you like to come see them? I’m sure they’d like to see you. Weren’t you and Jiang Wanyin close during the first couple years of the war?”

Mianmian can see a flash of unease crossing Lan Wangji’s impassive face, but it’s gone before she can parse it. With a cordial nod, he says, “I would be honored to accompany you.”

“Cool! That’s - that’s great. If we’re done here, then… let’s go?” Mianmian suggests, making an awkward gesture for the door.

“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees, before getting up with an elegant sweep of his robes. Mianmian follows suit, and leads him back to the inn.

Chapter Text

“What took you so long? We’d been worried - “ Jiang Cheng says, when he lets Mianmian in. And then, when he sees Lan Wangji not two steps behind her, he slams the door shut.

“Mianmian, the fuck?!” Jiang Cheng hisses, looking not unlike a puffed-up cat. “What’s he doing here?!”

“That was rude, A-Cheng,” Jiang Yanli gently chides, pushing aside the thin blanket draped over her lap. “Let him in.”

A-Jie - “ Jiang Cheng bites out, looking less like a stately sect leader and more like a petulant child.

Jiang Yanli’s smile might be soft, but her voice is steel. “Let him in.”

Jiang Cheng stares at her for a long moment, as if he’d ever hope to deny her anything. With a huff, he lets go of the door handles and grits out a, “Fine. Whatever,” as he stomps over to the little table and throws himself down with all the dramatic theatricality of a 5 year old. Mianmian would laugh, if she wasn’t kind of freaking out about offending Hanguang-Jun.

She almost gives a sigh of relief as she opens the door and sees him still there. Mildly, he glances over at where Jiang Cheng is sulking, and when he brings his attention back to Mianmian, Mianmian mouths an I’m so sorry.

“Hanguang-Jun, please come in!” Jiang Yanli says, her voice bright and cheery to make up for the fact that Jiang Cheng had literally closed the door on his face. “It’s a pleasant surprise to run into you in Yiling.”

“Mn. I’m glad to see you are well, Maiden Jiang. Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Wangji says, by way of greeting.

“Hanguang-Jun,” Jiang Cheng grits out, offering as polite a greeting as he can muster while still glaring at Mianmian. “To what can we owe the visit?”

Lan Wangji glances at Mianmian, who says, her shoulders rising a little, “I ran into him at the market. I figured it’d be a shame to run into him here and not bring him over to say hello. If it’s going to be a problem - “

“It’s not a problem,” Jiang Yanli insists, getting up with only the barest flash of discomfort on her face. Mianmian rushes over to help her up, but Jiang Yanli waves her off with a smile. “I just spent all afternoon getting fussed over by A-Cheng. I don’t need you fussing over me, too,” Jiang Yanli laughs. “But I wouldn’t say no to that ginger candy you promised me.”

“Oh. Ah,” Mianmian manages, her face blooming in a flush as she digs through her sleeve to produce the bag of candied ginger. Jiang Yanli’s face brightens at the sight of it, and she happily shakes a piece out of the bag, popping it into her mouth with a delighted hum. For a moment, Mianmian is overcome with a sudden, inappropriate desire to ask for a piece, too, so that she might taste it and pretend that she’s - 

She’s jolted out of her thoughts by Jiang Cheng settling a hand heavily on her bicep. “Mianmian, can we talk outside?” Jiang Cheng grits out, as he glares Lan Wangji up and down. Lan Wangji does not grace Jiang Cheng with his attention, instead letting Jiang Yanli beckon him over with a piece of candied ginger. 

Biting her lip, Mianmian lets herself be half-dragged by her elbow to the hallway. They walk down a little ways away, before Jiang Cheng rounds on her and whispers (or at least, what he thinks is a whisper; Mianmian personally thinks it’s starting to approach outdoors-voice levels of loud), “What were you thinking?! We’re trying not to attract attention! Exactly what part of bringing back a prominent member of another sect for tea sounds like avoiding attention?!”

“Jiang Wanyin, please, ” Mianmian huffs, rolling her eyes. “He spotted me in the market. What was I supposed to do? Isn’t it more suspicious that I treat him indecorously? What happened to hiding in plain sight?”

This isn’t hiding! ” Jiang Cheng nearly snarls, throwing his hands up in exasperation. “This is waving our hands around and yelling at the top of our lungs! You brought the guy most likely to be suspicious of us right to our doorstep!”

“You’re wrong,” Mianmian says, glaring right in Jiang Cheng’s eyes. “I thought you of all people would know how much Lan Wangji wants to see - uh - that person.

“Yeah - to capture him, maybe!” Jiang Cheng hisses. “Seriously! That guy wasn’t put in charge of punishment at the Cloud Recesses for nothing! He’d rather die than break the rules. He’s always disapproved of the shit W - he - pulled! Once he’s back in Gusu, his brother and uncle will know exactly what we’re doing, and we’ll have a bunch of them at our doorstep the moment we get back from Meishan!”

“He’s not like that!” Mianmian growls. “He’s not some kind of - of mindless puppet! He would never try to harm We - erm. Well, you know!”

“Why are you sticking up for him? It’s not like you’re close,” Jiang Cheng scowls, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Well, for starters, he’d been the only person who’d left the banquet along with me!” Mianmian snaps. “He’s the only one who even tried to stand up for him!”

Jiang Cheng rears back, as if struck.

Mianmian can admit it was a low blow, but she doesn’t care. Not when she can see Jiang Cheng stabbing himself in the foot, and for what? Pettiness? Pride? Paranoia? For all that Mianmian wants this endeavor to succeed, even she can admit that they’ve got a better chance of succeeding if they had help. “Look - you’re not the only one hoping this thing will work out, okay? You’re not the only one that cares. Now if we’re done, I’m going to go back, because I don’t know about you, but having prolonged secretive conversations in hallways seems much more suspicious than inviting someone to tea and, y’know, having tea with them.”

She leaves Jiang Cheng in the hallway to sit on that a little bit, and when she gets the doors open, she finds Jiang Yanli and Lan Wangji sitting at the low table, sipping tea in a comfortable quiet. There’s a box of travel snacks that Jiang Yanli had made for the road on the table, partially eaten.

Mianmian takes an empty seat and grabs one of the sweets from the box, biting into it viciously. Jiang Yanli smiles, and there’s laughter in her voice as she says, “Welcome back.”

“Thank you,” Mianmian says, more snappish than she intends.

She sits in on a few more minutes of gentle, mostly pleasant conversation, before Jiang Cheng comes back, dragging his feet just a little as he steps into the room. His shoulders are just the slightest bit slumped, a cowed expression on his face that fades the moment he sees Lan Wangji.

“A-Cheng, come sit with us,” Jiang Yanli says, before his loitering can be interpreted as, well, loitering.

With a huff, Jiang Cheng obediently trudges over, not making eye contact with Mianmian in the least. Jiang Yanli pours her little brother a cup of tea and offers him an almond cookie, which he takes begrudgingly. Jiang Yanli waits until Jiang Cheng’s finished both the cookie and the tea, before she says, “A-Cheng, Mianmian, while you were gone, Hanguang-Jun and I were talking and - well, he’ll be coming up to the Burial Mounds with us.”

“He’ll be what?! ” Jiang Cheng blurts out, nearly choking on air.

Lan Wangji levels him with a stern look that has him practically foaming at the mouth with anger, and Mianmian can’t help but feel a vindictive sort of smugness, even if she, too, is a little surprised that he’d been added into their party so easily.

“I was hoping to visit the settlement well before I knew you were here,” Lan Wangji says quietly.

“Jiang Yanli, did you tell him about - “ Mianmian starts, cutting herself off before she actually reveals anything.

“Yes,” Jiang Yanli says serenely. “I think that everything will go more smoothly with his help. Besides, I think it would make A-Xian happy, to be able to see him.”

“A-Jie, you can’t just - not without talking to us first,” Jiang Cheng says, a helpless sort of exasperation in his voice. He’s practically sulking. “He’s not even part of our sect.”

“You’re right - I shouldn’t,” Jiang Yanli says diplomatically. “But we don’t have to be of the same sect to care about the same things. If we’re going to try to attempt the impossible… it’d be a lot easier with help.” She gives Jiang Cheng a look and takes his hand in hers, squeezing it under the table.

Jiang Cheng stares helplessly at her, before heaving a resigned sigh and glaring up at Lan Wangji. “If you speak a word of this to anyone - “

Lan Wangji settles him with a glare five times colder and says, “I have no desire to air out my private business to anyone. People may think what they wish to think, but I have no need to explain myself to people who do not deserve my attention.”

And like that, it’s decided. Lan Wangji will accompany them up to the Burial Mounds.

 

--

 

After a whirlwind afternoon of quickly rearranging plans and placating Jiang Cheng, the quiet calm of just Mianmian and Jiang Yanli in the room is a little jarring. It’s been… a long day, and honestly, Mianmian just wants to sleep - after all, they’ve got a big day ahead of them, too. But without the others to keep her thoughts at bay, Mianmian can’t help it - “Hey, Jiang Yanli?”

“Hm? Yes, Mianmian?” Jiang Yanli asks, jotting down a few more notes before she blinks up to look at Mianmian from across the room. She’s heart-achingly lovely in the evening candlelight, her eyes glimmering like stars in the half-light, her hair a river of darkness flowing down her back.

Mianmian feels like this is a mistake. She should leave Jiang Yanli to prepare for tomorrow. She should wait until they’re done negotiating with Wei Wuxian and the Wen survivors before springing all of this on her. Her feelings are hardly anything of importance in comparison to - to everything else they’re dealing with right now. And yet… Mianmian’s feet are already carrying her to Jiang Yanli’s side.

Jiang Yanli blinks up at her, her smile soft and warm. It sends a sympathetic bloom of warmth spreading through Mianmian’s chest, unimpeded by the knots of nerves twisting her insides up. Somehow, despite everything, Mianmian can’t help but feel at ease around Jiang Yanli.

“Have you read Jin Zixuan’s letter yet?” Mianmian asks, standing awkwardly until Jiang Yanli motions for her to sit next to her.

“I have,” Jiang Yanli says, and it could just be a trick of the light, but her face takes on a bit of a flush, her body naturally leaning in with interest, the way it always does when they talk.

Mianmian bites her lip, eyes flicking down to Jiang Yanli’s mouth, before flicking back up again. “What did it say?”

Jiang Yanli mirrors the motion, her own eyes flicking down to Mianmian’s mouth. “I think maybe you might know already,” she says, and if her voice is a little bit breathless, well - 

“Ah,” Mianmian says, quietly, and despite how much she wants it - wants this, something in her chest aches, knowing that it isn’t something she ought to have.

Jiang Yanli leans in a fraction closer, reaching out to tuck a strand of Mianmian’s hair behind her ear. “You don’t have to, if you don’t want to,” Jiang Yanli says, just the barest hint of disappointment on her face.

Mianmian takes Jiang Yanli’s hand in hers, leaning into the touch a moment longer. “I want to, but… I don’t think I should,” she quietly admits, pulling away. “Jiang Yanli, do you really - “

“Yes,” Jiang Yanli says, without hesitation. “Of course. I wouldn’t have asked you for this if I didn’t.”

“What about Jin Zixuan?” Mianmian asks, her voice shaking and weak, like grass bowing to the winds, like the darting flicker of a dragonfly’s wing.

“You can have feelings for more than one person, Mianmian,” Jiang Yanli says, as if it were that simple. As if their reputations weren’t on the line for just this simple act of gratification. As if it wasn’t so painfully simple to have one’s power and authority discredited. “I won’t pressure you into anything, but… well, you know, Young Master Jin and I - we’re serious about it. Whether or not you want us back.”

Mianmian swallows hard and glances away. “How can you be so sure of this? How do you know that you’ll be serious about this in a years’ time? In five? In ten?” How can I be sure that you really, truly want me?

“How can anyone be sure of the future? How do I know that Young Master Jin won’t drive me crazy once I’m finally in the Carp Towers? How do I know that I won’t just be happier running off into the wilds and being a rogue cultivator with you?” Jiang Yanli asks, with a shrug. “I don’t. All I know is that right now, I’d like to kiss you, if you’d like to kiss me.”

Mianmian sucks in a sharp breath, her heart feeling heavy and swollen in her chest. She wants, but she couldn’t bear it if - 

Mianmian doesn’t - can’t -  look Jiang Yanli in the eye, knowing the moment she gives in, she’s done for. Jiang Yanli makes her believe in stupid, hopeful things - things that have no place in a world like this, things like it’ll be fine if they just loved each other. Mianmian knows it’s not enough - it’d never be enough. But she doesn’t know what else to say, when her head is warring with her heart.

Jiang Yanli clears away her doubt with a gentle touch of her hand along Mianmian’s jaw. “Mianmian...?” she murmurs, and her eyes are so pretty, and her lips look so soft, and Mianmian is only human.

She can’t help it, that she leans into Jiang Yanli’s touch. That she parts her lips, makes space for Jiang Yanli between them. That she sighs into the kiss like it’s the only thing she’ll ever need.

Just this once, she lets herself linger, lets Jiang Yanli cradle her face in her soft, gentle hands, lets Jiang Yanli kiss her, and kiss her, and kiss her. She kisses Mianmian like she wants to, like she’s been wanting to, like this isn’t just a substitute for physical affection from an absent fiance, but real, genuine desire. It only makes her heart ache more.

When they part, Jiang Yanli smiles gently at her, her thumbs tracing the curves of Mianmian’s cheeks. “Thank you,” she murmurs, looking at Mianmian like she wants to memorize every inch of her, like she wants to burn this moment into her mind because she knows - they both know - that sometimes, life won’t give you what you want.

“I think I’ll need some time, before I have an answer for you,” Mianmian chokes out, despite her heart tugging her closer, straining against the leash of her rationality, her restraint. Her heart’s always been kind of an idiot.

Jiang Yanli nods, biting her lip as if it’d hold back the disappointment in her eyes. Mianmian wants to lean in and kiss her again, but - well, she can’t. She shouldn’t. She’s not ready for - she’s not ready to face the realities of their situations, the prying eyes at the Carp Towers, the whys and wherefores and what ifs, the thousands of outside factors that she can’t control. Hell, right now, in this dream-like moment, in this room empty of prying eyes and judgemental stares, she can hardly articulate the reasons why she, herself, can’t let herself have this despite all the want and love and need bubbling in her gut. 

Jiang Yanli must see this, because she pets Mianmian’s cheek, smiling gently as she says, “I know.”

Mianmian holds Jiang Yanli’s hand to her cheek, letting it linger for a moment longer. In one last fit of indulgence, Mianmian turns her face to press a quiet, slow kiss to her palm. “I do,” Mianmian starts, her voice tremulous and weak, “I do have feelings for you. For - “ Mianmian sucks in a steadying breath, though her voice still comes out in a tremor, “For the both of you. But… I need time. Please.”

Jiang Yanli nods, her smile genuine, albeit a bit subdued. “I understand.”

“Thank you,” Mianmian says. It feels odd to end the night like this, but what else is there to say? Mianmian lets her hand linger in Jiang Yanli’s a few moments longer, hoping that somehow, Jiang Yanli might feel the aching affection in her heart. But before long, Mianmian has to let go. Jiang Yanli must resume her duties - after all, it’s her brother’s life on the line with these negotiations. She doesn’t need Mianmian’s messy feelings on top of… everything else. Now more than ever, Jiang Yanli needs to be able to focus.

The walk to her bed feels like much too long a journey, when her heart is tugging her back to Jiang Yanli’s side. But she stubbornly goes on, settling into bed and closing her eyes. She almost expects to be up for hours still, but the relief of being done, having confronted the painful thorn of her own feelings pulls her under sooner than she expects.

Between one moment and the next, she drifts off to the dim light of candleflame burning behind her eyelids.

 

--

 

They don’t talk about it in the morning. Jiang Yanli treats her just the same as always, and when Jiang Cheng and the coachman stop by to dine with them, Jiang Yanli feigns illness once more with surprising aptitude.

Well, Mianmian shouldn’t be surprised - Jiang Yanli had proven to be a surprisingly good actress in the past, having feigned normalcy while she had been writing such things to Jin Zixuan. It’s only that Mianmian hadn’t known to look for it, that she had been pulled into the act, as well. Mianmian can’t even bring herself to feel bitter about it - not anymore - but it still makes something drain from her chest, leaving a gaping hollow where something else should have been.

Things progress as they had planned - Jiang Cheng frets over his sister and tells the coachman that it’d be best to delay the remainder trip until tomorrow for the sake of Jiang Yanli’s health. The coachman is given the day off, and the inn staff are asked not to disturb Jiang Yanli’s rest, that Jiang Cheng and Mianmian would attend to her in their place. 

With that settled, Mianmian lends Jiang Yanli a set of her plainer clothes, and Jiang Cheng produces a veil for his sister to wear. As Jiang Yanli dresses, Jiang Cheng tells them he’ll go out to the market to “purchase some things for their trip,” in the off chance anyone might have their eye on them; in the meanwhile, once Jiang Yanli is dressed, Mianmian helps her down from the balcony, and together they make their way toward the rendezvous point, hiding within the flow of Yiling’s small-town bustle until they’re at the outskirts.

It’s the longest Mianmian has gone without really talking to Jiang Yanli, in, well, ever, she thinks. It almost feels like they’re upset with one another, what with how tense they are, how alert they are to their surroundings. But no, it’s just a fleeting fancy of hers, a game of play-pretend; after all, Jiang Yanli lingers close to Mianmian, clinging to Mianmian’s robes, or her sleeve, or her hand, careful not to fall too far behind. There’s no way Jiang Yanli could be mad at her. 

Lan Wangji is waiting for them at a teahouse just inside of the city limits; they don’t acknowledge him as they pass, and he does not hurry to finish his cup of tea so he might follow. They’ll all meet up on the road to the Burial Mounds, anyhow.

 

Lan Wangji, of course, catches up to them on the road to the Burial Mounds. Jiang Cheng, who had been preoccupied in the market, meets up with them a bit later, when they make it to the first of the wards. They nearly miss him, until Lan Wangji abruptly whips around, brandishing Bichen in the direction of the sparse, spindly woods. But it’s only Jiang Cheng, throwing his hood off as he grumbles at Lan Wangji to - in very polite terms - put that damn thing away.

Jiang Cheng seems extra prickly at the moment - though that could just as easily be a product of his nervousness, his natural paranoia, the frankly unsettling atmosphere of the Burial Mounds, or a healthy combination of the three - and so Jiang Yanli meanders over to his side, gently taking his arm in hers. Somehow, it’s both an ache and a relief to have her out of reach, if only temporarily. 

As soon as he’s touched, Jiang Cheng spooks like a horse, until he realizes it’s his sister with him. With her encouraging smile, he takes a deep breath and straightens up, marching forward through the back-woods path to the settlement. Seeing Jiang Cheng placated, Mianmian settles herself beside Lan Wangji, and they trudge up the rocky ground in companionable silence.

As they come up, they see more and more warding talismans strung up in the trees, until -

The giant fuckoff warding wall isn’t exactly subtle. The small collection of suspicious folks loitering in front of it is even worse. They’re mostly young men, dressed in the blacks and reds Wei Wuxian tended to favor, all ranging from arrogant young masters to the roughest of rogue cultivators. A few of them leer at Mianmian and Jiang Yanli, not even bothering to hide their unscrupulous natures. Jiang Cheng, seeing this, jolts forward at one of them, his face twisting in righteous fury at the thought of anyone looking at his sister like - 

“I thought I told you all to get lost!” comes a booming voice from the other side of the gate, as an ominous, creeping cold of low-level resentment seeps up from the ground where the others are loitering. A few of them jolt in surprise, some of them scrambling off in fear and others dropping to their knees, fervently kowtowing and singing praises to the Yiling Patriarch.

The gate dissolves in a plume of showy black smoke, and even the kowtowers start to tremble as the acrid, resentment-tinged fog spreads throughout the area.

Lan Wangji’s brow furrows, his lips pulled in a taut line as he murmurs, “Wei Ying…”

Jiang Cheng, for the matter, shoves Jiang Yanli behind him, Zidian sparking to life. Seeing this, some of the kowtowing young men startle, fear written clearly on their pale faces. And then the growling starts up.

The fog clears just enough to reveal two figures, one casually slouched and the other pitched forward like a beast ready to pounce, it’s eyes gleaming through the resentful smoke. “I said SCRAM! ” that voice roars, reverberating through the dead forest, making even Mianmian flinch. His words are accompanied by the evil howling of his companion, the ominous clanking of none other than The Ghost General’s chains ringing in the otherwise deathly-silent air.

And that’s it - even those last few devotees scramble to get away.

When the mist finally clears, the Ghost General straightens up, shuffling a little ways behind Wei Wuxians grinning figure, his shoulders hunched as if shy. “Well?” Wei Wuxian demands, unable to school his face into the theatrical arrogance he’s clearly trying to portray. “What business do you have with the great Yiling Patriarch?”

Before Jiang Cheng can even bark out Wei Wuxian’s name, a teeny brown blur dashes out from behind Wei Wuxian’s skirts, leaping into Lan Wangji’s arms with a cry of, “Rich-gege!” accompanied by the shrieky-laughter of a child being lifted into the air. “Did you bring me toys?”

Lan Wangji sweeps up the scruffy little boy into his arms like it’s natural for him, the tension in his face softening the moment that tiny, warm body is close enough to touch.

A-Yuan, ” Wei Wuxian whines, dropping his act and sliding into another one - his shoulders slump dramatically as he overplays the utter betrayal written on his face. “You can’t just ask people that! They’ll think I’m mistreating you! Am I mistreating you? Huh? Huh?” Wei Wuxian asks, playing up the act until he can get close enough to dig his fingers into the boy’s sides, making him shriek with laughter.

The boy - A-Yuan - squeals as he burrows further into Lan Wangji’s robes for protection until his giggling is muffled by Lan Wangji’s fine silk. It’s cute - so cute, even Mianmian can’t help but smile. She’s not the only one - beside Jiang Cheng, Jiang Yanli’s eyes are bright with eager curiosity. Hell, even Jiang Cheng’s severe scowl has lessened a bit.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says reproachfully, as Wei Wuxian finally lets up. His voice is soft, almost private, despite the rest of them standing around. His posture, on the other hand, screams tension, worry, fear - not of Wei Wuxian, but for him.

If Wei Wuxian sees it, he doesn’t mention it. Instead, he turns away from him to face Jiang Yanli, who immediately tugs her veil off, opening her arms to Wei Wuxian for a teary hug. “Oh, A-Xian,” Jiang Yanli murmurs, holding Wei Wuxian tight against her, while Jiang Cheng awkwardly stands beside them.

Wei Wuxian looks almost stricken as his hands touch gently down on her shoulders. “ Shijie, ” he whispers, his voice suddenly gone wet and warbly. Unable to help himself, he soon gathers her up into her arms and holds her tightly against him, his own shoulders trembling.

“I missed you,” Jiang Yanli whispers, curling closer against him. “I thought I’d never see you again.”

Oh, ” Wei Wuxian breathes, burying his face into her hair. They stay like that for a long time, until Wei Wuxian’s shaking breath goes calm again, until his trembling shoulders are soothed by Jiang Yanli’s hand, stroking up and down his back.

A-Yuan gets squirmy in Lan Wangji’s arms, as children are wont to do, so Lan Wangji reluctantly sets him down on the ground. Immediately, he totters over to - ah, to the Ghost General. Mianmian had been trying not to be rude by openly staring, but, well, it’s kind of hard to, when all her life she’s been trained to fight and destroy things like him. 

The moment the Ghost General’s arms wrap around A-Yuan, Mianmian goes stiff, a visceral urge to pull out her sword nearly overtaking her. But A-Yuan is happy to climb all over the Ghost General, giggling all the while, until Wei Wuxian finally pulls away, a little teary-eyed and stuffed up as he scolds A-Yuan for bullying his uncle Wen Ning. 

Mianmian swallows and edges closer to Lan Wangji, trying not to disrupt the touching Yunmeng sibling reunion. But her movement doesn’t seem to escape Wei Wuxian’s eye, and he stares at the two of them for a long time, an awkward smile crawling its way up his face. “Ah, Mianmian, it’s - it’s really good to see you, too. I’m grateful that you’ve been keeping my siblings out of trouble,” he laughs, though it sounds a little forced. “You’re, uh. You’re awful close with our Hanguang-Jun, huh?”

He glances up at Lan Wangji, his face doing something complicated that involves a lot of eyebrow wiggling and pointed glances in Mianmian’s direction.

When Mianmian looks up at Lan Wangji, Lan Wangji’s face is about as impassive as ever, but something about him just exudes an aura of wanting to bury himself into the ground and never come out.

Oh.

“Oh, that’s not - “ Mianmian starts, only to be interrupted by Wei Wuxian sweeping over to her, looping her arm in his.

“Nonsense!” he whispers conspiratorially. “Don’t worry, Mianmian, your little secret’s safe with me. I know he might seem cold on the outside, but really he’s a great guy.” He puts on a roguish grin that’d fool almost anyone and winks at her as if they really did have a secret to share.

And then, before she can get a word in edgewise, he makes a gesture toward the gate and says to everyone else, “While the scenery is great out here and all, maybe we ought to make our way inside, hm? Who knows when those layabouts’ll be back?”

Mianmian really wants to stop him, to fix this misunderstanding before it can spread, but Wei Wuxian’s already tugging her along, up into the Burial Mounds.

Chapter Text

Mianmian isn’t exactly sure what she expects, when they head up through the settlement, but it’s not this. She knew the people here were sure to be struggling at least somewhat; after all, no one’s ever survived in the burial mounds - no one, except for Wei Wuxian. But the folks here, they don’t even have the benefit of being young.

Mianmian had assumed that there would be some common folk amongst them, but it seemed like all of them were. There wasn’t a cultivator among them - at least not one strong enough to practice inedia - aside from Wei Wuxian and Wen Qing. And that settles heavy in her stomach - doubly so when she sees the tired lines of their faces, their slightly hollowed cheeks, the vacant dullness of hunger lurking behind their bright eyes. It’s… unsettling, knowing that the meager gift of rice in her qiankun pouch would only last these people a small while - no more than a week, if stretched out.

She can see that same recognition, too, in Jiang Yanli’s eyes, in the uncomfortable line of Jiang Cheng’s mouth. The understanding that if they were to buy more, they’d draw attention and risk destroying all their carefully laid plans - but if they didn’t, these people might not make it through the winter.

Now that she knows to look, she can see it in Wei Wuxian’s face, too - the hunger, hiding behind the cheery glimmer in his eyes as he cheerfully blabbers on about how the settlement’s coming along - things like how they’ve finally built proper water basins, so Wen Ning only needs to carry up barrels of water from the river down in the foothills in the mornings, and how they’re trying to figure out how to make a decent smokehouse to preserve the fish and meat they hunt, and how their radish crops are nearly ready to harvest, now.

A-Yuan pipes up from where he’s perched atop Wen Ning’s shoulders, exclaiming that his brothers and sisters are supposed to come soon, and when Wei Wuxian catches the confused look on their collective faces, he very loudly and theatrically says, “Ah, yes. Because A-Yuan’s been good, so I’ll pull up little girls and boys from the ground for him to play with, right everyone?

And then, when he sees the looks on their collective party’s faces - namely, the look of utter horror on Jiang Cheng’s - and quickly adds, “Like turnips! Because when you plant little A-Yuans in the dirt, more will pop out! Isn’t that where kids come from, guys?

Oh. Right, right,” is the general consensus, once everyone realizes that, no, Wei Wuxian won’t make little child-sized Ghost Generals anytime soon. Quite frankly, it's a little terrible and a little hilarious that Jiang Cheng had immediately jumped to that conclusion. He legitimately looks a little nauseous at the thought, and Mianmian couldn’t possibly school her face into something a little less amused. When Wei Wuxian catches Mianmian trying to smother down her grin, he can’t help but grin himself. Like a cat that got the cream.

It’s a nice departure from, y’know, the dreariness of witnessing the abject poverty these folks were forced into.

Wei Wuxian leads them into a cavernous ruin of a hall, the only sign that something had been here before the Burial Mounds became the Burial Mounds. Even then, it had been built right into the mountain, and the mountain had claimed back what it could - between the cracked stones that made up the walls and floor, knobby, gnarled roots burst through, and from the holes in the ceiling, cobwebs and vines rained down. To the side, an ominous pool of red sprung up from around the remains of an enormous stone head - a part of a statue, perhaps, for all that it looked like some terrible creature held at bay with a string of talismans. It was out of place compared to the rest of the foreboding ruins, disproportionately ominous even within a place called the Demon-Subduing Palace.

At the front of the hall is a set of low stairs leading up to a raised level, and sitting on those stairs, waiting for them, is Wen Qing.

The last time Mianmian had seen her was in the Cloud Recesses, before the war. They’d never spoken much, but she was the sort of person to make an impression. She’d been beautiful, then, in her deep red silks. She’s still very pretty, albeit in a tired, homely sort of way. Even dressed in coarse, undecorated linen, her countenance is striking. 

Lan Wangji is the first person to greet her, the rest of them quickly following suit. Jiang Cheng is the last person to linger in his greeting, staring at her like she’ll be gone the moment he blinks. Mianmian had never seen him like this before, and yet, the forlorn look on his face as he drinks in the sight of her feels… painfully familiar.

It’s not unlike the one Jin Zixuan had given her, the last time she’d seen him.

Briefly, Wen Qing asks Wen Ning to bring something for the guests, giving him and A-Yuan an out for what would probably end up being a lengthy discussion. Once they’re out of the hall, an awkward quiet settles over them, no one quite knowing how to broach the topic at hand with the sort of tact it required.

It’s Jiang Yanli who finally starts up the conversation - if not her, it would’ve been Wei Wuxian, and if Wei Wuxian started it, then they’d never get around to the point. She smiles politely at Wen Qing and says, “It’s been a long time, Maiden Wen.”

“It has,” Wen Qing concedes stiffly.

Undeterred by Wen Qing’s prickliness, Jiang Yanli says, “I’ve never had the chance to thank you, for all you’ve done for me. For us. I know it isn’t much, but we brought a gift to show our appreciation.”

When Jiang Yanli glances over at Mianmian, Mianmian jerks into action, pulling out the plain qiankun pouch and holding it out to Wen Qing. Wei Wuxian stares between Jiang Yanli and Wen Qing, a confused furrow in his brow as Wen Qing cautiously takes the qiankun pouch; clearly this was something that hadn’t been discussed in the letters. 

 Wen Qing can’t help but glance warily up at Jiang Yanli, and then Jiang Cheng, before tugging the pouch open to see what was inside. The moment she does, her expression shutters and she closes it right away. “We can’t take this.”

“It’s for you - “ Jiang Cheng chokes out, his voice creaking unsteadily. No one, not even Wei Wuxian, comments on it. “We thought that - maybe, it’d be useful.”

“Whatever you want in return, we can’t give it to you,” Wen Qing says, her voice trembling only a little bit as she glares at Jiang Cheng. “If someone were to find out - “

“Then we’ll deal with it,” Jiang Yanli cuts in smoothly. “Please, Maiden Wen. It’s just a gift.”

Mianmian expects Wen Qing to protest again, but before Wen Qing can even open her mouth, Wei Wuxian interrupts.

Shijiiieee, how come I don’t get a gift?” Wei Wuxian theatrically whines, swanning in to get between Wen Qing and his siblings. It’s a surprisingly effective distraction from - well - whatever all of that is about, breaking the tension and drawing attention away from whatever reservations Wen Qing might have had about the supplies and toward his trivial concerns. Wen Qing doesn’t look happy about it, of course, but she lets it fly regardless. After all - everyone knows an out when they see it.

“Oh, A-Xian, of course we didn’t forget about you,” Jiang Yanli promises, pulling him into her arms so smoothly that it almost seemed like they had this scripted and choreographed ahead of time. Indulgently, she pets his hair as he pouts like a child, curling close to her and making little mopey sounds until she produces her own pouch. “It’s a little late in the season, but you could still make it if you plant them soon. The flowers will come up in the spring.”

“Shijie…?” Wei Wuxian whispers, opening up the drawstring of the pouch. His eyes go big and wet as he pulls her into a genuine hug this time, squeezing her so tight it was a miracle she could even breathe.

“I’d gathered them from my lake. It’d been A-Cheng’s idea,” Jiang Yanli says gently, and when she does, Wei Wuxian pulls away just enough to stare up at Jiang Cheng.

Jiang Cheng’s eyes go wide like some prey animal, and he hardly has the time to shout before Wei Wuxian pounces on him, drawing him into a bone-crunchingly tight hug as well. Jiang Cheng takes to it about as well as one would expect - that is, his reaction is about on par with that of a stray cat’s: there’s a lot of struggling and hissing and yowling until he finally tires himself out, realizing that it’s futile to keep struggling. It’s terribly funny, and by the time Jiang Cheng’s done with his tantrum, they’d all sort of forgotten the hiccup with Jiang Yanli’s gift.

It takes a few minutes, but eventually, they settle down enough to talk about - well, the thing that they’re here to talk about. Namely, figuring out how to figure out the situation. Jiang Cheng is the one that puts on his Sect Leader persona first, corralling them all into a relatively semi-circular-ish formation on the steps of the stairs while he paced along at the foot of them, outlining the key points of what had already been spoken about in their letters.

“Ultimately, we need to prove that you’re not a threat to the sects, while also showing to them that you’re too much of a hassle to bother with,” Jiang Cheng concludes, brows furrowed in that severe sort of way he’s learned to, to make people listen to him. It’s a solid rip off of Nie Mingjue’s schtick, only with a little less physical intimidation to pull it off. “That means… a lot of things that you probably won’t like.”

For a moment, his big, pretty eyes go soft and pleading as he looks at Wei Wuxian imploringly. Mianmian hasn’t ever seen him like this before - not outside of their late-night conversations on the piers, at least, and even then, he’s never quite looked like that. It’s frighteningly vulnerable, in a way that Mianmian knows Jiang Cheng would never show anyone - not without reason or desperation or both.

Wei Wuxian looks away from it uncomfortably, and for all that it looks like it hurts him, he keeps his arms crossed over his chest, stubbornly closed off the moment Jiang Cheng had started listing off points of contention.

“I’m fine with not establishing a sect or passing on my cultivational techniques,” Wei Wuxian eventually concedes, even if his grip on Chenqing is a little worrying. “I never had any intention of doing so in the first place.”

“How would that be determined, though? You know the sects aren’t going to believe him so easily,” Mianmian cuts in with a frown. 

Jiang Yanli smiles gently at her. “We were playing around with the idea of having a mediator on the Burial Mounds. A diplomat of sorts,” she explains, and Mianmian immediately understands that to be the position Jiang Yanli had offered her.

“About that - “ Wen Qing says tersely, her hands tightly folded in her lap. “While we have no qualms about more people in the settlement, so long as they bring their own supplies and help out, but how will we know what information will be sent out? The sects won’t be satisfied with meagre reports. How will I know that my family is safe, that this spy won’t be leaking names and pasts?”

Jiang Cheng’s scowl deepens in the way that it does, when he’s stymied. “They still need proof that you’re all harmless. That it’s mostly the old and infirm here. That there’s no chance of you biding your time for, I don’t know, some sort of coup.” His words are punctuated with sharp, frustrated movements of his hands - like he wants to believe the world is a better place than it actually is, but he knows better.

“We’ve been telling them. Not that they believe us,” Wei Wuxian grouses, rolling his eyes. While his words are meant to be flippant, the blood-red tassel on Chenqing trembles from his tight grip.

“So it’s a matter of credibility,” Lan Wangji pipes up, from where he’d been quietly sitting. “You need someone the sects will trust, but someone who doesn’t have an agenda.”

“That sounds impossible,” Mianmian huffs, crossing her arms. “If you’re part of a sect, you’re already biased. And it’s not like there are any rogue cultivators of real renown who can step in for us.”

“I can report it,” Lan Wangji says slowly, carefully. “But Sect Leader Jin would likely try to call it into question.”

“If we could get someone from the Nie sect to corroborate with you, I think it’d work. Sect Leader Nie has very few qualms about confronting Sect Leader Jin when he needs to,” Jiang Yanli suggests. “A-Cheng, you were friends with Second Master Nie, weren’t you? Perhaps you could arrange something with him. A joint effort between the Nies and the Lans would probably be enough to keep Sect Leader Jin’s hands tied.”

Wei Wuxian attempts to appear cool-headed, fiddling with Chenqing. But the tension is clear in his voice as he says, “Sect Leader Nie wants nothing more than to see the surname Wen wiped out from the face of the earth.”

“We did, too, once upon a time,” Jiang Cheng says, as gently as he can given the fact that he is Jiang Cheng. It’s clear he doesn’t want to set Wei Wuxian off, but, well. It’s Jiang Cheng. “If we can see reason, so can he.”

“He doesn’t have a reason to change his mind,” Wei Wuxian retorts, crossing his arms again. A clear sign that he doesn’t plan to be convinced.

Jiang Yanli leans into his space, setting a gentle hand on his shoulder. “If you can persuade Second Master Nie, then I think you can persuade Sect Leader Nie,” Jiang Yanli says, her voice coaxing and sweet. Imploring Wei Wuxian to have hope. “He cares about his younger brother a lot.”

Wei Wuxian doesn’t sound convinced, but Wen Qing seems tentatively for it. “The sooner we can show them that we’re harmless, the sooner we might be able to receive aid. It’ll be a hard winter; we’ll need anything we can get. As long as it’s a single, cursory visit - no identification, just assessment - I’ll accept it.”

Jiang Cheng looks at Wen Qing like he’s grateful she's on his side. Wen Qing doesn’t quite return the glance - but beside her, Wei Wuxian’s guard relaxes a bit, now that she’d given her approval. He still can’t help but fit in one last jab, though, adding, “We won’t be giving them a tour of the place, though. I don’t mind explaining what I’m doing to protect the settlement, but I don’t want people coming up with battle plans, if they’re acting in bad faith.”

“That’s reasonable,” Jiang Yanli says, trying to soothe Wei Wuxian’s bristles. “If Sect Leader Jin attempts to cast doubts on you, then we’ll handle it.”

Wei Wuxian relaxes minutely, practically curling into Jiang Yanli’s side for comfort. It doesn’t last long though - not when Jiang Cheng reluctantly brings up the next point. “The other thing the sects are concerned about…”

“No,” Wei Wuxian says, his voice hardening as his shoulders tense again. “I’m not handing the Stygian tiger seal over to anyone.”

“I wasn’t going to ask you to - “ Jiang Cheng reflexively snaps, his temper flaring at his brother’s mulishness. 

“I’m not going to destroy it, either. Not until I can guarantee that the sects won’t go after us. And we all know that’s not happening any time soon, so you can just forget it,” Wei Wuxian snaps right back, his temper flaring alongside the cold, acrid scent of resentful energy in the room.

Wei Ying, ” Lan Wangji says, his voice both reproachful and beseeching. “It will destroy you.”

“I can control it,” Wei Wuxian snarls, getting to his feet to stare down at Lan Wangji’s face.

“Wei Wuxian,” Wen Qing says quietly, warningly. Wei Wuxian rounds on her, but before he can get anything out, Mianmian cuts in.

“He’s not wrong,” Mianmian says, glaring up at Wei Wuxian as he whips around to glower at her. “Even if the resentful energy doesn’t kill you, backlash from the sects will. You know there’s all sorts of rumors and lies surrounding you - they don’t need an honest reason to put you down, as long as enough of them are on board. They just need a reason.”

Instinctively, Wei Wuxian rears back, ready to go on the offensive. The smell of resentful energy is nearly overpowering, the irony scent of blood thick on their tongues. Like this, with everyone staring at him, Wei Wuxian looks like a cornered animal, his eyes wild - nearly feral with the fear of losing his precious weapon, the fear of being vulnerable.

Mianmian gets it - perhaps not to the level that Wei Wuxian has to endure, but she gets it. The fear of reproach, the fear of being weak in front of others, the fear of needing help and being at someone’s mercy. Being vulnerable. At some level, it’s easier to live on your own, away from the hungry, prying eyes of others. But for Wei Wuxian it’s unsustainable - he isn’t just playing with his own life - he’s got 30 others hanging in the balance, too.

It’s Jiang Yanli that stops him with a gentle touch to his wrist. One that worms its way closer, until their fingers thread together, until Wei Wuxian is looking at her, and only her.

He looks scared.

He looks exhausted.

“A-Xian,” Jiang Yanli says gently. “Don’t be upset. We only want to help you.”

“Yeah, well,” Wei Wuxian says, “Don’t. That isn’t something I need help with.”

Jiang Cheng looks like he wants to make a snappy little retort at that, but Wen Qing sends a sharp look his way, and he shuts his mouth with an audible click.

“Let’s set this matter aside for later,” Wen Qing says, putting her hands to her temples. “The main issue here is we don’t have enough support on a comprehensive level for this to work. We’ve got individual support,” she says, looking around at all of them with what comes close to gratefulness on her features, “but nothing substantial enough to stand up to the cultivation world as a whole.”

“You need diplomatic ties,” Jiang Cheng says, and there’s a roughness in his voice, a certain emotion in the way he looks at Wen Qing, that doesn’t quite slip out from under Mianmian’s notice.

“We need diplomatic ties,” Wen Qing agrees with a sigh. “ Formal diplomatic ties. If we were a legally acknowledged settlement, we could probably figure something out. Ally under some local governor, or pay tax and tribute in return for protection. But we’re essentially a bunch of squatters - not that anyone else would be stupid enough to try and claim the Burial Mounds as part of their territory.”

“There are other ways to forge a connection,” Jiang Yanli muses. “For example, if you can prove to one of the sects that the talismans you’ve been working on are innovative enough that they ought to keep you…”

Wei Wuxian forces a laugh. “Yeah, sure. If they don’t kill me on sight. Besides, what of the rest of the Wens? I doubt they’d let me stay in the Burial Mounds even if I convinced them of my brilliant genius.”

“It’d be worth it,” Jiang Cheng says, a fierce pride snarling out of his throat. “They’d be idiots not to want you.”

“Ha. Well,” Wei Wuxian starts, his gaze drifting down to his hands. And then, after an awkward half-moment, he adds, “It's too bad no one else is of marriageable age.”

The humor behind it is forced, but it’s better than his unpredictable temper. He turns to Wen Qing with a laugh and says, “We couldn’t afford to lose you, and I doubt anyone in their right mind would want to throw their lot in with me.”

With a theatrical sigh he adds, “ Ah, how difficult it is to be the Yiling Patriarch.”

He sighs so theatrically, in fact, that he completely misses the way Lan Wangji leans closer to him, as if Wei Wuxian had pulled him forward on a string and he was helpless to resist. His face is one of barely-restrained yearning, and it’s so painfully clear, Mianmian almost wants to throttle Wei Wuxian.

“Can we be serious here for once?” Jiang Cheng grouses, no doubt trying to play off his flushed cheeks like he hadn’t also been hoping to make an arranged marriage work.

“It’s not a bad idea,” Jiang Yanli says gently, shooting a side-eyed look at Lan Wangji.

It’s only a brief look, but Wei Wuxian still manages to catch it. “What, you mean Wen Qing and Lan Wangji?” he titters, voice strained. Ooh, Mianmian definitely wants to throttle him. “That’s not - you couldn’t possibly - that’d be so bad on so many levels,” he says, and each word comes out choked and helpless. “I mean - I mean, you two would - you’d uh - It’s just ridiculous! You can’t just - you can’t just expect Lan Wangji to marry, when his heart’s already set on someone else! C’mon, Lan Zhan, back me up here!” Desperately, he stares at Lan Wangji, and then not-so-inconspicuously nudges his chin Mianmian’s way.

Mianmian rolls her eyes. Likewise, Lan Wangji’s brows turn downward into a displeased frown. But before either of them can protest Wei Wuxian’s extremely errant line of thought, Jiang Cheng cuts in with a, “You - you already said you couldn’t lose her! What, are you going to demand Hanguang-Jun marry in?! Preposterous.”

“If you’re going to agree with me, you don’t have to yell!” Wei Wuxian snaps, but it’s gentler, now - playful, instead of defensive.

“Now, now, boys,” Jiang Yanli gently chides, shutting them both up. “We aren’t really getting anywhere with this, are we?” She glances over at Wen Qing, who huffs and shakes her head.

“Let's get back on task,” Wen Qing sighs, bringing a hand up to massage her temples.

 

They decide to switch gears, moving away from the topic of proving they’re not a threat and towards being too much of a hassle to deal with. That, at least, Wei Wuxian has a lot of constructive ideas about, explaining some of the plans he’s got for making the Burial Mounds as secure as possible. Of course, Jiang Cheng, being Jiang Cheng, had to start poking holes into Wei Wuxian’s ideas - but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Wei Wuxian seems to like the intellectual challenge, and with Lan Wangji occasionally adding in input, Wei Wuxian actually looks excited about some of these ideas.

Their increasingly hyper-specific back and forth about the merits of maze arrays finally comes to a stand-still when one of the Wens pokes his head in and says, “A-Qing, we’re back from the hunt! Look!”

He thrusts out a brace of fat hares, a giant grin on his face as he completely fails to read the room. Wen Qing’s face softens as she sees the joy beaming off of her relative and says, “That’s great, Uncle Four. We’ll have an excellent dinner tonight.”

The man, Uncle Four, laughs and says, “That’s not all! Huang-jie managed to catch three pheasants! And Xiao-Yue’s finally figured out how to deal with all those damn snakes. You ought to take a break and come take a look!”

Before Wen Qing can say no, Jiang Yanli claps her hands together and says, “That’s an excellent idea! Is there any way I can help?”

A-Jie, ” Jiang Cheng says, sounding extremely put out about not having the last say. Jiang Yanli pays him no mind, however, and lets Uncle Four enthusiastically lead her out of the hall, cheerfully talking her ear off.

Jiang Cheng glances almost helplessly up at Wei Wuxian, and Wei Wuxian stares back for a long second, equally powerless to stop their sister when she’s put her mind to something. With a huff, Wei Wuxian shrugs and says, “Better head over there before A-Jie’s roped into butchering duty, I guess. No use in having her get all teary-eyed.”

Jiang Cheng shakes his head, making his way out of the hall with a dramatic little flourish. And like that, they decide to take a break.

 

--

 

One of the huntsmen ends up handling the butchering while Jiang Yanli pointedly covers her eyes. It doesn’t take long for a few aunties to drag her away to help with prep while they wait for the meat to be ready. It’s warm out, but it’d be a nice evening for soup - and besides, soup’s always a good way to stretch supplies.

With kitchen duty filled, the Wens quickly find ways to put the rest of them to work. Conspicuously, Wen Qing takes Jiang Cheng aside to do some inventorying, or somesuch, and with Jiang Yanli cheerfully sequestered away with the aunties, Mianmian and Lan Wangji inevitably end up together. 

They’re soon recruited for pickling duty, wrangled by one of the older uncles toward a quieter corner of the settlement. Somehow, Mianmian gets the impression that it wasn’t by stroke of luck that she’d ended up standing side by side with Lan Wangji, taking the carefully cut and peeled vegetables and slathering them with the seasoning paste to be packed into the jars.

It’s easy, mindless work - there’s just a lot of it. And with most of the folks out working in the fields, it’s hard to find time to complete the equally-important task of preserving the food for the winter. Mianmian doesn’t mind it too much, even if her hands get all pruny within minutes of smearing paste into all the little cabbage crevices. It’s better her than Lan Wangji, who had looked at the task with a subdued sort of horror.

While the uncle runs off to grab more of the rough clay pots they’d made, Mianmian slowly summons up the courage to tell Lan Wangji, “So… I managed to talk to her about it.”

Lan Wangji pauses, glancing over at her, his eyes a gentle sort of curious. Mianmian laughs, only a little embarrassed, as she says, “I think it went alright. She likes me back.”

“Ah,” Lan Wangji says. “I’m glad. You deserve that.”

“Mn,” Mianmian hums, taking another little clump of vegetable for slathering. “It’s still - I don’t know if I’m ready for - something like this. Like, I know what I want, and I know what would make me happy, but I’m still - I’m still really scared. Because I know people will see us and tell me what we're doing is wrong. And I’m not sure if I’m ready for the consequences.”

“Mm,” Lan Wangji hums, considering his words. “I understand.”

Mianmian blinks up at him, pausing in her work as she considers his face. For all that everyone’s always said that Lan Wangji is cold and stiff and unyielding, she can’t help but think that instead - he’s rather gentle. “Yeah?”

“For a long time, I had trouble understanding why I wanted - “ he makes a vague gesture, one that Mianmian immediately understands to be in reference to Wei Wuxian, “Everything about him runs counterpoint to the things that I had been taught all my life. I couldn’t understand - how could I continue to want something that centuries of orthodoxy said was wrong?”

Lan Wangji pauses in his speech, thinking through his words as he carefully peels the crooked carrot in his hands. “But… when I look at him, I see the world in a way that I had never before experienced. When I look at him, I realize just how small my world had been. It… scares me, sometimes. But I know my life is better with him in it, regardless of how he feels about me.”

“Oh,” Mianmian says, quietly taking the slivers of carrot and covering them in sauce. It’s… kind of sweet, seeing the way someone like Lan Wangji is so over the moon about Wei Wuxian. It’s kind of incredible, really.

“The world is too small for you, Maiden Luo,” Lan Wangji says gently, kindly. “That’s not a bad thing. It’s something we both have to learn to navigate.”

“Ah,” Mianmian says, swallowing hard and nodding. Lan Wangji’s mouth curves ever so slightly in what Mianmian wants to think is an encouraging smile, and then they return to a comfortable quiet, interrupted only by the squelching of vegetables and seasoning paste.

“For the record,” Mianmian says quietly, glancing over to the square, where Wei Wuxian had been saddled with A-Yuan duty, after getting caught nearly sabotaging dinner with some chili oil, “I still think you have a chance. He didn’t exactly look enthusiastic about the idea of you marrying anyone.”

Lan Wangji shoots her a dry look, and she can’t help the urge to hipcheck him, Hanguang-Jun or no. “No, seriously - I don’t actually think he legitimately thinks you’ve got feelings for me - or at least I don’t think he actually wants us together. And before you get any stupid ideas, It’s not becuase he likes me. Have you ever tried actually confessing to him?”

Lan Wangji’s brow furrows just enough that she can see the shadows caught in that teeny dimple. “I have. He rejected me.”

Mianmian blinks at him, before giving him a flat look. “Okay, but what did you actually say to him? If that guy’s anything like his brother - which he is; you can’t tell me he’s not - nothing short of explaining it in excruciating detail will make it click. It’s like a weird Jiang defense mechanism - he’s just going to make up weird reasons to rationalize your behavior if you don’t!”

Lan Wangji’s brow furrows further, his mouth pulling into a tight line as he refuses to look at her. From where she’s standing, she can easily see the way his ears have gone red. Mianmian can’t help the way she laughs - after all, the thought of the illustrious Hanguang-Jun sulking like a child is practically unheard of.

Mianmian rolls her eyes and elbows him in the side. “Come on. You owe it to yourself to try.”

Lan Wangji practically scowls as he viciously shucks the next head of lettuce. “I will consider it,” he says, with the kind of grim determination that makes Mianmian want to cackle.

“You can’t give me relationship advice if you yourself aren’t willing to give it another shot. C’mon!” Mianmian wheedles.

Lan Wangji hunches in on himself with as close to a scowl as his pretty face will let him make, determined not to give in to Mianmian’s teasing. It persists until Wei Wuxian notices his expression and trots over with A-Yuan on his shoulders, chiding Mianmian for bullying Lan Wangji.

 

--

 

Dinner is delicious - of course it is; Jiang Yanli had a hand in it, after all. For all that the hunt had been very successful, there’s a little over 30 people to feed, and so most of the soup is vegetable. But it’s still very, very good.

There’s even wine, though it’s quite clearly homebrewed, strong enough to make Mianmian’s eyes water with just a sip. Wei Wuxian drinks it down without batting an eye, laughing all the while. She doesn’t think he’s drunk, exactly, but he plays like it, shamelessly leaning his weight on Lan Wangji while A-Yuan clambers into Lan Wangji’s lap.

Early on in the evening, Mianmian had found a seat squeezed between Jiang Yanli and one of the aunties she’d struck up a friendship with. Based on Wei Wuxian’s expression, it had put a wrench in his epic plan to get Mianmian and Lan Wangji together. But of course, since little A-Yuan had adamantly refused to budge from right beside Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian obviously couldn’t not sit on Lan Wangji’s other side. After all, he’s on A-Yuan duty.

Or so he reasoned, very loudly, in case anyone cared to call him out. No one did, of course, because Jiang Cheng was too busy being a nervous wreck, sitting awkwardly next to Wen Qing, and also because anyone with eyes could see how much Wei Wuxian wanted to be within Lan Wangji’s orbit. No one was stupid enough to get in the middle of that.

Mianmian’s halfway to another bite of soup, when she feels a warm, gentle touch at her wrist. When she glances over at Jiang Yanli, she finds her eyes pointed forward, her cheeks a little ruddy even as her hand boldly slides down to slip into Mianmian’s.

Mianmian pauses, staring at her until Jiang Yanli quietly asks, “Is this okay?”

“Yeah - yeah, it’s fine,” Mianmian chokes out around the warmth blooming high in her chest. To think that something as simple as handholding felt so different, when you knew your feelings were returned. 

Jiang Yanli doesn’t look her in the eye, but she’s smiling, as she takes another bite of her food. Mianmian can’t help but smile, too, as she tangles their fingers together.

 

--

 

In the few hours they have left together after dinner, they don’t quite manage to come to a compromise that everyone’s happy with - but they all leave with a little homework to do. Wen Qing had a point about the issue of diplomatic ties - Yunmeng was still too weak to protect the Wens, and for all that Jin Zixuan was willing to provide what material aid he could, they sure as hell couldn’t go back to the Jins - not with Jin Guangshan still at the helm. Besides, it was unwise to ask too much of him when they were still unmarried. People talked, after all.

There’d be some time before the next discussion conference to meet again, but it’s not something that can wait long - the autumn harvest will be upon them before they know it, and following that - the long, cold winter months.

No one speaks of it on their journey back to town, but Mianmian knows, it’s on all their minds. They have a lot to get done if they want to make this work.

Chapter Text

They make it to Kuizhou, as planned, and Mianmian bids her leave from there. They haven’t kissed since the inn - they’ve hardly even touched. It’s no matter - it’s not like they have much privacy, when Jiang Cheng and the coachman are there. But it’s still - 

Now that Mianmian knows what it’s like, it’s hard not to find herself drifting closer, hoping for more. There’s something about travelling, Mianmian supposes, that makes you bold. Makes you forget the consequences and want - openly, shamelessly, hungrily.

Before Mianmian left, she at least had the good sense to privately ask Jiang Yanli to avoid contacting her unless it had something to do with the Burial Mounds; after all, what was the point in asking for space if nothing changed? Mianmian needed to sort out how she felt about - about everything. Without the others.

The smile Jiang Yanli had given her in return was a little strained around the edges - there was no way that she was happy about this, but Jiang Yanli, being Jiang Yanli was going to do her best to pretend. It’s something Mianmian had always admired Jiang Yanli for being able to do - and something she would never wish for Jiang Yanli in the first place. 

Mianmian hates being the one to put such an expression on Jiang Yanli’s face - she hates making her upset like this, but there’s really no way around it - not without giving Jiang Yanli an undue sense of hope. Because for all Mianmian wants this - she wants it so bad - she knows that wanting just isn't enough.

If she’s going to be with them, she’s going to do it right. And if she’s going to do it right - well, she needs to figure out why it’d go wrong.

Before Mianmian left for good, she’d squeezed Jiang Yanli’s hands in hers, lingering a moment longer in hopes that the depth of her feeling could be understood. There’s no way of telling, really, but Jiang Yanli had looked at her with glossy eyes and smiled a smile that didn’t quite sit right on her face.

A smile that wanted, desperately, to be something else - a smile that was much too good to ask to be anything else.

 

--

 

Mianmian tries not to think about it too much as she heads back east - counterintuitive, she knows. But she wants a few days to recalibrate, to think about everything with a fresh mind, one that isn’t still kiss-stupid and yearning.

So she sends off a message to the team as soon as she stops in Ezhou, and they decide to meet her up a little ways north from Guangling. When she arrives, it’s just the Tan siblings and Xiao Wenzhou - Li Yitian had been summoned back home a few days back, and wouldn’t be able to make it for the hunt.

The little village they found themselves in was supposed to be under Moling Su’s jurisdiction, actually, but Moling Su was a fairly new sect - too small and limited in resources to protect all of the land it claimed, so like most regions outside of the 4 Great Sects’ influence, they frequently relied on rogue cultivators to assist in lower-priority hunts.

People had started to go missing in the forest not too far from town. At first, no one had noticed the disappearances - not until a wealthy merchant's son had gone missing on the way to Gusu. It was then that they found that the forest had begun to draw all kinds of resentful creatures - it began as malevolent spirits and walking corpses, mostly, but as the villagers began to investigate, they'd found people coming back... different. Unchanged enough that at a cursory glance, nothing was amiss, but as time wore on, they would notice a clinging exhaustion that wore on them more and more and more until eventually, they just… didn’t wake up.

Soon enough, enough folks had been affected that the village head realized that it wasn’t a regular illness sweeping through the village, and that they'd need cultivators to come take a look. 

Moling Su cultivators came in and played a few spiritually imbued songs to calm the resentment in the forest, warding off the more severe threats, but it hadn't changed the situation in the village. And by the time they'd determined that they needed the cultivators to come back - well, Moling Su had its hands full with a different village, a little ways to the west. It wasn't an uncommon situation for a sect to be spread so thin, especially in the power vacuum following the Wen's untimely demise, but a situation like this certainly wasn’t tenable.

That left rogue cultivators to pick up the slack for better or for worse.

The woods are eerily quiet, the way places that had once been affected by resentful energy often are. Truth be told, Moling Su didn't do a half bad job with what they had to work with - it's just that there's most definitely something still here, slipping just beneath notice, only perceivable in the peripheries of your senses. 

To be honest, Mianmian probably wouldn't have noticed it herself, if not for the way Xiao Wenzhou kept jumping at every little shadow, his face tense and uneasy. That, of course, makes Tan Mingyuan a little uneasy, clinging closer to his sister the way he sometimes does when he's a little unsettled. Tan Liyang, like Mianmian, doesn't feel a single damn thing, irritably shaking Tan Mingyuan off whenever he gets underfoot. "It's bad enough that I'm tripping over everything today," Tan Liyang grumbles, after stumbling over yet another gnarled root.

"To be fair, visibility's not great," Mianmian sighs, squinting up at the canopy. Not only is the day coated in a thick, woolen overcast, but the treecover here is just naturally thick, even around the beaten path. Under most circumstances, it's an indicator that the forest is healthy and hale, able to support a dense population of life without struggling. That, on its own, should be proof that the resentful energy here is low - and yet.

For all that things appeared to be fine after Moling Su's intervention, something stuck around. Not unlike a cockroach.

They walk the path through the forest for a few hours, looking for any sign of wearing that might indicate a common point at which people might be wandering off the beaten path. There's nothing - at least, nothing outwardly noticeable. And between Xiao Wenzhou's thoroughness and Tan Liyang's keen eye, nearly nothing gets through.

It's around the third hour, when Mianmian finally catches a whiff of it - what remained of the resentful energy that Moling Su couldn't exterminate on the first go-around. She's not the only one - when she glances back at the group, she finds Xiao Wenzhou frowning, his attention focused in the same direction that Mianmian had sensed. "Come on. This way, guys," Mianmian says, gesturing for them to follow.

Indeed, as they progress, they start to see signs of prolonged exposure to resentful energy in the trees. Here, the undergrowth is thinner, more delicate in comparison to the robust plantgrowth they saw when they entered the place. The bark on the trees is rocky and thick, a defensive measure against stressors like bugs, animals, and, yes, resentment. The outermost layers are chalky and ever-so-slightly bleached, a shade or two less vibrant from their counterparts - a clear sign of exposure. Moss does not grow here, but lichen and mushrooms are abundant along the pale tree trunks.

Mianmian is reminded, abruptly, of the sickly plantgrowth in the Burial Mounds, just outside the settlement.

Like this, it's easy to follow the trail to the source, stumbling over the bone-pale knobs of roots and rocky ground to reach -

Well, a temple. It's not uncommon for old temples to be the target of resentful energy, but the irony certainly isn't lost on Mianmian.

"Oh gods," Tan Mingyuan whispers, staring up at the crumbling mess that is the temple's walls. By all means, it isn't even a large temple - which likely explains why it had been abandoned on the wayside. Mianmian wouldn't be surprised if the previous caretaker had simply passed on, leaving no one else to maintain the structure that was both a symbol of their faith and their livelihood. A common enough story of faith left unrewarded - and an easy recipe for resentment to spring up.

"Alright, we'll be sticking close together. Don't go anywhere without a buddy. Xiao Wenzhou, you're with Tan Liyang today. I'll take Tan Mingyuan," Mianmian decides.

Xiao Wenzhou huffs a quiet laugh and asks, "You sure about that?"

"Hey!" Tan Mingyuan protests, though it's clear he's hardly upset about it, when given the choice between someone who can protect him from vengeful ghosts and someone who can't.

"It's more balanced this way. Tan Liyang is less likely to spook," Mianmian explains. "And each pair needs to have someone well-tuned to the resentful energy."

Tan Mingyuan opens his mouth to protest once more at this absolute slander, but Mianmian and Tan Liyang both shoot him a look scathing enough that he shrinks back.

"Everyone still has a few messenger butterfly talismans, right?"

Everyone nods. "Okay, good. If we're separated in a way where we can't hear each other, just send one off. We'll check the outside perimeter for any funny business before we head inside, yeah?"

Everyone nods, once more.

"Okay, good," Mianmian says, with a nod of approval. "Let's do this, then."

 

--

 

The area that'd been cleared out for the temple was innocent enough, albeit seething with the sort of low-level resentment that made Mianmian's skin crawl. She and Tan Mingyuan took to the back, where the wood was making a valiant attempt at reclaiming the temple. It looks like this place had been abandoned for a few years, now - or at least, long enough for any paths to be covered over by leaf-litter - and then, after that, grasses and tall weeds. The weeds had gotten so tall, in fact, that Mianmian nearly missed the well out back until Tan Mingyuan pointed it out.

"Don't go too far," Mianmian chides, as he wades through the waist-high weeds to inspect the well. They'd gone old and brittle with a lack of anything to clear them out after their prime, and and as a result, they pull against Tan Mingyuan’s clothes like the restless dead, begging him to keep them company. The thought isn’t lost on Tan Mingyuan, as he frightfully glances back any time he meets resistance pushing forward. When he gets to the edge of the well even he can't help but cringe back, a soft "Woah," on his lips.

"What's wrong?" Mianmian asks as she hurries after him.

"Don't know. It feels bad," Tan Mingyuan says, with a bit of a shiver.

Mianmian scowls and practically dives through the weeds to get to him. When she approaches the edge of the well, she's hit by a wave of resentment so thick she can't help but reflexively cover her mouth and nose. It doesn't smell - not like Wei Wuxian's bloody pool had - but the air near the well goes down sharp, like cheap, dry alcohol.

Whatever had been left in here, it'd stayed long enough for the rot to get eaten away, at least - all she can smell is the usual damp, muddy smell of an old well. With a huff, Mianmian reaches into her qiankun pouch and pulls out a light talisman, activating it and dropping it down into the well. It flutters down for a little while, but ultimately fizzles long after the point at which Mianmian's eyes can see anything. With a sigh, she quickly inspects at the frayed rope and dilapidated bucket and says, "Well, shit. If Li Yitian were here she'd probably be able to figure out a way to safely send a paperman or something down here."

"Well - I mean, I know a trick?" Tan Mingyuan offers. "Don't tell A-Jie I told you this but - well, back when mom n dad passed, we had a rough couple of months. The guy that taught us cultivation also taught us a few, uh. A few... uh. Widely applicable tricks. We mostly used them for pickpocketing when things got bad, but, I mean - " he shrugs.

"Oh?" Mianmian asks, raising her eyebrows. She didn’t expect that from a kid as obnoxiously genuine as Tan Mingyuan.

"Yeah. This one was something we used for spying on the city guard sometimes," Tan Mingyuan says quietly, pulling out a bit of talisman paper and his writing tools, and quickly gets to work. He slaps the talisman into the bottom of the bucket and squints his eyes closed, setting a hand on the well to steady himself as he says, "Okay. Okay, I'm good. You can lower the bucket, now."

"How are you seeing, exactly...?" Mianmian asks, legitimately curious.

"It's not really seeing, haha," Tan Mingyuan says, an embarrassed flush on his face. "It's more like... feeling? I can sort of sense the distance between stuff around the talisman. It's not great - I can't really tell, like, specific details, but I got pretty good at identifying the way shapes feel."

"Huh," Mianmian says, a little amazed. "You ought to show me sometime."

That gets Tan Mingyuan's cheeks ruddy with pride, and he has to cough and remind Mianmian to be quiet so he can focus as she steadily lowers the bucket into the depths of the well.

Tan Mingyuan is so quiet it's almost eerie. It's probably the quietest Tan Mingyuan's ever been, at least to Mianmian's memory, and when he finally speaks up, she jumps and nearly drops the bucket. "Don't drop the bucket any lower - you’ll hit the water if you keep going.”

“Can you feel anything?” Mianmian asks, with a frown.

Hesitantly, Tan Mingyuan nods. “Yeah. It’s… a little harder to tell, but I think there's - it feels like maybe? Bones? Of some sort? It's a, mm, rounded shape, with like, spaces in-between, like a ribcage. Someone might've died and been, y'know, tossed in this well."

"That's reassuring," Mianmian deadpans. "I guess we ought to get a head start on pacifying the spirit, then. Do you think you can look any further, or should I pull up the bucket?"

"Pull up the bucket - it's, uh. I've never really felt something this intense through the talisman before. I didn't know you could feel resentful energy through it," Tan Mingyuan says, his eyes still shut tight. He bites his lip as Mianmian pulls the bucket back up, his brow furrowed as if in concentration or pain. When it's finally out, he holds his breath blindly reaching into the bucket to rip the talisman apart.

It's with a relieved sigh, that he finally opens his eyes and grins. "I always hated that part," he says with a huff.

Mianmian can't help it. She grins, too, and ruffles Tan Mingyuan's hair. "Good work, Tan Mingyuan. Let me handle the rest."

Tan Mingyuan nods, glowing with pride, and hangs back while Mianmian works to give the standard prayers and offerings in an attempt to appease the spirit.

Perhaps, if they had a Lan on hand to play Inquiry, or if they had gone back to consult some of the villagers ahead of time, appeasing the spirit might've been a little less eventful. There’s a distinct pushback from the spirit, as if it doesn’t wish to be sent away just yet. That’s generally not a good sign - if it’s strong enough to push back like this, it’s strong enough to imbue curses on the living. Strong enough to generate its own resentment - and strong enough to get sucked into its own resentment.

But for all that it pushes back, it can’t manifest an actual form. Mianmian can feel it trying, but - nothing. And if there’s nothing to fight, then all Mianmian can do is pray.

As Mianmian continues to pray for the spirit's rest, she feels the resentment around them - er, coalesce, for lack of a better word for it. It rises from the depths of the well, seeping through the stone walls and the wooden roof like a chemical vapor, expanding further and further out of the well until Mianmian is worried she might have to suppress it after all - and then, all of a sudden, it sucks away into nothingness, taking with it Mianmian's breath.

She's barely able to choke out the last few words of her prayer, wheezing helplessly as she gestures for Tan Mingyuan to burn another stick of incense. Tan Mingyuan does as ordered, quickly stumbling through his own set of pacifying prayers and bowing frantically at the well, before hurriedly helping Mianmian up, his voice pitched high with panic as he asks, "Are you okay?"

Mianmian waves him off with a cough, but it’s… a little strange, that she can hardly catch her breath, even minutes after the fact. 

 

--

 

The others come back having reported another body, leaned up against a tree, its hands crossed over the remains of its stomach as if it had simply taken a nap and wasted away. It hadn't been easy to find - it probably would've been completely missed, if it hadn't been for the fact that Tan Liyang had tripped right over it.

She'd apologized, of course, as they left prayers and offerings, but, well, you never know. Tan Mingyuan nearly asks them if, maybe, something similar had happened - if the resentment had engulfed one of them in a thick, acrid cloud for a moment, only to steal away their breath and leave them oddly cold. But Mianmian shoots him a look, and shrugs, cutting in to explain what they'd found on their end.

It didn't take long for them to conclude that that had probably been one of the missing travelers - someone who'd stopped by for a rest and simply didn't wake up. The resentful energy suffusing the place probably magnified the effects of the temple's curse and if - well, if they drank from the well, it wouldn’t be so strange to assume that that would also play a role in speeding up the curse.

It didn't take much more than a quick run-through of the temple's remains to find a few other travelers - all of them in states of repose, surrounded by a wide halo of mold spots and rot so dark it looked like someone had spilled ink all along the floors and walls. It was disgusting - but at the very least, the bodies had rotted clean.

With tired groans, they brought the remains out of the temple one by one, careful not to lose any little bones as they go. There would be time to bury them later, but one of them had to fly back to alert the village of what they'd found. Tan Liyang offers to do it, zipping off on her sword while Xiao Wenzhou carefully spoke prayers over their bodies and left little offerings for each one.

Mianmian, meanwhile, returned to the dilapidated temple to find the source of the sleeping curse.

Without the others to bring a little life into the temple, everything is... unnaturally still. As if Mianmian was an intruder into some strange, foreign dimension. In fact, it's not especially unlike the feeling one would get from being trapped inside a maze array; if anything, the feeling of stale air is familiar enough.

It's hard to stay in the temple for long - even if she could get over the lingering scent of mold and rot in the floors and walls, there's still that feeling of wrongness that pervades the main hall, pushing her toward the more private backrooms where, at the very least, the choking air isn't quite so bad. She finds herself in one of the smaller rooms, likely where the temple's caretaker lived, if the small trinkets and things were anything to go by. Unlike with the rest of the temple, she nearly feels at ease here, reaching out to run her hands over what few things remained in an uncharacteristic fit of curiosity.

A child's straw doll here, a tiny paperweight in the shape of a frog there, the imperfections on a well-loved desk - it seemed that the monk that lived here had had a simple, but fulfilling life. But if so, how could he have found his end in the well? How could he have been so easily forgotten? So easily overlooked?

Mianmian puzzles it over as she takes the little stone frog in hand, her thumb feeling over the ridges of the frog's face in an almost familiar gesture. It truly was odd, that he'd met his end this way. Well and truly odd.

 

--

 

The village head hurries over as fast as he can, accompanied by four others - two younger men, likely bodyguards, and two elders of the town - a man and a woman. When they explain the situation to them, the elders make twin sounds of choked sorrow, the woman slapping her hand over her mouth and the man bowing his already-bowed head, murmuring a quiet, “Amitabha, Amitabha.”

“It must’ve been during The Cultivator War,” the village head says. “We’d been raided more than once - it wouldn’t be strange to think that he might also have been attacked.”

One of the men - perhaps just a few years older than Mianmian, stares up at the temple and sighs, long and low. “Shit. I used to play here when I was a kid. Bugged the hell out of the old man all the time,” he says, with a quiet laugh. “We should’ve known to check on him, but it’s hard, with reconstruction efforts, and the rough winter last year, and - “

He sighs, shaking his head.

“He’d always been rather headstrong and independent,” the woman says quietly. “He never wanted to accept aid - not without doing anything in return. It’s a shame he’d met his end in such a way...”

The village head purses his lips and says, with some finality “He’d made his decisions in the end. And we’d respected them.”

“Still must’ve been lonely,” Tan Mingyuan mutters from just behind Mianmian. “Who knows how long he’d been dumped in that well.”

The village head snaps his attention to him, a scowl on his face at Tan Mingyuan’s clear disapproval. But before he can say anything, Mianmian cuts in.

“You need to dredge his body out of the well and give him a proper burial,” Mianmian says, a surprisingly deep sorrow welling up in her gut as she watches the villagers struggle with their guilt. “Someone ought to come and rebuild the temple, too. In case travellers need a place to rest.”

The village head scrutinizes Mianmian for a long time, long enough that Mianmian feels a flutter of discomfort in her gut. But then, he finally breaks eye contact and nods resolutely. “It’s only fitting that we do,” he decides. “After leaving him for so long, I suppose. We can have that Liu boy act as caretaker once we’ve finished - god only knows he isn’t doing much else with his time.”

The elders nod along in agreement. “We must clear the path again, too.”

“I can help cobble it over,” the other bodyguard offers. “We do get a lot of travellers on the way to Gusu. It’d be good to let them know where they can stop.”

“He’d probably like that,” the first bodyguard sighs. “It does get lonely out here…”

With that plan of action settled, everyone nods in satisfaction. With a sigh, the village head look at them and says, “Thank you for your assistance. Please, why don’t you return to the village and rest a while? We can handle the rest.”

Mianmian glances at the others - she’s not sure how they feel about leaving this to the villagers, but she, for one, would like to take a nap after all this. She’s exhausted.

The others, picking up on Mianmian’s mood, all nod in agreement. “We’d be honored,” Xiao Wenzhou says.

“We’ll escort you back, then,” the two elders say, glancing back at the village head. The village head nods and sends them off.

“We should have checked on him more,” the woman sighs, as they make their slow way back.

“Stubborn old fool,” the old man huffs, though it's mostly just a front. He looks tired, in the way that grief makes one tired. “Didn’t let any of us help him, and now look at him…”

The old man sighs once, a long, shuddery thing, and Mianmian can’t help but feel pity welling up in her gut. With a hand on his shoulder, Mianmian stops him a moment, not quite knowing why. But then, she remembers the little weight in her pocket, and suddenly she knows what to do.

Gently, she motions for the old man to give her his hand, and when he does, she drops the little stone frog into his palm. The moment that little paperweight touches the old man’s hand, it feels like absolution.

It takes a moment for him to recognize it, and when he does, his entire body begins to tremble. “Oh, A-Fan… A-Fan,” he breathes, his words choked up. “You stubborn old fool…”

Chapter Text

It still doesn't feel quite settled when they leave the village, but after having checked all of the villagers afflicted by the sleeping curse, they'd found nothing else amiss. No lingering resentment after they'd finished their purifying rituals, no signs of illness or strange behavior from anyone in their party, and everyone who had been affected had woken up. After monitoring them for 48 hours, they'd found nothing else wrong - everyone had kept relatively normal hours again and looked to be more or less fine. There really was no real reason to stay - not when Xiao Wenzhou heard news that Gusu was calling for assistance for some water ghoul infestations along the coast, near Zhoushan.

The summer storms had hit hard down south, leaving trails of devastation behind, and whenever natural disasters struck, resentment was always sure to follow. They make their way to the coast without much fanfare, deciding it better to splurge on a boat after the payment they'd received from the previous hunt rather than waste time dealing with the mountainous path toward Zhoushan. It'd just exhaust and slow them down, and no one wants that when they're planning on tackling a bunch of water ghouls.

It takes a night to travel to the coast, and then two nights by boat to get to the nearest harbor outside of the affected area. Mianmian hadn’t been on a boat like this in so long - not the little fishing boats from the Lotus Piers, but an actual boat meant for carrying passengers, one that had rooms below-decks - and she and the Tan siblings Get Excited about it. Mianmian nearly writes a paper bird to Jiang Yanli about it, about how the sea goes on for ages and how goofy the seabirds are, and how the food is mostly terrible, but like, in a fun way - before, of course, she remembers that she’s trying not to. 

She’s supposed to be thinking about herself and what she wants and how she feels about - about whether or not she can be with them. Sure, she’d been able to avoid thinking about it these past few days, what with the hunt and travelling and all, but it’s hard not to think about it when you’re on a boat and there’s not much else to do. Even sharing a room with Tan Liyang doesn’t do much to distract her.

Because the fact of the matter is, she wants. She wants to be with them, she wants to - to eat Jiang Yanli’s cooking every day, and to spar with Jin Zixuan in the mornings, and she wants to go out to town with them and just look at all the little things on sale. She wants to wake up in their bed, tangled in their arms. She wants to fall asleep with them - and, and all that entails.

But she can’t have these things the way she wants them. She can’t have these things separate from the Carp Tower and the Jin Sect and the politics. She loves them, but would she love them after years of rumors, of pointed barbs and doubts of her skill? Would they love her, if Jin Zixuan’s ethics were challenged at every turn, if Jiang Yanli was mocked for being unable to fulfill her husband’s desires?

Or would they hide her away? Keep her a secret, for all that she’d be well-loved? She wouldn’t put it past them - they’d kept their plans, their feelings, a secret from her for so long, after all. Would they make her Jiang Yanli’s handmaiden, maybe? Forever sequestered in Jiang Yanli’s rooms, unable to take up her blade or leave the Carp Tower or even buy things without someone else’s permission…

She couldn’t stomach the thought.

No matter how she looked at the problem, she couldn’t see any way in which they could simply love one another and be happy. Not when Mianmian needed her freedom, when Jiang Yanli needed her family, when Jin Zixuan needed the ability to do good, to be good. There were simply too many things beyond their control.

Mianmian knew this, of course. She’d known it from the beginning - that sacrifices were inevitable. Perhaps… perhaps this was just going to have to be one of those sacrifices. If Mianmian could be assured that loving them - that the aftermath of loving them - wouldn’t tear her apart, maybe she could stomach it all.

But she knows she can’t. She’s only a servant’s daughter, after all. How could she withstand the love of two dynasties and live to see it through?

She turns over on the ship’s cheap bedding with a sigh, ignoring the way Tan Liyang gives her a long, concerned look. 

 

--

 

She wakes up the next morning from a dreamless sleep, just a little later than usual. Tan Liyang had filched a little breakfast for her, an odd look on her face as she asks, "You sleep okay? You never wake up after I do."

Mianmian shrugs. "I slept just fine," she says, even as she yawns into her fist. "Thanks for bringing me breakfast."

"No problem," Tan Liyang says with a shrug, as she goes about her business.

That leaves Mianmian to slowly rouse from her bed, the thought of letting Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan go settling heavy in her gut. It really is the best option, Mianmian decides, even as her chest aches at the thought of it. It’s the best option for all of them. 

 

--

 

They disembark that afternoon and spend the remainder of the day heading steadily toward Zhoushan. They don't quite make it to town before the sun sets, so they all relegate themselves to setting up camp for the evening while there's still light. It's not too bad - at the very least, the food they can forage is a whole lot fresher than the boat's awful fare.

Mianmian finds herself yawning a little earlier than usual, but it had been a long day. Tan Mingyuan bullies her into setting up her bedroll and getting some rest, even though it'd been days since the hunt and she’s about as well rested as she’s ever going to get. But she goes down easily, ignoring the way Tan Liyang teases her - "First you sleep in, and now you go to bed early? If I didn't know better, I would've thought you'd been replaced by my grandmother."

Mianmian makes a rude gesture in the general direction of Tan Liyang and crawls into her tent. She’s asleep the moment her head hits the pillow.

 

--

 

Jin Zixuan is a solid, steady weight behind her, his hands broad and warm as they slide up from her thighs to settle on her hips. It feels good, the way he holds her, the way he nuzzles his nose against the crook of her neck and presses his pretty lips against her skin. "Hurry up," Mianmian groans, shamelessly working her hips against his, despite the way the window is open for anyone to see them, for anyone to hear them. Outside, the moon is full and bright in the sky, and just beyond their room is a lake of lotuses, stretching out as far as the eye can see.

Jin Zixuan hums, ignoring her desperation as he nips against her jaw, as he grinds indulgently against her. She can feel every inch of it - the thick line of his cock, rocking up against her backside, fitting just between her cheeks - and she can't help that she wants, that her body squeezes reflexively around nothing as if that'd coax him closer. "Mianmian," he murmurs, a hand sliding up to up one of her breasts, kneading against it posessively.

The other settles against her lower stomach - so close to -

- and tugs her tight against him. "I love you," he says, pressing kisses against the sensitive side of her neck, making goosebumps bloom across her skin with just that little touch, and Mianmian -

Mianmian gasps awake, heart racing in her chest as she tries to blink away the lingering feeling of Jin Zixuan's hands on her body. She's wet - shamefully so, her pussy throbbing in time with the frantic thudding of her heartbeat.

Gods, really? After she’d gone through all the trouble of resolving to give it up? For all that the spirit might be willing, the flesh sure is weak, huh! Mianmian huffs out a sigh through gritted teeth and kicks away her bedroll in frustration.

At least she didn't have to share her tent with anyone - otherwise, she'd probably die of mortification.

 

--

 

Gusu Lan's junior disciples are all very sweet and polite. They don't scorn rogue cultivators the way the Jin or the Nie might - rather, where there are gaps in knowledge, they quickly try to teach. Where there's a lack of spiritual energy, they find other tasks to be completed. Mianmian rather likes working with them.

She actually sees a handful of disciples in Yunmeng purples among their ranks - all of them are about middle-level, so she doesn't know them that well. They're not students she spars with when she's training with Jiang Cheng - she mostly recognizes them from sitting in on the occasional calligraphy class, or seeing them in passing in the halls, or chatting briefly with them while they're on guard duty. Mianmian nearly asks after Jiang Yanli - it’s been about a week already, and for all that Mianmian knows she ought to stay away until her feelings are sorted out, she can’t help but think about her, about the way her lips felt against Mianmian’s, about the way their hands fit together so perfectly - but she manages to reign in her impulses a while longer.

When they spot her, they greet her respectfully, as if she was one of their seniors and not just some rogue cultivator that hangs out with their sect leader sometimes. Outside of the context of the Lotus Piers, it's a little embarrassing, especially seeing as Tan Mingyuan stares at them with wide eyes, as if wondering if he ought to do the same (he should, since she does teach him things whenever they have time to spar, but if he legitimately started treating her with formality, she'd probably die of embarrassment, so...).

They head out to sea in small boats - three to a boat, so that there's one man at the oars and two keeping an eye out for the ghouls. Mianmian pointedly puts herself on a boat with two Gusu Lan disciples, so as not to tempt herself to ask about the Lotus Piers. While they keep a lookout for water ghouls, Mianmian finds herself asking after Hanguang-Jun, and they both can't help but babble on about just how cool he is. It helps to fill the time, at least.

 

--

 

The hunt is about as eventful as one would expect, and at the end of the day, Mianmian finds herself exhausted. Gusu Lan had arranged for housing as best they could, so there are tents large enough to house the four of them. At first, the disciples organizing the hunt gave them strange looks for electing not to separate tents, but they eventually let it be. Not unlike the previous night, as soon as Mianmian's washed up for bed, she's out like a light.

When she blinks her eyes open, she sees Jiang Yanli curled up in bed, her head pillowed on Jin Zixuan's chest. He'd thrown an arm around her bare shoulders, his fingers running through the inky river of her dark hair. They look so content like this, and Mianmian can't help the way her heart clenches at the sight of them. They look perfect together. She's just intruding.

Mianmian resolves to leave before they can notice her and send her away, but just as she moves to do so, Jin Zixuan glances up at her.

His eyes are so warm and sweet as he brings his free hand up to his lips in a shushing gesture, before glancing down at Jiang Yanli. Just as quietly, he brings his other hand down to pat the bed, where there was just enough space to fit one more. Mianmian nearly hesitates, but in the end, she can't help but be drawn to their side.

Jin Zixuan is comforting against her, tugging Mianmian gently closer. Close enough that he can press a gentle kiss to the crown of her head, before leaning back and smiling gently at her, like there wasn't anywhere else he'd rather be. 

 

--

 

Mianmian slowly wakes to Xiao Wenzhou's hand on her shoulder, and for a sleepy half-second, she thinks - hopes - it’s Jin Zixuan’s. But no - it’s just Xiao Wenzhou, staring down at her with a frown etched on his face. She yawns once, loud, and rubs her sleep-gritty eyes. "Good morning," she says, though once she notices his frown, she can't help but frown in turn. "What's wrong?"

"You missed breakfast," Xiao Wenzhou says. "And you wouldn't wake up no matter how hard I shook you. Are you sure you're alright?"

Mianmian yawns again, before nodding and waving him off. "It's fine. you know those Gusu Lan folk wake up early."

"No, Mianmian," Xiao Wenzhou says. "I mean - It's almost time for the boats to set off."

Mianmian's eyes widen and she jumps into action, throwing the blankets off her lap. "You're joking! Gods, go on, get out! I've got to get dressed!"

"I managed to get us rearranged so that you can ride with me and one of the Yunmeng Jiang disciples," Xiao Wenzhou explains, that frown still etched into his face. "She promised she'd wait, if it takes too long for you to get up but... well, you've got to admit, this is weird, even for you."

"Yeah, yeah, whatever, out, out, out!"

 

--

 

The hunt that day is miserable, doubly so when compared to just how nice her dream had been, which is probably why when they get to shore, all Mianmian wants to do is flop in her bed and take a nap. She’s been grumpy all morning because that’s how things are when you accidentally sleep in late for things, and she hadn’t noticed the water ghoul that’d stowed away on the underside of their ship until it damn near crawled onto their boat. In their struggle, they'd capsized, soaking all three of them. Xiao Wenzhou had ended up spraining his wrist in the ensuing scuffle, but seeing as they needed all men on deck, once they took him back to shore, Mianmian and the Yunmeng disciple ended up squeezing in with two separate ships.

So not only was it cramped and clumsy, but one of the disciples had accidentally elbowed Mianmian in the side when a water ghoul attacked, sending her careening overboard. From there, she'd nearly drowned as a second water ghoul grabbed onto her ankle. Sure, she'd managed to kick it off of her and paddle back to the boat, but she's pretty sure she'd sprained her ankle in doing so. And already with one man down today, Mianmian couldn't just head back to shore when she was still perfectly capable of fighting. So she toughed it out on the sprained ankle for the rest of the day.

It really wasn't one of her better decisions, she must admit. Tan Mingyuan tears her a new one for being so reckless when he sees her limp back to the tent.

When she'd undressed for the evening, Tan Liyang got one look at the bruise blooming at her ribs and hissed in sympathy. Immediately, she'd forced the boys out of the room for the unforeseeable future and dragged a tub into their tent, filling it up herself with hot water, bucket by bucket, despite Mianmian's protests. Tan Liyang refused to budge until Mianmian got settled into the water, and relaxed.

Mianmian, does, for the record, relax. A little too hard, perhaps, because as Tan Liyang washes her hair, she ends up dozing right off, and - 

- and she’s out on the water with Jiang Yanli, lying side by side on the flat bottom of the boat in their trousers and neiyi. They’re laughing about nothing in particular - simply laughing just to laugh as their clothes slowly dry. When she looks over at Jiang Yanli, she can’t help but feel taken by how lovely she is. As if her bright laughter, her charming smile were warmer than the sun itself.

Mianmian can’t help but want to stay out here like this forever, but eventually, she hears their names being called from the shore. When she sits up and squints across the sunlit lakes, she can just barely make out Jin Zixuan, waving his arms at them, a bright smile on his face.

Behind him, a blanket had been set out for them with plates of food laid in a gorgeous spread. Jiang Yanli blinks and sits up too, and when she sees him, she laughs and waves back. With a sunshine-bright grin over at Mianmian, Jiang Yanli takes up the oars and starts rowing them back to shore.

 

--

 

Tan Liyang is shaking Mianmian’s shoulder as she calls Mianmian’s name. At some point, the water had gone cold enough to raise goosebumps on her skin, and wow - Mianmian hadn’t realized she’d been out for so long. With a frown, Tan Liyang asks, “Mianmian, sweetheart, are you okay? I mean, I know you were tired, but… I had to call your name pretty loudly to get you to wake up.”

Mianmian blinks and frowns, shaking her head. “I’m fine. I think, maybe. I didn’t realize I was so tired… It’s probably just because I’ve been draining so much qi trying to heal up my ankle,” she says, but Tan Liyang doesn’t look too assured.

She’s still got a wary frown on her face as she helps Mianmian out of the tub and brings her her robes. As soon as Mianmian’s dressed, she puts a hand to Mianmian’s forehead as if searching for illness, but there’s clearly nothing there.

“I’m fine, ” Mianmian says, with a smile that feels more assuring than it looks. “Just tired. It’s been a crazy day.”

Tan Liyang doesn't look especially convinced. “Maybe you ought to sit tomorrow out.”

“We don’t have enough men for that,” Mianmian frowns, crossing her arms over her chest. “You know I can’t in good conscience do that when I’m perfectly fine.”

Tan Liyang doesn’t look happy about that. “I’ll let you go tomorrow… but only if you promise to go right to the medical tent afterwards and talk to them about what’s been going on. I’m no expert, but what if that temple spirit cursed you, too?”

“We dispelled it, though. Everyone else had woken up just fine,” Mianmian protests. She knows it’s just a matter of her own stubbornness that makes her want to argue about it, but she really can’t help it. It almost feels embarrassing, the thought that she might’ve missed something so important as, y’know, being cursed. Even if she knows that a vast majority of curses tend to sneak up on you.

“Still,” Tan Liyang says, crossing her arms firmly over her chest as she looms over Mianmian. “If you don’t promise me you’ll go, then I won’t let either of the boys wake you up, tomorrow.”

Mianmian scowls, but her hands are tied. “Fine. I’ll check in with the medical tent tomorrow. I promise.

Tan Liyang meets her scowl head on, huffing and rolling her eyes in fond annoyance. “I swear, Mianmian, you’re worse than Mingyuan when you’re like this.”

Mianmian sticks her tongue out at Tan Liyang, and Tan Liyang can’t help but stick hers out in return, pinching Mianmian’s nose before heading out of the tent to call the boys back in.

 

--

 

As if to prove a point, Mianmian decides to stay up later than the others that night. It makes Tan Liyang roll her eyes, especially because Mianmian can’t stop yawning, but she does manage it! Not by much, because Tan Mingyuan is a goddamn nightowl, but she does!

The moment her head hits the pillow, though, she’s out like a light, and - 

And Jiang Yanli is spread out for her, beautiful and bare, her chest heaving in pleasure. Jin Zixuan lies underneath her, his arms wrapped around her ribcage, just underneath her ample chest. Almost as if to highlight how gorgeous her breasts are as their bodies move together, as he fucks her into incoherency.

She’s so wet, her pussy is glistening in the low light of the room, her hole twitching around Jin Zixuan’s cock every time their thighs slap together. “Please,” she gasps, all fucked-out and sweet, clinging desperately to whatever she can get a hold of. “Mianmian, ah, please - “

What can Mianmian do, but stagger toward her, to kneel by her side and kiss her quiet? What can she do, but drag her fingers through Jiang Yanli’s slick, circle her clit with dragonfly-light fingers until she sobs against Mianmian’s mouth? She’s close - Mianmian can tell, with the way her thighs keep twitching helplessly, with the way she can hardly bear to hold back her pretty noises, the way she can hardly remember to kiss Mianmian back as Jin Zixuan picks up the pace.

“I’m - I’m - please, ah, I’ll - “ Jiang Yanli gasps, until Mianmian touches her in earnest - after that, well, Jiang Yanli can hardly get a word out at all. Suddenly, she goes taut, her toes digging into the bedding beneath them, eyes squinting shut and mouth open in a silent gasp.

Ah, Mianmian realizes, she came.

Underneath Jiang Yanli, Jin Zixuan makes a low whine, his hips stuttering in time with the fluttering of Jiang Yanli’s pretty cunt, and then he goes rigid too, his broad hands dropping down to her hips - keeping her pinned there as he spills inside of her, holding her tight against him until he’s finished.

It’s -

Wow, it’s - 

Jin Zixuan’s cock gently slips out of her, and with it comes a little dribble of white, trailing down her slit to drip between her asscheeks. Mianmian can’t stop staring, watching the way Jiang Yanli’s pussy twitches through the aftershocks, sated.

Once they’ve caught their breath, Jin Zixuan eases Jiang Yanli off of him, and Mianmian is almost embarrassed to see him so naked. But then, he smiles his handsome, tired smile and gestures for Mianmian to come up. “Let me get you, too,” he says, urging her to swing her leg over his broad chest and scoot up a little until - 

 

--

 

Mianmian gasps awake, clutching the thin blanket over her chest as glances, wild-eyed around the tent. Tan Liyang’s in the corner, preparing her things for the day, and Mianmian prays to any god out there that she hadn’t heard Mianmian, that she couldn’t tell what Mianmian had been dreaming of. Her thighs are shamefully slick, and she can feel her pulse between her legs, and she’s so mortified with how much she wants, she could die.

Once Tan Liyang is done shoving supplies into her qiankun pouch she finally turns to Mianmian. Her heart sticks high up in her throat as Tan Liyang looks her up and down, taking a second to take in Mianmian’s disheveled appearance. Mianmian knows her cheeks are warm, and that she must look a sweaty, disheveled mess, but she tries her best to look unruffled. If Tan Liyang clues in on what she’d been dreaming of she’ll probably cry.

“Oh. You’re up for once. That’s good,” Tan Liyang says with a relieved smile. Mianmian’s heart is thumping rabbit-quick in her chest, as she waits for the other shoe to drop, for Tan Liyang to tease her about whatever she’d said in the night. “You were whimpering in your sleep - was it a nightmare?”

Mianmian nearly chokes on her relief, as she cracks an awkward smile, croaking out a lame, “Yeah, something like that.”

“Hurry and get washed up. We’ll be late for breakfast if we dawdle too much longer,” Tan Liyang says with a smile.

“Yeah. Yeah, sure,” Mianmian says, waiting until Tan Liyang is out of the tent before she kicks off her blankets, dismayed at the gross little smear of wetness she can feel in her underthings.

 

--

 

She really can’t help it if she’s a little distracted on the hunt, okay? She’s not usually - her libido isn’t usually quite this persistent, but she’s - it’s been a while, okay? She gets her work done as best as she always does, but there's that low-level distraction buzzing at the back of her head, slowing down her reflexes and making her clumsy.

It’s a good thing she’d been put on rowing duty today, because her mind is completely elsewhere. She aches to be back in her guest room in Yunmeng, to let Jiang Yanli in and waste the evening away sitting so close their thighs touch. She aches to see Jin Zixuan, to pull him out to Phoenix Mountain and work off all her restless energy on a hunt. She could - she could dip her toes into the tiny little lake there, she could shove Jin Zixuan right into the water and jump in right after until they’re soaking wet and she can -

Mianmian swallows and blinks up at the Gusu disciple staring down at her. “Pardon?”

“If Senior would please steer the boat eastward - following Hanguang-Jun’s boat.”

Mianmian nearly drops the fucking oars, as she whips around to see where the disciple’s pointing. Indeed, none other than Lan Wangji is standing there on his own, a starry-eyed disciple rowing the boat as he peers down into the water for water ghouls.

 

--

 

With the arrival of the esteemed Hanguang-Jun, the disciples are reinvigorated, and the hunt flies by without a hitch. They dispel more water ghouls than they had previously, and finally, it seems like they might be able to finish sometime this week.

For all that she’d wanted to catch up with Lan Wangji, she’s still plagued by that dream. All day, she’s been restless and distracted, a distinct... yearning leaving behind a hungry chasm in her chest. It’s completely at odds with what she’d promised herself she would do, and yet - she’s helpless to it, to the pull of comfort, of love, of - of want, deep in her chest.

This stupid back and forth between her head and her heart leaves her more exhausted than she should be, given that all she’d done today is row a boat, but she supposes emotional exhaustion always did strike her differently.

All she really wants to do right now is nap. Surely Tan Liyang wouldn’t begrudge her if she shut her eyes for a few minutes before heading to the medical tent, right?

But… Mianmian only makes it as far as the tent flap, before she’s teetering on her feet, eyes slipping shut in a dead faint.

Chapter Text

It’s Tan Mingyuan who finds her, collapsed on the floor of their tent. Tan Mingyuan, being Tan Mingyuan, of course makes a huge deal about it, loudly panicking as he scoops her up and half carries, half drags her to the closest bed. He tries to shake her awake for minutes on end, his voice taking on a near-hysterical edge as she doesn’t wake up. 

When Xiao Wenzhou steps into the tent to inspect the noise, he startles into alertness, the cold, creeping sensation of the resentful energy washing over him like a wave. But no one’s there - just an increasingly distressed Tan Mingyuan and an unconscious Mianmian lying on the bed. As Xiao Wenzhou approaches them, he flinches back, the feeling of resentful energy growing stronger the closer he gets.

“I figured as much,” Xiao Wenzhou says, frowning.

“What? What’s wrong with her?” Tan Mingyuan demands, his eyes beginning to tear up with worry.

“I think she’s cursed,” Xiao Wenzhou says quietly. “I thought I felt resentful energy in the tent when I went to wake her up the other day, but once she was awake, the feeling disappeared, so I chalked it up to the water ghouls. I’ll keep watch over her; can you get one of the senior disciples in the medical tent?”

“Yeah. Yeah, hold on,” Tan Mingyuan says, jumping to his feet and dashing off.

He’s halfway to the medical tent, blindly snapping at people to get out of his way as he blusters through the crowd of cultivators heading back in from the shore, when he damn near runs into a tall, broad-shouldered Lan disciple. “I said move! I need to get to the medical tent!” Tan Mingyuan practically snarls, as the man quite pointedly does not move.

Instead, he turns around and -

“Oh gods,” Tan Mingyuan breathes, staring up at none other than the legendary Hanguang-Jun.

Hanguang-Jun stares coldly down at him, his golden eyes flicking up and down. “You’re not injured,” he says, his words clipped and just this side of polite.

“It’s not for me! Mianmian is - I, um, I mean, my friend is - “

“Luo Qingyang?” Hanguang-Jun asks, his voice gentling, but still intimidating as hell.

“Oh, uh. Yeah,” Tan Mingyuan gapes. “Wait - you know her?”

“What’s wrong with her?” Hanguang-Jun asks, his gaze lifting from Tan Mingyuan to look in the direction he came from - as if that’d tell him anything about where their tent is.

“She won’t wake up!” Tan Mingyuan cries out. “Xiao Wenzhou thinks she might be cursed so - “

“Take me to her,” Hanguang-Jun says, pushing past Tan Mingyuan. Tan Mingyuan has about a half second to decide whether to head to the medical tent or escort Hanguang-Jun to their shared tent, but Hanguang-Jun keeps walking, and what else is Tan Mingyuan supposed to do? He runs after Hanguang-Jun.

 

--

 

A-Jie is already in the tent, freaking out as Xiao Wenzhou tries to also not lose his shit. Out of the four of them, Mianmian’s the only one that’s got, like, real, formal training - not like Xiao Wenzhou, who’s mostly just a nerd, and Tan Mingyuan and A-Jie, who mostly only got the cool-swords-stuff part of their training. If Li Yitian was here, she’d probably know what to do, but she’s off doing whatever with her family. So instead, they make do.

Apparently, making do means getting Hanguang-fucking-Jun involved, but Tan Mingyuan’s prettty psyched about that, so it’s not such a bad thing. But he could do without the whole, y’know, trauma of seeing Mianmian nearly die in front of his eyes while he can do nothing to help ( again!!! ).

Xiao Wenzhou is too in awe of the fact that Hanguang-Jun is literally breathing the same air as him to do anything other than let himself be brushed off when Hanguang-Jun politely asks him to move aside. 

Hanguang-Jun settles onto the crate Xiao Wenzhou had been sitting on with all the grace of, well, Hanguang-Jun, and sets two fingers against Mianmian's wrist. His face settles into a quiet little frown as he focuses on Mianmian's qi, and the tent goes so quiet Tan Mingyuan's practically vibrating in his chair as he waits to hear the verdict.

When Hanguang-Jun finally pulls away with a sigh, it feels like everyone else releases a breath they hadn’t realized they’d been holding in, too. “You’re right,” Hanguang-Jun says quietly. “It appears she’s been cursed. The damage is extensive. Do any of you remember when she began to act strange?”

Tan Mingyuan bites his lip and glances up at A-Jie. A-Jie sighs and says, “She’d probably gotten cursed on a nighthunt we went on about two weeks ago. The victims had a similar sleeping curse on them, but they’d died much more quickly from it. A few days after the hunt, we noticed that she’d been sleeping more. Normally, she keeps to a pretty strict schedule, but…” A-Jie shrugs.

“Can you tell me more about the hunt?” Hanguang-Jun asks, the furrow in his brow deepening.

“I was with her when it happened,” Tan Mingyuan pipes up, aching to be any sort of useful.

When Hanguang-Jun focuses all of his attention on Tan Mingyuan, he can’t help but shiver. That guy’s gaze is intense as hell . But even Tan Mingyuan wouldn’t dare hide anything from Hanguang-Jun. So eventually, the words just… come out.

When Tan Mingyuan finishes speaking, Hanguang-Jun makes a quiet, considering sound. There’s another one of those hold-your-breath pauses that seem to last an age, before he finally speaks. "I want to take her to Gusu. For treatment," he says with a finality that tells them that he’s probably not going to be taking no for an answer.

"Is it really that bad?" Tan Mingyuan asks, worry and shame curling tight in his gut. He should've noticed - they all should've noticed, the moment Mianmian started sleeping in so late.

"Mn," Hanguang-Jun hums. "Her core is overtaxed and her energy reserves depleted. She needs treatment right away, or she will exhaust herself to death."

Tan Mingyuan is immediately ready to agree - but it's A-Jie that frowns and says, "I don't want to send her off to Gusu without her knowledge. Or at least, not without one of us. But we're contracted to stay the entire hunt, or else our pay's gonna get docked. It's really nothing personal, Hanguang-Jun, but you can understand why I'd have reservations about letting a stranger take my weak and unconscious friend somewhere. Even someone with as honorable a reputation as you."

The line of Hanguang-Jun's mouth tightens, but he nods. "Very well. If she does not wake by tomorrow, however..."

A-Jie nods solemnly. "I understand. Thank you, Hanguang-Jun."

Hanguang-Jun nods, before slowly - almost reluctantly - getting up. "Please notify me if there are any changes. My tent is on the north end of our camp, just on the outskirts."

A-Jie and Xiao Wenzhou solemnly nod at him, watching him as he goes.

 

--

 

When Mianmian comes to, the night is deep and dark, a single puttering stub of a candle the only indicator of time. At her bedside, Tan Liyang sits, reading a book. There's a grim look on her face, the one she makes when she's worried, but trying to scare everyone else into not mentioning it.

Mianmian feels... exhausted. Quite frankly, she feels like shit, and if she hadn't just woken up from a nap, she'd want another nap. At least the dream had been nice - not the mortifying wet dreams she's been having lately, but just - well, just a nice dream. Like most of the others, it leaves her hungry for contact, hungry to hold someone - or, well, a certain someones - close. It's... embarrassing to admit, but for the first time in a while, she feels... lonely. So lonely she has to even admit it to herself.

Gods, it's barely been two weeks since she's seen Jiang Yanli, and only a few days longer since she's seen Jin Zixuan. How could she possibly miss them this much?

A yawn rips right on out of her, taking with it the brooding feeling that’d started gathering, and she painstakingly sits up. It’s a struggle, given how heavy her limbs feel. Beside her, Tan Liyang startles into motion, damn near dropping the book as she hurries to take Mianmian by the hand, demanding, "Mianmian! Holy shit, are you alright?"

"I - yeah. I'm fine. Helluva nap, though," Mianmian says with another yawn.

"Mianmian, sweetheart, you've been out for a good ten hours," Tan Liyang says, her voice creaking. "I don't think that's a nap."

"Oh," Mianmian says, for lack of anything else to say. "Why are you still up, then? What time is it?"

"It's almost dawn, Mianmian. The boys n' I have been taking turns waiting for you to wake up," Tan Liyang says, and her eyes are all watery and awful as she asks, "Why didn't you tell us you'd gotten your dumb ass cursed? "

Oh. Oh fuck. It feels like a heavy stone's been dropped in her gut as she asks, "What do you mean, I got cursed?"

"Don't play around," Tan Liyang says, and oh gods, here come the waterworks. "You almost made my little brother cry!" She moves to punch Mianmian in the arm, but seems to think better of it halfway through. Instead, she settles her hand heavily against Mianmian’s bicep, squeezing so hard it almost hurts.

"No, really, I - " Mianmian says starts, but one glance at Tan Liyang and Mianmian's shutting her mouth with an audible click.

"Mingyuan was the one that found you - he ran off to get someone from the medical tent because you were unconscious on the floor! I thought I told you to go to the medical tent right away, Mianmian. You promised me!"

A hot, uncomfortable shame fills Mianmian's stomach as she watches the big, fat tears roll down Tan Liyang's cheeks. "I was - I just, I was so tired, I thought I'd just close my eyes for a second," she says, and the excuse sounds weak in her own ears. "I mean, I didn't think it was such a big deal. So what if I'm a little sleepier than usual, it's not like I'll - "

"Hanguang-Jun said that you're going to exhaust yourself to death if you keep this up," Tan Liyang says. The moment she says it, she immediately perks up and says, "I have to get Hanguang-Jun. Do you think you can stay awake? Actually - no, wait, don't answer that."

Quickly, she scrubs the tears off her face and goes over to Xiao Wenzhou's bedside, shaking him awake. "Hey - could you keep an eye on her? I'm going to go get Hanguang-Jun, okay?"

"She's awake?" Xiao Wenzhou asks blearily. And then, when it hits, he jolts up glancing right at Mianmian. "Oh, you're awake!"

Mianmian scowls, embarrassment flushing across her cheeks at everyone making such a big damn deal about all this. "Yes, I'm awake. What's all this about?"

"Hanguang-Jun wants to take you to Gusu to get treated, but we were scared something might happen to you," Xiao Wenzhou explains, as Tan Liyang runs off. Mianmian would laugh at the idea of Lan Wangji of all people 'doing something' to her, but the thought of everyone being so worried over something so stupid makes Mianmian's gut churn too much for her to really feel like laughing.

“To be honest, Mianmian, I'm kind of upset," Xiao Wenzhou says, gently, but firmly. It's that sort of tone that makes Mianmian shrink back with guilt, even if she doesn't quite know why she feels guilty in the first place. "We've been really worried, but we trusted you to know what you were doing. You're the best trained of all of us, so we figured it'd be okay if you said it was okay, but - " He bites his lip, and glances down at his hands, where they're crossed in his lap. After a long moment of deciding his words, Xiao Wenzhou finally looks Mianmian in the eye. "Mianmian, we care about you. You have to know that, don't you? Why couldn't you just tell us something was wrong?"

There it is. The hot, queasy feeling welling up in Mianmian's gut. She turns away, too - too what? Embarrassed? Ashamed? Uneasy? - to look Xiao Wenzhou in the eye as she says, in a small voice, "You guys have better things to be worried about. I figured I could handle it myself. It's just a sleeping curse."

"It was going to kill you, and we wouldn't have known any better!" Xiao Wenzhou says, raising his voice in an uncharacteristic fit of frustration. Immediately, he feels bad about it, glancing over at Tan Mingyuan to make sure he didn't wake him. Tan Mingyuan mumbles something in his sleep and turns over, but he doesn't wake. Which, given how emotional they're both kind of getting, it's probably a good thing that he doesn't.

"Look, Mianmian," Xiao Wenzhou says with a long, tired sigh. "I know we're not - we don't have much. In terms of training, in terms of resources, whatever. But would it kill you to rely on us sometimes? With the way you act, it's almost like you don't think of us as your friends, but rather - I don't know, maybe I'm just being cruel, but I can't think of another word for it. It just - it feels like you're taking pity on us, like you’re only sticking around because we’re charity cases or something. Like we’re your pet project, instead of your friends and equals. And that hurts."

"Xiao Wenzhou, what - " Mainmian starts, but she stops herself before she can say anything else, before she can actually sit and think about it. Is that really what it looked like to him? That's not - That can't be right. "No. No, of course I don't think of you guys that way. That's so - I would never insult you like that. You're my friends. "

"Friends trust each other to have their backs when things are rough," Xiao Wenzhou says quietly, frustration and unhappiness written all across his features. "With the way you act, I almost wonder if you consider anyone your friend."

Mianmian won't - she won't lie; what he said definitely struck a nerve. But also, when Mianmian stops and thinks about it, she can't actually remember the last time she relied on anyone. Not for anything important , anyways. And that's - 

Hm. That's... not good.

"I just... don't want to be anyone else's burden," Mianmian says, as that hot, unbearable shame makes itself known again because, well - after all of her efforts, what did she end up becoming? “I don’t want to have to rely on someone else to get by. I don’t want to get used to that.”

It doesn't seem to be the right thing to say, given the way Xiao Wenzhou's expression shutters even further. But she doesn't have any time to try to explain herself, when Lan Wangji steps into the tent, looking as elegant as ever despite it being ass o'clock in the morning.

"Maiden Luo. I'm glad to see you awake," he says quietly - but there’s a frantic worry there that Mianmian can’t help but pick up on. "I trust that everyone's informed you of my intentions?"

Mianmian nods.

"Your condition is... not good," Lan Wangji explains. "I'm not as well-versed on the exact nature of your curse as a dedicated curse-breaker would be, but your qi reserves are dwindling to a point where, if this continues, you might end up damaging your meridians. If your body doesn't tear itself apart trying to stay functional first. You need to see a professional."

Mianmian's mouth tightens unhappily. "But what about - "

"Worry about the hunt later," Tan Liyang says with a huff. "We don't know how long you have before you're gonna go and conk out again, so you need to decide now: Will you go with Hanguang-Jun or not?"

Mianmian looks at Tan Liyang's face, and then at Xiao Wenzhou. Guilt pools in her stomach as she thinks about what Xiao Wenzhou had said, so reluctantly, Mianmian sighs and says, "Yeah, sure. I'll go with you."

With a decisive nod, Lan Wangji says, "Pack your things. I'll be waiting outside."

"Wait, we're going now?! " Mianmain asks, because they still have - the hunt is still -

"There's no time to waste," Lan Wangji says brusquely. And with that, he slips out of the tent.

They end up waking Tan Mingyuan up to say goodbye - because after all, Mianmian isn’t cruel; for all that the kid is prone to waterworks, he’d been the one most worried for her, especially after all that business with the aoyin a few weeks back.

Gods, that felt like -  like so long ago. Ages ago.

She quickly hugs him goodbye, and promises that she’d make this up to them later, before grabbing her things and flitting out of the tent.

 

--

 

Mianmian usually likes flying. She's very good at it. But after only an hour of flight, she feels awful. Exhausted and heavy, like she's flying home after a long battle. Not like she's on a quick trip to Gusu. It's absolutely maddening.

When she’d gotten stubborn about flying on her own, Lan Wangji had warned her to fly close to the ground and within arm's reach of him, on the off chance that she might lose consciousness mid-flight. It'd been a little demeaning, at first, but as they flew on, she couldn't help but feel like there was some sense to it after all.

She lasts another thirty minutes, before finally she has to admit defeat. They'd been flying slower than Mianmian usually does when she's zipping off toward Yunmeng, but she's still so damn tired that she says, "Can we take a break?"

"Mn," Lan Wangji hums, and slows to a halt, dismounting from his sword as easy as walking.

Normally, Mianmian would do the same, but her limbs feel leaden and her eyes are heavy and sore. When she stumbles off of her blade, Lan Wangji is there to catch her, but only just.

There’s a furrow to his brow, a certain set to his mouth, and Mianmian finds herself frowning in turn. “You’re not going to carry me,” she says, knowing by the way he approaches her what he’s planning on doing.

“Your condition is worsening by the hour. It’s faster if I fly us both,” Lan Wangji says, his voice firm.

“Gusu’s just another hour or two away. I can do it myself if you give me a break!” Mianmian insists. Her words come out a little snappish, exhaustion and embarrassment fueling her frustration.

“Your pride has gotten the better of you, Maiden Luo. No one will judge you if you let me carry you,” Lan Wangji says, a note of frustration in his own voice. He takes a moment to breathe, to cool his temper, before he says, “Let me help you. Please. If you continue this line of action, you’ll be endangering yourself.”

Suddenly, somehow, Mianmian is struck with the thought of Wei Wuxian - and of that old man, the friend of the temple's keeper, saying “Stubborn old fool, stubborn old fool.” Suddenly, she feels... foolish. Selfish, that her pride has caused so many people pain. "...yeah. Yeah, alright, fine," Mianmian finally says, letting Lan Wangji maneuver her around, until he slowly, carefully puts his arm under her knees and lifts.

It feels - really, really strange, to be carried like this. But... it's not bad. It's not nearly as embarrassing as she'd expected it to be. They fly a little while, with Mianmian tucked warmly against Lan Wangji's chest, before she inevitably asks, "Hey, Hanguang-Jun?"

"Lan Wangji is fine," Lan Wangji says quietly, a blush forming in his ears - just barely visible in the gray light of dawn.

Mianmian laughs, once, quietly. "Then you can call me Mianmian. I'd been wanting to tell you that for a while."

Lan Wangji huffs, and Mianmian can just barely pick out a hint of a smile. It’s a little heartening, to know that he liked her. "What did you want to ask me?"

Mianmian bites her lip, wondering if it would be too overfamiliar to ask. But really, they know things about each other most other folks don't. What could it hurt? "Is this how you told him? That you loved him?"

Lan Wangji stares down at Mianmian, looking a bit like he wanted to drop her like a hot stone. "Not that - not that I'm accusing you of - I mean, I just can't help but think that the situation is sort of similar," she quickly adds. With an awkward smile, she says, "I just - sorry, it came out of the blue, didn't it?"

When Lan Wangji doesn’t respond, his ears and neck reddened, now, Mianmian can’t help but laugh a little. “Before you came, Xiao Wenzhou made me realize a few things about myself and my, uh. My shitty attitude,” Mianmian says, with a sheepish smile. “And I think, maybe, that Wei Wuxian might be kind of similar.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t respond - not verbally, but he does glance down at her in an invitation to continue. “You no what - no, I know Wei Wuxian is similar, because he’s a lot like his siblings, and if I know anything, his siblings are a quite a bit like me. All of us are stubborn little dipshits that don’t want to ask for help because we don’t want to ask too much of people,” she says, her own cheeks warming with embarrassment at being so frank about herself with someone. But, well -

Once again, Lan Wangji knows more about her than most anyone else does, save for maybe Jin Zixuan. What could it hurt, to admit this to him? She swallows hard, as she adds, “We’re scared that someday, somewhere down the line, we’ll want for too much, and the people we love will stop loving us.”

That has something in Lan Wangji’s face tightening, his grip around Mianmian twitching reflexively. “That’s…” he starts, the corners of his mouth twisted down, upset.

“Stupid, I know,” Mianmian says with a wry little smile. Now that she’s gotten it all out, everything feels a little slow and syrupy again. “But, well. Feelings are stupid.”

Lan Wangji’s frown persists, and Mianmian almost wants to reach up and smooth that divot away. But it’s not really her place to do so.

“You should tell him. In a way that he couldn’t possibly misinterpret,” Mianmian says, curling closer into Lan Wangji’s body as a yawn takes her over. Lan Wangji’s frown deepens, and absently, Mianmian can feel him gently nudging some qi into her meridians from where he’s holding her. It’s - it’s nice. It feels nice. “He probably won’t believe you for a while, but - he ought to know that you’re coming from a place of love, not derision. That he won’t lose you, even though you disapprove of his methods. He’s trying to - he’s trying to reduce the risk, you see. I know, because I’m… I’m doing the same thing, too. We’re just scared to get hurt, is all.”

Lan Wangji blinks at her, and for a second, an anxiety strong enough to overcome her sudden tiredness pulses right through her body. And then, Lan Wangji sighs, glancing up to check where they’re at. “Alright,” Lan Wangji says quietly. There isn’t a hint of judgement in his voice, and it’s - it’s really fucking nice to hear.

“Lan Wangji, I think I’m going to go to sleep again,” Mianmian says, another yawn overtaking her. In the periphery of her senses, she can feel Lan Wangji’s grip on her tighten as he says,

“Stay awake, Mianmian. Stay with me.”

“Mm,” Mianmian hums, trying to keep her eyes open. But her eyelids are so, so heavy, and -

 

--

 

She's in the Pageant Hall, dressed in her golden silk robes again, staring down at the sneering faces of the sect leaders sitting around her. Jin Yixi stands up once again to denigrate her, but this time, instead of sitting there, unable to meet Mianmian's eye, Jin Zixuan gets up to stand beside her, his presence a physical relief at her side. "She's right," he says, his voice low and commanding, his eyes staring right into his father's with that determined gleam he gets when he's petitioning the elders.

He's terribly, achingly handsome like this, all broad-shouldered and ready for a fight. "We can't take the overseers' word at face value, not when they have a clear incentive for giving a biased account of the situation. We need a full investigation of the matter," he says, his natural charisma shining through as he starts leveraging his status.

After a moment, Sect Leader Jiang - Jiang Cheng - gets to his feet as well. "Agreed. My brother might be impulsive and foolish, but he would never act like this if he didn't have just cause. I also petition to have a full investigation of the matter. From an unbiased party."

At that, Lan Wangji turns to his brother, and in the space of a few seconds, they somehow manage to have a full conversation with their eyes.

With a weary sigh, Sect Leader Lan stands and says, "With the support of everyone present, Gusu Lan volunteers to conduct this investigation."

Beside her, Jin Zixuan stands firm, his eyes bright like stars. But hidden beneath the fall of their robes, his hand seeks hers out, and he gives her a little squeeze.

 

--

 

Coming to feels a little bit like surfacing from the water, like a slow breath of air that she’d been needing for what feels like ages. It’s… astounding, how different she feels, when she’s not weighed down by a curse. It’s a little staggering, realizing just how bad it had been, now that she remembers what it’s like to be normal again.

She hears a quiet gasp, and immediately the warm, gentle pressure on her hand disappears - and along with it, the comforting feeling she now recognizes to be that of a qi transfer. When she glances over, she finds, sitting beside her, none other than a red-faced Jin Zixuan.

“You’re here,” Mianmian breathes, her voice rough from lack of use. “What are you doing here?” 

“I - “ Jin Zixuan says, biting his lip as he desperately tries to look anywhere but Mianmian’s face. “Hanguang-Jun told me you’d been cursed and I - I mean, I know you probably don’t want to see me, after - after everything, but I couldn’t just leave you here. Not when you - he told me you’d nearly died of it. I - I understand if you want me to go, but I - “

“No,” Mianmian says, her voice a little tremulous as reaches out to take Jin Zixuan’s hand in hers - to make sure that it's real, and not another dream. She’s had enough of dreaming. “Stay. Please. I want you to stay.”

Helplessly, Jin Zixuan nods. He lets her pull him closer, lets her wrap her arms around his neck and breathe in that familiar scent of incense and jasmine, lets her tremble against him as long as she needs to. Hidden in the crook of his neck, Mianmian lets herself experience the swell of emotion threatening to overwhelm her, and for once, instead of keeping it all inside, she lets herself shake with it, lets herself murmur against his warm shoulder, “I missed you.”

Against her, Jin Zixuan goes still. And then, his arms come up around her back and he pulls her even tighter against him - tight enough that his arms shake with the effort. “I missed you, too,” he says, quietly. “I didn’t know I could miss you so much.”

“Oh,” Mianmian breathes, burrowing deeper into his embrace. “ Oh.

Chapter Text

After a time, one of the Gusu Lan healers comes by to explain what they had learned by interrogating the spirit that'd taken a hold of her. Before she does, she glances at Jin Zixuan, who gives the woman that wide-eyed stare of his, and then awkwardly excuses himself to take his leave. But before Mianmian can think twice, her hand wraps around his wrist, and she tugs him back into his chair, an odd sort of desperation to keep him near overtaking her.

The healer raises her eyebrows at Mianmian, but doesn't say a word, instead saying, "Well, it was a good thing Hanguang-Jun had brought you here when he did. It had done some pretty extensive damage to your meridians. None of it is permanent, of course, but it would be a good idea to rest for a while and recuperate your qi."

Mianmian swallows around a lump in her throat and nods grimly. Now that the healer had pointed it out, she does feel the sluggish ache of exhaustion along her spiritual veins, but as a whole she feels so much better than before that it hardly registers. "I understand."

"Hanguang-Jun has returned to Zhoushan to assist with the water ghoul infestation, but he has petitioned for quarters to be prepared for you, should you request them," the healer offers, as she walks to the other side of Mianmian’s bed and takes a hold of Mianmian’s other wrist to check her qi.

"Thank you," Mianmian says with a relieved smile, easily offering her arm to the healer’s inspection. It was good to know that Lan Wangji was still looking out for her, even now. He really was a good man. Beside her, Jin Zixuan bites his lip, glancing down at their joined hands. Clearly, he'd wanted to say something, but he'd stopped himself before he could.

An awkward pause lingers in the air, before Mianmian finally asks, "So... what happened to the spirit?"

The healer glances between Jin Zixuan and Mianmian, before clearing her throat. "We had a hard time communicating it, as it seemed…” the healer stops to consider her words a bit, before she says, “Well, it seemed incomplete. As you know, spirits degrade after some time, unless they’ve built up enough resentful energy to become more powerful. But this one seemed to be a shade of its former self. As if a part of it had already been sent off to be reincarnated, and it only had one thing left to do before leaving this world entirely.”

Mianmian thinks about the little stone frog. How it’d felt to leave that little paperweight in the old man’s hand. Perhaps that was all the monk had needed to disappear - evidence that someone still thought of him. Still cared for him. It’s just that he’d been in the practice of being a spirit so long, it was hard to let go. That, in its own right, was a little sad.

“In the state it was in, we were able to ascertain its M.O., but not much more than that,” the healer continues. “To put things simply, the spirit was feeding on individuals who felt separated, isolated, and lonely. Travelers were its main source of sustenance, and we believe it induced feelings of homesickness in order to strengthen its hold on its victims. You just happened to be an exceptionally compatible victim - it seemed like some of your characteristics aligned with the spirit's tastes very well - so it put all its efforts into feeding on you."

"O-oh," Mianmian says, cheeks growing warm with mortification at being laid bare like this. After all - well, Jin Zixuan’s right there. She'd been the one who asked - practically begged - him to stay, and now… It just seems a little pathetic, laid out like that. "I see. And, um. Is it... dealt with?"

The healer huffs a little laugh and offers a dry smile. "Yes, it is. We've properly laid it to rest."

"Okay, good," Mianmian says quietly.

It seems a little silly to feel this way, when she was literally going to die because of it... but she'd felt a stab of pity at the thought of that poor old monk - how he'd clung to his independence so stubbornly that he hadn't realized how lonely he had become. And then, although he had people who'd loved him... it'd been too late.

She... didn't want that to happen to her. She couldn't let that happen to her.

The healer nods and says, "You'll be under surveillance until tomorrow morning. After that, we'll see about getting you situated."

"Um, actually," Jin Zixuan says, flinching when Mianmian and the healer both glance his way. "I was. Wondering, um - Mianmian, if you want, you can... come back with me? To Lanling? Only if you want to, I mean. Or - or since I know that... perhaps the Carp Tower might not be to your tastes - I could - I could... stay? If you wanted me to stay?" He looks so hopeful for a moment that Mianmian couldn't bring herself to say no, even if she wanted to.

But the healer levels Jin Zixun with a look - one both amused and exasperated - and says, "Young Master Jin, while we are happy to accommodate your stay in Gusu, I'm sure you have business to attend to back in Lanling. You'd come so abruptly that Lianfang-Zun had to inquire after your whereabouts."

"Ah," Jin Zixuan says, his cheeks flaming up, as he looks down at his hands, embarrassed. "Ah, yes, I. I had forgotten, in the midst of, ah..."

Mianmian can't help but huff a laugh. "I'll go with you, once I'm discharged. We've... got a lot to talk about, after all."

Jin Zixuan whips his head up to stare, wide-eyed at her, his mouth agape. "Oh. Oh, yes, um. I would - I would like that," he says, his cheeks lighting up red, even if he can't force his face to keep from smiling.

The healer rolls her eyes, as she reminds Mianmian when the mealtimes and visiting hours are, and that she'll be receiving medicine to help with the qi depletion in an hour. After that, she leaves the two of them to their devices.

It's... strange. Before they had been interrupted, they were so caught up in the sheer relief of seeing each other that they'd forgotten just about everything else that came with it. Now that no one else is here, it's like that great big swell of emotion that'd been dammed in their chests has suddenly calmed, leaving behind a town that'd prepared for a disaster that'd never come. Feeling foolish, for having worked themselves up so badly, and for what?

Mianmian is still holding onto Jin Zixuan's hand. It's warm and a little sweaty in hers, comfortable enough that her fingers worm their way between his, fitting there like they have any right to be there.

It's Jin Zixuan who breaks the silence, an awkward little smile on his lips. "I'd written to Maiden Jiang about - about everything. I hope that's alright."

"You ought to write her again, so she doesn't worry herself to tears," Mianmian says with a quiet laugh.

Jin Zixuan glances down at their joined hands, tracing his thumb along Mianmian's forefinger. And then, he lets go. "Maybe you should be the one to write her. She's been lonely, without your letters," he says, his voice soft and shy. Unsure of where he stood. Of where they both stood.

"It's only been a little while," Mianmian says. "Not that much longer than usual."

"A little while is an eternity, when you're waiting," Jin Zixuan says, and it pains Mianmian to be so acutely aware that he’d spoken from experience. "At least let her know you're safe."

Mianmian knows he doesn’t mean to bring it up to guilt her, but she feels guilty all the same. Regardless, she doesn’t want this conversation to devolve into stilted should’ves and could’ves, so she puts on a good humor, huffing out a laugh as if just barely humoring his request. "Alright. Bring me my qiankun pouch. I've still got a few of your messenger butterfly talismans; I can send one off quick."

Mianmian writes a quick message to let Jiang Yanli know she's alright, and that Jin Zixuan is with her. It's a shame she can't actually send images through the messenger butterflies - she's sure Jiang Yanli would appreciate a little good humor, after, well, everything. When she's done, they both settle into awkward silence once more.

"Um - " Jin Zixuan says, at the same time Mianmian says, "I - "

And then, again, awkward quiet. "You can go first," Jin Zixuan says, cheeks reddening in embarrassment.

"No, please. It's not that important. You go," Mianmian says, out of habit. They stare at one another for a long moment, and Mianmian can't help it - her face screws up into a stupid grin over just how dumb they’re being, and Jin Zixuan's follows suit. They burst into laughter, falling all over each other in their mirth.

"For the record, I - I really did miss you," Mianmian says, once their laughter dies out. "I just. You surprised me, back then. I didn't know what to do."

"Yeah. It uh. It wasn't the best of plans, in retrospect," Jin Zixuan admits sheepishly. "I'm sorry. For kissing you like that, without your permission."

“Well. I’m sorry for running out on you,” Mianmian says, in turn. “I won’t apologize for slapping you, though.”

“I kind of deserved it,” Jin Zixuan says, with a huff of self-deprecatory laughter.

They fall into another little lull in the conversation, and before Mianmian can psych herself out, she asks, “Hey, um. How long had you two been… planning that?” because she can’t exactly ask how long have you had feelings for me?

Jin Zixuan perks up, though his eyes flit away as soon as they meet Mianmian’s. He takes to fiddling with the corner of the bedsheet, running his thumb along a little patch where the fabric had gone a little worn from use. "It was... maybe around the third letter? That Maiden Jiang expressed her interest," he says a little haltingly. "We'd never really - we'd never really planned it, or anything. It just seemed like such an impossible idea, and you’re so - I mean, we, um. She liked you a lot." He laughs, quietly, unable to meet Mianmian's eye. Something in her chest clenches at the way he quickly corrects himself, no doubt out of a careful consciousness of Mianmian’s reaction. "If we had planned it together, maybe it wouldn't have gone quite so - "

"Sideways," Mianmian says, with a half-laugh.

Jin Zixuan blinks, and nods, encouraged, maybe, that she hadn’t said the word he was thinking. "Yes, that. We... hadn't planned on doing anything about it at all, actually. But then, you went and said you were planning on quitting, and I panicked."

Mianmian lets that sit for a few seconds, digesting it. "Why?" she asks, blinking up at him. He looks so - small. Embarrassed, maybe. Like a child that knows he'll be chastened just as soon as he explains what had happened.

He still won't meet her eye, as he says, “Mianmian you know I - um. I care about you a lot. Back when you first left the Carp Tower, I didn’t chase after you because…” he swallows, glancing briefly up at Mianmian, before glancing back down. “I just couldn’t imagine you leaving forever. I just kept waiting for you to realize that you missed - that you missed home. And then a month had passed, and I realized that you were serious about never coming back, and I - “ he takes a deep, shivery breath. “I started panicking. Made as many excuses as I could to leave the Carp Tower in hopes that maybe, somehow, I’d see you in passing. And then, um - ”

“And then you found me,” Mianmian says, her voice quiet. Thick with some unnameable emotion. Slowly, so as not to scare him off, she lets her hand drift across the blankets, curling back into his. He swallows hard, blinking a few times, before risking a glance up at her.

She smiles encouragingly at him, and he bites his lip, his cheeks lighting up a deeper red. “So… when you said you didn’t want to be our courier anymore, I thought - I thought that was it. You’d leave and you’d never come back. You’d be too stubborn to come back.” His fingers tangle with hers, squeezing her just once, as if that’s all he thought he could allow himself.

“Oh,” Mianmian says. And then - and then, she realizes, that she ought to come clean about everything. “Um. I, uh, I was panicking, when I said that. I mean, now that I know you knew about my feelings back then, it seems kind of stupid, but - Jin Zixuan you know I’d never willingly hurt you. When I realized my feelings for Jiang Yanli were… pretty serious, I couldn’t just let it keep escalating. I should’ve - I should’ve stopped it sooner, but I - you were so good to me. Both of you. And I wanted. That. I wanted it so much that I couldn’t help myself.”

“Oh,” Jin Zixuan says, quietly. Before he can say anything else, Mianmian opens up her qiankun pouch, digging out all the little portraits and paintings she’d made of Jiang Yanli. All the ones she ought to have destroyed, but kept. “Here,” she says, handing them over to Jin Zixuan. “You ought to know that I kept these. I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of them. Sometimes, I would - sometimes, whenever I was out hunting, and I got a little lonely, I’d think about her. And every time I did, I felt a little sick, because - well. You understand, don’t you?”

Oh, ” Jin Zixuan says, quietly picking through the drawings. He lingers on each one, treating them with the sort of reverence one would reserve for a masterpiece - not a few lovesick doodles.

“I figured a little distance would keep things under control, and I could come back in a few months. I didn’t mean to scare you - I just… hoped that maybe things could be normal again,” she says, with a laugh. “And then, well. I got cursed. And you came for me. Even though I hit you.”

“Ah. Yes,” Jin Zixuan says. “I did.”

They fall into another awkward little lull, but this time - this time, it’s not quite so unbearable. Biting her lip, Mianmian musters up the courage to bring her hand up to brush against Jin Zixuan’s cheek. He jolts, glancing unsurely up at Mianmian, like a nervous animal. “Jin Zixuan, um,” Mianmian says, trying to sort out all of the feelings whirling around in her chest. The way he looks right now - all half-scared, half-hopeful, with his eyes wide and his mouth agape - isn’t really helping. “I… should be honest with you, too.”

“O-oh?” Jin Zixuan breathes, as he holds himself as still as possible. Bracing himself for whatever might come next.

“She’s not the only one I thought about,” Mianmian says, quietly, as her heart picks up the pace, fluttering helplessly like a dragonfly caught in a child's net.

Jin Zixuan swallows, his cheeks flushing darker as he glances, briefly, downward, and then back at Mianmian’s eyes. “She’s - she’s not…?” he asks, breathless.

“Close your eyes?” Mianmian asks, unable to help the way she gravitates closer, leaning into his space. Obediently, he closes his eyes, trying his best to keep his face neutral, to not expect too much, in case he’s misread the situation.

Mianmian huffs a quiet laugh, as she leans in and -

Oh, ” Jin Zixuan breathes, as he trembles against Mianmian, his hand clutching tight against hers as she presses their lips together again - and then, just to be sure, a third time.

Mianmian’s been asleep for who knows how long, and her lips are chapped and her breath is probably awful, but Jin Zixuan kisses her back anyways, shyly moving his lips in time with hers, as if trying not to take too much. He smells like jasmine and incense, like fresh air and sunshine, like a boy buoyant with love, and when she leans in again for another kiss, he meets her halfway.

 

--

 

Mianmian is discharged without too much fuss the next morning, and the healer who gives her one last check-over spends a good half hour lecturing her about what she is and is not allowed to do with her qi for the next week or so. It's a fairly extensive list, and quite frankly, it kind of sucks. But she'll make do somehow - after all, if Jin Zixuan is by her side, there's not much she'll have to worry about.

Before they leave Gusu, Mianmian sends off a messenger butterfly to the others, telling them that she might be out of commission for a little while, and that she'd be staying with Jin Zixuan for the duration of her recovery. They soon send one back scolding her for her stubbornness, and that if she dares show her face in a hunt any time soon, they'll tell Li Yitian on her. She knows she'll probably have a whole lot more to answer for when she gets back to them, but for now, things are about as settled as they'll get.

They have a meal in Caiyi town, because for all that the Cloud Recesses is a wonderful place, the food could be a little more invigorating, and by late morning, they're ready to set off. Jin Zixuan rents them a pair of handsome horses and delightedly feeds them a few too many treats, chattering all the while about the odd little things he knows about horses. It's easy to tune him out, when he gets started on a topic like this - it's not like he expects reciprocity from her. It's just one of those things he does to fill in the empty space between them, something to ease the frantic anxiousness he feels sometimes when he's around people.

Mianmian is content to nod and feed him the standard "Oh wow"'s and the "That's interesting"'s until he's quieted down. They both know, by now, that Mianmian doesn't really mind Jin Zixuan showing off his esoteric knowledge - and that's all he really needs. An absence of negative opinion.

It's when they've stopped for a break, that Jin Zixuan feels comfortable enough to ask, "So, um. Does this mean - are we...? You, me and Maiden Jiang, I mean."

"Mm," Mianmian hums, drinking from her waterskin. She takes a long, long pull as she considers her words. "I don't know. I mean - I asked for time to think about it, and I have, but... I'm. I like you. I like you both a lot, and I do want to be in your lives, and I do want to - to kiss you, and to be with you, but." She bites her lip, trying to figure out a way to explain this to Jin Zixuan without upsetting him.

"But," he says, his voice carefully neutral, even as his eyes bore holes into Mianmian's waterskin, unable to meet Mianmian's.

Mianmian sighs, and shakes her head. "I still don't know. I mean - I care about you. I really, really do. I like what we have right now, and I want - I do want there to be... more," she says, feeling her own cheeks warm. "But I don't know if I can be serious about it. Not when - not when you're both..."

"About to be married?" Jin Zixuan hazards, a frown on his face.

"No, no - not that. Never that. I'm really, really happy about you getting married, trust me. She'd be so good for you," Mianmian says with a quiet laugh. "No, it's just - Jin Zixuan, I'm the daughter of a servant. I have no - no status, no bloodline, no nothing. I can't bring anything into this relationship, and that doesn't sit right by me."

Jin Zixuan frowns, opening his mouth to protest, but Mianmian cuts in before he can. "And - and moreover, even if we were to do this... Well - I'm not saying that you'd ever do this to me, but a lot can change in a few years, and public opinion is always - " she cuts herself off, shaking her head. "Sorry, I'm getting too far ahead of myself. But. If something goes wrong - "

"It won't - " Jin Zixuan insists, but Mianmian puts a hand up, stopping him from continuing.

"I know you don't think so, but. Well, let's face the facts, Jin Zixuan - if for whatever reason we fall apart..." Mianmian starts, and then - and then, the words clog up in her throat, and she's not sure what else she can say.

Jin Zixuan is obediently quiet, but as the silence wears on, he practically shakes with the need to say something. With a sigh, Mianmian reaches out to take a hold of his hand, effectively calming him - calming them both. Because... well - 

"That time, in the Pageant Hall. I don't want to feel like that ever again," Mianmian says quietly, squeezing Jin Zixuan's hand in hers even as she can't meet his eye.

" Oh, " Jin Zixuan says, and it's such a small thing, and yet it sounds so - so broken.

"It didn't hurt, that everyone had said such things to me," Mianmian says. "What hurt was that you never did anything. You couldn't even stand by my side. And - And I know why you couldn't, but even if I forgive you for it, I - It still hurt. It's still something I can't stop thinking about."

Mianmian swallows hard, trying to dislodge an ache in her chest as she finally, finally looks Jin Zixuan in the eye. "Jin Zixuan, you're going to be the leader of the Jin Sect one day," she says, gently cupping his face. "And that means your life isn't yours. You'll have to do things you don't want to do. You'll have to say things you don't want to say, and hurt people you don't want to hurt. People will look for ways to tear you down, to exploit your weaknesses, to needle under your skin until you're not sure what to think anymore. I forgive you for that, because I know that the good you'll do will outshine the bitter things you'll have to do to succeed. But I don't think I'm strong enough to get caught up in the crossfire. And I sure as hell am not strong enough to sit by and watch you get hurt - not without trying to do something about it. Which, as we both know, that'd probably just make things worse."

"Oh," Jin Zixuan says quietly, shoulders sagging heavily. He doesn't look at her - he just seems to retreat inwards a little. It's the only defense a person in his position can have, when any wrong move would lead to painful repercussions. Mianmian sighs and scoots a little closer, wrapping an arm around Jin Zixuan's shoulder and urging him to lean up against her. He goes willingly, though his entire body is still stiff with awkwardness, with unsureness. 

"There's no way...?" Jin Zixuan asks quietly, even despite the hope dying in his voice.

"If there is one, I can't find it. Jiang Yanli will be your wife. She has the power and the status to stand by your side when things get tough. Me? I'm nobody. There's no situation in which things get better if you keep me around," Mianmian says, with a finality that makes Jin Zixuan snuffle a quiet little sigh against her.

"It'd be worth it," he says, after a while.

"Not to me, it wouldn't," Mianmian says, gently squeezing his shoulder. They stay like that in a pensive silence for a little while, before eventually, Jin Zixuan has to ask -

“But… what are we now, then? Do you - should we stop - ” he cuts himself off, his cheeks flushing at his own brazenness.

Mianmian laughs quietly, her own cheeks heating in embarrassment as she says, “I liked it. Kissing you, I mean. I’d like to keep doing it as long as I can.”

Jin Zixuan jolts, unable to help himself from pulling away to glance up at Mianmian. His mouth drops open, cheeks going a flaming red as he tries, and fails, to articulate exactly how he feels about that.

“It’s… not really something we should do around the Carp Tower or around the sects, but…” Mianmian laughs, avoiding his gaze. “I wouldn’t mind it, if we - if you had, y’know. A certain kind of message to send to Jiang Yanli.”

“A-ah,” Jin Zixuan breathes, and Mianmian swears she can feel his gaze burning on her skin, kicking up her heartbeat into something quick and fluttering. “That’s - um. Okay.”

“So… yeah,” Mianmian says, and she hopes it’s not painfully obvious, how much she’d like to kiss him some more. Properly, instead of those tentative kisses they’d shared at her bedside in Gusu.

“Yeah,” Jin Zixuan echoes, biting his lip. There’s - there’s a long moment of tension so palpable Mianmian swears she could touch it, and Mianmian nearly loses her nerve and turns to ask. But the moment she starts to move, Jin Zixuan jolts to his feet, unable to meet Mianmian’s eyes as he croaks out a, “We - we should get going. There’s - I mean - the more ground we cover now, the easier tomorrow will be.”

All at once the tension breaks, and it’s just them again - Mianmian and Jin Zixuan, childhood friends. Maybe more. But definitely - definitely something. Something good. Something Mianmian can count on. Something more than just thrilled heartbeats and a few stolen kisses. 

Mianmian huffs, shaking her head. Unable to keep from smiling as she watches him try not to pace. “Yeah, you’re right,” she says, her voice surprisingly steady despite the rapid drumbeat of her heart. Once he’s calmed down a bit, Jin Zixuan holds his hand out to her to help her up, and when she takes it, she finds it over-warm and just a little sweaty.

It’s several long minutes before they can bear to look at one another, before either of them can properly reign in their hunger, their eagerness. But Jin Zixuan is careful to keep his hands to himself, clutching hard against the leather of his horse’s reins as he spurs it onward.

 

--

 

They get a little ahead of themselves trying to get to the next town, and before they know it, they’re halfway between towns and the sun is starting to set. Jin Zixuan had the good sense to carry food along with them just in case, so they don’t have to worry about foraging for anything, but it’s still not optimal.

He forces Mianmian to sit back and rest a while, while he handles the horses and sets up camp. It’d be a little insulting, if Mianmian weren’t also legitimately tired. It’d been a while since she’d been this qi depleted, and she hadn’t quite realized just how much she relied on her qi to push her through an exhausting day until now.

It’s a good night for sleeping under the stars, though. Jin Zixuan had found them a place with decent enough treecover, so Mianmian tells him not to bother setting up some proper tents. They might as well just huddle up and watch the stars.

By the time she says so, it’s just dark enough that she can’t pick out the blush on Jin Zixuan’s face, but she can definitely hear the way his breath hitches at the suggestion. He immediately changes the subject to safer waters as he passes her a bowl of food - but rather than sitting across the campfire as he would have on any other hunt, he plops down just a scant few inches away from her, so close their elbows touch as they eat. Really, how transparent could he be? Mianmian nearly laughs and shoves him over, but, well -

It’s not like she minds, being close to him like this.

Their conversation is stilted and distracted as they eat, and every so often, in her periphery, she’ll catch Jin Zixuan stealing glances at her. Out of courtesy, she doesn’t say anything about it, but - well - it’s pretty easy to figure out what he might want, even if he’s too shy to ask for it.

Mianmian finishes eating well before Jin Zixuan does, and when she sets her bowl down in front of her, Jin Zixuan’s so filled with that frenetic, nervous energy of his, that he nearly stops what he’s doing to pick it up and give it a clean. Mianmian laughs and settles a hand on top of his, with a gentle little, “Stay. Finish eating.”

Jin Zixuan audibly gulps, swallowing down his mouthful of food as he stares at her, wide-eyed. Waiting. She doesn’t take her hand off of his. “O-Okay,” he says, just a little breathless, his hands trembling as he carefully, methodically brings another bite of food to his mouth.

It’s kind of funny, really, seeing him quite so keyed up, but, well - 

Mianmian’s a little keyed up, too.

Jin Zixuan finishes eating in record time, and very pointedly tries to play it casual, reaching down to grab Mianmian’s bowl, so that he can wash them both. Obviously trying not to get his hopes up. It’s so patently ridiculous that Mianmian has to grab his wrist and tug him back down to sit with her. 

Jin Zixuan jolts the moment they touch, his breath coming in fast as he turns to her, waiting for her to make the first move. Mianmian nearly rolls her eyes at just how timid he’s being, inching closer until their thighs press against each other. Even if she knows it’s coming from a good place, she can’t help but wish he could be a little more confident. She gets it - she gets it, but - 

“You wanna deliver a message to Jiang Yanli?” Mianmian asks, and for a second there, Jin Zixuan freezes, as if debating whether or not Mianmian means it literally. Before his brain can run too many circles around itself, Mianmian huffs a little laugh, bringing a hand up to cup Jin Zixuan’s face. “I’m asking you if you want to make out, dummy.”

“Oh! Oh - yes. Yes please,” Jin Zixuan breathes, leaning easily into her touch.

It doesn’t take long at all for it to become painfully obvious Jin Zixuan likes being told what to do. He trembles every time Mianmian guides him where to go, sucking in a sharp breath when she pushes into his space and breathing out a shuddery little sigh when she gently nudges his jaw this way or that. Mianmian can't help but be charmed, even if it does make her feel a little bit like one of those roguish heroes in the awful drivel Xiao Wenzhou sometimes shares with Li Yitian.

Quite frankly, Mianmian had always been more into the, ah, more visual stuff, because gods, if Jin Zixuan doesn't make a pretty picture with his lips all pink and wet, his chest rising and falling with barely-concealed excitement, his eyes demurely fluttered shut. His hands had long found her shoulders, clinging almost desperately to her sleeves as he shyly moves in time with her, trying to mimic the way her mouth moves against his.

When they manage to part, Mianmian murmurs, "You ever do this with anyone else?"

Jin Zixuan swallows hard, licking his lips as he slowly blinks his eyes open. "Wh - huh?"

"I mean girls were always falling over themselves just to get your attention. Did you ever...?" Mianmian asks, pressing her forehead against Jin Zixuan's. She can’t stop smiling, the sheer, trembling joy filling her chest until it aches.

Jin Zixuan's eyes flutter shut again, his hands trembling at Mianmian's sides as he slowly shakes his head. "I was - " he exhales, his breath warm and sweet and smelling faintly of their dinner. "You would know if I did. I would’ve told you.”

"No one ever caught your eye?" Mianmian laughs, soft and gentle as she cups Jin Zixuan's cheeks to press a chaste little kiss to his lips. “You’d never been tempted at all?”

His breath comes out sharp as he pushes mindlessly back, forgetting to answer her question when faced with the prospect of kissing more. His lips are plush and sweet, eager, now that he knows what he can do, now that he knows how good it could feel. Mianmian can’t help but laugh into the kiss, easily taking what Jin Zixuan wants to give and returning it as best as she's got.

He gasps, jerking a little when Mianmian takes his bottom lip and sucks idly on it, and when they break apart again, he looks - well. He looks rather nicely ravished. "Um, that's - " he starts, swallowing hard. His eyes are dark and glossy, like shards of obsidian at the bottom of a lake, and Mianmian can’t help the swell of pride in her chest, knowing that she’d made him feel like that.

"You like that?" Mianmian grins, running her knuckles down the side of his face.

Jin Zixuan nods, his cheeks burning hot against Mianmian's hands.

"You sure you haven't done this before?" Minamian asks unable to keep the giddiness blooming in her chest from coming out. "You're not half bad."

"Ha," Jin Zixuan breathes out, and it sounds half like a laugh. "I've uh, I've got a good teacher."

Absently, as if unable to help himself, he leans in for another kiss. Mianmian laughs, feeling young and buoyant and joy-bright as she pinches Jin Zixuan's cheek, drawing a petulant little whine from his throat. "Flatterer," she says, letting her hands slide down the sides of his neck, settling against his chest. It doesn't escape her notice, the way he had twitched, when she had gently brushed against his pulse.

"Not even during the campaign? I hear people got into all sorts of things in the heat of the moment," Mianmian grins, as she finally leans in again. Jin Zixuan tries to meet her halfway, but she ducks past his face, pressing her lips against the hinge of his jaw. He goes still against her, like a rabbit stuck in the jaws of a wolf, his hands gripping so tightly against her sleeves that she's sure they'll wrinkle something awful. It's hard to care, when he's tilting obediently his chin up for her, letting her do what she wants to him.

She kisses her way down his jaw and right back up again, nipping playfully against the hinge once more until he jerks bodily against her with a quiet little uh! "You didn't answer my question," Mianmian laughs against his skin, tugging at his collar to expose more of his neck.

Jin Zixuan breathes out a breath so careful it trembles, and gods, Mianmian wants to eat him right up.

"No, I - never, but, the men, they - they talked. A lot. It was - hard not to hear," Jin Zixuan says, his adam's apple bobbing wildly in his throat as Mianmian rewards his response with a sucking kiss against his pulsepoint.

That gets a rise out of him, tearing a low, helpless moan from his slack mouth. The moment it comes out, he pulls sharply back, slapping a hand over his mouth so dramatically Mianmian nearly laughs. "Did you want to stop?" Mianmian asks, a grin on her face.

Jin Zixuan's throat bobs in another swallow as he glances down at Mianmian's hands, and then back up at her giddy, smiling face. It takes ages, before he brings his hand down and says, "I, um. No, but - we should. "

Mianmian huffs, cheeks hot as she obediently pulls back. She doesn't want to, either, but - well. It's understandable that he'd need to take things a little slow. There's an awkward beat, where they're both not quite sure of what to do with themselves, before finally, Jin Zixuan remembers the bowls and jolts to his feet to grab them. "I'm - I'll go and, uh, wash these. You should get ready for bed."

Mianmian laughs and nods. "Yeah, yeah, alright."

"And, um. I'll - I'll share some of my qi with you, too, later. So," Jin Zixuan says, unable to meet her eyes. "So, I'll see you soon."

"Yeah. See you soon," Mianmian says, grinning ear to ear. Jin Zixuan must realize exactly how stupid he had sounded, because he practically jumps out of his skin and runs off to little stream to wash out their dishware.

Mianmian huffs, shaking her head as she cleans up around camp. Jin Zixuan isn’t back by the time she’s done, so instead, slips into her bedroll and waits. She very pointedly does not question why it might take Jin Zixuan a little longer than usual to wash out their bowls.

Chapter Text

They made good enough time on the way to Lanling that they get to the Carp Tower well before lunchtime. Unlike last time, Jin Zixuan is there with her, so he helps her onto his sword and simply flies her up. Even if Mianmian wants to roll her eyes at just how much of a fuss he's making over her, she's secretly rather glad she didn't have to march up those five gajillion stairs by herself.

Jin Zixuan had offered, over breakfast, to arrange for some rooms for her in town, so she wouldn’t have to suffer through the Carp Tower, but Mianmian had refused on principle. "It's fine," she’d said. "I'm not going to wither away and die if I spend a week back home."

"But you don't like it," Jin Zixuan protested, a frown tugging at the corners of his mouth.

"Yeah, well - I've learned to be a little less of a baby about it. You dropped everything to come get me. The least I could do is hang out at the Carp Tower for a while," Mianmian said.

Jin Zixuan had looked unsure about that, but regardless, he didn’t question her decision.

She doesn't regret it, coming back to the Carp Tower. It helps, maybe, that Jin Zixuan sticks close enough to her that he draws the attention from anyone they pass in the hallways, but - well, the wound doesn't feel quite as raw as it used to. Sure, she might still be aware of how dull her unadorned linens might be in comparison to their glossy silks and metallic threads, but it doesn't nag at the back of her mind quite as much as it once did, all those months ago. All she cares about is that she's here, in a place she once called home, with her closest friend stubbornly by her side. She couldn't understand how once upon a time, she'd needed anything more.

Jin Zixuan carefully escorts her through the familiar hallways leading to the infirmary, and Mianmian would roll her eyes about it, if it weren't rather sweet, how worried he was. They keep a quick pace as they let their feet carry them to the familiar, sterile halls of the infirmary, the route so routine that they hardly even register the people that pass them by until - 

"Young Master Jin!" comes a voice from behind them, a hand coming out to gently cup Jin Zixuan's elbow. It startles Jin Zixuan so badly he flinches, damn near elbowing their guest in the face.

They both turn around to see Jin Guangyao, looking just a bit harried but hiding it well, in the way that Jin Guangyao often does. Mianmian doesn't know the man well, but even she can intuit what he might be going through. The intuition of one in similar straits, Mianmian figures. "A-Yao," Jin Zixuan says, a smile spreading on his face. "I've told you, you don't have to be so formal with me. We're brothers, after all. Is everything alright?"

"Your parents have been wondering where you'd run off to! It's not like you to be quite so spontaneous. You need to see your mother immediately," Jin Guangyao says, glancing over at Mianmian.

Mianmian smiles and makes a formal bow, greeting him with a, "Lianfang-Zun. I'm glad to see you in good health."

"Likewise, Miss Luo," Jin Guangyao says, returning the greeting with just enough courtesy not to offend, as he redirects his attention back to his half-brother.

"I'll meet with Mother soon," Jin Zixuan says. "I just want to get Mianmian checked out at the infirmary first. She'll be staying in the Carp Tower for a few days while she recovers - do you think you could do me a favor and request some guest rooms be made up for her?"

Jin Guangyao smiles that reflexive smile of his, the one he uses to ease the tension in the room, as he glances between the two of them. "Young Master Jin, may I speak with you privately? It won't take too much time, I assure you."

Jin Zixuan glances back at Mianmian, a protest on his lips, but before he can get anything off, Mianmian waves him off. "Go on. I'm not so feeble and infirm that I can't wait in a hallway for a few minutes."

Jin Guangyao flashes her a neat little smile and nods, a flush of gratefulness on his cheeks as he all but drags Jin Zixuan away to an empty room.

For a half-second, an irrational fear wells up in her gut at the thought of being alone in the Carp Tower, but - well, she's a big girl. She can handle it. 

Besides, in the time it takes for Jin Zixuan and Jin Guangyao to return, only a handful of people have passed through the hallway, all of them unfamiliar faces. There’s a slightly frustrated scowl on Jin Zixuan's face, and a tight, unhappy smile on Jin Guangyao's face that sets her on edge. When Jin Guangyao delivers Jin Zixuan to Mianmian's side, he bows politely, taking on his usual professional façade as he says, "I'll arrange for Miss Luo's lodgings and leave a list of your duties on your desk, then, Young Master Jin." It’s exceptionally formal - a manner befitting a servant more than a war hero, and it’s clear by the discomfort in the set of  Jin Guangyao’s shoulders that he rankles to act this way. 

"Thank you, A-Yao," Jin Zixuan says stiffly, as he takes Mianmian by the elbow. "Let's go Mianmian."

Mianmian frowns, unable to keep from watching as Jin Guangyao turns a corner, before she turns to Jin Zixuan and asks, "What happened?"

"It's nothing," Jin Zixuan grits out. "Just - it's nothing. I promise."

"It sure as hell didn't look like nothing," Mianmian says with a frown. "Seriously, what's up? If there's an issue..."

"There isn't an issue!" Jin Zixuan snaps, and the moment he realizes how rude he'd been he draws back. "Sorry. I'm sorry. I'm - I'm just taking it out on you. And A-Yao. I shouldn't. I'm sorry."

Mianmian frowns, patting his back, just between his shoulderblades. "Want to talk about it?"

"No," Jin Zixuan says, with a long, not-so-calming breath. "Not right now. Right now, let's get you checked out in the infirmary. We can talk later."

Mianmian can't help the uneasiness and doubt that lingers, but she's not going to push. Not when Jin Zixuan's like this, at least. 

 

--

 

The infirmary staff are as nice as always, though naturally, they're rather clinical and cold. It's a nice departure from the atmosphere in the rest of the Carp Tower, because at least she knows their coldness isn’t personal. It doesn't take long for them to assess her healing, give her a tonic for qi depletion, and send her on her way with instructions not unlike those given to her by the Gusu healers. Jin Zixuan tries to arrange for a healer to come by every day and give her a qi transfusion, but Mianmian denies the idea flat-out. "There are other people in this sect that need it more than I do. They should save their efforts for them," Mianmian stubbornly insists, and Jin Zixuan looks very much like he'd like to protest, but given the helpless look the healer gives him, he also has to cave.

"Fine. But I'll be checking on you myself, then!" Jin Zixuan promises.

"I'd surely hope so," Mianmian laughs. “Otherwise it’s going to be a lonely few days up in the Carp Tower.”

Once they leave the infirmary, they don’t get very far before one of the maids “casually” stops by to escort Mianmian to her guest room. As she does, she “conveniently” reminds Jin Zixuan that his mother is waiting for him in her courtyard. At that, Jin Zixuan’s expression shutters a bit, reluctant to part with Mianmian. But the maid insists that Madame Jin had been waiting for some time now, and that he really ought to go.

Jin Zixuan glances at Mianmian beseechingly, as if she could do anything to quell Madame Jin’s temper. But in the end, when Mianmian shrugs and guiltily edges toward the maid, Jin Zixuan sighs and concedes defeat.

“I probably won’t be able to check on you until I make a decent enough dent in my work,” Jin Zixuan says, a bit of a sulk in his voice. “I, uh. I really let A-Yao down when I - y’know. I’ve gotta make up for it.”

“That’s fine,” Mianmian says, trying to keep an encouraging smile on her face. “I’ll find ways to keep myself out of trouble. I know you’re busy.”

Jin Zixuan offers her a smile that doesn’t especially look enthused, before he begrudgingly makes his way out.

 

--

 

They’re keeping Jin Zixuan busy. Mianmian knows how quickly Jin Zixuan can get through his work if he puts his mind to it, so if they’re not letting him out… well, Mianmian is no fool. Given that Jin Zixuan is willing to work hard, there’s no way they’d be able to work him from the moment he woke to the moment he slept as punishment.

There’s not much that can be done of it, if they’re trying to keep Jin Zixuan from seeing her. She keeps busy enough that she can ignore, for the most part, Jin Zixuan’s conspicuous absence.

On the first day of her stay, Shi Qingxuan finds out that Mianmian's back in the tower, so they bring a gaggle of junior disciples to stop by and beg her for rogue cultivator stories. Like everything Shi Qingxian is involved with, Mianmian finds it to be fun, but altogether way too loud, and for a recovering curse victim, it’s positively exhausting. By the time Shi Wudu comes by to collect his sibling, Mianmian's smile has gone tired and brittle around the edges.

Of course, for all that Shi Wudu is a prickly son-of-a-bitch, he still sends Lang Qianqiu to come in and check on her. She and Lang Qianqiu never spoke much, but on his own, he's a whole lot more bearable than Shi Qingxuan and their posse of sweet, albeit excitable, hangers-on. They make conversation about beast hunts for a while, until Jin Zixuan pokes his head in long enough to drop off a few sweets and promise that, although he won't be able to see her today, the maids would bring by her meals, unless she wanted to stop by the mess.

Given that, y'know, everyone would be at the mess, Mianmian feels quite content to eat her meals here. After a morning of entertaining Shi Qingxuan, Mianmian's had enough social contact for a week.

The second day is better. Jin Zixuan has enough time to take Mianmian out to the gardens for a brief lunch, and they walk around for a little while, soaking in one another’s company until Jin Guangyao comes to ask Jin Zixuan about their plans for the current project they're petitioning to the elders.

Jin Zixuan shoots her a helpless look, before sighing and throwing on a smile. Happy to help his brother.

Mianmian waves him off, of course, because what else is she expected to do, and then heads to the library to pass the time. After all - while she’s here, she might as well take advantage of a few resources she wouldn’t otherwise have access to. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to read up a bit on diplomacy.

It's not until day three that Jin Zixuan finally comes to make good on his promise. They spend the good part of an afternoon hand-in-hand, tossing ideas back and forth as to what he could write Jiang Yanli about next, and Mianmian can't help the little thrill that blooms in her chest every time Jin Zixuan smiles.

That evening, one of the maids stops by to drop off an envelope addressed to Mianmian - the same one Madame Jin always uses when sending off invitations to garden parties and the like.

Mianmian takes it with a smile, even as trepidation blooms in her gut.

There's no reason at all for Madame Jin to request her presence. None at all. For Madame Jin to go out of her way to contact Mianmian like this, well…

There’s little else she can do besides accept the invitation.

 

--

 

"Mianmian, it's good to see you," Madame Jin says, greeting her just as warmly as she always did, back when Mianmian's mother was alive. But Mianmian's never spent time with her alone - not without Jin Zixuan to mediate between the two of them. That alone puts Mianmian a little on edge. For all that Madame Jin is kind to her, she's never gone out of her way to spend time with Mianmian. It’s always simply been a happy coincidence. "Come, sit, sit! I feel like it's been ages. "

"Thank you for inviting me out, Madame Jin," Mianmian says, pasting on a polite smile as she takes a seat across from Madame Jin.

"It's just you and me girls this time around," Madame Jin laughs, smiling warmly at Mianmian. "That fool boy of mine is busy catching up with all that work he'd let pile up these past few days. He's not usually quite so careless." Madame Jin glances at both her handmaids, who stand a polite distance away from them, before leaning conspiratorially into Mianmian's space. "That's more Zixun's style. I swear, that boy worries me, sometimes."

For all that Mianmian agrees, she doesn't laugh until Madame Jin laughs. She knows the game - after all, she'd grown up here. With a carefully-made apologetic smile, Mianmian says, "It was kind of him to bring me back home, after my incident. He's a very good friend to me. If I'd known this would have happened, I would've asked Hanguang-Jun to keep quiet about my condition, so as not to trouble you all."

"Well, you know how he is," Madame Jin says with the sort of smile that hides poisoned barbs underneath. She doesn’t even try to deny that it’s any trouble, which is about as obvious as a slap in the face. "That boy thinks more with his heart than his head. I don't think he'd been in that much of a tizzy since he fell in love with Maiden Jiang."

Ah, there it is. Mianmian gets it now - Madame Jin had seen her son's devotion to Mianmian and thought the worst.

"I think it's sweet, how much Young Master Jin loves her. She's such a kind woman - she'll take good care of him," Mianmian says, very carefully going with Madame Jin's flow. It grates at her, that she has to speak so carefully, but - well, that's how things are here. She could easily throw it in Madame Jin's face that she'd already taken quite a few liberties with Madame Jin's son - with Maiden Jiang's express permission - but, well. The consequences aren't worth the satisfaction.

"Yes, yes," Madame Jin smiles. "It's just a shame that the Lotus Piers is in such a condition - otherwise, they'd probably be married by now."

"I wouldn't doubt it," Mianmian says politely. "I've seen the way they look at each other. Like she's the only person Young Master Jin could ever love. I think it's very romantic. Love matches among the gentry are few and far in-between, you know."

Madame Jin laughs, though it rings a little hollow. Mianmian nearly winces, realizing as soon as the words had left her mouth that she'd misstepped - but very carefully she keeps herself from reacting. It's been much too long since she's had to be anything but herself, and she'd fallen out of practice with this game of hidden barbs so popular in the Carp Tower.

Madame Jin looks Mianmian up and down, as if appraising her. The way she smiles makes her look a bit like a fox staring down a henhouse as she says, "What about you, Mianmian? You're, what, 22? 23 already? You really ought to settle down before it's too late."

Mianmian takes a sip of the tea and tries her best to keep the tension out of her own smile as she says, "Well, I want to continue nighthunting for as long as I can," Mianmian says. "If I get lucky, then perhaps I'll come across someone who would be good to me. But it's not my priority to make a match."

Madame Jin makes an exaggerated frown, her eyebrows pinching up in something that looks akin to pity as she says, "Oh, but that's such a waste! You ought to make a match with one of the fine young gentry men, before they get snapped up! You know, I feel like you would get along very well with Lianfang-Zun. And then, you'd have a good reason to come back home to Carp Tower! It'd be perfect."

Ah. Trying to ensure that Mianmian stays out of the picture for good. Just in case. Mianmian can appreciate Madame Jin's dedication to ensuring her son continues on the right path, even if she hates to be on the wrong end of her good intentions. Mianmian hopes that her smile is polite enough to hide the awkwardness as she says, "Well, he certainly is a fine man. But I wouldn't dare consider it - I wouldn't have anything to offer him. He's a hero, after all, and I'm just a rogue cultivator."

"Nonsense!" Madame Jin laughs, patting Mianmian's hand. "He'd be a fool not to ask after you. You have so much in common, after all!"

It is so hard not to roll her eyes and ask like what? But Mianmian just barely manages to refrain. For all that Madame Jin had been good to her and her mother, she certainly never forgot the differences in their station. Of course she'd want to pair up the daughter of a servant with the son of a - 

Mianmian begins cutting into the carp, offering Madame Jin the best parts. Madame Jin accepts them graciously, without even caring to pretend that Mianmian was a guest. It should rankle, but the more smoothly this goes, the better, in Mianmian's opinion. "Lianfang-Zun deserves a match more befitting his station. I'm sure the matchmakers will find him a wife of good breeding. It's what he deserves, after all the efforts he'd put into ensuring our success in the war," Mianmian says with a smile. "Besides, I'd like to think I might have the luck to someday marry for love."

Madame Jin's smile goes a little tight, not quite meeting her eyes as she says, "Indeed, I suppose he does deserve to marry a bit higher. Perhaps one of our allied sects has a daughter that might suit him." She takes a prim little bite of her lunch before she adds, "But this isn't quite about him - it's about you! I hear you've gotten rather close with Sect Leader Jiang these days... he's a handsome young fellow - and I'm sure you'd love Yunmeng! Maybe we ought to try sending out some feelers, hm?"

Mianmian nearly chokes on her own bite as she shakes her head vigorously, an alarming amount of genuineness in her voice as she says, "No! Absolutely not. Sect Leader Jiang and I are friends, and that's it. He's a great man, but if I had to live with him, I'd probably be at my wits end!"

Madame Jin puts on a pleading face as she says, "Oh, Mianmian, a woman really can't afford to be so picky. I feel like I'm doing your mother a disservice, not being able to secure you a good husband. After all her years of service, it's the least I could do to try and arrange something for you. You wouldn’t even have to keep up the rogue cultivation, if you marry well."

"Trust me," Mianmian says, "My mother would be happy as long as she knows that I'm happy. If I were to marry someone from the gentry, I'd probably be miserable, dealing with politics day in and day out. I definitely understand how much being part of a sect can help people but - well, I'd rather just do my own thing and help people with my own two hands."

"You've always been so free spirited," Madame Jin sighs, trying to act as if she wasn't utterly relieved that Mianmian wanted nothing to do with future sect leaders like her son.

Mianmian laughs a fake little laugh as she says, "No - I just know where my strengths lay. Politics are for smart people who think more with their heads than their tempers. I'd rather not make a gigantic mess of things, thank you."

Madame Jin laughs politely at that, and gives a half-hearted, "Well, you ought to think about it. You know if there's any way I can help, I will. Your mother was very dear to me, and I want to make sure she can rest easy knowing you're doing well for yourself."

Mianmian smiles awkwardly and says, "Yes, of course. I'll think about it."

 

--

 

Mianmian debates telling Jin Zixuan about their lunch. To put it quite simply, she doesn't want to tell him at all. She knew this would happen; it's not a big deal, because she'd been prepared for this. He doesn't have to be hurt by his mother's suspicions - not at all.

But... she's trying. She's trying to be a better friend, and sometimes that means telling people the truth, even when they don't want to hear it. So the next time Jin Zixuan visits her, she asks him if he'd have time to go to town with her. Whatever's been going on with Jin Zixuan, it's clear that someone has been wanting to keep him busy while Mianmian is in the Carp Tower, and she's not so naïve as to think that she doesn't know who it might be.

As expected, Jin Zixuan looks a little hesitant, a little guilty. He probably doesn't even suspect that he's being dragged away from Mianmian. She knows they know he's smart enough to tell he's being drowned in busy work, so at the very least, it's comforting to know that whatever he's doing, he thinks it's important.

With an awkward smile, Mianmian says, "It's fine. You really don't have to worry about it."

That makes Jin Zixuan frown. "No. No, I can find time, I promise," he says, determined. "It's been so long since you've properly visited. Of course I'll make time."

Carefully, Mianmian glances around the room, making sure there's at least some modicum of privacy. But she knows better than to speak plainly, especially since she'd been implicated by Madame Jin. So, she gestures for Jin Zixuan to come closer.

Confused, he gets closer - and then closer still, until Mianmian tugs him down close enough to whisper in his ear. "I want to talk somewhere private. There's something I want to tell you that would make other people upset if you found out."

Jin Zixuan pulls away with an abrupt jerk, his eyes wide as he says, "What?"

Mianmian gives him a look before she says, "Yeah, I know, right? It’s so rare that they have to stagger the releases so they don't sell out too fast. Don't tell anyone when it's going to happen, or we won't be able to get our hands on any."

It takes half a second for Jin Zixuan to clue in, before nodding gravely, with a casual, “My lips are sealed. I’ll make sure it stays between you and me.”

After a pause, he says, "By the way, are you up for sparring tonight, when I'm free? Just to get a little exercise in, to see how well you’re healing. We can go to the big training ground - it'll be after hours, so we won't be taking up anyone's practice time."

Mianmian blinks at him, before grinning wide - both at how clever his workaround for the whole walls-have-eyes thing is, and the prospect of sparring with Jin Zixuan. "Yeah, sure. It's been a while since I've really kicked your butt." 

JIn Zixuan snorts. "Good luck with that. I've got to meet with my father and his advisors for dinner, but after that...?"

"Butt kicking time," Mianmian laughs, only for Jin Zixuan to roll his eyes and shove her over.

 

--

 

They do, for the record, spar. The big training ground is open and spacious enough that anyone who'd want to spy on them would have to reveal themselves to hear anything Mianmian and Jin Zixuan say. Sure, it's a little dark out, but the training ground is lit by moonlight, and Jin Zixuan's marked out a smaller circle for them to work in with night pearls. It's incredibly ostentatious, but even Mianmian's got to admit that it's much nicer than having to light up torches. 

It's during their first water break that Mianmian finally comes clean. "So, about what I said earlier," she says, while Jin Zixuan takes a long drag from his waterskin. She hasn't quite managed to kick his ass yet, but she has got him pretty winded. Sweat is already beading at his hairline, and while, yeah, it's still pretty warm out, Mianmian knows full well it's got less to do with the heat and more to do with Mianmian's unrelenting blows.

Slowly, so as not to choke, or like, freak out or anything, Jin Zixuan swallows and looks up at her expectantly.

For a second there, Mianmian nearly loses her nerve - after all, they'd been having a good time sparring like this. It'd be a shame to make Jin Zixuan upset - doubly so at his mother, whom he loves so dearly. Sure, he recognizes her faults as well as any child would, but it's still... something she doesn't want for him. She bites her lip, and when she finally meets his eye, she says, "I met with your mother today."

Jin Zixuan blinks, and then frowns. "You did? I didn't hear anything about it."

"Yeah, I know," Mianmian says. "She didn't want you to know."

"What did she tell you, that she didn't want me to know?" he asks, his words coming out slow, cautious.

Mianmian sighs. "It's not really anything important. It's just - "

"Just...?" Jin Zixuan says, dragging out his voice just enough to be wheedling.

Mianmian scowls. "It's just that... she doesn't want us getting too close. I think she's worried you'll - uh. She's worried that I might... tempt you."

Jin Zixuan jerks back a little, as if startled by Mianmian's words. And then, after a second, his expression turns upset. Hurt. 

Mianmian can't stand how betrayed he looks, so she hurries to add, "I mean - it's not like she said that outright! She just. Really, really wanted to make sure that I knew you were getting married. And that I really ought to get married. To someone that isn't you."

He takes a deep breath, his shoulders slumping as he shakes his head. "Don't bother trying to excuse her behavior," he says quietly, his voice low. "I know what my mother is like."

Mianmian sighs, long and low. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want - “

“You don’t need to be sorry,” Jin Zixuan sighs, a hint of frustration in his voice. “I should’ve known she was going to pull something like this. She hasn’t hurt you or anything, right? Threatened you?”

Mianmian shakes her head. “No. She was just feeling out the waters, I think,” she says, a little sullen. A part of her wants to say I told you so. I told you this would happen! Now that you’ve seen this, how could you still want me? but the rest of her is mostly just sad about being proven right. “She’s just trying to make sure things will go smoothly.”

“It doesn’t matter what she’s trying to do!” Jin Zixuan snaps, before shrinking back. “I’m sorry. I’m just - I’m frustrated. It’s just - it’s stupid, that people - that they immediately jump to conclusions, like they know anything about me just because my father - ”

“I know,” Mianmian says, patting his shoulder as consolingly as she can. “You’re not like him. Anyone can look at you and see that you’re not like him.”

Jin Zixuan huffs out a frustrated breath, burying his face in his hands for a long second. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Mianmian. I’m just - I’m sorry. I don’t - I don’t even care about what people think about me. It’s just - you’re the one that gets hurt over it. Every single time, even if it’s my fault, you’re the one they try to blame. No wonder you didn’t want to - no wonder you -”

“Hey - hey, Zixuan. Look at me,” Mianmian says, tugging Jin Zixuan’s hands away from his face. “It’s fine. I’m used to it, okay? They can’t hurt me, not with you by my side.”

Jin Zixuan blinks at her, eyes big and wet with frustration. “I just... didn’t want this for you. Look at you, Zixuan - you’ve got too much heart for a place like this. Worrying after me day in and day out - you’d end up burning out, and then you wouldn’t be able to do all the great things you’re destined to do,” she says, trying to keep her voice gentle. Calming. “I like this, what we have. I want it. But not if it means holding you back. Either of you.”

“You’re not - “ Jin Zixuan starts, but Mianmian shushes him with a brush of her knuckles against his cheek.

“I am, a bit. After all - even you’ve got to realize, by now, that they’re trying to make it harder for you to see me while I’m still here,” Mianmian says, tucking a loose strand of hair behind his ear before pulling back. It was stupid of her, to touch him so easily. But it wasn’t like she could help it. “They’re bogging you down with busywork just so they can keep up with appearances. You know it’s true.”

Jin Zixuan shuts his eyes and tilts his head back, breathing in deep and releasing it slow. "I thought so, too. When we came back to the tower - you know that time when A-Yao came to talk to me?"

Mianmian nods.

"He was... warning me. About how it looked, for me to bring you to the Carp Tower," Jin Zixuan says quietly. "I'd lost my temper at him." Jin Zixuan bites his lip, pausing to get his words together. Mianmian waits as patiently as she can, but with each passing second, more and more anxiety blooms in her gut, choking the air out of her.

With a sigh, he says, "No wonder you didn't want - " Jin Zixuan makes a vague gesture, and his shoulders slump even further. "I'm sorry."

Mianmian laughs quietly and shrugs. "It's always been like this," she says, for lack of anything better to say.

"It shouldn't be," Jin Zixuan says with a sulk. Mianmian wants to kiss the frown right off his face, wants to kiss him until he’s forgotten how to be sad. But she can’t - not here. Not now.

With a huff, Mianmian tries to smile and says, "Come on. Let's get back to beating the snot out of each other. It'll make you feel better."

Jin Zixuan shoots her a skeptical look, but grabs his training sword anyways. They spar.

Mianmian ends up kicking Jin Zixuan's butt, after all.

Chapter Text

 Jin Zixuan stomps into Mianmian's room in the morning and says, "I've slept on it. And I've decided that I'm going to talk to my mother."

Immediately, Mianmian stops her packing, shoots Jin Zixuan a sharp look, and says, "Don’t."

Jin Zixuan scowls, but he doesn't move from where he stands in the doorway. "It's not right, that she treated you like that. That she thought that you would - would act so unscrupulously, " he says, his voice low. Upset. "If this were something she was really worried about, she should've talked to me about it."

"Yeah, well. It's easier to scare off the harlot than the young master that pays her," Mianmian says with a shrug. It's clearly the wrong thing to say, because Jin Zixuan rears up, nostrils flaring. " Don't . I didn't mean to say it like that. It's just - you know your parents' history, Jin Zixuan. You can't blame her."

"I can, and I will!" Jin Zixuan snaps. "We've been friends since childhood; how could she think so badly of you? She knows you. She knows what you're like - you'd never - I mean you didn’t even let yourself - "

" Well ," Mianmian says, cutting him off before he could say anything incriminating. On the off chance that the walls might’ve had ears. "Pain makes people unreasonable. You can't help that."

The corners of Jin Zixuan's mouth pull down in a frown as his indignant anger deflates. "Yeah, well. It still doesn't excuse her behavior."

"It doesn't," Mianmian agrees. "But in the end, some things are better off enduring. I don't mind enduring that - no one’s gotten hurt from your mother trying to be cautious. Besides, this isn't a conversation we ought to be having right now." She shoots him a look, a distinct reminder of where they're at, before finally, he caves. 

Jin Zixuan breathes a long sigh from his nose and walks over to where Mianmian's getting her things together. "Do you need help with that?" he asks, gesturing at the clothes still unpacked. They'd been freshly laundered and delivered to her by the maids, and for all that Mianmian feels kind of bad that she's gone and made other people do her laundry for her, she can't help but be delighted at the fact that she's got clean and dry clothes she didn't have to scrub herself. 

"Look at you, Mister Young Master Jin, doing a few chores," Mianmian laughs. Jin Zixuan's unhappy scowl pulls down even further, until Mianmian tosses him her spare outer robe to fold.

He folds her clothes meticulously, with the sort of efficiency they'd developed out of habit during the war, and they sit there in comfortable, busy quiet for a long while.

After Jin Zixuan's had a little while to steep in his own frustration, he says, quieter, "It's just not right, that you have to sit there and endure such disrespect."

"You can't fight everyone who rubs you the wrong way, Jin Zixuan. You know this just as well as I do - some evils linger simply because they're more bearable than others," Mianmian says with a shrug. "I know you want to change things for the better, but even you don't have the time and resources to fight every injustice you see."

Jin Zixuan scowls, his shoulders slumped petulantly as he rubs the edge of her robe, where it still sits in his lap. A single thread had been snagged and tugged out of alignment at some point in its long and excitement-filled life, and Mianmian simply hadn't had the time to mend it. When she sees him fiddling, Mianmian laughs and gently slaps his hand away, taking her robe to stuff into the qiankun pouch with the rest of her things. "Some things just aren't worth it. Let's take the issue with your mother, for example - if you confronted her about her behavior around me, how do you think she would take it?"

Jin Zixuan scowls, not wanting to look Mianmian in the eye as he admits, "She'd probably think I was trying to avenge you. And if it mattered enough to me to fight your battles for you..."

"Then it'd probably confirm her suspicions, right?" Mianmian asks with a laugh. Begrudgingly, Jin Zixuan nods. "See? It's not a battle worth fighting, so in the end, what can you do but accept it? If you fought her on it, she'd simply do everything in her power to make it harder for us to see each other."

Jin Zixuan breathes a long sigh and closes his eyes. "This sucks."

"It does suck," Mianmian laughs. "But that's the way the world works. Some things you just have to let go."

Jin Zixuan doesn't look happy about it, but he knows there’s no use. Even still he adds, weakly, “You were never one to give up so easily.”

Mianmian huffs a laugh, smoothing her hands over her robes. “Yeah, well. Things change as you get older. You find things you can’t bear to lose.”

When she looks up at Jin Zixuan, she hopes he understands what she means.

At that, all the fight goes out of him. He sighs like a child at the end of a tantrum, slumping his shoulders a little as he leans up against her shoulder. He doesn’t say anything for a long while, and then - "When are you planning on going?"

"Maybe after breakfast," Mianmian shrugs. “I’m just about as healed up as I’m gonna get.”

Jin Zixuan frowns, gesturing for her arm. Mianmian laughs and says, “I’ve been sitting around for long enough, Zixuan. Even if I wasn’t all healed up, I’m going stir crazy over here,” even as she obediently settles her arm in his lap.

She can feel his qi slowly easing into her veins and meridians, feeling out the ebb and flow of her spiritual energy. He lingers a long moment, before finally pulling away with a sigh, having found nothing he could actually complain about. “I guess. But you know you can stay as long as you like, right?”

“I know,” Mianmian says. “But whether I could and whether I’d want to are two different things. You know how I am.”

Jin Zixuan can’t help but look a little hurt at that, but he nods, resignation coloring his features. “I know. I’m just mad I didn’t get to spend more time with you.”

“I’ll be around,” Mianmian says, pinching Jin Zixuan’s side until he yelps. “Come on, let’s get some food in you. You’re grouchy when you’ve missed breakfast.”

 

--

 

They eat in the mess for once, and once Shi Qingxuan catches sight of them, they and their friends form a protective barrier around Mianmian and Jin Zixuan, surrounding them with their sheer numbers. It's an extremely loud and busy affair, as many things involving Shi Qingxuan tend to be, but it's fine. Besides, it's as good a reason as any to squish in next to Jin Zixuan and hook her ankle behind his. They're all squeezed so close together that no one would be able to see anything amiss - and besides, the fall of their robes covers any evidence completely.

Jin Zixuan spends the entire breakfast period with his head down, focusing intently on his breakfast, but no one pays it any mind. He doesn't often eat in the mess, and Shi Qingxuan's gaggle of friends are all Jin Zixuan's juniors, so Mianmian doubts anyone would think twice if Jin Zixuan wasn't inclined much to talk. It's enough that he's there, awkwardly answering any questions asked of him but otherwise keeping to himself the way he often does.

After they've cleaned up some, piling their plates as best they can for the servants to gather, Jin Zixuan walks Mianmian to the gates. Mianmian spots Jin Guangyao attempting to get Jin Zixuan's attention, but Jin Zixuan stubbornly keeps his eyes forward, walking in line with Mianmian until they’re out of the Carp Tower proper.

They go a ways down the road, far enough that they might receive some semblance of privacy, before Jin Zixuan turns to her. “I know you’re planning on seeing your friends,” Jin Zixuan starts, “But if you’ve got the time…”

“I can deliver your letter, yeah,” Mianmian laughs, grinning up at him. “I’m not going to pass up a chance to see Jiang Yanli.”

Jin Zixuan’s shoulders relax a little, the corners of his mouth pulling up in a smile as he says, “Good. That’s great. Don’t - you shouldn’t forget to. Um. Deliver the - uh -”

Mianmian snorts, bursting into laughter right in his face. “ That’s something I won’t forget. I promise,” she says. He glances around almost skittishly, his face flushed a mortified crimson as he carefully pulls the letter out from where it’s tucked into his robes and holds it out to her.

After she takes it and carefully packs it into her qiankun pouch, they stand around in awkward silence for a long moment, before Jin Zixuan clears his throat in his fist and says, “Um. Before you go - I’d, uh, like to add that - “

He glances down at Mianmian’s qiankun pouch, where it rests against her hip, before looking Mianmian in the eye. “I just want you to know that - that I’m serious about this. About you. About all of us.”

"I know," Mianmian says with a smile, patting Jin Zixuan’s arm.

Jin Zixuan’s brow tugs down as he steps a little closer to her. “I - I really mean it. I don't - I never want to make you feel like - like you did, before. I don’t want to ever make you feel like I’ve abandoned you.”

It’s… sweet. Mianmian gets it - she really does. But she knows that for people like Jin Zixuan, people who have to decide who makes what sacrifices, “don’t want to” doesn’t always mean “won’t” - and Jin Zixuan isn’t so naive as to think it does, either. He pauses, biting his lip as he carefully considers his words for a second. "Mianmian, you're my best friend. I - for someone like me, there are very few things I actually get to choose. Mianmian, I - our friendship is something that I've chosen every day of my life. It's something I will always choose, no matter what happens. No matter what other people say. I just - I think you ought to know that."

Mianmian draws out a long breath, smiling up at Jin Zixuan. "I know,” she says. “Thank you."

Jin Zixuan takes her hands in his, surprising her. For all that there aren’t any people around right now, anyone could pass by and see them like this, and Mianmian can’t help the nervous flutter in her chest.

“I just - I promise. I’ll choose you next time. I’ll choose you always,” Jin Zixuan persists, a desperate gleam in his eyes, like he couldn’t bear to have her misunderstand. 

Despite herself, despite knowing better, her cheeks and chest feel warm, flush with the sort of heady and sweet something that she couldn’t possibly resist. It’s hard, not to get swept away by the current of Jin Zixuan’s earnestness - he’s so convincing, sometimes, because she knows he believes it. 

Somehow, just barely, she manages to push it all down - long enough, at least, to say, “I know. Jin Zixuan, I know. ” It’s not the response Jin Zixuan wants, but it’s the only one she can give. Gently, she squeezes his hand between hers and smiles up at him, trying to communicate, somehow, that she gets it.

Jin Zixuan bites his lip, glancing down just long enough that Mianmian realizes - he wants to kiss her. But - they can’t. Not here. It’s not safe to - doubly so after, well, everything.

But still, it takes a surprising amount of effort to take a step back, to quell the rapid thumping of her heart as she says, “I’m - I’m heading off, then.”

“Yeah - yeah,” Jin Zixuan chokes out, mood broken as he carefully takes his own step back. “Be safe.”

“I will,” Mianmian says. “I’ll - I’ll see you soon.”

“Yeah,” Jin Zixuan says, the heat in his eyes mellowing out into something fonder. Something not quite so sharp, not quite so urgent. “Come back soon.”

Mianmian nods, just once, before drawing her sword and flitting off into the air.

 

--

 

Mianmian meets up with the others in Tingshan, having just barely missed their last hunt. It'd just been walking corpses - after all the business with the curses and the water ghouls, Tan Mingyuan wanted something familiar, and the others were quick to agree. Li Yitian had finally come back, and she definitely had a mouthful for Mianmian as soon as she was within hearing distance.

"I'm gone for two weeks. Two weeks! And then I come back to hearing that you'd gotten your dumbass, like, fatally cursed? Could you imagine all the stress I've been under? The moment I caught up with these fools, Tan Mingyuan burst into tears, blubbering about what happened to you! I spent the first ten minutes in Gusu thinking you'd actually died!" Li Yitian says, pinching Mianmian's cheeks.

It's Tan Liyang that manages to pry Li Yitian off of Mianmian long enough for the boys to get their greetings in, and after that, Mainmian corrals them over to a restaurant, where they all settle into a private booth. Mianmian fights over the chance to treat them all, despite the fact that all the others had wanted to celebrate Mianmian having, y’know, survived, and she only just manages to convince the restaurant owner not to let the others pay.

They catch up as they wait for the food to come, chatting about how the rest of the hunt went (terribly, but the pay was good), about how Li Yitian’s visit home was, about Mianmian’s time recuperating in Lanling. When the food finally comes, their conversation peters off, too distracted by the heaping plates of meat and vegetables to think about smalltalk. It’s only after the servers are done laying out their plates and everyone’s piled their bowls that Mianmian finally works up the nerve to properly speak about - y’know, everything.

"I know this is a celebration and all, but there’s still something I’ve got to say to all of you," Mianmian says, drawing everyone's attention. "About what happened with the curse and, y’know, everything after that - I just wanted to say that I’m really sorry for letting it get so bad. I'm sorry for trying to deal with this mess on my own and making an even bigger mess of it. And… I'm sorry for not wanting to rely on you. You all have always been so generous with me, offering your help and friendship, and I - growing up in the Carp Tower, it’s hard to remember that people are kind because they want to be kind, not because they’re, um. Making an investment.” Tan Mingyuan and Tan Liyang stare at her like she’s grown another head, but Xiao Wenzhou has a look on his face like something’s finally clicked for him. Under the table, Li Yitian takes Mianmian’s hand and squeezes it gently, an encouraging smile on her face.

“I’m. I mean, I grew up in a weird situation where I was surrounded by wealth, but I’m, y’know, I’m the daughter of a servant. So. It’s always been… hard for me to accept help, knowing I would never be able to properly pay it back. So. You understand why I would, y’know - “ Mianmian makes a vague gesture, “Act like a complete idiot the moment things were out of my depth. So! Uh. I’m sorry for making you all worry. And also, thank you, for caring for me. And for being my friends.”

“Oh, Mianmian, ” Tan Liyang says, in the sort of way that Mianmian knows she’d probably be barrelling her way over the table to give Mianmian a hug if it weren’t covered in food.

“We’re friends,” Tan Mingyuan says, with a sort of gravity that hardly matches his seventeen-odd years. “So there’s no need for ‘thank you’ or ‘I’m sorry’ between us.”

“Speak for yourself,” Li Yitian playfully huffs. “I deserve to be apologized to! I might not have been there to, y’know, watch her slowly sleep herself to death, but I definitely was there to experience the fallout, and you know what? It sucked!”

“Hey, okay! We got it cleared up! You know I get really emotional when I’m stressed out!” Tan Mingyuan protests. “I’m allowed, on account of being the youngest, and also because, y’know, I already watched her almost-die once, okay! I don't want to see it happen again!”

Mianmian knows he’s just trying to lighten the mood, but something in her chest still squeezes a little, knowing that she’d gone and worried him like that. But she can only try and trust that if they’re willing to joke around about it, then they must’ve put it past them.

With a smile that doesn’t quite make it past melancholy, Mianmian says, “All the same - I know it’s hardly enough to make up for all the grief I’ve caused, but please - dig in!”

Tan Liyang cheers, digging into her meal with gusto, and like that, the mood is broken, replaced by good food, good drink, and good friends.

 

--

 

It’s regrettable, that Mianmian has to leave the next morning. The others take it in stride well enough, figuring it’s inevitable that she’d have another letter to deliver - after all, whenever she comes back from visiting Young Master Jin, it usually means she’ll be leaving them for another week.

She kind of regrets promising Jin Zixuan she’d deliver the letter as soon as she could - for all that she’s missed Jiang Yanli acutely, she does kind of feel like she ought to be spending more time with her friends. After all, one dinner didn’t quite seem like enough time to catch up. But there would be time yet before things started changing. Time enough yet before Jiang Yanli would need Mianmian in the Burial Mounds. They’d find time to have fun, before they all inevitably went their separate ways.

The trip to Yunmeng is, as always, quite pleasant, but as she gets closer and closer to Yunmeng, she can’t help the way her chest fills with an aching desire to see Jiang Yanli again. She quite nearly has it in her mind to just fly the whole trip and arrive in Yunmeng in the dead of night, but eventually thinks better of it. Even fully recovered as she is, she doesn’t quite want to test her qi reserves that badly. Besides, Jiang Yanli would probably chide her for overexerting herself.

Still, it feels like an age and a half since she’s seen her - even if it’s only been a few weeks at best - and Mianmian just… she just can’t wait. 

 

--

 

Mianmian finds Jiang Yanli sitting at one of the docks, staring out into the lotus lakes before her. The morning is still dewy and fresh, the sun half-risen in the sky, casting a gentle, contemplative glow on her face.

 Mianmian had woken with the birdsong, just as the sun was rousing from its sleep, and sped to the Lotus Piers just to see her - but now that she’s here, she finds herself loathe to disturb Jiang Yanli’s peace.

Beside her on the pier is a half-finished stack of graded compositions, having long been forgotten in the face of the morning’s effortless glory. Mianmian has half a mind to turn back, to slip into the kitchens to bring Jiang Yanli some tea because she feels like she ought to offer Jiang Yanli something - but, well, she can’t bear to leave, now that she’s here.

The moment stretches into eternity, and briefly, Mianmian entertains the thought of just staying here like this forever. But then, something catches Jiang Yanli's eye - maybe the flutter of a sparrow's wings, or the gentle drone of a dragonfly buzzing past - and she turns.

When she sees Mianmian, her eyes widen, her entire body seeming to swell with delight as she cries out, "Mianmian! You're here!"

Mianmian can't help it, the way her face breaks out into a happy smile, her own chest buoyant with fondness as she makes her way down the pier to meet Jiang Yanli halfway.

Jiang Yanli quite nearly dumps the pile of compositions right into the lake as she turns over, scrambling to get to her feet. It's - it's painfully endearing, and Mianmian almost wishes Jin Zixuan had been there to witness it, too. But mostly, she's just hurrying to get to Jiang Yanli's side, to catch her before she can trip on her skirts and fall onto the rough wood of the pier.

Jiang Yanli is a giggling bundle in her arms, soft and warm and comfortably heavy against her. When she finally surfaces from the sea of robes they've both tangled themselves into, her cheeks have gone all pretty and flushed, her eyes bright like jewels in the sun. "You're okay? The trip wasn't too hard on you?" Jiang Yanli asks, her voice breathy-soft, now that she's realized just how close together they are.

Mianmian can’t help the way she laughs, all soft and rumbly, deep in her stomach where Jiang Yanli’s body is still pressed against her. “I was going stir crazy up in the Tower. Even if they expected me to spend another week in there, I probably would’ve up and left anyways,” Mianmian says, smiling helplessly down at Jiang Yanli. Jiang Yanli has an expression on like any second now, she’d chide Mianmian for her being so careless, but before she can open her mouth, Mianmian laughs it off and says, “The trip was perfectly fine. Honestly, if it were up to me, I would’ve gotten here sooner.”

That’s enough to ease the tension off of Jiang Yanli’s face, leaving behind her soft, sappy smile once more.

“That’s good. I worried,” Jiang Yanli murmured, squeezing Mianmian tight for a single moment, before finally releasing her and pulling away. Mianmian nearly sighs at the loss, and before she can help herself, she lets her hands trail down Jiang Yanli’s wrists, taking both of Jiang Yanli’s hands in hers and squeezing them gently.

“Do you have morning duties today?” Mianmian asks.

Jiang Yanli shakes her head, gesturing back at the compositions. “I’m free until this afternoon. A-Cheng’s taken the junior disciples off to a week-long hunt with the Baling Ouyang sect, so things have been slow at the Piers. I’ve been using this time to catch up on grading.”

Mianmain grins. “Do you have time to catch up then? We can have breakfast out in town, if you’ve got nothing to do.”

Jiang Yanli’s face lights up, her cheeks bright and rosy with pleasure as she says, “Yes, let’s go!”

 

--

 

They end up buying more street food than they can carry, flush on the sheer joy of being in one another’s space again, and in a stroke of brilliance Jiang Yanli suggests they pile up the fruits of their labors onto the boat they rode in on and spend their breakfast out on the water. By now, the sun’s gone bright and high in the sky, and with it, the burgeoning heat of late summer. Soon, the chill will come, and with it the yearly harvest. But for now, it’s still a time for dragonflies and cicada-song, for lazing about on a boat and laughing over a slap-dash meal of scallion pancakes and meat buns.

It’s not until they’re picking at last of the dumplings they impulse-bought that they finally get onto the topic of - of what comes next for them.

“I… still don’t have an answer for you,” Mianmian says, feeling a little shamefaced, that she’d wasted so much time and come out with nothing to show for it. “You know, while I was at the Carp Tower, Madame Jin pulled me aside to have a private chat. I think she kind of caught onto, y’know, everything, because she more or less bribed me to leave Jin Zixuan alone. She was scared I’d, y’know, seduce him with my wily ways, or whatever, but it just - it just reminded me of all the things you both would be risking if you were to - if we were to, y’know. Be together.”

Mianmian snorts, because it truly is rather ridiculous, but Jiang Yanli’s pretty face pulls into a frown. “That’s… she shouldn’t have said that. That was… really awful of her, actually.”

“I mean, she wasn’t wrong?” Mianmian says. “How else is she supposed to see this? And the thing is, it’s not even the worst of what people could say - or do - to us if we were together. What we’re trying to do isn’t exactly normal, by most cultivators’ standards.”

Jiang Yanli scowls for a while, pushing the last little dumpling around until the thin skin tears. And then she huffs out a long, frustrated breath, and says, “Well, I think most cultivators’ standards are pretty terrible, actually!”

Mianmain snorts. “You’re telling me.”

“It’s just! It’s really kind of stupid, I think? Why shouldn’t we all just - just marry each other?” Jiang Yanli says, visibly getting worked up. “I mean, aren’t we all consenting adults? Don’t we all love each other? Wouldn’t we all be happier with each other in our lives? Why should it matter whether it’s two or three? I mean - I mean, don’t non-cultivators do that sometimes? Don’t they have multiple spouses?”

“I mean, sort of?” Mianmian shrugs. “Concubines are sort of spouses, and sort of not. I mean, like, they don’t have a whole lot of power in the household or anything, right? They’re mostly there to be pretty and have a lot of sex, I think.”

Jiang Yanli pauses, her zealousness completely interrupted at the - at the mention of concubines and their, ah, duties. She can’t help the way her cheeks flush with a girlish embarrassment, can’t help the shy little giggle that escapes her as she says, “Oh. Well, if that’s all they do, I don’t think you’d stand for being a concubine for very long. Even if it’d be fun.”

Mianmian laughs along in agreement, even if her ears go terribly hot at the thought of, well, Jiang Yanli thinking it fun that Mianmian would be around to - to look pretty and have a lot of sex. With them. “I’d probably suck at it, yeah,” she manages to say, even if she can’t look Jiang Yanli in the eye just quite yet. In a fit of boldness, though, Mianmian does manage to add, “But... it would be fun.”

Jiang Yanli blinks at her and smiles, her pretty blush darkening as she thinks about just what they’ve said to each other. Mianmian would be mortified at her own forwardness if it weren’t for the way that Jiang Yanli stares at her with interest. She quite nearly looks like she wants to pursue that particular line of conversation - but instead, after a long moment, she carefully reigns herself in.

“I just think that it’s much sillier for - for people to be engaged well before they’ve even met than for people to love and cherish more than one person, is all!” she says, the earnest fervor from before settling comfortably into a determined gleam of her eyes, a stubborn set to her mouth.

Gods, Mianmian is so fond of her. She just - she likes Jiang Yanli so fucking much.

“To be fair, I think it’d complicate the ancestors-and-descendents-based-social-order thing quite a bit, if I were to marry you both, ” Mianmian says, unable to help the smile that tugs at her lips, watching Jiang Yanli get so heated about something. “Granted, Jin Zixuan’s the only one with ancestors alive enough to be legitimately upset about it, but I mean - “

“Well - well then, if they’re so upset about it, you could just marry me, then! It’s not like Young Master Jin would mind, and besides - my father would probably be happy if I married for love,” Jiang Yanli huffs.

Jiang Yanli’s eyes go wide and gleaming as she cuts herself off and says, “Wait. Wait, wait - Mianmian. Mianmian! What if you married me?” Her voice goes giddy and bright with her sudden discovery, taking Mianmian’s hand in hers and squeezing it tight with the force of her excitement.

Mianmian blinks, a little confused, but still quite thoroughly charmed as she laughs, “I thought we’ve spent this entire time talking about why it’s silly that I can’t marry you.”

“No, no, I mean - okay, so - the basic goal of marriage is to join two families together, right?” Jiang Yanli asks. Mianmian nods, because, well, she’s not wrong, even if Mianmian can’t quite figure out what she’s trying to get at. “But that’s not the only way to join families. My mother always said that no matter what, Young Master Jin and I would’ve been tied together, right? If Young Master Jin had been a girl, we would’ve been sworn sisters, and if I had been a boy, we would’ve been sworn brothers, right?”

Mianmian slowly nods, still not quite getting it but more than happy to let Jiang Yanli continue, if only just to watch her adorable excitement build - and build, and build.

“I guess what I’m trying to say is that, in the end, it’s not all that different is it? Sworn siblingship and marriage?” Jiang Yanli says, her smile more luminous than the sun, damn near. “Of course, sworn siblingship is different, but - in the end, wouldn’t we belong together? We’d be equals - or, as close to equals as we can get, when, y’know, you’d be obligated to call me jiejie. You already know how much you give in our relationship, but you wouldn’t have to worry about people seeing us and thinking that - that you’re trying to take advantage of what Young Master Jin and I have, because you’d be entitled to it. You’d be family.

Something bright and painfully vulnerable makes its way onto Jiang Yanli’s face, and for a moment, she hesitates, like she’d just realized that maybe she’d let her enthusiasm carry her away. That maybe, she’d somehow overstepped. Before she can lose her momentum, she doggedly continues, blurting out other reasons why Mianmian might want to swear sisterhood - as if she felt the need to convince Mianmian that she should want this thing that Jiang Yanli so desperately wants, “And - And besides, it would give me reasons to come see you whenever I liked. You would have legitimate reasons to spend time alone with me and my husband both. And - and, you’d still be able to have your freedom, because in the end - in the end, you’d be my sworn sister, not Young Master Jin’s. You wouldn’t have to deal with all the baggage of Jin politics.”

Jiang Yanli stares earnestly into Mianmian’s eyes, the sheer hope and want radiating off of her palpable under the burning heat of the sun. Despite her best efforts, Mianmian can’t help but get carried away in her momentum, a smile growing on her own face.

But between them, someone has to be pragmatic, so for all that Mianmian probably feels exactly the way Jiang Yanli does, she makes herself say, “Okay, okay. This sounds - this sounds, great, but - isn’t this a little soon? I mean, I really, really like you, but - sworn siblingship is a pretty big thing. Are you sure this is something you’d want? It hasn’t even been a year since we’ve started talking to each other - how could you be so sure?”

Jiang Yanli pauses for a moment, actually putting some thought into it, before she says, “You know what? Yes. Yes, it’s something I want! Because - because Mianmian, I… I care about you. And - and moreover, Young Master Jin cares about you,” she says. “ He knows what kind of person you are, and he’s decided that you are someone that he should actively try to keep in his life. That’s not something he does easily. Regardless of whether or not I have romantic feelings for you… you’d still be in my life, wouldn’t you? So what harm would it be to formalize it?”

Mianmian breathes out a long sigh, taking a second to try and think it through, to try and find any holes in Jiang Yanli’s arguments. But either she wants it too much, or Jiang Yanli’s idea is simply that good, because - well - she can’t come up with anything. Something giddy and bright wells up in her own chest at the thought that maybe - maybe, for once, she actually can have what she wants.

And then, hesitantly, Jiang Yanli cuts the silence, quietly adding, “And - and, you know, now that I’m really thinking about it - if we formalize it, I think it could - it could help us a lot. All of us.”

Mianmian can’t help it, can’t help the way her heart thumps in her chest as she really starts to think about it. As she realizes that - that this is the solution to everything. “Wei Wuxian. The Burial Mounds,” Mianmian breathes, as she tries to consider all the implications, all of the options that’ve suddenly opened themselves up to her - to them both. “If - if I’m your sworn sister, and I act as an ambassador to the Burial Mounds like you wanted me to, doesn’t this solve the issue from before - the issue of diplomatic ties? If I’m at the Burial Mounds, no one can attack it without risking your retaliation. And with your marriage, you’ll have connections to both Yunmeng and Jin.”

Jiang Yanli’s eyes widen as she nods. “Yes! Exactly! And - and even if Young Master Jin is forced to act according to Jin interests, you wouldn’t have to comply. You’re my sworn sister, so I could ask A-Cheng to mobilize Yunmeng on your behalf,” she adds, her excitement building again, knowing that Mianmian is fully on board. “And if Yunmeng acts on your behalf, the Nies could probably be persuaded to follow suit. They’ve got a vested interest in keeping the Jins from accumulating too much power and starting another war, so…! Mianmian, it’s - it’s perfect!”

And before Mianmian can say another word, Jiang Yanli is tugging her into a tight, trembling embrace. “This isn’t too good to be true, is it? This is something that might actually work, right, Mianmian?” Jiang Yanli asks, her breath wet against Mianmian’s ear as she holds her tight.

“I don’t - I don’t know, but… even if it doesn’t, I think - at the very least, I think our odds have gotten a whole lot better,” Mianmian says, squeezing her back just as tightly.

Chapter Text

With the prospect of sworn sisterhood on their minds, the next few days pass in a flurry. The moment Jiang Cheng steps onto the Lotus Piers, they whisk him away to present their case.

He approves immediately, but none of them had been surprised about that.

Their next move is to take it to the Burial Mounds. Jiang Cheng’s just come back from a trip and can’t come up with a good enough excuse to flit off again, even if it likely wouldn’t take more than an afternoon of his time. It’s fine though - that’s what Mianmian is for, isn’t it?

So they plan a not-so-secret boat tour down the river, to cover up for their very-much-secret trip to Yiling. It’d be a private enough affair - only the two of them, with a picnic basket to share at “just the loveliest meadow, right at the foot of the mountains.” For all that there’s no way they’ve got anyone eavesdropping at the Lotus Piers, one can never be too sure.

So Jiang Yanli sends out a discreet messenger butterfly to the Burial Mounds and gets a carefully-delivered letter in the deep of the night, and they settle on a day for their “trip.” At the last minute, Jiang Yanli frets over whether she can gather anything to bring on such short notice, but Jiang Cheng and Mianmian both assure her that there’d be time enough for that, once things become official. There was no use in creating undue risk, after all.

 

The boat ride is lovely, actually. It’s just the two of them in the boat for hours, drifting idly along with the current. They spend the first hour or so chatting about nothing in particular - they’ve talked circles around the sworn sisterhood idea until it was as watertight as they could get it, and if Mianmian was to bring it up, she’d only serve to wind Jiang Yanli’s nerves even tighter - before settling into a comfortable quiet, occasionally broken by a quiet sound of delight any time Mianmian saw something interesting off the side of the boat.

When they finally dock the boat, Jiang Yanli does coax Mianmian into eating. It’s not quite a meadowside, exactly, but it is still rather nice. They prop themselves up against the base of a tree and watch the water flow by while they tuck into the boxed lunches Jiang Yanli had made for them in her latest bout of stress-cooking.

Once they clean up, they make their way to the place marked off on the map, where, as promised, Wen Ning is waiting for them. He quite nearly gets his arm taken off, actually, as he’d accidentally scared the shit out of Mianmian when he came out of his hiding spot in the bushes, for which they both spend a fraught several minutes apologizing profusely. It’s Jiang Yanli who ends the cycle of endless apologies by gently touching a hand to Wen Ning’s shoulder and giving him a look - a gentle sort of let's get on with it.

Awkwardly, Wen Ning nods, and gestures for the two women to follow.

It’s not a marked trail up the mountain - simply a route the Wens had learned to take whenever they went down the Burial Mounds to hunt. It was clearly the long route - meandering and jack-knifing back and forth as it did - but that made it all the better, if one didn’t want to get caught coming up or down the Burial Mounds.

It’s a good, long hike, and by the end of it, Jiang Yanli is a little bit winded. But she doesn’t have much time to catch her breath, before she’s swept up by an exuberant Wei Wuxian.

For all that Mianmian rather likes the fellow, he sure does get chatty when the mood strikes him. It’s only when Wen Qing trails after him, A-Yuan in her arms, that his endless stream of excitable small-talk comes to a reluctant halt.

They get through their pleasantries quickly and efficiently, as Wen Qing isn’t quite one to meander, and get led back to the Demon-Subduing Palace to speak in private.

“Did Hanguang-Jun manage to conduct the survey of the Burial Mounds yet?” Mianmian asks, given that she’d been understandably busy between the last time they’d spoken and now.

Wei Wuxian grins and nods. “Went off without a hitch! They had Nie Huaisang come take a look and he came out of it promising he’d have a proper cry at his brother about it. Lan Zhan was brilliant - he was brilliant, wasn’t he Wen Qing? What with the way he subtly reminded Nie Huaisang about, y’know, all the reasons why Sect Leader Nie might want to consider backing us and all. It was very clever,” Wei Wuxian says with an insistent grin, nudging Wen Qing with his elbow until she rolls her eyes and agrees with him.

“Good - good, that’s great!” Mianmian says with a grin.

“The more help we get, the better, right?” Jiang Yanli adds with a placid smile.

“We still need to be careful, though. The less the sects know about the Burial Mounds, the better,” Wen Qing says quietly, in that way that Mianmian knows comes from a rigid inability to trust. Mianmian knows it’s far from a matter of pride - it’s not just Wen Qing’s life that hangs in the balance if this all goes to shit. But still, she can’t help but feel that her stubbornness and hesitation will only delay the inevitable. 

Of course, by now, Mianmian recognizes her own hypocrisy in thinking so, and very pointedly keeps her mouth shut.

“What did you need to meet with us for, anyways?” Wei Wuxian cuts in, trying not to let Wen Qing spoil the mood too much - it’s not every day he gets to see his sister, after all. “I know you missed me so much shijie, but isn’t it a little too impulsive of you to come all the way out here just to see little ‘ole me?”

“Oh, it’s never any trouble to see my little Xianxian,” Jiang Yanli coos, pinching Wei Wuxian’s cheek affectionately. Wei Wuxian preens at the attention, eagerly leaning into her touch. “But, well - it’s true I did come here for a reason. A-Xian, Mianmian and I were thinking… well, okay - I know you were… uncomfortable with the idea of stationing a diplomat here long-term, but what if it was someone you knew?”

Wen Qing frowns in confusion, as Mianmian takes a step forward. “I’m willing to do it, if you’ll have me,” she says. “And before you say no - there are good reasons for why it should be me.”

“A-Xian, I was hoping, maybe, with your approval… I want to become sworn sisters with Mianmian,” Jiang Yanli says gently.

There’s a long pause as Wei Wuxian really takes in Jiang Yanli’s words, and then all of a sudden, he explodes with joy. “Really? Really, really? That’s incredible! That’s - Mianmian, you - you better treat my shijie right!” he says, playfully turning his nose up as he says, “My shijie is much too perfect for any human being, really, but if Lan Zhan approves of you, I guess I’ll have to agree, too!”

Mianmian opens her mouth to correct him, but before she can, Wei Wuxian takes her hands in his, his sudden burst of elation softening into something a little more quiet, a little more careful.

“Wow,” Wei Wuxian sighs, a wistful sort of smile on his face as he looks at her. “I can’t believe it - two of my favorite people adore you… You really don’t know how lucky you are!”

At that, Mianmian frowns, struck by the gentle sort of melancholy that takes over his features. She wants to - to make sure he doesn’t misunderstand, but this is hardly the time nor place for it. Perhaps - perhaps before they leave the Burial Mounds, though, Mianmian ought to get Wei Wuxian alone, to properly… talk.

Before Mianmian can pull her hands out of Wei Wuxian’s loose grasp, Jiang Yanli cuts in, gently setting a hand on Wei Wuxian’s elbow. It effectively distracts him from his brief and sudden turn of mood, his attention naturally gravitating to his sister, as if it was instinctual for him to seek comfort from her. It allows Mianmian to take a step back, to give them the space they clearly need for one another. “A-Xian… we were thinking that if Mianmian were my sworn sister, and if Mianmian was stationed here as a diplomat… maybe, we’d be able to help you. Officially. In a way that might skirt some of the consequences we’d been concerned about.”

There’s a second of silence, as Wei Wuxian’s expression contorts, a wave of emotions too complicated to name taking over him. “Shijie…” he murmurs, squeezing Jiang Yanli’s hands in his.

It’s Wen Qing who cuts the melodramatics, rubbing her chin as she says, “It’s… a surprisingly sound idea. But aren’t you worried about the sects assuming that you’re colluding with the Yiling Patriarch? Yes, there are a few layers of plausible deniability, but…”

“If we can get the Nies on our side, then we’re golden,” Mianmian says resolutely. “And it won’t be hard. The only voice we need to silence is Sect Leader Jin’s, and we already know that Sect Leader Nie is wary of him. With his support and Hanguang-Jun’s support, it should be enough to convince Sect Leader Lan to think twice.”

“And besides, on paper, A-Cheng and I have nothing to do with Mianmian’s intention to act as a diplomat. I think we can get Hanguang-Jun to put forth her name when we propose the idea to the sects at the next discussion conference,” Jiang Yanli says. “It’s not quite as binding as a marriage would be, but I believe that it would definitely be in all of our interests to at least give it a shot.”

Wen Qing makes a considering noise, and finally, Wei Wuxian cuts in and says, “I mean, sure, it might work be in our best interests at the moment, but - really, is it worth it? Isn’t it - isn’t this kind of a big deal? You shouldn’t - sworn sisterhood isn’t something to take lightly. That sort of thing is forever, you know?”

Mianmian listens to what he says, and what she hears is, you shouldn’t make such a sacrifice for me. With a huff, she rolls her eyes and takes Jiang Yanli by the arm, tugging her close to her side to prove a point. “ I wouldn’t accept her proposal if I didn’t want to,” she says, steadfastly, ignoring the way Jiang Yanli stares at her, wide-eyed and flushing. “And if you know anything about your shijie, you’d know that she would never ask something like this of someone if she didn’t genuinely want it, too. She’d find another way to keep you safe.”

Wei Wuxian looks taken aback, eyes darting between Mianmian and Jiang Yanli, his expression caught between helpless and hopeful. And then, all at once, the tension drains from his shoulders and he huffs a quiet laugh. “You’re right - you’re - I’m sorry, for doubting you shijie. Of course you’d want - of course Mianmian would be good for you.”

“Damn straight I would!” Mianmian proudly huffs. It makes Jiang Yanli laugh that gentle, bell-like laughter of hers, as she pats Mianmian’s arm to be released.

Slowly, tentatively, she approaches Wei Wuxian’s side once more, taking a hold of his sleeve like a child. 

“I was wondering, maybe - given how quickly this is happening, we could probably only afford to have a small ceremony for the sworn sisterhood, so, maybe, if you want - “ Jiang Yanli starts, stepping closer into Wei Wuxian’s space as if to ask him for comfort this time.

Wei Wuxian looks at her, his eyes gone all pretty and soft, as he takes her hand in his and says, “I want to. You know I’d be honored to go, but - “

“It’s not a good idea,” Wen Qing says, with a sigh. Her careful, stony coldness gentles a little, a weary sadness taking over her features as she steps closer to Wei Wuxian’s side. “Even if it’s a small ceremony, even if Wei Wuxian comes in disguise… it’s still not safe yet.”

“Ah,” Jiang Yanli says, wilting a little. “Yes. Yes, you’re right. I’m sorry, I - “

“But…” Mianmian cuts in, feeling the words out as she goes. “But that’s not stopping us from having a small ceremony here, on the Burial Mounds, is it? We could do it afterwards, when things have cooled down.”

That gets Wei Wuxian’s attention, and when he glances at her, she feels like, for the first time, he’s looking at her properly. Like he’s puzzling through his impression of her to see her for who she actually is.

It’s... not a bad feeling, to know that she’s maybe earned the approval of someone whom Jiang Yanli loves so deeply. It’s not a bad feeling at all.

 

--

 

Wen Qing makes them stick around for a little while, at least long enough to have a quick bite, and Jiang Yanli agrees to it only if they let her earn her keep a bit. Wei Wuxian makes a big fuss about it, about her being a guest and how guests ought not to be forced to work, but Jiang Yanli waves him off, gladly pushing up her sleeves to help one of the older women harvest turnips.

Mianmian is inclined to help out, herself, but first - 

“Wei Wuxian, a word?” she asks, the moment he turns to go off and busy himself with one of his projects.

Wei Wuxian doesn’t quite flinch, when Mianmian asserts herself in his space, but it’s a near thing. With an awkward laugh, he says, “Yes, sure, of course. What’s up? How can I - is something going on with, with Lan Zhan? Are you - “

“No. Gods, no,” Mianmian huffs. “Come on, let’s walk. I don’t really care where we go, I just think that maybe this is something we ought to talk about privately.”

“Oh, Mianmian, ” Wei Wuxian says, taking on a scandalized affectation. “Aren’t you being a little too forward? Me, the wicked Yiling Patriarch, all alone with Lan Zhan’s beloved - what would people think?”

Mianmian rolls her eyes and lightly punches Wei Wuxian in the shoulder. “Shut up. I want to clarify some things with you, alright? So let’s just go somewhere quiet and get it over with.” 

“Oh. Oh, okay,” Wei Wuxian says, with an awkward laugh, as he gestures in a vague direction. “I need to check the wards, anyways. Lets go.”

They walk in silence for a little while, and as the quiet grows, the tension in Wei Wuxian’s shoulders grows more and more, before - 

“Are you sure you should be taking me to look at your wards?” Mianmian asks, if only to have something to say. It makes Wei Wuxian flinch quite badly, the moment Mianmian breaks the silence. It’d probably be funny, if Mianmian didn’t feel so bad about it. 

“If my shijie trusts you that much, then I trust you,” Wei Wuxian manages, trying to choke down his fluster. “Besides, if you’re going to be, uh, living here for a while at my shijie’s behest, wouldn’t you end up learning about it anyways?”

“Mm,” Mianmian hums. “I guess you’re right. So, hey - about that.”

Wei Wuxian swallows hard and glances at Mianmian, trying for casual and very much falling short. “Y-yeah?”

“I just… wanted you to know, I guess, that - well, you know that Jiang Yanli thinks about you a lot, right? She misses you so much,” Mianmian says. “If she could, if she didn’t think it would endanger you both, you know she’d be here all the time, right? She worries about you.”

“Ah,” Wei Wuxian says quietly. “Ha ha. You’re right - I was always such a handful, of course she’d worry about me.”

Oh, Mianmian wants to smack him upside the head. She thinks she finally understands exactly why Jiang Cheng is like that.

Maybe it’s just something about the Jiangs and the Jiang-by-extension that brings out the frankness in her, but Mianmian has no qualms about being blunt, least of all right now -

“Wei Wuxian, I’m not replacing you. You know that, right?” Mianmian says, crossing her arms over her chest. “I could never replace you in her eyes. You’re still her brother, even if you can’t see each other the way you used to.”

“I - that’s - “ Wei Wuxian chokes out, tittering anxiously as he glances away from Mianmian. “That’s - silly - of course I know you’re not - “

“Wei Wuxian, please. I saw how you looked when she said we were going to be sisters,” Mianmian says, cutting him off before he can rattle off any more of his self-deprecation. She’d never quite expected that a man that’d once been so arrogant, he flirted with complete strangers without blinking an eye, was capable of acting like this. But, well, he is their brother. Put that way, it’s not that surprising that he can’t accept the merest insinuation that he might be cared for. That he might be worth the trouble. “She loves you.  Both of them do. They’re tearing out their hair, worrying over you because they care about you.”

At that, Wei Wuxian frowns, opening his mouth to protest, but Mianmian just holds a hand up. “No. None of that nonsense. Shut up. You’re not the one who’s spent months watching them try to keep quiet about how much they think about you, and whether or not you’re eating, and whether or not you’re getting consumed by your crazy demonic cultivation. They love you, Wei Wuxian, and a few months away isn’t going to change that.”

“I - oh - Mianmian, you really can’t - “ Wei Wuxian stammers, his shoulders rising defensively, as if she’d attacked him. “That’s not - “ His face flushes a surprising shade of red as he desperately tries to string a proper response together.To think that such an eloquent man could be reduced to this after simply being told he was loved. But, well, Mianmian isn’t about to draw this agony out any longer - it’s clearly painful for the both of them.

“And another thing!” Mianmian huffs, poking Wei Wuxian in the chest. His mouth drops open in surprise at the sheer gall of her, his eyes going wide and panicked as he’s forced to stay on the defensive. “ Stop it with the Lan Wangji thing! He has absolutely no interest in me.”

At that, Wei Wuxian finally properly looks at her. And he has the guts to look - remorseful? Pitying? As he says, “Oh, Mianmian.

“No - Nope, no, ” Mianmian says, stopping him right in his tracks. “Stop that. I have never in my life been interested in Lan Wangji like that, and I absolutely don’t plan on it. Ever. He is not my type, and he will never be my type.”

At that, Wei Wuxian draws back a little, his eyebrows furrowing as if in offense. “I mean - are you sure? That’s - how could you not be interested in him, though? He’s so - “

“Don’t you get started, Wei Wuxian,” Mianmian says, cutting him off. “Seriously, please, that would just make it really, really weird for me. We’re just friends. We will only ever be friends. If we ever become more than friends, you have my express permission to end me.” 

Cowed, Wei Wuxian shuts his mouth with a click and stares down at Mianmian, completely thrown off by the entire trajectory of this conversation. “Oh. Well, uh. That sure is - to the point. Are you - are you really sure? He seems to like you.”

“Look, Wei Wuxian. I’m trying my very best to respect his wishes, but honestly, he is a stubborn ass when he wants to be, and I personally think he deserves better than what he’s giving himself.”

For all that Wei Wuxian boggles at the idea of anyone calling Lan Wangji a “stubborn ass,” at the very least, he seems to agree with her, nodding along as if what Mianmian had just said made perfect sense. For all that Mianmian isn’t one to be overfamiliar with people, there’s just something about the Jiang siblings (blood-related or not) just brings it out of her. So she hardly thinks twice when she sets her hands heavily on Wei Wuxian’s shoulders and stares at him right in the eyes. Her forwardness makes Wei Wuxian titter nervously, taking a step back, as he chokes out a bland, toothless flirtation. “Mianmian, I - that’s - I’m not sure if I could possibly return your feelings, I’ve never - “

It’s a defense mechanism, Mianmian realizes, in the way that Jiang Cheng’s anger is a defense mechanism, and Jiang Yanli’s fretting is a defense mechanism. Defusing situations with humor and theatrics. Mianmian’s never been one to have much patience for men like Wei Wuxian, and she certainly isn’t going to start now.

Wei Wuxian, ” Mianmian growls, almost tempted to tell him she’s been making out with his sister for weeks. At least then it’ll get it through his head that Mianmian’s got no claim on Lan Wangji, and Lan Wangji certainly has no claim on her.

“I - yes?” Wei Wuxian manages, wide-eyed, like a deer staring back at its hunters.

“I am going to ask you to do something, and Lan Wangji will absolutely hate me for it, but you absolutely have to do it, alright? He’s done good things for me, and I’m trying to repay the favor as best I can,” Mianmian says, her voice firm enough to be a growl. “Promise me that you’ll ask him about his feelings the next time you see him. Promise me.”

“Um. Okay,” Wei Wuxian says, confusion clear on his face.

“And under no circumstances can you let him weasel his way out of it, alright?” Mianmian insists, looming into Wei Wuxian’s space as best she can, when she’s a good half-head shorter than he is. It works though, because Wei Wuxian can only nod and stammer out a gormless, “A-alright.”

With that, Mianmian pats his shoulder again and says, “Good talk. Let’s never speak of this again.”

“Yeah, sure. That’s, uh. That’s very much fine by me,” Wei Wuxian says, taking a big step away from her. “Good talk.”

“Thanks for hearing me out. I’m heading back to the settlement,” Mianmian says, turning and marching away. “Don’t forget to ask him, okay?”

“Yeah, uh. Okay.” Wei Wuxian chokes out, perfectly content to be left behind.

 

--

 

The food is bland and vegetarian, the likes of which even the Lans could hardly aspire to, but it’s still good when faced with good company. It’s clear, by the end of their meal, she’s loathe to leave. But the boat tour was only meant to be a day trip, after all, and people would be suspicious if they were gone too long. 

Wen Ning escorts them back down the mountain, and by now, Jiang Yanli’s managed to coax a few words out of the man. Mianmian wasn’t quite sure what she had expected the Ghost General to be like, but she certainly hadn’t expected him to be quite so softspoken. 

They get on the topic of Hanguang-Jun’s assistance with their Discussion Conference plans, which inevitably gets them on the topic of Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji’s sordid relationship, and of course Mianmian can’t help but air out her own grievances on the matter.

Wen Ning proves himself surprisingly sharp-of-wit and sharp-of-tongue, as he offers his own opinions on the matter. Jiang Yanli is absolutely delighted to hear what Wen Ning has to say, egging him on with bright laughter and disarming smiles. Like this, it isn’t long before the conversation devolves into coming up with a harebrained scheme to get Wei Wuxian to properly confront Lan Wangji about - well, whatever they are.

Mianmian thinks that she rather likes Wen Ning, actually. 

It’s all too soon, by the time they get to the base of the mountain, and Wen Ning, despite his inexpressive features, seems to be similarly disappointed that they have to go so soon. With a laugh and a gentle smile, Jiang Yanli gently pats Wen Ning’s arm and says, “I’m glad to know A-Xian has someone like you by his side.”

If Wen Ning could blush, Mianmian’s sure he’d be blushing right now as he shyly nods, his stiff lips tightening in what probably is his best attempt at a smile. Quite frankly, Mianmian doesn’t blame him for being so charmed by Jiang Yanli - after all, Mianmian herself had been completely taken in since day one.

Seeing as he’s there and all, he volunteers to help them push the boat back into the water, his unnatural strength loosening the beached boat with ease. From the shore, he waves goodbye to them until they’re too far into the horizon to see him.

 

For all that they’re still well into the summer, the days have finally started to shorten, heralding the beginning of the harvest season. After such a long hike down the mountain, Jiang Yanli is tired, content to simply sit in the boat and guide it home, the setting sun only serving to settle the day’s energy into something syrupy and slow.

Mianmian takes this opportunity to pull out some paper and ink, idly passing her afternoon making ink sketches of whatever was around - the view from the boat, the play of clouds in the sky, Jiang Yanli’s lax, sleepy shape. The last one, when Mianmian shows her, makes her groan and laugh in embarrassment when Mianmian offers to fly it back to the Burial Mounds. “No, no, please don’t,” Jiang Yanli giggles, trying to take the picture from Mianmian’s hands.

“Perhaps I should send it to Jin Zixuan, then? I did such a good job of it; I could hardly let it go to waste,” Mianmian laughs, and Jiang Yanli cries out, laughter slipping right on out of her as she reaches for the painting.

They play keep-away for a good few minutes, and Mianmian’s so focused on keeping the paper out of Jiang Yanli’s hands that she doesn’t notice the sudden mischievous glint in Jiang Yanli’s eyes until it’s too late. With a clever grin, Jiang Yanli presses in closer - close enough that inevitably, their chests crush together, and before Mianmian can even react, Jiang Yanli sneaks a kiss.

Mianmian’s so startled by it, she can’t help but stumble back, thumping gently against one of the struts keeping the shade over their heads. The painting slips from her hand, fluttering harmlessly onto the boat’s bench, where it’s completely forgotten in favor of, ah. More interesting things.

Jiang Yanli is warm and soft against Mianmian, the fervent energy of a stolen kiss melting into something more languid and numbingly sweet. As they kiss and kiss and kiss, Jiang Yanli rests more and more of her weight against Mianmian, like she can hardly hold herself up with her own strength, and it’s a heady sort of thing to be trapped between a soft body and a wooden pillar.

“You’re slipping,” Mianmian murmurs into the kiss, unable to help the way her lips quirk up in amusement. It’s probably terrible kissing etiquette, but it’s hard to care when Jiang Yanli’s happy to keep kissing her anyways.

And then, of course, because Jiang Yanli is a clever little thing, she takes Mianmian’s hands from where they’re safely settled against Jiang Yanli’s shoulderblades and tugs them down, down, until they fit tight against the plush swell of her hips. “Hold me up, then,” Jiang Yanli says, her own voice gone all breathy and - and -

“That’s hardly fair,” Mianmian groans, unable to keep herself from kneading against the softness of Jiang Yanli’s sides.

“Who’s stopping you from leveling the playing field, then?” Jiang Yanli quietly laughs, cupping Mianmian’s cheeks as she presses gentle, unhurried kisses to Mianmian’s lips. thoroughly distracting her again for several long minutes.

For all that Jiang Yanli had started it, either she’s not quite sure how to continue it, or she’s more than content to keep it to relatively chaste, open-mouthed kisses.

But Mianmian can’t help it, the hot, fluttering feeling in her gut turning her bold and hungry with each passing press of lips on lips. With a quiet growl, Mianmian tugs her tight against her, pressing them together from chest to hip, slotting their legs together so that they might press closer, still. Jiang Yanli gasps, a sweet little laugh on her lips - at least, until Mianmian presses in, licking into Jiang Yanli’s mouth until she makes a quiet whine low in her throat.

After that, well - after that, Jiang Yanli is quick to reciprocate, shyly touching her tongue to Mianmian’s. It’d be cute, if Mianmian wasn’t too busy enjoying it to care. Jiang Yanli is attentive in this, as she is in everything else she does, listening carefully for Mianmian’s hitched breathes and quiet hums of appreciation. 

She gets bolder, too, the lazy sleepiness from before abandoned in favor of her burgeoning curiosity. Jiang Yanli lets her tongue trace the line of Mianmian’s teeth, the roof of her mouth, the slick underside of her tongue, and Mianmian is happy enough to follow her lead. And then, of course, when Mianmian gets it in her head to playfully suck on the tip of it - well -

The sound Jiang Yanli makes is something Mianmian probably won’t be forgetting anytime soon.

Mianmian can’t help it, the way the heat settles hot and tight between her legs, the way her hands can’t help but roam wherever they can reach. Jiang Yanli certainly doesn’t stop her, humming appreciatively into the kiss as her own hands wander. One of them’s found the trailing end of Mianmian’s ponytail, and as they move together, Jiang Yanli instinctively tightens her grip, pulling on Mianmian’s hair just enough to feel it.

 This time, it’s Mianmian whose knees go a little weak, a pretty, low moan pulled right out of her as they drop a half-centimeter against the strut.

Jiang Yanli jolts against her, pulling back enough to make sure Mianmian’s okay. She must see something in Mianmian’s face, in the heady flush of her cheeks or the way her lips have gone prickling and hot, because her eyes go a little sharper, a little darker. “You okay?” she whispers, her voice a little thick, a little rough.

The sound of it sends shivers crawling all across Mianmian’s skin, sends a pulse of want all the way down to her pussy. Mianmian huffs a laugh under her breath, the feel of Jiang Yanli’s heavy breasts against her making her bold. Bold enough, at least, to say, “It’s - good. I like it, getting my hair pulled a little.”

“Oh,” Jiang Yanli breathes, watching Mianmian’s face as she slowly loops the trailing end of Mianmian’s hair around her palm and tugs again - slowly, carefully. Far enough to tilt Mianmian’s head back. Far enough to bare her throat.

Mianmian lets her, eyes fluttering shut as she lets the sensation of her scalp gone all hot and prickling flow through her. Her mouth falls open in a whispery little groan, and she can hardly even bring herself to feel embarrassed when she says, “I, I think I need to sit down.”

Jiang Yanli giggles breathlessly as she leans in again to claim Mianmian’s mouth, gently nipping Mianmian’s bottom lip as she eases them both down onto the wooden bench. Tentatively, she settles her weight in Mianmian’s lap, both knees pressed hard into Mianmian's robes over the polished wood until Mianmian’s hands come around to her thighs to support her.

“Oh,” Jiang Yanli murmurs, and like this, pressed right against her, Mianmian can feel the humid heat between her legs, even through the gauzy layers of their summer robes.

“Um,” Mianmian says, throat working hard as her thoughts are scattered by the feel of her hair, still wrapped around Jiang Yanli’s hand. “Do you want to - is this too much?”

“I don’t know,” Jiang Yanli admits. “I’ve, I’ve never done this before.”

“Oh. Oh, fuck,” Mianmian whimpers, way too aware of every subtle shift of Jiang Yanli’s hand through the sensitized skin on her scalp. It’s, it’s extremely distracting.

Equally distracting is the seam of her trousers, pulled tight against the seam of her cunt, pressed almost in a way that she could maybe - sort of -

Against her clit, if she’d - 

“Um,” Mianmian gasps, trying to fight the urge to rock her hips, to pull Jiang Yanli tighter against her. “Um. If you - I can, if you want to. I would, if you wanted me to.”

“Oh,” Jiang Yanli says, swallowing audibly. Her hand twitches around Mianmian's ponytail once, twice, before carefully letting go, so that she can cling to Mianmian's shoulders, head dropping against the hollow of Mianmian's collarbones as she says, "Um. Wow."

Mianmian laughs breathlessly. "Is it too much? I'm sorry, I just - you make me really - " Mianmian says, stammering through her choked-out words, because she thinks, if she tries, she really could - 

"I want to," Jiang Yanli says, breath gone trembling with the effort to keep controlled. Mianmian’s chest goes bright with the heady knowledge of being wanted, of seeing Jiang Yanli so uncomposed, because of her. Because of what she’s done to her. “But we - I mean, even with the walls, anyone can see us."

"Okay," Mianmian breathes, shutting her eyes tight as if it'd ward away the hungry throb of her pussy. "Okay, okay. Maybe we should - maybe you ought to get off me, then."

"Oh. Oh, sorry," Jiang Yanli says, the pretty flush on her cheeks settling closer to embarrassment, as she scrambles off of her. Mianmian has to admit that it’s a little disappointing to lose that full-body contact, but if she wants that simmering heat in her blood cool - well, there have to be sacrifices.

"You don't have to be sorry,” Mianmian laughs, unable to keep herself from helping JIang Yanli off, lifting her up with hands on her hips. “Just - if you stay on top of me, I probably won't be able to focus on, y'know, keeping my hands to myself.”

“A-ah,” Jiang Yanli says, a sweet little giggle on her lips as she glances shyly up at Mianmian’s face, before her gaze flickers away again. “That’s - Sorry, I just - It’s... nice, when you don’t keep your hands to herself.”

Mianmian laughs, too, delight purring in her throat as she reaches out to take Jiang Yanli’s hand in hers. “I like it, too. I mean, obviously, if I’m - y’know,” Mianmian says, embarrassment and pleasure both thumping in her chest.

“I mean, you’re not the only one,” Jiang Yanli titters, touching her fingertips to her pink cheeks “You’re, um. You’re very compelling, Mianmian.”

“Maybe we ought to - take a second?” Mianmian asks, her cheeks burning even despite the grin on her face. “Look at the scenery. Think about - other things?”

This time, Jiang Yanli laughs, full-bodied and ridiculous, as she tugs Mianmian to the bow of the ship so that they might look at the scenery a bit. 

 

It’s full twilight, when they finally return to the shaded part of the boat, pressed together from shoulder to wrist. It’s when they’re finally under the awning of the roof, that Jiang Yanli turns to Mianmian, pulling her close. Mianmian goes easily, heart thumping at the thought that perhaps - maybe - Jiang Yanli wanted to kiss again, but instead - 

“You’re okay with this, right?” Jiang Yanli asks, tangling her fingers between Mianmian’s as she gently presses their foreheads together. “Being, being sworn sisters and all. I know you don’t like pretending you’re something you’re not - are you sure this is something you really want?”

“Well…” Mianmian says, a considering hum to her words. “It lets me see you. It lets me be close to you and Jin Zixuan both. It lets me help people. I don’t see a whole lot of downsides here.”

Her voice is a gentle murmur, soft and sweet because the golden-purple twilight demands soft and sweet, but it’s no less true for it. “It’d be nice, to be yours. Even if it’s like this.”

And then, with a quiet laugh, Mianmian adds, “Besides… I heard from a friend that the practice of using sworn siblinghood as a cover for romantic relationships between folks like us is pretty well-documented throughout both history and literature. If it’s good enough for Sun Ce and Zhou Yu it’s good enough for me.”

“Okay,” Jiang Yanli laughs, leaning in to peck Mianmian on the lips. Mianmian accepts it with good humor, landing a few chaste little kisses of her own, until once again, they get lost in one another.

The next time they break apart, Mianmian murmurs, “Hey, if Jin Zixuan asked me to send a few kisses along, did this count?”

“No,” Jiang Yanli murmurs, her lips curving up in a way that Mianmian can feel it against her own lips. It makes her huff a little laugh, pressing affectionate little kisses against the corners of Jiang Yanli’s mouth. “You’ll have to do it again later. Properly.”

“That’s fair,” Mianmian laughs. “It’d be sloppy of me to be cutting corners for a matter of such importance.”

“Mm, yeah,” Jiang Yanli says, wrapping her arms around Mianmian’s neck and kissing her again. “That simply wouldn’t do. Not at all.”

Chapter Text

Deciding on the guest list is terrible, actually. The Discussion Conference will be held in less than two months, giving them only a scant few weeks to hold the sworn sister ceremony, and Jiang Cheng’s already stressing over how he’s going to make it absolutely perfect. 

“I’m your sect leader for heaven’s sake!” Jiang Cheng snaps, after the five gajillionth time Jiang Yanli’s put a hand on his shoulder and gently told him that it’s fine if they can’t invite the entire cultivation world on such short notice. “What would the other sects think if I couldn’t provide for you, huh?!”

Quite frankly, Mianmian’s rolled her eyes enough times that she’s surprised they haven't fallen right out of her skull. It’s a given that they invite family, of course, but, well - there isn’t much blood family on either side of the sisterhood. They settle on inviting what few relatives they still have on their mother’s side of the family to sit for Jiang Yanli, but for Mianmian - who could she invite? Jin Zixuan? He’s the closest one she’s got, given that they’d grown up together, but knowing how his mother feels... 

And so, the question of the guest list is shelved for a different date. They’ve got other things they can worry about - having invitations made, deciding the dinner menu, bringing out the decorations, writing their speeches… it’s endlessly busy, and Mianmian can hardly find time to really think about it.

They settle on having the ceremony near the end of October. It’s not much time to prepare - only three weeks from now!! - but it's the latest date they could settle on without conflicting with Discussion Conference preparations. It’s not much time at all, all things considered, and with each passing day, Jiang Cheng gets more and more antsy about the blank spot on Mianmian’s list.

They send out invitations to the usuals - leaders of the four great sects and all of Yunmeng’s allies in the minor sects. Their relatives in Meishan. Mianmian had sent one out personally to Lan Wangji, separately from the Lan Sect’s invitation, and though she wanted to do the same for Jin Zixuan, well - it was smarter to have Jiang Cheng pen that one.

A week passes, and Mianmian realizes she’s been in Yunmeng much longer than her usual. It typically doesn't take more than a week, before she’s ready to return to her friends, and yet - already, two weeks have passed in the blink of an eye. She finds herself missing them; after all, between her impromptu trip to Gusu and now, she'd only seen them for a few hours, before she had to flit off again.

There's no way for her to escape the Lotus Piers, not when there's so much to do and Jiang Cheng is delegating responsibilities like the world is on fire. But she misses shooting the shit over the campfire and bothering Xiao Wenzhou about his stories. She misses training with Tan Liyang and beating the snot out of Tan Mingyuan when he starts getting cocky. She misses helping Li Yitian cook dinner for the group and chatting about all the dumb little things their friends did.

And as she finds herself missing her friends… Mianmian comes to a conclusion.

 

It's well into the evening, when Mianmian stops by Jiang Cheng's suite with a half-baked plan in mind. Something like this would be five kinds of scandalous at the Carp Tower, but they're used to her enough at the Lotus Piers that the night watch and hallway patrols don't bat an eye.

"Hey Jiang Cheng?" Mianmian asks, knocking on the door.

"Come in. It's open," Jiang Cheng gruffs. He sounds tired.

When Mianmian makes her way inside, she finds him sitting at his desk, buried in piles of paperwork - both sect matters and ceremony matters. For all that Jiang Cheng seems to like paperwork and organizing events and sects and stuff, he's been running himself ragged all week over this sworn sisterhood business.

Mianmian can't help the pang of concern she feels, seeing his eyelids drooping like this, but she tries to ignore it. If she points it out, he’d only snap at her, so instead, she resolves to tip Jiang Yanli off in the morning and move forward with her own plans. "Don't get mad at me," she starts, trying to sound playful.

"If you put it like that I'm definitely going to get mad at you. What have you done?" Jiang Cheng snorts, signing one of his papers before glancing up at her.

"Nothing! Nothing yet, at least," Mianmian swears, grinning at him.

" That's reassuring," Jiang Cheng huffs, but he does set his brushes down for now so that he might look properly up at Mianmian.

" Buuuut, I was wondering if I could maybe get away for a day or two?" Mianmian asks, slipping into the seat across from Jiang Cheng’s desk.

"What? But there's still so much to do," Jiang Cheng says, a little sharpness coming through. He’s tired enough that he’ll get annoyed at the drop of a hat, and Mianmian wants to pinch his cheeks and force him to bed. But Jiang Yanli’s much better at wrestling her little brother into caring for himself than Mianmian is.

"It's related, I swear!" Mianmian hurriedly adds. "I, um. I was wondering if maybe I could invite some of my rogue cultivator friends to the ceremony? I - I know they probably wouldn't quite fit in with the rest of the list, but after I left the Carp Tower, well - " She trails off, wondering, abruptly, if this wasn’t such a good idea after all.

Jiang Cheng stares at her for a long time, before the light of understanding blinks into his eyes. "They've been taking care of you," Jiang Cheng says - slowly, like he's feeling the idea out. "They're the closest thing you've got to family outside of us and the Jins, aren't they?"

Mianmian hesitantly nods.

Jiang Cheng looks at her for a long time, tired eyes softening, and nods. “Yeah. Yeah, of course you can,” he says quietly, the line of his mouth softening into something like a smile.

Something in her gut untwists and Mianmian nearly wants to cross the table and pull him into a hug. She doesn't, because sudden physical contact startles him, and he's got some pretty official documents he's marking up, but the sentiment still stands. How could she have worried Jiang Cheng wouldn't understand, when he and Wei Wuxian were practically family? 

"I'll leave early tomorrow then," Mianmian says, a thrill bubbling up in her chest at the chance to - to show her friends a little of what they mean to her. To show them off to the cultivation world and take pride in having them here with her.

"Don't dawdle. We still need all hands on deck," Jiang Cheng says, with an encouraging grin.

Mianmian snorts. "Alright, alright," she says, rolling her eyes as she makes her way out the door. Before she crosses the threshold, she pauses, glancing back at Jiang Cheng. “You’re the best, didi,” she grins.

Jiang Cheng blinks, taken aback for a moment, before his cheeks flush all pretty and pink. “Y-You - !!” he stammers, as she slips right out with a,

“Try and get some sleep, A-Cheng~~ !” on her lips.

 

--

 

With everything as settled as they could possibly get, Mianmian contacts her friends and decides on a rendezvous point just a little ways north of Moling. They all find their way into a small teahouse, order a light meal among the five of them, and settle in.

“So,” Mianmian says with an awkward sort of laugh, “Um. I’ve got a few things to tell you...”

Li Yitian blinks up at her and huffs a laugh. “Yeah, we figured. What's taken you so long this time around, Mianmian?”

“Yeah, about that - I think, maybe… It might be longer,” Mianmian says, and suddenly, she finds herself having a hard time looking up at them. It feels a little bit like she’s abandoning them, for this, but -

“I think maybe, like… forever,” she admits.

Around the table, everyone’s eyes are wide, but it’s not the shock she’d expected to see from them. “What’s going on?” Xiao Wenzhou hesitantly asks, his voice gentling on the off chance that maybe something might be wrong.

It’s... really sweet. Mianmian will definitely miss him.

“So, uh. You remember how I’ve been working with Jin Zixuan and his fiance, Jiang Yanli, right?” Mianmian asks, biting her lip.

Around the table, everyone nods.

“Well…” Mianmian starts. “Jiang Yanli and I - we’re going to become sworn sisters.”

“Oh?” Li Yitian asks, before breaking into a smile. “ Oh!! Congratulations!”

All around the table, everyone else joins in with Li Yitian, grinning and offering their own congratulations, too. Tan Liyang throws an arm around Mianmian’s shoulder and gives her a squeeze, a wide grin on her face as she says, “You’re moving up in the world, Mianmian! Good on you!”

“Haha, um, thank you,” Mianmian says, something sticking high in her chest as she says, “It still just… feels kind of weird.”

Li Yitian raises her eyebrows, an expectant look on her face as she looks at Mianmian. Mianmian breathes out a shivery little sigh as she says, “I’m just going to miss nighthunting with all of you, I guess.”

She’s surprised how much the thought of it… actually hurts. For all that she’d wanted to try settling in the Burial Mounds and helping out with the settlement… she hadn’t realized just how much she’d miss these guys, too.

“Aww, sweetheart,” Tan Liyang murmurs, tugging Mianmian into an awkward little side-hug, with the table in the way. “We’ll miss you too. But we’re glad to know that you’ve got good things in store for you.”

“You’re really not surprised that I’m quitting?” Mianmian asks, feeling… almost a little sulky, that she’d been so worked up about it and they just - it seemed like they’d already known.

“I mean… it was a little inevitable,” Xiao Wenzhou says, offering her a small smile. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Mianmian, but rogue cultivation’s not really your calling. I mean you’re great at it and all but - there are better things you could be doing with your life.”

Mianmian wants to feel a little offended, but… well, he’s not wrong. Chasing after more-or-less harmless walking corpses had been far from challenging. And for all that Mianmian isn’t quite so sure about being, well, something like an ambassador - the more she thinks about what she could do, the more she… sort of wants it. Politics and all.

“Yeah, but,” Mianmian mumbles, leaning into Tan Liyang’s side. “I’ll miss you guys.”

To her other side, Li Yitian snorts. “As if we can’t write you. You send little paper birds to your missus all the time, but you can’t send any to us?”

“H-Hey!” Mianmian stammers, her cheeks flushing. “It’s - it’s different, okay! I’m not going to - I’m not going to get to go camping with you guys, or get you out of trouble when things get dicey, or - or - “

“Or show off?” Li Yitian teases, setting her chin on her hand. “It’s fine - we’ll somehow survive without you.”

“Hey!” Mianmian protests, cheeks flushing in embarrassment. “You know that’s not what I meant!”

“I mean, she’s not wrong,” Xiao Wenzhou shrugs, hiding behind Tan Mingyuan when Mianmian squawks at him.

“Well, either way, it’s not like we’ll never hear from you again. So don’t be so bummed out about it, okay, Mianmian?” Tan Mingyuan says, blowing on his own cup of tea. “You know you’re always welcome to come out with us whenever you like. And besides, it’s not like we all promised to stay together forever.

“That’s surprisingly mature for you, Tan Mingyuan,” Mianmian huffs, but regardless, hearing it from Tan Mingyuan, of all people, settles something in her chest. “I thought you of all people would be in tears.”

“H-Hey! Excuse you! I’m not that much of a crybaby!” Tan Mingyuan grumbles, crossing his hands over his chest. “I mean, it’s just like when Xie-gege went off with his San Lang, or when Xiao-Yizhen got picked up by Qinghe. Someday, Xiao Wenzhou’s gonna have the money to marry his sweetheart, and someday, Li Yitian’s going to run into some wealthy court official who falls head over heels for her and have a gazillion babies or whatever.”

“Aww, Mingyuan,” Li Yitian coos, preening at the prospect of being swept off her feet like a fairytale princess. Tan Mingyuan similarly takes a moment to bask in the fact that he’d made her so pleased, before getting back to the point.

Anyways, even if it’d be nice to hunt with you longer, I’m glad that you’ve found something worth leaving for,” Tan Mingyuan concludes, with an encouraging smile.

Aww, Mingyuan,” Mianmian also coos, feeling rather touched. For all that Tan Mingyuan could be an annoying little snot, she’d miss him, too.

“So?” Xiao Wenzhou asks, doggedly moving the conversation past the gooey, saccharine sentimentality. “What else did you want to tell us?”

“Well,” Mianmian says, a smile on her face, as she pulls the invitation she’d prepared out of her qiankun pouch, “I wanted to invite you to the ceremony. As my family.”

 

--

 

Surprisingly enough that’s the part of the conversation that gets hard - between the crying and the overexcited yelling and the frantic planning of outfits and gifts and the sheer fucking bogglement over the travel money Mianmian had given them to rent a carriage, it takes hours for them to leave the teahouse. Mianmian can’t apologize to the shopkeep enough, even if the elderly man had been more amused than anything at their antics.

They split ways at the entrance, lingering at the door a while longer, but eventually, Mianmian must hop onto her sword and head back to the Lotus Piers. Jiang Cheng had said they needed all hands on deck, after all, and she was loathe to disappoint.

The rest of the week is a flurry of invitation responses, of hiring caterers and buying decorations, of talking Jiang Cheng down from having fancy robes made expressly for the ceremony. Mianmian and Jiang Yanli can hardly get a minute alone with one another before they’re being carted this way and that to attend to their duties.

It’s fine - they find their time together, finishing up paperwork in Jiang Cheng’s study, their ankles pressed against one another’s under the desk. As the days tick by though, Mianmian can't help the sweet, aching fondness in her chest - for Jiang Yanli, for her new family, for this future that suddenly seems so clear.

And then -

And then finally, the guests start arriving.

 

--

 

Her friends come a few days early, not too long after the group from Meishan, and Jiang Yanli celebrates by cooking up an impromptu feast. Predictably, they all fall a little bit in love with Jiang Yanli, but anyone would, after a meal like that.

It takes a little more work for Jiang Cheng to get used to them, and more than once, Mianmian has to kick Li Yitian’s under the table to keep her from trying to flirt with him. It doesn’t take long, though, before both Tan siblings start asking about familiar enough topics that Jiang Cheng’s shoulders begin to relax. Once Tan Mingyuan starts going off on just how incredible the training grounds are, Mianmian already knows Jiang Cheng’s been caught, hook, line, and sinker. Mianmian can’t wait to see the chaos that will inevitably ensue once those two are introduced to Mo Yingyue. She can already see the headache on Jiang Cheng’s face.

After dinner, Mianmian and Jiang Yanli take Li Yitian and Xiao Wenzhou to the library, while Jiang Cheng sends the Tan siblings off with one of the disciples to give them a proper tour of the training grounds.

When Xiao Wenzhou sees all the books and scrolls he could possibly read, he quite nearly cries in his excitement. Doubly so, when Jiang Yanli starts listing off a few recommendations of her own; evidently, they have quite a few favored novels in common between the two of them, and Mianmian doesn’t mind at all, that she completely loses track of their conversation within minutes.

It’s a good feeling, knowing that all her friends get along.

 

Mianmian can’t hang out with them as much as she wants to in the days leading up to the ceremony, but they find snatches of time to get together. It feels good, to have them in the Lotus Piers, this place she would call home, if only for the people in it. When she sees Tan Mingyuan chatting with the younger disciples between spars, when she catches Tan Liyang avidly debating with Jiang Cheng over boats, when she sees Xiao Wenzhou sitting in her favorite spot in the library and Li Yitian flirting playfully with some of the older disciples - 

It just feels right. 

It’s a little selfish, maybe, wanting to keep all the people she loves close at hand, but, well - for a long time, Mianmian’s forced herself to want only what she could afford, to dream only for things she could accomplish with her own two hands.

Now that she’s had a taste of more - well. Mianmian realizes that maybe she can ask for something better.

 

--

 

Jin Zixuan arrives the day before the ceremony, his insufferable cousin at his side. “Apologies, that my father could not attend the ceremony himself. We’re here on his behalf,” Jin Zixuan says to Jiang Cheng, bowing deep as he does so.

When he straightens, his gaze is immediately drawn to Jiang Yanli - only for him to wrench it away, glancing over at Mianmian as if to ask what to do. Mianmian can’t help the look she shoots right back at him, nudging her chin in Jiang Yanli’s direction, clearly prodding him to hurry up and say hello.

As if he was granted permission, he turns to look properly at Jiang Yanli, his gaze lingering as a flush of boyish excitement ripples through him at the simple proximity between them. Jiang Yanli, for the matter, isn’t much different, her cheeks gone rosy and sweet as she regards him with about as much dignity as she could muster, when she, too, is ecstatic to be here.

It’s sweet, seeing them like this. Before, during the war, Mianmian had only ever born witness to Jin Zixuan’s fumbling attempts to attract Jiang Yanli’s attention, her positive regard, her forgiveness. Now that they’ve had a chance to properly talk, well -

It’s clear, how intrinsically, they belong together. 

Mianmian thinks she ought to be a little bit jealous, watching them make eyes at each other, to Jiang Cheng’s eternal eye-rolling, but she just thinks it’s sweet. She’d spent so long, after all, helping to bridge the gap between them that all she feels is the satisfaction of a job well done, rather than some sharp insecurity at being left behind.

“M-Maiden Jiang,” Jin Zixuan says in greeting, his voice softening with something akin to awe.

“Young Master Jin,” Jiang Yanli says in turn, making her proper bows. “Welcome to the Lotus Piers.”

“It’s, it’s my pleasure,” he says, swallowing hard. “Um. I brought a gift?” he says, offering the ornate wooden box to Jiang Yanli with both hands.

“Thank you,” Jiang Yanli laughs, taking it with just the same level of formality. “That’s very generous of you, Young Master Jin.”

It doesn't escape Mianmian’s notice, though, the way their fingertips brush as she takes the gift. Jin Zixuan is so startled he forgets to let go, resulting in the both of them standing awkwardly in front of each other, blushing and smiling like idiots in love. It probably would’ve stayed that way a while longer if it hadn’t been for Jin Zixun at his side, rolling his eyes and huffing like a fussy horse.

Before they can stand around any longer, Jin Zixun irritably nudges his cousin in the side with his elbow, finally startling Jin Zixuan into pulling his hands back, as if stung. His cheeks are ruddy with pleasure at merely being able to touch his betrothed.

Jiang Cheng clears his throat, eager to break the obviously gross mood that’s fallen over his sister and her future husband. “The rooms for the Jin delegation have been made up in the western wing. My disciples will take you there,” he says, gesturing for Mu Qing and Feng Xin to lead them to the prepared guest suites.

“I, um - later, could we - talk?” Jin Zixuan manages, even as Jin Zixun takes him by the elbow to drag him after the two disciples.

Jiang Yanli titters a pretty, delicate little laugh and nods. “Sure. You can ask one of the disciples to come find me, once you’ve had a chance to rest.”

Jin Zixuan nods eagerly, trying to linger despite Jin Zixun’s insistent pulling.

By the time he’s gone, Jiang Yanli’s shoulders are shaking, trying to hold in her laughter. Even Mianmian can’t help but snort the moment they’re gone, glancing away knowing full well that if she looks in Jiang Yanli’s direction, they’ll both start cracking up.

On the Lotus Throne, Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes and adjusts his seat, thoroughly done with his sister and her besotted fiance. “I’ve got to stay here and handle the arrivals,” Jiang Cheng grumbles, trying to rid the stain of second-hand embarrassment from his cheeks. “If you’ve got time to stand around and giggle, why don’t you check final preparations for tomorrow?”

With a huffed laugh, Mianmian offers her elbow to Jiang Yanli. “Shall we?” she asks, unable to keep the grin off her face.

“Let’s go,” Jiang Yanli beams, taking Mianmian’s proffered arm. Together, they make their way out, to take a stroll through the newly-decorated courtyard.

 

--

 

For all that Jiang Cheng’s suggestion had merely been an out, they do end up getting swept up by ceremony preparations and dealing with guests and troubleshooting last-minute catering and decoration and various other snafus. For all that it’ll be a smaller ceremony - only the smaller, closely allied sects to Yunmeng Jiang brought more than one or two representatives - there’s still a lot to iron out. Before long, they’re both pulled away in different directions to assist with different parts of the ceremony.

But for all that it’s tiring as hell, seeing everyone mingling and catching up is rewarding in its own right. As Mianmian bustles about the Lotus Piers, she manages to catch sight of Jin Zixuan and Jin Zixun getting accosted by Li Yitian, the rambunctious Tan siblings, and a handful of Yunmeng disciples they were chatting with. That’s enough to put a smile on her face for the rest of the afternoon.

She hears news of the Lan representative - Lan Wangji, of course, along with one of his older cousins, with whom she isn’t quite acquainted - stopping in just before dinner, but she’s too busy directing a group of younger disciples to go seek him out. It isn’t until well in the evening, that she’s finally got a little bit of time to herself.

She’s got half a mind to go visit Jiang Yanli in her study, but on her way there, she finds her already in the pavilion, laughing sweetly at something Jin Zixuan had said while Jin Zixun sits bitterly at another table, drinking his wine in bored silence.

Ah, the plight of a chaperone. Not that Mianmian has a single ounce of pity for Jin Zixun. 

For all that she’d like to join them… it feels like it’s not quite the time. Of course, if they caught her watching them, she knows they’d surely entreat her to join them. But - well, it feels a little unfair, that she’d had so much time with each of them individually, and outside of their letters, they’d had no time to learn how to exist with one another at all.

It’s not out of self deprecation or some misplaced sense of sacrifice, that she quietly slips away from the courtyard and takes a detour back to her rooms, but rather a simple understanding of fairness, an offering, perhaps, of grace. If the others could spend months without jealousy, knowing Mianmian had spent so much time with their beloved, surely, Mianmian could spare the same. 

And besides - they deserved some time alone together.

She’s partway down the hall, walking past the guest dormitories, when a door slides open and none other than Lan Wangji steps out.

It’s a moment of quiet, pleasant surprise, knowing that serendipity had brought them together again. Mianmian can’t help but smile as she greets him, a vague little happiness in her chest, knowing that he’d come to see this through with her. “Hanguang-Jun,” she says, making the appropriate gestures, on the off chance that his cousin was looming somewhere behind him.

Lan Wangji greets her in turn, his gaze softening as he says, “Mianmian.”

Mianmian laughs and says, “Were you going somewhere? It’s getting close to your bedtime, so whatever it is that’s pulling you out of your rooms, it must be important.”

Lan Wangji shakes his head. “I don’t visit Yunmeng often,” he says. “I simply - wanted to take a walk. It’s a nice night.”

“It is,” Mianmian agrees. “Would you like company?”

Lan Wangji looks at her a while and says, “I would not mind it.”

So that settles it - Mianmian walks in stride with Lan Wangji, filling the empty air with news from the days since they’d last spoken. Lan Wangji takes it all in stride, offering quiet little hums, small acknowledgements of his amusement, of his attention.

And then, Mianmian remembers something rather urgent she ought to warn Lan Wangji about.

“So,” she says, with a slightly wheedling edge. “I saw - our fellow friend in Yiling a few weeks ago.”

“Mn?” Lan Wangji hums, as he glances out at the lovely moon hanging over the lakes.

“Don’t be mad at me,” she says, which immediately draws Lan Wangji away from his moongazing and toward Mianmian, a sharp look gathering in his eyes.

He does not speak, waiting tensely to hear what she has to say about - about their fellow friend.

“I talked to him a little, after we told him about the sworn sisterhood thing. It kind of looked like he felt that, y’know, he was being left behind, so to speak.”

That makes Lan Wangji frown, his lips tightening in displeasure at the mere thought that Wei Wuxian might doubt their, ah, friendship.

“I, uh, didn’t want him to get the wrong idea or anything - after all, all of you love him very much,” Mianmian continues, “So… I sort of, maybe, nudged him in the direction of your feelings.”

Mianmian - “ Lan Wangji all but hisses, his eyes narrowing minutely at her. For all that he’s still standing straight-backed and proper, she knows he’d probably be looming over her in anger if he hadn’t the discipline not to.

She gets it - she really does! Lan Wangji is protective of his privacy, and she’d most certainly betrayed that when she’d talked to Wei Wuxian. She’d probably be mad, too!

But that doesn’t mean what Mianmian did would be better for him in the long run.

“I didn’t say anything outright, okay! I promise!” Mianmian insists, trying, at the very least, to assuage the tense anxiety in his form. “It’s not my business to blab about your feelings. But I did tell him he ought to have a good talk with you about them.”

Lan Wangji breathes out a harsh breath from his nose, his brow furrowing as deep as she’d ever seen it. His voice is icy as he says, “He does not need my feelings on top of all of his other burdens.”

“He kind of does, though, is the thing,” Mianmian says, taking a step back when Lan Wangji rounds on her. It’s the closest thing to a Jiang Cheng-esque snarl on his face she’s ever seen, but Mianmian’s had plenty of practice meeting Jiang Cheng head on; Lan Wangji’s comparatively tamer scowl has nothing on him. “He deserves to know he’s loved. Especially now, when he feels like everyone who’s ever cared for him is moving on. He needs to know people still think about him, still care for him, even now, when he's at his worst,” Mianmian insists. 

“I have told him,” Lan Wangji all but snaps, fear and frustration turning the golden gleam in his eyes into something animalistic and fierce. “I wanted him to come home with me. To Gusu. I would have sheltered him. I would have shown him, if he just - “

“You might have told him, but did he understand you?” Mianmian cuts in, meeting him head on. “Are you sure he rejected you because he did not want to be with you? Because every time I’ve talked to him, all he could ever think about was you.”

It’s Lan Wangji that takes a step back this time, an expression on his face like she’d slapped him.

“You’ve got to understand that this is a man whose core understanding of himself revolves around the idea that he’s a burden and annoyance to other people, and that literally everything that’s been going on in his life these past few months have done nothing to convince him otherwise,” Mainmian persists. “When I told him his siblings worried over him, he assumed it was because they thought he was a nuisance! And you know how much those two love him! So maybe, you could understand why your expressions of love might be a little misunderstood!”

Lan Wangji’s frown softens into one of surprise - and then of distress. He looks, abruptly, like he’d like to hop onto his sword and fly right off to Yiling, so that he might clear up this misunderstanding immediately.

“Look, Lan Wangji, we’re friends, right?” Mianmian asks, setting a hand on Lan Wangji’s forearm. Lan Wangji flinches at the contact, but it does get his attention - even if he still has a certain wildness in his eyes, the suspicious look of an animal that’d just been bitten. Slowly, he nods, just once.

“As your friend, I’m telling you that you should go see him when you get the chance. Tell him how you feel in as frank words as you can bear, because - I think you deserve to have good things, too. Dancing around your feelings for each other and couching them in more palatable words - all it does is welcome misunderstandings,” she says, as gently as she can. “It’s like you told me - some things you’ve got to navigate. If your first instinct didn’t work, try a different approach. I promise you, it'll turn out better than you think - I mean, it seemed to have worked for me.”

Lan Wangji’s mouth is still set in a tight, upset line, his shoulders stiff and high as he insists, “You still should not have told him.”

Mianmian snorts. “Don’t sulk. For guys as smart as you two, you’d think you’d have it figured out by now.”

Lan Wangji still looks upset at Mianmian, but he’s listening. And that’s all Mianmian needs, really. “Lan Wangji, I think I was in a place like yours. Telling myself it was not my place to be beside the people I loved, that it was better that I don’t step in and complicate things. But hey! Look at me! I managed to figure it out because you kept prodding me,” Mianmian says with a coaxing smile. “Now it’s my turn to prod you, you stubborn water buffalo.”

“Water buffalo - “ Lan Wangji starts, eyes wide like he’s not sure if he ought to be offended or not.

Mianmian can’t help it, that she laughs and slaps his arm. “Yes, water buffalo! From me, it’s a term of endearment.”

Lan Wangji scowls at being teased like this, but he doesn’t move away, nor does he abandon his walk to return to his room, so he can’t possibly be that mad about it.

“Look, I promise you, he wants you in his life. He just - he feels like he’s lost everything, and all he wants is something familiar. Something safe,” Mianmian says gently. “He knows you’re safe - he just needs to be reminded of it, alright?”

Lan Wangji’s mouth is still in a tight line, but eventually, he breathes a long sigh through his nose and nods. “Alright.”

Chapter Text

They have their ceremony on the Lotus Piers at midday. It would’ve been at a temple proper, but none of them wanted to have the ceremony anywhere else but here.

Days before the ceremony, before any of the guests had even arrived, Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli had presented her with the loveliest set of robes in Yunmeng purple, with golden dragonflies picked out in metallic thread, flitting over gorgeously embroidered lotus ponds. It must’ve cost a fortune, the robes so fine Mianmian nearly cried.

They’d been a long time coming, Jiang Yanli had assured her, her ears gone sweet and blush pink. Miamian wanted to kiss her then and there, but Jiang Cheng was still in the room.

Now, dressed in those glorious Yunmeng silks with Jiang Yanli at her side, looking ethereal in her layered, lavender-and-seafoam ruqun - Mianmian can’t help but feel a fierce sort of pride, that she’d been chosen by Jiang Yanli. That Jiang Yanli had felt so deeply that Miamian belonged by her side.

Mianmian can’t help but feel like she ought to make herself worthy of such a love.

The ceremony is a simple one - they have their names and birthdates written on silk, their vows to one another copied alongside them to be burned. They have their wine, the ceremonial knife to cut their fingers sharpened to a razor’s edge - sharp enough that it hardly hurts when they hold their dripping fingers over the ceremonial cups.

They recite the vows they’d written together - an overly-formal thing that’d been written, mostly, for the witnesses. But the sentiment stayed true: they swear loyalty, love, and mutual aid to one another, swear to care for one another’s family as their own, swear to share their wealth and their poverty, their good fortune and bad. They beg the heavens that they might share the same fate, that they might die on the same night, so that one might never know life without the other. 

And then, they drink.

 

--

 

For all that it’s a modest enough party, Jiang Cheng spares no expense for food and drink, and he keeps the wine flowing.

It’s not too difficult a task, therefore, to separate Jin Zixun from his cousin. All Mianmian has to do is nudge Mo Yingyue and Tan Liyang both in his direction with the vague implication that they ought to try and outdrink that fellow over there, and it’s as good as settled.

For all that it had been a split-second, harebrained plan, come up on the tipsy flush of good wine and good food, they get away with it easily, dragging Jin Zixuan, helpless and laughing, onto one of the boats prepared for the guests. It takes no time at all to push into the lakes with the rest of the crowd, and even less time for their boat to blend in with the others. 

“Are you sure this is okay?” Jin Zixuan breathlessly asks, glancing between the two of them with a sweet little flush on his face. “I mean, this is a little improper, isn’t it?”

“Well, you’ve got a substitute chaperone, don’t you?” Mianmian says, a grin tugging on her alcohol-warm cheeks. “I’m sure no one would have any doubts about your respective virtues.”

“Mianmian!” Jiang Yanli laughs, playfully smacking Mianmian’s arm, even if she, too, lets her glance linger on Jin Zixuan long enough for the flush on his cheeks to deepen into something appropriately inappropriate.

“I’m just saying - the crowd out here’s big enough that it wouldn’t be too hard to just… wander off,” Mianmian says with a theatrical sort of casualness, making Jin Zixuan splutter.

“I’ll - That’s - “

“Oh, I know of just the place,” Jiang Yanli says with a laugh, meeting Mianmian’s eye as she takes up the oars and starts rowing the boat. Mianmian can’t help the giddy little shiver that makes its way through her.

“Maiden Jiang, wait, let me - “ Jin Zixuan insists, before Mianmian sets a hand on his shoulder and gently sits him back down.

“It’s fine - let her work,” Mianmian laughs. She hardly has to push for Jin Zixuan to go down easy for her, and it sets something in her chest alight.

He swallows hard and bites his lip, glancing up at Mianmian and then, impulsively, over at Jiang Yanli. His eyes have already gone dark and a little glossy with interest, his breath coming in a half-second sharper as he briefly weighs his thoughts in his head. “How much have you had to drink?” he finally asks, his hands tightening in his robes in an effort not to do anything uncouth.

“Only a few glasses each,” Jiang Yanli says, as she effortlessly navigates them down a small tributary, just big enough for their boat to slip through. “Not enough that you ought to worry about us.”

Mianmian huffs a laugh and settles in on the bench next to Jin Zixuan, not-so-covertly watching the rhythm of Jiang Yanli’s arms and shoulders as they strain against her pretty sleeves with every push forward. Beside her, Jin Zixuan freezes, watching Mianmian shamelessly watch Jiang Yanli for a long moment, before glancing over, himself. His ears are pink, as he shyly watches his betrothed push back and forth against the oars, exerting a sort of physicality he’d never seen from her before.

“Hey,” Mianmian says quietly, nudging him. “How was it, seeing her again?”

“...A lot,” Jin Zixuan admits, with a small smile. “In a good way. I… didn’t know it would be like this, finally getting to see the both of you. Together.”

“It’s good seeing you again, too,” Mianmian says with a laugh, her hand squirming between them to clutch his. “It’s still a little - um, it’s a lot, knowing that we’re - that this is, y’know, actually a thing now, but - “

Jin Zixuan laughs quietly, clutching back at her just as tight. “Yeah. Yeah.”

“I think we’re in the clear,” Jiang Yanli says, between huffed breaths. “If you’d like to get a head start.”

“A head start on what?” Mianmian asks, as she glances around the suddenly-familiar surroundings. They’re just outside the Magnolia Cove, drifting steadily further in, where the shade has started to shelter them where the canopy over their boat could not. Abruptly, a hysterical giggle bubbles out of her throat at the sudden jolt of the reflexive want that throbs through her, remembering what they’d done the last time Mianmian had been here. What Mianmian had wanted to do here. “Maiden Jiang, just what were you imagining when you had me steal your poor fiance away, huh?”

“Well,” Jiang Yanli hums, dragging out her words with a touch of theatrical innocence. “It’s a rare opportunity, you know. Having the both of you here. Together. In front of me.” Her bright smile breaks into a sweet little giggle, as she says, “I mean, I always sort of wondered what it might look like if - “

Maiden Jiang! ” Jin Zixuan cries out, thoroughly scandalized.

“What? Aren’t we all - together? Surely it’s a reasonable request to, um - to watch,” she says, with a tittering laugh. “You don’t have to - to take it that far, I’m just... curious.”

“I mean - I just assumed that you’d want to be the one that - I mean, he’s your betrothed, isn’t he?” Mianmian stammers, suddenly acutely aware of how close to Jin Zixuan she’d chosen to sit. He’s warm, beside her, even through the inch of space and the fall of their robes. He’s terribly, unbearably warm, and she can hardly bear to look him in the eye, now that Jiang Yanli is staring expectantly at them.

“Yes, but, well - “ Jiang Yanli says, a flush on her face that’s got nothing to do with how much she’s rowing. “He’d wanted you, first.”

Mianmian swallows hard, glancing at Jin Zixuan. His eyes are wide, his flush deepening as he pulls away just a fraction - but not before Mianmian can grab him, her hand snatching his wrist before he can pull away.

His shoulders rise almost defensively as he glances up at her, trying to make himself smaller in the face of being laid bare. Mianmian can’t help it, the way her heart aches at the thought of Jin Zixuan wanting for all these years, and - 

“Really?” Mianmian asks, soft, like she’s soothing a frightened animal.

“I - “ Jin Zixuan chokes out, cutting himself off as he glances over at Jiang Yanli, as if asking for help from the very person that’d betrayed him. Mianmian can’t help but cup his face in her hands, gently turning him to face her. He can hardly look her in the eye - doesn’t realize how close she’s gotten until she’s pressed her lips against his. 

Against her, his breath hitches, his hands coming up to clutch at her robes as he clumsily moves his lips against hers, just a half-second too slow. 

Absently, in her periphery, she hears the soft little “oh” that drops from Jiang Yanli’s lips, and her blood burns a little hotter, compelling her to push forward, to coax open Jin Zixuan’s lips and lick her way inside.

Jin Zixuan breathes out a whispery little groan, melting easily into her touch.

They kiss like that for long moments, long enough for Jin Zixuan’s natural skittishness to melt away under Mianmian’s careful guidance. He’s pretty like this, eyes fluttering shut as he tries to focus on doing this right, on making it good for Mianmian, and Mianmian can’t help the sudden, aching affection she has for this perfect, sweet man.

When they finally part, Jin Zixuan’s eyes are dark and glossy, his breath ragged and his lips pink. Mianmian can’t help but huff a laugh at the thrill of seeing such unabashed hunger in his eyes. “Look at you,” she murmurs, brushing his bangs back from his face with a gentle hand - an apology for mussing them in the first place when she caught him by the cheek. “You really are a natural, aren’t you?”

Jin Zixuan swallows, but he doesn’t say a word, leaning indulgently into her touch like an animal asking to be soothed. His breath comes in a little shivery as his eyes slip shut, biting his bottom lip to hold back the vulnerable, trembling feelings in his chest.

Mianmian can’t stop looking at him, can hardly tear her eyes away from the thick fan of his lashes, from the slight shimmer of wetness on his lip, from the way he eagerly waits for Mianmian to lead him. It’s an enormous effort just to glance up at Jiang Yanli, to see if Jiang Yanli is seeing what Mianmian sees, to see if Jiang Yanli might feel for him the way Mianmian does.

Jiang Yanli startles when she catches Miamian’s gaze, eyes bright and cheeks flushed. There’s a hungry sort of look in her face, a yearning sort of sweetness that catches them both off guard, and it takes her a second to find her words again, licking her lips as if that’d do anything to help the sudden, dry click in her throat. “So that’s what it’s like,” she manages, her voice thick with - 

With - 

Mianmian can’t help the embarrassed flush that creeps up her neck as she asks, “Do you want to try?”

Jiang Yanli blinks once, twice, as if surprised she’d even been asked, and all of a sudden Mianmian can’t stand sitting so far away from her.

Abruptly, she stands, pulling Jin Zixuan, too, out of his dazed reverie.

“Come on come on, up!” Mianmian says, tugging Jin Zixuan to his feet and pushing him over to sit by Jiang Yanli. As soon as they're within touching distance, suddenly Jiang Yanli is shy, stammering out a, “Mianmian, w-wait, wha - “ before she’s got an armful of Jin Zixuan.

They’re in an awkward sort of jumble, wide-eyed and shy as they stare at each other from hardly an inch away. It takes a second for them to untangle themselves, nervous laughter bubbling up from both their throats as they clumsily sort their limbs out.

Mianmian’s heart aches with the sheer force of just how much she likes them. Finally, Jin Zixuan’s able to extricate himself from the labyrinth of robes and bodies, enough so that he can properly sit beside Jiang Yanli. With a flushed smile, he looks down at her and says, “Um. Hi.”

Immediately, any semblance of shyness melts off of Jiang Yanli’s face as she realizes he’s just about as awkward as she is. She smiles fondly back at him, taking one of his hands in hers, and says, “Hey.”

“Go on,” Mianmian says, gesturing for them to carry on. “You’re getting married, aren’t you? No point in being shy.”

Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli blink at each other, before glancing back at Mianmian almost as one.

“Um,” Jin Zixuan starts.

“But,” Jiang Yanli says, at the same time.

They glance at one another, an embarrassed flush on both cheeks as they laugh again - a little shy, but mostly amused.

“Would you - “ Jin Zixuan says, at the very same moment Jiang Yanli says,

“Are you - “

And then they pause again, biting their lips to hold back their giggly smiles. Mianmian almost rolls her eyes at how goddamned cute they are. She almost wants to grab them both by the backs of their heads and smush their faces together.

“I mean, you don’t have to if you don’t want to, but I doubt you’ll get another chance until your wedding. And then at that point, you’re going to have to - “

Mianmian! ” Jin Zixuan chides, face glowing with embarrassment. Jin Zixuan can hardly look Jiang Yanli in the face after such a comment, but it’s no matter - it only takes Jiang Yanli a single glance up at Mianmian, before she gets the picture.

With a determined gleam in her eyes, she turns to Jin Zixuan, cups his face in her hands, and leans in to kiss him.

It’s about as awkward as expected, given that both of them have only ever kissed Mianmian a few times before, but they hit their rhythm soon enough. It's cute, watching them learn each other’s mouths, each other’s bodies. 

Like with anything new, they start out slowly, hesitantly, trying to feel each other out. But it isn’t long before Jiang Yanli’s curiosity gets the better of her, compelling her to try out just about everything she’s tried on Mianmian - to great success, if the way Jin Zixuan squeezes Jiang Yanli’s wrists with increasing desperation is anything to go by. She’s a quick study, and he’s always been quick to adapt, and before long, they’re both making these quiet, helpless sounds against each other.

“Try kissing his neck,” Mianmian finds herself saying, feeling a deep sense of satisfaction as she watches her two loves love one another. “He likes that.”

Jiang Yanli obeys without missing a beat, letting her hands drop to Jin Zixuan’s biceps as she eagerly leans in.

It startles a soft “ ha-ah, ” from Jin Zixuan’s lips, his brows knitting helplessly upward as he tilts his head to the side for her, his entire body growing pliant under Jiang Yanli’s attention.

She giggles quietly against his skin as a faint tremble overtakes him, mouth bitten and eyes squeezing shut at the sensation. “ Ah - Mianmian, I - please?” Jin Zixuan gasps, reaching blindly out for her. 

Obediently, Mianmian steps over to him, and as soon as she’s within reach, he takes hold of her hand, squeezing it tight in his and gently urging her to sit.

It’s an awkward fit, but she makes it work, slipping a hand around his waist in part to try to keep her balance on the spare few inches of the boat’s narrow bench. As soon as she’s settled, Jin Zixuan slumps his weight against her, mouth dropped open and panting as Jiang Yanli kisses her way down to his collarbones. He can’t stop squirming, his hand squeezing white-knuckled on Mianmian’s as if to keep himself from doing anything untoward to Jiang Yanli, instead.

Mianmian can’t help the fondness that wells up in her chest as she brings his hand up to her mouth and presses a gentle, lingering kiss to the palm.

When Jiang Yanli finally pulls back to observe her work, Jin Zixuan looks quite thoroughly ravished. With a quiet laugh, Jiang Yanli carefully straightens the collar on his robes, with a rather satisfied smile, not unlike that of a contented cat. When she glances up at Mianmian, Mianmian can’t help but grin. “Look at you, Maiden Jiang. You really did a number on him.”

Jin Zixuan groans in embarrassment, hiding his face into Mianmian’s neck. “That’s - That’s unfair! I was already - “ he jerks, shutting his mouth with a click, his cheeks burning hot against Mianmian’s skin.

“Already what?” Mianmian asks, poking Jin Zixuan in the stomach until he yelps and pulls away. As soon as he sees Jiang Yanli’s curious stare on him, he can’t help but cover his face with his arms, with an embarrassed groan.

“You - you know! ” Jin Zixuan chokes out.

“Do we?” Jiang Yanli asks, gently prying away one of Jin Zixuan’s arms.

“I can’t just say it - that’s really - that’s really improper!” Jin Zixuan squawks, even as he doesn’t fight back. “You’re just - a really good kisser. B-both of you.” He shrinks back a little as he says it, looking terribly shy and vulnerable under Jiang Yanli and Mianmian’s gazes.

“Zixuan, are you - “ Mianmian starts, glancing down.

Jin Zixuan yelps, bringing his knees up, as if that’d do anything to help hide his embarrassment, when his behavior reveals pretty much everything.

For all that it makes Mianmian laugh a little, it also makes something hot bloom high in her chest. And when she looks over at Jiang Yanli, Mianmian can see the same feeling mirrored in her eyes.

Jiang Yanli bites her lip and squeezes her thighs together, a quiet little, “Oh,” dropping from her lips.

Jin Zixuan might be too embarrassed to parse it, but Mianmian can see. She understands.

“Do you want to stop, then?” Mianmian asks, her voice quiet, a little rough. She doesn’t exactly want to stop, but if it’s too much - 

Jin Zixuan jolts, rushing to sit upright.

“N-no! I don’t - you can - that is, um - “ he stammers, getting increasingly flustered. In his panic, he completely forgets to hide himself, and Mianmian catches Jiang Yanli stealing a curious glance while his attention is still on Mianmian. 

Jiang Yanli startles, a little, when she realizes that Mianmian had caught her staring, and when she does, she draws back a little, her own embarrassment blushing hot on her cheeks. But Mianmian doesn’t stay anything, only holds her gaze a while longer, and before she herself can verbalize it, Jin Zixuan stammers, “M-maybe, instead, you two can - um.”

Jiang Yanli glances at Jin Zixuan, and then at Mianmian. And then all at once, she leans across Jin Zixuan’s lap to pull Mianmian into her own kiss. Against her, Mianmian can feel Jin Zixuan’s trembling gasp, can feel the way his hands immediately dart out to steady Jiang Yanli until she practically climbs on top of him to get at Mianmian, and all of a sudden, Mianmian’s breath is coming fast, her blood roaring in her ears as she kisses back. 

Mianmian can’t help it, that she immediately falls into Jiang Yanli’s rhythm, opening her mouth to let Jiang Yanli suck on her bottom lip.

Absently, she hears a quiet, “Oh, wow,” from beside her, but it’s soon forgotten in favor of Jiang Yanli’s hungry mouth.

It ought to feel strange, maybe, that she’s here, pressed up against her best friend while his fiance kisses her within an inch of her life. But really, nothing has ever felt quite so perfect, quite so right.

 

When they finally pull apart, breath coming fast and hearts pounding hard in their chests, Mianmian just has to ask - “How long do you think we have before they notice the three of us are gone?”

Jiang Yanli licks her lips, her eyes glossy and dark as she says, "A-Cheng’s made sure to buy enough wine to keep everyone thoroughly sloshed. We’ve got time.”

Beside them, Jin Zixuan sucks in a tight breath, a dazed, hungry look in his eyes. Mianmian can’t help it, that she laughs.

“Well, if that’s the case, we ought to make the best of it, no?”

 

--

 

They make it back before the sun sets, and it’s quite obvious by the way Jiang Cheng glares at them that he’s not especially pleased that the main actors had disappeared in the middle of the party. But thanks to some very careful management on Jiang Cheng’s part, no one seems to have noticed - or cared - that they’d even gone missing.

Jin Zixuan, now that he’s no longer being kissed within an inch of his life, finally remembers to ask after his cousin - only to find that Jin Zixun had been escorted back to their rooms on account of having passed out several drinks in, and that, unfortunately, Mianmian would simply just have to continue playing chaperone until someone else could fill in the job.

Mo Yingyue and Tan Liyang are quite boisterously chatting with a group of disciples, already thick as thieves despite having hardly spoken before today. It’s clear that they’re much too drunk to remember a proper thank you from either Jiang Yanli or Mianmian, but perhaps some hangover soup tomorrow might be appreciated - from the looks of it, Jiang Yanli might actually have to make enough for an army, given how clearly it was that several of the Jiang disciples had snuck in a taste, or three.

The evening deepens, and Jiang Cheng calls for the kitchens to bring out small plates. Everyone’s still too full from picking at the remains of the feast as they drink their fill, and the tiny servings are well-received. As Mianmian walks around with Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan, she can’t help but notice just how pleased Jiang Cheng is, preening as if he could absorb joy through the atmospheric enjoyment of others.

When she points it out, it has Jiang Yanli laughing cutely behind her sleeve, and beside her Jin Zixuan can hardly take his eyes off her. It sends a sweet ache through Mianmian’s chest, watching them together, watching the way they shyly learn how they might fit. It’s something they’ve worked hard for, something they’ve earned, and Mianmian is simply glad to be there with them.

To be honest, it sends a little thrill down her spine everytime someone looks at the three of them together - and then promptly assumes that Mianmian is simply getting a head start on her duty as a sworn sister and filling in as chaperone. At first, she had been a little bit worried, because surely, if Jiang Yanli stood a little too close, or if they got a little too touchy, then the gig would be up - but if anyone had clued in, they hadn’t said anything about it.

It’s… oddly freeing, not being perceived. Mianmian thought that it would rankle a little, but the feeling is decidedly different than the feeling of being ignored for the fact of her lineage. Mianmian kind of likes it, the fact that she could walk arm-in-arm with Jiang Yanli and no one would bat an eye. It feels like walking around with a giddy sort of secret.

The party begins to wind down in that slow, syrupy sort of way that good parties do, as people head back in twos and threes, back to their sects, back to their guest rooms, back to town to find the sort of entertainment one wouldn’t be able to find at such a fine establishment as the Lotus Piers.

One by one, the boats slowly drift back, and the poor junior disciples put on duty carefully secure them, greeting the guests one by one and chaperoning them where they’d like to go.

Jin Zixuan sighs almost wistfully, watching as people stumble off their boats and carefully wobble their way back to their rooms.

“Mn? What’s up?” Mianmian asks, from where she’s standing beside Jiang Yanli, indulgently plucking grapes from the little vine she’d snatched before the servants and junior disciples could take away all the plates.

“Nothing, I just - the party’s ending,” Jin Zixuan says, making a vague gesture like that was enough for them to understand the source of his melancholy. It is, for the record - Mianmian definitely understands that for all that Jin Zixuan hates parties, hates crowds in general - but that doesn't mean she won’t tease him about it.

“I didn’t take you for the partying sort,” Mianmian says with a playful sort of sneer. Jin Zixuan shoots her a long-suffering sort of glare, one that has Jiang Yanli quietly laughing as she watches the both of them.

“You know what I mean,” Jin Zixuan says with an almost sulk.

“Do I?” Mianmian asks airily.

Jin Zixuan’s face screws up into an embarrassed scowl as he says, “The sooner the party ends, the sooner I’ll have to head back to the Carp Tower with my cousin.”

“Oh?” Mianmian wheedles, being extra annoying simply for the sake of making Jiang Yanli laugh.

With an irritable huff, Jin Zixuan glances away with an embarrassed grumble.

“What was that?” Mianmian asks, theatrically cupping a hand around her ear, as if it’d help her hear better.

“You’re insufferable!” Jin Zixuan finally snaps, rolling his eyes. “I don’t even know why I like you.”

Mianmian cackles gleefully, reaching behind Jiang Yanli to pinch Jin Zixuan in the side. He yelps like a tiny, yappy dog, letting go of Jiang Yanli to dance away from Mianmian’s offensive hand. “Punishment, for calling me insufferable,” she grins, despite his shocked and wounded glare.

“That’s not fair!” he cries out, hiding behind Jiang Yanli, like a coward.

“She’s going to learn at some point that you’re ticklish! Might as well be now,” Mianmian sneers, waggling her fingers like a particularly bad theater villain.

“You’re ticklish?” Jiang Yanli asks, a note of wonder simmering under the mischievous curiosity in her voice.

“No! I’m not!” Jin Zixuan cries out, his face blooming in red as he takes a suspicious step back. Jiang Yanli falls in step as they advance on him - until, at least, a pair of Jiang Yanli’s aunties wander by, hiding their amused giggles behind their sleeves.

That has Jiang Yanli straightening up, her cheeks going pink in embarrassment as she self-consciously tries to assume the image of a proper young lady.

“I know it’s your celebration, A-Li, but it’s unbecoming to drink too much,” one of her aunts says, pinching Jiang Yanli’s cheek affectionately. Jiang Yanli tolerates it with a respectable amount of patience as she says, “Yes, Ayi. I won’t drink anymore, I promise.”

“Good girl,” her aunt says, gently patting the reddened cheek. “It’s starting to get late. You ought to take her back to her rooms, Miss…”

“Luo Qingyang,” Mianmian introducing herself, greeting Jiang Yanli’s aunties with utmost respect. “Thank you for your advice - um - Ayi…?”

The woman laughs and gently pats Mianmian’s shoulders. “You’re part of the family now. You can call me that if you want.”

Mianmian swallows hard and nods, a great flush of giddy pleasure blooming in her chest at being - recognized. Acknowledged as Jiang Yanli’s. “Y-yes, Ayi!”

“Good. Why don’t you ladies head to bed, alright? I’ll find A-Cheng and have him escort your gentleman friend back to his room,” the other aunt says.

“Yes, Jiumu. Thank you, Jiumu,” Jiang Yanli says, dialing up the properness in a clear bid to get her aunties to go away.

Jin Zixuan looks absolutely mortified, as he stands there, watching as Jiang Yanli and Mianmian reluctantly say their goodbyes, thus leaving him with the aunties. Mianmian does her best to offer him a good luck smile, but she doubts the message made it through the muggy haze of Jin Zixuan’s (perfectly reasonable, in this case) anxiety. But there’s really no helping it - the two aunties all but drag him away kicking and screaming, and Jiang Yanli therefore must guide Mianmian through the maze of buildings and walkways leading deeper into the Lotus Piers.

Once they’re out of sight, safely tucked into one of the little courtyards dotted around the Lotus Piers, Jiang Yanli groans and buries her face into Mianmian’s shoulder. “That was so embarrassing.”

“Was it?” Mianmian asks, an amused little laugh in her voice. “It’s good that your aunts are looking out for you.”

“They knew what they were doing!! Gods, usually their husbands keep them from poking their noses around but I bet they got drunk and left early. A-Cheng brought out the good wine tonight,” Jiang Yanli groans. “They probably noticed we went missing and wanted to mess with me. And now they’re going to make A-Cheng take Young Master Jin back to his rooms.”

“You say that like it's a bad thing, for those to to learn how to get along a little,” Mianmian laughs.

“Have you met my brother?” Jiang Yanli asks incredulously. “I love my brother, but we both know A-Cheng will probably try to give him the if-you-make-my-sister-cry-I’ll-murder-you-in-your-sleep talk! Really, just because he takes after mother doesn’t mean he has to act like her, too...”

“You’re cute when you’re a little mean,” Mianmian laughs, staring fondly at Jiang Yanli. 

Jiang Yanli pauses, blinking up at Mianmian. And then, her face flushes redder as she burrows tighter into Mianmian’s shoulder. “I’m not! I’m not being mean.”

“Mm-hmm,” Mianmian laughs, wrapping her arms around Jiang Yanli’s shoulders. “I understand. You’re under duress. You’d never make fun of your brother even though that’s totally normal sibling behavior and no one would judge you for being a little shit right back at him.”

“Stop teasing!” Jiang Yanli sulks, gently smacking Mianmian in the arm as she extricates herself from Mianmian’s hold. “Let’s just go to my study. Knowing my aunties, they’ll probably send someone over to check on us.”

“Sucks to be Jin Zixuan I guess,” Mianmian laughs, even as she obediently follows after. “Though I guess that’ll be me in a few weeks, when I get shipped away to fulfill my duties.”

Jiang Yanli huffs a laugh and hipchecks Mianmian. “I suppose we ought to make the best of things while you’re still here, then, yeah?”

Mianmian blinks at Jiang Yanli, before a grin starts pulling on the corners of her mouth. “You know what, I suppose you’re right. Let’s make the best of it.”

Chapter Text

It feels like they have all the time in the world and no time at all before the discussion conference is upon them, and Mianmian spends half the time agonizing about it and half the time existing in a constant state of gooey, incandescent happiness, because it’s real, because she can have Jiang Yanli’s attention and affection whenever she wants.

 And the best thing is - the best thing is, it’s not even like she has to sacrifice time spent with her friends, either. After all the other guests leave, Jiang Cheng offers to let them stay a little longer, knowing how far they’d have to go. It was really only supposed to be a few days, but then Li Yitian and Jiang Yanli get to talking about stuff - just mundane things about some of Yunmeng’s records, really - and then, before they know it, she’s helped Jiang Yanli solve a conundrum that’s had her procrastinating on reorganizing the contracts they have with a few local suppliers for months.

Before Li Yitian could escape, Jiang Yanli grabs her by the arm, marches up to Jiang Cheng, and demands he offer her a job right then and there.

Of course all of them, Li Yitian included, kind of boggle over it, but they eventually settle on a two-week trial period. After all, they’d need all the help they could get, getting ready for the discussion conference. And if Li Yitian is staying an extra couple weeks, the others figure they ought to stay in the area too.

At first, they plan on night hunting to earn their keep around the Lotus Piers, but then an incident with a swarm of water ghouls leaves way too many civilian ships broken, and for all that Yunmeng is an area built on lakes there’s only so many competent shipwrights. So both of the Tan siblings while away their time in town, helping to repair boats in Yunmeng Jiang’s name, until one of the shipwrights - one Jiang Cheng had paid to be relocated to Yunmeng from his little fishing village to the east, he was that good - took notice of Tan Liyang’s handiwork and asked if she’d like to apprentice under him.

 And if his sister was going to stay, Tan Mingyuan wasn’t about to leave, either. Besides, he’d gotten pretty cozy with a few of Jiang Cheng’s disciples after a little over a week in the Lotus Piers, and it was inevitable that Jiang Cheng would take notice. After a thorough conversation with Mianmian about his strengths and weaknesses, Jiang Cheng offers to take him on as a disciple.

With everyone else pretty much settled in Yunmeng, what was Xiao Wenzhou supposed to do but stay, as well? It was either that, or make the long trek to his hometown, having accomplished, at the very least, to have a grand old adventure. Though something like that would hardly be a good enough excuse for his parents, and even less so for his beloved’s parents.

As someone without much in the way of spiritual energy, however, it isn’t exactly easy to find a place for himself in the Lotus Piers. He passes the weeks up to the discussion conference sticking close to Mianmian, helping out with whatever odd jobs that needed doing - and thankfully, there were plenty of things to keep him busy.

Not that it distracts him from the looming fact that his friends had all found somewhere to settle and he just… hadn’t.

For all that none of them particularly want to see Xiao Wenzhou listlessly whiling away his time, it’s not like Jiang Cheng was in a place where he could offer charity to anyone that shows up on his doorstep. Not that Xiao Wenzhou would want that - he might be generally soft spoken, but even he had a pride to him, too.

It’s during one of those evenings in Jiang Yanli’s study that Mianmian thinks aloud a bit and asks, “Do you think Xiao Wenzhou would agree if I asked him to come with me to the Burial Mounds?”

“Mmh?” Jiang Yanli asks, glancing up from her work, the hand comfortably settled on Mianmian’s knee pulling away for a moment as she considers the prospect. “Do you think he’d be happy there?”

“Well… I don’t think he’s happy here, ” Mianmian says with a frown. “And besides, it wouldn’t be permanent. It’d be helpful, having another young body to help with the settlement. It’ll keep him busy, too, until he decides on what he wants to do.”

“Hm,” Jiang Yanli hums, setting down her brush to turn to Mianmian. “What about his beloved? He hasn’t given up on marrying her, has he?”

Mianmian shakes her head and shrugs. “He writes her any chance he gets,” she says.

“I doubt she’d wait forever,” Jiang Yanli says quietly. “Going to the Burial Mounds isn’t exactly a lucrative job prospect.”

“Ugh, you’re right. I just don’t know what to do about it. I don’t want to just leave him behind,” Mianmian says. “I know what it feels like to think everyone else has moved on, and you’re just still there, spinning in circles. It sucks, and I don’t want that for him.”

“Well,” Jiang Yanli says, gently squeezing Mianmian’s hair. “Why don’t you talk to him about it, hm? He’d be glad to know you’ve got his best interests at heart. I’m sure we’ll be able to figure something out.”

“Yeah, alright,” Mianmian sighs. Seeing Mianmian’s low mood, Jiang Yanli cups her cheeks with both her hands and gently guides her into an affectionate little kiss.

“You’re a good friend, Mianmian,” Jiang Yanli murmurs, pressing another kiss to her forehead and pulling Mianmian in to lean against her chest. “But sometimes, there are things you just can’t force. Xiao Wenzhou is a good, hardworking man. He’ll figure something out.”

“Mm,” Mianmian sighs, wrapping her arms around Jiang Yanli’s waist. “Yeah, okay. Okay.”

 

--

 

In the blink of an eye, the Discussion Conference arrives.

They can’t quite justify inviting Mianmian’s friends to the Discussion Conference in Qinghe, but Mianmian wouldn’t want to subject them to this particular brand of bullshit, anyways. Still, she can’t help but feel a little out of place; while she’s a part of Yunmeng Jiang’s delegation, she’s not Yunmeng Jiang, nor is she a disciple, a diplomat, or anyone of particular note. 

Even if she’s quite pointedly not Yunmeng Jiang, she wears her purple dragonfly robes as if she is, walking side by side with Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng and hoping, in some way, that she looks like she belongs. She knows she doesn’t, but she hopes.

For the most part, the first few days are the same as any other discussion conference, and they’re not bad. They’re enjoyable, even, given that the first day or two is dedicated to letting the sects show off, letting the disciples mingle, letting loose a little. While Qinghe might not be as ostentatiously ornamented as Lanling Jin, there’s a beauty in the natural, rugged landscape, in that familiar bite of low oxygen and chilly mornings. Mianmian’s kind of missed it, this achingly nostalgic feeling that reminds her of waking up early to set off on a mission.

Jiang Yanli doesn’t take to the climate well, but she manages to put on a brave face as best she can. In the evenings she lies in Mianmian’s bed, as they’d been given a room to share, and presses her face against Mianmian’s chest, eyes shut tight against the dizziness and nausea. For all that Mianmian can’t stand seeing Jiang Yanli so unwell, she can’t deny that she enjoys having an excuse to be close, to comfort her, to brush her hair back and massage her temples.

Jin Zixuan comes to hang out as often as is proper, and in Jin Zixun’s place, Jin Guangyao acts as chaperone. Mianmian isn’t able to be there all the time - spending time with Jiang Cheng preparing the disciples and quietly glancing after Lan Wangji, hoping he isn’t still too mad at her, and all - but she’s there enough that eventually she catches onto the fact that Jiang Yanli, Jin Zixuan, and Jin Guangyao seem to have… settled, somehow. Jin Guangyao doesn’t seem quite so anxious to please when it’s just him and Jin Zixuan, and Mianmian can’t help but wonder if that ought to be attributed to Jiang Yanli and her clever scheming.

There’s something of a… well, Mianmian doesn’t know Jin Guangyao all too well, but it seems as though he’s become more… resolute? Even in interacting with the other Jin Sect members, there’s a clear difference, though what it might be, Mianmian has no clue. But there’s a change in Jin Guangyao’s body language that puts Mianmian at ease - not that it becomes any softer and more accommodating. If anything, there’s a steel in his spine that he’d been hiding before, and now there was just one less layer of silk to keep it concealed.

As per tradition, festivities end on the third day, and things finally get a move on on the fourth day of the discussion conference. Normally, the discussion chamber is reserved for sect leaders, diplomats, and maybe a few senior disciples, but it’s technically open to all. It’s just that for a vast majority of disciples, the prospect of brokering treaties and bickering over land rights is far from interesting. 

Obediently, Mianmian sits through meetings all day at Jiang Yanli’s side. They’d decided, privately, and with Lan Wangji, that they’d present their case on the fifth day, which was usually a little calmer than the fourth, but that plan all goes to shit when Jin Guangshan cuts through the usual treaty-brokering with a, “Are we really going to be talking about the price of salt when there’s still a knife looming over our heads? Or have you all forgotten about the threat the Yiling Patriarch and his army of Wens poses to the safety of the entire cultivation world?”

Evidently, glutting the Jin Sect on as much land as they could possibly attempt to manage ( attempt is the key word here) and practically crowning himself Head Cultivator has made him cocky, because there’s a clear smugness in his grin, an eagerness to be handed all he wants simply because he’s the one bravest enough to point out the elephant in the room.

Jiang Cheng is caught off guard, but he falls into his role quickly enough, stepping forward with an irritable scoff and saying, “I don’t know why you’re complaining. Have you forgotten that Yunmeng stands at the vanguard of the Yiling Patriarch’s wrath? If he blows his top, Yunmeng would be the first to go.”

Both Nie Mingjue and Lan Qiren look rather miffed at the sudden change in topic - everyone else tenses at the mention of the Yiling Patriarch, glancing nervously between Jiang Cheng and Jin Guangshan to see how this plays out.

Jin Guangshan snorts at Jiang Cheng’s words, strutting into the open space at the center of their debates as if he owned the place. “One would think he would have no desire to harm his natal sect. He’d been a loyal enough dog during the war,” he sneers. “If you had reigned in the leash a little, Sect Leader Jiang, perhaps we wouldn’t be here.”

Mianmian swallows thickly, hoping Jiang Cheng doesn’t rise to the bait. She can already see the vein in his forehead throbbing as he tries to restrain himself. Across the room, Lan Wangji is gripping Bichen’s hilt tightly, his mouth set in a thin line.

Jiang Cheng takes in a long, steadying breath that bursts out angrily from his nostrils, a sure sign that he’s agitated, but trying his best. “All of us have made mistakes in the war. Some more costly than others,” he says, his voice low, as if in a growl. “If Wei Wuxian decides to take on the Cultivation World, where best to start than to take his revenge on the sect that disowned and humiliated him?”

Lan Wangji’s eyes are sharp as he watches this exchange, and after a moment, he leans in to his brother’s ear and whispers something. Lan Xichen’s brows furrow as he tries to listen both to his brother and the exchange before him, before finally, recognition dawns on his face. “With all due respect, gentlemen, it would be foolish to start a conflict without considering our foe. Recently, the Lan and Nie sects jointly collaborated on a, ah… reconnaissance mission, of sorts. Wangji, if you would?”

Lan Wangji nods severely and stands, his stern figure cutting a sharp contrast against the stony walls of the fortress. He pauses, a moment, for the chatter of the room to die down, before glancing sharply at Nie Huaisang.

Nie Huaisang nervously jumps to his feet, fan fluttering before his face as if to hide his clear discomfort at being the center of attention.

“I have gone to the Yiling Patriarch’s settlement to assess the level of threat he poses to the cultivation world. The only people living on the Burial Mounds are the Yiling Patriarch and approximately 30 individuals, most of which are ill, elderly, or children. Almost all of them are noncultivators. This information can be corroborated by Second Young Master Nie, who accompanied me at his Sect Leader’s behest.”

“Yes, yes! What Hanguang-Jun said. I saw it with my own two eyes. It was quite pitiful, really, that that’s how a clever fellow like Wei-Xiong - ah, Wei Wuxian, ended up,” Nie Huaisang says, his voice fluttering like a nervous bird. “Really, could you imagine? He’d been trying to farm turnips!”

“Second Master Nie,” Lan Wangji prompts, eyes steely enough to make Nie Huaisang startle.

“I don’t know - I don’t - ! O-oh, ah, yes, we also sent out spies to mingle among the folks in Yiling! So far, no one’s been able to back up any allegations of the damage the Yiling Patriarch’s caused. If anything, most of them think of him as, ah, sort of a joke! Haha… ha,” Nie Huaisang titters, wilting under Lan Wangji’s gaze.

Jin Guangshan snorts in derision, making a grand, sweeping sort of gesture to refer to the other people in the room. “Are you all going to listen to this drivel? From two of the Yiling Patriarch’s classmates, besides - one of which who hardly knows his left foot from his right!”

That gets Nie Mingjue to stand up, a dangerous scowl on his face at the prospect of someone insulting his brother’s intelligence, but before he can spit out his vitriol, Jiang Cheng sneers at Jin Guangshan. “You’d doubt someone with a reputation as pristine as Hanguang-Jun? For all that he was a classmate of Wei Wuxian’s, how could you not know how much they hated each other? Hanguang-Jun spent months trying to reform Wei Wuxian’s ways. If you can’t believe Nie Huaisang, you’ve got to believe Hanguang-Jun!”

The crowd breaks out in a collective murmur - most of them in agreement with Jiang Cheng’s assessment.

Jin Guagshan puffs up like an offended bird. “And hasn’t Wei Wuxian stymied him every chance he got? I doubt someone as righteous and pristine as Hanguang-Jun would even think to look past the Yiling Patriarch’s clever machinations,” Jin Guangshan counters, as if it were fact. “Good men see the good in all people, after all.”

It strikes Lan Wangji like a slap to the face, and even from where Mianmian is sitting, wide-eyed, she can see the way Lan Wangji’s nostrils flare in indignation. It’s Lan Qiren and Lan Xichen who stand up to defend Lan Wangji’s honor this time, but before anyone can point anything out, Nie Mingjue’s voice carries across the room as he says, “What do you suppose, then, Sect Leader Jin? Send a snake out to catch a snake?”

“It’s not a bad idea,” Jin Guangshan smiles. “Like knows like, after all. Though I didn’t take someone as forthright as yourself to suggest sending a spy to the Burial Mounds, Sect Leader Nie.”

Nie Mingjue’s sneer looks more like a snarl than anything, as he says, “And I suppose you’d think to send your son to do your dirty work again, then?”

Jin Guangshan blinks, caught off guard. “Jin Zixuan? Good heavens, no!”

An awkward silence breaks out across the room for a half-second, and when Mianmian glances over at Jin Zixuan, he’s glancing in horror over at Jin Guangyao. They’re seated right next to one another, and Jin Guangyao isn’t looking anyone in the face.

“For all that Lianfang-Zun has made many accomplishments with his incredible skill and tact,” Lan Xichen cuts in, breaking the silence, “He’s much too prominent a figure to risk. An obvious spy is a terrible one, after all.”

“Wei Wuxian’s too smart to let a spy into his territory,” Jiang Cheng says, his voice gruff as he picks up on the lead Lan Xichen had unwittingly given him. “He’d weed them out and have their guts strung out on the dirt in seconds. There’s no way he won’t let his guard down.”

Everyone stares curiously at Jiang Cheng for a long moment, before he sighs and admits, “Toward the end of the war, his paranoia was at an all time high. There’s no point in risking someone’s life just for a few days’ head notice. If we’re going to do this, we’d have to do it above-board. Protections on both sides.”

“We need a treaty, then. Diplomats,” Lan Wangji says, as if it’s something he’d come to the conclusion of, rather than something that’d been planned months in advance. If Mianmian will be honest, even she would’ve been convinced that this had been something spur-of-the-moment. Who would’ve thought Lan Wangji would be such a good actor?

Jin Guangshan raises his eyebrows, rolling his shoulders back as he says, “You think he deserves a diplomat? That blood thirsty son-of-a - “

“It’s either a diplomat,” Jiang Cheng grits out, cutting Jin Guangshan off, “or a dead body and a war none of us can afford. Your choice, Head Cultivator.”

Jin Guangshan scoffs, glancing about the room. But it seems the tides are against him, with three of the four main sects and not an insignificant number of smaller sects seeming to agree. “Fine. Fine, I’ll send a - “

“No,” Lan Wangji says, his voice low, but practically booming across the room in its intensity. “He’ll reject a diplomat from the great sects. He does not trust easily. And as Sect Leader Jiang said, he’s paranoid. Volatile. We need to work carefully.”

Jin Guangshan practically rolls his eyes in exasperation as he says, “So what do you suggest, Hanguang-Jun? Do you think I am a miracle worker? How am I to find a competent diplomat that can, as you said, work carefully, if you won’t allow me to select a suitable candidate?”

“Well, if no one from the Great Sects is a viable option… what about a rogue cultivator?” Nie Huaisang suggests, glancing rather unsubtly over at Mianmian. She hadn’t even been aware that he’d been let in on this much of the plan, but it’s as smooth as if it had been decided ahead of time - and as if he’d willed it, everyone else’s eyes are drawn toward Mianmian.

Mianmian can’t help the flush of embarrassment and anxiety that wells up in her chest, as everyone stares at her. As everyone appraises her. It’s an uncomfortably familiar sensation, one that rests bitter on her tongue, and she can’t help but glance about the room like a cornered animal - at least until her eyes rest on Jin Zixuan, watching her with hope and worry and warmth.

To her side, a warm hand slips into hers, and when she glances down, Jiang Yanli is smiling up at her, squeezing her hand gently. Grounding her.

Jin Guangshan stares at her a long time, eyes narrowed for a long moment, before finally he recognizes her. “ Her? ” he asks, incredulously. “What is - what is her name, she’s -” he mumbles under his breath, before shaking his head and practically spitting out, “Isn’t she sympathetic to him? She left the Jin Sect to side with that mongrel!”

Mianmian puffs out her chest with indignation, opening her mouth to spit back a retort, but before she can, it’s Jiang Cheng who shoots her a look and says, “All the better, then, to gain his trust. We can present her as someone sympathetic to his cause, while she sends information back to us.”

Jiang Yanli squeezes Mianmian’s hand, before standing up to speak, herself. “I have full faith that A-Xian still cares about me, regardless of his conflict with A-Cheng. If he’s made aware of our sworn sisterhood, he’s sure not to harm her as long as she poses no immediate threat to him.” She turns to Mianmian, the first time she’s been properly acknowledged as a human being in hours, and says, as if this were something sudden and frightening and new, “If you’d be willing to give it a shot, Mianmian…”

Jin Guangshan stares at the display for a long moment, before some light of understanding gleams in his eyes. Mianmian can’t help but hold her breath, heart thumping hard in her chest as she awaits his judgement. “I see what this is. I see. This is all a ploy, isn’t it? You,” Jin Guangshan says, shaking his fingers at Jiang Cheng, “You want to ally with the Yiling Patriarch in secret and take the Stygian Tiger Seal for yourself!”

Jiang Cheng stares hard at him, before snorting, as if Jin Guangshan had told a particularly tasteless joke. “I had the Stygian Tiger Seal. If I coveted it so badly, why would I let it out of my grasp? I might be young, Sect Leader Jin, but I’m not stupid.

“Perhaps the issue can be solved if our diplomat isn’t working alone,” Lan Wangji proposes, and all around the room, smatterings of uncomfortable agreement mumble out. Clearly, no one wants to work alongside a statusless rogue cultivator - doubly so if that rogue cultivator were to be in close proximity with a demon such as the Yiling Patriarch. “If Maiden Luo is amenable to this position we’ve foisted upon her, then she’d need support from the outside. Especially if the Yiling Patriarch poses a threat to her safety.”

A nervous murmur bubbles up throughout the congregation. Clearly, there are very few willing to take up such a heavy burden. Lan Wangji lets the discomfort simmer for a little while, and after a pause, he adds, “I would be amenable to such a duty.”

“Wangji,” Lan Qiren says quietly, warningly. Pleadingly.

“It is my duty to uphold justice and righteousness. If no one else volunteers for the position, I would be honored to undertake it,” Lan Wangji says gravely. “Even if it costs me my life.”

At that, a few cowards even seem to shrink back, as if they would ever be considered for the position in the first place. Mianmian almost snorts at the sheer gall of them.

With a severely displeased grimace, Lan Qiren says, “Head Cultivator Jin, I’d like to request that we adjourn this meeting until after dinner. Clearly we all have much to discuss amongst our sects, before we reconvene.”

“Request granted,” Jin Guangshan practically spits out, fully aware that he is on the losing side here. “We’ll reconvene in two hours!”

And with that, he practically storms out of the room.

 

--

 

Mianmian wants to go and speak to Jin Zixuan, but he’s already carefully turned all of his attention to Jin Guangyao, murmuring soft, gentle things to his brother as people begin to file out.

Beside her, Jiang Yanli takes her hand, squeezing her gently as a reminder to keep up the anxious look on her face a while longer - long enough, at least, to get to their rooms, where they’d have some semblance of privacy.

It isn’t safe enough to talk about their plans openly, but Mianmian can’t help but bury her face in Jiang Yanli’s shoulder and let her own shoulders shake, as silent, giddy laughter bubbles from her lips. Jiang Yanli holds her, pressing her lips against Mianmian’s temple, and Mianmian is absolutely struck by the fact that if anyone were to come in and see them, they’d see two women in fear and mourning, rather than the absolute fucking triumph that it is. That alone is enough to keep Mianmian silently laughing until her guts ache.

They have dinner in their rooms and let people read into that what they will, and when it’s time for them to reconvene, Mianmian lets the assumptions precede them.

The plan, inevitably, works, much to Jin Guangshan’s incredible consternation. Mianmian lets her voice waver rather pitifully as she accepts, and Lan Wangji, in what looks to be a rare moment of grace, comforts her with a hand on her shoulder, his severe stare softened with what looks to everyone like pity, while to Mianmian and the others, looks like relief. Joy.

They resolve to have a committee, including Mianmian and Lan Wangji, reach out to the Yiling Patriarch within the month to decide on the terms of their treaty and establish a date and time for the signing.

 

--

 

Deep into December, an envoy from each of the four great sects, plus Mianmian and Lan Wangji, come to the Burial Mounds to escort Wei Wuxian down Qiongqi Path, toward the Carp Tower, to sign a treaty. The trip takes nearly a week, formality’s sake dictating that they take a carriage rather than fly all the way back. During said week Mianmian gets to witness the worst bout of lovesick pining she’s ever seen. Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian can’t let anything slip just yet, but they’re just obvious enough that Mianmian nearly gags at the palpable tension between the two of them.

They arrive at the Carp Tower just as the snow falls, and Mianmian is treated to the sight of Lan Wangji offering Wei Wuxian a warmer cloak, before she rolls her eyes and makes her way up the hundreds of stairs before them.

There is a treaty. There are negotiations - some of which that nearly turn violent, before Nie Huaisang cluelessly - though Mianmian’s starting to think he’s a lot less clueless than everyone thinks he is - suggests a surprisingly amenable solution to all parties.

Wei Wuxian agrees to many things that make him rankle, but in return, he is granted some very clear, very advantageous protections, including a “begrudging” promise from both Yunmeng Jiang and Gusu Lan to offer aid and retaliation, should any of the four great sects renege on their duties and bring any harm to Wei Wuxian.

They decide the most auspicious day to destroy the Stygian Tiger Seal would be in January, a safe number of weeks before New Year’s. Wei Wuxian requires the help of eight powerful cultivators of his choice, who take a oath to never speak of what they witness as soon as they step into the destruction room on pain of death, and then, the Stygian Tiger Seal is destroyed.

The cultivation world breathes a collective sigh of relief.

Mianmian moves into the Burial Mounds a week after New Year’s, and Lan Wangji moves into Yiling a day after, and within a week, Mianmian finds them snogging on the stone slab Wei Wuxian calls a bed and has to ask Wen Qing if she knows any draughts that might induce memory loss.

She’s not very lucky in that regard.

A week after everyone is settled in and the Wens have properly gotten used to Mianmian and Lan Wangji’s frequent presence, Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli come by to “check in” on Jiang Yanli’s precious sworn sister. They come with food and wine, gifts of fabric and paper and tools with which to supplement Mianmian’s stay and appease the Yiling Patriarch’s mood on behalf of the four great sects.

It’s pretty much a paper thin excuse for a party, though, but if anyone were to ask, Lan Wangji would be honor bound to lie through his teeth. Wei Wuxian demands a rendition of Jiang Yanli and Mianmian’s sworn sisterhood speeches to one another, and he bullies Jiang Cheng to pour wine for them both. When they recite their vows once more, though, Mianmian can swear Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng both have misty eyes.

It’s sweet.

(Less sweet is the moment Mianmian and Jiang Yanli accidentally stumble upon Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian tangled together in the brush, but, well - parties.)

It’s a shame Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng have to leave that very evening, but they promise to come visit as often as they’re able.

It’s not often enough, though, but Mianmian makes do. There’s always something to do on the settlement, and the Wens are kind to her. She has a friend in Lan Wangji, who stops by every day and stays as long as he’s reasonably able, and in Wen Ning and Wen Qing, who commiserate with her over Wei Wuxian’s ridiculous antics.

After all, for all that Mianmian and Wei Wuxian realize that they get along like a house on fire, she finds herself butting heads with him at all the smallest things every time she tries to go into his “workroom” to record his progress on his inventions, as detailed in clause 3 of the treaty. Eventually they both decide that it’s best - albeit extremely time consuming, given how Wei Wuxian can’t for the life of him tell a story in a linear fashion - if he simply dictates his findings to her after the fact. Often with the help of Wen Ning, who keeps the peace between them much better than they would without him.

After altogether too much goading, Mianmian convinces Xiao Wenzhou to take a break from his scribing job in Yunmeng to come visit her. The Tan siblings come visit with him, but can’t stay longer than an afternoon.

Needless to say, though, it’s quite a big day. Mianmian doesn’t think she’s ever seen A-Yuan go to bed that early. Wen Qing nearly asks if she could send for the Tan siblings to come babysit more often.

Xiao Wenzhou promises to stick around for a few days, and by the time dinner rolls around, Wei Wuxian’s making these big, pouty eyes at Mianmian, asking if he can keep him. Somehow, incredibly, not only can Xiao Wenzhou tolerate Wei Wuxian’s ridiculous ramblings and flights of fancy, he can actually make sense of them. In real time. And he enjoys it, too.

Mianmian gets the brilliant idea to shove him in the workshop with Wei Wuxian for a day, and by the time they both come out, Xiao Wenzhou’s got a neat stack of notes that are, most importantly, readable. Mianmian doesn’t even have to copy them over a second time for clarity and neatness before she sends them to Lan Wangji to send to the Lan Sect scribes.

It’s incredible. Mianmian all but begs Xiao Wenzhou to stay for good. She even offers to give half her generous stipend ( half! ) if he’d just stay and do the scribing. She could handle the rest of it.

When Xiao Wenzhou reluctantly packs up to head back to Yunmeng, he promises he’d think about it - but judging by the tone of his voice, it’s clear to Mianmian what he’d chosen.

A week later, Xiao Wenzhou comes back - for good, this time - and Mianmian nearly kisses him, she’s so happy.

As Mianmian predicts, he’s a great help around the settlement. With food and basic supplies provided to them for a year - one of the things Wei Wuxian negotiated hard for - they’ve managed to make some incredible progress developing the area, but there’s always plenty of work that still needs to be done. Especially now that they’re digging ponds for the crazy magic resentful-energy-purifying lotuses Wei Wuxian’s been working on.

It’s hard work, for sure. But Mianmian can’t help but feel… terribly, terribly satisfied.

She hadn’t quite imagined herself enjoying a life like this, but, well - here she is. Enjoying it.

 

--

 

Spring arrives in the Burial Mounds before she knows it, and with the lotuses comes Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli, with a letter in hand

It’s incredibly ironic, and Mianmian can’t help but laugh in delight as she opens it up - only to realize that it’s a wedding invitation.

“You’re getting married,” Mianmian breathes, eyes wide and face flushed in giddy joy as she glances between the both of them.

Jiang Yanli smiles and nods. “We’re getting married.”

“You’re getting married!” Mianmian all but screams, scooping Jiang Yanli into her arms and swinging her around. “You’re - oh, gods, I can’t believe it. You’re really doing it!”

“Yes, yes!” Jiang Yanli laughs, letting Mianmian swing her back and forth. “It took a lot of time and a lot of thought, but…” she glances up at Jin Zixuan, sheer, aching love written in her eyes, “I think - I think I’m finally ready.”

Chapter Text

It’s a beautiful wedding. Of course it is - the heir to the Jin Sect would receive no less. Besides, between Jin Guangyao’s meticulous planning, Jiang Cheng’s meticulous nitpicking, and Wei Wuxian’s meticulous meddling, it’s a wonder it hadn’t bankrupted the entire damn sect. It’s also a very big wedding, which is why it’s so easy for Mianmian to slip away from the jubilant crowd and into Jiang Yanli’s chambers, about half an hour into the feast.

Jin Zixuan is still busy with the usual wedding festivities, and would be for some time yet, but there was no need for Jiang Yanli to be kept alone and waiting.

She’s seated patiently on the bed when Mianmian slips in, her veil properly fastened. She looks like the picture-perfect vision of a bride.

“A-Xuan?” Jiang Yanli whispers, the moment she realizes she’s not alone. Her voice trembles - nervousness, or excitement, or both.

“No. It’s just me,” Mianmian laughs. “How are you doing?”

That breaks the image. Jiang Yanli’s shoulders slump with relief, her voice going bright and warm as she relaxes. “I’m - I’m doing excellent. Amazing. Great,” she laughs, a gentle embarrassment in her voice. “I’m just - nervous, I guess. I can’t believe we’re finally - we’re - um Do you think he’ll be here soon?” 

“He’s still caught up in his fifty million duties, but I’m sure someone will bully him into spending time with his wife. Don’t worry,” Miamian says, sitting down beside her. “Anything you want to do while we wait? You want to keep the veil on, right?”

“Um. Yes, please. If you don’t mind,” Jiang Yanli says, quietly. “I don’t know. It seems kind of silly to be so - so fixated on making sure this goes right, when our relationship has never quite been - y’know. Traditional. But, well…”

Mianmian laughs. “I get it. Have you eaten, at least?” she asks, glancing at the table filled with fruits and nuts and other lucky things.

As if on cue, Jiang Yanli’s stomach growls, sending them both into hysterics. “Gods, I can’t believe them! Didn’t even sneak you anything to eat. And I bet you’d been waiting for Zixuan all this time, huh?” Mianmian asks, getting up to retrieve a sprig of longans from the table. 

Jiang Yanli laughs and shrugs. “It was all laid out so nicely… I didn’t want to mess it up.”

Mianmian snorts, digging her thumbnail into the longan skin and splitting it open for Jiang Yanli. “Well, just because it’s there to be lucky doesn't mean you can’t enjoy them. Come on, eat up.”

Jiang Yanli swallows audibly, before delicately taking the fruit and bringing it to her lips, behind the veil. Carefully, when she’s done, she spits the pit into the little cup of fruitskin that’d been left over.

They continue like this in general quiet, Mianmian peeling longans and Jiang Yanli slowly eating, before finally, Jin Zixuan bursts into the room in a rush, looking harried and nervous - but mostly excited.

“Mianmian, you’re here too!” he gasps, a little breathless but nonetheless enthused. “How did you get away?”

“Well, it’s easier if you’re not the man of the hour,” Mianmian laughs. “Longan?”

“Please,” Jin Zixuan smiles, walking up to take the fruit from Mianmian’s hands. As soon as he’s within touching distance of his wife, however, he freezes, staring down at her with something like awe on his face. With a giddy sort of awkwardness, he can’t help but say, “Um. Hello.”

“Hello, A-Xuan,” Jiang Yanli says, sweet laughter in her voice. “I’d tell you you look handsome, but I can’t really see you.”

Jin Zixuan laughs, bright and nervous and happy. “Yeah, um. Hold on, let me - “ he says, more or less foregoing the stick to just lift the edge of the veil up with his hands.

The moment the veil comes up over Jiang Yanli’s chin, Jin Zixuan’s hands slow a bit, taken over by a slight tremor that hadn’t been there before. Her pretty, red mouth is revealed - and then the sweet shape of her nose - her flushed cheeks - her big, bright eyes, and - 

Jin Zixuan swallows hard, taken by the sight of his wife.

Mianmian doesn’t blame him - Jiang Yanli is lovely as ever, and even lovelier still for the way she smiles, the way she blinks expectantly up at them. The matte paint of her lips has gone a bit wet from the longan juice, but it only serves to make her all the more sweet.

“Um - “ Jin Zixuan breathes, all in one go, “Can I kiss you?”

Jiang Yanli’s eyes widen for a moment, before curling up with delight, as she pulls her husband in by the wrists.

“A-Xuan,” she breathes, between kisses. “My husband. My love.”

Jin Zixuan, for the matter, only makes a soft sigh, melting easily into her like beeswax on a hot day.

 They keep the kisses soft, sweet, chaste, but it’s clear there’s an expectant hunger - from both of them. When Jin Zixuan finally pulls away, his eyes are dark with wanting.

“Um - maybe you’re - is your crown… heavy?” Jin Zixuan asks, an entirely unsubtle bid to, ah, move things along.

Jiang Yanli laughs brightly and says, “Yes. Won’t you both help me take it down?”

Jin Zixuan glances at Mianmian, before slowly approaching - so slowly, in fact, that Mianmian nearly expect him to spook like a wild animal at the barest glance.

“Watch out - there’ll be pins everywhere,” Mianmian says, as she shuffles forward on her knees.

With the sort of grim seriousness a man might reserve for, perhaps, some sort of important mission, Jin Zixuan proceeds carefully. It’s terribly cute.

Between the both of them, taking Jiang Yanli’s hair down still takes quite a while, and when they’ve finished piling together a king’s fortune onto the bed, Jiang Yanli sighs in relief, tilting her head this way and that to get rid of the ache that’d built up in her neck.

And then, she turns to Miamian. “Your turn, my dear,” she smiles, leaning in to pull Mianmian into a proper kiss. In her periphery, Mianmian is vaguely aware of Jin Zixuan carefully collecting the gold and jewels to dump somewhere safer, but it isn’t long at all, before she’s hardly got the space to dedicate to anything but Jiang Yanli.

Mianmian can hardly think twice, as Jiang Yanli lays her down against the bed, tangling their legs together as they lie on their sides, kissing and kissing and kissing. The vaguely waxy taste of Jiang Yanli’s lip paint had quickly worn off, alongside whatever higher reasoning Mianmian had, as Jiang Yanli licked into Mianmian’s mouth, as Mianmian sucked and nipped Jiang Yanli’s bottom lip.

Mianmian hears rustle of clothes and sheets, before finally, a hand settles heavy against Jiang Yanli’s hip, not far from where Mianmian had settled one hand against the softness of Jiang Yanli’s side. It’s not an urgent touch, the way Jin Zixuan holds his wife - just a simple assurance that he’s there, that he’s watching, that he’s happy to wait his turn.

Even still, Mianmian can’t help but slide her hand over his, squeezing him in assurance - just in case. She knows how unsure he gets, sometimes.

“So… how should we do this?” Jiang Yanli asks when they finally part, her lips glossy and pink from their kiss.

It takes a second for Mianmian to catch her breath, to remember how to make words, and while she waits, Jiang Yanli easily presses their foreheads together, content to let her eyes flutter shut and feel Mianmian against her.

“Well, I assumed I’d be allowed to watch, but if you want me to go - “ Mianmian evetually reasons, before Jin Zixuan jolts up, panic in his eyes.

“Don’t go!” he blurts out - and then all at once, his cheeks flood with embarrassment as he glances down at where their legs tangle. “I mean - um - “

“You should stay. We want you to stay,” Jiang Yanli says, twining her fingers with Mianmian. “You’re a part of this, too.”

“Oh,” Mianmian says, a flush of warmth blooming up her chest, up her neck, suffusing through her cheeks. “Alright. Okay. I can - I can stay.”

“Good,” Jiang Yanli smiles, bringing their twined hands up to kiss Mianmian’s knuckles.

“You’ve, uh. You’ve never done this before, huh?” Mianmian asks, gesturing at the two of them. “I mean, I can’t say I’ve done it all that much either, and I don’t really know my way around your, uh - “ Mianmian gestures vaguely at Jin Zixuan’s hips - “but, I mean, we’re all healthy adults. We can figure this out, right?”

Jin Zixuan nods jerkily. And then, after a moment of hesitation, he says, “Maybe you two could - um. Maybe you could… show me how you like it? I’m, um. I’m pretty easy to please, so - ”

That has Jiang Yanli laughing, turning over so that she can pull her husband down for a kiss. “We know,” she says, pressing her lips chastely against his. “We love it.” Another kiss, against his cheek, now. “It’s cute.” 

“A-ah. Oh. That’s - that’s good,” Jin Zixuan mumbles awkwardly into the kiss, just a half-second too late to properly return the affectionate little pecks. Not that it matters much, when Jiang Yanli starts kissing steadily down the line of his jaw.

Easily, he tilts his chin up for her, eyes fluttering shut as he goes limp against the bed, letting her turn them both over so that she’s laying half-astride his chest, sucking kisses against his adam’s apple. From where Mianmian’s sitting, she can easily see the way his cock is already starting to strain against the many layers of his wedding garments.

With a fond little huff, Mianmian sits up on her knees, awkwardly maneuvering so that she can get to Jiang Yanli’s belt while they’re distracted.

Against Jin Zixuan’s neck, Jiang Yanli makes a curious little hmm? before realizing what Mianmian is doing, and when Mianmian gets the belt untied, she lifts up a little so that Mianmian can pull the belt away. “Here, why don’t you - “ Mianmian starts, rolling Jiang Yanli onto her knees a bit, so that she can kiss Jin Zixuan properly while Mianmian curls over her back, blindly feeling for the ties.

They make soft, intimate sounds as they kiss - quiet sighs and pleased little hums, a soft little whine as Jiang Yanli no doubt nibbles on his bottom lip. Soon, Mianmian feels a pair of warm, clumsy hands feeling for Jiang Yanli’s ties, too, doing their best to help but mostly just getting in the way.

With a huff of laughter, Mianmian takes one of them and slips it into the V of Jiang Yanli’s robes, high up, that he might enjoy some of the perks of a woman’s body.

This time, it’s Jiang Yanli that makes a soft little sound, chest arching into the touch, even through layers of silk. Mianmian manages to wrestle off the two outermost layers by the time Jiang Yanli’s hand finds its way into Jin Zixuan’s robes, and before long, Jiang Yanli is sitting up in a fluster, saying, “Can you - I’ll get the rest, but do you want to - “

“Yeah. Yeah, sure,” Mianmian mumbles as they trade places with a brief, affectionate kiss. Jin Zixuan’s hands settle easily at Mianmian’s waist as she straddles his hips, settling down over the hard line of his cock.

Jin Zixuan makes a funny little uh! sound, like instead of rocking leisurely against his cock, she had just punched him in the gut.

“This alright?” Mianmian asks, as she works at the ties keeping Jin Zixuan’s clothes together. Like this, they can’t really do much besides push his five gazillion layers out of the way, but honestly, it’s worth it, feeling the way his hands squeeze against the softness of her thighs, feeling the way he helplessly ruts up into her like he’d be fucking her if it weren’t for their clothes in the way.

His eyes are fluttered shut, his throat working desperately as he swallows back his helpless moans, and when Jiang Yanli returns to the bed to press sweet little kisses against his bitten lips, he can’t help but reach out for her…

...only to startle, when his fingertips brush up against nothing but skin. His eyes blink open as he glances over at his wife for the barest of moments, before immediately bringing his hands up to his face with a yelp.

Jiang Yanli laughs, soft and sweet, as she trails her fingertips up his forearm to gently wrap her hand around his wrist. “What sort of reaction is that, A-Xuan? Do I not please you?”

“You please me!” Jin Zixuan blurts out in what’s almost a falsetto, stubbornly keeping his hands over his eyes. “You please me very much!”

Mianmian can’t help her own huff of laughter as Jin Zixuan squirms underneath her, as if to try and make his escape. “You can look, you know. You’re married,” she reminds him.

“This is all a little overwhelming, okay!” Jin Zixuan snaps at her, his voice cracking at the end. There’s no heat in it, though - just the gentle sort of distress that comes with not wanting to make an embarrassment of yourself - so Mianmian lets it slide.

“It’s okay. Take all the time you need,” Jiang Yanli laughs, bringing his hand closer, so that she might kiss each of his knuckles. “What are you worried about, baobei?”

Jin Zixuan swallows hard at the endearment, his bottom lip trembling as he says, “I just - want it to be good. For you. Um. Both of you. But I don’t really know what I’m doing.”

“Well, it’s kind of hard to know what you’re doing if you can’t see anything,” Mianmian huffs, even if she, too, can hardly stand to look at Jiang Yanli. For all that she’s certainly seen Jiang Yanli in the nude before, well -

She’s just… really pretty. So pretty, it’s embarrassing to see her like this, all sweet curves and delicate limbs, offered up for the both of them.

“Shut up, ” Jin Zixuan groans, but he does, slowly, relax a little.

“It’s okay if you’re nervous,” Jiang Yanli says gently, taking his hand in both of hers and guiding it down to her chest. “I’m nervous too. But you’re doing a pretty good job of it so far. Look - can you feel how hard my heart’s beating?”

Jin Zixuan sucks in a sharp breath as his hand spreads out over her chest. And then slowly, hesitantly, he glances up at her. “You’re beautiful,” he says, all at once, and then he damn near brings his hand back up to hide again.

It’s only by the grace of Mianmian having excellent reflexes that she’s able to snag Jin Zixuan’s other wrist before he can do so. He stares at her with utter betrayal on his face, but before she can prod at him any further, Jiang Yanli laughs. “Thank you. If you hadn’t noticed, you’re quite handsome yourself,” she says, smooth as anything Mianmian’s ever seen.

Immediately, Jin Zixuan’s anxious embarrassment is derailed, and he can hardly tear his eyes away from her as he shyly asks, “Y-you think so?”

“Very,” Jiang Yanli grins, at the same time Mianmian says, “Vain!”

When Jin Zixuan scowls at her in his mortification, Mianmian laughs, pinching Jin Zixuan’s side. It causes him to jerk underneath her, shoving the ridge of his cock up against her clit in a way that almost hurts, but it’s - it’s not bad.

“Hey!” he whines - only to stammer out another, “Wh - hey!” as she gets off of him, urging him up.

“Come on. Let’s get you undressed, too,” Mianmian says with a grin.

There’s something rather satisfying about just how easy he is to unwrap, after all of Mianmian’s efforts undoing his ties. Each layer easily sloughs off, until all he’s left in is his trousers.

Jiang Yanli can’t stop looking.

With a grin, Mianmian comes up from behind Jin Zixuan and turns him around to face his wife, cupping his rather ample chest in her hands. “Like what you see?” she asks, hooking her chin over Jin Zixuan’s shoulder, despite his embarrassed sounds of protest.

Jiang Yanli swallows, glancing him up and down, and says, “Yes. I do.”

That gets Jin Zixuan to shut up, his head tilting down in a way that suggests he might be looking away. That won’t do - before Mianmian can reign in her own impulse, she hooks a hand under his chin and gently tilts it upward.

In her arms, Jin Zixuan goes rigid for a second, and where the butt of Mianmian’s hand is against his throat, she can feel him swallowing. Slowly, as if feeling out her thoughts even as they come out, Mianmian asks, “How much do you like it?”

A shiver rolls down his body, so fast it almost felt like he’d jolted in her arms.

Jiang Yanli stares up at her, at them both, before slowly spreading her legs, putting her pretty pussy on display. Her cheeks are flushed pink, but her eyes are bright and determined as she says, “Do you want to feel how much?”

Jin Zixuan’s breath punches right out of him, his body carefully held so still it trembles.

“Go on, Zixuan. What do you think?” Mianmian murmurs, trying to keep her voice level despite the hard thump of her chest, the way her throat has suddenly gone dry and clicking at the sight of her.

Wordlessly, Jin Zixuan nods - so Mianmian lets him go, gently nudging him towards his wife. He stumbles toward her like he can hardly believe this, like he thinks if he so much as breathes the wrong way it might all just come to pieces like a dream. But Jiang Yanli steadfastly stays, taking his hand in hers and guiding it between her legs.

“Oh,” Jin Zixuan breathes, as Jiang Yanli tilts her head back, breathing a long sigh. “You’re - is it always like this?”

Jiang Yanli giggles, soft and breathy, as she shifts her hips a little and says, “No. It’s because of you - both of you. Ah, um. You can - a little harder. It’s, um - it’s ticklish, if you touch me so gently.”

Fuck, ” Jin Zixuan whispers under his breath, as Jiang Yanli makes another soft, breathy sound and arches up into his touch. “It’s really - you’re so slippery.”

Mianmian’s pussy throbs, watching the two of them together like this. She wants to - she ought to -

“Mianmian - come on, you too,” Jiang Yanli murmurs, shifting restlessly as she lets Jin Zixuan slide his fingers up and down her pussy - not quite pushing in, but firm. Hungry.

“Yeah,” Mianmian chokes out, as she tugs sharply at her robes. “Yeah, yeah. Hold on.”

It feels like an eternity, untangling herself from her clothes, and she quite nearly says fuck it and marches on over there with her skirt still half-on. But eventually, everything comes loose, and when she’s able to kick herself out of her clothes, she all but leaps back into bed with them.

Already, an eager flush has taken Jiang Yanli down to the shoulders, her hips squirming as one hand desperately clutches Jin Zixuan’s wrist, holding him in place over her clit. His fingers are still clumsy, but he’s starting to work up a rhythm, rubbing curious circles against it - only to strain to slip back down to her hole, where the delicate skin’s gone all slick and shiny from her wetness, and start the cycle again.

It’s not until Mianmian gets closer that she can really see the hungry, intent look in his eyes, the way he watches Jiang Yanli with a single-minded focus, trying to parse out her hiccupping little gasps, her restless squirming.

“Hey,” Mianmian murmurs, gently touching his shoulder. It startles him out of his intense focus, drawing a pitiful whine from Jiang Yanli’s throat. “Do you want me to - get you, too?” Mianmian asks, letting her touch drift down, towards - 

Jin Zixuan sucks in a shaky breath, staring up at Mianmian for what feels like a long time. The hunger in his eyes doesn’t abate - if anything it seems to grow in intensity as he stares at her, as he takes in her every freckle and scar. She’d feel self conscious about it, if it weren’t for the way his want shows so clearly in his eyes.

“Please,” he whispers, his voice rough.

“Keep touching her,” Mianmian murmurs, leaning in to press a kiss to his cheek. “I’ve got you.”

Jin Zixuan swallows hard and nods, turning his face enough that he might press one sweet, earnest kiss to her mouth.

Mianmian huffs a laugh against his lips, cupping his cheek to kiss him again, as she tugs at the knot keeping his trousers up.

It comes undone easily, and in moments her hand wraps delicately around his cock. The gasp he makes is sharp, animal, his lips going slack against Mianmian’s mouth as he whispers, ”Please. Please, a little tighter, please.”

It’s hot in her hand - thicker than she had been expecting - and when she pulls it out from under the confines of his pants, it’s satisfyingly heavy. She’s never touched anyone’s cock before; she’s never expected it to be this hard, for the skin to feel this delicate.

Absently, she’s aware of just how empty she is, just how nice it would be if she had something to clench down on.

Jin Zixuan’s hips nudge eagerly into her touch, a not-so-subtle reminder that she ought to move her hand. It’s already a little wet at the tip, easing the slide of her hand as she slowly, curiously pumps him. Against her mouth, Jin Zixuan groans, his hips twitching forward with every little squeeze of her fingers. “Is this okay?” she murmurs against his lips, pressing sweet, easy kisses against his lips, his jaw, his throat.

“Yeah. Yeah, it’s - “ his adam’s apple bobs against her lips as he swallows, “ Ah, Mianmian, could you - the tip, please?”

“Eager,” Mianmian chides, even as she slides her hand back to gently squeeze the head of his cock. “Are you properly tending to your wife, Jin Zixuan?”

His reaction is incredible - a broken moan, a half-whimpered, “I am. I am, please. Keep going, please, ” a hungry jerk of his hips.

And when Mianmian pulls away to check in with Jiang Yanli, she finds her, knees snapped up around Jin Zixuan’s arm, hands clutching at whatever she can get to, toes curling as Jin Zixuan tries to keep up his pace. “Good, A-Li?” Mianmian grins, watching the way her hips keep arching up to meet him.

“Yes,” Jiang Yanli breathes, her eyes fluttering open to reveal dazed, glossy eyes. “A-Xuan, baobei, darling, could you - another?” she says, her voice soft and breathy and sweet, distracted with whatever he’s got inside her. “Slow, please. Just like that - just like - yeah - yeah.”

Miannmian’s pussy clenches around nothing as she watches Jiang Yanli go boneless and lax as Jin Zixuan carefully fucks her with his fingers. Ah, she’s beautiful like this.

Mianmian wants to know what she looks like when she comes.

“Zixuan, you should - you should use your mouth on her,” Mianmian says, watching the way her gorgeous hips go hollow as she rolls them up into Jin Zixuan’s hand, practically fucking herself on his fingers.

Jin Zixuan stills, staring at Mianmian. “I can do that?” he asks, eyes wide and hungry.

“No, it’s okay - you really don’t have to, it’s - that’s - “ Jiang Yanli protests, but Jin Zixuan is already pulling away from Mianmian, bowing his head between Jiang Yanli’s legs, until - “Oh - oh, A-Xuan, oh my - oh fuck.

He makes wet, messy sounds against her pussy, but it looks - it looks good. It looks so good, Mianmian can’t help but watch. The hand that hadn’t been touching Jin Zixuan’s cock slips between her legs, picking out a furious pace as she watches Jiang Yanli’s mouth drop open, as she watches Jiang Yanli’s hands tighten in Jin Zixuan’s hair, tugging him close against her pussy.

She can’t stop making these sweet little oh, oh, oh sounds, her brows knitting upwards as her hips roll eagerly against Jin Zixuan’s face. Goosebumps break out across her shoulders and down her trembling chest, nipples peaking as she shakes apart underneath his eager mouth, his steady hands. She looks -

She looks close.

Fuck, fuck, Mianmian’s fingers aren’t enough, too short to touch herself the way she wants to, but watching them like this is almost good enough to make up for it. She shoves a third finger in her pussy, swallowing hard around the dryness in her throat as she watches Jiang Yanli’s hips jerk up against Jin Zixuan’s face.

Her noises pitch up higher, going tight and breathless and then - 

And then she comes, her entire body going sharp and tense for a single long moment, her hips and legs and toes trembling with the effort of keeping still.

Mianmian’s pussy tightens in sympathetic resonance as Jiang Yanli slowly comes down from it, her chest heaving with every sobbing breath. Eventually, the hands on Jin Zixuan’s hair start weakly pushing at him to stop, and it’s only reluctantly that he goes.

His face is a mess, mouth wet and pink from licking and sucking on Jiang Yanli’s clit. Mianmian would kiss the mess right off of him if she had the chance, but before she can ask, he’s already wiping at his face, his eyes still dark and hungry. “Are you - “ he starts, his voice gone thick and rough with arousal. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Jiang Yanli says with a tired laugh, her chest still rising and falling with each panting breath. “It was just - wow. That was. A lot.”

Jin Zixuan swallows hard and nods, his dark eyes still staring at the slick pinkness of her pussy. “Yeah - yeah.”

Slowly, Jiang Yanli’s eyes slide over to Mianmian, and then she jolts into action, realizing that they’d forgotten her for a brief moment. “Mianmian are you - “

“Yeah, yeah, don’t worry about me,” Mianmian laughs, pulling her own fingers out of herself with a wince. “I’m having a grand old time.” With a grin, she lifts her hand and spreads her fingers, so that Jiang Yanli can see the way the wetness clings.

“Mianmian!” Jiang Yanli squeals, both delighted and scandalized at Mianmian’s boldness. In her periphery, she notices Jin Zixuan watching her, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, his cock twitching at the sight of her wet fingers.

“Did you - “ Jin Zixuan starts, before his brain catches up to his mouth. He cuts himself off with a click of his teeth, his cheeks going ruddy in embarrassment.

“Did I what?” Mianmian asks, trying not to look down at Jin Zixuan’s cock, trying not to trace the little drip of precum sliding down the side.

Jin Zixuan swallows and glances down at the bedspread. “I was going to ask,” he says, in a small voice, “Did you come yet?”

Mianmian laughs and scoots a little closer. “No. I haven’t. Did you have something in mind…?”

Jin Zixuan doesn’t look at her, as he bites his lip, embarrassment written in all his features. His hands tangle together in his lap, almost as if to hide the burgeoning presence of his cock, as he thinks on what to say.

Rather than let him hem and haw for too long, Mianmian gently asks, “Do you want to fuck me?” He jolts, looking sheepish. Guilty. He still can’t meet her eyes.

With a laugh, Mianmian scoots even closer, until their knees are nearly touching. “I’d like you to. If you’d want.”

That gets Jin Zixuan to jerk to attention, his eyes gone wide, his mouth dropping open in his eagerness. And then slowly, reluctantly, he reigns himself in. “But - what if you - I don’t want to get you pregnant. If you don’t want that.”

Mianmian snorts. “Yeah that’d suck pretty bad. But there are ways around it. If you want to.”

Jin Zixuan bites his bottom lip, looking unsure. To Mianmian’s other side, Jiang Yanli shakily gets to her knees, scooting close enough to slip a hand into hers, to press an affectionate kiss to Mianmian’s temple. Mianmian gently squeezes her hand back, pressing a chaste little kiss to Jiang Yanli’s soft cheek. And then, she glances over at Jin Zixuan, a vague idea already forming in her head. “I wouldn’t mind it if you fucked, y’know - the other hole. No pregnancy there, but if you’re not into it - ”

“I’m into it!” Jin Zixuan blurts out. Immediately after it’s out and in the open, he looks so embarrassed he could die.

“Hey,” Mianmian says, leaning into his space and gently headbutting him, “It’s okay. I’m into it, too. Wouldn’t have asked if I wasn’t.”

Jin Zixuan still looks unsure, but Mianmian knows this look - it's that sort of look that’s asking for her to confirm, to reassert what she wants so he can be sure she wants it. With a huff, Mianmian rolls her eyes and says, “Come on. I’ll show you how.”

Jin Zixuan bites his lip, but his eyes hardly leave her as she turns over onto her stomach, wiggling her behind a little just to watch Jin Zixuan watch her. “It’s a little different from fucking me the other way. You’re gonna need some kind of lubricant. Do you have anything for that? If you’ve still got that hair oil you use - the jasmine one? That would work.”

Jin Zixuan swallows hard and nods, slipping off the bed to go rummage around in one of his drawers. By the time he’s come back, Jiang Yanli’s already pulled Mianmian half on top of her, leaning in for another kiss.

It’s only because Jiang Yanli pulls away to smile at her husband that Mianmian realizes he’s back.

He stands awkwardly at the edge of the bed, waiting to be invited, the little bottle of oil cradled carefully in both hands. Somewhere along the way he’d finally done away with his trousers, leaving him self-conscious and bare. It’s cute.

“Come on,” Mianmian says with a grin. “You’re not having second thoughts, are you?”

Jin Zixuan swallows hard and shakes his head. “No. I still - um. I still want to. I just - uh.”

Minamian rolls over and gestures for him to get back on the bed. “Don’t be shy, then. It’s just us,” she says, her voice coaxing and sweet. “Come kiss me.”

Obediently, he climbs onto the bed, careful not to drop the oil as he crawls over her. Once he’s close enough, she tugs him down by the back of the neck until they’re an awkward jumble, bracketed between Jiang Yanli’s legs. It takes a little bit of effort, because he tries valiantly to keep too much of his weight off of her.

It’s sweet that he’s trying to be careful, but she isn’t having any of it, pulling him close to her until they’re flush together from legs to chest. His cock leaves a smear of wetness against her thigh, and somehow, out of anything, that’s the thing that makes her heart ache with fondness.

“I love you,” Mianmian murmurs, kissing him gently on the forehead, the cheek, the lips. Jin Zixuan quietly gasps, eyes fluttering shut as he submits himself to Mianmian’s affection. “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

“I love you, too,” Jin Zixuan mouths back at her, clumsy and sweet against Mianmian’s lips. “I love you so much I could die - both of you.”

With a huff of a laugh, Mianmian brushes back Jin Zixuan’s bangs until he finally blinks his eyes open. “Well, don’t do that. You still owe me something, don’t you?” she laughs, pointedly nudging her thigh against his cock.

He bites his lip, going a little shaky as he nods in her hold. “I’ve never done this before,” he says quietly, almost ashamed. “It probably won’t be good.”

“You’ll be fine,” Miamian says, pressing a lingering kiss to his forehead. “If I don’t like it, then you’ll know. When have I ever refrained from bitching about something?”

Jin Zixuan blinks, before huffing a quiet laugh. “Alright, alright. I’ll hold you to it. I just don’t want to hurt you.”

Mianmian snorts. “Don’t overestimate yourself,” she says, gently knocking her head against his. “Let me turn over, alright? It’s easier for the both of us that way.”

“Okay,” he says, pressing a chaste little kiss to her lips before easing up a bit and letting her turn over.

There’s a long moment of quiet, in which Jin Zixuan doesn’t quite move, and when Mianmian finally loses her nerve and glances back, she finds Jin Zixuan staring down at her, hands hovering awkwardly over her lower back.

“You can touch, you know,” Mianmian says with a quiet laugh, wiggling her butt from side to side simply because she knows Jin Zixuan likes it. Indeed, he can’t help but stare, wetting his lips when he finally tears his eyes away to glance up at her.

“Are you sure?” he asks, voice a little bit thick. Even as he asks, he can’t help but let his hands hover over her butt - eager to take her up on the offer, but enough of a gentleman to confirm.

“Babe, if you’re going to fuck me, you might as well test out the goods,” Mianmian snorts, arching her back a little as if to make a point.

“O-oh,” Jin Zixuan breathes, his hands settling delicately on the swell of her butt. “Okay.”

His hands are gentle as he feels her up a little bit, his thumbs careful as they trace the crease between her butt and her thigh. Mianmian can’t help that she squirms a little, pushing into his hands as she says, “Just squeeze it already, Zixuan. You don’t have to treat me so gently.”

Obediently, Jin Zixuan palms her ass with a little more confidence, his fingers digging into the muscle of it as he curiously gropes her. Mianmian laughs, even as she can feel her slick slipping down the crease of her pussy when he carefully pulls her cheeks apart, his thumb so close to her hole she can’t help but shiver.

“Eager, aren’t you?” Mianmian breathes out, slumping against Jiang Yanli. Jiang Yanli quietly laughs, pressing a kiss to her hairline, to her forehead, to the tip of her nose.

“Of course he is,” she murmurs, through Jin Zixuan’s half-offended squawk. “Look at you. Who wouldn’t be eager to touch you? You’re gorgeous.”

Jiejie...!! ” Mianmian groans, burying her face into Jiang Yanli’s collarbones. “That’s so - “

“Am I wrong, A-Xuan?” Jiang Yanli laughs, gently petting Mianmian’s hair as she grinds her nose into Jiang Yanli’s collarbones.

“N-no,” Jin Zixuan mumbles, embarrassment obvious in his tone even though Mianmian can’t see him like this. “She’s very - um. Yeah.”

Jiang Yanli laughs, bright and sweet and amused. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Jin Zixuan breathes, as his hands ease up a little, as one of his thumbs gently brushes up and down her crease, glancing against her hole. “Y’know, um. I thought about this once. A few times.”

Mianmian shivers under his hands, instinctively melting in Jiang Yanli’s arms.

“Yeah?” Jiang Yanli murmurs, amusement and curiosity clear in her voice. 

“Yeah,” Jin Zixuan says, his voice going all shivery and sweet. “It’s, um. I never expected I’d get to - “ He cuts himself off with a quiet, embarrassed laugh, as Miamian squirms a little underneath him. “You’re just - you’re really hot, Mianmian. I didn’t think that you’d be like this.”

Mianmian bites back her whine, arching into Jin Zixuan’s hands. “Just - just hurry up, dummy!” she bites out, too embarrassed, too aroused to pull away from where she’s hiding against Jiang Yanli’s chest.

It’s been a while since Mianmian’s done this, and even then, it’s not like she’s actually done it with anyone else, before. So, yeah, maybe she is a little nervous, but - well, she knows Jin Zixuan would be careful with her. He’s always careful, with the things he cares about. So when she feels the gentle press of a slick fingertip at her hole, somehow, ironically, her body just… relaxes. She knows this touch. Whatever might happen next - well, it’ll be fine.

Slowly, curiously, he feels around, gentle enough that it nearly tickles. It feels nice in a way that she has no real patience for right now, her hips lifting a half-inch, insistent. With her face buried in Jiang Yanli’s chest, she can’t see Jin Zixuan’s reaction but she can feel the way he hesitates, before slowly, finally, pushing one finger in.

She can’t help the startled little ah that slips out. It’s not that it hurts, or that she had been caught off guard or anything - it just… feels a little different when she’s not the one doing it. But it’s not a bad thing, even if she feels Jin Zixuan flinch a little.

“You alright?” Jiang Yanli murmurs, brushing the hair out of Mianmian’s face.

Mianmian swallows hard and nods, helplessly squeezing around the finger inside of her. “I-it’s fine,” Mianmian says, leaning in for a kiss. Jiang Yanli easily returns it, pressing an indulgent little kiss against her lips. It’s... distracting; Mianmian can’t decide what to focus on, can’t help but be distracted by Jin Zixuan gently stretching her open. Eventually, Mianmian has to pull away to glance back at Jin Zixuan.

“It feels weird when you go that slow - you can go a little faster, you know,” Mianmian says, trying for casual, despite the way her voice creaks at the end. He startles at being addressed, glancing up at her with those dark, pupil-black eyes.

“Okay,” he says, a little breathless, the hand at Mianmian’s hip gently squeezing.

Slowly, he picks up the pace, his finger moving in a steady in-out that has Mianmian dropping her head against Jiang Yanli’s collarbone, her breath coming out in quiet, panting whines. She’s usually quiet when she’s - when she’s trying it herself, but there’s just something about having someone else touch her there that just draws out these soft, helpless sounds from her throat.

Gently, affectionately Jiang Yanli presses a kiss to Mianmian’s temple, to the crown of her head, letting her fingers run through Mianmian’s mussed hair. Inevitably, her fingers snag, and when they do - 

Fuck! ” Mianmian sobs, her hips jolting back against Jin Zixuan’s finger.

“Wow,” Jin Zixuan whispers, a note of awe in his voice. “You, uh. You were squeezing down hard.”

“She likes getting her hair pulled,” Jiang Yanli says with a quiet laugh, as she gently massages Mianmian’s scalp - only to tighten her fingers into a fist.

Mianmian can’t help the way she buries her face into Jiang Yanli’s chest to muffle her curses, her pussy fluttering around nothing. She wants, she wants to get fucked. She wants to get stretched out, wants to come clenched down on something. “More,” Mianmian gasps, too into it to be mortified about just how desperate she suddenly feels. “Another, Zixuan, please. I wanna, I wanna get fucked, please.”

“Oh. Oh, wow,” Jin Zixuan chokes out, and after a moment’s hesitation, Mianmian feels another finger pushing its way in, feels her body stretching to accommodate. It’s still that strange, hot tightness Mianmian always associates with fucking her ass on a toy, but it’s different with someone else. She’s hyperaware of every inch that pushes in, every slight bulge of Jin Zixuan’s knuckles, and it’s hard not to squirm when he’s carefully spreading his fingers inside her, marvelling at the way her body moves.

“You’re, you’re really loud,” Jin Zixuan absently says, and between the fingers fucking into her and the hands in her hair, Mianmian can hardly think enough to feel ashamed. All she knows is that wild-animal thrashing in her gut and the insistent craving for more. “That’s - I didn’t realize you were so - wow. ” 

Mianmian whines, low and ragged in her throat, as Jiang Yanli’s nails gently scratch their way up the back of her skull, fingers flexing in a way that just teases at a tug. She wants. She wants - so much that it’s hard to breathe, hard to think. She’s moving on instinct now, hands slipping down to touch herself from the front while Jin Zixuan carefully fingers her from behind. “More,” Mianmian groans, her voice muffled in the valley between Jiang Yanli’s breasts. “Please, another.”

“I - are you sure?” Jin Zixuan asks, only to cut himself off as Mianmian helplessly rolls her hips back, fucking herself on Jin Zixuan’s thick fingers.

“Come on. Come on, ” Mianmian groans, pussy squeezing down like if she tried hard enough, she could just force herself to come. Carefully, Jin Zixuan pulls his two fingers out - and then pushes in again, three this time, the stretch incredible and just this shade of satisfying. It’s not enough, though, even if it feels good, even if it draws goosebumps up to her skin, even if it drags helpless, cut-off moans from her throat.

Finally, Mianmian caves, her fingers slipping through the slick pink of her pussy, frantically circling her clit in time with the insistent pace of Jin Zixuan’s fingers. It sends hot, white prickles of pleasure down her limbs, jolting deep in her core.

But it’s not enough. It’s not enough, and Mianmian finds herself biting out, “Just put it in. Just put it in.”

“Are you - “ Jin Zixuan chokes out, cut off by the sharp, high whine Mianmian makes when Jiang Yanli wraps Mianmian’s loose hair around her fist and gently pulls.

“Go on, baobei,” Jiang Yanli says, in the tone one would use to offer someone a second helping of dessert. “Put it in.”

Mianmian thinks, maybe, she hears the click of Jin Zixuan’s throat as he swallows, or maybe, it’s just the roaring of her blood in her ears, the sound of her heartbeat thump-thumping in her chest, but it it doesn’t really matter - not when Jin Zixuan is pulling his fingers out and replacing it with a thick, blunt pressure at her hole.

Slowly, achingly slowly, he pushes in.

Mianmian’s mouth drops open in a silent groan - only for the silence to be filled by Jin Zixuan’s echoing sigh. It’s - it feels big. She hadn’t expected it to feel like this, but between the pleasing weight of his body holding her down and the insistent press of his cock inside her - it’s, it’s good. Satisfying.

Mianmian’s ready for him to keep going, to pull back and shove it back in, to take what he wants, because she wants it too - but once he bottoms out, he stays there, breath coming out ragged and panting. Almost thoughtlessly, he holds her down with his weight so she can’t fuck back into him; she can only squirm helplessly under him, squeezing down on the cock in her ass and clumsily rubbing her fingers against her clit, trying to get any semblance of friction when her hand is trapped between the bed and her pussy.

When she glances up, she realizes why Jin Zixuan had paused - Jiang Yanli has a hand against his cheek, pulling him into a long, lingering kiss. From this angle, Mianmian can’t see much - but all the lines of Jin Zixuan’s body are tight and stiff, like he’s trying very, very carefully to hold himself back.

When Jiang Yanli finally pulls away, she licks her lips and smiles sweetly at him, whispering, “Good?”

Jin Zixuan swallows and bites his lip, silently nodding his head.

And then Jiang Yanli brings her hand down to Mianmian’s cheek, slipping almost posessively down her neck. “Good, Mianmian?” she asks, with a little squeeze.

Mianmian swallows around the lump in her throat and nods, relishing, a little, in the way it gently tugs at her hair. “Could you - you can - move, please?”

Above her Jin Zixuan jolts in a full-body shiver, and then slowly, carefully, he pulls back. The drag of his cock inside her feels amazing - sharper, more distinct than when her pussy’s getting fucked - and when he pushes back in, she can’t help the way her breath punches out of her in a single, shuddering ha-ah!

And then - and then, Jiang Yanli tugs against her hair, tilting her head back so that her pleasure-bleary eyes settle on Jiang Yanli’s pretty face. “Come here, Mianmian,” Jiang Yanli murmurs, even as she leans in, meeting Mianmian halfway.

Between the sting of her hair being tugged, the glorious stretch of Jin Zixuan’s cock in her ass, the wet slide of Jiang Yanli’s tongue slipping between her lips, Mianmian feels her attention pulled thin. It’s impossible to focus on one single pleasure, when it’s all of it, pooling together into one vicious wave threatening to pull her under.

It’s only been so long, but already, she can barely remember to rub her clit along with the steadily quickening pace of Jin Zixuan’s thrusts, let alone focus enough to kiss Jiang Yanli back. She knows she’s close, can feel the way the heat starts building at the edges of her periphery, can feel the way her pussy’s already started squeezing down around the emptiness inside her. She’s always liked coming with something inside, something to clutch around, and the sudden urge to finger herself feels overwhelming and immediate enough that she doesn’t even think - she just pushes the fingers on her clit a little further back, shoving three fingers into herself with hardly a thought.

“What’s - Mianmian, are you - “ Jin Zixuan gasps, his pace stuttering as he tries to wrap his mind around what Mianmian could possibly doing. “Oh, gods, Mianmian. Fuck. I can feel you.”

Mianmian opens her mouth to respond, but between the blooming heat of Jiang Yanli sucking on her bottom lip and the satisfying stretch of getting completely filled, Mianmian has been rendered largely incapable of speech. All that comes out is a vague little aa-aah, a muddled, animal sound of pleasure that pitches helplessly up at the end.

All it takes is one little jerk of Mianmian’s hair - whether a playful warning from Jiang Yanli to pay attention or a reflexive jerk of Jiang Yanli’s hand, Mianmian isn’t sure - before Mianmian’s coming, the heat in her periphery suddenly swallowing her whole, surging through her veins in a vicious, endless flood.

It feels - gods, she can’t even tell how it feels, her orgasm rendering her mindless, senseless, animal. All she knows for several long moments is the aching, helpless throb of her pussy, the tense, almost painful seizing of her limbs, the sharp wrenching of breath from her lungs.

It takes a while before she’s anything close to coherent, and as she comes back to herself in bits and pieces, she becomes aware of Jin Zixuan’s trembling stillness, of his cock fucked so deep inside of her, of his hips pinning her tight against the bed. And then, she realizes, as his quiet whimper finally registers in her ears - he’s coming.

“Sorry - I’m - ah! - I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to, I’m - I can’t help it,” Jin Zixuan babbles, his voice tight and gasping as he drops his forehead against the back of her neck. “You just - you felt so good, I’m sorry Mianmian.”

It takes a long, long moment, before Mianmian has enough control over herself that she can turn underneath him, that she can grab him by the back of the neck and pull him into a clumsy kiss.

The movement jostles Jin Zixuan’s slowly softening cock out of her, and in its absence, Mianmian can’t help but feel that strange, aching emptiness. It pulls a delirious, giddy giggle from her throat, one that has nowhere to go, really, but right into Jin Zixuan’s mouth.

Jin Zixuan can’t help but laugh, too, slumping bodily against her until she turns them both around. There isn’t much space in the bracket of Jiang Yanli’s legs, and before long, they all are laughing, clumsily untangling and rearranging themselves on the bed until Mianmian’s sandwiched between the two of them.

With a quiet huff, Mianmian gently bops Jin Zixuan on the head and says, “You’re damn lucky that wasn’t my pussy, you doofus.”

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Jin Zixuan says, hands coming up to rub where Mianmian had hit him. “I’ve never done this before, okay! It happened so fast, I couldn’t - “ His mouth snaps shut with a clack, his cheeks going ruddy in embarrassment.

Mianmian can’t quite bring herself to keep scolding him after that - so with a roll of her eyes, she pulls him in and presses a kiss to his forehead. “Well, it’s fine. You better work on it, though, or I’m not letting you near my pussy. And I’d like to get fucked there, too, sometime.”

“That can be arranged,” Jiang Yanli laughs, one of her hands sliding up and down Mianmian’s leg. “Even if A-Xuan can’t hold it.”

Something in Mianmian’s chest does a little flip as she turns to Jiang Yanli with a half-scandalized smile. “Oh? Miss Jiang Yanli, are you telling me you’ve been holding out?” Mianmian laughs.

“Well,” Jiang Yanli giggles, “there are a few… personal effects I couldn’t bear to part with…”

A-Li! ” Mianmian laughs, playfully nudging Jiang Yanli’s shoulder.

“We just thought it would be fun,” Jiang Yanli says, her hand settling on Mianmian’s knee. “Right, A-Xuan?”

Jin Zixuan’s cheeks flare red, ducking his head in embarrassment.

Jin Zixuan! ” Miamian cries out, trying to sound scandalized. “I didn’t think you had it in you!”

Jin Zixuan’s blush deepens as he quietly laughs. “Well - it’s… not hard to find certain sorts of books in the Carp Tower.”

Mianmian’s snort turns into a laugh, and once it’s out, she’s completely unable to hold it in. “ That’s what you’ve been sending to each other while I’ve been busy?”

“Among other things,” Jiang Yanli says, idly tugging Mianmian’s leg open to take a look.

Mianmian can’t help the heat that blooms on her cheeks, as she lets herself be ogled. Jiang Yanli swallows hard, her fingers slipping down to touch the wetness slowly seeping out of her. Mianmian nearly snaps her legs shut at the touch, but Jiang Yanli is so - she’s staring so intently Mianmian can’t bring herself to stop her.

“So, um… is this one of the things you talked about?” Mianmian asks, her voice gone a little breathy at the ticklish feeling of Jiang Yanli smearing the cum against Mianmian’s skin.

Finally Jiang Yanli pulls her eyes away, laughing faintly. “No - no, not really. I just… think you look nice like that.”

On Mianmian’s other side, she feels Jin Zixuan suck in a sharp breath, his entire body breaking out into a shiver.

“Yeah?” Mianmian asks, biting her lip as she spreads her legs a bit more.

“Mm-hmm,” Jiang Yanli hums, her eyes dark and heady. Mianmian thinks - maybe, perhaps - 

“Did you… want to…” Mianmian trails off, glancing up at Jiang Yanli.

Jiang Yanli swallows hard and nods, eagerly following Mianmian’s lead when she grabs Jiang Yanli by the hips and urges her up on top of her.

“Come on - come on, against my leg,” Mianmian murmurs, propping her knee up between Jiang Yanli’s thighs. She’s so wet, her pussy leaves a line of slick as she rocks forward, grinding her clit against Mianmian’s thigh.

She’s gorgeous like this, lips bitten and brows furrowed in concentration, her hips working fast and shameless towards another orgasm. Mianmian can’t help but touch, can’t help but squeeze at Jiang Yanli’s gorgeous swimmer thighs and knead at the soft swell of her hips. Can’t help but grab at Jiang Yanli’s perfect breasts as they move with her.

Jin Zixuan, too, is staring, transfixed up at his wife, looking at her the way a hungry animal might look at its prey. “Hey,” Mianmian murmurs, tearing her eyes away from Jiang Yanli to grab at Jin Zixuan. “You ought to grab her tits. She seemed to like that, before, when you were making out.”

“Yeah. Yeah, okay,” Jin Zixuan breathes, scrambling to kneel behind his wife. 

As soon as her back touches his chest, Jiang Yanli laughs, quiet and sweet - letting him know that she’s glad he’s there, that she’s glad to have him touching her, fondling her, pinching her breasts and -

Ahh, that’s good,” Jiang Yanli quietly moans, tilting her head back to rest against Jin Zixuan’s shoulder as he cups her breasts, as he tugs at her nipples.

Mianmian licks her lips, swallowing hard as she lets her hand drift up to the crease of Jiang Yanli’s leg, down to the front of her abdomen, until -

“Mianmian - f-uck! ” Jiang Yanli gasps, her hips stuttering into Mianmian’s touch, rubbing up as best she can into Mianmian’s thumb.

It doesn’t take long after that - between her husband kneading her chest and her lover touching her so intimately, Jiang Yanli’s breath starts to go all hiccuping and sweet, her shoulders shaking as they curl forward. Like a man possessed, Jin Zixuan nuzzles into the crook of Jiang Yanli’s shoulder, sucking kisses up her pretty throat until -

Ah! ” Jiang Yanli gasps, going taut to the point of trembling. “ Nnh!

“That’s it, A-Li, that’s it,” Mianmian breathes, watching the way goosebumps bloom like flowers across her skin. She’s still for a log time, her head tilted to the side, so that Jin Zixuan can nip and suck at the hinge of her jaw until finally, she slumps back against Jin Zixuan, all the energy in her body bleeding right out of her.

It takes a long moment for her to catch her breath, before a quiet, giddy laugh bubbles right out of her. With a sated sigh, she turns her head to press a sweet little kiss to Jin Zixuan’s cheek and slides forward, into Mianmian’s arms. Mianmian gives Jiang Yanli a tight nice, tight squeeze, before finally releasing her.

Jiang Yanli doesn’t quite so much roll off of her as she just sort of... rolls them both over onto their sides, tucking her arm under Mianmian’s neck like a pillow. Mianmian squeezes her eyes shut with a long sigh, feeling what’s left of Jin Zixuan’s cum slowly trickle out of her. “I ought to get cleaned up and leave,” she says with a groan, even as she tucks her face into Jiang Yanli’s shoulder and quite pointedly lingers. “We can’t let people find us like this.”

“We just finished,” Jiang Yanli laughs, throwing her other arm around Mianmian’s side. “I’m not letting you go that easily.”

“If you’re uncomfortable, I can, um. I can get something to clean you up with. Just give me a - “ Jin Zixuan says, hovering awkwardly at their feet. But before he can get up, Mianmian’s hand reaches blindly forward, patting around until she makes contact with what might possibly be Jin Zixuan’s ankle.

“No. If I’m staying, you’re staying,” Mianmian says, squeezing him as best she can like this.

Jin Zixuan hesitates for a moment, before finally giving in, crawling over to curl behind Mianmian so that they’re pressed together from chest to knee. “Okay,” he says, a warm sort of pleasure clear in his voice as he tucks his nose into her hair. As an afterthought, he throws an arm around Mianmian’s middle, too, tugging her just that much closer to his chest.

“Guys, if you keep this up, we’re all gonna end up falling asleep,” Mianmian says, though there’s no real urgency in her protest. Not when her eyes are already starting to flutter shut, not when a contented yawn is trying to make its way out of her throat.

“It’s fine. Close your eyes a bit - I’ll wake you up before it gets too late,” Jiang Yanli laughs, slowly petting Mianmian’s side.

“Five minutes,” Mianmian says, tugging Jiang Yanli closer, too, so that her legs might join the complicated tangle they’ve already got going on between Mianmian and Jin Zixuan. “Wake me up in five minutes.”

“Ten,” Jin Zixuan huffs, his voice muffled in Mianmian’s hair. Now that he’s lying down, he also sounds on the cusp of sleep, any semblance of his readiness to clean up from the last two minutes already gone.

“Fifteen,” Jiang Yanli says, her voice as firm as she can get it, given that she can’t help the way the corners of her mouth quirk up in a grin.

“You’re impossible,” Mianmian groans. “Okay. Okay. Ten minutes, alright? That’s it. Wake me up in ten minutes.”

“You should stay until morning next time,” Jin Zixuan mumbles, already well on his way to sleep. “No one’ll, hmm, no one’ll bother us next time. So you should stay.”

Mianmian would pinch his ears if she could reach. It’s dangerous, for him to be so indulgent, but, well - 

Even she can’t deny the appeal of staying the entire night. Of waking up to see them, hair-mussed and sleep-crusted. Of blinking her eyes open to the sight of Jin Zixuan’s smiling face, of sitting up for a bowl of steaming hot congee, fresh from Jiang Yanli’s kitchen. She can’t deny the appeal of just waking up with them. Being with them. That lingering promise of forever.

“Alright,” she says, letting her eyes flutter shut. “Next time I’ll stay.”