The fragrance of the soft lotus and fresh water lingered in the air around the Audience Hall, carried by the Spring breeze. Jiang Yanli had always loved Spring, the days were finally bright enough for her and her brothers to travel by water again. They could fish, they could swim and they could name the new flowers beginning to blossom like they had somehow become a part of their group.
Spring however, meant that the Cultivator conference was going to be held in Yunmeng. Now that all the sects could travel to Lotus Cove without the risk of being boat wrecked by winter storms they had all decided to accumulate there.
The Jiang sect leader let out a deep sigh. She didn’t mind the busy days but she was tired of being hounded with the same question every single conference.
‘When are you getting married sect leader Jiang?’
Before becoming sect leader she had been constantly disregarded, slandered when she took over from her late parents and ostracised for having little to no experience in politics. Now her merits spoke for her.
Yunmeng’s Jiang sect had become the beacon of peace and prosperity, every sect had their eyes on the sect leader.
“Shijie!” Wei WuXian’s voice screeched.
“A-Jie” Jiang Cheng whined.
Both of the boys bound into her room, hot on each other’s heels.
Wei WuXian ducked behind her yelling “Save me, Shijie!”
“What are you two doing? The Wen sect from Qishen will be arriving any minute… why are you still running around in your sleeping robes?”
“It’s his fault.”
“Mine?” The boy fluttered his lashes innocently from behind his sister.
“Okay. Okay. Settle down. A-Cheng, A-Xian go change and if you fight I will put you in the ‘get-a-long’ robes until you can learn to behave.” The sect leader said curtly.
She returned to the robes laid out on her bed, she had to be ready soon to greet and brief the Wen sect leader. The other sects were hesitant to invite the Wen sect to their conferences but the Jiang sect and the Lan sect were different.
“Mianmian, please have some peppermint tea ready for Lady Wen. She’ll be arriving soon”
Sect leader Jiang strolled into the dining hall with her soft lilac robes on and hair tied up using the silver hair pieces that her brothers had brought back for Caiyi City.
Jiang Cheng and Wei Ying were sitting next to each other, eating quietly from the same plate. They seemed to have picked up on their sister’s nerves and had decided to be somewhat well behaved.
“A-Xian, A-Cheng,” she greeted, slumping down next to her younger siblings.
She smiled at them bumping her shoulder against Jiang Cheng’s, as she reached for some of the sweet bread on their plate. The sect leader broke the bread into half, giving one half to her youngest brother, she would have given some to Wei WuXian too, but behaving himself had tired him out.
He snored softly, with his head resting on his forearms.
“Hanguang-Jun” Jiang Cheng gasped.
Wei WuXian flailed, quickly wiping the drool of his face before his betrothed could see him looking like a sleepy mess. The boy blinked, eyes darting around, trying to spot his fiancée.
“Jiang Cheeeeng” he whined, shoving his youngest brother. “Shijie! Tell him to stop teasing me”
“A-Jie! He gave me a wedgie.”
Jiang Yanli rolled her eyes, she slid herself off the bench and between her two brothers. “A-Xian, A-Cheng, behave” she repeated, taking both the boys into a headlock.
She kissed both their heads with a loud ‘mwah’ before letting go of them.
“Jiang Gongzi! Wei Gongzi!” Wen Ning’s voice came from the doorway of the dining hall.
He beamed at the siblings from the doorway, bowing politely before crossing the threshold. He lingered there, waiting for his sister to catch up before he actually entered the dining hall.
“Sect leader Jiang,” Wen Qing greeted.
The Wen sect leader placed a bouquet of Magnolias onto the table. “For you. I picked them up on our journey”
“Thank you, Lady Wen” Yanli smiled, clearing her throat of the swoon that was building in her chest.
The Wen sect leader followed the Jiang sect leader into the Audience Hall. The room seemed so much bigger now that it was empty, their steps echoed around the room.
“I thought it would be better to debrief on the last meeting before the other sects arrived”
Jiang Yanli perched herself on the large chair in the centre of the room. Her movement seemed tense.
“What is that I missed in the last conference sect leader Jiang? You seem worried?”
“No it’s–“she stopped, letting out another deep sigh.
“I need to ask you something Lady Wen…” The sect leader trailed off.
She stood up, stepping down the steps until she was standing right in front of Wen Qing.
“Can you be my Cultivation partner?”
“……” Wen Qing stared at the sect leader, blinking her eyes at her in confusion.
“Only until the Cultivation conference is over” she added, quickly.
“Anything for you, Lady Jiang” she croaked, her throat suddenly going dry.
By the time midday had rolled around the sect leaders had mostly caught up with everything that had happened during the last Cultivation conference and everything that happened since then too.
“The boys have probably already eaten. Join me for lunch?” Yanli offered, extending her hand for the sect leader to take.
Wen Qing’s heart stuttered, she took sect leader Jiang’s hand in her own, walking towards the dining hall.
The Wen sect leader had to remind herself to calm down; that this was all for show but somewhere deep in her heart nothing had felt more right than her hand clutched in Yanli’s.
When the pair strode into the dining hall, it too was empty. Yanli gestured for Wen Qing to take seat. The sect leader brought up a tray of food; she gently placed the food in front of her.
The sect leader sat down next to her, her body so close to her that if she moved a millimetre to her right she would end up in partially in her lap.
“I made this soup for A-Xian but I’m sure he won’t find if I give you some,”
“Thank you, Lady Wen.” Wen Qing said, taking a spoonful of the soup. “Aren't you eating?” she asked, as much as she adored having the sect leader stare at her, she still needed to eat too.
“Since you made me lunch, I should make you an evening meal today”
Her smile fell as her eyes met Jiang Yanli’s. The brown eyes glistened with mirth, a expression that made her heart beat so fast that she felt like she would need to lie down, preferably in the sect leader’s arms.
“I would love that” she said, sincerity dripping from her voice.
“Convincing everyone that I’m your Cultivation partner will be easy Lady Wen! We actually sound like we’re in love” Yanli grinned.
Wen Qing cleared her throat, flashing the sect leader a tight-lipped smile.
“Anything for you, sect leader Jiang”
“This way” Jiang Yanli called, directing the Wen sect leader towards her room.
Mianmian had offered to carry the basket full of Magnolias but Wen Qing reassured them that she could manage a small basket.
She them down on the dresser in the sect leaders room, right next to the incense burner that Wei WuXian and Jiang Cheng had used to lull their sister to sleep way back when.
“You've still got this?” Wen Qing questioned, her fingertips traced engravings on the incense burner.
The metal was still warm, as if he had been used recently.
“I have trouble sleeping sometimes; I use it every now and then. Your medicine is really effective Doctor Wen”
“I can make better medication…” Wen Qing mumbled, her fingers still tracing mindless patterns against the metal.
“I have all faith that you could Lady Wen”
“Magnolia bark is really good for lowering stress remember Wei WuXian mentioning you had been struggling with it so I thought—“Wen Qing turned to look at Yanli and suddenly she couldn’t finish her explanation off.
A simple ‘I brought you these flowers because they remind me of you’ wasn't going to suffice.
“—So whilst I was collecting the bark, I picked some flowers up too”
“They are beautiful” Yanli smiled, stroking her fingers against the soft white petals of the flowers.
‘Not anymore than you’ Wen Qing thought.
The warmth pleasant Spring day faded into a cool night. Yanli stepped into her room, slumping onto her bed. She groaned as her joints popped.
She had to wake up even earlier tomorrow, organising some of the last minute decorations and other pleasantries that needed to be prepared for the arrival of the other sects.
The sect leader had thought that solving the ‘when will you marry’ issue would somehow take the burden off of her, but her she was, still tossing and turning in an attempt to shake of the restlessness coiling in the pit of her stomach.
She got up and without even stopping to think about it, she headed directly for the pier. Sometimes she and her brother’s would look at the stars from there, the vastness of the sky always made everything seem so small, like it was only her and them that existed.
Jiang Yanli was so busy staring at the stars that she didn’t even notice that there was somebody else sitting on the wooden bridge.
“Sect leader Jiang?” The woman said, startling her.
“Wen Qing? What are you—“
“—I could ask you the same”
Wen Qing smiled at her, patting the spot next to her.
“I heard from Wei WuXian that the nights on the pier were beautiful. I thought I’d take a look”
“Do you agree?”
Wen Qing stared at the sky for moment, committing the map of stars to memory before she turned to stare at Yanli’s profile. “I don’t think I've ever seen any more beautiful” she muttered, her eyes never shifting off of the other woman’s face.
“I’m glad” The sect leader replied, her eyes traced the entire night sky, so much so that Wen Qing swore she had entrapped the stars within her eyes.
Jiang Yanli shuffled closer to Wen Qing, the night was chilly and being beside water only made her colder. Her eyes began feeling eye, she barely suppressed a yawn lingering in the back of her throat.
“Ah I’m sleepy” she giggled, throwing her head onto Wen Qing’s shoulder. “When I came out here it was because I couldn't sleep and now I've had a glimpse of such a beautiful night I’m sleepy” she pouted.
“Go to sleep, night time will come again.”
“Will you still be here” she mumbled, before drifting off.
Wen Qing hooked her arm around the woman’s waist, pulling her closer.
A smile still lingered on Jiang Yanli’s lips when she awoke the following morning. It had been a long time since anybody in the Lotus Pier had slept peacefully. After Wei Ying’s return and his acquittal of the heinous acts he was accused of, things had become easier but the phantom pain still lingered. The way Wei Ying would flinch when she pulled out Zidian, the lingering coldness in Jiang Cheng’s eyes when someone would bring up their parents and the nightmares that plagued all three of them.
The sect leader was glad that her brother had Hanguang-Jun; she had observed how much he cared for her brother first-hand.
She let out a deep sigh, forcing herself to leave the warmth of the previous night behind to begin the hectic routine for the Cultivation conference.
“Lady Jiang” called Wen Qing’s soft voice. “I’m sorry to bother you so early I brought you Goji berry tea! I made some for Wen Ning and I thought I’d bring you some too”
Jiang Yanli unfolded the fan on the dresser beside her bed, hiding her fond smile behind it.
“Thank you, sect leader Wen” she breathed out, gesturing at the woman to place the cup down on the dresser.
“Oh and Lady Jiang, you should leave your hair down today. It looks nice like that” and with those words sect leader Wen left her room, heading back towards the South wing of Lotus Cove.
Jiang Yanli had just managed to bathe and get herself dressed when Jiang Cheng bound into her room. “A-Jie!” he yelled.
Yanli stepped back looking at her brother questioningly “A-Cheng?”
“A-Jie make sure you eat with us before you start any work. I’ll help you and even Wei WuXian has woken up early today” Jiang Cheng begged, tugging his sister’s arm.
“Okay, okay” she acquiesced, allowing herself to be pulled towards the dining hall.
When they step into the dining hall, the disciples of the sect had already begun eating. Wei WuXian was sitting besides Wen Ning, nodding off into the bowl of congee in front of him.
Jiang Yanli tuts, nudging Wei Ying to wake him up, he just whines, flailing in his seat.
“Look Hanguang-Jun you’re engaged to a baby” Jiang Yanli teased.
“Not falling for it again” Wei Ying mumbled against his palm.
“Mn” came Lan Wangji’s curt response.
Wei Ying’s brows furrowed, he peeled his sleepy eyes open “Lan Zhan!” he yelled, practically leaping into his fiancée’s arms.
Jiang Cheng grimaces, burying himself behind Jiang Yanli like he’s about to throw up. The sect leader cannot help the laugh bubbling in her chest, and it spills out of her soft lips like the sun appearing behind the clouds after rainfall.
The sect leader doesn't notice her at first but when she does she can’t seem to notice anything else. Wen Qing was standing in the doorway, her head cocked to the side, a sincere smile tugging at her lips.
Her smile reminds her of the Spring mornings she loves so much. A bright ray of sunshine breaking the cold demeanour of winter.
Its late afternoon by the time all the sects have reached Yunmeng for the Cultivation conference.
The sects had already taken their places in the Audience Hall, cups of tea and some food laid out of the small tables in front of them. Jiang Yanli entered the Audience Hall last, Wen Qing was closely behind.
She climbed up the steps towards the seat in the centre of the room.
“Sect leader Wen” she called, extending her hand out to take Wen Qing’s. “Please sit by me” she said, gesturing towards the empty desk located the closest to her.
The table had been very obviously reserved for her; a hair pin with little jade magnolias twinkled beside the cup of tea.
The conference itself wasn't of too much interest to Wen Qing, she listened her and there just in case there was a problem that she could help the Jiang sect leader solve but other than that for the most part she spent the conference committing Jiang Yanli’s little nuances to memory.
“—What do you think sect leader Wen?”
Wen Qing blinked, trying to maintain a neutral expression that didn’t give away her confusion. She hadn't been listening, just staring.
“I think whatever decision you make will be the right one sect leader Jiang” she answered honestly.
“So it is decided! The Jin sect will help the smaller sects by donating more land to them” Jiang Yanli announced, shooting a wink in Wen Qing’s direction.
Wen Qing knew that she should pay attention now but the talk of money wasn't one she really had a right to speak in. Historically the Wen sect had been really well off, but rebuilding an entire displaced sect twice over was not easy. So she stayed quiet, pushing herself further and further into the corner.
“Sorry to interrupt you sect leader Jin. Miamian could you bring some water for Lady Wen” Yanli asked.
Wen Qing’s heart stuttered in her chest, even though the sect leader was engrossed in her duties she had still managed to keep an eye on her.
‘It’s only pretend’ Wen Qing reminded herself as she accepted the glass of water with a trembling hand.
From the corner of her eye she could see the questioning looks Wei WuXian and Jiang Cheng were sending her way. Part of her wished she was sitting with Wen Ning on the pier instead of inside.
But then she wouldn't be able to see Yanli. She groaned internally, discreetly dropping her head to rest on her palm.
As soon as the conference ended, the leaders of the other sects had already surrounded Jiang Yanli.
Wen Qing stepped back.
Jin Zixuan smile brightly at the Jiang sect leader, he had always had the biggest soft spot for her. The Jin sect been the ones leading the questions of marriage and heirs at every conference the Jiang sect had attended, much to her brother’s dismay.
Nie Huaisang stood back, almost as if his social battery had diffused from just being around the sects. Even the bubbly Wei WuXian looked tired, or maybe he just wanted an excuse to lean on Lan Wangji, she wouldn't really put that past him either.
“So sect leader Jiang… have you considered our proposal?” Jin Guangshan asked, stepping in front of his blushing son.
“Ah yes! That reminds me. I have actually found myself a compatible Cultivation partner. A sect leader like me and one who is also aware of the struggles of having to rebuild a broken sect from the ground up” Yanli explained, with an affirming nod of the head.
The crowd around her erupted into small murmurs, rumours bouncing to and fro.
“Who is it Lady Jiang?”
“Lady Wen” Jiang Yanli answered curtly, gesturing for the Wen sect leader to come take her side.
The crowd parted for her, she took her first tentative steps towards the other woman.
“Sect leader Wen arrived yesterday to organise today’s events”
“The Wen sect? Lady Jiang are you sure that this is who you want? There are sects with better reputations who would be honoured t—“
“I do know that there are sects with better reputations however, none of the better sects you speak of have extended a hand in neither protecting nor rebuilding our sect.”
“I will not let you down sect leader Jiang” Wen Qing said, bowing in front of her.
The Jiang sect leader smiled, reaching for Wen Qing's hand, intertwining their fingers together she squeezed her hand reassuringly. "I know" she whispered.
There was questions, of course there would be, she knew that. The Jiang sect was a prime example of bravery and justice whereas; the Wen sect had become synonymous with cunning and evil. She couldn’t blame them either, she had witnessed it all herself.
“You’ve barely eaten anything! Here,” Jiang Yanli said, holding a spoonful of food up for Wen Qing.
The Wen sect leader hesitated before accepting the spoonful; they had an image to portray. The sects were still watching them.
Wen Qing had underestimated how overwhelmed she had been feeling, the bite of food wouldn't even pass through her dry throat, she choked. Coughing and spluttering all over the table in front of her.
Jiang Yanli startled, “Wen Qing!” she yelled, holding her cup up to Wen Qing’s lips.
She rubbed her back, using her thumb to wipe away any stray drops of water dripping down the side of her chin.
Her brows furrowed, she stared intently at Wen Qing until her breathing returned back to normal.
“I’m sorry” she mumbled, quickly pushing herself off the bench.
“Jiejie,” Wen Ning called, chasing his sister out of the dining hall and down into the courtyard.
“I’ve never seen her like this” Wei WuXian mused, stirring his soup sadly.
Jiang Cheng shrugged “Maybe it’s all the pressure”
The Jiang sect leader looked around the dining hall meekly. She shook her head as she stood up and strode out of the dining hall.
“This all seems so tense, Lan Zhan” Wei WuXian noted, cuddling closer to his soon-to-be husband.
“Maybe we should—“
“Do not intervene” Jiang Cheng warned.
“I’m hurt Jiang Cheng. You have so little faith in me”
“It’s quite the opposite. I have complete faith that you will somehow make matters much worse with whatever shenanigans you’ve managed to come up with.”
“No” Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji both said in unison.
“Shijie would’ve liked my idea” he pouted, sticking his tongue out at his Shidi. “Nobody in this family has a romantic bone. This is why you’re all single” Wei WuXian said flippantly as he pushed himself away from Lan Wangji. “I’m going to go put an end to this mess”
And with that the Yiling Laozu disappeared from the dining hall too.
“Wen Gongzi?” Jiang Yanli yelled as she caught up with the boy. “Where is Lady Wen?” she asked breathlessly.
“I d-don’t know where Jiejie went… by the time I got her she had already disappeared” he answered ruefully.
The sect leader looked around the courtyard, there were so many directions she could’ve gone in but she had spent so much time with the sect leader over the past few days that she didn’t even think twice before heading for the wooden pier.
The air around the pier was cold, the sun had hidden behind the clouds that looked heavy with unshed raindrops.
Wen Qing had perched herself in the same spot, her feet dangling down off the edge of the pier.
“Lady Wen” sect leader Jiang greeted, sitting down next to the Wen sect leader. “I’m sorry”
“I—“ Wen Qing said, pausing to take a deep breathe. “I am honoured that you thought I was worthy enough to be your Cultivation partner for a few hours but—“
“It’s okay Lady Wen”
“No it’s not.”
Jiang Yanli blinked at the woman in surprise, Wen Qing’s voice was so soft she was questioning whether the sound had come from the woman sitting next to her or if the wind had carried it from elsewhere.
“You’re ruining your chances of finding the love you deserve by calling me your Cultivation partner! You could have anybody!”
“—But she already asked the one she wants as her Cultivation partner” Wei WuXian stated.
The boy sat down next to his Shijie, casually spinning his Chenqing between his fingers. “I know I should be leaving you to have this conversation but it’s been 2 days and we’re getting nowhere”
Wei Ying shuffled closer to his Shijie in attempt to dodge Wen Qing’s threatening glare. He didn’t need a repeat of the great needles incident again.
“Shijie likes you a lot Lady Wen”
“A-Xian!” Jiang Yanli gasps.
“—And Lady Wen likes you too. I mean she brought you flowers Shijie…” he said matter-of-factly.
“You l-like me?”
“Do you like me?”
"She does!" Wen Ning stuttered from besides Wei WuXian.
"Jiejie I haven't seen you this happy in a while.." Wen Ning said, flashing his sister a small sincere smile.
“In that case.... Wen Qing?
“Will you stay in Lotus Pier with me a little longer? I want to show you Yunping City I think you’ll like it”
“I would love to A-Li” she said, biting back the squeak that she wanted to let out.
Wen Qing reached into the bag she had been carrying at her side all day, pulling out a crushed magnolia. She flattened out it's petals, grabbing it by the stem so she could place it behind the sect leader's ear. "You look beautiful with your hair down sect leader Jiang" she noted, leaning forward to brush her lips against the other woman's cheek.
"After you show me Yunping City, I'll take you to a place where these Magnolias grow"
Jiang Yanli and Wen Qing sat side by side in silence, hearts racing for a moment before Yanli reached over to hold Wen Qing's hand in her own. If she had known that this would have been this easy she would have said something earlier, but the universe worked in mysterious ways.
"They grow up so fast" Wei WuXian sniffled, leaning on Wen Ning. "Our little girls are grown ups now"
The laughter died on Wei WuXian's lips when Wen Ning pulled the needles out of her side bag. "Quiet. I got it"
Jiang Yanli giggled, bumping her shoulder against Wen Qing's. They were already a family of sorts, now she just had to think of a proper way to ask Wen Qing to be her Cultivation partner.