Actions

Work Header

a micro utopia born as the overture plays

Work Text:

It’s hard to ignore the war looming on the horizon, but the moments where Meng Yao comes the closest to forgetting are the lazy, golden mornings like this. In the late morning sunlight slanting through the window, Lan Xichen looks like a creature sent from the heavens. To Meng Yao’s surprise and delight, he seems to have no qualms about sleeping in the nude, even though the sheets and blankets he bought in town are nothing close to the silk that Lan Xichen must have grown up sleeping on.

Because he can, Meng Yao reaches out and traces a finger over the line of Lan Xichen’s collarbone, then down the center of his chest, his stomach. Lan Xichen shivers delightfully under his hand. His eyes look like the richest honey in the light like this, although his smile is so broad that it pushes his eyes closed and Meng Yao can’t see more than a sliver of their color. 

Nie Mingjue had never really put up with this kind of languid lounging. He was always busy, and whenever they weren’t actively fucking, and often when they were, it was clear on his face that his mind had been elsewhere. Meng Yao hadn’t hated that, most of the time. It was its own kind of challenge, coaxing Nie Mingjue out of his own head until he was putty in Meng Yao’s hands. Frankly, he would have expected Lan Xichen to be the same. But Lan Xichen, as it turns out, is all too eager and willing to be taken apart in someone else’s hands. It’s intoxicating. 

He knows that this little pocket of peace must end soon enough. Lan Xichen will reemerge as soon as his brother is safe (or dead, but Meng Yao knows better than to pose this possibility), and when he does so, Meng Yao will set off for Qishan to offer his considerable services. Lan Xichen plainly dislikes this plan, and his jaw tightens whenever Meng Yao brings it up, but Meng Yao is not flattering himself when he explains that he is best suited for this job. He was visibly ejected by both the Jin and Nie sects; he has more than enough reason to appear to want to join the Wen. And, as he has proved over and over as if it is a parlor trick, his memory is unrivaled. Meng Yao only needs a single glimpse of a battle plan in order to copy it down perfectly. That skill made him an excellent lieutenant, but it makes him the ideal spy. 

“A-Yao,” Lan Xichen begins. He has a soft look in his eyes. In anyone else, the sentiment of it all would give Meng Yao hives. It is better to be liked than hated, but it is also generally better to be liked than loved. People who love Meng Yao develop certain expectations about what he should do or not do. He doesn’t enjoy having more obligations than necessary. 

But in Lan Xichen, who is effortlessly exceptional in many ways, his warm gaze gives Meng Yao a pleasant tingly feeling rather than an itchiness. It’s bizarre. Meng Yao can’t remember not chafing under people’s perceptions of him since -- well. Since his mother died. 

“Yes, gege?” Lan Xichen had plainly refused to be zongzhu or Zewu-jun after the first time they so much as kissed, but Meng Yao can barely get Lan Xichen’s courtesy name out of his mouth, let alone dare to call him A-Huan . Calling him gege was an accident, but Lan Xichen liked it so much that he hasn’t stopped. 

Lan Xichen pauses before he speaks. He often does. “A-Yao, will you…?”

There are any number of things that Lan Xichen might be about to say. He might be about to say, “A-Yao, will you cook breakfast while I bathe in the river?” But then, there is a gravity to his tone, and a flush on his cheeks. So perhaps it will be, “A-Yao, will you do that thing with your tongue?” Or even more thrillingly, “A-Yao, will you teach me how to do that thing with your tongue?”

Lan Xichen does not say any of these things. He says, “A-Yao, will you marry me? If we both survive the war, will you marry me?”

Rarely in his life has Meng Yao been struck truly speechless. Even when he gives the impression that he is shocked beyond words, that is a calculated decision. But his mind, just as it remembers every word, every book, every map it has ever seen, almost never stops whirring. 

In this particular moment, he thinks he might black out. His heart freezes in his chest; his ears ring. The look on his face is undoubtedly idiotic. 

“A-Yao?” Lan Xichen says, concerned, reaching up to stroke his cheek. Worry creases his perfect brow. “You don’t have to answer now. Are you alright? If you don’t want to, it’s okay--”

“We can’t.” Meng Yao’s mouth speaks without his permission. 

Lan Xichen sits up. The sheet falls, exposing one exquisite hip. Meng Yao makes a strangled noise in his throat. “Well, why not?” he says staunchly. “Do you not want to?”

“Of course I want to,” Meng Yao says, frustrated into saying more than he means to. He grew up in a brothel; it is nearly impossible to make him genuinely blush. But the open adoration on Lan Xichen’s face makes his cheeks burn. “Xichen, don’t be -- anyone in the world would want to marry you. Even if you weren’t number one on that stupid list, even if you weren’t handsome, even if you weren’t k-kind--” His traitorous tongue stutters. “--you’re still a sect leader. And that is precisely why I can’t marry you.”

Lan Xichen frowns. “What on earth do you mean? You would be the ideal partner to a sect leader. I’ve heard your ideas; you’re brilliant.”

“The circumstances of my birth,” Meng Yao begins, and then clarifies, when Lan Xichen’s frown deepens: “I am an unrecognized bastard son of a prostitute. I bring you no diplomatic capital.”

“I would never be embarrassed of you,” Lan Xichen says confidently. 

Meng Yao grits his teeth. “What would your uncle think?” he asks, and this does make Lan Xichen falter momentarily. 

“My uncle dislikes nearly everybody,” he says. “He will see that you are smart, and that you are dedicated and loyal, and he will learn to approve.”

“Xichen,” Meng Yao says helplessly. “It just -- it isn’t done .”

“As you said, I am a sect leader,” Lan Xichen says. “What is the point of being born into privilege and leading well if I cannot use the goodwill of my people to do something untraditional?” He says it like he is the first person to ever come up with the concept of abusing power. Against his better judgement, Meng Yao adores him for it. “Besides,” he continues boldly, “we have no way of knowing what will happen in the war. Perhaps I will die; perhaps there will be no more Lan sect for me to lead.” It clearly pains him to say it, but he soldiers on. “A-Yao, please. Refuse me if you so wish, that is your right. But only refuse me if you truly do not want to marry me.”

Meng Yao buries his face in his hands. “You cannot marry me simply because you love me,” he says, muffled. “It isn’t sensible.”

“I do not simply love you,” Lan Xichen says. “I think I started loving you the first moment we spoke. But that is not why I want you to be my husband.” The word husband is reverent in his mouth. “I want you to be my husband because I trust you.”

The last time Meng Yao cried, he was on his knees before a different sect leader, and he was pleading for his life. He had been distraught, yes, but he had also been distantly aware of how he looked with tears on his cheeks, how his eyes shone, whether his head was tilted at the optimal angle. Now, he is sitting nude in the bed of another, and he is truly, through no choice of his own, weeping.

“Oh, oh,” Lan Xichen says, alarmed, and then Meng Yao is being gathered up in his strong, warm arms. “Don’t cry, A-Yao, it’s alright if you can’t, it’s alright--”

“I want to,” Meng Yao says. His voice is mortifyingly wobbly. “I want to, I do.” He pulls back before he can get snot on Lan Xichen’s bare shoulder. Lan Xichen, because he is impossibly perfect, reaches over to the bedside table and hands him a handkerchief. “Thank you,” Meng Yao says, and blows his nose.

When he opens his eyes, Lan Xichen is watching him still, looking a little teary himself. “You do?”

“If we both survive,” Meng Yao agrees. He thinks there is a part of him that will always want his father’s approval, but -- what more could his mother want for him than marriage to a sect leader? Something she herself never achieved. In a way, this is a better legacy for her than explicitly fulfilling her wishes. 

Lan Xichen kisses him, snot and all, and presses him back into the bed. They end up missing breakfast entirely, and several hours later they eat congee in the kitchen in nothing but their trousers. These are the memories he tucks away like hard earned silver in an innermost pocket as he heads off towards Qishan. 

.

Meng Yao is not safe in Nightless City, but it is a different kind of danger than he would face on the battlefield. It is not his blade that will protect him, but his wit. Wen Ruohan does not like him, but he barely even likes his own concubines. No, Meng Yao offers usefulness, not pleasant company.

And he is useful. His memory makes him valuable to the allied sects; his absolute lack of squeamishness is what proves his worth to the Wens. They have more expert torturers than him, but he is still called upon to coax information from the occasional captured soldier, probably to test whether his hand wavers over any member of a sect he used to belong to.

It doesn’t. He cuts three fingers off of a Nie general who was never anything but distantly polite to him. He kills three Jin soldiers and only realizes later that two of them were his paternal second cousins. Well, he thinks, perhaps he would have known that if he had been allowed to serve at his father’s side.

Meng Yao doesn’t hesitate over the Lans either, but they give him the most pause later. In the privacy of his modest room, he swallows back bile at the thought of trying to explain to Lan Xichen why it was more important that Meng Yao preserve his position than keep a Lan prisoner alive. Lan Xichen is soft-hearted, especially for a sect leader, and Meng Yao frequently fears that it will be his downfall.

All the letters they exchange are short and efficient. Best to give away as little information as possible. And yet every time, Lan Xichen crams, “Hoping you are well,” into the corner of the page in characters so tiny that he must be using the smallest brush he owns. It made Meng Yao’s heart squeeze with both affection and worry. What kind of absurd man is Lan Xichen, that not even fighting on the frontlines of a war could stamp the sweetness out of him? What would?

The fear is why he rarely allows Lan Xichen into his thoughts. He’s too clean and bright to exist in the cold stone hallways of Nightless City. And on some level Meng Yao worries that Lan Xichen’s softness will infect him somehow, that the tender, impossible love they shared will seep through his constructed expression and have him found out. 

On the nights when Meng Yao’s mind won’t quiet, when his carefully compartmentalized anxieties threaten to burst out, he allows himself to imagine what could go wrong. The worst: Lan Xichen could die. That didn’t bear thinking about.

But anything less than that is salvageable. If Lan Xichen were to be captured, if the Wens won the war, Meng Yao thinks that perhaps he could keep him alive. His place among the Wens is not prestigious, but it is more secure than many of his higher-ranked peers. While they busy themselves trying to gain Wen Ruohan’s favor, Meng Yao focuses on becoming indispensable. He organizes the army supplies nearly single handedly, and he does it well. Without him, the Wen force might not completely fall apart, but they would find their food supplies jammed, the doctors directed to the wrong camps, and the troops confused as to who to follow.

Meng Yao could leverage that, if he needed to. He could keep Lan Xichen alive, either by sneaking him out of the city or by finding a suitably humiliating place in the household. It might have been titillating, a few years ago, to imagine Lan Xichen serving him rather than the other way around. But having had him, having already shared his bed -- it was hard to imagine anything better than what they already had. Lan Xichen taking care of him willingly and eagerly.

He doesn’t allow himself to think of their engagement. It’s too conditional on the war; there are too many moving factors for it to be a realistic goal.

Still. Still. When Meng Yao kills Wen Ruohan, his eyes go to Lan Xichen first. 

How could they not? Who else would wear pale blue to a war? His hem is stained with blood, but he still looks perfect.

In front of him, Wei Wuxian begins to fall, crumpling backwards. Meng Yao barely registers it. Wen Ruohan is dead. He drops the sword at the same moment that Wei Wuxian’s head connects with the courtyard, the crack of skull on stone startlingly loud in the sudden silence. 

Lan Wangji is up the stairs so fast that it’s almost creepy, pulling Wei Wuxian’s unconscious body into his arms. And two steps behind him -- Lan Xichen. Breathless, although he shouldn’t be, not a cultivator of his caliber. “A-Yao,” he says, voice cracking, and Meng Yao lets himself collapse into his arms.

It shouldn’t be particularly different, killing Wen Ruohan. Meng Yao has killed before. Has even stabbed people to death before -- Nie Mingjue will never allow him to forget that. But this time, the relief comes crashing down and it makes his knees go weak. He’s never allowed himself to plan for the moments after Wen Ruohan died -- on his blade or anyone else’s -- and he would be lost if it weren’t for the anchor of Lan Xichen clutching him. 

He presses his face against Lan Xichen’s collar, which smells of sweat and ash, and allows himself to tremble. The comedown of the adrenalin hits him hard, and it takes several long moments of deep breathing for the shaking to subside and for him to gather enough wherewithal to actually take in his surroundings again.

Thankfully, no one seems to have paid much attention to his momentary lapse in dignity; everyone besides Lan Wangji and Jiang Wanyin is too far down in the courtyard to see, and those two have eyes for no one but Wei Wuxian’s unconscious body. Lan Wangji, who is cradling him, begins shifting his grip so that he might carry him. He does it so gently that it’s slightly embarrassing to watch. Jiang Wanyin evidently feels the same, and snaps, “He’s my brother, I’ll carry him,” before pulling Wei Wuxian out of Lan Wangji’s arms. 

“A-Yao,” Lan Xichen says again, very quietly. This close, Meng Yao can see a faint scratch across his cheek, although it’s nearly healed and probably won’t even scar. He still wants to cut the throat of whoever hurt him.

“I’m here,” he says, pressing closer. “Gege, I’m here.”

“The war is over,” Lan Xichen says, half disbelieving. “Thanks to you.”

Meng Yao exhales, almost a laugh. He hasn’t laughed in months. “Well,” he says. “I had a reason to get it over with.”

Lan Xichen presses their foreheads together. Meng Yao almost jumps; anyone could see. But the war is over, which means -- which means --

“You haven’t changed your mind, have you?” he murmurs. Both teasing and not. 

“Never,” Lan Xichen says fiercely. “Please marry me, A-Yao.”

Meng Yao lets out a sigh that is not quite relief. He’s not shivering anymore, but his body doesn’t feel grounded yet. Wen Ruohan’s corpse lies at their feet, and yet it still doesn’t feel entirely real. “Yes,” he says, and for the first time, he lets himself acknowledge the ferocious, boundless depth of his desire for just that

For roughly three breaths, it could only be them in the world. Nobility and servants alike have begun to retreat from the palace, sensing imminent takeover, and Jiang Wanyin has carried Wei Wuxian’s unconscious body down the stairs with Lan Wangji trailing behind him. The universe has constricted to include only Meng Yao and Lan Xichen, pressed together, with Wen Ruohan’s blood sticky on their shoes. 

Then the cheering of Jin soldiers from the courtyard below grows louder as more allied soldiers stream in, having missed the action but ready to join the celebration. Meng Yao sighs and forces himself to step back. 

“Nie-zongzhu is alive, I think,” he says. “But he isn’t happy with me. I had to act the role of his enemy, and he already doesn’t trust me.”

Lan Xichen straightens up to his full, formidable height. “I’ll talk to him,” he says. “He doesn’t know how brave you were, but I’m sure he will see reason.”

There it is again: Lan Xichen’s inexplicable faith in people. Reasonable is not a word that Meng Yao would readily use to describe Nie Mingjue. But Lan Xichen has a very strange ability to manifest in people what he sees in them, because no one wants to disappoint him. He did it to Meng Yao with the honor and burden of his trust, and perhaps, somehow, he will do it to Nie Mingjue. 

.

Lan Xichen takes him back to the Lan tents that night. The troops are still clearing out the city, he explains apologetically, so does Meng Yao mind sleeping on a bedroll for just one night?

Meng Yao could theoretically lead him to his quarters in the palace, but something feels wrong about it. He doesn’t want to associate who he was here with Lan Xichen at all. So he just says, “Ge, as long as I’m sleeping next to you, I’d sleep in a bedroll for the rest of my life.” Which, may the gods help him, might be true. He just can’t stop thinking about what Lan Xichen said. 

“Who did you think sent me those letters?” he asked Nie Mingjue’s scowling face. Meng Yao clutched at the back of Lan Xichen’s robes. “A-Yao risked his life coming here to spy for us.” And then, “Please don’t raise a sword against my fiance.”

That had given Nie Mingjue pause. There was something other than disappointment or betrayal or rage when he glanced at Meng Yao. Perhaps jealousy? Or just confusion. He’d lowered Baxia. 

“Let me bring you to our medics,” Lan Xichen had said, kind but firm, and Nie Mingue had simply… acquiesced. It was like a kind of magic. 

Lan Xichen leads him through the Lan camp with their fingers laced together. They do get a few curious looks, but the soldiers are too tired to openly stare. Heat prickles up Meng Yao’s neck. 

“I’ll announce the engagement as soon as the mourning period is over,” Lan Xichen says. “We could be married in a few months, if you wish.”

Meng Yao startles. “That fast?” He’s never directly arranged an engagement, of course, but he’d been present for the marriages of several Nie cousins -- the whole process never failed to take less than a year. Unless, of course, there was a pressing reason for the marriage to be completed quickly, but that would be quite impossible between his and Lan Xichen’s anatomy. 

Lan Xichen kisses his cheek and begins to divest himself of his outer robes. He has the unselfconsciousness of utterly gorgeous people, which Meng Yao usually finds irritating. But for Lan Xichen, it is clearly nothing but his just due. “Our sect could do with some good news,” he says. 

Meng Yao undoes his belt, finding it suddenly stifling. “And you’re sure I will be good news?” he asks skeptically. 

“You’re a war hero,” Lan Xichen reminds him, which, hmm. That is true. “The marriage negotiations will be slightly untraditional, I suppose, but perhaps your dowry can be winning the war.”

Meng Yao has to laugh. “Gege doesn’t want any chickens?” he asks, and savors Lan Xichen’s smile. “Are there any extra robes? I’d prefer not to walk around in Wen uniform.”

“A-Yao can have my robes,” Lan Xichen says, looking altogether too pleased about it.

“And trip every other step?” Meng Yao shakes his head. “I’d look like a child dressing up in his father’s clothes. Not to mention, your clothes are far too fine for me.” Still, his heart skips at the thought of it. “Next you’ll offer to let me borrow your forehead ribbon.”

Lan Xichen reaches up and tugs it off his head. “It’s yours,” he says, dropping it easily into Meng Yao’s hands. Meng Yao barely catches it, half terrified the slick silk will slip through his fingers like water. 

“Gege!” he yelps, scandalized and delighted. 

There is a polite knock against one of the tentpoles, and Meng Yao only just has time to shove the ribbon back into Lan Xichen’s hands before someone enters. Meng Yao has a moment of leftover fear from those few years with Nie Mingjue -- Huaisang only remembered to knock half the time. Meng Yao couldn’t count the number of times they’d nearly been caught in the middle of things. But Lan Xichen, while perhaps underdressed for a Lan, is still in a respectable four layers, and Meng Yao is only missing his belt. He takes a quick breath of relief.

“Xiongzhang,” says Lan Wangji at the tent flap. He has changed from his white robes into another set of white robes. Meng Yao wonders if he owns anything else. 

“Wangji,” Lan Xichen says, as if not at all embarrassed to be caught without his forehead ribbon on. “Come in.”

Lan Wangji catches sight of Meng Yao and stops, although his face doesn’t show a flicker of surprise. He bows before coming in. He appears to have a large wrapped guqin strapped to his back. Meng Yao rises and bows as well. 

“No need to be so formal,” Lan Xichen says. “Wangji, it isn’t official yet, but A-Yao and I are planning to be married.”

“Congratulations,” Lan Wangji says tonelessly, and Lan Xichen beams at him. Meng Yao hardly knows his own brother, but at least he and Jin Zixuan have their arrogance in common. Lan Wangji grew up with Lan Xichen, yet absorbed so little of his charisma. Meng Yao struggles not to see it as a character flaw on some level. 

“Do you have time for tea?” Lan Xichen asks. “I thought it might be nice to sit down together.”

“My apologies,” Lan Wangji says. He doesn’t sound particularly apologetic. “Wei Ying is unwell. He is still unconscious. I am going to try to help balance his energy.”

“Oh, of course,” Lan Xichen says, as though it is normal for his brother to go around calling people by their personal names. “Give him my best when he wakes up.” 

“Mm,” Lan Wangji says, bows again, and leaves.

“That went well,” Lan Xichen says. “I think he likes you.”

“He likes me?” Meng Yao echoes, disbelieving. “Then what does it look like when he dislikes someone?”

Lan Xichen huffs a laugh. “Oh, you would know if he disliked you,” he says. He stretches his arms above his head and sighs. “That Wei Wuxian of his gave him nearly as much worry as you gave me, this past year,” he says. This is the first indication Meng Yao has that Wei Wuxian is going to bring no small amount of trouble into Meng Yao’s life. In the moment, though, Meng Yao is distracted by the v of chest exposed by Lan Xichen’s loosened robes.

“I can’t bear any more talk of Lan Wangji or Wei Wuxian right now,” he says, stepping nearer, and Lan Xichen wraps his arms around his waist obligingly, tugging him down to straddle his lap. 

“Of course, of course,” he says. There is a narrow line of skin on his bare forehead just a few shades lighter than the rest of his skin now that his ribbon no longer covers it. Meng Yao is unreasonably charmed by it. Perhaps Lan Xichen needs a few hours per day sunning his bare forehead so that his skin will all match. Or perhaps this is simply a little secret that belongs only to Meng Yao. He runs his thumb along it. Lan Xichen’s smile is tired, but there is a hint of mischief in his eye. “Are there more pleasant things A-Yao would prefer I use my mouth for?”

How did the Lans raise such a man? Meng Yao must devote many hours to studying this question. For now, though -- he has just won a war, and he has the most beautiful man in the world beneath him. He will occupy himself with other things. 

.

One of the first questions Lan Qiren asks him, after nearly forty-five minutes spent sipping tea in silence is, “I hear your father is Jin Guangshan.” Which is not actually a question, but he says it in a way that awaits a response.

Meng Yao exchanges a glance with Lan Xichen, who, for all his plentiful assurances, looks tense. Is he supposed to lie so as not to shame Sect Leader Jin? Remembering the sect rule prohibiting falsehoods, he simply nods. “That is correct.”

“Hmph,” Lan Qiren says. “He will not come here for negotiations.” Again, not a question.

“No, I don’t expect he will,” Meng Yao says, as diplomatically as he can, because Lan Qiren probably doesn’t want to hear about Jin Guangshan having him thrown down nine flights of stairs.

“Hmph,” Lan Qiren repeats. Then, “Good.”

“Good?” Lan Xichen echoes. 

“If you’re going to bring a son of Jin Guangshan into our clan,” Lan Qiren says, “the least you can do is make sure I don’t have to interact with his father.”

Ah, Meng Yao realizes with some relief. Lan Qiren hates Sect Leader Jin. Well, at least he is in good company. “Grandmaster has no need to worry,” he says. “I doubt my father will come to the wedding, let alone negotiate.”

This pronouncement is followed by another extended silence. This one is just over half an hour. Finally, Lan Qiren adds, “If you are going to join the sect, you will be expected to learn and follow the rules.”

“That won’t be a problem, Uncle,” Lan Xichen says. “Meng Yao has a perfect memory.” Perfect is technically splitting hairs. But it is very, very, very good. And Meng Yao has no plans to deny Lan Xichen the opportunity to speak about him in that proud tone of voice. It is not technically a violation of Rule 462 (“Arrogance is forbidden”) because Lan Xichen is speaking an objective truth. “He only had to look at the wall once, when he visited four years ago, in order to memorize all of them.”

This visibly stirs Lan Qiren’s interest. “Is that so,” he says, focusing his sharp gaze on Meng Yao. He had only attended a few days of classes at Nie Huaisang’s side, but he recognizes this as Lan Qiren’s teacher voice.

Meng Yao summons a polite smile. “Yes,” he says. 

“Rule 2,790?” he asks. 

“Organize work properly,” Meng Yao says easily. “I quite agree.”

Lan Qiren nods approvingly. “Impressive, considering your parentage,” he says. Meng Yao’s heart drops to his stomach. He has endured enough cruelty at his mother’s expense that it no longer knocks the air out of him anymore, but it still hurts like pressing on a bruise. He resigns himself to years of either attempting to convince Lan Qiren of his worthiness of a nephew in law or simply accepting that he will never truly fit in here. Then Lan Qiren adds, “I never thought I’d see the day that a relative of Jin Guangshan displayed a drop of real intelligence.”

“Uncle,” Lan Xichen says, more reproving than Meng Yao expected. His hands are tight on his teacup. “Do not insult people. Rule 1,203.”

Lan Qiren sighs through his nose. “You are right, Xichen,” he says. To Meng Yao, he says, “My apologies.”

“No need to apologize,” Meng Yao says, startled but trying not to show it.

Lan Qiren is -- almost friendly as he walks them to the door. His bow is perhaps a touch less stiff. “Thank you for saving my nephew’s life as well as our library,” he says. “It seems you have a good sense of Rule 781 already.”

Meng Yao’s smile comes more easily this time. “I am glad you think I have performed an act of chivalry,” he says. “Thank you for raising such an excellent nephew.”

“Rule 217,” Lan Qiren says. Do not flatter.

“Rule 3,312,” Meng Yao counters. Appreciate the good people. 

Lan Xichen holds in his laugh until they get far enough away from the house that his uncle won’t hear, and then he laughs so hard he almost cries. Meng Yao thinks at least half of it is giddy relief.

“Rule 1,542,” Meng Yao tells him, although he’s smiling too. “Do not laugh for no reason.”

“It’s not for no reason,” Lan Xichen wheezes. “I couldn’t stop picturing an entire conversation that was just the two of you saying numbers at each other.” He wipes at his eyes, still giggling. “Oh, A-Yao. I do adore you.”

Meng Yao squeezes his hand. “Straighten up, gege,” he says. “There are disciples about to walk past. We have to set a good example.”

Lan Xichen manages to look solemn and dignified as people pass by, although he breaks down in laughter again on the walk to the Hanshi. It isn’t a large space compared to the quarters occupied by Jin nobility, but Meng Yao is determined to stop comparing everything to Koi Tower. Although the Hanshi isn’t as absurdly lush, each piece of furniture is exquisitely made, every fabric impossibly fine, and the bed, at least, is luxurious. 

“A-Yao,” Lan Xichen says, grasping his hand and pulling it to his chest. “Do you think you can be happy here?”

It’s a difficult question. Meng Yao can’t remember the last time he felt satisfied with his position. But short of ascending to the emperor’s throne, what more can he imagine than this?

“I think so,” he says, and half to his own surprise, he means it honestly. He likes the way that the Hanshi is nestled against the woods. It makes him feel like they have real privacy, the kind that he was never afforded among the Jin or the Wen, or even among the Nie. He’s not naive; he knows that there is gossip in the Cloud Recesses just as there is any other place, and that the disciples simply do it more quietly. But perhaps he can use that to his advantage. When rules are implemented, he knows, that does not mean that people in that community become rule followers. It means they become very sneaky rule breakers. This place has potential. “I think -- yes.”

“Good,” Lan Xichen says earnestly. He kisses Meng Yao’s knuckles. “Good. I want a partner in all things. So if you need anything to feel more at home here, don’t hesitate to tell me.”

“Home,” Meng Yao echoes. He’s not sure when he last felt at home. In his mother’s arms, perhaps. But he’s done searching. If he cannot find it, he will create it himself. 

.

There’s been talk of a sworn brotherhood between Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue. Lan Xichen keeps offering to include Meng Yao, and Meng Yao keeps shaking his head.

“You ended the war,” Lan Xichen reminds him. “You should stand up there beside us.”

“It will only confuse everyone,” Meng Yao says. “You and I can’t be sworn brothers, we’re getting married. So it would be each of us being sworn brothers with Nie Mingjue, who I seriously doubt wants to be my sworn brother.” He even mostly means it. He certainly means the part about how Nie Mingjue wouldn’t want to pledge himself to him. “Besides, it’s officially for diplomatic reasons. The Nie clan doesn’t need two sworn brothers in the Lan clan.”

This reminder that Meng Yao will soon belong to the Lan clan serves as an effective distraction. Lan Xichen stops asking him. The truth is that obviously Meng Yao would like to be up on that dais with them, but it’s simpler this way. Besides, his claim to Lan Xichen as his husband will be stronger than Nie Mingjue’s as a mere brother. Creating a bond between Nie Mingjue and himself would simply overcomplicate things. 

Still, he must come along to Qinghe for the ceremony. Stepping back in those halls is dizzying, but he keeps himself upright by holding onto Lan Xichen’s thoughtfully offered arm. There are worse things than returning here as the fiance of a sect leader, he reminds himself. 

He’s surprised by how polite Nie Mingjue is when he greets them, although their eyes catch when he comes up from his bow. Meng Yao bows neither a centimeter lower or shallower than necessary. 

“I am hopeful,” Lan Xichen says warmly, “that this will symbolize the new era of not only trust, but of peace between our sects.”

Meng Yao ignores Nie Mingjue as much as he can during dinner. Sometimes his memory is a burden, not a blessing. He can find the exact floor tile that he bled on while Nie Mingjue cast him out. Someone must have scrubbed quite thoroughly to make the floor look pristine.

After dinner, the Lan disciples head off to bed, the Nie disciples off to drink. Meng Yao is going to leave himself when Nie Huaisang drags Lan Xichen off, insisting that he has to show him some fans in his newest collection. Meng Yao grits his teeth in frustration and stands to follow them when Nie Mingjue says, “Wait.”

That leaves the two of them alone in the throne room. But this time, at least, Lan Xichen would undoubtedly come running in if he screamed.

“Meng-gongzi,” Nie Mingjue says finally. The formality is almost comforting. “Or is it Lianfang-zun, now?”

“Chifeng-zun,” Meng Yao says primly. Nie Mingjue might be sect leader still, but Meng Yao no longer works for him. He cannot raise a hand or blade against him, even if Lan Xichen isn’t here. At least, he shouldn’t. It’s not as comforting as it should be, when Nie Mingjue works by different rules of logic than most everyone else.

A long silence follows. Meng Yao takes pleasure in the fact that Nie Mingjue seems more uncomfortable sitting in it than he does. 

“Xichen told me that he wanted you to be my sworn brother as well,” Nie Mingjue says. “And you refused.”

“I hope Nie-zongzhu will not take offense at this presumption,” Meng Yao says. 

Nie Mingjue lets out a gusty sigh. “You don’t have to pretend for me,” he says. “Trust me, Lianfang-zun, that is the least of your offenses.”

Meng Yao raises his chin. “I refused to join the brotherhood for your sake,” he says.

“And because you already have what you want,” Nie Mingjue says. 

Well, yes. Meng Yao says nothing.

Nie Mingjue grunts. “I’ve already told him my doubts about you, if that’s what you’re worried about,” he says. “He wouldn’t hear a word against you.” He studies Meng Yao carefully. “Do you love him?” he asks.

“Yes,” Meng Yao says. That, by Meng Yao’s standards, is relatively uncomplicated.

“Good,” Nie Mingjue says. “Good.” For once, he seems to hesitate. He’s not as angry as Meng Yao expected him to be. “I don’t trust you,” he says plainly, at long last. “At all. But if you care about Xichen as you say you do, I think it would do for us to be able to be around each other. We could be… friends. Again.”

Meng Yao narrows his eyes. “Da-ge,” he says, taking a chance. “You know perfectly well we’ve never been friends .”

His bet pays off. Nie Mingjue huffs a laugh, despite himself. “Don’t hurt him,” he says finally, like the orders he used to give when Meng Yao was still in his employ. “He says you’ve changed. I want to believe him. I just don’t know if I believe people change.”

Meng Yao doesn’t either. At least they have that much in common. “I won’t,” he says. He’s still angry at Nie Mingjue, but he can tuck some of it away. For Xichen’s sake. He’s getting the better end of this deal, after all.

.

The wedding date is set for after many of the post-war restoration efforts will have been implemented. They are to be married in the early summer. A part of Meng Yao had worried, for all Lan Xichen’s talk of partnership, that his duties would be a version of what Madame Jin’s had been. To smile and keep up appearances. 

But as it turns out, the Lans believe in dual leadership, and have all the way back to Lan An and his wife. While not exactly effusive towards him, most of the Lan disciples are perfectly polite, and only grow more so as he proves himself to be a competent prospective addition to the sect. 

Meng Yao is in guest quarters until the wedding, but luckily no one looks twice at their illustrious clan leader going out past curfew; he is of course working tirelessly to ensure the prosperous future of their sect. Lan Xichen is doing that as well, but he is also making quite thoroughly sure that Meng Yao does not grow lonely in his guest quarters, nor his bed cold. 

The older disciples keep their distance from him, which displeases Lan Xichen, but Meng Yao takes it as more of a relief than anything. At least when Lans disapprove, they tend to be quiet about it; he endures none of the shoulder-knocking or tripping in the halls that he did among the Nie. Additionally, because he knows the rules better than half of the clan members by birthright, they cannot punish him. One particularly foolish elder tries to start a stern conversation about Rule 986, “Do not be promiscuous,” during which Meng Yao lays on the wide-eyed, virginal act so strong that it ends with the elder convinced that he should receive extra time to study the marriage books. 

The younger disciples, though -- Meng Yao sees potential in them. Many of them are quietly jaded from months spent on the war front, already questioning the sect rules without his involvement at all. He knows for a fact that a decent number of them have broken Rule 287, “Do not consume alcohol,” all on their own. Meng Yao doesn’t tattle -- in part because he will not begrudge them their coping mechanisms, in part because he has a vested interest in gaining their goodwill. 

He admires his fiance’s naive faith in humanity. He wants to preserve it. However, Meng Yao hardly aspires to it himself. He has seen the filthy underbelly of three out of five sects already, one of which didn’t live to tell the tale. He knows that the Lans must have their own secrets, hidden as they are under pristine robes. He’s willing to bet the Jiangs do as well, but unfortunately for them he has no desire to return to Yunmeng. 

Nearly all the information he gathers during his engagement is preliminary. One disciple is cheating on his wife; another sneaks down to Caiyi for gambling twice a week. A fair number of them drink during their guard shifts. One unmarried disciple slept with a farmer during the war, and her close friend is marrying her to claim the resulting pregnancy as his own. Standard fare, shocking as it is by Lan standards.

In a way, Meng Yao finds it almost comforting. Lan Xichen tells him he seems to be settling in well, and Meng Yao can honestly agree. 

“You seem more comfortable here than Wangji does, at the moment,” Lan Xichen says, his eyes growing distant. “He’s been restless.”

Meng Yao, who saw Lan Wangji placidly meditating by the forest just that morning, thinks privately that Lan Xichen may be projecting his own anxieties. “Perhaps he is still recovering from the war,” he suggests. Heavens know he and Lan Xichen both are. Lan Xichen still jerks awake at even the smallest floorboard creak, and Meng Yao stuttered over greeting the sister of a Lan disciple he killed during his tenure as a spy. 

“Perhaps,” Lan Xichen echoes. “I think it’s that Wei Wuxian -- they used to be so close. Now he’s refusing to come to Gusu for help.”

“I’m sure they’ll work it out between them,” Meng Yao says soothingly. He will turn out to be utterly wrong on this front, but he has no way of knowing that now. 

Nor does Lan Xichen, whose expression fades into a smile. “A-Yao is right, of course,” he says. “I’m an older brother, that’s all. I can’t help but worry about Wangji.”

Meng Yao, who is functionally, although not actually, an only child, nods as if he understands, and coaxes Lan Xichen into a warm bath for so long that both their fingers are wrinkled by the end of it. He sends him back to the Hanshi closer to five in the morning than nine at night. Meng Yao isn’t concerned; he caught the guard on duty with alcohol a few weeks ago and she owes him the favor of looking the other way. 

.

Meng Yao spends most of his days leading up to the wedding splitting his time between his usual administrative duties, of which he has many, and organizing the wedding itself. He’s sure that someone else would be willing to put things together for them, but frankly as much as Meng Yao is enjoying the Lan sect, he in no way trusts them to put together something appropriately festive and extravagant. He approaches ordering bolts of fabric with the same concentration that he gave to drawing up battle plans in the war.

Lan Xichen is relatively unhelpful when it comes to opinions about the wedding -- while he has enough taste to dress himself very well, he unfailingly defers to Meng Yao’s expertise when it comes to event planning or their wedding robes. It balances out: the slight frustrations of having to plan his own wedding since they only have half a parental figure between them, and the satisfaction of getting to make the final decisions. 

Three weeks before the wedding, Meng Yao catches sight of Lan Wangji walking with a slight, but definite, bounce in his step as he leaves his brother’s office. Meng Yao blinks and steps inside.

“What was that?” he asks Lan Xichen, who just looks amused.

“Wei-gongzi has agreed to represent the Jiang sect at our wedding,” he says. “I believe Wangji is… looking forward to it.”

“We’re going to have a necromancer at our wedding?” Meng Yao asks. He may have to rearrange some of the seating arrangements.

“We’re going to have the Jiang head disciple at our wedding,” Lan Xichen corrects. “Is that alright?”

“I suppose,” Meng Yao says.

For all that they share acquaintances, Meng Yao hardly knows Wei Wuxian. He’s heard the stories about him, of course, but he dismisses at least half of them as overdramatic drivel. Killing Wen Ruohan is the closest he’s ever been to the man. He knows he is purportedly intelligent, he knows he is powerful and unpredictable, and he knows that he has an inexplicable relationship with Meng Yao’s soon to be brother-in-law. 

“If it makes you feel better, I’m sure he’ll have Wangji at his side the entire time he’s here,” Lan Xichen says. “He won’t be doing any necromancy within our walls. Frankly, I’m surprised he agreed to come at all. He spent the entire war turning down Wangji’s invitations.”

Meng Yao thinks about it and concludes that if a few of the elders decide not to attend their wedding on the basis of avoiding Wei Wuxian, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

.

The wedding itself is absolutely gorgeous. That is, every part of it that is under Meng Yao’s control goes perfectly. The food is richer than Gusu’s usual fare, but simple enough that it’s hard for even the most uptight disciple to object. The decorations are sumptuous, yet elegant. And of course, the grooms are impossibly well put together. 

The guests are a collection of the most important people of the cultivation world. They have three out of four great sect leaders present, as well as nearly every minor sect leader. As promised, Wei Wuxian is seated beside Jiang Wanyin, with Lan Wangji on his other side -- an odd spot of white in the sea of Jiang purple. Meng Yao is quite certain that wasn’t in the seating chart, but he can’t bring himself to care. Nie Mingjue only scowls a little, and Meng Yao chooses not to take offense, given that it’s his resting face.

Even as he does his bows, Meng Yao kind of can’t believe it. Lan Xichen cries, but he does it beautifully, and Meng Yao has no hesitations about reaching out and wiping his cheeks with a bit of his own trailing sleeve. As his husband, who could object?

Something settles in his chest as he eats dinner one-handed, since Lan Xichen had refused to unlace their fingers. He will not grow complacent, but surely there is no harm in a little self congratulation? He thinks his mother would be proud. He hopes so, anyway.

No sooner has he thought of his mother than a member of the Jin contingent sidles up to the table. One of Meng Yao’s uncles, although he doubts the man would identify himself as such. Meng Yao remembers his face among the crowd when Meng Yao was thrown down the stairs at Koi Tower.

“Sect Leader Jin regrets not being able to attend himself,” Jin Guangyin says, a baldfaced lie. He hands Meng Yao an envelope after he bows. Not quite deeply enough. “I have brought this on his behalf.”

Meng Yao thanks him politely, and reclaims his hand from his husband (!) in order to open the scroll. Part of him wants to cast it into a fire without ever reading it, but part of being married to a sect leader means tolerating his father’s side of the family, if only for diplomatic reasons.

He opens the scroll, expecting a generic message of wedding congratulations written by one of his father’s scribes. This is not that. He stares.

“A-Yao?” Lan Xichen asks, noticing Meng Yao’s clenched fist in his lap. He has no idea what his face is doing. He touches Meng Yao’s shoulder, although through the layers of his robes he can barely feel the gentle caress. “What’s wrong? Is it bad news?”

Meng Yao drags in a breath and thrusts the scroll towards Lan Xichen, although he can’t bring himself to look at his face as he reads. 

“Oh,” Lan Xichen says. Meng Yao distantly registers him turning to the attendant beside them and explaining that he and A-Yao will be getting a breath of fresh air outside. Then Lan Xichen steers him out the nearest door with a hand on waist and another on his shoulder. 

The summer night air does help, when Meng Yao remembers to gulp it down. Lan Xichen rubs a soothing hand in circles on his back. “A-Yao?” he ventures, after several quiet moments pass.

“Can you believe,” Meng Yao chokes. “I would have given anything for that, two years ago. I would have -- I would have cut off my own hand. Thrown myself down those stairs. Anything, if it meant he would acknowledge me as his son. And now --”

“It’s a slight,” Lan Xichen agrees, his jaw tight. “He wants to use you as a diplomatic link, without ever having you in his line of succession.”

Meng Yao is furiously glad that Lan Xichen sees it too. That his father’s actions are so crude and unsubtle that even his sweet, kind, good husband understands the wrong in it. “He didn’t even come to the wedding,” he bursts out. His whole face feels hot, but he doesn’t realize he’s crying until Lan Xichen reaches out and thumbs a tear off his cheek. 

“I’m sorry,” he murmurs. “You deserve so much better.”

Meng Yao clutches at the front of his robes, realizing a moment too late that he’s probably wrinkling the immaculate lines. “I have better,” he says. “I have so much better.”

Lan Xichen lets out a breath of relief. “I’m glad you think so,” he says softly. “For a second, I thought maybe you regretted --”

“No,” Meng Yao interrupts. He gestures at the scroll. “That proves, more than anything, that I would never have had a real place at Koi Tower.” Not one he didn’t have to scratch and bite and murder for, anyway. 

Lan Xichen’s smile is gentle. “They don’t know what they’re missing,” he says. “Fools, all of them.”

Meng Yao takes the scroll back. His brain had stopped registering words halfway through. He scoffs as he skims over the rest of it. “Jin Guangyao,” he says contemptuously. “What a joke.”

“You’ll stay Meng Yao, then?” Lan Xichen asks.

Meng Yao sighs. “No, that would offend them. No point angering the Jins for the sake of my pride. I suppose I’ll be Jin Guangyao.”

“A-Yao,” Lan Xichen says. “Not everything is politics. You don’t have to change your whole name just for diplomatic relations.”

Meng Yao goes up on tiptoes to kiss his cheek. “As long as you keep calling me A-Yao. That’s what matters.”

.

For the first time since arriving in Cloud Recesses six months ago, Meng Yao does not get up at five. He wakes, briefly, around six, to his husband stroking his hair. “Go back to sleep,” Lan Xichen murmurs. “Today’s banquet doesn’t start until noon. Good thinking.”

Meng Yao had done that on purpose, supposedly to be thoughtful towards members of other sects who might not be used to getting up so early. “Mgh,” he says, and falls back asleep.

.

Another of Meng Yao’s plans: he built into the schedule an opportunity for their guests to celebrate in Caiyi, given that many traditional celebratory activities are not allowed within Cloud Recesses. He generously did this so that the second evening of his marriage would be uninterrupted, and sure enough, he has Lan Xichen all to himself in the hot springs. In fact, he has Lan Xichen several times over.

They steal back to the Hanshi scandalously underdressed, trusting that nearly the entire population of Cloud Recesses has been lured down to Caiyi. The hot water did wonders for Meng Yao’s tight shoulders, as did his husband’s strong hands. They make it all the way back without seeing a single soul, and Lan Xichen has just begun peeling off his damp under robes when there’s a knock at the door.

They exchange a look. Lan Xichen had opted to take an astonishing five days off from sect leader duties following their marriage, but perhaps if there’s been some kind of emergency --

“One moment,” Lan Xichen calls, pulling dry robes on over his wet ones. Meng Yao follows his example, grimacing at the sensation.

“So sorry to bother you, Zewu-jun,” someone says outside the door. 

Lan Xichen opens the door. “Wei Wuxian?” he says, blinking. “Are you -- quite alright?”

“Oh, I’m fine,” Wei Wuxian says, stepping aside to reveal Lan Wangji slumped against the wall. “There was a bit of a mix up, you see… We were down in Caiyi and he accidentally took a sip from my cup, thinking it was tea.”

“And it was liquor,” Lan Xichen guesses, resigned. “Wangji? How do you feel?”

“Mm,” Lan Wangji says noncommittally. His face is flushed, his expression distant, and his eyes track back and forth between Lan Xichen and Wei Wuxian multiple times before they land on Meng Yao at all.

“I know you just got married,” Wei Wuxian says. “Congratulations, by the way! But, um, I don’t know where the Jingshi is. He’s too drunk to show me. And I didn’t want to embarrass him by asking anyone else. Please don’t punish him this time though, I swear it wasn’t his fault.”

It might be the setting sunlight, but Wei Wuxian doesn’t look quite well behind his smile. Meng Yao can easily recall a well built young man with color on his cheeks skipping alongside Jiang Wanyin when he came to drop Huaisang off. Wei Wuxian looks thinner now, paler, almost gaunt. 

“The Jingshi just over the hill,” Lan Xichen says, pointing. “Do you need help carrying him?”

Wei Wuxian waves him off. “No, no,” he says. “You were busy being married. I’ve got him.” He kneels beside Lan Wangji and pulls his lax arm around his shoulders to start lifting him up. Lan Wangji doesn’t move to help him. “C’mon, you big lug,” Wei Wuxian says affectionately. “Get up for Wei-gege, hm?”

Impossibly, this stirs Lan Wangji to action. He pushes himself up off the wall just enough for Wei Wuxian to get his other arm around him and haul him to his feet. Wei Wuxian offers the two of them another weak attempt at a winning smile.

“Thanks,” he says. “I’d bow, but I think we’d both fall over. Lan Zhan, one foot in front of the other, eh?”

Meng Yao watches the two of them totter off along the edge of the forest in slightly stunned silence. 

“Well,” Lan Xichen says. “That young man is certainly something. I suppose I’ll go check on Wangji later, just to make sure he’s okay.”

.

On the third day of his marriage, Meng Yao is still basking in a kind of self-congratulatory glow, and he is in such good spirits that his mood only spoils slightly when Nie Huaisang corrects himself from “Meng Yao” to “Jin Guangyao”. They’ve had to spread the word of his nominal acceptance into the Jin family as if it is wholly good news, and so all day people have been mixing up names.

“Don’t worry about it,” he tells Huaisang, patting him on the hand. “I can still be Meng Yao if you like.”

“Oh good, good,” Nie Huaisang says, relieved. “You know how I am, I’m sure I’ll forget all the time.” He fans himself, although the summer is so breezy and temperate in Gusu that he hardly needs to. “Actually,” he says, “we’re sort of brothers now, aren’t we? You’re married to Er-ge, who is Da-ge’s sworn brother, which makes you my sworn half brother-in-law.”

Meng Yao isn’t sure if sworn brotherhood operates by the transference laws that Nie Huaisang is using, but he doesn’t have the patience to correct him. “We can be brothers, if you’d like,” he says magnanimously. 

Nie Huaisang smiles at him, turning his hand up to hold Meng Yao’s. “I always thought we would be,” he says. “The way you were with Da-ge--” He corrects himself surprisingly quickly. “But you’re married, no need to speak of that. You’ll be San-ge, then.”

“I’m not part of the brotherhood,” Meng Yao reminds him. 

“You’re still third-oldest,” Nie Huaisang insists. He squeezes Meng Yao’s hand once before letting go. “Oh, is it wonderful being married? I always thought I wouldn’t want to be tied down like that, but if it was Er-ge, maybe even I wouldn’t mind.”

Meng Yao laughs despite himself. “He’s married!” he reminds him. “To me! I’ve seen how you are at banquets, you keep your little paws off him.”

Nie Huaisang only flutters his fan innocently. “I don’t know what you mean!” he says brightly. “Besides, there are plenty of tall, handsome Lans to seduce, even if you have taken the tallest and handsomest off the market.”

“He is, isn’t he,” Meng Yao says smugly. It’s hard not to feel like the cat that got the cream. 

“You’ve left me only with the scraps,” Nie Huaisang sighs. “Even I don’t have what it takes to coax Lan Wangji into bed. I’m not sure anyone does.”

“Hm,” Meng Yao says.

“Well, of course,” Nie Huaisang says, as though he actually said Wei Wuxian’s name aloud. “But as much as I enjoy Wei-xiong, I’m not sure he’ll ever puzzle that out on his own.” He sighs dramatically, sitting back in his seat. “Those two are beyond my matchmaking abilities.”

Well. Meng Yao has always liked a challenge. 

.

Truly, Meng Yao’s husband is unparalleled. The only trouble is that by attaching himself to (beautiful, lovely) Lan Xichen, Meng Yao has also made it so that Lan Wangji is also within his purview, since when Lan Wangji is (bizarrely, imperceptibly) sad, Lan Xichen is sad too. And most unfortunately of all, the only person who seems to have any sway over Lan Wangji’s emotional state besides (darling, flawless) Lan Xichen is Wei Wuxian. A man who Meng Yao could hardly understand less. 

As demonstrated when Meng Yao walks by them in the courtyard and overhears Lan Wangji asking Wei Wuxian to extend his stay. From most people, that tone would be polite, even reserved. But the fact that Meng Yao can identify any feeling in it at all means that it’s basically the Lan Wangji equivalent of dropping to his knees and begging. 

“Stay in Gusu,” Lan Wangji says to Wei Wuxian, inclining his head. “I have reason to hope that my new compositions will --”

“Oh, lay off it,” Wei Wuxian says tiredly. “Don’t you have anything better to do?” A hurt beat of silence. Wei Wuxian sighs. “I’m sorry, Lan Zhan. I know you have to stand by your moral code, but can’t you just write me off? Say that you tried and I’m a lost cause?”

“Wei Ying is not a lost cause,” Lan Wangji says, wounded. 

“You don’t know what I am,” Wei Wuxian says. He doesn’t sound cold when he says it, simply… resigned. He swallows. “I have to leave, Lan Zhan. Thanks for the company. Maybe we can go drinking again sometime, haha.” 

When Meng Yao glances over at them, Wei Wuxian looks even more worn out in the daylight, as though he’s the one with the hangover. Lan Wangji looks frozen. 

“Okay,” Wei Wuxian says. “See you at the Phoenix Mountain hunt.”

He turns and leaves without a look back, trotting to catch up to his brother’s side. Lan Wangji stares after him. 

In the moment, Meng Yao only registers this interaction as peculiar drama, a sliver more insight into whatever their relationship is. But that evening, only the third after their marriage, Lan Xichen is noticeably distracted.

“I’m sorry,” he sighs, as Meng Yao pulls back from kissing his neck. “My head is somewhere else. Wangji was so quiet today.”

“Wangji is always quiet,” Meng Yao points out, a touch frustrated.

Lan Xichen gives him a rueful smile. “I’m sorry,” he repeats. “You know how I worry. Here, let me give you another back massage.”

Meng Yao is more than happy to offer up his back as a surface with which his husband might distract himself, but still, his mind wanders. This will not do, he thinks. Lan Xichen is stressed enough, and it is awfully inconsiderate of Lan Wangji to go around moping like a jilted maiden just because some necromancer doesn’t understand how Lans flirt. 

Meng Yao thinks determinedly that he will fix this himself if he has to. Then Lan Xichen digs his thumb into the persistent knot under his shoulder blade and he stops formulating thoughts entirely. 

.

Fact: Lan Wangji is in love with Wei Wuxian.

Fact: Lan Xichen worries about his brother a lot. 

.

“I have a gift for you,” Lan Xichen murmurs as they return from dinner, the night before they will depart for Lanling. 

Meng Yao narrows his eyes at him. His husband is rarely sly, but on occasion he will come up with delightful little schemes of his own -- always harmless, always indulgent. He’s made a game out of keeping the drawer in Meng Yao’s desk always full of little candies, although Meng Yao never catches him doing it. From the look in Lan Xichen’s eyes, he suspects something similar. “Oh?”

Lan Xichen leads him to the Hanshi as if Meng Yao hasn’t lived there for a month already, and draws the door open for him. “Look on the bed,” he says. 

Obligingly, Meng Yao steps past the divider and is greeted with the sight of blue robes carefully laid out over the bed. His breath catches in his throat. He can tell immediately that not only are they of a quality to rival Lan Xichen’s, but they are made with many of the very same patterns and fabrics, delicate overlaid layers preferred by the Lan rather than Jin-style heavy brocade. They would mark Meng Yao visibly as not only one of the Lan, but one of the Lan leaders. 

“Gege,” he breathes. “You didn’t.”

“Is it alright?” Lan Xichen asks. “We’ll match.” He lays one of his long sleeves beside the skirts to demonstrate, as if Meng Yao could have failed to notice that the patterns echo each other in complementary shades of blue. “You don’t need to wear them if you don’t want to, but I thought, if you must be Jin Guangyao for a week, perhaps it would make you feel better to be sure everyone knows which sect belongs to you.” He says ‘belongs to you’ and not ‘you belong to’, and Meng Yao loves him for it. 

.

The robes do help ground him, six layers cinched in tight around his waist. He lets Lan Xichen do his hair in the morning before they set out, enjoying the half-asleep morning intimacy, the cool dawn light peeking into the Hanshi. Lan Xichen’s fingers are long and gentle as they separate his hair into sections, and he ties Meng Yao’s forehead ribbon so carefully, knowing that wearing it too tightly gives Meng Yao a headache. 

He has been Lan Xichen’s husband for several weeks now, but they haven’t left Gusu. This is his first truly public outing as the second leader of the Gusu Lan. 

“Will it bother you?” Lan Xichen asks softly, sliding in his hairpin. “Returning to Koi Tower?”

Meng Yao considers it. He still resents his father’s side of the family -- but mostly he thinks of the delicious feeling of walking in and knowing that his status puts him equal or above everyone who ever hurt him there. If he was thrown down those stairs again, it could start another war. 

“No,” he says. “I look forward to it.”

.

The hunt is poorly organized, and Meng Yao relishes in it. The servants run out of refreshments halfway through the opening ceremonies. The observation dais has too few seats and more pillows must be fetched. Jin Zixuan spends his father’s entire speech looking longingly at Jiang Yanli but is too awkward to approach her. Meng Yao tries not to gloat visibly, although from the knowing look his husband gives him, doesn’t entirely succeed.

Lan Wangji seems to be feeling a touch braver than Jin Zixuan, as he does actually manage to stand beside the object of his affections, but he looks uncomfortable doing so. Wei Wuxian, Meng Yao notes, does not look any healthier than he did at the wedding, and the smile he flashes at Lan Wangji is thin. Interesting. He makes a nuisance of himself during the hunt, which Meng Yao is once again glad is not his problem. He hears the story thirdhand from one of the Lan disciples, about how Wei Wuxian, trembling with rage, had to be defended by his sister. “I bet it’s his cultivation driving him mad,” the disciple speculates. 

It could well be true. Meng Yao is no expert on demonic cultivation, but he saw enough of what it did to Wen Ruohan to know its effect on the spirit. 

Jin Zixun tries to make Lan Xichen drink during the following feast; Meng Yao shuts this down right away. Lan Xichen is adorable when he’s drunk, but that is a sight reserved for Meng Yao alone. He smiles sweetly, says, “Cousin, allow me,” and barely feels the flush of the fine Lanling wine compared to the high of Jin Zixun’s face going red in response. 

“Ah, and I’ll drink for Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian adds, butting in. He drains his cup with a little too much eagerness. Lan Wangji looks grateful, at least. 

All in all, the whole event goes swimmingly right up until the nonsense with the Wens. Frankly, Meng Yao isn’t surprised at all that the Jins are mistreating their prisoners, but he hadn’t considered it any of his business. Wei Wuxian’s entire body is wound tight as he demands where Wen Ning is -- even swordless, he looks like more of a threat than he has since Meng Yao glimpsed him on the steps at Nightless City, right before he killed Wen Ruohan. 

Qiongqi Path , Jin Zixun admits, visibly terrified. The prisoners are being kept at Qiongqi Path. Meng Yao would feel sorry for him, if he wasn’t such a consummate asshole. 

On the other side of Lan Xichen, Lan Wangji twitches as Wei Wuxian storms out. He rises to his feet as the hall begins to clamor in outrage around them, disciples from every sect demanding to know who Wei Wuxian thinks he is. Jiang Wanyin is red in the face, stunned into a rare bout of furious silence.

“Wangji,” Lan Xichen says, reaching for his arm. 

“I must follow him,” Lan Wangji says stiffly, and goes. 

The general indignation doesn’t ease in the hours after Wei Wuxian threw his little tantrum. If anything, it grows. Meng Yao has to question his assessment of Wei Wuxian; he’s heard that the man is smart, but how can that be true when he’s so insistent on making things difficult for himself? A more intelligent man would have waited until Jin Zixun was alone, perhaps gotten him drunk, drawn the truth out by cunning rather than force. Jin Zixun has a high position, but he is not well-respected -- he could never rally a bigger show of wrath against Wei Wuxian on his own than Wei Wuxian has already built for himself. Talk about short-sighted.

Perhaps it would bother Meng Yao less if it didn’t concern him directly. Lan Xichen paces anxiously in their guest room until his brother returns. It takes a long time, well past sundown and well past curfew, for him to return. Meng Yao can barely coax him to eat dinner. 

“I’m sure he’s fine,” he soothes, for the seventh time in as many hours. “Wangji can defend himself if necessary--”

The door creaks open. Meng Yao had never imagined that the noble Lan Wangji could look so much like a drowned rat. Despite the umbrella at his side, he’s soaked through, hair plastered to his face and down his back. His shoes and hems are muddy. He looks lost.

“Xiongzhang,” he says thickly. 

“Oh, Wangji,” Lan Xichen says. “What happened?”

“Wei Ying left,” Lan Wangji says pathetically. 

Lan Xichen’s face makes a series of complicated expressions. “With Wen Ning?” he guesses. 

“With all the Wens in the camp,” Lan Wangji says. “Perhaps forty, fifty in total.” He uses a wet sleeve to wipe his equally wet face. “I didn’t get a close look.”

“Did he hurt you?” Lan Xichen presses, and Lan Wangji shakes his head at once. 

“He would never,” he says staunchly. “But he would not stay.”

Lan Xichen sighs. “I’ll have to talk to the other sect leaders about this,” he sighs. “Thank you for telling me, Wangji. I’m sorry that --” He hesitates. “I’m sorry that he isn’t who you want him to be.”

Lan Wangji’s mouth flattens. He says nothing. Meng Yao has a bad feeling about this. People praise Lan Wangji’s fortitude and righteousness; they don’t realize that the other side of the coin is stubbornness. 

.

Fact: Lan Wangji pining for Wei Wuxian actively makes Meng Yao’s life worse. 

.

Lan Wangji is -- there is only one word for it -- sulking. 

Meng Yao is certain he’s breaking at least three rules doing so. He would discipline him if the larger problem weren’t Lan Xichen’s ongoing distress over it. It doesn’t help that every diplomatic meeting is both started and concluded with increasingly unbelievable gossip over whatever Wei Wuxian is doing with those Wens in Yiling. 

Sect Leader Ouyang asks if they’ve heard about all the villagers in Yiling being terrorized and Lan Wangji’s fingers tighten, just slightly, around his sword. 

“Ah, Ouyang-zongzhu,” Meng Yao says. “Isn’t Baling adjacent to Yiling on the Yunmeng border? I hope none of your own citizens have been hurt.”

Sect Leader Ouyang hesitates. “Well, no,” he says, struggling to come up with a way to explain why he hasn’t sent his own disciples to investigate, if such a problem truly exists. “But we must be vigilant, you know.”

“Mm,” Meng Yao says sympathetically, and Lan Xichen mercifully changes the subject. 

They will have a diplomatic incident, sooner or later, Meng Yao knows. Lan Wangji is going to snap and cut out someone’s tongue for one too many unkind words about the Yiling Patriarch, and Meng Yao can only pray that it will be one of the lesser sect leaders. Even worse, all he seems to do these days is wander the woods playing heartfelt music over and over. Meng Yao truly wouldn’t care what he does in his own time, except that the Hanshi is tucked against the forest and his mournful tunes often make their way through the trees to drift in the windows. If Meng Yao wakes from one more nap to Lan Wangji’s latest yearning ballad, he’s going to snap. 

Last, and perhaps worst, is just how much time Lan Xichen spends fretting over his brother. “He’s just not the same,” he insists, and this time, even Meng Yao can see that Lan Wangji seems adrift. Still, there’s a reason that he only has one person he cares about as much as himself. If he spent as much time thinking about Jin Zixuan (or any one of the other siblings he likely has) as Lan Xichen does about Lan Wangji, he’d never have a free moment. 

The first step is figuring out what exactly Wei Wuxian did. It’s hard to get to the bottom of it after so many rumors have been spread, but Meng Yao is very good at what he does. He sends friendly letters to a handful of Jin servants he’d known -- if nothing else, he knows it always pays to be polite to the household staff. From them, he gets a fairly accurate picture of what happened. Eight Jin guards died, all of them mid- to low-level cultivators, and four more were badly injured.

Privately, Meng Yao wonders just how much it would bother people if they hadn’t been killed using demonic cultivation. So much of any scandal is about the appearance of an event, rather than the event itself. If Wei Wuxian had walked in and stabbed twelve people, would people be quite so up in arms?

But it’s a moot point, given that he didn’t. The four surviving guards have plenty of stories to tell about the horror of that night, although funnily enough none of those stories mention their prisoners fighting back, apart from Wen Ning’s corpse.

It makes Meng Yao curious. He was quite well acquainted with the family politics of the Wens during his tenure in Nightless City, and so he knows that Wen Qing’s family was not directly involved with the war. They couldn’t be; none of them were warriors. Sure, the odd Dafan Wen auntie might have sewed a uniform, and Wen Qing herself was one of Wen Ruohan’s primary healers, but if her family hadn’t been necessary to keep her in check, Meng Yao doubts that any of them would have been in Qishan at all. 

Meng Yao can’t say that, of course. He is excruciatingly aware of how it would look for him to appear to have any Wen sympathies after his particular role in the war. Still. His awareness of Wei Wuxian’s supposed co-conspirators casts them in a rather different light. He’s not especially bothered by their fate -- if they are, as is supposed, eeking out a life in the Burial Mounds, it is probably better, or at least not worse, than wasting away in a Jin prison camp. He certainly has no obligations towards them.

If it weren’t for Lan Wangji’s damned mooning, he wouldn’t give them a second thought. As far as Meng Yao can tell, Wei Wuxian hasn’t killed a soul since the Jin guards, or at the very least he’s done so very quietly. Therefore, he doesn’t seem like as much of a threat as he’s made himself out to be. Meng Yao has no doubt that the Jin are planning some kind of counterattack; it’s what he would do if he was still among their number, after all. He’d be lying if he said he wasn’t interested in that Tiger Amulet of Wei Wuxian’s.

But he is not truly a Jin, and he knew when he married Lan Xichen that his life would involve much less open trickery and politicking than is customary in his father’s family. His husband, when he mentions the Tiger Amulet at all, only ever expresses a desire to destroy it for the greater good, or concern for its effect on Wei Wuxian’s health. So. Meng Yao puts it from his mind. Certainly, he would rather the amulet be destroyed than fall into his father’s hands. 

Meng Yao does write the Jin with a request for a list of the escaped prisoners -- their names, ages, that kind of thing. Supposedly for the sake of identification, should they be recaptured. But a scribe writes back explaining that no such list exists. Which means that either Koi Tower’s organization has truly fallen into disrepair in the years since Meng Yao was kicked out -- granted, this is possible -- or they are hiding something. Meng Yao distinctly remembers a pregnant couple among the Wen cousins, two of the only Dafan Wens under sixty-five. Either that child died in the war or…

The Jiang clan officially disowns Wei Wuxian. It’s not unexpected, but it still makes Meng Yao want to slam his head into a wall. Who goes around breaking sect leader’s arms? Is Wei Wuxian trying to convince the world to hate him? But it’s fine, it’s fine, Meng Yao will adapt.

After six weeks of Lan Wangji brooding all over Cloud Recesses, Meng Yao sends a letter to Xue Yang. It’s a last resort, but just because his intelligence network in Cloud Recesses has been growing doesn’t mean he can actually send any of his hapless disciples to go spy for him. It doesn’t matter that most of them fought in the war; they’d still stick out like a sore thumb in Yiling. Xue Yang, revolting as he often is, fits in perfectly among the common people and owes him a favor. 

For obvious reasons, he does not inform his husband of this arrangement. Lan Xichen, for all his willingness to excuse Meng Yao’s actions during the war, would probably be less pleased to hear about his ongoing work relationship with a mass murderer. 

Xue Yang confirms what he expected: Wei Wuxian is doing nothing untoward in Yiling itself. When he does make an appearance in town, he’s dressed in humble robes and buying food, farming supplies, or seeds. It doesn’t answer the question of just what he’s doing in the Burial Mounds themselves, but he certainly doesn’t seem to be preying on innocent townsfolk. Xue Yang’s letters sound disappointed about it.

I tried to break through the wards, he reports. I thought maybe if I did he’d be impressed with me and make me his disciple. There is a small frowny face drawn in the margins. 

.

All in all, it takes roughly three months for Lan Wangji to slip out of the gates before sunrise towards Yiling. Meng Yao has actually rather taken to the five-to-nine schedule -- it beats hauling himself out of bed every morning to act as a servant to his own family. So when one of the guards knocks on the door to the Hanshi at 5:15, he rises, feeling rested, and greets them outside.

“Who was that?” Lan Xichen asks, rubbing his eyes. Contrary to popular belief, he does not snap into perfect wakefulness at the gong; it takes him up to a half hour to regain consciousness fully. Meng Yao savors these moments, when he is warm and pliant in his arms and has not begun to transform himself into Lan-zongzhu, or Zewu-jun, or the Second Jade of Lan. He also has a bad case of bedhead; Meng Yao combs his fingers through it idly.

“I asked the guards to inform us when your brother left for Yiling,” he says. “Apparently he left as the guards were changing.” He might deserve more credit than Meng Yao gave him; if he hadn’t specifically warned the guards to watch for Lan Wangji leaving, he doubts they would have noticed anything out of the ordinary.

“Yiling?” Lan Xichen echoes, suddenly awake. Meng Yao allows himself a moment to mourn the sweet, sleepy look on his face.

“Yes,” he says. “You must have known he was going to go at some point, gege. Trying to persuade him otherwise would only make him more determined.”

Lan Xichen blinks at him. “I suppose you’re right,” he says, though he still looks concerned. 

“I suspect he’ll be back soon,” Meng Yao says. He hopes so, anyway. It would be significantly harder to fix Wei Wuxian’s image problem if it looks as though he’s kidnapped Hanguang-jun. 

It takes only three days for Lan Wangji to return. Meng Yao would have enjoyed his absence more if Lan Xichen hadn’t worried the whole time. It makes him question telling him where Lan Wangji undoubtedly went at all; by the time Lan Xichen would have begun to fuss, Lan Wangji would have returned that same day. But Meng Yao is feeling a touch guilty about (however necessarily) hiding his connection with Xue Yang, so he’s at least attempting to keep his husband in the loop.

The evening of the third day, one of the disciples bows at the door to their shared office. “Hanguang-jun is coming up the path,” he says. Meng Yao thanks him and he leaves.

Lan Xichen watches this interaction, bemused. “They never used to do that,” he observes.

Meng Yao busies himself grinding more ink. “But isn’t it more efficient?” he points out. “Before you say anything, keep in mind that reporting accurate information to the sect leader is neither gossip nor technically speaking behind anyone’s back.”

Lan Xichen huffs a laugh. “I wasn’t complaining, A-Yao,” he says. “Just noticing.”

Lan Wangji bows too deeply when he reaches their door. “Xiongzhang,” he greets. “I will report to the elders for punishment.”

When it becomes clear that Lan Xichen isn’t about to stop him, Meng Yao clears his throat. “Punishment for what, exactly?”

Lan Wangji doesn’t meet his eyes. “Going to Yiling. Associating with Wei Ying.”

“Is there a rule,” Meng Yao asks delicately, “that forbids sightseeing?” He watches him carefully. “Or perhaps you’re referring to Rule 2,468, ‘Do not associate with evil’?” 

Lan Wangji’s gaze snaps up to meet his. “Wei Ying is not evil,” he says. His voice, by his standards, is heated.

“So you agree you have broken no rules,” Meng Yao points out placidly. “Now, sit, and speak with us. Do you know how you’ve made your brother worry?”

Looking as though he would rather be punished, Lan Wangji sits gingerly before them. There is something curiously young about his movements, and Meng Yao is reminded that under the mantle of Hanguang-jun, there is a lonely twenty-year-old. Goodness, Meng Yao could almost pity him. If he indulged in that kind of thing. 

“Wangji,” Lan Xichen says, although he sends a curious look at Meng Yao. “I would appreciate it if you would tell us what happened. You aren’t hurt, are you?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head. 

“Good,” Lan Xichen says. “Good.” He looks as though he’d like to reach out and touch Lan Wangji, but knows Lan Wangji wouldn’t appreciate it. Meng Yao takes his hand. His husband is rarely lost for words, but it’s clear he doesn’t know what to say. “Wangji, I would never ask you to -- betray your friend’s confidence, as it were. But would you be willing to tell us what happened?”

“Wei Ying is protecting the Wens,” Lan Wangji says. “They are innocents. Older people and -- a child.” He blinks, averting his gaze again. So Meng Yao was right. “He has -- reanimated Wen Qionglin,” Lan Wangji continues with difficulty. “But Xiongzhang, he retained all his intelligence and personality. He is still a person. I do not know what to make of it.”

Wei Wuxian is determined, it seems, to make things as hard for himself as possible, Meng Yao reflects despairingly. It would be so much easier to redeem him in the public eye if he hadn’t brought a corpse back to life. And why that corpse in particular? Meng Yao supposes it might be easier to bring back someone’s personality if they never had much to start with.

Lan Xichen looks troubled. “I see,” he says. 

“He was hurting no one,” Lan Wangji clarifies. “But he was -- determined to stay.”

Lan Xichen sighs. “Wangji,” he says gently. “Perhaps he is beyond saving. You cannot help him if he doesn’t wish to be helped.”

Lan Wangji’s jaw tightens. “He is no threat,” he says quietly. “He was not building an army, only a farm.”

A farm is nothing sensational. Meng Yao would almost rather he was building an army; it would help him understand the damn man more. 

.

“Gege,” Meng Yao says as they settle into bed. It is actually well past nine, but as long as their lights are out, no one will know the difference. “I know you don’t like to pass judgement if you can help it, but what do you truly think of Wei Wuxian?”

Lan Xichen considers the question. “It’s hard for me to separate my feelings as a sect leader and as a brother,” he admits finally. “I want to trust Wangji’s judgement when he insists that Wei Wuxian is well-intentioned, but Wei Wuxian’s actions often speak otherwise. My instinct is to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I cannot place my faith in him without understanding his motivations. And I don’t.”

Meng Yao hums. “What of the Wens he’s sheltering?”

Lan Xichen sighs. “A-Yao,” he says. “You know as well as I that the Jins may well have been imprisoning Wens indiscriminately. And yet, what proof do I have that that claim is true? I know Wangji believes what he told me, but Wei Wuxian could have hidden things from him..”

So it is an image problem, Meng Yao thinks. It always comes back to that, even among the most honorable of men. 

“I have no plans to attack him,” Lan Xichen concludes. “But if he continually refuses Wangji’s help, it appears he has no desire to stop using resentful energy.”

“Perhaps not,” Meng Yao agrees. “But if he was more transparent, if he accepted help, then you would be more inclined to help?”

“I should hope so,” Lan Xichen says. He reaches out to tuck a stray wave of hair behind Meng Yao’s ear. “You must know by now that sect leading involves a lot of making things up as one goes along. I cannot condemn him, but I cannot support him either.”

Meng Yao makes a noise of agreement and burrows closer. So it is a twofold issue, he concludes. Firstly, the question of Wei Wuxian’s motivation, and secondly, his refusal of help. The first is significantly easier to solve than the first, and would be even more simple if Wei Wuxian didn’t insist on casting himself in the worst light possible. 

Shame that he can’t just kill him, he thinks wistfully. But then he’d have to kill Lan Wangji too, to put him out of his misery. For a moment, he allows himself to fantasize about it. It’s almost funny -- Lan Wangji is so expressionless that he would probably look the exact same in death. But no -- he looks far too similar to Lan Xichen, and Meng Yao would never allow that. He kisses the center of Lan Xichen’s chest in reassurance, although of course Lan Xichen doesn’t know the dreadful things that lull him to sleep at night. 

“Love you,” Lan Xichen says sleepily.

Meng Yao can feel the vibration of speech in his husband’s broad chest. “I love you too,” he murmurs. Truly, truly, he will never allow anything bad to happen to this man. 

.

Fact: In order to make Lan Xichen happy, Lan Wangji must be happy. In order to make Lan Wangji happy, Wei Wuxian must be happy. Wei Wuxian seems dead set on making himself unhappy. Therefore, Meng Yao must intervene.

Fact: Most people hate Wei Wuxian. If Wei Wuxian’s image is to be effectively rehabilitated in the eyes of the public, he must demonstrate that he is not a threat to society.

Fact: If Wei Wuxian is to be not only forgiven, but accepted back into society, there must be some kind of concession on his part to accept help. Meng Yao has thought it through and assumes there is some reason he can’t pick up his sword again. Once it occurs to him, it seems obvious -- Wei Wuxian has been attempting to distract from this fact. From his time in the Nie sect, Meng Yao is familiar with the effects of prolonged exposure to resentful energy.

Fact: Meng Yao is quite sure that Wei Wuxian is stronger than Xue Yang. 

.

He sends Xue Yang another letter, suggesting some advice. I’m sure Wei Wuxian would be really impressed. Just try not to actually murder any children, he adds, in case that wasn’t clear. 

You’re no fun, Xue Yang writes back. Great idea though.

.

It takes a little while to put the wheels in motion. Meng Yao has time to practice his surprised face. He thinks he does pretty well -- a junior disciple bangs on the door to the Hanshi at a truly ungodly hour, even by Lan standards, and just about falls into a bow when Meng Yao stumbles to the door to pull it open. 

“Lianfang-zun,” he wheezes, “Zewu-jun. Xue Yang has attacked Yiling, calling himself the new Yiling Patriarch.” The disciple is fifteen year old Lan Feng, too young for Meng Yao to have use for him as an information gatherer. He must have run all the way down the path. 

Lan Xichen is already pulling on his outer robes, tying them efficiently around his waist without half the care he usually takes for his appearance. “Any deaths?” he asks, strapping Shuoyue’s sheath to his side. Meng Yao hastily follows his example. The plan seems to be going well enough, but he does suspect this will set his husband back in his attempts to sleep soundly through the night, and he spares a moment of regret for that.

“The reports are confusing,” Lan Feng says, averting his eyes from Meng Yao’s inner robes. “No one can get in or out of the city, but people have heard screaming. One person said he was trying to gather up all the children for some sort of wicked spell.”

Lan Xichen fastens his hair up out of his face with a spare cloth belt -- there is no time for guans, today. He wore his hair like that during the Sunshot Campaign too. “Have the other sects been alerted?”

“Yes, Zewu-jun.” Lan Feng’s eyes dart to Meng Yao. “As per Lianfang-zun’s system, messages have been sent out down the guard points. If the other sect leaders don’t know by now, they will soon.”

Meng Yao hadn’t been thinking of it as such, but this should work quite well as a test for his new alert system. He’s always thought it was illogical to rely on each sect to communicate with each other; much more efficient to have a centralized message system that they all contribute to the infrastructure of. Watchtowers that can send messages via talisman between them make so much more sense that he’s astonished no one thought of it before. 

“Good,” Lan Xichen says. “A-Yao, ride with me.” It’s an order, which is kind of hot. Meng Yao would have decided the same -- Hensheng is too weak, his spiritual energy too low, to fly the whole way himself -- but still. 

“One more thing,” Lan Feng says, bowing again for good measure as Lan Xichen strides past him. “Hanguang-jun already left when he heard the alert.”

Lan Xichen doesn’t even look surprised. “Thank you,” he says. “Send the healers who can fly after us, just in case.”

.

Xue Yang is already dead by the time they arrive. Meng Yao had thought he might be, but he still spares a thought for the poor bastard. It’s better this way -- another loose end tied off. At least, he thinks, looking at the wreckage around them in the Yiling marketplace, he went out doing what he loved. 

Wei Wuxian stands at the center of it all, a few feet away from Xue Yang’s body, but miraculously the villagers crowded around him hold absolutely no pitchforks. Part of it is likely Lan Wangji, standing proprietarily behind him and glaring at anyone who gets too close, but as they grow closer, it becomes clear that many of them are actually bowing to him in thanks. 

“No need, no need,” Wei Wuxian is saying. There are several children clinging to him still -- he hands a crying toddler off to her mother with relief. 

“What happened?” Meng Yao asks a passing villager, just to be sure. 

“The Yiling Patriarch--” he begins, and then stops. “The first Yiling Patriarch defeated the second one, the one who was stealing everyone’s children. Thank the heavens!”

On second thought, Meng Yao feels less sorry for Xue Yang. Calling himself the Yiling Patriarch as well has only served to make everything even more confusing. But at least people seem to have the right idea about it. He widens his eyes. “You mean to say that Wei Wuxian has killed the scourge upon this earth, Xue Yang?”

“Yes, yes,” the man says, looking relieved at the clarification. “He saved my niece and nephew!”

The crowd is beginning to clear, even though there are still a few children hanging onto Wei Wuxian. There’s a little boy, perhaps six or seven, clutching the back of his robes, a second, perhaps three or four, holding onto his leg, and an infant of indeterminate gender cradled in his arms. “You’re sure you don’t recognize either of them?” he’s asking a village auntie, who shakes her head. 

“Wangji,” Lan Xichen says, squeezing Meng Yao’s arm as he passes him to reach his brother. “Are you quite alright?”

“I am fine,” Lan Wangji says. “I only assisted Wei Ying.”

“You were very helpful!” Wei Wuxian protests. He shakes his head. “I really don’t know what Xue Yang was thinking. He kept talking about -- I don’t even know, that he wanted to become my protegee? Why did he think I would want to mass sacrifice several dozen children?”

Meng Yao is glad to see that he looks horrified at the thought, mainly because it means his judgement of him as “not actually a child murderer” was correct. Shame for Xue Yang that he didn’t realize. 

“The problem is, no one will claim these two children,” Wei Wuxian says, readjusting the baby in his arms and gesturing at the older boy beside him. “What did you say your name was, buddy?”

“Mo Fu,” the little boy says, so quietly as to be barely audible. Meng Yao gets his first good look at his face and squints. Hm. Familiar bone structure. “Mama died. That guy said he would take me to Lanling to meet my dad.”

Oh dear, Meng Yao thinks. 

“And this baby can’t even talk,” Wei Wuxian says. “And no one knows who it belongs to. The name A-Qing is embroidered on her blanket, but that’s all anyone knows. They have nowhere else to go.”

“The third child?” Lan Xichen asks. 

“Oh, he’s mine already,” Wei Wuxian says. “Say hi, A-Yuan.”

“Hi,” A-Yuan says shyly. 

Lan Xichen visibly melts, despite his confusion. “Hello, young man,” he says. “Well, I’m glad to know the crisis has been averted. I’m sure the villagers are very grateful to have their children returned safely to them.”

Wei Wuxian just looks sheepish. “I’m sorry for the commotion,” he says. “You came all this way.” His gaze focuses over Meng Yao’s shoulder and he grimaces. “Oh, there’s more of you.” He looks about ready to disappear up into the Burial Mounds, but the child who may or may not be Meng Yao’s half-brother is still holding onto him. Perhaps he is useful. Lan Wangji steps just slightly in front of Wei Wuxian.

Meng Yao turns to see -- well, everyone. Perhaps they will have to refine the alert system to make clear just how many people are necessary for a given disaster. 

“There is no emergency,” Lan Xichen tells them. “Jin-gongzi. Jiang-zongzhu. Qin-zongzhu. Yao-zongzhu. Ouyang-zongzhu. No need to worry, Xue Yang has been defeated.”

Jiang Wanyin looks distinctly ruffled. By his standards, like Lan Xichen, he is extremely dressed down, although still far fancier than anyone in Yiling. “Wei Wuxian, what did you do?”

“Wei Ying saved the children of Yiling,” Lan Wangji says, narrowing his eyes. It might be the first time Meng Yao has ever seen him speak out of turn. 

“What are we all doing standing around?” Sect Leader Yao demands. “I thought we were here to defeat the Yiling Patriarch!”

Meng Yao grimaces. Damn Xue Yang. “There was a bit of confusion, Yao-zongzhu,” he explains. “Xue Yang was calling himself the Yiling Patriarch and doing wicked deeds. Wei Wuxian actually stopped him.”

“Wei Wuxian,” Jin Zixuan says awkwardly, with a polite bow. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” Wei Wuxian says, though he seems startled to be asked. “I may have just adopted two extra children, so it’s been an interesting morning.” Meng Yao doesn’t miss the way Lan Wangji’s gaze flickers back to him at that.

Sect Leader Qin looks unconvinced. “How can we be sure they weren’t doing wicked deeds together?” he asks Meng Yao. “What sets one Yiling Patriarch apart from each other, if they’re both using demonic cultivation?”

“I can’t make guesses as to his situation,” Meng Yao says, furrowing his brow. “But someone who would act so virtuously using such wicked tools -- one has to wonder if he has any other choice, no?”

He’s working on the assumption that the Burial Mounds have damaged Wei Wuxian’s ability to cultivate normally. Perhaps, like the Nie, he is now prone to qi deviation. Certainly, it would explain his reluctance to pick up a sword again. 

But when he glances at Wei Wuxian, his face is ashen, his expression frozen in shock. “I,” he says. “I don’t-- That’s not -- That’s ridiculous. I’m fine.” He huffs an utterly unconvincing laugh. With a child clinging to each leg and a third cradled in his shaking arms, he couldn’t look like less of a threat. 

Hmm, Meng Yao thinks. He didn’t realize that Wei Wuxian was such a good actor. That’s surprising.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, reaching out to steady him.

“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Wanyin snaps, looking from Meng Yao to his estranged brother. “What is he talking about?” His voice wavers from angry to dangerously close to hurt. “What’s wrong with you? Is that true?” His tone rises. “You’re coming back to Yunmeng, to our healers. I’m not going to let you run around hurting yourself worse.”

“I’m not hurt!” Wei Wuxian yelps. “And I’m not a Jiang disciple anymore, so you can’t tell me what to do, Jiang Ch-- um, Wanyin.” He tries to look defiant. Again, it is entirely unsuccessful because of the baby cuddled up to his chest. 

“You’re lying,” Jiang Wanyin says accusatorily. He sounds less like a sect leader and more like an offended little brother. He goes to grab Wei Wuxian’s shoulder, and Wei Wuxian flinches so badly that the baby he’s holding waves an arm in protest.

There is a long beat of silence. 

“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Wanyin says. “Don’t think I won’t drag you back home. Tell me what’s wrong right now, or I swear to the heavens I will figure it out myself.”

Wei Wuxian looks deeply, deeply uncomfortable. “Promise the Wens will have somewhere safe to go,” he says, looking between them all. “All of them in the Burial Mounds, including Wen Qing and Wen Ning, and these three children. Promise they won’t be hurt, or imprisoned, or exploited.” 

Meng Yao notices he doesn’t include himself in this bargain. Lan Wangji turns his intense stare on his brother and Meng Yao, daring them to disagree, before saying, “On behalf of the Lan sect, I promise.”

Jiang Wanyin grits his teeth. “Me too.”

“And I,” says Jin Zixuan. “On behalf of my father.” The rest of the various sect leaders grumble reluctant agreement.

“Cool,” Wei Wuxian says faintly. He stares at the ground. “Idonhagocr,” he mumbles.

“Louder, please?” Meng Yao prompts. He has to do everything himself around here.

“I don’t have a golden core,” Wei Wuxian repeats, not meeting any of their eyes. “I lost it. During the war.” When he lifts his gaze, he looks right at Lan Wangji. “You promised. The Wens will be safe.”

“Wei Ying will be safe too,” Lan Wangji says, voice unexpectedly raw. 

Jiang Wanyin looks like he’s been punched in the throat. “You didn’t tell me,” he says roughly. 

“I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian says, clutching the child in his arms even more tightly. “I didn’t -- I didn’t know how.” He soldiers on. “But the Wens--”

“Damn the Wens!” Jiang Wanyin bursts out. Fear crosses Wei Wuxian’s face and Jiang Wanyin growls in frustration. “No -- fuck -- I mean, why would I give a shit about the Wens when you said you don’t -- all this time?”

A-Yuan tugs at Wei Wuxian’s sleeve. “Is Xian-gege okay?” he asks, eyes huge. It’s the icing on the cake.

Sometimes Meng Yao even impresses himself with what he’s able to do. When he glances over at his husband, he can see the sympathy pulling at the corners of his mouth. Without a golden core, he’s thinking, what would there be left besides talismans and demonic cultivation? 

The children were a good choice, Meng Yao decides. They make Wei Wuxian’s exhaustion look like that of a tired father, rather than a young man making bad decisions about his health. The children are objectively very cute. 

Wei Wuxian is stammering out an explanation that involves something about Baoshan Sanren moving to a different mountain. Meng Yao stopped listening when he saw the way Lan Wangji was looking at him, and the way Wei Wuxian keeps looking back. Like two idiots who would very much like to raise three random children together. They’re welcome. 

“Gege,” he murmurs, quietly enough that no one will hear. “Surely, we have to do something?”

Lan Xichen’s eyes are just slightly too knowing. It startles Meng Yao momentarily, except his gaze is still soft. “Yes,” he says. “I think we must.”

“I had no idea,” Jin Zixuan says, looking at A-Yuan. Flabbergasted is a funny look on his fine features. “Truly, I -- my father never spoke about any of this to me.” His expression turns grim. “But I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me. I’ll keep my promise, Wei-gongzi. The Jin sect won’t act against you. A-Li would never forgive me otherwise.”

Wei Wuxian bows awkwardly, although he’s mostly inclining his head so as not to disturb the baby. “Thank you,” he says, still looking somewhat stunned. He catches sight of Wen Qing coming down the hill and shoos both boys off towards her, eager to get them out of the crowd. 

Jiang Wanyin is still distraught; he’s clenching his jaw so tightly that Meng Yao’s hurts just looking at it. “Can’t believe--” he mutters. “Motherfucker-- You let me stab you! You could have died!”

Let him, Meng Yao reflects. Now, that’s interesting. He hadn’t questioned the break between Wei Wuxian and the Jiang sect. So he isn’t omniscient, clearly. And maybe he needs a few more spies among the Jiang. Food for thought. 

Wei Wuxian plasters on a smile. “I’ve always said that scars are attractive. Don’t you think so, Lan Zhan?”

“Mm,” Lan Wangji says, clear agreement. Wei Wuxian’s eyes widen. Lan Wangji clarifies, “Wei Ying is very attractive.”

“Eh?” Wei Wuxian says, staring up at him with confusion and adoration in equal measure. “Lan Zhan?”

“Eugh,” Jiang Wanyin says, catching Meng Yao’s eye in horror and turning away. For once, he utterly agrees. 

Despite turning to go, Meng Yao still catches some of their conversation as he moves away. “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian is saying. “You don’t have to feel bad for me just because I’m missing a core. I had to use resentful energy or die, but it was still my choice to start, and it was my choice to keep going. I know that still goes against your beliefs, so I don’t know if that changes --”

Lan Wangji’s voice sounds choked. “Wei Ying choosing to live could never violate my beliefs,” he says forcefully. “If I had lost you--”

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says, verklempt. “Don’t cry, don’t cry! I’m right here, Lan Zhan--”

Meng Yao picks up his pace.

.

Despite the disgruntlement of the smaller sect leaders, decisions are made. Wei Wuxian will bring the remaining Wens back to Lotus Pier, where they will be given a plot of land to farm. Lan Wangji makes no secret of the fact that he will be accompanying them. Jin Zixuan offers to dispose of Xue Yang’s body, since he used to be a Jin disciple. Lan Xichen volunteers to have some Lan disciples help clear up the ruined buildings in Yiling. Xue Yang caused a few injuries, but thankfully no deaths; the main damage was to emotions and infrastructure. 

Perhaps his husband does have a mind for appearances, Meng Yao thinks, pleased. Being the ones to clean up means that Yiling will likely be most grateful towards the Lans. It’s just the decision that Meng Yao himself would have made. 

It’s one of his most successful schemes yet. Meng Yao expects a letter from the Jiang sect asking for Lan Wangji’s hand in marriage within the week. He flies home that afternoon holding onto his husband’s waist, the wind in his hair, and kisses him hard before he’s even caught his breath from the flight.

.

Having two nephews and a niece is very convenient, Meng Yao decides. Children generally dislike him unless he is bribing them with toys and candy, and he imagines that would get tiresome with a child of his own. This way, there can be a Lan sect heir without a small, sticky person invading the Hanshi.

He suspects he will have to fight Jiang Wanyin for which children belong to which sect. There are pros and cons to each one:

-Mo Fu, like Meng Yao, is a bastard son of Jin Guangshan, but Meng Yao has no desire to call attention to this fact by having him nearby. Also, he is far too shy for public speaking.

-A-Yuan, the middle child, is clearly superior to the other two in politeness and general likeability. He would be Meng Yao’s pick for Lan sect heir, but he is also a Wen by birth, which could be difficult. 

-This leaves him with the baby girl, A-Qing, who only has a few teeth but has already bitten him several times. Meng Yao thinks this shows an impressive ferocity of spirit, although she would need to learn to tone that down in public.

Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian seem to have little interest in planning out these politics; they are incorrigibly wrapped up in each other and their children. It seems as though he can rarely cross paths with Lan Wangji these days without Wei Wuxian flitting along beside him. Meng Yao is going to outlaw skipping in Cloud Recesses in addition to running if he must. 

“Gege,” Meng Yao groans, pulling a cushion over his head to muffle the sound of Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian (mostly Wei Wuxian) trying to sneak past the Hanshi to the Jingshi after curfew. “How heartbroken would you be if I convinced them to move to Yunmeng? It wouldn’t be hard.”

“I am sure that A-Yao can achieve whatever he sets his mind to,” Lan Xichen says. His tone is just a little too meaningful. 

Meng Yao’s heart stutters in his chest. A sort of cold feeling settles over him; it takes him a moment to identify it as fear. Looking as innocent as possible, he pokes his head out from under the pillow. “Gege?” he asks. “What does that mean?”

“A-Yao,” Lan Xichen says. “I don’t know exactly what you did, but I’m not a fool. I know you.” His tone is mild, still affectionate. “You don’t have to hide from me.”

Meng Yao pushes himself up onto an elbow. “Do you… want to know?” It makes him feel a little sick, thinking of baring himself like that, not to mention the face that Lan Xichen might make if he knew the details, but for his husband -- he thinks he would do it. It’s a terrifying thing to learn about himself.

Lan Xichen leans over and kisses him. Soft, sweet. As if nothing is different at all. “I knew who A-Yao was when I married him,” he says gently. “You don’t have to tell me. I trust you.”

“Gege,” Meng Yao says. He’s sure his face is bright red. “That -- I don’t --” There’s a squirmy feeling in his stomach. He thinks it might be the vulnerability of it all, the humiliating realization that Lan Xichen might see into the center of him the way he can see into Lan Xichen. “You’re not mad?”

“Why would I be mad?” Lan Xichen asks. 

“I’ve been called selfish before,” Meng Yao says, thinking of Nie Mingjue. “Manipulative. Cold.” He takes a deep breath. “But I’ve never -- I would never do anything to hurt you. I promise. I could never.”

“I know,” Lan Xichen says, absurdly certain. A giddy, disbelieving laugh escapes Meng Yao’s chest like firewood crackling. “Besides,” Lan Xichen adds, pulling him closer, “some people might find it romantic. The lengths my husband is willing to go to to make me happy.”

Meng Yao clings to him. He tries to avoid complacency, usually; it makes people stupid. But it bears being said now, because he’s bursting at the seams with it, overcome. “Gege,” he says into Lan Xichen’s chest. His voice breaks, just a little. Lan Xichen strokes his hair in response, presses a kiss to the top of his head. Meng Yao’s desires are ridiculous, impossible; he wants to eat this moment and keep it inside his chest forever. “Gege, I’m so glad I married you.”

“Me too,” Lan Xichen says into his hair. Meng Yao can hear the smile in his voice, and he vows to keep it there.