If she’d thought Yunmeng was pretty in the evening, it couldn’t compare to its beauty in the full light of day. With its iridescent lakes and its lush grasses, its bright blue skies and docile wildlife, the place looks like it’d come out of a dream.
Mianmian feels a bit like a little girl again as she sped close to the water’s edge, skimming the sparkling waters with the tips of her fingers and laughing as she scares away a few freshwater fish. Once or twice, a lotus farmer calls out and waves, all too used to the cultivators in Yunmeng helping out where they can. Mianmian laughs and waves back, darting out of their lakes, not unlike all the fish she’s spooked.
She really ought to take the others down this way - even if Sect Leader Jiang was meticulous about keeping the area around Yunmeng protected, she’s sure they’d manage to find work. Besides, the others would enjoy the change in scenery.
As she gets closer to the Lotus Piers proper, she can’t help but linger at the gates and look. Sure, it’s no Carp Tower, but the Lotus Piers has its own special charm. Sect Leader Jiang had managed to seamlessly build over the scars of Wen occupation, returning the Piers to something as close to what his parents had left him as possible. But even then, the differences run deep - a brash liveliness that comes from a young community; an altered skyline from the freshly built diaojiaolou - stilt houses - that overlook the piers; a careful consideration for the lakes and the fauna that had deteriorated over the past few centuries, the inevitable result of striving to keep up with their peers.
Although the new Lotus Piers lacked the rustic elegance of unbroken generations, Mianmian thinks that somehow, perhaps, it had grown closer to its core roots than before. Sect Leader Jiang had made it a place that knew the meaning of loss, a place that knew the meaning of reclaiming that loss, scars and all. A place that embodied the motto - to attempt the impossible. And now, more than ever, it felt human in a way that the great cultivational sects had forgotten how to be.
Mianmian wouldn’t mind settling out here someday, after she’s done with all the travelling and cultivating. She could probably even pretend to be a villager, stay out of the politics of the cultivation world for good.
They’re thoughts for another time, as a couple of disciples guarding the gates cheerfully welcome her into the Lotus Piers. It’s reassuring, to see that even after the losses of war, he’d still managed to earn the loyalty of so many disciples. But it’s clear, now, that a lot of them are fresh. That Sect Leader Jiang is fresh.
When she tells them that she’d like an audience not with Sect Leader Jiang, but with his sister, their faces go a bit bewildered. Like Sect Leader Jiang hadn’t established a protocol for such a thing. It’s… kind of telling and kind of sad, Mianmian thinks, that the disciples have to pass her around to more and more senior disciples, until one of them finally caves and tells her that she’d best speak to Sect Leader Jiang first.
Does Jiang Yanli not get many visitors? Sure, Sect Leader Jiang was notoriously protective of his sister, but surely she had friends. People to visit her. Couriers to send her letters and gifts.
She couldn’t have been all alone in these months following the war.
Mianmian thinks of Jin Zixuan - surrounded by people that cared about him and depended upon him, yes. But standoffish. Distant. Unpracticed with people who weren’t obligated to listen to him. Unpracticed with vulnerability, with being human. Ultimately, unfortunately, alone.
She swallows down the weight that’s formed in her chest and holds her head up high as a small group of merchants leaves the audience chamber and she’s let in.
When she meets Sect Leader Jiang’s eye, he looks stricken. Like he recognizes her. Like he remembers what she did. What she said.
She’d never expected that she’d make an impression on him, too caught up in her anger, her outrage over the hypocrisy and complacency in the room.
He’d been one of them, too. He hadn’t said a single thing in Wei Wuxian’s defense.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” Mianmian says, greeting him with a formal bow.
“Please. It’s fine, Miss - “ Sect Leader Jiang starts, before, in embarrassment, he says, “I’m sorry. I was never told your name. I only know you by - I only remember your nickname.”
“I apologize for my rudeness. My name is Luo Qingyang,” she says, straightening up. Watching as he watched her.
They stand there in awkward silence, before Sect Leader Jiang says, “That time, at the discussion conference… thank you for defending Wei Wuxian.”
Oh. She hadn’t expected that.
“I was only saying what needed to be said,” she says. Prim and proper. No fingers pointed.
Sect Leader Jiang flinches back anyways, like he’d been struck. Mianmian had heard that Wei Wuxian and Sect Leader Jiang had a big fight when Wei Wuxian defected from the sect. And yet, here is Sect Leader Jiang, thanking her for caring about the very man he cast out.
“You were forced to leave your sect. For a man that hadn’t even known what you did for him,” Sect Leader Jiang says, eyeing her simple robes. Nothing like the layers and layers of fine silk she’d once worn. Offence rises at the back of her throat, snarling and biting.
“I was not forced to leave my sect,” Mianmian explains, voice clipped. Her hands rest at the small of her back, legs shoulder width apart. Stable. Powerful. “I chose to leave of my own volition after witnessing the clear corruption in my sect. I could not stand to wear their emblem any longer.”
Sect Leader Jiang swallows and nods. “Your dedication to justice and morality is laudable,” he says quietly. And then, after a pause - “If you’d like… there’s room in Yunmeng for you. We would be honored to have someone like you among our ranks.”
Mianmian’s chest squeezes, almost painfully. At least someone recognizes her. Even if it’s months too late.
Instead of responding, she chokes out, “I’m here to request an audience with your sister.”
“Oh,” he says awkwardly. “I believe she’s in the kitchens. I’ll have a disciple escort you there.”
“Thank you,” Mianmian says, bowing graciously at Sect Leader Jiang. He looks like he wants to stop her, to tell her to stand straight, as if they were equals. Not unlike Jin Zixuan.
A senior disciple practically comes running, eager, maybe, to look good in front of Sect Leader Jiang. Sect Leader Jiang politely dismisses them both, and then Mianmian is subject to the labyrinthine innards of the Lotus Piers. It’s not unlike Qinghe’s fortress, built into a mountain and made to accommodate nature’s whims. Straight pathways are broken by odd angles, made to accommodate the unsteady wetland ground. Units are built in imperfect locations, courtyards not perfectly square. It’s pretty, Mianmian thinks, as she walks across delicate, bridge-like pathways that criss cross over the streams of water below, linking the different units of the Piers together.
“You like it?” the disciple asks, turning around to face Mianmian as she walks ahead. “Maiden Jiang was the one that came up with the bridges. It’s a little inconvenient, but I think it’s pretty.”
Mianmian looks around, taking note of how each bridge begins as closely as possible to a given entrance, while also maintaining an aesthetically pleasing formation. It was impressive, given that most of the units, recently built or otherwise, didn’t exactly line up well.
“It’s nice,” Mianmian says, running her hand along one of the carefully latticed rails. “Maiden Jiang has a skilled eye.”
“Right? Don’t tell Sect Leader Jiang I told you this, but I’m so glad he listened to her advice. He wanted to try and make it exactly like Lotus Pier used to be, but if he got his way, we’d still be building!”
Mianmian huffs a quiet laugh. “I like it the way it is. Sometimes a fresh start is what you need.”
“Exactly!” the disciple says. “Anyways, here we are!” She looks excited as she eagerly pushes Mianmian in.
The heat of the cooking fire hits Mianmian like a wall the moment she steps through the door. The absolutely mouthwatering smell hits her right after, even harder than the heat had. Her knees wobble a little, as she remembers the last thing she had eaten was a cheap mantou she’d picked up a few towns away from the Lotus Piers. Even though she could easily go days without eating - well, her stomach doesn’t quite have that same sort of discipline.
The disciple grins knowingly at her, detaching herself from Mianmian’s side to swan on over to the lone figure in lavender, sipping from a little tasting bowl. “Is there any for me, Maiden Jiang?” she croons, peering over Jiang Yanli’s shoulder like a begging cat.
Jiang Yanli laughs, quiet and warm as she teasingly pokes the disciple’s forehead. “A-Yue,” she says, gentle even as she chides her. “If Sect Leader Jiang knew you were begging so shamelessly, he’d have you run another twenty laps,” she says, even as she reaches up to a cabinet and grabs a little bowl for the disciple.
“Even if he had me run forty, it’d be worth it,” the disciple laughs, delight growing as she watches Jiang Yanli spoon the beautifully glistening pork ribs into the bowl.
“When you’re done eating, don’t forget to bring my bowl back, okay? Why don’t you run off and fulfill the rest of your duties, hm? A-Cheng won’t be happy to see his head disciple goofing off!” Jiang Yanli says, patting the disciple’s hand affectionately.
“Yes, ma’am!” the disciple says, trotting off like a cat that’d stolen a particularly delicious morsel of fish.
When Jiang Yanli turns to face Mianmian, she understands, a little bit, why Jin Zixuan might be so besotted with her. While she didn't quite leave an impression, as far as her looks or her demeanor went, Mianmian knew, at her very core, that this person in front of her was one of the few that she could say, with absolute and unerring sureness, was proof that there was good in the world.
Or maybe, she was just really, really hungry.
Jiang Yanli’s perpetual smile quirks up a little higher as she asks, “Would you like some, too? I’ve just about finished.”
Mianmian swallows hard and pulls her parcel out from her qiankun pouch, holding it out with both hands as she strikes a formal bow. “My name is Luo Qingyang. I’ve come on behalf of Jin Zixuan. As a token of his high esteem, please accept this letter!”
“Oh!” Jiang Yanli says, in such a way that Mianmian can’t help but glance up. Her eyes are wide and gleaming with surprise, her cheeks taking on a rosy flush - not from the oppressive heat of the kitchen, but from genuine delight. Ah, she’s so pretty like this. Just as pretty as any of the delicate blossoms flitting about the Carp Tower.
Jiang Yanli approaches Mianmian, and she quite nearly drops the parcel, thinking Jiang Yanli would take it in hand. But instead, Jiang Yanli delicately touches her hands to Mianmian’s wrists, urging her, with just the slightest pressure, to stand up. “Please,” she says with a heart-fluttering smile. “Join me for a meal?”
Mianmian can’t exactly say no, can she?
These pork ribs are so delicious Mianmian could cry. The ones she’d had at the restaurant were good, yes, but surely, they had nothing on Jiang Yanli’s cooking.
It’s just the two of them sitting here at this little table, overlooking the pretty courtyard. It should feel awkward, given that she’s hanging out with Jin Zixuan’s fiancee, with whom she’s never properly spoken to, but surprisingly… it doesn’t. Jiang Yanli is frighteningly good at making people feel welcome, focusing her attention solely on them. They talk as if they were old friends catching up, and not once does she try to pry open the little parcel, even though it’s clear she wants to. As they slowly make their way through the pork ribs and the vegetable soup, Mianmian catches her absently stroking the artisanal wooden box.
When Mianmian finishes her first bowl, she can’t help but derail their current conversation with a, “That was probably the best meal I’ve had in years. Thank you, Maiden Jiang.”
Jiang Yanli flushes, ducking her head in bashful pleasure. “Oh, please. You flatter me,” she smiles. Mianmian finds herself wanting to make Jiang Yanli smile more.
“It’s the truth!” Mianmian insists. “You can really tell when someone cares while they’re cooking. Do you cook often?” The Yunmeng Jiangs are easily recovered enough to hire cooks - it’s rare for a woman of higher upbringing to cook often. And yet, clearly Jiang Yanli is well practiced in the art.
Jiang Yanli shrugs, humble. “I suppose I do. I’ve always found it… comforting,” she admits. “It’s hard to let your thoughts stray when you’ve got a knife in hand, you know.” She laughs at that, but it sounds a little distracted, a little hollow.
Mianmian frowns. “I take it you’ve had a lot to think about lately, huh?”
Jiang Yanli slowly nods, just once. Like it’s embarrassing to admit it. Like she’s not used to confiding in someone else.
The thought breaks Meanmian’s heart. “If you want, you can tell me about it. I don’t mind. You can rest assured that I won’t tell anyone - being a rogue cultivator and all, I doubt I’ll get a chance to spill your secrets, even if I wanted to,” she promises, with as comforting a smile as she can give.
Jiang Yanli frowns - “You’re not with the Jin Sect anymore?”
It’s a deflection, a clear one, even if she sounds genuinely concerned. In the little time she’s spoken with Jiang Yanli, they’ve mostly spent it talking about things… other than her. Mianmian gets the impression it’s less because she and Jiang Yanli are only acquaintances, and more because… well, Jiang Yanli doesn’t seem the sort to share her burdens. Not quite unlike her brothers.
Mianmian isn’t about to add to her burdens. “It’s a long story,” Mianmian laughs. “But trust me, I chose to. No tears were wasted on that decision, trust me.”
Jiang Yanli looks at her for a long moment, before saying, “You’re very, very brave, Maiden Luo.”
“You really don’t have to - I’m not - “ Mianmian starts, but Jiang Yanli sets a gentle hand on hers and her thoughts completely fizzle out. “Y-you can just call me Mianmian,“ she finally chokes out, staring down at where their hands touch. She can’t bring herself to look Jiang Yanli in the eye.
“Then you can call me A-Li,” Jiang Yanli says back, voice warm. Smiling.
“I couldn’t possibly - that’s - “ Mianmian manages. “It’s improper, when you’re - and I’m - It’d be too overfamiliar.”
“And ‘Mianmian’ isn’t?” Jiang Yanli laughs, soft and bell-like.
“I mean, everyone calls me that,” she mumbles, embarrassed. “Can’t I call you by name?”
“No honorifics,” Jiang Yanli demands - at least as demanding as one can get, when smiling so indulgently.
Mianmian bites her lip, glancing up at Jiang Yanli.
“Otherwise, I’ll keep calling you Maiden Luo,” Jiang Yanli sing-songs. It’s terribly embarrassing, but Mianmian has to concede defeat.
“Alright, alright,” she says, warmth blooming in her chest. She can’t help but smile - that’s just what Jiang Yanli does to a person, Mianmian supposes. “If you’re really so stubborn about it, Jiang Yanli.”
“Okay, Mianmian,” Jiang Yanli smiles back. It’s wide, genuine. “Would you like another helping?”
Mianmian nods, cheeks warm from smiling so much as she nudges her bowl closer. Jiang Yanli fills both their bowls with another serving and easily moves the conversation elsewhere.
When both of them can hardly stand to eat another bite, Mianmian gently nudges Jiang Yanli to open the parcel. After hardly any coaxing she does, cutting the twine off with the knife she’d brought for the white peaches, careful not to touch the blade to the box, as if it’d scratch the lacquer. It was a pretty thing, with its delicate, peony cutouts and almost luminous mother-of-pearl inlays. Knowing Jin Zixuan, it was probably made specifically for whatever he’d bought her. It wasn’t especially large, after all.
“Oh,” Jiang Yanli says, blinking as she delicately pulls out the hairpin.
Oh is right. The hairpin is gaudy even for Lanling standards. It’s well-made, of course, but the wrought-gold peony is huge , just about as big as a real one, Mianmian figures. It completely overshadows the secondary design elements. And the dripping trails of pearls and rubies? Practically an afterthought. A very jingly, very tangly afterthought.
There is no doubt in Mianmian’s mind that that hairpin had been designed by a man who was very good at making jewelry, and very bad at knowing what women liked. It is also the exact sort of present someone like Jin Zixuan would’ve gotten for someone, given that he’s obnoxiously wealthy and therefore anything within the realm of normal, practical gift-giving sounded too pedestrian.
Mianmian says as much to Jiang Yanli, who can’t help but choke out a laugh, out of both surprise that Mianmian would badmouth him right to his fiance’s face and relief that she didn’t have to be the one that said it. Mianmian can’t help but laugh either, which makes Jiang Yanli laugh even harder, until she has to fan her own face to keep from crying in laughter.
“That’s not a hairpin,” Miamian says, motioning to the very size of it, “It’s practically a weapon! What kind of dangers does he think you’ll encounter out here? You could club something to death with it, I swear!”
“Stop, Mianmiman, stop, my stomach hurts!” Jiang Yanli sobs, pouring tea out for both of them with laughter-shaky hands. She spills a little bit, and Mianmian can’t help but delight in the fact that Jiang Yanli was so amused that she couldn’t compose herself at all.
“I swear on both my parents’ graves that I had no say whatsoever in the selection of this hairpin. Gods above, it sure is ugly,“ Mianmian sighs, trying to keep the laughter from bubbling up again. “Do you want to try it on?”
Jiang Yanli flushes, her laughter turning to embarrassment. “Something like that surely wouldn’t suit me,” she says, glancing away from Mianmian, down at the hairpin. Like before, she can’t help but rub her thumb against the gift, like it was something precious that she couldn’t help but care for.
Mianmian watches her, the way she curls shyly in on herself at the thought of calling attention to herself. “You’re right,” Mianmian concedes, trying to ignore the hurt look on Jiang Yanli’s face, long enough to add, “I think you’d be much prettier with real peonies. You’ve got the sort of face that deserves real flowers.”
“ Oh, ” Jiang Yanli says again, glowing with - with that same bashful pleasure from before. “That’s - I mean, I couldn’t possibly compare - “
“Take the compliment,” Mianmian laughs, patting Jiang Yanli’s hand. “I mean it. I really do. I think you’re lovely. Much better than the girls at the Carp Tower, that’s for sure.”
Just as Mianmian finishes speaking, Jiang Yanli blurts out, “I think you’re pretty too!”
Her face really goes red at that, her entire body pulling back with her embarrassment. Mianmian can’t help but blush herself, a little bit of Jiang Yanli’s embarrassment leaking into her own demeanor. With a nervous little laugh, Mianmian says, “Honestly, we ought to just put that hairpin in a vase. It’ll last longer than most flowers, at any rate. And you won’t have to have something like that tugging at your hair all day.”
Jiang Yanli blinks and then smiles, clearly glad that Mianmian decided to change the topic. “You’re right,” she says, not-so-inconspicuously rubbing at the redness still staining her cheeks. “I hardly know what else I’d do with it.”
“If it were me, I’d melt it down and put it out of its misery,” Mianmian says, rolling her eyes on a sharp laugh.
“I could never,” Jiang Yanli admits.
“No matter how ugly it is?” Mianmian asks, and Jiang Yanli can’t help but laugh, too.
“No matter how ugly it is. It’s a gift, after all,” Jiang Yanli says, steadfastly.
“See? Better than any of those Carp Tower girls,” Mianmian grins. “Myself included.”
Jiang Yanli glances away shyly, taking a sip of her tea. “Um. This is, maybe, a weird thing to ask, but…” she says, though she loses her confidence halfway. Mianmian waits patiently as the awkward silence stretches on, before Jiang Yanli asks, “I’m sure there are other girls he’s close to, and - “
“Girls? Him?” Mianmian snorts. “No. Absolutely not. That guy’s clueless.”
“But what about - “ Jiang Yanli starts, staring up at Mianmian, before letting her gaze drop again when she loses her nerve.
Mianmian frowns, uncomprehending. And then - “Wait, you don’t think - me and him?”
Jiang Yanli looks ashamed as she continues not to look at Mianmian.
“That’s so funny,” Mianmian says, completely unable to hold back her laughter.
At the very least, it keeps Jiang Yanli from suspecting the worst. Even if it makes her expression crumple a little in embarrassment.
“It’s fine - It’s fine, really. There were a lot of rumors spread about us in Lanling, but most of them came from jealous young mistresses who couldn’t come close - and spiteful young masters wanting to keep riffraff like me away from their precious young master. We’re really just friends, I swear. After all - would you ask a secret lover to deliver a letter to your betrothed?” Mianmian asks.
Jiang Yanli slowly nods along, realizing the logic is sound. Embarrassment still colors her body language, though, and Mianmian can’t have that. “Hey, why don’t you take out the letter? You don’t have to be shy about reading it around me; I actually helped him write it. Er. Rewrite it.”
“You did?” Jiang Yanli asks, blinking up at Mianmian.
“I did,” Mianmian nods. “The first draft was… not good. I don’t know how he does it. Did you know that that man won the junior poetry competition three years in a row when he was a teenager, and he still writes shit like Your eyes are like stars; I could get lost staring into them? ”
“That’s… impressive,” Jiang Yanli says, covering her mouth with her sleeve to hide her amusement. There’s no hiding the way her big doe eyes crinkle up. It’s terribly cute on her - no wonder Jin Zixuan always freezes up like a rabbit staring down the wrong end of a wolf’s snout.
“That’s one way to put it!” Mianmian laughs. “He’s incredible on his own, but the moment you put him in front of a girl he likes, his brains melt right out of his ears.”
That has Jiang Yanli uncurling from herself, eager to be reassured that the guy she likes likes her back. “You really think he likes me that much?”
“Well, he waited a month and a half to send it out, just to make sure that the letter was absolutely perfect. Does that count?” Mianmian asks.
Evidently, it counts.
Jiang Yanli can’t stop smiling, even when she tries. Carefully, she pulls the letter from the bottom of the box and breaks the wax seal.
Mianmian doesn’t hold her breath in anticipation. She totally doesn’t. That’d be a weird thing to do.
Jiang Yanli reads it once, and then once more with a knowing smile. “You wrote this, didn’t you?” she asks, passing the letter over to Mianmian and pointing at the line.
“I suggested it,” Mianmian says, a little bashfully. “How could you tell?”
“My brothers and Young Master Jin… have a very antagonistic relationship. Even if he’s trying to make me feel better about… everything that’s happened, he’d never openly praise Wei Wuxian,” she laughs.
“Oh,” Mianmian says, ducking her head in embarrassment. “Well - it’s true, even if he’d never admit it out loud. Jin Zixuan might not agree with Wei Wuxian in general, but he’d agreed with his intentions.”
Jiang Yanli nods, appeased.
Somehow, Mianmian is compelled to say, “I agreed with him too, that time.”
That makes Jiang Yanli blink at Mianmian, her confusion melting into a sweet little smile. Her hand is warm when she reaches over to squeeze Mianmian’s, and something in her chest starts to flutter. Mianmian smiles back, hoping her face looks normal instead of - instead of whatever it looks like right now.
Thankfully, Jiang Yanli returns her gaze to the letter, pulling her hand back into her own space. They make a game of it - Jiang Yanli going through the letter with a fine-toothed comb to try and catch which ideas were Jin Zixuan’s and which were Mianmian’s. She’s surprisingly good at it. The ones she suggests are all correct, but she doesn’t quite manage to catch all of them. Mianmian almost promises to do better next time - so that Jiang Yanli won’t be able to tell at all - but then, she remembers that there won’t be a next time. Jin Zixuan is supposed to leave her alone after this.
She really shouldn’t feel so disappointed about that.
At some point, halfway through the game, Mianmian throws propriety to the wind and moves to the seat next to Jiang Yanli’s. It lets Mianmian watch Jiang Yanli’s thought process as she points - this one? This one? - at each suspect line. By the end of it, Mianmian doesn’t even need to look at where she’s at in the letter to know when she’s about to pick out a line. She can just see Jiang Yanli’s face, the way her brows relax, her eyes shine with excitement as she tests her cleverness. Mianmian tucks that tidbit away, so that when she sees Jin Zixuan next she can -
Oh. Yes. She isn’t going to be seeing him any time soon.
When they finish, Jiang Yanli shyly asks Mianmian more about the first draft, and Mianmian goes on an entire rant about the kind of crap Jin Zixuan tried to fit in there. The vitriol with which Mianmian rants about Jin Zixuan’s questionable writing choices makes Jiang Yanli burst into laughter more than once, mostly because Mianmian makes a big effort to also emphasize that normally, he is not this brand of idiot, so she knows Mianmian criticizes with love, rather than virulent hate the way Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian do.
By the time Mianmian finally winds down, Jiang Yanli has a thoughtful look on her face. It prompts Mianmian to say, “Sorry, I went a little overboard, didn’t I?”
Jiang Yanli blinks at her, surprise written on her face as she palms one of the peaches. “No,” she laughs, shaking her head. “No, that’s not it. I just was thinking - “
And then she pauses, looking down at the peach. “Do you think he meant it? All that sappy stuff about me that you had him cut out? I mean, you weren’t wrong to; if I hadn’t had you to explain everything to me, I probably would’ve rolled my eyes at it, but…”
She trails off, her quiet laughter tinged with a hint of self-deprecation. As if to distract herself, she reaches over for the knife and starts cutting into the peach, offering Mianmian the first slice.
Mianmian takes it gratefully. It’s delicious - sweet and delicate on her tongue. “If you’ll allow me to be honest, I don’t think so. Most of what he’d tried to write were the sort of platitudes you’d tell a concubine. Not someone you were serious about,” she says. And then, hurriedly, so as not to hurt her - “Not that he sees you that way - he adores you. He just… doesn't know how to put it into words. Politics, he can do, easy. He was made for that. But people, let alone women? You'd have a better time asking him to attempt the impossible.”
Jiang Yanli laughs along, but it sounds hollow compared to their earlier mirth. She’s quiet, as she carves into the peach. One slice for Minamian, one for her.
Mianmian feels like she ought to say something, to cheer her up. She doesn’t know Jiang Yanli well, but… well, she gives off the air of a person who was always considered an afterthought. The plain friend. The second choice. And Mianmian couldn’t bear to be the asshole that made her feel that way.
“If it makes you feel better,” she says, not even sure where she’s going with this, herself, “I think those sorts of things don’t suit you anyways. You're… He likes you because you’re the sort of person who would still be attractive, even after their beauty faded,” she says, and she means it. “I’ve only known you for, what, an hour or two? But I can tell. You’re kind of special.”
That has Jiang Yanli blinking up at her, at a loss for words. Before she can actually say something, they both hear the crunching of gravel as Sect Leader Jiang approaches the courtyard. When he sees Mianmian already there, he blinks, looking surprised. “Am I interrupting?” he asks.
“A-Cheng,” Jiang Yanli greets him warmly, getting up from her seat. “Mianmian and I already ate, but if you want, I can - “
“It’s fine, A-Jie. I can get it myself,” Jiang Cheng says, stiffly. And then, after a pause, he says, “Miss Luo Qingyang, if you’d like to rest, I’ve had a guest room prepared for you in the Lotus Pier. I wasn’t sure if you were planning on staying the evening, but the trip back to Lanling is long.”
Mianmian bows at him, low and formal. “Thank you for your generosity, Sect Leader Jiang. I’d hate to further infringe on your hospitality, but…” she trails off, looking at Jiang Yanli. “Unless you have a discrete courier on hand, I would like to request to stay long enough to deliver Maiden Jiang’s response.”
It was awfully presumptuous of her, and if Sect Leader Jiang denied her request, she’d leave peacefully. But Sect Leader Jiang looks between her and Jiang Yanli and nods, once, sharply. “We would be honored to have you as our guest.”
Mianmian bows again. “Thank you, Sect Leader Jiang. The honor is mine.”
“I can have a disciple take you to your quarters whenever you’re ready,” Sect Leader Jiang says, as Mianmian straightens up. But Mianmian can’t help but bite her lip and glance over at Jiang Yanli, reluctant to go. “If Maiden Jiang is amenable, I would like to continue our conversation. It’s been fun.”
Sect Leader Jiang looks over at his sister, and something in her eyes must tell him all he needs to know, because he nods at her again. “Very well. A-Jie, I’ll see you for dinner? Miss Luo Qingyang, you’re also welcome to join us, too, if you’d like.”
“Thank you again for your generosity, Sect Leader Jiang. I would be honored,” Mianmian says. With that, Jiang Cheng turns and leaves.
Once he’s out of earshot, Jiang Yanli turns to Mianmian, face flushed with pleasure as she says, “Thank you. I’m… I’m really glad you enjoy my company.”
“Of course,” Mianmian says. “It’s been fun, right?”
“Yes!” Jiang Yanli exclaims, quick to reassure Mianmian. And then, after a pause - “Truthfully, I’m flattered that you’d rather stick around. I, ah. I live a rather sheltered life. Aside from the disciples, I don’t often have opportunities to make friends.”
Ah. Mianmian’s chest clenches. She’d very much like to be Jiang Yanli’s friend, she thinks.
“Isn’t it lonely?” Mianmian asks, gently taking Jiang Yanli’s hand. It’s warm and soft, hardly callused from her sword.
“A bit,” Jiang Yanli admits, gesturing back at the table for them both to sit. “I don’t have many close friends. It’s even lonelier without A-Xian around.”
Mianmian’s face softens, schooling it into something softer, more sympathetic. “You two were close, huh?”
“He’s one of my closest friends. My brother in all but blood,” she says, quietly. “I miss him a lot. And even if he can’t publicly admit it, A-Cheng does, too.”
“Ah,” Mianmian says awkwardly. “I’m sorry.”
And then, after a second - “It’s unfair. It’s just - it’s really, really unfair. Everything that’d happened to him, it - ” she starts, biting her lips as her own hurts rising up. “There’s just - there’s so many things about that entire situation that burn me up inside, even now! I can’t bear the thought of being a sect cultivator anymore; the entire system’s just rotten!”
Jiang Yanli looks sad as she nods. “You’re… really brave, Mianmian. I admire you a lot - what you did for A-Xian. What you gave up. I couldn’t do it, if I were in your shoes.”
Mianmian laughs, but it’s a quiet, bitter thing. “Yeah, well,” she says, gesturing between them. “A lot of the pros outweigh the cons.”
“Mm,” Jiang Yanli hums, nodding. And then, hesitantly, she adds, “If there’s anything Yunmeng could do for you - “
Mianmian shakes her head. “I didn’t defend Wei Wuxian for money. Nor did I leave the Jin Sect just to join another one. Even if I get the impression that Yunmeng might suit me better,” she says. “It was just the right thing for me to do at the time. And besides, I got to get to know you a little better, didn’t I?”
That puts a shy little smile on Jiang Yanli’s face. “That’s true,” she agrees. “I’m grateful for it.”