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war of the wardens

Chapter Text

“Are you sure you have to go?” 

Those few words are all it takes to break Mei Nianqing’s heart, but he keeps face. It would only do worse for Xie Lian to see him get upset, too, especially when he’s the reason they have to part. The child before him is only eleven years old, too young to have a grasp on all the real reasons he’s being separated from his only father but old enough to understand what it means to be taken away. 

Mei Nianqing has tried to keep him as far from the foster system as he could, and he had done a pretty good job until now. In the end, it’s only his fault for not telling Xie Lian to avoid mentioning the words “casino” or “poker” or “gambling” at school. It should’ve been expected that a teacher would overhear him one day, and when those social service workers came to see how they were living on a particularly bad day… Mei Nianqing sighs, taking Xie Lian’s shoulders in his hands and squeezing them.

“It’ll be alright, Xie Lian. Don’t worry, okay? If I thought you were going someplace bad, I definitely wouldn’t let them take you,” he reassures, keeping up a smile so the boy wouldn’t worry as much. As long as dad--no, he isn’t his dad anymore, isn’t he? As long as his previous guardian is smiling and doesn’t seem worried, then Xie Lian is the type of child to be sated and feel at ease.

“Will we get to see each other still?” Xie Lian asks with all the innocence of a youth losing his home for the second time in his life. In the past, Mei Nianqing used to laugh at how his young face was able to show such a complex variety of worried emotions that were too deep for someone his age, telling him he looked even older than himself. He would wear such horribly sad expressions over the smallest things, like dropping ice creams or a butterfly fluttering away from him, Mei Nianqing couldn’t help but tease him about wrinkles as young as six years old. Now that deep set in his brow and his teary eyes only serve to make Mei Nianqing feel even worse, terrified that Xie Lian might actually be old enough to understand those complicated emotions like grief more properly now.

He rubs his hands up and down Xie Lian’s arms comfortingly. “Well, it all depends on the family you go to live with. You have to be good for them no matter what, I know how much trouble you like to cause--and don’t start acting like you don’t!”

It makes a small smile come to Xie Lian’s face, and Mei Nianqing is instantly relieved. It’s always rewarding to make his son cheer up, but it’s also self-satisfying proof that maybe he’s been doing this parenting thing pretty well for the past six years. He’s never had to deal with children much before Xie Lian entered his life. He never expected to, either. Maybe the idea of having kids one day floated idly around his head, but the older he got and the more relationships didn’t go his way, the less important that idea seemed.

With a ruffle of his hair, Mei Nianqing stands from where he was kneeling. “Xie Lian,” he says quietly, knowing there are others waiting outside the room to pick them up. “I need to be honest. We may not be able to see or talk with each other very much.”

Xie Lian’s face immediately falls, and Mei Nianqing’s heart plummets with it.

He trudges through with a straight face. “But you need to remember--”

“Are you almost done in there?” the voice of a social worker outside calls without any warning.

Mei Nianqing’s face instantly scrunches up as the door cracks open, quickly shouting back. “You’re the ones taking my kid away, can’t you give us a minute?! So rude, unbelievably rude! What a day job to spend harassing young single parents!” The door closes, and there isn’t another sound from the other side. What a mood killer--didn’t these people understand that this was probably one of the last times he might get to be with his son if his new family decides to cut Mei Nianqing off?!

“Uh, dad…”

Xie Lian’s voice draws him out of his anger. Right, he was trying to have a moment, wasn’t he? He clears his throat into his face to try and wash out the sour taste in his mouth and kneels down beside Xie Lian again. “Xie Lian! Promise me you’ll stay out of trouble, won’t you? You know your sense of right and wrong is one of my favorite things about you, but you have to learn to tell other people and let them take care of it instead. You don’t want to cause trouble for this new family, so please just… be good?”

His sense of justice inherited from his parents has always been one of the biggest issues the two of them have had together. Xie Lian has always been a good child, such a perfectly good child, to the point where if he saw injustice or someone doing something wrong, he could never let it be. That isn’t to say he would run into fights with his fists flying like some other kids might, but he was definitely on the receiving end of a few hits for trying to mediate more than a ten year old should.

“And if they’re bad?”

He can practically feel his face turning green. What is it with children, having so many difficult questions to things that should be simple? Or, at least, simple for a parent to explain, because not even Mei Nianqing knows how to deal with things like foster families and new homes. He smoothes down Xie Lian’s sleeves again and sighs. “If they’re bad, then there will be people coming by to make sure you’re okay--in fact, it’ll probably be annoying, since they might not be bad, but they’re gonna have to come make sure anyways! Just… don’t take anything into your own hands, okay?”

Xie Lian looks like he could ask a million more questions, and Mei Nianqing knows very well that he would if they had the time. But someone outside knocks on the door, so he just nods. “I will, I promise. This Xie Lian will behave.”

“Good, good. Then your dad can relax and be happy, so try to be happy, too.”

He stands again and pats Xie Lian on the back, keeping his hand between his shoulder blades comfortingly as they approach the door. When it opens, a different pair of hands reach for Xie Lian, and the only other warmth that’s filled Mei Nianqing’s otherwise sour life is taken away, just like that. Xie Lian gives him a look over his shoulder as he’s led out, and his smile makes Mei Nianqing think that everything really will be okay. That kid is well beloved by the gods, he believes, so how couldn’t he be?


 

Mei Nianqing must have had good luck on the day he decided to rejoin the church, and he considers for a second how much money he could’ve made if he’d decided to stay back with his friends for another few rounds of blackjack that day instead. 

It was a decision he had been juggling back and forth for years, given he left to get a better paying job to take care of his new son who was promptly swept up out of his arms only a few years later. Part of him didn’t even know if it was worth going back to the cloth when he had already gotten so used to working full time at an office making much more money than he needed and could use elsewhere but, ah, the heart knows what it wants, and he truly is a priest deep down.

It must’ve been some divine calling that led him back to his old robes, and even though he returned to his old ways without a hitch, he couldn’t help but remain wary of his choices. For years afterwards, Mei Nianqing’s mind would still wander in a million directions, tracing out different paths he could’ve taken or things he could’ve done. He could’ve gone into the foster system himself and decided to take care of children for the rest of his life, since he had loved Xie Lian so much, but other children weren’t Xie Lian. He could keep his job at the office and live easily with more than enough money to play around as he pleased, too.

But of course, the gods would have their own ways. To think that seven years after that child left his life, unable to contact him or do more than google his name every few years, he would receive a phone call from that very son who he continued to pray for every day! It was a true sign that he had followed the right path returning to his robes, because those gods had held up their end of the bargain in taking care of his Xie Lian while he was away.

Mei Nianqing is practically bubbling with excitement as he waits outside the cafe terrace they agreed to meet at. When they parted, he told Xie Lian that he would never be too far, but who knew that he would be shuffled so far around the foster system that he ended up so far away? It was an entire day’s travel to get here, and even then he had only checked into his hotel room half an hour ago after taking a train through the entire night. Maybe tomorrow he’ll have Xie Lian show him around the city, since he already took a few days off of work to come up here. Just seeing his son for one day wouldn’t be near enough.

In his heart, Mei Nianqing had always hoped Xie Lian would reach out to him once he turned eighteen and could legally be given the contact information of his previous foster parent, but the time flew by too quickly for him to even notice the time was up. In seven years, nothing has changed in Mei Nianqing’s life at all (which is exactly the way he would have it) but to Xie Lian? He’s gone through puberty, lived out his teenage years, graduated high school, there was just too much!

And, somehow, after all that time and change, he still managed to remember his second father. It makes Mei Nianqing’s old heart shamefully warm, thinking about how he actually managed to pull off being a dad pretty well.

“M-Mei Nianqing?” a voice calls out, both familiar and new. His head snaps up to look at the man walking to his table, and Mei Nianqing can feel that pride coming again.

With one look at this man approaching him, anyone would say his parents had done a remarkable job. He’s almost fully grown now, a young adult with a kind face who looks well fed, educated, and raised. His smile is just as bright as Mei Nianqing remembers, and the image of that six, seven, eight year old boy, all the way to eleven then comparing it with the man before him is remarkable. How could he not want to take credit for how Xie Lian seems to have turned out so well?

And what a polite young man, trying to call him by his name when he had never used it before!

“Xie Lian!” he greets happily, standing from his table to accept the hug that’s already being offered to him. There isn’t any crying, thankfully, but Mei Nianqing is happy to accept all of Xie Lian’s nervous laughter and grins as they sit down together for the first time in almost ten years.

It isn’t just his looks; over the course of their brunch, Xie Lian fills him in on everything that’s happened in his life up until now. He’s excelled in school and clubs, got accepted into college, and has even been working diligently at a part time job during his breaks. Really, with just black and white qualifications alone, Xie Lian was any parent’s ideal child if not just for the fact that he actually had a mind to contact his parent and keep him up to date. What mother or father wouldn’t kill to hear from their kid once they’re eighteen and moved off to school!

He listens intently the entire time, more than happy to hear out all of Xie Lian’s stories without contributing many of his own. All he has are tales about the church that Xie Lian visited when he was young, and anything to do with cards… it isn’t a stretch to think that might be a sore spot between them, being the reason Xie Lian was put into a new home and everything.

Speaking of which, Mei Nianqing has to close his eyes and offer a quick prayer of thanks to the gods when Xie Lian tells him about his experience in the foster system. His first new family was fine, a really lackluster couple that eventually split up and sent him back into the storm. He got washed up from shore to shore of different families, each lasting just under half a year before he was finally taken in by one man for the past four years. The person who took him in for good, though, wasn’t any of the parents whose doors he’d been through.

“A teacher?” Mei Nianqing says in surprise over the rim of his third cup of tea. He lowers the porcelain back down, the saucer it sits on about as wide as his eyes in shock.

Xie Lian nods and laughs again. “Yes--the principal of the high school I just graduated from, actually. We talked after I got into some trouble--”

Mei Nianqing’s eyes narrow, and Xie Lian raises his hands defensively.

“I was just trying to help--”

“That’s exactly what I was afraid you’d say,” Mei Nianqing sighs before waving him on. “Continue.”

“We talked for a while, and he was very sympathetic to my story. So he helped me out, checked in on me often, and he helped keep me out of trouble with the other teachers.” Other adults who didn’t have the patience for a teenager with a strong sense of morality and ethics. Mei Nianqing has to pity whatever parents were taking care of Xie Lian when he went through any kind of rebellious phase. “While I was still in my freshman year, we started talking about college opportunities, and the couple I was staying with at that time was too busy. So… my principal asked if I would like to come stay with him!”

Mei Nianqing leans back in his seat, eyes still wide as he takes another sip of his drink. “Wow, that’s a lot for one person to take on. He must be a really kind person?”

Xie Lian nods. “Yes, I’m very grateful to be living with him. I’ve been able to learn a lot from him, and it’s much nicer than anywhere I’ve lived before.”

Wealth is fine and all, but Mei Nianqing is much more concerned with the personality of this fellow. Xie Lian was never one to be easily deceived by his elders even as a child, and the man before him seems perfectly capable and responsible in his own right. If he says he’s a good person, then doesn’t he have to be? This is the Xie Lian he helped raise in his formative years, so if this new parent of his is actually horrible, doesn’t that just mean Mei Nianqing didn’t teach him well as a child to know right from wrong?

“Are there any problems?” Mei Nianqing asks outright. “Now that we’re able to meet, this old priest can help you out again. You need to tell me if something’s gone wrong.”

“There aren’t any problems!” Xie Lian is quick to dismiss. “I’m really very pleased with my home right now. Although, I suppose it could be considered a problem that, uh…”

He raises a brow. “That…?”

“That I told him I wanted to meet with my old foster father and he… didn’t approve,” Xie Lian says somewhat awkwardly. Mei Nianqing understands immediately; they must be arguing about this right now for the bruise to still hurt when pressed.

As if he’s one to roll over and show his belly to some random foster principal. Mei Nianqing scowls. “Didn’t approve? For what reason does a principal helping out his student have to not want him to meet with his previous legal guardians? I think it should hardly be any of his business what you do, especially since you’re eighteen now and can make these decisions for yourself--”

He would rant forever if Xie Lian didn’t stop him. “Yes, but it’s because he--”

Surprisingly, a third voice butts in to stop Xie Lian as well. “There you are, Xie Lian. What did I tell you?”

The voice alone sends chills down his spine, and Mei Nianqing is immediately relieved he picked this specific seat at the table so his back is to the sidewalk. It’s almost like a soap opera, how perfect the timing is, but Mei Nianqing knows that voice, thus he knows nothing could be a simple coincidence. Maybe this meeting time is planned, but the fact that he recognizes the person strolling up behind him, that Xie Lian looks up at with a nervous smile that’s strikingly familial-- this can’t be a coincidence, too.

“Ah… father,” Xie Lian greets. “This is… exactly what it looks like.”

Come up with a better excuse, it’s my life on the line, not yours! Mei Nianqing wants to shout at him, but he can’t be upset that his Xie Lian broke his new father’s rules to meet with him in secret. It would be a lot more touching if he didn’t know exactly what this person was capable of. Slowly, he turns his head marginally to catch their reflections in the window of the cafe before him, completely unsurprised at the man standing behind him.

Some things never change. Even after seven years, Xie Lian still wears his hair the same way his mother styled for him as a child, and he’s just as kind as ever.

And even after twelve years, Jun Wu is as brilliant as ever.

He’s the only person who could walk into a small town cafe wearing a suit without looking like an ostentatious asshole, Mei Nianqing thinks. He’s irritably stunning. It’s been over a decade since they’ve seen each other, and while Mei Nianqing feels as if his age is simply dragging him wherever it so pleases, Jun Wu has certainly taken the reins of every day that’s gone by. It isn’t that he ‘doesn’t look a day over forty or whatever; he looks well into forty as he should, and each new year looks good on him. Meanwhile, Mei Nianqing has already found his first grey hair and complained to the other priests for no less than an hour.

Jun Wu waits behind him to be acknowledged, and oh, how Mei Nianqing wanted to avoid this reunion more than anything in the world. There aren’t any escape routes in site he could take while maintaining face in front of his son; he has no choice. Slowly, while still trying to keep his head high, Mei Nianqing turns in his seat. “Hello… sir,” he says offhand, watching as Jun Wu’s face immediately loses composure as recognition flashes in his eyes.

So at least he isn’t the only one surprised here. At least that means this wasn’t orchestrated.

“...You,” Jun Wu says disdainfully. “What’re you doing here with my son?”

Mei Nianqing scoffs and lifts his tea cup to put on airs of false confidence. “I could ask you the same thing!”

Seeing Jun Wu here was surprise enough, but only once the now cold drink hits his tongue does Mei Nianqing put together what it means for him to be here. For Jun Wu to be here. Where he’s meeting Xie Lian. Who has a new father.

The same gears appear to be turning in Jun Wu’s head, because by the time Mei Nianqing has lowered his drink back down to the table, he has a finger in the air ready to accuse him.

Xie Lian interrupts any chance of confrontation. “Do you two know each other?” he asks, and it would sound naive if Mei Nianqing didn’t know how clever this boy was.

“We don’t,” Jun Wu says.

“We do,” Mei Nianqing says at the same time.

It’s almost laughable, really.

The three of them are left in tense silence, neither of the fathers able to say anything to each other, while Xie Lian looks between them as if waiting for one to explain what was happening. No answer comes, naturally, because there’s nothing Mei Nianqing feels he can say that would be approved by the man looming behind him. It isn’t that he’s afraid of Jun Wu by any means, no, he’s the last person who would be--

It’s just awkward meeting your ex again no matter how long it’s been. A lover, in Mei Nianqing’s experience, can quickly turn into a villain once the relationship has ended, and if he’s the one who ended it? They’re the last person he ever wants to run into just for fear of the overwhelming guilt he’s left with. If one relationship in his life ever taught him something about what it means to truly regret and live with sharp guilt that feels fresh even twelve years later--Jun Wu is his worst nightmare.

Suddenly, Xie Lian’s phone buzzes on the table, and he quickly snatches it up before either of them can see the screen. “Ah--I’m sorry, I have to take this, I’ll be right back!” he excuses himself while scrambling to stand from his seat.

Jun Wu lifts his hand in a nonchalant wave. “Of course, I was just about to go inside and grab myself a drink, too.” When his hand lowers, it lands on the back of Mei Nianqing’s chair, just out of Xie Lian’s eyesight.

Oh, gods forgive him. 

Mei Nianqing swallows hard. “And I… have to use the restroom.”

Hadn’t he done right raising Xie Lian into a fine young man? He’s devoted so much of his life to the church, worshipping and spreading the word of these gods who have done him so well in the past. So why does he have to watch his son smile and trot away unsuspectingly while he willingly follows his ex into the cafe which looks shockingly more like a tomb all of a sudden!

To be fair, Mei Nianqing is the one who stands and walks back inside first. Confrontation at this point is inevitable, and he’ll need a few minutes to reevaluate all his faculties and prepare for battle. He doesn’t give Jun Wu the chance to speak with him before heading inside on his own.

When they were dating, Mei Nianqing had been fascinated with, enamored with Jun Wu’s clever mind. The two of them could get endless satisfaction and enjoyment out of just sitting in an empty room and going back and forth with each other, making their own games without rules in conversation alone. They would dance vaguely around topics to set boundaries, using obvious facts or stories from earlier to twist the other into submitting something as simple as “I forgot to do the dishes,” or “the book you recommended me was good.” Usually the game always came down to trying to force each other into saying those three little words first, and when it was that romantic stuff on the line, somehow Mei Nianqing always lost and gave in.

Jun Wu is intelligent and capable, cunning beyond all compare, and Mei Nianqing had adored him for it. Now that those tools are turned against him, he couldn’t hurry into the bathroom fast enough.

Just as he’s closing the door, though, a foot jams itself in between the door and wall wall. He pales, helpless to just watch as Jun Wu pushes the door back open and steps inside, all pleasant smiles and venom. He would look like nothing more than a pleasant young man who didn’t see that the restroom was occupied if not for how he calmly closes the door behind him without even trying to obscure the two of them walking into the single toilet restroom together.

The ‘click’ of the lock turning sounds scarily like a gun cocking.

He doesn’t have the time to say anything if he wanted, though Mei Nianqing had suspected he wouldn’t get the opportunity. When a hand shoots out from behind Jun Wu’s back, Mei Nianqing doesn’t allow himself to be surprised, fully expecting the fingers that curl in his collar and yank him harshly into Jun Wu’s personal space. He doesn’t even stumble as he’s pulled forward and follows the motion easily.

As soon as they’re touching, Jun Wu grabs his shoulders with both hands and pushes him hard into the wall. Glorious and beautiful and clever, he can’t forget that Jun Wu is also the strongest person he’s ever met. If only his personality wasn’t so horrible, he really would be perfect.

Mei Nianqing is smart enough to tilt his head up before any rude hands can claw at his chin or pull his hair, fully prepared for the pair of lips that come crashing down onto his.

Jun Wu wasn’t always like this.

Years and years ago, when they had dated, he was young and sweet. They would exchange innocent smiles and pretend to keep their relationship secret in front of their friends, as if any of them couldn’t tell from the first day. Jun Wu would hold Mei Nianqing so softly that he feared he would break from the inside out, and he indulged Jun Wu similarly. Before they were lovers, the two of them were partners in crime, best friends, and sewn together at the hip.

It’s Mei Nianqing’s fault all of that ended. He accepts the teeth that bite at his lips and offers no obstruction to the tongue demanding entry into his mouth--he even threads his fingers through Jun Wu’s head to keep him close. They would only ever kiss like this if they were fighting, and he supposes it makes sense this is how it would be after running away for a decade. Jun Wu crushes his body against the tiled wall, his lips unrelenting against Mei Nianqing’s mouth in a way that has the priest almost trembling. It’s been years since anyone has treated him like this--twelve years, in fact. Jun Wu draws Mei Nianqing’s tongue from its hiding place in the back of his throat just to lurch forward and bite down. His teeth come down hard on his tongue like a bear trap, holding it in place, and Mei Nianqing’s fingers tighten their hold on Jun Wu’s hair.

Ex or not, there’s no denying that Jun Wu knows just what to do to get Mei Nianqing worked up. The taste of blood in his own mouth has Mei Nianqing gasping, unable to deny the stirrings of arousal in his pants as Jun Wu growls into his mouth. He’s so put together all the time, exuding royalty and regality as if he was a king born into the wrong generation. 

When he pulls back, Jun Wu is breathing heavily, though it only takes a moment to compose himself. Mei Nianqing coughs into his hand as he tries to regain his breath. It allows Jun Wu to get the first word in.

“Mei Nianqing.”

“Your royal highness.”

He sees Jun Wu’s brow twitch at the old nickname. He still manages to put on a smile.  “Pray tell what you’re doing here, speaking with my son?”

Your son?” Mei Nianqing tuts with a roll of his eyes. “You’ve known him for a few years as a teacher, that’s hardly family at all. I raised Xie Lian by myself since he was eleven, practically. He’s always been my son.”

Mei Nianqing takes a deep breath and steels himself. Maybe a younger version of himself (or any sane person) would be intimidated, but he knows this man inside and out. And he knows that Jun Wu hates nothing more than not receiving a reaction. He speaks before Jun Wu can try and threaten him. “What game are you playing with some child ? Who just decides to foster some random student of theirs--”

“Is it so hard to believe I might genuinely care for him?”

Mei Nianqing curls his lips back into his mouth as if he’d tasted something sour, not saying a word.

Jun Wu finally lets go of him and backs away with a shake of his head. It’s much easier to breathe when he isn’t being held against the wall, and Mei Nianqing steadies himself with a relieved sigh. They’re far too old to be doing stuff like this, but Jun Wu would never hear him out.

By the time he looks up, Jun Wu is already at the door, hair and clothes immaculate and back in place as if nothing had ever happened. Mei Nianqing realizes that if anyone looks suspiciously like they just made out in a public restroom with their ex lover, it would be him, but Jun Wu isn’t foolish enough to leave any marks on Mei Nianqing where Xie Lian might see.

“Don’t meddle,” is all Jun Wu says as he returns to the cafe, leaving Mei Nianqing all kinds of disheveled in the bathroom to fix himself up alone. He’s too embarrassed to look in the mirror to see what he might look like--what Jun Wu had wanted him to look like by dragging him back here. 

He straightens out his clothes and hair without looking in the mirror for the most part before he’s forced to check and make sure everything is in place. He’s thankful he doesn’t have to redo his braid (which was probably intentional on Jun Wu’s part) and only his collar has to be straightened out before he’s looking proper again.

It would be too easy to think Jun Wu is just trying to throw him off and scare him away from Xie Lian for some reason he hasn’t yet caught onto.

But if Mei Nianqing wasn’t already a devoted father who would’ve stayed anyways, he’s also the person who knows Jun Wu better than anyone in the world. That man has made one vital error, a grave mistake that gives Mei Nianqing all the reason he needs not to simply run away and meet with Xie Lian some other day.

He leans over the sink and opens his mouth, sticking out his tongue to observe. The bite Jun Wu left is deep, a perfect semi circle from one side of his tongue to the other. The longer he stares at it, the more blood rises to the surface. All he has to do is swallow and it disappears, hidden from the rest of the world behind white pillar and pink pillows so long as he doesn’t go around showing it off.

It’s a mark Jun Wu left that nobody else could see, just for Mei Nianqing. Something he would continue to feel, continue to think about. It would take days if not over a week to heal. He would think of Jun Wu every time he so much as drank tea or ate.

That man could really be so clumsy when it comes to things he can’t possess.

Mei Nianqing claps his hands in a quick prayer, and he leaves the restroom to find his son. There’s a long war ahead.

Chapter Text

Mei Nianqing learns a thing or two about Xie Lian and Jun Wu’s relationship when they all return to the table. Jun Wu is nothing short of a perfect gentleman and guardian in front of Xie Lian, not showing a trace of that same man who had snarled into his mouth and bit the shit out of his tongue just a few minutes earlier. Mei Nianqing can easily picture him in an office at some prestigious high school, a model principal on good terms with all of his staff and students. He’ll have to google his reputation online once he gets a moment away.

Xie Lian acts just like himself, too, but there are differences in how he treats the two of them. He certainly shows more respect to Jun Wu, as should be expected. The man is still his principal, and they had met when Xie Lian was already grown with a number of families behind him. Their relationship appears to be quite good, but not quite as close as family yet.

Of course not, Mei Nianqing stubbornly chides, there’s no way this guy could ever have bonded as much with Xie Lian as he has, let alone have the qualifications to be a father!

If anyone had asked him what kind of parent Jun Wu would be like in the future, Mei Nianqing would’ve laughed, tried to answer, and returned to laughing before he could actually speak. The idea of Jun Wu and children wasn’t so hard to believe, given why Mei Nianqing isn’t surprised to hear he became a principal, but actually having children of his own is another story. Mei Nianqing always vowed he would pity whatever children had the misfortune of being born under Jun Wu, but now that it’s his kid, the prospect is much less amusing.

Xie Lian, though, does surprisingly well with him. It seems he never quite lost that rebellious streak and didn’t take Mei Nianqing’s “don’t take anything into your own hands” to heart as a child. He disputes Jun Wu often in small ways, be it correcting a story that he’s telling or clarifying less savory details that he purposely left out. Usually he was just making himself appear humble, saying this wasn’t a big deal or that wasn’t so important, but Mei Nianqing has to hide a laugh behind his cup. To Jun Wu who undoubtedly is using this child at least for his own pride, Xie Lian does everything he can to absolve himself of any pedestal he’s being put on.

Even more startling is when Xie Lian actually convinces Jun Wu to let Mei Nianqing stay at their home instead of some dingy hotel.

He would refuse the offer if he wasn’t still licking up the blood from the bite on his tongue, smiling graciously at Jun Wu from across the table when he agrees.


 

The home is… just what Mei Nianqing expects, actually. Even if Jun Wu has a job as non-luxurious as a principal of some high school, he still plays his image up with a large home in a rich neighborhood, the money coming from who knows where. Mei Nianqing pretends not to be intimidated as he hauls his two cases of luggage up the stairs to the guest room beside Xie Lian’s, maintaining pleasant conversation as Jun Wu disappears into his office downstairs. The two of them have a lot to talk about with seven years of distance missing between them. Once everything is settled and put in place, they sit on the side of Mei Nianqing’s bed to discuss any nonsense that has occurred between their last decade without each other.

Without the weight of his ex lingering around the corner, Mei Nianqing is able to actually appreciate this time he has with Xie Lian. When he was younger, he had been fully prepared to take care of and raise Xie Lian for the rest of his life if need be; he was incredibly close with the boy’s parents, and it would’ve been an honor to raise him. It just so happened that he adored Xie Lian for who he was as well and thus focused all his efforts on seeing this child through--only for him to be cruelly snatched away within the blink of an eye.

As Xie Lian pours the two of them tea, Mei Nianqing listens intently to every story he tells, basking in the simple happiness that is this child’s life. Xie Lian is by no means his biological son, of course, and he didn’t even raise him for the first five years of his life. But, close with his parents, Mei Nianqing played with the baby whenever he was brought over for game nights or events, even chatting with him and drawing him a set of cards when he was old enough to know his numbers. Xie Lian would always lose just for not knowing the rules of the game, but whenever Mei Nianqing saw his hand at the end of the round, he couldn’t help but think about all the ways he could have played himself into a winning hand.

In the end, there was never any chance of him winning; that child’s luck was unfairly horrible!

When Jun Wu retires to his own room for the night, Xie Lian helps Mei Nianqing unpack before giving him a quick tour of the house. Jun Wu’s taste in regal decor hasn’t changed one bit, Mei Nianqing thinks with a sour upturn of his lips that he hides whenever Xie Lian glances at him. In reality, Mei Nianqing is only bitter because he adores it, and he loves the decor, and he loves that stupid royalty-like atmosphere that reminds him a bit too much of the apartment they once shared together. To think, if they had stayed together, if they had gone forward with their relationship, Mei Nianqing imagines their future house might’ve looked something exactly like this…

The tour ends at Xie Lian’s room right next to his. Mei Nianqing is delighted to sit in the chair at Xie Lian’s desk and watch the young man flit happily around his room, bringing his father every framed photo on his wall, the medals and trophies he’s won in wrestling, and any other trinket he’s decorated the room with. Which is, to say, a lot--Xie Lian seems to hold much of his memories in his junk, it would appear. Every little thing has a story to go with it to convince Mei Nianqing that they aren’t all useless, even if some stories are as small as “this is from the first time me and Mu Qing tried out that new burger place downtown!”

Eventually, Xie Lian calms down as the night grows longer, and by the time he sits across from Mei Nianqing on the side of his bed it’s already dark out. They somehow missed dinner completely, and Mei Nianqing has to wonder if Jun Wu ate alone without even calling for them or if he simply didn’t eat either.

Xie Lian smiles at him. “Today has been so much fun… I’ll admit, I was worried things would be…?”

“Different?” Mei Nianqing says with a laugh. Xie Lian’s cheeks instantly puff out. 

“I was going to say awkward,” Xie Lian finishes. “I thought maybe now that it’s been so long that we would just be strangers, since I’m not really a kid anymore.”

Ah, there it is. Mei Nianqing had been waiting for him to say just those words, and his lips curl up in a ‘gotcha’ smile. “Oh, your highness,” he says with a wistful sigh, standing from his seat to approach the other. His hand lands on top of Xie Lian’s head and gives him a playful shake. “Don’t you know that to parents, their children will always be kids?”

Xie Lian scoffs, as if he’s surprised Mei Nianqing would pull out this cheesy cliche in front of him before he’s laughing and reaching up to hold the hand on top of his head. Yet as corny and silly as it is, Mei Nianqing unashamedly finds himself agreeing with all those sentimental parenting stories on the covers of gossip magazines. Maybe to Xie Lian he’s ages different from that little eleven year old boy who was pulled from his house, a grown adult now with his own multifaceted life. But to the man who helped raise him, it hardly matters; Mei Nianqing still sees that tiny four-foot-something happily trotting up to him to show off another baby tooth.

He settles down beside Xie Lian on the bed, much the same way they were earlier in Mei Nianqing’s room just a few hours ago. This time, though, now that they’ve had the time to become familiar and enjoy their privacy, Mei Nianqing watches as Xie Lian’s gaze wanders off, his hands fiddling somewhat… nervously in his lap.

“There is… something I wanted to tell you about, specifically. Without Jun Wu here.” Xie Lian says in a slightly quieter voice.

Mei Nianqing’s brows raise at the secrecy, intrigued (and also delighted that Jun Wu was reduced to his name instead of ‘father’). He leans closer so Xie Lian doesn’t have to speak up. “What’s that, Xie Lian?”

It’s somewhat exciting to watch Xie Lian hop up to close and lock the door, like something Mei Nianqing should never see as a father. Logically, he should be the one being locked out, but Xie Lian hurries back to sit with him on the side of the bed as if the thought hasn’t even occurred to him. Mei Nianqing is far happier to be a confidant than an enemy.

“The truth is… and I was hoping you could give me some advice,” Xie Lian says quietly, hiding his mouth behind a hand. “I actually… like someone,” he says bashfully. “We started dating recently...”

Mei Nianqing feels his brain short circuit.

Sure, they spent all of today catching up with each other, learning every year of Xie Lian’s life up until now. Mei Nianqing had praised his talks about high school exams, varsity sports, and college applications, all things that wouldn’t apply to a prepubescent. Those were all fine, he was very proud to hear each and every detail of his accomplishments! Xie Lian learning how to drive and getting his license, his first job, yes, those he can all handle…

But isn’t it too soon to be talking about things like love, especially when he had just been inwardly cooing over that six year old son of his?!

At once, that tiny Xie Lian he had raised so diligently in his youth begins to fade from his mind, all those smiles with missing teeth and round chubby cheeks being tainted by that shockingly demure blush on his face now. Ah, he wishes he had been locked out of the room earlier after all, children truly only hid these things from their parents for their own good, didn’t they!

In reality, he’s only silent for a few moments as he shrieks inwardly, staring blankly at Xie Lian with that stupid smile still plastered on his face. Mei Nianqing quickly recovers and coughs into his hand, trying to steel his expression into something natural before responding.

“I see… someone you’re dating,” he repeats in lieu of an actual coherent answer.

Xie Lian nods. “His name is San Lang, he’s quite talented and good at everything. Ah, that isn’t to say I only like him because he’s good at things, he’s a very kind person, too! He’s very smart, we’ll be going to the same university together, too.”

By the time he realizes he’s rambling, Xie Lian looks up to find Mei Nianqing smiling at him again, and he laughs at himself.

The shock of his child growing up and falling in love doesn’t last long, not while he’s able to sit here and listen to Xie Lian go on and on about this person. Of course it’s surprising to be hit with seemingly out of nowhere, but that’s just it--surprise. If he can clear that out of his mind and focus on the present, listening to Xie Lian list all the good qualities of this person who’s obviously very dear to him, then it’s impossible for Mei Nianqing not to be pleased, too.

“I’m glad to hear that you’ve found somebody who makes you happy,” he answers seriously, feeling like an actual father again for the first time in almost ten years. “Have you told Jun Wu about this yet?”

If Xie Lian senses his ulterior motive, he doesn’t show it. “Ah, yes, he found out on accident. I don’t think he’s very happy about me getting involved in a relationship right now, which is why I wanted to talk to you about it.”

Mei Nianqing nods along in understanding.

There’s just a hair of willpower keeping him from cackling at Jun Wu’s misfortune. Well, in reality, it’s more like Jun Wu went ahead and started a war with Mei Nianqing on his own, and he’s already winning without having to do anything. When he raised Xie Lian those years ago, he had done so alone, thus he hadn’t understood any of the stereotypes of different parents together.

But now, he’s certain; he’s the cool dad .

He puffs his chest out a little bit further. Jun Wu may have financial stability and social standing and reputation and success and Mei Nianqing’s son under his roof, but is he the cool dad? “Well, feel free to talk however much you want, I’m more than happy to listen. You’re of that age, after all, it’s only natural you would become interested in these things,” he says despite having almost had a breakdown mere minutes ago over the fleetingness of time in a parent’s life.

Xie Lian stops fidgeting with his hands in his lap, flashing Mei Nianqing a bright smile. His entire body seems to relax all at once with one deep breath.

“Thanks, dad.”


The next time Mei Nianqing sees Jun Wu, it’s morning and Xie Lian has already scampered out the door. They ended up staying awake quite late while Xie Lian told Mei Nianqing all kinds of stories about this San Lang character. He doesn’t quite talk about their relationship as much as he just gushes about everything he’s good at or cool things he’s done, and Mei Nianqing just wants to reach out and ruffle his hair the entire time. He understands what it means to be a responsible parent, but it’s hard to forgive Jun Wu for making Xie Lian seek out another entire father just to talk about his boyfriend with.

Jun Wu is seated at the kitchen table when he comes downstairs, the picture of perfect domesticity with a book in one hand and a mug of coffee in the other. He knows from the night before that they must have tea from Xie Lian serving him, so Mei Nianqing makes himself at home and begins searching the pantry by himself.

“Above the microwave.”

“Ah, thank you.”

There’s a number of different bags and tins stored in the cupboard he’s pointed to, and Mei Nianqing recognizes all of them. It’s a strange mix from Jun Wu’s favorite drinks and Xie Lian’s. Seeing them together produces some strange vertigo that he can’t quite shake, like two worlds that should’ve never collided. He ultimately decides on one all three of them enjoy and puts the other bags away.

Mei Nianqing doesn’t realize how strange it is that he finds the kettle on his first try while going through the other cupboards. Which shelf the cups and teapot are kept in comes easily too, given he’s simply checking where things would be in his own house. Once the kettle is on the stove, he turns to see Jun Wu already watching him.

“You two were up late,” Jun Wu says with a pleasant smile.

Mei Nianqing returns the expression in kind. “We had a lot to talk about. Has he told you about his new boyfriend?”

“No need, he was a student at my school, too.”

Oh, well, that actually makes sense. “Xie Lian said you weren’t happy about their relationship. Isn’t that being a little too stingy? It’s his first time and he’s of that age.”

They should know about dating around college; the two of them had gotten together even earlier. 

Jun Wu lets out a long sigh that displays his age, setting his book back down on the table. “I know the kid personally, Nianqing. Trust me when I say he isn’t worth a moment of Xie Lian’s time.”

“I trust your judgement,” Mei Nianqing concedes, “but I trust my son, too. Xie Lian isn’t a fool, he’s old enough to make those decisions by himself.” He carefully fills an infuser with leaves and, ah, isn’t this something Mei Nianqing bought for Jun Wu as a present years ago? The fact it hasn’t fallen apart yet is a miracle, or maybe he simply bought another one when its time was up.

“You give him a lot of credit for only raising him as a child,” Jun Wu says. “Shouldn’t you be even more worried about his first boyfriend?”

“It’s the duty of a parent to raise their children into someone they don’t have to worry about making bad decisions. If he was raised well, then there shouldn’t be any need to worry. All that matters is being here if something goes wrong.”

As soon as Mei Nianqing turns his back to Jun Wu once again, he smiles. If this were simply a war for who could sound like the best parent, Mei Nianqing is easily winning, hands down. Maybe it isn’t a matter of “not being a dad for seven years” and more like he’s been saving all of his paternal energy for this moment, all at once. It isn’t like the words coming from his mouth are nonsense, either; he genuinely believes that Xie Lian should be able to make these decisions for himself. If he doubted his own child after being so proud of everything else, it just made him a hypocrite.

There’s no way Xie Lian could speak about this San Lang for so long last night without being aware of whatever negatives Jun Wu could dig up.

Jun Wu doesn’t say anything for the next few minutes, leaving Mei Nianqing to prepare his tea in relative silence. Without even thinking about it, Mei Nianqing pours two different cups, adding three spoonfuls of sweetener to one on pure reflex alone. It’s only when he sets the tray down on the table and counts three cups does he realize his mistake. Jun Wu glances between his still half-full mug of coffee and Mei Nianqing.

Then he continues drinking his coffee as Mei Nianqing sits on the other side of the table, sipping his own cup of tea.

“You should text Xie Lian,” Jun Wu finally says. “Ask him for that boy’s birth details.”

Mei Nianqing pauses, momentarily surprised before narrowing his eyes. “You don’t think I didn’t ask him last night?”

“I know you didn’t, because you still approve.”

Now that’s the first thing to legitimately worry Mei Nianqing. He thinks about mouthing off some nonsense about how he’s grown past caring about silly things like star signs and predestined fates and the like but… has he truly? It is a part of his religion that he’s taken seriously for many years. The only time the stars seemed to let him down were when it had to do with Jun Wu.

In the end, he gives in, and picks up his phone. “You’ve already looked it up yourself?” Mei Nianqing asks as he pulls up Xie Lian’s contact.

Jun Wu nods. “I did.”

So even he believed in such things still, too. Mei Nianqing is the one who introduced him to horoscopes and star signs when they were much younger, and Jun Wu happily went along with anything he showed him. It helped that at the time, he and Jun Wu along with their other friends all met through the same religious program in their youth, thus all had a foundation believing these sorts of things.

Mei Nianqing sends out a quick text playing the unassuming father asking for his son’s boyfriend’s birth chart so he can test their romantic compatibility. It isn’t a lie, but his intentions aren’t so lighthearted as Xie Lian replies, quickly providing his birthday, time of birth, and location within minutes. He had made assumptions as to where Xie Lian disappeared to in a flash this morning; so he must be with that San Lang right now.

Even having done this for so many years, Mei Nianqing is not so intelligent that he has every combination of dates and locations memorized to know everything from a simple glance. He squints at the reply Xie Lian sent, vaguely recognizing his birth date as being somewhat significant, but that couldn’t be the only thing Jun Wu is talking about.

Just as he stands from the table to go upstairs and retrieve one of his books, Jun Wu points to a shelf in the living room. “Second to the left,” is all he says. Mei Nianqing has no reason not to check out what he’s referring to. As soon as he pulls the heavy book out, Mei Nianqing lets out a quiet breath. 

It’s old and tattered from use, though obviously well cared for in how it hasn’t completely fallen apart just yet. Some of the pages are even tagged with bookmarks or ribbons, and when he opens it, he finds Xie Lian’s information on a post-it note on a relevant page. He smiles, back turned to the kitchen.

Jun Wu kept this, too, huh.

It’s the exact book he was going to retrieve from his luggage, a staple of social interaction that Mei Nianqing couldn’t go anywhere without. He takes just a few moments to flip through the pages, seeing what Jun Wu has marked as important, and even finding a few notes from Xie Lian who must’ve been trying to learn fortune telling at some point as well.

He returns to the kitchen with the tome in his hands and reading glasses perched on the bridge of his nose, already flipping through the pages. Jun Wu speaks up leisurely. “It isn’t bad enough that he’s a gemini?” he asks with a teasing edge to his voice.

Mei Nianqing huffs a small laugh. “They’re neighbors as zodiac signs, their compatibility shouldn’t be too horrible. Even if geminis are the worst sign overall, it doesn’t mean…”

As soon as he trails off, Jun Wu smiles, knowing he finally reached the page he was searching for. In that year, at this certain latitude… no, it couldn’t be. Jun Wu must be lying to him, but he isn’t the one who told him San Lang’s information. He trusts Xie Lian wouldn’t lie about his birth information for no reason. Maybe Jun Wu changed the book and this is different, but… he’s studied this for so long, he knows that it all makes sense in accordance with other readings he’s done before.

But going by his time of birth, his location, the day, the month, that year--Xie Lian would basically be dating the devil himself!

He slams the book shut on the table, making their cups rattle. Jun Wu just gazes up at him expectantly while he rips his glasses off.

“This… this union cannot come to be,” Mei Nianqing finally says, eyes wide in shock and horror. He repeatedly slaps the back of his hand against his other palm anxiously. It isn’t just that this child had unfortunate circumstances at birth or was somewhat unlucky, this is the worst fortune Mei Nianqing’s ever seen! He should be disaster itself, absolute chaos!

Xie Lian, isn’t this your handwriting in this book, haven’t you been reading too? How could you miss something important like this!

“Now you understand?” Jun Wu asks haughtily, and Mei Nianqing sends him a nasty glare.

“Don’t be so arrogant as to think you were leading me to some conclusion I wouldn’t have made on my own! Who’s the one who taught you how to read birth charts in the first place, of course I would come to this conclusion by myself. It’s not as if this is a matter of opinion that I am conceding with you on!” It’s been a good, long while since he’s gotten to rant at Jun Wu, and surprisingly, the other man just smiles at him as if he’s happy to hear it.

Mei Nianqing holds his forehead in one hand and leans on the table. He drinks his tea as if it were alcohol, throwing it back without any semblance of elegance deserving of all the time he took to prepare it. Xie Lian, his poor Xie Lian has always been prone to having the worst luck in the world, but how unlucky could one person be to stumble into what should be a literal demon out of everyone he could choose to fall in love with!

“I’m not being unnecessarily arrogant,” Jun Wu says. “I’m actually rather glad that you came to the same conclusion--that’s why I let you stay here with us.”

“You only let me stay here to help break up my son and his new boyfriend?”

Jun Wu blinks, slowly. “Primarily.”

Irredeemable.

Mei Nianqing finishes his cup of tea and grabs the one he accidentally prepared for Jun Wu, drinking it slower this time. It’s far sweeter than he would ever make for himself. “I can’t believe Xie Lian would do this! He spoke so highly of him last night, completely lovestruck like some maiden who’s been bewitched by a devil! That’s what it is, right? It isn’t that Xie Lian is a fool, it’s that this opponent is simply too chaotic and is taking advantage of my son’s good graces and benevolent heart! Oh, I always told him not to serve justice by his own hands, that those morals of his would always be his downfall--look at him, offering rides to serial killers on the side of the road just because they look beaten down!”

“You’re right, you’re completely right,” Jun Wu adds.

“Of course I’m right, my fortunes are always right! This isn’t some hobby I do for fun, I am a priest ! The Head Priest of my district, thank you!”

“So you’ll work with me?”

“It could hardly be called working together, we just have a common enemy. That’s all!”

He isn’t so desperate as to suddenly beg for Jun Wu’s assistance just because he’s horrified by this sudden turn of events. No, he’d rather die than ever be in debt to his ex lover, especially with how little they’ve interacted so far. 

Just thinking about the two of them coming together in any kind of context after having spent so many years being closer than Mei Nianqing’s own skin… it’s impossible. He knows Jun Wu still harbors a resentment towards him that may not ever be able to be cured, they would never be able to work together while he’s hated so thoroughly. Even if it could be resolved somehow, Mei Nianqing doesn’t know if he wants to even bother with the effort if he’s just going to go back home afterwards and never see each other again. 

He looks up from his second empty cup of tea to find Jun Wu staring holes through him, expression unreadable in a way that frightens Mei Nianqing after his previous line of thought. He waits for him to say something else on the topic of Xie Lian’s boyfriend, but the words that come from Jun Wu are only four: “You drank my tea.”

Mei Nianqing looks back down at his cup, then the mug in front of Jun Wu. He’s finished his coffee.

There isn’t any time to react or question him before Jun Wu is dragging him up from his seat by his collar, not caring for how the cup in his hand clatters to the table with a ‘clank’ that doesn’t shatter, thankfully. Mei Nianqing thinks only about reaching out to grab it and stops the cup with one hand before it can roll onto the floor. Jun Wu seizes his other hand in one of his, keeping Mei Nianqing held upright by his collar in the other, and smashes their lips together.

This time when Jun Wu’s tongue invades his mouth, it’s with a purpose, licking into every part of his mouth. The surface of his teeth, his cheeks, and the roof of his mouth all are thoroughly investigated, leaving not one spot untouched. There is less biting, thankfully, as Mei Nianqing doesn’t think the still-sore marks on his tongue could take anymore abuse. But he can feel where Jun Wu searches for those bite marks he left the day before, practically digging into them with the tip of his own tongue that arouses the same pain as pressing into a fresh bruise.

Mei Nianqing expects him to taste bitter, having just drank coffee, but he only tastes cream and sugar. With the sweetener he put in the tea earlier, his mouth is suddenly sweet, sickeningly so, and he cannot tell if Jun Wu is trying to steal the flavor from his mouth or infect him with his own. Even with the choice he always has of simply biting down on the tongue in his mouth to free himself, Mei Nianqing drinks anyways.