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江山如有待 | It Seems the Hills and Rivers Have Been Waiting

Chapter Text

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

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

It goes like this:

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

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

Fan Dingxiang doesn’t hesitate.

She throws the slop bucket at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Granny blinks and gets up from the table.

---

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

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

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

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

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

Fan Dingxiang realizes that perhaps, in her sixty-three years of life, Granny has seen some shit. Or, more accurately, seen more shit than Fan Dingxiang had previously understood. “Granny,” she says, reluctantly pulling the hoe out of the man’s skull and setting it aside, “what do we do if they come back?

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

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

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

---

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

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

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

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

---

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

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

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

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

She doesn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“At whose hands?” the cultivator asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

It goes like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I killed one with a rock.”

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

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

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

“Yes, Chen-xianshi.”

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

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

That’s three.

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

Jiang Wanyin re-takes Lotus Pier.

There are four swords under the floorboards.

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

She doesn’t let down her guard.

---

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

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

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

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

---

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

---

Jiang Cheng is having a bad fucking day.

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

Anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fan Dingxiang grabs him by the throat and then lifts him off the ground. His cultivator pigshit hand is trapped in her other fist and she gives it a little warning squeeze. “I’m going to tell you this once,” she says evenly as he goes rapidly purple. “If you harass anyone else in this compound, I will kick you in the dick so hard your balls come out your mouth.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“--and then he was all--”

Sleeves gestures with her hands to indicate cultivator stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um--”

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

“I--”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow,” she says, squeezing. “It’s like a fucking rock.”

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

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

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

“Holy shit, yes,” Hu Xinling echoes. “Please tell us everything.

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

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

---

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

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

Jiang-zongzhu,

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

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

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

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

---

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

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

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s fucking awesome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

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

---

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

--

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

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

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

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

---

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” Fan Dingxiang says immediately.

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

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

---

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What a useless fucking waste,” Fan Dingxiang says out loud.

Hu Yueque nods fervently. “It was bullshit, the whole thing.”

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

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

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

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

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

---

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

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

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

Jiang-zongzhu,

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

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

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

My deepest condolences, and my apologies.

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

Thirteen years later...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m gonna kill a monster boar,” Fan Dingxiang says, almost to herself, as she smudges on eyeliner and rouge. “This is so 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.

Fuck.

---

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.

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Since I was seventeen,” she answers easily.

Jiang-zongzhu narrows his eyes. “Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fan Dingxiang blinks into the middle distance.

That…

That actually went pretty well.

Neat.

---

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If you think that’s bad,” Zhang Luan says, leaning over the edge to get a look, “you should see the kind of shit they come up with for peach eaters.”

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

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

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

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

---

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the fuck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s fucking on, now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“--evenly matched--”

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

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

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

Jiang Cheng hates the whole fucking world, for one violent instant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You?” he barks. “How?” No fucking way, no fucking way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

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

Some of the other changes, though…

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

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

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

The tailor nods.

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

The tailor nods again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck you both,” Fan Dingxiang huffs, trying to hide a smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fan Dingxiang does.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jiang Cheng gets a headache.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cultivation.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yes!” Hu Yueque says, eyes lighting up, smiling, as though nothing is wrong, as though Jiang Cheng can’t tell from here that she’s not circulating her qi like she should be. She bows, briefly, and through her panting breaths, continues, “Fan Zhu’er is training us in her strength and flexibility building exercises, and we’ve sealed our spiritual energy so we can’t rely on our golden cores to cheat our way through.” She grins, dazed with the kind of accomplishment Jiang Cheng recognizes as coming after a really good spar, or an exceptionally challenging night hunt. “It’s terrible,” she says, still grinning. “We’re getting so strong.”

Fan Zhu’er’s eyes are still on his face, and he doesn’t want it, because they’re too observant and she’s not being a little shit anymore, she’s being sincere and he hates that. “You sealed your spiritual energy?” he asks, through the headache and the nausea and his clenched teeth. “Voluntarily?”

Hu Yueque nods. “I had no idea it would be so hard,” she says. “Fan Zhu’er is an absolute beast.”

“Thank you, Hu Yueque,” she says, not looking away. “Now go back to your plank walkouts.”

“I hate you,” Hu Yueque complains as she goes, but she goes willingly and gets back down in the dirt and swears her way through it.

Jiang Cheng has nothing to say to that, to any of this, his tongue having glued itself to the roof of his mouth. Fan Zhu’er’s still squeezing his wrist, which is the one part of his body he’s actually aware of. “Do you want some water, Jiang-zongzhu?” she asks, quietly enough that no one could hear over the general noise of her weird fucking training.

“No,” he manages, through his heart hammering in his throat, trying to process everything he’s just seen and heard, trying to make it make sense.

She squeezes his wrist again. “If you join us you can see for yourself that everyone is safe,” she says, still in that low voice, like he’s a startled horse she’s trying to calm. “Would you like to join us?”

Jiang Cheng thinks about it, thinks about sealing his spiritual energy, thinks about being weak and helpless and drained in front of his disciples and in front of Fan fucking Zhu’er, and he’s hit with a surge of violent nausea so hard only his golden core keeps him from swaying with it. He yanks his hand out of her grasp, whirls on his heel, and stalks off without another word. It’s not fleeing, but only barely, and he doesn’t stop moving until he’s out at the end of the docks in the pavilion where he used to have meals with his family, back when he fucking had a family, before his core was crushed and then restored and everything went to shit again and again and again.

Jiang Cheng’s hands clench on the railing so hard his fingernails indent the wood, and he stands and stares into the water for a long, long time.

---

The ceiling, in the darkness, is just as boring as it was when Jiang Cheng went to bed a shichen ago. He knows this because he’s been glaring at it for the last shichen, instead of, you know, fucking sleeping. He spends another insence stick’s worth of time yelling at himself to close his fucking eyes and go the fuck to sleep before he gives up, shoving back the blanket and swinging his legs out of the bed. It’s going to be one of these nights, then. Jiang Cheng knows these nights. He used to have them more often than not, after Sunshot, and then they faded for a while, and then they came back after Nightless City the second time. They’re rare enough, now, thirteen years on, but Jiang Cheng knows from experience there’s no point lying in bed being angry about not sleeping. His cultivation is strong enough that missing one night of sleep won’t bother him too much, and going for a walk is better than doing nothing. He belts one of his simpler outer robes on over his sleep robes, shoves his feet into his boots, and heads out of his room with Zidian ready and waiting on his wrist. (Jiang Cheng doesn’t bother carrying a sword on nights like these, where he can’t sleep and can’t stand still, but he never goes anywhere unarmed. Never.)

Lotus Pier at night is different than during the day, quieter and somehow warmer. The sparse lanterns are there mostly so no one trips and falls into the water, the shadows pooling between them almost cozy. It’s easier to pretend nothing happened, at night, when everyone should be asleep anyway, when the dimness washes out all the colors and makes it harder to tell which building was burnt, which beam was replaced. It’s home. It’s always been home, with all the complicated, agonizing emotions that entails. Jiang Cheng breathes as he wanders, wood and algae and green living things and the humid air over the water. His feet move silently over the piers and walkways, bone-deep familiarity letting him skip any that creak, and he lets himself haunt his sect and, as the memories rise up like mosquitoes from the lake, lets himself be companionably haunted in return.

The sentries are on patrol, and he crosses paths with a pair of them. He politely ignores them and they just as politely ignore him, only a quick glance to ask, silently, if something’s wrong. Jiang Cheng isn’t the only one who can’t sleep, sometimes, isn’t the only one carrying the weight of Lotus Pier’s history. There’s a quiet kind of companionship in knowing that. He wanders out past the main buildings, past the family quarters, all the way through the servants’ wing and the kitchens and the gardens. Very vaguely he thinks about where he’s going to walk next (maybe out over the docks?) when a muffled rattling catches his ear. That’s not a normal sound to hear this time of night, and he follows it around a corner into the open space in front of the stables. A figure, picked out all white and black in the moonlight, whirls through a movement he recognizes, and in the next moment his sleepless, slightly sluggish brain processes what he’s seeing.

It’s Fan fucking Zhu’er, running drills with her rope dart, at night, in a stableyard. Sure. Why wouldn’t it be. He can’t escape her even in his night-time wanderings. Eyes burning from exhaustion and his stomach churning from something else, Jiang Cheng glares at her mostly out of habit. She’s not actually doing anything wrong, really. She’s just--she’s just a complication he’d really rather not have in his sect or his life. Really, he should kick her out. It would be easier if he kicked her out. He’ll do that anytime now.

Unaware of his ridiculous thoughts, Fan Zhu’er twirls, the rope dart flowing with her movements in that impossible way, and in the process ends up facing him. The dart flies at his face, arrow-quick, and Jiang Cheng doesn’t even bother flinching. The rope isn’t long enough to hit him from here, and besides, Fan Zhu’er sees him lurking in the lamplight and reels the rope dart in before his heart can even beat twice. The weight hangs at her side and everything’s still in the stableyard for a long moment, not even the hum of insects to break the heavy weight of the air.

Fan Zhu’er bows in silence.

Jiang Cheng nods, in acknowledgement.

They stare at each other for another impossibly long breath. Jiang Cheng wonders what she sees when she looks at him, whether she actually sees someone worthy of respect or if she sees the gullible asshole who believed his brother’s stories for fifteen years, the deluded man who lied to himself about his accomplishments until everything came crashing down again. He doesn’t know what he sees when he looks at her, because she’s nothing that makes sense. What is a disciple who’s not a cultivator? Where does she belong?

Fan Zhu’er tips her head to the side, considering.

Jiang Cheng waits, and he couldn’t say why.

Fan Zhu’er offers him her rope dart, hands open, the rope and weight draped across them.

Jiang Cheng stares at her. He thinks about raising one eyebrow, but she probably wouldn’t be able to see it in the darkness. A little war rages inside his head. He shouldn’t be here--it’s inappropriate to spend time with a female disciple at night--she’s a fucking pig farmer--who is she to try and teach him anything--why has he even let her stay in his sect? Through it all Fan Zhu’er waits in silence, the rope dart across her palms in quiet offering.

Jiang Cheng scoffs at himself and crosses the yard to take the fucking rope dart. He wanted to try it out anyway, he tells himself. This is just the first real opportunity he’s had. Once it’s in his hands he realizes it’s not hers, it’s one of the training darts. There’s actual rope under his hands, already worn smooth with the stray fibers burned off, the weight on the end left intentionally dull so none of the juniors can accidentally stab themselves to death. Fan Zhu’er takes a step back and unhooks her actual rope dart from her belt, where he hadn’t noticed it hanging. This close he can see that she’s also wearing a single outer robe over her sleeping robes, though she’s one-upped him by throwing her knife harness on as well. She nods at him, once, and settles the rope dart in her hands in an obvious demonstration. Jiang Cheng mirrors her movements, and when she starts to spin the weight, he follows along.

“Do you go anywhere unarmed?” he asks, surprising both of them, because he sure wasn’t expecting that to come out of his mouth. She gives him a sidelong look, her mouth a curved slash in her face in the moonlight.

“No,” she says, eventually. She does something with the rope dart, changes the way it’s spinning, and he mimics it with less grace. She demonstrates it again, the movements deliberate, and Jiang Cheng follows along more smoothly the second time. “I used to,” Fan Zhu’er continues, surprising him a little bit, since she hasn’t exactly been the most open book in the past, “but I learned better during the war.”

Jiang Cheng flinches, barely, and tries to cover it by trying the thing with the rope dart again, the transition from one spin into the other spin flowing almost naturally. When the momentum brings him around to face her again, Fan Zhu’er has let her rope dart sway to a halt and she’s watching him with dark, assessing eyes. “Jiang-zongzhu,” she says, abruptly, bringing her hands up into the most sincerely formal bow he’s seen from her so far. “This one apologizes.”

Jiang Cheng’s mind and body both skitter to a halt, the rope dart swinging wildly past his thigh so close that it brushes his robes. He stares at her in honest bewilderment, trying to remember if she’s done anything inappropriate in the brief time he’s been out here. “For what?” he asks, when nothing immediately presents itself.

She squints suspiciously at him, apparently decides his question is sincere, and clarifies, “Earlier. The training.” Jiang Cheng’s whole body goes hot with anger and shame and frustration, and she continues, “It was clearly--” A pause, while she deliberates on word choice. “--upsetting.”

“It’s fine,” Jiang Cheng replies through clenched teeth. It is. It’s fine. It’s just his disciples cutting themselves off from their golden cores without a care in the fucking world, asking a coreless woman to teach them how to be strong like she is. Perfectly fine. Why would that be upsetting?

“I should have asked you before I started teaching a class I hadn’t been officially assigned to teach,” she says, the jut of her chin stubborn, her shoulders back. “It shouldn’t have been a surprise.” That is actually a decent point, and Jiang Cheng acknowledges it with an abrupt nod and, hoping to make the conversation end, goes back to swinging the rope dart. It’s a satisfying weight, very different from using Zidian, and he’s getting a bit of a feel for how Fan Zhu’er makes it move like a spiritual weapon even though it very clearly isn’t. She watches him in silence for another few breaths and then joins in, waiting until their weapons are evenly matched in tempo and then demonstrating the technique she already showed him, and then a second movement that ends with her facing the other direction, the rope dart having reversed its swing. Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes and tips his chin at her in question, and she politely does the whole thing again.

She didn’t need to apologize, says the traitorous little voice in the back of his head, always harder to ignore at night. You’re the one who was unreasonable. She couldn’t have known.

Everyone fucking knows, Jiang Cheng tells himself, trying the new technique and very quickly failing. Everyone knows his core was crushed and his brother’s pulses deep in his belly and it’s the only reason he’s achieved anything, everything he’s ever done a stolen win. He grits his teeth and tries the movement again, and this time his body does what it’s supposed to and he ends up facing the other direction. Fan Zhu’er nods at him, satisfied, and leads him through the same technique in reverse. They flow back and forth like that, motions smoothing into something almost like a dance, the easy sway of a pendulum. The rope dart starts to feel more familiar in his hands, the hemp sliding smoothly across sword calluses, just enough friction for warmth.

“Why did you have this one?” Jiang Cheng asks, abruptly shattering the almost companionable silence. She glances at him and he lifts his hands, indicating the practice dart, and her eyebrows go up in comprehension.

“It’s weighted differently from mine,” she says, taking his question as an apparent opportunity for a break in her instruction and immediately whipping her rope dart through a much more complicated series of drills. “I like to practice with it so I know how to teach with it.”

Jiang Cheng makes a grunt of acceptance and, instead of trying to mimic any of the things she just did, makes the much more sensible decision to practice the things she’s actually taught him. Something itches at him the whole time, like having a seed in his teeth, and out here in the surreal moonlit situation it’s much harder to ignore the way he normally would. He thinks--he thinks--ugh. He thinks he owes her some kind of explanation. Fuck. Horrible. He hates the very concept of it.

“How much do you know about the war.” It was supposed to be a question and instead bursts forth from between his teeth as a frustrated demand. Fan Zhu’er blinks at him and demonstrates the next part of the drill she’s teaching him before she responds.

“I know it was with the Qishan Wen,” she says, after he’s managed the new choreography twice on his own. “I know it was bad. I know Lotus Pier burned, and your parents were killed, and you and your siblings went missing.” Her shoulders come up in a shrug that doesn’t interfere at all with her manipulation of the rope dart. Against his will, Jiang Cheng is impressed. “I know that eventually the Wen were defeated, which apparently had to do with your brother--” Jiang Cheng’s heart cramps up, he hasn’t heard anyone refer to Wei Wuxian as his brother in so long “--and his army of ghosts? Unclear on that part.” Her voice drops off, and she spins the rope dart thoughtfully. “I know I had to protect my family,” she says, quieter, almost to herself. “I know what I did in order to keep them safe.”

Jiang Cheng remembers, suddenly, that she was what, seventeen when she joined the sect? Seventeen, the blood of five grown men on her hands, without even the benefit of having trained for the idea of fighting. She should never have been in that situation. That thought wants to lead to another, something more self-referential, and he shoves it down with the ease of long practice. Together they flow through the form a few times, the movements starting to make sense. It’s, obviously, nothing like a sword form, but it’s still a martial art and it follows the same kind of rhythms. Move. Breathe. Feel the weapon. Make the weapon an extension of yourself. Jiang Cheng has done this since he was old enough to hold a sword. This, at least, is something he knows he did himself.

“Is that it?”

If Fan Zhu’er thinks it’s weird that he keeps having this conversation in fits and starts, she doesn’t show it. She just shrugs again. “I was pretty far away,” she says, reasonably, “and I try not to listen to gossip, no matter how loudly people want to say it.”

Jiang Cheng snorts a startled laugh at that, and gets half a grin in response. They flow together through the drill and add another part to the end, a behind-the-back twirl that brushes against the trailing ends of his hair. Maybe she doesn’t actually know? How could she not know, though, everyone in Lotus Pier has to know. “Where were you the night the sect leaders learned about Jin Guangyao?”

To her credit, she doesn’t make any comments about this, or question what leaders and what they might have learned. She frowns, spinning the dart idly. “The kitchens,” she answers after a moment.

“What, all night?”

Fan Zhu’er gives him a deeply incredulous look. “I avoided you,” she says, with exaggerated pronunciation, “because I didn’t want you to find out what I was doing. You think I wanted to be in the same room as a bunch more of you?” She waves the hand not actively spinning the dart. “Any one of them could have looked at me and used their fancy sect leader powers to read my mind and figure out I was sneaking off to night hunt! No thank you.”

Jiang Cheng blinks at her. “That’s not a sect leader power,” he says, a little helplessly.

“Could have been,” Fan Zhu’er insists, eyebrows stubborn. “Didn’t want to risk it.”

Jiang Cheng scoffs at her, because he’s good at scoffing and can manage it even when bewildered and amused by the idea that he has secret sect leader mindreading powers. They get through another couple repeats of the form before she adds, “It was good of you to hire Sisi.”

The back of his neck goes hot. “She had nowhere else to go,” he mutters, and then, louder, “We might have needed her testimony again.” She--after what she’d gone through? And her bravery in speaking up? Who the fuck would Jiang Cheng have been if he hadn’t done something? Certainly not anyone his sister would have been proud of.

Fan Zhu’er looks at him like he hasn’t fooled her a bit. “It was good of you,” she says, again. “She’s good in the kitchen and great at hospitality planning. She can lay out a seating chart in her sleep, I swear.”

“Is she settling in well?” Jiang Cheng asks, and means, “Is anyone harassing her?

Fan Zhu’er must understand the question behind the question, because she says, “One of the stablemasters spends more time around the kitchens than he used to, and he keeps finding flowers in the gardens that had their stems snapped. Such a shame, isn’t it, that he had to pick it, maybe Sisi would like it for her rooms?” She smiles, the rope dart whipping past her face, ruffling the hairs that have come loose from her braids. “Sisi seems to like him. She wouldn’t have had that chance if it weren’t for you.”

“Good,” Jiang Cheng snaps, reflexive, trying to get the conversation somewhere else, the attention not on him and his supposedly magnanimous nature. Fan Zhu’er seems to hear what he’s not saying, because she’s an asshole like that, and calmly demonstrates how to use an elbow wrap to change the direction of the dart. “So you don’t,” he tries again, the words knotting up in his throat like so many loose threads, “that night, you didn’t...”

“Quangu-zongzhu,” Fan Zhu’er says, letting her accent go as rustic as possible, “I wish you’d get to your fucking point before the sun comes up.” She flashes him a grin, informal and completely inappropriate, like they’re friends or something. All at once the threads tangled in his throat flash into nothingness, a weird heat in their wake.

“My core was destroyed. When Lotus Pier burned,” Jiang Cheng says, speaking the words out loud for maybe the first time in his whole actual life. He braces himself for the pity and the useless fucking apologies and the horrible, sad looks, for the expectation that he’ll perform his experiences in some particular way.

Instead, Fan Zhu’er narrows her eyes at him and says, slowly, “That seems… Bad.”

It’s so blessedly, unexpectedly understated that Jiang Cheng chokes on a laugh. Bad. Bad. Holy fuck, she really doesn’t know what it’s like to have a core. “Yeah,” he says, weird, hysterical laughter tickling the back of his teeth, “Yeah, you could say that.”

“Mmm,” she says, thoughtfully. She does the elbow wrap a few times, in different directions, with the kind of ease that drags his eyes to it unwillingly. “Coreless, huh?” she asks, voice soft, and suddenly Jiang Cheng can’t look at her.

“I felt him melt it,” he says to the stable wall. “It felt like I was burning from the inside. I thought I was going to die.” He swallows. “I wanted to die.”

“Glad you didn’t.” Jiang Cheng reels around to look at her, and she meets his eyes with no embarrassment. “I like working here,” she says. “No other sect would’ve had me. If I’d stayed home I’d have ended up married to the blacksmith’s son, and he’s a cutsleeve.”

Jiang Cheng stares at her. “That seems like a bad match,” he says, faintly, the ground crumbling away under his feet and leaving him floating instead of falling.

“Would have been,” she agrees. “Granny says he got married to the son of the engraver from the next village over and all the knives they make are unnecessarily fancy.” Her eyes go wistful. “Good for them.”

“I’m glad?” Jiang Cheng says. This is a much weirder conversation than he’d expected it to be, and for some reason that makes it easier. Maybe it’s the darkness. Talking was always easier in the dark, back before, when they were rebuilding after the worst had happened and Jiang Cheng would find A-jie out on the docks at strange hours with a pot of tea and tears in her eyes. It’s easier to admit to things under the cover of night, when the waking world seems far away and everything is fuzzy around the edges with exhaustion. He tries the elbow wrap a few times while a pressure builds in his lungs and throat and around the edges of his mind, and he finally blurts, “I wanted to die because I was weak and pathetic and useless without it. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t hold a sword or lead a sect or avenge my parents.” His eyes burn with remembered tears, and he snarls, “I didn’t want to live like that.”

“Mmm,” Fan Zhu’er says, far too placidly. “Sounds shitty.”

Jiang Cheng whips around to look at her, hitting himself in the thigh with the rope dart in the process. He scours her shadowed face for pity or judgement or mockery and finds nothing, which is infuriating. “That’s it?” he spits.

Dark eyes blinking at him in the moonlight. “What else were you expecting, Jiang-zongzhu?”

“I--you--anything!" he half-shouts, loud enough that a horse whuffs and shifts inside the stable, and Jiang Cheng drags his voice down to something that won’t alarm animals. “You don’t even have a core and you--” he gestures, the rope dart swaying wildly “--and I was like that for less than a week and wanted to fucking die. How can you stand me?” Why the fuck did he just ask that?

She stares at him in the sudden humid silence, studies him like he’s a sword form she’s trying to memorize. “My dad lost his arm when I was eleven,” she says, abruptly, which is so not what he was expecting that Jiang Cheng makes a vaguely interested noise for lack of a better response. “It got caught in a rope while he was wrangling pigs. Crushed.” Fan Zhu’er gestures at her right forearm, maybe a handsbreadth down from the elbow. “Doctor had to take it off. Nothing they could do.” Her eyes haven’t moved from his face, and he feels like a talisman stuck to a wall, frozen in place. “He was mad about it for half a year before he was willing to start trying out some of the tools the blacksmith made him.”

“The cutsleeve?” Jiang Cheng asks, because he has fully lost the thread and for some reason this detail seems important.

“The cutsleeve’s dad,” Fan Zhu’er clarifies. “He was already good at making tools like that because there was a girl in the village about my same age who was born without an arm. It was a real pain in the ass for her when she was a kid, as you can imagine, because she kept outgrowing things, but otherwise she was just used to it. Managed just as well for most things.” The corner of her mouth quirks up, and she adds, “She did have to give up on any dreams she had of being a master weaver, but I don’t think she dreamed about being a master weaver to begin with, so not a huge loss.”

Jiang Cheng is starting to get the feel for this story and he’s not sure he likes it.

“Dad lost something.” Fan Zhu’er still hasn’t looked away from his face, and she’s speaking with the careful deliberation of someone who wants to make sure they’re understood. “He had to take the time to accept what he lost before he could move on. Took him longer than he wanted to get used to the hook, and the other tools, but eventually he was almost back up to speed. It’d have been different if he’d never known anything else.” Fan Zhu’er pauses, eyes distant, and adds, “Now he did catch a fever three years later and die that winter, but I’m pretty sure that didn’t have anything to do with the arm thing.” 

“Probably not,” Jiang Cheng agrees, for some fucking reason. Did he accidentally get drunk before he came out here?

“I don’t know shit about cores,” she says, charging forward as inexorably as the boar yaoguai she’d killed, “but seems to me you had something really shitty happen at the same time a lot of other extremely shitty shit happened. Can’t blame you for reacting badly.” A pause, as she sucks her teeth thoughtfully, and then, “Still glad you didn’t die.”

Jiang Cheng reels in the moonlight with this easy acceptance. He’s had to fight and claw for everything in his life, forcing himself into the mold of being the model disciple and the model heir and the model sect leader, wrapping it around himself like armor to keep anyone from ever actually seeing him, and now this fucking pig farmer hears about his greatest failure and says, “That sounds shitty.” What the fuck.

“Oh,” Fan Zhu’er says, quietly, tilting her head at him. Her eyes go softer, understanding dawning. “Earlier.”

“I couldn’t feel their qi,” Jiang Cheng mutters, looking somewhere past her left ear, an angry, embarrassed heat flushing the tops of his cheekbones.

“Sorry,” she says, much less formally. “That must have been. Hm. Unpleasant.”

Jiang Cheng jerks his head at her in irritable acknowledgement, feeling prickly and brittle, like a poorly fired teacup. “Not your fault,” he manages, somehow forcing the words out through a tight throat and tighter jaw. Fan Zhu’er stares at him for another few breaths, the silence taut and uncomfortable. She seems to accept whatever she sees, because she nods, once, and spins her rope dart.

Fan Zhu’er starts doing the elbow wrap again and waits until he joins her before she says, “You have one now, right? A core?” He shoots her an exasperated look and she shrugs, unimpressed. “It’s not like I can tell. You can’t butcher a pig, we’re allowed to have different skillsets.”

“Yes,” Jiang Cheng says, carving the words out of himself with a blade. “I have a golden core now.”

She sucks her teeth again, assessingly. “Sounds to me like there’s a story there.”

Jiang Cheng grunts. God, he feels like he’s been fighting a demon for a shichen, drained and tired and weirdly jittery. He tries to work out some of that strange energy with the rope dart, lets the movements and the weight of it become meditative again. “Show me something cool with this,” he says, instead of answering. This has been quite enough of Jiang Cheng’s Miserable Fucking History for one night, thank you.

Fan Zhu’er, politely, doesn’t press the issue. She instead bursts into movement with whipcrack quickness, the rope dart blurring around her body almost like the glow of a spell. She catches it on her neck, twirls, and sends it out at an imagined opponent. Jiang Cheng winces, his ribs still remembering the strike from their spar. It is, as asked, extremely fucking cool.

“Again,” he says, swinging his practice dart. Fan Zhu’er smirks at him and complies, running the form as slowly as she can, allowing him to follow along with her with his meager skills. He thinks he has the feel for it, so he gets some momentum going with the dart and tries it for himself. The first few movements go smoothly, allowing him to build speed, and he turns into the neck catch and hits himself right in the fucking face with the weight. There’s a crunching sound that might be his nose, and the pain is white-hot and all-consuming. Jiang Cheng tastes blood and literally can’t see for the shock of it, dropping the rope dart and pressing both hands instinctively to his face. “Fuck!" he says, loudly, and then a hissed, “Ow,” and then, quieter, “Fuck!”

“Oh, nooo,” Fan Zhu’er wails in a near-whisper. “Oh, no, yep, that’ll happen.” She’s clearly trying to smother laughter, and Jiang Cheng would be angrier about that except that if he’d seen this happen to someone else he’d absolutely laugh his ass off. “Come on,” she says, suddenly right in front of him, hands tugging gently at his wrists, “Come on, let me see if you broke it.”

“It’s fine,” he says, thickly, uncomfortably aware of how much taller she is and the startling warmth of her hands on his nearly-bare arms, no layers of robes or bracers to dampen the touch. “I can heal it.” There’s blood dripping from his chin, and he spares a moment of sympathy for the people who do the laundry. It’s not that they’re not good at getting blood out of things, but usually it’s not out of his sleeping robes. He feels like he might owe them an apology, somehow.

“I know you can heal it,” she says, that warm laughter still behind her words, “but I need to check and see if it should be reset so you don’t end up with a bump.” Fan Zhu’er pulls, and he follows her over nearer the lamp at the corner of the yard, feet moving without his permission. “Let me see the damage,” she says, tugging at his wrists again, and Jiang Cheng just totally, entirely, absolutely gives the fuck up and moves his hands away from his face.

Fan Zhu’er drops his wrists, which makes something weird happen in his stomach, but then she very gently sets her fingers on his jaw, which makes the weird thing happen twice as hard. She tips his face up toward her, her back to the lamp, all the planes of her picked out in gold and silver and shadow. A hiss, through her teeth, and she very delicately traces her thumbs along the edge of his nose. “You really did a number on yourself,” she says, tiling his head back and forth to catch the lamplight as much as she can. Jiang Cheng’s mind has gone completely blank, even the pain fading away as if happening from a great distance, or to someone else. He doesn’t think anyone has ever touched him like this. Her hands are gentle, her fingertips callused, and no one has ever touched him like this.

“I think you’re okay,” she says, taking his chin between her thumb and forefinger and looking him over thoughtfully. She tugs a cloth out of her robes with the other hand and dabs it under his nose, wiping up the blood with fabric still warm from her body heat. “If you were normal I’d tell you to put cool compresses on it, but since you’re magic and shit you’ll be fine by morning, right?”

Jiang Cheng nods, carefully, because he doesn’t want to dislodge her hand for some reason.

“That’s good,” she says, half-smiling. “It’d probably raise some questions if people saw you like this.” Fan Zhu'er shakes her head, tipping it to the side ruefully. “You gave yourself two black eyes and a broken nose, you fuckin’ overachiever. Good job.”

“Thanks,” he says dryly, and she laughs for real, the sound curling through the air like the zip of fireflies.

“Well, go on,” she says, dropping her hands and standing back, Jiang Cheng locking all his muscles to keep himself in place at the sudden, horrifying desire to sway closer to her. “Heal up. We wouldn’t want anything distracting from your best features, would we, Quangu-zongzhu?”

“Those are my best features?” he shoots back, pulling his qi up into his face with a mild internal effort and hoping the bruising hides his blush.

“Mmm,” Fan Zhu’er says, narrowing her eyes at him thoughtfully, and adds, “Your eyes are nice, too.” With that she spins on her heel and walks away into the stableyard, presumably to pick up the mess he left when he smashed his fucking face in. Jiang Cheng, twice in the same day, very carefully does not flee. He just walks back to his quarters quickly, and shuts the doors behind him very firmly, and forcibly ignores his pulse pounding in his ears.

---

Two days later Jiang Cheng shows up for Fan Zhu’er’s Muscle Cultivation Class wearing robes he can move in. He meets her eyes and sets his jaw and seals his spiritual energy and proceeds to swear his way through a hundred thousand indignities as she pokes under his ribs to make him engage his abs and yells at him (and everyone else) to squeeze their butts and offers a mix of encouragement and friendly insults. By the time the class ends his inner robes are plastered to his body with sweat and his hands are shaking and he’s sore in muscles he didn’t even know he had.

“Well, Jiang-zongzhu,” Fan Zhu’er says, her eyes crinkling up with a smile, “we’ll make a coreless pig farmer out of you yet.” She punches his shoulder and walks off before he can catch his breath, and Jiang Cheng glares at her because otherwise…

Otherwise he thinks he might smile at her.

Ugh. Disgusting. Unacceptable.

He shows up for the next class, too.