Thirteen years later...
“Fan Zhu’er!” Hu Yueque bursts into her room, practically skidding across the floor. “Get dressed!”
“I am dressed,” Fan Dingxiang points out, seeing as she is fully dressed in her usual servant uniform. Hu Yueque rolls her eyes expressively, pulls a set of cultivator robes out of her sleeve, and throws them at Fan Dingxiang in a fluttering of silk.
“Get dressed get dressed,” she says. “You know what I mean.”
“Night hunt?” Fan Dingxiang is already undoing her belt, hands familiar with the process. Her hair is tied up in a style that looks appropriate for her rank but will easily transition into a more elaborate look with a few changes. She can put on her makeup in under five minutes, and her weapons are already in a qiankun bag and ready to go, her talismans neatly packed in another. It’s a little unusual for her to go on a night hunt when Jiang-zonzhu is still at Lotus Pier, but it’s happened before.
“Night hunt,” Hu Yueque confirms, catching each robe as it falls and folding them neatly into the wardrobe. “We got the report this morning. One of the villages is having trouble with a yaoguai.”
Nice. Yaoguai are one of Fan Dingxiang’s favorite things to fight. They’re always different, and she loves the challenge. “What kind?” she asks, slipping into the cultivator robes, tying them in place with neat precision.
Hu Yueque’s eyes sparkle. “Apparently,” she says, with her characteristic dramatic flourish, “it’s a monster boar.”
Fan Dingxiang freezes, every part of her lighting up. “A boar?” she says, arm half into a flowing sleeve. “Did you say a boar?”
Hu Yueque nods and slides the sleeve on the rest of the way, tying the outer robe in place before she starts on the belt. “Apparently it’s huge and mean and has torn down at least two houses.”
“Oh my god,” Fan Dingxiang breathes, “Oh my god, Hu Yueque. This is my time. I have been called. I was built for this night hunt, specifically. It’s happening.” Belt in place, she shoves her qiankun bags into her robes and pulls half her hair down out of its carefully coiled bun. “I have been waiting my whole life to fight a monster boar and now I have been blessed with this opportunity.”
“I know,” Hu Yueque says, handing Fan Dingxiang a couple of silver hair ornaments while she combs out the hair unspooled across her back. “As soon as I heard I knew I was bringing you along. This is gonna be amazing.”
“I’m gonna kill a monster boar,” Fan Dingxiang says, almost to herself, as she smudges on eyeliner and rouge. “This is so fucking awesome. Hey, do you think I can keep a tusk, once you all purge the resentful energy out of it?”
“If you kill it, you keep it,” Hu Yueque says, handing Fan Dingxiang her non-spiritual sword. “I’m pretty sure that’s a rule.”
“This is the best day of my life,” Fan Dingxiang says, and follows Hu Yueque to the main hall.
“This is the worst day of my life,” Fan Dingxiang hisses, trying to hide behind Hu Xinling, who is still shorter than her but not by much. “Why didn’t you tell me he was coming?”
“I didn’t know!” Hu Yueque shoots back out of the corner of her mouth, her face frozen in a respectful kind of attention. “He usually doesn’t come on minor night hunts!”
They both shut up and bow in perfect sync as Jiang Cheng--courtesy name Wanyin; the leader of Lotus Pier; wielder of Zidian; Sandu fucking Shengshou--looks over the two neat rows of cultivators with a sharp scowl. Fuck. Fuck. Fan Dingxiang started the day getting to kill a monster boar and now she’s going to get kicked out of the sect for impersonating a cultivator. She’s had a decade and a half of life without pig shit and she finds herself staring down the blade at having a pig shit life again. Dammit. Why couldn’t Jiang-zongzhu just stay out of it on this one perfect fucking day when she was going to kill a monster boar?
Jiang Cheng is gonna kill a monster boar today and it’s going to be the best fucking thing that’s happened all month. Maybe all year. He hasn’t fully decided whether Wei Wuxian coming back from the fucking dead qualifies as a good thing or a bad thing yet, and since Wei Wuxian isn’t here, he continues his excellent practice in compartmentalization by just determinedly not thinking about him. Jin Ling is at Carp Tower and safe for now (Jiang Cheng has so many spies there, because he is a good uncle); Lan Fucking Wangji is Chief Cultivator and is absolutely uncorruptable (no matter what people say about his relationship--ugh--with Wei Wuxian); and it looks like there won’t be another major war breaking out between the sects for at least the next week. It’s as good a time as any to go night hunting, like he was a regular-ass cultivator and not the leader of a sect with more important things to do. Jiang Cheng would like to do one simple thing, with a clear start and a clear ending and a messy, bloody part in the middle that’s still very straightforward. Maybe if he does one simple thing it will give him the energy to think about the rest of the extremely complicated bullshit he has going on.
Probably not, but a man can hope.
(Jiang Cheng is very carefully not thinking very deeply about Carp Tower, or about the things--and people--they found in Jin Guangyao’s multiple secret dungeons, or about a rosewood comb and the dreams of a boy who died twice over in two separate wars and is somehow still living. That is far too complicated to allow into his conscious thoughts in any capacity, and he keeps it buried tightly, deep down next to where his own fucking core should be instead of his fucking brother’s fucking core, which is another thing he’s determinedly not thinking about.)
He looks over the cultivators he’s taking with him, the blue and purple of Lotus Pier silks comforting in their familiarity while heavy with history. There are a couple of new faces today--Yunmeng Jiang is still small, with so much devastation from the wars, but he’s rebuilt it (with his own two fucking hands, thank you very much) into something formidable and mildly crowded. Gone are the days when he knew every cultivator by name. Jiang Cheng squints at a tall woman in the back who seems vaguely familiar and wonders when she was promoted, and just as quickly moves on. He trusts his senior disciples. If a cultivator has been assigned to this night hunt, it’s because they deserve to come along. He nods, once, and the two neat lines step to the side with a bow, and he strides down the center and trusts that they’ll fall in after him the way they should.
It’s nice to have something he can trust in.
Okay. Okay. Maybe Fan Dingxiang is going to get through this night hunt without being kicked out of Lotus Pier. So far it’s just been walking, and staying at an inn, and sitting at a table while a town magistrate talks to Sandu Fucking Shengshou about the giant boar monster that’s been wreaking havoc. She’s good at all those things, and he’s maybe given her a mildly confused look once or twice, but she’s mostly guessing that the expression is confusion--his eyebrows are so scowly it’s hard to tell what else might be going on, there. She’s just going to stay at the back of the line of cultivators as they head off into the forest, and then maybe she’ll just hide in a tree until everyone else kills the boar (which should be hers, dammit, she was gonna kill that boar) and fall back in line and go back to Lotus Pier and crawl into a closet and stay there.
It’s a solid fucking plan, for being one she came up with in about thirty seconds, through the freezing, screaming panic in her brain. Jiang-zongzhu is presumably using cultivator magic to track the boar, since he’s going the right way, based on the tracks and the territorial scrapes on the trees. He is not looking at the tracks or the territorial scrapes on the trees, hence the assumption of cultivator magic. Fan Dingxiang pauses and sets her hand against a trunk, deep gouges in the bark at approximately the height of her thigh, comparing them to similar, older gouges at knee-height. Fuck, this thing is going to be huge. It’s a good forest for boar, plenty of chestnut trees and she’s seen multiple types of mushrooms and wild yams (some of which have been recently uprooted by tusks). If this thing is as big as she thinks it is, though, then forage won’t be enough to sustain it. No wonder it’s raiding the village. It must be starving.
And, you know… Evil.
The breeze whispers through the trees, rustling the undergrowth, and Fan Dingxiang takes a moment to wish for quieter weather. The noise should help cover their approach (Jiang-zongzhu does not seem to be someone who appreciates stealth--he’s stalking through the bushes with the same determined stride that echoes off the docks of Lotus Pier) but it’s going to make it harder for them to hear the boar. They’re shockingly quiet, right up until they try to gore you to death.
“It’s close,” Jiang-zongzhu says, coming to a halt with a dramatic fluttering of his purple embroidered skirts. He shuts his eyes halfway and tips his head from side to side, tasting something on the air that’s invisible to her. (What’s not invisible? The gouges on every tree, the torn up ground, and the huge-ass hoof prints partially obscured by fallen leaves.) His eyes snap back open and he whirls around, purple flaring out around him like the bloom of an angry flower. “Partner up and spread out. Drive it into the center.”
“Yes, Jiang-zongzhu!” they chorus with a bow, and then, because Fan Dingxiang’s luck has been absolutely shit today, she and Hu Xinling end up the pair closest to the zongzhu in question.
“We should have made a break for the outer end of the line,” she breathes to Hu Xinling, itchy with a mostly-useless sword in her hands instead of the boar spear she should be wielding. Her attention is divided between the undergrowth, where she’s tracking the boar like an actual hunter (the scrapes on the trees are fresher, now and she can smell something salty and gamey on the air), and keeping Jiang-zongzhu in the corner of her vision, a brilliant flash of color against the green-brown of the forest. His attention is forward, hand tight on his sword. He still hasn’t seemed to notice that she’s a fraud, so she has that going for her.
“I know,” Hu Xinling breathes back, covering her defensively as she squats down to investigate what looks like recently dug earth. “While I have nothing but respect for Sandu Shengshou I also live my life in an attempt to get yelled at as little as possible and he’s so good at yelling.”
Fan Dingxiang stands back up and opens her mouth to say something else when two things happen at once: A horrible grunting that comes from a throat that sounds too large to be allowed to exist, and Hu Xinling staggering, dropping his sword, and spitting up blood.
Fan Dingxiang is pretty sure she found the monster boar.
Jiang Cheng is really warming to this night hunt--the resentful energy he can feel coming off the forest in front of him is strong and wild. It should be a good fucking fight, and Zidian nearly crackles on his wrist in anticipation. He’s gonna kill a giant fucking boar and it’ll be disgusting and messy and prevent him from having to think about anything else while it’s happening. It should be a perfect day.
A horrible grunting noise shudders out through the forest, along with a surge of resentful energy, and Jiang Cheng has just enough time to think, Fucking finally! when a purple blur hits him in the gut and he finds himself moving at speed and also upside down.
“What the fuck,” he spits, Zidian crackling with energy, hand tight on Sandu. The robes he can see underneath him are Jiang colors, and he parses after a moment that he’s draped over a broad shoulder while the person carrying him is, not to put too fine a point on it, hauling ass. The other shoulder holds another cultivator, Hu Xinling, he thinks. Good kid, reliable, currently passed the fuck out with blood dripping from his mouth. This is a lot of information to absorb in a short amount of time and that pisses him off.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” he snarls, twisting against the grip on his waist. Jiang Cheng’s captor(?) jolts him with an aggressive shrug that half knocks the wind out of him, legs continuing to pump through the underbrush with a surprising lack of sound.
“Currently,” they--she pants, “I’m saving your ass, Jiang-zongzhu, so please shut up and let me.” She scrambles up and over a broken-down stone wall, the old remnants of a temple that’s mostly rotted away, and drops him said ass. “Stay here!” she hisses, and Jiang Cheng has just enough time to recognize her as the tall woman from the back of the line before she slings Hu Xinling down with significantly more care and disappears back over the jagged stone. He opens his mouth to yell something after her, remembers the giant monster boar lurking somewhere nearby, and smashes it back into a tight, angry line as he checks on Hu Xinling. Jiang Cheng has managed to ascertain that there are no physical injuries, and is in the process of checking the flow of his qi when the tall woman vaults back over the wall with two more cultivators over her shoulders like she’s carrying bushels of rice.
“Just what the fuck--” he starts to ask, and before he can get further into the question she sets down both unconscious women and is back over the wall again. Jiang Cheng takes a moment to count mentally and figures that after two more trips she’s going to run out of cultivators, at which point he will tie her to a fucking tree with Zidian and ask her all the questions he wants. He goes back to checking Hu Xinling’s qi and has a horrible, stomach-dropping, gut-clenching moment when he doesn’t fucking feel it. Oh fuck oh shit, is there another core-melter? Jiang Cheng tightens his grip, leaving a thumbprint-sized bruise on Hu Xinling’s wrist, and finally gets a flutter in response to his desperate seeking. He drops his hand and rocks back over his feet, grinding the heels of his hands into his eyes as he tries to calm his heart rate. Okay. Okay. Not a core-melter. Jiang Cheng drops his hand onto Hu Xinling’s abdomen just to check, just to be sure, and the pulse of his golden core is such a relief that Jiang Cheng wants to cry a little bit. He takes that impulse and shoves it down under his ribs, and then plasters over it with a frown for good measure as he checks the next unconscious cultivator. (It’s Hu Yueque--good with a sword, also good at making wickedly funny jabs at Yao-zongzhu and Ouyang-zongzhu under her breath where only the sect can hear her. Seeing her unconscious seems starkly wrong.) It’s the same story with her--energy drained, core still healthy, blood on her lips and chin but no physical injuries.
When the seventh and eighth cultivators are draped across the moss and leaf litter in splays of purple silk, Jiang Cheng is ready and waiting, keeping Zidian from sparking only with a mighty effort of will. “If you’re done,” he snarls, grabbing the woman (wow, she’s really quite tall) by the upper arm and whirling her around to face him, “do you think you might have time to answer a few questions from your fucking sect leader? Namely, what the hell have you done to my disciples?”
She stares him down, eyes flaring with irritation, which makes two of them. With a sharp motion she yanks her arm out of his grip but doesn’t back away or otherwise try to escape, her (wide) shoulders back and her chin up. “I removed them from a dangerous situation,” she says in a steady voice, the tones shaped around a Yunmeng accent but with a heavy rustic base. “Forgive me for doing so without your express permission, Jiang-zongzhu.” Her hands come up into the most sarcastic bow Jiang Cheng has ever seen in his life, and he once watched Wei Wuxian bow to Wen Chao so witheringly he remains surprised that Wen Chao hadn’t deviated his qi on the spot. “Would you have preferred I let the boar feed on all of you?”
Jiang Cheng blinks and scowls. “Feed?”
She nods. “It eats spiritual energy,” she says flatly, hands running through her hair a couple of times as she finger-combs it over her shoulder and starts braiding. “It drained Hu Xinling before I could get him out of there. Since you’re conscious, I assume I got to you in time.” Braid finished, she ties it off with a cord from around her wrist and flicks it back over her shoulder. Jiang Cheng cannot stop staring. What kind of cultivator braids their hair back in the middle of a night hunt? Not even the Nies do that and braids are sort of their whole thing. “I don’t think it’s anywhere near permanent,” she says, snapping his attention away from her hair, “but it didn’t seem exactly smart to just leave them out there.” She bows again, just as sarcastic. “I hope that meets with your approval, Jiang-zongzhu.”
Jiang Cheng glares at her, and then at her hands, barely an inch away from his chest. Abruptly he realizes how inappropriately close he’s standing, almost steps back, and then realizes that as sect leader it’s up to other people to step back from him, so he goes back to glowering. She doesn’t seem to notice, dropping the bow and (hah!) stepping away from him. The momentary triumph is short-lived, as she proceeds to pull qiankun bags out of her robes and completely ignore his glowering. He realizes with another abrupt jolt that she’s not holding her sword--it’s shoved through her belt. What the fuck kind of cultivator is she?
“I’m not sure what the range of that thing is,” she says, yanking her sword out of said belt and tossing it aside with a lack of respect for the weapon that makes Jiang Cheng almost nauseated. “I’m guessing it was pretty close to me and Hu Xinling, and since you seem fine it can’t drain you from more than ten zhang away.” Normally Jiang Cheng would be yelling by now, but this whole situation is so surreal he can’t quite work out how he should react, especially when she unties her fucking belt and starts peeling out of her outer robe.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he snarls, fighting the urge to avert his eyes. Is this some kind of messed-up seduction attempt? Who would do that? Jin Guangshan has been dead for years, and he doesn’t think anyone else would try to honey-pot him, and who would send a rude woman with shoulders broader than his for that job anyway?
She pauses and blinks at him, like she gets undressed in the forest in front of sect leaders every day. “Changing into something sensible,” she says, stuffing the outer robe away in a bag and swapping it for a sleeveless version that she ties and belts in place with efficient movements. “I don’t know how you people manage with those ridiculous sleeves, but I’m assuming it has something to do with how you never get your hair in your face.”
Jiang Cheng glares at her. “What do you mean, ‘you people?’”
She takes a moment to locate her sword, shoves it unceremoniously into the bag, and makes eye contact. Her mouth quirks. “You know,” she says, as she pulls a massive fucking spear out of it. “Cultivators.” After the spear she pulls out a harness covered in throwing knives, which she shrugs on like she does this every day, and then some kind of rope-chain-thing with a heavy spearhead on the end. It’s all so distracting that it takes him a moment to parse her answer.
“Cultivators,” he says, through narrowed eyes and a tight jaw. She finishes settling the weighted rope in place on her hip, meets his gaze, and nods.
“Cultivators,” she says, gesturing at the unconscious people around them. “You know. Swords and magic and shit. Get their spiritual energy eaten and pass out. Long hair and big sleeves that somehow never get caught on stuff.” She arches an eyebrow. “Are you unfamiliar with the concept, Jiang-zongzhu?”
Jiang Cheng has not been sassed this much without either Jin Ling or Wei Wuxian present in probably decades. He’s about to threaten to break her legs when her words ping in his brain. “How are you still standing?” he asks, annoyed at her and the interruption to the hunt and at the sheer gall of this monster boar for incapacitating some of his best disciples. Who the fuck is this woman, currently flipping through a stack of talismans, hale and hearty and being extremely disrespectful?
She pauses, glances up at him again, and tucks the stack of talismans into the front of her robes before she offers him her wrist in silence. Jiang Cheng takes it suspiciously, in case this is some sort of trap, and presses a questing tendril of qi in to check her core--
“What the fuck?” he spits, yanking his hand back and giving her a once-over, head to toes.
“Can’t eat my spiritual energy if I don’t have any spiritual energy,” she says, deadpan, tapping her temple. “That’s what we call strategy.”
Jiang Cheng glares at her, absolutely appalled. “What are you?” No core, and not a destroyed one, either, just never formed, and she carried two cultivators at a time without seeming winded--
Her mouth quirks into a smirk, amusement behind her dark eyes. “I’m a pig farmer, Jiang-zongzhu,” she says with a bow that actually seems sincere this time. He glares at her, jaw working, narrows his eyes as that dredges up a buried memory, sparkling like a coin kicked up from the silt at the bottom of a river. A girl, a blanket, blades offered to him in the main hall, eyes meeting his without fear.
“Five Swords?” he asks, incredulous. He’d never--Jiang Cheng hadn’t ever seen her after that day. He assumed she’d washed out, that his senior disciples had tested her combat abilities and found them wanting. There had been so much to do back then that a week later he’d forgotten all about it and now she’s standing in front of him, armed for bear, dressed in robes she certainly shouldn’t be wearing and raising her eyebrows at him like he’s being the weird one.
“Fan Dingxiang, courtesy name Zhu’er, at your service,” she says, and sighs, seemingly to herself. “I was doing so well,” she says under her breath, plaintive, and then visibly straightens her shoulders to get back to business. “The boar yaoguai.”
“You are not a cultivator!” Jiang Cheng snaps, the boar yaoguai the last thing on his mind. “What are you doing here in those robes? Who let you come on a night hunt?” What the everloving fucking hell has been going on in his sect behind his back?
The woman--Fan Zhu’er, apparently--casts her eyes to the sky as though looking for support from the heavens, like she’s the one holding onto her patience with fingernails. “Jiang-zongzhu,” she says, “there is a monster boar out there and you can’t fight it yourself unless you want to go all blood-mouth like the others. Can we concentrate on killing it?” She bows, this time actually respectfully, and it mollifies him a little bit. “When we are done I will explain everything and submit to whatever discipline you deem appropriate.”
Jiang Cheng’s jaw works, but he is forced to admit she has a point. (He doesn’t like admitting it, but he has to.) “Fine,” he grits out. “We’ll get them somewhere safe and then--”
“They’re safe here.” Fan Zhu’er interrupts him without a care for protocol, pulling the stack of talismans back out of her robes and rifling through them. She seems to sense his questioning glower, because she glances up and gestures vaguely around them, at the stone walls, the collapsed arch that used to be a doorway. “Pigs can’t jump.” This is delivered with the same kind of bored factual energy that Jiang Cheng might used to say, “Cultivators carry swords,” or “Rice is delicious.” She says it like he should already know it, and that’s annoying as hell, because he hadn’t. He’s a sect leader, he doesn’t need to know Pig Facts. “I think you’ll need to fly,” she continues, picking little bundles of talismans out of the larger stack and tying them to her knife harness with casual ease. “If you can stay above its range while I take it down, you should be able to suppress and eliminate the resentful energy.”
“You?” Jiang Cheng asks, arching a skeptical eyebrow. “You’re going to kill the boar? Alone?”
Fan Zhu’er ties the last bundle of talismans to her harness, tucks the rest back away, and meets his eyes with absolute confidence. “Yes.”
They stare at each other in silence for a long moment. She seems very sure of herself. Jiang Cheng scoffs and rolls his eyes, a really juicy one. “Fine,” he says. “Don’t expect me to burn paper money for you.”
“I don’t,” she says, picking up her massive spear and settling it against her shoulder. “I wouldn’t want your pity paper money anyway, Jiang-zongzhu.” Fan Zhu’er jerks her chin at his side, where he’s holding Sandu. “Get up there. At least ten zhang, maybe more like fifteen. If you feel like you’re gonna--” and she makes a little explosive motion next to her mouth, jaw dropped to mimic vomiting “--then. Well. Try not to.”
“You are the rudest person I’ve ever met,” Jiang Cheng says before he can stop himself, and she snorts, loud and shameless.
“Wow,” she says, deadpan. “I’m ruder than Yao-zongzhu and Ouyang-zongzhu? That’s an accomplishment to be proud of.” Her mouth curls up into a smile, a flash of white teeth, a crinkle at the corner of her eyes. It transforms her face utterly, like the crackle of a spell, leaving afterimages on his eyes when it disappears just as quickly. Jiang Cheng takes a sharp step back, orders Sandu out of her sheath with a thought, and takes to the air. Fine. He’ll just stay up here and watch this horrible woman utterly fail at a task she never should have attempted in the first place, and then he’ll kill the boar himself (somehow) and scrape her corpse out of the dirt and tell it, “I told you so.”
Jiang Cheng is satisfied both in his own self-righteousness and his judgement of the outcome of this farce right up until Fan Zhu’er leaps up onto the top of the wall, and then gracefully into the branches of a nearby tree, and then to the next tree, all with light feet and hardly any apparent effort. She pauses there to give him a look like, “Are you coming or not?” and then proceeds deeper into the forest, retracing their path. Jiang Cheng glares at her and follows, branches whispering at his sleeves and the skirts of his robes.
Fan Zhu’er lands on a branch and waits there, boar spear in one hand, the other lightly on the trunk of the tree. “Do you sense anything yet, Jiang-zongzhu?” she asks, voice pitched low.
“Oh, is my professional opinion valued now?” he can’t keep himself from snapping, and she gives him an unimpressed look.
“I could track it on the ground like a normal-ass person would,” she says easily, “but then we wouldn’t be able to discuss strategy without risking you getting your soul et or whatever.” She waves her spear at the tree branch. “I’m doing this for you.”
Jiang Cheng ignores that, and her, in favor of shutting his eyes and letting his spiritual awareness drift out into the forest. There’s resentful energy everywhere, but it’s obvious that it’s just the lingering trace of a larger presence, like having the smell of frying oil on your clothes after too long at a festival. He tips his face side to side, feeling the forest, the rustling of the leaves, the freaky-quiet pulse of Fan Zhu’er’s qi. There? There! He felt the boar yaoguai before, and the heavy, almost humid press of its resentful energy is familiar now.
“That way,” he says, opening his eyes. Fan Zhu’er looks in the direction he’s pointing and runs her tongue over her teeth thoughtfully with a satisfied little nod. He gives her a Look, and she clarifies, “There’s water that direction, which means a good mud wallow. It’s still thinking like a boar.”
“And that’s good?” Jiang Cheng can’t help but ask.
Fan Zhu’er shrugs. “Means I know how to kill it.” She jumps to the next tree before he can respond, and Jiang Cheng clenches his teeth so hard they squeak.
They track it like that, the resentful energy curling through the air like smoke, thickening until Jiang Cheng thinks he could practically slice it and serve it on a platter. Fan Zhu’er pauses at the next tree, cocks her head and says, “It’s close, yeah?”
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng confirms, and then has to ask, “How can you tell?”
“Mmmmn,” she says thoughtfully, thumb sweeping back and forth over the handle of her spear. “You ever been in a room where a fight’s about to break out?”
Jiang Cheng thinks of every party he’s ever attended with Wei Wuxian. “Yes.”
“You know how you can feel the tension? Even if it’s not magic or whatever, but just like, a bar brawl?”
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng says, and then, “How many bar brawls have you been in?”
“Air before a night hunt feels like that,” Fan Zhu’er says, and then casts her eyes sideways at him and adds, “Enough of them.”
“Wait,” Jiang Cheng says, as he unpacks that, “you can sense resentful energy?”
“Yeah,” she says, sitting down on her tree branch. She pulls a drinking gourd out of somewhere (how many qiankun pouches is she carrying?) and takes a drink. “I think most of us can,” she says, gesturing to herself and down at the ground, probably to indicate non-cultivators, “just not from like, a li away. Otherwise how would we know a place was haunted if we didn’t see the ghost ourselves? Hey, you want any?” The gourd waggles in his direction, and Jiang Cheng starts to refuse it automatically, realizes that actually, he is a bit thirsty, has a silent internal war about whether he wants her to think he’s forgiven her for impersonating a cultivator, and finally just takes the damn water like a reasonable fucking human being. “The back of your neck goes all prickly and you know shit’s fucked, right?” she continues as he drinks. “Sometimes ghosts look normal and all you have to go on is that prickly feeling.”
“Oh, and you’re the expert, are you?” Jiang Cheng snarks. He hands the water back in the next breath, which unfortunately softens the disapproval, dammit.
“I know enough to hunt them,” she says, standing back up and rolling out her shoulders, his words slipping off like water from a duck’s back and making him want to ruffle her goddamn feathers. “Which way?”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t even have to try and extend his spiritual awareness. The resentful energy of the boar hangs in the air like the reek of rotten meat. He points, and Fan Zhu’er gives him a perfunctory nod and leaps to the next tree. Four more trees and they have to slow down, creeping through the canopy as silently as possible. Finally they edge up on a clearing and get their first look at their quarry. Sort of.
Fan Zhu’er sighs. “You know,” she says, barely any breath behind it, “the most fucking annoying thing about yaoguai is how they always hide up until you attack them?”
Jiang Cheng says nothing but silently agrees, eyes on the patch of too-deep shadow in the brush on the other side of the clearing.
“I’m just saying,” she continues, warming to her subject now, “that it would be nice to be able to get some intelligence on the damn things before they’re charging me at full speed.”
“And you’re speaking from experience?” Jiang Cheng asks, voice dripping acid.
Once again, Fan Zhu’er shows no outward reaction to his tone as she answers his question with, “Yes, actually.” She counts off on her fingers as she continues, “Crow, deer, alligator--that was a wild one--owl, another deer, chicken, snake, another chicken, duck, rat, two chickens at once, turtle, crane.” She chews her lower lip thoughtfully and cocks her head at him. “Hey, do you have any idea why it seems like birds are so much more susceptible to becoming yaoguai? I’ve been assuming they’re just inherently more evil.”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t know, actually, but remembers being chased by a particularly nasty rooster when he was a kid and is willing to give some credence to the “Birds Are Evil” theory. Their eyes are too fucking beady and they don’t have facial expressions. He doesn’t trust them. “Are you planning to kill it or just chat all afternoon?” he asks, instead of telling her any of that. “Because if you just want to chat we could do that not in a tree. We could chat somewhere with seats and beverages and a marked lack of resentful energy.”
“How forward of you, Jiang-zongzhu,” she drawls, not changing her facial expression in the slightest. “I am but an impressionable unmarried maiden. You don’t want to put ideas in my head by asking me on dates.”
Jiang Cheng splutters, mixed rage and embarrassment rolling over him from head to toe. How dare this woman make insinuations in that tone of voice! (Sarcastic, part of him points out, it was a sarcastic tone of voice.) Who the fuck does she think she is, backsassing her sect leader? This is clear insubordination! (Is it insubordination if she’s not technically a cultivator? Jiang Cheng doesn’t know, which makes him angrier.)
“Hold this, please,” is all the warning he gets before she hands him her spear (and, again, why a spear?). Jiang Cheng takes it because dropping it seems somehow worse, and watches in enraged bafflement as Fan Zhu’er pulls out a small knife and a mirror. With steady hands and an almost bored expression she nicks herself behind the ear, the cut bleeding immediately and freely in the way of all scalp wounds. What the fuck. His question must show in his expression, because she glances at him, shrugs, and says, “For my talismans.” Jiang Cheng frowns about that, and startles when she takes her spear back.
“Thanks,” Fan Zhu’er says, twirling it in her hands in a flourish that seems more habit than anything, a line of red trailing down her neck in a wet gleam. She tenses in the way he recognizes means she’s about to make another leap, and pauses there. “Hey, Jiang-zongzhu.”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t answer, but he does raise one eyebrow in his best, “The fuck you want?” expression.
“You once asked if my courtesy name had a story behind it.” She grins at him, that there-and-gone again flash. “Prepare to find out.”
And then she fucking winks, like this is fun, like they’re friends, and before Jiang Cheng has a chance to react she’s sailing gracefully through the air in a flutter of Yunmeng colors to land lightly in the clearing. She plants herself with a wide, solid stance, spear at the ready, and Jiang Cheng takes her recently-vacated spot on the branch and leans back against the tree to watch her untimely death. It’s what she deserves, he tells himself firmly. There’s a reason that commoners pay taxes to cultivators, it’s because they need cultivators to handle situations just such as this. From well below and across the clearing he hears the horrible, carrying grunt of the boar again and his hand clenches on Sandu. Maybe he should--he doesn’t exactly like watching people die needlessly--yeah she’s rude and horrible but does she deserve to get trampled to death under monster hooves?
The boar yaoguai charges out of the undergrowth, huge and as terrifying as expected, resentful energy boiling off of it into the air. Its hooves are, as he’d imagined, monstrous, tearing up the forest floor in great scattered clumps of soil, and Fan Zhu’er just stands there, not even reacting. She must be frozen in fear. Jiang Cheng prepares to send Sandu down--there’s no way the boar could eat his spiritual energy through the sword, and maybe he can distract it enough that she’ll get the fuck out of the way, like a sensible fucking person--
Sandu rattles in her sheath, while down below Fan Zhu’er drops her stance lower and brings the spear to bear. The sound of the collision startles birds from the trees, and Jiang Cheng feels the branches around him vibrate with the boar’s awful yowling. He grits his teeth, black resentful energy clouding his view in a seething swirl, fully expecting to see a dead woman and an angry monster when it fades, and he nearly falls out of the fucking tree when instead his own two eyes fucking behold the angry monster and Fan Zhu’er, still on her feet, braced in visible furrows where the boar has shoved her backward. Her whole body trembles, the spear lodged firmly in the boar’s massive shoulder, her torso low and her center of balance even lower, refusing to be knocked down. The boar gives another snarling grunt, hooves ripping into the soil as it tries to push forward. Fan Zhu’er lets it, shifting her stance with a practiced motion that allows the boar to run past her, not at her, the spearhead ripping free in a spatter of dark blood. As it passes, Jiang Cheng watches her fingertips come up to touch behind her ear. They come away red, and she snatches one of the talismans off her harness and slaps it on the ass end of the boar as they spin away from each other. Fan Zhu’er takes another leap backward, ending up almost on the other side of the clearing. Jiang Cheng’s not sure why. He doesn’t think it’s wise to allow the yaoguai that much of a leadup to a charge, or the maneuvering room.
Then the talisman explodes in a cloud of blood and burnt resentful boar meat. Ah, Jiang Cheng thinks, his ears ringing as the boar squeals in pain and rage. I see.
The boar whirls, limping, to square off against Fan Zhu’er. She flourishes the spear, looking almost bored as she strides back toward the middle of the clearing, planting herself in the center of the chewed up dirt with apparently-earned confidence. The yaoguai lowers its head, tusks tearing through the bushes in challenge, and it grunts again as it charges. It’s closer to him this time, and Jiang Cheng feels the tree shake with the power of those heavy footfalls. Fan Zhu’er brings her spear back into play and the impact is somehow even louder this time, the resentful energy screaming through the forest. They lock up again, the boar impaled on the spear up to the crossguard, Fan Zhu’er braced low against its weight. Blood streams from the stab wound on the boar’s shoulder and the raw, mangled meat of its back hip, dripping into the dirt to churn up an extra disgusting kind of mud. Jiang Cheng is intimately familiar with blood-mud, and it may be a common feature of night hunts but that doesn’t mean he has to like it.
Below him, Fan Zhu’er shifts her grip on the spear so it’s braced against one hip, reaching for a talisman with her newly-freed hand. Unfortunately for her, the boar takes this opportunity to shake its massive head and rip the spear out of her grasp, leaving her unarmed in the face of its oversized tusks.
(Jiang Cheng is operating under the assumption that this boar is larger than standard--he’s seen pigs before, and those are plenty big on their own. He’s fairly certain that boar don’t usually stand the height of a horse at the shoulder, so it’s likely the resentful energy has both enraged and enlarged the thing. He makes a note to ask Fan Zhu’er that, later, since she seems to know a lot about boar, has the horrified realization that he would have to admit his ignorance in front of a fucking pig farmer, and resolves to absolutely not do that.)
Fan Zhu’er takes losing her primary weapon in stride, which is pretty fucked up in Jiang Cheng’s opinion. She leaps lightly backward, making the yaoguai give chase, and touches both hands to the trail of blood on her neck. In a manner far too calm for someone facing down a charging monster, she grabs two more talismans, waits until the boar is too close to manage a turn, and jumps into the air. She does a front handspring over the damn thing with a fluidity that would be envied by veteran festival performers, her hands slapping dual talismans down as she uses the boar’s own momentum to carry them safely away from each other.
(Jiang Cheng surreptitiously covers his ears.)
Two explosions later, the boar is bloody, definitely the worse for wear, and angry. It snarls a sound that doesn’t seem anywhere near something that should come from a pig and whirls on the empty-handed Fan Zhu’er. It’s limping, her spear still dangling from its flank, but it hasn’t gone down yet and it glares at her with beady red eyes, breath loud and rumbling in its chest. They circle each other, both wary, and Fan Zhu’er pulls the spearhead-chain contraption off her belt, eyes never leaving the boar. She starts spinning the end, an arms-length of chain hanging from that hand, loops of slack in the other. It takes very little time before the chain blurs, spinning so quickly it almost looks like she’s holding a shield in that hand, and when the boar charges at her she leaps to the side and looses the spearhead right into its fucking face. It cracks against skin and bone, flaying open a gash on the thing’s muzzle, and she does a flicking thing with one wrist as she twirls away and in the next moment it’s back to spinning around her hand in that blurred disc. Jiang Cheng fights against his jaw’s natural urge to drop. What the fuck. Can you have a spiritual weapon without a golden core? Is that what he’s seeing?
Fan Zhu’er sends the spearhead at the yaoguai again and again, battering its skull and shoulders, each hit opening up another cut, each cut dripping more dark, resentful blood into the foul mud of the forest floor. Jiang Cheng is just starting to wonder if he’s going to stand here and watch a woman beat a boar to death for the rest of the afternoon when the monster roars again and flings its head into the next strike, tangling the chain around its tusks and rearing. Fan Zhu’er isn’t quite fast enough to drop the rest of the chain, and it yanks her off her feet and fully into the air. There’s a lot of weight behind the pull, and the boar moves fast. She has no time to recover for a better landing before she slams back-first into a tree hard enough to scrape bark off the trunk and lands on the ground, unmoving.
Fuck. Fuck. Jiang Cheng tightens his hand on his sword and considers his options. The boar looks like it’s been through a meat grinder--he might be able to kill it from a distance with Sandu, and then go in and suppress the resentful energy. It’s possible that it’s doing badly enough now that it won’t be able to drain him like it did the others. If that’s the case he can kill it right in its ugly asshole face and not interrogate why that feels like revenge. He’d definitely prefer that option--he hasn’t gotten to stab a single fucking thing, and the whole point of this night hunt was getting to do something uncomplicated for once, instead of finding a brand new fucking complication. The boar trots around to face the probably dead Fan Zhu’er and paws at the ground. It still has chains tangled in its tusks and a spear in its flank, its breathing coming hot and labored and loud. The thing charges before Jiang Cheng has a chance to make up his mind, and he’s tensed to leap out of the tree when Fan Zhu’er, at the last possible moment, rolls to the side and comes swiftly back up to her feet. The boar hits the tree instead of her with a boom that rattles every branch in every tree for probably half a li, and she yanks her spear free in yet another gout of blood.
Time slows, the way it sometimes does in fights, and she glances up at Jiang Cheng where he’s poised to leap, still in the tree. A bright, feral smile plays across her face, there and gone like the reflection of light from a blade, and then she turns, sets her stance, and plunges the spear right into the boar’s haunted monster eye. Even from here he hears the bone crack, and it slumps to the ground slowly, so large the limbs don’t immediately realize it’s dead.
“Jiang-zongzhu!” she yells, attention on the boar, spear still crossbar-deep into its head. Jiang Cheng shakes himself and completes the movement he started earlier, springing out of the tree, already moving his hands through a spell. He casts it as he lands, the purple energy of his qi encircling the massive corpse, and finally, finally, as the resentful energy peels away and coalesces into an oily cloud, he lets Zidian crackle awake. The whip cracks through the air, lashing through the center of the contained cloud and the array keeping it in place, and with a last wail the resentment vanishes, eliminated from the world. Jiang Cheng’s ears pop with the sudden pressure difference, like sometimes happens when he goes flying. The clearing goes silent except for Fan Zhu’er’s panting breaths and Jiang Cheng’s heart beating in his ears. He feels… Jiang Cheng isn’t sure how he feels, which definitely makes him feel annoyed. Does he feel accomplished? Sort of, but the sense of accomplishment isn’t directed inwardly. It’s directly outwardly. At…
Jiang Cheng realizes, for the barest of moments, that he feels proud of Fan Zhu’er, which is utterly horrifying, and he takes that emotion and buries it in the very deepest fucking parts of his mind and then covers it in rocks. That is absolutely the most unacceptable thing that has happened today.
The universe seems to take that thought as a challenge since, in the next moment, Fan Zhu’er screams, “Fuck yes!” and drops her spear in order to grab him bodily around the waist and throw him into the fucking air. Jiang Cheng is so horribaffled by the experience that his brain goes fully blank, nothing but a hollow kind of noiselessness inside his skull as she catches him, pulls him into a hug so tight his spine pops, and squeals, “We did it!” He still has no outward response to this. Instead, he is vaguely digging through his memories for the last time someone touched him who wasn’t 1. a doctor, 2. trying to kill him at the time, or 3. Jin Ling, and on a couple of occasions Jin Ling had definitely been frustrated enough to aim at least vaguely at being part of group 2. It was probably sometime before A-jie died, he realizes with that familiar clawing stab of grief that’s never quite softened.
“Woooooooo!” Fan Zhu’er yells, releasing him because apparently she needs her arms to punch the air as she does an enthusiastic and unchoreographed victory dance. “Yeah! Suck it, boar! Fuck you!” She kicks it in the side and makes dual obscene gestures at it. Jiang Cheng’s mouth wants to do something that feels very unfamiliar and he frowns reflexively.
“Fuck!” she says, reeling back around toward him, her eyes bright with glee, her face smeared with dirt and sweat and blood. “Quangu-zongzhu! You were fucking amazing!” She punches him in the shoulder hard enough that it hurts, and he has no reaction to that since he’s still stuck on Quangu. “The fucking whip! It just--” and she makes a sound that he thinks is supposed to be Zidian and is mostly there “--and then the array just like, exploded!” The weirdness of this interaction isn’t over, because now she grabs him by both shoulders and shakes him. “I’ve never seen the whip in action! That shit is rad!”
“Get your fucking hands off me,” Jiang Cheng finally manages, jerking out of her grip with stiff movements, hot all over with anger and embarrassment and general horror at the informality of this entire inappropriate situation.
“Sorry!” she says immediately, stepping away with her eyes still shining and her face caught in a grin that looks like it hurts. “Didn’t mean to be grabby! It’s the fight energy! This was a good one and I am juiced up!” Her head tips back and she yowls at the sky, hands raised to the heavens as a sound of pure, exhausted elation tears out of her chest. It must be the lingering energy of the fight that makes Jiang Cheng’s ribs feel weird when she does it. That’s the only explanation. “Okay,” she says, apparently a little calmer now that she’s done wordlessly screaming. “Okay, whew, all right, I think I’m good.”
Jiang Cheng scowls at her, because she deserves it.
“So, the resentful energy,” she asks, suddenly all business again, hands on her hips. “It’s gone, right? I can’t feel creepy prickles on the back of my neck anymore so this should be safe?” One arm gestures to encapsulate the monster boar’s everything.
“Do you doubt my skills?” Jiang Cheng asks icily.
“No, Jiang-zongzhu,” she says immediately, which is at least a little gratifying. “I haven’t fought a boar yaoguai like this solo so I wanted to be sure there wasn’t anything else you needed to do.” Her mouth does something rueful. “Normally there are more actual cultivators for the, you know. Stabbing.”
Oh, and doesn’t Jiang Cheng have questions about that. “It’s safe,” he says flatly.
“Great.” Fan Zhu’er bows, her bruised and battered hands coming up in front of her. Is she moving differently, now? “Thank you, Jiang-zongzhu.” Jiang Cheng has a brief moment of appreciation for her, and her apparent return to protocol, and it lasts right up until she turns, yanks her spear out of the boar with a squelchy scraping sound, and uses it to neatly lop off a tusk. She hefts the tusk in one hand and turns it around, eyes appreciative.
“What are you doing.” Jiang Cheng can’t even find the energy to inflect it as a question.
“I’m keeping this,” she says, with a quick flash of a grin and a wink as she tucks it away into a qiankun pouch.
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. “Why.”
“Because it’s rad,” she answers absolutely shamelessly. Her mouth quirks. “Did you want to keep the other one, Quangu-zongzhu?”
Jiang Cheng attempts to light her on fire with his eyes. When that doesn’t work, he spins on his heel, skirts flaring out with a satisfying weight, and stalks off into the forest back the way they came. Footsteps follow him a moment later, and he considers, just for a moment, speeding up. She doesn’t have a fucking core. She can’t use it to keep up with him, if he really decides to get moving.
She killed that boar by herself, says a voice deep, deep inside him, the one that sounds a little like him and a little like A-jie. You should be able to appreciate that even if you don’t like it.
Jiang Cheng grits his teeth, a muscle jumping in his jaw.
He doesn’t speed up.
Fan Dingxiang is pretty sure that, at any moment, Jiang-zongzhu is going to either stab her or whip her or kick her out of Lotus Pier. Every moment that passes where he doesn’t do one of those things is a gift, and she appreciates every single one of them.
He doesn’t speak again all the way back to the temple ruins where they left the others, and she thinks it’s to intimidate her. Joke’s on him: Now that the worst has happened and he knows what she’s been up to, all his capacity for intimidation is gone. She’s avoided him for over a decade and had all that ruined in a single afternoon. The worst he can do is kill her or banish her, now, and somehow that knowledge is a kind of freedom.
Anyway, the point is, she’s not intimidated, and she’s full of a bottomless well of spite that enjoys how mad it apparently makes him that she’s not intimidated. That’s actually a very good thing, because spite is about the only thing keeping her upright. She killed a monster boar! By herself! And got thrown into a tree! There’s only so much the protective talismans she painstakingly embroidered into her robes can do in the face of that, and Fan Dingxiang is pretty sure her entire body is one big bruise. She thinks longingly of a hot bath at the inn and hopes Jiang-zongzhu won’t execute her before she gets to take one.
The others are varying shades of conscious by the time they get back, which is good because Fan Dingxiang is willing to carry people if need be but would definitely prefer not to be doing that, given how she’s using the aforementioned spite to keep from limping. Hu Yueque is up and poking at the others, along with Zhang Luan--those two always did recover quickly--and they look up with matching wild-eyed expressions and a “Jiang-zongzhu!” when he lands lightly on the mossy dirt. They both bow, and then look past him at Fan Dingxiang, who lands not quite as lightly. Hu Yueque blinks, gives her a once over, and then says bluntly, “You look like shit.”
Fuck. Fuck. Fan Dingxiang’s plan was to get the others to pretend they didn’t know her, so she could keep all of Jiang-zongzhu’s wrath directed at her and her alone. She gives the two female cultivators a frantic look and a little shake of her head, right as Jiang-zongzhu says, “Ah. So you know each other, then.” Every word comes out clipped, like they’re being carved into a stone tablet. “I am going to have some questions about what exactly has been going on behind my back,” Jiang-zongzhu continues, as Hu Yueque and Zhang Luan melt into apologetic bows, “but right now I want to leave this fucking forest as swiftly as possible.” He turns to Zhang Luan sharply. “How are they doing?”
Fan Dingxiang doesn’t remember a lot of the walk back to the village and the inn where they’ll be staying the night, other than her own discomfort and her friends occasionally subtly taking her hand to feed her a little bit of their barely-recovered spiritual energy. It doesn’t do the same thing for her that it would for another cultivator, but they’ve learned how to accelerate her healing via careful, directed application. Right now it’s about keeping her awake and on her feet. God, she could eat a whole boar by herself and then sleep for a week. Maybe when Jiang-zongzhu kicks her out of the sect she can find a cheap inn and do just that.
Speaking of inns, there’s one in front of her, and Fan Dingxiang grits her teeth at the indignity of the small set of stairs leading up to the doorway. She makes it up them without outwardly displaying how much pain she’s in and has vague plans to escape to the room she’s sharing with Hu Yueque and Jiang Fengli. Once she’s out of sight she can collapse and get them to rub various salves into her horrible weak non-cultivator muscles and maybe by tomorrow morning she’ll be able to breathe without it feeling like a punch in the ribs every time. Those are definitely bruised, which is better than them being broken, but not by much.
(Fan Dingxiang loves night hunting, but this part? This part sucks.)
Jiang Cheng leads them upstairs (of fucking course) to his rooms, waits for everyone to arrange themselves in neat lines, heads bowed, swords in hand (fuck, Fan Dingxiang never got her sword back out. She’s still carrying her spear and wearing the knife harness, god dammit, way to go, her) and casts a narrowed gaze over them like he’s trying to cast fire talismans with his eyes. Fan Dingxiang takes deep, slow breaths and refuses to sway on her feet.
“So.” His voice and mouth are both tight, his shoulders rigid under his robes. “Would anyone like to explain her?” Jiang-zongzhu doesn’t bother to gesture. Fan Dingxiang stands out like a boar among chickens.
“Jiang-zongzhu,” she says, stepping forward before anyone else can try to throw themselves on this particular sword. “Sir.” Fan Dingxiang brings her hands up to bow around her spear, as properly as she can for this wildly improper situation, and discovers what a mistake that was when every muscle in her torso--back, front, and sides--all scream in agony. A pained hiss sneaks out between her teeth without her permission and she feels her face twist up in a wince. Fuck fuck shit dammit, she was gonna be strong.
“Stand up,” Jiang-zongzhu barks, and Fan Dingxiang manages that by leaning partially on her spear, to her own disgust. He’s half a step closer, hands very slightly raised for a moment before he snaps them back to his sides. That angry glare rakes over her from head to foot. “You’re injured,” he says flatly.
“Nothing that won’t heal, Jiang-zongzhu,” she says truthfully. Ugh, is her voice shaking? How disappointing.
Jiang-zongzhu glares at her for a moment longer and rolls his eyes. He does that a lot, she’s learned today. “You’re about to pass out,” he snaps, “and you stink like dead boar. Go fucking--go do whatever the fuck you do when you go on night hunts you have no business being on and explain yourself to me in the morning.”
Fan Dingxiang blinks. So she is going to get that hot bath before she gets stabbed to death. Nice. “This one thanks you, Jiang-zongzhu,” she says, bowing again (ow ow ow ow). He whirls away in a huff and before Fan Dingxiang fully realizes what’s happened she’s in her own room, sitting on the edge of a bed, as her friends carefully undress her.
“Did I black out for a second?” she asks. The answer never comes, and the next time she opens her eyes she’s in a tub of hot water that smells like recovery herbs. Okay, she definitely blacked out a little bit.
“Are you okay? Can you drink this?” Hu Yueque asks, from her elbow, holding out a cup of medicinal tea.
“Did you kill the boar? Was it gross?” Jiang Fengli asks, combing the grit out of Fan Dingxiang’s hair.
“Yes to all of those questions,” Fan Dingxiang says, knocking back the bitter brew in two quick swallows. The empty cup is replaced with a bowl of soup, some kind of dumplings floating in broth, and Fan Dingxiang gets through half the bowl before she has a conscious thought again.
“I hugged Jiang-zongzhu,” she says to the room with cold horror, the memory of the fight replaying behind her eyes. “Oh my fucking god, I threw him in the air and caught him and then I hugged him.”
Hu Yueque goggles at her. Jiang Fengli’s comb snags in a tangle. “You what?” Hu Yueque asks, high-pitched.
“What were you thinking?” Jiang Fengli asks, the comb moving again with quicker strokes.
“It was right after I killed the boar,” Fan Dingxiang says. “You know how I get after a fight. I don’t think I was thinking.” She inhales the rest of the soup, because emotional turmoil isn’t nearly enough to stop her from eating, and passes the bowl back, just in time to be slapped with another recollection. “I called him Quangu-zongzhu.”
“Oh my god,” Hu Yueque says, face locked in a rictus of amused horror. “You did not.”
“I did,” Fan Dingxiang says, sinking into the tub until the water reaches her chin. “I called him Quangu-zongzhu twice. Fuck me running. I’m just gonna drown myself in this bath. Please burn paper money for me, okay?”
“You can’t drown yourself,” Jiang Fengli says reasonably. “You’ll ruin all my hard work on your hair.”
“Plus after all the effort we put in teaching you how to swim it would be disrespectful to us, your friends, if you died by drowning.” Hue Yueque bats at her head gently. “Rude of you.”
“Fine,” Fan Dingxiang agrees reluctantly, “but when Jiang-zongzhu whips me to death tomorrow for impersonating a cultivator, hugging him, and calling him by an inappropriate nickname, I hope you’ll all burn paper money for me then.”
“It’s not an inappropriate nickname,” Hu Yueque says. She shrugs when they stare at her. “If he doesn’t want to be called Quangu-zongzhu,” she explains, deadpan, “then he shouldn’t have that face.”
“Please tell him that,” Fan Dingxiang says, through the beginning of horrible, irrepressible giggles. “Please tell him that to his face, and then Jiang Fengli will burn paper money for us both.”
“That seems fair,” Jiang Fengli agrees, working on another tangle. “Now as my payment, please tell me how you killed the monster boar.” Her voice sharpens in the way that means she’s probably smiling. “It looks like it was bloody.”
“Have some more soup,” Hu Yueque says, holding out the refilled bowl. “If it’s your last meal before Quangu-zongzhu kills you, you should enjoy it, right?”
Fan Dingxiang smiles and sits up far enough (ow) to take the soup. She might die tomorrow, but at least she has friends. Could be worse. She could have died without getting a bath first.