“…wow,” Nie Huaisang said when Jiang Cheng finished explaining. “That’s – that’s bullshit.”
Jiang Cheng flushed. Secretly, in his heart, he agreed a little bit with Nie Huaisang’s assessment, but at the same time he couldn’t just sit around while someone said things about his father…
“Before you say that I can’t say something like that, I’m not being cruel or dismissive, I’m describing the situation accurately using crude words,” Nie Huaisang said, holding up his hands. “It’s not the same.”
“Back me up here,” Nie Huaisang said to the others in their group. They’d been put into a single group by the Wen sect, all of them but Mianmian who’d snuck over by climbing a tree, and given a too-small, too-crowded tent to sleep in and a single fire pit to warm themselves. How that had let them to sitting by the fire and sharing stories of how they’d been sent here, Jiang Cheng wasn’t sure. “Sect Leader Jiang deciding that because the Wen sect only asked for blood heirs that he wouldn’t sent Wei-xiong here alongside Jiang-xiong because he might get hurt is a situation can be, and indeed must be, accurately described as being total bullshit, right?”
“…it kind of is,” Jin Zixuan said. “Sorry, Jiang Wanyin.”
“It definitely is,” Mianmian said, emboldened by her sect leader’s agreement. “Absolutely bullshit.”
Even Lan Wangji hummed. It was a pretty neutral sound, but it might be an affirmative hum.
Well, if everyone agreed…
Jiang Cheng’s shoulders went down a fraction from where they’d been hovering around his ears.
“I wasn’t just taking it too personally?” he asked, seeking confirmation. “I mean, Father’s right – it doesn’t make sense to give the Wen sect two hostages when they’ve only asked for one, and there’s always the risk that Wei Wuxian would get hurt –”
“Your father should be concerned about whether you get hurt!” Nie Huaisang exclaimed, slapping the ground. “They don’t feed us, they make us work in the fields, and who knows what else…! When my brother heard about their request, he nearly killed the Wen sect’s messenger, he was so angry!”
“My mother was angry, too,” Jiang Cheng offered. “She and my father got into a big fight –”
Nie Huaisang jabbed a finger at him, rather rudely. “From the story you told, your mother only got really angry when she heard Wei Wuxian was staying behind.”
“There’s a difference between being upset over your son’s well-being and being upset that – that – that, I don’t know! That your favorite dog is losing the race!”
“My mother threw a vase at my father’s head when she heard that he’d agreed to send me here,” Jin Zixuan said quietly. He was actually a lot more tolerable without his retainers puffing him up and egging him on all the time, and having to work side-by-side in the fields had revealed that under the flash and arrogance there was an introverted boy who disliked dealing with people nearly as much as Jiang Cheng did. “Then she spent the next two days trying to find a way out of it, then hovered for the rest of the week before I left.”
“My father punched a wall,” Mianmian recalled. “Mother had to sit on him before he tried something crazy, like petitioning to remove me from the sect or something. Not that’d I’d ever have let Jin-gongzi come here alone, of course.”
“See?” Nie Huaiwang said, gesturing at them all. Lan Wangji hadn’t volunteered, but obviously no one would ask him, either; they’d all heard about the burning of the Cloud Recesses. No one had agreed to send him here. “Violence in response to an unreasonable request! Violence! Anything less is unacceptable!”
“You know, for the very first time, I think see your resemblance to the rest of the Nie sect?” Mianmian said, chin on her hand.
“You’re exaggerating,” Jiang Cheng said. “No, not about the resemblance, about – the other part. It’s not anywhere near as bad as you’re all making it out to be; Wei Wuxian’s always been my father’s favorite, and Mother’s always been angry about it. It’s not a big deal.”
“They should not compare you,” Lan Wangji said. He didn’t talk much, so everyone always listened when he did. “It is inappropriate.”
Jiang Cheng didn’t know what to do with that. He’d never not been compared to Wei Wuxian, not since he’d arrived at the Lotus Pier all those years ago…and maybe even before.
“Even Lan-er-gongzi agrees,” Nie Huaisang said, pulling his knees up and putting his chin on them with a pout. “It’s all bullshit, I’m telling you. I’m taking you back with me to the Nie sect when all this is over. If your parents want you back, they can come ask nicely.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Jiang Cheng told him.
“You could come to Lanling if you prefer,” Jin Zixuan said, and Jiang Cheng turned to stare at him. “What? Your mother and mine are friends. It’d be fine. I wouldn’t – it wouldn’t be a problem.”
“I’m the heir of the Jiang sect,” Jiang Cheng exclaimed, throwing up his hands. “I can’t not go back!”
“Don’t think of it as not going back,” Mianmian said. “Think of it as taking a long detour.”
“You’d like Qinghe,” Nie Huaisang put in. “My brother’s really cool. He gives great hugs.”
“I bet he does,” Mianmian muttered appreciatively.
“He’s seventh on the list of most attractive male cultivators, and in my personal opinion should be a good few places higher up. Get used to it.”
“I don’t do hugs anyway,” Jiang Cheng interjected before he somehow got sold up the river – he knew how this sort of thing went. “Father doesn’t like them.”
“…your father hugged Wei Ying when he arrived at the Cloud Recesses to collect him,” Lan Wangji said neutrally.
“Fine. He doesn’t like them with me. Never did, not really, the whole time I was growing up…well, I mean, I guess he did sometimes when I was really young, before Wei Wuxian came...”
“Are you seriously saying your father hugs Wei Wuxian and not you?” Jin Zixuan asked. “And that he - he stopped hugging you when Wei Wuxian was there? Because that’s – that’s…”
“Bullshit?” Nie Huaisang suggested.
“Bullshit,” Jin Zixuan agreed with surprising vehemence.
“You’re exaggerating,” Jiang Cheng said.
“No,” Lan Wangji said.
“No, what? No they’re not exaggerating, no they’re not –”
“No. It is bullshit.”
“…did we just get a Lan to curse?” Mianmian asked, eyes wide. “I didn’t even know Lans were allowed to do that. Ever.”
“It is not a curse,” Lan Wangji said with dignity. “It is an accurate description of the situation.”
“Vindication,” Nie Huaisang hissed. How Jiang Cheng had missed that he was such a vicious little snake during their time at the Cloud Recesses, he had no idea, and judging by the amused expressions on everyone else’s faces, they felt much the same. “See, Jiang Cheng, this is why you –”
“Time to sleep,” Lan Wangji interrupted. His internal sense of time was more reliable than any clock when it came to sleeping and waking, and no one complained – if they stayed out much later than nine the Wen sect guards would come to accuse them of making trouble, and no one wanted to be labelled a trouble-maker.
Mianmian disappeared back over to the women’s camp – boring in comparison, according to her, but more likely she just wanted to keep her word about watching over Jin Zixuan – and the rest of them shuffled back to bed.
Some time later that night, when Jiang Cheng was lying in the middle of a pile of arms and legs he could no longer differentiate, he stared at the ceiling and asked quietly, “…is it really that bad?”
An arm looped around his waist tightened, and a foot lightly nudged him from the other direction.
“It’s not that it’s bad,” someone said, and their voice was so faint that he couldn’t tell which of the boys it was. “It’s that you deserve better.”
Jiang Cheng didn’t know what to say to that.
He continued not to know what to say the next day, but that was the day that they got forced to act as bait on a night-hunt into a giant lightless cave and Mianmian nearly got herself killed, followed very shortly by Jin Zixuan and Lan Wangji for standing up for her.
Under normal circumstances, Jiang Cheng would think first about his sect and only later about everyone else, and he tried, really, but – well, the Wens were attacking anyway, and somehow it’s Nie Huaisang of all people who hisses, “Get Wen Chao!” and Jiang Cheng had, and for a moment there it looked like they were going to be okay.
And then they all got stuck in a cave with a corrupted Xuanwu.
Minus the Wens, which was at least something.
“There are fresh maple leaves on the water,” Lan Wangji said. “There must be a way in and out.”
“I can dive in and check it out if someone distracts the Xuanwu,” Jiang Cheng offered. When they stared at him, he shrugged. “I’m a good swimmer.”
“You’d better be an amazing swimmer,” Jin Zixuan said. “I don’t want to have to plan your funeral.”
“I don’t think we get funerals here,” Nie Huaisang put in. “So if you die, you’ll stink up the whole place and we’ll all be very upset. I mean, gross!”
Jiang Cheng had by this point gotten used to Nie Huaisang’s – Nie Huaisang-ness, but it couldn’t be denied that everyone was a lot less terrified after listening to Nie Huaisang complain about nonsense for a bit. So much so, in fact, that it abruptly occurred to Jiang Cheng that maybe Nie Huaisang was doing it on purpose which…he wasn’t sure what to do with, so he decided to just put out of his mind.
Lan Wangji and Jin Zixuan put their heads together and eventually decided on each of them using a fire talisman as a distraction, alternating between them, while Jiang Cheng crept to the water and found a way out, which he reported back.
“Someone will need to stay behind as a distraction,” Lan Wangji said solemnly. His hands were clasped together, and Jiang Cheng knew what he was going to say before he said it.
“No way,” he said. “You’re not staying behind. If anything, I should; I’m the best swimmer, I might be able to get around it even if it’s not distracted.”
“You know where the exit is; it is better if you lead those going out.”
“A description will do the trick just as well,” Jiang Cheng argued. “And anyway, it’s not – it’s not as if I’ll be missed at home, the way all of you would be.”
They all glared at him, then, and he shrugged angrily.
“It’s true,” he said, and he could say it only because Wei Wuxian wasn’t there to stop him. He wouldn’t even think it, if Wei Wuxian was there; Wei Wuxian always knew when it was coming and interrupted him with a smile or a joke or something, and so the bitterness never got a chance to be let out. But he wasn’t here now, they were, and everyone else seemed to think it was all bullshit and maybe it was, okay, maybe it was. But it didn’t make it any less true. “My father has always said that Wei Wuxian understood the sect motto better than I did. He wouldn’t be upset at all if the sect went to him instead, and if I was dead or injured he’d probably just give him the Jiang surname in my honor or something. Let me be the one to stay.”
“Uh, question,” Nie Huaisang said. “Why does anyone have to stay? Can’t we just set up a trap or something?”
“A trap?” Jin Zixuan said. “What do you mean?”
Nie Huaisang shrugged and looked at Lan Wangji. “Do you know Chord Assassination?”
Lan Wangji blinked, surprised, but nodded.
“Okay, so, here’s the idea…”
It was an extremely stupid idea, based on using the chords as part of a pulley, some Wen sect soldiers and swords used as counterbalance weights, but as a distraction it worked pretty beautifully right up until the last moment when Jiang Cheng was helping Lan Wangji – whose leg was broken – swim through the water and the Xuanwu abruptly noticed that they were all going to leave and dashed after them, getting its head stuck in the exit hole they were using.
“Should we behead it or something?” Jin Zixuan asked, staring at the thrashing beast. “It can’t be allowed to hurt others.”
“Using what?” Mianmian asked, holding up a Wen sword in disdain. “These pieces of – well. These swords? It wouldn’t work.”
“I can still do Chord Assassination,” Lan Wangji said, and with all of them heaving together they were able to hold the string down tight enough to eventually cut the thing’s head off at the neck.
Nie Huaisang even used the opportunity to go pick out some sort of sword that was sticking out of the creature’s side, which he’d declared to be extremely ‘aesthetic’ if you looked at it from a certain perspective.
By that point, they were all exhausted, but no one wanted to stay a second longer in Qishan than they had to – especially since one of the small sect cultivators who’d wandered further away had seen Wens incoming – so Jiang Cheng put Lan Wangji, now totally exhausted, on his back and they all ran away.
“Come visit me in Qinghe sometime!” Nie Huaisang shouted, waving as the Nie sect disciples split off in a different direction. “I promised you some high-quality proper affection hugs from my da-ge, Jiang Cheng! Just you wait, you’ll see how good they are!”
(They are every bit as good as promised.)