Hi! Prompt: 1. The Wens attacked early, Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng are taken in as wards/hostages of the Wen sect as children
- Chapter 1 - ao3 -
“Jiejie,” Jiang Cheng said, tugging on his sister’s hand. “I don’t want to be here.”
“None of us want to be here,” another little boy said, and Jiang Cheng turned to look at him: he was even shorter than Jiang Cheng, and rubbing his eyes in the aftermath of a yawn. “I’m Nie Huaisang. Who’re you?”
“He’s Yunmeng Jiang sect’s Jiang Cheng,” Jiang Yanli said, while Jiang Cheng pressed his face into her side to hide how he’d gone bright red at the concept of someone his own age talking to him. “I’m Jiang Yanli. Is your older brother here in the Nightless City, too?”
Nie Huaisang’s lip quivered, and Jiang Cheng abruptly felt better about how awful he felt about this whole thing; at least he wasn’t crying like a great big baby. “He’s supposed to be,” Nie Huaisang said. “But the Wens took him away earlier, and I haven’t seen him since. I took a nap, ‘cause he said he was gonna be back before I knew it, but I woke up and he’s still not back…”
“I’m sure he’s fine,” Jiang Yanli reassured him. She glanced over at the door where there were Wen sect disciples standing as guards. “Why don’t you and Jiang Cheng play together a bit while I go find him?”
Jiang Cheng’s mouth gaped open in horror and he clung to her side, unable to verbalize his words, but luckily Nie Huaisang was leaping forward to grab her sleeve, too, saying, “You can’t go! They’ll take you away, just like they took my da-ge!”
Normally, Jiang Cheng would’ve objected to someone being so intimate with his big sister, but in this instance he nodded furiously, glad that Nie Huaisang had said what he couldn’t.
“It’ll be fine,” Jiang Yanli said, and Jiang Cheng was starting to think they had a different definition of the word ‘fine’. “I’ll be back soon, I promise. Go play.”
In the end, Jiang Cheng’s tears and Nie Huaisang’s arguments had no effect, and off she went. By that point, Jiang Cheng was very attached to his new friend, who was so clever and talkative and obviously the only one to understand him in this awful new place, but that didn’t help when what he wanted was his big sister.
“Do you want to go meet the others?” Nie Huaisang eventually asked after they’d both cried out all their tears.
“Others?” Jiang Cheng asked.
Nie Huaisang nodded. “Lan Zhan’s there, he’s from the Lan sect, I’ve met him and his big brother before,” he said. “And there’s also A-Xuan…I dunno what sect he’s from, you can’t really talk to him. He’s terrified. He doesn’t have a big brother. Or sister, I guess.”
That sounded awful, and Jiang Cheng felt bad for the faceless A-Xuan at once.
“Let’s go talk to them,” he agreed.
He hoped they were nice.
Jiang Cheng immediately got into a shoving fight with Lan Zhan and decided he was his worst enemy – Lan Zhan tried to bite him! that was cheating! – but that only lasted right up until they were both introduced to Wen Chao and then they were best friends teaming up against a new worst enemy.
(Nie Huaisang didn’t count. He was everybody’s best friend, even Wen Chao’s, and anyway he claimed he was littler than everyone and therefore everyone had no choice but to be nice to him. Jiang Cheng was prettycertain that wasn’t how that worked, and also that maybe Nie Huaisang wasn’t really the littlest, but Nie Huaisang was very sure of himself and it was hard to argue with that level of confidence.)
“You’re here so that I can tell you what to do!” Wen Chao insisted, clutching his arm and sniffling. Lan Zhan had bitten him, which was definitely the right move and very impressive. “You can’t be mean to me! I get to be mean to you!”
A-Xuan, who’d been sitting quietly in the corner staring at the wall like it had done something to him personally, pulled his thumb out of his mouth. “If you do that, they’ll replace you,” he said woodenly, and since it was the very first thing he’d actually said this whole time, they all turned to look at him. “You’re an heir, aren’t you? That means you’ve gotta live up to expectations. There’s always someone waiting to take your place if you don’t…”
Jiang Cheng shivered. “What do you mean, take your place?” he asked, both horrified and unwillingly, perhaps even ghoulishly intrigued. “Like…someone who looks just like you, but isn’t you?”
A-Xuan nodded solemnly. “There’s lots of them, dozens of them,” he whispered, and they all crowded in close to listen, even Wen Chao. “They’ve got all sorts of skills and talents, admirable things that should make them happy, but they don’t want what they’ve got, they want to live your life. If they can, they’ll peel off your skin and wear it like a coat so that they can sneak in to take your place, and no one – not even your parents – will ever know or care to look for you…”
“That isn’t real,” Wen Chao protested, but his eyes were white all around the edges. “Doubles like that don’t exist!”
A-Xuan just looked at him with pity in his eyes, and somehow that was scarier than any amount of insistence would have been.
“Are they a type of demon?” Lan Zhan asked, gnawing on his sleeve anxiously. “Shufu taught me how to draw talismans to repel demons.”
A-Xuan wrinkled his nose. “Maybe?” he said uncertainly.
“Definitely!” Nie Huaisang said, nodding furiously. “Something like that, it has to be a demon, right? A-Zhan will show us how to make talismans to keep them away and then none of us need to worry about being replaced!”
“Good idea!” Wen Chao exclaimed.
“And Wen Chao needs to be nice to us,” Jiang Cheng put in. “Right, A-Xuan? If he keeps proper etiquette, he won’t be replaced, that’s how it works?”
“That’s what my mom says,” A-Xuan said, nodding. “You don’t get replaced as long as you show that you’re better than they are, and having proper etiquette’s part of that.”
“And if we’re all friends, we can make sure no one gets replaced by doubles!” Nie Huaisang exclaimed, clapping his hands together. “Maybe our parents wouldn’t notice, but we could – maybe we invent some secret signs that only we’d know, and the doubles wouldn’t –”
“Okay, okay, we can do that,” Wen Chao said. “But I still want a talisman!”
“Do you know why we’re here, Wen-xiong?” Nie Huaisang wanted to know – he called everyone ‘xiong’ and refused not to because he said everyone in his sect did that, even if it sounded really weird for kids their age to be using that – and Jiang Cheng looked at Wen Chao, eager to know the answer. The Nightless City was the Wen sect’s home, just the way the Lotus Pier was the Jiang sect’s, the Unclean Realm the Nie sect’s, and the Cloud Recesses the Lan sect’s; it would make sense that Wen Chao, as the second little master here, would know more than they did.
But Wen Chao shook his head. “My father did something, I think,” he said. “My da-ge is helping him, but I’m too young…I dunno. I think you guys might be here for a while.”
“How long?” A-Xuan asked.
“A long time,” Wen Chao said. His face was a little pale, a little guilty in a way he hadn’t been before. “I think maybe…years.”
Years? But that was practically forever!
“Will my da-ge be here too?” Nie Huaisang asked. “Or Jiang-xiong’s jiejie?”
“Yeah. I think it’s – that it’s everyone. I think…” Wen Chao trailed off. “I think there’s going to be a war.”
“What’s a war?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“It’s a bad thing,” Nie Huaisang said, much to everyone’s surprise. He usually didn’t answer questions, and when one was posed to him, he usually responded with ‘I don’t know’ – those were practically his favorite words. “War’s a really bad thing, where all the strong people have to leave to go fight in battles. People get hurt in wars. People die in wars.”
They all shuddered. That was a bad word.
“I don’t want there to be a war,” Jiang Cheng said, biting his lip. “I don’t want my mom to get hurt – she’s a great cultivator, really strong, the strongest! But that means she’d have to go fight, wouldn’t she? And my dad, too?”
“My father wouldn’t fight,” Lan Zhan muttered. “He’s in seclusion…they wouldn’t make my shufu fight, would they? He’s a teacher– he can use a sword, but he prefers music –”
“Neither my mother or father can fight,” A-Xuan said, gnawing on his fingers. “Not at all. They pay other people to fight for them…they’re a bit mean, sometimes, but I don’t know if I want them to die.”
He sounded a bit uncertain, though.
Jiang Cheng felt a bit of pity. Poor A-Xuan’s parents must be reallymean.
“Is there anything we can do to stop it?” he wanted to know. “Maybe if we’re really good and everyone asks really politely, all at once, for them not to…?”
Wen Chao looked tempted, but Nie Huaisang shook his head. “My dad says war is like a mountain avalanche,” he said solemnly. “Once started, it’s hard to stop. He’s not afraid of war, but he doesn’t want it, either – I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I really…”
He bit his lip.
“I really don’t know.”
It was a whole three days – or, well, it felt like it, because they definitely took at least three naps, though maybe they were deliberately taking extra to make the time pass faster – before their brothers and sisters finally came back.
Jiang Cheng rushed over to Jiang Yanli at once, of course, bawling his eyes out for having missed her – it’d been awful without her, unimaginably awful, and if he didn’t have all his friends he would’ve been even worse off – but once she’d comforted him a little, that familiar face and smile and scent all deeply reassuring as she hugged him and kissed his hair, he couldn’t quite help himself in his curiosity: he turned around and peeked at all the others.
Wen Chao was tugging that the clothing of an older boy – that would be his big brother, who they’d all very painstakingly determined was probably the oldest, maybe, unless Nie Huaisang’s brother was. Wen Xu was tall and had a handsome face, but it was thin in a way that made him look tired and anxious and wound up; he snapped at Wen Chao for bothering him, but Wen Chao ignored him, which suggested that snapping was his normal response. Wen Xu’s eyes kept flickering around the rest of the room as if he thought they were all watching him, and, perhaps in deference to that, he allowed Wen Chao to keep harassing him.
Nie Huaisang’s big brother, not far away, was even bigger than Wen Xu, taller and with broad shoulders. He had a narrow waist and a slightly too-round face that made him seem a little young, but on the other hand he also had an imposing way of carrying himself that made him seem older – even looking right at him, it was really hard to tell whether he was older or younger than Wen Xu. He was kneeling next to Nie Huaisang, comforting him, and he seemed steady and reliable. Jiang Cheng thought secretly to himself that even if Wen Chao’s brother really was the older one, Nie Huaisang’s brother was probably the better one to have around, as far as big brothers went.
Lan Zhan’s big brother seemed nice, too: he was clearly younger than the other two, about of age with Jiang Yanli if Jiang Cheng had to guess, but he looked kind. He was holding Lan Zhan’s hand very tightly, though judging by the long-suffering look on Lan Zhan’s face it was more for his brother’s sake than his own. He seemed thoughtful and agreeable: he was murmuring quietly, clearly thinking through his answers before responding to whatever questions Lan Zhan had asked.
Only poor A-Xuan, who didn’t have either a big brother or a big sister, was all on his own.
Jiang Cheng tugged on Jiang Yanli’s hand and pointed at him. “You should give him a kiss, too,” he said. His big sister’s kisses were the best, he knew, soft and reassuring, and A-Xuan…well, A-Xuan had enough anxiety already, didn’t he? He could use a kiss. “He’s nice.”
Jiang Yanli made a sound that was almost like it wanted to be a giggle, but she beckoned an unsure-looking A-Xuan over. “It’s all right,” she told him when he hung back. “It’s appropriate, Jin-gongzi. Our mothers are friends.”
Jiang Cheng blinked. “Jin? His name’s Jin Xuan?”
“Jin Zixuan,” Jiang Yanli corrected. “And you should call him Jin-gongzi.”
“A-Xuan is fine,” A-Xuan said meekly. He was staring at Jiang Yanli. “You’re Mistress Jiang? The one who…”
He trailed off, but Jiang Cheng knew what he was going to say, because even though he was young, even he’d heard about the fact that his big sister was going to have to go away one day to marry the Jin sect heir.
He’d cried bitter tears the first time he’d heard it, not wanting her to go at all, not liking the idea of her being anywhere away from him no matter how much his mother told him that it was something that all women did, something that women wanted to do. Angry tears, never far beneath the surface, threatened again now.
But on the other hand…
Poor A-Xuan, who was all alone, with no big brother or sister at all.
Jiang Cheng gathered up his bravery and squeezed his sister’s hand. “It’s okay,” he said encouragingly. “A-Xuan’s really nice, and he needs someone to take care of him. You’ll be all right with him.”
Jiang Yanli actually did start giggling at that. “It’s not something we have to think about right now,” she said, wiping her eyes. “I can take care of both of you.”
Jiang Cheng exhaled in relief. He hadn’t really wanted to give up his jiejie to some stranger – but sharing could be all right.
Nie Huaisang’s da-ge turned out to be just as amazing as Nie Huaisang said he was, which in all honesty Jiang Cheng had not-so-secretly doubted. Nie Mingjue was clever and could answer questions, he was strong and could pick people up, he was indulgent and didn’t mind doing either of those things as many times as asked, and he gave really great hugs.
After a serious conversation among their little group, with many reassurances from A-Xuan that he didn’t mind, really, they reached an agreement and presented their conclusion to their elder siblings: rather than marry A-Xuan, who wasn’t even sure if he liked girls or wanted to marry one, Jiang Yanli ought to marry Nie Mingjue. Not only would they be able to give each other (and all surrounding children) many good hugs and gentle kisses, they would eventually have children since that was what married couples did and those children would undoubtedly be an amalgamation of all of their respective good points, therefore making them the finest of friends to have. Also, if they had them right away – their entire group was a little fuzzy on the details of how that worked, exactly, but surely the big kids had a better idea – the new kids wouldn’t be that much younger than everyone else, so it was important for them to get started immediately.
For some reason, this very serious proposal made the older children laugh nearly to the point of tears.
“And about me?” Lan Xichen asked, ruffling their hair. “If you’re pairing up your elders, does that make me Wen-da-ge’s bride?”
For some reason, that made Wen Chao’s big brother glance over at Lan Xichen and turn bright red, even though it was obvious that Lan Xichen was just joking. Jiang Cheng wondered why.
“It’d be better if A-Xuan had a big sister,” he said, a little regretful. Lan Zhan would be much better off being A-Xuan’s brother-in-law than Wen Chao’s.
“I’m sure he does,” Wen Xu said, looking suddenly rather annoyed. “Hovering at the outskirts, waiting for a chance to get inside. Probably more than one, if that’s to your taste –”
“Have some manners,” Nie Mingjue said sharply to him. “There are children here; they don’t need to hear about that.”
The younger children all exchanged alarmed glances: they must be talking about the doubles! Even the older kids knew about them – that meant they must be real!
“Yes, we do,” Nie Huaisang said insistently. “Tell us about it.”
“No, Nie-da-ge is right,” Jiang Yanli said. “It’s nothing you need to worry about. Why don’t you all go play?”
They were unceremoniously shown the door.
Outside, Nie Huaisang looked uncharacteristically serious. “My da-ge only refuses to tell me things he thinks are inappropriate, or which he thinks will scare me,” he said. “Which means…”
They all nodded grimly.
“A cultivator’s duty is to defeat evil,” Lan Zhan announced, and Jiang Cheng nodded.
“I’m with Lan Zhan,” he said. “Even if we can keep them away with talismans and code words, what about people who don’t have them? They’ll be snatched away! If no one else is going to do something about it, we have to.”
“We do,” Wen Chao said, and that was also uncharacteristic: normally he wasn’t willing to do anything unless they pretended it was his idea first. “We’ve got to.”
“Why is it suddenly so urgent?” A-Xuan asked him. “What’s wrong?”
Wen Chao’s lower lip trembled. “Ever since my brother went away with my dad to help with the war stuff, he’s been acting really different,” he said. “He doesn’t play with me, and he’s always worried – always looking over his shoulder like he thinks someone’s chasing him. He’s angry and upset all the time. It’s not like him at all! I just wonder…”
“They’ve got him,” Jiang Cheng concluded, horrified. “That’s why my big sister and your big brothers are always staying away from him even though they’re usually really nice to most people – that’s why he knows about the others, the ones he says are ‘big sisters’ to A-Xuan! He’s been snatched! He’s a double!”
Wen Chao burst into tears.
A-Xuan patted him on the shoulder.
“We’ll do our best to get your real big brother back for you,” he said solemnly, and Lan Zhan and Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang all nodded and made the hand-signs for swearing a solemn oath.
Wen Chao sniffed. “Thanks,” he said. “You’re my best friends.”
“Of course,” Jiang Cheng said, even though he felt really proud. He’d never been anyone’s best friend before, except maybe Lan Zhan’s, since Nie Huaisang had said he didn’t count. “What are best friends for?”
143 notes · View notes